Saturday, January 5, 2019

Race Report: Love Run Philadelphia Half Marathon

On our way down to Philly!
Minutes after finishing the Two Rivers Marathon in Lackawaxen, Pennsylvania, Danielle and I took off for the three hour drive down to Philadelphia.  We were in the northern Poconos with virtually no cell reception, so after getting gas and proceeding to the main road, we finally got to the highway, where we were able to conjure the GPS gods to give us some semblance of service to guide us along the quickest route south.  The late start to the Two Rivers Marathon at 9am, and my 5 1/2 hour finish had us leaving near 3pm, which would get us down to Philly just in time for the start of our friend Steve's 100th half marathon celebration dinner at an Italian restaurant in University City at 6.

Pre-race dinner with friends!
We arrived and stretched out our tired legs as we walked from the parking garage to the restaurant, treated to the lovely greetings from the many friends who were in town to participate in the weekend's festivities.  Our friends saved us a seat at the big table, and we enjoyed a friendly dinner in the company of friends old and new, some who we hadn't seen in quite some time.  After dinner, Danielle and I with our friend Kimberly retired to the Courtyard Marriott I booked using my one free night I had acquired in 2017.  Kimberly had arrived earlier that day in Philly and kindly picked up our bibs for us at the expo.  We all crashed hard that night, especially Danielle and I after a long day of running and travel - I struggled to stay awake while the Michigan-Florida State Elite Eight game unfolded on TV, and managed to see my alma mater take the win to earn their spot in the 2018 Final Four (!!!) that night before conking out.

The temperatures dropped considerably overnight, and we woke up the next morning to frigid temperatures, much colder than what we had experienced in Lackawaxen. Wearing several layers, we left the hotel in a pricey Uber (damn you, surge pricing), bringing us to the museum area dangerously close to my call time for the national anthem.  Not only that, police had blocked off part of the road, so we were left to exit the Uber while we were on the offramp from the highway, to then gingerly jog to the start area. Danielle accompanied me as we made our way down toward the Eakins Oval, slowly and painfully (haha) as we warmed up muscles already sore from yesterday's race.

Another cold race start.
There were LOTS of people there, and after weaving through throngs of runners preparing for the start, I made it up to the startline booth, where I introduced myself to the announcer.  The race was starting at 7:30, and they had me sing about ten minutes before.  Within seconds of starting the anthem, I realized just how good the sound system was, set up all along the Ben Franklin Parkway - so I slowed down my tempo, and allowed my voice to echo across the canyon like street, as the acoustics bounced off of the face of the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the iconic "Rocky Steps" all along the length of the massive boulevard.

Startline after singing
After I finished, Danielle and I rushed back into the corrals to get into a proper area where we wouldn't impede any other runners since we were going to do a bit of running and walking.  There was a bit of delay before the start, and since we moved a little further back in the corrals, we didn't cross the startline until roughly 7:55.  The course took us straight down the Ben Franklin Parkway, past Logan Square.  With Danielle and I both feeling very sore, we decided to do a bit of fartlekking, using the country flags along the parkway as landmarks to run to before walking, and vice versa.  Along the way, we saw several friends including Jennifer, Lilian, and Tawanna, all present at the dinner the night before.

Philadelphia City Hall in the distance
When we got to the grid of the downtown area (turning right onto 16th Street, then right again onto JFK Boulevard, then going four blocks before turning left onto 20th Street, then a long stretch along Market Street that curved around Philadelphia City Hall), we decided to alternate between running and walking as we passed stoplights.  5K runners, who had been running with us since the start, veered off to continue around City Hall back toward the start, while we continued on, finally turning at 6th Street.  6th Street affronts Independence National Historical Park, a 20 block section of eastern Philadelphia with museums including Independence Hall and the Liberty Bell.  We only ran the single block in front of the Independence Vistors' Center before turning left once again onto Arch Street, where we ran back toward Ben Franklin Parkway. Danielle and I continued our run/walk game with the stoplights, as we hit the three mile mark.  At one point, I asked her if she had seen Steve and his wife Pam, and just as I mentioned that, there they were running right next to us.  Kismet, I tell you!

Art Museum and Rocky Steps
in the distance
Eventually we were back on the Ben Franklin Parkway, and it was a long way back toward the Art Museum.  We reunited with the 5K runners as we approached closer and closer, getting past the startline which was being taken apart, eventually hitting the four mile mark.  The course curved us around Eakins Oval, and as the 5K runners were directed toward the finish line in front of the Art Museum, the half marathoners were led to continue on along Martin Luther King Jr. Drive.  Just before the 5K finish, Donna was there waiting to cheer on the half marathoners as they went past. Our course led us downhill along a ramp that took us over the Schuylkill River to its western bank, as we ran along MLK Drive which hugged the US-76 Schuylkill Expressway to our left.

