Runs and Places

Race Memories: 2013 Rock n Roll Savannah Half

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I technically did my first race in Georgia in 2007 while I was visiting a friend who lived in Valdosta.  I didn’t Georgia off of my list after doing that one though because it was a 5K and my goal has always been to do either a marathon or a half in all 50 states.  So in 2013 it was time to pick a longer race and head back.  While I was doing some research to try and decide which race I wanted to do, I found a number of great ones in and around the Atlanta area which I would love to go back and do at some point, but after reading a little bit about Savannah and its history, I decided to skip those for the time being and have my first big race in Georgia be the Rock n Roll Savannah Half Marathon.

Savannah is a beautiful little city on the east coast of Georgia that also happens to be very historically significant to the US.  It’s also the gateway to the beaches at Tybee Island.  I had heard a lot of great things about Savannah (including the fact that besides Las Vegas and New Orleans, it’s the only other city in the US that allows people to drink alcohol openly while walking around downtown), so I didn’t want to miss out on an opportunity to check it out.

A Little Savannah History….

Savannah is Georgia’s oldest city (it was also the first state capital).  During colonial times, it was the southernmost commercial port in the thirteen colonies, which made it pivotal to economic development in the area.  The city was so important that the British seized control of it during the early years of the Revolutionary War and kept enough troops there to successfully fight off a combined attempt by American and French forces to retake the city.  The British never left Savannah until 1782.

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Savannah continued to grow over the years and remained an important port city in the Southern United States.  By the mid 1800s it was one of the largest cities in the US and since its port was used to import supplies for the Confederate States, it played a pivotal role in the Civil War as well.

There wasn’t much fighting in Savannah itself, but it’s best known for being the end point of Sherman’s March to the Sea in November of 1864 when General William Tecumseh Sherman led over 60,000 Union troops south from Atlanta to Savannah destroying and burning everything in their path and causing hundreds of millions of dollars in damage.  After Confederate troops retreated from Savannah, Sherman left the city intact and sent a telegraph to Abraham Lincoln offering it to him as a Christmas present.

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The importance of Savannah in both the Revolutionary and Civil wars makes for an interesting mix of historical sites around the city.  Go for a walk through any of the squares around Forsyth Park and you’ll see statues of revolutionary war generals standing next to statues of confederate generals along with monuments to fallen soldiers and historical markers commemorating battles from both wars throughout the city.  Savannah’s rich history and large number of historical sites along with its amazing architecture and proximity to Tybee Island make it an interesting and beautiful place to visit.

Getting There / Where to Stay

Savannah Hilton Head Airport is about 20 minutes away from downtown Savannah so if you can find a flight into it, that will probably be your most convenient option.  Flights into Hilton Head tend to be a bit pricey though and the number of airlines that fly there is pretty small compared to other airports, so scheduling might be a problem as well.  If you’re looking to save some money and have a few more flight options, check the flights into Jacksonville, Florida.  It’s about a 2 hour drive from Jacksonville to Savannah straight north along coast.  Flying into Atlanta and taking an Amtrak train to Savannah is another option although trying to combine flight and rail schedules can be a bit complicated.

Regardless of which airport you fly into, you’ll probably need to rent a car to get around Savannah.  Some of the host hotels for the race have shuttles on race day but the expo is several miles away from the start and finish lines and there are a lot of attractions around the city that aren’t walking distance from one another so driving is simply a more convenient way to get around.

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As far as places to stay go, there are a number of bed and breakfasts in Savannah.  Some of them are close to historical areas and others are Antebellum and Victorian Style mansions which are quite comfortable to stay in.  The race is in November, which is a time of year when Savannah doesn’t see a lot of tourism, so it may be worth looking into the bed and breakfasts since owners will most likely be more open to negotiating lower prices than usual during these times.  Otherwise, just like any other city, there are also a number of hotels around Savannah with varying price ranges.  I found the host hotels for this race to be a bit expensive and while some of them are within a few blocks of the start line, the race doesn’t start and finish in the same place, so there aren’t as many benefits to staying at an official race hotel as there are at some other races.

Race Expo and Organization

Savannah - Expo

The race expo is at the Savannah International Trade and Convention Center and is a little bit bigger than I would have expected for a race the size of Rock n Roll Savannah (which was a nice surprise – after I got my goodie bag I spent over an hour there checking out the various vendors and displays).  The convention center is easy to find but it’s a few miles away from downtown Savannah (and also on the other side of the Savannah river).  If you have enough time afterwards, you can go for a walk along the river and check out some of the tall ships or have dinner on a riverboat cruise.

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The start line of the course is pretty well organized.  Runners are separated into corrals that start about a minute apart, and gear check, porta potties, medical tents and snacks are all easy to find both at the start line and along the course itself.  My tip for race morning is to make sure to get there early and give yourself more time to find parking than you think you might need, especially if you aren’t from Savannah.  The streets get blocked off early on race morning and there are a limited number of parking lots and garages near the start line that are easily accessible.  Most of the streets that remain open are one way streets too, so between the street closings and limited ability to go in the direction you want to go in, if you aren’t familiar with the area, a single wrong turn could end up costing you a half hour delay while you try to find your way back.

