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.

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.

Crash, boom, bang

26 08 2010

Ah, the memories…. The sights and sounds and smells of a skate training run gone terribly wrong still hang around me like an old friend.

My skate crash exactly twelve months ago today that ended my season 2009 rather suddenly and violently was a freak accident. It could have happened to anyone, anywhere. Instead, it happened to me (wearing appropriate safety equipment, I hasten to add) at the bottom of a hill – when a cyclist and I took each other’s right-of-way as I was forced to swerve to avoid an oncoming car. The end result of it was three broken bones (all mine) – one of which was shattered enough to require two operations to fix. To add insult to injury, the cops nailed me with the blame and a fine of $500.

The chronology in a couple of words goes something like this: Happily skating. Crash (snap! snap! crunch-smush!). Pain. OH, F***ING PAIN!!!!! Ambulance, drugs, PAIN!!!!! More drugs, hospital, operation, titanium plate and screws, three days inpatient, two weeks on the sofa at home. Bored, bored, bored. B-O-R-E-D! Harumph.

Yep, that would be my left arm.

The best part of the whole experience was indeed the drugs they gave me while still in the ambulance. They were quite amazing – the world went fuzzy, and then suddenly colorful neon flowers lit up right in front of my eyes, where, rationally, I knew there weren’t supposed to be any. The drugs in the hospital were good too, but the halucinations were slightly less impressive.

(Just for the record, the worst part about the whole business was the sound of the electric screwdriver during surgery. Two surgeries, seven screws.)

At the time, without knowing any of the details, my mother sided with the cop. She chided me for being reckless, told me that it was all my fault and I deserved the consequences. (Thanks mom, I always knew you loved me.) She also tried to talk me out of skating ever again. To those who know me, a ludicrous thought. If you fall off a horse, aren’t you supposed to get right back on? Exactly.

As I do my training laps here this summer ahead of the Berlin Marathon in a month, my accident always gives me pause to think about how fragile the human body is, and how miraculously it heals. Still, while the physical damage has, for the most part, been repaired, the psychological after-effects remain. These days I do think differently when I skate, and my situational awareness is significantly higher than it was before. I don’t speed down hills anymore, confident that nothing will happen if I just keep my eyes open. My faith that other athletes (cyclists, joggers, dog-walkers, skaters) will behave predictably and sensibly as we speed past one another is also considerably lower than it was a year ago. In short, I’m now scared of all the stupid crap other people are capable of when their brains are stuck in neutral.


I now skate as defensively as humanly possible, but not so defensively as to risk being picked up by the sweeper-bus in my next race. And despite all the time I am spending on my eight wheels this summer, I’m not really sure where I stand physically or mentally, and I often wonder if I’m just wasting my time and risking my health. My only other event this year was a cold, rained-out half-marathon in March, where I clocked my slowest 21 kilometers e-v-e-r. The marathon in September is supposed to be my opportunity to pick up where I left off a year ago, a triumphant return for a fallen gladiator, rising from the ashes, charging to a personal best and set to leave her mark on the history of the sport.

I’ve now spent the whole summer skating and I’m tired. But this afternoon, after work, I will be out there again – padded, helmeted and wheeled – swooshing my way on one of my two favorite routes in Zurich – around the airport (17km), or a local lake (19km), I haven’t decided yet which. One thing is for sure: with every training circuit I complete, I’m a couple of kilometers closer to the finish line. See you there in a month.

The need for speed

22 07 2010

It’s about time I wrote something about one of my passions in life.

I am an avid and obsessed inline skater.

You may be more familiar with this sport under its colloquial name: “rollerblading”. It continues to be associated with the brand that first began to make and sell this particular kind of skate in the 1980’s. Today, Rollerblade is one of dozens of skate manufacturers but the misnomer has stuck. I have never skated Rollerblade. Today I skate K2.

I first put on a pair of inline skates in July 1993, near Vancouver’s spectacular Stanley Park. Everyone was doing it, it looked so easy, I figured I’d get the hang of it in a snap and be cruising on the Seawall in no time. Radiating naiveté, I took my first tentative steps in what felt like ski-boots on wheels. An amused crowd savored the free entertainment from the sidelines.

Evelynn skates, Vancouver, 1993

As in all endeavors in life, you only need to get up one more time than you fall down. And hell, I fell down a lot that afternoon. The crowd roared. And I kept getting up again.

Taking up skating was one of the best decisions of my life. I’ve discovered that it’s the closest you get to flying without ever leaving the ground;  a full-body aerobic workout without pounding pavement. And it’s a way to simply feel free. During the summer months, I try to knock off a cool 20 km or more every other day, weather-permitting.

About ten years ago I started to race and my competitive skating credentials now include everything from 10 km sprints to full marathons. I know I will probably never actually WIN anything, ever, but the thrill of the chase and the chance to push myself to my physical and psychological limits are what keep me coming back for more. It’s the speed that is particularly intoxicating.

My injury list is mostly harmless – scrapes, shredded skin, bruises and strained joints. Lesson number one was learned early: the street usually wins whatever fight you try to pick with it. There’s been the one or the other collapse due to exhaustion. And I’ve only had to be whisked away by ambulance once – with a season-ending triple compound fracture that required two surgeries, a titanium plate and seven screws to fix. (You should have seen the other guy… yeah, he was fine.)

This year, barring anything serious, I will hopefully peak on the final weekend in September at the Berlin Marathon – a European classic, and one of the five World Marathon Majors. In addition to the 40,000 ascetic sadomasochists who sign up to actually run the 42.195 kilometers through Germany’s capital, about 9,000 slightly more sane skaters also have the opportunity to compete. Our motivation? Fame, fortune, bananas and free beer at the finish line.

Evelynn's skate, Berlin, 2008

It will be my sixth full marathon in Berlin, a city that embraces athletes from wherever they hail and puts on a great show. I have simply not found a better-organized, cooler race, or more appreciative and enthusiastic spectators, anywhere.

As an over-40 amateur, I can only dream of reaching the finish in under an hour and a half.  The professional (female) athletes, 20 years younger than me, complete the circuit in about an hour and 15 minutes. My goal this year is a pretty respectable 1:45:00. In 2008 I came close, missing that mark by a mere 2 minutes. (Or, if you would rather have an even more heartbreaking statistic: 3.5 seconds per kilometer.) The days of a personal best (1:42:32) are probably over – I was still a spring chicken thirty-something the last time I set one of those. But, you know, impossible is nothing, right?

65 days to go. I’ll keep you posted.