Misery Loves Company

I signed up for the Misery Challenge at the end of March, around the time I was starting long for summer. I’ve always loved the ocean, but have only discovered open water swimming the in the past few years. The Misery Challenge seemed, appropriately, challenging but manageable. Plus, I’ll do just about anything for a fun t-shirt (I’m aware this isn’t something to brag about, but…) and with the promise of one proclaiming Misery, I was sold.

The night before the swim I woke up at 2am and frantically started Googling shark sightings in MA, so I was in a really good headspace… Still, the morning of the race I arrived early and checked in (“You’re number 63! Same as the water temperature!”), giving myself enough time to collect my family/bf (misery loves company, after all), wander around the staging area, and get my bearings. The pre-race instructions listed all the turns and buoys, but because we would start and finish in the harbor, there were a lot of turns and gates to keep us out of the boat channel. In theory that is great – more information is better than less, and I really didn’t want to end up in the path of a boat! – but in practice that meant that I found myself one of many people in the gazebo at the end of the pier looking for the various buoys while reciting turns to myself (“Right, gate, left, gate, right, right…was there a yellow one?”). I stopped short of writing them out on my hand, although I saw a few people who did that. Finally, I gave up and decided to do my best…and hope that the person in front of me was on track.

The cool thing about the Misery Challenge is that it is actually four races. There is the three-mile swim out to Misery Island and back and there is also a four mile course, which goes out to and around the island before turning back, for paddleboards, kayaks, and skulls (is…that what they’re called? I only lasted two weeks in crew before I remembered I’m short). I wriggled into my wetsuit as I watched the paddleboarders and kayakers set off, and then I wandered down to the beach for the pre-swim meeting.

20170715_081108Five minutes later, and we were off! It was a time trial start, so we lined up in pairs and went through the starting gate after our numbers had been taken down. The tide was low which made for a bit of a rocky start, but the race team did a great job of clearing the biggest rocks and sharpest shells from the path and laying down mats to walk on into the water. Still much more civilized than the mass starts I’ve done in the past! There’s something refreshing about starting a race without getting any elbows to the face.20170715_082505

As I started swimming, I was grateful for the wetsuit. I got a touch of brain freeze as I first dove under, but it went away quickly. And all those confusing turns? MUCH easier to figure out in the water! I was only a little confused when it turned out that Misery Island was a different Island than I initially thought, but once I figured that out I was good to go. I settled into a good pace and got a good song going in my head (“Rest of my life” by Town Meeting. Something about the line “cold water on my head and my face” seemed especially relevant…).

Because of the way we started, I was never in a pack of swimmers although I was never completely alone either. The water was calm throughout the race, with some subtle large, lazy, rolling waves during the longest stretch of straight swimming. I didn’t notice the waves lifting me up but as I came down the other side, it was be this weirdly unique feeling of swimming while being sort of sideways. I actually liked having those to think about since it broke up the stretch and kept me actively focused on the next buoy.

After the turnaround point (helpfully marked by a triangular buoy as opposed to the other round ones), it felt fairly quick getting back to the harbor. This was the only point at which the course got a little confusing since I was also seeing the buoys from the way out. I knew I needed to keep them mostly to my right, but it is a little weird to see buoys and not head towards them. Fortunately, there were a good number of support boats there to keep us all on track. They pointed out the correct direction and blocked off incorrect turns. At one point I heard a lot of whistle blowing, and while I immediately thought “Sharks! Eels! Lightening!” it was in fact none of the above – just a swimmer being directed back on track. But good to know the hierarchy of my swimming fears, I guess.

The swim ended on the beach closer to the mouth of the harbor than we had started and there was a short run to the finish. Again, the area was well marked and cleared of the biggest obstacles and while I was a little concerned about how my legs would do after three miles in the cold water, I managed to stand up and move without totally eating it. Which is sometimes all you can really ask for.20170715_093502

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At the finish, I found my people and peeled myself out of the wetsuit. I managed to change into real clothes without hitting my chafe marks too badly and wandered over to the finish festival for a bit before heading back home. Success! And not even a little bit Miserable!20170715_094859

Three miles is the longest I’ve ever swam continuously. I swim up to 2.5 in practice (inside) and while I probably came close to that distance on SwimTrek, we had water (and snack!) breaks and sometimes did the full distance over the course of the day, not in a single morning. So, you can imagine I was pretty happy to have finished this! I completed it in 1:23.21 which is a pace of about 1:34/100 yrds. One of the things I’m finding I really enjoy about open water swimming is how much the course and conditions impact the end result. I know that’s probably common sense, but I think it’s a nice change from pool swimming where I know my base pace and it remains fairly consistent. Much more of a challenge this way! And even better, it means I’m able to stay focused on the swimming and less on the numbers, which I enjoy more.

As for the race itself, I was really impressed with how well everything was run. I fully expected to get a paddle to the head with all the boats out in the water at the same time as me, but in reality, I never saw the kayakers or rowers in the water and I only saw a few paddleboarders silhouetted in the distance against the sky as I turned to breathe. It can’t be easy to coordinate that many vessels in order to prevent them from colliding, and yet the organizers of the Misery Challenge did.

I heard some complaints about the low tide and “long” run to the finish, and while I agree that higher tide would have been preferable, I also know that we took over an entire harbor, and so probably our timing was partially determined by safety from larger boats. If I had to choose between high tide and a boat-free course, I’ll take the boat-free course any day. And the run was actually kind of fun – it’s not every day I get to run around barefoot in the mud.

The only suggestion I might make for next year would be brighter swim caps. The women had silver caps, and while that fit with the overall grey Misery theme, I didn’t feel as visible as I might have liked. The men were slightly more visible in gold caps and I noticed a few people who switched to their own brighter caps. As I said, I never encountered any boats on the water and with all the course support I felt very safe throughout, so this was ultimately fine, but just as a thought on the small things I might change.

