Friday, November 1, 2019

Race Report: Ann Arbor Marathon

In my lead up to my goal race for spring 2019, the Two Oceans Ultramarathon in South Africa, my March was mostly empty, and with most races in Europe not starting until April, I decided to look domestically for marathons to add to my schedule last minute.  Those who know me know that I'm quite particular about courses and I'm more likely to pick a point to point or one big loop course rather than a multiple loop course; with the third weekend of March open, I found the Los Angeles Marathon (a race I've done before) as an option as well as the Ann Arbor Marathon, once my residence when I attended the University of Michigan for my college years.  The Ann Arbor Marathon was a double loop course - not really my cup of tea, but because I was familiar with the city, I felt it would be nostalgic to run there.  I was able to book the national anthem gig after reaching out to the race director, Eva Solomon, via email, and soon secured flights for a weekend back in the city I lived in from 2002 to 2006.

I left very early on Saturday morning on a 6am flight, reaching Detroit around an hour and twenty minutes later.  I grabbed my car rental (ending up getting an upgrade to a full sized Chevy Malibu when no mid-sizes were available in the lot) and headed out to Ann Arbor, heading to the Kerrytown Historic District to grab a cup of coffee at Mighty Good Coffee, a local roaster.  I bided time working on some race reports while enjoying the ambience of being back in a college town, and before long, I headed out to the race expo at the 2|42 Community Center a few miles west of campus.

At the race expo, I retrieved my bib and met with Eva to quickly go over logistics for the following morning.  It was great to see friends Clint and Aaron from the Glass City Marathon, who were there advertising the races that they run in Toledo (only an hour south) and the DXA2, a half marathon  they recently took over that runs from Dexter to Ann Arbor. I also briefly saw Rob and Liz, who I met while doing the Pyramids Marathon in Egypt, and chatted with my friend Jayvee, who was running the half marathon as his 35th half state.

Lunch at Wolverine State Brewing Co!
I was starting to get hungry, so I sought out a local brewery, and made my way there for a late lunch. Wolverine State Brewing Company, which has been around since 2006 (the year I graduated from Michigan), was located off of campus and had a great menu of sandwiches and local brews, which I got to partake in.  I then headed back to campus to finally check into my Airbnb and drop off my backpack.  After exchanging a few text messages with my friend and former career advisor, Beth, we agreed to meet up at the Art and Architecture Building on North Campus, where she toured me around the new addition of the building, which I got to briefly peruse when I came back to town the previous year after running Glass City Marathon in Toledo.  Dinner was relatively early that evening, and I met up with my spring break intern, Jake, at one of my old haunts, Pizza House, while watching Michigan beat Nevada in the second round of the NCAA Basketball Tournament. Altogether a great day, and I called it an early night to head back home, tired after having woken so early for my flight in.
Enjoying Ann Arbor at night
The startline
I woke up at 6am the following morning, quickly getting dressed and out the door to head to the race startline.  My rental car's windshield, sitting in an open parking lot, was covered in a thin layer of frost, still common for this time of year in Michigan. I warmed the car up while scraping off the frost then was on my way, parking in the Crisler Center (Michigan's basketball arena) parking lot, a short walk from the startline.  About a week before the race, we were informed that the race was going to start and finish in a slightly different location, taking over S. 5th Avenue in front of Fingerle Lumber, a longtime Ann Arbor business providing carpentry and renovation materials for the area since 1931 that would be closing for good the following week.  While normally starting and finishing near Michigan Stadium, this move still allowed traffic to flow freely around the area, and runners still got to see the humongous "M" at the stadium during the run.  It was quite a chilly morning, hitting just below the 30ยบ mark, so I kept myself as bundled up as possible.
Running near the stadium!
I met up with Eva and race announcer Justin at 7:15, and shortly thereafter was called up to the stage to sing the national anthem.  It was a meaningful rendition for me, since I got to sing the anthem in a place I once called home. After singing, I headed into the corrals, ready to take on the 26.2 miles in front of me.  I crossed the start line some 15 seconds after the gun sounded, making my way south along 5th, and beginning the race by looping around Hill Street, Brown Street and Hoover Street, as we caught sight of Michigan Stadium in the distance.  We continued to loop around Elbel Field, practice field for the renowned Michigan Marching Band, along Division Street, before turning right onto Hill.  The road was riddled with potholes, not a surprise coming off of a normal Michigan winter, but also an obvious realization of the condition of roads in general throughout the city.

