Saturday, March 20, 2010

1st R&R Half is a 1st for all

I'm posting this a bit late due to a heavy work schedule and by no means as a reflection of what I thought of the latest Rock & Roll Endurance event - Dallas. This was a true highlight of the series and my year so far.
There was a particular reason I was looking forward to this event, because I got my undergraduate degree just 35 miles north of here in Denton, Texas. It had been about ten years since I was last up to the campus of The University of North Texas and I was happy to find so much of what I remember was still there and looked pretty much the same. At the time I graduated from there with a bachelor's in psychology in 1989, the total enrollment was about 16,000 students. Now enrollment has more than doubled. There's certainly a collection of new buildings such as the very nice new facilities for the athletic programs but also a leading edge environmental studies building, which is a LEEDs certified facility. There are some new dormitories and other classroom buildings too. I'm looking forward to returning soon and seeing the new football stadium and business school. It was spring break at UNT so not a lot of students were around the day I visited but it was nice to tour the student union where I had spent so much of my time. The Lyceum, where we showed just-out-of-the-theater movies was exactly as I remembered it from my Cinema Committee days. There was a display of promotional buttons from union events in a display case where they happened to have one from my graduation year.
Both the dormitories where I was an RA were also still there and look exactly as I remembered them.
After this trip down memory lane I popped down the freeway to the Dallas Convention Center, site of the Rock & Roll Dallas Half Marathon expo to pick up my race bib and visit the sponsor booths. After dressing my chair that evening I had a light dinner and got a good night's sleep to help me prepare for the race. Race day fell on the same day we in the US spring our clocks forward an hour, so I set mine early so I'd not miss the start.

Race day required a short drive down to Expo Park, the finish line area. You may know this park as it's the site of the Cotton Bowl and the annual Texas State Fair, which was featured on Oprah last year. I say short drive as the mileage is short but with over 9,000 runners all arriving at the same hours, the traffic backup made it not so short. After nearly an hour I was finally able to park my car and from here buses took us over to the start, which was just south of downtown in front of Dallas City Hall and the convention center.

Some of you might recognize City Hall, at least part of it as it was CGI enhanced into the headquarters of OCP in the movie Robocop. Between City Hall and the convention center is a fantastic bronze sculpture of a cattle drive. Each longhorn steer and both cowboys astride their mustangs were beautifully crafted and a few of the cows were even portrayed crossing a stream. Very impressive.

It was a cold morning of what would become an absolutely gorgeous day in Dallas. temperatures were in the high 40s as we waited for the starting gun. I was in corral 1 which allowed me to start out with a strong pace and not worry about having to weave through slower runners -- everyone was either running at my pace or faster.

The Dallas Cowboy cheerleaders made an appearance at the start and after a nice rendition of the national anthem by a local country singer we were off on what turned out to be a completely gorgeous course.
We started strong running through south downtown past the old Dallas courthouse, a beautiful red brick building and through John Daley Plaza, the site where President John F Kennedy was shot. We turned right in front of the Old Book Depository building which houses a museum to the JFK shooting on its 6th floor, and past the infamous grassy knoll.

As we passed the first mile marker I looked down at my watch which said 6:24. A strong pace; but perhaps a bit too strong. But I felt good and attempted to just pull it back a bit. We rounded a turn and there was American Airlines Arena, home of the Dallas Mavericks NBA team. We passed a collection of very nice condo buildings in this area, then up a short hill and into the Lakeside neighborhood. This is the neighborhood in which Mavericks owner Mark Cuban and Cowboys owner Jerry Jones lives and, wow! These mansions are incredible. Enormous, stately manors lined both sides of Lakeside Drive which has, as you'd expect, a small lake running down the middle.
Gawking at these symbols of excess brought my pace down a bit to 6:45 per mile but I still felt very strong and if I could hold this pace all morning I might just break the 1:30 mark. My fastest half marathon was 4 years ago in Santa Cruz, a time of 1:31.
After Lakeside we hit a second hill and headed into the also posh neighborhood of Highland Park. More gorgeous homes but more realistic in side and splendor. After this it was over to Mockingbird Lane through yet another neighborhood filled with pretty homes.
I crossed the halfway mark at 42 minutes which put me on pace to break 1:30, but could I hold it.
After the Mockingbird neighborhood a volunteer said "it's all downhill from here," and down we went headed into east Dallas through more historic neighborhoods and started the swing down toward Expo Park. I was still holding a very strong pace and using the other runners around me as motivation to hold that pace and keep pushing.
At mile 10 I was under 1:10. If I held a 7 minute pace I'd beat my best time to date. But could I hold it. I was getting tired, but was chanting "hold the pace, hold the pace."
We entered the park at mile 12 and my watch showed 1:22. I could break my PR. I just needed to hold on. Thankfully there was a young woman running just in front of me who must have been shooting for a similar goal as she stepped it up a touch and I laser focused on her and did the same. We passed in front of the Cotton Bowl and were cheered on by the The University of Texas Longhorn Marching Band. Go, baby, go!
The final course band was around the next turn and were playing The Rolling Stones' Can't Always Get What You Want. The woman running in front of me shot them a mean look as if to say, "Why would you play that song today? And at this moment?" She and I both knew we could and would today. If we could just hold the pace.
We could now hear the announcer and the 13 mile marker just ahead. We both picked up the pace knowing we had little left to run and wanted to leave it all on the course.
Final clock time: 1:28:45. A new PR!
And on an inaugural course, no less. Sweet!

