Saturday, December 28, 2013

Songs for the Wandering Soul II

Remember that third type of song?  The ones with amazing lyrics and great music that together are a deadly combination that zings the life along your veins and plasters a smile across your face even when you're in the foulest of moods?  Well, here is a fantastic one to fire up your wanderlust and send you out the door seeking the next amazing adventure.

Monday, December 23, 2013

You Know You're In Antarctica When ....

.... you head back to your tent (that's right, tent) at 2am and have to put on your sunglasses to go outside.
.... you wake up and can tell the time not by the light, which never changes, but by the number of people crunching around outside your tent.
.... your morning routine involves brushing your teeth and emptying out your pee bottle.
.... the wind stops, the sun comes through the clouds, and everyone strips down to short sleeves even though it's still -10 C.

I'll leave it to the Aussies to continue this list, which is theirs to begin with!

In one run-on sentence, this is what I expected from my Antarctic experience: sweet ride to the continent on an IL-76, be pretty damn cold but run a marathon anyway, recover from said marathon, cheer for crazier people running an ultramarathon, climb aboard IL-76 and come home again with stories.

In one run-on sentence, this is what I got from my Antarctic experience: sweet ride to the continent on an IL-76, be pretty damn cold but run a marathon anyway, recover from said marathon, cheer for crazier people running an ultramarathon, find out a massive storm has arrived and we aren't going anywhere anytime soon, so instead play Monopoly/Jenga/Scrabble/Spoons, do puzzles, eat heaps of delicious food, drink gallons of tea, build an igloo, play cricket/soccer/golf/volleyball/table tennis, go cross-country skiing and ride bikes, do a scavenger hunt, have a pub quiz night, do some yoga, go off-camp to Elephant Head Rock, sleep as little as possible in order to soak it all in, and eventually climb aboard the IL-76 and come home again with AMAZING stories.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Antarctic Ice Marathon in Review

Many many things in the world are built upon the written word.  Blogs, for one.  Race reviews, for another.  So it's rather embarrassing and frustrating as a writer to have to admit this, but here goes--

There. Are. No. Words.

I am asked, "How was the trip?" or "How was the race?" or "How was Antarctica?" and a huge smile immediately blazes across my face, but all I can inadequately mumble is "Amazing!"  Followed by an awkward silence because clearly a longer, fuller response was expected, yet I'm at a loss for how to distill those 11 days into a few meager sentences.

And before someone tries to be smart and argue that a picture is worth a thousand words, let me just squash that myth right now as well.  Pictures are just as inadequate when Antarctica is your subject matter.

My brain is still trying to process my Antarctic experience.  I think most of my fellow runners are in the same boat, and our friends and family can't figure out why we don't know how to tell our stories and share our photos and help them vicariously enjoy what we experienced.  I'll probably be writing about Antarctica for the next month!  And not a thing I say will ever fully do justice to the adventure!

But, I have to start somewhere.  So we'll begin by taking a look at the event that precipitated this entire adventure for me: the marathon itself!

Friday, November 15, 2013

Will there be penguins?

What do you wear?  How cold will it be?  Will you see penguins?  How do you get there?  Where do you sleep?  How many other people are going?  What do you use to hydrate during the race?  Exactly how cold will it be?

I feel like I've become an official ambassador for the Antarctic Ice Marathon as I answer these and other questions over and over to different friends, family, coworkers, classmates, and other acquaintances that have found out about my upcoming adventure.  And of course the ironic thing is, I haven't been there yet!  Ask me again in December and you will get full details!

But in the meantime, I have gone through the marathon website over and over and also received a bunch of emails from Richard Donovan, the race coordinator, so at the very least right now I can tell you what I've read until I can tell you what I actually know from personal experience!  So let's tackle a few of these questions.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Single-Digit Countdown

I need to pack!  I need to do laundry!  I need to warn my bank that I'm traveling outside the country so they don't block my account!  I need to pack!  I need to check and double-check that I have all the info from the race coordinator so I don't get left behind!  I need to eat everything in my fridge so I don't come home to a mold laboratory!  AND I NEED TO PACK!

Yes ladies and gents, it's time for last minute panic mode.  The journey south begins in a few short days, and in EXACTLY ONE WEEK it's race time!  This trip had been on my brain for over a year, and I have been training for months, but it still hasn't really settled in.  My race gear has been accumulating on a bed in my house, and I see it every single day, but it still hasn't settled in.  I have been talking about the marathon day in and day out because all my family and friends and coworkers and classmates are extremely curious, but it still hasn't settled in.  Maybe by the time I go to the airport?  Go through security?  Get on the plane?

