Monday, September 24, 2012

Fox Cities Half Marathon Recap

The 2012 edition of the Fox Cities Half Marathon is in the history books, and I have to say that despite my horrible lack of training (seriously - a 5 mile long run really doesn't cut it), it went really well.

It all started the same way it has for the previous 5 years: packing, a road trip, and a stop at the expo to pick up bibs and timing chips.  The only real variation on the theme was adding cold weather running clothes to my bag since the expected temperature at the start was in the low 30's - usually it's in the low to mid 50's!

Chronic Over-Packer
The drive up was scenic and uneventful. Mr. R&R and I passed the time singing along to yet another one of the random mix cd's that inhabit my car.

Sun and Blue Skies One Minute

Random Rainstorm The Next

6 Years...And Still Under Construction!

After we picked up our stuff from the expo, we checked into our hotel, went out to dinner, and spent the rest of the night laying around our room watching bad tv.

Like always, the 4:30am alarm came too soon and I pulled on my race clothes (tights, long sleeved shirt, jacket, ear band, and gloves) and we headed for the start line shuttles.  I've never seen so many adults so eager to climb onto a school bus, but had heat!  A short ride later we arrived at the UW-Fox Valley campus and the starting line. Most of the runners had taken shelter from the frigid temperatures inside a building, so we joined them; scoping out a little floor space to stretch, get iPods set properly, and commiserate about the weather.

Before long it was time to venture outside and into the starting corrals.  Someone sang an off-key rendition of the National Anthem and the gun went off.  It took about 3 minutes for me to get across the starting line.

As I said, I went into this race woefully under-trained, thus I had no delusions of running a PR race. In fact, my only real goal was to make sure I didn't set a new PW (personal worst), so I started off at a slow, comfortable pace and let the miles flow by - and flow they did.  Before I knew it, I was coming up on Mile 3, then Mile 6, then Mile 9.  I found myself really enjoying the race. This is the sixth time I've raced this course in six years, so I've really come to know it well.  I knew where all 3 hills/bridges were, when to anticipate water stations, and what landmarks to look for. It's not the most scenic course out there, but I've come to love it anyway.

Unlike previous Fox Cities races, I found the two bridges late in the race to be only mildly annoying rather than super difficult.  There was no walking involved.  I ran both of them - something that's never happened before.

I know I mentioned in last year's race recap that I find the final mile of this particular course to be very challenging from a psychological standpoint.  Runners have to run past the finish line and down a very pretty, but very long avenue before turning for home.  I have, without fail, walked a good chunk of that avenue every year for the last five years.  Not this time.  I ran that thing like it was my job!

I crossed the finish line in 2:14:27.  Not bad for being under-trained!  Mr. R&R also turned in a fantastic race time of 1:58:39.

Overall, I'm very pleased with my performance at this year's Fox Cities race for a number of reasons:

  • The only time I walked was through water stations.  (That's a definite first for me.)
  • It was my 2nd fastest Fox Cities race and third fastest half marathon ever.
  • The bridges didn't faze me in the least.
  • I was comfortable and happy, both mentally and physically the whole race.
  • I ran a negative split! (Ran the second half faster than the first half)
I can't wait for next year...Bring. It. On.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

You Can Call Me Al (Al's Run Race Recap)

It was a beautiful day for a race - especially one that starts on the campus of my alma mater, Marquette University.  Al's Run (now formally called Briggs & Al's Run & Walk for Children's Hospital) was started by legendary MU basketball coach in 1977 to benefit Children's Hospital of Wisconsin, and has raised over $13 million in the last 35 years.

I've been really bad about training in general the last few weeks (which is a whole different blog post), but when the opportunity to do this race arose, I couldn't say no.  This morning, Mr. R&R and I drove to campus and registered on-site to do the race.  While we were doing that, I couldn't help smiling because the Marquette Band, which I was part of for 4 years, was playing one of my favorite songs from back in the day: You Can Call Me Al by Paul Simon.  How appropriate for the occasion!

Yes, I'm somewhere in that mess! (circa 2000)

After we registered, we had some time to kill so we walked all over the campus and I couldn't help noticing how much it's changed in the years since I graduated.  It was always a nice looking place, but you can definitely tell they've dumped a lot of money into cosmetic improvements in the last few years!  My favorite building on the campus looked as lovely as ever - the 14th Century gothic oratory known as St. Joan of Arc Chapel.

