Friday, October 5, 2018

Race Report: Synchrony Financial Rock 'n' Roll Arizona Half Marathon

For MLK Weekend 2018, I decided to return to Arizona for the Rock 'n' Roll Arizona Half Marathon, after I was able to get the gig for the national anthem at the start of the half.  The race would provide me with singing in a state I hadn't sung in yet - Arizona would be state #41.  I flew out after work on Friday, and would be arriving late into Phoenix that night. The weather though had other plans -- New York was covered in fog for most of the entire day; after several weeks of freezing temperatures, we suddenly got a 50º day, and the snow on our streets that's stuck around since the previous week's nor'easter/bomb cyclone began to evaporate into the air.  JFK had periodic ground stops throughout the day, and was piling up on delays.  My flight ends up being delayed by about an hour after inbound flights that went from JFK to Cancun and back, but after taxiing for a relatively short period of time after boarding and a bumpy flight across the country, we end up arriving in Phoenix on schedule, considering JFK always has padded flight durations.  I uber to my Airbnb, and get in and settled, ready to get my tired self to bed now that it's midnight in Arizona, but 2am back in NYC.

I sleep in the next morning and am out the door by 10:15 to head to the race expo in downtown Phoenix at the Phoenix Convention Center .  My Airbnb was located in Tempe near Scottsdale Road, just north of Arizona State Route 202 and Tempe Town Lake, so I decide to walk the one mile down Curry Road over to the light rail station at Washington and Center Parkway, which would take me downtown quickly and easily.

I spend about an hour and a half at the expo, meeting up with my Black Sheep friends, many of whom I hadn't seen in quite some time.  I also go to see Lisa and Ryan at the RnR booth, and Lisa was kind enough to connect me with someone who could inquire about me singing the national anthem at this summer's Rock 'n' Roll Chicago Half, which would check off the state of Illinois, one of the last two states I have left to book before reaching my goal of all 50 states.  After spending a bit of time at the expo, I meet up with my other friend Jamie and her friend Audrey, both from Omaha, to get lunch within walking distance of the convention center at The Arrogant Butcher.  After lunch, we head up to Jamie's sister's house in northern Phoenix, so I can finally meet her dog (yes, her dog) Kirby.  Kirby is an 11-year-old Pembroke Welsh Corgi, and you all know how obsessed with corgis I am. He's a chunky one, and loves to bark at EVERYTHING - yet at the same time has nervous shakes in his hind legs.  Jamie had brought some toys for Kirby to play with, and within five minutes of receiving a stuffed banana, he is able to tear it apart, removing most of its cotton stuffing!  He's quite a hoot.

Lol... the rock!
After our visit with Kirby, we find out that there's a... well, interesting... site to see only twenty minutes drive away... a suggestively shaped rock.  We get there just as the sun is going down, and of course partake in a photo shoot as well as a Facebook live video with the rock in the background.  We then head to dinner in Phoenix at an Italian restaurant before Jamie and Audrey drive me back to Tempe to get some sleep before an early wakeup call for race morning.

Sunday morning, I'm up by 5:30 to prep for the race.  I'm out the door a little after 6am, and already, there's some traffic around downtown Tempe, with cars parking at garages suggested by the race. I have a Lyft take me to the brewery where VIP is having pre-race breakfast, and I end up seeing a few more Black Sheep friends and others who've participated in many Rock 'n' Roll events in the past. Around 7am, I go off to find a quiet corner to call into Delta, and am able to switch my outbound flight for Monday from a 7am direct flight to a 6pm connecting flight via Salt Lake City.  This was most ideal for me, so I could avoid another early morning and I could spend most of the day enjoying the area on Monday.  By 7:30, I'm headed down University Drive to the start area, for my call time to be at the start for the national anthem.  At the start stage, I recognize my friend Creigh Kelley, one of the nation’s most popular and recognizable race announcers, having been the voice of many of the largest triathlon and running events in the U.S. and abroad for the past 34 years. We exchange our pleasantries as he continues doing his thing with race announcements, and eventually, I am called up to sing the anthem.  It's quite exciting, doing this again for thousands of people - there are over 8,500 runners in the corrals, with thousands more cheering or involved in the race in some way.

