There’s more to running races than counting the miles and keeping track of your pace. The total experience starts before the race begins and ends well after you cross the finish line. I’ve participated in many races within the past year. It occurred to me that runners will travel great distances to be a part of a racing experience. Many will run more than one race to earn an extra challenge medal at the end of the weekend.
The rattling of these challenge and participation medals echoes as you stand in line for your free post-race beer. As I tried to toon out the repetitive clatter of the overachieving runners, it dawned on me that racing and travel go hand-in-hand. Being a part of a race, whether it’s a 5k or a half marathon, is always worth your time, but not all race experiences are created equal.
This Race Review series will cover the highlights of what I experienced during packet pick-up, parking, the race course, and the post-race party. The first of this series will cover three half-marathons I completed this year, the Burg to Beach to Bayshore Challenge, hoping to earn a challenge medal at the end (spoiler, things did not go as planned). These three half-marathons occur in the Tampa Bay area in November, January, and February. Although the distance for each race was the same, the similarities stopped there.
The Burg – St. Pete Run Fest
I was extremely nervous about this race, not knowing what to expect from the experience. I trained hard and felt ready, but I was unprepared for the number of people I would be running alongside. Up until this point, I’d only raced in 5ks, and here I was, jumping into the deep end and running in a half marathon.
Packet Pick Up & Parking
Packet Pick Up was not an easy in-and-out process. Downtown St. Pete was teeming with people attending the farmers market, visiting the pier, and road closures from the Saturday races. I wanted to run in, pick up my packet, and be on my way. Instead, I made the most of the half-mile walk from the parking garage to the Dali Museum by joining the crowds swirling around the popup tents selling crafts and homemade soaps.
Once I arrived to packet pick up, it was a quick transaction. I showed my ID and received my bib, shirt, and stacks of promotional ads and coupons. Saturday was one of many days to pick up the race packet. Day-of-race pick-up was available, but it eased my mind to see where I was supposed to go before race day.
Parking on race day was only slightly better than the day before. There was a $10 parking lot open next to the event. However, it was cash only, and it filled up quickly. I joined a line of circling cars that eventually parked on a street that would become a part of the race course. My mentality was that getting a ticket would be the same as paying for parking. Thankfully this didn’t happen. As my group of parking buddies waited to cross the street, a police officer assured us our cars were safe from a parking ticket, but we would not be able to leave if the race course was still active.
The start and finish line happens in front of the Dali Museum. Other than a few small bridges, the racecourse was mostly flat. The course is circular, leading racers through neighborhoods and popular streets with restaurants and bars. I found out after the race that some of the bars were passing out snacks and jello shots. Being my first race, I was too focused to notice, but if you run at a more leisurely pace, this only adds to the experience.
Toward the end of the race, around mile 9, volunteers passed out GU fueling gels and water. There weren’t water stations at every mile marker (more like every other mile); each provided Gatorade and water. I did stop at a few stations for Gatorade after I ran out of water from my water bottle. A unique feature of the water stations I hadn’t seen from a race before was the use of silicone cups. Instead of the traditional paper cups that litter the roadways, large barrels collected the silicone cups to be washed and reused.
Post Run Party
I won’t keep you guessing which race had the best post-race party. It was this one. St. Pete Run Fest considered everything to celebrate the runners after the race. Starting with crossing the finish line, A volunteer immediately wrapped an ice-cold towel and my medal around my neck. I was then handed a banana and a bottle of water before walking to the park, where the vendors welcomed finishers with pizza and cold beer.
There was a station passing out slices of pizza (which I inheld), a beer tent where racers redeemed their tickets for two free beers, and a tent where vendors gave away swag bags filled with drinks, protein powder, and energy gels. A wine-tasting station also provided chilled and refreshing wines from a local winery.
