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!

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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.

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!

Best of April

1. TEDxFulbright

I bet most of you are familiar with TED talks and have seen videos of e.g. Steve Jobs, Hans Rosling, or Susan Cain presenting their ‘ideas worth spreading’. So had I, but I had never had the opportunity attend a TED seminar in person before this April. TEDxFulbright, an independently organized Ted event, took place here in DC at the beginning of the month.

The day of the event happened to be one of the first sunny Saturdays of the spring, so it felt like a huge investment to spend the day indoors. Luckily, it was worth it. I had no idea how much one can learn just by listening to inspiring speakers in just one day. The speakers shared their stories of how they had dared to start to tackle social, societal, and environmental problems around the world. The tsunami of topics covered everything from carbon capture, open data, and drones to empowering street kids by teaching them ballet. All the speakers and performers were Fulbright alumni. It was incredible to see the amount of talent and geographic reach that the community has.

The finals of the Fulbright Social Innovation Challenge were also a part of the event. One of the finalists pitched over Skype from Lahore, Pakistan. I thought that was quite cool, but it was maybe even more memorable to see a grandpa pitching. My favorite finalist, a facilitated hitch-hiking service Lawrence OnBoard, did not get too many votes from the audience, but I definitely plan to stay tuned to how their story continues. After eight intense hours, the event ended with a champagne and cookie reception and further cross-cultural mingling. Just another day in the life of a Fulbrighter?

Grandpa pitching at TEDxFulbright

2. Getting Outdoorsy

I could not have been happier in April when even Americans started to consider the weather to be nice enough for all kinds of outdoor activities. One of the highlights of the month was volunteering with REI to clean up Kingman Island and prepare it for Kingman Island Bluegrass Festival. I was pleasantly surprised to see that there really was a lot to do for 100+ volunteers, even some serious pruning. Mom would have been proud, had she seen me using my raking and weeding skills developed as a child. And it was a proud moment for a Finn to see Fiskars garden tools in action. Once again, I also learned something new: Fiskars produces machetes! Finally, I should mention that all the volunteers – obviously – got a free T-shirt.

Volunteering with REI

Another great outdoorsy experience was the first hike of my Fulbright year. A friend of mine is a member of the Wanderbirds Hiking Club that organizes weekly hikes. Early on a Sunday morning, we hopped on a bus full of sweet old ladies and gentlemen. The bus dropped us of somewhere in Maryland, and we started our beautiful day hike along the Catoctin Trail to Gambrill State Park.

The Wanderbirds concept is brilliant: The leader of the hike leads the group and leaves red arrows to otherwise potentially tricky turns and crossings. Hikers can either hike with the leader, or at their own pace, like we did. Another experienced club member is a designated sweep whose task is to be the last one to make sure that no one is left behind and to collect the red arrows. This makes hiking safe and accessible for a wide audience, regardless of previous hiking experience.

Hiking with Wanderbirds

When it comes to food, Finns living abroad typically miss most rye bread, our national obsession. I’m not an exception. The only equivalent in the US market is rye bread made by Nordic Breads in Long Island City, NY. Their products unfortunately can’t be bought in grocery stores outside NYC. Thanks to my recent Finnish visitor, I happened to have my favorite snack available for the hike: Reissumies. If you ask me, nothing beats the taste of fresh rye bread enjoyed in a scenic spot and with great company.
Hiking with Wanderbirds

We spent about a little below four hours on the 10 mile / 16km trail. I loved every moment in the quiet and peaceful forest! After the hike, the group gathered by the bus and hung out for a while sipping recovery beers, eating chips, and chatting. I made lots of new friends with my secret weapon, Finnish chocolate by Fazer, hand-carried to me by another awesome Finnish friend. This icebreaker even triggered one of the hiker ladies to share that she had been on a business trip in Finland in the 70s when she worked for CIA in Paris.
Hiking with Wanderbirds

3. Major League Baseball

Americans love not only free T-shirst, but also their sports. Before coming here, I was pretty familiar with NHL, NBA, and NFL. My knowledge of Major League Baseball, MLB, was very close to zero, although our national sport is actually also called baseball, pesäpallo. That’s why I was delighted to be able to go to my very first MLB game as a part of the Fulbright Enrichment Program.

The biggest benefit of going to the game with the Fulbright group was that before the game started, we got a brief but incredibly comprehensive introduction to the sport. Our baseball guru could not have been more knowledgeable: Michael Gibbons has been the Executive Director of the Babe Ruth Birthplace & Museum in Baltimore, MD since 1983, so baseball really is his life. (Babe Ruth was a legendary American baseball outfielder and pitcher who played 22 seasons in Major League Baseball from 1914 to 1935.)

Mike summarized for us everything from the history of the game to rules, roles, and tactics. The way he illustrated his key points on a whiteboard made me think of an ice hockey coach. One of my key take-aways was that the role of the pitcher is far more important in American baseball than in the Finnish version. Our pitcher does not even have a pitchers mound! The shape of the field and locations of the bases are also somewhat different. Otherwise there are lots of similarities in the logic of American and Finnish baseball. That made learning the main rules relatively easy for me. For many, even the idea that the defending team always has the ball may be completely foreign.

After the thorough briefing, it was time to head to the Nationals Park. It was fun to see all the theory in practise right away. Washington Nationals seemed to completely dominate the game since the beginning. They ended up winning San Diego Padres 4-0. I leave summarizing the game in more details for someone more professional. Mercifully for us first timers, the game was exceptionally short, only 2 hours and 19 minutes. The average lenght of a Major League Baseball game is around 3 hours, but they can last up to 7 hours.

Major League Baseball at the Nationals Park

Best of March

1. Colorado

Sometimes it is pretty handy to have a sister who lives on the West Coast. For example, when you need to come up with an excuse to travel to the Rockies. That’s how I made it back to Colorado after almost seven years – to literally meet her halfway. My previous visit was a quick pitstop in Vail (with an epic dump) on my way from Phoenix to Helsinki in 2007. This time we stayed in Breckenridge for an entire relaxing week. The daily routine consisted of snowboarding, dining, studying snow forecasts, and sleeping. Early to bed, early to rise. Good times, crowned with having sauna three times.

The most typical lodging option in Vail and Breckenridge are ridiculously priced millionaire lifestyle hotels. Luckily, my sister had insider information of a real gem: The Fireside Inn, the coziest B&B one can imagine. This cute light blue wooden house was a perfect basecamp for us with pleasant English owners who seemed to understand our Finnish humor, a hottub, and – wait for it – free cake après-ski daily at 4pm! Highly recommended. Another hot tip is that lift tickets are somewhat more affordable (yet still expensive) when bought in advance online.

Volunteer at the Volunteer

Before this trip, I had never gone cross country skiing in the US or above 3km / 9,000 feet. When I realized that this is possible in Breckenridge, I became obsessed enough to sell the idea to my sister. So one fine afternoon we headed to the Breckenridge Nordic Center to rent skis and hit the trails. Seeing the Finnish flag outside the reception building inspired me to try to negotiate a special rate for Finns (as for a Finn it is unheard to pay for the access to cross country trails). A discount did not work out, but revealing our roots nearly turned us into celebrities.

The most legendary part of our ski tour was encountering a moose on our way back. We had seen a moose activity warning at the reception, but at that point it had felt more like a joke. However, when all of a sudden a gigantic moose was blocking our way, it was not quite as funny any longer. The moose are apparently so used to people in Breckenridge that they do not run away when someone approaches them – like any sane moose would do back home. This one was happily chewing branches and showing no signs of plans to disappear back to the forest. Hence, we were left with no other options than to turn back and take an alternative trail,  albeit partially so steep and icy that we had to take the skis off. This still seemed like a more appealing option than trying to get around the moose through the thick bushes. A little bit of extra adventure for the famous Finnish sisters.

Moose Activity

Another unforgettable episode was one of the numerous brief conversations we had on the chair lifts. The usual small talk topics were the snow conditions (of course) and what brought the two of us to the US. However, when an old man heard we are from Finland, he taught us an interesting piece of trivia: The American ski industry exists thanks to Finnish ski troopers! As the story goes, the U.S. Army established their winter warfare trained troops inspired by the victories of the Finnish soldiers on the skis over Russia in 1939. These troops fought in Italy later on in WWII. After the war, many of the veterans became ski instructors or contributed in other ways to the development of skiing as a vacation industry. To me this all sounded truly unbelievable, but Wikipedia confirms that the old man knew what he was talking about. On our last day we also spotted a statue in Vail commemorating the American ski troopers.

The Ski Trooper

Check out additional Colorado photos on Flickr.

2. Rock ‘n’ Roll USA Half Marathon

It had been quite a while since I last woke up at 5am to have breakfast and get ready for a race. That’s what I did on March 15 to participate in the Rock ‘n’ Roll USA Half Marathon. The walk to the Columbia Heights metro was quite surreal that early on a Saturday morning. It was still dark, and it was very silent on the streets. Most people out on the streets were there for the very same reason. The metro was full of runners, all heading towards the start line on the Constitution Avenue. Just before the race started at 7:30am, the sun came up and the national anthem quieted the crowd of 25,000 runners. I think I will remember that touching moment for a long time. A nice brisk morning, anticipation of the race, and so many silent Americans.

The Mall at Dusk

Despite the “high altitude training camp” in Colorodo, the race itself was physically quite tough for me. This might have something to do with less than 100km of running this year before the race (combined with the lack of sleep during the night before). Thank God I had signed up only for a half marathon and not for a full one! I barely managed to complete my 21.1km/13.1 miles in below 2.5 hours, so this was a good reminder that although perseverance and experience take you far, proper training takes you there faster…

Luckily, the best part awaited after the finish line. It was not the first aid guy who came to ask if I was ok when I was feeling sick right after crossing the finish line… Nor was it the free chocolate milk, or the free pretzels, or the free beer… It was a stunning post race finish line surprise concert by my latest favorite band The Head and the Heart! Somehow I had managed to entirely miss the fact that a finish line concert is an integral part of the Rock ‘n’ Roll running event concept. Had I completed the half marathon in 2 hours (like I was dreaming when signing up last fall), I probably would have been showering at home by the time the concert started.

The Head and the Heart

3. TRI-Mania

In this country, anything can be turned into a big deal. A great example is the TRI-Mania Summit and Expo, a massive event focusing on triathlon and nothing but triathlon: gear sales, clinics, races, lectures, even a panel discussion on the future of triathlon. All this sounded somewhat overwhelming to me, but as so often, curiosity bet introversion.

The event took place at the Georgetown Preparatory School in Strathmore, Maryland. I had not bothered to find out in too much detail where I was heading. Instead, I had just checked the location roughly on a map, hopped on a train with my bike, and thought I would figure out the rest while biking from the train station. Finding my way turned out not to be a problem, but I can tell I was quite astonished when I found myself on the grounds of an all-boys Jesuit boarding school founded in 1789!

TRI-Mania Welcome!

I made it to the expo just in time to sneak in the seminar audience for the keynote, a Q&A with 2 X Ironman World Champion Mirinda “Rinny” Carfrae and Ironman Champion Tim O’Donnell, who also happen to be married to each other and are hence known as the “triathlon’s fastest couple”. The athletes answered questions related to their careers, training, futures plans, even childhood. Nothing extraordinary, but it was fun to listen as both seem to have a great sense of humor.

After the keynote, I wandered around the expo for a moment, ate some free candy, and managed to stay strong and not buy anything. I was already on my way out when I saw people standing in line. I got curious and then found out that they were waiting for autographs from the Ironman Champions. I am pretty sure I haven’t asked for an autograph from anyone since the late 90s when I was a teenager and a huge fan of Finnish snowboarders. Then again, I was not in a hurry, so I joined the crowd.

Already while waiting in the line, I met a triathlon celebrity: Tom Knoll who was one of the 12 finishers of the very first Ironman in 1978. He was on the expo promoting his book Where It All Began. He had brought his original Ironman trophy with him: literally an iron man.

One of the Original Ironmen

Finally it was my turn to meet Carfrae and O’Donnell. In the end, asking for an autograph and chatting with them was not that intimidating… But I did surprise even myself by saying things like “this is like meeting Obama, but better”. Well, at least I made them laugh. And now I have a lucky water bottle signed by the triathlon’s fastest couple. Like I wrote after returning from Hawaii, if Ironspectating does not maximize your training motivation, nothing does. This event was a perfect extra boost. 100 days to go to Musselman Half Triathlon!

O'Donnell & Carfrae

Meanwhile in Finland

After a fantastic fall in DC, on December 23 it was time to start the long journey from one home to another. Against all odds, my flight from Newark to Stockholm was on time, and also my sister made her way there from San Francisco via Chicago. Happily reunited, we hopped on the short flight to Helsinki together early in the morning of the Christmas Eve and made it to our childhood home by noon, in other words just in time for the Declaration of Christmas Peace. It is a tradition that has continued almost uninterrupted in the city of Turku since the 1320s. Since 1983, it has been broadcast on national television so that Finns around the country can join this event which in a way marks the official start of Christmas celebrations, also in our family.

In Finland, Christmas Eve is the main event of the holidays. Once the Christmas Peace is declared, the day continues with eating ‘riisipuuro’ (rice porridge), the Finnish version of rice pudding topped with cinnamon and sugar. Each Christmas, my mom hides a whole almond in the rice porridge, and a popular belief has it that the one who eats the almond will be in luck the following year. (A less popular belief is that the finder of the almond has to sing a song…) Guess who got the almond this time? 2014 will be a great year!

Other important Christmas Eve activities were bathing in a Christmas sauna (of course!), and having a sumptuous Christmas dinner. As Santa Claus lives so near us, he brings the presents to Finns already on the Christmas Eve, often stopping by in person although this year he was so busy that had just left the presents by the door. The Christmas Day was devoted to visiting the cemetery to leave candles on the graves, and to catching up with childhood friends as for once everyone was back in the old hoods. On Boxing Day I lured my sister and a friend of mine for a small “ham run”, followed by having sauna (of course!). You can consider this a low-key version of a turkey trot! In the end, the only thing that was missing from a perfect Finnish Christmas was snow.

I was hoping the weather to be similar to the year before…

121222 Kerkkoo

…but instead it looked like this:

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Besides Christmas, the other main reason for my trip to Finland was the public examination of my sister‘s doctoral dissertation in the Faculty of Social Sciences, University of Helsinki. Assistant Professor Lorraine Kisselburgh from Purdue University, West Lafayette, Indiana, served as the Opponent, and Professor Anna-Maija Pirttilä-Backman as the Custos (the supervising professor). The beautiful old lecture hall at the University of Helsinki Main Building from 1832 was full of audience. The youngest eye-witness was 4 years old and the oldest 90! My sister did a great job defending her work, so I could just happily sit in the audience feeling proud – instead of stepping to the stage as a dobbelgänger which was our backup plan…

In the Finnish academic world, academic traditions dating from the 17th century are taken seriously and cherished. The public examination is much more ceremonial than in many other countries. Successful defense is followed by ‘karonkka‘, a fun post-doctoral party with food, drinks, and lots of light-hearted speeches. I have probably never been surrounded by such an army of PhDs and researchers! The actual ‘karonkka’ is mainly targeted for the academic community, although nowadays the closest family members get to join. Hence, the celebrations continued on the following evening with an even bigger party for friends and extended family with more food, more drinks, and great conversations. The conversation topics ranged from old teapots to start-up opportunities in the forest industry and from poverty experiences to documentary filmmaking in Northern Namibia.

 Always good to have a doppelgänger on the day of public examination…

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Doctoral hats of ‘karonkka’ guests and the woolly hat that my sister got from us to stay warm until her black hat arrives

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Between Christmas and the academic celebrations, we did a roadtrip to Kesälahti (my mom’s old hoods in Eastern Finland about four hours away from Porvoo) in the search of snow. There was no snow either, but it was great to get to visit my 89 and 88 year old smile wrinkle idols. There is a lot to be learnt from these two inspiring, humorous North Karelian super grandmas about how life should be lived.

Other than that, I had great time with my friends visiting some of my favorite establishments in Helsinki, like Sandro, KuuKuu, Talo, Pacifico and Siltanen. I also consumed a fair amount of fine sushi, had a ‘lonkero‘ (a Finnish drink invented for the Olympics in 1952), ate ‘rahka‘ (quark) with blueberries for breakfast, and drank lots of tasty tap water. I was monkeying with my four funny godchildren and their siblings, and I met two babies that had been born after I moved to DC. I went running and swimming with my dear training buddies. And during my 13-day trip, I managed to have sauna eight times in total, each time at a different place. What makes this even better, five of these saunas were wood-heated. That is pure luxury.

So what did I miss from DC? At least biking, and my own bed. And sunshine! Not only is the daylight in general limited to five hours or so in Southern Finland around the winter solstice, but even during those five hours sunshine is a rarity. During my trip, there was about five minutes of sunshine on December 25, and another seven minutes on January 5. Despite with the frigid air brought to the US by the polar vortex, three sunny days in a row after getting back made DC feel like San Andrés.

Sunshine in Kerkkoo on December 25, 2013

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Blue skies in DC on January 8, 2014

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Best of October

1. Hawaii

My father ran his first marathon in Honolulu in 1990. I have been dreaming of Hawaii ever since. Last January a New Zealand based friend of mine and I were joking that if I get the Fulbright scholarship, we should meet on Hawaii, as it is conveniently half way between Auckland and DC. Like (delightfully) often seems to happen in my life, also this joke became reality in early October.

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The state of Hawaii actually consists of hundreds of islands, out of which we had a chance to explore two on this trip. First, we spent a few days on Oahu in Honolulu, the capital of Hawaii. Having been a big fan of the Hotel board game as a child, staying in a hotel by the Waikiki beach felt quite surreal. Highlights of our stay included hiking the Diamond Head crater trail, visiting the battleship USS Missouri at the Pearl Harbor, and meeting up with a researcher at the University of Hawaii.

After catching a flight to the actual island of Hawaii, often referred to as the Big Island, things got even more exciting and intense. Only a few hours after landing we were snorkeling with sea turtles and fish that looked like they escaped from an aquarium or a Disney movie. The same evening we drove to Mauna Kea and visited an observatory where star-gazing – or rather galaxy-gazing – got a new meaning. The furthest galaxy that we saw with the help of canon-sized telescopes and conversant volunteer grandpas was 7.5 million light years away!

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Finally, the main reason for the timing of our trip was the legendary Ironman World Championship in Kona. About 2000 athletes get to compete in this brutal race annually, and complete a 2.4-mile (3.9 km) swim, a 112-mile (180 km) bicycle ride and a marathon (26.2 miles / 42.195 km) in the heat of Hawaii. The professional athletes get going at 6:30 am and are done in some 8-9 hours, whereas the amateurs – also known as the ‘age groupers’ – start at 7am and need to be done by midnight, so in 17 hours.

The nature of the race makes it a long day even for the spectators: We woke up at 4:40am and headed to the shores of the Kailua Bay to maximize the opportunities to witness the madness and cheer our “countrymen” from Finland, Estonia, and New Zealand. The most incredible experience was to see the last athletes cross the finish line at midnight, several amputees among them. Quoting Ironman World Champion 2013 Mirinda Carfrae, “the best IM memories sometimes come very late at night“, like this amazing story proves. If Ironspectating does not maximize your training motivation, nothing does.

Check out additional Hawaii photos on Flickr.

2. Art, Bikes and the City: A DC Mural Ride

AIGA, the professional association for design, organized a fun mural bike ride with the theme “Art, Bikes and the City” as a part of the DC Design Week. Thanks to my wonderful friend, I got to join the designer crowd for the tour. It was fascinating to realize how rich the DC mural scene is. Some of the works I had spotted on my own while cycling around the city. Others I would have never found without our knowledgeable guides. The guides excelled at pointing out interesting details, too. For example, if you look at this mural carefully, you will notice there is a mural in the mural. The first meta mural I’ve ever seen!

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Especially some of my DC readers might be happy to learn that the map of the murals we visited and more information is available online. DC Murals and Mural Locator are excellent resources with lots of photos, and this blog post describes in more detail the efforts of building a bridge to legal street art.

The tour ended to the pretty Georgetown waterfront where we had yummy treasures by the Malmaison for lunch. As an extra turn after the picnic, we still biked to Rosslyn, Virginia, and checked out the Silver Clouds by Andy Warhol at the Artisphere, just in time before the exhibition ended. Designers really know how to spend sunny Sundays!

3. Halloween

Celebrating my first Halloween in the US started when I joined a friend, two adorable 3-year-olds (a pirate and a train conducter), and a 4-month-old (wearing a fake moustache) to a Halloween party for kids at their school in the middle of the Rock Creek Cemetery. On the following night, there was a Halloween party for adults organized at my “second home”, a cool group house where I almost ended up living. Participants were dressed up as meticulously in both parties, and I promise to avoid the rookie mistake of not taking the ‘costumes-preferred’ guidance seriously next time… 

Halloween 2013

On the actual Halloween, my colleague treated us with delicious pumpkin bread, and our home street was filled with cute trick-or-treaters. As a final Halloween highlight, I joined a Zombie Ride around the city. One of the zombies turned out to be a Canadian actor on a 2000 km bike tour to draw attention to the environmental impact of fracking. I promised this energetic trumpetist to advertise his cause on my blog, so please have a look at the Save Our Water with Art project.

PS. If you like to see more photographic evidence of my life in DC, here’s a hot tip: I post extra photos of fun stuff on Flickr every now and then also between blog posts.