Thursday, June 20, 2019

Race Report: Bellingham Bay Half Marathon

Celebrating Nina and Aaron!
I reunited with one of my good friends from college, Nina, when coming to visit Seattle in April of 2017.  I've known her since even before our freshman year at the University of Michigan even started, meeting at orientation.  So when she sent me a save the date for her wedding, I knew I had to be there for her and her fianc√© Aaron, to celebrate their special day!  The wedding was set for September 29, 2018 in Bellingham, Washington - which happened to be the same weekend as the local marathon, the Bellingham Bay Marathon. On a whim, I sent a quick email to the race organizers offering my services for the anthem, and it just so happened, they were trying to find someone to perform it for their race around the same time! They were more inclined to have a live singer for the half, 10K, and 5K start, as the crowds there would be much larger at the stage set up at Depot Market Square, so with that, I was conveniently booked to sing the anthem, run the half, and attend my friend's wedding, all within the same weekend!

Packet pickup at the cruise terminal.
I flew to Seattle on Friday night after work, arriving before 10PM, then drove the 1.5 hours up to Bellingham. I got to my Airbnb at about 12:15, ready to crash, since it felt like 3:15 in the morning for me, having the three hour time difference.  Getting to sleep in on Saturday morning, I decided to hit up the Fairhaven historic district, a neighborhood in the southern side of the city of Bellingham, to grab a late breakfast, grab my bib at the Bellingham Cruise Terminal nearby, then had some time to go to Aslan Brewing Company for a lunchtime beer. In the afternoon, I attended the wedding at the nearby Church of Assumption, followed by the reception at the Hotel Bellwether, part of the "Bellwether on the Bay" mixed-use waterfront development.  I retired early from the wedding, tired from the drive and the three hour time difference, and knowing I'd have to wake up the next morning for the race.

The forecast in the week leading up to the race was gloomy, with rain expected to mar the morning.  In fact, it already had started to rain during the reception for the wedding, and I continued to hear it come down before going to bed, waking up to it still coming down in the morning. I left my Airbnb to walk less than a mile to the startline, umbrella open, where we would begin the race at 9am. I found co-race director Brooke at the start, and met with the emcee, before he introduced me to sign the national anthem, as runners began to assemble.  I sang, and shortly thereafter moved into the corrals, assembled along Railroad Avenue.
A wet startline
Under rainy skies, we took off from Depot Market Square, and quickly headed out to the northeast along Railroad Avenue. What was once roadbed for four sets of tracks for freight delivery from the Bellingham Bay & British Columbia (BB&BC) Railroad is now a very wide avenue with two lanes of traffic, four rows of angled parking, and a median. The site of the Downtown railway station, Railroad Avenue connects several primary Downtown destinations - Depot Market Square on the south end, Bellingham Station in the middle, and major trail connections on each end (South Bay Trail on the south, and Whatcom Creek Trail on the north).  We then turned left onto Holly Street, heading out of the central business district, then turned slightly right onto Prospect Street, with the city's 1892-built Old City Hall Building, a beautiful red brick building with Victorian cupolas and a stately central clock tower defining the city skyline, home to the Whatcom Museum of History and Art since 1941, to our left. We continued northward into the trendy Lettered Streets area, curving left along Dupont Street and passing over Whatcom Creek, as we entered the largely residential area of the Columbia neighborhood, historically established as Bellingham's middle class community adjacent to the city's downtown district.
Running up Railroad Avenue
Bellingham's Old City Hall, now the Whatcom Museum
Residential areas of Bellingham
Running north along Marine Drive
We continued northwestward, eventually curving our way onto Madison Street heading due west.  Eventually, we were back on a northwestward path, making our way along Eldridge Avenue, the edge of the city with backyards of homes abutting the bayside railroad tracks separating the residential neighborhood from the more industrial marina side of Bellingham. We crossed over a bridge we'd eventually run under later on in the race (Squalicum Way) until the road turned into Marine Drive, and became wider and more commercial; we hit the 5K mark, gladly putting down a split just under 30 minutes - mile splits all under 10 minutes per mile. This was also where we also began to feel a little bit of the uphill - from a low of 72 feet climbing to 148 feet over the course of 1.25 miles. And surely, I felt it, as my pace slowed for the fourth mile.  Likely on a clear day, you could see Bellingham Bay and its islands, but the weather had other plans for us.

We turned right onto Alderwood Avenue, a location where the marathoners finally met up with the half marathoners, as they came down from the north -- at that point in time, marathoners were 2 hours and 10 minutes into their race at the 17 mile mark, some fast runners posting 7:40 average mile pace reaching this juncture when I was there only 4 miles in!  We passed by the south edge of Bellingham International Airport, as the course continued to climb up to a crest of 160 feet, before flattening out somewhat.  Then we got to coasting - the course began to descend some 140 feet over miles 5-7 as we ran through the Birchwood neighborhood, and my splits returned to the 9:30 per mile vicinity.  I even got in a quick beer stop after grabbing a small bag of cookies, taking in a little chug of Rainier to wash down that bite to eat, as we made our way eastward along Cottonwood Avenue.

