Wednesday, March 13, 2019

Race Report: Eau Claire Marathon

When my 2018 began to take shape and I decided upon the Route 66 Marathon and Oklahoma being my 50th state for both marathons and national anthems in November of that year, I ended up having trouble finding a race to sing at in the state of Wisconsin.  I put out a few emails to races, but unfortunately they: a) either went unanswered, or b) responded to with "thanks, but we're set" emails.  In February 2018, I reached out to Greg Haapala, a fellow Michigan grad and RD for Grandma's Marathon in Duluth, Minnesota, to see if he had any connections with Wisconsin races, and he told me he was in close touch with the race directors for the Eau Claire Marathon, a fairly young marathon celebrating its tenth year of existence in early May.  At first, I was hesitant - it was scheduled for the first weekend in May - one that was already booked for me, as I was scheduled to run the Pittsburgh Marathon, in order to check off the state of Pennsylvania off of my list of marathon states. But I eventually realized that I could transfer my registration to another runner, opening up the weekend for Eau Claire. I'd just have to go about finding a different race in Pennsylvania for a marathon, which ended up becoming the Two Rivers Marathon in Lackawaxen, PA in March - a race I had done the half distance at a couple years back and had a good relationship with the race director for. Greg emailed Emily Uelmen, the Eau Claire race director, and she enthusiastically responded with the invitation to sing... and with that, my final state to schedule a national anthem in was confirmed on my calendar, and Wisconsin would be state #46.

The marathon race course!
Eau Claire, nestled in the rolling hills and valleys of the Chippewa Valley in northwestern Wisconsin, lies in a region that's known as the “Driftless Zone.”  An area of twisting rivers, deep gorges and large hills, it's a beautiful setting for the quintessential "Midwestern town."  Eau Claire’s downtown is centered at the confluence of the Eau Claire and Chippewa Rivers, lined on both sides with numerous parks and trails, and home to the second-most number of multi-use trails in Wisconsin, behind only the state capital of Madison. As such, numerous bridges cross these rivers, many varying in age.  These bridges, which help to establish Eau Claire with the moniker of "City of Bridges," create strong connections in the community, and carry a rich history.  The entire region played host to a strong railroad economy, which led to numerous railroad bridges throughout the city, almost all of which still exist today, many converted into bridges with pedestrian pathways. The marathon route was wisely thought out, as it takes runners on a scenic journey across eleven of the city's bridges.

Eau Claire is roughly a 1 1/2 hour drive from the twin cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul, and when I announced on social media that I got the anthem gig, an old family friend Kathleen responded inviting me to stay at her home.  I took the invitation, and got flights for early May to MSP.  When race weekend came, I left right after work on Friday to LGA, and flew the 2 1/2 hour flight out to Minneapolis arriving a little after 8pm.  After picking up my rental, it was a short drive over to Kathleen's, where I enjoyed chatting the rest of the evening away til past midnight, just catching up on nearly twenty years of lost time!

Culver's is a Wisconsin favorite!
The following day, I drove out to Eau Claire in the morning to pick up my bib at the race expo at the McPhee Physical Education Center on the campus of University of Wisconsin - Eau Claire, and also feel out the drive.  Traffic moved fairly quickly even in the late morning, so I figured race morning (when I'd be up before sunrise) would move even faster.  After picking up my bib then making a stop for lunch at local burger chain Culver's in the the city of Menomonie on the way back, I headed back to St. Paul and met up with Kathleen and her husband Chris at their daughter's lacrosse game in the suburb of Mendota Heights. It was a pretty sunny day, and after melting in the heat for a bit, Kathleen and I decided to make a trip over to Room and Board, a furniture store whose headquarters are based in the Minneapolis.  They have an outlet just off of the highway in the western suburb of Golden Valley, open only on the weekends.  I was in the market for a new chest of drawers and wanted to do a bit of window shopping; I found a fantastic sample for sale, but unfortunately didn't have the dimensions of my bedroom in order to decide to buy it.

Must have cheese curds when in WI!
Later that evening, we decided to participate in Cinco de Mayo festivities in town at a local Mexican joint called Pajarito that was having a block party; unfortunately, a thunderstorm began to brew nearby and within 20 minutes of arriving, we were forced back into our cars to either head back to the house or head elsewhere.  Kathleen headed back home with her daughter and her daughter's friends, but Chris rode with me to check out other spots in town: first, the fittingly-named Bad Weather Brewing Company (where I had a white stout for the first time - in other words, a beer where dark, roasted malts are omitted from the recipe, but the flavors are replaced by cold steeped coffee, cacao nibs, and vanilla beans); then Sweet Pea's Public House, where I got to have another local brew (an actual stout from Summit Brewing Company) and some cheese curds; and finally a giant serving of ice cream from local ice cream shop Nelson's.  LOTS of food for a night before a marathon, but it wasn't like I was going to go for any records anyway.
SO. MUCH. ICE. CREAM. (and I ate the entire thing!)
Singing the anthem at the race start
(Photo by the Eau Claire Marathon)
I slept soundly that night, and was awake by 4:30am the next morning, and out the door by 5am in the pre-dawn hours.  As expected, there was barely any traffic on I-94 heading eastward. The sun began to rise before 6am, as we continued on eastward, and lo and behold, it started to rain a little just as I reach the Eau Claire city limits. I arrived at 6:30, and navigated myself toward Carson Park, where I was given a special parking pass to park -- all other runners would have to shuttle in from other locations.  The rain had passed over quickly, just enough to dampen the ground a little bit; runners were beginning to assemble in Athlete's Village in the parking lot at the heart of Carson Park, a 134-acre island-like peninsula created on Half Moon Lake, part of the former course of the Chippewa River.  Life size marquee letters spelling out "#RUNEC" (the hashtag for the race weekend) were relocated to the park from the expo back at the university.  I decided this would be where I would have my headstand photo at the end of the race!

