Saturday, December 13, 2014

The Porcelain Gods of the World

In the western world, we think of our toilets as being made out of ceramics, white or beige in color, comprised of a toilet bowl, tank, and seat.  In a private home, toilets usually have lids, although the contrary is true for public establishments.  Attached to the tank is a flush lever, sometimes in the form of a button on the top of the tank.  There are fancy models that flush automatically, and toilet that let you choose how much water to use when flushing depending on the amount of waste.   Sometimes referred to as "Porcelain Gods,"  I found the concept of a toilet truly unique in each of the countries I where I traveled and my interaction with toilets amazing.  Kids were also amused by the topic and during my school visits, students never failed to ask me how I went to the bathroom.  It's actually a  fascinating question considering all the different shapes and sizes of toilets that exist around the world.  I answered their question without getting into a lot of detail, admitting that I used nature frequently especially in remote places.  To tell you the truth, the answer is much more complex than I led on to students.  In fact, in writing this blog post, I realized that I could write an entire chapter of a book about my bathroom experiences around the world.  If there is one thing I wish I would have done on my trip, kid you not, I regret not having taken many pictures of bathrooms I used in the 26 different countries I visited.

In Europe, toilets are very similar to those in the United States, the only difference being the quantity of water in the bowl and the flusher.  Long before the United States, toilets in Spain offered different flushing options depending on the amount of water and waste.  The flushing button is divided in two parts, one larger than the other to indicate that more water will be used when this button is pushed. Less water also sits in European toilet bowls, but don't be fooled, the flushing action is comparable to toilets in The United States and effectively discard the waste.  

The main difference between public restrooms in Europe and The United States is that public restrooms are not a common occurrence on the streets of Europe.  When I lived in Barcelona, I always had to plan my bathroom breaks strategically whether it be on a morning run or an afternoon shopping trip.  I had my "go-to" restaurants, bars, cafes, and hotels I used in the city.  When available, hospitals always had decent restrooms with anti-bacterial soap.  On my trip, I always coupled a coffee or snack with a pee break, using the restroom at the bar or restaurant.  If there are public toilets in a European town or city, they aren't usually free to use. Granted the fee is generally symbolic, it seems crazy to me to have to pay for a toilet!  When I pedaled through Venice, I encountered the steepest charge for a toilet on my trip, an outrageous 1,50 euros!  For two euros, I figured I was better off buying a small coffee and using the restroom at the cafe.  Considering I was in Venice, I went inside the bar (don't be fooled, there is a surcharge tacked on to outside patio consumption) and ordered a shot of espresso, the cheapest coffee on the menu.  It took me longer to go to the bathroom than drink the coffee, but the purchase was justified!

I just couldn't bring myself to paying this steep fee to use a public toilet in Venice, Italy

Europeans argue the reason they charge to use a public restroom is to maintain a sanitary and clean environment.  Your 20 cent or 50 cent fee pays the salary of the attendant responsible for cleaning the public space.  In theory, it all sounds nice, but I just couldn't bring myself to paying to use a bathroom.  Instead, I tried to sneak into establishments and make a b-line to the restrooms, which isn't necessarily each dressed in full on spandex bike gear with a helmet.  Most of the time I would put on a face of desperation and ask a waitress if I could use their bathroom, stating it was an emergency. And so, the restrooms I used in Europe looked as though the people before me peed everywhere except for in the toilet.  A rainstorm had hit the toilet seat and toilet paper was a commodity, never present in any of the stalls.  At the start of my trip, when my leg muscles weren't so strong and it was hard to hover above the toilet seat without touching.  I quickly learned to bring a Kleenex along with me into the bathroom, and if I forgot, I was thankful to be wearing my bike chamois.

Sometimes in Europe, you'd find an occasional bathroom lacking what we westerners would consider a "proper toilet."  There was a hole on the ground with a porcelain slab and some sort of foot imprint or guide on each side, showing people how to stand so they could aim rightfully at the hole.  Serious planning and engineering had been put into the design of this slab, so that your feet were placed just so, avoiding any splash backs.  Usually these slab toilets had a tank that was hanging on the wall, with a long chain coming down that required flushing.  They aren't the most user friendly toilets and require a bit of skill and aim, but there is a fast learning curve.

When I arrived in Hong Kong, the porcelain gods were of the higher class.  Not only were public toilets commonly found around Hong Kong, they were free and clean.  In fact, I was shocked to see a cleaning schedule posted on the walls of the public restrooms that actually invited people to call a toll free number and leave feedback regarding their cleanliness.  Who would have called to complain about their cleanliness, restrooms were so impeccable, you could have eaten your lunch off the toilet seats!

Hong Kong's toilets are models for the rest of the world with their sanitary expectation clearly defined on the walls of public restrooms

Like I said, you could eat your lunch off the toilet seat it was so clean

Toilets in Hong Kong, however, were not representative of those I would encounter in the rest of SE Asia and using the toilet became another adventure added to my daily life on the bike.  You'd think words such as bathroom, toilet, and restroom are universal.  You automatically assume that people understand you when you ask to use a bathroom, but in China, as was the case with most of my attempts to communicate, I had to supplement my verbal language with hand and body gestures, and resorted to making sound effects when asking for a toilet.  On top of this language barrier, there is also no such thing as a public restroom.  First of all, there is no such thing as a public restroom.  Waste in SE Asia is not welcomed.  As I mentioned in some of my blog posts, I constantly struggled to find a garbage bin in cities and towns to dispose of my waste.  No one wanted to be responsible for other people's waste, explaining why I frequently saw pigs and other animals eating the garbage thrown alongside the road.  There were cafes, bars, and restaurants, but they were usually part of a private home or attached to a private home and therefore don't advertise toilets.  I must admit, I wasn't ever turned down when I asked if I could use a toilet at a cafe or restaurant, but it usually meant walking through their private home and using the family bathroom.

