Category Archives: Running and Race Reviews

The Semi de Paris 2014

Semi de Paris 2014

Semi de Paris 2014

I signed up for the Semi de Paris (Paris Half Marathon) on the day it opened. I was still on my runner’s high from Dam tot Dam and thinking that since my ten-miler had gone so well, I needed to get a half on the calendar. Amsterdam was right around the corner, by date and geography, but it was sold out (I later got a bib). By chance, I discovered the Semi at the lowest price tier (€40), and I enlisted.

As the new year turned and it became certain that we were moving, I went ahead and booked everything else that meant I couldn’t back down. This included a new (to me) fine point of racing in France: the medical certificate. When I signed up, I saw a note that to pick up your bib, you had to present a doctor’s form stating that you were fit to run in an athletic competition. There was a simple form to download and get your doctor’s stamp on. I’ve raced in the US, the UK, Spain, and the Netherlands, and generally you tick a box absolving the race of liability if you have a heart attack while participating. Not in France. Nevertheless, I knew I was fit and figured it couldn’t be a big deal.

This was incorrect, as I discovered when I called my huisarts and was told that I would have to pay between 90-150 Euros for a doctor to attest to my fitness, not reimbursable by my insurance because I wasn’t sick. (“But if you know I’m not sick,” I argued, “can’t you just sign it?”) The unfairness of this form was not, to my mind, that it had to be done—but how non-standard the fulfillment of it is, dependent on where you live. I scoured runners’ message boards and read that in the UK and US, people mostly found that their doctors (or their doctors’ receptionists) would smack a stamp on there for $5, free, or maybe $20 if they did a quick exam. In France, a friend explained, your family doctor would know you so intimately from your regular check-ups, that they would also sign away. But the Dutch approach was not confined to my own doctor; I confirmed this. I also confirmed that the French were serious about the certificate—no form, no bib. (“You could bandit,” my sister said. “You paid for the race.”)

Everyone offered to forge to form for me. Several of my husband’s colleagues, who are in fact “doctors,” if not of medicine. “The volunteer who has to take that form from you cannot check 35,000 forms to confirm their authenticity,” more than one person pointed out. And I knew they were correct. But all I could think of was somehow that forged form coming back to haunt me, or having my bib taken away after I suffered through one of my last long runs on a stormy Dutch day with 25mph winds.

And so two weeks before the race I went to the doctor. It was insult to injury from this point on. The doctor lamented the entire time (all ten minutes): “WHY would you want to run a marathon? Isn’t it enough to run to the bus? I am tired just thinking it!”

“Half marathon,” I corrected her several times. And aren’t you a doctor?

To verify my very expensive health, she asked me questions such as: Do you smoke? and: Has anyone in your family died of a heart condition? She weighed me (“You’re not the biggest person, but, I guess you are running a lot.”). She asked if I had any allergies. In the spirit of truthfulness, I declared that I am lactose intolerant. She then asked if I had considered how this would affect my food consumption during the race (at the water stops). I told her that I had considered it.

She poked me in a few different places and said that my vital organs felt normal, and informed me that I have low blood pressure. She never asked about my training, or any of my previous races. She charged me €95. And as all of my friends had said, the fifteen-year-old girl who stamped my form at the Expo on Friday looked at it for all of about two seconds.

Fine.

Between that form and the delightful but last-minute decision that Tim would accompany me to Paris for the weekend and needed train tickets—Paris was becoming an expensive race. I became a little nervous that if I didn’t “do well,” it wouldn’t all have been worth the cost.

Runners at the Metro

Runners at the Metro

On Sunday morning I was up early and on the metro from Cadet all the way out to the end of the no. 1 line, Chateau de Vincennes, and the start of the race. The metro was full of runners, which is always a race-day sight I enjoy. There were food trucks in the start area, including a vendor advertising hot wine at 9 a.m. I love France, I thought.

Race morning outside the Chateau

Race morning outside the Chateau

On some of the runners’ forums where I’d read about the medical form, I’d also read that the start area for this race could be disorganized, and to allow extra time. I was glad I did. I didn’t wait long to check my bag, and I was able to use one of the really, really inadequate quantity of toilets. Of course, I was so early I wanted to use the toilet again about a half hour later, and then I had to get on one of the ridiculous lines. (It was like they didn’t know 35,000+ people were coming.) I found my way into the 2:00 starting corral, and MAN. We waited there forever. There were so many people doing this race; the corrals were massive. I wasn’t even in the last one (AND I DIDN’T FAKE MY ESTIMATED TIME! This is exciting because in the past I’ve been pretty consistently in the back corral, which is demoralizing.).

After between 45-60 minutes in the corral with all of my thousands of new friends, I was ready to go, and we finally did. As we funneled toward the starting arch, I looked back and was amazed by how many people were still behind me. “So many people!” I said to the closest person nearby. She turned out to be a Parisian girl running her first half marathon. She told me how nervous she was, and squeezed my arm a couple times as we began. (I didn’t see her after that, but, Alicia, I hope you did well!) The instant we went under the starting arch, dozens of men peeled off to pee on the side of the road—I guess that’s what happens after too long in the corral. I had to laugh.

Waiting for the runners at Bastille

Waiting for the runners at Bastille

Mentally, the first few miles of a long race are always the hardest for me. It’s when you’re asking: “Do you have it in you?” “Do you feel good enough today?” It was—I should have mentioned—an absolutely gorgeous day. Earlier in the week I’d told a runner who had fond memories of a spring run in Paris that we were too early for that “touch of spring.” I was totally wrong. We had sunshine, and it was around 50 degrees. I couldn’t have been happier, and Paris couldn’t have looked prettier. I saw Tim at our arranged spot right around 10k, and just afterward the course came to the first part where you could really see the Seine, the skyline, and Notre Dame. It was beautiful.

