Monday, February 24, 2020

Race Report: Scotiabank Calgary 50K Ultra

The Calgary Marathon has been on my radar for some time.  Not only was it because of the destination: Calgary, being the gateway to the Canadian Rockies, but because it offered a rare road ultra, the 50K ultra distance. The ultra was launched in 2014 to celebrate the 50th Anniversary of the Calgary Marathon.  I hadn't been all that secure about my ability to do the 50K previously because of my finish times; in fact, they had some criteria requiring runners doing the ultra having completed at least one marathon in the previous 18 months in less than 4.5 hours, strictly a logistical reason since their road permit relies on runners being off the city roads in a particular amount of time.  When my finish times began to improve drastically, with consistency under the 4.5 hour mark, I confidently registered to do the ultra. The 2019 edition had a brand new route, which was flatter and required less city resources, such as police, to staff the event. In March, I had contacted the race with an offer to sing "O Canada" with the hopes to jumpstart a challenge to sing the Canadian national anthem in the Canadian provinces; they granted me the gig in April, and everything was set for me to go to Calgary in May!

While in London doing the London Marathon at the end of April, chatting with my friends Leo and Febry led to me divulging my upcoming marathon schedule to them.  I had mentioned Calgary as my Memorial Day weekend trip, and a week later, Febry messaged me that she and Leo were going to be heading there too, offering to fit in a night at a hotel in Banff after the marathon for more sightseeing... so my trip was set, and I had some good friends joining me for the adventure!

I took Friday off from work, and left New York super early that morning, flying out on a WestJet flight to Toronto.  Transferring to another flight using this airline requires you to exit the airside area of the terminal into the departures area, then re-enter through the security checkpoint. Thankfully it wasn't terribly busy, so after a short wait in line, I was back in the terminal, just a short walk away from my gate.  Because I had some time before my flight, I made use of the nearby Priority Pass lounge before boarding.  The Toronto-Calgary flight was pretty uneventful, and we departed and arrived on time. It was overcast when we arrived into Calgary at 1pm. Picking up my rental car was a breeze, and I ended up getting a nice upgrade to an SUV because they didn't have any cars available for which I reserved. I headed downtown to meet up with my Airbnb host at the apartment I'd be staying at for the next two nights.

Calgary Diegos!
My Airbnb host Tynan was a cool guy and during our conversations before my arrival, we found out that we both had a great interest in craft beers. It just so happened Calgary had a lot of great brewery options, many along 9th Avenue in the neighborhood of Inglewood, so after dropping off my stuff, Tynan drove us out there to enjoy the offerings.  We popped into High Line Brewing and Cold Garden Beverage Company, before returning back to the Airbnb.  I went to the Calgary Stampede, where the expo for the race was occurring (as well as the start/finish line), and picked up my race bib, then later that evening, made plans to visit with family who lived in the area. I actually didn’t realize until just before this trip I had so much extended family from the Diego side of my family living in Calgary! It just so happened the weekend I was in town, several Diego siblings, children of my grand uncle Cesar (and in turn, my dad’s first cousins) converged onto Calgary for vacation and we’re attending a big birthday party of one of the sibling’s grandchildren, which I ended up attending for a short period of time!

A view of downtown from Rosedale
I slept in a bit the next morning, waking up to a rainy Calgary. I decided to explore a bit of the downtown area, and do a little shopping - particularly for a down jacket, since I was quickly realizing that late May in Calgary still meant colder jacket weather, and I could only imagine how much colder it could be in some areas of Banff!  I picked up Febry and Leo from the airport at around noon, having tracked their flight as it landed.  We made our way back downtown for some lunch before walking over to the Stampede so Febry could pick up her race bib.  The rain finally subsided in the late afternoon, so we made our way to Crescent Road NW in the Rosedale neighborhood of Calgary, near McHugh Bluff Park, for an amazing view of the downtown’s many skyscrapers!
Canada Olympic Park
Being dorks at the Canada Sports HoF
With more time in the afternoon to enjoy the day, we decided to head to Canada Olympic Park, one of the main sites for the 1988 Winter Olympics held in Calgary, being the primary venue for ski jumping, bobsleigh, and luge. Also on site was the Canada Sports Hall of Fame, originally established in 1955 to "preserve the record of Canadian sports achievements and to promote a greater awareness of Canada's heritage of sport.” The facility opened on Canada Day, July 1, 2011 with eleven galleries and numerous interactive displays.

The most amazing steak EVER.
For our prerace dinner that night, Febry and Leo had made reservations at one of Calgary's famed steakhouses. Beef produced in Alberta is world renowned for its rich taste and incredible quality. Modern Steak, with multiple locations in the city, was highly regarded as one of the most prized steakhouses in Calgary. I chose a delicious NY Striploin steak, "born in Alberta, raised in Alberta, and harvested in Alberta." It was heavenly - one of the best pieces of steak I've ever eaten; a prime grade, dry and wet aged, pasture raised and barley finished cut of 12 ounces of meat, accompanied by sides of poutine, crimini mushrooms, and creamed Swiss chard.  I was ready for my race the next day, having fueled with such fantastic protein!

Race morning was a chilly morning, with the temperature forecast to be in the low 30s. The rain from the day before was gone, thankfully, and in its wake was a cloudless sky, the sun shining bright overhead. Still, for May, it was quite cold - so I was thankful for the long-sleeved shirt I was wearing to keep me warm.  We milled about before the race was to start at 7am.  Then I stepped to the stage to sing "O Canada" for the first time in Canada... hopefully the first of more to come!
Singing O Canada at the start

The startline
After I singing, I jumped into the corrals with Febry and at 7am we were off, taking the main road through the Calgary Stampede grounds northward, along Stampede Trail and out toward Olympic Way SE into Victoria Park.  We had a nice downhill as we made our way underneath the train overpass, before turning right onto 9th Avenue SE into the East Village, a corner I would be seeing three times that day, as we'd pass by here again in a little over an hour's time near the 11 km mark, and then again just before the finish of the race back in the Calgary Stampede.  The corner was framed by the Studio Bell, home of the National Music Centre, a beautifully designed bronze-hued and terra-cotta-tiled museum and performance venue dedicated to celebrating music in Canada in all of its forms -- its Skybridge looming five stories over the street.  We continued eastward along the avenue, passing Fort Calgary and crossing the Elbow River (a tributary of the Bow River) into the Inglewood neighborhood at the mile 1 mark, running down the avenue I had been familiar with from enjoying the area's breweries the day before.
Studio Bell
Telus Spark Science Museum
At 12th Street SE, we turned left, making our first crossing of the Bow River as we meandered our way onto St. George's Island, home of the Calgary Zoo, Canada's second largest.  We then crested the short Baines Bridge onto the single lane frontage road alongside Memorial Drive going east, where I finally took my first walk break 19 minutes into the race.  We eventually turned left onto 12th Street NE over the drive and into the Bridgeland neighborhood, where we turned right, and began to crest the first hill of significance of the race, a short 40 foot climb along an out and back on St. George's Drive NE around Tom Campbell's Hill Natural Park.  We had a nice downhill as we made our way toward the Telus Spark science museum, our turn around point being right around the 5K mark, which I reached in 28:30.