After a lap around the park, eating and drinking, I stopped by the free massage tent to have a massage therapist stretch my legs to prevent post-race soreness. I felt like blood was reintroduced to the muscles in my lower legs. The tent also had NormaTec Compression Cuffs for your legs to squeeze out any lactic acid build-up in the muscles. I could have stayed in the compression cuffs for an hour. It felt like a thousand tiny hands putting pressure on every leg muscle. Access to the massage tent made running 13 miles completely worth it.
By the time if left St. Pete Run Fest, I was sufficiently fed, hydrated, stretched, and entertained. I felt better leaving the half marathon than coming into the race. St. Pete Run Fest set the bar high for the other upcoming races in this three-part series.
The Beach – St. Pete Beach Classic
St.Pete Beach Classic advertised a party on the beach. However, I failed to find where they hosted this “party.” The only party I could find was a crowd of runners huddled together in the merchandise tent to stay out of the freezing January wind before the race began.
Packet Pick Up & Parking
Packet pick-up was open two days before the half marathon. I drove to the Sirata Hotel at 7:00 am the day before the St. Pete Beach Classic to pick up my packet. Cones for the mornings 5k and 10k were put into place, causing traffic to stop while the police redirected traffic. The Gate guard at the Sirate was rightfully upset at the number of cars trying to access the hotel’s postage stamp of a parking lot. I was hastily redirected back to the street to find parking elsewhere. The combination of Saturday racers and people picking up packets was a swirl of fish in an entirely too-small aquarium.
Once I did park, packet pick-up was nothing special. A small tent sold running gear, and a local coffee vendor passed coffee to the morning racers. I saw my future as a large group of racers huddled in this tent to stay out of the wind. Cozy in my puffer jacket, I knew on race day, I would have a lot less clothing on, and I prayed the wind would die down before then.
Parking on the day of the race was much more manageable. The race host sent an email with several approved parking lots for race day. Surprisingly parking closest to the Sirata Hotel wasn’t filled when I arrived. Like ripping off a Band-Aid, I soaked in the last few moments from the warmth of my car and plunged into the humid Florida winter.
The weather did not calm down for race day; in fact, it got colder. I dressed in running shorts and a long-sleeved, dry-fit shirt; my teeth chattered as I scrapped ice off my windshield before leaving for the race. As predicted, I huddled in the vendor tent until we were ushered to the starting line. Once at the starting line corral, I centered myself in the middle of the pack adsorbing the heat from the people around me and using them as a shield to block the wind.
St. Pete Beach Classic is the smallest race of the series. A few hundred people raced in the half marathon. Once the race started, the pack thinned out much sooner than I experienced during St. Pete Run Fest. St. Pete Beach Classic is the flattest and easiest to run out of the three courses. The scenery starts along the beach, running past the historic Don Cesar and through neighborhoods (where residents set up jello shots at mile 6 and mimosas at mile 10). The major of the race takes place along the busy Gulf Blvd. This limits the time racers can spend running the race. After the three-hour mark, the roads would return to traffic, and racers would have to complete the run on the sidewalk.
Post Run Party
The post-race party for the St. Pete Beach Classic was anything but fun. After receiving my medal, I followed the other racers to the tent towards the back of the hotel. Being an inexperienced runner, I thought all post-race parties would be as eventful as St. Pete Run Fest. I was very wrong.
The post-race “party” consisted of a scoop of black beans and rice, water, and a selection of granola bars. There was beer offered to the racers, but it was too cold and windy for me to partake. I was in the mood for a warm cup of coffee; however, my dreams were quickly dashed as I rocked four empty containers around at the coffee station. When I asked a volunteer if there would be more on the way out, I was told in a very frustrated tone, “there would be no more coffee; the race only bought what was out!” I was cold and wet from sweat, and the last thing I needed was sass from a volunteer, so I left before the other racers caught wind that there would be no more coffee, and a riot broke out.
