Water, water everywhere.

27 09 2010

So it rained. And it rained. And then it rained some more. And then God said, “I don’t think they are wet enough down there in Berlin, so I will let it rain even more.” And it did. And after a day and a half of a nonstop downpour of varying intensity, a few of the 50,000 marathoners thought perhaps it might be time to buy a kayak.

The adverse weather conditions were the real story of this year’s Berlin Marathon. Cloudy but dry until two hours before the skaters started out on Saturday afternoon, the city was a lake by the time they finished.

Yours truly is not a wimp or a quitter, but she has great respect for the elements and the injuries wet streets can cause those underway on eight slick rubber wheels. Any fight you pick with asphalt, you will lose, guaranteed. Any fight you pick with wet asphalt, well, consider yourself a goner. So when it came time to make the big decision – to start or not to start – there really was only one sensible answer: Nope, uh-uh, no way José. Not today, my friends.

However, when it comes to marathons, common sense takes its leave. We all worked too hard and waited too long for this to just not show up on race day.

So here I was in the starting area along with 6,000 skater-colleagues, against better judgment, waiting for the gun. With the streets disguised as rivers, a personal best time was simply out of the question. The conditions demanded a careful, concentrated technique, not unlike walking on eggshells.

Us (skaters) in the rain.

About a third of the way into the race, my skates felt like sponges that had absorbed five extra kilos in water-weight. Each. That’s when the wind picked up and it really started raining.

The first 20 kilometers (13 miles) took me an hour, and just as I was doing the math for the rest of the race the asphalt jumped up to bite me – I lost my grip on a crooked tar seam and went flying.

A split-second later I slithered face-down along the wet, oil-slick streets. The only spectators for my belly-flop were an old guy out walking his dachshund and a few other skaters who swerved to avoid this picture of misery, thanking God it didn’t happen to them.

Sitting on my butt in the middle of the roadway, I checked to see if all body parts were still intact. One knee hurt like I had cracked a kneecap, and I felt a tingling sensation on an elbow. The five-inch bloody gash was kinda gross, but harmless, and for some reason I felt no pain there. I gingerly got up and flicked two dead leaves off the front of my blue-and-pink spandex suit. The white layer of skin I left on the street soon dissolved in the rain. Already soaked through to my underwear from water coming from the sky, I had now also bathed in water on the ground.

Regaining my stride and once again picking up good speed, I skated over the half-marathon mats and a mantra formed on my lips. I shouted out: “You will not get me, you lousy, wretched, flooded streets!! YOU WILL NOT GET ME!”

Fellow skaters glanced over in horror and distanced themselves from this obviously distraught maniac. By kilometer 32 (only 10 more to go – this is way too easy!!!)  I was grinning like I’d escaped from the funny farm. Shortly thereafter, skidding around a corner, I hit the deck again, this time a little harder, with an audience of a few hundred. Dignity, au revior! But what the hell. No one gives up four kilometers from the finish line.

Don’t ask me who won, or in what time, I have no idea. And because I freed myself of the pressure to clock a personal best, I enjoyed every one of those 42,195 meters in the driving rain. It was simply lovely – a confirmation of why I do this. An added bonus: I felt great and barely broke a sweat. Even though I was longer in transit than ever before (more than two hours) it felt like a Sunday walk in the park. It was a chance to believe in myself again.

And yes, you guessed it. The wounds will heal and there is always a next year, too. I will certainly be back for more.

Them (runners) in the rain.

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Be Berlin

24 09 2010

So I’m here, wow! Berlin in the autumn. Always a very cool place to be, no matter what the weather or occasion. The city’s marketing slogan – Be Berlin – helps make it almost feel like home again: I will spend the weekend getting reacquainted with the metropole I left six years ago, and getting nostalgic.

It’s been nearly 21 years since the Berlin Wall fell, and we are just a week shy of a united Germany’s 20th birthday. I still get the shivers when I walk through the Brandenburg Gate, more than a decade and a half after my first crossing from west to east – as a young and open-mouthed Cold War capitalist kid in awe of what all this really meant. For so many years the gate had stood beyond a threatening concrete wall and a bunch of mean looking communist soldiers with their fingers on the trigger. The wall and the soldiers are long gone, communism has been replaced by a free market, and I skate through the gate at least once a year. Who would have thought? And that feeling – like this is history in the making – it’s still there every time.

The Brandenburg Gate at sunset on marathon day.

The marathon route is a great sightseeing tour of what is currently probably the most hip and exciting city in the world. It is flat and it is fast. We start with Victory column in our sights, fly past all of the new and old architecture that houses the German seat of government, head down to the colorful culture of Kreuzberg, sweep through Schöneberg past the place where John F. Kennedy proclaimed himself a Berliner, hook around through the rich part of town and back past the consumer temples at SonyCenter into East Berlin again to speed to a finish along the beautifully restored museums of Unter den Linden.

