USADA – Proof that we no longer reside in a Democracy?

I woke up this morning to the news I had hoped I would never hear – Seven-time Tour de France winner Lance Armstrong had given up his fight against the USADA and, like jackals in the night, the agency moved in swiftly for the kill – stripping Armstrong of all seven of his Tour titles. Forget that the agency has no jurisdiction to strip Tour de France titles. Forget that they violated their own statute of limitations of eight years in bringing charges going back as far as 1996. Forget due process and the burden of proof and anything remotely resembling fairness. Forget it all. We no longer live in a Democracy.

Just this past February, US Federal prosecutors, led by Jeff Novitsky – the man who brought down Barry Bonds and Roger Clemmons – closed their investigation, which had been brought before a grand jury. After a lengthy subpoena process during which former teammates and international cycling officials were interviewed, blood and urine samples examined and all evidence thoroughly scoured, Novitsky threw in the towel. The evidence he had would not hold water in a court of law. Lance had been vindicated, it seemed.

If only Federal prosecutors were not subject to standards of proof – if only they did not have to deal with a pesky jury – if only they could cast aside due process and adjudicate on a whim. If only another organization not tethered to standards of fairness and law could take up this case…

Enter Travis Tygart and the goons of the United States Anti-Doping Agency

Created in 1999 (ironically, the same year as Armstrong’s first Tour victory) at the recommendation of the U.S. Olympic Committee to address and regulate the anti-doping campaign of the USOC – the mission of this quasi-governmental agency is to manage the anti-doping programs for Olympic, Pan-American and Paralympic sport in the United States. The USADA is not a government entity and as such is not subject to the aforementioned Constitutional standards of proof and due process. Yet, it receives a majority of its funding by tax-payer dollars through the Office of National Drug Control Policy. The non-profit status of the USADA also allows them to prosecute athletes with a lower burden of proof than the “beyond a reasonable doubt” standard that the Department of Justice would have had to adhere to. Uncomfortable yet? It gets worse.

An article by Tim Dockery on the website xtri.com provides a chilling account of the inner-workings of the USADA’s tribunal process. The basics are as follows:

• Travis Tygart and his USADA staff serve the accused wrong-doer (in this instance, Lance Armstrong), with a letter accusing him of violating Anti-doping rules. As evidence of this charge, only prior drug tests (that Armstrong passed) and anonymous witnesses are cited.
• Armstrong then had ten days to provide a written response to a review board hand-picked by Tygart. He was not given the opportunity to personally appear in front of this review board, nor was he provided the names of the “witnesses” who accused him.
• This hand-picked “review board” reviews the evidence and decides whether the case should go to a full arbitration hearing, which in similar fashion to the review board, is a kangaroo court made up of Tygart-approved “yes men” who make a ruling.
• Unsurprisingly, cases that are prosecuted by the USADA are successful over 95% of the time.
• At this point, Tygart and the USADA board recommend sanctions, which include lifetime bans, stripping of titles and the like.
• No appeals process, no opportunity to cross-examine witnesses (who, in Armstrong’s case were all proven dopers offered immunity for their testimony), and apparently no thought or consideration as to the fact that the USADA has no jurisdiction to even conduct such an investigation, much less administer sanctions.

Dockery rightly points out in his article that in 2012 – a year when we sent our Olympians into competition in London – the USADA spent a vast majority of its time and resources not assuring the compliance of those Olympians (which, it should be reiterated, is the mission of the organization and the sole reason for its existence), but rather going after a 40 year old retired cyclist with unsubstantiated allegations of wrong-doing going back some 17 years.

Some men do great things in this world. Some men are achievers, strivers and world-changers. Other men exist, it seems, solely to tear great men down – haunted by their own shortcomings and the frustrations of otherwise insignificant lives. Decide for yourself who is the former and who is the latter in this case.

The USADA has made a mockery of justice. Their corrupt abuse of power is flagrant and shocking. I would expect this in North Korea, or Iran or the former Soviet Union, where tyrants and personal vendettas and secretive, one-sided hearings leave innocents subject to the abuse of the State. That this happened here leaves me wondering; do we even live in a Democracy anymore? If Lance Armstrong can be stripped of seven Tour titles without one iota of physical evidence, what’s next? Who’s next?

Still the champ…

In the meantime, Lance will move on. He will continue to raise millions for cancer victims through his wildly successful Livestrong organization. He will continue to live a good life and maybe one day the USADA will be discredited and his trophies will be returned – because he will always be the winner of seven Tours de France – nothing can change that. Until then, at least he no longer has to wallow in the mud with Tygart and his minions.

Two Quick Beers – Our first Night in Czech Republic

Plesiste, Czech Republic – circa August, 2011 

One of the most anticipated aspects of our trip to Czech last August was going with our friend Martin to his family cottage in the tiny village of Plesiste. We had heard, of course, the stories about the village and the Friday evening ritual of “Two Quick Beers” – that time-honored tradition, when Martin joins his father and two friends from the village (Jeff and Duje) at an ancient pub in the next village, doing what people do at pubs across the world at week’s end – trading stories, renewing friendships and drinking beer. Hearing about it was one thing – experiencing it was something we will never forget.

We arrived in Prague early on a Friday morning, after flying all night from New York’s JFK. When Martin picked us up and drove us back to his apartment in the city we were exhausted, having been up for most of the last 24 hours. Wanting to adjust to the new time zone as quickly as possible though, we decided on a short nap just to take the edge off. Martin had big plans for our weekend, which included the trip to Plesiste, a quadrathlon (kayak, swim, bike, run) in his hometown of Sedlcany (Melissa and I would be part of a relay team), and some sightseeing on the way back to Prague on Sunday.

As we made the hour drive south toward Sedlcany, the modern, urban feel of Prague gradually gave way to a more rustic scene of rolling hills and little river towns and clusters of centuries old homes with red-tiled roofs. We noticed dozens of people on bicycles – not cycling for exercise, exactly, but to get from place to place – a means of transportation, and that seemed to us at once both quaint and progressive.

As the scenery became more rural by the mile, it seemed the temperature dropped in corresponding degrees. When we left Raleigh it was classic August weather – hot and humid. Perfect for growing tomatoes, but not so comfortable for people. So the temperature change was cathartic and soothing as we drove along, taking in the scenery.

We stopped in Sedlcany to meet our friends Tomas and Pavlina and pick up race packets for the next day’s quadrathlon. Martin and Tomas grew up in Sedlcany and kayaked together on various teams, Martin eventually rising to the Czech National Kayak team. We had met them in 2009 while in Cozumel, when Martin and Tomas and our friend Jess did the Ironman there (Melissa and I were spectators that year, then did the race a year later). Despite the language barrier we became fast friends, so it was wonderful to see them and their new addition, “Little” Tomas. We had a beer and a delicious lunch in town then picked up our race packets for the quadrathlon. We made plans to meet the next morning before the race, then said our goodbyes and made the 15-mile drive west to Plesiste.

Plesiste is a village of just eleven cottages and the paved road actually dead ends there. When you arrive in Plesiste, you have come both literally and figuratively to the end of the road. Evidence of inhabitants in this village dates back to the 1330’s, some 160 years before Columbus stumbled haphazardly upon the New World. It seems there was a fort here that was used by local bandits. The name Plesiste comes from the word “pelesit”, which roughly translated, means a den. In this case, Plesiste was where the bandits spent time between invasions, sleeping, plotting and I imagine, drinking copious amounts of alcohol.

Dvorak cottage – Plesiste, Czech Republic

Martin’s family has owned this property for generations and the cottage was built in the 1920’s. It is built of stone, covered with plaster, and like nearly all of the buildings there, has a red tile roof. The interior consists of two bedrooms, and a central kitchen. There is also a bed situated atop the hearth in the kitchen and in the wintertime this is the best place to be, because of the radiating heat from the wood-burning stove underneath. There is an ancient stone barn next to the cottage whose roof collapsed due to heavy snow years ago. It’s walls still stand, witness to a century of history.

One of my favorite features of the cottage was the outhouse. There was no working toilet at the time of our visit, giving the place a woodsy, Arcadian feel. I had heard stories of outhouses from my Mother’s childhood days and of course my Grandparents told many similar stories, but I had never experienced it myself. I was thrilled. It was just as I imagined an outhouse should be,

Relax, this was a re-enactment.

complete with a Czech newspaper, of which I could not read a word, but somehow enjoyed just holding, looking over the pictures and indecipherable text. I cannot quite explain my excitement at the outhouse other than the novelty of it and the connectedness to earlier times it represented. Martin assured me that my enthusiasm for it would be greatly tempered if experienced at night during a Czech winter, and I suppose I can see his point. (Since our visit, Martin told us a running toilet has been installed, which disappointed me greatly).

There was a peacefulness to this place, and it reminded me vaguely of certain sections of Western North Carolina – cool, hilly, rustic and clannish – a throwback to earlier times. I could feel my pulse slow as soon as we arrived.

There are only three permanent residents in the village – our soon to be friend, Jeff being one of them, and the cottages are somewhat spread out. Because of the hills, it is difficult to tell who is home and who is not. To address this, Martin’s dad took to raising a Czech flag atop a tall pole at the upper corner of the old barn. If the flag is up, the Dvoraks are home. And so Martin raised the red, white and blue of the Czech banner and we readied ourselves for the evening festivities.

A little later, around 6pm, Martin’s Dad arrived from Sedlcany, where he lives during the week. Duje walked over from his cottage, a hundred yards or so away. Finally, Jeff walked over from his home, also within a stones throw. All three of them wore matching striped shirts and comical-looking black eyeglass frames. They joked and laughed in that easy way of old friends, and we felt it a special treat to be a part of the whole scene. They had known each other forever and made it a point to never miss their Friday night Two Quick Beers sessions – not even in the dead of winter. “Two Quick Beers”, by the way, was named with tongue firmly planted in cheek, because it typically is a lengthy affair, which involves considerably more than two beers.

After introductions to Duje and Jeff, Martin suggested we make our way to the pub. We would be making the three-mile trek from Plesiste to a pub in the village Brzina by mountain bike through rolling fields and farmland. The route to the pub, Martin explained, was mostly down hill. Coming back later that night though, we would again be on mountain bikes, in the dark, going up hill and likely, quite besotted. It was going to be an interesting evening.

A 500 year-old pub and newfound friends 

It was around 7pm as we began the short mountain bike ride and the sun was starting its gradual descent, casting a hazy, orange hue along the horizon. Already, it was cooling considerably and we brought along sweatshirts for later that evening. Riding through the fields, we were the subject of suspicious and disapproving glances by a small herd of cows. We inhaled that invigorating aroma that you can only get in the country, late in the summer – the rich, vaguely sweet smell of loamy soil and damp grass and clean, pine-tinged air, with the faint aroma of wood smoke from a fire off in the distance. It was the scent of green – summer’s late season perfume and it was wonderful.

About halfway, we stopped at a bridge over a good-sized stream, which is also named Brzina. Here, we were introduced to one of their Friday night customs. Duje passed around an unrecognizable bottle, which turned out to be a Croatian liqueur (he is originally from Croatia), and we toasted each other while all taking shots. It tasted vaguely like Jegermeister and was warm going down. While Jeff and Martin’s father spoke to each other in Czech, Martin and Duje – the only bilingual ones of the group – translated, and Melissa & I just listened and enjoyed. As the warmth of the liqueur settled into our stomachs and the stream purled beguilingly below us, we exchanged knowing smiles – we could not think of anywhere in the world we would rather be.  After another mile or so of slow peddling through brush and single track, we made it to the village of Brzina.

The pub here is over 500 years old, which I found astounding. Even more incredible, the only major structural change in the building in half a millennia was an upgrade from the original thatched roof to the now standard red clay tile. Originally, the pub was a “coaching inn”, where people could exchange their horses for a fee. The bridge we had crossed earlier was, in the early days, the only place to ford the stream for miles in either direction, so fresh horses were in high demand. As stories go, members of the ruling class hid in the inn during the Swedish invasion of the 16th Century. In return for this safe harbor, the owners of the inn were excused from paying taxes – an arrangement I would imagine pub owners everywhere would gladly accept today.

There were only two other people there when we arrived, and after depositing our bikes in a nearby shed, we sat with them at a long table in the main room. They were regulars and known by everyone in our group, and after Martin made introductions, we sat there, listening to the banter. From time to time Martin would interpret a portion of the conversation, and we chatted with Duje as well, but mostly we just listened and took it all in. The lady who runs the pub – a grandmotherly type with a happy, warm smile and sparkling blue eyes – filled gigantic mugs for everyone with a magnificent locally brewed Czech pilsner. After we toasted again and conversation started back up, I just looked around the room and thought about the years and centuries of Friday nights just like this that people have spent in this tiny pub.

Two quick beers

A few minutes after pouring the beer, she brought out wonderful, warm rye bread and the most incredible cheese I have ever tasted. White and soft (like my rapidly expanding belly), the cheese resembled brie. It was marinated in olive oil and garlic and onions, and when combined with the warm rye and fresh beer, produced gastric bliss the likes of which I have rarely experienced. My mouth is watering as I type this paragraph.

After a while, we moved into a dining room area adjacent to the main bar, where we continued stuffing ourselves with gusto. About the time I thought I couldn’t take in another bite, the wife of one of the men we joined earlier brought a homemade apple strudel. Flaky, sweet and perfectly baked – wars have been fought over less desirable things. It was piping hot, fresh out of the oven and impossibly good. With deep, determined breaths, we managed to find some extra room and the gluttony continued. Just when we were ready to burst, the pub owner brought us another round of beers and shots of some Czech liqueur of dubious origins that caused me to loose feeling in my extremities for a short time.

I thought we would surely have to spend the night right there. There was no way we were going to attempt to mountain bike back to Plesiste. To do so would be to flirt with calamity. But deep down inside, I knew we were going to bike back, uphill in the dark while attempting to stifle violent gastric revolt. We were with Martin, after all, and fun is always accompanied by low level fear, nagging discomfort or a vague sense of dread – sometimes all three. He always takes you out of your comfort zone and although you curse him for it in the moment, it always results in laughs and good stories later on. This night would be no exception.    

Peddling by the light of a Bohemian moon 

Martin and Duje prepare for the ride back to Plesiste

Finally, when we could eat and drink no more, we paid our tab in Czech Korunas which, after conversion, ended up costing around $30 US – for all of us – a very inexpensive evening and we were happy that Czech had not adopted the Euro. We bid the pub owner goodbye, thanking her for her hospitality, then waddled slowly into the cool night. It had dropped a good twenty degrees or so since our arrival several hours before and we were glad to have the sweatshirts. We collected the bikes, donned our headlamps and started peddling into the inky darkness.

What was easy downhill peddling before now turned into an uphill slog through muddy, rutted single track. Martin and Duje were in front and I was doing my best to keep sight of them. Melissa was behind me, followed by Martin’s Dad. At one point there was a sudden rise in the trail and I lost momentum in the soft mud, falling over into the tall grass, resulting in a machine gun staccato of colorful phrases. I got back on the bike and with great effort, managed to turn the crank of the pedals and regain momentum. I could still see the jumpy beams of Martin and Duje’s headlamps up ahead, so just kept going as best as I could amid the ominous rumblings from my bloated stomach.

Things look different at night, and I recognized nothing about the trail. It was a little disconcerting as I realized that I would never, ever find my way back to Plesiste if left on my own and this provided adequate motivation to keep peddling.

After re-crossing the stream, things felt a little more familiar and soon after we came to a strenuous uphill section in a large, open field. Everyone’s heart was pounding from the effort, so we paused about half way up to rest and take in the spectacular full moon. There was a valley down below us and Duje explained that in this spot, your voice would carry forever, then ricochet off the valley walls back to you in a pronounced echo.  We each took turns, literally howling at the moon and listening to the valley’s retort. Standing there in the dark, howling at the moon – now this was fun.

After making it back to the village, we parted ways with Duje and Jeff and readied for bed. We had started our day in North Carolina some 36 hours earlier and found ourselves now in a tiny village, deep in the heart of old Bohemia. It was the first night of our trip – my first to Europe and Melissa’s second. And though we should have been well past exhausted, we just stared at each other with big, goofy grins on our faces, thinking about what we had just done. Before long, we faded off to sleep in the bed atop that kitchen hearth and slept like we had never slept before.

It was the start of an incredible ten days in Czech Republic.

 

Eating Our Way Through Paris – Part III

It was Saturday, the last day of June, and we decided to start off with a long walk down the Champs Elysees to the Louvre. As we walked, we were continually awestruck by the sheer volume of magnificent architecture. We were especially taken by the great, glass-domed Grand Palais, which was built for the Universal Exposition of 1900, and today houses a science museum. We considered stopping in for a look, but with only three full days in Paris we had to prioritize, so opted to keep moving toward the Louvre.

Between the Grand Palais and the large roundabout at Place Concorde, workers were setting up bleachers along the boulevard to accommodate the thousands of people who would descend upon the city to witness the finale of the Tour de France in three weeks. It was exciting to think about what that day would be like, and we longed to be a part of that. We had briefly considered catching a stage of the tour on our trip, but it started this year over 200 miles north of Paris in Liege, Belgium, making the logistics more difficult than we cared to tackle.

We crossed over to Rue de Rivoli and continued on toward the Louvre, taking in the shops along the way and passing the great ferris wheel, making a mental note to check it out later. When we finally reached the museum, we stood agog at the size and scope of it.

Of course, we expected this – we had read that it would take nine months of daily visits to see every piece in the museum. But until you see it, until you are faced with the utter enormity of the place, you just cannot truly appreciate it. We entered through the modern glass pyramid in the courtyard and rode an escalator down to the visitor’s entrance where we purchased tickets. We took a seat in the museum café where we sipped coffee (even museum lounge coffee is, predictably, excellent in Paris) and tried to formulate a plan of attack.

The museum is housed in the Louvre Palace, which was constructed in the 12th Century as a fortress under Phillip II. Over the years it was expanded and repurposed many times, finally opening as a museum in 1793. Under Napoleon’s reign, the museum’s collection increased greatly and it was renamed the “Musee Napoleon”, proving on a grand scale the extent of Napoleon’s unparalleled narcissism.

The museum’s collection continued to grow throughout the years, eventually culminating in the modern Louvre we know today. It is the most visited museum in the world, containing nearly 400,000 objects and 35,000 works of art from Egyptian antiquities to Greek and Roman statuary to, of course, Leonardo da Vinci’s “Mona Lisa”, the most famous painting in the world. For a guy more accustomed to traveling Norman Rockwell exhibits, it was overwhelming.

