The story of two seconds

28 09 2011

Maybe it was the spectacular weather, or the crowd, or the electric atmosphere, or the fact that my big brother and an old friend were standing at the side of the road to cheer me on. Berlin Marathon weekend 2011 was a couple of days to savor, remember and cherish for a long time to come.  There’s a reason they call the 42.195 kilometers (26.2 miles) through the German capital “flat, fast and unforgettable.”

Allow me to begin at the beginning.

The Beginning.

Not wanting to set myself up for a fall, I went into the race thinking that a result around or near my personal best of 1 hour 42 minutes and 47 seconds, set six years ago when I was a sprightly 35-year-old, would be really great. Really great. I felt like a new personal best could be possible. Sorta kinda maybe.

But you know what happens when you bargain on what you think is a sure thing. (Just go ask American homeowners.)

And we were off. At the 5 kilometer mark I knew I was fast, but was also well aware of what the following 37 leftover can do to one’s general constitution.

At 10 kilometers, I was still on track for a personal record, and skating like a woman possessed. I started seriously doing the math and comparing the numbers with the acidity of my muscles and the pain in my lower back.

A marathon, after all, is skated in one’s head and not on one’s legs.

Just before the halfway point, I saw my fanclub standing on the curb, shouting my name and waving a big sign, cheering me on as if I was an Olympic champion already. I sailed across the halfmarathon mats like I had wings.

And then a left-hand turn, onward into the no-mans land of mental and physical exhaustion: just after the half, and before you have any sign that there might be land (or a finish line) in sight. Every seasoned marathonista will tell you that kilometers 25-35 are the longest in the world.

And they were e-n-d-l-e-s-s.

I must have missed a few of the signs, because the next time I looked up from the street I was at kilometer 38, and still on track for a new personal best time. The only thing that could stop me now would be a bad spill in the last 4000 meters of the race. (Kind of like what happened to the guy who went flying immediately to my right… I didn’t stick around to see if there was blood.)

Thumbs up at kilometer 38.

And then a new thought tentatively crystallized… (Okay, I admit, the adrenaline went to my head and I was getting greedy.) Could there be a “3” in front of the minute number? Once again, while speeding past thousands of onlookers, I did some last minute calculations as I turned the corner into Unter den Linden, the wide thoroughfare that leads through the storied Brandenburg Gate to the finish line. It was still theoretically possible, so I fired up (what was left of) the afterburners.

The seconds on the official competition clock ticked relentlessly as I approached the finish line….55…56…57…58…. And I thought – well how about that. It must be. I must have hit 1 hour 39 minutes and 50-some seconds. I must have.

But guess what. I was officially clocked at 1 hour 40 minutes and 1 second. I had missed the mark by a mere two seconds. That would be less than 0.05 seconds per kilometer (less than 0.08 seconds per mile). And that would be less time than it took you to blink.

So the moral of the story is: I have a new personal best, 1:40:01, which I am absolutely over the moon about. But on the other hand, sometimes life can be incredibly, brutally, bitterly unfair.

Maybe I have peaked – but maybe not. Since I started racing in 1999, I have shaved off more than 15 minutes on that time. Yeah, okay, I guess I can live with that. If I keep dropping an average of a little over a minute per year, I’ll finally be skating with the world elite (and for victory) when I’m 60 years old. Now how’s that for ambition?

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42.195 reasons to wimp out of the marathon

22 09 2011

I’m no wimp.

But two days before the biggest distance race event of the year, every athlete has her last-minute doubts. If she claims she does not, then she is flat-out lying to you.

So in the past couple of days I put together a list of the best (worst) excuses I could come up with to justify going AWOL this coming Saturday at 3:30pm in Berlin. You will note that each is valid in its own right, or in combination with any other excuse on the list. And not one of them has to do with training or a lack thereof.

