I usually don’t make a habit of traveling to run the same race more than once. There’s a simple reason for that – with all of the goals I have for different combinations of places I want to run in, there’s a lot of traveling that I need to do, so even if I really love a race or its location, unless it happens to be in or around the Chicago area, it’s hard for me to justify paying for a flight, rental car, hotel, meals, etc., to do a race in a place that’s already been checked off of my list. I have a number of races that I’d like to go back and do again after I finish all of the others, but Arizona is probably the one place that I’ll make an exception for. I don’t mind going back to do races there (especially when they’re held between January and March) even though I’ve already done a number of them. The people, the desert scenery, the chance to get away from Chicago winters and go someplace warm for a few days, and the chance that I might even get to catch a hockey game while I’m there all make it an ideal place to go.
One of my favorite races to do in Arizona is the Rock n Roll Arizona Half Marathon, which starts in Phoenix and then heads through Scottsdale on the way to the finish line which is in front of ASU in Tempe. I did this race in 2007 and then again in 2010.
That stuff I said earlier about heading to Arizona to get away from Chicago winters? Yeah well that didn’t work out so well in 2007. The day before the race, the temperature was in the low 30s when I left Chicago and it was 75 and sunny when I stepped off of the plane in Phoenix – perfect! So I went to the race expo, picked up my packet, went out and found something to eat and made sure I knew how to get to the start line the next morning, checked into my hotel, watched a little TV and then went to bed early so I could be up in time for race the next morning…… then sometime around 2am, I woke up shivering because the room was FREEZING!
Apparently a cold front had come through Phoenix that night. And it came through fast. Within a few hours the temperatures dropped from the 70s to below freezing. It was at this point that I suddenly realized how much people who live in northern states take central heating for granted. You see, in Phoenix, the temperatures usually don’t get cold enough to require any kind of artificial heating, even in the middle of January…. and it also doesn’t usually get cold enough to require super warm blankets on hotel beds. So even though I was staying at one of the best hotels in downtown Phoenix, the heating system consisted of an old radiator and some thin blankets that would have been perfectly fine on any other occasion. So I turned on the radiator, bundled myself up and did my best to get back to sleep.
I think it’s important to stress here that this was no ordinary cold front – it was record breaking. The temperature in Phoenix for the remainder of the weekend was the coldest ever in recorded history and it was also the first time in over ten years that there was measurable snowfall. I woke up to temperatures in the low 20s, a light dusting of snow on the ground (but still snow nonetheless), frost, and frozen water fountains around downtown Phoenix. The weather stayed like that for the rest of the weekend and the two most ironic things about the whole experience were:
- Back home in Chicago, there was a record warm streak. The temperature was in the high 50s. If I would have stayed home, I would have been able to run outside in a pair of shorts and a t-shirt.
- Literally the day after I left Phoenix, the temperatures went back up to the mid 70s there and dropped down to the 20s in Chicago.
Luckily, I came (sorta) prepared. I looked at the weather when I was packing and saw that there was a chance the temperatures could drop to well below the average for that time of year that weekend so I threw some warmer running clothes in my bag just in case. Now I should also mention though that the thought that went through my mind while I was packing was “yeah right, it’s Phoenix… how cold can it really get?” So my “warmer running clothes” pretty much just consisted of a a long sleeve tech shirt. Long running pants, gloves, a hat or a sweatshirt? Yep, left all that stuff at home. The temperature eventually did warm up to the high 40s by the time I finished the race, so it wasn’t really that bad in the end but standing at the starting line was brutal.
