First Ride

27 08 2015

My friends who have known me since long before I started blogging know that my first passion (even before airplanes) was horses. When we lived in England and I was 9 years old, my father’s work colleague’s daughter introduced me to horses. By 13 I was riding in international junior tournaments, and placing among the top competitors.

Me and Carlos, December 1982

Carlos and me, December 1982.

I went to summer riding camp in 1984 and won all of the championship ribbons there. At my home barn I was one of the better juniors, and among the most ambitious on competition day. And of course I thought I would be doing this forever.

But the logistics of life have a way of intervening. I had to go to college at some point, learn something sensible and begin working on a career of some sort. Horse riding cost money, and the day would come when my generous parents turned off the faucet. Not to mention the time factor. So when I realized that I did not have the clout, wealth or connections to make it onto the professional circuit, riding slipped into the background.

As an adult I took on a horse-sharing arrangement, where I had one lesson per week and one free ride out on the trails. Then it was just one trail ride a week. And when the horse I was sharing moved away, it dropped to zero. My interests shifted to cheaper endeavors like flying airplanes and skating marathons.

So yesterday was a premiere of sorts… I probably haven’t sat in a saddle since about 2008, and haven’t had a real riding lesson since way way way before then. Maybe 15 years? The first thing I noticed about this sport was that everything is even more expensive than it was 15 years ago.

My mount was a huge beast called “Bear” – a gentle giant, with a massive, loping gait, and an easygoing personality. His life motto could be: “Sure, whatever.”

Everyone, meet Bear. Bear, meet everyone.

Everyone, meet Bear. Bear, meet everyone.

In the hour or so I was on board, I was reacquainted with muscle groups that I had not felt in years, and knee ligaments that began to ache even before the lesson was over. It was an assessment of sorts, so that I could get the feel of the saddle again and gain confidence in my instincts, and also so that the trainers could gauge what I know. I was told I have a “very European riding style”, and (bad) habits that I would need to work on if I want to raise my skill to the next level. It’s a lot harder work than it looks, trust me. By the end of the hour I was soaked from the effort, out of breath and dehydrated. Lesson learned: bring a bottle of water to the arena and take breaks when the trainer tells you to.

But in the couple of first hours I spent in their company, in the saddle and on the ground, I realized once again that horses are my people. I love the beauty of their movement, the warm velvet of their noses and their gentle, forgiving spirits. I love being in a working barn: the sawdust and the muck, mixed with the smell of saddle soap, fresh hay, and sweaty horse. I love getting my hands and my boots dirty.

Later in the day I started feeling like I had been hit by a truck. I considered taking a few Advil before bed but thought to myself… Nah… I’m tough, I can take this. I slept terribly.

My husband often likes to remind me that I am no longer 25. I often hate to admit that he is right. Nevertheless, I am getting back on a horse next Wednesday morning. The pain be damned.

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First Bike Tour

21 07 2015

So there are a bunch of exciting new firsts when you move to a new place, right? First night in your new home. First barbecue. First load of laundry. That kind of thing.

The other day I went on my first bike tour. My birthday present from my husband this year was a brand new bicycle, the first new bike I have owned in almost three decades. The last time I owned a new bike I was still in my teens and Ronald Reagan was still president (1988). It was a blue Bianchi mountain bike that, after 27 years, creaked and squeaked with every turn of the pedals and most of its parts had been replaced over the course of those three decades. It was a trusty old ride and it served me well, but it was also time for it to retire to a good home.

My new ride is a gorgeous, sleek, black and silver number, very chic. I feel very young and very cool while riding it. After taking it around our new neighborhood, I decided it was time to venture further afield and show it off.

Me & my brand new ride.

Me & my brand new ride.

I chose an early Sunday morning and the Iron Horse Trail for this baptism of my new iron donkey, figuring a 20 mile ride on a paved trail (with no cars) would give me a good idea if I could see myself still riding it 27 years from now.

The trail is really beautiful. It stretches 30 miles through the hills of the East Bay and follows the Southern Pacific Railroad right-of-way established in 1891 and abandoned in 1977. It’s flat and wide and full of folks just like me looking for a place to spend a few quality hours with their bicycles, dogs, spouses and/or kids. It is also, apparently, covered with invisible thorns, one of which found its way into my rear tire when I wasn’t looking.

When we bought the bicycle last month, the folks at the shop tried to sell me a membership to their “Flat Tire Club” – a $40 deal that would pay for all flat tires (materials and labor) for the life of the bicycle. My old Bianchi had had a total three flat tires – one per decade of my ownership. I declined the membership.

Silly me.

So suddenly on this gorgeous Sunday morning in the middle of nowhere, my nice new bike got sluggish, and I looked to see what the problem was. Most of the air had escaped already, and I was practically riding on the rim. I was already on my way back, but still about seven miles / 11 kilometers away from my starting point (and my car). I continued on, gingerly, standing in the pedals and shifting my weight to the front as much as I could. (What, was I supposed to walk back seven miles??) But after about 20 minutes of this the tire itself seemed to be coming apart. I had no choice but to get off and start walking.