McClintock Drive headed north
After the anthem, I head back into the corrals, joining the other runners as we cross the startline minutes after the clock strikes 8.  I decided to go out conservatively, as this is my first race back from injury - a calf strain that began to bother me back in mid-November after the Flying Monkey Marathon, and which I continued to run on for three more marathons in subsequent weeks.  I hadn't done any long distance running since mid December, and only did one race since - a 4 miler in Central Park over New Year's.  My goal was to get close to my average half marathon time - a 2:15, or roughly 10:20 average mile pace.  Knowing that we were at an elevation higher than I'm used to (over 1100 feet), I just decided to feel out my legs for the first mile. Not only that, but the first nine miles of this race was a gradual uphill from 1161 feet to 1352 feet. Surprisingly, I posted an 8:53, as we made our way eastward along University Drive into the rising sun.  I took my first walk break at the 9 minute mark, and soon, we were turning north onto McClintock Drive, where we would begin to feel the climb. We passed Tempe Marketplace, and crossed the bridge over Tempe Town Lake and under the 202, making our way toward the point where the 10k runners and half runners would separate.
Headed out on McDowell Road in Scottsdale
SkySong at ASU, in Scottsdale.
The half would continue northward into Scottsdale until the four mile mark, before turning left onto McDowell Road, where we'd do a quick detour off of the road through SkySong, the ASU Scottsdale Innovation Center, a campus of office buildings connected to Arizona State University.  Notably, we would run underneath the SkySong shade structure, one of Scottsdale’s most recognized icons. Soon we'd get back onto McDowell Road, before turning again and continuing north along Scottsdale Road, where we'd continue until Thomas Road, the furthest north we would run.

Me in motion! (Photo by Jeremy Heath)
After turning left onto Thomas, we would pass the 7 mile mark, and I began to look out for the Lululemon cheer spot just past 68th Street, where my friend Jeremy told me he'd be cheering at.  I found him and his boyfriend Jason pretty easily, and he captured some great photos of me in action, before I made my turn south along 64th Street, where we would continue past the 8 mile mark, and then the right turn onto McDowell, and the out and back taking us past the Papago Buttes in Papago Park, as well as the beautiful view of downtown Phoenix from an elevation of 1300 feet.  Along the way, taiko drummers helped us manage our cadence as we made our way to the highest elevation point of the race; it was all downhill from the U turn point to the finish.

Mile infinity?  Arizona being cheeky...
Papago Park, heading to the highest point of the race!

Phoenix in the distance
We made our way back down McDowell, and continued along the Galvin Parkway, winding its way downhill.  At the 10 mile mark I knew I was within reach of my 2:15 goal, so I picked up the pace and made for a sub 10 downhill mile inching me ever closer to the finish.  Mile 11 came by just before we turned left onto Van Buren Street, and we reached the Tempe city limits as we merged onto Mill Avenue.  We ran underneath Center Parkway where we could clearly see the 25 mile marker for the marathon, and hit our own 12 mile marker along Mill Avenue not too long after that.  After passing underneath the 202, the Mill Avenue Bridge was right in front of us, and a half mile triumphant run to the finish line was in sight, lined with spectators cheering for the runners.
Headed back into Tempe along Mill Avenue, almost to the finish!
Mmmm... VIP brunch!
I cross the finish line in 2:15:50, and I couldn't be more thrilled.  Despite my walking along the way, I managed to finish very close to my goal time.  I headed straight toward VIP and partook in much needed food (there was a mac 'n' cheese bar!) and got a massage, and stuck around to enjoy music from Everclear at the headliner's concert.  I waited for Jamie to come in, and we got our photos taken near Tempe Town Lake, and later driving to the part of the course in Papago Park, near the mile 9 turnaround. That night, I got together with Jeremy and Jason for dinner at Bar Louie at Tempe Marketplace, before heading to the movies to catch "The Greatest Showman" to cap off an exciting Sunday in Arizona.
Victory Headstand at Tempe Town Lake!
With Jamie posing with our medals at Papago Park
Meeting up for dinner with Jeremy and Jason
Beautiful views from Dobbins Lookout
I got to sleep in on Monday morning since I had changed my flight, and checked out of my Airbnb before heading off to an açaí bowl place within walking distance, where I got breakfast to-go just as Jamie and Audrey pulled up to pick me up for adventures for the rest of the morning and afternoon.  With about four hours to kill, we decided to drive to about 45 minutes away to Dobbins Lookout in South Mountain Park, roughly 13 miles south of downtown Phoenix.  South Mountain Park is actually the largest municipal park in the United States, and one of the largest urban parks in North America and in the world.  From the lookout, located at 2,330 feet, and is the highest point in the park accessible by trail or public roadway, we are able to get sweeping panoramic views of the Phoenix metro area.  On our way back down, we stopped at the parking area near the Telegraph Pass Trailhead, and I even got Jamie to come out of her comfort zone for a little bit, hiking down a little ways down the rocky trail.  We then headed into downtown Phoenix for a late lunch, grabbing some delicious Mexican food at Taco Guild, a gastropub set in a deconsecrated Methodist church that was originally built in 1893.  With it pushing 3pm, we decided to head back to the airport since we still had to get gas and drop off the rental car.  I parted ways with Jamie and Audrey, headed back to Omaha, as I was off to Salt Lake City for my connection in a different terminal.  My trip home was uneventful, with a lengthy layover in SLC before my redeye back to JFK, and of course... a full work day ahead of me upon landing on Tuesday morning. What a weekend!

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