Sunday, April 24, 2016

My Favorite Bridges

I travel to a lot of races.  Partly, that’s so I can run marathons year ‘round, but mostly, it’s so I can use the races as an excuse to travel.  Running is a great way to see a city.  Most urban marathons courses are designed to take you past the most attractive parts of the city.  It’s like a 26.2 mile walking tour, except you’re able to see everything in three to five hours.

Running also lets you see some of the landmarks from a perspective you might not get if you were in a car.  This is probably most evident when you’re crossing a bridge.  I’ve done a number of races that give you the opportunity to run cross an iconic bridge.  It’s a rare opportunity to run in lanes that are normally reserved for motor vehicles.

I have no idea how many bridges I’ve run across.  I can think of one race where I crossed 15 bridges just in the last 10K.  Here are 10 of my favorite race bridges.  Rather than try to rank them, I’m listing them in the order I ran them.

Verrazano-Narrows Bridge – New York City Marathon

The first time I ran across an iconic bridge was in the first two miles of the New York City Marathon.  The Verrazano-Narrows Bridge connects Staten Island to Brooklyn.  It’s a suspension bridge with a main span of 4,260 feet.  The bridge deck reaches a peak height of 693 feet, making it by far the biggest hill in the race.  Fortunately, you get this one done while you still have fresh legs.

To accommodate all the runners, they have to use all lanes of the upper deck, plus half of the lower deck.  I’ve done this race twice.  The first time, my start group used the eastbound lanes of the upper deck.  The second time, I ran on the westbound lanes of the lower deck.  The upper deck definitely gives you better views.

Your best view of the bridge is while you’re lined up in the toll plaza, waiting to start the race.  Once you begin running, you need to pay attention to the thousands of runners around you, all trying to get off to a good start.

Queensboro Bridge – New York City Marathon

I didn’t have to wait long before running the next bridge on this list.  It was in the same race.  About 15 miles into the New York City Marathon, you begin crossing the Queensboro Bridge, which takes you from Queens into Manhattan.  This bridge is the second biggest hill in the race.  Unlike the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, this one comes far enough into the race that it can wear you down.  More than once, it was on this bridge that I realized I had started too fast.

The first time I did this race, the running surface was a steel grate.  They covered it with a long red carpet to make the surface runnable.  The next time I ran it, we were on pavement.  The pavement is a better surface for running, but I missed the carpet.  It was one of the things that made this race unique.

Bixby Bridge – Big Sur Marathon

The Big Sur Marathon follows scenic Highway 1 along a rocky shoreline on California’s Pacific Coast.  Halfway through the race, you cross the Bixby Bridge.  This is the bridge that’s invariably featured in race brochures.  It’s the crown jewel in a race that’s all about scenery.

There are many races with rock bands paying along the course.  This race features classical ensembles.  When you finish crossing the Bixby Bridge, you’re greeted by a concert pianist, playing a grand piano.

Ambassador Bridge – Detroit Free Press Marathon

About three miles into the Detroit Free Press Marathon, you cross the Ambassador Bridge over the Detroit River.  As you cross the river, you enter Windsor, Ontario.  It’s one of the few races where you get to cross an international border during the race.

Anywhere else, that would be the highlight of the race.  In this race, it’s overshadowed by another border crossing that comes four miles later.  You return to Detroit by running through a tunnel underneath the river.  Later in the race, you run onto an island in the middle of the Detroit River.  This race really lets you experience the Detroit River from above it, below it and within it.

Tower Bridge – London Marathon

The London Marathon is full of landmarks.  In the last three miles alone, you see London Eye, Big Ben, the Houses of Parliament, and Buckingham Palace.  For me, the biggest highlight was Tower Bridge.

When I ran the London Marathon, it was my first visit to London.  I was running on streets I had never seen before, so at times, I didn’t really know where I was.  That allowed the bridge to sort of sneak up on me.  Until you get there, it’s hidden behind buildings.  Then I turned a corner and whoa.  There it was towing above me.  Not seeing the bridge until I was about to cross it made a majestic sight even more impressive.

