Monday, January 28, 2013

What It's Like on the Other Side

I've been running races for over 10 years, everything from 5K races to full marathons.  In those years I've been the beneficiary of friendly and encouraging volunteers who hand out water and Gatorade, cheer me on along the course, call out my splits at the mile markers, and hang finishers' medals around my neck.  In some of the more memorable moments, they've given me that last little bit of motivation to keep me running to the finish line.

But while I've benefited from the unselfish commitment of all of those volunteers, I've only given back once, several years ago, at the Clear Lake Fitness running club's annual event, the Lucky Trails Marathon in Seabrook.  That was so long ago, I'd forgotten how rewarding it is.  I knew that USAFit has been staging their own marathon/half marathon for several years.   They aim it toward those who either did not make it into the Houston Marathon lottery or who need more than the 6 hour time limit to complete a 26.2 mile run.   It's also a good race for those runners who want a more intimate race experience.    The Houston marathon is huge and impersonal with its 30,000 runners and elite runner atmosphere.

So I found the USAFit marathon webpage, found the "volunteer" button, and signed up to help out on race day.  I signed up to do two different tasks:  be a course marshal, helping the 5K runners navigate a U-turn at mile 1.5, while also directing the marathon runners as they headed out and then returned on the first of their two 13 mile loops.  And after that shift, to work at the finish line in some capacity.

I set the alarm for 4:20 AM and was on the road by 4:45, heading first to McDonalds to pick up a large latte and a sausage egg McMuffin.  Then with goodies filling the car with their tantalizing aroma, I continued to Sugar Land and to the U of Houston-Sugar Land campus where the race is being held.  I went directly to the Sugar Land Memorial Park on University Blvd, 1.5 miles south of the U of H campus.  This is where the 5K runners will be making their turn at the halfway mark.  It's also where Katy Fit (USAFit chapter) will be setting up their water station, and where the marathon and half marathon runners will be passing through at their mile 6 on the outbound leg (mile 11 on the inbound leg)....two loops for the marathoners, one time around the loop for the half marathoners.  So it was a busy junction of runners, volunteers, and police officers.

I got to my assigned spot plenty early...I was concerned about parking, but those concerns were unfounded.  There was plenty of parking and most runners chose to park at the U of H campus.  My co-worker for this assignment was Jorge and he arrived about 15 minutes later.  I ate my McMuffin while sitting in the car, and then brought my latte out to the road where Jorge was getting the cones set up. 

We had an hour to wait, but the time flew by quickly.  A fellow named Ian joined us and chatted with me.  His 18 year old son is running his first marathon.  It would be a good vantage point for him to see his son go by, since the marathon runners would be passing that spot 4 times.  Chatting with Ian and Jorge made the time go by quickly as we waited for the start of the race and then for the runners to show up. 

The 5:00 AM early starters - those who are not fast enough to finish the marathon in under 6 hours - showed up first, then the 5K runners, and then the lead pack of runners who started at the regulation time of 7:00 AM.  We got the 5K runners turned around and headed back to the finish line. Soon after that, the early starters and the fastest of the regulation time runners showed up on their return leg of their first loop. 

I stayed at my position at this mile marker, directing the runners and helping the policemen direct traffic in and out of the memorial park parking lot, until 9:00 AM and then moved down to the start/finish line area.  Ian decided to come with me and stand closer to the finish line, where he could still catch his son as he ran by on his second loop. 

I checked in at the volunteer table in the post-race staging area and then reported for duty at the finish line, relieving some of the first-shift volunteers.   I took over as a "chip retriever."  

Before race technology caught up with the digital age, runners' times were determined by a stopwatch, and their finish position by the order of their bib tear-off on the spindle at the finish line. 
Then the timing chip was invented, a small device attached to the runner's shoe that, when it passes over a sensor mat, is read and the runner's time collected. 