After a slow first mile (congested start), I started cruising, warning myself that I needed to back off a little, but continuing on. This was, mentally, the fastest a race had ever gone for me. I saw Tim at 10k, 11k, and 15k (he said I looked “a bit tired” at 15k, prompting him to say something like: “Only five more!”). It was true—by the back end I was feeling how fast I’d gone earlier. My goal had been 2:05, and around 8-9 miles I started to wonder if 2:00 was in reach; the 2:00 pacer was always just in my field of vision. There may have been some hope for 2:00, until I got to the long, gradual incline around mile 11. Holy goodness. I wasn’t the only person that incline wrecked; people were walking all around me. Don’t walk, don’t walk, I kept urging myself. 2:05 became the goal once again.

Around mile 12 (?) a police convoy came up behind us, blowing sirens and waving all the runners to one side of the course. It didn’t change my stride, but many of us exchanged nervous glances. Boston, I thought; and I’m certain I wasn’t the only one. I said a prayer. As far ahead as I could see, the pack was moving, so it seemed that the course wasn’t being halted. This was encouraging. A few minutes later, we passed what I’m pretty certain was the cause for the police convoy—a medical emergency on the course, and a runner in a heat blanket being lifted into an ambulance.

Then we hit the point where you’re close enough to the finish that you start seeing runners going the other way, in their medals and plastic ponchos, because they’re already done. And you so want to be them. They cheer for you, which is really nice. After twelve miles, I was looking at every click on my Garmin, until I finally crossed at 2:03:56 (new PR!). And then I stood basically still in the giant end-funnel trying not to pitch a fit about how badly I wanted water and how long it took to get it.

Finishing area with Chateau in the background

Finishing area with Chateau in the background

Ah, Paris. We rode the metro all the way back to other parts of the city where there weren’t as many people wearing the unfashionable, blue finishers’ poncho. I showered and hustled faster than anyone who has just run a half marathon should, so that we could have a great, long lunch with two French friends. There is no better city in which to replenish your calories than Paris.

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Carrera Divina Pastora 10K, Valencia

I am susceptible to advertising. Last month at the expo for the Amsterdam Half Marathon, I picked up a free magazine of race calendars and ads. I was flipping through it at home when a race photo caught my eye. Whoa, I said. Where is that?

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The race in question turned out to be the Divina Pastora marathon and 10K in Valencia, Spain. The futuristic, Mediterranean-perfect-water backdrop was a massive complex known as Ciudad de las Artes y las Ciencias–the City of Arts and SciencesDon’t those runners look happy and warm? I mused. A quick search produced budget airfare (Transavia) to Valencia’s airport, and the sense of Valencia as an up-and-coming (but still quite affordable) tourist destination, drawing increasing crowds since hosting the 2007 America’s Cup and opening the various buildings of the City of Arts and Sciences between the late 1990s and early 2000s. Race registrations were made, tickets were bought… and as 17 November approached, Valencia’s weather began to resemble Delft’s far too closely.

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Our AirBnB host and the man who shared our row on the plane contributed to a chorus of apologies for the uncharacteristically cold weather and periodic rain. Saturday afternoon we put on our hats and gloves and bundled up for the expo, while I fretted that I hadn’t brought warm enough race clothes.

The City of Arts and Sciences occupies a nearly two-kilometer stretch of the nine-kilometer Jardines del Turia: the former bed of the Turia River (rerouted in the 1950s after disastrous flooding). The stark white buildings punctuated by waterways are compared to a whale skeleton, Darth Vader’s helmet, and a jamonero (ham slicer). Even after several passes, I had a hard time keeping straight what was what, but the complex includes a music hall (El Palau de les Arts Reina Sofia); a museum (El Museu de les Ciències Príncipe Felipe); and a fantastic, sprawling aquarium (L’Oceanogràfic). We visited the Oceanografic the day after the race—I aim to write another Valencia post about our more touristic activities.

Walking to the start

Walking to the start

The walk from the Alameda metro (closest metro) to the start area took us close to thirty minutes on Saturday, far more than the fifteen our race paperwork claimed; and so on Sunday morning we aimed to catch a bus toward the 9 AM start. Curiously, thousands of other people had the same idea. We arrived at a bus stop clogged with runners (nice, friendly runners) and watched as bus after bus passed without stopping—already jammed full. Not wanting to walk a couple kilometers before beginning a race (especially for the marathoners among us!), we talked about splitting a cab with some others, but couldn’t manage to hail one (like the buses, they were all packed with runners). Tim and I wound up walking the whole way, as did plenty of others. I was having negative thoughts about the organization of the race at this point, but when we finally reached the start area, things were pretty functional. Bag drop was seamless and fast, and although I was cold, the sun was out and I was jumping up and down in my start corral soon enough.

I’d like to lament for a moment the plight of the “average” runner. I train. I race. I run several times a week. I’m improving. I’m fit. And I’m still running mile times between 8:45 and 9:30 in a 10K. Doing a race reminds me that I am in a very common pace group. Too common, you might think as you stand in a jam-packed corral (sometimes it’s the back corral, which never feels very nice). As I waited for the start in Valencia, I determined that I needed to pass people, early and often; otherwise I would run the risk of being stuck in a pack too dense to do my best.  Go out fast, I told myself. Back off later. This is, some of you are thinking, the exact opposite of what runners are supposed to do.

