Tuesday, July 23, 2019

Race Report: TCS Amsterdam Marathon

The last time I visited the Netherlands was in 2006, when I traveled all over Europe for a month.  I only spent three days in Amsterdam, but was highly impressed by the city.  So when it came to figuring out a marathon to do in this country, I had decided ultimately between Amsterdam and Rotterdam, the two largest cities in the country, both with flat races. Ultimately, I decided on Amsterdam, an IAAF Gold Label race, and the longest running and largest in field size in the country.

A few months before the race, I reached out to a college friend, Cecilia, who had moved to the Netherlands about ten years ago, after completing law school specializing in international law.  Her internships took her to The Hague, where she spent a couple years working for the International Criminal Courts. Nowadays, she works for the legal division of Petrobras Netherlands, the Dutch branch of the Brazilian multinational petroleum company. She met her husband Arnaud while working in The Hague, and now has two young children, Lily and Luc. We agreed to meet up on Saturday for them to show me around The Hague and Rotterdam after I finished picking up my essentials for the marathon in Amsterdam.

Poffertjes and coffee!
My weekend started a bit stressfully, as I received a notification some 32 hours before my JFK-AMS flight with KLM was to depart that it was cancelled.  I immediately got on the phone with Delta, and within minutes, I was rebooked to fly out on another flight roughly an hour earlier. On Friday, I got onboard, and we were off to Amsterdam, a little earlier than I intended. The flight was pretty quick (as it usually is traveling eastward across the Atlantic, only about six hours), and we landed at about 6:15am.  KLM is notoriously slow with their food service, so I had roughly 4 hours of sleep on the , and with lots of time to spare, I headed to the train station below the airport and grabbed some breakfast, biding my time before I took the train into the city. I started off my trip with a proper Dutch breakfast of poffertjes, or small pancakes, drenched in syrup and dusted with powdered sugar.

So crazy running into Derek here!
A little after 8am, I took the train one stop to Amsterdam-Zuid, a six minute trip for only €3.80.  So quick and efficient, these Dutch trains are! I left the station to walk over to Sporthallen Zuid, where the marathon expo was, and ended up running into my friend and former dance teacher, Derek, with his friend who were on their way to Schiphol for a morning flight out to Paris.  The world truly works in such mysterious ways - Derek moved out to LA several years ago, and of all places, we run into each other in a not terribly touristic area of Amsterdam, early in the morning... truly incredible how random that was!  I continued on to the Sporthallen Zuid, about a 15 minute walk away, getting there a bit early before the expo opened at 9am. I spent about an hour an a half at the expo, enjoying the relatively uncrowded space, viewing the merchandise and learning about other European races that may just make their way onto my 2019 calendar!
Dutch corgis!
Bib pickup at the Sporthallen Zuid
About to bike through The Hague!
After the expo, I walked over to my Airbnb, about 25 minutes away, where I met up with my host and left my backpack, to spend the rest of the day unencumbered.  By the time I was ready to head to The Hague, it was 11:30, and I ended up getting an Uber to take me back to the Amsterdam Zuid station to keep off my feet.  It was a rather pricey car with some surge pricing attached, so after spending nearly €20 on the car ride, I decided to try to not have to use one again for the rest of the weekend.  I got onto a noon train direct to Den Haag Laan van NOI station, and after a 30 minute train ride, waiting for me on bicycles were Cecilia, Arnaud, and her kids, with their nanny Lovely, with a bicycle I was to use for the day!

Kapsalon for lunch!
Immediately, we began a bike tour of the city - and mind you, I haven't been on a bicycle in some years, but I quickly got used to riding it, as we made our way down the trails to a 364-year old windmill known as De Nieuwe Veenmolen, no longer active, but now used as a restaurant and event space.  We then rode up to Haagse Bos, one of the oldest remaining forests in the Netherlands, and essentially The Hague's "Central Park," where Huis ten Bosch palace, one of the three official residences of the Dutch Royal Family, is situated. We then grabbed lunch at the Den Haag Centraal train station, where I got to try "kapsalon," a Dutch twist on Turkish döner -- a layer of fries topped with lamb shoarma, covered with Gouda cheese, and heated in an oven until the cheese melts. Then a layer of iceberg lettuce, tomatoes, onions, cabbage and other veggies are added, before finally being dressed with garlic sauce.

Lange Voorhout and its lime trees
After lunch, Arnaud took the kids back home, to prepare for their drive down to Paris for the week (it's fall break for Lily's school), while Cecilia and I continued our adventures in The Hague.  We rode the bikes through town to the Peace Palace, with stops along the way at Lange Voorhout, an L shaped street lined with beautiful lime trees and stately palace-like residences; and Plein 1813 in Willemspark, where a monument commemorating the defeat of Napoleon and the establishment of the Sovereign Principality of the United Netherlands stands.  The gorgeous Peace Palace, completed in 1913, houses the International Court of Justice (which is the principal judicial body of the United Nations), the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA), the Hague Academy of International Law and the Peace Palace Library, and was actually a location where Cecilia spent some time during her early years working for the international courts. While coming to the visitors' centre outside the palace grounds is free of charge, guided tours of the actual building can be arranged, but they get booked far in advance and require passport identification, and photos inside the palace are not allowed.
Cecilia and I in front of the Peace Palace

Girl with the Pearl Earring and
Boy with the Resting Bitch Face
After our requisite photos outside of the palace, we continued on, biking down Noordeinde, one of the best-known shopping areas in the old centre of The Hague. It's also the Netherlands' definitive art street, traditionally known for its many galleries, art and antiques dealers. Noordeinde Palace, King Willem-Alexander's "working palace" since ascending the throne in 2013, is located here as well, notably marking the street with the suspended crown decor. Not far from here is Dutch Parliament, known as the Binnenhof.  Located next to Hofvijver Lake, the beautiful complex was built primarily in the 13th century around an old Gothic manorial hall known as the Ridderzaal, and houses the meeting place of both houses of the States General of the Netherlands, as well as the Ministry of General Affairs and the office of the Prime Minister of the Netherlands. It is the oldest House of Parliament in the world still in use. Just past the eastern gate of the Binnenhof is Mauritshuis, an art museum that houses a collection of some of the best in Dutch Golden Age paintings, works by  Johannes Vermeer, Rembrandt van Rijn, Jan Steen, Paulus Potter, Frans Hals, Jacob van Ruisdael, Hans Holbein the Younger, and others. Most notably, it is the permanent home of the famous "Girl With a Pearl Earring," by Vermeer and "The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp" by Rembrandt. After a quick tour of the two floors of the 17th century building, Cecilia and I enjoyed a Kreik beer in the neighboring Plein, as the sun began to set over the city.

An incredible Indonesian rijstaffel
We headed back to her house a short bike ride away, while she changed for a party she was attending that evening, and then we headed to Rotterdam, where she gave me a quick tour of the sites in the centre of the city.  The city is only half an hour away by train, and she takes this trip every day for work - almost immediately out of the Rotterdam Blaak station, we saw the Cube houses designed by architect Piet Blom; and the Markthal building, a residential and office building with a market hall on the ground floor, designed by architectural firm MVRDV. We walked over to the Nieuwe Maas River where we got a beautiful view of both the swanlike light blue Erasmus Bridge and contrasting red Willems Bridge.  We then headed over to Restaurant Indonesia, where we had my highlight meal of the weekend - a carbloading feast of Indonesian cuisine in the form of a traditional rijsttafel or rice table. What we had?  Fried rice and fried noodles; shrimp crackers with peanut and sambal (spicy chili) sauces; chayote with string beans, coconut milk and carrot; cucumber salad; mixed vegetables with peanut  sauce; fried shredded coconut; fried egg with sambal; soybean with sambal; green bean with sambal; tofu with sambal; beef rendang; beef stew with sweet soy sauce; and chicken satay. All washed down with Indonesian Bintang beer!

After accompanying Cecilia to her party (a friend's bachelorette, where she joined them for drinks!), I walked over to Rotterdam Centraal station to take the train back to Amsterdam.  I was so exhausted, nearly falling asleep on the ride back - after all, I had been rallying since landing at 6am after only 4 hours of sleep!  I took the train back to Lelylaan station, which was a bit closer to my Airbnb, but unfortunately not very well navigable by sidewalk; nevertheless, I made it back, able to see my Airbnb host one last time to return my key to her as I was departing early the next morning, and immediately crashed to get a good amount of sleep before the race.

In front of the Olympisch Stadion
I was able to get in a good eight hours of sleep before waking at 7am and getting out the door half an hour later to walk to Olympisch Stadion Amsterdam, built for the 1928 Summer Olympic Games, where the start and finish line for the Amsterdam Marathon were located. I was sporting my full backpack, as I was not planning to return to the Airbnb and would be heading straight to the airport after a shower.  The sun had just risen, lightening up a somewhat cloudy sky on this cool autumn day, with the temperature hovering in the mid 50s. On my way to the Stadium, I ended up walking alongside some runners from South Africa and their new friend from Scotland, all of them marathon world travelers themselves, as the two South Africans had also completed Rio de Janeiro over the summer like myself. We ended up hanging out inside the stadium, kind of chilly from wind blowing into the bowl of the field, just before we jumped into our respective corrals as they began to fill up with the 12,000 other runners for the marathon distance.  I also ended up running into another runner from NYC who happened to be from the neighborhood right next to mine, as he was wearing a singlet for his home club, the Woodside-Sunnyside Runners; we also had a mutual friend in former NYRR staffer Winnie.
With fellow New Yorker, Jason, before the start of the race!
Startline inside the stadium
Soon the race began, and as usual for European races, at a start time later than I'm used to - 9:30am.  It was pretty tightly packed in the corral, and I finally ended up crossing the start mats about 12 minutes later.  Throngs of spectators were in the seats of the stadium cheering us on as we made our way around a quarter of the track and out of the stadium past crowds of boisterous folks excited for us to start our 42.2 kilometer journey. We emerged out onto the Stadionplein curving around to Amstelveenseweg, as we made our way northward on this pretty treelined street, dodging the tram lines trenched into the asphalt below our feet.  This is a major section of Amsterdam Oud-Zuid, or Old South, before we turned right into Vondelpark, the largest park in the city.  We also encountered our first Dutch street organ, a distinctive part of Dutch culture, especially in Amsterdam, positioned right at the entrance of the park.  We would see these scattered all throughout the course, providing us with local and sometimes more popular global music set to the sound of a self-playing organ.
Running along Amstelveenseweg
More early miles along Amstelveenseweg
Running through Vondelpark
Running through Vondelpark was quite nice, a quick respite from its teeming urban surroundings. It was nice and flat, as we passed through, seeing beautiful historic parkside homes peeking through the trees, some abutting lakes and ponds on the park's grounds.  Eventually, we found our way out of the park, and continuing down Stadhouderskade, alongside the outermost of Amsterdam's main canals, the Singelgracht. This canal was the outer limit of the city during the Dutch Golden Age of the 17th Century. This would also be the closest we'd get to the traditional center of Amsterdam, the area where most tourists frequent - which totally makes sense, the already narrow streets there would not be able to accommodate the thousands of runners participating in races today!  We were now 2.5 miles into the race, the same 2.5 miles we would be running at the end of the race but in the other direction. At this point of the race however, we would be turning right onto Museumstraat and heading straight through the central tunnel of the Rijksmuseum's Gothic and Reainassance inspired main building, designed by Dutch architect Pierre Cuypers and opened in 1885.
Alongside the Singelgracht canal
About to run through the Rijksmuseum
Running right through the public tunnel of this beautiful building, the national museum of the Netherlands which houses exhibits dedicated to the arts and history of Amsterdam, we emerged on the other side with the "I amsterdam" sign, the city's hugely successful marketing slogan with its main landmark set of marquee letters having sat at the back of the Rijksmuseum since 2004, directly in front of us. We veered left onto Hobbemastraat, and then began to run south along Hobbemakade, alongside a small canal along the edge of the Museumkwartier neighborhood.  I hit the 5K mark somewhere around here, completing the first 3.1 miles in a steady 30:29. We continued southward as we turned onto Stadionweg into the Apollobuurt neighborhood, passing by several streets named after musical composer (Mozartkade, Handelstraat, and Schubertstraat, for example) before turning onto the neighborhood's main shopping street, the appropriately named Beethovenstraat, as it made its way due south, and slightly downhill, into the city's financial district known as Zuidas.  Runners were coming back uphill on the other side of the route.
A Dutch street organ in Zuidas
The buildings here were markedly different, much more like you'd expect in a business district, complete with modern high rises. It turns out, the greatest influences for the development of the Zuidas are La Défense in Paris and Canary Wharf in London, which is clearly evident in the surrounding architecture. The area's rail station, Amsterdam-Zuid, is the station I came off of when arriving the day before, and would be leaving out of after the race to head back to the airport - and as stated, it's a quick six minute ride to Schiphol. We circled around an area along Gustav Mahlerlaan and past George Gershwinplein, passing right alongside the De Boelgracht canal before returning northward (and  slightly uphill) on Beethovenstraat, past another one of those unique Dutch street organs along the way.

President Kennedylaan
With both sides of the road crowded with runners, we headed back along the route we came down on for one mile, before turning right on Apollolaan and reaching the 10K mark, crossing the mat at 1:01:07.  We then began to run along Churchill-laan into the Rivierenbuurt neighborhood, veering south on Rijnstraat, the beginning our out and back along President Kennedylaan, a striking wide avenue with a huge cookie cutter style housing complex, designed in the Amsterdam School style, on both sides of the street. Turning aroudn at Europaplein, we made our way back along the wide avenue then turned on De Mirandalaan just before Martin Luther King Park, making our way to the Amsteldijk, the road skirting the western bank of the Amstel River.

Amstel River heading south
The next 11 kilometers of the race would be running alongside the banks of the Amstel River. We headed south along the Amsteldijk for 5.5 kilometers, a section with surroundings that quickly turned much more pastoral, with its stately homes and windmills, compared to the urban environment we had long been running in. This rural part of the course was part of the original 1928 Olympic route, and gives an impression of the busy activity that dominates the Amstel River on a daily basis. Along the way, we'd hit the 15K mark, which I crossed in 1:32:46. The single lane road we ran on, though super flat, would intermittently alternate between bricks and asphalt, and the grooves and hardness of the surface made it difficult to run on; my knees did not enjoy this part of the race. Sections made wet from hydration stops made any bricks either sticky or quite slippery.

Passing the 15K mark on Amsteldijk
Running north on Jan Vroegopsingel
Once we turned left after the 19km mark over Brug Oranjebaan, we then began to run north along the eastern bank of the Amstel River, along the Ouderkerkerdijk.  Along the way, I hit the halfway mark of the race, crossing the mat in 2:12:41. We did have some nice entertainment along the river, and sometimes even in the river; a man was singing "Bloed, Zweet en Tranen," a song by the late Dutch levenslied singer Andre Hazes that was made more famous from fans of the Netherlands national football team in more recent years, on top of a boat floating down the river!  We also saw several guys wearing hydroflight boots that used strong water jets to propel then 10-15 feet above the surface of the water!

Passing through Amstel Business Park
We continued running up the Ouderkerkerdijk, then veered into the more forested part along the river on Jan Vroegopsingel alongside the Volkstuinen Amstelglorie, a community garden area. Eventually, we were back on asphalt (thank god), crossing underneath the Utrechtsebrug and curving around to Joan Muyskenweg. The 25 km mat was here, and I slowed to a 2:38:51. We ran by a number of highrises and industrial buildings, making our way to Van der Madeweg where we turned left to continue running past more industrial buildings - an area that's largely made up of the Amstel Business Park.  Probably one of the more boring parts of this race, but considering the race being on a Sunday, this was probably one of the least traffic-impacted parts of the race course.

"This is a lot of work for a free banana"
We continued east, past a metro station, as the course began to traverse through an area that was seemingly bounded on both sides by huge swaths of woods - but behind those woods and out of view were backyards of homes. We were passing through Duivendrecht, a village in North Holland, just outside of Amsterdam proper. We turned left onto Randweg, curving our way along more roadway surroudned by trees, the turned right on Rozenburglaan to run through the edge of the Betondorp neighborhood for a mile on a local road that ran alongside the busier s112 motorway. The 30km mark was along this road, and I slowed down pretty significantly since the last mat, over 38 minutes elapsing, as I crossed in 3:17:11. Eventually, we turned left onto Maxwellstraat, running through a residential neighborhood, then turned right onto Hugo de Vrieslaan, running alongside the Park Frankendael. Thankfully, the scenery opened back up to a more urban landscape, and more people were out cheering for us with just only 10K of running left to go in our race.  Reaching this point somehow kicked me into gear, and I picked my pace back up again.

Running along Molukkenstraat
Our course continued eastward through residential Middenmeer in Amsterdam-Oost, and then up treelined Molukkenstraat past charming apartment buildings no taller than four stories apiece. Though my legs were tiring out, it was great to finally get back to streets with spectators cheering us on. I had been meddling in over 12 minute miles the last three miles, so I was happy to record a some faster miles just under that threshhold as I continued on.  Perhaps it was seeing that I was only at 3:31:06 with 10K to go that put my butt into gear.  We eventually came back to streets with tram tracks inlaid into them, which brought back another factor we would have to deal with as we made our way north toward the Lozingskanaal, an eastern extension of the Singelgracht.  But before getting to it, we turned left at Zeeburgerdijk, following the road west back toward Vondelpark. I hit the 35 km mark in 3:53:41, a marked improvement from the 30K cutting off two minutes from the earlier 5K split.
Crossing the Amstel while on the Mauritskade
Passing the Heineken Brewery
While we were only feet away from the canal, for a little while buildings blocked the canalside views.  It wasn't until the road became Mauritskade, did we actually get to see the canal, as it became the Singelgracht.  We passed the Tropenmuseum, one of the largest museums in the city, and one of the most beautiful purpose-built museums in the Netherlands.  We continued our run westward along the canal, crossing the Amstel River, and reaching the point that we were only a mere 5 kilometers from the finish line.  The crowds lining the canal side of the street were huge, especially as we passed the Heineken Brewery.  Eventually, the Rijksmuseum came back into view, and we were routed back through Vondelpark to retrace those early steps we had taken in the first few kilometers of the course.

Discarded cups and sponges litter the entrance to Vondelpark
over the last few kilometers of the marathon

One last run through Vondelpark
Vondelpark was just as nice as it was early on in the race, but now with only a couple kilometers to go, we had so many supporters cheering us on to keep going.  So on I did go, making our way through its windy path and enjoying the celebratory ambiance permeating the air.  Halfway through the park, we crossed the 40k mat, which I crossed in 4:30:22.  I had kept my pace since the 35K mark! We were nearly done, and with only 2km to go, I had calculated that I was going to finish one of my fastest marathon times in recent memory.  At Amstelveenseweg, we exited the park, and made the run back down toward the stadium, about 1.5 km that seemed to last forever.

Then there it was, the Olympic Stadium. We made our way around the confusing ring of roads and tramway lines back down to Stadionplein, and turned into the stadium, where we roudned the track to the finish line.  I crossed the finish line in 4:45:32, which at that moment would be my fifth fastest time ever, and my fastest on foreign soil.  It was also my fastest marathon finish I had all year.  I was thrilled to have accomplished that feat. I quickly got a stranger to help me photograph my iconic headstand photo while inside the stadium, before taking off -- It was already 2:30pm, and I had a 5:55pm flight to head home to NYC from the airport!
Victory Headstand!

I headed back down to the Sportshallen Zuid where the expo was located, and after a quick shower there, I walked over to the Amsterdam Zuid station and boarded the very quick 6 minute IC train over to Schiphol for my flight.  I still managed to have time to even stop into the KLM Crown Lounge for a bite to eat before boarding, and headed home, duly content with a great finish to another race abroad!

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