After traveling to Washington, DC, Oklahoma City, and Anchorage, Alaska for races this year, I decided that Virginia would be a good destination for my next one, and I found the perfect race for it – the Rock n Roll Virginia Beach Half Marathon, which is another race in the Rock n Roll Marathon Series from Competitor Group. This was the thirteenth year for this race, which is held every Labor Day weekend and is known for it’s nice scenic, flat, fast course but also for the nearly unbearable heat and humidity on race day. This race definitely lived up to all of those things….
Getting There / Where to Stay
Virginia Beach doesn’t have its own airport so if you’re planning on doing this race, your best bet is to fly into Norfolk, which is no biggie – it’s only a 20 minute drive from the Norfolk Airport to the beach and for as many times as I drove back and forth throughout the weekend, I didn’t run into any traffic once. As far as where to stay, you have a few choices – stay at a hotel in Virginia Beach along the oceanfront (more expensive, but walking distance from the beach and all of the race events) or stay in Norfolk (cheaper and only a 20 minute drive). I chose to stay in Norfolk, mainly to save on expenses. This had its pluses and minuses – on the plus side, like I said, you can save a lot of money on your hotel room and parking is surprisingly cheap – parking at the convention center for the race expo and Mile on the Sand Race on Saturday is free and there are lots less than a block away from the beach that are only $20 for an entire day. On race day, there’s also free parking at the Virginia Beach Amphitheater with free shuttles to and from the start and finish line (although in a little bit, I’ll get into why I wouldn’t recommend this).
The race expo is at the Virginia Beach Convention Center and it’s open on Friday and Saturday. For obvious reasons, Friday is the least busy of the two days and if you’re planning on doing the Mile on the Sand Race on Saturday morning, it’s the best time to go and get your race number. The expo was fairly typical for Rock n Roll races. It was laid out pretty nicely with race number / t-shirt /goodie bag pick up at the beginning, a section with official race merchandise, and then several rows of vendors with product samples or information about other upcoming races and also a guest speaker or two (This year it was Frank Shorter).
Mile on the Sand
I wrote another post about the Mile on the Sand Remix Challenge that was held on Saturday morning so I won’t say much more about that here other than to just mention that it was a lot of fun. If you haven’t run on sand before (or even if you have) and you’re planning on doing the Virginia Beach Half Marathon, make sure you sign up for the Mile on the Sand race as well. It’s definitely a unique experience and you not only get a finisher’s medal for doing it, but you also get an extra medal for doing both races.
The half marathon starts at the convention center at 7am on Sunday morning and the finish line is on the beach boardwalk. Everything around the start line was laid out pretty nicely as far as the locations of restrooms, gear check, corrals etc… The only real issue is parking – you can park at the convention center if you get there early enough, but there are about 15,000 people who sign up for the half marathon so parking there is limited since the race organizers need the space in the lots for the rest of the start line activities. The convention center is also about a mile and a half from the finish line, so if you park there you’ll have a pretty long hike back to your car after the race. So unless you stayed at one of the hotels alongside the beach, your other options for parking are to either pay to park in one of the beach lots or park at the Virginia Beach Amphitheater for free and take a shuttle bus to the start and finish lines. I would strongly recommend just paying to park in one of the beach lots. Yeah it’ll cost you 20 bucks, but the problem with parking at the amphitheater is that the normal route that the shuttle buses would take to the start and finish lines is blocked for the race, which forces the bus drivers to take alternate routes that ultimately turn a drive that should take less than 10 minutes into a half hour. So in the morning, you have to get up 45 minutes earlier than you normally would have to make sure you get to the amphitheater on time to park and catch the shuttle bus and then after the race, you have to sit on a smelly bus full of sweaty runners for a half hour to get back to your car (which in my case was made worse by the fact that after the race, my shuttle bus driver forgot what the alternate route was supposed to be and got lost, adding an extra 10 minutes onto what was already a bus ride from hell). So if you’re not staying on the beach, take my advice and find a lot that’s walking distance from the finish line and just fork over the money to park there and use the mile or so walk to the start line as your prerace warm up – you’ll thank me for it.
