Monday, January 23, 2012

Travel and Training -- Cape Town, Paris, Kampala, Jo'berg

I joined Team Z in September last year and got all excited about structured workouts, ironically just in time for an extremely hectic travel schedule. In the space of a month and a half I made three long distance international trips, first to South Africa, then to France, and finally to Uganda and South Africa together. I managed to fit workouts into my hectic schedule and it turned out to be not that bad at all! Here are some fun tales...
Bathtub Laps and Climbing Coastal Mountains in Cape Town
Cape Town is a stunningly beautiful city, reminds me a lot of Rio -- coastal town, great beaches, nice mountains within city limits, great food, good people. It also happens to be where the University of Cape Town (UCT) is located with whom I am doing a lot of my research. So I do find myself in Cape Town quite often and I don't mind it one bit!

Combining triathlon training with this work trip was not that big of an issue as cycling is huge in Cape Town and the routes and views are gorgeous (there is a reason why Cape Argus is one of the world's premier cycling events). Plus my work counterparts at UCT happen to be great athletes, one of whom ran Boston in under 3 hours.

So the cycling and running was well covered, not so much the swimming. I was staying in a hotel which had this bathtub... err pool to offer:    
Suds anyone?
 I believe it was at most 15 meters in length. My workouts that week called for 500 meter repeats so I got in a lot of push off practice!

On the weekend after a really late night out with friends, I woke up early to receive my rental bike and a ride to Houts Bay where I was going to start my ride. I had already biked to Cape Point (Southern most tip of Africa) on a previous trip so this time I was going to bike through some wine country and climb some nice hills including the famous Chapman's Peak.

The funny thing is as I was heading out of the hotel in my bike shorts, cleats, and helmet, a bunch of my work colleagues (the non-athletic ones) were getting ready to board a tour bus for a guided romp around the city. Now every person has a quirk or two and my big quirk is that I absolutely hate organized tours -- I would have to be beaten and shackled before I ever board a tour bus. The freedom I get from exploring on my own, getting lost, and finding my way is priceless. I simply do not understand why people volunteer to be herded like cattle... ughh!

So after feeling sorry for my colleagues, I got dropped off at Houts Bay with my bike and a map. I brought my Garmin along this time in order to keep my HR in check and stay in low zones on climbs.

The views were magnificent. Here are some of the pictures I took but they do very little justice:

This picture taken right from the road. Stunning beach!
The long winding climb up Chapman's Peak
I could get used to this view
Self portrait
I didn't see any but whales can often be spotted from here
While descending Chapman's peak, I hit a big pothole and my garmin went flying. Unfortunately it never worked again, but I got a replacement under warranty (since the bike mount failed). The ride continues further North into the city center
Running the Paris Monuments (and some unbridled revelry afterwards)
One of the key advantages of being a pseudo-academic is that I get to travel to some fairly nice conference locations. This particular one was in Nantes, a cozy and quaint fishing town in Western France. The conference and the crowd turned out to be a lot more fun than I expected and a subset of us found and spent an inordinate amount of time at a salsa club that night after the conference. 

Of course, I tacked on an extra day to my trip to spend in one my favorite cities in the world, Paris. One of my good work friends, Mattea, had just moved to Paris to start her Ph.D. at the Paris School of Economics and I was excited to go hang out with her.

The TGV gets you to Paris in a jiffy and Mattea and I were planning to meet in the afternoon and my grand plan for the morning was to do my weekend long ride on a Velib. Unfortunately, that plan failed miserably as the bike kiosk refused to accept any of my credit cards, even my uber fancy World Bank issued diners mastercard.

Désolé, mais je n'accepte pas les cartes de crédit américaines
  Not to be outdone, I decided to lace up my running shoes and do a long run instead. So off I went from L'Arc de Triomphe circumnavigating the city's iconic monuments. First, I ran East towards Montparnasse  and the famous Basilica Sacre Coeur. Along the way, I bumped into the following

And its more attractive neighbor!

Next up was some serious hill climbing all the way up to the Basilica.

