Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Creating meaning

When my husband suggested almost a year ago that I start a blog focusing on two of my absolute  favorite things - cities and running - I thought it would be a fun exercise. Little did I know that I would discover how these two things are a huge part of me. Writing this blog is an expression of who I am and what I believe in. Sure, that sounds corny, but at the end of my life I want to look back and know that I did something I believe in. Something that really matters.

Today I was forwarded this fantastic blog by Umair Haque that discusses creating a meaningful life through meaningful work. Having attended two funerals this week, I thought I was all tapped out on gaining perspective, but Umair took it one step further. It really got me thinking about the meaning in what I do.

I am fortunate to love, REALLY love, what I do and where I work. I am a 100% true believer in the importance of cities and placemaking.  Sometimes as a lobbyist I get bogged down in the details of specific legislation. This can be as tedious as changing a "may" to a "shall" or arguing with another organization over some minute detail that later no one will even remember. At times I have to take a step back and remember that at the end of the day, even the tiniest detail may ensure a community can invest in what matters -creating a place where people want to live, work and play.

At a bill signing with Michigan Governor Rick Snyder
I love running. I'm never going to win a marathon, and some runs are better than others. Even on those days when I struggle to put one foot in front of the other, I always feel better after a bad run then if I'd decided to not go.  There is something so fulfilling about traveling and exploring an entirely new city in my running shoes. 
Running in Boston - one of my favorite cities
In his blog Umair asks three questions about the meaning of your work: Does it stand the test of time? Does it stand the test of excellence? Does it stand the test of you? In my career, I can proudly answer yes to all three of these things. There is a lot of legislation that passes in Lansing that has a real and significant impact on placemaking in our communities. I could not be prouder to be even a small part of it.

Chicago - the pinnacle of placemaking
When it comes to running and writing this blog, I can answer yes again to all three of those questions. I started doing this blog just for me, but I've gotten the most surprising support from the most random of sources. I have had other people ask me for help and advice in starting a running program. I've had input from total strangers about races to run. I had someone say they booked a weekend vacation based upon one of my blogs. I've had race organizers respond about specific concerns I discussed with regard to their race. This blog (much like running) started as something I did for fun and turned into something I need to do.

In downtown Detroit after a race
There are lots of moments in every day when I think "really? Who actually cares?" But the sum total of what I do every day matters to someone. Most of all it matters to me.

Friday, February 24, 2012

Guilty pleasures

I'm only mildly ashamed to admit that I love McDonald's. I know it's disgusting, and I know it's bad for me, but I don't care. When I finish a long run, there is nothing I want more than Chicken McNuggets and fries. Maybe a hot fudge sundae for good measure.

I'm not one of these people who runs and eats healthy. I get that if I did I'd probably lose weight and probably be faster. I don't have horrible eating habits all the time (although admittedly they aren't the best), but if I can't indulge in some ice cream every now and then what's the point in running?!?

One of the most interesting things I've found in traveling and running is how many calories I must burn on vacation.  (I'm not a calorie counter so I can really only speculate.)  We do a lot of walking and sightseeing in addition to my running, so I'm generally on the go the entire trip. That's why I get to enjoy things like key lime martinis, Dunkin' Donuts cappuccinos, a good Cabernet and butternut squash tortellini. My theory is that running these towns keeps me skinny (reason #673 to register for a race and book a trip!)

Enjoying some Dunkin' Donuts coffee in Boston
We are actually taking a little trip hiatus for a few months (it's so weird!) and I'm not registered for a race until March 18.  I'm solidly in the middle of marathon training, and the only real down side is that it gets difficult to do races because I have to do longer runs on the weekend.  So for a few weeks my runs are relegated to my neighborhood and the river trail in Lansing. Don't worry, though - my running races/traveling is only in hibernation for a few weeks. In the mean time I am not giving up my guilty pleasures - it's likely I will hit the McDonald's drive-through after my long run tomorrow.


Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Run Like You're a Kid Again

Remember when you were a kid, and sometimes you would just take off running because you could? Maybe it wasn't very far or very fast, but there was something freeing in just taking off. You would run around with your friends, playing. Running was a fun part of every day in some way.  While I certainly don't always feel that freedom when I'm doing a long run, part of that is what keeps me running. It's also my time to reflect on what's happening in life - both the good and the bad.

