Category Archives: Travel

Ragnar 2023 New England

(note: this post contains no jokes about Boston accents or use of the word “wicked.”)

Back in 2017, I ran my first long-distance relay race, American Odyssey. Then this year, I did it again. Instead of Gettysburg-to-DC, this route was from Groton, CT to Quincy, MA, but it featured some of the same players.

See, what had happened was: Erica and I were just finishing our beer 5K and she got a text from her friend Kim, who’s captained multiple Ragnar teams before and got our team recruited into American Odyssey. She had some openings for Ragnar New England, and were we interested? Erica certainly was, but I had a business trip to Copenhagen planned that weekend. However, a little poking around on Google Flights showed that I could combine the two, so off we went.

Ragnar races are typically about 36-hour events. The team size can vary, but it’s most common to have a team of 12, divided into two vans of 6 runners each. Each run leg varies from about 4 miles to 7 or more; the idea is that runner 1 from van 1 runs, and van 1 drives to the exchange point at the end of that leg. When runner 1 arrives, runner 2 starts out, and so on. While 1 van is running, the other can be sleeping, sightseeing, etc.

Van 1 consisted of team captain Kim and her husband Tim, plus multiple-Ragnar veterans Travis and Ciri Corbin and their son Devin (another multi-Ragnar finisher), an active duty airman. Van 2 was me and Erica and two other couples from Huntsville, Megan and Zach and Amanda and John. I knew Amanda, and Erica knew Megan, and Amanda, John, Megan, and Zach all knew each other.

We arrived in Boston on Thursday midday and Kim and Ciri picked us up at the airport. Kim had arranged an Airbnb in Plymouth with enough sleeping space for the 11 of us, so after a quick stop for a sandwich and a beer, we headed to the house to drop off our bags. Some teams sleep in their vans but that just sounds (and smells!) terrible. The house was terrific– big kitchen, 4 bathrooms, 6 bedrooms, a hot tub, and full-size arcade games in the basement. Better yet, it was located so that the van that wasn’t running could drive there in a reasonable time between legs.

After the bag drop, we walked around Plymouth proper, including visiting Plymouth Rock (which is a lot smaller than I expected) and taking some pictures of the Mayflower II, a full-size replica that is still terrifyingly small.

The Rockets in our Pockets team, minus Devin, plus the Mayflower II
Imagine crossing the Atlantic in that thing

Kim had booked us dinner at a nearby restaurant, which was great for team socialization.

This time Ciri got to have selfie-arm and stand out in front

Of course I had to have lobster, in this case a delicious lobster mac-and-cheese. Extra credit to Sea Dog Brewing for their blueberry ale and their hilarious logo. Both the beer and the entree were delicious.

It’s traditional to decorate team vans, so after we walked back to the house, we got started on that. Our van was labeled “VAN HALEN” across the front (team 1 was “VAN MORRISON”) and then we started adding random pictures and text, each according to our own artistic abilities.

Megan is really excited that I’m writing “Слава Україні!” on the van
Erica carefully drawing the Rockets In Our Pockets logo

After the decorations were finally done, we all trooped off to bed. The race start was 9a Friday for van 1, but the start point was about a 90-minute drive away. Van 2 needed to be at the exchange point (“exchange 6”) around noon to check in, pick up our road-safety flags, and stage runner #7 (that would be me) for the run leg. This gave van 2 a little extra leisure time, but we’d be paying for it overnight Friday.

nearly the full team, including Kim’s rocket costume, at exchange 6

We met up with everyone at exchange 6 and checked in. You may notice in the picture above that we’re missing someone– that would be Travis, who was out running leg 6. As soon as he came in, I started out on my first leg, which was #7 overall. Because the race segments are built around 12-person teams, I also had legs 19 and 31. Erica got to be our anchor runner, so she had 12, 24, and the finishing leg, 36.

The exact start time for each subsequent leg would vary according to the runner’s pace; Ragnar provides a pace calculator sheet but it was pretty quickly evident that we had some sandbaggers. Both Devin and Zach ran much faster than predicted, and most of the rest of us were a little faster (at least on some legs). Shout out to Kim for being precisely on her predicted pace, even though she ran double legs to make up for us being one runner short.

My first leg started at Misquamicut State Beach in Rhode Island and covered a little over 7 miles. I ran right on-pace and enjoyed the sunshine enough that I took off my shirt about halfway. It was mid-60s with a nice breeze– the perfect weather for a leisurely run along the coast.

it feels good to be a gangster

After I tagged our next runner out, we went in search of lunch, first stopping for a quick coffee pickup at one of the ubiquitous Dunkin Donuts found everywhere throughout New England. Rural Rhode Island isn’t exactly overrun with restaurant options, and we didn’t have a lot of time, so we found a small grocery store with a deli and bought sandwiches, then ate them in the van while heading to the next exchange point.

van #2, on the go to pick up Zack

This pattern continued until we met up with van 1 again at exchange 12– Erica finished her leg, tagged Tim with the relay wristband, and then the rotation started over. That left van 2 free to go back to the house; we had about 3.5 hours before the projected start time for my next leg, but about 1.5 hours of that was eaten up by driving from exchange 12 to the house. When we got back, after a quick shower, I went immediately to sleep with an alarm set for 1120pm. When it went off, I blearily got up, got dressed, and met the team in the kitchen for our departure to exchange 18, where I would start on leg 7.

If you haven’t ever run in the middle of the night, let me tell you… it’s weird. It’s not just the darkness, nor the reduced activity in your surroundings. At least for me, it’s like my body knows it’s supposed to be asleep and just acts uncooperatively. My leg started at a middle school and ended at a high school, which meant I was running through mostly neighborhoods. The night was quiet, still, and cool, and in some spots the only real light was what was coming from my headlamp. It was a little spooky. After my exchange, we continued through the night, with Erica taking the last leg that finished a little after dawn.

one of our exchanges was this lovely little church

After Erica finished leg 24, we loaded up the van for the short drive back to the house. Because our team had put another ~30 miles on the odometer since the start of my leg 19, we were quite a bit closer to the house. After another turbo shower, I was sound asleep until the alarm went off, at whatever time that was, and we loaded up for the drive to exchange 30. That whole process was a little bit of a blur.

Unsurprisingly, my third leg was the most difficult– I was tired, of course, but it was also hillier than either of the first two legs, and I didn’t love the course. For much of the 7 miles, I was running on the side of the road with no shoulder or sidewalk, with lots of hills and blind curves. There were some fun sights to see en route, though.

but why?
the real ones know
moments of beauty and tranquility in the midst of all the sweat

After the exchange, we found a small coffee shop for breakfast and went on with our pickup routine. The skies continued to darken and it became clear that it was going to rain– the forecast had called for rain after 3pm, but the forecast time of the rain’s start varied throughout the weekend. The bottom line is that our last three runners got rained on, and poor Erica was inundated. She had to run the finishing leg in a hard, steady, chilly rain, and she did it without a word of complaint. This didn’t surprise me, since she’s the same athlete who ran the last leg of American Odyssey on a bothersome knee in 85° heat, but I was proud of her.

Finally, the finish… I wish I could write about how great the finish-line ceremony was, but it was lame. Because it was still raining heavily, there were no spectators; every team that had already finished got their medals and took off. There was no free food or beer, as promised (I guess the vendors took off?) but we didn’t mind, because we didn’t want to hang around anyway.

that’s one for the books!
the idea of a waterside finish was great, but the implementation, not so much

Instead of going out to celebrate, we made the consensus decision to order pizza. This turned out to be a brilliant choice– everyone had time to get a hot shower and dry clothes, plus hot tub time, and then we sat around visiting and eating pizza. I don’t think anyone stayed up very late; Erica, Tim, and Kim had early flights on Sunday, and I carpooled with them since I was flying to Copenhagen later. I figured I could drop my luggage and go see some sights.

As it turns out, Sunday morning is a terrible time to see sights in Boston because things are either closed because it’s Sunday or closed because it’s early. For example, the Old North Church has services all morning, so you can’t tour it; the Boston Fire Museum is closed, and so on. I walked around a bunch in the sunshine, had Mexican street cod at Legal Sea Foods, and then went back to the airport for my flight.

Overall, the race was a blast. I got to meet some interesting and fun people, listen to some great new music (thanks to John and Zach), run in some places I hadn’t been before, and have yet another adventure with my favorite adventure partner. All in all, a great weekend, and I’d do another Ragnar with this group any time, anywhere.

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Belize 2023

Once upon a time…

Erica and I had planned a trip to visit Belize in March 2020. This, obviously, did not happen; we tried postponing it to December 2020, which also didn’t happen. We postponed a couple more times and then decided to “do it later.” Well, now it’s later.

Getting there was fairly straightforward: Delta flies to Belize City, and they had frequent-flyer seats available. It’s about a three-hour flight from Atlanta to Belize City, with one flight per day. We booked tickets and then started on the detailed planning– 90% of which Erica did– for a weeklong trip. Our flight down was uneventful and we arrived in Belize City about noon. Delta only operates a 737-800 on this route, so it’s not fancy by any means. The airport is small and noisy, with lots and lots of duty-free space relative to its size. (Liquor is expensive in Belize, so if you’re a heavy drinker, stock up at the airport.)

We’d booked a shuttle to take us up to San Ignacio, close to the border with Guatemala. It was US $120 and a roughly two-hour drive; for the first hour, there’s not much to see, but it gets more interesting as you go further west. Erica had used a stash of Chase Ultimate Rewards points, which she transferred to Hyatt, to book us at the Ka’ana in San Ignacio, a small but extremely nice resort that served as our base for the first part of our trip. The resort is about a 5min drive outside San Ignacio proper– a little too far to walk. It’s beautifully landscaped, with about two dozen rooms laid out around a central area with a pool and a combined reception/bar/restaurant. There’s a helipad (seriously… but don’t get too excited, it’s a stone “H” laid into a grass field) and a small organic farm that provides much of the produce used in the restaurant.

After checkin, we hit the pool, which is small but lovely, and ordered a poolside lunch. Spoiler alert: the pool has iguanas, and they will steal your lunch if given the chance. We saw the first iguana as we lounged, but as soon as the food came out, there were suddenly more of them, and they weren’t shy at all about climbing on tables or lounge chairs. Erica eventually finished her sandwich in the middle of the pool to keep it safe from their depredations.

an iguana
this guy was not dissuaded by being threatened with a flip-flop

Dinner was at the hotel restaurant, which was oddly empty– there were only 2 other couples dining. We ate there each night; as you’d expect there were a few staple dishes (grilled stuffed chicken breast, various steaks) and some daily selections. All of them were quite good; none of them were so good that I’d rave about them here.

The next morning, we were up early for breakfast. Our room included continental breakfast, which you can pre-order, but the selections were a little different than a US hotel: oatmeal, sure, and a fruit plate, but also what the hotel called johnnycakes but what an American would call biscuits, served with delicious local cheese and refried beans.

Breakfast delivery meant we had time to eat before leaving for our tour of the Actun Tunichil Muknal (ATM) cave, which we’d booked with MayaWalk. They picked us up from the hotel, and after a short wait at their office in San Ignacio we met up with the rest of our group and headed out on the 45-minute drive to the cave.

Summary: ATM is an amazing experience. It was made all the better by our guide Magdaleno, who was both knowledgeable and passionate about the history of el mundo Maya. He did a fantastic job of explaining the significance of the artifacts and remains in the cave itself, outlining what is known (versus what’s conjectured) about Mayan culture and civilization, and guiding us through the cave. The tour itself starts at a parking lot, where after a very short walk you ford a chest-deep river.

Crossing the river at the start of the ATM tour

Getting to the cave entails two more shallow river crossings and about a 1.5mi hike on a mostly-flat, mostly-dirt, mostly-shaded path. Once you get to the cave, you swim in and the real fun starts.

This is where you swim into the cave

We’d read tons of reviews of the cave experience, many of which highlighted how difficult it was. In reality, though, it was about a 5 on a scale of 1-10 for us. There was some climbing on and over rocks, and a few tight passages that required gyrations and contortions, but all easily managed. We saw one small clutch of roosting bats and one really impressive spider, plus all the usual beauty and grandeur of a large cave system. What sets ATM apart is its history as a sacred ceremonial space; there are multiple sets of human remains along the path, along with lots of ceremonial pottery. The tour culminates with climbing an extension ladder to the Cave of the Crystal Maiden, which is an unforgettable sight that unfortunately I couldn’t capture on my own. Cameras aren’t allowed in the cave because of damage caused by prior clumsy visitors, so the cave pictures we have come from MayaWalk’s archive. There are other restrictions (part of the tour must be done in socks, without shoes, for example) but nothing onerous.

After the tour, MayaWalk had catered a lunch of stewed chicken, rice, and beans, which we eagerly ate before the ride back to the hotel. Then it was time for another visit to the pool, as one does. Because of Erica’s status with Hyatt, the hotel offered to upgrade us a slightly nicer room that had its own private patio and tub, so we moved our stuff over and unpacked our $5 Walmart pool floats for the afternoon before enjoying dinner in the hotel again.

Our upgraded back deck

What did we do the next day? Not a darn thing except floating in the pool. I read two books, took pictures of some birds, drank several local beers, watched the iguanas, and generally just relaxed.

The hotel had a pretty good assortment of local birds to watch, including this collared aracari.
The two predominant local beers are Belikin and 501. I liked both, but liked their stout better than their lager.
OK, so maybe I wasn’t only looking at the birds, but can you blame me?

Wednesday morning we had an earlier wakeup so that we could take a tour of the ruins at Tikal. This required more driving than ATM, so we needed an earlier start. The MayaWalk driver picked us up as before and took us to the office to meet up with our group, and off we went. It was just us and one other couple (two lovely Brits now living just outside Quebec City). We made one stop en route at a local shop, which had a pretty impressive scale model of the Tikal complex. The model below shows the full extent of the complex, but not all of it is visible when you get there– more on that in a bit.

scale model of the Tikal complex as it might have looked when inhabited

The total drive there took about 90 minutes. Part of it is inside the boundaries of the park; you pass through a big gate that looks, no kidding, much like the famous gate from Jurassic Park. After we parked, we started exploring the complex. It covers an area of about 16 square kilometers; as you walk through on the provided paths, you can see the tops of some of the larger buildings, but many of the smaller buildings just look like tree-covered mounds.

as you walk through the complex sights like this are common

This is on purpose; if you remove the trees and vegetation from these structures, you’d also be removing some of the support that holds them together, not to mention exposing them more to erosion and water damage. The complex has been thoroughly mapped using both radar and lidar, which is where the layout in the diorama above came from. Some of the structures are open to the public, including Temple IV and most of the complex known as the Mundo Perdido (“Lost World”).

view from high up in the main plaza
view from inside a dwelling room, featuring the characteristic triangular “Mayan arch”
you can’t really judge the scale of these monuments until you’re there

It’s pretty astonishing to wander around the complex and picture the amount of effort and knowledge that went into building these structures: all by hand, with very limited tools, in a place with no nearby rivers or lakes (so limited supplies of water). There was a lot of specialized knowledge involved, too. Our guide told us the story of one structure that was restored by a team from the University of Pennsylvania but that had to be re-restored– the UPenn team made the structure too straight and level, so it was eroding much faster than expected because rainfall pooled instead of running off the side of the uneven original structure.

