Before I get started with this review, I want to make sure that everyone who reads it knows what race I’m going to be talking about.
- The Zions Bank Ogden Marathon is a well known race that’s held each May in Ogden, Utah.
- The Ogden Newspapers Half Marathon Classic is a slightly lesser known race that’s held each May in Wheeling, West Virginia.
These two races have similar names and they’re held a week apart, but they’re not related to each other. The race that I’m reviewing here is the one in Wheeling.
The Ogden Newspapers Half Marathon Classic is used to be a 20K run. The race organizers recently made a few changes to the course, which included making it long enough to be a half marathon. The overall event is held during the Friday and Saturday of Labor Day Weekend. In addition to the Half Marathon and a 5K, which are held on Saturday morning, the event also includes a kid’s run and a one mile run on Friday evening.
The one mile run is known as the fastest mile in America. It starts at the top of Wheeling Hill, which is one of the steepest hills in Wheeling. The entire course is downhill and the course record is 3:39.
On Saturday morning, the half marathon starts at 8:00 am for runners. Walkers are allowed to start a half hour earlier. The 5K starts at 8:15.
All of the courses start and finish near Main Street in downtown Wheeling. The first 2 miles of the half marathon course are through town and then the rest of the course kind of does a big loop around the Wheeling city limits.
This is an extremely challenging course. I knew it would be hilly because of Wheeling’s location in the Ohio River Valley and proximity to the Appalachian mountains, but it ended up being even tougher than I expected. Sedona, AZ, San Francisco, Anchorage, AK, and Little Rock, AR are some of the hillier courses that I’ve done and those courses have nothing on this one.
The first 3 miles that go through downtown Wheeling are actually pretty flat. This is deceiving. In the beginning of the race, I was thinking that maybe this wouldn’t be as bad as I thought it would. And there were some nice looking mountains off in the distance, which made the course nice and scenic.
Somewhere around the beginning of mile 2, I overheard a couple runners behind me talking about how they needed to slow down to save up their energy for “the hill”. One of the guys said that he was probably just going to walk “the hill” this year. I’ve done plenty of other races with big hills so I really didn’t think much about it and kept on moving forward. Rock n Roll DC, the Outer Banks Marathon and the Oklahoma City Memorial Marathon all have challenging hills in the middle of their courses. However, the key difference between those races and this one is that the inclines for their big hills are only about a quarter of a mile long and the rest of the courses are relatively flat. So you suffer for a couple minutes on the hill and then you get over it and coast through the rest of the course. For some reason, I was picturing that being the case here.
I was wrong.
The course changes direction a couple times during the second mile and when I got to mile 3, I was staring straight at “the hill” and realized exactly what it was that I was going to be climbing. The scenic mountains I had been admiring during the first couple miles no longer looked so scenic when I realized that I was now running on one of them. This part of the course is known to locals as 29th street. And while locals may refer to 29th street as a “hill”, anyone from Chicago or any other “flat” area would call it a mountain.
The climb up the 29th street “hill” is not short. The incline technically starts just before mile 2 but it doesn’t really get noticeably steep until mile 3. During the two mile stretch between mile 3 and mile 5, the course elevation goes from about 650 to 1250 feet above sea level. After half a mile, people all around me were stopping to walk or stand for a few minutes so they could catch their breaths before pushing on. Somewhere around mile 4 the course appeared to level off a little bit. Really though, this was just because the grade had gotten a little less steep than it had been for the previous mile. I was still definitely running uphill at this point. It wasn’t long after that when I heard someone behind me say to his running partner: “Okay, we’re almost at the steep part”.
Almost at the steep part!?
They weren’t wrong. The last half mile of “the hill” is particularly grueling and has one of the steepest inclines of the entire course. I don’t think this would have been bad on its own but after running uphill for a mile and a half already, my quads and calf muscles felt like they were on fire. When I finally made it to the top, there was a lady in front of me who pulled out her cell phone to call a friend and let them know that she had just “crushed 29th street without walking at all”.
Given the number of runners who walked that part of the course, running all the way to the top of the 29th street is a pretty big accomplishment. There were crowds of people from the town of Bethlehem, which sits on top of the hill, congratulating runners who made it. There was also a DJ, a water table and some porta-potties for anyone who had to stop for a few minutes and take a break.
The problem with running on huge inclines like this is that you eventually have to go back down. And contrary to popular belief, down is not necessarily better than up. Sure it’s easier on your lungs but if you run downhill too fast, your knees, hips, and ankles will take a pretty severe pounding. This was absolutely the case from miles 5 through 7 when I ran downhill at a blazing fast speed. A lot of people walked this part of the course as well, and while I knew that I would probably suffer for this later, I just kinda leaned back and let the hill carry me.