7:30 came very quickly, as the marathoners and relay runners began to assemble on Half Moon Drive, not far from where the buses were dropping runners off.  Relay runners would start five minutes after the marathoners, and half marathoners at 9:15 (they would end up having a trumpet quartet perform the national anthem for them!)  After Emily's father, race co-director Pat Toutant introduced me, a color guard marched out onto the road, carrying the American Flag. With the support of a fantastic sound system, I sang the Star Spangled Banner with an echo heard all throughout Carson Park, cascading all the way down to the Chippewa River.

Our startline!
Soon, we crossed the startline, and began to make our way along the perimeter drive clockwise around the peninusla. After the first half mile, as we rounded our way along the northern tip, we experienced an elevation gain of more than 50 feet, and I was already reduced to walking. My friend Dave found me as we both struggled up the hill. Just as we passed the Chippewa Valley Museum and a statue of Paul Bunyan and his blue ox Babe, as well as a man on stilts who decided to dress up like the famous lumberjack as he cheered on the runners, we began our descent past the Carson Park Baseball Stadium (a beautiful WPA project built in 1936) and along Carson Park Drive down to the first bridge of the race.


The Paul Bunyan statue in front of the Chippewa Valley Museum
Crossing our first bridge!
The first bridge that we ran over was the Carson Park Drive Bridge, which stretches across the eastern side of Half Moon Lake. One of the shortest bridges during the entire race, it cut across the modest Randall Park residential neighborhood along Grand Avenue, over to the concrete paths (part of the Chippewa River State Trail) alongside the Chippewa River. 

Bridge #2 - a truss bridge!
We continued north until we turned right across bridge number two, the Phoenix Park Railroad Bridge, a railroad truss bridge. We were now two miles in, crossing the Chippewa River for the first of several times.  After crossing the bridge, we turned left, heading north along Forest Street for roughly 3/4 mile, with a fairly visible 50 foot uphill near the end of this leg, before turning left and crossing the Chippewa River once again over the third bridge of the race.


Running alongside the Chippewa River
(Photo by the Eau Claire Marathon)
A selfie while crossing High Bridge
Now 3 miles into the race, we crossed the aptly named High Bridge, a beautifully refurbished bridge which opened back to the public in the summer of 2015. With a history that dates back to 1898, this ironclad bridge stands about 80 feet above the Chippewa River and stretches for almost 900 feet, allowing for an incredible sweeping view of the Chippewa River and downtown Eau Claire. On the other side of the bridge, we continued on northward through a quiet residential area as we skirted the west bank of the Chippewa River along 1st Street, connecting onto 3rd Street.  Before long, we were on the slight incline of the Old Wells Road Bridge, going over one of the city's historic railroads.  Old Wells Road passed through a quiet park area known as Domer Park, providing us with a slight downhill before turning right onto busy Wisconsin State Route 312, and the North Crossing.
Looking in the other direction while on High Bridge
Passing through the "Smile Mile"
Eventually, we made our way across the North Crossing Bridge, a long stretch spanning over the Chippewa River that offered magnificent views of the both the river and the waterfront homes. We then made our way past a spectator spot along the sidewalk we were running on, and where a local dentist's office sponsored a photographer to take photos of runners as they made their way through a balloon arch they called the "Smile Mile," which would later be uploaded to social media. We made our way through the culvert to the other side of North Crossing, and began to make our way north along Riverview Drive through Riverview Park.
Heading northward along Riverview Drive
The dirt trail out-and-back at mile 8
Just before the 6 mile mark, we passed over a timing mat as well as a large spectator spot where the first relay exchange point for the relay runners was located, before continuing on along the largely quiet road northward as the park gave way to a small residential area.  The road forced its way onto a right turn, eventually making its way to the 8 mile mark, and the entry point for a lengthy nearly 2.5 mile long out-and-back section where we'd be running along a dirt trail in the middle of a heavily wooded area.  It was actually nice to get a break from running on asphalt, giving my knees a bit of a break, as well as having some shade.  We exited the out and back on Riverview Drive, turning right, then began to ascend another steep incline, probably the steepest of the entire race, as we made our way to Airport Road and the largely quiet runway of the Chippewa Valley Regional Airport just over the fence.  Yet another relay exchange was found here, as was one of the windiest sections of the race, likely due to the openness of the surroundings.  Still we continued on, making our way around the residential streets surrounding the airport.  From miles 11.5 to 15.5, we ran along some of the quietest and most mind-numbing parts of the race, with the sun baking us overhead. I even had to stop along the way to reapply some sunblock for fear of my skin getting burned from the sun's powerful rays.
A curve on the road around the Chippewa Valley Regional Airport
The long section of bike trail
Eventually, we were pushed out to the easternmost point of the race, as Sundet Road made its way down 110th Street to a concrete bike trail, a long monotonous push that we would run for seemingly endless miles.  The trail, a former railroad corridor running through the city, ran parallel to Joles Avenue at first, then followed alongside Business US 53, for roughly 4.5 miles.  This is where the sun sapped a good amount of my energy, as the trail lacked any sort of shade trees.  Miles 18 through 19 ran alongside some industrial warehouse areas, and was also where the third relay exchange station was located.  We pushed on, making our way over our sixth bridge, the Hastings Way Bridge, one of the highest bridges in the city. Having been nearly 14 miles since the last bridge we crossed, this was a welcome sight.  It spans the Eau Claire River, with the city of Altoona sitting on the east side of it. As runners come to the end of the bridge, we could see a small park along the water, known as Archery Park, below us.

