Monday, May 13, 2019

State Number 49 - Flying Pig Marathon

State Number 49 – Flying Pig Marathon

Cincinnati, OH

5 May 2019

Before running the Cincinnati Flying Pig Marathon, I found it to be some sort of a mystery.  It’s nationally known, fields a huge number of runners and garners national attention throughout the running world.  But why?  It doesn’t offer huge cash prizes for winners, and the finishing times aren’t even close to world class levels. 

Cincinnati, or Porkopolis as it was once called, isn’t an enormous, sprawling metropolis.  Besides the Bengals, Reds and WKRP nostalgia, there aren’t any unique manmade or natural landmarks and the race is in its twenty first year so it’s had ample time to cultivate a large cult-like following.

So why is it, like such others as the Rock ‘n Roll series, Chicago, Big Sur, Boston or Los Angeles, one of those “name” races that everyone seems to know?  Is it the cute, porcine theme?  Or has the medal become a collector’s item that every runner needs to proudly display on their medal rack?

Several months ago, as my wife and I assembled the docket for our final four marathons needed to complete our fifty-state quest, we were undecided which marathons should round out the states.   Flying Pig was supposed to complete our fifty-state quest, but the cancellation of North Carolina’s Indoor Insanity in 2018 created an unfortunate detour to our route.

Running this marathon was the second swinish themed marathon of my running career – the first being the Hogeye in Arkansas last year.  But, will Flying Pig meet or exceed my hopes and expectations of this famed race, or will it be a Hogeye rebrand?

The flying pig at the airport
Personally, I’ve come to believe running in the Boston Marathon will only happen “when pigs fly.”  Given its namesake, perhaps this marathon will afford me the opportunity to qualify for Boston or will it contradict itself since I have yet to see a pig actually fly.

As the weeks counted down, my wife and I got equally excited about the famed race, laced up our shoes and caught a red-eye flight to Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky (CVG) via ORD.  And just like that, a fun weekend getaway unfolded before our very eyes.

Expo and packet pick-up

The Duke Energy Convention Center in downtown Cincinnati hosts the marathon expo.  It was a short walk from our downtown hotel situated across the street from the Great American Ballpark.  Even though it was a short walk, our existing aches and pains from REVEL made it seem much further.  It turns out that our hotel sits on the site of the former Riverfront Stadium for those who remember.

Upon entering the expo hall, it was apparent that everything is pig-themed, as anyone with an imaginative mind would postulate.

The staff at information booths are called “info pigs.”

Each of the volunteers are called “grunts.”

Starting corrals are called “pig pens.”

The kid’s division is called “Piglet”, you guessed it!

And finally, the finish line is called the “finish swine.”

The expo

As Mr. Whipple says, "Don't squeeze the Charmin!"

All participant's names coat the official "rig of the pig"

Officially a participant

Depending on the size of the race, I’ve noticed that expos seem to come in two distinct sizes – small and non-existent or over-the-top huge.  Flying Pig was the latter.  It was a huge, very well organized, very festive race expo that matched the enthusiasm and excitement of the 30,000 + runners competing in the weekend’s events, but the overwhelming impression that stood out the minute you walked in the door were the grunts and info pigs.

I've never experienced a race with better volunteers.  They were simply everywhere and unbelievably helpful. They stepped up and offered to take pictures without being asked.  They offered assistance and directions willingly and without hesitation, and almost every volunteer greeted you with a smile and wished you good luck.  The volunteers were probably the single greatest thing about the weekend, simply unlike any I've ever experienced.

Picking-up my race packet and swag went off without any worries or complications.  Being clever, the race organizers placed runners’ swag and bib pick-up tables at opposite ends of the expo so one has to first navigate through the large number of pig expo vendors.  I’m sure the grid pattern setup helps with traffic flow; however, it also prevents one from visiting every booth.  With this kind of arrangement, I find myself wandering aimlessly while vendors attempted to lure me to their table. 

Based on what I’ve learned, the Flying Pig always gives some nice swag to entice runners to Cincinnati.  Besides the prized tech shirt, each participant received a premium insulated “duffle bag” one can use to lug around cold beverages or food items, along with a commemorative poster.  There were of course the standard sunglasses, shoes, apparel, upcoming races, and nutrition bar booths offering free samples and flyers.  But this expo was sponsored in part by Proctor & Gamble which meant one thing – FREE items such as tooth paste, cleansing sponges, hairspray and moisturizer creams for everyone!!!  It was kind of funny, the serpentine-like line for the free P&G stuff was longer than starting line.  Well, maybe not that long.

