Have you ever seen a race medal that’s bigger around than a dinner plate and so heavy that wearing it around your neck for any extended period of time would most likely result in a visit to your local chiropractor? Would you like to add one to your collection? Well, if you’re willing to head down to Little Rock, Arkansas and tough it out through one of the most challenging hilliest courses in the United States, you can have a medal like that for yourself. And while Little Rock isn’t necessarily known for being a major tourist destination, there are a few hidden gems around the city that history buffs or anyone who grew up during Bill Clinton’s presidency will find interesting along with a riverfront that has a number of good bars and restaurants, all of which will make spending a weekend there for a race an enjoyable experience. Read on for more.
Getting to Little Rock
The Little Rock Airport (also known as the Bill and Hillary Clinton International Airport) has direct flights to and from a number of US Cities and there are also two major Interstates that go through Little Rock (I-30 and I-40 along with a couple different loops that will take you to different areas along the outskirts of the city) so travel is pretty easy. If you’re flying in, you’ll probably want to rent a car for this one though – there are taxis and public transportation within downtown Little Rock but the public transportation seemed to be a bit sparse compared to some of the other cities I’ve done races in and the race course and hotels are far enough away from the airport that taking a taxi probably wouldn’t save you very much money.
Where to Stay
The hotels in Little Rock are a bit spread out – there some near the airport, a few that are downtown, and some others that are a little bit outside of the city. I ended up staying at the Best Western Plus JFK Inn and Suites in North Little Rock, which was a nice hotel, but I wouldn’t stay there if I were going to do the race again. The biggest reason for that being the logistics on race day. When I went to pick up my race packet, I was surprised at how close the hotel was to the expo (about a ten minute drive straight down Main Street). The problem though is that Main Street is one of the first streets to get closed off on race morning, and the rest of the streets along the course get blocked off a lot earlier than they do at most other races (more that in a bit). So unless you’re planning on leaving before 5am so you can drive five minutes to get to a race that doesn’t start until 8, the quick drive down Main Street won’t be an option for getting to the start line. Instead, you’re going to end up having to get on I-40, drive until you find an exit that’s open and probably sit in traffic for a while before you get to a parking lot (one side note here though – finding parking is no problem once you actually get downtown… it’s just getting there in the first place that can be a challenge).
If you stay at one of the host hotels that are listed on the race website, you’ll either be walking distance from the start and finish lines or you’ll have access to a hotel shuttle that can bring you to and from the race, which is a lot easier than trying to navigate the streets on race day. I should point out here that normally I like to look for other hotel deals around the city besides the ones that are listed as host hotels on the race website (in a lot of cases, you can save money that way since host hotels often offer “discounts” for runners but also raise their prices on race weekend which not only cancel the discounts out but sometimes end up costing even more). That being said though, there are some occasions where staying in one of the host hotels truly is a better deal even if it’s only for the sake of convenience and I think that the Little Rock Marathon is one of them.
Race Expo and Organization
The race expo is fairly typical for a race this size – it’s held at the Statehouse Convention Center in downtown Little Rock (near the river front) and has around 70 vendors. The race has a different theme each year and the expo, race bibs, medals, course markers, and t-shirts are all decorated accordingly. The theme when I did it was “Get Lucky in Little Rock” and the race had a Southwestern theme with horseshoe shaped medals.
There were two other notable things that I really liked about the way this race was organized:
- I got to pick whatever name I wanted to put on my race bib. I know that a lot of other races are starting to let people do this and it’s a lot more common now, but this was the first race I ran that allowed it. When I first signed up for the race, I put TOMROCKS for my name and then completely forgot about it until I picked up my bib at the expo. It made me laugh when I saw it but a lot of other runners were even more creative with their names – I saw bibs at the start line the next day that said things like “SLOWPOKE” and “STUDMUFFIN” along with a few other people who put shout-outs for causes they were running to raise money for, etc…
- An early start option. The race starts at 8:00 am and has a 6 hour time limit, but anyone who doesn’t think they can finish it within the six hours can get a special pass at the expo to start at 6:00 am instead. (This is why the roads close so early). I’ve never seen a race that did this before and I thought it was a pretty cool idea. Not everyone is a fast runner (and this is a tough course even for experienced runners), so allowing the early start gives anyone an opportunity to participate without having to make everyone get to the start line by 6:00 am.
I don’t know when (or even if) I’m ever going learn this, but signing up to run a race in a state that normally has warmer weather during the winter is no guarantee that race weekend won’t be unseasonably cold. The exact same thing that happened to me during Rock n Roll Arizona in Phoenix and The Mercedes Half in Birmingham happened again in Little Rock: I was expecting temperatures to be in the mid to high 50’s (which is typical for Little Rock in March) but they were in the low 30’s on race day. I had thrown a long sleeve running shirt in my bag so at least I had that…. but judging by what all of the other runners were wearing as we all huddled together inside of the one restaurant along the riverfront that was open so early on race morning, I could tell that I wasn’t the only person who had been expecting warmer weather. So just another reminder to runners: if you travel for a race, I don’t care how warm it’s supposed to be wherever it is that you’re going, if it’s winter, make sure you pack a set of warm running clothes just in case.