We spent about an hour looking around, which included a brief and pleasantly non-crowded viewing of the Mona Lisa. By the time we saw her, we interpreted her mysterious hint of a smile to mean that there was more to see in Paris, and it was much too nice a day to hang around indoors. We felt that she was telling us, in her oh-so-subtle way, that if she were us she’d go ride the ferris wheel. Who were we to argue?

Feeling a sudden bout of claustrophobia, we exited the museum, thankful to be back outdoors and walked the short distance over to the ferris wheel. Here where we were happy to find barely a line at all. We thoroughly enjoyed both the rest and the views as the big wheel went around three times over the next twenty minutes. By the time it came to a stop, we were famished, and made our way to the Bis Repitita, just off Rue de Rivoli. We took an outdoor table in the shade and both ordered quiche and 1664 Beer. We were starting to feel the miles in our legs and realized that we had not fully recovered from the Ironman, just six days before. So we took our sweet time, savoring each bite and discussing where we would go next.

We walked over to the Musee de Deportees, which is dedicated to the French victims of Nazi Germany. Over 160,000 residents of France, including over 70,000 Jews and 11,000 children were deported to Nazi camps, a vast majority of whom were efficiently and unceremoniously murdered by the German government.

The monument was situated on the banks of the Seine and we walked down an outdoor flight of stairs to the entrance. A guard stood sentry and, in a quiet voice, asked everyone who entered to be silent and respectful. There was heaviness in the air there and a palpable sadness. We felt a million miles away from the cheerful, bustling sidewalks just a few dozen feet away.

I had recently read a book about Auschwitz, and was reminded of the horrible atrocities as we read the names of the concentration camps in stone, ringing the monument’s upper walls. We lingered for a while, taking it all in and attempting to wrap our minds around the numbers involved. Before long, we walked back out into the sunshine, not quite understanding how something like that could happen. We walked in silence for quite a while, making our way across the Seine and over to Notre Dame Cathedral.

Notre Dame, the purported home to Jesus’ crown of thorns, and perhaps the finest example of French Gothic architecture in the world, was completed in 1345 after nearly two centuries of construction. Imagine a prominent building, say in Washington D.C., which had its cornerstone laid in 1832 – when Andrew Jackson was President. Now imagine this building being completed this year. Things like this tend to recalibrate the sense of age and history in the mind of an American.

There was a huge crowd lined up to get into the sanctuary – hundreds of people ringing the exterior of the building. As we walked to the rear of the great church, I was surprised by the poor condition of the many gargoyles, which formed water spouts along the roofline. Many of them had crumbled extensively, and some were completely unrecognizable. Some of this was due to the ravages of time and some was likely due to sporadic vandalism over the centuries, most notably during the French Revolution of the late 1700’s. A program of restoration was begun in 1991 and was originally intended to last only ten years, but is still ongoing today. I suspect it may go on for quite some time.

After Notre Dame, we decided to head back to the hotel. We stopped, as was our custom, on the way back for a beer at Café LeCarre on Avenue de Franklin Roosevelt, just off of Champs de Elysees. After two straight days of heavy walking, we were beat.

That night, we took at cab to a wonderful brasserie on the other side of the Arc, L’Auberge Dab. This was the best meal we had in Paris. After a 30 minute wait, during which we sipped a crisp white wine and inhaled the perfumed early evening air, we were seated by a window in the back of the restaurant. We started with bread and tapenade, then ordered steak carpaccio, which nearly brought me to tears. From there, Melissa ordered grilled tribat, a succulent white fish, and I had roasted lamb. We finished with crème brulee and espresso.

We didn’t leave the restaurant until almost 11:30pm. We had planned an after-dinner walk to a nearby hotel for live jazz, but were utterly exhausted by the time we finished coffee and dessert. We hailed a cab and once again, collapsed back at the hotel.

One last day in Paris

We started Sunday like every day in Paris, with breakfast at the hotel – always good and always free. We planned to check out some of Paris’ markets, which was a recommendation from Melissa’s sister, Jenny. We were looking forward to a little less walking today and a decidedly laid back itinerary.

On the way to the markets, we decided to check out the Musee d’Orsay – a former railroad station built circa 1900. It holds works from mostly French artists from the late 19th and early 20th Centuries, including Monet, Manet, Renoir, Degas, Van Gogh and many more. We intended to see it the day before but arrived just before closing. When we arrived on Sunday there were hundreds of people in line and, eerily, a half dozen or so armed French soldiers with automatic rifles standing guard. Not wanting to stand in line, and a little put-off by the machine guns, we reluctantly bid adieu to Monet and Company and kept walking.

This was the coolest day in Paris by far – high in the mid 60’s – and as we read headlines of the brutal heat wave back home, we made a concerted effort to enjoy the comfortable cool while we could.

We found the open-air food market first, on the Blvd Raspal, and we were immediately taken in by the wonderful smells of baked goods and fish and beef and desserts and every imaginable kind of food. The market went on for several blocks and we were starving by the time we exited. We had lunch at Le Deux Magots, which I can assure you was much better than the name might suggest.

My favorite part about Paris was sitting at the cafes and brasseries, facing the sidewalk, sipping beer or coffee, people-watching. The thing about Paris and people-watching is that there is no pretense. There are no furtive, sidelong glances from inward facing tables. In Paris, the chairs and tables face out, toward the sidewalk, unabashedly, as if an audience watching street performers. And sometimes, while walking along, it feels as if you are on stage.

After, along Boulelvard Edgar Quinet, we walked through the Art market, which was also open-air, stretching for several blocks. Booth upon booth of antiques, paintings, sculpture and even hand made furniture – it was very cool and perfect for walking. Since it was Sunday, the crowds were light, which added to the experience.

Following that, we had coffee and dessert and Le Café de la Place and we sat down just as a jazz trio was setting up across the street under some trees. As we sipped our café au lait in the shade of a canopy, it was cool enough to remind us of fall. It was nearly 4pm on a perfect Sunday. We were pleasantly fatigued, and happy.

That night we lamely decided to order room service and watch a movie – Bridesmaids – in the hotel room, succumbing to our exhaustion. Criticize if you will, but it was awesome. We’d walked dozens of miles, eaten well, and seen much. This night, we drank and ate and laughed and luxuriated in the comfort of our hotel room. We felt not one bit of guilt about whatever Parisian delights we missed that night. We packed for our flight home the next day, and we drifted off to sleep, tired and happy.

The airport and then home

After a stress-inducing 70 Euro cab ride to the airport the next morning, we experienced the unparalleled cluster-fuck that is Charles De Gaul International Airport. It was monument to France and her many idiosyncrasies. Beautiful, yet functionally inept, it was total chaos.

Check-in at Delta was so bad that many people were running desperately late for their flights. Airline attendants gave their attention to those who yelled the loudest or who physically accosted them in the most compelling manner.

There was no order whatsoever. People were shoving each other. Some were crying. You got a sense of how very thin the veneer of social civility actually is. The whole scene brought to mind the footage of 1975 Saigon, as the last helicopters took off from atop the US Embassy. There was desperation in the air.

We arrived in what would have been plenty of time in Chicago or Atlanta – both considerably higher-volume airports – but made the flight by the skin of our teeth in Paris after struggling mightily through check-in and customs. But we did make it, and even had a few minutes to stop for sandwiches at a shop on the way to the gate. We were going home.

On the plane, we both thought and talked a lot about our trip. One of our greatest and most pleasant surprises was the warmth of the Parisian people. We experienced that in Nice as well, but Nice is a beach town, heavy with Italian influence, so that was not a complete surprise. But Paris – we didn’t know what to expect. You hear stories of their snippiness – of their rudeness, towards Americans in particular. This was not our experience of Paris.

Politeness and a simple “Bonjour” will take you a long way. Smile, be pleasant – be a decent human being – and Parisians will treat you well. They do tend to be somewhat reserved in nature, and that may be the root of their sullen reputation. But don’t mistake reserve for sullenness. They warm up if you treat them well – if you treat them the way your mother taught you to treat people.

We arrived home, tired but thrilled with the experiences and memories we’d created. We knew we would be richer for it, although our bank account does not currently reflect that.

I know these blogs are entirely self-indulgent. I appreciate those that read them, and empathize with those that do not. The world went on as usual during the eleven days that we were gone, and what we experienced is monumentally insignificant in the grand scheme of things. But it meant a lot to us, and as all travel tends to do, it changed us in ways that we might not even understand for years to come. As the title of Hemingway’s book would suggest, Paris – and all travel, really – is a moveable feast. You breathe it in and it enters your bloodstream and it becomes a part of you for the rest of your days.

I appreciate the opportunity to share just a bit of it with you.

Eating Our Way Through Paris – Part II

I love Ernest Hemingway. There is something about his simple, straight-forward style of writing and his larger than life personality that has always intrigued me – I know I am not alone in that regard. I started reading “A Moveable Feast” on the plane ride out to Nice. A collection of stories of his time in Paris in the 1920’s, it provides a glimpse into Hemingway’s earliest days as a professional writer.

This followed Hemingway’s formative years as a newspaperman at the Kansas City Star. His subsequent service as an ambulance driver in France during World War I, where he was injured and fell in love with a comely nurse, was the basis for arguably his greatest novel, “A Farewell to Arms”. By the 1920’s, he had left the world of newspaper journalism and dedicated himself to writing fiction full time. He was a member of the American literary ex-pat community in Paris, which included Gertrude Stein, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ezra Pound.

