The 39th running of the Freep was October 16th, and more than 25,000 runners, walkers, and handicyclists participated this year.
The race has never been on my bucket list. In more than 20 years of doing triathlon, running and cycling races in Michigan and beyond, the logistics of navigating to the heart of Detroit for a 7am start time in mid-October really had never enticed me. This year, as a favor to a friend, I'd signed up (it seemed like a great idea on that sunny May afternoon). Unseasonably warm temperatures through September and October made the long training easy. The threat of sleet in the wee hours of the starting gun – one of the things I'd secretly dreaded in signing up – appeared not to be a factor this year.
In the weeks and days prior to race day, emails were sent to explain every aspect of the race day, beginning with packet pickup and ending with the post race celebrations. Packet pickup was offered on Friday and Saturday prior to the Sunday race, and as I was doing the international half, I was required to come in person to show ID. The expo hall was spacious and set up so that once one had their race packet, they had to zig- zag, Ikea-like, through a maze of vendors to reach the exit. Like Disney, you had to go through the gift shop in order to leave the ride. Everything from shoes to lighted hats to electrolyte drinks to insurance was offered. Enough samples of energy bars and gels were available to count as carbo loading.
Race morning: 5:30am. Gridlocked city, downtown Detroit. The freeways leading into the city were jammed by 6:00am, and if you hadn't printed out the emailed map of available parking, you were destined to walk a few miles warmup prior to your race to get to the starting line. Luckily we had a plan, and parked a few blocks from the line. Hotels, coffee shops, and even a hot dog restaurant all offered their facilities as people made ready to run or support. Police presence was plentiful and friendly – one mounted officer even offered to position his horse for pictures with us. Runners were sorted into corrals by their predicted race pace, which was asked of you at registration. Thousands - thousands! - of runners stood in their designated areas, spotlights lighting the streets like daylight, music pouring from the speakers, energy building. The sheer number of runners all poised and ready was exhilarating, the excitement was tangible.
The announcer counted down the first wave start, the gun went off, and the cheers and music were a wave of energy. Every two minutes another group started. At about two miles in, the ascent to the bridge began and security became thicker. Nearly every officer clapped, gave high fives, or cheered as we ran past – their support was amazing. The height of the bridge is considerable, and running over it at sunrise, looking down the river at the lights of the city and the colors of the sky in the water was simply awesome. Into Canada, the course ran primarily along the riverfront. The crowds were out in force and entertaining – some offering spare bedrooms if the upcoming presidential election went a particular direction. One elderly gentleman shouted "Keep going! Only one country to go!". Back through the tunnel and onto the main thoroughfare downtown, under Cobo arena, people lined the street and overpass. The crowd made this halfway point seem effortless as we ran through the cheers and music.
The last half of the race was a bit more subdued as we wound through nicer neighborhoods of downtown, with water and Gatorade stations every two miles and random spectators playing their radios from porches or offering tables of bananas (and one with Dixie cups of beer). One man set up a tent, a microphone and a karaoke machine and serenaded runners as they passed. The last two miles were through downtown, around blocks and finally down the home stretch to the finish, with the announcer calling out individual names and home towns for a personalized cross of the finish line. The end chute was a well organized bounty of finisher medals, grab bags, space blankets, water, food, and friendly volunteers offering congratulations. After race parties had already begun at local eateries and the whole area felt happy, secure, friendly and supportive.
If you are considering a fall 2017 half or full marathon, do this race. As a local athlete, well-versed in the state, area race organizers and many venues, I was happily surprised by the organization (pre, during, and post race), the security, and the support and warmth of the staff and volunteers. As only one of over 25,000 participants this year and in no way connected with the race itself except to run it, it felt like being part of a huge family – amazing within the scope and location of this event. Well done, Freep!