Friday, March 29, 2019

Race Report: Meia Maratona e Maratona do Rio

Fair warning, this post about the Rio Marathon weekend is a very picture heavy blogpost.  There are even more photos that I took that didn't make it to here!  Such is the case when you jampack everything possible that you can try to see in Rio de Janeiro into extremely five days and four nights.  When the opportunity to sign up for the Rio de Janeiro Marathon weekend came, I took advantage of it, and got myself booked in November 2017 for the 2018 edition.  I decided to take on the "Desafio Cidade Maravilhosa," or "Marvelous City Challenge," running the half on Saturday and the full on Sunday. A couple months later, I got my visa approved (by the newly operating eVisa program at the time, issued by the Brazilian Ministry of Foreign Affairs), and I was set.  The first weekend of June couldn't come fast enough.

Endless lines at the expo. So dumb.
I had just gotten back from Memorial Day Weekend spent in France doing the Marathon de la Baie du Mont Saint Michel on Monday night, and was home for two full days of work, before heading right out again on Wednesday. After a travel day (or rather, evening) that took me from New York to Atlanta, and then overnight to Rio, my plane arrived before 10AM on Thursday morning at Rio de Janeiro–Galeão International Airport and I was able to get through immigration pretty quickly.  I would be rooming with my friend Seth - he had arrived a couple hours earlier and was waiting for me at a cafe in the arrivals hall.  We grabbed an Uber to take us down to Botafogo to our Airbnb, where we were able to get a key to our apartment for our four nights there from the front desk.  After freshening up a bit and grabbing a quick bite in our neighborhood, we headed to the expo at the Centro de Convenções SulAmérica, easily accessible by MetroRio to the Cidade Nova section of the city, between Centro and Zona Norte.  What was a quick bib pickup for Seth in the "international athletes" station turned out to be a horrific nearly two hour wait in line for me, as I was directed by a race official to join a line with native Brazilians whose line snaked all throughout the convention center.  It turns out, Thursday was a very popular day for runners to visit the expo, as it was Corpus Christi, a public and religious holiday in Brazil.  When I got to the front, the people handling bib pickup were confused by the fact that I had three bib numbers each for both races (a total of six) and thought I paid for three "desafio" or "challenge" entries, when I was actually charged correctly, because of being an international runner.  But I also found out that I didn't need to stand in that long line after all, so I begrudgingly took my bibs, and got the heck out of there, a little pissed that we lost a couple hours of prime sightseeing activity on our first day in the city.

Rio at sunset is MAGICAL.
We headed back to the Airbnb to drop off our race bags, and then hoofed it to the nearby neighborhood of Urca, as it was a 20 minute walk to get to the bondinho (cable car) to get up to the top of Pão de Açúcar or Sugarloaf Mountain, Rio's most recognizable landmark at the mouth of Guanabara Bay on a peninsula that juts out into the Atlantic Ocean. With our bibs giving us 15% off the ride and no line to have to stand in (thank GOD), we were able to jump into the next car, making it just in time to watch the sun set as we ascended 722 feet to Morro da Urca, the shorter of the two peaks up to the summit.  The sun set over Corcovado in the distance before we took another cable car some 577 feet higher up to the very top of Pão de Açúcar to overlook the beauty of Rio de Janeiro at night.  And like that, we celebrated our first full day in this wonderful city!  After grabbing dinner at a pizza joint a few minutes walk from our Airbnb (they do love their pizza in Brazil; some 30 million Brazilians are descended from Italy!), we conked out for the night, prepared to take in our second day's worth of sight seeing the next morning.

Christ the Redeemer!
Having booked our tickets online the night before, we got up early on Friday morning to grab an Uber to take us to the neighborhood of Cosme Velho, where we could take the first ascent of the day for the Trem do Corcovado, up its namesake mountain.  Translated into "hunchback" in Portuguese, Corcovado is a 2,329 foot tall granite peak just west of the city center, and is known worldwide for the 125 foot tall statue of Jesus with his arms outstretched atop its peak, Cristo Redentor, or Christ the Redeemer. A symbol of Christianity across the world, the statue has also become a cultural icon of both Rio de Janeiro and Brazil, and is listed as one of the New Seven Wonders of the World. The train was the first railway to be electrified in the entire country back in 1910, after it was opened as a steam-hauled train in 1884. The 3.8 kilometer trip takes 20 minutes to ascend the mountain, through the thick of the Tijuca Forest.  The foot of the statue got quite crowded over the course of the hour we were there, overlooking the entirety of the city, and after returning back down the mountain on the train, we took another Uber out to the Lapa neighborhood in the center of the city.
A view from Corcovado looking toward Sugarloaf
Shifting the view a little more northward, toward Guanabara Bay, with the span of the Rio-Niterói Bridge
Posing on the Escadaria Selaron
We directed our Uber to take us right to the foot of the Escadaria Selarón, a set of world famous steps by Chilean-born artist Jorge Selarón.  In 1990, Selarón began renovating dilapidated steps that ran along the front of his house on a whim, in an area that straddled the Lapa and Santa Teresa neighborhoods. Over the course of the next 23 years, Selarón used over 2000 ceramic tiles collected from over 60 countries around the world to cover the 215 steps, culminating a striking art installation, easily turning into a prime tourist destination within the city.  After a few photos here, we started our own "let's wing it and just walk around this part of Rio" walking tour, starting off walking nearby to the Praça Cardeal Câmara and the Arcos da Lapa. Officially known as the Carioca Aqueduct, it was built in the middle of the 18th century to bring fresh water from the Carioca River to the population of the city. It is an impressive example of colonial architecture and engineering. After being deactivated as an aqueduct at the end of the 19th century, it began to serve as a bridge for a  tram that connects the city centre with the Santa Teresa neighbourhood uphill, the Santa Teresa Tramway.
Arcos da Lapa, or the Carioca Aqueduct
The New Cathedral of Rio
We continued to discover the area on foot, passing by the modernly designed headquarters for Petrobras, the multi-national oil and petroleum company majority owned by the government of Brazil, as well as the uniquely shaped Catedral Metropolitana de São Sebastião do Rio de Janeiro, better known as Rio's "New Cathedral." With a design based on the Mayan architectural style of pyramids, the 246 foot tall cathedral was built between 1964 and 1979 and spaciously seats 5,000, but has a standing room capacity of 20,000.  Not far away was a large public square known as the Largo da Carioca, with a beautiful clocktower known as the Relogio da Carioca at its center. It, and the Largo da Carioca, are considered by many to be the "heart" of the Centro neighborhood of Rio.

