Friday, December 14, 2018

Race Report: Vodafone Malta Marathon

Malta came onto my radar after visiting the New York Times Travel Show in 2016, when meeting with some of the country's tourism bureau employees who had a boot at the event.  I was with my friend and fellow runner Jason, and we both left thinking... "hmm, there's a marathon there!" and I finally decided that I would pull the trigger and do the race in 2018.  Malta's a unique destination, but after surveying some friends, many have actually been to the Mediterranean island country, notably known for being one of the world's smallest, and with a vivid history as a naval base ruled by different powers since it was first inhabited - by the Phoenicians, Carthaginians, Romans, Greeks, Byzantines, Arabs, Normans, Sicilians, Spanish, Knights of St. John, French, and British.  I booked my flights to travel via Rome on Alitalia on the outbound, and via London on Delta on the inbound, with separate round trips to Malta International Airport in Luqa on the country's flagship carrier, Air Malta.  After a 1pm meeting, I left work to get to Terminal 1 by 2:30 to check into my flight, where I was assigned a seat at check in. Unfortunately, the counter agent puts me in a middle seat in the middle section of the long flight, which I wasn't thrilled about.

Waiting to board the flight to Malta
After getting through security, I bided my time at SkyTeam's Air France Lounge. With SkyTeam Elite Plus, I can get into the lounge for free; however, the check-in lady was not having it, especially since I was flying Alitalia - the Alitalia lounge not too far away is gross and in dire need of an update.  But I managed to charm her, and got my way into the lounge, being able to snack on some delicious French cheeses, a salad, and some dessert, and down a couple glasses of champagne! Eventually, I headed over to board for my Alitalia flight, and surprise surprise, it's boarding late.  All in all, the flight wasn't fantastic -- I got through a movie (the remake of Stephen King's "IT" - I'm now afraid of storm drains) and had a very underwhelming chicken on the plane - which included a hard-as-a-rock dinner roll -- before getting about three or four hours of sleep with some interruptions; being so close to the lavatories meant a lot of extant noise and light, even with my earplugs in and my eye mask on.  The lights would be on super bright at times as well, which was not helpful. We ended up landing in Rome a little early, with more than enough time for me to connect to my flight to Malta.

One thing to note... passport control is a MESS in Rome Fiumicino Airport, and so many people were cutting in the winding line that led from the E gates to the B, C, and D gates.  I got to my gate to board my Air Malta flight, and was super exhausted from my little sleep on the flight that I immediately CONK out after boarding, before even taking off for the short flight from Rome to Malta.  I wake up as we are landing, and it's pouring out. Of course.  Apparently, it was going to be like this all day.  We arrive just before noon and I exit out of the small airport's terminal to the bus stop, where I take the convenient local bus (X2) directly to Sliema, where my Airbnb was located, to check in.  It was about an hour trip with traffic there, and upon arriving, my host, Tijana, informed me she ended up locking her keys to the apartment IN the apartment.  Great.  While she figured out how to get in (calling someone who had a spare key), she brought us to the coffee shop across the street for a cappuccino.

A beautiful breakfast view!
I ended up meeting two other guests at the Airbnb, Petr and Jana from Kosice, Slovakia, and we got to chat over lunch and a couple glasses of good Italian red wine.  Eventually, I got myself out the door to explore the city, despite the crummy weather.  I headed down to the Marsamxett Harbor in Sliema, only a ten minute walk away, seeing the finish line already being set up for the marathon.  I grabbed a late lunch at a restaurant overlooking the harbor, just as the rain started to pour a bit harder.  I spent the rest of the afteroon taking in as much of the Sliema area as I could before making my way up to St. Julian's/San Giljan (with a stop at a cute little store selling Malta-themed wares, ironically called "Souvenirs That Don't Suck") and then met up with my Danish friend Frank, who I had originally met in Australia in 2017, to get my bib for Sunday's race.