The tour took about 3 hours all told, then we piled back into the van for the trip back. En route we stopped at a restaurant, where we’d stopped on the inbound leg to preorder lunch. My plate of barbecued chicken, rice, and beans was simple but delicious. As with the inbound leg, we stopped at the border to walk through the customs checkpoint, which entailed having our passports checked and stamped. Since we’re both used to clearing customs and immigration at airports, this was a mildly novel experience but nothing too exciting. Once we got back to the hotel, we enjoyed a pleasant evening at the pool and a tasty dinner.

Saturday morning we got up, packed, and caught the shuttle we had booked back to Belize City. Our driver, Lucy, was a great conversationalist and told us all about life in Belize (summary: go to Guatemala if you need surgery; don’t trust politicians; if you want to live in Belize, rent before buying). Our destination was the water taxi terminal at the southern end of the city, where we wanted to take a water taxi to Caye Caulker. Tickets were around $20 each, and after a short wait we boarded the water taxi for the ride.

(Intermission: let’s talk about dollars. Belize uses the Belizean dollar (BZD), which is pegged at a 2:1 exchange rate with US dollars. Some places show prices in USD, but most are in BZD. We found that USD was accepted everywhere, and most places would accept USD and return change in USD. Lots of places don’t take cards, and none of the places we went to throughout the whole trip would accept American Express.)

The water taxi ride took about 45 minutes and deposited us at the tiny terminal at Caye Caulker. Luggage handling is a bit of a mess– the ferry was too full for us to carry on our small luggage, so we checked it; after arrival we had to wait for 45min or so for the luggage to be unloaded and sorted out. This was made less pleasant by the stink of rotting seaweed. At the moment, Caye Caulker’s eastern shore has been collecting an unusual amount of seaweed, which mostly sits there in the sun and decomposes. Crews come and shovel it away every so often, but not fast enough… thus the smell.

Apparently every vacation spot in the Caribbean is legally required to have a decorative sign

Caye Caulker is not a large island– it’s long and narrow, so you can easily walk from the western side to the eastern in five minutes or so. We’d booked at the Colinda Cabanas, and I can’t say enough good about the property– easy to get to, quiet, clean, with a small but very pleasant waterfront and beach area. Our bungalow was set towards the back of the property, with a small front porch with a water view. It was small but neat on the inside. Like Ka’ana, they provide filtered bottled water, which is important– I did get a touch of Belize belly at one point, probably due to ice cubes, and it wasn’t a whole lot of fun.

I loved the Belizean hardwood ceiling and trim

One of the reasons we wanted to visit Caye Caulker was its laid-back vibe. San Pedro is larger and more like a mini-Cancun, but Caulker is super slow-moving. In fact, “Go Slow” is their official island motto, and people take it seriously. There are no cars on the island, which is fine because you wouldn’t need them anyway. Instead, there are golf-cart taxis, plus lots of bikes. Colinda included two bikes with our cabin, but we didn’t use them because it was easy enough to walk. There are plenty of restaurants and bars, and a few shops. Interestingly, most of the grocery trade in Belize is controlled by Taiwanese immigrants, so you’ll see lots of grocery stores with Chinese surnames or poorly translated English phrases.

At the north end of the island, there’s an area known as “The Split”; in 1961, when Hurricane Hattie blew through, the storm surge washed away part of the island, leaving a ~100′ wide channel. We mostly stayed on the south part of the island. The Lazy Lizard is a famous bar right at the Split, and we walked past it a few times, but it looked like the kind of loud, heavy-drinking stupidity that we generally avoid. We did take a ferry across to the north side one afternoon to hang out at a secluded beach; the hotel on site is closed but they’ll still sell you beach access for BZ$10, which was well worth it.

Caulker has a reputation as a cheap destination for backpackers, and there were plenty of ’em. However, overall the island wasn’t nearly as busy as I expected. It is more busy during the summer. One note: lobsters aren’t in season until June so we didn’t get to have any. #firstworldproblems

We’d scheduled two activities while in Caye Caulker. First was overflying the Blue Hole. This is a legendary scuba destination, but since we don’t dive, a flight was the next best thing. There are two primary tour operators who provide flights from the small Caye Caulker airstrip: Tropic Air and Maya Air. Both operate air service to the mainland and other islands with Cessna Caravans, but only Tropic has Caravan flights over the Blue Hole.

A TropicAir Caravan on its way

The TropicAir website is absolutely awful, so save yourself some hassle and call them if you want to book a flight. The flight takes about an hour overall. Tropic Air has a very nice new terminal building at the airport; after a brief wait, the C208 landed and we joined the passengers who had already flown from San Pedro to pick us up then departed for the tour. The flight out was at 3500′, then we descended to 1000′ over the Blue Hole, and went as low as 700′ to see the shipwreck. Whether or not you enjoy flying in small airplanes, the scenery is absolutely stunning; watching the pilot and silently judging his airmanship was just an added bonus for me.

aerial view of the Blue Hole
note sadness on my face because I am not the one flying the plane
most shipwrecks are underwater… not here

Because we are who we are, of course we had some unscheduled activities while at Caulker, too, including taking one of the Colinda kayaks out for a paddle. The wind was steady the whole time we were there: out of the east at 15 to 20 knots. This made kayaking a little more difficult than it would have been if we’d gone to the west side, but being able to take a few steps from our cabana and be in the kayak made up for that.

we should be keeping a list of “places we have been kayaing”

Our other big adventure was snorkeling. Caye Caulker sits about a 5-minute boat ride away from the edge of a large reef system and marine preserve, so we were eager to get out in it and snorkel. Caveman is the best-rated tour operator on the island but they wouldn’t return Erica’s emails, so we booked with Anwar Tours and had a superb experience. Our guide, Jian, was born on the island and has lived there his entire life, so he was a wealth of information and guidance about the area. At the first stop, we fed rays and nurse sharks; the other two were actually inside the reef boundaries, so we got to see a gorgeous selection of marine life, including the biggest, ugliest moray eel I’ve ever seen.

A few other Culker highlights:

  • The coffee at Ice and Beans is terrific. We made it a regular morning stop.
  • There’s a local food called “fryjacks”. Think of it like a super-sized empanada– a fry-bread shell stuffed with goodies. Errolyn’s was our favorite fryjack place, but we had good ones at Ka’ana and at a couple of other places.
  • The local animal shelter lets their charges run around the island during the day. You will often find friendly dogs, and occasionally cats, just walking around spreading joy.
  • One morning we did a yoga class at Namaste. It was jam-packed, but it was a good class.
  • Every day at sunset, the staff at the Iguana Reef Hotel feeds the stingrays, which means you can get as close to them as you want.
If you can’t find a dog to pet, a stingray will do

Although I would happily have stayed longer, eventually we had to go back home. Sad, right? On a whim, I decided to book us on Maya Air for the 8-minute flight back to the Belize City airport. The small price premium (compared to buying water taxi tickets plus a taxi from the ferry to the airport) was far outweighed by the time savings, and buying the ticket could not have been easier– show up at the Maya Air counter, tell them your name, hand them a credit card, and walk away 5 minutes later. It was faster to buy these tickets in person than it usually is to buy tickets from the websites that American or Delta offer.

Our view on departure– Colinda is the third dock from the bottom

Anyway: as advertised, the flight was about 8 minutes long, then we were on the ramp at BZE. Customs and immigration was again straightforward, and after a short wait we were back on another 737-800 headed home.

Overall, Belize was an amazing place to visit and I’m eager to go back.

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Trip report: Bermuda Triangle Challenge 2023

This post should have been titled “Bermuda 2021” but hey, what can you do?

Back in ancient times, Erica found a race called the Bermuda Triangle Challenge that looked like fun, so we signed up for it with the intent to run it in 2021. I booked a hotel, got plane tickets, and then… it was postponed twice because of COVID. We finally made it there to run it this year, thus this trip report.

The first challenge: getting there

The BTC is a three-race series: a one-mile race down Front Street on Friday night, a 10K around the island on Saturday morning, and either a half- or full marathon Sunday morning. As the race weekend fell over the Martin Luther King Day holiday weekend, we decided to arrive Thursday and come back Monday.

Sad fact: there is no 100LL aviation gasoline to be had in Bermuda, so I couldn’t fly us there. Carmen carries 136 gallons of usable fuel, which equates to about 5 hours of flying time, less a one-hour reserve. I could get us to Bermuda easily, but I wouldn’t have enough fuel to get back. That meant we were going to have to take a commercial flight, and that turned out to be surprisingly difficult to schedule. We ended up flying HSV-ATL-BDA on Delta on the way out and then BDA-JFK-DCA-HSV on American for the return, both booked with frequent-flyer miles. The routings were weird because of seat availability, but the timing worked out OK.

The race organizers had designated the Hamilton Princess as the official hotel, so originally that’s what I’d booked us into. Tourists are generally not able to book rental cars, and so I wanted to minimize the amount of travel required for packet pickup etc. I had paid a deposit equal to the room charge for 4 nights when originally booking, and the hotel agreed to apply the full amount to the 2023 race weekend, so we were all set.

Day 1: arrival, lighthouse, and fish

After a completely uneventful flight, we arrived at the Bermuda airport to a lovely sunny afternoon. Bermuda is long and narrow, and there are really 3 major roads: the North Shore Road, the South Road, and (wait for it) the Middle Road. The airport is on the northeast corner of the island, and our hotel (and downtown) are right under the “H” in the word “Hamilton” in the map below. I had pre-booked airport transfers with CEO Transport, so our driver met us at baggage claim and off we went. Taxis are plentiful, and the drivers all have to pass a London-style exam on island geography and street names before they get licensed, but they only take cash. There’s no Uber or Lyft, but there’s a local app called Hitch that serves the same purpose.

thanks to Apple Maps for this view of the islands (Bermuda is a bunch of islands, not just one)

After about a 20-minute drive, we arrived at the hotel and found our room ready. They’d unexpectedly upgraded us to a room with a water view– I say “unexpectedly” because they had tried several times to sell me expensive pre-arrival upgrades. When I say “expensive,” I mean “the upgrade was 1.5x to 7x the actual room rate”, so I certainly didn’t expect to get anything for free. We dropped our bags, let our phones charge for a few minutes, and then set out for our first excursion, to the Gibbs Hill lighthouse. (Notice that I didn’t say anything about “lunch” yet…)

The lighthouse is about a $30 taxi ride from the hotel. (Bermuda uses the Bermudan dollar, which is tied 1:1 to the US dollar, and every place we went accepted either or both.) The lighthouse itself is pretty spectacular– it’s made of cast-iron panels bolted together and was only the second of its kind in the world when it was built. There’s a small gift shop that sells tickets for $4, with which you can climb to the top. Note that the lighthouse itself closes at 4pm– lots of things in Bermuda close early, and this was our first introduction to that concept. We climbed to the top using the 180+ narrow spiral steps inside the lighthouse casing, where I shot this panorama:

a panorama from the top of the lighthouse
I like the way the curved railings turned out in this photo.

The views over the island are pretty spectacular too. The camera doesn’t really capture the zillion shades of bright paint used on the houses, but you can see that all the rooftops are white. That’s because Bermuda doesn’t really have much of a water system. Most houses have cisterns that catch rainwater from the roof– the roofs are terraced to improve the catch rate then painted with lime, both as a means of purifying the rainwater but also for temperature control.

Not a bad view

The lighthouse itself is still operational, and it also has a surface-search radar (which you can see at the very top). The nearby grounds are pretty small so the whole visit couldn’t have taken more than half an hour or so.

There’s just no way to take a lighthouse picture that doesn’t look phallic.

By this point we were both super hungry, and there’s a small Indian restaurant on the lighthouse grounds… but it didn’t open until later, so we had our driver drop us at a restaurant we’d seen on the way to the lighthouse called “Lost in the Triangle” (or LITT). We shared an order of fried wahoo bites (think “fish nuggets”) and then both had fish tacos, which were excellent. Dinner for two, with 2 beers and 1 mixed drink, was about $110. It turns out Bermuda is pretty expensive– you should expect to pay $10 or so for a beer, $15-20 for a mixed drink, and $25+ for an entree at most local restaurants. Restaurants typically add a 17% gratuity, too.

After dinner, we started walking back to the hotel. Fun fact: Hamilton has lots of streets with no shoulders or sidewalks, and some of them have retaining walls or hedges that come right up to the edge of the road. Walking thus turned into a game of dodge-the-car more than we wanted to, so after darkness fell we stopped off at Crow Road Park and got a taxi back to the hotel. And so to bed.

Day 2: kayaking and the Butterfield Mile

Friday was our first “race day” but we didn’t really have much scheduled in the morning. We went to Devil’s Isle for breakfast and coffee, and it was excellent. They have a great selection of dishes, including huevos rancheros and a bunch of gluten- and/or dairy-free foods. The coffee was quite good. How did the restaurant get its name? Fun question.

Brief history lesson: Bermuda is named after Juan de Bermudez, who accidentally found it by wrecking his ship there. The Spaniards left as quickly as they could because they thought the island was populated with devils– the Bermuda petrel (or “cahow”) makes a loud screeching noise, and that plus the noise of previously-shipwrecked wild hogs scared them enough that neither Spain nor Portugal settled the island. Made of sterner stuff, the British did settle it after a 1609 shipwreck. The shipwreck victims refused to leave (since they were supposed to go to Jamestown and had heard conditions there were bad), so the British Crown claimed the island and turned it into a prison colony.

Anyway. Breakfast was delicious. Our next item was to go pick up our race packets. Somehow our registration had been lost in the shuffle due to the double deferment, but the registration team got us sorted out reasonably quickly. The race swag is terrific: a small folding cooler bag, a really nice heavyweight jacket, and a short-sleeve race tech shirt.

some of the race swag
You can’t tell from the picture, but the jacket is probably 1/2″ thick and quite warm

The rest of the race expo was pretty unremarkable, except for the excellent locally-made rum cake shown below. As you might expect, it didn’t last very long.

We stashed our stuff back in the room and headed to the pool. The hotel has a lovely large infinity pool and a good-sized hot tub, both with great ocean views, plus a smaller adults-only pool off to one side. We spent a couple of very pleasant hours sitting in the sun and reading; it was a little cool for being in the water, but not bad at all. The big issue was the wind– a steady 15-20kt wind coming from the south led to a note from the hotel telling us they’d be putting all patio furniture in the room overnight to keep it from blowing away. (Several of our taxi drivers said “every year the weather is terrible at race weekend!” so this is a known issue).

Note the edge of the infinity pool.

For the afternoon we’d booked a glass-bottom kayak tour at Robinson’s Marina. We told our cab driver that we wanted to get lunch on the way– did he know a good place to get a fish sandwich? Turns out he did. Check this beauty out:

I would cheerfully eat one of these every day for the rest of my life.

Seaside Cafe provided the above behemoth: about half a pound of fried wahoo served on fresh, thick-cut raisin bread. This is a local delicacy that I was eager to try and it was SO GOOD, y’all. I happily ate every bite and it was well worth the $17 price.