Heading out to Fairmont Park
Danielle and I took our time, as we ran along the road, again using landmarks to either begin or end our run segments. Several of the fastest runners were coming up along the other side of the road as the remainder of the race was essentially a long out-and-back deep into Fairmont Park.  Among the spectators at this point of the race were a few folks dressed as Easter Bunnies on the other side of the road.  We ran past the Girard Bridge and the stone arches of the Connecting Railway Bridge for the Pennsylvania Railroad, and while running alongside the Schuylkill Expressway, would use the poles for the overhead highway signage as our fartlek landmarks. Just after the 7 mile mark, as Danielle and I were completing a run segment of the race, up ahead we noticed Pam and Steve walking with a couple of their friends, and them veering to the left to an ambulance parked next to the race route along Montgomery Drive.  Pam had tripped moments earlier on the asphalt, putting a gash into her knee and bloodying up her knuckles in an attempt to not to faceplant onto the hard ground. Luckily, the ambulance was there to render her first aid (but strangely, without essential medical items such as rubbing alcohol), and powerful Pam as she is, realized she was still capable of running and continued on along the course.  Danielle and I followed suit under the Columbia Bridge, but they just kept powering on, and we held ourselves back, continuing our walk/run pace using landmarks.

(Official photo by the
Philly Love Run)
We caught up to the group as we ascended the first real hill of the race, a ramp leading up to the Strawberry Mansion Bridge, a steel arch truss that spans across the Schuylkill River.  We crossed the bridge, gingerly keeping our knees in check by walking most of its length (concrete isn't so fun), then headed up another small hill along Woodford Drive taking us to the driveway up to the Historic Strawberry Mansion, a summer home located in East Fairmount Park.  It got its name from farmers who would rent the mansion back in the mid 1800s, who would serve strawberries and cream to the public.  The route then took us back down to the Schuylkill along the other side of the hill, as we took advantage of gravity, descending back along Strawberry Mansion Bridge Drive to run across the bridge one more time.  We then took another ramp as we proceeded northward to a turnaround point, not quite in view from the bridge, but roughly a half mile further up MLK Drive, before we turned right back around.  Along the way, Steve, Pam, and their small group continued to power away and passed me and Danielle, who were already aching for the finish, despite still having another three miles to go.

Danielle and I chugging along
(Official photo by the Philly Love Run)
Victory Headstand!
Miles 11 and 12 were pretty painful, and the cold and wind were wreaking havoc on us, as we continued our run/walk method all the way back toward the Art Museum.  We were so cold, and wanted to be done, but our muscles were forcing us to take our walk breaks as we needed them.  We reached the point where we saw the Easter Bunnies earlier, who were still there, cheering us on in the demonically cold weather.  They were apparently giving out little plastic Easter eggs with candy in them - but seemingly rather selectively, and they frustratingly skipped us as we passed them.  I was so hungry, haha!  Soon, the three hour mark ticked by, slow for the both of us - but we powered on through, over the road that drove across the Schuylkill River and across the ramp leading up to the Eakins Oval.   A pretty steep ramp lay ahead but at the top of the ramp was the last hundred feet to the finish line.  Danielle and I crossed in 3:13:22, both relieved to be done after a tiring two days of races.

Finish Line Photo with Danielle (Official photo by the Philly Love Run)

Eat those medals.
Mmmm... pretzel bread.
We found our friends after the finish chute as the winds continued to blow down Ben Franklin Parkway, obviously having become a bit of a headwind toward the end of the race. After getting pretzel bread through the finisher chutes (something I look forward to after every Philly race), we got an Uber back to the hotel to shower, change, and pack, before checking out and heading to lunch and drinks for a celebratory afternoon at McGillin's Olde Ale House.  Instead of taking my later bus home to New York, I got a ride back with Lynn and Donna, who had driven in on Saturday; upon returning to NYC, I was dropped off at a bar in midtown, where I was attending my friend Winnie's going away party!  It was a jampacked weekend, but one with a ton of fun, finishing 39.3 miles over the course of two days, and checking off Pennsylvania as a marathon state in the process!

Thursday, January 3, 2019

Race Report: Two Rivers Marathon

In February, an opportunity came about to sing the national anthem at the Eau Claire Marathon in Wisconsin, which was the last state I was trying to book in order to fully have all of my 50 states of national anthems scheduled before finishing in Oklahoma in November.  The only issue was that the Eau Claire Marathon was scheduled on May 6th, the same day I had already registered for the Pittsburgh Marathon, a bucket list race for me and one which would check off the state of Pennsylvania for marathons. Thankfully, Pittsburgh allowed transfers, and I was able to transfer my bib for that race to a friend, freeing up the weekend for me to run in Wisconsin.  However, that left me with needing to schedule a new Pennsylvania race into my calendar, and sometime before November in one of the weekends I had free.

I had run the Two Rivers Half Marathon back in 2016 and had a fun time; unfortunately I was sick and had to DNS the 2017 edition of the race.  The 2018 race was on an open weekend for me, and thankfully with two separate race days available, I could double it up with the Love Run Half Marathon in Philadelphia on Sunday, where a friend was celebrating his 100th Half Marathon, and not be too far away in terms of driving distance to get to both.  Also, with a 52.4 mile weekend looming at the end of April, this would be a good opportunity to get more miles under my belt in successive days leading up to my double marathon plan.

After work on Friday, I took an LIRR train to Penn Station, then boarded the first NJTransit train out to Secaucus where I would connect to a Port Jervis bound train. All in all, the trip would take nearly 3 1/2 hours door to door.  At Port Jervis, I arrived to a sleepy little town, disembarking into the small train station parking lot in front of an adult video store.  I headed over to the Erie Hotel where my friends JC and Jeanette were having dinner with their friend Phillip - all of us running the full marathon at the next morning's Two Rivers Marathon Day 1.

