Chicago Athlete on the Road: Kentucky Derby Marathon

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Horse racing fans keep the dates of the Kentucky Derby marked down on the calendars. Runners keep the weekend prior open to head to Louisville and race in the Kentucky Derby Mini or Full Marathon. This event is the kickoff to the Derby events, and sees thousands of runners converging on downtown Louisville to hit the streets.

This is one of my favorite spring marathons, especially for those of us that live in never-ending winter land, err, I mean Chicago. Let’s face it, we will likely see snow one more time before winter leaves us, and it’s May! Chicagoans are used to long winters and very little spring, but each April, it gets harder and harder to wait for summer. Louisville is just south enough that the temps in late April are generally 60-70 degrees, which comes at just the right time for Chicago athletes who are still training with hats and gloves.

This year, runners enjoyed a 50-degree race start, with temps that slowly moved up throughout the morning peaking around 60 degrees, with a steady cloud covering. It was so nice to be running in shorts and a tank top, and not be freezing.

But the weather is only one of the reasons that I enjoy this race series so much. It begins in downtown Louisville, with the Churchill Downs bugler playing a “Call to Post” and a cheerful rendition of “My Old Kentucky Home”, which had the runners cheering as we edged toward the start line. The wheelchair division began at 6:58 am ET, following by the half and full marathon participants at 7 am ET.

We were off right on time and careened through the downtown streets of Louisville. We passed bourbon distilleries, craft breweries, patio restaurants, and shops of all kinds. Many of the downtown streets are lined with brick and cobblestone sidewalks, as well as historical monuments and buildings. It was like running through a bit of history, as runners received a tour of the downtown areas.

This year was a bit more somber at the start, as race organizers called runner’s attention to the memorial placed at Old National Bank and made the decision to adjust the start line. The memorial stood on the outside of the bank and honored the five victims who lost their lives in the shooting that happened earlier in April.

“To pay respect to the memorial at Old National Bank the GE Appliances Kentucky Derby Festival mini & Marathon has made the decision to adjust our start line.  We will not start at Brook and Main with corrals going east on Main, North on Floyd street and East on Washington.  The distance change will be made up on Central Ave before runners enter Churchill Downs.”

As runners left the downtown area to head toward Churchill Downs, the fast, flat course was lined with spectators, volunteers, and first responders. The highlight of the course for many is the circle through Churchill Downs, allowing runners to catch glimpses of early morning horse training and the back side of the track. Runners spend about one mile entering the track area, running the course, and exiting, before being treated to the University of Louisville students and band.

The course then circles back into the downtown area to drop off the half marathon runners. The full marathoners split off at mile 12.5 to face a steep, circling incline, leading up to a mile long pedestrian bridge, which crosses the river and takes runners into Indiana. This dual-state marathon treats runners to just about everything!

The Indiana side of the course is a low-key out and back that follows a trail along housing areas and tree covered park areas. There are not a lot of spectators along the back half of this course, which allows runners to really connect with their bodies and the course. Runners circle back to the same incline and bridge, which feels very different at miles 24-25!

The last mile is spent heading back into the cheering crowds and the downtown area, to finish at Lynn Family Stadium, where a party awaited us! In addition to the half and full option, there was also a marathon relay, in which teams could sign up to run the course together. I always like using the marathon hand-off’s as mental checkpoints through the 26.2.

This is a great spring marathon that you should check out, as you are lining up your April, 2024. It’s also an ideal place to travel with families. We stayed at the Renaissance Inn in downtown Louisville, which was just a few blocks from the start line. It is so convenient to leave your family sleeping in, especially with the time zone change from Central, and walk to the start line. This hotel’s location is amazing for the start line. It’s about a mile walk from the finish line, so be aware of that.

The hotel serves a free daily breakfast, which is robust in its offerings. Cereal, hot breakfast sandwiches, yogurt, and fruit lined the counter tops. There was also endless coffee and juice offerings. A free breakfast is a must, especially when traveling with families.

The hotel also has an indoor pool and hot tub, which is a necessity for many who travel with kids. But, it also has the benefit of being a post-marathon shakeout for runners. There’s nothing better than a swim to loosen up the muscles after a run. And a good hot tub soak can really soothe the legs. There is also a fully stocked fitness room, complete with foam rollers and mats for stretching.

I’d also highly recommend a visit to the Louisville Slugger Museum and Factory.

Founded in 1884, this attraction features bats from players of all time that you can actually hold. My family members chose to swing the infamous bats of Babe Ruth, Ken Griffey Jr., Cal Ripkin Jr., and our very own ex-Cubbie, Kris Bryant.

There are also incredibly mocked up players that looked just like themselves.

The museum is free to visit. The tours cost a small fee and require you to schedule a time, so make sure to plan for that. Tours are 30 minutes long and treat visitors to a look at how the Louisville slugger baseball bat is made, from tree to player. It is an incredible experience to see how much goes into the creation of a baseball bat.

Even non-baseball fans will enjoy this unique experience in downtown Louisville. There is a small amount of street parking around the museum, or you can opt for a pay-lot. I was charged only $7 to park for the morning in a lot adjacent to the museum.

If you haven’t visiting Louisville before, make sure to put this race on your schedule for next April. Follow the race on social media to make sure to take advantage of early bird deals on race pricing.

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Mandi has been running for over 25 years and has participated in the Chicago, Detroit, and Boston Marathons. Mandi regularly competes in regional events and enjoys being a part of several running groups including CARA and the Badgerland Striders. She is a co-host on the Ten Junk Miles podcast and looks forward to hosting the Chicago Athlete Podcast. An RRCA certified coach and Les Mills certified instructor, Mandi is also a coach with Chicago Athlete Coaching. Mandi is a local government attorney by weekday and race warrior by weekend.

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