Monday, March 18, 2019

Race Report: Horse Capital Marathon

My flight got into Lexington pretty late on Friday night, just before 11:30pm, so I knew I wasn't going to get much sleep before my Saturday morning race.  At 7am, I would begin yet another 26.2 mile run, but this time I'd be checking off Kentucky as my 45th marathon state at the 4th running of the Horse Capital Marathon.  The start and finish were held at Fasig-Tipton, a thoroughbred auction house founded in 1898, and the oldest of its kind in North America.  Originally headquartered at Madison Square Garden in NYC, its current permanent headquarters have been in Lexington since 1972.

After roughly 5 hours of sleep, I was out the door before 6am, and drove the ten minutes over to Fasig-Tipton to get my bib and meet with the race director, Bob Baney, for the first time.  We had gotten in touch late last year after our mutual friend Erin connected us when I was seeking out a marathon to sing the national anthem at for the state of Kentucky. Before the lot of us headed over to the startline, I got to join in on a few photos with friends, including Jascia, pacing 2:45 for the half, and who I hadn't seen in quite some time; and of course, Erin and her husband Mikie!  After a few announcements from the DJ and emcee Bill Bryant from the WKYT, the local CBS affiliate, who also acknowledged Joe Zambrano (aka "Fireman Joe") running in full fireman's uniform, it was my turn up to the mic, as I checked off state #47 in my national anthem quest!

Runners at the start
Off and running on Newtown Pike
We were off and running under overcast skies, at a temperature of 66Âș and 88% humidity and rising.  All week, the forecast said thunderstorms throughout the day for the area, and the grey clouds loomed overhead.  At 7am, they were in the distance, with the sun even peeking through at times.  At least, for the start everything was good.  We ran out through the main gates of Fasig-Tipton, turning right onto Newtown Pike, rolling along the mild hills up until the right turn onto Iron Works Pike and the two mile mark.  My ankles were giving me issues early, but they subsided as the race went along.  Our run on Iron Works Pike was short-lived, before we made a left turn onto Mt. Horeb Pike next to the Mt. Horeb Presbyterian Church, as well as a disgruntled woman who was not thrilled to be held up by a road race as she was towing a horse trailer behind her.  The scenery also changed, as we began to run on these rural country roads, lined by beautiful massive oak tree canopies and acres of horse farms on both sides.  We continued along Mt. Horeb Pike for a decent stretch of nearly 3 miles, crossing a stone bridge over North Elkhorn Creek, and past a small lake, before seeing a right turn onto a steep descent along Old Lemons Mill Road. Before the right turn, however, I spotted Mikie, so I grabbed a quick selfie with our famous "Where are my strippers?" sign that's seen the entire country!
Where are my strippers?!
Running with the 4:40 pacer at 3.5 miles into the race
(Photos by J.A. Laub, provided by the Horse Capital Marathon)
A rare flat section of the race
Here's where the true hilliness of the race really began.  The steep descent was short-lived because barely a few hundred feet in front of us, the road began to go uphill.  It rolled up and down over the next 1.6 miles, along the way being able to see horses on their morning runs in the distance and some inquisitive and coming right up to the fence watching us runners along the road, as well as some vocal dogs barking at us (one I thought was a corgi, but couldn't tell because it was barking in the wrong direction... such corgi like behavior!) until we reached an aid station and a right turn onto Huffman Mill Pike.

Will it or will it not rain?
It was along Huffman Mill Pike that Dale, the 4:55 pacer, had caught up to me.  Dale is an active Marathon Maniac and 50 States Marathon Club member, and despite having run a couple of the same races recently (including Carmel this year and Detroit last year), this was our first time meeting officially.  We ran together for the next couple miles as he advised that this stretch would be slightly uphill, and that there would be no aid stations along Iron Works Pike between miles 10 and 13.  At one point, I also met a couple from Columbus running with their baby in a running stroller, who seemed to be enjoying the morning (the baby, in particular).  Around mile 9, I decided to take off a little quicker to bank some time to try and see how much I could stay ahead of Dale, and it was also around this time that the skies decided to open up, and the rain began to fall.  It wasn't incredibly heavy, but it was actually quite refreshing, having the rain come down for the next 25 minutes.  Huffman Mill Pike curved to a near 90 degree angle as we ran past a historical marker for Maddoxtown, noting one of the many freetowns in central Kentucky, settled by former slaves during the post-Civil War period. We reached the aid station at the firehouse, as I gulped up a couple cups of water, before continuing on, knowing that the turn off for marathoners was not too far ahead.

Lexington isn't kidding with the hills
We turned onto Russell Cave Road, and then ran downhill along a half mile stretch of it. Just after the Russell Cave Elementary School, the marathoners turned right while the half marathoners continued forward at mile 10.3.  We were now on the stretch of Iron Works Pike, and for some time, there was quite a distance between runners in front of me and behind me.   I ended up recording one of my fastest miles of the race at the 11 mile mark, as we ran through the precipitation.  I, of course, was still worried for thunderstorms - there aren't many marathons in the state of Kentucky, and if the course would get black flagged due to weather, it could very well impact my schedule to complete my 50 states by November.  The rain died down not long after, and I had picked up a little speed, I caught up to a couple runners, a marathoner from the San Francisco area and one running her first marathon who lived here in Lexington.  We chatted with each other while keeping up a good pace, eventually turning right back onto Mt. Horeb Pike, where we were going to officially begin our "second" loop of the course.

Horse farms and storm clouds
I hit the halfway point just after the aid station next to the Mt. Horeb Presbyterian Church, finishing the first loop in about 2:26. The rain had stopped, and the sun began to peek out ever so slightly in the next couple of miles.  We continued along the rolling hills, making a right turn at the 15.5 mile spot on Old Lemons Mill Road, where we encountered the abrupt downhill for the second time.  This rolling hilly section seemed a bit harder as I slowed down somewhat, and began to realize that Dale was not far behind me.

