Monday, October 31, 2016

Race Report: 2016 Auckland Marathon

On October 30, I ran the Auckland Marathon on New Zealand’s North Island.  This was my third international trip of the year and my second new country.  It was also the farthest I’ve ever traveled for a race.  To get to Auckland, I had three flights totaling 10,362 miles.  Including airport layovers, it took 28 hours to get there.

Tuesday, October 25

First I flew to Los Angeles.  When I arrived, there was a Delta employee in the jet bridge holding a sign with my name.  She was from Delta Elite Services and asked if I wanted a ride to terminal 5.  She drove me around the planes to the gate closest to the Delta SkyClub, where I waited until my next flight.  That was a new experience.

After a three hour layover, I left LA on a 15 hour flight to Sydney, Australia.  It was 11:00 PM Pacific Time, but to me, it already felt like 1:00 AM.  I had to wait until after the meal service before I could try to sleep.

Thursday, October 27

What happened to Wednesday?  I crossed six time zones flying from Los Angeles to Sydney, but I also crossed the International Date Line.  When I arrived in Sydney, it was already 8:00 AM Thursday morning.

I spent almost half the flight trying to sleep, but only managed to fall asleep for half an hour.  That was enough to get me through the next day.

I’m getting better at packing light.  Either that or I’m getting better at stuffing things into my small suitcase.  Including the travel days, this was an eight day trip, but I managed to get by with just a carry-on.  That saved me time in Sydney.  If I checked a bag, I would have needed to retrieve it in Sydney and then re-check it before boarding my flight to Auckland.  I also didn’t have to worry about a lost bag on a trip where I flew on two different airlines.

I had enough time between flights that I was able to have brunch in the Sydney airport.  Add Australia to the list of countries where I’ve had pizza.

After one more flight, I finally arrived in Auckland around 4:00 PM.  The airport is a long way from downtown Auckland.  A cab ride would have been too expensive, so I took a Super Shuttle.  It normally takes about an hour, but traffic was horrendous.  By the time I got to my hotel, it was already 6:00.  Surprisingly, I didn’t feel that tired.

I stayed at the Auckland Hilton, which is on Princes Wharf, in the heart of downtown.  It was a great location for both sightseeing and the marathon.  I could walk to almost everything.  The Hilton is right on the water, and it has a nautical theme.  There’s a small wing facing the harbor that’s shaped like a sail.  From just outside the hotel, I had great views of the harbor, including Auckland Harbour Bridge.

The weather in Auckland was cool but comfortable.  Late October in the Southern Hemisphere is like late April in the Northern Hemisphere.  During my stay, I experienced high temperatures in the 60s and overnight lows in the 50s.

Auckland has lots of good craft beers, so I tried to eat at restaurants that were attached to breweries.  For dinner, I went to Brothers Beer, where I had my first pizza in New Zealand.  I had pizza in two new countries in one day.  This pizza had bacon, pineapple, mango chutney and cilantro.  Hawaiian pizza is popular here, but the mango chutney gave it a local spin.

By the time I left the restaurant, it was getting dark, and I got to see what the Sky Tower looks like at night.

I had no trouble getting to sleep, but I woke up early and couldn’t get back to sleep.  Jet lag was rearing its ugly head.

Friday, October 28

On Friday, I took an all-day guided tour.  The bus picked me up at my hotel, but I had to rush through breakfast, so I would be ready to leave on time.

My tour was actually two separate guided tours that happened to be in the same region.  The first one was a tour of the Hobbiton movie set.  Hobbiton was the fictional home of the hobbits in the Lord of the Rings and Hobbit movies.

The set used for the Lord of the Rings movies was built on a 1,250 acre sheep and cattle farm near Matamata.  After filming, that set was torn down.  When the producers returned to the same farm to build another set for the Hobbit movies, the farmer agreed, but this time he wanted them to build something that could be used as a tourist attraction when they were done filming.

The set includes 44 hobbit holes, plus fields, gardens, and other sights depicted in the movies.  Our guide pointed out which parts of the set were used in memorable scenes.  I was impressed by the incredible attention to detail.  Some parts of the set took weeks to build, but only appears on screen for a few seconds in passing shots.

Our Hobbiton tour concluded with a free drink at the Green Dragon Inn and a buffet lunch.  It was a meal fit for hobbits.

The second guided tour was at the Waitomo Glowworm Cave.  The Waitomo Caves are limestone caves with lots of stalactites and stalagmites.  The cool, damp environment in the caves is a natural habitat for glowworms.  Where we entered the Glowworm cave, it was well lit, and there were large chambers where we could see all the limestone formations around us.  Then we descended to a lower level, where a river flows through the cave.  We boarded small boats to travel slowly through this section, which is unlit.

In the lower section of the cave, it was completely dark, except for the phosphorescent glow of thousands of tiny glowworms.  They looked like tiny blue points of light.  Once your eyes adjust to the dark, you can see them all over the ceiling of the cave.  It was like looking at stars in the nighttime sky.

Matamata and Waitomo were both a long distance from Auckland.  We spent hours on the road in a large tour bus.  We got to see quite a bit of the countryside, and our driver told us about the history of the area.

When I got back to the hotel, it was late, and I was too tired to go out.  I had a light dinner at a seafood restaurant at the hotel.

