I was fed up. I had just spent over a year putting in 80-100 hour work weeks to fix a CRM implementation at a major retail company and the complete lack of anything even remotely resembling work/life balance was finally starting to take it’s toll on me. I wanted to get away for a couple days and go for a nice laid back run somewhere that I could relax for a while, de-stress and forget about work. Luckily for me, the 2012 Mercedes Half Marathon in Birmingham, Alabama provided everything I needed to do just that.
The Mercedes Marathon is a pretty popular race. A lot of people are familiar with it because of its ultra cool looking Mercedes logo medal, but there’s actually a lot more than just the bling that makes it worth running. It’s a genuinely enjoyable race that’s well organized and held in a city that’s easy to get around in (you really don’t even need to rent a car – more on that below). It’s also run by a group of people who exemplify the southern charm that visitors from from other areas often hear about.
Getting to Birmingham
Birmingham is not a very large city (at least not to someone from Chicago), but it does have an international airport that’s fairly easy to fly into from almost anywhere. The airport is about a 10 minute drive from downtown Birmingham (which is where you’ll also find the race expo and the start and finish lines). Depending on where you stay and what you’re planning on doing while you’re in Birmingham, you probably won’t need to rent a car because most of the downtown hotels have free airport shuttles and most of the things that you’ll want to see in the city are either walking distance or a short cab ride from the hotels. I wanted my weekend to be as stress free as possible and I figured that a rental car would be one less thing to have to worry about so I didn’t get one.
Where to Stay
The race website lists two host hotels – the Sheraton and the Westin. These hotels are next door to one another and they’re both about a five minute walk from the race expo, start line, finish line, and post race party (so like I said – there’s really no need for a car if you stay at one of these hotels). I stayed at the Sheraton and I really enjoyed it, but I’m sure either hotel is fine – they both offer pretty significant discounts for runners when you book your room, make sure you mention that you’re planning on being in town for the race.
The Sheraton has a sports bar in the lobby, which was where a lot of runners ate dinner the night before the race and they also offered fruit and bagels to the runners in the lobby on race morning. Another benefit of the hotel being so close to the start line is that in 2012 the temperatures on race day were a little cooler than average (the normal highs are in the 40’s and 50’s but this particular year the high was only in the mid 20’s), so most of the runners stayed inside the hotel lobby, ate breakfast, stretched, and waited until about 10 minutes before the start of the race to head over to the start line. We all made it with plenty of time to spare.
Lastly, I didn’t even have to worry about gear check – the hotel was so close to the finish line that it was faster to just leave all my stuff in my room, leave my room key at the front desk and then go back to my room, shower, change, and then head over to the post race party after I crossed the finish line than it would have been to stand in line at gear check.
Mercedes Half Marathon Race Expo and Organization
This is probably one of the most well organized races I’ve done and all of the volunteers were amazingly friendly (southern hospitality). Even though I didn’t drive, there was plenty of parking available for anyone who did, and there are also more than enough taxis and public transportation options for anyone who doesn’t stay at one of the two host hotels.
The expo is at Boutwell Auditorium and it’s medium sized with an average number of vendors. Aside from all of the running gear and sports drink vendors, the Birmingham Track Club also had a big table where they were selling running shirts for $5 or less. I bought a long sleeve one because I needed something to wear over my regular running shirt at the start line. I originally planned on throwing it away after the start of the race but I liked it so much that I ended up keeping it.
My recommendation for this race would be to skip the full marathon and stick with the half. And the reason for that is because the full marathon course is a double loop where you essentially just do the half marathon twice. The race is a Boston qualifier though and the full marathon medals are a little bit bigger than the ones for the half (and they’re gold instead of silver) so there are some benefits to doing the full, but unless you’re specifically trying to qualify for Boston, I’m not sure if those benefits are really enough to make it worth re-running the same 13.1 mile loop twice.
The half marathon course is nice though – it passes by most of the biggest attractions in Birmingham like the Alabama School of Fine Arts, the 16th Street Baptist Church, the Civil Rights Institute, the Alabama Theater, the Five Points South District, and it also runs through the campus of UAB, and passes a number of parks with a lot of open spaces. The course is pretty hilly and there are also a couple fairly big hills – one from mile 6-8 and another from mile 9-10 (so if you do the full marathon course you have to do these twice).
Crowd support is decent. There are a lot of people who come out to the start and finish lines to cheer for the runners and there are also various spots along the course that have pretty good sized crowds as well. The parts of the course that go through some of the local neighborhoods have a number of people who come out of their houses to cheer on the runners. That being said though, there are also some “lonely” areas where you’ll run for a while without really seeing any spectators. I have a feeling that the cooler temps may have caused a few potential spectators to stay indoors the year I ran it too though.
I know that the finisher’s medal is one of the main reasons that people (myself included) sign up for the Mercedes Marathon. But one of the things I’ve been trying to do in this post is describe all of the other things that are good about the race besides just the finisher’s medal. And there are a lot of them…. but truth be told, it is a really cool looking medal. The race is sponsored by Mercedes (there’s a big Mercedes plant just outside of Birmingham) and the medal is a big Mercedes logo (gold for full marathoners and silver for half marathoners). Besides the guitar medal I got for doing the Mississippi Blues Half Marathon, this is probably the one that elicits the most comments when people look at my medal collection and it’s definitely one of my favorites.
Post Race Party
Normally I’m not a big fan of post race parties. I don’t mind sticking around for a few minutes after a race to find my friends and grab a beer or a quick bite to eat from one of the food tents with them, but for the most part, after I cross the finish line, the next thing I want to do is get outta there so I can go take a shower and change into some dry clothes. In this case though, I’d recommend not skipping the post race party. Not only is the food excellent (the party is catered by Jim N’ Nick’s BBQ) but there’s good music, a southern belle competition, and some awesome giveaways for overall winners and age group winners. For everyone else, there’s a big raffle based on race numbers (so make sure you bring your number to the party) with a big enough prize to attendee ratio that your chances of winning are going to be pretty high. I won a Kindle Fire in the raffle and that was actually one of the smaller things that they were giving away.
Getting Around Birmingham
Probably the only regret that I have about the weekend was that I didn’t stay longer and take the time to see a little more of Birmingham. I flew out on Saturday morning, picked up my race packet that afternoon, did the race on Sunday morning and then went straight from the post race party to the airport.
My general observations though were that Birmingham is a nicely sized city that’s pretty easy to find your way around in. One thing that I did have some time to check after the expo on Saturday was the civil rights district. I’d highly recommend checking this out to anyone who’s a history buff or interested in civil rights – the district is walking distance from the race expo and covers about a six block radius. You can walk around and read descriptions of all of the landmarks related to the civil rights movement and then stop by the Civil Rights Institute.
Like I mentioned earlier, with the course being a double loop, you’ll probably just want to stick with the half marathon for this one, but the overall experience was great. What’s even better was that I was able to accomplish exactly what I wanted to that weekend as far as getting away for a couple days to relieve some stress. For that reason alone I have some really fond memories of this race…. and of course you can’t beat the bling. If you’re looking for a nice laid back race to do where everything is conveniently located and doesn’t require a lot of pre-race running around along with a great post-race party, you should definitely consider this one.