Monday, August 19, 2019

Race Report: Invesco QQQ Thanksgiving Day Half Marathon

When we last left off, I had just completed the Route 66 Marathon in Tulsa, Oklahoma, culminating a years-long challenge of completing 50 states of national anthems sung all over the US and one for marathons. I left Tulsa on Sunday night, flying to Atlanta to stay the night there with my friend Winnie, as flights back to New York that maximized my time post race in Tulsa with friends and family numbered few.  I made it so I booked a flight early the next morning from Atlanta back to New York to work the Monday through Wednesday before Thanksgiving weekend.

Since 2015, I've always scheduled an international race for Thanksgiving weekend, as flights internationally manage to be decently priced compared to domestically thanks to the holiday.  In 2015, I went to Curaçao; followed by Florence, Italy in 2016; and Osaka, Japan in 2017. The plan this year was to run the Maratón Internacional de Panama in Panama City over Thanksgiving weekend, and I had yet to make my travel arrangements about a month before the trip.  It was only after talking more with Winnie, and a bit more research that I realized that Delta had direct flights down to Panama City from Atlanta on Thanksgiving night that were actually pretty reasonable (another tip, when you travel ON the holiday itself, flights are even cheaper!), which made it possible for me to potentially run the Thanksgiving Day Half Marathon in Atlanta put on by Atlanta Track Club, where Winnie works.  She even put in a good word for me, got me a bib for the race, and managed to nab me the national anthem gig for the race as well. Even better, I'd find out a couple weeks before the race that I'd do double duty, also singing "God Bless America" prior to the 5K that began about 15 minutes prior to the half at the same startline.  Score!

Ultimately, Winnie would house me Sunday night only to do the same for me on Wednesday night to start an epic long Thanksgiving weekend. It was a rough few days, as I had been feeling under the weather since coming back from Tulsa (perhaps running in 30° wet and windy weather may have contributed to it?) and got some antibiotics to combat the nastiness that made my throat feel like it was being constantly punched. So after an early dismissal from work on Wednesday, I took of from JFK and flew down to Atlanta, where I got on the MARTA train to take me back up to the station nearest to where Winnie lived, where she picked me up, we grabbed a quick bite to eat (YES to sub sandwiches at Publix!) and then headed back to Winnie's apartment so she could get as much shut-eye as possible before her super early wake up to head to the start to prep for the race.

Reuniting with local friends!
My friend Jim was also running the race, as well as our friend Brian, so with logistics for the race morning, I had him get my bib for me as well as arrange for him to pick me up on Thursday morning so I could get some rest as well (and not have to leave with Winnie.) They picked me up at around 5:45, and we made it to the parking lot near the race start at Georgia State Stadium by 6:15.

A Thanksgiving day distance race has had a long history in Atlanta.  From 1981 to 2009, the Atlanta Marathon was considered the longest distance race of several turkey trots held on Thanksgiving Day across the country. In 2010, the marathon moved to a date in October, and in its place, the Atlanta Track Club put on a Thanksgiving Day Half Marathon & 5K, the largest half marathon on the holiday in the country.
With Winnie before the race start!
Staying warm inside Jim's car, and now having Jim's friend and coworker Jessie (another runner) join us, I notified my contacts as well as Winnie that I was onsite, and came out, finding another friend, David, before heading to the start to sing "God Bless America" for the 5K at 7:25.  15 minutes later, I'd sing the national anthem before the half and then begin the run. It was a chilly morning in the low 40s, though still warmer than the weather we had for the marathon in Tulsa.  I was feeling considerably better than the last few days, and felt good about my singing - though still had trepidations about my running.  But by 7:45, we were off and running.
 
Singing "God Bless America" for the 5K start
 
Singing the "Star Spangled Banner" for the Half Marathon start

Our startline on Hank Aaron Drive
From the startline on Hank Aaron Drive, the main street between parking lots, we took off northward under the scaffolding-esque Olympic rings archway and  tower that held the Olympic Cauldron at Fulton Street into downtown Atlanta.  We would be returning this way for the finish, so I took off, maintaining a solid pace for the first mile as we made our way on an overpass over the mishmash of highways where I-20 and I-85 connected. Up ahead, the Georgia State Capitol and its golden dome gleamed in the brightness of the morning sun.  We passed Liberty Plaza and entered downtown, before turning left onto Decatur Street, the "Main Street" through Georgia State University's urban campus, built into the heart of downtown Atlanta. My first mile clocked in at a nice and steady 9:13.
Running up Capitol Avenue into downtown Atlanta
The Georgia State Capitol
CNN Center
Past the district of Five Points (whose name refers to the convergence of Marietta Street, Edgewood Avenue, Decatur Street, and two legs of Peachtree Street), we continued on along Marietta Street, head northwestward making our way past such notable downtown Atlanta locations such as the CNN Center, Centennial Olympic Park, and the College Football Hall of Fame. We hit the second mile of the race just before passing Ivan Allen Jr. Boulevard, reaching it in 10:07. This next stretch of Marietta Street, roughly 1.3 miles in length linking Downtown to West Midtown was only recently redeveloped, with a smattering of new buildings mixed in with the more industrial surroundings it long had encouraged. A woman I was running next to, who I found out was running her first half marathon, found her family cheering along a sidewalk here, which was really nice to see. Before long, the mile 3 mark had passed, which I did in 9:33.  I managed the first 5K in under 30 minutes... not bad!
Street art along Marietta Street
Running through Atlantic Station
At Northside Drive, we turned right, following the northbound lanes as we made our way alongside the western edge of Georgia Tech Unversity's campus into the neighborhood of Home Park.  Northside Drive was actually a nice steady downhill, so I managed to speed up, dipping my moving pace for the latter half of the 4th mile to below 9 minute pace. We turned right onto 16th Street into the upscale residential/commercial neighborhood of Atlantic Station, running past an IKEA and then eventually making our way down 17th Street and its main retail and office space complex known as The District. After making our way on the overpass over the "Downtown Connector" of I-75/85, we hit the 5th mile and then turned right onto Spring Street.

Symphony Tower on 14th Street
Spring Street took us southward until we were directed to turn left onto 14th Street, where we reached our first real hill of significance of the race. 14th Street has a number of tall skyscrapers, including Symphony Tower, a 41-story office and retail glass building, notable for its sweeping fins extending upwards from its north and south walls; as well as One Atlantic Center/IBM Tower, the third tallest building in Atlanta at 50 stories and 820 feet in height.  My GPS went a bit nuts through here, and the largely uphill terrain forced me to walk a bit, but eventually, we made it to Piedmont Avenue and the 14th Street Gate into Piedmont Park, Atlanta's peaceful and serene urban park, one I've gotten to run through in each of the three distance races I've run in Atlanta so far.

