Tuesday, March 18, 2008

“Laissez Les Bon Temps Rouler”…Let the Good Times Roll at the Mardi Gras Marathon!

My first visit to New Orleans and the Mardi Gras Marathon was two years ago, shortly after Hurricane Katrina. In those weeks after the storm it was unclear as to whether or not they would even be able to hold the marathon so once it was announced that the marathon would go on I decided the best way for me as a runner to show my support for the city was to be there at the starting line.
The city put its best foot forward that day despite the loss and devastation they had seen just a few months before. The field was much smaller than past years, however the friendliness and enthusiasm for the event was great.
In a city that depends on tourism it was clear there was still a long road ahead in order to get back to normal. Many of the hotels were still closed or housing evacuees. Businesses were boarded up waiting inspections that would verify that their buildings were sound. Restaurant menus highlighted “Help Wanted” in bold print; the food took second billing.
This year, I was back again and I do have to say that things have improved a lot. The hotels are bustling, the shops and restaurants are thriving and the tourists are back on Bourbon Street, partying day and night.
I arrived on Saturday morning from an overnight red-eye flight and was able to get an early check-in. Once again I decided to stay at the Intercontinental, the same hotel where I stayed two years ago. It was close to the French Quarter and just a short walk from the Superdome- the start and finish line for the marathon. I thought I had scored a good rate until I heard that my friend, Mark, had booked through Hotwire, a discount travel web site, and paid just $84.00-a steal for a 4 star hotel!
I freshened up and headed over to the expo. This year it was held at the Hilton Riverwalk and it was much bigger than last time! I picked up my number and bumped into a friend from NYC, then met another friend, James from Texas and set out to explore the French Quarter.
James had arrived two days before which was a much better plan for enjoying the city and running the marathon than the day before like I had. Those extra days give you a chance to enjoy the Cajun and Creole cuisine New Orleans is noted for; drink-the bars never seem to close, and stay up late enough to enjoy the live music found in nearly every club in town!
Actually, you don’t need to go very far to enjoy the local entertainment, as we walked near Jackson Square a wedding party complete with a jazz band came dancing out of a restaurant and closed down the street. Guests waved white handkerchiefs as the couple danced their traditional wedding dance.
Earlier in the day, James came across a jazz funeral!
The French Quarter was filled with musicians, artists and mule drawn buggies. The shops and cafes were doing a brisk business, in fact the wait at the famous Café du Monde, was so long that we had to leave for our pasta dinner before we even had a chance to order our café au lait and beignets!
I’m not even sure if the marathon offered a pasta dinner, however we had enough runners in our group to put together our own. The venue for our dinner was Tony Moran’s located in the Old Absinthe House on Bourbon Street. The group consisted of friends from my club in NYC, the 50 State Club and the LVM21 Club-the message board club for the Las Vegas Marathon. These runners get around! Aside from Las Vegas, we had runners from Texas, Washington, New York and Arizona.
After a great dinner, I unfortunately had to skip the Saturday night fun to get a good night’s rest before the marathon---I can’t speak for the rest of the group, as I did see a few late arrivals at the starting line!
Sunday morning came quickly; next thing I knew we were at the Superdome waiting for the gun to go off. It seemed like a big crowd and why wouldn’t it be? With mild temperatures and a nearly flat course (there is one overpass), what more could anyone ask for in a marathon? If you’ve done your training, it’s almost a guaranteed PR.
This year for the first time, runners had the opportunity to run down Bourbon Street—nearly the equivalent of running on the Strip in Vegas! At 7am, you can still smell the beer and actually see some of the late night revelers trying to figure out what is going on.
Another big change: this year the course was reversed! After you passed Bourbon Street, the first big loop was around Audubon Park. It was an out and back past some very old stately homes along St. Charles-famous for the streetcar line.
One interesting note about the Mardi Gras Marathon is that it is not held during Mardi Gras, the celebration is in full swing for the two weeks before “Fat Tuesday”- the day before Ash Wednesday, which marks the beginning of Lent. Check your events calendar carefully when making plans to run here as the marathon can be either before or after depending on how early Easter falls.
Surprisingly, you’ll find this a benefit-the hotels are plentiful and not nearly as pricey as they would be during Mardi Gras, plus there are less temptations to overindulge as you would have during those weeks of constant partying!
Even a few weeks after the craziness, there were still a few Mardi Gras reminders on the course-hundreds of strands of beads hung from the bare tree branches! And as we came out of the park we were greeted by a cheering “king” still in his parade gear!
As you head back toward the Superdome, if you’ve opted to run the Half Marathon, you’ll be entering the final miles. If not, you’re halfway home.
In this half of the race, you’ll see more of the flood damage you’ve heard about. It’s interesting to see how many homes have been renovated, however next to a beautiful, freshly painted house you’ll see a house next door still sadly in a state of severe disrepair.
Over the next miles you’ll hit the one “hill” on the course at mile 18. You’ll be offered beer and Margaritas by a group of Hashers in red dresses. AND finally, after an out and back through City Park; the Superdome will come into view and you’ll be back at the finish line!
No matter how late you finish; no worry! The post-race food is plentiful-rice and beans, Subway sandwiches, Mardi Gras “King” cake as well as fruit abound!
As the city gets back on it’s feet, I believe the marathon will continue to grow and probably exceed it’s past popularity to become one of the top “destination marathons”. After all, this was their 44th year and in spite of major setbacks, they are still running strong!

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