Thursday, April 28, 2016

Race Report: Covenant Health Knoxville Marathon

When I last left off, I had finished running the hilliest half marathon I've ever run in my life, Run the Bluegrass in Lexington, Kentucky, and the Marinos and I were leaving Lexington on the 2 1/2 hour trip across state lines to Knoxville, Tennessee.  On Sunday morning, the Marinos ran the half and I ran the full for the Covenant Health Knoxville Marathon - starting on the Clinch Avenue Bridge at World's Fair Park and ending at the University of Tennessee's Neyland Stadium.

Driving into Knoxville!

Startline for the 5k, half, and full
But before that, on Saturday.... so we arrived around 5:30pm, with the expo winding down, and we picked up our bibs for the Sunday race.  Lo and behold, the 5K is in the evening, so I decide, why not, and register on the spot for the 5K race!  That would bring my mileage for the weekend up to a grand total of 42.4 miles!  I made my necessary changes to my back bib (fixing the 39.3 to 42.4) and after settling into my hotel, the Four Points Sheraton/Cumberland House, literally STEPS away from the start line, I headed down to the Clinch Avenue Bridge for the start just before 7pm, with 2200 other people.

Out and back on Volunteer Blvd!
It was a simple course with a few turns, but hilly enough for me to feel it, since earlier that day I had put myself through the ringer at Run the Bluegrass.  It was just a mere 3.1 miles, but still almost 200 feet of elevation change.  We ran uphill on Clinch Avenue and then turned left onto 16th Street. 16th Street went downhill before returning on an uphill, and turned into Volunteer Boulevard - the main drag of the University of Tennessee - turning around at the end of the boulevard, just before it began to turn right.  We returned up Volunteer Boulevard, then made a right turn onto Cumberland Avenue, where we got to run a screamingly steep downhill toward Estabrook Road.  We took a right turn there, where we rounded the corner behind a few buildings belonging to the college of engineering, and then beelined toward Neyland Stadium, where we got to run under the stadium bleachers, and into the field, finishing on the 50 yard line.  I took some video of me finishing the 5K and crossing the finish line!

Neyland Stadium on Saturday night after the 5K!
After finishing the race, I walked into downtown Knoxville and met up with the Marinos at a local bar, Suttree's High Gravity Tavern, where we had a drink, and then went over to another bar, Preservation Pub, in the Market Square area of Knoxville, a smoky bar which seemed to be overrun by 20-somethings.  Before long, we were exhausted, and decided to turn in for the night to get some much needed z's before the following morning's big race.

Puttin' down some celebratory stouts with the Marinos!
It was pretty windy on Saturday evening, which got us really worried for the race, but luckily we had no problems with the wind at race start - it was just really cold.  With a 7:30 start time, and it beginning again at the Clinch Avenue Bridge, I gave myself as much time as needed for sleep, and left the hotel at ten after.  I reminded the front desk that I needed a late checkout because of how long I intended to take to run the race, and how tired I would be getting back from the stadium to the hotel, and then braved the cold to get behind the startline.  Strangely, there was a massive single-file line to get bags into gear check, but luckily it moved quickly, and once I had my things in place, I quickly made my way to the start corrals. The Marinos had taken cover in the nearby Holiday Inn, but with the massive amount of people, we were never able to meet up prior to the race.  After the national anthem, done by a recent American Idol semifinalist and Knoxville local (whose name I didn't catch), we were off!

Thank you for being a friend...
And like yesterday, we took off on the uphill stretch on Clinch Avenue Bridge, before turning left onto 16th.  This time, I paced myself, knowing this was going to be the start of a long day of racing, and got myself up the hill without pushing the pace too hard, and then turned onto 16th, where we took advantage of a nice downhill, then uphill onto Volunteer Boulevard, then ran down the street before we took a left turn just past a building that was being newly constructed.  We then made our way down Pat Summitt Street (named after legendary Lady Vols basketball coach) past the Lindsey Nelson Stadium (the university's baseball stadium) and then to Chamique Holdsclaw Drive (...UT really likes to name their streets and buildings after people, good Lord!)  We then made our way off of campus and toward the Tennessee River, where we would run Neyland Drive alongside the river for the next few miles.  The mile 3 marker was where we'd turn onto Kingston Pike and proceed up a somewhat uphill section of the course for the next mile, as we made our way to the neighborhood of Sequoyah Hills.

