24. October 2014 · Comments Off · Categories: Journal, Sportz

On Saturday October 11, I found myself bobbing in the ocean in Hawaii’s early morning light. Surrounded by the pink swim caps of nearly 1,000 other women, the Hawaiian drums began to pound as we waited for the cannon to start the race. As the sound filled the air, I turned around and looked at the thousands of people lining the shore.


Then I looked around for Lisa.

I had met Lisa 20 minutes before descending the slippery stairs to the water. We were both sitting near the swim start – she told me she lived in Seattle and was terrified of the swim. She got teary-eyed talking about it, so I tried to think of some encouraging words. I am not a particularly strong swimmer myself, and was none too thrilled about swimming 2.4 miles in rough ocean waters, but I am pretty good at spouting BS on the spot, so I tried to leverage this to my best ability.

Clear water, I exclaimed. Just think of the fish! And all the coral!  And fun!

I asked her when she started triathlon, and that’s when she told me: Her husband had been killed in Afghanistan. Barely 30 at the time of his death, Lisa was left with two small children. Her husband John never met the youngest.  She said she had taken up triathlon as therapy to deal with the grief and a way to honor his memory. This was her third ironman. Before we got in the water, we hugged. At the time, the conversation rocked me, but I didn’t know how important it would be in the hours to come.

The Swim: 1:20

When the cannon went off, a mass of bodies set off towards the boat about a mile in the distance. We were to swim out to a boat, take a right, and then swim back into the pier where our bikes were waiting. Unlike my last ironman in Whistler in July, this swim was relatively non-violent. I quickly found a group I could draft off of, and settled in at a very relaxed pace. As I had promised Lisa, the water was indeed clear and from time to time we could see fish swimming below us. I waved to the underwater safety divers, who peered up at us like aliens in their dive gear.

My last several weeks of swim training had been lackluster at best – the Salida pool had been closed for renovations so I was driving an hour each way to Gunnison twice a week to get in workouts. My swimming has improved a lot this year, but I don’t have much experience in the ocean (without a beer in my hand, at least), and the swells and current were a bit confusing. Despite that, perhaps my words to Lisa were a prophecy, because I quite enjoyed the swim. After what seemed like a long, long time we funneled towards the pier for the finish.

The swim exit was a mess – the crowded stairs onto the pier were full of dizzy, disoriented bodies stumbling onto other athletes and bedraggled volunteers who were doing everything possible to hoist people out of the water. I was a bit disappointed when I saw the clock. At Whistler, I swam ten minutes faster, and while I knew this swim was much more challenging, still – a girl can dare to dream, can’t she? On the other hand, I knew I hadn’t tired myself out at all for the rest of the day. I had told myself to treat the swim like a warmup to the start line, and that’s what I had done.


Transition 1

I ran into a full transition tent yelling, “Did I win?” No one laughed. Oh well.

The Bike – 6:02

I was excited to set out on the bike, my favorite part of the ironman. Over the last eight months, the combination of good guidance by my coach Kelly Williamson and living and riding in Colorado has really made me a stronger bike rider. I had watched myself progressively improve in nearly every race I had done this year – New Orleans half ironman, Wildflower half ironman, and Ironman Canada. Just a month earlier, my bike at the Mt. Tremblant Half Ironman World Championships had brought a real breakthrough in confidence.


Today, I deduced pretty early in the ride, was not going to follow that upward performance trajectory. My legs didn’t feel terrible, but they weren’t giving me what I was hoping for. The numbers on my power meter were quite low, so after about ten miles I stopped looking, put my head down and just rode.

The bike conditions in Kona are notoriously tough. With temperatures near 90 degrees, the course travels the rolling hills of the Queen K highway through black lava fields to a turnaround point on the island’s northern peninsula in a small town called Hawi. As the day wears on, the lava fields and the pavement radiate heat. The winds are the wild card, and can be legendary. This year, they picked up early on in the race, and didn’t let up.


Despite my lackluster riding, I was excited to greet the winds and heat. As the headwinds pummeled us starting about mile 20, I said to a guy riding next to me, “Yes! Let’s make this hard!” Returning from Hawi, the crosswinds made things scary, as several times side wind gusts picked up my bike and moved it across the road. Someone had told me to watch the bike in front of me. When it moved, then I should know to get small and hang on for dear life. So that’s what I did.


The last 30 miles of the bike I felt strong and steady. I was drinking and taking in calories like a champ. I had a plan and I was sticking to it, much like a mature adult might do (progress!). My legs were not overworked and I knew I had made up some ground on the bike, despite not feeling very spunky. In most every other ironman I have completed, the thought of running a marathon while I am still on the bike strikes fear into my heart.


But today, somehow, I didn’t really mind the idea.

Transition 2:

I got off my bike, and my legs immediately buckled. Whoops. I righted myself, and waved to my friend Karen among the other bike volunteers as my shaky pins steadied. Then I immediately ran the wrong way towards the changing tent. Typical. A volunteer quickly got me pointed in the right direction.

The Run – 4:41             

Heading out into the run felt like heading into a foreign land. I didn’t know what to expect. The first ten miles is an out and back on Kona’s Ali’i Drive. It is relatively flat and lined with screaming spectators peddling a wide variety of offerings – love, nudity, beer. Mercifully, that afternoon we even had cloud cover. Needless to say, it was a good ten miles.


In the first mile I saw Jimmy. I raised the roof and stopped to give him a hug. A couple miles later, I saw my girl-crew: Sandy, Sheree, Angela, Jill.