The concept of "chip time" vs. clock time was then possible.  Prior to this invention, there was no way to account for the inevitable delay in getting across the start line, a delay sometimes as long as 20 minutes for really large races such as Houston, or Boston, or Chicago, for example.  With this invention, runners' times between the start line and the finish line can be accurately captured and recorded. 

The next great invention was the incorporation of the chip into the runners' bibs.  This was a major advance in chip technology.  It eliminates the need to collect the runners' chips at the end of each race.  But it's more expensive for the race organizers, as it adds to the cost of the bibs and requires use of different timing mat technology.

The Greater Houston USAFit chapters own their own reusable chips and mats and have no incentive to go with the current disposable chip technology.  So this means that volunteers need to stand at the finish line and get those chips off the runners' shoes.  A chip that goes home on a runner's shoe costs the organization about $30.

Now... I'm here to tell you that after running 26 miles - even after 13 miles - the last thing you want to do is bend over or kneel down to remove a chip that you've tied to your shoelaces. There were at times two or three of us collecting those chips from the runners' shoes.  It meant spending most of my time crouching down, scissors in hand, snipping the twist-ties to free the chip, then standing back up.  Some runners threaded their shoelaces through the holes on the chip instead of using the provided twist-ties, which meant unlacing the runner's shoe, sometimes all the way to the top of the tongue, in order to free the chip.   Sometimes the runner apologized for the extra work it entailed, but I made sure I let them know that it was part of my job.  It was all good.

When my shift was over at 12:30 PM, I walked the more than 1.5 miles back to my car at the Sugar Land Memorial Park parking lot.  Along the way I passed many runners heading in the other direction, toward the finish line.  As each of them ran past me, I cheered and clapped and encouraged them to finish strong!

Working as a volunteer at the finish line...watching the winning runners - male and female - come across the finish line, was amazing!  Then watching the mid-pack runners come in, seeing Ian's son cross the finish line for his very first completed marathon.  Seeing the back half of the pack start to come in and see their reactions - laughter filled with relief, shrieks of jubilation, tears of joy - was amazing!

There were whole families running the race together, husbands, wives, moms, kids.  And there were husbands or wives who were escorted across the finish line by their children, running in that exuberant way that only little kids can do.  Only in a smaller race like this with its relatively unstructured finish line can friends and family see and experience all this happiness.

As for me, I was moved and motivated in a way that being on the other side of this, being the one who runs across that finish line, could never have prepared me for.   It was a long day yesterday, all of it spent on my feet, or crouching down and standing back up repeatedly, and now today my quads and glutes are so sore they feel like I'd done a million knee-touch lunges, but it was so worth it!

Monday, January 21, 2013

Louisiana Half Marathon Accomplished!

Sunday morning started with a mistaken 4:15 AM wake-up call from downstairs.  What the heck???  I had the alarm clock in my room, as well as my cell phone's alarm, set to go off at 5:30 AM.  So getting robbed of more than an hour of sleep was definitely not a good way to start what would be a very long day.  Might as well get up and get my day started!

I walked the few blocks to the start line, right at the foot of the "new" Capitol building steps, and had just a short wait before the gun went off and we were on our way.  It's the second annual running of this race and they've definitely got their act together!  Very well organized and well-done.

Crossing the
finish line
There were no corrals - it's still a relatively small race at 3,000 participants - so I seeded myself toward the back.   The weather was perfect!  Clear blue skies, high 30's at the start, warming to low 50's by the time I crossed the finish line.

The race course was outstanding!  Well-designed and really interesting!  The miles seemed to fly by!   The route took us south along the west shore of University Lake to the LSU campus, where we ran right through the heart of the university, past the LSU Tiger Stadium.  We exited the university campus and ran around the perimeter of the lake, which was filled with birds of all sorts: pelicans, ducks, herons, egrets.  The distance around the circumference of the lake was close to 4 miles and entertained us with views across the lake to fellow runners who were ahead or behind us on the route.  I saw several pods of white pelicans along the eastern shore.  They were gorgeous!