Downtown Calgary in all its glory
We made our way back up and over the hill, but this time continued on straight along 12th Street NE as we made our way into the heart of residential Bridgeland, turning left onto 1st Avenue NE, the main commercial strip of the neighborhood and what was historically its Little Italy enclave. Along the way, I noticed a woman wearing a bright yellow t-shirt running the race, which turned out to be a Michigan shirt - so of course, I had to yell out my customary "GO BLUE!" to her as I ran by; her cousin was running with her, and was wearing a 50 States Marathon club shirt, so naturally, I began a conversation with the both of them. Yvonne and Kyann were originally from Washington state, but were out here for vacation and to run the race, and it turned out Yvonne was currently living in New York!  Both Febry and I would keep up with them as best as we can over the next several miles, while we continued our regular run/walk intervals.

Soon, the course had us turning left onto 4th Street NE, a short route south before turning right along Memorial Drive, heading westward alongside the Bow River. We were now just coming upon the 9 kilometer mark of the race, and continuing to make do at a fairly decent pace, just before turning left onto the lower deck of the Centre Street Bridge, a historic two-decked bridge that marks the central point of the quadrant system of the city.  Just as we were making our way onto the bridge, we heard a car honk, as the lead vehicle charged with clearing the roadway for the 10K run made their way along the road; the 10K had started half an hour after us, and these runners were 4 miles into their race, averaging 5 minute miles!

Passing by Fort Calgary
We turned left onto Riverfront Avenue SW, still hugging the river, but now beginning the segment of the race through Calgary's Downtown area.  We crossed the 10K mat in 58:21.  The route was momentarily crowded as we made our way along the brick roadway of Confluence Way SE and 6th Avenue SE - the half, marathon, and ultra runners averaging 9+ minute miles on the left, with the 10K runners speeding past on the right at 5-6 minute pace. It just so happened this was also a section of the race with lots of spectators, particularly supporting charity runners as this was the Scotiabank Charity Block Party!  At the end of the road, we passed Fort Calgary once again (to our left) and then turned right.  We headed past Studio Bell and then took the short downhill back onto Olympic Way SE under the train tracks.

11th Avenue SE
As the road started to trend uphill, we turned right onto 11th Avenue SE heading west, beginning our first long straight away, about 5K long. I kept a nice regular pace, running alongside the 4 hour pacer who was keeping to a 10 min/1 min interval. Febry decided to stay with them, but we were never too far apart from each other, as it turned into a game of leapfrog for a little while. It was also a little windy along this stretch, as some light cumulus clouds started to roll in - so I was thankful to have decided to wear my longsleeved shirt to keep warm. The entire time we were just south of Downtown, with the city's notable skyscrapers just a few blocks away from where we were running.

Just after the 14 km mark, we turned right onto 14th Street SW, heading north toward the Bow River.  After passing underneath a few overpasses, we crossed over the Mewata Bridge as it became 14th Street NW.  We were back on the other side of the river, but now in the trendy neighborhood of Kensington, a lively area with many independent shops and restaurants.  We turned right onto Kensington Road NW, right through the center of this bustling commercial area, passing a Taiko group drumming a good beat for us as we made our way back down onto Memorial Drive.  We curved our way down onto Memorial Drive along 10A Street NW, right past the entrance to Modern Steak, our dinner venue from the night before, to the junction where half marathoners were directed to turn left, but marathoners and ultramarathoners would turn right to a considerably thinned out crowd.

Marathoners alone on Memorial Drive
Now 16 kilometers in, we began the long trip westward, eventually leading to a turnaround point. At this point, Kyann and Yvonne had carried on past Febry and I, as did the 4 hour pacer; so we maintained our solid pace as best as we could.  This was also the start of a very gradual 100 foot ascent -- for the ultra marathoners, at least -- where we wouldn't reach the highest point of our race course for another 14 kilometers, at that particular turnaround point.  From the 16th to the 19th kilometer, we'd be running alongside the Bow River, as Memorial Drive became Parkdale Boulevard NW, heading into the neighborhood of Parkdale, a residential area dominated by 1950s style bungalows. We veered slightly onto 3rd Avenue NW, as it passed through the neighborhood's main commercial artery which became Bowness Road NW, eventually reaching the 20 km mat in 1:57:19.   Shortly thereafter, we passed by some stiltwalkers, one of whom I jokingly passed between the legs of.  Though there was no half marathon (21.1 km) mat, I can imagine based on our pace that we managed to pass the halfway point at around 2:03.
Stiltwalkers on Bowness Road NW
Meeting Pippa!
We made our way underneath the Trans Canada Highway, passing a small cloverleaf interchange as we entered the heart of a quiet residential neighborhood called Montgomery.  It was quite nice through here on 19th Avenue NW as we were cheered on by residents out in front of their yards.  By then, we were asked to move to the right side of the road, as the fastest runners for the marathon were starting to come our way, some 9 kilometers ahead of us.  A group of flag spinners joyously entertained us as we passed their station in front of a senior center.  The route then zigzagged its way up toward Bow River once again, but just before our last turn, I spotted a spectator with a corgi cheering along the route!  I forced Febry to stop as I stooped down to get a photo with Pippa, who I later learned was barely a year old and was born in Kansas!  We continued on, getting onto the sidewalk and then crossing the John Hextall Bridge, a pedestrian steel truss footbridge with wooden decking that crossed over the Bow River.  Having seen a Calgary corgi, my day was made.

John Hextall Bridge
But there was still more running to go!  We were now in the neighborhood of Bowness, a former town that was amalgamated into the expansive city of Calgary in 1964.  In fact, the founder of the community was the bridge's namesake John Hextall, a landowner who developed his nearly 2500 acres of ranchland in the early 20th century into a garden suburb for the wealthy that didn't take off until thirty years after his death in 1914, after World War II.  We ran along Bowness Road NW northward, up until the road veered left and then curved toward the natural gridlines of the neighborhood. Some of the residential gave way to a gradually commercial area, and this part was slightly underwhelming, and not as highly spectated.