Passing the Law Library
Our first real uphill section came off of the aptly named Hill Street, as we turned left onto State Street, the campus' primary north-south road.  We only ran up State Street, a rather steep incline, for a block, as we passed by the Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy, turning right onto Monroe Street. As we ran east along Monroe, we passed by the striking Gothic-style buildings that form the Law Quad, and the first mile of the race, which I ran in an affable sub-10 minute pace.  We continued to zig-zag through campus, turning left onto Tappan Avenue, and then right onto South University Street, as we ran past several prominent buildings on the campus of the University: the Hatcher Graduate Library, the Clements Library, the all-female dormitory of the Martha Cook Building, the Shapiro Undergraduate Library, the School of Social Work, and finally West Hall.

The area I knew as "C.C. Little"
We turned left off of South University, jumping onto the curb, as we proceeded to run down the East University pedestrian mall.  We headed northward between several university buildings, some of which I attended class in as an undergrad!  We crossed North University Street, passing by the Central Campus Transit Center (formerly known as C.C. Little, named after a former university president, but recently changed) and toward the university's brand new Biological Sciences Building and its distinctive glass and terra cotta exterior. We veered slightly left between buildings and past Palmer Commons, before crossing the pedestrian bridge over Washtenaw Avenue.  We then skirted alongside Palmer Field, known for its track and the site for recreational sports and club team sports, then followed the sidewalk paths as it meandered between the dormitories of Stockwell and Mosher-Jordan, two of the five "hill dorms" clustered on the eastern edge of campus.  By the time we reached here, we were only two miles into the race, and we were now headed away from campus.
Running over the pedestrian bridge at Washtenaw Avenue
Near the "Hill" dorms on Observatory
We ran southward along Observatory Street, along the edge of Forest Hill Cemetery, before turning left on Geddes Avenue, as we began our longest stretch of rolling straightaway. We ran through a largely residential neighborhood known as Angell, named for the U-M’s longest-serving president, James Angell. The streets north of Geddes were lined with large, stately older homes built in the 1920s and 1930s, while to the south, were more individualistic homes in one of the city's most wealthy districts. Many of the residents here are doctors and medical professionals associated with the university's medical school and medical center, just up the hill.  As we navigated the stretch of road, I finally had the opportunity to chat up fellow runners running at my same pace, which included a couple students, one of which was currently in the Stamps School of Art and Design; and an older gentleman, visiting from nearby Lansing. The road slightly curved as we ran alongside the Huron River for a short period of time, reaching the fourth mile of the race before looping onto Huron Parkway.

Heading east out of the main campus
From Huron Parkway, we turned left onto Huron River Drive, as the course flattened out and continued its eastward route past the Huron Hills Golf Course and the South Pond Nature Area.  It was quite peaceful out here, with this area largely forested and taken over by nature. We eventually passed underneath US-23, giving a high five to a volunteer directing us to turn left (the road to Washtenaw Community College was to the right), and made our way to a slightly more hilly area as we reached the easternmost point of the race.  Just before mile 6, I spotted a dead raccoon on the side of the road, but passed by it too quickly to take a picture, noting its location as I planned to take its photo on my second trip through the area in a couple hours time. It was also near here where I encountered a lady bedecked in a rainbow and unicorn headband, with unicorns adorning her skirt and her socks, and we would strike up a fun conversation that would last over the next 6.5 miles.

Running with Melissa!
Melissa lived in Saline, Michigan, the town just south of Ann Arbor, and was running the half marathon today, more of as a training run in preparation for a longer distance goal race she had in her sights. She was planning to run an easy ten minute mile pace, which happened to be just what I was doing, so we stayed with each other for the remainder of her race.  We turned onto Dixboro Road, crossing over the bridge that overlooked the Huron River and Dixboro Dam down below (the Ann Arbor Wastewater Treatment Plant is located just downstream), and after descending down Old Dixboro Road to the Gallup Park Path, part of the 40 miles of existing trail that make up the Border-to-Border (B2B) trail in Washtenaw County. Right along the banks of the Huron River, we were treated to some spectators urging us on with Japanese Taiko, continuing the next three miles on the gently rolling Gallup Park Path. Roughly halfway on this stretch, we passed through Gallup Park itself and one of the relay exchange stations, located at the park's parking lot. We kept a pretty consistent pace, running just below 10 minute pace for each mile.
The Dixboro Dam
Running along the Gallup Park Path
Fuller Road, passing by Mitchell Field
We crossed over a pedestrian bridge just over 9 miles in, with Ann Arbor's VA Hospital looming overhead.  At this point, I knew we were the closest we would come to the university's North Campus.  We skirting the side of a fenced in soccer field in the expansive Mitchell Field area just north of Nichols Arboretum. We then followed the sidewalk along Fuller Road westward.  This was an area familiar to me as an undergrad, as I regularly rode the bus between Central Campus and North Campus that would drive along Fuller Road.  It was just over half a mile along this sidewalk, when we reached Medical Center Drive, where we went uphill over the railroad tracks up toward the university's medical campus and University Hospital.  We then followed the lower road that ramped down below the hospital's helipad, arriving to the lower entrance to Nichols Arboretum.

