Lucky Number Thirteen

I laughed to myself when I realized I’d be toeing the line of my thirteenth half marathon this weekend.  I laughed because I still can’t believe that distance running is a thing that I do, better yet, a thing that I enjoy.  In the moments following every finish line, I usually find myself wondering, “How did I pull this one off?”

Every race is challenging- some physically, some mentally, but many both.  Completing thirteen half marathons in the past four years and all of the training in between has unknowingly taught me a lot, specifically about enduring, persevering, adapting, and the importance of hard work.  It has also taught me how to effectively pop blisters, another valuable life skill.

Running certainly wasn’t easy at first, but now I feel free when I hit the road, and every worry on my mind, no matter the size, is kicked to the curb.  Running provides a window of opportunity to think, and better yet, time to not think.

During that window of time, it doesn’t matter that people haven’t answered your text messages, that you haven’t landed a job yet (keyword: yet), or even an interview for that matter, or that you didn’t write as many words for your dissertation today as you would have liked.  Sure, some of those worries slap you in the face when you stop your Garmin and slip off your sneakers, but for a brief moment in time, the worries, annoyances, and frustrations of the day cease.

Thirteen half marathons calls for a lot of training.  I’ve learned how to pass the miles in a variety of ways.  I’ve spent many a mile making pro-con lists about big decisions, thinking about lesson plans, chatting with friends, answering the occasional phone call, making up funny stories about people I pass on the street, and belting out the Hamilton soundtrack from start to finish (yes, runs can last that long).  I’ve spent many miles not thinking at all, laughing at the stories told by Amy Poehler, Tina Fey, and Rachel Dratch in their audiobooks, feeling like part of the action while trail running to the Hunger Games, absolutely jamming out to the Spice Girls, enjoying pure silence, and sometimes all I can focus on is the pounding of my rough-day elephant feet on the pavement.

No matter what I’m doing from mile to mile, it always ends up being enjoyable.  Sometimes the miles feel less than great, or the pace is frustratingly off what I know I’m capable of, but other days the miles feel fantastic and every step is effortless.

This weekend I crossed the finish line of the Skye Half Marathon with a new PR and asking the ever-burning question of, “How did I pull this one off?”  The (very) hilly course and pouring rain perfectly matched the dramatic landscape of Skye and made for an incredible race.  Most of the spectators were sheep, and there were plenty of friendly runners to keep morale high throughout the race.  The course didn’t mess around, as the first incline began right out of the gate, through the first mile, and continued to roll until another long and steady incline in the eighth mile.  From there it was uphill and into the wind through mile ten where the course then made way for a mostly downhill finish.  The final three miles were a mental challenge, but I caught that train and finished with a burst of speed and my head held high.

In amazement of pulling off another race, I was handed a local beer and medal for my efforts, which is the perfect ending to any race story, but only the beginning of a wonderful weekend touring the Isle of Skye.  The jaw-dropping landscape of Skye was unlike anything I had ever seen before, and made a post-race hike impossible to pass up, beating the tired legs into submission. One of my favorite destinations throughout my year of Scottish travels, I definitely recommend a visit.

Thank You Notes

  • Thank you to maple syrup for being excellent mid-race fuel.
  • Thank you to the group of nice gentlemen I spent the weekend with (many of whom were running their first ever half!!) for letting me crash their Skye Adventure.  Kudos on a race well run!
  • Thank you to my Sister/Best Friend for coming to visit last month.  I miss you tons, come back please.
  • Than you to my laptop for holding its own in its old age as we near the finish line of the Master’s degree.  Please keep it up.

How to Satisfy Wanderlust at 23

This post is part III of III in a series about a Spring Break Adventure and Frugal Travel.  (Click here for part I and part II)

People often ask me how I travel so much.  The answer is very simple: work, save, travel, repeat.  I certainly didn’t work 14 hour days at camp or bus tables until midnight for nothing.  I prioritized, planned, and saved to travel, and haven’t looked back.  A couple of weeks ago I was sitting on top of a mountain in the Arctic Circle watching the sunset in the distance, and thought back to a night this time last year where I was working late, scrubbing guacamole and congealed nacho cheese off a table at a local restaurant in the Boston neighborhood I used to call home.  Suddenly it was worth it.