Later in the day, Deb and I returned to walk across the bridge and see it from all angles.

Golden Gate Bridge – San Francisco Marathon

For years, I put off doing the San Francisco Marathon, because the course didn’t include the Golden Gate Bridge.  I always said if they changed the course to include the bridge, I’d be there in a heartbeat.  Then they did.

You get to cross the Golden Gate Bridge twice during this race.  First, you run from San Francisco to Marin County.   Then after completing a short loop, you run back to San Francisco.  Crossing the bridge twice, gives you lots of views.  Just before the return trip, you get a good view of downtown San Francisco from across the bay.

My favorite part was being able to look straight up and see the red-orange suspension towers reaching up toward the sky.  You can’t get that view in a car.  Well, maybe if it’s a convertible … and someone else is driving … and they drive really slow.

St. John’s Bridge – Portland Marathon

The visual highlight of the Portland Marathon is a trip across St. John’s Bridge.  This bridge is the first of two crossings of the Willamette River.  Before crossing the bridge, you follow the river toward it, giving you a chance to see the whole bridge in profile.  Then you have to climb up to the bridge deck to cross the river.  Fortunately, it’s still early enough in the race, that you can expect to have fresh legs.

Pontoon bridge over the Grand Canal – Venice Marathon

This bridge is only existence for one day each year.  It’s not even there all day.  On the morning of the race, they erect a pontoon bridge across the mouth of the Grand Canal.  As soon as the race is over, they take it down.  They can’t leave it in place, because it blocks boat traffic.

The pontoon bridge is the longest of 14 bridges in the last three kilometers of the race.  That’s what makes the Venice Marathon unique.  You’re running a marathon through a city without streets.

Tromsø Bridge – Midnight Sun Marathon

The Midnight Sun Marathon in Tromsø, Norway, is run mostly on an island, but twice during the race, you cross the Tromsø Bridge.  The bridge is asymmetrical, so each crossing feels different.  In one direction, the climb is gradual; in the other direction, the climb is steep.

This race is run in the late evening, so you can see the midnight sun while you’re running.  As I crossed the bridge for the second time, it was about 10:15 PM.  I could see the sun peeking through the clouds.  I had a strong race, allowing me to finish before midnight, but it never got dark.  The sun was always above the horizon.

Bosporus Bridge – Istanbul Marathon

Istanbul may be the only city on Earth where you can cross a bridge that connects two continents.  It’s certainly the only place where you can do it while running a marathon.

The Istanbul Marathon begins on the Asian side of the Bosporus Strait.  The first thing you do is cross the Bosporus Bridge.  When you reach the other side, you’re in Europe.

Next:  Charles Bridge

In two weeks, I’ll get to add to this list.  I’ll be running the Prague Marathon, which crosses several bridges over Vltava (a.k.a. The Moldau).  The highlight will be Charles Bridge.

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Race Report: 2016 Boston Marathon

In Massachusetts, the third Monday in April is a holiday called Patriots’ Day.  It commemorates the battles of Lexington and Concord, which marked the beginning of the Revolutionary War in 1775.  One of the ways Boston residents celebrate Patriots’ Day is by running or watching the Boston Marathon.

The Boston Marathon has been an annual event since 1897.  It’s sponsored by the Boston Athletic Association and was inspired by the Olympic Marathon held in Athens, Greece in 1896.  Several members of the B.A.A. competed in the 1896 Olympic Games.

I ran my first Boston Marathon in 1991.  I didn’t return until 2012, but I’ve been back every year since.  This year, I ran my sixth Boston Marathon.

Many consider the Boston Marathon to be the Holy Grail of marathons.  It has a 120 year history.  It has a well-known course.  It finishes in a large city and boasts huge crowds.  Numerous elite athletes from around the world travel to Boston to compete against the best.  Since 1970, runners have needed to run a qualifying time in another marathon just to enter the race.  For many, just qualifying is a lifetime goal.  These are some of the reasons I had to run this race the first time I qualified for it.  They’re not the reason I keep coming back.  I come back for the crowds.

