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





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.





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!





Zen and the art of Alpine racing

22 06 2011

Gigathlon.

The word kind of sounds like the Wrath of God, doesn’t it?

First let’s take the back part of it: “thlon”. “Duathlon” and “triathlon” are the other two common words with this suffix. Any other contexts you can think of? Nope, me neither.

Right, then let’s look at the beginning of the word: “giga” – reminds you of storage space on computers, SD-cards and USB-sticks, right?

OK. So whatever it is, it seems to have something to do with activity, and lots of it. And since this is Switzerland, that means it probably takes place in the mountains, and probably has a few thousand participants with an irrepressible urge to torture themselves. (Taking the software-storage analogy one step further: “Kilothlon” and “Megathlon” just sounded too wimpy, I guess.)

I first heard the word “Gigathlon” when I arrived in Switzerland a few years ago. The Swiss – Masters and Mistresses Of The Universe when it comes to physical activity – invented the Gigathlon as just one more fun thing to do outdoors during an action-packed summer. It is an ultra-endurance race that spans not one, not two, not three, not four but FIVE disciplines and is usually held on some (hopefully warm and dry) July weekend in the Alps.

Yep, count 'em. Five.

Altogether the distance to be covered in the 2011 edition of the race – on bicycle, mountain bike, inline skates, by foot and in the water – is 340 kilometers (213 miles), and the difference in altitude from start to finish is 11,111 meters (37,000 feet).

No, that is no typo.

There are three categories: Relay teams of five (each person responsible for one discipline), two (a man and a woman dividing the labor unequally) and one (contested by athletes whose sanity I must question).

A friend and I wanted to put together our own team of five – we had been discussing it since about this time last year. Despite weeks of querying, prompting, nagging and cajoling, we could not find three equally-motivated individuals to join us. She too lost interest and energy, and her last deed before heading off to the beach was to hook me up with a team needing a female skater.

And so lo and behold, in my seventh year here, I find myself as a registered Gigathlon participant. Our team name is: “Isches nah wiiiiit?!” Loosely translated from Swiss German that means: “How much fuuurrrrther?!

So in nine days I will travel to a valley in the southwestern corner of Switzerland with four strangers, sleep in a tent, and skate a total of 55 kilometers over the course of two days. Saturday’s skater route is a relatively civilized and flat 35 kilometers, Sunday calls for 20 kilometers up a sheer mountain face. The relay races on both days start at the crack of dawn (with skaters heading out first) and, if successful, I will have completed my share of the work by 8:30 a.m.

Gigathlon 2010: Skaters trailed by an ambulance.

And now that there is just over a week between me and this year’s race (subtitled: “On the Rocks”), that oh-so-obvious and sneakily familiar question pops into my consciousness like a blinking red traffic light: “What on earth was I thinking?”

Along with its bastard cousin: “Who the hell am I kidding?”