Before long, we were filing onto Wisconsin Avenue with approximately 14,000 other people.

I noticed that I was standing far too close to the front - as in near the 7 min/mile pace area!  However, there weren't a lot of people in the vicinity and I decided I'd rather get a clean start and get passed like crazy than waste energy bobbing and weaving around the walkers and baby strollers farther back. The gun went off, I hit play on my iPod, and it was go time.

The first mile was fantastic.  It's a long, straight, down-hill run.  I felt really good and had to keep reminding myself that a) I had 4 more miles to run and b) the pace I was running only felt good because I was running down hill!  Mile 1 went by in 9:02. My favorite part of that mile? Running it faster than the Navy/Army ROTC group!

Mile 2 continued through downtown Milwaukee and then turned into a neighborhood known as 'The East Side'.  I slowed down a little here, but still not bad.

Mile 3 contains my absolute favorite part of the race: Lafayette Hill.  This hill is miserably steep if you have to run up it, but fortunately we were running down it! A free speed boost? I'll take it!

Mile 4 was a long, straight stretch of road paralleling the shoreline of Lake Michigan.  It's usually a great place to run, but there was no breeze coming off the lake today so the sun was absolutely scorching. 

Mile 5 just sucked. My pace, which had been pretty consistent for Miles 2-4, skyrocketed.  I was hot, tired, and ready to be done; but I was also chasing a rabbit in my mind.  I haven't run this particular race or distance since 2009 and I was really hoping to PR this race.  That wasn't looking too likely given my average pace for the first half of that mile.  After some quick calculations I realized that it was still possible, but I was really going to have to push hard.  I went for it.  I hated every minute of that last half mile and seriously thought I was going to puke afterwards, but I DID IT!  My 32 year old self beat my 29 year old self by 36 seconds!

Official Finishing Time: 50:07 (Avg. Pace: 10:05)

Of course we all know my Garmin usually tells a slightly different story, so here's that data if you're interested:

Course was slightly long according to Garmin, but I also know it took me a few seconds after crossing the finish line to stop my watch.  Either way, I probably didn't deserve to PR due to my lack of training these days, but I'm still happy about it!  Overall it was a pretty performance on a good course with really solid volunteer support and great organization. What more can you ask for?

Friday, September 7, 2012

The Other Day...I Saw A Bear?

After ziplining and whitewater rafting, we decided on a slightly less adventurous pursuit: hiking.  There were a number of interesting sounding trails in the area including part of the famous Appalachian Trail.  After looking at all the options, we settled on the Wesser Creek Trail which was described as an 8.8 mile out and back hike that met up with the AT and led to a fire tower on Wesser Bald which would provide fantastic vistas of the Smokies and Nantahala Gorge.  Sounds good, right?

We drove up a road that eventually became gravel (and wound its way through some serious Deliverance country) to where it ended, slathered ourselves with bug spray, and started hiking.

The trail was beautiful as it wound its way steadily upward along a series of nonstop switchbacks.

As we hiked, we made a point to make lots of noise in case there were any bears in the area (which was entirely possible considering where we were), and talked about how the last thing either of us wanted was to run into one - much less startle one!

 About a mile in, we were climbing a hill and coming around a corner when Mr. R&R suddenly came to a dead stop and said, "Is that...?" as he pointed to a dark, furry looking mass about 30 yards away.  My heart started hammering in my chest as I looked at the shape, and I started backing away.  We're only about 80% sure that it was a bear, but neither of us wanted to get close enough to be 100% sure since that dark, furry-looking thing was right in our intended path!
Maybe. Maybe Not.
We did the smart thing and got the hell out of there (and constantly checked behind us to make sure that the possible bear wasn't following us)!

Once we reached the relative safety of the car, we were both a little disappointed to have been denied the opportunity to hike on the Appalachian Trail, so we decided to drive over to the Nantahala Outdoor Center and pick up the AT there.

The famous white blaze...sent a few chills down my spine.
At this point, the clouds were looking a little ominous, but we decided to follow the trail North from NOC for at least a little while.  It just seemed wrong to be so close to the AT and not hike on it!  According to our rafting guide, they were expecting most of the North to South thru-hikers to come through the area in the week or two after Labor Day.

Approximately 2,047 Mile to Mt. Katahdin
Blaze and much less intimidating wildlife

Honestly, I didn't even notice the little garter snake in the above photo until I went to upload it!  The wildlife sightings on the AT were far less intimidating to say the least.  We heard some wild turkeys in the distance and spotted this little guy warming himself on a rock where the sunlight was filtering through the trees.

We followed the trail as it wound its way gently upward through the trees for about a mile before the roll of thunder turned us back.

Although I think I'll always prefer hiking the alpine slopes and sub-alpine meadows of Mt. Rainier, the AT was undeniably beautiful (at least the tiny bit I saw) and I hope to hike much more of it in the future!

Have you hugged a tree today?

Monday, September 3, 2012

I Do All My Own Stunts

The area surrounding our cabin had no shortage of outdoor fun, so we spent two days of our trip chasing an adrenaline rush, first on a zipline canopy tour and then by whitewater rafting.

Our zipline adventure began with a short drive to Wildwater Nantahala Gorge Canopy Tours. 

After parking the car we followed the trail to what appeared to be a cross between an over-sized screened in porch and a tree house to check in.  We were handed waivers to fill out - and some of the wording was absolutely hilarious. The part circled in yellow below is what really made me laugh.  I had to agree that there were 'emotional risks' involved in ziplining including "unwelcome or inadvertent touching, simple hurt feelings to panic and psychological trauma (such as fear of heights).  I realize that they need to put these things in the waiver to protect themselves, but I thought it was funny that I had to agree that I couldn't sue them if they hurt my feelings!

 Anyway, as we were filling out our waivers and signing our lives away, the rest of the participants were filing in and one of the staff members was providing musical accompaniment - on a banjo!  Soon enough we met our Zipping Rangers (Trevor and Charlie Bo), were all fitted with harnesses, helmets and gloves and then led to a practice zipline, instructed on how to zip, how to stop and what not to do (namely touching the two back up safety lines that came off the back of our harnesses).  After that, it was practice zip time!  We started by zipping half way down the line (which was about 3 feet off the ground), stopping ourselves, and backing up hand-over-hand to the start.  Next was a full zip.  I could already tell from the practice zip that this was going to be a lot of fun!

All harnessed up and ready to fly!
 Our little group hiked up a short trail to our first zip platform and it was time to go!  The first four lines were tandem lines, so Mr. R&R were able to fly through the canopy side by side - of course he was faster!

Soaring through the treetops was incredible and the views from the platforms were incredible! 

And the bridges between some of the platforms were a lot of fun too.  There were narrow ones, bouncy ones, and some with intentionally missing planks!  I think the long, bouncy one was my favorite!

We had a blast flying through the forest, hanging out high in the trees, bounding across bridges, and learning about the plants surrounding us from our guides.

Finally it was time to take our final, and longest flight of the day. It was great!

If you ever have the opportunity to go ziplining, take it!

The next day we were off to the Nantahala Outdoor Center (NOC) for a half day of whitewater rafting.  Looking at the Nantahala River at 9:00am, it didn't look like much of anything - in fact, I wondered if the water was even deep enough to need a raft!
Kayaking course at 9am

Looking up-river at 9am
It turns out that the Nantahala is a dam controlled river and water is released everyday from 9am to 5pm, and it takes approximately 90 minutes for the water to make it from the dam to the NOC campus - and the water becomes much more exciting!

Kayaking Course at Noon

Looking up-river at Noon

We met our guides, donned splash jackets and PFD's, and were herded into a covered area where we were shown how to sit properly on the edges of the raft, basic paddle strokes, and watched a brief video about what to do if someone fell out of the raft.  Then it was live demo time! One of the guides called Mr. R&R up to demonstrate the whitewater swimmer's position, as well as how to pull someone out of the water. 

After the demo, we were issued our paddles, loaded onto a bus, divided into rafts, and driven to the put-in point 8 miles away.  Most of the rafts contained 6-8 people plus a guide, but Mr. R&R and I only had one other couple in our raft (John & Terri from Charlotte), and our guide was the same guide that had called upon Mr. R&R to demonstrate the whitewater swimmer's position!  We pushed off from the shore and took up a position behind the two other rafts on our trip.  It turns out that the reason we were behind everyone else is that our guide was the head guide and we were the 'medical' raft if something went wrong!

