Thursday, January 30, 2020

Race Report: Helsinki City Marathon

In January 2019, I began to do research on a few European races, even looking at some potential double marathons on consecutive days. I started to look at the possibility of doing the Helsinki City Marathon on Saturday in Helsinki, Finland and the Riga Marathon on Sunday in Riga, Latvia, two races in two countries - but with a unique situation as the Helsinki race starts at the fairly odd hour of 3:00 in the afternoon.  By the time I'd finish that race, there would be no flights available until the next morning to go to Riga, and if I booked the first flight of the day on Sunday (a super early 5:30am flight), it would be landing at potentially less than two hours before the start of the marathon there.  It would amount to running two marathons with a 13-14 hour break in between, which partly would be sleep and partly getting to and from my destinations.

I decided to make the decision to do both races a few months later, and had my long haul flights booked to and from London Heathrow: leaving Thursday evening from JFK and arriving the following day; and a return flight home to New York on Monday evening.  I would book the shorter haul flights from London to Helsinki, Helsinki to Riga, and Riga back to London separately - ultimately choosing to do so with a bit of frugality - the flight to London to Helsinki was cheapest with KLM, so I still ended up flying through Amsterdam, but I would get SkyMiles; and then I ultimately booked Helsinki to Riga and Riga to London with AirBaltic on a multi-stop trip. For accommodations in Helsinki, I decided to book the Hilton at the Helsinki Airport for two nights, which was about half an hour from town - the equivalent of being on the train from home to work for me; it made sense, so 1) I wouldn't have to change hotels over two nights, and 2) I would not have to worry about having to get up super early for my flight to Riga on Sunday morning.

The flight to London was like most of my flights from JFK to Heathrow, pretty unmemorable; though, I did not have my ideal choice of seat in getting there, having to sit on the aisle.  I managed about 4 1/2 hours of sleep on the flight, then upon landing, made my way to connections where I had to board a bus from where we landed in Terminal 3 to Terminal 2, then disembarking to continue on to Terminal 4, where my flight on KLM would depart.  Terminal 4, which I've actually never been to before, is on the other side of the two parallel runways that serve the airport, so the airside bus connections took a little bit of time being able to cross it, waiting for departing and arriving planes to go through before we were allowed to cross.  Still, when I finally got to Terminal 4, I still had about half an hour before boarding, so I got to enjoy the rather soulless SkyTeam Lounge located here for a little bit before getting on the plane to Amsterdam.  As expected, it was a quick flight across the channel to Schiphol Airport, and despite a lengthy line at passport control, I was able to move to a much quicker line to get to my connecting gate for my flight onto Helsinki, which still allowed me to use the KLM Crown Lounge before that flight.  I caught up on a bit more sleep on both flights as we made my way to my final destination.

Arriving at the Helsinki Airport
We arrived in Helsinki at 4:30pm, and I quickly got checked into my hotel room at the Hilton Helsinki Airport, where I quickly showered and got changed so I could feel refreshed from the 14 hours of traveling via airplanes and airports I just completed.  The airport is located in the city of Vantaa, roughly 10.5 miles north of Helsinki's city center, but is easily connected via a railway link that just opened in mid-2015 that takes roughly half an hour of travel.  Overseen by the Helsingin seudun liikenne (HSL), the ride from the airport to the city falls within the A, B, and C fare zones, and costs €4.60 for a single ticket, either through a machine or through the mobile app, and is on a proof-of-payment system, meaning that fare inspectors who randomly patrol the network may periodically request to see your ticket, and if caught without a valid ticket, the passenger must pay a €80 fine! I took into the city for the evening, and as soon as I got into town, decided to walk to the Töölö Sports Hall (Töölön kisahalli) where the expo was being held, roughly 1.3 miles away from the Helsinki Train Station (Helsingin päärautatieasema). The route was pretty, as it hugged Töölö Bay (Töölönlahti), actually part of the route of the marathon on Sunday.

The Passio Musicae sculpture
Retrieving my bib was quick and painless, and from there, I decided to navigate my way westward toward the Seurasaarenselkä, the sea area that dominates Helsinki's west coast.  Right on the water is Sibelius Park (Sibeliuspuisto), a beautiful park dedicated to Finnish composer Jean Sibelius, widely recognized as his country's greatest composer and is often credited with having helped Finland to develop a national identity during its struggle for independence from Russia.  A gorgeous monument to him, titled Passio Musicae, is located there, completed in 1967 by Finnish artist Eila Hiltunen, consisting of a series of more than 600 hollow steel pipes that resemble organ pipes welded together in a wave-like pattern. The purpose of the artist was to capture the essence of the music of Sibelius, and despite having created little music for organs, sparked a lively debate about the merits and flaws of abstract art. It is one of the best-known tourist attractions in Helsinki, and luckily was not too crowded when I came to visit.

I continued to walk alongside Merikannontie, the street that hugged Seurasaarenselkä, and eventually came upon a rowing competition happening on the bay, which I later found out was a prestigious University Rowing Competition pitting eight top university rowing teams from all over Finland against each other at the Soutustadion overlooking the bay.  There was a raucous crowd cheering from the stands as I passed by, and I continued on, wanting to enjoy seeing more of Helsinki that I wouldn't be able to see during the race on Saturday afternoon, nor during my free time on Saturday morning where I had a list of places I wanted to check out before the race.

Oodi Helsinki Central Library
I made my way back toward the train station area, passing through the Etu-Töölö neighborhood and meandering past the imposing steeple of Christ Church (Kristuskyrkan), a Methodist church; and the The National Museum of Finland (Kansallismuseo), housed in a national romanticist style building completed in 1916, built to reflect Finland's medieval churches and castles. I walked past the Helsinki Music Centre (Musiikkitalo), and Kansalaistori Square, a square and lawn area located between the Music Centre, Oodi Helsinki Central Library, and the Kiasma contemporary art museum, where a concert happening in real time inside the Music Centre was broadcast out to the masses enjoying the late evening sun.  It was nearing 8pm, and the sun would still be out for about two more hours - a normal phenomenon in Nordic summer!

