Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Running The Crim in Flint, MI

Prior to running the Crim 10 miler, I had never been to Flint (despite a profession that requires me to travel to communities across the State of Michigan). Flint is only 45 minutes from Lansing, but other than traveling to Flint's Bishop International Airport (there are fantastic deals from there) I'd never been to the city proper.

Celebrating Flint's auto heritage (photo courtesy of the Michigan Municipal League)
Flint has an interesting reputation. Michigan's auto manufacturing economy put the state and many cities (including Flint) on the map in the 20th century. As the auto industry has struggled, so has Flint. But in the few years I've been hearing good things about Flint - a revitalized downtown, leveraging an anchor institution (University of Michigan at Flint), a motivated city government and grassroots effort to rejuvenate the city.

Downtown Flint (photo courtesy of the Michigan Municipal League)
The Crim Festival of Races 10 miler provided the perfect opportunity for me to run a race that attracts elite runners while visiting Flint. This year celebrated the 35th running of The Crim, and with more than 10,000 participating in the 10 miler, it seemed like a great idea. I'd also heard the Crim is rather hilly, and I'm always up for a challenge.

photo courtesy of the Michigan Municipal League
We arrived to Flint about an hour before the race. Traffic was atrocious, and it took us about 50 minutes to get off the freeway, park and walk to the start line. The crowd at the start was thick, but there was a lot of energy. As I stood in the throng of runners, I started to notice a lot of bibs that said "10 mile walk". Not wanting to get behind a lot of people who weren't running, I started making my way through the crowd. 

Downtown Flint (photo courtesy of the Michigan Municipal League)
As I was walking toward the front, I heard the announcer saying to corral yourself into the various time corrals. Unfortunately I could not see any markings that indicated where the time corrals were.  After the start, it took over 8 minutes to get to the start line, but that's not uncommon in a large race.

Downtown near the race start (photo courtesy of the Michigan Municipal League)
Once we passed the start, it was extremely congested. Unfortunately walkers and runners were all mixed together, and it was nearly impossible to pass people and get into any sort of rhythm. At times there were walkers crossing the entire road, and there was nowhere to pass. Typical running etiquette is to get to the side when you're walking (which I did when walking around mile 8), but this was out of control. I would definitely suggest starting runners and walkers at different times. The course was entirely too congested, and I was about 5 miles into the race before I stopped fuming about having to run side to side to get through.

The course had a ton of energy. There were spectators and music everywhere as well as an abundance of water stations. We ran through a stunning neighborhood with beautiful, stately homes. It was a really nice course.

The race ended in downtown Flint with thousands of spectators and runners. I didn't get to really appreciate much of downtown Flint, but it does appear they have really embraced U of M Flint and made that a crucial part of their downtown. I loved the neighborhoods we ran through and found downtown to be animated and energetic. 

The finish - downtown Flint (photo courtesy of the Michigan Municipal League)
Overall the Crim was a good race aside from the congestion. I would suggest for future reference that walkers start 10-15 minutes after runners. This is certainly not a knock on walkers (so please don't send me notes that walkers are people too - I already know). It just made the race very congested. If there had been a staggered start (as is the case in many races) it would've made a world of difference.

How would I rate the Crim? B- (create a different start time for walkers and it's an automatic A)

How would I rate Flint? B+ (the city is doing some great things - their downtown is fantastic!)

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Cities with more runners = cool places

I came across a survey from Runner's World ranking the 25 best running cities in America. (The survey is a little dated - from 2004 - but I'd bet it hasn't changed much.) What struck me was not only are these great places to run, but this list is comprised of great places period. This led me to the obvious conclusion that cities considered good cities for running attract runners and others because they're just good places in general.

