Helsinki: My Victory Marathon

The idea of running in Helsinki came up during dinner with a group of running friends on December 31, 2015. We were about to ring in the New Year with a half-marathon that would start at midnight near Zurich, something that probably only running enthusiasts would define as a great start to the year. We were also accompanying our friend, Will, who was setting out on a journey of 52 half-marathons in 52 weeks that night. He pulled out his itinerary and we were considering where we might meet him next. When a 17k run in Helsinki was mentioned, many in the group responded with enthusiasm.

That weekend, we also met a woman from England, who told us about the “Marathon Globetrotters” club. Anyone who has run 5 marathons in 5 different countries would be eligible for provisional membership. I realized that if I ran the Helsinki marathon, which would take place the same day as the 17k race, I would be eligible. And finally, the timing worked out for my life and training, so I committed.

Training went well and as I mentioned in this post, I was beating my personal best times in shorter races during the months preceding the race. My goal was to finish as close to 4:30 as possible this time, perhaps even break it. Yet to build my confidence that this would be possible, I wanted to run a half marathon in under 2:10 and a 10k in under 58:00. In all my years of running, I had never obtained such times, so I knew it would need to step it up a bit. I ran 8 races between March and July and not all of them were successful, but finally on June 19, I ran a hilly half-marathon in 2:06 and on July 3, a 10k in 55:33. My performance in Helsinki would depend on the weather and other factors, but after these experiences, I was confident that it would be possible to break 4:30 as long as I could remain mentally tough over 42.195 kilometers.

Traveling to Helsinki the day before the race was a bit stressful, but since I took the time to pick up my bib on Friday night, I could take it easy on Saturday while waiting to start at 3pm. It rained all morning and from my window, I saw wind ripping through the trees. I have to run in THAT? I knew the route would already be challenging because it was hilly, but with the addition of bad weather, I recognized that I might have to revise my goal and strategy. But not yet, I told myself.

I arrived at the venue, bought a rain poncho and within a few minutes ran into Will. Seeing him gave me a major boost and it was great to pass the last hour of waiting in good company. He would run 17k, continue another 4.1k to complete his weekly half marathon, and then try to join me for a bit when I passed 25k, where I would be starting my second loop.

I was in good spirits and feeling positive at the start. My goal was to complete the first half in 2:10 and then try to not slow down too much during the second half. If I could manage this pace for the first half, I would be quite confident that I could finish the second in under 4:30. Yet, I would also have to adapt to how I was feeling and I didn’t know how the route and weather would affect me. It was raining and still windy when the race started. Yet I felt really good and at the 5k mark, I realized that my pace was spot on. The hills were friendly and I overtook them with ease, but I was less enthusiastic about the wind, which challenged my stride. At 10k, I was still on pace and feeling good. Really good. It was raining harder but I didn’t care.

Pushing forward for the halfway mark, I was still taking it easy, but not too easy. I noticed that there was water everywhere (see the map below) and we crossed over a lot of bridges, which meant more up and down movement. The rain was letting up by this time but I was worried about some knee pain that I had been experiencing in the past months. I started to feel it before 15k, but then it passed after a few more kilometers. My pace remained steady and my half-marathon split was precisely 2:10. I was thrilled!

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And yet I knew that the first half was the easy part. At that point I had to NOT think about the fact that I was only halfway done, but rather stay present in the moment, take one kilometer at a time, and try to keep up my pace. I needed to make it to 25k, where hopefully Will would join me for a bit. My pace remained quite steady and soon I saw the 25k marker approaching. Yet looking to my right and to my left, Will was nowhere in sight. I checked my watch and realized that since I was trying to not be overly optimistic when predicting my time at the start, Will wouldn’t have been expecting me yet. Later I would realize that he had missed me by only a few minutes.

The next few kilometers were a low point for me. The hills confronted me again, and the wind slapped me as I passed by the various bodies of water. I tried to remain fully in the moment, paying attention to my breathing and trying to not be influenced by the muscle pain, which was ever increasing. One kilometer at a time. I knew I was slowing, which was part of the plan, but I was still on target for a sub 4:30 finish. Yet the hardest part was still to come.

It was at around 30k that I started to face the biggest mental challenge. I had been preparing for it and thus remained positive. Just after 33k, the hills that I took on with ease the first time around were back to challenge me on a deeper level. I tried to tackle them with good technique, maintaining my form and not allowing them to overly exert me. The last kilometers were not easy, but the anticipation of finishing in my goal time was driving me forward. Still, one kilometer at a time and I was already calculating my anticipated finish time as I passed each one.

After passing the 40k mark, I wanted to crash through to the end. 41k came soon enough and I knew I would finish around 4:25 if I could manage not to break, even though I was feeling really tired by this time. Could I even accelerate at this point? Then, unexpectedly, I saw Will to my left, but he was focused on his phone. I yelled and waved as I passed and within seconds, he was at my side and then taking a video, which I didn’t completely appreciate in the moment. “See you at the finish!” he said, as I turned to enter the stadium. The last meters were long but finally, I was approaching the arrival. I looked at my watch just before arriving and saw “4:24” but then it changed to “4:25” as I crossed the finish line. My official net time was 4:25:03.

A few minutes later, I saw Will again and after collecting our bags, we “went live” on Facebook to report my arrival to my imaginary fans who were cheering me on from a distance. (In reality, I know that only my dad was actually tracking me live, but hey, that’s still enough to keep me going!)

