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Earning a Star in Chicago

The Chicago Marathon was my first of the six Abbott World Marathon Majors (AWMM). These high profile races are: New York City, Boston, Chicago, London, Berlin, and Tokyo. For elite runners, the annual series determines the world’s best distance runners. The champions are those who score the most points in the qualifying races. For the rest of us marathon enthusiasts, the races often comprise running bucket lists. “Six star finishers” are marathoners who have finished all six races.

 

Entry into the six marathons varies in difficulty. The Chicago Marathon offers guaranteed entry through:

1. Time qualification: Marathon qualifying standards depend on both age and gender. For my age category (16-29), it requires a marathon finish on a USATF-certified course in the past year in under 3:35:00, roughly a 08:20 min/mile pace.

2. Charity entry: Each charity that is part of the official charity program will have its own fundraising requirements, but the minimum is generally around $1,250.

3. Legacy finish: Finishing the Chicago Marathon five times in the previous ten years constitutes eligibility for a legacy entry.

Non-guaranteed entry is offered through a lottery. Of course, the odds of getting in through the lottery will differ every year. Though I haven’t had any success with the NYC Marathon, I was selected to run the Chicago Marathon on my first attempt.

Admittedly, I did not feel as physically prepared for this one, especially in the weeks leading up to the race. It was a combination of not carving out enough time for my long runs, and lacking my usual drive and motivation in this training cycle. Luckily, the race seemed to be a testament to mind over matter. I didn’t try to push myself to beat my personal best; rather, I actually enjoyed the run and just focused on being present.

I felt like I truly saw the city during the marathon. The course brought runners through 29 distinct neighborhoods, and the amount of spectators was truly incredible. The positive energy was palpable; I felt in better spirits while running, and I even managed to shave a few minutes off of my Marine Corps Marathon finish time. It helps that this marathon has a reputation for a fast, flat course, too.

 

Other Chicago Highlights

1. Architecture Boat Tour:

 

In the weeks leading up to my trip, many people suggested this as a different way to see the city, especially because Chicago is known for its architecture. In fact, the world’s first skyscraper was built in Chicago, back in 1884. There are quite a few tour companies to choose from, but we did a bit of research and picked Chicago’s First Lady Cruises. We booked a 5:30 pm tour, and we were able to enjoy the sunset, and see the skyline after dark. My biggest learning, besides the names of the five tallest buildings in the city, would be that October in Chicago is definitely cold enough to warrant packing a winter coat.

2. Three Dots and a Dash:

 

Located down an alley and underground, this speakeasy cocktail lounge has a strong tiki theme. I ordered a Painkiller, and we shared crispy coconut shrimp and spicy Thai fried chicken, all of which I would recommend. We went on a Sunday night, and we had a reservation, so the experience felt pretty seamless. Supposedly it can be very crowded, so reservations are strongly encouraged.

3. The Second City:

 

The Second City is a theater famous for hosting improv and sketch comedy. Notable alumni include Bill Murray, Steve Carrell, Tina Fey, and Amy Poehler, among others. The shows often sell out, so we bought tickets ahead of time. I truly didn’t realize just how clever and political it would be, and I was so impressed. We laughed for the entirety of the performance.

4. 875 N Michigan:

 

When we initially tried to go to the Sky Deck in the Willis Tower, we encountered a 3+ hour line, which seemed daunting, and we decided to bail. Instead, we headed over to 875 N Michigan, formerly the John Hancock Center. We were able to wait less than 15 minutes and take an elevator to the 95th floor without purchasing a ticket. We enjoyed a drink at the bar, and were treated to some amazing views of the city’s other skyscrapers.

5. Chicago Pizza & Oven Grinder Co:

This restaurant is known for its Pizza Pot Pie, which has flavorful homemade sauce, plentiful melted cheese, and thick crust. We also ordered the restaurant’s most popular menu item, the Mediterranean Bread, and a Chef’s Salad. The salad comes with three types of dressing, and our waiter suggested mixing the sour cream garlic and the sweet and sour poppy seed. It was definitely one of the more memorable salads of my life.

 

6. Shedd Aquarium:

 

The aquarium is located within Museum Campus, which offers stunning views of the city skyline. It is one of the most visited aquariums in the US, and is home to more than 1,500 species. We especially enjoyed the Caribbean Reef exhibit, a circular tank that holds a rescued green sea turtle, and lots of sharks, rays, and schooling fish. The aquarium also has dolphins, belugas, and sea otters in the Oceanarium!

 

7. Skydeck:

Later in our trip, we did make it back to the Willis Tower for the Skydeck. We went about forty minutes before it closed, and it was a much more pleasant experience, with a minimal wait time. The Skydeck has enclosed glass boxes that jut out 4 feet from the building on the 103rd floor. In order to keep the line moving, we were allotted 60 seconds in there, which was surprisingly enough time to take pictures and soak it all in. It was both terrifying and exhilarating to step into the box and seemingly float over the city, watching cars beneath my feet.

 

TPA

Sometimes you find the place where your soul lives, and I think mine resides in Tampa, Florida. There are many reasons to love the city, including: the countless outdoor festivals, Bayshore Boulevard (my favorite place for a sunset run), a subtropical climate, diverse restaurants, the Tampa Bay Lightning (aka the best hockey team around), and gorgeous white sand beaches. I traveled back to Tampa for the first time in nearly 3 years this February for the Gasparilla Distance Classic, and to visit with one of my best friends.

 

Gasparilla is a season in Tampa running from mid-January to mid-March; the biggest event is the Parade of Pirates, held annually on the last Saturday in January. On this day, the pirates invade the city and celebrate with the country’s third largest parade. Different pirate krewes create many of the parade’s elaborate floats, and they throw beads to spectators. Other community events during the season include the Gasparilla International Film Festival, the Gasparilla Music Festival, the Sant’Yago Knight Parade, and the Gasparilla Distance Classic.

I didn’t train for the race since my decision to run the half-marathon was impulsive, but I think muscle memory carried me through. The course followed much of the same route I would run in college through Davis Island and along Bayshore. The race started before dawn, but it was already humid and warm; still, it was nice to run comfortably in shorts and a tank top.

 

The weather all weekend was beautiful, and we spent much of it outside. After the race expo on Saturday morning, we went to the beach in St. Petersburg. We also had lunch at No Vacancy, a new restaurant/bar in downtown St. Pete. It has a retro motel theme, and a great outdoor lounge with plastic pink flamingos.

 

^ Downtown St. Pete always has a lot of really great street art!

 

^ No Vacancy; I ordered a jerk chicken sandwich, which I would highly recommend!

  

^ Polaroid beach shot; the pink building is the Don Cesar, an old hotel rumored to be haunted

Other weekend highlights included an afternoon in Hyde Park with a stop at The Hyppo for homemade, all-natural ice pops; a long walk along the newly-renovated Riverwalk; brunch at Oxford Exchange, arguably the most photogenic place in the city; and the new food halls, Armature Works and the Hall on Franklin.

 

^ Riverwalk; the sculpture outside of the Amalie Arena – go Bolts!

 

^ Hyppo pops; interior shot of Oxford Exchange

 

^ Armature Works

Though I always talk about wanting to move back to Tampa, I had started to wonder if I was chasing the past. If I move back, my life still won’t be what it was in 2014. But, my weekend in Tampa was a positive reaffirmation that I love the city as much as I thought I did. It’s undergoing a lot of development, and there are a lot of exciting new places to explore.

 

The District: Part 2

This is a continuation of my last post, devoted to some of the places/experiences I love most in DC.

1. Newseum

This museum has a ticket price of $24.95 for adults, but it’s certainly worth the admission. There are many intriguing exhibits revolving around the central themes of communication, free expression, and the press. Interestingly, the Newseum houses the largest display of the Berlin Wall outside of Germany. There’s also an outdoor terrace overlooking Pennsylvania Avenue, which has an excellent view of the Capitol.

2.  Smithsonian Institution Museums

What could possibly be better than premier museums with no admission fees? The Smithsonian is the world’s largest museum and research complex, which features eleven museums located on the National Mall, and six others in the Washington metropolitan area. I feel so lucky to have spent so much time in the National Museum of Natural History exploring the collections on behind-the-scenes tours, and it will always have a very special place in my heart. I also really love the National Museum of American History and the National Postal Museum. But really, the Smithsonian has unparalleled treasures on display: Apolo Ono’s speed skates, portraits of America’s presidents, the Hope Diamond, and the Spirit of St. Louis, which was flown by Charles Lindberg across the Atlantic Ocean.

Now that I’m not visiting the museums on a regular basis, I like to listen to Sidedoor, the Smithsonian’s podcast. Listeners can vicariously explore content from the collections and delve into the new exhibits.

  

National Zoo

The National Zoo is part of the Smithsonian Institution, so it also has free admission. I have mixed feelings about animals in captivity, but I frequent zoos with AZA accreditation because I think they help foster a love and respect for animals, especially in the younger guests. The National Zoo is one of only four zoos in the US to house giant pandas. The zoo’s website has a Giant Panda Cam, too!

Elephants will always be my favorite…

3. Jazz in the Garden

Every Friday evening in the summer, the National Gallery of Art’s Sculpture Garden hosts a free jazz concert. It’s definitely a fun way to end the workweek, and it was a quick walk from the NMNH. They sell refreshments, and they have arguably the best sangria in the world.

4. Taylor Gourmet

I’m a big fan of fast casual dining, and I love this local chain restaurant. Taylor Gourmet has both a selection of unchanging classic menu options and special seasonal offerings. They are definitely known for their hoagies, and my go-to over the summer was the chicken salad hoagie.

Don’t have a photo of a hoagie (probably because I devoured it too quickly), but this is the summer carrot salad

5. Dacha Beer Garden

I think this outdoor beer garden is open all year, but it’s probably better in the warmer weather. It has wooden picnic tables, misting fans to beat the heat, and it allows dogs. They have an extensive beer menu, and I was thrilled to find out that they serve Schöfferhofer Grapefruit, which was a beer I fell in love with at Epcot.

6. Cava

Another fast casual (is anyone sensing a theme?) restaurant I love is Cava, which boasts healthy Mediterranean food. I appreciate the totally customizable menu. The first step is picking a base, like a salad or a grain bowl. Then, there are various spreads and toppings to add: roasted red pepper hummus, harissa, tzatziki, pita crisps, crumbled feta, felafel, cabbage slaw, etc.

The District

I spent last summer in the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History as the Media & Outreach Leader in the museum’s Academic Resource Center (ARC). I worked as part of a team that facilitated experiences for the summer research interns such as behind-the-scenes tours of the collections, orientations, social events, and lunch discussions. As the Media & Outreach Leader, my primary responsibilities were coordinating the “Intern of the Day” spotlight series and photographing events to create engaging material for social media. Overall, my position allowed me to blend my interests in science, photography, and writing, and it was truly inspiring to be immersed in an environment filled with equally passionate individuals.

Though I did spend a fair amount of time in the NMNH, I was able to explore a lot of the city. Here are some of my summer highlights:

1. Theodore Roosevelt Island

This island is a fitting memorial to our nation’s 26th president, who was undeniably a conservationist and an outdoorsman. I went with two friends on a Saturday morning for a National Park Service ranger-led hike, and we were able to spend several miles traversing the trails, identifying plants, and learning facts about TR. While accessible by car, it’s also an easy 10-15 minute walk from the Rosslyn metro station.

 

2.  Twilight Monument Tour: Boating in DC

If there’s a better way to scope out some of DC’s iconic monuments, I don’t know it. I booked this kayaking tour through Boating in DC and spent the golden hour paddling the Potomac. We saw the Watergate, the Kennedy Center, the Lincoln Memorial, and the Washington Monument, just to name a few things.

Link here: http://boatingindc.com/dc-activities/tours/

 

3. Congressional Cemetery

Interestingly, being a member of Congress is not a prerequisite for burial in this historic (and active) cemetery. It has a lengthy list of famous interments, including J. Edgar Hoover and John Philip Sousa. Also of note: the cemetery has a private dog-walking program called the K9 Corps. Memberships begin at $235 and support the cemetery’s ongoing work.

 

4. United States Botanic Garden

I love a good botanical garden like I love a good science museum. This one is located near the Capitol building, and it’s free and open 365 days/year. There are rooms dedicated to Mediterranean plants, orchids, cacti and succulents, and rain forest flora.

5. National Building Museum

This museum isn’t part of the Smithsonian Institution, so it does have small entrance fee, but it is well worth it. The architecture museum is appropriately housed in a gorgeous building, and features a number of intriguing exhibits. I really enjoyed the ongoing House & Home exhibit, which showcases a number of consumer artifacts from past centuries.

6. District Taco

It would probably be embarrassing to figure out just how many times I went to District Taco, but I guess that speaks to how much I love it. District Taco is a chain with many locations in and around Washington, DC, and it is fast casual dining. Besides having delicious food, they also have an awesome salsa bar.

7. Ice Cream Jubilee

This shop is definitely up there with spots like Molly Moon’s in Seattle and Salt & Straw in Oregon. Ice Cream Jubilee has been voted best ice cream in DC for the past three years. They have fantastic, unique flavors like Honey Lemon Lavender, Thai Iced Tea, and Passion Fruit Guava sorbet. It’s also located right by the beautiful Yards Park in the Capitol Riverfront.

Basil Goat Cheese on the bottom and Honey Lemon Lavender on top!