Still a Runner

A Blog by Mary Lou Harris

We’re all 1/2 (Marathon) Crazy

It’s the absence of the stifling humidity that has us giddy. And it’s that season. You see a leaf or two falling to the sidewalk, breathe that air with a barely distinguishable hint of autumn, and runners go 1/2 marathon crazy. Regardless of experience or pace, the half-marathon calls us. We’re helpless against its siren songuntitled.

We rationalize the usual explanations. It is a perfect tune-up for impending full marathons. The half is a great introduction to a longer distance for runners moving up from 5K and 10K distances. But really, we just want to be part of autumn and half marathons.

The Harrisburg Half Marathon has my first 1/2 and continues to be one of my favorites. It is convenient, mostly flat and mostly shaded. Still, after a summer of disappointing results in shorter races and in training, I held off signing up this year.

Has it been the humidity, the air quality, possibly age? Summer running and racing have been difficult. During my last 5K I felt like I was breathing through a mask. The legs felt strong, not so the lungs.

But the fever still strikes. On a hot sultry Saturday before race day while volunteering for packet pick-up, the energy and enthusiasm among runners pouring in for race bibs was palpable. I kept hearing the weather would change overnight, humidity would lift and we would have a cloud-covered cool(er) day.

Rivers Runners pre-race start

Rivers Runners pre-race start. Photo credit: Bekah Rundall

I bit. At the end of my volunteer shift and just before late registration closed for the day, hand went to wallet, signed waiver, picked up shirt and committed the rest of my body to a 13.1 race the following morning.

Overnight, the humidity did indeed clear out, but the cloud cover did not move in. Still, with temperatures in the ’60s and ’70s and those wonderful trees along the Susquehanna Riverfront, it was a beautiful day for a race.

I started near the back of the pack, unsure of what my pace would be. After the first two miles,  from City Island and south through Shipoke to the Greenbelt, runners finally spread out and I was able to move comfortably to an 8:55 pace.

Around miles 11/12, unshaded but great scenery. Photo courtesy Stacey Cleary

Staying on pace miles 11/12, unshaded but great scenery. Photo credit: Stacey Cleary

Surprisingly, the tight breathing experienced over the summer wasn’t a problem. I stayed on pace until Mile 13 where I drifted off by 20 seconds.

A solid finish coming in at 2 hours, 0 minutes, and 23 seconds, this pleasantly surprised runner was just over two minutes off PR placing second in age group.

Photo credit: Lind Brain Beck

Photo credit: Lind Brain Beck

The other pleasant surprise was the relatively large number of women in the 65+ age group. With a field of nine women, first place in AG went to a strong competitor from Virginia with a 1:55 time.

With a beautiful home course and well organized 1/2 in Harrisburg behind me, have I stymied the 1/2 marathon craziness? No. Next stop for me is the Runner’s World Half in October.

Looking at race calendars, over the next month there are roughly 15 scheduled 1/2’s within a two-hour drive. I expect wherever you are, race calendars are similar.answer-girl2

So, who else out there is 1/2 crazy? Raise your hand.

Backtracking the Baltics to Riga

I’m backtracking in my Baltic Sea saga to pick up on our brief stop in Riga, Latvia – my primary reason for electing the Versatile Baltics 3-day land trip while on the Iron & Ice voyage.

IMG_0241Although recent news coverage is offering more familiarity, Latvia came into closer view for our family in the early 1990s. A tall young man named Juris arrived to live and study with us for the better part of a year. I will forever thank his parents for entrusting Juris to us. Although we’ve kept in touch with the occasional notes and email exchanges, I didn’t anticipate an opportunity to do a return visit to his part of the world and meet his family. This itinerary made it possible. Twenty-some years later and with only 18 hours in Riga, it would be enough.

After making our way across Lithuania and into Latvia on a late afternoon in May, our tour bus crossed one of the many bridges into Riga. We were met by a lovely local guide knowledgable in the Art Nouveau architecture (Jugendstil) found on some of the most stunning streets in Riga’s city center. item_21202If you are a lover of Art Nouveau, I wish for you more time than we had to appreciate these beautifully constructed and preserved buildings. And do include some time for the Riga Art Nouveau Museum, housed in one of the many buildings designed by Konstantins Pēkšēns in the art nouveau style.

After checking in to the Radisson Blu Latvija and a quick turnaround, I met Juris and family in the lobby. After a brief exchange of gifts and the long-awaited meeting with his charming parents and wife Ilsa, we were off for a drive to the Bay of Riga and dinner. Enroute we traveled through an old and charming seaside cottage area and arrived at a restaurant with a spectacular view of the bay.