If this is what happens to rubbish tossed by humans, I don't want to know what happens to human waste in China

Human waste seemed to present a logistical problem for people in SE Asia.  Sewer systems are primitive, which is why toilets look the way they do.  Many times there is a toilet bowl, but no tank, and a lot of bathrooms have some sort of slab toilet on the ground without a flushing mechanism.  Instead, there is a bucket of water and a pail, which sometimes doubles as a shower apparatus.  Yes, it is primitive indeed, but functional!  There is a faucet to fill the bucket of water.  After going to the bathroom, you have to manually flush the toilet by pouring in the bowl or down the hole afterwards.  This becomes an entire art in itself as there are many ways to pour the water in the bowl trying to flush out the waste with the momentum of arm's throw.  If you are so lucky as to have toilet paper, it does not go down the hole, rather it is collected in the garbage by the side of the toilet.  Since there aren't many trash receptacles on the streets, I have a sneaking suspicion that this paper waste is later burned (and probably the most organic materials that is burned).
One of the more fancy toilets I used in SE Asia

Although the majority were more along these lines.......

I used a few interesting toilets in Asia, including a trough-like toilet in a bus station in China.  There were stalls, but under my feet was a continuous concrete ditch running along the ground for about 10 feet.  There were handles, no special foot slab, or toilet paper was of course out of the question. A trickle of water flowed through barely moving the waste present in the trough.  You can imagine the   pungent smell that wafted from the stalls.

Undoubtedly the most memorable toilet I used in SE Asia I found in Northern Vietnam.  To this day, I still don't understand how this toilet worked or if in fact it was actually a toilet, but I felt confident the women who served me coffee at her small cafe had understood I needed to go pee.  Unfortunately I didn't take a picture of this room, but if I did, all you would see is a small room with a primitive sink, a faucet, and a mirror.  I identified it as the bathroom because there were toothbrushes, toothpaste, and shampoo bottles in one corner, but the room lacked anything us westerners would identify as a conventional toilet. My eyes searched over the one square meter area frantically, but all I could find was a small hole in the floor, no larger than 2 inches in diameter, a pipe that went into the ground.  Surely this wasn't the toilet? I thought.  This hole wasn't intended for anything other than liquid.  Thankfully that is all I intended on doing.  Going to the bathroom, which should be a relaxing experience, had all of a sudden become a stressful event.  I skillfully aimed into the hole and used the pail in the basin to wash up the surrounding area.  The whole experience was just so baffling, for the next hour or two, my mind was flooded with thoughts.......Did I make a wrong turn and just pee in their shower drain? Where do people do their solid business at that house?  Do sewers even exist in these villages, and if so, where does the waste flow?  The entire event could be summed up in one concluding thought,  Mother nature provided just a good of toilets which became my default restrooms in SE Asia."

In Europe, I had started to use nature, pulling off to the side of the road to hide behind a tree.  This was possible to do in Europe with such little traffic on secondary roads, but in SE Asia, everyone uses the same roads that you are never truly alone!  I shared the road with farmers and their buffaloes, women and their crops tied to their backs.  If I wasn't waiting for a truck to pass, a moto whizzed by or out of nowhere a small child came running through the bushes on the side of the road.  Not to mention, I never new what type of animals were lingering in the bushes along the side of the road.  I felt like the chicken in the "Chicken Crossing the Road" jokes.  Poor chicken, just when he thought it was safe to cross to the other side, a car would come whizzing by.  Just as I thought I was in the clear to pop a quick squat, something or someone would creep up, making it impossible to have any privacy.  Unfortunately this made for a lot of emergency type situations where I just couldn't wait any longer to go to the bathroom.  Once, I vividly remember waiting so patiently for a truck to pass me in Northern Laos.   It drove by me in the same direction I was pedaling and before it had passed me completely, my bike shorts were down and I was relieving myself.  I looked up expecting to see the truck driving off in the distance, and was surprised to see the back of the truck piled up with people.  It was the local bus taking people into town and they all had the biggest smiles on their faces, some even hollering at the sight of my white bum.  I should have been embarrassed, but as my motto went, I had no shame, not even 4 months into my trip!

Individual public restrooms large enough to enter with my bike.  If only they were spotlessly clean like the ones in Hong Kong, I would have opted to sleep inside!

Some of the most fascinating public restrooms, I found in Australia.  On my day off in Melbourne while walking the streets, I stumbled across what I would call a futuristic public toilets, looking more like a spacecraft rather than a toilet.  They were silver metallic oval structures, big enough so that I could bring my bike with me into the restroom.  You pushed a button to open the door and once inside, a women's voice started talking to you.  She guided you through the entire event warning you of the closing the door, letting you know how much time you had, telling you when and where to push other buttons for flushing, turning on water and blowing your hands dry.   Not to mention, there was also music playing in the background.  If I hadn't known any better, I would have thought I was in an elevator at a fancy hotel.  I couldn't help myself and made a video of the experience and shared it with my hosts later that night.  I thought Australia's public restrooms were at the top of the list for porcelain gods around the world, but then my hosts informed me that these bathrooms were invented to give drug addicts safe places to shoot up.  All the automatic features including a timer that counted down were so drug users wouldn't get trapped in the bathroom if they passed out.  A scary through, but probably a clever idea.

By the time I arrived in North America, I thought I had seen it all when it came to toilets and restrooms.  Little did I know the saga awaiting me in the public restrooms.  I stepped off the plane in Los Angeles where I had a 3 hour layover and used the airport women's room.  I entered one of the many stalls and just as my hands reached for my elastic waist band, the toilet flushed.  What's this? The toilet is flushing and I haven't even pulled down my pants?  I reached for a toilet seat cover, one of the best inventions ever in the United States, and the toilet flushed again.  I continued to reach for a toilet seat cover, and this time I was successful in opening it up, but as soon as it was on the seat, the toilet flushed again, taking with it the seat cover I had freshly placed on the seat.  I was up against a loosing battle.  I managed to set down another toilet seat cover, and quickly plopped down on top of it as not to loose it to another flush.  This time, when the toilet flushed, the seat cover stayed, but bum felt as though it had been showered from the spray of yet another flushing.  By the time I had actually gone to the bathroom, the toilet had flushed a total of five times, taking with it pee and paper waste only once!  Imagine my surprise when I exited the stall and made my way over to the sink.  The faucets, soap dispensers, and paper towels all worked on a sensor as well!  Unlike the toilet, the sink water turned off in the middle of my washing and I struggled to get the water on again, making hand washing an exhausting 5 minute event.  By the time I was ready to dry my hands, all I had to do was flash them under the paper towel sensor and voila, a paper towel came down.  But by now, I was exhausted and my head was ringing with all the different sounds each of these automatic contraptions made.  I went to open the bathroom door, which you think would also work on an automatic sensor (so you didn't have to contaminate your hands with germs after freshly cleansing them) but it wasn't.  As you can see, students were right, going to the bathroom was a complicated ordeal.  No wonder the topic fascinated them!