Our guide was terrific– he grew up a short distance from the marina and knew the local area very well. We saw one large sea turtle, a few parrotfish, and a good variety of seabirds (mostly herons and gulls). Partway through we stopped at the Morgans Island Nature Reserve for a beach break. Because we mostly stayed in the harbor, even though the wind had picked up a good bit the paddling was completely manageable.

in the water!

The harbor area is pretty shallow– at its deepest it’s maybe 10′– and the visibility was superb. The pictures don’t really do justice to the clarity and color of the water. Interestingly, there’s not a lot of grass on the bottom in the shallows, as you might expect.

On the beach at the nature reserve

The columns above are characteristic of limestone– the water erodes them over time. Our guide, who was in his late 20s by my guess, said they had noticeably eroded since his boyhood nearby, which isn’t really surprising. One thing he said that did surprise me was that rent for a one-bedroom apartment could be as high as $5000/month! A later perusal of apartment rental listings confirmed that. Ouch.

After kayaking, we decided to stop at Horseshoe Bay. We’d seen it several times while driving by; it’s well-known as one of the most popular beaches in Bermuda, and even though it was too cool and much too windy to swim, we still wanted to see it. The beach was mostly empty except for a gang of kite surfers and a few other beach-walkers. In the summer, it’s apparently crowded, and the facilities (including a snack bar) are open. Today, not so much. After a few photos, during which I manfully resisted the temptation to climb on the cliffs that had big signs saying “danger! do not climb these!” we headed back to the hotel to prep for the race.

Those kite surfers were flying
the beautiful Erica in her natural habitat

So, that first race. We had both previously agreed that the point of this challenge for us was “go home uninjured”– neither of us was adequately trained, and racing a 1-mile race sounded like a good way to get hurt. The race is a short loop on Front Street, the main drag in Hamilton. There was a good crowd of several hundred runners, including a large contingent of school-age kids and some elite milers who were there chasing prize money. We had a nice jaunt out and back, nothing too speedy, and collected the first of our four Challenge medals. Then it was time for a quick shower before dinner at the Mad Hatters. The food was superb, as was the company, but the service was a bit slow.

Brief digression: Bermuda is a really interesting hybrid of what Americans think of as “island time” and British-ness. Cars drive on the left, houses and buildings have names (“Waterloo House”) instead of just street numbers, there are frequent references to kings and queens, and so on. The pace of life seems quite a bit slower than in the US, but not as relaxed as the Bahamas or Jamaica. Nearly everything’s closed on Sundays, and many businesses close at 4 or 5pm during the week. Restaurants aren’t open late (e.g. Mad Hatters closed at 9pm), and there’s not much in the way of night life. Bermuda is not where you want to go if you want a Mallorca-style party atmosphere.

Day 3: the 10K and stormy weather

The Saturday forecast called for the weather to steadily worsen. When we went to bed Friday night, I half expected to wake up to a text saying the 10K had been postponed. When we woke up, however, it was only raining intermittently, and there was a steady brisk wind but it wasn’t terrible. We got up, had in-room coffee, and headed downstairs to catch the shuttle. The 10K started from the National Sports Centre, which was nowhere near walking distance from the hotel. After a quick shuttle ride, we arrived at the venue and wandered around, including doing a few warmup laps around their track, then it was off for the 10K.

The race course was quite scenic– we left the stadium, ran on Middle Road for a while, and then got onto North Shore until we approached the sports centre again. We stopped for a couple of photo opportunities, as one does. The wind was steady, and it was warm (maybe 70º) and quite humid. We’d both started the race with long-sleeved tech shirts on, but I shed mine about halfway through.

A scenic selfie stop along the 10K route

The race finishes on the running track at the sports centre, which was neat. We got our second medal and then enjoyed the post-race festival for a bit; the organizers had a hot dog cart, a table with four kinds of draft beer from one of Bermuda’s two local craft breweries, and a bar serving rum drinks made with Gosling’s, plus a few other assorted snacks.

Two medals earned, two to go

We went back to the hotel to clean up, had a snack at the hotel coffee bar, and got ready to meet our tour guide. Meanwhile, though, the weather was steadily worsening. I wish I’d taken a picture of the radar view– but one interesting nuance of Bermuda is that there are some gaps in offshore radar coverage because of where Cuban and Bermudan radar coverage sits. That sometimes makes storms appear out of nowhere (from a radar perspective; they’re visible on satellite).

The weather as we started our tour was… not great

Erica had found a local tour guide and taxi driver named Carol who is apparently locally famous for her knowledge and personality. She was terrific. We spent about four hours with her driving all over the island, all the way up to St Georges at the north end. As a retired policewoman, she had a lot of offbeat local knowledge and was overall just a pleasant and wonderful companion. The weather kept us from seeing some of the landmarks in detail; for example, we couldn’t drive up to Fort Hamilton because the roads were closed. We did get to visit Crystal Cave, which was originally discovered by two teenage boys who were chasing a lost cricket ball.

A view inside Crystal Cave

During the last hour of the tour the weather improved briefly, just long enough to get us back to the hotel, but as it was forecast to worsen again, we decided to try the hotel’s room service. It was pretty decent, although their fish sandwich wasn’t nearly as good as the one from Seaside.

Day 4: the half-marathon

By the time we got up Sunday morning, most of the weather had passed– it was still cloudy and breezy (and warm!) but not stormy. The start line for the race was actually at the end of the hotel’s driveway, so we didn’t have much of a commute. The RD asked runners to gather about 1/3mi down the road, where the finish festival would be located, so we wandered down there for a pre-race picture and some gentle warmups.

Excited to take my work running shirt for its first outing

The last half-marathon we ran together was Tear Drop in 2021, and because our training volume was low, we’d agreed to just treat this as a long extended photo opportunity and not a race per se. After the starting horn, we got out on the course and enjoyed seeing some of the same areas we’d already seen, plus some new territory, including a photobomb by St Mark’s Church.

The race was well-supported, with several hydration stops, on-course entertainment from (at least) 3 bands, and two stops serving Gosling’s rum drinks. There were a surprising number of spectators, too, even in the residential areas, and nearly every single one of them would shout, wave, or otherwise signal their support. That’s such a nice change from the races I’m used to, where on most of the course there’s no one but the runners; we really enjoyed that aspect of all 3 races.

It’s hard to overstate how refreshing my Dark and Stormy was at this point

The weather steadily improved; it got warmer and sunnier the longer we were on the course. (This improvement was deceptive; more on that in a bit.) At the finish festival, we feasted on hot docs, Haagen-Dazs, and local pastries, then headed back to the hotel for some hot tub time.

mission accomplished!

Not surprisingly, the hot tub was jammed with other runners, so we socialized for a little while, then tried to sunbathe. This was frustrated by the unwanted arrival of more rain, so we decided to wait it out in the room and then do a self-guided walking tour of Hamilton. We walked through the cathedral, saw the outside of the parliament and supreme court buildings, got rained on a bunch, and made the short climb up to Fort Hamilton just before they closed. The view was well worth the excursion, especially the beautiful garden area at ground level between the inner and outer walls. (Sadly I didn’t take any pictures of this!)

looking back to the northwest from Ft Hamilton

We did dinner twice, sort of– we’d made reservations at Hog Penny for dinner, but were both famished, so we stopped off and had some excellent nachos and a beer flight to tide us over at the Pickled Onion. As it turns out, two dinners is just slightly more than the recommended amount of food, even after a half-marathon, but I certainly don’t have any complaints. Hog Penny, which opened in 1957 and is Bermuda’s oldest restaurant, had a trivia contest going while we were there, which added a festive note to our excellent pub food-style dinner. I had an excellent shepherd’s pie, Erica had fish and chips, and we split a sticky toffee pudding for dessert. Good stuff.

Day 5: the trip home

Travel home was uneventful. The best part was probably the spectacularly large rainbow we saw on the drive back to the airport. Our American flight BDA-JFK was delayed about an hour, but that delay didn’t keep us from getting home on time.

We didn’t get as much beach time as I would have liked because the weather was uncooperative, and there were several local landmarks and activities that we didn’t have time for because we built our visit around the race schedule. It’s a lovely island, with a relaxed and friendly population, and I’d like to go back.

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Travel Thursday: managing flight and calendar stuff

I used to fly a lot– in February 2020, just before the Big You Know What, I got an email from Delta telling me that I had crossed the two-million-mile mark with them. I say this not to brag, but to frame a key need I have: effective calendar management around flights. My business travel is starting to pick up again, but the steady drumbeat of news stories and anecdotes about how awful commercial air travel is right now spurred me to mention a few tools and strategies I use for managing this kind of stuff.

First, let’s filter out what I’m not talking about: searching for and pricing flights, choosing a preferred set of travel vendors, etc. The choice of Delta-vs-American (Delta, duh), whether to change planes in Paris vs Amsterdam (Amsterdam, hands down), or whether it’s true that you get the lowest fares when booking on Tuesday (nope)– these are interesting topics for another time but there are also zillions of travel blogs and videos and so on that cover that stuff. Instead, I want to focus on a fundamental issue: how do I track and organize my calendar around travel.

I’ll start with TripIt, because I did start with TripIt. I’ve had it since 2008 and it is an incredibly useful tool for several purposes. First, it’s an all-in-one trip planner. By forwarding airline, train, ship, car, and hotel reservation confirmations to the service, it automatically assembles itineraries and then gives me a simple interface, on web, mobile, and Apple Watch, to show me where I’m going and when, and how much layover time I have at each segment. Here’s an example for a recent trip from Huntsville to Kraków to London to Huntsville.

TripIt gives an easy-to-read summary of all aspects of a trip

The basic service is free, but I happily pay $49/year to get the “pro” feature set. This includes push notifications of airport gate changes, flight time changes (both for delays and advances), and a service that will alert you when a purchased airfare drops so you can get it reticketed and recover the difference.

TripIt also has the very useful feature that you can easily share your trips. When I have business travel, it’s easy to share the trip with Erica so she can see my itinerary. Better still, when we’re traveling together, we can both update and edit the itinerary– so while I’m booking flights, cars, and hotels, she can be planning, booking, and adding tours and other activities. Then we both have a complete up-to-date map and timeline of our travel, which we both love.

Then there’s Flighty. This app is pretty much magical. Like Tripit, it tracks flights, and it can notify you of gate changes, delays, cancellations, and so on. In practice, I tend to get notifications from Flighty 5-10 minutes before Tripit. This may not sound like much, but a 5-minute head start on rebooking when your flight’s been suddenly cancelled can be huge.

Flighty can read flight data from TripIt and write it to my iPhone calendar (which in turn is synced with my Exchange Online mailbox). Boom! When I book a flight, it shows up on my calendar with the time zones and locations correct… which means my coworkers can see when I’m in flight, avoiding double-booking. When a flight’s delayed, Flighty’s smart enough to update the calendar on its own. Flighty also ingests FAA delay data, which in itself is super useful. The Flighty app is beautifully designed and their support team is very responsive to feedback.It’s well worth the yearly fee (which I think is $40).

Speaking of FAA delay data… there’s an app for that. Or at least a web site: Lots of people don’t realize how much trouble can be caused by a few storms in inopportune places. Delays at major hubs (like Atlanta, Chicago, or JFK/Newark/LaGuardia) cascade really quickly across the rest of the system–so if there’s a ground stop for bad weather, or storms that reduce traffic flow, or pretty much any ATC-related issue, the delays will spread a lot faster and further than you might expect, often leading to stories in your favorite media outlet with headlines like “travel meltdown.” Although it doesn’t really relate to travel calendar management, I mention this because I usually take a quick look at this page a couple of times on the evening before and morning of my commercial flights. That gives me a sense of what might lie ahead. It’s also my go-to when I have friends or family traveling and I want to keep tabs on whether they are likely to get to their destination on time.

Maybe a future topic: why the Jacksonville Center ATC facility is the biggest single contributor to widespread delays! For now, I’m going to get busy doing the travel expense report I procrastinated to write this.

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Iceland 2021 day 5, horses and the Blue Lagoon

(Day 0; Day 1; Day 2; Day 3; Day 4)

I managed to make it through my first 50 1/2 years on the earth without sitting on a horse. In the last year, though, I’ve ridden what I have learned are known as “tourist-string” horses in Kentucky, Missouri, Florida, and now Iceland. This is 100% because of Erica, but it turns out I sort of like riding them. So it was with a cheerful smile that I headed out to Is Hestar to go ride some Icelandic horses on our last full day in country.

A few fun facts about Icelandic horses: a) don’t call them “ponies”; b) if a horse ever leaves the country, it cannot come back (thus preventing the spread of horse cooties); c) they use unique saddles because d) they have a unique gait. They also have an extremely distinctive mane, reminiscent of Rod Stewart from 1979.

We reserved a 2-hour “lava tour” ride at Is Hestar for Sunday morning. It’s an easy drive to the outskirts of Reykjavik, where you wouldn’t necessarily think there was any place to ride. However, their barn sits right in the middle of an extensive network of multi-use trails and is right next to a pretty good-size, 8000-year-old lava field. After a short safety briefing, we were assigned to our horses and saddled up to go ride. The photo above is me meeting my horse, whose name I can’t remember; he, and a couple of his compatriots, seemed to think that I had some horse candy in my pocket. (Spoiler: I did not.) After I saddled up, it became clear that, once again, I had gotten a horse who had his own plan for the day that didn’t necessarily align with mine. I sort of yanked him around the paddock a bit, culminating in a visit to the water trough for him that ended only when our guide opened the gate. (Another horse also had a long drink and then wiped his nose all over my knee, so that was fun.)

A word about the guides: they did a great job managing the 10 of us who were riding and our mounts. They were friendly, outgoing, full of interesting horse trivia, and just overall pleasant to be around. It didn’t hurt that the weather was absolutely gorgeous as we rode around the back side of one of the trail loops and out into the lava fields.

After about an hour, we stopped a field where the horses like to snack. This had roughly the same effect as throwing a box of pizza rolls into a room full of teenage boys. The snack break provided some good photo opportunities, though.

One of the things I noticed quickly on my first visit is the contrast between the purple clumps (and, if you’re lucky, fields) of lupine and the black, gray, and brown shades of the landscape. Above is a good sample of what I mean; we happened to be there during peak season, which isn’t all that different than visiting Texas when bluebonnets are doing their thing.

You bet your sweet little horse that I was wearing a helmet.

After letting the horses snack, we rode back; the guides offered anyone who wanted to a chance to test out the faster gaits for which Icelandic horses are known, but as a super novice rider I was happy to pass on that opportunity.

After surviving the horses, our next stop was the Blue Lagoon. This is maybe the only borderline-controversial thing we did. I say that because there are essentially two camps of opinion: “the Blue Lagoon is an overpriced and stupid tourist trap” in one corner, versus “the Blue Lagoon is the best thing EVER” in the other. The truth lies somewhere in between.

The lagoon itself is about 45min outside of Reykjavik; it’s attached to the Svartsengi power station, which you can see from some distance away when you’re driving on the south coast road. The high mineral content of the water in that area gives it a unique color, and some bright spark decided years ago that the naturally heated water would be perfect for a spa. The whole Blue Lagoon complex is dedicated to that proposition; it’s themed and marketed as a spa, which isn’t normally my thing, but I figured it was worth a try.

When you arrive, the arrival flow is very much like I imagine a fancy spa would be: you check in, get an RFID wristband, pick up any options you prepaid for (we got robes and slippers), then go to the sex-segregated changing rooms.