Following our circumnavigation of the expo, we were ready to have a bite to eat. We left the Duke Center to a light rain as we made our way to Jefferson Social for some pub grub – and to settle down for the day after a long night flight.  We got settled in our room, hit the sack as we crossed our fingers that the next day’s weather forecast didn’t include any measurable amounts of precipitation.

The thing is, I can honestly say that I’ve been blessed with pretty decent weather over the years.  Sure, it snowed during the Garden Spot Village Marathon, it rained during Honolulu and it drizzled a little in Carmel, but with only those exceptions, its either been hot, humid or near ideal running weather.  If you think about it, with the majority of races happening in spring and late summer, you’d expect at least some of my marathon races to have taken place during a thunderstorm, or at least some rain or rain showers.  Despite the Saturday rain showers pounding the Cincinnati area, will Sunday’s run become another marathon with ugly weather?

Let’s do this

I had been tracking the weather all day and the days leading up to race weekend.  Despite a wet Saturday, clouds and thunderstorms had rolled through the area by the late evening hours. 

The Cincinnati Reds played host to the San Francisco Giants at the nearby ballpark Saturday evening.  Unbeknownst to me, following a Reds homerun, a loud display of celebratory fireworks explodes over the left field bleacher seats.  A sudden detonation of fireworks woke me from my sleep.  All I could think about was the cracking sound of thunder and whether if the race would be cancelled because of electrical storms.

Our hotel was a mere 0.4-mile walk to the Paul Brown Stadium, home of the NFL’s Cincinnati Bengals.  As we walked to the start line, I kept a watchful eye above.  It was cloudy, rained the days before, but the forecast called for only cloudy skies.  I anticipated good running weather – at least it wasn’t humid as the clouds obstructed the sun’s rays. 

It was shockingly simple getting to the start – no traffic, no mile-long marches to gear check and no hassles.  Pig Pens A-H were neatly and tightly arranged around the stadium with porta johns in each pen.  To put it simply, race logistics resembled a well-oiled machine.

Waiting for the start
My wife and I qualified for Pig Pen C placement.  We situated ourselves into our assigned pen as we waited for the wave start, with each wave starting thirty seconds after the wave in front.  Although there was a slight chance for a rain shower or two predicted for race morning, the gray skies weren’t enough to dampen my resolve to complete my 49th state.  

As I stood waiting for my corral to start, REVEL Mt. Charleston coursed through my mind.  I exerted myself to a certain point at REVEL the previous weekend, knowing full well the consequences downhill running has on the legs.  I had a light three-mile run/walk during the week and I came into Flying Pig essentially pain free and feeling pretty good, but...

The first half: (10:06, 9:35, 10:08, 10:16, 10:29, 12:22, 11:57, 10:57, 10:12, 10:34, 10:58, 11:02, 10:42)

Following the national anthem, the horn sounded as flames shot out of two spigots fixed to the overhead gantry as pig pen A began their race.  Four and a half minutes later, the race director opened the gates to pen C allowing the pigs to escape into the Cincinnati streets.

I was off with that nervous excitement that always accompanies the first mile of any race.  The course starts at the foot of Paul Brown Stadium, proceeds down Second Street to Pete Rose Way, hugging the Great American Ball Park, where the Reds play, boldly displaying “...rounding third heading for home” on the side of the stadium.   

Paul Brown Stadium
Rather than continue into downtown Cincinnati, the course veers right up a hill onto the Taylor Southgate Bridge spanning the Ohio River, into Newport, Kentucky.  The next two miles run through parts of Newport and Covington neighborhoods on the tip of northern Kentucky before being ushered onto the Clay Wade Bailey Bridge, back into Ohio. 

Feeling a bit fatigued from REVEL, I kept my pace fairly consistent through Marathon Mile 5 as the big hill everyone talks about emerged, testing my fortitude.  

At some races, I will run up a hill killing myself with a lot of other idiots killing themselves too. But I hung out toward the middle of the pack observing people chatting, singing, laughing, and enjoying the race a little more.  It was pretty cool.

