Closing Circles & Revisiting Clara

At the beginning of my Fulbright year I did a windy bike ride to Glen Echo, Maryland, to visit the house where the founder of the American Red Cross, Clara Barton, spent the last 15 years of her life. At the time I also discovered that there was another exciting historical site much closer to the current American Red Cross National Headquarters: Clara Barton’s Missing Soldiers Office. At that point in time, the site was still undergoing restoration and closed for public, so I totally forgot about it for quite a while.

Just before my last weekend in DC in August, something triggered me to check if the restoration had been finished. And it had, already a few months earlier actually. I saw this as an opportunity to close circles and biked to 437 ½ 7th Street NW late on a sunny Friday afternoon after work. I was very lucky with my timing as the Executive Director of the museum himself happened to be on site and gave me an extremely informative guided tour. He shared the whole story of the incredible discovery of the space and the extensive restoration work.

Missing Soldiers Office

The exact location of the Clara Barton’s Missing Soldiers Office in downtown DC was a mystery for historians for decades. Most of them believed that it had been in a building that had been since then demolished. In 1997, the mystery was suddenly solved when the General Services Administration was about to demolish yet another building. Luckily, one of the GSA employees discovered a number of carefully packed items in the attic that made him curious. A closer look revealed that these items had belonged to Clara Barton, and it became evident that the Missing Soldiers Office had been in the building. It turned out that the reason why the historians had been looking for the office a few blocks in the wrong direction was that the street numbering system had been changed at some point in the history. The demolition plans were cancelled, and now years later the space is open for public as a museum after meticulous restoration.

Where the Treasure Was Found

Clara Barton both lived and worked in the space from 1861 to 1868 during and right after the Civil War. She used it as home and as a warehouse for the supplies that she received for her work on the battlefield. Later the room 9 became famous as the office in which Clara Barton responded to more than 63,000 letters regarding missing soldiers. In total, she was able to identify the fate of over 22,000 men. In the same spirit, the American Red Cross keeps up the work started by Clara Barton by tracking people who have gone missing due to an armed conflict or a natural catastrophe and reconnecting families every day. The American Red Cross also facilitates getting important messages from the family members out to the current day battlefields as a part of its Service to the Armed Forces.

Room 9

As a part of the guided tour, I also got a comprehensive recap of Clara Barton’s life from the Executive Director. Clara Barton really was a renaissance woman. It is incredible to think how the American Red Cross brings together so many of her passions from helping soldiers on the battlefields to teaching first aid for the general public and tracing missing people. Clara Barton’s work really lays the foundation for everything that the American Red Cross still does today.

For me, the museum visit was a great way to close circles in the end of the Fulbright year. The small museum is definitely worth a visit for anyone who is at all interested in the story of Clara Barton, the history of the American Red Cross, or the Civil War and American history in general. The museum is currently open on Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays 11AM-6PM. Check the Facebook page of the museum for exceptions and more information.

Ten Reasons to Love #BikeDC

10. Group Rides

If you are relatively new to DC, biking, or both, joining a group ride is the absolutely best way to get started. Pretty much all the DC bike shops organize weekly group rides. For example, the 7th Street Social organized by my favorite bike shop in town, BicycleSPACE (700 5th St. NW), on Thursday nights is a classic. They also organize Nice-N-Easy rides for people who are new to (urban) biking, and several others for more experienced cyclists. I can highly recommend the Hills of Anacostia ride if you feel like starting your weekend by acing killer hills in SE DC, and the City Explorers ride if you just happen to be a very curious person like me. If you wish to go all out on a road bike, check out the group rides organized by The Bike Rack (14th & Q NW). You might also find like-minded company in the DC Triathlon Club.

Hills of Anacostia

9. Bike Commuting

DC traffic may feel like a jungle first. Once you get used to it (which took me about three weeks), bike commuting becomes a real joy. In addition to saving you time and money, it makes you happier, healthier, and more productive. The list of benefits is nearly endless. As the winter in DC is relatively short – at least compared to Finland – and the streets are seldom icy, it is possible to commute by bike almost year round without any particular winter riding equipment apart from warm clothes. As a bonus, on rainy and cold days you can often have the bike lanes all for yourself.

Biking in the Rain

8. Bike Advocacy

Washington Area Bicyclist Association, WABA, does an amazing job promoting better bike lanes, better bike laws, and better bicyclists in DC and in the surrounding metropolitan area. They run an impressive range of advocacy activities, and additionally they organize classes and events. WABA also runs a Women & Bicycles program to encourage more women to pick up biking. Coming from Finland where biking is roughly equally common among men and women, it was quite a shock to realize that in DC less than 30% of cyclists are women, so the program is very much needed. (Many of the Women & Bicycles activities were actually so awesome that we might want to copy them with pride in Helsinki anyway.) Read more about WABA and become a member today.

Inspired by WABA’s example, I decided to convince the American Red Cross headquarters facility management to invest in an additional bike rack. The earlier bike parking capacity simply was not enough when the weather got nicer in spring. I started lobbying for an extra bike rack in April. After four months of chasing, a brand new rack was assembled at the Red Cross Square just before I finished my Fulbright project. I could not resist decorating it with a Women & Bicycles sticker on my last day.

The Extra Bike Rack at the Red Cross Square

7. Special Events

There are loads of bike related special events throughout the year. In addition to WABA, especially BicycleSPACE has been super active in organizing them. I went for example to their Halloween themed ride, Holiday Lights ride, and Holiday Party. Both BicycleSPACE and The Bike Rack also offer weekly yoga classes in their stores outside the regular opening hours. Additionally, The Bike Rack organizes events specifically for women. Every now and then there are even public alleycats in DC. These urban navigation and problem solving races were originally a cult thing among bike messengers only but now there are also events open for anyone.

131219 Zoolights

6. Bike Trails

If biking with traffic does not appeal to you, don’t worry, there is a wealth of trails in the DC area as well. Some of the most popular ones are the Mt. Vernon trail (gets hilly towards the end), the Four Mile Run trail, the W&OD trail, and the Custis trail. Parts of these also form a nice roundtrip also known as the Arlington Loop. Once you have covered these, you can head to the Capital Crescent trail (very scenic and paved), C&O trail (very scenic, but unpaved), the Metropolitan Branch Trail (spot murals along the way), the Bethesda Trolley Trail (a little hard to navigate), and the Sligo Creek Trail (excellent ice cream in Takoma Park). Additionally, large sections of the Beach Drive in the Rock Creek Park is closed from cars during weekends. Many road cyclists also enjoy doing “lycra laps” in Hains Point and biking to the Potomac Village even if that means sharing the road with cars.

Sligo Creek Trail

5. Bike Maintenance Skills

If you have ever wanted to learn bike maintenance, in DC it is very easy. Bike shops offer basic maintenance and fix-a-flat workhops on a regular basis. These are often completely free of charge. A fantastic community-based bicycle repair cooperative, the Bike House, also organizes more in-depth maintenance courses for a nominal fee. I attended their excellent four week long course in Petworth in May. I could not have imagined how much one can learn about brakes, gear, cables, hubs, and spokes in such a short time. So empowering! Highly recommended.

Mechanics Class

4. Volunteering Opportunities

The Bike House is completely volunteer run. In addition to offering bike maintenance courses, they organize weekly bicycle repair clinics at Petworth and at the Bloomingdale Farmers Market. Every now and then they also do the same in other locations, often in the spirit of outreach. In summer 2014, the Bike House teamed up with DC Public Library, WABA, and DC Police and organized four clinics in Anacostia in SE DC. I joined one of these clinics as a volunteer. That turned out to be one of the most rewarding and eye-opening experiences during the entire Fulbright year.

If you ask me, these free clinics in Anacostia were a marvelous concept: SE DC is one of the lowest income areas of the city. For quite obvious reasons, there are no bike shops in the area, meaning that if someone’s bike breaks down, it is tough to get it fixed. At the same time, for many residents their bike is their main form of transportation for getting to work and school, doing groceries, and running errands. Hence, teaching people fix and maintain their own bikes is simply brilliant as it solves so many problems in one go. In addition to a couple of professional mechanics and a bunch of us volunteers with varying skill levels, even a couple of DC police officers were wrenching with us. For them, this was a unique opportunity to interact with the residents in positive terms. We helped more than 50 happy customers during the afternoon. (As a side note, some of them were quite puzzled with my accent. One gentleman even asked if I am from Siberia. Maybe I was the palest person in Anacostia so far…)

The Bike House Volunteers

3. Bike Lane Art

Whenever one stops at traffic lights, it is worth glancing down: There are small witty stencil pieces with biking related messages painted on the bike lanes around the city. What a brilliant form of street art! Check out some more of my photos on Flickr to get an idea. Unfortunately, the mysterious artist has had to take a break of stencil activism for now, but I’m sure many of the pieces are still visible.

#bikedc

2. Mural Tours

For an urban art junkie like me, mural tours by bike were a treat. As a bonus, they are also an excellent way to explore DC neighborhoods that you might not feel totally comfortable checking out on your own. A hip-hop nonprofit Words Beats and Life organizes mural rides in cooperation with BicycleSPACE a couple of times a year. Also, if you have any designer connections, you might want to check if AIGA DC is planning another mural ride.

Mural Riders

1. Coffee Clubs

Each Wednesday morning a group of bikey women swing by the Coffee Bar (or another carefully selected location) on their way to work for a cup of coffee and some bike talk. These weekly informal gatherings hosted by awesome Nelle from WABA are a part of the Women & Bicycles program. They are a great way to meet like-minded people, get tips and peer support – often also in non-biking related matters – and generally become energized. On Friday mornings, there is a co-ed Coffee Club at Swings (17th & G NW). The DC biking power couple Mary and Ed founded the coffee club some three years ago, and it has become an institution. I do not even drink coffee, yet these morning coffee clubs might be the DC routine that I miss most.

Women & Bicycles Coffee Club

Best of July

1. Fourth of July Fireworks

Musselman, Toronto, Nigara Falls, and the Disney World definitely belong to the Best of July, but many cool things happened also back home in DC, like the Fourth of July fireworks. This was the third time I was in the U.S. on the 4th of July. In 2007, I went to see the Macy’s fireworks with 40,000 others. As the weather was extremely cloudy and rainy, unfortunately there was not that much to see in the end. In 2012, I happened to land in NYC exactly on the Independence Day. This time the weather beautiful. Routinely, we headed to the East River for the spectacle, only to find out that the fireworks had been moved to the Hudson River, in other words to the west side of Manhattan…

4th of July Fireworks

The third time definitely was the charm. My Independence Day did not start too well as I had a terrible cold. After spending the day in bed, in the evening I still decided to leave the house, hop on my bike and head downtown to meet up with friends. I’m so glad I did! I had been invited to a friend’s friend’s rooftop to watch the fireworks. The vantage point was fabulous: an unobstructed view of the Washington Monument, the Old Post Office Tower, the sunset, and magnificent fireworks. The view of the U.S. Capitol was not too shabby either. It made me think of my first 7th Street Social bike ride in September, and all the great things that had followed.

US Capitol

2. Paddling on the Anacostia River

I love to brag how Helsinki is such a unique capital city as there is so much nature just a stone-throw away from the city center. I was astonished to discover that DC has a bit of the same flavor. The Rock Creek Park has a feel of a real forest, and paddling on the Anacostia river makes one forget the surrounding huge metropolitan area instantly. My first paddling experience on the river was in May in a wonderful free event organized by Casey Trees. During our couple of hours of paddling we even spotted a turtle and a beaver! In July I had the opportunity to get on the river again, that time to celebrate the anniversary of the Anacostia Watershed Society. So peaceful, so relaxing, highly recommended. Both Casey Trees and the Anacostia Watershed Society are worthy organizations doing invaluable work to preserve urban nature. They offer a vast array of exciting and fun ways to get involved. Have a look!