Pro tip; Iceland, by law and custom, requires people to shower naked before entering shared baths like the waters at the Blue Lagoon. If you’re not used to communal showers, well, you’d better get used to them. (Some places, like the Blue Lagoon, do have more private showers, but don’t count on privacy anywhere else!)

Freshly showered, we went out into the water. There’s a large map showing the temperature zones of the overall lagoon. With a pretty much infinite supply of 105-degree-F water, they mix it so that there are warmer and cooler zones. One of those zones contains a swim-up bar; our package included one drink apiece, so we got our drinks and went to go… loiter in the water.

That’s it. That’s what there is to do at the Blue Lagoon. Oh, and you can get mud facials. The water has an extremely high silicate content, so they salvage some of the silica and use it to make face mask mud. I tried it. Do I look any younger in the below photo? No? Maybe you should save your money and not buy the mud when you go, then.

One of the common questions I see people asking on Reddit etc is “how long should I plan for a Blue Lagoon trip?” You absolutely could stop off here on the way to or from the airport as long as you keep an eye on time. I’d say 2 hours (not including travel time) is about right; after about 2 hours, we’d gotten our recommended daily allowance of spa fun. It wasn’t crowded, but there’s nothing to do or see other than the water and the mud. One note: little kids are allowed there, so if you want a child-free visit, you’ll have to find a spot as far away from the kids as possible. There were tons of adventurous 20-somethings; I’d say that was the main demographic but I suspect it varies by season and day of the week.

After a relaxing shower, we jumped back in the car and headed back into town. We had a little time to kill, so we went to the penis museum. Ahem. I mean the Icelandic Phallological Museum, which sounds way more scientific. Summary: save your money. It’s very much a one-note whistle and, while well-executed, there are only sny preserved animal dicks you can look at before they all blur together. The $70 or so it cost for two museum admissions plus two drinks could’ve been better spent.

For dinner, we wanted to go to Svarta Kaffid because it was right down the street from the hotel. We went there about 10pm on our first night and they politely but firmly said “oh, we’re closed”– despite their door signs and Facebook page both saying they were open until 11pm. Despite that, we decided to give them another try. The Icelandic meat soup was solidly OK– the bread bowl was an A+ but the soup, IMHO, wasn’t as good as it was at the Hotel Skogafoss.

After dinner, it was an easy, short walk back to the hotel so we could pack up to go home.

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Iceland 2021 day 4: up north to Langjökull

(Day 0; Day 1; Day 2; Day 3)

Astute readers may notice that, so far, I haven’t said anything about the entire northern 2/3 of the country. For reference, it was snowing in the north while we were there, and although I originally wanted to fly up to Akureyri, the timing of our trip just wouldn’t work for getting that far north. I didn’t want to miss the “ice” part of Iceland completely, though, so we decided to do one of the canned tours of Langjökull.

First, though, we had some business to conduct in town: a COVID-19 test, as required to return to the US. There are private test providers, but the easiest way to get a test is to register on Pick the city you’re in and a time, pay the fee (EUR 50 for a PCR test or EUR 30 for a rapid-antigen test, either of which are accepted in the US), and show up at the appointed time– that’s it.

The test location in Reykjavik is at a government health clinic not far from downtown. We had a 915a appointment (the first time slot available on a Saturday) and showed up at about 855a to find a line of 100 or so people. That was a little offputting but, once they started testing, we were in and out within another 15 minutes. I’d wanted to leave the city by 10am to make our 1230p tour time, and we were on the way by about 930a. The emails with our test results arrived within 90 minutes; unlike all the fooling around with the Rakning C19 app, it just worked.

To get to Húsafell, our route went mostly along highway 1, but northbound this time. Just before Borgarnes (where there’s a very cool-looking bridge across the water), we turned onto highway 50, which took us further north. Along the way we went through the Fáskrúðsfjarðargöng tunnel, which was unexpectedly cool. The real star, though, was the view. On the left, ocean and mountains. On the right, plains and mountains. Ahead, mountains, fields with horses and sheep, the occasional road-crossing sheep, and a continually variable cloud deck. It was a gloriously scenic drive, but fairly slow; between the occasional rain, the continual wind, and the 90kph speed limit, it took us just under 2 hours to get there. Just before we got to the Hotel Húsafell itself, we passed a golf course (surprise #1) that was right next to a lava-stone runway (surprise #2).

The Húsafell park complex, in addition to the hotel and golf course, has a ton of campsites and trails. It has a well-known thermal spa (the Canyon Baths), fishing, golf, and winter-focused activities like snowmobiling. I didn’t know about its extensive trail network or I’d’ve planned some extra time just to hike around the area… maybe next time. Anyway, When we got to the hotel, we found that nothing opened for another 20 minutes or so (surprise #3) so we walked around a bit. Once it opened, we had a quick lunch (pizza, nothing remarkable) to kill some time until the tour was to meet. We’d booked this tour with Arctic Adventures, mostly because we got to drive around in the bad boy pictured below, but that first required us to get on a boringly regular tour bus to drive to the base camp. The drive was interesting because it was mostly on unimproved roads that I wasn’t too sure the bus could handle. We made it to base camp without incident, though.

At base camp, we left the bus and queued up to get onto the ice truck that would carry us up above the snow line. Now, I should mention at this point that the truck can carry up to 46 people, and I think we had 40– so this was the most crowded-tourist-like activity of the entire trip. (Plus the driver’s dog, who rode in the cab the whole way!) The tour operator recommended dressing for cold, dry conditions, which makes sense given that you’re going to be on a glacier. “Dry” is relative though; it started lightly snowing as we loaded into the truck and snowed more and more as we climbed.

The cave entrance is at about 4200′ elevation. Surprisingly, it felt warmer there than it had at base camp or at the hotel, partly because the air was dry, partly because there was minimal wind, and partly because the sun had come out. After a short safety briefing, our guide took us into the cave complex. “Cave” is a little bit of a misnomer because the whole thing is really a man-made tunnel, not a natural cave, but “cave” is easier to type so that’s what I’ll call it.

The cave system forms a big loop; you enter, walk through what looks like a big sewer pipe, and come out into an anteroom with benches, where you add crampons to your boots. You’ll need them, as the floor of the cave is… ice. In some low-lying spots, there’s accumulated meltwater. If your boots are waterproof, you’ll have no trouble; if not, well, you probably should’ve worn some (but the guide will give you giant waterproof overshoes at base camp if you need them).

The cave system is lit with LED lights, some of which are inside the ice and give a sort of surreal glow to the scene. You can clearly see the seasonal ice rings, and the horizontal striations in the ice show where the seasonal snow-thaw-melt-freeze cycle has taken place really clearly. The ice is surprisingly textured, too.

Along the way through the cave, there are several hollowed-out chambers, one of which is a “wedding chapel”. Funnily enough, it contained nothing other than a tarp-covered digging machine; no alter, ceiling lights, etc. Our guide said the digger was stored there pending repair. One of the chambers is festooned with lights, and one is basically an echo chamber. My favorite was the one shown below; it’s basically a horizontal crevasse in the ice that shows all the different colors and textures to great advantage.

The last chamber is lit specifically to enable these kinds of cool silhouette photos

When we exited the cave, it was snowing steadily and visibility was no more than a few hundred yards. It wasn’t quite a whiteout, but it was pretty close. On one hand, it’s a glacier, so of course it was snowing. On the other hand, it was June. On the drive back down the glacier, which was pretty slow due to the snow, we saw a rented Land Rover that had gone off-road and was stuck, flipped at about a 30-degree angle. Our driver stopped and picked them up and dropped them at base camp with the rest of us; after that, it was an easy drive in the big bus back to our starting point.

Pro tip: there are lots of places in Iceland that have roads. Just because there’s a road, don’t assume that you can actually drive there. Check (especially for “F roads”, which aren’t paved and/or have very steep terrain) before you go anywhere.

Pro tip: as I mentioned before, you’ll never go wrong in Iceland by buying the maximum rental-car insurance that you can get. Note that these policies almost always have an exception for “door damage due to winds”– the winds are strong enough to snatch the car door out of your hand and break the mechanism, especially on small cars.

We skipped past the falls at Hraunfossar and Barnafoss (which are right next to each other) on the drive up, but stopped on the way back. I have to say that this complex was my favorite overall of all the waterfalls. “Hraun” is Icelandic for “lava,” which is why these falls have their name; instead of the typical gravity-fed water-falling-down falls, the complex here is made of falls where water that’s permeated the lava falls down. The rocks and colors are just spectacular.

As with several of our other stops, there’s almost no actual hiking involved here– you park (it’s free), walk about 100 yards, and boom, there are the falls. There’s a trail overlooking Hraunfossar that you can use to walk downriver; we saw (and heard) several sheep on the falls side. If you then walk back to the Hraunfossar trailhead, there’s a complex of trails that leads you around Barnafoss, including a bridge that lets you cross the river to get a different set of views.

We had a bit of light drizzle while exploring the falls, but the skies cleared nicely as we drove back to the south. As on the drive up, the landscape unrolled before us with plenty of horses, farms, sheep, mountains, and meadows to look at, and the coastal views were amazing once we turned southeast. After we got back to the city, we headed out for our planned dinner: Icelandic hot dogs.

Yes, that’s right: hot dogs, that American staple, are a bit of a delicacy in Iceland. They’re made using a lamb/beef/pork mix, and they’re reputed to be delicious. We walked over to BBP first, because it was closest to our hotel, and found the stand below.

It’s exactly what the picture shows: hot dogs and Coke-brand drinks. No side items (fries, chips, etc); no beer or wine; no desserts. Just… hot dogs. We each had one. As expected, they were delicious, but not really dinner by themselves. We decided to walk over to the Reykjavik Sausage Company, which gave us a chance to walk along the waterfront in the (chilly, windy) sunshine. When we got there, guess what: hot dogs, Coke-brand drinks, and… ice cream. Still not a real dinner, but we made do with an additional hot dog (BBP’s were way better) and some ice cream, then headed back to make an early night of it.

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Iceland 2021, day 2: the south coast

(Day 0; Day 1)

Pro tip: remember the lava video from day 1? In the US you’d never be able to get so close to something so dangerous. In Iceland, though, their approach is much more grown-up. Hazards are clearly marked but, even on the steepest cliffs or most dangerous areas, there aren’t that many physical barriers to actively prevent you from doing stupid things. So don’t be stupid. (Included in “don’t be stupid”: traffic laws are vigorously enforced and, if you pay your fine on the spot in cash, you get a 25% discount.)

Other things you should be aware of that may be forbidden include drones (not allowed in national parks and at most attractions), driving without headlights, pulling off the side of the road to take pictures, and driving on closed roads.

The “Ring Road” is the English nickname for Icelandic highway 1, which goes more or less around the perimeter of the island. The perimeter of Iceland is about the same length as the perimeter of Kentucky, so you can see that driving it might take you a little while. Many visitors rent a camper van and navigate all the way around the ring, stopping whenever they want to see one of the many sights, but that requires you to spend a ton of time d…r…i…v…i…n….g at 40-50mph on narrow roads, possibly in high winds, rain, and/or snow, and that wasn’t how we wanted to spend our trip. Instead, we agreed that we’d take a day and drive from Reykjavik over to Vík and back. Several tour companies offer bus tours along this route, but we couldn’t book one for any of the days we wanted to go, again due to low tourist demand. In the event, this worked out well and I’m glad we did the tour ourselves.

Our planned route was to start in the city, stop at Seljalandfoss, then Skógafoss, then on to Vík. The map above shows the actual route we took– I mistakenly navigated us to Selfoss, which was a non-event since it was pretty much on the route anyway.

First stop was the waterfall at Seljalandfoss. It’s clearly visible from the road, so you can’t miss it. You have to pay a few hundred ISK to park (around US$3), and there’s a small coffee stand and bathrooms. The waterfall itself is a super easy hike. In the first picture below, you can see a few tiny people in the background; you can easily hike behind the waterfall, then up a small trail (maybe 200 yds) onto the other side.

Midway up the small trail on the approach to behind-the-waterfall
Us just before walking directly behind the waterfall. There’s a lot of spray and mist but the path is rocky enough so that it’s not slippery. Once you get back to ground level, if you go to the far edge of the parking lot, you’ll see a path that takes you to the lesser-known Gljúfrafoss waterfall, which has a cave you can go into. It’s not really marked, but it’s only about 1/4mi and the path is easy to see. The odds are pretty good that you’ll get wet while you’re in here, but it’s worth it to stand on the big rock.

Standing on the big rock inside Gljúfrafoss

We spent about an hour there, then it was time for the short drive to Skógafoss. Like Seljalandfoss, it’s easy to see from the main road, but it’s also well marked by signs. Along the route you can see some Icelandic turf houses if you’re interested. There’s also a building with a big painting of the Eyjafjallajökull volcanic eruption from 2010, and there used to be a museum and visitors’ center, but it’s now closed.

The Skógafoss waterfall is another easy hike (maybe 1/4mi) from the parking lot to the base of the falls. Unlike Seljalandfoss, there are plenty of sea birds around, both in flight and nesting in the cliffs.

A set of about 300 steps leads off to the right side of the waterfall and the headwaters that feed it. It’s not an especially taxing climb, it just takes a little while. The view from the top is absolutely worth it, though. The trail continues on for another half mile at least; for that distance you’re hiking alongside a rocky stream, but the view down across the valley and towards the coast is better so we just stayed there for a few minutes admiring it.

We were pretty famished so elected to have lunch at the nearest restaurant, the Hotel Skógafoss. There are one or two other restaurants there, along with some rental cabins and another hotel. Excellent choice. The food was inexpensive (about $45 for two entrees plus dessert) and delicious. I had Icelandic lamb soup (which is the Icelandic equivalent of Swedish meatballs– nearly every place has it) and Erica had a really good lamb burger.

We’d previously debated whether to walk out and see the crashed plane at Sólheimasandur. It crashed in 1973 and the US Navy basically just left the wreck in place– it’s not the kind of thing you can see every day, so we decided we felt perky enough to do it. The hike is super easy: 45min out on a level trail, mostly packed gravel with some bigger rocks embedded, will take you to the plane. Sure enough, when we got there we found… a crashed airplane. Exactly as advertised. (Note that the trail is marked but there aren’t any signs, bathrooms, or water available.) The weather couldn’t have been nicer, though– it was about 45 degrees, with a steady but not obnoxious wind, mostly-clear skies, and plenty of sunshine.

The view going back towards parking was better than the view of the airplane, if I’m honest.

Our next planned stop was the Dyrhólaey nature reserve, which gets its name (literally “door hole” in Icelandic) from its famous arch. This was the closest thing to an American-style national park that we had seen so far; there’s a small visitors’ center with bathrooms, and there are park rangers. When we were there, they closed the preserve daily at 7pm to protect seabird nesting grounds, although this is seasonal. It’s no more than a couple hundred yards from the parking area to the main trail, so it was probably the easiest walk of the entire day.

The views across the water and along the coast were stunning. You can see the black sand beach and one set of the Reynisdrangar basalt sea stacks at Reynisfjara
We didn’t see any puffins but other seabirds are plentiful.
This is the original lighthouse, still operational. There’s a pleasant trail leading around the promontory that holds it.

