Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Review - Pro Football Hall of Fame Marathon, Canton, Ohio - April 27, 2014

- I ran the full marathon.
- This was the inaugural year of this race put on by the for-profit Run to You Racing. Jim Chaney, the race director, was an associate race director for the Akron Marathon and the race director for the Buckeye Half Marathon and he's well respected in the running community in Northeast Ohio.  This is not the same race as the inaugural Canton Marathon in June 2012, which was run by different people and folded due to financial difficulties.
- The race course features a series of near-loops but you never repeat any element of the course like with a true loop like the Erie, Pa. marathon. In one stretch, you do run back the way you came on Fourth Street NW and Harrison Avenue NW. It's primarily asphalt streets with some brick. There are no trail or grass portions.
- The race features a football theme as various elements such as mile markers have the colors of NFL teams. If you like pro football, this is your race.
- Full marathon had 593 finishers. The half marathon had 2,047 finishers. I suspect there were a lot of registrants who didn't show up. And I don't know how many didn't finish. I think the rough winter for training also hurt turnout. I believe it will grow in subsequent years.
- The race did have pacers. But only at 10-minute increments such as 3:05, 3:15, 3:25, 3:35 etc. I never ran with the pace team.
- I never got the feeling that this race like some other for-profits which will remain nameless, generally skimped or took shortcuts. Examples: plentiful water stations, fleece finisher blankets, great medal, great T-shirt, free admission into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. One possible exception: not the usual assortment of snacks after the race.
- The weather at race time was in the mid-30s and rose into the 40s. Better a bit colder than a bit too hot. There was some moderate wind.
- The course is hilly. There's no avoiding this in Stark County, Ohio. I believe the organizers designed a course that minimized the elevation climbs. But this is not pancake flat like the Chicago or Disney marathons. On the other hand, I don't believe it's as hilly as Flying Pig or Pittsburgh the following weekend. The first two miles are primarily downhill, so you have to watch not to go out too fast. There's no particularly big super-steep hill on the course like the Sand Run Road on the Akron Marathon course. And it's far less hillier than the inaugural Canton Marathon in June 2012 on a very different course. But the constant uphills and downhills and turns take a toll on you mentally especially at the end. If you're not prepared, the course can break you. From Mile 21 to 25.5, it's a steady climb from one hill to another. The worst uphill was Mile 4 when you run north on Market Avenue N. I recommend you run the course in advance, which I did several times. By knowing exactly what was ahead of me, I was able to hold things together to BQ. After you ascend 25th Street NW to the Plain Township Fire Station #3, it's pretty much downhill a half mile to the finish in Fawcett Stadium by the Hall of Fame. You'll read other reviewers say the course was mostly flat. While the stretch from the Mile 16 marker to Mile 19 marker is flat, the course is not mostly flat. They just may be used to running on these types of hills. After the race, my calves were in pain, which is usually not the case after a marathon.
- My goal was 3:10, but I struggled with holding pace due to the hills but salvaged a Boston qualifying time.
- The scenery is all right. It's not the Chicago Marathon. It's not Columbus or Miami. But you get the best of a typical medium-sized Midwestern town: The Pro Football Hall of Fame, the Ralph Regula Federal Building, Canton City Hall, the McKinley Grand hotel, the Stark County Courthouse with its four majestic angel statues, the Palace Theatre, the historic Market Avenue corridor and Central Plaza, the Canton Memorial Civic Centre, the St. Haralambos Greek Orthodox Church. (You just miss Malone University), Stadium Park, the McKinley Monument (officially the McKinley National Memorial where President William McKinley and his wife Ida are entombed), and the McKinley Presidential Museum. But all of that is in the first half. The second half is mainly residential neighborhoods and a few schools. But no desolate looking industrial areas like St. Clair Avenue in the 2013 Cleveland Marathon.