The crowning moment comes last, as it should, when our legs are about to give way and our brains are producing endorphins like it’s the end of the world. The Brandenburg Gate comes into view at the end of a long tunnel – black having crept into our peripheral vision – and that last kilometer is the longest kilometer since the beginning of time. Once through the arch and with the fuel tank on empty, we sprint to the finish line on fumes and adrenaline alone. The cheering crowd gives us just enough energy to smile for the cameras.

Weep now. There will be no time for that tomorrow.

A year ago I was nursing a physical injury, and just watching the 50,000 athletes take to the streets inflicted an emotional one, too. I couldn’t bring myself go to the finish area to see the triumphant gladiators sail to a personal best or celebrate the wonder of just being alive. It was just too painful not to be one of them.

This year (barring a freak accident or food poisoning in the next 36 hours) I am back among the living, breathing mob of ascetics and health nuts, sadomasochists and fitness freaks, all seemingly immune to pain and fear of failure, every single one of them outfitted with a God-given will of iron.

Aside from the iron will, none of the rest of those words apply here. I am just another amateur, one of thousands, millions even, who’s found a way to feel free and stay healthy as I move into the prime of my life (40 is the new 30, remember?). I don’t do running, I skate. And that is what I will do tomorrow, rain or shine, through the streets of Berlin.

And I will own those streets. I will be Berlin.





Of runners and skaters

21 09 2010

This coming weekend Berlin will be teeming with athletes. The city’s plazas, hotels, restaurants, shopping centers and subways will fill with about 50,000 unbelievably fit-looking tourists, the running shoes on their feet a dead giveaway for the reason they are there.

It is marathon time in the German capital, and, like the final weekend of September every year, the faithful (with their entourages and fan clubs) gather in the formerly divided city to praise the glories of physical exercise. We come to collectively beat those 42.195 kilometers / 26.2 miles and that big wall that will inevitably and magically appear somewhere on the road, between us and the finish line. (No, not the Berlin Wall… that one’s been gone for years…)

I too will be traveling to Berlin on Thursday afternoon to race on Saturday, ready to overcome my weaker self (in German: der innere Schweinehund – direct translation: “the inner pig-dog”).

My personal inner pig-dog has been barking loudly in the past couple of days, complaining about the fact that I irresponsibly took a 12-day vacation to a place nine time zones away just three weeks before the race of all races, the day of all days. But I was able to shut him up for a little while with a few leisurely skate runs this week, the promise of two exquisite pasta dinners before Saturday and a lot of celebratory booze afterwards.

If you are still upright at kilometer 38 (of 42) then your inner pig-dog is definitely losing the battle.

Though we will all attack the blue line together on the weekend, over the 15 or so years I’ve been doing this kind of thing I have found that distance skaters and distance runners are two fundamentally different breeds of animal altogether (as are their pig-dogs). I recently looked up the two words in that bible of all things literary – the Merriam-Webster dictionary – and this is what I found:

run·ner \rə-nər\

Function: noun

Date: 14th century

1 a : one that runs : racer b : base runner c : ballcarrier
2 a : messenger b : one that smuggles or distributes illicit or contraband goods (as drugs, liquor, or guns)
3 : any of several large vigorous carangid fishes

skat·er \skā-tər\

Function: noun

Date: 1700

: one that skates

And this:

in–line skate \ənlīn skāt\

Function: noun

Date: 1987

: a roller skate whose wheels are set in-line for greater speed and maneuverability

I would like to add my personal definitions to those official ones, if I may:

run·ner \rə-nər\: one that voluntarily inflicts slow torture upon him-/herself while destroying knees, hips and/or Achilles tendons – thus keeping orthopedic surgeons in business and filthy rich; one that doesn’t exactly know what it is that s/he is fleeing from or to; one that can’t wait to meet the next water fountain. (Honestly, have you ever seen a smiling runner? Me neither, I wonder why.)

skat·er \skā-tər\: one that has mastered the fine art of flying without ever leaving the ground; one that has attained a kind of athletic nirvana.

Now, I don’t know what camp looks more attractive to you, but I made my choice a long time ago. It’s clear, I will never run a marathon – after almost three decades of trying, I’ve discovered that my body is just not built for that kind of thing. But I most certainly will continue to skate them as long as they let me, no matter what obstacles I have to overcome.

My inner pig-dog has been soundly beaten before, and he knows darn well I will beat him again.





Surprises on the road

17 09 2010

We just got back from another epic journey in the American west. Jetlag has attacked with a vengeance (I am having more and more trouble with him as I get older, it seems), and I am up at all sorts of ungodly hours, writing. But I have to say that we had a grand time – as expected. It was also a learning experience, my second such educational tour in the western part of my own country. There is so much to discover out there and I am sure I haven’t learned nearly all I want to know.