The domes of Candelária Church
As we approached the bay, we passed by the Igreja de Nossa Senhora do Carmo da Antiga Sé - Rio's  "Old Cathedral" built in the 18th century, and one of the most important historical buildings in the city.  Across the street was another 18th century building, the Paço Imperial, which served as residence for the governors of colonial Brazil, and was later used as a royal residence by King John VI of Portugal. Today, it serves as a cultural center. Next door is the Tiradentes Palace, a grand building, completed in 1926 as the former home of the Brazilian National Congress, until the capital moved to Brasilia. Currently, it is the seat of the Legislative Assembly of the State of Rio de Janeiro. Its façade is lined with reinforced concrete, and has an emphasized dome, adorned with allegorical sculptures representing Independence and the Republic.

The cauldron for the 2016 Olympics
We continued northward along the Rua Primeiro de Março, passing by the Igreja de Nossa Senhora da Candelária, more popularly known as the Candelária Church. Combining a Baroque façade with neoclassical and Neo-Renaissance interior elements, the church was once the tallest structure in the city, and on its other side, marked the end of Avenida Presidente Vargas, an important thoroughfare running through the Centro.  A plaza at the waterfront side of the church also houses the 2016 Rio Olympics Cauldron, flanked by a unique kinetic sculpture intended to "replicate the sun, using movement to mimic its pulsing energy and reflection of light," designed by American artist Anthony Howe.

Inside the Mosteiro de São Bento
Ultimately, the destination we were headed to was a church I had researched before the trip. After struggling to find the entrance to it, we ended up marching up a steep incline to the top of a the Morro De São Bento where the church was hidden away behind trees. At first glance, the church's unassuming white façade, built during the Portuguese colonial period of the 1600s, looks so simple - but the interior of the Mosteiro De São Bento is anything but; nearly every inch of wall is very richly designed, fully lined with gilded carvings of the Baroque period of the 17th century to the Rococo period of the 18th century. It is considered a primary monument to the colonial art of the city and of the country.

