Friday, January 30, 2015

Day 1: Time to Re-LAX

It’s been a busy week!  Evening meetings and hard training; and I am still getting caught up from that long week-end in Houston. It’s Friday evening, and time to re-LAX!!!  Oh, Los Angeles.  I’ve never had a whole lot of interest in going, but here I am on a flight to LA, on the way to Santa Barbara for the debut of “my” first movie: Fair Chase.

Turbulence normally is reserved for unpleasant flights, but our turbulence started in the Park ‘n’ Fly shuttle.  The shocks were shot, and every pothole, speed-bump, and crack in the road sent us flying – even before our flight. (At one point, Mindy’s heeled shoe landed on top of my toes…)  Thankfully, that was the end of the turbulence on the way down.  The actual flight – that is, the one in an airplane – was smooth and uneventful.  Somewhat painfully uneventful, given that American Airlines does not have seat-back entertainment systems. Being tired was a very good thing, as both Mindy and I were able to doze on and off through the flight down to LAX.

The LA airport was busy!  As we heard from our friendly shuttle driver, flights to LA are cheaper than flights to Arizona, so hordes of Super Bowl fans were streaming into LA and driving the rest of the way.  We felt the brunt of this when we got to Budget Rent-a-Car. Over an hour in line!!  While Mindy held our spot in line, I was at least able to walk over to the hotel, check-in, drop our bags, etc.. Unfortunately, this hour delay also gave us plenty of time to hear from other customers who had been waiting an hour for their cars after they went through the line!! (Given that part of my career has been on process development and improvement, I was particularly frustrated that the front-end car rental processes at Budget seem to take an inordinate amount of time.)

We finally got to the counter where we were greeted by a remarkably upbeat associate named George. I don’t know if he was putting on a positive front, if he is genuinely happy even when under attack from angry and frustrated customers, or if he just doesn’t care that people are waiting.  Whatever it was, I did appreciate the positivity.  He told us that he could give us a car that moment, provided we took a BMW X1. (For context, we had a Mazda 2 in Houston, and were expecting the same thing here.) I asked about the price was of the X1. George looked, shook his head, and said: “Nah, I can’t do that to you.”

So there we were, facing a wait of 10, 20, 60, 90 minutes?  No idea.  We pulled the plug on the car, and told George we’d return in the morning, provided he could give us confidence that there would be cars left. “Plenty!” he assured us, so we walked to the hotel, hungry and tired.  We had a meal in the lobby bar accompanied by some much-needed drinks, and went to bed.  According to Toronto time, it was 4am.

(Side note: By postponing the car booking and not paying for parking overnight, we saved close to $30 US.  Given the weak Canadian dollar these days, that’s a perk!)

Monday, January 19, 2015

Day 5: Home is where the income is

Sometimes I don't want to come home from vacation. Sometimes I can't wait to get back.  Mixed feelings this time, as the beautiful climate and kind people made this week-end great, but I need to rein in the spending so I can afford a couple more vacations in the coming months.  Last night at the hotel, we booked train passes for Japan.  At the airport this morning, it was the flight to Los Angeles.  I don't mean to brag, but I need to go to a film premiere at the end of the month!

I am typing this on the flight back to Toronto, so I will take a gamble and prematurely call the trip home uneventful.  If things change, I suppose I can always edit this entry before I post it.  Mum - forgive me for tempting fate, please.  To appease those fate gods, do I write "knock on wood"?

I am looking forward to getting back into my patterns.  I like my life the way I live it: prolonged stretches of boring routine punctuated by moments of thrilling adventure.

Until the next adventure.

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Day 4: Race Day...and space to play

It's rare that I go to bed early enough that I actually feel refreshed at 5am.  One of the perks of prepping for an early morning race - I actually wake up feeling well rested!  A trade-off for that sinking feeling in the put of my stomach...