All the way down to the turnaround and back I felt fantastic. I was consciously slowing things down to my goal pace of about 8:30-8:45/mile. I was doing all the housekeeping things I knew were important: stuffing cold sponges in my bra, pouring water over my head, taking in calories, putting ice down my pants (housekeeping is important). I made the right turn onto Palani Drive to run up the one steep hill. Then it was out onto the Queen K Highway for several hot, lonely miles.

I was ready. I had been warned.

The first two highway miles were just fine. I watched pros – including my coach Kelly Williamson, who was running hard, crazy focused – and the fast age groupers coming back the other way to finish their day. I laughed when I heard one of them say to his running partner, “This sucks balls,” and I figured yep, I’ll probably be saying that in about 11 miles too, but good thing I’m not saying it now.


Then suddenly I was. Out of seeming nowhere, a vice grip grabbed my intestines and squeezed. I slowed down. It squeezed again. I walked. Then again.

I assessed my options. I was between aid stations, few of which had porta potties. The highway was filled with black lava rocks and scrub brush. That would have to do, I decided. I scrambled up the rocks, hid myself from sight as much as possible, and left a gift for the island gods.

I’ll spare you any more gory details, but suffice it to say this wasn’t the last offering of the day. I had to duck off about three more times during that next mile. I was walking now, but dizzy and nauseous. The dizziness worried me. We all know the accounts of super-tough athletes stumbling down the road, their legs giving out, their speech incoherent, just grasping for the promise of the finish line at all costs. The day before, we had watched Julie Moss’ finish line video on YouTube of her famous second place in Kona in 1982, falling and barely crawling across the finish line.

But if I am honest, I am no Julie Moss. I am indeed a committed athlete, but I also have self preservation in my genes. In my life, triathlon is a hobby (if a highly consuming one at times), and a fantastically fun pastime – but not one I want to hasten my trip to the grave. So some costs are too high for me to pay, and I began to wonder whether this was going to be my first triathlon DNF (“Did Not Finish”).

After about 4 more pit stops, I came across a volunteer tent at mile 14. They volunteers gave me a seat I asked for medical assistance. Within a few minutes, two medics appeared. They asked me questions, took my vitals, and told me I had great blood pressure (thanks!). At this point, I had pretty much decided to quit. I had called Jimmy and told him the situation and that I might come back in a car, not on foot. I had thought things through and come to the conclusion that a) no one would be upset with me b) that I didn’t have anything to prove c) that I absolutely was committed to not ruining my vacation with my friends who had spent a lot of time and money to be there with me, and that d) walking 12 more miles was going to take a long, long time. I was okay with letting it go.

I stood up to get in the medical van. And then, something happened. I thanked the volunteers, and turned and started walking down the road towards mile 15. I made another pit stop in the lava fields. Then I kept walking.

I have no idea why I kept going.

Since the race, I have spent a long time reflecting on why my mind changed. I don’t think it was anything as simple or noble as sheer determination or uber-toughness that wouldn’t let me pull the plug. I had already allowed myself to quit in my mind, and – whether or not this shows a weakness of character, I don’t know – I think I was truly okay with it.

My best guess is that I started walking again down that road because I wanted to see what was on the other side. Some curiosity, perhaps, or a tiny whisper of adventure got the best of me. Also, I thought about Lisa. I thought about how what she had been through – losing her husband, suddenly being left with two children – was hard, truly hard.

I realized that doing an ironman triathlon isn’t hard. It hurts sometimes, but in the scheme of life’s true challenges, it is not difficult. I know some will disagree with me on this point, but the truth is that what we do out there is a screaming, joyful, painful, roller-coaster privilege. And a grand adventure. It’s not suffering on a grand scale.


In the end, it took me one hour and 11 minutes to complete miles 13-16. At mile 16, I ate a banana, which seemed to stop the GI cramping, and I actually started to run. My legs were fine, and I watched the big red ball of sun setting as I entered the 4-mile stretch in the Natural Energy Lab. On the way out of the Energy Lab, my timing chip tripped a wire that brought up a 5-second video my girlfriends had made for me a couple of days before on a huge screen on the side of the road. Out there in the Hawaii dusk, their faces and cheers were so bright and loud that I got tears in my eyes.

Photo credit of the Natural Energy Lab www.boston.com

Photo credit of the Natural Energy Lab www.boston.com

I ran the last 10k of that ironman marathon with more gusto and joy than I ever have before. Strangely but wonderfully, I had the energy to reflect on all that I had to be thankful for: Jimmy, my family, my friends, my coach – all of them teachers and allies for me. My life itself. It was dark by now, and as I ran by people who were struggling I tried to get them to run with me a couple of them did, including Tina from Australia who kept me company for a mile or so. I stopped to check on people who were kneeling on the ground, weaving wildly across the course, laying on the side of the road.

We all have our reasons, I thought. I still wasn’t sure exactly what mine were, but I knew that I had been offered an adventure on the other side of defeat.

I also knew I was going to cross that finish line.

I saw Jimmy when I turned right to run back down Palani. I called, “I rallied!” and stopped and gave him a kiss. On the short dark downhill towards the final stretch on Ali’i Drive, two lone spectators cheered and told me as I ran past, “The next right hand turn is going to change your life!”

Sure enough, as I made the turn, I saw the bouncing bodies of those beautiful girls before I even heard their screams – Jill, Sandy, Sheree, Karen, Angela. I hugged them all and then continued into the finish chute.


The finish line of the Kona Ironman was indeed just as they said – magic. The music was loud, the lights were blaring. Hundreds of people were cheering, their hands outstretched for high-fives. There were furry costumed characters jumping and people waving overflowing beers. The famed Mike Reilly called my name and mispronounced Salida but I didn’t even care. I slapped as many palms as I could, I did a measly jump of hurrah, I raised my arms over my head, and my friend Chris appeared out of nowhere just as I crossed the line.


