Friday, June 10, 2016

The Girls (and a few Guys) from Ipanema: Running the Rio Maratona

I did something in Brazil that our mothers warned us never to do.

I walked up to a man on the street.  He didn't speak English, and I didn't speak Portuguese.  But he motioned for me to follow him - and I did - from the street, into a building, and up three flights of stairs.  And it was one of the coolest experiences of my life!

And that afternoon pretty much summarizes my experience in Brazil from May 26 - May 30, 2016.

I was warned by many people not to visit Brazil this May.  Here's what I heard:  "It's not safe!"  "It's the center of the Zika virus!"  "It's their worst economy in forever!"  "They are impeaching their president and the people are rioting in the street!"

But I went anyway, and so did 63 others in the Marathon Tours and Travel group:  marathoners from all over North America.   About a year ago we chose to run the Rio de Janeiro Marathon as our South American marathon, in our quest to run a marathon on all 7 Continents.

Yes, this is a thing.  We are a very numbers driven group of people.  There were people in our group who had run a marathon in all 50 states.  One man ran all those marathons in 2014 (you do the math; just about every weekend).  Another man ran a marathon in all 50 states - 3 times.  Several of us  already run all 6 World Marathon Majors.  Many of us qualified for the Boston Marathon - several times.  So now this was our opportunity to check running a marathon in South America off our list.  We took a week off from work, paid our money, and since the US State Department did not have an advisory against flying to Rio, there we were, at the Caesar Park Ipanema Hotel, right across from the world famous Ipanema Beach. 

The day we arrived, some of us showed up for the group fun run, and we got an early feet on the street view of our home city for the next 5 days.

Marathon Tours and Travel, through their employees Ann Haebler and Jane Serues, took care of every detail during our stay.  In addition to planning our welcome party and dinner, our pre marathon breakfast and our post marathon dinner and party, Ann and Jane took us on a tour of Rio by bus.  We got to visit the famous Cristo Redentor (Christ the Redeemer) monument

which is visible from all over Rio.  The view from the base of the statue was spectacular.

We also got to ride by some of the preparations for the August Olympics

and we drove by a favela - basically, a slum that the government has begun to rehabilitate. 

After our tour, we went to the Expo, to pick up our marathon gear and pose for pictures.

By the end of the day, our group of women from Marathon Tours and Travel had bonded.  Preparing for a marathon does that for people   It was as if we were all instant members of the same college sorority.  Sheri, Sheila, Barbara, Kristy, Megan - I miss all of you already, and I can't wait to run many more miles with you all over the world.

On our own, we went to Sugarloaf Mountain.

 Raymond joined us, the first of the guys from Ipanema to infiltrate our sorority.  We rode a cable car to the top of the mountain...

and marveled at the view of Rio from the top of the mountain.

And then - well, that's when everything fell apart.  There was no Ann or Jane up there on Sugarloaf to check everyone's names off on a clipboard before we went down the mountain.  Our group got separated into 2 smaller groups on the top of the mountain. Each group was first nervous, then scared, that something awful happened to the other group when we couldn't find each other. Were the others kidnapped?  Bitten by a Zika infected  mosquito?  Impeached? 

Raymond was not going to leave the mountain until he found every last one of us.  But finally, Kristy and I realized that we could text each other, using our international phone plans, (which I had almost run through due to my sister in law Devon's posting movies of baby goats on Facebook - how could I not click on those videos?) (the goats were wearing pajamas) (and they were jumping) (and they have little horns on their heads, who knew?) and discovered one group of us was still on top of the mountain, and the other group had made their way to the bottom of Sugarloaf, figuring the first group was down there.  Once together, we vowed to never leave each other's sight, except during the marathon, when we were planned to run our own race.