A little lonelier for the marathoners...
The hills definitely took advantage of me, and I slowed down as we passed the aid station just after the 17 mile junction.  In the first loop, we were turning here just after the 6.5 mile mark, but now we were directed to head straight for a turnaround point roughly 1.5 miles away.  This out-and-back along Old Lemons Mill Road up to its intersection with Russell Cave Road, proved to be one of the toughest parts of the whole race; the hills seemed more pronounced and didn't let up at all.  The sky seemed to finally clear at this point, too, and as such, the temperatures began to rise.  Along the way out, I found a perfectly dead, and still whole squirrel that had been spared by car tires.  I made sure to check it out a little closer on my way back.  I found myself walking quite a bit of this section up until we got back to the aid station, now at the 19.5 mile point.

Turkey vulture, mid-flight
We finally got to turn, and head down Huffman Mill Pike.  I encountered another stunning bird of prey - a turkey vulture, sunning istelf on a fencepost.  As I ran by, the turkey vulture got spooked and flew away, and I realized I interrupted his (her?) lunch... a fully dead opposum was lying discarded in the grass near where the bird was.  The sun was definitely out and in full force, and I was not prepared.  The last 10K of the race, despite the tree shade, was pretty open to the elements, and I struggled as I marched lonely through the countryside, with a couple runners within eyesight of me, and Dale and the two ladies way out in front, likely 5-7 minutes ahead of me by that point.  As the mile markers rolled by, so did the hills, yet I toughed it out as the temperatures began to rise.  The road turned right past the Maddoxtown historical marker, and the runner behind me had caught up, but the one directly in front of me had slowed down as I passed him.  After quickly gulping down some water, I knew a downhill was ahead, and I powered on forward, turning right onto Russell Cave Road.  This was the home stretch, with only 3 miles left to go of the race.

Maddoxtown historical marker
The sun pummeled us.  Figuring I had some where between 35 and 45 minutes left in my race, I surged ahead as we passed the intersection where the marathoners had turned some 13 miles ago.  But from there on, as we ran along Russell Cave Road, I struggled.  The road's hills rolled gradually, definitely not as hard as in earlier miles, but my legs were definitely feeling exhausted.  Orange cones lined the middle of the street as regular traffic came up on the other side of the road.  Only a couple times did cars pass us as we hugged the shoulder.  There came a point where I was just counting cones to run toward before I would measure a quick walk break.  It was actually quite a long stretch - roughly two miles - before we saw our next aid station, which was when we turned off of the road just after the 25 mile mark through the entrance of the Ashwood Training Center, an equine training facility adjoining Fasig-Tipton and containing a fairly large dirt track.  The rain that had come through the area muddied up the road a bit, so we had to dodge some puddles as we continued forward past the track and around to Fasig-Tipton's "back" entrance.
Ready to be done!
Coming in for the finish
(Photos by J.A. Laub,
provided by the Horse
Capital Marathon)
We had a fairly long stretch as we passed the stables, and it was still pretty lonely out there - no one was out cheering.  Finally, the turn was up ahead, and then we could hear the music.  I crossed the finish line in 5:14:33, thrilled to be able to check off my 45th state.  Erin and Mikie were there to cheer me in and take some finish photos as I crossed the mats.  I was EXHAUSTED by the time I finished, and needed to sit in some shade and get some hydration in.  Erin grabbed me some goetta burgers (the filling being a patty composed of ground meat, oats, and spices, popular in the region), which I would later scarf down, and after about ten minutes, I was ready to go.  We dodged a bullet and the weather didn't manage to mess up my race, but I was shown a radar that had a fairly large storm cell headed directly for Lexington about an hour later.  Erin and I made plans to meet up for lunch, and after Mikie helped me take my headstand photo, I headed back to my Airbnb to take a much needed shower.  And just in time, too, as the rain began to come down with a vengeance as soon as I walked in the door.

Soaked by rain and sweat, but finished.
(Photos by J.A. Laub, provided by the Horse Capital Marathon)
Celebrating with Erin for lunch!
After calling Delta to arrange for confirming onto a later flight on Sunday, I showered and then headed out the door to meet Erin at Wallace Station, a popular restaurant outside of Lexington that was featured on the Food Network's "Diners, Drive Ins and Dives."  However, the rain had not let up, and I drove white knuckled through a torrential downpour out into the country.  Finally making it out of the rain (and the clouds behind me), I got to the restaurant, which seemed to be a fairly popular stop for folks - there was a line out the door!  Erin and I each split a sandwich, one of them being a "Hot Brown," an open faced turkey and bacon sandwich, covered in cheddar Mornay sauce. Of course, the weather wasn't done yet - while we were outside sitting to eat, the rain decided to come down again.  It was shortlived, and the clouds went away yet again.  Erin and I separated as she had to head back home, a 1.5 hour drive to Shepherdsville.  I, on the other hand, was notably close to the Woodford Reserve Distillery, so I decided to make the drive over to Versailles to check it out.

Distillery tour time! When in KY...
Apparently, I was lucking out yet again, as I arrived at the distillery JUST as the last tour was going out.  I grabbed a spot on the tour, and spent the next hour touring the distillery's facilities, explaining the history of bourbon and its production process, and much more.  The tour ended in a beautiful rustic tasting room, where we were given a guided tasting of the straight bourbon and the double oaked whiskey, as well as their signature chocolate bourbon balls.

Woodford Reserve tasting! So good...
With the afternoon headed to a close, I headed back into Lexington to hit up one of the several craft breweries located in town.  And it just so happened that this weekend marked the tail end of the Lexington Craft Beer Week.  At Blue Stallion, I enjoyed a delicious Peanut Butter Porter, lovingly called "Ya Damn Skippy," accompanied by Bavarian pretzels with smoked lager beer cheese and German Pilsner spicy mustard. The place was also getting pretty busy into the evening hours!  Exhausted from all the events of the day, I headed back to my Airbnb to get some much needed sleep, and to rest up for another busy day ahead.

With Kentucky Derby winner, Orb!

