For 2 years I read posts about how great this race was. It is always on the list of best races in Arkansas and best marathons in the US. The race has generous finishing cutoff times for slower half and full marathoners, a giant medal and a very festive environment. I had a free plane ticket to burn from a previous trip so I registered my husband and I for the race and booked the trip.
I have never been to Arkansas before. The only things I know are that the college team is the Razorbacks and the Clintons are from there. I still don’t know much about the state but the city of Little Rock is great. Plenty of reasonably priced hotels downtown with lots of restaurants and bars within walking distance. Very clean and diverse city with well-lit sidewalks and friendly people. This is a city that I would love to come back to for a longer visit.
Now for the race. Everything that has been said about this race is true. It is well-organized with a large volunteer staff and huge crowd support.
Part of the anticipation of the race is the announcement of the theme every year. The race directors make a silly You Tube video announcing the theme for each year’s race. Looking through the past year’s videos, it is clear that these people don’t take themselves too seriously. If you like to dress up and see a lot of people in crazy costumes, this is the race for you.
The 2016 theme was Game On. My husband and I picked matching Tetris game costumes. When you’re walking through the hotel lobby you feel a little silly in your costume but this feeling will go away the minute you step outside. There were hundreds of people walking around in crazy costumes. There was a great vibe amongst the runners and volunteers and plenty of selfies and laughs with new friends while waiting for the start.
I am a fan of a race that has different starts for different paces. Little Rock does it better than any other race that I’ve done. At most races with different corrals, there are people that line up near the front regardless of their assigned corral. I don’t know the benefit of this but I do know that it’s annoying passing people for first few miles of a race who had no business being lined up in front. The race bibs were color-coded by corral. There were volunteers holding a rope at the beginning and end of every corral. If your bib didn’t match the corral, the volunteers direct you where to go. No, it didn’t eliminate all of the line jumping but it did make the start much easier. Yes, it took a while to get from elites to the paces 10 min/mile and slower but when you’re about to run for 2.5-3 hours plus, you can spare a couple minutes at the start.
The race was described as having rolling hills. A lot of races like to say this and then throw steep inclines and downhills your way. This is the first race that I have ever run that truly has rolling hills. Nothing too steep. Most hills were pretty painless and only two required extra effort. I say this as a person who has always lived in the northeast. Everywhere I have lived has had steep hills. Most races don’t even warn you of the hills. They just figure you live here, you know. Some people from the flatter states complained that is was a very hilly course. I would invite these folks to sign up for a race in Syracuse, NY or State College, PA.
The aid stations were manned by various local organizations. Some of them had music blaring and encouraged you to dance with them. One had a series of Lazy Boy recliners for you to sit in. A couple had alcohol (my husband was grateful for the vodka ladies at the 11 mile mark) or unique snacks (candy, cookies, etc). At every moment that I felt low, there was someone on the sideline encouraging me to smile and push through.
The weather on race day was perfect. 65 degrees, low humidity and a light breeze. Shorts and tank top weather. Not too hot. There was a major thunderstorm a couple of days after the race and previous years have been plagued by very bad race day weather. We lucked out with the weather. I always expect the worst for races from November-April. I’m not going to take an entire season off running so I just roll the dice and deal with whatever happens.
The expo is held in a giant convention center. It is difficult to figure out which entrance you should go into. A lot of runners walked past several entrances to get to a main entrance only to find that they had to walk the same path inside the building to get to where they were supposed to be. Signs on the outside of the building telling you where to go would be helpful. There are plenty of signs inside but most of them guide you from the main entrance which is a good mile from a lot of the post race activities.
For an extra fee (I think $15-25) I opted for the VIP experience. This promised a smaller and nicer post race meal, a private massage area, nice bathrooms and a free picture. This experience was totally worth it. I don’t know what free picture they were talking about. There were no photographers in the VIP area and there was no discount code to get a free picture from the race. I e-mailed organizers about this and received no response. The false advertising is a little annoying but it wasn’t worth fighting over.
The VIP perks package was totally worth it. There was a nice selection of standard post race food plus delicious indulgences like sweets, nachos and beer. There was plenty of seating and food. I understand that some of the slower marathoners had cold food and limited options but I personally had a great experience. I finished around 2:50 and was in the area for at least an hour. I can confidently say that everyone who finished up to the four-hour mark had a great experience.
There was a band in the perks area which was pretty cool. There are frequently bands at the post race but the intimate setting of the perks area made it even better. It felt like the post race of a smaller race. It has been a long time since I enjoyed a post race so much. There were nice clean bathrooms that only we could use. This is always a wonderful thing after a long run. I have learned to tolerate the large crowds at races but to say I find them enjoyable would be a stretch. I hope that more large races offer a VIP experience for those of us who want to get away from the crowds.
The best part of the VIP experience was the massage area. Yes, you still have to wait in line for a massage. But there were a dozen or so tables and nice padded chairs to wait in so the time goes by quickly. While waiting for your massage, you get to watch the other runners get worked on. This was not your standard light post race massage. This was a full 20 minutes of stretching, deep tissue massage and, if necessary, neck cracking.
A lot of runners tipped their masseuse. I didn’t have any cash on me or I would have. Not only did I get a great massage but I got a massage that was tailored to my personal aches and pains. Oh your calves are tight, I’ll work extra hard there. This was easily the best post race massage that I have ever gotten in the 115+ races that I have done.
The swag is a big part of any race. You want a nice t-shirt and a great medal. I love the brightly colored dry wick race shirt. It doesn’t look like any of my other shirts and is less likely to be in my next bag to Goodwill. People have actually come up to me and said “I bet that was a fun race” just from looking at the shirt. The medals are obscene. For the half marathon it was the size of a large dessert plate and pretty heavy. The medal for the marathon was the size of a dinner plate and a solid 2 pounds. At first you hang the medal around your neck and then your shoulders start to ache and you realize you better take it off.
Worth the money. Worth the trip. Would highly recommend it to anyone who needs to check Arkansas off your list. Would definitely do it again.