Paddling on Anacostia

3. American-Russian-Ethiopian Celebration of Love

Two of my roommates got married in June. Due to my conference in Florida, I was unfortunately not able to travel to Italy to attend the actual wedding. Luckily, the groom’s mother organized a wonderful Welcome Home party for the newlyweds in July. The event started with the blessing of the marriage at the Russian Orthodox Cathedral of St. John the Baptist not far from our house. I had become very familiar with the cathedral during my triathlon training, as I ran by it on most of my morning runs. Actually my favorite hill for hill repeats was right by it. I had never had a chance to peak inside, though. Seeing the incredibly beautiful interior was like stepping into another world.

The blessing of the marriage was followed by a reception at the River Farm of the American Horticultural Society. The venue was amazing: an old estate house surrounded by beautiful gardens overlooking the Potomac River. Funny enough, I knew also this location from before as it happens to be right by the Mt. Vernon Trail. We spent a lovely sunny Sunday afternoon and evening enjoying delicious American, Russian, and Ethiopian food and saw some unforgettable Russian dancing bridging any generation gaps. Realizing how many of the other guests I had had the opportunity to learn to know during the year made me feel like a part of the family. (Ironing the groom’s suit five minutes before leaving for the church had of course given plenty of that feeling as well.)

Ceiling at the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist

As a Zontian in DC and Orlando

Had I not ended up with the American Red Cross, I would have spent my Fulbright year at the Zonta International Headquarters in Chicago. Often the easiest way to explain what Zonta International is about is to say that it is like Rotary or Lions Clubs, but (originally) for women. The official story goes like this: Founded in 1919, Zonta International is a global organization of executives and professionals working together to advance the status of women worldwide through service and advocacy. With more than 30,000 members belonging to more than 1,200 Zonta Clubs in 63 countries and geographic areas, Zontians all over the world volunteer their time, talents and support to local and international service projects, as well as scholarship programs. Zonta International, its districts and its clubs are nonsectarian and nonpartisan.

Even if DC was my destiny instead of Chicago, I was able to get involved with the American activities of Zonta International a little bit as well. The Zonta Club of Washington, D.C. welcomed me to their dinner meetings with open arms. I have been a member of one of the Finnish clubs, Zonta Club of Helsinki 1, since 2008, but this was the first time I attended a meeting of another club. It was fascinating to see how they operate, and I made a lot of notes about ideas that could benefit our club. For example, the website of the DC club is an excellent benchmark for our club. I also loved the fact that PayPal was used actively for dinner payments, reducing the need for handling cash in the meetings.

In addition to getting to know Zontians in DC, I attended the Zonta International Orlando Convention 2014 in Florida as one of the two official delegates of our Finnish club. Zonta conventions take place every other year. Thousands of Zontians from around the world gather to make decisions regarding the goals of the next biennium and to elect the new Zonta International officials. I had been told that one truly understands what Zonta is about only after attending a convention. This is definitely a valid point. The event made it very concrete how extensive and powerful the Zonta activities are on the global level. At the same time it was a serious reminder how much there remains to be done to advance the status of women. Below are my highlights and remarks of the Orlando convention.

Thursday June 26 

I arrived at the convention site already the day before the actual convention started. This turned out to be quite lucky, because a management training workshop aimed at the future Vice Governors and Club Presidents was opened to anyone interested last minute. The workshop on “Effective Conflict Resolution in Organizations” was an excellent way to spend the afternoon with ladies from all corners of the world from Hawaii to Germany and Chile. The trainers walked us through different collaboration and decision-making styles and made it easy to see how differences in these sometimes may make club activities (or life in general) challenging.

Workshop on Handling Difficult Situations

The convention took place at the grandiose Orlando World Center Marriott, also known as “the luxury prison” as a Dutch Zontian put it. There was no way to leave the resort without a cab or a rental car. One of the highlights of the life in the prison were the gorgeous sunsets seen from the balcony of our cell. Later at night we could also see the Disney World fireworks at the distance.

Orlando Sunset

Friday June 27:

The theme for Friday was delegate training which was particularly helpful for us who were attending a convention for the first time. There is more to learn about parliamentary decision-making among thousands of women than one might think. It was very helpful to get an introduction to the hierarchy of different rules and procedures that regulate Zonta activities on international, district and club levels. At the convention, the focus is on the international bylaws that are like the constitution of the organization.

The decision-making process follows Robert’s Rules of Order Newly Revised. In a lot of cases the first vote is about the decision-making method. If a change is proposed to the original proposal, there may be a vote on the formulation of the proposed change. Finally, there is a vote between the original proposal and the proposed amendment. This opens up interesting opportunities for smart meeting tactics. Unfortunately, it also leaves plenty of room for human error. It seemed pretty clear that not all participants understood enough English and/or Boolean algebra to be able to stay on top of what was being voted at each moment.

In practice, most decision-making happens by electronic voting. The voting machines are super simple small devices, but when you put them in the hands of ladies of all ages with different cultural backgrounds, there is no such thing as super simple. Quite a lot of time was spent practicing the use of devices. Even the technology provider was struggling with all the troubleshooting as it is not common even for them to have several thousand people voting simultaneously.

Bylaws

The official Opening Ceremony of the conversation served as a walk-through of the history of Zonta International at the same time: The flags of all Zonta countries and territories were carried to the stage in the order of years when the first Zonta club was founded in each area. The keynote speaker was Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, United Nations Under-Secretary-General and the Executive Director of UN Women, who thanked Zonta International for our continuous support of the mission and work of UN Women. Seeing thousands of women from around the world in the same huge ball room, many dressed up in their beautiful national costumes, like the Zambian women below, made it very concrete how global the organization is.

Opening Ceremony

After the Opening Ceremony we managed to escape the prison for a moment and took a cab to a nearby Walmart. Together with my partner in crime, the other delegate of our Finnish club and my convention roommate, we stocked up with healthier, tastier, and more reasonably priced breakfast and snack items than anything that was available at the hotel. With sneaky smiles on our face returned to our prison with our catch, and created a temporary minibar extension out of a champagne cooler and loads of ice cubes.

Saturday June 28:

Our Saturday morning started with the Zonta Rose 5K Run/Walk. The start was already 6AM, as the run course circled around the Marriott golf course. For safety reasons, we needed to be out of the way before a golf tournament started. As Orlando is very hot and humid in June, I did not mind the early wake-up and slightly cooler temperature at all. A good number of Zontians had decided to join the fun. The total funds raised for Zonta International Foundation with the event were more than $45,000.

Zonta Rose 5K

Later during the day, it was finally time to start the actual business sessions of the convention. The first one consisted of all kinds of formalities: recognizing the 2012-2014 leadership team, voting to approve the standing rules, accepting the convention program by unanimous consent, and listening to the reports of the president, treasurer, and secretary. The remaining business sessions were spent listening to the speeches of the 2014-2016 leadership candidates. Apparently, this part of the program has traditionally been always running late, but not this year: The microphones were strictly muted after each candidate had used their allocated slot (2-3 minutes depending on the position the candidate was applying for). I could immediately see loads of use cases for this type simple and brilliant technology in multiple other areas of life as well.

Zonta International Convention 2014

As the business sessions did not run late against all expectations, all of a sudden we had some free time at our hands. Completely unexpected in the middle of the action-packed convention agenda! As many Zontians who had flown to the convention all the way from Finland were very keen on doing some shopping, it was time to escape the prison again and head to an outlet mall for some Orlando style quality time.

Sunday June 29:

We spent practically the entire Sunday in the dungeon, the same huge dimly-lit ball room that did not only host the opening ceremony but actually pretty much all the other activities as well. The day started with the elections of the 2014-2016 Zonta International officers, directors and nominating committee. Luckily the voting devices worked just fine despite the technical challenges during the Friday practice.

Next, we got to enjoy three excellent speeches given by Jane M. Klausman, Young Women in Public Affairs and Amelia Earhart scholarship recipients. Who would’ve thought that someone can give an unforgettably fascinating speech about space debris? Well, that’s what the aerospace PhD candidate Laura Suarez Henderson did! No wonder these young ladies had scored the scholarships.

Then we moved into the most serious and notorious business sessions of the convention, the bylaws. The Zonta International leadership and headquarters staff had put in a major effort in going through the bylaws in detail prior to the convention. Hence there was a record high number of proposed changes. The guiding principle of the proposals was to streamline the actual bylaws by moving unnecessary details to manuals that can be updated with less bureaucracy also between conventions. Several delegates considered each such change as a presumptuous attempt to shift power from the convention to the international leadership. This led to fiery discussions on even the most trivial sounding proposals. For a convention first-timer, it was quite confusing to see that a number of delegates were so passionate about the bylaws that they even lost their temper during the business sessions. And it was equally confusing that there were a number of proposals from local clubs to include very specific practical details that happened to be important to them to the international bylaws. Seeing this side of the parliamentary process was very eye-opening and educational. Fortunately, the voting results still reflected that the majority of the delegates understood the big picture, picked their battles, and had lots of common sense.

Voting Procedures

Monday June 30:

As so many delegates had wanted to have a say about the bylaws on Sunday, the conversation had to be continued for hours on Monday as well. After loads of debate, all the revisions to the bylaws were completed on Monday evening. In the end, there were only a few very significant changes. Echoing the words that a frustrated elderly Australian Zontian said in the elevator, maybe all the drama around the bylaws was not the best use of the time of professional women that had flown in from all over the world.

The lengthy bylaws debate unfortunately meant that the delegates missed the workshops that I had very much looked forward to. The workshop on Philanthropy and Women would have been very relevant for my Fulbright project, and attending the Women in Leadership workshop led by Marilyn Waring would have been an honor as such. Luckily, her excellent keynote speech remained on the agenda despite the schedule changes. This impressive woman, the Professor of Public Policy at Auckland University of Technology, was as elected in the New Zealand parliament as the youngest woman at the age of 23. She has made an incredible career as a politician and activist for female human rights and environmental issues. She was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize as a part of the 1000 Peace Women initiative. Together with American Nobel Peace Laureate Jody Williams, Marilyn Waring definitely belongs to the top of the list of the most inspiring persons that I came across during my Fulbright year.

Marilyn Waring

Even if I missed the Philanthropy and Women workshop, the convention gave a lot of perspective to that topic as well. In addition to the Zonta Rose 5K Run/Walk, there was another major fundraising effort during the convention as well. The Zonta International Foundation had a booth at the convention site giving the convention participants an opportunity to make their first gifts of the 2014-2016 biennium in person and with instant gratification. The concept was that donors got a blue “I Gave” sticker for each $25 donated during the convention. These stickers were then placed on the district leader boards that were kept visible in the lobby to trigger competition between districts on which one had given most. Additionally, donors also got an official Orlando “I Gave” pin that they were able to wear right away. Nearly $170,000 were raised by sticker sales. Astonishing, isn’t it?

Sticker Fundraising

Tuesday July 1:

The very last business sessions of the convention focused on confirming the plans for the next two years. The newly elected Zonta International President Maria Jose Landeira Oestergaard introduced the proposed Biennial Goals 2014-2016 that focus on conviction, commitment, and courage. After the endless debate during the preceding days, it was incredible that 100% of the votes supported this proposal. The following International Service Programs and ZISVAW Programs (Zonta International Strategies to end Violence against Women) were confirmed for the next biennium:

  • Eliminating Obstetric Fistula in Liberia in partnership with UNFPA
  • HIV-Free Generation in Rwanda in partnership with US Fund for UNICEF
  • Gender Responsive Schools in Vietnam in partnership with UN Trust Fund
  • Delaying Early Marriage in Niger in partnership with UNFPA
  • Voices Against Violence in 12 Countries in partnership with UN Women

To learn more about these projects and other topics of the Orlando Convention, please check out these materials and highlights.

President Maria Jose

After blessing the plans for the next biennium, we finally had some time to enjoy the glamorous pool area of our luxury prison and try out the thrilling water slide. I even managed to find a deserted indoor pool where I was able to swim a couple of laps before heading to the gym to spend a few moments on a stationary bike and a treadmill. My modest attempt to get at least some triathlon training done during the convention! Then it was already time to get ready for the fancy Closing Banquet and Installation Ceremony.

Closing Banquet

In the traditional Installation Ceremony old and new international and district leaders gathered on the stage. The new President Maria Jose Landeira Oestergaard gave her inaugural speech. The President for the Biennium 2012-2014 Lynn McKenzie became a “PIP”, a Past International President. PIPs enjoy a special status and rights, e.g. they have the right to vote in Zonta conventions without being club delegates. For me personally, it was touching to see these ladies on the stage as they both were very supportive during my Fulbright application process. (I even met up with Lynn McKenzie in Wellington in January 2013!) In addition to the Installation Ceremony and the delicious dinner, the ultimate highlight of the Closing Banquet was a spectacular performance by Cirque du Soleil.

Delegates Posing

Wednesday July 2:

If you have a free morning in Orlando before heading back home, what is the most culturally appropriate thing to do? Visit the Disney World, of course! It is not quite as straightforward as one might think, though, but luckily there are articles like 101 Great Disney World Tips that help you get oriented. Our strategy was to head straight to the Magic Kingdom and be there a little before the park opens. The plan worked beautifully, and we started our visit by witnessing the arrival of Minnie, Mickey & co to the park by a small train.

Minnie & Mickey

Then as soon as the gates opened, we more or less ran to our top priority attraction, Space Mountain, and got to hop on this insane roller coaster practically without any waiting in line. Later during the day we got our share of that as well, though. But still it was a positive surprise to be able to squeeze in several additional rides as well, like Seven Dwarfs Mine Train and Big Thunder Mountain Railroad. Finally after getting a chance to pose wearing Minnie Mouse ears, I could really feel that my Orlando experience was complete.

Minnie in the Disney World

Musselman Special

This is a very long overdue race report of my first Half Ironman triathlon (1.9 km / 1.2 mile swim, 90 km / 56 mile bike, 21.1 km / 13.1 mile run). The race took place in Geneva, NY, on July 13, 2014. It was followed by a quick reward trip to Toronto and Niagara Falls. Most of the report was written in August 2014. The blog post was finalized in Gisborne, NZ, in January 2015.

All of a sudden my 5-month-long Half Ironman training program with the DC Triathlon Club had come almost to its end. The only thing remaining was the race itself, Musselman. Since the beginning of the program, our coach had highlighted the importance of practicing race nutrition and finding your optimal menu. I like to take pride for eating being one my strengths, so over the months I had tested more brands and products than I had ever even imagined existed. On the Thursday night preceding the big race day, my mission was to replenish the last missing favorite items. After visiting nine different shops looking for Power Bars in my favorite flavor without success, a heavy thunderstorm caught me on my bike ride home.

I had to seek shelter at the entrance of a grocery store. While waiting for the rain to stop, I had a sudden nervous breakdown. How could I have known that no one likes Mixed Berry Blast Power Bars in DC? Who is behind the conspiracy of selling only Chocolate, Peanut Butter, Chocolate Peanut Butter (seriously!), Vanilla, and Cookie Dough here? Why had I not tested all the nutrition offered by organizers in advance? What are gRUNola bars anyway, and where would they have been sold? And what if my nasty cold that hit the week before the race is not gone after all? Is it even safe to start the race? Why did I have to travel to a conference in Orlando just before the race although I always get sick after flying? And why did I decide to do the Pittsburgh-DC bike tour in May although I knew it was risky? What if the paralyzing knee pain returns on the bike and forces me to stop? Or what if my left bunion gets sore in the cycling shoes again? Why am I still using my touring shoes for triathlons anyway? And what if I get a flat? Or the chain breaks? Or I am unable to unclip my bike shoes and fall? Or cause a crash by stopping at an aid station? What if my running shoes give me a hard time like they occasionally do? Why did I not buy new ones at least a month ago? What if my goggles get foggy on the swim? Or if someone kicks me in the head? What if I forget to pack something important? Why didn’t I do the packing on Tuesday night despite all my good intentions? Why did I not train more? Why on Earth is our washer broken exactly today and I have to go to a laundromat? And why can’t the rain stop already?

A few hours later – after writing a race plan in the laundromat – I returned to my usual zen-like calmness. Writing the race plan was tremendously helpful. I wrote down what to do the day before the race and what to do in the race day morning, what to wear, what to eat and drink before the race, on the bike, on the run, and in the transitions, my estimated split times, and even my sunscreen strategy. After doing this I knew I only needed to stick to the plan, no matter which miraculous gear or nutrition inventions I would see in the race expo or being used by other athletes, and everything would be fine.

Race Nutrition

The actual Musselman adventure started on Friday afternoon. I felt extremely happy that one of my DC friends was crazy enough to volunteer to join the trip as my driver, photographer and mental support. We left from Columbia Heights around 5PM. Luckily the Friday traffic around DC and Baltimore was not as bad as I had feared. The rest of the drive was on the roads of rural Pennsylvania that I am starting to be very familiar with. In Jonestown, PA, we had an awesome ice cream break at a local campground. That was pre-race nutrition to my taste, best enjoyed on a porch in a rocking chair just before sunset.

We made it to the tiny town of Orangeville, PA around 10:30PM. (In this case tiny really means tiny, as the population was 500 at the 2000 census.) Our Airbnb hosts had not returned home yet, but the front door was unlocked. A sign of true countryside! I had promised to the lady of the house that I let their dog out when we arrive. I was a little nervous about the task. Fortunately, their boxer Pluto turned out to be friendly and harmless. It did not seem to mind me speaking Finnish. When I got to the bed, it did not take many minutes to fall asleep.

Seneca Lake

On Saturday morning we woke up to sunshine in the middle of the cornfields. I sent my friend out for a run while I checked the last logistics details of the day, like local addresses of key locations in Geneva. Our super sweet Airbnb host served us breakfast, and we had a nice chat about travel and life. The lady was impressed by my friend’s morning run. When she heard what Musselman was about, she seemed a little confused. She wished me luck and gave me a hug, like if I was leaving for war. Then it was time to hit the road. The drive to Geneva was beautiful, especially the last 30 miles or so along the shores of the Seneca Lake.

Best of Luck

Arriving in Geneva was awesome. Musselman was visible everywhere. It felt like every car had a bike rack on. We drove directly to the race expo on the campus of Hobart & William Smith Colleges to pick up my race packet. I always feel very relieved when I finally have my bib and timing chip. Before races, I often see nightmares of being late from the packet pickup. The banner welcoming Musselman athletes to our hotel reminded me of all the Ironman banners I had seen in Kona in October.

The rest of the day flew by. I had hoped to have time for at least a small swim before the pre-race info session, but I realized that was overly optimistic. Eventually we barely had time for a quick salmon sandwich lunch and signing the MusselMural. To my surprise, the only tools available for the mural project were paintbrushes. Next time I will show up with my own stencil and spray paint!

MusselMural

The pre-race info session took place at the Smith Opera House, definitely the fanciest pre-race meeting location that I have ever come across. I’m not sure if the info session made me more nervous or relaxed. I adored the fun-loving atmosphere and hearing about the local specialties, like zebra mussel safety (the mussels are sharp, but the lake is safe as long as you swim and do not walk) and what to do if you need to pass a horse and a buggy (not a rare scene in the Mennonite country). Then again, I had somehow managed to avoid the fact that last year there had been two deadly accidents on the Musselman bike course. This year’s race was in memory of these two athletes. White ghost bikes were honoring them on the accident scenes. I tried to keep calm and keep in mind that at least these athletes died doing something they loved, but I could not help feeling very sad, disheartened, and scared as well.

Pre-Race Meeting at the Smith Opera House

Fortunately, the next event was an uplifting pre-race dinner at a fellow DC Triathlon Club member’s parents’ garden. It was awesome to see many familiar faces and chat with energetic fellow triathletes full of excitement and fighting spirit. Conversations were light-hearted, and I taught a few people the word ‘sisu‘.

After the dinner, we got distracted by the Geneva Firemen’s Parade for a moment, and then eventually made it to the race site. I reassembled my bike, did a quick test ride to see that everything was ok, racked the bike, checked out the layout of the transition area, and even dipped my toes in the lake to feel how warm the water was. Then we returned to the hotel to take care of the remaining preparations. So many little things to take care of from attaching the bib number to the race belt and stuffing the “bento box” (a small bag that is attached to the front tube of the bike to give easy access to nutrition during the ride) with opened energy chew bags and pre-cut Power Bars. Like always before a race, it was way too late when I finally I had everything ready, almost midnight. Amazingly, I was able to fall asleep quite easily again.

Firemen's Parade

When the alarm went off at 4:20AM, I would not have minded sleeping a little longer in the comfy bed, say, for another 4.5 hours! Before starting to munch granola with apple sauce and milk, I checked the weather forecast. To my relief, there were no thunderstorms in the forecast any longer, so it seemed clear that we will get to swim. In case of thunder, the swim would have obviously been cancelled due to safety reasons. It would have been such a pity to settle to only bike and run. No thunder in the morning was all I wanted to know at that point, and I was very happy for that. At the same time, I could not help noticing that the wind forecast had been also been updated and that I would not be done with the bike when rain was forecasted to start…

Time flew by also in the morning, but thanks to the race plan, things did not get too chaotic. Despite the cloudier than expected weather forecast, I made sure to marinade myself in sunscreen just in case. I braided my hair, added ice to water bottles, wore the heart rate monitor strap under my tri-top, and I even remembered to set a band-aid inside my tri-top zipper to make sure that it won’t chafe. We checked out from the hotel around 5:30AM and headed to the race site.

Body Marking

Body marking was the first ritual before anyone was let to enter the transition area. Instead of fancy Ironman style number tattoos, the volunteers simply used a Sharpie to write the bib number on everyone’s left arm and leg, and the age in the end of the year on the calf. After this, setting up the transition did not take too long. The only thing I screw up was that I did not realize to use my big plastic bag as a rain cover for all the gear. That early in the morning it did not look like it was going to rain.

In the race expo I was instructed to go to the medical tent in the morning of the race day to get my knee KT taped professionally. There was no one at the tent. Luckily, I still had a piece of pink tape that I had got from my guardian angel Claire at Rose Physical Therapy. With her instructions I taped my right knee myself in the same way as she did when I visited her before Bike Virginia. As I used only one layer of tape, the impact was probably primarily on the mental side. Then again, the importance of the mental side should never be underestimated, especially because I had selected pink tape on purpose.

The symbolic value of that piece of pink tape was much more than anyone in the race site knew. In summer 2013, a Finnish elite triathlete Elina Jouhki finished 9th in IM70.3 in Haugesund, Norway, right after surviving breast cancer. This summer she intended to race in Frankfurt Ironman. She created Team Pink Wheels to raise money for cancer research and raise awareness of the Finnish Stem Cell Registry (maintained by the Finnish Red Cross!). Sadly, leukemia forced Elina to stop training in April. The Finnish triathlon community – including our current Prime Minister Stubb – decided to carry out the plan of racing with pink wheels and/or wearing pink. I did not have pink wheels on my bike, but the pink tape on my knee made me unofficially part of the Team Elina Jouhki. Ever since April when hitting obstacles in training (or in life), Elina’s amazing story and example have helped me to put things quickly into perspective and carry on. You can read more and show your support here.

The remaining pre-race routines included crawling into the wetsuit, dipping into the lake to get an idea of the conditions ahead, swallowing the first energy gel of the day, and drinking a cup of water. The only discrepancy to my race plan was forgetting to set my heart rate monitor on my bike. I had not planned to swim with it to avoid any unnecessary hassle in T1. When I realized I still had the watch on my wrist, there was no longer adequate time to bring it back to the transition area, so I just had to go with it and take this as an opportunity to test its multisport features.

Just before the race start there was a moment of silence for the athletes who tragically died the year before. Chills. Then the national anthem, then time to get into the lake.

Here We Go!

Swim 1.9 km / 1.2 miles: Men 30-39 years got going at 7AM. Our swim start was 5 minutes after them, and 5 minutes before 40-49-year old men. The latter fact was a slight source of concern for me, as I knew a lot of these men would reach me, and in the worse case swim over me with full force… The lake was very shallow at the beginning of the swim, so a lot of athletes opted to walk to first hundreds of meters, but I decided to start to swim right away, having the mussel safety guidance fresh in mind. The last thing I wanted to happen was to step on a sharp shell.

Swimming felt great right away, although the water was murky. After the first buoy, the conditions got much choppier and rougher. At some point the waves got so high that you had to wait to be on top of a wave to see where the next buoy was. I thought about the words of the coach at the Lake Anna open water swim clinic about always turning the conditions to your advantage. I knew that for a lot of people these ocean-like conditions were a disaster. I was happy to realize that they did not scare me at all. I knew I would not drown and that I would make it. At the same time, it was obvious that the waves would make the swim much more energy-consuming and somewhat slower than in a calm lake. After a small eternity, I finally reached the half way point of the swim. The second half was in a canal, so things got somewhat easier – no white capping waters. I was done with the swim in 51:18.

T1: When I got out of the water, I was surprised that I did not feel very dizzy. Sometimes getting out of the water feels like leaving a student party at 4AM… I was still dizzy enough to mess up recording my split times with the heart rate monitor, though. A mental note taken to learn to use the multisport features properly before the next race… During the swim, I had promised myself a bathroom break in T1. That turned out to be a good pit stop strategy, as there was no waiting in line. Getting out of the wetsuit went desirably uneventfully, and so did the rest of T1. I stuffed the first bag of energy candy to my mouth, set the heart rate monitor on the bike to serve as my dashboard, got into my cycling shoes, grabbed my helmet, and even added sunscreen just in case. All this in 6:10.

T1

Bike 90 km / 56 miles: Due to the knee issues that I developed on my commuter hybrid on the way from Pittsburgh to DC earlier in the summer, I had decided to take the bike ride very easy, making sure to have so high cadence that my pesky knee should not get irritated. I had also promised to myself that I will respect my inner grandma and not take any risks at all that could compromise the safety even if that meant I was the slowest cyclist of the day. Needless to say, I had the tragic stories from the previous year in mind.

After the first 16 km / 10 miles I started to suspect that my grandma tactic might not work. I had spent almost an hour to complete them. I made conversions between miles and kilometres over and over again in my mind. Each time the conclusion was the same: With that speed I would need almost six hours to finish the bike! That would obviously mean exceeding the maximum allowed race time big time, becoming unofficial and/or being pulled off the course. Very depressing. Luckily one of the super fast cyclists passing me told me “just to wait for the tailwind”. I did not have any experience of biking in strong headwind, so his comment made me a little more optimistic.

When the course turned towards north, my speed almost tripled. I barely needed to pedal to swish forward at least 40 km/h / 25 mph. I had never experienced that type of sustained pace. It was like flying! I realized that if I can take the advantage of the wind behind me, I was back on track and had a great chance to complete the bike in time.

Then it started to rain. Heavily. Torrential rain showers rather than drizzles. Like we say in Finland, we are not made out of sugar or paper, so being soaking wet was not an issue. The issue was that rain can make roads extremely slippery. So there I was, biking on wet roads in crazy wind faster than ever in my life. The only thing that could make the conditions more absurd were “horse poo bombs”. Even if I did not need to pass any Mennonite buggies, I could tell Mennonites had not skipped their Sunday church visit, as there was horse poo on the roads at regular intervals. I definitely did not want to make history as the cyclist who slipped in horse poo and crashed. I kept my eyes so carefully on the road that I might need to go back one day to check out the apparently exceptionally beautiful landscape on the bike course.

Up until a few weeks before the race I was still super scared to drink or eat while riding. Practicing that paid off and grabbing water bottles had started to feel pretty natural. I had still decided to stop at the aid stations to make sure that I get enough nutrition and hydration. Towards the end of the bike I realized that it was actually very easy to grab energy candy from the “bento box” while riding. As I love candy in pretty much all forms, I stuffed so much of them in my mouth that there was a funny moment at one point when I had to pass a slow guy struggling to pedal uphill. With my mouth full of candy, I tried to follow the protocol and warn the guy by yelling “on your left”. Then I actually found myself telling him that my mom has taught me that it is rude to speak when your mouth is full and apologizing for my bad manners. And then we both laughed as after biking three hours or so in strong winds and severe thunderstorms, my not-so-royal behavior probably was not a very big deal.

Like many endurance athletes could tell, during the race you have very emotional moments. Even if there are a lot of things happening around you, in the end you still are mostly alone in your thoughts. Often there are phases when you are cursing and regretting the whole idea of signing up for the race (and any future races). And then there are moments when you just love life and feel grateful for your body and for the amazing experiences it can take you to. I also always feel sentimental when I think of all the people that have supported me on my way towards a big goal, like this one. I often visualize them with me on the course, especially all my training buddies that I have been biking or running with. This time I even imagined some two thousand Women & Bicycles community members on the course around me. I also spent quite some time thinking through who all should be included to my Oscar gala style thank you speech.

When I completed the bike, it felt like I had finished the race. It took me 3:55:45, but my knee had not let me down, there were no technical difficulties with the bike, and I had arrived safely.

T2: When I got to my transition spot, I found all my gear completely soaked. I really should have realized to put them in a plastic bag in the morning… Oh well. I quickly changed to my wet running shoes, put on the number belt and grabbed my hipster sunglasses, the same ones that I wore on my first marathon in Berlin. Considering the weather conditions, there was not a real need for sunglasses, but the weather had changed so many times during the day that I figured having them along would not hurt. And it would be fun to finish wearing them. The T2 took 4:00.

Finish Line

Run 21.1 km / 13.1 miles: Getting out of T2, I felt a little lost. I had been so focused on the possible knee issues on the bike and the risk of having to stop that I had not really thought through what exactly happens if I actually make it to the run. I had been almost five hours on the go by that time and I knew I would need another 2.5 hours or so to crawl through the half marathon.

The fastest athletes had obviously already finished the whole thing by the time I even got started with the run, and I saw some of them happily eating ice cream by the course. Had I not binged so much energy candy on the bike that I actually felt a little too full, I would have been very envious of that ice cream. Even if it was a rainy day, the temperature was still easily around 25’C / 77’F. A cool summer day for Geneva, but more than enough for a Finn. At each aid station I asked for ice, put some under my tri-top and even held ice cubes in my hands to cool down and keep going. Other remarks from the run: a nasty blister from early on, more than enough hills, and unmanageable difficulties to push oneself to run when most others were walking.

Finally I crossed the finish line after 7:38:15. My slowest timed half marathon ever (2:41:02), but it made me a Musselman. DC Triathlon Club had a tent just before the finish line, and as most people from the club had finished before me, there were loads of friends cheering when I arrived. This reminded me of the amazing finish line party in Kona just before midnight. All in all, it was incredible that even us who “maximized value for money” by spending well more than 7 hours on the course got to enjoy the same level of support on the course as the faster guys. The bands kept playing, and it was so touching to have people cheering despite the rain.

American Red Cross Blanket

After the race, the best part was catching up with others and hearing war stories of the race. I was also thrilled to spot some American Red Cross blankets, in my case useful primarily for posing purposes. The Red Cross really is everywhere! I was also hoping to get a free massage which turned out to be a free first experience of chiropractic treatment instead. Luckily it was not very painful, and judging based on the noise that came from my neck during the treatment, it was probably only a good thing that someone put my head back to where it belongs. The vegetarian post-race meal was not the biggest culinary success, but I managed to eat at least a little bit of something primarily cookies. Then it started to be about the time to clean up the transition area, have a quick shower, pack the car, and head towards the next destination: Toronto.

I had wanted to visit Toronto for a long time. When I realized that Geneva is not very far from the Canadian border, I figured that it was a brilliant idea to drive there after the race. From the logistics point of view this probably was an ok idea indeed. From the recovery point of view it might have made more sense to stay in the Lake Seneca area, take it very easy, have a big dinner, go to sleep, and then maybe hit a few wineries on the following day. Instead, we spent some 5 hours in the car right away on Sunday night, a significant amount out of this at the border crossing waiting for our turn to enter Canada.

It was very late at night when we arrive in Toronto. Luckily, we found our B&B in Cabbagetown easily as well as the secret parking spot reserved for us. Finding the correct bedroom in the house was slightly trickier, and we may have accidentally woken up at least one Asian businessman in the process… Quite some creativity was required also to figure out where to hang all the wet gear. I also realized that I had forgotten to warn our South African host about the bikes, but fortunately she did not mind too much finding them parked inside her beautiful villa.

After a restless night of sleep – very typical for me after a race, might have something to do with the caffeinated energy gels – it was time to explore Toronto. Strolling around the city with very sore legs was pretty painful but definitely useful for recovery. Slowly but surely we wandered around the city. In addition to the obvious tourist drag CN Tower with amazing views over the city, we went to see the Toronto City Hall. No one, including the border control officer on the night before, seemed to understand why the City Hall was so important. The catch of course is that the building is designed by my favorite Finnish architect Viljo Revell.

Toronto City Hall

We had also planned to visit the Signs Restaurant where all the waiting staff are deaf and customers need to use American Sign Language (ASL) to place their orders. My friend who I travelling with is an ASL interpreter, and she had come across an article about this new place just before trip. Unfortunately it turned out that the opening of the restaurant was delayed. It started its operations a week later than initially planned which was a few days after we were in town. Next time!

I have probably never in my life been as hungry as on Monday morning after the race. No wonder: The race was worth some 5000 kcal on top of the standard daily 2000 kcal. To compensate for the minus calories, we had a tasty 3-course lunch with 100% guilt-free dessert at one of the restaurants participating at the Summerlicious food festival. Still, it was only after inhaling a $10 bar meal consisting of a huge burger, a mountain of French fries, and a massive pint of beer at the Urban House Cafe in the evening that my body felt relieved and full. Good value! The dinner gave just enough energy to sample a few local beers at the neighboring Bar Volo where we randomly ended up joining the birthday party of a local girl.

St. Lawrence

On Tuesday we had a yummy start to the day at the awesome St. Lawrence Market. Everything from gooseberries and Greek pastries to vegan raw juices tasted so good! Then we were already forced to leave Toronto behind and start the long drive back to DC via Niagara Falls.

My expectations for Niagara Falls very not particularly high as I had heard horror stories of the notorious Las Vegas style infrastructure, atmosphere and mass tourism in the area. Furthermore, despite the healing refueling at the market I was actually feeling pretty horrible after the race: in addition to being tired and sore, I could feel my cold was coming back. Considering all this, the Niagara Falls visit was definitely a huge positive surprise. The weather was pretty, and the waterfalls were absolutely stunning both from the Canadian and the US side of the border. The best part was a cruise with the Maid of the Mist, a boat that took as right by the falls. Getting completely wet was an excellent way to truly wake up and feel refreshed at least momentarily.