Toilet flushing sensors look almost alien-like
The most clever invention I came across in terms of porcelain gods in my opinion is the toilet seat covers found in North America.  By the time I arrived in The United States, my leg muscles were strong enough that I could have hovered over the toilet bowl for an hour without touching.  But why use your leg muscles when you can comfortable sit on a thin layer of tissue paper on top of a toilet seat? Toilet seat covers.  I had always taken toilet seat covers from granted, but when I moved abroad, I realized just how much I cherished this small and simple invention.  It wasn't until I was 100 miles from completing my world bike journey when I asked the million dollar question and realized that most people, like myself, took toilet seat covers for granted as well.  How exactly do you use a toilet seat cover?  Is there a right way and a wrong way of placing it on the toilet seat?  When I first arrived in the United States on The Loong Way Home, I had an epiphany one day in a restroom, when I discovered that I had been using toilet seat covers backwards for over 30 years.  I had always torn the three tabs that held the middle section in place prior to laying it on the toilet seat.  I placed the cover with the connected middle section at the back of the bowl.  Arranged in this manner, however, I was always in a race against time as the the middle section would eventually touch down into the water and drag the rest of the seat cover into the bowl, sliding off the seat, and therefore offering little or no protection at all.

This is the way I always thought they went on a toilet seat

But if you search "toilet seat covers" on Google, you will find both placements on the toilet seats

One day, out of hast, or maybe absent-mindedness, I accidentally placed the seat cover so that the connected tab was at the front of the toilet seat.  To my surprise, the middle section crept down to the water in the bowl, but the  seat cover didn't budge, staying put on the seat, offering maximum protection.  Wow!?! I remember thinking, had I been using the seat cover wrong my entire life?  Do other people know about this?  I wanted to badly to write about this experience, but then realized my epiphany might not be appropriate to share on my blog or Facebook.  Talking about seat covers isn't exactly dinner table etiquette, but it should be, because I can guarantee you that your friends and family will offer great insight into this subject matter.  In Portland, three days before my grand arrival, while out having beers with my siblings and a few friends, I brought light to the subject.  I told them about my predicament, not completely sure how to use a seat cover properly and asked them how they used it.  Their answers were fascinating!

After all those years of putting on a toilet seat cover backwards, I finally discovered this is the way it is done (or so I argue)!

Jessamyn explained that she carefully pulled off two of the tabs on the middle section and left the tab connected at the front.  She then placed this tab towards the front of the seat and hoped that the gravity from her pee or the dampness would cause the last tab to tear off and eventually fall into the toilet bowl. Although the seat cover went on the seat backwards like I had done originally,  the seat remain protected the entire time.  Others started to laugh while she explained her meticulous process which is when my brother-in-law chimed in to share his strategy.  With vigorous hand gestures, he stated, "Usually I pull the tabs so hard the whole middle section rips off! But that doesn't matter because after I place the toilet seat cover, I cover up any sections of the toilet seat that might be exposed with the middle section I originally ripped off!" We all started laughing at Paul's technique. Jenny, my sister, and his wife was appalled to hear her husband share his technique.  But then it made Tom, my brother share his strategy.  He took us all by surprise when he asked, "You guys really take the time to use seat covers?"  Here was a guy who used to drive home from High School to use his toilet at home during the school day telling us 15 years later that you couldn't get any sort of germs or disease from an unprotected toilet seat.  Barb, the remaining person at the table pipped up in Tom's defense and was also adamant about the fact that bacteria can't survive on a toilet seat long enough to contaminate your bum!

Here we all were completely cracking up over something so simple and overlooked as a toilet seat cover.  Really the topic is considerably mind blowing.  After traveling around the world and using all sorts of "toilets", I found myself in The United States baffled by some of the most modern toilet inventions.  How on earth do you place a toilet seat cover on a toilet seat?  Dare you ask yourself?  Go for it, experiment, ask your friends and family, their responses will blow you away.  Of course you can always cycle a few thousand kilometers and build up those quad muscles so you don't touch down upon the porcelain gods!

Thursday, November 6, 2014

The 2014 New York Marathon

1 of over 50,000 runners in the 2014 NYC Marathon

As if riding my bike 21,000 miles around the world during the last 14 months wasn't enough, I ran the New York Marathon three weeks after finishing my trip.  What on earth would possess me to do such a thing? There actually is some rhyme and reason to the whole experience, although I admit I am slightly crazy, but I wouldn't have it any other way!

The 2012 Paris Marathon, also a bit frigid!

Would you believe me if I said I never ran a race longer than 10km in The United States? To be precise I've ran a turkey trot and a 4th of July run, both in Eugene, both about 10 to 15 years ago! I started participating in races when I moved to Spain. It was a good excuse to see some of the different areas around Barcelona, a fun weekend activity. In fact, up until a few years, ago, I didn't even know the English word for a “dorsal”, a bib! Back in April of 2012, when I was training for an Ironman, I ran the Paris Marathon, qualifying for both the Boston and New York Marathons with a personal record of 3:18. Living abroad, I knew that it would be hard to convince a school principal to give me a few days off of school to fly to New York or Boston to run either of those marathons. They'd have to wait until a year when I wasn't living abroad, which just so happens to be this year! I was in Australia for the Boston marathon this past spring, but New York was doable in November planning for a mid-October arrival. Unfortunately my qualifying time had expired, which meant I had to enter the lottery, giving me an 8% chance of getting lucky. I had heard and read stories of people waiting a lifetime to get selected to be in the NY Marathon, so automatically I thought my chances were pretty slim.

As goes went my entire 14 months on my bike, I got lucky! I was in Melbourne packing my bike to fly to Tasmania, when I was checking over my Visa statement and saw that The New York Road Runners club had charged my credit card, meaning I was in, I was running the 2014 NY Marathon. I was ecstatic, but in disbelief. Was I really going to train for a marathon while riding my bike around the world?!? As if pedaling 70 miles a day wasn't hard enough, how was I was I going to run as well? Two months ago, when I had applied for the lottery, the idea seemed appealing. Running the marathon also meant I had the prefect excuse for visiting family and friends out east, which is where I went to college and worked before departing for Spain.