Once I was back on the north side of the lake, I only had 3 more miles to go.  I couldn't believe how quickly time had passed on this route.  I was still feeling okay, and was still mostly running at this point.  Well, except for the return back over the very high North Blvd bridge just east of I-110.

Next thing I knew, I was back into the downtown area and running past the mile 12 marker and then turning right onto 3rd Street and heading for the Capitol building and around the corner to the finish line to claim my finisher's medal.

They had a massive post-race party, with food vendors from many local restaurants, a giant cauldron of gumbo, and beer!  But I needed to pass on the food, as I had made plans to meet some friends at Poche's, an excellent Cajun meat market and restaurant in Breaux Bridge.

Pork steak, rice dressing, beans, potato salad.  Oh my!!
2/3 of this came home with me in a box.
Friend Mona, her daughter, and a friend of hers came, as well as a fellow member of the MTF forum.  We had a great visit, and as a demonstration of our small world, Mona and the MTF friend knew each other and were old friends.  The food was to die for!!

Then, too soon, it was time to get back on the road and head for home.

Another state added to my quest!  Here's what my 50 States-50 Half Marathons map looks like now:

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Over the Bayou and Through the Woods....

To Baton Rouge I go...Louisiana Marathon and Half Marathon is this weekend, a chance to add another state to my "completed half marathons in 50 States" list, and the second of five fund-raising races I'm running for friends Kevin and Deb (read their story here).

Friday morning I had a play rehearsal at 10:30 AM (I'm once again doing sound effects for a CountryPlace Players production), so I waited to get on the road until rehearsal was over and lunch eaten.  I was on the road by 1:30 PM with plans to stop in Lafayette LA for the night.  This would save me over $60 in hotel/valet parking charges in Baton Rouge and since it's less than 50 miles away, I would have plenty of time to sleep in Saturday morning then drive the easy hour trip to Baton Rouge and check in at the Hilton in downtown.  

The Hilton in downtown Baton Rouge is a lovely reclamation and restoration of an older hotel.  I was able to check in, despite it still being early, and then headed over to the Belle of Baton Rouge, a hotel/casino a few blocks away, to claim my race registration packet and briefly shop the vendors. 

Old State Capitol Building - story here.
But I only had a few minutes to shop.  I needed to hasten back to the hotel to meet my son and his family for a fun afternoon.  Earlier, on my way to The Belle to get that race packet, I walked past the Louisiana Art & Science Museum with Planetarium, occupying what was once a lovely old train station, so stopped in to talk to the woman at the front desk and pick up a brochure.  It will be the perfect place to spend the afternoon with the grandkids!

We had lunch at the Capital Grill, just across the street from the hotel and then walked to the museum, passing the old historic capitol building on the way. 

The grandkids had a great time at the museum!  We spent time in the hands-on science display, the kids darting from display to display, learning about magnetic fields, sound waves, molecules, gravity.  I was enjoying watching them as much as they were enjoying the hands-on. 

We then went upstairs to watch "We Are Aliens," an animated film in the planetarium.  The grandkids were transfixed!

We stopped at a little cafe near the hotel and for some treats for the grandkids - and us - and then we said our goodbyes.  I'll see them again next month when I stop for a few days on my way home from Birmingham.

I spent the evening relaxing in my room, feet up, watching TV and eating a very fine seafood pasta dinner ordered through room service.  Tomorrow morning:  Race day!!

Monday, January 14, 2013

The Running Cap - "Hat Stanley"

It's the "Flat Stanley" of running caps.  I think I'll name it "Hat Stanley."   Because, just like Flat Stanley, Hat Stanley really gets around!

This hat has traveled so much with me.  I don't dare leave it's my lucky running hat.

White nylon, with just-the-right-size brim.    Just the right crown shape to fit me perfectly.  Easy one-handed adjustment slide in the back.  And this running cap has covered my head for thousands of running miles, in dozens of races, in 15 different states so far.  Just like Flat Stanley, Hat Stanley is well-traveled.