If I had to pick one word to describe the course itself, that word would be “hilly”. The Little Rock Half Marathon course is probably the hilliest course I’ve ever done in my life (and my list of races includes Anchorage, Sedona, Seattle, and San Francisco), and from what I’ve heard, the full marathon course is even hillier. So if you live in a place like Chicago that’s fairly flat and you’re planning on doing either of these races, make sure to work a lot of hill repeats into your training or else your quads and calves are going to feel like they’re about to explode by the time you finish running.
Hills aside though, this is not a bad course. It starts out by heading down the river front towards the Bill Clinton Presidential Library and then zigzags through downtown Little Rock and past the Arkansas State Capitol Building before heading through some residential areas. Eventually it heads back towards downtown Little Rock and the finish line is about half a mile away from the start line.
The Little Rock Marathon tends to draw pretty good crowds – the parts of the course that go through residential areas are lined with spectators and there are also a number of cheering stations as well as a few bands along the course. There are a lot of spectators at the start and finish lines as well.
Here’s another thing to pay attention for on this course (besides the hills): around mile 11 the course heads up a hill and at the top of the hill is a giant house. When I did the race, I noticed that there was a guy standing outside of the front gates of this house giving some runners high fives and taking pictures with others who wanted to stop for a minute. It didn’t dawn on me until after I had already run past that the guy I saw was the Governor of Arkansas (and the big house that I had just run past was the Governor’s Mansion). I’m sure that people who live in Arkansas knew who he was (and I’m sure I would have figured it out sooner if I wasn’t feeling loopy from having just run 11 miles) but my point here is that regardless of what your political beliefs are, stopping to take a picture or just say a quick hello to a governor on a race course is always a cool thing to do because you never know if somewhere down the line that person might go on to be elected to a higher office. So if you do the Little Rock Marathon or Half Marathon, remember to look for the Governor’s mansion around mile 11 and if you don’t want to stop for a picture at least run close enough to get a high five.
I already mentioned this earlier, but if the Little Rock Marathon is known for one thing, it’s the insanely large finishers medals that are given out to all of the runners. Even the half marathon medal is the biggest medal in my collection, but the full marathon medal massive. I actually stopped another runner on the street who had one and asked him if I could take a picture of it because I didn’t have the words to describe how unbelievably large it was and figured that nobody would believe me if I told them.
There’s a big post race party at the finish line with plenty of music, food and beer, and I spent a few minutes checking it out, but I honestly didn’t stick around very long. Not because it wasn’t a good party but because not long after I finished running, it occurred to me that it was still pretty cold outside and that I wanted to get out of my cold, sweaty running clothes ASAP. This actually turned out to be ok though because I headed back to my hotel, showered, changed, and then headed back downtown… where a lot of the restaurants along the riverfront have food and drink specials for anyone wearing a race medal. So after the race I was happy to kick back and enjoy a burger and a beer while I watched a hockey game on TV inside of a nice warm restaurant.
Getting Around Little Rock
I was only in Little Rock for two days (flew in Saturday morning and flew out Sunday night) and I think that was enough time to see pretty much everything I wanted to see around the city. Flying in on Friday and spending an extra half day might have been OK too but even for just spending one night there, I really didn’t feel like I missed much. Partially because Little Rock is not a very big city but also because a lot of the big attractions anyone from out of town would want to see are close enough to each other that you can see them all within a day or two.
The biggest attraction in Little Rock is the Bill Clinton Presidential Library. It’s only about a half mile walk from the convention center and well worth checking out, especially if you grew up in the 90’s. It’s only $7 to get in and you’ll get a chance to relive some of the great historical moments from when Bill Clinton was the president (there were some that I had even forgotten about myself) and you’ll also get to see the presidential limo and some items that were kept in the Oval Office and various other rooms at the White House as well as a lot of other information about Bill and Hillary Clinton from their college days so that you can get a better understanding of some of the events that helped to shape their political views. If you’re looking for a way to spend the rest of your afternoon after picking up your race packet, this would be my choice for sure.
Besides the presidential library, there’s also a great riverfront that has some really good bars and restaurants. My personal recommendations for places to eat at in downtown Little Rock are Bosco’s Restaurant and Brewing Company and Big Whiskey’s American Bar and Grill.
Probably one of the biggest hidden gems in Little Rock is the Historic Arkansas Museum, which is a free museum that contains a number of historic buildings and structures dating all the way back to frontier times along with art galleries and exhibits of different historical periods in Arkansas (from frontier days through the civil war and into modern times). To be honest, the only reason I originally decided to take a look at this museum was because I had a couple hours to kill between finishing lunch and heading to the airport on Sunday afternoon, but after walking around the museum for a little while and checking out some of the exhibits, I ended up wishing that I had gone a little earlier in the day and had more time to spend there.
Tough course…. huge medal….interesting history…. I would say that that pretty much sums up my thoughts on Little Rock and the Marathon and Half Marathon. This is a race that’s definitely not for beginners but if you’re an experienced runner and you’re looking for a challenge, you should add it to your bucket list (especially if your goal is to do a race in all 50 states). There are also some interesting historical things to see around Little Rock and did I mention that the finisher’s medal is huge? I don’t typically travel to the same places to do races more than once (mainly because the list of races I still have left to do is so long and seems to keep getting longer), but despite the tough hilly course and colder than average temperatures on race day, I’m still considering going back to Little Rock to do the full marathon just so I can get a dinner plate sized medal. Plus, even though my trip to Little Rock was short, I definitely enjoyed the couple days that I spent there.