After Mile 7, the course flattens out for about a mile. Then from mile 8 through the finish, there’s a series of rolling hills. These hills aren’t nearly as steep as the 29th street hill, but they’re not to be taken lightly either. In fact if any other course had hills like this, I would say that they were the toughest part of the course.
At mile 9 a spectator was cheering for the runners and telling them that the worst part was over. This was “kind of” true because we had made it past the big hill, but it implied that the rest of the course would be flat and easy. It wasn’t.
Around mile 10 there’s a steep hill that’s about a quarter of a mile long. I really didn’t think that this hill was that bad though. In fact it was probably the easiest hill on the course. About halfway up the incline, I overheard two other runners talking about how this one was okay but the next one was going to be rough.
As a side note, I don’t think I’ve ever done a race where I’ve overheard that many people talking about the hills in my life.
Those people weren’t kidding though. Mile 11 to 12 probably the second toughest hill on the course. The elevation is lower and the incline is not as long as 29th street, but the grade is almost the same. Also at this point, I had spent the last 11 miles running on hill after hill after hill, and my legs felt like they were shot. The only good things about this hill are that the incline is only about a half mile long and when you make it to the top, there’s only another half mile to go. The last half mile of the course is a blazing fast knee-pounding downhill stretch that goes through downtown Wheeling. The race finishes in the same place where it started.
The Good and the Bad
- The course was scenic. Hills aside, Wheeling sits between the Ohio River and the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains so throughout most of the course, you’re either looking at mountains or water.
- I’m going to say that the course being so tough is actually a good thing. It’s definitely not a good course for beginners (unless you happen to live in the area and are used to running on hills like that), but if you’re an experienced runner it is a good way to challenge yourself. You also get bragging rights if you can make it to the top of the big hill/mountain/whatever it is without walking. In fact, I’d love to see the race organizers capitalize on this even more by getting the word out and letting the larger running community know that if they’re up for a tough challenge, they should give this race a look.
- Something else I noticed was that the hills seemed to make the race go by faster. I was so focused on making it to the top of the big hill without walking that I didn’t even think about how far I had been running. After that, the downhill portion went by super fast and I was surprised to see that I was already almost at mile 7 when I got to the bottom. The rest of the course was similar – I never really concerned with what mile I was on as much as making it over the next hill. When you aren’t thinking about distance, you tend to go a lot further without realizing it.
- The weather was perfect. The temperature warmed up a little bit by the end of the race but for the most part, it was in the mid to upper 50’s all morning. This is pretty standard for Wheeling during this time of year. Another temperature related benefit is that the majority of this course is tree-lined so even when it does start to warm up, you still get to run in the shade.
- Crowd support was awesome. Besides the DJ and Crowds at the top of the 29th street hill, there were a ton of people lining almost the entire second half course to support the runners. I think this is the most crowd support I’ve ever seen for a race this size. Runners are also really supportive of one another too. People cheered for each other on the hills and struck up general conversations at other times just to say hi. I’ve never had more conversations with other runners during a race. The race volunteers, police officers directing traffic, and all of the other people involved with the race were really friendly too.
- There were water tables every half mile during the second half of the race. There weren’t as many in the first half but I felt like I never ran more than a couple minutes without passing one after I got to the other side of the 29th street hills. The water tables had water, ice and Gatorade, and volunteers handed out the ice in separate cups. Runners could either mix it with their water or Gatorade or just suck on the ice cubes.
- There’s no Race Expo. There’s just a table where you pick up your race number, t-shirt, and a plastic bag with some flyers advertising local businesses. I don’t really care about this one that much because I can kind of take or leave a lot of race expos. I know a lot of other runners who like them though so if your idea of a good running event is one where you get to go check out the latest gear and see what other races are in the area, you might be disappointed with this one. I’ll balance it out by saying that on the plus side, I think this is the only half marathon I’ve ever done that offered race day packet pickup and even race day registration for people who weren’t able to make it to town ahead of time.
- The pink race t-shirt. Now don’t get me wrong, I totally understand that the race raises money for breast cancer research but there are other ways to show that. A a white shirt with a pink ribbon on it would have shown just as much support.
