The curse of the single second

5 04 2012

Last weekend, Berlin was a festival of sight, sound and fitness. It was the moment when everyone crawls out of their winter hibernation to kick off the skate and running race season in one of the most exciting cities in the world.

GO!

It was my 11th Springtime sightseeing tour through the German capital, and I lined up with more than 1,800 others on wheels (the 25,000 runners started half an hour after us) under a brilliant blue sky and heartwarming sunshine. The streets were dry after Saturday’s brief but intense snow squalls, and it was really, really cold – about 3 degrees C (36 degrees F) – as we waited in the starting area for the gun to go off.

And standing there, warmed by the body heat of almost 2,000 other adrenaline-pumped athletes, none of us really had any idea what kind of gusty headwinds we were in for along the route.

In my last posting I said I was aiming for a time between 50 and 55 minutes. I came in at 57:01. Not brilliant, but not bad either.

So what’s my excuse? I have three.

1) I turn 42 years old next month. ‘Nuf said.

2) The streets. There is a reason Berlin’s unofficial city motto is: “Poor, but sexy”. (Many potholes = many reasons.) At least I did not leave a layer of epidermis on the asphalt like a number of other folks did.

3) The wind. A question for all you athletes out there: have you ever noticed that no matter which way you run/skate/ride your bike, that the wind is ALWAYS coming from the wrong direction? And I’m not talking about the wind in your face that comes as a result of speed. We are talking about near-tempest-like-conditions that hit you like a brick wall. Pay attention next time. You will discover that I am right.

My placement in my age group was about top quarter. That is the expectation I have of myself, and that at least has been relatively consistent since I started doing this kind of thing when I was in my 20’s.

My reward after a hard day's skate.

It’s that single extraneous second though, offensively and provocatively hanging off the end of my total time, 57:01, that is really starting to annoy me. Loyal readers will recall that my marathon time last year (a personal best, by the way) also had a single second dangling off the end of it (1:40:01).

It’s one thing to miss a lower minute-result by a whole lot, like, say, 19 seconds or 34 seconds, or 47 seconds. It’s another entirely to realize that you could have made it in under the wire if only you had skated just a smidgen faster. Something like 0.09 seconds faster per kilometer. In other words, next to nothing.

Grrrrrr…….

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Spring, at last!

29 03 2012

Ah, the joys of the European Springtime: Lots of brilliant sunshine, long days due to daylight savings time, temperatures climbing into the teens (Celsius) and pollen counts that go off the charts.

Ah-choo!

(‘Scuse me.)

Spring is the time that skates are brought down out of the attic and dusted off, ball bearings are cleaned and wheels are screwed on tight. It’s the time skate enthusiasts like me take a look at the new year’s innovations in the industry, and then compare the prices for these innovations to their own disposable incomes – and calculate what sum they can, indeed, dispose of.

Last year's stuff.

Is there a lighter, more aerodynamic shoe, or a newer, faster composite rubber wheel, or a ball bearing that will make gliding across asphalt even more effortless than last year? What can I buy to make me even faster? And what do I just want to have because it would make me look cooler?

Equipment-doping, so to speak. Totally legal.

In the 14 years I have been skating competitively, I have spent a small fortune on my gear, with lots of trial and error (read: wasted cash) before I figured out what works for me. It is a constant battle to find that sweet spot where technology, comfort, price and personal preference meet.

This Sunday marks the start of the summer running and skating race season in Europe – the moment when winter is officially O-V-E-R. The Berlin Halfmarathon, which traditionally takes place on the last weekend of March or the first weekend of April, rings in the new skate season very loudly. Nearly 27,000 athletes – 2,000 of them on wheels – congregate in the German capital and take back its streets from motorized traffic.

This will be my 11th Halfmarathon on the streets of Berlin. After last September’s unbelievable Marathon time (read all about it here), my expectations of myself have, of course, increased. (It would be boring if I ceased to raise the bar.) But as the first race after the long cold winter, spent mostly sitting around in a warm living room and eating sinfully tasty meals cooked my my amazing chef of a husband (with only the occasional hour on the crosstrainer) it’s always hard to gauge one’s form. I’m aiming for 50-55 minutes to cover the 21.095 kilometers in dry cool weather. The weather forecast for Sunday is for partly cloudy skies and comfortable temperatures.

Hoping, though, that the pollen count will allow me to breathe at least. In the meantime, could you pass the Kleenex, please? (Sniffle…)





Humiliation on the soccer field

14 03 2012

Switzerland is in shock today after its top soccer club, Basel, suffered a humiliating defeat in Germany last night. Basically, the Swiss team failed to show up for what was touted as the “match of the century” against Germany’s top team, Bayern Munich.

Cauchemar, indeed.

It was a bit of a fairy-tale story, and a win would have catapulted Basel into the stratosphere of global soccer greats. It would have opened a whole new chapter in the team’s history. It was an opportunity to sweep the best squad from its reviled neighbor to the north right out of the Champions League.

“Was” and “would have” are the operative words here.

What makes this whodunit even more irritating for the Swiss to swallow this morning is that Basel’s star player – a 20-year-old pipsqueak touted as “Switzerland’s Messi” (HA!) will transfer to Bayern at the end of the season.

Normally, I’m not a soccer fan. I could care less about the sport unless Argentina (and the real Messi) is playing. But somehow I got caught up in the hype of this one.

For days ahead of time, there were exaggerated visions of grandeur dancing in Swiss heads, from Geneva in the west to Zurich in the east, from Basel in the north to lovely Lago Maggiore in the south. Every single Swiss person was convinced they were (vicariously) on the cusp of stardom.

But alas. The team from Basel decided not to show up for the game. They were basically swept from the field before even setting foot on it.

Smeared.

Creamed.

Slaughtered.

Torn limb from limb and left to the vultures.

Sent home in shame.

Terminus station Munich.

We watched most of the match from our sofa, cringing every time Bayern found the goal and Basel did not.

When the score was 4-0 I left the room.

When it reached 6-0 I begged my husband to shut off the TV and spare us this embarassment. But he chose to watch till the bitter end, reveling in the agony.

The final score was 7-0 and silence blanketed the country.

Looks like Basel needs two weeks off. Too bad that last weekend the Swiss populace resoundingly voted against a measure that would have given us those two extra hard-earned weeks of vacation.  (But then again, the Swiss don’t just strongly dislike Germans, they have an equally profound aversion to each other too.)





The THINGS take Switzerland

1 03 2012

A couple of weeks ago, some visitors decided to stop by. The timing wasn’t great because I had just started my new job and am also attending university courses for the first time in 20 years. That double whammy had me going to bed at 9pm every night for the first two weeks because I was simply exhausted.

The THINGS, as they are known, belong to my only good Canadian friend, the lovely and hilarious Ironic Mom. She is sending them around the world in place of her 7-year-old twins. (Though I’m sure that on some days she would have been quite happy to send the twins.) On their Excellent Adventure, which started last summer, they have already criss-crossed the United States and Zurich was the first stop on the European leg of their tour.

In addition to my new job, we were in the middle of an incredible cold snap, with daytime high temperatures of minus 15 degrees Celsius (3 degrees F for you Fahrenheit types). So flying and rollerblading – my staple activities when the weather cooperates – were simply out of the question. Actually, anything that required leaving a heated building was rather painful and not recommended.

(Maybe they can stop back here in the summer?)

Other hosts have been very creative with their blog entries about the THINGS’ visit – writing in rhymes and singing in harmonies – I’m afraid all I can offer is a few photos of nothing special in the land of cows and chocolate.

"We’re here!"

"Geez. Looks cold out there."

"SH*T. It IS cold out here."

"Want to go for a hike?" "No thanks, not today."

So to escape Switzerland’s harshest winter in three decades (and as a warmer alternative to any outdoor sports activity), we went to the gym. The THINGS hid in my locker until they realized that it was ME that would be working out… that they were just along for the ride.

"Get out of there, you two."

On the rowing machine…

…the bouncy gym ball…

…and the crosstrainer.

We did venture out into the city one day, and made some more friends (animal and human) in the department store’s extensive Switzerland souvenir department.

"Moo."

… as the salespeople wondered what the hell they were doing climbing into the souvenir kiddie mugs.

To end their visit we made one last stop, at the world-famous Spruengli chocolate store. After all, what do Swiss people need all those cows for, anyway? Because they are the world’s largest per capita consumers of chocolate!

The THINGS knew this, but had to wait till their final day here to partake in the experience.

