Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Race Report: Minnesota Half Marathon

All of my gear ready for the next
morning's race!
There's something about a race that's on a Saturday that makes it seem a little rushed.  Well, in my case, it's primarily because I have to fly to get to these races - and I don't get my bib until the morning of the race.  That was the case for the Minnesota Half Marathon, in St. Paul, MN.  I flew out of New York City on Friday evening, using an airline I've never flown before - Sun Country Airlines - and made my way to the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul for the race weekend.  I got to stay with my friend Ruthie and her husband James, both formerly of New York City, who I met through my former gym, Mark Fisher Fitness.  Ruthie and James got married a little over two years ago and shortly thereafter, moved back to Minnesota, where Ruthie originally was from.

I got in pretty late, so after getting my hugs and the lowdown of the weekend schedule with Ruthie, I went straight to bed.  They put me up in their spacious studio apartment that they have above their detached garage.  The following morning I got up pretty early to get myself dressed and out the door for the 20 minute drive into St. Paul for the race.

They even had a step-and-repeat!
As I approached the start area in Chestnut Plaza and Upper Landing Park, just in front of the Science Museum of Minnesota along the Mississippi River, I realized quickly that this was going to be an interesting race, as there was a unique category of racers that got to start before the runners - inline skaters. Inline skates, and in particular roller blades (which actually is a brand), were popularized and made commercially available in Minneapolis in the late 1980s/early 1990s.  Road skating races are popular outside of the US, but have also started to resurge inside the country, in particular in the Minneapolis area and around the Midwest.  Upon arriving, there were hundreds of people rolling around in their skates getting ready for the race.  Apparently there are even ELITE road skaters!  Soon, these folks were getting to the startline to get ready for their gun start.

The Startline...
But before that happened, I assembled with a few other members of the 50 States club for our customary pre-race photo.  It also happened to be the birthday of two members of our group, which was nice.  And I also got to meet a couple members of the group for the first time - some who I had only chatted with online, but never met -- talking to you, Colleen and Tricia!

Soon, the runners were off to get themselves ready to take on the course.  There were no real corrals, just places to line up with pacers holding their signs for expected finish times.  I decided to get in around the 2:10 crew, and see how I'd do.  Sure, I was a little tired from the night before, but it didn't mean I wouldn't be able to race well... We lined up behind the start line, and soon we were off.  The entire course was contained on a closed off Shepard Road, the road through St. Paul that runs alongside the Mississippi River.  For the first two miles, runner progressed northeastward along Shepard, heading out toward more industrial-seeming areas, and running underneath several bridges heading across the Mississippi River to the Concord-Robert neighborhood of St. Paul.
As we progressed further, the inline skaters began to come back towards us on the other side of the road; it was fun to be able to cheer the elite skaters and then leisure skate-racers as they headed back toward the start area.  Our turnaround point, roughly at the two mile mark, was under an overpass headed toward Old Highway 61.  We made our way to our first aid station, roughly 2.5 miles in, and I was THIRSTY.  But at the same time needing a bathroom.  Unfortunately, and this seems like it's always the case, there were minimal portapotties at this aid station, and a line already forming... so I just kept on going, thinking "the start is only another couple miles, and there a LOTS of portapotties there!  I can hold it for another 15 minutes!"

One of my favorite signs seen on
the course...
That was a LONG 15 minutes.  On our right was some train tracks, and several times I thought about climbing over the guardrail and just taking a leak behind a bush or out of sight along a roadside tree.  At about 4 1/4 miles in, we finally got back to the start area, and the 5K runners had just about begun their races from the startline as we hurried past on the other side of the road.  There was an awesome crowd of people cheering us on, but I, of course, made a beeline straight to the portapotties, where I immediately got into one with no line.  Quick 40 second stop, and then I was back on the road again, continuing on down Shepard.  And while this was a straight shot along Shepard, it felt like an eternity.  With the sun beating down on us, and the road tormentingly giving me hills both up and down (gradual, though -- the entire course only had a range of 103 feet of elevation change, with the most steep hill climb being 60 feet over the mile heading toward the turnaround point), we trudged along for more than four miles to the 9 mile mark before turning around and heading back toward the startline.