Piedmont Park
We ran just under a mile through Piedmont Park, first crossing the 10K timing mat (a 1:01:29 split for me), then making our way around the northern edge of the Active Oval. From the pathway, we then returned to the main roadway through the park, taking Charles Allen Drive alongside the eastern shore of Lake Clara Meer, the 11.5 acre lake at the park's center. We exited the park at the Charles Allen Drive Gate, turning right onto 10th Street on the park's southern edge, running westward.  10th Street, which ascended uphill (and into one of the hilliest parts of the race), formed the northern boundary of the Midtown National Historic Register District, the largely residential part of Atlanta's Midtown consisting of historic wood framed bungalows. We turned left at Juniper Street, heading south for about 1 3/4 miles as it turned into Courtland Street through the neighborhoods of Sono and Peachtree Center. The hilliness here made my mile 8 split the slowest of the entire race at just under 11 minutes, but I managed to return to a 9 1/2 minute mile for mile 9, just before we turned left onto John Wesley Dobbs Avenue to head east of downtown.

Running down Courtland Street
After taking the underpass below the Downtown Connector, we were on Irwin Street running through the historic neighborhoods of Sweet Auburn and the Old Fourth Ward.  To our right was the Martin Luther King, Jr. National Historic Park, encompassing King's birth home, Ebenezer Baptist Church & his final resting place.  At Randolph Street, we turned right, curving around Edgewood Avenue to Bradley Street before we reached Decatur Street.  At Decatur Street, we turned right, running adjacent to the above ground MARTA rapid transit tracks of the Blue and Green lines, reaching the 11 mile mark as we turned to Grant Street, where the King Memorial Transit Station was located.

We ran south along Grant Street for a block before reaching Martin Luther King Jr. Drive, where we turned right, passing a few loft-style apartment buildings (some that were once factories), when in the distance we began to see the golden dome of the Georgia State Capitol once again.  After crossing the Downtown Connector for the last time, we made our way around the Capitol building, before turning right onto Capitol Avenue, to head back down toward Georgia State Stadium to the finish line.  I glanced down at my watch and observed that it was 1:59:31 as I hit the 12 mile mark; I felt confident that I'd be reaching the finish line in approximately 2:10 to 2:15.
About to come through the arch for the finish!
Official photo from the Invesco QQQ Thanksgiving Day Half!
Official photo from the Invesco QQQ Thanksgiving Day Half!
Victory Headstand inside the stadium
After passing the archway for the last time, we ran between the parking lots toward the stadium, where we would turn right into the finish line that sat on the 50-yard line.  Originally built as Centennial Olympic Stadium in 1996 to serve as the centerpiece of the 1996 Summer Olympics, the stadium was converted into a baseball park to serve as the home of the Atlanta Braves, known as Turner Field.  The Braves played there from 1997 to 2016 before moving to SunTrust Park at the Battery Atlanta for the 2017 season, and the facility was eventually purchased by Georgia State University, which rebuilt the stadium a second time as Georgia State Stadium, designed for American football. I crossed the finish line in 2:10:43, with some 1,000 feet of elevation change!

Thanksgiving dinner!
After getting my customary headstand photo inside the stadium, I waited for friends to finish their races, which weren't too long after me; we each grabbed a small box of pie waiting for us as we left the stadium.  I joined Jim and Brian back to Jim's house, where we all could get a much needed shower before heading off to get lunch.  We headed into Midtown where we went to Cowtippers Steaks and Spirits, and I was thrilled to actually have a “real” Thanksgiving meal on Thanksgiving Day, with turkey and all the trimmings, and pumpkin pie!  With all of my stuff with me already, Jim then took me to the airport, as I had a flight scheduled that evening from the Atlanta airport to head off to Panama to continue my running tour for the long weekend. I was happy to have some warmed up legs, ready to check another country off my list!
Another medal!

Thursday, August 15, 2019

Race Report: Route 66 Marathon

Showing off the bibs I created
Two challenges, roughly three and four years in the making - respectively, a 50 states finish for national anthems sung all over the country and one for marathons.  In November of 2017, I made the decision to make the 2018 edition of the Route 66 Marathon in Tulsa, Oklahoma my 50th state for both challenges, building a schedule over the next year to complete the rest of my states remaining. Scheduling the marathons was easy - it was booking the anthem gigs that took a little more time and strategy. By February, the calendar was complete, and I had everything set up for my 50th state for both challenges to occur in Oklahoma in November.

I flew out after work on Friday, getting on a flight from JFK to Atlanta on a repositioning 767; this meant that a flight had arrived in New York from an international or transcontinental destination but needed to be in Atlanta for another flight, so this plane was transporting passengers between the two major hubs on a non-traditional airplane.  For me, as I was upgraded to First Class nearly a week earlier, it meant being able to sit in lie-flat Delta One seats for the two hour flight.  We had an hour-long delay due to residuals from the freak snowstorm NYC experienced the day before (it was stupid, the plane had been there for nearly a full day, and ground operations didn't think to siphon out the excess fuel that was unnecessary for the short-haul trip to Atlanta.  Sigh...) and landed in Atlanta about 40 minutes late, but luckily had originally scheduled a two hour long layover, so I didn't have to rush getting to the connecting flight to Tulsa.  At the gate, I met my friends Winnie and Kent; we boarded the plane shortly, and on the plane met my friend Gaby's friends Georges and Jonathan from Tampa, and ran into my friends Karen and Bob from Syracuse.  The less than two hour flight was quick, and we landed in Tulsa just before 11pm, where I was met by my friend Brian, who was housing me for the first night.

Running the 5K with Winnie
I woke up at 6:30 on Saturday morning, and Brian drove me downtown to Guthrie Green for the start of the 5K race.  I met back up with Kent and Winnie, and got to see my friends Ray and Janice (and Janice's daughter Holly) who had picked up our bibs for us the day before. As the 8am start of the 5K came closer, more and more friends began to show up, ready to take on the first race of the weekend. It was an absolutely beautiful morning, with the sun out and shining, the temperatures at a very comfortable 43°. Winnie and I ran the 5K at a leisurely pace, making our way around the downtown course in 35 minutes, before I headed back over to get ready for the 1 mile Fun Run. It started a roughly 15 minutes late, but once we were off, I sprinted.  The temps had risen slightly to 50° at this point, and the course was just the first half mile of the 5K course, with a turnaround point along Archer Street behind Guthrie Green.  There were only some four or five runners ahead of me, two of them middle school age boys (maybe even younger... spritely legs, lol!), and the others an older gentleman and a young woman.  If it were timed, I would've come in in 7:54 - it had been quite some time since I've done a mile that fast!

Interviewed by KOTV's Amy Slanchik
After retrieving my medal, I found Ally Lightle, my PR/Media contact with the marathon, who had arranged for me to be interviewed with Amy Slanchik from KOTV/News on 6, the CBS affiliate in Tulsa.  In addition to footage they'd capture of me from the marathon start and finish on Sunday, they were interviewing me for a special feature on their post marathon telecast on Sunday evening.

On stage at the Run Influencer Panel
I met back up with Ray, Janice, and Holly, and we drove over to grab lunch at the Tulsa location of Torchy's Tacos, a brand made famous in Austin, Texas. Afterward, they drove me to the Health and Fitness Expo at the Cox Business Center downtown.  My parents had left Wichita earlier that morning and drove to Tulsa, arriving in the early afternoon in time to see me participate in the Run Influencer Panel on the expo's Mainstage with other running social media figures and bloggers to talk about our experiences.  We then retired to our hotel, the Marriott south of downtown near Southern Hills Country Club (which I booked for us using Marriott Rewards Points), where I also picked up a package that was delivered directly to the hotel - a bag of custom-made buttons that I had made to celebrate my 50th state, to give out to friends!  We got to relax for a bit before we headed back into downtown Tulsa to make our way to Ti Amo Ristorante Italiano, where we had made arrangements for a big party that evening.

