Thursday, October 10, 2019

Race Report: Cowtown Ultra Marathon

Over the last few years, I've eyed the Cowtown Marathon as a race in the Dallas-Fort Worth area that I was considering doing.  What was particularly intriguing to me was the 50K distance they offered, one of the rare urban 50Ks that are offered that wasn't on a trail course.  I hadn't run a 50K yet, despite the longer distance with the San Francisco Ultramarathon (essentially two marathons, one right after another), and a 49K in Anchorage back in August 2018, so this would actually be my first 50K race with a time for that particular distance. With the race happening in February, a week after returning from Egypt, I signed up for the race on New Years' Eve, and booked flights and accommodations a month out.  I booked an Airbnb in the vicinity of the Will Rogers Memorial Center, where both the expo and race start and finish were located, a short five minute walk away.  And I booked flights to leave early Saturday morning on one of Delta's newest jets, the brand new Delta Airbus A220-100 (formerly known as the Bombardier CS100) that will have just began passenger service at the start of February.

Race weekend came, and after a night out seeing friends Friday who were in town Friday night, I was out to LaGuardia for my direct flight to Dallas first thing Saturday morning.  The plane was brand new, and I was lucky enough to get an upgrade into First Class.  I ended up befriending a couple sitting directly behind me from the suburbs of New York City, who were also headed down to Texas for the race weekend.  And it also turned out that Ralph and Louise had been present at other races that I had run, including the Route 66 Marathon weekend in Tulsa, where I ran my 50th state!  We got to chatting about our future race schedule, and somehow, I managed to get Ralph to sign up for the Chattanooga Marathon in Tennessee the following week!  I've become quite the race enabler... but I didn't realize I was that good, to get someone to sign up right then and there for a race the following weekend!

We landed in Dallas a little after noon, and I headed straight for the rental cars area to pick up my rental for the weekend at Hertz. My friend Pete, who lives in the Dallas area, reached out to me a few days before I left about grabbing lunch when I arrived, so we made plans and I met him at Los Amigos, a Mexican restaurant in nearby Grapevine, for a filling lunch.  It was great catching up, and getting to find out about his upcoming race plans, including his first Boston Marathon, which he'd be running in April. I then headed out to check into my Airbnb and getting a lay of the land before heading off to the expo to retrieve my bib for Sunday's race. At the expo, I'd meet up with a friend from high school back in my hometown of Wichita, Kansas, who I hadn't seen since I graduated back in 2002; Lauren (who was a year younger than me) and her younger brother Dillon were both running the half marathon, and a bunch of their family was in town to cheer them on.  She invited me to dinner with them that night; I would end up relaxing for the rest of the afternoon before heading out to dinner.

Reunion with Wichita friends!
Dinner with Lauren and her family that night was at Woodshed Smokehouse, along the Trinity River, and it was definitely carbloading Texas style. Also there visiting as one of Lauren's friends and another alum from high school, Jackie, who I actually attended preschool with, was in town, too! Quite a fun reunion.  It was quite busy that evening at the restaurant, but it was great being able to catch up. I went to bed that night full and contented, ready for the race the next morning.

I woke up just before 6am and got myself dressed and out the door some 20 minutes later, to walk the short ten minutes over to the staging area for the marathon in the parking lot of the Will Rogers Memorial Center. It was quite chilly that morning, so I headed straight for the exhibit hall, where hundreds of people were congregating for warmth. It was still relatively early and the corrals hadn't opened yet, so people were taking advantage of being inside until they absolutely needed to.  Everyone started filtering out to the start area at about 6:40, I myself heading toward corral 4, where I was assigned.  The national anthem was sung shortly before the elites and corral 1 took off, and with still ample time before I was to start my race, I took to my Facebook messenger to shoot a message to Louise and Ralph. I found out they were in corral 7, so I headed over there to join them.  It was frigidly cold, and despite the sun just peeking over the horizon, I think we were experiencing the coldest temperatures of the entire morning - some 36° with enough wind to make it feel just below freezing.

