Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Courir à Montréal

Look north, my friend!!  With at least one half marathon completed in each of all 50 states plus the District of Columbia, it makes sense to look north to Canada for a new challenge.

There is this certain race series that fellow marathon runners either love or hate.  I happen to love them for their consistently excellent organization and great amenities.  It is the Rock n' Roll Marathon series put on by Competitor Group.

They are big races, held in large cities in North America and Europe, and with as many as 35,000 to 40,000 participants at each event.  Their very size is what some runners hate, but I love them! The events are well-oiled race machines, humming along with precision and practiced attention to detail.  On-course support and finish line food and beverage is there in abundant quantity, even for the slower runners like me.  The fact that the field of runners is so huge also means that slower runners - like me - are never alone out there on the race course, and never last to cross the finish line.

There are a number of good races in Canada, including Rock n' Roll Montréal.  That seemed like an excellent place to start collecting finishes in Canadian Provinces.  So race registration complete, reservations made, and I found myself on a plane flying to Montréal.

I hadn't been to Montréal in years.  The first time was to attend Expo '67 the end of my freshman year of college.  A good friend went with me on a bus chartered by some of her classmates.  I remember that it rained the whole time we were there, but we still had quite the adventure!  I pulled out those old photos, hoping they'd jog memories of that trip, but all of those photos are blurry and dark and it's hard to make out much detail.

For this trip I reserved a room at the Hilton Garden Inn on Rue Sherbrooke.  It's a nearly brand new hotel in an old, re-purposed building.  It was an excellent hotel in an excellent location, definitely the perfect hotel and one I'd stay at again if I ever return.  It was one block away from everything I'd possibly need: a grocery store, a drug store, a metro station, a Starbucks.  There were any number of little cafes and restaurants all within a block or two of the hotel, and it was within easy walking distance of the race expo at Place Bonaventure.  The historic old section of the City - Vieux Montréal - was just a few blocks away, east toward the St. Lawrence River, and Mount Royal was just an easy walk in the opposite direction, up Ave du Parc.  It was also a fairly easy walk - approx 2 km - from the finish line of the race.
Interesting temporary art exhibit on a side street near the University

The first thing I noticed my first morning in Montréal was how French it had gotten since the last time I was there.  Admittedly, it has been a number of years since my last trip to that city, but the Official Language Act of 1972 in Quebec advanced the implementation of French in all aspects of life in this Province.  So of course I tried to dust off my college French.  I could (mostly) read things like signs and menus, but a trip to the grocery store was a bit baffling.  My French vocabulary is extremely limited! But it was fun to try to understand and to eavesdrop on conversations and catch bits and pieces of their dialogue. Some fruit and snacks purchased at the grocery store (I even brought my own bag) and a stop at Starbucks right across the street, and I was ready to set out and explore.

Race expo

Race expo

Me and a friend at the race expo

I walked the few blocks to Place Bonaventure to the race expo and to pick up my race packet.  I browsed the various vendors a bit but then went off in search of lunch.  So many wonderful outdoor dining choices!  I love how nearly every little restaurant or cafe had little outdoor dining decks erected curbside!  I had a great burger at Essence, sitting in their covered outdoor dining area, people-watching while eating.
Notre Dame Basilica

Statue of Paul de Chomedey in Place D'Armes

pleasant little corner in Vieux Montréal

Chateau Ramezay Museum

Montréal City Hall

Later that evening I walked down to the old historic district, Vieux Montréal, had a glass of wine outdoors on the St. Lawrence River, and then strolled a bit, taking photos of Notre Dame Basilica and some of the wonderful old buildings. I stopped at an Asian fusion restaurant in the old district and had a nice dinner before returning to my room for the evening.
Montréal City Hall

One of the many little streets in Vieux Montréal

Saturday morning included a Starbucks, of course.  I wanted to walk toward the park where the race finish line would be and to also check out a possible alternate metro station, so after breakfast I headed that way, ruled out that particular Metro station as being too far and not eliminating a change of trains as I had hoped, and then headed down Rue St. Denis for a few blocks.  A radio station was hosting a street party along St. Denis in the Quartier due Spectacles, which is Montréal's entertainment district, and the street was filled with people.

I decided at this point to grab a sandwich at Subway and return to my room, have lunch and watch Texas Aggie football.   I ordered a foot-long...half for lunch and half later that evening for dinner. This got me off my feet for the afternoon, and gave me a chance to lay out the things I'd need for the race the next morning.

Race day morning surprisingly went like clockwork.  Short one block walk to the Place des Arts Metro station and only a handful of other runners there waiting for the next train.  Easy transition from the green line train to the yellow line train, with no wait at all, and soon we were at the Terminus de Longueuil on the other side of the river.  As we exited the station, there were long lines of runners waiting at the bank of porta-potties, but not needing to go, I continued toward the bridge, up the auto entrance ramp, following the stream of other runners heading for the start line in the middle of the Jacques-Cartier Bridge.  There was another very large bank of portapotties up on the bridge, and no lines waiting, so I took advantage of that opportunity.

I had a long, chilly wait in my corral, as we all stood there waiting for our wave of corrals - the last wave - to be moved forward toward the start line.  About an hour later, we suddenly began moving toward the start line, a surprisingly long walk, as the start line was actually near the bottom of the bridge on the other side, near the exit ramp for Ile Ste Hélène, where the first few miles of the race course would take place.

Then it was our turn to cross the start line, and we were all off and running.  The first mile was all downhill, through the park and toward the river's edge.  Then I settled into a steady pace as our route took us through the Six Flags Montréal park on the former old Expo 67 grounds.

The spectacular half marathon race route, starting on the bridge, running
through the two islands in the middle of the St. Lawrence River, then
across a very long bridge to Ile Montréal and running through the historic
Vieux Montréal before finishing in Parc La Fontaine. Data from my Garmin GPS watch.

The route through Ile Ste Hélène, then across a bridge to Ile Notre Dame, was so enjoyable and scenic that the miles just seemed to fly by.  We ran on the Grande Prix race track on Ile Notre Dame, past the casino, then onto Pont des Iles and then Pont de la Concorde toward downtown Montréal. We could see the hulking buildings of Habitat 67 ahead of us as we traversed the bridges toward Montréal.  I remember how futuristic this looked back in '67.  Today it looks like a dated pile of dark brown concrete boxes stacked haphazardly along the river bank.

The race course wound through the Vieux Montréal section, then headed uphill toward Parc La Fontaine and ultimately to the finish line.  A long uphill section in the last couple of miles really took the starch out. But making those last couple of turns into the finish line chute was exciting, as the full marathon runners were coming in at the same time and it's always a thrill to see them, as these runners are clipping along at a very fast pace, being in the top half of finishers for the full.

We were funneled through a food area where we were handed bags filled with drink, snacks, fruit.  I love races that do this.  It gives us a good amount of post race food, yet frees our hands from having to juggle everything. I posed for my post-race photo then went in search of the tent that was giving out the World Rocker medals, extra bling for those who have run a Rock n' Roll half or full marathon in at least two different countries during the year.

Finisher's medal - the race's 25th year - and a special World Rocker medal
for completing half marathons in two countries in 2015.

Then I wandered out of the park and onto Rue Sherbrooke and walked the 1+ mile back to the hotel.  All aspects of this race were rewarding and satisfying.  The route, the organization, the ease in getting to the start line, and the finisher medals!

I stopped at the hotel restaurant and ordered an espresso to go, then went up to my room and snacked on the items in my race bag and slowly got showered and cleaned up. I walked a couple of doors down from the hotel to Bistro Caffe e Cucina and had a wonderful bowl of mussels with garlic bread and a glass of wine for dinner.

I was so tired but relaxed!  I thought about returning to the hotel lounge and relaxing with another glass of wine and a dessert, but inertia took over.  Lazy me!

Monument to Sir George-Étienne Cartier, Canadian
Statesman and Father of the Confederation.

Just one more day in Montréal, so I decided to walk up Mount Royal, stopping at Starbucks along the way.  It was a very pleasant walk up the trail heads.  I easily found the main trail which starts near a monument and goes up to Chalet Mount Royal and strolled along, enjoying the fabulous weather and views.  There were many runners getting their hill work in on this trail.  As I neared the top, there was a steep and long set of switch-back stairs disappearing up the hillside, a shortcut to the chalet.  I could either continue walking the trail for another mile, or take this short cut.  Though my legs were protesting the climb, I opted for the shorter - but steeper - route to the top.

Nice switch-back route up Mount Royal then a steep switch-back set of stairs to the very top.

The view of the city opened up in front of me as I ascended the stairs.  I took some photos, caught my breath, then headed back down the stairs and back to the hotel.  It was a nice 4 mile hike with beautiful scenery - perfect post-race recovery walk!

View looking up the trail

View of city from top of the switch-back stairs.

looking straight up one of the many sections of stairs.

Looking down at about the midway point in the steep switch-back stairs.

 I had lunch at a little creperie near the hotel then returned to my room and started my packing.  I had dinner that night at the hotel restaurant, then settled in for the night wishing I had booked my flight to leave the next day instead of Wednesday.

Finally it was Tuesday, and I made my final trip to Starbucks then went in search of an ATM machine for my cab fare to the airport.  I returned to Caffe e Cucina for lunch then checked out of the hotel and took a cab to the airport Marriott.  My last night, then a very early flight in the morning to return home.

A new country added to my completed races list - and possibly the first of most if not all of the Canadian Provinces!

Home for a few days, then off to St. Charles MO to run the MO' Cow Bell Half marathon with a St. Louis friend.

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