USA Trip Part 1: Washington, DC

Since my post last week was on such a depressing topic, I thought it was time to lighten the mood and finally catch up on my trip posts that I have been intending to write. This trip to the U.S. was a first for me, because it was the first time I played tour-guide/tourist in my own country.  For the past year, I have been mostly on Willem’s turf, so it was fun to take Willem out of his comfort zone for once!

We left Haarlem early in the morning, and took the bus from a stop near our house to Schiphol.  Leaving Haarlem, I was very excited, but also sad because I knew it might be one of the last times I would see our lovely little apartment on the Grote Markt.

Passport, Flight, Ticket, Plane

Ready to go!

We flew United on the way over, which was my first experience flying an American-based airline transatlantically. It was not an experience I wish to repeat.  Usually I love flying…but 9+ hours on a plane with a 3-inch screen and no movies on demand?!?  Too bad I am too poor for airline loyalty.

We arrived in our first stop of the trip, Washington, DC at about 2pm. Miraculously, we made it through customs and immigration in record time. Our bags, on the other hand, did not.  We sat there for almost 45 minutes after we got through immigration waiting for the bumbling bag-men of United to get our luggage onto the carousel. Considering I had crammed my entire Dutch life into three bags, I was anxious to get my hands on them again. Luckily, they all made it safely onto U.S. soil.

Once we were out of the airport, we took the bus straight to the hotel to drop off all of our bags. Walking into the outside air was a shock.  I had forgotten how hot and muggy Virginia is in August. Oh, sweat and humidity, I did not miss you!  We were tired after an entire day of traveling, but we decided to immediately go out and do a little sightseeing before the jetlag caught up to us. Our hotel was less than a ten minute walk to the White House, so we set out with that as our goal in mind.

We made a loop around the center of DC, walking past the White House, the Capitol Building, and the Washington Monument.  Our pictures didn’t turn out the best because the skies had turned an ominous shade of gray in between our arrival at the airport that afternoon and our walk around the city.

The White House

The White House

The White House- the famous side

The White House- the famous side

Ignore how terrible we look after that plane ride!

Ignore how terrible we look after that plane ride!

Ominous thunderclouds behind the Capitol Building

Ominous thunderclouds behind the Capitol Building

We decided to walk back towards the hotel, but the clouds did not wait for us to get inside before the downpour began.  Of course my trusty umbrella was still safely stowed away in the dark recesses of one of my bags back at the hotel (I thought the Netherlands was supposed to be the rainy place!), so we got absolutely soaked through.   I don’t know if a violent summertime thunderstorm is supposed to be a good omen or a bad one, but it was certainly a welcome of some sort.

After going to sleep early that night, we woke up early on our second day in the U.S.  We got breakfast along the way (and promptly had to scarf it down when I remembered that it is illegal to have food or drink on the DC metro—seriously! Ignore at your own risk).   Our first destination of the day was the Library of Congress.

Library of Congress, Washington DC

Library of Congress

If you are a book nerd like I am, the Library of Congress is some sort of heaven. It is the oldest federal cultural institution in the U.S. and one of the two largest libraries in the world (the other being the British Library in London).  It has over 32 million books in 470 languages in its catalogue!  We got there shortly after it opened at 9am.  We decided not to wait for one of the free tours, and took a self-guided one instead. The building itself was beautiful.

Library of Congress, Washington DC

A terribly bad quality photo of me playing tour guide

Library of Congress, Washington DC

The Great Hall

Library of Congress, Washington DC

The Great Hall

Walking into the Great Hall reminded me of some of the grand European cathedrals I have visited.  Souring ceilings, marble columns, rich paintings, and delicate gold filigree adorning every surface—it is truly a cathedral of learning.  The highlight of our tour was, of course, the famous main reading room, featured in many movies. It is as gorgeous in person as you could ever have imagined.

Library of Congress, Washington DC

Main Reading Room

I also enjoyed seeing Thomas Jefferson’s original library, which is located in a side wing of the building.

