Race Report: Kentucky Derby Festival Marathon

So I thought I was all set for a stress-free marathon, until my mom sent me a message with the weather forecast and some details about the course from Marathon Guide (PS – don’t I have the best stage-mom-turned-marathon-coach ever?!). There was tornado warnings for the area all night Friday and in the afternoon on Saturday, as well as thunderstorms predicted for Saturday during the race. Seriously? To add to that, the course was known for its brutal hills.

I shared a hotel room with my friends Mary and Morgan, and we went to bed hoping for the best. There were a few forecasts saying that the storms wouldn’t begin till the afternoon, so we hoped those were the ones that were true. Unfortunately, when we woke up in the morning (5am, since we had to be on buses to the start at 6am – yuck!), we looked out the window and saw that it was already pouring. Fearing another instance of Breakers in Rhode Island, I checked the temperature – in the 50s and getting warmer. All right, at least we wouldn’t freeze!

After a big breakfast at the hotel (okay, so I went a little nuts: entire bagel with a dab of cream cheese… usually I just eat 100 calories or so of a granola bar), we headed out to the buses. The race organizers had arranged the shuttles to the start to be from 5am to 6:30am, and warned that everyone must be there by 6:00am in order to be guaranteed transportation to the start. Well, we lost track of time at breakfast and didn’t head out of the hotel till 6:15… oops! I was a little uneasy to get such a late start, and my trepidation only increased when we got to the designated shuttle pick up point. There was a LONG line of people that rivaled the lines to the start at Boston… but at the moment, only one bus loading (Whereas Boston had a constant flow of at least 20 buses at a time, so the line moved quickly). Mary and I were really panicking now, and I admit that I probably made the situation worse by talking about a doomsday scenario that occurred when I ran the Seafair Marathon in Seattle.

In Seattle, while the early buses had gone out with tons of empty seats, tons of runners showed up at the last minute and there was just no way to get them all to the start on time. They delayed the race by 30 minutes, but still not everyone had been bused over, and finally they had to just start the race. The problem was that the bus route to the start was the same as the route that the runners would take… so once the race started, no more buses could transport runners to the start. Instead, they took everyone to the halfway point and told them that the best they could offer was allowing them to run a half marathon and then give them free entry the next year. At the time, I didn’t have too much sympathy for the many people who complained about it. I had gotten there just 30 minutes before the end of the buses, which I thought was cutting it close, and my bus went out with empty seats… the people who didn’t make it must have shown up really late.

Finding myself in the same situation now in Kentucky, I actually didn’t have a hypocritical view of it; I was just really, really mad at myself for not getting there sooner. I hoped more than anything that this wouldn’t jeopardize Kentucky as my 45th state! Luckily, a ton of buses showed up in a big cluster, and we made it on at about 6:40 for a 20 minute trip to the start. Plenty of time! Mary and I chatted a lot on the bus about various races and our plans to finish the 50 states. Mary has three states left, and is also going to be finishing in June… actually, at the same Seattle race I was mentioning above!

At the start, I kind of wanted to go to a porta potty, since I had had a lot of water at breakfast, but didn’t see them anywhere. We joined our corral, B, which was the second one and only behind those who planned to do a sub-4 marathon. Mary and I lined up near the 4:00 pace group (though Mary was aiming for a 4:30 or so finish). How cool would that be if I managed to pull a 4:00 marathon when it was my third marathon in eight days?

While we waited for the start, I finally noticed some porta potties, but they were pretty far away in a seemingly random field (how were we supposed to know to go there before getting in the corrals?), and appeared to have long lines, so I skipped them. I hoped this wouldn’t be a problem later in the race.

After a nice rendition of the Star Spangled Banner (during which Mary and I exchanged laughing looks as we remembered our shared experience at the Cox Providence Rhode Races in 2008, where we had been treated to a National Anthem in which the singer forgot the words multiple times), we were just about set to go… but not until it started raining a little bit harder. It was still pretty light, though, and I hoped it would stay that way for the duration of the race. With that thought in my head, we were off!

The music that sent us off was pretty neat – it was kind of orchestral and “twinkly”, like a Disney theme song. A nice little change from the peppy Rocky theme or something like that, though I always like that too. Meanwhile, I had set my Droid to play my “marathon country” playlist, figuring that would be appropriate for a place like Kentucky. The crowds were pretty dense, so I tried to just stay to the side of the road where it was easier to get through without bobbing and weaving.

After about a mile, we headed through a pretty woodsy (and hilly) area that reminded me a lot of running around the pond at SUNY Albany, near where I grew up. The road was paved and all the foliage was just a brilliant green (probably helped by the rain). As we headed up a gradual but steady incline, I found myself thinking back to the Utica Boilermaker, which has a section like that about midway through the race. Unlike the Boilermaker, however, this road was pretty winding, and I did my best to cut the tangents and save steps, but it was tough in that crowd.

By mile 4, we started heading down again (yay) and into the streets of whatever suburb of Louisville we were now in. The crowds were awesome, even in the rain, and it again just reminded me so much of the Boilermaker somehow. Usually it’s the weather that reminds me of other races, but this weather was in sharp contrast to the sunny and hot Boilermakers I’ve done – but it still just felt so eerily similar.

As we kept going, the crowds thinned out a little bit and I was soon able to run with very minimal bobbing and weaving. I was way ahead of the 4:00 pace group at this point, and even saw the 3:50 pace group just ahead of me – wow! I hoped I wasn’t going to burn out. However, after finishing Boston in 3:54 and feeling like I had a ton of energy at the end, I decided I’d rather push it now even if it meant burning out later, just to see how well I could do.

Right as we crossed the 7 mile mark, we turned into Churchill Downs, home of the Kentucky Derby. And when I say we turned into Churchill Downs, I mean we actually got to run right out onto the fields! How cool. I knew we ran by Churchill Downs, but had no idea that we were going to get to actually go through it. Inspired by the moment, I pulled my Droid out of my fuel belt and “checked in” on Foursquare, my new favorite little tool. It was kind of hard to type while running, but I managed to eke out “Mile 7!” Foursquare posts all my updates to my Facebook, and my mom has recently joined Facebook and was also trying to track the race online, so I knew she’d be thrilled to see the update. And hey, who knows if I’ll ever get to the actual Derby, so maybe that was my one chance to prove I had been there!

As I was putting my phone away, another runner about my age approached me and was asking about the device, impressed that I was typing while running. Tom and I made friends and though he said his goal was “just to finish,” he decided to run with me and go for my goal of 4:00. Now, at this point we had passed the 3:50 pace group, which meant we were doing sub-8:47 miles. Tom was really friendly and wanted to hear all about my marathon adventures, but to keep up that pace, I just really didn’t have the energy for a lot of talking. I did my best, but I definitely wasn’t my usual bubbly and open self, chattering about everything and anything. In fact, as the miles progressed, I feel like I got downright rude, kind of grunting out a short answer to whatever he asked. I felt really bad about that, but I wanted to keep the great pace going!


By mile 10, we were coming back into downtown Louisville (where my hotel was and the finish line would ultimately be). There were a fair amount of spectators out to cheer us on, which was really nice, and a few DJs with music blaring to energize us. Woo hoo! This was not at all advertised as a course with a lot of music, so I was pleasantly surprised to find that they had some beat-pumping stuff going every few miles or so. Shortly after the DJ, though, the course split and we said goodbye to the half marathoners (with me yelling “congratulations half marathoners, but save us some beer!”). Tom remarked, “this is where we separate the men from the boys,” and it seemed he was right – there was now less than a quarter of the people there had been before the split. I guess my friend Beth was very accurate when she said that for this race, the full marathon was like the red-headed stepchild of the original half marathon that had founded the race!

We turned right and had a long straight stretch ahead of us, with a few hills for variety. The rain had stopped by now and the sun was starting to come out – at this point, it actually felt fairly nice. We had a decently steep (but short) hill as we came up to mile 13, and I was pleased to see that I was doing quite well, reaching the halfway point around 1:55. I could hear the 3:50 pace group just behind us, so I tried to keep going and stay ahead. There were still a fair amount of spectators (though no crowds like we had seen at mile 5), and a lot of them were wearing jackets and shirts from Monday’s Boston Marathon, so I told them congratulations as I went by. They seemed surprised that a runner would bother to congratulate a spectator, but that was the way I liked it – a little good karma to help me along :)

At the mile 14 aid station, the 3:50 group passed me, but I managed to catch back up in a few minutes. We went back and forth for a while, and then we were in the major hills of Cherokee Park, which I had heard was the toughest part of the race. I didn’t walk at all, though my pace slowed on the uphills; however, while the uphills were long, there were a few nice downhills thrown in that let me make up some time and stay more or less near the 3:50 pacer. As we came into mile 16, I joined the group and introduced myself, explaining my goal of running all 50 states. Unfortunately, as we came out of Cherokee Park and back into the neighborhoods, there was a pretty good uphill, and it was here that I lost the pace group (though they were never really out of sight ahead of me).

I also started losing Tom – he seemed to be a bit stronger than me, though I kept catchng up to him at random points. No matter – I needed to just grit my teeth and get it done. I didn’t feel like I was out of energy, but I felt that I was definitely pushing it pretty hard and couldn’t really go any faster, so I needed all the extra energy I could get by focusing on the course instead of conversation.

Around mile 19, we started heading back into the downtown area, and by mile 20, the streets were lined with crowds who were cheering on the half marathoners currently finishing. They cheered for the marathoners as well, and I hoped they would still be there when I got back for my own big finish. For now, it was up over a bridge to cross over to the Indiana for the final loop before coming back to the finish line.

The bridge was a little tricky, due to the incline, though I had been prepared for it so it wasn’t too bad. It did seem pretty long though – I kept wondering when I was going to hit the halfway point and start going down instead of up, but it really felt like it just went up and up until right before the end of the bridge. Having been checking my watch constantly, I decided that my new goal was to break 3:50 – to do that, I’d need to maintain about a 9:15/mile pace. Not easy, but doable.

We came off the bridge into a very industrial area, and the wind was really giving us trouble as we put in the last few miles. We had kind of an out-and-back segment (with the “out” on a road parallel to the “back”), and the wind along the waterfront was just brutal. I tried to just keep pushing as much as I could, but it was now really taking all of my energy to do that. At mile 24, there was a great aid station with enthusiastic volunteers cheering us on, though, and that helped a lot.

I’ll tell you what didn’t help though: the two spectators just after mile 24 and just before we got back onto the bridge to head to the finish. They were trying to be helpful, but they were cheering “only four miles to go!” I pointed out that we had just passed mile 24, so there were actually only two miles to go, not four, and they were surprised to learn that the race was 26 miles and not 28. Thanks, but I’ll stick with 26! Too funny :)

I had found the bridge a little bit tough when I was crossing over it the first time, but now with the wind at my front instead of my back, it was brutal. I just kept reminding myself that I only had about 15 minutes left in the race – I could do it! To take my mind off my exhaustion, I eyed the runners going out on the other side of the bridge – they were on track for about a 4:30 finish, so I thought I might see Mary or Morgan in there. No luck, but it was definitely motivating to think that if it hadn’t been for my awesome effort and stellar pace, that’s right about where I would have been! How refreshing to only have 10 minutes left instead of 40 :)


We turned off the bridge, and soon met up with huge crowds of half-marathoners who were just now in their final mile. I was really pleased to see that the race organizers had thought to put a barrier between the lane for half marathoners and the lane for full marathoners – the half marathoners at this time were walking around a 15-20 minute pace, while full marathoners at this time were running an 8:30 to 9 minute pace. Big difference!

But then just as suddenly as we had merged with the half-marathoners, the barriers disappeared and they spread out across the whole road. Turned out that the split was just to ease the transition, but we’d actually finish all together. What a mess! I really wanted to PR and get every extra second, but I now found myself having to bob and weave around half marathoners who were strolling along in big groups that blocked the way.

I decided that while it might be a little rude, it was a lot less energy for me to yell “on your left,” “on your right,” or “in between” than it was to try to go around people. For the most part, the half marathoners moved out of the way (and even cheered me on), but there were a few who seemed really bothered. I understand that we both paid to run the race, but have some respect for your fellow athletes and at least don’t walk in big groups of half a dozen people – leave some room for people to pass! The toughest spot was the final turn to the finish, just after mile 26. Everyone was trying to cut the tangent, no matter what speed they were going, and it was a bit crazy on that corner. I ended up going around just to avoid the mess – probably easier in the end!

In the final stretch, I saw on my watch that I only had about 30 seconds if I were going to make it before 3:50, so I dug in and gave it all I had, sprinting to the line. I was disappointed again to see no distinction between the full and half marathoners. The finish line wasn’t divided into two sides, and the announcer who was calling out people finishing wasn’t saying whether they were finishing the full or half – a huge difference! My name wasn’t called at all, so it wasn’t a huge deal, but I definitely thought something should have been done to make it clear that some people were finishing twice the distance (and at twice the speed).

However, those were all thoughts that really occurred to me in hindsight. In the moment, I was just grinning ear to my ear. It was my third marathon in eight days, by far the muggiest and most likely the hilliest of the three – and I had finished with an all-time PR that was sub-3:50 for the first time in my life! Amazing race :)

Race stats:
Distance: 26.2 miles
Time: 3:49:40
Pace: 8:46
Overall place: 238/1422
Gender place: 46/529
Age group place: 6/66


  1. Wow girl! That is awesome to pull a sub 3:50 so soon after Boston! You are a machine! Congrats!

  2. Great job!! Only a few more states left! :)

  3. ok… wow! i ran derby after boston too, but not ANOTHER one in the mix too! i am shocked and awed :) i had a stronger run at the derby than boston too – i am really starting to think i need to do a marathon a week in advance to warm up, lol.

    congrats on the sub-3:50 and three marathons in a row! i am going for 50-states too but i am not nearly as far along as you.

  4. Congratulations on the PR! Are we allowed to say “you’re almost there” yet?

  5. Congrats on the PR!! I hate the bob and weave at the end – it really takes a lot out of the finish line sprint.

  6. YAY CONGRATS Laura on a great race! That is awesome that you PR’ed even after running even on tired legs!!!

  7. Loved reading your race report! Congrats on such an awesome finish and so incredible to run 3 in 8 days!

  8. Nice job girl!!! I am super impressed :)

  9. Congrats!

    I ran the half, and definitely thought the full was the red-headed step child. Although I was running slowly, it was annoying to have to run through walkers who were holding hands at mile 25 and try not to get in the Marathoners’ way.

    Great job!

  10. Congratulations!! I am jealous of your time!

    Once you are done with your quest and can actually take some time between marathons, you will qualify for Boston for sure!

  11. You just never stop amazing with your running ability.

    I can’t remember if I’ve seen it on here before, but what do you do on days you don’t run a marathon? what’s your training program like?

    Congrats on the PR!!!


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