I decided that I would start training when I arrived to the states, because I could ship running shoes to San Francisco, giving me a good 6 months to train. For those of my friends who know me, I'm not a “hard core” runner, especially when it comes to following a training schedule. I hate anything that takes away from the feeling of total freedom while exercising outdoors. I love sports because it's active meditation. As soon as I have to look at a watch to track my pace or calculate speed, I stop having fun. In fact, to this day, I have still never looked at my heart rate when I'm running or cycling, nor do I know my standard pace in either sports. I just run and bike as fast as my mind turns to exhaust my energy! I've participated in about 4 marathons, 2 ultra-marathons, 2 half Ironmans, a full Ironman, dozens of half marathons and gran fondo bike races and this motto has yet to fail when preparing for a big sports competition. I signed up for a full length Ironman without ever looking at a training schedule. Wouldn't you know, I ended up winning the race? Its no wonder my friends think I'm some sort of “genetic freak” and encourage me to donate my body to science when I die.

The first full Ironman I tried, I ended up winning, without really following any specific training schedule....that's just me!

My training started when I arrived in San Francisco and I boy was I in for a surprise. Contrary to every one's encouragement, running wasn't going to be a breeze, I was using a whole other group of muscles on the bike. Although my endurance and stamina from cycling probably carried over into my running, I was going to have to seriously prepare if I wanted to finish the marathon without pain. I eased into running, and started with 40 to 50 min. runs on my “days off.” That was a joke, really, because I hardly ever took a day off from the bike, so I was running at most once every ten days. Therefore, I tried running on days when I cycled shorter distances, but soon learned that my body had a hard time combining biking and running if I pedaled more than 50 to 60 miles in a day. Eventually I got into a groove and realized that running gave me a much needed rest from cycling, while still allowing me to get my “fix” of being active. I won't lie, I had days where my legs felt like 50 pound bricks, too tight to run effortlessly, but I had other days where I felt like I was flying, trail running through Bryce Canyon, Zion National Park, and outside of Yellowstone. Running was a way to sight see the small towns I visited, and explore a different type of terrain, and ultimately I found in enjoyable!

My first run in San Francisco was painful!
Alaska presented a challenge for my running. I was so remote and surrounded by wilderness, I ran and sang to ward off bears. My days of pedaling were incredibly long making it less desirable to run as well. Looking back on my personal diary where I recorded all my statistics from the trip, I went four months without taking a true day off from any sort of activity. If I wasn't on the bike, I was running, and if I pedaled any less than 50 miles, I tacked on a short run. Crazy, I know, but it goes to show you just how well my body and mind adapts to being active. I thrive in motion, both mentally and physically. Some say they were born to run, I say I was born to be in motion!

Running in Alaska was tough, but definitely had it's rewards......unbeatable scenery!
Normally before a big race I start to feel nervous even tough I'm filled with excitement. This marathon approached in a different manner and no matter how crazy the pre-race environment got, I couldn't get stressed out. If I could cycle around the world and rose to the challenges presented to me on the road during the last year, the marathon was no big deal! I felt fortunate I was able to participate, but I kept my cool. Normally I would obsess over having the right gear, wearing my hair so that it didn't get in my face, double knotting my laces in a ritual manner, and making sure to eat all the right foods leading up to the race, but my outlook had changed and four hours of running, seemed like a breeze in comparison to some of the days I had on my bike in the past year. Four hours was my goal because that was my marathon time in the full ironman I completed in 2011. If I managed to run that fast after swimming 3.8 km and cycling 180 km, then surely I could hit 4 hours starting fresh!

I was astonished to see the number of runners the day before the race at The Javits Convention Center where I met my parents and went to pick up my marathon packet. It was a complete zoo with booths set-up to accommodate over 50,000 runners. I could have made an entire day out of the Marathon convention, but I picked up my bib quickly, confirmed my transportation option, and left. The weather pre-race day was ideal, a constant steady rain that made me wan to take refuge inside and relax. That afternoon my dad and I went over the logistics of the route trying to determine meeting points along the route. Google maps helped, but I thought it was going to be pretty challenging to actually spot them in the crowd. I probably should have carbo loaded for dinner, and the three days prior, but I did nothing of the sort. I'm actually not a big pasta fan and instead made Cuban Rice, a simple “go-to” Catalan dish with rice, tomato sauce and eggs accompanied by salad and some chocolate and fruit for dessert! Usually the night before a race I can hardly sleep, but that night, going off daylights saving, I slept eight hours consecutively!

And I thought Paris was a big marathon back in 2011........

A massive pre-marathon convention

The next morning, I headed down to the Staten Island Ferry, which in theory, isn't the best transportation option for the marathon, but it turned out to be perfect! I had been assigned to an 8am ferry departure, and my start time was 10:30. I thought I was going to have a good 3 hours of waiting to do before I started running which wasn't a problem if it had been warm, but temperatures were frigid, hovering in the low 40's with 40 mph winds. Thankfully traffic was bad and so were the crowds of runners, between the subway, ferry, and bus to the starting area, it was about 9:15 when I arrived to the corrals. A friend of my relatives had given me a VIP access bracelet, so I luckily got to hang out in a nicer area before starting the race where there was no lines for the bathrooms and some food and warm beverages.

7am and all set and ready to run.......Never seen this outfit before?!?!?!

I don't know what made more of an impression on me, the crowded streets of runners during the race or all the runners waiting around before the marathon. Never have I seen such a sight! It was reminiscent of Pamplona during the Running on the Bulls, when the streets are bursting at the seams with tourists and locals, sleeping and camping out during the never ending festivities. The only difference is that in Pamplona, the people are totally drunk or hung over wearing shorts and t-shirts in the heat and around the streets of Staten Island, everyone was bundled up in everything from trash bags and medical scrubs to nice clothes they planned on ditching. I even saw people resting and waiting lying inside sleeping bags they were going to abandon. Granted the marathon donates all the discarded clothing to charity, which has to be the biggest donation they get all year, I amazed by the amount of discarded possessions at the start of a marathon. I would sign up to volunteer at the starting area in the future just to collect the discarded items. You could own an entirely new wardrobe if you didn't mind scouring through the unwanted items. I had of course forgotten to bring extra clothes that I could ditch, so I sucked it up and made do with my lovely purple shirt from my trip and a plastic bag I got from a employee at CVS who had finished stocking bags of chips. It felt utterly foolish to buy clothes to just throw away. If there is one thing I've learned from my trip, it's that you can pretty much make it through any situation with the right attitude. Yes, I was a bit cold before my race, but I just felt lucky that I wasn't trying to battle the cold and the wind on my bike!