It takes a lot of careful planning and research, but traveling, and traveling well, in your twenties is possible.  You do need to be willing to spend money, but there are plenty of ways to see the world on a budget, which is why doing your research is so important.

Because people often ask about my “big secret” to traveling so much, I’ve compiled a list of ways to see the world like a local and on a budget:

  • Go to school abroad-  If you have to go to school to progress in your career path, go abroad.  There are plenty of programs ranging from two weeks, to one semester, to one year, to entire degrees at universities abroad (fear not, most schools accept FAFSA).  There isn’t a major you could study that can’t benefit from an academic experience abroad.  Don’t use your credits or lab requirements as an excuse.  It’s always possible.  The great thing about going to a foreign university is that you get to experience a new academic system, new culture, and sometimes a new language.  Also, your host university is probably a lot closer to all the action than your home university, so it’s quick and easy to escape to Budapest for a long weekend if you’d like and still be on time for class the next morning.
  • Look for flight deals and one-ways-  Looking at flights can be overwhelming when there are so many different websites offering the “lowest fare.”  My starting point is always Google Flights because it is a very simple platform without crazy popup ads.  Europe has plenty of “budget” airlines that offer cheaper than cheap airfare around the continent.  Some of the airlines have even ventured to North America.  If you don’t mind no-frills traveling, you can go transatlantic for under $200, provided you supply your own food, water, and entertainment for the journey.  My other recommendation when it comes to flying with budget airlines is to travel only with a carry-on.  The tickets are so cheap because they usually charge an arm and a leg to check bags (this isn’t true for all budget carriers though), so invest in a good sized backpack and test its limits with how much you can stuff inside.
  • Hostels-  Staying in hostels is a fantastic way to travel cheaply and meet people from all over the world.  I’ve hardly ever paid more than $10/night to stay in a hostel and have had a wide range of experiences.  I’ve met some incredible people, taken some horrible showers, and learned how to adequately stuff a duvet in the dark from the top bunk.  At the end of the day, it’s part of the adventure, a place to sleep, and store your backpack.  The exciting thing about hostels is that you literally never know what you’re going to get.  Some have breakfast and towels included in the price, others offer pub crawls, walking tours, and bikes for hire.  I recently stayed in a hostel in Tallinn that offered free “Welcome Beer”.  Always be sure to check out the reviews before booking, and make location a top priority if you’re traveling solo.
  • Cook In-  Another great accommodation alternative is Airbnb.  You can usually rent an entire flat or a room in a flat right in the heart of town!  I pretty much stayed in a hallway in Tromsø, but it couldn’t have been more perfect.  I also know someone who’s Airbnb ended up being a beanbag chair, so be sure to read reviews before booking.  The great thing about staying in an Airbnb is that you have access to a kitchen, which means you can save money by cooking instead of eating out.  Some people think this defeats the purpose of traveling and exploring local cuisine, but I tend to disagree.  Have you ever grocery shopped in a foreign language?  Still not convinced?  Check out this article.
  • Public Transit-  Did you know that public transportation in Estonia is free for all citizens?  Or that Budapest has the second oldest metro system in the world?  I adore public transportation so much that I have an evolving rank of cities with the best.  Taking public transportation to and from the airport and around town is the best way to see a city like a local.  It can be challenging at times because every city has its own norms when it comes to purchasing and validating tickets, but it’s often a fun challenge.  My other favorite alternative is to walk everywhere.  It might take a little longer, but you never know what you’ll stumble upon.
  • Don’t Buy Water-  If the tap water is drinkable in the country you’re visiting, use it.  Don’t waste your hard-earned money on water, especially because it can be more cost effective to buy beer in many parts of Europe than to pay for water.
  • Free Walking Tours-  Free walking tours are a fantastic way to get your bearings in a new city.  Local guides work for tips and show you great spots around town to eat and drink like a local, point out places to avoid, and give a nice historical overview of the city.  Many cities offer free walking tours every day of the week.
  • Museums-  Check out which museums are free, the best ones usually are!  And many others offer great student discounts.
  • Over Night Transportation-  Traveling via an overnight train or bus tends to be cheaper and cuts out a night of accommodation costs.  Once you’ve accepted that you won’t get the greatest night’s sleep, you’ll warm up to the idea and also “wake up” in a new city to explore, so it’s worth it.  Sleep when you’re dead, right?
  • Student ID-  If you still have a student ID, use it and abuse it.  You can get into plenty of museums for free or for a discounted rate by flashing that fancy university card with a less than favorable old photo of yourself.  But the savings don’t stop there!  Train tickets, bus tickets, and meal deals galore!  Never be afraid to ask if a place offers a student discount, because they don’t always advertise it.
  • Bring a book and a journal-  I like to plan down time when I’m traveling because it can be easy to cram too much into one day when you’re exploring a new city.  To prevent burnout, I always bring a book and a journal for a little down time in a local café, park, or library.  This also comes in handy when you’ve already walked around in the rain for three hours and just want a little break and a pastry.

