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

Best of January

1. American Cuisine

‘American Cuisine’ is my favorite Fulbright enrichment activity so far. This event raised of lot of interest already before it took place. Everyone who heard of it – American friends included – seemed puzzled: What is American cuisine? What would we cook? Pizza? French fries? Hamburgers? Would we go to McDonald’s together? Or to KFC? The answer was revealed at the beautiful home of our Fulbright enrichment coordinator in Bethesda on a rainy Saturday. When we arrived to her house, three expert home chefs had been working on the preparations for our cooking session for hours in the most amazing and well equipped kitchen that I have seen in a long time.

The menu consisted of popcorn soup, cedar plank salmon with maple glaze, Kansas City ribs, spicy Southwestern vegetable skillet, summer corn salad with champagne vinaigrette, and finally carrot cake for dessert. For me, the most unexpected item on the menu was “popcorn soup, a fanciful version of a traditional corn soup“. In addition yellow corn, popped popcorn was really used as a key ingredient, not only for garnish. Who would’ve thought? The soup was so delicious that I’m looking forward to making it for my American house mates. None of them had ever heard about it!

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Coming from Finland where smoked salmon is nearly a staple, another highlight was getting introduced to cedar plank salmon. Back home, alder chips or juniper twigs are most commonly used for smoking though, not cedar, and I had never heard of plank cooking. It turned out to be a pretty simple yet brilliant Native American technique to prepare fish on a piece of wood that gives the food a subtle smoky flavor. A key learning was that planks made out of untreated cedar specifically for cooking purposes are widely available in American grocery stores. Another great tip was to use greens of scallions under the fish to have some air circulating between the fish and the plank. Finally, I also learned that a giant golf umbrella is a handy tool for barbecuing in heavy rain…

Like advertised, the event was “a relaxing day of preparing, cooking, eating, and talking about good American cuisine“. Thanks to all the preparations made by the chefs, for the rest of us the session was indeed very relaxing – an eating class rather than a cooking class! Learning about the history, evolution and cultural context of American food was fascinating. And not only did I learn about American food, but also cuisines of Brazil, Armenia and Kyrgyzstan from our small but super international group.

2. Liberty Mountain

After taking a bus, the metro, another bus, two planes, a train, a bus, three more trains and finally a cab with my huge snowboard bag on my way back from Finland, I was determined to use the equipment as soon as possible. The opportunity arose already during the first weekend after my return as I managed to sell the idea of a day trip to Liberty Mountain to two friends from the Finnish Meteorological Institute.

We spent the sunny Sunday morning navigating towards Gettysburg. As a result of missing a turn somewhere in Pennsylvania, we first ended up to a small town called Waynesboro instead. The timing for getting lost could not have been better, though: Frank’s Pizza, clearly a favorite among locals, opened for lunch exactly when we randomly parked in front of it. Some 15 minutes later the restaurant was packed, but we were already happily working on our lunch special consisting of two giant “New York style” pizzas (that were enough for dinner, too).

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Eventually we also found the Liberty Mountain. It was a mountain in the same sense as “mountains” in Finland, but a fun setting for opening the season anyway. A little bigger than Messilä but a little smaller than Himos. A handful of chairlifts and a dozen of slopes with amusing names, such as Dipsy Doodle and Heavenly, kept us busy for a good couple of hours of relaxed riding. And a hot chocolate break on the sunny patio was naturally a vital part of the wholesome experience.

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3. Caps-Sharks (or rather: Sweden-Finland)

When a colleague of mine asked me if I would like to spontaneously join her and a bunch of other colleagues for ice hockey, my first question was “to play or to watch“. The answer – someone might say obviously – was to watch. I had been to an NHL game only once before in Montreal in 2004. I figured watching one every 10 years is probably a good idea, so I joined the crowd heading to the Verizon Center.

The teams playing were the local pride of DC, Washington Capitals, and an enemy from the West, San Jose Sharks. As there was little time for pre-game prepping, I just quickly checked the single most important fact: Are there Finnish players in any of the two teams? Caps: No Finns in Caps unfortunately, but there are two Swedes. Sharks: Bingo! The goalie is Antti Niemi from Vantaa. As there are no Swedish players in Sharks, in my mind the game quickly turned into a Finland vs. Sweden battle.

Despite Caps having more shots on goal than Sharks, Niemi played an amazing game and gave me lots of reason to be proud of my country. He was even selected as the best player of the game. We really got value for our money as the game went to overtime and eventually to shootouts. The last one from Caps who got to attempt to score was the Swede Nicklas Bäckström. As he missed, Finland won. The slogan of Sharks is “Fear the Fin”. For a moment, I thought it was “Fear the Finn”. At least judging based on this game that would be pretty fitting too.

You can find a more professional write up of the Caps-Sharks game here. You might also like a recent article by New York Times about how Finland, a country of 5.4 million people, has produced more NHL goalies than any other European country.

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PS. Finns were giving hard time to Caps also the night following the Sharks game: Pittsburg Penguins bet Caps 4-3 with Finns Olli Määttä and Jussi Jokinen responsible for the Penguins’ final three goals. Earlier in January, Finland won the Ice Hockey World Junior Championships in Sweden. What made that win even sweeter was that the final was against the hosts. Let’s see what happens in Sochi… Hopefully some exciting and eventful games between Finland and Sweden – and Finland and USA!