Antenna then

Antenna now
The fifth mile of the race cut in a straight line through the heart of downtown Cincinnati on East Seventh Street.  Eager spectators with signs and noisemakers filled both sides of the street, buildings rising from the sidewalks, keeping runners focused on the hilly terrain just outside the city.  Once past Seventh and Main, the rising lump of earth known as Eden Park was impossible to ignore.  Fortunately, we didn’t scale the hill directly, but instead turned left and took a less pronounced route cruising past the Elsinore Castle to my right and the “WKRP antenna” on my left.  It was at this point that the race’s urban character turned into a very picturesque run through tree-lined roads and magnificent views of the city and the Ohio River.

Elsinore Castle
Prior to setting out on this course, I psyched myself out about this part of the race, so the Eden Park hills weren’t as murderous as they loomed before me.  Yes, I did walk to conserve as much energy as I could.  My legs just didn’t possess the turnover rate as I’d like.  Perhaps a direct consequence of REVEL.

By Marathon Mile 8, we had reached the zenith of the course and the summit of “Mt. Cincinnati.”  Only a few more dips and climbs separated us from the much-anticipated downhill stretch.   Before that could happen though, we ran through the quaint streets of Walnut Hills toward the awe-inspiring St. Francis de Sales Church, and the point of the course where the half marathon runners veered left onto Madison Road as marathoners veered right leading on into Madison Park at Marathon Mile 10.

With the agony of the hills behind me, the streets leveled out with only a slight downgradient allowing me to recover some of the lost time spent on the hills.  I maintained an even pace for the next few miles as we entered the Hyde Park neighborhood past the Cincinnati Observatory and the funky and unique Mushroom House shortly before Marathon Mile 12.

A mile later, I found myself zipping downhill on Erie Avenue into the half marathon timing station clocking in with a time of 2:21:43.  I tried to maintain a steady pace until now, as runners once again faced alternating uphill and downhill segments.

The second half: (11:18, 12:33, 11:09, 11:28, 11:40, 12:05, 12:37, 11:57, 12:18, 14:05, 13:50, 13:31, 13:36, 9:52 projected pace [final 0.38 mi])

The second half began on the streets of the Mariemont District beset with campaign-like signs advising residents not to support the city’s efforts to rezone the historical district and to “keep out the Porches.”

After leaving Mariemont, runners turned their attention to a short downhill portion of US 50 exiting at Eastern Avenue into the Linwood neighborhood for the final seven-mile homestretch to the finish swine.

The cloud cover began to break slightly as I cruised down Eastern Avenue towards the Ohio River.  My energy levels dwindled exponentially as the air and my body temperature rose while finding the strength to keep a slower but steady pace to Marathon Mile 22 still striving for a sub five-hour marathon.  I succeeded in scraping up enough energy to toss a nerf football into a laundry basket, but not enough to toss a nerf basketball into a net.  These fun games presented runners with an enjoyable way to divert the pain and discomfort associated with marathon running.  No prizes, but only accolades from the kids having fun.

At around Marathon Mile 22, course grunts operated a “pig wash” handing out ice-cold water-soaked towels, showers and hoses for any runner who desired to cool themselves.  An ice-cold towel in a marathon on a warm day?  How awesome is that?  I washed off my salt-crusted face and was the perfect pick-me-up for the final few miles, and one of the most awesome features to any race.

The air became a little warm in the final few miles, but the day had been quite enjoyable that I hardly noticed. Don't get me wrong, I was ready to be done.  

My legs felt like concrete at times and I resorted to my quarter-mile walk quarter-mile run routine to get me through the final miles.

I glanced at my Garmin several times making some mental calculations whether a sub five-hour marathon is within the realm of possibilities.  The sun began to show its fury as more of the cloud deck began to break with each passing minute.  My pace slowed and I had accepted the fact my sub five-hour time would not come to any kind of realization unless I could pound out four miles in forty-four minutes or less.  Normally I could, but given my fatigue levels and left-over hamstring, shin, calf and Achilles tendon soreness, that just wasn’t going to happen.

The final four miles of the marathon skirted along the shores of the Ohio River.  I focused my attention away from the scenery and more towards traversing the real estate ahead of me as the cheering crowds lining the roadway provided a little extra boost to my energy levels.  As I approached Marathon Mile 25, people kept using the age-old adage “you’re almost there!”  Right.  Where’s the finish swine?