I bought this cap at Luke's Locker on West Gray in Houston sometime in 2001, way back when I was just starting to run.  Probably during the summer when I realized I needed to shade my head and eyes.  Possibly even as a result of input from fellow runners in the Clear Lake Running Club.
October, 2001, at the finish
line for the 20K Race
So where has "Hat Stanley" been?

Some of Hat Stanley's very first runs were my first Houston Warm-up Series of races, put on by the collective running clubs of Greater Houston to prepare their runners for the Houston Marathon.  By this point I'd been running for just under 9 months and had run in a few 5K races, a 10K race, and the Lake Jackson 10-miler race (the first of the Warm-Up Series).  The 20K race was followed by the 25K the next month, and the 30K the month after that.

Hat Stanley joined me for the 2002 Houston Marathon and the Austin Motorola Marathon, and then all of the Warm-Up series races - the 10 miler, the 20K, the 25K, the 30K - and the Houston Marathon for the next two years.  And a whole bunch of 5K and 10K races in-between.

KRTS 25K Race, November 2001
Motorola Austin marathon, 2002

Lake Jackson 10 Miler, Sept 2001
Nassau Bay 5K Resurrection Run 2004

2004 Sprint for Life 5K Race

Big Sur Half Marathon, 2004
Then, in 2004, Hat Stanley came with me to California to run in the Big Sur Half Marathon, the first of a number of "destination races."

Hat Stanley traveled with me on business trips all over the country and all over Europe, and ran with me in a number of cities - San Francisco, Denver, Chicago, Orlando, Atlanta, Boston, San Diego, Rome, London, Copenhagen, name only a few.

Hat Stanley, along with my running shoes, also traveled with me on all of my vacations, whether taken by car, by plane, or by motorcycle.

Now Hat Stanley is accompanying me on my quest to run half marathons in all 50 States.  Hat and I have completed 15 States, so far.

Hat Stanley has survived all of this, including trips through the washing machine, with dignity and aplomb and still looks like new!

Wichita Prairie Fire Half Marathon
October 2012

Friday, January 11, 2013

Flat Ben

Today is the first day of the two-day Fitness Expo in conjunction with the Chevron Houston Marathon.  The race is Sunday and I'm registered to run it, but I'm thinking of blowing it off.  You see, I just ran a half marathon last weekend and have another one - in Baton Rouge LA - planned for next weekend.  So a weekend off in between is probably a smart move, particularly since the weather forecast for race day on Sunday is for rain and 30 mph winds straight out of the north.  Definitely not the most ideal conditions.

Originally I was going to meet a running friend for lunch and afterward we were going to attend the Fitness Expo together.  However, these plans fell through so I invited Flat Ben to go with me instead.

Houston skyline
Flat Ben is from Milwaukee WI and has never been to Houston.  Coming with me to the George R. Brown Convention Center wouldn't exactly represent all that is good about Houston, but it would at least give him a taste.  So after eating lunch at home, he and I got in the car and headed north on Highway 288 toward downtown and the convention center. 

My favorite parking lot was still there - a hotel or office tower hasn't replaced it yet - and it was mostly empty (timing is everything when it comes to the fitness expo) so we had no trouble getting parked and walking the easy two blocks to the convention center.  Flat Ben wanted some photos of himself in front of some of the sights so that he could bring them back to Milwaukee with him at the end of the month.

George R. Brown Convention Center.  My neighbor
thinks it looks like a big cruise ship.  I think she's right.

George R. Brown Convention Center

There were no lines at the packet pickup area and I walked right up to the counter and claimed my race bib and then walked to the other side of the convention hall to claim my t-shirt.  Then Flat Ben and I did a little shopping.
Inside the exhibit hall at the Fitness Expo

Shoes, shoes, shoes...Brooks Running
First stop was to browse the official race logo wear, but we didn't see anything we couldn't live without.  Then it was over to the Luke's Locker booth, where I wanted to try on the new Brooks PureCadence shoe.  It's a more minimalist shoe than what I'm currently wearing and I've been curious to see how they fit and feel.   Flat Ben really liked the cool, flashy Brooks shoe colors and wanted his photo taken with them.

