Thursday, April 26, 2018

Race Report: Da Nang International Marathon

With my millions in
Vietnamese currency (dong)!
I planned four full days in Da Nang, after arriving on an overnight flight from Sydney that had a layover in Hong Kong.  It would be a whirlwind four days, which I'd be packing to the gills, seeing as much of Central Vietnam that I could in the time I gave myself.  The flight from Sydney to Hong Kong (on Cathay Pacific) was nine hours long, and we would land in Hong Kong around 6am.  Our layover in Hong Kong was around three hours long; thankfully, the transfer to the departures terminal was quick, as I had enough time to stop into the Plaza Premium Lounge for a proper breakfast (thanks to my Priority Pass card) before it got super busy.  Ended up getting upgraded to a business class seat on my flight from Hong Kong to Da Nang, which was only about 1.5 hours long.

Arriving in Da Nang... and HEAT.
Upon arriving in Da Nang, BOY was it hot.  Already in the mid-90s at 9am.  We came off of the plane onto the tarmac and then put onto shuttles that drove maybe 300 feet to the terminal (seriously, I could've walked it in the time they spent waiting to fill the shuttle), and then got through passport control with my eVisa with no problems at all.  And then I had to wait a good half hour for my suitcase to come out of at baggage claim... they seemed to take a VERY long time with getting bags to come out despite the newness of the terminal! After retrieving my bag, I sent my carryons through a security scanner before exiting the airport and getting a taxi cab to take me to my homestay, which I was able to get to after showing the address to the driver from my phone.  I had a very eye-opening trip to the homestay, feeling very much in a foreign country with all the sights (propaganda murals, lots of red and yellow, and Communist symbolism like star motifs and the hammer and sickle) and sounds (ever-present beeps of horns from every driver!) of Vietnam. The short fifteen minute drive featured not a single traffic light, but two very large, busy roundabouts, where buses, cars, and motorbikes jockeyed for position to continue on forward.

Definitely in a foreign country... a propaganda mural!
Holy cow, it's hot here.
I got to the homestay in one piece, dripping with sweat, and met with Lam. Lam is the cousin of Xuan Tu Mai, the owner of the homestay, who was actually in Ho Chi Minh City on business, and would not be present for the time I was staying there.  He would be my main contact during my stay, and spoke very good English, helping me figure out my itineraries and being my interpreter for services.  Also present was Xuan Tu's mother and "auntie."  Since I was early, I was able to at least drop my stuff at the homestay before beginning my day (in addition to immediately putting my Australian TimTams into the refrigerator for fear of them melting in the relentless Vietnamese heat!), and they were nice enough to offer me some hot tea (a Vietnamese staple), some sweet lemon iced tea, and some fresh jackfruit.  Meanwhile, to start off my morning and within 4 hours of arriving, I decided to get a massage!  Lam took me on his scooter to L Spa, in the expat section of Da Nang, to a reliable and clean massage place, and I opted for a one hour Thai Massage.  Well, massage here is hardcore. Nhung was my masseuse and she pulled my limbs in every which direction, and I'm pretty sure she walked all over my back. Quite honestly, it's probably the best massage I've ever had... my gongfu tui-na massages in NYC hold no candle at all to what they could do here! All for just 420,000 dong, or $20. TWENTY FREAKING DOLLARS. And no, before you ask, it wasn't a happy ending kind of place.

A common street scene in Vietnam
After the massage, I headed to a nearby restaurant where I had my first taste of genuine Vietnamese food, though I decided to start off conservatively, because I knew I was going to be eating up a storm that evening.  I ordered a beef stew with rice, similar to the "com bo luc lac" that I knew so well in New York, with fresh papaya juice.  Lam then picked me up by motorbike and took me to a nearby jewelry shop where I could get money exchanged, apparently providing the best rates for money exchange.  We headed back to the homestay, so I could get showered and relaxed in air conditioning before I had to head into downtown Da Nang for my next scheduled event - an evening food tour!

Vietnamese cuisine in general has distinctive flavor profiles and with the balance between fresh herbs and meats and a selective use of spices to reach a fine taste, it is considered to be one of the healthiest cuisines in the world.   Traditional Vietnamese cooking is greatly admired for its fresh ingredients, minimal use of dairy and oil, complementary textures, and reliance on herbs and vegetables.  The foods from each region in Vietnam carry their distinctive and unique characteristics that reflect the geographical and living conditions of the people there, and in Central Vietnam, many dishes seem to have some of the strongest and boldest flavors.  I found Shaun Stevens' website on WikiTravel, and as a Californian who moved to Da Nang, he set up a food tour that's proved to be very popular with tourists to the area.  I booked for the evening, and he set me up with Anh, a native Da Nang resident, who took me to all of the necessary sites, to taste the best of what this part of Vietnam had to offer.  The food items I tried included:
  • bánh mì - Vietnamese baguette sandwich
  • bánh tráng trứng, pate & bò khô - BBQ rice paper with egg, pate & beef jerky
  • gỏi đu đủ chả trộn - papaya salad with sausage  - SO SPICY.
  • bột lọc chiên - deep fried tapioca dumplings
  • ốc hút thập cẩm - snails with lemongrass and chilli
  • cà phê dừa - coconut sorbet coffee
  • chè thái - durian fruit cup with coconut milk & jelly

The snails was one of the most interesting items on the menu, but the restaurant itself, Oc Ha, was something to be impressed with.  Apparently, this family operation has been in business for close to two decades, opening up after 5pm, when the store it sits in front of closes for the day.  It's incredibly popular along this busy Da Nang street, as not only are the seats in front of the building occupied, but they've taken up tables and chairs in front of the neighboring building as well as the alley behind the building!  Anh and I also had an enlightening conversation about Vietnamese politics and how Vietnam perceives the US, especially today.  Other than the food tours which Anh gives most evenings, he teaches English to young kids during the day, and has a very strong grasp of the language.  He has access to a lot of English-language media, and also leading these food tours with tourists from the West has afforded him a lot of exposure and conversations with people from more democratic countries. It was very interesting to realize that there is still some deep-seated resentment of the Vietnamese government (especially from this part of the country) and how the younger generation now growing into adulthood sees how thy are seemingly being held back from progress. Despite its central location in the country, Da Nang was part of the south before unification, and many people here still feel a bit maligned by the government's authority in the country.

