I ran the Shamrock Marathon in Virginia Beach, VA on March 18, 2012. There is also a half marathon, as well as an 8K and a series of kids races the previous day. Over 27,000 people participated in this year's Shamrock races.
The course - Flat as a pancake. Essentially 2 half marathon loops that start and finish fairly close together. The half marathon (which started earlier) runs on the back half of the marathon course. The full marathon has one bridge that you run over twice, but that's it. Long sections are very straight.
Completely separate from the half marathon - I liked this a lot. You are with marathoners from the very beginning. I don't think I have seen this done at any other race that has both a half and full marathon. The two races started in 2 different places at 2 different times. The half starts first, which is unusual. Logistically, it works. If the marathon started first, the speedy marathoners would merge into the back of the half marathon and create a huge bottleneck. No bueno. The only time the half starting first would be a problem is if it is hot.
Size - About 3300 marathon finishers. Personally, I think this is the perfect size. Enough people so that you are never running alone but not so many people that you can't move.
Weather - Average high for March in Virginia Beach is in the high 50s. Get the wind blowing in the right direction and good things happen.
Expo - Packet pick-up was quick and easy. Free parking at the Virginia Beach Convention Center. All of your standard vendors were there. I wanted Bondi Bands, new headphones, and new caps for my Fuelbelt bottles. I found them all. Some people complained about long lines at the Shamrock Store. A post-race email apologized for the long lines, said they'd get more cashiers next year, and offered free shipping on orders over $25. I can live with that.
Parking - I walked to and from the race, so I have no idea if parking/traffic was an issue. Virginia Beach has free on-street parking in March. As long as you don't try to park on the course, I would imagine it would be OK. You do kinda need a car if you want to get off the oceanfront.
Gear check - I didn't use it, but it seemed smooth.
Pace groups - I didn't use a pace group either, but there were some pace groups.
Port-a-potties - I saw plenty on the course and at the finish. Could have used a few more at the marathon start. I hopped into one of the oceanfront hotels to use a real bathroom about 15 minutes before the race started.
Corrals - Worked perfectly. Not crowded in the corral or once the race started. I got in my corral about 10-15 minutes before the gun went off. Volunteers were good at checking bibs to make sure people were in the right corral.
Start - The gun went off right on time.
Volunteers - I hope every single one of them comes back next year. They were great!
Spectators - I liked the Marines in Camp Pendleton the best. The area with the most spectators was around the halfway point. There were some areas with no or limited spectators. Didn't see a ton of posters. It didn't bother me, though. Shamrock had DJs on the course in several spots and riddle posters in one area that was particularly isolated.
Bibs - Personalized with your name. Some people don't like this. I found it helpful. I said thank you or gave a thumbs up to anyone who cheered me by name.
Aid stations - Fully stocked (although I was at the front of the marathon pack, so take this with a grain of salt). Volunteers yelled whether they had water or Gatorade, plus you could tell by the color of the cup. The water in Virginia Beach is heavily chlorinated and you can taste it. Be aware of that. I recently started using Nuun tablets (electrolyte tablets that dissolve in plain water). I hadn't been using them long enough to try during Shamrock, but I did put them in Virginia Beach tap water to mask the chlorine. There were two stations with CarbBoom gels. I carry my own supply of shot bloks and I wouldn't have eaten CarbBoom on the course (don't like gels to begin with and couldn't find them to test them out). There was one aid station in the higher miles with food. Not sure whether it was an official aid station. All I remember were little cups of gummy bears.
Finish line - Wave hello to the King Neptune statue and cross the finish line. Leprechaun Bob announces you by name and hometown. I must have been losing my mind at the finish line because I heard my hometown pronounced correctly. No one outside of Rhode Island knows how to say it right.
Using a Garmin - My Garmin read 26.39 miles at the end. A difference of .2 mile in a marathon is not too much of a difference. I've seen much much worse. If you weave around, don't run perfect tangents on turns or corners, or are in an area with tall buildings and trees, the Garmin will be off. There's some random measurement error too. Usually, the pace on the Garmin is off by 5-10 seconds per mile as compared to the official pace based on your finishing time. My Garmin pace was off by 3 seconds per mile compared to my official pace. Thumbs up in my book.
Swag - Shamrock does it better than anyone else. Marathoners get a long-sleeved technical race shirt. But Shamrock didn't stop there. When you finish, you also get a finishers hat AND a T-shirt. This year, the finishers shirt was a technical hooded sweatshirt in honor of Shamrock's 40th anniversary. The swag bag is one of those drawstring sack bags that will be my new gym bag. The race program is a calendar. The medal doubles as a bottle opener and has a detachable shamrock charm.
Post-race refreshments - Water, Gatorade, bananas, sugar cookies, granola bars, and pretzels. The bananas were green and pretty much inedible. Oh well, can't be perfect. Things happen. There was also beef stew (more like beef soup ... warm salty liquid never tasted so good). Your race bib got you 4 (!?!) Yuengling beers. 274 kegs were consumed this year. We must be a bunch of drinkers with a running problem.
Post-race party - Shamrock also does it better than anyone else. On a tent on the beach. The cool sand felt nice against my gnarly runner's feet. Have your picture taken with a giant sand sculpture. Listen to some music. This year had Vertigo, a U2 tribute band, plus 2 other bands. I'm a little biased because U2 is my favorite band. Vertigo didn't start playing til 2pm when just about all the runners were done. They were fun!
Hotels - I stayed on the Virginia Beach oceanfront. I warmed up by running to the marathon start and back, then stretched and hung out in my hotel room til a half hour before the start, and then walked to the start line. Without knowing it, I picked the perfect hotel (Best Western Plus Oceanfront). It wasn't too expensive. It was about a mile from the half marathon start, a quarter mile from the marathon start, and at the finish line and post-race party. I got to open up the balcony door and hear the music from the comfort of my hotel room. My room looked out directly at the Shamrock sand sculpture.
Shamrock's Facebook page - Full of useful information and a good way to connect with other runners. The night before the half and marathon, King Neptune told us all to go to bed. Tee hee!
Organization - Virtually flawless. Plenty of information was provided. The things that weren't quite right were very minor. That happens at every race. They took responsibility for mistakes and attempted to make them better. That's how you run a good race.
Overall, I cannot say enough good things about Shamrock, and not only because I had an epic race. This is an all-around quality event. Everything was well-organized and well-supported. I have ran a lot of different races, everything from small local races to big city marathons. Shamrock wins overall by a landslide. I will be back!!