Over $60,000 was raised for
the Ronald McDonald House!
The last two miles were rough, and I had to walk, throwing off my interval pacing that I was very consistent with through a majority of the race.  I crossed the finish line in 2:22:04, and got my finisher medal - in the shape of the state of Minnesota!  I was burning up, so I headed off to the food and drink tents for refreshment (including having my first Salted Nut Roll!) and some shade before heading back toward the race finish to see off some of my friends who I had seen on the other side of the course after the turnaround at mile 9.

State-shaped bling... my favorite!
I, of course, got to do my Victory Headstand photo TWICE - first, in front of the Science Museum, taken by birthday boy Ray Constantine, and then along the Mississippi River waterfront by Tricia Eddy.  I headed back to my friend's place for a much needed shower and nap, and then went on to discover the Twin Cities for the remainder of the weekend, which included trips to Minnehaha Falls, the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden (and in particular, the Spoonbridge and Cherry), the Walker Art Center, Lake Calhoun, and the Mall of America; reuniting with family friends from Wichita that now live in the Minneapolis area that I hadn't seen in as much as 20 years; as well as catching two shows - the Guthrie Theatre's THE MUSIC MAN, which Ruthie was performing in, and the touring production of KINKY BOOTS at the Orpheum!  Late Sunday night, I headed back home, and felt fulfilled, having truly discovered the Twin Cities right!

You know it was a good race when there's a corgi sighting.
This is eight-year-old Dylan!

Victory Headstand #1!

Victory Headstand #2!

Amazing lunch at Minneapolis institution, Sea Salt!
Jerk Mahi Mahi with mango slaw, rice and beans,
and tostones; a Thai Peanut Curry with shrimp; and a
Surly Schadenfreude Dark Lager
My first ever Salted Nut Roll.  Like a sweeter and chewier Payday.

With Ruthie, my hostess for the weekend, before her show...

Minnehaha Falls

Spoonbridge and Cherry


Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Race Report: Idaho Falls M.A.D. Half Marathon

Utah at sunset, driving up to Idaho
As usual, my flight out to my weekend race occurred on a Friday, as early as possible for me to get out of the office.  Thankfully, being in Jamaica allows me minimal time to get to the airport, and with TSA Precheck, I'm through security in no time at all.  This is especially important at Terminal 4, which is notorious for having long security lines due to the international flights that go out of that terminal.  I got on my flight to Salt Lake City, with unfortunately the middle seat in a 3-seat/3-seat configuration, and I thought I was in luck as the aisle seat to my left had not been claimed yet...

Until moments before the boarding door closes, a family of four come running onto the plane, the father drenched in sweat, obviously having run to make their connection (I'm assuming from somewhere across the pond - they spoke English, but spoke in their native language to each other).  And unfortunately, the father had poor hygiene, because he REEKED of body odor.  I had to suffer the 4 1/2 hour flight with him right next to me - and my window seat neighbor was none too amused either.  Thankfully, I had some scented wet wipes in my bag, so I took a whiff of that every time I started to smell this dude. That flight felt like forever.  But thankfully, we landed in Salt Lake City, and as I left the plane, I notified the flight attendant of the offending passenger, and for the cleaning crew to be extra diligent on that particular seat, lest the next person sitting in there had to wallow in that misery.

I rushed out of the terminal and to the rental car area as soon as I could; while it was still light out at 7PM, I still had a three hour drive ahead of me to Idaho Falls, and I didn't want to be so late in arrival for my Airbnb host to be waiting up for me.  The drive was rather uneventful, but absolutely beautiful taking in the sunset with the mountains all around me.  The one thing I immediately noticed - both Utah and Idaho have speed limits of 80 MPH - so cars were definitely zooming down the highway!  I got to Idaho Falls by 10:45pm, met up with my host who showed me to my room, and went straight to bed since I had an early morning (as usual!) to get to the parking lot where the buses would take us to the startline.

My friend Juan and I on the bus!

I woke up bright and early, well before the sun was up... as I left the house, I met the other runner staying in another room at this AirBNB location, and we wished each other luck as we headed off to the meeting point about 10 minutes away.  The buses would pick everyone up at Snake River Landing, which also served as the finish line area.  I picked up my bib, t-shirt, and commemorative duffel bag at the start and met Lezhai Gulbransen, the race director.  Just as we began to board the bus, I saw my friend Juan, from California - a frequent Rock 'n' Roll runner who I've gotten to know over the last few months.  Last year he was one of four runners to run the most Rock 'n' Roll races in 2014!  We sat on the bus to the startline together, chatting it up and discussing our running plans for the remainder of the year.

