Monday, August 3, 2015

My Vancouver running diary

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Vancouver, B.C., is my favorite city outside the United States, and is near the top of my list of North American cities too. That's not at all surprising, considering that Vancouver, Seattle, and Portland are all fairly similar in culture, climate, and geography.

With my brother having moved to Vancouver recently, we decided to visit him for a week. The last time I was in Vancouver was 2010, which was before I started running, so I was looking forward to getting in some miles in a "new" location.

The Vancouver Seawall (Monday)

We were staying in the part of town called Yaletown, which is just south of downtown and southeast of Stanley Park. My brother's place was just a couple of blocks away from the David Lam Park on the edge of the so-called False Creek and a stretch of the Vancouver Seawall:
Vancouver has the world's longest uninterrupted waterfront path. The 28 km Seaside Greenway is an uninterrupted pathway, including the Stanley Park Seawall, that extends from the Vancouver Convention Centre to Spanish Banks Park. Perfect for a walk, cycle, or jog, it is the most popular recreational spot in the city. 
Here's a map of the Seawall. The first full night (we had arrived the night before, but well after midnight), I went to the Seawall and headed east toward Science World. It was past 9 p.m. when I started, but Vancouver is far enough north that it was still light. In addition, this part of the Seawall is well-lit by street lamps. Being a creature of the suburbs, I'm not really used to seeing lots of people walking around at night, so this was a new experience.

A little past a mile I crossed under the Cambie Street Bridge, where there's a playground and basketball court. That is, the playground and court are under the bridge. I couldn't help but think about that New Yorker article about the grave danger that the Cascadia fault poses to the Pacific Northwest. I think if I lived here, I'd instruct my kids that if they're playing in that playground and the ground shakes, they should get away from under the bridge.

At the 1.5 mile mark was the Edgewater Casino. I'm old enough to remember when casinos were exotic and forbidden places found only in Las Vegas aka Sin City. Now it seems like they're everywhere, including Vancouver. (Actually, I guess it's not surprising given the influx of Asian immigrants into Vancouver following the return of Hong Kong to mainland China in 1997.)

Science World sits at the end of the False Creek. At this time of night, it was closed to visitors, but the dome was lit in seemingly American colors: red, white, and blue lights. Past Science World was a stretch along Athletes Way, so named I'm assuming because there's some kind of fitness center there. I saw indoor volleyball games going on. On the other side of the path (i.e., the water side) was a piano(!). Over the course of my stay, I saw more pianos located throughout the city, chained down but open to public use.

I got to the Heather Civic Marina, where there's a waterfront restaurant, and decided it was time to head back. I wanted to make it all the way to Granville Island, which sits across the water from my brother's place, but it was about another mile off.

The way back was darker, though still well-lit, and a little slower. I got back to my brother's place just before 10 p.m., cleaned up, and then we (him, my wife, and I) watched Olympus Has Fallen. (My brief review of it is here.) Total distance: 5.9 miles.

The Grouse Grind (Tuesday)

One of the tourist attractions in Vancouver is Grouse Mountain. You park at the base of the mountain and then most people take the aerial tram to the top, where there's a lumberjack show, a bird show, a couple of rescued orphan bears, and other activities like zipline rides.

There's another way to get to the top, though, which saves the tram ticket price. Known as the Grouse Grind, it's a 1.8 mile trail that ascends 2800 feet in 2830 steps. While the rest of my family took the tram, I tackled the Grind. (I did give my wife a bag with a small towel and a new shirt to clean up a bit afterward.)

Starting just ahead of me was a Canadian couple. When they heard my younger son proclaim proudly that I was going to run up, the woman said, "Good for you!"

"Well, we'll see," I said sheepishly.

Me, at the start of the Grouse Grind
The official course record is just over 25 minutes. I don't do stair running, but I do run a fair amount of hills just due to the fact that I live in a hilly area. I told my wife that I figured I could finish the course in 45 minutes or so. (The website states that the average hiker takes 90 minutes to 2 hours.) Oh, how I would come to rue my overconfidence....

After waiting a couple of minutes for my GPS watch to lock on to the satellites, I hit the trail at what I thought would be an easy pace ~ 11 minutes/mile. It took only 0.1 miles before I realized this was going to be totally unsustainable once I reached the steps.

I slowed down, but I was still passing other hikers through a combination of a faster pace and not stopping to rest (well, except to take the occasional picture).

Basically, imagine 1.8 miles of scenery like this while on a stairmaster.
It was a relatively warm day by Vancouver standards, but nearly the entire trail was shaded, so temperature wasn't a factor. My cardio conditioning seemed up to the task at hand. It's just that my legs felt drained by the seemingly neverending procession of big step after big step after big step. Running, it seems, is somewhat different from stair climbing. I wonder if the Grind is something that cyclists would have an edge over runners, given the importance of leg drive.