The following morning, I woke up at 8am to get myself packed and out the door by 9 to drive the half hour out to Paris, Kentucky, where I was scheduled to go on a guided tour of Claiborne Farm, a thoroughbred horse breeding farm and stable.  Over 100 years old, the farm is one of the most well known horse farms in the world, with over 500 horses on its 3,000 acres.  Claiborne stallions and their progeny are responsible for 22 Kentucky Derby winners, 19 Preakness Stakes winners, 22 Belmont Stakes winners, and 29 Breeder's Cup winners. 6 of the 12 Triple Crown winners were sired by Claiborne stallions. Among them was Secretariat, one of the greatest racehorses in American racing history, who stood here upon his the end of his racing career in 1973 until his death in 1989. Today, stallions that stand at Claiborne include 2013 Kentucky Derby winner Orb, and one of the top international sires War Front, who fetches a $250,000 stud fee, the second highest in the country.  We got to meet both of those horses, as well as feed mints to a couple other stallions at the farm.  The tour ended in the cemetery that sits behind the visitors center, which is the final resting place for several famous horses, including Secretariat.

Pretzels and beer cheese.  A KY fave!
The rest of the afternoon included more drinks; a stop at Ethereal Brewing, where I got to sample their "Loco Choco Coco,"a chocolate coconut porter, as well as some of THEIR beer cheese; and at Country Boy Brewing, where I got a glass of their Strawberry Gose.  Country Boy was hosting the 5th Annual Beer Cheese Contest, but ended up hosting it at their Georgetown taproom, a half hour away; I decided to just stick around downtown Lexington and enjoy a beer at that location before grabbing brunch at a locally recommended brunch joint, County Club, before heading to the airport to rest up before my flights home.  It was a long afternoon and evening of travel, with weather affecting flights in and out of Atlanta all day, but I made it home in one piece, ready for another week of work before more travel ahead!

Victory Headstand... Kentucky, check!

Friday, March 15, 2019

Race Report: ING Night Marathon Luxembourg

When the street festival I had put on in 2017 for work was cancelled for 2018, the weekend we were planning it for became open, so I decided to go international and do a race in Europe for that weekend.  I had a few to choose from, including the Copenhagen Marathon, a race in VisĂ©, Belgium, that would run through the better known Dutch city of Maastricht, and the ING Night Marathon in Luxembourg.  Ultimately, it came down to figuring out flight schedules for the weekend, one that would both maximize my time on the ground in my destination city, yet not take away from my annual leave days from work.  The Luxembourg race from the get-go had caught my eye due to its evening start and the fact that it was near to major airports that could get me back to NYC directly.  But by the time I had made the decision in March that Luxembourg was the race I wanted to run, they had already sold out of bibs for the marathon.

I put my name on the waiting list and also kept a close eye on the social media accounts for the race for people willing to legally transfer their bibs, yet only kept finding half marathoners wanting to sell.  After only five days on the list, I was emailed that a bib had opened up, so I quickly grabbed it and began to figure out plans to get myself to the only Grand Duchy in the entire world.

Upgraded into Business Class!
On the Friday I was leaving for Europe, I left the office at about 2:30 to check in at Terminal 4 for my 5:30 flight on KLM to Amsterdam.  KLM has a decent upgrade-with-miles + co-pay program, so I put my name in for a business class seat headed to Amsterdam; my thinking is that I would for sure appreciate getting some rest on the plane feeling comfortably because once I land on the other side of the Atlantic, I will need to keep myself awake for the next 19 hours. I was successful in getting my upgrade into business class and enjoyed the 6 1/2 hour trip in a comfortable lie flat seat.

I had a two hour layover in Amsterdam, so I bided my time at the KLM Crown Lounge until my flight to Luxembourg was ready to board; the plane ended up departing a little delayed, so we ended up arriving about a half hour later than anticipated.  I had been in contact with my friend PĂ„l from Norway, who was running the race as well and had gotten into town the day before with his wife Tone - he gave me pretty good directions about getting myself to LuxEXPO THE BOX, the expo/exhibition hall, where the packet pickup and race start and finish would be.  It was pretty self explanatory - grab the #16 bus and take it two stops to the LuxExpo stop.
The LuxExpo is in the northeastern part of the city of Luxembourg known as the Kirchberg quarter, known primarily as an economic hub, but notable for being more recently developed into a contemporary cultural hub. I got there not long after the expo had opened, and was able to bypass any significant queues to get my bib.  Unfortunately, they had messed up the order with finisher t-shirts (which we had to purchase for this race), but I was able to eventually get one a size up, which fit me just fine.  After breezing through the quick expo and checking out the start and finish area getting ready for the race that evening, I went back on a bus and took it into the historical center of the city, the Ville Haute, where I easily found my Airbnb from the great directions my host gave me.  He was there to let me in, and we chatted for awhile while I recharged my phone.

Touring Luxembourg before the race
Once I had enough juice in my phone, I decided to head out to discover some of the city near to my Airbnb, first walking across the "Old Bridge," when I ran into PĂ„l and Tone on the sidewalk!  Since we had agreed to meet for lunch 45 minutes later, they decided to show me around the short circuit of the old city they had become familiar with, which was quite nice to get a lay of the land.  In that short period of time, we stopped into the Cathedrale de Notre Dame, completed in 1618 by the Jesuits and is the only Roman Catholic cathedral in Luxembourg; the Place Guillaume, which hosts a market every Wednesday and Saturday, which that day was ending as we passed through; the Grand Ducal Palace, official residence of the Grand Duke of Luxembourg; the HĂŽtel de la Chambre des DĂ©putĂ©s, home of the country's legislature, known as the Chamber of Deputies; and Place Clairefontaine, which has a monument in honor of the Grand Duchess Charlotte, and where a samba band was performing for a large crowd as we passed by.