Saturday, November 9, 2013

Songs for the Wandering Soul

Music speaks to some people.  I am one of those people.  Great songs lift my darkest mood and bring my most distracted, anxious mind wholly into the immediate present, even if just for the space of a few brief minutes.  Some songs send me reeling back into sad or painful memories with such force that roiling emotions immediately bubble to the surface, and others have the effect of making an entire day bright and happy, despite uncooperative weather or bosses or other external circumstances.  I'd say there are three types of great songs.

The first are those whose greatness lies in the notes, rhythms, and instrumentation that compose the musicality of the song.  Songs with a bass or drumbeat powerful enough to retune your own heartbeat, or a melody that makes your soul soar.  You don't even pay attention to the words of the song, because it's the music that does all the speaking.

The second are songs whose greatness lies in the lyrics above all else.  Lyrics that speak directly to you, and help you make sense of your life and the world around you.  Lyrics that define an experience or a person and allow you to replay memories as if you were watching them on film.  It may be the lyrics of the entire song, or just the refrain, or even a single line that leaps out and glues into your memory.  Sometimes, you tune out a melody that is not pleasing because the lyrics are so precisely perfect.

The third and best kind of great songs are the ones that are the overwhelming combination of music and lyrics.  When these songs play on the radio, you roll your windows down and turn the volume all the way up so the music fills the small space of the vehicle and permeates your very core.  Electricity crackles all the way through your fingertips, and you are suddenly tangibly aware of the possibilities and potential that your future holds.  It's that thunderstorm feeling of anticipation packaged up in a bundle of words and musical notes.

Sometimes these songs are cliche, and sometimes they are unexpected discoveries tucked away from the pop charts and Top Ten lists.  These are the songs that make me want to leap off my couch and GO.  These are the songs that speak to me of adventures past and adventures to come.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Farewell, Merrells

Well Merrells, you were great shoes.  No, great is an understatement.  You were fantastic.  Perfect.  The Best.

Friday, October 25, 2013

13.1 and 4 Weeks To Go!!

Four weeks out from race day and I am not where I want to be in training because of this pesky sprained ankle that won't go away .... BUT it's a lovely season for races, and I found a great trail half-marathon last weekend!  Trails seem to make the ankle happier.  And I need mileage.  And I run faster when there are other people around.  So I trekked to Maine for a foliage-friendly race that was great because it was also quite small (about 170 people total) and marked quite a few landmarks!

1) Longest distance run since the knee fiasco last December

2) Longest distance wearing the shoes that will be completing the Ice Marathon (which I don't wear regularly because I prefer minimalist ... but in Antarctica, I also prefer to not get frostbite)

3) First time winning my age group!  Huzzah trophy pint glass!

4) New half marathon PR!

It took about three miles for my ankle to loosen up so I could settle into a stride, and then I think I went through a bit of a runner's high adrenaline rush for a few miles.  I just went with it because it felt good.  And I did crash a bit later in the race, but by then I could count the remainder in familiar distances such as 5k, which mentally makes it easy to push the sore, tired muscles to keep going.  Even better, my ankle felt okay the next day!  Although my left hip was not happy at all, most likely because I was running slightly weird and compensating, but that was recovered after two days and I've run twice this week and no further issues.  So at least I know I'll be able to make it through half of the marathon?  Not reassuring, but better than where I was before the race.  :)  And at least I am confident that I'll be able to get in at least one 18 or 20 mile run before I go.  Less than a month, yikes yikes yikes!

Ice Marathon Factoids

This will be the ninth running of the Antarctic Ice Marathon.  Two women competed in the inaugural race.  One U.S. woman competed in the second.  No women in the third.  Three women (one from the U.S.) in the fourth.  Three women in the fifth.  Four women (two U.S. citizens) ran in the sixth.  Nine women in the seventh race, including one U.S. and one Canadian.  The eighth and most recent race had the largest field with 12 female competitors (4 U.S.).  Go girls of the ninth!!

Monday, October 21, 2013

Like Photos?

I really have no excuse for why I was so far behind the curve with this one, since I love taking photos and I even sell some of mine on stock photography sites, but the situation has been rectified and you can now follow my adventures on Instagram!  From a dog's eye view, naturally.  The pup owns the account.  :)  So if you would like to see visual evidence of our continuing shenanigans, find @Mwenzie and follow her!

Saturday, October 19, 2013

GORUCK Nasty in Review

It had to happen eventually for a company that is built around bringing the Special Forces experience to the rest of the world!  GORUCK has joined the obstacle course race community with GORUCK Nasty, a race based on the course that Green Berets have to complete during their selection process.  Iteration 001 took place in September 2013 at Massanutten Ski Resort in Virginia.

