Tuesday, July 17, 2018

Race Report: Detroit Free Press Marathon

2017 marked the 40th Anniversary of the Detroit Free Press/Chemical Bank International Marathon. So, of course, this year's race was quite a big deal... in fact, last year, friends and I were already blocking out the calendar to include this race for the new year. A few weeks after last year's edition of the race had occurred, I reached out to the race organizers to see if they needed an anthem singer for the 2017 race, knowing full well that they likely already had someone in mind for the job. But of course, it didn't hurt to ask.  

To my surprise, I got a reply email from Leah Yanuszeski, Digital Director for the race, offering me the spot; while they've used the same national anthem singer for the past several years, they loved the idea of my challenge to sing in all 50 states.  They even asked if I knew "O Canada" as well, since a significant percentage of runners were coming from across the border to run the race. Notably, it is one of the three US races that crosses the international border (the others being the Bay of Fundy International Marathon between Maine and New Brunswick in late June; and the Niagara Falls International Marathon between New York and Ontario, coincidentally happening on the same day as Detroit.) Fast forward to race weekend, and I get jetting off to Detroit on Saturday morning.

With Black Sheep friends in town for
RnR Brooklyn the night before I left
for Detroit (Photo by Amy Heveran)
The night before, I got together with friends from all over the country who were coming to New York to run the Rock 'n' Roll Brooklyn Half, which I was not registered for - I still wanted to see all my friends though, so I went out to Brooklyn and met up with them at a brewery downtown.  I got home around midnight that night, and got six hours of sleep before heading to the airport on Saturday morning.  But my drama had just started...

What should've been a twenty minute bus ride on the Q70 ended up being over an hour due to the traffic slowing to a crawl as it approached LaGuardia Airport from the Grand Central Parkway. As we inched up the onramp, we saw that the entire departures level was blocked off by NYPD and SWAT; we were told they were evacuating Terminal B (the first stop on the bus.) Passengers trying to make their flights who were also stuck in vehicles on the highway were walking along the shoulder of the ramp to the terminal until police stopped them, too, and forced them to board our bus. Turns out, an elderly gentleman allegedly was arguing with an Spirit Airlines employee as he tried to buy a ticket, walked away then returned with a bag and told the employee he had a bomb, forcing an evacuation of the terminal.  Only terminal B was affected by this, and runway traffic was moving normally from other terminals.

Our bus was then directed to Terminals D and C (my destination), but by the time we’d arrive, the boarding door at my gate would be closed for my flight. Thankfully, as time ticked by while sitting in traffic, I made the decision to call Delta to rebook me on another flight that would leave 3 1/2 hours later. Thank goodness, my status with Delta allows me to make the change for no additional cost, as long as there's room.  Also, the bus nearly didn’t make it to the other terminals either-- because of the low clearance and the fact the bus was not taking its normal route from B to D and C, we nearly scraped and top and side of the bus against the concrete bollards and the underside of the onramp above. Our resourceful driver, clearly thrown for a loop but still driving competently and without any hesitations, had to re-maneuver the behemoth, directing cars behind us to give us some space to back up in order to get around the curve.  I finally got to my terminal, and decided to get breakfast to pass the time while waiting for my flight to board.  I even got some time to work on some race reports while I had some complimentary internet.

An Uber to Detroit, and the iconic
Unilever Giant Tire, along I-94
At noon, we boarded and it was a quick 80 minute flight, and we even landed early in Detroit.  I picked up an Uber from the terminal's Ground Transportation Center and made it the Cobo Center in downtown Detroit for the expo by 3pm.  While there, I got to see friends Barb and Donna (another friend Lynn was back at the hotel napping), and my contact with the race, Leah.  An old college friend Nicky, who is a volunteer coordinator for the marathon, met up with me as well - she had messaged me a few days earlier when she found out that I was singing the national anthem at the start!  After getting through the expo, we headed back to the Westin, where we were staying Saturday night.  Lynn had woken up and we were then off to have dinner in Canton (about half an hour away) at the home of another friend, Jeff!

Meeting up with my college friend Nicky.
Dinner was fantastic, as was the company with lots of friends old and new who were in town from all over to run the race.  The weather got soggy as the sun went down, and it rained the entire time we were there and on the way back - we got back to Detroit before 9pm, and settled in with one quick trip downstairs to visit with a couple more friends socializing at the bar, before heading off to bed since I had set my alarm for 5:15 the next morning.

