The Grand Canyon, PA half-marathon and marathon races were held on July, 26 and July, 27. You can do the half, the full or decided to “rock the canyon” which basically means you are doing both races. I decided to “rock the canyon” and signed up for both! The races are not very expensive considering what you get: about $80 for the full, $45 for the half and $110 for both. Considering the price of some events, this is definitively worth it: you can enjoy the fresh air of the mountain and have some space to run. Nothing to compare with events like Disney which charges you more than anybody else to run on roads open to traffic packed with people stopping every two steps without going on the right side of the road!
My partner in crime and I drove to Wellsboro, PA on Friday, the day before the race. As we wanted to support the event sponsors, we stayed to the hotel that sponsored the race, the Penn Wells Lodge (which was a huge mistake, more on that later). The drive was 4 hours from Pittsburgh, not too bad at all. The hotel has a swimming pool, a hot tube and other facilities you will enjoy. But, as the Walt Disney Marathon, this hotel was a mess, but I will discuss that later. After getting there lately, we decided to go for dinner early. Most of the places were closed and we ended up in a Steakhouse in Main Street. Our experience was almost as good as the one with the hotel: I would get better service and food at McDonalds. If you are looking for a good place, I would rather recommend the Wellsboro House, not too far from the hotel (if you are willing to book in that place …). They have a great service, are accommodating with special diets and very friendly!
Heading back to the hotel, I asked if this was possible to get a late breakfast on Saturday. The race started at 07am and after completing, we had to come back with a shuttle, which might take about one hour total. After all, if they are the official hotel for the event, they should be “runner compliant” and accommodating? However, the staff reported they had no intention for doing such a favor and the service will end at 10am no matter what. I asked also if it was possible to extend the hours a little bit and explained why (the half marathon started at 7am but you need to take a bus to go to the starting line and come back) but again, they were not willing to do so. Apparently, “customer service” is not something well known in that place. About the hotel itself and the rooms: the walls are so thin that you hear your neighbor pretty well and surprise, the bathroom have mold! Not the best place to stay.
Packet Pick up
Packet pick up was held on a School, where the shuttle to the race started. It was well organized with a swag that contains all the necessary information to go to the starting line and visit the area. There was not so many vendors but anyway, do you really shop a lot during race expos? On the other hand, there was a nice local chocolate/candy vendor. I was not able to refrain myself from buying some of them, pretending I cannot go there without trying the local specialties.
The race started at 07am but you have to take a shuttle to get there. The last shuttle leaves at 0545am and it is really better to be there before to avoid congestion. By taking this last one, you are on the course at the latest by 0630am. There is a lot of port-o-potty when you exit the buses but … none next to the starting line. Which is a big issue because people had to go back and forth between the pick up location and the starting line.
The race started on time with a friendly weather. Part of it is on the road but most on dirty road. Elevation is not too steep, but, having trained in Pittsburgh, this might not be the best reference. The course go through the Grand Canyon and you have one or two great views (see below).
There are water stops every 2 miles or so, so, you will not be dehydrated as long as you keep taking a sip at every stop. There was no “real food” at the water stops, only gels but nothing else. On the other hand, this is not a big issue on a half-marathon, as such a distance can be completed without food. On the other hand, this might be an issue for the marathon (more on that later).
The big issue was the port-o-potty: there was almost none on the course. While I do not really care because my GI system is made of titanium, this can be a big issue for other runners who are more sensible. I have seen only one port-o-potty on the half-marathon course while there was 10+ of them at the starting line. This is a real downside for the half. Some might argue that you can go in the nature but this is clearly not an option for others. The elevation profile is not too difficult. There is no steep hill but no “flat part” at all. So, you just alternate up and down hills. Just have to be used to this type of course, which is not an issue when you come from Pittsburgh.
Once you finished, you received a medal. The results are updated regularly during the party on a board. You get a nice box for food, extra fruits (apple, banana) and pretzels are also available. But not having a port-o-potty at the finish (they are at 0.5 mile so you need to walk) is really inconvenient. This is very unfortunate because all the rest (transportation, course, schedule, results) is well executed and makes this event a great one!
Once you are done and if you did not shit your pant, a bus service takes you from the race to the parking lot so that you can bring your car. It takes about 30 minutes to come back.
We came back to the hotel at 10:02. Fortunately, the hotel staff was wrapping up the breakfast area. Just on time to try to grab some stuff to take as a post-race refuel. At that time, I had no t-shirt, I took it off after the race because if the heat and having blood on my chest (you know, this runner issue …). While I thanked the staff for letting the breakfast a little bit lately, I got the following friendly reply: “put a shirt: no shirt, no service, this is the law”. I was just amazed how unfriendly with their customers.
The afternoon was the opportunity to visit the area around Wellsboro, rest and prepare for the Marathon the next day. The bib, t-shirt and other stuff were included in the packet I took on Friday, so, no need to come back to the expo. To sum up, the area is great and this is definitively worth to drive around and look at great lookouts. If you planned to go there, consider to take a GPS or a map: you have no cell service at all the the directions are not clearly mentioned. So, this is easy to get lost quickly.