"Yum, look at all those chocolate cakes..."

"...and the pyramids of macaroons."

The THINGS got enough of the “food of the Gods” to last them till they arrive at the next stop on their world tour. (Trust me.) They are off to the UK next, where I’m hoping Spring has sprung and they get to spend more time outdoors. Watch for further installments of their Excellent Adventure on www.ironicmom.com.

Meantime… I have to get back to my new job.

Shoes definitely NOT made for walking.





Monday in the Swiss mountains

19 01 2012

I live in Switzerland, so that means the Alps are not far. In fact, if I walk up the street from where I live, I can even see them, every day. And that means, in winter, there is some serious skiing to be done.

First though, the photographic evidence, to prove that I actually went and returned, to tell the tale:

Monday afternoon. Lovely, isn't it?

Every time I see a photo like this, it makes me want to jump in the car and head for the hills. I admit, I don’t get out enough. And in the last few weeks, the northern side of the Alps has gotten more snow than it knows what to do with so it really is a crime not to take advantage.

The main deterrent is when I start thinking about all the stuff I have to take. First I have to find it all, and then I have to either put it on or take it with me in the car. Long underwear, turtleneck sweater, ski pants, ski jacket, ski gloves, goggles, a furry hat, my balaclava – for particularly frigid days. Then come the ski boots, poles and the actual skis themselves.

For the moment, I draw the line at a helmet. I know helmets are all the rage… safety arguments, setting a good example for kids, and all that… yadayadaya… Yes, okay, maybe someday I will go buy myself a ski helmet. But for now I will stick with my furry hat.

I love my hat. It's so much more fun than any helmet.

I also usually take along a hot tea for the drive out, and a snack of some sort and a sports bottle of flavored water as an ice-cold refreshment for the drive home.

The most important piece of skiing equipment, at least here in Switzerland, is a credit card and/or a wad of cash because one will, inevitably, be paying large sums of money for the privilege of waiting in a crowd for the gondola to the top of the mountain. (On a weekday! Don’t these people have to work?)

And it really is exhausting. I mean seriously… I consider myself pretty physically fit. After all, I have been skating marathons for 13 years. But when it comes to schlepping my ski stuff across an icy parking lot, cloding along in clunky ski boots, dressed for a day in the sub-freezing outdoors and feeling like the Michelin woman, all that junk is unbelievably cumbersome. I always forget how much work it is. And I hate sweating underneath all those layers, especially before I have actually done anything heroic at all.

The temperature was minus 12 degrees Celcius (10 degrees F) in the valley when I headed out last Monday morning. When I finally got to the top, at 2200 meters (7260 feet) above sea level it was, of course, wonderful. I snapped into my bindings and started swishing down the pistes like a pro. (Okay, no, not really…)

By venturing into the great outdoors, not only am I doing my body something good, I’m also reliving a lot of really great memories. Like last winter, going skiing in St. Moritz with my friend Pascale, before she died in a tragic hiking accident this past summer.

So sure I was glad I went – the life-affirming, glorious sunshine and the crisp clear air makes it all worthwhile in the end. But… ugh, the effort that it takes… every time.





Polo at its Argentine best

16 12 2011

Once every couple of years, I travel to South America to visit my relatives – my father’s family – and last week it was time to drop in on them again. My aunt died suddenly just before Christmas last year, and I don’t know how long my 71-year-old uncle is going to be around.  I just wanted to see them, spend time with them and enjoy their company. It helps that they live in a pretty cool place: Buenos Aires, Argentina.

It is summer in Buenos Aires this time of year; the days get longer and the temperatures climb into tropical regions. And the annual Argentine Open Polo competition gets underway.

For those of you unfamiliar with polo the sport (as opposed to Polo the brand), it is, in a word, elitist. You have to be super-rich to be a part of it, and fearless and athletic to play. Each team consists of four human members, and anywhere between 32 and 64 equine ones, called “ponies”. You may recall, the Princes Charles, William and Harry play polo.

It is hockey on horseback, if you will. Equine golf at full gallop.  Soccer at superspeed… with a mallet… from six feet off the ground.

Geronimo!!!!!!!

The Argentine Open is to international polo what the World Series is to international baseball. In essence, it is the world championship because there is no question whatsoever as to which nation dominates the sport. And within polo, only a handful of families control the business.

Polo enthusiasts from around the world flock to the national polo grounds in Palermo, in the center of Buenos Aires, from late November, to watch their idols make magic. This year was the 118th in which the tournament has taken place.

Attending an Argentine Open polo match has been on my bucket list for a long, long time. So as soon as my travel dates to BA were set, I contacted a friend here who got me tickets to this year’s final, where the best of the very best duke it out in eight chukkas. (Actually learning how to play polo remains close to the top of that said list.)

The finalists were the same teams that have ruled the tournament, the sport, and the industry since 2007: Ellerstina and La Dolfina – neither of which meant squat to me before I set foot on the holy Palermo pitch. (But ladies, each one of those eight boys on horseback makes George Clooney look like a serious has-been. Trust me.)

The ponies are something else altogether, and most have pedigree parentage across several generations who have already played in Palermo finals.

Polo fans are a strange set for your average major sporting event… civilized, white, beautiful people, many showing off a whole bunch of bling and botox. They are respectful and unbelievably concentrated during the action on the field. Polo is the only sport in the world, my ticket-acquiring friend said, where the players make more noise than the spectators. There were moments in the grandstands where you could hear a pin drop. On grass.

Ellerstina making a "Hail Mary" play.

I was spellbound, despite slowly melting in the 32 degree C (100 degree F) heat. It was one of the most fascinating sporting events I have ever witnessed and I was very aware of what a high honor it was to actually be there to watch the final LIVE. However, according to one expert’s post-match analysis, it was a messy game. The teams were nervous and made a bunch of stupid mistakes that led to too many penalties, he added. A number of goals ensued from these penalty situations – not a very crowd-friendly way to entertain 16,000 paying fans.

In the end La Dolfina whipped Ellerstina 16 to 10, and polo’s posterboy, Adolfo Cambiaso, Dolfina’s number one player and owner, added another diamond to his already very full crown as the true king of international polo.

See how fast I have become a polo expert?  Took me a whole eight chukkas in the cheap seats under the hot sun.

The final score of this year's Argentine Open Final.





Something this girl has just got to do

18 11 2011

There are some days when a girl’s just gotta do what a girl’s gotta do.

Like today, for example. Today, I just had to go fly.

Not because I had to get from point A to point B, and not because I had to quickly get some more flight time under my belt (or in my logbook) because my license or my rating expires next week. None of that. I just had to go fly, well, for the love of flying.

A little snippet of heaven.

The ocean of fog that envelops Zurich for most of every autumn lifted briefly this morning, and for the first time in what seems like a month, crystal-clear blue skies dominated from horizon to horizon. Wow! The sun! It’s still up there! Let’s go touch it, why don’t we?

I decided to trek up to the airfield for probably the last time this year, before the first winter storm puts the grass strip under 2 meters (6 feet) of snow.

HB-CFF is a trusty old bird who has accompanied me across this country and back already. She’s small and snug, has just two seats and is about the same age as I am, but handles like she just came off the Cessna production line. I wasn’t planning on going far, I just wanted to test my landing skills… I wanted to train, to practice, alone. To be aware of every rote task I perform in the cockpit as if I had never done it before – but with the self-assurance of a pilot who has done it a million times already. I would fly a few circuits around the airport and the region while enjoying the sunset and the Alps in the distance.

My ride had enough fuel and oil on board to take me over the mountains to Italy if I had wanted her to.

I took off to the north, and as I climbed into the open sky, I saw in the distance a fresh wall of fog, getting ready to roll back in my direction. The sun perched precariously on the peaks to the west, as color slowly bled out of the scenery below me. The blue hour was approaching fast.

The special thing about today’s flight was that there was absolutely nothing special about it – except for the spectacular view. It was routine, uneventful and safe. There was no weather or crosswind to speak of, just one or two others using the runway, and the visibility stretched clear across the central Swiss lowlands. It was simply magical.

Every time I fly I am reminded that there is no place I would rather be than in the cockpit, looking at the world from above.

After five gentle touch-and-gos, my confidence in my landings reinforced, I taxied back to the hangars and shut her down. It was quiet up at the field, already completely in shadow, with only the deep clanging of cow’s bells echoing across the valley. Six aircraft, finished with their duty for the day, were lined up in two neat rows.

Waiting for tomorrow’s adventures.