The start...
It was 7:27 when we finally crossed the start mats, making our way north along Gandy Street up to Lancaster Avenue, where we'd enjoy an eastbound straightshot with gorgeous views of downtown Fort Worth (and many cranes signaling new development in the area) in front of us.  Along the way, we'd pass the Amon Carter Museum of American Art,  Kimbell Art Museum, and Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth on our left, and the distinguished Pioneer Tower of the Will Rogers Memorial Center (currently undergroing some renovation) to our right. We ran along a nice downhill veering to the ramp to our left, before turning right onto Foch Street and under Lancaster Avenue, then followed the street to Trinity Park Drive, running through the northwest section of Trinity Park, the first of three times we'd be running through the area.
Running up Lancaster Avenue in the first mile of the race.
Running through Trinity Park
We exited off of the extreme northwest corner of the park onto Fort Worthy's vibrant West 7th Street, a shopping, dining, and entertainment development area. We notably passed by the Montgomery Plaza building, originally built in 1928 as the largest building in Texas as the original Montgomery Ward store. When Montgomery Ward Company ceased operations in 2001, the Mission Revival style building was purchased and transformed into a new luxury residential community, still maintaining and preserving its Art Deco period roots. After turning onto Carroll Street, we ran on the much less commercial 5th Street, surrounded by a more industrial then single family residential setting, before we veered off northwestward onto Bailey Avenue. I was able to pick up the pace a little bit here.

Running down White Settlement Road
At White Settlement Road, we made a sharp right turn, as we ran alongside Greenwood Memorial Park.  We hit the first timing mat of the race at the 5K mark, crossing it in 32:48, a modest 10:30 average pace. We turned left onto N University Drive, crossing over the West Fork of the Trinity River, eventually ramping its way downhill as it curved northeastward. Here, we'd be seeing our first real hills of note during the race, as we ran uphill past Jacksboro Highway and onto Northside Drive. We turned right onto Grand Avenue for a nice flatter section as we ran alongside historic Oakwood Cemetery (four miles into the race, and we'd run by two cemeteries?!) before making a turn left onto Circle Park Boulevard.

North along Ellis Avenue, 6 miles in.
Circle Park Boulevard was actually wide residential street, separated by a wide grassy median that ran some 3/4 of a mile (5 1/2 city blocks) from Oakwood Cemetery to the aptly named Circle Park. We'd run only four of these blocks before turning right onto NW 15th Street, then around the perimeter of Marine Park, before heading northward along the mostly flat Ellis Avenue toward the direction of Fort Worth's famous Stockyards. The last two miles, I managed a decent pace, clocking in mile splits on my watch just under 10:30 per mile.  We hit the 10K mat in 1:05:30, managing to stay consistent to the same 10:30 pace we were running at the 5K mark.

Entering the Fort Worth Stockyards
Fort Worth Stockyards is a historic district that would mark our the furthest north our race course would reach. Back in the late 1800s, Fort Worth was a very important livestock center, and the arrival of the Texas & Pacific Railroad to this area made it eventually a very profitable venture. Here, Swift and Armour companies established packing houses (facilities for slaughtering livestock and processing and packing meat and its byproducts), selling more than a million cattle per year by the turn of the century.  By the mid-1870’s, Fort Worth had become a major center for the buying and shipping of livestock, and it soon became known as “Cowtown."

The Cowtown Coliseum
The Stockyards were listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1976, recognizing the area's long tradition as part of the cattle industry.  We were running down the main strip of the Stockyards, Exchange Avenue, a brick road retaining the character of the old west.  We passed by many old buildings, including the Cowtown Coliseum, the home of the Stockyards Championship Rodeo, dating back to 1908 when it was the finest indoor exhibition and rode performance center in the world. It was totally refurbished in 1986 and brought up to modern day standards.

