The Kentucky Derby Festival Marathon and miniMarathon hold a special place in my heart. This year was the 4th time I’ve run in one of their races. It was my first half marathon in 2008 and this year it was first marathon. I will also note that I was a race ambassador for the race this year and did have my entry fees covered by my recruitment efforts. That being said I hope you will see this as a full and impartial review of the 2016 Marathon.
The first Saturday and May, Louisville plays host to the “most exciting two minutes in sports” the Kentucky Derby. What you may not know is that for two weeks leading up to the race Louisville throws a huge city-wide party known as The Kentucky Derby Festival. Throughout the KDF, events such as Thunder Over Louisville (North America’s largest fireworks show), the Great Steamboat Race, Fest-A-Ville, and for the past few decades the festival has included a miniMarathon (half) and marathon.
Overall: Having run the mini three times and the marathon once I can tell you that they are two very different experiences. Both are very well supported with aid stations and fantastic volunteers but the atmosphere and crowd support is vastly different. (Disclaimer: the weather this year was certainly less than ideal with rain almost the entirety of the race and this would certainly have an effect on crowds.) The relatively flat course carries you through Downtown Louisville to legendary Churchill Downs, home of the Kentucky Derby since 1875, through the beautiful Iroquois Park designed by Fredrick Law Olmsted, the Highlands neighborhood, and back to the finish line beside Louisville Slugger Field (home of the Louisville Bats, Triple A affiliate to the Cincinnati Reds). This is also a Boston Qualifier.
Expo: The Expo and Packet-Pickup is currently at the Kentucky International Convention Center (KICC) at 3rd and Market. Packet pickup is well marked with signs throughout the venue and large enough to accommodate the people. After entering the Expo, runners are able to search on computers their name to find bib numbers or use the boards printed with everyone’s last name alphabetically. Marathoners and mini runners are separate by bib numbers with plenty of volunteers to assist. Once a bib packet has been picked up, you can proceed to the t-shirt pickup, one table for women one for men. The mini and marathon have separate shirts that reflect their unique distances. Once runners have picked their packet up they enter the sales area that includes a large retail area with customized KDF apparel. After that, a large mixture of products, races, gear, and other items are in a maze that allows you to pass through in 2 minutes or 30 depending on your needs.
T-Shirts/Swag: The shirts for this race are great and I can honestly say I don’t think I’ve ever retired one without it wearing out first. As in previous years, a high quality tech shirt is provided, this year it was a New Balance shirt (separate styles for men and women and different colors for 13.1 and 26.2 runners). Additionally, runners receive a finisher’s medal and virtual goodie bag with discounts to other races, gear, and products. Also new this year there was a coupon on the bib to have a custom engraved bottle of bourbon from the Jim Beam Urban Stillhouse at Fourth Street Live! The engraving included the race logo and could then be
customized from there.
Aid Stations: The course is made up of fifteen water stations and twelve Powerade stops. There are also at least two to three stop once the marathon splits from the half with Clif energy gels. Throughout the course volunteers seemed ample along with the supplies. I finished in 5 hours 27 minutes so I can tell you that there was definitely no shortage of supplies at the aid stations. I have to give a huge shout out to the volunteers at the stops! These guys remained upbeat and supportive of the runners through the rain and long hours! They were incredible!
Center and through Museum Row and the giant Louisville Slugger statue before heading into west Louisville. Winding through the Downtown district, runners will pass the old Union Station, the Gene Snyder U.S. Federal Courthouse and Custom House, and countless historical sites before turning into Central Park and the St. James Court neighborhood. As runners continue down 4th street towards the historic Churchill Downs, they taken past Old Louisville with its century old, many of which have been restored to their original luster. While moving towards Churchill Downs runners must pass the University of Louisville Campus. Once on Central Avenue runners can see Churchill Downs where they enter the main gate and proceed down the tunnels under the race track and
into the infield (Tip: There are permanent restrooms available in the restroom in large quantities) and circle around as Derby horses are on the track performing workouts of their own. After exiting the Downs the marathoners and mini runners split with the marathoners heading south to Iroquois Park – the only really hilly part of the marathon. Once through the park the marathoners head back up Southern Parkway retracing their steps to head back downtown and rejoin the mini course for a bit. Now heading back Downtown runners see another view of the University of Louisville Campus including Papa John’s Cardinal Stadium (football), Jim Patterson Stadium (baseball), Speed School of Engineering, the Speed Art Museum and the main campus including Greek Row. Just past the 20 mile marker the marathoners split away from the mini one last time to head towards the
Highlands and Baxter Ave – home to many of the bars and restaurants that Louisville is known for. (Side note: this is a great place for marathon spectators as there is plenty of indoor and outdoor street side viewing available.) The marathoners then turn west on Broadway and head back downtown to 3rd Street back to Main before turning right and heading for Preston Street and a 10th of a mile sprint to the Finish Line.
Elevation: This course is mostly flat with only three miles of 26 with any hills of note. That being said they are three difficult miles falling right in the middle of the course at miles 12-15. There in only one other hill at about mile 22 but it’s manageable if you are expecting it.
Race Experience: This is where the mini and Marathon differ vastly. I’ve done the mini three times and I’ve never once felt like there was anything lacking in the atmosphere and crowd because you’re always with a fairly large group of people. The miniMarathon consistently averages about 13,000-14,000 participants. The Marathon has just over 2,000 participants making the mid-late pack race a very different experience than the mini. Once you separate from the mini at mile 9 you go from running with hundreds of others to just dozens and if you’re not running with a training partner or friends it can make for a pretty lonely race. That would be my only negative to this race and it has zero to do with the organization and support of the race. If you’re a runner that feeds off the energy of others in a race and you’re a mid to late pack runner that might be a point to consider.
Parking/Access: Parking is everywhere ranging from meters to lots and garages. The average price is $5-10 to park in a lot or garage. Meters are free on Saturday’s until 10AM but are heavily enforced after 10. There is an app that allows you to pay for parking by the hour.
This race is and always will be one of my favorite races. The history and scenery are gorgeous even when the weather isn’t and the organizers do a fantastic job of making sure they plan for every possible situation and that their runners are more than taken care of. I’m so glad that it was my first marathon!