Muddy trail through Birchwood Park!
The descent flattened out as we made our way south on Firwood Avenue, turning left onto Cedarwood Avenue, and then turning right into Birchwood Park, as we made our way along the somewhat muddy gravel track to the Coast Millennium Trail and Squalicum Creek Park.  We finally hit our first timing mat at the 6.5 mile mark, which I crossed at 1:06:18, a decent 10:12 mile pace. We were met with a nice crowd of supporters cheering us on at this juncture, as we made our way off of the concrete path and onto the side of the road, Squalicum Way.  We then ran through a nice wooded area, as we made our way closer to the water's edge, eventually crossing under Eldridge Avenue, and merging onto Roeder Avenue, as we ran alongside the not-so-pretty industrial waterfront section of Bellingham.

Running down Squalicum Way
Arriving at the waterfront
Bellingham's marina and the Bay
We eventually made our way onto the sidewalk, running alongside the marina, and I even passed Bellwether on the Bay, where I had just spent the evening the night before for my friend's wedding.  At mile 8.5, we crossed over Whatcom Creek and ascended the ramp onto Chestnut Street, eventually back to downtown Bellingham. I still had 4 miles to go as I reached Railroad Avenue, turning left as I saw the faster half marathoners and some marathoners hitting their homestretch to the finish line behind me.

The nicely paved South Bay Trail
The road made its way past some condos, before we found ourselves on the South Bay Trail, surrounded by tall evergreen trees, as we left downtown Bellingham.  Shielded from vehicular traffic, and going down this beautiful paved trail made this part of the race unlike anywhere else on the course.  It wasn't particularly hilly here either, maybe only a bit slippery from fallen leaves and all the rain. I managed to take off 30 seconds from my pace at the tenth mile, as we continued down the trail.  A half mile later, we were coming down toward the next timing mat, and the last before the finish line, which happened to be right before a railroad crossing - and I could hear the train coming down the tracks not too far away!  We were actually warned that this was possible, as the race had no power to ask the trains to change their schedules on race morning, so they set up timing mats to make up for the differential if people became stranded by the train.

The train is coming!
Crossing in 1:44:24, I passed through probably a minute or two before the train came barreling down the tracks, and watched it pass by at a relatively high speed as I made my way around the pathway through Boulevard Park, continuing southward as the trail became overwater boardwalk, known as Pattle Point Trestle and Taylor Dock, altogether some 572 meters of wooden planks and Bellingham's most popular and scenic promenade. The wooden planks allowed my knees a bit of a rest from the pounding asphalt and concrete I've been running on for miles already.

Pattle Point Trestle to our big "hill"
We could see the next big "hill" ahead of us, as the dock ended, and we turned left to climb the short, but steep incline into Fairhaven..  We veered northward along 10th Street as it gently ascended to become State Street, and later the mononymous Boulevard, following the route back into downtown Bellingham. Along the way, we ran past the popular "Welcome to Bellingham" sign, visible to boats on the bay, pointing the way to Mount Baker in one direction (the 10,000 foot tall mountain impressively standing over Bellingham some 31 miles due east of the city), and Chuckanut Drive in the other (widely considered to be one of the most scenic drives in the region, oftentimes called "Washington's Big Sur.") Over the final mile, the course gently descended to the deafening roar of crowds cheering us in to the finish line back at Depot Market Square.

Victory Headstand at the goat statue
It had rained the entire 13.1 miles, even as I crossed the finish line in 2:15:42.  I grabbed my medal and immediately beelined it to the bag check where I could get my coat and gloves to warm up from the chilly weather -- it's not that fun to be running in cold and wet weather!  After enjoying a "Running on Empty" craft beer, the official beer of the race crafted by local brewery Wander Brewing, I found a fellow runner to take my headstand photo with Depot Market Square behind (as well as the notable goat statue, a meeting point for local runners).  With my Airbnb host having locked up, I arranged for getting a much-needed shower at the Whatcom Family YMCA just up the street, then eating lunch at Boundary Bay Brewery, literally steps from the finish line.  I enjoyed a pint of Dry Irish Stout and some grilled fish tacos before getting on the road to head down to Seattle to spend my afternoon and early evening.
BLING at the brewery!
Save the Ales, guys.
Pumpkin Beer flight!
A stop in the Capitol Hill neighborhood of Seattle capped off my Washington weekend trip, as I enjoyed a flight of pumpkin beers from Elysian Brewing Co. Public House then stopped in at the highly popular Salt and Straw Ice Cream Shop (a Portland institution, but this location had some local flavors such as Whatcom County Honey Rocky Road, which I had - fittingly, since I spent most of this weekend in Whatcom County!) before heading to the airport for my redeye flight back home to New York City. A fun weekend, killing two birds with one stone... attending a good friend's wedding (as well as reuniting with college friends, many I haven't seen since I graduated in 2006!) and running a half marathon, to bring my total up to 91 lifetime half marathons!

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