A field of cacti as we run on 23rd St.
We exited the Stockyards as the road went slightly uphill on a switchback-like turn next to the historic Swift & Co. Office Building, before depositing us onto Niles City Boulevard, and back onto asphalt.  we ran southward before turning right onto NE 23rd Street, past a field of cacti, reaching the 7th mile, then turning left onto Main Street as we began our run south back toward the downtown area.  The road was fairly flat and largely asphalted, though occasionally we had to run over some patches of brick at various intersections as we continued on southward, following the curve of the road southeasterly into the neighborhood of Marine Park, where the skyline of downtown began to come into view.  Just after the mile 8 mark, we curved slightly to the left, continuing to run southeastward on Commerce Street as a detour through an area with large vacant lots, parking lots, and a smattering of industrial buildings, before curving back to Main Street.
The skyline of downtown Forth Worth, a fair distance away.
Running up toward the Courthouse
Ahead was a magnificent pink Texas granite building, the Tarrant County Courthouse, home to the Tarrant County clerk's office, probate and county courts at law, a law library, and the Tarrant County facilities management department. The Renaissance Revival style building, built by the prominent courthouse building architecture firm of Gunn and Curtiss based out of Kansas City, closely resembles the Texas State Capitol, with the exception of the clock tower, and was completed in 1893. Main Street was a gradual uphill toward the courthouse, as we crossed over the Trinity River, crossing the 15K mark in 1:40:30 (10:44 per mile pace), as we veered right onto Houston Street to continue running southeasterly into the heart of Fort Worth's Sundance Square, a 36 block commercial, entertainment, shopping and residential district of the downtown.

Tarrant County Courthouse, 15K in.
It became difficult to keep my pace under 11 minutes per mile as we continued through the race; perhaps I was still tired from my trip to Egypt which I had only returned from on Tuesday morning, five days earlier. But still I soldiered on. We continued along Houston Street through the as it passed the Fort Worth Convention Center, in the area once known as Fort Worth's "Hell's Half Acre," a red-light district in the Old Wild West that was one of the most violent and lawless areas of the city's past. After the 10 mile mark, the half marathoners would veer right onto Lancaster Avenue, back the three miles toward the Will Rogers Memorial Center; the marathoners and ultramarathoners turned left, eventually making our way onto Main Street and crossing underneath the crisscrossing ribbon of highways (US 377 and Interstate 30) and railroads above. For the next mile and a half, we headed straight down south on Main Street into the Near Southside, the district just south of downtown Fort Worth.
Fittingly, there was a cow statue along the course. In Cowtown.
Main Street in the Near Southside
This area of the Near Southside began to be redeveloped in the 1990s, with the redevelopment of many buildings bringing new residential units, offices, and bar/music venues to the area, a formerly sleepy corner of the district. It was also the focus of the South Main complete street project, the city's directive to reconfigure a 0.9 mile section of the South Main Village's main artery from Vickery Boulevard down to Magnolia Avenue as a complete street designed for pedestrians, cyclists, and all other users, with a new concrete roadway, wider sidewalks lined with trees and historic lampposts, new underground utilities, protected parallel parking for adjacent businesses, dedicated bike lanes, and distinctive sidewalk sculptures by renowned artist Benito Huerta. Fully implemented by the end of 2017, the new South Main complements an exciting set of redevelopment projects in the works.

At the 13 mile mark on Park Pl Ave
In addition to all the redevelopment here, the Near Southside is well known for being  home to Tarrant County’s major hospitals, as well as dozens of independent medical clinics.  The area is even known as one of the livable medical districts in the US.  We turned right onto Magnolia Avenue, running along the edge of the John Peter Smith Hospital campus, Tarrant County's public hospital that's been part of this area since 1938.  Along this largely commercial corridor, with single family homes surrounding it, we continued westward, before turning left onto 5th Avenue, then right onto Allen Avenue. We would pass by facilties part of the Cook Children's Health Care System as well as Baylor Scott & White All Saints Medical Center, as we continued westward onto a charming revitalized stretch of historic storefronts from 8th Avenue onto Park Place Avenue, reaching the 13.1 mile mark of the race in 2:23:22, a 10:54 pace.

Park Hill
We were now running along the border of the historic Berkeley Place and Mistletoe Heights neighborhoods, both annexed by the city of Fort Worth in 1922. Located just east of the Fort Worth Zoo, this residential area has a distinctive blend of houses from antebellum design, bungalow, and streamline moderne to craftsman and French creole. We turned left onto Forest Park Boulevard, continuing south along this residential stretch before veering slightly left onto McCart Avenue and then onto Park Hill Drive.  From here, we turned right onto Winton Terrace, winding along the meandering street past the largely Spanish-inspired and Tudor-style homes of the Park Hill neighborhood, a bluff above the Fort Worth Zoo.