The Good

- Fantastic, affordable entry price of $65.30 for signing up in August.
- The race offered bib transfer for five days from April 6 to April 11, 2014 and will for an extra fee mail your packet to you. Obviously, that's rare among races.
- Access to Fawcett Stadium restrooms. This is huge! No typical long wait for a port-o-potty. I got there at 6:45 a.m. I was able to make a quick stop at a restroom with zero wait and get to the starting line. The facilities were immaculate. Only the use of Cleveland Browns Stadium before the 2013 Cleveland Marathon tops this. Any other race, you will wait and wait to relieve yourself.
- Hassle-free, wait-free efficient gear check. Doesn't get better than this. Many races can't brag about this. I got there at 6:45 a.m. I dropped my bag off with warm clothing in less than 30 seconds, which was held in the stadium seats. After the race, they had my bag ready for me within a minute.
- The football-shaped medal using real football materials and an image of the Pro Football Hall of Fame looks great. The only minor issue was the tiny chip I later found on the back and maybe a tiny depression in the Hall of Fame icon that's very hard to see. But it's not a big deal. I'm not medal obsessed. It's just a memento.
- Bibs are beautiful in bright, vibrant colors. Your first name is in gigantic letters on the bib while the bib numbers are in small type on the bottom. This is to make you feel like an elite runner and make it easier for spectatators to cheer for you.
- The short-sleeve tech T-shirt you get is super awesome in blue, white and red colors. The logo of the Pro Football Hall of Fame is on the front and it says Marathoner or Half Marathoner on the back. Got to be among the best marathon T-shirts in the country.
- You get a colorful fleece Pro Football Hall of Fame Marathon finisher blanket instead of the usual, cheap paper-thin silver mylar blanket. This was key as it was a very chily morning.
- Like the inaugural Canton Marathon in June 2012, the finish was in Fawcett Stadium where the NFL plays the Pro Football Hall of Fame pre-season game every year. Except this time, it was on the 50 yard line. Definitely a great finish line area. Large area to lay out on the grass after the race if you want.
- Overcrowding was never an issue. As it's been for other races. Basically, your corral assignment is based on the expected time you submit. I got Corral A. Unlike other races, I didn't find a group of walkers blocking me at the start. I got to run my own pace right from the get go without having to wati for the crowd to thin out. However, I wasn't so isolated. There were always a couple of runners right ahead and right behind me. Of course, it thins out considerably in the second half.

- - See below my issue with the fact the water stations were often away from the tangent on the course, but the water stations were run smoothly and there was a plentiful number of them. A lot of for-profit races skimp on the number of water stations to save on resources because they can't get the volunteers. Not this race. The volunteers were great and supportive and frequently yelled my name and encouraged me on. Water was first, which I liked as most races have Gatorade be first. And the aid stations always had plenty of water. No issues here. The water stops were placed at the half mile marks after nearly every even-numbered mile marker and on on the half mile marks after some of the odd-numbered mile markers.
- Medical tent in the finish area was fantastic. A therapist applied the massage stick to my terribly, sore and aching calf muscles. It was excruciating but had to be done. They had benches there to put ailing runners on. He then wrapped ice around my calves for a few minutes. I definitely was pampered here.
- The race organizers were very friendly and eager to answer questions in person, by email and on their Facebook page. I can't say that about every race.
- The police and road workers did a great job ensuring that I wouldn't get run over by a car with the placement of police cruisers and cones. They did a great job of traffic control. This was not the case for the 2013 Cleveland Marathon where there were not police officers or volunteers stopping vehicles on all streets adjoining St. Clair Avenue.