Sunset over Helsinki
I neared the train station, and got in touch with my friend Bill, who was in town with his fiancé Julie, nearing the end of a two week trip out to see all the Baltic countries, and fitting in a half marathon as well!  We had gotten in touch earlier that day and agreed to meet up for dinner, eventually going to Friends and Brgrs, a fast casual burger spot with most locations in Finland, but also Denmark and Germany, that had some decent reviews on Yelp.  While it wasn't my usual "seek local food" type restaurant, it was affordable, which is not easy to find in Nordic countries, which are known to have some of the most expensive places to travel to in the world.  After dinner, we made our way to the Ateljee Bar at the top of the Hotel Torni, which has magnificent views of the entire city from 260 feet up. During clear sunny days it might even be possible to see Tallinn, Estonia on the other side of the sea, and at night time the city lights make a beautiful and breathtaking landscape. We got there just at the right time; the sun was JUST setting for the day, only to get right back up over the horizon some six hours later - and even then, darkness meant duskiness!

Bill and I showing off our bibs
With my exhaustion setting in from being seven time zones ahead of normal and my normal immediate-upon-arrival rush to see as much of the city as possible, I bid Bill and Julie adieu, to retire back to my hotel at the airport.  Heading to the train station, I admired how it looked in the early evening; the station was designed by Finnish architect Eliel Saarinen in 1909, and completed ten years later. The station is mostly clad in Finnish granite, and its distinguishing features are its clock tower and the two pairs of statues holding the spherical lamps, lit at night-time, on either side of the main entrance. Saarinen eventually became a visiting professor at the University of Michigan's School of Architecture, and his son Eero, an architect himself, made a name for himself building many prominent structures throughout the US, most notably the very space age and ahead-of-its-time TWA Terminal at JFK Airport in New York City. The half hour trip was quick, and surprisingly crowded (apparently lots of folks use this train to get to and from the city and suburbs as well - I did end up having to show my ticket to an onboard train agent!) and I got back to the hotel at 11pm, completely exhausted.  Within minutes, I was hitting the hay and ready to get up early the next morning to have it all start up again.

The best salmon soup I've ever had!
Before going to bed, I managed to set everything up in one easy to carry bag for the following day, which included a full change of clothes into my kit for the race. I got a restful night's sleep, waking at around 7am, and stopping by Alepa, a Finnish grocery shop, conveniently located landslide at the airport between my hotel and the train station, to grab a quick bite to satiate my morning hunger. I grabbed a riisipiirakka, a traditional rice pasty that was a good option during that commute.  Ultimately, my first destination of the day was to head to the Old Market Hall (Vanha kauppahalli) just a short walk from the central station, and right on the South Harbour (Eteläsatama). Built in 1889, it is the oldest continuing shopping market in the city; there are about 25 different merchants and cafes in the hall, the product range of which consists mostly of food. Among them is Kalakauppa E. Eriksson, a fishmonger selling smoked fish, cured fish, fresh fish and shellfish - and a salmon soup considered the best in town... and it was pretty damn good!  The same week I left for Finland, travel vloggers Kara and Nate Buchanan had posted a video from their trip here during the winter months, showcasing the same exact shop, with excellent reviews - so I made sure to take their word for it!
Entering the beautiful Vanha kauppahalli

Helsinki Cathedral
The rest of the morning and early afternoon, I tried to fill as much as possible - and it was made easier when I finally was able to figure out how to use the Helsinki City Bikes, a bike-share system that's been fully integrated into the city's other public transport systems. The rental system, which has been in place since 2016, is fully web-based, and for only €5, one can make unlimited 30 minute trips with the bicycles within a 24 hour period, as long as it's re-docked at any of the city's 345 bike stations. Overage fees apply if you exceed the 30 minute limit. After registering online and making my payment, I was given a personal cyclist ID and a PIN code to unlock a bike from any station. In a matter of hours, I managed to zigzag all throughout the city center, making my way to the Finnish National Theatre (Suomen Kansallisteatteri), Ateneum Museum, Helsinki Cathedral (Helsingin tuomiokirkko), the Lightbringer (Valontuoja)/National Memorial to the Winter War in Kasarmitori Square, Design Musem (DesignMuseo), St. John’s Church (Johanneksenkirkko), the Amos Rex museum that rises whimsically out of Lasipalatsi Square (Lasipalatsin Aukio), Kamppi Chapel (Kampin kappeli), Allas Sea Pool urban spa and sauna, and Uspenski Cathedral (Uspenskin katedraali)!
"My Helsinki"
Uspenski Cathedral
Bad Bad Boy statue
I also notably went out of my way to Helsinki's West Harbour (Jätkäsaari) to see “Bad Bad Boy,” Helsinki’s answer to Brussels’ hugely popular Manneken-Pis statue. Standing 8.5 meters tall and sporting a surprised expression and an amiable blush, Bad Bad Boy is a work by artist Tommi Toija produced by Amos Anderson Art Museum. Some photo angles might make it look like the statue is now being used to water a landscaped area, but don’t worry: It’s just pissing on the sidewalk... except it wasn’t when I visited on Saturday morning. I also was able to get some time to stop into Kotiharjun Sauna, the last genuine wood-heated traditional public sauna in Helsinki, located in the laid-back eastern district of Kallio.  Heading to a sauna is part of everyday life in Finland - in fact, there is a statistic that over 3 million saunas exist for the 5.5 million inhabitants of the country.  So, this was a must do... and this particular sauna, a very no frills one, has welcomed sauna-goers since 1928. It was the best way to get myself ready for my race!

Met a Finnish corgi!
Eventually, 3pm started to come closer, so by 1:30, I made my way back to Töölö, and even spotted a corgi on my way there!  Here was the finish line area of the race, located on the grounds of Telia 5G -areena or Töölö Football Stadium, home to professional football club HJK Helsinki. Here, I could change and leave my bag, and at the time I arrived, lounge around on the practice field turf with runners who just completed the Helsinki City Run, the half marathon that started at 11:30am. With still lots of time before our start, I stuck around until it was time to head to the startline down in front of Töölö Sports Hall, situated right in front of a statue dedicated to renowned Finnish Olympic track star, Paavo Nurmi, who won nine gold and three silver medals between the 1920 games in Antwerp, 1924 games in Paris, and 1928 games in Amsterdam. I spotted my friend Wojtek from Poland (who I met in Egypt back in February), who in turn introduced me to several of his fellow globetrotting friends, including Dati from Indonesia. Wojtek and Dati were going to run a double this weekend as well, opting to do Copenhagen on Sunday after a similar early morning flight.

The 1952 Olympic Stadium
Before long, we were about to start. After announcements were made and a countdown began... all in Finnish... we went through the start gate on Mäntymäentie and began to run down the narrow street, heading northward along Urheilukatu, passing by the Olympic Stadium and its distinctive 238 1/2 foot tall tower, site of the 1952 Summer Olympics. It’s currently in the final year of a three year €209 million renovation, funded by the national and city governments. We also passed the arena, knowing we'd pass one more time before finally running into it several hours from now. The marathon is essentially two 10ish mile loops, with a separate five mile section in between, and a mile of other routing that all adds up to the 26.2 mile distance.

Starting off the race in Töölö
We veered left onto Reijolankatu, then followed the wide boulevard of Mannerheimintie northwestward, skirting the single diagonally-arranged buildings that form the southern boundary of the massive Keskuspuisto, or City Park, which stretches some 10 kilometers from this point all the way up to the border between Helsinki and Vantaa in the north. The afternoon sun, keeping things nice and warm at 67º, began to be a bit of a nuisance, making me break into a sweat early on, and it didn't help that this opening mile was also on a barely shaded corridor.  We got a quick respite of shade as we turned slightly right onto Tilkanvierto, but that was short lived as we rounded the corner under a bridge overpass, then proceeded along a bike path that took us out along the southern edge of Little Huopalahti Park (Pikku Huopalahden puisto), a small park overlooking the Seurasaarenselkä, as we crossed from the Meilahti neighborhood into Munkkiniemi over the Munkkiniemi Bridge (Munkkiniemen silta).  It took two miles, but finally as we began to run through this more pastoral setting, away from the city, that I stopped feeling overheated; a nice calm breeze began to blow as we began the run through the islands surrounding the bay.

Crossing the Lehtisaarensalmi Bridge
What's unique about this race is a good chunk of the run, particularly along the section through the islands, is actually on biking and walking trails, reducing the need to close streets, many of which are the only way in and out of certain areas.  We would alternate between trail and road all throughout this part of the race. This part was beautiful, as we ran along the trailside on the edge of the bay, alongside Ramsaynranta and Lillnäsvägen, two roads leading to the peninsula. We crossed the short Kuusisaaren Road Bridge (Kuusisaarentien silta) onto the island of Kuusisaari, the are with the highest average income of all the Helsinki metropolitan area and where many foreign embassies in Helsinki are located. We then crossed another road bridge, the Lehtisaarensalmi Bridge (Lehtisaarensalmen silta) onto the island of Lehtisaari, and a wooded section through the small St. Lawrence Park (Pyhän Laurin puisto) that took us up a hill onto what was one of the hilliest sections of the course, thus far.

Running across the Kaskisaari Bridge
Now running along the more residential roads on Lövövägen, the elevation undulated as we made our way through the island's hilly terrain, as we made our way  onto Kaskisaari, an island with many beautifully designed modern homes. From this island, we made our way over the steep wooden Kaskisaari Bridge (Kaskisaaren silta), onto the large island of Lauttasaari - this bridge is featured on our finisher's medal!  It was absolutely beautiful to see the view of the bay as we crossed.  After coming off the bridge onto Laukkaniementie, we took a sharp right turn onto Luoteisväylä, which led us onto the straightaway of Katajaharjuntie.  It was along this area that I befriended Julianne from Germany, and after chatting, found out that she had spent some time as an exchange student in Finland, but grew up near the city of Karlsruhe in Germany, where a few of my relatives lived!  She was quite surprised to find someone from America, running in a race in Finland, who knew her hometown in Germany!  We would run together for the next few miles, crossing over the Länsiväylä highway across another bridge, before being directed to run along the bike trail cutting right through the center of the island on Isokaari, a light commercial district through this largely residential area.  This was a fairly flat section of the race that allowed me to regain some of the speed I lost traversing through the hillier part of the race that just preceded.

Jaksaa Jaksaa!  Keep Going!
We turned right onto Kuikkarinne, then left onto Hakolahdentie, surrounded by five to six-floor apartment buildings, with a few spectators cheering us on, and where I saw someone with a sign that read "Jaksaa! Jaksaa!" finally able to learn some new Finnish, which meant "keep going!"  We crossed another wooden bridge, this time over a road that took us to Haahkakuja, where we turned left and reached the 10k mark of the race, a respectable 1:02:29 split.  My pace was still going strong as we turned right onto Tallbergin Park Road (Tallbergin puistotie), a beautifully manicured boulevard with two grassy medians.  This fairly flat stretch led to a left turn onto Meripuistotie, a road right by the island's busy Vattunokka marina.  We then veered slightly right onto Lauttasaarentie, as we made our way across the lengthy Lauttasaari Bridge (Lauttasaaren silta) back toward the city centre.  Near the end of the bridge, we encountered several fishermen, casting off their reels off the side of the bridge, many coming back with quite the catch!
Crossing the Lauttasaari Bridge
Passing by fishermen on the Lauttasaari Bridge
The Rumba scultpure by Martti Aiha
The slight descent off the bridge into the West Harbour (Länsisatama) neighborhood sent us along Porkkalankatu, as we jumped up over the curb and onto the bicycle lane, passing the imposing "Rumba" scuplture by artist Martti Aiha, commissioned by Alko, the government-owned alcohol company, who unveiled it in front of its headquarters on its 60th anniversary in 1992. We quickly found ourselves back on the asphalt, running down Itämerenkatu, then turned right onto Länsisatamankatu, where we were "greeted" by the two tall chimneys of a power station, running around the building as it curved around to Kellosaarenranta. We passed the Helsinki Conservatory of Music (Helsingin Konservatorio) and a raucous crowd of spectators, before following the pathway adjacent to the canalside Ruoholahti Park (Ruoholahdenpuisto), beautifully manicured with one section quite colorful as tulips bloomed in the flowerbeds.  We were then directed through a pedestrian pass-through underneath Mechelininkatu, which also reminded us how early we still were into the race - an archway directed runners on their first lap to run straight forward, while those on their second lap to run toward the left.  Of course, I continued on straight forward, running on Eeriikinkatu, to begin the only significant section of the race that would not be repeated a second time.
The Power Station chimneys
Alongside the Meripuisto
We had now crossed over into the busy Kamppi district, a busy shopping area that had our street roped off since runners were coming in both directions.  Faster runners were already coming from the other side of the street, as we had just recently passed the 13th kilometer (8.3 miles) of our race.  Those runners were over 8 kilometers ahead of me, just having reached the halfway point of the marathon.  We turned right onto Hietalahdenkatu, passing by the Hietalahti Market Hall, one of the Finnish capital city's many popular market halls that are spread throughout its neighborhoods. This was one of the locations I had docked my bike rental earlier in the day, so the streets here were seemingly familiar.  We then ran along the harborside road of Hietalahdenranta, where unfortunately there was a bit of construction, detouring briefly along Perämiehenkatu, before running along Merikatu toward Merisatamanranta and the Meripuisto, a very active park, at that time of afternoon teeming with people, overlooking the Merisatama boat dock.
Following the waterside road on Ehrenströmintie
Running next to the Port of Helsinki
We followed this road to Ehrenströmintie, which ran along the perimeter of the Kaivopuisto, a beautiful park by the sea in the southernmost part of the city, which is one of the oldest and most loved parks in the city.  The park sits on very hilly terrain, with parts of it on flat ground, and some on cliffs. While we only ran along its edge, we definitely felt some of that hilliness on the road.  We eventually made our way up to its northernmost section, facing the three passenger terminals that make up the Port of Helsinki's South Harbour (Eteläsatama), where ferry boats and cruiseliners sail to and from Tallinn, Estonia, and Stockholm, Sweden.  In the distance, as the road curved from Laivasillankatu to Eteläranta, we could see the distinctive green dome and white facade of Helsinki Cathedral.  I knew that the turnaround point for us was not far from the Old Market Hall. Soon we were headed back in the direction we came, but then this time, veering right past a roundabout and cutting along the Kaivopuisto's northern boundary, Puistokatu. This was largely a very affluent residential area (in fact, some of the most expensive in Helsinki), happening to contain the official private residences of several ambassadors of foreign countries to Finland, including the United States, Estonia, Spain, France, Belgium, Brazil, Italy, the Netherlands, and the United Kingdom.
Returning along Eteläranta, with the Helsinki Cathedral in the distance
Sinebrychoff Park
We ran along the northside of the Meripuisto, joining back up to the course we had run down earlier, and made our way quickly toward that point in the race where we first saw the runners coming down  at the 8.3 mile mark.  After a steep downhill descent through the crowded and very happening Sinebrychoff Park (Sinebrychoffin puisto), I passed the 20km timing mat, coming in  with a 2:04:48 split.  I realized as I passed the Hietalahti Market Hall on the way back that I had run a 2:11 first half, which in my mind was maybe a bit too fast considering I had two races to run in two days.  Almost immediately, I pulled back on my speed, and decided to take an easier approach to begin the second half of this race.  We made our way back to the pathway just before the split, this time running northward through a sunken carless pathway known as the Baana.

Running through the Baana.
The Baana was part of the Helsinki harbour rail line which was built in the 1890s, and dismantled in 2009, originally leading from Helsinki Central railway station along the city's coastline to Katajanokka, the neighborhood where Uspenski Cathedral was located, facing the South Harbour.  The name Baana is a Finnish slang word for (rail)way, coming from Swedish bana and German Bahn.  It took several years to modify the former rail line to bicycle and pedestrian use, finally opening to the public in June 2012. The race would pass through here twice, of course, running through nearly its entire 1.5 kilometer length.  I felt like I could pick up a little speed here, as it was quite flat, and I could measure my exhaustion level by trying to run its nearly one mile stretch.  Despite me picking up speed, another couple runners sped right by me - they were on their second lap, just about to finish their marathon in just over 2 1/2 hours! We emerged out of the Baana along the edge of the Kansalaistori Square, to crowds cheering us on as we made the slight ascent back to street level on Mannerheimintie.

We were then directed right along Töölönlahdenkatu, just past the Helsinki Music Centre, toward Karamzininranta, running northward as we passed the Finlandia Concert Hall, designed by Finnish architect Alvar Aalto, then ran along the path skirting Töölö Bay toward the Finnish National Opera building (Kansallisooppera). We turned right onto Helsinginkatu, then ran along Mäntymäentie past the Paavo Nurmi statue to begin our second loop of the race, now about 24.5 kilometers into the race.

Aurora Bridge
The crowds were huge as we passed the stadium. A slight difference of the start of this second loop took us around the northern edge of the stadium, toward the woodsy trails of Eläintarha park. We then crossed over the Aurora Bridge (Auroransilta), a beautifully designed steel arch bridge over Nordenskiöldinkatu. By then, the 4:30 pacers had passed by me, which I had expected, considering my purposeful slow down since the halfway point of the race. We followed Nordenskiöldinkatu turning right onto Mannerheimintie and back onto the familiar roads we took some three hours ago.

Making our second loop on the islands
The second time around the islands was admittedly harder, with tired legs pushing forward as best as they possibly could.  The hills seemed much more magnified as we ran from island to island with my continued efforts to dial back my exertion; there was no need for me to push because it was more important for me to conserve my muscles for my second marathon the next morning.  I walked every hill, and took liberal walk breaks throughout the next several miles. Still, I ran when it felt comfortable, especially on straight flat sections, and through areas where the downhill was manageable.  It was great to even see some of the same people who were out earlier for our first pass still out and cheering runners on a couple hours later.  Miles 18-21/Kilometers 29-34 were admittedly slower than what I had run rather consistently in earlier miles, but they still weren't far off of the pace; the 4:30 pacers, even though out of my line of sight, were only a few minutes ahead.

40 km mark!
We reached the Baana and what I considered the "home stretch" of the race, with only two miles left to go, and only 4:13 on my watch.  I was definitely going to go under 5 hours, but wasn't expecting to be this much under 5.  Like before, I used this flat section to my advantage and clocked a couple faster miles.  I had it in my head that I could run under 4:45 easy.  Mile 25 was a 4:24, and all I had left was to run past Finlandia Concert Hall, the sidewalk along the edge of Töölö Bay, and the sidewalk past Olympic Stadium to the finish line inside the football stadium.  I managed to spot a corgi just before turning into the stadium, and while I really wanted a picture -- I had a job to do, to finish my race in a decent time!  We turned into the stadium, now running on the astroturf, making my way to the finish line, and I crossed the mat in 4:39:42; it turns out I stayed only less than ten minutes behind the 4:30 pacers all that time since they passed me 25K into the race!
Running past the Finlandia Concert Hall
With Wojtek and Dati
I gleefully got my medal, and rested my legs (also enjoying a cup of coffee!) while I waited for Wojtek and Dati to come in.  They both ran in together, sporting their own country's respective flags, which was a fun sight to see as the Polish and Indonesian flags are both red and white horizontal fields, but inverses of each other!  After quite a few photos together (including one that would be taken by the social media managers of the Helsinki City Marathon, who caught wind of our double marathon feat that weekend, and would feature us on their Facebook and Instagram pages), we exited the stadium and they joined me for a few photos back at the Paavo Nurmi statue, including helping me with my headstand photo, before we parted ways, and I took a city bike back to the train station to catch the next train back to the airport, back to my hotel room to catch as many hours of sleep as possible before having to wake up for my morning flight.
Victory Headstand at the Paavo Nurmi statue!
With fellow double marathoner, Paul!
Having a 5:30 am flight meant being up very early to get dressed for the race underneath some sweats, then walking over to the other terminal to get through security.  While waiting for the flight, I found my friend Paul, who I had spoken to about possibly doing this crazy double marathon weekend - I wasn't sure if he was going to do it, but lo and behold, he was! We would sit together on the rather empty flight to Riga, Latvia, ready to take on our second race of the weekend!

Wednesday, January 15, 2020

Race Report: Great Breweries Marathon

The route for the Great Breweries
It was actually a bit of happenstance when I came upon the website for the Great Breweries Marathon last year.  It had already happened, but what intrigued me was the run through three of Belgium's finest breweries, including starting and ending at the globally distributed home brewery of Duvel, in the middle of the Flemish Brabant countryside, where Kleine Brabant, the Dender region and Pajottenland meet. It was a fairly new race, having only run its third annual event in 2018, and being in June, the temperatures soared into the high 80s and even 90s on race day.  They pushed the event back into early May for the 2019 season, and I decided to go in on it. There is at least one other "beer centered" race in the country (the rich beer culture in Belgium is famous beyond its borders), which is the popular Beer Lovers Marathon in Liege, but that race sold out before I could register. So, in mid May, I prepared myself for this race, flying into Brussels, and taking the short train ride to the city of Mechelen, which would be where I would stay the night before the race. After the quick 82 minute Thalys train from Brussels-Midi to Paris Gare du Nord, I arranged to stay overnight in Paris at a hotel near Charles de Gaulle Airport on Sunday evening, taking the early morning flight back to New York on Monday morning.

Brusselpoort gate near my hotel
I flew out of JFK on Friday night, taking a Virgin flight that arrived in London early on Saturday morning, then had a few hours of layover before taking a 45-minute long Brussels Airlines flight to hop over the North Sea to Brussels.  We landed a little after 1PM, getting through immigration pretty quickly and then jumping right onto a train headed into the city of Mechelen, only some 15 minutes away. Thank goodness for the NMBS/SNCB (National Railway Company of Belgium, styled using the Dutch and French abbreviations) app, I easily purchased a rail ticket off there to have on my phone to get through the turnstiles for the railway station at the airport; I missed one at 1:30, so I had to wait til close to 2pm for the next one.  Upon getting off at the Mechelen station, I easily walked over to my hotel, the Best Western Gulden Anker, roughly a mile away, near the Brusselpoort, an imposing city gate structure dating back to the 13th century that is the sole remaining part of the original twelve gates of the city.

Mechelen street scene
Check-in was pretty easy, and they put me in a hotel room located directly above the entrance of the hotel, which at first I was wary of in case of noise; I'd be so tired later on that night that I wouldn't even notice.  After dropping off my bags, I decided to go explore, and took off north along Hoogstraat into the city center.  Being that it was already around 3PM, I knew if I had any sightseeing to do, I only had a few hours before sites would close, so I made my way straight to Grote Markt, the central square in the historic centre of town.

Mechelen's Grote Markt
The city of Mechelen is located halfway between Antwerp and Brussels. Mechelen is one of the Flanders region’s most prominent cities, and was notably a centre for artistic production during the Northern Renaissance, when painters, printmakers, illuminators and composers of polyphony were attracted by patrons such as Margaret of York, Margaret of Austria and Hieronymus van Busleyden. Today it is a vibrant town, mixing trendy and traditional. Its carillon school is world-renowned, training students from all over the world in the art of playing carillons, sets of 24 or more bells hung in church towers. Shops downtown are often housed in buildings with the old-style Flemish architecture.

St. Rumbold's Cathedral
At that point in the afternoon, the Grote Markt was busy with people, many sitting for a snack or drink at one of the cafes that line the square.  On one end of the square is the imposing tower of St. Rumbold's Cathedral (Sint-Romboutskathedraal), the largest of the 8 churches in Mechelen. Its high tower (though not as high as originally planned - construction stopped early due to lack of money), is easily recognizable and dominates the surroundings. For centuries it held the city documents, served as a watchtower, and could sound the fire alarm. Despite its characteristic incompleteness, this World Heritage monument is 320 feet high and its 514 steps are mounted by thousands of tourists every year, following the footsteps of Louis XV, Napoleon, King Albert I, and King Baudouin with queen Fabiola in 1981. The original 49 carillon bells are housed in the tower, each with its own name, as well as a second full set that are regularly played over the summer months; the total weight of both sets of carillons is 80 tons. On the other end of the square is Mechelen City Hall, which consists of the Palace of the Grand Council, the belfry, and the cloth hall. The neo-Gothic style palace, built in 1526, was unfinished for almost 400 years (also due to lack of money) and wasn't completed until 1911, utilizing the original 16th century plans.

Museum Hof van Busleyden
As I continued walking north from the Grote Markt, the carillon bells at St. Rumbold's began to play, which marked a quite amazing part of the day, enjoying something so uniquely Belgian.  I passed by the Museum Hof van Busleyden, housed in the stately Mechelen City Palace which had been recently renovated and reopened to the public last year. It is an eclectic museum with items of local interest: paintings, sculpture, tapestries, the town mascot, and the chains from the old jail - there's a little of everything. I decided not to spend too much time here as the museum's exhibits were all in Dutch, but I did enjoy the early Renaissance style architecture of the building.

Kazerne Dossin's main exhibit
Ultimately, I wanted to head to Kazerne Dossin, which sat further north of the city centre along the River Dijle. Mechelen's more infamous recent history dates to World War II under German occupation, when the extensive railway structure (due to an industrial revolution of metalworking industries within the city) led to the Nazi forces to choose the city for a detention and deportation camp in the former Dossin Barracks. It was here that Belgian Jews and Romani (of which approximately 90 percent of Belgium's Jewish population were living in Antwerp and Brussels) were sent to the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp in German-occupied Poland during the Holocaust in World War II. Between 1942 and 1944, 25,484 Jews and 352 Romanis were transported through the complex to the concentration camps in the east. Two-thirds were killed upon arrival. By the time of the liberation and the end of the Holocaust in Belgium, only 1,221 Belgian Jews had survived. The Kazerne Dossin museum building, established in 1996, is situated on five floors, each devoted to telling the story of these atrocities. The top floor is an observation deck, from which one can view all of the city of Mechelen, as well as the original site of the barracks next door.  I spent just over an hour here up until the museum closed at 5pm, taking in as much as I could to learn about the sad history that occurred in this place.

Outside of Brouwerij Het Anker
After the museum closed, I became quite hungry, so I sought out a place for dinner. I made my way to Brouwerij Het Anker, one of the oldest breweries in Belgium, dating back to 1471, when it was founded by a community of Beguines. It is best known for the Gouden Carolus Classic beer, a dark ale named after Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, who was raised in Mechelen. It’s the main ingredient in their recipe for vlaamse stoverij, also known in French as carbonade flamande -Flemish Stew, one of the national dishes of Belgium.  This hearty meal is basically similar to the French beef Bourguignon, but using beer instead of red wine. This dish was accompanied by the customary Belgian Fries and mayonaisse, and also a chicory salad (using locally grown Belgian Endive, or witloof). I also got to try the Anker Boscoli Cool Fruit Beer, a white ale enriched and sweetened with natural fruit juices. Apparently the brasserie at this brewery is quite popular, as I arrived before the evening rush and was able to easily get a table for one; they had been already fully booked for days after the 7pm hour.
Vlaamse Stoverij in Flemish, otherwise known as Carbonade Flamande in French... so delicious!
Gouden Carolus beer to wash it all down...
I came back through town to the Grote Markt to head back down to my hotel, and realized that nearly every shop was already closed, which left me thinking that there really didn't seem to be much to do in the city centre in the evening!  So I headed back to my hotel, and already tired from the six hour time change, I ended up falling asleep by 8:30pm, much like last week in Prague - but not feeling sickly this time!

Welcome sign in Breendonk!
I woke up around 6:30 and got dressed and out the door, checking out of the hotel to walk over to the train station, as a shuttle with the Great Breweries Marathon was to be parked there waiting for participants to provide rides from Mechelen to the start area at the Duvel Moortgat Brewery in Breendonk 20 minutes away.  We were the first bus to leave, and we left barely full - perhaps only 15 of us in the massive tour bus, mostly international runners, since I wasn't the only clueless one when the driver started to try to speak with us in Dutch.

Our startline
We arrived as the area was still being set up, and there seemed to be a miscommunication with where the driver was to drop off runners coming by bus from Mechelen; he started arguing with a woman with a Marathon "Crew" T shirt who was seemingly in charge of traffic at the brewery, which was served as the Athlete's Village for pre-race preparations and post-race celebrations. Eventually we were let off for a short walk to the village, which was superbly organized; all bibs were being picked up race morning, and since we were among the first there, it was very quick to retrieve, as well as the t-shirt.  We had more than an hour to lounge around as the crowds began to grow inside the village; I parked myself on a lounge chair situated near the t-shirt booth, trying to soak up the sun as clouds occasionally raced by, getting annoyed if someone was standing in my way.  Eventually, with about a half hour prior to the 9:15am race start, I took off my sweatpants and jacket (it was a brisk morning, in the mid 40s) and dropped off my bag to walk over to the startline. I positioned myself near the 4:15 pacers, which was knowingly a bit aggressive, but I knew being near them would at least keep me on pace for a sub 2:10 first half, which was my "short term" goal.

