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Kentucky Derby Day – Marathon Style, That Is 

David Yon, April 30, 2019

As the airplane rolled down the runway, there was a considerable amount of nervousness and struggle. My last marathon was in June of 2016 in Orono, Maine.  My training for the Kentucky Derby Marathon was not what I would have liked, but it was enough to get me to the starting line with no significant injuries and with hope that I could run fast enough to qualify for Boston 2020. 
Last year Mary Jean signed up for the half and I signed up for the full marathon, joining friends Felton Wright and Nick Yonclas, both of whom signed up for the marathon.  Injuries converted us from runners into spectators though and we joined Barbara Yonclas to get a close look at the race from the sideline.   

Logistically, this race, with both a half and full marathon, is well organized and easy on participants.  The race starts and finishes in downtown Louisville and it seems there are an adequate number of hotel rooms for runners within a short walk of the start and finish lines.  The half and the full share the same start and finish lines and participants run together for approximately 9 miles, then split after coming out of Churchill Downs.  The start and finish lines are within a few blocks of each other, making it easy to get to the start line race morning and back to the hotel after finishing.  It took me just under 2 minutes to get to the start line from my corral, but I was running the pace I wanted to shortly after crossing the line.

The race history contained on the website notes that the half-marathon race began in 1974, making this year run number 46. The full marathon debuted in 2002.  The website goes on to report “the mini-Marathon attracts more than 12,000 entrants each year and is ranked among the nation’s top 100 races by USA Track and Field. The Marathon, which debuted in 2002, draws nearly 3,000 entrants.”  I found these numbers a little surprising and perhaps overstated. 

My research suggested there were approximately 8,500 finishers in the half-marathon and 1,500 in the marathon this year. Searching all the way back to 2002, the largest number of marathon finishers was 2,093, with 1,500 much closer to the average.  Obviously, more people enter than finish one of the races, but those differences cast some doubt on the race organizers’ numbers. But the numbers were good for the logistics.  I never felt I was running alone and there were enough runners to support a nice expo.  The mad rush and crush of many big marathons was missing.

Louisville, Kentucky has an estimated 771,158 residents when counting the consolidated county area, 621,349 if limited to the pre-consolidated city limits. It is a friendly place that locals genuinely seem to like and be proud of. The Ohio River flows through the city and has been an important driver of commerce. In 2015 the river received the Environmental Protection Agency’s most unflattering title of “Most Polluted River in the Country.”  While Louisville works hard to protect and clean up its environment, the river pollutants apparently start well before the river reaches Louisville. For example, steel plants in Indiana account for a very large percentage of the Ohio River’s toxic chemicals. Mercury seems to be a problem as well.

Despite some struggles with the river, the city is home to the Kentucky Derby and Churchill Downs, the Louisville Slugger Museum and Factory, the Muhammad Ali Center (Museum), a minor league baseball team, the University of Louisville and three Fortune 500 companies, one of which is Humana, the major sponsor of the Kentucky Derby Marathon and Mini Marathon races. In general, I think it is safe to say that Louisville has an active racing schedule with another marathon on the list and a number of half marathons. 

The Kentucky Derby Festival Mini-Marathon and Marathon are part of (as the name implies) the Kentucky Derby Festival and this year preceded the famous Kentucky Derby Horse Race by one week. Among the unique opportunities created by this race is the opportunity to run through Churchill Downs.  Runners do not run on the dirt track (a good thing) but they do run on pavement through the property. 

We explored the marathon course closely last year by car.  It winds through the city taking the runners to Iroquois Park where they were challenged by some tough hills.  Runners enter the park around mile 12 and exit as they pass the 15-mile mark happy to leave the hilly park behind.  It is a good course for a fast effort but it is certainly not flat.

The crowds along the way are good and supportive, especially the last half mile or so. 

I certainly needed them as I got near the finish and, I am most thankful for the awesome guy pacing a group of runners to a 3:49 finish time.  I connected with his group late in the race and hung on as tightly as possible.  My final time was 3:48:30, good enough, most likely, to get into Boston.  MJ ran her half-marathon well, finishing strong.   As to that prerace doubt and struggle, it will make a good topic for another day.