There are other races, such as London and New York City, which have bigger crowds.  No other marathon has better crowds.  What do I mean by better?  Boston spectators know this race inside and out.  The two things Bostonians appreciate most are sports and history.  This race combines the two.

Boston spectators know how hard you’ve trained.  They know exactly how you feel at different points along the route.  They know where Heartbreak Hill is and how it got that name.  They won’t ask you how far this marathon is.  They also won’t tell you it’s all downhill from here, because they know there are more hills.  This race is part of their Patriots’ Day tradition.  Whole families come out each year to watch the race, even if they don’t have any friends who are running.  It’s like watching fireworks on the 4th of July.

I began to appreciate the Boston crowds during the 2012 race.  It was unusually hot that year, and everyone came out with hoses, cups of water, ice, and popsicles.  They knew what the runners needed, and they helped us endure the heat.

Each year is different, but in some new way, the people of Boston always impress me.  They’re the reason I keep coming back.

Last September, I agonized over whether or not to register for this year’s race.  I was injured, and I knew I would need to take a break to heal at the end of the year.  After that, I’d need to start training from scratch.  I knew I wouldn’t be in very good shape.  I had to decide if I was willing to shuffle through this race slowly.  I did that in lots of races last year, but Boston is different.  This is a race where you want to bring your best effort.

I eventually decided to register for the race.  It occurred to me that I might not be able to qualify for next year’s race.  Qualifying gets more difficult each year, and I face an uphill battle to regain anything close to my previous level of fitness.  This might be my last opportunity to run this race.  Realizing that, I had to come back one more time.

My last race was the Honolulu Marathon in December.  I hoped I could heal from injuries while still maintaining some minimum level of training.  In early January, I realized I had to take a complete break from running.  In February, I began physical therapy.  I didn’t start training until the first week of March.  That didn’t give me much time to get in shape.

I lost a lot of fitness.  More importantly, my mechanics were horrible, and most of the muscles around my hips were weak.  I’m still working to strengthen them.

I flew to Boston on Saturday.  In past years, I always stayed at a downtown hotel.  This year, they were too expensive.  The best hotel I could find at a reasonable rate was a Doubletree near the University of Massachusetts.  It was near a T station on the Red Line.  I couldn’t walk to Boston Common, but I could get there by train in about 15 minutes.  This hotel also provided free transportation to and from the airport.  I got a discounted rate by booking through Marathon Tours & Travel.

After checking in at Doubletree, I met some friends from Houston at a coffee shop next to Boston Common.  Later, a few of us had dinner at Durgin Park.  Durgin Park is a restaurant that serves traditional New England food, like Yankee pot roast and clam chowder.  I’ve never been to Boston without having dinner there.

Sunday morning, I went to the expo at Hynes Convention Center.  The expo has been at this location for a few years now, so I knew my way around.

It’s not efficient to make multiple trips between my hotel and the downtown area, but the race packet is somewhat unwieldly.  Besides my race bib and T-shirt, it included a thick race program, product samples and a bottle of water.  I didn’t want to lug it around all day, and I especially didn’t want to lose my race bib, so I made a trip back to the hotel to drop it off.

The rest of the day was all about friends and food.  At noon, I went to the finish line on Boylston Street, where Marathon Maniacs were gathering for a group photo.  In Boston, the finish line is a permanent fixture.  You can see it painted on the street all year.  On race weekend, the finish line scaffolding it set up, and one block of Boylston Street is closed to traffic.  The finish line becomes a tourist attraction.  It’s the most popular place for photo ops.

This was my best opportunity to see dozens of friends in the same place at the same time.  I couldn’t begin to count the number of runners I know who were doing this race, but it’s hard to know everybody’s plans.  The finish line is like one stop shopping to see friends from all over.

