Zen and the art of Alpine racing

22 06 2011


The word kind of sounds like the Wrath of God, doesn’t it?

First let’s take the back part of it: “thlon”. “Duathlon” and “triathlon” are the other two common words with this suffix. Any other contexts you can think of? Nope, me neither.

Right, then let’s look at the beginning of the word: “giga” – reminds you of storage space on computers, SD-cards and USB-sticks, right?

OK. So whatever it is, it seems to have something to do with activity, and lots of it. And since this is Switzerland, that means it probably takes place in the mountains, and probably has a few thousand participants with an irrepressible urge to torture themselves. (Taking the software-storage analogy one step further: “Kilothlon” and “Megathlon” just sounded too wimpy, I guess.)

I first heard the word “Gigathlon” when I arrived in Switzerland a few years ago. The Swiss – Masters and Mistresses Of The Universe when it comes to physical activity – invented the Gigathlon as just one more fun thing to do outdoors during an action-packed summer. It is an ultra-endurance race that spans not one, not two, not three, not four but FIVE disciplines and is usually held on some (hopefully warm and dry) July weekend in the Alps.

Yep, count 'em. Five.

Altogether the distance to be covered in the 2011 edition of the race – on bicycle, mountain bike, inline skates, by foot and in the water – is 340 kilometers (213 miles), and the difference in altitude from start to finish is 11,111 meters (37,000 feet).

No, that is no typo.

There are three categories: Relay teams of five (each person responsible for one discipline), two (a man and a woman dividing the labor unequally) and one (contested by athletes whose sanity I must question).

A friend and I wanted to put together our own team of five – we had been discussing it since about this time last year. Despite weeks of querying, prompting, nagging and cajoling, we could not find three equally-motivated individuals to join us. She too lost interest and energy, and her last deed before heading off to the beach was to hook me up with a team needing a female skater.

And so lo and behold, in my seventh year here, I find myself as a registered Gigathlon participant. Our team name is: “Isches nah wiiiiit?!” Loosely translated from Swiss German that means: “How much fuuurrrrther?!

So in nine days I will travel to a valley in the southwestern corner of Switzerland with four strangers, sleep in a tent, and skate a total of 55 kilometers over the course of two days. Saturday’s skater route is a relatively civilized and flat 35 kilometers, Sunday calls for 20 kilometers up a sheer mountain face. The relay races on both days start at the crack of dawn (with skaters heading out first) and, if successful, I will have completed my share of the work by 8:30 a.m.

Gigathlon 2010: Skaters trailed by an ambulance.

And now that there is just over a week between me and this year’s race (subtitled: “On the Rocks”), that oh-so-obvious and sneakily familiar question pops into my consciousness like a blinking red traffic light: “What on earth was I thinking?”

Along with its bastard cousin: “Who the hell am I kidding?”

A postcard from Switzerland

17 06 2011

Dear Donna R.,

Do you remember us? We met you at the Golden Nugget casino in downtown Las Vegas. Fremont Street. About six weeks ago. You were our server in the Buffet, and my three friends were the Swiss folks that inhaled Zelma’s bread pudding for desert. (You remember – I had a scoop of Cookies ‘n Cream instead.)

You asked us where we were from, and, without knowing if we were ax-murderers on leave from jail, you gave us your home address and asked us to send you a postcard when we got back. You collect postcards, you said, and you haven’t yet received one from Switzerland. Well, here it is. Sorry it took so long.

Switzerland at a glance

We chatted a bit, and you said, “Las Vegas is boring, and Switzerland is not boring.” Well, you are right, I suppose. Summer has arrived here, and it’s not boring at all. In fact, it’s quite attractive here, lots to do and generally a very pleasant place to spend one’s days.

But as I told you too, home is where the heart is, and the heart, right now, is elsewhere.

I spent three months in the United States this Spring… it was the longest period of time over on your side of the pond since I finished graduate school in 1992. Before I arrived in the U.S. I knew that it would be a watershed experience for me – either I would go back to Europe saying, “Hey, glad I finally got that out of my system!” or I would be saying, “I want to go home, now more than ever.”

You know how this story ends, don’t you?