Marathon Morning was warm and steamy and humid.  The forecast was to remain steamy and humid, but go from warm to hot.  We got on a bus (Ann and Jane checked our names off on a clipboard, oh how we could have used their help at Sugarloaf!) and the driver drove us all the way to the start.  The cool part was that we got to see most of the marathon course, which would also be much of the same course the athletes will run at the Olympics.  The scary part was that bus ride seemed S O  L O N G - and the way back was not by bus but on foot!  We all hung out together before the start, basically talking while we stood in line for the port a potties, then getting back in line again for the port a potties.  This is the part of the marathon you don't see on television for the Olympics.

Once we started running, we all felt at home again.  This is what we do.  A fun part of the marathon was how the runners would talk to each other.  Several woman I ran besides tried to talk to me, but my Portuguese was a bit rusty, so I just smiled and nodded my head.  This was a very friendly marathon. 

It was also a spectacularly beautiful marathon.  Most of the course hugged the Rio coastline.  We ran by the ocean and mountains for most of the run. 

By the end of the course, the temperatures were well into the 80 degree area.  This is dangerously hot weather for a marathon.  My friends and I all finished, but we (wisely) went slower then we could have run.

At the end of the marathon, it is hard to focus on what to do next, and figure out how to get back to the hotel, especially in a foreign country where one does not speak the language. But there at the finish, right after we got our medals,

were the flags for Marathon Tours and Travel.  Ann and Jane were at the finish, organizing us once again, crossing off our names on the clipboard, and shepherding us onto waiting air conditioned buses.

I decided right then and there, not only will I run as many marathons as I can with Marathon Tours and Travel, but I want them there in my everyday life.  Ann and Jane, with clipboards and buses, organizing my day, my meals, my job appointments, my social life.  I'll never get lost again!

At the post marathon party, we all regaled each other with our marathon stories.  Favorite parts of the marathon included watching the elites run right by us at an out and back turn, and seeing that runner with one leg who was running the marathon on crutches.  When we first saw the elites, we non elites clapped politely for them.  But later, as we ran by the runner on crutches, the applause from us was so loud it was deafening.  What an inspiration he was to all of us, and not only as a runner.  How humbling.

We all had night flights home the following day, which gave us more time to savor Rio.  Raymond had us jumping for joy (like the baby goats!) on Ipanema Beach.

After Raymond left us (he was off to go volunteer at a favela teaching computer skills to the students there, what an wonderful experience that turned out to be for the kids - and for him!) we walked down the beach and met two new friends, Ipanema lifeguards Paulo and Paulo, who graciously agreed to pose for pictures with us. 

And then somehow we talked Morgan into joining us for some shopping!  He definitely wins the good sport of the year award for joining the Girls from Ipanema on our quest to get Olympic shirts and coins.

Morgan's reward was the experience described above at the beginning of the post.  Morgan joined me and Sheila and Barbara for lunch.  We all decided to look for an authentic Brazilian restaurant for our last meal in Rio.  We weren't coming up with anything that looked enticing as we peeked into restaurants along Ipanema Beach. 

And then we saw him - a man standing by a building with a large sign covering most of his body.  Most of the words were in Portuguese, but the few English words we could read advertised a typical Brazilian homemade lunch. 

My three friends, all Certified Public Accountants, decided the credits outweighed the debits, and followed the sign man, who was signaling with his hands as to where we should go.  I followed.  As we climbed up three sets of elevators in an upscale urban mall, with no signs of restaurants, one of my American CPA friends, I think it was Barbara, said, "we are either going to a great restaurant - or we are going to a slaying."  The other two accountants and I, the lawyer, already projecting ahead to the criminal trial of the sign man for our deaths, shook our heads in agreement.

Suddenly the sign man stopped in front of a small family restaurant, smiled at us and pointed to the door of Puro Salor de Ipanema.  There we enjoyed a wonderful, delicious, family style meal of traditional Brazilian food. 