Neutral - Not particularly good or bad
- The pasta dinner in the Pro Football Hall of Fame's conference center was poorly attended. They had a 3:30 p.m. and 4:30 p.m. seating, but it appears in the end they consolidated the two into a 4:30 p.m. That's too bad, as it was a decent value for $17 compared to most other races's pasta dinners. I think a lot of local runners wanted to carboload at home or eat at a nice restaurant. You got two types of pasta and some red sauce and salad, roll of bread and slice of cake. Which was totally fine. I don't regret doing the pasta dinner as it gave me a chance to meet the pacers for the race. The thing is the few people that were left such as me got kicked out by 6 p.m. Not that many people attended the Pre-race party hosted by race sponsor Tilted Kilt either, and the only carb loading dish on their menu was a creamy pasta dish that didn't look too healthy. But I met a couple of neat people there.
- All the mile markers had clocks. You can't say this for every race. I did miss seeing the Mile 14 marker on Broad Avenue. The clock for the Mile 1 marker seemed off, but the remaining clocks appeared to be on track.
- The expo was held in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. All runners were admitted free into the Hall of Fame and could for free bring one guest to look at the exhibits, busts of football greats and check out the vendors. tt was OK. It was definitely a novel concept to take the expo vendors and spread them throughout the Hall of Fame. However, the number of vendors was nothing compared to say the Akron Marathon expo which was held at the John Knight Center. Or the Cleveland Marathon held at the IX Center. The Bondi band companies, Fitletic and the Stick vendors weren't there and they attend nearly any expo worth attending in the United States in my experience. The biggest vendor was Second Sole, the local running shoe specialty store chain. By having the vendors spread out throughout the hall, I did a liittle more walking than I would have liked. Bib pickup was on the Fawcett Stadium field and gear bag pickup was in the Hall of Fame. I also live in the area and had already visited the Hall of Fame, so this wasn't a big deal for me.
- Crowd support was OK. There were a few spots where there was more of it than others like Market Avenue N, Cleveland Avenue N, Monument Road, Stadium Park Road and Perry High School. There were spots where there was no support except a scattering of people in the Perry Township neighborhoods. Don't count on it being like the Chicago Marathon where tens of thousands are cheering. They definitely cheer for you at the end at Fawcett Stadium. You run over a timing mat the final 100 meters and the announcer says your name in the final stretch.
- On course, entertainment was sparse compared to the Akron and Columbus marathons. I remember a tuba band. There may have been cheerleaders somewhere. This is something the race could improve on. It wasn't essential as far as I was concerned.
- You got a Subway sandwich, a banana and a bottle of water after the race. That was it. A couple bags of chips or snacks would have been nice. I don't partake in the chocolate milk.
- There were Port-o-potties on the course. I remember seeing at least one. But as I never use them during a race, I didn't see where they were.
- You descend the Perry High School driveway in Mile 20 and run around the oval. There, students have assembled a makeshift wall to symbolize the wall. But then you have to climb uphill along the driveway to return to 13th Street SW before hitting the Mile 20 marker. That was my slowest mile of the entire race. The original course did not have this detour but had to add it for distance. I could have done without the additional descent then ascent. (To be fair, they eliminated a hill on Fairlane from the original course).
- Runner Tracking was Ok. Not great. Not horrible. Bib timing chip worked as intended. It was tied to Chronotrack, which I don't feel is as good as Xact Realtime Updates, which immediately confirms it's going to post to your Facebook timeline and gives you the choice to choose the audience for the updates where Chronotrack I think defaulted with friends. Splits were only offered for the 10K, 20K, 30K and finish line. Obviously, I would have liked more but I understand more timing mats requires more resources. The Chronotrack updates did post on Facebook and it did text updates to my phone. At least the race results allowed you to browse the finishers, their times and places. Not every race does that for after the top 10 runners.
- The race did send you email updates every month before the event and then every week the last 0month. It was nice to get that. They did continually post to their Facebook page and did a days countdown with their mile markers.
- Boston Marathon finishers who ran the race got special bibs after running Boston only six days before.