Running through residential Breendonk
Running through the countryside
We headed off a couple minutes after 9:15, taking off down the quiet residential street on Breendonk-Dorp, making a sharp angled right turn onto Molenheide, which turned into Groenstraat to make our way out of the town.  We passed a talented busker playing some jazz on his soprano saxophone, accompanied by canned instrumental background music, as we turned left to begin our run through the Flemish farmland.

Dirt trails in Londerzeel
It was pretty quiet out here, as there were no spectators - just us runners, and the views of the flatlands around us.  We'd pass by working farms with cows watching us as we ran by.  We came back out on the asphalt roads near the neighboring village of Sint-Jozef, cutting through the edge of town, past quaint Belgian homes as it merged into Londerzeel.  Before long, we were already three miles into the race, as the single lane streets passed through the surrounding farmland. At one point, we even had to run across a dual tracked dirt trail, made by the wide tires of a tractor. We crossed a road-level train track as well, which had timing sensors on both sides just in case any of runners were held back by scheduled train service passing through the area. I was luckily not affected. During this time, it also rained very briefly, but only a little bit of a drizzle lasting maybe ten minutes at most.
These Belgian cows go moo, so I do too...

Entering Brouwerij Palm and Brouwerij De Hoorn, in the town of Steenhuffel.
Musicians in medieval garb!
All decked out in a knight's armor!
It got decidedly more rural the further out we got, but by mile 6, the scenery began to change, as we approached the Diepensteyn Estate, with its majestic medieval castle in view.  Running on cobblestones (Prague redux?!), we turned into the complex's drive and ran toward the castle, crossing the drawbridge and moat (!!), and encountered a couple musicians in medieval garb and a man in a full knight's costume. The castle was the site of our first brewery stop, the home of Brouwerij Palm and Brouwerij De Hoorn, in the town of Steenhuffel.

Running toward the storehouse
Along a path lined with stacked crates marked with the "Palm" logo, we entered the brewery's main storehouse, where we ran through a marked pathway.  More stacked crates lined the route, while music was piped in via speakers - at that moment, it was Adele's "Chasing Pavements," a fittingly perfect song for the fact we were 10K into our 42K run on the streets of rural Flanders.  We crossed a timing mat as we passed through the warehouse, clocking in a 1:00:18 split.  We emerged out of the warehouse, passing by a cheer station of onlookers drinking some of the beer brewed from that very brewery.  A sign had indicated runners continue on in one direction, while walkers passed through the area where they were serving; they had non-alcoholic beer available for us runners, which I didn't think was very fair!  I exclaimed, bewildered... "alcohol-free?!" as those cheering laughed... oh well, I still had a race to run, so I continued on.

Running through the Palm Brewery Storehouse

Running through the Palm Brewery Storehouse

Pointing toward the hop garden...
All of the hops, just starting to grow!
We passed a small hop garden, where vines of hop plants were being trained to grow into the flowers that are used for bittering and flavoring some of the beers, particularly this brewery's blonde beer variety, known as Palm Hop Select.  We continued onto the aptly named Brouwerijstraat, down a quiet residential street in the middle of the town of Steenhuffel, turning left to continue along an asphalt path through the countryside.  Literally, just a single lane path that cuts through the non-gridlike flat plots of farmland with random houses with neighbors hundreds of feet away, over the next several miles.  Every so often, there would be people out there watching us run, but more often than not, they were involved with the race itself, as course marshals, making sure we were staying on the correct path of the race!
Running between the plots of farmland
Some of the fun signage along the course.
Har har har...
Rnning along a gravel pathway
After four miles of running, seemingly aimlessly, through the countryside, we turned right onto a short segment of street, before turning back onto crushed gravel pathways meandering through a lightly forested area.  We emerged out into an open area half a mile later, to then end up running turning into a thickly forested area that was the Buggenhout Bos, a beautiful dirt pathway that snaked its way under a canopy of oak trees within this medieval forest, the largest forest of East Flanders.  It was truly magical as we ran through this area, eventually reaching the halfway point in 2:08:41.  The 4:15 pacers had caught up at that point, perfect timing as they were right in front of me as we crossed the split mat.  The course had some short out-and-back sections within the forest, allowing for a chance to interact with runners who I had been already playing a bit of leapfrog with since leaving Steenhuffel.  My pace had slowed down a tiny bit, tired from roughly ten miles of sub-10 minute pace.  We exited the forest onto Bosstraat as it made its way into the center of the town of Buggenhout, where our second brewery spot was located.  Meanwhile, back at the start in Breendonk, the 25km runners had begun their race roughly two hours after we did. 
Running through the Buggenhout Bos
Two beer or not two beer...
Bosteels Brewery
We turned left onto Maalderijstraat, where the street was divided with runners coming up the other way.  We entered the narrow entrance gate of Bosteels Brewery just before the 17th mile of the race, literally going in, looping around the building, and coming right back out... a little disappointing to see so little of the brewery itself, but it was what it was.  Again, here, there was a separation between runners and walkers, but I wouldn't let it stop me, as I gestured to a spectator drinking beer if I could have a sip; she gladly obliged, and I drank some to the laughs of other spectators.  It was a nice "kick" as I continued on out Maalderijstraat.  The 4:30 pacers started to come in hot, and I knew I had lost a bit of time in my slowed down last couple miles.

