I finished the Cincinnati Flying Pig marathon last Sunday, knocking off Ohio and my 12th state. My goal was to finish strong and not completely devastate my body, since this was only the first of 5 marathons in the next 6 months for me. I’m happy to report that I met that goal, as by Wednesday I’m practically not sore anymore, just a little tired and recovering from some new blisters and (oddly) bruised toenails. With that, let the recap begin!
THE TRAVEL – BRINGING HOME THE BACON
The trip had an inauspicious beginning – my direct flight from Newark into Cincinnati was both delayed and oversold. But then the gate agents announced they needed one volunteer to give up their seat for a $500 travel voucher and a connecting flight through Chicago, which would ultimately arrive in Cincinnati about 2.5 hours later than the original (now delayed) flight. I decided to snag the offer since 2.5 hours wasn’t that much later, plus I didn’t have any immediate plans besides visiting the expo that Friday. I was pretty psyched about the voucher since I’m obviously flying a lot for the 50 States and the flight to Missoula alone looks like it’ll cost about $650. But when there were mechanical problems with the plane in Chicago and I was delayed yet again, I thought that perhaps I shouldn’t have tempted fate considering what happened when I tried to fly to my last marathon.
Luckily, they found a new plane and I made it to Cincinnati in plenty of time to check into my hotel (The Westin right across from Fountain Square in downtown Cincinnati) and visit the expo that afternoon (plus I met a couple of lovely runners on the flight from Chicago to CVG, whom I would not have met otherwise).
THE EXPO – WHOLE HOG
The expo was as big as I expected. Packet pickup was simple enough, but then you crossed the street to the main expo for your “free” stuff (shirt, bag, and poster included in the race fee, plus a very small handful of other giveaways if you searched for them – a small packet of granola, a sample pack of tampons and pantyliners, a packet of scent booster for laundry, and a Dick’s sporting good store item that varied depending on where your chip fell in a plinko-type game (I won the chapstick)). The Flying Pig is using the increasingly popular “virtual goody bag” which contained some typical 15% off coupons from various sponsors, but it was no lamer than the paper coupons races used to include in the physical goody bags.
The expo also had plenty of branded race merchandise to buy along with booths featuring almost every type of race vendor you see at these events (e.g. Sweaty Bands sparkly hairbands, running skirt vendors, Bondi Bands, Bandi Wear (not related), SPI belts, Garmin, local running stores selling shoes & clothes, massage equipment, orthotics manufacturers, chiropractors, other races, etc.). If I had lost my luggage I would’ve been able to recreate my outfit without much difficulty. Luckily, I did not lose my luggage and I was fairly restrained at the expo, purchasing only a couple of Bondi Bands headbands (my first of that kind), a Flying Pig race pin, and yet another massage tool (the salesman repeatedly got on the floor to demonstrate, so I almost couldn’t say no – plus it’s pretty nifty).
The marathon swag was at the very back of the expo (which was laid out in a way that almost forced you to walk every aisle, although I wasn’t complaining). For such a major race, the marathon shirt is incredibly disappointing. Probably the worst marathon shirt I’ve ever seen – short-sleeved, white, and so thin and see-through you can read the (incredibly numerous and ugly) sponsor names on the back through the FRONT of the shirt. You’d think with all the sponsors they could make a decent shirt (the P&G employees’ shirt was at least blue and not see-thru). I was planning on wearing the race shirt on the flight home but I didn’t want to get kicked off for indecency. Just as I wouldn’t wear a shirt made out of toilet paper in public, so too would I not wear this shirt where anyone could see me. The bag, while sturdy-seeming, also has a fair number of sponsors printed on it, but the biggest problem is the rubber/chemical smell. The poster was in a large box and since I was never going to hang it anywhere I took a picture for you all to see and then I left it in the hotel room. All of these items just seem like a big waste, and I would have much preferred one quality race shirt or hat or anything over these three shoddy/pointless items.
Before heading back to the hotel I picked up some water at a nearby CVS. I asked if they had almond, soy, or rice milk and the manager said “no, I don’t carry any of that stuff,” as if he were proud of that fact.
THE HOTEL – SQUEAL LIKE A PIG
The first night in the hotel I was awoken repeatedly in the middle of the night by a faulty A/C unit that banged so loudly I thought someone was breaking a hole in the ceiling. When the mechanic couldn’t fix it the next day, the hotel had me switch rooms to one that the front desk attendant assured me would be quiet.
On Saturday I walked to the starting line to make sure I knew how to get there the next day. I also had one of the best meals of my life at Local 127 (an amazingly fresh beet salad, pulled pork sandwich, and honey gelato with oat crumble). I would have had every meal possible at Local 127 but unfortunately they were closed on both Sundays and Mondays. If I ever have the misfortune of being back in Cincinnati, I will definitely try to eat there again.