The race itself was amazing though – like I said, it was extremely hot and humid (by 6:30am people were already starting to sweat just from standing around the start corrals)…. but I have to give kudos to the race organizers for recognizing that the conditions were going to be rough and planning accordingly. There were plenty of water tables throughout the course, none of which were ever out of water or Gatorade, and there were also extra medical tents and buses at various spots along the course with air conditioning for any runners who needed to stop for a few minutes and go inside and cool off. There were also misting tents at various spots and some of the locals who have houses alongside the course and came out to watch the race set up their sprinklers for people to run through and handed out freeze pops as well. So to their credit, I really do think that the race organizers and volunteers did everything they could to make this race as comfortable as possible for the runners. The only thing I would have liked to see changed was that the start time could have been moved up by about a half hour. For as humid as it was, it was also overcast for most of the morning and the weather didn’t start to become unbearable until the sun came out from behind the clouds a couple hours later when the majority of the runners only had a couple more miles to go.
Aside from the heat though, like I mentioned earlier, the course itself was amazing – other than a really steep incline at mile 3 1/2 and 11 1/2 (it was the same overpass that the course crosses over in both directions), the course was remarkably flat. For the first few miles, it heads from the convention center down to Atlantic Avenue and offers a some pretty nice views of the other side of the boardwalk. Mile 4 goes through some pretty nice neighborhoods with tree lined streets where runners get a lot of crowd support, miles 5, 6 and 7 go through some wooded areas (which is nice because the trees provide a lot of shade), and miles 8 and 9 are a little more open and then mile 10 through 12 go back through the same neighborhoods from earlier and back towards the beach. The last 3/4 mile or so is probably the most scenic part of the course because it goes straight up the boardwalk alongside the ocean.
To give you an idea of how flat and fast this course is, at about mile 6, I noticed that I had been running almost 2 minutes per mile faster than my average pace in the last several races I’ve done. Part of that was due to the fact that I’ve been doing a lot of extra speed work for the last couple months and I’m starting to see the results of it, which is great, but the fact that despite all of the heat and humidity, I didn’t even notice how fast I was running until I checked my GPS and then had to make myself slow down because I knew the temperature was starting to climb pretty fast and I needed to save some energy for the end of the race really does go to show how fast the course itself is. If I were to this same course in the late fall when the temps were in the 50’s, I would easily get a PR (but it would also be too cold to go swimming in the ocean afterwards so that would have taken some of the fun out of it).
The entertainment on the course was also really good. There were 14 different local bands playing a variety of different types of music and they were set up perfectly so that as soon as one band got to be out of earshot, you would start hearing the next one.
The finish line is right alongside the ocean next to the Virginia Beach Pier. There are tons of volunteers giving away food and drinks along with cooling fans and popsicles…. but the best part about finishing alongside the ocean was that after crossing the finish line, the best way to cool off was to just take a short walk across the beach and hop into the water. There was a post race concert alongside the beach and besides the race, there’s also a big music fest in Virginia Beach the same weekend, so runners could go back to their hotels and get cleaned up and go back out and listen to more music for the rest of the evening if they wanted to. Like I said, despite the heat and humidity, the race organizers really put together an excellent event and I would definitely recommend this race to anyone.
Other Things to do and Places to Eat
Aside from the race related activities, here are a few other things to check out in Virginia Beach and Norfolk –
For food, make sure to get some fish tacos at the Abbey Road Pub on Atlantic Avenue. Besides great food, they also have over 200 unique pieces of Beatles memorabilia to walk around the restaurant and check out for anyone who’s a Beatles fan… but even if you aren’t, everything is laid out in a way that’s subtle enough that you can still enjoy the atmosphere without feeling overwhelmed by it and the food is delicious.
You should also try the she-crab soup at Hell’s Kitchen in Downtown Norfolk and after the race, 219 Bistro on Granby Street has a great brunch menu complete with a make your own Bloody Mary bar and three different types of mimosas.
My other recommendation is this – obviously the beach is the biggest attraction and probably most people’s reason for going there in the first place (which I totally agree with – I can’t say enough about how beautiful Virginia Beach is)…. but don’t forget about some of the other things in the area as well. There’s Williamsburg, which has a ton of history dating back to the colonial days and there’s also the Naval Museum, Armed Forces Memorial and USS Wisconsin in Norfolk, which like I mentioned earlier, is only about 20 minutes away.
So just to summarize (since I know this was a super long post), if you haven’t done the Rock n Roll Virginia Beach Half Marathon before, you should definitely check it out. Be ready for the heat and humidity but also be ready for a really well organized race and a great overall experience.