Crossing the center of Flanders
We made our way out of Buggenhout, following Spoorwegstraat and Sportveldstraat on a lengthy straightaway that hugged the elevated trainline that ran from Mechelen west toward Ghent. I made up a little bit of time here, picking my pace up ever so slightly.  We were now three hours into our race, as we took the roads heading northward into the town of Opdorp, the 4:30 pacers literally right behind my tail.  We entered the town of Opdorp and crossed through a grassy section of the course that literally cut right through the center of the town's square, and where local authorities managed the traffic to stop traffic and let us cross through.

Another fun sign along the route
We then followed Vekenstraat northeastward out of Opdorp and back into the countryside.  I crossed the 30km mat in 3:09:06, only about two minutes ahead of the 4:30 pacers.  They eventually passed me somewhere over the next mile, almost just like last week.  My pace slowed considerably, and I felt like I had started to run out of gas.  I chalk it up to the fact that I only ate or drank during four of the last seven days that week, due to contracting strep and not being able to swallow.  I was just exhausted, and working my ass off to just finish these last six miles!  We passed the 20 mile mark, and not long after, the geographical center of the Flanders region, aka the "Middelpunt van Vlaanderen," as evidenced from a sign put up by the race. Over the next mile, we'd run past the Lippelobos, another forested area, which we would run along the edge of on Kruisheide.
Passing the 30km mark of the race

40km completed... just 2.2 to go!
The last 4.5 miles of the race weren't as alone as we had been, as the 25km runners, especially those coming in with 2:30 goal times, merged with us right after we made a bridge crossing over a canalway onto Marselaerdreef.  The narrow roadway became a little narrower, and even a slight bit crowded as these "fresher" runners made their way past, still encouraging us who had many more kilometers under our feet than them. The terrain briefly changed once again to a section of dual tracked dirt trail, much like what we had encountered early on in the race. Eventually we were back on residential roads, seeing signs for the municipality of Puurs-Sint-Amands (where Breendonk was located), and we were on familiar looking streets.  Soon, we heard faint strains of jazz, and there was the soprano saxophone player from the first mile of the race, STILL there and entertaining runners coming into the finish as we entered Breendonk.

Entering Duvel Moortgat Brewery!
We turned left onto Beenhouwerstraat, with the archway of the Duvel Moortgat Brewery in view, our final brewery to run through.  Like at Palm, we were guided through a course with stacks of branded crates lining our way.  There were many more spectators here (since it was the finish after all, and then we were led for the final push, which took us around the perimeter of the main brewery building.  The last several hundred yards of the race even took us over flattened grass - it seems we needed to have yet another different bit of terrain to run over before finishing!  Making the final turn, there was our carpeted finish line; I veered slightly to the right to be able to run alone through the marathon finish line, and I crossed in 4:34:25, over a minute faster than last week!
Finish line isn't too much further...
A couple turns before crossing the finish!
The finish line!

The contents of the box of beer!
I eagerly picked up my medal and found my way to the registration booths, that had now been turned into the "gift box" retrieval area, where finishers could get their box of beer.  25km runners got a box of four beers, while full marathoners got a box of six - from all the breweries we had passed through.  In addition, we had the option of getting three beers from the draught of our choice.  After getting my headstand photo taken just outside of the Athlete's Village with the "Duvel" neon sign high on top of a building on the brewery campus, I got my backpack in the gear check area, threw my warm clothes back on, and then found a spot to park myself and begin drinking through my beer prize!  I made a few new Belgian friends in the process, who explained to me how a bit higher in alcohol content these beers were than the Belgian beers I'd find in America... without having much to eat, I definitely started feeling it after finishing my third!
Victory Headstand at Duvel Moortgat Brewery!
Enjoying a Tripel Karmeliet!
After spending a good two hours celebrating my 102nd marathon finish, I made my way out to find the shuttles that would take us back to Mechelen. I had three remaining beers still - after drinking two of the bottles, gifting the IPA to one of the Belgians at my table (I don't like IPAs), and drinking one of my free draught beers (the Tripel Karmeliet from Brouwerij Bosteels, the one I had a little sip of at mile 17, was hands down my favorite!) I gingerly put them in my backpack to consolidate what I was carrying.  Somehow in my post marathon and drinking haze, I ended up misplacing a small red bag that contained my European iPhone charger adapter and my earbuds on the bus, which I didn't realize until several hours later when I was already en route to Paris. Thankfully it wasn't an expensive loss, but I wasn't going to get them back.  We arrived back in Mechelen, and I was able to get on the next train into Brussels Centraal arriving some twenty minutes later.

Walking through Brussels
I had three hours in Brussels to spend, so like the last time I was in this city, I decided to just walk through it and enjoy.  Interestingly enough, the last time I was here (thirteen years ago), I only had three hours to spend here, too.  So I made my way to the central square of the city, iin Grand Place, where I knew a few of the important sites were... this included having to see Manneken Pis, a two foot tall bronze sculpture of a naked little boy urinating into a fountain basin.  Surprisingly, this statue is the best-known symbol of the people of Brussels, and embodies their sense of humor.  I also decided to go out to find Jeanneke Pis, his female counterpart representing a little girl squatting in the act of urinating - far less visited, but not too far away either.  I also made a stop for my usual memento and some chocolate, before continuing on to find a place to eat (which I eventually found at the Brussels-Midi train station) before my train to Paris.
The train ride to Paris was quick, and being so tired, I fell asleep for half of the less than 90 minute trip. The suburban train from Paris Gare du Nord left from the same station, so after navigating my way through, I was on the RER B out to Charles de Gaulle airport to check into my hotel for the night, the Ibis Hotel in Roissypole.  This would be my third Paris airport hotel to check out in my travels over the past month.   I finished my remaining beers before crashing for the night, waking up early the next morning to catch my flight home to NYC at 8am (with breakfast at the Air France Lounge, of course.)  This time, no strep.  I slept for half the flight, and got into work ready for another week!