2017 Race #2: Puerto Rico Half Marathon, San Juan, PR

Date: March 12, 2017
Gun Time: 1:40:02
Chip Time: 1:39:48
Placing Overall: 29th out of 760
Placing in Age Group: 4th out of 80 (M40-44)
Theme Song: San Juan“, Daniel Lanois

Note to self: don’t schedule a half marathon at the end of a vacation again.

If you’ve never been to Puerto Rico, get on a damn plane and go there now. I’ve been there four times, and the place never disappoints. It’s got everything: stunning beaches, verdant rain forests, winding mountain roads, great food, friendly people. Old San Juan is one of the most atmospheric locations in the Americas, and of course the temperatures in the 80s in early March are most welcome when the frigid north is being lashed by snowstorms.

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Half marathon? What half marathon?

Now, the problem with all this for me was trying to exercise some restraint in the days leading up to the race, which was, well, basically impossible given the many, many available enticements. Instead of juicing and eating light protein laden meals, I was guzzling rum and Medalla Light and chowing down on spit-roasted pig. I ate mountains of tostones and mofongo and justified it by telling myself I was carbo-loading. And, I decided to take a few days off running because I had a shin that was a little tweaked, but probably took more time than was necessary, to the point that I was feeling pretty sluggish.

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Ah, mofongo. My delicious, delicious nemesis.

When I did run, most of my outings were in a place called Betances where we had a house rented. On the one hand, it was great, because there was little traffic and east of town the scene became decidedly rural and beautiful, my route crossing rivers and meandering under 30 foot coconut palms. On the other, Betances, like a lot of places in Puerto Rico, has a rather large contingent of stray dogs. On the first day, they eyed the strangely pasty interloper in their midst suspiciously, but didn’t do much else. On my second run, though, there was a lot more growling, and I noted one bitch, some kind of hound with droopy nipples and weird grey eyes, was paying me close attention, following me for a few minutes. On my final run there, I met this same dog on my return from running a few blocks away from the house. Bemused, I watched it sprint away from me in the direction I was going, barking like mad, and then all of a sudden four other dogs appeared out of nowhere and the motherfuckers chased me for a block and a half, only stopping when I stooped to pick up a large rock and hurled it at one of them, my heart jackhammering in my chest. Later, as we left town, I saw a guy out running who was carrying a rather large stick with him. Lesson learned.

We traveled with another family, friends of ours, on this trip, and unfortunately a rather nasty cold was making the rounds among them, so I spent most of the second week of the trip bathing in Purell. Somehow I managed to avoid getting sick, and was up at 4:30 in the morning to make the drive from the Punta Las Marias area where we were staying to the Caribe Hilton and Sixto Escobar Park, which were ground zero for the race. I had not been able to catch the race expo, since we were not able to make it back to San Juan in time, so I had to spring for VIP packet pick-up on race day, which was quickly and easily handled at the front desk of the Hilton. I blundered around for a bit in the dark trying to figure out where to go, eventually locating the starting chute off the street, behind Sixto Escobar Stadium. The runners were starting to gather there, and I checked my morning bag and started to do a bit of dynamic stretching. This race has featured a marathon and half every year until this iteration, which dropped the marathon for some reason and added a 10K instead. About 1200 runners were gathered to do the two races, with the half set to start at 6AM just as first light was starting to reach across the sky and a bright moon hung in front of us like a fat, round lantern. In true island fashion, the gun was delayed about 10 minutes while the policia ensured that the course was clear. Here’s a pretty good video of the start taken by another runner with a Go-Pro (not sure how you’d run with one, but I guess people run with pacer signs too).

This was beyond any doubt the most beautiful race I have ever run. We looped up past the 15th-century Spanish forts San Juan is so famous for, Castillo de San Cristobal and El Morro, and around the outside of the old town’s walls, past prime examples of colonial architecture and over cobblestoned streets. The sun was rising over the towers lining Condado as we crossed the bridge over the laguna and headed into the convention center area. People were out in the streets even at this early hour to cheer us on, and I tried to maintain a steady pace as we headed south along Calle Marginal beside Highway 1.

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I still look pretty fresh here, but not for long.

A couple of things were becoming fairly evident by this time. One, there was no place on the course where the time was being displayed, so I had no idea how fast I was going. I felt like it was a pretty good clip, but I couldn’t be sure. Two, it was really, really freaking sticky and uncomfortable. The heat and humidity were way beyond what I trained in whilst in Cuba, so I adopted a strategy of taking two cups at each aid station, one of water and one of Gatorade. The Gatorade, I drank. The water, I dumped on my head. For the first 7 or 8 miles, this sufficed.

I took comfort in the fact that as I went through miles 7-10 I was actually passing people on the course. It seemed that some of the other runners were struggling even more than I was. As we bent west and headed through Condado on Avenida Ashford some old guy jogging ended up on the course and a bunch of us had to go around him. There didn’t seem to be a course marshal around to tell him to get out of the way, and I’m really not sure what he thought he was doing, as there was lots of space on the sidewalk (there was no indication that he was in the race at all).