After Dyrhólaey, our next stop was the black-sand beaches at Reynisfjara. By the time we got there, the clouds had lowered quite a bit and the wind had picked up. As we walked towards the beach, we saw signs cautioning visitors about “sneaker waves” so we stayed well away from the surf line itself (more because we didn’t want to get cold and wet than because we feared the waves!) The black sand of the beaches is really arresting– the area closest to the water is actually sand but then above the waterline it turns to shale pebbles, not unlike the beaches near Nice. Apart from the color, it’s… sand. It crunches like sand, absorbs water like sand, and shows footprints like sand. One major difference that I noticed between Gulf beaches and this area: we didn’t see any sea life– no crabs, bugs, etc., and no birds hunting for critters along the waterline.

There’s a small cave and a really interesting formation of basalt columns. They look so regular and rectangular that they give the appearance of being man-made… but they’re not. They’re just the right height and shape for a quick photo perch, though.

The pebbles made a fantastic accessory for my favorite action figure

By the time we were done on the beach, it was around 7pm and, once again, we were ready to eat. We drove the short distance to Vik to explore a bit and find dinner. The highlight was seeing this church, which was designed by the same architect as Hallsgrimkirkja. You can’t tell from looking at it, since this looks pretty much like every other local church we saw the entire time, and it sure doesn’t look like Hallsgrimkirkja.

A view from the church looking back towards Reynisdrangar

For dinner, we ended up at Halldorskaffi, mostly because it was open; after a short wait, they seated us and we both ordered the lamb sandwich. They were good but not exceptional; for dessert, we shared a slice of meringue cake but the star of the meal was the accompanying locally-made ice cream. We left the restaurant about 830p and were back in the city right at 11pm to rest up for our next set of adventures.


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Iceland 2021, day 1: Reykjavik and the volcano

We’d budgeted the rest of our first day for exploring around Reykjavik, so once we were freed from quarantine that’s what we went out to do. It was chilly with a fierce wind, which made it feel quite a bit cooler.

Nifty street art on the side of our hotel

Our first stop was the Sun Voyager statue. There are a few other statues along the waterside path known as Sæbraut, but it was so windy that we didn’t walk to see them. (We did, however, see two super-ostentatious yachts owned by Russian oligarchs, so that was nice.)

Sun Voyager, with both mega-yachts off to the left

Next was Hallgrimskirkja, which was easy to navigate to because you can see it from practically everywhere in the city. It was an easy 10-minute walk from the hotel.

Before we actually went into the church, we stopped at the famous waffle wagon. I’m not saying that I would eat one of these waffles every day, but I probably would try. After that, we entered the church itself and paid the EUR 8 apiece to go into the tower. It’s well worth it for the views, as you can see below (and even better on a clear day).

If the street itself is painted, I suppose that qualifies as “street art”. Interestingly, you can’t see the colored stripes from the church tower itself because there’s a slight downhill slope starting at the top of the stripes, where the man is standing in this picture.
Some more assorted street art

Nether Erica nor I like to shop much, and in any event many of the downtown shops are either closed outright or have restricted hours because of a lack of customers. We decided that, since it was going to be daylight for at least another 8 hours, to head to the volcano at Fagradalsfjall. (No, I don’t know how to pronounce it.) It is an easy drive, past Grindavik and inland a bit. The Icelandic weather service has a really helpful page showing current conditions, which we checked ahead of time, and there are several webcams showing live views. However, has a lot more volcano-specific info. Here’s what it says as I’m typing this on Monday, 21 June:

Strong wind (13-18 m/s) and even more in wind gusts and rain. Not the day to visit the eruption. Tuesday and expecially Wednesday better choices.

If you poke around the SafeTravel website, you’ll see that there are three paths: A (which is now closed because it has lava all over it), B, and C, which is a newer path that goes down to the Nátthagi valley next to the river of lava. We opted for B, which is pretty difficult on its own. It was 45 degrees with a 25mph wind when we started off, which made it feel like 25 degrees, but we were dressed for it.

Pro tip: be prepared for variable weather in the same day, with anything from full sun and high 40s to moderate rain, 20+ mph winds, and temperatures in the high 30s. Bring some good base layers, heavy socks, and wind and waterproof clothing. You’ll need it.

First we walked on what might have been the “C” trail. It wasn’t marked, and it led to a big lava plain, so it might have been Nátthagi, but maybe not. When we got there, we found that the volcano was in shield mode, with new lava flowing underneath the existing top cap of cooled lava. No dramatic eruptions, sadly. Now’s probably a good time to point out that volcano conditions change rapidly too, so what you see there might be different from what we saw.

You can see the faint glow of lava behind Erica and to the right.
Caution: contents may be hot
The picture really doesn’t do justice to the scale of the lava field.

As you might expect, it’s noticeably warmer as you get closer to the lava— uncomfortably so if you get too close. We saw some British tourists who had the presence of mind to bring marshmallows, which they toasted over the lava. The smell is hard to describe, too: hints of sulfur, brick, and rock, but also toasted.

We traced our steps back to the trail fork that was marked with a sign saying “Trails A and B”. It was easy to see where the paths diverged because an ICESAR team had trail A blocked off. Then it was just a matter of hiking. The hike itself was pretty challenging— there are some steep sections with loose tuff, and the steady wind didn’t help much. The scenery was pretty amazing though. I didn’t include lots of pictures here because they really don’t capture the sweep of the view.

You’ll meet this rope just when you need it the most.
The elevation profile for the trail B hike, See that sharp peak in the middle? That’s where you’re grabbing onto the rope pictured above.
A panorama— zoom in!
We were super proud of ourselves for making it to the top

It was after 10pm when we finally made our way back to the parking lot, not that you could tell from looking at the (cloudy) sky. We drove back to the city and started looking for a place to eat. This turned out to be troublesome for two reasons.

First is that lots of places are either closed or have limited hours because of low visitor counts. The other is that many of these same places haven’t updated their hours on Facebook, TripAdvisor, or what-have-you. So the first two places we tried to go were either just closing when we arrived or had already closed their kitchens. We managed to get in to Forsettinn maybe 5 minutes before the kitchen closed. Too bad that their menu was so limited— we compromised on a pepperoni pizza, which was pretty decent, especially considering how hungry we were. Then it was back to the hotel for bedtime, with the prospect of our trip to the South Coast dancing in our heads.

Pro tip: restaurants in Iceland are expensive. We had a 9” pizza, one beer, and two “hot White Russians” and it was about US $80. Be prepared.


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Iceland 2021, day 0: notes and travel

I had a great visit to Iceland four years ago but didn’t get to see everything I wanted to. That presented a natural opportunity to take Erica and catch up on the stuff I’d missed so we planned a mid-summer sightseeing trip.

Many of the online blogs and guides you’ll see for Iceland (and I won’t link to them here!) say things like “this place is so magical” or “here’s your ULTIMATE guide to the BEST things in Iceland.” That irritates me, so here’s my practical (and hopefully useful) guide to what we did. I won’t pretend that any of it is the magical / ultimate / best, but it will be an accurate rendition that may help you in deciding what to do. We wanted to have an enjoyable time and not engage in the grinding cost-cutting (“buy a loaf of bread at Costco and make your own sandwiches!”) or frenzied drive-a-thons (“we saw every waterfall in Iceland in 8 days and it only took us 150 hours in the car!”) that seem endemic in Iceland travel. The most useful source that I found was the /r/VisitingIceland subreddit on Reddit, both for helpful tips but also for counter examples of people being stupid so I could avoid doing the same.

Before you go: all of the requirements for traveling to Iceland in the plague time are listed at Make sure you read it thoroughly! We saw several people at various places who had problems caused by their own failure to read and follow the requirements. Until July 15, you have to have a COVID-19 PCR test at the Reykjavik airport and remain isolated at your lodging until it comes back but those requirements can change. You must also complete a web form that requires you to upload proof of either your vaccination status or your recovery from COVID. That form will result in you getting a barcode in email that you’ll need later. Iceland also recommends that you download the “Rakning C-19” app for exposure notification.

Getting there: we decided to fly Delta. They have daily flights to Reykjavik from Boston, JFK, Atlanta, and Minneapolis. It’s cheaper to fly Icelandair but then you have to get to one of their cities first, so it isn’t cheaper any more, at least for us. If you do book Delta, be aware that pretty much every Saturday they’re loading future schedule changes into their system, so your flights may change unexpectedly. Keep an eye on them. We checked in at Huntsville, flew to Atlanta and thence JFK, and got to Reykjavik about 715am. At Huntsville and again at JFK, we were required to show both our CDC vaccination cards but also the Icelandic pre-registration barcode. Apart from that, it was just like any other Delta flight.

Arrival in Reykjavik: at the airport, as is typical, first you clear customs, at which point the customs officer will ask to see your barcode. Once that’s done, you’ll pick up your bags. For our trip, since PCR tests were still required, we joined the queue and waited maybe 5 minutes to get nose-poked. After that, we took the shuttle to the rental car area, picked up our rental from Blue, and drove to our hotel.

A word about driving: Iceland has many more road hazards than most American drivers are used to, including wandering sheep, roads with no shoulders, narrow roads, one-lane bridges, poor visibility, and tightly enforced speed limits. Do yourself a favor and pay the extra for the full-liability rental-car insurance. It will protect you from cost associated with rock chips, paint dings, dents from garage parking, and so on. I also sprang for the 4G WiFi puck offered by the rental company and this was a good move, since it meant we could keep our phones connected as we drove around.

Staying in Reykjavik: originally we wanted to book an Airbnb. Until the next rules change, you can only do this if the Airbnb host agrees that they will honor the quarantine requirements (you must quarantine in a private room, with its own bathroom). The one we liked best didn’t answer our question about this, so we decided to pick a hotel instead. The Alda Reykjavik got very good reviews and was centrally located, so we made reservations there. There were other less-expensive options, but I wanted the downtown area to be within easy walking distance and this turned out to be a good choice— plenty of restaurants and bars nearby, easy access to parking, and very walkable. Breakfast was included, and it was very good, with fresh bread and pastries, cold cuts, cheeses, fruit, skyr, cod liver oil, and surprisingly good coffee.

After checkin, we went to our room to wait for our quarantine results. Since I’d booked us the economy double room, we weren’t surprised to see how small it was (very typical of European hotel rooms, of course). We were hungry, but the front desk was kind enough to send up a breakfast box, then we napped and waited. If you preregister with the Rakning C-19 app, your test results are supposed to show up as an in-app notification. They do, but just as a single notification— you can’t go back and see them later, and we didn’t get an email or SMS notification. We got the popup after about a 4.5 hour wait, which seems to be pretty typical. The website has a chat function that you can use to reach a human, and our helpful human sent us the negative test results, so we grabbed our jackets and headed out to walk a bit and go to the volcano. Stay tuned…


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Running in Bratislava

One of the joys I find in travel is running or cycling in new places. Since starting my current job, I’ve been able to run or cycle in the UK, Slovakia, Austria, Hungary, the Balearics, Switzerland, and France, mostly along routes that were either intrinsically scenic or interesting because of their novelty. I was recently in Slovakia for meetings and was able to knock out a couple of runs in Zilina, but I also had the opportunity to run in Bratislava. 

Let me start with a few simple facts:

  1. One does not simply fly into Žilina. There are basically two ways to get there: fly into Vienna and drive, or fly into Krakow and drive. Both routes have their charms, but the Vienna route is a little shorter and much flatter, meaning it’s better when there is ice, snow, or rain. You wouldn’t think that’s a concern in May, but it snowed the day I arrived in country; I just routinely go through Vienna. The drive takes about 3 hours.
  2. Bratislava is only about 30mi from Vienna, and you drive right through it on the way to Žilina. 
  3. If you’re going back to the US from Vienna, all the flights leave in the early morning.

That means that I will normally have a full day of meetings, drive back to Vienna in the evening, stay at the airport, and then fly home the next morning. On this particular trip, I’d planned to get my last day’s workout in by running around the Žilina dam, but then it occurred to me that I could run in Vienna instead, as even with the drive I’d still arrive well before daylight. Then it hit me: I could run in Bratislava instead. 

A little research led me to this route, the “Bratislava Promenádna”. This is a simple loop that starts on the north bank of the Danube and runs to the west, then crosses the Lafranconi bridge to the west, which takes you to the south bank. You then run to the Apollo Bridge and cross back to the north bank. This looked like a good route to try, so I threw on my running clothes, jumped in my rental car, and drove to Bratislava with a vague idea of where I needed to go— none of the running route maps I had said anything about where to park or exactly where the route started.

A bit of driving around led me to a big shopping complex called the Eurovea that has ample parking, restrooms, and beer (more on that later). I parked there, then walked around the outside a bit until I found the river and the path adjoining it. I started running east, towards the Apollo, where I found this handy sign showing the actual route. Turns out I was running the “wrong” way, so I turned around and headed west again.

Promenádna sign

I only wanted to run about 5 miles, so I decided not to go all the way to the Lafranconi bridge. Instead, I ran to the bridge with the Bratislava UFO:

IMG 1057

Crossing that bridge put me out right near the Sad Janka park; the whole south bank is wooded and features some very pleasant and green trails. I could have detoured through the park, but I like running alongside the water whenever possible, so that’s what I did instead. (In retrospect I wish I’d gone through the park; it’s actually the oldest public park in central Europe!) There are lots of river barges moored along both banks; some are fancy cruise ship or dinner boats, while others aren’t. 

IMG 1054

As I approached the Apollo bridge, I very quickly figured out that I was going to be way short of 5 miles. Luckily there’s a cycling trail that continues further to the east, although it diverges from the river. Slovakia is plentifully supplied with all sorts of riding paths; this one was nicely paved and quite busy with runners, cyclists, and even a few rollerbladers. The area at the foot of the bridge is 1.3Km from the starting point of the loop, so with a little mental math I was able to figure out how long I needed to stay on the cycle path. Along the route I saw this cool painting on a bridge abutment.

IMG 1059

Coming back westbound, I climbed the footpath onto the Apollo Bridge, which is the newest and fanciest (and busiest!) of the four Bratislava bridges. 

IMG 1060

I had a fantastic view of the setting sun off to the west as I ran across, and I stopped to get a closeup of the Bratislava plaque on the bridge arch. I’m not sure if it’s officially a landmark or not, but it should be.

IMG 1062

From the north end of the bridge, it was an easy path back to the Eurovea, where I had a delicious dinner at the Kolkovna. This is a Czech chain of restaurants serving traditional central European food; I had a delicious goulash and a bowl of “bean soup” that was indistinguishable in ingredients from what Cajuns would call “red beans and rice” (except for not having any rice in it). Although there were many excellent beers on tap, I didn’t have any, as Slovakia has a very strict 0.0% blood-alcohol limit for driving. (Sorry if you read this far hoping to find out what delicious beer I sampled!) 

I thoroughly enjoyed the route; next time I’ll try to arrange things so I can run the full loop and maybe detour through the park. I’d also love to explore the bike paths around Bratislava more, although that will require an actual, y’know, bike,

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Training Tuesday: NYC United Half Marathon + MCM 17.75K race reports

IMG 0821What an adventure!

Over the past 10 days I had the opportunity to run two signature races: the New York City United Airlines Half Marathon, and the Marine Corps Marathon 17.75K. Herewith my race report.

NYC 13.1

I registered for this lottery not realizing exactly when it was; as it turns out, it was the same day my youngest son’s high-school choir was performing at Carnegie Hall and it fell on St. Patrick’s Day. The annual Microsoft MVP Summit started the next day in Seattle, so the logistics were a bit challenging— normally I would’ve flown myself but that wouldn’t work since I had to go straight to Seattle the morning after the race.

Minimal tourism note: New York City is amazing, the Dream Hotel Midtown makes a great base of operations for exploring Manhattan and Brooklyn, and I super loved running Central Park. Everything I ate was superb. The choir concert was a once-in-a-lifetime memory, and a huge highlight was getting to see my cousin Jeff, whom I hadn’t seen in 13 years, not once but twice. Sometime when I have more time I’ll write up all the fun touristy stuff, but for now, let’s talk about the race.

The course begins in Prospect Park, which is in Brooklyn (which of course I didn’t know), then snakes through Brooklyn, over the Manhattan Bridge, then up FDR Drive, which is closed for the race. Runners turn left near the UN, run through Times Square, and finish in Central Park right near the famous Tavern on the Green. There was a lot of online discussion in the NYC 13.1 Facebook group about how hilly the course was— most of the elevation looked like it would be in the first 4-5 miles. With that in mind, and knowing how crowded the race would be, I didn’t plan this to be a PR race. I figured I would give myself permission to enjoy the day and take plenty of pictures, especially since two weeks beforehand I had PR’d the Carnival Frolic 13.1 in Decatur. I planned to plug in 305W into the Stryd PowerRace app and just run to that power target instead of worrying about my pace or HR; that’s what I’d done at Carnival and it seemed like it would work well again. First there were two problems to deal with…

Problem #1: how the hell was I going to get to Prospect Park? This was neatly solved by Cesar Trelles, lead instigator of the FB group, who organized four buses that picked up on Madison Avenue and went to the race start. Once corral assignments were handed out, he staged the bus passengers by their corral, which was assigned on the basis of predicted finish time. All I had to do was show up about 0515 and get on the bus, which delivered me right to the correct side of the park. I had elected not to check a race bag, so after a brisk half-mile walk I was able to get in line for the porta-potties and then make my way to the corral. Breakfast was a protein bar and a packet of BeetElite juice, which is pretty close to my normal pre-13.1 feeding.

Problem #2: the weather. Race day was predicted to be cold and windy, and it was— 34° at the start with a steady 6-10mph wind. I decided to run with a beanie and gloves, shorts over tights, and a long-sleeve tech shirt. This was not nearly enough to keep me comfortable pre-race, but oh well. Thankfully the original forecast, which called for rain, was wrong, because running when it’s cold and wet is not even a little bit fun.

Problem-wise, that was it. The race organizers did a great job with the pre-race logistics and it was easy for me to get through the area and into my corral. I decided to tag along with the 1:55 pacers and see how long I could hang with them, so I met them (though I can’t remember their names, boooo) and waited for my corral start. At about 0755 it was our turn, and I crossed the line at 0759.

The first three miles flew by as we went through Prospect Park. It was cold, but the sun was coming up and I was too busy dodging other runners to worry about how I felt. I held a nice steady rhythm and felt like I was keeping up with the pacers just fine— with my first 3 mile splits at 9:00, 8:38, and 8:11, I was good to go.

Mile 4 was mostly downhill, heading towards the water. My watch says I ran it in 7:41, which is smoking fast for me. I’ll take it.

The real surprises came at miles 5-6. That’s the segment that includes the Manhattan Bridge. I’d heard a lot of pregame anxiety about the climb but it didn’t look that bad, and it didn’t feel that bad either. The run up to, over, and down the bridge went by at 8:44 and 8:26, better than my previous PR 13.1 average pace. This segment had a terrific view of the Manhattan skyline and the Brooklyn Bridge. The pacers kept telling us to save our energy because “the race begins in Manhattan”… and they were right.

IMG 0795

Mile 7: I don’t know, man. 7:56 on the flat terrain of the FDR Drive. I had been yo-yoing the pacers a bit from mile 5 onwards, but I was also taking time to hit each Gatorade stop to ensure that I didn’t get dehydrated— that tends to happen to me when it’s cold outside because I don’t realize how much I’m sweating. Mile 8 was a 9:18 special, since i stopped for a pee break— which proved that I was getting enough water in, yay.

All the while, I felt great. Plenty of energy from the crowd; my legs felt strong; I was in a delightful flow balanced between working hard and feeling like I was just trucking along steadily. So I can’t explain what happened for the rest of the race: 8:01, 7:54, 7:44, 6:44, and 8:29. That’s right. I ran 5 miles all under my previous best PR pace, with one of them the fastest mile I’ve ever run in my life… and it was not all downhill, as you can see from the Strava data.

I crossed the finish line somewhat disbelieving my watch time, but the official result time confirmed it: 1:53:09, or about a 2min30sec improvement over my two-week-old PR, which itself was about a 2min30sec PR. I guess I was in a New York state of mind, or something.

Summary: great race, one which I will forever remember. I’d do it again in a heartbeat.

The next morning, I woke up at 4ish, took an Uber to JFK, and spent Monday-Wednesday deeply immersed in the highly technical (and completely-covered-by-non-disclosure-agreement) MVP Summit. I had a short shakeout run Monday but nothing for the rest of the week; I didn’t have time for my scheduled Tuesday and Wednesday workouts, then Thursday I flew to DC for the MCM 17.75K.

The MCM 17.75K

This race is special for two reasons. One is that it gets its name from the year of the USMC’s founding, 1775. The other is that finishers get an automatic entry to the Marine Corps Marathon. I registered for the 17.75 last year but couldn’t run it because of a family funeral. My original plan was to run it so I’d have an MCM entry, but then I unexpectedly was able to register for the MCM 50K (about which, more in another post), but I figured I might as well run it anyway because I didn’t have any other weekend plans. So off to DC I went, where I found a cheap Airbnb right near the Nationals’ ballpark. My plan was to work Friday, then drive down to the Quantico area for packet pickup and the Marriott room I’d reserved using points, so that’s what I did. Meanwhile, I had an amazing lunch of bison huevos rancheros at the Silver Diner, and they were thoroughly amazing; I also found the local Goodwill and bought some clothes to wear at the start line, then donate.

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Dinner was the “carbo motivation dinner” offered by the MCM Organization— it was at the Marine Corps Base Quantico officers’ club and featured the Quantico band and a speech by the base CO. For $20, I figured it might be fun, and it was; I was at a table with 7 other runners and supporters (all but 1 older than me, go figure) from various parts of the country. The band was fun and the food was decent.IMG 0824

My Stryd pod had died midweek sometime, and I didn’t have the charger, so my original plan to run with power went out the window. I decided just to run based on feel, since I wasn’t trying for a PR or anything. Breakfast was a MetRx protein bar and a pre-race Gu with 35mg caffeine, plus most of a 20oz diet coke. Weather at the start was chilly as hell, with a knifing wind. At Goodwill I’d picked up a big fleece (when I say “big” I think it was 3XL—it went down damn near to my knees) and had that on over my MCM mock and a short-sleeve tech shirt, shorts over tights, and a beanie with gloves. The start/finish area is at a medium-sized church, which you access via either walking or a shuttle bus from several nearby parking areas. I headed into the (nice, warm) church and met some new Facebook friends from the MCM running group (hi, Monique, Joe, and Susan!) We stayed toasty inside until it was time to head to the start line— a bit of a tactical mistake, to be honest.

The starting gun fired and I was off. The first 4-5 miles of the course are mostly on packed gravel trails through the forest. It had rained a bunch the week before but for the most part the trails were fine; there were a few muddy patches but not too bad. The big problem for the first 2 miles was just the volume of runners—3300 people, not sorted into corrals or waves, all hammering up and down the little rollers. I was weaving a good bit but managed to get into a more open space around mile 3ish. Until mile 4 I picked up some free downhill speed, then the real fun started about 4.3 with a pretty steady climb until about mile 7.5. Thankfully the race organizers had added some motivational signs to power us up and down the hills.

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Normally this is where I would have run a steady power but since I couldn’t do that I tried to hold a steady RPE and my pace reflected that nicely.

More free speed on mile 8, and then just before mile 9 I took a badly needed portapotty break—I couldn’t get into one before the race and figured I’d just hold out, but my colon had a different opinion. You can see that at one point my pace shows as 44:04/mile, which is pretty funny since a normal walking pace for me is about 15:30/mile.

Miles 9+ were back on the trail but much less crowded, as the field had thinned out. Steady run to the finish, got my medal, and boom: bison huevos rancheros for lunch, a quick dip in the hotel hot tub, and then home. I arrived just in time to join friends for dinner and show off my new bling collection.

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Overall the whole trip was superb. While extended road trips like this are often a pain in the butt, and there were definitely times when I would rather have been chilling with Pancake at home, the opportunity to run two iconic races in two completely different places— with the MVP Summit sandwiched in the middle— was a marvel. This is just one of the many ways in which running has changed my life for the better.

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Race report: 2018 Marine Corps Marathon

I had an idea earlier this year: “I should think about trying to run the Marine Corps Marathon.”

Like many of the ideas I have, this one was of questionable value, but it happened this past weekend so I thought I’d write about how it came to fruition.

In truth, I’d always thought that, in the unlikely event I ever ran a marathon, I’d like it to be the MCM. The “unlikely event” part went away back in 2016 when I ran Rocket City, but I didn’t have any burning ambition to do another one. Then I saw that the Marine Corps had added a new race: the Marine Corps 17.75K (1775 was the Corps’ founding year). Finishing it granted automatic entry to MCM. I entered the lottery for the 17.75K and, to my surprise, got in… but the race itself fell on the same day as the funeral of my beloved Aunt Norma, so I didn’t get to run it. I begrudgingly entered the lottery for MCM, not expecting to get in… and then I did.


I strained a hamstring 2 weeks before the Chattanooga 70.3— so since late April, I have been intermittently unable to run more than a couple of miles. My coach has kept me on the bike to continue to keep my cardio base, along with some weight work, and the hammy seemed to be getting steadily better. Two weeks before MCM, I’d planned to run the London Royal Parks 13.1, which went swimmingly. I was encouraged that my hamstring didn’t hurt, and that I felt good during and after that race… to a point.

(skip the below if you’re not a runner or don’t care about running shoes)

See, last year I had a persistent, nagging problem with my right knee’s IT band. Skipping the boring details, let’s just say I eventually figured out that it was caused by my shoes, so I switched shoes but then started having a different problem with my calves. Welcome to distance running! I finally found a pair of Nike Structure 21s that seemed to work really well for me… until I started doing runs of longer than about 8 miles. Then I started having soreness in the outside of my left foot… so back to the shoe store I went, returning this time with a pair of On Cloudflow shoes. They seemed to work really well, except that after the London race I felt the calf pain returning. I waffled for a solid week before my coach finally suggested I run the marathon in them anyway, since they worked fine during the race. This seemed reasonable… after all, who cares if they’re sore after the race? That’s what I planned to do.

(ok, it’s safe to start reading again)

Coach Jon didn’t follow the usual gospel of having increasingly long runs as marathon prep— my longest scheduled run was 15mi, the week after London. I made it through 10 before my hamstring was bothering me too much to continue. For the 4 or 5 weeks preceding the race, I kept seeing people in the MCM group on Facebook talk about their 18, 20, 22, etc. mile runs and so I was a little nervous about being undertrained. However, I knew that, barring a serious injury, I’d be able to complete the race and cross the finish line, even if it wasn’t in the time that I had wanted, so I wasn’t unduly nervous (or so I thought at the time!)

Travel and arrival

My friend Ashley had deferred her MCM entry last year and decided that this would be her year to run it as well. Our mutual friend Erica came along as cheerleader and sherpa, so we loaded up the airplane on a cloudy Friday morning and set out from Decatur. 


In the plane

taken while the weather was still nice

We flew into Potomac Friendly (so named because it’s in Friendly, MD). I’ll do a separate Flying Friday post on the flight itself, which was the most difficult flight I’ve ever flown. The weather was, shall we say, not awesome, but I got plenty of solid time in IMC, all hand-flown because our autopilot is down for maintenance. I picked Potomac because it’s one of the so-called “MD3” airports that are closest in to downtown DC (the others being Hyde Field and College Park). Potomac is a small airport with a short runway, but it has inexpensive fuel and is a short drive from downtown (by DC standards). We parked the plane and then Ashley’s BFF Candice picked us up and drove us to the runners’ expo at the Gaylord convention center. 

The expo was fun. Packet pickup was quick and efficient. Each runner got a clear plastic bag (to be used later for gear drop-off) with a mock turtleneck race shirt, a race patch, and a very nice printed race guide. All the major vendors and sponsors were at the expo, including Brooks (the main running-gear sponsor), Carb Boom (the nutrition sponsor), USAA, and so on. I managed to limit my expo spending to one T-shirt, one Christmas tree ornament, and one coffee mug, mostly because I’d already bought a race jacket directly from Brooks. There was a lot of other stuff I could happily have bought, though!

at the logo wall

proud to say I had the only Waffle House shirt in the place— thanks, Anna

Candice suggested Succotash for dinner, and it was superb. The chicken and waffles were the best I’ve ever had. Portions were generous, which is good because it was fairly expensive. (Drink prices are ridiculous, a trend I noted throughout DC, but what are you gonna do.) 

On the advice of my friend Ingrid, I’d booked a room at the Ritz-Carlton Pentagon City, because it’s easy walking distance to the start line. Thankfully I had stashed away enough Marriott points to get it for free. My expectations of the “Ritz-Carlton” brand name were sky high, so I was a little disappointed that the hotel is basically a nicer-than-usual Marriott property, not the oasis of luxury I’d pictured. The staff were extremely friendly and pleasant, and it was marvelous being right next to the Fashion City mall, which has both a DC Metro stop and a Starbucks. 

The day before

There’s a tremendously active (and welcoming!) Facebook group for MCM participants, and they’d scheduled a shakeout run on Saturday morning. I took a Lyft over (funny story for another time about when Lyft thinks you’ve been in an accident in one of their vehicles) and met the group near the Smithsonian metro station. The weather was windy, rainy, and cool— low 50s— but it was a fun run anyway. I hadn’t brought any rain gear, so I was pretty drenched by the time we got done, but in a good way.

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After another Lyft ride back to the hotel and a quick cleanup (and a giant coffee), we met up for a little sightseeing. First (because hello, have you met me?) we went to Port City Brewing to give them a try; after all, their motto is “We put the ‘ale’ in ‘Alexandria.’” Good beer and a nice atmosphere, but they didn’t have any food, which was a bit of a problem. Then it was off to Georgetown for lunch. Candice had suggested an Italian restaurant called Filomena. Let me just be clear and say that this was, unequivocally, the best-decorated restaurant I’ve ever been to and had the best Italian food I’ve ever had.