My body felt awesome as I took an easy spin around the hotel block to test out the weather.  The hotel is so close to the start line that I don't need bag check or anything else.  Just a single t-shirt to ditch in the corral.  Thank-you, again, Skechers for the perfectly placed hotel! Mindy qualified as a sub-elite whereas I merely got "A" corral placement, so we parted ways half an hour or so before the start of the race.  I got to my corral and lined up to use the port-o-let...behind a guy wearing a Camelbak??!!  I don't want to come across as too elitist (moderately elitist is par for the course), but am I really in a corral with Camelbak wearing runners?  Ugh!  What has this world come to.  I jockeyed for position at the front of the corral with an older guy and a kid who looked to be 12.  I'm sure they will run very good times - especially for their categories - but do I really need to worry about tripping over them in the surge to the front at the gun?

The gun went off, the surge took off, and I found myself free of the crowded start.  Rare for me, I was smart.  3:24 for the first km, 3:22 for the second, 3:18 for the third, 3:14 for the fourth....considering I was cold standing in the corral for 30 minutes before the gun, this is a good warm-up!  I'm rather pleased that (for once) I am opening right!  Another perk of starting slow - I start picking crowds off early, feeling great!

About 8km in, I'm not picking packs off so easily.  I whipped out a 3:05km to catch the last one - too fast! - so I'm content to reel this next pack in more slowly; little by little.  Over the course of a couple of wonderful kms -  wonderful because I feel strong, temperatures are perfect, and (brand-new) Skechers gear fits me perfectly, I pull up to a pack of guys.  I'm the lead Skechers guy in the (non-US Half Marathon Championships or Houston marathon) race, and the 3:12 kms are clicking through with ease. I am on track for a new personal best (PB)!

We reach the split, and most of the pack turns right to do the marathon. (Geez! That's a fast pace for a marathon!!) One guy follows me toward the half.  Up ahead, I see only the women from the US Championships (for the record, they got a 5-minute headstart).  I know the US Championship men are up there, but I can't see them.  I don't see any other I one of the top in my race?


Oh crap!  My hamstring pulled.  Easy buddy....back off, it'll go away. It hasn't totally locked up.  The guy who was trailing me is catching back up...that's ok, I can drop him again when the hammy calms down.'s starting to feel better...3:23 for a km, I barely lost anything.  Gradual increase now.........Shit!!! There it goes again.  Tightening up...dial back...dial need to stop at the side of the road.  It feels ok running this pace.....4-oh-something? Give that a km.  See what happens.......

Not much happened.  Any time I tried to pick up the pace, the hamstring tightened up.  After a few tries, I gave up.  14km at a solid PB pace and I felt great doing it.  Now I'm jogging in in low-to-mid four minute kms. Guys are passing me and I can't do anything about it. I briefly debated putting it all out there anyway.  Maybe the hammy would hold up until the end, and I would take a new PB out of this.  Or....maybe I would hobble in the final 4km when my hamstring tears in half.  Not worth the risk at the beginning of the season.   I don't want to miss Biwa again this year - especially as I already booked the flight! It's tough running in easy, effortlessly, knowing that 95% of my body feels ready to race.  One muscle in one leg is holding me back.

Approaching the finish, I'm thinking about how Skechers went to such lengths to show me a good time here, and I can't deliver on race day in return.  I see the Skechers staff at the side of the street cheering me in.  So naive.  Why would I be happy finishing in this pace?? In the final 50m a pack of three guys pass me in an all-out sprint to the finish.  Thibault, one of my Skechers team-mates from France, crosses the line just in front of me. He's improved his PB by a minute and run 1:16.  I've run almost eight minutes faster.  I'm happy for him...

Silver linings.  I didn't finish very far in front of Mindy, so I hang out in the finishing chute waiting for her.  Just as I see her round the final bend to the finish, a volunteer asks me to keep moving, and walk down the chute.  I point out my girlfriend about to cross the line, saying I'd like to wait for her.  She smiles, and suggests I walk very....s...l...o...w...l....y...... :)

Mindy gutted it out and ran a 1:25.  Not what she was hoping for.  Certainly not what she was in shape for.  Later, Zwama would point out that her first km was about 20 seconds faster than her (PB) target pace.  I suppose I would have a tough go of it if I ran my first km in 2:50!

Wending our way through the finishers' area, we stop at the Skechers booth - the only carpeted place in the area, so a good place to stretch out my hamstring a little more.  John from Skechers - what a great guy! - lent his sweatshirt to Mindy who was shivering from the cold.  We chatted a bit and learned that Cheyne from Skechers ran a 1:06 in the US Championships.  He's responding well to massive mileage and minimal speedwork, it seems! I am unhappy with my own race, but thrilled that these people for whom I was rooting have done so well.

More kind people - Houston seems to be full of them - greeted us as we got back to our hotel.  Cheers and applause from the front desk staff. That's getting me smiling again.

Residual disappointment from an unsuccessful race can linger for days, or you can go somewhere to put it out of your mind.  We chose the latter!

The tram took us to the building mock-up and training facility, where astronauts learn to manoeuvre in the Soyuz Capsule, the up-and-coming Orion shuttle, and assorted other ships.

These facility is also where astronauts learn to attach one spaceship to space both ships hurtle along at the speed of a bullet! This contraption helps them understand how to align both vessels in space, though it doesn't move quite so fast...

Robonaut and spidernaut are tested here, along with rovers that can house two astronauts for up to 14 days. (No, it isn't any bigger than it looks.  You think long-haul truckers deal with cramped spaces?! This is the size of a pick-up truck!

Back to the tram, and it seems the most exciting parts of the tour are over.  Yes, it's interesting to see a half dozen massive liquid nitrogen tanks (used to simulate cold outer space), and the trees planted in honour of astronauts who lost their lives for the cause of space exploration...but not exactly thrilling.  We pulled up to Rocket Park and it seemed that there was another moderately exciting bit to the tour.  I mean, these are spaceships....or reproductions, at least.

This is more than moderately exciting.  This is not a model:

This is the real thing in all it's magnificent, mind-boggling, massive glory.  The real Saturn V rocket that carried humans to the moon!!! Preserved to reflect it's condition when it launched, this makes my mind leap and my heart race!! Wow!!!

I could have spent the day walking around this rocket hangar, but Mindy reminded me that there was more to see.  Back to the main building to walk inside a shuttle and see the Mars rover (that IS a reproduction):

How do you feel about not showering for a year?  Troubled by that?  You wouldn't make a good astronaut.  Oh, and I know it worked in Stephen King's Misery, but I'm in no rush to drink my own urine, either. 

Clif should do a better job of capitalising on this marketing!!

What is the purpose of exploring space?  National pride and ego? Future colonies for when we've destroyed this planet? Better satellite networks?

Or is it simply entertainment?

Things to ponder as we leave the Space Centre.  The hamstring is still tender, but I haven't been dwelling on the race. Better to tackle the unanswerable questions about the ROI of space exploration....

Skechers set us up with the Houston City Pass.  Not only does it include the Space Centre, but also the Houston Zoo and Aquarium.  The zoo closes in 90 minutes, but we have free entry and free parking, so why not? 

I've never seen such affection among giraffes, and the poor zebra got really agitated when the giraffes went in for bed and it was (temporarily) still stuck outside.  The emotion these animals demonstrate! When I fed giraffes at a zoo a few years ago, a friend commented that they reminded him of cows with long necks. (He did grow up on a dairy farm.) If these are like cows, I am very glad I am vegetarian.

Another reason I'm glad I'm vegetarian - Baba Yega's! What a great restaurant in the Montrose neighbourhood just outside of downtown Houston. (Technically, "downtown" Houston is very small.   Montrose would be no more than a 20-minute walk from the hotel, but in that time we would leave Downtown, pass through Midtown, and enter Montrose.) I rarely go for the fake meats, but for a treat I tried a Reuben sandwich, a turkey and bacon club, and meatloaf.  All very tasty.  All vegetarian.  I'm impressed, Houston! I did not expect to find a vegetarian haven in the land of ranchers!

We had plans to finish the day at the Houston Aquarium, but fatigue was really setting in.  Back to the plan for more trips - to California and Japan! It's going to be a busy few months.