From the look on my face at the finish line, you could be forgiven for thinking it was my moment of glory alone, that I might have won the whole damn race. In reality, it was my slowest ironman since my first 14 years ago, and my lowest placing in any ironman I have ever completed.


But I think that might not just be a winner’s smile. It might also be the smile of an adventurer, a student who has learned an important lesson, someone who has been defeated and made peace with failure. And then gotten up, thanked her helpers, and decided to have a look to see what might be hiding there on the other side.

Post-race photo courtesy of Chris Vaughan.

Post-race photo courtesy of Chris Vaughan.


17. October 2014 · Comments Off · Categories: Uncategorized








17. October 2014 · Comments Off · Categories: Uncategorized

IMG_0637Janie did Kona Ironman. It was hard, but she did it anyway.

26. December 2013 · Comments Off · Categories: Uncategorized


Wayan our MTB Bali guide


03. February 2013 · Comments Off · Categories: Uncategorized

I know I owe the three loyal readers of this blog a lot of stories, so let me just back up. To December, in fact. I think I left off on our Cambodia bike trip to the beach. That seems like a lifetime ago in some ways; but so many good stories to tell…

So, after our bike trip we took a long bus ride to Siem Reap and spent about five days tooling around Angkor Wat. I am not much of an archaeologist or a historian, so I will leave the blogging about the temples to others who can do the area much more justice, but suffice it to say that it is not overrated. I am still not sure about what this whole “Wonders of the World” thing is all about, but if Angkor Wat is not on that list, it should be.

Angkor Wat in the morning.

That, and the typical rural Cambodian woman’s daily wardrobe of cotton pajamas. (How did they get so lucky?)

There are so many ways to explore the temples and old ruins around Angkor Wat, and I am pretty sure we tried most all of them. First off, we took a bike tour to see the “greatest hits” of the area, which benefited greatly from our guide, whose family is from the area and who had been a mini-monk himself – before he made the move into tourism at about age 18.

Angkor Wat organized bike tour.

We ran the Angkor Wat half marathon , which took us 13 miles on the roads around the temples, and rented bikes one day and tooled on those clunkers around the 25-mile area that holds the greatest collection of ruins.

Angkor Wat disorganized bike tour.

Another day we did a long run that traversed the top of the old walls of Angkor Thom, the old city in the area dating from over one thousand years, which measures 16 square kilometers (about 10 miles all the way around the walls, for those of you counting).

Running on the ancient walls of Angkor Thom

The walls are in various states of renovation, so the run required some (probably unsanctioned) scaling of ancient walls.

Creative summiting on bamboo ladders during our run around the walls of Angkor Thom.

Also some quizzical looks and thumbs up from renovation workers who are working on the restoration. And there were elephants in the road.

Long run with elephants!

In Siem Reap, we were lucky enough to get to meet up with our friend Rob from Washington DC for a few days. Besides the fact that he was staying in a fancy hotel that had access to a nice swimming pool where we rested our tired legs post-race, it was great fun to catch up a friend for beers, dinners, and stories of home. And of course a good, old-fashioned flesh-eating fish session in the market at night.

I wonder if it tickles.

From Siem Reap, Jimmy and I hopped a slow boat to Battambang, an old colonial town that was the last stronghold of the Khmer Rouge as they were being driven out of Cambodia. Battambang is in the far western part of Cambodia, and somewhat off the beaten tourist track. The boat ride to get there from Siem Reap took about 8 hours through narrow waterways and past a myriad of floating villages. You can see the facebook slideshow of that wacky trip here.

Eight-hour boat ride from Siem Reap to Battambang

Battambang was a funny little town. It has a nice quay by the riverside, which is absolutely packed in the evening with dueling aerobics groups – the largest ones number in the hundreds. We stayed for a couple of days at a hotel called Chhaya, owned by one suspicious looking “Mr. Lee” (cue ominous music and foreshadowing for my next post).

One of the dueling aerobics classes, each led by a different Battambang hunky teacher, on the quay at sunset.

One of those days we went in search of the famous “Bamboo Train,” which seems to be Battambang’s starring – only? – tourist attraction. We rented some bikes from a Canadian who we discovered had followed his American girlfriend to Cambodia and has now set up a small bike shop in town. We spent the whole morning getting lost on the dusty roads around town and finally gave up mid-day in frustration. Not to be defeated though, we headed out again in the late afternoon and lucked into the right turn.

The Bamboo Train is a small bamboo platform (more like a mat than a platform) on top of two sets of wheels that run on the old railway. Each platform has a five-horsepower engine that gets revved when the “conductor” pulls a shoelace attached to the engine. Each platform is about big enough for four people to sit. There are no sides. When the engine is started, you hurtle down the track at about 30mph. When two bamboo cars meet one another going opposite directions, the one with fewer passengers has to hop off, disassemble the platform, and move it to the other side of the more crowded car. The journey takes you to a small village about half an hour from Battambang, where a man serves you drinks and reminds you to tip your driver.


On the elusive Bamboo Train – at last!


Stay tuned for next time, when we make an ill-fated trip across the Cambodia/Thai border, and spend a long, long day with Lars. And Lars.


05. December 2012 · Comments Off · Categories: Uncategorized

Last week, Jimmy and I decided to check out the Cambodian coast. Cambodia’s main beach area, Sihanoukville, is about 170 miles from Phnom Penh on the Gulf of Thailand. We were warned that the beaches don’t rival Thailand’s, but luckily we haven’t been to Thailand yet, so we figured we wouldn’t be disappointed.

