Monday, May 11, 2009

The Rock 'N River Marathon

At this point, I feel like writing about approximately a thousand other things besides Reno's Rock 'N River Marathon, held not this past Sunday, but the one before. It wasn’t exactly a banner day for me, nor was it really an important race on my schedule. It was, however, the inaugural event, and there are a few things about the day that bear mentioning. Since the rain compelled me to leave my camera at home, I fear this report won’t be too exciting. I’ll do my best to keep it straightforward, but as we know, brevity is not one of my bigger talents.

After four straight weekends of racing, I’d planned on the Rock ‘N River Half Marathon mostly because it was a local event, and I had heard good things about its first running, last year. In one of my typical oversights, I missed the online registration and thus found myself making the drive to Harrah’s on a rainy Saturday morning in order to register at the expo.

The registration line was moving painfully slowly, and as I stood there waiting, I tried to remember why I was running this race. Oh yeah: It was supposed to be fun. Still, I reasoned, a full marathon distance had been added this year and I could run that. Why was I running only the half again? I couldn’t remember. I had just decided that I wouldn’t run the full marathon because I couldn’t afford the entry fee, when I reached the front of the line.

Me: How much more does it cost to enter the marathon?

Volunteer: $5

Me: (incredulous) Really?

Volunteer: Yup. $45 for the half, and $50 for the full.

Me: Oh heck, sign me up for the full.

It seemed like a good idea at the time.

By the time 5:00 am Sunday morning rolled around and I was driving through an absolute torrential downpour to Reno, I finally remembered why I was only supposed to run the half: It was my fifth week in a row of racing, and I don’t really like road races anyway. Plus, I was still in an unexplained funk that had plagued me for weeks now, and I was having flashbacks to CIM in 2001 when I had forced my friend Charlie to fly down from Seattle to run through a hurricane with me for our slowest and most painful road marathon ever. I realized, with an impending sense of doom, that I was a little burned out on racing.

The rain was mercifully lighter in Reno, and runner’s gathered underneath the “Reno: Biggest Little City in the World” archway which served as both the start and finish lines. When it was time to line up, I looked around to see that there were only about 100 runners in the full marathon. This did not help my less-than-positive attitude about the day.
I did, however, spot Reno’s own bad-boy, Lynyrd Skynrod jog up to the starting line followed by a gaggle of paparazzi angling for a shot. I enthusiastically went up to say hello, and was rewarded with a somewhat distracted response. I guess he didn’t recall that we’d spent what I personally felt was a memorable afternoon together in the casino last spring. Either that or he was just focused on the race.

I managed a quick hello to Turi, who was running the half, before we were off. The route for the first half of the marathon followed the same course as the half-marathon. It was a pleasant out-and-back, westbound along the Truckee River bike path. Upon reaching the Patagonia Outlet, runners looped back towards the start in Downtown Reno. Some people find out-and-back courses to be boring, but I don’t mind them. I think we got the most scenic running near downtown Reno, and I always enjoy seeing the runners passing in the opposite direction and cheering them on.

In only the first few miles it came to my attention that I was in 5th place. With such a small field, it’s difficult to be unaware of one’s place. The third and fourth place women were less than 20 yards in front of me, but I tried not to focus on that fact. I was already running too fast, having run miles one and two in 7:35 and 7:42 respectively. By mile four I had finally eased my way back to 8:00 pace, still in sight of third place.

I saw Lynyrd running toward me with a huge lead on the men’s field. I cheered him on, and he gave me a nasty scowl. Since Lynyrd is known for flipping off his cheering hordes, I rather thought his restraint here was a positive statement on his feelings for me.

The rain picked up again, and my wet shorts started to bunch up uncomfortably. I tried to focus on staying relaxed, but it was fairly lonely out there. At mile eight, the third place woman stopped to tie her shoe. I passed her and never saw her again.

