September 27, 2012

TIA - This is Africa

We're halfway through our Egypt trip and overall it's been amazing. But as all exotic travels go, it hasn't been without its share of challenges. There's a saying mostly used in East Africa in reaction to the pitfalls: TIA, or this is Africa. It feels applicable to our situation here as well:

Day 1 - After arriving at 3am and falling asleep (passing out) at 4am, we decided to be troopers and visit the Pyramids at Giza. And I'm so glad we did.

Afterward we went to the Egyptian Museum. It was incredible but I was in such a jet lagged haze at the end I felt like climbing into a sarcophagus with a mummy. But we rallied and stopped at the Khalili Bazaar where men said colorful things to us such as, "for you, I'd kill my wife." I guess it was a compliment!

That night we sat on the hotel terrace where I had my first shisha experience. Shisha is a flavored tobacco smoked from a hookah. We had apple and I was hooked. We also sampled some Egyptian wine.

Day 2 - We had to fly to Sharm el Sheik, but stopped at a papyrus institute on the way. Papyrus is a paper-like substance made from the stems of a plant. We each bought three depicting traditional Egyptian stories. Then we flew to Sharm and spent the evening relaxing at the shisha cafe at our resort. It was a nice hotel, but the other bars were typical resort places with a bad lounge singer and horrible drinks. We preferred the outdoor Bedouin style set up, but paid with hundreds of mosquito bites.

Then our first challenge occurred. When we got back to our room it had been invaded by small bugs. Literally everywhere. We had to be moved, which took forever, and we had the creepy crawlies so the day didn't end until 2am.

Day 3 - After a bug-free night we slept late and spent the day on the Red Sea. It was so beautiful, the entire shore is lined with coral reefs.

We snorkeled, relaxed and drank the local beer. It was a pretty great day.

Then challenge #2 happened...

Day 3 - Day 3 actually began at 9pm on Day 2 for the long journey to Mount Sinai. We were picked up in a tiny van holding 15 people and filled with horrible fumes. We drove to a gas station with wild dogs roaming the parking lot and were told our cars would get us there and take us in the armed convoy due to recent kidnappings on the Sinai. We were relieved that a different mode of transport was coming until the same tiny van, minus the fumes at least, pulled up. We ended up crammed in the backseat where a man was half sitting on me. We stopped after 40 minutes at another gas station and were stuck there for an hour because they ran out of gas. Yes, completely out of gas. We waited as a truck with a huge hose pumped gas into the ground while everyone stood around smoking cigarettes.

After we finally fueled up without blowing up (thankfully) we had another hour plus on the road with a crazy driver before arriving at the mountain around 12:30am. This is when challenge #3 struck. My stomach was not feeling well and I was sure I had eaten something bad. Sharm is notorious for stomach woes. And I had a mountain to climb. I hoped for the best and we set out in the dark at 1:15am for the climb to the top.

Walking up in the dark was surreal. Thousands of people make this trip so there are flashlights everywhere but it's still in total darkness. You can rent a camel and a Bedouin will lead you up but we wanted to walk. There are little areas to rest and buy snacks along the way so our group would stop and wait for the slower people before pressing on. The final stretch to the top is 790 "steps" made of layered stones. With all the breaks it took more than 4 hours. Without a group we could have done it in 3, but we were still in time to see the sunrise.

The journey was definitely worth the hassle. The views were incredible and the mountain has so much history as the site where Moses received the Ten Commandments. The landscape looks like something from another planet, just reddish rock and no vegetation. We were tired from being up all night but energized by the experience.

I decided to get a camel for the descent, not because I was feeling lazy, but because I didn't want to regret not doing it. When am I ever going to have the chance to ride a camel down a famous mountain? So I hopped on for the 1.5 hour ride and loved every bumpy minute of it.

After a tour of St. Catherine's monastery we had another bumpy, crazy 2-hour ride back to the hotel. By then we were both definitely sick and had to buy the local medicine. We napped and managed to stay up until about 10 after being awake nearly 30 hours. Not sleeping for 30 hours seems to be a trend on this trip!