Bow Crescent NW
We veered right onto 67th Street NW, taking us up to Bow Crescent NW, running down a residential road that was largely undermaintained (read: full of cracked asphalt and potholes) compared to the roads we had been running on.  It started to become slightly gravelly as well.  Eventually, we realized that the marathon turnaround point was nearing, as runners who had passed us along the way were coming toward our direction, including Yvonne and Kyann.  Febry and I had stayed together all this way, some 26.5 kilometers, and this was where I left her to continue on my last roughly 2.5 extra miles before I made my turnaround.  I wished her well, and continued on, as I was directed to a narrow paved sidewalk as part of the Bow River Pathway, weaving its way through the trees.
Much more lonely on the Ultra route, as we go along the narrow sidewalk...
Welcome to Bowmont Park
Bagpiper in Baker Park
It was much more lonely out here, as we progressed down the pathway deeper into the woods. Hugging the Bow River once again, we were now in the 470 acre Bowmont Park, a natural environment park that was absolutely beautiful to run through, an area that felt completely different to the more urban and residential surroundings we had been running through for the last 30 kilometers.  The pathway undulated up and down somewhat, but never too much - eventually, the pathway made its way into an open clearing, into Baker Park. Here, we encountered more spectators (and even a bagpipe player), but moreso people who were just out enjoying the park on this beautiful morning.

The Stoney Trail NW Bridge
We continued on, with the river to our left and an expanse of trees to our right; eventually, the Stoney Trail NW bridge over the Bow River came into view, and our realization that there was a pedestrian bridge underneath the tall concrete expanse.  After passing some water treatment facilities, we made our way across the Bow once again, taking the meandering pathway through Bowness Park. The turnaround point was not too far inside, and once there, we were given a special branded slap bracelet to prove reaching this point, before turning right back and continuing back the way we came. It was just a little after 10am by this point, just over three hours into the race, and just under 30.5 kilometers run -- so under a half marathon left to go. It had warmed up a bit from the morning, now somewhere in the mid to high 40s.
Tall trees near the turnaround point
Loving the bridges over the Bow River
It definitely began to warm up a bit over the next hour, as my intervals had spread a bit thinner, and I was taking more walk breaks. I was appreciative of some of the aid stations in the ultramarathon extension of the course to carry sponges, as I used one to wipe the sweat off of my forehead, which was dripping into my eyes to cause them to sting. I finally got back to the point where I separated from Febry, now close to 35 kilometers in, and began the long slog back on the city streets toward downtown Calgary.  I had caught up to a few marathoners on the return trip back, but for the most part, it was pretty lonely out there - and a majority of the spectators had all but left. By 11, it had warmed up into the 50s, and was still climbing. I reached the 39 kilometer mark, and was only three kilometers away from completing the marathon distance -- but still had eight more to go after that. It was then I realized - hmm, my marathon time could very well be under 4:30, which made a 50K finish time potentially be as much as a full hour under my 50K PR.  Still, with as much running as I had left, I needed to keep in mind that the temperatures were rising and I was getting increasingly tired.

Marathon distance done.  8K to go!
We were back on Parkdale Boulevard NW when we finally reached the 42K mark, and for the ultramarathoners, we had a mat perfectly situated at that point in order to get a split time.  Seeing it in front of me, I gunned it and sprinted across the mat, crossing in 4:26:14, a blazingly fast time for me. The marathon time alone would've been (at that point in time) my second fastest lifetime marathon, only four minutes off of my Queens Marathon PR set in April 2019. Still I soldiered on... 8 kilometers left to go!

Spotting the Peace Bridge
The road diverged slightly as the route took what normally are the eastbound lanes of Memorial Drive NW as we retraced our steps alongside the Bow River.  These kilometers, though, felt like the longest EVER. Taking frequent walk breaks by then, the temps had reached a solid 56 or 57 degrees, and I felt like I was burning up. We passed the point where we had turned onto Memorial Drive over three hours earlier, this time continuing along the bends of the Bow River's north bank, as we ran through the neighborhood of Sunnyside. The Santiago Calatrava-designed Peace Bridge, resembling a Chinese finger trap, was to our right, with the skyscrapers of downtown Calgary in full view.  Soon, the 5:15 50K pacer passed me, and unfortunately I couldn't really keep up.  I kept him within my sights as best as I could, though, but he disappeared the closer we got to the turn onto the Centre Street Bridge for the second and last time.  Less than three kilometers left to go, and these were going to be familiar streets.

Only 2K left!  Come on Jim!
I was on the bridge when my watch hit the 5 hour mark which meant it was noon. I knew then that I could finish this race under 5:30, one of my major goals of the race. The final race of the weekend was the 5K Family Walk and Run, an out and back along the same final 1.5 miles of course that the 10K, half, full, and ultra runners were running, which started at noon. Despite the Calgary Marathon offering "The Roundup" challenge where we'd be able to earn two medals (for the 5K and Ultra) that fit together to make one super medal, I knew full well I wouldn't make it back to even start the 5K on time.  By the time I hit the 48K mark, I was on the course for the 5K, and the fastest runners began to blaze towards me, eventually making their turnaround and speeding right by me as I took my frequent walk breaks.  It made the roadway fairly crowded, but much more lively, especially when we passed the charity block party on 6th Street SE - a welcome change to how desolate it had been on Memorial Drive for so many hours.

Finally back in Stampede Park
It was just under 5:15 when I passed the corner adjacent to Studio Bell for the final time, now less than a kilometer away from the finish line. The straight shot along Olympic Way SE took us back into the Calgary Stampede onto Stampede Trail, past the Scotiabank Saddledome, and into the Grandstand.  By then, the course was separated out - a finish lane for the 5K, and a finish lane for the marathon and ultramarathoners. I crossed the finish in 5:23:02, over 56 minutes faster than my previous and only other 50K time at the Cowtown Ultra in Fort Worth, Texas back in February.  I was a different athlete then - somehow, in three months time, I improved my fitness, and improved it pretty drastically!

Ringing the PB Gong!
One of the fun benefits of the finish line festivities is the PB Gong, which I gleefully went up on stage to bang! I then went through the finish chute and found my way toward the courtyard in front of the Grandstand, making my way to a mural on the outside wall of the Stampede Corral, which I saw near the start and finish of the race.  I found a fellow runner who gladly obliged to take my headstand photo for me at this spot, before I scampered back over the skybridge at the Calgary Transit Stampede station to head back to my Airbnb for a much needed shower.  After I cleaned up, Febry, Leo, and I would drive off to Banff to explore the Canadian Rockies for the next two days.

Finished!  I look so DONE with that race, haha!
(Photo courtesy of the Scotiabank Calgary Marathon)
A medal and a slap bracelet!
Victory Headstand at the Stampede!
Off to Banff!
Except it didn't go as smoothly as anticipated; the lockbox keeping the key to the apartment was stuck, and I struggled to get it open; after getting in touch with my host (who was stuck across town and couldn't get back to the apartment in a timely manner due to the road closures for the race), he was able to contact his roommate who let me in.  We left Calgary a little later than we hoped, but we were off to Banff!