Here's a breakdown of the obstacles, as best as I can remember since what I encountered was not the same as the map that was provided in the race packets.  (In fact I think several advertised obstacles were entirely removed from the actual race.)  Things also start to blur together by the end of 7 hours on the course.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Quebec City in 24 Hours

Quebec City is beautiful.  You really do feel like you're in an old European city, not only because of the architecture but also because of the language.  I was so happy to realize that I could really truly feel like I was in a foreign country just a few hours from home!  (Europeans probably laugh at this concept ... but it's a bit of a hike to get out of the country when you live in North America!)  I was also happy I had two French-speaking friends to help me out since French is one language with which I have zero background, and it made getting around easier since we hurdled the language barrier with no charades or bad attempts at accents or terrible pronounciation.

The main must-do in Quebec City is to tour Old Quebec. 

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Ragnar Relay Cape Cod 2013 in Review

One and done ... despite the many obstacles that we hurdled to cross the finish line at the New England Relay, that introduction to long-distance relay racing was enough to get me hooked.  I was a bit burnt out on being the team captain and primary logistician and recruiter and planner and coordinator, so I kept my fingers crossed that some other crazy person out there (because 99% of my friends think these types of brainstorms are literally insane) would need a runner.  And finally an offer came through!  The friend of a co-worker tried to recruit her for a Ragnar Relay.  She wisely pointed out that he should be recruiting me instead.  So he did.  And I turned around a recruited the other half of our team because we were way short on runners and I was not about to do a NER Part 2!

The first weekend in May 2013 found me huddled on a windy, chilly, cloudy beach near Hull, Massachusetts with three friends and six strangers preparing to send off our first runner in Ragnar Relay Cape Cod.  I believe only two of us had done a long-distance relay previously, but all of us were unbaptized Ragnarians.  The Ragnar Nation is pretty huge in the U.S., so it was exciting to see what their races are all about!  And I must say, they do have the system figured out.  Despite the huge numbers of vans and people, there really weren't any snafus or traffic jams.  (At least none over which Ragnar had any control.  There's not much to be done when there's only one highway that goes out to the end of Cape Cod, and all the weekenders want to use it along with the Ragnarians!)

As I said, the race started in Hull.  It was a brisk morning.  We weren't quite prepared for such chilly weather.  The course then wound its way south along the coast through lovely country neighborhoods and rural areas with stereotypical New England charm.  Van 1 handed over to Van 2 in Plymouth after a jaunt through the historic downtown, including a sprint past the famous Plymouth Rock.  Van 2 then got to enjoy some lovely scenery on the Cape Cod Canal, where they passed back to Van 1 right at dusk.  Time to bust out the disco belts and reflective vests and blinking lights and head lamps and let the night games begin!

Thursday, August 29, 2013

Spartan Sprint Fenway 2012 in Review

I believe I've written before that the original triumvirate of obstacle course companies that spawned the craze in the U.S. are Tough Mudder, Spartan Race, and Warrior Dash.  I am a Mudder alumna, so I thought I should give the other races a go as well!

I still haven't made it to a Warrior Dash, but I rallied a very random group of friends to represent at the Spartan Sprint in Fenway Park in November 2012.  The fact that it was a Spartan Sprint already means it wasn't the same type of experience as Mudder, because the Sprint races are approximately a 5k in length.  Regular Spartan Races are more like Mudder in length, but that's tough to do when you're trying to work with a baseball stadium!

Which leads to the second piece of why this was an atypical Spartan experience .... we were in Fenway Park!  So the typical muddy, watery obstacles were flat-out not going to happen because I'm not sure anybody ever will have permission to mess up that baseball field in the name of something like an obstacle course race ... or for any other reason.  My Spartan Sprint experience was remarkably clean and dry because of that limitation.  But I still thoroughly enjoyed it because honestly, it was like an extended CrossFit workout that sent me scampering allllll over Fenway Park into sections I would never otherwise get to see!  So much fun!

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

T - 83 and Counting

83 days until the Antarctic Ice Marathon!  Medical forms complete, emergency insurance acquired, plane tickets obtained, and first 10-mile run (longest since Cape Cod Marathon 2012, longest since Christmas knee problems, and longest in barefoot shoes!) under my belt!  I'd say we're making excellent progress.

I had an entertaining (and momentous) exchange with a co-worker today on this subject.  He approached while I was battling with the copy machine trying to replicate the packet of information I was preparing to send off to the race director.

Chuck: What are you doing?
me: Copying my medical forms for my marathon.
Chuck: You're running another marathon?
me: Yep.
Chuck: Where's this one?
me (having paused and eyeballed him for a second, since this is usually where people overreact and call me insane): Antarctica.
Chuck: Like, in Antarctica?
me: Yes.
Chuck: Not like a snow race pretending to be in Antarctica?
me: Nope.
Chuck: That is BAD ASS!


Fun fact about Antarctica .... it's the highest continent on the planet.  The average elevation is over two miles!!  Maybe I should have planned a trip to the Rocky Mountains to get in some elevation training before this race ... yikes!

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Ottawa in 24 Hours

A single day is not really enough to fully experience a city, but I will definitely take that over not getting to visit at all!  So aside from sleeping, I crammed in what sight-seeing I could during my one full day in Ottawa.  Periodic rain deluges kept life interesting too.  Thank goodness for last minute decisions to pack a rain poncho!

My number one recommendation in Ottawa: GO SEE PARLIAMENT.  Ottawa is the capital of Canada, and thus host to many national government buildings, but Parliament is far and away the coolest. 

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Eat, drink, and be merry in PEI!

I'm curious how many people outside of Canada, and who have not read Anne of Green Gables, have heard of Prince Edward Island.  My sense is that it's a bit of a hidden gem to the wider world, and only really known in Canada for its fantastic beaches and delicious seafood.  The world would be a better place if that sense is wrong!

My experience there was not average, since I didn't do the tourist thing but instead spent my time hanging out with friends.  I can attest that the beaches are beautiful, the people are friendly, but I can't comment much on tourist stuff like Green Gables or anything else!  Probably the only somewhat touristy thing we did was go deep sea fishing off the north coast of the island with a company located on Wharf Road.  And it was AWESOME.

However.  When it comes to places to eat, drink, and hang out in Charlottetown, we definitely covered some ground.  So here's a run-down on a variety of coffee shops, restaurants, and bars that may help you decide where you want to vector yourself when you're wandering around this beautiful, small city.

Tough Mudder Mid-Atlantic 2012 in Review

Team FarFromPuken decided to reunite a year after our first Tough Mudder to have another go at a course far less mountainous than the first one.  So we trekked to Maryland for the Mid-Atlantic in August 2012.  And wowsa the two Mudder experiences were so very dramatically different!

The first big difference for this race was that we convinced our fathers to join us on the course.  :)  Several parents from the team were climbing around Wintergreen taking photos and providing moral support at the first Mudder, and apparently they though it looked like a lot of fun!  So the 2012 team was a motley mixture of 20-somethings and 50 or 60-somethings.

Unfortunately for Tough Mudder, the day did not start out well.  I do not know what caused the problems, but they were flat out not prepared with the parking situation, and traffic was backed up for MILES down the highway in both directions as people tried to arrive for the race.  We eventually left the moms in the van on the highway and hightailed it across the course on foot to find the starting line because we were going to miss our start time!  Which we ended up missing anyway because half the team was still stuck in the traffic jam!  At least Mudder is flexible with starting .... once we rallied our team (and luckily most of our spectators as well!) we just joined the next start wave and off we went.

Monday, August 12, 2013

Favorite Runs: The Charles

The home of one of the most famous marathons in the world is naturally also home to some great running trails, including my personal in-the-city favorite .... running along the Charles River!  Sure, you can do a jaunt around the Boston Commons or along the Emerald Necklace and through the variegated, interesting neighborhoods that comprise the official city and the surrounding towns that are essentially part of the city as well.  But if you're looking for distance, scenery, and minimal vehicle traffic, then the Charles River trails are the place for you!

Running paths follow the Charles on both banks, although the south bank is a bit more formalized with a paved trail with a painted line to direct traffic.  It's more built up as well ... there's even a place near the Boston University bridge with pull-up bars and other paraphernalia if you want to stop and throw in a quick circuit workout during your run.  There are a couple drinking fountains along the south side too, between the Science Museum and the Boston University bridge.  The north side of the river is a regular sidewalk or dirt path pounded into the grass next to the sidewalk.

I once did a run where we were dropped off near Watertown, and then ran back into the city.  Our stopping point was 10 miles one-way from the start.  So by taking advantage of the various bridges that cross the river, you can rack up some serious mileage!  A loop from North End/Financial District to Longfellow Bridge is a fairly easy day (approximately 3 miles).  Go one further to the Harvard Bridge and you add about two miles.  The Boston University bridge is about another two miles added.  There are several bridges in the vicinity of Harvard University, such as River Street and Western Ave and the Anderson Footbridge or the bridge between Harvard's main campus and Harvard Square over to the Harvard Stadium.  Most of these are about a quarter mile apart.  I love using the bridges because if I'm feeling good, I just go down a bridge past what I was originally planning, or if I'm feeling crummy I cut a bridge short.  And there's always something slightly mentally easier about doing a loop than a direct out-and-back, even if the loop is derived only by crossing over to the other side of the river.