When you walk in the door, the first thing you see is the room where the pasta is made. In our case, that included an Italian grandma giving us malocchio

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Don’t mess with grandma

Besides the food, Filomena is famous for their elaborate holiday decorations. There’s a discreet little sign at the entrance cautioning parents that they may want to consider their kids’ maturity levels before entering the restaurant proper. Here’s a small sample…

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at this point I was so hungry that no amount of demon decoration would spoil my appetite

The food! I ate a large plate of cannelloni with Italian sausage, plus what seemed like a loaf and a half of table bread, then the remaining half of Candice’s lasagna. I only stopped because I was in literal fear of bursting. This wasn’t just ordinary gluttony, of course; I’d had a very light breakfast and a late lunch, with the intention of having a big lunch and a very light dinner, all with a goal of not having to rush to the porta-potties on race morning. (Look up “ileal brake” if you want to know why this strategy works.)

Neither Ashley nor I wanted to do a lot of walking pre-race, so we drove over to the Navy Yard and explored a bit, then I made an early night of it— I watched maybe the first 15 minutes of the Saints game and then was out like a light, but not before doing one last gear layout to make sure Flat Paul was good to go:

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Race day

Normally I don’t have race nerves. This time, I did, but not for any good reason; I woke up about 4a and tossed and turned for a bit, mostly just because I was excited. Then it was time to get up and get my race prep on. I’d already mixed up 4 bottles of Gatorade Endurance and stashed them in the room fridge, and I’d loaded up my belt with 7 Gu packets. I didn’t do a good job of prepping for breakfast though; I ended up eating a Payday bar, a protein bar, some applesauce from the runners’ expo, and a Gu. The DC Metro opened at 6, so promptly at 6 I was lined up for the turnstile and then took the train to the Pentagon station.

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the first of many lines for the morning

The layout of the race is such that the start is on highway 110 between the Pentagon and Arlington National Cemetery. When I got off the train, I followed the giant herd of runners to the runners’ village, where I checked in the provided clear plastic bag of post-race gear. One neat thing about this process is that each race bib has a UPS sticker on the back with a truck number (mine was 19). To check your gear, you take your bag to the matching truck, then the trucks move to the finish area. Simple and quick. I had plenty of time to mill around the runners’ village, which was pointless since there was nothing there— so instead, I headed out to the start line area, another 10min walk away. It was a scenic walk, though.

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For the first time this year, MCM was using a corral start, but they only had 3 corrals. I wanted to try to grab on to the 4:30 pace group and see how long I could hang on, but they were in the next corral up. Even though I got to the front of my corral, the polite yet firm young second lieutenants stationed there weren’t letting anyone move up a corral. (Somehow Ashley managed to sneak through though.)

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my people at the head of the green corral

This positioning turned out to be pretty much perfect— to my left was a small tower. The event announcer kept up a continual patter leading up to the 745a start for the wheelchair and handcart division, which was immediately preceded by an MV-22 flyover. After their start, we had a few more minutes before the 755a main start, which was filled by another MV-22 flyover and two parachute jumps: one mass jump and one pair carrying a large American flag. Both were aiming for a blue smoke grenade, which was at the small tower near my position, so I had a great view.

Promptly at 755a, the starter fired the howitzer and it was race time.

The race

Some race reports tediously go over every single mile. I won’t do that here (but you can see all the race data, my mile splits, and so on here if you’re interested.) Instead, I want to capture some impressions.

First, the crowd. As in London, I was running with and near people at all times, and it was amazingly energizing. The spectators were a spectacle in themselves. The variety and quality of supportive race signs, and the volume of cheering, far exceeded my expectations. Any time the course ran through a city area, the sidewalks were packed— the only time we didn’t have large crowds were when we were on the open road or a bridge. Take a look at the picture below, taken on Rock Creek Parkway, and you’ll see what I mean.

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Second, the course itself. What a gorgeous tour of our nation’s capital.

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Third, the wear blue Mile. Words can’t capture the emotions of running this part of the course. I took my headphones off and silently read the name of each fallen American to myself as I ran by, not in any particular hurry. It was a tremendously moving part of the course and I’m getting a little teary just thinking about it as I type this.

Overall, I felt really good for the first 14 or so, then started to flag a little coming out of Hains Point. My average pace got a bit slower, and in Crystal City (starting about mile 23) I took a couple of walk and stretch breaks.

And, of course, because this is the Marine Corps Marathon, it ends on a hill. Seriously.

A note on race gear and strategy

I have been really frustrated lately by my Stryd pod. When I use it with my Garmin Fenix3 HR, I get power dropouts just like I did with my Stages power meter on the bike. When I use the Stryd app on my Apple Watch, the pod often disconnects, and when it’s disconnected the app thinks you’re not running— so in London, the app recorded my run as 10ish miles. So I did what any reasonable person would do: I ran with both the Garmin and the Apple Watch. (And my phone, although that was for music and cheers.) This turned out to be a good strategy, because the Stryd app on the Apple Watch just flat-out stopped recording my run when I rebooted my phone, which I didn’t think it was supposed to do.

My original plan was to try and hold a steady power with the PowerRace app on the Garmin. This was torpedoed when I discovered the dropout issue. My backup plan was to set the Garmin to give me an alert if my heart rate went over 150 and then run based on that. I’d also set a 5:00 run/1:00 walk interval timer, just in case I needed it late in the race… but I didn’t, so that was awesome.

My original goal was ‘beat my previous marathon PR.’ My A goal was to go 4:30 or better. I didn’t quite accomplish that, mostly because I ran an extra mile. That’s right. I managed to turn a 26.2 mile race into a 27.2 mile race. At my average pace of 10:49/mile, that cost me just under 11 minutes. However, I also took lots of pictures on the course, stopped for a few stretches, and even drank some whisky, so I am not at all dissatisfied with how things turned out.

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The finish line experience

After running up the aforementioned hill and through the finishers’ corral, each finisher is presented the coveted race medal by a Marine. I got a fresh-cheeked second lieutenant newly sprung from Quantico; he hung the medal around my neck, shook my hand, and called me “sir.” The corral dumps runners out at the base of the Iwo Jima monument, a perfect photo spot.

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Ashley had finished the race before me (of course), but she found me for some photo opportunities.

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Surprisingly, I had very few mobility or soreness problems immediately post-race. None of us wanted to walk around a whole lot, so after a badly needed hot shower and some coffee, we met fellow complete human Zach at Farmers Fishers Bakers, another excellent Candice selection, for a celebratory dinner. Once again, I was in bed by 8 and asleep shortly thereafter.

In the following days, I’m delighted to say that I’ve had zero hamstring pain, zero side-foot pain (except some mechanical wear on my toes—no lost toenails etc), and felt great in my recovery work this week.

Overall, I couldn’t have asked for a better experience. I am eager to run this race again next year.

Oh, right— I didn’t mention my finish time yet. 4:55:20, so a solid 14 minute PR. If I’d cut a few more tangents and taken a few less pictures, I could easily have gone sub-4:45, and with a bit more training 4:30 is within striking distance. That’s my goal for the Rocket City Marathon in December. See you there!

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Training Tuesday: Royal Parks Half Marathon race report

I very much enjoy running in new places, and I love destination races. With that in mind, it’s not surprising that I was excited to find out that there’s a giant half-marathon in London, the Royal Parks Foundation Half Marathon. It’s a fundraiser for the foundation that maintains London’s 8 Royal Parks (including Hyde Park, Kensington Gardens, and so on); in the 10 years of its existence, it raised more than £36 million for the upkeep of the parks and for other charities. Because the race is run by a nonprofit, seemingly every charity in the UK (and many global ones as well) have fundraising efforts and charity teams for the race. The race course cuts through four of the eight parks, and is almost completely flat. Runners start in Hyde Park, run east through St James’s Park (and past Buckingham Palace!), up the Strand and then back again, with detours through Trafalgar Square and down to Downing Street, then through Hyde Park and Kensington Gardens. The photos on the race web site show an abundance of fall colors and sunshine… which is not exactly what happened.

I’d registered for the race lottery and didn’t get in, so the Royal Parks folks kept my entry fee and sent me a nice hoodie to cushion my disappointment. It didn’t, given that the hoodie arrived in July, which is not usually hoodie weather in Alabama. Quadrotech decided to sponsor a corporate team, so I got in through that route. I later learned that most runners get into the race through charity registrations, and in future my plan is to raise funds for London’s Air Ambulance (which is a charity!) so I can get one of these exceptionally cool running shirts:

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I got to London Thursday morning before the race and worked in our London office Thursday and Friday, running 5 miles Thursday. Both days were cool and gloomy, and there was lots of discussion about Sunday’s forecast of temperatures in the low 50s and rain. Saturday turned out glorious— I ran 8 miles along the Regents’ Canal in lovely sunshine, with temperatures in the high 60s. The scenery was pretty grand…

The Regents Canal

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After my run, I went out for pizza and watched First Man (pretty good; maybe wait for Netflix though.) A good night’s sleep and I awoke to… exactly the promised weather. Lot 50s, steady wind, and rain. I donned the rain gear I’d brought and headed out to the Moorgate Tube station. Once I hit Piccadilly, the Tube was completely jammed with runners and spectators making their way to Hyde Park. That’s one thing I hadn’t considered: even in a city the size of London, a race with 16,000 runners means that there are a ton of people packed into a relatively small area.

Now, a brief sidebar on race organization. The race organizers will mail race packets ahead of time, for free, if you ask them to, which I did; however, because we’d re-registered me as a team member, my packet went to our office instead, so when I got to the race site, I had to meet my teammates to get my bib so I would know what corral I was in, then drop off my post-race clothes at the baggage drop, then make my traditional pre-race pilgrimage to the portapotties, then go to the start.

f you’ve never run a large race, you may not realize this, but most large endurance races group runners by pace and then send them into corrals so runners of similar speed start together. This race had… 3 corrals total. That’s not a lot for 16,000 runners. There were long lines at baggage drop and for the toilets, and I got increasingly nervous as we got closer and closer to the 9am race start time. I needn’t have worried though— it turns out that even with those two long waits, I got into the line for my corral at 915am and actually crossed the start line at 927am. This was fine because the race is chip timed, so the time doesn’t start until you actually cross the timing mat. Here’s what the corral looked like before I started:

The corral

Once I crossed the start line, I was in a crowd until I finished. That’s a major difference from the races I normally run, especially triathlons— since you’re running after swimming and biking, differences in individual speed means people tend to be pretty spread out on the race course. Here’s an example from the leg through Hyde Park late in the race:

IMG 0167One of the best things about the race was the spectator presence. There were people pretty much lining the course whenever it was along a road, and for maybe 80% of the course length through parks. Lots of signs, and at least three or four bands (three drum corps I can recall). Several of the corporate and charity sponsors had big cheering stations set up, which was fun. Overall the race had a remarkable energy to it, the more so considering that the weather wasn’t great.

And then there was the race course scenery…

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Did not see any members of the Royal Family

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This cracked me up. I’m quite surprised it was deemed necessary

A word about race gear: I ran in a pair of On Cloudflows that I bought a week or so before the race, a pair of generic shorts, and my Rocket City Marathon race shirt. I started the race with a light rain jacket and a hat, but shed both of those mid-race— but I was glad to have them when it started raining just after I crossed the finish. The Cloudflows really felt good during the race, but I have since discovered that as I build volume, they aren’t cushioned enough so they’ve gone back to the store. I also bought a pair of Trekz Titanium bone-conduction earphones using some accumulated Amazon gift cards, figuring they might be worth a try. They sound good but feel a bit odd, and I’m not convinced that they’re better than the Plantronics BackBeat Fits I had been using. The Trekz would be great for cycling though, so I may keep them just for that.

I also ran with my Apple Watch paired to my Stryd footpod. This has been my normal daily running setup since April or so, and it’s worked very well, but for some reason on this race, the pod kept disconnecting— my final run showed up as only 10.2 miles. Best guess is that the pod doesn’t gracefully handle the case where my phone and watch are both connected to it. I only take my phone running when I want to take pictures… and I’ll absolutely want to take pictures at the Marine Corps Marathon. In many ways, this race was a dry run for MCM: I tried to use the same gear, nutrition, etc that I plan to use there, thus the test of the new shoes. This particular race prides itself on sustainability, so the race medals are made of reclaimed wood; the shirts are ring-spun bamboo; and so on. there’s nothing available on the course except water (no bananas, gels, sports drink, etc). I ran with a Fitletic bottle belt with 2 extra bottles; the one problem with this belt is that with all 4 bottles on it, the weight of the bottles stretches the belt enough for it to gradually work its way down towards my knees. The solution is to drink from the back bottles first (or just fill them halfway); I’ve already got the length adjusted to its shortest extent. That’s really good to know, since I don’t want to spend 26.2 miles in DC hitching my belt back up where it belongs.

I haven’t said anything really about the run itself so far. It was great. I held a much faster pace than I expected to be able to and ran my second-fastest half marathon time ever: 2:03:14. I took time to take pictures on the course, so that might have shaved another 2 min off my time, but I wasn’t running this for a PR, and I wasn’t wrecked after the race. In fact, I had a great run the next morning before leaving to go to the airport.

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See, I even look happy here despite standing in the rain for an inordinate amount of time.

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The Quadrofam!

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My reward for a good run: a Sunday roast (not shown: the incredible dessert brownie they brought after I cleaned my plate)

Overall, it was a fantastic experience— I loved the crowd energy and can’t wait to carry forward what I learned to the Marine Corps Marathon! I will absolutely be entering the lottery for the 2019 Royal Parks event, too.


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Training Tuesday: riding the Cote d’Azur

Recently I had the opportunity to do something remarkable: go for a bike ride in Provence! I had to be in the UK for business one week and in Nice the following week, so I was debating what I should do with a free weekend in Europe. Once I learned that there were bike-tour operators near Nice, I quickly decided to find one that could get me out on the road for some portion of the weekend.

Thanks to a recommendation from my local triathlete friend Kate, I found Azur Cycle Tours,  whose guided-rides option sounded perfect. There are a fair number of other tour operators that do longer multi-day tours, too, but Azur was the first I found that could set me up for a one-day ride, including use of a rental bike. I made all the arrangements via email with Justin, the owner, who was prompt and communicative in our exchanges.

I planned to arrive at the Nice airport Friday evening, spend Saturday poking around the area, and then ride on Sunday. Justin agreed to supply a road bike, and I planned to bring my PowerTap pedal power meter, a bike computer, and clothes and shoes. I booked a room at the Azur Cycle Tours apartment for two nights, packed my bags, and arrived there shortly after midnight– a good four hours later than originally planned. Justin was kind enough not to snap at me and gave me a quick tour of the apartment, which was exactly as promised on the web site: modern, comfortable, and well situated near shopping, restaurants, the beach, and the Beaulieu-sur-mer train station.

The next morning I woke up to this glorious view…

Balcony view from the apartment

Justin, as promised, had prepared a hearty breakfast of oatmeal, fresh berries, and bread from the boulangerie up the road. We had a pleasant chat about the local area, then he left to go lead rides and I donned a 10kg weight vest and went for a walk around town. I strolled down along the beach (named “La Petite Afrique” for some reason) and then walked along the Basse Corniche up over a hill for a ways. This treated me to some splendid views of the water and the dozens of large seagoing yachts anchored at various spots.