The race was great and I definitely felt stronger, especially since my finish time represented a 27-minute improvement on my last marathon, which, by the way, was completely flat and in perfect weather. This was the first time that I was able to maintain my goal pace over the course of a full marathon. However, the best part was how I felt afterward. My head was clear, my vision sharp and I had no pain above my shoulders. Compared to previous experiences, it felt like ecstasy! (Or at least my personal definition of ecstasy since I have no real experience.) The feeling continued for the next couple of days. I didn’t care how much my legs hurt, how difficult stairs were or how tired I felt. I simply couldn’t stop smiling because my head felt so good. Over the next two days, I walked another 30k in Helsinki and Tallinn and had energy left to spare. It was a big difference from the last time when I was confined to bed for a day, vomited all night, and felt foggy-minded for weeks.

I reported back to Dr. Stanton and she responded, “Full steam ahead with your life please!” Those words almost brought tears. “Full steam ahead” never felt possible before, especially not after completing a marathon. But now it does, not only in terms of running marathons but also in other areas of life. Frankfurt broke me, but Helsinki proved to be a victory! Hopefully, Hamburg will be next in April 2017. Stay tuned!

Oh, and now I am a Marathon globetrotter!! 😉

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Latvia – Country #40!

Last weekend, I traveled to Riga, Latvia for a conference. Of course, I was happy to reunite with many friends who were also in attendance and meet new people, but I was also a bit ecstatic to visit my 40th country.

It was cold (-15 C or 5 F) and for most of the time, I was comfortably indoors for meetings (ok and I found an indoor gym, there was no way I was going to brave running in that weather). When I did go out, it was usually late in the evening and not an ideal time to see the sights.

The best moments can’t really be shared on this blog, so instead I simply give you a few pictures of the snowy and cold city of Riga:

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Some friends and I had a great evening here one night. A fun place to dine if you find yourself in Riga!

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We lasted only a few minutes in this park as we were so cold, but it was beautiful!

 

We Celebrate the Light

Twenty hours after arriving in Iceland, I was starting to feel enclosed by the darkness and anxious for dawn to finally arrive. I had seen the sunset from the airplane mid-afternoon, but by 10:30am the next day, the night felt far too long. Even when the sun came up, it was a dim light, hushed by the cloudy sky.

That night my friend Johanna and I joined a French couple that we had just met and together we drove out to a lighthouse, sat in the car and looked into the dark, hoping to spot some Northern Lights. We were again surrounded by darkness and not even sure for what we were looking. Would they appear like a shooting star, there and then gone again in the blink of an eye? Would they come in slowly or as a flash of lightning? All we knew was that we were looking for some impressive light display, in whatever form it might appear. We were not successful, so eventually we gave up and drove home.

The next morning, Dec. 26, I again found myself staring into the darkness, even though I had been up for hours. I was on a bus to the Southshore of Iceland and was listening to many interesting stories and anecdotes from our tour guide. Then we passed a small church and cemetery. Each tombstone was lit up with Christmas lights, usually outlining a cross. The tour guide explained that in December, the darkest month of the year, it is a tradition to light up the cemeteries like this. She went on, “Perhaps it appears that we go a bit crazy with the Christmas lights here, but in the midst of so much darkness, at Christmastime, we celebrate the light.”

We celebrate the light. Those words stuck with me for the rest of the journey. My thoughts immediately went back to Paris, which has been stained by dark acts of violence and death in 2015. I will never forget in the days following the attacks, the scenes of hundreds of candles scattered throughout the city of lights helping to illuminate those dark places.

And then I thought again of Christmas, which Icelanders celebrate for two full weeks until Epiphany on January 6. And how Jesus, the person traditionally at the center of this celebration, claimed to be “the light of the world.” Celebrating Christmas is to celebrate this light, even though the destiny for baby Jesus would include a night of such profound darkness that even his closest disciples would flee the scene. The light that followed at his resurrection is a light eternal, a light that Christians celebrate every day of the year.

Yet it is interesting that it takes darkness to recognize the light. Or rather that darkness is the absence of light and that light casts out all darkness. So it makes sense that the darker the darkness, the brighter the light shines, the more it is appreciated, and the more we are even at times desperate for it. In so many ways, 2015 was for me a year of darkness and light, so spending the last few days in Iceland during their celebration of light was ever so fitting.

When Jesus spoke again to the people, he said, “I am the light of the world, whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.” (John 8:12)

A Privilege I cannot escape

When I arrived in Madagascar this summer, I knew I had much to learn. Months earlier, some of my African-French church friends asked if I had ever been to black Africa before and I realized I had not. Although I have been in countries where my whiteness stands out, this would be a first for me. They smiled as if to say, “We know what’s coming your way.”

On the long road trip from Madagascar’s capital to Anstirabe, our taxi-bus was frequently stopped by the police. At first we didn’t pay too much attention to this, but after awhile our Madagascan friends explained to us what was happening. Apparently dozens of policemen line this route every day and illegally tax the drivers of the taxi-buses. “The money goes in their pockets,” our friends explained. If the drivers refuse to pay, the police will take away their driver’s license and thus leave them without a job. In order to bring home any money at all, the drivers are forced to pack passengers into their vehicles like sardines. It’s a terrible corruption, they explained.

However, they aren’t taxing us today. They wouldn’t dare.

“Really? Why not?” I ask.

“It’s thanks to you!” they exclaim. “They see that you’re white, think you might know important people in the government, and wouldn’t take the risk that you might tell on them!”

Wow.