As usual before a race, I turned in early on Saturday night. Unfortunately the “quiet” room the hotel moved me into actually meant “a room facing the loudest Cinco de Mayo festival in the nation” which was amplified so loudly that it was shaking the windows 16 flights up. The band, apparently consisting of mostly trumpet players, blasted all day and into the night, and just when I thought they had finally finished at 9:30 pm, they started up again at 10. I finally passed out around 11:30 pm before my 4:45 am alarm. Needless to say, I was pretty pissed (and even more pissed when they continued to blast music all day on Sunday, too), but it was marathon morning so I pushed it from my mind!
THE RACE – EXERCISING YOUR CHOPS
On Sunday morning I turned on the local NBC-affiliate news to watch their early morning pre-race coverage and the weather report – they said it was currently 52 degrees with temps reaching the 70s (it ended up being sunny and 74). When I left the hotel at 6 am for the 6:30 start, however, it was the warmest and muggiest 52 degrees I’ve ever felt. I didn’t even need my warm “toss” layer while standing still.
I made a beeline for my starting corral, peeling off from the crowd to use the shortcut I found the day before. I immediately got in line for the porta potties by the bag check buses, then found my way into the corral (aka “pig pen”). They played the national anthem, Ryan Hall announced the start, and we were off!
Except we weren’t. The crowd was so huge (the announcer said a record 36,000 runners were participating this year, but that included the 5K and 10K – there were about 12,000 half marathoners and 4,000 full, plus a good handful of relay runners) that it took almost 20 minutes before our corral was released. It took so long that I actually got into line for the porta potties again, so I started the race at least 20 minutes after the official start and after just about everybody else started.
My late start meant I was surrounded by walkers which I had to weave and dodge to find a clearing at my pace. This also meant I ran .3 miles more in the first 2 miles than I should have (my Garmin consistently beeping .3 miles before every mile marker, which was endlessly disheartening but luckily didn’t increase much as the race wore on), and I went out much, much too fast to get away from the hordes of walkers (my first mile was at a 10:30 pace, my second mile at 10:54, but every mile after that was at least over 11, then over 12, and a few over 13).
My favorite section of the course were those first few miles as we crossed a bridge into Kentucky and another bridge back into Ohio. Despite the hills to and from the bridges, it was pretty scenic and I was feeling fresh, without any knee pain and almost no shin pain.
At mile 5 it was obvious when the 4-mile-long hill started – the road stretched into the distance with a slight but noticeable upgrade. To compare it to my standby of Central Park, I’d say the hills (in general, not just the 4-mile-long one) were more gradual than those in the park, but they were longer and seemingly endless. When we reached the top (and the halfers split off a little before mile 9) a lot of spectators would shout out “that’s the end of the hills!” but other runners said not to believe them. The runners were right. The hills kept coming. Only a few hills were short and steep, but even the final section along the river was hilly, which seemed impossible.
At any rate, I kept chugging along and felt pretty good but pretty tired around mile 15 and started taking longer walk breaks. My walking pace, however, was intentionally much faster than my typical walking pace during a race, so I would allow myself longer stretches of walking without feeling as guilty about not making enough forward progress during those breaks (I was walking so fast I was passing almost all the other walkers and even occasionally a slow jogger). Ultimately I think this proved to be a good strategy for me to keep the injuries down and leave some gas in the tank, and I plan on taking longer “fast walk” breaks during my upcoming marathons, too.
The “Jimmy Buffet” water station on the highway around mile 18 was delightful, and gave me a boost and second wind to start running again. However, when we hit the river around mile 22 and the course was still inexplicably hilly, I felt major fatigue again and walked a lot (along with many other run/walkers at my pace). In fact, I can’t remember ever walking so much in the final mile of a marathon, but I feel like I walked most of mile 26 until I finally saw the finish line and started a slow trot with a huge smile on my face to be finishing.
Looking back on the race overall, I had a smile on my face most of the time (not just when there were photographers), the amount of spectators was great, and the water stops were well-laid out and numerous (they always had Gatorade first and water second, and they were never dry). I heard Pharrell’s “Happy” no fewer than 3 times during the race and Pitbull’s “Timber” no less than 2 times. I had half a shot cup of beer at mile 14, and heard “run pig!” more times than I can count. Many people complimented my ears, some noticed my tail, a few liked the flying pigs on my shoulders, and one couple inexplicably called my stuffed pigs “pig angels” which made me laugh. And I finished in about 5:30, which was 10 minutes faster than I thought I would take, but still about an hour slower than I’d like to be a year from now.
THE FINISH – TIME TO PIG OUT
I was very hungry at the finish but there wasn’t much food. I learned from some halfers the next day that there was a ton of food at the finish for them, or for those who could run a full marathon in under 3 hours, but if you can run a marathon in under 3 hours you’re probably not eating HoHos or 4 different flavors of Sun Chips after your race. I ate a very green banana and half a Clif bar, but decided it wasn’t worth pushing through crowds to find my free beer. I was so tired at that point, I would have skipped a meet and greet with Jason Statham. [N.b. – Not really. I would crawl on my hands and knees to meet and greet Jason Statham.]