That aside, I was really happy with how this went. Manchester-By-The-Sea is beautiful and the race gave me a cool way of seeing it. I love the in-water perspective of new places! From talking to people before and after the swim, there are so many races I’d love to try next summer, but if the timing works out, I’d absolutely do Misery again.

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72 Hours in Scotland: The Reality

Alternate title: The Self Indulgent Nostalgia Post

I’ve talked about why I decided to do a long weekend in Scotland and my experience with WOW airline, but what does 72 hours in Scotland actually look like? Well…

Friday

10:20am: Flight lands at Edinburgh Airport; disembark.

10:30am: Stand in customs line for the first time in actual years. Remember I meant to sign up for Global Entry. About that…?

10:45am: In line for Citilink bus to city center. Line is expedited when I am launched towards the window by a quick turning tourist with a large backpack.

10:46am: Note, mid-air, that I consider myself very much not a tourist. OK with this.

11:10am: Get off the bus at Princes Street stop. Walk slowly looking around, very much like a tourist might. Regardless, I am HOME.

11:30am: Meander along Princes Street. Consider how difficult it would be to get a fascinator home if I were to buy one for the wedding. Options identified, further consideration required.

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I probably have more pictures of the Scott Monument than of anything else in Edinburgh. I am ok with that.

 

12:00pm: Stop in the Royal Mile Market in the old Tron church. I discovered this place, best described as a Victorian/vintage craft market with undertones of Steampunk, a few years ago. At that time, I tried a sample of seaweed shortbread (…would recommend for the experience, would not recommend for an actual dessert) and achieved peak nerd happiness when I bought an Outlander style wool shawl from a man dressed as Captain Jack Sparrow (but with skinny jeans) who told me that my hairstyle made my look like I belonged on Game of Thrones. I am pretty sure that will always be the highlight of my life.

12:30pm: MOSQUE KITCHEN. Let’s pause here for a second. When I was in Edinburgh for school I lived at the center of a triangle filled with delicious curry options: 10 to 10 in Delhi was my go-to for palak paneer, Red Fort had the all-you-can-eat lunch buffet with the BEST chicken korma (of which I consumed my weight after my first ever half marathon), and the Mosque Kitchen, which was perfect for hearty, generous portions at student prices. I won’t say that there aren’t good curry options around me now (recommendations in the Boston area? Please?), but I will say I don’t have quite the same selection within walking distance anymore. So when I got off that plane, I craved, I needed, I could not go on without a good curry lunch. I made my way to the Mosque kitchen and almost cried from happiness when I found out I could get TWO veggie options with rice for £5. I went for the saag aloo and aubergine, found a seat by the window, pulled out my book (Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell), and settled into a curry filled state of happiness.

1:00pm: Dragged myself out of my seat lest I fall asleep. Meandered up and down the Royal Mile and Cockburn Street. Cursed my impressively small personal item luggage for not allowing for shopping. Grabbed a bench in the Princes Street Gardens and pulled my book back out. Safer for my wallet that way.

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The biggest challenge to my shopping self control (shirt by Swish).

 

2:45pm: Train to Perth. I purchased my ticket far enough in advance that I was able to get a £5, nonstop ticket. My strategy was to choose a time that would most likely work, with the understanding that I could eat the cost of the ticket if my plans changed later. Fortunately, they did not and so off I went to Perth!

3:00pm: Arthur’s seat is stunning from across the firth.IMG_6404

3:20pm: The scenery probably continued to be stunning, but I would not know as I was solidly passed out.

3:55pm: Arrive in Perth! Meander (aka get slightly misplaced, but not horrifically so) on the way to the Salutation Inn. Check in, sit on bed. Continue to look longingly at bed as I drag myself back onto my feet. With only 72 hours total, I’ll sleep later. For now, I’m out to explore.

5:40pm: Make my way to the Black Watch Museum and Castle. It’s too late to go inside, but my real purpose for going is to see the Kelpies. The full-sized kelpies, designed by Andy Scott, are on my must-see dream list, but he also has smaller versions, the kelpie maquettes. I will probably just start sobbing when I finally see the full sized ones because the maquettes were breathtaking. I may or may not have taken a million pictures from every angle.IMG_6454

6:30pm: Did you know that everything in Perth closes at 6pm? I did not know that.

7:00pm: Tesco does not close at 6pm. I stocked up on snacks and went back to the hotel. I may have only had 72 hours, but I also had a wedding the next day where I’d be reunited with many of my favorite people and I wanted to be at my best. Pitch Perfect was on, and I was dead asleep by the time they sang Titanium.

Saturday

7:00am: Up at 7am, breakfast of Shreddies, sneakers on, out for a run. I wanted to see if I could find Scone Palace which was supposedly around 2 miles away from where I was staying. I did in fact make it to the gate, but it was locked and the palace itself was set back far enough that I couldn’t see it. Which I guess was the point of the gates. This peasant was successfully kept on the road and off the grounds.

9:00am: Back to the hotel, wedding prep commence!

12:00pm: Shuttle to the wedding. Best friends, warm sunshine, amazing food, all the champagne, ceilidh, ceilidh, ceilidh. Stomach full, heart happy.

11:45pm: “Nicely done with the second verse of All Star!” I’ve been working towards this moment since 1996 and boy was it worth it.

12:00am: Shuttle sing a long on the way home. BED.

Sunday

9:30am: Breakfast with friends at the hotel buffet. Contemplate the wisdom of eating haggis first thing after a night of drinking. Contemplate all the things that could go wrong. Contemplate the origins of haggis and how someone could possible come up with something that sounds so disgusting… Contemplate getting more because haggis is freaking delicious.

10:00am: Free morning! Head to Kinnoull hill. Higher elevation is my favorite.

