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Friday, December 2, 2016

Back to the tempo grind

Realizing to my distress that I have a half marathon in three and a half weeks, I decided to flirt with injury and reintroduce the tempo run. My worstest run ever! Really. I am so bad at tempos. But yesterday everything came together for not-the-worst-tempo ever.
It was chilly, so already that was a plus. I got up early and put on my Boston shirt, which was another plus: I almost never wear this shirt, since it's quite warm, but it reminds me of the excitement of that race. Plus - how weird is this - I saw THREE other people in the park in Boston shirts! I rarely see any other Boston shirts out and about, and three in one day is a record! One of the other runners shouted, "Nice shirt!"

Then, I got to break in my new shoes: On Wednesday, I did a 8+ mile run in yucky muggy, windy weather than ended with a violent flash flood and tornado warning with just half a mile left to home. By the time I got home I was soaked through, and my shoes were waterlogged and disgusting. Luckily, I realized as I logged that run, I was right at 500 miles. Time for new shoes, anyway! I ditched that pair and enjoyed cushiony new shoes for my Thursday tempo.

Merry Christmas to me: Kinvara 5's that I bought when they were cheap
Once I hit the park, I picked the pace up and started my tempo, hoping to hit five miles at 7:00 pace. I was kind of annoyed to see that the ROTC was running - just because they take up SO much room - but it turned out to be a good thing. One of their coaches was a friend from church, so I got my personal cheering section! Every time I passed I got a "Nice job!" or "Good work!"

Five miles flew by, and I actually would have gone six, except I have run fairly high mileage and fairly tough workouts this week for someone with a bum hamstring. So I kept it to seven total, five at tempo. I will grudgingly continue these tempos until my half, but I bet they won't all be this good.

Thursday, December 1, 2016

Medtronic Twin Cities Marathon race review

Since this race is considered one of the top ten marathons in the country, I hardly need to add my opinion, but here goes! 

Pre-race information, logistics, organization:
The event website includes info on registration, packet pickup, course, location, events, etc. I found the logistics were excellent for this race. There are detailed maps on the website of the courses and zoomed maps of the start and finish areas (also in the emailed participant's guide). Even though I was traveling for this race and have never been to the area before, everything was well-explained and the entire process was a breeze. The race was also impeccably organized. I have never, in all my life, seen such a smooth starting area. The ten mile race started an hour prior to the marathon, and once it got moving, the marathoners started to fill up the space. It was never too crowded, and there were SO MANY PORT-A-POTTIES. I didn't have to wait in line at all. No one. Nobody in front of me. The expo, race, and finish were all well-organized, too - like, Boston levels of organization. 
Expo: Easy as pie: you go grab your number, check your timing chip, grab your "free gift", and go. It wasn't a very crowded expo, so it moved fast. My brother dropped me off and circled while I got my packet, but otherwise he would have had to pay to park. That's a downside, but pretty typical for large race expos.
Cost: Kind of high. I paid $140. 
Lodging and transportation: Plenty of hotel options, many with discounts for the race, and free light rail to the start the day of the race. Also special bus rates offered. We drove, and it was easy to get close enough to the start. 
Swag: You get a finisher's shirt at the end, and the surprise gift at packet pick up was a hat - which I ended up wearing. Lucky me, I also got socks! In the finisher's chute, a young woman with a clip board approached me and asked if I could complete a survey for her. She asked questions about my opinion of the post-race food options (which was basically BARF at that point), and then when we were done she gave me a pair of socks for my trouble! Cool! 
Finishers also get a medal.
Course:The course is billed as the most beautiful urban marathon in the country, and they may be right. It's a really beautiful course, a point-to-point winding around gorgeous lakes and along the Mississippi River (may miles away, my daily runs touch the same river!). The course is really pretty, but I wouldn't say it's fast. There are a lot of small turns and curves, especially in the area around the lakes, that add to your distance / time. And it isn't the easiest course in respect to elevation.

There are minor hills throughout, with a significant hill straight up from mile 20-23. The course gains a net 850ish feet, mostly due to the ~1000 feet gained during the hill at mile 20. This is a challenging place to put a hill, obviously. 

