Tuesday, April 12, 2011

The Hills of Knoxville


I signed up for the Covenant Knoxville Half Marathon on a bit of a whim. After completing my first full marathon last fall I needed a little break from running. In February I decided what the heck – I’d find a spring race to do. I picked Knoxville for two reasons: 1) I want to check Tennessee off my 50 state running list and 2) it ended on the 50 yard line of Neyland Stadium at the University of Tennessee.  I am a HUGE college football fan and a big fan of the SEC. Who doesn’t want to run on sacred SEC football ground?
What I somehow missed in deciding on Knoxville is that it is hilly. I mean REALLY hilly. My first half was in San Francisco, and I’m pretty sure this race had steeper up and downhill stretches than San Fran. I had the pain in my knees and back afterward to prove it. I knew pretty much nothing about Knoxville except that it is the home of UT. Apparently it also hosted the World’s Fair in 1982. Who knew?
I didn’t expect to fall in love with Knoxville. It was a beautiful spring weekend and their downtown is perfection. It is one of those places I visited and immediately thought I could live there. We stayed at the race hotel – the Holiday Inn World’s Fair Park. As its name denotes the hotel is right by the park that hosted the World’s Fair and just a few blocks from downtown Knoxville.
                After a 9½ hour drive from Lansing we made it to our hotel. It was Friday evening, and for Catholics on Fridays during Lent we immediately set off in search of meatless Lenten fare. I know – we had our doubts about seafood in Tennessee as well. Fortunately there was Chesapeake’s directly across the street from our hotel. The food was fantastic (I had swordfish and mac ‘n cheese – what a combination!), and it began my weekend overdose of sweet iced tea.
                We picked up my race packet the next morning in the hotel. The expo was a little disjointed – you picked up your bib in one place, had to have your chip activated in another and then picked up goodie bags and shirts in yet another location. It was quite confusing.
                Race packet secured we decided to venture out to campus to check out the sites. I love that downtown Knoxville is so close to campus. They are really connected to create a wonderful, seamless community. We had another great meal at Calhoun’s right on the Tennessee River. A girl can never have too much mac ‘n cheese or sweet tea especially on a race weekend, right?

                My parents joined us Saturday afternoon, and we ventured to Market Square in the heart of downtown Knoxville. This is where my love affair with Knoxville really began. Market Square is a pedestrian mall about a block long surrounded by chic restaurants and boutiques. It was packed with people – families, young people, tons of dogs (and as a dog lover I particularly loved all the dogs).
Market Square

                The Rhythm ‘n Blooms Music Festival (as part of the larger Dogwood Arts Festival) was happening in the square as well. It had a great community feel. We discovered the adorable boutique Bliss where I may or may not have purchased several things I didn’t need.

                Carbing up before the race was critical, so on Saturday night we headed out to Naples on the other side of town for some pasta. I called at 5:45 and was able to still secure a reservation at 7 – which was key because Naples had gotten packed with runners. They had marathon specials on the menu and my meal of salad, spaghetti and meatballs and cheesecake was only $12.99. The only thing I like more than pasta is cheap pasta.
                Race morning arrived quickly and we walked downstairs (literally out the door and into running corrals) for the start. The location of the race hotel was fantasticly convenient. (I am pretty sure “fantasticly” is not a word but I’m going with it.)
Before the race in front of the sunsphere from the 1982 World's Fair

                It was a chilly morning – about 45 degrees – but flawless running weather. I was comfortable after a few miles (when the chill wore off) in shorts and a tank. The course took us through campus, down along the Tennessee River and through neighborhoods containing some of the most opulent and grand southern homes I’ve ever seen. If I lived in Knoxville I’d have to live in one of these fancy houses.
                The race hit threw us a curveball at mile 7 with the steepest hill I’ve ever run up (and I’m from West Virginia!) I took the advice of the pacer and walked briskly. There was no point in running this beast.  Around mile 8 the race took a turn for the boring. We were on a trail (which was awesome because I think all cities need good running trails) but at this point with few spectators it became a little tedious.
                Things picked up again around mile 11 when we headed back into town (I appreciated whoever was blasting AC/DC) and winded our way the last 2.1 into Neyland Stadium. It was pretty cool finishing on the 50 although I must express my disappointment that the checkerboard end zone wasn’t painted. You could still see the outline of it from the stands, but I was disappointed nonetheless.
On the field of Neyland Stadium at the finish

                After hugs, photo taking and a much needed shower we walked back to Market Square for some brunch. The marathon course wound its way through Market Square, and I got to cheer on the marathoners while we waited for a table as well as thank my lucky stars that I was not running 26.2. We had brunch at CafĂ© 4, a delightfully trendy eatery on the Square. I had filet benedict, a delicious twist on the traditional eggs benedict.
Cheering for marathoners outside Cafe 4

                I was sad to leave Knoxville and even more sad to sit in the car for the better part of a day after that hilly run.  It was a good race and a fun weekend. I haven’t given my heart to a lot of cities, but I have to tell you – Knoxville and I are in love.
How would I rate the race? B+ (it would be higher but for that pesky trail part)
How would I rate Knoxville? A

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