Flashback Review: Celebrate Life Half Marathon, Rock Hill, NY

This is a flashback review of the first time I participated in the Celebrate Life Half Marathon in Rock Hill, NY.  I'll be doing this race for the third time in 2015.

It wouldn't be me if I didn't have some minor obstacles to work around before headed to this race.  Daylight savings time... a black toenail... and a two-hour drive to an 8:30 start?  Bring it.

Fortunately about everything that could go screwy happened to me before the race this time.  Woo! I had never changed the time on my watch last October because, well, I can't figure out how to, so I wasn't too worried about the alarm going off an hour late with the time change.  I had passed out pretty early the night before at a friend's house in CT, so I woke up well-rested.  With a bandaid on my new blueberry-colored toenail and my bags packed, I headed up to Rock Hill, NY. 

I chose this race for several reasons.  One was the cause-- 100% of the race proceeds goes to CROC, Citizens to Overcome Cancer, an organization that cancer patients in their region.  Awesome.  Second, this was a smaller race (500-600 people max) in a more rural area of New York, so based on the photos on their website and the location I knew it would be a very scenic race with some quiet roads.  

Third, this race is extremely friendly to the average and slower athletes.  It has three starts: an 8:30 am start for walkers, a 9:30 am start for slower runners, and a 10:00 am regular start for the rest of the pack.  The race directors did this to give everyone a chance to finish around the same time so that everyone had access to the food.  Fourth-- a $32.00 race fee, that gets me food, a goody bag, AND a race windbreaker?  Amazing.  And there's more to be discovered on the course.  

I-84 before sunrise.

I arrived before check-in started, staking out a great parking spot right next to the lodge entrance.  I rechecked the weather forecast, which in the past week had been everything from snow and rain to sunny to cloudy to "hey just look outside when you get there."  Fortunately I always bring about 30 race shirts just for this reason.  I went with a multi-layer approach that helped as the weather rotated from sunny to cloudy throughout the race. 

Check-in was quick and painless.  I stuffed down my last banana and hit the bathroom before going outside to line up. 

I had read a lot of reviews on the course that said it was very hilly and make sure you train for hills.  I'd been walking in Roger Williams Park in Providence, which has rolling hills, and setting the incline on the gym treadmill at 12 to 15 to try and get ready for this one.  You figure the word "hill" in the name of the town would have tipped me off to something.

Reading the Course Elevation Maps

The race directors had this elevation chart on their website.

What the elevation chart looks like when you sign up.

What it looks like during the race.

Mile One and Beyond

The race starts on a flat area, goes up a slight incline, turns the corner... and there it stands before you... the first hill.

Remember the Mountain Climber from The Price Is Right?  I had that yodeling song in my head going up the first mega hill to hit mile one.  The first mile marker wasn't even on the hill; it was partway up the hill. 

At the first mile marker you saw one of the other things that make this race unique.  The race directors raffle a prize off at each mile, and there's a sign with the winner's name and the prize.  Fun!

Just past the first brutal hill into mile two were rows of signs with people's names.  Race participants can submit a name of someone they're racing in memory of or in honor of.  Those rows and rows of names help you put that last hill in perspective.  We would see them again later as we approached the last decent to the finish.  What a great tribute to those who have battled cancer. 

The race pack spread out pretty quickly as we made our way into mile three and four.  Our route took us around Wolf Lake, a private late with lots of lake houses and unique cabins. 

People listening to their music really missed something on this course.  They missed stretches of beautiful silence, with just the sound of the trees swaying in the wind.  They missed the sounds of rippling water from nearby streams and snow melt runoff as it moved quickly across stones.  They probably missed two or three sections of rapids or mini-waterfalls.  


The course had several small rolling hills, some quick but steep hills, some not steep but long hills, some angled hills, and some flat sections in between.  The course was definitely interesting, keeping your mind and your muscles awake.  For a hilly course I'd say this was one of the fastest courses I've done. 

There were little to no spectators on the course, other than the race volunteers and occasional local walking a dog.  But that was actually perfect for this race.  This was the ultimate mental meditation race, not only to psych yourself up for the hills, but to realize how special and beautiful the area was.

The second half of the race is mostly flat or downhill, with a couple of mini uphills (compared to what you've already done).  The big finish goes down hill to a finish line with family members, friends and volunteers cheering you on.  And they cheered for EVERYONE.

For a race that focuses on celebrating life and helping people with cancer, you can imagine that the race draws participants that are very courteous, friendly and giving.  And they were.  Each time we passed other packs of people on the race (the later starters will pass the early starters coming back), everyone was super-friendly, waving and smiling.  This was the kind of race where total strangers welcomed you at their table to join them in the post-race food. 

Post-Race Wrap-up

I saw the race directors as I headed into the lodge for the post-race food. They had on the very same smiles I saw on their faces at 7:30 in the morning and they were just as kind and friendly.  I hope they're proud of what they accomplished again. 

The level of detail these race directors put into this event is amazing:

1) goody bags with really unique stuff (notepad, rice, steak seasoning sample, dried prunes, health drink shaker bottle)

2) prizes and awards for runners- finishers and age groups, plus separate finisher awards for walkers,  PLUS awards for cancer survivor finish places

3) a wonderful post-race meal catered by Outback Steakhouse, with bread, rice, pasta, and steak or chicken.  Their staff controlled the serving of the food, so no one could really take too much food.

4) Beer (darn four hour ride home! I had to pass)

5) A windbreaker (a nice change from another tech shirt)

6) A race start, finish and parking that were literally a half mile from the highway

7) Amazingly wonderful and pleasant volunteers

8) Well-placed water stops with gatorade and water, plus a gel stop

9) Finish line cheering crowd that cheered for EVERYONE.

For such a hilly and demanding course, I have to say I felt really great after the finish and had no soreness, and I actually felt a sadness leaving it, and the strong temptation to come back next year.  I think the race directors put something in the food.

My thanks to the race directors, who in just eight years have a race so well run and well organized that I'd like some other race directors/companies to attend to see how they do it.  This race was proof that you can put on a really well organized race that's fair to all the participants and benefits a great cause without insane race fees.  Bravo!

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