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Monday, October 31, 2016

Race Review: Carolina Marathon

When you're unhappy about a service or a product that you have received, you can complain to customer service. You can get a refund, or return the item in exchange for something else. But who do you complain to when you have a bad race experience? When the race doesn't even meet your lowest, most basic expectations?

I ran my 11th marathon yesterday and I'm still trying to figure out what happened.

The day started off perfectly fine. I ran this same race last year and although I knew there were some course changes due to construction, I was expecting the same level of preparedness and support I had previously experienced. 

This year, there seemed a fewer number of runners and as the race progressed the herd thinned out pretty quickly. By mile 3 or so I was pretty much by myself. Before mile 7, the course turned off the paved trail and made a left onto a two lane road. The shoulder of the road was sectioned off by cones leaving space for single file running. To my surprise, traffic was still moving in both directions and more then three cars passed me on my left. I had caught up to a runner in front of me and followed him into a housing development. There were two turns and both were manned by volunteers who gave no further directions. Both the runner and I continued to run about a quarter or half a mile before we realized that we must have missed a turn somewhere. A third runner caught up to us and agreed that she hadn't seen a course marking either. I took out my phone and brought up the course map and realized we had, in fact, missed a turn. So we started running again and eventually found a small, white arrow spray painted on the ground.

The course then led onto a college campus that was better marked although the volunteers were paying more attention to their phones then to directing the runners in the right direction. Last year the course was an out and back course, with a turn around where you received a bracelet. This year, we received a bracelet but there was no turn around and the volunteers were hazy about where we should go. We went straight, despite there being no mile marker or course marker. A police officer was managing traffic at an intersection and he told us to keep going straight. Eventually we hit a busy intersection with no volunteers, or signs, only a tiny arrow on the ground - which we only saw when we looked around the corner. This road led us to another housing development where there were no volunteers or signs, just a few small arrows. We ran up a hill, around a circle, and then followed cones through SOMEONE'S BACKYARD (which as a New Yorker goes against every instinct I have  - you just don't run through people's yards)! There was a fence gate open which led to a street behind the house. Luckily, before I went through the gate I saw a truck turn the corner. If I had been less observant and had just ran through the gate onto the road I would have certainly gotten hit.

The course then went back to the college grounds and then back to the paved trail where I stopped seeing mile markers at about mile 21. At this point, because I had gone off course and had to stop and restart my watch so many times, I had no idea how much I had left to run. Intersections were no longer being patrolled by police officers. I have NEVER EVER in my life been left out on a course. I was sure that if I had missed the cutoff someone would have told me. Last year, there were cyclists biking the route checking on runners, offering encouragement and support. This year, there was no one. 

Eventually, I reached an intersection where a man, not wearing any race gear or anything official or runner/race like, tells me to make a left off the trail onto a road. I look where he's pointing and to my dismay it is a hill leading to an overpass WITH NO SHOULDER. I said to him, "seriously?" and he says "yes." I gave him my most disbelieving stare and said, "well, let's hope I don't get killed." So, not only does this road not a shoulder but there is actual traffic coming towards me. Cars going over the speed limit, flying over the top of the hill, only braking when they see me. This is a road I would not run on during training, let alone during a race. I start losing it. I'm close to tears and trying not to panic. I get to the bottom of the hill and come upon an intersection with NO COURSE MARKINGS AT ALL. No arrows, no signs, no volunteers - NOTHING. Now if this had been at mile 4, I would have taken a deep breath and figured something out. But this was at mile 20 something, I was tired, hot, and really ready to be done with this race. I started to cry. Just as I was about to turn around and run back to the shady course volunteer dude, I saw another runner coming down the hill. Thankfully, she was in a much calmer state then I was, so I pulled myself together and got out my phone to yet again check the course map.

We figured out where we needed to go and once I was back on the trail, I called my running partner (who was at home watching my kids) to A. let her know I was alive because I normally would have been finished and B. to bitterly complain about the course. I told her that I had no idea where I was or how much I had left. At one point, I seriously considered googling the finish line at the baseball stadium and just running there, forgetting entirely about the course.

A few minutes later, I came off the trail and saw an empty aid station table so I figured I was at least headed in the right direction. Again, there were no signs or volunteers, so I just kept going. A man asked me if I had seen his wife because apparently she was lost as well. He told me to just keep going straight. Unfortunately, traffic was freely moving and there was no sidewalk due to construction so I had to run between cars stopped at a light on my left and orange and white plastic construction barriers on my right. If traffic had been moving, I would have been in trouble. I got to an intersection where thankfully there was a police officer in a car who told me where to go. That road was free from traffic but as I turned the corner so did a police truck picking up barriers so I had about a foot of space between the truck and construction barriers to pass. Thankfully, I knew where I needed to go to enter the stadium for the finish line but there was no signs and only one volunteer, not wearing any identifying clothing, pointing the way. There were people milling about and it was confusing and a little overwhelming.

I have run big races and little races. I have run races in cities and races in the woods. I have never in the 10 years I have been running felt so overwhelmed and downright unsafe during a race. I ran a 50k in the woods in Ohio, a race in a state I don't live in, on trails I had never been on, in the rain, mostly by myself, and I still felt more safe then I did yesterday.

I'm so disappointed. Disappointed that my quads gave out. Disappointed that I got lost. Disappointed that my last Greenville marathon went so badly. When I was leaving the stadium, I heard a volunteer say there were still 20 people out on the course. 20! 20 people with little to no help or direction, running in 80 degree heat. 

The race website does state that the course will close at 5.5 hours and police may stop monitoring before then. It mentions the changes in the course. It protects itself pretty well from having to take responsibility for my experience. 

What makes me the most upset is that if that had been my first marathon, I don't know that I would ever run one again. And not because it was hard, marathons are always hard, but because it was handled so poorly for slower runners. Not everyone is going to run a 3:30 or 4 hour race. And while I understand not being able to keep a course closed from traffic all day, the course should at least have "safe" places to run - no shoulder less overpasses, and road without sidewalks. And every FREAKING MILE of that race, EVERY FREAKING turn should have been clearly marked. When you have been running for 5 hours straight the least they can do is point you in the right direction. 

It's going to take me a while to recover from this mess. I might need to give up road racing for awhile. I don't know, I just don't know.                         


  1. Oh my - that sounds horrible and terrifying! The race experience should be safe for ALL runners no matter what your finish time is. So sorry this happened to you!

  2. Omg this is terrible!! I hope you complain to the race director because that is awful and completely unacceptable. I hate seeing people jumping on the "let's organize a marathon" because they think it sounds easy and they'll make money. Ugh.

    - Lora @ Crazy Running Girl

    1. the crazy thing is I ran this race last year and I really enjoyed it. My husband has run it 4 times and said this year was by far the worst. It's put on by a pretty active track club in a runner friendly city so they should know :(

  3. I agree completely! If that were my first, I wouldn't do any other for a while! That is crazy how mishandled the race was... Clearly marking the course with arrows should be task number 1 - not just for the 4+ hour runners, but also for any runners!! I don't care how the scale of the race changed, that race director needs to hear how poorly this race was executed! Are you on BibRave? This would totally be an experience to post... I hope future races never compare to this one for you!

    1. I was thinking about posting in BibRave - I think I'm going to see if they send out a "how did we do?" email. If they don't then I think I'm going to email the race director.

  4. This sounds absolutely awful. I'all mark this down on my no list. If your looking for an SC Marathon I highly suggest Kiawah Island. Flat, fast, and really well organized. Everything mark perfectly and tons of volunteers. I'll be doing the half there this year, but they have a full as well.

    1. the woman I got lost with the first time is running Kiawah :)
      I'm done with SC - we're moving to MS in a few weeks so I'm going to start working on central US states. It makes me sad though because I love Greenville and really wanted to have a great race to say good bye :(