The most amazing thing about the course was the spectators. This city really, really supports the race, and the crowds lined every inch of the course. It was impressive, second only to Boston in my experience. 
Aid stations:
Plentiful and well-manned, but the only fuel was at mile 17 (Cliff gels and shot bloks - plenty of them, which is good, because I always get nervous about missing a gel on the course). I definitely wish the gels were earlier on the course, though. The aid stations start out as every other mile, but at mile 20, there is fluid every mile. I think that's a great idea and I took full advantage to stay hydrated for those tough final miles. 
Finish line / post-race: It was a beautiful day to sit out by the capitol building and listen to music and drink a beer, but a. that beer was about 98% hops and not my favorite, and b. I was totally zoned out post race. I got some chicken broth down, and attempted (and failed) to eat chips. They also had some fruit cups, but no utensils, which looked hard to eat. I had dropped a bag, and bag pick up was easy and smooth. In fact, the volunteers had my bag retrieved and ready before I even got up to the pick up area! It was also easy and fast to get my shirt, which I promptly put on (I was cold, despite the sun).
 The race offered athlete tracking, but apparently it didn't really work. David got just one update, and then my reported finish time was wrong. The app told him 3:18:xx, and David assumed I'd be upset since that was my time for my last race. But the math also didn't add up from the text he got, so he doubled checked the website, where my time was correct. There were race photos available for purchase, and two free videos at the finish line. I really liked the stats provided post-race: detailed splits and passing data. 
Suggestions: It's a pricey race, but as it was so well-run and so beautiful, it's absolutely worth it. 

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

China: our tour guides

We arranged our trip to China through China Highlights, a travel agency and tour company. We booked a private tour to assist in travel arrangements and ticket purchase, and while this tour was very controlled and offered almost no scheduling flexibility, I was really glad we had used a tour. Not only would the language barrier proved difficult, the total lack of available information would have left us wandering uselessly around, learning nothing. 

In Beijing, our tour guide was Cindy. Cindy has a husband, a two year old boy, and a huge girl crush on me. It was super flattering: Cindy wanted to BE me, which is cute, like I have some fairytale life. I do have it pretty easy (good, reliable job; great church and friends; darling husband; low expenses), but heck, I've had some pretty rough patches, too. I didn't have the happiest childhood, and I had to work my way through college, which were some lean years. But overall, I have had incredible opportunities simply because I live in a country with vast freedoms, and if anything, I've squandered them. Hearing Cindy wish she'd had so many choices in her life made me feel a little ashamed of choosing the easy road so often! 
Cindy was especially surprised that I started out as an art major, then changed to chemistry and went to pharmacy school. She said that some colleges are more relaxed now, but when she went to school, your high school grades determined what narrow choice of major you could select (she could choose from four or five fields in the hospitality industry). That major, declared in high school, could not be changed. She said that this process is still very difficult, if not impossible; even if a college claims that a student may change their major, the school may not have the resources to allow additional classes and support, and the request will be denied. 
Cindy was happily deceived by her government in some aspects - ie, "Beijing is very safe, there is no crime. No need to worry about your door locks" - but other things rankled her. She was annoyed by her limited social media choices (although she refused to look at David's Facebook - available on his Google Fi service - while our driver was in the car with her!) and very bitter that, while she was allowed a second child, it was virtually impossible to do so. She commuted two hours one way on three buses for her fairly low-paying job, and because you have to own and pay taxes on a home for five years to send a child to school in Beijing, her child would have to move away and live with relatives a 20-hour train ride away. I felt sad telling Cindy goodbye - she seemed so wistful and really wanted, well, more freedom.

Our Xi'an guide, Rocky, was an interesting mix of super pro-communism and occasional honesty. Rocky did NOT like you to deviate from his plan, so as a tour guide, he was kind of annoying. Like, we biked around the city wall in the rain, but went to indoor tours in clear skies. My suggestion for swapping days was met with a sudden inability to understand English. When I told him in the Xi'an museum that I was not interested in the prehistoric exhibit, but would like to begin with pre-dynastic China, he was shocked and offended and bluntly told us he'd wait outside. Thank goodness. We needed a break from his dry commentary, and the information in the Xi'an Museum is in English and Chinese. Rocky told proud stories about his country...but he kept letting it slip that he had left Xi'an, his hometown, because he was starving. He was older - over 60, I estimate - and he told us that, when he was a child, there was never enough food so that the children would fight over any noodles they had. He moved back recently so he could retire near home. Rocky's the one who cheerily pointed at seven nuclear reactors, belching toxins, and told us that China used all clean energy, and that was natural gas! 