A view down into the Grund
PĂ„l and I, pre race.
We then grabbed a late lunch at a place around the corner from my Airbnb, opting for pizza to satiate our hunger with only hours before the marathon. While PĂ„l and Tone left to go back to their hotel for PĂ„l to get prepared for the race, I opted to take the next 90 minutes exploring more of the core of Luxembourg city.  I took a long set of stairs, descending some 45 meters from the Old Bridge to the PĂ©trusse Valley floor below.  I walked around through the Grund quarter and took an elevator back up to the Ville Haute, stopping by the Bock Casemates, a network of underground fortifications built in the 18th century that are recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Before long, our 4:30 meeting time approached, so I grabbed the next bus headed to Gare Centrale, and waited to meet up with PĂ„l as many other runners began to board shuttle buses up to the LuxExpo for the race start.
Posing with the Luxembourg sign, just before the race begins.
Stilt walkers!
After finally getting on a crowded bus (having to stand, but making friends with other runners around us, notably a young couple from England), we eventually arrived at the LuxExpo, crowded with people getting ready for the 7pm race start. I found a spot against the wall inside the massive exhibition area, and got myself changed into my race kit that I had brought along with me. The temps had been warm all day, and with the sun beginning to set, its intensity kept us inside until the last possible moment to get ourselves out to the corrals to prepare for the moments before the race.  Meanwhile, I managed to get an orange ING hat that I decided to wear for the start of the race. PĂ„l and I eventually separated, as he went into a corral near the front, while I retreated back to one of the last corrals, and we positioned ourselves as we waited for the race to start. The start gun went off promptly at 7, with confetti and an enthusiastic crowd sending us off (including a guy dressed as a clown just before starting the race) on this unique hilly race with the most turns I'll have ever run in a marathon; with the sheer amount of runners amongst the different distances, I didn't get past the start mat until a quarter past the hour.
Finally getting past the start line!
Running down Konrad Adenauer
Almost immediately, we made our way up the slight hill on Rue Hugo Gernsbach up to the Boulevard Pierre Frieden, taking us to the around the Kiem residential district. We turned onto the Boulevard Konrad Adenauer, a treelined street past the Reimerwee residential district, seeing runners coming back the other way.  We then made a big loop around a massive area primed for redevelopment known as the Op der Schleed.  By the time we looped back along Konrad Adenauer, we had finished the first 5K of the race, which I was able to accomplish speedily (for me) in just under 31 minutes. The guy in the clown costume had made his way to that point of the race to cheer us on by that point in time. The heat was getting to me already, so I decided to lose the orange hat at this point of the race.  We eventually turned right then ran along a narrow bike trail that cut through the Kirchberg campus of the University of Luxembourg.  I managed to keep up with the 4:29 pacers along much of this section, then passed him later as we eventually came out onto the wide Avenue John F. Kennedy.

Running across the "Red Bridge"
Avenue John F. Kennedy was originally conceived as an expressway and was most recently beautified into a tree-lined pedestrian-and-cycle-friendly thoroughfare, with separated tram and bus lanes.  The course along this avenue spanned 1.5 miles slightly downhill, taking us past the more touristic area of Kirchberg dominated by EU institutions and agencies, such as parts of the European Commission, the Secretariat of the European Parliament, and the Court of Justice of the European Union. We also passed by the European Convention Center, Grand Duchess Josephine-Charlotte Concert Hall (home of the Philharmonie Luxembourg) and the Grand Duke Jean Museum of Modern Art (aka the Mudam) before making our first crossing of the Grand Duchess Charlotte Bridge.  This bridge, better known as the "Red Bridge" on account of its distinctive red paintwork on the outside, spans across the Alzette valley and Pfaffenthal quarter, connecting Kirchberg to Limpertsberg and the rest of the elevated city. By the time we came off of the bridge, we were five miles into the race.
The only one of thousands of photos on the marathon's Facebook page I found with me in it
Spotted Jamila on the course!
We turned right just after passing the Grand ThĂ©Ăątre de Luxembourg, with its geometrically fascinating facade, running the next three miles through the populous Limpertsberg quarter.  We weaved through its largely residential streets, past a few of the numerous schools that dot the area, including the LycĂ©e Technique des Arts et MĂ©tiers and the LycĂ©e Technique du Centre. Before reaching the 8 mile mark, the course took us through the Champ du Glacis, a large open air parking lot that at times hosts the annual Schueberfouer fair, the largest fair in the country.  During the race, it was one of the more busy spectator spots, and it just so happened, I ran into my friend Jamila as we passed an aid station! After taking a quick selfie, I continued on, making a U-Turn at the Rond-Point Schumann, as we ran a circuitous route through the pathways inside the Municipal Park.
Passing through Limpertsberg on the Avenue Pasteur
Exiting the Municipal Park
Day turns into night in Belair
We exited the park, running eastward into Ville Haute, before turning right onto Rue du FossĂ©, then running through Place Guillaume, which was cleared from only hours before, to be the turn off point for the half marathoners to head back toward the finish, while the marathoners continued on through the Place d'Armes and back through the Municipal Park's southernmost section, the Parc Edmund Klein.  On our own now, with far fewer people, the marathoners and team run relay members continued on as we weaved through the Belair quarter, starting with a long straightaway along Val Sainte-Croix, before weaving through several switchbacks of streets, seemingly tiered along this terrain. Eventually, we were heading back toward Ville Haute along Avenue Gaston Diderich, past the clock tower of the Eglise Saint Pie X, then cutting once again through the Municipal Park.  It seemed like every time I'd hit a park section, another gear in me switched on, and I managed to speed up a tiny bit.  We'd finally hit the halfway point of the race, which I'd achieve in a time of 2:19:01, having slowed down in the preceding two miles as we ran through Belair.  By then, it was 9:30pm, and the sun had already gone down, and we still had another 13.1 miles to go.

Lampposts light our way.
We then ran along the northern edge of the Hollerich quarter, first running along the north side of the road at Avenue Marie-Therese.  On the other side of the road were runners heading in our direction, some 4.7 miles ahead of us. We veered slightly right onto Rue MarĂ©chal Foch, then eventually weaved our way through the Merl quarter of the race, the part of the race where we'd experience the most turns.  The street was lit by the periodic lamppost lighting our way as we ran through this heavily residential area, but people were still out cheering us on.  Thankfully, the samba groups were plentiful around here, as we could hear the sounds of drums echoing all around us.  We ran through another city park, Parc Merl, as I sped through the park pathway, eventually emptying out us onto the Boulevard Pierre Dupong, and back into the Hollerich quarter.  We zigzagged our way through the city streets, while managing to pass a few other marathoners along the way (though, not many of those fresh legged Team Run relay members.)  By then, I was more than three hours into the race, and at past 10pm, having been awake for 15 hours+ and less than four hours of restless sleep on the flight over the Atlantic.  I was quite exhausted, and still had a couple hours of running left to go.