Elite runners! Very near the finish of the marathon

Elite runners! Very near the finish of the marathon

But for me, right now, this is a pretty good philosophy. I tend to hold back, afraid of tanking later on. Pushing myself early, in a distance like 10K, can actually result in surprises. In this case, it was a 55:14 race, my first 10K under an hour—and even though I went out fast, I had negative splits the entire way, with a 6th mile of 8:12. Crossing that bridge with the water on either side felt just as good as I’d imagined—even if it was a little chillier in real life.

Afterward, the sun was strong enough that I believed we were truly on the Mediterranean, and we hung around to watch the finish of the marathon. I have so much respect for marathoners. I aspire to do one some day, but I still can’t stop thinking: It’s SO FAR. While we waited on a bridge and the first men appeared, two girls who were passing asked us how many kilometers the race was. Using his high-school Spanish, Tim told them it was cuarenta y dos, and I didn’t need to know the language to understand how appalled they were!

Great viewpoint waiting for the elite marathoners

Great viewpoint waiting for the elite marathoners

Organization: Mostly good. The expo was interesting, and picking up our packets was smooth. There were lots of signage and maps available, near and on the course. There was an adequate distribution of Porta-Potties. In fact, an hour or so after the race, I popped into one, and it still had plenty of toilet paper, as well as running water to wash your hands–-what?! 

The only down would be on the city for not better handling the flow of people on public transportation that morning.

Race atmosphere: Great! Good music on the course, plenty of fans most of the way, a relatively scenic course and good vibes overall.

Volunteers starting young!

Volunteers starting young!

Race SWAG: Pretty good, for an €18 entry! When we picked up our bibs they were already out of the t-shirts in everything but XL and XXL, so that was a fail. (This always mystifies me, because in the general pool of a race, you need a lot more shirts size S or M than XXL.) The shirt design was just OK, so we didn’t feel too deprived.

There was a plastic bag of the usual random stuff they give out at races, but the best part was after I crossed the finish line. Last month I ran the Amsterdam Half Marathon and became hostile after finishing when there were basically no post-race amenities (aside from a plastic poncho-wrap). In Amsterdam, there was a massive, clogged queue to get a single bottle of sports drink, and I was incredibly thirsty. In Valencia, within moments of crossing the finish I was given a full-size bottle of water, a full-size sports drink, and an entire bag of oranges. No joke! There was also beer (Amstel was a sponsor- I passed) and free massage tables.

Crates of oranges for the runners

Crates of oranges for the runners

Would I do this race again? Yes! I don’t know if I’d make the effort to get to Spain just to do it, but I’d certainly recommend the race. The race was enjoyable and successful, and a long weekend poking around Valencia was fun, too. On that note, to be continued.

Next race: Semi-Marathon de Paris (Paris half), 2 March 2014

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Runner’s(/s’) High in Amsterdam: Dam tot Dam 2013

It’s been a goal of ours to do an Amsterdam race while we live in the Netherlands (we’ve done others in the NL—CPC in den Haag and the Zevenheuvelenloop in Nijmegen, plus Tim did the Leiden Half and something in Rotterdam). With the half marathon (and the full marathon) sounding a little too ambitious for this fall, we registered in March for Dam tot Dam, a 10-mile September race that sells out the day it opens. (This was my first time online-queueing to register for a race! It’s stressful!)

After a week+ of more or less constant rain, and the first days where I saw fur-trimmed coats at the train, summer seemed to shake its falling fist one last time this weekend. Race day (yesterday) was cloudy, but rain-free, hovering right around 20 C. Suddenly Raceday Eve involved not questions about running in a raincoat, but about hydration and keeping cool on the course. I ran in shorts, and let me tell you, I don’t run in shorts unless I am absolutely certain I won’t be cold.

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Dam tot Dam is large, in that Dutch race style that has been the bane of my running existence at events like the recent CPC. Literally 55,000 people ran yesterday, according to my race emails, and the waves went on for hours: elites, business-run corporate teams, and then us regular folks. One of our Dutch friends kind of pooh-poohed Dam tot Dam when we mentioned it, implying that any Dutch person who’s ever gone out for a jog will sign up for Dam tot Dam. Well, let me tell you:

I am one of those people, because I loved this race.

Amsterdam pre-race

Amsterdam pre-race

Dam tot Dam was the most fun I’ve had at a race in several races. With the music, spectators, and overall festive vibe, it was more like what I’d imagined a Rock and Roll would be when we did the (devoid of all spectators) Edinburgh Half. The one-way Dam tot Dam course began just beyond the Centraal Station in Amsterdam, and finished in Zaandam (way too far from the station in Zaandam). I waited in my running pen at 2:30 looking up at the canal houses on the Prins Hendrikkade and marveling about how every building in Amsterdam is different, and knowing to raise my hand and cheer when the announcer asked who was running the race for the eerste keer. I remembered to hit “start” on my new Garmin when I finally funneled through the starting gate. We were off.

I know I’ve said this before, but it’s still true: I love kilometers. I train in miles, and so when that first or second kilometer mark pops up in a race, I get so excited. In this case, Dam tot Dam evacuates central Amsterdam pretty quickly—the course disappears right away into the Ijtunnel. Just before we passed into the tunnel we went under NEMO, where people were outside cheering on the runners. Inside the tunnel a percussion band was playing and the beat was echoing everywhere. Racing is awesome, I was thinking. Then I wondered if maybe my problem in races is that I get my runner’s high in the first ten minutes (?).