After completing the evening with an adventurous dessert (which included durian - the nastiest smelling fruit in the world!), Anh got me an uber back to my homestay, and I slept soundly that evening, and with a full stomach, thrilled to have been able to really take in Da Nang from a local's perspective!

Checking out the race's start area
Day two in Vietnam started with a delicious breakfast made by Mrs. Mai - a bowl of Mi Quang, a central Vietnamese rice noodle dish with mint leaves, chicken, peanuts, an egg, and a bit of chili sauce to get the energy up for a full day of sightseeing ahead.  After getting myself together, I headed out the door and went to a coffee shop just down the road from the homestay, where I got to try some traditional Vietnamese coffee (filter style), known as "ca phe phin."  I then decided to walk along My Khe Beach up to where the startline for the race on Sunday would be, at Bien Dong Park.  My Khe Beach was known to American GI's as "China Beach" during the war, is now where many of the oceanside resorts are located. Amongst the modern buildings are still some vestiges of a time past, having survived conflicts over the centuries.  The startline area was just beginning to get organized for the race weekend, and packet pickup would begin the following day, when I was going to be touring the city of Hue.  I would end up arranging for another one of the houseguests at the homestay to pick up my bib for me.

Guanyin, up close
After sweating up a storm, I took refuge in a taxicab that was able to take me up to Son Tra Peninsula, visible from Da Nang proper, where Linh Ung Pagoda, the biggest in Da Nang, is located. It is most well known for its 67 meter tall Guanyin statue (Bodhisattva Goddess of Mercy - mistakenly referred to as "Lady Buddha" in many guidebooks) that looks over the city. Notably, the statue is higher than both the Statue of Liberty in New York AND Christ the Redeemer in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. The statue was only recently completed in 2010, and supposedly protects Da Nang and its fishermen from storms - and indeed it has, as no major storms have hit the city since it was built!  The drive up was only about twenty minutes long, and cost about 150,000 dong, roughly $7 each way.  Along the way, you can see Da Nang's main fishing village, Man Thai, which we would be running by during the race.

Guanyin from Da Nang Beach
After spending a good deal of the morning touring the pagoda, I headed back to my homestay to freshen up (and take yet another shower) before heading out on an afternoon tour that I pre-arranged.  Through the Da Nang Marathon's website, I was able to connect with Vietnam TravelMart to arrange tours throughout my stay.  For $63, I was able to get two seat-in-coach guided tours that covered nearby Marble Mountain and Hoi An on my second day in the area, and a full day tour in the Imperial City of Hue on day three.  Because I had the race on my fourth and final day of my trip, I looked for an additional tour to do with them that could take advantage of the afternoon, which I had free - and I was able to book a $100 a private tour to the My Son Holy Land, which would then allow me to be taken directly to the airport afterward for my flight home via Seoul. All of these tours would be with an English speaking guide (who may or may not be doing double duty, also providing tour commentary in other languages), as well as a seat in an air-conditioned tour van, and in some cases, an included meal.

Huyen Khong Cave
I grabbed a late lunch on my own at the restaurant near the corner of the main street that always seemed busy, and right across the street from where my coach would be picking me up since the street my homestay was on was far too narrow for a coach to pass through. I had a delicious bowl of phở, probably the most well known part of Vietnamese cuisine - a noodle soup with beef and spices in a rich, clear broth.  The coach picked me up, and after picking up other tourists (who seemed to mostly be all Vietnamese themselves, but from other parts of the country), we headed out to the Marble Mountains, a cluster of five marble hills or “mountains” are named after the five elements (Ngũ Hành) of ancient oriental philosophy. Here, there are a number of caves, grottoes and Buddhist temples arranged on the mountains with natural entrances and tunnels. The temples make the area a very popular pilgrimage site. In addition to the climb up and down the mountain's 156 steps, we went to a stone carvings village to see some of the skilled sculptors work that gets regularly exported out to other countries. The caves within the Marble Mountains were riddled with bullet holes from when troops used to spy on the US soldiers relaxing on My Khe Beach below and buildings standing within the caves and grottoes. Among them is Huyen Khong Cave, which was used as a secret base for local guerrillas during the war against the French colonialists. During the Vietnam War, it was made into a garrison for South Vietnamese and American units. The holes in the ceiling of the cave were actually made by bomb blasts during the war.  We left Marble Mountain just as the sun was beginning to set before heading out to the ancient city of Hội An, one of Central Vietnam's most popular tourist destinations.

The top of the Mountain of Water at the Marble Mountains

The sun setting to the west, with the Annamite Range in the distance, extending toward Laos.

Magical Hoi An at night
Hội An was only a short half hour drive through the rice fields from the Marble Mountains, and we arrived in the early evening, just as the lanterns began to be lit up.  Hoi An at night is a magical place, and its old town area, which is the city's historic district, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, recognized as an exceptionally well-preserved example of a continuously operating Southeast Asian trading port, dating from the 15th to the 19th century. Tourists frequent Hoi An for not only its immersive culture and distinctive regional cuisine offerings, but also being home to possibly the world's highest concentration of tailors per capita.  Clothing can be made to measure here and turned around in less than 24 hours. I was able to negotiate with a tailor to create a suit jacket with a mandarin collar, with my selection of a windowpane plaid wool from the many swatches available.  Because of my schedule, I wouldn't be able to return for a fitting, so I was depending on the tailors to make the jacket a perfect fit, and even deliver it directly to my homestay in Da Nang.

Delicious Bun bo Hue!
Day three began with an early morning breakfast, again made by Mrs. Mai - this time, bún bò Huế, a rice vermicelli noodle soup with beef, originating from the city of Hue, and associated with the cooking style of the royal court. Greatly admired for its balance of spicy, sour, salty, and sweet, the predominant flavor in bún bò Huế is that of lemongrass. This delicious breakfast was fitting, as I would be headed out for a full day trip to Hue, about two hours north by car from Da Nang.  My coach picked me up from the main street, and along with a car full of other passengers, we headed up to Hue, the seat of the imperial Nguyen dynasty and former national capital from 1802 to 1945.