That night I got more sleep.  I still woke up at 3:00, but I was able to get back to sleep.

Saturday, October 29

On Saturday, I didn’t need to be in any rush, so I was able to enjoy my breakfast at the hotel.  They had a buffet with a great deal of variety.  It was similar to breakfast buffets at nice hotels in Europe, but there were also Asian dishes, like pork dumplings and local foods, such as yellow kiwi fruit.

After breakfast, I walked over to the Viaduct Events Center, where the marathon expo was held.  In addition to my race bib and gear bag, I received a wrist band, which served as my ticket for the ferry ride to the start.

Next, I walked over to Queens Wharf for a free walking tour that started at 10:00.  We started along some smaller streets parallel to Queen Street.  Our guide gave us some of the history of the city, and told us how some of the older neighborhoods have changed over time.  If I was walking by myself, I could easily have walked past many of the historic buildings without noticing them.  After walking as far as the art museum, we went through Albert Park and over to the Old Governor’s House.  Then we worked our way back to Queen’s Wharf.

After the tour, I continued to explore downtown Auckland on my own, starting with Queen Street.  Along the way, I was also scouting for a good place to eat dinner (i.e. a brewery with pizza).  I eventually settled on Shakespeare Hotel & Brewery.

Sunday, October 30

Sunday was race day.  My alarm was set for 3:00, but I woke up at 1:30 and couldn’t get back to sleep.  This time it wasn’t jet lag.  It was pre-race nerves.

I was conflicted about what to wear.  The temperature was going to be in the low 50s throughout the race, but it was also going to be somewhat windy.   I noticed on Saturday that whenever I was near the harbor, the wind felt cold.  There was also a chance of a passing shower later in the morning.

There are races where you go all-out for a fast time, and there are races where you carry a camera and stop to take pictures.  This was going to be the latter.  With that in mind, I decided to wear tights and an extra shirt.  This was my third continent as Cheetah Man, although I didn’t have room in my suitcase for the matching hat.

The race started across the harbor, in Devonport.  To get to the start, I took a ferry.  The race started at 6:00, so I had to be up early to board a ferry.  The ferries started running at 4:20.  The ferry terminal was at Queens Wharf, which was about a 10 minute walk, so I left the hotel around 4:10.

As I was walking down Princes Wharf, I heard lots of commotion.  Apparently, the local bars closed at 4:00 and the patrons who partied all night were just leaving.

I got to the ferry terminal in time to board the first ferry to Devonport.

It didn’t take long to get there.  The ferry terminal in Devonport had bathrooms, so I took the opportunity to use a real bathroom before the race.  When I came out of the bathroom, I noticed most of the other runners were hanging around inside the building.  That made sense.  It was still more than an hour until the start, and it was warmer inside than outside.

I eventually made my way to the start area, took off my warm-ups, checked my gear bag, and made a final bathroom stop.  From the start area, we had this view of downtown Auckland from across the harbor.

When the race started, I ran at a pace that felt comfortable.  I didn’t have any goal pace in mind.  Before the race, I had looked at a course map, but not an elevation profile.  I knew Auckland Harbour Bridge would be a big hill, but I didn’t know if the rest of the course was hilly or flat.  I quickly discovered the first half to be non-stop hills.  On some of the hills, I started to get hot.  That was a reminder to throttle back my effort.

I wasn’t looking at my watch.  I wasn’t even watching for the kilometer markers.  I just tried to run a pace that felt easy.  On the longer hills, I sometimes started to tire, but the rest of the time it felt easy.

Around 11K, we came alongside Shoal Bay, and got our first view of downtown since the start.

As we got closer, the view kept changing.

Then we began the approach to the bridge.  As we started the ramp up to the bridge, we were greeted by these drummers.  I was reminded of Battery Hill in Burlington, VT.

The ramp up to the bridge was a seriously tiring hill, but I broke it up by stopping a few times to take pictures.

Here's a view of downtown and the marina from the bridge.

While I was taking pictures, I was passed by the 4:00 pace group.  For the first time, I knew my pace.  I started too fast for such a hilly course.

The downhill side of the bridge gave me a good rest, but I wasn’t done with the hills.  We no sooner got off the bridge than we ran uphill again as we crossed a freeway.  Then we began a long descent.

I don’t know if this descent was steep or if my legs were weary from the bridge, but this was the only time it felt uncomfortable to run downhill.  I continued descending all the way to the water’s edge.  Then we ran under the bridge.

After a few more hills and turns, we worked our way toward downtown.  Between 19K and 20K, I was passed by two motorcycles.  Each of the drivers was telling the runners to keep to the side of the road.  They were escorting the lead runner of the half marathon.  That race started an hour after the marathon, and the leader was already approaching the finish.

Just before the halfway mark, the courses separated.  The half marathon runners kept to the right and ran toward the finish in Victoria Park.  The marathon runners turned left to begin a long out-and-back.

I reached the halfway mark in 2:01:47.  It was the first time I checked my time.  Within a few minutes, I recognized the Hilton.  We were going to turn onto Quay Street, which is right on the waterfront.  I’ve done three international races this year, and all three courses have gone right past my hotel.

The second half of the course never ventured away from the waterfront, and it was fairly flat.  The hills of the first half left my legs feeling sluggish, but after a few kilometers, I started to recover.  Then I started taking more pictures.  Each time I stopped to take a picture, I had trouble starting up again.  My legs would feel stiff at first, but I would gradually work back into my rhythm.  Then I’d stop for another picture.