- The problem here is a basic marketing issue: most guys will never wear a pink shirt. I have this quirk about running shirts – call it superstition or whatever you want, but I never wear a race t-shirt until after I’ve actually finished the race. I feel like I haven’t earned the right to wear it until after I’ve crossed the finish line. That means that you’ll never see me wearing the official race shirt on race day even if it’s a really nice technical shirt. If that is the case though, then what I usually do is wear it to the next race that I go to. And since I travel to so many different places for races, my shirts are from a variety of different locations. At almost every race I do, someone asks me about my shirt from the previous one. Then I can tell them how much I enjoyed that race and where it was and how nice the location was, etc… And although I don’t necessarily intend for this to happen, conversations like that help to spread the word about different races and get runners interested in signing up for them in the future. In this case though, when I do the Grand Teton Half Marathon in Wyoming next month, I’m not going to be wearing my pink Ogden Newspapers Half Marathon shirt. And because of that, nobody is ever going to ask me about that race or what it’s like to run in West Virginia. Sadly, that shirt is just going to sit at the bottom of bin with my other running shirts. Eventually I’ll clean out my closet and donate it to a charity without having ever worn it.
- A lot of the mile markers on the course were either missing or were not easily seen. I saw the mile marker for mile 1 but missed the ones for miles 2 and 3. I knew that I had been running for a long time at that point but had no idea how far into the course I was until I finally saw the marker for mile 4 on the incline of the big hill. Even the mile markers that are visible are hard to see. They’re simply street signs that are no bigger than a No Parking sign. I have a feeling that some of the ones that I thought were “missing” really weren’t missing at all – I just never saw them.
- Lastly, I’m going to go on a pretty long rant about the finishers medals here so if you don’t want to read this part, here’s the summary. This is literally the worst race medal I have ever received for any race I’ve ever done in my life. That includes everything from big city marathons with 50,000+ runners to neighborhood 5Ks with a few hundred. I know that medals aren’t important to everyone so if you don’t care about the rest of the details, go ahead and skip to the next section.
If you’re still reading, here’s a description of the medal:
It looks like the race organizers ordered the cheapest stock race medals they could find and put a sticker on them that says “I finished the Ogden Newspapers Half Marathon Classic”. There’s another sticker on the back that has the name of one of the sponsors. The stickers on my medal weren’t even put on straight. The medal is smaller around than a half dollar and it’s so light that it feels like I could easily bend it in half with my bare hands. I didn’t even bother to put it around my neck after I crossed the finish line because I didn’t want wear it.
This is actually a lot more important than it seems on the surface and here’s why:
I’m going to compare this to the next toughest race that I’ve done, which is the Little Rock Half Marathon. Little Rock is another punishing course with one hill after another (although in this case they really are just hills and not mountains. There are still a lot of them though).
I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to interview Gina Marchese who is one of the Little Rock Marathon race directors about this for a project I’m working on. The entire Little Rock Marathon Staff is well aware of how challenging their course is. There’s also not much they can do about it because of the geography of the area. The Arkansas River flows straight through the middle of Little Rock, and there’s pretty much no hope of setting up a 13.1 or 26.2 mile course and having it go past the main attractions in the city without the course being hilly.
Something else that’s challenging about the race being in Little Rock is that based on a survey that was conducted a few years ago, the city isn’t often thought of as a major tourist destination. People don’t necessarily have a negative opinion of Little Rock. It just isn’t a place that comes to mind for a lot of people when they think about going on vacation somewhere (much like Wheeling, West Virginia I would guess).
So how do you get people excited about running a challenging race in a city they never really thought about visiting before? You give them the biggest race medal in the world when they cross the finish line.
The Little Rock Marathon medals are the size of dinner plates and weigh over 3lbs each. The half marathon medals are smaller than the marathon medals but still way bigger than most other race medals. Tens of thousands of people travel to Little Rock from all over the world to do either the marathon or the half marathon each year. These are all people who know full well how tough the course is but they still do it anyway because they want a giant race medal. The medals have become so famous that the race organizers have special YouTube videos every year just to unveil them. Videos like this, this, and this that get more than 10,000 views each.
I count myself among the people who originally only went to Little Rock to do the race and get the medal. But after spending a couple days there, I ended up wishing I had stayed longer. After I got home, I showed my huge medal to all of my running friends and then told them how pleasantly surprised I was with the city. I’m sure I’m not the only person who has done this. This ultimately leads to more runners being interested in doing the race in Little Rock. While they’re in town they stay at the hotels, eat at the restaurants and buy things at the stores in town. More money coming in from outside of the city helps to stimulate the local economy.