10:30am: Realize I am alone, did not tell anyone where I was going, have a phone that only works with wifi, and am relying on screenshots of maps I pulled from the internet. Consider how many episodes of SVU involve a body in the woods. Pick up the pace.

11:10am: At the summit! Alive! Everything is beautiful.IMG_6529

11:20am: Continue on to Kinnoull Tower. Everything continues to be beautiful.IMG_6539

11:25am: OBSESS over hawk sculpture in the woods.IMG_6561

12:15pm: Annnd back in Perth. While (or maybe because) I am possibly the poster girl for bad decisions and what not to do in terms of hiking, I cannot speak highly enough of the route description from Walk Highlands. As mentioned I had no service and no GPS but every turn, every incline, and every fork were accounted for in the description. I am great at second guessing that I am in the correct place (usually because I am not) but the description noted enough easy to spot landmarks, that every time I started to wonder if I had gotten off track, I was reassured that I was still exactly where I needed to be.

1:00pm: Post wedding drinks with my people. Crowd is understandably, and somewhat thankfully, subdued.

3:00pm: Wander the city, read by the river, meander towards the train.

5:22pm: On the train, asleep almost immediately.

6:45pm: Back in Edinburgh!

6:50pm: Find the correct door in the correct alley that supposedly leads to my hostel. Once again question my decision-making capabilities and sense of self preservation.

6:55pm: Realize that the building actually contains three hostels, on three separate floors. Realize this when I arrive at the top floor hostel and am told that my hostel is actually on the second floor. Oh. Back down I go.

6:57pm: I am in the Baxter Hostel, which I believe is fairly new and is may be the most hipster hostel I’ve ever seen. The logo is the silhouette of a campfire, but all I see is an upside-down beard. Bunks are custom made with wrought iron frames. Am shown to my room, a nine-person, all women dorm.

7:05pm: “Here’s your key. Well, your room doesn’t actually have a lock right now, but since you need a key to enter the building, you’ll be safe.” Oh. Decide not to think too extensively on that.

7:10pm: Sunset isn’t until 10 and I sure as hell am not spending more time than necessary in the hostel so byeeeeeeee. Because clearly Kinnoull Hill wasn’t enough walking for one day (approximately four miles round trip) I decided to continue seeking out higher elevation by hiking Arthur’s Seat. In my flip flops. Have we discussed my decision making skills yet?IMG_6614

As always, Arthur’s Seat was a delight. Because of where the sun was at, the peak was flooded with light. It was warm, hazy, borderline mystical. As usual the peak was crowded but everyone was a little bit lost in the light giving everyone a bubble of gauzy tranquility amidst the madness.IMG_6601

8:30pm: Back beneath the clouds and HUNGRY. Book it to my favorite noodle place, Red Box. It is nothing special, but has been my go to for quick, filling student food since 2010 and it did not disappoint.

9:00pm: The sun is still up and I still refuse to go back to the hostel. Wander up to the castle, check out the beginnings of the construction for the Tattoo. Turn around and see the Royal Mile glowing in the sun and calmer than I’ve ever seen it before. I love this city. Continue meandering down the Mile, across Princes Street, along George Street, back over, around, up, down…all over, covering as much ground as possible.IMG_6628

11:00pm: Back to the Baxter, blistered, sun burnt, exhausted, completely content.

Monday

7:00am: I’ve been following the Bearded Baker on Instagram and could not leave the country without one of their donuts. So I got up early and wandered down to Rodney Street. The raspberry donut was everything I could have imagined and more.

8:20am: Pass Dublin Street. One time, my grandma read a regency romance novel that took place in Edinburgh and some of the most scandalous scenes took place on Dublin Street. She now asks me about it every time I’m there, so I make sure to walk by at least once each trip and check for gasping damsels or ripped bodices, or whatever, so I can report back.

8:30am: Back to the hostel to collect my things, just enough time get some more reading in the park time before getting back on the citilink bus. Snag one of the front top deck seats and try to soak in as much Edinburgh atmosphere as possible on my way back to the airport.

10:20am: Arrive back at the airport and manage to fit some last minute Cadbury’s in my tiny bag so my family will allow me to return home, closing out an almost exact 72 hour whirlwind of a trip.IMG_6619

72 Hours in Scotland: The How

Or should I say the WOW?

No, I know I shouldn’t say that. Please stay?

 

I talked before about how this trip to Scotland was a balancing act – an attempt to go back to a place I love, while not limiting my opportunities (aka time and funds) to go to new places on my must-see list. So I turned to WOW airlines.

I’ll admit, I was not super optimistic about WOW going in. I’ve flown Ryan Air and I’ve flown Spirit and I sort of imagined that WOW flights would be equivalent…and also longer. But WOW had the best prices, so, after poring over the restrictions, limitations, and fees, I decided to book, simultaneously deciding to get to Scotland and back on only the base fare, no extras.

I have an old laptop bag that I’ve always found a little unwieldy and far bulkier than I can imagine needing, but it turns out that it is the perfect size to count as a free personal item per WOW’s restrictions (WOW: 17x13x10in; My bag: 16x13x6in). I made it my mission – my Everest! – to fit everything I could possibly need for 72 hours (including the wedding) into the bag.

In the end, I did it. I had a wedding outfit, some running clothes, and a couple of other comfortable, casual outfits, along with general essentials, in my one bag. I won’t lie – I was pretty impressed with myself, at least until I showed up in Scotland and found myself in the middle of a heat wave. It turns out I was frequently a little overdressed with not many options. I also would have preferred to have something with two straps – the single strap wore on me a little bit over the course of the weekend. But, it was definitely doable and nice to have as a tried and true option.

As for the flight itself, I think the WOW stars must have aligned because I have no complaints. I was checked in quickly, none of my four flights over the course of the weekend were delayed, and despite having opted to not select my seats, I ended up with three window seats and an aisle. I…thought I was going to have a more interesting story about this part of the trip? In actuality, on my outbound flight I fell asleep before takeoff and woke up to most beautiful clouds I’ve ever seen. The return flight had fewer clouds, but I suppose that is still acceptable. So spoiled.