So, if you don’t mind a no-frills, shove-everything-in-your-backpack, sleep-on-a-train experience, then the world is your oyster!  Becoming a Citizen of the World at the age of 20 was one of the greatest decisions I have made thus far, which is low-key impressive for someone with a fear of flying to say.  With careful planning and research, traveling well in your twenties is manageable, and will shape your outlook on the world, teach you more than the classroom ever could, and present history from a new perspective.

Latvia & Estonia

This post is part II of III in a series about a Spring Break Adventure and Frugal Travel.  (Click here for part I and part III)

From the Arctic Circle, we headed over to the Baltic region for some Eastern European charm.  Latvia and Estonia have been at the top of my travel list for quite some time, and they did not disappoint.

The Baltic adventure started in Riga, the capital city of Latvia, where we explored its charming old town and devoured full-size yet bargain meals and local brews.  We even went on a night kayaking tour of the river and canals, which was great, but probably more of a summer activity.

My top recommendation for Riga, in terms of what to do while you’re there, is to go to the Museum of the Occupation of Latvia (entry: optional donation) and the Latvian War Museum (entry: free).  Both of these museums offer a fascinating insight into the tumultuous yet resilient history of Latvia and the Latvian people.

My top recommendation for Riga, in terms of where to eat while you’re there, is Folkklubs Ala Pagrabs, which is a delightful basement folk club with live music five nights a week, a delectable local menu, and an overwhelming assortment of beer on tap. I had the risotto, and, I don’t want to hype it up too much, but have since dreamed about it.  Another must try is Riga’s Black Balsam, a traditional Latvian herbal liqueur that boasts about 90 proof.

From Riga, we took a bus to Tallinn, Estonia’s capital city.  A UNESCO World Heritage site, the Old Town of Tallinn is a wonderfully preserved medieval city with an endless supply of charm and panoramic views of the Baltic Sea.  Ideally located, Tallinn is only a couple hours away from Helsinki by ferry, four hours drive to Riga, and five hours drive to St. Petersburg (insert notes for future trip here!).  Vana Tallinn, Estonia’s Black Balsam counterpart is a must-try.

Besides meandering Tallinn’s Old Town, I suggest exploring Kalamaja, Tallinn’s “hipster district.”  The Telliskivi creative city is an area of abandoned and renovated Soviet-era factories that now house local shops, galleries, cafes, and bars.  It’s just a short walk from the Old Town walls, but still off the beaten path.

The people in both Riga and Tallinn were friendly, welcoming, and always keen to recommend a local beer that went with whatever I happened to be eating that moment.  This was wonderful, although tricky as I returned to my training schedule this week.  My favorite thing to do in cities like these is to take advantage of free walking tours.  The local guides show you around, teach you the history of the town, and recommend great places to see and eat like a local.  Most cities offer free walking tours every day of the week, and it’s a great starting point to get your bearings when you arrive in a new city!

Click here to watch a video of the adventure!