As I sat on the plane reading the first chapter, “A Good Café’ on the Place St Michel”, I was immediately drawn in as he talked of walking in a cold rain to “…a pleasant café’, warm and clean and friendly…”, where he had a café’ au lait and later a rum St. James (and then another), and started to write. He caught the eye of a pretty girl, but was engrossed in his writing – lost in it – until he had worked many hours. After, he looked up and realized with disappointment that the girl had gone, but he was happy with his work, and tired. He ordered oysters “… with their strong taste of the sea…” and cold white wine.

I imagined him there in that good café’, working productively out of the cold and rain and I was drawn into that place. I could see it in my mind, and I could feel the cool humidity of the room and the dampness of his clothes. I could hear the barista’s clinking of cups and saucers in the background and could smell the light fragrance of the girl’s perfume and the roasted almond aroma of the coffee. Reading this, I knew we would have to take some time to wander the city, exploring the Latin Quarter particularly, in search of some of Hemingway’s old haunts. Which particular café’ he referred to in that chapter is lost to the dust bin of history, but he mentions other cafes and residences which would be easy enough to find.

Hemingway had me excited about Paris.

Friday

After breakfast at the hotel, which was excellent and free, we wandered out onto Avenue de Wagram – one of the main boulevards that spoke into the great roud-a-bout circling the Arc de Triumphe. We wanted to get a closer look at the Arc and figured we would start there since it was so close. We were a little confused when we did not see a crosswalk and were not about to attempt a crossing of the four lanes of furiously circling traffic. We turned left and crossed over several streets to the famous Avenue des Champs Elysees, where we found a staircase leading to an underground tunnel, which led in turn to the Arc.

We ascended out of the tunnel and found ourselves under the great arc itself. We were again in awe of the sheer size of the structure. Sixteen stories tall and 145 feet wide, it is much larger than I imagined it. The main arch is 98 feet tall and 48 feet wide, while the smaller, side arches are 61 feet high. Inscribed on its massive walls are the names of over 500 French generals and the names of the major French victories of the Napoleonic Wars. Underneath the Arc is a monument to the Unknown Soldiers of the World Wars, including an “eternal flame”. This flame inspired Jaqueline Kennedy to request a similar monument at JFK’s burial site at Arlington National Cemetery and that flame burns to this day.

We considered climbing to the top of the Arc, but the line deterred us. If there was one monument which we were determined to climb, it was the iconic Eiffel Tower, so we made that our next stop.

The Eiffel Tower is quite touristy, but it is absolutely a must do. Designed by Gustave Eiffel and erected for the 1889 World’s Fair, it possibly the most recognizable man-made structure in the world – certainly in France. Approximately 81 stories tall, it surpassed the Washington Monument as the tallest man-made structure in the world and held that title until 1930, with the construction of New York’s Chrysler building.

Most people were in awe of its scope at the time it was built, and it is still awe-inspiring today. There was a line 200 yards long to ride the elevator to the second-level observatory – a line which would take at least two hours – but there was no line whatsoever for those willing to walk.

Not wanting to kill a large part of our day standing in line, and feeling the need for a little exercise after four days of post-race sloth, we opted to take a vertical hike. After a quick security check where a guard had us unzip our backpacks after which he took a casual and non-probing glance inside (there was no groping – these folks would never make it in the TSA), we were on our way up to the first observation deck.

Walking up the Eiffel is not like ascending a typical building stairway for obvious reasons. You are out in the open, exposed to the elements, and very aware of your creeping elevation gain. Only the stair railing and the structural iron latticework separates you from the ground hundreds of feet below. For anyone with a fear of heights (Melissa), it is gut check time. It is 300 steps to the first observation deck. From there, you go another 300 steps to observation deck number two, which stands at 419 feet – some 41 stories off the ground.

You find yourself questioning Eiffel’s sanity and the engineering behind it all. It’s high up there, friends, and we were very happy to find that we did not have to take stairs to the third and highest elevation deck at the top of the structure. Though the original spiral staircase remains, the public must take an elevator car from level two to three. Ok by us.

Tourists to the core – sipping our 10 Euro champagne atop the Eifel Tower

At the top, we paid ten Euros apiece for two plastic flutes of champagne, removing any lingering doubt as to our status as gullible tourists. But hey, we were in Paris, at the top of the Eifel Tower. And we walked halfway there. What the hell, we had earned a champagne toast.

After a lap around the observation deck, which was truly beautiful and awe-inspiring, but also very crowded, we decided to head back down. Eiffel marked off our list, we were anxious to move onto the Hemingway tour.

Hemingway’s Paris

We made our way across the Seine, to Paris’ Left Bank and then walked along the lively Boulevard St. Germain, to Paris’ Latin Quarter. Here, we had lunch at Café Gustave at Rue de Montessuy. Mel had a wonderful quiche and salad, and I had a 1664 beer and a salmon club. It was 70 degrees and cloudy – very comfortable – and our legs welcomed the rest.

It was on this afternoon that we started a pleasing pattern which continued throughout our time in Paris. We walked and ate, then walked a little more, stopping to rest and eat and have a beer. Then we walked some more and had dessert and coffee, and then we walked again. We walked and we ate, we drank and we walked. This is what we did and how we spent our days. We ate as much as we wanted and never felt guilty. We drank before noon and luxuriated in that rare pleasure. We easily walked ten miles a day, but we fueled ourselves lavishly and without reservation.

After lunch we walked a little while longer and then decided to stop for dessert and coffee at what became our favorite restaurant in Paris – Café De Flores on St. Germain. It was an old hang out of Hemingway’s, and is a classic Paris institution. We sat outside and drank café au lait and shared a lemon tart which was just about the best thing I have ever eaten. We took our time and people watched and enjoyed ourselves immensely. Brasserie Lipp – another Hemingway hangout, was right across the street.

From there, we walked several miles to 74 Rue Cardinal-Lemoine – Hemingway’s first apartment in Paris. I imagined that it must have looked very similar in his day, and it was a cool experience to be there – to see what he saw.

Just around the corner was Café Delmar, where we stopped for a beer and more people watching. It was getting late in the day and our energy was sagging. The beer had a rejuvenating effect though and sitting there with the late afternoon sunlight on our faces, watching the world go by, was exactly what I had in mind. In fact, the thought of it was one of the things that motivated me throughout the Ironman. This was our reward.

A dinner of brains and tongue

After leaving Café’ Delmar, we made the long walk back toward our hotel. About halfway back, on the Rue St. Augereau – just a block off St. Germain – we decided to eat at Café Constant. Owned and run by Maison Constant, one of Paris’ up and coming young chefs. Some years ago, he decided to strike out on his own and opened this trendy, low key restaurant in the Eiffel Tower neighborhood.

There was a 30 minute wait when we showed up, so we shoe-horned ourselves in at the bar and ordered white wine while we waited. We were very hungry from the walking, and the gentleman next to us, dining alone and immersed in a book, was working on something that looked and smelled spectacular. I couldn’t quite make out what it was, so I asked the bartender. He pointed to something on the menu and I nodded, totally unenlightened. It looked so good though, that I decided whatever it was, I would order it.

We were seated by an open window which ran floor to ceiling, affording a comfortable evening breeze – a great pleasantry in that crowded room. We placed our orders – me the mystery dish, which the waiter translated as “Crispy Head” – two words that I had never heard uttered in unison, and Melissa ordered the roasted duck and mashed potatoes.

Within minutes, our dishes arrived and I realized, with a slap of bracing reality, just what I had ordered. The Crispy Head consisted of veal brain, which was a full brain and looked, well, like brain, and veal tongue, accompanied by a side of head cheese.

While Melissa happily dined on her duck and potatoes, I took exploratory nibbles on the veal brain. The taste was good but the texture was soft, like overcooked noodles. Had I not been in Paris, I wouldn’t have eaten it, but it was one of those days in life where you just go with it. The tongue was very good. The taste was about the same as the brain, but the texture was like a pork chop – a vast improvement. I couldn’t bring myself to eat the head cheese however. It was gelatinous, cooked fat from the skull cavity. Fighting a suddenly-vigorous gag reflex, I did by best not to look at it.

At least the potatoes were good!

To finish, we had coffee and profiterroles – a delicious pastry filled with ice cream and warm, chocolate fudge. This went a long way toward erasing my memory of head cheese, and we thoroughly enjoyed it.

By the time we ambled fully sated and happy out of the restaurant, it was almost 10pm. A lingering summer daylight lit our way back to the hotel. We collapsed, exhausted but already looking forward to the next day.

Next: the Mona Lisa and a bunch of old naked Greek guys – our visit to the Louvre

Eating Our Way Through Paris – Part I

On Wednesday after the Ironman – our last full day in Nice – it was down to just Melissa and Lori and I. Melissa’s family had moved onto Austria, Martin and Renata were back in Prague and Andre & Joanie were about to head to Czech as well. We celebrated our last night in Nice by dining at Chez Juliette on the narrow, cobbled Rue Rossetti in Nice’s Old Town. We had been trying to eat here all week, but each attempt found it closed. There were no hours on the window and no indication of when it might be open. Nice’s restaurateurs are nothing if not quirky. Luckily for us though, it was open on this night and we were seated at a table on their tiny outdoor patio (I don’t recall us eating a single meal indoors while in Nice and could never figure out why anyone would).