Before getting out of downtown, I saw the leader of the marathon coming back.  He looked just as fast as the leader of the half marathon.

As we left downtown, there were fewer spectators, but the ones we saw were fairly colorful.  This woman appeared to have taken a wrong turn somewhere.  Actually, she was from the UK, but this sign was for the benefit of about 30 runners from the United States.

Next, we were greeted by these dancers.  I’m not sure what type of music they were dancing to.

As we got farther from downtown, I got different views of the harbor.

On our right, we passed Hobson Bay.

Then after a bend in the road, we had a view of downtown on our left.

Were these the same drummers we saw earlier?  It seems like it would have been difficult to pack up and move this far in such a short time.

We started getting big crowds again as we ran through Mission Bay.  The Mission Bay fountain was on our left.

On Saturday, I always felt a cold wind when I was near the harbor.  I wasn’t feeling it now.  I didn’t realize it yet, but the wind was at our back.  I started to get hot.

When I reached the turnaround, I knew I would be seeing the same sights on the way back, so I stopped taking pictures.  From here on out, I didn’t stop.  Within a few minutes, I felt a drop.  It was mostly sunny, so I didn’t occur to me that it might rain.  As it turned out, there was one gray cloud, and I was underneath it.  It started sprinkling.

The rain felt good.  It helped cool me off.  Then the rain stopped, and I started to notice the headwind.  Now that my clothes were wet, the wind felt cold.  I went from too hot to too cold in about one kilometer.

I felt sluggish, but I kept moving.  I got a psychological lift when I could see downtown buildings again.  That was about 7K to go.  Then I heard the drummers and let the rhythm of the drums pull me along.  That was about 6K to go.  After passing Hobson Bay again, I had just over 5K to go.

I knew I was slowing down, but I didn’t look at my watch.  Finally, with 2K to go, I noticed a runner with a sign on his back.  He was the 4:15 pace leader.  Nobody was running with him, but I assumed he was on pace.  I wasn’t going to break 4:15, not that it was a big deal.  Not paying attention to my watch was liberating.

I started passing familiar downtown buildings for the last time.  I saw the ferry terminal at Queen’s Wharf.  Then I saw the Hilton at Princes Wharf.  Then the course turned to the left.  The hardest part about passing my hotel was knowing that after the race I would have to walk back the same distance.  It was about a kilometer.

After a few more turns, I saw half marathon runners approaching from the other direction.  They had been running for just over three hours.  I was surprised how thick the pack was.

After two more turns, both races finished alongside Victoria Park.  I finished in 4:17:43.  The finisher medal depicts the Auckland Harbour Bridge.

After making my way back to the hotel and getting cleaned up, I had lunch at another brewery with pizza.  Then I stopped to get an ice cream cone for dessert.  Dairy farming is one of the biggest industries in New Zealand, so by eating ice cream, I was helping the local economy.

After lunch, fatigue from the race and lack of sleep caught up to me.  I spent most of the afternoon relaxing at the hotel to recharge.  The break gave me a chance to plan my activities for Monday.  I didn’t book anything before the trip, because I wanted to wait and see what the weather would be like.  It also gave me a chance to do some photo editing.

For dinner, I went to Brew on Quay.  No pizza, but after a race, sometimes a burger hits the spot.  They also had a wide variety of both New Zealand and import beers.

Monday, October 31

I usually fly home the day after a race, but I gave myself one extra day for sightseeing.  After sleeping in and having a leisurely breakfast at the hotel, I walked over to the New Zealand Maritime Museum. This museum has exhibits covering New Zealand’s seafaring history, ranging from the ships used by Maori settlers and European explorers to immigrant ships, merchant ship, fishing and whaling vessels, ferries, and competitive yachts.

In lieu of lunch, I stopped by a small ice cream shop.  I was still supporting those dairy farmers.

Next, I went on a half day dolphin and whale watching safari.  We traveled out into Hauraki Gulf on a 65 foot catamaran.  The region we visited is a marine park inhabited by numerous species of marine mammals.

The crew included two marine researchers.  They know the feeding habits of marine birds and use the birds to find dolphins and whales.  The birds feed on the same small fish that dolphins eat.  At first, we were seeing a few of the birds, but we weren’t seeing them in large numbers.  After searching all around the gulf, the crew eventually spotted a large flock diving into the water to feed.  We headed toward them, and before long, we were surrounded by dolphins.  They were swimming beneath us and diving in and out of the water.  There were roughly 1000 of them.

For dinner, I returned to Brew on Quay.

Tuesday, November 1

Today, I'm flying home.  It will take more than a day to get home, but I cross the International Date Line again, so it will still be Tuesday when I get home.  In fact, my flight from Sydney to Los Angeles leaves at 11:00 AM and will arrive in LA at 7:00 AM.  That’s four hours of my life I will get back, although I'll spent a good portion of that time going through customs.

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Finishing the World Marathon Majors

At the finish line of the Chicago Marathon I received a six star medal for finishing all six of the World Marathon Majors.  Later that week, I received this finisher certificate.