Dinner on Riga Bay

Dinner on Riga Bay

We reminisced about Juris’s time in the USA and caught up on their current family life. All of this over a wonderful dinner with fresh salad greens, seafood, and a beautifully prepared dessert.

 

On this pleasantly warm evening, DSC03638we took a walk along the water’s edge and spent some barefoot time cavorting at the shore before our drive back to Riga.

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A final photo with the Latvian National Opera House in the background before we say farewell.

Concerned that my morning tour of Old Town would not be sufficient in detail, Juris and his family walked with me over the cobbled streets and through the centuries of history that mark the sites. We were not alone in the late night hour. It seemed like a magical evening where crowds of people strolled by, or, well past the midnight hour sat drinking wine or coffee at outdoor cafes, chatting with friends.

There would be no morning run through Riga’s cobblestone streets for me as I was scheduled for breakfast at 7 a.m. and back on the tour bus by eight. The morning’s daylight tour of Old Town provided by the tour company was a wonderful review, but couldn’t hold a candle to the detailed and personal midnight walking tour.

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Freedom Monument

I barely scratched the surface of all that is this beautiful city of Riga, all the more reason to return. I left with the sense of a people who have thrived through a tumultuous history that does not dampen their love of life.

 

 

 

Whirlwind Wedding Days in Montreal

How often does the opportunity present itself to enjoy a number of the most fulfilling things in life in a single weekend? Things like family, friends, flowers, food, travel, music, and, of course, running. All this was wound around wedding activities of my godson and his beautiful bride in the vibrant city of Montréal.

Wedding at La Toundra

Wedding at La Toundra

If Montréal is not on your “cities I must visit” list, please consider adding it. And since the wedding couple shared a few favorite restaurants and other locales during their Wedding Week, I will in turn share them with you.

Nil Bleu - An Ethiopian restaurant with beautifully presented food and a soft ambience.

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The pre-wedding day dinner was relaxed as we casually worked our way from the appetizer tray to many other courses that followed. The details of each course escape me now as I was enjoying seeing old friends and meeting new. Never fear, though. This recent review in MontrealResto captures the ambience of Nil Bleu, as well as the aroma and flavor of the food.

La Toundra was the locations of the lovely afternoon wedding  surrounded by blooming gardens and a Grand Prix race course (we arrive not in a Formula 1 but in a taxi).

After a beautiful ceremony and reception, we called it a day and returned to Hotel de Paris, Unknown-1our charming, historic lodging. It’s a great location, modern amenities in each one-of-a-kind guest room, and close to all of the wedding venues. Should you be adventuresome enough to decide on something more interesting than what the major chain hotels can offer, this is a good choice. But, come in good shape on the off-chance (ahem) you are assigned a 3rd floor walk-up room.

Le Passé Composé - A post-wedding day brunch was arranged at this wonderful corner bistro with art-covered walls, large windows, old wood flooring, and of course wonderful food. IMG_0916It was a casual morning crowd and an inviting menu. IMG_0905I stayed with the traditional tête a tête, eggs and bacon with rich brown toast and fruit on the side. My husband chose a salmon omelette. Both choices were fresh and wonderful. If I have an opportunity to return, I will try le crêpe encrusted with panko. 

As the post-wedding day finale, the party planned to meet later for potine in the parc. Lafontaine Park  has a great location

Bike share locations dotted throughout the city.

Bike share stations like this at edge  of La fontaine Park dotted throughout the city.

and offers playgrounds and ponds, as well as walking and cycling paths. I opted out of the potine, but instead (yes, you guessed it)  spent my park time squeezing in an 8-mile run. The locale offered interesting views since most of the park perimeter is surrounded by colorful residential areas and small shops.

On an overcast day, Montrealers relax in the parc

On an overcast day, Montréalers relax in the park

 

And not to overlook the opportunity for music, the evening took the mother of the groom, my husband and I for a stroll down rue Sherbrooke to McGill’s Pollack Hall (where by the way the bride and groom had spent many a day studying and practicing). An evening of string quartet performances rounded out our stay. 

And as quickly as we arrived, we were again crossing Montréal’s bridges, seeing signs of an early autumn as we passed through the Adirondacks  – and home again.

Seriously, consider visiting Montréal. We can compare notes.

 

 

 

St. Petersburg Saga

This post could just as easily be titled “No Running in Russia.” The beautiful city of St. Petersburg has more than enough sites to fill several days of travel.

St. Isaac's Orthodox Church viewed from Lt. Schmidt's Embankment

St. Isaac’s Orthodox Church viewed from the Lt. Schmidt Embankment

But, why not a run after a long day of sightseeing? The weather was mostly beautiful, the daylight extended to midnight, the street facing the ship’s dock offered a scenic running route . So, why didn’t I run?