As I said, I had settled into a reasonable pace when I caught up to that Canadian couple from the start of the trail. And then we came across this soul-crushing sign:

Only 1/4 of the way?!?
I say "soul-crushing" because (1) subjectively it felt like I had gone farther, and (2) my GPS watch said I'd gone 0.6 miles, so it should have been more like 1/3 of the way. I asked the Canadian woman, who I knew had a GPS watch too, what her mileage reading was. She said 0.3 miles, which sounded even more horrific, but she noted that her GPS was off. I had made up two minutes on this couple, but decided to draft off them while chatting. It was the first time up the course for each of us.

The halfway marker came more quickly:

A more accurate sign, per my GPS watch
At the three-quarter mark (which I didn't get a picture of because there was a big clump of people resting there, and I didn't want to wait for them to clear out), my newfound hiking companions declared that a sub-1 hour finish was still possible. I was at a little over 40 minutes, so I figured that was definitely true for me.

Near the end of the trail, they stopped for a break while I pushed on, to be rewarded by this beautiful sight:

The chalet at the top of Grouse Mountain
I took a few steps back until I saw the Canadian couple and then shouted, "We're just about there!" They actually beat me to the top because I stopped a bit early, only to be told that I needed to touch the marker:

The Grouse Grind Timer
You can actually buy a timing chip that's good for a year and that gets your time recorded officially and posted to the website. I think if I lived in Vancouver, I'd spend the $20 and tackle this course several more times. Well, assuming that I'm willing to brave the horrible Vancouver traffic across the Lion's Gate Bridge.... I don't live in Vancouver, but I think I'm going to add some stair running to my training regime.

At the top, I found my family, wiped my upper body semi-clean with my towel, and changed shirts. They had eaten already but my wife did get me a sandwich, which I gobbled down as we waited for the lumberjack show to start.

On the drive to Grouse Mountain, I had been thinking to myself that this was just 1.8 miles, and that I would probably want to go running in the evening. When we returned to my brother's apartment, though, I just wanted to relax. (Probably having eaten well at an unlimited Korean BBQ/sushi place contributed to that.) That night, we watched The Prestige.

The Seawall, take 2 (Wednesday)

The next night, I went for a reasonably long run in the other direction along the Seawall. This direction took me toward Stanley Park - well, the outer edge of it. It was also the night of a big fireworks event in the harbor, which meant the waterfront was crowded with people getting ready to watch the show. Or smoke pot. I think I inhaled a good several breaths of secondhand pot smoke.

For a while, I drafted behind another runner who, being bigger than I was, carved a nice path for me to follow. Unfortunately, he veered off well before I was ready to.

Also, because of the fireworks, a large section of the street lamps went dark, so I was navigating by a combination of moonlight and headlamps on passing bicycles. The Seawall path is pretty wide and smooth, so I wasn't concerned about hazards, but I did turn back a little after 3 miles so that it wouldn't be too dark.

The western edge of Vancouver as seen from the north

Next time I visit here, I'm going to have bring my headlamp so I can go farther along this stretch at night.

Vancouver, while running along the Seawall away from Stanley Park
Unfortunately, when I returned to the prime firework viewing stretch, even weaving wasn't possible. It was so crowded that I could barely squeeze through the masses. I decided I had to get away from the waterline up to the street level. Even that took time, because I was going against the tide - people were still coming down to the shoreline.

A not-so-good attempt at capturing the fireworks
Once I got up to the street level, I was able to start running again. My pace, once around 8:30 per mile, was down to 9:15 because of the delay. I was at about 6 elapsed miles when I got back the starting point, but that was not enough mileage for the night, so I kept going - retracing the route from the first night along the Seawall now. I made it as far as the casino, tacking on another 1.25 miles, and then turned back. Total distance: 8.5 miles.

The Seawall, take 3 (Friday)

(I didn't run on Thursday. The past three days weren't a lot of mileage, but of course, Tuesday's 1.8 miles counted for a lot more than that in terms of effort. Plus, Vancouver is a walking town so we've been walking many miles a day.)

After another Korean BBQ dinner - alas, not all-you-can-eat; see Tuesday night - I waited about 90 minutes before lacing up. Because we ate earlier than usual to take advantage of the restaurant's Happy Hour special, I was able to start running at 8:30 pm. I actually put on sunblock and wore sunglasses, although neither was really necessary. I was starting early enough that I could've gotten in 10 miles before losing all natural light, but this was our last night in Vancouver, so I thought I shouldn't spend much of the evening alone.

Therefore, I opted to make this a tempo run. I was rested, having taken yesterday off, although optimally I would've run before dinner, not after. I went along the Seawall again, because it's nice running along water and not having to stop for traffic lights, and headed the same direction as the first night.

I probably went out too fast, as the first two miles took 7:08 and 7:10, and after that, I slowed a bit. I also felt some gastric distress.... Total distance: 6.1 miles in 46:30.

The route took me past BC Place, the main Vancouver stadium, and the location of Taylor Swift's 1989 concert. If only we could've stayed an extra day ....


I already knew that Pacific Northwest summers are simply to die for, and Vancouver's are no exception. This is a great running location, and I'm going to have to see if I can time our next visit to coincide with a local 5K or 10K race.

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