Frank and I at dinner
Upon arriving at the Le Meridien Hotel for packet pickup, I encountered a huge line wrapped around the perimeter of the lower lobby - the pickup was essentially just a small office with not much room that had participants interact with a single volunteer at a table assigning bibs to registrations and then another table to receive the free t-shirt and the gear check bag.  It took about half an hour before we finally got my stuff, and then headed out to grab some food.  We found a restaurant nearby where I was able to get my first real good meal of the day, and something traditionally Maltese.. stuffat tal-fenek, or rabbit stew!  I went to sleep well satiated that night, crashing for hours to adjust to the Maltese time zone.

A view from Upper Barakka Gardens
I ended up getting a bit of an early start Saturday morning, and headed out to grab breakfast along the rocky seashore.  I found a good spot open at 8:30am, and enjoyed a full English breakfast with coffee for a fairly affordable €6.50.  A little later that morning, Frank and his friends Sally and Pål (who he met in Antarctica), and Tone (Pål's wife), came down to Sliema, and we took the ferry over to Valletta, a fifteen minute ride across Marsamxett Harbour.  We had a nice time walking all around the Maltese capital, taking in the sights of the 2018 European Capital City of Culture, and its beautiful architecture many of which date back to the mid-16th century.  One of the highlights was heading to the Upper Barakka Gardens for a view toward the Three Cities of Birgu, Senglea and Cospicua across the Grand Harbour.  We then decided to head to Mdina for the remainder of the afternoon, figuring our way out to the old city via the island's bus system, for which there was a large inconspicuous bus terminal a short walk from the gardens to take us the twenty minutes into the interior of the island.
How many people can we actually fit into a red telephone box?
Valletta street views
Posing near the harbor
Late lunch in Mdina
Once at Mdina, we went to grab a late lunch inside the walled city, finding a cute little Italian restaurant, Trattoria AD 1530, not far from the main gate.  After satiating our hunger, we went around exploring the walled city and its medieval architecture.  Eventually, we found our way to some incredible views overlooking the whole island.  As the sun was setting, we were able to find a cab to take us back to St. Julian's, using Taxify, Malta's most popular taxi hailing app.  That night, we decided to head up to the Spinola Bay area of St. Julian's, unsuccessfully finding a table for 5 in the chilly Saturday night - after Pål and Tone decide to head back to their hotel to have a smaller dinner on their own, Frank, Sally, and I lucked out at another Italian restaurant to dine at before heading back to our respective hotels for the night to get ready for the following morning's race.
The view from one of Mdina's bastions
A street view in old Mdina
Race start!
On Sunday morning, I woke up at 5am to get dressed for the race, and headed out the door at about 5:40 for the ten minute walk down to the ferry dock, where buses would pick us up to take us to the start at Mdina beginning at 6am sharp.  Once there, runners gathered just outside the bastions of Mdina, in the playground and parking lot area we were just at the day before.  Not long after I arrive, I ran into Frank, Pål, and Sally (dressed in her avocado costume), who all arrived in a separate bus.  Over the next hour, we waited while more marathoners continued to arrive.  A warm up exercise is led by a woman in the open area of the playground, with a small amount of runners following her moves. Eventually, I would end up seeing my other friends Johannes, Richard, and Zander before the start, and introduce them to my friends.  The startline arch was then inflated and put up at the end of the street, and we were off and running right at 7:30, taking off down the main road of Rabat, the city just outside of Mdina's imposing stone gates.