Just looking at the cities on this list makes my cityphile heart happy. It includes San Francisco at the top followed by San Diego, New York City, Chicago, D.C., Minneapolis, Boulder, Boston, Denver, Portland, Austin, Seattle, Philly, Colorado Springs, Dallas, Anchorage, Raleigh, Salt Lake City, Honolulu, Atlanta, Houston, Phoenix, Madison, Monterey, and Fort Collins, CO. It's like the dream team of fabulous cities in America. 

Central Park, NYC. Ideal for running
These are places that have the "it" factor - people want to live in these kinds of places because they're desirable. There are great downtowns, walkability, green space, the list goes on. And runners love these cities because there are active running clubs, running trails, and challenges in hills, beaches, city streets. I can't believe it's taken me this long to draw this conclusion, but all runners should be fans of creating a sense of place. It coordinates beautifully with running.

State Street, downtown Madison, Wisconsin
I haven't run in all 25 of the cities on this list, but I've done a few - San Fran, Chicago, D.C., and Denver.  San Francisco is an incredible challenge with the hills, but what an amazing city. Chicago has miles and miles of trails along the lake. It's a runner's dream.

Hilly Mason Street in downtown San Francisco
 I ran in D.C. last year when I was training for the Detroit marathon. I did a 12 miler through Arlington, on the trail along the Potomac and around all the monuments. It was majestic. Plus there were runners and bikers EVERYWHERE. The trail was packed. It was inspiring to be surrounded by so many other people dedicated to exercising - whatever their medium.
Eastern Market, downtown Washington, D.C.
 In 2008 I visited Denver for work and went for a run with my boss. Holy altitude. It happened to be about 100 degrees the day we ran, but the altitude was such a surprise. I felt like my lungs were going to explode. I can't wait to run there again.

16th Street mall in downtown Denver
I love visiting these cities for all they offer as places, but also for all the runners I encounter on my own jaunts through these towns.  I've run a paltry few of the cities on this great list. I'll be running in Boston over Labor Day weekend, and it just means I've got a lot of running left to do. 

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Running fueled by...mojitos?

If you know me at all you know I'm clearly a fan of running while on vacation. I think it's the most interesting way to see a new place. So when my husband and I booked a week at an all-inclusive resort in Mexico I immediately thought perfect! Running on the beach.

A stroll on the beach in Riviera Maya

Our vacation in Mexico was fantastic - and I'm quite sure neither the heat nor the sheer amount of pina coladas and mojitos I consumed helped with my runs.  I'm used to drinking a Gatorade and some water after a run, not running back out to the pool and ordering another frozen cocktail. But when in Rome, right?

Shortly after arriving - I needed a mojito stat!

We ran on the beach alright. But I didn't account for the fact that it's hot in Mexico in August. Even at 7 a.m. the temperature is pretty warm. Regardless that didn't stop me from suiting up and running in the surf.  Also the ocean in Mexico in August feels like a warm bath. It's beautiful and feels great - but it's not the cool running companion I'd hoped for.

Enjoying the beach in the evening

Our first morning in Riviera Maya we got up early and headed down the beach. I wanted to run barefoot (this is a dream of mine now that I've read the amazing Born to Run). So I did just that - and it was hard. Good hard, but hard nonetheless.

The run on the beach in Mexico wasn't ideal. It was difficult and shorter than I'd have liked. It turns out the beach near where we were staying (not in front of the resort but further down) was a bit dirty. That doesn't bode well for barefoot running.

The other runs were done in the chilly air conditioning on the treadmill in the hotel gym. It wasn't exactly my dream of running in the sand but it helped me get in a few training runs before this upcoming weekend's 10 mile race.
Swimming following an afternoon run on the treadmill

This morning's run was a little sluggish, but I'm thinking it's because I'm still detoxing. It's definitely back to Gatorade for me.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

To trail or not to trail?

For me the answer to the age old dilemma of is easy: not. In my humble opinion, in the battle between road races and trail runs, the road reigns supreme. I want to like trail runs; I really do. I read about them in Runner's World and see these rave runs on a rocky trail. Every time I think wow, that looks incredible. Then I decide to hit the trail and regret it every step of the way.

