Sydney Getaway

2-kites-on-bondi-beach

Kites of all kinds, Bondi Beach.  Look at that blue sky!  No need for an air quality monitor here.

After months (it felt like years) since my previous vacation, through the hard slog of a busy Shanghai visa summer, then into a strange low visa-demand month that was challenging nonetheless with the whole “half the staff is gone for 1-3 weeks in Hangzhou to support the G-20” thing, I was so ready for a vacation.  I would especially need it as my trip was sandwiched between the summer/G-20 season and my first foray into mid-level bidding, which is State Department speak for “virtual cage fighting for your next job.”

So off to Oz we went with stops in Sydney and the Blue Mountains.

We flew Shanghai to Singapore and then overnight to Sydney.  (I love that my four year old asks before we travel how many planes we will take.)  My friend K and her family picked us up at the airport — K used to work at the US Consulate in Shanghai as a locally-employed staff (a local hire) but she relocated to Sydney with her husband’s job and now she works for the US Consulate in Sydney — and then whisked us off to Bondi Beach for the annual kite flying festival.  It did not have nearly the number of kites we expected and K’s husband could not find a parking space so he just drove around and around the area until we had our fill of beach and kites, but to be honest I didn’t care because it was just great to catch up with K, and her son KZ and C, who are the exact same age, really bonded.  After Bondi we headed for a quick lunch on our way to the wonderful Featherdale Wildlife Park in the northwest suburbs of Sydney.  The wildlife center is all about native Australian birds and animals, so it is a great place to see cockatoos, kookaburas, emus, cassowaries, koalas, kangaroos, wallabies, dingoes, quokkas, echidnas, Tasmanian devils and the like.  KZ and C pet a koala — one of the few places where you can do so complimentary with your entrance ticket — and some wallabies.  We finished up with ice cream.  Then we headed back to K’s house and while her husband prepared dinner K and I took a stroll in a nearby park while KZ and C zoomed around on a scooter and a bicycle.  And while this might sound like your average day out with friends — meet up, have lunch, drive to a kid friendly place, dinner at home, and a walk in the park — I have not had a single day like that in Shanghai.

25-too-long-on-train

Only 45 minutes on the train and I get this look

The following morning, a Monday, K headed out early to work and her husband drove C and I to the nearby Blacktown train station to catch the 7:57 am train to Katoomba.  Initially my plan had been more complicated and involved renting a car.  But the logistics and cost and dragging C’s car-to-booster-conversion seat for a short drive to and from Katoomba was outweighed by the simplicity of taking the train.  Me–I was incredibly impressed with myself for packing one large backpack I could put on my back, a smaller backpack I could wear on my chest, thereby leaving my hands free to push C in the stroller.  I felt I was almost, sort of, kinda, not really, really, but as close as I have been in awhile, close to my old backpacker self.  C was less impressed.  For some reason she found the idea of a relaxing 1 hour 22 minute ride on the train seemed incredibly boring.  In true 4 year old style she asked at every station if that was our station.  I only had to endure her asking 16 times before on it finally coming true.  But she is 4 and she would have asked every five minutes if we were there yet had I been driving.

26-hotel

Great location, historic charm: the Carrington

We arrived at 9:22 am and headed straight for our hotel, the historic Carrington located just half a block from the Katoomba train station.  The restored historic hotel is the oldest hotel in town having opened in 1883.  I opted for us to stay in the “traditional rooms,” which are billed as “budget” accommodation that channels the original rooms of the hotel, i.e. they share bathrooms down the hall as the hotel would have had prior to 1927.  Again, to me it was a tip to my backpacking/hosteling days and I was curious as to how C would take to it. Her assessment at the end of our stay: “I liked the room, I liked the bed, I liked the TV, but I did not like the bathrooms outside.”

It was a gorgeous day.  It was warm (in the upper 70s), the sky was a brilliant blue.  There was no time to dawdle.  We were at the hotel WAY too early to check in.  I left our bags with the front desk and whisked C in the stroller off to see the sights.  I decided to walk from the hotel to Echo Point, the location to see the Three Sisters, the three iconic pillar rock formations that are the most recognizable symbol of the Blue Mountains.  I had hoped the walk to Echo Point would be interesting, but it was not.  We simply walked down a sidewalk that started in the commercial center of Katoomba and passed through a nondescript residential neighborhood.  There were no views until the end when suddenly you find yourself at Echo Point 30 minutes later.  And here the Jamison Valley opens before you.  It is the Grand Canyon of Australia and it is awesome.  C agreed that it was worth the trip only because I gave her some ice cream.  Whatever.  (I want to be upfront about travel with a four year old; C is a very good traveler but she is four.  Ice cream ranks higher than amazing natural wonders right now).