Maid of the Mist at Niagara Falls

The drive from Niagara Falls to DC was long and grueling. I had managed to omit the fact that summer nights in Pennsylvania and Maryland are all but white like in Finland. November-like darkness hits early! This meant hours of driving on the pitch dark roads. Somehow magically my friend still managed to pull it off and drive us back safely. When I finally got home during the night between Tuesday and Wednesday, I was ready to collapse to my bed.

On the following day, I did not leave the house at all. I still felt pretty destroyed, but at the same time I felt like a winner.

PS. Up until several weeks after the race I thought it was an urban legend – or a rural legend – that there was a tornado on the race day. When I finally did a little googling, I found some actual evidence: a tornado indeed hit the other end of the lake on the morning of the race day. Now that explains the waves and the wind. The weather conditions (4’C/40’F, storm wind and nonstop rain) of the Stockholm Marathon in June 2012 were legendary to say the least, but Musselman 2014 is a serious competitor for the craziest conditions ever. Seriously, a tornado!

Advanced Red Cross Studies

At the beginning of July it hit me: My Fulbright year will come to an end soon. To make the most out of my remaining weeks at the American Red Cross National Headquarters, I decided to finally take time to visit the Disaster Operation Coordination Center and signed up for two trainings.

Disaster Operations Coordination Center Visit

The American Red Cross was chartered by the United States Congress to “carry on a system of national and international relief in time of peace”. It helps annually the victims of nearly 70,000 disasters. While most of the disaster relief happens locally all around the country, the Disaster Operations Coordination Center (DOCC) at the National Headquarters in DC has an important role as the nerve center of the national support.

When large-scale disasters happen, DOCC is staffed 24/7 coordinating the relief efforts, collaborating with authorities, handling disaster fundraising, and supporting the local chapters in any way they can. Even if I knew a lot about this in theory, seeing the actual DOCC with its storm proof windows, numerous computer screens and gigantic printers for printing out maps to visualize where and how hard the disaster hit made the mission feel much more real. During the visit I learned DOCC is so crucial and respected a player in disaster response that there even is a dedicated phone line between DOCC and the White House, and President Obama himself visited DOCC during the Hurricane Sandy.

DOCC

The Digital Operations Center, DigiDOC, is a recent addition to DOCC, its little brother if you will. A small team of NHQ staff and a small army of volunteers work on social media data to map how disasters are unfolding and even to reach out to individuals needing help and support through Twitter. Have a look at this short video to see how cool it is!

The International Response Operations Center, IROC, is also co-located with DOCC. IROC works together with the International Federation of Red Cross (IFRC), International Committee of Red Cross (ICRC), and national Red Cross and Red Crescent societies to channel the support of the Americans to where it is most needed. Again, seeing the current disaster response and preventive projects on a huge world map made it much more concrete on how many fronts the American Red Cross is present. Talking about a motivational boost!

Supervising Volunteers Workshop

Over 90% of the American Red Cross workforce consists of volunteers. Supervisors of volunteers naturally have a tremendous impact on volunteer motivation and satisfaction, and consequently an enormous influence on the success of organization. At the American Red Cross, the critical role of supervisors of volunteers is recognized, and they are offered specific volunteer management training in the form of a Supervising Volunteers workshop.

When I heard that this workshop would be offered at the headquarters for any employee or volunteer who currently supervises, or is interested in supervising volunteers, it was a no-brainer for me to sign up. During my years at Booz Allen and Nokia, I had the privilege to participate regularly in different types of leadership and management trainings. I enjoyed all of them, and each time I learned something new about leading myself and leading others. This time I was particularly curious to learn about the differences between supervising employees and volunteers.

Volunteer Management Training

The workshop covered a number of carefully selected volunteer management topics such as how to balance leadership and management, characteristics of an effective volunteer supervisor, how to use coaching effectively, how to identify your strengths, and how to use them as a supervisor of volunteers. The differences between supervising employees and volunteers turned out to be rather minor: after all, both employees and volunteers are human-beings, so you can’t go very wrong with an appreciative, organized and reliable approach.

Meeting people who work or volunteer in different parts of the American Red Cross was a big additional bonus. We had great conversations in small cross-functional teams on how to engage volunteers in satisfying and fulfilling work, how to keep them coming back, and how to deal with difficult situations.

My favorite part of the training was a strength identification exercise based on Bernard Haldane‘s theory of ‘dependable strengths’. Haldane created the theory in the late 1940s to support WWII veterans’ employment in civil jobs after the war. It turned out to work well also as a part of our training. The exercise takes only 7 minutes, but it can give you a whole new perspective to your strengths. If anyone wants to give it a go, please let me know!

International Humanitarian Law Training

When I signed up for a training on International Humanitarian Law (IHL), I had no idea how sadly topical it would be at the time of the training. The tragic flight MH17 was shot down in Ukraine the day before, and Israel had just sent ground troops into Gaza as a part of its Operation Protective Edge against Hamas, resulting to quickly rising death toll of Palestinian civilians. I was not completely unfamiliar with the rules of war before the training, but it was tremendously helpful to spend some time going through the details to be better equipped to understand what is going on.

In brief, International Humanitarian Law, also known “law of armed conflict”, is a set of rules which seek to limit the effects of armed conflict for humanitarian reasons. The Geneva Conventions of 1949 and their Additional Protocols provide the foundation for the legal regime. These rules protect persons who are not or are no longer participating in hostilities, in other words civilians, prisoners of war, wounded soldiers, and also shipwrecked. They also restrict the means and methods of warfare, like weapons that cause deaths and injuries long after conflicts have ended.

101103 Story to Tell

IHL is widely adopted, not only by every nation, but also by many other armed groups and even private security companies. Why do all these parties respect IHL, or at least claim that they do? The list of reasons is long ranging from public opinion and military efficiency to reciprocity, ethical values, and “because it is the right thing to do“. However, like the recent examples from Ukraine and Gaza show, unfortunately the rules of war are not always followed, and innocent civilians become victims of armed conflicts.

The Red Cross movement works hard to raise the awareness of the rules of war by providing education for various audiences from military members and conscripts to teachers, school kids, and law and policy makers. The International Committee of Red Cross (ICRC) is the only institution explicitly named under International Humanitarian Law as a controlling authority. In addition to promoting IHL, ICRC works tirelessly in conflict areas to alleviate human suffering by providing safe water, food and medical assistance, transmitting messages between separated family members, reuniting dispersed families, and visiting detainees. Knowing all this does not make me feel much less helpless hearing the horrible news from conflict areas, but at least it gives some hope.

Best of June

1. Virginia Road Trip

After The Head and the Heart saved my day in March after one of the most challenging half marathons of my life, I was determined to see them live soon again. When I spotted them in the line-up of the (free!) Norfolk Harborfest in Virginia, I decided to use their concert as a perfect excuse to plan a weekend road trip to Virginia – or use the road trip as an excuse to get to the gig. This time I managed to recruit a “partner in crime” over lunch at the World Bank.

As I was well aware of the notorious reputation of I-95, we started our drive early on Friday afternoon. The drive time without traffic should take around 3 hours, so I assumed that the early start at 1:30PM should help us to get to Norfolk in 4-4.5 hours. That’s not exactly what happened. There were at least four accidents on the highway making the traffic jams exceptionally bad even for a Friday. Eventually we made it to our hotel in about 6.5 hours, parked the car, rushed to check-in, tossed our bags into the room, hopped on a cab, and made it to the festival grounds at 8:35PM. The band had just started so we did not miss more than half a song. What an amazing race! And what a lovely concert! The music and the dark warm summer night by the water were a perfect combination.

The Head and the Heart

On Saturday morning, our first “sight” was Walmart. My friend had never been to one, so I wanted her to experience this essential part of America. Slightly disappointingly, we did not come across any very strange people this time, but at least we were able to stock up the car with snacks. The drive up from Norfolk to Virginia’s Eastern Shore and eventually to the Chincoteague Island was super scenic.  The 50 year-old Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel was definitely one of the highlights of the day. This 20-mile / 32km long “engineering wonder of the modern world” took us over and under open waters exactly where the Chesapeake Bay meets the Atlantic Ocean.

Chincoteague Ponies

The Chincoteague Island is most famous for Chincoteague ponies, also known as Assateague horses. The latter makes much more sense as these wild horses actually live on the neighboring Assateague Island. The ponies have lived on the island some 400 years, and no one knows for sure how they ended up there. The main theories are that either they were brought by early settlers or that they are shipwreck survivors. Before heading to Chincoteague, multiple people did their best to manage my expectations and warned me that we might not see a glimpse of the ponies as they often hide in more remote parts of the island. Hence, we can consider ourselves lucky as we spotted a herd of these small, shaggy creatures right after getting on the island.

In addition to the bridge and ponies, Saturday highlights revolved around food and taking it easy. For lunch, we had delicious fish tacos at Bill’s Seafood Restaurant. Then we spent a couple of hours on the beach on the Assateague Island. On the way back from Assateague we stopped for ice cream at the legendary Island Creamery. In the evening we had a Vietnamese takeout on our patio. Our hotel Waterside Inn was perfectly located for admiring one of the famous Chincoteague sunsets, and excellent for star-gazing, too. The combination of sea, stars and silence reminded me of Coromandel peninsula in New Zealand, one of my all-time favorite places. I think I can add Chincoteague to the same list.

Chincoteague Sunset

Trying not to neglect my triathlon training on the road trip entirely, I started the Sunday morning with a 10-mile run around the two islands. It was pretty hot already before 8AM. Not long ago I would have whined about this, but now I just perceived it as an excellent opportunity to practise running in heat and test how my body reacts to salt tablets. The other highlights of Sunday included returning to the beach on the Assateague Island once more and swimming in the Atlantic, climbing to the Assateague light house, and having a “gourmet carry-out” lunch (gazpacho and a huge sandwich) at the Sea Star Cafe.

Atlantic Ocean!

Driving back from Chincoteague to DC through Maryland was fortunately not as slow as getting to Norfolk. This time we crossed the Chesapeake Bay over another gigantic bridge close to Annapolis where we stopped for an ice cream break at Storm Bros and to pick up another World Bank friend who needed a ride back to DC.

Check out additional Virginia road trip photos on Flickr.

2. Midsummer

Celebrating midsummer (juhannus in Finnish) is more or less as important for Finns as Thanksgiving is for Americans. In a country far north with long dark winters, the summer solstice is an important milestone, as after it days are getting shorter again. Maybe that is why Finns take this celebration of summer and light very seriously. I know I am all but objective, but I can’t help finding it more logical to refer to the occasion as midsummer rather than the first day of summer, like it is called in the US.

The most typical way to celebrate midsummer in Finland is to gather with friends or relatives to someone’s summer cottage (mökki) and spend up to four days by a lake. The main activities are eating, drinking, and having sauna, and maybe lighting a big bonfire (kokko). Most of my midsummers have followed this exact formula, but this was not the first midsummer that I would spent abroad. Ten years ago when I lived in Brussels, we had a very authentic and successful midsummer simulation. Those fond memories inspired me to do my best to create midsummer spirit in DC.

As sauna is a cornerstone of Finnish midsummer traditions, living in a house that has one put me to an excellent position to host a midsummer party. The trickier part was how to get a vihta (also known as vasta), a bunch of birch branches used to gently whip yourself or each other in the sauna to relax muscles, stimulate the skin, and enhance blood circulation. (I must admit this may sound pretty weird or even violent, but it is simply great.) First I considered asking someone to send me a frozen vihta from Helsinki or heading to a nearby park in the dark to collect a few branches. A friend of mine even offered to check out the local offering on her business trip to Moscow, but as we did not want to take any chances, we continued scheming. Then we found out that it is possible to order one on Amazon! Who would’ve thought? I placed an order immediately. When the mailman brought a big parcel a few days before midsummer, a big smile spread across my face.