Things started to get tough as I hit the Dos Hermanos Bridge at the end of Ashford and headed back toward Old San Juan. A crosswind was making life a little miserable and the sodden, heavy air was starting to take its toll. Also, the sun was high enough that it was really starting to get hot. I was grunting with exertion, trying to hold some kind of pace. We were starting to hit the last of the 10K stragglers now, and the route followed a bike path past the Capitol building and then bent right up a pretty steep hill to rejoin Calle Luis Munoz Rivera back to Escobar Park and the finish. I dealt with the hill all right, but all the juice seemed to go out of my legs shortly after. I had about a mile and a half to go, and I was completely spent. I slowed to a walk for a few seconds just to steady myself, and then gave it one last push. I always get energized to see the finishing gate at any race, and this was no exception, and I actually managed to work up a sprint and pass three more people in the finishing chute. Initially, I couldn’t even see where they had the finishing line clock; I turned around and noted it was just above 1:40. Damn.

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Little slower than I wanted, but I got there.

Collecting my medal, and a whole bunch of food (protein pack, various bars, the usual banana, no mofongo though) I sat in the park for a few minutes, exhausted, slowly dumping a bottle of Aquafina on my head. It was actually possible to go over to Escambron Beach and jump right in the water, but I was too damned tired to do it.

So, no PR in PR. (See what I did there? Heh.) In the end, I probably could have done better in this one, and indeed missed an age group award by a mere 32 seconds, but I’m going to treat it as motivation for next time. I really did enjoy this race, and with a little better preparation would definitely do it again. It was generally pretty well run and a lot of fun too. Puerto Rico, te amo.

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2016 Race #3: Buffalo Half Marathon, Buffalo, NY

Date: May 29, 2016
Gun Time: 1:36:01
Chip Time: 1:35:46
Placing Overall: 88th out of 3838
Placing in Age Group: 6th out of 186 (M40-44)
Theme Song: One Beer“, MF Doom

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Let’s go, Buffalo!

Standing there on Saturday in downtown Buffalo in the 90 degree heat, facing the finish line, I will admit to having felt some trepidation.

It was the hottest May 28th on record in the city, and as I trooped up Franklin Street toward the Buffalo Niagara Convention Center to get my race kit with my septuagenarian father, I was thanking my lucky stars that the race organizers had the wherewithal to start the race at 6:30 in the morning when the heat would be less of a factor. My dad solemnly reminded me that complaining about things being too hot would not be tolerated, at least not by him.

“Would you be saying the same thing on a grey, depressing January day?” he asked pointedly. “I think not.”

He was, of course, entirely correct.

The expo itself was smallish in comparison to the ones I’d been to in Toronto and Cleveland, but had everything you would expect, including lots of gear for sale and plenty of other races being advertised. It was pretty much a breeze to pick up my packet, which included a smart, lightweight navy quarter-zip pullover. My dad was impressed with the whole scene, not being a runner himself and never having attended an event like this, although he did mutter a bit about the preponderance of suspiciously fit looking people hanging around the place.

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The expo, with the usual accoutrements.

We lingered a while in the sweet, sweet air conditioning, not really wanting to go outside and face the fierce heat and the walk to the hotel, but eventually we capitulated and made our way back, noting the gracious layout of Niagara Square and the hulking, Art Deco masterpiece that is Buffalo City Hall. Buffalo’s got some great architecture, including loads of Frank Lloyd Wright buildings, but we unfortunately were here for a pretty quick trip and I didn’t have a whole lot of time to show my father around.

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The iconic Buffalo City Hall.

We did pick a great place for a pre-race meal though – Sun Cuisines is on Niagara Street just off the Thruway north of downtown, and is one of the best Burmese restaurants in Eastern North America. Buffalo has a surprisingly large Burmese community, and since my dad had just been part of a group that successfully brought a Burmese refugee family to Canada, he was keen to go. We gorged on Burmese tea leaf salad, samosas, beef curry and rice, and all of it was fantastic. My father, ever the charmer, talked his way into pictures with the staff and we had a conversation with the ladies at the table next to us about what to eat (one of them was a local elementary school principal, and given my dad taught sixth grade for 28 years they had lots to talk about).

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Sun Restaurant’s freaking off the hook beef curry.

Carbo loaded, we got back to the hotel just as the heavens opened up and an impressive deluge spattered the city. I made preparations and hit the hay, knowing that I’d have to be up early in the morning despite the hotel being a short walk from the start line (my dad had no delusions about being there to see me start the race and said he’d catch me at the finish).

The next morning dawned with clear skies, and temps were in the high 60s as I walked up Delaware to the starting corral. The race organizers had made it a point in the lead up to the race to issue warnings about the impending heat and implore everyone to hydrate properly, slow down, and be safe. This came with a comprehensive race plan to open fire hydrants along the course, have an additional 6000 lbs of ice on hand, and provide mobile trucks with bottled water, additional EMS and nursing staff on the course, and additional ambulances stationed nearby. In other words, we were going to be well looked after.