73

The Three Sisters and Jamison Valley view

We were beat though.  We had flown through the night to arrive in Australia.  Been whisked around on a wonderful whirlwind first day right from the airport.  Then we woke up very early for the train to the Blue Mountains.  Despite the stunning views and great weather we needed lunch and a rest.  We lunched at Echo Point watching a kookabura sitting in an old gum tree (get it?) and then road the hop on hop off bus back to the first stop, across from the hotel.  We bought fruit and sandwich fixings from the local grocery store and were in for the night.  (I want to be upfront about travel with a tired thirty, ok forty-something, mom with a young child.  Sometimes a nap ranks higher than natural wonders.)

53

Are you sure there is a contraption of any kind on those cables?  The Skyway disappears into the fog…

The following day I was kicking myself.  It was cooler.  The fog was thick.  Sigh.  This is the day we would go to Scenic World, a privately run wonderland of activities in the Blue Mountains.  The activities include riding the steepest incline railway in the world, riding the steepest aerial cable car in the Southern Hemisphere, ride the skyway tram that crosses a chasm 270 meters above the valley floor, and enjoying various walks on elevated boardwalks through the forest.  I was not sure how great it would be in thick fog. It is called scenic world, but it might be a bit hard to see…  At AUS$70 for the two of us it seemed to be a bit pricey to look at the inside of a cloud.  The upside is the fog had no affect whatsoever on the thrilling ride on the scenic railway.  You whizz down what seems a near vertical track, you pass through a tunnel, and then some trees.  C and I screamed.  Then C laughed while I continued to scream.  At the bottom of the railway we enjoyed a 30 minute walk through the forest with stops to ride the bronze statue of a pony in front of an old mine, swung on a tree limb outside an old minters cabin, and just enjoyed the fresh air.  With the fog we had almost no wait for the cable car back up.  And while the Skyway is supposed to afford riders incredible views, the fog gave the ride an otherworldly feel.

We had spent several hours at Scenic World and then an hour in the town of Leura before once again calling it a day.  With most sightseeing buses stopping at 5 and the sun beginning to set around 5:30 PM, this is not as crazy as it sounds.

67

I could have put a normal beautiful day at Scenic World photo but while there I accidentally discovered my camera has this awesome setting. 

The weather for Wednesday, our last day in the Blue Mountains, was supposed to be pretty bad — rainy all day.  Imagine my surprise when we woke up to blue skies!  I made the decision to head back to Scenic World.  Imagine my surprise and sense of wonder when at the ticket counter the cashier let us in for free!  He had asked, “Have you ever been to Scenic World before?” and I had answered “Yes! We were here yesterday but we could see very little with the fog so I thought we would come back.  My daughter loved the railway and cannot stop talking about riding it again.  Here is a picture I took of the fog around the Skyway.  Isn’t it great?”  He told me he would give me a discount, but when I handed him my credit card he declined it and told us to have a great time.  Customer service is not dead.

72

This trail is rated perfect for 4 year olds by gift store employees

We rode the railway twice more (once down and once up) at C’s request.  Then I decided we would ride the Skyway one-way with the stroller and walk along the Prince Henry Cliff Walk to Echo Point.  It was only 30 minutes and a woman in the Scenic World gift shop assured me it was stroller friendly.  She must have never, ever, ever been anywhere near that cliff walk because it was not stroller friendly in any possible interpretation unless you mean carrying your stroller the entire time as you fumble along several hundred dirt steps while praying your adventurous preschooler does not walk off the edge of the trail.  My favorite part was the 9 or 10 rung metal step ladder affixed to a rock in the middle of the trail.  Super kid friendly (not).  But we survived the walk and luckily arrived at Echo Point before the skies darkened and poured.

The following day we took the train from Katoomba back to Sydney.  As C found the 1 hour and 22 minute ride up boring she was even less impressed with the 2 hour trip to Sydney Central.  And even more disgruntled to learn that we would transfer trains to ride to Circular Quay where we would find our hotel.  But once again I was massively astonished at my travel-with-small-child prowess.  We checked into our hotel located in a historic building in “the Rocks,” the location of the oldest European settlement of Sydney and headed off to Darling Harbour.  There we got more animal time in at both the Sea Life Sydney Aquarium and the Wild Life Sydney Zoo.  At the latter C pet a snake, got up close and personal with a sugar glider, and rubbed the belly of a spotted quoll.  All fine and well except she noted I had yet to produce a platypus.

83

C feeds a giraffe.  This is NOT the AUS$29.95 professional photo.  That one, which makes me look like the Hulk in blue and is taken from an angle that looks directly up my nose, will never be seen online.  Ever. 

What I did produce were partial views of the Sydney Opera House from our hotel room.  This is what we were here in Sydney to see.  The Opera House (which of course is featured in the Disney movie Finding Nemo), kangaroos, koalas, and the duck-billed platypus.  I was beginning to fulfill my promises.  Our second day in Sydney we rode the ferry across to the Taronga Zoo where I could at long last produce a platypus and make good on the promise to have C feed a carrot to a giraffe.  It only cost me AUS$29.95 for the privilege though we got to take home one of the worst “professional” photos I have ever paid money for proving C and I were near a giraffe with vegetables.  C loves it though and that is what matters.  The highlight of the zoo though was the hour we spent on the kids playground adjacent the lemur enclosure where C made fast friends with Sarah, an equally adventurous and outgoing Australian-Korean girl.