Looking down from Hai Van Gate
We drove to Hue by climbing up Hai Van Pass, twisting along a road noted for being both challenging to navigate (especially during inclement weather), but also offering an impressive view at the top, at Hai Van Gate.  The winding 13 mile road from Da Nang to this point is considered one of the most challenging driving routes in Southeast Asia, especially during the rainy season.  Hai Van Gate, located 1600 feet above the city of Da Nang below, was a strategic military fortification, constructed in 1837 by Emperor Minh Mang of the Nguyen Dynasty, which served as a southern gateway to the citadel of the imperial city of Hue. Its ruins are now a popular attraction for its sweeping coastal and mountain views.

Thien Mu Pagoda
Coming down from the mountain, we had a full schedule of things to see on our way to Hue.  First, we headed to Lang Khai Dhin, the tomb of Khai Dinh, the 12th emperor of the Nguyen Dynasty. The controversial tomb took twelve years to complete, and Dinh himself increased taxes on the Vietnamese citizenry by 30 percent in order to fund the costs of building his lavish mausoleum. We then headed to Thien Mu Pagoda (also known as the Pagoda Of The Celestial Lady), an historic 17th century temple on the northern bank of the Perfume River, with its seven-story pagoda regarded as an unofficial symbol of the city.

The Imperial City of Hue
It was then time for lunch, where we were treated to some dishes particular to the region. We then stopped at Dac San Hue, a specialty foods place for some post lunch digestifs (which included some teeth-sticking sesame candy!) to try out, as well as drinking traditional Vietnamese tea, some meant for increased virility... wink wink.  In the afternoon, we headed to the primary destination for the day, the Imperial City of Hue. A walled palace built in 1804 serving the emperors of the Nguyen dynasty, the citadel is the most important landmark within the city of Hue, the former imperial capital of Vietnam. The grounds of the Imperial City are protected by fortified ramparts over a mile long on each side, and ringed by a moat. Many of the buildings were damaged or destroyed during the Tet Offensive and Battle of Hue during the Vietnam War, and out of 160 buildings, only 10 major sites remain. In 1993, the city of Hue was made a UNESCO site, and the buildings that still remain are being restored and preserved.

After a long day of touring Hue, our tour van took the Hai Van Tunnel back to Da Nang from Hue. The tunnel is the longest in Southeast Asia, measuring at 3.9 miles. Completed in 2005, the tunnel reduces the distance between Da Nang and Hue by 20 km and saves between 30 minutes and an hour on traveling times over the Hai Van Pass route.  I was returned back to my homestay, and exhaustedly stayed in for the evening, as my fourth and final full day in Vietnam was approaching... as well as the main point of my trip here - the Da Nang International Marathon.  I went to bed a little worried, as the skies had clouded up, and in the distance, lightning and thunder were easily visible -- August in Vietnam is considered monsoon season, so this race could very well be happening under a deluge. Unlike races in America, I wasn't so sure if the race director would be closely monitoring the weather to decide if they would need to cancel due to lightning.

My kit laid out for the race on my final day.

Of course, there was nothing to worry about upon waking. Skies like this were a common scene at this time of year, and I was assured that inclement weather would be gone by the morning.  We had a very early morning with the marathon starting at a whoppingly early 4:30am, so I was already awake at 3am to and have breakfast with two other guests, Niall and Yuki, who were also in town for the race - Niall was running the half marathon.  They had kindly picked up my bib for me during the bib pickup scheduled on Saturday while I was in Hue.  The three of us decided to take a cab together to the start.

5th Anniversary of this growing race!
The startline for the Da Nang Marathon
It was already quite warm when we got to Bien Dong Park, as runners began to mill around to prepare for the race - a steamy 84º with high humidity. The breeze off of the South China Sea helped with the gradually rising heat.  As the marathoners began to line up for their 4:30 send off (making two loops of the 13.1 mile course) with half marathoners ten minutes later, a team of dancers began to arrange themselves in front of the startline, providing us with a "dance" warmup, almost Zumba-like, to start off the morning.

Running under cover of darkness
Before long, we were off under cover of darkness; while our lanes of the road was closed to traffic, the other lanes were still buzzing with activity as vehicular traffic began to pick up before sunrise.   We headed south on Vo Nguyen Giap Road, following the beachside road down past Nguyen Van Thoai at the one mile mark - the main street my homestay was off of - continuing south for a bit before a turnaround point where the road curved slightly right.  We then headed back northward on this, the only "out and back" section of the course, before turning left onto Nguyen Van Thoai Street.

Running across Tran Thi Ly Bridge
At 5am, the area was just beginning to wake up, and with us runners, it was interesting seeing the reactions of locals to us doing something just not seen in this hot and humid weather!  We continued down Nguyen Van Thoai Street, navigating past the massive roundabout that I had been so enamored with the morning I arrived in Da Nang, this time completely devoid of traffic - or at least held off by the policemen directing traffic to let us pass. Runners would then make our way across the Tran Thi Ly Bridge, a beautiful concrete cable stayed bridge completed in 2013 with a single inclined tower with cables fanning out on either side to emulate sails facing toward the East Sea.  At this early morning hour, it was beautifully lit with changing colored lights illuminating the pylon and the deck.

Exercising in front of Dragon Bridge
As I made our way across, an American woman came up behind me, thrilled to see another American on the course (I had stuck my American flag in my hat, like I had done in Australia); she was now living in Singapore, and had come specifically to Da Nang to run this race.  We spoke quickly, as I took a quick walk break, as the humidity was definitely starting to get to me.  After crossing the bridge's 2400 foot long span on a slight downhill, we turned right and made our way up September 2nd Street, with the sun's rays beginning to illuminate the clouds in the east and the silhouettes of the tall resort buildings along the beach.  Along the way, it was fun seeing the large groups of Da Nang citizens doing their morning group exercises along the Han River as we ran up Bach Dang Street.  In the case of each group, every member was clad in the same color shirt, exercising all along the riverside, some in front of Da Nang's beautiful and iconic Dragon Bridge, which also opened in 2013.  This beautiful bridge, with its dragon heads on either side of the span, breathe fire and water each Saturday and Sunday night at 9PM.