This past weekend one of my dearest friends lost her husband to cancer.  She and her family are devastated, and as I've watched her family go through this battle, it's helped me put everything in perspective over and over again.  Sometimes the things that seem so important - something at work, someone you're annoyed with, some task you have to accomplish - seem so insignificant when someone is fighting for their life. She and her family have handled this illness head on and never stopped fighting. All through it I have continued to reflect on how life is too short to worry about the stupid stuff. As cliche as it sounds, this is why we have to take advantage of every opportunity. Book a trip. Register for a new race. Challenge yourself in whatever you are doing and whatever is important to you.

As we celebrate his life this week, take a minute to say a prayer for my friend and her family. And in whatever you're doing, run like you are a kid again.


Thursday, February 16, 2012

Oh the Places I'll Go

"You have brains in your head.
You have feet in your shoes
You can steer yourself any direction you choose.
You're on your own. And you know what you know.
And YOU are the guy who'll decide where to go."  
- "Oh the Places You'll Go" by Dr. Seuss

It's that time of year again - the time where I'm trying to figure out what races to do and where I want to travel.  It'll probably change a million times before I figure it out, but where should I go in 2012? After May, I've got an empty slate with lots of time to fill.

I'm registered for the Shamrock 'n Roll 10k in Plymouth, Michigan in March, the inaugural Lansing Half Marathon in April and the Green Bay Marathon in May. After that I've got...nothing. Well not nothing. There are dozens, hundreds even, of races I could do across the country. But when my goal is to run often and to run in all 50 states, I've got to be selective in what is actually doable. 

I'm likely going to run the Solstice Run, a 10-miler in Northville, Michigan in June. After that the possibilities are endless. Maybe the Hancock Canal Run in the Upper Peninsula in July? Maybe the Lake Erie ½ Marathon in Ohio in August? I'll very likely run the Capital City River Run again in September. That race has become one of my favorites.

Runners - are there any races you've done that you'd recommend? City people - is there a city I should visit? Throw out a cool city, and I'll find a race. Remember, it's not just about running but seeing cool places as well. Where have you been for a race where you enjoyed the scenery, enjoyed a great restaurant or a cool downtown? That's the kind of race I'm looking for - not just somewhere to run but an experience. I'll go anywhere - I'd love to hear some ideas! 

Monday, February 13, 2012

Everybody loves placemaking

A few weeks ago I referenced one of my favorite blogs, the Economics of Place.  Under the blog's header is this quote: "Place shapes us. Place defines us. Place is what forms our identities, our attitudes, and our relationships." I could not agree more. 

In the most recent blog, Helen Davis Johnson, co-founder of CreateHere answers some questions on placemaking. I think runners in particular have a unique interest in place. Both running and place are part of what shapes me and defines me.

Q1. What is the greatest promise of placemaking for American cities?

I believe that everyone is a fan of place whether they know it or not. Who doesn't want to live in a vibrant, safe neighborhood where they spend time with their neighbors, walk to the local coffee shop and have breakfast on Saturday morning at a local restaurant. Whether someone is cognizant of it or not, placemaking is indeed something people want.  Raising awareness of place and making people realize this is something they already get; something they already want, is huge.

When I think about all of the places my husband and I have traveled, while places like Boston, Denver and Chicago stand out, placemaking is happening everywhere. One of my favorite downtowns I've ever seen is in Rapid City, South Dakota. Random? Yes. Vibrant? Also yes.

A summer evening in downtown Rapid City, South Dakota
The running community has a unique interest in place. When you're running, you want a safe, accessible route. You want a place where you can grab a cup off coffee after a run. You want a place that attracts other runners. It's all about walkability, one of the key aspects of placemaking.

I was in Washington, D.C. a few years ago, and I ran a 12-mile route as part of my marathon training. I ran through the streets of Arlington on wide, walkable sidewalks past mixed-use developments. I veered onto the Mount Vernon trail, an 18 mile trail along the Potomac River. There were runners, walkers and bikers everywhere. I didn't even once fear for my safety. I ran around the monuments and stopped to take a picture of some World War II veterans at the World War II memorial. It remains one of my favorite runs I've ever done, and it was all about the place. And while not every city will have the same scenery as D.C., each place has its own cool attributes to celebrate. 