Our last guide was Chris. He was young and charming and reminded me of my brother Abe a little. He was from Shanghai, and spoke English fluently. Chris gets super high points in my book for the personal touches he added: something we found rare on this trip.
  • He came an hour late after our flight from Xi'an didn't get us into Shanghai until 5 am.
  • He stopped for coffee! 
  • He detoured to take us to our landlady's house in Shanghai, which was very important to us.
He has also spammed me almost daily since then asking for a Trip Advisor review! Which I finally completed! We only spent a few hours with Chris, but he had a sweet personality and was thoughtful.

Overall, I am happy with our choice of tour company, and I enjoyed getting to know our guides. I didn't really get to know, or even interact with, any Chinese people: well, there was Judy, the owner of the shop where I bought pearl earrings for my coworkers. She owned her own shop in Shanghai and we talked business. And then there was our hotel maid, who we actually had to write a note to - IN CHINESE! - to ask her to get someone to fix our broken sink in Beijing. She must have been able to read it because she took care of it! 

But really, our guides were the only Chinese people I truly talked to, so they offered a window into everyday life in an unfamiliar culture. 

Monday, November 28, 2016

Happy Thanksgiving!

A little late!

We kicked off Thanksgiving with unequivocally THE WORST race I've ever run: our annual Turkey Trot, in which my hamstring spazzed out immediately and I had to stop and walk in a five mile race. Finished with a nice 36 minute race - you know, slower than I sometimes run five miles for fun.

My hamstring is just a problem racing, pretty much - not that it's perfectly pain free all the time, but it's manageable. It's doing really well when I stretch it a lot (and run at a slower pace!).

We spent Thanksgiving weekend putting up our tree. While I often do decoration themes, this year we're repeating our travel tree, mostly because I brought home several Chinese-language newspapers to use for wrapping paper. Most of the ornaments are ones we picked up on our various trips, and this year we added this cute dragon from China:

And this Chicago flag:

Saturday evening, friends came over to decorate gingerbread houses. I normally make the gingerbread myself, but this year I bought kits - and while it was easier, it was a little boring. I also discovered that the frosting that came with the kit never hardened, so I had to make some royal icing instead. My friend's little girl has been participating in this tradition for four years now!

I also learned a lesson this weekend: don't run down stairs in socks. I fell down our entire flight of stairs, landing stunned. I was alone in the house, and a few minutes later, our landlords rang the bell to check on me! They heard me fall, and then - silence. Once I cleared my head I realized that I had a nasty egg on my elbow, but little else. However, Sunday morning I awoke feeling stiff all over, like I'd been beaten up. It's mildly better now, but man, this elbow is tender.

I expect to be swamped this week, since it's the week after a holiday and doctor's offices were closed for several days, plus one of my techs has jury duty. Not at all my favorite combination: busy plus short-handed. But we'll survive. Anyone else dreading the return to work?

Sunday, November 20, 2016

Hamstring and health update

My hamstring:
  • Still tight and painful
  • I've run - slowly - a little on it (3 and 4 miles).
  • I've been gently stretching and doing a little ice with alternating hot water bottle
  • I can't do a deadlift yet
  • My next race is on Thanksgiving (5 miles). Oh, joy. That should go well.
My health:
I decided to go and get sick Friday. So after spending all Saturday throwing up (like, all day, and it's not something I ate because David and I ate the same thing. Just routine germs), I'll be off running a few days this week, anyway. I'm going for the run less, run slower thing. I'm marginally better today, but I was so weak and sick yesterday that the two things I want to think about the least are running and big meals. Thanksgiving sounds like a terrible idea right now.

And now I am off to enjoy a hearty breakfast of Gatorade and one cracker.

Thursday, November 17, 2016

China: it's still communist.

Before visiting China, I had this confused notion that communism had been dialed back so far in China that it was almost more of an appreciated ideology than a practiced form of government. In some ways, especially economically, that is true. But the Chinese people, I discovered, are still very much oppressed in their everyday lives. We have so many freedoms in the United States that we take for granted - freedoms that many Chinese have never even considered available to them. Two particular freedoms stood out to me: freedom to gain access to information and knowledge, and freedom to own property.