Saturday, January 17, 2015

Day 3: I've got Meb's number!

Ok, that's not actually true.  Mindy has Meb's number. His phone number.  I'm not claiming that I can beat Meb.  Nice thought, ain't gonna happen! (I'm in Texas.  I'm fixin' myself up right to speak like a Texan.)

Meb programmed his phone number into Mindy's phone so that she could text of him with the international athletes at the Skechers Pre-race party. Nonetheless, BOSTON AND NYC MARATHONS WINNER MEB KEFLEZIGHI PROGRAMMED HIS NUMBER INTO MINDY'S PHONE!!

Skechers throws one heck of a party!

Of course, Skechers demonstrated yet again how well they treat their athletes here:

I was tired as it was getting "late" (around 6pm), so we headed across the street to the Hilton for the Elites' pre-race dinner, and then back to the hotel for a very low-key end to the evening - legs up, blogging, perhaps a bit of TV.  I haven't really done much today.  Woke up this morning and watched the Houston 5km from my hotel window.  A Skechers athlete took top honours in the men's field.  Woot! A bit of wandering about Houston, a nap, and then off to the Skechers party atop The Grove, a restaurant nestled right in the Discovery Green.

Tomorrow is the big day.

Friday, January 16, 2015

Day 2: Skechers ROCKS!!!

Wow!! That's pretty much all I've got to say about how Skechers treated me today. (Um...if that were REALLY all, I suppose the blog entry would end here... Anyway!) As a thank-you(?) for coming down and racing the Aramco Half Marathon and dropping by the Skechers booth, Skechers set me up:

I'm telling you - it's almost as though these are nice people! ;)

Seriously, they are nice people.  Anna, Sarah, Cheyne, Curt, John...the list goes on.  Some of the most friendly people I've come across at race expos - where people are being paid to be friendly!  Mindy and I were over an hour at the Skechers booth checking out the new gear, and I was like a kid in a candy shop with all the great stuff!  In case the cornucopia of apparel they gave me wasn't enough, I  bought another running shirt.  Skechers gear is awesome!.  Of course, chatting away with Curt in the booth gave me a  better understanding why their stuff continues to improve.  Curt is one of the designers of the shoes, and he's got such passion for the product!

As for Cheyne....when I was in Rotterdam and first met my friend Paul Zwama, I discovered he is a good runner - a really good runner - when he seemed utterly unfazed by my target time for the marathon.  Same thing today.  Chatting with Cheyne, he asked us our target times for Sunday; 1:08-ish, for me, and he didn't blink.  He's aiming for 1:08-ish, himself. Best of luck to you, Cheyne!!  I also learned another interesting tidbit...not sure if it's good news for me or not.  I opted for the half marathon here partly because of the insane depth in this field.  I expected to be running with a whole pack of guys going in and around 1:08, and not being anywhere near the lead.  Not quite.  The American championship runners will be like that, but that race heads out 5 minutes before the half marathon for the common folk.  Best I can hope for is to reel in the championship runners who are falling apart.  I may be among the sparse top few of the plebeian half marathon.  I mean...I might.......*might*....have a shot at the top spot.   It's a sweet feeling to be among the top, but it isn't so easy to dig and dig and dig all alone....

The rest of the expo was pretty cool - especially the free massage - but my legs were starting to get tired.  Maybe I was feeling the run this morning, or maybe it was the flight shaking out of my legs, still.  Honestly?  It was the flight.  Running through Sam Houston Park and along the bayou this morning was fun, but not exactly tiring.  There are some interesting sights along the bayou that kept my mind occupied even as my legs were unchallenged.  Take, for instance, the very strange geese that are clearly very common around here.  They look a bit like a terrible growth is sprouting out of their heads....Stranger still were the non-degenerates living under a bridge along the bayou. (Ironically, just steps from a sign that reads "No overnight camping".)  These folks were dressed reasonably well, and the woman was diligently brushing her hair as Mindy and I ran past.  Confusing...

The walk back from the expo was across the Discovery Green.  It's about the size of Queen's Park Circle in Toronto, but a little more manicured.

You probably can't see it too well, but the little white stakes on the path are lights...

Original plans were to fit NASA in this afternoon, then we bailed on that and planned an evening at the Aquarium, and even that eventually fell through.  We made it to Boheme Cafe and Wine Bar. Self-declared eclectic, but it lives up to the title:

We had the supremely healthy meal of Vietnamese fries and gourmet pizza.  Um...extra calories to fuel Sunday? One of there servers there - who I will leave nameless for his own benefit - told us a number of entertaining stories...except that in most of them he was driving drunk, or waking up drunk 20 miles outside of Houston, or getting drunk and taking a taxi (thankfully!). 

After the tasty dinner at Boheme, I went to my very first official pre-race dinner:

Kind of a non-event, really.  Food was decent, and we ended up chatting with a couple of coaches - one of whom was a 4:06 miler in his day. (His day was long enough ago that he won the first Houston Marathon.  His first marathon.)

A busy, exciting day, and I'm really glad that's all out of the way well before race day.  Whether I'm in crowds or not, I want to be ready to go fast on Sunday.  Got to be well rested.  Good night!

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Day 1: Heading South for the Winter

I don't mean to give away any spoilers, but have you seen GONE GIRL??!!  I mean, I am never
hoping that a flight will last longer than scheduled, but here I was afraid I'd miss the end
of the movie because we were landing in....Houston!  That's right, another trip, which
obviously means another race.  Let's face it, I don't tend to go too many places without there
being a running-related reason, and I'm here in Houston to race the Aramco Houston Half
Marathon on Sunday.  This is kind of a big deal for me, because it's the first time that my
sponsor is sending me to a race.  Thank-you Skechers! (Oh, I guess I'm not counting when Mike
 Dion took me down to San Diego out of his own generosity for Elliptigo purposes...Thank-you,
again, Mike, for that!)

Skechers is one of the premiere sponsors of the Houston Marathon and Half Marathon this
year, so they want to have a large presence at the race.  I'm so excited that meant they wanted
to bring me along, and even more excited that I may get the chance to meet Meb!  Kara
Goucher may also be here.  Funnily enough, I have met her before...when Mike took me on that
Elliptigo trip...  I feel like I'm pretty fit, so I hope I can live up to the expectations Skechers has
of me.  I've been doing workouts as per my friend ("coach", I suppose) Paul Zwama who I met
while in Rotterdam for the race last spring.  Let's hope that this isn't a repeat of Rotterdam! In
the meantime, Skechers has decided to treat me like a minor celebrity here in Houston -
admission to NASA, pre-race dinners and parties, a gift bag to welcome me to the hotel...I could
get used to a life like this!  It's possible that Mindy might get a little too used to it, as well.  Even
though she's not with Skechers, they were kind enough to have a loot bag waiting for her at the
hotel here as well, and they've added her to the invitation list for all the events. :)

Quick tip for anyone flying into Houston: figure out your transportation to your hotel before you
head out.  Houston airport just isn't that exciting a place to hang least not when you're
tired.  Public transit takes an hour and a half to get downtown (so the website told me....we
didn't test that), and even the shuttle we hired took about 15 minutes to get going for the 30
minute drive.  Not bad when that's the only "bump" on a trip from Toronto to Houston.  Unless,
of course, you include a coupe of minor...."amusements"...on the plane.  

Normally I go for the exit row on a plane for a little more space.  Mindy was fine in her seat -
willing to tolerate that it wouldn't decline at all.  My seat was made to fit a child.  Low, narrow,
and not even as deep as usual, I felt like I was perched on the edge.  We asked to move to other
 vacant seats (thankfully there were some!) and sat behind the other exit row.  That's when we
noticed that the lever for the emergency door was falling open!!!!!!  I may be exaggerating slightly.
The cover for the lever was falling open.  The actual lever seemed pretty solid.  The door didn't
accidentally open during the flight, at least.

As for Gone Girl?  Watch it!  Great movie.