The very first thing that most runners will tell you about the Run the Bluegrass Half Marathon in Lexington is that it’s incredibly hilly. They aren’t kidding either – there are 33 hills – big rolling Kentucky hills. The second thing most of them will tell you is that this is a beautifully scenic course will some of the most gorgeous vistas you’ll find in horse country – when the weather cooperates. This past Saturday almost 3,500 runners and walkers took to the roads around Keeneland Racecourse for the 7th Annual Run the Bluegrass Half Marathon, “America’s Prettiest Half Marathon” and the first leg of the Kentucky Half Classic race challenge. The race also features a 7-Miler, a new distance introduced this year called The Yearling at 3.65 miles, and kid’s fun run.
The theme for the 2016 race was “Be Legendary” and the medal, which changes each year, featured three of the most famous Thoroughbred Race Horses of all time – Man ‘O’ War, Seabuscuit, and War Admiral. (If you’re not familiar with the stories of these three incredible racers you can find more here.) The medals for this race are some of my favorite bling and this year didn’t disappoint. Normally, the ribbon on the medal would reflect the silks of the featured horse but since they had three this year they chose to go with a black, white, and red ribbon with a black medal. As you can see by the photo this is not a small medal by any means.
This expo is a small but mighty set up held in the Keene Barn and Entertainment Center. As you walk in the door you are greeted by volunteers who hand you a bag for your bib and all the info and giveaway you’ll inevitably pick up through the expo and to your right are the Finisher’s Medals, proudly displayed to get you pumped for that finish line. You then proceed to the bib station where a small army is ready and waiting to hand you your bibs. Fun note, this race allows you to customize your name on your bib and I saw everything from “This Was a Bad Idea” to “Will Run for Bourbon” and more!
After you’ve picked up your bib you proceed to the official race merchandise area where you can purchase everything from tumblers, your typical race branded jackets, hoodies, etc, and discounted shirts from previous races. This is also the area where you pick up your custom Run the Bluegrass bourbon with a different distillery featured each year. For 2016, there were 400 of these commemorative bottles of Buffalo Trace Single Barrel Bourbon, decorated by Kentucky equine artist Jaime Corum.
Beyond this area you head into what I’ll call the marketplace typical of most race expos with your vendors and race promoters. They pack a lot into the marketplace and if you’re visiting from out of town and forgot your race belt, didn’t pack the right race outfit, or left your GU sitting on the counter in your kitchen, you can find it here. The RtB crew does a really nice job of featuring Kentucky businesses and products at this expo such as PonyaBands, Sword, and more.
As you round the final corner of the market place you come to the final stop where you pick up your race shirt. This year, like 2015, was a “Vintage Hoodie” meaning a long sleeved t-shirt hoodie, in black with the race logo in white on the front chest area. While I do like the shirt I would prefer that they offer gender specific options rather than the Unisex they offered this year. I’m glad I ordered a small because these run big.
Now for the race itself! As I mentioned earlier, this is a HILLY race with 33 hills to its credit. I know because the first year I ran the race three years ago I counted them, out loud, to distract myself from the awful weather that year. But don’t let the hills intimidate you – the race is TOTALLY worth doing! Just work some extra hill repeats into your training plan and you’ll be just fine.
The race starts out just in front of the Keene Barn and heads out right into the Kentucky countryside. The course is pretty straight-forward without too many turns so I won’t give you a turn-by-turn description. See the map for info. There is a particularly challenging hill at mile 9. If I could give you any advice it would be to save a little energy for that one. The last three miles of the course are usually the easiest since the hills ease up quite a bit but the wind this year made it especially tough. The weather was so much better than my first two RtB experiences with temperatures in the mid-40s, clear skies, but a bit windier than I would have liked with head winds that picked up to 15-18mph towards the end of my race.
One of my favorite things about this course is that you are constantly surrounded by horse farms and with the warmer temps the horses were out in force. Let me tell you, it’s so cool to see packs of horses running along the fence lines as you pass. It’s one of the most memorable and special race experiences I’ve ever had. I’m not normally the person to stop and take pictures in the middle of a race but since I was treating this as a training run I made an exception and I’m so glad I did.
The aid stations along the course are well placed and have water and Sword at each stop along with 2-3 port-o-lets each. There is also a special beer stop at mile 11 at the top of the last really hilly hill. The volunteers that staff these stop are great and super encouraging and can really give you a boost if you’re struggling. For on course photos you will have a photographer just past the halfway mark and then just before and at the finish line. J.A.Laub Photography has done the photos for the 3 races I’ve done and they do a great job. Along with giving runners the option to download their pictures for free (with a watermark) they also give a pre-race option that lets runners download as many digital files as they want for $20!! I’ve never found another race with that option and it’s a steal!
As you come in to the finish line corral and cross the mats you are given your medal, water, banana, and snack bag. If you read my review of the Papa John’s 10 Miler you’ll remember my dislike of people taking more than they should in post-race refreshment area. RtB staff have essentially solved this problem by making pre-packed bags for each runner. My bag had a small bag of Lays Potato Chips, Chips Ahoy! Mini Chocolate Chip Cookies, fruit snacks, and a Chewy Chocolate Chip Granola bar. You also get a coupon for two slices of Papa John’s Pizza and a beer from Ethereal Brewing on your bib. The other thing that makes the RtB post-race experience different is that they give expo vendors the option of selling their goods post-race!
This was my third year running this race and I can tell you that it has gotten better every year from the pre-race expo, to the on-course volunteers, to the finish line and post-race amenities. Every year I’ve fallen a little more in love and will continue to run this one as long as I can! Registration for 2017 is already open and I would definitely recommend adding the Run the Bluegrass Half Marathon to your bucket list of races to do!