Two other nice things about running the Charles are the traffic (by which I mean other runners, bikers, and walkers) and the scenery.  There are always people using the paths; heaps more in the summer than in the winter, but you will never be alone.  When you start getting further from the city center, I find this reassuring.  And the scenery is great!  You pass by city landmarks such as MIT's main building or the Hatch Shell, and you can distract yourself by watching rowers on the river or people learning how to sail.  You're in the middle of a city, but you can remove yourself from that hustle and bustle a little bit and lose yourself in the water and reeds and trees instead.

And at pretty much any point along the way, you can veer away from the river back into the city and find a metro station to get where you want to go!  I harbor aspirations of running out to Harvard and meeting up with a friend for breakfast sometime, and then taking the T home.  So many options!

Friday, August 9, 2013

Adventures in Montgomery

Alabama kind of gets a bad rap as a place to visit, which is unfortunate because there's a lot of history there, and fun stuff to do outside, and also lots of great food!  The capital city, Montgomery, has done a lot of sprucing up over the past decade.  If you find yourself passing through, stop for a bit and enjoy what the city has to offer because believe it or not, there are offerings worth your time.

Monday, July 29, 2013

Favorite Runs: The Fells

Six miles north of the center of Boston, there is a nature reservation in which it is literally possible to get lost for hours.  (Of course I do not speak from personal experience.)  The Middlesex Fells Reservation is an amazing place to escape the hustle of the city and disappear into the woods.  And even better, it is laced with trails which provide fantastic running opportunities.  There are fire roads, which are usually gravel or hard dirt, fairly well-maintained, and wide enough for vehicles to easily pass through.  Then there are mountain biking trails, horse-back riding trails, and even narrower paths that can really only be utilized by a person on foot.  No chance of getting bored, especially when you get lost!

Friday, June 28, 2013

Cape Cod Marathon in Review

At first glance, the location of the Cape Cod Marathon may be a bit of a let-down to out-of-towners expecting to be running on the arm of the Cape out towards Provincetown.  But technically, the Cape really starts around Plymouth, so the Cape Cod Marathon course is indeed on Cape Cod!

I ran this race in 2012.  I figured I may as well get a North America marathon actually in my own name (see Marine Corps review for that story), and I may as well do a cool "local" race while living in New England!

The race is a Boston qualifier, but I have heard many people say it's a challenging course due to elevation changes.  Yes, there are certainly plenty of rolling hills because it's New England, and that's how we roll (Ha ha).  The most dramatic rise that sticks out in my memory was up to a lighthouse during a really cool section of the race that was right along the beach.  But it was no mountain and even if you walked to the top, it would only add a couple minutes to your time.  I thought the terrain kept the race fun and interesting; the scenery was beautiful through gorgeous rural neighborhoods and along the beach and through quaint Cape towns.  Some sections were very wooded and therefore shady, while others were exposed to the elements.  A hurricane was brewing just off the coast and hit us a couple days after the race, so I did not have to contend with sun, and I was pleasantly surprised that the wind was not an issue on the open, unprotected sections of road.

The race is chip timed, which is always good even though it's not a huge crowd.  The finish location was ideal because you come right down main street in Falmouth, so the crowds are great.  Otherwise, there isn't much crowd support to speak of.  Sure, some dedicated fans will drive to various points along the route to cheer for their runners, and folks manning water and aid stations also vocalize their support.  There were a couple random musicians, which was pretty cool, but I'm pretty sure they staged because they felt like it and not because the race organizers asked them to participate.

The check-in and start process went smoothly.  Support during the race was adequate with the exception of toilet facilities.  There simply were not enough toilets located along the route, which meant for a significant wait whenever you needed to stop -- bad for time and achy muscles!