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So, would I fly WOW again? Yes, but with caveats. This trip worked because I didn’t need any of the extras. For a longer trip, or a trip that required more luggage, I probably would not. When I was comparing prices before booking, WOW had the cheapest fares, but luggage fees made the difference in price less significant.

Similarly, this flight worked because I was in the no frills, budget state of mind and I was fully prepared to muscle through on limited sleep/comfort. I was lucky in my seat selection, but if I wanted to pick my seat or if I wanted in-flight entertainment, I would look elsewhere. Can I get by without an in-flight movie? Sure, but they do make some of those longer flights go faster, and I put them soundly in the quality of flight/happiness on arrival category of extras.

That said, going in with no real expectations and the student-travel mentality, WOW was a delight. The planes seemed well maintained and the service was good. I did not experience delays, cancellations, or luggage issues. The food at KEF airport (because obviously I refused to purchase anything onboard) was good. Most importantly, I was able to get where I needed to be without losing time or wasting money and for this trip that was truly everything I needed.

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I did not take any pictures en route. No one needs to see me mid-flight…

72 Hours in Scotland: The Challenge

Scotland is like home to me. I fell in love with the country during a road trip with my family when I was 13 and I was fortunate enough to be able to tag along on business trips back to Edinburgh throughout high school. I went to the University of Edinburgh for a semester abroad in college and when I realized that four months was not nearly enough time (…and I didn’t want to grow up…) I went back for my postgraduate degree. In the years since graduation I have taken advantage of every chance/offer/barely legitimate reason to go back. Christmas market? Done. New flat with a spare room? Count me in. Fun race? Just let me grab my sneakers. Free afternoon and a story that’s better in person? Wait right there, I’m on my way. The trips have always been a mix of old and new – revisiting my favorite people and places and finding new areas to explore – and I’ve loved every second.

 

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Scott Monument in the distance

 

In the past few years, however, the events have slowed, the people have moved, and I’ve started seriously considering all the other places I want to see, forcing myself to start prioritizing some of the other places on my list (looking at you, Montenegro!). But then? I got the wedding invitation.

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There was never a chance I was going to miss this wedding. My giant group of friends in one of my favorite places AND a ceilidh? Obvious yes. But I still wanted to preserve some time/funds for other places/adventures on my list for this year, and so I decided that, in the spirit of reliving the glory of my university days, I’d do this trip student budget style: Budget airline, one tiny carryon (or, “personal item” – no fees!), three nights, public transport, and one hostel. In the end, it was a whirlwind of a weekend and an amazing time. Even for such a short trip, I have a ton to say about it, so stay tuned. I’ll be breaking down my itinerary and my thoughts on specific parts of it here over the next few posts. Just extending that Scotland nostalgia a little longer…

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Pretty Perth

I love that dirty water

Until this year, I didn’t realize how strongly I felt about NOT swimming in the Charles River. I knew it had been horribly polluted in the past and I knew (thanks to a friendly duck boat driver!) that in recent years it has gotten much cleaner. A certain kind of duck is back, meaning a certain kind of fish is back, meaning pollution levels are not where they used to be. Great! But still, it’s hard not to think of the Charles as kind of gross – it runs through a major city and has large, multi-laned roads on either side, but, maybe most importantly, the Standells’ “Dirty Water” is played frequently and sung along to enthusiastically throughout the bars, stadiums, and streets of the city. Since I first moved to the Boston area in 2004, I’ve been singing about that dirty water, meaning I’ve had 13 years of internalizing the fact that our river may be beloved, but it is best loved from a distance.

But then I found out about the annual Charles River One Mile Swim and quickly signed up. What better way to get over my lingering river issues?

The race is in its 9th year and is run by the Charles River Swimming Club, in cooperation with the Charles River Conservancy and the DCR. It starts by the Hatch Shell on the esplanade and the course is a clockwise diamond between the Harvard (Mass Ave) and Longfellow Bridges.

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On the morning of the swim my Support Crew (aka parents and bf) and I parked over by Boston Common and it was a short, easy walk to the start. Check in was quick and I had a lot of time to stand in the sun, catch up with friends, and go through varying stages of panic at my preparedness. You know, the usual.

At a few minutes to 8:00am I joined the first of two waves and walked down to the start dock.

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Please note the Fin to the right

 

We all jumped in and treaded water until someone shouted “Go!” and then we were off! Being a mass water start, it was a little chaotic for a few minutes, but I did my best not to kick or be kicked in the face and having succeeded at that, I’d call it a success.

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The first leg had us swimming towards the Mass Ave Bridge, and one of the coolest things was looking up to breathe and seeing the Prudential Center get closer and closer. I spent some time contemplating the general murkiness (the verdict: no worse than other bodies of water I’ve been in) and singing to myself (Selena Gomez’s It Ain’t Me, for the win). It stayed fairly crowded for the first leg, but after the first turn, things opened up a bit and it was smooth swimming to the next buoy. The third stretch was hard in that we were swimming right into the sun and it took me awhile to find the buoy. I was also a touch distracted by someone who inexplicably insisted on swimming right on top of me, even though by that point everyone was pretty spread out. Necessary to touch my foot every stroke? Not so much. As a result, I overshot the buoy a little bit, but managed to get myself back on track fairly quickly when I realized.

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The final stretch was the hardest for me. I found the water a little choppier in that stretch – just enough so that it was hard to fall into a natural rhythm. But by that point the dock was in sight, so I just kept on and tried not to swallow too much water. The dock had a giant sensor on the end, so I just had to hit it with the hand that had my timing chip and I was done! I climbed up the ladder back onto the dock and was engulfed by my family and friends. There was coffee and food available after as well as, most importantly, “I swam the Charles” stickers, which you can bet I will display proudly.