Watching the slideshow at the dinner
Back in January 2018 while at the airport after the Mississippi Blues Marathon, I had found out that my friend Ray was planning a big milestone at Route 66 as well - it would be his 50th state for half marathons as well as his 100th half marathon.  So we decided to plan a big pre-race party get together to celebrate both of our milestones with all of our friends.  I created a Facebook event for us shortly thereafter to gauge interest in coming to our party, of course knowing that it was still over nine months away. Over the summer, with the assistance of friends (and incredible dinner planners Jennifer and David from Mississippi), we booked Ti Amo, who had a special catered menu option available for our party, based on a prescribed dollar amount per person with a $200 deposit.  We pre-booked for 80 people, based on the Facebook event, and then I set up a PayPal money pool account for people to send me money to digitally to reserve their "ticket" for the dinner.  By the week before the party, we had 74 "tickets" paid for, with the restaurant setting out 80 chairs just in case.  David threw together a quick slide show video for both of us with photos of both of our journeys getting to our milestones.
 
The amazing slide show put together by David Clark!

The custom button I had made!
We got to Ti Amo at around 5:30 to meet with the manager Jason, and our guests began trickling in starting at 6pm. It was a fun evening getting to reconnect with so many friends, as well as making new ones.  The videos were well received, as was the delicious dinner - two great pasta dishes (penne with olive oil, fresh garlic, Italian herbs, garden vegetables and shrimp; and tortelloni with marinara sauce and parmesan cheese) and a grilled chicken dish with fresh garlic, olives, toasted almonds and roasted peppers over gluten free pasta; plus bruschetta, house salad, breadsticks, and a choice of soda, tea, or coffee.  Runners from all over the US joined us for an evening of great conversation and fellowship. Our guests also got custom backbibs from Ray and custom buttons from me (pictured) to wear for the next morning's race.  As the night ended, I threw the balance of the meal cost on my credit card - yay for points! We headed back to the hotel for a good night's sleep, as we were waking up SUPER early the next morning in order to be out the door by 6:15am to get into downtown, find parking, and be at the startline for a scheduled interview with the KOTV once again.
An amazing board of photos put together by friends!
At 5:45am and I was up, getting myself dressed for the day ahead. My parents had gotten up a little earlier, fully bundled up to prepare for the weather. The temps were going to be notably colder, with temps just above freezing, but a biting wind that could only mean the real feel going below the freezing mark.  We easily found parking downtown, within a couple blocks of the startline.  When I got there, the KOTV cameramen were beginning to set up, with 98.5 KVOO radio personalities Sunny Leigh and Marty Young, doing some TV work that day, preparing for their live shots from the startline.  Amy rolled up with her cameraman as well, and just before 7am, Sunny and Marty interviewed me for a quick one-minute segment that aired live on TV!
 The one minute segment that aired live race morning on KOTV!

Parents and I posing in front of the start before I sang
Over the course of the next hour, runners would trickle in to prepare for the 8am start, and I got myself readied for the national anthem just before the race start. My parents were right there to watch, and took a deep breath as Bart Yasso announced me to sing the anthem. It was an exhilarating 85 seconds, and with a smile on my face as I sang the final strains of the song, I had finished the first of my two goals - national anthems in all 50 states!
National Anthem State #50, check!  One milestone completed... now time to run the marathon!

My parents held up the most perfect signs for me :)
Front and center after starting the race!
I jumped into the corrals, and before long, we were off into the cold Oklahoma air.  While the start and finish remained in roughly the same area as in years past, the 2018 edition of the race featured a  new course that took runners on an approximately 3 mile long stretch of Riverside Drive alongside the Arkansas River, taking participants past Tulsa’s newly opened $465 million, 66.5-acre park, The Gathering Place.  Since the fall of 2014, a large section of Riverside Drive had been closed due to construction on the park, requiring changes to the marathon course, taking runners instead through the Maple Ridge neighborhood once again - this area was notable for the neighborhood "block party" that sprung up near mile 9, complete with jello shots, snacks, photo ops and more. The change in course made annual runners of this race wonder how that would be affected.

Within the first mile, through Midtown
We took off from 5th and Main Street, then proceeded through Midtown, as we went up and down the rolling hills of the city.  I maintained a pretty solid pace over the first four miles, managing to keep my splits below 10 minutes per mile, even as low as 9 1/2 minutes per mile.  Somewhere as we passed through here, my friend Mitch caught up to me, and we would run together over the next several miles. We ran down a couple of Midtown's major streets over the first 2.5 miles, traversing through the affluent historic district of Maple Ridge, a residential area with beautiful mansions dating from approximately 1912; and Swan Lake, a historic, more middle class residential area, before reaching Cascia Hall Preparatory School, a Catholic college-prep day school and the Philbrook Museum of Art, a private collection containing art from all over the world spanning various artistic media and styles housed in a 1920s Italian Renaissance style villa.
Running through Cascia Hall Prep School
Past the Philbrook Museum
Near Woodward Park
If I had my concerns with how the party atmosphere would dissipate with the change in course, particularly with the block party, it was gone by then, because this year, it seemed like the jello shots popular with mile 9 were spread throughout these early miles of the course!  At one point, an enterprising resident even set up a "winter wonderland" themed display in the front yard of their home, encouraging runners to come by for an Instagram-worthy photoshoot complete with fake snow, and of course... bevvies. After mile 5, we continued to run through the residential areas of Maple Ridge, Terwilleger Heights, and Woodward Park; and the Brookside District along Peoria Avenue, home to quaint boutiques, art galleries, antique shops and trendy restaurants.  We even passed by Torchy's Tacos, where I had lunch the day before with the Constantines. We were having a lot of fun as we came through -- it seemed that by the time I got to the 10K mark of the race at around 63 minutes in, I had taken a shot at every mile marker!  Mitch stuck by with me, and we maintained a fairly solid clip, staying between 10 and 11 minute miles over this whole area before we finally reached Riverside Drive just before the 8 mile marker.
Riverside Drive
Running alongside the Mississippi River and Tulsa's brand new park, The Gathering Place!
Riverside Drive's iconic tunnels
Instead of turning back into Maple Ridge half a mile in like the last time I ran this race, we continued over the next three miles through the newly renovated section of course.  The Gathering Place had just opened its first phase only two months earlier, and while we wouldn't get to run through the actual park, we would be running through the new 400-foot wide tunnels that act as land bridges to access the Arkansas River by park users.  Each bridge has 98 precast concrete arches, weighing 25 tons apiece, which were maneuvered and strategically placed with cranes. The only pair of structures like this in the world, the bridges were erected in the hollowed-out earth, extensively waterproofed, and then  soundproofed with berms. Anywhere from 15 to 25 feet of backfill was dumped on top of and around the completed structures, which was then planted with lush grass and vegetation.