When I was 11 years old I went running with my sister who was in high school at the time. We lived in the middle of nowhere, and we were running on a hilly, wooded path. At the time she told me that if I intended to run track in high school it was never too early to start running. My love of fitness began at an early age; however, my love of running took a little longer to materialize. I blame that first trail. 

My high school track team my senior year -I'm in the front right with my arms crossed. Fierce.
Clearly my love of cities is part of who I am. When I run I want to see people and neighborhoods and density and something - anything but dirt and trees. Last year, however, I decided to brave the wilderness and do my first trail run. I ran The Legend in Laingsburg, Michigan at Sleepy Hollow State Park. In the pre-race instructions we were told that we would be running through a river. I laughed and my friend said "I don't think he's kidding."

It turns out he was not kidding. That race was unequivocally the most difficult race I've ever run. At one point, when faced with a nearly vertical hill, I literally stopped, put my hands on my hips and said aloud to the birds and squirrels, "Are you f*&#ing kidding me?" The Legend has a warped sense of humor.

I made it through the race with squishy shoes the last mile or so after actually running through a river. There was mud covering my legs, and my shoes were virtually ruined. My trail running career began and ended that same day.

Finishing The wasn't pretty

I think my love of cities is what keeps me out of the woods and along sleepy neighborhood streets early in the morning; through Michigan State's beautiful campus; along the Grand River on the Lansing River Trail and through downtown Lansing. I do intend to run on the beach in Mexico during our vacation next week. I don't think that counts as a trail...we'll see how I feel about it.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Just a small town girl running in a small town race

Back in June I visited Portland, Michigan for a 5k that turned out to be my 5k PR. I mean you never forget your PR for any race. I figured Portland would be a great place to try for a half marathon PR, so last week I ran in the inaugural Portland Relay for Life Half Marathon. Unfortunately I decided to not really train with my longest run being seven miles three weeks before the race. Details, really.

In addition to my, ahem, lackluster training schedule, this has been a HOT summer in Michigan. I am not complaining because I love the hot weather. But it's one thing to sit on the deck with a cool adult beverage and another thing to run 13.1 miles in it.  Michigan's weather also took another interesting turn dumping several inches of rain the week before the race. This meant the original race course along Portland's gorgeous riverfront had to be rerouted the day before. This is a huge challenge for any race, but it was handled expertly.

I grew up in a small town (I mean SMALL - around 400ish people), and although I basically ran for the concrete jungle as soon as I could, I still appreciate the community of a small town.  Portland is small city considerably bigger than my hometown (with more than 3700 people), but it boasts a quaint downtown and neighborhoods with a real community feel. (Check out a story about Portland in The Review, a bi-monthly publication of the Michigan Municipal League).

The feather in Portland's cap, however, is its riverfront. The city has utilized it beautifully, and it's the capstone of this community.  Portland's nickname is the "City of Two Rivers" because it's located where the Looking Glass and Grand Rivers meet.  Rivers are an integral part of Portland's history and its geography, so utilizing the riverfront is key. Portland has completely renovated its riverfront in the last decade, and the results are impressive.

Portland's riverfront prior to redesign (photo courtesy of the City of Portland)

Riverfront after renovation (photo courtesy of the City of Portland)
I was really excited to run on Portland's riverfront. Unfortunately the torrential rains a few days before the race left much of the trail flooded. As I was driving through downtown toward the race start, I noticed part of the trail under 2-3 feet of rushing water. Race organizers were forced to reroute the course the day before the race to create a loop to avoid flood waters. Despite disappointment at not running through the city, the reorganization was extremely well done. The course was marked well and had many volunteers directing runners. Had I not known, I never would've guessed this course was designed the day before the race.

Pedestrian bridge on Portland's riverfront (photo courtesy of the City of Portland)
The race began at Portland High School and headed down toward the river trail. The course was a little hilly in places, but who doesn't love a good challenge? Runners ran across several of Portland's historic metal truss bridges on a shaded, quiet path. There weren't a lot of spectators, but those who were there were great at cheering on runners on a warm summer morning. The shade from trees along the trail was hugely helpful as the temperature began to rise.

Enjoying the race around mile 2
I'll be honest - I'm not sure I ever want to do another half marathon in the heat of summer. By the time I got to the 6 mile mark and was preparing to start the loop for the second time, my face was hot and I felt faint. This is where the race organizers were pure genius in my opinion. At a water station around mile 7ish, cloths that had been soaked in ice water were handed to runners. It was my savior. They repeated this at additional water stations. I'll be frank - it was those icy breaks that pushed me to 13.1. The heat was brutal.

It wasn't my best time at 2:20, but it was far from my worst time either. As a matter of fact out of the seven half marathons I've run, this time ranked number 3. Not too shabby for not training. The race was extremely well organized, and the shirt is one of my favorite I've ever gotten for a race. This was clearly a race organized by people who are runners and have run enough races to understand what runners expect. Although I was disappointed to not see more of the city during the run, clearly that was a last minute detour that was handled beautifully. 

Crossing the finish
I generally prefer big races, but every now and then it's nice for a small town girl to return to her roots and do a fun, small race. It was hot, but there's something rewarding about finishing a race in the heat. I'm not sure I'd do another summer race like this, but I'm pretty sure Portland is starting a fall race as well...

How would I rate the race? A (organization was fantastic!)

How would I rate Portland? A (it's done some great things and is a cute little community)

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Running St. Joseph, Michigan

I grew up not too far from the East Coast, so when I was growing up we would vacation at the beach on the Atlantic Ocean.  Michiganders spend lots of time at on the shores of the Great Lakes, and I'll be honest, I've never really gotten it. It's not the real ocean. It just didn't make sense.

Last week I changed my tune after visiting St. Joseph, Michigan, a charming little beach community on Lake Michigan. It feels like you're in any beach town on the eastern doesn't even feel like you're still in Michigan. I went for a brief run there (it was VERY muggy), and it's a great place for visitors, residents AND runners.
Silver Beach in St. Joseph

Downtown St. Joe is the quintessential main street. There are a number of great stores, art galleries, restaurants, and ice cream shops (important for summer visiting). We went into a number of stores and admired lots of local wares - paintings, photography, sculpture, jewelry and more. My favorite was a home interior store with fantastic taste. I want them to come decorate my entire house.
Charming downtown St. Joe
I am a giant fan of public art. I think it's hugely important for a vibrant community. St. Joe clearly gets the importance of public art and displays it everywhere. It's 2011 public art display, "Barnyard at the Beach", boasts adorable farm animals at every corner downtown with various themes. I loved all of them. Many of the stores have colorful chairs outside for patrons to rest, and some downtown benches are even painted. 
Displays for "Barnyard at the Beach"
More "Barnyard at the Beach"
The feather in St. Joseph's cap is clearly its waterfront. Silver Beach, just down the bluff from downtown, is 22 acres of coastline with fantastic waterfront development. There is a splash pad for kids (it was packed on Friday afternoon), a gorgeous old carousel, and paths for running, walking and biking. In addition this year Delta Airlines has chosen Silver Beach as one of the world's best beaches. Not so shabby.
The splash pad and Silver Beach from the bluff
The morning run was through downtown and down the hill along the water. It was amazing scenery to run along Silver Beach and down along the pier and toward the lighthouse. It is a tranquil and scenic run. If I lived there I would run there every day. I can't imagine it would ever get old.
Me with the lighthouse in the background
St. Joe is a runner's dream with lots of scenic paths to explore, and as someone who loves cities - it has a lot to offer in that respect too. With a lively, walkable downtown, public art, lots of attractions, and shops, it's a great community.