Runs and Places

Race Memories: Kentucky Derby Festival Mini Marathon

My first trip to Louisville, Kentucky was when my friend Jeff and I went to the Kentucky Derby in 2004.  The trip was a spur of the moment decision – literally.  We decided to go at about 11pm the night before the race.  Jeff was a big fan of betting on horses at the time and I was a big fan of dropping whatever I was doing to go off in search of a random adventure that I knew would turn into a great story later. So between the two of us, we had all the motivation we needed to meet up at my house at 6am on the morning of the Derby and make the 300 mile trek from Chicago to Louisville to go check it out.  We were not disappointed by our decision.

When most people think of the Kentucky Derby, images of well dressed socialites and celebrities sitting in comfortable shady chairs, wearing fancy hats and sipping drinks usually come to mind.  And while that may be what’s shown on TV, there’s a whole other side to the Derby that’s a lot wilder and a lot more fun than any of those things.  I’m talking about the massive all day long party that goes on in the Churchill Downs infield.

Kentucky Derby 2004

Seats in the stands at Churchill Downs sell out pretty quickly during the weeks leading up to Kentucky Derby day, but there’s no limit to the number of infield tickets that can be sold.  So Jeff and I had no problem buying our tickets at the gate even though we didn’t get to Louisville until 11am.  There aren’t any seats in the infield (which is why there’s an unlimited number of tickets – everyone just crams in and hangs out wherever they can find room).  There’s also no dress code in the infield though, and people are allowed to bring their own coolers, folding chairs, tables, tarps, food and drinks.  Thousands of young (mostly college aged) people and nearly unlimited quantities of alcohol crammed into the grassy section in the middle of a one mile horse track = a seriously good time for two guys in their 20s.

Jeff and I spent our first few hours at the Derby wandering around the infield drinking large quantities of beer and mint juleps (not familiar with a mint julep?  Take a glass of straight burbon, add a dash of simple syrup, some ice, and a mint leaf).  We also watched girls remove various articles of clothing in exchange for beads, shared food with a bunch of strangers, danced and joined in on a random game game of Frisbee here and there.

Then the dark clouds started to roll in.

The Kentucky Derby had never been canceled because of bad weather at that point, but there’s a first time for everything and we almost became part of history.  Within a matter of minutes, the sunny skies gave way to gale force winds, lightning, hail, and buckets of rain.  People scrambled to find trees, tarps, bathrooms and anything else that provided any type of shelter to hide under and as the storm continued, the infield continued to turn into a giant mud pit.  That never stopped anyone from having fun though, and it wasn’t long before a bunch of impromptu mud wrestling matches began to break out wherever there was an open space.

The weather eventually did clear up and the Derby was able to start (to this day it’s still never been canceled).  Jeff picked up a little extra cash when Smarty Jones won, capping off what was already a pretty epic day.  When we were ready to leave though, we suddenly became aware of one of the complications that can arise from a spur of the moment decision to go to one of the biggest sporting events in the world.  There were no hotels within a 50 mile radius that had rooms available and even the ones that were closer to Indianapolis had  rates that were over $250 per night.  So rather than shelling out a bunch of cash for a hotel room, Jeff and I decided to bite the bullet and drive the 300 miles back home late at night with soaking wet clothes and mud caked all over our arms and legs.  We loved every second of our adventure though and spent most of the drive home making plans to go back the next year.

Those memories of Louisville were etched in my mind for years.  Things always seemed to come up around Derby time and for one reason or another, Jeff and I never made it back to the Louisville.  Other than passing through a few times on my way to other places, I hadn’t really been there again until I signed up for the Kentucky Derby Festival Mini Marathon in 2011.

Louisville, Kentucky

Things had changed quite a bit for me by the time I went back to Louisville for the race.  I had been running and doing races and generally trying to make sure that I was in good health at that point (something that I wasn’t really concerned with a few years earlier).  My wife and I also had a six year old daughter by then, so even though the race is part of a week long fest that leads up to the Kentucky Derby, getting drunk at 11 am amid a sea of muddy half naked women in the Churchill Downs infield simply wasn’t in my plans this time around.  And that’s one of the most beautiful things about Louisville and the Kentucky Derby Fest – whether you’re in your 20’s and looking to do something crazy or a little older and looking for fun things to do with your family, finding something good is never a problem.

What I found on this particular trip was a well organized, fun race that allowed me to see most of Louisville and also included a lap around the Churchill Downs infield.  I had done the OneAmerica 500 Festival Mini Marathon in Indianapolis on the same day a year earlier, and that race included a lap around the Indianapolis Motor Speedway track, so I figured that this race would be a perfect compliment to the one in Indy.

Kentucky Derby Mini Marathon History

For anyone that’s wondering what a Mini Marathon is: it’s a half marathon.  The only two races I’ve done that were called mini marathons were in Louisville and Indianapolis so I’m not sure if the name is a regional thing or where it actually originated. I’ve heard that there are a few other half marathons that are occasionally referred to as “minis” as well though, so if you ever see one of them advertised, keep in mind that the distance is still the standard 13.1 miles and the race is the same as any other half.

Since its inception in 1974, the Kentucky Derby Festival Marathon and Mini Marathon has grown from a small local road race into the largest race in Kentucky.  The race organizers wanted an alternative to sending local runners out of state to run races like the Boston Marathon or the Chicago Marathon when they believed that the same type of high quality race had serious potential in Louisville.  The original race was on the same weekend as the Kentucky Derby but in 1980 it was moved back a week (to make things easier across both events as the number of participants and required street closings continued to increase).  Its been held on the weekend before the Derby ever since.

The race organizers had no idea what type of turnout to expect for the first race and only ordered one hundred and fifty race bibs.  They were shocked when 301 runners showed up and they had to scramble to find pieces of cardboard and scribble numbers with a grease pencil for the rest.  Over the next five years, participation swelled to nearly 3,500 runners, and that record has been broken every year since. The marathon was added in 2002 and entry is currently capped at 18,000 runners between the two races. They both sell out quickly so if you’re planning on doing one of them, make sure to sign up early.

Getting to Louisville / Where to Stay

Louisville is not a big city, but it is pretty easy to get to.  It has an international airport that’s conveniently located, and if you live in the midwest, a drive from Chicago, Nashville, Indianapolis, St. Louis, or Cincinnati will only take a few hours.

The biggest tip that I can give you if you’re traveling to Louisville for this race is to book your hotel room as early as you can.  The race is a week before the actual Kentucky Derby but since it’s part of the overall Kentucky Derby Festival, there are a lot of other events going on in and around Louisville besides the race throughout the week and as you know from my earlier story, hotel rooms during any Derby related event are at a premium and tend to fill up way in advance.

If you do book your room early enough though, there are plenty of really nice hotels around Louisville and most of them are fairly reasonably priced.  We stayed at the Seelbach Hilton which is a four star hotel that was built in 1908, is listed on the national register of historic places and has housed a number of US Presidents and other world leaders.  It’s centrally located and walking distance from most of the biggest attractions in Louisville… it’s pretty reasonably priced though (as long as you book your room early enough) and interestingly enough, it’s also pet friendly.

Kentucky Derby Hotel

Race Expo / Organization

The Kentucky Derby Festival Mini Marathon has undergone a few notable changes over the years:  in the early days, timing was done with stop watches and clipboards and water was provided via a “dip and drink from a tub” method.  These things have all been replaced by the modern conveniences we’re used to seeing at other races – there are plenty of water tables throughout the course with ample amounts of water (in cups), sports drinks, and fruit.  There are also plenty of restrooms, medical tents, and other amenities along the course and at the start and finish lines as well.

The race expo is at the Kentucky International convention center on the Thursday and Friday before the race.  It has about 50 vendors, which is a good number for a race of this size.  In addition to the standard race t-shirt and other giveaways, the goodie bag also includes two tickets to the Kentucky Oaks, which is a race for thoroughbred fillies held on the Friday before the Kentucky Derby each year.  So if you’re planning on staying for the entire week or going back for the Derby the following weekend, you and a guest can get into that event for free.

Course

The course has also changed from its original point-to-point layout to a looped course, which makes things more convenient for runners since the start and finish lines are in the same place (near the South Great Lawns on the Louisville Riverfront).  The course is a bit hilly, but it’s not terrible – a beginner could still do this one.  It’s also scenic and offers views of some of the best attractions around Louisville along with a mixture of downtown and suburban areas which have really nice Victorian architecture and some amazing looking historic churches.

The course passes by Louisville Slugger Field fairly early on and miles 6, 7, 9, and 10 for the Mini and 6, 7, 18 and 19 for the Marathon go through the University of Louisville Campus.  The biggest attraction of the race is probably mile 8, which is a loop through the infield at Churchill Downs.  After leaving Churchill Downs, then the full and mini courses split.  The mini heads back north towards the finish line while the full heads south and does a loop around Iroquois Park  before heading back north towards the finish along the same route as the mini.

This course is known for having a lot of crowd support.  The majority of the crowds can be found in the downtown areas near the start and finish lines but there are a number of spectators and volunteers who line the streets throughout the course.  There’s also a big party at the finish line along with an big carnival with games and rides, which is one of the things that makes race weekend really kid friendly.

Bling

For obvious reasons, the medal for this race always has a theme that’s related to the Kentucky Derby.  In the past, it’s been shaped like a horse, a horseshoe, the Churchill Downs facade or something similar.  In 2011, the medal was all silver with a winged horse on it (which matches the race logo).  Even though it isn’t the most colorful medal I own, it has a really classy look and I like it a lot.

Kentucky Derby Mini Marathon Race Medal

Things to do in Louisville

I’ve mentioned this a couple times already but there are plenty of things to see and do around Louisville regardless of your situation (younger, older, kids, no kids, etc…).  Another nice thing about Louisville is that even for its size, it’s still a fairly compact city that’s easy to get around in without a car if you stay downtown.  Even though my hotel was on the other side of the city, it was only about a 15 minute walk from the start and finish lines on race day.  Churchill Downs and the Convention Center where the expo is were close by too and I never had problems finding places to eat that were within walking distance either.  All that being said though, there are a lot of good attractions to check out on the outskirts of the city too, so depending on what your plans for the weekend are, you might still want to rent a car.

Here are a few suggestions for things to do while you’re in town for the race:

If you’re looking for food, live music, or shopping, you’ll definitely want to check out Fourth Street Live which is essentially an entire section of Fourth Street between Liberty Avenue and Mohammad Ali Blvd that’s closed to traffic, providing easy access to a variety of shops and restaurants.

Churchill Downs is an amazing place to check out even if you aren’t really into horse racing, simply because of the history behind it.  The Kentucky Derby Museum has some interesting artifacts and information about the origins of the Kentucky Derby along with various exhibits highlighting the venue, the race and the horses that have run it over the years.

If you have kids or if you’re a sports fan, make sure to check out the Louisville Slugger Bat Museum which contains information about the history of Louisville Slugger bats and baseball through the years and also make sure to check out the Muhammad Ali Center which is an award-winning museum dedicated to the life of Muhammad Ali.

What Tennessee is to Country Music, Kentucky is to Bluegrass.  So if you’re a music fan, you can go for a bluegrass tour or check out some of the local bands at any of the bars around town.  There aren’t as many places to see live music in Louisville as there are in a city like Nashville, but there are a few hidden gems around the city like Monkey Wrench, which features great food and local bluegrass bands.

And lastly, Kentucky is famous for its bourbon.  So if you want to go out for a drink, skip the mass produced stuff and try a few samples from some of the local distilleries.  Or even better yet, check out the  Kentucky Bourbon Trail to go on a tour of all of them.

Kentucky Bourbon

Overall Thoughts

There’s a really good reason that the Kentucky Derby Mini Marathon is consistently ranked among the nation’s top 100 races by USA Track and Field.  The course is a bit hilly and challenging, but it’s also scenic and has a ton of crowd support and the overall event is very well organized.  Plus. with so much going on during the week leading up to the Kentucky Derby, there’s no doubt that any runners who travel to Louisville for race weekend will have an easy time finding things to do in and around the city.  I would definitely recommend this race to anyone that’s interested in checking it out, and my other piece of advice would be to not plan on going to Louisville just for the race.  Make sure you take a few extra days to enjoy the atmosphere and some of the other attractions that the city has to offer.

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