Wednesday, 26 May 2010

Now I know why they call them the Rockies!

After not wanting to leave Flagstaff yesterday, I'm glad that I did.  After an uneventful pair of flights I arrived in Boulder last night under the cover of darkness.  When I opened the curtains this morning, this is what greeted me.  How wonderful!

From what I've seen of the trails here they are pretty cool too.  I'm looking forward to exploring them some more.

Tuesday, 25 May 2010

Fabulous Flagstaff

This morning was the first morning where I woke up not wanting to leave my current destination. Not even the excitement of seeing a new place could get me over the sadness of leaving Flagstaff behind. Maybe it had something to do with my trip nearing an end, or maybe it was the dread of repacking the suitcase yet again, but mostly I think it was because I genuinely enjoyed my stay here.

Unfortunately, an otherwise perfect week, has just been slightly flawed by a taxi-driver. No strange there, but not for the usual reason of being over charged. For most of the trip thus far, I have managed to avoid those Americans who give the country a bad name. You know the type. The ones who hear that you're from Ireland manage to get every stereotypical point that they have ever heard about Ireland into a conversation (well, monologue). Thankfully the journey from hotel to airport was only 5 minutes long, but none the less I got to hear about snakes, St. Patrick, Catholicism, that there are more Irish in America than there are in Ireland, that the Irish hate the English (can't imagine where he got that idea from!) and that Clint Eastwood has Irish heritage. Oh and of course that he, the taxi driver that is, is Welsh, despite speaking with an American accent, and from what I could gather, has never even been in Wales. I think I prefer the ones who have never even heard of Ireland (yes I have meet a few of those too!)

But, in fairness, that was the only downside.

Of course there was the trip to the Grand Canyon, but there was so much more to enjoy about Flagstaff. It's an amazing place for training, with miles, and miles, and miles of trails, most of them through the forest that surrounds the town. They say that no matter where you are in Flagstaff you are no more than 3 minutes from a trail (I prefer that statistic to the rat one).

I've always believed that a little bit of sunshine, and an endless supply of beautiful trails are good motivators for training. Well that was definitely true here. After a poor week of training in Albuquerque, I managed to clock up 73 miles in a week here. Lets just hope I can keep it up!

Of course no week's training is perfect, and you'll be glad to know that after the ecstasy of clocking up such an impressive mileage tally (well by my standards), I was brought crashing down to earth yesterday. Literally! Once again, after tripping on a stone, I again managed the face-plant which I am now becoming an expert at. This time there was no grazing to my now perfectly tanned legs, but I did but a big gash in my hand, and got covered head to toe in dust and dirt. I should have been doing a little less looking at the beautiful scenery, and a little more looking at where I was going.

Everybody here has been very helpful too, and it has been really nice to get some more positive feedback about the book idea.

The spotting of unusual animals in the wild count has also gone up. I saw some Elk in the Grand Canyon National Park, and then, when out for a run on Saturday evening I saw a skunk. I'm just scared that sooner or later I'll come across a snake. I won't, however, need to blog about that, because I'm pretty sure that you will all hear me scream. And there definitely won't be time for photos!

Well just about to board the plane on my last pair of flights before the home trip. Rocky Mountains, here I come!

Monday, 24 May 2010

Left Speechless

Some posts don't need any words, but let me say this one thing:

''Do nothing to mar its granduer for the ages have been at work upon it and man cannot improve it"  President Theodore Roosevelt

Oh, by the way, just in case anyone in in any doubt, these photos are from the Grand Canyon!

Monday, 17 May 2010

Coyote Ugly

I've just spent 10 days in Albuquerque, probably more famous for being a regular training haunt for world marathon record holder Paula Radcliffe than for being the largest city in New Mexico.  The highlight of the week was seeing a coyote run along in front of me during a run last Monday, but that's probably doing ABQ an injustice.

Albuquerque is a large, but spread-out city.  While avoiding doing an essay earlier in the week, I decided to explore the city.  I thought that taking a bus to downtown would be the best way to get to the happening part of the city.  How wrong I was.  The high-rise buildings of the downtown totalled two, and apart from one decent souvenir shop, and a few restaurants, there was nothing there for me.  So I walked to the old town, a one-street strip of traditional craft shops about 2 miles from the downtown.  I managed to punch in a few hours there looking at the gifts that I should buy from my family, but am too lazy to carry around in my already overweight suitcase (and too tight to buy), but I wouldn't necessarily recommend it as one of the world's must visit destinations.  Oh there was a museum too, but I don't do museums.

I later found out that the main shopping area is in Uptown, about 3 or 4 miles in the other direction.

Much of the rest of the time was spent doing the aforementioned essay, training, and trying to avoid the pollen that was reaping havoc with my nasal passages.  I managed to do some training with the girls and guys at University of New Mexico, a lot of whom are British, and I got to see some of them race in their Conference meet on Friday and Saturday.

And then, yesterday evening I took the train to Flagstaff, AZ, the penultimate destination in my tour of America's South West.  I'd been looking forward to the trip for a while, mostly because there is only so much flying that one body can take, but also because I figured that the scenery would be something to look at.