My main complaint with Cape Cod Marathon was the finish.  I crossed the finish line, received a medal and a foil blanket, and then had to go wandering for at least five minutes before I found water bottles stashed on a table.  And that was it!  There was NOTHING else at the finish line; no energy drinks, no bagels, no bananas, none of the usual immediate-post-race snacks or support.  No volunteers providing guidance to the tired and delirious runners, no direction towards waiting areas to meet up with your family or friends, nothing pointing back towards the registration tents and parking.  It was really bizarre.  It made the race seem extremely small-time and unprofessional, which I simply was not expecting and which completely turned me off.  I ran a great race, and I enjoyed the course a lot, but I don't think I'll be returning for a second experience.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Three Tips to be a Successful Obstacle Course Racer

Three things!  That's all it takes for you to survive Tough Mudder, Spartan Race, Warrior Dash, Ruckus, and any of the other obstacle/mud runs out there!  You do not need to be a professional athlete with a bunch of endurance races under your belt.  You don't need to be an Olympic-caliber weight lifter.  You don't need to have 4% body fat.  Three things will not only get you through these races, but they'll also guarantee you will enjoy yourself and keep coming back for more!

Saturday, June 8, 2013

Tough Mudder Virginia 2011 in Review

Not too long after I moved back to America, Tough Guy-style races became a craze that swept across the nation and has not lost any momentum as the years have gone by!  It seems to me there is a trifecta of major race companies in the US: Tough Mudder, Spartan Race, and Warrior Dash.  There are all sorts of more regionally-focused mud and obstacle runs as well, but these three went nation-wide and are now working towards international domination as well.

In 2011, my brother rounded up a group of friends to run the Tough Mudder race being held at Wintergreen Ski Resort in Virginia in October.  Since I was conveniently working in Washington, D.C. at the time, I was roped into the team and I brought a few friends along as well.  Every one of us on the team of 15-ish people was new to Mudder, but fortunately two of us were Tough Guy alumni and had a vague idea what we were getting into.

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Marine Corps Marathon in Review

In 2011, my brother ran his first marathon.  Something went terribly awry with his knees around the halfway point, and he gutted his way to a finish time somewhere around 4:30, which is completely respectable even without spectacular injuries!  Unfortunately, he had already signed up for the Marine Corps Marathon (MCM) in October, just a few months away, and there was absolutely no way he would be running that race.  I suddenly found out I would be spending a few weeks in Washington, D.C. for work, so I took his spot.  We didn't officially transfer his registration, so my name does not show up anywhere in the results for the 2011 race, but I was there!  I have a photo of me at the finish with my medal to prove it.  :D

MCM was the first marathon for which I actually trained.  I still did not train enough (things like work and school have negative effects on my long run training days), but I did one or two 10-mile, 15-mile, and 18-mile runs, as well as one 20-mile run before race day.  So it was definitely a step up from my training program for Athens.

I felt that the race was well-organized.  There are thousands and thousands and thousands of runners, but the process for arriving and dropping your bags off and getting to the starting line was efficient.  Of course it took over ten minutes to actually cross the starting line after the official race start because of the hordes of runners jamming the roads.  But they use chips, so it doesn't matter.

The course takes you through some of the most famous landmarks Washington, D.C. has to offer.  The first part is not particularly exciting, as it just weaves through some of the neighborhoods on the Virginia side of the Potomac River.  Then you cross into Georgetown and run through some of the Embassy neighborhoods and that's where one of the most significant hills of the race is located.  Personally, since I was used to training in Massachusetts, the hill was not a problem, but I know it's a tough spot for many runners.  You then run down the main street of Georgetown and then begin encountering the monuments and government buildings of the capital city.  Down by the Presidential memorials, the route is literally a gauntlet through thousands of spectators lining both sides of the road cheering and holding funny and/or motivational signs.  It was spectacular; I have never run a race with so many spectators lining the entire course.  Even better, I noticed some of the same people several times as they were clearly leap-frogging their runner so they could pop up at different points along the way!  The loneliest time is crossing an Interstate bridge back into Virginia because no spectators are allowed on the road even though traffic is blocked off, and unfortunately that's also right around Mile 20 and the stereotypical "wall."  But then you're in Virginia again and you're surrounded by more hordes of cheering supporters as you run those last six miles which culminates with a short (but extremely crappy, since it's at the VERY end) dash up a hill to the finish at the base of the Iwo Jima Memorial.

What did I find to be lacking?  There were not enough port-a-potties along the route.  Every single place where they were located, there was also a significant line, which is frustrating because of the time lost and also because your muscles don't appreciate the stop-and-wait.  Other support was great: water, snacks, there was plenty of all of that.  I also was not expecting so many runners. I felt like I spent the entire first half of the race dodging and ducking around people, and could never settle into a steady pace.  The entire route was crowded.  It's just a fact of the race because it's so popular, but if you're trying to use MCM as a qualifier or to set a personal PR, you might want to find a race with fewer people where you can control your pacing.

What did I love?  The fans!  They are everywhere.  EVERYWHERE, except for that solitary mile on the bridge!  It was fantastic!!  And most of the scenery is great too.  There are spots of urban doldrums, but most of the route goes through lovely neighborhoods and the great monuments and landmarks of Washington, D.C.

Of course MCM is also inspiring because of the military support throughout the race, with uniformed Marines manning many of the support stations and many military people participating in the race in honor of fallen or wounded comrades or for other personal reasons, and supporters all along the route cheering and thanking them for their service.  I almost cried at the end of my first marathon (Athens) because I was so exhausted and happy to cross the finish.  I almost cried during MCM because of the outpouring of national pride and military support which is not usually so overtly displayed.

I also improved on my Athens time by over 20 minutes.  Lesson Learned: Train.  It actually helps.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

New England Relay in Review

My brilliant ideas never quite turn out as planned.  Such was the case in 2010 when my friend and I found out about the New England Relay (NER) and decided that surely between the two of us we could find 10 more people who would think that running around New England for two days would be excellent fun.

Seven or so months later, we had managed to rally 9.  Close?  Game on anyway.  Fortunately we also rallied one awesome dad and one awesome mom to be dedicated drivers so the nine runners only had to run and sleep.

NER's inaugural race was the one we participated in, in June 2011.  To complicate an event already going through first-time growing pains, a tornado beat up western Massachusetts a few weeks before the race, which included parts of the route.  The organizers had to get a little creative to redo it.  So there were two sections of the race where two runners from each team were on the road at the same time.  Abnormal for a relay race, but it worked to keep us on track and get the mileage in, so no big deal!

We started out barely in Rhode Island at a lovely state park.  Check-in went smoothly, we had a few spare minutes to decorate our vans, we all cheered and hollered, and off went our first runner, straight across the state line into Connecticut!  Van 1 took over after that (like I said, we only had nine people, so our vans were criss-crossing all over the place, and people were switching vans .... our first relay experience was NOT normal at all) and we had so much fun leap-frogging our runners to offer them water and lots of verbal support that both vans basically stayed on the course for the entire race.  Even when one van didn't have people on the road, they would be stopping in random places to cheer for the runners of the other van.  I think only two people on the team had done a long-distance relay before, so the rest of us were trying to enjoy every minute!

Halfway through Van 1's second section, my brother's knees (which were not in good shape following his super-speedy first marathon not too long before) gave out, and suddenly we were down to 8 runners.  Almost an ultra team!!  As a result, almost every person on the team ended up running more than 20 miles over the course of the race, and at least three of us ran more than 30!

The course skipped out of Rhode Island after that first mile, cut across a corner of Connecticut, and then went north through western Massachusetts to Brattleboro, Vermont, where we then swung east and crossed New Hampshire and sneaked into the corner of Maine for the finish at Kittery State Park.  It was well-marked the entire way, with decent support at the van exchanges.  It was quite hilly, which was a challenge, but unavoidable when you're crossing western Massachusetts and Vermont and New Hampshire.  The majority of the course avoided major roads and mostly avoided towns too, so there was plenty of lovely scenery to enjoy.  Of course, it rained almost the entire time.  (And by time, I mean 30+ hours, which is how long it took us to finish the 220-mile course.)  The legitimate downpours were rather annoying, but the general misting and cloudiness was nice because it took the edge off the usual misery of June heat.

By the time we reached Kittery, we were all beyond exhausted.  We were not prepared for the mileage or the terrain on the course, and it definitely took a toll.  But for whatever bizarre reason, it was still a blast!!!  You might imagine the experience would be enough to put me off distance relays forever, but not in the least!  I have not run NER since the inaugural, so I can't speak to whether they've worked out some of their kinks, but 2011 was a pretty good first draft, so I'm confident it's become better and better with each subsequent iteration!

Saturday, April 27, 2013

Tough Guy in Review

On a frigid, flurrying January day, I was being a supportive girlfriend, which also meant I got to play at being an events photographer, and following my boyfriend and his friend as they slogged through Tough Guy, an epic obstacle course race near Wolverhampton, England.  The ground was quite muddy, but I got to wear boots and a coat and hat and gloves and stay out of the water, so I was enjoying myself as I took photos of the guys.  They, however, were sopping wet and muddy climbing through trenches and tunnels and over rope obstacles and steep hills and fences and logs for about three hours.  And by the time they finished, just barely outside the throes of hypothermia, I had for some reason decided that I wanted to do this too.  What fun!