Pre-race shenanigans in the playground near the start!
Pre-race photo with Richard and Zander, and my avocado costume-wearing new friend Sally!
In front of one of the gates of Mdina
Running with a view of Mdina
It began to drizzle lightly during our first mile, and we felt the terrain start to very gradually go uphill.  After turning right and making our way through a residential area at the edge of Rabat, we finally reached a slight downhill section along the Mtarfa bypass with the first of many views of the walled city from afar.  We then reached Ta’Qali, where we would run past the two football stadiums - the Maltese National Stadium and the Centenary Stadium.  We then passed a farmers market that was beginning to be set up, then at the 5 mile mark, the US Embassy.  This was also where we began to have to share the road with vehicles -- we were warned prior to the race that roads would NOT be fully closed, and we would sometimes have to cross the middle of the road at times, with traffic passing through, while running on the sometimes very narrow shoulder. 
The road is wet from the early morning drizzle
More sights of Mdina, and cacti we ran by
The US Embassy in Malta, which we ran by a couple times
Malta's National Stadium
Running on streets not closed to traffic
The next ten miles would take us winding all around the area - in fact, these first 25 km/16 miles of the race would have us run all around the vicinity of Mdina - we would see the walled city several times during this first half of the race - enough to even think, ok I'm good with seeing this view, lol.  The route was a bit perplexing as it wound its way around several points we had already run through -- we came through Ta’ Qali (and past the old Royal Air Force airfield and barracks), down to the town of Attard, through Mosta, back to Attard, and round Ta’ Qali again.  If I thought the Firenze Marathon had a course that resembled a kid scribbling on a map -- well, the Malta Marathon was even more scribble like!  There were time we would find ourselves in sections where we could see other runners coming up the road but they would make a turn just as we continued forward - later I'd realize they were WAY far in front, as much as six miles ahead.

The wind picked up at mile 10
Our surroundings were fields and farms; along some main roads, we would run alongside stretches of prickly pear shrubs and trees that grow all over the island.  The rural surroundings would give way to some more residential areas, then would abruptly change back to rural surroundings.  There was a short stretch of road we ran along twice that was a bit muddy - the second time around, as it was later in the day, we tried to avoid the wet areas by running around the puddles leftover from the morning's rain, with car traffic tailing us (and even honking at us) which was a bit frustrating.  Mile 10 was memorably slow because of a strong headwind and the unfortunate need to have to run on a concrete sidewalk.  After retracing our paths through Ta'Qali once more, this time passing through a beautifully manicured park area and through a parking lot bordering the Meridiana Vineyards; also a guy who was flying his motorized model plane as it zoomed and swooped overhead while we ran by.
So many cacti... and more of Mdina.  We'd be seeing many angles of the walled city for the first 16 miles of this race!
Official Photo from the Malta Marathon
Passing through Ta'Qali National Park
I could use a beer about now!
At the 24km mark, we passed the US Embassy one last time, and made our way out of Ta’ Qali and down again towards Attard. This time, we would run through the old part of Attard, right in front of the Attard parish church on Triq Il-Kbira.  At the 27km mark, the real downhill finally re-commenced, and I took advantage of the satisfying elevation change as we continued on into the Mriehel section of the town of Birkirkara, where the road seemed to just go on forever.  Luckily, we were about to go through a somewhat zigzag-like section of the Mriehel industrial estate (including the Cisk brewery, producing a local lager and pils style beer) where some of the buildings provided us with some much needed shade (as there was not much of this through the race).  We then took the Mriehel Bypass, a very open highway road (with a lane for us runners thankfully closed to traffic -- for once!) as we weaved our way through a dense and more urban environment to continue on toward the more familiar sights of the northeastern coast.  The bypass skirted the city of Qormi, and towns of Hamrun and Marsa, as we ran toward Valletta and hugged the coastline all the way to the finish line in Sliema.
A bit lonely out on these long stretches of road....
Picking up my speed as I pass people on downhills... I like downhills :)
I'm not crazy about uphills, but they were present, like this one.
The Porte des Bombes in Valletta
Running on the street along the harbor, and sometimes the sidewalk.
Coming in toward the finish, and so tired! (Official photo of the Malta Marathon)
Showing off the bling with the view
The road curved along as it ramped up and down on the by-pass, eventually making a slight left onto Triq Decembru 13 and Triq Nazzjonali.  We came upon the Porte des Bombes, an ornamental arch that dates back to 1721 just before mile 23, when we turned left along a curvy downhill service road that went past an area that seemed to be old fortifications now occupied by Maltese police. The road emptied us into the last 4km of the route, as we hugged the road that skirts the marinas feeding into Marsamxett Harbour, past the Pieta, Msida, Ta’ Xbiex and Gzira waterfronts all the way up to the finish in Sliema.  Exhausted from 40 km of running and the humidity, I made my way past several hundred walkathon participants, all who had started nearly two hours after we did, and who were all heading toward the finish as well.  I finished just ten minutes before the supposed 5 1/2 hour cutoff, in 5:20:32, nearly half an hour faster than the slow and miserably hot finish in Fort Lauderdale the week before - still, the race allowed runners to finish up to the 6 hour mark, so I had some fifty-five runners finish behind me in the official results.