The sun rising over the beachside buildings
Turning onto September 2nd Street
Running up Thuan Phuoc Bridge
Now an hour into the race, Da Nang was beginning to wake up, and the amount of vehicles and motorbikes on the road began to grow. It turns out, the Vietnamese like to wake up early... like really early. By mile 7, we began our first real climb of the race, over incline of the Thuan Phuoc Bridge heading eastward over the Han River. At this point, I knew that this was absolutely gonna suck more by the 20 mile mark, especially if the sun is out.  Behind the bridge and to the left of us was Da Nang Bay, offering some beautiful views, so it was a good idea to look behind me, and take in that view as well.  However, as we were on the bridge, the sun crested over the clouds, and permeated the thick haze over the bridge.  Many of us began to start walking, craving the need for water, which we wouldn't find til we descended the bridge.  Thankfully, the downhill sped me up quite a bit, and I made up some of the time I spent walking; at the next aid station, I gleefully took in some water!

The span of Thuan Phuoc Bridge
Boats dotting the Han River over the Thuan Phuoc Bridge
Fishing boats on Vung Thung Bay
We continued eastward, as we took off over a small bridge over Vung Thung Bay, where many of Da Nang's fishing boats are moored. Unfortunately, it was also accompanied by a pungent smell of fish and other sealife.  At this point in time, I had drank a TON of water to keep myself hydrated, and needed a bathroom.  As soon as I found a port a potty, I opened the door... and it was a squatty potty. The smell was repulsive; I nearly gagged, and the accompanying fishy smell of the environment did not help - so I left without having to use the bathroom, and just continued on.

Da Nang is wide awake!
Eventually, we finally made it back to the beach shore, making a right turn onto the Hoang Sa at the 11 mile mark, which would eventually turn into Vo Nguyen Giap.  The sun was definitely out now, and it was HOT.  I was already beginning to regret that I signed up the full and that I was only going to pass the halfway point of my race in two miles.  As we approached the start/finish line, I needed some motivation, and thankfully one of the English-speaking organizers of the race encouraged me to keep going - I was already hating myself for needing to continue on in this relentless heat.  I saw some other marathon runners still keeping their pace, and heading past the start finish line to begin their second loop, so I did as well.

Now that it was 7am, Da Nang was wide awake, as were the cars, buses, and motorbikes, incredulous to the fact that a footrace was going on in the city streets.  Things were fine along Vo Nguyen Giap and the turnaround point, as we had the entire northbound two lanes of the street to ourselves, separated in part by a median, save for the periodic motorbike heading to the beach.  That is, until we had to make a left turn onto Nguyen Van Thoai.

Navigating the mess of morning traffic at the Nguyen Van Thoai roundabout.
Tran Thi Ly Bridge. The second time.
The left turn itself was a bit harrowing.  With the policemen stopping traffic, us runners made our way to the northernmost lane. But even then, traffic along Nguyen Van Thoai Street was especially chaotic, even if the runners had that one dedicated lane for us.  Vans, buses, cars, and motorbikes didn't really care, despite seeing the cones and us runners in the middle of the lane.  It was even more of a mess when we made our way past the massive traffic-light-less roundabouts, with only those local police directing cars, motorbikes, and huge buses as best as they possibly can. You best believe this New Yorker and his expletive-laden tirade came out!

Runners with the Son Tra Peninsula
and the Guanyin in the background
Eventually we made our way back across Tran Thi Ly Bridge as cars zipped past us, and while it was a little quieter with fellow runners on the road, the cars going past us made it quite a spectacle. I was really not thrilled with the amount of traffic zooming by in the lane right next to us, but what could we do.  The next several miles were quite a blur, especially with the heat index rising, and rising fast.  As we retraced our steps up Bach Dang Street, over the Thuan Phuoc Bridge and over Vung Thung Bay back to the Hoang Sa, I realized that despite me still keeping up my running, there was a significant amount of runners still behind me.  As my pace dipped to roughly 14 minutes per mile in the last 5k of the race, I was sweating profusely from the heat.  Eventually, I crossed the finish line in 5:19:13, yet still placing 195th out of 416 marathon finishers; and still in the top 50% of the group!

Still managed my Victory Headstand!
Checking the temperatures when I finished, the mercury was at a whopping 96º, rising 12 degrees from 4:30 in the morning... and it wasn't even 10am yet!  The heat index was off the charts, with a realfeel of 103º under the sun - so you best believe I made my way to some much needed shade to rest!  I stuck around for the awards ceremony, held underneath a tent (thankfully), while also cheering on the award winners, with six of the nine podium finishers from the Philippines!  I even got to chat with them, all from a running team in Manila known as Team 7-Eleven Philippines.  I grabbed a cab back to my Airbnb to take a much needed cold shower and rest up before one last tour to take to finish off my whirlwind Vietnam trip, as my first of two flights back home to the US would be later that night.

One of the Hindu temples of My Son
That afternoon, I had my bags all packed and got picked up by a van to take me on my private tour of the ancient archaeological site of Mỹ Sơn. My Son is known as perhaps one of the longest inhabited archaeological sites in Indochina, consisting of a cluster of abandoned and partially ruined Hindu temples constructed by kings of the Champa Kingdom from the 4th century to the 14th century. The temples, some of which have been carefully reconstructed, are dedicated to the worship of Shiva. A large portion of it was destroyed by carpet bombing done by the US during the Vietnam War. Despite this, it is often compared with other historical temple complexes in Southeast Asia, such as Borobudur of Java in Indonesia, Angkor Wat of Cambodia, Bagan of Myanmar and Ayutthaya of Thailand. Touring the different temples was a great way to finish my trip, sending me to an area completely different to the history of Vietnam that I had seen while going through the sites of Marble Mountain, Hoi An, and Hue.  We even got to see a great traditional live Champa music performance.