I tried on the Cadence 2 but with a $130 price tag, it would be a big risk.  What if I can't adapt to the minimal design with it's minimal toe ramping.  The nice Luke's store rep pulled out a pair of Cadence 1's, the Cadence 2 predecessor and marked way down.  At that price, I was willing to take the risk.  Besides...I liked the color of the Cadence 1 better than the choices for the Cadence 2. 

Discovery Green Ice Rink - currently covered to
refreeze the ice for tonight's skating
I had nothing else I needed or wanted to look at, so Flat Ben and I left the Fitness Expo and headed over to Discovery Green, a beautiful park built where empty lots and vagrants once existed in front of the convention center.  Flat Ben wanted to see the ice skating rink.  He thought it was pretty weird that a southern city like Houston would have a big outdoor ice skating rink.  So we got his photo in front of the rink.

Then we headed over to Minute Maid Park, home of the Houston Astros, and got his picture in front of the "juice box."  After that, we went home.
Home Plate entrance to Minute Maid Park - Home of the Astros.

Bell Tower at Minute Maid Park

Nyla decided she sorta liked Flat Ben and was trying to talk him into moving to Houston, rather than returning back to Milwaukee to his family.  I don't think Flat Ben was buying it.
Nyla greets Flat Ben and gives him a sniff.

My new Brooks PureCadence
running shoes
I put my new Cadence shoes on and walked around inside the house a bit, just to get a little more used to the feel of them.  They sort of remind me of the Earth Shoes I used to wear in the early '70's.  They were all the rage, and even had a white nursing shoe version and I wore those for years.  They were the most comfortable work shoes I'd ever owned.

While I was wearing my new shoes around the house, Nyla the cat decided to adopt the empty shoe box.

I am curious kitty cat.

Just the right size for Nyla cat.
"Pretty pink shoes, mom!"

Sunday, January 6, 2013

The Hills of Jackson MS - A Tough race done!

When I saw the video put together by the organizers - the one that apologized to the runners for all of the serious hills - I knew this was going to be one tough race.  The race planners' rationale for all of those hills?  If they were going to bring 3,000 people into their city, they were going to showcase what Jackson has to offer.  And to do that, there would be some hills in the way. 

I was ready for it.  I stuck to my plan, one that I instituted the first time I ran the Flying Pig Half Marathon in Cincinnati in 2010.  Walk the steeper uphills, run like crazy on the downhills. 

Did I say it was cold??
Wiping my drippy nose!
I kept watching the weather on all evening, and logged back in on race day morning, just to be sure.  Overnight lows had moderated somewhat from what they were predicted a couple of days earlier.  But I packed for every contingency since, when I left home, it was forecasted to be 31 degrees at the start with possible rain.  Yuck!  

 When I awoke at 5:30 AM on race day morning, the temps had warmed even more from the previous day's forecast.  It was 35 degrees and should reach 37 or 38 degrees by 7:00 AM when the race starts.  Rain was still in the forecast, but not expected to move in until around 11:00 AM, and I'd be done by then and back in my hotel room.  So I stuck with my plans to wear the heaviest long-sleeve running top I own, the one with the half-zip, high neck, and half-mitt sleeves.  This shirt, long running pants, a bandana around my neck, and wool knit gloves should work.  Even if the rain were to move in earlier than predicted, I'd be okay. 

There were no corral assignments at the start, a sure indicator of the small size of the race.  My hotel was close by, within a 5 minute walk, so I lingered in the hotel lobby as long as I dared before walking the few blocks to the start line. 

And with a "One, two, three...go!" we were sent on our way!
Within the first 1/2 mile of the start, we were faced with the first steep uphill.  But the good news was that for every steep uphill there was an ultimate downhill and if my pace slowed to a walk on those uphills, I made up for it by barreling down the backsides of those hills. 
Crossing finish line
The course was interesting and never boring.  Those "mid-race flats" never seemed to hit me like they do in other races, mostly because at that point on the route, we were taking frequent left and right turns and negotiating hill after hill.  At around mile 10 a really excellent blues singer sat all alone, amplified guitar reaching out to us from 1/2 a mile away.  He was an older man, and his guitar blues were outstanding!