The evening before our trip, which was Thanksgiving Thursday, we stopped by a local bike shop called Vicious Cycles and picked up two mountain bikes. At $10 per day (plus $1/day for helmets) the price was a bit steep, but the guys working at the store gave us some useful information and the bikes seemed to be in good condition. Our plan was to make the 170 miles in 3 days – we weren’t in a hurry and didn’t know what the road conditions would be.

We got up early Friday morning intending to try to get out of Phnom Penh before the roads got clogged at rush hour, which lasts from about 7-8:30am. But it was pouring rain, and we couldn’t find breakfast around our hotel until 7am, so we made it a leisurely breakfast and finally got on our bikes just before 8am, and right smack-dab in the midst of the busiest traffic time of the day.

Getting out of Phnom Penh felt like being a star character in a human video game. We only had to take one road, but that road was packed with cars, tuk tuks, motorcycles and motorbikes, bicycles, the occasional pedestrian, and food carts. Of course, being from Washington DC, we are used to riding in traffic, so in and of itself that was not a big deal. The real problem with Cambodian motorways is the challenge of the left hand turn. Because there are few to no traffic signals, no stop signs at crossroads, and certainly no traffic law enforcement, most motorbikes and bicycles wanting to turn left are forced to turn into oncoming traffic and ride against it until they find a chance to dart across the road into their correct lane. So heading out of Phnom Penh, we often found ourselves smack-dab in between chaotic rows of traffic heading the right way, and a line of motorcycles and bikes looking for a chance to veer across the highway to the other side. Luckily, the video game was mostly a slow-speed chase, so within an hour or so we were able to release the death grip on the handlebars.

Traffic in Phnom Penh. (Click photo for source.)

Our first day took us about 48 miles down a secondary highway, Highway 3, to a town called Takeo. The road was mostly paved with a red dirt shoulder, and some traffic – primarily trucks or cars headed to the coast, or local motorbikes. We rode through scores of Cambodian small towns and villages, so there was always easy access to water or snacks, though we had to do a lot of pointing. As the day went on, there was more space between villages and we started to catch glimpses of the green rice fields and Cambodian countryside. Through some areas, we had to keep up a steady stream of greetings and waves, as every kid who glimpsed us would call out “Hello! Hello!” Many times, we would hear a muffled voice but see no one. The small voices were coming from inside houses or hammocks or shops; somehow those kids have x-ray vision for spotting foreigners on bikes.

Cambodian countryside

It soon became apparent that the only real problem with this ride was going to be that it was hot. Really darn hot. It’s the dry season in Cambodia, and by 10am the sun is high, as well as the humidity. During the last 20 miles of the day, things were getting pretty rough, despite our rather pedestrian speed and our frequent breaks. Luckily, we picked up an escort during our last 15 miles in Takeo – a phone-card salesman on a motorbike who wanted to practice his English. He rode next to us and quizzed us on America, our lives, sports, how many countries we’d visited, eating crickets and snakes, the cost of an i-phone in the US, and many other germane topics. Talking with him took our minds off the fact that we were simultaneously frying and dropping buckets of sweat onto the highway.

Some of our many school-bound escorts.

We pulled into Takeo about 1pm and shortly found a guest house for $15 with a TV and an air conditioner (lo mas importante!). November and December is “wedding season” in Cambodia and a group was setting up the traditional pink-and-green fringed wedding tent outside.  The guy at the front desk tried to show us a room at the back of the hotel, but we asked for a room at the front. He shrugged and consented. We made our way to the only restaurant in town with English words on the menu and ate a great meal of Cambodian noodles, rice and Angkor beer. Coincidentally, twenty American Peace Corps volunteers were the only other guests. Apparently they were attending a training before heading to their village assignments and had gotten finished early for the day. They were using the time (wisely) to get sloshed on cheap cans of beer, which the waitresses regularly brought out on plastic trays.

That afternoon, the wedding reception happened right outside our room. It started at 4pm and guests stayed until well after midnight. The last few hours were punctuated by bouts of extreme karaoke on a bad sound system. As it turns out, we had requested the room that basically was inside the wedding tent. Thanks to the bride and groom for inviting us. The singing was superb.

The next morning, we had breakfast at a roadside café a couple of miles down the road from Takeo. There we discovered iced coffee with condensed milk, which caffeinated and sugared us enough to forget about the bad road and long, hot day ahead.

Rocket fuel: condensed milk + coffee

Later in the morning, we started seeing some mountains in the distance, and more rice fields. There were water and snacks everywhere along the way, and this was the day that I made both the wonderful discovery of a giant bag of tiny single-wrapped Oreos that could be stuffed into our jersey pockets, and the horrid discovery of the taste of Durian fruit. Durian is a famous regional fruit in SE Asia, similar to Jackfruit in appearance with a hard shell and prickly spines on the outside. In certain places we have been, particularly Singapore, durians are actually prohibited because of their nasty stink. As I learned at about mile 30 of the bike ride when I chomped down on a durian cookie, their smell has got NOTHING on their taste. After tricking Jimmy into tasting the cookie too (because, well, that’s only fair, right?) and gleefully watching him gag too, we got back on the road.

The site of the famous bag of tiny Oreo cookies. Sustenance!

Our destination on Day 2 was Kampot, an old French town on the river that has just recently begun hosting tourists. After tooling about town for the afternoon, including a massage for me on a second-floor terrace of an old French building, we ate dinner in a fantastic Jungle-book-like restaurant on the river called Rikitikitavi.

The river from Kampot town.

Our last day of cycling was our longest – about 65 miles into the beach city of Sihanoukville. The first part of the day was lovely. We rode past mountains and palm forests on our right and could occasionally catch a glimpse of the ocean to our left.

