Category Archives: Travel

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:

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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. 

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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.

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

Training

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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Post-race

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:

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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.

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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’

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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 Maps.me 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.

Geysir

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

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.

Summary

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!

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Visiting Iceland, day 1: Reykjavik

Executive summary: wow. I can’t wait to go back.

When I was invited to present at Office 365 Engage, the only way I could get there from Huntsville and still meet the airfare budget was to take a frankenroute: drive to Atlanta, fly JetBlue to Boston, then Icelandair from Boston-Reykjavik-Amsterdam and back. I remembered that Icelandair offered free stopovers, so I decided to tack on a couple of days for a visit when on the return leg. I ended up being on the ground for 42 glorious hours.

To help plan my trip, I read the Lonely Planet guides to Iceland and Reykjavik, then spent a bunch of time hanging out in Reddit’s VisitingIceland forum. This was very valuable and I encourage you to check it out if you’re planning a trip there.

Getting to Amsterdam

Icelandair and JetBlue are both low-cost carriers, but the inflight experience was perfectly OK. Nothing fancy, but they both got me there in reasonable comfort, certainly no worse than traditional US carriers. My outbound flight ATL-BOS was delayed by 2 hours because of taxiway construction (helllloooo, B6.. did you not know about that in advance?), then my outbound BOS-KEF was delayed because the inbound aircraft was late. Despite these delays, I got to KEF on time to make my connection on to Amsterdam. Icelandair has Row44 wifi, which worked tolerably well, for EUR9.40. They have free in-seat entertainment in economy class and free soft drinks, but no in-seat power. On the flight over, I tried to sleep but didn’t have much success because I was too busy looking out the window to see the sun.. because it was up and shining in the middle of the night!

When we landed, we deplaned onto the tarmac and boarded buses back to the terminal. This was fun because many of the passengers, me included, weren’t prepared for the weather: 48 degrees F, wind at 22kts gusting 25, and moderate rain.

Lovely weather

Iceland is a Schengen country, so for connecting flights into the EU you clear customs there. This was fairly efficient, although the KEF terminal is long and narrow so there tend to be long lines everywhere. Incoming passengers are funneled through a large duty free shop before getting to the main concourse, but if you’re connecting onwards you probably shouldn’t bother. After a brief wait, I boarded my connecting flight (which involved another bus, but at least it wasn’t raining) and flew off to Amsterdam.

Amsterdam back to Reykjavik

I like the Amsterdam airport. It is clean, uncluttered, and easy to navigate. Their security is quick and pleasant, with lots of touches that would be welcome in the US (such as automated conveyors that move trays and bags through the X-ray machines).  Icelandair opens their checkin counter 3 hours before flight time, so if you get there earlier, be prepared to lug your suitcase around while you wait. I spent some time upstairs on the Panorama Terrace watching airplanes while I waited, then dropped off my bags and stopped to buy some duty-free goodies for the home folks. I ate at the Grand Cafe Het Paleis, which burned up almost all my layover time. Boarding was quick and efficient, and my flight left at its scheduled time of 1030p. That would put me on the ground in Iceland just before midnight. I settled in to my aisle seat, took a short in-flight nap, and then fidgeted until we were on the ground.

Oh, I also bought a Flybus ticket. This shuttle service is the simplest and least expensive way to get from the airport (which in Keflavik) to Reykjavik (which is about 30mi to the northeast). For 2500 ISK (about US$24), you get a bus ticket on a nice commuter bus that runs to the BSI bus station near the Reykjavik airport. Like the Delta Shuttle, the buses run as often as necessary to handle capacity, and there are buses there after every arriving flight, no matter how late. My plan was to Flybus it from the airport to BSI, then grab a cab onward from there.

Day 0: Thursday night

Once we landed, I deplaned and was through customs in about 15 minutes. I had a slightly longer wait to get my baggage from the carousel, which I spent looking around the airport terminal. I found a vending machine and was delighted to see that it supported ApplePay. I used ApplePay for the overwhelming majority of my transactions. I only used cash after a restaurant mixup (more on that later) left me with some ISK. While Iceland isn’t cashless, it’s fair to call it “low-cash” since virtually everyone pays for virtually everything, even small purchases, with cards.