The charming town of Banff
With Leo driving the hour and a half out there, the Canadian Rockies, which had been hidden under a veil of clouds for the last couple days, finally came into view.  And they were quite majestic; soon we were in the town of Banff, where we checked into the the Canalta Lodge, which Febry and Leo had booked for us for the night. After dropping off our bags, we set off to enjoy the area as best as we can.  Banff National Park is Canada's oldest national park and is humongous, encompassing some 2,564 square miles of mountainous terrain.  With only a couple days to enjoy, I curated an agenda for us to maximize our sightseeing to see the must-see sights over our time there.

Overlooking Peyto Lake
Already well into the afternoon and wanting to take advantage of the sun while we still had it, we decided to go to the furthest point out first, having us drive 100 kilometers away to the lookout at Peyto Lake, a glacier-fed lake famed for its bright blue color during the summer months. It gets its color from the large amounts of glacier rock flour that flow into it at that time of the year. Being that it was May, and the summer was just beginning, the lake was still partially frozen. The area still had a nice blanketing of snow, and from the parking lot we had a 3/8 mile uphill hike through patches of snow in various states of melt to the lookout point.  We were some 6,840 feet above sea level on the highest part of the Icefields Parkway, the watershed divide between the Bow and Mistaya Rivers.  Coming back down was scary... this was SO not easy in tractionless running shoes... and it was COLD!  Still, it was totally worth it... this became our first of multiple photo shoots between Febry and I with our hard earned Calgary Marathon medals!

Snow in Canada in May!  And with tractionless running shoes!

Lake Louise
We then drove south to Lake Louise, world famous for its turquoise reflective lake surface and the Victoria Glacier, the soaring mountain acting as it’s backdrop. Like Peyto Lake, the turquoise color of the water comes from the rock flour carried into the lake by melt-water from its glacier. Though partly still frozen, the setting was still a fantastic one for a mini photo shoot, just as the sun was about to hide behind the adjacent mountaintop. On the lake's eastern shore was Fairmont's Chateau Lake Louise, one of Canada's grand railway hotels. Also nearby was Moraine Lake, only 14 kilometers away; but the we were just a week shy from the opening of the road leading to it.  Besides, we wanted to get back to town before sundown, since we didn't want to be driving on these mountain roads with all sorts of wildlife running about.  That night, we headed to dinner at The Grizzly House, a famed local institution, serving fondue and meats grilled on hot rocks in a lodgelike setting. After the Neufchâtel cheese fondue, our waiter brought a flat rock to the table, heated to a whopping 300°F. Each rock gets its own schmear of garlic butter, then we were free to grill our meats - in this case beef, chicken, venison, buffalo, and wild boar, to our hearts’ content. For dessert, we enjoyed some chocolate fondue!  It was a perfect way to end our last night in Canada, since we were all flying back to our respective homes the following night.

Enjoying the Banff Upper Hot Springs
Early the next morning, we woke up early to head to the Banff Upper Hot Springs just as it was opening on Monday morning, to beat whatever potential morning rush crowd could arrive.  These springs are a historic spa and bathhouse against the backdrop of spectacular alpine scenery. Within an hour of arriving, it got pretty crowded, so our timing was perfect! After leaving, I needed to dry out my bathing suit, so it had it hanging out the window to air dry for a bit as we drove to our next destination - which got a few questioned looks from other drivers as we drove through town!

Johnston Canyon
We then headed 40 minutes away to Johnston Canyon, one of the most popular and easy day hikes in the park. Only a little over 1 km in each direction, the trail begins immediately behind Johnston Canyon Resort. After a short climb through the forest, it descends and stays close to Johnston Creek. Along the way, the trail passes over iron catwalks attached to the canyon walls; underfoot, the turbulent waters of the creek flowed. As we neared the falls, we could hear the rush of water before actually seeing it. Once it came into view, a bridge across the creek served as a viewpoint, and a short (and wet) tunnel through the canyon bedrock allowed passage to an even more intimate vantage point. There were further points ahead to be able to hike to, but we had a schedule to keep, so we decided to head back to the car and go on to the next spot!

What a view from Two Jack Lake!
Another 40 minutes away along the Bow Valley Parkway are the adjoining lakes of Lake Minnewanka and Two Jack Lake. For over 100 centuries, people have camped and hunted along the shores of these two lakes. Fed by the Cascade River, Lake Minnewanka is 13 miles long and 466 feet deep, making it the 2nd longest lake in the mountain parks of the Canadian Rockies (the result of a power dam at the west end), but the largest in all of Banff National Park. Two Jack Lake is a much smaller lake just a short drive from the parking lot for Lake Minnewanka, named after two men named Jack: Jack Stanley, who operated a boat concession on lake Minnewanka at one time; and Jack Watters, who worked for the mines in Bankhead, a town which flourished at the base of Cascade Mountain just after the turn of the century. We enjoyed the cool blue waters of these two lakes, and even braved a barely-above-water stone path to an island in Two Jack Lake for a fun photo op!

Bow Falls
Before we left town, we visited two more sites within the town of Banff. Cave and Basin National Historic Site, considered the birthplace of Canada’s national parks system, was founded in 1885 in an area with its thermal waters from the sulphurous hot springs on the flank of the aptly named Sulphur Mountain. It is notable as the habitat for the Banff Springs snail, an endangered species that is only found in this specific area, and has adapted to life in thermal springs where the water is low in oxygen and high in hydrogen sulfide, an environment too harsh for most animals to survive in. Many of the early structures here were built by detainees held at a World War I Ukrainian Canadian internment camp located nearby. The camp held citizens of countries with which Canada was at war with at the time, and had a significant Ukrainian contingent. Addressing this, an informative permanent exhibition about Canada's historical internment operations was opened at the Cave and Basin site. Also part of this area is a unique marsh habitat, with waters flowing from the caves down to the Bow River, offering fantastic birding opportunities and excellent views of the surrounding mountains.  Our last stop out of town was the Bow Falls, a major waterfall on the Bow River, located near the Banff Springs Hotel.  Of course, our trip would not be complete without a photo with the Banff sign at the edge of town; after asking some other tourists who had the same idea to take our photo, we jetted off, heading back to Calgary.
The Banff side at the edge of town
Ginger Beef
With my flight leaving quite late that night, essentially a redeye heading east to Toronto before transferring to the early morning flight getting me back to New York, we stopped into Dragon Gate Restaurant, a Chinese restaurant in the residential neighborhood of South Calgary. It’s not what you’d expect as a big food “draw," but Ginger Beef, considered a true Chinese Canadian dish, was first invented here in the 1970s. It consists of deep fried strips of beef coated in a dark sweet sauce that is reminiscent of other Asian sauces based on vinegar and sugar. It also contains flavors of ginger, garlic, and hot peppers, and is commonly served with a small amount of julienned carrots and onions in the sauce. Today, the dish is considered an important part of culture in Calgary and this part of Canada. We were taken by surprise by the portion sizes at Dragon Gate, which came recommended by Reddit users naming their favorite spots for this fish; after ordering other dishes (green beans with chicken in a black bean sauce, ma po tofu, and the Dragon Gate special fried rice), we were a bit skeptical with how much we’d be able to finish, but still ate most of these dishes before needing to “doggy bag” what was left.

After my two flights home, with a super early morning arrival into Toronto (and beating the rush of travelers connecting into the US PreBorder Clearance area!) I made it back to New York on Tuesday morning, and stopped home to drop off my bags before heading to the office.  I was happy with a new 50K PR, lots of great memories after visiting some family and a fascinating part of the world, and the fact that I'd only be at work for three days that week; late Thursday night, I'd be off to Europe again for the Stockholm Marathon, taking another Friday off!

Tuesday, February 11, 2020

Race Report: Tet Riga Marathon

To recap how I decided to do this double, it was back in January of 2019 when I started to do research on a few European races, looking at some double marathons on consecutive days when I found the option of doing a Helsinki, Finland/Riga, Latvia or Helsinki, Finland/Copenhagen, Denmark double. It was going to be two marathons, two days (in actuality, all within 24 hours), in two countries.  A rather logistically challenging feat, but one that could be done.  However, because of the late start of the Helsinki race, I wouldn't be able to make in time back to the airport for a flight to either of the second destinations on Saturday, meaning I'd have to look at options for a "first thing in the morning" flight on Sunday.  SAS had a flight to Copenhagen and AirBaltic a flight to Riga; the Copenhagen flight would land only an hour before its race start, the Riga flight two hours before its race start.  I inquired with fellow world traveling marathoners in the Marathon Globetrotters Facebook group, asking about the reliability of AirBaltic, the flag carrier of Latvia, which I didn't know too much about, and then ultimately decided on that combination for the weekend. The two hour cushion gave me more assurance in case of flight delays or other hindrances.

A completely empty plane!
So, when we last left off, I had just finished the Helsinki City Marathon in Helsinki. With a rather unique start time of 3PM, I finished 4 hours and 39 minutes later, before 8PM local time.  After waiting for friends to finish, I got a train back to my hotel, the Hilton at Helsinki Airport, where I decided to stay because of my very early morning flight the next morning to Riga. By the time I got back to the Hilton, it was nearing 9pm, and with my impending 5:30am flight, I quickly packed everything up and forced myself to sleep.  I woke up at 3:30am, more than enough time for me get dressed for the race underneath some sweats, walk over to Terminal 1 without feeling rushed, and got through security quickly, ready to get on the flight to Riga on time. After passing through the boarding door, the jet bridge quickly took us downstairs to an awaiting bus that drove us out to the AirBaltic plane flying us on the 45 minute flight.  I would run into my friend Paul, who I had spoken with about this trip, but wasn't sure if he was going to attempt to do the same - it turns out, he would!  We sat together on the short flight which had barely 20 people on board; the flight was virtually empty.  We'd arrive early into Riga (before 6:30), with more than enough time to get a cab into the old town to prepare for the marathon start at 8:40 that morning!

I had read that while there was no Uber in Riga, there was Bolt, an app formerly known as Taxify, that could be used to book a cab in a similar way, which was the same app I used when I was in Malta. Upon leaving the airport, Paul and I were easily able to get one of those cabs, and for €6.90, we were in Riga's historical centre, known as Vecrīga (literally "Old Riga"), where the cab had brought us within a short distance of my hotel, the Hotel Justus.  The cab driver was a little concerned with getting into Riga because of road closures due to the marathon, but having researched on the Riga Marathon website, the Akmens Bridge was going to be open for cars getting into the old city, but not out, at that early hour. It was 7am, and I still had more than an hour and a half before the race would start.  After dropping my bag, I went to pick up my bib from my friend Bernadette's hotel, just across Cathedral Square (Doma laukums), where she had left it with the concierge.  I still had quite a bit of time to spare, so I headed back to my hotel and used the time to upload some photos from the Helsinki part of my trip using the hotel's WiFi, before heading out to the November 11th Embankment (11. novembra krastmala) for the race start.

The start line!
It was a beautiful morning in Riga with temperatures similar to that in Helsinki the previous day, as half marathon and marathon runners began to assemble on the street prior to the race.  We were located right next to the Daugava River, the river that flows right through the center of Riga, which we'd be crossing multiple times over a number of bridge crossings in the city. The atmosphere was electric; the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF), international governing body for athletics, had just named the 2019 edition of the Riga Marathon as a Gold Label Road Race, the first Northern European marathon to join the league of the world's most prestigious races, which includes Berlin, Tokyo, New York, Prague, Amsterdam, Vienna among many others. In 2018, only 36 marathons worldwide were allowed to use the IAAF Gold Label (of which only 11 were in Europe).  Prior to this year, the race spent six consecutive years as a Bronze Label Road Race. The race has been around since 1991, and is one of the fastest growing marathons in Europe.

Bernadette and I at the start
With some great music pumping up the crowd, announcements were made in Latvian, with a few in English as well; but it was truly an international race, as they spent a bit of time welcoming runners from the many different countries being represented in that morning's race, saying a phrase or two in their native language.  I ran into my Bernadette while waiting for the race to start, thrilled to be able to see her and thank her for helping me with getting my bib, as I wasn't sure if I was going to be able to see her at all over the weekend. Shortly thereafter, we were off, heading north along the wide multi-lane road.  I ran alongside a group of rather cheerful Spaniards as the route ran alongside the Daugava, turning into Eksporta iela, before veering right onto slightly narrower treelined Elizabetes iela.  All the while, the route was quite crowded, with many runners jockeying for position.  The legs were doing fine, but I was running noticeably slower than the day before.
Treelined Elizabetes iela
The Three Star Tower in the distance
We eventually turned right about 1.25 miles in, turning onto Krišjāņa Valdemāra iela, Riga's main street, passing by a number of beautiful Art Nouveau buildings, including the Latvian National Museum of Art (Latvijas Nacionālais mākslas muzejs), the Art Academy of Latvia (Latvijas Mākslas akadēmija), and Latvian National Theatre (Latvijas Nacionālais teātris).  As we continued down the street, we could Riga Castle's (Rīgas pils) prominent Three Star Tower piercing the air.  The road shifted slightly, and all of a sudden, the 358 foot tall concrete pylon of the Vanšu Bridge (Vanšu tilts) came into view.

The leaders of the race!
We began to ascend the bridge's span, making our way past Riga Castle, as the pylon became the dominant figure directly in front of us.  We hit the second mile of the race as we made or way over, passing by its array of cables, which were each covered by an entanglement of barbed wire, in order to prevent people from attempting to climb them. As we made our way over the span, I took advantage of the slight downhill, as we made our way down an offramp onto the neighborhood of Ķīpsala, on the same named island, on the left bank of the Daugava. The route took us up Ķīpsalas iela, the main road of the island, as faster runners began to make their way toward us, having completed the loop on the north end of the island.  We were largely surrounded by a mix of traditional and more modern residential buildings as we made our way further north. After turning right onto the slightly uphill Enkura iela, and then left onto Ogļu iela, I hit the 5K mat in just under 34 minutes, quite a bit slower than yesterday.  And within that amount of time, the temperatures already felt like they were beginning to warm up.
Vanšu Bridge before the 5K mark
Quiet residential area on Ķīpsala Island
It was pretty narrow as we made our way up this street, before turning onto a small street where an aid station was located, then turning left onto Matrožu iela, curving its way to Zvejnieku iela, which eventually became Ķīpsalas iela making our way back toward the road coming off of the Vanšu Bridge. When we got back to Krišjāņa Valdemāra iela, we veered right, taking the onramp back onto the wide four-lane street, continuing westward.  Faster runners were coming back along the other side of the street, which was separated by a metal barricade, which only meant the turn around point (which was not immediately visible), was not too far away.  Looming over us to our left were a pair of 30-story cylindrical towers, a high rise luxury condominium known as Z Towers.

Back across the Vanšu Bridge!
The route took us back over the Vanšu Bridge, giving us our first real view of the Riga skyline, with all of the old town's church steeples being beautifully lit by the morning sun. After crossing the bridge, we continued along Krišjāņa Valdemāra iela, passing by a legion of camouflage-clad men and women, sporting badges from various countries, actively manning an aid station for the runners.  This was also where I noticed that in the four aid stations we had passed so far into the race, each one of them not only had water and energy drink, but also LOTS of bananas and oranges (some even so largely cut, they were hard to bite!)  It was then I realized... it helps to have one of your race's major sponsors be THE major supermarket retailer in the country, Rimi Baltic.

The most festive part of the race!
We turned right onto Zigfrīda Annas Meierovica bulvāris, the first boulevard of Riga, which ran alongside the City Canal (Pilsētas kanāls), the city’s old moat, which once protected the medieval interior from invaders.  We would be on here just for a short period of time, passing a couple of the beautiful canalside parks.  Along the way, we crossed the 10K mat - for me, in about 1:08 - before we reached Freedom Square (Brīvības laukums). Locals dressed in traditional Latvian dress were dancing and cheering on the runners as we ran by, giving out high fives as they stood on platforms above the runners.  In front of us was the Freedom Monument (Brīvības piemineklis), a 138 foot tall memorial honoring soldiers killed during the Latvian War of Independence, an important symbol for the country, and often serves as the focal point for public gatherings and official ceremonies in the country.  So it was fitting to have it be a prime centerpiece for the race!
The Freedom Monument
Nativity Cathedral
As we ran past the monument, we were on Brīvības iela, the central street of the Latvian capital.  Historically, the street was the beginning of an important trade route, and now we were running along it on as an out-and-back. Along the way, we'd pass the Nativity Cathedral (Kristus Piedzimšanas pareizticīgo katedrāle), the main Russian Orthodox cathedral in Riga; the Palace of Justice (Latvijas Tiesu pils), home of the Supreme Court of Latvia, of the Cabinet of Ministers of Latvia and the headquarters of the Ministry of Justice; St. Gertrude Old Church (Vecā Svētās Ģertrūdes Evaņģēliski luteriskā baznīca), the parish church of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Latvia, long associated with Riga's German ethnic community; and the bright yellow and green St. Alexander Nevsky Church, a wooden church originally constructed in the 1820s.  Some of the city's notable Art Nouveau style architecture could be seen along this street as well, which we ran along clear to Stabu iela and the "Corner House," a former building of the KGB of the Latvian SSR during the second Soviet occupation of Latvia, now home to an exhibition on the KGB operations in the country, as part of the Museum of the Occupation of Latvia.
St. Gertrude Old Church
Laima Clock
House of the Black Heads
We returned along the other side of the road past the Freedom Monument past the Laima Clock (Laimas pulkstenis), a landmark advertising local chocolate brand Laima that has been known as a meeting place since it was erected in 1924, so people wouldn't have an excuse for being late to work.  We then crossed the street over to Kaļķu iela, a cobblestoned street running right through the middle of the busy old town of Riga.  Barricaded to give us exclusive access to the road, we made our way through as the pavers changed from smooth to slightly uneven,and emerged at the Rātslaukums, Riga's Old Town Square, as we passed Riga City Hall (Rīgas dome) and the House of the Blackheads (Melngalvju nams), the landmark, Gothic style building, once home to a guild for merchants, shipowners and foreigners, and now a fascinating museum.

Akmens Bridge and the National Library
Once we reached the riverside, we finally left the cobblestones behind, but now crossed the Daugava River once again, this time over Akmens Bridge (Akmens tilts), making our way across the span and rounding the offramp onto AB dam, a dam built in the 1880s to save Riga from excessive flooding.  The dam was rebuilt in the 1960s after thwarted attempts to blow it up and now serves as a backdrop for international concerts, festivals and community activities. We ran along its length, making our way past a monumental flagpole bearing a huge 20 meter x 10 meter Latvian flag, with its distinctive carmine red bands surrounding the central band of white. We reached the 15K mat in just under 1:40, as we made our way down the length of the dam, and now under the Akmens Bridge.

Mūkusalas iela, with the TV tower
Now running south along Mūkusalas iela, the road along the Daugava River's western shore, we made our way past a very modern building, the National Library of Latvia (Latvijas Nacionālā bibliotēka), built by renowned Latvian architect Gunnar Birkerts in 2014.  The building's design evokes a "crystal mountain," symbolizing the height of achievement – something not easily attainable but full of rewards for those who make the commitment to reach its peak. As we continued down the flat road, the heat began to take its toll on us, reaching the 70s.  We could see the easily recognizable Riga Radio and TV Tower (Rīgas radio un televīzijas tornis), situated on Zaķusala Island, the massive 1,207 foot tall tower that is the tallest in all of the EU, but the third tallest in Europe (less than the Ostankino Tower in Moscow, Russia and Kiev TV Tower in Kiev, Ukraine)

Krasta iela, heading north
Eventually, we made our way up a ramp toward the roadway taking us across another bridge, the Salu Bridge (Salu tilts), which first crossed over Lucavsala Island and its largely pastoral surroundings, and eventually over Zaķusala Island.  As we were running along one side of the multi lane road, the other side was already choked with busy traffic, additionally dealing with some mundane road construction providing for a rather dusty environment as we made our way across the river. When we finally made it back to the east bank of the river, we made our way down the ramp to Krasta iela, one of the largest streets in the city, heading north back toward where we had started. After another mile, the half marathoners running alongside us joyfully crossed the finish line, while us full marathoners continued on; I'd reach the halfway point of the race in just over 2:24.  It was a considerably thinner crowd of runners continuing on, along the part of the road we ran early on in the race during the start.
Very lonely on Riga's streets during the second half of the race
The hooklike out-and-back in Skanste
Only a couple other marathoners were in my line of sight in front of me, as we followed Eksporta iela north, passing where we had turned off a couple hours ago near the start of the race, and instead turning left a few blocks north at Hanzas iela, as it skirted the Viesturdārzs park, the oldest park in the city.  We continued east, as we made our way to a long hooklike out-and-back section of the course that would take us to the neighborhood of Skanste, northeast of the city center.  Skanste is known for being one the most modern parts of the city, largely populated by office towers, sports infrastructure complexes and high rise residential buildings.  From Hanzas iela, we veered left onto Skanstes iela, taking the course around past large swaths of land ripe for development, before turning right onto Zirņu iela, right onto Vesetas iela, and then looping ourselves around toward the area's huge Elektrum Olympic Center and Arēna Rīga sports complexes, where our turnaround point was located.  This was one of the most boring parts of the course, devoid of crowd support, and largely put in place to add up the mileage - some 4.25 miles out, and 4.25 miles back.  By the time we returned to Hanzas iela, and made our way back toward the Old Town, we were nearly 19 miles into the race.

One last view of Z Towers in Ķīpsala
Once back near the city center, we turned left onto Pulkveža Brieža iela to bring us back to Elizabetes iela, the 19th mile of the race.  We'd follow familiar streets for the remainder of the race, heading back over the Daugava River along the Vanšu Bridge for the third time, this time with the sun blaring down on us as trudged over the river once again.  We disembarked back onto Ķīpsala, following the same roads we ran down early on in the race, returning back to the bridge span, but now seeing thousands of runners on an out-and-back -- these were the participants in the 10K race that began at 12:30, four hours after our start.  While I was approaching the 4 1/2 hour mark of my race, they were only halfway through theirs, and once we joined them on Krišjāņa Valdemāra iela, we would veer a bit further to our turnaround point past the Z Towers.  The only peace of mind was that I only had three miles left in my race once we reached the turnaround-- and that it wouldn't be so lonely again on the course, as the 10K route would be joining the marathoners all the way to the finish line.
One last crossing of the Vanšu Bridge
Struggling through the 40 km mark
One last crossing of the Vanšu Bridge took us back to through the Old Town, and we were led back toward the Freedom Monument, to follow Brīvības iela for the last out-and-back of the race.  Back through the old town and those perilous cobblestones along Kaļķu iela, and we were within striking distance of our finish line.  I finally crossed with a finish time of 5:23:05.  It was considerably warmer, and I definitely felt the heat take its toll on me over the last two hours of the race.  The temperatures had reached 81° by the time I finished, a marked difference compared to the high 60s in Helsinki the day before. Getting only four hours of sleep between races probably didn't help either!

Local food!
Marathoners were led directly to an exclusive "finishers' lounge" in a cordoned off area near the finish after receiving our medal.  The unique medal was one of the big draws of this race for me; its beautiful design, reminiscent of the arcade game Q*Bert, was created by Latvian artist Artūrs Analts. Per the artist: "I created a medal for each distance with one unifying element: a cube. The cube structure reflects the process - systematic physical and mental work to prepare for the goal. Each cube represents one kilometer, and together they make up the medal’s shape - the distance. The medal is an optical illusion, an impossible journey, as a marathon can sometimes be. The path of this cube can be run in different ways, symbolising each runner’s uniqueness, unrelenting training process and willpower." In the lounge, we were treated to a truly fantastic way to celebrate my Riga Marathon finish... local food!  Prepared for me was oat porridge (auzu pārslu putra) with cowberry sauce (similar to the Swedish lingonberry) - and some buttered rye bread (rupjmaize)!
Showing off my newest bling!
A Victory Headstand with the Vanšu Bridge!
House of the Black Heads ballroom
After getting my headstand photo, fittingly with the Vanšu Bridge in the background (after all, I crossed over it four times!), I walked back to my hotel for a much needed shower and a 90 minute nap! I woke up to grab some food but also explore what I could of Riga before the end of the day, walking over to the House of the Black Heads, originally built in 1334, and checking out its fascinating exhibits on a self-guided tour: the historical cellar, the only original part of the building which survived World War II and the Soviet occupation, housing a wine cellar, a hypocaust (hot air furnace), and several exhibits relating to trading in Riga; the sumptuous grand ballrooms, rich with beautiful paintings (including a ceiling painting, the “Apotheosis of St. Maurice,” considered a masterpiece of decorative and monumental art), crystal chandeliers, and replicas of 19th century chairs and sofas; as well as the historical cabinetry housing silverware and snuffboxes that once belonged to the Brotherhood of the Black Heads, a merchant guild active during medieval times.

Baltic Sea caught pike perch!
Dinner followed, and I headed to Restorans Zila Govs, which touts a more modern twist on Latvian cuisine.  While I prefer more "mom and pop style" food, I was drawn to this restaurant due to its presentation and relative affordability.  It seemed that more restaurants in Riga designed their menus to cater to more "refined" tastes. I enjoyed a version of the national dish, pelēkie zirņi ar speķi, a stew of grey peas with speck. Their version was a yellow pea mash with speck and some toasted rye bread. I followed that with beetroot soup, better known to many as #borscht (though I never caught the Latvian word for it...) and finally, for a main dish, a delicious pike perch fillet, locally caught in the Baltic Sea.

The Cat House
The Three Brothers
I had a bit of time to explore near the restaurant, so I checked out some other local sites such as the the Three Brothers (the oldest dwelling homes in the entire city, dating back to as early as the late 15th century) and the Cat House (with its two cat sculptures, with arched backs and raised tails, on its roof.) Legend has it that a disgruntled tradesman who was not accepted into the Big Guild, built this house and put the cats on it with their tails pointing towards the Big Guild, thus expressing his scorn. I also stopped into a souvenir shop that sold Latvia's national liqueur, black balsam -- supposedly, it’s also a good cold remedy - no wonder it has a very “cough syrup” like taste, especially the cherry variety - and used to treat digestive problems (though there are no epidemiological studies which back these claims up.) I much preferred the cream liqueur version, as it tasted like Bailey's!
Various types of Black Balsam, Latvia's national beverage
What a sunset!
Before the sun went down, I went on a little excursion to find a memorial a little outside of the city center.  While I had an impressive sunset as I crossed the Akmens bridge in a bus headed toward the memorial -- complete with the Swedbank Latvia headquarters (the tallest building in Latvia at 397 feet tall), the nearly 200-foot tall Latvian flag on the AB dam, and the Vanšu Bridge in the distance -- my ultimate destination was quite the sight when I finally reached it.  The Victory Memorial to the Soviet Army (Uzvaras Piemineklis) consists of a tall concrete obelisk adorned with five golden stars symbolising the five years of World War II, with massive bronze statues of Mother Russia and soldiers advancing with their weapons raised on either side. It was erected in 1985 to commemorate the Soviet Army's victory over Nazi Germany in World War II. The flowers surrounding the monument were placed there only a few days before, on May 9, Victory Day in Russia, commemorating the surrender of the Nazi Germany in 1945. The monument remains a controversial subject, as many ethnic Latvians regard it not only as a symbol of Soviet victory in the Second World War, but also of the Soviet re-occupation of Latvia.  It was completely empty when I visited, so I was able to get some really interesting photos - the first time for me to visit a Soviet style monument!  I headed home to crash, and ready to explore for the limited time I had the following morning.
The controversial Victory Memorial to the Soviet Army (Uzvaras Piemineklis)
Riga Central Market
After breakfast, I left my bags with the front desk and checked out, but gave myself ample time to check out more of Riga that I could before catching a cab to the airport.  I walked down to the Riga Central Market, the central and largest market in the city. First opened in 1930, it was the largest and most advanced market in the world, with an area of 72,000 square meters, and is still one of the biggest markets at least on the European continent. Fresh produce, including seafood, meat (mostly pork), vegetables, breads, and cheeses make up much of the market’s haul, which receives upwards of 160,000 visitors on its busiest days.  It wasn't as busy today, but I really enjoyed the atmosphere, and even sampled a bit of the food being sold!

"Stalin's Birthday Cake"
Nearby was the Latvian Academy of Sciences building (Latvijas Zinātņu Akadēmija), located in the Riga suburb of Maskavas Vorstadt. It is the official science academy of Latvia and is an association of the country's foremost scientists. Nicknamed locally with scorn as “Stalin's Birthday Cake,” it was built after World War II between 1951 and 1961, collecting the necessary financing from the newly established kolkhozes (a form of collective farm in the Soviet Union, a component of socialized agriculture) in the former Latvian SSR and – as further expenses increased, collecting the finances as "voluntary donations" deducted from the salaries of the Latvian rural population. The building is decorated with several hammer and sickle symbols as well as Latvian folk ornaments and motifs. The spire was originally decorated with a wreath and a five pointed star, which was removed after Latvia regained independence in 1991.
A view into Old Town from the balcony of the Latvian Academy of Sciences
View toward the Riga TV Tower
Being 354 feet tall, it was the first skyscraper in the republic and was the tallest building in the country until the construction of the Swedbank Latvia headquarters, and at the time, one of the highest reinforced concrete buildings in the world. It is a “cousin” to similar Stalin-era skyscrapers, which were representative of what became known as Stalinist Architecture (sometimes referred to as Socialist Classicism). The architecture of the skyscraper resembles many others built in the Soviet Union and Eastern Bloc countries at the time, much like Warsaw’s Palace of Culture and Science (Pałac Kultury i Nauki), which I visited in April. The view of the Riga cityscape is open for public viewing from its 17th-floor balcony.

Dome Cathedral
One last stroll through Riga’s Old City took me past the Riga Cathedral or Dome Cathedral near my hotel (one of the most recognizable landmarks in Latvia), St. Peters Church, St. James Cathedral, the Latvian National Opera, and more examples of the beautiful Art Nouveau architecture and the quaint cobblestoned streets that bring so much character to this charming city. Before long, my time was up and I had to head to the airport for my flights returning home to New York through London.

Riga Airport has no direct flights to Heathrow, only ones with connections. They do, however, fly to London’s other airports, including an AirBaltic flight to Gatwick (LGW). When I booked my flights for this trip at the beginning of April, I begrudgingly added the RIX-LGW segment, knowing I would have to figure out the Gatwick to Heathrow connection, which could be via taxi or bus (direct, but at the mercy of extremely unpredictable London traffic at rush hour) or via train (through central London). For sheer frugality, I booked a bus fare with National Express, and also a Premium Passport Control (basically “Fast Track” since I'd be exiting the airport in London) for peace of mind.

The closer this travel weekend came, the more nervous I got with that connection, so I decided to use some points on a cheap Lufthansa flight taking me from Riga to Heathrow via Frankfurt. It would leave prior to the AirBaltic flight.  I got to the Riga airport, and got through security fairly quickly with my Lufthansa boarding pass, and proceeded to the Priority Pass lounge. While sitting there, I get a notification that the second segment of my Lufthansa flight, from Frankfurt to Heathrow, was suddenly cancelled. So I decide, “I still have the AirBaltic flight (which leaves two hours after the Lufthansa flight), why not get on that,” so I check in. I get on the phone with Chase to get the Lufthansa flight refunded because of the “short term involuntary change” from Lufthansa. However, they’re unable to process a refund at that moment because it’s 6am in the US, and their Lufthansa agents who could issue them a waiver are not available for several more hours.

Literally 20 minutes before the Lufthansa flight was to leave, I get a notification that I’ve been rebooked on an earlier FRA-LHR flight that leaves me only 55 minutes to connect upon arrival in Frankfurt. I realize that this was totally not going to happen. I headed to the Lufthansa gate to double check with the agents there, and they’re a bit skeptical, too. So, as boarding was happening, I quickly decide to not get on that flight.

Flying home!
I watch the Lufthansa flight leave the gate (mind you, fifteen minutes LATE!) while I wait for the AirBaltic flight to Gatwick.  I board that flight and we end up leaving a few minutes early and arrive in London a few minutes early! Immigration also ends up being a breeze - I didn’t even have to use the Premium Passport Control pass, but I do anyway, since I paid for it. I even get on an earlier National Express bus and traffic is not terrible at all. I get into Heathrow nearly two hours before my flight and after navigating through the terminal and fast track security, I end up being able to spend a good 45 minutes to relax in the Virgin Atlantic Clubhouse, even fitting in a complimentary express facial at the spa, and even a quick bite and a mojito. I got on my flight home to New York on Virgin Atlantic, glad to use one of my Global Upgrade Certificates to upgrade into Business Class... though unfortunately, I'm booked on an A340, one of the airline's oldest planes in its fleet (about 14.5 years old) that didn’t have WiFi, touchscreens or USB ports. The pilot even announced over the PA: "yeah, this plane is being retired in a few months."

Accomplished weekend!
Despite that, the trip home was very comfortable, and I got to make use of the lieflat seats, a delicious catered dinner, and the onboard bar, where I got to drink and socialize with a couple other passengers who were trying to shock their systems back into Eastern time zone!  I came home knowing I accomplished a unique feat: two marathons, two consecutive days, in two countries (Finland and Latvia) and all within 24 hours, from the start of the Helsinki City Marathon at 3pm on Saturday to my finish of the Riga Marathon at 2pm on Sunday!