Entering "The Arb"
Nichols Arboretum, known locally as the Arb, is a 123 acre arboretum located on the eastern edge of Central Campus, designed in 1906 using the steep glacial topography of the area.  Containing an extensive, but dispersed collection of native and exotic trees and shrubs, we entered the Arb and began running alongside the Huron River on the dirt trail which was beginning to look a little wet from its use today - from 10K runners who ran through about an hour earlier up to the half marathoners running there at that point.  Melissa and I walked as the trail began to ascend sharply some 100 feet to its highest point within the Arb, then rising another 100 feet as we made our exit out of the Arb onto Washington Street in front of Mary Markley Hall, one of the hill dorms. We ran underneath the Vaughan School of Public Health's Crossroads building, turning left onto Observatory Street, then began to run the gradual downhill back through campus, zigzagging along the city streets as we made our way through the campus.
Coming to the halfway point!
We ventured down the steep slope of State Street before turning onto Hill, and I separated from Melissa at this point as she continued straight ahead toward the finish, while I turned left, following Division Street past Elbel Field, then completed a loop of Brown and Greene Streets, before coming right back onto Hill to begin my second loop of the course.  Just as I was about to reach State Street for the sharp ascent once again, I ran into Jayvee, making his way toward the finish line for the half, and we gave each other a quick high five, as I began my second loop of the course.
 
Seeing Jayvee as I began my second loop

Quick pic w/ the Central Campus sign
While it was less crowded, there still was a decent amount of runners spread out along the course as I continued this second loop.  I had caught up with the 4:30 pace group for miles 14 and 15, and ran alongside them as we weaved through campus, but eventually lost track of them just before we made our way back onto Geddes Avenue on our way out of campus. They were still within sight, but the rolling hills would end up slowing me down on this second go around.  My legs were definitely tired from the first 13 miles of running, and I wasn't registering as fast mile pace as before, though I did manage to eke in a 10:11 and 10:43 mile at miles 17 and 18 as the course took on some nice longer downhill stretches. It was nice to see several volunteers and spectators still out on the course, including the volunteer giving out high fives after passing underneath US-23, and the Taiko drummers along the Gallup Park Path.  And if you were wondering, I did stop for a a photo of the dead raccoon on the second go-around, of course!
An artistic shot with a dead raccoon
The traditional mile 25 shot!
I ran considerably slower down the park path, but still managed to pass a couple people, and knew I was still on course to have a pretty respectable time.  The 4:30 pacers were out of sight, so I didn't really have a good grasp of how far behind them I was, especially considering I still had yet to ascend the big hill in the Arb for the second time.  When I did get there, the trail was considerably muddier, and I did get my shoes a little dirty as I traipsed through this ascent as best as I could.  Once the uphills were done, I knew I had less than 1.5 miles to go, I knew I was probably about 15 minutes from the finish line.  My watch read 4:30, and I knew that I had a sub 4:45 in me, which could catapult this race into one of my fastest I've run.

Excited about the end!
I zigzagged back through campus, pushing myself to the finish line as strong as my legs could take me.  Once I got to Hill Street, I knew I would definitely go under 4:45, but how far under was left to be seen.  My legs were TIRED, and I knew I still had to turn right at 5th Avenue then push to the finish line.  I crossed the finish line to the cheers of spectators and Jared announcing my name, and after catching my breath glanced down at my watch... 4:44:28, at that point my 5th fastest marathon of now 96 I have completed. Over twelve minutes faster than my last marathon, the Chattanooga Marathon two weeks prior. The Ann Arbor Marathon was such a fun marathon for me... so nostalgic.  Even though it was two loops (and I detest looped courses), I actually didn't mind running through the campus and the city twice!
Victory Headstand with the Big House in the background.
GO BLUE!
Post race lunch at Zingerman's Deli!
I drank a celebratory 26.2 Brew from Marathon Brewing Company, then grabbed a breakfast burrito to go before walking back to my car. I managed to get some other runners walking by to help me take my Victory Headstand photo with the stadium in my background, as well as a couple jumping photos near some block M signage at the Crisler Center. I then headed back to my Airbnb to grab a shower and pack up my things before meeting up with Jayvee for a late lunch at Zingerman's Deli in Kerrytown, a must-do whenever I'm in Ann Arbor.  We enjoyed our sandwiches, then he joined me as we drove around campus - I got to show Jayvee where I spent much of my time over the four years I lived in Ann Arbor.  I even tried to retell all the superstitions we were taught as students - in particular, never to cross the block M in the Diag until after your bluebooks are over.  My flight was later that night back home to New York, so I bided my time in town, taking it in as much as I can, before heading to the airport.  I was exhausted... it had been a quick, but busy two days back in Ann Arbor, but completely worth it!
A wolverine, his marathon medal, and his alma mater.