Little Rock is currently going through a major renaissance right now and the race is a big part of it. After talking to some people around Wheeling, I know that there are a number of groups in the community and surrounding area that are attempting to restore a lot of the Victorian area buildings and houses throughout the city. It seems like positioning the race to attract enough people from the outside to pour hundreds of thousands of dollars into your local economy would be a pretty good strategy for helping with this. I’m not expecting the race organizers to create giant dinner plate sized medals like the ones in Little Rock. But I would like to see them put more than 12 seconds worth of thought into their designs.
There are plenty of interesting things around Wheeling that can be put on a race medal to make it more interesting looking. There’s a suspension bridge that was built in the 1800s. There’s the original state capitol building from when West Virginia split from Virginia during the Civil War. There’s the old B&O railroad building. Even a small medal with any of those things engraved on it would be a hundredfold improvement over the ones that were given out this year.
If cost is an issue, here’s my response to that: I only paid $50 for this race. Most of the half marathons I do cost anywhere between $80 and $120. I would have gladly paid $60 to do this one if I knew that the extra ten dollars was going to go towards better finisher’s medals. I’m sure that most other participants would agree. The way things are now, I’m not going to tell other runners to travel to Wheeling to do a brutally punishing hilly course if the only thing they’re going to get for doing it is a chintzy little medal that looks like it came out of a gumball machine.
Whew, that was long. And now that I’m done ranting about the race medals, if you’ve made it this far, here’s some general info about Wheeling –
West Virginia has a unique history because it’s the only state to ever join the Union by seceding from another state. West Virginians didn’t have many slaves because the terrain made small family farms more practical than the big plantations that were seen in Eastern Virginia and the deep south. So when Virginia decided to join the confederacy, West Virginians wanted no part of it. First they voted among themselves to secede from Virginia and form their own government. Then they petitioned the federal government to join the union as their own state. Abraham Lincoln and congress agreed to it and West Virginia was officially born. Wheeling was the first capital of West Virginia and the original Capitol building where the vote to secede from Virginia was held still stands.
Wheeling experienced a population boom shortly after the Civil War, but it’s population has been declining since the 1930s. This is mostly due to changes in some of the industries in the area. In recent years, the city has been utilizing its architectural heritage to attract tourists to the area. It’s also become a leader in the healthcare industry.
Getting around Wheeling
Wheeling doesn’t have its own airport but the Pittsburgh International Airport is less than an hour away. The drive from Pittsburgh to Wheeling is scenic and mostly goes along the Ohio River byway. Wheeling is right across the Ohio / West Virginia Border. This made for a cool shakeout run the day before the race. I ran from my hotel to Ohio and back. Even though it was only a quick three miler, I got to run in two different states.
If you’re looking for a place to stay, the McClure Hotel is a historic building that’s been around since the early 1850’s. It’s been renovated a number of times since then and today it’s quite charming. At least six different presidents have stayed there as well as a number of generals, dignitaries, and celebrities. It’s also the most convenient hotel to stay at since it’s less than a five minute walk from the start and finish lines of the race.
While you’re in Wheeling, make sure to check out the West Virginia state capitol building. The interior of the building has been restored and transformed into a state history museum. The Wheeling Suspension Bridge is a National Landmark that was built in 1849 and was also the first suspension bridge in the United States. The architecture is immediately noticeable from Main Street. There are also a number of other historic buildings and Victorian area houses along with a nice river front and just over 13 miles of paved bike trails.
If you’re looking for places to eat in Wheeling, check out the Vagabond Kitchen. Make sure to ask for Renee. My personal recommendation is the Korean style pulled pork tacos but you really can’t go wrong with anything on the menu. After you finish eating, you can head next door to Harrigan’s to have a beer. Later Alligator is another great restaurant in Wheeling. It’s in a restored saloon from the 1860s in Wheeling’s Centre Market and serves crepes, sandwiches and other French style cuisine.
Even though this was my first trip to Wheeling, I always felt a bit of a connection to the city since my mom was born there. Overall, Wheeling is a nice little city with a lot of interesting history and amazing architecture. 2016 will be the 40th year for the Ogden Newspapers Half Marathon Classic, so obviously the race organizers are doing a good job of attracting local runners and keeping it going year after year. I think that the race has the potential to be a lot more than it currently is though. I also think it has the potential to bring money in from outside of the local community, which will help with some of the restoration efforts I described above. The framework is all in place: a challenging but scenic course, tons of crowd support, a rich history, friendly volunteers, and good organization. The race only needs a few small tweaks and it can be a world-class event. I’ll be interested in seeing what direction it takes over the next few years.