Coming out of the tunnel

Coming out of the tunnel

In an unexpected wrinkle, my Garmin lost its signal in the tunnel, and we were in that tunnel for a while. It was hot in the tunnel, and I wasn’t sad to come out of it. From this point on there was an ongoing math problem in my head, because my watch was counting miles, and it had lost some ground in the tunnel. The race had kilometer markers, and I knew I should be able to figure out based on those how many miles I was at…

I don’t really do race math.

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And I don’t run with a camera, but if I were to do a race with one, this would have been a winner. Even without it, the race is like a series of snapshots in my mind. We popped out of the Ijtunnel around 2k, and immediately people started peeling off to pee along the side of the course. We quickly came into the neighborhoods of Amsterdam Noord, which were really fun. There had been thick crowds at the start of the race, and there would be thick crowds at the end in Zaandam, but in the middle we ran through a lot of neighborhoods. Residents had strung colorful Dutch flags (I think of them as the Hoera! flags) across the streets and people were out having parties in their driveways and outside pubs. Kids were waiting to high-five runners (I always high-five kids if I can) and a fair number of people were offering their own water stands, which was great, because this race was warm.

I was sweating quite a lot by the time I cleared the tunnel; and from about 3km, water was seriously on my mind. I want to personally hug every spectator along that course who set out a hose or sprinkler. When I saw the first one, I did the Jersey Slide across about 25 runners to make sure I got under that cold water. Those hoses were life-savers, although I was a bit intimidated by the one woman who seemed to have a fire-department-force hose… and the really happy guy with the Super Soaker.

Around 6k a big unleashed dog wandered into the race. I was not pleased by this and had to run faster. Shortly afterward I realized I was running a little ways behind a guy in a bear suit. (I can’t even imagine how hot he must have been.) I had to pass him, although it took me a couple kilometers to do it. You can’t get beat by the guy in a bear suit.

A variety of people with signs, stereos, or impromptu bands kept the course interesting and gave the middle of the race a really fun atmosphere. I even saw a woman painting her impressions of the race on a huge canvas, while all the neighborhood kids watched. (These fans must have all taken Run Like a Girl’s spectating course!) Of course, I was in a pretty late wave, so some of these people had been yard-partying for half a day by the time I got there.

I don’t know how much of it was mental, the product of a good day and a fun course, but I felt great during this run. I kept thinking that I must run out of steam soon, but I didn’t. I kept ticking off those kilometers, and was pumped when I crossed to the double-digits. When we came into Zaandam, I was amazed by how thick the crowds got along the route. (All along the course, even though I didn’t think any of our friends were there, I scanned constantly for anyone I might know! OK, and a couple times I waved to strangers for the heck of it.)

During the very last stretch of the race, maybe 1-1:30, I raced some guy. He was running alongside me and we both seemed to still have some energy so I dared myself to try and stick with him. At the very end he pulled ahead, but high-fived me after we crossed the finish (during those crucial 10 seconds where you decide if you’re about to heave on the ground or not).

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Victory pizza has rarely tasted so good! Of the Dutch races we’ve done, I’d recommend this well over CPC den Haag, particularly for the attractiveness of the course— as well as the crowdedness factor. Even though Dam tot Dam was huge, I never felt as trapped in the pack as I did in CPC. Zevenheuvelenloop had a very pretty course (more rural) but less fan support and interesting things along the way.

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Plus, look at this crazy building in Zaandam, which we passed on the way to the station! It was a hotel. Along this whole stretch of faux-traditional Dutch buildings, I felt like I was in Disneyland. Or maybe I’d passed by one too many race-side parties…

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Just Let Me Run

The day before the bombings at the Boston Marathon, I was privileged to be a spectator at the Rotterdam Marathon & 10K in nearby Rotterdam, the Netherlands.

Marathoners!

Marathoners! just starting out (note the grim determination and cautious optimism)

The full marathon began at 10:30, and the 10K followed from the same starting gate on a different route after a delay (to get all those marathoners on their long, long way). I don’t normally watch races, since I only started attending them around the time I began running them. But on Sunday, Tim was running the 10K, so after wishing him luck in startvak B, I set out to find a good viewing position.

And was promptly stuck in a suffocating, absolutely stationary crowd of fans.

I began to despair that I would ever get near the course, and even after I finally did—I realized that the course ran on a lot of divided roads (tram tracks or an underpass in the middle), making it very difficult to pick out a specific runner, unless you had predetermined on which side he intended to run (we had not). As the runners with B on their bibs faded to Cs and Ds, I realized I had missed him, and I was disappointed and frustrated. Together with an Israeli woman I had just met, I raced through more crowds to try and find a view of the back end of the course.

I finally saw Tim as he passed with about a mile to go. He ran right by with a big smile and thumbs up, as I pushed the button on my camera over and over again with no effect—I’d shut it off.

Passing under Rotterdam's famous Cube Houses

Passing under Rotterdam’s famous Cube Houses

Seriously, I was thinking, watching a race is so much more stressful than running it. Just let me run.

This was a day before spectators at Boston were blasted by explosives.

My sister (who ran a 3:31:40 in Boston’s heat-wave marathon of 2012) was a spectator at Boston on Monday. She wasn’t hurt. She would have been running, but for an injury. Yesterday she blogged her thoughts on the day, and I was so impressed that I wanted to share her reflections with you.

