I’ve always wanted to do a race on my birthday, so when I saw that the 2012 Rock n Roll New Orleans Half Marathon was scheduled to be held on March 4th, I signed up immediately. The chance to run on my birthday and have the race be in New Orleans? Yes please.
This was not my first trip to New Orleans and I’ve always had fond memories of the city. I went there for a business trip in 2003 where I was doing software demos at a trade show that happened to be held during the week before Mardi Gras…. and the hotel I stayed at was right on the corner of Bourbon Street and Canal Street. I was in my 20s at the time so naturally I spent plenty of time hitting up all the bars on Bourbon Street when I wasn’t working. I also spent a little time at the Riverwalk and the Aquarium and was sad to see them both get destroyed when Hurricane Katrina hit the city the following year. I hadn’t been back to New Orleans since Katrina and I had heard that there were some parts of the city that were still struggling almost 10 years later so I wasn’t really sure what it was going to be like to go back…. but the race and the city both exceeded my expectations.
Rock n Roll New Orleans is actually an older race than a lot of people outside of New Orleans might realize. It was originally an independent race called the Mardi Gras Marathon that was hosted by the New Orleans Track team until Competitor Group took it over in 2010 and added it to their Rock n Roll Marathon series. Competitor group helped to make the race a lot more popular and brought in a few changes as far as the organization goes, but the overall theme of the original race is still the same. The race is scheduled to coincide roughly with Mardi Gras each year (it’s held two weekends before Fat Tuesday – holding it a week later would be tough for street closures since that would be right in the middle of all the Mardi Gras celebrations), and the entire race is Mardi Gras themed and gives runners a pretty good feel for New Orleans.
Getting there / Where to Stay
Here’s a travel tip in case you’re ever planning on flying into New Orleans (anytime, not just for the race): Before you book your flight, check to see how much it would cost to fly into Baton Rouge instead. Baton Rouge is a little over an hour north of New Orleans and renting a car and commuting between the two cities is really easy (it’s a straight shot down I-10 which includes a pretty long stretch across Lake Pontchartrain so the drive is nice and scenic too).
Flights in and out of Baton Rouge are typically hundreds of dollars cheaper than flights into New Orleans. In fact, to give you an idea of exactly how much cheaper: after the race I was driving behind a truck on my way back to the airport and a rock flew up and cracked the windshield on my rental car. This was unfortunate, but even with the extra 200 bucks I had to shell out to get the windshield fixed, I still ended up spending less money on travel expenses than I would have spent if I had flown directly into New Orleans. So do yourself a favor and take a look at the fare differences when you’re ready to start planning your trip.
As far as hotels go, it’s fairly easy to find a place to stay in New Orleans. The Mississippi River runs through the city and hotels to the west of the river tend to be a little bit cheaper than the ones on the East Side but they aren’t as close to all of the attractions within the city and getting across the bridge that goes over the river can take some time when traffic builds up during rush hour (and on race morning as well – something to keep in mind). I stayed at the Holiday Inn New Orleans West Bank Tower in Gretna which is on the west side of the river and I was happy with the hotel overall. I thought that the building and the rooms were really nice for the price I paid. I’ve also stayed at hotels that are right along Bourbon Street in the past too though, and even though they were a bit pricey, they were also walking distance from a lot of the restaurants and bars in the city. So where you stay really is a matter of preference – less money vs more convenient.
Race Expo and Organization
The expo is fairly typical for a Rock n Roll race – big with a lot of vendors offering free samples of sports drinks, info about other races, gear for sale, etc…. The process is almost always the same: sign your waiver, find your name among the thousands of participant names that are listed out on several sheets of paper and stapled to a big board outside the expo entrance to figure out your race number, walk inside and get in line to pick up your bib, and then grab a goodie bag (which also doubles as a gear check bag), a t-shirt, and help yourself to some free samples of sun block and biofreeze before walking through the merchandise area and then heading out to check out the other vendors.
The start line is divided up into several corrals that leave about 90 seconds apart. There were plenty of signs at the start line to let runners know where to go for gear check, porta-potties, and how to find their corrals. The mile markers along the course were easily visible, and there wasn’t any difficulty figuring out when to turn and where the full marathon course split off. The finisher’s corral was also pretty typical: cross the finish line, get your medal, take an official race photo and grab some snacks before heading out of the corral to pick up your gear, meet up with your friends and family and grab a beer or a bite to eat.
Everything seemed to go off without a hitch – a lot of Rock n Roll Marathons can seem a bit cookie cutter at times, but the folks at Competitor Group do tend to do a pretty good job when it comes to organizing their races.
If you take a quick glance at the elevation chart for this course, you might think that it’s super hilly… until you look at the scale and realize that the total net gain of about is only about 10 feet. All the up and down lines in the elevation chart are more like bumps than hills – this course is extremely flat and fast. The biggest hill is between mile 7 and 9 when the elevation goes from three feet above sea level to eleven.