An out and back on THE Route 66!
While we ran down this fairly flat section of the course, I also started to notice the temps dipping just enough the form ice crystals on fellow runners' beanies.  Those wearing black, perspiring through cotton caps, were the most noticeable.  Mitch and I had separated somewhere along the way, but I continued on, logging in a few more consistent mile splits, hitting the 10 mile mark in 1:42:31, putting me in a good place to finish my first half under 2:15, which was where I wanted to be.  Soon the course began to ascend slightly as we made our way to the short out-and-back section where we got to run across the Arkansas River on Southwest Boulevard, and across part of the old Route 66. I maintained my same pace as I reached mile 11, and continued on, as the course moved back through Downtown Tulsa.
We're running on Route 66!
Passing through Downtown Tulsa
Southwest Boulevard turned into 7th Street and 6th Street, and we passed the Cox Business Center at mile 12.  We veered left onto Denver Avenue, and soon we would be turning right as the half marathoners continued straight onto their finish. At 2nd Street, in front of the BOK Center, we turned right, and were now on our own. After passing underneath the Hyatt Regency's skybridge, I peeked over at the Hyatt itself, where there seemed to still be some fire department activity after an electrical fire due to an aging escalator occurred on Friday, forcing hotel guests and staff members to evacuate, and displacing guests in town for the race and for other conferences.  It was quite a bit quieter as we traversed through downtown into the Blue Dome District, but I took advantage of the relative flatness as I registered a 9:50 13th mile, and after turning onto Frankfort Avenue, crossed the halfway point in 2:14:47.

Running by the BOK Center
We turned left onto 6th Street as the route took us through the East Village District of downtown Tulsa, an area being developed to connect the downtown's existing entertainment districts.  We ran past Centennial Park, an area with great views of the downtown skyline, and the home of the VFW Post 577, housed in a former National Guard armory built in 1920. While only 13.5 miles into the race now, the route would take us past this area once again later on in the race, roughly two hours later.  We curved around toward Peoria Avenue through the Pearl District to head south, running past Oaklawn Cemetery, the oldest existing cemetery in the city, and would start to see the lead runners coming up in our direction with only a couple miles left for them to go - while we still had just under half our race still to run.  At mile 15, we turned left onto 19th Street, then began to pass by familiar sights we saw early on in the race in the Swan Lake neighborhood; it was like déjà vu when I saw the Tuscan-reminiscent Utica Place Tower building for a second time as we ran down 22nd Place. This time, though, we continued eastward as the course wound its way through the largely residential area of Bryn Mawr southeast of downtown. These were probably the least interesting miles of the race, as the terrain rolled slightly, but trending uphill - for that half hour from miles 16 to 18.75, it was just a matter of grinding out the miles and pushing through!
Running down Florence Avenue
The University of Tulsa
We emerged out of residential monotony as we briefly ran along 21st Street underneath the Broken Arrow Expressway and onto Florence Avenue, where we ran due north through the neighborhood of Florence Park for approximately a mile to the 11th Street, and the first glimpse of the campus of the University of Tulsa.  We turned left onto 11th, then made our way through the grand "front door" to the university into the big grassy space known as Chapman Common, via Tucker Drive.  This is where tailgate parties happen during football season during the school year. We ran along the western edge of the common to 8th Street, where we passed Collins Hall, the university's administrative offices, and our 20 mile marker, in approximately 3:30.  Continuing along 8th, we passed by H.A. Chapman Stadium, where the Golden Hurricanes football team plays their home games. We made our way all around campus passing by the Lorton Performance Center, TU’s showcase facility for the musical and performance arts completed in 2011; as well as facilities for the university's college of engineering and natural sciences (Stephenson and Keplinger Halls) and college of law. From the campus' northern boundary of 4th Place, we then proceeded southward along its western boundary at Delaware Avenue (past the "U" at Dietler Commons and the campus' most notable landmark, McFarlin Library), with less than 10K of the race left to go.

Cherry Street District
As we exited campus and returned to the residential areas just outside of campus, my focus turned to keeping my pace steady over the remaining miles, as the course elevation continued to rise and fall gradually. We turned right onto 15th Street, sending us right through the Cherry Street District, a hotspot of trendy local businesses that had originally been developed in the 1920s to serve affluent neighborhood residents, declined in the 1970s like many urban areas in the US, and then experienced a rebirth with reinvestment in the 1980s to its popularity today.  At mile 23.5, we returned back to Peoria Street, turning right as we traced our footsteps back to the downtown for our final miles.

The Center of the Universe detour!
A mile later, as we passed the DFW building we ran by two hours earlier, we turned right onto Norfolk Avenue, to take us on the slightly zig-zagged route through the East Village and Blue Dome Districts to the finish at Guthrie Green.  We found ourselves on 1st Avenue, then I eventually made my way toward the 0.3 mile detour along Boston Avenue that marathoners could take in order to complete the "world's shortest ultra."  The detour allowed us to run past the Center of the Universe, a unique landmark where vistiors who stand at the center of the brick circle and talk will hear themselves echo, but others outside the circle will not hear the echo.  After grabbing a beer at the turnaround point and retrieving my special coin for completing the detour, I continued back along 1st Avenue, dipping under the railroad tracks along Denver Avenue.
Passing by mile 25!  Almost done...
Rumchata to celebrate! Thanks Jamie!
With a half mile left to go, I spotted my friend Jamie, who was waiting for me with glittery confetti and a small bottle of Rumchata, which I promised I would celebrate with once I passed the finish line.  My legs were heavy, but we finally reached Tulsa's Brady Arts District, where the finish line was located, and I ran through the finish to the cheers of spectators all around - including my parents - thrilled to see me complete my 50 states, as Bart announced my name crossing the line in 4:46:48.  I would later see that my time if I took out the Center of the Universe detour (where we crossed over a timing mat as we entered and exited), would be 4:43:15 for an even 26.2.

Victory Headstand!
Amy was there with her cameraman to capture me cross the finish line, and after passing through the finish chute (and documenting my finish with the Rumchata shot), I found my parents, who met up with me to give me their congratulations in person.  We proceeded to the Maniacs/Fanatics tent to warm up, where I got a quick bite to eat (another beer to drink) and got to see some friends who had finished their races.  I was able to get my headstand photo before we left the area, fittingly in front of a building-sized mural of Woody Guthrie with the words "This Land Is Your Land" emblazoned at the top outside his namesake center, a work completed by local artist Aaron Whisner in 2013.  A fitting finish to 50 states of marathons from “California to the New York island.”  We found our way to the shuttles nearby to get ourselves back to the start where we had parked our car, and got back to the hotel, where the Marriott had kindly given us late checkout.  I cleaned up and packed our stuff up before heading back downtown to celebrate with Ray and a small group of friends (and eat some much needed late lunch!) at Soul City Gastropub.