Trying to corral 50,000 runners and organize the start of a marathon is not easy, but The New York Road Runners Club's logistics were practically flawless. After the wheelchair and elite start, there were 4 additional waves, each with about 8 different groups staggered in corrals. I was in the 3rd wave, letter D, and the corrals were to open at 9:40 and closed at 10:10 for a 10:30 start. They were pretty close to being on time, and once in the corral, I went to the bathroom one last time before plopping down on the curb waiting for 10:30 to approach. The actual start is a bit anti-climatic and I spent the first 5 miles trying to “get out” of the crowd, only to realize that was pretty much impossible. However, the hoards of people motivated me pick up a fast pace for the first 5km, which felt good, and I realized early on, I was going to be a lot better off than I anticipated.

In most races I've participated, I'm able to see where I'm going and have a general sense of direction, but in the NY Marathon, from the start, you just follow the herd of people and can't see more than a mass crowd of runners ahead of you who hardly seem to be moving. I didn't study the route and don't know New York well enough to know what lied ahead during the race, which I think is an advantage. The whole route was a complete surprise, taking me through New York's five borrows. I felt like I was on a self-propelled tour bus, sight-seeing in the big apple. The crowds kept me going reminiscent of my bike tour, receiving support and encouragement from random strangers, although rather than a few people cheering me on, there were about a million who took to the streets of New York. The spectators were awesome, some holding creative and humorous signs, while others just a name of a family member or friend they were watching. Some gave out bananas, water, candy, I even saw baklava, but resisted. They say to not change any of your habits before a big race, so here I was in the same outfit I had trained in all during my bike tour, and I ate some of the same treats as well, half a cliff bar, half a banana, and a small stash of chocolate covered espresso beans in my back pocket, my “go-to” food item when I need a little boost of power!

I just spotted my parents here, can't believe it with all the people on the streets

Thankfully, the race flew by and like I wanted, I wasn't in a lot of pain. I always try to convince myself that the faster I go, the less pain I will endure. Although there is little truth in this theory, it works for me! I spotted my parents at mile 8 where I handed over my long sleeve shirt. I saw some of my girlfriends at mile 18 screaming at the tops of their lungs, and just shortly after seeing them, I located my parents in the crowd and stopped to give my mom a hug.

Marathons and sports competitions have sure changed since the introduction of smartphones or maybe it is just an American custom to use your smartphone during a marathon. I can see listening to music on your iphone during a race, but so many of the participants were stopping to take a selfie at different iconic places en route and others were texting and even calling their friends and family. Kid you not. In fact, I wouldn't be surprised if there were runners who posted on Facebook at every mile marker. I was shocked to witness the true epitome of technology in the 21st century. On the other hand, technology did make a huge difference with race logistics and the app for the New York Marathon. Friends and family around the world were able to track me throughout the race and knew my times at the different mile markers. I ended up running faster than my predicted pace, but with the help of the app, my parents and friends knew when I was getting close to their area.

In my groove in Central Park, a lot of pain!
I felt great until about mile 22, which is when I noticed that my legs felt like steel pipes about to burst. I should have welcomed the downhill terrain at the end of the course through the park, but that made each step more painful as my legs and feet pounded the asphalt uncontrollably. My parents wanted to see me as I crossed the finish line, but it was such a zoo I couldn't focus on any one face and at the end and they didn't attempted to push through the crowds. I finished earlier than expected, 3:39:45, and despite my throbbing legs, I felt good! It always amazes me how stiff you get the second you stop running after a long race and you take for granted the enormous effort your body puts forth to compete. The organization put a medal around my neck, a plastic poncho on my shoulders, and gives you a bag of goodies as you wobble and waddle with the other runners out of the “frozen” runner zone. I had to walk a good 2 miles to meet my parents at the family meeting area, but the time passed quickly as I met a friendly Spaniard, Arturo, from Barcelona. We walked and chatted the whole way, keeping our minds off the pain we were feeling in my legs.

And people think I looked silly in my spandex.......

My #1 fans make it to yet another race to cheer me on.  I'm sooooo lucky to have Mom and Dad support me around the world!

How my parents found me there on the street among all the other competitors, I don't know, but thankfully they did because they had taken down the family reunion area due to the high wind. My dad was eager to get me in a taxi, but I needed a warm drink first and headed to a Starbucks, there happen to be one on every corner in NY, like banks in Barcelona. Starbucks gave me one on the house and everyone in the place was so friendly congratulating me on the race. Eventually we made it home and I soaked in a delightful warm bath after a frigid ice cold bath. Although I was a little nauseous and sore, I felt remarkably well pleasantly surprised by my performance and attitude. The crowds and supporters had definitely played a key role in making it an enjoyable race and despite the strong winds and temperatures in the 40's, the sunny weather was ideal for running.

You'd never known I just ran a marathon!

I had experienced the New York Marathon, fulfilling my last desire of things I wanted to do in my year off from teaching. It was the my first long distance running race in The United States and might even be the last US marathon or any marathon in which I compete.  Notice I don't use the world “never”.......I've learned. All I know is that for now, that's a wrap!

CLICK HERE to see the pictures taken by the race organization

Sunday, October 26, 2014


I miss this!!!!
And nights like these......
I've been home for about 10 days now and I'm trying to settle in, but I have to admit I'm going stir crazy. People wondered how I pedaled 70 miles a day for 14 months and admired my energy, but I don't understand how they don't want to get on a bike and pedal all day. Some friends of mine were joking, suggesting that I organize a bikers anonymous group to cope with the withdrawal symptoms I'm experiencing. Laugh. Call me crazy, but it's a serious problem! Bike touring, like any addiction, becomes a lifestyle, something you live and breathe daily. A physical and mental dependency developed during the months I spent pedaling and now that I'm out of the saddle, I'm experiencing withdrawal symptoms that are ironically similar to someone who suffers from a physical addiction such as alcohol or smoking.

First ride on my brand new road bike, Barcelona 2009. little did I know what I was getting myself into.....
I'm what you might call a bikeaholic. I have always enjoyed being outdoors and riding a bike, but it became more or a serious habit when I turned 30 and bought my first road bike. At first, I just rode my bike on Saturday mornings with my bike club; 80 to 100 kilometers (50 to 60 miles) up or down the coast near Barcelona. Then I started riding my bike more often, going out both weekend days for longer and longer rides. When that wasn't enough, I would ride my road bike to work, and when the bell rang at the end of the day, I'd quickly change in my gear and hurry out after my students had left to go ride in the foothills on the outskirts of Barcelona. On the weekends, I found myself getting up earlier and earlier to go out for rides. When other people my age were stumbling back from night clubs drunk, I was decked out in my bike kit with flashing lights headed out with the gang from CC Gracia to explore yet another gorgeous region of Catalunya on two wheels. Then I started signing up for races, not just one or two, but sometimes three or four a season. These weren't casual race, but Gran Fondos. 150+ kilometer races that took me over mountain ranges, through vineyard valleys on backroads where we hardly ever encountered traffic for 6 to 8 hours until we crossed the finish line.

Puertos de Ribagorça Gran Fondo, Spain 2011.

Quebrantahuesos Gran Fondo, Spain/France 2012

The best summer job I ever landed, ride leading for Thomson Bike Tours

I thought I was hooked back then, but then in the fall of 2013, my habit became even more serious and I discovered I had a real addiction. I started cycling around the world, riding 100 to 130 kilometers (60 to 80 miles) daily, day after day, with little rest, eager to hop back on my saddle every morning. My body adapted beautifully, although I did take an occasional rest day, I was the happiest in motion pedaling. As if pedaling an average of 2,500 kilometers (1,500 miles) a month wasn't enough, I was carrying an extra 45 kg (100 lbs). Sometimes I would go days without finding a grocery store or taking a shower and weeks without saying more than a few words in my native language. Even with the harsh weather in Alaska when temperatures dropped below freezing, I didn't want to stop cycling. When temperatures got as hot as 109F (43C) in the deserts of North American and the rain forests of Malaysia, I sweat so much I was drinking at least 12 liters (3,5 gallons) of water a day, but I continued to pedal. The headwinds were demoralizing at times impeding my progress and a few cold damp descents brought tears on the verge of hypothermia, but I never gave up. Five years after buying my first bike, I can't stop pedaling! I'm hooked. I'm the happiest person in the world on a bike saddle.

I'd go back to the Ha Giang province in Vietnam in a heart beat 

Happy to be going downhill after a month of pedaling in the mountains of Vietnam and N. Laos

But look at me now. All of a sudden I'm out of the saddle and I don't know what to do with myself. I've had 14 months of time to think about my life after this trip, but obviously I didn't. What on earth did I do for so many months on a bike? What went through my head? I don't know!?!? I pedaled a bike day after day, for 417 days and most of the time I had no idea where I would end up at the end of the day. But I never actually felt lost, not like I do now. You could say I'm experiencing a type of culture shock, only it is magnified with an abrupt lifestyle change as well. I feel like a foreigner in my own hometown, a complete stranger around family and friends unable to relate to my present surroundings. Yet I've been here before, I know this place, it's not new, in fact it should be familiar, but I've changed and I'm at a total loss for figuring out how and where I fit in. I could have ended my trip back in Barcelona and I'd have the same feelings upon arrival. I pedaled from place to place, dropping in to observe and experience the lives of other people, their daily routines, their normal everyday life and all of a sudden I've been thrown in to this “normal” life.

How did I not see this coming? Didn't I think the transition would be rough? It never really occurred to me, I guess. Perhaps it was the fact I was so focused on the moment and living in the present I didn't realize the implications of transitioning into life after you pedal around the world on a bike. I was (and am) excited to see family and friends, sleep in my own bed, but it didn't dawn on me that my reality and feelings would shift so dramatically, making me feel nostalgic, sad, out of place, and sometimes numb.

Even with the world worst road construction, I was happy!

Tell us a story Melissa......We want to hear about your trip, they say. But where do I even begin? I struggle to share and describe the experiences I had in the past year and express how my perspective on the world and my outlook on life has changed. I still visit schools because I miss the classroom. I've had several dinner dates and met up with friends and followers. I enjoy their company and appreciate their interest in my trip. I show them videos and pictures, but I find myself looking on nostalgically, my mind flooding with memories and all of a sudden I'm all choked up and have to hold back the tears. I look at myself in the pictures from my trip and I radiate happiness. But now that I'm home and no longer pedaling, I don't have the same glow and strangely, I feel lost and lonely.

Visiting familiar classrooms, my old high school and high school teacher, Josh Hamill

More classroom visits in Eugene, The Oak Hill School

Can you honestly tell me you were never lonely on your trip? A friend of mine from Barcelona asked upon my arrival. I paused, thought for a moment and answered truthfully, “Never!” Lonely? That word is similar to “bored” in my vocabulary, it is obsolete. How could I get lonely? I never had time to feel lonely. There was always something or somebody around me to stimulate my interests, ignite my curiosity, and fascinate me. I took up random strangers on their offers to have dinner, I let the locals guide me around their town, explored a night market on my own......I was writing blog posts, reading other cyclist's blogs, researching my route, or catching up with family and friends. As I've expressed before, I often found myself needing more down time, more time to just be, absorb my surroundings, and reflect.

Walking around exploring a town in Northern Loas, I joined a local game of volleyball

This same friend from Barcelona who asked me if I was lonely criticized my decision to ride around the world initially. “Only weird people go off on their bike for a year!” he remarked. Maybe he's right, maybe bike tourers are weird, but I don't know any different. Bike touring isn't for everyone, but I am proud to be part of this weird yet global group of society. Now that I'm back, I find myself reaching out to people who've been on similar trips, who share a passion to bike tour. I continue to read other cyclist's blogs so that I can pedal vicariously through them and reminisce together with someone who understands.

I'd meet a few other tour cyclists now and again and we'd share our stories and laugh a lot
I knew myself so well on the bike and now I feel as though I've lost my identity, like I have to start from scratch now that I've been thrown in to a world that feels weird to me! I don't have the patience to go through an identity crisis right now, not after being so happy and at peace with myself just a few weeks back. I like the person I've become after pedaling a bike 14 months, around the world, solo. I've gained confidence and perspective. I have a very clear idea of who I am, what makes me tick, and my vision for the future. The bike has brought out the best in me and now the true challenge will be how to maintain these ideals as I try to integrate into a “normal” world and lifestyle that feels so foreign. The problem is, my idea or a “normal” is so different than the majority of the world, that unless I'm around others who understand or share my values, I do feel alone.