Afterward, we proceeded to a port area of Praça Mauá that had been left abandoned for decades until just before the Olympics.  It was eventually renovated with new office blocks, apartments and restaurants, as well as the Santiago Calatrava designed Museu do Amanhã, or the "Museum of Tomorrow," a science museum that opened in 2015. Upon arriving, the line to get into the museum was quite long, and we didn't have much patience to stand in line, so we headed to the also fairly new art museum, the Museu de Arte do Rio. The MAR (Rio Museum of Art) was inaugurated in 2013, and hosts several rotating exhibits, including an interesting and lively exhibit about samba and its importance in the city over time. Among the exhibits included the original headdress of the famed Brazilian filmstar from the 1930s to the 1950s, Carmen Miranda. The entirety of “O Rio Do Samba: Resistência e Reinvenção” may have been in Portuguese, but Seth and I very much enjoyed the artwork, painting, fashion, music, and videos!
Relaxing on Copacabana Beach... and not ashamed to show my booty!
Frozen açaí, a delicious treat!
After a very full morning of sightseeing in the main part of the city and a nice lunch at the rooftop restaurant at the Museu de Arte do Rio, Seth and I decided to take the metro down to Copacabana Beach to relax until the sun went down. It was a pretty busy area, as one could imagine, and we were relentlessly bothered by hawkers selling food and other wares. We also stopped at one of the popular chain juice bars, "Big Bi," filling our stomachs with frozen açaí berry puree (YUM!) a healthy fruit bowl composed of the dietary staple commonly found in this region that has become quite a health fad back in the US. I unfortunately also had the luck to get eaten up alive by bugs at the beach, and I returned to the Airbnb with several new itchy bug bites on my arms and legs.  Alas, I had a race still to run on Saturday morning, the half marathon, which I'd be going at alone, as Seth was only signed up for the full. It was an early night for me, and I was in bed before 10pm.
My race outfit, ready for the half marathon
The harrowing shuttle to the start
I woke up five hours later at 3:00am, quickly got myself dressed and quietly left the Airbnb as not to wake Seth up; I had about a 20 minute jog ahead of me, to briskly get myself, BY MYSELF, in the dark, to the bus pickup location along Aterro do Flamengo, about 1.5 miles away. I jogged along the treelined median alongside the Praia de Botafogo, completely devoid of people except for the random night-owl, still out from Friday night revelry.  Shuttles were running from the pickup spot starting at 4:00 am every five minutes until 4:45, and I was able to get the last seat in one of the first shuttles to go out.  Unfortunately, that meant sitting in the very back row, in the middle seat, without a seatbelt, directly in front of the single aisle running down the middle of the city bus, being used as a shuttle for the race.  Incredibly unsafe, but hey, I had to get to the start somehow.  I was a bit confused as the bus drove northward through the Centro, and then eventually through highways along the very out of the way Zona Norte section of Rio, when I realized they were actually taking a very roundabout route that took us along the Linha Amarela expressway, and dropping us off directly in Barra da Tijuca, where our startline for the half marathon was located.  The sun was still not up yet, and we had more than hour to go before our 6:30am start.
Waiting for the half to begin
Running toward Pedra da Gávea
Over that hour, the crowd grew and I opted to sit on the pavement so as to not be standing so much before the race start. I didn't have anyone to talk to, since practically all around me were Brazilians only speaking Portuguese to each other, until I suddenly heard some English right behind me. Two guys, one from Sweden and one from Ireland, were now living in São Paulo and came down to Rio just to run the half.  We exchanged niceties before the gun went off, and soon, we were all across the start line on this point-to-point course, with the peak of 2,762 foot tall Pedra da Gávea looming largely over us.  It was a sunny morning, 70º with high (but not terribly high) humidity, and at this time of morning, the sun was still low on the horizon, and not beating down on us.  From the route on Avenida do Pepê, we made a slight left turn onto the frontage road of the Avenida Ministro Ivan Lins, before taking a sharp U-turn that took us along the highway ramp and the Ponte Joatinga over the Lagoa da Tijuca. Finishing the first mile in about 9:38, we then ran through the first tunnel, the Túnel do Joa, a rather stuffy 1/4 mile (as most tunnels feel in humid conditions), before emerging onto the lower level of the Elevado dos Bandeiras, a complex of tunnels, bridges and viaducts that connects Rio's Zona Oeste with Zona Sul.
Running along the highway ramp
About to run through the stuffy Túnel do Joa
Sunrise over Morro Dois Irmãos
While running here, the sun was directly behind another picturesque mountain, the Morro Dois Irmãos, giving it a very striking silhouette.  Morro Dois Irmãos and its unmistakable shape have two of Rio's most well known favelas along its flanks - Rocinha, the largest and most populous in Brazil; and Vidigal. We would be running toward it, and ultimately running along its oceanside base. As we continued along the lower level of the Elevado, we could see the rocky uninhabited nature preserves of the Ilhas Tijucas, out in the ocean. When it finally spat us out (after a nice downhill stretch, and another tunnel, the Túnel de São Conrado), we had hit our second mile, and emerged into the seaside enclave of São Conrado, as we hugged the coastline with the beach to our right and many condo buildings and luxury hotels (as well as a sizable golf course) to our left.
Running through the seaside community of São Conrado
The favela of Vidigal, in view above the course
Running down hilly Avenida Niemeyer
As we approached Morro Dois Irmãos, we ascended along the first real presentable elevation challenge, as we weaved our way around the mountain's base, on the gradual rollers of the 2.5 mile long Avenida Niemeyer. This area was considered part of the neighborhood of Vidigal, with its namesake favela situated literally right above us. Here, we saw the stark and obvious contrast of the poverty in the shoddily built favelas along the steep hillside to the luxury designer and name-brand hotels positioned right along the water.

Lifeguard tower #12 in Leblon
A steep downhill took us past the mile 6 mark, as we flattened out into the trendy neighborhood of Leblon, and running along the wide avenue alongside Leblon's beach.  The sun was definitely out, but with the buildings blocking its direct shine, the shade provided us a nice breeze that kept the temperatures manageable.  Leblon gave way to Rio's famous Ipanema Beach, and we were finally getting spectators out in droves to cheer us on.  The beach was just starting to get populated from morning arrivals as we ran past.  The lifeguard/fire stations, visible with their large numbers, provided a good option for fartlek games, to maximize our running time on this very flat part of the race. From #12 in Leblon, we reached #8 in Ipanema, roughly 2 miles.
Sunny along Copacabana Beach
Running through Copacabana
The route then took us slightly left, as we ran down the treelined Rua Francisco Otaviano, the major street that emptied us right out onto Copacabana Beach's beachside avenue, the Avenida Atlântica. With the sun now positioned on our right over the ocean, we felt its heat for the first time, and the challenge was to run with the sun bearing down on us, fully exposed to its rays with no clouds in sight.  Running the length of Copacabana Beach - roughly two miles in length - definitely took its toll, and it was where my pace began to slow. It was definitely a mental game... despite only having some 3 miles left to run, I can't tell you how much I wanted to run through that cool sand and jump into that ocean, regardless of what the water temperature was like... the morning sun was starting to dehydrate me!