A dream running route - around the monuments

Q2. Is placemaking a tool for large and small cities alike, or does the practice lend itself to communities of all sizes?

In placemaking, size doesn't matter. I went to college in Morgantown, West Virginia, a small city of less than 30,000 people (although West Virginia University's student population causes that to nearly double). Morgantown is consistently considered one of the top small cities in America. Its walkable, vibrant downtown is a model for other cities not only in West Virginia, but nationwide.

High Street in Downtown Morgantown
Morgantown is a great example that your city doesn't need to have hundreds of thousands of people to create place. Places are created in cities of all sizes and even in smaller scales in neighborhoods within those cities. Place isn't driven by size but by believing in and leveraging what you've got to create the kind of place where people want to be.  

Q3. Is there one place that you hold up as a standard for effective placemaking? Perhaps something you have witnessed or worked on? Could be a region, city, neighborhood, block, etc. 

If my co-workers read this they may groan because I'm often talking about my experience when I worked for the Mayor of Norfolk, Virginia before moving to Michigan six years ago.  Norfolk is what I would consider a poster child for placemaking. This is a city that had a vacant downtown in the mid- to late-nineties, and because of the vision of city leaders, it is now hard to find a vacant storefront. 

Granby Street in Norfolk's downtown

The MacArthur Center mall anchors downtown, and the Granby Street corridor downtown is flanked by local stores, restaurants, and bars. Arts and culture abound with the Chrysler Museum of Art and the Virginia Opera right downtown. Norfolk has leveraged its naval history (it's home to the world's largest navy base) by anchoring the USS Wisconsin downtown in recently renovated Town Point Park.

Norfolk's Chrysler Museum of Art

The coup de grace is the completion of The Tide, a light rail system through downtown Norfolk that was completed earlier this year. When I worked for the Mayor, light rail was one of his top priorities. I left there in early 2006, and it was a dream that was starting to catch on. It took years of pushing, millions of dollars and a patient city leadership and constituency that understands the importance of public transit. Now it's operating, and I could not be more proud that I worked for a city that really GETS it.

It's no coincidence that my favorite places to visit are also my favorite places to run. I strongly believe that placemaking and running are intertwined. I look for races in cities where I know after I run I'll have lots of places to walk around, local spots to have lunch, and lots of things to see.  There is a pattern in the towns I've chosen to run - they all know a thing or two about placemaking.  While there are lots of assets that make up a great place, those are the same assets make great places to run.     

Monday, February 6, 2012

Running Pensacola

This past weekend my husband and I flew south to visit Pensacola, Florida, home of the Double Bridge Run 15k.  Although we've been enjoying the milder Michigan winter this year, it was still nice to head to the beach for some warmer, more humid temperatures.

Beautiful Pensacola Beach
We arrived in Florida at 10:30 a.m. on a Thursday. This entailed catching a 6 a.m. flight out of Detroit which means we woke up around 3:30 a.m. My husband might still be annoyed with me about the early flights. The good part is that we had all day Thursday to enjoy Pensacola as well. We picked up our rental car and headed straight to lunch at The Fish House, a phenomenal eatery overlooking the Pensacola Bay. I was looking for seafood and southern food, and this place had it all. They are renowned for their grits, and let me tell you - incredible. I had fried oysters, cheese grits, black eyed peas and of course sweet iced tea. Their hush puppies were absolutely amazing. This was unequivocally the best meal we had in Pensacola. 

Outdoor seating at The Fish House
Our hotel was the race hotel - the Hilton at Pensacola Beach. We had to cross the two bridges I would later be running to get to the beach. Pensacola Beach is its own little contained community with hotels, restaurants and shops surrounded by white sand beaches. We enjoyed it there, but we were glad we'd rented a car so we could also explore the rest of the area.

The race expo was at the hotel, and it was a small but well organized affair. Packet pick-up was fast and easy, and we made our way through the various vendors. My favorite part was filling out a short survey to receive free Asics arm sleeves sporting the race logo. The race shirt is a long-sleeved cotton t-shirt, which will be fine for wearing around the house. I'd prefer paying a little more for a tech shirt that I'll actually use instead of eventually adding to the pile that I hope to one day turn into a quilt.  We spent the rest of Thursday relaxing, walking the beach, and having a quick dinner near the hotel.

Beautiful scenery and pier right near our hotel
On Friday morning we headed out to explore downtown Pensacola. As a fan of downtowns, I was impressed. There was free two-hour parking, so we hopped out of the car and set out. There were lots of shops and restaurants, and a surprising number of music establishments - theatres and music stores.  Pensacola is also rich in history with its French and Spanish roots. Downtown is home to a number of beautiful, old, historic buildings including Historic Pensacola Village. We spent hours just walking around and enjoying the architecture. 

Pensacola also had a number of pelican statues downtown and elsewhere. The city of Norfolk, VA does this with mermaids, and I love cities that have a mascot of sorts. I got my photo taken with several pelicans.

It turns out Mardi Gras is a big deal in Pensacola although we were a few weeks early for the big festivities. All of the shops downtown were decked out in Mardi Gras finery. The downtown has a New Orleans type feel, and I'm sure Mardi Gras would be so fun. I wish we were there for that celebration too.

Mardi Gras decorations downtown Pensacola
There were even beads in the trees downtown!
Lunch on Friday was at McGuire's Irish Pub, a local place established in 1977. The food was typical Irish and okay, but the atmosphere was really what this place was all about. The owner's daughter had signed a dollar bill that is now framed on the wall, and a tradition started for patrons to sign dollar bills that they would affix to the walls. The hostess informed us that they had approximately $1.3 million worth of dollar bills at McGuire's.  The signature cocktails were also impressive. My husband decided to have an "Irish Wake", a large concoction featuring Bacardi 151 rum in a keepsake mason jar. There is a three drink limit, and unfortunately with a race the next day I just got to sample and envy while he enjoyed two of them.

Debauchery? I'm in!

Dollar bills everywhere at McGuire's
Following McGuire's we headed out to Fort Pickens on the Gulf Island National Seashore.  Fort Pickens is one of four forts originally built in the early 1800s to defend Pensacola Bay.  It was amazing - definitely one of my favorite parts of the trip. There is still a lot of the fort standing, and we spent hours exploring and taking photos. The famous Apache Geronimo was imprisoned at Fort Pickens in the late 1800s. The rich history makes Fort Pickens a must see.  Plus there's a ton of stuff to climb on. I am pro climbing.

Friday night was relaxing with a walk across the street to an intimate little Italian place - Lillo's Tuscan Grille. The reviews we found online were mixed, but we had a great experience. The service was impeccable, and our food was fantastic.  The clearly homemade sauces are delicious, and I had spaghetti with their homemade Italian sausage - awesome.

I was up bright and early on Saturday for the race. The 15k buses boarded right near the hotel, and I was on the bus by 5:15 to head downtown. We got downtown around 5:45, which left an hour and a half to just...stand. The race was extremely well organized - the buses and starting area ran like clockwork. The corrals were well-marked as was the course.

Even in running, fashion matters.
 I'll admit up front that this was not a good race for me. I've been breaking PRs and running much faster the last few months, and this was just not one of those times. The temperature at the start of the race was low 60s. It was warm and beautiful, although a bit windy. The race headed right down Palafox Street (Pensacola's main downtown street) and through the historic district before heading to the first of the two bridges. 

The first bridge is a three-mile span over Escambia Bay. The bridge began right around the three mile mark, and it was quiet. Due to the nature of the course there weren't really any spectators, so I could hear other runners and the wind. About halfway over the bridge I was really losing steam. Thankfully there was a deejay probably in between miles four and five that really helped boost the energy.

Following bridge number one, we ran through Gulf Breeze, a small town connecting us to bridge number two. Gulf Breeze was my favorite part. There were tons of spectators and tons of energy. The best part was we ran by the start of the 5k, and 5k runners were lined up cheering on the 15k runners. I actually teared up a little bit. It rocked. 

The second bridge was the Bob Sike's bridge over the Intercoastal Waterway. While this was much shorter than the first one, it was around mile eight, and I was running of out energy quickly. At the nine mile mark I began debating when I should really start kicking. It's not as though .3 miles is a huge distance, but it's not quite sprinting distance for me. The last stretch I really pushed and finished strong. I love the photos my husband got of me running toward the finish. He's the best paparazzi ever. My biggest disappointment with this race was no medal. I love running swag, so very disappointing.