The course has kind of an odd shape. It starts near Lafyette Square in downtown New Orleans, heads down Poydras Street, turns a couple times and then hits the first mile marker right around Lee Circle. From there mile 2 through 8 are pretty much an out and back course with a turnaround at Audobon Park in between miles 4 and 5. This part of the course goes through some of the older neighborhoods in New Orleans and runners get to see a few historical markers along with a number of old Antebellum style homes. After mile 8, the course heads back past the starting area and veers off towards the Mississippi River. The next couple miles go along the river and through part of the French Quarter before making a sharp turn at Mile 10 and finishing with a 3.1 mile run down Esplanade Avenue towards the finish line which is in front of the Museum of Art in the New Orleans City Park.
This race has a good amount of crowd support, especially in the residential areas. Typical of New Orleans, a lot of spectators toss beads to the runners or hand them out. A funny thing that I noticed while I was running were the number of beads hanging from tree branches in peoples’ front yards. Since this race is held before Fat Tuesday, there haven’t been any Mardi Gras parades yet so any beads that were there at the time had to have been left over from the parades of previous years. I guess some strands of beads get thrown so high up that they end up getting stuck on the higher tree branches forever (or at least until the tree gets pruned). Anyway, that was just one of those little things I noticed that kept me amused while I was running.
Aside from the spectators, there’s also plenty of live music along the course – all local bands, and a nice variety of different genres. Even in the spots where there weren’t a lot of spectators, there always seemed to be music to keep the runners pumped.
Rock n Roll Marathons tend to have pretty nice finishers medals that are decent sized, sold, and have some type of design on them that represents the city where the race is being held. This one is no different. Even though the race isn’t officially called the Mardi Gras Marathon anymore, it still has a Mardi Gras theme which the medals are always made to coincide with. In 2012, the medal was round with a fleur de lis in the middle and traditional Mardi Gras Colors (Purple, Green, and Gold). It was also hung on a strand of beads as opposed to the traditional neckband that most race medals have. It’s definitely one of my cooler looking race medals.
The finish line of the race is in New Orleans City Park, which is quite large so it’s also home to a fairly big post race party. There’s plenty of food, water, and beer available and some good live music as well.
The start and finish lines are in different locations so runners park at the start line and then take shuttle buses back to the start line after the race. There were plenty of shuttle buses available and there wasn’t a very long wait to get on them but the only thing that I would probably change about the way the post race festivities were organized is that the buses were pretty far from the actual finish line and the path to get to them wasn’t very well marked (that also could have just been a case of me not paying close enough attention too though). Once I finally made it to the shuttle bus though, it was a pretty short ride back to my car.
Getting Around New Orleans
When most people think about New Orleans, the first thoughts that come to mind tends to be Mardi Gras and going out drinking on Bourbon Street…. And if you’re interested in going out to grab some drinks after the race, you’ll definitely want to head over to Pat O’Brien’s and grab yourself a hurricane or check out any of the other great restaurants and taverns in the area.
That being said though, there are plenty of other sites you can go to if you want to find information about Bourbon Street so I’d rather focus on some of the other cool things to check out in New Orleans.
I’ll start with the New Orleans Voodoo Museum. This is a very small (like three rooms) museum on Dumaine Street in the French Quarter that’s packed with voodoo artifacts and historical information. You can see the entire thing within about 20 minutes which makes it perfect if you’re only planning on being in town for a couple days for the race, and want to check out as many things as you can in a short amount of time. Some of the voodoo artifacts are a bit creepy but reading about the history behind them is interesting.
Sticking with the whole supernatural / afterlife theme, you also won’t want to miss the cemeteries. New Orleans cemeteries are unique compared to cemeteries in most other areas because with most of the city being at an elevation below sea level, it isn’t practical to bury people in wooden caskets underground (even the smallest flood would cause all the caskets to float up to the surface). So most of the cemeteries in New Orleans contain row after row of above ground concrete mausoleums. There are cemetery tours available where a guide will explain all of this to you, but to be honest, if you don’t want to pay for a tour, all you have to do is grab a map and pick any cemetery in or around the city and and then go take a drive through it to get the experience.
You’ll also want to head over to St. Louis Cathedral, which is one of the largest and oldest cathedrals in the United States (originally built in 1789). The cathedral is near Jackson Square in the French Quarter and regardless of whether or not you’re religious when you see it up close, you’ll marvel at how beautiful it is.
Most of the architecture in the French Quarter is very beautiful and going for a walk through the French Quarter also gives you the added bonus of never being more than a couple blocks away from a restaurant with amazing cajun food. The food is so good, in fact, that I really don’t even have any specific suggestions for restaurants since you almost can’t go wrong with any of them.
Lastly, make sure to check out Mardi Gras World. I’ll be honest – this one is a bit touristy, but taking the guided tour here is a lot of fun because it gives a behind the scenes look into how Mardi Gras floats are made along with some interesting history about New Orleans itself and what the origins of Mardi Gras are and how it came to be what it is today. If you’ve always thought of Mardi Gras as nothing more than a massive party where people drink in the streets and girls lift up their shirts in exchange for beads, you’ll definitely want to go on the tour and learn a little more about its true meaning.
This is a fun race in a beautiful city. New Orleans does still have some lingering issues since Hurricane Katrina hit, but for the most part the city has come back nicely and it’s a great place to visit. The race is well organized too and with the Mardi Gras theme, great food, and great music, I’m really having trouble thinking of any downsides to doing this one. If you’re looking for a good race to do in Louisiana, you should definitely add it to your bucket list.