Friday, March 15, 2019

Race Report: ING Night Marathon Luxembourg

When the street festival I had put on in 2017 for work was cancelled for 2018, the weekend we were planning it for became open, so I decided to go international and do a race in Europe for that weekend.  I had a few to choose from, including the Copenhagen Marathon, a race in Visé, Belgium, that would run through the better known Dutch city of Maastricht, and the ING Night Marathon in Luxembourg.  Ultimately, it came down to figuring out flight schedules for the weekend, one that would both maximize my time on the ground in my destination city, yet not take away from my annual leave days from work.  The Luxembourg race from the get-go had caught my eye due to its evening start and the fact that it was near to major airports that could get me back to NYC directly.  But by the time I had made the decision in March that Luxembourg was the race I wanted to run, they had already sold out of bibs for the marathon.

I put my name on the waiting list and also kept a close eye on the social media accounts for the race for people willing to legally transfer their bibs, yet only kept finding half marathoners wanting to sell.  After only five days on the list, I was emailed that a bib had opened up, so I quickly grabbed it and began to figure out plans to get myself to the only Grand Duchy in the entire world.

Upgraded into Business Class!
On the Friday I was leaving for Europe, I left the office at about 2:30 to check in at Terminal 4 for my 5:30 flight on KLM to Amsterdam.  KLM has a decent upgrade-with-miles + co-pay program, so I put my name in for a business class seat headed to Amsterdam; my thinking is that I would for sure appreciate getting some rest on the plane feeling comfortably because once I land on the other side of the Atlantic, I will need to keep myself awake for the next 19 hours. I was successful in getting my upgrade into business class and enjoyed the 6 1/2 hour trip in a comfortable lie flat seat.

I had a two hour layover in Amsterdam, so I bided my time at the KLM Crown Lounge until my flight to Luxembourg was ready to board; the plane ended up departing a little delayed, so we ended up arriving about a half hour later than anticipated.  I had been in contact with my friend Pål from Norway, who was running the race as well and had gotten into town the day before with his wife Tone - he gave me pretty good directions about getting myself to LuxEXPO THE BOX, the expo/exhibition hall, where the packet pickup and race start and finish would be.  It was pretty self explanatory - grab the #16 bus and take it two stops to the LuxExpo stop.
The LuxExpo is in the northeastern part of the city of Luxembourg known as the Kirchberg quarter, known primarily as an economic hub, but notable for being more recently developed into a contemporary cultural hub. I got there not long after the expo had opened, and was able to bypass any significant queues to get my bib.  Unfortunately, they had messed up the order with finisher t-shirts (which we had to purchase for this race), but I was able to eventually get one a size up, which fit me just fine.  After breezing through the quick expo and checking out the start and finish area getting ready for the race that evening, I went back on a bus and took it into the historical center of the city, the Ville Haute, where I easily found my Airbnb from the great directions my host gave me.  He was there to let me in, and we chatted for awhile while I recharged my phone.

Touring Luxembourg before the race
Once I had enough juice in my phone, I decided to head out to discover some of the city near to my Airbnb, first walking across the "Old Bridge," when I ran into Pål and Tone on the sidewalk!  Since we had agreed to meet for lunch 45 minutes later, they decided to show me around the short circuit of the old city they had become familiar with, which was quite nice to get a lay of the land.  In that short period of time, we stopped into the Cathedrale de Notre Dame, completed in 1618 by the Jesuits and is the only Roman Catholic cathedral in Luxembourg; the Place Guillaume, which hosts a market every Wednesday and Saturday, which that day was ending as we passed through; the Grand Ducal Palace, official residence of the Grand Duke of Luxembourg; the Hôtel de la Chambre des Députés, home of the country's legislature, known as the Chamber of Deputies; and Place Clairefontaine, which has a monument in honor of the Grand Duchess Charlotte, and where a samba band was performing for a large crowd as we passed by.