Tough Guy is the granddaddy of obstacle course races.  It's been taking place for almost two decades, long before the current rage of obstacle racing.  There are two main events: Tough Guy, which takes place in January, and Nettle Warrior, which is essentially the same course but happens in July instead.  Warmer, but nettle-ier.  In my opinion, Tough Guy obstacles are quite a bit more daunting than those encountered in Tough Mudder and Spartan Race and the like, because they are permanent fixtures.  The charity that coordinates the race owns the property upon which it is run, so the obstacles do not have to be put up in just a couple days for a single weekend's racing and then removed again.  This allows them to build some scary stuff!  I still have a vivid memory of being halfway up one of the rope ladders (so approximately 20 feet or so up in the air) when my arms gave out.  For a couple panicked minutes, I had to hang there, suspended in mid-air, looping my arms through the ladder so I wouldn't fall off, until I could cobble together enough strength to finish the climb to the top.  (Of course then I had to come down the other side ... but I'm getting ahead of myself.)

I obviously missed my chance to participate in Tough Guy (January), but my boyfriend was crazy enough to want another go at the course, so we rallied a few friends and returned for Nettle Warrior (July)!  It was a very chilly summer day, unfortunately, but we survived all the water obstacles.  We ran up steep hills, and then back down them, and up again, repeatedly.  We climbed through mud trenches, hurdled logs and fences, scaled 40-foot rope obstacles, shimmied along single ropes slung over pits of muddy water, jumped off planks, paddled make-shift rafts with impromptu teams of fellow racers, toted logs, and belly-crawled through dark, damp tunnels and nose-deep mud under barbed wire.  It took about three hours to finally cross the finish, and I was so very proud of myself for what I had just survived and accomplished.  I was bruised, cut, muddy, and welted from the stinging nettles.  I was utterly exhausted.  I had never done anything like that race in my entire life, at least up until that time .... I've a few more under my belt at this point.  But Tough Guy set the standard so high that no other race has been able to beat, let alone match, that initial experience.  I found it to be the most challenging obstacle race I have ever done.  Correspondingly, it was also the most satisfactory finish!  :D

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Roatan Paradise

When it's been snowing on and off for five months and the temperature has not been above 40 F in that same period, it is time for a vacation to remember what it feels like to be WARM.  So take that, Winter ... I escaped to Roatan, Honduras!

I had never heard of this beautiful little island until a friend's aunt relocated there for the winter and invited us to visit.  We didn't even think about that offer ... immediate YES!  Plane tickets first, planning later.

Roatan is amazing.  I know that one big reason it was a fantastic trip was because we had "local" guides who already knew their way around, so we didn't suffer through the usual bumbling trial and error of trying to scope out the lay of the land and figure out the good places to eat and hang out and snorkel and all of that.  Not only has my friend's aunt already been there for a month or so, but she has met an amazing group of expats who have lived there for a year or more, so we were in good hands!

Monday, March 25, 2013

GORUCK in Review

I am certified.

No, not crazy.  Although I think I've proven that already.  I'm GoRuck Tough!

Instead of drinking myself into oblivion like many people do on St. Patrick's Day, especially in Boston, I completed a GoRuck Challenge.  I guess technically GoRuck was the day before St. Patty's, but it wore me out to such an extent that I didn't celebrate on the 17th because I was too sore and sleepy.

So anyway, what is this madness?  GoRuck is a team-oriented endurance event run by former Special Forces guys.  Each person on the team carries a ruck containing bricks.  The number of bricks is determined by your own body weight.  Team sizes vary per the number of people signed up for the Challenge, but ours was approximately 30 people of all shapes, sizes, and abilities.  Lastly, each team has at least one "team weight" which must accompany them for the duration of the Challenge.  It can be anything, as long as it weighs 25 lbs.  (Case of beer!) 

Thursday, March 14, 2013

The Original in Review

In late September 2009, I conceived of a brilliant idea.  Well, perhaps it would be more accurate to say I remembered a brilliant idea that I had conceived of and subsequently forgotten months earlier.  When I first moved to Europe in 2008, I decided that I should definitely run my first marathon while I was there, and that first marathon should be none other than the original course from Marathon to Athens in Greece, a race which takes place every November.

Time passed.

I didn't completely forget about this plan.  On my first trip to Greece in February 2009, I was in Athens and stopped to see the Olympic Stadium, which is where the race ends.  I took a photo at that stadium.  The label on the photo says, "One day I will finish a marathon here."

More time passed.

This brings us back to late September 2009, when I suddenly realized that it truly was now or never!  I was moving to the U.S. in the summer of 2010, which meant that the 2009 Athens Classic Marathon was the one I had to run!  And it was less than two months away!