Running up Avenida Princesa Isabel, less than 5K to go.
Heading toward Botafogo, but one last tunnel to run through...
Túnel Novo
At mile 10.5, we turned left onto Avenida Princesa Isabel, and about 600 meters in front of us was an imposing wall of green known as the Morro da Babilônia.  We ran through the Túnel Novo, one of two tunnels that connects Copacabana to Botafogo underneath the hill. We ran about 250 meters along the length of the tunnel before emerging onto Avenida Lauro Sodré in the Botafogo district; a water station was situated just after exiting the tunnel, and I gladly took a cup to pour over my overheated head.  We continued on along the busy four lane avenue, eventually crossing the median to make our way across onto the parallel four lane avenue.  We had one more tunnel to run through, the Túnel Lauro Sodré underneath Morro do Pasmado, before ending up along the Avenida das Nações Unidas, skirting along Botafogo Beach, with the impressive Pão de Açúcar providing a fantastic backdrop across the bay to our right, and Corcovado and the Cristo Redentor in the distance to our left.  The road curved as it turned into Avenida Infante Dom Henrique, and the final mile to the finish line next to the Parque do Flamengo in the Flamengo neighborhood.  Though I slowed down, I was happy to finish in 2:17, on a beautiful Rio morning.
Cristo Redentor and Corcovado to our left...
Pão de Açúcar and the finish line coming soon!
A constant reminder that the Olympics were here only two years earlier...
Enjoying Parque Lage
I headed back to the Airbnb, where Seth had slept in rather than going out to explore, and after a much needed shower, we decided to spend the afternoon checking out Parque Lage, a landscaped park and garden designed in 1840, adorned with features of English romanticism juxtaposed against the tropical environment. A mansion in the center of the park was refashioned into a residence in the 1920s by Italian architect Mario Vodret for the Lage family, who acquired it in 1859. Today, Parque Lage houses the Escola de Artes Visuais (School of Visual Arts), and its grounds are part of Tijuca National Park. Seth and I explored the grounds; him exploring a little further amongst the more untamed trails that lead up to Corcovado, while I stuck around the edge of the park where marmosets roamed freely. While cute, there were a lot of them, and I later would find out that the marmosets are considered an invasive species in Rio.
Parque Lage is at the foot of Corcovado
Late lunch in Ipanema
After Seth got back from his little adventure, we headed back out to the road and got an Uber to take us to Ipanema, where we decided have a late lunch at the slightly touristy restaurant, Garota de Ipanema, the spot where the legendary bossa nova song of the same name was penned by songwriters Antonio Tom Jobim and Vinicius de Moraes. They were inspired by a beautiful girl who passed by the window of the bar as they enjoyed a beer each day, and today the spot is a major tourist attraction.  I enjoyed a tasty Churrasco à Oswaldo Aranha (churrasco steak with fried garlic on top), rice, farofa (toasted cassava), and chips; and of course a caipirinha or two. We then decided to spend the rest of the afternoon beachside, enjoying the atmosphere of Ipanema Beach.

Race kit ready to go...
Shuttling out to the marathon start
We had a pretty low key evening, since our alarm clocks were going off again early in the morning, waking up at the ungodly hour of 3:30am.  Shuttles were running from the pickup spot with (the same 20 minute jog away, but at least this time I wasn't alone) starting at 4:30 am every five minutes until 5:00, and the lines were very long compared to the prior day.  We had to walk quite a bit of distance in order to get to the end of the line, but luckily they moved quickly, and Seth and I got into a shuttle to head to the start line. We took the roundabout way yet again through the north of Rio, but this time, I was tired enough to nap for most of the way. The bus dropped us off at the Praça do Pontal do Tim Maia in Recreio dos Bandeirantes - 12 miles further up the coast than yesterday, and there were already many people there prepping for the 7:00am start of the race, half an hour later than the day before.

The cloudy startline.
This Sunday morning was already very different from Saturday.  The skies were pretty overcast, with the mercury hitting 73º, and the air was saturated with moisture - the humidity was at 83%. It was definitely going to be a different atmosphere than the day before; clouds engulfing the sky kept the temps maybe a couple degrees cooler, but the humidity seemed to be higher.  Seth and I jockeyed for position inside the corral, as it seemed like it was going to be a free for all to get ourselves out on the course as soon as the gun went off; and it definitely was, as the one lane of the road we were running on was quite crowded as we made our way westward.  Uniquely, we were going to be heading out in the opposite direction of the course, for a short out and back that took us along the Estrada do Pontal, rounding our way around the Avenida Paulo Tapajos, before beginning our easterly course after the first mile.
Powerlines buzzing overhead through Recreio dos Bandeirantes
Monotonous early miles...
It was a very residential area that we ran through, with power lines audibly buzzing overhead as we ran underneath, but it eventually gave way to the shoreline of the white sand beaches of Praia Recreio.  It would be a VERY montonous slog on the Avenida Lucio Costa all the way to Barra da Tijuca, covering nearly seven miles of road, with the ocean to the right, and the urban fabric to our left. From mile 4 to 9, we ran on the thin strip of road, sidewalk, and beach, as to our right was the Parque Natural Municipal de Marapendi, a municipal nature park, and the Lagoa de Marapendi, a large polluted mangrove lagoon that separates the Recreio neighborhood from Barra da Tijuca.  We really got to feel the humidity along this open length, but were entertained by the occasional spectator, including one gentleman dressed in Brazil's omnipresent green and yellow colors, riding by on a bike and seemingly always stopping to honk his bicycle horn at us and cheer just as I was passing by.  There were even a few runners in interesting oufits, like a guy dressed in a whole rainforest tree costume, adorned with stuffed toys - he was probably sweating bullets under that thing.