The Abbott World Marathon Majors were established in 2006.  They originally included the Boston, London, Berlin, Chicago, and New York City marathons.  Runners who have completed each of these races since 2006 are called five star finishers.  In 2013, the Tokyo Marathon was added to the cities.  Runners who have completed all six majors are called six star finishers.  Five star finishers and six star finishers are both listed on the Abbott World Marathon Majors website.

If you include races held before 2006, I’ve done a total of 13 majors.  Here’s a quick recap of my experiences at these races.

November 1989 – New York City Marathon

There’s a local running club in Minnesota called ALARC, and they used to make an annual group trip to the New York City Marathon.  In 1989, Deb and I joined them.  Ted Esau always led this trip.  Ted negotiated group discounts with our hotel and airline and planned all our activities.  He also told us how to get into the race.

It wasn’t as difficult to get into this race as it is today.  The field limit that year was about 25,000 runners.  Half of those entries were first-come-first-served.  Another 40% were reserved for international entries.  The last 10% were assigned by lottery.  Anyone who tried to enter, but wasn’t in time for a first-come-first-served slot went into the lottery.

This was before the internet age.  You had to fill out a paper application.  To get an application, you had to first mail in a “request for application.”  If it was postmarked before May 20, it was automatically rejected.  I mailed mine just after midnight at the main branch of the post office, in downtown Minneapolis.  To keep local residents from having an unfair advantage, the NYRRC staggered their mailing times.  Requests from across the country got serviced first.  Requests from New York City got serviced last.  The idea was for any applicant who responded promptly to have an equal chance.

Deb called me at work when my application arrived in the mail.  I left work early, so I could fill out the application and have it in the mail the same day.  If you did this, you had a good chance of getting in.  I got in, as did most of the members of our group.

It was fun to travel with a group of other runners.  We were all for there for the same reason, and we all understood each other.  The day after we arrived, we went for a group training run that included the Queensboro Bridge and Central Park.  We did sightseeing as a group, went to dinner together, and went to a Broadway musical.

The race was less than half the size that it is today, but they didn’t have multiple waves.  All 25,000 runners started at the same time.  We had to be at the start early on Sunday morning, but the atmosphere was electric, and they had free coffee, donuts and hot cocoa.  There were three start groups, just like today, but they all merged together as soon as we got to Brooklyn.  Then there were 25,000 runners on the course at the same time.  I think that made it better for spectators who wanted to watch the whole race.  That, in turn, made it better for the runners.  The crowds were unbelievable, especially in Brooklyn and Manhattan.

I trained all year with a goal of 3:15, but made an impulsive decision to try to qualify for Boston.  I needed to break 3:10.  The pace eventually broke me, and I started to fade after about 22 miles.  I took a couple of walking breaks and eventually finished in 3:19:46.  That includes the time it took me to reach the starting line.  They didn’t have chip timing in 1989.

My friend Rick, who lives a short distance up the Hudson, drove into town to join us on race day.  He helped Deb navigate through the thick crowds to watch for me at different points in Manhattan.  As crowded as it was in Central Park, Rick was able to cheer me in the last mile, run back and find Deb, and then find me again in the finish area.

Sadly, Ted wasn’t able to run that day.  He had a seizure the day before, while taking us sightseeing in Manhattan.  There was a doctor in our group, and he accompanied Ted to the hospital.  Ted missed the race, but he was OK and returned to lead the trip again in future years.

April 1991 – Boston Marathon

I eventually qualified for Boston at the Seattle Marathon in 1990.  Then I ran the Boston Marathon the following April.  Deb and I spent a few extra days in Boston, to see as much as possible.  My friend Rick from New York also drove to Boston to join us.

Sightseeing before the race included Faneuil Hall Marketplace, The Bull & Finch Pub (now known as Cheers) and a reenactment of the Boston Tea Party.  We also went to the expo, where I bought several items of Boston Marathon branded clothing.  I’ve worn out most of them, but I still wear the tyvek jacket.  Finally, we discovered Durgin Park, which is still my favorite Boston restaurant.

The day before the race, Rick took Deb shopping, while I took a tour of the course.  I learned some of the history of the race, and I also paid close attention to the hills in Newton, so I could recognize each one as I got there.

The race was smaller then.  I think there were 9,000 official entrants.  They used to allow people who didn’t qualify to run the race “unofficially.”  I won’t call them bandits, because they ran with the blessing of the organizers.  They just had to line up behind all the official entrants.  I heard estimates that there were between 4,000 and 5,000 unofficial runners.

They didn’t have separate waves then.  Everybody started at the same time.  Before the race, we were bused from Boston Common to Hopkinton, where we waited at the high school.  If I remember right, we were able to come into the school building to use the bathrooms.  You can’t do that today.

The Boston Marathon has a reputation as one of the best organized marathons in the world.  Today, I believe that’s true, but the 1991 race made a poor first impression on me.  It seemed like they were having trouble keeping up with the growth of the field.  When I got to the start area, I needed to make another bathroom stop, but there weren’t enough port-o-potties.  I had to wait until the race started and then run into the woods.  That led to another problem.  I started in a corral with runners who had similar qualifying times, but after my “pit stop,” I found myself farther back in the pack.  With so many runners on a narrow two-lane road, there just wasn’t any room to get around people.  For the first five miles I was running much slower than I wanted to.  Making things worse, some of the early water stops weren’t ready for all the runners.  We came to a complete stop to wait in line as volunteers were still filling cups.

All that resulted in a slow first half, which is a shame, since that’s the downhill part of the course.  I knew by the halfway mark that I had no hope of running a time comparable to my qualifying time.  On the bright side, I still had fresh legs when I reached the hills.  That’s the part of the race I enjoyed most.  I was passing other runners on Heartbreak Hill, thinking, “This is no big deal.”

It started raining lightly as I was making the final turn onto Boylston.  I finished in a disappointing 3:22:48, and I was immediately greeted by Rick.  I’m still amazed at how he can move through crowds.

The day after the race, Deb and I walked the entire Freedom Trail, which connects several of the historic sites in the city.  We cheated a little by taking a train over to the other side of the river to see the USS Constitution and the Bunker Hill Monument.  It was a lot of walking for one day, but it seemed to help me recover from the race.

October 1999 – Chicago Marathon

When I ran my first Chicago Marathon, anyone who entered the race got in.  There were roughly 29,000 runners that year.  It was our first trip to Chicago together, so Deb and I spent a few days there to do some sightseeing.

We went to a lot of the usual tourist spots, like the Sears Tower, Navy Pier and the Magnificent Mile, where we had stuffed pizza at Giordano’s.  During our sightseeing, we saw several sculptures of cows, which were decorated in creative ways by local artists.  It was a temporary exhibit called Cows on Parade.  By chance, we always seem to visit cities when they’re doing their decorated sculpture thing.  We’ve also seen the Big Pig Gig in Cincinnati, Moose on the Loose in Talkeetna, AK, and Peanuts characters in St. Paul.

We found it easy to get around the city by train, but we should have allowed more time to get to the expo.  We arrived the day before the race, and our flight was late.  We barely made it to the expo before they closed.

This was the first race I did that used chip timing.  It was nice to know my chip was timing me, because my watch wasn’t.  The battery died just minutes before the race.  Fortunately, they had large digital clocks at every mile.  They also had them every 5K, plus the halfway mark and one mile to go.  I didn’t miss my watch at all.

With 29,000 runners starting at once, I expected congestion, but I was pleasantly surprised.  We started on a nice wide street and ran far enough to get spread out before making our first turn.

This was one of the flattest courses I had ever run, and I attempted to qualify for Boston.  Unfortunately, I was still getting back in shape after an injury earlier in the year, and I wasn’t quite there yet.  I was also carrying some extra weight.

At the time, the only race I had done that had bigger crowds was the New York City Marathon.  Chicago reminded me of New York in another way.  We ran through some diverse neighborhoods.

I was about two thirds of the way through the race when I heard from a spectator that Khalid Khannouchi broke the world record.  I knew at that point I couldn’t make any excuses if I didn’t run fast on this course.  Well, it was my fastest time of the year, but it wasn’t quite fast enough for a BQ.  I finished in 3:21:19.

April 2011 – London Marathon

Almost a year earlier, I learned that the Paris and London Marathons were going to be on back-to-back weekends in 2011.  I knew this sometimes happened, and I had been waiting several years for the stars to align.

Deb and I had never traveled to Europe together.  Deb has never liked air travel, and an overseas flight was a tough sell.  My hope was that we could make one long trip to Europe and see both Paris and London.

The London Marathon lottery was already closed, but I knew it was possible to get guaranteed entry by booking through Marathon Tours & Travel (MT&T).  Getting into the Paris Marathon was easy, and MT&T also had a tour package for that race.  By chance, one of their hotel options for Paris was the same hotel my sisters stayed at when they were in Paris.

For the first time, MT&T sold out their London Marathon slots almost immediately.  I put my name on the waiting list right away, and they were able to get me in.  It probably didn’t hurt that I had traveled with them before, and I was planning to book both the Paris and London tour packages.

After five nights in Paris, which included the marathon, Deb and I traveled to London by train.  The high-speed train ride was a fascinating experience.  I especially enjoyed the contrast between the flat farmland in northern France and the hilly landscape we saw after emerging from the tunnel.

We had three and a half days in London before race day.  We did a mixture of guided tours and self-guided sightseeing.  Our first guided tour was a city tour.  In addition to seeing several landmarks by bus, we had extended stops at St. Paul’s Cathedral and the Tower of London.  We finished our tour with a cruise down the Thames.

Our second guided tour was an all-day tour that took us to Windsor Castle, Oxford, and Stonehenge.  We spent most of our unstructured time exploring the Royal Parks.

As with New York, Boston and Chicago, Deb came with me to the expo.  I needed to get off my feet, so I found a place to sit, while Deb visited every booth in the expo hall.  Most race packets contain product samples, but I was still impressed when my race packet included an ice cold can of London Pride.  A volunteer took a can out of a refrigerator and put it in the bag just before handing it to me.

Our package with MT&T included five nights at a five star hotel in St. James’ Court.  We were just a few blocks from Buckingham Palace.  On race day, we had our own bus to the starting area.

During our stay in London, we had an unprecedented string of sunny days.  Race day was no exception.  In contrast to the Paris marathon a week earlier, which was hot, the London Marathon had comfortable temperatures for running.

I was seeded into the third corral.  Mindful that the start would be congested, but wanting to go for a fast time, I lined up at the front of my corral.  As corral one started, we started walking forward.  I used that as an opportunity to move up among the corral two runners.  When the race started, I weaved between the other runners to keep moving up into a faster crowd.  Before the end of the first mile, I had enough room to run a fast pace.