A view down into the Grund
Pål and I, pre race.
We then grabbed a late lunch at a place around the corner from my Airbnb, opting for pizza to satiate our hunger with only hours before the marathon. While Pål and Tone left to go back to their hotel for Pål to get prepared for the race, I opted to take the next 90 minutes exploring more of the core of Luxembourg city.  I took a long set of stairs, descending some 45 meters from the Old Bridge to the Pétrusse Valley floor below.  I walked around through the Grund quarter and took an elevator back up to the Ville Haute, stopping by the Bock Casemates, a network of underground fortifications built in the 18th century that are recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Before long, our 4:30 meeting time approached, so I grabbed the next bus headed to Gare Centrale, and waited to meet up with Pål as many other runners began to board shuttle buses up to the LuxExpo for the race start.
Posing with the Luxembourg sign, just before the race begins.
Stilt walkers!
After finally getting on a crowded bus (having to stand, but making friends with other runners around us, notably a young couple from England), we eventually arrived at the LuxExpo, crowded with people getting ready for the 7pm race start. I found a spot against the wall inside the massive exhibition area, and got myself changed into my race kit that I had brought along with me. The temps had been warm all day, and with the sun beginning to set, its intensity kept us inside until the last possible moment to get ourselves out to the corrals to prepare for the moments before the race.  Meanwhile, I managed to get an orange ING hat that I decided to wear for the start of the race. Pål and I eventually separated, as he went into a corral near the front, while I retreated back to one of the last corrals, and we positioned ourselves as we waited for the race to start. The start gun went off promptly at 7, with confetti and an enthusiastic crowd sending us off (including a guy dressed as a clown just before starting the race) on this unique hilly race with the most turns I'll have ever run in a marathon; with the sheer amount of runners amongst the different distances, I didn't get past the start mat until a quarter past the hour.
Finally getting past the start line!
Running down Konrad Adenauer
Almost immediately, we made our way up the slight hill on Rue Hugo Gernsbach up to the Boulevard Pierre Frieden, taking us to the around the Kiem residential district. We turned onto the Boulevard Konrad Adenauer, a treelined street past the Reimerwee residential district, seeing runners coming back the other way.  We then made a big loop around a massive area primed for redevelopment known as the Op der Schleed.  By the time we looped back along Konrad Adenauer, we had finished the first 5K of the race, which I was able to accomplish speedily (for me) in just under 31 minutes. The guy in the clown costume had made his way to that point of the race to cheer us on by that point in time. The heat was getting to me already, so I decided to lose the orange hat at this point of the race.  We eventually turned right then ran along a narrow bike trail that cut through the Kirchberg campus of the University of Luxembourg.  I managed to keep up with the 4:29 pacers along much of this section, then passed him later as we eventually came out onto the wide Avenue John F. Kennedy.

Running across the "Red Bridge"
Avenue John F. Kennedy was originally conceived as an expressway and was most recently beautified into a tree-lined pedestrian-and-cycle-friendly thoroughfare, with separated tram and bus lanes.  The course along this avenue spanned 1.5 miles slightly downhill, taking us past the more touristic area of Kirchberg dominated by EU institutions and agencies, such as parts of the European Commission, the Secretariat of the European Parliament, and the Court of Justice of the European Union. We also passed by the European Convention Center, Grand Duchess Josephine-Charlotte Concert Hall (home of the Philharmonie Luxembourg) and the Grand Duke Jean Museum of Modern Art (aka the Mudam) before making our first crossing of the Grand Duchess Charlotte Bridge.  This bridge, better known as the "Red Bridge" on account of its distinctive red paintwork on the outside, spans across the Alzette valley and Pfaffenthal quarter, connecting Kirchberg to Limpertsberg and the rest of the elevated city. By the time we came off of the bridge, we were five miles into the race.
The only one of thousands of photos on the marathon's Facebook page I found with me in it
Spotted Jamila on the course!
We turned right just after passing the Grand Théâtre de Luxembourg, with its geometrically fascinating facade, running the next three miles through the populous Limpertsberg quarter.  We weaved through its largely residential streets, past a few of the numerous schools that dot the area, including the Lycée Technique des Arts et Métiers and the Lycée Technique du Centre. Before reaching the 8 mile mark, the course took us through the Champ du Glacis, a large open air parking lot that at times hosts the annual Schueberfouer fair, the largest fair in the country.  During the race, it was one of the more busy spectator spots, and it just so happened, I ran into my friend Jamila as we passed an aid station! After taking a quick selfie, I continued on, making a U-Turn at the Rond-Point Schumann, as we ran a circuitous route through the pathways inside the Municipal Park.
Passing through Limpertsberg on the Avenue Pasteur
Exiting the Municipal Park
Day turns into night in Belair
We exited the park, running eastward into Ville Haute, before turning right onto Rue du Fossé, then running through Place Guillaume, which was cleared from only hours before, to be the turn off point for the half marathoners to head back toward the finish, while the marathoners continued on through the Place d'Armes and back through the Municipal Park's southernmost section, the Parc Edmund Klein.  On our own now, with far fewer people, the marathoners and team run relay members continued on as we weaved through the Belair quarter, starting with a long straightaway along Val Sainte-Croix, before weaving through several switchbacks of streets, seemingly tiered along this terrain. Eventually, we were heading back toward Ville Haute along Avenue Gaston Diderich, past the clock tower of the Eglise Saint Pie X, then cutting once again through the Municipal Park.  It seemed like every time I'd hit a park section, another gear in me switched on, and I managed to speed up a tiny bit.  We'd finally hit the halfway point of the race, which I'd achieve in a time of 2:19:01, having slowed down in the preceding two miles as we ran through Belair.  By then, it was 9:30pm, and the sun had already gone down, and we still had another 13.1 miles to go.