Fun costumes, but in this humidity...
Along the way, I also ran into my friend, San Francisco Front Runner Devesh, who was having a rough time with the humidity as well.  Eventually, we finally began to run by some buildings at the ninth mile of the race, passing through the western parts of Barra da Tijuca.  Things started to look familiar as we approached the halfway point, and in paricular, the area where we had started the half marathon the day before.

Juxtaposing favelas and hotels...
The second half of the marathon was basically the entire race of the day before's half marathon, but with more humidity and clouds and less sun.  Knowing how the course would look and feel from this point on, I put my phone away for most of the remainder of the race, and calculated my run-walks in my mind as best as I could knowing when the uphills and downhills would be as we made our way through the tunnels to São Conrado and around the hilly Morro Dois Irmãos; and where lifeguard towers along the beaches of Leblon, Ipanema, and Copacabana could act as my landmarks for fartleks, as far as my tired legs could take me down my 26th through 39th miles of the weekend.

Less than two miles to go!
I had been worried about the views of Pão de Açúcar being obstructed by clouds when we came through the last tunnel into Botafogo, but there it was in all its glory as we made our way around the Avenida das Nações Unidas.  While the 5 hour mark ticked by just before I reached the 25 mile mark, I realized I could still figuratively finish under 5:15, which was still fine by me.  I pushed through the Avenida Infante Dom Henrique, as we made our way to Flamengo, and I crossed the finish line in 5:13:00 on the dot.

Victory headstand, before the rain...
It started to sprinkle moments after I finished the race; after finishing, I headed straight for the Desafio tent once again to retrieve my challenge medal; I had kept my half marathon medal in a plastic bag that I safety-pinned into my shorts pocket, so I could take a photo - namely my headstand photo - with Pão de Açúcar in the background.  Seth found me shortly thereafter, and we walked closer to a less crowded area to get my photo taken as it began to drizzle a little more.  We walked away from the commotion of the finish line and were able to grab an Uber back to our Airbnb and it wasn't long before the rain started to come down... and come down it did.  It rained for several hours, with some winds that whipped the rain sideways, almost as if there were a hurricane coming through Rio!  Seth and I decided to stay in, nap the rest of the afternoon away, and then upon waking, cook up some of the pasta that was provided as part of the giveaways for the race. 

Mmm... fried chicken Brazil style!
Well rested, and with the rain having dissipated for the most part, we decided to head out to Leblon later that evening, taking the subway out to a beer bar Seth had found called Barteco, where we indulged in some locally made brews - a really good Russian Imperial Stout called "Carvoeira Cacau," made in the city of Lauro Muller, Santa Catarina; and a not as tasty "Tiramisúale Ale" from a Rio craft brewery called Cerveja D'alaje - a blond ale flavored with coffee, cocoa, and vanilla, giving off a tiramisu-like flavor.  It was still raining, but we walked a few blocks over to Restaurante Degrau, a restaurant in the neighborhood with 55-years of history, for our final dinner of this trip - I enjoyed a delicious pot of frango à Passarinho, a delicious fried chicken dish cut into small pieces and seasoned with garlic!

I got him to smile for this photo.
The next day, both Seth and I had our flights out; after sleeping in a bit, we decided to check out a couple more sights that were within walking distance from our Airbnb before heading out to the airport in the afternoon.  We wandered over to the Museu Villa-Lobos, a small museum dedicated to the works of the Brazilian composer Heitor Villa-Lobos, described as "the single most significant creative figure in 20th-century Brazilian art music," and one of many interesting figures of the Brazilian cultural scene of last century. While the small museum, created to preserve his cultural heritage and publicize his work, was entirely in Portuguese, we still appreciated looking at some of the artifacts saved from his life.  We then wandered over to the Mirante do Morro do Pasmado, a not-very-well-known overlook with sweeping views of Enseada de Botafogo, Pão de Açúcar and Corcovado. We walked up a steep incline leading to the area, which was a bit overgrown, and somewhat abandoned looking, and notably it was overtaken by stray cats, literally everywhere.  It may not have been the safest area either, but we at least got to finish out this trip with another great view.

We shared an Uber to the airport, and while he had quite a bit of time to spare before his evening flight direct back to Florida, I hopped on a LATAM flight to São Paulo, where I had a short layover before the overnight flight that took me straight back to New York City.  I had wisely utilized one of my upgrade certificates, so got to have a nice lie flat seat on the long flight back, and despite the plane being a little older, was able to enjoy the end of a long week in some luxury!  After Memorial Day weekend in France, and this trip not long after, I had accrued some 18,000+ miles of flying, hundreds of miles of train and subway travel, about 180 miles of bus travel, 65.5 miles of racing, and countless miles of walking and sightseeing, all on two hemispheres - with a <48 hour break back in NYC for work in between. I landed back in New York early the next morning, and like always... headed straight to the office for a full day of work, back to the grind! 

Medal haul!

Tuesday, March 26, 2019

Race Report: Marathon de la Baie du Mont Saint-Michel

The obvious choice for a marathon in France would be the Paris Marathon in April.  But as a self-professed Francophile, I was immediately drawn to the Marathon de la Baie du Mont Saint-Michel, a point to point race occurring near the historic island of Mont Saint-Michel, a site I had learned about while studying French during my high school years.  The plus side was that the race was occurring over Memorial Day weekend, so I automatically had an extra free day to tack onto the weekend.  So it got added to my schedule, and I went about planning for a hop across the Atlantic to France!