Making things even sweeter, my family and that of my best friend from college were there at the finish line. After a bit of stretching and recovery we embraced, high fived and headed off to brunch to celebrate.

The event finished with a fantastic celebration concert by Better Than Ezra held in the fairgrounds. They sounded fantastic. Their concert didn't start until noon, which was about 60-90 minutes after most people had finished the race so they unfortunately performed before a smaller than ideal crowd but they showed no sign of disappointment. They put on a fantastic show keeping up the string of fantastic Rock & Roll Endurance Series concerts. Thanks for these awesome bands,!

We didn't learn until the following day that a 32-year-old man from Dallas, who was a former Texas Tech baseball player had crossed the line just 15 minutes after I had, then collapsed and died right there at the finish line. Appears to have been yet another undiagnosed heart condition. The news of his passing cast a dark cloud over an otherwise fantastic day.

3 Rock & Roll events down. 2 PRs, 3 concerts and so far, health and happiness are in place.

Up next: The Country Music Marathon in Nashville, TN on April 24.

Monday, March 1, 2010

From 5,000 to 15,000 never looked so smooth

The Big Easy has been host to a marathon for over 45 years but the event went through a major makeover this year thanks to Competitor Group who took over the event, adding it to its stable of Rock & Roll events and more than tripling it is size in the process. New this year was the course, a serious stimulus in support, elite runners including half marathon winner Martin Lel and a fabulous finish line concert that nearly stole the memories of the race itself.

Despite threats of rain that actually came down late Friday night, race day couldn’t have been better. Clear skies and cool 40 degree temperatures met us at the start which was in a small park at the bend of the Mississippi river near the New Orleans Convention Center. I met up with podcaster and fellow blogger, Adam Riklefts in corral two and we paced each other through more than the first half. The race started by skirting the warehouse district before detouring into the Garden district. We shared the course at this point with the half marathoners who turned right at Audubon Park while we turned left to loop around it. The pace at this point was a comfortable sub 8 minute mile with bursts of energy at each band stand filled with the talents one would expect in this city. Every kind of music was found on the course from Dixieland, soul, R&B, classic jazz and every kind of rock, including a questionable choice for mile 26 – a speed metal death rock band blasting ear piercing screeches. Made me go faster, though.

When reviewing the course map the day prior I was concerned about what came after the Audubon park loop. At this point we were to rejoin the half marathoners as we ran down St. Charles Street toward downtown. We would have separated from the half marathoners for about four miles and rejoining them sounded like a mess in the making as a much slower group of half marathoners would have been on the course at this point. But Elite Racing’s course planning was perfect as they ran the marathoners left of the streetcar tracks and the halfers on the right. We stayed separated on the streets all the way through downtown, around the French Quarter and out to City Park. Great planning, guys!

City Park is New Orlean’s answer to central park and is a wide expansive multiuse park that houses the city’s Museum of Art. Halfers cut straight to the finish line as we looped the park then detoured into the Maribeau Gardens district. This neighborhood sits on the banks of the Mississippi River and was clearly hit hard by Katrina. For every restored home there were two that were either still rebuilding or boarded up. It pulled at my heartstrings as we passed one single-level brick home with “Please don’t demolish” spray painted across its bay window. The streets here and on several other parts of the course were rooted in potholes filled with loose rock. They are on the long list of the city’s repair priorities and should be smooth by next year’s event, we were told, which will make this flat fast course a record setter in future years.