Running inside the Pont Adolphe!
At the 17 mile mark, we were headed back along Avenue Marie-Therese, and roughly half a mile later, we were taking a short downhill onto a well lit pedestrian and bicycle path running directly under the roadbed of Luxembourg's iconic Pont Adolphe, or the "New Bridge."  The bridge, celebrating its 115th year, underwent three years of extensive renovations, before reopening in spring 2017, including the new suspended pathway that opened that summer. Most of the bridge, except for the arches, had been dismantled stone by stone, rebuilt and reinforced with stainless steel rods. The bridge is an unofficial national symbol of sorts, representing Luxembourg's independence, and has become one of Luxembourg City's main tourist attractions.

Passing underneath the Pont Adolphe
We emerged out of the suspended pathway, onto the Bourbon Plateau on the Place de Metz, looping around a city block containing the State Savings Bank of Luxembourg, before we took on a steep descent along a very dark roadway - so dark that I needed to take my phone out to light the way with my phone's flashlight in case I misstepped into a hidden pothole.  The Rue Mathias Hardt and the Rue de Prague quickly brought us to the edge of the Grund quarter, but more importantly, brought us right along the banks of the Petrusse River and its beautiful park, a hidden gem in the middle of the city.  The "lower city," as its known, was lit beautifully by candlelight and torchlight along the wrought iron railing bounding the pathway. We ran through the lit archways of the bridges that crossed the valley as we approached the 30K mark of the race, knowing full well we would pass by quite the scene as we ran near the open air LEO Petrusse Party held in conjunction with the race.

Running alongside the Petrusse
The lights faded away as we continued along the Rue de la Semois, then the path that curved its way through the dark right alongside the quiet Petrusse River to the Rue de la VallĂ©e.  It was lonely, lit only by the periodic lamp post, until eventually, we had to take a switchback ramp out of the valley, as we ran back onto the street to tour the last major quarter of the city we'd see before heading back to to the LuxExpo and the finish line.  We now weaved our way around the Garer Quartier, named after the train station.  This was an area I was kind of familiar with, having begun the evening down near the train station at the junction of the Avenue de la LibertĂ© and the Avenue de la Gare (the street my Airbnb is on), where I picked up the shuttle to the startline.

At the 28km mark 
The course curved us past throngs of crowds still out cheering us on at 11pm, as we passed the Place des Martyrs, then found our way crossing the Passerelle, the bridge I had crossed several times earlier that day from my Airbnb.  We passed crowds of revelers out in full force in the Ville Haute, circling Constitution Plaza, which houses the GĂ«lle Fra war memorial, a bronze statue atop a 21-meter tall granite obelisk, dedicated to the thousands of Luxembourgers who volunteered for service in the armed forces of the Allied Powers during both World Wars and the Korean War.  The statue is of  Nike, goddess of victory, holding out a laurel wreath as if placing it upon the head of the nation.  The course then zigzagged through the Ville Haute, passing the Cathedrale de Notre Dame, the Grand Ducal Palace, and the Place du ThĂȘatre, before making a right turn onto the Avenue de la Porte-Neuve, and reaching the other end of the Rond-Point Schuman, where we ran past 13 miles ago.

Samba band near the finish
We were back now on the Grand Duchess Charlotte Bridge, much less crowded at 11:30 at night. With only 5k left to run, I put my legs into their last gear, and took advantage of the flatness we'd be able to use, seeing a sign in the distance to which I'd run to before taking my next walk break.  From there, I knew it was going to be tough as we ran along the Avenue John F. Kennedy back to the LuxExpo, as it would be slightly uphill this time.  Still, I covered as much distance as I could at an even pace.  The next 1.25 miles were one of the toughest of the race to conquer mentally, knowing I was so exhausted and that I was basically running on fumes.  I persisted, thankfully to the samba band and the two DJs STILL playing for the runners along the route.  I really appreciated having them out there, to help me push my pace.  Out in the distance to the south (our right), lightning flashes faintly lit up the cloudy skies.  Apparently, the rain in the forecast for Sunday was going to come through after all.

Victory Headstand... inside!
Just after the 39k mark, we turned back onto the pathways past the university, now discouragingly in the dark with little lighting.  It was another tough couple kilometers, as we made our way to the Boulevard Pierre Frieden.  Here, I pushed as hard as I could for the last mile, knowing full well that I was capable of getting under five hours at the finish.  I was passing both marathoners and team runners left and right, as we curved around and could hear the music pulsating out of the LuxExpo.  I could feel some light raindrops starting to fall at this point, too.  Finally, the downhill toward the parking lot came, and it became a slight footrace with another runner as we made our way to the corner of the building, and to the open loading dock area, where we'd curve around a blue astroturf track straight to the finish line.  I somehow had a super strong final kick as I high-kneed my way around the curve.  I crossed with the emcee announcing my "Nathaniel from Jackson Heights, New York" and my finish time - 4:57:31.  I did it again... I sub-5'd!
Bling haul, and back under 5 hours.
This result came as a big surprise because it was a few seconds faster than the net downhill Revel Mt. Charleston Marathon I ran two weeks prior; and the Luxembourg race was definitely hilly, and full of turns. It was about a minute and a half shy of my non-US marathon PR in Osaka from November 2017. Most of all, I was most proud of the fact that I completed this race with just under four hours of sleep from the transatlantic flight the night before.  After grabbing my gear check bag, and finding a spectator to help me take my headstand photo near the finish line, I shuffled over to the waiting shuttle buses, headed back toward the train station.  The young couple from England, Pete and Erika, who I met on the bus ride up, happened to be on the same bus, and Erika, in her first ever marathon, snagged 18th female overall!  I struggled to keep my eyes open as we drove back into the core of the city, and thankfully didn't have much of a walk to get me to my Airbnb, where after a quick shower, I slept like a log, despite the heavy rain, lightning, and thunder just outside the window.

Judd mat Gaardebounen for lunch!
My exhaustion from all of the events of Saturday gave me a well-deserved nine hours of sleep, and I woke up on Sunday morning refreshed to take on the day.  I woke up a little later than I would've liked, but I don't blame myself, as I was truly so tired after the weekend.  I grabbed lunch nearby to my Airbnb, where I finally was able to indulge in some local food - "Judd mat Gaardebounen," smoked collar of pork with broad beans, considered to be the national dish of Luxembourg; and a small bottle of local Riesling wine, produced along the north bank of the Moselle River, which has a winemaking history dating back to the Romans. After a filling lunch, I headed to the train station to catch the train headed north into the pastoral countryside, with my destination being Vianden in the northeast of the country.  It is known for its impressive castle, the ChĂąteau de Vianden, and its beautiful location in the Our valley.

The scenic train ride up to Vianden
This particular train goes along the ONLY train line that heads up to the northern part of the country.  I took it to the small town of Ettelbruck, where after a short wait (and walk through its main square), I boarded a bus to head east toward Vianden.  Ettelbruck was quite charming, and it has a very interesting history; In September 1944, the town was liberated by American forces after being occupied by Nazi Germany for four years during World War II, but Germany retook the town later that December in what was known as the Battle of the Bulge. US General George S. Patton on Christmas Day 1944, led US troops in the final liberation of Ettelbruck from Nazi occupation. A large amount of the town was ruined by airstrikes, but would eventually be restored.

Historic ChĂąteau de Vianden
Under overcast skies, but nary a raindrop in sight, we found ourselves in Vianden along the banks of the River Our, and in the shadow of the imposing ChĂąteau de Vianden, high atop the city on a rocky promontory. It was a bit of a hike to get up there, but with the day fast ending, and a limited bus schedule returning back to the capital city, I hauled my tired legs up the roughly 0.6 miles uphill to the ChĂąteau gates.  Once there, we were able to do a self-guided tour through the beautiful property.  The ChĂąteau de Vianden is one of the most visited tourist spots in Luxembourg, and is one of the largest fortified castles west of the Rhine. It was constructed between the 11th and 14th centuries on the foundations of a Roman 'castellum' and a Carolingian refuge, with Gothic transformations and trimmings added at the end of this period. Until the beginning of the 15th century it was the seat of the influential counts of Vianden who could boast their close connections to the Royal Family of France and the German imperial court.  In the 1800s, it fell into a state of disrepair and was a pile of rubble until the family of the Grand Duke of Luxembourg transferred it to state ownership in 1977.  It has since been restored and refurbished to its former glory.

Beautiful views of the city of Vianden
I spent a good hour making my way around the beautiful chĂąteau, enjoying the views into the city of Vianden, and taking in the long history of the site, before heading back down to the bus stop to get the last possible bus ride back to Ettelbruck to the last train back down to Luxembourg City. With a couple hours left in Luxembourg City, but most of the sites already closed for the day, I went back to my Airbnb to pick up my bags before getting on a bus headed to the airport for my flight to London.

Sunset as we left the Duchy.
Planning this trip, I intended to find a late evening flight to take me to a major airport city, where I could stay overnight and then take the first transatlantic flight back to New York on Monday morning.  The most ideal was a British Airways flight to London, getting in late on Sunday night. At the airport, I once more ran into Pete and Erika who were on a BA flight in the same area, but headed to Manchester. It was great seeing them once more and chatting about our race experience a day removed from the race. The flight to London was pretty quick, but we were treated to a magnificent sunset, as we ascended into the clouds, slipping away toward the west. Upon arriving at Heathrow, I was able to get from my arrival in Terminal 3 out to Terminal 4 where the Premier Inn I was staying at was located (there's a covered walkway directly from the terminal to the hotel) and I easily crashed for the night in a comfy bed.

I woke up early the next morning to make my way back to Terminal 3, and give myself enough time to enjoy some breakfast at the Virgin Atlantic Clubhouse once more, before boarding my flight home to New York, the first one of the day.  I got back to NYC around 11:30, and made it to the office about an hour later to get some work done until the end of the day.

Wednesday, March 13, 2019

Race Report: Eau Claire Marathon

When my 2018 began to take shape and I decided upon the Route 66 Marathon and Oklahoma being my 50th state for both marathons and national anthems in November of that year, I ended up having trouble finding a race to sing at in the state of Wisconsin.  I put out a few emails to races, but unfortunately they: a) either went unanswered, or b) responded to with "thanks, but we're set" emails.  In February 2018, I reached out to Greg Haapala, a fellow Michigan grad and RD for Grandma's Marathon in Duluth, Minnesota, to see if he had any connections with Wisconsin races, and he told me he was in close touch with the race directors for the Eau Claire Marathon, a fairly young marathon celebrating its tenth year of existence in early May.  At first, I was hesitant - it was scheduled for the first weekend in May - one that was already booked for me, as I was scheduled to run the Pittsburgh Marathon, in order to check off the state of Pennsylvania off of my list of marathon states. But I eventually realized that I could transfer my registration to another runner, opening up the weekend for Eau Claire. I'd just have to go about finding a different race in Pennsylvania for a marathon, which ended up becoming the Two Rivers Marathon in Lackawaxen, PA in March - a race I had done the half distance at a couple years back and had a good relationship with the race director for. Greg emailed Emily Uelmen, the Eau Claire race director, and she enthusiastically responded with the invitation to sing... and with that, my final state to schedule a national anthem in was confirmed on my calendar, and Wisconsin would be state #46.

The marathon race course!
Eau Claire, nestled in the rolling hills and valleys of the Chippewa Valley in northwestern Wisconsin, lies in a region that's known as the “Driftless Zone.”  An area of twisting rivers, deep gorges and large hills, it's a beautiful setting for the quintessential "Midwestern town."  Eau Claire’s downtown is centered at the confluence of the Eau Claire and Chippewa Rivers, lined on both sides with numerous parks and trails, and home to the second-most number of multi-use trails in Wisconsin, behind only the state capital of Madison. As such, numerous bridges cross these rivers, many varying in age.  These bridges, which help to establish Eau Claire with the moniker of "City of Bridges," create strong connections in the community, and carry a rich history.  The entire region played host to a strong railroad economy, which led to numerous railroad bridges throughout the city, almost all of which still exist today, many converted into bridges with pedestrian pathways. The marathon route was wisely thought out, as it takes runners on a scenic journey across eleven of the city's bridges.

Eau Claire is roughly a 1 1/2 hour drive from the twin cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul, and when I announced on social media that I got the anthem gig, an old family friend Kathleen responded inviting me to stay at her home.  I took the invitation, and got flights for early May to MSP.  When race weekend came, I left right after work on Friday to LGA, and flew the 2 1/2 hour flight out to Minneapolis arriving a little after 8pm.  After picking up my rental, it was a short drive over to Kathleen's, where I enjoyed chatting the rest of the evening away til past midnight, just catching up on nearly twenty years of lost time!

Culver's is a Wisconsin favorite!
The following day, I drove out to Eau Claire in the morning to pick up my bib at the race expo at the McPhee Physical Education Center on the campus of University of Wisconsin - Eau Claire, and also feel out the drive.  Traffic moved fairly quickly even in the late morning, so I figured race morning (when I'd be up before sunrise) would move even faster.  After picking up my bib then making a stop for lunch at local burger chain Culver's in the the city of Menomonie on the way back, I headed back to St. Paul and met up with Kathleen and her husband Chris at their daughter's lacrosse game in the suburb of Mendota Heights. It was a pretty sunny day, and after melting in the heat for a bit, Kathleen and I decided to make a trip over to Room and Board, a furniture store whose headquarters are based in the Minneapolis.  They have an outlet just off of the highway in the western suburb of Golden Valley, open only on the weekends.  I was in the market for a new chest of drawers and wanted to do a bit of window shopping; I found a fantastic sample for sale, but unfortunately didn't have the dimensions of my bedroom in order to decide to buy it.

Must have cheese curds when in WI!
Later that evening, we decided to participate in Cinco de Mayo festivities in town at a local Mexican joint called Pajarito that was having a block party; unfortunately, a thunderstorm began to brew nearby and within 20 minutes of arriving, we were forced back into our cars to either head back to the house or head elsewhere.  Kathleen headed back home with her daughter and her daughter's friends, but Chris rode with me to check out other spots in town: first, the fittingly-named Bad Weather Brewing Company (where I had a white stout for the first time - in other words, a beer where dark, roasted malts are omitted from the recipe, but the flavors are replaced by cold steeped coffee, cacao nibs, and vanilla beans); then Sweet Pea's Public House, where I got to have another local brew (an actual stout from Summit Brewing Company) and some cheese curds; and finally a giant serving of ice cream from local ice cream shop Nelson's.  LOTS of food for a night before a marathon, but it wasn't like I was going to go for any records anyway.
SO. MUCH. ICE. CREAM. (and I ate the entire thing!)
Singing the anthem at the race start
(Photo by the Eau Claire Marathon)
I slept soundly that night, and was awake by 4:30am the next morning, and out the door by 5am in the pre-dawn hours.  As expected, there was barely any traffic on I-94 heading eastward. The sun began to rise before 6am, as we continued on eastward, and lo and behold, it started to rain a little just as I reach the Eau Claire city limits. I arrived at 6:30, and navigated myself toward Carson Park, where I was given a special parking pass to park -- all other runners would have to shuttle in from other locations.  The rain had passed over quickly, just enough to dampen the ground a little bit; runners were beginning to assemble in Athlete's Village in the parking lot at the heart of Carson Park, a 134-acre island-like peninsula created on Half Moon Lake, part of the former course of the Chippewa River.  Life size marquee letters spelling out "#RUNEC" (the hashtag for the race weekend) were relocated to the park from the expo back at the university.  I decided this would be where I would have my headstand photo at the end of the race!

7:30 came very quickly, as the marathoners and relay runners began to assemble on Half Moon Drive, not far from where the buses were dropping runners off.  Relay runners would start five minutes after the marathoners, and half marathoners at 9:15 (they would end up having a trumpet quartet perform the national anthem for them!)  After Emily's father, race co-director Pat Toutant introduced me, a color guard marched out onto the road, carrying the American Flag. With the support of a fantastic sound system, I sang the Star Spangled Banner with an echo heard all throughout Carson Park, cascading all the way down to the Chippewa River.

Our startline!
Soon, we crossed the startline, and began to make our way along the perimeter drive clockwise around the peninusla. After the first half mile, as we rounded our way along the northern tip, we experienced an elevation gain of more than 50 feet, and I was already reduced to walking. My friend Dave found me as we both struggled up the hill. Just as we passed the Chippewa Valley Museum and a statue of Paul Bunyan and his blue ox Babe, as well as a man on stilts who decided to dress up like the famous lumberjack as he cheered on the runners, we began our descent past the Carson Park Baseball Stadium (a beautiful WPA project built in 1936) and along Carson Park Drive down to the first bridge of the race.

The Paul Bunyan statue in front of the Chippewa Valley Museum
Crossing our first bridge!
The first bridge that we ran over was the Carson Park Drive Bridge, which stretches across the eastern side of Half Moon Lake. One of the shortest bridges during the entire race, it cut across the modest Randall Park residential neighborhood along Grand Avenue, over to the concrete paths (part of the Chippewa River State Trail) alongside the Chippewa River. 

Bridge #2 - a truss bridge!
We continued north until we turned right across bridge number two, the Phoenix Park Railroad Bridge, a railroad truss bridge. We were now two miles in, crossing the Chippewa River for the first of several times.  After crossing the bridge, we turned left, heading north along Forest Street for roughly 3/4 mile, with a fairly visible 50 foot uphill near the end of this leg, before turning left and crossing the Chippewa River once again over the third bridge of the race.