Enjoying a well deserved burger!
I was able to meet up with Sally and Frank afterward at Burger King, our agreed upon meeting point, where we beasted some much needed burgers. Frank had a pretty good race, finishing in just under three hours, and only 3 1/2 minutes ahead of Johannes. I headed back to my Airbnb shortly thereafter to get showered, and also got to take a nap before grabbing dinner with the crew at the fancy seafood restaurant Barracuda in San Giljan later that night.

Victory Headstand with a view
Early the next morning, I called a taxi cab to get me to the airport for my 7:50am flight.  It was raining as we drove to the airport, culminating in a downpour when I arrived; the flight ended up being half an hour delayed (and luckily I wasn't heading to Rome, which was canceling flights left and right due to a rare snowfall - Rome hardly ever gets snow, and they are not prepared for it when it happens, much like the American South when a similar weather event happens) We arrived in London a bit late, and I rush out of the plane quickly to make my connection -- hurriedly running through Terminal 4 and stressfully waiting as a shuttle bus slowly made its way to Terminal 3.  Luckily, security was not a long wait, and despite having to run through the terminal again, I made it to my Delta flight to take me back to NYC -- and in Delta One, nonetheless, my first experience on this class of service internationally (thanks to a global upgrade certificate!)  I was back in New York by 3:30pm, happy to head back to my apartment to readjust to east coast time.

Thursday, October 25, 2018

Race Report: Fort Lauderdale A1A Marathon

I've run in Florida several times - six times in fact - and the Fort Lauderdale A1A Marathon would be my third full in the state, after having run Miami and West Palm Beach in 2017.  The A1A has been known to provide some of the most inventive and attractive medals around.  During the expo for West Palm, I decided to pull the plug and include A1A onto my 2018 calendar.  When the weekend came, I was ticketed for a 7:45pm flight on Saturday night, so on the Friday night before, after my birthday dinner with friends, I called Delta to see if I could same-day-confirm onto an earlier flight.  Knowing full well that it could be impossible, as this was the beginning of a long weekend as well as a mid-winter break for many people in the NYC area, I asked to be put on the standby list for the first flight in the morning at 7am.

Early Saturday morning, I headed to the airport at around 5:15am, and got through security fairly quickly before heading to the Sky Club to grab breakfast.  I didn't need to be at the gate until boarding, anyway - and the standby list had me right at the top.  Eventually, as boarding began and progressed, it looked like the plane was boarding full, and indeed it did - I've had luck in the past with seats opening up for people missing their flight, but it wasn't to be for that 7am flight.

I headed back to the SkyClub and got one of the employees there, a guy named Kris, to list me on the next flight out.  Turns out, the 9am had two open seats in the main cabin, and he was nice enough to bypass the "same fare class" requirement needed for same-day-confirming onto another flight, so I had a confirmed seat on the 9am!  I got listed on the upgrade list as well, and was able to jump into a Comfort+ window seat before boarding.  So I was going to get to Florida about eleven hours early after all!

I arrived in Fort Lauderdale to 70 degree weather, much nicer than what I had left behind in frigidly cold New York.  I met my friend Seth outside, and while he had already gotten my bib and my friend Carrie's bib earlier that morning, we headed back to the expo anyway, so I could check out some of the vendors.  It was a surprisingly smaller expo than I had anticipated, but otherwise, I was able to get what I needed out of it - a box of GU and some free coffee!  Seth and I then headed back to his place in the Wilton Manors neighborhood of Fort Lauderdale, with a stop at the mall and for lunch in between, while we waited for his friend Karen to arrive.

