Race Review: 2017 Gate River Run (3/11/2017), or: “Early morning sunshine, tell me all I need to know…”

NOTE: I’d love to include lots of photos of the race in this race review. I mean, that would be 37 flavors of awesome, am I right? Sadly as it were, 904 Fitness was hired by the Gate River Run race organizers to take and upload all race photos, and here we are 11 days after the event with a whole lot of nothing. So while I have included lots of pics from before and after the race, you won’t find any that occurred DURING the event. Once photos are available, I will most likely update this review.

904 Fitness, get your act together. The Gate River Run is a cherished annual event. It is hardly amateur hour. Stop acting like it.

The Gate River Run had to live up to a lot of hype.

I’m not kidding either; it seems like every other Florida runner is always talking about this 15K, how much fun it is, how the crowd support is through the roof, that it attracts Olympians and Elites alongside everyday runners, joggers, and walkers, that the course is beautiful and the after-party is sick insane fun, that the registration fee is very low but the amenities are world class, and so on and so forth. And then of course there’s this:

The Hart Bridge. The Green Monster. The great big fun challenge near the end of the race. An emerald windmill waiting to be charged by 15-thousand would-be Don Quixotes. Or Donna Quixotes. Or anywhere in between. We don’t judge or assume here at Hokeyblog, except for those times when we do. But this ain’t one of them.

Anyway, I was looking for a mid-March race to explore, but something I hadn’t previously done. I absolutely adore the Sarasota Half Marathon — it’s my favorite Florida half — but I’ve done it thrice before. I tried the Excalibur 10-Miler and I’m entirely one-and-done with that race, and let’s leave it at that. So after being severely peer-pressured by some local running buddies, I decided to give the 2017 Gate River Run a shot.

So what was the verdict? Was the race experience worth the 4.5 hour schlep up to Jacksonville? Is the Gate River Run a contender for one of the best races in Florida? Did Boots insist upon stopping at every Wawa on the I-95 corridor between Ft. Pierce and Daytona?

Let’s jump right in…

Since Boots and I were driving up from Ft. Lauderdale the night before the race, there was no way we were able to make it to Packet Pickup before race day. As out-of-towners, we elected to pay $5 for race day pickup. I was not a fan of having to pay for an option that many other races offer for free, but then again with 15-thousand runners participating in the 15K the race organizers did not want to encourage procrastination. The expo was opening at 7:00 AM that morning (with a race start at 8:30), so we left the hotel at 6:30 and soon found ourselves parked near the Jacksonville Fairgrounds and EverBank Field stadium.

After some initial confusion, we eventually reached the Fairgrounds and found the Expo:

It was a bit chaotic right inside the entrance, but once we entered the expo area things were a lot more manageable. I picked up my bib, while Boots got hers for the 5K (they offer a host of races that day: 15K, 5K, Challenge Mile, Junior Mile, and Diaper Dash). Due to an apparent shortage, they only offered two safety pins per bib. I secured four anyhow, because I’m a sneaky bastard like that.

It was cool and breezy that morning — mid 50s — but it felt fantastic. After we got our bibs, Boots and I hung out in the Fairgrounds (which was the site of the post-race celebration), snapping pics and people-watching, as we had some time to kill.

Around 7:30 I decided to make my way over to the Start area and corrals, whereas Boots’s 5K start area was closer to the Fairgrounds area. I was in Wave 1, Green Corral, and the race organizers were VERY strict about who could enter each corral. Getting into the Wave 1 area took a LOT longer than it should have, because too many people who hadn’t qualified with a proof-of-time thought they could bargain or shmooze their way in… thus holding up the line for somewhat annoyed runners behind them.

That was taken after I got into the corral. One jerk would hold it up for dozens. Madness.

Right around here I bumped into my local Beast Mode buddies: Mishele, Emily, Robyn, Gina, and Kelly. We chatted it up for awhile then of course posed for a fine group pic:

It behooves me to repeat: single dudes, start running NOW.

The pre-race energy was through the roof. It’s hard to ignore, what with thousands of runners around you on a picture-perfect morning. While it was starting to warm up ever so slightly, it still felt like great running weather. And it was. By the time I was settled into the Green Wave corral, I was SO ready to take on this race.

I also randomly found and got a kiss on the cheek from my buddy (and fellow Best Damn Race Ambassador) Jessica, which was long overdue since the time she thought I was trying to sniff her ear last January at the Walt Disney World Marathon. Turning a single moment of extreme awkwardness into an awesomely goofy long-running gag is one of those small pleasures in life.

And then I took a selfie, because ehh:

Then we had the National Anthem (pre-recorded, Whitney Houston) and with a cannon shot, the race was on! At right around 8:30, I crossed the Start Line, clicked my Garmin, and was off and running. My race had begun!

The 2017 Gate River Run!

Do I even have to tell you what’s coming next, courtesy of my Garmin 920XT watch and Google Maps:

The course begins on Gator Bowl Boulevard, adjacent to EverBank Field. It continues west onto Bay Street, looping around North and Monroe, taking a southward turn on Ocean St. It continues south onto Main Street and over the Main Street Bridge, looping around Riverplace onto San Marco Boulevard. Just past Mile 3, the course turns onto River Road and takes a 2-mile trip through the San Marco neighborhoods. After a mile on Atlantic Boulevard, the course takes a loop through the St. Nicholas neighborhoods. Exiting back onto Atlantic, the course turns on Alt-1 at Mile 7.75 and begins the ascent up Hart Bridge, passing Mile 8 up to its peak. From there, it’s a straight shot downhill for the remainder of the race, reaching the Finish Line at Mile 9.3 at EverBank Field.