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In the end, I finished in 33:20, about a 1:55 pace – a bit slower than I wanted, but not far off and solidly middle of the pack – certainly not bad for the first open water swim of the season. I would absolutely swim this again. The water was cooler than most years (around 65) but I was fine without a wetsuit and the event was so well run – friendly volunteers, plenty of pre-race information, lots of safety provisions (water quality checks in the days leading up to the race, lifeguard, kayak and boat support on the day of, an organized post-race check in process and optional Mylar blankets), and excellent support from start to finish.

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Around this time last year I was on a SwimTrek vacation, and while I can’t say that the Charles River necessarily compares to the fjords of Montenegro (what does?), there’s something about open water swimming that I find so relaxing. The water is my happy place, and I am thrilled to have found that same vacation feeling so close to home and in such an unexpected place. Having been submerged and spent 30+ minutes in it, I can confirm, without question, that I truly love that dirty water, and am happy to call Boston my home.

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Guayaba y Queso

In 2009, I studied abroad in Cuba. I applied on a whim during a slow day at an internship and pushed back my college graduation by a semester in order to go. My family and friends were surprised, concerned, and confused to varying degrees (“Are you a communist?” “Aren’t you scared you’ll be kidnapped?” “Just…why…?” No, no, and because it’s CUBA, y’all). My favorite question, though, was from my immediate family: “Are you just doing this for the food?”

It wasn’t a completely unreasonable question.

I love Cuban food. I love it to a degree that is probably concerning. My great-aunt stocks up on extra plantains for when I visit (the green ones, thanks) and one of my best friends, A, loves telling the super flattering story about the time she realized where she truly stands in my life. A few years ago, she and I split a platano appetizer where we would each get two pieces. As she reached for the last one, she, being a generally polite person, asked if that was in fact hers because she didn’t want to take my piece. I, without pausing replied that yes, it was hers, because if she had tried to take my piece I would have stabbed her.

Yes, stabbed her. My best friend. As I sputtered about how THAT’S NOT WHAT I MEANT and I would NEVER and I only meant I would maybe poke her gently with my fork, she laughed so hard she almost fell off her seat. And since then, she has proceeded to tell this story every chance she gets.

kolkata guava

And then A brought me to India and introduced me to white guava. And then, apparently, I turned into Gollum and hoarded it like it was a giant pile of precious guava rings to rule them all.

Ahem. Anyway. Given all this, my family was not wrong in that the food was part of my motivation. Not my ENTIRE motivation, of course, but I certainly wasn’t complaining about the prospect of three months of Cuban food.

I should pause here to include a brief note about Cuban food, specifically, its availability to actual Cubans, which is to say: it isn’t. I’ll only speak to what I heard/saw in 2009, but at that point, food was rationed. Rations were not large and often the amount rationed on paper did not necessarily correlate to the actual amount of the product available. Markets and other means of supplementing the rations cost money, which was also limited. Many people spoke of only having enough food for one good meal a day and of having to become resourceful to pick up extras where they could (the sustainable gardens/urban agriculture are particularly cool). As students there, my group was also subject to rations, but our rations were generally higher than those allotted to the Cuban people, and we were fortunate enough to have disposable income to go out or purchase extras. So if I sound like I’m overly glib about Cuban foods or my trip in general, please know that I am very aware that I was lucky. I still struggle with how to process what I experienced and talk about the trip in a way that recognizes the difficulties faced by the Cuban people, but does not focus the narrative on them to the exclusion of everything else and without coming across as condescending or wildly naïve. Eight years later it’s still an ongoing process, but I’m trying.

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So with that said: I had a lot of ideas about Cuban food going into the trip, but one thing I hadn’t considered? Guava. Total game changer. We had perfectly ripe, fresh guava at breakfast and guava juice with dinner in the evenings. As we traveled around the country, we also learned to hunt down the local panaderia for guava pastries – guava paste in flaky pastry dough, often with the option of a creamy cheese, like a combination guava danish/turnover. I was in love.1927650_604334142389_6824_n

I came home singing the praises of guava in all its forms* and word soon got out (by which I mean: my mom told my grandma who told the rest of the family [“Did you hear that Steph got back? She won’t tell me if she met any men, but apparently she likes guava now”], and I also got a snarky-but-not-unwarranted email from A along the lines of “Oh, do I need to worry about being stabbed for guava now too?”). My grandma’s friends all found this charming, for reasons I do not entirely understand but will not question, and so now whenever I visit, one of the abuelas will present me with my very own package of guava paste. Because my cooking skills leave something to be desired, I haven’t done anything especially creative with my guava paste in the past, but this past weekend, I was feeling bold, so I turned to the internet.

I found My Big Fat Cuban Family and it was everything I could ask for: fun storytelling, easy to follow directions, delicious product. The only thing I noticed was that my oven may run a little hotter (is that a thing?) than Marta’s because I took my pastries out at 25 minutes (the low end of the recommended range) and some of them were starting to get a little crispy. So next time I’ll know to check them earlier (which is a thing I suspect people who bake regularly might know to do anyway?). Regardless, the end result was delicious.

I waited as recommended so as not to scald my mouth on molten guava, but biting into the first one while it was still a little warm was truly heavenly and took me right back to 2009, sitting on the Malecon, not sure where I was headed next, but knowing that there had better be guava wherever it turned out to be.

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*1.5 exceptions: I recently found dried guava, which was fine in VERY small amounts. I also found dried chipotle guava, which is an unholy alliance if not ABOMINATION, and must be stopped.