On race day, after waking up at 0430, I saw the hotel staff preparing the breakfast area and asked if I can get a bagel as I was preparing for the day (coffee, breakfast, etc.). The staff told me that: “breakfast will be served in 20 minutes” (in other words, when the shuttle was leaving … so convenient when racing!) and that it is not the rule to serve breakfast before the time. The staff also mentioned that if they give me something, they have to give to all hotel customers. Surprisingly, this does not seem obvious for the hotel to give to their customers what they paid for. I can understand such a service from a normal hotel that is not prepared to accommodate needs for customers with special constraints. But considering they sponsored the event and claimed they were runner friendly, I do not know why they were not more accommodating. The manager might be french or just rude and unfriendly.
As for the half, the marathon starts at 0700am. You have to get a shuttle as well to go to the starting line. As being said before, the main issue is the port-o-potty that are not next to the starting line. There are 10 next to the buses but this is 0.5 mile from the starting line to that, if you want to make a break, you have to come back and forth. Definitively not convenient.
The marathon route go through the same area as the half. Basically, the first part covers the half marathon (except the road part) and go further. There are some hills, while they are not too steep: the biggest elevation is 200 feet, which is not to difficult. What might turn you down is that there is almost no flat area. So, you will constantly go either up or down. Just have to deal with it.
The course is an out and back, so, one you get to the 13-ish miles point, you just turn and hope that your pants are still clean. For an obvious reason: there are no more port-o-potty than for the half! On the marathon, there is only 2 places you can get some rest! So, if you ate the fettuccine alfredo the night before, pray for the best. Otherwise, pack some toilet paper and prepare yourself for a great experience with mother nature.
There are water stops every two miles as well, so, the race is doable without an hydration pack. On the other hand, the food available at the water stop is really limited (same as the half): gels at miles 4-ish, gels + banana at mile 14-ish. I am glad that I packed energy bars and asked my partner in crime to bring some extra! This is also definitively a big downside and could be easily fixed (get a costco card and buy some packs of candy or pretzels would be more than enough!). If having limited food for a half is not a big issue, this can be inconvenient for a full.
Once you finish, you receive the medal and, if you completed the half the day before, get an extra-medal for completing both races. On my side, I received an additional reward for having finished 3rd in my age group in the marathon. As for the half, you get a box with food when you arrived and the selection is actually very good as well.
As for the half, a shuttle gives you a ride back to the parking lot (it takes 30 minutes). But be quick: the hotel that sponsored the race allowed a late checkout at 1pm instead of originally … 12pm! In other words, if you completed your marathon in 4:30 or 5:00 (which is common for many runners), this is almost impossible to check out on time! And do not even think about taking a shower!
Many runners asked before to get a late checkout 2/3pm and the hotel previously acknowledged. But upon arrival, they distribute a paper indicating they changed their mind and asked for a checkout at 1pm. This issues with the hotel also impacts the overall week-end experience. Considering that you pay almost $130/night for a room with mold, no breakfast and rude and unfriendly staff, you just feel that these folks just make fun of you.
- Course well organized: timing was available, results posted quickly
- Schedule on time: at the latest during the afternoon
- Bus shuttle from the start to the parking lot: lots of shuttle, pretty quick to get there
- Packet pick up and expo was simple with just what we need!
- No car, scenic and offer the opportunity to discover a scenic area: this is a unique opportunity to race in this region.
Suggestions for Improvements
- Put several port-o-potty at least every 5 miles: Having limited space for them is understandable. On the other hand, having only 2 for 26.2 miles is definitively not sufficient. Having at least 3 every 5 miles would be more than appreciated.
- Sponsor the course by Scott: is the organizers cannot put more port-o-potty, I suggest we replace an existing shitty sponsor (Penn Wells Hotel) by an appropriate one.
- Have a real runner-friendly hotel: the Penn Wells Lodge was everything but friendly and accommodating for runners.
- Having a Rock the Canyon results: for those who completed the rock the canyon, having some specific rankings would be useful. Making the half or the full is though but completing both is another story and knowing there you placed among the participants could be useful.
- More food option on the road: the food at the finish is more than enough (the package is great!). But having more options on the road (especially for people who do not like gels) will be greatly appreciated. This might be easily fixed by making a trip to costco and buy candies, pretzels and other high-carb food for runners.
- Provide a copy of the well-known book “How to shit in the Woods” (great reference by the way)
This race is definitively a great one. Not having portable toilets might be an issue for some but most of runners would not have any issue at all. I would just recommend to be prepared (wither not to eat anything heavy and/or take baby wipes with you). But this is a minor issue considering the race, the nice lookout and the unique opportunity to run in these mountains with adequate support. If you like the nature and are looking for a great race, I definitively recommend it. Just do not stay at the Penn Wells, there are better and cheaper places in the area!