At first I was thankful that we were spared this injustice. We were there to serve alongside our Madagascan friends, and it had already cost a lot of money just to get there. And, so many times I’ve been treated as a “rich Westerner” abroad simply because I’m white. People have tried all sorts of tactics to overcharge my traveling companions and me. So for once the tables were turned. Not bad, right?

At the end of our stay, we returned via the same route. This time we were aware of what was going on with the police and since I was sitting directly behind the driver, the police would often ask me a few questions once they noticed me, “How are you? Where are you from? Where are you going? How do you find Madagascar?” Sometimes I would even poke my head out to make sure they saw me and didn’t demand any money. And then they would send us on our way. The van, this time filled with an equal number of Madagascans and Europeans, always erupted in laughter each time we “escaped.”

Our Madagascan friends kept saying, “Lucky for us that you’re here!” Yet I left this experience feeling uneasy. The message I walked away with was, yay, I’m white so I don’t have to pay. In this case my white privilege was crystal clear. So clear that our friends of color were also more or less saying, yay, you’re white so we don’t have to pay!

It’s really not funny, even though we laughed that day. All throughout our time in Madagascar, there were feelings of privilege that I couldn’t shake, related both to my color and to my citizenship. I arrived in Madagascar and suddenly I was rich. “Wow, that only costs one euro!” And yet for many locals one euro is a full day’s wage. I go there and spend my pennies and feel like I’m saving a lot because it’s so much cheaper than in my country, while the people around me are struggling to find enough to eat.

There was a feeling of compassion, wishing their lives were better but not really knowing how much I could do. And also a feeling of difference, knowing that even though I have lived through unstable or “poor” times by the standards of my own country, I have always been rich by their standards. And because of my privilege, I feel like I can never understand, truly, these people whom I go to serve and love. It is a privilege that I cannot escape.

And so this experience shined brightly upon my white privilege. Yet for most white people, especially when we are the majority race, it must be rare for it to be so obvious. How many times could my white friends, family members and I have unknowingly walked away from a situation and said:

Yay I’m white so I got taken seriously.
Yay I’m white so I only got a warning.
Yay I’m white so I got the job.
Yay I’m white so I was trusted.
Yay I’m white so in this way I meet media’s definition of what is beautiful.
Yay I’m white so when I succeeded it wasn’t credited to my race.
Yay I’m white so they believed me.
Yay I’m white so I was able to rent the place I wanted.
Yay I’m white so I don’t know what it’s like to be mistreated because of my skin color.
Yay I’m white so the authorities weren’t suspicious of me.
Yay I’m white so I wasn’t harassed.
Yay I’m white so I don’t have to constantly think about how my actions affect the reputation of my entire race.
Yay I’m white so I was recognized as a human being.
Yay I’m white so the police didn’t even look twice.
Yay I’m white so I am still alive.

I know that the recent events in the States have stirred up a lot of emotions among my black and white friends alike. I have seen the posts and comments on facebook and I don’t ignore them. I have seen some very strong and even judgmental opinions from white people about the black community in the wake of recent events. Sure, we can come up with all kinds of arguments to prove whatever point we wish to make.

Yet until we recognize our white privilege, whether we can measure it or not, we cannot begin to understand what it means not to have it.

It’s easy to miss the injustices, especially when we aren’t looking for them. It’s easy to not think about racism when we’re not personally confronting it every day. It’s easy to even think that minorities are becoming more privileged in America when diversity is celebrated. But as my friends of color share their experiences, I recognize that things are still not right in my country.

If we white Americans were to lose our privilege and experience what that would mean for us, our families, our ancestors and our offspring, I think we would become angry about the injustices, too. I am not a proponent of violence nor do I think it should be justified. But neither should we mistreat our fellow human beings through our actions, our words, our attitudes, our lack of understanding, our ignorance or our pride. Especially if we claim to be living the Gospel, we will desire to move towards freedom and justice, for all people. The stain of slavery upon our recent American history should grieve us and racial reconciliation should be close to our hearts.

I confess that I have harbored subtle racist attitudes and opinions in the past that I now regret. I know that my upbringing in mostly white communities has left me with baggage that includes false stereotypes, fear, assumptions, misunderstandings and ignorance concerning racial issues and those who are different from me. Yet now I recognize my white privilege and the injustices placed upon those who don’t have it. I don’t know how much I can understand what this really means for people of color, especially in America, but I do know that I still have a lot to learn. And I want to learn. As I listen to the stories of my brothers and sisters, I pray that God will continue to change my heart so that I will learn to love others more humbly, authentically and empathetically.

If I cannot escape the privilege, then at least I will own it.

Born to privilege

I have been born to privilege. In my many adventures around the world, I recognize that being a white American has its value.

I have also been born to a place of secondary value. In the subculture that I grew up in, women were considered to be second-class citizens. They existed to serve men and to remain under male dominion.

In a recent post I wrote about the women I encountered in India. I wanted so badly to communicate to them their beauty and value. I don’t know if I succeeded at all, but this experience also reflected upon my own personal journey.

Unlike me, they were born with what they understand to be a less desirable skin color. Like me, they were born as what many consider to be the less desirable sex.

Who told me that women are lesser in value than men? I can recall a few of the male voices that spoke this message in clear words, although it was more often communicated in subtle ways. The message was powerful… and hurtful.

Those voices told me that my relationship with God must be channeled through the authority of a man. That I belong to one man until he gives me to another. That if men use and abuse me, it is my fault. That women are less qualified to serve God simply because of their sex. That women cannot be trusted. That women are easily deceived and that chaos erupts when women are in leadership.