I’m pasting the entry below, but you can link to her original blog here:

One if by land, two if by sea.

I wandered the Boston Marathon expo on Saturday, picked up my packet and shirt, and shed a few tears about the race I wouldn’t run, thanks to continuing issues with my right hip. Thankfully it’s hard to stay sad at the Boston Marathon expo for long.

I watched what I can assume was a first-timer pick up his bib and just stare at it, as if it would bite him. I watched a mess of runners anxiously trying on their shirts, asking family members for advice on fit. I walked through the huge Adidas shop with the official marathon gear and saw excited runners purchasing their signature Boston Marathon jacket. I watched curious runners trying out The Stick (seriously, what runner hasn’t heard of The Stick by now?), and walked on to the pop-up shops of the big athletic companies.

One of my favorite things about the Boston Marathon expo is that several huge athletic brands make entire lines of clothing just for Boston every year, and every year each brand has a theme. These shops make us average runners feel like professionals, offering race gear tailored to our race, each with bigger and better slogans on the best new fabrics.

It may sound odd and a little tacky, but New Balance‘s Paul Revere theme brought me out of my funk, and reinforced my excitement to cheer.

from the Expo

from the Expo

I explained Paul Revere’s Midnight Ride to my boyfriend, not originally from the United States, as we wandered through the New Balance shop two days before the race:

The night of April 18th, 1775 Paul Revere eluded British patrol to alert church vestrymen to light two lanterns in the North Church of Charlestown, signifying that British troops were approaching Lexington via the Charles River. Revere then rode on horseback to Lexington to warn the Massachusetts Congress, alerting other riders and every house on his journey. The alarms enabled the militia to meet the British soldiers before they reached Lexington, who then retreated to Boston.

This day and the successes of the ensuing battles are celebrated in Massachusetts as Patriots’ Day, now a public holiday that includes the annual running of the Boston Marathon and a late morning Red Sox game.

Each brightly colored shirt, pair of shorts and tights, and even the shoes in the New Balance shop had a logo of Paul Revere riding to Lexington holding a glowing lantern, and the gear was loaded with reflective material. Super practical and so freaking cool. High five, New Balance.

One of the first solid facts to come out of the tragedy that occurred yesterday was that the police had no knowledge that this attack was coming. There was no warning, no one to light a lantern or ride through the streets. Boston did not have a modern-day Paul Revere to prevent the fatalities and injuries from the bombs on Boylston Street yesterday.

What Boston had was an enormous number of people with the same spirit Revere had in 1775, the spirit to help and protect friends, family, and total strangers, and minimize casualties. People from all over lit their own lanterns in Boston this Patriots’ Day.

Marathoners ran through the finish area straight to Mass General Hospital to donate blood. Race officials shut down the finish line immediately, preventing further injuries. Emergency personnel, law enforcement, marathon volunteers, and even off-duty army soldiers responded within seconds, running toward the blasts, ushering people to safety or getting them medical attention. Along the marathon course, spectators rushed into their houses to get blankets, water, and food for the thousands of marathoners stopped short of the city. Hundreds of Bostonians offered up their cell phones, cars, spare rooms, and even their living room couches to displaced runners and their families when hotels went on lockdown.

It’s impossible to count or name all of the heroes that lit their lanterns yesterday, and that’s what makes the aftermath of this atrocity bearable.

Ride on, Reveres.

You can follow my sister’s running blog at http://liannerunslikeagirl.wordpress.com and on twitter @runlikeagirl85 . She’s guest-blogged here once before about, of all things, kale.

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CPC 10K 2013

All of you are in my personal space.

All of you are in my personal race space.

Yesterday I ran for the second time the CPC 10k race in den Haag. The CPC event features a kids’ run, a 5k, 10k, and half marathon (all run at separate times). It’s the biggest race event in the Hague. The webpage rotates photos of red-cheeked girls in tank-tops… guys in short-shorts… thousands of runners with their bare arms raised in the air.

None of these pictures were taken yesterday. Yesterday the weather hovered around freezing, so that I could watch my breath while I ran (when I wasn’t watching the snow flurries that began around mile 3). Even though the earlier days of this week were downright springy, Saturday night had me making sure that my winter tights and warmest running top were clean.

After heavy rain on Saturday, the start/finish area at the Malieveld was an absolute mudpit. It was like Dutch Woodstock out there, except with less music and more runners. I slogged my way to a bank of porta-potties, then across the field to the bag drop. My stretching routine was compromised by the lack of any place to sit, barring inches-deep mud.

Still, I’d take mud over 1 degree temps. But it didn’t matter: I got both.

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My recollection from 2011 was that this was a very crowded race. In 2013, I and my 7,399 closest friends set out in two waves staggered ten minutes apart (I was in the 2nd. I now think it would have been smarter to start at the very back of the first wave). Unfortunately, the staggering did absolutely nothing to reduce the congestion in the pack. CPC could take a lesson from the great and simple funneling system the Zevenheuvelenloop used, which ensured that every runner hit the start—well, running. For the first mile and beyond, there were so many runners in my personal space that we were constantly stepping on each other’s shoes, and I am certain I was not the only one who couldn’t settle into my normal pace. Even if you wanted to pass people—there was nowhere to go. I doubt I was the only person who finally had to throw an elbow or two to advance. (Also, my sincere apologies to the guy I snot-rocketed directly on around mile 3.)