My bling haul!
After lunch, we picked up Winnie, who had made her way back to her Airbnb to get showered up and pack up her things after finishing her marathon. My parents drove us to the Tulsa airport for our flight to Atlanta, before they headed back home to Wichita.  At the airport, we were joined by my friend Jim, who was flying back to Atlanta as well.  I stayed the night in Atlanta with Winnie, and had booked a flight early the next morning from there back to New York in order to maximize my time post race in Tulsa with friends and family - only to return back to Atlanta a few days later for an epic Thanksgiving weekend that began there, ultimately to go to Panama for my second to last race of the season.

That weekend was such a fun, whirlwind weekend - and the culmination of a goal that I had set out to do only a few short years earlier.  A couple days after the race, Runner's World published an article on my journey, written by Taylor Dutch, who had been put in contact with me via one of my race director contacts over the years.  This wonderful article ended with a couple great quotes:

"For Diego, these races provide a unique opportunity to meet people from all over the world, and as a result, he has created a network of runners that spans over five continents. Like Diego, many of them also travel to far off places in order to compete in these marathons. It’s a community that is constantly expanding and encouraging him to explore further

“The running community is the big draw, it feels like a family. Sometimes I see these runners, especially in the U.S., that I haven’t seen for months at a time and we just reunite and it’s almost like a family reunion,” Diego said. “We all have the same sense of craziness of being able to travel the world and add a marathon to it too.”"
Officially a 50 States Certified Marathon finisher!

Saturday, August 10, 2019

Race Report: Beirut Marathon

I would've never thought to be going to Lebanon to run a marathon.  My friends Zander and Richard had been the US ambassadors of the race for a couple years, and when I started to run more marathons (including international races), this was one of the first that they had tried to convince me to do.  2018 became that year, and I cemented plans to head to Beirut at the end of the summer for November, over Veterans Day weekend.

Lebanon is a unique destination for many. Despite having 150 miles of Mediterranean coastline and forested mountain ranges, as well as some of arguably the most delicious food in the Middle East, its well documented past has prevented tourism from reaching its full potential.  While the country is at relative peace internally at the moment, it was only thirty years ago that it was engaged in a fifteen year bloody civil war from 1975 to 1990 that revolved around a number of issues that dominated regional politics in the Middle East, including the Palestine-Israel conflict, Cold War competition, Arab nationalism and political Islam.  Plus, not having very good relationships with its neighbors, in particular Israel to the south, doesn't necessarily connote a travel destination.

Unfortunately, many travelers still believe that safety in both Beirut and Lebanon is an issue. But today, Lebanon, including Beirut, is one of the safest and most liberal countries in the Middle East. The only reasons why it’s not considered as such are the media and inaccurate government travel advice and warnings, including the US Department of State, who puts travel to Lebanon at a risk level 3. Although Lebanon is located in a highly turbulent region, the government's investment in military security here is quite substantial; soldiers and checkpoints are found in absolutely every corner of the country, especially in Beirut.

Driving through Beirut to my hotel!
I flew to Beirut via Paris on Friday after work, at first a bit concerned with our departure considering I only had an hour and a half of a connection in Paris and the weather in New York was not great.  But it was not a concern, and we took off and arrived right on time. The Paris to Beirut flight was also on time, and I landed in the early afternoon at Beirut's Rafic Hariri International Airport, getting through immigration fairly quickly (American citizens can obtain a visa on arrival for free).  I booked a two night travel package through the marathon's official tour operator, Kurban Tours, which included transfers to and from the airport and transfer to start line on the day of the marathon for $230, at 35 Rooms Hotel, located in the popular tourist neighborhood of Hamra.

The course map, in neon lights!
Beirut traffic was as expected, and it took about 30-40 minutes to get to the hotel via the main four lane motorway from the airport into the city. Traffic was much more congested when we reached Hamra Street, and it took a bit of time before arriving at the hotel. I checked in and made my way to the room, which was ENORMOUS for just me.  After a quick shower to wash off the long travel day, I got an Uber to the race expo, located at "Train Station – Mar Mikhael," a former train station along Beirut's long defunct rail system, now turned into a bar/restaurant/event space.  It had rained the night before, and some of the roadway getting to the expo across town was partly underwater - but it didn't stop the car from going through!

"We Fill the Heart of Beirut"
At the expo, I picked up my race bib and also purchased a nice branded hoodie featuring the race's logo and catchphrase, "We Fill the Heart of Beirut," then found Richard and Zander, as well as my friend Johannes from Zurich (and his friend Ben from Mannheim, Germany), who were there to meet with other ambassadors as well as overseas guests who were members of both Marathon Globetrotters and the Marathon Country Club.  Among these runners, I was introduced to Budiaman (Budi for short), originally from Indonesia, who now lived in Berlin, but had also spent some time living in Australia, England, and the Netherlands over the years, and had been a member of both Sydney and London Frontrunners. We quickly learned that not only did we run around the same pace, but we both had about the same amount of marathons under our belt - though I had been filling my schedule up with races within the US, while he was checking off European countries.  We ended up becoming fast friends, and decided to head out to get dinner as I was starving.
With Budi, Richard, Johannes, and Ben
Posing with Budi near the oversized medal!
A bite to eat with Budi
The rain had restarted when we left, so after grabbing an Uber, we made our way back to Hamra (where he was also staying) and decided to go to Bardo, a cafe/restaurant serving Mediterranean and Asian specialties that also doubled as one of Beirut's few gay bars. We had a lot of great conversation, talking about our respective marathon experiences over the last few years. After dinner, we headed back to our respective hotels, and being exhausted from my travels promptly went to sleep as I had an early wake up call the next morning for the race!

Lebanese Army band at the start
On race morning, I woke up just before 5am, to be ready for pickup to transfer to the startline by 5:30, but I got a call from the front desk that the taxi was waiting for me at 5:20, so I rushed out the door and was the first person in the van.  We proceeded to another hotel to pick up a few more runners (from France, Slovakia, and Canada) before heading near to the start line venue at the Beirut waterfront, just down the street from some road closures that were already in effect. Speaking a little bit with the Canadian woman, I learned she was spending three weeks in the Middle East, and just two weeks prior ran a marathon in Erbil, Iraq.  Who knew there was one there in this current political climate?

