The Flying Pig Marathon is billed as “more than just a marathon” because it is.
Flying Pig Weekend starts Friday afternoon with the Health and Fitness Expo. Now we’ve all been to the expos at the big races and they’re basically ways for vendors to suck some money out of the runners caught up in the excitement of the big race. That being said, I love the Pig’s expo. Part of it is the energy and excitement of course, especially when you’re there with friends to pick up your race packets and swag. But there’s something about the Pig that lets me look past all the selling and get into the spirit of the weekend. Of course, the savvy shopper can find deals at these expos, especially on shoes, and the Flying Pig Health and Fitness Expo is no exception. Unfortunately for me, I wear an awkward shoe size, so that doesn’t do me much good. But the other thing to get out of it is learning about new products, be it gear or nutrition. So take your time and look around. You never know what you’ll find.
The Flying Pig isn’t just the marathon. There are four main races and several other smaller races throughout the weekend. You can participate in almost all of them, the only real exception being the Half and Full Marathon which are run at the same time, so you have to pick one or the other. You get bonus swag from participating in the 3-Way or 4-Way Challenge (named after the famous Cincinnati style chili dishes of the same name). For the 3-Way you will run the 10K and 5K races on Saturday and the Half Marathon on Sunday. For the 3-Way, you run the Full Marathon instead of the Half.
The first event of the weekend is Fifty West Mile (formerly known as the Little Kings Mile). This is a mile run, mostly along the riverfront and Paul Brown Stadium. For those doing the 3-Way or 4-Way Challenge, running this race is called “extra cheese.” In addition, it’s also part of the TQL Beer Series, a series of three races designed to celebrate Cincinnati’s brewing history. The race ends at Smale Riverfront Park where you and a few thousand friends can enjoy Fifty West beer and Skyline Chili at the after party.
Saturday is full of racing events. First up is the 10K, followed two hours later by the 5K (so unless you’re walking, you can run both). The Cincinnati Children’s 26th mile is the last leg of an incremental marathon for kids where they run the first 25 miles throughout the year and complete the last on the Flying Pig course. Another kids activity is for those under 10 years old. They can participate in the Piglet Kids’ Fun Run (several races of varying distances for different age groups; from 15ft crawl for under a year old to 250 yards for the 8-9 year olds). The PigAbilities race is for disabled participants, letting them “walk, roll, or stroll” the last mile of the marathon course. The Flying Fur Run is two-mile run for dogs and their owners. Throughout the day on Saturday, the Expo continues as well as the Family Fun Festival. Saturday evening is the traditional pasta dinner.
Sunday, of course, is the big day. The Full, Half, and Relay Marathons all start at 6:30. We planned our arrival downtown for 5:00 so we would have plenty of time to park and walk to Paul Brown Stadium. We met up with most of the other runners from the Mojo Running Club for a group picture at 5:45, then made our way to the starting corrals (with the obligatory last-minute bathroom stop, of course). I decided to pick an aggressive (for me) corral this year: 3:41-3:59. I was shooting for an under four hour finish time. That meant I had a very short wait time compare to last year when I didn’t even cross the start line for half an hour. This year, I was off and running by 6:35.
The Flying Pig course is definitely challenging, but it’s also incredible. I came across this cool flyover video that gives you a bit of an idea of what it’s like to run the course. You start next to Paul Brown Stadium, then run past Great American Ball Park before crossing the river on the Taylor-Southgate Bridge into Northern Kentucky. After a couple of miles running through Newport and Covington, you cross back over the river via the Clay Wade Bailey Bridge, which gives you a beautiful view of the stadiums and downtown. Bridges are always a challenge for me. I’m not sure why, but there’s only one other hill on the course I like less than the bridges.
Back in Ohio, you run west of downtown and up to Seventh Street. This is a mild uphill stretch that can drain you pretty quick if you aren’t paying attention. I think it’s a bigger grade than it looks. Regardless, once you’re on Seventh Street, you get to relax a bit. It’s a little more than a mile of flat running through downtown and the biggest crowds so far. A lot of family members like to hang out here because it’s the first chance they have of seeing their runners since the beginning of the race.
After downtown comes what some people consider the hardest part of the course: the climb through Eden Park. It starts out tame enough, with a relatively slow grade past Jack Casino, but it quickly turns into a two-and-a-half-mile grind up Gilbert Avenue and through Eden Park to East McMillan. There’s a small reprieve at the top of Eden Park as you run around the overlook. If you’re not completely dead from the climb, you can enjoy an awesome view of the Ohio River. After the overlook, it’s back to the climb. Just shy of eight miles in, you reach the highest point of the course and a relatively flat-to-downhill two-and-a-half miles.