Dinner that evening was timed so that Seth, Karen, and I headed out to Bona, a local Italian restaurant in Wilton Manors, with me joining them for about an hour before transferring to another table at the same restaurant where I was meeting with three other friends from Front Runners New York who had come down to Florida for the race.  Dinner was delicious - we followed it up with a short walk down Wilton Drive to check out the local bar scene, but it was still pretty early... though we took note of it all for Sunday night revelry.  I headed back to Seth's to get ready to pass out for the night, as we had a VERY early AM wake up with the race starting at 6am.

Early morning startline
Between Seth, Karen, and I, we agreed to leave at 4:30, and drive to the start in Karen's car, as she was planning to leave to head back up north to Jupiter right after she finished the half.  I only needed twenty minutes to get ready, so I was the last to wakeup at 4am.  We drove to a parking structure near the start and with a good hour still before the race, we went about our own ways to do our pre-race rituals. I met up with a few friends including Amy, Lisa, and Danielle in front of the Museum of Discovery and Science, and also met up with Carrie, as I had her bib and bag for the race -- she had quite the morning, as she frantically tried to book a Lyft/Uber from Miami right when the bars there began to let out around 5am, eventually flagging down a cab to take her up to Fort Lauderdale.  At 5:35, the national anthem was performed by what's become a tradition for the A1A race - performed by a saxophonist!

With FRNY friend Michael
After the anthem, I self-seeded into the corrals, nestled between the 2:00 and 2:10 half marathon pacers, eventually meeting up with Seth, and running into another fellow FRNY member Michael, who was running the half.  The chaos of the start didn't allow for the rest of the FRNY folks to meet us in the corrals. At 6am, we were off, running down the dark streets of Fort Lauderdale, lit only by the streetlamps and traffic lights on the downtown streets.  It was definitely warm - my watch registered the temperature as 72, with 88% humidity.  I start off conservatively as we made our way eastward along SW 2nd Street, curving along Andrews Avenue to take us to Las Olas Boulevard.  A couple miles in, and the thickness of the humidity in the air is palpable.  I start to take my walk breaks on the 9/1, vowing to keep this up as much as possible.


Running down Las Olas Boulevard
Bridge crossing over the intracoastal
Continuing on eastward along Las Olas, reaching the "highest" point of the race, a bridge crossing over the intracoastal waterway right to State Route A1A, alongside Las Olas Beach with sweeping views of the Atlantic Ocean.  At around 2.75 miles, we turn left to make our way along the race's namesake State Route A1A highway. We pass by Fort Lauderdale's famous Elbo Room bar, just as the sun begins to peek over the horizon.  Thankfully, the morning is overcast, so we are spared much of the sun blazing over us in these early hours.  It would actually stay overcast for much of the morning, which was a godsend to the marathoners who would be out there for much longer.



Running on the A1A, where we would be for most of the race
Running through Birch State Park
We ran northward along the A1A for a bit, before turning left at the 4 mile mark onto Sunrise Boulevard.  This portion of the race had us complete a loop around the asphalt path that encircles Hugh Taylor Birch State Park, located between the Intracoastal Waterway and SR A1A. Along the way, I end up running into my friend Ben, who had flown down from North Carolina, having finished the Oak Island Half Marathon the morning before. He was just doing the half, feeling a little sore, but content with finishing his first sub-2 half in a few months since sustaining an injury.  He continued on as I stopped for a walk break as we continued through the park.

As we closed in on the 6 mile mark, I began to notice a skunky smell, mixed with the unmistakable stench of sewage, likely brought in from the tides from the ocean. With Carrie not far in front of me, I knew she was going to be stopping around here to gather herself - she's quite sensitive to smells. And lo and behold, as I approached the exit of the park, there she was.  We decided to stick with each other for the remainder of the race, or as much of the race as we could together.