We also made a trip to the Sydney Tower Eye for views of the city just before sunset.  It sounded nice and I already had tickets given I bought a 4-sites-in-one ticket that included the tower, but the views, while nice, are not as great as one might suppose.  The two most iconic structures — the Opera House and the Harbour Bridge — are obscured by large and unimpressive buildings.  I also had to contend with C’s deep displeasure at visiting the tower.  If I have not mentioned it before, she is not yet into taking in the views.  Not even “look mommy has already taken you to four animal venues and now it is time for something mommy wants to see” swayed her.  Luckily she fell asleep in the stroller and I enjoyed the views in peace.  And the next day I took her to Manly Beach to our fifth and final animal adventure, the Manly Sea Life Sanctuary.  There she had her face painted and balance was restored to her world.

88

Yes, I arranged our trip to Sydney at this time of year so I could run across the bridge (on a night stroll across the street from our hotel)

Then of course on Sunday morning, if you have been following my adventures with any sort of regularity you may have guessed it — I participated in a run.  Originally I had signed up for the Sydney Running Festival half marathon, but a last training run a week before departure made it very clear a half was probably a bad idea.  Luckily there was still time to contact organizers and downgrade to the 9K Bridge Run.  I just wanted to be able to run across the Sydney Harbour Bridge with a few thousand strangers.  The “flat and fast” course was neither flat nor fast and seemed to me to be much longer than 9K, but I finished.  And before the rain.  Despite rain predicted for most days of our vacation, only the one day was blustery and rainy with both the wind and rain holding off til the end of the running events.  We celebrated with lunch and a walk at Darling Harbour with K and her family.

The day after the run was another beautiful, glorious day.  Unfortunately it was our last (half) day in Australia.  We strolled along Circular Quay to the Opera House and through the beautiful Royal Botanical Gardens (it is a wonder that such prime Sydney real estate is set aside for a large, public park).  I did not want to leave.  Although I usually find 9 days away is very restorative, this time I still felt it was just too short.  But it was time to return to Shanghai and get ready for bidding on my next assignment.

 

Advertisements

Americana: A Californian Chinese New Year

I have heard the time around the Spring Festival, as the Chinese call it, referred to as the largest annual human migration in the world.  It is not only all the Chinese traveling to be with their families, but also the foreigners in China taking advantage of the long holiday to get away.

When we first arrived in China it was just three weeks before Chinese New Year.  I knew having just moved to China that 1. I would not have the energy to take a trip that soon, and 2. Even if I had wanted to, it was far too late to book a trip.

It was good to stay in Shanghai that first Chinese New Year.  My household effects (HHE) were delivered just the day before the holiday started so I could spend it putting my apartment in order. The streets were quiet and I had a week to get to know my new city.  But I told myself there was no way I would stay in Shanghai the following Lunar New Year.

The way the holiday shook out is February 6-10 (Saturday – Wednesday) were the Chinese national days off.  The following Monday, February 15 was President’s Day.  So I could take just two days of annual leave and have ten full days off.  I thought of going to Kenya or Jordan or Thailand.  Somewhere exotic.  That is what I used to do when I had a long holiday – take a long trip to someplace unexpected.  But what I really wanted to do was be in the US drinking in America.

A Huntington Half Marathon

4

C gets in some pony riding in her Elsa dress and pink cowgirl boots.  Because that is how she rolls.

We started our holiday in the Newport / Huntington Beach area, about an hour south of Los Angeles.  Back in August I had signed up for the Surf City Half Marathon.  The heart issues had started but I positive that I could still train for and complete the half.  It was before the Medevac to Singapore and then Washington, DC.  It was before I had the heart procedure.  By November 11 I was back in Shanghai and determined to train.  My plan was a 5K before the end of November, then a 10K before the end of December and finally 15K by the end of January and then just try my luck.

I did the 10K by the end of December but it was really, really, really slow.  I had some serious doubts.  But my virtual group of runners trying to hit the roads and trails all around the world encouraged me to still try – that the time would not matter.  And a very good friend currently posted to Washington, DC said she would fly out to run with me.

Before the half C and I just sampled the joys of being back in the US.  Our first day in the States involved landing, renting a car, and then driving down the coast in Friday afternoon Orange County traffic.  So it was pretty great.

For our first full day I took my pony-loving daughter to Irvine Regional Park for pony rides and a visit to the zoo.  We had hot dogs and French Fries and sat outside in the glorious Southern California sunshine.  Such a change from the cold, overcast, smoggy skies of a Shanghai winter.

3

I got me some race bling. And some running zen.

The morning of the half the sitter arrived from Mollycoddlers, an Orange County sitter and nanny service.  (I am sure lots of people have wondered how I do these half marathons in different parts of the country as a single mom.  The answer is a hotel babysitting service!).  I met my friend in the lobby of our Huntington Beach hotel for the race shuttle to Newport Beach.  We had a lot of time on the shuttle and at least an hour at the race hotel before the start to catch up.  It was important because although we have run several races together, we do not actually run side by side as her pace is a good two minutes per mile faster than mine.

I had no idea how the half would go.  My training had been haphazard.  I was jet lagged.

The temperatures were unseasonably warm.  Yet it was a good course.  Flat.  I did not care about my time.  I ran a half for the first time in a long time without a running watch (it had been in the unfortunately misappropriated bag lost to the taxi driver in December).  I walked through each water stop.  I had fun.  I told myself I could finish in three hours if I needed to.  But I didn’t.  It wasn’t even my slowest half.

I realize that many people might be shaking their heads – why in the world would anyone run a half marathon on their vacation?  For me though, when I run, when I was running, I was not a mom, I was not a visa adjudicator, it was just me running in the sunshine on a course with a bunch of other strangers – all of who have their own reasons and goals for running.  It’s liberating.

Afterwards, it being Superbowl Sunday, C, my friend, her boyfriend, and I sat in the hotel bar, watched part of the game and the half time show, and ate and drank.  If that isn’t Americana, then I don’t know what is.

Friends, Family, and Disney

When I was 11 years old my mom took my sisters and I to LA. I begged to go to the La Brea Tar Pits, but we didn’t. I had to close the circle.

After Newport Beach we headed south to Carlsbad to stay with my mother’s cousin who I had not seen since I was twelve years old.  Now I am….much older.  Yet despite the years, when I reached out to her she responded immediately to my email and invited C and I to stay with her.  We had such a wonderful time and her husband and their therapy dog.  We also drove down to San Diego to meet up with a friend from my Jakarta book club days and on another day we met a grad school friend at the La Brea Tar Pits.

Back in my pre-State, pre-mom days my vacation modus operandi was generally to fly solo to another country or another continent but rarely to visit home. Maybe it is age or being a mother or this particular career, but I have a strong desire to spend more time reacquainting myself not only with friends and family but also with my country.

I felt such incredible joy driving a car down US highways, listening to Top 40 radio stations, or lying awake jet lagged watching American television programming featuring tiny houses.  Even billboards featuring Serta mattresses make me deliriously happy.  There were several times when apropos of nothing I simply stretched out my arms and yelled “I love you America!”

But I am familiar with America.  For me a trip home is celebration of the things I love and miss (or even had no idea I missed) and want to revisit and carry back in me.  For my daughter though, it is not a place she knows well.  In her four years of life she has lived only a quarter of it in the States.

A few weeks before traveling to the US I read an online parenting article aimed at American parents and their propensity to take their kids to Disney on vacation.  The author’s goal is to encourage parents to broaden their children’s horizons, which is certainly admirable.  But there is nothing wrong with taking your kids to Disney.  Disney is the quintessential Americana.  And I very much want to give my child those kinds of experiences.  She may not always or even ever just be able to get on a bicycle and ride around a neighborhood.  So if I can give her Disney and quality zoos and snow cones and ballpark hot dogs on occasion, I will.

IMG_2266 (2)

This happy face needs no caption.

After nine days in beautiful Southern California it was time to head back to Shanghai.  I am not sure that I did this, but I hope I took a sufficiently long deep breath of the good air quality air and closed my eyes and savored the warm feel of the SoCal sun on my face.

The Resolution

In late 2013 my sister mentioned for one of her 2014 New Year’s Resolutions she planned to run 750 miles. I thought hey, now that is an idea, a mileage goal for the year. However, I knew I did not have 750 miles in me. I needed a challenge, but I needed something obtainable. As a single parent in the Foreign Service at the time serving at a US-Mexico border post, I really had to take a hard look at what mileage might really be within my reach.

In 2013 I ran a total of six half marathons (El Paso, Texas; Indianapolis, Indiana; Santa Fe, New Mexico; Boston, Massachusetts, Juarez, Mexico, and Las Vegas, Nevada). I also ran a 5K, a 10K, and a 10K as part of a duathlon in El Paso. Yet even with all those organized races I only ran a total of 200 to 220 miles the whole year. I supplemented my running with Zumba and spinning classes at my gym and the occasional stationary bike ride or exercise DVD at home.

I did a few calculations and decided on 400 miles for 2014. That came out to an average of 7.7 miles a week. It sounded completely possible.

I think it might have been the next day I screwed up my plantar fascia at the tail end of a 5K. While sprinting in to the end I felt the excruciating tear in the bottom of my foot. Holy Mother $#&@! I hobbled back to the car and for much of the rest of my Christmas and New Year’s holiday. This did not make an auspicious start.

My first run of 2014 did not come about until January 9 and I could only manage one mile. One, quite slow mile on a very tender foot. Over the course of the month I did work up to three miles, but I basically kept the mileage low, ending the month with only 20 miles in total. So there I was starting the year already down ten miles after the first month.

With a half marathon coming up in April, I needed to step things up. Yet the dust storms in Ciudad Juarez came early and I started having asthma attacks while running. I would not even be a mile into a run and I would have to turn back. It was so frustrating. I had secured a sitter for my daughter – either the nanny would stay a little later or a friend would come over. At the very least I wanted to run a 5K, but I would find myself turning back much sooner. I had to move almost all of my running indoors to the treadmill at my little gym.

28.5 miles for February.
29.7 miles for March.
All below the 33 miles and some change I needed to average per month.

Finally in April I managed 40.7 miles for the month, helped in a large part by my Salt Lake City half marathon.

The plus side was my speed increased. I think because I underwent the (&$%@ painful) bilateral vein stripping the November before, my legs no longer felt so heavy when standing or running. I had become a 10:30 or 11 minute miler after the birth of my daughter and had accepted that. Before that I was a 10 minute miler. Suddenly in 2014 I was running 9:45 then 9:30 and then even 9 minute miles.

35.4 miles for May. It did not hurt I ran a half marathon in Cincinnati.
40.7 miles for June.

I had managed to overcome the plantar fasciitis and the asthma and the child care challenges to bring my mid-year total to 195 miles. I was five shy of my goal but felt fairly confident it was still within the realm of the possibility.

You know, if I had a normal life.

I departed from Ciudad Juarez on July 1 to begin nine weeks of travel from post and home leave. I would drive through Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Tennessee and Virginia with two cats and my 2 ½ year old daughter. I would spend a week in Hawaii and a week in North Carolina. With creative childcare finds (thank you $50 an hour Japanese daycare, with 2 hour minimum, in the Sheraton in Hawaii and the much less expensive $6 an hour drop in daycare in New Bern) I did manage 30 miles in July. Hi-five for me.

In August we continued our travel to San Francisco, South Dakota and New York. Day care options became a bit more complicated. My parents watched my daughter one afternoon I was in Virginia in between trips to I could get a 3.5 mile run in. My friend watched my daughter in San Francisco so I could get in one hilly run. My aunt and uncle watched C in South Dakota so I could get in a few training runs and my Leading Ladies half marathon through the beautiful Spearfish Canyon. A few more runs in hotel gyms while C sat “quietly” (for a 2 year old) with her iPad and I managed total of 35 miles for the month.

At the end of August we moved into our temporary quarters in an extended stay hotel while I attended full time Mandarin Chinese training. At 260 miles with 140 to go, I was still on track. I figured the fall would be a piece of cake given I was back in Northern Virginia with its perfect fall running weather and numerous running trails. I envisioned myself on long seven or eight or even ten mile runs, jogging blissfully and easily, unencumbered and happy.

Someone must have slipped me something.

I soon found my 50 minute (one way) commute and Chinese study took over my life. I needed to take my daughter in to daycare as soon as I could in the morning so I could drive in to study before class. Trying to study Chinese while your 2 year old plays nearby is a recipe for learning zero Chinese. Oh, and daycare… My daughter had not attended before, so she was the perfect host for every toddler illness known to man. She happily shared them with me. We had cold after infection after cold after infection. We were even so lucky to contract the flu even after we had received our shots.

Still I put up the miles.
40 miles for September.
42.1 miles for October.

I was halfway through November and still not entirely sure I would make my goal. The longer I spent in training, the shorter my runs became. I dropped down to a 10K from the half in October and from a 10 miler to a 10K at the beginning of November. The constant colds and my training schedule were taking their toll.

Then my two online running groups both announced end of year challenges simultaneously. My local group announced a challenge to run 60 miles the last 6 weeks of the year, averaging 10 miles a week. My global running group threw up the Runner’s World end of year streak, running the 36 days from Thanksgiving through New Year’s Day, a minimum of 1 mile per day.

I dismissed both out of hand. There was my child care issue. My catching everything that passed through daycare issue. I was too tired.

But a funny thing happened. I ran the next day. And the next. And the next. I had never before run more than three days consecutively, yet, here I was managing it. Could I do it?

45 miles for November.
52.9 miles for December.

No sh*t. I did it. I not only met the 60 mile challenge for the local group AND the streaking challenge (with a total of 44 days in a row because I misunderstood the start day), but I also not only met my 400 miles for the year, but surpassed it for a total of 440 miles!

Hot diggity dog. Most of that running was on the treadmills of Juarez, Mexico or Northern Virginia, but I also ran in Utah, Ohio, Texas, Tennessee, New York, South Dakota, California, North Carolina, and Hawaii. I am not sure I will ever have another year like that.

I learned a lot from this year of running.
I learned I like to do vary my exercise beyond running. In 2013, although I ran far fewer miles, I was in better shape. The cross training I did by participating in spinning, Zumba, and other classes made me stronger. I like running, but there were days when it felt like a chore. When I was not streaking, I might have only two or three days a week I could get to the gym. Because I had weekly, monthly, and the yearly mileage goals, I needed to run just about all of those days. Some days I would have very much liked to have done something else. Some days, ANYTHING else.

I learned though I can be pretty resourceful if I want to get a run in. Also, that, at least in the United States, that there are places to help the single parent out, particularly if they are willing to pay. There are many licensed agencies that provide in-room hotel child care; excellent community centers which include child care; even drop-in daycare centers.

The streak showed me that just a single mile most often can lift my spirits. The adage that just 10 minutes a day of exercise can boost energy and mood proved true for me. I also continued to push my speed and hill work. It was easier to do so when I knew I only had to run one mile. I also found my daughter will in fact sit or play quietly for at least 10-20 minutes in a hotel gym, unless of course the Wi-Fi cuts out and the My Little Pony video halts in the middle of playing… Knowing she will do this means that even if I do not have a sitter, a short workout is not out of the question.

I learned that when people tell you someone almost always feels better after a run than before it, they are really not blowing smoke up your skirt. Even with a bad cold or a throat infection or the flu a ten minute run did in fact make me feel better.

I do not yet know what 2015 has in store for me for running. Most likely I will be dialing back the miles and diversifying my exercise again, though I will incorporate the hill and speed work.  My next streak will be to study Chinese every day until my test, in just 15 days. It is time to buckle down and get to China. Once we are settled in Shanghai I will be able to consider the next challenge. The challenge other than running the Buffalo half marathon in May, which I am already signed up for…

Happy New Year and happy running!

10K is the New Half

Today I ran the Freedom’s Run 10K in Shepherdstown, West Virginia. Originally though, I had signed up for the half marathon. It was to be my West Virginia half and one I was pretty excited about. (I even checked with the 50 States Half Marathon people to make sure it qualified for West Virginia since the majority of the run is actually in Maryland.) Runner’s World magazine ranked it among their Top 25 Half Marathons as well and named it a Bucket List race. Who would not be tempted by that? Certainly half marathon enthusiasts would find it hard to turn down. I absolutely did.

However as race day came ever closer I realized I just would not be ready. This felt different than my concerns before the South Dakota half. This was not just nerves; this was hard reality.

Who would have thought it would be easier to train in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, former murder capital of the world and an always dusty, sandy high desert locale, and while traveling around on my crazy Home Leave? I did not. I envisioned fabulous long runs along tree-lined, beautifully maintained Northern Virginia running trails. I did not factor in juggling my Chinese training and study schedule and being a single mom of an active toddler.

I tried to train C to sit quietly in the gym with her iPad and Stuffie the Black Kitty but that turned out to be a laughable proposition. I sometimes managed two miles with several pauses in-between to tell C to sit down, put down the weights, not to touch something, get off the other treadmill, and so on… <sigh> THAT was not going to be a reliable way to get my run in.

Again I went to the Freedom’s Run website.

“The Half Marathon is very challenging”

“The first 3 miles are flat on the C & O then the difficult Antietam Battlefield section begins as you join the marathoners.”

“Once leaving the Canal the course is very hilly and rolling through Antietam Battlefield.”

“As one 2009 participant stated aptly ‘Freedom isn’t easy.’ These words will be your mantra through the scenic Battlefield.”

Um, yeah. Not only was my training crazily random and many would have a hard time calling it training at all…but the course would kick my a** even if I were training. It was time to email the organizers and drop down to the 10K. The elevation of the 10K chart indicated it would be plenty enough of a challenge.

And it sure was! Temperatures were perfect and the course lovely. At least half the course followed alongside the Potomac River on a tree-shaded road; the leaves in red and golden mid-Autumn splendor. The course though was HILLY, the organizers were NOT kidding. One particular hill, on the way back into town, seemed to go on and on and on…

As I had looked ahead to this half I had also made a decision to not participate in any more organized runs. I simply do not have the time to train. But…after three 10Ks in five weeks I must admit the distance has begun to grow on me. It is still a challenging distance, particularly with my current situation, but it is a distance I can train for and run without taking up quite as much time as a half marathon.

So, yes I have signed up for yet another 10K in four weeks. They had a long sleeve pullover and a distance I could not resist. I am on the lookout for more.

I will miss the half marathons. I may not run another until next summer, after my Chinese training, after my Chinese test, after we have moved to Shanghai, after I have had a chance to settle in and find out if and how I might train for one. I certainly would like to give the Freedom’s Run half another go. Until then, the 10Ks will have to tide me over.

Nation’s Tri: The Third Wheel

I belong to a global running group, a community of Foreign Service people who try to take their running on the road, wherever they happen to be. They may be trying to fit in runs in baking hot UAE summers (where you run after sunset when it’s a “cool” 105 degrees) or try to make friends with the treadmill when in places where running outside is verboten or make unexpected stops in locales where herds of animals may cross their path. We are a dedicated bunch of crazy runners. Not necessarily fast runners – though we do have a few who place in their respective races – but committed.

Waaaaaaay back in February or March of this year I responded to a post on our group page asking for a person to run the 10k portion in a triathlon team to take place September 7 in Washington, DC. Yeah THAT September 7, you know, the first Sunday back in the DC area after a whirlwind 60 days of home leave and my first week of Chinese training.

So it seemed like a GREAT idea! I could use it to jump start my running when back in Northern Virginia. This couple, whom I had never met, also would have just moved to DC for training the weekend before. It was PERFECT, right? I mean, that’s the word springing to your mind too, I’m sure! I replied immediately. Pick me! Pick me PLEASE! And they did.

Fast forward six months or so… I have run a half marathon in South Dakota a few weeks before, yet it already feels much longer. I am stressed and tired about the start of language training. I book a hotel in DC for the Saturday night – yes, a hotel away from my hotel, because the logistics of getting up at the butt crack of dawn to drive to DC and try to find parking seemed too daunting. My mom stays with myself and C because I have yet to spend a night away from her and I am determined not to have the first night be for this triathlon. My ulcerative colitis continues to plague me and this 10k runs through urban DC (as opposed to a heavily forested canyon in SD), i.e. few if any trees to hide behind should my UC make a pit stop necessary. I have not met this couple I’m running with. Hmmm…this seems a little less perfect than I originally thought.

Thankfully meeting up with my Tri mates proves easy. Though completely unplanned, we find each other the first day at the Foreign Service Institute. We run into each other unplanned each day after that. Even at the packet pick up we find each other at the hotel entrance without arranging a thing. It was rather uncanny.

It is a very good thing we had that going for us because the organization of the packet pick up and staging areas left much to be desired. Racers arriving to pick up packets with their bicycles are turned away as bicycles are not allowed in the hotel (at a triathlon?!). Volunteers at the event appear unable to answer questions. Our cyclist rides his bike down to the transition area to set up only to be stranded down there as the returning shuttles to the hotel stop at 6 pm, although the website and expo announcements say they will run until 7 pm. Then the skies open up and rain pours down. We decide to eat dinner at our respective hotels and meet up the following morning for the next to last shuttle for the start line, departing at 6 am.

That night my mother – a dear woman who agreed to watch Chloe while I run – snores with the force of a fog horn.  (I am sorry mom, you have been outed on Facebook and now in my blog) She tried not to, I’ll give her that. She brought a nose strip, yet it did nothing to stem the tide; I could not sleep. Around midnight, desperate to get some zzzzzs I had an epiphany. I then dragged a pillow and a comforter into the bathroom and set up bed in the bathtub. Yes, the bathtub. Surprisingly, I slept pretty well (I am 5’5” if you are wondering).

I awoke to the news that the swim portion of the race had been cancelled due to a sewage spill into the Potomac River resulting from the previous evening’s heavy rain. After wrenching myself from my bathtub cocoon I head over to the race hotel across the street at a quarter to six. Unfortunately, disorganization continued. Despite being on the next to last shuttle, departing the hotel at six am with the race not starting until 7:15, the bus could not drop participants at the actual start location, just nearby. At the event emcees announced that the “swimmers” would still run into the transition area barefoot. Unfortunately for many relay participants, this was not announced on the website along with the cancellation of the swim portion and some had simply not shown up. Our swimmer was in a dress – albeit a sporty one – and so lined up barefoot with the other “swimmers” to run 500 yards to pass off the timing piece to our cyclist.

Cyclist and I receive conflicting information as to how to reach the hand-off area. One volunteer told us to head in one direction where we met another volunteer who told us to go back where we had come from. We finally just went around both of them, the long way, to find the place, where we waited. And waited. And waited. Though the event started at 7:15, our “swimmer” did not begin her swim-run until 8:23! She was in wave 23, yet between each numbered wave there was also a “named” wave. The first cyclists had returned before 8:15.

At least the weather was perfect for cycling and running. It was cool and overcast – completely different from the near 90 degree and sunny weather of the day before. Still, I had been waiting around to run since 6:15 and with the breeze I felt a little chilled; it was a relief to finally start running around 9:45. Then suddenly, it was all alright. The course was well marked and the volunteers prepared. I ran slowly, without music, my mind occupied with many memories of my previous life in DC. I have run many times in West Potomac Park along Haines Point. I looked across the Potomac to Fort McNair, where I worked as a Research Fellow at the Institute for National Strategic Studies. Across the Potomac in another direction stands Bolling Air Force Base, where I also worked as a defense analyst. The course also covered streets where I trained for and ran the Marine Corps Marathon, my one full marathon to date. I had missed DC.

All in all, I am glad I participated, though I have decided I will not run more races in DC this brief time we are here, and possibly no other races at all after my half in early October. The time is just too short and the logistics for race participation a little too complicated. As a single parent studying Mandarin Chinese in preparation to work in Shanghai starting early next year, I only have so many hours in the day, only so much free time in a week. I need to recognize my limitations.

Hey, and I did it! Right? In the end I think the best part of it was meeting this other Foreign Service couple, also with a young daughter, serving their country, living abroad, and with a passion for running (and swimming and biking) wherever they happen to be.