Finish swine from our hotel window
At the top of a small knoll, I could see the stadium lights of the Great American Ballpark, an indication the finish is near.  I couldn’t get my legs to turn over any faster as other runners kept passing me; however, as unaware as they were, I did mark most and I was resolute in showing them who’s faster down the homestretch.  I set “Operation let no one pass” into motion.

I always feel like a million bucks whenever I have enough gas in the tank to finish strong.  The last mile felt ridiculously long, but as the Great American Ballpark came into view towards Marathon Mile 26, I pushed the final 0.2 mile, as spectators lining the corral barriers exclaimed, “Jeez, look at his kick.  I bet he’s a professional athlete.  How impressive!”  Ok, call it a stretch if you will.  Perhaps it’s a “pigment” of someone’s imagination.  I can only assume that’s what they were thinking because that’s what I was thinking.

For those who passed me earlier, well I had great joy in passing them as the finish swine came into view.  “Press on, press on.  ‘Pignore’ the pain.” I kept telling myself as I heard my name announced over the sound system stopping the clock at 5:05:11.

Obverse                                                      Reverse
I threw a proud fist into the air and collected my sought-after copper colored finisher’s medal, featuring an airborne pig with the city skyline in the background decorating both the obverse and reverse, exposing a pig’s posterior.


Distance: Marathon (26.2 mi) – my Garmin clocked it at 26.38 mi

Date: 5 May 2019

Bib No.: 602

Weather at start: 54°F, cloudy canopy

Gun time: 5:05:11

Chip time: 5:09:49

Average cadence: 157 steps per minute

Average pace: 11:34 per mile

Overall rank: 2767 of 3887

Gender rank: 1773 of 2265

Division rank: 110 of 163

Elevation: 968 ft gain / 1050 ft loss

Half split: 2:36 (11:57 pace)

Average finish time: 4:38:50

Standard deviation: 0:56:15

Age graded score: 47.00%

Age graded time: 4:21:36

Garmin splits: (10:06, 9:35, 10:08, 10:16, 10:29, 12:22, 11:57, 10:57, 10:12, 10:34, 10:58, 11:02, 10:42, 11:18, 12:33, 11:09, 11:28, 11:40, 12:05, 12:37, 11:57, 12:18, 14:05, 13:50, 13:31, 13:36, 9:52 projected pace [final 0.38 mi])


  • The festive weekend. 
  • The food variety at the finish line.  Hot pizza!
  • Enthusiasm of runners and volunteers.
  • The prized finisher’s medal.  It’s heavy and high quality.
  • Very well-organized event from packet pick-up to the multiple aid stations along the course.
  • Super friendly volunteer support.
  • Hats off to the thousands of spectators displaying their support!
  • Easy parking race morning – by hotel valet.


  • The hills in the first half.  Hey, they keep us honest.
  • Nothing else.

With my generous and copious post-race goodies tucked into my race bag, I met up with my wife to debrief about our challenging run and partake in some slices of freshly baked hot pizza supplemented with a bottle of cold water as we rested our exhausted bodies on an empty table top.

Beautiful day at the ballpark
We didn’t hang around the finish line area very long – although very tempting to do so.  After a rather uncomfortable walk back to the hotel, we showered, packed, checked out by 1400, had some lunch and took in a Reds baseball game as they played the SF Giants.  Since I’m a life-long Giants fan, I couldn’t pass up a rare opportunity to visit a new ballpark and to watch my team play.  The weather was perfect – sunny and hot, but since Reds fans don’t seem to come out to the games, finding an empty seat in the shade was easy.  After a home run laden game, the Giants came from behind to win 6-5.  On a side note, instead of playing "Sweet Caroline" in the seventh inning stretch as in Fenway, everyone stood (with their hats off) and sang "God Bless America."  Just as moving.

Following the game, we moved on to our next hotel across the river in Covington, KY, but first, I couldn’t pass-up pounding down some sliders from a nearby White Castle.  Here, it’s White Castle.  In California, it’s In n Out. 

We hit the sack early and didn’t wake until after 0930 Monday morning.  I was exhausted and the extra sleep is what my achy body required.

