A well-organized, mostly-flat and fast race in south-central Pennsylvania with small-town vibes and beautiful views of the Susquehanna River. Very reasonable pricing and deferrals allowed within five days of the event.
Date: November 11, 2018
Cost: $60 (seven months in advance) to $110 (at packet pickup the day before)
Pros: Beautiful scenery, super cheap, nice premium, great racing weather, mostly flat and fast, Boston qualifier, $20 deferral up until five days before the event, Gatorade and Honey Stinger gels every 2.5 miles, easy parking/lodging, pacers available, great volunteers, post-race food catered by Panera Bread
Cons: Some weird segments of the course (maybe a 1-2 miles total) that involve loose rocks/trail, also poor sidewalks along the Susquehanna river with broken concrete and mud— didn’t bother me too much but could mess with people’s heads who aren’t ready for it, crowds are pretty sparse, especially in the later miles
This past summer, whenever I told people I was training for the Harrisburg Marathon, I was generally met with a blank look somewhere between “Huh?” and “Oh, interesting.” Fair enough. Most people outside of Pennsylvania (and some within) don’t even know Harrisburg is the capital of the state. Full transparency, I only chose it because I wanted to do a fall marathon close to my hometown and this race was the only option. I had actually planned to do it last year, but an injury forced me to defer.
The Harrisburg Marathon has a long history for a small city—this year was its 46th iteration. Despite that, it remains a small race, topping out at 630 runners this year. Unlike many races, it doesn’t offer other distances, only sticking to the 26.2 with three variations— individual runner, walker, or relay team.
Packet pickup on Saturday was at the Radisson Hotel in Camp Hill, right across the Susquehanna River from Harrisburg. In central PA, this is known as the “west shore”, a.k.a. another universe if you grew up on the east shore. Pickup was straightforward and was held in a small conference room. The race premium was a nice hooded sweatshirt and one of the better premiums I’ve had in the last couple years.
The race offers discounts at the same hotel as packet pickup, but it is two miles from the start. Other hotels downtown are much closer. Luckily for me, my best friend and his wife live on Front Street in Harrisburg, exactly one mile from the start. The night before, I had three slices of pizza and two Tecates, as has become my lucky charm since… well, my last race. I slept okay, and got up to greet race day morning.
I gotta say- there’s nothing like taking care of all your business inside on race morning, then running right out the door to the start line. Small race benefits for sure. About an hour before heading out, I had an english muffin with peanut butter and honey, a banana, and an espresso.
Boy was it a perfect day for running. Sunny and clear, low breeze, temps in the 30’s. My goal was a sub-3:30 and the conditions were prime. The race starts on the Market Street bridge at City Island, an island in the middle of the Susquehanna River that is most notably home to the Harrisburg Senators (the double-A farm team for the Washington Nationals).
This was by far the smallest marathon I’ve ever run in, so it was comical to hear the announcer practically beg everyone to come closer to the start line. I spotted the 3:30 pacer and at the same time found Alex Puccio, a coach from Charm City Run in Baltimore, who incidentally was my coach in my first-ever marathon training group a few years back. We talked for the first few miles of the race before I dropped to the back of the pace group to give myself some more room.
The first couple miles go over to the west shore, then back over the Susquehanna on the Harvey Taylor bridge. It was a gorgeous sight in the fall morning light.
The race then proceeds to downtown Harrisburg, and through one of its few weaknesses—a stretch through Phoenix Park that involved a section of pseudo-trail and rocks and some mud that for sure slowed the pace and made for some “interesting” footing. At some point we went up to the DMV which brought back post-traumatic stress of parallel parking my mom’s Chevy Caprice station wagon in order to get my driver’s license. We then came back and detoured onto City Island on yet another bridge (Walnut Street) before coming back to the Harrisburg side of the river. This is just as confusing to you as it is to me, I’m still not totally sure of the order of events; however, the course was very well marked and the volunteers were incredible at guiding runners through any awkward turns.
Another weakness was the sidewalk that runs along the river, literally a foot off of it. For starters, it’s a horrible sidewalk with broken concrete and a lot of mud from the incessant flooding that comes with being on the Susquehanna. I stayed back and to the left to make sure I avoided it. Additionally, there were a handful of casual walkers out for a stroll who acted like there wasn’t a race going on and continued right on in the middle of the sidewalk. This was nearly disastrous as a whole group of runners almost bit it running into them. Once we got back up to the road, things cleared up.
I started to feel a little blah around mile 12, some nausea and heavy legs, although my legs hadn’t felt fresh most of the race. I definitely did a bad one-two combo of Gatorade and Gu, so it took a few miles for that to settle. My fueling strategy for the race was Gu Roctane at miles 6, 12, and 18. I had also started taking Kramp Krushers during this training cycle—in the past I’d dealt with horrible cramping everywhere around mile 22. To be honest, they sounded gimmicky to me, but damn if those things didn’t work like magic. I took one every couple miles and at no point did I experience a single cramp, during or after the race, nor did I get a post-run headache.
As the race ran north on Front Street to the turnaround point, I started feeling better. After the turnaround at Fort Hunter, around mile 18, things started to feel effortless. I was on full stoke mode and couldn’t stop smiling cause I knew it was my day. Mile 20, still felt great. At that point I pushed past the 3:30 group and gained a 15-second gap. Still felt good. Around mile 22, Alex came up and joined me, which was perfect. Even when I wanted to slow it, he kept pushing me to keep a faster pace. Which I needed, because there was a super annoying hill going from the river back up to street level right around mile 25.
With a half mile left, I felt a sharp pain in my knee that I had at the end of a couple long runs. Like, for real?? I started limp running. Then thought “this is ridiculous, I fought for this for months, I’m not letting a fake knee thing get in my way.” So I cranked it as hard as I could and dipped down to a 6:45 pace for the last half mile before finishing in 3:27:30, a negative split, and a 13-minute PR. It felt so good, I really almost cried.
The finish line ends on Second Street in downtown Harrisburg among all the restaurants. For a small race, it was a lively finish. It felt amazing coming around the corner off Front Street, hearing the crowd and seeing the finish line right in the middle of downtown, beside the same bars I used to smoke cigs and get hammered at every weekend.
My wife, dad, and a couple friends were there to cheer me on, and I actually picked them out of the crowd, so that was an awesome sight at the finish.
Post-race food was provided by Panera, which was real solid—bagels and cream cheese of every variety, two different sandwich selections, potato chips, and hot mac and cheese. I didn’t see a beer area, but we were literally surrounded by bars, so there are plenty of places for a post-race beverage. And if you don’t know Harrisburg, the bars are essentially inflation proof. You’re always a stone’s throw away from a $3 you-call-it.
We forewent the Second Street scene and headed to midtown for brunch at Home 231, which made for a perfect post-race meal of steak and eggs, fried doughnuts, coffee, beer, etc.
I really, really enjoyed this race. Much more than I thought I would. This should not be a small race. The scenery, the relative flatness, the perfect time of year, and only $60(!) — more people should be running this. My hope is to qualify for Boston sometime in the next two years, and I’m already eyeing this up as my BQ course. It not only landed myself a PR, but I know a couple other people who got major PRs as well. One of those people was another coach from Charm City Run. In fact, the Harrisburg Marathon is one of only a couple races that he races every year. So if you’re looking for an easy, no-stress-on-race-morning race, I highly encourage you to put this on your calendar for next year.
Robbe is the Senior Editor/Review Manager for BITR. He lives in Baltimore with his wife and two sons and runs with the Faster Bastards when he’s not MAF training. His favorite race distance is the marathon and his favorite beer is anything but Blue Moon.