It's called Sequoyah HILLS
for a reason!
We turned left onto Cherokee Boulevard, and almost immediately were greeted by a screaming downhill into a residential area, known as Sequoyah Hills.  I had been told by people that this was a great part of the course, and it definitely did not disappoint.  The signs and support here were some of the best I've seen in a race course in all the races that I've done.  Heck, we even had ladies dressed up as the Golden Girls just as we were starting the run through the neighborhood!  There were so many inventive and funny signs - some dealing with politics and pop culture... others giving you anticipation for certain things to see further up on the course, only to end up with funny "got ya!" signage - case in point, the naked cheerleaders!  And not only that, the neighborhood is very well-kept, with some beautiful homes, manicured lawns and street medians, and some massive shade trees.  The residents and volunteers in this area of the race truly rolled out the red carpet for us runners!  AND... I found a corgi, as we went up Alta Vista Way to the mile 7 mark!

Amazing signs through Sequoyah Hills.  Note the bras and panties in the trees!

Well, well, well...

Just as we exited Sequoyah Hills, we hit our first big test... a massive, massive hill up Noelton Drive, 100 feet in elevation change over about half a mile of distance.  I spotted a guy on the left side of the road with couches laid out in front of his house, and lo and behold, he had dixie cups with shots of Fireball ready to go for runners.  I, never to say no to a fireball shot during a race, took advantage, and then let myself conquer the rest of that hill until we reached the top, at Kingston Pike, once again.

Throw back a shot to get my mind off Noelton Hill.

Lush forests of the Greenway
We followed Kingston Pike past some run-of-the-mill strip malls, and around a frankly unmemorable part of the course in the neighborhood of Bearden in West Knoxville.  We then went around the parking lot of an organic supermarket, ultimately to get us to the trailhead of the Knoxville City Greenways.  The greenway, officially the "Third Creek Greenway." connects through multiple neighborhoods for a few miles through a thickly forested area.  Entering the greenway around the mile 8 marker, we ran through two miles of respite from the city streets, and then emerged onto South Concord Street, running through the pathways bisecting Tyson Park.  We ran underneath the Alcoa Highway/US-129 before running through the back parking lots leading us to Cumberland Avenue, where we returned to city streets.

Fun aid stations along the greenway route!

One thing to say as we ran up Cumberland - there was this gentleman that we first saw just before entering the greenway at the mile 8 mark - we saw him probably two more times while in the greenway, and then for the last time on Cumberland Avenue, before making a turn onto 22nd Street.  He was an older gentleman, who appeared South Asian, in a walking boot foot cast, and wearing a shirt that read "PAPA - The Man, The Myth, The Legend."  I was actually surprised seeing him so many times on the route, while he was clearly wearing that foot cast. He was incredibly cheerful, cheering us runners on through FOUR points in a three mile section of the course.  He was actually quite funny as well, exclaiming one quote that made me laugh out loud: "OXYGENATE THOSE LUNGS!"  Other runners saw him as well!  So, to "Papa" - thank you!  You made my day!

Exiting the Greenway...
About to split off from
the half marathoners
Over the next mile, we weaved our way through downtown Knoxville, in a neighborhood I later learned was known as Fort Sanders, or simply "The Fort."  It's a residential neighborhood that is populated largely by students who attend the University of Tennessee.  It has a reputation of being a party neighborhood, and obviously, at that early hour of the morning, on a Sunday nonetheless, there was barely anyone out on the street cheering runners on.  We quickly ran through the neighborhood, from 22nd Street onto Forest Avenue, which we ran all the way back to World's Fair Park.

We made our way into the park, and finally split off from the half marathoners, as we turned left to pass the Sunsphere and the Convention Center, and up to Broadway and the halfway point of the race, where we would take a straight shot northward into the neighborhood of Fourth and Gill, a quaint neighborhood of North Knoxville, known for its Victorian-era houses, churches, and streetscapes.  While it was much quieter up here, we were still well supported by residents who came out to cheer on the runners brave enough to take on the 26.2 distance and running through their neighborhood.  We weaved through several streets up here, passing some gorgeous homes, before exiting the neighborhood near the 15 mile mark, taking the curvy downhill of 5th Avenue under I-40 and toward the more industrial northern boundary of Knoxville's Old City, on Magnolia Avenue.

Running through the Old City
We turned left onto Winona Street, and made our way through the Parkridge neighborhood of the city, and through Caswell Park and up to Washington Avenue, then down N. Bertrand Street, reaching McCalla Avenue, and then heading back west toward the Old City.  It was more industrial area around here, so the route wasn't so great around mile 17, but we made our way past the blocky James White Parkway overpass into the Old City, where the surroundings got more interesting.  By this time it was about 11:00 am, so the downtown area was starting to become a bit busier, especially around Jackson Avenue and Central Street.  We continued on down Central Street, past some partially obstructive roadway construction, and then continued on our way down to Hill Avenue.  On Hill Avenue, we would run eastward, past the Women's Basketball Hall of Fame and the Marriott Hotel, before curving our way onto the James White Parkway - literally, the highway, where we would cross the Tennessee River into South Knoxville.
The Tennessee River

Ew, roadkill!

Looking down on the out-and-back
in South Knoxville
As we ran down the offramp, we then headed eastward toward the easternmost section of the race, taking Island Home Avenue on an out-and-back into it's namesake neighborhood, Island Home Park.  The residential neighborhood is home to Knoxville's largest concentration of bungalow-style houses. The area was well supported by residents cheering us runners on, who were in the last 10K of the race, having hit the 20 mile mark as we made our way down the offramp of the highway.  Notable was a stretch of Island Home Boulevard, with its grassy median and giant trees punctuating the neighborhood's residential splendor.  At the end of the boulevard we made our way to the turn around point that would take us onto Spence Place and back onto Island Home Avenue - here, we were lovingly supported by folks from the adjacent Tennessee School for the Deaf.  We made our way back onto the "back" side of the out-and-back course, high fiving runners making their way through the neighborhood, themselves.  Near the 23.5 mile mark, as the road turned into Sevier Avenue, a makeshift unofficial aid station had sprung up, with two folks having put out a table with all sorts of treats for runners to choose from.  AND THEY HAD PROSECCO!  So I took a shot, naturally :)

Island Home Boulevard

Gay Street Bridge, heading
back downtown!
Sevier Avenue continued as we trudged on through South Knoxville, before making our way back uphill on Council Place toward the Gay Street Bridge.  By then I had hit the 5 hour mark, and committed myself to running the entire way across the bridge and over the river.  We then continued up Gay Street (on an uphill, and through MORE construction, I might add...) through downtown Knoxville, passing a few municipal office buildings and the Tennessee Theatre.  Since its development in the 1790s, Gay Street has served as the city's principal financial and commercial thoroughfare, and has played a primary role in the city's historical and cultural development. We made a turn onto Wall Avenue before running through Knoxville's bustling Market Square - though by the time noon rolled around, most people were not realizing that we were running a marathon through there!   We weaved our way through downtown before heading back onto Clinch Avenue, and past where we had started the race -- but this time, we were at mile 25.5!  We turned onto the intense downhill on 11th Street (and past my hotel!), crossing Cumberland Avenue and then reaching Estabrook Road, and the road that curved around past the engineering buildings headed right toward Neyland Stadium and the finish line.  I took everything within in me, running through EXTREMELY tired legs, and finished my 42.4 miles over the 50 yard line of the stadium, and thrilled that I completed all of that mileage in such a short amount of time.

Gay Street

Market Square
The stadium!  The end is near!

I crossed the finish line in 5:25:43... in a time that I'm very happy with, considering I had run 16.2 miles the day prior.  After taking my headstand photo on the astroturf, and then grabbing a quick bite of the free pizza offered (and wishing I could just sit and enjoy it), I headed off back toward my hotel knowing that I only had so much time to shower and get myself out of the room before check out - thankfully, the Four Points Sheraton was nice enough to give me a little extra time knowing I had run the considerably longer race.  I had completed my 8th marathon, and not only that -- my largest amount of miles run in a weekend - my own Lex2Knox / Almost Dopey weekend!

The first of two #victoryheadstands

Victory Headstand with all of my weekend medals!

Seeing the final finishers of the marathon run down Clinch Ave!

A weekend's worth of bling, hats, and bibs!

Feeling accomplished!

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Race Report: Run the Bluegrass

An I-75 Challenge!
My first big challenge of the year was my first attempt at what serial long distance runners refer to as a "Goofy Challenge" after the Walt Disney World Marathon challenge of running a half marathon and marathon in the same weekend - a total of 39.3 miles.   The original Goofy's Race and a Half Challenge ran the two events on the grounds of Walt Disney World in Orlando, Florida - hot and humid (any day of the year!) and very flat.  Constructing my own, I decided to challenge myself a little more, with two considerably hilly races in two different states, in generally cool weather environments during the month of April: Run the Bluegrass, the 6th running of "America's Prettiest Half Marathon" in Lexington, Kentucky; and the Covenant Health Knoxville Marathon, the 12th running of the event, in Knoxville, Tennessee.  Linked by I-75, I dubbed it the "I-75 Challenge" or "Lex2Knox."

I left work, armed with luggage with far too many clothes for the weekend, to get myself over to LaGuardia Airport, and very nervous about the weather situation.  My flight was leaving on time, yet I saw weather reports of some rather ominous clouds heading eastward and in the direction I was flying.  My itinerary had me taking the pointless 25 minute flight from LGA to Philadelphia, then connecting on to Lexington Blue Grass Airport.  As we were boarding and getting settled on the tiny plane (where we walked onto the tarmac and onto a set of stairs to the back of the plane), the clouds began to form east of the city, and spelled potential disaster for our flight, as these clouds, accompanied with strong winds and lightning strikes, could ground us due to a ground stop on our home turf in LaGuardia or even a ground stop in Philly.  But the Gods were kind to us, and we were able to get off the ground - even bypassing a line of about 20+ planes that had formed on the tarmac, allowing us to take a route southward toward Atlantic City, then beelining over to Philly, which only added about 5 minutes to the trip.  Either way, we still landed in Philly well over half an hour before our anticipated arrival, amongst some pretty heavy rains, so I bided my time by having some dinner at Legal Sea Foods, and then drinks at the terminal where my Lexington flight was to take off.

The Lexington flight was also quite small, and I had to valet check my bag on the jet bridge; upon landing, my bag and another passenger's bag was not among those that were brought back up onto the plane, and after some panic set in, we headed down to baggage claim, where our bags did show up.  Crisis averted.  Anyway, I had initially planned on sleeping at the airport, as the flight was getting in past 11pm, and the race course was just across the street at Keeneland, the famous race track that hosts the Breeders' Cup every year, and the collection of stables, farms, and ranches that surround it.  Just a few days before my flight, I decided to get a hotel room at last minute, as a good night's sleep was absolutely necessary for me to keep my strength and energy over the many cumulative miles I'd be running over the weekend, as evidenced from my poor showing at the Phoenix Marathon after a few hours sleep at Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport.  So after getting my bag, I got an Uber that took me to my hotel a few miles away in a complex of hotels nearish to the airport.  My hotel was across the street from where my friends the Marinos were staying.

With Carl and Ilona Marino
A little about the Marinos -- Carl and Ilona Marino are an amazing couple that I met in November 2014 during the second day of races at Rock 'n' Roll Savannah, and would subsequently see in races all throughout the following year.  Both are actors based out of San Francisco, and Carl stars in a very popular top-rated cable program on the Investigation Discovery network currently in its fifth season, Homicide Hunter: Lt. Joe Kenda.  The show is based on the past cases of retired Colorado Springs based homicide investigator Joe Kenda. While the real Joe Kenda recounts and narrates his cases, Carl stars as Kenda in the reenactments.  Carl films the show in Knoxville, Tennessee, and his filming schedule for this year unfortunately came out with a lot of Saturday shoots, effectively messing with his racing schedule - but this weekend happened to be off, and they decided (with some additional coaxing from me) to attempt their first double weekend, running the Kentucky and Tennessee races within 24 hours of each other.  We coordinated our schedules, and the Marinos booked a rental car between Lexington and Knoxville, where I would ride with them.

No horses had to cross while we ran... 

First view of the rolling hills of Keeneland while on the course

The grass is so green!
The race start was a little later than usual, being at 9am, so we got a little time to sleep in, and decided to meet up a little before 8am to give ourselves time to drive over, deal with whatever traffic or parking situation we'd be dealt with, and then take our time before the race would start.  It was brisk that morning, and we probably could've just stayed in the car for a little bit before heading out to the startline, but we braved the chilliness, and waited it out til everyone moved into place for the start.  Cozette came by to see us... well, really see Carl, as she is a huge fan of the show; and we saw Kamika, who was running his first of two races that weekend as well (flying out to San Francisco that day to do RnR San Fran the next morning)  After an operatic rendition of the anthem, we took off down Keeneland Boulevard, with the sun shining above us, the wind low but still steady, as we pretty much immediately started climbing our first hill, through a parking lot, and up Back Gate Drive and past the stables that surrounded Keeneland Race Track.

Beer stop, please!

More beautiful views of Keeneland

Almost immediately, I had to pee, so I stopped at the first port-a-potty barely a mile into the race, just as the course turned onto Rice Road for a short period of time before turning onto Bosworth Lane for the first lengthy straightaway into open road where on either side of us was grazing lands for the horses.  Very simply, this race is extremely hilly.  For all 13.1 miles, the elevation would change pretty drastically, some saying there are as many as 26 to 29 true hills over the course of the race.  But the surroundings are absolutely beautiful, providing us with one very scenic course, and deserving of the "prettiest race" moniker.  Apparently the weather can be very unpredictable, and this year seemed to have the best weather yet, which allowed for a lot of the horses to be out and about.  Just as we approached the right turn onto Elkchester Road, 2 1/4 miles in, we saw our first horses galloping at Blackstone Farm to our left.
Can we stop with the hills already?

We turned onto Elkchester Road, and for the next 1.2 miles, headed northeast toward Wade Farm, and to the left turn onto Redd Road, which separated our 13.1 mile course from the 7-mile course, whose runners continued on to the final 3 miles of our course.  We headed up the rolling hills of Redd Road for the next 2.3 miles, until we hit the 6 mile mark as we turned onto Old Frankfort Pike, considered to be one of the most scenic roads in America.  By then, we realized, wow this is a hilly course... but what was to come was a DOOZY.

Horses come to watch us this time around!
Elevation changes galore!
Literally, for the next two miles, we went up and down, up and down, on a roller coaster of a road.  The elevation changes on Old Frankfort Pike were brutal - I counted maybe 8 hills on this road alone.    However, it was also on this road, where we were afforded with the most views of many of Keeneland's famous horse farms, even "visited" by some horses at the 7.5 mile mark, who came by the side of the pens to inspect the multitude of fast-moving humans passing by their territory.  We turned back onto Elkchester Road, and ran that for a mile before hitting the likely "biggest" hill of the race, where at the top, a drum circle was helping to move us up toward them.  After a couple slight turns and another short straightaway, we turned left onto the zig-zaggy Van Meter Road, where we were afforded views of Fares Farm; and Manchester Farm, the most photographed barn in all of Kentucky.

In front of Manchester Farm!

Amazing new bling!
As we continued on Van Meter Road, we took a right turn (still on the same road - I told you, it zig-zags quite a bit!), and hit the mile 12 mark, but also what seemed like the windiest part of the course! Hit by this wind for the last mile, we headed in toward the finish, taking us onto the asphalt side roads near Keeneland's designated tailgating lot (known as "The Hill") leading all the way to the Keene Barn and Entertainment Center, and site of the finish line.  Battling those winds in the last mile, I completed my first race of the weekend in 2:22:17.  As the race was a tiny bit delayed, I quickly ran into the entertainment center to warm up (and purchase a commemorative Run the Bluegrass hat,) grabbed a beer and then headed off to the parking lot to find Carl and Ilona so that we could get back to our respective hotels for showers and check-out before 1pm.

Victory Headstand, but where's my head? LOL...

Giving attitude, medal, and bourbon barrel ale.
After having a delicious lunch (burgers, yum!) we were off to Knoxville!  And I have a beautiful new black nickel finisher medal, featuring Thoroughbred legends Man o' War, War Admiral and Seabiscuit - Run the Bluegrass has traditionally had some of the most stylish medals around, and this one is definitely hard to beat!

The course was absolutely beautiful...

Official race photo

Official race photo