On the (sometimes paved) road from Kampot to Sihanoukville

About halfway through our ride, we merged onto the main highway, which was the only road to take us to the coast. We had read that this road was not very heavily traveled, but as it turned out we had chosen a weekend that was also a holiday, which meant an absurd number of minivans, motorbikes and tour buses rumbling towards the beach. Back to the video game, as we made mad scrambles to hop curbs onto the dirt shoulder every two minutes or so as large trucks blared their horns to run us off the road, or oncoming traffic passed with no acknowledgement of who was coming towards them. We had about five climbs, our first of the trip, into Sihanoukville, which provided a welcome change of terrain.

By the time we made it into the outskirts of Sihanoukville, it was 1:30pm. And I was parched. At one point, an Angkor beer truck passed us and I shouted hoarsely, “I want to drink you!” After a few misses at pointing ourselves the right way in the traffic of what turned out to be a much larger city than we expected, we finally rolled into Serendipity Beach, the big backpacker hangout in Sihanoukville. We sat down at a beach café and ordered a “jug” of beer for $3, which was gone in about 10 minutes.

Sweet rewards: a jug of Angkor beer.

We spent that afternoon and the next full day at the beach and the pool at the amazing hotel we stumbled upon for $30/night. We had mojitos at a beach bar, with the water lapping right up near our chairs, and ate fantastic Indian food in a restaurant that was basically just an extension of the Pakistani owner’s house. The owner’s Cambodian daughter Maria, who is 12, played our waitress, and while we were waiting she and I watched the Gangnam Style video on my phone. She also told us about school – she’s the smartest in her class in English, and, she said that in her other subjects “no one can beat me.”. Her dad wants her to go to college in India, but she confided in us that she doesn’t know if she wants to go because there might be other kids who are smarter than her. We assured her that there would be, and that this was altogether a good thing. She was dubious, but the food was delicious.

Water at Sihanoukville from our hotel. It might not be Thailand, but it looked pretty good to me.

On Tuesday morning, we loaded our bikes onto the bus and headed back to Phnom Penh – even smellier, saltier, and happier than we had been four days before.

Hanging at the pool after arriving in Sihanoukville. Comments about speedos welcome.

22. November 2012 · Comments Off · Categories: Uncategorized

Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday, so I have spent some of today feeling a bit morose that I am not at home this year. Good things seem to happen on Thanksgiving. Laughing, wine, food and family are usually the winning combination for my Thanksgiving celebrations. For the last three years I have had work trips to Africa scheduled just before Thanksgiving, but I have gone to great lengths to schedule my flights back so that I am back home for the ceremonial stuffing (of me, not the bird).

This year, that didn’t happen. But we’re making the most of it. Shortly, Jimmy and I are headed to a restaurant in Phnom Penh that is hosting a “traditional Thanksgiving feast.” Given the Cambodians’ penchant for eating crickets and snails, I am a little bit skeptical, but I have resigned to give up my recently vegetarian ways for tonight one way or another, so let’s see what happens.

In trying to honor Thanksgiving without the traditional celebration, I have been mulling over this post for a few days now. Mostly I have been wondering how a recounting of the things I am thankful for might be different – after 8 months without a job, six months traveling around the US visiting friends and family, and now nearly two months in southeast Asia – than a Thanksgiving post might be on a more “normal” year (if there is one).

The truth is, my list hasn’t changed much. My Top Five looks pretty much like it does most years. I don’t know if that is comforting or disturbing. But here are my Top Five Thanks from Phnom Penh:

1. My family. They all sing songs. I am really thankful for that. But there are other things too. For example, if there is any center to the feeling I have of being anchored in the world and at the same time encouraged to explore it, my family provides it for me. My parents didn’t just teach me things and provide opportunities (though they did too). More important, they gave me an example of how to grapple honestly and with good humor with the good and the hard of life. They showed me how to gracefully both hold on and let go of long-held beliefs about the world, which is a process I feel myself trying to emulate quite often.

My brother Danny and sister Cindy have provided inspiration for me in so many ways, most of all in the challenge to do what I love, be my own person, and eventually find some way to laugh through it all. I mean, that’s what they both do, and I admire them both enormously. Basically, I want to be my little brother and sister when I grow up.

And Jimmy, well, what can I say about Jimmy? He might have gotten in a wee bit over his head when he signed up to be my companion more than 12 years ago, but so far we are tipping the laughter-to-tears ratio way far towards the former together. I could not ask for a better partner in life and love.

2. My friends. My friends don’t have to tolerate me, but they do anyway, which in some ways is even more to be thankful for – or at least amazed by – than the family kind of love. At every single juncture of my life (and there have been lots of junctures) I can name specific instances where my friends have pushed me, pulled me, cajoled, or just hugged me when it counted. I feel so undeserving of that kind of love, but believe you me, I am not going to refuse it.

3. Laughter. Same same but different. Every place in the world. In the corn fields in Malawi, the streets of Cambodia, the mountains of Colorado. Family loyalty and laughter seem to me to be the two great ties that bind us as human beings.

In Bali, Jimmy and I accidentally attended a “Laughing Yoga” class, taught by the Laughing Yoga Man, as he called himself. Claiming that because laughter has a zillion health benefits, but the body doesn’t know – or care – the reasons why we laugh, that we should incorporate laughter as part of our daily exercise.

Now let me tell you, I thought this was totally hokey. And a little funny too (but not funny enough to laugh at). But because this trip has already caused me to try all kinds of weird things I would never normally do, I went with it. First off, we started laughing in a fake kind of way, exactly like you’d imagine people trying to act like they were laughing. Totally goofy. But within about 30 seconds, the scene was so bizarre that I started cracking up at the absurdity of it. And then I really went off. I laughed and laughed until my eyes watered. And afterwards, I felt really good. Jimmy liked it too, so we have been practicing – walking around town, while riding a motorbike around the island. Ha ha ha! Ha ha ha ha ha! Laughter: It’s not just for good jokes anymore.