Almost immediately we came up on our first rapid, Patton's Run (Class II+).  We paddled hard, got splashed a bunch, and everyone came through it smiling and laughing!  As we paddled on, our guide, Marion, told us about the area, pointed out some assorted flora and fauna, and was packed with fantastic and sarcastic stories - including one about intentionally flipping a raft filled with over-confident firefighters!  She also told us that sometimes, after really heavy rains, that the dam releases water all night instead of shutting off at 5pm - and that's when the guides really have some fun in their off hours.  Apparently a group of them will take a raft out and run the river at midnight in total darkness!  How cool is that?

Just over half way through the trip we came up to a rapid called The Quarry (Class II).  The water was churning and foamy, and as we went through it, Mr. R&R was tossed from the raft!  Everyone in our raft reacted exactly like they were supposed to.  Mr. R&R got himself into the whitewater swimmers position, while Marion and Terri passed their paddles of to John and I.  In no time at all, Marion was hauling Mr. R&R out of the 55 degree water and back into the raft while telling him that his position on the raft wasn't called 'The Adventure Seat' for nothing!  Once everyone was settled back into the raft, we continued along the river through more Class II rapids, dropping over ledges, intentionally spinning the raft through others, and even attempting to "surf" one of them! 

Finally we approached our last rapid of the day: Nantahala Falls (Class III).  The water was wild and wavy as we paddled through it, splashing us from all sides and providing one hell of a ride!

I'd never been whitewater rafting prior to this trip, but Mr. R&R and I agreed that it was one of the most fun (and ab-destroying) things we've ever done! On our next trip we want to find a river with Class III and IV rapids, because if a little adrenaline is good, then more is better (unless you hear banjo music)!

Sunday, September 2, 2012

A Cabin in the Smokies

Once the Shoreline Duathlon was done, my focus quickly shifted to preparing for our upcoming vacation in North Carolina.  Why North Carolina?  Last winter, I was having a conversation with a friend via Twitter and she sent me a link to a resort property in the Nantahala Gorge that she'd always wanted to stay at.  After looking through the website and doing a little additional research, Mr. R&R and I determined that the area sounded interesting, but the resort wasn't quite the right fit for us, so I did what I always do: turn to Google. My searching led me to a vacation rentals company located in Bryson City, NC (about 3 hours outside of Charlotte).  I plugged in my criteria and the next thing you know, I was reserving a cabin for the last week of August.

Our flight was insanely early on Saturday morning (rolled out of bed at 4:30am after 2 1/2 hours of sleep) and just to make it more interesting, the fine folks at the Department of Transportation decided that Saturday morning was an ideal time to shut down the only freeway exit to the airport and start tearing it up - with no signage to warn us!  After an annoying detour, we managed to park, check our bags and make it through security in 20 minutes flat - which was a very good thing since our flight started boarding about 15 minutes later!

The flight to Charlotte was uneventful and as soon as we collected our luggage we caught a shuttle to pick up our rental car (which was more expensive than 2 round trip flights!). Soon enough, we were on our way to the Smoky Mountains.  The roads grew curvier and the mountains began to appear in the distance.

We also passed a road sign that my un-caffeinated, sleep-deprived self found far more amusing than it really was.

Finally we pulled into Bryson City.  To be perfectly honest, Mr. R&R and I both experienced one of those "Oh shit. What the hell have we gotten ourselves into?" moments.  Bryson City itself was about 2 blocks long by 3 blocks wide and looked like a cross between tourist trap hell and a complete and a run-down dump.  We located the rental office (a lovely little house across the 'street' from what appeared to be a scrap yard) and got directions to our cabin - about 20 minutes away from Bryson City.

Once we arrived at the gate to the cabin community, things got really interesting.  The private road leading up to our cabin was wide enough for one car (although it was a two way road), full of sharp, blind hairpin turns, and steep as hell!  The nail-biting 1.25 miles was totally worth it when we made the final sharp turn up our driveway and were greeted with our first look at our "cabin".

This was no cabin. It was a house!

Dining Area

Living Room
Master Bathroom
Back of Upstairs Porch
Front of Upstairs Porch
View of Road from Front of Upstairs Porch

Back Yard Fire Pit

After a quick tour of the house, we hopped back in the car and made our way back to Bryson City to stock up on groceries for the week.  The map the cabin company provided was utterly useless, but fortunately the GPS/Navigation app on our phones (affectionately dubbed: 'Not Siri') worked and eventually we found it!

The light was starting to fade as we drove back to the house and neither of us wanted to try negotiating that crazy road in the dark!  On the way back, we saw something that you just don't see back home: