Tuesday, 19 April 2011

From Russia with Love

I’VE always dreamed of going to Russia, home of Anastasia, Rasputin and Dostoyevsky. The best time to go is during the Easter season when it is unfortunately still freezing (about 0-3 degrees Centigrade) because you practically have most of the tourist spots to yourself, except for the Hermitage. I would recommend a week’s stay—4 days and 3 nights each in Moscow and St. Petersburg. Here are my top picks:

Moscow musts
1. Go around town via the subway primarily to beat the horrible traffic and view the artworks! Established in 1935, there are 132 stations, each of which is made of marble and granite. Each station has a story to tell, from communism to revolution. Some stations are dedicated to the Russian victory over the Nazis. The subway is so far the deepest that I’ve ever been into. It is designed to withstand a nuclear attack and seems sturdy enough to pass for a bunker. My favorite stops are Revolution Square, where you can rub the nose of the bronze statues for good luck, and the pre-World War II Mayakovskaya.  

Monday, 11 April 2011

Marathon du Paris in Spring! Alle!!

It's wonderful to be in Paris, especially during springtime when the weather is just right and the Parisians are in good spirits.

Our group—(shown in photo during the practice run from left) Arnel Bañas, Leah Caringal, Leana Carmona, Tessa Valdes, Lit Onrubia, moi, Lara Parpan, (not in photo) Gem Padilla and husband Nick, the Ong siblings (Jane-Jane, Veronica and Andrew) -- had flown in to represent the Philippines in the 35th edition of the marathon.

This is my fourth international event and second full marathon, the first full was in New York in 2008; and half-marathons in Great Wall (2010) and Hong Kong (2011). 

I must say that New York and Hong Kong were fairly more organzied.  The 45,000 runners in New York were distributed in seven color-coded corrals in Staten Island and had three different wave starts. The corral is based on the projected finish time indicated by the runner in the application form. In Hong Kong, the 65,000 runners were distributed in different wave starts on Nathan Road in Kowloon starting as early as 5am until 9am.  In Paris, all 40,000 runners started at the same time on Avenue des Champs Elysee at 8:45 am with the exception of the handicapped runners who were given a ten minute advantage at 8:35. 
On race day, all streets were closed and the only access to the start line on Avenue des Champs Elysee was through the subway. So, we were up bright and early to make it to George V, the designated meeting place. As you can imagine, it was difficult to find anybody with thousands trying to reach the start line.

It was also a bit chilly and the regulation plastic ponchos found inside our race packet was heaven sent and quite fashionable. In New York, I was freezing at 8-10 degrees Celcius and I, including others, donned black garbage bags making us look rather like a bunch of homeless people than runners.

The team somehow got divided into —the fast ones gunning 4:15 were Lara and the Ong siblings; Tessa, Leana and Lit targetting 5:00; husband and wife team Gem and Nick; and the somewhat injured ones: Arnel who just recovered from a meniscus tear (rupture of the fibrocartilage strip in the kee); Leah with plantar fasciitis (pain in the heel); and moi with iliotibal band friction (pain in the thigh cuasing laterally knee pain).

After depositng our personal affects, we got to Champs Elysee by 8:30. Arnel, Leah and I plodded along for more than 45 minues from the Arc du Triomphe to the start line. The mood was festive with bands playing, crowds waving and cheering. 

Once we crossed the start line, we started the Galloway method, with a 9-min. run and 1-min. walk. The route was mostly on the Right Bank. The first monument was the Egyptian Obelisk in place de la Concorde (the other pair is still in Luxor, Egypt), straight on Rue Rivoli (where my favorite breakfast place Angelina's is located), with the Jardin des Tuileries on the right and the Louvre, past the Hotel de Ville (city hall) then Bastille. We had to preserve our energy because the water stations were spaced 5 kilometers apart; each station though offered a virtual feast with lots of water, oranges, bananas, sugar cubes and sponges.

We reached the eastern point of Paris at Bois de Vincennes, a park three times larger than Central Park (left photo).  The park is right next to Château de Vincennes, which used to be a hunting lodge during the 14th century.

