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.

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