In the second mile, people were running off-road on the sidewalks and tram tracks just to find space to get around. And on some of the residential streets (which are quite narrow to begin with), cars were parked! Come on—if this is such a big event for the Hague, clear the streets. That would help a little with the overcrowding.

Right around the halfway point of the 10k, there’s a hill. I knew the hill was coming and I was ready for it—because I knew that finally, the hill would force the pack to thin out a bit. There was also a water station (the only one on the course), and that drew a lot of runners to one side. From there on out, there were still a lot of people, but I had enough space to run comfortably.

This was the first race I have ever run with a GPS watch (Tim’s Garmin Forerunner 110). I have to confess: I liked it. I’ve never been a runner who obsesses about my time, usually telling myself that I know I’m not that fast and I just run for my health. More recently I started tracking my paces and realized that I was running half marathons at a very similar pace to 10ks and even shorter runs. (Warning bells.)

Never running with a watch meant that I usually had no idea of my time until I finished a race. Because I start late in the pack, the “official” clocks on the route don’t indicate my time. When we ran Edinburgh, for example, I didn’t see the official clock when I finally crossed the start line, so I wasn’t sure how off from it I was. It was something like 20 minutes. Anyway—then sometimes afterward I’m disappointed because I “thought I was faster.” Clearly, the Garmin takes the mystery out of that. Running my regular runs with the Garmin helped me realize that I run ridiculous, uneven splits: my first mile might be around 10:30 or even 11:00, but then my subsequent miles drop off by as much as a minute each time. For this race, I set out to start at my “normal” starting pace, and then decrease each mile not by minutes but by reasonable, comfortable increments for an average of 10-minute miles. Near the end, I realized I was very close to finishing in under an hour and tried to push for it, but came in at 1:00:45 (which was still a PR for me). I think without the congestion early in the race, I’d have done it.

"Take the picture; I'm freezing."

“Take the picture; I’m freezing.”

After waiting in a huge swarm of people for my free sport drink and my medal, I slogged back through the mud field and was able to find Tim. I was SO COLD by the time the race-warmth wore off. Then I was just sweaty and freezing. We got on a train back to Delft with a group of other runners, one of whom tried to congratulate me by name (from my bib). My confusing name (see Zevenheuvelenloop post) stumped him, and someone else had to tell me it was my name he was attempting to pronounce.

I’m the sort of runner who needs some races on the calendar to help me keep motivated, and so I’m glad I did the 2013 CPC. It’s close to home, and it’s not an expensive race (I paid €19 no shirt, and it was cheaper earlier). The accessibility might tempt me again, but I’m going to reread this post and remember how I felt about the density of the race. I’m sure it’s a fine line, deciding how many people to allow in a race. You want that “race crowd” atmosphere, for sure. But for a mid-pack runner, an overcrowded race just doesn’t set you up for your best time.

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Zevenheuvelenloop 2012

“A Dutch race in November,” I commented to Tim as we stood in the rain. “Whose idea was that?” Unfortunately, it was mine.

Walking from the train station

The race was the 15K Zevenheuvelenloop, the Seven Hills run of Nijmegen, and until about ten days ago I didn’t think I would be running it. I’d found it months ago and gotten Tim to sign up. But at the beginning of September I had a non-running-related injury that forced me to take six weeks off from running, so I had assumed I wasn’t up to the distance. I had been slowly getting back into things in October, doing two miles here, three miles there. Not really, say, nine miles.

The race is one of the most popular in the Netherlands, and apparently some other people know about it, too. When I sent the link to my sister, she looked up the 2011 results and sent back an all-caps bulletin of high urgency informing me that the race had most recently been won by HAILE GEBRSELASSIE. (“A LIVING LEGEND!”) Knowing that I was about to lose face with her running club, I wrote back admitting I had no clue who that was. But the upshot was that the race is known for fast times and attracts an elite set of competitors (in addition to the 29,000 regular people, who by my estimation were almost exclusively Dutch). Since I wasn’t going to run, she insisted, I should at least watch the elites. OK, I thought. Plus, it would be nice to cheer for Tim.

But as the race got closer, I found myself more and more annoyed that I wasn’t going to be running, too. “Maybe I could squeak it out,” I began saying. “I could do it, maybe.” “I mean, I ran a half in the spring….” Finally I went on the race website, “just to look,” and discovered it was sold out. I was disappointed, but noticed that there was actually an official overdracht on the website—a legit way for runners who had bought bibs but couldn’t run to transfer them to people like me. I ran five miles, felt fine, posted a message on the board, and by that evening had four separate e-mails from injured runners wanting to sell me their bib at cost. I picked one, and the transfer took place.

Then I had to go out and run a bunch.

But by this Sunday, I thought I was in reasonably good shape, and we were off to the train station for the two-hour journey to Nijmegen. Right away I got the giddy race-feeling. The train to den Haag was full of runners, and the train from den Haag to Utrecht was so full that runners were standing. (I was lucky enough to have a seat.) The train to Nijmegen unloaded hoards of runners into the street.

We followed the signs to the t-shirt pickup, and then to an underground parking garage being used as a changing area. (No shame in races—we walked in and were immediately greeted by a bare female backside.) There were several of these changing areas, and most people were hanging out in them because, well, it was raining. Combined with the chilly temperature, the rain—although not heavy—was decidedly unpleasant. In the garage people were pulling on garbage bags and wrapping space blankets around themselves. We had not been so prescient as to bring either, but I had a large shopping bag which I calculated was wide enough to cover my shoulders. We made the adjustments and I wore it until the start, thankfully not really realizing how stupid I looked.