After dinner, we drove off to Lackawaxen, along New York State Route 97, a narrow highway dangerously close to the cliffside edge overlooking the Delaware River.  It was a 40 minute trip in pitch black darkness that weaved in a sidewinder fashion with our cell phone signals going in and out - but mostly out, since the approach to Lackawaxen basically gave us nonexistent cell service. Eventually, we turned left and crossed the Delaware River from New York into Pennsylvania on the rickety single-lane Roebling Bridge, a 535 foot long bridge that's the oldest existing wire suspension bridge in the US.  After stopping at the Two Rivers Junction Bed & Breakfast, we headed to our accommodations for the night, the home of Mark Hughes, the race director, who was kind enough to put us up for the evening. We got to bed at around 11pm, happy to not have to wake up too early, as the race started at 9am.

The next morning, the three of us all got up and out of the house by 7:15, and headed back to Two Rivers Junction, where the finish line was located. The ten minute drive down the hill was exciting, as we saw at least six deer just wandering along the side of the road, which would be part of the course we were running that morning. We parked near the fire house and waited for the next school bus to come pick us up to take us to the start at the Woodloch Resort, in the rural mountain location up in the northern Poconos. At the start, we were able to enjoy the company of fellow runners, many who I've seen at other races, including Glen, Karen, and Sally; we posed for photos in the frigidly cold temperatures while waiting for the bus to arrive.  On the bus, I sat next to Joe from Philadelphia, who I learned was just as well-travelled for marathons (if not better) than I was, who was attempting the double weekend of marathons.

Singing the anthem
We eventually reached the Woodloch Resort and kept ourselves warm inside the Heritage Theater, where we could pick up bibs and use the facilities before the race start.  In the theatre, I was able to connect with Carrie and Danielle, who were both running the half.  The weather was below 30 degrees, so we were quite happy to be inside and not having to deal with the cold weather until we absolutely needed to.  At about 8:45, we decided to head outside, when another schoolbus pulled up carrying a busload full of runners just arriving.  Mark told us that we wouldn't be starting right on time.  A little after 9am, we all began to assemble at the makeshift startline and after setting up the informal sound equipment, JC made some announcements before I sang the national anthem.  Before long, we were off.

Soon after the start, snow all around
Just as I had remembered from running this course two years ago, the first several miles consisted of some pretty steady downhills, with a short marked uphill here and there; however, like the previous week, my calves began to fail me and I ended up having to walk quite a bit for much of the first five miles of the race.  Just before mile 2, we turned right onto Masthope Plank Road, continuing to walk quite a bit as I tried to manage the pain reverberating along my calf and ankle muscles.

Hunt safely.
As I continued along the road, JC and several other runners in Maniacs gear ran past, and soon, the field began to thin out, with some of us slower runners separated within visible distance of each other.  Among those I befriended were Kino, who I had informally met at other races, and his friend Kenneth, both from NYC.  We stayed together, ending up keeping up a similar pace for several miles.

With it being so sparse and devoid of people, I was pretty sure I'd have a chance encounter with some wildlife, and sure enough, we spotted some deer alongside the course. About four of them were spooked as we ran by, and even ran across the path of the road.  This would be the third time I'd encounter deer in a race, after seeing the fallow dear that make Dublin, Ireland's Preston Park their home during the 2016 Rock 'n' Roll Dublin Half Marathon and a couple deer who decided to run across the course during the 2016 Baltimore Marathon as we passed through the urban city's more pastoral Druid Hill Park northwest of the downtown.

Downed trees from heavy snow...
At least it wasn't snowing DURING the race.
Selfie with the statues with
fellow marathoners
As we continued along Masthope Plank Road, we would pass by Mark's house where I stayed the night before. Unsurprisingly, there was a port-a-potty in his front yard, conveniently located for us runners.  From mile 6, we started to follow the course of the Delaware River to our left.  On the other side of the river was New York. We approached the "center" of Lackawaxen Town, passing a few notable landmarks like some quarried stone statues alongside the road, signage for a stone supplier located out here at this remote location. At around the 8.5 mile mark, we ran under a railroad trestle, then turned left, notably marked with several signs telling us to turn left. Apparently, some folks in past editions of the race had gotten lost by not turning left, and they kept going... along a very sharp uphill along the road.

Slightly downhill... but not terrible.  I'm still cold.
With Danielle and Nora at mile 12.
A few miles later, we turn right just before mile 12; and finally, I run into Nora, whom Danielle had caught up with.  Nora had taken an earlier start, and had made good progress down the road.  Since she had missed my national anthem, I decided to give her her own private rendition, which she greatly appreciated.  After catching my breath and taking a selfie with these two, I continued on.

At mile 12.3 the half marathoners turned around, but the marathoners would continue on along the Towpath Road all the way to the mile 18.8 mark, where there was a turnaround.  These next six miles would be new territory for me, parts I hadn't seen the last time I had done this race two years ago since I had just done the half.

Creepy troll.
The road continued, mostly flat as we headed through the Pennsylvania towns of Rowland (aka Little Norway - with a sign that had a creepy troll on it) and Glen Eyre.  The road followed the curvy Lackawaxen River, a tributary of the Delaware River.  As I continued on forward, the faster marathoners began to come back along the same road.  It was good to see some familiar faces continuing to urge me on, as I continued to get frustrated not finding the turnaround anywhere near.  Eventually, some runners on the way back told me that the turnaround would be right around 18.8, so I hotly anticipated that turn, and hopefully a wind that could help carry me back to Lackawaxen to the finish.

Beautiful shot of the Lackawaxen River in the second half of the race
Nice capture of me running down the Towpath Road during the race.
Bullet holes. Typical.
Just before the turnaround, I ended up meeting Lara, a fellow New Yorker and Marathon Maniac.  She was doing an interval and pace conducive to mine, so we decided to run together all the way to the very end.  We keep up a consistent 2 minutes on, 1 minute off interval for the last seven miles. Like clockwork, we were making some good ground progressing forward, and even in some cases passing other runners.  Along the way, I comment that we have a strong chance to finish the race under 5:30 if we keep this up. We get to the point where we had initially turned right off of Masthope Plank Road, with practically the last 0.2 mile left to go, with only the bridge crossing across the Lackawaxen River before we hit the finish.  Lara had some good closing speed and pushes about 20 feet ahead of me and I keep up as best as I can; the two of us end up crossing in 5:29, perfectly fulfilling my prediction of finishing under 5:30!
Lara and I... finishers!
Victory Headstand!
At the finish, Danielle is there waiting for me, and we grab a quick bite at the food truck (all runners are given a ticket to redeem a free food item; except I lost mine -- but thankfully, I got a replacement!) and then quickly get my headstand photo done near the bridge across the Lackawaxen River before the two of us head out on the road to Philly for our second race of the weekend, hoping that we're headed in the right direction since our cell service was practically non-existent.  We drive the ~3 hours down to Philadelphia, and make it in time for Steve's 100 half marathons celebration dinner!

Tuesday, January 1, 2019

Race Report: Tobacco Road Marathon

The Tobacco Road Marathon in 2018 was selected as one of the the Marathon Maniacs and Half Fanatics' Signature Races for the year, so members who ran got an opportunity to get a second medal upon finishing the race.  While I already had North Carolina checked off for a marathon, I still needed a race to sing at there, and luckily, I snagged the gig after a few back and forth emails with the race directors from July until November 2017. The race itself is largely along the American Tobacco Trail, starting and ending in the city of Cary, where my aunt and uncle live, so it's a city I'm somewhat familiar with.

As per usual, I booked a flight after work on Friday to get me to Raleigh, for race weekend. Traffic was a mess heading to LaGuardia on Friday (as it usually is), so I got in a cab to take me to my secret entrance via footbridge over the Grand Central Parkway, where I then walked over to Terminal D for my flight. I arrived later that night, picking up a rental car and driving it to my cousin Alex's new apartment in downtown Raleigh.  Upon arriving, we headed out for drinks at Carolina Ale House, just down the street.  We encountered the cutest corgi ever, a 3 month old named Merlin, as we were leaving, who turns out to live in the same building where I was staying - Alex knew Merlin's owners well.  I'd be having another tete-a-tete with this cute little pup later on in my trip.

After dinner, we headed back to Alex's place, and I slept soundly that night in his guest bedroom.  The next morning, I headed to Cary and to the race expo at the Embassy Suites, where I met my friends the Robys and Roehlers, from Rhode Island and Kansas, respectively, upon walking in.  Not long afterward, I'd end up seeing the Provenchers from New Hampshire, there too.  We would all be meeting up again later that night for dinner.

I love me some Goodberry's!
When I was done at the expo, I grabbed lunch in Cary, meeting up with another cousin Cyndi and her twin sons Brandon and Zack at a nice Peruvian sit down restaurant.  After the delicious meal, I goaded them into heading to a North Carolina staple with me for dessert, heading to Goodberry's Frozen Custard. Being that it was St. Patrick's Day weekend, it was fitting that the custard flavor of the day was mint chocolate chip. Alex joined us there, again.  With a bit of the afternoon left to go, I met up with Hollie, also in town for the race, to grab a beer at Fortnight Brewing.  We then headed to dinner at local Italian restaurant Traviana's with our friends in the 50 States Club we used to be members of, and to also celebrate our friend Sophie's 100th half marathon that she'd be running the following morning.  It was a fairly early dinner, and I was back at Alex's to conk out since I had an early wake up call the next morning.

Maniacs and Fanatics photo before the start! (Photo by Garrett Anderson)
Pinoy Maniacs!
At 4:30am, my alarm went off, and I was dressed for cold weather and out the door by 5am, in Thomas Brooks Park for the start by 5:30.  It was super COLD.  With the race beginning at 7am, I was there pretty early, but having met with the race director the day before, he had me come at that time to ensure I got a parking spot using the pass he gave me as close to the start/finish as possible.  I stayed in my car as long as I could before leaving, and through chattering teeth and high 30 degree weather with a slight wind, I met up with fellow Half Fanatics and Marathon Maniacs for a group photo, then headed to the startline.  Upon meeting with the start announcers, I climbed a scaffolding to be positioned high above the runners where I met the Mayor of Cary and then sang the national anthem, checking off the state of North Carolina as my 42nd anthem state.

The startline
I climbed down from the scaffolding and found Hollie, who was kind enough to video my singing of the anthem for me, before we jumped back a bit to start the race.  We started together, as we ran the first 2.5 miles down hilly roads, from Brooks Park Lane turning right onto Green Level Church Road, then left to Morrisville Parkway. The cold isn't helping any, and my legs already feel like lead, as I painfully make my way down the asphalt.  These first 2.5 miles clock in at about 28.5 minutes, a 11:24 pace. Things get a little easier once we're on the American Tobacco Trail, but my legs still feel a bit rough.  The 4:40 pacer comes by, and I'm able to keep up for a short period of time, alongside a new friend Charlotte, who's dressed as a NCSU Wolfpack cheerleader. Her schtick is to wear a costume (many that she makes from scratch) to every marathon.

Running on the roads before the trail

Entering the American Tobacco Trail
The American Tobacco Trail is a former Norfolk Southern Railroad line turned recreational rail-trail. While the course is called a "trail," it is NOT a trail like an unpaved single-track course. Constructed in 1906, the original railroad traveled from Duncan to Durham near the New Hope River, transporting tobacco leaves from farming communities in Wake, Chatham and Durham counties for processing at the American Tobacco Company in Durham. The construction of a new reservoir to the west, damming and flooding the Haw and New Hope Rivers to create Jordan Lake, necessitated the relocation of a section of the railroad corridor onto higher ground, so eventually, the railroad went into disuse, with the tracks eventually being removed in 1987. The N.C. Department of Transportation purchased the then informal recreational trail corridor from the railroad company in 1995 and subsequently leased the corridor to the counties to be developed and operated as a recreational trail open to the public. Named the American Tobacco Trail to reflect its historical roots, planning and construction of the trail would occur in the late 90s, and would be built in sections, with openings starting in 2001. Parts of it would be gravelly, but most of it was asphalted over with a gravel shoulder. Overall, the trail is 22.6 miles long, but for this race, only 10.6 miles of course (with out-and-backs) would be used.

So serene!
Bacon does a body good.
After a couple miles running northward on the trail, the fastest runners began to run back in the other direction, and eventually a little while later I would see several of my faster friends on the other side of the trail running south - including Jose, Jeanette, and Todd.  All the while, my right foot began to go numb, which I had initially chalked up to the cold temps. But eventually, near the 10k mark, I decided to stop next to a ledge and loosen the laces on my right shoe, finally realizing, "well crap, my shoes are tied too tight." As I stop to readjust a bit, my friend Jun passes me by. I eventually continue on, feeling much better having made the adjustment, and I clock in a slightly better pace in the ensuing miles.

Mimosa station!
With the views very similar throughout the whole race - trees, trees, everywhere, on both sides... and then there's the trail - there wasn't much to actually write about.  There were some great aid stations throughout the course, though - one of note was the mimosa station, which I took advantage of both times I passed by: the first time with the aforementioned mimosa, the second time with bacon.... and another mimosa. :) We also passed county lines markers along the way, and it was nice seeing the different signage marking the division between both Durham and Chatham Counties. We eventually reached the turnaround point, just as the trail got to Scott King Road in Durham County, just a little past the mile 8 marker. An aid station was conveniently located right here, as we began to make our way south.  Not too far behind me on the out and back, I spotted JC, who was sporting an injury but was still gingerly making it through the race, as well as Hollie, who decided to run alongside our friend Juan.  The cold weather seemed to have made this race a bit tougher for most of my friends!

Entering Durham County on the out....
...and returning to Chatham County on the back
On the southern portion of the trail
As I continued southward, my legs got really tired, and even before I reached the halfway point, I knew it was going to be a rough day.  I passed the mimosa (+ bacon) stop for the second time, then eventually reached the halfway point in an uncharacteristically slow 2:36.  I continued to struggle on until reaching the road where we had split off from the half marathoners, now just past our 14 mile mark, to begin a new part of the trail I hadn't seen before. On the other side of the trail, came more fast marathoners only a few miles from the finish, as well as some of the half marathoners who would be finishing past the 3 hour mark.

Moonshine at the mile 19 aid station!
At first, it was a slight downhill along this southern portion of the trail, so I ended up doing a mile roughly two minutes faster than I had been; but it was short lived - I returned back to my struggle-bus miles as I trudged along on the back half of the race. I was actually quite surprised with the slight up and down there was to this trail, as it wasn't completely flat as I had imagined - I had thought that railroads were supposed to run along flatter terrain?!  In any case, I continued on as best as I could, maintaining a slow, but steady pace forward.  The aid stations kept my spirits up though - the local Black Girls Run chapter set up a great aid station, complete with some upbeat music, and so as I passed through, I loved entertaining them with my dance moves, which I got to do when I came back through the second time on my way to the finish.

Another highlight of the second half was passing by the Mile 19 ultra style aid station, located very near the last turnaround point in the southern half of the trail. JC had caught up at this point, and so we took advantage of the "treats" they had at this station - in particular, I was given the heads up by my local friend Maureen, who had told me they would have moonshine waiting for me. Naturally, I partook and even got JC to take a swig, too! And then heartburn ensued.

JC and I being... JC and I! Hehe!

Turn around soon...
After the turnaround point at about mile 19.66, I had roughly 4 1/2 miles left on the trail before heading back on Morrisville Parkway as it made its way to the finish back in Thomas Brooks Park.  Along the way, I met a fellow Filipino runner who was struggling in these last few miles as well. Carmen was local to the area, and running her first marathon.

We finally got to the end of the trail with just over 2 miles to go, as we turned right onto Morrisville Parkway.  I was slowing down significantly as we headed into finish, as my legs and feet were just hurting too much.  At the same time, the wind, which had been obstructed by all the trees along the trail, was giving us a little bit of trouble now that we were on the open road.  After the turn, we reached the mile 24 marker, and since I was still having fun with this race despite my already slowing down time, I took a quick tequila shot, as I ran past a fun aid booth (complete with someone dressed as a taco) before continuing on.  As we turned onto Green Church Level Road at mile 25, I found my friend Dave, also having a tough time today.  We came into the finish, and I crossed the line in 5:42:38. As it showed, I was having a slow first few months on the roads.  I got my headstand completed near the finish, and grabbed some much needed food - pizza - just as I retrieved my extra medal for the signature series, before heading back to Raleigh.

A hard-earned Victory Headstand!

Reuniting with my BFF, Amy!
As I wasn't leaving til Monday, I had all day Sunday to relax after the run.  I headed back to Raleigh and my cousin's apartment for a much needed shower, and nap, since I had an early morning.  I had arranged to grab an early dinner with my college friend Amy out in Durham, where we went to a burger joint called Zinburger.  It was nice getting to see her, which I try to do every time I'm in the area - we've known each other for over 15 years, since our days singing a cappella and watching Sex and the City back in Ann Arbor!  She and her husband Chris have been married since 2008, and have a cute two year old named Calvin - but at that moment, my lovely friend was due with her second child, another boy, who would be coming in July!  After dinner, I headed back to Raleigh, and got to have more snuggles with Merlin the corgi, whose owners were grilling some burgers with my cousin in their apartment building's courtyard.

I had an early flight the following morning to get back to New York, and experienced the worst ever security lines I've seen at a domestic airport - let alone a smaller hub like RDU.  Even the TSA agents were surprised at the lines - they said they'd never seen it like this before on a regular day other than at Christmas time.  Luckily, I got through it and was able to board my flight back to New York, heading straight to work, like usual.

Friday, December 14, 2018

Race Report: Vodafone Malta Marathon

Malta came onto my radar after visiting the New York Times Travel Show in 2016, when meeting with some of the country's tourism bureau employees who had a boot at the event.  I was with my friend and fellow runner Jason, and we both left thinking... "hmm, there's a marathon there!" and I finally decided that I would pull the trigger and do the race in 2018.  Malta's a unique destination, but after surveying some friends, many have actually been to the Mediterranean island country, notably known for being one of the world's smallest, and with a vivid history as a naval base ruled by different powers since it was first inhabited - by the Phoenicians, Carthaginians, Romans, Greeks, Byzantines, Arabs, Normans, Sicilians, Spanish, Knights of St. John, French, and British.  I booked my flights to travel via Rome on Alitalia on the outbound, and via London on Delta on the inbound, with separate round trips to Malta International Airport in Luqa on the country's flagship carrier, Air Malta.  After a 1pm meeting, I left work to get to Terminal 1 by 2:30 to check into my flight, where I was assigned a seat at check in. Unfortunately, the counter agent puts me in a middle seat in the middle section of the long flight, which I wasn't thrilled about.

Waiting to board the flight to Malta
After getting through security, I bided my time at SkyTeam's Air France Lounge. With SkyTeam Elite Plus, I can get into the lounge for free; however, the check-in lady was not having it, especially since I was flying Alitalia - the Alitalia lounge not too far away is gross and in dire need of an update.  But I managed to charm her, and got my way into the lounge, being able to snack on some delicious French cheeses, a salad, and some dessert, and down a couple glasses of champagne! Eventually, I headed over to board for my Alitalia flight, and surprise surprise, it's boarding late.  All in all, the flight wasn't fantastic -- I got through a movie (the remake of Stephen King's "IT" - I'm now afraid of storm drains) and had a very underwhelming chicken on the plane - which included a hard-as-a-rock dinner roll -- before getting about three or four hours of sleep with some interruptions; being so close to the lavatories meant a lot of extant noise and light, even with my earplugs in and my eye mask on.  The lights would be on super bright at times as well, which was not helpful. We ended up landing in Rome a little early, with more than enough time for me to connect to my flight to Malta.

One thing to note... passport control is a MESS in Rome Fiumicino Airport, and so many people were cutting in the winding line that led from the E gates to the B, C, and D gates.  I got to my gate to board my Air Malta flight, and was super exhausted from my little sleep on the flight that I immediately CONK out after boarding, before even taking off for the short flight from Rome to Malta.  I wake up as we are landing, and it's pouring out. Of course.  Apparently, it was going to be like this all day.  We arrive just before noon and I exit out of the small airport's terminal to the bus stop, where I take the convenient local bus (X2) directly to Sliema, where my Airbnb was located, to check in.  It was about an hour trip with traffic there, and upon arriving, my host, Tijana, informed me she ended up locking her keys to the apartment IN the apartment.  Great.  While she figured out how to get in (calling someone who had a spare key), she brought us to the coffee shop across the street for a cappuccino.

A beautiful breakfast view!
I ended up meeting two other guests at the Airbnb, Petr and Jana from Kosice, Slovakia, and we got to chat over lunch and a couple glasses of good Italian red wine.  Eventually, I got myself out the door to explore the city, despite the crummy weather.  I headed down to the Marsamxett Harbor in Sliema, only a ten minute walk away, seeing the finish line already being set up for the marathon.  I grabbed a late lunch at a restaurant overlooking the harbor, just as the rain started to pour a bit harder.  I spent the rest of the afteroon taking in as much of the Sliema area as I could before making my way up to St. Julian's/San Giljan (with a stop at a cute little store selling Malta-themed wares, ironically called "Souvenirs That Don't Suck") and then met up with my Danish friend Frank, who I had originally met in Australia in 2017, to get my bib for Sunday's race.

Frank and I at dinner
Upon arriving at the Le Meridien Hotel for packet pickup, I encountered a huge line wrapped around the perimeter of the lower lobby - the pickup was essentially just a small office with not much room that had participants interact with a single volunteer at a table assigning bibs to registrations and then another table to receive the free t-shirt and the gear check bag.  It took about half an hour before we finally got my stuff, and then headed out to grab some food.  We found a restaurant nearby where I was able to get my first real good meal of the day, and something traditionally Maltese.. stuffat tal-fenek, or rabbit stew!  I went to sleep well satiated that night, crashing for hours to adjust to the Maltese time zone.

A view from Upper Barakka Gardens
I ended up getting a bit of an early start Saturday morning, and headed out to grab breakfast along the rocky seashore.  I found a good spot open at 8:30am, and enjoyed a full English breakfast with coffee for a fairly affordable €6.50.  A little later that morning, Frank and his friends Sally and Pål (who he met in Antarctica), and Tone (Pål's wife), came down to Sliema, and we took the ferry over to Valletta, a fifteen minute ride across Marsamxett Harbour.  We had a nice time walking all around the Maltese capital, taking in the sights of the 2018 European Capital City of Culture, and its beautiful architecture many of which date back to the mid-16th century.  One of the highlights was heading to the Upper Barakka Gardens for a view toward the Three Cities of Birgu, Senglea and Cospicua across the Grand Harbour.  We then decided to head to Mdina for the remainder of the afternoon, figuring our way out to the old city via the island's bus system, for which there was a large inconspicuous bus terminal a short walk from the gardens to take us the twenty minutes into the interior of the island.
How many people can we actually fit into a red telephone box?
Valletta street views
Posing near the harbor
Late lunch in Mdina
Once at Mdina, we went to grab a late lunch inside the walled city, finding a cute little Italian restaurant, Trattoria AD 1530, not far from the main gate.  After satiating our hunger, we went around exploring the walled city and its medieval architecture.  Eventually, we found our way to some incredible views overlooking the whole island.  As the sun was setting, we were able to find a cab to take us back to St. Julian's, using Taxify, Malta's most popular taxi hailing app.  That night, we decided to head up to the Spinola Bay area of St. Julian's, unsuccessfully finding a table for 5 in the chilly Saturday night - after Pål and Tone decide to head back to their hotel to have a smaller dinner on their own, Frank, Sally, and I lucked out at another Italian restaurant to dine at before heading back to our respective hotels for the night to get ready for the following morning's race.
The view from one of Mdina's bastions
A street view in old Mdina
Race start!
On Sunday morning, I woke up at 5am to get dressed for the race, and headed out the door at about 5:40 for the ten minute walk down to the ferry dock, where buses would pick us up to take us to the start at Mdina beginning at 6am sharp.  Once there, runners gathered just outside the bastions of Mdina, in the playground and parking lot area we were just at the day before.  Not long after I arrive, I ran into Frank, Pål, and Sally (dressed in her avocado costume), who all arrived in a separate bus.  Over the next hour, we waited while more marathoners continued to arrive.  A warm up exercise is led by a woman in the open area of the playground, with a small amount of runners following her moves. Eventually, I would end up seeing my other friends Johannes, Richard, and Zander before the start, and introduce them to my friends.  The startline arch was then inflated and put up at the end of the street, and we were off and running right at 7:30, taking off down the main road of Rabat, the city just outside of Mdina's imposing stone gates.

Pre-race shenanigans in the playground near the start!
Pre-race photo with Richard and Zander, and my avocado costume-wearing new friend Sally!
In front of one of the gates of Mdina
Running with a view of Mdina
It began to drizzle lightly during our first mile, and we felt the terrain start to very gradually go uphill.  After turning right and making our way through a residential area at the edge of Rabat, we finally reached a slight downhill section along the Mtarfa bypass with the first of many views of the walled city from afar.  We then reached Ta’Qali, where we would run past the two football stadiums - the Maltese National Stadium and the Centenary Stadium.  We then passed a farmers market that was beginning to be set up, then at the 5 mile mark, the US Embassy.  This was also where we began to have to share the road with vehicles -- we were warned prior to the race that roads would NOT be fully closed, and we would sometimes have to cross the middle of the road at times, with traffic passing through, while running on the sometimes very narrow shoulder. 
The road is wet from the early morning drizzle
More sights of Mdina, and cacti we ran by
The US Embassy in Malta, which we ran by a couple times
Malta's National Stadium
Running on streets not closed to traffic
The next ten miles would take us winding all around the area - in fact, these first 25 km/16 miles of the race would have us run all around the vicinity of Mdina - we would see the walled city several times during this first half of the race - enough to even think, ok I'm good with seeing this view, lol.  The route was a bit perplexing as it wound its way around several points we had already run through -- we came through Ta’ Qali (and past the old Royal Air Force airfield and barracks), down to the town of Attard, through Mosta, back to Attard, and round Ta’ Qali again.  If I thought the Firenze Marathon had a course that resembled a kid scribbling on a map -- well, the Malta Marathon was even more scribble like!  There were time we would find ourselves in sections where we could see other runners coming up the road but they would make a turn just as we continued forward - later I'd realize they were WAY far in front, as much as six miles ahead.

The wind picked up at mile 10
Our surroundings were fields and farms; along some main roads, we would run alongside stretches of prickly pear shrubs and trees that grow all over the island.  The rural surroundings would give way to some more residential areas, then would abruptly change back to rural surroundings.  There was a short stretch of road we ran along twice that was a bit muddy - the second time around, as it was later in the day, we tried to avoid the wet areas by running around the puddles leftover from the morning's rain, with car traffic tailing us (and even honking at us) which was a bit frustrating.  Mile 10 was memorably slow because of a strong headwind and the unfortunate need to have to run on a concrete sidewalk.  After retracing our paths through Ta'Qali once more, this time passing through a beautifully manicured park area and through a parking lot bordering the Meridiana Vineyards; also a guy who was flying his motorized model plane as it zoomed and swooped overhead while we ran by.
So many cacti... and more of Mdina.  We'd be seeing many angles of the walled city for the first 16 miles of this race!
Official Photo from the Malta Marathon
Passing through Ta'Qali National Park
I could use a beer about now!
At the 24km mark, we passed the US Embassy one last time, and made our way out of Ta’ Qali and down again towards Attard. This time, we would run through the old part of Attard, right in front of the Attard parish church on Triq Il-Kbira.  At the 27km mark, the real downhill finally re-commenced, and I took advantage of the satisfying elevation change as we continued on into the Mriehel section of the town of Birkirkara, where the road seemed to just go on forever.  Luckily, we were about to go through a somewhat zigzag-like section of the Mriehel industrial estate (including the Cisk brewery, producing a local lager and pils style beer) where some of the buildings provided us with some much needed shade (as there was not much of this through the race).  We then took the Mriehel Bypass, a very open highway road (with a lane for us runners thankfully closed to traffic -- for once!) as we weaved our way through a dense and more urban environment to continue on toward the more familiar sights of the northeastern coast.  The bypass skirted the city of Qormi, and towns of Hamrun and Marsa, as we ran toward Valletta and hugged the coastline all the way to the finish line in Sliema.
A bit lonely out on these long stretches of road....
Picking up my speed as I pass people on downhills... I like downhills :)
I'm not crazy about uphills, but they were present, like this one.
The Porte des Bombes in Valletta
Running on the street along the harbor, and sometimes the sidewalk.
Coming in toward the finish, and so tired! (Official photo of the Malta Marathon)
Showing off the bling with the view
The road curved along as it ramped up and down on the by-pass, eventually making a slight left onto Triq Decembru 13 and Triq Nazzjonali.  We came upon the Porte des Bombes, an ornamental arch that dates back to 1721 just before mile 23, when we turned left along a curvy downhill service road that went past an area that seemed to be old fortifications now occupied by Maltese police. The road emptied us into the last 4km of the route, as we hugged the road that skirts the marinas feeding into Marsamxett Harbour, past the Pieta, Msida, Ta’ Xbiex and Gzira waterfronts all the way up to the finish in Sliema.  Exhausted from 40 km of running and the humidity, I made my way past several hundred walkathon participants, all who had started nearly two hours after we did, and who were all heading toward the finish as well.  I finished just ten minutes before the supposed 5 1/2 hour cutoff, in 5:20:32, nearly half an hour faster than the slow and miserably hot finish in Fort Lauderdale the week before - still, the race allowed runners to finish up to the 6 hour mark, so I had some fifty-five runners finish behind me in the official results.

Enjoying a well deserved burger!
I was able to meet up with Sally and Frank afterward at Burger King, our agreed upon meeting point, where we beasted some much needed burgers. Frank had a pretty good race, finishing in just under three hours, and only 3 1/2 minutes ahead of Johannes. I headed back to my Airbnb shortly thereafter to get showered, and also got to take a nap before grabbing dinner with the crew at the fancy seafood restaurant Barracuda in San Giljan later that night.

Victory Headstand with a view
Early the next morning, I called a taxi cab to get me to the airport for my 7:50am flight.  It was raining as we drove to the airport, culminating in a downpour when I arrived; the flight ended up being half an hour delayed (and luckily I wasn't heading to Rome, which was canceling flights left and right due to a rare snowfall - Rome hardly ever gets snow, and they are not prepared for it when it happens, much like the American South when a similar weather event happens) We arrived in London a bit late, and I rush out of the plane quickly to make my connection -- hurriedly running through Terminal 4 and stressfully waiting as a shuttle bus slowly made its way to Terminal 3.  Luckily, security was not a long wait, and despite having to run through the terminal again, I made it to my Delta flight to take me back to NYC -- and in Delta One, nonetheless, my first experience on this class of service internationally (thanks to a global upgrade certificate!)  I was back in New York by 3:30pm, happy to head back to my apartment to readjust to east coast time.