Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Post Pittsburgh Marathon Post...

So after a day of mini heart attacks watching my wife and kid spend money like drunken sailors at the Premium Outlet stores in Grove City, we headed out in the blindly optimistic search for a hotel room on Friday night. Friday the 13th no less. Miracle of miracles, we found a room in Cranberry, just a few minutes north of Pittsburgh. And that's when I took another leap of faith, or another blind departure from established reason, similar to striking out on a Friday without booking a hotel room. Yes... on the night before the night before the marathon, I had a beer. Well, how could I help it when it was Happy Hour in Cranberry, PA?

So the next morning we struck out for Pittsburgh and got settled into our (pre-booked) hotel (at 9 am... pretty cool that they let us in that early) and headed out for the Dick's Sporting Goods Pittsburgh Marathon Expo.

And what an Expo... there are good expos and crap expos in my extensive experience with these things, and I have to say that this was a very top notch expo. There was a great mix of cheap running clothes, out-of-town run booths, freebie power bar samples, shoe sponsor display area... and lots of well-initiated volunteers. Details, all taken care of, something that impresses the hell out of me.

We wandered the town for the rest of the day, spending a few hours in the Andy Warhol Museum (extremely cool, one of those places everyone should visit), and checking out various other stuff. Mostly we wandered slowly while our kid, who is an obsessed photographer, took tons of pictures, none of which are in this post. Yet.

We had dinner at the Bar Louie in a very neat little shopping area across the river from downtown. The view of the skyline was excellent, and the trains that passed were actually kinda neat. And that's where I did it once more; I had a 20 ounce Dos Equis. After all, it was Happy Hour again. The marathon was going to be interesting...

The start line was a few steps from our hotel. Better than I had even calculated. And the corals were very well designed to make the start orderly. A light mist of rain fell most of the four and a half hours that I was on the course, never too heavy and just noticeable enough to help mitigate the humidity. And as I settled in to find my stride and break out of the crush a bit, I was impressed by the fact that there was a pretty decent band performing close to the start. Very shortly thereafter, another band appeared. Then another. I counted 20 bands in the first 10 kilometres, apparently out of a total of about 60. There were choirs, bagpipes, stand up basses, steel drums (not all together of course)... even a couple of guys on idling Harleys who lit them up like thunder on demand.

I've never seen so many orange slices. There were easily a dozen groups - large groups - of people handing out orange slices. Orange peels covered the pavement in places. There were Skittles dispensing citizens, banana hand outs, countless water stations that were not official water stations...

I've seen kids high-fiving runners before, of course, but not like this. There were kids shaking out their hands from over-high-fiving, but they weren't gonna quit. Hundreds of high fives going on. Countless people shouting themselves hoarse from crowded bars (not a typo, and yes it was early morning)...

This is not to say that this was the first enthusiastic marathon host city I've encountered. This is to say that this was an enthusiasm that said "You want orange slices? We'll bring Florida up here. You want gels? Every couple hundred feet you'll get gels. We're gonna blast this baby out of the park."

So how could I possibly have declined the beer shots at mile 23? Not after the guy who was handing them out with the enthusiasm of a salesman earnestly assured me that it would be good for me. So what other explanation could there be for the noticeable dulling of pain that followed, or the crazy half mile sprint to the end?

And speaking of the finish area... half a mile straight in an open area, lined with wildly cheering mobs. Design geniuses, these course planners are. It was brilliant, right down to the size and space of the finish area and the meeting area outside of it.

So obviously I highly recommend not only the Pittsburgh Marathon but Pittsburgh itself. After all, who could expect a marathon of anything less than excellence when you look at how these folks approach their sports. They go for the win, and they sure as hell pulled this one off with flying colours.

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Las Vegas Marathon 2010

We arrived in Las Vegas a week before the marathon. We executed the strategy exactly as planned: a day trip to the Grand Canyon, some shopping (ok, a ton of shopping, inevitable when you arrive the week following Thanksgiving), and some casino/hotel sightseeing with a minimum of indulgence in food and drink. Importantly, I managed to sync somewhat with the three hour time difference between Toronto and Las Vegas, helpful for being prepared on marathon day.