Juhannusvihta

In Finland, the first potatoes of the new season are typically available just before midsummer, so it would be hard to find a midsummer party where people would not be happily munching boiled new potatoes. DC is so much further south that here the potato season is obviously starts much earlier and is much longer. I decided try my luck at a couple of nearby farmers’ markets anyway to see if they had anything comparable available. No potato luck at the Adams Morgan Farmers’ Market, but I did find excellent rye bread (Russian style, not Finnish, but still). My next destination was the Mt. Pleasant farmers’ market. When I saw boxes full of nice small round fresh dug potatoes, it was time for another big smile. Even after bargaining, these were probably the most expensive potatoes of my life, but definitely worth every penny. As a bonus, I found fresh rhubarb as well.

Midsummer Delicacies

Having secured the birch branches and new potatoes, I knew the evening would be a success. And it was! I loved having our house and patio full of friends. I was of course super late with my slightly too ambitious cooking plans, including making rhubarb soup and Finnish pancake, but that did not matter at all as the kitchen was immediately full of helping hands. The atmosphere could not have been more authentic, so casual and relaxed. It felt like people had known each other for a long time, although many of them met only in the party (or in the sauna). In the end, nearly 30 people joined the fun, mainly Finnish and American and a few brave representatives of other countries. All the Finns loved the sauna, and so did most foreigners, even the beating with the birch branches.

3. Bike Virginia

Participating to Peasantman was not only consequence of bumping into a friend a mine at the pool in spring. There was a raffle at the Peasantman race packet pickup happy hour, and I happened to win a one-day participation to an event that I would have otherwise probably never heard of, Bike Virginia. It is a six-day-long bike tour in a different part of Virginia each year. Participants can choose between multiple route options varying between 14-100 miles in distance. The routes are fully supported with drinks, food, and special treats. This year the event took place near Williamsburg, and there were some 1,500 participants. Again I was lucky to find a friend who was interested in the event, this time a fellow triathlete. We signed up for one of the days pretty randomly.

We had signed up for the event before my knee issues started on our Memorial Day bike tour. I had done only one longer ride after the tour. On that ride I started to feel some pain after about 30 miles / 50km, so I had been resting the knee since then. I had no idea how biking 68 miles / 110km would feel, and how smart biking would be. Following the advice of two of my midsummer guests (a Finnish nurse and a Finnish physician), the day before Bike Virginia I got my knee KT taped at Rose Physical Therapy by Claire who was so kind that she promised to help me out with a short notice between her other customers.

With a nice pink strip of tape on my right knee, I hopped on a train with my bike and camping gear that Monday night and made my way to Alexandria. We had agreed that I would stay over at my friend’s place to make our super early start more doable. On the train I could tell right away that an old man sitting close to me showed a special interest towards my bike. A few stations later he dared to open the discussion. It turned out that this grandpa was from Colombia, an avid cyclist himself, and from the same village as one of the future Tour de France talents (Giro d’Italia winner Nairo Quintana, I assume). For some reason he totally loved my Focus Culebro. He even complimented the design of the seat. What a great start for the Bike Virginia adventure! The best crab cakes of my life cooked by friend’s boyfriend made the evening still more glorious.

Bike Virginia

On Tuesday morning we had to get on the notorious I-95 again, this time already 5AM. We managed to get out of DC before the morning rush hour and made it to the Bike Virginia based camp, the Chickahominy camp site in a few hours. The weather was beautiful when we got on our bikes around 9AM. I felt almost cheating being on a road bike with clip-in pedals as my friend did the whole ride with her hybrid and running shoes. The benefit of this asymmetry was that for me the pace would be very relaxed, meaning less work for my sore knee. This was also the first time that I had a cadence meter, so I could practise maintaining a super high cadence.

Crossing the James River via ferry was a fun way to start and end the day. The ferry was very similar to the ones I had taken on a bike tour in Turku archipelago in Finland, so I felt immediately like home. Whereas in Turku archipelago we were biking in the middle of wheat and canola fields, here we were surrounded by endless corn fields. After my friend told me about a horror film where aliens are hiding in the corn fields, I spent the rest of the day trying to spot one.

There were three rest stops along the route serving everything from PB&J sandwiches and animal crackers to baked potatoes and ice cream floats. Being able to indulge in all kinds of treats during the ride is a big plus for biking compared to running! Despite the high number of participants, the crowd was so spread out that we mainly saw other bikers at the rest stops and on the ferry. Whenever we chatted with anyone, my accent triggered the usual questions, and I happily shared my Fulbright elevator speech over and over again.

Glamping

My knee behaved well the first 60 miles, but after that it got pretty painful again. The comforting fact was that the Half Ironman bike ride is only 56 miles, so that would have been fine. Once we were done with the pedaling for the day, even with the last painful miles, we got our second ice cream serving of the day.

After having a blissful shower, it was time to set up our tent. I’m pretty sure that two of us had the biggest and fanciest tent of the entire campsite, so this was not only my first time of car camping, but also my first time glamping! I slept super well in the fancy tent. Spending the whole day on the bike and having a brief but fabulous massage after dinner probably contributed to that as well. On the following day, my friend made sure that my visit to the Virginia countryside would be as complete and educational as possible by taking me to the Colonial Williamsburg first and then to Cracker Barrel for lunch.

Check out additional Bike Virginia photos on Flickr.

Bike Touring Small Town America

Even if I am not the biggest fan of small talk and mingling, I have to admit that sometimes it can lead to most amazing things. I learned about an awesome bike trail between Pittsburgh and DC in the Fulbright welcome reception in October when chatting with one of the Fulbright staff members. It was only half a year later, though, when the topic came up again with a friend of mine over lunch. To my surprise, she was immediately all in. It still took a few more months for the plan to mature. One more bikey woman was approved to join the team, and we decided to time the adventure for the Memorial Day weekend.

Thursday May 22: Washington, DC – Pittsburgh, PA

As I had signed up for a series of bike mechanics classes with The Bike House on Thursday nights in May, we could not leave before I had finalized the class on shifters and derailleurs. Skipping the class would have meant too much bad karma for the tour. The girls agreed to pick me up from Petworth right after the class. We loaded our bikes and panniers to a rental van, and our crazy adventure started. Around 1AM after about four hours of driving, Pittsburgh by night opened up in front of our eyes. Pretty! I was a little surprised as well: Pittsburgh is actually a proper-sized city, much bigger than I had imagined. Our first home away from home was an old priory converted to a cool hotel.

Friday May 23: Pittsburgh, PA – Dawson, PA

After a good night’s sleep and stuffing as much food to ourselves as possible at breakfast, we packed the van again and drove downtown to return it. It still took quite a while to get going: Reassembling front wheels on the bikes, adding air to the tires, buying a map and a copy of the legendary the TrailBook, and taking photos in front of the baseball stadium, the local Red Cross chapter, and eventually in Point State Park, the official starting (or actually ending) point of the Great Alleghany Passage (GAP), all of this took time.

GAP Trail End in Pittsburgh

Around 2PM we were finally on the trail. The weather was a little cloudy, but I didn’t mind at all, as heat is not for me. The first part of the trail was paved, so we were moving very quickly along the Monongahela River. We crossed a couple of impressive bridges, saw and heard the first trains, and rode a while with two chatty, patronizing guys who were heading to the same direction. We had a quick break by the beautiful Dravo Cemetery, and then stopped for dinner in West Newton. I was a little concerned that we would not arrive at our next home away home in Dawson before it gets dark, but I also figured that it is better to arrive in the dark than to arrive hungry. The patio of The Trailside restaurant was full of locals and other bikers, and we all loved the relaxed Friday night atmosphere.

Dravo Cemetary

We had about 20 miles / 32km to go after dinner. We got about half way before it started to get dark. The trail was no longer paved, but still in very good condition. Around 9PM we were done with our 57 miles / 92km. This was the all time highest daily mileage for each one of us, the first time biking with panniers for both of my friends, and even the first time with clipless pedals for one of the two. My heart rate monitor estimated that the recovery time was 68 hours, but I actually felt great: Knowing that I could do this distance on my hybrid with panniers made the 56 mile ride / 90km on a road bike as a part of a Half Ironman feel much less frightening.

Having dinner in West Newton was probably the right decision, as Dawson turned out to be a tiny town with 451 inhabitants at the 2000 census (and many have probably left since). Fortunately, we found our accommodation, Dawson River Guest House, easily. We had the entire 194-year-old house for ourselves. The house looked very much like someone’s grandmother’s place, or like the house of the three bears in Goldilocks. There were even three beds in a small bedroom upstairs, one of which clearly belonged to the Baby Bear.

Dawson River Guest House

The only establishment that was open in Dawson on a Friday night was Phil’s Nite Club. Finding it turned out to be surprisingly difficult considering the size of the town. The first lit building that looked like the bar from distance, was actually a garage that belonged to a local weirdo. The garage was full of 50s memorabilia and other random junk. It was easy to imagine that it also would serve as a meth lab. The guy was hanging out there with his lady friend and two teenage boys. None of them seemed to be doing particularly well. Kind of a sad scene, so we cut the small talk as short as we politely could, and headed forward.

Luckily, the next lit building was the one we were looking for, a combination of a restaurant and a bar, sort of an American version of Kaamasen kievari. Three gals in biking gear definitely stood out from the crowd. There sure were a few other bikers in the bar, but they do not ride bicycles, they ride motorcycles. A very memorable evening, and probably the cheapest beer (2 beers and a bag of pretzels for $5) and the biggest tip (60%) of my Fulbright year.

Saturday May 24: Dawson, PA – Rockwood, PA

In the morning I noticed something funny on the front porch: A chair made of skis. And two skis in the middle were not just any old skis. They were Finnish skis by Karhu! I love spotting Finnish brands in unexpected settings, and this definitely was one. A similar proud moment for a Finn than spotting the Fiskars machetes on the Kingman Island.

Ski Bench

Before the trip, my internet research had shown that there is a gluten free bakery in Dawson. Based on what we had seen the night before, it felt very hard to believe that there would be any kind of bakery in the town. We decided to check out Lisa’s Gluten Free Bakery anyway. And it does indeed exist, but unfortunately the opening hours on Facebook were up to date, so we had to carry on without cupcakes.

Lisa's Gluten Free Bakery

We ended up having a no-nonsense breakfast at Valley Dairy in Connellsville instead. A few mamils had also stopped there for a coffee. They were not as patronizing as the guys we met the day before, but again we got to answer a few funny questions, like if we had cancelled the trip if it was raining. Of course not! Like always, my distinguishable accent was also of a lot of interest. I gradually started to feel like a celebrity on the trail due to being Finnish, and eventually we did not meet any other foreigners during our entire ride.

Picture Perfect

From Connellsville it was a lovely ride to Ohiopyle. So green and lush, a nice canopy, sunshine, blues skies, and a winding trail along the Youghiogheny river. It felt like flying, except that you could feel the wind and warmth on your face, and you knew that the only thing moving you forward were your own muscles. In Ohiopyle we got off the bikes to visit Fallingwater, one of Frank Lloyd Wright‘s houses. The brilliant architecture of the house really takes the most out of its beautiful location. Fallingwater reminded me of the Didrichsen Art Museum in Helsinki, although Frank Lloyd Wright designed the house in 1930s whereas Viljo Revell designed the Didrichsen villa only in the 1950s.

Fallingwater

From Ohiopyle it was supposed to be a pleasant 10-mile ride to Confluence. It was incredibly pretty, and we kept moving pretty fast – until I started to feel pain in my right knee. Significant pain. I did not want to make a big deal out of it, but eventually I had to unclip my right foot and do the last miles pedaling primarily with my left leg. I felt grateful for the one-leg drills that I had done earlier in spring as a part of my triathlon training. At least I had some strength in my non-dominant left leg as well.

Confluence was possibly the most picturesque town along the whole bike route. The famous Sister’s Cafe was closed unfortunately, as it was evening already, but River’s Edge Cafe was open. I hoped that my knee pain would leave together with hunger. Unfortunately our delicious dinner overlooking the river in the wonderful evening sun was not enough to cure my knee. For a moment I thought I could get away by only clipping in the left foot again. Soon I realized that even if I was able to do that for a few miles, it would be irresponsible and just plain stupid to try to do it for another 19 miles. I would have to stop biking immediately to avoid further damage, if not entirely, at least for the rest of the day.

I had been looking forward to the bike tour so much that having to stop was a huge disappointment. At the same time, pedaling had felt so horrible that I also started to panic if I had just destroyed my Half Ironman dream as well. The feeling reminded me of a teary night in October 2010. I had hoped to run my first marathon in Beirut in November that year, but after suffering multiple consecutive colds, I just was forced to face the facts and do just a 10K Fun Run instead.

Bikey Woman In Trouble

Once the tough decision was made, I got back to my solution-driven mode. Years ago, one of my first supervisors taught me what she called the law of karma: “Whatever you do, good or bad, comes back to you threefold.” A Wiccan tenet or not, I’ve kept this in mind ever since. Now it was clearly time to cash back some of my good deeds. So what do you do if you are in a small town in rural Pennsylvania without phone reception? You start asking for help! We spotted Lucky Dog Café right by the trail and stepped inside.

I explained the situation to the bartender. We learned that there is no taxi service in Confluence, neither is there in Rockwood which was our destination for the day. Calling an ambulance would have been an option but it did not feel justified, plus probably they would not have taken a bike onboard anyway. Next I asked the bartender if she happened to have a friend or know anyone who would like to make me big favor for some gas money. A man in his late 40s or early 50s eating fries at the bar overheard the discussion and offered to drive me to Rockwood with his pickup. Under normal circumstances I do not hitchhike or accept rides from middle-aged men that I know nothing of. In this case, though, I decided to let this man prove that not all helpful men are ax-murderers. It seemed that everyone who worked in the bar knew the man, so I figured they would not let me accept the ride if there was anything sketchy about it.

And everything worked out just fine: I sent my friends off for the last leg of the day. I let the man finish his fries together with the bartender. Then we walked to his massive white pickup truck, offloaded a few kayaks and loaded my bike. The drive to Rockwood was actually quite a lot longer than the bike trail, so I got plenty of small talk exercise. My savior turned out to be originally from Germany, a father of two, and a devoted kayak teacher and kayaking enthusiast since the 1970s. He had lived and worked in Confluence for years before moving to the West Coast, and he had known the bartender since she was a little girl. He kindly dropped me off right by at our accommodation, Hostel on Main.

Hostel on Main

My earlier than expected arrival in Rockwood turned out to have a major positive consequence: The only grocery store (which actually was a Dollar store), was only open until 9PM. That left me with about 20 minutes of time to creatively hoard food for us: eggs, milk, bananas, granola, pretzels, Gatorade, and ice cream. Due to the Memorial Day weekend, the store would reopen on Sunday only at noon, so without my coincidental grocery run we would have had no breakfast. When my friends found the hostel after biking in the dark again, this time encountering snakes on the trail, especially the ice cream was much appreciated. After 36 miles / 58km and a pickup ride for me and 55 miles / 89km for them, lying on bunk beds, eating Moose Tracks and debriefing the day was glorious.

Sunday May 25: Rockwood, PA – Cumberland, MD

On Sunday morning I was very nervous to get on the bike again. After about half a mile it was clear that this would be my last day of biking. The strongest pain was gone, but I could feel that something was not quite right. Luckily, we had planned a shorter day for Sunday, only 45 miles / 73km. I also knew that after a very gradual climb to the Eastern Continental Divide the remaining 24 miles / 38km would be downhill. I would have hated to miss the leg from Rockwood to Cumberland, as I knew we had an awesome day ahead with lots of sightseeing on the way, so I decided to give it a go using the smallest gear possible at all times.

Another Awesome Bridge

The first major sight was the Salisbury viaduct. I must have had a ridiculously big smile on my face. After all the challenges on the way, I was so happy to be able see these impressive constructions build for trains more than a hundred years ago. In Meyersdale we stopped at an old railway station for a long unrushed lunch. They had a world map on the wall where guests were asked to pin their home towns. I was the first one from Finland. Biking Finland onto to the map of the world!

Soon after the break we crossed yet another impressive iron bridge, Bollman bridge, and the Keystone Viaduct. Seeing the Eastern Continental Divide in front of my eyes may have been the most rewarding moment of the entire ride. The Eastern Continental Divide is the line from where water drains to both the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic Ocean. For me it was a big victory and relief as I knew this was the highest point on our route and I would make it to Cumberland.

Eastern Continental Divide

To document our achievement, we asked an experienced looking biker to take a photo of us. He was riding a very nice Surly touring bike, one of my dream bikes, so I got curious about his story. This crazy guy from Idaho, Harvey, had started his tour in February and biked over 3,000 miles / 5,000km since. He had started in California, crossed the Sierras, biked through the southern United States all the way to New Orleans, and eventually Key West. The bike ride from DC to Pittsburgh was the last leg of his tour. Very inspiring!

The next sight was the longest of three tunnels on the GAP trail, the Big Savage Tunnel. It felt strange to take off sunglasses and turn on bike lights in the middle of a sunny day, but the tunnel was long enough (1km!) to make both of those actions very necessary. Coming out of the tunnel, a beautiful view to the valley opened up in front of our eyes. Then we arrived to the state border between Pennsylvania and Maryland, also known as the Mason-Dixon line. That is where we had the next awesome encounter: Again I asked someone to take a photo of us. This time I had randomly selected a deaf couple. One of my friends is an American Sign Language interpreter, so thanks to her special skill we ended up having a lengthy conversation on biking and kayaking.

Mason-Dixon Line

From the Mason-Dixon line it was all downhill. There were two more tunnels, Borden and Brush, and miles and miles of railroad tracks. Some sections of the trail were quite narrow and uneven, so I felt very grateful having learned to bike on gravel roads a child. Otherwise whizzing down the hill might have been scary to say the least. I also felt grateful that we had decided to start the bike ride from Pittsburgh and not from DC. Climbing up this hill on a hot, sunny day would have been hard work even without any knee issues.

Rails to Trails

A little bit before Cumberland the trail was paved again. It felt so luxurious! At the same time I felt a little sad knowing that my ride would be soon over. Arriving in Cumberland was awesome, though! We found the official ending (or starting) point of the GAP. I have probably never been that gritty after biking, but that did not prevent us from another funny photo shoot. The bikes were obviously super gritty as well, but luckily Fairfield Inn where we stayed offered facilities for washing them before bringing them inside for the night.

GAP Trail End in CumberlandWe celebrated the completion of GAP by having dinner at Uncle Jack’s Pizzeria. Sometimes pizza and beer are exactly what you need! The rest of the evening we spent again lying on our beds and eating ice cream in our hotel room that was so full of bikes and gear that it would have been nearly impossible to fit in anything more. The girls were watching Youtube videos on how to repair a flat now as their mechanic (= me) would not be able to join them. Who would’ve thought that I would ever be considered a trusted bike mechanic?

Monday May 26 (Memorial Day): Cumberland, MD – Washington, DC – Hancock, MD

One of the main reasons why I decided to risk it and ride from Rockwood to Cumberland was that I figured that getting home from Cumberland should be much easier as it is a much bigger small town. All the car rentals indeed have an office in Cumberland, but when we started to investigate the situation, it turned out that they were all closed due to Memorial Day: Avis, Enterprise, Budget, Hertz… Similarly no luck with U-Haul either. This challenge had not even crossed my mind. Why on Earth would you not keep car rentals open during a long weekend when people actually have time to drive to places?

While the girls were getting ready for their nearly 60 mile ride, I started to explore other options. Greyhound? No buses between Cumberland and DC. And even if there had been, they would not have taken the bike unless it was put into small pieces and boxed. Amtrak? There would’ve been a train early in the morning, but again no bikes. Zimride? I even tried catching a ride through the car pooling service of the DelFest music festival that had happened in Cumberland that weekend, but no luck…

Bikes when Flashing

I was gradually getting unsettled. I published a general appeal on Facebook for someone to come rescue me, and I was about to start asking people in the breakfast room randomly if they were about to check out and head to DC. I did not get quite that far when things started to move: We got a friend in DC on phone half-asleep, and he promised to help the ‘damsel in distress’ probably before he properly woke up. When he did wake up, he realized that the clutch in his car did not work properly. Luckily the other of my friends on the trip realized he could take her car and drive up with it. Problem solved!

After I had given my last motherly (and probably completely unnecessary) advice about the importance of nutrition, hydration and not stopping for way too long to complete the ride before dark to the girls and sent them off to the trail, I had plenty of time to walk around Cumberland while waiting for my evacuation. I sat quite a while in the garden of the one of the churches in Old Cumberland, hung out at a cute book store, and got a cone of yummy ice cream from Queen City Creamery recommended by Harvey on Eastern Continental Divide. My rescue patrol arrived around 4PM.

Public Art

There was quite a lot of Memorial Day traffic, so it took us about 3 hours to get back to DC. Then it was my turn to hop on the driver’s seat, first drive to Columbia Heights to drop off my bike and then head back north to meet the girls in Hancock. I was super happy that I had been driving in Miami only a few weeks earlier, so I was not completely terrified in DC traffic. I also realized that thanks to biking around the city almost daily during the past nine months, I knew the street network very well: one-way streets, bike lanes, hidden alleys, and so on. Soon after getting out of DC, the battery of my phone died, so I had to navigate the rest of drive relying on signs – very old school, but it worked. Still I think I was more exhausted after the drive to our last lovely accommodation, 1828 Trail Inn Bed and Breakfast, than after any of the days on the bike. What a day! 270 miles for my rescue patrol, 230 miles for me, and approximately 60 miles on the C&O trail for the girls.

Tuesday May 27: Hancock, MD – Washington, DC

On the last morning of the adventure we took it very easy and had the most amazing breakfast prepared by our friendly host Darlene. For once even I was not in a hurry to get going. The girls had decided to only complete the Western Maryland Rail Trail on this trip, so it would be an easy 11-mile ride for them, and an even quicker drive for me, so we did not have to worry about darkness. Naturally I would have much rather biked with them… But when your body tries to tell you something, you’d better listen.

Heroines

Once the heroines completed their ride and we were happily reunited again in Big Pool, we only need to load bikes on the bike rack and hop in the car. At least the logistics were super easy as a result of my evacuation. In the original plan we would’ve needed to get a rental car from Hagerstown. Country roads took us to Williamsport where ate a yummy lunch at the Desert Rose Café, got the daily ice cream overdose across the street, and made some more biker small talk with another group of bikers. Then it was unavoidably time to drive back home to DC after doing our share to save the small town America.

Check out additional photos on Flickr.

Friend, Ally, Visionary

When I started my Fulbright project in September, one of the first colleagues that I met at the American Red Cross National Headquarters was a lady in charge of Tiffany Circle, a society of women leaders and philanthropists. I must have asked about the origins of the name as only moments later I found myself admiring the famous Tiffany windows with her in the Board of Governors Hall. That was the beginning of my journey to the world of donor engagement programs and donor recognition programs.

Casey Trees, an awesome organization that works in the DC area to restore, enhance and protect the tree canopy of the city, has an excellent example of a donor engagement program. They offer five membership levels with clearly defined benefits from priority registrations to classes to complimentary tickets to special events. A gift of $50 makes you a Friend, $100 an Ally, and $500 a Steward. Double this and with a gift of $1,000 you become a Protector. With a gift of $2,500, you get to call yourself a Visionary, and you get a personal guided tour of the Casey Tree Farm in Berryville, VA.

