Tuesday, February 7, 2012

2012 RNR New Orleans Marathon: Preview

Louisiana is steeped in traditions and heritage, and accepting change is something we sometimes do begrudgingly. As a runner, one tradition that we have come to love is the annual return of the Mardi Gras Marathon. I think anyone who has participated in the spectacle can agree, the race has become a 26.2 (or 13.1) mile showcase of the best the city of New Orleans has to offer.

For many years, the New Orleans Track Club put on the event with full, half, and 5K distance options that locals and visitors enjoyed alike. I had the privilege of making this my second full marathon in 2009 (the final year that NOTC put it on exclusively), and I can say it was certainly a Big-Town Race with a Small-Town Feel. It was a well executed event, and made for a great first marathon experience on home-town turf.

In 2010 the Mardi Gras Marathon was turned over to the Competitor Group and was included in the quickly sprawling Rock’n’Roll Marathon Series. I can assume from an outsider’s perspective that this was done for a number of reasons, including the ever important financial viability and competitive growth against other big-city events. Unfortunately, with growth comes some sacrifice. The 2012 edition, during the first weekend of March, brings the most drastic change to the race to date. It’s now Rock’n’Roll New Orleans, and lacks the Mardi Gras motif. I’m guessing many visitors came to town wanting to see a parade, and were aghast to find out the moving target date of the event was intended to steer clear of actual parade season. Now when you yell “throw me something,” it’d better be a GU.

Course changes were also among the most notable when Competitor took the reins of the Mardi Gras … ummmmm, Rock’n’Roll New Orleans Marathon. While it still stays true to the overall scope of the route I ran in 2009, there are several distinct differences that make me apprehensive about the 2012 version. A quick overview of this year’s course immediately shows a new starting point on Poydras Street in Downtown New Orleans’ Central Business District, followed by a quick jaunt through office buildings to St. Charles Avenue that is a 3.5 mile (7 total) out-and-back through the Garden District. Visitors will enjoy seeing the majestic oak trees of the avenue with the grand houses of the New Orleans elite; however, as a local, I will miss the old starting line on Tchoupitoulas at Mardi Gras World. This launching point gave access to the interesting scenery of Magazine Street shops, the modest and historical houses of Prytania, and the eventual loop around Audubon Park that led back to St. Charles Avenue on a return trip to downtown. The complete omission of Audubon Park is probably the hardest for me to swallow, considering the beauty of the golf course, a glimpse of our world-class zoo, and the glass-smooth asphalt of track that was a nice break from New Orleans city streets. The new course along St. Charles will be great for spectators, allowing for supporters to see their runners twice in the first leg of their journey.

Runners leave the Uptown area around mile 8 of this new course, enter the warehouse district and the business heart of the city before transporting back in time with the antebellum architecture of the French Quarter. To this day, running up Decatur Street is a highlight of my marathon season. Passing Jax Brewery and St. Louis Cathedral, the oldest cathedral in North America, is second only to passing the drunken college students who extended their prior night’s party on Bourbon Street to cheer on the runners. The history lesson tapers as runners turn on to Esplanade Avenue for a straight ahead to New Orleans City Park. The stretch along Esplanade is again very residential, but runners can look forward to the French Quarter’s eclectic residents coming out to support the masses.

The entrance to the park at the conclusion of Esplanade Avenue is where runners become endurance athletes. Half-marathoners head directly in to the park for their grand finish, while full runners take a hard left and run the perimeter of the grassy space to start an additional 13.1 miles. City Park is the sixth largest urban public park in the country and houses the largest collection of live oak trees that date back over six-hundred years. Unfortunately, only a small part of the perimeter of the course is shaded by these trees. The marathon route touches tennis courts, a golf course, dog park, and walking / bike path that leave foliage sparse. On the backside of the park, runners cross over a levee on to the Lake Potchartrain shore. A newly extended 6 mile loop on the shoreline starting at mile 16 is very daunting to me as a local, as I know that it is hot asphalt without any shade, all during the last stretch of my race. The glare off the water will be grueling, so sunscreen and protective eyewear is highly advised due to this span alone. However, once this stretch is complete, it’s a quick 4 mile return trip back down the same stretch around the park to join up with the half-marathoners once more for a dramatic and exciting finish behind the New Orleans Museum of Art in the heart of City Park.

The new course, while still touching the best of the Big Easy, is something I will have to experience in its entirety to judge. I’ve run all parts of it at one time or another, but never consecutively. It is sure to be fast and flat, and the elite runners always have a chance at breaking records … assuming they avoid breaking bones by falling in to notorious New Orleans potholes. But weather and temperatures will play a big role in how recreational runners finish. Should March 4th be a sunny warm New Orleans spring day, full-marathoners who will be on the un-shaded segments of the course past four or five hours will certainly feel the burn. The best bet is to come to New Orleans prepared for the weather conditions, and once on the course stay ever vigilant about hydration. Be sure to enjoy plenty Cytomax, which is always present on-course at Rock’n’Roll Races. (For those of you are unaware, it’s the sugary sweet carb-laden drink that is a sponsor of the race series.) If you’re used to a certain beverage while training, bring your own to carry en route to the finish.

I may be partial because of my affinity for the location, but the 2012 Rock’n’Roll New Orleans Marathon is sure to be a great experience for all participants. The course is very spectator-friendly, where friends and family can show their support multiple times throughout the journey … and still easily access the finish to join in the post-race celebration. As an added bonus, I personally can’t wait to get my hands on the finisher medal commemorating the achievement (kudos to the race director on a great 2012 design). Best of luck to all competitors, and Laissez Les Bon Temps ... Run!