The Bad
- Parking - All parking was at the Stark County Fairgrounds, the same site as for the Canton Marathon in June 2012. The Pro Football Hall of Fame does not have the parking to accomodate 4,000 runners and spectators. As I live two miles from the starting line, I got there around 6:05 a.m., 55 miinutes before race time Big mistake. I should have gotten there earlier. There was a long line of vehicles waiting to get in. It took about 25 minutes for me to get in and park. Then there was a 10 minute wait for a shuttle bus, which were school buses hired from a school district. The lines was really long. But luckily the bus was quick. I was at Fawcett Stadium by 6:45 a.m. and I made the start just in time. To be fair, a lot of this is out of the organizers' control. Every Ohio race has this problem because no one wants to wake up earlier and get there at 5 a.m. and then a lot of people arrive at 6 a.m. I should have gotten there earlier. I've waited more than 20 minutes in constant bumper to bumper traffic for the first Canton Marathon, the Akron Marrathon and the Columbus Marathon in 2012. 
- The water stations, for the most part, were not along the tangent line of the course. If a right turn on the course was coming up and you were aiming toward the right side, the water station would be on the left side, forcing you to veer left to get water and then go back right. This repeatedly disrupted my rhythm and forced me to run a slightly longer distance. I spoke with the race director later about this, and he said this was intentional so people who wanted to skip the water station wouldn't have the people stopping for water and volunteers in their way on the tangent line. I'm used to running bigger races where the aid station tables are often on each side. The problem with water stops off the tangent line is if you're a runner who drinks water at each stop, you're going to run a longer distance than if you skipped the stations. Though, in one case on Mile 16, the volunteers handed out water so far from the aid table, you had to veer away from the tangent line to get around them.
- After the race, you had to walk up a steep hill to get back to the shuttle buses to take you back to the Fairgrounds parking area. As my calves and knee were in horrible shape, it was excruciating to hobble up the hill. I talked to the race director later about this, and he said the buses couldn't pick up runners at the bottom of the hill on Harrison Road as that was where the half marathon courses and full marathon courses were at. He said people were supposed to go up the stadium steps which were easier than the hill to get back up to the buses but not every runner or spectator was told that. I'm hoping they offer some type of golf-cart like service to ferry people who are hobbling to the top.
- Some potholes on some streets. It could have been worse. The city of Canton and Perry Township road departments did make a major push to fill in potholes along the marathon course and actually resurfaced the entire right lane of Third Street SW between McKinley and Cleveland avenues. They couldn't get to all the potholes. The 2013 Cleveland Marathon was way worse in terms of road surface.
- Monument Road at points inclines to the right in the right lane and to the left in the left lane. It has a lot of uneven pavement and features a couple of hills. It's not pleasant but it's not outright unbearable to run on this road. Because it's by Stadium Park, it's often part of the courses of a lot of local races.
- The coning of some intersections was not as I had expected reading the course map. On some roads, there were no volunteers or few cones to tell you which lane of a road you were supposed to run on. The lack of signage at the point where the half and full marathons split off confused the leaders in the half marathon race who went the wrong way. However, I knew exactly which roads I was supposed to run on and the exact turns (maybe not the exact lanes I was supposed to be on) as I had run the course several times. On Broad Avenue on the final mile there was no one there to tell me whether to run on the right or left lane of Broad. The same for McKinley Avenue. Market Avenue and Cleveland Avenue were well coned and you knew where to run.
- Sport Photo was the event photographer. I was not very impressed by the pictures. They were only stationed around the 15K point, the 30K point and the finish line. They did the usual picture of you holding your medal with a fixed background. As your number wasn't featured prominently on your bib making tagging very difficult, the pictures were linked to when you crossed the timing mat. The background was often some cones, a bunch of trees or a residential neighborhood. Very pedestrian. A friend who's a professional photographer took better pictures of me near the McKinley Monument, which would have been a great spot for the Sport Photo photographes to be. Also the number of pictures were limited as they were only at these points. They did not have a photographer roam and take candid pictures at the starting line or after the background pictures like MarathonFoto does. They took the pictures from a ladder, so you didn't get much background. For digital downloads, they charged $40 for one picture, $50 for three, $60 for five and $80 for all the pictures plus $3.99 for the finish line video and sales tax. The pictures weren't worth these prices. They weren't as high resolution as MarathonFoto pictures. MarathonFoto, which has upped its game the past year, charges a ton of money. But at least they give you a lot of pictures for your money. For the Chicago Marathon, I had 70 pictures alone for $75. When Action Sports Images shot the Canton Marathon, it also had fewer photographers do the race but at least they got the money shot with the Pro Football Hall of Fame bridge in the background and people by the Stark County courthouse.
- On some spots on the course - particularly 23rd Street NW and Third Street NW you have to run across sections of worn brick. You should be particularly careful on these stretches to avoid a twisted ankle. To be fair, the race removed two steep roads with horrible bricks from the original course.
- On Wertz Avenue NW on Mile 25, there were half marathon finishers walking back to their cars and a couple of them blocked the course. Three women had to scamper out of the way as I approached them.

To sum up, I think the race is off to a good start. I had an overall positive experience. My biggest peeve was having to veer off for the water stops off the course line and if that's the biggest problem, the race did pretty well. I expect it to get better in future years, as the organizers work out the kinks. 

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