My overall strategy was to treat the race as a 9.3 mile training run, to run it well but not kill it or anything. My running “interval” consisted of running to each water stop and walking while I drank, and that worked well enough for me. That said, I got caught up in the opening excitement and ran that first mile slightly faster than I probably should have for a training run. Rookie mistake. I slowed it down afterward. Whether by choice or not, I’ll leave that up to your imagination…

By the way, it’s ridiculously mean to make runners pass this ginormous Maxwell House plant that reeks of delicious hot coffee when they have a good 8.5 miles to go.

Anyway I have to say, this was a pretty great run. The crowd support was everything they said it was, and then some. We’re talking locals out there with beers, mimosas, shots, popsicles, fruit, barbeque, cookies, chips, you name it, they probably had it. There were bands stationed throughout the race playing classic rock hits, and even local homeowners ready to spray you down with a hose if you needed it. And then there were the throngs of cheering spectators, lining almost the entirety of the race. OK sure, “Worst Parade Ever” is the Lamest Sign Ever, but I appreciate anyone out there holding it up.

It was a glorious day, but as the sun rose it started to warm up. The humidity was super low so it never felt oppressive, but I could see it starting to affect people. Including myself. I didn’t have any dramatic slowdowns or anything of that nature — I kept things pretty steady — but I was pretty appreciative of whatever shade was offered.

But the good news was that it wasn’t even remotely close to TOO hot, and the breeze was cool and constant. Plus we had some pretty keen scenery: running alongside the St. Johns River as we headed into the scenic San Marco neighborhood, and pretty much the entirety of the St. Nicholas area, provided us with some pretty scenic views and pretty things to look at. Like a lot of us runners. Damn we’re sexy people. You don’t think I’m talking about you. But I am. Yes you. The one with the face…

There was one moment that was excruciatingly awful for one person and comic gold for pretty much everyone else. Just before Mile 6, I witnessed this poor guy run directly into a fire hydrant… with his testicles.

He was OK though; he got up and kept on running. But I’m almost entirely sure someone was singing soprano that evening.

Anyway, I didn’t really stop for pictures or partake in much of the crowd-support goodies; I kept on running and enjoying the race. Lots of high energy and good spirits abounded, which was great because turning left onto Alt-Route 1… there it was.

That was the only picture I took during the race. We knew it was coming, and finally, without pretense, it appeared. The Green Monster. I put my phone away and kept running up the entire damn thing. Slower, sure, but without breaks. I have the Big Sur Marathon at the end of April, after all. This was just hill training.

If anything running up Hart Bridge reminded me of traversing the Verrazano Bridge at the New York Marathon. It afforded us an amazingly picturesque view of St. Johns River and downtown Jacksonville. The wind buffeted us quite a bit at the peak, but it felt so exhilerating at that point it hardly mattered.

And here was the best part of the race: after reaching the peak of Hart Bridge, the rest of the race is almost entirely downhill!

No kidding, either. I didn’t exactly gun it to the Finish Line at a high sprint, but however my pace was impacted by running up the bridge, it evened out on the downhill portion. With EverBank Field in clear sight, the course took an exit off the bridge and into the complex. All of it, straight downhill. Righteous.

I took that final left turn and entered the chute to the Finish Line. Spectators were lining both sides and cheering voraciously as I made my way to and crossed the Finish Line. My total time was 1:32:34. Respectable enough for me, and I’ll take it. But first things first, let’s get that bling shot:

Boots and I had a scheduled meet-up spot back at the Fairgrounds, which TOTALLY COINCIDENTALLY happened to not only be the same spot where our Beast Mode buddies were meeting up, but right next to the Beer Truck as well. Can you imagine that?? Boots was already getting a beer when I queued up way in the back. It was a long, long line, but it moved quickly. Boots met me while I was in line, holding two beers, and handed me one. I polished it off by the time I got to the front.

The rule was, you were allowed to walk away with as many beers as you could carry. I thought I was pretty badass with my three cups of beer.

HAH! Nathan managed seven:

And Mishele one-upped him with a total of NINE:

Notice Mishele is wearing a Top 10% Finisher hat. That’s some righteous stuff right there.

Anyway, what a bunch of drunks were are. Check out this shot:

 

We managed to procure a decent stretch of grass for everyone to hang out and celebrate. We met up with the aforementioned Nathan and Mishele, along with Robyn, Kelly, Shawn, Iris, Sonya, Bo, Emily, and Gina, and proceeded to get positively silly. So behold the Positively Silly Gallery:

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

The After Party was really hopping, pals. Lots of people swarming about, with food and drink and music and energy. Certainly we were not lacking for beer at any time. But that didn’t stop us from heading over to the River City Brewing Company to continue the festivities. The food there was fantastic, the drinks were magnificent, and the servers, due to several employees calling in sick that day, were massively understaffed. We were there a good three hours before leaving to head back home, but having such a damn fine time of it that it hardly mattered. Try the meatloaf and fried pickles and Bloody Marys, and tell ’em Hokeydude sent you.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

So did the 2017 Gate River Run live up to the hype? Oh holy heck, yeah. I had a great time, it was a great course, the people of Jacksonville really supported us every step of the way, and everything about the morning was pretty much an enjoyable romp. I’m already gunning to come back next year and beat my time, now that I know what to expect. I’m ready for another round (of racing and fried pickles). So consider this yet another hearty endorsement from your pals at Hokeyblog. And here’s the video, featuring the inimitable Dickie Betts: