Wednesday, October 4, 2017

Race Report: Austin Marathon

Earlier in the week, I turned 33.  A birthday gift, unbeknownst to my office giving it out as a regular holiday, was the three day weekend I had following, thanks to President's Day.  On Friday, I left work at 3:30, taking the subway to central Queens and arrived at the 74th/Roosevelt Avenue station near my apartment.  I come out of subway, and immediately go on my phone to check GoogleMaps to see how traffic is around LaGuardia Airport, which will help determine whether I decide to take the Q70 bus or a cab, given that it's a busy holiday travel weekend.

THE HIGHWAYS SURROUNDING THE AIRPORT ARE ALL RED.  Wonderful. So, I grab a cab and have them take me as close as they can to LaGuardia - to the intersection of 94th Street and Ditmars Boulevard, so I can walk over the pedestrian bridge over the Grand Central Parkway.  I Facebook live the whole thing, whilst checking out the parkway, which pretty much became a parking lot by the time I arrived at 4:30pm. I got to Terminal B less than ten minutes later, passing an already horrendous looking line of people waiting for a taxi - so bad that there was even a coffee stop mid-queue for those waiting.  I head upstairs through a surprisingly lean-looking security line. Note... Concourse B of Terminal B (which, in my opinion, is the worst of the concourses at any of the terminals at this airport, made infamous by former VP Joe Biden by referring to it as being "third world") at this point in time, had no separate TSA PreCheck lane, despite both Southwest and Spirit, who utilize this concourse, being part of the program - so EVERY passenger flying through this concourse are funneled into one of two long lines.  Eventually I get through, and I hoof it to the far end of the gate where the St. Louis Southwest Airlines flight takes off around 4:50pm.  But first, I check to see if I can get on the direct Houston flight that leaves at 5, but it's a no-go, as the boarding door was closed. Oh well.
So I get on flight to St. Louis, and of course, we're on the tarmac waiting to take off for more than an hour, almost pushing 75 minutes, with 20+ planes in line in front of us.  We finally take off on an uneventful 2 hour flight to St. Louis, and upon landing, I rush over to the bar to grab some dinner and a beer... a Schlafly Oatmeal Stout.  I scarf down my dinner and down that beer in record time, as we wait for a passenger from a delayed arriving flight to get to St. Louis, and then we board the flight bound for Houston, another 2 hour flight.

I sleep most of that flight and arrive in Houston at 11:30pm.  Being that it's February, and I'm further south, it considerably warmer here than in New York. I get out of the practically empty terminal and my friend Barb is there waiting to pick me up, and we head back to her home in nearby Pearland. After some small talk, I retire for the night (with a little time reserved for blogging, since you know... I'm way behind)

Coffee with Barb!
The following morning, I wake up at around 7:30, and the two of us leave at 8:30 to go grab a quick coffee and breakfast at Starbucks, before embarking on our three hour sojourn to Austin.  It was a fun drive, chatting about our past races, our future races, and some of our similar interests.  We arrive in Austin by noon, running into the usual I-35 traffic, and get to Barb's hotel, where I store my bags in her room until I get together with my friends Loan and Scott, who'll ultimately drive us back to Scott's place where I'm staying for the night.  Luckily the expo is in the Convention Center across the street, so we head over and do the expo thing.

The expo for the Austin Marathon
Being interviewed by Mark Purnell
Since it's early in the day for the expo, I beeline it straight to the corner of the hall, and meet with Mark Purnell with, and he conducts an interview with me, where we discuss my national anthem quest, some of the races that I'm doing this year, and my involvement with my running club, Front Runners New York. While at the expo, I also get to meet William Dyson, Communications Manager with High Five Events, and Stacy Keese, Owner and Race Director with High Five Events, both in charge of the Austin Marathon, who I had been in contact with in the weeks prior in regards to performing the national anthem at their race.

Shenanigans with Scott and Loan
I meet up with Scott and Loan while at the expo, and we go around taking advantage of the fun "collect 'em all" scavenger hunt the High Five Events team put together for runners, scanning our wristbands at various expo booths, and also ogle the commemorative Austin Marathon belt, new for this year, and which I eventually purchase, that goes with our snazzy belt-buckle styled finisher medal!

Riding yet another animal...
After spending a decent amount of time at the expo (including trying some Texas mineral water... mmm!!), we get a bit hungry, so before heading out to find food, I retrieve my bags from Barb's hotel room, and then store them in Scott's car before we head off to the middle of Austin's "Dirty Sixth," the epicenter of what made Austin the “Live Music Capital of the World” - basically, Austin's Bourbon Street.  We get our late afternoon lunch at The Jackalope, an Austin institution, serving up some of the city’s best burgers in a lively old-school dive bar atmosphere. A giant rideable fiberglass jackalope greets customers as they enter, which of course I had to pose for in pictures.
Dinner with all my friends at Shady Grove!
For lunch, I had a massive burger that I couldn't finish, and some amazing sweet potato tots and waffle fries, and immediately felt full... and then got a text that we were eating dinner with my friends at 6:30; it was 4pm when we finished lunch.  The three of us waddled back to the cars (each of us also toting a box of Texas Longhorn-shaped Haribo chews, being given out as a promotion along Sixth Street, and then drove over to 5th and Lamar to get photos with the brand new "atx" sign installed on the northeast corner of the street earlier that week, where the Whole Foods is located.  This is bound to be a popular new landmark for the city.  While there, we were able to connect with my Black Sheep friends Zach and Sherry, as Sherry lives in an apartment a couple blocks away.  We figure out that we'll be meeting with a few other Black Sheep runners - Hollie, Cassirae, Paula, and Tiki  - at The Shady Grove for dinner, while we waited about an hour for a table to open up.  Despite being massively full, I decided to have a massive oreo ice cream pie. After dinner, Loan, Scott, and I headed back to Scott's apartment northwest of Austin (close to Round Rock) to set out clothes for race morning and then head to bed, since we had a VERY early 4:45am wake up call, as we were planning to get out the door by 5:30.

A photoshoot at the new "atx" sign

Modelling for the camera.

With Leo Manzano before the race.
Groggily, we all woke up the next morning and got out the door a little late (so not surprising), and drove into town. Scott managed to get me at least dropped off to Guadalupe and 5th, only three blocks from Congress Avenue where all the start and finish festivities were held, while they dropped Scott's car off at Sherry's apartment complex.  I was able to meet up for a photo with the Austin Front Runners and see another couple of my local friends, Martin and Wesley, before heading off to the actual startline for my requested 6:30am call.  As we waited and the fog continued to roll in on this Sunday morning, announcements were made, and photos were taken alongside Austin's Mayor Steve Adler, as well as Olympian Leo Manzano.  The national anthem went well, despite some sound difficulties for corrals further back, and then I made my way back into the corrals with Hollie, Paula, and Cassirae, and then we were off to the sound of a gong... a very "weird" but Austin way of starting the race!

The gong to start the race...

The startline before the race

The gradual uphill along Congress
It was super humid out there, especially for February.  The first 3 miles of the race took us uphill - gradual uphill - on Congress Avenue.  We crossed the famous Congress Avenue Bridge (famous for having the world's largest urban bat colony, where between 750,000 and 1.5 million Mexican free-tailed bats emerge at dusk during the summer months - they weren't there in February, as they fly south to Mexico for the winter) over Lady Bird Lake along the popular "SoCo," or South Congress shopping strip.  The uphill totally zapped my energy. Hollie and I would leapfrog these early miles -- while I managed to still run a sub 10-minute first mile as we passed the Texas School for the Deaf and the famous "I Love You So Much" sign, the second mile was nearly two minutes slower.  A woman passed me with a "There's a chance this is vodka" sign on her camelbak... I wouldn't be lying if I said I was jealous.  As we continued up Congress Avenue, we passed St. Edwards University.  Before long, we could see US-290, meaning the first right turn of the race would be happening soon.

...finally going downhill!
We finally got to that turn along Ben White Blvd, and headed to 1st Street.  Finally, we were on some nice downhills, thank god, at pretty much the exact same grade.  Along the way, at 1st and Annie, I noticed the postcard-like "Greetings from Austin" sign and filed that location in my memory bank for a headstand stop after the race.  I never realized Austin was such a big artsy/mural city.  Eventually, around mile 6 of the race, we reached the 1st Street Bridge passing over the Colorado River, and stopped quickly to walk, while I turned my on my Delta app to check into my morning flight for the following day, haha. At this point, Hollie passes me.

Crossing over the 1st Street Bridge

Texas corgi #1...
We turn off of 1st Street onto Cesar Chavez Blvd, which is one of the most crowded spectator areas we've seen so far in the course.  Suddenly out of the corner of my eye, I see a corgi, my first one spotted in the state of Texas, along the left side of the course as we head westward.  Of course, I stop to take a picture... because, hello... that's what I do.  Not long after, I spot a runner, Patrick from Idaho, wearing a 2016 San Francisco Ultramarathon t-shirt, and strike up a conversation, as we had both run that race in July.

And another one!!!
At mile 8, we pass Austin High School's track, where Leo Manzano does a lot of his workouts. We run along Lake Austin Boulevard for 1.5 miles, and for some of that, I run alongside Colin, an Austin Front Runner, for a short period of time.  He tells me it's net uphill for the next ten miles.  Great. Just after mile 9, I see my second corgi (my luck is AWESOME) and also end up catching up with Hollie. From here, we decide to run together for as much of the rest of the race as we can.

We go up a steep incline, as we make our way around the sharp turn from Lake Austin Blvd to Enfield Road, and then continue down Enfield Road as we see signs designating the marathoners to the left and the half marathoners to the right.  The half marathoners will eventually continue along Enfield and encounter a massive hill at mile 12, but the marathoners turn left, and head up Exposition Blvd.  For the next 1.5 miles, we are on Exposition Blvd, a section through the affluent neighborhood of Tarrytown with some of the most grueling rolling hills on the entire race course. We turn right onto West 35th Street, crossing over the Mopac expressway, and then head up Jackson Avenue and Bull Creek Road as we zigzag our way north.

Eating other people's bacon.
At mile 12.5, Hollie and I decide to stop at a yard party happening in front of a home along Jackson Avenue, across from the Texas DMV. At this point, we've been talking about bacon for the last twenty minutes, and lo and behold, this yard party is basically having brunch, so we stop - and they happily fulfill our need for bacon.  We are quite happy.

Near mile 16 on the
Great Northern Boulevard
We meander our way through the residential Rosedale and Allandale neighborhoods, eventually making our way to the Great Northern Boulevard, which runs parallel to Mopac Expressway, a long stretch of residential road for about 1.25 miles.  Eventually, Hollie broke away from me as my endurance struggled from the heat.  We reached a right turn at Foster Lane and the northernmost point of the course and I went into pseudo-autopilot, as we reached the last parts of the mostly uphill part of the course.  We eventually found ourselves in a mostly commercial area, and curved around Northcross Drive and the Northcross Mall.  Finally by mile 18, the downhills started, but I was so tired by that point, that my pace never really improved.

Yes, that is a live rooster.
We eventually began to run along St. Joseph Boulevard and into the neighborhood of Crestview.  It gave way to Morrow Street, before we turned right onto Woodrow Avenue then began to follow Arroyo Seco on a slightly curved path southward.  We hit the 20 mile mark with only 10k to go as we turned left onto Romeria Drive, returning onto Woodrow Avenue as we crossed into Austin's Brentwood neighborhood, a residential neighborhood of mostly bungalow homes.  Along the way, I spotted a woman holding something in her arms, and as I got closer, I realized... SHE'S HOLDING A ROOSTER.  Now that's not something you see every day.  Keep Austin weird, for sure.