These voices were powerful, and they defined me from a very young age.

Thankfully, they were not the only voices I heard. I have a clearer recollection of the men who spoke differently into my life, and those voices were also powerful.

The voices that told me that I am a daughter of the King and that no man has the right to mistreat me. That the Lord alone is my Master and that I bow only to him. That God has created woman in his image. That women can also make an intelligent contribution to the world. That women can also be trusted and respected.

While I was in India, I distinctly recalled those first voices, coming from men born into privilege, who were all too ready to highlight their privilege while emphasizing my lack of privilege. I don’t understand. It would be like me going to these girls and saying or behaving as to say, “Well, we can’t change how we are made. I am superior, yes, but that’s just the way it is, and the best thing you can do is to serve me well so that I can thrive.” Was this not the attitude that reigned throughout the horrific history of slavery in my own country?

And yet I know that I, too, have acted and spoken in ways that have hurt others, even though I didn’t see it at the time. I see it now. And for this I am so deeply sorry.

So I understand and yet I don’t. I get what it’s like to be devalued in some ways due to the body I was born into. And yet there are others who deal with this on a daily basis in a way that I can never fully understand, simply because I have never lived even a day in their shoes. I just hope and pray that I will always be willing to listen and to grow, and that I will be an agent of change as I am also changed.

Is Beauty Color-coded?

In March I went on an “Artist Trek to India,” with a team of musicians, writers, visual artists, photographers and a dancer. We visited a high school one day and each of us was immediately surrounded by dozens of students. They asked us questions, wanted to feel our skin and hair, and requested that we take pictures of them.

One of these girls grabbed my hand and said, “beautiful” as she stroked it. I took her hand and said, “YOU are beautiful!” She responded, “No. Black!” And she frowned. My heart sank but I looked at her again in the eyes and said, “You are so beautiful. It’s true!”

Another day, in the city of Vijayawada, a couple of girls came running up to me and another team member. “Photo please!” They asked while giggling and posing next to us as their friends stole some photos with their phones.

Um, hello?

But they didn’t care to get our names, they only wanted our pictures. And then they were off as quickly as they had come, not giving us a chance to ask for their names, either.

My team and I attended a relief meeting for Indian people suffering from AIDS. We packed bags of food for them and then introduced ourselves during a short service of singing, a message and prayer. The majority of those in attendance were women, who had most likely contracted this disease from their husbands. The men don’t come because they are too embarrassed. The women come because they are in desperate need of help for themselves and their families.

I finished my introduction by saying, “You are beautiful.” My words fell upon blank faces, but as soon as the translation was pronounced, their reaction was anything but neutral. Some snickered, others shook their heads.

The younger girls received my words with less disdain and rejection. When I grabbed their hand or touched their face or pulled them in for a hug and said, “YOU are beautiful,” it came from the very depths of my being, a message shared in complete sincerity. I wished I could gather all of the women, teenagers and young girls into a big group hug and describe to them more of what I see.

Because truly, these women are stunning!

I returned to Paris and saw the color of humanity like I had never seen it before. Caucasian people seemed especially pale. Oh, right. I’m Caucasian, too. Suddenly for me, human colors were more defined but not in a categorical “white” and “black” way. I find the variety of human color to be beautiful and something that ought to be celebrated.

I wish we could do away with the stereotypes that our world places upon people. Of course, I have also been personally influenced by the way media dictates what makes a woman beautiful. When an ideal is out of my reach, it can be hurtful. And I hate that feeling of not measuring up. But to recognize that I was born to privilege simply because of my skin color makes me uncomfortable. I see it more clearly now than before, and it bothers me deeply. I don’t really know what to do about it. I just know that it is there.

Thanksgiving Marathon – Florence 2014 (Part 2)

The half-marathon mark was quickly approaching. Only half-way? You have got to be kidding me. I wasn’t in pain yet physically, just tired and not caring. I searched inside of me for something profound to drive me on. Nothing came. I’m in trouble, I thought.

So, since I couldn’t pull it together, I reached for some outside inspiration. I remembered the words of the man from Portland. I recalled what my doctor had told me. I thought of what friends have been telling me all my life. Basically, if you don’t slow down and start enjoying life, you’re just going to drive yourself to the ground.

That’s right, and sometimes we do go through life running even when we would rather be walking. We can get so focused on the goal that we miss everything we pass along the way. Oh, another thing my doctor said? That I needed a week-long vacation, away from the pressures of life and work. I haven’t taken more than a weekend away this year. Still, it seems impossible. I don’t have time! Truly, there are things we learn about ourselves during a marathon that we don’t learn anywhere else. There are things that confront us during those hours that we cannot escape.

So this was all starting to feel quite negative, and I still had half a marathon to finish! At this point, my pace was still on track for the time I wanted, but the thought of keeping it up seemed impossible. The initial excitement seemed to have died down a bit around me as well. I was passing people who were already walking. I found my earphones and put them in. The music gave me a little boost. I thought, what the heck, I’m just going to enjoy this marathon like everyone seems to say I should.

I didn’t care about time anymore, I decided to just to glide through to 30k. I wasn’t going to use any more mental energy to calculate my pace and my predicted pace. I even started to walk through the refreshment stations and enjoy a cup of hot sweet tea instead of simply spilling it all over myself. I was still mentally a bit checked-out, and occasionally I had extreme thoughts like, “I have six hours to finish this thing, I wonder if I would still make it in time even if I walked the rest of the way?”