I felt absolutely tip top, and was itching for the start of this one. My plan was to basically find the 1:35 pacer and stick with him for as long as I possibly could in an effort to get that PR. The weather seemed to be playing ball and I felt like I could get off the course before the heat really became a factor. I soon found the pacer and after the anthems and some fireworks from the start gate, the gun went and we surged out of the corral.

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So the race kinda went like this:

First 5K – 21:42 at split

The race for this section took us up Delaware Avenue, around Gates Circle, and briefly into Delaware Park where there was a turnaround. There was a surprising number of people out to cheer the runners on despite the early hour. I ran right beside the 1:35 pacer for a pretty good chunk of this part of the race, but, just like in Toronto, I ended up getting ahead of him when he stopped for hydration at the aid station at Mile 2 and I didn’t. I seem to be making a habit of losing pacers. Anyway, I felt great, but I was trying to hold something back so that I didn’t get completely zonked before the end of the race. As you can see from the split, I was moving, probably faster than I needed to be. There was a bit of a gentle uphill for part of this but mostly it was pretty flat.

Second 5K – 44:14 at split

I mean, geez. This split was faster than the one I did in Toronto, and I was aiming for it to be slower. It didn’t hurt that it felt like the whole section, which was largely run along Linwood Avenue back downtown, was downhill. Also, Buffalo people are great. Loads of encouragement, people handing out Swedish Fish, a random dude in a black bathrobe standing in his driveway and hollering exhortations at us as we went by, a sign that said “If Trump Can Run So Can You”, and lots of other joys along the way. I started hitting every station for hydration from this point as it had started to get a little warm and the sun was beginning to beat down on us. As we reached the 10K split, which was basically right beside where the start line had been, the relay runners were handing off, and I was pretty pleased that I hadn’t yet started envying the ones who were done running.

Third 5K – 1:07:07 at split

This is where things started to get a little tough, though not as early as they did when I ran Toronto. The course bent toward Lake Erie along Prospect Avenue and through some of the urban neighborhoods. Did I mention Buffalo people were awesome? Continued great support, and at one point a guy was standing out in front of his house with a hose for the sole purpose of misting the runners with cool water. We went over a slight rise as we crossed the bridge over the I-190 and turned south along the lake shore. There was a bit of a pickup in the wind here off the water, but not much, and I basically just drafted off people as we headed into La Salle Park. It was at this point around mile 9 that I really started to tire. I was having no problem from a cardio perspective keeping the pace, but my legs were laboring a little bit. Interestingly, the 1:35 pace group caught up to me at this point, and I heard the pacer telling the other runners he was maxed out and wasn’t going to be able to continue holding it, and he ended up dropping off (I talked to him about it after the race and he was pretty bummed). I resolved that I wasn’t going to let this group run away from me and willed the legs to keep going.

Fourth 5K – 1:30:26 at split

Gut check time. The course took us out the spit of land along the Erie Marina and back before bending west back into downtown. You know what I was thinking about, as the heat and humidity were building and my quads and hamstrings were screaming at me to stop? Beer. That’s what. Specifically, that Mile 27 beer brewed just for this race, a big glass of which was waiting for me at the finish. I thought about how cold it would be. How it would hit my throat like a blessing. How beautiful and hoppy it would be, and how it would fill my stomach with its wondrous goodness. It called to me like a shining amber beacon. At the Mile 10 aid station they had towels saturated with icy water which helped revive me, at least for a bit. Miles 11 and 12 seemed to take forever, as those of you who have toughed out those last miles can appreciate, but as soon as I hit the 20K split and saw my time, I knew I had a PR in the bag, and damn if it didn’t feel awesome.

The home stretch – 1:36:01

I was completely gassed by this point, and was just giving it every ounce I had left. I reached the point with a couple of hundred yards to go where the marathoners split off from the half, and looked around for my dad, but didn’t see him (as it turned out, he didn’t see me either and we ended up meeting back at the hotel). I could hear footsteps coming up behind me and thought, no fucking way am I letting anyone beat me to this goddamn finish line. With all the strength I had left I broke into a sprint and crossed the line right at the 1:36 mark. On wobbly legs I wandered over to where the medals were being handed out, and lo and behold, another surprise – it was players from the Buffalo Bills doing it, which was extremely cool (linebacker Randell Johnson gave me mine and he is a VERY big man).

So, I went inside and got that beer. And it was damn fine. There were lots of other goodies on offer as well – tons of fruit, Clif Bars, bagels, Dunkin Donuts coffee, a pretty good spread all in all. I loved this race, and not just because I smoked my PR by 2 minutes. It might be my favorite one I’ve ever done, and it’s all down to the people and volunteers who made it happen. Way to go, Buffalo. I will be back.

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