Last Saturday morning marked the 15th annual Holy Half Marathon (informally called the Holy Half), a race around the campus of the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Indiana. The annual student-run race offers a fast, scenic course in a city that’s close enough for a day trip, but far enough to qualify as On the Road. While there was unfortunately no sign of the next President of the United States, there were plenty of reasons for Chicago-based runners to make the trip.
While the Holy Half is open to the public, many of the runners are students (a quick scan through the results indicates that most of the runners are 24 years old or younger). Worried that you’ll be outdone by a bunch of spry young Catholics? Never fear – for many of these whipper snappers, it’s their first half marathon. For those looking for a pleasant introduction to the distance, the Holy Half can be a great start.
The 13-mile race consists of two laps around Notre Dame’s campus. While mostly flat (this is Indiana, after all), the scenery is nevertheless varied. In addition to passing such sites like the Golden Dome, Touchdown Jesus, and Notre Dame Stadium, runners loop around two small lakes (named after Saints Mary and Joseph, naturally). The varied scenery means varied surfaces. While a soft, crushed limestone path encircles the lakes, much of the race is on the concrete sidewalks common to college campuses. I found myself yearning for the comparatively cushy asphalt of Chicago’s lakefront path.
The race is typically on the last week of March or first week of April. This year, that timing was perfect—at race time, the temperature was around 50 degrees and sunny with minimal wind. It’s not always that pleasant, though. In 2016, a blizzard actually resulted in the race being cancelled. When it comes to weather, hope for the best but plan for the worst. The race itself is at 9 o’clock on Saturday morning, which provides plenty of time to see a bit of South Bend before heading back to Chicago.
Notre Dame’s campus is in South Bend, with the campus itself lying two miles north of downtown South Bend. Getting there by car takes less than two hours from Chicago via 80-90. By train, take the South Shore all the way to South Bend Airport. I recommend the 3:57 train from Millennium Station on Friday afternoon, which gets you into South Bend right around dinner-time. From there, it’s pretty easy to get an Uber or Lyft to campus or your hotel.
It’s a fun, flat course. And while the race itself is fairly small (~1700 participants), the route is densely packed with spectators. Many of them are typical race-watchers with punny signs or cow bells. At the Holy Half, however, you’ll also be cheered on by priests in Under Armour Roman collars and tailgaters guzzling Smirnoff Ice on bended knee. As an added benefit, the Holy Half prominently prints your name on your bib, so these friendly folks can cheer you on by name.
In the literal sense, you do it by paying $65 and signing up online. Spots go fast, so be on the lookout around Thanksgiving for entry to open. For the race itself, I recommend positioning yourself strategically at the starting line. The half-marathon has two waves, but they aren’t assigned based on qualifying time. If you’re a reasonably fast runner (say, 7:30 pace or faster), go ahead and start in the first wave. Otherwise, you’re better off starting at the front of the second wave. I say all this because the course narrows considerably roughly 1.5 miles in when you get to St. Joseph’s Lake. While this bottleneck has gotten considerably better since I last ran the Holy Half five years ago, it’s still in your best interest to get out ahead of it.
The pro move, however, comes after the race. Check out Fiddler’s Hearth, an authentic Irish pub in downtown South Bend. It’s the perfect place to refresh with a traditional Irish breakfast, washed down with a mug of Irish coffee or a pint of stout.