After the finish line photos, I had lunch at Regina’s Pizza with Gary and Heather.  Then we went to Sola’s Irish Pub, where members of the 50sub4 club were gathering.  Later, I had dinner at an Italian restaurant in the North End with Liznoel and some of her friends from Egypt.

I did a fair amount of walking both Saturday and Sunday.  My hips are still tight, but they’re loosening up.  I think all the walking helped.

Monday was race day.  The Boston Marathon has relatively late start times with the first wave not starting until 10:00, yet you still have to get up early.  There were hundreds of buses to pick up runners at Boston Common and transport us to the athletes’ village in Hopkinton.  Even though my wave didn’t start until 10:25, I was supposed to board a bus between 6:45 and 7:21.

I was conflicted about what to wear for the race.  The advance forecast called for a high of 65, with mostly sunny skies.  For most people, that’s a bit warm, but for me, it would be ideal.  If it was 65, I could wear shorts.  For anything cooler, I would be tempted to wear tights.

Walking around town Saturday and Sunday, I often felt cold, even with a jacket.  Then I saw the forecast had been revised to a high of 59.  Looking at the hourly forecast, I noticed it would be warmest at noon.  By the time I finished, it would be cooling into the low 50s.  I was still planning to wear shorts, but I was nervous about getting cold in the late miles, when I wouldn’t be moving fast enough to keep warm.  After talking to Deb, I made a last minute decision to wear tights.  I knew I risked getting hot, but I wasn’t willing to risk being cold if I had to walk the last few miles.

I left the hotel at 6:45, which got me to Boston Common just after 7:00.  They fill several buses at the same time, but with so many runners, you still have to wait in a long line to board a bus.  The ride to Hopkinton took about an hour.  Some buses go right into the start village.  Others drop you off at the bottom of a long hill.  With so many buses dropping off runners at the same time, they can’t all drop off in the same place.

The athletes’ village is at Hopkinton High School.  The first time I did this race – when it was only about a quarter of its current size – we were able to wait inside the school building.  Now there are too many runners for that.  They set up a few large canopies on the school grounds.  Some people sit under the canopies.  Others spread out blankets and sit on the grass.  I brought a Mylar blanket for this purpose.

When I got to the athletes’ village, it was warmer than I expected.  There wasn’t a cloud in the sky, and the sun felt warm.  I was way too comfortable.  I knew I’d be hot when I started running.

You used to be able to check a gear bag before starting the race.  After the bombings in 2013, the B.A.A. changed the security procedures.  You can still check a bag with clothes you want at the finish, but you have to do it at Boston Common, before boarding a bus.

Over my running clothes, I wore some old sweat clothes that I was willing to discard.  They have donation bags at the exit from the athletes’ village.  I forgot to pack a throwaway hat.  The only warm hat I had was my cheetah hat from Tokyo.  That’s not a hat I was willing to part with.  If I wanted to wear it in the athletes’ village, I would need to wear it for the race as well.  I was going to be way overdressed.

There were PA announcements telling us when to leave the athlete’s village and make our way to the start corrals, which were about a mile away.  On the way, there’s one last chance to make a bathroom stop.

Each wave is divided into eight start corrals.  I was assigned to corral five, based on my qualifying time.  You can’t start in front of your assigned corral, but you can move back.  Knowing I wouldn’t be running as fast as the other people in my wave, I moved back to corral eight.  That’s the last corral.  I lined up in the back, so there wouldn’t be any runners behind me.

Standing in the start corral, my shirt felt hot.  The radiant heat of the sun was heating the fabric.  I was definitely overdressed.  I would have to worry about overheating.  I’m not sure how hot it was in Hopkinton, but I suspect it was warmer there than in Boston.  It might have been as warm as70 degrees.

It takes several minutes for all the corrals to get across the starting line.  There are about 8,000 runners in each wave.  We walked until we were within a few feet of the starting line.  Then everybody started running.  Most runners quickly accelerated to their race pace.  I started running, but my pace was considerably slower.  Before long, there were only a few runners around me.  Everyone else was moving down the road and quickly pulling out of sight.