After work on the Friday I left, I headed to the airport, expecting to be greeted by horrendously long lines for the holiday at one of my least favorite terminals at JFK, Terminal 1.  Despite Air France being part of the TSA PreCheck program, it's practically useless at this international terminal.  Thankfully, after arriving and getting my boarding pass, the lines were not as long as I thought them to be, and I got through security quickly, giving me ample time to utilize the Air France Lounge to have a quick meal before my flight.

The flight to Paris' Orly Airport was comfortable in the economy section of the plane.  The meal wasn't bad, and I was able to get enough sleep on the overnight flight landing before 9am at Paris' second airport.  Orly is known to be a bit of a dated airport, comparable to New York's LaGuardia airport, and is known to be chaotic to depart out of, but I was only arriving here.  The massive Boeing 777 we flew out of came to a stop out on the tarmac, and we had to deplane down stairs and board buses to get to the terminal.  I was near the front of the plane and the bus, so I was able to get through immigration and customs quickly, and grab the first Le Bus Direct service headed to Paris Montparnasse station, giving me more than enough time before my scheduled train ride out to Rennes, in Brittany. I bided my time, by having breakfast at a cute brasserie nearby, and walked around the cute streets nearby in the 14th arrondissement. My train was departing a little after noon, and would take two hours to get to Rennes, due west of the French capital.  I had a bit of extra time in Rennes as well, before my bus ride to Mont Saint-Michel, so I walked around the downtown area, staying close to the train station, and also had my first taste of Breton cuisine (a savory galette.)  I got to see a beautiful garden just north of the river that flows through town, La Vilaine.  I wish I got to explore more, but I only had a couple hours, and had my backpack with everything I had on me.

The trip up to Mont Saint-Michel from Rennes was 45 minutes long, heading through the pastoral Brittany countryside.  The bus was fairly empty with only around 10-15 passengers, and aside from a Filipino family I befriended while waiting at the bus terminal, it seemed like the rest of us were headed to Mont Saint-Michel specifically to participate in the marathon.  One of these folks was a man named Jeremy, visiting from Malta, and running his third marathon.  We would exchange information upon arriving and meet up the following day, after the race.

As we headed closer to our destination and into the visibly similar but altogether different region of Normandy, the abbey came into view, and it was just as majestic as you'd think it would look, upon first seeing it in real life.  The bus dropped us off, and it was a short walk down the main strip to my hotel.  Already, I saw several folks walking around wearing medals from the two races that had happened that morning, the 55-kilometer (34.17 mile) Trail de l'Archange trail race and the half marathon length Semi d'Avranches, both running from points along the east of the bay and culminating at or near the iconic mount. At 6pm and the sun beginning to wane, I headed to Mont Saint-Michel, waiting at the convenient bus stop in front of my hotel, to catch the bus to take us across the causeway to the island.

Finally seeing Mont St. Michel!
Mont Saint-Michel is located about one kilometre (0.6 miles) off of the coast, at the mouth of the Couesnon River, situated just within Normandy right off the border with Brittany.  Throughout its long history, first as a fortification and later as the seat of the monastery from which it draws its name, the tidal island has been accessible at low tide to its many pilgrims, but also defensible as an incoming tide stranded, drove off, or drowned would-be assailants.  The connection between Mont Saint-Michel and the mainland has changed over the centuries. Previously connected by a tidal causeway (a path uncovered only at low tide), it was converted into a raised (and permanently dry) causeway in 1879, preventing the tide from scouring the silt around the mount. Over the years, the bay silted up due to polderization of the coastal flats along the bay shore to create pastureland for sheep and other livestock. Vehicles would also drive up and park right near the island, eroding the land.  In 2012, a hydraulic dam, the Barrage sur le Couesnon, was completed, encouraging removal of the accumulated silt by using waters from the river, and two years later, a new bridge was constructed, allowing the waters to flow freely around the island and improving the efficiency of the now operational dam.  Special shuttle buses regularly make the trip from the new car parks, now located roughly 2.5 kilometers away, up to a point along the bridge, from where visitors can walk up to the entrance gates of the island.
Once passing through the gates of the island, I felt like I was in a scene from Harry Potter!
A specialty of the region - omelettes!
I spent the next two hours on my own discovering the maze of streets and alleyways all along this beautiful landmark, one which I've studied since high school French class, and has always been a bucket list location to visit. Unfortunately, the abbey was closed to visits by 5pm, so I vowed to return the following day after the race before I headed back to Rennes, to get a chance to visit the abbey at the very top of the island.  While walking around, I befriended another runner, a Filipina expat named Bernadette, along with her American husband Richard, who were now living in Belgium.  Before leaving the island, I had a hearty pre-race meal at Les Terrasses Poulard, enjoying a three course meal which included Normandy oysters, a traditional Mont Saint-Michel fluffy omelette with bacon and fries, and a tarte tatin apple pie slice, all washed down with some Breton sweet cider. All the while, I could see the sky in the distance get darker and darker, with imminent inclement weather approaching.
Delicious oysters harvested from the Normandy coast
Before long, I knew it was time to head back.  The skies were ominously dark, and the winds had picked up considerably. I captured some vivid photos and video of the expanse all around us, lightning flashing in the gloomy distance to the south and east, abruptly fading into an ombre of wispy clouds in the vibrant sunset in the north and west. I could feel the air saturating and that rain was coming soon, so I decided to make a run for it to the buses up further along the bridge, already crowded with passengers.  With room for me to jump in, the rain began to fall, and I made it just in time before the downpour started. Unfortunately, despite being safely in the confines of the bus, the roof hatch was ajar for ventilation purposes, and the rain was getting in. Within minutes, the rain turned into slightly less than marble sized hail, and that was coming through the hatch, as well.  It was truly a sight to see, and an experience to remember - the bus finally arrived at the bus stop in front of the hotel, and despite making my best efforts to sprint across the parking lot to the hotel lobby, I was fully drenched from top to bottom from the pouring rain. I settled in for the night, laying my clothes out and watched some French game shows, before calling it a night.