Running with the Leading Ladies

I have a little problem. I suppose it is more passion than a problem. I am not referring to my desire to travel to just about all the countries in the world. Nor to my enjoyment of visiting aquariums everywhere I can find them or taking my daughter to as many children’s museums as possible. Not even the new fascination with historic carousels. This is my love of running half marathons. Not really a love, more a love-hate, which is even stronger.

I started in 2006. I joined a group to help me train for the Baltimore half marathon to raise money for the Whitman Walker clinic in Washington, DC. It was not easy, but I had a good time. The following year I signed up to do the same thing for a full marathon. That was even harder. I pulled my IT band about eight weeks before the run. It took me an hour longer to finish than expected. I went back to the halves. Again and again and again…

I have one of those vague plans now to run half marathon in each state. Vague because I do not know how many I have run so far and just about every time I am in preparation or at the start line or somewhere around mile 5 or 9 I think it might be the last I run. I do not count how many I have run thus far because when I start thinking of where I might run next, I realize there are far too many left to know if this thing is possible.

So home leave 2014 approaches. I schedule out my trips, buy my plane tickets. I hope to keep running along the way when I can, when I am able to get child care. I just out of curiosity decide to see if maybe, just maybe, there might be a half marathon in the area of South Dakota where I will be visiting, when I am visiting. Wouldn’t you know it, I found one. So then I had to sign up for it.

The Leading Ladies Marathon and Half Marathon is held in Spearfish, SD. It is an all women event. The half is completely downhill through Spearfish Canyon, named the most magnificent canyon in the west by Frank Lloyd Wright when he visited in 1935. This sounded so incredibly awesome.

My first issue was child care. I am a single mom with a 2 ½ year old toddler. In the past I have found licensed and bonded child care services that send sitters to hotels, such as in Las Vegas and Cincinnati. However, a fairly in-depth online search indicated there is no such thing in west South Dakota. Makes sense, these are not large cities. Lucky for me, I floated an idea with my aunt and it turned out she and my uncle were very interested in visiting this part of the country. Score.

Then wouldn’t you know it, in late May my ulcerative colitis starts to flare up. You may or may not be aware of UC – it’s an Irritable Bowel Disease like Crohn’s (which in my experience more people are familiar with). It is as unpleasant as it sounds. I have been fairly lucky with my UC. I was diagnosed in 2000 while traveling in Tunisia. Yeah, long story. It has been active about five times including this time. So I increase my medication and pay more attention to my diet – but things are stressful. In June I am packing out of my residence in Mexico and preparing to be on the move for nine weeks until training begins in September. Not exactly easy to be on my best diet behavior.

My plantar fasciitis, which first occurred in late 2010, makes a daring comeback the day before Christmas 2013. I have been running on that heel for months. Sometimes it is absolutely fine. Some days, not so much.

Then I develop a cold two weeks into my home leave that Will. Not. Go. Away.

Training is spotty while on the road.

As we drive from Deadwood to Spearfish we take the scenic route which passes through the canyon. It is lovely, but what I see are a lot of trees. Lots and lots and lots of trees. And a winding road with a narrow shoulder. It occurs to me I am a very urban runner. When not running outside on streets full of pedestrians or busy roads, I am inside on a treadmill. I also have an OCD habit of counting things when I am getting tired or need to focus or zone out. I wonder, how long it will take till I am tired of counting trees?

Two nights before the run, the eve before the eve, I am lying awake. It is midnight and then 1 am. I am thinking I am really not ready. The previous half marathon is three and a half months before. I have not run more than six miles in a single go since then. There is the UC and my fasciitis and my cold. It is warmer than in average years (usually 44 at the start and 75 by noon but this year it is 60 something at the start and possibly in the upper 80s by noon – not that I would finish at noon). My heart pounds in my chest. I cannot remember being so nervous before a half since my first half.

I remind myself what I have going for me. 1. I have run this distance before. 2. It is all downhill. 3. There are not that many participants (less than 500 total for both events) so no real lines for the port-a-potties. 4. I do not need to set a PR. 5. I do not even have to run the whole thing if I don’t want to. 6. I do not *have* to do this at all. 7. My daughter will be waiting for me when I am done. After reaching out to my sister and a good friend and two online groups to which I belong, I feel good enough to fall asleep and feel calm the following day.

And I did it.

And it was lovely.

I ran the whole thing – with only walks through the water stops and one longish wait for a bathroom break. The first six miles seemed to fly by. I felt good, really, really good. I took it slow the whole way and despite it being all downhill I found that easy enough to do. I had my iPod with me and I remember a few songs, but not most. By eight miles I made a deal with myself – to run just one more mile and then see how I felt. I reached nine and made the same deal. Again at ten. By eleven I knew I would finish. I also knew it would be a PR – for my slowest half ever – and I was fine with it.

So another half completed in another state. Right now I still do not know how many more to go to reach all 50. I move to Shanghai next year with complicates things. I think I have at least one more in me though.