However, during the performance, the skies drastically became super cloudy and a freak thunderstorm passed through, with some of the loudest thunder I've ever encountered in my life. With the bugs likely to eat me up, I directed the tour guide to just head out, as not only was I exhausted after a very early morning of running as well as keeping myself awake during the tour, I was getting very hungry.  Provided by the tour guides as part of my private tour, I enjoyed my final meal of this awesome trip - a delicious roasted half chicken with lemongrass sauce over rice.
After dinner, they took me directly to Da Nang International Airport, where I waited a bit before the check in counters opened for my flight, and I rested well on my evening flight to Seoul, and eventually on my long 14 hour return flight back to New York City.  And I was very well rested, as I booked both return flights in Korean Air's swanky Prestige Class, enjoying the comfort of a lie flat seat, and delicious catered meals all throughout the flight.  I returned back to New York in the morning after an incredible trip to two countries - and of course, in traditional Jim fashion - headed straight to work from the airport!

Monday, April 16, 2018

Race Report: Australian Outback Marathon

Flights and passport all ready to go...
On Tuesday, I left work at 2:30pm and excitedly made my way to JFK, heading to terminal 2 for my flight from JFK to LAX. Newly minted as a Delta Gold Medallion member, I checked my bag in at the Sky Priority counter, and was able to sweet talk the counter agent to see if she could move me from the dreaded middle seat to which I was “upgraded” to in Delta Comfort+ to the one aisle seat that was left remaining.  We boarded the flight, and I was seated right up near the front of the Comfort+ section, next to a woman also traveling to Australia, but making her connection in LAX to a Virgin Australia flight.

The 5+ hour flight was fine, considering we left JFK without having to stand in an endless line of planes getting ready to take off; I bided my time after dinner served on the flight by watching Marley and Me (holy cow, I was crying by the end of that movie), Logan, and then taking a couple hours nap. We landed in LAX early, and I was left to having a 3 hour + layover, waiting to board my ~11pm flight to Sydney.

LAX had recently done their huge switcheroo of airlines to different terminals, so Delta was moved to Terminals 2 and 3.  Luckily both my inbound and outbound flights were in the same terminal, so I just stuck around and grabbed a quick bite at the pizza place in the terminal before we were ready to board. At around 10:20, we began boarding the huge jumbo jet 777, and I got myself ready for the 14 hour flight, easily the longest flight I will have ever taken in my life.  I stayed awake for the first four hours of the flight in order to adjust to the time change as best as I possibly could, by watching a couple movies.  I then slept for about 4-5 hours, before continuing a movie watching spree, getting up every so often to pace the cabin, eating the meals that the cheerful flight attendants served us, and watching the time tick by.  Before long, the 14 hours was down to two, and the flight tracker had us flying over Fiji and the South Pacific, getting closer and closer to the Australian coast.  We landed in Sydney, as the sun was beginning to rise, just before 7am Thursday morning. We deplaned, and headed straight toward passport control; I had opted to go through the regular line rather than the SmartGate, thinking that actually interacting with a human border force guard would get him/her to stamp my passport (since SmartGate is all electronic)… except, apparently that doesn’t happen anymore at all at the Sydney Airport.  So I stood in that long line for nothing. :(

Final destination - AYQ!
Either way, my bag had not yet emerged in baggage claim (all travelers must retrieve their checked bags before going through customs), so I would’ve still stood around waiting if I did go through the SmartGate.  After getting my bag, I bee-lined my way out the “nothing to declare” green line (pro tip - there’s more than one of these, so you can get through one with less people queueing up that can get you a quicker exit!) and then headed out into the arrivals area, turning left to go to the transfers desk for Virgin Australia.  Thanks to my Delta Gold status, I was able to head to the Velocity queue (of which there was no one in front of me) to re-check my bag for the final leg of my trip.

By then, I had been in transit for a bit over 24 hours, with a layover and 3.5 hour flight still left to go.  Sydney’s international terminal does not have any airside connections to the domestic terminal, so all passengers must take a shuttle there, commuting to the other terminal among local traffic. We reached the domestic terminal, went through security, and with still a bit of time left, was able to utilize the Virgin Australia lounge thanks to my Delta status and the partnership between the two airlines. I had a hearty breakfast (MUCH better than what I had on the plane) enjoying some flapjacks and bacon before heading off to my gate to board my last flight.

Uluru from above
The 3.5 hour flight from Sydney to Uluru was made quicker by enjoying to company of the woman who sat in my row - we were lucky to have an empty seat between us to stretch out a bit.  Dr. Anita Heiss is a renowned author and speaker specializing in contemporary Aboriginal life in Australia. Having run the half marathon at the Australian Outback Marathon in 2016, she was excited to run her first full marathon at this year’s race.  Our conversation made the flight go quite quickly, and before long, we had arrived in the Northern Territory, flying over the iconic red earth of the Australian outback.

Kata Tjuta and the Yulara
Airport on our descent
We made our approach to the airport, and were maybe a couple hundred feet above the ground to land before the plane ended up ascending again.  As it turned out, we weren’t fully lined up to the runway, so they had us abort the landing and turn around to make the approach again.  My stomach heaved a little, as I was SO ready to finally be off of a plane, but this afforded the people on the other side of the plane to have a view of Uluru that we on the left had on the initial approach.