The immediate disappointment when I received my new bib had been the colored circle indicating the original owner’s start corral: purple—the last one. Now, I am not fast at all. But I really didn’t want to start in the last corral. At the minimum, this means you stand around for-ev-er, getting cold and antsy and bored while everyone else is running. It’s kind of anticlimactic. I  can’t find what the delineations were, but I was (delusionally?) sure I would have been at least a couple corrals better. And on race day, the rain intensified my disinclination to wait for that late start.

The corrals were broken into two major waves, and although this jarred my rule-following nature, I decided to see if I could slip into the back of the first wave. To my chagrin, volunteers were checking the bib colors entering the area. I decided to plead my case and asked the girl if I could go ahead, since my bib was an overdracht, and (I insisted) I was faster than the original runner. “What time will you run?” she asked, and I was excited to see that she was not opposed to the idea. However, thinking about times is not really my strong suit. I don’t run with a watch. I don’t think a lot about my times. I just think about finishing. Therefore, I answered this question in a manner I later understood to be completely unrealistic.

Well, she let me through. Right after she did, a man slyly showed me that he, too, had a corral bib from the second wave, but had hidden it under his jacket. Partners in crime, we inched toward the start; the race was already in progress and the rain was letting up. It still took almost thirty minutes (from the gun) for my pack to crawl toward the line. Kenyans were nearly finishing by the time I started running. In the last moments before we passed under the inflatable arch, runners were all yanking off garbage bags and plastic ponchos and chucking them aside. I fondly cast away my polka-dotted bag, and we were off.

The pack I started in was, in fact, a bit fast for me. I got passed a lot in those first couple kilometers, and just tried to be OK with it, sticking to the far right of the road and concentrating on keeping my own pace. Most of the runners around were overall faster, but it’s never too long into a race before you encounter someone who’s started walking. Even in the first couple k’s I got passed by people panting, running all-out like a monster was chasing them. In the absence of an actual monster, most people cannot maintain monster-pace for any length of time. You pass them walking later on.

When I pass people off to the side looking pained, or turning back only a few k’s in and walking toward the start, I feel sad for them. I passed a few of those people in the first third, too, especially after the first hill came into view. Or maybe it was the second hill. All I remember is that suddenly, I could look ahead and see all the runners before me climbing this monstrous incline. I thought of harsh words, and plowed along. Although I am not speedy, I do all right at hills. I don’t walk, and so this is a spot where I actually pass people. Whenever it seemed intense, I would remind myself of two things:

  • YOU RAN EDINBURGH AND THAT WAS MUCH WORSE THAN THIS.

See miles 4 through 7, and also 8.

  • DON’T CRY–RUN.

This was actually a sign I passed on the course, big black letters on white paper. There weren’t a lot of signs (race fans—make signs! Give the runners something to read and laugh at or be encouraged by!), so this one caught my eye. Simple, but effective. Don’t think about the hills, don’t feel bad for yourself because you had to take six weeks off—just run.

I had taken a Sharpie and blacked out the name CISKA on my bib, scrawling in MEG. People really will cheer for strangers by name, and this resulted in a periodic source of amusement for me, as I realized: the Dutch are very uncertain how to pronounce my name. The hard g in Megan (forget the h) is not a Dutch g. Dutch g’s sound more like an h + a throat sound… for example, the famous cheese town that Americans pronounce Goo-da is in Dutch more like How-da. Early in the race, I heard a lot of “Go, Joris!” “Hoi, Elsa!”… and then: “Yay… Meh?” At least three separate times I heard odd guesses at pronouncing my unusual name, including an older man who added the diminutive -je, making it Meh-je. 

If you usually run in miles, let me tell you: you will love kilometers. It didn’t make the race any shorter, but when I passed the 1 km flag, I couldn’t believe it. Fourteen more of those? OK! It was comforting to know that a kilometer flag was never more than a few minutes away. Mile flags can feel impossibly far.

start/finish area

The middle third of the race was hilly and felt a bit long, but once I saw that 10k flag, I knew it was all going to be fine. I ate a honey packet and had enough energy coming into the final k. This turned out to be useful because: 1. in the final 750 m, a middle-aged dude threw me an elbow for no apparent reason, and this meant I had to beat him. (I did.) 2. in the final 250 meters, I literally had to jump out of the way when a girl next to me started throwing up while running. Missed my shoes by inches. Yikes!

We celebrated with pizza at VIP and pooled some pros and cons of the race itself, as compared to other races we’ve run…

Pros:

  • Tons of port-a-potties! Seriously, the most port-a-cans I’ve ever seen at a race. They were even in the starting corrals.
  • A funnel at the start line as your corral edged toward it, which basically ensured that you actually started by running, not walking/shoving/trying to find room.
  • The simple overdracht system, legally allowing runners to transfer their bibs.
  • Low cost (the race entry itself was, I think €19,50). The Dutch races often let you pay the base cost and then add if you want additional fees for a shirt, a medal, and a chip (you can use your own). If you run a lot of races, saving money by not taking the shirt and the medal is a great option.
  • Really awesome shirt, at least this year’s iteration.
  • Good, if not overwhelming, crowd engagement throughout the course.
  • Deliberate eco-consciousness exhibited in the race structure, materials, etc.
  • Nice scenery, mostly in the countryside, yet the start was very convenient to public transportation.

