Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Sweet Success!

Another successfully completed race in the books for me: Aramco Houston Half Marathon, January 17, 2010.

My good and faithful friend Keith was again my support person, picking me up at my house, clear on the other side of town from where he lives, and driving me to start line, where I hopped out of his car with the few last words of encouragement from him and my assurances that I'd see him at the pre-designated meet-up spots along the route.

It was cold - about 40 degrees - but perfect, with temperatures remaining in the 40's throughout the morning, very low humidity, and clear sunny skies. This is all in sharp contrast to the weather of the previous 7 days. Record-breaking low temperatures in the high teens and low twenties gripped the Houston area for several days. Then a warm-up that brought rains into town near the end of the week, right up to Saturday before the race.

Time passed quickly as I waited in my designated corral for the race to start. The first wave of runners took off at the 7:00 AM gun, the second wave 10 minutes later. I don't care what anyone else says, the first four miles of this route have some hills. Not big hills, but long inclines that will take the starch out in a hurry if done too quickly. Within the first half mile is the long steady 1 mile incline up the Elysian Viaduct. Three miles later the bridge up and over I-45 is deceptively long. Then there's the 1 mile long incline along White Oak Bayou into the Heights district of Houston. It's flat and smooth through the heights and back toward I-10 where the route dips sharply under the overpass and back up the other side. It's steep but short. Then it dips again to go under Hicks Street and then a railroad bridge, and this uphill is longer and steeper. The route is then mercifully flat through the Montrose section of Houston. But then there's the first mile on Allen Parkway, headed back toward downtown. A long gradual incline, not even noticeable by car, seems to never end when running it on foot. I know from running the full marathon several times, that the killer hills are the Westpark bridge just west of Weslayan, and the long killer incline on Memorial Drive east of I-610.

Friend Keith was waiting for me at mile 5 at the corner of Michaux and 11th in the Heights, camera in hand. While he waited, he caught the front of the pack, the elite runners, as they streaked by. First the half-marathon elite runners, then the full marathon runners.

He's such a great friend!

He was there again at mile 8 at the corner of W. Gray and Montrose, again with camera in hand, as well as a banana and some GU for me. We half-marathon runners continued south on Montrose for another mile, turned around and came back up the other side of the boulevard which gives all spectators a second chance at seeing friends and loved ones slogging along. For Keith this meant grabbing a donut at Christi's Donut Shop and then easing across the road to the other side to wait for me at the 10 mile marker.

I'm home free at this point, with only 3.1 more miles to go, so a wave and "see you at the finish" and I didn't even slow down. It's a thrill to run along Allen Parkway, the Houston Skyline in front of me shining in the early morning sun, and knowing that I'm on the home stretch. Running the half marathon gives me a unique opportunity to run along side (be it ever so briefly) the elite front-of-the-pack full marathon runners as they pull ahead of me quickly toward downtown and the finish line.

The crowds this year were phenomenal! Larger than I've ever seen before in the 8 years I've been running this event. All through the Heights and along Montrose the spectactor crowds were heavy. Coming into downtown the crowds grew until they were several people deep along the last 1/2 mile of the route. The noise was deafening as I neared the finish line. I hope they all realize how encouraging and uplifting that is to hear!

The bands were just super, providing non-stop entertainment all along Studemont and Montrose! The best was the DJ stationed somewhere near Alabama. His commentary was great! The Cancare ladies in their yellow foam BIG HAIR wigs were there, as they always are, near the finish line. And those Biker Chicks (ConocoPhillips Rodeo Run) at the 10K mile marker are the cat's meow!!! Lotsa noise goin' on!

Such a great feeling to cross the finish line feeling good about the day, the run, my physical condition...just everything!

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

It Must Be the Endorphins

What else could it be? Or maybe I'm just teetering on the edge of insanity.

The Houston marathon/half-marathon is just 4 days away and all of my energy and positive thoughts should be channeling toward that event. I've been the healthiest I've been this close to this event in several years. A nagging and chronic foot injury had been plagueing me for 3 years, causing me to drop down to the half-marathon in 2006 and to miss it all together in 2007. It hobbled me in 2008 but was noticeably on the mend in 2009, although a really bad chest cold slowed me down anyway that year. A long rest after the 2009 event - no running, only cycling - seemed to do the trick and by Memorial Day weekend I was ready to start the long process of regaining stamina and endurance after such a long lay-off.

So the other day I was "surfing" the Runners World website after entering my day's run stats into their handy-dandy online training log when I noticed they were promoting their 2010 Marathon Challenge. I missed out on it last year due to the self-imposed long recovery layoff I wanted to give myself. But this year, maybe...

So I clicked on the link to see what marathons will be included in this year's challenge. The first one of the year will be the Flying Pig ( in Cincinnati in May. I've always wanted to do this marathon! Not only the name but the route has always intrigued me! Hmmm....that's 4 months after the Houston event, enough time to recover, then start ramping up the distances again before it gets too hot. Cincinnati is just a day and a half's drive away and I can make a long weekend out of it. Runner's World is offering lots of additional "swag" to those who enter the challenge, including a special event t-shirt, VIP areas before the start, training plans, advice from Bart Yasso, and the opportunity to meet the RW staff at the event.

Before I registered for this, though, I did a little background research to see if it would be feasible. I looked at hotel options within walking distance of the race start/finish. I looked at what restaurants were nearby within walking distance. I checked out parts of the route using Google maps street level and satellite views. The coolest part of this race is that within the first 3 miles it crosses two bridges over the Ohio River and near the end runs along the river for some of the route. I am so on this!

I booked a hotel room in downtown Cincinnati and went back to the Runners' World webpage and registered for the challenge. Excellent! It will give me a reason to keep my long-distance running schedule going (with all the perq's that come with it, like being back to weighing 108 lb and being able to eat cupcakes, ice cream, chocolate without guilt).

So then I turned my attention to the dilemma of when to fly back to Hawaii to visit my son and daughter-in-law. They're expecting their second child, a girl - and my second grandchild - in early April. I was just over there in late November-early December, and wasn't sure I wanted to return to Hawaii so soon. Part of my decision was made for me when they called to tell me that her parents would be visiting shortly after the baby came. Her aunt will be visiting later that month, as well, and my son's dad will be spending nearly the entire month of June with them. That's a lot of company in a short period of time, with a new baby in the house and all.

I decided that September would be a good time to visit. The month is wide open for me, as far as scheduling goes, and the rates might be lower, since kids will be back in school and all. I got on-line and looked at the possibility of getting a first-class ticket using my frequent flier miles. I was unsuccessful achieving this for my flight last November, succeeding only in getting a first-class upgrade to a paid-for ticket on the return flight. Keying in some dates, I couldn't believe my luck! I was able to book a full roundtrip first-class ticket using some of my accumulated miles and had 24 hours to change my mind and reschedule or cancel without penalty should I need to.

As I did when I visited in November/December, I checked the running race calendar to see if there would be any races on the island that I could enter while there. Maybe a 10k or longer race, since I'd be in training at that point for the Houston. Nothing of interest came up on the search results for Oahu, but what's this? The Maui Marathon and Half Marathon would be held in Kaanapali on the weekend that I'll be in Hawaii. Maui is a 30 minute flight from Oahu. It would be 4 months after the Flying Pig and 4 months before the Houston race, nearly perfect! Hmm...

So, call me crazy...I went ahead and registered for the Maui half-marathon and made a hotel reservation in Kaanapali just to be sure. The room can always be cancelled. But I'm hoping this works out that everyone can come with me, or at least daughter-in-law and the kids. We'll see...

Monday, January 4, 2010

End of the Year Ride

It wouldn't be December if I didn't find myself riding across I-10 toward Florida.

An annual tradition, Stagecoach RTE, was sitting out there on my calendar of rides, begging me to come on over. I missed Wizard's Wild Weekend in early December, being in Hawaii over Thanksgiving, so Stagecoach seemed a fitting and suitable December-end destination. And off I went.

This is a tough time for me to travel since it's so close to the Houston Marathon in January. I must weigh the "fun" factor of the trip against the possibility that I'll miss getting some running miles in. Packing space was therefore allocated to running gear: Shoes, cold-weather leggings, top, windbreaker, socks, gloves, hat. And then there was that forecast for cold, wet, and cold-and-wet all across the I-10 corridor.

But, if I continued on to Pensacola Beach for a day or two, the weather would improve (at least not be so wet) for my return trip back to Houston. So that was the plan: Join in at the Stagecoach RTE, depart for US-98 for a meander over to Pensacola, visit the History of Navy Flight Museum, and then spend a couple of nights at Pensacola Beach. I visited this museum in 2004 and have always wanted to get back.

Cold and cloudy Houston weather on December 29 meant a chilly departure, but soon I could see a sharp line between gray clouds and blue sky, demarcating the leading edge of the front that was pushing through east Texas, and the rest of the ride all the way to Satsuma AL was under sunny blue skies. Cold, but at least sunny.

This year's Stagecoach RTE would be different from past events. Apparently riders have been arriving earlier and earlier so the organizer arranged for the restaurant to serve a breakfast buffet for the early birds. I was one of those early birds, arriving at 8:45 AM. But I wasn't the first to get there! At least a dozen bikes were already parked in front, including a group just arriving from south Florida and a group of four, one of whom was from Texas.

Stagecoach RTE day was forecasted to be cloudy, rainy and cold. Not great, but better than what many other riders would be experiencing to get down to Stagecoach from more northern climes. Many who are regulars to this event had already posted on the various forums that they were snowed or iced in. Attendance will no doubt be down this year from past years, when upwards of 600-700 riders have come in to Stagecoach.

Breakfast with friends, a bit of parking lot chat, and I was off, headed toward Pensacola by 10:30-10:45. I wanted to see what US-98 would be like, having never ridden it before. It was a nice alternative to interstate and moderately scenic though slow going.

Arriving at the museum it dawned on me, when I saw the packed parking lot, that kids are out of school and this might not be an ideal day to come. But I lucked out and immediately found a driver backing out of a spot, so I backed in, left my helmet and jacket on the bike and covered it all with the motorcycle cover. My new Canon DSLR in hand, I headed for the museum, eager to pick up where I left off more than 5 years ago.

The lobby was teeming with people. One of the things I really wanted to do was see one of the IMAX movies. The lines were long and, eavesdropping a bit, I learned that they were selling tickets to showings that were a couple of hours later in the day. I wasn't sure I'd be here that long so didn't buy a ticket. Darn! Well, I'll just have to get back here and next time it will be while kids are still in school.

I roamed the halls, taking photographs, reading the displays, and generally people-watching. My most favorite display is the atrium where four Blue Angels planes fly in formation, suspended from the ceiling.

There are so many planes on display, they're layered from ceiling to floor, creating a giant play mobile effect with some really great and interesting juxtapositions of wings, propellers, cockpits, insignia.

What can seem so small from just a short distance away, readily reveals its innate power and force even when standing still.

Three hours later, I was ready to go find lunch. The Cubi Cafe was packed and had a waiting line, so I decided the best option was to leave the museum and head toward Pensacola Beach, check into the Hampton Inn on the beach, and strike out on foot for a late lunch/early dinner. It had just started to rain as I was leaving and the rain became steady as I rode through Pensacola onto 3-mile Bridge, across Sea Breeze and onto Pensacola Beach's barrier island.

I love this hotel. It's location is nearly perfect, sitting on a white sand beach, within walking distance of many good restaurants and with a paved jogging trail that runs for miles. Parked, checked in, changed into street clothes and it was off to find a good greasy burger and a Blue Moon beer to wash it down.

Next morning started out cloudy but the sun started peeking out around 9:00 AM, turning into a gorgeous day. I headed west on the barrier island toward Fort Pickens, one of the units of Gulf Islands National Seashore. This Fort has been closed ever since Hurricane Ivan struck in 2004. They had just re-opened it when Hurrican Ida hit in November 2009, closing the road once again. The road was just opened the Sunday after Christmas, so I was very fortunate..timing is everything!

This is a beautiful road, passing through unspoiled gulf beach, with the turquoise surf pounding just yards away from the road at some points. Huge drifts of white sand had been freshly plowed off the roadway, the plow marks still visible against the mountains of sand that had been moved out of the way. It took only very little to imagine that these could be drifts of snow. Even the sand that covered the roadway in patches here and there was eerily similar to how patches of snow can cling to the pavement after a plow passes by.

I lived here in the late 50's through the mid-60's as my dad was stationed here as a Navy pilot. I can remember this road and the enormous sand dunes that lined the road, hiding the beach view from the road and providing great places to tuck a blanket and belongings to get out of the wind. These giant dunes are completely gone now, torn away by hurricane Ivan. They'll rebuild eventually, as wind and other forces of nature move the sand around into natural drifts and berms.

As much as I wanted to pull into some of the turnouts to take photos, the prodigious amounts of sand remaining in these paved areas kept me on the roadway. In a few months, they'll have these turnouts cleared.

The fort is such a formidable and sturdy structure it withstood these hurricanes - and many before them - all these years. The cheery park ranger and I chatted a bit...she and her husband moved down from Chicago and now love living in Pensacola Beach.

I roamed through the interconnecting rooms of the fort, taking photos and reading the self-guided tour sheet. The fort had been in near-continuous use since its first ramparts were built in 1834 until 1947.

I climbed to the top of one of the bastions to see the Rodman cannon emplaced there.

It's a compact fort and after an hour or so of wandering about, I was ready to leave, take a ride over to the Naval Live Oak unit of the Gulf Islands National Seashore, then continue on to Navarre, cross the bridge, and ride back to Penasacola Beach along the gulf barrier island.

The perfect footnote to the day was being awakened at midnight - New Year's eve - to the sound of fireworks. Getting out of bed and walking over to the window, I was treated to midnight fireworks being fired off from the pier right next to the hotel.

New Year's Day and I was on the road heading home to Houston.