Lampposts light our way.
We then ran along the northern edge of the Hollerich quarter, first running along the north side of the road at Avenue Marie-Therese.  On the other side of the road were runners heading in our direction, some 4.7 miles ahead of us. We veered slightly right onto Rue Maréchal Foch, then eventually weaved our way through the Merl quarter of the race, the part of the race where we'd experience the most turns.  The street was lit by the periodic lamppost lighting our way as we ran through this heavily residential area, but people were still out cheering us on.  Thankfully, the samba groups were plentiful around here, as we could hear the sounds of drums echoing all around us.  We ran through another city park, Parc Merl, as I sped through the park pathway, eventually emptying out us onto the Boulevard Pierre Dupong, and back into the Hollerich quarter.  We zigzagged our way through the city streets, while managing to pass a few other marathoners along the way (though, not many of those fresh legged Team Run relay members.)  By then, I was more than three hours into the race, and at past 10pm, having been awake for 15 hours+ and less than four hours of restless sleep on the flight over the Atlantic.  I was quite exhausted, and still had a couple hours of running left to go.

Running inside the Pont Adolphe!
At the 17 mile mark, we were headed back along Avenue Marie-Therese, and roughly half a mile later, we were taking a short downhill onto a well lit pedestrian and bicycle path running directly under the roadbed of Luxembourg's iconic Pont Adolphe, or the "New Bridge."  The bridge, celebrating its 115th year, underwent three years of extensive renovations, before reopening in spring 2017, including the new suspended pathway that opened that summer. Most of the bridge, except for the arches, had been dismantled stone by stone, rebuilt and reinforced with stainless steel rods. The bridge is an unofficial national symbol of sorts, representing Luxembourg's independence, and has become one of Luxembourg City's main tourist attractions.

Passing underneath the Pont Adolphe
We emerged out of the suspended pathway, onto the Bourbon Plateau on the Place de Metz, looping around a city block containing the State Savings Bank of Luxembourg, before we took on a steep descent along a very dark roadway - so dark that I needed to take my phone out to light the way with my phone's flashlight in case I misstepped into a hidden pothole.  The Rue Mathias Hardt and the Rue de Prague quickly brought us to the edge of the Grund quarter, but more importantly, brought us right along the banks of the Petrusse River and its beautiful park, a hidden gem in the middle of the city.  The "lower city," as its known, was lit beautifully by candlelight and torchlight along the wrought iron railing bounding the pathway. We ran through the lit archways of the bridges that crossed the valley as we approached the 30K mark of the race, knowing full well we would pass by quite the scene as we ran near the open air LEO Petrusse Party held in conjunction with the race.

Running alongside the Petrusse
The lights faded away as we continued along the Rue de la Semois, then the path that curved its way through the dark right alongside the quiet Petrusse River to the Rue de la Vallée.  It was lonely, lit only by the periodic lamp post, until eventually, we had to take a switchback ramp out of the valley, as we ran back onto the street to tour the last major quarter of the city we'd see before heading back to to the LuxExpo and the finish line.  We now weaved our way around the Garer Quartier, named after the train station.  This was an area I was kind of familiar with, having begun the evening down near the train station at the junction of the Avenue de la Liberté and the Avenue de la Gare (the street my Airbnb is on), where I picked up the shuttle to the startline.

At the 28km mark 
The course curved us past throngs of crowds still out cheering us on at 11pm, as we passed the Place des Martyrs, then found our way crossing the Passerelle, the bridge I had crossed several times earlier that day from my Airbnb.  We passed crowds of revelers out in full force in the Ville Haute, circling Constitution Plaza, which houses the Gëlle Fra war memorial, a bronze statue atop a 21-meter tall granite obelisk, dedicated to the thousands of Luxembourgers who volunteered for service in the armed forces of the Allied Powers during both World Wars and the Korean War.  The statue is of  Nike, goddess of victory, holding out a laurel wreath as if placing it upon the head of the nation.  The course then zigzagged through the Ville Haute, passing the Cathedrale de Notre Dame, the Grand Ducal Palace, and the Place du Thêatre, before making a right turn onto the Avenue de la Porte-Neuve, and reaching the other end of the Rond-Point Schuman, where we ran past 13 miles ago.

Samba band near the finish
We were back now on the Grand Duchess Charlotte Bridge, much less crowded at 11:30 at night. With only 5k left to run, I put my legs into their last gear, and took advantage of the flatness we'd be able to use, seeing a sign in the distance to which I'd run to before taking my next walk break.  From there, I knew it was going to be tough as we ran along the Avenue John F. Kennedy back to the LuxExpo, as it would be slightly uphill this time.  Still, I covered as much distance as I could at an even pace.  The next 1.25 miles were one of the toughest of the race to conquer mentally, knowing I was so exhausted and that I was basically running on fumes.  I persisted, thankfully to the samba band and the two DJs STILL playing for the runners along the route.  I really appreciated having them out there, to help me push my pace.  Out in the distance to the south (our right), lightning flashes faintly lit up the cloudy skies.  Apparently, the rain in the forecast for Sunday was going to come through after all.

Victory Headstand... inside!
Just after the 39k mark, we turned back onto the pathways past the university, now discouragingly in the dark with little lighting.  It was another tough couple kilometers, as we made our way to the Boulevard Pierre Frieden.  Here, I pushed as hard as I could for the last mile, knowing full well that I was capable of getting under five hours at the finish.  I was passing both marathoners and team runners left and right, as we curved around and could hear the music pulsating out of the LuxExpo.  I could feel some light raindrops starting to fall at this point, too.  Finally, the downhill toward the parking lot came, and it became a slight footrace with another runner as we made our way to the corner of the building, and to the open loading dock area, where we'd curve around a blue astroturf track straight to the finish line.  I somehow had a super strong final kick as I high-kneed my way around the curve.  I crossed with the emcee announcing my "Nathaniel from Jackson Heights, New York" and my finish time - 4:57:31.  I did it again... I sub-5'd!
Bling haul, and back under 5 hours.
SO MANY TURNS.
This result came as a big surprise because it was a few seconds faster than the net downhill Revel Mt. Charleston Marathon I ran two weeks prior; and the Luxembourg race was definitely hilly, and full of turns. It was about a minute and a half shy of my non-US marathon PR in Osaka from November 2017. Most of all, I was most proud of the fact that I completed this race with just under four hours of sleep from the transatlantic flight the night before.  After grabbing my gear check bag, and finding a spectator to help me take my headstand photo near the finish line, I shuffled over to the waiting shuttle buses, headed back toward the train station.  The young couple from England, Pete and Erika, who I met on the bus ride up, happened to be on the same bus, and Erika, in her first ever marathon, snagged 18th female overall!  I struggled to keep my eyes open as we drove back into the core of the city, and thankfully didn't have much of a walk to get me to my Airbnb, where after a quick shower, I slept like a log, despite the heavy rain, lightning, and thunder just outside the window.