Maribeau came around mile 17 where I started to fall off the pace and had to let Adam go ahead. The heat was starting to rise toward 70 and the miles were catching up to me.

After Maribeau we jumped back over the Mississippi River and back into City Park. I got a surge of energy at mile 22 and picked up the pace considerably. From here we snaked our way to a great wide road that led up to the Museum of Art. It was a perfect setting for a finish as it felt grand and was great for spectators. The actual finish line sat in the shady grove behind the Museum and was lined with cheering race fans rooting for their loved ones. Reesa was right behind the Museum with camera in hand. She gave me the burst of energy I needed to pick up the pace a bit more as I shot through the corral and finished in 3:27, just two minutes behind Adam, who had made his goal time for the event. If you are wondering why I’m holding my medal this way in the photo, it’s because its beaded necklace broke just before this photo (I got a replacement).

Hillary and Johanna from the north peninsula TNT team ran and Johanna’s step son Steve ran the half and had great days. The full was a first for Wendy, Hillary’s sister, also from the team, who finished in 4:45. Way to go, Wendy!

As tired as every runner was, we were quickly our my feet when Sister Hazel stepped onto the finish line stage. I’ve been a fan of this Gainesville, Florida band since college and found myself dancing away to their classics such as Champagne High [video] and new songs. We were able to get right up to the stage’s edge for the 90 minute show and I was feeling no pain – literally. Sister Hazel put on what was one of the best live shows I’ve seen and even took time to shake hands and sign my bib afterwards.

But nothing prepared me for the next band – Cowboy Mouth. This local band has been playing the clubs of New Orleans for over 15 years. Before their kit was set up I was starting to unwind from the race and get a little tired and hot but then their front man, drummer Fred LeBlanc jumped behind his drums pounded out a strong beat and got the show started with a serious bang. He then lept from his drums grabbed his mike and hopped off the stage, down into the crowd and emplored everyone to get on their feet and crowd the stage all while the rest of the band kept up a furious party rhythm that brought us all to our feet and into the verbal embrace of Fred who is an electric personality on stage. At that moment, Reesa and I knew we were in for something special. Cowboy Mouth is clearly one of the great party bands in the country. Furious sound, infectious lyrics, happy goading of the crowd and a following of super excited local fans kept the energy high and the pain far from my legs and feet. Wow.

If you come to New Orleans be sure to find out where these guys are playing. You won’t want to miss it.

And so Rock & Roll event number two came to a close. For more on my visit to New Orleans read the trip report below. Next up is the Rock & Roll Dallas Half Marathon in just two weeks.

Big thanks to my sponsor PowerBar for providing the energy foods I needed at the start of the race and to Elite Racing and Competitor Group who put on another fantastic event. And the biggest thanks of all, to all of you who have helped me raise over $5,800 thus far for the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society. Go Team!

Touring the Big Easy – a prelude to a great Rock & Roll Marathon

Rock & Roll marathon number two was another triumph for Elite Racing, another source of pride for New Orleans and a tremendous new event worth your time. This was Reesa’s first visit to New Orleans and the city didn’t disappoint. We started the weekend, as everyone should, with chickory coffee and beignets at Café du Monde in the French Quarter. We then took the day touring this classic birthplace of Jazz, strolling through the flea market, Royal and Bourbon Street and downtown. We hit the marathon expo that afternoon stopping off to say hi to the race organizers busily promoting the upcoming events in Dallas (two weeks), San Antonio, Denver and of course San Diego.

That night we stopped into Preservation Hall for some classic New Orleans Jazz from the house band featuring the fabulous jazz trumpeter LeRoy Jones. We then capped the evening with two sets of cool Jazz at Irvin Mayfields’s Jazz bistro inside the Royal Sonesta Hotel. If you are a fan of old school jazz, be sure to pop in here on a visit. No cover, rotating selections of fine musicians and cushy couches.

If one day in New Orleans must start with Café du Monde, the next should start at the best breakfast tradition in the South, Brennan’s. This is the birthplace of hollandaise sauce (or so it would seem from the abundance on the menu) and the true birthplace of Bananas Foster. We had the classic Southern three-course breakfast (which keeps you full through dinner). It started with a baked apple and fresh strawberries with a shared side of double cream. The main course was a mixture of eggs benedict variations. Reesa’s were Florentine with spinach and artichoke hearts. Mine was a mix of andouille sausage and classic Canadian bacon with a Cajun sauce and hollandaise . For those who know me, I have a pretty low tolerance for hollandaise sauce but this was Brennan’s.

