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LEXINGTON: BlueGrass Half-Marathon

We have had a second home in Florida now for a dozen years and, while there are three or four convenient routes to go south or return north, the one most frequently taken passes through Indianapolis, Cincinnati, Knoxville, Asheville, Columbia and Savannah before arriving at the First Coast in Jacksonville. Traveling on I-75 through Kentucky we pass signs directing us to Lexington, which invariably invokes this reaction from one or both of us:

“We should stop there some day.”

Except it never happened, even though my father came from Kentucky. He was born in Owensboro, then moved with his mother (my grandmother) to Louisville. During World War II, my father served at Great Lakes Naval Station north of Chicago, playing the saxophone in the United States Navy Band conducted by John Philip Sousa. After returning briefly to Louisville on discharge, my father left Kentucky permanently, settling on the south side of Chicago, where I grew up.

We sometimes traveled to Louisville to visit my grandmother, who coincidentally had the same name (Rosa) as my wife (Rose). On one of those trips, we toured the state to visit Mammoth Cave and, yes, Lexington to see the horse farms. One of those horse farms is Keeneland, an important race track for horses and now for runners participating in the BlueGrass Half-Marathon.

Some months ago, I received a call from race director Eric Marr inviting me to attend the half-marathon, held on Saturday of the Easter weekend. I immediately agreed to attend and scheduled our return home from Florida to stop (finally) in Lexington.

We stayed downtown at the Hilton, only a block away from the Rupp Arena where the University of Kentucky plays basketball to 23,000 spectators. While relaxing at a Starbuck’s across the street, we observed bunches of grade-schoolers sporting multi-colored T-shirts identifying their teams in whatever science competition was on during our stay. More than that one coffee shop, it seemed downtown Lexington was crowded with interesting restaurants. Our first night in town we dined at Jonathan’s at Gratz Park with several of the race volunteers, who recommended a place called Doodles for breakfast the next morning. We also ate lunches at Desha’s and Shakespeare & Co. I don’t pretend to be a restaurant critic, but in case you are considering a run at BlueGrass next year, we weren’t disappointed anywhere we ate 

The Keeneland Race Course is on the edge of town, about a half dozen miles west. Grass as far as the eyes can see, punctuated by white fences, only a few horses grazing, we assume because spring had not yet turned to summer. Given that the BlueGrass Half-Marathon limits itself to 4,000 entries, the expo was small compared to the expo for the 40,000-runner Shamrock Shuffle in Chicago, my next appearance. But in many respects, it is easier to talk to runners at smaller expos rather than larger expos where crowds of people surge past the booth without even noticing that I might be available to answer questions or sign race bibs. Conversation becomes much more comfortable.

At Lexington, Eric had given me the additional task of signing bottles of Spring Creek Bourbon, specially bottled for the race: fewer than 500 bottles, making these true collector’s items, meant to be saved or savored depending on your desire. I wondered how many bottles would soon be downed and how many would be displayed on shelves, handed down from generation to generation. A century from now, would a bottle of bourbon signed by Hal Higdon with a silver pen have additional value, perhaps to be offered at a future generation’s Antiques Roadshow?

Saturday morning, we rose early and departed for the course at 7:00 AM, two hours before the start, but Eric had asked me to assist with the start, and I didn’t want to be delayed by traffic. The multi-lane road leading to the racetrack, unfortunately, was being repaired, closing several lanes. Fine for those attending the horse races later in the year; not so good for this year’s runners.

The morning was chilly, close to freezing. After finding the starting line and locating Eric, I went back to the car to stay warm. Just before the scheduled time, I returned to the start and joined him on a platform overlooking the starting line. Two policemen appeared and suggested a 15-minute delay, not only because some runners were late arriving, but because low parts (hollows) on the (hilly) course were too foggy for safety. A bit of an overreaction by the police, I thought, but none of the runners seemed to mind. 

The road used for the course was narrow (one reason for the 4,000 runner limit), but the wave start went swiftly. After most of the runners had cleared the line, I climbed down from the platform and started running in the back. Because we wanted to get back home for Easter, I had decided to forego the half-marathon and enter, instead, the accompanying 7-mile race. But the long two-day drive from Florida had tired me, so I decided to skip even that and run a token few miles, then head back to the hotel to shower and change.

A fun race and a fun visit to Lexington. As we continue to travel back and forth to Florida, we’ll have to visit again some day.