As a Zontian in DC and Orlando

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

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

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

Thursday June 26 

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

Workshop on Handling Difficult Situations

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

Orlando Sunset

Friday June 27:

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

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

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

Bylaws

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

Opening Ceremony

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

Saturday June 28:

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

Zonta Rose 5K

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

Zonta International Convention 2014

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

Sunday June 29:

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

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

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

Voting Procedures

Monday June 30:

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

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

Marilyn Waring

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

Sticker Fundraising

Tuesday July 1:

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

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

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

President Maria Jose

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

Closing Banquet

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

Delegates Posing

Wednesday July 2:

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

Minnie & Mickey

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

Minnie in the Disney World

Musselman Special

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

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

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

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

Race Nutrition

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

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

Seneca Lake

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

Best of Luck

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

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

MusselMural

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

Pre-Race Meeting at the Smith Opera House

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

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

Firemen's Parade

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

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

Body Marking

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

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

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

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

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

Here We Go!

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

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

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

T1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Finish Line

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

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

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

American Red Cross Blanket

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

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

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

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

Toronto City Hall

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

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

St. Lawrence

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

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

Maid of the Mist at Niagara Falls

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

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

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

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

Turkey Trot and Friendsgiving Feast

Thanksgiving is one of the most important American holidays, “a day of giving thanks for the blessing of the harvest and of the preceding year”. The history of Thanksgiving in the United States dates back to 1621 when the pilgrims who came over from England and landed on Plymouth Rock in Massachusetts celebrated their first successful harvest with the native Americans. Although that feast was technically the first Thanksgiving, it became an annual celebration only much later. In 1941, Thanksgiving was made a federal holiday and fixed to the fourth Thursday of November. Thanksgiving is often said to be an even more important family celebration than Christmas, and the eagerness to get families together really shows at the airports and roads: Wednesday before Thanksgiving and Sunday after it are the busiest travel days of the entire year.

Many people have asked me if this was my first Thanksgiving. Actually this was already my third one in the US. Additionally I had an opportunity to join a terrific Thanksgiving meal cooked by a friend from New York in Helsinki a few years ago. My first Thanksgiving took place in San Francisco already in 2002 when I was on my way home after an exchange semester in New Zealand. I had never been to the US before, and only while reading Lonely Planet on a flight from Fidzi did I realize that due to crossing the dateline I would actually arrive in the US on the Thanksgiving Day. So, as it happens, I got my first turkey, stuffing, and cranberry sauce meal with my Thanksgiving rookie friends from New Zealand and Australia only a few hours after immigration. How legendary! A sadder memory of that evening was seeing numerous homeless people sleeping on the otherwise totally deserted streets while we walked back to the hotel.

In 2007, I visited an expat friend of mine in Los Angeles. We drove down to San Diego for Thanksgiving. McCormick & Schmicks was one of the few places that was open. I remember most vividly their amazing pumpkin and pecan pies, as well as the crazy Black Friday shopping adventure that followed the dinner. An outlet mall in San Ysidro by the Mexican border opened at midnight. When we arrived, the parking lot was so full that we could not find legal parking. What we thought was a creative solution turned out not to have pleased the officials, as when we returned to the car at 5am with our catch, the car had been towed away! Several additional creative ideas were needed before we were happily reunited with the car, including hanging out at a 24h Walmart for a few hours to stay warm. Somehow we sorted it all out, even despite the fact that my friend had forgotten her driving license and all of the car’s documents at the hotel, meaning that we only had the car keys to prove that the car belonged to us. This is how memories are made, I guess, and this is how I learnt what a fire lane is…

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This time I started the Thanksgiving Day by waking up ridiculously early to participate in a turkey trot in the sunny but chilly November morning. Turkey trots are fun runs/walks that are held on or around Thanksgiving Day to raise funds for local charities and to burn off calories in the anticipation of indulgent Thanksgiving feasts. When I heard about this tradition, it was a no-brainer to sign-up. In DC, the turkey trot is organized by SOME (So Others Might Eat), an interfaith, community-based organization that provides the poor and homeless of the city with food, clothing, and health care. In addition to being my first turkey trot, SOME’s 12th Annual Thanksgiving Day Trot for Hunger 5K also got to be my first race on this continent. It felt great to run, even more so for a good cause, and chasing fellow participants dressed as turkeys was unforgettable.

Being curious to see and learn how the fundraising practicalities were organized was a big part of my motivation to take part in the event. I wanted to collect new ideas for similar events in Finland. This year there were ~10,000 participants, and a total of nearly $0.5 million was raised. The registration fee was $30-$35 per person. Most of the additional funds must have been raised through personalized Turkey Trot websites that were set up for each participant/team as a part of the registration process.  SOME also listed a few additional fundraising tips, and encouraged participants to share tips with each other on social media. Naturally sponsors were in a crucial role in the event, too. The list of sponsors was impressive, indeed.

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After recovering from the morning run and completing a surprisingly hassle-free cooking operation, it was time to head to my “second home” for a Thanksgiving dinner – or Friendsgiving, as it was called in this case. Although Thanksgiving is primarily a family celebration, there are always Thanksgiving orphans who are too far away from family to join them or choose to stay in DC for other reasons. My friends welcomed me to join a special dinner where a group of orphans gathered to celebrate Thanksgiving together. We even had “foster parents” as a friend’s parents were visiting from Ohio and joined the dinner.

Saying grace before starting the dinner was exactly like in a movie, and then it was time to dig into the food. The super tasty turkey was the star of the meal, of course. Additionally, there was (at least) mashed potatoes, cranberry sauce, sweet potato casserole, barbecue chicken, pork chops, stuffed mushrooms, deviled eggs, dinner rolls, cabbage, brussels sprouts, broccoli, and apple quinoa pudding, my new signature dish. For dessert, we had a classic pumpkin pie, an apple crumble pie, a blackberry pie, a frozen sweetheart cake, and ultimate killer brownies. What a feast! Everything was so delicious that I am sure the calorie intake must have exceeded the number of calories burned during the 5K run big time, maybe 10 times?

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The non-food related highlights of the Friendsgiving evening included hearing funny childhood stories shared by the “foster parents”, learning about the goals and activities of Peacecorps, and playing Catch Phrase. Catch Phrase is a word guessing game that resembles Taboo, as well as Alias that used to be hugely popular in Finland. Catch Phrase is even more intense than Alias, though, due to the constantly beeping electronic timer that the player who is giving the clues has to hold until the team mates guess the right answer. Only then can the player pass the timer on to the opponents. Teams take turns until the time is out, and the team that is not in the possession of the timer when that happens gets a point. Such a simple concept, so much laughter, and a great way for me to learn new English phrases!