Library of Congress, Washington DC

Original books from Thomas Jefferson’s library

Since I went to UVA (founded by Jefferson himself) I am obsessed with anything to do with TJ. I didn’t know until our visit that the majority of the core collection of the Library of Congress comes from Jefferson’s personal book collection.  After much of the original collection was destroyed when the library was burned by the British during the War of 1812, Jefferson gave his entire collection of books (6,487 books—a VAST collection in the early 19th century) to replace the ones that were lost. His collection included many books of historical importance, including hundreds of books written in their original languages.

When we got out of the Library of Congress, we walked the short distance to the U.S. Capitol building.  We didn’t go inside, but we walked around the perimeter of the building, to see the view from both sides.

Willem at the U.S. Capitol

Willem at the U.S. Capitol

U.S. Capitol Buliding

U.S. Capitol Buliding

From the south side of the building, we walked onwards down the National Mall.  “The Mall” is a big, grassy area that spans the distance between the steps of the Capitol and the Lincoln Memorial.  The entire distance is 1.9 miles (3 km) long!

Aerial view of the National Mall (click picture for source)

On both sides of the mall are various federal government agency buildings and museums.  Of these, the Smithsonian museums are by far the most well-known.

All of the Smithsonian museums are incredible, and they are also FREE, but it is impossible to see them all in one day.  You could spend a lifetime exploring all of the different museums here. We didn’t have forever, so we had to pick one—and, since Willem still hasn’t left his childhood dinosaur obsession behind, we chose the Natural History Museum (home to a legendary dinosaur display).

Dinosaur

For all your dinosaur fantasies

Elephant in the lobby of the Museum of Natural History

If you can only see one museum in DC, I would recommend this one. It is amazing that the place is free, because it is a high-quality museum.  We spent almost two hours wandering the exhibits, and we still didn’t see everything.  The best part about the museum being free though is that you don’t feel like you have to force yourself to suffer through an entire day in the museum just because you spent so much money on the entrance fee. We saw what we wanted, and then moved on.

At the middle of the mall is the Washington Monument. I would have loved to go up to the top, as was possible a few years ago, but currently the monument is completely closed and covered in scaffolding. It sustained structural damage during the earthquake in 2011, and is still being repaired. If it ever re-opens, going to the top of it is definitely on my DC bucket list.

This is what the monument SHOULD have looked like…

By this point we were tired of walking- the distance from the White House to the Capitol to the Washington Monument or the Lincoln Memorial may look quite doable because you can see the landmarks everywhere, but do not be deceived: you will walk a lot in Washington.  One of the symptoms of walking so much in DC is that you will ALWAYS BE HUNGRY. We decided it was about time to find somewhere to grab lunch.  If you’ve ever been to DC, you will find out very quickly that there is a severe lack of lunch spots near the Mall (unless your idea of haute cuisine is an overpriced hot dog stand), so we got back on the metro and went to Chinatown to stuff ourselves with cheap, delicious Chinese food.

At lunch we brainstormed about what we wanted to do for the rest of the day.  During our past trips, one of the most enjoyable things Willem and I have done is to find a local sporting event to attend.  We decided to ask around and see if any of the DC sports teams happened to be playing that night.  A really kind woman we talked to told us that we could get $5 tickets to the Nationals game (DC’s Major League Baseball team) that evening if we got there at least an hour before the game started. We thought, “What the heck?”…so out of the blue we ended up on our way to Nationals Park to see an MLB game.

Entering the stadium

Entering the stadium

The stadium was really easy to get to on the metro, and it wasn’t crowded at all since we arrived super early to get the cheap tickets.  Washington was set to play Miami, a team neither Willem nor I knew anything about, but it didn’t matter. We were still excited. It was Willem’s first baseball game ever! I’m not the biggest baseball fan in the world, but it was still a perfect chance to see a truly American pastime.  How much more American can you get on your first trip to the U.S.A.?

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Nationals Park

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Nationals Park

A night at the ballgame

And even better? The Nationals scored two home runs, and Washington won! Willem was impressed with the relaxed, family-friendly atmosphere in the stadium.  In the Netherlands sporting events are more likely to end up with streakers, drunken fights, and police in riot gear than a hand-holding rendition of “Take me out to the ball game” followed by children running the bases.

Our choice to go to the ball game meant that we didn’t end up getting to see all of the monuments and historical sites we had originally planned to see that in DC that day, but honestly, we had a much better time at the game.  The monuments will be there another day. But our experience at the ball game was much more memorable. And our feet certainly thanked us.

The Netherlands is Closed on Mondays

Willem has started a project at work that requires him to travel to Leeuwarden–almost 2 hours north of Haarlem, in the province of Friesland–every Monday.  I had never been that far north in the Netherlands, so this past Monday I decided to hitch a ride with Willem in the morning and explore the city while he was at work.

Leeuwarden, City, Canal

I read up on Leeuwarden before we left to figure out what I wanted to do there.  I found out that it is a pretty interesting city, despite not exactly being a tourist hotspot.  It is the capital of Friesland, a Dutch province with a fierce identity, including its own language (West Frisian).  Friesland (or Fryslân in the local language) is the only province of the Netherlands with two recognized official languages. As soon as you pass into Friesland on the drive north from Amsterdam, you will see road signs posted in both Dutch and Frysian, with the Dutch often secondary to the local language.

Leeuwarden, Statue, Elfstedentocht

Monument dedicated to the winners of the Elfstedentocht in Leeuwarden

Leeuwarden is also famous for its role in the Elfstedentocht (Eleven Cities Tour), a traditional 200km ice skating race that takes place over 24 hours along the canals linking eleven Frysian cities.  I have mentioned my interest in the Elfstedentocht once before, when I visited Heerenveen (also in Friesland) to watch speed skating, but it is such an amazing event, I think it is worth describing a little more in depth here…especially since Leeuwarden plays a starring role! The race only happens in years where the canals freeze over with ice to a thickness of at least 15 centimeters.  Every winter, the entire country of the Netherlands keeps a close eye on the canals around Leeuwarden, praying for them to freeze over to an acceptable thickness.  If the ice is deemed suitable, the race is announced by a committee of representatives from each of the eleven cities, and within 48 hours the competition begins. The finishing point of the race is a canal near Leeuwarden called the Bonkevaart, and winners of the race become Dutch national heroes.

Leeuwarden, Map, Elfstedentocht, Eleven Cities, Friesland

Cities of the Elfstedentocht

In the summertime though, Leeuwarden is just like any other Dutch city.  The center of the city is built around a network of canals, with centuries-old houses lining narrow streets.

We arrived in Leeuwarden around 9am, and I parted ways with Willem for the day. I planned to find the tourist office first, to get a map and decide the best route to take around the city.  Unfortunately, in what was to become a theme for the day, the tourist office was closed.  I had forgotten a very important fact about the Netherlands: Everything is closed on Mondays!

As strange as it sounds, this is not a joke.  Almost every museum, public monument, shop, store, or anything else that a tourist would want to see, is closed on Mondays in the Netherlands. If you’re lucky, some places open in the afternoon, but nothing is open before around 1pm.  How could I (and even Willem!) have forgotten this Dutch habit of extending your weekend as far as possible before going back to work?

However it happened, I now had an entire day in Leeuwarden with nothing to see or do. I decided to wander the city exactly as I would have on a different day, except today I would have to be happy with admiring the outsides of all those museums and monuments.  Travel is about adapting, right?

I walked towards the old center from Willem’s office, making my way to the Waagplein.  I bought a croissant and spent some time sitting on the pretty square, watching people walking or biking on their way to work (where they were going will remain a mystery, since nothing was OPEN).

Leeuwarden, Canals, Waagplein

The Waagplein

I then walked west along the Nieuwestad to the parks and gardens that line the ring of canals around the center.  The Prinsentuin (Prince’s Garden) was so beautiful that I had to stop there.

Leeuwarden, Prinsentuin, Garden, Pier Pander Museum

The Prinsentuin

The park was originally built in 1648 as a private park for Prince Willem Frederik of Nassau, but was opened to the public in 1795.  I found a park bench along the canal and sat in the sun reading a book for over an hour before moving on.

Flower, Leeuwarden, Prinsentuin, Garden

Flowers in the Prinsentuin

Flower, Leeuwarden, Prinsentuin, Garden

Flower in the Prinsentuin

Leeuwarden, Prinsentuin, Canal, Garden, Friesland, Pier Pander Museum

The view from my bench along the canal

Over the next few hours, I walked past all of the most famous sites and museums in Leeuwarden: the De Oldehove Tower, the acclaimed Keramiek (Ceramics) Museum, the Jewish Quarter, the Fries Museum, and the Verzets (Dutch Resistance) Museum. I found out that the last two are closed for renovation, so I wouldn’t have been able to see them anyway.

Leeuwarden, Tower, Oldehove, Leaning Tower

De Oldehove

If De Oldehove looks like it is crooked in my picture, that’s because it is.  In fact, the tower leans more than the leaning tower of Pisa in Italy! The Oldehove was originally designed as a church tower. Construction began in 1529, but during construction the tower began to lean. All efforts to correct the lean failed, and work on the tower was stopped for safety reasons in 1532.  Funnily enough, the church that was connected to the tower was demolished, but the tower remained standing.  For all the worries about safety, De Oldehove has outlasted everything around it!

Leeuwarden, Ceramics Museum, Keramiekmuseum

Ceramics Museum

Leeuwarden, Jewish Monument, Old Center, Friesland, Jews, WWII, The Holocaust

Monument to Leeuwarden’s lost Jewish population. During the Holocaust, over 550 out of the 650 Jews that lived in Leeuwarden were killed, and most of the survivors left.

Leeuwarden, City Centre, Friesland, Street

Narrow streets in the Medieval town center of Leeuwarden

Leeuwarden, City Centre, Friesland, Street

Graffiti in Leeuwarden

Leeuwarden, City Centre, Friesland, Canals, Boats

Busy canals

After I got tired of walking, I spent the majority of the rest of the day working on my laptop and reading in the local library (boring, I know) until Willem finished with work.  Leeuwarden is a pretty city, but it is small.  Unless you have things planned to keep you occupied, you will exhaust your options fast.  So learn from my mistakes- don’t try to do anything in the Netherlands on a Monday!

Friesland, Netherlands, Windmills, Landscape

The Frisian landscape passing by on the drive home

Canal Cruising: Amsterdam By Boat

There is no better way to see Amsterdam than from the perspective of its world-famous canals.  But don’t take one of those over-priced, crowded canal cruises that leave by the hordes from outside Amsterdam Central Station.  As I found out this past weekend, there is a much better option: rent your own boat.

Amsterdam, Canal Boat, Canal Cruise, Boat Rental

This may look nice, but there is a better option!

I have always loved boats, but I only recently discovered that it was possible to rent your own boat in Amsterdam.  At first I didn’t even bother looking into the possibility, because I assumed boat rentals would be too expensive, or would require a license.  When I found out that some of our friends from LSE would be coming to visit us for a few days, though, I finally decided that a boat rental might be worth researching.  For a couple of our friends, this would be their first trip to Amsterdam, so I thought a canal boat ride would be a perfect introduction to the city.

I discovered that there are quite a few companies in Amsterdam that cater to private boat rentals, but their offerings vary widely.  We originally planned to rent a boat from boaty.nl, which was the cheapest option for a three hour rental; however, their boats only allow up to six people, and we were a group of seven.  The option we decided to go with instead was sloepdelen.nl.  While the second option was slightly more expensive, the boats are big enough to fit up to ten people.

On Saturday we made our way to the Nassaukade, the pick-up and drop-off point for the boats. It took us about half an hour to walk there from Amsterdam Central Station, but the weather was nice so we didn’t mind the distance.  We arrived at 11:45am for our noon reservation.

Sloepdelen, Amsterdam, Canals, Boat Rental, Canal Cruise

It only took a few minutes for the staff to show us how to work the electric boat.  Anyone is allowed to drive without a license, provided they are over 18 years old and refrain from drinking while maneuvering the boat. We were given a map of the canals, told to yield to any boats larger than ours, and off we went!

Sloepdelen, Amsterdam, Canals, Boat Rental, Canal Cruise

The boat was perfect.  All seven of us were able to comfortably lounge on the seats lining the sides of our boat, and there was a raised platform in the center which was a great place to lay out a picnic spread of the snacks and drinks we had brought along.  Even if you forget to bring supplies (or you underestimate your passengers’ capacity to consume food and beverages!) having your own boat means having the flexibility to just tie up alongside the canals for a few minutes, hop out, buy some more supplies, hop back in, and be on your merry way.

The only small problem we had during our trip was something completely out of our control: the weather.  It is the Netherlands, after all.  About half an hour into our two hour trip, the skies opened up and the rain started pouring down.

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But we weren’t going to let the possibility of a little rain ruin our chance of cruising Amsterdam’s canals.  We took shelter under the nearest bridge along with a few other fellow boaters caught out in the storm.  Luckily we had plenty of food and good conversation to keep us occupied!

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We were slightly disappointed that the storm meant wasting part of our time on the water, but the boat rental company was extremely considerate and gave us an extra hour for free due to the rain delay.  They were also helpful when we called them to ask for directions back to the docks after we got slightly lost due to our map getting wet (and thus becoming illegible).

Sloepdelen, Amsterdam, Canals, Boat Rental, Canal Cruise

The sun came back out!

I couldn’t believe how quickly the time passed cruising the canals. In a few short hours, we motored past all three of the main 17th century canals in Amsterdam: the Herengracht, the Keizersgracht, and the Prinsengracht.  It is no wonder the canal ring area, lined with beautiful Golden Age canal houses, was placed on the UNESCO World Heritage List in 2010. If you ever come to Amsterdam, I highly recommend renting a boat.  See Amsterdam the way I’m sure it was meant to be seen–from the water.

The Hague (Den Haag): International City of Peace and Justice

I was in the Hague this week working for the World Justice Forum IV, a wonderful conference organized by the World Justice Project., so I thought it would be the perfect time to write a small post about this city.

The Hague (Den Haag in Dutch) is only the third largest city by population in the Netherlands, after Amsterdam (the capital) and Rotterdam, but it is the seat of the Dutch government and parliament. The Hague is known for being a truly international city, with more than 50% of the city’s residents coming from another country.  It is also the home to many international institutions and organizations, including the International Criminal Court (ICC) and the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY).

In my time off from working at the conference (which wasn’t much) I got a chance to explore the city. Here are some of my Hague highlights:

The Binnenhof– This complex of buildings has housed the Dutch parliament since 1446, and is one of the most recognizable sights in The Hague.  Visitors are free to walk inside to the inner courtyard. If you’re lucky, you might see a minister or two being chauffeured through the gates in their fancy cars.

Binnenhof, Den Haag, The Hague Binnenhof, Den Haag, The Hague

The Peace Palace– The Peace Palace is often called the seat of international law, because it houses the International Court of Justice (the judicial body of the United Nations), as well as the Permanent Court of Arbitration. Andrew Carnegie provided over $1.5 million for its construction in the early 20th century.  The Peace Palace is coming up on a milestone: August 28, 2013 will be the Centenary of its establishment.

Peace Palace, The Hague, Den Haag

M.C. Escher Museum in Het Paleis– The Rijksmuseum and Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam get all the press, but The Hague has some lovely museums of its own. The Escher Museum was a favorite of mine.  Located in the former Royal Palace at Lange Voorhout, the museum features three floors of Escher’s most famous works. The top floor is dedicated to interactive exhibits, where you can try out some of Escher’s most famous optical illusions.

Escher Museum, Het Paleis, Den Haag, The Hague Escher Museum, Het Paleis, Den Haag, The Hague Escher Museum, Het Paleis, Den Haag, The Hague

Gemeente Museum– I am not a fan of modern art, but if you are, then the Gemeente Museum is a must. The museum holds the world’s largest collection of works by Dutch artist Piet Mondriaan.

Gemeente Museum, Den Haag, The Hague

Het Plein– The center of The Hague’s social scene.  Since The Hague does not have a university, most of the nightlife in the city revolves around the sidewalk cafes filled with diplomats and professionals enjoying after-work drinks that line this square.

Het Plein, Den Haag, The Hague

Statenkwartier– The Hague also has some of the nicest neighborhoods (in my opinion) in the Netherlands.  The Statenkwartier is an old suburb of the city packed with architectural gems: beautiful mansions, stately row houses, and gorgeous facades that have housed some of the city’s wealthiest residents throughout history.

Scheveningen– I have discussed this beach resort before, when I wrote about the Dutch herring festival held there each year, but it is worth mentioning again.  Scheveningen is a point of pride in The Hague. Easily accessible by tram from the city center, the beach is packed on any sunny day, no matter the time of year.  It attracts over 10 million visitors per year, making it the most popular beach town in the Netherlands.

Scheveningen, Beach, Strand, Den Haag, The Hague Scheveningen, Beach, Strand, Den Haag, The Hague Scheveningen, Beach, Strand, Den Haag, The Hague

This only represents a short list of some of the things I found most noteworthy about the Hague during my stay there.  I can’t wait to return and explore this international city further!

Brussels Half Marathon Weekend

This past weekend, we traveled to Brussels so that Willem could cross something off his bucket list: run in the Brussels half-marathon (20km de Bruxelles/20km door Brussel).  The Brussels 20k has been run annually since 1980, and has grown every year.  This year, almost 37,000 runners from 120 countries took part.  Willem had signed up to run the race with a group of our friends from LSE.

We stayed overnight with one of the guys running the half-marathon with Willem.  On the morning of the race we woke up bright and early.  I say bright, but what we saw out the window was rain.  Cold, gray and rainy—not the type of weather that makes one excited to get outside and run, that’s for sure.  Luckily the rain tapered off before the race started; however, the clouds stayed around for the whole day.  I could tell Willem was nervous (even though he tried not to show it) because he could barely finish his breakfast.  I tried to tell him it is only natural to feel sick right before your first big race, and to reassure him that the feeling would go away as soon as the adrenaline of the race kicked in.  We took the metro to Parc du Cinquantenaire, which was the starting and finishing point of the course.  The metro was already filled with other people who were also on their way to the race.  Either that or someone was about to film a spandex commercial we weren’t aware of.

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The guys before the race

The park was swarming with people by the time we got there, and it took us a while to find the others. Once all five guys were assembled and ready to go, they made their way over to the staging area at the starting line.  Since the Brussels 20k is run by so many people, they must start in waves of 6,000 runners.  This staggers the runners and prevents bottlenecks and injuries along the course.  The wave you are placed in depends on your predicted finish time.  The first wave is made up of professional runners, and the following waves are composed of increasingly amateur or novice runners.  Willem and his friends were placed in the fourth wave.

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Making their way to the starting line

The starting gun sounded for the first wave at 10am sharp.  That was my cue to go, so I wished the guys luck and they went off to their places.  I walked to the edge of the park so I could get a better view of the starting line.  The sight of all those runners poised to begin was incredible. The tension and excitement in the air was making me nervous, and I wasn’t even running!

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The starting line

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Close-up of the starting line

I watched the runners stream out of the park and on their way.  My friend Suzanne, who lives in Brussels, had arranged to meet me that day, so I made my way back to the metro station where she was waiting for me.  I knew I had at least an hour and a half before the guys would be nearing the finish line, so Suzanne and I walked to a nearby Le Pain Quotidien for croissants and coffee.  I felt so guilty and lazy sitting there chatting with Suzanne in the warm and cozy café while the boys were out there running their hearts out in the cold!  After about an hour we walked back to the race course and found a place to stand 500 meters from the finish line.

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The finish line!

I was shocked at how fast the first runners finished.  The winner crossed the finish line in under an hour! That means he was running at a pace of more than 20km/hr. I don’t even think I can bike that fast for a full 20km.

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Some of the early race finishers

All five of the LSE guys finished the course in less than two hours.  Willem’s final time was 1:52:21, a personal record for him. I’m so proud of him!  One of Belgium’s own royals, Prince Philippe, also ran the race—and Willem now gets to say that he beat Belgium’s prince in a race.  Not bad for one weekend, right?

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I caught Willem! (That is him in the blue t-shirt waving to me as he passes by)

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Doing a happy dance…he finished!

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All of the guys and their finisher medals