Remember Ly Peng and family?? They took me in just north of Phnom Phen when I had no where else to stay

Instead of facing reality, I continue dreaming. I've been gifted some great books since I've been back, but I can't seem to put down my current reading material: A map of the world. Every night I climb into bed and open it up and start ponder the places I want to go. I look at all the different land out there calling my name just waiting to be explored and the ideas spin in my head. After dozing and nodding off a bit, with the map in my hand, I surrender and turn off the light and go to bed. Ideas continue to spin in my head with the lights off and I have trouble sleeping. This never happened on the bike. It might sound crazy, but when I don't pedal for 6 to 7 hours, I don't exhaust my energy and my body doesn't recognize the need to rest and sleep.

I'm not asking for pity. Believe me, I do acknowledge that I had the most incredible and awesome experience during the last 14 months. As my Dad always says, “Life is a series of choices.” I never understood what he meant by this phrase but now I do and you know what?!?! I'm pretty damn pleased with the choices I've made in my life, especially in the last year and a half. Therefore, I have no doubt that I will continue to make good choices, even if it is difficult, I'm certain I've gained the strength to make decisions that will make me happy. Unfortunately, it all seems like a big blur right now. I managed to do a huge purge upon my arrival and clean out my room at my parent's home. Living out of four panniers makes it really easy to come home and get rid of a lot of extra an unnecessary belongings, thankfully. Shortly, I head east to compete in the New York marathon, the perfect activity that allows me to disconnect and let my mind wander. I'll visit friends and family and see familiar places. Sooner or later I think it will come to me; what it is I want to do in the upcoming year. I have a lot of followers telling me they miss following my trip and reading my blog and believe me, I miss it too! Something tells me I'll be on the road again sooner rather than later......

Saturday, October 18, 2014

The Homestretch: From Portland to Eugene

I left Portland to go to Eugene on bike, an odd feeling indeed since I always travel by car or train back and forth between the two cities. I could have easily made the trip in a day and a half, but again, stubborn me, wanted to time my arrival with my birthday, forcing me to take the more leisurely route.

There is a lot of gorgeous countryside on the outskirts of Portland that makes for nice riding

Since I wasn't worried about making good time, I decided to try out the bike path network to get out of the city. Portland, like Seattle, is very bike friendly with designated streets for cyclists, bike route signs posted on all corners, and a large network of paths. However, my theory for bike paths continues to hold true after my experience in Portland. Navigating the maze of bike paths feels a lot like a scavenger hunt, without the prize or treasure at the end, except arriving at your destination. I wish that cities would have some sort of secret cyclists, like the concept of secret shoppers that test out a bike path and evaluate just how easy and efficient they are to navigate. You have to be very focused and aware of the different signs directing you to turn left or continue straight and I have to admit, at this point in my trip, I spend a lot of time day dreaming in motion, impossible to hold a train of thought for more than two minutes. Therefore I'm a disaster when it come to navigating bike paths and hence I arrived an hour late to meet my friend south of Portland. A mere 12 miles took me 2 hours, due to a lot of wrong turns and my inability to follow the signs.

Molly and her two girls Lily and Olive

Molly is one of my friends who I've stayed in touch with since high school. She and I were two of the four “Fro's” in my close knit group of friends. We called ourselves the “Fros” because of our blonde curly curly hair that was simply out of control and wild at a time when curly hair was really not in! Molly and I were also tennis doubles partners in high school and we both have an incredible amount of energy and always on the go. Although she is now married and has two adorable girls, she hasn't aged a bit since high school. We might not see each other for a year or two, but it is always refreshing to catch up when I'm home. She and the girls brought me lunch and a cupcake to celebrate my birthday and we had a nice time together at a park just south of Portland.

Farm land close to Mollala, Oregon

Lots of farms and barns, some in better conditions than others

From there I kept pedaling south, taking the more scenic route to avoid major roads and found myself surrounded by a lot of farmland on rolling terrain. The colors were absolutely beautiful and so was the weather making the ride incredibly peaceful. I stopped off at a vegetable market to pick up some fresh fruit, the prices were unbelievably cheap and there were all sorts of apple varieties from local farms, which were impossible to pass up even though I only had two days left on the road. I had lightened my load in Portland, hence a bit of added weight didn't make much difference.

Alyssa, Jen, and myself

I arrived to Hubbard, Oregon where I stayed with a friend from my Master's program at OSU, Jen and her husband, Ben. Alyssa from our program also came up to have dinner together and it was fun to catch up and hear about teaching in the United States. Both work at bilingual schools and teach in dual immersion programs, which is something I would eventually like to do, teach Spanish that is. Jen and Ben are also avid outdoor enthusiasts and go to Alaska almost every summer to fish. I loved hearing about their fishing experiences and was pretty much convinced by the end of my stay that I should work a fishing season up in Alaska to replenish my back account. Of course I'd have to get past the whole sea sickness thing, and not showering for a week, but I think I could manage.

The next morning I set out bright and early when Jen left for school, pedaling to Corvallis, except that it wasn't bright at all as the entire Willamette Valley was socked in with fog. When the fog started to burn off, two hours later, it made for the most beautiful morning with colors so rich and deep it reminded me of dusk. Again, I lucked out with another delightful sunny day. I made such good time and only had to ride 60 miles, so I stopped at McDonalds in Salem in order to do a blog post. 

When the morning fog burned off, it was actually a gorgeous day

One thing I'm going to miss after this trip are my McDonalds pit stops. I have visited McDonalds all over the world. They are a fascinating place to people watch and it is very interesting to compare McDonalds globally. Did you know that the ice cream cones at McDonlalds in the United States are the most expensive in the world? All other countries I have visited have ice cream cones for less than a dollar and most hover right around 50 cents. Wireless connections at McDonalds were the best in Asia where it is not uncommon to find groups of friends getting together to stream and watch entire feature length films after ordering a burger. One of the only advantages to Macca's (as they call them down under) in the US is that they are open 24 hours, not to mention they are the place to be if you are 65+ (or a tour cyclist looking for free wifi) to have your morning coffee and meet friends. I suppose if I was desperate to find a safe place to pitch my tent, I could have done so in a McDonald's parking lot! Surprisingly, the quality of coffee at McDonalds is on par with a Starbucks and prices are a dollar or two cheaper!