Fjord Tours & Heated Floors: A Norwegian Adventure

This post is part I of III in a series about a Spring Break Adventure and Frugal Travel.  (Click here for part II and part III)

Since the birth of the World Happiness Report in 2012, Norway has consistently been ranked in the top four happiest countries in the world.  Perhaps it has something to do with their commitment to a healthy work-life balance, free access to childcare, eldercare, healthcare, and education at every level, or maybe it has to do with the generous maternity and paternity leave.  All of this comes with a hefty tax rate of course, but I’ve been doing a lot of reading on the Nordic region lately, and have found that most citizens don’t mind footing the bill because what they pay in taxes comes directly back to them and the betterment of society as an investment in their quality of life- individually and as a whole.  The government essentially takes the stress out of living so that you can actually live.  Many Americans have their qualms about this topic, and I recognize that no system is perfect, but I am going to recommend a good read that will answer every question you could possibly think of and then some, and get on to my Norwegian Adventure.

I could have brought some course reading with me for the journey, but in a quest for that healthy work-life balance, I left it all at home, picked up a pleasure reading book, and enjoyed the adventure.

The people of Norway were incredibly friendly and welcoming.  The public transport in Oslo was certainly in no short supply and helped us get to various museums around town.  We started at Holmenkollbakken, a ski jump that helped host the 1952 Winter Olympics as well as numerous other international skiing events through present day.  It was foggy when we got there, but we headed into the museum and then up the elevator and above the clouds to what I’m sure is normally a stunning view of Oslo.  The fog was nice too, though.  Next was the Viking Ship Museum, which was a fascinating look into the lives of Vikings.  The rest of the day was spent meandering through Oslo, admiring its interesting sculptures and strangely clean streets, until it was time to board the overnight train to Bergen.

Fresh off the train and a perfectly I-“slept”-on-a-train-last-night night’s sleep, Bergen gave a Scottish welcome- with fierce winds and rain, of course!  But the clouds opened up to reveal the stunning beauty that is Bergen.  Beautiful buildings, harbor, and hillside create a stunning backdrop for Norway’s second-largest city.  My favorite thing in Bergen was hiking Stoltzekleiven.  A hike made up mostly of stone steps, the trek was challenging, but the view at the top was worth it.  Once at the top, there is a lake and several well-marked trails.  We followed a trail that led to Fløyen, another popular viewpoint in Bergen and then followed the road back down into town.  While we walked over to Fløyen from the top of Stoltzekleiven, it is also accessible along a road or via funicular if you prefer to earn your views that way instead.  I don’t judge.

The next day we did a day trip that included a fjord tour and a ride along the famous Flåm Railway.  Because it rained so heavily while we were there, we saw hundreds of waterfalls cascading down from the mountains, which made the soggy trip to Bergen a bit more lovely.  I also learned my new favorite saying: “there is no such thing as bad weather, just bad clothing.”  The journey along the Flåm Railway was stunning.  The tracks traversed snow-capped mountains, passing isolated homes and jaw-dropping views along the way.

As our few days in Bergen came to an end, we flew up well into the Arctic Circle to Tromsø, otherwise known as the “Paris of the North”.  I’m still not sure that I understand the slogan, but the Arctic college town offers incredible mountain views, XC skiing trails galore, and  is home to the Northernmost Brewery in the World™!  (It’s actually not the northernmost brewery in the world anymore, but they trademarked the title while a microbrewery was being built on the Arctic island of Svalbard a few years back.)  We sadly did not see the Northern Lights, as the high season for viewing had just come to an end, but we saw a fair share of beautiful sunsets amongst the mountains, and that was pretty cool too.  We also went XC skiing one day, which is one of my favorite winter activities.  What I loved most about this experience is the culture and how much Norwegians love XC skiing.  It seemed like everybody on the island was out for a spring ski, just as one would take a leisurely stroll through a park.

Favorite thing about Norway: Heated floors.  Everywhere we stayed had heated bathroom floors and I did not realize how necessary this innovation is.

Least favorite thing about Norway: The prices.  Everything in Norway, especially eating out, is very expensive.  We traveling students couldn’t afjord (see what I did there?) it, so we cooked in for most meals.  But when we did eat out, the food was fresh and fantastic.  And cooking in gave us the opportunity to grocery shop in Norwegian, which is a fun game!