I needed that Sausage McMuffin.
We eventually emerged back onto Park Hill Drive, before running south onto Greene Avenue, Parmer Avenue, and Lubbock Avenue, along the eastern edge of the Texas Christian University campus. We were in the residential neighborhoods immediately to the east of the campus, with historic homes in prairie bungalow and Tudor cottage style, and like in the other residential areas we had run through, mostly built in the 1920s.  One of these neighborhoods, University Place, is considered among the most historically intact neighborhoods in Fort Worth with facades of homes in the neighborhood preserved in their original form in a majority of cases and very few architectural intrusions.  We eventually made our way down to the neighborhoods of Bluebonnet Place and Bluebonnet Hills, largely similar to the residential areas we had just passed through.  We turned right onto Benbrook Boulevard, where one of the residents was handing out McDonald's Sausage McMuffins to runners -- I gladly took one, starving at the time (16 miles in), and kept it in my pocket, saving it for later.

20 miles in, through Overton Park
We zigzagged through the neighborhood, eventually reaching S. Hills Avenue at the mile 17 mark, where we turned right to continue westward.  Most of the next four miles would be largely uneventful, running through mostly nondescript residential neighborhoods with many cookie-cutter like ranch-style houses.  We weaved down toward the neighborhood of Westcliff, curving down Encanto Drive where we reached the 30K mark (18.6 miles) of the race in 3:32:25, or 11:23 pace. I was struggling to keep my mile pace below 12 minutes at this point. We turned right onto Trail Lake Drive, before cutting through Foster Park, as we took a paved running path (part of the southern segment of the Trinity Trails system) passing through lush greenery and large trees, linking us up to Overton Park.

Um... thanks for the offer?
We emerged at Overton Park Drive East, running alongside the linear park that stretches north to south. Both parks have creeks that run directly through them that lead into the Clear Fork of the Trinity River.  Homes facing the park here were largely ranch-style that were popular in the 1950s, with two story homes in various styles scattered throughout. At Hartwood Drive, we turned right, to follow it through the neighborhood of Tanglewood amongst more ranch-style homes adjacent to the park. We ran along Hartwood Drive as it curved north up toward Mockingbird Lane and the southern edge of the Colonial Golf. Here, we turned right, then followed Country Club Circle past the club's entrance onto Colonial Parkway (taking a few more bites of that McMuffin I had stored away, too) eventually weaving its way up to Rogers Road, as we crossed the Clear Fork of the Trinity River, and reached the 23 mile mark of the race in 4:27:28, or 11:36 pace.