From Salem, I had several different route options, all which eventually took me over the Willamette river and into Corvallis. I opted for the ferry, never having experienced a river ferry in Oregon. The Buena Vista ferry is truly unique. It crosses the Willamette river close to Independence running on a cable across the river. The whole journey takes all but 5 minutes, but it was quite an adrenaline rush and a time saver compared to navigating a lot of back roads to find a bridge that crosses the river. It is open all year except for Christmas and Thanksgiving from 7am to 7pm. I find it fascinating that someone mans the ferry all day long despite having such low volume traffic. I was the only passenger to make the journey and there weren't any cars waiting on the other side. Basically it runs for anyone, at any time, to accommodate traffic in both directions. For foot passengers it is free, bikes cost a dollar, and cars range in price from 3 to 9 dollars.

I had a good laugh at all the warning signs in order to board the ferry

I am the VIP passenger, the only one!

It dropped me off on the west side of the river where I pretty much cycled alone on the roads all the way down to Corvallis. Before arriving at my host for the evening I visited with the mom of one of my high school friends, Jacque. Basically all the people I know my age in Eugene have left, so when I come home I try to see their parents and enjoy catching up with them. Jacque travels to Corvallis frequently so it worked out perfectly to meet up with her there, even though she would be at my house the following day.

Tons of pumpkin patches, if they didn't weigh so much I would have taken a few

Flat rural riding on the outskirts of Corvallis

In Corvallis I stayed with a university professor from my Master's program Ken, and his wife, Melinda, both in the education field and global travelers. I feel right at home with Warmshowers host, but also people who share my interests, which is why I enjoyed my visit with the Winograds. We had a lot of stories to tell from our travels and had a lot of fun talking. They made me a delicious meal and a yummy dessert, pumpkin pie cheesecake. Pumpkin is up there on the list with beef jerky, of foods I miss living abroad. I'm guaranteed to scarf down any recipe with pumpkin as an ingredient, which explains going back for seconds with Melinda's cheesecake. In the morning they both wished me happy birthday and Ken gifted me with his latest book, Critical Literacy with Young Learners which I can't wait to read to help integrate back into the world of teaching.

Kindergartners at Franklin Elementary singing Happy Birthday in Corvallis

A geography presentation at Linus Pauling Middle School in Corvallis

That morning I visited Melinda's kindergarten class, where the students sang “Happy Birthday” and then I went over to the dual immersion program and spoke with the sixth graders at Linus Pauling. I started pedaling south to Eugene in the late morning with cloudy skies. Soon the clouds started spitting down rain and I knew that I was going to be accompanied by rain the entire ride to Eugene. I knew this was going to happen, and being wet didn't bother me one bit! I came to accept that symbolically the rain represented the tears of joy for my arrival, or was it my inner soul crying out in sadness now that I had nowhere else to pedal! I'm always an optimist, but I think the tears were both of sorrow and excitement representative of how I felt as I pedaled the last miles.

The clouds in the Willamette valley are truly unique. There isn't one specific cloud that passes over and dumps water on you, rather it is a blanket of grayness that hoovers low in the air for hours spitting out droplets of water that eventually create enough rain to make you wet. I do admit the rural countryside is still pleasant to observe, even in the rain!

I had some time to spare on the way home, so I stopped for lunch 20 miles north or Eugene, and again to make some phone calls 5 miles north of the city limits. I still had time to buy before my 4:30 arrival, so I went to a local grocery store in Eugene and changed into dry clothes. I know, that is cheating and after pedaling around the world, I should have been able to hack being wet and cold a few minutes longer, but I longed to be warm and dry for my arrival.

I made it to Eugene, soaked but ecstatic

What was going through my head as I pedaled the last few miles? How did I feel? The rain magnified my desire to be home. I was chuckling to myself, thinking I could have had a dry arrival if I came one day sooner. But stubborn me, wouldn't have had it any other way. It was October 14th and the Oregon rain had come, just like my mom always said. I was anxious to be home, to be dry, surrounded by people I know, and to experience life out of the saddle. I had already seen my family so there wasn't that build up, but I was looking forward to seeing familiar faces and places. My dad called me from the supermarket to let me know I could come since everyone had arrived at my house. The rain had just started to fall again as I turned down my street. The closer I got to my house, the more cars I saw. There at the end of my driveway was a small crowd to cheer and applaud for me. I had a flashback to the Ironman that I won back in Spain, three years ago. Crossing a finish line isn't something you rehearse. It is a once-in-a-lifetime experience, just like my arrival to Eugene, and it actually feels a bit awkward. I'm not one to be in the lime light. I didn't let out a big scream, nor did I dance or prance around. I had a big smile on my face. Mentally, I think I let out a sigh of relief and content. I made it!

Pedaling into Pioneer Pike

The welcoming crew at my house

Hugging friends despite the wet rain

My parents had organized a small gathering of friends, mostly parents of friends, since I don't know many people in Eugene any more. They were such good sports to be waiting for me out in the rain. I admitted to them that I had changed my clothes recently at Market of Choice, but I was still eager to go inside and be warm. I didn't have much time to talk with everyone, but I appreciated a nice warm greeting for my arrival. A handful of my high school friend's parents came as well as some of my local followers and friends, and a few neighbors as well. One of my hosts from Wyoming even came to welcome me which was a real treat! A reporter from the local newspaper showed up for an interview and after he left I was able to talk some more with my friends.

A pretty casual newspaper interview in my kitchen

Talking with friends and family upon my arrival
Posing with a few moms from the Spanish Immersion Program Class of '97

Two hours later the crowd had cleared out and there I was with my parents sitting down in the living room talking. It's funny how after 14 months of pedaling it all came to an just like that. There I was at home as if I had never left. It felt surreal. Did I really just pedal 21,000 miles to get here? Had I really traveled through 4 continents and 26 countries and been on the road for 14 months? When you see a familiar place and so many recognizable faces it feels as though time had froze, like I'd always been there and never left. I guess that is the true definition of home; there is always something so comfortable and familiar about the space. The smells, space and distances, colors, subtle noises; these things never change. Even though you've grown and aged and so have the people around you, home is timeless.

My parents with the welcome sign stayed up for a few days