Time for quads to work -- this is much steeper than it looks
But this view is the reward!
Didn't spend a whole lot of time there as all the tour operators and their blind cattle made me want to puke. But the views of the city were nice and this guy was playing one heck of a harp:

A bit hazy but you can see most of Paris from here

 After a swift descent onto the main streets, I flew past some Oriental neighborhoods towards the Seine. Finally got around to taking this picture next to the Louvre...

and then eyed my destination...

Finally made it to the tower and soaked in the beautiful Fall day!

My Paris run -- About 10 miles

No run can be complete without a recovery drink and I managed to find a French version of chocolate milk

Grabbed a quick lunch and headed out to meet Mattea for a fun evening. We walked around town, stopping in to grab some yummy macaron at Laduree and checking out some books at Shakespeare and Co. A sumptuous dinner and wine was followed by some late night revelry that lasted till about 5AM or so. Just in time for me to get in a cab and head to the airport for the flight back home!

This place has the best macarons. Period.

Thanks Mattea for a great evening!

Sleepless Treadmill Intervals in Kampala
Kampala is a great city but for some reason I'm never able to sleep very well while I'm there. The hotel I was staying in had a nice pool so swim workouts went pretty well, though the kids splashing all around me kept wondering what in the world I was doing swimming laps.

The lack of sleep and long work hours caught up to me one night and I wanted nothing to do with a treadmill, let alone intervals on a treadmill. I had woken up at 4AM and worked through till 10PM. I was wiped out and ready to collapse. As luck would have it, my beloved coach Ed Zerkle chose this very day to send out one of his signature motivational emails. Here are some key excerpts:

- "I see some of you working your tails off! Some of you, not so much…"
- "Remind yourself what your goals are and why you joined this team in the first place..."
- "Our biggest risk for the holiday season is that folks take time off, or continue to train but do so blindly without much focus."
- "There is no off season in our sport." 
- "Unfocused training over the winter... will come back to haunt you."
- "Get out there - and have some fun."

Ughh.. Off to the gym I went and knocked off treadmill intervals at 10:30PM going on 3 hours of sleep. On the bright side I did sleep quite well that night! 

Long Run and Food Poisoning in Jo'Berg (in that order)
Given that I have four projects running in South Africa, I was back there barely a month after my Cape Town visit, but this time just to Jo'berg. After a blitz of non-stop meetings over three days, I finally had some free time over the weekend to look forward to. One of my RAs, Meg (also a runner) volunteered to run with me on Saturday so we set out at a local park for a nice 10 mile run.

For some reason I didn't realize that Jo'berg is at significant elevation, 5,000+ feet above sea level, so the 10 miles were considerably harder than they should have been. But Meg was great company and she told me all about her athletic exploits with her dad growing up. This was perfect conversation as I'd like to nurture a similar outdoors oriented relationship with my daughter as she grows older.

Run in (and all around) the park
Over dinner we planned an ambitious mountain bike adventure for the next day and I was totally psyched about it. The problem arose over the course of the night, however, when my stomach completed revolted against dinner and I ended up spending the night next to the toilet and most of the next day in a state of absolute nausea. Normally my stomach is pretty resilient (and boy I have eaten some iffy things!) but  I guess my luck ran out.

The best part of the whole ordeal was that I had to board a plan that night, but the anti nausea medication knocked me out completely and I slept all the way home..

Overall, these trips confirmed to me that work travel and training are indeed compatible and combining the two can be a lot of fun!

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Random travel rant -- headlights!

I get to travel a lot for my work, almost entirely in developing countries and its really interesting to observe differences in living environments, cultures, and customs. At the same time, there are a few things that one expects to be somewhat consistent across settings such as norms for formal greetings, clothing (i.e. people wear them), etc.

Driving norms ain't one of them!

Here I want to pick on one aspect of driving: the (mis)use of vehicle headlights. Normally designed to facilitate vision at night, headlights take on numerous additional roles in developing countries. Here are just a few:

- Size and functionality of headlights is strongly and inversely correlated with the size of vehicle. What looks like a small scooter in the distance invariably is a large tractor trolley with a bulging load and one (weakly) functioning headlight.

- Scooters and motorcycles, in contrast, are fashionably adorned with flashing gadgets and Hollywood inspired signs that would put Kit to shame.

- Rickshaws typically don't need headlights (and many don't have them) as you can hear them well before you see them. Speed of sound is clearly faster than speed of light in this case.

- At home the unwritten rule of high beams is that we can use them to signal other drivers, for example to allow them to turn when its your right of way, etc. In contrast, the fairly explicit rule in developing countries is that high beams can and should be used as a tool of direct intimidation. If someone is trying to overtake in front of you, the best thing you can do is to blind them with your high beams! 

- Vehicle horns (some with catchy melodies) are a direct substitute for headlights. For some reason, they rarely malfunction.

Frequent travelers who read this blog, feel free to add your own bullet points below

Saturday, January 14, 2012

All systems go... well almost!

My transformation into a triathlete is almost complete:

Nutrition dialed in... CHECK

Speed Demon acquired... CHECK

Accomplices hired... CHECK

Recovery protocols set... CHECK

Cheerleader sufficiently bribed with chocolate... CHECK

Engine fine-tuned... STILL PENDING!

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Economists and policy makers have a new calling...

...and that can be succinctly summarized by this notice put up by a frustrated World Bank employee (not me) in the men's locker room at work where the showers are perpetually broken:

 So the calling is simple: fix the world economy or forever remain stinky!

I think this is the perfect strategy to get us out of recession :)

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Bittersweet Return to Racing

After two years away from racing and one and half year of not being able to run at all because of my knee, I lined up for my first post-surgery road race yesterday, Dec 31, 2011, the Pacers Fairfax 4 miler. I ran together with Evan and Adela from Team Z and we met some other Z'ers out there too.

I really didnt know what to expect and what my body was capable of. Just a few months back I was lying in a hospital bed, unconcious, having my knee surgically repaired from years of abuse. Back then if you had asked me if I would be running by December, let alone racing, I would have laughed in your face.

So at one level I felt incredibly lucky just to be able to run again so soon, but at another my competitive spirit wanted me not only to run but to run fast. In hindsight, this strategy was rigged for failure. I only started running again without a mental block about me knee in mid-November or so, and most of my workouts have been slow endurance building runs. I have been doing some speedwork but thats a huge work in progress.

So it came as no surprise that I didn't run fast. In fact, my average pace of 7:58 for the four miler was slower than my previous marathon pace!

Maybe it was the 8 miles I ran in the morning, maybe it was the hilly course, maybe it was the blisters on my feet that I was nursing, maybe it was the killer strenght circuits I had done the previous day, but then again 7:58 is really slow for a 4 mile race.

Let me provide a little background. I used to be a fast runner, with a respectable 3:10 marathon PR. Back in the day, I was also super fit from hiking and mountaineering and doing crazy debilitation and peak-bagging treks involving thousands of feet of non-stop mountain climbing in unfavorable conditions (see here and here for some examples of what I call fun trips). So, basically I had quads of steel and could hold a high HR threshold for hours.

But years of doing the above and not training systematically led to cartilage damage in my left knee. I stupidly ignored many of the warning signs early on and kept running through the pain and swelling. It caught up to me eventually and stopped me literally dead in my tracks. I was out on a training run in Rock Creek park one day and thats basically when my knee said it had enough. I couldnt even walk. I had to call a friend to come pick me up and bring me home. That was about 2 years ago!

Months of physical therapy, surgery, and post-surgery recovery followed. Prior to stepping on a treadmill in September 2011, I had not run even 50 meters for about 18 months.

Fast forward to present day, I am really glad that I am an eternal optimist. Being able to run and race again pain free is the take-away victory for me from this race. I want to be a fast runner again and I am very competitive, so if anything, this bittersweet return to racing will fuel my drive to train harder and to train my high-end speed more rigorously. I hope to lean on Team Z coaches and teammates for guidance and support along the way!