The capper was dessert. Reesa had the classic which looked like bananas with chocolate ice cream; but that mound of brown wasn’t ice cream but about half a box of brown sugar. Yikes. Mine was sweet cream-filled crepes covered in marinated strawberries. Both dishes were prepared at table side by our fabulous waiter, Ron, who interestingly had lived in Redwood City, like us. The preparation of this dish is as good as the taste.

After a breakfast of carbo-loading bliss a long walk was in order; so we made it two. The first was strolling the art galleries of the French Quarter. A true highlight was walking into Jamie Hayes’ fine art gallery where we fell in love with his whimsical, yellow submarine-esque graphical creations. But our love fell upon an original of a different style, a grid of swirling paint portraying a bingo board of circles covered in hearts with a single “x” in the lower right corner. Jamie himself was at the back of the shop so we introduced ourselves and learned that the painting was actually a creation made using left over paint from his main artwork and was a play on his signature which he adorns with x’s and o’s. Like many other artists in New Orleans, Jamie lost everything in Katrina. The 55 year old artist had no insurance and basically had to start all over. His classic whimsical pieces are often on the official posters for mardi gras and take weeks to create as he had adorns them with gold leaf and over 100 separate colors.

Rather than start over in a new city, Jamie returned to New Orleans where his home was under 6 feet of water and started over. He rebuilt his home and business to now it is bigger than ever. He started a line of whimsical children’s dolls which fill his retail shop next door which was flooded with patrons every day. Someone tell Oprah about this guy, he’s a tremendous success story and symbol of a renewing New Orleans.

Walk number two started with a ride on the St. Charles Street streetcar through the garden district and past Tulane and Loyola University and into Audubon Park. This is the route of the street car named Desire of Tennessee Williams fame. While that car is now retired, the ride definitely takes you back to a simpler time. The garden district is filled with famous old classic homes made from wood, stone and brick. Many of the homes, unfortunately, haven’t been repaired since the hurricane and so the neighborhood is still in recovery mode but many of the homes have clearly been restored to their past glory.

Audubon Park is a beautiful city part with a scenic golf course and small Zoo. My favorite part of the zoo was seeing the Asian elephants being fed in a playful way. There were each given a keg filled with food and a small opening through which the food could be released. This kept them mentally engaged and active in their small pen. It was my favorite because this is the same way we feed our cairn terrier Scout – but on a smaller scale of course. We fill a tennis ball with food for him.

That night was a light Cajun dinner in the warehouse district with Johanna, Steve, Wendy, Hillary and their mom. Every restaurant here and in the French Quarter had long waits as the 15,000 marathon participants, thousands more conventioneers and hundreds of cheerleaders and their mom’s – all in town for separate events this weekend – filled the night.

Race day couldn’t have been more perfect – see the race report here.

The night after the race we celebrated at a classic French Quarter restaurant, The Gumbo Shop. This is definitely one of the best places to get Lousiana gumbo. Three styles were offered, seafood, chicken and andouille sausage and vegetarian. All included okra, of course and all could have been spicier but a small bottle of house Louisiana hot sauce did the trick. We closed the night in historic Jazz park an outdoor music courtyard on Bourbon Street listening to a Steamboat Willie and his Jazz band, an old time swing jazz band playing in a small bandshell next to a spraying fountain surrounded with bronze statues of famous jazz men.

The following morning I took a short run to beat back the soreness. I started along the Mississippi river bank, then circled the French Quarter to Louis Armstrong Park, a once fantastic city park filled with music and civic facilities that was devastated by Katrina. Encircling this park, in mid restoration was a strong reminder of just how far this city still has to go to get back to its former glory. The community center was still boarded up and many of the stone pillars supporting the wrought iron gates on the perimeter of the park were uprooted and leaning badly. The main auditorium was in mid restore but clearly has a long way to go.

The neighborhoods just outside the park were worse off. The majority of buildings were boarded up, leaning badly or plain torn down. On our way back from the marathon finish, Sunday we took the Canal Street streetcar and saw much more devastation, including Mercy hospital which fought hard to care for its patients long after losing power and the entire first floor to flooding. The hospital simply sits now as an empty shell and strong reminder of that fateful time.

I truly enjoyed my visit to New Orleans and came away with a greater appreciation of the spirit of this town and strong witness of a rebirth that will clearly be longer and slower than anyone would like. This town of 400,000 remaining citizens still thrives with a strong spirit – buoyed for sure by the Saints’ Super Bowl victory – and with any luck will continue regaining its lost glory.