My new friend Jeremy, from Malta
The next morning, the weather we had the night before had passed, and we were left with damp ground afoot, but otherwise, a beautiful morning for a race.  I quickly threw my race clothes on, and packed up my stuff in order to check out of the hotel, since check out would be happening when I was in the middle of the race.  I left my backpack with the lobby attendants, who would kindly keep my bags for the rest of the day until I needed them again after the race. I walked over to the P7 parking lot, where shuttles were organized to take marathoners out to the startline roughly half an hour away in Cancale.

The startline!
Cancale received the runners in multiple buses with open arms, and the excitedness for the race start was palpable in the air.  We congregated in the port area of this sleepy fishing town, known locally as the "oyster capital" of Brittany. I ran into both Bernadette and Jeremy at the start, as well as befriending a couple other Americans running and visiting the area, and in the corrals with two American expats now living in Germany.  After a slight delay, we were off and running, with the exposed morning sun already signalling to us it would be a warm day.  Within the first mile, we began to ascend the small hill along the Route Panoramique, circling the edge of the bay, as we made our way out of the town's portside area. I began to break a sweat as we reached the highest point of the race, running in a shaded section bounded on both sides by tall trees.

Leaving Cancale
Running through the French countryside
"Closed ramp" signs for the race
The course continued as we turned left onto departmental road D76, along a nice straight shot that eventually took us along a down ramp into the commune of Saint-Méloir-des-Ondes, to transfer onto the largely downhill D155 road. Along the way, a runner dressed in a full fireman's uniform passed me by.  I hit the 5K mark in a comfortable 30 1/2 minutes. The course flattened out, which it would be for the remainder of the race, as we began to run toward the coast until the road began to run right alongside the coast, turning into Rue du Bord de Mer.  We ran through the coastal commune of Saint-Benoit-des-Ondes, to the towns of Vildé La Marine, La Bout de la Ville, and La Quesmière in the commune of Hirel.

All along the way, Mont-Saint-Michel was quite far in the distance, and in the marine layer of the morning, you could just make out the outline of the abbey. Townsfolk in all these quaint little Bretagne towns cheered us on, many waving the unmistakeable flag of Brittany, also known as the Gwenn-ha-du, which means "white and black" in the Celtic language of Breton, a regional language in this area.  The flag of those colors has nine horizontal stripes represent the traditional dioceses of Brittany into which the duchy was divided historically, with the black stripes representing the French speaking dioceses and the white stripes as the Breton speaking dioceses. In the right corner is an ermine canton, with eleven 'ermine spots' representative of the way the black-tipped tails of the ermine, or short-tailed weasel (a national emblem of Brittany) were hung on the white fur.
Starting to get hot, as we run through Cherrueix...
A windmill, or moulin, along the course!
Passing through one of the communes
In the commune of Le Vivier-sur-Mer, the course took a short detour off of the coastal road, as we did a roughly 1/2 mile loop along an area of reclaimed land that housed a boat supply and boat builders company, and some manufacturers. It wasn't the prettiest part of the race, that's for sure, but it was short, as we continued to run east along the coast toward Cherrueix.  We came off of the road for a short period, running along the Route de la Saline, where we got to run by one of the commune's historic nineteenth century windmills. After the 12 mile mark, we turned right onto the main street that passed through Cherrueix.  I distinctly remember passing by a small garden of red poppies along the side of the road at mile 12. It was so fitting seeing these, with Memorial Day being the following day in the US, as poppies have been associated as a memorial for fallen soldiers dating back to the early 1900s. In fact, the flower is the official memorial flower for the Veterans of Foreign Wars.

Finally, some shade!
We ran through the center of Cherrueix, past lots of spectators, as this was the halfway point; full marathoners veered left to continue on, while the duo-marathoners had their exchange point near the town's main church, the Notre Dame de la Garde.  As we left Cherrueix, I heard bagpipes playing, a uniquely Breton musical instrument. Played by two instrumentalists, the duo, known as "sonneurs de couple" consist of a talabarder and biniaouer, the former playing a double-reed woodwind "bombard" similar to an oboe or clarinet (and thusly, playing music sounding much like klezmer music) and the latter playing a Breton bagpipe called a binou kozh.

27 kilometers in, and the remainder of the race is out in the polders
Our pathway along the polders
Some shade, but not enough...
We ran through the largely residential towns of Le Han and Le Lac, feeling overly exposed to the sun. Thankfully, by mile 15, the route took us to a tree-lined trail, offering us a much needed respite from the oppressive heat.  Running under the shade of a nice canopy of trees reduced the temperature by a good five degrees, and we got to run under the shade for the next mile. We emerged out of the trees to run a very exposed route with long straight sections into the open polders.  16 miles into the race, and the next nine miles would be very monotonous and for the most part unmemorable.  All I can remember was, "fine, Mont Saint-Michel is getting closer, we're running on very flat terrain, my electrolytes are low... and DAMN it's hot out here. The clouds are not doing much to shade me from that sun.  I'm going to get BURNT." I did manage to pass a few runners who were clearly struggling in the heat in the last few miles, including a guy who clearly had an incredibly poor English translation of the Nietzsche quote, "What doesn't kill you makes you stronger," written clear as day on the back of his shirt.

A very poorly translated quote.
Flat flat flat, as far as the eye can see...
Just over a mile to go...
At mile 25, the course crossed the Couesnon River, and we ran alongside it on a sidewalk teeming with spectators and runners who had already finished the race.  Mont Saint-Michel was in clear view, as was the Barrage, which was the end point of the race.  I toughed it out and got myself to the finish line in 5:10:21.  I found Josh, one of the American expats living in Germany that I met at the start, just after receiving my medal, as he had finished some five minutes before I did.  After passing through the food tent (where they gave out cups of Coke, which was SOOOO refreshing, especially since there was no energy drink or electrolyte at all given throughout the whole race!) and getting to sit for a little bit, I had Josh take my headstand photo for me, before I headed off back into town to grab a much needed shower back at the hotel.  Despite being checked out already, they provided me the opportunity to use their facilities to take a shower, but only at the campground area behind the hotel.  It was a little rough, but at least I got rinsed.

Finally seeing Mont St. Michel in the distance.
A victory headstand with Mont St. Michel
The Abbey at Mont St. Michel
After my shower, I realized that Jeremy was in the same hotel as me, and staying an additional night (which meant I probably could've gotten a proper shower, but oh well).  I had a few more hours left before the last bus back to Rennes, so I wanted to take advantage of the time by returning to Mont Saint-Michel.  With Jeremy joining me, we took the shuttle buses across the causeway and ascended the mount on tired and sore legs, going even higher up to the abbey, which was open for tours for €10 admission. We got there just in time as an English-language guided tour was happening, which we were able to join, getting to hear a bit of the history of the abbey, its unique architecture, and how the mount came to be.

So many stairs ahead of me, just because I wanted to see the abbey.
So high up... everyone looks like ants!
Well-deserved bling!
After the tour, we returned via shuttle back into "town" so I could grab my bag and then head straight to the buses for my scheduled departure.  There were A LOT of folks taking the bus back to Rennes, and it turns out, they overbooked, so I had to take a separate bus with the rest of the folks that didn't make it on the first bus.  I appreciated it though, because I got the same entertaining bus driver who drove us the day before, and I didn't have quite as many people to have to share air conditioning with, haha.  I snoozed for most of the 45 minute trip back down to the city.

Upon arriving back in Rennes, I found out that my train trip the following day was one of many that were cancelled due to the ongoing train strikes plaguing the entire country.  The SNCF at least provided the specific days they were going on strike, and while I knew there was a high probability that this would happen, I still had kept my fingers crossed that my trip would remain unscathed.  I purchased a non-refundable bus ticket as a contingency plan just in case, but unfortunately, it would be an uncomfortable 5+ hour ride.  I decided to head into the Rennes train station to see if I could perchance exchange my train ticket for a potential earlier train; unfortunately, it seemed everything was fully booked.  Not one to be denied upon my first option, I tried it again with a slightly altered route, and all of a sudden, a seat had opened up, giving me the chance to exchange the ticket to an earlier train that was running without any additional charge.  I'd be able to get into Paris, and have more time to spend before making my way to the airport.

After dinner (a much craved-after entrecote of steak, plus a Breton favorite dessert, a Kouign Ammann), I headed back to my hotel, a short walk from the train station, where I booked for the night.  After a comfortable night's sleep, I woke up early the next morning, to check out and take my seat on the train headed to Paris.  It was a pretty empty train leaving Rennes - originally, this train was supposed to leave out a couple points further west, but those legs ended up getting cancelled with the strike - but once we reached Le Mans, the station between Rennes and Paris, the train filled WAY over capacity, so much that I was asked by many folks dressed in business suits whether I had a seat or not, to which I showed them my actual ticket.  I guess, such is life for living in a constantly strike-prone country!

We arrived in Montparnasse by 9am, just in time for Paris rush hour.  I boarded extremely crowded metro cars as I made my way to Gare de Lyon train station, where I met up with my friend Cyril, a fellow Front Runner who had relocated from Sydney to Paris recently.  He worked nearby and agreed to meet me for breakfast that morning, which was nice of him.  We caught up on events of our lives since we last saw each other (and first met), which was on the Staten Island Ferry on our way to the start line for the New York City Marathon in 2017. After breakfast, I took a casual stroll through the city, making my way up to the Place de la Bastille, and through the fashionable Le Marais district on my way to the Chatelet-Les Halles, where I'd catch a RER train up to Charles de Gaulle Airport. Of course, the train strike affected these trains as well, so I had to transfer at Gare du Nord, but it was pretty easy to figure out, and I said adieu to Paris as I made my way to the massive Parisian airport. I had quite a bit of time to kill before my boarding time, so I spent a couple hours in the beautiful Air France Lounge, enjoying a small meal before my flight, and knowing that I'd be fed quite well in Delta One on my way back to the US.  We had an ~8 hour journey from Paris to Pittsburgh, where I'd connect on my way back to New York City. It was a long day of travel, but I'm glad I got to do it, especially seeing a site I had learned about and longed to see so many years ago.