After I walked back to the apartment and dropped off my weight vest, I decided to walk into Beaulieu and find lunch. As I passed the train station, I had a better idea: why not go have lunch in Monaco? I bought a train ticket and headed off, and in 20 minutes or so I was disembarking at the Monaco station. It became clear pretty quickly where I was when I saw this:


I walked down to the Casino, where I was surprised and delighted to find a classic-car rally in progress. For a “modest” donation to the Prince’s favorite charity (something to do with heart disease, as I recall), you could rent any of a number of privately owned classic cars and drive them around. Here are a few of the stunners on display.

My favorite was the Aventador, though; without a doubt it is the most beautiful manufactured object I’ve ever seen in person. Sadly this photo doesn’t do it justice.


The casino itself isn’t too shabby either.

I walked around the casino area for a while, taking pictures as the mood struck me. It’s a delightful area for people-watching, of course, and there was plenty of that on offer. I saw and heard tourists from all over the place. Then I took the train back to Beaulieu, where Justin suggested to me that I try dinner at Les Vents des Anges in town. The highlight was this salad, consisting of warmed rounds of goat cheese on toasted local bread with fresh greens and peppers. It was, hands down, the best salad I’ve ever eaten, and the wine and entree (saltimbocca, in this case) were equally good. A short walk back home, and then it was bedtime.

The next morning dawned sunny and clear. Justin and I had planned to meet for breakfast at 730 then roll out shortly thereafter. It took 20 min or so to mount my pedals, bike computer, and camera on the bike, get it adjusted, and so on, then we rolled out. Check out this route….

Relive ‘Do Epic Shit: Beaulieu to Tourrette and back’


We were able to leave Beaulieu and head west into Nice, starting with a short climb into Villefranche and then riding along Nice’s excellent cycle path that parallels the famous Promenade des Anglais. Then the ride started in earnest. Our first stop was in La Colle-sur-Loup for a snack, which in this case was a marvelous berry tart and a cup of poisonously strong coffee. The whole town square, and most of the surrounding streets, were filled with… a PTA fundraiser for the village school. Yep. You read that right. Change the language on the signs, bring in some box-mix cupcakes, and turn all the volunteering moms into non-smokers and the whole event could have been plucked right from suburban America.

Best. dessert. ever,

Then back on the road! The toughest part of the ride was just ahead: the long climb into Tourrette-sur-Loup, which interestingly enough is part of the Ironman Nice course. This offered remarkable scenery in all directions, including up and down.

We stopped in Tourrette-sur-Loup for a splendid lunch: another great salad and a marvelous lasagna. (Italian food is pretty common in this part of France, perhaps unsurprising given how close Italy is). We also filled our bike bottles at the municipal fountain. Nearly every village has one, and the water at each of the ones we sampled was clear, cold, and delightfully fresh.

After lunch, we rolled back into Nice along a slightly different route– no steep descents, but a very pleasant series of switchbacks and hairpins. It took me nearly this long to understand why the bike Justin rented me seemed so smooth and quiet compared to my Cervelo P2: I have race wheels with a racheting freehub, so when I coast, they make that super-cool clicking noise. This bike didn’t have that, plus the drivetrain was adjusted to approximately the precision level of the Space Shuttle, so it was a delightfully smooth and quiet ride.

Along the way, I was able to pause to take a couple of photos of scenic spots. Also along the way, we made one final stop for ice cream, which I sadly forgot to take a picture of.

A note about the roads: even in this rural area, the roads we rode on were marvelously smooth and well-maintained, with good markings and signage. About 99% of the drivers we encountered gave us a wide passing margin, and I never felt unsafe or threatened. We saw a few dozen other cyclists along the route and everyone was friendly.

Back at the apartment post-ride, I used the provided laundry machines to wash my kit while I drank a beer and looked out at the water, then, reluctantly, I packed my stuff and departed for my next leg of the trip.

Overall, I could not be more pleased with the Azur Cycle Tours experience. Justin was an excellent host, with encyclopedic knowledge of the local area and route. He kept up an informative and interesting commentary about what we were seeing as we rode; he chose a route that was appropriate for my skill level but still challenging, and he made me feel like a welcome guest instead of the tour du jour. I am looking forward to returning and riding a more challenging route in the future!

[ed. note: I wrote this using a Windows machine and I refuse to deal with its stupidity when it comes to entering accented characters– please be reassured that my French spelling is better than shown here.] 

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Visiting Iceland, day 2: the Golden Circle

Whatever else you can say about Iceland, there is this: they are brilliant marketers.

Slogans such as “the land of fire and ice” and “Icelandic Lamb: Roaming Free Since 874” do a great job of stimulating demand. So it is with “The Golden Circle,” a tourist route that encompasses three major attractions north of Reykjavik. I drove it. Here’s my report… but first, a digression.

Because I was in Iceland for such a short time, I had to be very picky about what to do. There are zillions of guided tours to various attractions, but all of them have high latency: you have to wait, board a bus, wait some more, and generally spend a lot of time buffering instead of doing stuff. Even though I would have loved to see a glacier, or visit a lava cave, etc etc, I had to find something to do that I could shoehorn in between about 7am and 33opm or so– at that time, I’d need to be at KEF getting ready for my return flight. I also wanted to find something affordable. Some attractions, such as Inside the Volcano, can be $400 or more, and I didn’t want to pay that much if I could help it.

My original plan was to rent a small plane at the Reykjavik airport (which was right near my Airbnb), fly up to Akureyri, and see the sights up north. Unfortunately, this plan had two major problems. First was the weather. The bigger one was cost: the airplane was $275/hour, plus I’d need at least one hour with an instructor (another $75), so it would have been $350 or more just to get checked out– then another 4 hours or so of flight time to get to/from Akureyri. Hard pass on that one.

Plan B was to do a bus tour of some kind, but there were none that would fit into the time I had available. That’s when I decided (as mentioned in day 1’s writeup) to rent a car instead. I figured that would give me maximum flexibility and make it easy to ensure that I was at the airport on time. Saturday morning, I got up about 7am, took a quick shower, and finished the last little bit of packing– I had packed about 90% of my stuff Friday before leaving for the race. With the bags in my car, I stopped at the corner bakery and had what was labeled as a cheese pastry. Imagine a pastry filled with scrambled egg and bacon bits, with some cheese.. but served at room temperature. Didn’t expect that. It was still pretty decent.

So, back to the Golden Circle. The three attractions on the circle are Thingvelli( (site of the first-ever democratic parliament), Geysir (from which we get the English word “geyser”), and Gullfoss, a giant waterfall. (Check the links if you want to learn waaaaay more about any of them.) I didn’t want to take the time to tour Thingvellir and see all the historical stuff there, so I modified my route slightly. Here’s more or less what I ended up with. Because I had to go back to Keflavik, I decided to take the longer southern route, along the coast, instead of heading back to Reykjavik directly. This meant I didn’t have time to go to Hafnarfjörður, where I’d hoped to hike Helgafell, but I decided the tradeoff was worth it.

My Golden Circle route

North from Reykjavik

After breakfast, I cracked open my diet Coke, put the new 311 album on repeat, and set out on the route using the free app. It is a battery hog, and it has an annoying bug where it permanently lowers your audio volume when it gives directions, but it allows you to download maps and keep them locally cached so you get navigation even when there’s no cell service. Heading north, the first thing I noticed is the mountains to the west. The second thing I noticed was that the road is a very narrow ribbon of asphalt, with no shoulders or guardrails and a fairly steady flow of traffic. Every so often, there would be a spot to pull over for photos, which is fortunate, because you absolutely can’t pull over to the side of the road.

These purple flowers are ubiquitous along the roads in the southern lowlands

One of the many facets of the Icelandic landscape

The route is surprisingly green, green enough to support grazing animals. Along the route, the horses I saw were all fenced in– horse farms in Iceland look quite a bit different from their Kentucky counterparts though.

These ponies were just chilling by the side of the road.

Sheep are essentially free-range animals here, and they will get quite close to the road in some cases. Interestingly, many sheep have a brand spray-painted on their wool in fluorescent paint! I imagine there must be some way for Snorri to tell Bjorn that some of his sheep have wandered next door.

Free-range sheep

There’s an amazing variety of landscape to see along this part of the route; the road gradually climbs as you head north, then once you’re south of Thingvellir it descends.

The narrow road has no shoulders. Notice the low mist off to the west.

This one is worth clicking to see it at full size.

I loved the colors on this hill.

Not shown are all the other vehicles on road– everything from small cars (probably rented, as mine was) to 4x4s to large passenger vans to tour buses. I would imagine that almost all of the traffic was composed of tourists. There wasn’t a lot of traffic by US standards, but there was a fairly steady volume.


When I arrived at Geysir, the only way I knew I was there was because there’s a gift shop/gas station complex on the right-hand side of the road. There’s not a lot of signage to indicate that you’re there. Oh, the cluster of tour buses was a good hint as well. The site at Geysir actually contains two geysers: Strokkur (live webcam here) and Geysir itself. They are a few hundred yards apart, and there’s a gravel path you take to walk from one to the other. Strokkur erupts pretty regularly; I saw it twice while I was there. Geysir, alas, does not. It used to, but apparently some bright stars decided they could make it more regular and, in the process, basically broke it. Because I was pressed for time, I didn’t stick around. However, I did rep the Cycle Club colors:

Cycle Club visits a geyser

This picture doesn’t capture the strong wind, nor the unique smell– just a bit of sulfur, plus some heat. You can see steam coming off the pool behind me, as it was from other places on the ground. The eruptions themselves were interesting but not as dramatic as I’d expected. Overall this was an interesting stop but I’m not sure I’d go again. (I did buy a diet coke at the gas station there, so there’s that.)


Gullfoss is billed as one of the world’s wildest waterfalls, and it lives up to that billing. It’s not a long drive from Geysir; there’s good signage and a cluster of buildings (including a small hotel and a restaurant/gift shop) to show that you’re in the right spot. In case you’re in doubt, as soon as you dismount your vehicle you’ll hear the falls rumbling. I needed to offload some diet Coke, so I made a beeline for the “bathroom” sign only to be confronted with this:

The only pay-to-pee location I found on my trip

I’m not sure which amused me more: having to pay ISK 200 to use the bathroom or having the credit card machines (which worked with Apple Pay) there. Iceland really is a nearly cashless society. Anyway,with that stop made, I walked around the back of the compound towards the falls. There’s a nice-sized observation terrace with a path leading towards five or six flights of steps that descend towards the middle of the falls. At that level, you’re more or less level with the midpoint of the falls, and this is what you’ll see:

Gullfoss level 1

You can’t see it from this picture, but behind me is a rocky trail that leads up to a plateau that’s roughly level with the big part of the falls.

Gullfoss level 2

The falls themselves are wild and noisy. There’s a large spray curtain whipped off the edge of the falls, so between the noise, the wind, and the spray, you get the full Gullfoss experience. I loved it; it reminded me of visiting Snoqualmie Falls with Julie and Tim on a windy day a few years ago.

Love the spray curtain rising from the falls!

I lingered for half an hour or so, just walking around and enjoying the view. However, it was windy and cold, so pretty soon I decided that some shelter might be in order. I decided to wander through the gift shop and see if there was anything interesting (there was, but everything I liked was so expensive that I couldn’t make myself buy anything). The restaurant looked interesting– the only thing on their menu was “meat soup” for (I think) 1500 ISK. For that price, you get unlimited bread and soup. Important tip: Icelanders refer to “meat soup” when we would say “lamb soup.” That’s because they don’t really have any other kinds of meat easily available. Here’s what my 1500 ISK bought:

lamb soup… so, so delicious

Now. Let me say without reservation that this was the best soup I ever tasted. Flavorful and rich, with plenty of vegetables; hot but not enough to burn, and very filling. I ate two bowls and several rolls and then made myself push away from the table… that’s how good it was. Best meal I had in Iceland.

Suitably refueled, I headed back towards the parking lot. On my way I discovered that there are free bathrooms inside the restaurant. Well played, gift shop folks; you got my ISK 200.

The drive south

The first part of the route I had chosen took me back past Geysir and then south through very similar terrain– hills, some grassy areas, and a few horse farms. As I got further south, though, there were more (and bigger) rocks and the familiar black lava landscape started to draw closer. By this point the weather had improved quite a bit; it was about 55° and mostly sunny, with a stiff breeze from the south. I drove with the windows rolled down, blasting 311 out over the countryside. As I headed further south, I started to get glimpses of ocean, then the full view as I turned west to the coastal ring road. I had a hard time splitting my attention between the views of the water and the views of the inland landscape. Here’s just one example:

Sky and rock

This was taken near Sveitarfélagið Ölfus, along highway 427. The road parallels the coast, and it descends a fair bit as you get closer to Grindavík. A few more examples of the landscape:

Oh, why not. One more.

On the road to Grindavík

When I passed through Grindavík, and made the turn towards Keflavík, I could see more and more signs of civilization. One such sign: a nicely paved bike path running alongside the highway for several miles, with a fair number of cyclists on it. I was surprised by how many cycle campers I saw– people with large panniers slung fore and aft on their bikes, fighting the wind and staying vigilant for traffic. It’s not really a bike-friendly environment. Props to them.

Just short of Keflavík, I stopped to gas up the car. Most Icelandic gas stations are completely automated, so you can still buy gas when they’re closed. That means you need a credit card that can use chip + PIN. Some US cards can, and some can’t. Because I was close to the airport, I decided to forego a snack stop; I headed straight to the rental car place and caught the shuttle back to the airport, with more than a little reluctance.

The trip home

Checkin and security at KEF were quick and efficient. I made a huge run through the duty-free to buy souvenirs, grabbed a hot dog from the restaurant, and headed to my gate, where I found that literally the entire flight was in line to board– I think I was the 4th or 5th to last person to board. Icelandair doesn’t do zones or any of that stuff. They announce boarding, everyone gets in line, and off you go. I settled in to my window seat and looked out the window as much as possible during our taxi and takeoff.

Keflavík and the coastline, plus bonus 757 shadow

The flight was completely uneventful, except for when we flew across the southern end of Greenland. I’d never had a daytime window seat for that before, so I might have left a few nose prints against the window as I surveyed the beautiful landscape below. This is one of my favorite pictures; you have to see it full size to appreciate the range of colors and textures of the land.

I love Greenland

We arrived in Boston on time, where (thanks to Global Entry) I quickly cleared customs. The only snag in my travel was that my flight back to Atlanta wasn’t until the next morning! JetBlue and Icelandair have a code-sharing relationship but that doesn’t extend to coordinating their flight times, so there was no flight back to Atlanta that night. I knew that ahead of time, so I’d packed my overnight needs into my laptop bag and reserved a room at a hotel near the airport. I went straight there, had a quesadilla and some clam chowder for dinner, and was asleep within 90 minutes. The next morning, I came home.


It was a marvelous trip. I wouldn’t change anything about it, given how little time I had on the ground. For the next trip, a few things I will be keeping in mind:

  • Bring better clothing. A hat and gloves would have been nice. Layering is a must.
  • Plan ahead to see more remote areas, including at least one glacier
  • Save enough money to be able to rent that airplane and fly to Akureyri
  • Eat at the waffle wagon as often as possible
  • Try a little harder to pronounce things properly. Icelandic students study English from 2nd grade onwards, so I never had any trouble talking to people, but it was comical to see their facial expressions when I tried to say place names and so on.

I can’t wait to go back!


Filed under General Stuff, Travel