After 30k, I started taking short walking breaks (1-2 minutes) every 10 minutes. Whatever, I didn’t care. Then, something crazy happened. I realized I was at 33k already and I looked at my watch again. It seemed that even with a conservative pace from there on out, I might still be able to finish a few minutes faster than I had in May. This gave me a slight bit of motivation, and although I continued to take walking breaks, I was more motivated to keep a good pace for 8-9 minutes at a time.

Finally, I reached 39k and mustered the strength for a little pep talk that consisted of one word, “BURN!!!!” So I did, I started running again and didn’t stop until I reached the finish line. I passed so many people who were walking during these last kilometers, including the four men in purple shirts, who were clearly struggling by this point. I was glad I still had something left to give, even though perhaps earlier I hadn’t given all I could. Then I started counting down the minutes to myself, knowing when I had only 14 minutes left, ten, five, two… From kilometer 40, I knew when I would finish, and I came in right on the money. WAAM! Five minutes faster than in May! How did that happen??

And then it wasn’t pretty. My head was not happy. I started walking again and realized I had a debilitating pain in my right hip, so instead of walking I was limping. I very nearly burst into tears, but then again, I didn’t care enough, even to cry. I mostly just felt awful. I wanted to get back to my room. I had to get there. The sooner, the better.

My French friends finished before me, but waited in the arrival area for me to show up. I was so touched by this gesture! We were all happy to be done, and we all felt completely spent. We parted ways and I had to find the bag that I had checked earlier. I asked someone and he pointed to some tents that I could barely see. “500 meters,” he said. “No!!! I mean… thanks.” And I limped over there, stopped to take a couple of pictures and then collected my bag.

The next mission was to find a taxi. I didn’t care how frivolous it was at this point, I knew I needed to get back as soon as possible. And by now my hotel was another 2.5 kilometers away. I spent about 10 minutes trying to communicate with Italian volunteers about how to get a taxi. Apparently, it was all very complicated because so many roads were still blocked off for the race. I was getting nowhere. Walking to an accessible taxi station would have meant walking too far for comfort in the other direction. The streets were also packed with people, so I wasn’t sure how a taxi would get through. My head started to swim. I stopped and leaned against a post. Then I heard someone next to me saying, “tutto bene?” I nodded my head, I shook my head, and then I signaled that I was dizzy. Finally, someone said my best bet was to just walk to my hotel. But I caaaan’t!!!!

Still, I did. I limped all the way back. And yes, it took forever. I was hungry. I was tired. I was hurting. I was also nauseated. I arrived next door to my hotel and knew that once I went up I might not be down again for a while. I needed some kind of fuel, so I stepped into a gelato store for their “Thanksgiving” special (pumpkin-flavored gelato), one of the few things that was at all appealing in that moment. They served me, congratulated me on the race, and then I sat down for a few minutes. I enjoyed a little bit of the gelato, but then I started seeing zigzagged lights, and knew I had to get to my room subito. I took the migraine medication that I had with me, threw out the rest of the gelato and hurried on to my hotel. But the time I reached my room, I couldn’t see clearly anymore. I was conscious enough to change into dry clothes but the next few hours were a blur. To be honest, it was also a little scary.

So, this one didn’t end so well. Maybe I’m not made for marathons? Maybe not, who knows. But I can’t imagine that I will stop here, especially since I’m already registered for the Paris Marathon in April. If I’m going to quit, I simply have to quit on a better note than this.

Post-race, is it possible to still be thankful? Yes, I believe so, if I choose to be. I’m thankful I made it to the start. I’m thankful for my French friends, for my running group in Paris, for the spectators, the volunteers. I’m thankful for the journey. This difficult experience reminded me of more difficult things that I have suffered in the past. I’m thankful to have finished, to have made it back to my hotel safely. I’m thankful for the reminder of the fragility of life. I later learned that a 38-year-old man had collapsed and died one kilometer before the finish line. When a fellow runner dies in a race like this, it affects all the rest of us, too. We can’t help but think, “that could have been me.” I hurt for his family. And I am thankful for life.

Still, I do need to cool it now for a while. And as a friend corrected me, “you must not just try to rest, you must actually rest!”

Well, at this point, I’m so shot that by default I have no other choice!

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Thanksgiving Marathon – Florence 2014 (Part 1)

My choice of the Florence marathon was inspired in part by someone I met after my last marathon in May. Having traveled to Europe all the way from Portland, he remarked that I could access so many amazing marathons relatively inexpensively from Paris. He had already run 42 marathons, but emphasized experience over time as his main goal. He said, “I figure that if I just keep going I’ll eventually get faster and stronger. I just don’t want to push myself so hard that I stop enjoying it.”

I thought about that. A lot. And I figured, if I can do two marathons, I can certainly do three. And why not hop over to another country for the experience?

So, this was the first time I traveled internationally for a race and also the first time to race in a country where I didn’t speak the language.

I had never been to Florence, but I already knew that I love Italy. And what better place to carb-load for a marathon? Furthermore, the marathon fell over Thanksgiving weekend, so I was happy for the distraction from the fact that I was far from my family and their traditional celebrations. I made the arrangements five months in advance, which meant I got a great deal on travel, registration and accommodation.