Click here to watch a video of the adventure!

Happy To Be Here

Running hasn’t been all that easy or enjoyable lately.  Since my slow and barefoot jaunt through Boston, a humid summer of training, a DNS in Berlin, and my first nagging overuse injury that kept me sidelined for a good six weeks around the holidays, logging miles has been a chore, and a painful one at times.  I’ve been struggling with my fitness lately, and it is very frustrating.

Before my six week hiatus from running (and a celebration through food and drink of the holidays and two beautiful weddings), I signed up for a few half marathons this spring that will lead into a full marathon come August.  Excited for a training season that takes me around Scotland, I also had some ambitious time goals.  These ambitious time goals, however, felt like they were being crushed with every painful step that I took in the month of December. That being said, I re-evaluated my goals while safely building the mileage back up.

I’m not very competitive when it comes to racing others, but I tend to get competitive with myself.  Coming back from injury, all of my training runs felt sluggish and I wasn’t seeing any improvement in my times.  So, while the competitive side of me had a generous number to beat going into the Inverness Half Marathon, I was also just happy to be standing at another start line and in a new city.

After a very Scottish bagpipe sendoff, my “In It To Finish” mindset and I began the 13.1 mile quest through the quaint city of Inverness.  The roads were narrow and the runners plentiful, which made the first few miles slow and tricky to navigate.  As the race progressed, I couldn’t believe how great I felt- legs strong, breathing easy, mental game on point.  The course was undulating, but not overly challenging, had excellent support along the way, a surplus of friendly runners, and my ideal running conditions of 50 degrees and cloudy.  About half way through the race the weather did a very Scottish thing- it started to pour.  This felt great and somehow helped me run faster and stronger.

The miles flew by and with about 5km left, I looked at my watch and accidentally did the math.  If I continued at this pace, I would finish under two hours and beat my longtime PR of 1:59:43.  I tried not to speed up so as not to burn out before the end, but, one foot in front of the other, I kept strong and chased the PR I’ve been trying to beat for over two years.

Much to my surprise, I finished the Inverness Half Marathon with a new personal record!  I started this race just happy to be there and healthy after six weeks off, and ended with a brand new PR!  This was exactly the race I needed to restore my confidence and jump start the upcoming marathon training season.

 

Thank You Notes

  • Thank you to five of my very best friends for coming to visit over the past couple of months.  I am so grateful that I got to share Scotland with you.
  • Thank you to “coaches” Rory and Craig for their hard work coaching Monday night track sessions.  It seems as though I’ve gotten a wee bit faster and caught that train!
  • Thank you to the Danish concept of Hygge for helping me maintain a proper work-life balance this semester.  I hope to continue practicing Hygge as I head into my professional career.
  • Thank you to Inverness for a wonderful weekend and break from schoolwork.  It was much needed!

There’s Something About the Mountain Air

Relaxing has never been a strength of mine.  Always balancing a tough course load, top-notch grades, part time jobs, and marathon training, I have never made relaxing a priority.  At the end of Fall semester last year, I realized you can’t pour from an empty cup and learned the importance of rest.  Simply learning the importance of rest, however, did not stop me from making the same mistakes the next semester.

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*Photo Credit: Pinterest 

Since starting graduate school, I have found myself with a lot of down time.  I realized this is not something I will have for very long, especially since my Master’s program is only one year and then I will be teaching full time, so I decided to take advantage of it.  Last week, I ventured back to Salzburg, the city that stole my heart, to breathe in the mountain air and learn how to relax.

I went to all of my favorite spots in town, saw my favorite views, ate my favorite foods, and took long strolls along the river. One day, I hiked Gaisberg, a 4,225 foot mountain with healing powers.  I spent a sunny day reading in the Mirabell Garden and a rainy day reading in a cafe.

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Looking for a good physical challenge after training for and not running Berlin, I ran the Salzburg Trail Running Festival for the second time.  It was, well, challenging, but refreshing and renewing all at the same time.  I entered Kapitelplatz where the finish line was just as all of the bells began to chime in unison.  It was a perfectly timed ending to a beautiful run through my favorite city.