The marathoners continue on north!
Eventually, we were back out on Sunrise Boulevard, making our way back to the A1A.  We turned left onto the highway, and continued to run northward, making our way into the communities of Fort Lauderdale Beach and Lauderdale-by-the-Sea.  At one point, the faster half marathoners heading in our direction after making their turn around had been led right into the path of everyone else.  Someone was not directing these folks into the correct lane, causing quite a traffic jam through the area.  Fellow FRNY members running the marathon Tony and Bob passed me by as we made our way up the road.  It was just after Lauderdale Beach in the Galt Mile area, however, that the half marathoners did their turn around, and the rest of us marathoners emerged onto wide open roads along A1A, continuing on northward for quite sometime, much less crowded.

Passing by some albatross (?) statue...
We veered right onto El Mar Boulevard, and into Lauderdale-by-the-Sea's beachfront strip, passing by Anglin's Fishing Pier (the longest pier in South Florida), before returning to A1A.   As we continued northward through Sea Ranch and into Pompano Beach, the scenery became very monotonous, as pretty much everything on either side of us was a condominium building, many of them slathered in pastel colors, synonymous with south Florida.  The morning heat began to take its toll, and Carrie and I slowed down enough to cross the halfway point, where my friend Heather had parked herself with the Marathon Maniacs sign, ice pops, and beer, at about the 2 1/2 hour mark of the race.  By then, we knew going under 5 hours was likely not going to happen.

Heather providing us ice pops.  THANK GOD FOR HEATHER.
Carrie and I, and our manatee friend
We continued on northward, past more condos, and deep into the residential area of Hillsboro Shores, one of the few single family home communities on the barrier island of the city of Pompano Beach. Carrie and I stopped to take a selfie with a mailbox in the shape of Florida's state marine mammal, the manatee.  The course circled around to its northernmost point, taking a right along Bay Drive, where an aid station was located, and then diverted along Beacon Street back to the A1A before looping back around to Bay Drive for the run back, but the turn onto Beacon Street was very unassuming - in fact, while Carrie and I turned left, we saw another runner in front of us seemingly going in the wrong direction.  Oh well -- she may have likely figured it out coming back around, and it wouldn't have been much additional distance to run.  As we finished our last northward trek along the A1A, we saw the bascule bridge in the distance over the Hillsboro Inlet lifted upward to let a ship come through.  We joked how that was definitely not a hill in this super flat race.

Returning back along the A1A... still so much more mileage to go.
Jokes.  I literally can't do this.
The run back along the A1A was rather uneventful for the both of us - the sun had peeked out past the clouds and was definitely assaulting our sensitivities.  The monotony of the course was definitely getting to us, as was the heat emanating off our faces.  We basked in any moment the condos could give us some semblance of shade, and then complained to each other when it was beating us down.  We definitely got to the point in the race where we were not enjoying the temperature situation (we don't enjoy running in heat and humidity!), and wanted to complain for the sake of complaining.  Along the way, Front Runners Fort Lauderdale friend Paul had caught up, and he ran alongside his sister, who had come to help pace him for a few miles near the finish.  At around mile 19, Carrie needed to push forward a bit to keep her legs underneath her as we did our periodic run-walk breaks, but eventually as we made our way past the wall a mile later and in Lauderdale-by-the-Sea, I caught up to her, and we continued on for the last 10k of the race.  This last 10k was brutal under the morning sun, and we kept using each of the traffic lights as markers for when we would run and when we would walk.  With a little over two miles left to go, we passed Hugh Taylor Birch State Park where Carrie and I had started running together, and we pushed ourselves as best as we could inching ever closer to the finish.

We both really just wanted this medal.
FRNY Finishers!
Eventually, we got to Fort Lauderdale Beach Park with less than half a mile to go, and saw an inflatable Publix arch in the distance, happily rejoicing that the finish line was so close... but no.. it was a FAKE and was only the 26 mile mark.  The actual finish line was about 0.2 mile away, so we trudged on and crossed the finish in 5:49:52, just barely ten minutes under the hard 6 hour time limit.  But we didn't care... we were done, and got the pretty jellyfish medal we were both pining for.  The temps were crazy - 79º, but a "realfeel" of 83º -- no wonder we were spent. After the finish, we got photos with the massive sand castle built especially for the race - and I also got to do my headstand - before catching the schoolbus to take us back to the startline area.  From there, Seth, Paul, and I caught a Lyft to take us back to Wilton Manors.