The cute little start line!!
The bus drove through went up the mountains just east of Idaho Falls and Ammon, taking Sunnyside Road to a point near the line of windmills blowing in the distance.  We disembarked and immediately felt the colder, brisk 48° air at this elevation - strange temperature for this time of year, but not uncommon to this part of the country at this hour of day.  The view was simply breathtaking - seeing 360 degrees of beautiful country all around us.  While waiting around, Juan and I met Michelle, from Maryland, who was also working on finishing half marathons in all fifty states.  We headed over to the makeshift startline, and soon, we were off!

Running by the windmills that
dot the mountains east of Idaho Falls
And I was off with a BANG!  We started off the race at roughly 5,900 feet above sea level, and with a steady downhill, we hit the first mile marker in a 7:38 mile - easy, with the downhill grade coming at 333 feet of elevation drop in just that first mile.   The second mile wasn't as steep, only dropping 251 feet, but already, I began to feel the difficulty in my breathing, and my pace slowing down to roughly 8:18. There was a mean little 40 foot uphill section for about 0.1 mile just after this, and then progressed to more downhill over the next couple miles.  We continued along this route down Sunnyside into the town of Ammon, starting to pass newly built subdivisions and cookie cutter single family homes to our right.  By the time we hit mile 5, we were at 4,797 feet above sea level, over 1,100 feet below here we had started.  This is where the route began to flatten out, and flatten out significantly.  I began to slow significantly, as well, as my body had definitely felt the effects of the elevation and exhaustion of running down the mountain at a pace exceeding my norm.

Some awesome folks cheering us on
about 5 miles into the course
At mile 6, we hit a plateau of 4,718 feet, and my pace never caught back up again to where it was.  I posted sub-11 minute miles, and then from mile 8 on, sub-12 minute miles.  We ran along the right side of the road, sometimes the sidewalk, of Sunnyside Road through Ammon, before turning right onto the road just west of Hillcrest High School, near where my AirBNB was located.  This was around mile 8 of the race, and we continued on past a strip mall.  We turned again and continued westward down Brianne Ave, then a short northward stretch on Hitt Road (crossing a busy street), before turning again onto East 25th Street for a long stretch.  We went down a stretch of commercial area, before hitting residential areas again at mile 9, where the street became divided by a well-manicured, treelined median.

Official race photo of me running through Tautphas Park
(Photo by B2xPhoto)
A mile later, at mile 10, we passed Idaho Falls' Community Park, where Saturday morning baseball games had already begun.  25th Street reached its end, where we were directed to cross Holmes Avenue, and then cross a small bridge over a creek, where 25th Street began again.  We continued on, crossing through this residential area, finally making our way to Tautphaus Park, where we crossed along the southern edge, and then through the middle of the park, passing by a few softball fields.  We crossed another wood-plank bridge into a wooded area with a gravel path, where we went along until we reached North Park Drive, and the 12 mile marker.  After a quick sip of water, we were back on the route, turning onto Rollandet Avenue for the final straightaway before crossing the Snake River to the finish.

Got my medal -- a key to the city!

with Michelle and Juan at the finish
With the sun beating down on me, I turned onto 17th Street, and could see the sign to Snake River Landing in the distance.  I paced myself as I ran along 17th Street over the Snake River, and then turned onto Milligan Road, where the finish line was located.  I crossed in 2:13:57, not bad considering I slowed down significantly at the end.  At the finish was a great assortment of food, and small cups of Jamba Juice, who was a sponsor!  I met up with Michelle and Juan after the finish and posed for some photos, and then Juan and I went off to get my headstand photo taken - first at Idaho Falls' iconic Giant Eagle Waterfall Nest fountain and then to the side of the river where Idaho Falls' actual falls were located.  We later met up for some lunch, and then I did some touring on my own through Idaho headed back down toward Utah, which included stops at Hell's Half Acre, the Idaho Potato Museum, and Lava Hot Springs.  Upon returning to the Salt Lake City area, I stayed with my friends Dave and Eva, and their toddler Jonah, and toured around the SLC area the entire following day, since I had a late redeye flight back to NYC on Sunday evening. All in all, it was a fun weekend, and I jampacked a lot of two states into two days!  State number 32 was checked off... and so were two brand new states to visit! :)

With race director Lezhai Gulbransen

Victory Headstand #1

Victory Headstand #2

And me being a dork with a water feature.

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Race Report: Rock 'n' Roll Chicago 5K and Half Marathon

Friday afternoon, I took a flight out of LaGuardia to get to Chicago Midway airport, getting in around 7:30 in the evening.  Upon landing, I proceeded straight to the CTA terminal for the Orange Line, which seemed to take forever to get to.  Already, the Chicago weather was hot and humid, so it was a relief to make it to the air conditioned train.  I headed into downtown Chicago, where I would meet up with my friend Ainsley’s cousin to pick up her apartment keys, as she and my other friend Amy were at the White Sox game nowhere close to where I was going to be.

Party Rockers at the RnR Chicago 5K!
I picked up the key and headed straight up to Lakeview…. Aka Boystown… where Ainsley lives.  After dropping my stuff off, I proceeded to get food at a nearby Thai restaurant and then headed to my favorite local bar, Side Track, a popular multi-level bar that showed music videos on screens all throughout the venue.  As I walked the ¾ mile down to the bar, I noticed lightning to the south.  I guess I was a little worried, but then again, it is Midwest weather, which is all too unpredictable.  I ordered my frozen slushie alcoholic beverage and waited for Ainsley and we tore through another one, and were nicely buzzed as we walked back to her apartment, still with lightning in the distance.

Photo by PhotoRun
The 5K was early the next morning, so we headed straight to sleep – through the middle of the night, the storm had come through, dampening downtown Chicago, but didn’t affect the race at all, other than the expected heat and humidity.  We took the train down, a roughly 35-40 minute trip, and then got off at Monroe to walk over to the startline on the Lake Michigan waterfront.  I picked up my bib and my shirt (unfortunately, of course, they run out of small tees when picking up my bib the day of!) and then met up with the rest of the Party Rocker crew!

With the GoPro at the 5K start
(Photo by Adrian Mauricio)
Conceived by Bill Kwok, the Party Rockers were put together to ….  As RnR Chicago would be the first time this would be tried out, we wore makeshift “Party Rocker” RnR Chicago bibs for both the 5K and Half Marathon races, with the idea that we would stop at pre-specified locations to cheer on other runners along the course along with our portable speakers.  We joined Corral 5 for the 5K and then were off and running at a conservative pace, before soon stopping to cheer on runners for about ten minutes along the course, giving out high-fives and whooping and hollering to their amusement.  It wasn’t about time at all… we were just out there to have fun!

With FRNY members at the 5K
Soon, the heat began to take its course, and we made our way to the one and only water stop just after mile 2.  We stopped to pose for a quick group photo, and with our shoes in a circle, as we also caught up with a bride and her bridesmaids, dressed to the nines in their wedding formals, running in the heat!  We ran right alongside them and posed for more pictures as we progressed down the course.

Running across the 5K finish line with Mallory!
Soon, the marina was within view, and we stopped short of the finish line to keep cheering on some remaining runners.  There were even a few kids who ran the race who were really excited when going through our “tunnel of love.”  When 14-year old Mallory and her mother Susan came through our race, we decided to run into the finish with her – this young girl has Down Syndrome, and she was running a hot and humid 5K… we were so inspired!  She and her mother were thrilled to have us run with them through to the finish and she sprinted right on through the finish chute, with a huge smile on her face.  The Party Rockers finished the 5K in just over 58 minutes, but it didn’t matter – we had a blast!

Being a dork the night before the half
We stuck around right before the finish, ushering more runners through, and then some of us went off to have lunch together.  After lunch, Amy, Ainsley, and I headed off to the expo for me to pick up my bib and for them to retrieve the coveted "Gold Record" bib which hadn't come in until that morning. Ainsley and I headed back for much needed naps, before coming back into the city for dinner – Hot Dogs at Portillos! -- with Amy and their friend (and my new friend) Alex.  Ainsley and I closed the night out with drinks at nearby pub, Fadó, where we met up with my friends Hollie, Deb, and Jake.

With our Gold Record bibs at the expo!

All ready to go!

The next morning was super early, as the half was starting at 6:30am. It had rained again overnight, and you could feel the saturation of moisture in the air.  Amy and I had talked about running together so she could help pace me toward sub 10 minute miles – and as close to 9 as possible. Ainsley and I left her place just a little after 5:30am to get ourselves back downtown on the train, arriving around 6:00 at our meeting point with the rest of the Party Rockers.  Because of the anticipated intense heat and humidity, I had a contingency plan in case I couldn't keep up with a 9 minute pace; that is, run with the Party Rockers.  Their plan was to run at our own individual paces and then meet up again at the 6 mile and 12 mile points. As we assembled, we left as a group to head to the corrals and joined in around corral 8 or 9.  Soon, we crossed the start and I was off, right in line with Amy.

With the GoPro at the Half start
(Photo by Adrian Mauricio)
We proceeded up Columbus Drive, and then headed into the underpass under Randolph Street, headed east toward Lake Michigan. We emerged out of the underpass onto Lower Wacker Drive, then hitting mile 1 in about 9:20.  But, as usual, my watch began to go haywire due to the tall buildings of downtown Chicago, so my splits were not very accurate from then on.  The next mile was tough - the heat was definitely taking its toll on me, and I slowed down pretty significantly.  It was around here where I took my first walk break and told Amy to go on, and I decided to just hoof it till the 6 mile mark and just take this one easy.  Around the 3 mile mark, I ran into fellow Party Rocker Mayra, and we decided to help pace each other on the course until we hit the six mile mark.

The RnR Chicago Half gives you quite an excellent tour of the city, turning several times on its early miles, running across its iconic bridges going over the Chicago River as well as passing underneath the city's busy El train.  While one of the more prominent complaints of this particular Rock 'n' Roll race is the lack of music on the course in the first six miles (due to the city's strict noise policies at that hour of the morning), we tried to allay that with our crew running with our portable speakers along the course, providing music to runners from the IHeartRadio Rock 'n' Roll Marathon station on blast.  At mile 6 (the corner of State and Harrison), Party Rockers stopped for about ten minutes to cheer on fellow runners along the course.  After this stop, I continued on, turning right onto Michigan Avenue for the long, nearly 3 mile straightaway until we turned onto 31st Street.

Post race celebrations with the Party Rocker crew!
(Photo by Adrian Mauricio)
I had lost track of Mayra when I decided to go back onto the course after the mile 6 mark, but ran into her again as we made the turn onto 31st Street.  This was where the race had its only course change from the year prior; instead of a loop down into Turnham Park, the race did a one mile out-and-back on Martin Luther King Dr., one that seemed to go on for FOREVER!  Soon, we were out of it, and we hit the mile 10 mark and then turned left onto Fort Dearborn Drive, headed back toward Downtown.

The mile 11 stretch was rough.  Luckily, this was where RnR put out all the stops and had speakers playing some fast paced dance-electro-pop music for us for the length of the road all the way until McCormick Place.  It was just before McCormick Place that we also got the legendary cold sponges that helped cool us down for the last two miles of the race.  By the time we got into the tunnel at McCormick Place, I was spent, and so were my legs - I began to develop a bad cramp that I ended up having to walk off til we reached the 12 mile mark, where luckily I was able to rest it while we cheered for runners for the next twenty minutes.

The Mile 12 stop was a lot of fun, but it was in the blazing heat, as it was on the offramp of US-41.  We stopped here to cheer for runners for awhile as we gradually began to bring in other members of Party Rockers, so we could run the last mile in together as a group.  So proud of seeing Leny get to the 12 mile mark, only weeks after having surgery -- the whole group of us took to the street and ran that last mile with such pride and happiness!  Yeah, we crossed the line in 3:09:50, but I didn't care... I crossed the line with a great group of friends! And I earned my coveted Gold Record Heavy Medal, for my tenth RnR event this year!

Earned, never given.

Met Andy Grammer afterward!
The coolest part?  After my requisite beer and photo op with friends (including meeting up with running buddy Hollie, who reached the Sun in Half Fanatics after checking off the state of Illinois, her 30th in 365 days; and my second cousin, Josanna, who ran the race), I stuck around for the Andy Grammer concert happening on the mainstage... and because Alex (who we had dinner with the night before) works as a vendor for RnR with Michelob... we got backstage meet-and-greet passes with the artist himself after the show!  It was pretty sweet.  I took advantage of my friend Kenny's nearby hotel room to take a much needed shower and then met up with a bunch of the Party Rocker crew for lunch and then went back to Ainsley's to get my stuff together for my flight back to NYC.  With a stop at a Boystown bar, of course.  NECESSARY.  Lol ;) Can't wait to party rock again in Virginia Beach in September!!!

Proud of Hollie... she reached the Sun at Chicago!

My cousin Josanna!
Victory Headstand!

Holy crap, I get to go backstage!

The lucky ones :)

Party Rockers all cleaned up at lunch!