However, it was tough to be cautious on the walking when there is so much to see and do and so much shopping to be done. So every night my feet were sore, and I was a bit fearful that the marathon would be a bit shaky (even disastrous) as a result. However, I kept focusing on the positive factors, such as the fact that my weight felt perfect, my muscles were absolutely fine apart from the fatigue, and my cardio fitness seemed fine. My training runs in Vegas were fast and effortless. By the way, training runs in a new town are an amazing way to recon the vicinity and were an immense help in finding great spots to check out, routes to drive, access to hotels, etc.

 Our resort space had a kitchen, laundry, etc., so we could cook most of our meals and thus avoid any of the gastronomic risks associated with travel pre-marathon. We soon felt completely at home and I was really psyched about the upcoming marathon. I think the fact that there were so many distractions really helped me stay loose and relaxed leading up to the race.

The expo was incredible. Every aspect of this event, from the sizes of various spaces to the placement of booths was very well done. The fact that I won a pair of Brooks Glycerin 8's sure didn't hurt. The little cafeteria area right in the middle of the expo was an excellent idea that I haven't seen in an expo before, and addresses the fact that many people rush through expos simply because they need to go somewhere to eat.

The following day, Saturday, the day before the marathon, I decided to run the local Vegas Santa Run. It was gloriously chaotic, hilariously variant in the shapes and sizes, ages and fitness levels of the participants. I think we raised a shitload of money for some local charity, so that was good. There was good grub and fun entertainment at the end, so if that 5 kilometres affected the outcome of my marathon... so be it.

The morning of the marathon was a bit chilly, pretty much as expected though, and eventually the temperature rose to the high teens Celsius. Yes, a perfect day to run a marathon. Parking around the start area would be tricky if we chose to drive down, coupled with the fact that I intended to take advantage of the free beer at the finish line, so we walked down. We walked all of the four plus kilometres. That was going to hurt on the return trip, but the beer would ease the pain.

The start time of 7 am meant that the sun was just above the horizon when the race started. I was in corral 14, and there was a little over a minute wait time between the corral releases so I crossed the start line almost 15 minutes after the race began. The race was far less crowded than 30,000 runners and relatively narrow streets would indicate in most runs, so the staggered start certainly helped.

Most of the bands on the route were excellent. the Blues Brothers types at the start were really cool, the Led Zeppelin guys further down the strip gave me goosebumps, and the Jimi Hendrix guy was a real energy boost as well. And yes, Bret Michaels and his band rocked the finish area at the end like only true pros can do. There were so many Elvi running that I don't think they could find a spare to perform.

The course itself was quite flat. Running up the strip, which I had cruised in our rented Mustang convertible all week, was really cool. One of my only regrets is that I didn't take the glass of beer offered by a bum about half an hour into the run since that would have made a great story. I hope someone took him up on it. The guys in the fake leather jackets, hair greased back, holding beers outside a seedy downtown bar at 8 am were another memorable sight.  When the course veered off into Nevadan suburbia, the view changed dramatically with a greater emphasis on the surrounding mountains. Quite a bit of back-and-forth criss cross stuff, but it was all good. Chatted with some fellow runners to pass the time, struck by how many fellow Canadians there were.

I was on a record pace up to around mile 22 when I started to struggle. I felt cold and a bit dizzy, so I took longer walks at the water stations just to ensure I wasn't going to pass out. My shoes were only in their thrid run, having been purchased earlier in the week. They were exactly the same brand and size I always wear, so if anything they were a huge help (Nike Zoom Vomero 5's). I always wear the same socks as well, Nike microfibre things. And again as always I wore the official marathon shirt, which in this case was excellent (some marathons give out shirts with seams and such that cut and chafe). As a result my finish time was 4:21, which is still pretty damned good for me.

Food at the finish area was perfect, the standard stuff which is all I want at that point. Lots of water and carb drink (which I am always thoroughly sick of by the last water station, although I never fail to drink it). The pics  taken with the show girl as you exit the finish area were pretty neat, but I felt sorry for the show girls because they must have been nauseous from the smell of all those runners at that point.

Bret Michaels and his band totally rocked at the finish area. I was impressed. The beer was very good. I couldn't believe how everybody was getting right into the concert considering that they were completely wiped out. Even though they waved and yelled and pumped fists, there were very few feet that left the ground in anything resembling jumps. It just goes to show ya.

The after party at Club XS in the Wynn was excellent. The dancing was crazy, the drinks flowed, and everyone was completely wiped out by ten o'clock. Our waitress was amazing. She was a pretty good server, too. We had a riot with the little bit of energy we had left.

So that was marathon number 15 relegated to history. The bling was thick and heavy, very satisfying. My opinion is that every marathoner should run this one. It's as perfectly seamless as every other operation in Vegas and how can you possibly resist that? 

Besides, there are at least four In N Out burger locations in town, and if you've never had one you simply have lived an unfulfilled life.

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Post Des Moines Marathon Post

Iowa isn't flat. You really need to know that for a whole lot of reasons.

For example, if you're driving to Iowa and you imagine that you're going to level out onto a flat drab pancake of an unending cornfield when you cross the state line from Illinois, you're in for a shock. What you're actually going to see is some of the most picture-perfect rolling hills patchworked with fields that are interspersed with trees and rivers and tidy farms. It can be very startling.

Startling because I (back to first person...) really didn't pay a lot of attention to the elevation chart on the Des Moines Marathon website. I DID go back after the race to see if it was misleading in any way, and to my expletive-spouting dismay, it wasn't. Dismay is such a strong word, so I'll retract that. Dismay at a lack of proper focus, but not dismay at the hills. Because the hills, which just kept on coming without any reprieve until the last few miles, made this marathon a challenge of Himalayan proportions for the unprepared. I like challenges. I like interesting marathon courses. So I loved Des Moines.

Make no mistake, I trained hard and well for this. Maybe not quite enough hills in the prep work, but lots of long runs and short runs, gym work and dietary care.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. The Expo came first, of course. This expo was very well done, like all of the other details of the race. Excellent prices on Gu, and a nice representation of other marathons, cool clothes and such. And Bart Yasso. Bart's little chat was, as always, fun, intense, and irreverent by turns. He sums things up well, as in his answer to a Gel-during-the-race question: 'It's a race, not a picnic.' And his description of the Comrades Race in South Africa was intense.

Fast forward to the actual race. Psychedelic national anthem at the start a la Jimi Hendrix. The bands that were liberally scattered throughout the course were excellent, by the way; one or two were rockin' a little slow, but they were talented and they were into it. I started out fast, strong, confident. As the hills refused to flatten through the first few miles, I found myself keeping pace with a dude from South Dakota named Troy, and we decided to pace each other for as long as it took. Troy was a trooper, confident and strong, and we alternately encouraged each other when things got tough.

My first suspicion that my under-4-hour pace would face a serious challenge was when I saw the beer at Mile 14. Ok, Iowa wrestlers and farmboys, we know you're full of piss and vinegar, but we mollycoddled Easterners need our beer closer to Mile 23. This clearly threw me off.

One unique aspect of the race was circling the track at Drake University around the halfway mark of the race. That was a very cool twist, a change of pace without having to change pace.

I faithfully gagged on my Gu at appropriate intervals, and that was probably what drove me over the finish line eventually. Because by Mile 22 I was tagging along behind Troy on legs that were cramped and collapsing, staggering in the most video-unfriendly manner. But by god I made it in 4:23. And new buddy Troy, god love him, refused to abandon me in the final couple of miles despite my repeated urging. His PR was 4:22, and if he waited on my sorry ass he wasn't going to beat it. He waited on my sorry ass and missed it by a minute. I owe ya one, buddy.

The fine folks who spectated along the route were animated and informed. "Look up! The ground is not your friend!" one guy repeated to all passing runners around Mile 20. "Run Like Diarrhia!" one sign urged. The water stations were manned by alert, energetic folks who really helped to make the miles melt away.

And the route was drop dead gorgeous. One of the city parks we passed through is considered one of the top six city parks in America, for obvious reasons if you see it. The city is uncluttered, small-town unhurried and friendly, and perfect for a marathon. A bit of out-and-back, but nothing too crazy.

The medal was extremely cool. The food at the end was ridiculously plentiful and varied: pulled pork sandwiches, pizza, bananas, etc., etc. I was a staggering mess and managed merely some chocolate ice cream and an apple. (That's Troy in the picture above, by the way.)

So later we went to the Machine Shed Restaurant and ate way too much. That restaurant is so authentic you expect to be called out to raise a barn or something while they prepare your order. Great food, though. Then we went to the Amana Colonies (yes, home of the ranges) which was pretty interesting and strange. 

So yes, clearly I am suggesting that you ought to include the Des Moines Marathon on your list of must-run races. It's a flawlessly executed event in a beautiful city. Do it.

Monday, October 19, 2015

Rocking the Green Mountain Marathon

My wife is a city girl. She has no appreciation whatsoever for the olfactory experience of the rural world. So as we cruised slowly down West Shore Road in South Hero, Vermont, and I told her to watch for the sign for our Bed and Breakfast, the word "Farm" in its title caused an immediate reaction. "No, no, they just CALL it a farm," I said quickly. We approached a small muddy field full of sows, which I started to point out to her would NEVER be anywhere near a Bed and Breakfast... yup, you know it. The pigs were the (unprepped) breakfast.

The B&B turned out to be infinitely relaxing, roomy, and perfectly located for our purposes. A mere couple miles from the start and finish line, right on the course which was a 13 mile out and back along the western shore of the island.

As you can see, the weather on Friday and Saturday was sunny and cool, with a light breeze and perfect running conditions. But the marathon was set for Sunday, leaving plenty of time for the weather to deteriorate. In the meantime, though, we had a great time exploring the narrow back roads, the pretty town of Burlington, the local colour.

We met a couple at the local pub on Friday night who had organized the race for years. They were great folks, and we ended up meeting them on Saturday night at the pasta dinner as well where they introduced us to more locals and made us feel right at home. The pasta dinner was held at the local school and was put on by the Grade 7 and 8 kids as a fundraiser. Impressive job by the kids, great turnout by the entire town.

This being backwoods country, there weren't too many distractions after the pasta dinner, no street lights or rowdy nightclubs or any such craziness. So after meeting our fellow B&B guests, also marathoners, and chatting for a bit, we retired early.

I woke in the middle of the night to a howling wind that sounded like it would rattle the sturdy old farmhouse to an untimely end. This was worrying.

But the day dawned dark, drizzly, and windy. The temperature was around 45F, and the high humidity made it bearable. In fact, the wind wasn't all that bad, maybe 20 mph at times.

We parked about a mile from the start, in a field, and walked up. Once the race started I was able to focus and contend with the elements rationally.

There was a long, steep decline after the first mile, which meant that there would be a long, steep incline at mile 25. The wind was at our backs for most of the first half. In other words, restraint and strict adherence to pace were the name of the game.

The field thinned out appreciably after mile 6 or so when the half marathoners turned around. I referred to my Garmin more than I have done before, forcing myself to stick to a pace that would bring me in around four hours. It worked like a charm, right up to around the last 2 or 3 miles when I struggled to keep running. Another excellent boost was the Hammer gels that I took faithfully.

There weren't many spectators, but the couple who banged their pots and pans at the end of their farm lane, the group that yelled and screamed around mile 6/19, the water station volunteers who were all right on the top of their motivational game... all of them were incredible.

Some of the views along the route were beyond postcard perfect. The colourful trees, the rolling hills, the expanse of dark lake. You have to see it to appreciate it. Absolutely breathtaking.

When I saw how close i was to a PR by mile 20 (my PR was and remains 4:12), I pushed as hard as my cramping legs would go. the pain was becoming intense; various spasms and collapses racked my legs with no rhyme nor reason. But I pushed on, maintaining a steady focus on trying to get a bit of momentum, determined to either PR or come close. And yes, I came in 3 minutes short of my PR, one minute faster than my second fastest time. That worked for me!

These Green Mountain folk know how to celebrate, too. The chili they had for the runners after the race was seriously some of the best chili I've ever had, and that's no mean feat.

So do I recommend this race? Absolutely. Sign up early because it sold out this year. Here's the website link: Green Mountain Marathon

Friday, August 1, 2014

Marine Corps Marathon 2007

The Marine Corps Marathon Expo was huge. This was the biggest marathon event I'd been at to this point, so I was pretty impressed. Still am impressed, by the way; the organization of this marathon is a testament to the hard work of the countless marines who get involved, and obviously to the skill and commitment of the organizers as well.

Loved some of the little touches at the expo such as the Marine Corps motorcycle pictured above. The Marine Corps Marathon is called "The People's Marathon"  and, like a marine, it lives up to the billing. The flyovers of some of the coolest planes in the world at the beginning was worth the price of admission alone. Things like a welcome note from the president of the United States in the participant literature, the wandering Abe Lincoln at the expo, put a stamp on this event. The hills in this one aren't ridiculous, but they do keep the top elite types out of the race, so this emphasizes that it's about the rest of us and about giving it the old boot camp effort. Even the drill sergeant near the end (just before a crazy steep hill that leads up to the finish line) was encouraging, demanding, and, shockingly, smiling.

The Marine Corps Marathon is one of the big ones, and it was the biggest I had run to date at that time. So I was (and still am) impressed by the crowd of runners that never thinned out, and by the unending statues and monuments that I'd only seen on TV or in movies before. The spectators were awesome, but I have to admit I was paying more attention to the monuments. It was an absolutely perfect day, sunny, not too warm, a soft autumn feel to the air.

Two things were not so great about the race. After crossing the finish line, we had to stop for quite a while (over 10 minutes, not sure of the exact time) in a standing crowd bottlenecked to go through food lines. There was no alternative route around, either. I had to sit down or keep moving, and there was nowhere to sit and nowhere to go.

The other negative was the wait for shuttle buses at the end. We waited, no exaggeration, for over 2 hours. Although we had fun chatting to the guy who runs Cooperstown (he ran the marathon as well), we'd have much rather been back at our room.

There was enough Marine involvement to put a clear brand to the event, but at all times everyone was made to feel welcome. I think for me that was the key; all of those huge hulking Marines smiling and totally committed to making sure questions were answered, directions given, water stations run seamlessly. Can't emphasize enough how important that is to the feel of a race, the sense that everyone involved is enthusiastic.
Pictures with a full dress Marine and bulldog at the Iwo Jima memorial at the end was a pretty cool idea that the organizers set up. .

We spent the week following the marathon touring around the Mall, visiting pretty much every museum, the legislature, etc. Touring the Smithsonian was one of the best vacations for me ever. That alone made the trip worthwhile. If the marathon itself totally sucked, it would still have been an enormously satisfying trip. I think everyone should visit this king of all museums; modern Western civilization is all here, endlessly fascinating.

Would I run this one again? Hell yes. I will one day, guaranteed.

Thursday, January 9, 2014

First Toronto Yonge Street 10K

This race wasn't even on my radar before I was talked into signing up for it in 2012. I tend to run very few 10 km races, for one thing. So when a friend whom I had been badgering to start running suggested the Toronto Yonge Street 10k, I reluctantly agreed to run it with him.

See, I had this erroneous idea that running a 10k would somehow screw up my marathon training. After all, I ran ten km training runs three times a week, and longer runs of 20 to 30 km on weekends. What would be the point, right?

So I spiced it up a bit. Stayed at my daughter's place the night before, ran 8 km to the starting line and 5 km back to her place post-race. Made the race part of a long run. I needn't have done that, though, because it was more than enough fun and challenge without that extra mileage.

First and foremost, seeing the excitement and nervousness of my friend at the starting line of his first 10k race was really cool. Talking him down (while also trying to drive him crazy with fear, of course; who said I'm a sympathetic kind of guy??) was loads of fun. And, like every race with a lot of entrants, the excitement and camaraderie of the starting area is always worth the experience.

The Toronto Yonge Street 10k is fast. With a net downhill gradient and a virtually straight beeline down the most famous, most well-known street in Canada, you almost can't NOT get a PR (read that twice). The crowds are impressive in both size and enthusiasm. The weather in mid-April is perfect for a fast race. What's not to love?

So, yes, I gave it all I had and turned in a PR performance. My wife and kid were on the sidelines at about the halfway mark, so it was a great photo op as well. I had one of the most memorable races ever, lots of hoots and hollers and just plain fun running going on all around me. It was a party; runners could just Go For It, unlike the marathons I was accustomed to running in which pacing and control are paramount.

My friend came across the finish line five minutes later, out of breath and ecstatic from his impressive triumph. We hung out for a while with other friends who met us at the finish (and partook of the amazing bagels and other post-run fuel that was better than most marathons offer). And guess what? This focus on speed helped to expand my training focus for my Fall marathon such that I turned in a PR in that baby as well!

I'm excited about running the Toronto Yonge Street 10k in April 2014 in part because it was such a cool experience two years ago. It'll be a challenge coming off a significant injury, which is even better. It also comes at a strategically beneficial time in my training for my Spring marathon this year. Let's get on with the training!



Sunday, December 15, 2013

Running Out of Patience: Waiting Out Injuries

"If you break your neck, if you have nothing to eat, if your house is on fire—then you got a problem. Everything else is inconvenience. Life is inconvenient. Life is lumpy. Learn to separate the inconveniences from the real problems. You will live longer." ~Sigmund Wollman

I've incurred many minor running injuries over the eight years that I've been training and running races. Most of those injuries are common and easily handled. You run less, you stop running for a short period, you get treatment... no biggie. In fact, minor aches and pains incurred by runners are a large part of what runners rap about. Shop talk amongst runners involves liberal amounts of advice and anecdotes that revolve around these issues.

I broke my big toe on August 28th, about six weeks before the Scotia Toronto Waterfront Marathon which I was registered to run. A big toe is a critical part of your running anatomy. And when it's broke, it hurts. My doctor said it would take six to eight weeks to heal. So I figured, during the early days after my injury, and whilst medicated with my own Prescription (light on the Coke, a bit more generous on the Rum), that my triumphant Return to Running would see me crossing the STWM Finish Line somewhat more slowly than originally planned, but nevertheless finishing. After all, I ran a 30 km race six weeks after having my appendix removed, so it couldn't be worse than that, right? Wrong.

Everyone who had broken a big toe knew I was deluded, but didn't slap me in the face with that knowledge. They let me come to that realization myself. I also came to realize that the discipline I had developed in my running regime served me well in this recovery period. I quickly adopted a daily routine at the gym that saw me paying attention to all of those upper body muscles I had neglected as a runner. I could still use the Elliptical Trainer as well after a couple of weeks. In short, I adapted, and it wasn't so bad. The gym made my Runner's Cold Turkey far more manageable.

I practiced patience. We aren't a patient society, and I am not a patient person by nature, so this was an extremely useful exercise. I also came to fully appreciate the supportive nature of the running community of which I am a part; they helped me through it with their inclusiveness and attention. Special mention must be made of the Digital Champion group and the CRS folks from STWM who helped me get through the unhappy experience of not being able to run STWM.

I'm back running now; it took over two months before my first attempt to hobble, and it's been improving slowly. The toe - and entire foot - continues to be painful. And yes, I know the day will inevitably come when I can no longer run. That day comes for everyone eventually. But for me, that day is not today. I plan to have an excellent run on April 13, 2014, at the Toronto Yonge Street 10k, the run that will have me back at full speed, in defiance of the slings and arrows that befall runners.