Saturday, September 10, 2016

Race Review: Great Smoky Mtns. Half Marathon

This is part two of my race review of the Great Smoky Mountains Half Marathon weekend - click HERE if you missed part one.  I participated in the inaugural Black Bear Double, so the half marathon came after a 5k the previous evening - ah, I do love a challenge!  Tennessee may be one of the prettiest states in the country and to see the sun rise over the mountains is something pretty special.  This half marathon starts at 7 AM, and this time of year you'll get exactly that view.
Runners gathering before the start.
Throughout the event weekend, organizers kept telling us that they were going to "spoil us," and for a lot of reasons, I really like this race, the amenities provided, and how special runners were made to feel.  This is a point to point race, which means that unless you're getting dropped off and picked up (which I was, thank you Jen!), you park at the race finish and are then shuttled to the start.  I think this worked pretty well, though I did hear from a few folks that there was some traffic trying to get to the start area.  We were walked to the start according to our wave - waves were assigned, but it's on the honor system so you can move if you feel it would be a better experience.
The starting line has you looking right at the mountains.  It's an open course (meaning you're sharing the road with traffic), but there were no issues with that and participants were great supporters of each other and called out cars.  My phone told me it was 70 degrees at the start, but there was some humidity that increased as the day progressed.  We took off quickly (race was very well organized) and were along exposed road for a bit before getting into the windy wooded area along the Little River that made up the majority of this course.  We were told multiple times that this course is challenging - lots of rolling hills, steep banks to the road - but it is extremely scenic.  You get mountains, forest, farm land, and river.  It was quiet, and not crowded at all.
I'm not good about taking mid-race photos, but this was too pretty to pass up.
By this time, I had the Hydrapouch system down and there were ample well-stocked aid stations (and TONS of port-a-potties) along the course.  Well done on that one Vacation Races and big thank you to the awesome volunteers!  The course provided nice shade until about mile 9 when we made our way along the road (mostly sidewalks) back toward the finish line.  These last four miles were really tough because it was a straight, unwavering line with the sun beaming down in your face the entire time.  This section of the course was not without hills either - including an uphill finish line!
Seriously tough stuff, but we had plenty of snacks (more of those really neat boxes) and ice cold chocolate milk waiting for us.  You certainly feel like you earned the amazing medals you receive for completing this race!  The finish line was really well organized and there was plenty of parking for runners and spectators.  For anyone who didn't get enough of a challenge, you could do one of several club hikes in the Great Smoky Mountain National Park within 72 hours to receive 50% off 2017 race registration (have to submit your picture with bib and medal that shows you completed the hike)!  Unfortunately, this girl had to drive home - maybe next year.
Black Bear Double? Check!
Okay, I know you're dying to see the medals - and they are truly drool-worthy.  So let's do a quick photo shoot before we get to the bottom line.

5k (front) and half marathon (back) - both are double sided.
Black Bear Double mug and medal (yes, that's a spinner).
The bottom line:
Run This Race If: you love scenic races, enjoy smaller races, don't mind tough courses, can combine this race with a trip to the national park and/or love great race experiences/swag/medals
Course: challenging, point to point, hilly, mostly roads with a couple of miles of sidewalks, honor system wave start, pacers available
What Makes It Unique: location (small town with national park backdrop), environmentally friendly, awesome swag, lots of amenities for a small race
Cost: Reasonable, earliest pricing is $40 individual/$35 team (5k), $95 individual/$85 team (half marathon), $150 (Black Bear Double).  You can opt out of race swag to lower the registration cost, but I wouldn't recommend it because it's really good stuff!
Date and Time: Second weekend in September (6:30 PM Friday 5k, 7 AM Saturday half marathon)
Would I do It Again? Definitely.  And I would like to do other events organized by Vacation Races!  Really impressed with what they put together.


  1. I would totally do this one. I actually have considered doing some of these National Park Races. After running Big Sur, I'm all about the experience!

    1. Yes! Come do this one next year and I'm sure you'll love it! I'd really like to run some of the others as well. I was really impressed and enjoyed it immensely. Big Sur ... my hat is off to you!

  2. Wow. Definitely drool worthy bling and the course sounds lovely (albeit difficult). I loved seeing these medals all over Instagram. Congrats!

    1. Thanks! It was really great, but you're right it was tough. I hope all the good press and pictures helps increase the popularity of these National Parks races!

  3. I would adore this race. I love beautiful scenery and smaller races! I did the Gateway to the Smokies half in May and thought it was hilly (and warm). I can only imagine what this one was like. That is awesome bling too! I'd love for you to join us on the Weekly Wrap sometimes.

    1. I haven't heard of the Gateway to the Smokies Half, but I'll have to check it out and definitely consider this one next year! I've really come to appreciate the smaller races over the years. Thanks for the Weekly Wrap invite, I'll do that for sure!

  4. Congratulations on your races. Those medals are one of the coolest ones I have seen. Sounds like a great race. I like point to point races so you never see the same scenery twice. The cost is very reasonable too. Congrats again. Enjoy your recovery!

    1. I agree with you on the point to point being better for keeping your interest, provided the transportation to the start is good! This one did a good job, but regardless the medals were totally worth it :)

  5. Thanks for posting this. I'm doing the Black Bear Double in a few weeks. Can't wait!