Race Review: Providence Marathon 2021
This is the first race review I’m writing in 1.5 years, and it feels pretty surreal. The Providence Marathon happens every year on the first Sunday in May, but like other races, it went virtual in 2020.
There was a modified version in 2021, and I signed up since my roommate was doing the same race, and I was itching to race again. I was so ready to race that I was even willing to redo a marathon that I really don’t like. I’d run the Providence Marathon in 2016 as my very first marathon, and I actually hated the course.
In this post, I’ll recap my 2021 race experience and explain why I still don’t really like the Providence Marathon haha.
While the U.S. is starting to open up, COVID is definitely still a concern, especially for larger events. The organizers implemented several measures to reduce the risk. Capacity was limited to 50% (there are usually 1000 marathoners, but there were only around 500 this year). Runners had to wear masks at the start line through mile 1 and in the post-race area. The race start was staggered, with only 10 or so runners going at a time. As a result, there were no pacing groups, though there typically are. Spectators also were required to wear masks.
In the event the race was canceled, the Providence Marathon also promised the option of a full refund or virtual option (in contrast to 2020, where most races couldn’t give refunds and simply went virtual). This was one of the main reasons I picked Providence and not any other race.
I had gotten my second dose vaccine 9 days before the race, so I was also feeling more comfortable participating in a larger outdoor event like this.
Typically, there’s a big expo for marathon packet pickups, where lots of running- and health- related brands sell gear or give presentations. It’s like a big festival, and you can sometimes get free samples of sports bars and drinks.
Because of the pandemic, there was no expo, but instead an outdoor packet pickup. It was super straightforward and took only a minute to get my bib and gear.
You could also pay around $15 extra to have your race packet mailed to you, if you didn’t want to arrive a day or two early to get your bib.
Where to Stay
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I stayed in Providence Marriott Downtown, which was more than I’d typically spend at $170 for one night (though keep in mind this varies based on seasonality, and prices were definitely elevated because of the race). Apartment rentals were basically the same price, and they didn’t have the same perks as hotels, such as late checkout or luggage storing. I would definitely book at least a month in advance, if not even earlier, for the best rates.
The hotel was only half a mile from the start and was pretty nice. Rooms were clean and modern, and there was an indoor and outdoor pool. My first room had an ant problem, but they quickly switched me to another room that was larger, no questions asked.
I will say that the rooms were a bit noisy because they’re close to the highway. I actually had trouble sleeping due to the noise; if you can, try to request a room facing away from the highway and away from any elevators.
If you’re looking for a hotel with better reviews (but may be even pricier), check out Renaissance Providence Downtown, which is right by the State House and starting line, or Homewood Suites by Hilton Providence Downtown, which is right in the city.
If you want to save the most money and are coming from Boston like I was, it’s probably more cost-effective to get your packet mailed to you and to take an Uber/Lyft the morning of the race. The ride takes 1 hour (barring no unusual traffic on a Sunday morning), and costs around $80. You can then take the commuter rail back with the $10 unlimited weekend pass. The only downside is having to get up even earlier and the risk of any weird traffic.
I won’t mince words: the course is killer. Online maps don’t list overall elevation gain, but if you check some routes on Strava, they say the gain is 750ft (228m). My watch was very off and listed 1500ft gain, but Strava later corrected it to 750ft (I think the barometric pressure must’ve fluctuated wildly during the race, throwing the altimeter off).
Some people say that races with 500ft gain—like the Paris Marathon—are hilly. So, the Providence Marathon is definitely hilly. The best part is that the race website calls the course “fast and flat” (ironically, all the images of the course I have are flat haha. I didn’t take photos during the race, so thank you to my roommate Cristina for taking these!)
For the first 7 miles, there are rolling hills, and some of them are pretty brutal. In the last 7 miles, you’ll encounter some of the same hills. The middle of the race is pretty flat, and some of it is even along a bike path, but after the initial hills, it’s easy to feel worn out.
The course starts and ends in the city, and most of it is along residential roads. My favorite part of the course is from miles 17-19, which are right along the ocean on the bike path. You can smell the saltwater and I even spotted an egret.
There were fuel stations every 1.5-2 miles. Each station had water and Nuun, and some of the later stations had bananas and gels. I brought my own water backpack and gels, but I still used some water stops so I didn’t have to carry as much.
Before the race, I had a pineapple Roctane Gu. During the race, every 4 miles or so, I had a Huma blueberry gel or Honey Stinger fruit smoothie gel. I also had a salt pill at miles 8 and 16, and a fruit chew at mile 8.
When I ran the race in 2016, the weather was chilly and probably in the 40s to 50s Fahrenheit (4.4-10 Celsius). In 2021, the temperatures were in the 60s (15.6-20 Celsius) at the start, and rose to the mid-70s (24 Celsius) within a couple hours. It was definitely not ideal racing temperatures this year.
Luckily, there were a couple people along the course offering you mist from spray bottles, which was sweet, but they were unaffiliated with the race and there’s no guarantee they’ll be there in the future. I think mid-April races probably offer the best racing weather, though there probably is a greater chance of storms.