Day 4, Today - This whole day has been challenge #4. Our stomachs were improving but still not 100% and we had a morning flight to Luxor connecting through Cairo. The flight was delayed and we should have missed the connection, but that flight was also delayed so we thought it was our lucky day until an Egypt Air agent stopped us and made us wait so long that we were unable to make it. They claimed we weren't confirmed even though we had a printed confirmation and ultimately asked us to buy new tickets. We repeatedly refused and they finally issued new tickets for the next flight - at 4:45 and it was only 12:30. Not only was the delay incredibly boring, but we missed our Valley of the Kings tour and wasted a full day of vacation.

We're just now boarding the flight to Luxor to start our Nile cruise and hopefully this is the last challenge of the day. Our stomachs are feeling better and the boat deck bar is mere hours away!

September 22, 2012

30 Hours to Cairo

Yesterday, which really seems like today since I've been awake more than 30 hours, was a blur. I woke up early and went into final packing mode for my trip to Cairo. I took a brief jog break in an attempt to recover from the 20-miler the other day. It was a struggle, but I enjoyed my last glimpse of the NYC skyline for awhile.

Then I treated myself to a ridiculously good $4 coffee.

Then at 3pm I left my apartment to start my roughly 30 hour journey to Cairo. I landed in Amsterdam, my first destination, at 12:46am EST - talk about not being rested. I think I napped two fitful hours.

I pulled myself together in the KLM lounge and hopped on the train for Amsterdam Centraal. It's been four years since my last visit and I've really missed it.

It was sunny. Then cold. Then pouring rain. Then sunny. Then raining. Then warm. Then cold. I LOVE The Netherlands! I wandered until my feet would have no more. Unfortunately I was all gimped up from the flight and barely able to move. I stopped for lunch and a little pick-me-up in the charming 9 Streets area.

Then I went in search of shoes. Any shoes would be better than my flip flops with horrible foot pain and 55 degree temps. Thank you, Sketchers.

Then the highlight of my day: stopping by my favorite beer bar in the world, Bierproeflokaal In De Wildeman. I first went there in 1996 with my dad and have been back many times over the years. It's always the same and I love that.

I sat there for nearly three hours sipping beer, nibbling smoked beef sausage and reading. I also got to catch up with a couple old friends.

In the meantime, my friend Keely has already arrived in Cairo and sent me a photo of our hotel.

I've got nearly seven more hours to go before I'll arrive there myself but as they say, it's about the journey, not the destination. I haven't slept and I'm running on fumes, but I've really loved today's long journey.

September 19, 2012

Really Good Long Run - FINALLY

Marathon training has been really hard this time around. After six months of very limited activity my fitness is at an all-time low and two months of consistent training didn't seem to be making a dent. My long runs have gotten slower and slower and everything hurts. Last week was a step down week after successfully nailing 18 miles the week before (yet slowly and painfully). I did 15 when I was aiming for 16 because I couldn't bear another step. This week I had 20 on the schedule and was terrified.

I woke up at 5:30 this morning and made my way to Central Park. It was 61 degrees and breezy after a wicked storm rolled through yesterday. My leg has been hurting a lot, perhaps from last year's groin injury, so I started out easy. I immediately regretted the arm warmers. Even though they were lightweight they soon turned into really large wristbands that I had to put up with for 3 hours. I hit the first mile in 9:47 and was feeling great, breaking 10:00 has been a challenge lately. Then the splits kept dropping, some as low as 9:15, even with the hills of Central Park. I was thrilled, but assumed it would turn to crap at any moment so I didn't prematurely celebrate.

Suddenly I was 10 miles in and still felt good. How could this be? I didn't stop moving until just before mile 13 for a bathroom break thanks to the chilly temps and lack of sweating. I'd say the break was nice, except I accidentally peed on the back of my leg. Don't overestimate the stability of your legs after 13 miles of running even if you feel good. Aside from my bathroom error, nothing went wrong. I continued tackling the hills and my splits stayed consistent. I started feeling discomfort around mile 16 and by the 17th mile I had piercing pain in my hip from time to time but was able to keep up the pace. Even at mile 19 I sped up a bit.

I was happy it was over when I reached mile 20 in 3:11:53, but for once I wasn't dragging myself miserably. It's as if my legs finally decided to show up for a run. Maybe the fitness is finally catching up. Maybe the cumulative long runs are paying off. Or maybe the pound of pasta I ate last night did the trick. Who knows, but I'll take it. I was starting to lose hope for this race, but now I'm energized.

September 11, 2012

All Sorts of Fun at Ironman Wisconsin

I spent this past weekend in Madison visiting family, gaining a few delicious pounds and cheering and volunteering at Ironman Wisconsin. Having raced the past three IMWIs it was fun to be on the other side, but also made me miss long distance racing.

We kicked things off with dinner at Brasserie V immediately upon arrival. Belgian beer, frites and an amazing local burger made me so happy to be back in Wisconsin.

After dinner we met up with an old friend and since we weren't racing for once, we went to the Essen Haus to drink the famous boot, which is two liters of German beer. Actually, we drank three (there were seven of us)...

Saturday was not surprisingly low-key due to the wrath of the boot so we just wandered town.

That night we had a special dinner at L'Etoile, my favorite Madison experience.

Sunday morning I headed up to the swim start to watch the race begin. It was emotional to see after such a tough year, but taking the year off was the right thing to do.

The best part of not racing? You get to leave the race and go do fun things like have brunch, go running and drink beer with the family.

My mom and I headed up to the finish line to see the winners, something I've never gotten to do since I'm always racing. We saw Ben Hoffman crush the course record and finish 14 minutes ahead of the next pro. Pretty amazing. My mom got to high-five him as he went down both sides of the shoot high-fiving anyone he could get to. I love seeing a pro soak in the experience rather than just plow through the finish.

Later I volunteered as a finish line catcher from 8pm to midnight, the busiest time at an Ironman finish. It was such a rewarding experience to witness the raw and incredible emotion that Ironman brings out. We saw everything from people who looked like they could keep going forever to people who could barely take another step. There were tears, joy, smiles, pain, elation, disappointment, pride and a lot of "I can't believe I just did that."

Highlights of my catching experience include having Ben Hoffman come back and put medals on all of the finishers between 11pm and midnight. I could see him shuffling from side to side, or occasionally grabbing his foot to stretch his quad. I know he's a pro and crazy fit, but he still did an Ironman that day and instead of going to bed or celebrating, he came out and volunteered. That's a true champion.

There was a bride and groom, who paused on the Capitol Square to get married during the final mile of the race. They crossed the finish line together, she in a veil and carrying a little bouquet of flowers. There was the blind athlete doing his first Ironman. The firefighter who did the marathon in his full turn out gear for the second year in a row. And we had one of the original 15 men to race the Ironman in 1978.

Lastly, but maybe the most incredible thing for me, I got to catch the final finisher at 16:59:37. His name is Matt Thomas and it was his third Ironman.

I signed up for Ironman Wisconsin 2013 at Steelhead and being at the race made me so happy to be getting back to what I love. A year off was great, but nothing compares to the Ironman experience.

September 1, 2012

Long Run Success and Catching Up

Folks, I have issues. I've had a draft post about the Steelhead 70.3 relay in the works since August 22 and haven't dedicated 15 minutes to finishing it. Between freelance work, networking, my continued job search and my various other social media sites, my blog has sadly suffered. I will finish the Steelhead post because it was an incredibly fun weekend and a great race experience.

In the meantime, marathon training continues and it's going pretty well. My feet are cooperating and I'm finally starting to feel better during my long runs. Leading up to Steelhead I was only doing 13 miles and was finding it difficult to progress, but last weekend I did 16 miles on a hot day and still felt great. It was also the first long run that I wasn't completely laid up after. Being able to walk when I got out of bed the next morning was a huge victory.

 Still slow, but getting it done!

I've also continued my strength training and am learning to make it work with the marathon training. It's not easy. But it's not impossible. I did an hour with a personal trainer Wednesday with a focus on my hips and glutes, both underdeveloped and potential sources of running injuries. I was already sore from Monday's workout and woke up Thursday feeling like my legs had been brutalized. I thought of pushing my 8-mile run to Friday, but sucked it up and did it. And you know what? It wasn't that bad. After a mile I loosened up and ultimately ended up feeling great. The strength training is for my long-term wellbeing so I refuse to give it up.

In other news, I'm back to clean eating. I didn't have any sugar or grains all week and definitely feel better. I am determined to get back to my old race weight by the end of the year so I can start next season's Ironman training on the right foot. The one thing I didn't give up? Wine. A girl has to have some indulgence in her life.


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