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.





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.





Waiting for the sky to fall

23 08 2011

About two years ago a friend told me her husband was suffering from anxiety attacks. I had no idea why. He has a great personality, a fantastic super-dynamo of a wife, a beautiful home and two very cool kids. What on earth, I thought, is he anxious about? There was no logical reason… at least none that I could see.

Now I know what it feels like. And am hoping no one else notices the state I’m in.

It's like waiting for the sky to fall.

I had made an appointment to see my doctor 2 weeks ago, on the recommendation of a friend. She was concerned about my chronic insomnia and the way it was affecting my personality: I snapped at my colleagues without thinking, my boss’s phone calls sent me into a cold sweat, and my impatience with my own feelings was growing.

Sleep has never been my forte. If I wake in the middle of the night, my sleep cycle is over… it’s like I lose my way to unconsciousness, and I don’t know why. Only in the grey of morning do I sometimes find the key to slumber on my own, just minutes before my alarm clock screams at me to get going – another day has dawned, and I have to darn well make the best of it. And the moments between sleep and awake are tortuous. How will I get through it? I don’t know. I just can’t. But I must. I must get up now. No excuses.

My mother’s voice echoes in the recesses of my brain. No excuses. No excuses. Get up.

I went, thinking my doctor could maybe just prescribe me something to relax.

By asking me a few pointed, probing questions, he touched an exposed nerve that sent me into a physical panic. Suddenly, I saw no way out. It would never get better. I was hyperventilating and blocked. As if a dark wooden plank had been shoved in front of my forehead. I had no words, I saw nothing but black.

I. Cant. Take. It. Anymore.

I can’t do it. I can’t. I can’t.

He diagnosed an acute burnout, with depressive tendencies and the aforementioned anxiety attacks.

And I was like, “Huh? Me? Can’t be. I never get sick. Everything functions. It works. I make it work. And if it doesn’t then I’m a failure. I’ll make it work again. I can. I must.”

And he told me, “Stop. That. Right. Now.”

Pull the rip cord.

Grab the emergency brake.

Get some air.

Stop your world.

Now.

Once I stopped wailing, he asked me the usual questions about suicidal tendencies and thoughts of harming others. He gave me a sick note for two weeks and told me to do things that make me happy: meet friends for coffee, get out into nature, go skate, go fly. He himself is a private pilot and I hadn’t even known it. He said I must take advantage of the healing effects of escaping the burdens of earth for a little while. And gravity.

I don’t know why this is happening to me. I don’t understand the forces that have taken me here. But I accept that going into the cockpit might just help me find a way back.





On the Rocks at Gigathlon 2011

4 07 2011

We did it.

Our team of five crossed the finish line of Gigathlon 2011 in 705th place and after 26 hours and 1 minute of racing – safe, without injury, exhausted and overjoyed. Which is more than a lot of other participants can say.

For those of you unfamiliar with Gigathlon, go ahead and read my previous two blog entries, here and here so that the rest of this story makes sense to you.

The "race of death" begins.

I anticipated Saturday’s skate to be challenging, but not impossible. The night on the campground had been sleepless, frigid and uncomfortable, but 33 kilometers (21 miles) of mostly flat and slight downhill grades wasn’t rocket science. If nothing else, it would be a great morning training run.

We hit the road at 8am, and I wanted to try to get my day’s work done in less than 90 minutes. Long, straight speed passages took the pace up to about 60 km/h, much too high for some skaters. The result: mass roadkill. I sped by at least 7 bodies lying in various states of injury and disrepair left and right along the route. Later I heard that there was a huge pileup somewhere behind me and one participant even broke a leg. Ouch.

For me, the 33 kilometers flew by without incident (I will spare you the details of my close calls – tree roots peeking out of asphalt like mini-speed-bumps, train tracks popping up unannounced, hidden potholes, hairpin turns) in a solid 1 hour and 25 minutes. I thought that was pretty darn fast till I looked at the standings. But whatever. We weren’t here to set a world record, we just wanted to cross the finish line in one piece.

Bruised and bloodied (and taped and bandaged) but not broken, skaters braved a 4am wake-up call the next morning to really find out what they were made of. We were off again before sunrise, to attack a 6-kilometer flat stretch followed by a 14-kilometer climb up the side of a mountain. The vertical difference between start and finish was 750 meters – that’s about half the depth of Grand Canyon.

On skates. Poles optional.

Since I had never done anything this crazy before, I had no idea how long it would take me. I told my teammates to expect me in two to three hours. But I was in the business of just making it to the finish line before the sweeper bus, and trying not to worry about the competition or the clock.

My mantra crawling up that hill? “This is about the dumbest thing I have ever attempted. This is about the dumbest thing I have ever attempted. This is about the dumbest thing I have ever attempted. This is about the dumbest thing….”

And it worked. I arrived in 2 hours and 26 minutes. As far as I am concerned that’s closer to two hours than to three. Mission accomplished.

This is what sheer exhaustion looks like. And that gingerbread man in the background is mocking me.

36 hours later, endorphins are still playing tricks on my sanity. Despite the pain, I am enthralled. The event has a certain irresistible, fatal allure.

So when the last muscle stops aching, when the sleeping bag is washed and folded away, and when registration for Gigathlon 2012 begins, I’m not sure I will be able to take full responsibility for my actions.

In the meantime, I certainly will have one “on the rocks”. I think I earned it.

***********

Personal Note: Many, many thanks to the other four members of Gigathlon 2011 team “Isches nah wiiiiit?” –  Thierry (Team Captain and intrepid cyclist), Roman (our mountain-goat-like runner), Miriam (knock-‘em-dead swimmer) and Lauri (master of disaster mountain biker) – for taking me up into your ranks at such short notice. You are all unbelievable athletes and you accomplished the impossible last weekend. I’m so proud of you.





Counting down to the “Race of Death”

1 07 2011

The other day a friend emailed me and asked, “So when is this race of death you were blogging about?”

Ah yes, the race of death. Thank you, David, for that charming, succinct and perceptive description of my upcoming 4th of July weekend. Hoping you have something fun planned, too.

The weekend's five-star accommodations.

The gigathlon is less than 24 hours away, and I must admit, I can’t wait. Either I am committed or I am crazy, but there is no going back now. I still have not met three of my four teammates, and I have no idea what level of fitness I am at compared to the other 900 or so skaters that I’ll be competing against.

And of course, how I will feel when I hit The Wall on Sunday.

The Wall. A 20-kilometer crawl up a sheer cliff face, climbing 750 meters in altitude. On rollerblades. Ever tried that? Me neither.

Fortunately, the organizers have decided to allow skaters to use cross-country ski-poles for the Sunday skate. It will be a kind of Nordic skiing on asphalt as opposed to snow. So in addition to the natural hazards of skate-racing (which could include, for example, shaving a layer of skin off an elbow, shredding your shorts and breaking a few bones – been there, done all that!) there is the added thrill of having an eye taken out as well. What fun!

Poles: The end you want to hang on to...

... and the end you don't want to mess with.….and the end you don’t want to mess with.

In its rules and regulations, the organization committee recommends wearing glasses of some sort for safety reasons. (Whew, glad they thought of that, too!)

But of course the vast majority of participants will have never held such poles in their hands before Sunday, let alone used them to pull themselves up a mountain. So I am expecting everyone else to get in my way, and hoping, at the end of the day, that I won’t need stitches.

As for my own preparations – I skated with sticks for the first time in my life this past Monday, and thanks to instruction via YouTube I am now a pro. AND I even went out on Tuesday afternoon to practice, too! So we’re all set! Nothing stands between me and victory!