Welcome to Uluru!
Finally, we landed, deplaning onto the tarmac, just as another flight from Sydney, the Jetstar flight, made its landing.  On that flight were Lynne and Leslie, my roommates, and after thousands of miles and hours of flying time, the three of us were finally meeting up.  We were at our final destination... Yulara (AYQ)! We headed to the baggage claim area, and it took quite awhile for bags to come out of both planes, but ultimately, we got all of our luggage, were greeted by ambassadors and staff for the marathon and Traveling Fit (the Australian company that puts on the race and arranges marathon tours for Australian nationals) and boarded the bus to Desert Gardens Hotel, one of the four hotels that make up the Ayers Rock Resort. Check in was easy-peasy, and we headed to our nice sized room, where a rollaway bed was in place for the three of us. Arriving in the early afternoon after thirty hours of travel, all three of us were pretty tired; Lynne decided to take a nap, while Leslie and I decided to join several other runners to participate in the late afternoon shakeout run that the organizers arranged to "release the cobwebs" from our well-travelled legs.   It was a nice and easy 5k or so, and we were able to acclimate to the dry desert air and temperate climate, as well as sample the hard-packed and slightly softer-packed "red earth" of this part of the country.  The run also afforded us the opportunity to have a beautiful vantage point of Uluru and Kata Tjuta, the two major landmarks in the superbly flat landscape, in the waning light of the sun.  After our run, we headed back to the hotel to shower (and wake up Lynne) before heading to the Outdoor Welcome Dinner poolside at the Sails in the Desert Hotel only an easy ten minute walk from our hotel.  After that delicious dinner (which included sampling lots of Australian cuisine, including lamb chops, angus beef sausage with bush tomato relish, and lemon seared barramundi), all three of us were ready to hit the hay after a long couple days of travel.

Lynne, Leslie, and I: Uluru sunrise
It was Friday the next morning, and we were up before dawn to be escorted on a private coach to view the sunrise over Uluru.  At the sunrise viewing area, known in the local language as "Talinguru Nyakunytjaku," we watched as the rock face of Uluru change color as the sun appeared over the horizon.  In our small group consisting of Lynne, Leslie, and new friends Scott and Jun, we were then shuttled up close and personal to do our self-guided tour of the base of Uluru, a 10 km walk all the way around the massive rock formation. We were also able to stop at the Indigenous Cultural Centre to learn more about the Anangu people, the traditional owners and stewards of the land, and their culture, and view the beautiful traditional aboriginal artwork by local tribeswomen.  After a busy morning, we headed back to the hotel to rest up before heading to the Amphitheatre near Sails in the Desert for the Opening Ceremony for the marathon, where the Traveling Fit staff kindly welcomed all of the runners to the Australian Outback, coming from many countries from all around the world. After the opening ceremony, we were led to the carbo-load dinner to mingle with fellow runners and prep for the following morning's "piece de resistance."

With the group of us who stayed together to walk the perimeter of Uluru
Some of the photographable parts of Uluru

We didn't climb, out of respect for the Anangu.
The Field of Lights before the start
We woke up quite early, and as expected it was quite a chilly morning with the sun not even up yet. Coaches picked us up from our hotel and took us to the start area, which offered beautiful views of the Field of Lights fiber optic light display at dawn, located right next to where we were gathered. We got together with the friends we had made prior to the race, assembling for photos before we assembled behind the start line.  Before starting the race, we were treated to a traditional performance by a local on the didgeridoo to start us off.

My kit all laid out the night before
The course took us all along Yulara's hard-packed red-earth fire trails that went all around the community.  These trails are normally closed to the public, but are opened up solely for the race course that morning.   Some of the red earth was easier to run on than others.  Throughout the course, we would be kept abreast of our distance by kilometer markings, but of course, I had my watch set to miles.  Early on, we had a nice mile long stretch where the sand was easiest to run on where the faster runners had made paths.  I ran alongside Scott and Joon for this first mile, clocking in a 9:33.  It wouldn't be as bad as we would encounter a little later in the race.  After the first mile, we turned right onto what maps refer to as the Kali Circuit.  This section of track was a little looser than the first mile, but still wasn't anything too tough to handle. We ran about 0.4 mile before turning a slight left onto track that formed the back edge of the Uluru Camel Tours ranch, so we passed a few camels who were left back at the ranch before the regular sunrise tours had begun.  We reached our first aid station as we made another turn further out into the outback desert.

Runners from above! (Official Photo by Australian Outback Marathon)
The helicopter that took the above photo
Not long after, we could hear the whirring of an aircraft in the skies above.  A helicopter was positioned over the course, taking photos of runners as they ran under it, presumably with Uluru behind us.  The end product showed some of the absolutely beautiful views we were treated to all around us. We continued along the fire trail, eventually reaching our first road crossing, Yulara Drive, the circular "main road" that encircles the resorts that make up the Voyages Hotels and Resorts community of Yulara.  We passed by the south end of the Desert Gardens Hotel, running by a few of the perimeter hotel buildings similar to the one Lynne, Leslie, and I were staying in, before turning right and continuing on.  The course then crossed the Lasseter Highway, the 244 kilometer highway which crosses through half of the Northern Territory from Western Australia to the Stuart Highway.

Sometimes the sand was soft and uneven, not easy to run on....
And we had some sections that came off of dunes....
And others that were easier and more packed... Blue skies, red earth.  ULURU.
Wide open spaces...
We made our way around what seemed to be a water treatment facility for the area before running along the 1.5 mile long wide and flat Mala Road where the sand seemed packed enough to be able to pick up some speed.  Eventually, it became an actual paved road and we made our way past some local homes, a solar park, and some industrial looking facilities out in the middle of nowhere.  We were sent back onto the red earth after seeing the only "major" cross street, and then followed a route far from civilization along the fire trails for the next three miles. The course stayed flat for the most part, but every so often, it would turn into single track areas, where we would have to ascend up a hill several feet, and then eventually down.  The sand in these dunes was more dense, and was where most of the sand was able to get into my shoes through the mesh toebox.  It also unfortunately happened to also be where the course photographers would be situated, so I'd have to ensure I was running by to get the right looking photo!  We never felt like we were alone out there, either, as you could always see another runner in front of you or behind you.  The aid stations were widely distributed, and one in particular was very nice to see, out in the middle of the desert - two guys dressed quite wildly - one in a Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band style get up, the other in a sky blue suit... literally blue with clouds on it; and laid out underneath the water cups was a rainbow flag! Easily the most memorable aid station on the course.

