29 March 2010

Treacherous and Greasy

Those were the words that stood out the most during my pre-race brief on Saturday. Treacherous and greasy. “What had I gotten myself into?” I asked myself for not the first nor the last time that day.

Kathleen and I had arrived in the quaint seaside town of Little Haven in Pembrokeshire, Wales at about 7:30 in the morning. We were there for the Pembrokeshire Coastal Trail Marathon that I had been training the past few months for. The town itself was very small and was tucked in between two huge outcroppings of cliffs. Since we had arrived early, they allowed us to drive down and park in the town. The moment we parked and saw some of the competitors, I knew I was in for it. These were MEN and WOMEN. The caps are meant to denote just how fit and athletic looking they were. Most of the calf muscles we saw seemed to be the size of my waist. They were all decked out in the latest ‘adventure running’ gear and most were setting off or coming back from warm-up runs on the beach. As Kathleen turned and asked if I wanted help putting on the band-aids to protect my oh-so-sensitive nipples, I felt like a kid being sent off to my first day of indoor winter swim practice (sorry Mom, but that was awful). In short, I wanted to cry, turn around, and run home. However, not unlike those indoor winter swim sessions as a kid, I apparently wanted to do this. So we affixed the ‘nipple-aids’ and drummed up the courage to go off and register. By this point, we were both laughing at the absurdity of the whole thing. Therefore, after registering, I placed myself front and center to practice my most intimidating stretches:

It was after that, when we realized that the start of the course did not follow the path with the slight incline to it. It was actually straight out onto the beach through the water:

So having my confidence shot right back down, I entered into the aforementioned pre-race brief:

As I said, I got real stuck on the words treacherous and greasy. Treacherous surprised me because I am not so sure I had ever done anything treacherous. I mean isn’t that word used to describe warfare and eat-the-person-next-to-you survival situations? Surely he must be exaggerating. And greasy. I mean greasy? What does that mean? I thought of greasy hair and greasy hamburgers (greasiest burgers ever), but a greasy course? Anyhow as I was left pondering these he went on to describe the other hallmarks of the course: large cows, rabbit holes, sprightly horses and ponies, sheep, cliffs, multiple fences to climb over, etc. He then also went on to remind us of everything we were supposed to be carrying: our own water, food, a hat, windproof jacket, first aid kit, an emergency blanket, mobile phone, emergency whistle… wait, whistle? “That was not on the list” someone yelled. “Oh… sorry about that,” he said. “OK so if you need help ASAP, just yell really really loud and hopefully someone will hear you.”

So with that, I quickly checked everything I had, gave Kathleen a kiss and a few furtive glances, and headed out:

Immediately, everyone’s feet were soaked despite the acrobatics in attempts of affecting a different outcome:

Here I am at mile six, one of the few paved parts of the course:

My quote to Kathleen here was “The one training scenario I forgot was through shin-deep cow shit.” Yep, somewhere around mile 3 we hit one of multiple farms and were shin deep in it all. Some people fell. Others, including me, attempted to climb a slight spine to avoid as much of it as we could. Regardless, we all got it some way or another.

Here are some shots of the trail:

I fell twice and stumbled often. The first time I went down I immediately understood how appropriate the adjective ‘greasy’ actually was for the type of mud encountered. I think I ran most of this race with my arms out to attempt to balance myself. If you have ever mountain biked on single track trails, the majority of the run was like a very wet single track ride, but with a 300 foot drop on one side and usually a barbed wire fence on the other. I constantly envisioned myself falling over the cliffs or impaling myself on the wire as a slipped and slid through the course. Some of the other obstacles encountered were the gates, fences, and cow grates. The trails ran through many different farms and through people’s fields. The gates were not bad and people were all very friendly in holding them open. I was thinking how very polite the Brits are but then I found myself doing the same - it was a great way to get a few seconds rest during the race! The fences that had no gates however needed to be climbed. The first few were ok, the fences were small, and there was ample room to get a foot hold. However by mile 15, things were getting more difficult. By mile 20 it was just silly how slowly these were climbed over. I felt like I was an old man lifting my leg 12” over the top rungs of the fence. The cow grates were just absolutely impossible and were just as funny as everyone slowed to a halt to gingerly walk across them mid race.

Here are a few more pics:

So, with all of that, I managed to run 26.2 miles on trails in 5 hours and 14 mins and came in 71st out of 119 runners. I was happy with that. Once again, Kathleen helped get me through this race. She was there at the start to calm my nerves and reassure me. She made it out to mile 6 and provided some much needed laughter. She trekked out along the coastal path to meet at mile 22 (and waited a few hours there!) because she remembered me once saying this where I liked to see people the most. She was there to buy me a hot meal and a large Guinness at the end of the race. And to top it all off, she had booked us a stay at a spa over the weekend so were able to hit that up when the race was finished. She asked me multiple times what I thought of the race. I started out immediately saying it was ok, but I was not sure if it was fun and trail running was not for me. That moved on to me saying I had a pretty good time and that there were some highlights. It has eventually become, in retrospect, an amazing experience and one I think I would like to do again (although not in the next few months).

Oh, and the other piece I forgot to mention: this course was riddled with a surfable coastline. At times the waves were small, but around mile 17 I came out on a bluff looking over a group of 3 surfers getting barrelled in what seemed to be about head and a half high super clean surf. I was so jealous. That being said, in 3 days time I will be in Bali and will hopefully be getting some well-deserved waves as well.

18 March 2010

Erin Go Bragh

I think my desire to go to Ireland always began with my father. Every time I crested a hill in southwest Ireland and saw the vista of rolling emerald hills spread out before me, I thought of him and wished he could come see it for himself.