With passport in hand!
I promptly woke up to my alarm and got myself ready and out the door a little before 6am, passport in a plastic bag and secured in my waist belt (yes, I had to run with my passport!), heading downstairs to a lobby full of runners getting ready for the race.  I went down the street to the start line and to Gateway Deli, where the marathon was having a continental breakfast for VIPs.  Already, I could tell the wind had picked up significantly from the day before, becoming more sustained.  Luckily the pre-sunrise sky showed no significant cloud cover that could signal impending thunderstorms.  The discussion all around seemed to be how worried everyone had been about the weather - in Michigan it can change on a dime, and this weekend was no different; the forecast the day before showed thunderstorms for Sunday morning, and the race organizers issued an advisory that if lightning was spotted within 7 miles of the course, they'd cancel. After gulping down a small coffee pick-me-up, I headed to the start area which was already beginning to fill with wheelchair runners and handcyclists with the runners assembling behind them, and found my way to race officials who directed me toward the start stage. I met some executives from lead sponsor Chemical Bank while waiting, and turned out that one of their daughters was at Michigan for architecture school around the same time I was while their other daughter was in a collegiate co-ed a cappella group at Michigan as well as a semi-pro co-ed group in New York City.  Donna and Lynn met up with me near the start, and after a little bit of miscommunication (the start line logistics folks didn't realize I was standing right there next to the stage), I went up to the platform, and was introduced by Executive Race Director Barbara Bannage before singing the Canadian and U.S. National Anthems to 15,000+ runners and countless others watching the race start.

Ready to start!
As soon as I was done, the three of us moved up the crowded sidewalk toward the further back corrals, like fish moving upstream.  I decided to just cut into the corrals and join the runners in corral D, and at 4 minutes after the hour, I was off running southwest down Fort Street, still under a dark sky, but one that was getting brighter by the minute.  The wind was there, but not strong... and you could feel the saturation in the air - it was 70° with 88% humidity. People were out in droves cheering for us for the first couple of minutes of the race, but just like that, it was pretty quiet again.  We ran for nearly two miles down Fort Street, as the street scene began to turn progressively more industrial.  In the distance, we could see the Ambassador Bridge, lit up in the pre-dawn sky, already teeming with truck traffic held up to accommodate the runners.  We could tell it was a warm morning, as well, because I was sweating up a storm.

The Ambassador Bridge all lit up as we run down Fort Street

En route to Canada!
Ascending the bridge!
Soon we made a right turn, and we began the gradual ascent along a service road of the Fisher Freeway (I-75), to take us around a loop that went through the truck entrance and Duty Free Plaza of US Customs and Border Protection, a massive concrete area that was barricaded off for runners, as trucks were lined up on a wide berth from the two interstates that feed onto the bridge.  The light up message screens above each lane showed support for the runners making their way onto the bridge. We then began our real ascent, making our way up the steep upramp along the right side of the bridge, reaching the 5k mark.  And boy, was it steep!  I found myself having to walk quite a bit as we made our way up, about 152 feet of ascent over .75 miles.  The view was extraordinary, especially with the dawn sky - and the clouds dissipating (thankfully) over Canada, with the sun peeking through.  It wasn't terribly windy as I thought it would be.  Seeing both the Windsor and Detroit sides of the bridge over the Detroit River was fantastic. I enjoyed the nice lengthy downhill right up until we made the turn around at the bottom of the hill and past the border patrol booths onto Huron Church Road.

Midway through the bridge span
Overlooking the Detroit River
Running through Windsor!
We were in Windsor, Canada!  This place has some history with me, as it was where a 19 year old Jim went with friends from college for a night out, as the legal age to drink in Canada was 19, and not 21 like in the US.  The stretch along Huron Church Road was filled with plenty of people cheering us on, many with signs welcoming us to Canada (...eh!).  We passed the University of Windsor before making a turn onto the Riverside Drive, hitting the mile 5 marker, and continuing down a nice flat section right up against the Detroit River which we would run along for the next two miles.  The views across the river to downtown Detroit were quite beautiful.  The wind had picked up a bit more, evident from the large Canadian flag on our side of the river waving wildly in the distance.

Running alongside the Detroit River in Canada
The Canadian flag blowing in the wind as we close out our run through Windsor
Tim Horton's!!
We turned right onto Goyeau Street, running down several spectator-lined blocks as we got closer to the entrance to the tunnel.  We turned another corner that happened to have a Tim Horton's on the corner, and I stopped to get a photo - they're as ubiquitous in Canada as Starbucks and Dunkin' Donuts is in NYC!  Before long, the road narrowed and we were funneled into the unassuming entrance of the Detroit-Windsor Tunnel, a mile long trip underwater across the Detroit River - and likely the only underwater mile in a marathon in the entire world.