Many passing cyclists took pity on me (“You’ve probably got a thorn! Happens all the time! It’s thorn season!”) but strangely none of them had a pump. About a mile from my car, a good Samaritan named Rob helped me out with a blast of gas into the tire so that at least I could ride the last little bit back. He told me to pay it forward and spread the good Karma.

I loaded my bike into my car, drove to the shop and joined the Flat Tire Club.





Running from time

19 02 2014

I recently started running again in earnest. By “earnest” I mean distances longer than a mile and a half, more often than once a week. Those who know me well know also that I just hate running. Putting one foot ahead of the other, pounding your joints on asphalt or concrete or whatever, moving forward at a snail’s pace. Who on earth can find fun in that? Seriously.

Last summer, I decided to try to make peace with the sport once and for all, and see if I could actually complete a running (as opposed to skating) race. I had to get this out of my system. After about four weeks of training, increasing my distances and endurance, I promptly broke my leg.

The initial pain was similar to a twisted ankle (ho-hum….been there, done that, like, a dozen times before), so I went home and iced it. The next day it wasn’t much better, so more ice. After a week of this, finding it difficult to walk any distance, I sought a professional opinion. My doctor said it was an “inflamed tendon”, sent me home with anti-inflammatory drugs and an ankle brace. 10 days later it was still excruciatingly painful. Finally, an MRI brought clarity: I had been walking around on a fractured shinbone for the good part of a month. On my 43rd birthday I got a sexy removable boot-cast (size M) and a heparin injection. My party bag was filled with 20 more pre-filled syringes, one a day for the following three weeks, and DIY instructions. Harumph.

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Happy Birthday!

It took a really long time to heal. Really long. It was summer, ideal running / skating / outdoor weather, and I was stuck in a boot-cast. (Of all the indignities!) Not only was it all terribly frustrating, it also put a big dent into my motivation repository. I guess it was the first time that my body told me I was no longer 25.

For surviving this with grace, I rewarded myself by buying a new pair of running shoes. And a few weekends ago (yes, in the middle of a New England winter) I decided to face down those pesky demons again and started on a light running regimen that should get me to about 10K by the time summer rolls around. I will not be running the Boston Marathon this April, but I will certainly go to watch, and to seek guidance and inspiration.

Anyone have any useful advice for me? Or perhaps a few choice words for the aforementioned demons? At 43, I need all the help I can get.

Yeah, that looks better.

Yeah, that looks better.





Cyberloafing

12 02 2014

This week I have been engaged in a particularly egregious bout of cyberloafing. The 2014 Olympics started last Friday, and they are taking place 9 time zones ahead of where I am currently sitting. That means unfortunately most of the competition happens while I am still asleep. And that means that the moment I get into the office I have to catch up on everything that happened overnight that I missed.

After selective trawling of internet-disseminated news from several sources in numerous languages, what follows is a true all-you-can-eat smorgasbord of livestream TV feeds direct from Sochi. Though perhaps somewhat complicated to navigate, the NBC Olympics website opens up a myriad of possibilities to keep one occupied and entertained well into the afternoon, Eastern Standard Time. I usually start off with biathlon, then maybe some luge, a bit of snowboarding, and of course the crowning highlights of the games from my perspective: speedskating.

speedskating_small

I tried speedskating once myself, because hey, I’m an inline skater, how hard can it be? Answer: A lot harder than it looks. Speedskating on ice is an entire nother ball of wax. First of all, the blade edges are perpendicular to the ice rather than rounded as we well know from hockey or figure skating, designed to glide without unnecessary friction. This allows for ludicrously easy sideways slipping, too. My first move in speedskates was the splits. (Virtually impossible with composite rubber wheels unless you go skating in the pouring rain.) Second, the blades attached to the boots are about as long as my thigh, making it terribly difficult to propel oneself forward without tripping on them and thereby drilling a hole into the surface as one brings ones foot forward to take the next step. Third, the ice (upon which one inevitably ends up sitting, usually sooner rather than later) is wet and terribly cold.

Ice vs. asphalt does have one advantage: when you submit to the law of gravity there is no shredded skin…. only freezer burn.

So anyway, when the Olympic competition ceases for the day, by about 2pm my time, the next major decision is figure out what I will have for lunch and then check out which tape replay to watch. But I  haven’t really gotten into the whole tape replay thing since I know most of the results already. So I decide to write a blog post instead.





Gigathlon 2012 by the numbers

2 07 2012

Our mountain-biker said it best, just after he crossed the finish line covered from head to toe in mud: “All you have to do is shut off your brain.”

Of course, he was talking about the biking leg of Gigathlon 2012, this past weekend’s athletic extravaganza in the Swiss midlands, and about how torrential downpours and impending darkness turned his route into a rather messy and slippery lottery.

Our mud-splattered mountain-biking hero after crossing the finish line.

(The second part of the sentence was: “Let go of the brakes, point the bike downhill and hope there is no tree in front of you.” Our swimmer responded: “That bit about the brain – that’s the crucial difference between men and women.”)