*It’s important to note I did not see anyone at this race receiving the challenge medal for completing the Burg to Beach to Bayshore Challenge. It wouldn’t be until after the Gasparilla half marathon that I would find out the races must be completed in the order of Bayshore (Gasparilla), Burg (St. Pete Run Fest), and the Beach (St. Pete Beach Classic). After searching the website, these instructions were posted at the bottom. An oversight on my part, but a part of me was disappointed the challenge didn’t follow the naming convention.
Bayshore – Gasparilla Distance Classic
Packet Pick Up & Parking
The Gasparilla Distance Classic has been a staple of the months-long celebrations of Tampa’s pirate invasion for 45 years. Communication from the race organizers and directions for packet pick-up was seamless. There was no guesswork involved from start to crossing the finish line.
The Tampa Convention Center was central to making packet pick-up easy. Friday and Saturday before the Half Marathon, racers could attend the health fair, where vendors and local health companies set up booths. Race volunteers set up along the wall in stations divided by race numbers. An email with my race number was sent the week before. I showed the volunteer my ID and email to receive my bib. The bib booth did not pass out race shirts at the same location. Race shirts were then divided into a women’s and men’s section at another location. These race shirt booths were further divided by race (5k, 8k, & Half Marathon). Over 20,000 racers participate in one or more of the weekend races. Separating the bib and t-shirt pick-up not only forces the racers to weaving through the vendors but keeps long lines from snaking around the perimeter of the building.
There was plenty of parking on the day of the race. Downtown Tampa has plenty of parking garages to choose from. The Convention Center Garage is the closest and most convent to the starting line. Out of fear that everyone would be parking at the Convention Center, I parked at the Fort Brooke Garage a few blocks away. A flat rate of $10 to park for the entire day allowed me to warm up my legs as I made my way to the racer corrals.
Racers were separated into two waves; finishers under two hours and finishers over two hours. I stuck by the pacer with the 2:15:00 sign. As long as she was behind me, I knew I would be on track for a new personal record. Between waves, there was a five minutes delay. The mile markers along the course displayed the first wave’s start time. I’m embarrassed to say it took me a mile or so to determine why the mile marker time drastically differed from the Garmin Watch.
Besides running over the bridge into and out of Davis Island, the course was mostly flat. The first five miles were around Davis Island and then up and back down Bayshore Blvd. Out of the three challenge races, this course had the largest groups of spectators cheering along the route. Jugglers, musicians, DJs, and Davis Island residents all came out to motivate the racers. Water stations were also posted at every mile marker. Volunteers held out their arms as if they were feeding lions at the zoo, hoping a passing runner wouldn’t rip their arms off.
A feature different from other races was using a text message system that updated friends and family on your progress along the course. My mom could see my start, the halfway point, and the finish time. This was a massive motivation for me to push harder. I felt a surge of energy when I received a text mid-race from my mom, cheering me on from her couch.
Post Run Party
We all know now of my disappointment in not receiving the challenge medal at the end of this race. After confirming on the Burg to Beach to Bayshore Challenge website that I had run the races out of order, I decided not to let it ruin my post-race party.
With a banana, fruit cup, and my new finisher’s medal in hand, I set out to look for the post-race food. Unlike previous races, Gasparilla set up two locations for the post-race part. The Columbia Restaurant catered for the event, providing their famous 1905 salad, black beans and rice, and fresh Cuban bread. The food was between the Sail Pavilion and the Convention Center, far away from Tony Jannus Park, where the band and beer tents were set up. Logistically, I understand why it was set up this way. The noise from the band would have been too loud, echoing off the downtown buildings, and neither area had the space to hold the thousands of people that would crowd into these areas.
Tony Jannus Park is closer to the finish line. Here, racers cashed in their beer ticket and listened to the band playing popular country songs from the early 2000s. There weren’t any post-race activities at the park other than enjoying the perfect Florida weather during this time of year. The backdrop of the city skyline and the Hillsborough river calmly flowing by made for a calming post-race experience.
I hope this race review was helpful in deciding which Tampa Bay races to participate in the future. Have you have a similar experiences? Let me know about it in the comments below!
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