The cold weather did cause something to happen during the race that was pretty funny though. You see, 2007 was fairly early in the history of Rock n Roll Marathons (in fact, besides Phoenix, there were only 3 other races in the entire series at that time), so it wasn’t like today where people travel in from all over the country to run these races. The majority of participants that year were from Arizona and New Mexico. While I had been training for the race throughout November and December back in Chicago and dealing with temperatures that were near or below freezing on a regular basis, almost every other runner there had been training in 50-60 degree temps and some of them had never run in weather that cold. So while I did fairly well and finished the race in just under 2 hours (which was pretty standard for me at the time – I missed getting a PR by a couple minutes but that’s a different story), most of the local runners ran a lot slower and complained about not being able to get their legs to turn over. So I would have definitely liked for it to be warmer, but the cold weather really didn’t bother me that much and my age group and division rankings were a lot higher than usual.
Apparently being that cold for that long made me look really pale or something though because after I crossed the finish line, one of the race officials asked me if I was OK and wanted to bring me to the medical tent even though I felt just fine. So I guess there are two lessons here:
1. I don’t care where the race is, you should always look at what the weather is going to be like and plan ahead for unusual conditions.
2. If you’re used to running in cold weather and happen to get lucky enough to do a race in a place that’s usually really warm but happens to have a major cold snap at the time, you might actually do pretty well.
Aside from the cold weather, the course itself was nice and flat and fast. There are a few miles in the middle that go through part of Scottsdale that aren’t particularly scenic but the rest of the course is beautiful – you’re surrounded by mountains and desert scenery almost the entire time. After the race, there’s a big party at ASU and with Tempe being a college town, a lot of the local bars have food and drink specials for runners who bring in their medals.
I do have one suggestion as far as parking and picking a hotel to stay at goes: the start line is in Phoenix and the finish line is in Tempe, and there are shuttle buses that will take you from the finish line to the start line before the race, but not the other way around. The way it works is that runners park near ASU in the morning, take the shuttle to the start line and then their cars are waiting for them after the race. If you park near the start line, you’re on your own as far as finding a way back. So in 2007, I stayed in Phoenix and had to navigate around the road closures to get to Tempe on race morning, but in 2010, I stayed in Tempe and getting to the start line was much easier. So my suggestion would be to ignore the suggested hotels in Phoenix that are on the race website and find a place to stay in Tempe. There are tons of nice hotels that are close to ASU and some are even walking distance from the campus, which is ideal because if you stay in one of them you won’t need to worry about driving anywhere on race morning.
The race in 2010 was a lot warmer and was more like what I would expect Phoenix to be like in January. The course was exactly the same though and when I look back on it now, I can say that this was one of the biggest reasons I decided to start looking at other races in different locations that I hadn’t been to before. I realized that even if it’s a really good race, running the exact same course over and over again can get old. But I did have a great time and it was nice to go back and run the race again without feeling like my legs were going to turn into ice cubes. I also took some time to do a few other things while I was there the second time too, so if you do this race and you’re looking for some things to do around Phoenix during the rest of the weekend, here are a few suggestions:
Climb to the top of the “A” mountain in Tempe. This is a small mountain next to the ASU campus with a 60 foot steel A attached to the side. There’s a trail that goes to the top of the mountain and it’s not really steep or long – it takes less than a half hour to get from the base all the way to the top and you’ll get some spectacular views of the Phoenix skyline on one side and the desert and mountains on the other.
The race is in January, which is right in the middle of hockey season…. so if the Coyotes are at home, check out game. Being a Blackhawks fan, I’m used to tickets being expensive and selling out quickly so I was kinda surprised to find $20 seats available on game day that were in a pretty decent section of the stadium.
Or take a drive up to Sedona, which is quite possibly one of the most beautiful towns in the United States. It’s only about 2 1/2 hours away and you won’t be disappointed. (I also did a race in Sedona but that’s a story for another post).
As far as the other details like the expo, race medals, etc…., I can’t complain about any of it – the Rock n Roll marathons have always been pretty well organized and have offered some pretty nice bling and if anything, they’ve only gotten bigger and better since I did these races. So if you’re looking for a good race to do in January, definitely check this one out. Just make sure to remember that even though it’s Arizona, you should still bring some warm running clothes just in case.