  1. It’s cold.
  2. The third wheel on my left skate is squeaking.
  3. R. is not here.
  4. I’ve had insomnia for the last six months.
  5. My right knee hurts.
  6. I hate my job.
  7. QE3? You’re kidding, right?
  8. I can’t decide which skate suit to wear.
  9. My hotel room is too small and the view is crap.
  10. My bib number is stupid.
  11. Have a useless conference call at 10:30 this morning.
  12. Who moved my cheese?
  13. The plane was late getting into Berlin airport.
  14. Think I have the stomach flu.
  15. The Eddie Bauer Store went out of business.
  16. There are too many people here.
  17. I want a new spandex skate suit.
  18. I want an ice cream.
  19. I feel fat.
  20. Where’s my fan club?
  21. Need someone to blame for me feeling like doggie doo-doo this morning.
  22. I’ve waited a year, surely I can wait another.
  23. There wasn’t enough foam on my Latte Macchiato this morning.
  24. Is that a tiny blister forming on my little toe?
  25. I have writers block.
  26. I didn’t do enough retail therapy in Euroland yet.
  27. What happens if I come in last place?
  28. Will I be able to live with myself?
  29. My breakfast bagel landed cream-cheese-side-down on the floor.
  30. Damn…Need to go buy R.’s birthday present.
  31. My blog only has eleven regular readers.
  32. I didn’t win in the lottery (yet).
  33. Need a nap.
  34. I have to go back to work on Monday.
  35. Tomato sauce on my spaghetti: Bleah.
  36. 7,000 other competitors? Really?
  37. I’m too old for this.
  38. The free beer in the finish area is non-alcoholic. (What kind of a ripoff is THAT?)
  39. The line for the skaters is green, not blue!
  40. Murphy was a smart guy, coming up with that silly law…
  41. There’s no free lunch.
  42. Life isn’t fair.

0.195   Who’s dumb idea was this anyhow?

Deliverance. (The finish line.)

******************

Ladies and gentlemen, this is my 100th post. I thank every single one of my eleven regular readers for their loyalty, as well as all you strays who have dropped in along the way and pushed my click numbers into three figures (a couple of times at least). A year and three months ago I started this blog as an outlet for the creative energy I could not put to legal or constructive use elsewhere. I still don’t have a dedicated theme, but am still having fun. So I will carry on and hope you will continue to accompany me on my journey.

ES





Countdown to Berlin 2011

17 09 2011

It’s that time of year again.

The mornings dawn foggy and grey, and dusk arrives much earlier than it did a month ago.

The leaves are turning.

Nature is preparing itself for the darkest season.

And it’s just one more week till the Berlin Marathon.

Loyal readers will know that Berlin is the highlight of my season, the day I hope to be in top form after a long summer of blood, sweat and tears. Time to concentrate on staying healthy, and getting psyched. Time to switch out the ball bearings and rotate the wheels – to make sure all my equipment is also in top form. And hope that the stars are aligned for two hours on next Saturday afternoon.

Get out of the wayyyyyyyyy....!

Last year’s Marathon in Berlin was a washout, the weather more appropriate for waterskiing than skate racing. (I will spare you the photos… it was ugly…) The city’s streets were covered with at least two inches of floodwater, of which my skates soaked up several liters each over the course of 42 kilometers (26 miles). I limped across the finish line after more than two hours on skates in a downpour, with not a personal best but rather a personal worst, blood streaming from my left elbow – a result of the asphalt jumping up to bite me. Twice.

Within hours, every single one of my 16 expensive newfangled ceramic-cased ball bearings was rusted solid.

The year before, in 2009, I had to forfeit completely due to a training accident a month before the race that left me with three broken bones and a titanium plate in my arm. It was heartbreaking.

The year before that was the last time I did anything noteworthy in Berlin.

So in 2011 I hope to redeem myself for the past two years of slip-ups with a new record time, in front of a new fan club – my big brother.

This past Spring I got an early start on my training, due to the fact that I was in Florida and not in still-wintry Switzerland. And after my otherworldly, herculean efforts at the legendary Gigathlon earlier this summer, I feel stronger than ever that I am in a much better shape than in previous years. I even dropped a few kilos along the way.

Next weekend I will line up for my seventh Berlin marathon over the course of the past 12 years, and probably my 35th race overall. The weather forecast so far is for a sunny autumn day.