I didn’t realize it before, but the London Marathon has a fast course.  The first three miles were slightly downhill, carrying me to a fast pace.  As the course leveled out, I continued running seven minute miles, surrounded by other runners who were also running at that pace.

For me, the most visually dramatic part of the course was Tower Bridge.  It was hidden behind buildings, so I didn’t actually see it until I made the last turn before the bridge.  Then the towers rose high above me.

I continued at a fast pace until I had three miles to go.  Then, just as I seemed to be running out of gas, I discovered the last three miles are also slightly downhill.  The end of that race is like a non-stop highlight reel.  You pass London Eye, Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament, St. James Park, and Buckingham Palace, and the finish line is on The Mall.  I held on for my second fastest marathon ever, finishing in 3:04:58.  I didn’t buy my finish line photo, but I probably should have.  Buckingham Palace is in the background.

November 2011 – New York City Marathon

I returned to New York in 2011.  By this time, it was much tougher to get into the race, but I was able to get guaranteed entry by running a qualifying time.  I needed to break 3:10 and managed a 3:09:49 in the last month of the qualifying period.

This time, I traveled to New York by myself.  To save money, I stayed at the YMCA.  It was much cheaper than a hotel, and it was well-located for the race.  It was two blocks north of Columbus Circle, which is within walking distance of the finish line.

On my first trip to New York, the emphasis was on sightseeing.  This time, I took the opportunity to get together with friends.  One night, I had dinner with my friend May from Ontario.  Another night, my friend Kino invited me to have dinner with his Pan Can charity team.

I came down with a cold just before that trip.  I also had trouble sleeping.  At times, I felt like a zombie.

The race was more than twice as large as it was in 1989.  There were 56,000 runners, separated into three waves.  I was in the first wave.  Each wave was subdivided into three start groups.  The “blue” and “orange” groups started on the upper deck of the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge.  The “green” group started on the lower deck.  In 1989, I was in the “blue” group.  This time, I was in the “green” group.

If there’s one thing about this race that never changes, it’s the long wait in the start village.  It was cold, but I found a place where I could spread a space blanket on the grass and sit in the sun.  You have to check your gear bag and move to the staging area for your start corral about 45 minutes before the race actually starts.  I had a layer of throwaway clothes to keep warm in the staging area.  I was impressed that each staging area had its own port-o-potties.  They also had donation boxes for everyone’s old clothes.

The crowds weren’t as loud as in 1989, but they were still pretty good.  The most enthusiastic spectators were the ones who welcomed us to Brooklyn as we came off the bridge.  The crowds kept me pumped up for most of the race, but I started running out of gas around 22 miles.  That’s the beginning of a gradual hill alongside Central Park.

I slowed down, but this time I never had to walk.  Despite my cold, I was able to hold on for a Boston qualifying time, finishing in 3:26:49.

April 2012 – Boston Marathon

After I ran the Boston Marathon in 1991, I didn’t know if I would be back.  By 2011, I was qualifying for Boston consistently.  Qualifying in every race was starting to become a signature.  When registration for the 2012 race started, I had qualifying times from 21 different races.  It was time to come back.

By now, I was pursuing a goal of qualifying for Boston in all 50 states.  Two of the states I still needed were Rhode Island and Massachusetts.  I decided to run both the Gansett Marathon and the Boston Marathon and try to qualify in both races, even though they were only two days apart.

The logistics were easy.  I flew to Boston on Friday and drove to Narragansett in a rental car.  I ran the Gansett Marathon on Saturday and spent another night in Rhode Island.  Sunday morning, I got up early to drive to Boston and return my rental car.  For the rest of the weekend, I took the trains.

In contrast to 1991, I didn’t do much sightseeing.  Instead, I bounced between dinners and reunions with different groups of friends.  After going to the expo, I went to the finish line, where Marathon Maniacs always meet at noon for a group photo.  Then I went to lunch at Durgin Park with a smaller group of friends.  In the afternoon, I went out for drinks with friends from New York.

Every Boston Marathon is different.  The big story in 2012 was the weather.  It was hot!  Race day temperatures were in the upper 80s with sunny skies.  The race organizers had known for several days that it was going to be hot, so they were able to plan for it.  They didn’t want to cancel the race.  Instead, they took the unprecedented step of allowing runners to defer their entries to 2013.  They also spent the week sending emails to all the runners advising them of the hot conditions and recommending that we adjust our goals accordingly.  Finally, they increased the water supplies for the aid stations.  They weren’t going to run out of water like the Chicago Marathon did in 2007.

I’ve run a number of hot weather ultras, and I usually managed the heat by taking walking breaks and putting ice in my hat.  I didn’t know if the aid stations would have ice, and I was still hoping for a BQ, so I tried something new.  My strategy was to cool myself by pouring water over my head at every aid station.

I was in the first of three waves.  My wave started at 10:00, but it was already hot.  I was getting hot and tired just standing in the start corral.

The aid stations had more water and Gatorade than I had ever seen.  More often than not, I would pour a large cup of water over my head and drink a cup of Gatorade.  Then I’d grab another cup of water.  I’d drink a little and pour the rest over my head.