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Early evening picnic on the dock as viewed from my cabin window

I learned prior to the trip that I would not need a visa for Russia if I was signed up with one of the travel companies located in St. Petersburg and was in their company during my time off the ship. To avoid the additional cost and time involved in preparing and submitting information for a visa, I opted to do a 3-day tour with a wonderful tour company, Alla.

Disembarking the ship each day, we passed through Russian Customs, showed our passports and tour tickets for the day, then met our wonderful tour guides at their waiting van. Leaving our guide for the day, we returned through Russian Customs located near our ship’s gangplank.

All of this worked well until evening came and from my cabin window I saw people running, biking, walking long into the almost white night. And here was I without a visa to join them. Early evening with the sun still high, I see people stretched out enjoying the sunshine.  I could do the same on shipboard, but this was a case of the “grass is greener.”

Midnight runner during St. Petersburg's white nights.

Midnight runner as white nights approach.

What I couldn’t do on shipboard was what I longed to join this runner in doing – heading down the street for a run.

Second guessing aside, the days in St. Petersburg were filled with the sights that are not to be missed by travelers to this amazing city. We had the good fortune to be there on its birthday (May 27, 1703) so the city was particularly busy and beautiful. The experience, both visually and historically, in a city of monuments to czars and the site of the Siege of Leningrad where an estimated million people died of starvation during World War II, is far too dense for a blog post. So, I touch on a few of the sights that stood out for me. For a full list of what can be seen during 3 days in St. Petersburg, here is a link to the Alla 3-day tour description.

PENTAX ImageWhere does every tourist visit in St. Petersburg? The Hermitage, of course.

The expansive gardens at Peterhof with their weird and wonderful waterworks were immediately reminiscent of the gardens at Versailles.

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Yusupov Palace gave a sense of how a family of the czar’s court lived. (This palace was also the site of the conspiracy and murder of Rasputin.)

Deep underground in St. Petersburg, IMG_0351what is said to be one of the most beautiful subway systems in the world awaits. Stained glass can be found at every entrance and terminal.IMG_0357

My personal favorite was the Russian Museum, far less crowded than the many palaces we visited which gave us an opportunity to appreciate and view the art without peaking through hordes of fellow tourists snapping photosRussia-Saint-Petersburg-August-2010-78.The aptly names Russian Museum houses the works of Russian artists from the 10th Century through today. I was particularly moved by the depth of color and emotion in the 12th century icons.  The art on display depicts village life and work as well as that of the noble class through the centuries. Here you will be privileged to see works by artists you may not yet familiar with (as was the case with me), along with others such as Marc Shagall.

My advice for visiting this beautiful city: Do your homework to understand its history, make sure the Russian Museum is on your itinerary, and if you want to run – get a visa.

Array of bright umbrellas during St. Petersburg downpour

Array of bright umbrellas appear during St. Petersburg downpour

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Run through Tallinn History

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Culture Kilometre

Eight days into our journey and I had yet to get in an honest-to-goodness run. The ship’s treadmill doesn’t count. In port in Estonia, I was out the gangway early, determined to find a running route somewhere near the dock.

And there it was. As I walked through the security checkpoint, I could see a pedestrian path across the road.

The first kilometer had a bit of an industrial edge, lightly used and a bit weedy, but I felt perfectly safe as a solo runner.IMG_0289 I passed a couple of men walking to work, a mother and young son out for an early bike ride, and several of my shipmates getting in their morning run as well. Further along, a residential area with older homes bordered the path. The buildings displayed architectural elements on old, mostly wooden houses, IMG_0285what you would

expect to see in a fishing port but particular to Estonia.

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Where the path ended, I emerged onto a street of new housing that replicated the features of the historic architecture. 

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Midway along this route and to the left of the path sits a beautiful gate to a park entrance.

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I thought perhaps I could add a mile or so through the park, but found the gate locked at this early hour. There was a serenity to that park and I paused at the gate, taking in the beautiful landscape and what may have been a church in the distance.

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Tallinn Harbor

Moving on and adding a  couple of streets to my out-and-back, I threw in a brief run down this colorful  pier. With that, I was able to extend the run distance to just over five miles.

After returning home from our voyage, I did some research to ensure I had the correct location before adding this trail to the localeikki site. And, I was still curious about that iron-gated park just off the trail.

I learned the path is named the Culture Kilometre and the Kalamaja area is known for its wooden architecture and its thriving bohemian art community.

