I write race reports after every race, but I don’t usually write reviews. Instead, I usually write about my personal experiences. The Rock ‘n’ Roll DC Marathon was the seventh race I’ve done that was part of the Rock ‘n’ Roll Marathon Series. In addition to DC, I’ve done their Denver, Seattle and Las Vegas marathons. I’ve also done their New Orleans marathon three times.
I know quite a few runners who have done various Rock ‘n’ Roll races. Most people seem to have strong opinions about them. Some people love them; some people hate them. I have mixed feelings. They have strong points and weak points.
The original Rock ‘n’ Roll Marathon was held in San Diego. It quickly became one of the largest marathons in the United States. Its success inspired the creation of a second Rock ‘n’ Roll race in Phoenix, called Rock ‘n’ Roll Arizona. This race was also successful, inspiring more Rock ‘n’ Roll races. Today, the Rock ‘n’ Roll Marathon Series includes marathons and half marathons in 23 cities across the United States. There are also seven Rock ‘n’ Roll races in other countries. They’re all sponsored by the same company and share a common brand. There are certain characteristics that you can expect to find at any Rock ‘n’ Roll event. Sometimes that’s a good thing. Sometimes it’s not.
The Rock ‘n’ Roll Marathon Series is sponsored by Competitor Group, which is in the business of putting on races. When I started running marathons, back in the early 80s, most of them were sponsored by non-profit organizations. They put on races as a public service. Today, it’s becoming increasingly common for races to be run by for-profit enterprises. Competitor group is one such company. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. Because of this trend, there are a lot more races today. It’s worth noting, however, that they’re not just putting on races as a public service. Their primary objective is to make a profit.
For any business to be successful, they need customers. In this case, the runners are their customers. Satisfied customers become repeat customers. To that extent, the company has a vested interest in making sure most runners are happy with their race experience. That doesn’t mean everyone will be happy. You can’t please everyone, so you sometimes have to choose to please some customers, knowing others may be dissatisfied. Those choices are business decisions. For better or worse, the Rock ‘n’ Roll Marathon Series has been designed to appeal to certain demographic groups. Competitor Group is most interested in providing the products and features that are going to generate the best profits.
The Opinions Expressed …
This is not a sponsored review. I have no relationship to Competitor Group other than as one of their customers, and I’m not being compensated in any way for this review. Most of the opinions expressed here are my own. In a few cases, I’m also relating experiences and opinions I’ve heard from other runners. My own opinions are mixed. I think they do some things well. I also think they could do some things better.
Competitor Group brings a certain amount of expertise to each of their events. They’ve been putting on races for several years, and they’ve learned how to organize a successful event. They’ve developed a common template for their races. That allows them to start a large event in a new city and have a good likelihood of success. It’s also allowed them to buy out existing races that were struggling and breathe new life into them.
Like any other organization that puts on races, Competitor Group relies on a core group of full-time employee and an army of volunteers. The core group travels from race to race, and acts as a management team. For each race, they need to enlist hundreds of volunteers from the local community. The volunteers don’t need to have any prior experience, because they’re being guided by an experienced team.
Deb has seen this first hand. We traveled to New Orleans recently for the Rock ‘n’ Roll New Orleans Marathon. I ran the marathon, and Deb volunteered to help with the start corrals. The volunteers guided runners to the correct corrals and held up ropes to separate the corrals. When the race started, it was the experienced employees who conducted the “wave start.”
That’s not to say that they don’t make mistakes. They’re in the business of putting on large races. When you organize an event in a new venue, there’s always potential for unanticipated problems. When there are thousands of people involved, small oversights can become logistical nightmares. I’ll comment more on that later.
One of the opinions frequently expressed by other runners I know is that the Rock ‘n’ Roll races are expensive. By and large, they are. You can easily pay $150 to enter one of these races. Of course, that’s the “rack rate.” They offer discounts from time to time, so it’s hard to say how much most runners are paying. At Rock ‘n’ Roll DC, for example, there was an “expo only” discount of $50 to sign up for next year’s marathon. Including service fees for entering online, the average entry fee I’ve paid is $98.90. That’s excluding one race where I got free entry to lead a pace group.