The spectators were amazing.  They understood how bad the conditions were, and they understood how best to help us.  For every official aid station, I had two or three opportunities to get water from spectators.  Sometimes I drank it.  Sometimes I poured it over my head.  The spectators were filling the cups just before handling them to us, so the water was ice cold.

Some spectators brought out garden hoses, so we could run through the stream of water.  Others had ice or popsicles.  I’ve never felt so much love from the crowds.  They weren’t just there to watch and cheer.  They were there to help.

It all worked.  Despite the heat, and despite running a fast race in Rhode Island on Saturday, I was able to finish in 3:24:49.  I got a BQ with five minutes to spare.

Later, I had dinner at John Harvard’s Brew House, which was the traditional post-race party spot for Marathon Maniacs.

My impression of the Boston Marathon changed forever.  I was now very impressed with the organization.  I also realized that while New York and London may have larger crowds, no city has better crowds.  People in Boston really get this race.

April 2013 – Boston Marathon

Every Boston Marathon is different.  I didn’t realize how this one would be different until after it was over.

For the second straight year, I ran both the Gansett and Boston Marathons.  I went to the same pre-race gatherings, and I ran well in both races.  I crossed the finish line in 3:25:28, happy to have once again notched two BQs over the three day weekend.

I was staying at a downtown hotel, only a few blocks from the finish line.  I got back to the hotel, posted my result on Facebook, and got a few congratulatory comments from friends.  Then everything changed.

A friend who was still in the finish area posted that she heard an explosion.  Then a different friend made a similar post.  I turned on the TV to find a channel that had live coverage of the race.  I spent the rest of the afternoon glued to the TV.

That was the year that two bombs were planted near the finish line.  The race commentators instantly became news commentators, but nobody knew for sure what was going on.  Information was still sketchy.

The finish area was a crime scene, so police had to close it off.  Runners still on the course had to stop.  The race was over.  A small section of downtown near the blasts was locked down.  My hotel was just outside of that area, but other runners couldn’t go back to their hotels.

By evening, the city seemed to be safe again, but city officials were still recommending that people stay home.  I couldn’t do that.  I needed to go somewhere where I could talk to someone I knew.  I needed to process the day’s events, and I couldn’t do that by myself.

I had dinner with my friend Bob at John Harvard’s Brew House in Cambridge.  That’s where we were supposed to have a post-race party, but the party was cancelled.  On my way there, I met a few other runners on the subway and learned their stories.  One was a local runner who couldn’t get to his car, because the parking ramp with in the locked down area.

Tuesday morning, before flying home, I read the newspaper from front to back.  I read the stories of several different runners.  I learned how the quick action of volunteers and emergency medical personnel saved the lives of dozens of people who lost limbs in the explosions.  I learned how spectators and local businesses were giving food and water to runners who were stranded on the course.  I learned how a few local families took in runners who couldn’t go back to their hotels or gave rides to runners who had no other way of getting home.

For the second straight year, I was impressed by both the race officials and the spectators.  I was also impressed with the quick action of police and hospitals.  Everybody stepped up.  Boston is a city where everybody pulls together.

After flying home, I felt unsettled for the next few days.  I was never in any danger, I wasn’t stranded on the course, and I didn’t know any of the people who were killed or injured.  It still had a psychological effect on me.  For the most part, the people targeted by the bombers weren’t runners.  They targeted the spectators.  These were families that come out every year to watch the race.  These were the same spectators I fell in love with the year before.  I was angry.

Eventually, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was captured, and his older brother Tamerlan was killed in a shootout with police.  That wasn’t until four days after the race.  For a day or two, I didn’t know if the police would find out who the bombers were or if they would ever be caught.  Not knowing made me restless, and I couldn’t sleep.  When the manhunt started, I was glued to the news.  I couldn’t really get on with my life until it was over.  If it affected me this much, I can’t imagine how it must have felt for the victims and their families.

February 2014 – Tokyo Marathon

Starting with 2013, the Tokyo Marathon was added to the World Marathon Majors.  I had never done a race in Asia, and I hadn’t given Tokyo much thought, but I realized the race was going to get more popular, making it more difficult to get in.  That summer, I put my name into the lottery for the 2014 race.  When my name was drawn, I knew it was an opportunity I couldn’t waste.

I didn’t read or speak a word of Japanese, and I had never traveled to Asia before.  At first, the idea of traveling there by myself seemed intimidating.  As I researched hotels near the starting line, I discovered how close the Hilton was.  I stay at Hilton hotels all the time, and I’m in their loyalty program, so staying at a Hilton made me feel more comfortable.  I knew the staff would be helpful and they would speak English.

I bought a tour book and started planning my sightseeing.  The first time I looked at the subway map, it blew my mind.  After studying the train network, I quickly got comfortable with it.  I made a long list of sights I wanted to see, and figured out how to get to each of them by train.

The trickiest part was getting to the expo, which was also where the race finished.  You could get there by train, but it wasn’t part of the regular subway system.  Once I knew which trains to take and which type of rail pass would work for all of them, I was all set.

I did most of my sightseeing on my own.  It was easy to get around.  The subway stations have good signage.  I had no trouble finding restaurant and shopkeepers who spoke English, and everybody was friendly.  Tokyo is a very orderly city.  I’ve never felt so safe traveling by myself in such a large city.  I’m sure there are bad neighborhoods, but you have to try pretty hard to find them.