Victory Headstand!
After a bit of rest for the rest of the afternoon, Seth and I grabbed some dinner and just lazed around - I had decided to take a morning flight on Monday because of the holiday.  With that, another marathon done... with a pretty medal hard earned.

Monday, October 15, 2018

Race Report: Mississippi Blues Marathon

I left work early on Friday, and caught a 3:40 pm flight out of JFK to head down to Atlanta, where I would connect for my flight to Jackson, Mississippi.  I arrived in Jackson a little after 8pm, and my friend Hollie picked me up from Jackson's Medgar Wiley Evers International Airport, taking me into downtown Jackson to a blues club to meet up with our friends Sherry and Zach, who we'd be staying with for one night at the Westin.  They had already picked up my bib for the race, and I was basically flying in to run the race and flying out the next day in the afternoon.

I had run the half marathon here in 2015, an exceptionally cold edition of the race, where the temps were dipping close to 20 degrees race morning.  This time last year, I was attempting to head down again, this time to to run the full marathon, but encountered a freak ice storm that would eventually cancel the 2017 edition of the race. This race was added to my calendar last minute, because I unfortunately learned that the Mississippi Gulf Coast Marathon (which I ran the month prior, December 2017) was measured short by 295 meters due to human error in setting up the race course the morning of the race. In order for the 50 States Marathon Club to count my completion of this state, I needed to run the full 26.2 mile distance, and this was the first opportunity for me to do so that fit into my calendar.  Finally, I could check off Mississippi from my list of states for marathons... on my THIRD attempt.

Start line wetness
The weather forecast was not going to be freezing like in 2015, or threatened by an ice storm like in 2017, however rain had been set for race morning for the past week, and precipitation was prety much inevitable, though exactly how much it would pour was still yet to be seen.  With the race starting at 7am, and our hotel steps away from the startline, we begrudgingly woke up a little after 6am, rolling out of bed, and headed out into the rain, to where runners were all congregating on Pascagoula Street between Lamar and West Street.

Running through Jackson State campus
Decked out in my "Hidden Meanings" INKnBURN tee, with Hollie matching in the women's version of the shirt, we set out in the rain at 7am, temps in the mid-50s, but the precipitation falling steadily.  After the national anthem was performed, traditionally at this race by a blues guitarist, we headed west and into the direction of Jackson State University.  Hollie and I stayed together for the first couple miles, as we eased along the ups and downs of Pascagoula Street, dodging walkers and the periodic pothole we encountered along the way.  The runners en masse veered left and along University Boulevard and onto John R. Lynch Street, which passed right through the middle of campus, passing underneath the school's welcoming archways.

Tywana and I!
We turned right past a roundabout along Dr. Robert Smith, Sr. Parkway, named after an influential civil rights activist and medical pioneer of the 1960s, who to this day serves as a community leader in both the city and at Jackson State University. The parkway connects JSU to downtown Jackson, and along the way, not only did I run into my friend Ken, who was pacing 4:50 for the marathon, I ran into Tywana, who called out my name as she had recognized me from a race I did in December of 2016 in Atlanta!

Over the next few miles, we returned to downtown Jackson, passing the startline once again, before turning left and cruising north along State Street.  We passed Jackson Brace and Limb Company, an orthotics and prosthetics store along the course, which I had fondly remembered during the 2015 race - an ironic sight to see while running a marathon.  The hills kept rolling on and on as we crept further north, passing the mile 6 mark, and still instep with those running the half marathon - we passed Jackson's large medical district, where after passing the Baptist Medical Center in Belhaven to our left, we came upon the University of Mississippi's School of Medicine Campus, before taking a slight right turn onto Old Canton Road.