So when he started planning his trip to see us, I urged him to add a visit to Ireland to his itinerary. He was able to find a timeshare in rural Co. Clare, and soon my Aunt Cathy and Uncle Tom signed on to join Barbara, Liam and my dad.

Originally, I wasn’t going to be able to join them. With the visits home for friends’ weddings and our two week honeymoon in April, Mark and I had quickly consumed our holidays and I had resigned myself to making recommendations and picking them up at the airport on February 25th.

When I was home in December, we unfolded the map of Ireland and plotted out a series of day trips – to Co. Kerry, the Ring of Kerry and Killarney, and the Brosna woods. To Galway, and to Dublin, and maybe even to Cork… It was a lot of fun to see how excited everyone was, and I was sad I would miss it.

Then I got a phone call in January, from home. My dad was in the midst of a battery of tests to determine the cause of some severe back and hip pain he’d had since a fall while ice-skating with my brothers. The calls continued into early February, with the final awful news that my dad was really sick, and for a while it wasn’t certain that he’d be able to come after all.

Everything rapidly went into perspective, and I found myself consumed with thoughts of home, and a feeling of utter helplessness. My dad, however, was determined to go on and make the trip happen, regardless of what awaited him upon his return. His doctor supported his decision and we hesitantly confirmed plans and changed seats on the airlines in preparation for his visit.

But I couldn’t sit by and miss the opportunity to spend time with everyone, not when they were so close. So I wrapped up a day trip for work the Monday and flew out to Ireland to join everyone on Tuesday.

I’m really glad I did.

As could only be expected, the majority of the travelling party was pretty car-ed out. There’s not a lot in Co. Clare, and there aren’t great roads for getting around, either. After a marathon trip around the Ring of Kerry before my arrival, I was happy to give everyone a break – and let some relax at the house while I drove others to Galway. The following day we caravanned to Dublin and saw the Book of Kells and made another trip to Guinness (where Liam impressed a couple of American university students by having his first Guinness at the ripe age of 12 in the best place to do it). Everyone was able to get their shopping done and though it was a whirlwind trip, I was pleased to see that everyone was able to accomplish what they’d hoped.

The last day in Ireland, we had a leisurely breakfast and packed our bags. Everyone asked me to estimate when we needed to be at the airport – for a 4:55pm flight, I figured we should be there by 3:30pm, meaning a 2:30pm departure. My dad wanted to stop by a shop in Bunratty to get a hat for Toby, so I suggested leaving another half hour earlier, at 2:00pm. But since we were all just really sitting around the house, we ended up getting in the car at noon.

For those of you who have shopped with my Aunt Cathy, you should already have recognized my error above. I’ve never seen her in and out of a store in less than 30 minutes. And my dad was just as bad this time!

On top of it all, we decided to stop in for a quick pub lunch after shopping since the airport didn’t have much. But none of us were keeping track of the time, and I was shocked to look down at the car clock as we left to realize it was already 3:35.

As we approached the airport, I had a niggling feeling that I was forgetting something else. And then it came to me – there are no fuel stations close to Shannon airport. So we pulled a U turn and rapidly headed back into a development where we were able to locate a gas station. Then we hurried back to the airport to find that we had to drop the cars off at remote parking lots and get shuttled to the airport.

And then we found out the check-in counter was closed – we missed it by ten minutes – meaning that we had to ‘gate-check’ the bags that my family had already paid €40 apiece for, but would now have to pay an additional €35 per bag at the gate. And take them to the airplane ourselves.

We made a comical sight, I’m sure, dashing down the hallways, getting deodorant and bug spray (thanks again for trying, dad) tossed in the rubbish at security, tears and sweat rolling down our cheeks as we rolled, lugged and dragged the oversized bags up and down ramps and stairs.

We finally arrived at the gate and stacked all the bags, only to find that they would only accept cash payments. That resulted in a noble gesture of self-sacrifice as Barbara dashed back out of security with an attendant and got the euros required.

The next crisis came from an unexpected source: my Aunt Cathy had misplaced her digital camera, which was loaded not only with her pictures from Ireland but also a recent trip to El Salvador with Project Smile. As she threw up her hands and told everyone that she would stay in Ireland another night, she needed the camera and wasn’t leaving without it, I ducked into a corner and called the car rental. While I was on hold, they ransacked the car and weren’t able to find it. They were informing me of this, and I was relaying it to Aunt Cathy’s stricken figure, when I could hear shouting through the phone. It was located! Now my Aunt Cathy dashed back out of the airport, through not-so ‘secure’ no entry doorways to meet the Hertz representative at security.

All this was witnessed by 200+ travellers in line to board the Ryanair flight, and a very patient Servisair attendant who did an excellent job corralling the Brosnahans and keeping us (relatively) calm. To commemorate this blog-worthy tale, I took a photo.

Note all the middle fingers and exasperated expressions. I don’t really know if it was anyone’s fault, but I quickly assumed the blame and apologized profusely. It doesn’t look like any of my apologies were accepted…

We arrived home to a fridge full of beer and 8 o’clock reservations at our favourite restaurant, Paul’s Place. Although I had warned everyone about the awful state of Irish cuisine, my family had clearly either disregarded or underestimated just how bad it would be. A couple of bottles of wine, excellent food and serveral of sticky toffee puddings went a long way toward returning the smiles to everyone’s faces.

The last few days were a bit less eventful, with a trip to Albert Dock and the Tate Modern extension, some more shopping, and an ill-advised dare between Mark and myself that resulted in a rather spectacular slip and fall into the disgusting, algae-filled water by the docks. You’ll all be surprised to know that it was Mark who fell, not me. Astounding, I know.

Even though the house was choc-a-bloc with people, and there was rarely a quiet moment either upstairs or downstairs, it was really hard to say good-bye on Sunday morning.