By chance, some of my friends were there with MT&T, and they were also staying at the Hilton.  They had guided tours, but they also had one full day on their own.  I joined my friends Diane and Michelle for a day of shopping in Harajuku and a visit to a Shinto temple.  It was in Harajuku that I bought my signature cheetah tights and hat, and I wore them during the race.

Race day was chilly, but it helped that my hotel was close to the starting line.  I checked a gear bag, so I would have warm clothes at the finish.  The course was fast.  The first five kilometers were slightly downhill.  After that, it was flat, except for a few bridges near the end.  I saw lots of runners in costumes, but I was surprised how many spectators were also wearing costumes.  People in Tokyo know how to get festive.

I finished the race in 3:18:19, making it my second fastest race of the year.  Excluding races before 2006, Tokyo was my fourth major, but I still didn’t know if I would do them all.  Asia was my fourth continent, but I still don’t know if I’ll do them all.

April 2014 – Boston Marathon

A significant percentage of the runners who were at the 2013 Boston Marathon never had the opportunity to finish, because of the bombs.  The BAA gave all of those runners guaranteed entry to the 2014 race.  They didn’t need to requalify.  Everyone else who was there also felt the need to come back.  We all needed closure.

To accommodate the additional demand, the BAA increased the size of the field by about 9,000 runners.  Instead of three waves, there were four.

It wasn’t just the runners who needed to come back.  The spectators did too.  This was a matter of civic pride.  It wasn’t the runners who bore the brunt of the bombs in 2013.  It was a spectators.  They weren’t going to be intimidated.  The Boston Marathon isn’t just a race.  It’s part of how they celebrate the Patriots’ Day holiday, and everybody wanted to take back their city.

I never saw so many people lining the course of this race.  There was a palpable feeling of unity.  I saw signs like “This is Our F*ing City.”  It was an event everybody needed, so they could heal from what happened in 2013.

There was one other thing special that year.  Meb Keflezighi won the race, wearing a race bib with the names of the four people who died the year before.  He was the first American man to win the race since 1983.

For what it’s worth, I was recovering from a lingering cold, so I wasn’t able to run quite as fast that year.  I finished in 3:38:01.  While I didn’t have as fast of a time, I was able to resume the post-race tradition of having dinner with Marathon Maniacs at John Harvard’s Brew House.  It seemed like I was the only one there who didn’t have a selfie with Meb.

April 2015 – Boston Marathon

I returned in 2015 to run my fourth consecutive Boston Marathon.  One of the things that makes each year different is the weather.  In 2015, the weather on race day was cold, rainy and windy.  The wind was the biggest challenge, because it was a headwind.

The route has very few turns.  For the most part, you’re running straight east all the way from Hopkinton to Boston.  Strong winds can really affect your race, depending on the wind direction.  I wasn’t there in 2011, but they had a strong tailwind that year, and about a third of the runners set PRs.  In 2015, it was a headwind.

By 2015, I was starting to slow down.  I could still beak 3:30, but I wasn’t as consistent.  I set the pace I needed, and I fought the wind all the way.  I fully expected the wind to wear me down, but I managed to hang in there, finishing in 3:27:39.  I didn’t realize it at the time, but it would be my last BQ for more than a year.

April 2016 – Boston Marathon

After injuries in 2015, I took a two month break from running.  I canceled plans to do two other races, but I wasn’t going to cancel my plans to run Boston.  When I started physical therapy at the beginning of February, I told my therapist I wanted to run Boston, but my only goal was to finish within the time limit.  I was willing to walk as much as I needed to.

I didn’t start training until the beginning of March, and I quickly discovered I had no fitness base.  I had about six weeks to get in shape, and it took everything I had just to run with sound mechanics.  My glutes were weak, so I had no power in my stride.  I could only run slowly.

I was seeded into the fourth corral of the second wave, but moved to the last corral instead.  To keep the muscles around my hips from getting fatigued, I took walking breaks.  I walked for two minutes per mile.  Late in the race, I really had to force myself to run, but it helped to know I could walk again when I got to the next mile marker.

Knowing I would be slow anyway, I carried a camera and took pictures along the route.  It was the first time I ever did that at Boston.  In the past, I wasn’t willing to sacrifice any time.  I also had time to chat with all the friends who inevitably passed me during the race.

I finished in 5:08:21.  It was by far my slowest time at Boston or any other major, but I was able to keep my streak alive.  Since then, I’ve improved enough to qualify for next year’s race.  I’ll be back in 2017 for my sixth consecutive Boston Marathon.

September 2016 – Berlin Marathon

Last month I ran the Berlin Marathon.  I got in through the lottery on my second attempt.  Here’s a link to my race report.

October 2016 – Chicago Marathon

Two weeks after Berlin, I ran the Chicago Marathon.  When I registered, I wasn’t able to run at all, so signing up for Berlin and Chicago just two weeks apart took a leap of faith.  I could get guaranteed entry this year, and I didn’t want to waste that opportunity.  If you haven’t already read it, here’s my race report for Chicago.

After a race, I usually wear my finisher medal.  After this race, I wore my six star medal instead.  All the other runners were asking me what it was for.  When I explained it was for finishing all the majors, they asked me which one I like best and what it takes to get into each race.  I think seeing this medal inspired about a dozen other runners to do all the majors.