Taking time to rest

I don’t like to admit when I’m sick. In fact, as I start to feel less myself – lower energy, sore throat (it’s ALWAYS a sore throat) – the more deliberately active I become, overcompensating to prove that I’m FINE, really! I stubbornly carry on as normal, becoming more and more visibly run down until finally even I can’t ignore it any longer. At that point, my whole body shuts down in protest, and I settle into the sickness, visibly and, not at all dramatically, wallowing in self-pity as I’m forced to take significantly longer to recover than if I’d just given myself a break in the first place.

In college, my then-boyfriend referred to this process as “Steph-sick.” As in, “I know you said you’re fine and you want to go out tonight, but do you think it’s possible you might be Steph-sick? You’ve lost your voice and you just fell asleep while you were putting on your shoes.”

If all this sounds ridiculous, over the top, and unhealthy, I don’t disagree with you. I’ve gotten better, over the years, at realizing I need a break sooner, and I’m generally not quite so deliberate about ignoring my body and pushing through. However, the general practice of going until I physically can’t anymore has become my default. This isn’t the worst thing in the last stages of a marathon, but in my day-to-day life? Not ideal.

And so, this long, Memorial Day weekend, after getting over my most recent cough, I gave myself permission to just exist. To move at my own pace, to say no, to take time to eat, to write, to read, to bake – all the things that become more rushed and ignored when I’m trying to move a million miles an hour.

I retreated to Rhode Island where life naturally moves a little slower. The coffee is excellent, the ocean is ever present, and it is not unheard of to meet a friend for coffee and, four hours later, still be sitting in the sun talking as the little shop closes for the day. I spent the first half of the weekend catching up, catching my breath, and catching some sun.FullSizeRender (1)

I have trouble sitting still. It’s not that I can’t relax, but more that there are too many things I want to do, and see, and experience, but not nearly enough time. As a result, the past couple of months have consisted of me going full speed until I hit a wall, breaking down, taking time to only just heal, and then taking off at full speed again. And again. And again.

But this weekend? This has been perfection and the best reminder that even though I want to do everything, I can’t actually do anything if I don’t take care of myself first. It doesn’t matter how relaxing I find all my favorite activities; if I try to fit them all in all the time, I’m still going to burn out. Common sense? Sure. But I seem to have been absent (probably sick) the day they were handing out this particular variety of common sense, so I’m still learning. And if I have to learn by watching Rhode Island sunrises, breakfasting on homemade guava pastries, and drinking coffee from my favorite mug (the Disney princess one that fits my hand perfectly)? Well, maybe I could get used to this “rest” thing after all.

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Swimming Saves Lives

I have always been a water person. Growing up an oblivious/imaginative kid in Rhode Island in the era of the Little Mermaid, my mom quickly realized that I needed to know how to keep myself afloat. I was never scared of the water, which in turn scared her immensely. According to her, the chances of me wandering in too deep without realizing were about equal to me waking up on any given morning, truly believing that I was a mermaid, and jumping in above my head without a second thought.

I was extremely lucky in that: 1. Neither of those things happened, and 2. That I had access, early and often, to lessons that took my love of the water and fashioned it into a working knowledge of water safety, a decent stroke, and a lifelong relationship with pools, ponds, lakes, oceans, and, most recently, fjords.

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Magnificent Montenegro

 

As I said, I know I was lucky. So many children, for so many reasons, don’t learn to swim and as a result, “according to the Centers for Disease Control, more than a third [of] adults in the United States can’t swim the length of a pool, which puts them at risk of being one of the 10 people who drown every day in the United States.” Those are some scary statistics.

I learned about The Swimming Saves Lives Foundation when I joined Masters swimming, and I was interested to learn that April is Adult Learn to Swim Month. Adults can sign up for free lessons with volunteer instructors and cover everything from the absolute basics of getting in the water to stroke improvement. I signed up to teach, read over the instructors’ guide, and last week I showed up at the pool for my first lesson.

I can’t say enough good things about the program. There were enough instructors that each lesson was one-on-one and I was paired with D. D was there with her sister and the two of them were a blast. We started laughing within the first few minutes and didn’t stop until they got out of the water. D let me know that there was no specific reason she hadn’t learned to swim; she just never had and as a result she wasn’t scared of the water exactly, but she was hesitant around it. Still, she jumped right in and an hour and a half later, D was swimming almost the entire length of the pool. While she hadn’t quite figured out the timing for breathing, she was well on her way.

I’ve taught swimming before, but always to children. I wasn’t sure what to expect with teaching an adult but what I loved was that it was more like a collaboration than a straight lesson. D and I spent the time throwing ideas back and forth, looking for different ways to explain things to each other, and keeping warm by bouncing around acting like total fools (and possibly singing…). Obviously, that approach wouldn’t work for everyone, but that’s what was so great about the one-on-one format; we were able to settle in to a dynamic that worked for us. My biggest concern was taking cues from D at the beginning to get a sense of how she would be most comfortable, and then we ran with it. In terms of the progress D made, I may have brought the experience, but she took everything I told her and put it all together and I couldn’t be happier with how it went.

I’m teaching two more evenings this month and I’m sure I’ll have more thoughts to share, about the program in general and the specific things that worked (or didn’t). One thing I can already say with certainty is that I would encourage anyone who’s thinking about learning to swim, or who would like to improve their stroke (whether for racing or recreation) to look into Swimming Saves Lives/Adult Learn to Swim programs near them. The benefits are innumerable, and the process itself is a blast.

Eastern States 20 Miler

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I haven’t run a marathon since October 2014, meaning I haven’t run 20 consecutive miles since then either. Mostly I’ve been fine with this, if not decision, state of things, and yet the last weekend in March I found myself on the start line of the Eastern States 20 miler and, spoiler, 2:53:03 later, I found myself at the finish.

The Eastern States 20 milers is the well-known (apparently) and much loved race/last long run before Boston that starts in Kittery, ME and ends in Salisbury, MA, traveling south via the coast of NH including towns like Portsmouth, Rye, and Hampton. Until this year, it wasn’t on my radar, but a friend signed up to run it as part of her marathon training and convinced me to run it as well. I am not training for a marathon, nor have I been training for anything in particular, but something about running through three states appealed to me and so I signed up.

