Monthly Archives: November 2012

Thanksgiving: Janie’s Top Five from Phnom Penh

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!


4am Dance Party, and Other Wonders of Climbing Mount Agung

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 )

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?

“This Is Not a Suggestion”: How Being Injured Made Me Crazy, Then Sane

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.