Residential Fondren
We curved our way around a circular road and passed mile 7 before the half marathoners split off and the marathoners were left to quietly continue on by our lonesome, as we zigzagged our way through the serene residential neighborhood of Fondren, an area considered the arts district of Jackson, though we were confined mainly to the residential roads, treelined by massive oaks that towered over all else.  Our first glimpse of the commercial area of this neighborhood came a few miles later, as we came out on State Street and Meadowbrook Road, continuing eastward as the rain began to fall a bit more heavily.  An abandoned strip mall served as a relay exchange location as we struggled forward on Jackson's brown asphalt streets.

Running by the highway
At the 11 mile mark we turned right along a frontage road for the interstate, momentarily commingling with the half marathoners as they came to an underpass section from the other direction before taking off again in different directions as we headed northward on Old Canton Road.  The rain stopped momentarily as we reached the northernmost point of this race at the 14.25 mile mark on Briarwood Road. A couple blocks later, we began our trek southward along Ridgewood Road, making our way down a nice downhill stretch as the rain, once more, began to pick up again.  We turned left onto Sheffield Road just before the mile 16 mark as we passed private school Jackson Academy, the largest independent school in Mississippi.  The next mile and a half cut through this upper-middle class residential area, an area of modest homes with spacious front yards.

Eastover
Along Meadowbrook Road, we entered the Eastover neighborhood of Jackson, flanked by two stone entrance pillars and manicured garden area.  The homes here were very stately, with massive lots and even more spacious front yards than we had seen before. This was even more evident as we made our way down Eastover Drive, passing some beautiful mansions with such apparent southern charm.  Course marshals led us around the curving route that had us encircling the neighborhoods' many lakes.

At mile 20, we crossed Ridgewood Road, and came out of the residential area, running up a gradual uphill toward the highway.  After passing the Mississippi School for the Deaf, we turned left onto the frontage road of I-55.  After just under half a mile along the frontage road, we turned left to an unassuming back gate of what seemed like a farm area.  The asphalt gave way to a gravel road that was slightly muddy due to the rain.  We were running through the grounds of the Mississippi Agriculture and Forestry Museum, which contained a living-history farm and a recreated 1920s cotton-economy-era town. We exited the museum grounds and ran alongside the shoulder of Mississippi Highway 25 before crossing the multi-lane street past a long line of cars waiting to cross the road.  We than ran up Highland Drive, a road that skirted the edge of Lakeland Park, the Mississippi Children's Museum, and the Mississippi Museum of Natural Science.  The road was pretty exposed, so we got the brunt of a headwind blowing right at us as we made our way further down the course.  It was also a bit hilly, so I was reduced to walking for a good portion of this road, before it turned into a downhill as we ran through the last bit of residential neighborhood in Belhaven.  We were less than 3 miles from the finish at this point, and along the way, I ran into my friend Gaby, seeing him for the first time in the entire race.


We ran together for a little bit, even stopping for a little imbibement of beer as we passed some spectators cheering on the runners, before I decided to slow down. Eventually, before us we had a lengthy straight shot along North Street, taking us past the first time I saw the Mississippi state flag along the course.  The state flag is a bit controversial, as it is the only state flag remaining that still uses the stars and bars of the original confederate flag in its design.  All throughout the course, I saw other flags being flown by residents in front of their homes - either the American flag, or a different design which I later realized was a new proposed design for the Mississippi state flag that has recently began to gain traction.

Victory Headstand at William Goodman‘s Subconscious View-Master mural
at the Mississippi Museum of Art in Jackson

Finishers! (Photo by Jun Ulama)
Within the last mile, we ran past the Capitol building and the road curved into State Street.  We ran through a cheer tunnel as we made our last right turn onto Court Street and past the Westin and the Museum of Art before curving along the road finally to the finish line, where I crossed in 5:45.  I found several other friends after finishing, and grabbed some much needed food in the form of pizza before heading back to the Westin to shower and get my bags together.  I ordered an uber and got myself to Jackson's airport quickly, where several other runners (including my friend Ray and his wife Janice) were congregating for the same Delta flight to Atlanta.  It was a very quick trip out to Jackson, but rewarding to FINALLY get the state checked off.