And the park with the iron gate? According to Wikipedia, on the other side of the gate is the former site of the oldest cemetery in Tallinn dating back to the 15th or 16th century and the burial place of ethnic Estonians and Swedes. The cemetery was flattened in 1964 during the Soviet occupation. Gravestones were reused as building material. The former graveyard is now a public park with only one identifier to its historic past: a small plaque on the restored chapel located in the park (a building which I could only see in the distance). The plaque identifies the location of the graveyard and memorializes those buried.

Tallinn, Kalamaja kalmista. Credit: lifar, Wikipedia

Tallinn, Kalamaja kalmista. Credit: lifar, Wikipedia 

Dig a little deeper as you travel and run. History is sometimes just below the surface and just beyond the locked gates.

What is the backstory behind your favorite or newly discovered trail?

 

Hometown Path through Fresh Eyes

With many travel tales and trails still untold, a run along a hometown towpath reminded me of how much I enjoy my local trails. On my first run in Wildwood since my return,  the fowl and flowers seemed as exotic as anything I experienced abroad.

The time I had planned  to run a 4-miler  was reallocated as I stopped for photos every couple hundred yards.  Movement and beauty bid me walk and watch. The 4-miler became a 2-miler.

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Color and form camouflage the gray heron as it hunts for food amongst the swamp waters. Armed only with my iPhone, the several photographers with long lenses, camouflaged themselves in the greenery at the edge of the path, are surely getting better results.

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The swamp lily is looking lovely in summer yellow.

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Lacking the protective coloring of the heron, this spunky great egret stared at the camera then ducked its head to troll the grasses after two of its buddies took flight. I wasn’t fast enough to catch their impressive in-flight wingspan.

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The honeysuckle dominates the wild grape, both reaching for light on this shaded path.

Give nature an opportunity and it will thrive.

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A heavily truck-trafficked street is mere yards away with an industrial park on the opposite side. The Wendy’s billboard is seen reflected on the swamp’s surface.

It’s good to be back on a familiar and favorite path – for now.

Traveling my way and looking for a nature run, walk or bike ride? Find the towpath and other trails on this link to localeikki.

Next week, its back to trails and tales along the Baltic.

 

Tracking Amber on the Baltic

IMG_0187During a month of hiking, running, walking and sailing through Baltic ports, amber was a constant. These beautiful remnants of fossilized tree sap come in shades of yellow, brown, red and black and regardless of size have a depth of beauty.

Though most of amber is now mined commercially there are many amber collectors, people who live or work near the sea, who use a process that dates at least to the 1600’s, still collecting amber by wading into the water to visually locate and capture amber by net.

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Our Lithuanian amber guide Igor helps me suit up for the hunt. Will this count toward my upper-body cross-training? Photo Credit: Catherine Kerber

We left Klaipėda, Lithuania to ferry across the lagoon to the Curonian Spit, a 98-kilometer sand dune with territory belonging to both Lithuania and Russia. It is also a UNESCO World Heritage site. There, we had an opportunity to hike across the dunes and learn the Baltic netting method.

Amber floats in salt water and frequently can be found imbedded in seewed.

Amber floats in salt water and frequently can be found imbedded in seaweed.

There are some days in the Baltic Sea that are prime for harvesting amber. Alas, it was not my day and the net captured little. I did come away with my own unpolished chunk, gifted by Igor.

unpolished  Baltic amber

unpolished Baltic amber

 

We visited amber museums in Poland, Lithuania, and Denmark and museums exist in virtually every port on the Baltic. There is even an amber room in Catherine’s Palace near Saint Petersburg. The Nazis were impressed enough that they left town with the amber panels from the room, never to return.  In the last few decades, Russian artists recreated the panels and restored the room to its former glory.

Of the many amber museums throughout the Baltic, my favorite is the Gdansk Museum in Poland. It is housed next door to the Torture Museum in a section of what was the walled area of the city and the former prison dating back to the 1400’s. My shipboard friend Autumn and I were held hostage ourselves as a group of school children ushered in front of us, pinning us in a small alcove.

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14th century Fore Gate, location of Gdansk Amber Museum

A note of warning: For this visit, it helps to have some mountain goat in your soul. Access to the museum will require negotiation of tight dark stairs, but all is worth it to see the beautiful amber creations. In addition to detailed information on the development of amber over millions of years, its reputation for healing powers and information about the amber trade over the last couple hundred years, add the works of local contemporary artisans and amber craftsmen on display.

I’m not convinced of its healing or health powers, but I do find myself wearing my unpolished amber nugget when I run. I’d love to here about your experience with amber. And, does anyone run with a stone or charm for luck, for its healing power, or as a talisman when you run, hike, bike?

 

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