The donor recognition program of Zonta International Foundation is another text-book example: They recognize donors by pins ranging from a simple Bronze pin ($100) to a 15-stone Emerald pin ($175,000 lifetime donation). Additionally, major donors get invited to special Donor Receptions with the leadership of the organization during conventions.

Red Cross Square

American Red Cross offers an even wider variety of donor experiences and paths for individual major donors.  The Clara Barton Society recognizes individuals and families whose annual giving is $1,000-$10,000. The next recognition levels are Humanitarian Circle ($10,000-$25,000), Red Cross Leadership Society ($25,000-$100,000) and finally President’s Council ($100,000+). When cumulative lifetime giving to the American Red Cross exceeds $1 million, it is possible to become a member of the Chairman’s Council, and you can get your name engraved at the Red Cross Square.

In addition to these five recognition societies, the American Red Cross has two opt-in affinity groups that donors may choose to become a part of. Individuals who support the disaster relief mission of the American Red Cross with at least $10,000 annually may join the Humanitarian Circle-Disaster Supporter program. To name a few benefits these donors get, they can join disaster update calls with Red Cross Senior Management and take certain preparedness classes for free.

The other affinity group is the already mentioned Tiffany Circle. Women who donate at least $10,000 to the American Red Cross annually are eligible for membership. Additionally, the most generous Tiffany Circle donors with cumulative Tiffany Circle giving of over $100,000 or over $250,000 are recognized as Bonnie McElveen-Hunter (BMH) members and BMH Silver members respectively. Bonnie McElveen-Hunter is the current Chairman of the American Red Cross, the first female chairman in the history of the organization (and coincidentally also a former U.S. Ambassador to Finland!).

The annual highlight of the Tiffany Program is the Tiffany Circle Summit in Washington DC. This year the keynote speaker of the conference was Arianna Huffington, the founder of The Huffington Post. I had the privilege to volunteer in the event during the Saturday workshops and the luncheon. It was a brilliant learning experience to see how professionally the show was run and how even the smallest details had been thought through. As a by-product, I got my first introduction to the conference ribbon galore. These ribbons are small pieces of imprinted ribbon that attach with an adhesive strip to the bottom of the participant badge or to the bottom of the next ribbon in the chain. They are used for recognizing, identifying and acknowledging people and their achievements. In this case, all Tiffany Circle members had a ribbon of certain color, American Red Cross staff members of another color, BMH and BMH Silver members obviously had an additional ribbon, as had the event sponsors and speakers and so on. Some very prominent ladies had probably nearly ten ribbons!

Tiffany Circle Summit

Coming from Finland where modesty is one of the biggest virtues, it has been fascinating to discover all the different ways to recognize donors, some classier and some flashier. Back home it is common that people prefer not to show off their wealth, and in general the tolerance for bragging is very low. That might partially explain why in Finland there are very few donor engagement and recognition programs for individuals. Of course, one also needs to keep in mind that the individual giving in Finland is minuscule compared to the US. Traditionally, major gifts other than occasional bequests are rare, as people consider paying taxes as their main contribution for the society.

The standard practice among Finnish nonprofits seems to be to accept donations of any size from private persons. Additionally, it is common to offer an option to become a monthly donor. For example, the Finnish Red Cross, the Cancer Society of Finland, The Finnish Association for Nature Conservation, and The Baltic Sea Action Group have this type of a setup. None of them try to guide the donors to give a certain amount or state explicit incentives to increase the size of the donation to a higher level. Naturally it is implied that the more you give, the bigger difference you make.

I was able to find only one Finnish exception to this rule. That is CMI (Crisis Management Initiative), an organisation that works to resolve conflicts and to build sustainable peace, founded by the former President of Finland and Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Martti Ahtisaari. In addition to being open for donations of any size, CMI offers an option of becoming a Premium Donor with an annual donation of €2,000. These donors get to be more intimately involved in the activities of CMI through regular meetings with staff, events, and tailored workshops. Networking opportunities with interesting people are also explicitly mentioned as an incentive to become a Premium Donor.

If you are familiar with any other Finnish nonprofits that offer donor recognition or engagement programs for private persons, I would love to hear of those.

Best of May

1. Peasantman

Triathlon training has been an integral part of this spring. My 5-month-long Half Ironman training program with the DC Triathlon Club started in mid-February. The goal race is in mid-July. When I bumped into a friend at the pool in April, it was an easy job for her to get me excited about Peasantman. A friendly event at a nearby beautiful location during the first weekend of May was a perfect milestone half way towards the big day. And the laid-back reputation of the race reminded me of my first official triathlon at Kisko.

Without thinking too much about what I was getting myself into, I signed up for the Olympic distance race: 1.5k swim, 35k bike, and 10k run. I had raced this distance only once before in Kuopio in the end of last summer. At the time, it still felt like a nearly petrifying challenge (although it turned out to be fun). Now it felt just natural. I guess that’s what happens when one accumulates enough American confidence on top of Finnish perseverance.

My Lucky Water Bottle

We drove to Lake Anna already the day before the race to take the most out of the race weekend. It was my first visit to the Virginia countryside, and I loved every bit of it. It was quiet, it was green, and the weather was gorgeous on both days. On Saturday we had a chance to attend a bike clinic and an open water swim clinic. This was the third time basic bike maintenance and fixing a flat were demonstrated to me during my Fulbright year, and each time I’ve learned a few new tricks. The open water swim clinic by Denis from WaveOne was excellent. I loved his philosophy of turning tricky weather conditions to one’s advantage. After his motivational speech it was time for the first open water swim of the season. Magically I managed to convince myself that the waves were just being playful, not threatening!

Transition Setup

Saturday was rounded up by a relaxing pre-race dinner with friends getting ready for the first triathlon ever. Then early to bed, an early wake-up on Sunday, and soon the race was on! The lake was calm, and I finished the 1.5k swim in 34:28 – my new record. The bike ride was even more fun. Ever since I had a bike fit done by a local guru called Smiley, I am no longer afraid of road biking. With an ear-to-ear grin on my face, I was done in 1:28:58. The course was a little shorter than the official Olympic distance: 35k instead of 40k. Next I need to learn to drink and eat while biking instead of stopping for a picnic at each U turn…

The 10k run was by far the toughest part for me, mainly because it was so HOT. Well, for a Finn anyway… The temperature at Lake Anna rose to 28’C / 82’F in the shade, and there was almost no shade. If I had my way, I would always race in below 20’C / 70’F. I had to walk part of the second lap to keep my heart rate under control. After encountering a loose horse on the running course, I started to run again.  (Edit on Jun 20: A reader suggested that I would clarify that there literally was a loose horse running around that had ran away from the nearby stables. Others saw it, too, I was not hallucinating.) Finally I completed the “run” in 1:09:22. My total time of 3:19:44 was only a few minutes slower than my time in Kuopio, so I’m super happy. Such a great start for the season!

140504 Before & After Peasantman

2. Florida

Making my debut in the American triathlon scene was not the only objective of my Fulbright year that I achieved in May. Thanks to Finnair miles that were about to expire, I also finally made it to Florida. I had been dreaming of a roadtrip along U.S.1 to Key West for years. Ever since I saw An Inconvenient Truth, a documentary on Al Gore’s campaign to fight global warming, I’ve also been painfully aware that the future of Florida Keys is all but rosy due to the rising sea level.

The Southernmost Point of the Continental USA

It is amazing how much we saw and experienced during a 72-hour long mini-break. Already during the scenic drive from Miami to Key West we drove by a turtle hospital, saw tiny, cute key deer, and had a slice of key lime pie, a local delicacy. In Key West, we stayed in a lovely B&B worth recommending right by the southernmost point of the continental USA. (I actually visited the southernmost point of the entire country on Hawaii in October.) This part of the town is very nice and quiet, so very different from the loud and crazy epicenter of tourist traps in the other end of Duval Street. Another great find only a few blocks outside the tourist habitat was Azur, an excellent restaurant run by a guy who used to cook at the Italian Embassy in DC.

Hemingway's Six-Toed Cat

We visited the Hemingway Home (obviously) where the descendants of Hemingway’s six-toed cats stole the show and were definitely the most memorable part of the tour. We also went snorkeling (obviously). It was lovely to swim in the turquoise water and spot a few colorful fish here and there, but to be honest, the coral reef was quite a sad scene. More than 2 million tourists visit the reef each year, so no wonder it is suffering. After seeing the reef, it was also pretty obvious why the snorkeling tour operator advertised so heavily that an unlimited supply of beer, wine, margaritas or even rum was included in the price: to help people forget the damage they saw and contributed to… After snorkeling, we still checked out the somewhat surreal Butterfly & Nature Conservatory.

Bahia Honda State Park

On the drive back to Miami, we had a couple of awesome pitstops: At Bahia Honda State Park our main activity was supposed to be sunbathing. I naturally got impatient in the heat after about 10-15 minutes and improvised a small open water swim practise instead. The stop at the Everglades National Park was a success as well. When approaching the park, the first thing that took me completely by surprise was a puma warning sign. I had no clue that there are felines in Everglades! Quick wikichecking revealed that there is indeed a small Florida panther population (<100) that lives in south Florida. We did not spot any of those rarities, though, but we did spot all kinds of birds and numerous alligators. It was unbelievable to see alligators lurking in the water just a few meters away from the Anhinga trail.

An Alligator at Everglades

The last highlight of the trip was a yummy dinner at Michael’s in Miami Design District.

Check out additional Florida photos on Flickr.

3. Sailing on the Chesapeake Bay

Fulbright enrichment activities have made it to this blog several times. There is one more fantastic outing that simply cannot be omitted: A sailing trip on the Chesapeake Bay. The trip was organized in cooperation with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation (CBF) on their skipjack called the Stanley Norman. The boat was built in Salisbury, Maryland in 1902. It was named after the original owner’s two sons, Stanley and Norman. We got on the vessel in Annapolis, a cute historical town that used to be the capital of the US for a short while in 1780s. In many ways, Annapolis reminded me of my home town Porvoo, the second oldest city in Finland founded in 1346.

Skipjack at the Dock

The friendly CBF crew did a great job in educating us on the past and the presence of the Chesapeake Bay. Oyster dredging used to be huge on the Bay. Skipjacks, like the one we were on, are single-masted vessels designed to harvest oysters under sail. In the late 1880s, there were close to 1,000 of them. Now there are less than 20 left. During our trip, we had a small dredging demonstration to understand how it happens. In no time at all we had a pile of oysters on the deck. After having been introduced to the living conditions and biology of oysters, eating them will never be the same again. The main destination of our trip was a local seafood restaurant where we had a huge lunch, not oysters though (as they are not in season) but delicious crabcakes.

Oyster Demo

Like I had suspected, the CBF crew took care of the actual sailing. For the rest of us this was a very relaxing day on the sea with lots of time to discuss and learn to know each other better. As always, the group was super international with participants from Armenia, Australia, Czech Republic, China, Finland, India, Japan, Pakistan, Russia, and the US. One thing that I noticed right away was how much everyone’s English skills had improved during the year. This helped to add depth into conversations, and that’s what I love. We were able to cover topics ranging from social finance and rehabilitation of child soldiers to environmental concerns and Muslim-Christian understanding. The sweetest thing was to see a 3-year-old Chinese girl chat with an Australian scholar in beautiful English.

At the end of the trip it was time for the first farewells of my Fulbright year as this was the last Fulbright enrichment activity for me. Big thanks for the Fulbright organization and our awesome Fulbright Enrichment Coordinator for making all these wonderful events happen!

Chesapeake Bay Foundation

PS. Some of you have already heard stories of another amazing adventure that I was a part of in late May. You may wonder why it is missing from this list. The simple explanation is that it deserves its own blog post and will be covered soon. Stay tuned!