Another couple of miles and then we turned right, ran alongside the governor's mansion, and made our last left turn and headed uphill toward the finish line, the overhead banner framing the historic Old Capitol Building. 

And then there's that finisher's medal!!

I walked back to the hotel, got cleaned up, packed, and then checked out, but not before uploading my Garmin run data to RunKeeper and sending a photo of my finisher's medal to Facebook.

I met up with some friends at a nearby McAlister's for a celebratory lunch afterward.  It was a good visit, and a chance to get caught up with a couple of the folks whom I'd not seen in a while.

Here's what my 50 States-50 Half Marathons map looks like now:

Next race on the calendar is the Houston Aramco Half Marathon next Sunday.  I'm fairly certain that I will go pick up my race packet, browse the vendors at the fitness expo, but not run in the race.  Rather, I'll take the weekend off in preparation for my next race which is the Louisiana Half Marathon in Baton Rouge the following weekend.  Until then, it will be easy recovery runs this week, perhaps a longer run this coming weekend, one or two shorter runs next week, and then the Louisiana race on the 20th.

Friday, January 4, 2013

Exploring the Blues in Jackson MS

So....the second time across I-10 was a totally different experience!  Very little traffic...good weather.  A very pleasant few hours' drive and I arrived in Jackson MS.  State capital, significant stop along the Blues Trail, and home of the Mississippi Blues Marathon.  Here I'll play and "work" - as in, run 13.1 miles in a race - for the next two days.
One of many plaques in Jackson, marking significant
historic Blues locations 

I arrived mid-afternoon on Thursday, checked into the very nice Hilton Garden Inn on Capitol Street, and then walked over to the convention center to pick up my race packet and check out the exhibitors at the Fitness Expo.   It was an easy 3 block walk, but the 45 degree temperatures felt like 20 degrees with the strong winds coming right out of the north.  Needless to say, I did not tarry too long.  Only long enough to capture a few photos of the area near the hotel.

A neat mosaic in the sidewalk in front of a
now-defunct business.

"Ghost mural" on Capitol Street.  I took
this photo for a friend who maintains
a fantastic "Roadside Wonders" website

Fabulous neon-ornamented Cafe on Capitol Street

Race packet reusable drawstring bag
and logo'd harmonica.
The expo was small, with only a few vendors, but they were selling the things that mattered:  energy gels and Blox, gloves, headbands, hats, shirts and shorts.   The race registration included a technical fabric event shirt, but I also bought a cotton t-shirt with the cool Mississippi Blues race logo.  The race packet included a harmonica...with the marathon logo imprinted on it.  How cool is that?  Even the reusable backpack-type bag is pretty cool!

Thursday evening I ordered in room service and ate it while watching the Oregon Ducks win the Fiesta Bowl . Seemed like the right thing to do, since I ran in the Fiesta Bowl Half marathon last month.


Friday, late morning, I struck out again to explore the historic downtown area in a little more depth.  Tulsa may claim to have one of the best historic Art Deco downtowns - which they do - but Jackson MS has some serious Art Deco architecture of its own.  I found a great website, listing the historic downtown buildings and with this as my guide, I found and photographed most of them.

Here are a few:

"New" Capitol Building

Governor's Mansion

Site of first Christian congregation

"Old" Capitol Building

Bank of Mississippi building on left;
couple of nice buildings next to it.


Some beautiful "commerce" buildings on Capitol Street:

Former Jones-Kennington Dry Goods Store (now Heritage Building) (1905)

Lamar Life Insurance Building, beautiful Gothic-style built 1924-1925

Then before heading to Subway to pick up a sandwich, I stopped by the start line area to snap a photo of the set-up crew: