The Vancouver USA Marathon – June 15, 2014 (Vancouver, WA)

Another trip to the west coast so soon? Yes! There are so many great races in the Pacific Northwest at this time of year, it is hard not to try and do all of them. This time I selected the Vancouver USA Marathon in Vancouver, Washington, right across the river from Portland, Oregon. Although I had lived in Oregon for two years and had visited many cities in Oregon and Washington, I had never had the good fortune to visit Vancouver so this race seemed like a good choice.

Our first flight didn’t leave until late afternoon, so we had most of Friday to complete our packing. After a brief layover in Atlanta, we arrived in Portland around 9:30 pm. A taxi took us over the Columbia River to the host hotel, the Vancouver Hilton. This was a great hotel – immaculate, modern, and attractive – plus it was conveniently located right near Esther Short Park, site of the expo and Summer BrewFest, and across the street from the start and finish lines. After we checked in, we quickly readied ourselves for bed; exhaustion from traveling all day had caught up with us.

Saturday morning dawned cool and dry (unusual for this area) and Darcy and I watched as both adults and kids were finishing up the Freedom 5K that had started at 8 am. We decided to walk to Joe Brown’s Café, a decent breakfast place that was filled with locals. Darcy relished his hash brown egg concoction while I ate my usual bagel. Since the expo and packet pickup opened at 9 am, we walked a couple of blocks from the restaurant to the park and wandered around the outdoor expo checking out all the booths. I picked up my bib with chip from the registration table – no lines – and my short-sleeved orange tech shirt. I really liked the shirt because it had the name of the race on the front in big black letters and ‘Finisher’ on the back, again in large print. It was also a textured fabric which means I might actually wear it – the very smooth fabric used in many tech shirts feel slippery to me. Then we visited several of the booths, including the Marathon Maniacs table where I chatted with ‘Ray the gear guy’ (he was doing the half marathon) and bought a new yellow Maniacs cap and a Maniacs sticker for my car. I really didn’t need another marathon sticker since I already have at least half a dozen plastered on the back of my car, but those stickers sure help me pick out my Honda from all the other dark blue cars in a parking lot.

A Farmer’s Market was held on the far side of the park so we walked over to see what goodies we could find there. I was still full from breakfast but that didn’t stop us from buying a loaf of sourdough chocolate bread, a miniature strawberry rhubarb pie, and a walnut crusted sticky bun – for later nibbling, of course. Darcy even bought an enormous corn dog and, of course, we sampled all kinds of other yummy treats.

The Summer Brewfest is held in the park right next to the expo. It is a 3 day event and runners received free entry plus a commemorative mug and 4 tokens, good for 4 ‘tastes’ or one mug of beer from the 50 choices from 25 local breweries. Darcy paid $25 for his entry, mug, and 10 tokens, and we made our tokens last the entire weekend. For beer lovers like us, this was a lot of fun.

After spending some time at the expo, market, and Brew Fest, we walked around town, down by the river, and to nearby Fort Vancouver where we saw the Old Apple Tree, planted in 1829 and the oldest living apple tree in the Pacific Northwest. We had an early dinner at the Brick House Bar & Grill – I had sliders and Darcy had a burger – and then Darcy went back to the room to relax and watch the College World Series and I returned to the expo to listen to Bart Yasso give a seminar on motivation followed by a course presentation by Race Director Brian Davis. Both talks were worthwhile and my usual ‘getting lost’ fears were allayed.

I returned to my hotel room and readied my clothes for the next morning. It was early evening and I was all set to spend my time finishing my library book (Philomena – excellent) and trying to get some sleep. Unfortunately, the downside of having a room right across from the expo and Beer Fest was the noise and music that permeated the walls of the hotel until 9 pm. I decided to put on my headphones and just deal with it – and fortunately I was able to finally fall into a sound sleep.

Even though the marathon did not start until 7 am, I was up and ready for my pre-race meal at 4. I studied the course map, read and reread the race literature, and tried to qualm my usual race anxiety. According to the RD, there were 1000 people signed up for the full marathon and at least twice that many for the half, which was to begin at 9 am and covered the last half of the full course. At 6:30 Darcy and I left the hotel and joined the other racers heading to the start line. Temps were in the mid-50’s and I clutched my handwarmers. After a welcome message and the national anthem, the first group of racers took off. We were lined up loosely by pace and I was in the 10+ minute area. We only had to wait a minute for each of the 3 earlier groups to take off and then it was our turn. We headed north for a block and then west for a long out-and-back to Frenchman’s Bar Park. This section of the course was flat and paved, although there were lots of pesky little rocks and some of them managed to get inside my shoes by mile 2. I resisted stopping to shake them out, however, but why didn’t I wear my gaiters?

Around mile 14 we were headed back towards town and then east to Fort Vancouver, past some beautiful stately homes and the grounds of Clark University. The weather stayed cool and cloudy all day and during this section of the course it began to drizzle. The last couple of miles followed the Columbia River and downtown to the finish line. The second half of the course is prettier than the first but it also has several hills. Bart Yasso announced the names of finishers as they crossed the finish line and when he called out mine, he noted that ‘there are some hills out there, huh? not like Florida, right?’ and I agreed, nodding my head and giving two thumbs up. A volunteer put a huge gold medal around my neck and I picked up several bags of chips and some fruit. My chip time was 6:03:26, good enough for 2nd place in my age group. Darcy met me at the finish line with our beer mugs and we ate and drank and talked with other finishers while standing under some trees. Around 1:30 it began to rain in earnest; I really felt for the few people still on the course. We finished our beer and went back to the hotel so I could shower and get into some dry clothes.

It was still raining when we were ready for dinner so we ate in the Hilton restaurant‘s bar – clam chowder and a grilled salmon sandwich for me and salad and chicken sandwich for Darcy. Everything was filling and tasty. Since our 3 flights home did not begin until late in the day, we had all morning on Monday to sleep in. Breakfast was at the Rosemary Café, a neat old-fashioned kind of place, with unique salt and pepper shakers on each of the wooden tables and several antique radios displayed around the room. The food was good too. We left for PDX around noontime for our very long trip back home.

Like the Windermere Marathon, this race is very worthwhile for walkers as long as they are comfortable being by themselves for occasional long stretches of the course. I didn’t worry about getting lost because there were directional signs at every turn and arrows marked in flour on the road. Most of the course had few spectators but volunteers were cheerful and served as very vocal supporters. The volunteers were also dedicated and they stayed at their posts for the generous 7 hour time limit. Aid stations were plentiful and well-stocked with water, Gatorade, and some had gels and blocs. Vancouver is a beautiful city, clean and friendly and well worth the visit. The marathon is memorable as well.

Windermere Marathon (Spokane, WA) – June 1, 2014

May was a pretty busy racing month for me. I started the month off with an 8 hour ultra in Georgia, followed by 3 marathons in 3 different states in New England, and then finished the month with a 24 hour ultra in Pennsylvania. It was a lot of traveling in a short span of time; sometimes I think the mechanics of getting to and from race venues is harder than actually doing the races. After returning from Chambersburg, we had just one full day to unpack, do laundry, and repack before we flew cross-country to Spokane, Washington, for my first June race, the Windermere Marathon.

The major attraction of the Windermere race was its generous time limit, a full 7 ½ hours; the race website also stated that walkers were welcome in both the half and full marathons. Races, especially marathons that encourage walkers to enter, are fairly unusual so I feel it is important to support the ones that do. Darcy and I had only been to Spokane once, when I did the Coeur d’Alene Marathon back in 2010. We flew into Spokane, rented a car, and drove to Idaho and then back to the airport so we never really saw the city of Spokane. This time we wanted to explore the city itself.

We drove to JAX early on Friday morning to catch the first of our three flights. After a brief layover in Atlanta, we left for Portland, OR. Both of us had been upgraded to first class (thanks, Delta!) and had a surprisingly tasty breakfast on the plane. Our final flight of the day was a short hop from Portland to Spokane on a prop plane operated by Horizon Air. We arrived around 1:30 Pacific Time, retrieved our bags, and called for the hotel shuttle to take us to the DoubleTree by Hilton, the host hotel.

It turned out that the DoubleTree was conveniently located right across from the Spokane Convention Center, site of packet pickup, and also very close to Riverfront Park and the race finish line. We decided to leave our bags in our hotel room and wander around a bit before looking for a place to have an early dinner. Auntie’s Bookstore on Main Street was nearby so we spent an hour or so browsing the two floors of new and used books before heading to The Onion Bar & Grill, a popular restaurant highly recommended by several hotel personnel. We indulged in burgers, sweet potato fries, and a large platter of appetizers (mostly fried, unfortunately, but tasty nonetheless). Satiated, we went back to our hotel for some rest.

The expo did not open until 11am on Saturday, so we spent a quiet morning relaxing and having a leisurely breakfast in the Hilton dining room. After we ate, we walked around Riverfront Park and admired the unique sculptures and statues surrounding the park from the Washington State University downtown campus to the Monroe Street Bridge. Promptly at 11 we walked back to the Convention Center for the expo. Because this is a very small race (only about 300-400 marathoners and 2000 half marathoners) I expected the expo to be small as well but was pleasantly surprised. There were at least 35 vendors, many offering tasty samples and mini-chocolate bars. I especially enjoyed the yummy bread slices from Great Harvest Bread Company. Packet pickup was easy; after getting my bib with chip on the reverse, I walked to the next table for a red plastic gear bag and camouflage backpack filled with brochures and coupons, and then to another table for a gender specific long-sleeved bright red tech quarter zip shirt.

After depositing all these goodies in our hotel room we were ready to explore the city some more, so we headed over to the old Flour Mill, once a real flour mill but now housing unusual stores and restaurants. We opted to have lunch at Clinkerdagger’s, right inside the mill and overlooking the river. Most of the other diners chose to sit outside since the weather was glorious but we Floridians preferred an inside table that gave us a perfect view of the river without the ultraviolet load. This turned out to be one of my favorite meals of the trip. The background music was soft so we could actually hold a conversation. The food was excellent; Darcy had a hamburger and fries and I had steak and Dungeness crab sliders with sweet potato fries and – for beverages – a local IPA. I had looked longingly at the dessert sampler when we first entered but by the end of the meal I simply could not eat another bite. We did discuss returning here for a post-race meal but I knew I would be too tired afterwards to manage even this relatively short walk after the race.

When lunch was over, we once again walked across the many bridges over the river, by the falls, and through the park, stopping to watch children and adults ride the historic and beautiful 1909 Looff Carrousel. Back at our hotel, I began my pre-race preparations, setting out clothes and shoes and stuff and trying to ease my customary fears of getting lost on the course. Although the race website had a course map, it was small and vague, even when enlarged, and surprisingly there was no blow-up map of the course at the expo. Naturally I was concerned about being at the end of the marathoners with no idea where to go. Previous reviews on Marathon Guide had mentioned a lack of signage and the possibility of making a wrong turn. As a result, I spent a restless night obsessing.

I needn’t have. It turned out the course was marked on the ground at every turn by yellow sticky arrows. In addition, there were volunteers at these turns to point runners and walkers in the right direction. But of course I didn’t know this prior to the race start. On Sunday morning, I rose early, ate my usual breakfast, and then woke Darcy so he could walk me to the shuttle bus at the Veterans Arena nearby. Since this is a point-to-point course, it is necessary to take a shuttle to the start in Liberty Lake, an upscale suburb of Spokane. I got on the first bus and we left promptly at 5; the buses made continuous loops back and forth until 6 am (or actually a bit later, because the race was held up for 22 minutes while we waited for the last bus to arrive). Half marathoners took a different bus to the half marathon start at Mirabeau Park, halfway between Liberty Lake and Spokane.

The ride to Liberty Lake took about 25 minutes. Since I had about 2 hours to wait until the race countdown, I made good use of the portapotties (9 of them plus 2 indoor heated bathrooms) and spent the rest of the time talking to other racers and watching the sun rise over the mountains. We lined up on the street 7 o’clock and waited patiently for the final shuttle, listening to words of welcome from the Race Director and a rendering of the Star Spangled Banner, and then – finally – we were off!

I began a relatively fast-paced walk while watching most of the racers sprint on ahead, leaving me with a few Galloway people and a couple of slower walkers. Here’s where those yellow arrows came into good use. I kept my eyes peeled on the ground looking for them at the same time trying to keep the receding runners in my view. The surface was smooth – sidewalks and bike paths, around houses and golf courses – although occasionally there were curbs to step up or down. By mile 5, we reached a short but troublesome (for me) patch of gravel, dirt, and rocks. It didn’t last long but I was certainly glad to have my gaiters. After that section, we stayed in the breakdown lane of a 4-lane road for a couple of miles. Three foot orange markers kept us from the cars, although they were a little too widely spaced apart for my comfort. Still, there was very little traffic on Sunday morning and I found that drivers in general were exceptionally polite.

Around mile 7, we entered the Centennial Trail along the Spokane River. This was my favorite part of the race. The setting was beautiful and I enjoyed the tall trees, wildlife (squirrels, rabbits, and birds), and the pristine river. We essentially stayed on this trail until the finish line in Riverfront Park in downtown Spokane, but occasionally the course wove in and out of various neighborhoods. Since the course is certified and flat, it is a good one for runners trying to qualify for Boston. We had great weather – a cool 50 degrees at the start but warming into the low 80’s at the finish. There is no shade on the course, however, and by mile 15 I was warm and wishing for some ice-cold water to drink. The trees are mostly tall pines and do not provide much cover. Since aid stations were 2 miles apart (normally a good distance), there were times when I was thirsty between water stops and regretted not bringing a water bottle with me. Only one aid station had ice. I guess this kind of heat is unusual for Spokane in June.

We shared the trail with cyclists, dog walkers, runners, and people who were roller skiing. I had never heard of this before and was intrigued enough to ask some of the ‘skiers’ about the sport. It turns out to be very popular in Spokane. People use short narrow roller-blade type skates and long ski poles to propel themselves along the trail. It was fascinating to watch!

Given the heat and my fatigue from closely-spaced previous races, I was glad to finally reach the finish line. My name was announced and I received a handsome medal and a rose. I wasn’t hungry so I bypassed the food table (which had offerings of soup, fruit, and bagels) and even the beer table; my mind was on getting back to the hotel for a shower and nap. I did stop to get my ‘victory stand’ photo (free for finishers – a nice touch) and to thank the RD for putting on a good race. My finishing time was 6:08, good enough for 3rd place in my age group, so I also picked up my acrylic award with the Windermere Race logo on it.

Then it was back to the hotel to clean up and relax. Our dinner that evening was in the bar at Spencer’s Steaks and Chops. It was right in our hotel and offered a ‘happy hour’ on meals and drinks. I enjoyed delicious steak tips with peppers and onions, shared a blueberry, greens, and bleu cheese salad with Darcy, and relished a glass of cabernet. We left early the next morning for the long trip home, satisfied with our trip and a good race.
I would recommend this race for walkers who do not mind being alone for long stretches, especially at the end. Spectators are few and – since that doesn’t bother me – I enjoyed the peace and quiet. As I passed the aid stations at the later miles, I saw several volunteers packing up and getting ready to leave. That made me a little nervous for the people behind me who invariably would need water, electrolytes, and support. Walkers who can complete the race in less than 6 ½ hours should not have any trouble.