Austin definitely loves its murals
We turned left onto Northloop Boulevard, heading west into North Loop, an edgy neighborhood that is North Austin's answer to SoCo, complete with lots of murals and street art. The course once again gave us a few rolling hills, but they were not as steep as earlier, and we were still on a net downhill.  Eventually, we found ourselves heading south on Red River Street in Hyde Park, a neighborhood considered one of Austin's first suburbs (which eventually became part of Austin proper, and is considered one of the most densely populated areas in the city).  We would hit 23.5 miles as we turned right once again, along the north edge of Hancock Golf Course, then hit the 24 mile mark after turning left onto Duval Street, our last long (and slightly rolling) stretch of road before entering the campus of the University of Texas.  Having passed the 4:40 mark with over two miles left to go meant that I wouldn't break 5 hours; in fact, there was still a tough hill to encounter less than a mile from the finish.
Austin's so damn hilly.

Mid race signs... very effective.

Running through the UT campus,
alongside Memorial Stadium
The course weaved through UT's campus along San Jacinto Boulevard, notably passing Texas Memorial Stadium, where the Longhorns play.  As we exited campus on its south end, we continued down San Jacinto, reaching the tough hill after crossing 15th Street.  Considered one of the toughest closing hills in a marathon race, we trudged up that half mile climb, coming up along the east side of the Texas State Capitol Building, before turning right onto 11th Street, and to crowds of cheering spectators as the finish line came into view, turning left onto Congress Avenue just a little over a block away.  With the Capitol Building behind me, I crossed the finish line mat in 5:13:01.  Hollie had crossed about nine minutes before me.  Exhausted, I grabbed my gorgeous finisher medal (which I would later affix to the custom leather belt I purchased at the expo), grabbed some much-needed fluids and proceeded to the VIP balcony at the Stephen F. Austin Intercontinental Hotel to have post race brunch, while watching the finish line as I saw some other friends complete the full marathon.

Finished the race and headed up to VIP to get brunch and watch for friends heading out the finisher chute!
Alexandria & Colleen had just
finished performing at drag brunch!
Eventually, as all my friends finished the race, we got together to celebrate in the post-race beer garden.  I eventually found William, my contact who confirmed the national anthem gig for me, and thanked him for a successful, albeit hot day.  I got a headstand shot in front of the Capitol, but also knew there were some murals I wanted to do my iconic pose in front of.  We walked back through town toward Sherry's apartment (where we were able to park for free... thanks Sherry!), but not without a food stop - some of us stopped into Gourdough's Public House to have some savory donuts, and were treated to a drag show... turns out, 4th Street is where much of Austin's LGBT culture is centered around!  Scott, Loan, and I drove back down into SoCo, and I got two more headstand shots at the "I love you so much" mural and the "Greetings from Austin" mural, before we headed back to Scott's place for some much needed showers.  Loan then left to drive back to Houston not long after.  And luckily she did when she did, because the humid weather gave way to some pretty turbulent weather that evening; thunderstorms and tornadoes hit around the Austin area!  But Scott and I were too exhausted and after having some delicious Mexican food for dinner, we conked out for the night.

The first of three #victoryheadstands

Texas style, and Texas sized bling!
Because of President's Day weekend, I decided to book a flight out the next day; and I booked an 8am direct flight from Austin to JFK. Scott took me to the airport early that morning, and I walked through the airport, proudly displaying my medal-turned-belt buckle worn Texas-style on my waist. As the flight time got closer, the gate agent announced that the flight ended up being oversold, no surprise thanks to the holiday weekend... so I volunteered my seat, and in exchange, got a $500 travel voucher! That had me ending up staying in the airport for another six hours for the afternoon direct flight back to JFK. It allowed me to be able to get some work done AND have some credits to use on my international flights for the summer!

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