However, it’s been a hard year for me physically and that put a damper on my excitement for this race. Once again, my body shut down a few weeks before D-day. I went to see my doctor and at the first meeting, he said it might not be a good idea for me to run this time. In fact, he didn’t want to renew my medical certificate (required for European races). That was only ten days out and I wasn’t feeling well, so I figured if I didn’t run in the end it wouldn’t be so great a loss. I didn’t feel up to it anyway.

He ran some blood tests and a week later gave me the clearance to go ahead but not without a word of caution: “Just take it easy, whatever you do, don’t go out there and give it your hardest effort. Enjoy yourself. Enjoy Florence.” But when is it ever possible to “take it easy” during a marathon?

I walked away thinking, so I’m really doing this thing? I knew I wasn’t physically in top form, but I wasn’t mentally prepared either. I had burnt out a bit, lost motivation. Hopefully the excitement of it all would give me some energy?

The weekend was nice. I relaxed and strolled around the city. Saturday night I met up with some new friends from Paris. During a training run in Paris a few weeks earlier, we had realized that we were running the same race in Florence. It was fun to have dinner together and talk about the race. I followed their lead for gelato afterwards, although I wouldn’t have done so on my own.

By the time I went to bed, I was getting a bad headache. I tried a hot shower, some standard pain meds, and stretching but nothing was helping. Afraid I would wake up with a migraine, I decided to take my migraine medication as a preventative measure to kill the headache, hoping that the resulting drowsiness wouldn’t get me down too much the next day.

I got a decent night of sleep and was in good spirits in the morning. As much as I try to have things planned out in advance, I left my hotel not quite knowing how to get to the start line, which was 2 km away. I had walked all over the city the last two days, but I just wasn’t convinced that I wanted to tag two more kilometers onto the front end of 42.195, especially since I was already a bit groggy. I thought about getting a cab, but it seemed a bit frivolous. The man at the front desk said I could walk across the street to find a special marathon bus that would take me to the start. Brilliant!

I crossed and saw runners walking this way and that, but no bus and no group of people waiting for a bus. So I asked a couple of runners if they knew where the bus was. “No, we’re taking a taxi!” they said. “Oh, can I share it with you then?” I asked. “Sure!” So I jumped in with them. They were a lovely couple from Austria and this would be their 13th marathon. The taxi dropped us a short walk from the start and the 9€ fare split three ways felt good to me, only that the couple wouldn’t let me pay! So sweet. We walked together and chatted on the way to the start area.

In the starting corral, I met with my French friends and together the time passed quickly as we waited for 9:15 am to arrive. I was a little concerned that I was feeling a bit fuzzy as I waited, but figured it was the effect of the medication and that it would pass. It only took minutes for the 1100+ runners to cross the start line. Yet just after we started our watches, the road got so congested that we had to come to a dead stop two or three times within the first few hundred meters! That was unfortunate. I would have rather waited an extra minute before starting than having that minute on the clock! Finally we were rolling, but as we had decided to join a pacing group, we were elbow to elbow for a while.

The ambiance was fantastic in those first kilometers. The pacers were a bit crazy, yelling and cheering in Italian and even though I didn’t understand a whole lot, they had me smiling and laughing, too. I also quickly picked up on the Italian word, “dai,” which means “come on!” But it sounds like “die,” and later in the race, I wanted to yell back, “Yes, I’m dying!!”

Usually the pace would have been fine for me for a long time, but by 10k, I realized that my heart rate was higher than it should have been and so I started to slow a bit and over the next 10k watched the pacer balloons, along with my French companions, slowly fade away in front of me. I was still in the company of four men who were obviously employing the Jeff Galloway method of running/walking. They were in purple shirts and kept passing me, and then falling behind again when they took their walking intervals. I wondered how this method would work out for them. Eventually they plowed ahead.

I also realized by 10k that I was pretty tired. I shouldn’t be tired already at that pace, or this early in the race. Yet I managed to stay quite steady until 20k. By 15k, I was tired of circling parks and while they were pretty and all, I wanted to be back in the city with more excitement, crowds, etc. When is the party starting? I wondered. I thought they were supposed to have a clap competition here. I don’t see anyone clapping! Maybe they only clapped for the elite runners.

I also realized that I was a bit checked-out mentally. That lack of motivation I mentioned earlier? It was only getting worse. What am I doing here anyway? Whose grand idea was this? Maybe I’m not cut out to run marathons. Maybe I should stick to shorter races. I may have a point there. In any distance up to a half marathon, I can usually predict my finish time within a minute. With marathons, I can be accurate only when predicting within a 30-40 minute window!

I tried to assess where my head was, how I could get rid of the negative thoughts and motivate myself to push forward, or if I even wanted to. And I realized that I wasn’t all there. Still moving, but mentally drifting. It wasn’t like what I had experienced during my first or second marathon, when I was present from beginning to end. It was different, and it wasn’t looking good. I simply didn’t care enough. Oh no, what to do?

Top Ten Things to do in Paris from a Local!

People often ask me what they should see when they come to Paris. Truth is, I feel incompetent to respond as my daily life here is far from the world of tourism, except for being annoyed with tourists ignoring the bike lanes! (Please, watch where you are walking!) 🙂 So I tend to think that people are better off doing a quick Google search for the top ten attractions to make the best use of their vacation time here. Although I have seen many of the touristic sights (mostly before I lived here), “what to see” really depends on your personal interests. There is so much to discover!

However, because some have insisted, here is my own list. If you shadow me for a few days, these are the activities you might find me doing, although some only on a rare occasion. But here’s a disclaimer: these activities are very specific to my life and interests! So they may or may not appeal to you. Also, since I have to live modestly in an expensive city, all of these activities are either free or quite affordable (10€ or less). I hope you will find something useful here.