On the run back toward downtown we began to see the half-marathon runners coming toward us. They had started at 7:00, a half hour after the marathon start. There were clearly far more participants in that race, and they cheered me enthusiastically. It felt good, and I did my best to return the support.

Eventually the lead men in the half-marathon came up behind me. I was grateful for someone to lead the way, since the runners coming toward me were now quite spread out, and the course wasn’t exactly what I would describe as well-marked.
Nearing the halfway point, volunteers kept cheering and telling me I was “almost there.” I kept amending, in my head, “almost halfway.” Clearly someone forgot to tell them there was a marathon going on.

I was a little concerned about where to go since everyone around me was finishing the half. Fortunately when the split in courses approached, someone yelled from behind me to keep right. This was lucky, since this turn wasn’t marked at all that I could see.

Now running down a rainy, desolate street in Reno, I was really nervous about where to go. There were cones everywhere, but many of these were marking construction zones, and it was confusing. I approached an intersection with total bewilderment when a motorcycle cop appeared out of nowhere to lead me, lights flashing, through the next few turns. I felt like kind of a rock star with my own police escort.

Finally, I was back on the bike path. This stretch of the course was another out-and-back along the Truckee River bike path, this time eastbound toward the city of Sparks. I still felt fine, but I was well aware of the fact that I had been running too fast and I would undoubtedly pay the price later. I plugged into my ipod to help myself relax through the lonely miles.

The rain had stopped for the moment, and I focused on trying to keep my splits even. They had aid stations at every mile, which I thought would be a bit excessive even on a hot day. On this cold, rainy day I only grabbed a cup of water from every third aid station.

When I saw the race leaders heading back, I was somewhat dismayed to see that Lynyrd was not among them. I wondered what happened to him. He was nowhere to be seen.

There weren’t really any course markings at this point, but the instructions were clear enough: Stay on the bike path. Still, for a trail runner who is used to the reassuring sight of pink ribbons every 100 yards or so, I found it difficult to trust myself that I was going the right way.

Approaching the turnaround at mile 20, I was a bit confused. My watch said I had run 4:30 for that mile—clearly laughable. After returning to the aid station at mile 19/21 I had clocked yet another 4:30 mile. Wow, I was on fire! It seemed obvious that the course must be short. I wondered if maybe they had just misplaced a few mile markers, but the overall distance was still accurate. After looking at my splits though, I can’t see how that’s possible.

I had seen the second place woman near the turn around, less than two minutes ahead of me. I figured I may as well focus on catching her, if for no other reason than to have something to do. I knocked out two 7:30 miles in a row. When I still couldn’t see her, even off in the distance, I began to lose heart. I could see that I was on pace to be very close to my PR, but I wasn’t sure the course was accurate and didn’t want my PR to have an asterisk by it.

The rain started coming down hard again. I started to tighten up, and my body kicked into “just get there” mode, averaging 8:45’s for the last three miles.
I came into the finish with a small horde of kids finishing the kid’s 1 mile fun run, which was both kind of fun and a little weird. Again, it seemed that no one realized there was an actual marathon going on here.

I grabbed my change of clothes and immediately headed into the casino to get out of my wet things. The flashing lights and constant ringing of the slot machines mesmerized me momentarily before I shook off the dazed and confused moment to search out the restrooms. A casino is a very surreal place to be after a running event!

After changing my clothes and cleaning off the chocolate GU that had apparently been smeared across my face for approximately the last 17 miles, I ventured back outside to see if I could grab my award for third place and bail. After some discussion with other front runners and the person in charge of awards, it seems there had been prize money advertised but there actually wasn’t any. Since I hadn’t known about it, I wasn’t too bothered. I did however check the website and the race flyer later that day, and they did indeed claim to give cash prizes for 1st-3rd places. That seemed to solve the mystery of what happened to Lynyrd Skynrod: He must have heard about the lack of prize money partway through the race and figured there was no point in finishing.