After some stretching I made a very slow (but relatively short) walk back to my hotel where I showered and ordered a cheeseburger & fries from room service. While the food was pretty good, the waiter who brought it was straight out of a comedy movie where he plays the part of a waiter who is totally oblivious and won’t leave the room. I swear to you that below is a rough transcript of what he said after I already tipped him and while I was standing watching my food getting cold.
Waiter: (deliver as a monologue – pause, but do not allow any interruption) You must be so tired. Wow, you ran a whole marathon. You probably want to just lie down on the bed and just crash and lock the door and not talk to anybody. You must be so sore and tired from running so much you just must feel like you’re gonna drop. When I go biking I feel it in my legs even from a few miles uphill but you must really feel it and be really tired. Sometimes I bike the hills up around in the city and man, after I bike I just want to lie down, I’m so tired. I can’t imagine how tired you must be, how your legs must feel. Yep, you must really just want to lie down and take a breather, huh? You must just want to crash and shut out the world and sleep and not stand anymore. You must be so tired. (Continue improvising in this vein for as many minutes as possible, the more awkward the better.)
FAVORITE SIGNS ALONG THE COURSE
- I like pig butts and I cannot lie!
- Run like a cute guy is ahead of you and a creepy guy is behind you.
- White walkers are behind you – RUN! Winter is coming.
- (With a photo of Aaron Paul) – Jesse Pinkman says “run bitch!”
- (Since the race day was May 4th) – May the course be with you.
- Honorable mention – All the many pun-filled tweets from the Flying Pig Marathon’s Twitter account & the sign my sister submitted but was not made (“Run your candy-a$$ off!”).
THINKING OF RUNNING CINCINNATI?
It’s a spectacle of a race – any marathon weekend with 36,000 participants (and runners from all 50 states) is going to be a spectacle, so if you like big races this is one to do. We lucked out with the weather this year (I was dumping water over my head by the end but I’d rather do that than run in 26 miles of rain), but if it does rain at least you know you’ll have plenty of company.
All categories on a scale of 1-10, 10 being the best.
- Getting There (Transportation & Walkability) – 8/10 – It’s not usually hard to get to Cincinnati, but since the Flying Pig is usually Derby weekend, flights are often oversold – good if you have time to spare, bad if you get bumped unexpectedly. I used Executive Transportation Services shuttle service to get to and from my hotel to the airport, which cost $30 roundtrip and seemed almost as fast as a taxi (which would have been $30 one-way and required a “reservation” form to be filled out just like the shuttle service, so it wasn’t any more convenient). You can’t miss the shuttle service – it’s a big desk right next to the taxi area. If you stay at a downtown hotel, it’s easy to walk to the expo and the start/finish lines, but you will pay a premium on those hotels.
- Staying There – 6/10 – Not only are the downtown hotels expensive, they all seem kinda old and run-down. Even the fancy Westin seemed a bit shabby with ineffective A/C units and slow elevators. If you do stay downtown, make sure to get a room that is NOT facing Fountain Square!
- Cost & Registration – 7/10 – Registration was very easy and since it didn’t sell out they were registering runners for the marathon up to the day before! While the on-course support was well-done, the race goodies and post-race food was lacking, in my opinion.
- Organization – 9/10 – Plenty of emails from the race directors and lots of information on the website, smooth expo, well-run water stations – overall a well-organized race. They do have an option to run the 5K and 10K the day before along with the marathon and you get an extra medal (kinda like the Goofy or Dopey at Disney) but for some reason I wasn’t really aware of it.
- Course – 7/10 – It’s ok – some pretty parts, some boring parts, but most of it had spectators and other runners so if you like crowds to pump you up, this is a good race for you. It was also totally closed to traffic which was very nice. The first 9 miles were a bit congested with the halfers but it wasn’t as crowded as I expected. And yes, it is hilly, but not steep.
- Crowd – 9/10 – Not a single mile without spectators, even along the highway, and they were quiet enthusiastic.
- Other Factors – 6/10 – It’s Cincinnati. Since I grew up in the Midwest, I feel like I can say this – the “Midwest is friendly” notion is bull, and I find I have more unpleasant interactions in the Midwest than other parts of the country. I hope my other marathons in the Midwest disabuse me of this notion, and I’d love to report otherwise in the near future. Till then, I’ve never been happier to be back in NYC.
- Overall Rating – 6/10 – My experience was definitely colored by the noise at the hotel (lack of sleep makes me cranky) and the general vibe I got from the town. I enjoyed the actual race itself, though, so take my overall rating with a big grain of salt & electrolytes.
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