4.Running. After my forced rest from running, I promised myself that I would rediscover this activity with patience, trust, and a lack of determination. Lack of determination is not my strong suit, but I have this sense that the Buddhist monks are onto something – even if I can’t really understand it – with their “no striving” ideal. So far it has been wonderful. Every run back from injury (and there haven’t been many – see the “lack of determination” un-goal) has felt like a gift. I just sit there and swoon in happiness for a little bit every time I finish. It might be endorphins, but if so that’s ok. I have no problem with having a nuero-chemical reaction on my Top 5 Thanksgiving list.

5. Learning to be in the world. I am not sure anyone knows how to do this right, but I am so thankful to get the chance to try. The radius of my world is blissfully wide, I know. I feel invariably challenged, hopeful and scared about the responsibility and opportunity that breadth brings. To learn, and to try to find some way to make a gift to the world. I have always been a seeker, and a bit of a frenetic one. But more and more, I feel I am seeking less hard and perhaps, ironically, finding more answers. As Mary Oliver asks in her poem, “The Summer Day,” which has always had a power to crush me to my knees, “What is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” And while I may be no closer at articulating the answer than I was when I emerged 39 years ago, I sure as heck am thankful that today I still have the opportunity to try.

The Summer Day

Mary Oliver

Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean-
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down-
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.
I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down into the grass,
how to kneel down in the grass, how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!


14. November 2012 · Comments Off · Categories: Uncategorized

It’s 3:30am, and I am lying on the dirt somewhere on a trail on Mount Agung far above Bali. Jimmy is snoring, and so is Pudu. We have been lying this way for maybe an hour. The wind through the darkness comes in spurts; I know the leaves are moving because I see the stars shift places in the sky through the leaves. Then the night goes silent again.

People talk about deafening silence, but I have never known what they mean until now. Laying here, shivering in the cold (despite two shirts, a jacket and long socks), the silence is so still that I can’t hear anything. My ears are ringing, and I can only guess that they are filling in for the sound of nothing. The occasional wind – and snoring – are the only noises I can identify. No bird-calls, no mosquito buzzes, no nothing. Just absolute quiet.

We started walking this trail at 11:30pm. We had hired a guide, Pudu, to take us up to the top of Mount Agung, Bali’s holiest – and highest – mountain. The walk, we had heard, was steep and arduous, but we were advised it was worth it to be at the top for sunrise. There, weather willing, we could look all the way across Bali – and, if lucky, other islands in the Indonesian archipelago.

Mt Agung (Photo source http://cipura-info.blogspot.com/2011/07/mount-agung.html )

Pudu has been walking this trail for 13 years. His most recent trip had been two nights earlier, he said, where he had led a group of 60-70 year old Japanese men who had taken nearly 12 hours to reach the summit. The average climb takes 5-7 hours, which demands a midnight start, since the sun rises a bit before 6am.

This was my first nighttime hike, and I was a bit creeped out by the idea, especially treading as we were on Bali’s most revered place. Malawi is the only other country I have ever been where there is a climb-able sacred mountain inhabited by spirits. And in Malawi, no person in their right mind would climb Sapitwa’s peak in the dark. Everyone – locals and azungu alike – knows the myriad stories of climbers (especially foreigners) disappearing mysteriously under strange circumstances. Once you hear the details, it’s hard to roundly scoff at the idea of strange forces afoot. I won’t go into the details here, but suffice it to say, I wasn’t too keen on tempting a similar fate on Mount Agung.

Nevertheless, once we started walking, I was surprised at how natural it felt. There was nothing to see but the moving hole of light created by my headlamp, and the sense of darkness all around. I found it strangely meditative to move in this way. No distractions, no stimuli. Just breath and silence.

After about two hours walking, at 7500ft of elevation according to my Garmin, Pudu stopped and said he was worried. We had started at about 3800ft and we would summit the volcano crater rim at just over 10,000ft. Not very high, but high enough to be quite cold and windy at night. We were moving far too quickly, he said. At this pace, we would reach the summit in less than four hours, two hours before sunrise.

Jimmy and Pudu settling down for a nap.

So he proposed a nap. Which is how I found myself lying on the dirt in the black night, with snoring men just above and beside me. Eventually, I got so cold I had to start walking up and down the trail to keep warm. Jimmy woke up and joined me for a stay-warm-dance party, which included belting out YMCA and The Hustle while boogeying down next to a fallen tree. Finally, Pudu woke up (how he chose to pass on our dance party I cannot know – certainly the musical choices can’t be faulted) and we started walking again. It was 4am.

At about 5am, a little light appeared in the sky, and we passed a temple where guides and other walkers on pilgrimages stop to offer prayers to the mountain. From here, the trail begins to climb over lava rock, much of it laid down during the volcano’s last violent eruption in 1963. If the climb up to this point had been stair-steep, now it became a ladder. Sometimes we stopped every 20 steps or so to get a breath.

Yep. Up.

About 15 minutes above the temple, with the light in the sky, we could see the top of the crater rim. We headed straight up at what felt like – and turned out to be – about a 45-degree angle slope to the top over hardened lava. The trail had disappeared. Clouds were rolling in quickly from the east, obscuring the sunrise and the view below, but behind us was an amazing view of Bali – Mount Batur (where we had mountain biked the week before) to the ocean, punctuated by stunning green valleys of tropical trees, plants and rice fields. The view was mind-blowing, and humbling as all get-out.