I wasn’t feeling too hot about my day, although I wasn’t sure why. I finished in 3:28—about the same time I ran at Surf City. That day had been a much more enjoyable experience, but then, it had been a much different race: more runners, perfect weather, better pacing by me, and family waiting for me at the finish line. Today’s race I had begun with no plan or expectations whatsoever, which resulted in this competitor running too fast in the early miles and not feeling so hot in the second half. It’s interesting that I ran the same time at both races, but with such different race strategies and such a contrast in how I felt afterward.

I decided it was the least I could do to cheer on the other lonely marathon runners still finishing in the rain, and I stood at the deserted finish line and clapped until my teeth chattered.

Full results here.

Since this was only the second year of the half marathon, the first year of the full marathon, I thought I’d offer my thoughts on what I liked about the event and what I think could be improved upon for next year.


  • Reno promotes itself as a race destination. Yay Reno!
  • Course is scenic, mostly following the Truckee River. Loved starting and finishing under the Reno archway. Very cool photo ops!
  • Great price for the marathon!
  • Many aid stations (maybe too many?) with friendly volunteers
  • Separate shirts for men and women, so I actually got one that fit and with a cute design. Also, shirts were a good, tech fabric.

Maybe next time we can…

  • Have a few bands. What happened to the “Rock” part of “Rock ‘N River”? Did they really mean the rocks on the riverbed or something?
  • Make sure the course is measured accurately. I don’t know for sure that it was short, but even if it wasn’t, there were a few mile markers that were way off.
  • Don’t offer prize money if there isn’t any. This is very poor form. The truth is, a quality event shouldn’t need prize money to attract a lot of runners.
  • Make sure the course is very clearly marked. There seemed to be a general lack of course markings. (Made up for by private police escort though, in my case!)

Overall, I think this event will be a great one for Reno. The course is flat, fast and scenic, and even though everything wasn’t perfect, it seemed like there was a professional crew there who will turn this into a stellar event. Especially if they can order up better weather in future years.

Thanks to the volunteers and Race Directors for all the hard work and being out there for us in the rain!


  1. Sorry you had a kind of on/off experience here in Reno, Gretchen - seemed like that kind of day overall. Very strange about the prize money. There were some other weird organizational things, too, like the weird format of the race info packet on the website and course maps. I agree with your assessment, though - a few things to improve and this will be a great race. Glad you could make it down, anyway...

  2. Thanks Turi. I feel like I should emphasize that most of the downside to my experience was due to my own head space, and the rain. No one can really be blamed for that.

    I had trouble with the race packet too. I couldn't even download it because it said the file was corrupted.

    Also, I heard there was a band booked for the finish, but it canceled because of the rain. That seems weird since there was a huge tent over the stage area, but oh well!

  3. Ah Reno, again more memories of TRT. I opted to go through Reno on the way home from the race last year. Hahaha, really, only that much more for the full, heck I'd be a sucker not to do it!!! I don't know any ultra gal or guy who wouldn't have plunked down the extra $5. I've only run CIM once and it was also in 2001. A storm on Saturday and a storm on Sunday. Wasn't that great? I was too cheap to get a hotel so I drove in the storm Saturday to get my number then drove again on Sunday to do the race.

    Well congratulations on another long run and awesome on third place. I think 3:28 is fast. My marathon PR is 3:48 at Big Sur when I paced a friend, that was 5 years ago. Your post is timely because I was just thinking last night that maybe I should run the San Francisco marathon in July. I've never done it and I've lived here for 17 years. It may be time. Reading about your marathon is inspiring me to do so.

  4. I'm sorry you didn't enjoy your run! I wish I could have been there for the half, but alas, my back sure wasn't liking me that day, and I didn't want to risk it. Congrats on your third place though! :)

  5. That's a pretty fast marathon time considering that you don't really do any focused training for that event. Nice job!

    I definitely hear you about having a hard time getting excited about marathons - especially after you've had the experiences that ultrarunners know and love.

    It sounds like the race has quite a few bugs to work out.