Friday, August 5, 2016

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

Memorial Day Weekend 2016.  My first trip back to Europe in TEN years.  Thursday night, I departed JFK Airport to head to Manchester, England, to spend the weekend in the UK.  The main reason? To run my first races outside of the Americas, the Rock 'n' Roll Liverpool 5K and Half Marathon.  Being that it was a holiday weekend, I was really worried about airport security being ridiculously long lines; I was also flying Thomas Cook Airlines, a British-based airline with a very minor presence in the States - so I would be flying without my beloved TSA PreCheck.  Additionally, I'd be flying out of Terminal 4, known for being incredibly large -- 38 gates over 1.5 million square feet, servicing 32 international AND domestic airlines, largely Delta Airlines. A little blip, though... I was able to get a digital boarding pass on my phone, but it didn't work when I scanned it with the TSA agent, so I had to go all the way back out to ticketing to get a paper ticket, standing in a line with all the other Thomas Cook Airlines passengers, waiting for the counters to open.  Despite signs upon joining the security queue saying "25 mins or less wait," I only needed to stand in lines for over 14... and I even timed it using my iPhone stopwatch! It took 6 minutes and 25 seconds to go from the start of the security line to the TSA agent, and then 7 minutes and 46 seconds to shuttle me through the metal detector (no bodyscan, booyah!) before I exited security.

Passenger on the left,
driver on the right!
I had quite a bit of time to spare before my flight would board, so I bided time getting some dinner at the exorbitantly expensive planeside Buffalo Wild Wings, while I waited for friends Monique and Greg to arrive; they were coming from Denver and Kansas City, respectively, on flights arriving at LaGuardia, and still had to take a shuttle over from that airport to JFK.  They arrived minutes before our plane began to board.  After yet another little blip (the gate agents for some reason were not accepting their printed-at-home boarding passes), we were able to get onto the plane... which required us boarding a shuttle bus to head out to the massive Airbus A-330 sitting out on the tarmac that couldn't fit at the gate. We departed at 9:30pm, and 7 hours later landed in Manchester Airport on Friday morning.  After getting through immigration and customs quickly, I joined Monique and Greg in their rental car to Liverpool, 45 minutes away. We learned very quickly how to operate a British car (with the driver side on the right), with manual transmission, and deal with highway traffic on the left side of the road.  Greg had some skills!

The crew on the Wheel!
After getting into Liverpool, and stopping off my things at my Airbnb (steps from Liverpool Cathedral), I joined Greg and Monique for a quick lunch at their hotel, and then we headed out to the expo to retrieve our bibs and t-shirts for our two races, and joined two other fellow Black Sheepers, Dave and Sherry, as we enjoyed some of Liverpool's sights in and around Albert Dock, including the Wheel of Liverpool for expansive views of the city; a stop at the Baltic Fleet, an authentic English brewpub; a walk along Strand Street over to the Liverpool One shopping complex; and visiting the iconic Cavern Club on Mathew Street, the nightclub that the Beatles' played 292 times during their early years from 1961 to 1963.


A stop at the expo...
Views of Albert Dock from the Wheel
Liverpool Cathedral in the distance
Anatomically correct horse sculpture!
At the Cavern Club
Heading down into the depths of the Cavern Club
Sculpture of luggage on Hope Street


Morning 5K!
After a restful evening adjusting to the time change, I woke up the following morning well rested before the 9:30am start of the 5K.  The 5K route was a great tour of the roads and paths all along the docks that faced the River Mersey, with a finish inside Echo Arena.  I joined our little group for a hop-on/hop-off bus tour of the downtown area, where we got to hit up many of the important landmarks in downtown Liverpool, including the neoclassical St. George's Hall concert hall; Liverpool's Three Graces, the Port of Liverpool Building, Royal Liver Building and Cunard Building; the Radio City Tower; Liverpool Lime Street Station; both of Liverpool's cathedrals (the modern-designed Catholic Liverpool Metropolitan Cathedral and the Gothic revival Anglican Liverpool Cathedral); and the Philharmonic Dining Rooms, where we ended up having a late lunch.  After returning to Albert Dock, I ended up doing a guided tour of The Beatles Story museum and exhibition.  I spent the rest of the early evening walking around the Chinatown area and Ropewalks area near my accommodations, before calling it an early night, exhausted from a long day of taking in the city!

Running down The Strand
The Three Graces
A pretty snazzy 5K medal!


Touring through Liverpool.. it's so Mary Poppins-y!
The half marathon start line!
Sunday morning came quickly, as did the start of the half marathon at 9am.   Along with over 7,000 runners, we lined up on the crowded Salthouse Quay on Albert Dock.  On the way, I was able to run into a few Manchester FrontRunners, members of my international LGBT running club from the nearby English city! I was supposed to meet up with my friend Elaine at the start, but with the sheer amount of people, we were unable to find each other.   We headed off in the 57º weather, with a little saturation in the air, and headed along the roads along the perimeter of the dock, much like the 5K course the day before, emerging onto Strand Street, and then making our way past the Museum of Liverpool and Mersey Ferry Terminal, around the Three Graces, and then up to Chapel Street to the 1 mile mark, and then along Tithebarn Street, before curving around some of the more narrow roads in old Liverpool to Dale Street, and then over to Mathew Street, passing by the Cavern Club on the way. After curving around John Street, Lord Street, and Castle Street, to a view directly in front of Liverpool Town Hall, we headed back onto The Strand via Water Street.  We continued along The Strand for quite some time, until we turned onto Liver Street then onto St. James Street, along the light residential corridor taking us to Chinatown.  We FINALLY reached our first hydration station about 2.75 miles into the race... and in a strange twist, we got squat water bottles, which unfortunately were still sealed shut; with sweaty hands, it was not easy to open these in order to take our gulps!

With a couple Manchester Front Runners!
Liverpool Town Hall

Running through the Chinatown Arch
We turned left onto Nelson Street, and took the fanfare-like street up to the Chinatown arch, where we were greeted by an energetic band stage featuring Chinese drummers.  After going under the arch we made an immediate right turn, running past my Airbnb and heading on a nice downhill toward Upper Parliament Road, where we would face our first test of Liverpudlian hills; a 50' uphill rise over a half mile on Prince's Road and just past the 4 mile mark.  A 75' uphill rise continued as we turned past a roundabout onto a road that defined the perimeter of Prince's Park.  We entered Prince's Park, our first of four parks we'd be crossing through, and hit the 5 mile mark.  Right around here, I finally ran into Elaine!  We vowed to continue to run with each other to the end from this point, and followed a 9 min/1 min run/walk, making our way through the park and onto Windermere Terrace, and a road taking us to Aigburth Drive, which connected us to the north edge of the second park, Sefton Park.



Ran into Elaine.. and we made it to Penny Lane!
We ran down Croxteth Drive and Mossley Hill Drive, past mile 6, and then on to Greenback Lane.  We took it all the way to the end of the road, where we turned onto Mossley Hill Road toward Liverpool College, but with a short out and back onto the iconic Penny Lane, made famous by the namesake Beatles' song.  A DJ played "Penny Lane" on repeat, as runners made their way along this route, as I sang full-out to the amusement (or not!) of fellow runners.  We then headed south, running past Liverpool College, as we made our way along Queens Drive back into Sefton Park, but this time its southern pathways.


Reaching the River Mersey!
We made our way down Mossley Hill Drive, passing the 8 mile mark and onto the treelined Aigburth Road, continuing onto the Otterspool Promenade, another park that reminded both Elaine and I of running through Lake Johnson Park during the Rock 'n' Roll Raleigh Marathon the previous month and somewhat of running through Stanley Park during October 2015's Rock 'n' Roll Vancouver Half Marathon.  We emerged out of the treelined pathway onto a nice downhill before reaching the waterside of the River Mersey.  We reached the 9 mile mark, and continued onward, heading back toward the Albert Dock, but along the waterside.  Having had a water stop at mile 9, we didn't see another one again until mile 11.  And with the bottles being used so much during this race, it was jarring to see all of the discarded plastic littering the pathway.  I hope it all got cleaned up and none of it into the river!

Because of being unprepared for the large gaps between water stops, I felt wholly dehydrated through the last few miles of the race, and ended up having a bad side stitch hit me in last 5k of the race, forcing me to walk.  Regardless of this, Elaine continued by my side, and we moseyed on down the way, returning onto part of the course that was shared with the previous morning's 5K, taking us along Sefton Street (the main street known as the Strand further up into downtown Liverpool), and then curving inward along Mariners Wharf to the finish along Kings Parade and the finish line itself outside of the ACC Liverpool.

Fancy Dress!
At the finish, Elaine and I ran into Amy, who had made it into town that morning, crossing the Atlantic on a flight that got her into Manchester literally hours before the start of the half marathon!  Monique and Greg, who were staying in Manchester, picked her up, and they raced into town, and Amy made it to the startline well in time to begin the race!  We also got to see lots of fun costumes that we had noticed throughout the weekend... Known as "Fancy Dress" during British races, it seems to be a common occurrence!





Look at my amazing bling haul!

Victory Headstand!

A running minion!
I couldn't stick around too long, as I had an afternoon flight out of Manchester to get to London, so I made my way back to my Airbnb for the last time, at one point passing some back of the packers for the marathon route, and more runners in "fancy dress" including a minion! After showering and packing things up, I walked over to Liverpool Lime Street and boarded my train to Manchester Airport, proceeding through the chaotic security area, and to a very crowded "departures lounge" in order to wait for finding out which gate my flight to London on British Airways would depart from.

Out with the boys on Sunday night
I scheduled my trip so that I could spend a night in London and then leave in the late afternoon for my transatlantic flight back to JFK.  Upon landing at Heathrow, I realized how technologically savvy this airport was compared to Manchester, and I got on a Heathrow Express train that took me to Paddington, where I had another Airbnb to stay for the night.  After settling in, I met up with my friend Mark, who happened to be in town at the same time after taking a Disney cruise with his friend Austin, and we had dinner at a delicious Indian restaurant in Covent Garden.  We walked around SoHo and Leicester Square, got a chance to dance at a nightclub, and then turned in for the night. I forgot, however, that the Tube closes around 1am, and because I was unfamiliar with the bus system, I decided to walk back to my accomodations, which was actually a really nice 3 mile walk back to Paddington, a truly interesting experience to see London on the eve of a bank holiday and through very different neighborhoods with unique ethnic makeups.

On the Thames...
After a good night's sleep, I met up with Austin at London Victoria station with two real destinations to get to - a chance to go up to the London Eye and get a great view of the entire city, and then a trip to Kings Cross Station to see "Platform 9 3/4," made famous by the Harry Potter books.  We walked from Victoria to the Thames, passing by Westminster Abbey and the House of Commons, before walking across Westminster Bridge. We got into the queue for the Eye (thankfully, not too long), and headed skywards. It was interesting seeing London at this viewpoint; it had been about ten years since I was last here, and the skyline has definitely changed.  I spent a bit of time trying to look for 30 St. Mary Axe (also infamously known as "the Gherkin") until realizing that it was hiding behind another taller and larger building that has been built in front of it, blocking it from view.

Abbey Selfie

Posing from across the river
Flying!
All morning, Austin and I ran into folks who had run the Vitality British 10k London Run, which happened to have occurred that morning through Central London.  Had I known that there was going to be this race, I totally would've registered... however, it's a popular race that had sold out months before. I had a bit of race envy seeing people with medals around their necks while on the tube. We made our way to Kings Cross, and got in a LONG queue to get our picture taken at the Platform 9 3/4 sign, which was erected in 1999, initially in a passageway connecting the main station to the platform 9-11 annex. Part of a luggage trolley was installed below the sign: the near end of the trolley was visible, but the rest had disappeared into the wall. The location quickly became a popular tourist spot amongst Harry Potter fans.  I, of course, took it to another level and rather than just simply pose with a wand and an "in motion" scarf, I decided to jump into a cabriole. Those dance classes I took in the last few years seemed to have paid off and I got some SERIOUS airtime, and then a round of applause from the folks in line, lol! Afterward, I headed back to London Victoria to pick up luggage that I dropped off at the Left Luggage Facility, and then take the train to the airport for my flight home.

It was a bit of a madhouse at Victoria station, and I had a little bit of confusion in trying to find the train that took me to Gatwick Airport, the third of five major international airports that serve London that I've been to (the others being Heathrow, as stated earlier; and Stansted, which I visited ten years ago during my last trip to Europe... which included sleeping overnight on the lobby floor of that airport. UGH.)  I ended up having to paying a few more pounds for an express ticket, thankfully easy to do, and then boarded the semi-crowded train to the airport, which let us off at a station that was easily a mile away from the terminal I needed to be... sigh.  I had to join a line for ticketing, since I was flying internationally (the Norwegian app was worthless), got through security with no major issues, and grabbed some lunch, while charging my phone.  Much like at Manchester, I had to wait to find out which gate my flight was leaving out of, which was another long walk away; I flew low-cost carrier Norwegian Air Shuttle for the first time, in a brand new Boeing 787 Dreamliner.  It was a bumpy ride, I was sitting in the middle seat, and because I decided to not pay for food for the flight, the flight attendants paid barely any attention to me, but I used the entire flight to catch up on some of last year's Oscar nominated movies for free! :)  We landed back at JFK on Sunday evening, and I breezed my way through passport control and customs, thanks to my Global Entry, which I got to use for the first time! :)

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