Judd mat Gaardebounen for lunch!
My exhaustion from all of the events of Saturday gave me a well-deserved nine hours of sleep, and I woke up on Sunday morning refreshed to take on the day.  I woke up a little later than I would've liked, but I don't blame myself, as I was truly so tired after the weekend.  I grabbed lunch nearby to my Airbnb, where I finally was able to indulge in some local food - "Judd mat Gaardebounen," smoked collar of pork with broad beans, considered to be the national dish of Luxembourg; and a small bottle of local Riesling wine, produced along the north bank of the Moselle River, which has a winemaking history dating back to the Romans. After a filling lunch, I headed to the train station to catch the train headed north into the pastoral countryside, with my destination being Vianden in the northeast of the country.  It is known for its impressive castle, the Château de Vianden, and its beautiful location in the Our valley.

The scenic train ride up to Vianden
This particular train goes along the ONLY train line that heads up to the northern part of the country.  I took it to the small town of Ettelbruck, where after a short wait (and walk through its main square), I boarded a bus to head east toward Vianden.  Ettelbruck was quite charming, and it has a very interesting history; In September 1944, the town was liberated by American forces after being occupied by Nazi Germany for four years during World War II, but Germany retook the town later that December in what was known as the Battle of the Bulge. US General George S. Patton on Christmas Day 1944, led US troops in the final liberation of Ettelbruck from Nazi occupation. A large amount of the town was ruined by airstrikes, but would eventually be restored.

Historic Château de Vianden
Under overcast skies, but nary a raindrop in sight, we found ourselves in Vianden along the banks of the River Our, and in the shadow of the imposing Château de Vianden, high atop the city on a rocky promontory. It was a bit of a hike to get up there, but with the day fast ending, and a limited bus schedule returning back to the capital city, I hauled my tired legs up the roughly 0.6 miles uphill to the Château gates.  Once there, we were able to do a self-guided tour through the beautiful property.  The Château de Vianden is one of the most visited tourist spots in Luxembourg, and is one of the largest fortified castles west of the Rhine. It was constructed between the 11th and 14th centuries on the foundations of a Roman 'castellum' and a Carolingian refuge, with Gothic transformations and trimmings added at the end of this period. Until the beginning of the 15th century it was the seat of the influential counts of Vianden who could boast their close connections to the Royal Family of France and the German imperial court.  In the 1800s, it fell into a state of disrepair and was a pile of rubble until the family of the Grand Duke of Luxembourg transferred it to state ownership in 1977.  It has since been restored and refurbished to its former glory.

Beautiful views of the city of Vianden
I spent a good hour making my way around the beautiful château, enjoying the views into the city of Vianden, and taking in the long history of the site, before heading back down to the bus stop to get the last possible bus ride back to Ettelbruck to the last train back down to Luxembourg City. With a couple hours left in Luxembourg City, but most of the sites already closed for the day, I went back to my Airbnb to pick up my bags before getting on a bus headed to the airport for my flight to London.

Sunset as we left the Duchy.
Planning this trip, I intended to find a late evening flight to take me to a major airport city, where I could stay overnight and then take the first transatlantic flight back to New York on Monday morning.  The most ideal was a British Airways flight to London, getting in late on Sunday night. At the airport, I once more ran into Pete and Erika who were on a BA flight in the same area, but headed to Manchester. It was great seeing them once more and chatting about our race experience a day removed from the race. The flight to London was pretty quick, but we were treated to a magnificent sunset, as we ascended into the clouds, slipping away toward the west. Upon arriving at Heathrow, I was able to get from my arrival in Terminal 3 out to Terminal 4 where the Premier Inn I was staying at was located (there's a covered walkway directly from the terminal to the hotel) and I easily crashed for the night in a comfy bed.

I woke up early the next morning to make my way back to Terminal 3, and give myself enough time to enjoy some breakfast at the Virgin Atlantic Clubhouse once more, before boarding my flight home to New York, the first one of the day.  I got back to NYC around 11:30, and made it to the office about an hour later to get some work done until the end of the day.

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