The dearth of information available to the Chinese was constantly apparent. Right off the bat, there is the tiny little problem of all Google products being blocked. I had to use BING. The ignominy of it all. Then, of course, Facebook is blocked, too: just in case you run into someone else's opinion and it doesn't match Mao's (that also meant that my Instagram pictures had to wait until we got home!). The most frustrating blocked website, though, was our library site. I couldn't check out an e-book because heaven forbid you access any old non-approved library! A government that won't let you seek out information from non-vetted sources - whether it be from other people, writers and politicians, or whoever edited Wikipedia that morning - has something to hide from its people. This withholding of information was also demonstrated by the complete lack of signage around historical sites. I have been to empty battlefields with more informational plaques than in the Forbidden City, Summer Palace, Great Wall, and Tiananmen Square combined.
The effect of this lack of outside written information is that the Chinese struggle to represent information accurately. The accepted propaganda-style writing bleeds into a variety of publications. I was reading a Chinese/English airline magazine during the flight from Beijing to Xi'an, and in an article about Frankfurt, Germany, the over-the-top language and hyperbole was rampant. Frankfurt was blithely called, "The financial capital of Europe" and "The most beautiful city in Europe", and some bit art conference was called, "The largest". The article wrapped with a story of a man in a German grocery store approaching the writer with sparkling eyes, tearfully telling him of how Merkel had just visited China, and the countries were friends, such good friends.
I have grave doubts any such grocery encounter occurred. It's like fact-checking doesn't exist. You don't question what you read, so why verify what you write?
I also noticed that the news is not only saturated with propaganda and the same overly-positive, nothing-bad-happens here style, but it's also obsessed with the United States. The bitter mentions in both the English language newspaper and on the news were constant. I watched a story that lasted about 15 minutes, focusing on blurry footage of Newport News. Clearly, it was supposed to be secret film of a new naval ship being built. After a while covering that, the footage switched to huge, glorious Chinese Navy ships steaming through the seas. All well and good, but the constant comparisons to the US just surprised me. They care about us way more than we care about them!

Everything is gray.

The "nice" apartments. All ugly to me. 
The issue of property ownership fascinated David and I because it relates to David's line of work. He's a property attorney, and much of what he does involves the government taking or obtaining use for land for the purpose of public health and safety, like levees or sewer lines (mostly levees, obviously. It's Louisiana). The endless legal research, negotiations, and payments are what gives him a job: but in China, they just take it. Each city we visited had some example. In Xi'an, Rocky, our guide, told us proudly that the farmers took up too much space in their own homes. So the government moved them all to giant high-rise apartments, farmed all that nice land their houses were taking up, and made all the farmers take buses to the fields every day. Brilliant! We heard similar stories in Shanghai and Beijing, and like I mentioned before, the Communist-Gray high rises were everywhere, stuffed with people whose houses or neighborhoods were demolished for new developments. In Shanghai, this occurred to allow the government to sell the property to a developer who planned a giant tower - not even anything to do with public welfare!

Towers of farmers
Those two issues are what really grabbed my attention, but there were other ways that communism reared its head; all of which combined to make me grateful to live in the U.S.A. It's a privilege.

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

The great shoe washing of 2016

As August wrapped up, I'd reached that point with my running shoes: the point at which I could no longer allow them in the house. As I left a pair on the front porch, my neighbor called out a warning. "Better not leave those out there! There's a tomcat in this neighborhood that's been spraying everything!"
As if that would make them smell any worse.

I kept waiting for the weather to cool down to attempt washing my shoes, but it really never did until November (and even then, today's high is 77 F). I couldn't keep waiting. Both pairs of every-day shoes were downright vile. So I washed them. I threw them in a short cycle of cold water with extra detergent. I let the washer fill and allowed them to soak for about an hour, then closed the washer lid and started the wash cycle as I headed out the door to work (I didn't want to listen to shoes bang around in the washer).
When I got home, they were a lot cleaner, and almost didn't smell. There's just a hint of stinkiness left. I laid them out in full sun until I saw storm clouds start to move in, then switched them to indoors, stuffed with newspaper.
All clean!

The drying process

Even after 14 hours of drying, they weren't totally dry in the morning. But that's nothing new. At least it was water dampness, and not residual sweat!

Verdict: it worked pretty well, it didn't destroy the shoes, and my husband has stopped backing away from me when I come home from a run.