After I finally got my luggage, I boarded the Flybus and we headed out. Here’s what I spent my whole ride looking at:

Midnight sun: check.

The bus was full of chatter, but I was content to watch the landscape pass by; although the picture doesn’t show it, the area nearest the airport is the rocky volcanic soil that Iceland is famous for.

Day 1: Friday

I didn’t sleep especially well, mostly because I was still a bit confused about what time it actually was. Between the light and my residual jet lag from going to Haarlem, I got maybe 4hrs total, which was plenty. After I got up, I showered. Interesting true fact: Reykjavik is considered a “low heat” area, meaning that groundwater is warm, but not always hot enough for showers and the like. Keflavik is a “high heat” area, meaning that its groundwater is too hot to be used directly for households. Anyway, all the groundwater in Iceland contains sulfur and other minerals– so you don’t cook with hot water, and when you use hot water in a pool, shower, etc. its mineral content leaves you feeling a little slimy. Anyway.. shower completed, off I went.

First stop for the day was the convenience store on the corner, where I grabbed a protein bar and a diet Coke. This was only because I didn’t know there was a bakery on the other end of the building. Oh well. It was windy, and colder than I thought, so I went back to the house to grab another layer and met Jakob, my Airbnb host, and his cat. We had a nice visit; in addition to Airbnb’ing, he’s a tour guide and has several other small part-time jobs. Nice guy and I would recommend his place highly.

I took off walking again, this time to  Kringlan, a giant American-style mall, just to look around. It was closed, which was no great loss; if you’ve been in an American or Canadian mall, the experience would feel very familiar. One difference: there are tables near the mall exits where you can wrap gifts for free– a nice touch.

Who doesn’t like free gift wrapping?

After Kringlan, I walked over to Hallgrimskirkja, the famous modernist church. My route took me through Miklatún park, one of the small parks that dot Reykjavik. I saw a ton of cyclists and walkers out getting where they needed to go, but I couldn’t help imagining what the park, and the people, would look like in six months when winter set in. Brrrrr.

It’s hard to describe the shape of Hallgrimskirkja, sort of like a football spiked so hard it went partly underground, or a poorly baked baguette. My sister described it as being designed by someone who had read a description of cathedrals but had never actually been in one, and that’s not a bad way to put it. The church spire is tall enough to dominate the city’s skyline; you can clearly see it from a good portion of the city.

Hallgrimskirkja from its less famous side

Most churches have a statue of Jesus; this one has a statue of Leifur Eiríksson

The interior of the church is understated, to put it mildly. I think the builders put much of their capital into the giant organ. An organist was playing while I was there, and it was bone-jarring, which was actually kind of awesome. Sadly I seem to have lost the video I took, not that the puny mic on my phone would have captured the majesty.

the church interior; notice the organ?

A ticket to the top of the spire costs EUR 8, which was very well worth it for the views. Apart from the spire and the sanctuary, there really isn’t anything else to see here but it is still a worthy stop.

The view from the spire looking north towards the water

The view to the south is pretty great too

I had read on Reddit about the “waffle wagon,” a small yellow food truck that usually sets up at Hallgrimskirkja, and when I saw it I stopped for breakfast. This turned out to be an excellent decision– that waffle was the best waffle I’ve ever had. However, it was about $8. This was very typical of Iceland overall: everything is expensive. At best you’re paying what you’d pay in a US airport (for example, a half-liter bottle of Diet Coke is usually around $4) for most things.

tasty, tasty waffle

Hallgrimskirkja is near Laugavegur, the primary shopping and tourist street in Reykjavik, so I walked over to have a look. Much like any similar area in another city, there were lots of tourists with shopping bags. I did my fair share of browsing, but couldn’t convince myself to pay $250+ for an Icelandic sweater or $800+ for true Arctic weather gear. My friend Julio had suggested a visit to The Laundromat, a hipster-ish coffee bar (and actual laundromat), so I stopped in and had a $12 latte. It was good, and the atmosphere was fun– the place was crowded but only about half of the people I could see or hear seemed to be speaking English. After people-watching a bit, I set off for more walking and shop/browsing.