The elite runners preparing to start
I separated off to find the entrance to the VIP section, armed with the credentials Richard provided me at the expo the day before, and immediately found Johannes, still dressed warmly pre-race with only 35 minutes before the race start. While announcements were being made and the Lebanese Army band started playing some music, a few other friends were mulling around and I grabbed some of the mixed nuts that catering was passing around to have some food in my stomach. Before long, we were being escorted toward the start line, somewhat haphazardly and chaotically, lining up after the para-athletes while the elites were still being organized in a group next to the start corrals.  It was all a bit of a mess, and eventually, things were sorted out with the elite athletes moving to where they needed to go and the rest of us behind them, self-seeding.
Just before starting the race!
Running along the Paris Corniche
Eventually, 6:30 came and we were off!  I took my time to wait for some similarly-paced runners to come by me (and for my watch to grab a satellite signal) before I crossed the start mats as we made our way westward along the waterfront on Paris Corniche. It was a beautiful morning in Beirut, 66º, as we hugged the coastline. Within the first kilometer we passed by Zaitunay Bay, the quayside commercial and tourist strip around the West Marina; and most notably, the St. Georges Hotel, a landmark building from the 1920s that sustained quite a bit of damage from the Lebanese Civil War that ravaged the country for decades.  The bomb blast that killed former Prime Minister Rafic Hariri (whose name also adorns the airport in Beirut) in 2005 seriously damaged the building, which was being restored at the time of his assassination. Work to renovate and reopen the hotel has since stalled in a dispute with Solidere, the planning and redevelopment organization that is responsible for the rebuilding of the Beirut Central District since the end of the war, and the hotel has remained closed for more than a decade.  A "Stop Solidere" protest sign hangs on the scaffolding.
St. Georges Hotel with the "Stop Solidere" sign.
Running toward the lighthouse
We continued along the waterfront, enjoying the DJs playing great music - many pop remixes - almost every quarter mile within the first 10K of the race. As the marathon course passed the Beirut Lighthouse, we eventually reached a turnaround point (the first out-and-back of the day), where we ran along the other side of the boulevard headed westward.  Along the way, we could see the half marathoners begin their race, a half hour after ours began, and soon, their speediest runners began to speed right past us along the same route.  These early miles took us past the American University of Beirut, one of the most prestigious universities in the Middle East; as well as the historic Phoenicia Hotel, a 5-star luxury hotel in the neighborhood of Minet El Hosn. Four miles have passed; each mile just under 10 minutes per mile, a pretty decent pace for the start of this race.

American University of Berlin
We turned right onto General Francois El Hajj Street, which had a small gradual downhill before we could see the road rise upward, passing more highrises in the city center such as the sharply angled Berytus Park Building, slightly offset from the road, and the Bank Audi Headquarters at the end of the street.  When we reached the top of that hill, we turned left, following Bab Idriss and Waygand Street eastward. We passed by the Beirut Souks, a major shopping district that is a reconstruction of the old medieval market, after it sustained irreparable damage from the war.  Containing over 200 shops, 25 restaurants and cafes, a science museum, entertainment center, movie theatre, periodic street markets, piazzas, and public spaces, it is Beirut's largest and most diverse shopping and leisure area. It was rebuilt by Solidere according to the ancient Greek street grid, maintaining the historic landmarks and pre-war street names.  Though our surroundings were quite cosmopolitan, we were quickly brought back to the reality that we were in the Middle East, running a past a couple historic mosques in Beirut's downtown, including the Al-Omari Grand Mosque (dating back to 635 AD as a Byzantine Church) and the Emir Mansour Assaf Mosque (inaugurated in 1597), both fully refurbished and restored in the 21st Century after war had damaged their exteriors.

We passed Foch and Allenby Streets, the two main north-south avenues that formed the origin of the orthogonal grid of Beirut’s new waterfront district.  We continued on along Waygand, passing by Martyrs Square and the heart of the city, with the massive Mohammad Al-Amin Mosque, the blue-domed mosque that dominates the city's skyline, and the site of our finish line. Waygand became Charles Helou Highway, and we began to run on the closed off wide motorway that my Uber driver had taken me down the day before to the expo; I was a bit concerned that we'd run into that major puddle on the roadway, but I had nothing to be worried about - despite the wet weather the night before, whatever water was on Charles Helou Highway was gone! We would run along this street for about a mile and a half, running by the Port of Beirut (one of the largest and busiest in the eastern Mediterranean) to our left, before turning right onto an unassuming street called El Khodor, just after a Total gas station.

Out on the quiet Sea Side Road
We turned left onto Armenia Street, crossing over a bridge over the Beirut River, the natural border between the Beirut and Mount Lebanon Governorates, before being directed to turn left onto a dusty and really shady looking side road that took us out to our second long out-and-back of the day along Sea Side Road. We would go out some three miles along Sea Side Road, out into the northeastern suburbs of Dora and Jdeideh.  This segment of the race was not that scenic, very industrial and a bit out of the way; it took us out to a few oil and gas refineries and factories that were closed for the day (and probably made sense to be part of the route, so that it wouldn't impede on the daily lives of those in the more residential parts of the city.)  The lead runners of the half marathon were already on their way back just as I started this part of the course, only 4km from their finish line. One of the notable landmarks along this road was running along the backside of the massive 80,000 square meter City Mall, one of Lebanon's largest malls.  Half marathoners had their turnaround point not too far after the mall, right around the 14 km mark, while we went on for another kilometer.

Very dusty on Sea Side Road
We got closer and closer to the turnaround point just as the multilaned Dora Highway (a continuation of the Charles Helou Highway) started to appear to our right.  Strangely, the Canadian Embassy was all the way out here, which I thought was strange for being so far from the city center, but later I'd realize they weren't the only country with embassies outside of the city; it made sense, not only for security reasons, but also when I learned more about the civil war - Beirut became split along sectarian lines and East Beirut (controlled by the army with the support of Christian militias) was considered safer than the west, which was controlled by Shiite Muslim militias.  The further east we got, the more we encoutnered some massive construction projects actively happening along the highway, in particular some onramps merging into the westbound lanes. It was a bit of a dusty mess as we ran through here, and I had wished I brought a buff to cover my face as we continued on.  Before long, though, we reached our turnaround point, and began the long slog all the way back to where we had turned onto this street.  My last several miles all stayed around the 10 1/2 minute per mile range, giving me good hope to get to the halfway point in at least 2:15.
An out and back past an industrial/manufacturing area
Street art along Sea Side Road
Dates served at an aid station
When we got back to where we had turned onto Sea Side Road, we were directed through some side roads before returning to Armenia Street, where we began another eastward trek, first through the busy commercial center of Bourj Hammoud, the heavily Armenian-populated municipality that oversees the Dora suburb we had just ran through.  I did make my 2:15 goal for the first half, and we continued on, back through Dora, though this time on the other side of the highway.  We veered slightly left onto another road, called El Sekkeh, eventually hugging the already bustling Dora Highway's eastbound lanes - literally, a lane closed off just for us. Thankfully, running along the busy highway was shortlived, and we were directed toward St. Joseph Road, where we ran through a fairly highly populated commercial area, a very different surrounding compared to what we had just run on the out-and-back along Sea Side Road. We eventually crossed the fairly busy Mirna Chalouhi Boulevard (a crossing thankfully managed by local policemen directing the traffic), before continuing into the heart of the suburb of Jdeideh. We passed an aid station staffed by members of a Lebanese scout troup offering dates (so uniquely Middle East!) to runners.  It was a delicious treat halfway through the race!

