Friday, 25 August 2017

Jack Brooks endures border checks in Belarus, dodges grizzly bears in Alaska - and fits in some scenic trail races with Striders - in his latest races around the world

Jack Brooks reports on his races at home and abroad in June and July 2017...

Jack at the finish of the Manitoba Marathon in Winnipeg, Canada
Maritime Marathon, Manitowoc, Wisconsin: 11th June 2017

On 11 June I eventually (thanks to a puncture on my hire car) arrived in Manitowoc in the middle of a heat wave with temperatures around 80 degrees and around 82 percent humidity - and those were the prevailing conditions at the start of the marathon.

I generally don’t run well in the heat and like many others I was wilting before we reached the 5 mile mark. However, I persevered and with the distraction of pelican spotting along the shoreline of Lake Michigan I made it to half way in 2:10 and finally staggered across the finish line in 4:37:29.

Given the conditions, survival (rather than time) had been the objective in this race so I was not too disappointed.

Manitoba Marathon, Winnipeg, Canada: 18th June 2017

I hung around in Wisconsin for a few days after the marathon visiting the Green Bay Packers Hall of Fame (in Green Bay, of course) and making several trips to the ice cream parlour in Two Rivers, which not only housed a fascinating museum, but also served some of the best ice cream I’ve ever tasted.
Visiting the Green Bay Packers Hall of Fame while in Wisconsin
After driving back to Chicago we flew to Winnipeg, picked up our numbers for the marathon, explored The Forks area of the city and then drove up to Selkirk (to visit Lower Fort Garry) and Lake Winnipeg (to look around the Icelandic settlement of Gimli).

Fortunately, there was light drizzle on the morning of the marathon, which suited me down to the ground, as did the relatively flat course. I set off with the 4:15 pace group, but parted company with them just after 19 miles, finishing in 4:21:33.

The finish was in the city’s Canadian Football League’s stadium and, with only the marathon runners being allowed to finish in there, there was more than enough free food and drink for everybody. I also took advantage of a free massage at the finish, where I was advised that I should do something about the tightness in my upper left leg. I had been thinking the same thing myself from around the 20 mile mark!

Herts Hobble Trail Marathon, Bramfield Village, Herts: 25th June 2017

This is one of my favourite annual events. Adam Mellor and I ran round together taking the time to admire the beautiful Hertfordshire countryside and chat to other runners, finishing in 5:40.00

Ashridge Trail Half Marathon, Herts: 2nd July 2017

This is another local event, which passes through some spectacular hilly countryside. Adam Mellor, Carol Ransom, Mandy Attree, Lucy Stern and I went round together. We didn’t treat this as a race, but merely a chance to have a morning out appreciating our surroundings and having a good chat.

A great day out with Adam Mellor, Carol Ransom, Mandy Attree and Lucy Stern at the Ashridge Trial Half
The weather was kind and we all thoroughly enjoyed ourselves, especially when Adam bought us all an ice cream at the finish. An extra bonus is that all the proceeds from the race go to charity.

Grodno To Druskininkai Marathon, Belarus/Lithuania: 9th July 2017

This trip came good more by luck than by judgement after my initial travel plans had to be rearranged. I discovered after booking a flight to Minsk I would need a visa to cross the border into Lithuania so I had to pay for another to Vilnius instead.

Once there I met Rich Holmes, a friend from North Carolina, and we were taken to our hotel by a charming lady called Virginija, who we subsequently discovered is a member of the Lithuanian parliament.
With Lithuanian MP Virginija at the Grodno to Druskininkai Marathon
We also discovered that Brent Weigner (another friend from the USA) and Jim Manford (from the UK North East marathon club) were both staying in our hotel as well as a number of Finnish and Danish runners. Amazingly, on the Saturday we all obtained our visas without a hitch and boarded the bus to Grodno, Belarus.

It took around two hours to get through the border checks and into Belarus after which the bus deposited us at the sports stadium in Grodno for race registration.

When we went for dinner that evening we quickly discovered how few people in Belarus speak or understand English. I attempted to order a vegetarian mushroom pizza at a restaurant but the first two pizzas they brought me both had meat on them - and then they claimed that they had no mushrooms.

After an hour of this I finally demonstrated to them that I’d be happy if they just gave me a pizza base with some cheese on it and after a further wait this did materialise.

The following morning we had to arrive early to have our visas and passports checked and then surrender them to the border officials so that they and our baggage could be transported to the finish area in Druskininkai, Lithuania.
Feeling victorious with friends in Belarus
The race commenced at 8am. I was impressed that the road surfaces were excellent and that the road (the main road across the border) was closed to traffic for just 141 runners. It was humid from the start and got progressively warmer throughout the race, but I was interested in seeing the countryside and the many officials lining the route (and running through the 2k long border control area was a real experience).

After around 30k in Belarus we entered Lithuania and I finally crossed the line in 4:32:55.

The main observation that I had after the race was that very few people in Belarus smile, whereas as soon as we crossed into Lithuania people seemed much more cheerful.

After a shower and a free meal (all provided within an entry fee of 20 Euros) Virginija drove Rich and I back to Vilnius. Considering how little information we had prior to embarking on this trip I am stunned that everything fell into place so well and I would certainly recommend Druskininkai as a place to visit for a few days for anyone touring around Lithuania.

Fairlands Valley Challenge Trail Marathon, Stevenage: 16th July 2017

I ran to the first checkpoint with Carol, Mandy and Lucy from Striders before their 18 mile route took them in a different direction. After that I continued with Gina Little, a friend from the 100 marathon club.

We didn’t fare too well following the written instructions and took several wrong turns (one of which took us out of our way by over one mile).  We eventually finished in 6:44:13.

Big Sky Marathon, Ennis, Montana: 23rd July 2017

I flew into Montana with Roger Biggs from Fairlands Valley Spartans. Roger had entered races on both the Saturday and Sunday and whereas I had opted just to run the Sunday race.
Under the big blue sky at the start of Big Sky Marathon
We spent the first couple of days exploring the area and I particularly enjoyed visiting the old “ghost towns” of Virginia City and Nevada City. Their population has shrunk from well over 10,000 people at the height of their gold rush to around 150 today.

Things didn’t go well for Roger on the Saturday. He fell and was rushed to hospital, where he had two lots of stitches/staples administered to his scalp and was also advised that he had a broken finger. At least the hospital was directly opposite our motel and the treatment he got was first class.

On the Sunday I was taken by bus to the Big Sky Marathon race start, which was at an altitude of 8,641 ft.  The race started at around 7.30am by which time the sun was already rising and the views were spectacular.

The first 15 miles was on a stony dirt track (which the organisers described as a gravel road).

Knowing what had happened to Roger the previous day I ran extremely cautiously. At around mile 8, just after the main descent commenced, the girl in front of me took a tumble. She was fairly blood spattered, but she told me to go on when I stopped to see if she was OK.

There were some very steep descents as well as a few uphill stretches before we joined a tarmac road at around mile 15. By this stage it had become much hotter and I was starting to suffer. It didn’t help that I missed a couple of water points (bottles left by the side of the road) between miles 13 and 19.

From mile 24 we ran along the very narrow edge of the main highway until we were diverted off onto a series of mainly gravel roads leading to the finish. The total net overall elevation loss for the race was 3,651 ft, but much of this was on surfaces that were not easy to run on and, given the conditions I was reasonably satisfied with my finish time of 5:23:57.

Juneau Marathon, Douglas Island, Alaska: 29th July 2017

It was raining when we arrived in Juneau and our sombre mood persisted as the shuttle driver who collected us from the airport regaled us with a tale of a tourist who’d recently had his head bitten off by a grizzly bear.
At the finish of the very wet Juneau Marathon
Jeanne and Richard Holmes from North Carolina joined us on the Friday morning and we spent the day visiting the Mendenhall Glacier and the Glacier Gardens. We had to take the early start for the marathon on the Saturday as our flight to Wrangell was scheduled to depart at 1.41pm.

The course was an undulating out and back one along the coastal road on Douglas Island. It rained more or less continuously, but there were some glorious views. We had been warned that there had been a lot of recent bear activity in the area, but the only wildlife I saw was fish jumping and a sea eagle, which flew in about 10 feet above my head.

I finished in 4:29:12 (first in the over 60 age group) and as soon as Rich finished we made a hectic dash for the airport.

Bearfest Marathon, Wrangell, Alaska: 30th July 2017

We arrived in Wrangell on the Saturday afternoon just in time to pick up our numbers for the marathon.

As Roger had badly injured himself on the first of the four marathons he’d entered he was determined to complete the Bearfest race. I was concerned enough to insist on going round with him, just in case there might be any after effects from his accident in Montana.
Getting close to grizzly bears in Anan
There was persistent rain throughout the race, but it was only cold when we were heading into the wind. This was another undulating out and back course along the coast and, once again, the Alaskan scenery was breathtaking.

I allowed Roger to dictate the pace and we eventually crossed the line without mishap in 6:40:47.

The highlight of the Alaska trip was visiting Anan the following day to see numerous bears and bald eagles feasting on the salmon. The four of us paid a guide to take us by boat on the one hour journey and then escort us to the viewing area.

At times we were only a few feet away from bears as they concentrated on extricating fish after fish from the fast-flowing river. It was truly an experience to remember and a fine way to end our trip.

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