It was here, at the 18-km. mark, that Leah's heel started acting up and couldn’t manage to run and it was too painful to walk. We couldn't find any 'sag wagon' and thus, stopped the first car we saw. The driver agreed to take her back to Paris. (She told us later on that she hitched a ride with the photographers).

The finish cutoff time in Paris was set at 5 hours, 40 minutes. Usually the permits to close streets to make it safe can be costly. New York's cutoff time was generouse at 8-9 hours. Hong Kong and Beijing were strict; in fact in Hong Kong, a net was hoisted at specific cutoff times.  By the time we got back to running, we saw the sweeping cars already buzzing behind us ready to clean the course, and when we reached the water station at the 20th kilometer, the water bottles and everything else were aready in cartons. The volunteers though were kind enough to give us water and fruits. We filled our water bottles and balanced fruits and more water between our hands.

From the Bois de Vincennes, it was back to Bastille down the embankments of the Seine, along the the quais of the Right Bank past the cathedral of Notre-Dame on Ile de Cite. Here  I was tempted to make a quick detour at Berthilion, my favorite ice cream store.  Then  down the tunnel on Voie Georges Pompidou coming out to see the majestic  Eiffel Tower (named after its designer, engineer Gustave Eiffel, built as the entrance arch to the 1889 World's Fair). At this point, Arnel and I felt like Hansel and Gretel. Volunteers were taking down banners and we were literally following the track of empty bottles, banana and orange peels to find our way.

When we got to the Trocadero (30-km) at the foot of the Eiffel Tower, there was a mishmash of tourists and well-wishers. They were still encouraging us, chanting “Alle, Rosan! Alle, Arnel!” We had to scrounge in the organizers’ boxes for water and bananas.

Another 12-km to go! We headed toward the Bois de Boulogne, the westernmost park of Paris on the 16th arrondisement. This is where the famous Roland Garros stadium, host of the French open is located. The last leg of the race cut through the greenery via Avenue de Longchamps.

Towards the end at the 40-km, we made a dash for the finish line to Avenue Foch. We obviously didn't make the 5:40 cutoff, but happy to see volunteers at the finish line waiting, smiling and handing out medals, T-shirts and water.

As expected, the Ethiopians were the top finishers: Tadesse Tola finished in 2:06:41 and Atsede Baysa in 2:22:04. In our group (shown in photo from the left), Andrew was first at the finish line (4:02:10), followed by Jane-Jane (4:16:46), Veronica (4:21:02), Lara (4:25:29), Leana (4:49:50, not in photo), Lit (4:57:20, not in photo), Tessa broke her personal record with 4:57:23 and Paris-based Pinoy Rupert de Jesus (5:16:34).

Well, Arnel and I finished after seven grueling hours. Thanks to my doctor and coach who both strongly advised to DNF - this is not the dreaded "Did Not Finish" but —Do Not Force!

I must say that this is definitely one of my favorite marathons and, next to the Great Wall Marathon, the most scenic. It’s like a “walking tour” on fast-forward where you get to see one famous Paris monument after another. So for those doing next year, DNF!!!

For those who plan to join next year's marathon, Paris is a bottomless pit of cultural and culinary attractions. Go early to acclimatize. Here are my Top 5 things to do before race day:
1. Museums. There are almost 200 museums in Paris alone, so make sure you visit at least one. We caught the Manet retrospective in Musée d'Orsay when we were in town. Tip: No need to queue, there’s a kiosk by the steps selling tickets.
2. Macarons. My current fave is Paul Henri with its out-of-this-world flavor fusions. Also drop by Laduree (www.laduree.fr)--I love the one on Place Madeleine.
3. Brasseries and cafes. When in Paris…sit in a cafe and have an espresso!
4. Church of the Miraculous Medal on Rue du Bac. Also known as Chapel of Our Lady of the Miraculous Medal, among other names, this is known as the site of several apparitions of the Virgin Mary in the early 19th century. I always make it a point to visit the chapel.
5.  And definitely Shop!  For starters, check out the quaint flea markets, the Boucherie du Grand Marché where they have everything from caserolles to truffles and of course, Rue du Faubourg St. Honore (high end) to Marais and St. Germanin des Pres.