Passing by Banbury Place
We turned right just after the 20 mile mark, finally getting some relief from cold, soaked towels handed out to runners reaching this point, as we made our way down Fairway Street toward Boyd Park.  We took a right turn over the bridge number seven, the Boyd Park Bridge, a steel and timber bridge spanning the Eau Claire River, connecting the neighborhood park to the Banbury neighborhood. We passed Banbury Place, Eau Claire's most well known industrial landmark, formerly a tire factory turned ammunition factory turned back into a tire factory, but now a nearly 2 million square foot multi-use, multi-tenant facility offering differing spaces for rent, along the banks of the Eau Claire River. Nowadays, Banbury Place accommodates a mixture of light industrial manufacturing, commercial warehousing, retail, public/private offices, self-storage, and luxury warehouse style residential apartments - a familiar way in the midwest and other manufacturing towns to adaptively reuse old factory and warehouse buildings in urban locations.
Boyd Park Bridge after pivotal mile 20!
Crossing the Soo Line
Bridge (Photo by the
Eau Claire Marathon)
We then crossed the Soo Line "S" Bridge, an old bridge with a unique steel truss railroad structure that once carried trains, as our eighth bridge of the race. It was turned into part of the recreational trail, keeping its "S" like shape and curving its way across the Eau Claire River. We crossed back over to the south bank for a short period of time, as we made our way through Eau Claire's downtown, crossing over the Dewey Street Bridge and its unique concrete arch structure, then crossing over the river once again along the Eau Claire River Bridge on Barstow Street.  We continued on southward until we ran through the historic Third Ward neighborhood of Eau Claire, one of the city's oldest neighborhoods with some historic landmarked homes. Nestled between the curve of Putnam Park and the Chippewa River, the course took us down Graham Avenue, bearing a slight left onto Gilbert Avenue, then turning right along Rust Street.  After another right on Garfield Ave, we took Roosevelt Avenue all the way toward the campus of the University of Wisconsin - Eau Claire at the end of the street, and what's known as the Blugold Mile.  Somehow, I got a little bit of a kick, and sped up a bit, passing right by my friend Dave in the process.  The course crossed the campus' quad, which despite being later in the race, was still filled with some energy; being a slower runner and running the full, it was much appreciated that spectators in this much "storied" part of the race stuck around for us!

Mile 25, with some wrestlers ;)
We then crossed the eleventh and final bridge of the race: the Water Street Bridge. This bridge provides a direct linkage between downtown Eau Claire and the university area. We passed the university's art museum, the Foster Gallery, as we ran down Water Street, as I attempted to book it along the marathon's final mile.  The mile 25 aid station seemed to be manned by the university's wrestling team, showing off their muscles in the warm weather, so of course, I made sure to snap a selfie!  The road curved into Menomonie Street, before finally, the road back to Carson Park was in view.  We made the last right turn, and struggled up a TOUGH uphill (seriously, who puts these hills right at the end of the race course?!) before making my way across the finish line to the cheers of the crowd and Pat Toutant welcoming me to the finish! I crossed in a hard-fought 5:16:21, and sought for much-needed shade, and was thrilled to be able to suck down a can of soda given to me in the food tent.  I found a few friends afterward, who were kind enough to take my headstand photo for me.
Victory Headstand! #runec
Soon, I got back on the road to drive the 1.5 hours back to St. Paul for a much-needed shower.  After resting my legs for a bit, I headed to the airport for my evening flight back home to New York. It was one more marathon completed - a marathon state I didn't need, but a national anthem state I did need; and, as has been the case recently, I HAD to do the full distance again, as it was offered to me!

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