Friday, January 22, 2016

Race Report: Curaçao Half Marathon

Excited to get onto the island!
Growing up, the only time I ever heard about Curaçao was when I would watch the Miss Universe pageant.  I hadn't thought about it again until I met my friend Brian who got married on the island in 2014. In August, I happened upon the website for the Curaçao Marathon, which had its inaugural run in 2014.  The race was over the US' Thanksgiving weekend, making it a prime time for travel, especially since I would be able to have a four day weekend (yay job for giving me both Thursday AND Friday off!)  I found a super cheap roundtrip airfare that would maximize my time on the island (surprise, a redeye!), so I was super excited when November came and I was off to paradise for a full five days!

Hato International Airport
I left super early on Thanksgiving morning, flying American from LGA to Miami and then on to Curaçao, landing around 3pm.  Apparently, the flight lands around the same time as the KLM flight coming from Amsterdam, a HUGE 747, but it's always a little bit of a race of who gets in first.  Why? Because immigration/passport control is TINY at Hato International Airport.  Literally, there are FOUR booths, and the line snakes around stanchions.  But when these two flights arrive (as well as smaller flights by Insel Air - the flagship carrier for the country - carrying passengers from other nearby islands and countries, like Suriname and Aruba), the line snakes WELL past the stanchions, and even forms at the top of the escalators where they force people to wait until the area at immigration has a little more room.

The view from my apartment!
So after 45 minutes in line, I head off to get my rental car, which is another 45 minutes of waiting, since they can't find my Daihatsu Terios I had booked.  Fuming now because the sun is starting to wane and I have NO idea where to go (Oh yeah, the rental car area didn't have any maps.  GAH!), I'm finally on my way around 5pm.

With no map of the island.

All I have is a general idea of where to go, since I'm pretty good at remembering locations on a map with my photographic memory.  I know that I have to just head east, which I *think* I'm heading in, and then go over the crazy tall Queen Juliana Bridge to the other side of the bay, and then down past Willemstad's downtown. Eventually, I find my way down to the southern coast of the island, in the area of Marie Pampoen.  I see the water, and I'm like, "ok... now where do I go?"  I stop in a gas station, about to ask for directions, and then catch in the corner of my eye a streetsign - FINALLY, a street sign (mind you, there are not many, and if there are street signs, they're kind of hard to spot!) - and IT'S THE STREET TO THE PLACE I'M STAYING.  So I'm proud to say I was able to navigate myself from the airport to my accommodations, in a foreign country, without a map.  BALLER.

The place I'm staying at is regularly a diving shop, that just happens to have a few apartments right on the water.  I check in with Laurine, who apologetically tells me that she didn't realize what time I was coming based on my flight times I provided them, and they were getting worried because they were going to have to leave for the day, and they didn't have a way of contacting me.  But they did have an apartment, I came just in time - and because they had run out of 1 bedrooms, I had a 2 bedroom ALL TO MYSELF.  YAS! My first night, because I had arrived so late, I just settled in, managed to get myself some snacks and breakfast foods at the local supermarket just across the street, and then was able to get myself to the nearby Mambo Beach Boulevard, a shopping, dining, and entertainment strip that is connected to the beachside resorts.  I got some dinner at Hemingway's (fresh fish! YUM), and then headed back to my apartment to get some rest for the great amount of touristic things I had planned for the next couple of days.

Friday, I decided to head out to the western part of the island, Westpunt, and explore the natural wonders of Curaçao's Shete Boka National Park, seven inlets where the sea's waves crash into the rocky, angular volcano-formed inlets so grandly that they look like geysers. I continued on northward to get lunch at the highly recommended Sol Food, a restaurant owned by Boston expats Sunshine and David Livingston.  The restaurant, only open Fridays through Sundays, serves quite honestly the BEST pizza on the island, and possibly the Caribbean.  It's really quite good.  The restaurant overlooks the water, and is a really nice spot to just relax and taken in the grandeur of the island.  And Sunshine is super nice and supplies a nice typed up set of notes about places to see in Curaçao.  After spending three hours enjoying the area, I headed off to enjoy the remainder of the day at two beaches, Playa Kanepa Grandi and Playa Kanepa Chiki, before heading back to the apartment.  I finished off the night back at Mambo Beach, meeting up with Laurine and her friends, who saved me a seat alongside them while we watched "De Marathon," a Dutch comedy film, right on the beach, an event put on by the organizers of the weekend's race.  After the movie, we hit up the bars at Mambo Beach, culminating at Wet and Wild Beach Club, where it seemed all of Curaçao's population under 30 was at on a Friday night.