It was worth the wait, friends. Melissa ordered the sea bass & sausage with herb potatoes, Lori chose a wonderful pasta and I went with perfectly grilled pork medallions in a grain mustard sauce. We shared a bottle of cool, dry house white wine, which was a perfect compliment to the food, not to mention a nice way to combat the lingering, early evening heat. As we ate, a jazz trio played nearby and we talked about our plans for the next day – Lori was going to Venice and Melissa & I were headed to Paris. We finished with dessert and coffee – a crème brule which nearly brought me to tears, and espresso.

As we walked along the narrow alleyways and time-worn cobbled streets back toward our apartment, we tried to take it all in one last time – Nice, with all of it’s smells and sights and sounds. Laundry was strung from apartment windows directly above our heads, adding a touch of authenticity – it was a reminder that this was a “real” city where people lived and worked, not just a tourist town. The din of French voices over dinner and drinks, street performers taking smoke breaks and passing the hat for donations, the aroma of fresh bread and good coffee and the pleasing, newfound familiarity of the place after a week of walking its streets. We thought about the spectacular view of the Mediterranean from the balcony of our 6th floor rental apartment on Quai De Etats-Unis, and of eating fresh bread and fruit and coffee there when we woke, overlooking the fragrant morning sea. We would miss this town – our Nice.

Thursday

We decided to take the train to Paris. Although flying would have been about the same price and much faster, neither of us had traveled by train before and we were drawn by the romanticism and novelty of it.

We arrived at the train station in Nice, tickets in hand (we had purchased them earlier in the week), and, not quite knowing the drill, made our way onto the platform to wait. We weren’t quite sure what to do with our luggage. Do you check bags on a train? We had no idea.

As we sat there pondering this and other similarly vexing topics, I started to take it all in. There is something decidedly different and exciting about a train station. Its old school. I imagined all of the people who must have caught trains here over the years and decades past. People in suits and nice dresses, hats and gloves, back in more formal days. Train stations conjure up those images in ways that airports just can’t. Flying commercial is the 21st century’s version of bus travel – done out of necessity and endured. Any romanticism associated with commercial flight died with the advent of the TSA and flip-flops.

We sat at the rail side restaurant, sipping a cold Heineken, snacking on potato chips and reading a London Daily Telegraph – a newspaper still sized the way a newspaper ought to be. 18” wide, unlike the anemic papers back home, which have narrowed with the passing of years and the arrival of the internet and hard economic times. Sitting there sipping my beer, reading the paper in the train station – I was intensely happy.

The 6170 train to Paris pulled into the station right on time. It was the high speed “TGV” train, which travels at speeds up to 100 mph. We boarded the train with minimal confusion and loaded our bags in the appointed luggage area at the front of our car (no checking bags… cool!) We had purchased 2nd class tickets because we didn’t see the need to pay the $60 extra apiece for 1st class and upon finding our seats, were glad we didn’t. There was plenty of room. We sat facing two other seats, only one of which was occupied by a reserved, older man who napped and read the entire trip. The trip would take around six hours and I intended to enjoy every bit of it.

Within minutes of pulling out from the station, Melissa was asleep. I took the opportunity to venture up to the bar, which was only one car up from ours. I ordered a good French pilsner (1664) and sat there watching the countryside roll by, contemplating our trip so far as well as what lay in store for us in Paris. I wrote a bit in my journal, attempting to capture at least some memories of Nice. The trip was already a blur and I vowed to do better about writing while in Paris. I would take my journal everywhere.

By 6:30pm we pulled in at the classic Paris Lyon train station, which was built for the World Exposition of 1900. Despite the crowds and general chaos of the station, we were easily able to navigate our way to the taxi stand (due in no small part to the fact that the word “taxi” in French is spelled T-A-X-I), where we found a cab to take us to the hotel.

Now, if you have never taken a taxi in Paris, you are missing out on some quality entertainment. I clearly know nothing about the personal life of our cab driver, but I don’t think I would be dabbling in the absurd to speculate that he has some anger issues. He was a nice enough fellow at first, helping us with our bags and asking our destination in English. Once he got going though, there was something vaguely demonic about his nature. I’m not sure, but at one point I think we may have struck and killed a pedestrian. It may have been a speed bump – I just don’t know. I didn’t ask questions.

The thing is, all traffic is crazy in Paris. Scooters, motorcycles, cabs, everyday people – they all drive with this aggressiveness and reckless abandon that is truly breathtaking. If the French fought their wars the way Parisians drive, the Nazis wouldn’t have stood a chance. Lane markings mean little and turn lanes are non-existent. If someone wants turn right and they are four lanes over to the left, they will turn right – everyone else be damned. This is followed by the predictable angry cacophony of horns, cursing and hand signals – non of which, by the way, included a middle finger. That would be too obvious, too easy – not stylish enough. Scooters and motorcycles bob and weave, darting suicidally between lanes, filling the slightest of gaps. Even cyclists are daring and fearless. Somehow, it all works out though – we never saw an accident the entire time we were there.

We arrived at our hotel – the Marriott Renaissance, just blocks away from the iconic Arc de Triomphe – and felt as though our time on a great amusement park ride had ended. Though we worried about the emotional health of our driver, we admired his skill and focused aggression, and we were ecstatic that we did not have to drive while in Paris.

Napoleon’s Arc De Triumphe

After a long day of travel and a long week in general, we were worn out. Following a quick rest at the hotel, we showered and walked down to the lobby where we asked the concierge for a dinner recommendation – somewhere within an easy walk, preferably. He reserved us a table at Chez Gabrielle on rue de I’Etoile, just a couple of blocks from the hotel.

As we walked down Aveneue de Wagram from the hotel towards the restaurant, we faced the Arc, and were taken aback by its size and scope. It is truly an impressive structure and a testament to the megalomania of Napolean Boneparte, who had it commissioned in 1806 after his victory at Austerlitz. More about the Arc later.

We dined on steak (me) and some kind of wonderful fish, the likes of which I cannot recall (Melissa). My side was a traditional French potato dish, scalloped and cooked with heavy cream in a small pot. It was unbelievably, sinfully good, and I dared not finish it for fear of entering an irreversible coma for the balance of our trip. We again had a house white wine, which was wonderful, and ended our meal once more with crème brule – the house specialty. The waiter was warm and friendly, the prices were surprisingly reasonable and the atmosphere was just what we were hoping it would be – small and quiet and off the beaten path.

After dinner we made the short walk back to our hotel and were pleasantly surprised by the difference in temperature between Nice and Paris – it was a good twenty degrees cooler.

We collapsed back at the hotel, completely exhausted but looking forward to getting out and about the next day.

Next: A Moveable Feast comes alive

Ironman Nice – Part III

Transition one – T1. The swim to bike transition. It’s a place of refuge between the frantic swim and the 112 mile bike stretching out before you. What eventually comes beyond the bike is immaterial. It never enters your mind at this point. It can’t. The mind cannot process it. For now, you are just thrilled to be out of the water and anxious to start knocking off miles on the bike.

After grabbing my T1 bag, I had a seat and took out a bottle of cold water. It was 7:50am, and I could already feel the heat of the day beginning to settle in. I rinsed the salt out of my mouth, then drank the rest of the bottle. I rummaged around in the bag and began pulling on bike shorts, tri top, socks and shoes, sunglasses, helmet, gloves, etc. A volunteer assisted me with applying sunscreen to my back and shoulders and then I made my way to my bike as quickly as I could in that awkwardly ambling way you are forced to run when wearing bike cleats. I was happy to see that there were still a huge number of bikes in T1, but also knew that a vast majority of them would pass me over the course of the next hundred, plus miles.

The first twelve miles was almost entirely flat, but I knew that at mile 13, there was a brutal, if very short, uphill section. I knew that it began with a left hand turn onto Condamines Road at the 13 mile marker, so knew to gear down into my easiest gear as soon as the left turn appeared ahead. Sure enough, as soon as I made the turn, the asphalt reared up like a startled beast – an uncomfortable 10% grade (which looked and felt more like 20%). It was only a 500 meter climb, but it was a genuine struggle to keep forward motion. I knew that this would be the steepest, if not the most difficult climb of the day.

After passing the village of Tourettes, (whose name made me wonder if the syndrome had been christened to commemorate the spontaneous cursing by cyclists in this area), we were treated to the first real downhill section of the race. It would be a while before we saw anymore downhill, so I tried to enjoy this brief respite to the fullest extent. I was feeling good, keeping to our nutrition plan of 300 calories an hour, plus all the fluids I could drink. I was not feeling any ill effects from the swallowed salt water. I was even looking forward to the infamous twelve mile hill section that loomed in my immediate future. Bring it on.

And then it started. The twelve mile climb to the summit of Col de I’Ecre that we had all spent a year dreading and talking obsessively about. It started so mildly, so innocently, that I wondered early on whether or not I was even on the actual hill. It rose up at a modest 3.5% grade for around four miles. And then the real fun started. It was a predominantly 8% grade for the next eight miles. The brief, fun downhill had been replaced by countless switchbacks, grinding 5 mph pedaling and discouraging views of the road as it wound up the mountain ahead of us. I was passing a few people, but mostly being passed by others. The heat had risen 20 degrees within minutes it seemed, and the sun beat down mercilessly.

By around the halfway point of the long climb, I began to feel nauseous. The cumulative effects of three mouthfuls of swallowed saltwater, high heat, dehydration and the hardest physical exertion of the day were playing havoc on my stomach. I could no longer eat the bars in my bento box and the very thought of eating the peanut butter and honey sandwich that awaited me at the summit, where our special needs bags were located, nearly caused me to wretch. I was shocked at how quickly my physical condition had deteriorated. Literally within the span of two miles, I had gone from feeling good to feeling like hell. I began to focus all of my energies on just getting to the summit. Once there, I could rest briefly, do a system check and attempt to get some solid food into my stomach. The kilometers marked on the road went by with a mind-numbing, grinding slowness.

Finally, after stifling the growing urge to puke for several miles, I made the summit. I was in bad shape and near delirious as I pulled into the special needs area. I could not even remember my race number, and didn’t have the presence of mind to simply look at my arm where it was marked. A race volunteer motioned for me to pull forward where another volunteer was waiting to hand me my bag. How do they know my race number?, I wondered. My addled brain was not connecting the fact that the number was plastered in three places on my helmet.

I took one look in my special needs bag and nearly vomited. Of the sandwich, bars and other goodies stashed there, I took only one small package of Gu Chomps – a sort of soft candy-like alternative to gels. This was the only thing I could even begin to imagine eating at that juncture.

There was no place shady to stop, so I pedaled out of the special needs area about 100 yards, where I found a bit of shade under an ancient, windswept tree. On the way there, I grabbed a bottle of Coca-Cola from a volunteer, which I knew from races past just might settle my stomach. I was dazed, distressed and thinking to myself that if the hill had been 13 miles long instead of 12, I probably would not have made it. I got off the bike and stretched a bit, tried to gather myself and took some small comfort in the fact that I was nearly done with the uphill portion of the race course, save one lingering 6km climb at about the 70 mile mark.

Over the last forty miles or so, the course was mostly down hill – some of it very fast. There were some hairpin turns and you had to pay attention, but at least the uphill was done. I began to slowly recover during this section and over the last thirty miles or so, I was able to eat again. I went through full two packets of Gu Chomps and every bit of Coca-Cola I could get my hands on at subsequent aid stations, which provided much needed calories. I also made every effort to drink as much water as possible because of the dehydration. I began to feel a sense of optimism return as my stomach stabilized.

By the last six miles of the bike course, which ran along the seaside and back into town, I was fully recovered. After not being able to eat for thirty miles and going through serious doubts as to whether I would ever get off the bike, I was alive and well. I felt like Lazarus.

As I pulled into T2, I had a new lease on life. I was worried though, about Melissa. I had seen everyone else on the bike but her. I wondered how she was doing and where she was at that moment. With thoughts of her, I changed into my running gear and made my way out onto the Promenade des Anglais for the 26.2 run along Nice’s spectacular coastline. It was 4:30pm.

The run

Through-hikers along the Appalachian Trail call it “trail magic”. This generally refers to the unexpected good fortune which comes their way every so often along the trail, just at the moment their morale needs a boost. A good-hearted local sharing fresh-baked cookies, rides from strangers into town, a Styrofoam cooler filled with ice left behind by a knowing and kind soul on a hot day. These unexpected instances of serendipity often make the difference between someone finishing the AT or not.

My own bit of “trail magic” happened as I was about a quarter mile into my first loop. I caught up to Andre, who was heading out on his second loop. Only in the Ironman could one heterosexual male describe running into another heterosexual male as “serendipitous” or “trail magic”, but then again, the Ironman casts everything in a different light. Finding Andre, I now had the opportunity to run with a compatriot for 20 of the 26.2 miles. What this does for morale cannot be overstated. The opportunity to chat about the bike and swim – or about anything else, really – with a good friend was invaluable. It kept our focus away from the little nagging aches and pains that often cause you to walk if left to your own devices. It provides motivation and gives you someone to share the burden. It absolutely made my day.

The only way to tackle the marathon on an Ironman course is to focus on going from aid station to aid station. To think beyond that is simply overwhelming. The aid stations in Nice were set up generally every mile or so – some a little further, some closer. The run consisted of four out and back loops, which ran from T2 to the airport and back along the Prom. There were three aid stations, meaning that you passed them going and coming, for a total of six aid stations on each out and back loop. Each aid station had cool showers to walk through, water, fruit, Power Aid and Coca-Cola.

We quickly settled into a pattern of running at around a 10:30 minute per mile pace between the aid stations, then walking slowly through each station, taking our time to cool off as we passed under the showers, after which we’d take a swig of water and a bit of Coke. Just enough to stay somewhat hydrated, but not enough to upset the stomach. Then we would start the pattern over again. Run to the airport, run back to T2. Walk through the aid stations. Drink a bit – not too much. Most of the water we took got dumped over our heads. Keep that body temperature down.

After we made the turn at the airport and were passing through aid station number two, on the way back toward T2, I finally saw Melissa. She looked on the verge of tears. She was frustrated, feeling sick and not sure if she was going to make it. She had had it much worse than me on the bike, and had really suffered through a vast majority of the day. She was nauseous and on the verge of calling it quits. Her trail magic came in the form of Martin, who ran a loop with her, coaching her, encouraging her, making her walk when needed, keeping her focused. I didn’t find out until later that she had hardly been able to eat or drink at all for a large part of the day. It was a miracle and a testament to her toughness and drive that she ever even made it to the run course.

By the time Andre entered the finisher’s chute and I made the turn for my last lap, I had just about had my fill of Ironman Nice. My feet were killing me – they were completely water-logged as a result of walking through the showers at all of the aid stations. I could tell they were swollen and it felt like the skin on my soles was about to split wide open. I imagined the bloody mess I would find later when I took my shoes off. No time to dwell on that now. I hoped for the best and kept plodding along. Aid station by aid station, just keep going.

As I made the last turn out by the airport, everything in me was telling me to walk. I was on track to finish now, regardless of my pace over the last three miles. All I wanted to do was finish – that was the goal. But then it occurred to me that if I ran, I might be able to make a “PR”, by improving on my Ironman Cozumel time – if only by a few minutes. This motivated me during those last few miles, as I ran on sore feet the best I could. As I slowed to walk through each aid station one last time, I paused to thank the volunteers – those kind, patient souls – and I took the time to hug Melissa too, when we crossed paths as she headed out toward the airport one final time. She was on time to finish as well and I felt immense relief at this, even if she couldn’t share in that relief right then.

Leaving the final aid station, I had less than one mile to go to the finish. It was almost 9:30 – blue skies faded to purple and orange and it reminded me of the color of torn plums. As the Mediterranean slowly swallowed the evening sun, a welcome coolness took hold.

I entered the finisher’s chute and was lifted by the incredible energy of the crowd. I saw Melissa’s family smiling and waiving and I thought of my family and our friends back home, who I knew were tracking us on line. I felt intense relief, but was not completely able to enjoy it. Though I was very confident that Melissa would finish, I was anxious to see her.

I accepted my finisher’s medal and made my way beyond the medical tent, where I lay down in the grass. I lay there for a long time – maybe fifteen minutes. I didn’t want to move and thought maybe I’d spend the night there. It felt so wonderful to be perfectly still in that soft grass as night gathered around me – the weight of the medal on my chest somehow medicinal against the rising din of protesting muscles and joints and ligaments.

Martin and I finally found each other and a few minutes later, Melissa came across, with a brilliant smile that gave no hint of what she had been through that day.

We walked back to the apartment with the aid of Melissa’s family and after quick showers, were asleep before midnight.

Me, Melissa and Martin at the finish

Epilogue

It is hard to imagine going through an Ironman race without the good cheer and constant encouragement of our friends and family – both those who could be there and those who cheered from afar. It was a constant source of inspiration and their thoughts and prayers were felt during our most difficult moments.

I will never forget Renata running up and down the Promenade, encouraging us – “you’re almost finished!” I think she ran as many miles as we did that day. And Joanie was great as always – she was a fantastic “Lead Sherpa”. Melissa’s family – I was so impressed with their tireless dedication and seeing them as I ran through the finisher’s chute is something I will always remember. I know everyone in our group feels the same.

Likewise, I could feel my family – gathered for the annual McClam/Piercy/Creel/Sanders reunion in Isle of Palms, South Carolina – offering up encouragement. It was palpable. Finding the many encouraging comments on Facebook the next day was awesome as well, and we realized how much people loved and supported us. It was humbling and we wondered how we could be so lucky.

The next day, feeling better than we had a right to, we rented scooters and rode east along the coastline to the tiny port town of Vellefranche. It was a perfect day – warm and sunny. We were Ironman finishers, all of us. Even then as we rode along, pleasantly sore, eyes feasting on the impossible beauty of the Mediterranean, some part of us wondered what the next adventure might be and where it would take us.

Ironman Nice – Part II

In the weeks leading up to our trip to France, I was glued to weather.com and other such websites, where I would check almost daily on high temperatures in Nice. After reading several race reports from years past, I was struck by how nearly everyone mentioned the extreme heat. I was a little perplexed by this, because the historical high for Nice on June 24th was a seemingly perfect 76 degrees, and that fell right in line with how temperatures were trending leading up to the race. I chalked up the reports of high temps to freak, unseasonal spikes and took further comfort in the fact that the race day forecast called for cloudy skies – the only cloudy day in the extended forecast.

After spending a week in Nice though, I will tell you that weather.com’s reported highs are strictly theoretical in nature, and must be taken deep in the shade of some ancient French oak. Highs in the direct sun were closer to 90 each day.

In addition to higher than expected temperatures, we discovered that the beach – where our swim start would commence – was designed not by the loving deity of children’s Sunday school stories, but rather by some vengeful, sadistic and angry God. A real Old-Testament curmudgeon. This, we discovered two days before the race when Melissa and Lori and I walked down to the beach from our apartment on the Quai de Etats-Unis. We wanted to take a quick dip in the Med to get a feel for the water temperature we’d be facing during the race. Rather than the soft sand of the beaches back home, the beaches of Southern France are covered by smooth rocks, ranging in size from small pebbles to fist-sized, oblong monsters that are inevitably turned up at the most painful of angles.

Melissa and Lori smartly remained behind and let me take the test walk. I kicked off my flip flops, braced myself and with a deep breath, started toward the water. Arms extended for balance, I made my way slowly, painfully, tender feet searching in vain for comfortable purchase. I must have looked like some tight ropewalker in the throes of severe GI distress by my jerky, convulsive gyrations. Though I dared not turn around, for fear of total collapse, I could sense that Melissa and Lori had averted their gazes, disassociating themselves completely with the dumpster fire that was my tortured walk to the sea. Cursing mightily and causing a bit of a scene among the svelte and deeply tanned natives (who made walking on the beach seem totally effortless – damn them), I finally made it to the water where I gracelessly flopped in, belly first.

My exit – which I delayed for nearly thirty minutes, was similarly painful and if it is possible, even less graceful, as I was now exiting the water uphill. This walking on the beach thing was going to be no joke. What’s more, the swim was two loops, which meant that at some point, we would have to exit the water and run along the beach before starting the second, shorter loop. It seemed like torture, and frankly at that point, it seemed impossible.

Race morning

The alarm clock rang out at the appointed time – 4:30. More accurately, it crowed, Gamecock-like, at 4:30. Melissa chose the rooster crow for our alarm tone the night before the race in recognition of the Gamecocks’ improbable bid for a third consecutive College World Series Championship in Omaha, some 4,000 miles away (gosh, I love my wife). Lori, a Clemson grad, was a great sport about it.

We were groggy, still not quite believing the near total sleep deprivation of the previous eight hours, but feeling surprisingly good, all things considered. We made coffee and ate French bread with peanut butter and bananas. At around six am, we made our way down to the chaos of the bike transition area, where we had dropped off our bikes the day before. Here, we pumped tires, made last minute gear checks, then found each other and made our way to the swim start, some 200 yards up the coast.

You could have powered a large city with the nervous energy in the air as we, along with 2,500 others, made our way to the beach, walking stiffly, barefooted and in our wetsuits. We did not have an opportunity to take a last photo with our Sherpa’s as planned – race mornings seldom go according to plan – so we did our best to clear our minds and focus on the task at hand, knowing that our Sherpa’s were there, somewhere. As we walked along – Melissa, Lori, Martin and I – we took comfort in each other and fed off of the collective strength of the group as we counted down the final minutes to our 6:30am start. We somehow missed Andre, yet knew he was nearby, lost among the crowd.

The swim start

Even the rocks did not hurt now, as we found comfortable positions. We helped each other zip our wetsuits, soaking in last reassuring glances, as we were swept up in the frenzied excitement of the moment. Pulsing music, not unlike that which had kept us awake the night before, now was welcome for the energy it brought. A helicopter flew overhead, filming the scene. Excited voices shouted encouragement over the loud speaker in French and English.

Two minutes to go – focus, check goggles, deep breathes.

One minute to go – take this all in, for in 60 seconds you will begin a very long journey. A last, knowing and wordless glance and kiss from Melissa.

Thirty seconds to go – I have to pee… wait until you’re in the water and pee in your wetsuit – how many gallons of pee do you swim through in an Ironman race, anyway? Best not to dwell on that now.

Fifteen seconds to go – more deep breathes. Really try not to drink the water.

The gun.

We made our way, like tightrope walkers in GI distress, toward the sea, leaning on strangers in front and beside, all with one common goal – to get off those damned rocks and into the water. Once in the water it was a great, churning maelstrom. Speed dating for teeth and elbows.

Almost immediately I swallowed a mouthful of the briny Med. Sonofabitch – that’s not good. Can’t think about that now – what’s done is done. Keep on moving. Keep on churning. Elbow in the ribs. Kick in the jaw. Where’s that damned marker buoy? Just follow the crowd – hope the crowd knows where it’s going.

Finally, after what seemed like an eternity, but was probably only 45 minutes, I reached the end of the first loop. Out of the water, onto the rocks. Hurts like hell. Run thirty yards are so – back in the water – this time going the opposite direction. A shorter, counter-clockwise loop. More banging, more chop – visibility not improved. Saw two jellyfish floating about three feet underneath me – kind of freaky under normal circumstances, but not now. I’m more worried about the guy flailing beside me. Get the heck away from him before he knocks your goggles off.

Then, after an hour and seventeen minutes, it was over. T1 was a beautiful sight. I wonder where everybody else is? Run under the freshwater showers to rinse off the salt. Get that damned wetsuit off. Be methodical. Take deep breathes – it’s a long race. Put on sunscreen. Think it through. Don’t screw up now!

Thank you, Lord, for delivering me from the drink.

Next: The bike and run

Ironman Nice – Part I

It’s hard to compare one Ironman course with another. Some bike courses are hilly and some are flat and windy. Some swims are wetsuit legal while others are not. Some runs are four loops, while others are two. These variations play to your strengths or weaknesses in various ways, depending, in part, on the course’s similarity to your home geography, your physical and mental preparedness on race day, as well as variables both unpredictable and uncontrollable, such as the weather.

Read through the various blogs, magazines and internet sites out there and you’ll get a feel for the courses that are generally considered the toughest in one category or another, and you can adjust your training accordingly (though I’d caution against delving too deeply into the labyrinth of often dubious information and opinion out there, which can result in “paralysis by analysis”).

One common thread that binds every race in the IM series though – you have to swim/bike/run 140.6 miles within the allotted time in order to collect one of those coveted metals. No matter how you analyze, forecast or prepare for it, 140.6 miles is an awful lot of ground to cover. You can waltz into a sprint, or an Olympic distance race half trained and struggle through it. You can probably even fake a half, though it will hurt. There is no faking an Ironman – it will find you out.

This is the allure of the IM, as well as what keeps you up, tossing and turning, unable to sleep the night before a race. Well, that and the “thump, thump, thump” of club music coming from the loud party directly below your rental apartment in Nice following the Spain vs. France match in the Euro Cup.

The night before

The FreeHouba racers, including Andre Olivier, Martin Dvorak, Lori Cove, Melissa and I, were joined for dinner by our friends, family and “sherpas”, Fran and Nita (Melissa’s parents), Lyn and Patrick (Mel’s sister and brother in law), Luke (Lyn’s son and our nephew), Joanie (Andre’s wife) and our wonderful new friend from Prague, Renata. We first sensed trouble when we realized that France was playing – against hated rival Spain, no less. As we dined under a cerulean, early evening sky along the market on Nice’s rue St. Francois De Paule, every restaurant had large screen televisions around which people thronged. They were pressed in and intense in their focus and the energy in the air was palpable. I can only compare it to the pre-kickoff intensity of a Southeastern Conference football game in November when division races are tight. There were loud boos as the Spanish team was introduced and you got the sense that, win or lose, this was going to be an interesting night. We all agreed that it was too bad we had a race to do the next day, because the people watching that night would have been first rate.

After dinner, we retired to our sixth floor rental apartment, which Melissa and I shared with Lori. Our apartment overlooked the bike transition area of the race course and afforded us spectacular views of the Mediterranean. With a 6:30am start the next morning, we agreed on a 4:30am wake-up, set our alarms accordingly and we were in bed by 10:15 or so. Literally within minutes, the music started up. We had heard nothing from our neighbors in the few days since our arrival. This night, of all nights, was the one they chose to throw down like Johnny Cash on a five-day bender.

The music vibrated up through the floor – base throbbing rhythmically as a din of party voices wafted into the night air like so much cigarette smoke. After about twenty minutes we got up to investigate and verified that the party was, indeed, coming from directly below us. I briefly considered venturing downstairs to ask them to quiet down, but wasn’t sure how, exactly, I would do it. I didn’t speak French and doubted they spoke much English. Also, who knows how they would have reacted to such a thing – this self-important American interrupting their party so that he could sleep – I didn’t see it going well. And so, with gritted teeth, I crawled back into bed, hopes rising with the end of each song that the party might be over, only to be disappointed when the thumping started over again, sometimes faster, sometimes slower, but always some variation of that base… “thump, thump, thump”. At one point, around midnight, the springs of an ancient and endangered bed frame somewhere below us got a furious workout as a couple of partygoers found enough privacy to assist each other in relieving post game frustrations, (Spain defeated France 2-0), providing convincing and emphatic evidence of just how passionate Europeans are for their soccer.

Sleep was distant and unreachable. We had passed the point of being able to take a sleep aid, and simple arithmetic added to our growing stress levels. 12:30 am – we can get still four hours of sleep; 1:15am – maybe we can still get a little over three hours; 2:00am – this ain’t good… this went on until around 2:30am when the music finally stopped and we fell into a fitful, dream filled half-sleep.

Less than two hours of poor quality sleep before an Ironman race. It was one of those unpredictable variables that have the potential to break you over the course of 140+ miles. I remember thinking before finally nodding off how easily the sweat and sacrifice of nine months of training can be jeopardized. There was nothing we could do about it now. Ironman Nice was here.

Ironman France – Nice

Next: race day

Ironman France nearly here!

We are now just two days away from heading to France for our highly anticipated Ironman race this coming Sunday. This Wednesday we’ll board a plane at RDU, head to New York’s JFK, then cross the pond overnight arriving in Nice, on France’s Mediterranean Coast, Thursday morning.

Five of us from the FreeHouba Tri-Club will be doing the race, including Melissa and I, Andre Olivier and Lori Cove from the Raleigh area, and Martin Dvorak from Czech Republic. We’ll be joined and supported by Andre’s wife, Joanie, Melissa’s parents, her sister Lyn and Lyn’s husband Patrick.

I can tell the race is getting close by the stress dream I had the other night. In the interest of full disclosure, I should admit right from the start that I am terribly, almost comically slow in transition during triathlons. No matter how much experience I gain as a triathlete or how meticulously I organize my transition area before the race, I never seem to get any faster. And so, my dream finds me in Nice, done with the 2.4 mile swim and sitting in the swim/bike transition area (T1). I feel immense relief at having finished the swim and feel rather proud of my time. The race is going well.

For some reason, there is a large buffet table in the transition tent. Pleasantly surprised by this, I amble over to have a look. I’m hungry after the swim and feeling good about my time – I can spare a few minutes to have a bite.

While perusing the impressive buffet, complete with candelabras and a full roasted pig (with apple in mouth), I notice that there is also a large screen television on which they are broadcasting the College World Series live from Omaha – because if there’s one thing the French are crazy about, it’s American college baseball. What’s more, my Gamecocks are playing. I sit down on the large leather sofa with a plate of wings to catch a few minutes of the game while all around me triathletes of both sexes dart around in varying stages of undress (in true French fashion, the transition area is co-ed). This is the best transition area EVER.

Then to my horror, I glance down at my watch and realize I have been in T1 for over an hour! With a nauseating, urgent dread I realize that I have seriously jeopardized my chances of finishing the Ironman. As I pull myself off the couch, bloated by wings and Gatorade (or was that beer?), I shuffle out towards my bike, temporarily blinded by the blazing Mediterranean sun as I exit the tent, and am overtaken by the thought of the arduous 112 mile bike leg that awaits me. And suddenly I hear the disapproving voice of my 8th grade English teacher, Ms. Rafferty, her Yankee brogue haranguing in that “tsk, tsk” manor perfected by 8th grade English teachers.  “You’re going to rust out before you burn out, Alan” (this is something she actually used to say to me – I was not the most motivated of students at that point in my life). I awoke in a cold sweat.

Stress dreams, tying up loose ends at work, packing bikes away and inventorying equipment – it’s been a busy few days, but we are really beginning to get excited about this thing!

Stay tuned…

Lucky cup

Oh yes, I have to give a shout out to my USC Fighting Gamecock baseball team which is in Omaha once again (for real, as well as in my dreams), and have now won a record 22 straight NCAA playoff games and an astounding 12 straight College World Series wins since 2010. All of this has been made possible by the world-class coaching of Ray Tanner and staff, superb pitching, timely hitting, “Reptar the fish”, and of course, this coffee cup of mine. I have sipped my morning brew from this mug on the morning of each of those 22 straight wins, so of course, it will be lovingly packed away for the trip to France, where I will continue the tradition while drinking good French coffee and keeping track of the Cocks through the wonder of modern technology that is Melissa’s iPad.

Until next time, Go Cocks! Free Lance! Fear the Fish!

Last long training run

There are some days during the course of preparing for an Ironman that you just don’t feel like training. Yesterday was one of those days for Melissa and I. It was the long run day for our training week – a scheduled 12 miler – the last long training run of our Ironman France preparation before going into taper next week. The minute I walked through the door after work yesterday, I could tell Melissa was feeling the same way I was – in a word, lazy. Neither one of us wanting to be the one to bring up skipping a long run though, we sluggishly changed into our running clothes and prepared for the workout. We had decided, for a change of pace, to run at Umstead State Park rather than our typical route starting from home, around the Raleigh’s Crabtree Creek Greenway.

Good ole’ Umstead

Umstead had been the sight for most of our night-time winter runs earlier in our training, back in December and January when 6pm start times were well after dark. We did those runs, slipping surreptitiously into a closed Umstead, joined at times by a handful of other scofflaws,   nocturnal runners and mountain bikers, and ran from start to finish with the aid of headlamps. Nighttime is different in Umstead, and you get the feeling that you are being watched as you run along the moon-splashed white-sand fire roads. From time to time, a wondering headlamp beam would catch eerie, glowing orbs floating just beyond the tree line – light reflected by the eyes of deer, sometimes as many as five or six, as if standing around the water cooler, discussing things that deer discuss. Sometimes it was foxes or possums, and you knew that once the gates closed, wildlife quickly reclaimed dominion over the park and you were their guest.

Our breathing and the crunch of gravel beneath our feet was the predominant sound, broken only by the occasional rustling of squirrels in fallen autumn leaves – this always sounded too big to be squirrels – because everything sounds like a bear at night in the woods. It was a little creepy the first time or two we did those runs in the dark, but after a while it was just peaceful – our own little nighttime universe. As we ran through corridors of towering, shadowy pines, our paths lit by jumpy headlamp beams and a harvest moon, we felt fortunate, unfailingly happy and energized. Afterward we would reward ourselves by stopping for a Starbucks latte, which we shared on the drive home. As much as we complained about the June timing of the France race, which necessitated heavy training through the cold and dark of winter, our nighttime runs are some of our favorite memories.

And so, our dread of the impending twelve miler was offset somewhat by the novelty of returning to Umstead – this time in broad daylight – to complete our last long run where we had done so many before. We parked at the bridle trail parking lot, near the Glenwood Road entrance, donned our fuel belts with water and gels, did a quick stretch and started out by around 6:15 pm.

Within a half mile we had worked past the inevitable stiffness, settled into a good rhythm – not fast, but steady – and were starting to feel better. Our earlier dread of the run seemed to drain away with our perspiration, evaporating in the pleasantly cool evening air. I had decided to run without a shirt, most assuredly not out of vanity – I rarely even shower without a shirt – but because I knew that after three miles, a shirt would be so sweat-logged and heavy that I’d regret it. This turned out to be a major tactical error, as the horse flies in Umstead seem to be driven to levels of unfathomable fanaticism by the appearance of pasty white back flesh. This I judged from the dozen or so dive-bombing bastards that always seemed to land in a biting frenzy just beyond slapping reach. I was taken aback by the aggressiveness of the little buggers and despite myself, was impressed by the way they would follow me for a hundred yards or more, buzzing my head like bi-planes in the old King Kong movies. They hounded my every step, dodging increasingly frantic slaps as I pirouetted about, arms flailing, trying in vain to swat them. Viewed from afar by animals just beginning their evening stirrings, I must have looked like a real jackass. Melissa, meanwhile, having smartly applied bug spray, ran along unmolested and despite the rolling eyes, was entertained, no doubt, by my struggles.

Almost finished with the run, around the 10.5 mile mark, horse flies in retreat and enjoyment restored, we ran across a baby deer (there must be another name for this besides “baby deer”), who was curled up in a ball as if sleeping. It was tiny, and in the fading light, we didn’t even recognize what it was until we had almost passed it. It was right in the middle of the trail and had not been there when we passed this point on the way out earlier. It did not seem at all phased by us as we stopped and walked closer to examine it, staying absolutely still. We wondered if it was dead from the perfect stillness it maintained, though there were no apparent injuries and its eyes were open. As we got right up next to it, I could see it was breathing, but it continued to remain completely motionless, even as Melissa poured some water for it. We wondered what to do – we had never run across anything like this before. Had it been abandoned? Should I pick it up, make our way back to the car and drive it to a wild animal clinic? (this option was quickly eliminated as I flashed back to the deer scene from the movie “Tommy Boy”). It was now 8:30 and the park closed at 9. Though we were worried about it getting run over by mountain bikes, we hadn’t seen any in quite a while, so we decided to run back to the parking lot where we would inform a park ranger.

About a half mile down the road we ran into a ranger driving in the opposite direction. He had already received a report of the deer and was driving out to check on it. He informed us that often, when the mother goes foraging for food, the baby deer (I really need to figure out the proper word) will lie motionless in that way until the mother returns. It was unusual for them to do so out in the open like that, but still, was nothing to be concerned about. Relieved that Bambi was likely ok, we finished the last mile and arrived back at the car by 8:45 or so. We were nicely tired, yet rejuvenated in spirit as always, by Umstead’s magical qualities. We were happy to have completed our run and proud that we didn’t wimp out when it would have been so easy to have done so earlier.

As happens sometimes, those workouts you dread the most – the ones you teeter on the brink of skipping, when every fiber of your being tells you to blow it off and treat yourself to a little dinner and TV – those are the workouts that turn out to be the best of all. It was a reminder that in Ironman training, as in life, perseverance is key, and that half the battle is just finding the strength to show up.

Three weeks and counting until Nice…