Cons:

  • Poorly informed volunteers. We asked a volunteer where the bag check was and she told us it was only informal—we could leave our bags in the big underground garage of changing areas. We were surprised, but figured, OK. So we left our bags and walked to the start… and passed the giant tents of official bag checks. I wound up scrambling back to the garage to retrieve my bag and rushing to check it—unnecessarily stressful.
  • Signage only in Dutch, could be confusing if you were an international participant.
  • Bad smells. I know this doesn’t make sense, but I thought it the whole race and then Tim commented on it before I mentioned it: the race smelled bad! I don’t know if there was something about the conditions that led to extremely intensified BO, but… it stank.
  • Essentially no amenities after you finished. We got one small bottle of sports drink and that was it. No oranges, no food, nothing.

All in all it was a fun and personally satisfying race. I don’t know that I’d be dying to do it again next year, but I enjoyed it, and I’m grateful for my late bib!

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Edinburgh

Green. Ancient. Hilly. Harry Potter. Scotland the Brave.

An hour and five minutes northwest from Amsterdam on EasyJet last weekend plunked us down on the outskirts of Edinburgh, Scotland, where we aimed to run the Rock ‘n’ Roll Edinburgh Half Marathon and have fun storming the castle. Despite being a wee bit nippier than Amsterdam (bring out the winter coats…again!), Edinburgh was overwhelmingly green. There is green in the heart of the city where the airport bus dropped us off; there are rolling green hills on the (vaguely uphill) walk to our B&B; and there is the wide green mound of Arthur’s Seat rising up from Holyrood Park.

Arthur’s Seat is the bump to the right.

If you are such a person as enjoys drinking games, I’d suggest one on all variations of “hill” or “up.”  

I loved the feeling, even walking the Royal Mile, of the natural landscape making itself known. From any elevated point we could see the sea, or the hilly countryside sprawling away.

Looking down the Royal Mile toward Holyrood Park and the sea

It wasn’t hard to imagine this spot as a desirable, defensible position for a settlement—which it has been since the Bronze Age. The Romans trekked in and found Celtic tribes in residence; the castle (more on that later) existed by the 11th century. It was slightly hard to imagine it as the place I was about to run 13.1 miles.

This golden unicorn is wishing me luck.

On Sunday morning we made our way to the start (at Holyrood), creating the “Eddie Bauer Hobo” look by throwing extra clothes over our running gear (until we went to the corrals). Being in the tenth corral, I had a lot of time to jump up and down and think about being cold. And running. And hoping I’d used the Porta-Potty recently enough to make it through the course.

I’d seen the elevation chart, but I’m sufficiently immune to graphs that I wasn’t overly upset. I just knew we started slightly downhill (don’t try and go fast; it’ll get you later on), and then went uphill, a lot; and then really uphill at around mile 8. In retrospect, if I’d really understood the elevation graph, I might have been too intimidated to sign up for this race (and it’s a good thing I wasn’t—because then I wouldn’t have totally done it!).

This race never approached the atmosphere I loved about the Philadelphia Half. The course was infinitely more scenic, nature-wise, but utterly devoid of fans. Miles 1-6-ish took us through residential neighborhoods where here and there a family with coffee mugs would stare at us as we passed. I could smell bacon. Throughout the course, the only real cheers I felt came from the friendly cops manning the intersections.

Beyond the dead-zone feeling, this race’s other downer appeared at the first water stop: not little paper cups, but full, plastic water bottles. What?! For shame, Rock ‘n’ Roll. No runner wants a full bottle of water every 2 miles! You take a sip, maybe 2, and chuck the cup. The roadside was covered with a thousand bottles, a waste of plastic and water—and at the first stop, the volunteers weren’t even unscrewing the caps. My eco-indignation got me through a good solid mile as I planned my post-race note (sent).

But nothing disguised the fact that we were running up. And upper. All around me people were walking, and I was just telling myself to plug onward, no walking. The mile markers kept on coming and soon I was around 7-8, where I knew the biggest hill came. Sure enough, a stretch appeared that was so, so steep. I couldn’t believe it. All I could do was make myself keep running: get it over with! I tried to track with two different other runners at this point: a man in little shorts and a red-and-white striped tank—I thought of him as “old-fashioned bather man”—and a UK Coast Guard guy. I stuck with them until we cleared the hill, and then I ate some honey before I passed out.

I had told myself that it was “all downhill” from there, but it really wasn’t. Small hills kept creeping up, and even as the announcer at mile 12 yelled, “You’re almost there and it’s all downhill!” I nearly had to yell back, “Shut up and stop lying!” because we were running uphill at that exact moment. Ugh!

I have to encourage myself as I run, so I made sure to shout “Harry Potter!” as we ran by The Elephant House, the cafe where J.K. Rowling would sit and work on the early Harry Potter books. We’d been there the day before for coffee and found it a bit of a tourist trap now (all the staff wearing “Birthplace of Harry Potter” t-shirts, waiters cramming you in to shared tables to max out capacity) but for an hour, it was a worthwhile pilgrimage. We sat at a table with a view to Edinburgh Castle (looking very Hogwartsy) and enjoyed the HP-themed graffiti blanketing the restrooms.

I finished the race, even managing to improve on my time at Philly (a much flatter course!). Our legs survived to spend two days after touring the city and its main sight, the castle (below). Come back to the blog soon for more on that, and in the meantime:

If you’re hazy on your UK-Britain-Scotland, here are two informative (and humorous, and short) videos:

How Scotland Joined Great Britain and The Difference Between the United Kingdom, Great Britain, and England Explained

and here is a rendition of “Scotland the Brave” from Edinburgh’s famous military tattoo.

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