  1. Go for a run (or walk or bike ride) in the Bois de Vincennes (or Bois de Boulogne)

2014-01-03 16.44.40It’s incredible that you can step just outside of the city and get lost in a 2500-acre park. Year round, I love running in the Bois de Vincennes. There are lakes, paths that stretch on for miles, plenty of trees, a castle, a floral garden, and a hippodrome. It’s a great place to go for a walk, run, bike ride, picnic, etc. In the summer, you can also catch free concerts in the Parc Floral (5€ to get in, then the concert is free). You can access the Bois de Vincennes from Metro line 1 (Chateau de Vincennes) or line 8 (Porte Dorée, Liberté).

However, I would recommend staying out of the park when it’s dark. The streets of both Bois de Vincennes and Bois de Boulogne are lined with prostitute caravans at night and this of course significantly changes the atmosphere from of a place of light, families and athletic energy in the daytime to a place of darkness and illegal activity at night.

  1. Stroll through the Belleville open market on a Tuesday or Friday morning

This is the market where I used to buy fresh produce almost weekly. It’s a bit of a jog from where I live but I took the time to go there because it seems to be the cheapest market in Paris. I could fill my caddy with fresh fruits and veggies for a mere 20€ – a real steal! It is also interesting culturally. Step inside and you will find yourself surrounded by Asians at one end and Arabs at the other, complete with multiple languages and clothing styles. Hold onto your wallet and be prepared to be shoved around a bit as you make your way through the crowd. While the prices are fixed, you would be wise to pick your own fruit, as sometimes the quality is less than desirable, especially when the merchants try to convince you of what to buy. If you exit the metro at Belleville (line 2 or 11) or Couronnes (line 2) on a Tuesday or Friday morning, you will find yourself in the market.

In my continued effort to “go green,” I now prefer the market at Bastille because there is an organic vendor where I can even find kale! More expensive yes, but for my health it’s worth it! Located near Metro Bastille, this market is open on Thursday and Sunday mornings.

  1. Rent a bike for a day

The Paris city bikes (Velib) are my primary means of transportation. For a resident, it’s super easy. You pay 39€ for the year and have 45 minutes free every time you check out a bike. The concept is brilliant: take a bike from one station, ride to your destination and return it to another station. So you never have to worry about your bike getting stolen and if a pedal falls off or a tire goes flat or if it starts down-pouring (I speak from experience!), you can simply park it at the nearest station and move on with another means of transportation. The downside to this system is that there is not always a bike or a free spot available when you need it. However, since there are stations all over the city, you can often find another one within a five-minute walk. A new option allows visitors to purchase short-term passes online in advance.

I should caution visitors to be careful while biking in Paris because traffic can be crazy, especially in the roundabouts. There are a lot of bike lanes, but pedestrians are often in the way and much of the time, you have to share a lane with the city busses, which aren’t very considerate at times. 😦 Because of this, there are certain streets that I try to avoid when on a bike, and I always expect that I’m invisible to most of the traffic out there. I now know Paris quite well and can get around easily on a bike. However, I got lost a lot in the beginning. It’s hard to navigate the streets with a map and still be cautious of the traffic. Getting around on the metro is much easier and straightforward for visitors.

However, biking is a great way to see the city if you’re up for the challenge. Guided bike tours are another good option. Check out Bike About Tours and Fat Tire Bike Tours. I have never used these services, but when I see people on the tours, they seem to be enjoying themselves!

  1. Visit a French church

If you’re in Paris on a Sunday and would like to experience a thriving French church, consider attending one of the services at the Eglise Protestante Unie du Marais at 17, rue Saint-Antoine in the 4th arrondissement (in-between Metro stops Bastille and Saint-Paul). The Sunday services are at 10:30am, 5:30pm and 7:30pm. You can try out your French here, but you will be sure to find some English speakers as well.

  1. Have a picnic in one of the beautiful parks in Paris

You can easily stop in a grocery store and pick up cheese, wine, fruits and veggies and some bread from a bakery (boulangerie) for a simple picnic in a park. Some of my favorite picnic spots are: Luxembourg, Buttes Chaumont, and Champs de Mars. On July 14 (the France national holiday) and on New Year’s Eve you can also see fireworks at the Eiffel Tower.

  1. Have a tea or coffee at the top of the Montparnasse Tower

Most tourists go up the Eiffel tower for the view, but if you would like a more classy experience with a panoramic view of the city, I recommend the Ciel de Paris restaurant, at the top of the Montparnasse Tower. It’s free to access the restaurant, but the service is expensive. So on occasion, I’ll go up at around 3pm (when it’s not too busy) and order a tea. It will be pricey, but if it’s clear out, you’ll have a great view! And it’s still less than a ticket to go up the Eiffel Tower. It reminds me of the Signature Room at the top of the John Hancock Center in Chicago, which I always suggested as an alternative to the Sears Tower (sorry, I still can’t refer to it by that other silly name).

  1. Visit the Pavé d’Orsay

A little art gallery on a side street in a chic quarter, the Pavé d’Orsay hosts art showings, concerts, acting workshops, and other events to promote emerging artists. Check out what’s on and stop in for a visit, especially if you’re in the area visiting the Musée d’Orsay or the Louvre.

  1. Explore the Paris cemeteries

2013-01-02 13.16.40The cemeteries in Paris can redefine an American’s concept of a graveyard. You can almost get lost amidst the tombstones. Whenever I stroll through one of these cemeteries, I always discover so many interesting things, from the old sculptures to the recent pictures and inscriptions. You can also find the graves of many famous people in Paris.

  1. Attend a concert or opera

Catching a concert or opera will take some planning in advance (if you want to get a ticket for a decent price), but most tickets you can buy online and then print out, so it’s simple to do from a distance. There are two opera houses, the old famous one (Garnier) and the newer one (Bastille). The latter hosts most of the opera productions and the older one is where ballets generally take place. For shows at either location, check out the Paris opera website. Ticket sales open on a specific day for each production and if you reserve the same day, you can get tickets for as little as 5€ (although you may have an obstructed view at this price). For orchestral and other classical music, check out these two concert halls: Theatre des Champs-Elysees and Salle Pleyel. And for a vast array of concerts and other shows in Paris, look for tickets at this site.

  1. Get a falafel in the Marais

It’s a bit hidden away, but it’s definitely worth finding for an excellent falafel. You can sit in or pay less for take-away. It’s called “L’As du Fallafel” and is located at 34, rue des Rosiers, 75004, Paris. The closest metro stop is Saint Paul on line 1.

Now for the more touristic things to do in Paris, please ask google!

Qatar

When buying an airplane ticket to India a few months ago, I had a difficult decision to make: should I pay $200 less and endure an 8-hour layover at the Doha airport on my return? Normally, it wouldn’t be worth it. But I was tempted by the location of my layover, and the idea of getting out of the airport and exploring a new country during that time. After all, Qatar isn’t a place I frequent regularly, nor one I anticipate visiting anytime soon.

I conducted some preliminary research on possibilities. Would I even be able to leave the airport? I learned that visitors could buy a visa at the airport upon arrival and it seemed that the city center wasn’t too far.

So in the name of “saving money,” I took the ticket with a long layover, even though I knew I might end up spending what I saved on financing my little adventure. A few days before leaving for India, I searched some more, and I made a plan. I would buy a visa upon my early morning arrival, take a taxi to the city center, get breakfast somewhere (hopefully along the coast), take the Doha hop on/hop off bus around the city, and then get a taxi back to the airport. I started to add up the costs and realized that the expense was getting more extravagant than I had anticipated. And yet since I was carrying my violin and laptop, I knew I wouldn’t want to roam the city on foot for hours. So the day before leaving India for my return flight, I decided to google “Doha city tours” just to see if I might come up with a better option. The result was an unexpected surprise: Qatar Airways offers Free City Tours to Transit Passengers.

It looked too good to be true. And why didn’t I see it earlier? Aha – the article was published just last week, when I was already on my way to India. I found the press release on the website of Qatar Airlines but there wasn’t a whole lot of information there. What time were the tours? Would I still have to buy a visa? Was it really free? I figured that it was worth a try. This service appeared to be new, and it seemed official enough.

I was pleasantly surprised on all accounts. I arrived in Doha at 6:30am and quickly found the “Qatar Airways Doha City Tours” counter. They took my passport and boarding pass, registered my information and told me to be back at 7am for a 7:15 departure. Just enough time to use the restroom and get a little cash out of an ATM.

There were only eight of us taking the tour on this cool morning and we were shuttled to the arrivals terminal and given a card to present at immigration. There our passports were stamped with a 24-hour visa and we paid nothing. Then we were escorted out to a comfy mini-bus where we had more than enough room to spread out. We were told we could leave our carry-on items on the bus whenever we stopped; they would be looked after.

An English-speaking guide led us through the city on a nearly 3-hour tour, and in the end we took the same route as the hop on/hop off bus that would have cost me $50 for a one-day pass. We stopped many times along the route to take pictures and walk around. The brisk morning air and opportunity to walk without carrying my luggage helped to combat the fatigue I was feeling from losing a night of sleep. They even provided us with cold bottles of water. Extra points, Qatar Airways!

Doha was impressive. Most of the city has been built in the last couple of decades and the architecture is fascinating. It’s the most modern Arabic country I’ve seen. At the end of the tour, we had 25 minutes to explore the souk (market), which I found to be very chic compared to what I have seen elsewhere. Also more expensive. The dress is different here, too, with men wearing a white thobe (a long white gown) and the women in all black, sporting a shayla (headdress) and abayha (long dress). The coast was especially beautiful, and when I saw people out running it made me feel nostalgic for the Chicago lakefront. Our tour guide also told us that 75 percent of the population in Qatar is made up of ex-pats that have come to work, and only 25 percent is women.

He also told me that these special transit tours have only been operating for a month, and that sometimes no one shows up. However, even if only one person signs up they will run the tour. The most they have had so far is 22 people at a time. They are hoping that it generates more interest. Other passengers told me that they had discovered the tour by chance, as they wandered the airport trying to kill time. I think that Qatar airlines needs to increase their publicity for this service, both on their website and in-flight. Maybe that’s coming. The press release was already a good move, but not everyone researches things like I do.

So, hats off to Qatar Airlines. This tour was perfectly planned for transit passengers with a 5-12 hour layover at the Doha airport. The convenience and ease that they offered would have totally been worth a fee of $50 or more. I felt like a VIP customer when in reality the free tour was available to me because I opted for the ticket that saved me $200. After the tour, I was happy to settle down for two more hours at a coffee shop where I took advantage of the airport’s free Wifi.

If you ever have the opportunity, don’t miss this experience! Thank you Qatar Airways!

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