Course

Savannah

The course starts on Bay Street in front of the Savannah City Hall.  It heads northwest down Bay Street, which runs alongside the Savannah River and through downtown Savannah before heading underneath the Talmadge Memorial Bridge and towards Bartow park where it takes a turn and heads south past a number of churches and through some residential areas.  This part of the course isn’t particularly scenic, but a lot of people come out of their houses to cheer for the runners, which makes it enjoyable.

The course eventually ends up back in downtown Savannah, passing by Pulaski Square, Lafyette Square, Troup Square, and Colonial Park Cemetery.  Over the next few miles, runners pass a number of other historic buildings and parks until about mile 11 when the marathon and half marathon courses split.  Runners doing the half head straight towards the finish line while the marathon runners do another loop which passes through Daffin Park, Hederman Park and the Savannah State University Campus.  Both courses finish in Forsyth Park.

Savannah has a few rolling hills but the overall elevation gain for both courses is only in the double digits so neither one is particularly challenging as far as hills are concerned.  There’s plenty of crowd support along both courses as well, particularly in the residential areas, and there are also plenty of local bands playing at various spots along the course to help runners stay motivated.

After the race, there’s a big party in Forsyth Park where runners can get snacks and beer and listen to music…. although I actually thought it was more fun to walk around the park and check out the scenery and the monuments.  The park is beautiful, so no matter what you’re interested in, the race organizers couldn’t have picked a better spot to end the race.

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Bling

I like the Rock n Roll Savannah race medal, although to be honest, it isn’t one of my favorites.  Being a Rock n Roll race, the medal is heavy and well constructed and definitely nicer than a lot of my other medals, but given Savannah’s rich history and the number of historical locations around the city, I thought the design could have been a little bit more creative.  The organizers of the Rock n Roll Marathon series tend to change their race medals from year to year though, so there’s a good chance that 2013 was just an off year, and Savannah is such a fun city to visit and run in that I wouldn’t let the medal keep me from doing this race again.   Interestingly enough, even though I wasn’t a big fan of the medal, the technical shirt that came in my goodie bag is one of my favorite running shirts.

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Things to do around Savannah

Savannah’s downtown area is one of the largest National Historic Landmark Districts in the United States so if you’re a history buff, you won’t have any problem spending hours just walking around the city and reading the plaques in front of all of the buildings and monuments.

Forsyth Park is a large park in the middle of Savannah (and also where the marathon and half marathon courses both finish).  It contains walking paths and a fountain that’s a replica of the fountains in the Place de la Concorde in France.  There’s also a fragrant garden for the blind, open areas for various types of concerts and sporting events, and also a memorials to the volunteers who gave their lives fighting for the Confederacy during the Civil War and the Spanish American War.

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On Bay Street, near the start of the race, you can find the Savannah Cotton Exchange, which is a building reminiscent of the 1880s when the cotton trade was so important to the economy that the area came to be known as the Wall Street of the South.

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A block or so down from the Cotton Exchange, you’ll see the Savannah City Hall, which stands on the site where the original settlers of the town (led by James Oglethorpe) camped when they settled the city in 1733.  It’s made of limestone and has a clock tower on top with 23 karat gold dome, and if you’re so inclined, you can go back later and take a tour of the building.
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Also, if you have daughters who are girl scouts (or if you were a girl scout yourself when you were younger), you can take a tour of the birthplace of Juliette Gordon Low who founded the Girl Scouts of America organization in 1912.

Savannah is also known for its 22 historic squares (the race courses go past some of them).   The squares were originally designed for military purposes but these days they provide greenery in the middle of the blocks of historic houses and businesses around the city.  Each square has its own unique features including historic monuments, fountains, gazebos, sports fields and proximity to other attractions.

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If you’re not interested in the historic parts of Savannah (or even if you are), a visit to Tybee Island will be your best bet.  Tybee Island is about a 20 minute drive from downtown Savannah and also happens to be a favorite nesting place for loggerhead sea turtles.  Rock n Roll Savannah is in November so unless the temperatures happen to be unseasonably warm, it will most likely be too cold to swim in the ocean during race weekend, but it won’t be too cold to go for walk along the beach, which is relatively quiet at that time of year.  Also, race weekend is the final weekend before a lot of the gift shops and craft stores in the area start closing their doors for the season so if you’re looking for souvenirs, you should be able to find some pretty good deals..  On your way to Tybee Island, you can also stop and take a tour of the Tybee Island Lighthouse.

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Lastly, Savannah has an amazing entertainment and restaurant district.  In addition to being one of only a handful of cities around the US that allow people to walk around downtown with open alcohol, there are plenty of options if you want great places to eat or drink.  A few suggestions:

  • The Distillery is a pre-prohibition distillery turned pub with great food and a wide selection of beers.
  • Churchill’s Pub is a two story British style pub that has a restaurant on the upper level and a wine bar on the lower level.
  • The Sparetime is known for having some of the best live music in Savannah along with a wide variety of specialty drinks and craft beers.

Overall Thoughts

This was a well organized race with a nice flat course, plenty of things to see and great crowd support in an awesome city.  I spent three days in Savannah and could have easily spent a few more because I left feeling like there were still some things I didn’t get a chance to see and do around town.  Whether it’s for another race or just for a visit, I’ll definitely be planning on  taking a trip back at some point in the near future.

2 thoughts on “Race Memories: 2013 Rock n Roll Savannah Half

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  2. Pingback: Friday 5: My Top Five Rock n Roll Series Races - Runs and Places

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