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…….

Advertisements




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.)





Thanksgiving on the wrong side of the pond

23 11 2011

It’s Thanksgiving week and I am, once again, for yet another Thanksgiving, stuck in Europe. I came here after finishing my Master’s degree expecting to be away from the U.S. for one or two Thanksgivings. I have been away for nineteen, and counting.

Here in Europe, there is no such thing as Thanksgiving, and I must say it is the one day of the year I am physically sick with longing and blind with homesickness. And my European friends, all lovely people for whom I am eternally thankful, just don’t understand.

Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday of all time because there are no expectations attached to it. There is no gift-giving and therefore no disappointment and no fake joy. The joy is (usually) real, and it’s all about just having a great meal together. Food that reminds me of where I come from and who I am. Food that reminds me of my good fortune in this life, so far. Comfort food.

When my father was still alive, he would come visit me at the end of the year. Every September we would have the same phone conversation – should he come at Thanksgiving? Or four weeks later, for Christmas? We always decided on Christmas because then he could hang around for New Year’s Eve too. And he loved being part of a traditional European Christmas over here… it reminded him of his childhood in Germany, a long time ago.

We would turn our Christmas dinner into an “end-of-year” dinner, so that we could celebrate all the holidays we had missed and the ones that were to come in the first part of the new year as well. The centerpiece of our culinary extravaganza was his Thanksgiving turkey. He had been the Master Of The Bird at home since as far back as I can remember, and was always eager to commandeer my mini-kitchen for a whole day, along with all of its tools and appliances.

I would pre-order the turkey from a local supermarket and he would directly import the stuffing and the cranberries in his suitcase.

The Bird, 2002 edition.

Since the amount of food on the table was usually far greater than the two of us could possibly consume in any useful period of time, and the standard European freezer is the size of a shoebox, I invited friends and colleagues over to partake in the gluttonous, succulent feast. Our rallying cry was always: “EAT MORE!” One year we had guests from six different countries, including Palestine, the U.K. and Germany, to name just a few. It was a real United Nations around the table in my little Berlin apartment.

Those were good times with my father, and old and new friends. Those evenings are past and long gone, now, but no one can take the memories away from us.

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone.  Be thankful, and eat well.





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.





Dresden, Germany, October 3rd, 2010

4 10 2010

We walk along the north shore of the Elbe River in the afternoon. It is overcast, the leaves are starting to turn and the cold wind signals autumn has arrived. A recent flood has left debris on the shoreline and the sounds of a street festival echo in the distance. We look south, beyond the swift but receding current, at the restored old sandstone city. Transformed from a scarred and neglected victim of war just a generation ago, it now glows in a brilliant new light, fresh colors and newborn hope.

21 years ago, my friend and her city tasted freedom for the first time. A cold war kid born on east side of the Iron Curtain, she and her family fought the totalitarian system as best they could for the place they were in. As practicing Christians and conscientious objectors, their feelings  toward the state alternated between ambivalence and downright antagonism, which caused moments of anguish and years of struggle. But as she says today, it was the only right thing to do. And so they did it.

The secret police apparatus that had permeated every corner of East German society dictated the course of their lives. Her father was recruited but refused to serve. Her mother’s letters to relatives in the West were intercepted. For political reasons, she and her sister were denied educations and careers they had dreamed of. They lived with a feeble hope that better days might come but also with a constant fear that their actions or their words or their neighbors would secretly betray them. She credits her family with giving her the backbone to stand up to injustice and her faith has made her an open, forgiving human being, without bitterness.

The whimpering demise of the regime in the autumn of 1989 and the birth of a united Germany eleven months later signaled to her that her opportunity had come, and that she was morally bound to seize it. After unification, she returned to her interrupted education, finished the qualification that would allow her to study, and went to university. For the very first time in her life, at 20, she could choose her own path and determine her own future. In this fresh new world, no party official had the power to tell her she was not allowed to.

Our friendship formed during that exhilarating, reckless time of fundamental change in East and West, and has lasted across the oceans and canyons of time.

In the almost seventeen years I have been coming here to visit her, buildings have been repaired, windows replaced, roofs newly shingled. Along the train tracks, pastel-colored villages now stand where that ubiquitous dismal brown-grey color of decay, so prevalent across the eastern Europe of our childhoods, used to be. The penetrating, acrid smell of burning lignite has disappeared.  Belching brick chimneys have made way for wind farms – their huge, slender blades now cut through the clean air in perfect synchrony.

For the most part, the wounds inflicted before and after the Berlin Wall fell have healed. But resentment and envy sometimes still cast dark shadows on the modern era.

Without slipping into trivial nostalgia, we agree as we walk along the river this chilly October afternoon that what happened twenty years ago is a miracle beyond words. We quietly celebrate that miracle today, together, on the twentieth anniversary of unification.

The local weekend newspaper’s front-page headline declares simply, “Congratulations Germany”.

Indeed.