Donnerstag, 8. November 2007

Athens and THE Marathon

On Halloween I flew down to Athens, Greece. For the past four months or so I have been training for the Athens Classic Marathon – the original marathon. This year it was run on November 4, so I went to Athens a little early to get adjusted to the city and to see some sites. I arrived to discover I had done an excellent job of picking a hostel via the internet. I was right on the edge of the Plaka, the old, gorgeous, and most well-kept area of Athens. It is at the foot of the Acropolis and filled with great restaurants and interesting shops. It also turned out that my only roommate in the hostel was from Brisbane (Northside – Mitchelton, to be exact), so we had a lot to talk about. Her name was Rae and she has been traveling the world solo for 8 months (through both Americas, Europe, and then onto Africa). When we met she had just returned from the Greek Islands, which sounded very cool - another place I have to add to my list. Luckily she had previously spent a few days in Athens, so she had tips for restaurants and things to do. I went for one of my few remaining training runs through the National Garden, which was filled with fountains and statues, and old men playing chess, past the Parliament Building and the Temple of Zeus, and up towards the Acropolis. I watched the sun set over Athens and then returned to the hostel. Rae was gone but left me directions to where all the restaurants were. I wound up going to “God’s Restaurant” – it couldn’t possibly be bad, right? It actually wasn’t – it had lots of good home-style Greek food, like moussaka, souvlaki, lamb, stuffed peppers, feta cheese, cheese saganaki, Greek salads and OLIVES, baklava, etc. I had the moussaka, a glass of Mythos beer, and watched a Greek soccer game on TV. I even got free dessert because I was eating alone, although I’m still not sure what it actually was.

After dinner I met Rae at another hostel that had a bit more going on. She knew a bunch of people there since she had stayed there the week before. Everyone was dressed up and celebrating Halloween. Some of the Athenians led a large group of us bar-hopping through Athens. It was mostly Aussies, Brits, and Americans. And one guy from Uppsala, Sweden! It was a ton of fun. I think it’s the first time I’ve been hanging out with people my age since August (with the exception of the trip back to the States). Anyways, after a fun night out I woke up to breakfast at the hostel, which consisted of cucumbers, olives, hard-boiled eggs, and tea. I loved it, but other people didn’t seem too happy – they couldn’t figure out where the bacon and eggs were. After breakfast I grabbed a map and wandered around the city. I crossed back through Syntagma Square, where I had arrived on the bus the day before, and strolled through huge shopping streets until I stumbled on the flea market. You can find pretty much anything you want at the Athens flea market – food, furniture, clothing, Greek and Roman statues, an overabundance of souvenir shops and more. I didn’t buy anything, but it kept me entertained until I was ready to eat again. I picked one of the many street side cafes near the Agora – the ancient marketplace – and had stuffed peppers and feta cheese. I people-watched/browsed a book for a while until I decided that I wanted to see what the Athens coastline was like. I heard that it wasn’t that impressive, but was hoping whoever told me that was mistaken. And really, I just wanted to be down by the water. So, I took the train to the waterfront, walked around for about 20 minutes, and decided it wasn’t worth the trip. The beaches near Athens were not where I wound up, which was just a marina of construction and polluted water. I jumped on the next train back into the city, went for my LAST training run of only 2 miles, and had just enough time to take a nap before meeting Rae for dinner on her last night in Europe! We went back to God’s Restaurant since it was cheap, good, and we knew pretty much everyone who worked there. We were there for over 3 hours eating and comparing travel stories! Out of all of her travels, the worst hostel she has ever stayed in was not in South America, or some eastern European country, but in Denver, Colorado. Kinda surprising. The most boring place she had been to – Brussels. I have heard that from virtually everyone I have talked to. One place I do NOT need to add to my list of places to go.

After a good night’s sleep I woke up, checked out of the hostel and found the hotel I had booked for the rest of the weekend with Tim, Mom, and Jenny. Unfortunately, the Novotel was nowhere near as close to the Plaka as my hostel and in a rather run-down area of town, but it worked out. I then took the tram to pick up my marathon registration at the Olympic Fencing Hall at the Hellinikon Complex from the 2004 Olympics. It was conveniently one hour out of the city (sense the sarcasm); however, I did find the beaches that were worth going to. I got my bib number, racing chip, and commemorative shirt and towel – all very exciting! I made it back to our hotel in the “ghetto” and read for longer than I had planned while waiting for the family. Little did I know how difficult driving in Athens was, especially when you are given completely false directions. The traffic, tiny streets, and signs in Greek are bad enough to begin with. It took Tim, Mom, and Jenny three hours to get to the hotel from the airport! It only took me one hour to get into the city on the bus. Lesson – just use the train/bus in Athens. Once they arrived we took the Metro into the Plaka and wandered/climbed around the quaint streets and alleyways. We had a great dinner filled with Greek salad (which we learned does not usually contain any lettuce), stuffed vine leaves, moussaka, lamb, and souvlaki at a rooftop restaurant below the Acropolis. I have decided that Greek food is my favorite European food so far. I can’t get enough of it.

On Saturday we started out in the flea market. Our only purchase was what Jenny is wearing in this picture. Apparently she has always wanted one of these masks. I’m not quite sure what it says about her, but out of everything they have in the markets, this was the ultimate for her. I had saved going up to the Acropolis for when Tim, Mom, and Jenny got into town, so that’s what we did next. We had our own tour with a friendly Greek lady named “Kula.” I think we only understood two-thirds of what she said, if that, but it was still interesting. I was racking my brain to remember all the things we learned from Jacobson and Miller in Humanities, but a lot of that is gone now. Jenny snapped a picture of this dog up on the Acropolis. There is actually an abundance of stray dogs and cats in Athens. The odd thing is that they are fairly friendly and look as if they could lose a few pounds. Apparently the people of Athens feel bad for the strays and every once in a while the animals are rounded up, sterilized, vaccinated, and collared. They are virtually everyone’s dogs, and everyone feeds them, which is why many are overweight.

Back to our activities . . . we grabbed an earlyish dinner at a taverna on our favorite street in the Plaka. We had a cozy table next to a fire place and live, traditional Greek music played in the background. It was very relaxing. After the filling pre-race dinner we headed back to the hotel where Jenny and I watched TV until I could fall asleep, which was late – 1:30am – not good. I woke up at 5:30 to catch the train to the Panathinaiko Stadium for the marathon. Panathinaiko is the pure-marble stadium that was built for the first modern Olympic Games in 1896 and was used as the finish for the marathon in the 2004 Games, as well as annually for the Athens Classic Marathon. From Panathinaiko, all 4,000 participants were bused 26.2 miles, or 42.2km, out to the city of Marathon where the race began. I warmed up on the track and was running alongside the Kenyans who eventually went on to win the race. I thought that was pretty cool! I was amazingly calm before the race, which is totally unlike me. I wore a pair of UVA shorts, which turned out to be a good idea because I met a lot of people from VA and the U.S. that way. I even got some “Go Cavaliers” shouts during the race, which was an especially welcoming thing to hear when most other cheers were in one of 20+ other languages.

Overall the race went amazingly well – much better than I thought it ever would! Knowing that Athens was a difficult course, I had hoped to finish in under 5 hours, and I would have been extremely pleased with anything under 4:20, which is 10-minute-mile pace. In the end I wound up finishing in 3:35!!! That’s 8:13-mile pace! I was the 41st woman across the finish line (out of 579). I powered up the hills like they weren’t even there, or I could also say, like Kate Meehan. And I ran negative splits – my second half was 7 minutes faster than my first. So, I’m happy. I had planned on this being the one marathon I ran in my life, but I have since figured out that I qualify for the Boston Marathon. I may be running two marathons in my lifetime now. Exciting though.

I hung out at Panathinaiko after the race as the soreness set in. For anyone who has run a marathon, you know what I am talking about. I managed to get a massage, but can’t tell if it helped at all. By the time I recouped and the massage was over I still hadn’t seen Tim, Mom, or Jenny, nor had I seen them anywhere along the course. I finally met up with them about two hours after I had finished. Athens traffic had come back to haunt them. They had tried to get to different points along the course, but missed me every time and arrived at the finish about one and a half hours after I had. I felt badly that they spent all morning in the car! So, we took a bunch of pictures after the big rush was over. We then went back to the hotel room, where I had never been so happy to see a bed and a shower! I fell asleep for a while before we went out for one last Greek dinner in the Plaka. Actually, I hobbled to dinner. It was pretty hysterical – you could instantly spot anyone who had run the marathon that day. We all had the same exhausted expression and pained gait as we trudged around that night. After dinner we grabbed one last glimpse of the Acropolis lit up at night, when it is most beautiful. We woke up early the next day and headed to the airport several hours earlier than necessary to make sure we could get through Athens traffic.

We all arrived safely back in Düsseldorf. Jenny is now at a soccer tournament in London and will return on Saturday. Tim took off for London for a day, too. And Mom, Shadow, and I are hanging out at the house. I can finally walk normally again, which is good. Hope everyone is doing well!! Drop us a line and let us know what is going on back in the States!! Miss everyone!

Mittwoch, 7. November 2007

Costa del Sol

While I was in Maryland, the rest of the family flew down to Marbella, Spain on the Mediterranean. Before I got there they managed to drive around and get lost several times, so that by the time I arrived they had the directions all figured out. They also managed to explore old town Marbella and visit the cliffside town of Ronda. I can’t go into too many details about those excursions since I wasn’t there, but I do have some pictures. Marbella . . . oranges and limesHere are some of the sites from Old Town in the Plaza de Los Naranjes (Plaza of the Oranges), a Catholic, Church, cute streets, etc. And here is a shot of the gorges around Ronda. It’s a bit scary, especially when driving on skinny roads in a manual car. Here is Jenny in front of the oldest bull-fighting ring in Spain with her attempt at getting two scoops of ice cream. She did get two scoops! But also an extra cone to go with it. Some Spanish boys passing by laughed at her.

On the first day that I was there we went out for a great dinner in Old Town Marbella at a restaurant with a Moroccan-style outdoor courtyard. Jenny had the most memorable dinner – “hung” chicken. Literally. After dinner we went on our usual gelato hunt. By the next morning my jet lag was beginning to wear off. We had nothing in particular planned, so spent our morning exploring the Old Town. We also spent some time down by the pool before mom, Jenny, and I went to a Paella cooking class. They made enough paella for 50 people in this one skillet! I went for a run at sunset on the beach. I actually managed to run at sunset almost every night we were there, which was great. It was so gorgeous!!

On Thursday we took a day trip to Granada, the home of the famous Alhambra, an expansive Moorish city and palace. The drive through the Andalusian region was beautiful – rocky mountains and olive trees at sunrise, with the original Sierra Nevadas in the distance. We got to the Alhambra and went on a tour, which was quite long – roughly three hours. It was very interesting to see though. The Islamic architecture throughout the palaces was very different from the classical European architecture we have been seeing all over the place. Islamic style architecture stresses adorning the inside of the structure, so while the outside may look a little plain, the inside of the palace was meticulously detailed and intricate. There is also a stress on the incorporation of water. Several courtyards within the palaces contained ponds and waterways and were extremely cozy and relaxing. The views down to the main part of Granada were great! And on one of the adjacent hills there were gypsy homes/caves!! After the tour we attempted to see part of downtown Granada, but driving in that town is kind of difficult, so after several failed attempts to find the Old Town of Granada we decided to head back to Marbella.

The next day was our big trip down the coast to Gibraltar. Before this trip I had heard of “The Rock of Gibraltar.” I figured it was an overly large boulder sitting at the mouth of the Mediterranean. In some ways it is, but it is also a lot more. First off, it’s not just a big boulder, but a massive protruding cliff containing a town at its base, castles on it, and caves and tunnels within it. Gibraltar is actually a British colony – the only colony in modern-day Europe. So once you cross into it (with your passport) everything is in English, and fish and chips and Marks and Spencer abound. And it is also home to a group of wild monkeys, likely pets brought over hundreds of years ago. The first thing you have to cross when you enter Gibraltar is a one-lane airstrip. We decided to take a tour around Gibraltar by van with a guide. It was actually a great way to go. Mom may disagree since she hates skinny, high-up roads, and these were pretty much the worst I have ever seen. And we did it in a manual car. Our tour guide was extremely interesting and had just missed being voted into the local Parliament by one vote. Too bad. We started up the Rock and looked towards Africa, which is 15km away. You can see the Atlas Mountains in Morocco easily on a clear day! We then entered St. Michael’s Cave, one of many naturally-formed caves within the Rock. St. Michael’s holds a concert hall, where the Mounds View Orchestra has actually played a concert before on one of their European tours!

After the caves we headed up to the heights of the Rock, where the monkeys hang out. They are extremely used to human contact, but you still have to be careful with them. We kept our van windows closed, as monkeys have been know to jump in and steal your bags. Check out this monkey riding on the top of the van in front of us! Our driver even had a plastic snake in the van to keep them away. It freaked me out a little, too. Jenny wanted to have a monkey sit on her shoulders, which you can do. But some of the monkeys got in a fight in front of us and made a show of their enormous teeth. They would bite, so I was not disappointed that Jenny decided against having one of them on her shoulders after that. I was really psyched about this part of the rock because clouds were forming right in front of our eyes!! Wind was coming up and over the eastern side of the rock and materializing into white smoke. It was sooooo cool! I think I got a lot more excited about that than anyone else. If I haven’t said it already, the views from anywhere on the Rock are absolutely amazing, as I’m sure you can tell from the pics.

Then we moved onto the military tunnels inside the Rock of Gibraltar. As a precaution during WWII, the British built tunnels in the rock and armed them with cannons in case the Germans ever decided to attack. Luckily, the tunnels never had to be used, but they were cool to see. We also walked through the old Moorish castle halfway up the rock and took in our last elevated views before heading back into the town of Gibraltar. We walked back out of Gibraltar (which is faster than driving because of the traffic), but had to wait for planes to land and take off first. I don’t think I’ve ever been that close to an active runway before. Here is all the traffic lined up , waiting to cross. Once the planes were gone, we were supposed to walk across “as quickly as possible” – that’s a little scary. I think we all enjoyed our day trip to Gibraltar. It was one of the most interesting and eclectic places I have ever been to, and I hadn’t really known it existed before.

We grabbed a nice seafood dinner by the beach in Marbella for our last night. The next morning we took one last trip to the Old Town before catching our plane back to Düsseldorf.

Back in the USA!

I headed back to the States for a visit in the beginning of October. I flew into Washington D.C. and stayed in the city for the night with my friend Liz from high school. I got in somewhat late, but we still had time to eat the green curry she and Dave had made for dinner before heading out to Dupont Circle for a drink. Since it was a work night, and the trains shut down at 12, we didn’t stay out too late. Omar was still able to come meet us, though! We woke up early the next morning and Liz and I met Omar at Cosi for breakfast in the city. S’mores for breakfast – delicious and nutritious. We chatted for a bit until I had to run to catch my train to North Carolina. I rode down to Winston-Salem to visit Katie at med-school at Wake Forest. The packed train arrived late and Katie was probably starving by the time I got in. We went to Mellow Mushroom (which I now know is a chain) for dinner. Very good, as always. We stopped by First Street, the bar close to the hospital and her apartment, where an 80’s cover band was playing outside, and I met a bunch of her med-school classmates.

The next morning we slept in, watched some Food Network, and then drove out to Salem Lake to run. It was great! I haven’t seen a lake in a long time! The only problem was that the trail wasn’t well-marked all the way around, so we wound up running a little farther than we needed to in the HOT weather. After we got back to the apartment I went for another 7-mile run – it’s getting to the point where I have to run long distances for marathon training on the weekends. After my run we went to an Oktoberfest party at one of Katie’s classmate’s houses. It was a lot of fun - there was a lot of good food and beer, and everyone brought their dogs. I heard quite a few med-school jokes that I didn’t get, but I didn’t mind. After the party, while everyone else watched the LSU game, Katie and I went to the Dixie Classic Fair, which reminded me a lot of the MN State Fair. Unfortunately, we made it there too late to see the pig races, but we did get to try fried candy bars/Oreos and see fireworks!

The next morning Katie gave me a tour of the WF Medical School, we grabbed Jersey Mike’s, and then went hiking at Hanging Rock Park. Hanging Rock looked eerily like Humpback Rock, but had a couple of water falls to see, too. After a nice afternoon outside, we got back to town and went out for good North Carolina BBQ, with sweet tea. This was my first experience with sweet tea. I loved it, but went a bit overboard. I had five cups – the sugar content of which kept me up most of the night. We also made a stop by Krispy Kreme because the “HOT NOW” sign was on – sooooo good! After eating we went over to the main Wake Forest campus to see the two med-school football teams face each other in the intramural playoffs. High stakes. It was fun to watch! Here is Katie and a lot of the WF Class of 2011. After the game, we went home and tried to get some sleep before the late night trip to the train station in High Point – the only train that services Winston-Salem and goes to Charlottesville is one hour away and leaves at 3:30am every day – very convenient. And there are no buses that run there at that time of night, so Katie had to drive me. Thank you soooooooooooo much Katie!!!

I arrived in Charlottesville around 8am the next day, where Kat picked me up. I made it back to the new apartment on University Circle, said hi to everyone, probably ate some brownie mix, and then took a long nap – I seemed to have fallen right back into the college schedule. I spent a lot of time at UVA hanging out at the apartment and talking to whoever was home at the time. Murph and I went out for dinner one night, as well as Arch’s, and Kat and I went to trivia at Mellow Mushroom another night. Amazingly, with just a team of two, we didn’t finish last! We also went to Revolutionary Soup for the first time (at least for me), which was good, and we had dumplings at some point, too! On Friday night a lot of the alums were back in town for Homecoming weekend. Kate and Katie got to UVA and the three of us and Kat went out to Buddhist. We had a sleepover, woke up the next morning and went running. Kate, Katie, and Kat ran to the downtown mall to get dumplings while I took off to finish my longest training run before the marathon – 20 miles. Later in the day, Kat and I jumped in the car and drove up to Northern Virginia for dinner at her house, where I got to meet her new puppy! Then we finished the last hour of the drive to Frederick, Maryland for Sara and Steven’s wedding. Luckily, the hotel we stayed at had a hot tub, which we made sure to use both nights. On Sunday we woke up and got a massive breakfast to go from IHOP. Then got dressed and went up into the mountains to Ostertag Vistas for the wedding! It was a great day out and the ceremony was beautiful. Short, too – only about 15 minutes. Then everyone went over to the refurbished barn for food, drinks, and bluegrass music. Kat and I stayed until we saw Sara and Steven off in the limo before we went back to the hotel and hot tub. We woke up really early the next morning so that Kat could get back to UVA and I took the train into D.C. I hung out in a coffee shop for the morning, reading and eating BAGELS (which I can’t get in Düsseldorf). I checked my luggage at a hotel and wandered around for the rest of the day. I went to the International Spy Museum, met Kate Meehan for lunch at Dupont Circle, and wound up in the Mall where the Solar Decathlon (a contest for solar-powered homes) was going on. That was really interesting. There was something like 30 teams, each with a model home powered completely by the sun. I think two of the teams were international, one of which was German. And, of course, the Germans won it all – they are really on top of a lot of environmental issues. By this time the day was winding down and it was time for me to get back to the airport to fly through Detroit and Düsseldorf to get to Spain.