But what he said really was valid for all of us who made up the “Flying Five,” a rag-tag group of over-39 amateurs, tossed together by fate, self-discipline and the ambition to overcome physical and psychological limits. Our goal: to swim, cycle, skate, mountain-bike and run to the point of exhaustion, to complete the two-day endurance race 1) uninjured and 2) within the allotted time frame.

And we did both, crossing the finish line together at 11pm on Sunday evening, 40 1/2 hours after the starters’ gun went off. We had spent two days competing in extreme weather conditions – day one was hot and humid, day two blessed us with fog, rain and hail – and sleeping in a tent whipped by one of Switzerland’s most destructive overnight thunderstorms in years.

There were many times in the past couple of days when we all just shut off our brains.

Sunday morning, 730am: wet, wet, wet.

You read about my preparation for this year’s race a few weeks ago, and now I could give you a play-by-play like I did last year, with the highlights and low-lights, the dramatic moments of pain and agony and the equally dramatic moments of indescribable adrenaline-induced euphoria. Gigathlon 2012 had all that too, trust me. But this time I will just stick to the numbers; they also tell the story of our exceptionally active, life-affirming weekend.

First the team:

Hours, minutes and seconds the five of us were underway in competition:  30:27:37

Hours, minutes and seconds the winning team beat us by: 11:24:00

Rank at the end of day one (out of 1,000 “teams of five”): 756

Final rank after two days of competition: 723

Distance skated, swam, mountain-biked, run and cycled: 460km/287.5mi

Temperature on Saturday: 34 C/93.2 F

Thunderstorms experienced on Sunday: 3

Beers consumed on Saturday: 2

Beers consumed on Sunday: 8

Accidents: 0

And I know you people also want to hear about my personal statistics for the weekend, so here goes:

Distance skated: 92km/57.5mi

Hours slept on the campground (two nights): 6

Times I felt like quitting on Saturday: 4

Times I felt like quitting on Sunday: 0

Ball bearings trashed: 16

Accidents witnessed: 5

Pasta meals consumed: 3

Sports energy gel tubes consumed while skating: 3

Blisters: 4

Toenails lost: 1

Hours slept after getting home (one night): 11

**********************

Team Flying Five….. before…..

…. and after.

A HUGE, HUGE thank you to: Martina – our team captain and tough-as-nails cyclist, Raphaela – our running goddess, Beat – our meerkat-like mountain-biker, and Reto – our swimmer who rescued the team’s ranking on both days. You guys were a whole lot of fun to be around, even when the things got really, really tough. You were the reason I kept on going.

(Anyone up for Gigathlon 2013?)





The mighty race called Gigathlon

29 05 2012

Today in a month is the first day of Gigathlon 2012. For those of you who remember my heroic efforts at last year’s event, you will shake your heads and cry for me. For those of you who do not, here are the stories from before and after.

Gigathlon is a Swiss invention, and encompasses every hobby-athlete’s worst nightmare: five disciplines (swimming, running, mountain-biking, road cycling and inline skating), performed on two days (including two nights sleeping in a tent on a campground), in the midst of mountains. There are three categories: single (the serious nutsos), couple (similar nutso-potential, divided by two) and team of five (mostly sane, mostly rational individuals). I am a team-player and as you know, I skate.

Final equipment check before hitting the road

Gigathlon 2012 is, at first glance, a somewhat tamer version of last year’s event, where as a team, we climbed 2,500 more altitude-meters (8,000 feet) than Mount Everest is high. This summer’s event takes place in the Swiss midlands (as opposed to the Alps) and is, at least as far as the inline skater is concerned, seemingly civilized. It’s like they took last year’s two skate-legs and ironed them flat. But what the routes are lacking in altitude difference they make up in lateral distance. If I make it safe through the two days, I will have skated nearly 100 kilometers (60 miles) in less than 36 hours.

Take a moment to think about that because I don’t really want to.

My team this year comprises three women (road cyclist, runner and moi) and two men (mountain-biker and swimmer). We call ourselves the “Flying Five” and our bib number is 1984 (a very good year, for me at least). Our average age is, I’ll say, late-30ish. It just got bumped up a notch yesterday because I turned 42.

Last summer the skaters had the privilege of kicking off the event on both race days, giving me a wake-up call at 0-dark-30 two days in a row. While 4,000 other gigathletes were still snoring in their tents on the campground, visions of energy drinks dancing in their heads, we 1,000 or so skaters were busy tightening wheels by flashlight, strapping on protective equipment, lining up in front of the porta-potties and limbering up sore and aching muscles.

(Let’s just say I ain’t no great fan of camping.)

In this year’s race, “Urban Saturday” for me will begin at 4am. Again. Grrr. And off I go, for 52 kilometers (32.5 miles).

Yellow = skater, blue = swimmer, black = mountain-biker, red = road cyclist, green = runner.

At least I get to sleep in on Sunday, when I am the third of the five relay athletes in my team. I shall certainly be celebrating, on “Celebrating Sunday,” for another mere 40 more kilometers (25 miles).  Piece of cake.

Follow the yellow brick road…

The Flying Five aim to finish the race uninjured, and within the time limit (ie. daylight). I have taken Monday off from work, just in case we need a little longer than planned.





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…….