Monday, March 2, 2015

2015 Phoenix Marathon Review

2015 BMO Harris Bank Phoenix Marathon
Saturday, February 28, 2015
Phoenix, Arizona
30th Marathon Completed (repeat State)
Runners: 1,854 (1,003 men, 851 women)
Start Time: 6:30 a.m.
Course: Literally the fastest I've ever ran, gradual downhill with only a couple of slight inclines, about 800 ft of net drop from start to finish
Weather: 50 degrees at start, 60 degrees at finish, 8 mph SSE wind, cloudy & overcast
SWAG: Short sleeve dry-fit shirt, arm sleeves
Race Organization: Detailed & flawless
Crowd Support: Good, but minimal due to closed course
Volunteer Support: Numerous & friendly
Water Stops: Absolutely PERFECT, the textbook for race water stops, perfectly organized, staffed, and very enthusiastic and encouraging volunteers
Food: Bananas, oranges, and gels along the course, and numerous tents after the race with typical post-race fare, as well as BBQ and other grilled favorites
Age: 46
Finishing Time: 3:11:18  BOSTON QUALIFIER 
Average Pace: 7:19
Place: 108th/1,854 Overall, 12th/143 45-49 AG

Total Experience ... 1  2  3  4  5

I think I might have ran the perfect marathon at the 2015 BMO Harris Bank Phoenix Marathon on Saturday.  No, not because my 30th marathon was my second fastest, and earned me my seventh Boston Qualification ... but because everything about the event, from organization to execution was absolutely flawless!  And if you're looking for a the ideal course to set a personal best, I've ran none better.  I loved this marathon, and Michael and I will definitely be back again, and again and again.
Short sleeve dry-fit race shirt and arm warmers from the 2015 Phoenix Marathon
(women received a tank-top that my wife absolutely loved)
Admittedly, and in fairness to some of the other marathons I've ran, when I perform well at a particular venue, I seem to look back on the event a little more fondly.  However, good run or not, there are very few things I can be critical about from this race weekend.  It was a fairly large race with almost 2,000 marathoners, and about 3,500 half-marathoners, but the race organizers do a great job of maintaining a small race atmosphere, with constant attention to detail.

Michael and I flew into Phoenix late Thursday night for a week-long vacation.  After packet pick-up and rest on Friday, our plan was to run the race on Saturday, and then one of us would spend the rest of trip sitting by the pool, while the other would enjoy lots and lots of Spring Training baseball.  And if you've read my blog for a while, you know I was probably more excited about going to the Spring Training camps than running the race ... Arizona's like baseball heaven!!!

The race Expo was held at Sport Authority in the Mesa Riverview outdoor shopping center in Mesa, Arizona, which is also where the race finished.  The organizers had set up a big carnival-type tent adjacent to the store where runners picked up their race bag and bibs.  And as you exited the big tent, there were several other smaller vendor tents set up outside in the beautiful Arizona sunshine.  The packet distribution was very well organized with friendly volunteers who were helpful and answered race day questions, and then directed runners inside Sports Authority where they would pick-up their race shirts. I'm sure intentionally routing the runners through the store really boosted sales for the day.  And frankly, I'm not sure why more retailers don't do this at large races.  I'm sure it was probably an inconvenience to the store staff, but it seems like the payoff  would be well worth it.

Buying yet another t-shirt at a marathon
One of the Phoenix Marathon booths inside the tent was handing out cheer signs that runners could personalize, as well as cowbells.  There was also a giant marathon banner with all of the runner's names printed on it, which of course we took a photo of after finding our names.  Even though it was just a banner, I thought it was a nice personalized touch that made this race stand out a little. Also, one of the things I look for at out-of-State races are t-shirts with the State, or something unique to the area for souvenirs.  Surprisingly, many races don't have them - but this race had several.  And since I don't have quite enough t-shirts yet (sarcasm), I bought one (or two).

After we finished at the Expo, I dropped Michael off at our hotel in North Phoenix, the Pointe Hilton Tapatio Cliffs Resort, and then headed out to Royals Spring Training for a while.  For dinner I found a local Whole Foods Market where I could find baked chicken, brown rice, and coconut water.  Yes ... we ate our pre-race meal at a grocery store ... but I love Whole Foods Market, and I was able to find exactly what I wanted for dinner before wrapping up the day and hitting the sack for an early ... and I mean EARLY start just a few hours later.

Race Day
About the only minor criticism I have of the race is the start time, or more specifically, the shuttle bus boarding times. The race starts at 6:30 a.m., but shuttle buses from Mesa Riverview to the starting line run from 3:45-5:00 a.m.  Michael and I stayed at a hotel that was about 30 minutes away from the activities, so that meant we had to be up at about 2:00 a.m. to make this schedule work.  It wasn't the first time we'd be up in the middle of the night for a race - Disney is very similar.  But waking up that early for anything is definitely out of the norm.  And since I have trouble sleeping before a marathon anyway, I was actually awake at 12:49 a.m., more than six hours before the race.

Changing buses in the middle of the night, in the middle of the highway
Overall, the shuttle bus boarding process was fairly smooth, but I felt it could have been communicated in advance a little more clearly. The maps provided online and at the Expo were a little hard to read, and the instructions provided seemed a little vague - but it was probably just because we weren't familiar with the area.  Understandably, organizers have limited parking available since the festivities are held on a Saturday at a very popular shopping area that happens to be adjacent to the Chicago Cubs Spring Training facility.  But after dropping Michael off at one end of the shopping complex near Bass Pro for her half-marathon bus pick-up, I was directed to the opposite end where a different set of buses were lined up to take marathoners to their starting point.

Also, the assigned parking area for marathoners was a little over a half mile on foot from the finish line.  And depending on how a particular marathon goes, a half mile is a long way to walk after running 26 miles.  Parking a little closer would have been preferred, but it really didn't end being a big deal after the race. And like everything else to that point in the weekend, the actual organization was outstanding.  There were several volunteers directing traffic, helping with parking, and making sure runners got on the correct buses that were waiting to commute to the starting line.

On my shuttle, we were about five miles from the starting line arrival when our yellow school bus slowed a little, then crept along, and finally stopped ... right there on the side of the AZ-202 highway.  After a very brief pause, the voice of the elderly bus driver came over the speakers and very simply said, "Folks, the engine light came on, and then the engine stopped. I've called the race organizers and another bus will pick you up in a few minutes."  In my opinion the gentleman did an outstanding job of immediately diffusing the situation and calming the nerves of already anxious runners.  And after about 20 minutes of sitting on the highway, another bus picked us up and completed the trip to the starting line as promised.

Runners trying to stay warm around camp fires and patio heaters
before the race near the starting line at the Rio Salado Sportsman's Club
The marathon begins just East of Phoenix in the Usery Mountain Regional Park at the Rio Salado Sportman's Club near the white "< PHOENIX" sign on the mountainside.  I'm not sure if the white rock formation sign is supposed to mean "Phoenix ... thata-way!", or if that's a "greater than" sign indicating that Phoenix is greater than everything.  I guess we'll never know.  Regardless, it was huge and really stood out against the mountainside.

It was about 50 degrees with a light breeze, which made things a little chilly for standing around waiting to run, but there were tons of camp fires and dozens outdoor propane patio heaters lined up to help take the chill off.  There was also a row of decorative large tree logs around the perimeter that made for great make-shift seating, as opposed to sitting on the ground, although several runners opted for the desert floor.

Additionally, the race organizers hired a local improve comedy group to keep runners entertained over the P.A. system before the race with funny banter back and forth, mixed with typical "pump-you-up" music. And since I arrived at the starting area about 90 minutes prior to running, I thought they really helped make the time pass quickly.  They were funny and provided a nice distraction.

It was a cloudy morning, so it was still basically "pitch-black" outside.  So after a light stretch and warm up, I made my way in the dark to the actual starting line, located about 200 yards from the camp fires.  On my way to the start, I ran into Emily ... A.K.A EMZ, where we wished each other good luck.  (I've communicated with Emily, and met her a few times over the years but don't know her well.  However, she just genuinely seems like a very nice person.  She's always really cool.) Once the starting line, the improve group counted us down to the start where fireworks exploded in the sky behind us.

The Race
Going into the race, I was a little concerned with the downhill nature of the course.  I'd had a bad experience with altitude and a steep downhill run at Pocatello, Idaho only about seven month prior, and wasn't exactly sure how my legs would respond to another net decline from start to finish.  And even though the first 13 miles of the Phoenix Marathon out of the Usery Mountain Range drops about 800', it's a very gradual and gentle decline.  When the course basically leveled off in the second half, I didn't notice the quad fatigue that typically accompanies downhill courses.

The first couple of miles were ran in the dark.  If it wouldn't have been such an overcast day, it would've been much lighter outside, but it was literally like running at night.  However, as the sky soon began to turn from dark blue to light grey, several cacti, desert plants, and beautiful homes came into view across the desert landscape.  And at about 2.5 miles into the race, we encountered our first water stop of the day.

Crossing the finish line with minor adductor cramping,
but otherwise happy with a good race
The water stops at the Phoenix Marathon should be a blueprint for every marathon.  It might not seem like a big deal, but in my opinion, water stops are one of the most important components of marathons that many races don't adequately address.  Not the case at Phoenix ... these were an absolute well-oiled machine that made staying hydrated thoughtless and seamless.

Every stop had a TON of enthusiastic and encouraging volunteers ... not five or six folks trying frantically to get fluids to every passing runner like at some races.  Plus, and most important to me, every stop had Gatorade first in green cups, and water second in blue cups.  Without fail ... Gatorade first, water second!  This is such a minor detail that is overlooked by most races.  But late in a race when my legs are aching, I'm out of breath, and I'm using every ounce of energy to focus on the finish line ... I don't want to have to think about what's in the cup I'm getting.  And finally, all the volunteers handing out fluids were wearing rubber gloves.  EXCELLENT!!!  In most races there a few folks here and there who opt for gloves, and I don't blame them.  I mean who wants the sweat of 2,000 runners all over their hands?  Not me.  But equally important, I don't want the germs of volunteer fingers floating around in the water from the cup they've just handed me.  So I really appreciated the gloves. There were also several gels, banana, and oranges available at the water stops later in the race.  But the outstanding organization of the water stops really stood out to me.  This doesn't just magically happen.  It takes a lot of planning and direction to run effortlessly, and should be recognized.  Very well done!

At about the fourth mile, there's the only "significant" rise of elevation for the whole race.  And by "significant", I mean it's only about 150' over two miles ... very gradual.  I'd trained specifically for the hill and it didn't bother me in the least.  However, if you went into the race thinking it was completely downhill, it might have taken you a little by surprise.

The bulk of the course is not particularly scenic, and some might even call it a bit on the "boring" side.  But I loved it.  I was there to get from Point A to Point B as fast as possible, and not particularly concerned with the adjacent landscape. And other than a few desert mountains in the background, and the occasional warehouse or suburban neighborhood, there wasn't a whole lot to look at.  I think at one point we passed a couple of churches or fire stations that had bands playing live music ... but honestly, I was pretty locked into my pace, so I don't remember that very clearly.

Michael and me at the post-race celebration at Mesa Riverview,
after a great time at the Phoenix Marathon
But something else that really stood out as exceptional organization was the traffic control along the course.  Not only were several Phoenix area law enforcement officers assisting with traffic, but also orange cones were lined up on much of the course to segment off, and protect runners throughout the day.  Again, this might seem like a minor detail, but I've ran several races lately where this simply wasn't the case.  I didn't have to think about traffic for one second at the Phoenix Marathon. And that allowed me to focus all my energy on running.

The temperatures were unusually cool for Phoenix on the morning of the race.  I don't think it ever got above the mid 50's, and there was a 10 mph headwind for much of the course.  The headwind was a mild distraction, but I really didn't notice it breaking my pace much.  Plus, the alternative in a race like this would've been significantly warmer with sunshine.  So actually, the conditions were perfect for a marathon.

As we neared the finish line, the participants were divided into marathoners, and everyone else, into two separate finishing chutes.  This was very much appreciated and really considerate, and yet another very thought out race-day detail.  It's not that I don't want to finish half-marathon walkers, but sometimes it can get a little congested when everyone finishes together at different paces.  And the custom finishing chute lined with a ton of cheering supporters was the perfect ending to my race that also went very well. (I have a full recap of pacing, fueling, etc here)  I hit the wall a little at mile 22, but fought through it for my second fastest marathon to date with a 3:11:18, just 39 seconds off a personal best.  Plus, I qualified for the Boston Marathon for the seventh time, which is always a big deal to me.  In fact, about 14% of the total field BQ'd on this fast course on Saturday.  So obviously many runners were there to get their BQ for the year as well.

Beautiful sunset, and the perfect ending to a great day in Phoenix, Arizona
After the race I tracked down Michael and we spent some time recovering, but also checking out the official results.  In 2014, a 3:11 finishing time would've placed me near the top three in my age group, so I thought I might be in the running for an award.  But this year, my age group was really fast and I finished in 12th place.  So we headed back to the hotel to rest for the afternoon, and met some friends for dinner.

If you're looking for a scenic or challenging marathon, this race might not rank up there for you.  But as far as flat, fast courses, with great organization and attention to detail ... I've never ran any better.  And we'll be back again next year ... maybe with another shot at a personal best!
... Be Great Today!


  1. Nice! Congratulations on a great race! I might have to put this one on my list some day.

  2. Nice write-up Jim and congrats on finishing and getting a solid Boston Qualifier. It sounds like you had a successful marathon and I was looking at your splits online and your final 10K was spot on. Again, I think you have reason to be proud of yourself.

    I also feel for you for having an early morning race start like that. I always hate running to the bus only to be carted somewhere to sit for 60 - 90 minutes. Thank goodness it wasn't raining.

    So what's next?

    1. Thanks Eddie, I'm not sure at this point - maybe Colorado in May.

    2. Yeah I was flirting around with Colorado in May too. I was looking at the Colorado Marathon and the Fort Collins one.

    3. Also, if you ever decide to re-do northern Utah, you've always got a place to crash here....

  3. Awesome race, Jim! I couldn't agree more with the great organization of the race- perfect. The only thing is they forgot to give me pins. (Thank you so much for saving my butt on that one!). Enjoy the rest of your vacation and go Royals!

    1. Ha, I've always got your back with safety pins Allison, and GO ROYALS!!!

  4. Awesome!!!!! So glad the race went well for you! an yes,a well organized race is always a bonus!!!!!!
    Enjoy the rest of your vacation!!!!!!!!!

  5. Congratulations on a great race! It definitely sounds like it was well-organized and a great one to do. Plus, it sounds WAY nice than Illinois/Missouri at the end of February!

    1. Thanks Kate - and yeah, we're so glad we're not there right now!

  6. Congrats on the BQ and second best PR! Great training cycle; I enjoyed reading about it! I'm sure more good things are to come this year for you! :) Kristen

    PS Love the outfit...Darth Runner.

    1. Thanks Kristen, ha - yeah, the gear was a little dark.

  7. Congratulations on that race man. Looks like something I would love to do one day. Maybe when the kids get a little older. lol Nice times too. Wow.

    1. Thanks Kenley, definitely takes a ton of time with the little ones.

  8. It sounds like a really great event. Good organisation like that can make the race experience just so much better. Congrats on running such a great time.

  9. Congratulations again on a really strong race, and BQing - well done. I'm impressed with the race you describe. It's all those little things that add up to a great race! For me, knowing what is water and what is gatorade is very important (nothing worse than chugging a Gu and realizing you passed the water, or thinking you are grabbing calories because you grabbed a green Gatorade cup, but it's just full of water).

    1. Thanks Grace, yeah, I've washed Gu down with Gatorade before by accident, and then regretted it later, sucks!

  10. "(I have a full recap of pacing, fueling, etc here)"

    No actual link there. Would like to read the full recap.

  11. Proud of you brother Jim!!! Because of all of the dedication this winter, focusing on the task at hand, your experience was outstanding!!! Because of your strong cardiovascular system, you noticed the minor details of the race!! What I am saying is that you created your model of the world by being prepared. Like, some folks were confused by the " Traffic" or the " Gatorade First" situation. Could you imagine if this was your second marathon and you had to wait around for 90 minutes in 50 degree weather. Oh the horror!!!
    I totally dig all the photos, the write up, and hearing you speak your truth!! A huge congrats on the 3:11 and I hope to see some Spring League photos!!! And I leave you with this….. Plan on Colorado!!!

    The Padre
    P.S. Go Padres

    1. Thanks Padre, and I'll definitely try to post some baseball pics soon!

  12. Jim great job!! Your account of the race makes me want to take a trip next year and give their Half a try.

    1. Thanks Kendall, no doubt we'll be back, and maybe next year I'll just run the half too

  13. I can't wait to read the rest of your report about pacing and fueling. What an exceptional experience at this race, you've sold me on it!! Congratulations on a really terrific race, I'm so happy that it was a great one for you!

    1. Thanks Pahla, I'm putting it together now, it's always a good tool for me later. And yeah, you should totally do the race!

  14. Love your race recaps. I can never get so detailed as you. This sounds like, or at least you make it sound like, one marathon that I will have to put on my "to do" list :)

  15. This is such a great post! Thank you for your detailed recap. I am thinking of running the Phoenix marathon to 1) BQ and 2) knock off AZ from my 50 states list, and your review is inspiring! Thank you!

  16. Awesome race! I am really looking forward to running this marathon in a little over two weeks! Have been training hard (it's been tough lately with our Boston winter weather!) and am hoping for a BQ. Your review was super helpful! Let me know if you have any other tips for this race. Good luck if you're running again this year!


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