Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Race Report: Run the Bluegrass

An I-75 Challenge!
My first big challenge of the year was my first attempt at what serial long distance runners refer to as a "Goofy Challenge" after the Walt Disney World Marathon challenge of running a half marathon and marathon in the same weekend - a total of 39.3 miles.   The original Goofy's Race and a Half Challenge ran the two events on the grounds of Walt Disney World in Orlando, Florida - hot and humid (any day of the year!) and very flat.  Constructing my own, I decided to challenge myself a little more, with two considerably hilly races in two different states, in generally cool weather environments during the month of April: Run the Bluegrass, the 6th running of "America's Prettiest Half Marathon" in Lexington, Kentucky; and the Covenant Health Knoxville Marathon, the 12th running of the event, in Knoxville, Tennessee.  Linked by I-75, I dubbed it the "I-75 Challenge" or "Lex2Knox."

I left work, armed with luggage with far too many clothes for the weekend, to get myself over to LaGuardia Airport, and very nervous about the weather situation.  My flight was leaving on time, yet I saw weather reports of some rather ominous clouds heading eastward and in the direction I was flying.  My itinerary had me taking the pointless 25 minute flight from LGA to Philadelphia, then connecting on to Lexington Blue Grass Airport.  As we were boarding and getting settled on the tiny plane (where we walked onto the tarmac and onto a set of stairs to the back of the plane), the clouds began to form east of the city, and spelled potential disaster for our flight, as these clouds, accompanied with strong winds and lightning strikes, could ground us due to a ground stop on our home turf in LaGuardia or even a ground stop in Philly.  But the Gods were kind to us, and we were able to get off the ground - even bypassing a line of about 20+ planes that had formed on the tarmac, allowing us to take a route southward toward Atlantic City, then beelining over to Philly, which only added about 5 minutes to the trip.  Either way, we still landed in Philly well over half an hour before our anticipated arrival, amongst some pretty heavy rains, so I bided my time by having some dinner at Legal Sea Foods, and then drinks at the terminal where my Lexington flight was to take off.

The Lexington flight was also quite small, and I had to valet check my bag on the jet bridge; upon landing, my bag and another passenger's bag was not among those that were brought back up onto the plane, and after some panic set in, we headed down to baggage claim, where our bags did show up.  Crisis averted.  Anyway, I had initially planned on sleeping at the airport, as the flight was getting in past 11pm, and the race course was just across the street at Keeneland, the famous race track that hosts the Breeders' Cup every year, and the collection of stables, farms, and ranches that surround it.  Just a few days before my flight, I decided to get a hotel room at last minute, as a good night's sleep was absolutely necessary for me to keep my strength and energy over the many cumulative miles I'd be running over the weekend, as evidenced from my poor showing at the Phoenix Marathon after a few hours sleep at Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport.  So after getting my bag, I got an Uber that took me to my hotel a few miles away in a complex of hotels nearish to the airport.  My hotel was across the street from where my friends the Marinos were staying.

With Carl and Ilona Marino
A little about the Marinos -- Carl and Ilona Marino are an amazing couple that I met in November 2014 during the second day of races at Rock 'n' Roll Savannah, and would subsequently see in races all throughout the following year.  Both are actors based out of San Francisco, and Carl stars in a very popular top-rated cable program on the Investigation Discovery network currently in its fifth season, Homicide Hunter: Lt. Joe Kenda.  The show is based on the past cases of retired Colorado Springs based homicide investigator Joe Kenda. While the real Joe Kenda recounts and narrates his cases, Carl stars as Kenda in the reenactments.  Carl films the show in Knoxville, Tennessee, and his filming schedule for this year unfortunately came out with a lot of Saturday shoots, effectively messing with his racing schedule - but this weekend happened to be off, and they decided (with some additional coaxing from me) to attempt their first double weekend, running the Kentucky and Tennessee races within 24 hours of each other.  We coordinated our schedules, and the Marinos booked a rental car between Lexington and Knoxville, where I would ride with them.

No horses had to cross while we ran... 

First view of the rolling hills of Keeneland while on the course

The grass is so green!
The race start was a little later than usual, being at 9am, so we got a little time to sleep in, and decided to meet up a little before 8am to give ourselves time to drive over, deal with whatever traffic or parking situation we'd be dealt with, and then take our time before the race would start.  It was brisk that morning, and we probably could've just stayed in the car for a little bit before heading out to the startline, but we braved the chilliness, and waited it out til everyone moved into place for the start.  Cozette came by to see us... well, really see Carl, as she is a huge fan of the show; and we saw Kamika, who was running his first of two races that weekend as well (flying out to San Francisco that day to do RnR San Fran the next morning)  After an operatic rendition of the anthem, we took off down Keeneland Boulevard, with the sun shining above us, the wind low but still steady, as we pretty much immediately started climbing our first hill, through a parking lot, and up Back Gate Drive and past the stables that surrounded Keeneland Race Track.

Beer stop, please!

More beautiful views of Keeneland

Almost immediately, I had to pee, so I stopped at the first port-a-potty barely a mile into the race, just as the course turned onto Rice Road for a short period of time before turning onto Bosworth Lane for the first lengthy straightaway into open road where on either side of us was grazing lands for the horses.  Very simply, this race is extremely hilly.  For all 13.1 miles, the elevation would change pretty drastically, some saying there are as many as 26 to 29 true hills over the course of the race.  But the surroundings are absolutely beautiful, providing us with one very scenic course, and deserving of the "prettiest race" moniker.  Apparently the weather can be very unpredictable, and this year seemed to have the best weather yet, which allowed for a lot of the horses to be out and about.  Just as we approached the right turn onto Elkchester Road, 2 1/4 miles in, we saw our first horses galloping at Blackstone Farm to our left.
Can we stop with the hills already?

We turned onto Elkchester Road, and for the next 1.2 miles, headed northeast toward Wade Farm, and to the left turn onto Redd Road, which separated our 13.1 mile course from the 7-mile course, whose runners continued on to the final 3 miles of our course.  We headed up the rolling hills of Redd Road for the next 2.3 miles, until we hit the 6 mile mark as we turned onto Old Frankfort Pike, considered to be one of the most scenic roads in America.  By then, we realized, wow this is a hilly course... but what was to come was a DOOZY.

Horses come to watch us this time around!
Elevation changes galore!
Literally, for the next two miles, we went up and down, up and down, on a roller coaster of a road.  The elevation changes on Old Frankfort Pike were brutal - I counted maybe 8 hills on this road alone.    However, it was also on this road, where we were afforded with the most views of many of Keeneland's famous horse farms, even "visited" by some horses at the 7.5 mile mark, who came by the side of the pens to inspect the multitude of fast-moving humans passing by their territory.  We turned back onto Elkchester Road, and ran that for a mile before hitting the likely "biggest" hill of the race, where at the top, a drum circle was helping to move us up toward them.  After a couple slight turns and another short straightaway, we turned left onto the zig-zaggy Van Meter Road, where we were afforded views of Fares Farm; and Manchester Farm, the most photographed barn in all of Kentucky.

In front of Manchester Farm!

Amazing new bling!
As we continued on Van Meter Road, we took a right turn (still on the same road - I told you, it zig-zags quite a bit!), and hit the mile 12 mark, but also what seemed like the windiest part of the course! Hit by this wind for the last mile, we headed in toward the finish, taking us onto the asphalt side roads near Keeneland's designated tailgating lot (known as "The Hill") leading all the way to the Keene Barn and Entertainment Center, and site of the finish line.  Battling those winds in the last mile, I completed my first race of the weekend in 2:22:17.  As the race was a tiny bit delayed, I quickly ran into the entertainment center to warm up (and purchase a commemorative Run the Bluegrass hat,) grabbed a beer and then headed off to the parking lot to find Carl and Ilona so that we could get back to our respective hotels for showers and check-out before 1pm.

Victory Headstand, but where's my head? LOL...

Giving attitude, medal, and bourbon barrel ale.
After having a delicious lunch (burgers, yum!) we were off to Knoxville!  And I have a beautiful new black nickel finisher medal, featuring Thoroughbred legends Man o' War, War Admiral and Seabiscuit - Run the Bluegrass has traditionally had some of the most stylish medals around, and this one is definitely hard to beat!

The course was absolutely beautiful...

Official race photo

Official race photo

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