It’s always a thrill to shut the city down for a while. To take back the streets from motorized traffic, pretend you (and your 8,000 other co-skate-racers) own them, even if it’s just for a day or a couple of hours. And Berlin – whose inofficial motto is “poor, but sexy” – really does know how to throw a grand party on marathon weekend.

Can’t wait to hear the crowd roar.

Evelynn prepares to hit the blue line in 2008.





Welcome to… a different world.

11 09 2011

The second Tuesday in September started innocuous enough. I was in the British countryside, west of London, along with about 20 colleagues, attending a course on working in hostile environments and battlefield first aid. Too many newspeople had perished while covering wars past, and the company I worked for thought it a wise investment to train its journalists in basic survival so that in the future more would come home from those environments unscathed.

Just in case.

Because the next war was bound to break out, sometime, somewhere.

An excerpt from the list of topics to be covered.

We learned things like: What kind of damage automatic weapons can do to cars, oil drums and humans; How to spot a sniper, and a tripwire; How to make a water filter using only materials found in nature; What an armed ambush feels like, and how to survive a kidnapping; Why a camera lens can sometimes look like a shoulder-held rocket-propelled-grenade at distance.

The course was a week long and I had decided to tack on a vacation to New York City and points north immediately thereafter. So I booked my flight from Heathrow to JFK on United Airlines for the following Saturday.

On that week’s Tuesday afternoon we were out in the woods, standing in mud up to our ankles. The assigned task was to practice negotiation skills. Our teachers had dressed up as hostile natives hell-bent on hindering our work at least, or murdering us for our expensive equipment. The overcast sky broke to a fine English drizzle and during a pause in the action a few of us took shelter in one of the vehicles. That was when the first SMS came from New York.

It was so absurd that we thought it was some kind of joke.

“What a brilliant idea,” one of my colleagues said. “But impossible.”

Four filthy, cynical journalists sitting in a Land Rover in the middle of a field in the middle of nowhere, 3,000 miles from New York City, could not believe the audacity of flying a plane into the World Trade Center.

While calmly picking clumps of mud out of the treads of my hiking boots with a twig, I scoffed that no aviation routes even go anywhere near Manhattan… so that must have been some dumb pilot. Or just a tragic accident.

We turned on the car’s radio to see if the BBC had the story, and heard that a second airliner had just slammed into the second building.

Ah. No accident. No dumb pilot.

And suddenly our hostile environment training did not seem so theoretical anymore.

Four days later, I sat in one of the first aircraft permitted to re-enter U.S. airspace from abroad. Upon landing at JFK, a flight attendant announced our arrival over the intercom. Ten years later, I still get a lump in throat and my eyes tear up when I think of it.

“Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to….. The United States of America.”

The entire cabin erupted in cheers and tears. We were on home soil, and we were safe.

As the plane taxied off the runway to its parking position, a white plume of smoke continued to rise from Ground Zero into the cobalt blue sky. Lower Manhattan was still burning.

It was September 15th, 2001 –  and the world as we knew it was history.

**********

A cloud of smoke where the towers used to be.

A piece of a steel skeleton.

The destruction through the window of a city bus.

Guard duty at Ground Zero.

The impromptu memorial at Union Square.

NOTE: All photos are my own, taken on September 16th and 17th, 2001.





Burnt toast under the hot September sun

6 09 2011

Last weekend, a local skate club threw what they called “The Inline Festival”. It’s one of very few skate races left in Switzerland since the semi-professional circuit, Swiss Inline Cup, folded earlier this year.

So, never one to miss out on a good party that includes rollerblading, bratwurst and beer, I signed up, hoping to use it as a final test ahead of the Berlin Marathon, which rolls around again in less than three weeks.  (Last year’s race was marred by a torrential downpour.  Flooded streets and two spectacular skids on the pavement slowed me significantly. I am looking to redeem myself this year, so stay tuned.)

Foresight overruled cockiness and I decided to register for the shorter, 18.2 km (11.3 mile) race in the category “Fitness” as opposed to the full marathon “Speed” race. It takes me a good long while to recover from a marathon, and I kind of wanted to keep my powder dry for the highlight of my season.

Cool number, though.

While I am not a great fan of torrential rains, I am also sensitive to temperatures far above normal. An unusually late summer high pressure system soaked Switzerland in sunshine last Saturday, sending the mercury to over 30 degrees C (86 F).  Ugh.

I knew I was in trouble early on when I got the first cramps in my thigh less than 600 meters into the race. By the end of the first of three circuits on a 6km track, I was toast, and knew it was a matter of time before my legs would give out under me.

Fortunately, my brain was still working normally, and all I could think of was the power of a strong will.

Willpower: the emotion that keeps the amateur athlete on her feet when every other muscle in her body screams for mercy.  Or… sense.

During the second round, overstretched, overheated and overacidic, I was passed by a tall dark stranger, looking like he was on a Sunday stroll. He took the lead, allowing me to draft behind him and reassess my sorry state for a few kilometers. My speed and energy level recovered dramatically. At some point I told him he could continue on if he wanted to… I didn’t want him to wait for me if he felt like turning the engine up a notch. He said something to the effect of, “Oh no, don’t worry about it… I’m just warming up for the marathon.”

Talk about a blow to the psyche.

But the disappointment of the day was still to come. I struggled through a painful third circuit and crossing the finish line barely conscious, I found out that my time and ranking had been stopped after the second round. The eventual winner had apparently lapped me on my second round (really? guess I missed that…), and that meant my ordeal had been in vain. My estimate is around 51 minutes, respectable considering the sub-tropical conditions, but not great. But I can’t say for sure.

So much for trying to figure out what to expect in three weeks’ time.





For the love of landings

2 09 2011

Let’s talk about landings.

We learn early that whatever goes up must come down. That gravity is a law and not an option.

So logic goes that all aircraft that leave the earth must also return to it, somehow.

What it's supposed to look like. (Passenger's perspective.)

The landing is the most difficult phase of flight. Returning the aircraft and its human cargo to the planet safely was probably the toughest thing I ever had to learn. And it took me a long, long, long time. Way longer than I thought it would – other pilots make it look so easy. And when my flight instructor sent me off on my first solo flight (that would end up including three landings) on a crisp November morning 11 years ago, I’m sure he was silently evoking the power of every higher authority that ever existed.

I lived to tell the tale.

So what’s it take? What’s so hard about a landing?

Well, all of us have experienced them many times, while sitting in the back of the bus, right? On your way to a vacation hotspot or from a business trip. There are four categories:

1) A rotten landing rattles your fillings, herniates your discs and has you later inspecting the runway for stray screws or other aircraft bits.

2) A good landing is one you can walk away from and use the airplane again.

3) A great landing is one you (and the airplane) didn’t even feel.

4) And for a phenomenal landing – the mother of all landings – read this.

Setting your aircraft on back on terra firma (or as in the above-mentioned example – taking it for a swim) requires copious amounts of instinct and skill to get it just right. “It’s a controlled crash with the earth,” someone once said. And you always hope your wheels point downwards for that crash, at least. During the final approach, speed, altitude and distance are in constant flux, and the play between the three is integral to a safe touchdown and happy passengers (as well as aircraft maintenance technicians, rental companies, their insurance agents and aviation authorities).

This past week I went flying with friends who had never experienced flight in a small airplane before. Their eyes grew wide as they assessed the instruments in the cockpit, and their endless curiosity was refreshing.

Lucky for them, I seriously greased every single landing. I even received a round of applause for one.

But it wasn’t always like this. In these past 11 years of flying I’ve had a few miserable episodes that shook my confidence to the core. During one phase after a particularly terrifying experience, I grounded myself for nine long months, afraid I had lost my fragile grip on the skill. It was a rough road back, paved with tears, frustration and agony. This was one thing I just didn’t want to fail at.

Older and wiser now, and with almost 200 hours and 350 solo landings to my name, I know that every single one of them poses a brand new challenge, in brand new conditions. And that no pilot (not even the ones who get paid to do this) can ever take anything about a landing for granted. I crave the thrill of it every time.