My favorite aid station on the entire course!
An asphalt section of the course!
At around the 8.3 mile mark, we came off of the sand once more, and were able to run along the asphalt, following the side of the Lasseter Highway before turning left onto Harney Place.  The corner of that turn apparently has some history, as Heidi Makinen, a previous winner of the race (who was there again at this year's race) had either forgotten to make the turn or went straight, going off course.  Eventually, she found her way back on, and still won the half marathon!  The race organizers lovingly posted some signs on that corner, and dubbed it "Heidi's Corner" after the folly that had happened.  Eventually, we were led back onto the red earth (how could we not?) and would run through more of the same.  Some of the runners of the 11 km fun run began to join us roughly 16 km into our race, and then the half marathoners separated from us at the 19km mark, while we took a loop around a section with some of the strongest wind and some of the steeper dunes on the course.

Representing the USA!
(Official photo by the
Australian Outback Marathon)
Somewhere past the halfway point, I came upon an aid station where I asked for a chair so I could remove the sand from my shoes for the first time in the entire race!  The amount of sand that had built up bothered me enough to merit having to stop and de-shoe... AND de-sock for a moment!  Once that was dealt with, I got back onto the course.  At about the 23km mark, we turned right, against some of the half marathoners who were coming in for the finish, but that was only for a couple hundred feet because before long, we were out on the dunes yet again, and now a little more alone.

In motion! (Official photo by the Australian Outback Marathon)
Getting closer to the finish!
The wind picked up a bit, and with the sun out, we were in the midst of the "doldrums" of the race.  At around 24 km, new friends from San Francisco Larry and Jerico caught up with me, as we played leapfrog for a couple miles.  We were now retracing our footsteps back along the course we had ran earlier, backtracking through the dunes, and along the periodic asphalt sections and road crossings.  As we approached the 32 km mark, the sun was at its peak, definitely taking a toll on those still out on the course.  The dryness of the air didn't help either.  We reached a road crossing, where Travelling Fit founder Mari-Mar Walton was stationed, providing water to the marathoners, now out on the course for nearly 4 hours.  I took another stop to sit and remove sand from my socks and shoes while others passed.  With 10k still left to go, I knew I had at least an hour still of forward progress ahead of me.   The run/walk intervals became more frequent, yet the long stretch of Mala Road gave me a little pick-me-up, knowing it was flat and the sand was packed enough.  At the 35k mark, we returned to some less-than-stellar red earth surface, and with the sun out in full force, it was more of a slog through the desert.

Back to the Resort
We approached the main street of the resort are of town, and I pulled on forward, knowing that a 5 hour finish was out of reach, but I wouldn't be too far behind it.  One last road crossing took us across Yulara Drive back into the sand, but for the first time, I had to actually wait because of some crossing cars.  The last 5k was a matter of pushing when I could, and I finally, I got to the long stretch of path to the finish with roughly a mile to go. Finally, I got to the finish line, doing a loop around the village to the cheers of the remaining crowd and crossed the finish line in 5:08:44.  Scott and Jun were there to see me finish, as Lee, our wrangler, announced my name as I crossed the line.  Exhausted, I headed underneath the shade of the tent to sit down and dislodge sand from my socks and shoes for the last time!  I also had a coke, which tasted so amazingly good!

With friend and brand new marathoner Anita!
Victory Headstand!
Titanium Accomplished!
Not long after finishing, Leslie and Lynne showed up, having finished the half a couple hours earlier.  They already had time to go back and shower, and returned to celebrate with me at the finish.  I was able to check off the back bib I had been wearing for the last few marathons, checking off my last five races to reach Titanium with Marathon Maniacs.  Titanium, or ten stars, is the highest level in the club, attainable by completing 30 marathons in a combination of 30 distinct states, provinces, or territories - in my case, 23 US States, the District of Columbia, and seven foreign countries! After getting my customary headstand photo in the red sand, I headed back to the hotel for a MUCH needed shower to wash off the sand that seemed to get EVERYWHERE!

Camel Tour!
(Photo collage by Aaron Cole)
That afternoon, after some much needed rest and a little bite to eat, I boarded a shuttle to head right back out to the desert and to where I saw those camels during the race, as I had booked a sunset camel tour! With several friends I had made over the last few days, we enjoyed our trip through the desert; I was paired with Aaron from California, who placed 4th overall in the marathon. We had some great conversations as we rode up high up on the backs of these one humped dromedary camels, as the sun began to set.  The tour was beautiful as we watched Uluru bathe itself in the moonlight and change color a few more times.  As the sun went down, so did the temperatures, and before long we were back at the lodge to warm up with some celebratory beer, wine, and snacks provided by the camel tours company.

That night, runners convened at the Outback Pioneer Hotel pub for an informal get together amongst friends, with food, drinks, music, and some dancing. Leslie and I even partook in some unique food offerings, having a sampler of Australian game meats that we got to cook on our own barbies.  These meats included kangaroo loin (a little gummy, but full flavored), crocodile tail (a little tough), and emu sausage (easily the tastiest of the three, just like regular sausage!)  We had amassed a nice little group of friends who continued to chat and joke around for the remainder of the evening, including as we walked across the dune back to our hotel - Leslie, Lynne, and myself, as well as Melbournians Gabrijela and Tanya, and Dane (and super humble winner of the marathon) Frank.  That night, all three of us slept well, ready to take on day three of our adventure in the outback.

Seeing off Gaby and Tanya!
The next morning, Leslie and Lynne woke up early to get breakfast before embarking on their sunrise helicopter tour they had booked.  We got to see Gabrijela and Tanya off, as they were leaving back to Melbourne that day; try some vegemite for the first time (not a fan. LOL); and later in the morning, a new friend Toby took us out to enjoy seeing the often less-visited part of the national park, Kata Tjuta -another Anangu religious site, and a unique rock formation in the middle of the red sands.  We got to head out to the platform to observe the rocks, and then headed to Walpa Gorge to do the easy one mile round-trip hike that actually became quite windy at times when we hiked through.  After heading back to the hotel, we spent the afternoon shopping around Yulara's little town square, before heading to the exclusive Australian Outback Marathon Celebration Dinner.

Kata Tjuta
Walpa Gorge

Our table at the celebration dinner!
(Photo by Jerico Padallan/Sweat Tracker)
Based on the multi-award winning Sounds of Silence dinner, we started with sunset drinks and canapés on a dune top overlooking Uluru and Kata Tjuta, enjoyed an impressive champagne sabrage done by Aaron, took the customary celebration photo with all runners present, then enjoyed a fully hosted multi-course meal under the stars.  During dinner, we were able to view a slide-show of pictures from that morning's race!  It definitely got QUITE cold on this Australian winter evening despite the space heaters, so it is advisable to bring coats and blankets to keep warm!  After dinner, we were treated to an on-site startalker, who pointed out all of the constellations in the southern sky.  It was definitely a night to remember, being able to see the brilliant night sky without any light pollution to muck up our views.
Striking a pose at the Celebration Dinner

Mmmmm... delicious dinner, complete with kangaroo!
With Heidi on our way to Sydney
The next day, we bided our time in the morning, as we had all day to just chill in AYQ before our flights to Sydney.  We slept in and also did a bit of shopping/window shopping in the town hall, before boarding buses to head to the airport.  Leslie and Lynne left earlier on a Jetstar flight to Sydney, while I took a later flight on Virgin Australia.  They'd be arriving a few hours before me, and would navigate the local mass transit from the airport to the Eastern Suburbs and Bondi Junction, where I arranged for us to stay for the following two nights.  The flight was uneventful and pretty long, but it was made better by sitting across the aisle from Heidi Makinen, who I had mention earlier in this report, having won the half marathon for the third year in a row.  Originally from Finland, she's been living for a few years in Singapore and we were able to chat about races in our respective countries and other travels.  We arrived in Sydney and I quickly got myself out to Bondi Junction, where I got to finally meet my second cousin Joel! Joel lives in Sydney, and works for an apartment-hotel brand, Meriton Suites, with a location only 15 minutes by train into the Sydney CBD.  He was able to hook us up with a suite - originally a two bedroom, which he was able to upgrade into a humongous three bedroom suite with impressive views of the harbor.  With my flight getting in late, he got to meet Leslie and Lynne first, who remarked how alike we looked.  After another long day of travel, we crashed for the night, eager to explore Sydney the following day.

Before going on the BridgeClimb!
On the agenda for our first full day in Sydney was to explore Sydney Harbour. We took the Sydney Train (the city's suburban passenger rail network) into the CBD, getting off at Martin Place, a pedestrian mall that's considered the "civic heart" of Sydney and its center of business and finance.  From there, it was a short walk along Pitt Street, where we got to feel immersed in the Sydneysider way of life, headed to Circular Quay, the touristic neighborhood that sits between the Sydney Opera House and Sydney Harbour Bridge.  It was a beautiful morning in the city, and we had a blast enjoying the views, before finding our way to the urban area known as The Rocks, where the entrance to the  BridgeClimb at Sydney Harbour Bridge was located.

The Opera House from the Bridge!
The BridgeClimb is a must do when you're in Sydney.  Times and dates sell out at peak season and times of the year, so its advisable to book this well ahead of time.   We were limited to the specific day we were going to be in Sydney, as Lynne and Leslie were leaving the following morning - so we booked in early June.  The catch?  It's expensive.  Prices are scaled by time of day and season, and for us it was $293 Australian per head, which is around $230 US, mostly because of the liability involved.  The entire time, we're attached to sturdy cables attached to the bridge itself, so it's very safe.  But in the end, only Lynne and I ended up doing the climb, as Leslie had wavered back and forth about it due to her fear of heights.  We had a very thorough pre-climb prep session where seasoned Climb Leaders equipped us with all the outdoor gear we would need, based on the day’s weather conditions and our health & safety essentials.  It was quite exhilarating - we ascended the arches of the Bridge and enjoyed the iconic views of Sydney Harbour, entertained with stories about the history of the Bridge from its construction to its opening in 1932, right through to its place in day to day local celebrations. The climb was not too tough, and we were brought to the very top of the bridge, a mere 440 feet above the water below.  The crisp Australian "winter" weather was actually quite nice, and we enjoyed the roughly 3 hours we spent having 360º views of the Sydney metro area.

I found a koala!  
After getting back down to earth, I was able to shoot a message to my friend Donna's cousin Mike, who met us as for a quick tête-à-tête, since we were on a tight schedule and he had some afternoon plans after working some in the morning. He walked us through Barangaroo, an inner city suburb of Sydney on the northwest side of the CBD.  The area is undergoing quite a bit of redevelopment, with new highrises popping up all over the area.  Our ultimate destination was Darling Harbour, where we purchased passes to go to the WILD LIFE Sydney Zoo, where we were determined to find quintessential Australian animals, even if they were in captivity.  On our agenda was to pet a kangaroo, and get photos with a koala and a quokka - all of which we were successful in doing!  As the day wound down, we headed back to Bondi Junction for the evening, stopping over at Bondi Beach - not a particularly good beach day, since it was cold and windy, and it's winter after all in this part of the world.  We grabbed dinner and then crashed for the evening, with Leslie and Lynne heading out early in the morning.

Loving life at the opera house!
I had a whole additional day left in Sydney, so I slept in the next day, had a leisurely breakfast in Bondi, and headed back to the CBD to explore more of the vibrant city, including taking in the Queen Victoria Building, a late nineteenth-century building that houses a shopping mall; traversing the Pyrmont Bridge and heading to the other side of Darling Harbour to do some shopping in the Harbourside Shopping Centre; and Macquarie Street and its shops, before exploring the grounds of the Sydney Opera House.  By early evening, I made my way to the airport to catch my overnight flight on Cathay Pacific to Hong Kong, where I would connect to head to Da Nang, Vietnam for the remainder of the trip!

Upon coming home, I received this lovely gift in the mail from my friend Steve Walters! I'm one of less than 40 people who've achieved the top tiers of Titanium in Marathon Maniacs AND Sun in Half Fanatics!