When I was planning my trip, I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do Saturday. After talking to Jakob and doing more research, I decided to rent a car and drive the Golden Circle route. Rental cars go for around $60 a day for the cheapest, most basic cars, then go up from there. I decided to rent from Atak, although there are lots of other choices (Hertz, Avis, and SadCars being among them). Demand is high and most places wouldn’t do such a short rental. The rental car companies’ offices are all clustered in a sort of auto-mall a couple of miles away from downtown, so I flagged down a cab, picked up a Hyundai I20, and went back to the house to grab my big camera and some more clothes. Along the way, I stopped at the small convenience store nearest the apartment and found that the shop next door was a fried chicken joint. I ordered a two-piece meal and fries and was charged… about $42. This turned out to be a mistake on the part of the cashier, but she didn’t know how to credit my card so I ended up with $21 worth of cash. This lasted me until I made it back to Boston, with some bonus coins to give Matt for his collection. (Note on the fried chicken from this place: just don’t.)

My afternoon plan was to take a boat tour to see puffins. This turned out to be an excellent decision. The excellent MustSeeInIceland website had recommended an operator called Happy Tours, so I booked with them ($55 or so). After parking near the Maritime Museum, I stopped for ice cream (always eat Icelandic ice cream when you can; it’s delicious!) and walked over to the tour area. Amazingly, no one else had signed up for the tour, so I had the boat to myself, along with the crew. Snorri, the captain, has been working the water for nearly 40 years, and his son and daughter both work with him as tour guides. Kristey, the daughter, was a great guide: fluent in English and very knowledgeable about puffins, the harbor, and (of course) Icelandic life and culture. The water was rough, and it was windy, both of which I loved, but Kristey said that previous passengers that day had been seasick.

Without further ado, some of what I saw on the tour…

takeoff roll

After the tour, I walked over to a nearby coffee shop and had a cup of coffee while looking out at the harbor. It was pleasantly warm inside and I was a little nervous about what the race weather would be like. About 6 I headed back to the apartment, where I met my two Airbnb-mates: Zach from Houston and his sister, both of whom were in town to run the race. Neither of them had picked up their race packets, so I offered them a ride over to the venue to save them a walk.

I ran the 10K race, which was a blast. The race organizers include a ticket to the Laugardalslaug swimming pool, which I was looking forward to trying. The pool complex is huge, with four or five large hot tubs (and when I say “large,” I mean “15′ in diameter or so”), a few giant lap pools, a waterslide, and so on. A few tips on Icelandic pool etiquette and use:

  • Bring a towel because the pool won’t provide them.
  • You must shower before entering the pool. You will be expected to be naked when you do, and to use plenty of soap. If casual locker-room nakedness bothers you, you’d better get over it before you hit the locker room.
  • The water feels different on your skin because a) it’s more mineralized than is typical in the US and b) it has much less chlorine than US pools tend to.
  • Some pools (including this one) have lockers that are operated by an RFID wristband. Wristbands are usually available from the front desk.
  • At least at Laugardalslaug, the big pool is just a little cooler than body temperature, and the hot tub I was in was maybe 1 degree above.
  • Expect crowding. When I was in the hot tub, I was shoulder-to-shoulder with the people around me. I don’t know how common that is at 1130 at night, but I would imagine that in the middle of a summer day it wouldn’t be uncommon.

After the pool, we set out to find food. Here’s the problem: for all its exotic nature, Reykjavik is a fairly small city. Just like Huntsville, there are very few restaurants that are open at midnight… and Iceland doesn’t have Waffle House. It didn’t seem that late, given that it was still light and we had just finished running a race– both things you normally associate with daytime. None of the places we wanted to go were open, so we ended up downtown on Laugavegur again. We found Hlolli, which is sort of like an Icelandic version of Subway; I ended up eating what was basically a BBQ beef poboy. Not bad (in fact, the bread was quite good), but it was essentially drunk food, not fine dining. That’s OK, given that I was still wearing my running clothes. On the walk back to the car, we found that the waffle wagon I mentioned earlier had set up shop in the square, so we stopped off for dessert.. then it was back to the Airbnb for bed. I got there abut 130a, and of course it was still light.  That didn’t stop me from sleeping like a lava rock though.

 

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