So I decided to compile a list of things I didn’t know before I went, as well as vignettes and facts that surprised me during the 12 days we traveled through northern California, Oregon, Idaho, Montana, Wyoming and Nevada. Maybe you were ignorant of these as well (but probably not).

If only I could put all my cool experiences in a box and take them with me everywhere, to open and enjoy whenever I want to.

Here is my list of interesting & fun stuff (in no particular order):

  • There is a lot of desert in Oregon.
  • There is a sign at the side of the road whenever you cross into a new time zone.
  • Old Faithful geyser in Yellowstone National Park blows every 93 minutes, like clockwork. Almost.
  • San Franciscans have thoroughly embraced the Smart car.
  • Bison can swim?

"Yes we can!"

  • Buffalo wings have nothing to do with these buffalo because they come from Buffalo, New York.
  • The LDS-church temple in downtown Salt Lake City (from which non-LDS-believers are banned) is pretty small. And downright insignificant when you compare it to many European cathedrals built 600 (or more) years ago.
  • A Jeep Grand Cherokee is also called a “Laredo.”
  • New quarters will be minted with motifs of the national parks, in the order in which they were established. Yellowstone (founded in 1872) is the first to be commemorated on the back of a quarter – and I have one.
  • Coast Redwoods can get to be 2,400 years old.
  • While looking for change in my wallet at a Starbucks in Bend, Oregon, the Barista told me, “Sorry, we don’t take Euros.”
  • There is actually a place called “Jackpot” in Nevada.
  • There are many onions in Idaho.
  • Sarah Palin was born in Idaho.
  • West Yellowstone, Montana is the self-declared “Snowmobile Capital of the World.”
  • It takes eight hours to drive from Salt Lake City to Reno, Nevada (520 miles / 800 km), across a whole lot of nothing.
  • If you come to live in San Francisco, you will never leave. As a friend put it so aptly: “How can you be miserable in such a beautiful place?”

She's right, you know.





The bullies of Salt Lake City

14 09 2010

And once again I out myself as despicable, selfish, child-free and…much happier that way.

We were in that family-friendly of all cities, the LDS-church capital of the world, Salt Lake City, Utah. One fine and sunny morning, three small children and their two mothers were sitting in the breakfast area of the Crystal Inn. Irritating, high-pitched screams echoed through the hallway before we could even see and identify the creatures they were coming from. Shrieks, rivaling the sound of nails on a chalkboard, greeted us before we even had a chance to smell coffee.

The two rather rotund women who seemed to be the mothers of the screeching, squirming beasts sat at a table along with one mute and sickly-skinny man. (I thought polygamy was illegal…even in Utah!) Two kids were in highchairs and the third was perched on a lap. After every vocalization of 107 decibels or more, one of the women would tell her son, half-heartedly, “Jake, now stop” or “Nathan, don’t do that” as the other woman just smiled and laughed and pretended she could actually hear herself think amid all the noise pollution.

Other breakfasting guests concentrated hard on staring into and picking at their bacon and eggs, none making any visible attempt to address the great white (bellowing) elephant in the room.

And the whole time I’m thinking – if a little dog was yipping away like a maniac in the breakfast room of a hotel, would everybody go about their business as if it was nothing? I think not. The rules of society seem to be different when it comes to disruptive children. Everyone is supposed to actually enjoy the pandemonium they create.

If only one could silence such terrors with a milkbone. Soaked in grain alcohol. Or rat poison.

Here little kiddie, time for breakfast!

As the racket began to fray our tender early-morning nerves, I finally got up to ask the two mothers, obviously incapable of handling their kids effectively in public, if they would please just try to calm them down or leave because there were other guests who had paid for the right to enjoy their breakfast in peace. The childrens’ high-pitched squealing stopped for an instant as the mothers launched into a rampage, telling me that their precious little boys are just learning how to behave and little boys must also eat. And that they will grow up into competent, responsible adults. (Really? I wouldn’t be so sure about that.)

“But… how can they eat if they are screaming all the time,” I asked, which was the red flag for both obese mothers and a few other guests in the room to attack me all at once. I was surprised at the decidedly family un-friendly language used.

By this time R.’s blood was coming to a boil as well and he jumped into the discussion with a few choice words of his own. His comments betrayed his foreign accent and promptly we got a “Get outta here and go back home!” tossed our way from a white-trash, tatooed, slimy, IQ-deficient blob of body mass sitting at another table.

After an eternity the clan finally got up to leave, threatening us with a “We’ll be back tomorrow!” to which we lobbed a “Thank God we will not!” back.

Charming folks here in Salt Lake City. I don’t think I will come visit again anytime soon.