The race is low key but well run, with shuttles to the start and aid stations approximately every three miles. The hardest part of planning for me was deciding what to wear since 1. It is “Spring” in New England and 2. A lot can change along a 20 mile point-to-point course along the coast. In the end, I wore long tights, a tank top, a light long sleeve top, a buff neck warmer, a fleece headband, and gloves with hand warmers. I was definitely grossly overdressed for the start, where it was sunny and not overly windy, and I got rid of the gloves/handwarmers around mile 7, but by the end, when it became exceedingly cloudy and grey, I was grateful for the few extra layers I still had.

The race itself is gorgeous, and it was hard not to smile coming around a corner and seeing the ocean and the sun shining. As for me, this race was great in a lot of ways, and…less than great in others. Like I said, I haven’t run consecutive 20 miles since 2014, so I’m a little out of practice with the planning and the pacing. I’ve also been running less (but faster) throughout the week than I was for my last marathon training cycle. My long runs leading up to this looked something like: 8, 10, 13, 0 (skiing), 15, 17, 9 (taper), RACE. It was a fairly quick training cycle with the only goal being “finish without dying”. With that said:

Miles 1 to 10: GLORIOUS. I started out a little too aggressively (which I paid for in the second half), but I was running between 8 and 8:30/mile. I fell into pace with a few other women and felt challenged, but happy running with them. I took a Honey Stinger gel at Mile 7 and felt good.

Miles 10 through 13: I slowed down a bit to closer more consistent 8:30 miles. I was starting to feel a little tired, but felt like I could keep going at that pace for a while. Not exactly ideal for negative splitting, but fine for getting back on the road.

Mile 14: Things started falling apart. All of a sudden my right ankle started hurting and my ankle never hurts. I panicked a little bit and realized that the road had a pretty significant slant to it for water run-off, which makes sense for a coast road, but isnt something Im used to running on, and certainly not for long distances or at that pace. I slowed down to around 9:00/mile. Ultimately, I didnt want to finish the race injured, so I was disappointed to have to slow down, but wanted to minimize pain. The roads weren’t closed to traffic so running closer to the center where it was more level wasn’t really an option. I took another Honey Stinger gel as much to distract myself as for fuel.

Miles 15 through 18: Despite trying to be sensible and pulling back, I think I must have been adjusting my stride to favor my ankle, because my knee started to hurt, which completely threw me off mentally. I stopped and stretched, and slowed down even more. I started making deals with myself about conditions under which I could just stop and DNF and during one particularly dark and not at all overdramatic moment I may or may not have thought “I’m a swimmer – a water person! I’m not BUILT for land! What am I doing here?!” So yeah, things were going well.

Miles 19 and 20: Luckily the road had leveled off a bit and we got to run along the waterfront boardwalk. My knee wasn’t getting better, but it wasn’t getting worse, so I tried to pick things up again (mixed results). In order to hit the MA border, the race actually goes to about 20.2 (per the course map). I knew this going in. I expected this. I was sort of ready for this. What I didn’t realize was that the finish line was around a corner, so I started to panic a little bit when I hit the 20 mile mark and couldn’t see the finish line anywhere. Still, I picked up my pace a little bit more because I knew it had to be somewhere nearby. Finally I saw the turn and hauled it towards the finish. My last little .2 was back under 8:30, I crossed the line, grabbed a medal, and in a previous break from previous race tradition did NOT immediately start dry heaving. Small victories!

My legs immediately cramped up, but I managed to hobble to the shuttles back to the parking lot. I got to the after party, chugged a cup of soup (turkey noodle!) from the soup buffet (seriously). I was still really cold at that point so I dragged my sorry butt the three blocks back to my car, cranked the heat, and started the trip back home.

Overall, the race is great and I can see why people keep coming back, both to race and for Boston training. The volunteers are fantastic, the view is gorgeous, and even though there aren’t a ton of spectators, the energy is great on course. There were a few groups of people who drove the full course and stopped to cheer at several locations. Even though they weren’t specifically MY people, it was nice to see familiar faces and enthusiastic cow-belling, and I couldn’t help but smile every time I saw them. So THANK YOU whoever you were!

As for my race, those last five miles may have been miserable, but they were important in that I’m considering a fall marathon and I came away with a long list of things to remember next time I’m seriously training/racing:

  • I need the full training cycle. I survived on the minimum for this, but do not want the end of my next marathon to feel like this.
  • I need to run longer during the week. I’ve been doing mostly shorter runs (~4 miles) during the week, whereas for my last marathon I was running 7 and 9 miles during my mid week runs. My short runs are faster than they were last cycle, but I can’t sustain those paces as long. So next cycle I need to get that mid-week distance back.
  • I can’t really help the road conditions on the course, but I should try to train on some different terrains to try and minimize negative impact if/when the road tilts unexpectedly.
  • I need to get back outside for more of my runs (difficult, but not impossble for New England winter) in order to remember the layers I need. I’m good at freezing and hot but in between really threw me off.
  • Mental game needs work. When I started to fall apart, I really fell apart. And I probably shouldn’t be running away to the ocean mid-race.

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Oh right, I have a blog

I wrote this awhile ago, and it’s just been sitting around waiting to be published. So here we go: The long delayed recap of a couple of April 10ks.

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Going into the Scottish 10k I had a list of goals. They were less about the numbers and more about running attitude and I’m pretty happy with how things turned out.

The primary goal I settled on was to try and keep a consistent pace, and I listed a couple of different paces I would be happy with. Apparently my legs misunderstood and/or ignored the part about consistency, and instead decided that they would hit every one of the potential paces. I’m not overly concerned since all paces were sub-8 (with a couple of 7:30s thrown in! At my ego’s request I’m not going to specifically address the elevation profile of those speedier miles…) and there was a lot to deal with on course: crowds, hills, and tired legs from a pretty legitimate week of workouts leading up to the race. Also, a couple of late nights catching up with one of my best friends and roommate for the weekend, 8.