As we got up to pay at the desk at the front of the restaurant, I noticed a large framed shadow box behind the cash register filled with medals - running medals, from races ranging from 5K races to marathons.  I asked the man taking our money whose medals those were, and he, "the owner, he is a runner."  "We are too!" I said.  "We all just ran the Rio Marathon!"

The man taking our money broke into a large smile, left his post, and went into the kitchen and grabbed the Puro Sabor's owner, who spoke to us in broken English, translated by his employee.  Turns out the owner is a runner of many races, including a PR in a marathon in about the 2:30 range.  We all spoke to each other, and through the employee, about the Rio Marathon and how great just being in Brazil was for all of us.

So, not a slaying, but one of the coolest experience of my life!

The people who warned me not to go to Rio were right - this is a challenging time for this beautiful city and country.  But - in life we take calculated risks, and flying to Rio to run the marathon was a risk well worth taking.  I met friends who are all amazing women and men who I hope to run with again and again.  I was moved by the spirit of the Brazilian people in a difficult time for their country.

 And then there was that runner at the finish line.  I don't know his backstory.  It could be one of overcoming a terrible illness, or perhaps he was running in memory of someone who had died.  Or maybe, for one moment, he let go all the sad parts of life,  and just celebrated being alive and happy to have run 26.2 miles.  In that instant, when I watched him kiss the ground after finishing the marathon, all I thought of was happiness at everything that had happened to me in Rio.  It was a perfect moment.

Monday, June 6, 2016

We were born to run: The New Jersey Marathon

If the town of Asbury Park, New Jersey were a person, it would be Cher.  Or Madonna.  For over a century, this New Jersey beach town has stayed relevant by changing with the times. 

At the turn of the 20th century, Asbury Park was a genteel seaside resort where wealthy families from New York City and Philadelphia would go in the summertime to take to the waters.  Imagine all those old fashioned swimsuits - you know, the shirts and bloomers and caps, as fashionable swimwear for the early 1900's American east coast families.  For these families, swimming in the bright blue ocean along the mile and half long beach was a welcome respite from the hot buildings in the cities, prior to air conditioning.

By the mid 1900's, Asbury Park was a family beach resort again - but this time with an amusement park.  Some of my happiest childhood summer memories were spent every summer in Asbury Park.  From the Tilt a Whirl to the merry go round carousel, (where I tried every summer, then after several years, I finally leaned off my horse far enough to get the gold ring!) to riding bicycles on the wooden boardwalk with my parents and brother and sister.  Sometimes my grandparents would join us - as seen in this photo - and three generations would bask in the sun by the ocean, eat salt water taffy, and stroll down the boardwalk.

By the early 1970's, Asbury Park hit hard times.  Riots in the streets, economic downturn, summer visitors going elsewhere - my beach town was hit hard.  But music helped Asbury Park both stay relevant, and get back on track.  Musicians flocked to the Stone Pony, a newly built bar and music showplace.  Bruce Springsteen - with his 1973 album, "Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J." - and other musicians made Asbury Park the place to go.  Asbury Park became synonymous with coolness! 

Slowly, the near empty streets began to become filled again with stores, restaurants, bars, and homes, first for single people, then for families.  Hotels were refurbished, or built anew.  Real estate became expensive and enticing again.  By the second decade of the 21st century, Asbury Park was back - an upscale beach resort with fine dining, luxury hotels, a vibrant music scene - and a marathon that ran through not only Asbury Park but about a half dozen other Jersey shore towns, and the still sparkling blue Atlantic Ocean.

For a Jersey Girl raised along the beach towns of Monmouth County, there was no other marathon to run in NJ but the New Jersey Marathon.  Luckily, I persuaded my running buddies - St. Louis Sue, who I met in Argentina and have run 7 marathons with; Colorado Charlotte, my former Brevard County, FL running buddy from Set Goals, Not Limits running camp - we got each other to Boston, and have run Marine Corps and Chicago together; Carol, a local past president of our Space Coast Runners Club, super fast and super nice; Lea Anne, another local Set Goals Not Limits Runner who is also fast and has a mega watt smile on any running course; and Jersey Girl Mikaela, my friend Debbie's (we are Jersey Girls who go back, waaaaay back,  to pre school together)

 22 year old daughter, who would make her marathon debut at the NJ Marathon - to join me in this quest. 

