Saturday, August 23, 2008

Back to basics

Since finishing my first marathon I've been less inspired by the idea of running. Work has been unusually busy for August. I traveled to Europe and the Caspian region last week - stopping in Europe twice and in Baku. I was mostly flying and sleeping little. I did my last Sunday run in Slovenia.

I arrived in Vienna Sunday morning at 6AM from Baku, and connected to Ljubljana at 10. Once in Ljubljana I made a quick stop at the ISS office, picked up the weekend Financial Times and off I went to Cacao -- a new gelateria/cafe in the center of Ljubljana, on the left bank of Ljubljanica. This is the best place in town to have your ice cream and the waiters are responsive, all except one -- Speedy. He's a confused dude.

The sun was hot. I ordered two scoops of ice cream, which at Cacao is a serious serving, and began reading the FT interview with the Ukrainian PM, Yulia Tymoshenko. It was disappointing in that little politics was discussed. This is the Prime Minister of Ukraine, I thought, speaking to the FT in the midst of the Georgian crisis, and the interviewer can't stop talking about her looks and her role as a woman in the Ukrainian political space. Boring.

Having loaded up on ice cream and no longer enjoying reading the paper, I decided to go for my Sunday run. Another marathon I thought. I set off from the Ljubljana rugby club field, which is just outside of the Ljubljana city proper, running in the direction of Skofja Loka. I took the back road and ran through the rolling corn fields. It was a beautiful run, clean air, and a peaceful Sunday afternoon. Once in Skofja Loka, I turned in the direction of Cerkno Jezero. By now, I was on mile 12. I was getting tiered. My legs hurt, and I realized that running another marathon was going to be a stretch. I didn't give myself enough time to recover from the last one I ran in New York. With each additional step my legs felt heavier. By mile 14 I was battling with my mind convincing myself to keep going despite moving at snails pace. But then my left ankle started to hurt as well as my hips. I couldn't run anymore and started to walk everytime there was a small uphill. At mile 16.5 my mind gave way to the pain. I collapsed on the grass near the road and for a second I felt I might faint. I closed my eyes. When I next opened them two strangers were standing above me, a man and a woman, asking me if they should call an ambulance. I was surprised -- why an ambulance? I needed a cab. I asked them to call me a taxi. They did.

The taxi eventually found me sitting in the grass field on this remote road, and he drove me back to my car. The driver's only comment to me was: "Why are you calling for a ride on such a beautiful day, you should exercise." I smiled and nodded, too tired to explain.

That evening I met up with my parents in Sezana at the Grgic Restaurant. They were returning from a short vacation in Switzerland. We ate like noblemen that evening -- squid salad, prosciutto and goat cheese from Kras- a region in Slovenia known for its bare landscape and fresh winds- ravioli with truffles, and finished off with grilled fish. It was good to see and catch up with mom and dad after so many months. The next day I left for New York.

Monday, August 11, 2008

The Marathon

I knew it; running in Mexico was tough. Aside from the crazy traffic and lack of pedestrian zones and parks, there is also the pollution and altitude to manage. I love Mexico though! The food in delicious, people are friendly and happy, and the country is a vibrant palette of colors. Rich in diversity, culture, and history, Mexico satisfies the human craving for dolce vita. I was in Cuernavaca last weekend, which is about 80 KM south of Mexico City. I probably started my run way too late, hitting the road at 9:30AM -- I was going to do earlier, but at 5AM a massive downpour killed that plan and in my grogginess I reasoned what's the point of getting wet if I can sleep longer and go running later, rested. Mistake. By the time I got out the traffic was heavy, air pollution was bad, and the air was humid. It rains a lot in Mexico during this time of the year, but rarely in Cuernavaca during the day, only at night. The city is famous for its constant climate and sunny days, known as the "City of Eternal Spring" it is a popular weekend destination for the chic of Mexico City.

As I was running the hilly city, I kept thinking about not being able to finish a full marathon. It was crazy to think this way, I know, defeating my purpose before even starting the run. But for some reason I decided to have a bad attitude about the whole thing. So of course, I didn't accomplish much that day. I ran 13 miles in a boring 2.13h. The end came on a hill, which seemed eternal. I was running 35 minutes uphill nonstop, and the end just didn’t want to come. I was swearing the hill under my breath, and I was getting nervous. This destroyed my breathing, which became irregular and I was feeling hot, more than usual, interspersed with shocks of chills. I figured I was suffering from dehydration and on the verge of a heat stroke. There was no fun in this. I stopped running.

Defeated, I called my mother-in-law for a ride home. I wondered in that moment, will I ever be able to do it, to run an ultramarathon, if I couldn't even get up to 26 miles.

We left Mexico City for New York early last week. I was gone from New York for almost three months. Being back felt strange at first, but the pace of New York is such that you never have much time to think about things. So the re-integration happened fast. By-mid week I was back in my old training routine – running and weightlifting. My last Sunday run in Cuernavaca was far behind me now.