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Though I missed my friends with whom I shared Salzburg, it was comforting to return to and relax in the city I consider to be my home away from home.  Until next time, Salzburg

Did Not Start

DNS- “Did Not Start,” it says next to my name in the record book for this year’s Berlin Marathon.  While those letters sting more than I can describe, they certainly do not mean that I did not try.

Four months ago, I began training for marathon number four.  As the hot and humid summer negatively affected my training, I knew I had to drop my ambitious time goal and run instead of race.  Oh, and I moved to another country.  That didn’t help matters given the time frame.

Undertrained, I was still looking forward to running another World Major Marathon and spending time in Berlin this weekend.  I strategically planned the trip for optimal museum time without putting too much strain on my legs.  However, a few days before I was scheduled to leave, I found out that Meme, one of my biggest runspirations, passed away.  My priorities immediately shifted and I made an impromptu trip home.

This trip was accompanied by many emotions.  The loss of my grandmother, who doubled as my friend, was difficult, especially being so far from home.  That, along with the stress of missing class, extensive traveling, and missing the Berlin Marathon (that I struggled but persevered to train for) all became very frustrating when you add in the exhaustion and resulting headache.

I thought the race was out of the question until I FaceTimed with Daddio and he told me that I should still try to run.  He made some good points, and while overwhelming, I knew I had to try.  Meme would have wanted me to run, and it’s worth it to try and have it not work out than to never know.  It is this combined determination and stubbornness that I inherited from Meme.

So, I coordinated a slew of one-way flights, traveled through seven cities, with four different airlines, and arrived at the marathon expo to pick up my number with just minutes to spare.  All of this activity with a dividend of five days- if I pulled it off, I would have done cartwheels through the airport.

SIDE NOTE: I would like to recognize the restraint involved in listening to the Hamilton soundtrack and not belting out a single lyric because you are on an airplane.  This restraint is far under appreciated.

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Meticulous travel notes to get me to the church on time! A bagel tally seemed necessary too!

It wasn’t until I got lost on the way to my hostel that the shear exhaustion of the week hit me like a high speed train.  Trying to channel the badassery of Barefoot Boston, part of me thought, “Well I’m here, I may as well give it a go.”  The other part of me decided that the exhaustion combined with being undertrained and alone was a recipe for disaster and the safer option would be to sit this one out.  With my adjusted projected finish time and added exhaustion, catching my flight back to Scotland didn’t seem plausible.  It is very important to respect the distance of a marathon.  After all, without proper training, marathons can be dangerous.  Still, the decision to sit out was painful to make.

My best friend summed it up pretty well by saying, “this seems like a lose-lose situation.” And she was right.  I would be upset to not run, and I would feel terrible (physically and mentally) if I did run, not to mention running the risk of injury as well.

A DNS is frustrating to a marathoner no matter the reason.  It’s easy to be upset because, although I’m not in the peak condition I originally planned, I still put in the hours of training and gave up a lot (especially a lot of family time) to get there.  At the end of the day, I’m still only human.  It wouldn’t have been healthy to run and that would have sacrificed my future running goals.  I’m in this for the long haul, not to be outrun before turning 25.  Maybe just one marathon a year will suffice!

And so, this “Did Not Start” has sparked the fire to begin working towards my next running goal.  Wherever the next race may be, I’ll be sure to make it a good one because Meme has the best seat in the house.

Thank You Notes:

  • Thank you for the outpouring of love and support my family received this week, and thank you to everyone for celebrating Meme’s life with us.  This goes without saying, but she was a special lady.
  • Thank you to my family for convincing me to give Berlin an honest try.  I wouldn’t have been able to give it a go without your support.
  • Thank you to the fellow marathoner I met on the flight to Berlin.  We split a taxi from the airport, swapped stories of travels and marathons passed, and got to the expo on time  (In case you are wondering, he finished with an incredible time!).
  • Thank you to compression socks for keeping my legs race ready with all of this travel.  If only the rest of my body could keep up!
  • Thank you to Meme for a lifetime of wisdom, wise cracks, and peppermint patties.  Your strength and determination have always inspired me and will continue to do so as I live, learn, and meander through life.
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Thanks, Meme