Running alongside the Chippewa River
(Photo by the Eau Claire Marathon)
A selfie while crossing High Bridge
Now 3 miles into the race, we crossed the aptly named High Bridge, a beautifully refurbished bridge which opened back to the public in the summer of 2015. With a history that dates back to 1898, this ironclad bridge stands about 80 feet above the Chippewa River and stretches for almost 900 feet, allowing for an incredible sweeping view of the Chippewa River and downtown Eau Claire. On the other side of the bridge, we continued on northward through a quiet residential area as we skirted the west bank of the Chippewa River along 1st Street, connecting onto 3rd Street.  Before long, we were on the slight incline of the Old Wells Road Bridge, going over one of the city's historic railroads.  Old Wells Road passed through a quiet park area known as Domer Park, providing us with a slight downhill before turning right onto busy Wisconsin State Route 312, and the North Crossing.
Looking in the other direction while on High Bridge
Passing through the "Smile Mile"
Eventually, we made our way across the North Crossing Bridge, a long stretch spanning over the Chippewa River that offered magnificent views of the both the river and the waterfront homes. We then made our way past a spectator spot along the sidewalk we were running on, and where a local dentist's office sponsored a photographer to take photos of runners as they made their way through a balloon arch they called the "Smile Mile," which would later be uploaded to social media. We made our way through the culvert to the other side of North Crossing, and began to make our way north along Riverview Drive through Riverview Park.
Heading northward along Riverview Drive
The dirt trail out-and-back at mile 8
Just before the 6 mile mark, we passed over a timing mat as well as a large spectator spot where the first relay exchange point for the relay runners was located, before continuing on along the largely quiet road northward as the park gave way to a small residential area.  The road forced its way onto a right turn, eventually making its way to the 8 mile mark, and the entry point for a lengthy nearly 2.5 mile long out-and-back section where we'd be running along a dirt trail in the middle of a heavily wooded area.  It was actually nice to get a break from running on asphalt, giving my knees a bit of a break, as well as having some shade.  We exited the out and back on Riverview Drive, turning right, then began to ascend another steep incline, probably the steepest of the entire race, as we made our way to Airport Road and the largely quiet runway of the Chippewa Valley Regional Airport just over the fence.  Yet another relay exchange was found here, as was one of the windiest sections of the race, likely due to the openness of the surroundings.  Still we continued on, making our way around the residential streets surrounding the airport.  From miles 11.5 to 15.5, we ran along some of the quietest and most mind-numbing parts of the race, with the sun baking us overhead. I even had to stop along the way to reapply some sunblock for fear of my skin getting burned from the sun's powerful rays.
A curve on the road around the Chippewa Valley Regional Airport
The long section of bike trail
Eventually, we were pushed out to the easternmost point of the race, as Sundet Road made its way down 110th Street to a concrete bike trail, a long monotonous push that we would run for seemingly endless miles.  The trail, a former railroad corridor running through the city, ran parallel to Joles Avenue at first, then followed alongside Business US 53, for roughly 4.5 miles.  This is where the sun sapped a good amount of my energy, as the trail lacked any sort of shade trees.  Miles 18 through 19 ran alongside some industrial warehouse areas, and was also where the third relay exchange station was located.  We pushed on, making our way over our sixth bridge, the Hastings Way Bridge, one of the highest bridges in the city. Having been nearly 14 miles since the last bridge we crossed, this was a welcome sight.  It spans the Eau Claire River, with the city of Altoona sitting on the east side of it. As runners come to the end of the bridge, we could see a small park along the water, known as Archery Park, below us.

Passing by Banbury Place
We turned right just after the 20 mile mark, finally getting some relief from cold, soaked towels handed out to runners reaching this point, as we made our way down Fairway Street toward Boyd Park.  We took a right turn over the bridge number seven, the Boyd Park Bridge, a steel and timber bridge spanning the Eau Claire River, connecting the neighborhood park to the Banbury neighborhood. We passed Banbury Place, Eau Claire's most well known industrial landmark, formerly a tire factory turned ammunition factory turned back into a tire factory, but now a nearly 2 million square foot multi-use, multi-tenant facility offering differing spaces for rent, along the banks of the Eau Claire River. Nowadays, Banbury Place accommodates a mixture of light industrial manufacturing, commercial warehousing, retail, public/private offices, self-storage, and luxury warehouse style residential apartments - a familiar way in the midwest and other manufacturing towns to adaptively reuse old factory and warehouse buildings in urban locations.
Boyd Park Bridge after pivotal mile 20!
Crossing the Soo Line
Bridge (Photo by the
Eau Claire Marathon)
We then crossed the Soo Line "S" Bridge, an old bridge with a unique steel truss railroad structure that once carried trains, as our eighth bridge of the race. It was turned into part of the recreational trail, keeping its "S" like shape and curving its way across the Eau Claire River. We crossed back over to the south bank for a short period of time, as we made our way through Eau Claire's downtown, crossing over the Dewey Street Bridge and its unique concrete arch structure, then crossing over the river once again along the Eau Claire River Bridge on Barstow Street.  We continued on southward until we ran through the historic Third Ward neighborhood of Eau Claire, one of the city's oldest neighborhoods with some historic landmarked homes. Nestled between the curve of Putnam Park and the Chippewa River, the course took us down Graham Avenue, bearing a slight left onto Gilbert Avenue, then turning right along Rust Street.  After another right on Garfield Ave, we took Roosevelt Avenue all the way toward the campus of the University of Wisconsin - Eau Claire at the end of the street, and what's known as the Blugold Mile.  Somehow, I got a little bit of a kick, and sped up a bit, passing right by my friend Dave in the process.  The course crossed the campus' quad, which despite being later in the race, was still filled with some energy; being a slower runner and running the full, it was much appreciated that spectators in this much "storied" part of the race stuck around for us!

Mile 25, with some wrestlers ;)
We then crossed the eleventh and final bridge of the race: the Water Street Bridge. This bridge provides a direct linkage between downtown Eau Claire and the university area. We passed the university's art museum, the Foster Gallery, as we ran down Water Street, as I attempted to book it along the marathon's final mile.  The mile 25 aid station seemed to be manned by the university's wrestling team, showing off their muscles in the warm weather, so of course, I made sure to snap a selfie!  The road curved into Menomonie Street, before finally, the road back to Carson Park was in view.  We made the last right turn, and struggled up a TOUGH uphill (seriously, who puts these hills right at the end of the race course?!) before making my way across the finish line to the cheers of the crowd and Pat Toutant welcoming me to the finish! I crossed in a hard-fought 5:16:21, and sought for much-needed shade, and was thrilled to be able to suck down a can of soda given to me in the food tent.  I found a few friends afterward, who were kind enough to take my headstand photo for me.
Victory Headstand! #runec
Soon, I got back on the road to drive the 1.5 hours back to St. Paul for a much-needed shower.  After resting my legs for a bit, I headed to the airport for my evening flight back home to New York. It was one more marathon completed - a marathon state I didn't need, but a national anthem state I did need; and, as has been the case recently, I HAD to do the full distance again, as it was offered to me!