For much of the last two decades the idea of returning home has weighed heavily on my consciousness. Europe afforded me a lot of opportunities, too many to name here – and I am thankful for every single one of them. I started a career and a followed a trajectory that would have been unlikely back home. I had cool jobs, traveled and did all sorts of neat things that were only possible while riding on the coattails of the EU passport I am lucky to have.

Yet looking past the superficial, something very basic is missing. It’s nothing concrete, material, or anything I can pick up and hold. It’s more of a feeling, a mentality, an attitude, a sense of community. It’s a deep-seated yet unnamed feeling I associate with the culture in which I was socialized – I can only describe it as a combination of longing, sadness, love and pride – that comes suddenly and unexpectedly, and always takes a while to put away again.

My time with my folk, my people, immersed in my culture taught me a few important lessons. Most important: even after living overseas for about 20 years, the United States is still my home. I can still identify with people, speak their language, laugh at their humor and feel their pain.

It was tough getting on that plane back to Europe last week, with no exit strategy and no timeline for the future. I sit here, in an job I am no longer excited about, in a land I will never be able to call my own, having to deal with the locals in a language I will never be able to speak.

So… interesting? Yes, it’s an interesting place, with an interesting history and interesting characters. (And heck, I met my husband here! He’s great!) Comfortable? Very. There are a lot worse places to have to return to. But home? No, not likely. Ever.

Hope you are well and not wilting in the Vegas summer.

Yours truly,

Evelynn and her Swiss friends

ES and IT: a match made in hell.

11 06 2011

Gosh, you’re all still there? What loyal readers I have! Thank you! In this day and age of instant gratification there are still a few folks who will remain faithful, even through a two-week writers’ block. You are too kind.

While suffering through my recent mini-drought, I turned 41. (Who would have thought?) And my husband had a really great birthday gift idea – he bought me a new computer.

My new toy.

Of course I had been coveting a new computer for a while, surreptitiously browsing the aisles in our local electronics megastore and oogling all the new technology on display. Today’s laptops all look really cool there sitting in the shelves.

But for months, that is where they remained – on the shelves.

Though somewhere deep inside I knew that my good old Compaq laptop’s days were probably numbered and a catastrophic failure was increasingly likely, I couldn’t see myself investing in something shiny, flashy and new. I mean – a laptop that was state of the art in the summer of 2004 when I parted with $1359 (purchased in Delaware – no sales tax!) and took it home with me isn’t that old and outdated. (Is it?)

My old toy.

It is?

Ancient, you say?

No, it doesn’t have a built-in webcam. Should it?

And a 30 GB hard drive is… measly?



Okay, so I guess I needed a new computer. And my husband (a recent new-hardware-client himself) just cut to the chase and went out and bought me one. Not a moment too soon, turns out – on the day we took it out of its box for the first time, my old Compaq sucked up some kind of nasty Internet virus and has been unhealthy ever since.

R. warned me that setting up the new machine would require a few weeks of intense work, sorting stuff out, while all the updates and service packs and God-knows-what-else would be downloaded (automatically!) in order to prepare itself adequately for the next couple of years of service.

Huh? I don’t remember my old computer doing any of that seven years ago.

But then again, I haven’t really been paying attention to developments in the IT industry. The extent of my understanding of technology is that I need it to function when I turn it on. End of story. And when/if it doesn’t, and faced with the philosophical question “Fight or Flight”, as a wise liberal arts major, I usually end up on the “Flight” side: If something doesn’t work the way it’s supposed to the first time around, abandon it. Don’t waste another single minute on a process where the cards are obviously seriously stacked against you. Do without. Move on.

My husband, however, is the opposite. He (a recipient of a degree in physics) will sit there till 5 a.m. if he has to, in order to figure out what is wrong with a certain application/program/software/harddrive/browser/index/screensaver/mediaplayer/ format/language/taskbar/shortcut and fix the problem. His endurance in all things technical is astounding. The next evening at dinner he will then describe to me in detail his epic battle with technology and all he did to overcome it. I listen with interest, thankful that another electronic crisis has been averted and I still have access to all of my files.

Clearly one reason why there are so many unemployed liberal arts majors out there.