Yummy chili cheese dogs
With a new sense of get-up-and-go, we enjoyed a light lunch at Skyline Chili, indulging in their eponymous product, chili cheese dogs, as I joked that they were the pigs that couldn’t fly fast enough.  Ha.  With the added fuel to our gullets, we made our way to see some animals at the Cincinnati Zoo, and to put additional mileage on our already weary legs.  The zoo features the world-famous hippo, Fiona.  Laying claim to be one of the top zoos in the country, in my opinion, there are better zoos to visit.  A number of animal enclosures were either closed due to construction or the animals were simply “not in season.”  I found that to be a big disappointment.

Relaxing with Mr. Red Stocking

Rhinos battling for territory

Hungry giraffes

Fiona in lazy mode
Fiona's mom yawning
We stayed at the zoo until almost the 1700 closing time, in time to catch the afternoon traffic congestion on the Cincinnati freeways as we made our way to our next hotel near CVG airport and a relaxing soak in their hot tub.

Inside Graeter's
Before leaving for CVG to catch our flight back home, we had one more stop to make – the famous Graeter’s Ice Cream and Bakery to sample some of their premium ice cream everyone raves about.  I ordered a double scoop of s’mores and black raspberry ice cream, sure it’s good, creamy and delicious, but I found it to be on par with many of the premium ice creams one can purchase from the grocer’s freezer.  My opinion.

Final thoughts:

I came, I flew, I conquered!  Whenever I told another runner I was running the Flying Pig, the first thing I heard was, “I hope you’re ready for the hills!”  To which I thought, “Oh yes, hills.  I’ve experienced them before.  I’ll be fine.  Get over them.”  No joke.  There were some serious hills during the first ten miles, but I’ve experienced worse and it all comes with the course.

How my Garmin plotted the course profile
So, what was the allure and magnetism of this race?  Why did so many people register and run what is becoming one of the most famous races in the country?  I concluded that it had to be a combination of elements all bundled up into one weekend – a varied and scenic course, lots of very enthusiastic crowd support, the amazing swag and bling one gets to bring home, and yes, the fun and amusing porcine theme, to name a few.

The icing on the cake was a generous finishing chute, with everything from fruit to granola bars, fruit cups to hot pizza slices (thank you LaRosa’s Pizzeria), and chips.

Kudos to all the law enforcement personnel protecting runners and directing traffic in a very professional manner.  Some officers even danced to music while others engaged with the crowd and encouraged the runners.

At most times, I’m able to read about silver linings or exhume the bright side of nearly anything.  Even though I may not have given it my all this wonderful day, Flying Pig was not any kind of sucker punch to the ego or my self-worth.  It’s one thing to push yourself to your limits and earn a deserved finish.  This race was not that, but I did give it my all for the final half mile.  It wasn’t a sudden implosion, or inexplicable and precipitous failure of all systems, but rather I treated it as an enjoyable experience, beholding the great crowd support, enthusiasm and passion about Cincinnati’s annual festive weekend.    

I admit that after I finished, I had to console my partially wounded self-esteem, but as I looked at the bright side, I was still in recovery mode from a difficult REVEL run and Flying Pig was a course fraught with hills.  I looked back at all these reasons as perhaps individual Jenga pieces that I removed over the course of the last two weekends.  As I analyze my recent marathon times, maybe it’s because I refuse to believe that I’m simply not in marathon shape, or that over the past couple of years, the gene responsible for sucking at running was switched to the on position.  By running REVEL one week prior, Flying Pig taught me one thing, I’m stronger than I thought I was.

Whether it was because of a series of subtle mistakes or one big, ineffable change in my body chemistry, I can’t say.  But in June, I do have two more opportunities at the distance in the states of Tennessee and North Carolina, sadly concluding, in a way, my fifty-state journey.  Whether I decide to tempt another potentially disastrous run or just play it safe will depend on what happens between now and then.  Either way, I will start the next one without the insouciant bravado of races past, where a sub five-hour finish is basically guaranteed.

I am so glad I came out to Ohio to challenge the Flying Pig.  I must say, even though the pigs may have beaten me at my game, I had a total blast.  Anyone looking for an amazing Ohio race, the Flying Pig is the race to do.  I love the finisher’s medal and proud to hang it on my already full medal rack dangling with medals from all over our great country.

Onwards and upwards.  Even with trepidation and a little reluctance.

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