The Providence Marathon always has nice medals and gear. This year, we got a jacket, beanie, and medal. Typically, there’s just a medal and technical t-shirt that’s well-fitted and designed. I also appreciated that the medal had a magnet on the back, making it actually functional.
I would like to see races start to make the swag optional, however, as those of us who race regularly have tons of gear. It would be cool to be able to select the medal or t-shirt as options and save money if you opt out. Better for our wallets and the environment!
Another great perk are the free professional photos. Most races charge an extra $10-30 for a single digital photo download.
I finished the race in 4:20:24, and this was my worst marathon time by a few minutes (previously it was 4:17 and my PR is 3:59). I ran the first half in 1:59:45, putting me on-track for a sub-four marathon, though I anticipated that I would slow down a bit in the second half (but not by that much).
I thought I tackled the hills in the first 8 miles relatively well, taking the uphills a bit slower and the regaining ground on the downhills. I’d done a couple trail runs and long runs with hills, so I felt decently prepared.
I was hoping to speed up in flat section of the race to create a buffer for the hills in the final miles, but the adrenaline started wearing off around mile 8. Up until that point, a 9 minute mile had felt pretty good.
Around mile 15, I started slowing down and running 9:30 miles. I thought that I could keep that up until the finish, which would tack an extra 5-6 minutes onto my total finish time—still faster than the first time I’d run the same race (I finished in 4:08 in 2016). But I then started slowing down even more, clocking 10-, 11-, and 12-minute miles. I got so tired that I even walked at several points, which I’d never done before in a race.
My legs were feeling stiffer and stiffer, and my goal went from running sub 4:08 to sub 4:15 to sub 4:20 to just finishing.
I didn’t hit any of those time-based targets, but I did finish in one piece. I was pretty disappointed overall since I’d spent many weekends and hours on long, painful runs haha. But it was still nice to be able to race again and I hope we can see more races happen safely over the next months.
Really struggling towards the end of this race haha
I’m not sure why the race went so poorly for me, but here are my hypotheses:
I ramped up my mileage significantly compared to the Paris Marathon, where I ran my PR of 3:59. I was running around 85 miles in the four months leading up to Providence, with a couple months even in the 90-100 range. In comparison, my highest mileage month for Paris was 65 miles. This is quite low mileage for marathoners, but I’ve always cross-trained too (swimming, biking, yoga). For Providence, however, I didn’t really swim or bike and took more rest days, which may have led to a lower overall level of fitness and strength.
I also had to complete my long runs in a shorter period of time for Providence, as I didn’t sign up for the race until a few months out. I had around 3 weeks between each long run while training for Paris, but only 2 weeks for Providence. This again is unusual for marathoners (many training plans have weekly long runs), but this is simply what’s worked for me.
My longest run was also 18 miles, and I usually do at least one 20-mile run. I decided against a 20-miler because of the number of long runs I’d done in a short amount of time (for me). There are some running experts who even say that running for longer than 3 hours is counterproductive to race day, since it’s so taxing on the body. I instead did a 4-miler followed by a 16-miler the day after to kind of simulate a 20-mile run. Not a single one of my longer runs 14 miles and above felt good, and I was also dying by the last few miles. I wonder if I simply lacked the endurance, especially since I started feeling extra bad around mile 16.
Lingering vaccine side effects
I’d gotten my second dose vaccine just a week before, and had really bad side effects. I had a fever for around 24 hours and my runs the week after felt much harder—I actually had to cut those runs short because I still wasn’t feeling 100%.
To be honest, this could be a stretch, as many people recover within a few days from the second dose. But I find it hard to believe that I could have such a drastic slowdown with the training I had. For my 4:17 marathon, my longest run was actually 16 miles, and I’d felt pretty awful in the months leading up to the race. I even remember not exercising at all the 2 weeks beforehand. While my training wasn’t ideal for Providence, it was better than that.
I’m of course very glad I got the vaccine and would encourage anyone with access to get it. Having some side effects is really not a big deal compared to actually getting COVID or spreading it to others.
I realized that my best race times happened when the temperatures were in the 40s-50s. This race was definitely one of the warmer ones. There are studies that show that hotter temps lead to slower marathon times, so this could’ve had some impact.
Final Thoughts + What’s Next
I know this race review isn’t very glowing, but I do want to point out that many people do enjoy it and even run Boston Qualifying times on the course. I personally have not had a good race experience either time, but the event is always run professionally.
In non-Covid years, this is still a smaller marathon, and the course is not easy. If you want a more exciting and less-excruciating experience, I would recommend going for a larger, flatter race. I unfortunately don’t know of any nearby that meet both criteria, so please suggest some below if you know! I do know the CHEAP! Marathon in Salisbury, MA is supposed to be very flat and no-frills. It won’t be exciting, but it should be a fast course.
Personally, I don’t plan to do Providence again. I do hope to run another marathon in the next year, but I plan to focus on speed for the summer and early fall. If things are safe, I’d like to race and improve my half marathon time.
Let me know what you think of Providence if you’ve run it! Best of luck with your racing and training.