We all met up at a pre marathon pasta dinner and regaled Mikaela (or frightened her?) with our stories of previous marathons and what to expect on Sunday morning.  Mikaela was a good sport and took it all in stride.  The weather looked awful for the next morning - 50 degrees at the start and dropping throughout the morning, windy, and rainy. 

We awoke the next morning to weather exactly as predicted the night before.

 Armed with Dunkin Doughnuts coffee and... well, doughnuts, we put our big girl running shorts on, braved the elements, and ran 26.2 miles in driving rain, wind gusts and cold (to us Florida residents; Mikaela and Charlotte and Sue took the weather conditions as is with no complaints) along the Jersey shore.

In spite, or maybe because of, the weather, I just couldn't stop smiling.  In all my marathons, I never felt as strong.  I never felt pain or discomfort.  I just kept running, past mansions that would make Jay Gatsby jealous, past the gray and stormy Atlantic ocean, on the boardwalk of my childhood dreams.  I couldn't stop smiling.  I was back.  Back in New Jersey, back with old friends and new friends. 

I was home.

I approached the finish line, mindful of my in house team physician/sponsor, who strongly advised me to finish the marathon no earlier than 4 hours 30 minutes.  I was OK with that, since I had the Rio de Janeiro Marathon 28 days later.  That being said, I didn't want to finish any slower.  So I perfectly timed my race so that I would approach the finish line at 4:29, then wait out the extra minute.

Most finish line pictures show a runner exuberantly crossing the finish line, with his or her arms over his head, a Rocky-like pose of victory.  Some runners are even kissing the ground as they finish.

Me?  I was caught by MarathonFoto staring at my watch for about 45 seconds, patiently waiting for 4:30 and change (to be on the safe side) for my finish line cross.  As I stood there, in the driving rain, I heard the spectators yelling to me, "Don't stop now!  You are almost there.  You can do it!  GO!!!"

Definitely my most unusual marathon finish ever!

Right after I crossed the finish line, there was my cousin Donna and her husband Andrew, waiting for me.  They drove over an hour to see me.  The last time I saw Donna was almost 30 years ago, at her wedding, when I watched her walk down the aisle at the Breakers Hotel in Palm Beach, FL, as pretty as a queen.  It was wonderful to catch up with Donna and Andrew.  I wish I could have spent more time with them, but after a few minutes I began to get hypothermic and needed to get back to the hotel to change.

That night, after our post marathon dinner, Sue and I got to check out the Stone Pony.  We either:  A: danced the night away with dozens of our new best friends at one of the coolest bars and music venues in the world or B:  Stayed long enough to buy T shirts and check the place out, then went back to the hotel to recover from the race.  It was marathon night:  you be the judge.

When I told my elementary through HS friend Amy about my marathon runs in May, NJ and Rio, she couldn't believe it.  "You were the last kid picked for every team sport in school!"  she said.  "Do your gym teachers know how you turned out?  I can't believe it!"

Amy, I can't believe any of this either.  I didn't start running until I was 45 years old, and I ran my first marathon a month before I turned 50.  I have qualified for the Boston Marathon 3 times.    NJ was my 14 marathon, Rio, 4 weeks later, would be my 15 marathon on my 4th continent.  If the good Lord is willing and creeks don't rise, as we say here in the south, I hope to run a marathon on all 7 continents and in all 50 states.  I've already run the 6 World Marathon Majors with my running twin Sheri.  And when all that is done I will just have to pick another running goal.  I don't ever want any of this to end.

So I guess if the town of Asbury Park, NJ were a person, it would be Cher, or Madonna. 

Or me.