Race Review: Kentucky Derby Festival Marathon

“You’ve got what it takes, but it will take everything you’ve got.” – Author Unknown

WARNING: this is probably one of my longest posts yet ūüôā #sorryNotSorry
I ran the Kentucky Derby Festival Marathon on Saturday, which kicked off the Kentucky Derby. I know nothing at all about horse racing. I’m not one for bragging, but I have to say it: I hit the trifecta this weekend.
  1. Spent a weekend road tripping with some of my oldest friends and watched one of them run a five minute marathon PR ‚ąö
  2. ¬†Ran my own marathon PR/Earned a time for wave 1 in Boston 2017¬†‚ąö
  3. ¬†Won first overall female in said marathon and broke the tape crossing the finish line¬†‚ąö

After two years of trying for a PR and consistently coming up short, I finally did it. Ever since I ran my last marathon PR in 2014, I’ve tried it all. Coaches, training plans, weird recovery methods – just¬†name it – I did it. After 2014, some part of me thought I’d never see a sub-3:10 again, let alone run¬†a marathon PR (sub-3:06). Never say never.

Jenny and Kate have been my friends since fourth grade. We grew up together, living in the same neighborhood. Jenny was always the one who loved to run – I hated it. That’s a story for a different day. I mentioned my interest in the Kentucky Derby Marathon to Jenny. Perfect timing for the three of us to take a road trip.


We left Allentown at an ungodly hour on¬†Friday morning and made the ten hour trek to Kentucky. The ride was relaxing and uneventful. We focused on hydrating, relaxing, and carb loading the whole way down. We made it to the expo by mid afternoon, and easily found our way around town. First stop was to get our bibs and walk around the expo, which was bigger than I’d anticipated. I was unprepared for the race, but I knew there was also a half marathon and relay happening simultaneously. What I didn’t realize is that the entire field of runners totaled something like 15,000. I was pretty shocked when I rolled up and saw that it was an actual expo with merchandise and vendors – not just a table with our bibs, T-shirts, and a few packages of GU for sale.


The pasta party started at 5:30, so we killed some time by relaxing at a Starbucks downtown. We read the literature about the race in our packets and made some concrete plans for race morning. We also stressed over the forecast. Accuweather predicted temperatures in the 50s and rain, which was ideal. Weather.com painted a scarier picture. They forecasted severe thunderstorms, including hail and damaging winds.


We received¬†several emails from the race director telling us that they were¬†“monitoring the forecast closely and were confident the race would proceed as scheduled”. I worried the severe thunderstorms would cause them to cancel, or worse – start us, re-route us and¬†cut the race short. I liked Louisville, but I didn’t want to do another 10 hour trip to check that state off my list. Regardless of how much fun we had road tripping to Kentucky, I’d rather take my chances with the lightening and the hail. I have other states to run marathons in!


We headed to the pasta party, which I would recommend to anyone traveling to this race. We paid $20/person for the tickets and it was worth every penny. Not having to worry about finding a safe pre-race meal is worth more than $20. They had salad, pasta with marinara sauce, chicken and penne in an alfredo sauce, and garlic bread. Entry also included a free beer, and there was lemonade, water, and sweet tea available. For dessert, there was something called Derby Pie. It was a pecan pie with chocolate chips. Derby Pie had a photobooth set up and provided free photos for the runners.
photoboothOnce we ate our fill, we headed to our hotel to set out all of our race gear¬†and go to bed. We’d gotten up at 3 am that day to get an early start, so we wanted to get a good night’s sleep.
I woke up at 4:30 am and made some coffee. I relaxed, made breakfast (my sweet potato waffles and Just Great Stuff PB) and choked down a few bites of a banana. We left around 6am, and found a parking garage in downtown Louisville that seemed close to the start and finish of the race. We walked to the start, took a few pre-race photos and checked our gear.
Kate was volunteering at the finish line and headed off to check in with the other volunteers. I was in corral A, and Jenny was in corral E. Shortly after checking our gear, we parted ways and found our respective corrals.
I made my way to the front of the corral and chatted with some of the other runners. I like to be up front because I don’t like weaving around people – I think it takes up too much energy.¬†

This was my fifth weekend in a row racing (Kutztown Fools Run, Garden Spot Half Marathon, Boston, and St. Lukes Half), whether I was actually racing for myself or acting as a pacer. This was the final race of my spring season, and my legs were tired. I didn’t know what to expect from myself and didn’t have the same sort of lengthy list of goals I had for Boston. The¬†goals I gave myself this time were simple:

  • DO NOT¬†go out too fast. You didn’t train for sub-3, you trained for 3:05. Seven. Minute. Miles. !!!
  • Try to run a time that will get you into wave 1 in¬†Boston 2017 (something under 3:09). If¬†you¬†feel good, aim closer to that 3:05.
  • Have fun and check state¬†#31 off the list.
Miles 1-5
The national anthem was sung, and the race started promptly at 7:30am. Just like every other race, everyone shot out like racehorses (cheesy pun intended). I looked at my watch and felt like I was walking at a 6:16 pace. Seven. Minute. Miles. Slow down.


I slowed, and it felt like the whole field was passing me. At first, it¬†messed with my head. I reminded myself that¬†the half and full started together,¬†so some people were running the half and should¬†be running much faster than me. The first five miles weave through the city, and there are lots of turns. I focused on enjoying my surroundings, “not” breathing, consistent pacing, and running the tangents. It was overcast, but humid. I didn’t like the heat but knew it was going to rain.


I took my first GU at mile five. I bought all brand new GU flavors at the expo and thought it was a good idea to use all of them in the race (risky, but it ended up being fine). In Boston, my GU made me nauseous and I thought I might need to switch up the flavors. I figured it would keep me looking forward to my next GU and give me something to think about. First up, Chocolate Coconut Roctane. The verdict: YAS. Miles 1-5: 6:55, 6:58, 6:56, 6:56, 6:54.


Miles 6-10
I was feeling just okay – my legs felt decent but not completely fresh. My energy level was good, but not great. My stomach felt a little weird, but it wasn’t from the GU. It was sort of unsettled at the start of the race so I anticipated¬†it might be an issue at some point. At mile eight, you enter Churchill Downs and run through it. We went down a ramp and through a tunnel, and up the ramp on the other side to get into the Downs. When I ran through, the horses weren’t out, but everything was set up for the Derby. I was in awe.


We exited the Downs by running down a different ramp/tunnel and came back out onto the roads. Shortly after, the half marathoners broke off and the race really began. This is where the course turns into an “out and back” since you start running on a portion of the course that you have to return to downtown Louisville on. I began passing other runners, rather than being passed. It started to rain, and it¬†felt great. I prayed that the thunderstorms would hold off, and spied a female in the distance. I kept my pace steady, but passed her easily.¬†Seven. Minute. Miles. Slow down.¬†At 10, I took my next GU. Sea Salted Chocolate. Another winning flavor. Miles 6-10: 6:55, 6:56, 6:52, 6:52, 7:01.


Miles 11-15
Shortly after mile 11, we entered Iroquois Park. This is the section of course that’s supposed to be “hilly”. Up through this point, the race had been relatively flat: some false flats where we were gradually going up or down, but nothing noteworthy. We began to climb, and I kept bracing myself for a sharp, steep incline. I slowed down significantly to save my energy. I didn’t want to get burned out on the hills, especially since it was before the half marathon point.


Except the incline never came, and I sort of slowed down for nothing. When we reached the “peak” and began descending, I looked at a guy next to me and asked if that was the hill. He asked where I was from, and I said “Pennsylvania”. He laughed, and said, “Honey, that was the hill. I don’t think it’s going to register as much of a hill for you, though.”


We chatted for awhile¬†and I found it easy to talk, but I could tell he was running faster. I didn’t want to mess up his pace or force myself to speed up. I stayed on his tail but reminded myself to run my own race. He sped up a little, and I found myself running alone through the park. I was really enjoying myself and didn’t look at my watch much. I felt like I was at home running through Saucon Valley.


At the base of the park, we began to weave towards the road where you would begin to head “back” and I could see other runners up ahead. I saw the guy I had exchanged a few words with, and a female.¬†Seven. Minute. Miles. I didn’t change my pace, but I passed her easily within a few minutes. We smiled at each other and said¬†“good job”. The course began to feed back onto the road, and you could see oncoming runners entering the park that we were leaving. I removed one of my earbuds so I could start to look for Jenny, but also to hear if any of the oncoming runners would shout out what place I was. I thought, maybe I’m in the top 10!


Within minutes of entering the “back” portion of the course, I heard an oncoming runner yell, “3rd female! 3rd female!” I started looking around. Where is she? Maybe I can catch her. I couldn’t see any women up ahead. A few minutes later, an oncoming runner looked me square in the eyes and said, “Looking good, #3!”¬†What? Me?


I knew¬†(because I looked this up for shits and giggles) that there was significant prize money, and 3rd place was $500. It was like someone flipped a switch and I was running a new race. I was hunting down the rest of the women ahead of me, but I also realized I was being hunted. Rihanna’s “Work” was playing so I kept one earbud in and played that song on repeat.¬†I took another GU at mile 15: Salted Caramel. Hey, I’ve had this one before…yup, YUM. Miles 11-15: 6:56, 7:20 (the “hill”), 6:57, 7:06, 6:54.


Miles 16-20
I saw Jenny coming and I saw her facial expression when she realized it was me. She screamed, “Allie, you’re THIRD!” I slapped her five, and just kept “working” (work, work, work, work, work). I heard someone say, “Looking strong, #3! #2 is only a few seconds ahead of you!” What? I started scanning the runners ahead of me and saw a flash of bright orange. There was she was, probably only about a quarter mile ahead of me. It’s mile 16. Do not race this woman at mile 16.¬†Seven. Minute. Miles.


I was moving a bit faster, but it was because of the¬†adrenaline. I kept the effort as controlled as I could. Before I knew it, I was passing her almost as if she were¬†standing still. She looked panicked and asked me if there were any other females close by. I told her I passed one back in Iroquois Park, miles ago. I encouraged her to run with me and chase down the first place female, and she got a little defensive. “She’s been leading the race since the beginning and looks REALLY strong. Good luck.” I found out later they’re friends and training partners, so I get it. If someone was passing me and hunting down one of my friends, I’d probably have a similar reaction.


We were entering a section of the course where it¬†feeds in with the half marathon runners that hadn’t finished yet, but were¬†separated by a metal fence. We were¬†all moving in the same direction, but on separate sides of the road. ¬†The half marathoners that caught sight of me would cheer and tell me I was in second place. I had no idea how close the first place female was to me, so my focus was now on staying ahead of 3rd place. Around mile 18, I spotted¬†her. The first place female was running with a guy and the course marshall¬†that was her bike escort was riding next to them. From further away, she looked strong. Do NOT¬†race this woman at mile 18. Stay back. Be patient. She doesn’t know you’re here, so you have the upper hand. Seven. Minute. Miles.


I didn’t speed up, but before mile 19 I was starting to gain on her quickly. At mile 19, the guy she was running with spotted me and did a double take. I wasn’t speeding up, and I continued running my pace. I realized that hanging with her (or just behind her) would mean slowing down.


I weighed my options and made a choice. If I were going to pass her, I needed to put enough distance between us so¬†it wouldn’t result in an all out sprint in the last .2. My odds of winning if it came down to that would likely not be in my favor. It happened at the Quakertown 10 Miler.¬†I don’t know if I just didn’t want that one badly enough, or if I really just need to work on my kick. I didn’t want to take that chance here and find out. I politely told her “nice job” as I was passing her. I told myself to focus, hang on for dear life, and drop her.


Regardless of how good I felt in that moment, I knew the rest of the race was not going to be easy. I knew the last 10K would likely hurt more than running has ever hurt in my whole life. Hitting mile 20 is usually a welcomed milestone for me in a marathon. This time I knew it meant 42-ish minutes of running in fear of being passed and trying to hold on to my pace. At mile 20, I grabbed another GU. Maple Bacon. Eh. Not terrible. Miles 16-20: 6:36 (I got excited), 6:57, 6:41, 6:48, 6:48.


Miles 21-26
I was running scared that second place would catch me. I knew a PR was likely, so my adrenaline was going. I started¬†to feel a little fatigued¬†and remembered¬†Megan’s advice: no breathing until mile 20. Now was¬†the time to give it everything I have. My splits during¬†these miles were not as fast as 16-20, but my legs felt surprisingly good. I was consistently passing men, and passed the guy I’d spoken to briefly in Iroquois Park.


Sometime after mile 20, the course marshall on bike said, “I’m your bike escort today and will be bringing you in.” I noticed a sign on the bike that said “Female Marathon Leader”. That was ME! Is this really happening right now? I removed my iPod completely and tucked it into my bra. These¬†last miles¬†might hurt more than anything I’ve ever done, but I was not going to miss one second of it.


The half marathoners were still on the left, but some sections were not fenced off. They would begin to trickle onto the “marathon” side of the road (the right side) and the course marshall would loudly blow his whistle and tell them to get out of the way – for ME! The stream of half marathon runners would¬†cheer loudly as I ran by as¬†they caught sight of me.


When we approached a water stop or a section of course with spectators, the course marshall would call out, “Female marathon leader! First place female!” The crowd would cheer, and I got¬†goosebumps every single time. Finally, around mile 22.5, the course veered off from the half marathoners. I could hear the course marshall on the radio: “Mile 22.5, lead female. Bib number 184.” Is this real life?¬†I decided to take one more GU to try to keep me as energized as possible for the last 5K. A 5K. You just ran one of those in 18:48. You can do that in 21 minutes. You can do this today. Vanilla Spice. Not my favorite.


The course was much quieter now that the marathon course didn’t include the half marathoners. I wanted so badly to look over my shoulder and see if I could see second¬†place. I refused to do it. Instead, I started chatting with the course marshall. His name was Murphy, and he was the president of their local bike club. We chatted about Louisville, biking, and he asked where I was from. I told him how I drove here from Allentown, and I was running in Kentucky as part of my quest to run a marathon in each state. He was so excited that he kept radioing information about me to whoever was waiting at the finish line.


Before I knew it, it was mile 24. Murphy stopped abruptly and looked over his shoulder. I worried immediately that second¬†place was gaining on me. Could I pick up the pace right now? Could I “race” her?¬†I felt okay, but I didn’t know if I could possibly go any faster. He resumed¬†his position riding¬†next to me again, and I asked if she was close. His reply was not at all what I expected: “I can’t even see her. I can see a few blocks in the distance, and she isn’t there. This is your day, baby.” I was speechless.


At mile 25, I was still talking to Murphy but we were getting closer to the finish line. There were tons of spectators and we were re-joining the course with the half, and everyone who saw me coming was cheering loudly. I was smiling from ear to ear and I kept saying to Murphy, “I can’t believe this is happening right now! I never won a marathon before!” At mile 25.5, he said to me, “Okay baby, this is it – around that turn is as far as I can go.” I thanked him for keeping me company over the past few miles. I half contemplated hugging him, but I probably would have knocked him off his bike. I saw the marker for mile 26 and that’s when I started to cry. Miles 21-26: 6:46, 7:05, 7:12, 7:03, 6:58, 7:14.


Mile 26.2
I turned a corner and saw the finish line, and saw two people holding finish line tape –¬†for ME! I probably looked like the biggest dork, but I was smiling, cheering loudly, and fist pumping the entire way to the finish line. I didn’t care. I did it.


Two years. Two years of miles, races, injuries, blisters, tears, and disappointment. Two years of trying everything I possibly could for this moment.¬†I put in the work, got myself to that starting line and dragged my ass 26.2 miles in 3:02:19. A 6:57 overall pace. A¬†brand new PR by four minutes and 37 seconds, and first overall female. I won a marathon. It was overwhelming, and it was all worth it. I don’t know if I could ever repeat that performance, but on that rainy day in Louisville for 3:02:19, I got to be a rockstar.


Another highlight of my day: I got to break finish line tape! I always wanted to do that. How fitting that the first time I get to do that, it’s in a marathon.
Kate was volunteering at the finish line and handing out medals. She was standing there as I crossed, waiting for me with my medal. She placed it around my neck and we both started jumping up and down and crying. Someone was placing a heat blanket around me, and the race director guided me over to a VIP tent where they started handing me things. A bouquet of flowers, a ceramic plate, a bottle of champagne, chocolate milk. They had me take pictures immediately, and I had no time to even think about it. I was starting to get really cold since I stopped running and it hadn’t stopped raining so I was drenched. The pictures they took were pretty terrible, but Kate got a good one:
This is the one they used on Facebook and Twitter:
Kate took my bib and got my gear bag for me, and I saw the next two girls finish. They were the girls I saw on the course, only the one who had originally led the race for 19 miles ended up taking 3rd. They came over and introduced themselves to me. I ended up having much more of a lead than I realized.
In addition to the flowers, a ceramic plate, and some booze, I won more money than I’ve ever won…ever, for anything! The prize for first place was $1500. I still can’t even wrap my head around the whole weekend, let alone winning money.¬†It’s Tuesday, and I’m still riding that high and wondering if it all really happened. I had to go back to work today, and it felt so surreal. I feel like I just woke up from a dream.


What makes this experience extra special to me is that I finally feel like I earned the time on that clock. Even when I ran that 3:06 in Charlevoix, I never specifically trained for that – or anything close to that. That day, the stars were aligned. I felt good, took a risk, and got lucky. The purpose of¬†that race¬†was to show¬†me the potential was there. What I didn’t understand was that I needed to put in¬†the work if I wanted to do it again and improve. You’ve got what it takes, but it will take everything you’ve got. I spent the remainder¬†of 2014 and all of¬†2015 expecting to break my PR as easy as it came to me. While I wish I would have been able to PR earlier, this is a lesson I needed to learn.


I am grateful and humbled by this experience. I don’t just mean the race experience itself, but by the past two years. ¬†The first thing I did when I had a moment to begin to process everything¬†was go back and read my Indianapolis post. I promised myself I would do that if I ever ran a marathon PR again to remind myself that PRs are not to be taken for granted. I’m taking this time to enjoy my recent success, but also to reflect on the journey.¬† Running is hard – physically and mentally.¬†And with that in mind, I will recover: physically, I’ll be kind to myself and relax. Mentally, I’ll remind myself that anything worth having is worth working for, and that nothing good ever comes easy. When I begin again, I’ll remember¬†the lessons I’ve learned over the past two years and hopefully, I’ll grow from them.


Thank you – from the bottom of my heart – for reading and supporting me. ‚ô•



139 Replies to “Race Review: Kentucky Derby Festival Marathon”

  1. Congratulations!!!! I got chills reading this and felt like I was experiencing every emotion with you. Wow. Just WOW. Breaking the finish line tape! I just love that picture. I loved the final thought you shared, about anything worth having is worth fighting for. That’s a message all of us runners can relate to. Again, a huge congrats to you!

  2. I’m a little late to the recap party but OMG this is one of the best posts ever. I felt like I was running there with you. Congratulations – this was so deserved and I’m so happy that you got your PR and to break the tape. SO much awesome!

  3. and I read this again. This might be my favorite blog post ever. ūüôā AND –this time reading through, not taking PR’s for granted–thank you for the reminder. I need to stop being such a baby when I PR, but thought i can do better. ‚̧ Have a great weekend!

    1. Awwwwwwwwww ‚̧ Seriously lady, thank you so much for your support. I do know that feeling though – when you run a PR but know you had more in you. That's how I felt for the past two years. I never mean to come off sounding like I am unhappy with the time on the clock, because I know the paces we run are often the paces others dream of. But it's hard to be happy when you know deep down you have more in you. It's like…bittersweet. You CRUSHED that last half marathon, but I have no doubt that a sub 90 minute day is coming in your VERY near future!!! You are awesome!

  4. I’ve been absent from the blogosphere lately, but had to come on and read about your big win and brand-spankin’ new PR ūüôā Major congrats again Allison!
    You ran an incredibly smart race! And how cool that you had Murphy with you over the last 10k to bring you in while protecting you from other runners getting in your way! Now you can say you’re semi-pro after winning over 1 grand for winning a race ūüėČ
    Enjoy your recovery this month!

    1. Thank you, Amber!!!! It was like all the stars were finally aligned again! It was such a fun course and an awesome race – I highly recommend the event. Some people say they think that course is hilly, but I kind of thought it was REALLY flat – a little blip in the park, but besides that – FLAT! Get down there and run it!!!!

  5. I will be running the KY Derby race this weekend and I did something I hardly ever do, I googled race reviews and here I am. Yes, here I am wth tears in my eyes for I too felt like I ran every step with you! What a race you had!
    How amazing is that! You are so very humbled by this and even though I don’t know you, I don’t have too, I’m a runner and we all share some of the same emotions in a race no matter how slow we are.
    Congratulations to you on your win Allison and thank you for sharing it with us!

    1. Oh my goodness!! GOOD LUCK THIS WEEKEND!!! I loved that race soooo much. Thank you so much for reading! I took a little blogging break (and a running break after that race – whew!) but I logged into today and saw your comment. Thanks for reading, and let me know what you think of the race!

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