Mt Batur from the top of the Mount Agung crater

Kudu was right – it was cold at the summit, and scarily windy, and after a quick breakfast of hard-boiled eggs, Pocari Sweat (Indonesia’s tasty answer to Gatorade), and chocolate-filled bread eaten inside a lava field crevasse, we started the arduous way back down. I was amazed to check my Garmin and discover that we had walked less than 4 miles in over 6000 feet to the top. (As a comparison, Pikes Peak climbs about 7500 ft in 13 miles – which is steep enough, with an average 11% grade.) This made the trek back down much harder than the climb up. On the steepest, rockiest sections, my Nike Frees gave me just about enough traction to squat down and simply slide straight down the trail without careening forward onto my face. About twelve times, my feet simply slipped out from underneath me, and I became ever so thankful for well-placed roots and branches that served as handholds.

Pura Besakih

We finished our walk with more than 250 stairs that led down to Pura Besakih, the most famous temple in Bali, sitting as it does at the foot of Mount Agung. In the early morning light (it was only 8:30am by this time), the many pagodas and gates of the temple were stunning. Our guide gave us an abbreviated history lesson about the temple, and I smiled and nodded and tried to not fall over in happy exhaustion.

Then I drank a beer. Jimmy and Kudu drank cokes. And as we parted ways, I think it’s safe to say that we all counted our many blessings.

Is that holy water in your hand there, Hayes?

08. November 2012 · Comments Off · Categories: Uncategorized

Note: I started writing this post to share with you about the beautiful mornings I have spent walking and (recently) jogging in the Bali countryside over the past week or two. I also wanted to share about the insanely exhilarating run we did with the Bali Hash House Harriers and our trek up Mount Agung. But as I started I realized that I couldn’t explain how much I have enjoyed these adventures without a bit of insight into my mental and emotional state, especially towards running. So this is “Part 1” of a series, with more travel-related (and less lamenting) offerings to follow.   

About two weeks before we left for Southeast Asia, I injured my right calf during a run in the Virginia mountains. I had gone to the Shenandoahs for a few days – seeking a change of scenery from DC and trying to temper a bit of nostalgia for a magnificent summer in Colorado that had recently come to an end. During a 10-miler on rocky, hilly Old Rag trail, I got a sudden, spasmodic calf cramp, the type I hadn’t felt since the marathon in March. I limped the 5 miles to the car and then headed straight to IHOP to ease the pain.

Rocky trails at Old Rag

I was really upset about this injury. Like, probably overly so. While this year has been anything but short of adventure and fun, one ongoing frustration I have struggled with has been my relatively disappointing performance in racing, particularly triathlons. After a really exciting 2011 in my individual Wide World of Sports, where I watched myself get steadily stronger and faster, I had expected to reach the next level in 2012, which would have taken me to a breakthrough level of fitness that I have never before seen.

So in early 2012, I set my race schedule, and benchmark improvement goals for the bike and the run (swimming, alas, is a lost cause). With no office job after March to eat up most of my day, beautiful locales that would be perfect for training, and a race schedule that included half-ironman and ironman distance races in California, Idaho, and Maryland, I figured my goals – which included a sub-3:25 in a March marathon, a 10:45 in Ironman Coeur d’Alene, and a sub-5:50 finish at Savageman – were not only realistic, but probably a given.

But as the training and racing wore on from January through September, things didn’t quite go as I had planned. Despite all the fantastic locations and fun we were having, my body was tired, and I had a hard time staying motivated when it came time for long rides and runs. I was constantly sore, but didn’t feel I could “afford” time off. I made a lot of rookie training mistakes, focused as I was on my goals. I was also trying to follow a fairly rigid training schedule, but – as it turned out – for me, my office job actually had supported that kind of training better than my new wayfaring lifestyle.

Training in Colorado this summer.

In the end, my racing results were….well, they were just okay. Not catastrophic, but nowhere near my expectations. I got debilitating cramps during my March marathon and finished in 3:29. After a surprisingly good finish at Wildflower Triathlon in California, I had a disappointing Ironman Coeur d’Alene, dragging in nearly an hour slower than my goal time. At the Savageman half-ironman, I fought a severe mental battle, nearly quitting halfway through the run and limping home to the finish line 15 minutes slower than the year before.

I share these thoughts not to belly-ache. I am absolutely aware not only that I have absolutely nothing to complain about (look at my life and the amazing people in it), but also that these results are nothing to scoff at. Lots and lots of fit people would be thrilled to run a sub-3:30 marathon, or to finish a really tough ironman in 11:35. I should be too.

What I am trying to communicate is the context for my frame of mind – rational, justified or not – when I got injured in September. Instead of seeing this upcoming trip to SE Asia as a thoughtful person would – a gift of time in a new place to reassess, rest and re-evaluate – I instead become a crazy person.

I started scouring websites for adventure races and ultra-runs in SE Asia. I began plotting races on a calendar in Thailand, and tried (without success) to talk Jimmy into a 3-day footrace in Cambodia. I was fixated on running a 100-miler in Hong Kong in January. The ostensible reason for this was that I had rediscovered my love of trail running this summer in Colorado, which was true. Spending time out on the trails alone, with just the sound of my own breathing and footfalls, had inspired me indeed. But the reality was a little more complicated. I was fed up with what I saw as my body and my mind’s unwillingness to cooperate the way I wanted them to, and I was looking for some sort of vindication, or perhaps simply a distraction, from that.

So after I got injured in the mountains and buried my sorrows in a pile of strawberry-and-whipped-cream pancakes, I returned to DC and did what any crazy person would do. I ran 16 miles that weekend with my brother Danny and a couple of other friends. The next week, I ran three days in a row – something I hadn’t done for months. Predictably, a week later as I set out for what I planned as an 18-mile long run (Hong Kong, you know!) bam! Two miles in – the calf cramp happens again.

Determination in the face of injury.

And yet, I was not to be deterred. That very day, I got on the elliptical trainer to “finish” my run. And the next day, and the next – despite the fact that I was struggling to walk without a limp. Then two hours before we left to fly from Dulles to Singapore, the motherboard on our computer fried. We decided to try to replace it by stopping into BestBuy on the way to the airport. It was pouring down rain, and as we left I ran from the door to the car, straining the calf muscle even more severely.

Forced rest on the airplane ensued. We arrived in Singapore, and I decided to be prudent. I did an 8-mile walk one day, and 6 miles the next day. Only. I went to yoga twice. I felt extremely proud of myself – and restrained.

We headed to Bali. A week into the trip now, and I decided it was time to try a run on the beach: one minute walk, one minute run. I made it 14 minutes before I felt a slight twinge. I sulk back to the bungalow. Jimmy gave me a sympathetic looks, then told me to cut it out and relax. (Jimmy is VERY good at relaxing.) I realize he’s right and agree. For a day I drink daiquiris by the pool.

The next day, I couldn’t stand the pace of life so I went to the gym. I took it easy; I do the elliptical for 20 minutes and then do my glute and core exercises. I felt proud of myself once again

I walk down the stairs out of the gym. On the last step, I feel a massive shooting pain in my right calf. I think I actually heard a “pop!” but I am not positive because louder than that I heard a voice in my head at that very moment. It said, ever so clearly, “This is NOT a suggestion.”

That step was a turning point. After I said a lot of cursewords, I finally realized that I have been given this great opportunity to use this trip as a gift to look around. At myself and the world around me. At my relationship to the things and people that give my life meaning.

Doing my best imitation of a person relaxed and resting.

This journey has always been about more than fitness, or sports, or even adventure. But those are all things that form an important part of my identity, so it makes sense that it takes a disruption of my normal pace to force me to try something new. Like slowing down. Like walking, before I run.


30. October 2012 · Comments Off · Categories: Uncategorized

On Saturday, we took a mountain biking trip to Mount Batur. Mount Batur is an active volcano in the northeast part of the island. Before we hired a guide, we went back and forth about whether we should or not. Would it be worth it? Couldn’t we just do it on our own? In retrospect, that all seems laughable.

Although I like to think we can find stuff on our own, I don’t think there is any chance we could have figured out how to get to where we started this ride.  It was about an hour drive from where we are staying in Ubud, almost all of it uphill on roads with crazy motorcycle and scooter drivers passing cars and trucks on blind corners. We began our ride around the backside of the rim of the caldera that surrounds Mt. Batur.  Once we started we had about 2 km of riding on pavement, then single track and dusty jeep trail the rest of the ride.

Pretty typical of the Mount Batur trails.

Most of the trails we rode were either steep uphill or steep downhill.  An occasional flat spot, but not too many of those.  It is the end of the dry season in Bali so the tracks are really dusty. Wayan, our guide, told us that the trail would be dusty in places so we should keep space between us, but after riding on this type of trail for a while I wasn’t ready for spots on the trail that had 6 inches or more of sand and fine dust. The first time we hit one of those spots I was right behind Wayan and I got totally enveloped in a cloud of brown dust. Most of the worst dust was on really steep downhills where it would hide the deep holes in the trail. But if you got off your bike you’d have to wade through the dust so it was better to stay on.

After a bit more uphill we ended up on a narrow ridge.  One side was big views of the volcano and the valley that it sits in, the other side was views of the north coast of Bali, and the long steep 5 km downhill to get there.  Mt. Batur volcano sits in the middle of a valley and we were up on the ridge left over from where the bigger volcano either collapsed or exploded.  Part of the valley is filled in by a bright green lake which we could see from here.  The trail we took goes along the ridge for a while then pretty much straight downhill into the valley.

Gunug/Mount Batur and Lake Batur in the background.

After a fun and sometimes scary downhill mixed with the occasional steep (really steep) uphill, we came around a corner and found our picnic lunch already laid out for us.  Wayan said it usually takes a few hours to get from the place we started to the lunch stop, on the top of a hill above a quarry, but we made it in around an hour. It made for an early lunch, but gave us time to catch our breath before we went down ‘Lung Buster’ hill, which was a 1.7 km downhill at probably 20% grade on pavement or dirt covered in deep piles of dust and sand. Of course we tried to ride back up the hill once we made it to the bottom, but after 3 or 4 minutes even we were defeated.

Lunch break

Once we made it to the bottom of the valley we rode around through fields of tomatoes, pumpkins, lettuce, and even the occasional coffee bushes.  The trail was sometimes okay, but lots of it was deep sand and dust.  We would try to make it though the sandy stretches as best we could, but only our guide Wayan made it through most of them on the bike.   In the midst of all the fields we came past a big village temple.  There were three big gates facing the track we were riding on, each one had a pair of statues and a fancy painted door.   All the temple carvings and walls are made from rock from the volcano.

Dirty wanderers at the temple.

After circling Mt Batur volcano most of the ride, we ended our ride on this track that goes through the lava fields.  The volcanic rock looks fairly new and there are almost no plants growing in it, although there are a good number of small shrines like the one we are standing in front of.  We rode for about 5 km through the lava field on this track.  It started out seeming pretty easy, but after all the single track and the uphills and downhills the bumpy surface took it out of us.

Hot lava!

We were covered in dirt by the time we got to our ride waiting for us near the lake.  Our shoes were filled with dust, and the rest of us was covered in a not so fine layer of dirt and mud.  Wayan found a good place for this “MTB Bali” sign.

Yeah. It’s dirty.