Anyway. Goal 1: Not as “achieved” as it could have been, but I’m not going to call it a fail either.

My second goal was to tackle the hills without fear or crippling self doubt.  Swearing while running was ok, as long as I kept running. I definitely felt the hills more than I did at the Half, but I’m not sure if that was because we were running clockwise, or because my legs weren’t as fresh. But, while I didn’t love them, I didn’t completely hate them either. If nothing else, bagpipers were stationed at the top of most hills, so I could hear the tops getting closer and I was greeted by kilts at the summit. If only that was the case with all hills…

Goal 2: Success

The final goal was just to run happy. To get as close to that magical NYC Half runner’s high as I could. I definitely wasn’t as happy, but I was enjoying myself as I ran. I didn’t think I was over the top happy or anything, but in every picture of me, from both 8 and from the official photographers, I have the biggest smile.

Goal 3: Success!

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Courtesy of 8

Overall, I’m happy with how the race went. I was mostly excited for it because of the Scottish theme, and NYRR did not disappoint. 8 and I got to the start with enough time to take advantage of the Scotland photo booth before working our way to the corrals. 8 wasn’t running, but graciously woke up and came with me to cheer, photograph, and hold my sweatshirt, because she is awesome. The race was a little bit frustrating in that it never really opened up, and felt crowded pretty much throughout, but so many people were dressed up and there are worse things than being crowded into a sea of tartan and kilts. As I said, my legs were tired, but not necessarily in a bad way. They were the kind of tired that happens after a good workout. Yes, it was frustrating not being able to run as fast as I know I can, but it was nice to be able to run as fast as I did.

Despite my happy running, by the time I rounded the last turn, I was definitely ready to be done. I still managed to muster up a little bit of leftover energy to sprint to the finish, cheered along by 8. I grabbed a French Toast bagel, found a sunny spot to watch the raffle and dancing at the finish festival for a little bit, and then made my way back to 8’s apartment. After brunch and a nap, I was awake and ready to get out and enjoy New York in a non-running sense, so I think I can put a check next to run/life balance for the weekend as well. Good times.

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And I would walk 500 miles…

Obviously, this recap is delayed. When I first wrote it, I included more about my actual time, 48:46 and how all these ‘fast for me’ paces added up to a new PR. But then, I found out that this exists, and I couldn’t pass it up. A literary 10k? YES.

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I have a love/hate relationship with James Joyce.

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Dublin, 2007

As part of my Literature degree, I had to a take a ‘major figure’ class, a semester long in-depth look at a single author. I didn’t really know much about James Joyce, so I thought he’d be a good choice. I don’t know if it was the professor, who I didn’t love, or the fact that I spent college seemingly on a quest to be an English Major who didn’t actually read, but I came away liking James Joyce in theory, but not necessarily in practice.

Theory, as it turns out, can carry me for at least 6.2 miles. I crossed the finish line happy enough to want to pick up Finnegan’s Wake and dive right in. Powerful stuff, this running.

I can’t speak highly enough of this ‘ramble’. It started in 1984 when the race director likened running a race to slogging through Joyce. Today, actors line the course and read excerpts from Joyce’s works – a different book/story for each mile, finishing with The Dead. The course is pretty, if hilly in spots, but there were spectators all along the course, plenty of water, and supportive volunteers. The actors were great, popping up every time I needed a boost. The organizers had extra numbers printed due to a last minute surge in registrations and we reached course capacity, but I never felt crowded or like resources were spread thin.

The race started with a Boston tribute, and then the Masters runners were off. Three minutes later the rest of us made our way to the start. The weather was gorgeous – sunny, but not overly hot, and the course rolled through the town center and along pretty, very New England, tree lined streets. There were only two hills I’d consider big and they came close enough together, that they barely counted as separate.

I hadn’t planned to run this race. I found out about it three days before, and I didn’t do anything resembling taper or planning for it. I registered the day before the race. I decided not to race race, but to use it as a quick, fun run. But then I started running and despite having run hard throughout the week, I felt good, I felt fast, and I felt like I wanted to see what I could do, so I resurrected the goals from the Scotland Race and set off on round 2. My first mile came in a little too fast at around a 7:15, but it was also on a slight downhill. My pace evened out with the terrain, and I ended up settling into 7:30s. In the end, my average pace was 7:32.

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I slowed down a little bit on the bigger hills, but not a lot. I had the advantage of going into the course blind. I had no idea how many hills there were or when they occurred, so I just pretended that each hill was the last one and I did a good job of taking them one at a time without psyching myself out. The gorgeous weather/scenery and literary excerpts definitely helped!

As for running happy, I definitely had that covered. It’s odd. I don’t have any strong feelings towards 10k as a distance, and I always (ya know, all three times) feel like I’m slogging along, and yet I look the happiest in pictures from my 10ks. This race was no exception. I look ridiculously happy in every picture and I crossed the finish line with a giant smile on my face.

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I also crossed the finish line with a brand new PR: 46:47. That may have had something to do with the smile.

At the finish, they were handing out pasta, snacks, and Harpoon beer. I grabbed some food and found a nice sunny spot to sit in, basking in the sun and the good PR vibes.

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It’s been a good year for PRs. I know at some point I’ll stop PR-ing in every race I run, but I’m ok with that. Right now I’m loving the fact that every PR I have is from an Irish/Irish themed race: St. Pat’s 5k, James Joyce 10k, NYC Half on St. Patrick’s Day, and the Dublin Marathon.

I’ve decided this means that I should just move to Ireland if I want to keep getting faster. Oh the sacrifices I’m willing to make…