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Last weekend (May 31-June1), I traveled with 20+ friends to Niagara Falls, Ontario (Canada) to do the Niagara Falls Women’s Half Marathon. You may remember that I did the inaugural NFWH in 2012, and I’m happy to tell you that the event has only gotten bigger and better.

The women I traveled with were of various paces/abilities and most were fairly new runners. Several were actually running their very first half and the NFWH was a great place to do it. A women’s race is always a really supportive environment, but…even more so when you bring 23 girlfriends with you.

Here’s my take on the race — the good, the bad & the ugly.

The good:

1. Katherine Switzer. This year’s event was particularly awesome because Katherine Switzer, the first woman to ever run the Boston Marathon despite the race director’s attempts to physically remove her from the course, was there. And when I say she was there, I don’t just mean she made an appearance. She was the packet-pickup signing autographs for free, and then was roaming around before the race signing bibs for those who didn’t get a chance to get them signed at pickup (which actually caused a problem, but we’ll get to that later). She also gave a talk before we started…and, then, was out on the course giving high-fives at the 2nd mile and, later, was in the finish chute — again handing out cheers, high-fives and hugs. God love her for hugging sweaty women for hours on end. She’s the real deal, folks.

Katherine Switzer signing Steph's bib.

Katherine Switzer signing Steph’s bib.

Me holding Katherine's coffee while she signs.

Me holding Katherine’s coffee while she signs autographs.

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– Me hugging Katherine at the finish line.

2. Our sparkle skirts. We all bought matching skirts in a rainbow of colors, which I worried might be A.) too small, B.) too itchy, C.) too teen-agey (yeah, I’m making up words now), but they were none of those things. I actually loved the skirts, and I they really helped us look like a team without being too matchy-matchy.  PLUS…it was super easy to spot our teammates on the course.

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3. The course. The course is sort of a lopsided T — you run out and go left, passing the falls twice before backtracking and eventually crossing a small bridge/road that leads to a winding park along the river. It would be nice if the falls part were at the end (the mist is so nice!) instead of the very beginning, but I know they do it that way to minimize the amount of time they have to close access to the falls (the roads are completely closed).

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4. The city. Niagara Falls, Ontario, is much nicer, cleaner, and classier than the American side of the falls. Sure, there are still plenty of silly haunted houses, criminal hall of fame exhibits, and celebrity wax museums, but it’s not as sleezy, sketchy or run-down as the American side.

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5. Saturday night dinner. We ate at Mamma Mia’s, which was a four or five-block walk from our hotel and one of many restaurant choices in the area. The food was great, the service was good, we had nearly the entire second floor to ourselves. I had the best chicken, potatoes and beans that I think I’ve ever had (I don’t buy into the carbo-loading pasta thing). They also didn’t give us any grief about separate checks.

Molson counts as carbo loading, right?

Molson counts as carbo loading, right?

6. Our hotel. We stayed at the Courtyard Marriott, which was one of the sponsor hotels. It was just a few miles from the race start (and we had no trouble getting there on race day morning) and surrounded by restaurants and shops. It was one of the largest hotel rooms I’ve ever been in. We had four in our room, but could’ve easily slept 6 or more (the couch pulled out).  Also…it had two great pools (one outdoor with a big, curly slide) and a hot tub. None of us thought to bring our bathing suits though. (But…this would be a great hotel to stay in with kids!). They, too, were happy to split the cost of our room four ways, allowing each of us to pay with our own cards.

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7. The swag bag. Hands-down the best swag bag I’ve ever received (and you know I’ve done a ton of races). It’s HEAVY when you’re done walking through the line, collecting free wine (a full bottle for everyone), makeup, shampoo, chap stick, etc.

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8. The Race Director. This guy laying in front of us is Ross and he is pretty awesome. He’s a race director who seems to truly enjoy the job. Send him a question and he will answer you almost immediately. Got a concern? He’ll address it right away. Want to make a suggestion? He’s actually listening (and makes the changes when he can).

Group pix with Race Director, Ross.

Group pix with Race Director, Ross.

9. The attention to detail. The porta potties have fresh flowers, hand sanitizer, lotion, and inspirational signs in them. The finish line food is all boxed up to make it easy for you to carry it (and it’s good stuff…fruit AND cookies). The medals are draped around your neck by firefighters. There’s a bunch of hot guys lifting weights at the 8th mile — Muscle Beach, they called it. They have a guy standing on a course with a sign pointing out toilets nearby. They hand out little cups of M&Ms at the 11th mile. And…..

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10. Ice-cold wet washcloths at the finish line. OH. MY. GOD. This was about the most perfect thing you can hand a woman at the end of a long race. Seriously. It was just Heavenly — especially because it was a hot, sunny day.

11. Shirts. The race director must have listened to the complaints about the super-ugly shirts the first year because this year’s shirts were much improved — boat-neck, purple shirts with the word “Empowered” on the chest.  Unfortunately…I failed to tell my friends to order at least 1 size up. Whenever you are offered a gender-specific shirt at a race…they are almost ALWAYS small. I always order a Large.

12. The weather. It was cool, but clear when we started at 8  a.m. It warmed up considerably by the time I finished before 10 a.m. and it was downright hot when we were waiting for the last of our group to come in at 11. I wish they’d started the race an hour earlier — or even 90 minutes earlier. Runners (and women!) are used to running at 6:30 a.m.

First time half marathoners.

First time half marathoners.

The “Bad”

I’m putting that in quotes because most of these things aren’t really bad…just more things you should know/consider before doing the race.

1. International calling. Cell phones are rendered pretty useless in Canada unless you like paying International calling rates. You can, however, take advantage of free wifi to surf the ‘net, send messages using your smartphone.

2. Passports required. You can’t cross the border without a passport or passport card – a $100 to $150 investment (they are good for 10 years though).

3. Tolls. About $8 each way — $3.50 in New York, $3 at the bridge.

4. Expo. There’s no real expo — just a packet pickup and a few race vendors near the empty storefront (in a mall) that the race organizers used for packet pickup. I don’t care because if you’ve seen one expo, you’ve pretty much seen them all….and it’s just one more place to spend money buying stuff you probably don’t need anyway.

5. Packet pickup. We waited in a loooong, snaking line for more than an hour to pickup our packets. We found out later this was due to Katherine Switzer signing autographs. The R.D. could easily remedy this problem (if they have Katherine next year) by putting her just outside the packet pickup area and letting a separate line form for those who are interested in getting her autograph.

6. Shirt sizing. If you ever do a race in which they offer gender specific shirts (women’s & men’s), order up at least one size…possibly two. They will almost always run small…as the NFWH shirts did. Fortunately, they let women exchange shirts after the race, so most of the women I went with were able to get a size that would fit them.

7. Water stops. We’re so spoiled by the ERC, which routinely has water stops every mile or mile and a half in a long race.  There were about 6-7 water stops in the NFWH. I didn’t find it a problem, but it may have been for some women (it was a hot & sunny day).

The Ugly

1. Border crossing. We had a fairly nice guy on the way back into the U.S., but, in general, crossing the border is a pain. You wait forever and the guards are all pretty humorless and scary.

2. The medals. *Cringe* I feel bad complaining about this, but the medals featured Katherine Switzer’s image and, while I really loved her, it’s sort of strange to her face on a medal.

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Want to do the NFWH in 2015?

Thinking of doing the race in 2015? Now is the time to sign up — it’s just $68 until June 30!

 

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