On Saturday I was up early - 5.30AM. However, I wasn’t hurrying to get on with the run. I was wasting time. I was nervous about the run -- the Cuernavaca experience was reconstructed in my head. I thought, "What if I can't do it again?" This would be another failed attempt at running a marathon. I don't know how exactly I structured my thought process to convince myself to try again and to feel good about trying, but I was out the door at 6.20 ready to do it. Maybe it was the Olympic spirit that got to me, with the Beijing 2008 Olympic games kicking off the day before.

I took off in the direction of lower Manhattan, towards the Financial District. From there I turned towards the Brooklyn Bridge and crossed it. Once in Brooklyn I reversed course and headed back to the West Side Highway and the Hudson River. 1.30h into the run I met up with my friend. We ran together up the West Side highway towards Central Park. He took a break at that point; I ran on. The full circle around the park took 40 minutes. By now I was 3.20h into the run, and had a little over 3miles to go to full marathon. I met up with my friend again. This saved me. In my head I already gave up, but having him run by my side gave me the edge and the will to keep pushing. At some point, I couldn't run up the hill anymore, breaking into a fast walk. My legs were cramping all over. This lasted for almost 3 minutes. I began to wonder if I would reach a point where I would be too weak to lift my legs at all. My friend kept pushing urging me; I kept telling him I can’t, and he kept saying you can. I was getting annoyed and upset. And there it clicked, the stubbornness kicked in and I regained a running pace and off we went from Central Park back to West Side Highway and back down towards Chelsea. At this point, I was even picking up pace, which surprised both of us. Running was getting easier. Perhaps it had something to do with the slight downhill we were on, or I hit another pocket of energy.

Finally, my iPod started to talk. It was Lance Armstrong congratulating me on my longest run yet. This wasn’t a dream. It was the real thing. I made it; I finished a marathon. It took me 3.44h, but that’s an irrelevant detail. I was overwhelmed with excitement and a grand feeling of satisfaction. I ran a marathon! Finally, just like that, on a non-particular Saturday morning in New York.

As we sat there in the grass, looking at Jersey, we started singing our Stanford Rugby song "We"re a bunch of bastards..." -- my friend and I played rugby together at Stanford. For a moment I felt like I was back at Stanford, sitting on the pitch after a bruising rugby match. I remember how it felt, the pain, the glory, the team, the satisfaction that come with an act of bravery. We were brave, the Stanford Rugby team.

And, we were brave this Saturday!

Saturday, August 2, 2008

Still chasing

After my 23 miles in Brussels, I encountered a strange four weeks of running. I started traveling a great deal which made running difficult, more than usual. I was back at 20 miles the next week; I ran them on the upper Croatian coast, in Istria. Starting off in Novi Grad I ran along the coast to Mareda, a small town where we used to have a summer house -- a lot of my childhood memories come from there. From Mareda I made my way on the local road to Umag. In Umag I turned around and headed back to Novi Grad. It started raining, the sun was setting, and road running felt unsafe at times. When I was off the road and on the coast, the route was great.

The island of Korcula was my next Sunday stop. Paola and I spent a weekend there with our close friends. The island is superb -- Korcula city is the new up-and-coming spot on the Croatian coast. The bays on the island are magical, cutting deep into the island; the water is a mix of turquoise and green-blue. After a good Saturday fish dinner, I set out on my Sunday run early in the morning, before 6AM. I left Korcula on the main road traversing the island in the direction of Vela Luka, which is a city on the other side, exactly 46KM away. The start of the run was hard as it was a straight 45min climb to get to the top of the island's mountain. The interior of the island is sparsely populated, but rich with vineyards and olive trees. I passed a number of small towns on my way to Vela Luka. At 8am the sun was already strong and the heat began to pick up. I kept pushing, but at 9 KM from Vela Luka I stopped. I laid on the ground under a cross, quite fitting as I felt almost dead.

From the seaside, we returned to Brussels, and spent the following weekend in Paris. I didn't run much that weekend, managing a boring 12 mile run upon my return to Brussels from Paris on Sunday.

The last weekend I spent it running in the Slovenian mountains, in Bohinj. I arrived early in Ljubljana from Sarajevo on Saturday, 10 minutes before 7AM. That afternoon I was due to leave for New York, after having spent almost 2 months in Europe and in the Caspian, but my afternoon connection from Paris to New York was canceled. Luckily, Air France was kind enough to call me while I was still in Ljubljana and offer me a Sunday alternative. I took it and immediately headed for Bohinj. I put on my running gear and loaded on water. I started off in at the foot of the lake heading in the direction of Savica waterfall. Once there I turned up the hill, towards the Black lake, which was a 1200m straight-up climb - the climb is a difficult one and only recommended for experienced mountain climbers. From there I went to Vogar, and from Vogar back down to Stara Fuzina, and another lap around the lake. Combining hiking and running, I managed the hardest physical endurance test of my life in 4h.11min. The total distance was 23.11 miles. The pace was not impressive, but considering it was a mountain run, I was proud all the same. To save my legs, I finished off with a swim in lake Bohinj, cold but refreshing.

I'm now in Mexico. The altitude is an issue, so I'm not sure what to expect from this Sunday run.

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