Idaho & me

11 09 2010

This was supposed to be an entry about Idaho but I’m not sure I have enough stuff to write about Idaho – most of the time we spent in Idaho was at about 82 miles per hour, heading east on Interstate 84 and behind schedule. This was my first ever visit to Idaho… From far away, I was always fascinated by Boise, but don’t ask me why. I just thought that was a cool name for a place. Boise, Idaho. It sounds so…happy.

According to Wikipedia, the state itself  “was possibly named as the result of a hoax – the so-called ‘Idahoax‘ ” . (Hee hee…)

So, despite my fascination with the name, unfortunately we didn’t get to see very much of Boise except for the strip malls along the highway. But we did notice that the residents (called “Idahoans”) seem quite proud of their state, way up there in the northwestern corner of the country, even if there isn’t really much in it other than all forms of agriculture and some pretty spectacular scenery. A popular road sign declares, “Idaho is too great to litter.”   (“Too great“?)

One of many, many farms.

Another one of the state’s features is the 85 75 mile per hour (120 km/h) speed limit – crossing over from 55-mph Oregon it’s like a big breath of fresh air. It makes you almost feel like you are actually getting somewhere – if the distances between the places were not so… so… unbelievably huge.

In the nine or so hours that we spent on southern Idaho’s highways and byways, crossing from west to east, we saw a lot of roadkill – much skunk, some birds, and a bunch of unidentifiable carnage in various states of decay. Many more bugs than usual, it seemed, found their final resting place as splatter on our windshield. (Hmm… Maybe wildlife don’t appreciate that 85 75 mph speed limit after all.)

And did you know that this is also “Onion Country, USA”? I did not! A big sign along the road told us so, and the sweet smell of young onions accompanied us for couple of hours. And here I thought all these years that all Idaho had to offer was potatoes for McDonald’s French Fries. But now I find out that not only is Idaho potato central, it also provides us with significant amount of the world’s onion rings too. Yum.

Guess I should have read this first.

Idaho has given the world other impressive stuff too – two things that interest me in particular: billboards along the Interstate advertise “From Wolf to Woof – the Story of Dogs” at the Museum of Idaho, and of course how can we forget Rigby, Idaho, the birthplace of the television. There are even a couple of notable Idahoans who have definitely left their mark on history, including Ernest Hemmingway and Sarah Palin.

So wow. I am truly on a voyage of discovery here. There really is a lot to be thankful to Idaho for.

It’s simply, well, great!





Wacky American Stuff, Part I

8 09 2010

Having lived overseas for such a long time sometimes I am astounded at all the stuff my own country has to offer that I didn’t know about before. Stuff that’s not in any guidebooks that I have read recently. Or maybe it’s just because I am an over-sophisticated eastern seaboard Yankee that I find some of the things I see out here in the West a bit off the wall.

Near Leggett, CA, for example, is an international natural landmark that I had not yet heard of till we actually drove past it and decided at the spur of the moment to go there. It is “The World-Famous Drive-Through Tree”, a coast redwood tree, 315 feet (95 meters) tall with a diameter of 21 feet (6 meters). It is called the “Chandelier Tree” because of the shape of its branches.

Redwoods are unbelievably hardy plants, and grow to be among the biggest and longest-living beings on earth. They can reach about 400 feet (120 meters) in height and can live for more than 2,000 years. They are massive, gracious trees and endless forests of these unbelievably majestic and beautiful individuals stretch across hundreds of miles along the Pacific coast.

Lots and lots of very big trees.

And if you don’t know what a drive-through tree is, well, you are not alone.

The gateway to the “world-famous drive-through tree” (according to the website redwoods.info one of only three drive-through trees in all of the United States) is a small driveway leading off highway 101. An old guy with a baseball cap sits in a small hut in the woods and charges five dollars per car ($3 per motorcycle) for the privilege of driving another quarter mile on a dirt road through the forest, and standing in a single-lane, one-way traffic jam.

In typical U.S. fashion, visitors to the “world-famous drive-though tree” traffic jam sit inside their air-conditioned SUVs, trucks and minivans with their engines running on idle while sipping Coke from 36 oz (1 liter) paper cups. After a few curves, the “world-famous drive-through tree” finally comes into view: a giant redwood with a tunnel big enough for a car carved into its base. This is the attraction of the day – a huge hole in the base of a huge tree! Amazing.

(And… I’m just curious… what do the eco-friendly among us think about this?)

R. wonders aloud whether or not the other drivers will be surprised that there’s no one taking their fast-food order through a speaker and they don’t get it delivered to their window when they pass out the other side.

I'll have a happy meal, please.

We do the (ethically and environmentally questionable) tourist-trap thing and drive our Jeep Grand Cherokee through the hole, and then we get our five bucks’ worth of photos and video, too. We’re hoping the money goes into some sort of fund to protect the redwoods, but at the same time we are realistic enough to recognize a good American capitalist when we see one.

The old guy smiles and waves to us from his hut as we leave.