The next few miles are mostly flat with one half-mile or so climb up Erie Avenue before a nice downhill stretch right before the second relay station. Around the halfway mark is another half-mile uphill stretch that’s a little more challenging before the long, mostly flat miles through Madisonville and Mariemont. Although there are crowds along most of the first seventeen or so miles, Mariemont is one of the biggest crowd areas. It’s another area where families like to gather to see their runners. Which is good, because you’re about to hit the toughest part of the course, mentally.
Just past the sixteen and a half mile mark is a little hill. It’s less than two-tenths of a mile long and only climbs forty or fifty feet. This little tiny hill is my least favorite hill on the entire course. It shouldn’t be that hard, but after sixteen and a half miles, it really sucks. Then, not long after this little gem, is the most mentally challenging part of the course: Route 50.
You turn onto Route 50 just after seventeen miles. It’s a mostly downhill stretch of just under two miles. Should be easy. But it’s not. There are still some crowds here to cheer you on, but there are longer stretches without spectators, and there’s not much to see besides the asphalt in front of you and the rocky hillside to your right. This is where I hit the wall last year, at about seventeen and a half miles, and again this year at eighteen and a half miles.
Thankfully, after Route 50, you move onto Eastern Avenue with better crowd support. Though not as much as in the earlier miles, especially for us mid to back of the pack runners, at least there’s more people and more to look at than on the previous section. This section of the course takes you past some old, historic homes, including the Morris House—the oldest inhabited home in Cincinnati. To be honest, though, at this point in the race, I wasn’t able to think about much more than putting one foot in front of the other and occasionally taking a sip from my water bottle.
Around the twenty-one mile mark the course turns off Eastern Avenue and after a couple of turns ends up on Riverside Drive. This is the final long stretch. Like Eastern Avenue, this bit is thankfully flat until around twenty-four miles where you go around a bend and under a railroad overpass to be confronted with another hill. It’s not steep and not long, but at this point in the race it’s not easy either.
But after that hill, you’ll see the Montgomery Inn Boat House coming up on your left and you hit the twenty-five-mile mark. Now we can feel the end coming. Downtown is looming up in front of you and there are no more hills in sight! Down and around the bend you go. Crap. Another hill. It’s another little hill, but at this point, you’re pretty much cooked. Fortunately, I’ve run this stretch numerous times, so I was ready for it. Not that being ready for it made it easier to run. It just kept me from completely breaking down.
That last hill out of the way, and it’s smooth sailing to the finish swine. The crowds are picking up now and it’s just a short run down and around US Bank Arena, under the Taylor-Southgate Bridge that you crossed a few hours earlier, and…
It’s another hill.
This last hill is easy, though, even at this stage of the race. It’s more of a gentle slope than a hill. It just feels like a hill after twenty-six miles. But the finish line is in sight and both sides of the road are crowded with people yelling and cheering and from somewhere you didn’t know existed comes a last bit of adrenaline to push you across the line.
And whole cow (pig?) I’m glad that’s over. I’m never doing that again.
It was a whole day before I signed up for next year.
I really love this race. The crowd support along the course is fantastic, providing refreshments and entertainment above and beyond what the is provided by the race. Water stops have both water and Gatorade and are large enough that you don’t have to stop to wait for a cup. The spectators give out everything from Girl Scout cookies to whiskey. There are a lot of people giving our beer. One group gives out mimosas in dixie cups. There’s fruit slices and bacon, sports drinks and bourbon. It’s amazing. I know several runners who run this race with the goal of stopping at every beer give away, not bothering with their time, just having fun.
Oh, and let’s not forget the entertainment. There are musicians all over the course, from an Elvis impersonator to a brass quartet, solo guitarists and full rock bands. In between all the musicians are people with PA systems blasting music. And don’t even try to count the number of people dressed up in various costumes. Not just the runners (although there are a lot of those, too). As a runner, I love all the people coming out to support us. I don’t understand what they get out of it, but I’m glad they do.
After the race, the post-race party in Smale Riverfront Park is a great place to hang out with your fellow racers to eat and drink while recounting your achievements over the weekend. Or just lay on the grass and try to get enough energy back to walk to your car. Do you remember where you parked seven hours ago?
I can’t recommend the Flying Pig enough. I decided to do the 3-Way Challenge (with extra cheese) next year rather than run the full marathon. Knowing how I am though, I wouldn’t be surprised if I change it to the 4-Way before race day. Maybe hang out with some of the others who run it for the beer stops.
If you’re looking for a great spring race, this is it. Whether a first time marathoner or a seasoned veteran, the Flying Pig Marathon should be on your short list of “must run” races.