New Jdeideh Road
Situated in the center of Jdeideh is a beautiful clock tower, standing opposite the local town hall building. After passing around it, we headed up New Jdeideh Street, the main road through the center of the town, adorned by metal archways all along the closed off street.  Runners were coming back in the other direction, giving me the first inkling we were now on our third out-and-back section of the course.  The route took us back once again toward Dora Highway, up next to a jumbled knot of overpasses that merged with Mirna Chalouhi Boulevard, while we ended up on Zalka Main Road out to the village of Zalka, more of the same that we had seen before, but less rundown; perhaps a little more affluent area? Along the way I spotted Richard and Zander on the other side of the road, headed back only a few kilometers ahead of me. The road was separated by a median, a cement barrier in the middle of the road raised about a foot with some nicely manicured shrubbery planted within. We continued to the furthest east point of the race, out into the village of Jal el Dib, a view out into the more mountainous towns of Antelias and Naqqache in the northern edges of Greater Beirut, before reaching our turnaround point just after the 26 km (~16 miles) mark.
Near the turnaround point with Antelias and Naqqache in the distance
Jdeideh Square and Clock Tower
We returned back along the road, where I spotted Budi on the other side of the road.  He had a rough start, but was getting by, pushing himself as best as he could.  As the three hour mark raced by, we retraced our steps all the way back to Jdeideh, where we rounded the clock tower, then continued on along El Madafen Street to Asseily Street. We turned right onto Mar Youhanna Street crossing through the village of Bouchrieh, then northwestward along the strangely named Electricity Company Street back toward Dora.  We found our way back along St. Joseph Road, then onto Armenia Street for a brief segment, hitting the 20 mile mark before turning left on El Sekkeh as we continued further into Bourj Hammoud. Somewhere along this road, I managed to catch up to Zander and Richard, who were not having the best of days and were needing to walk quite a bit since the last turnaround point.
Along Armenia Street
El Sekkeh Street
We turned on Bchara El Khoury Street, curving its way northward, until we found our way back toward Armenia Street. Crossing back over the bridge over the Beirut River, we then began our last out-and-back section, turning left onto the Pierre Gemayel Corniche/Corniche Al Nahr, a road taking us two miles south, alongside the governorate's boundary line. We veered slightly off of this main road to 88th Street, taking us alongside the Souq el Ahad Sunday Market, a bustling eclectic mix of trinkets, jewelry, antiques, clothes, and electronics, contained in a very crowded and slightly uncomfortable flea market style space tucked underneath a highway bridge. Vendors eyed us runners questionably as we ran by.

Near the BIEL
Eventually, we were directed onto our closed off Beirut Street, running parallel to the busy Emile Lahoud Street right up against the Beirut River. Four hours had gone by as we now ran by the Beirut International Exhibition and Leisure Center, better known as BIEL, Beirut's largest such complex, which hosts exhibitions, conferences, concerts and private events. After the turnaround point, we ran by a fun aid station with volunteers dancing to Middle Eastern pop music with 5K to go.  My watch read just under 4:09, so I was We then turned left into an industrial area known as Jisr el Wati, past the Beirut Art Center. After passing by some fairly new construction, we returned back up Pierre Gemayel Corniche/Corniche Al Nahr to Armenia Street, where we turned left to take us all the way back into the center of Beirut.

2 kilometers left!
With just under two miles to go, turning onto Armenia Street meant ascending a slight hill, probably the hilliest part of the whole race.  After passing by the Mar Mikhael Train Station from the day before's expo, we reached the highest point of the course (only 140 feet above sea level) at about the 25.5 mile mark. We continued westward along the street, and I became more confident as the minutes ticked by that I would finish this race under 5 hours, my hope all along. With a mile to go, we ran along Pasteur Street, which turned into El Arz Street. We reached George Haddad Road where we turned left, then running around the edge of the square along Waygand Street to El Shouhada Street, where the finish line waited for us.  Located right next to the Martyrs' Statue in Martyrs Square, runners were guided to the finish line by a cavalcade of dancers in traditional dress. I happily finished the race in 4:51:18, as I made my way to the post-finish VIP party near the awards stage.
Nearing the finish... roughly 1 kilometer to go!
Dancers in traditional dress at the urging us on to the finish line
Victory Headstand, Al-Amin Mosque
I grabbed some well deserved food (or at least what was left!) from the VIP party, many of which was being cooked on the spot by chefs at makeshift ovens in the finish area. There were even couches and divans where we could rest our tired feet, which I definitely took advantage of! It was right around noon when I finally left to make my way back to my hotel, about a 1.5 mile walk.  After getting a stranger to take my headstand photo, posed with the Mohammad Al-Amin Mosque in the background (getting lots of stares in the process), I found my way back, at one point having to pass through a tunnel with a very awkward and narrow sidewalk path, eventually getting me to Hamra Street.

Jeita Grotto
After a shower and change of clothes, I contacted Budi, who had finished his race and had made his way back to his hotel, too. Still having energy and not wanting to waste the rest of the day, Budi and I met back up again and shared a $16 Uber headed up into the mountains north of Beirut to see Jeita Grotto, a beautiful cave that’s one of the most visited sites in Lebanon. Its upper grotto contains one of the longest stalactites in the world, measuring 8.2 meters. The lower grotto can only be seen by boat ride. It felt very Pirates of the Carribean-like! During this visit, we ended up befriending Shannon, an American living in Saudi Arabia, also in town running the half at the Beirut Marathon! Shannon invited Budi and I to dine with her and her hired driver Ziad at a seaside restaurant, Manuella, in the town of Jounieh - just north of Beirut. Our incredible dinner for four was barely $40 per person, which included several meze platters, a bottle of Lebanese wine, and even a shisha pipe! After dinner, Ziad drove us back to Hamra, since Shannon wasn't staying too far away either.  I went to bed that night with a full stomach!
Jeita Grotto's Lower section, where a boat ride is required.
So much food!!
Good company with Shannon, Ziad, and Budi!
With my flight not leaving til late Monday night, I decided to escape Beirut for the day on Monday, in order to explore more of this unique country... I prebooked a tour that began with a van picking me up from my hotel first thing in the morning. With a Ukrainian woman named Ellen, with her two kids Daria and Sergi, we met up with our guide Hala and crossed over Mount Lebanon to head east for a full day tour in the fertile Bekaa Valley that sits between Mount Lebanon and and the Anti-Lebanon Mountains. On the agenda were Anjar, Baalbeck, and Ksara, with a late lunch at the end.

Sergi caught a lizard!
First on the itinerary was the ancient ruins of Anjar. The citadel dates back to the 8th century under the Umayyad caliph al-Walid I, and is based on Roman city planning and architecture with stonework borrowed from the Byzantines. The well-preserved ruins contain some unique stonework and brick bonding (supposedly to combat seismic activity) that is unlike other similar sites. There are lizards all over the place; Sergi found a small one and was able to get ahold of it to play with! Another interesting note: we are less than 5 kilometers from the Lebanese border crossing with Syria at Masnaa; probably the closest I can get to Syria without actually being in Syria. An 8 kilometer “no-mans land” of desolate neutral territory buffers the two countries’ border stations.
The unique stonework at the Anjar ruins
Baalbek
Up next, we drove an hour through the Bekaa Valley up to Baalbek, a massive temple complex, fortified as the town's citadel during the Middle Ages. Considered by many to be one of the most significant archaeological sites in all of the Middle East, it was constructed from local stone, mostly white granite and a rough white marble, as well as columns with stone imported from Aswan, Egypt. Over the years, it has suffered from earthquakes, the iconoclasm of Christian and Muslim lords, and the reuse of the temples' stone for fortification and other construction. The complex sits on a set of massive monoliths quarried from nearby limestone, one being the “Stone of the Pregnant Woman,” sometimes credited as being one of the largest monoliths ever quarried, at over 1000 tons (that's TONS, not pounds. 1000 tons equals 2 million pounds. Huge, I tell you.)

The ruins at Baalbek
One enters the complex through the propylaea, a broad staircase rising twenty feet to an arcade of twelve columns; directly behind it is a hexagonal forecourt; the Great Court, where an altar sat for offerings with ablution pools on both sides; then continued up stairs to the massive Temple of Jupiter, which was massively ruined by earthquakes and pillaging - of the peristyle’s original 54 columns, only six remain standing. The site's Temple of Bacchus is considered one of the best preserved and grandest Roman temple ruins in the world. The temple is known for its impressive dimensions, richly decorated stone work and monumental gate with Bacchic figures - among them some of the most refined reliefs and sculpture to survive from antiquity. A music video for a Dutch singer was being filmed when we arrived - I didn’t catch his name (we think it was “Ray X” or “X Ray?”), but the song sounded very similar to Gotye’s “Somebody That I Used To Know." We observed from afar, with production assistants milling around making sure tourists didn't get into the shots.

Ksara Wine Caves
With the day winding down, the last stop of the day was at Château Ksara, Lebanon’s oldest, largest, and most well known winery. Founded in 1857 by Jesuit priests, the winery produces approximately 3 million bottles annually. Supposedly, the discovery of the caves happened when a fox stole a chicken from the priests’ farm, and after a short chase, the fox led them to the discovery of a labyrinth of caves, which today are the Caves de Ksara, which serve as its temperature controlled natural cellars. There are some six tunnels that span over two kilometers within the caves, all lined with oak barrels filled with wine, aging gracefully. All of Chateau Ksara’s vineyards are located in the central and western Bekaa Valley, at an average altitude of 1,000 meters. The Bekaa enjoys dry summers and has a water table fed by the melting snow of the mountain ranges on either side of it. At the chateau, we got to try three of the wines they offer - the 2016 Blanc de l'Observatoire white, the 2016 Le Prieuré red, and their 2017 Rosé de Ksara, after having the already tried their bestselling “Blanc de Blancs” the night before at Manuella Restaurant.

Raouché, or Pigeons' Rock
Our late lunch was much like dinner the night before, though this time, we went to the valley's primary hub town of Chtaura and to the restaurant of the Hotel Massabki, where we enjoyed a massive feast.  After the meal, Francois, our driver, returned us back to Beirut, and I decided to spend the rest of my evening enjoying the sights and sounds of the area surrounding Hamra, where my hotel was located. After all, my flight wasn't until 2am, so I had several hours to continue enjoying the city on foot, starting off with an evening stroll along the Beirut waterfront - and in particular, to see Raouché, or Pigeons' Rock, at night. Located at Beirut's westernmost tip, the two huge rock formations, which stand like gigantic sentinels, are a popular destination for locals and visitors alike. The shores near Raouché have yielded the area's oldest evidence of human existence, flints and basic stone tools, which are displayed in the American University of Beirut's Archaeological Museum. I also made my way along Hamra Street for a bit, searching out souvenir shops for something nice to bring home to remember my quick trip to this magical place.  Altogether, I ended up walking about 3.5 miles to close out my time in Beirut.

And then there was my flight home.  Oh god was it a disaster.  At 11pm, a cab came to pick me up from my hotel (where I left my bags throughout the day) to take me to the airport as part of my package, in time to check in for my 2:05am flight. All was well until I went to get my boarding passes. My reservation, which I had purchased through a travel agent, was ticketed with Air France and for my flights back I was flying Middle East Airlines (an Air France codeshare and SkyTeam partner) and Air France for my flights home, from BEY-CDG-JFK. The counter agent, after reviewing my information, informed me that my reservation for my return flights had been cancelled by Air France, but I had never been notified about these changes.

Panicking and nearly in tears, I got on the phone using free airport WiFi (which only lasted 30 minutes?!) and immediately informed the Delta Diamond Desk of my situation. I was on the phone with them for 27 minutes, getting rebooked until... click. Call failed. What I did get from the customer service agent was that it said on my record that Air France notified my travel agent of the cancellation of the remaining flights on November 8, the day before I left for Beirut - however, this was not the case, as he never received any notification. The flight I had been booked on was oversold, so there was virtually no chance for me to get my seat back on that plane. The last thing I had talked about with the customer service agent before the call got cut was my rebooking possibilities, and the one they put me on was a bit ridiculous: leaving Beirut at nearly 4pm Tuesday afternoon, arriving in Paris that evening; then leaving Paris at 8am Wednesday morning to arrive in NYC at 10am EST on Wednesday morning. Two extra nights of last minute accommodation was not going to cut it for me. But the good thing was that she had put that as our last bit of conversation in my notes.

Well shit. Knowing full well it’ll be $2.50 per minute I sucked it up and called them again. Still trying to keep calm, I’m on the phone with a second customer service agent, who reviewed the notes on my account and worked her magic; lo and behold, I magically have flights “on my original itinerary.” Wonderful... So I go to the counter agent and, it turns out there was some miscommunication and I got put on those shitty flights. Somehow the second Delta agent on the phone didn’t understand what my original itinerary was.

So back to Delta I call. With a third agent I find out there are actually an even better set of flights I could be put on that would be able to get me back to NYC in the same amount of time, just ~6 hours later in my schedule. It was a long 40 minutes of waiting, but eventually I was confirmed on a new set of flights, just getting home a little later than intended. My new flight would leave Beirut at 7:50am, arriving in Paris with a quick connection before the long flight to New York. I lost a whole day at the office, but after chatting with him via text, he was fine with me coming in to log in two hours of work after I arrive (right at the end of the normal work day) to not lose out on vacation time.

The MEA agents took pity on me and gave me my boarding passes early; my elite status gave me access to the beautiful and fairly new Cedar Lounge, so I was able to relax there and get a little bit of sleep, about five hours worth, until boarding the new flight. Eventually, time passed and I made my way to the gate for the flight to Paris.  I've never gone through a more thorough security check; initially, when arriving at the airport, everyone goes through a security checkpoint before getting to the check-in area, a common sight at many airports in the Middle East.  Then, a passport check by agents to allow you into the duty free area; once your flight is ready to depart, you go through another security check, the main one, just to get to the gate area.  This one is the most thorough, sometimes requiring your hand baggage to be searched individually. You're then allowed into the gatehouse to wait for boarding, but when boarding starts, you get one last security check while on the jet bridge - every passenger getting on the plane has his or her hands and feet swabbed and checked before being allowed on the plane!

After going through all of that, I finally got on board.  The Beirut to Paris flight was half an hour delayed, so once we landed, I literally had to RUN through Charles de Gaulle airport, first boarding a train to get to the right set of gates, and then dealing with the inept French security checkpoint. The massive A380 I'm flying back to New York is clear at the end of the concourse... and after sweatily arriving to board the plane (the last person in line), I undergo yet another secondary screening.  This trip home had so many extra bits of FUN!  But I did get back to JFK, and I went to the office for two hours before heading home.