Beginning the run along the trail
From here, we turned right onto Riverfront Drive, actually passing right by Woodshed Smokehouse, where I happened to have dinner the night before.  We then joined the Trinity Trails pathway, the nicely maintained and paved path that ran alongside the Trinity River and its tributaries.  We followed the pathway northward, as it crossed underneath US Route 377 and Interstate 30, and then through Trinity Park.  As we neared Mile 25, I could see runners on the adjacent road running in the opposite direction; it was right before the underpass under Lancaster Avenue that the marathoners split off to complete their last 1.2 miles of the race.  Ultramarathoners, of which the faster runners were already on their way back, began their additional 4.84 miles - a roughly 2.42 mile out and back - from that point, along the trail.
A stretch of the Trinity Trails before Trinity Park
And here begins the extra 4.84 miles...
The extra mileage we ran was pretty, but painful.  We ran under a few street bridges overhead, following the path as it progressed past mile 26, and eventually a split mat marking 26.2 miles, or the marathon distance.  I ran across it in 5:11:23, or 11:51 pace, and then rewarded myself with the last bit of McMuffin I still had in my pocket (no worries, it wasn't gross... it actually stayed pretty intact in the two hours since I had first gotten it!)  I spotted a few other ultra runners, including Ralph from my flight in, on this stretch.  We rounded the confluence of the Clear Fork and West Fork of the Trinity River, then finally had the turn around point in sight.  Appropriately, there was an ultra-style aid station located there, complete with lots of food for the ultramarathoners, before we continued on with the ~4 miles of running we still had in front of us.  The wind was getting a little strong out here, too.
A leafless tree in February.  How original.
Train and road crossings as we run the Trinity Trails system
30 mile mark.  Oof.
My pace had deteriorated rapidly since reaching the 25 mile mark; I couldn't manage to get my mile to go below 13 minutes for the remainder of the race, as I was that exhausted and done! I managed to make it back to the spot where marathoners were turning around, now 30 miles for me, with just a little over a mile left to go.  We continued along River Drive, the asphalted roadway through the southern part of the park, then exited off onto Crestline Road, which we followed westward to University Drive.  After crossing the street, and hugging the curb as we ran southward, we turned right onto Trail Drive, with Dickies Arena, the brand new (and at the time, still under construction) 14,000 seat multipurpose venue within the Will Rogers Memorial Center, in sight. The arena will host concerts, sporting events and family entertainment, and will serve as the new home to Fort Worth Stock Show Rodeo performances.  After turning right on Harley Avenue, then right again onto Gendy Street, the finish line was finally in sight.  I crossed the mat, my first 50K, in 6:19:13. 12:12 pace, so not as fast as I would've liked - but giving me quite a bit of room to improve for the next time!
The last little bit before the finish line!
Well deserved bling!
After getting our medal, we were led through the center's Sheep Barn, where we could receive much needed food provided by the various sponsors of the race.  I then headed outside to get my headstand photo, pondering which location at the Will Rogers Memorial Center I should get the photo with... the iconic Tower perhaps?  No... ultimately, I decided to go with the statue of Midnight, located outside of the Exhibits Hall.  The statue is of the "world's greatest bucking horse," which lived from 1910 to 1936, ad bucked on the American Rode circuit from 1923 to 1933.  The statue, designed by famed western artist and sculptor Jack Bryant in 1984, depicts the horse with its rear legs in the air, with a cowboy who had fallen on the ground.  Fitting, since I felt like I was bucked by a horse after this 50K ordeal!
Victory Headstand in front of Midnight
Art from the Amon Carter Museum
I headed back to my Airbnb for a much needed shower, thankful that my host gave me the extra time to do so after being done well past the check out time; after checking out, and then getting a notification that my flight home would be delayed, I decided to make an afternoon of it at nearby Amon Carter Museum of American Art to check out their collection of American art. The museum's permanent collection features paintings, photography, sculpture, and works on paper by leading artists working in the United States and its North American territories in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The greatest concentration of works falls into the period from the 1820s through the 1940s. The Carter collection is distinguished for its extensive collection of works by Frederic Remington and Charles M. Russell, fantastic examples of the Old West, as well as its bronze sculpture. The distinctive building was designed by architect Philip Johnson, and completed in 1961. 

The Kimbell Art Museum
The Kimbell Art Museum is right next door to Amon Carter Museum of American Art and showcases a collection of works from all over the world, from antiquity to the mid 20th century. I headed there next, and made my way to check out its permanent exhibit. Among these works include Michelangelo's first known painting, The Torment of Saint Anthony, the only painting by Michelangelo on exhibit in the Americas. The building that houses the works was designed by Louis Kahn, completed in 1972. A new pavilion, by architect Renzo Piano, was completed in 2013.

I didn't have time to check out the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, the third museum located on the triangle of museums between Camp Bowie Boulevard, University Drive, and Lancaster Avenue, before needing to head to the airport; but before leaving I had to see the Richard Serra piece that sat outside of it - a nearly 68 foot tall sculpture entitled “Vortex.” When you stand inside, you get to experience some incredible acoustics!

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I made a stop for a much deserved "parting meal" before leaving Texas, at the quintessential Texas-based fast food chain, Whataburger!  There are more than 670 of these stores in Texas, with some 150 in other parts of the southern US, including in New Mexico and Arizona.  They've been known for many years for their distinct A-framed orange and white stripe roofed buildings, and this particular location was no different!  I enjoyed my burger and fries, then headed off to the airport.  I had a roughly 2 hour delayed flight, but made it back to New York in one piece, having accomplished my first official 50K!

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