Is that too much to pay for a race? Some people think so. Some people seem to think these races are outrageously expensive. I wouldn’t go that far. The Rock ‘n’ Roll races tend to be large races, attracting 10,000 or more participants. They’re also held in large cities. I have to think to costs associated with these races are pretty high. If you look at other large urban races, they also tend to have high entry fees. New York City is $255 plus an $11 service fee.
The bottom line is that there are lots of races out there. If you think a race is too expensive, you can always choose another one. You have to look at what you’re getting for your money and decide if you think it’s a good value. Personally, I look at the big picture. How much will this race cost including all my travel expenses?
Competitor Group does a good job of promoting their brand. If you like one of their races, there’s a good chance you might like others. They promote their races like a concert tour. If you’re going to do multiple Rock ‘n’ Roll races in the same year, you can effectively get a volume discount on the entry fees by buying a “Tour Pass.”
There’s a single website for the entire Rock ‘n’ Roll Marathon Series, which also includes half marathons. Within that site, there are pages dedicated to each race. One advantage of this format is that is allows them to promote the entire series. Another advantage is that they’re able to present race information in a consistent format.
Given all the experience that have organizing and conducting races, and given that they have a common website for all of them, you would expect it to be easy to find the information you need. Sadly, that’s not always the case. I’ve often been disappointed that a few months or even a few weeks before a race, basic details are still not filled in. I suspect that’s because you have one team conducting races all year. They’re probably too focused on their next race to be doing everything they should to prepare for races that are still a few months away.
Usually, the information eventually shows up on the website, but it’s sometimes just a few weeks before the race. In some cases, it’s never filled in. The day before Rock ‘n’ Roll DC, the links for start and finish area maps still weren’t active. That’s a shame. This organization could easily have a first rate website with just a little more attention to detail.
Rock ‘n’ Roll races always have large expos, and they’re everything you expect at a large race. They’re typically held at convention centers in the heart of the city. The expo serves three purposes. It’s where you pick up your race packet; it’s an opportunity for vendors to sell merchandise and promote their services; and it’s a place for runners to shop for race gear or last minute needs. For first-time marathoners who want souvenirs of their race, there’s no shortage of official race merchandise.
I don’t usually do a lot of shopping at an expo, but I sometimes arrive with a specific need. In 2012, I suffered a severe hamstring pull during the Lost Dutchman Marathon. I was already signed up to run the Rock ‘n’ Roll New Orleans Marathon two weeks later. A few days before the race, it was all I could do to run one mile on a treadmill at a really slow pace. I couldn’t imagine running a marathon without making my leg worse, but I took a leap of faith and traveled to New Orleans. I went to the expo basically hoping for a miracle. I found one. There was a vendor selling every type of brace or support imaginable. They had an adjustable hamstring compression wrap that worked wonders for me. I had to run slowly, but I finished without making it worse. A month later, I was recovered sufficiently to race without the wrap.
My only real criticism about the Rock ‘n’ Roll expos is that they close at 5:00 on Saturdays. When you’re traveling from out of town for a Sunday race, getting to the expo before 5:00 to pick up your race packet isn’t always easy. I had a close call once at the Rock ‘n’ Roll Denver Marathon. I scheduled a late morning flight to Denver. My flight was cancelled, and I was rebooked on a flight that wouldn’t get to Denver until 7:00. I called the airline, and I was able to get onto a flight that would arrive in time, but just barely. I got to the expo at 4:45.
It’s standard for large races to require that you pick up your race packet at the expo. That’s not just the Rock ‘n’ Roll races. Most large races do that. Partly it’s because many of the vendors at the expo are race sponsors, and they want to see lots of foot traffic at the expo. Also, it wouldn’t be practical to have race morning packet pickup when there are 10,000 or more participants. Some races make you pick up your own race packet. Most will allow someone else to pick up your packet, but you have to fill out an authorization form. Competitor Group will let you authorize someone else to pick up your packet.
To their credit, Competitor Group will usually make exceptions to the “no race day packet pickup” policy if you experience a travel delay. It’s not something they advertise, but if you contact them, they’ll have your race packet available at a “solutions” booth on the morning of the race. Most large races won’t do that.
All the Rock ‘n’ Roll races I’ve done have had gear checks. You can drop off a gear bag before the start, and it’ll be available for you at the finish. This can be convenient if it’s a cold day, and you want to wear extra layers before or after the race.
My first Rock ‘n’ Roll race was Rock ‘n’ Roll Denver in 2010. I thought most aspects of that race were well-organized but it was hard to see where to go to check your bag. After asking a few people, I eventually found it. The gear check was organized alphabetically, so you had to find the table for the part of the alphabet that includes your name. Unfortunately, the signs were close to the ground. With thousands of runners packed into a small area, you couldn’t see the signs. That made it difficult to find the right table. Then, because everyone else was having the same problem, the area got so congested that it was hard for anyone to move.
Since then, every Rock ‘n’ Roll race I’ve done has had an efficient gear check. When I did the Denver race, it was their first year. Hopefully, they’ve worked out the kinks since then.
Competitor Group sells VIP packages that include a separate table at the expo for packet pickup, a separate gear check, a VIP area at the start with its own bathrooms, and a VIP area at the finish. While I can see how these things would be convenient, I’m not willing to pay extra for them. If it’s your first race or one where you’re reaching a big milestone, you might think it’s worth the extra money.
I find the concept a little big troubling, given that it’s a for-profit race. If the organizers are making extra money by selling access to shorter bathroom lines, you have to wonder how motivated they are to provide sufficient facilities for everyone else.
Like most large races, these races use corrals and a “wave start” to alleviate congestion in the early miles. When you register for the race, you provide an estimated finish time. Your estimate is used to seed you into a start corral with other runners who have similar estimated times. This saves you the trouble of having to guess where you should line up.
You don’t need to prove that you can really run as fast as your estimate, so the seeding is based on the honor system. It’s in everyone’s best interest, however, to provide an accurate estimate. Lining up too far forward is no better than lining up too far back. Either way, you’ll have trouble starting at the correct pace.
Corrals are started one at a time. After one corral starts, runners from the next one are moved into position near the starting line. The race officials conducting the start stagger the start times of each wave by at least a minute to give runners on the course time to spread out. The races are chip timed, so your time is measured from starting line to finish line, regardless of which corral you’re in. It seems to work well. I’m usually in the second or third corral, but I’ve also lined up near the back. In each case, I felt like I was able to start without an unreasonable amount of congestion.
They call them Rock ‘n’ Roll races, so naturally there’s music. They hire local bands to perform at various places along the route. Long before I did any Rock ‘n’ Roll races, I had done other large marathons that had bands, so this never struck me as unique. It’s not a huge selling point for me, but hearing the right song at the right time can give you a lift. If you bring your own music, you probably don’t care.
Aside from rock bands, you can count on big crowds. Rock ‘n’ Roll races are all about hoopla. If big races with big crowds and music are something you need to stay motivated, these races are for you. I’ve done enough races that I don’t need all the hoopla.
Besides the on-course entertainment, each race has a post-race concert. I’ve yet to make it to one of the concerts. When I did Rock ‘n’ Roll Seattle, they had a band I like, but I was traveling with Deb, and we wanted to do sightseeing instead. Other times, I got together with friends. Not having been to one of the concerts, I can’t really comment on how good they are
Aid Along the Course
The number of aid stations and the fluids provided vary from one race to the next, but they always have a sufficient number of aid stations. At the very least, you can expect water, some type of energy drink and energy gels. I haven’t noticed if the energy drinks and gels are always the same brand. They’re probably provided by one of the sponsors. I prefer to drink energy drink, and I usually find that at every aid station. At Rock ‘n’ Roll DC, half of the aid stations only had water, although a few of those had gels. At Rock ‘n’ Roll New Orleans, I’ve seen official aid stations with beer and martinis.
I’ve always been happy with the volunteers staffing the aid stations. They’re friendly and energetic, even when the weather has been miserable.
This is my big complaint about these races. It’s also the reason several of my friends have sworn off all Rock ‘n’ Roll races.
Most races have time limits. Large urban races are held on city streets that are temporarily closed to traffic. That requires a permit from the city. There’s a limit to how long any city will allow you to close the streets for a race. For that reason, time limits are necessary. The problem is with how they’re enforced.
I’ve heard numerous complaints from other runners that they’ve been forced to abandon the race even though they were still on schedule to finish within the time limit. At Rock ‘n’ Roll Las Vegas, the time limit is five hours. Last November, the 5:00 pace group was forced to stop, even though they had been slightly ahead of a 5:00 pace for the entire race and were still on schedule when they were told to stop. If the time limit is five hours, give people five hours!
If you fall behind, you’re either diverted onto the route for a shorter race, or you have to board a shuttle that transports you to the finish. That’s OK, assuming you have, in fact, fallen behind the required pace. My problem with Competitor Group is what they do next.
I haven’t witnessed this myself, but I’ve heard about it from runners at a number of their races. Instead of simply bringing you to the finish area and recording your result as a DNF, they drop you off someplace closer to the finish and let you start running again. Runners who didn’t run the whole course are allowed to cross the finish line, get a finisher medal, and get an official time. That’s wrong! It’s a slap in the face to anyone who ran the whole course. It does a tremendous disservice to the runners involved. It sends the wrong message. A finisher medal isn’t something you pay for. It’s something you earn by actually finishing the race – the whole race.
A DNF is disappointing. I get that. I’ve had a few. It’s better to live with that disappointment than to pretend that you finished. I don’t know how many runners actually cross the line without really finishing. I hope it isn’t many.
When I first heard of this practice, I was incensed. I considered boycotting all their races, as many of my friends do. While I disapprove of this policy, I still run a few Rock ‘n’ Roll races. In particular, I keep going back to Rock ‘n’ Roll New Orleans. I like the city, and I like the course.
It’s All About the Bling
A recent trend in running is that more and more emphasis is being placed on fancy medals. Until recent years, only marathons and longer races awarded medals. Now most half marathons have them too. All of the Rock ‘n’ Roll marathons and half marathons have medals with unique and attractive designs. Here are a few of mine.
To encourage repeat business, Competitor Group has special medals for people who do two, three, four or as many as ten of their races in the same year. The medals get larger and gaudier as you do more races. Before this year, I never did two of their races in the same year. I just did my second Rock ‘n’ Roll race of 2015, so I’ve earned one of their “double beat” medals.
Besides the medals, all runners receive T-shirts at the expo, and there’s a variety of Rock ‘n’ Roll branded merchandise for sale. Finally, they added something new this year for the marathons. All marathon finishers can pick up one of these finisher jackets at a booth in the finish area. I already have two of these.
I’ve never been disappointed with either the quantity or variety of food available in the finish area. Some races can run out of food, but I’ve never noticed a shortage at a Rock ‘n’ Roll event, even when I’ve finished near the back of the pack. They also usually have a beer garden, and all runners get a free beer.
Emphasis on Half Marathons
All Rock ‘n’ Roll marathons have accompanying half marathons. Some of the cities in the series have half marathons only. When both distances are offered, the half marathon is much larger. Sometimes the half marathon is ten times larger.
Partly, this is a reflection of a recent trend in the running world. Half marathons have exploded in popularity. The half marathon is now the most frequently raced distance.
The fact that their half marathons are so much larger is also a reflection of Competitor Group choosing to emphasize the half marathons. That’s a business decision. They can charge almost as much in entry fees, and they can sell as much branded merchandise, but they only have to stock and staff half as many aid stations. They also don’t have to keep a half marathon course open for as many hours.
When there’s both a marathon and a half marathon, they usually start together. A common course configuration has them running together for about 12 miles before separating. Half marathon runners head to the finish, while marathon runners continue through additional neighborhoods before eventually working their way back to the same finish line.
The first time I did the Rock ‘n’ Roll New Orleans Marathon, I discovered that marathon runners were automatically timed for both events. If you were registered for the marathon, you could switch to the half just by following the half marathon course when the two courses split. I ran that race with a pulled hamstring. My friend Shannan, who runs at a slower pace, was doing the half marathon. I lined up with Shannan and ran at her pace for the first 12 miles. Had I been unable to finish a marathon with my injury, I could have finished with her, and I would still have received an official time for the half marathon. As it turns out, I was able to finish the marathon, but it was nice to have the option of switching.
When I started running, I did lots of 5K and 10K races. I also did a few half marathons. Eventually, marathons and ultras captured my imagination. Today, I rarely do shorter races, and I’d never spend the money to travel to a race that was shorter than a marathon. Some of my friends also focus exclusively on marathons and ultras. A few feel that they’re treated like second class citizens at races where the emphasis is on the half marathons. That may be the reason why Competitor Group added finisher jackets for the marathon.
Even though I always do the marathon, I’ve come to appreciate all the runners who are doing the half marathons. An economic reality is that a lot of urban marathons wouldn’t exist if it wasn’t for the half marathons. There aren’t enough marathon runners to make the events economically viable. With the addition of half marathons and relay events, there are enough total participants to attract sponsors and make the races profitable.
Competitor Group has made a few missteps that have resulted in logistical nightmares. The cases I’m aware of have involved races where they made big changes after taking over the management of an existing race. Generally it’s because they dramatically increased the size of the race and underestimated how much congestion would result.
Most of the largest races, like Boston and New York City, have long histories. They weren’t always as large as they are today. They grew a little bit bigger each year, so their organizers had time to see problems developing and make adjustments before they got out of hand. Could you imagine organizing a race as large as Boston from scratch? Competitor Group sometimes does that. Sometimes they get it right. Sometimes they overlook something. With 10,000 or more participants, even a small oversight can result in chaos.
The classic example is Rock ‘n’ Roll Las Vegas. A few years ago, they reconfigured that race as an evening event, giving runners the opportunity to run down “The Strip” at night. At the same time, they greatly expanded the size of the field. The marathon had about 4,000 runners, but the half marathon had 40,000 runners. Late in the race, marathon runners on a fast pace had to merge with half marathon runners who were at the back of the pack. The street was so jammed that the marathon runners couldn’t get through. It got worse at the finish. Runners were streaming into the finish area faster than the runners already there could exit. At some point, there was no place for the runners to go.
Competitor Group got a lot of bad press after that race. They learned from their mistakes and fixed the problems. I ran that race last year, and didn’t see any congestion at or near the finish.
Rock ‘n’ Roll DC used to be called the National Marathon. It started and finished near RFK Stadium. When Competitor Group took over the race, they made it much larger. There’s only one subway station near the stadium, and there weren’t enough trains to accommodate all the runners who were trying to get there. Some arrived late for the start. A year later, they moved the starting line. Its current location is within walking distance of several stations. They’ve also made arrangements for trains to begin operating earlier on the morning of the race.
The congestion I described earlier at the gear check of Rock ‘n’ Roll Denver was most likely another case where they had problems the first year before working out the kinks.
Would I recommend a Rock ‘n’ Roll race? It depends what you’re looking for. They have both positives and negatives. They seem to be a popular choice among runners who are new to the sport and are looking for lots of hoopla. My advice would be to know what you want and know what you’re getting. Pick a race that’s not in its first year. Above all, make sure you can stay well ahead of the time limits.