Best pizza in the Caribbean, right here in Curaçao.  And an amazing ice cream sundae, to boot.

This beach.  Right here.  Serenity!

What is this drive and these amazing tree tunnels?!
Partying with my new Dutch friends Laurine, Dionne, and Anne-Mieke
Tiny ass bottles of Polar beer (a Venezuelan import), so you know I had a few.
The rain let up for a little bit.
I woke Saturday to the sound of rain, not realizing the entire day was going to be affected by unfortunate weather.  Curaçao very rarely receives a whole day of rain, but it happened that Saturday. My beach plans were scuttled, but even then, I managed to figure out some other things to do while the storms moved past the island. After picking up my race bib at the Curaçao Seaquarium, I headed eastward, and checked out the ruins of Fort Beekenburg and an old Quarantine Building. Built by the Dutch in 1703, Fort Beekenburg was used to protect the Caracasbaai and Spanish Water. English and French armies have tried to defeat the Dutch at this fort, but never had any luck. Except for the short time that the English ruled Curaçao, Fort Beekenburg was always in the hands of the Dutch.  The Quarantine Building was built in 1883 to keep seafarers who potentially suffered from yellow fever from mingling with island residents. After spending some time there (and driving through some torrential downpour at one point), I headed to the famed Curaçao Ostrich Farm, to accomplish my goal of riding on an ostrich while on the island.  They don't advertise this (probably because of liability), but will gladly offer the option to tourists who know about it for a fee.  After successfully riding said ostrich (named Max Verstappen, after a Dutch race car driver), I took a tour of the facility, before heading back out on the road.  I then made my way back to Willemstad and spent a few hours walking around Punda and discovering the Otrabanda side around the Queen Emma Bridge.  I had a late lunch in Punda after asking a local where to find good Krioyo (local Curaçaoan Creole food), which was absolutely delicious.  I got back to the Mambo Beach area later that evening (seems to be a common theme, right?) and headed to the Lions Dive Resort to attend the pasta dinner put on by the marathon.  While there, I met a couple locals who were running the 10K the next morning - and then I headed back to the apartment to get a good night's sleep since the start the next morning would be very early.

Yeah, this happened :)
The best two minutes and forty-three seconds you'll ever see.
The idyllic streets of Punda
The startline in the dark of night.
I was out of the apartment by 5am the next morning, to make my way to the startline at Mambo Beach Boulevard, hoping to find parking.  Thankfully, I was told that if I got there early enough, I could park literally STEPS away from the start area -- which I did! They staggered the start times for each of the races (there was a marathon that started at 4am; the half, which I was running, starting at 6am; a 10K at 7am; and a 5K, which would start at 7:30. With the sky obviously still dark and the sun not rising for about half an hour, a little over 300 of us set off past the startline.  We turned left out of the parking lot onto Bapor Kibra, the main street that stretched from the Seaquarium all the way to Punda.  Early on, trying to dodge the slower runners, I nearly twisted my ankle as I attempted to pass another runner along the (somewhat nonexistent) curb, which had some loose broken off concrete.  We continued on down the street (which changed it's name a few times along the way) all the way to Punda, where it was called Penstraat and then Pietermaai.  As we neared the 4K mark, the sun began to rise, lighting up the sky into a beautiful royal blue.  The gorgeous iconic pastel buildings against this background were absolutely beautiful.  And... we were SWEATING.  The race started at 79º, with 94% humidity, and those numbers were only going to go up as the sun came up.

Queen Emma Bridge, pre-sunrise...
We reached the Queen Emma Bridge, Willemstad's famous pontoon bridge, which was lit up with beautiful lights.  We crossed over Sint Anna Baai into Otrabanda, and made our way through the Rif Fort.  The sun was out now, and the temp, maybe 3 or 4 degrees warmer than the start.  We ran down Pater Euwensweg, Otrabanda's main drag, before turning around the mile 4 mark just before the island's Desalinization Plant.  We then ran along John F. Kennedy Boulevard, a road and paved pathway literally alongside the water, for the next mile and a half, before making our way around Caribbean International Medical University and the Clarion Hotel & Suites on Piscaderaweg.  This was our first "hill" that we had to conquer, before returning to the main drag of Otrabanda, at this area called Helmin Magno Wiels Boulevard, and had a nice length of downhill, which provided a beautiful backdrop with the palm trees on either side as we ran back toward Pater Euwensweg at mile 7.

"Downhill" along Helmin Magno Wiels Blvd in Otrabanda

Running through the
Hotel Kura Hulanda
We returned down Pater Euwensweg, and then back to the area around Sint Anna Baai, but turned right, and then made our way through the boutique village of the famed Hotel Kura Hulanda.  Here's where I decided to try the race's sports drink, which was ridiculously sweet for my tastes.  We raced over cobblestone streets surrounded by nicely restored colonial Dutch buildings, before exiting out onto Arubastraat, making our way up the hill to the ramp that would take us up to the Queen Juliana Bridge.

Lord, help me... please.
Rising to a height of 185 feet over the water, the Queen Juliana Bridge is the highest in the country, made to allow huge tankers into the waters of Sint Anna Baai into the Schottegat Lagoon and industrial area.  The bridge is a four lane road, and for the race, they closed off one of the lanes.  It was quite a climb to get to the top, and I took advantage of the awesome view which would not normally be given considering the road has cars regularly traveling at high speeds across it.  As we approached the apex of the bridge (the ninth mile of the course), rain began to fall, which was actually a nice respite from the crazy heat, and quite needed at the time. It made for a slippery downhill run, though, as the rain mixed with oil already present on the road.  I let gravity do all the work as we ran down, and around the loops to take me back into Punda, posting a faster mile of course.  We turned onto the Plaza Mundo Merced past Curaçao's only movie theatre, and then ran across the THIRD bridge of Willemstad, the now non-functioning Queen Wilhelmina drawbridge.   The course then curved through the streets of Punda as we reapproached Penstraat.  I happened to run into the locals I met the night before (Hetty and Christine), who were casually walking the 10K race, and posed for a quick selfie before I continued on in the race.   We ran all the way back on the road we had covered earlier in the race back to the Seaquarium parking lot, past the startline, and down toward the beach where the finish line was there ready for us!
At the top of Queen Juliana Bridge!

What a view!

Yay downhill!!!

Ahh, to feel the warm water...
I completed my first non-North American race in a conservative 2:23:06, which considering the oppressive heat and humidity, was not bad at all! I met up with Laurine and her friends and of course grabbed a much needed beer, got a great massage on the beach, and then dipped my feet into the warm Caribbean waters, feeling great that I've finished yet another challenging race!  After a shower, a delicious lionfish lunch, and then laying out on the beach at Playa Cas Abao for a few hours, my last full day in Curaçao came to an end, where else, but back at Mambo Beach Boulevard, where I had a delicious parillada dinner to close out my time on the island.


Victory Headstand!
My last Curaçaoan sunset...

My favorite stretch of houses...
I slept in the next morning and went back into Punda to bide my time, do some trinket shopping, and then eat some delicious Krioyo food in Willemstad's famed Plasa Biau "old market."  I headed back to the airport to catch my flight to Trinidad, where I had a lengthy layover spent at the airport (thankfully, I got to go outside of the airport to the local Trinidadian food court to have some great barbecue chicken.... so spicy!), before my overnight flight back to New York City!  And then back to the office I went, yet again...

Ayo í Danki, Curaçao...

Friday, January 8, 2016

Race Report: Route 66 Half Marathon

Friends at the 5K startline!
My weekend to Tulsa started off with the worst flying experience I've ever had to deal with. As per usual, LaGuardia had extensive flight delays, and we got off the ground 2 hours and 15 minutes after we were supposed to depart. The flight would now be slated to land at 10:03pm (instead of 8:20pm). The flight attendant assured the entire flight (which included about 50 folks connecting to other flights) that planes would be held in St. Louis especially if the connecting flights were the last of the day, as Southwest did not want to be responsible for hotels for stranded passengers.

Now I've never ever paid for onboard WiFi or similar options, but this time I decided this time to pay $2 for messaging. I found out from my friend Nicole (a Southwest employee herself, but also traveling to Tulsa for the Route 66 Half - which would notably be the race that would have her reach the Sun in Half Fanatics!!) that when talking with the gate agent that dispatch was NOT holding the Tulsa flight, therefore screwing three of us over, who were on this LGA-STL flight. The plane was going to board and push back and leave us unless we made other plans; and the next flight to Tulsa wouldn't leave til 4pm the following day. Thanks to Nicole and our text conversation, all three of us plus the two other's check-in bags were able to rebook onto the STL-OKC flight (the same plane as the one we were on) and one of the other's friends was going to drive the 1.5 hours to OKC to pick us up and drive us 1.5 hours all the way back to Tulsa. I acted as intermediary, going to the other two passengers and relaying to them the information I was getting from Nicole. However from the flight attendants? They said NOTHING. They found out from the copilot about the flights that were not being held (Kansas City was the other one) maybe an hour before landing (and after I found out, since I was getting info from the ground) and didn't make any announcement until maybe 20 minutes before landing.

Hey Dan!!  On the windy 5k course...
And then about 40 minutes before we were to land, Nicole informed me the crew themselves for the STL-TUL flight still hadn't landed either. After a tense last half hour of the flight, the three of us plus the check in bags were reinstated onto the STL-TUL flight (something about voluntary removals - apparently three people took whatever vouchers Southwest had to offer in order to get us back onto the flight!), but we had a very small window to get to the flight once we landed. I kept Nicole informed up to the moment we landed and I was able to get all three of us off the plane first, as we SPRINTED off the plane, through the jetbridge, to the gate agent waiting for us, and right to the gate (which was thankfully right next door to where we arrived) and were the last people on the plane, with only a mere couple minutes before the boarding door closed.  SO stressed out, but glad I got to Tulsa without the OKC detour, no thanks to LGA for ridiculous delays, but all the thanks to Nicole for helping us out as needed.

The flight from St. Louis to Tulsa was filled with students from the Naval Academy, as this weekend was also a big Tulsa/Navy football game.  Nicole had to sit in the crew jumpseat, as the flight was fully booked, but upon landing, we went together to the car rental counter (which was strangely not easy to find... Tulsa Airport needs some better signage!), and we rode her Mustang convertible (!!!!) into the city, where she dropped me off at my hotel where Hollie was waiting for me.

With the Main Maniac!
But, enough about my crazy travel issues - you're here to read about running! The next morning, Hollie and I went into downtown Tulsa to participate in the Saturday morning 5K.  We parked near the startline, and stayed in the car for a good twenty minutes to keep warm, as it was FRIGID outside.  As the clock wound down near the start, we headed off into the cold to meet up with many friends who were similarly suffering in the cold temps before the start.  Soon, the race started, and it only took a couple minutes before we realized that Tulsa was most definitely not flat.  Not only that, we experienced some ridiculously powerful wind gusts, making the chill in the air even more unbearable.  The wind was so strong at times that people's hats flew off (Hollie), some children who were running this shorter distance were being blown sideways, and even people's normal running gaits were being thrown off.  After retrieving the medal, we rushed back to the car for warmth and back to the hotel for  breakfast, a shower, and to pack up our stuff as Hollie and I were both transferring to other hotels for the second night in town.

With Bart Yasso!

Shenanigans at the expo...

The bloggers' forum I participated in!
We headed back into downtown Tulsa to go to the expo for the afternoon, as I was participating in the  Bloggers' Forum at the expo MainStage.  The event was moderated by Cheryl Lawson of Social Media Tulsa, and I was joined by four other bloggers, and we waxed philosophical on our running "careers" and our blogging lives, and how we manage our time doing both as well as promoting ourselves to our audiences.  It was a great opportunity to learn more about other "runners who write/writers who run" and their methodologies in order to increase site traffic or presence in social media.

More expo shenanigans...
For the remainder of the day and into the evening, there was a lot of fun opportunities to meet new people and reunite with others - some at the Doubletree across the street, some at a dinner I was invited to at a pizza place not too far away.  I even got to see my friend Jamil, who came down from Wichita to watch the football game (he's a University of Tulsa alum), and he brought me back downtown to the Best Western, also near the expo, where I was staying for the night and waiting for my friend Juan, who was flying in late from San Diego, having run the U.S.A. Half Marathon San Diego Invitational earlier that day.  We turned in not long after he arrived, since the start was going to be very early the following morning.

Half Fanatics and Marathon Maniacs pre-race photo!
(Photo by Route 66 Marathon)

The startline
And a few hours later, we were awake.  Unfortunately for me, there was something in my bed, and I awoke with itchy red welts on my lower back, my ankles, my feet and soles of my feet.  Bedbugs, carpet mites - who knows.  Whatever it was, it was itchy.  Grossed out, yes but we dealt with it later, but thankfully I had antihistamines on me and the itching subsided.  Wearing multiple layers as the temps had dipped even more from the day before (and the wind gone), we walked the 0.6 miles to the start area.  The park on 6th and Main was corralled off and turned into Maniac Corner, where members of the Half Fanatics and Marathon Maniacs could congregate pre-race for the massive group photo.  Lots and lots of photos were taken before we all separated and made our way to the corrals for the start.  I made my way over to Corral A and soon after the national anthem was sung, we were off under a flurry of confetti!

The race course through Maple Ridge
We ran down Main Street heading southward out of the downtown area and then turned right onto 15th Street, hitting our first big downhill section of the race.  I clocked an 8:45 first mile, surely with that downhill helping me.  Almost immediately, we began to run through a very affluent-looking residential section of Tulsa known as Maple Ridge, running along a treelined street (Madison Street), with a manicured median running down the middle. We made another left turn onto 19th Street and then took that for a long stretch before we hit mile 2, and then turned again as we encountered St. John Medical Center on Utica Avenue in the historic Yorktown neighborhood of Tulsa.  We then made our way around the campus and through the campus of Cascia Hall Preparatory School, a prominent Catholic school in the city.

Running into Jim five miles in...
We reemerged onto Utica Avenue and ran southward until it dead-ended to 29th Street, turned right, and then followed that street northward as it became East Rockford Road, and passed the Philbrook Museum of Art, a 1920's Italian Renaissance style villa situated on 23 acres of gardens.  We then wound our way through more of the beautiful Maple Ridge neighborhood, passing by exquisite mansions, and many folks cheering us on in front of their homes.  Somewhere around mile 5, I ran into my friend Jim from Georgia, who had struggled with some stomach issues in the first few miles of the race, and I decided to help pace him as best as I can to the finish.  I was still using my intervals as best as I could, alternating between 4:00/1:00 and 9:00/1:00 run-walk ratios.  Having him with me help me too, as it broke up the monotony of hearing the same music I had been listening to for the last several races, and we helped each other through the meandering hills that populated this area.  And thankfully, he shared my love of stopping for cute dogs, as we ran into a corgi around mile 6.5 on Peoria Avenue.

The part of the race
actually on Route 66!
About 7.75 miles in, we reached Riverside Drive, which ran alongside the Arkansas River.  We ran on this road for about half a mile before turning back into the Maple Ridge, but running on the famed Cincinnati Avenue, known for having a great deal of spectators.  It was most evident at mile 9, where it's practically a block party - lots of food and drink "options" available for runners that want to partake!  At mile 10, we reached 21st Street and turned left toward the river, then ran along Riverside Drive for a little over a mile, while we saw the climb awaiting us to get to Southwest Boulevard.  A short out-and-back took us over the Arkansas River, and then we headed northeastward on the only section of the entire race that was on the actual Route 66.  Thankfully, we are also provided with a photograph opportunity with the iconic Route 66 sign from the skyway/observation deck overlooking the highway.

We continued our steady climb up the road, curving up to 7th Street, and past our hotel and the Cox Business Center where the expo was held.  Soon, we passed the 12 mile mark, and were back in the thick of downtown.  A few more turns were ahead, as we headed toward the finish line at Guthrie Green, where the 5K start was located.  I sped a little ahead of Jim, and finished to cheering crowds at the finish line in 2:17:39, with Jim not far behind me.  We progressed through the finishers chute and got some much needed chow (mmm spaghetti!) before making our way to the finish area reserved for Half Fanatics and Marathon Maniacs club members - where we could get more food and drinks (yay beer) and exchange our medals for extra-special HF and MM branded medals.

I stuck around the finish area for quite some time, taking in the sunny weather (still cold, but thankfully I had my down coat with me!), and watch several friends finish both the half and full marathons, some even bringing down their personal bests (yay Brian!)  I found my friends Colleen and Maureen near the finish, who walked over to the "Center of the Universe" landmark (which served as a short detour for the full marathon) with me, and were kind enough to take my victory headstand photo for me.

Victory Headstand!

Post race beers... yum!
My flight back home wouldn't leave till later, so after a shower and packing up my bags at my hotel, I met up with my friends Baylee and Hyalker at the Doubletree next door, and then we Ubered to a restaurant where we were able to get some appropriate lunchtime food (and I got an awesome stout and porter beer flight!) with other friends Colleen and Dave.  My flight was running late so I got some more time hanging out with them before it was time to head to the airport.  Oklahoma was fun... but COLD, and I was ready to head home, by way of Salt Lake City - yes, a long trip in the opposite direction, but it helped me avoid the ridiculous weather issues that crippled Chicago over the weekend - and I got back to NYC early the next morning after having a nice and easy layover in SLC, my fourth time there in 2015.  Only three more long distance races to go before the end of the year!