The "Underwater Mile" in the
Detroit-Windsor Tunnel
The trip across the tunnel was rather uneventful - in fact, the first half of it was rather quick, as it seemed that we were on a slight downhill.  But the lack of air was quite evident, and it made the run through the tunnel very stuffy.  I felt like I was sweating up a storm as we made our way through the tunnel.  Halfway through the tunnel was the demarcation spot indicating the Canada side and the US side, and like many others, I stopped to grab a photo as we made our way past.  One would barely be able to see this if they were driving through the tunnel, so it was nice to be able to snap a picture before continuing on - this time on the uphill that took us right back to Detroit.

At the border during the underwater mile!

In the shadow of the RenCen
We emerged out of the tunnel and felt the breeze, effectively blowing away all the sweat from my brow.  The roadway looped around in the shadow of the hulking "RenCen," as Michiganders refer to the GM Renaissance Center as, probably THE definitive building in the Detroit skyline.  The group of seven interconnected skyscrapers rises 73 floors in its tallest building (the central tower housing the Detroit Marriott at the Renaissance Center, the second tallest all-hotel skyscraper in the Western Hemisphere), and is famous for its cylindrical design and rosette configuration. As we made our way past border patrol officers and greeted back into the US with spectators lining the sides of the streets with "welcome" signs, we continued on down Jefferson Avenue, heading through the road that cuts right through the Cobo Center, to the cheers of throngs of spectators.  This easily was the most dense crowd support area of the entire course.

Pure Michigan!
Funny sign in Mexicantown

We continued along Jefferson Avenue, making our way past Joe Louis Arena, the recently closed (this year) home of the Detroit Red Wings, which will be demolished and slated for redevelopment in the near future.  Passing the West Riverfront Park alongside the river, we made a slight right turn, curving up along Rosa Parks Boulevard, where we encountered a short three block out-and back section.  After the out-and-back, we turned right onto Lafayette Boulevard, as we hit the 10 mile mark.  We then weaved our way through Detroit's Mexicantown, passing by the beautiful Sainte Anne de Detroit Catholic Church, the second oldest continuously operating Roman Catholic parish in the U.S., which stands majestically along the course at 18th Street, as runners head north for a few blocks, before turning right onto Bagley Avenue as they make their way toward Corktown.

At mile 11, I decided to make a quick stop at the medical aid station to get some Tylenol, hopefully to ease the pain in my right foot that had been an issue at the end of the Prairie Fire Marathon the week before.  They gladly obliged, and soon I was on my way.  We crested a bridge that went over the train tracks that passed through the city, as well as a semi-obscured rear view of the abandoned Michigan Central Station rail depot that was the former intercity passenger rail depot for Detroit until the late 1980's.  Also happened to see the most inventive spectator sign I've seen in some time as I went over the bridge!

We weaved our way around Corktown, a largely residential historic district of southwest Detroit that used to be the Irish "mecca" of the city, travelling south on Trumbull Avenue.  Just before turning again onto Porter Street, a spectator brandishing a microphone and portable speaker was singing some standards and began to sing a little Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons, and I ran up to him and decided to harmonize a little with him on "Can't Take My Eyes Off of You" for a verse and a chorus.  He loved it, as well as the other spectators around him!  I thanked him and continued on in my run.

Heading toward skyscrapers
Eventually, we were on Michigan Avenue, a wide avenue that serves as one of the six main "spokes" in Detroit's hexagonal street configuration, designed by Augustus Woodward after the historic fire of 1805.  The crowd support here was phenomenal, as we were approaching the final mile of the half marathon, running back through downtown.  The atmosphere was electric, as all around us the skyscrapers of downtown Detroit became part of the course.

Wayne County Building
We turned right onto Griswold Street, and within a couple blocks, they were separating the half marathoners to the right and the marathoners to the left.  The half marathoners had one more right turn and before them was the finish line. We, however were only halfway done.  We turned left onto Congress Street and began to run away from downtown.  The cheering petered out almost immediately, as we passed several iconic art-deco and Beaux Arts style buildings smack dab in the middle of downtown Detroit, including the beautiful Wayne County Building.  We also passed by the Greektown commercial and entertainment district and its eponymously named hotel and casino, before passing underneath I-375 and turning left onto Rivard.  We then began our lengthy northeasterly 2.5 mile trek along Lafayette Street, passing through the urban renewal neighborhood of Lafayette Park (and its post-World War II superblock developments designed by famed German-American architect Mies van der Rohe) and Elmwood Park, before reaching the leafy residential neighborhood of Indian Village.

Running through Indian Village
We turned left onto Seminole Street and began a two mile route through the neighborhood, with a number of architecturally-significant homes built in the early 20th century.  Many of these beautiful homes, some with quite large floor plates, were built by prominent architects, such as Albert Kahn, Louis Kamper and William Stratton, for some of the area's most prominent citizens, such as Edsel Ford. I began to strike up conversations with fellow runners during this stretch, as we were entertained by spectators who put up makeshift aid stations, some with beer (finally!)  We made our way to the northernmost part of this stretch of the course at Goethe Street, and ran two blocks before making our return back to south along Burns Street, at one point even getting to run through a fun "Through the Wall" gate that a resident put up in front of his house.

Running through the wall!
MacArthur Bridge to Belle Isle

At the 18.5 mile mark, we turned right and found ourselves on the very wide Jefferson Avenue and running right into a strong headwind.  The fact that the street was so wide and no tall buildings blocked the way made forward progression very difficult.  Add to the fact that we all were starting to get a little worried; in the distance, we could see the RenCen, with a dark cloud looming over it.  We were directed into the center lane of the avenue, running along this windy section for just under a mile, until we moved toward the left shoulder of the road, running alongside the outer edge of Gabriel Richard Park, as we made our way down MacArthur Bridge onto Belle Isle.  The flat bridge was not nearly as long as the Ambassador Bridge or even the tunnel, but presented its own challenges, as the forecasted wind began to rear its ugly head as we crossed this nearly 100 year old river crossing.  There was no headwind or tailwind - rather, the wind basically brew from all directions, swirling as we gingerly made our way across.

Civil War Major Gen. Alpheus Starkey
Williams Monument on Belle Isle
Belle Isle is a 1.5 square mile state park and is the largest city-owned island park in the United States.  2.5 miles of the race ran along a road that cuts through the middle of the island, as well as the ring road that encircles it.  Along the way we ran by the Belle Isle Aquarium; the Belle Isle Conservatory, a greenhouse and botanical garden; and the James Scott Memorial Fountain, a fountain designed by architect Cass Gilbert and sculptor Herbert Adams.  As we ran along the "backside" of the island on the Detroit River, we experienced some of the strongest gusts of wind during the entire race, peaking at 40 mph at times.  It was interesting though, to look at the adjacent lake to our right, and not see much of the surface of the water affected by the wind - it was completely overgrown with algae and other plantlike to cause it to look completely still or covered with some sort of film.

As we curved our way back toward the bridge, the wind stopped churning for a few minutes, but before long, it was back to its old self.  We re-crossed MacArthur Bridge back onto the other side of the bank, and continued along Jefferson Avenue southwestward.  We passed the 23 mile mark, and only had a 5k left to go.  It was around here where runners were asked to move to the left, as the leaders of the US-only Half Marathon, which started 3 1/2 hours after our race, were sprinting down the same route. It got a little more chaotic as more of these fast half marathoners began to come up the street, as there were no separate lanes for them, and it was already getting difficult to navigate the narrower streets with their leaders speeding past, and us marathoners nearing the 5-hour mark shuffling by.

Detroit Riverwalk
About a mile of the last 5K went along the Detroit Riverwalk, a promenade directly on the river's edge.  At times, the wind was relentless as we ran here.  It seemed every time we were close to the river in this second half of the marathon, we ran directly into the strong headwinds that were expected during the race.  The clouds were still covering the sky over downtown, especially that big grey one over the RenCen. With only a couple miles to go, we left the Riverwalk and ran along Atwater, passing a few marinas and riverside parks.  One last hill took us up Rivard Street back to Larned Street, which we took all the way into downtown Detroit, as the crowds began to re-form along the streets to cheer the marathoners in.  Before long, we were making our last right and left turns, and we were on Fort Street with the finish line gates in our sights.  Running into the wind right through to the end, I crossed the finish line in 4:54:40, another sub-5 hour marathon under my belt.

Victory Headstand downtown!
After the race, I headed over to the post-race party, known as "Conquered," but the wind was so strong, and I didn't have any cash on me, so I didn't partake in any of the food or activities there.  The wind was coming in quite strong by that time of day, as some tents were nearly blowing away. I did get to meet Dave, the start line coordinator who I had only been in touch with via email and never got to meet at the expo, and he took me in his golf cart to where Nicky was stationed at; I had her take my Victory Headstand photo, just as some light rain started to come down.  I headed back to the Westin to shower and get my things together, and Lynn and Donna came up after they finished their respective races not long after each other.  After checking out, we walked over to the Rusted Crow, a downtown gastrolounge with some great food and drinks and cool ambience.  Andrew met up with us, before we headed back to get our car and make our way to the airport.  I was so exhausted by the time we were at DTW; as soon as we got into the plane, I conked out and woke up as we were landing in New York a couple hours later.
Bling + exhaustion = sleep like a rock on the plane.

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