My husband spotted me far away -I'm in the purple on the right.
All smiles once I'm done.
Post race I was feeling pretty good, so after a shower and a snack, we headed off to Naval Air Station Pensacola to visit the National Naval Aviation Musueum and the Pensacola Lighthouse. The Aviation Museum was really cool with tons of military aircraft, and with free admission, it really can't be beat. I also loved the interactive ones because, as I've established, I like to climb things.

This is the actual plane where Nixon gave his victory sign.

Like I said - I like climbing things.
Speaking of climbing things, following the Museum we headed to the Pensacola Lighthouse, the same one recently featured on Ghost Hunters.  The guide at the entrance informed us it is considered one of the most haunted lighthouses in the United States. The 177 steps to the top were a challenge following 9.3 miles, but it was worth it for the panoramic view of Pensacola Bay. Frankly the walk down was harder on the legs.

The Pensacola Lighthouse
Going up
Beautiful view

Saturday afternoon was spent relaxing and resting before we headed out for cocktails and appetizers at Flounder's, a restaurant across the street from our hotel and owned by the same people who own McGuire's.  We had more excellent service at Flounder's, and the signature cocktail (with keepsake mason jar) is Diesel Fuel. I celebrated finishing the race with a key lime martini and a blue marlin (aka pina colada) while my husband enjoyed the Diesel Fuel. The appetizer we ordered was great, but the location is really Flounder's crowning jewel. It's right on the water with open air dining, a HUGE patio, and just a fantastic atmosphere. It is also home to the original Pensacola Beach sign, a cool old sign that presents a great photo opportunity.

Cheers to our last night!
All in all our trip to Pensacola was successful and relaxing. I really love the city - the history, atmosphere and great food. The race was well organized and a really fun experience.

How would I rate Pensacola? A (I mean really - water, great downtown, relatively walkable. I approve.)

How would I rate the Double Bridge Run? B + (Throw in a medal and a tech shirt, and it's an automatic upgrade)

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Random Things About Me

Last night I was catching up on one of my favorite blogs, See Mom Run Far, and the blog's author, Erin, was asking readers about themselves. She had 11 questions for blog readers to answer, and since I love talking about myself, I thought why not?
1. What is your maiden name (girls), nickname (now or from your youth), embarrassing middle name, or something special/unusual about your name?
My maiden name is Jones. Samantha Jones - yes just like on Sex and the City.  

And yes, I'm that fabulous.

2. What is your favorite animal and why?

I love cats. While I really love my pups, I have always had cats and just love them. I love that they're independent and want to do their own thing.

Our cat Ellie
Daisy - who will be 14 in March!

3. Do you like being alone?
I LOVE being alone. I adore my husband, family and friends, but I crave a certain amount of alone time. Not all the time, but I do enjoy the occasional weekend to myself where I can read uninterrupted or do a project around my house. 

Curled up and reading - one of my favorite things to do

4. What is a quality about yourself that you like?
I like that I am fiercely loyal. Sometimes it gets me into trouble because I expect everyone to be as loyal as I am (and that's just not realistic).

I can count on these two to be as loyal as me.

5. What is something that drives you crazy?
Only one thing? I really can't stand it when people move too slowly whether they're walking, driving, anything. And similarly I can't stand indecisiveness. Make a decision and do it right then.

6. What did you want to be when you grew up when you were younger?
I always wanted to be a journalist growing up. I started off my collegiate career as a broadcasting major, and am only a few classes away from a broadcasting degree. I changed to political science halfway through and never looked back.

Is it too late for me to be the next AC?

7. Are you a night owl or a morning person? 
Definitely a morning person. I  love to get up in the morning and get moving. I rarely stay up past 10 p.m.

I am the anti-Garfield

8. What is a personality trait about yourself that you would change if you could?
I'm very impatient. I'm working on it. :)

9. Favorite flavor?
Of what? I can pretty much get down with anything chocolate.

10.  What is a game you are terrible at?
I have horrible hand-eye coordination, so anything that requires that - volleyball, badminton, etc. This scene from "Meet the Parents"? That pretty much happened to me in high school gym class.

11. Do you belong to a running club? Do you belong to any other type of club?
I do run with my co-workers, but we're not really a club. I am part of a book club that I love.
12. Giants or Pats?
I really am not a professional football fan, but I hate Tom Brady's haircut. So Giants.