As I started running, I found the downhill grade to be a bit uncomfortable on my legs.  I focused on moving my hips.  My legs gradually loosened up, and running got more comfortable.

Since I was running a slower pace than the other runners in my corral, I expected to be running by myself within a few minutes of starting.  Most runners pulled away, but there were a few dozen runners who were also starting slowly.  I was never alone, but I had quite a bit of room to run.  The early miles didn’t feel at all crowded.

Toward the end of the first mile, I saw a spectator folding up a sign that said 25.3 to go.  That seemed to be accurate.  I finished the first mile in 9:11.  That was surprisingly fast.  I think that’s my fastest first mile of any run this year.  It’s worth noting that the first mile was mostly downhill.

I didn’t have a target pace, but my pacing plan was to take short walking breaks at each mile marker.  The first time, I walked for about 80 seconds.  After that, I always walked for two minutes.

The walking breaks helped me dissipate excess heat.  Without them, I would have overheated badly. Whenever I walked, I took off my hat, so the breeze could blow through my hair.

By the time I reached the first water stop, I was already noticeably thirsty.  The volunteers were pretty good about only filling the glasses about one third full.  Most runners don’t want to drink too much at one time.  I realized I had to drink aggressively to keep from dehydrating.  I was sweating like crazy.  I drank a cup of Gatorade, and then I drank a cup of water.  I did that at most of the aid stations.

Even with two minutes of walking per mile, I was going surprisingly fast.  My average pace in the early miles was 10:30.  When I did my last long training run, I averaged 12:00 per mile, and that seemed too fast.  I knew my pace was unsustainable, but I didn’t want to walk more than two minutes at a time.

About six miles into the race, the first few runners from wave three caught up to me.  They started about 20 minutes after I crossed the starting line.  At first, there were just a few of them.  By seven miles, it was a steady stream.  I no longer had the road to myself.  Now I had to be careful to stay near the side of the road.  I didn’t want to accidently step in front of a faster runner who was passing me.

By the time I reached eight miles, the road was crowded with runners from the third wave.  I was careful to stay near the edge of the road so I wouldn’t get trampled by the stampede of faster runners.  Over the next several miles, the disparity between their pace and mine gradually diminished.

Somewhere around nine or ten miles, I started to notice some wind.  It was a head wind, and it helped cool me off.  I was in serious danger of overheating, so the wind helped.

Around 11 miles, I started seeing familiar faces in the crowd of runners.  My cheetah print hat and tights made it easy for my friends to spot me. First I saw Missy, then Heather, then Jane and Dan.

At 12 miles, I started to hear screams in the distance.  They were faint at first, but got steadily louder.  I was approaching the Wellesley “scream tunnel.”

Wellesley College is a women’s college that’s right on the course.  All of the students line the course and cheer.  It’s tradition for runners to stop for kiss.  Many of the students hold up creative signs.

More friends from the third wave caught up to me.  I briefly sped up to run with my friend Jen, but I couldn’t maintain her pace for long.  A few friends commented that they were struggling with the heat.  Most of them were wearing shorts and singlets.  Imagine how hot I was wearing tights and my warm hat.

The wind was getting stronger.  Going through downtown Wellesley, I saw flags blowing in the wind.  They were blowing straight toward us.   The strong headwind was tiring, but it was the only thing keeping me cool.

I reached the halfway mark in 2:21.  That’s much faster than I expected, but I still didn’t expect to break five hours.  I was already slowing noticeably, and I knew I would run out of gas in the late miles.  I stuck religiously to my two minute walking breaks.  My overall pace was deteriorating, but as long as I was mostly running, it would be good enough.

After 25K, I saw my friends Steven and JC in the crowd.  My New York friends always watch from the same spot, so I knew where to look for them.

Next, I crossed the Charles River and entered Newton.  There are four hills in Newton.  They aren’t really that big, but if you’ve been running too fast, this is where you begin to feel it.  The 16 mile mark was just after the start of the first hill, so my walking break helped break up the hill.

As I reached the Newton Firehouse, I made a sharp right turn and started climbing the second hill.  I was tempted to taking walking breaks during the hills, but I stuck to only walking at mile markers.  The next few mile markers fell between hills, rather than during hills.

As I continued through Newton, I started looking for the clocks.  I knew a few friends who were race volunteers.  They were each stationed at a different clock.  At 30K, I saw David from Maine.  At 19 miles, I saw Alison.  At 20 miles, I saw Elizabeth.  Watching for my friends helped break up this section of the course.

A few minutes before the 20 mile mark, I saw a banner on a house that read “19.7.”  They did their homework.  It was spot on.

I reached the 20 mile mark in 3:45.  I knew at this point I didn’t need to worry about the six hour time limit.  I had enough time to walk the remaining miles, if necessary.  I was committed, however, to running as long as I could.

I had one more hill.  Heartbreak Hill comes between 20 and 21 miles.  Once I made it to the top, I knew the rest of the course would have a downhill trend.

At 21 miles, I reached Boston College.  I remember friends commenting about how loud the crowds were here.  I never noticed before.  This year I did.  Running down the hill, I heard screaming that rivaled the Wellesley scream tunnel.  I started to experience sensory overload.  At times, I started to choke up.

By now, the temperature was dropping and the wind was still getting stronger.  Earlier, I regretted my choice to wear tights.  Now I was glad.  Even with them, I was beginning to get cold.  I had to put on gloves.

With about four mile to go, we made the left turn onto Beacon Street.  The change in direction brought some relief from the wind.  It was still strong, but we weren’t going directly into it.

Between 23 and 24 miles, I caught my first glimpse of the Citgo sign.  I would need to run for several more minutes before I had a clear view of it.  This sign outside of Fenway Park is probably the most iconic sight along the route.  When you get there, you have exactly one mile to go.

In the last half mile, I reached the last two turns on the course.  Right on Hereford, left on Boylston.  You’re only on Hereford for two short blocks, but it’s slightly uphill.  When I made the last turn onto Boylston, I could see the finish line, but it took a long time to get there.  I just couldn’t pick up the pace.

I finished in 5:08:21.  I slowed significantly in the second half, but it was still my fastest marathon since September.  After crossing the line, I had a small world moment.  I heard another runner call my name.  It was my friend Anders from Sweden.  Even in a race as large as Boston, you can bump into friends at random.

My legs were heavy, but I had to keep walking all the way through the finish area.  I declined to take a water bottle.  After drinking aggressively throughout the race, I was all watered out.  I eagerly accepted my sixth Boston finisher medal.

I was also happy to get a heat shield.  I didn’t check a gear bag, so I needed it to help keep me warm until I got back to the hotel.

I had to take two trains to get to the hotel.  Both times, it was standing room only.  My legs could barely handle the sudden jolts as the trains started and stopped.  Then I had to walk about half a mile from the train station to the hotel.  The hardest part was going up and down long flights of stairs to get out of the station.

In the days before the race, I was pleased with how well I was walking.  On the walk back to the hotel, I saw my shadow and noticed how much my upper body was bobbing from side to side.  My hips were stiff, and I was falling back into my old habit was walking without any hip rotation.

Later, I went to a post-race party at Boston Beer Works.  After such a grueling race, I needed to celebrate with friends.  I also needed beer and pizza.

Walking to and from the restaurant, I really worked to get my hips to work.  Today, walking through the airport, I noticed some improvement.

I’m not fully recovered from last year’s difficulties.  I’m also not in shape yet.  I’m happy to have finished this race, because I really wasn’t ready.  Hopefully, I’ll keep getting better, but I only have five months to qualify for next year’s race.  It’s possible, but I don’t like my odds.  I ran this race knowing I might not be back next year.  That’s why running this year’s race was so important to me.