And it didn't disappoint.  Having read a couple of Paul Theroux's travel books (including Dark Star Safari: Overland from Cairo to Capetown and Ghost Train to the Eastern Star: On the Tracks of the Great Railway Bazaar, I was curious to see what the obsession is with long distance train journeys was.  And I guess there is nowhere better to start than in the desert!

Below are some of the snaps of the beautiful scenery, and the amazing sunset that I got from the train.  Unfortunately because of the fast moving train, and the glare from the glass, National Geographic won't be signing me up as one of their photographers based on these examples, but I'll have another chance to change that when I visit the Grand Canynon later in the week.

Saturday, 8 May 2010

Hot Air Balloons

At the best of times my dreams are somewhat bizarre.  Just like when I'm awake, my sleep world is slightly on the eccentric side (in other words I'm just as weird when I'm asleep as I am when awake).  But bizarre and all as my dreams normally are, they get way worse when I'm at altitude.  On a previous visit to Kenya I dreamept that I was pregnant a couple nights in a row, and the main topic of conversation at breakfast each morning was what strange and wacky dreams I'd had the previous night.

Today though, I believe I reached the pinnacle of strange dreams.  After waking from an afternoon nap (the joys of being a full-time athlete), I lay there wondering how on earth my subconscious had come up with my nap-time entertainment.  While on a run in a park, I met a man also on a run.  Only he wasn't on a normal run.  No, he was running with a hot-air balloon attached to his body.  I'm not sure of the purpose, as his feet were still on the ground - perhaps it's the newest trend in performance enhancement, or injury prevention.  I did try to get a photo, but stupidly had forgotten to put the battery in my camera.  And then I woke up.

The hot air balloon reference wasn't completely random.  New Mexico's largest city, Albuquerque, where I'm currently based, hosts an International balloon fiesta each October, and hence there are lots of pictures and paintings of hot air balloons decorating the walls of the hotels and restaurants in the city.  In fact, the lack of battery in my camera was also not that strange, and actually reminded me that I needed to charge the battery in my camera.  But why would anyone ever run with such a giant thing strapped to them, and more importantly why would I ever dream such a thing?

Thursday, 6 May 2010

A picture paints a thousand words

Yesterday I had a bad day. Not that I was lonely or home-sick or anything. Things just didn't go according to plan. And there is nobody to blame but myself.

After spending a couple of days exploring San Francisco, which I will detail more later, I got up at 05:30 to make my way to SFO. Having misread the sign on the air shuttle and getting off at the wrong terminal, I spent ages trying to find the US Airways check-in desk. Eventually I realised my error, and rushed to the correct terminal, only to find that I still couldn't check-in. The computer was telling me that it couldn't find a reservation for me, and when the assistant too informed me that he couldn't find me I feared the worst. About 10 minutes later he confirmed that I was a day early for my flight. I truly have lost track of days and times!

A little embarrassed, I looked on the positive side, and saw it as an opportunity to see a bit more of the city. And it could have been worse. I could have been a day late, and I would never live that down with my family.

At the hotel I found a leaflet for trips to Muir Woods, a major Redwood forest across the bay. Seizing the opportunity I made my way into the city, only to read the fine print on the leaflet stating that tours needed to be booked in advance. A day in Golden Gate park would have to do instead.

Rather than giving a day by day account of my time in the city, which would not only be boring, but also predictable (and we know that's not me) I'll follow with some photos and a brief description of each. They say that a picture paints a thousand words, so here are 20 of my most interesting, which should save 20,000 words or thereabouts!

These pictures show some of the cable cars which transverse the city. I knew from previous photos that I've seen of San Francisco that the city was hilly (that picture of the cable cars that Chris had at the top of our rather steep stairway in Birmingham gave me a daily reminder), but I didn't realise just how undulating it is. And they really didn't make any attempt to flatten any of it, just built perfectly perpendicular streets right across the hills. The ride was a bit hair-raising, but probably just about worth the 5 dollar charge.
The cable car went right past Lombardy Street, the 'crookedest street in the world'. Some 750,000 cars a year wait in line to make the 5-mph decent down it, with it's 9 hairpin bends and the gradient of 27 per cent.

From the last section of the cable car journey you could see Alcatraz and the Golden Gate bridge across the bay. I took this as an opportunity to start taking photos, and didn't stop for about 3 hours.

Another example of how steep the streets are can be seen from this photo.

From the top of Coit tower I got these pictures of the city. Patrick, you'll be glad to know that yet again I made it to the top of a very tall building, but this time the lift went most of the way, and there were only 37 steps to climb at the end. No In Bruges moments this time! Unfortunately all the windows had glass in them so there is a little bit of glare.

Pier 39 is San Francisco's own attempt at a pleasure beach. Slightly less tacky than the English equivalent though and definitely worth it for the views of the Sea Lions that have made it their home since the earthquake of 1989. During the winter as many as 600 can be seen in the dock.

Alamo square is very cute, and features in many of the postcards of the city. The quaint 7-sisters Victorian houses combine with the downtown skyscrapers to make a perfect picture.

And finally, golden gate park was even better than anticipated, though I was disappointed that the bison in the bison paddock were not roaming freely and available for photos. The rest of the park though made up for the very long walk and at least the geese were willing to pose.

Wednesday, 5 May 2010

Payton Jordan Cardinal Invitational, Stanford

What an event on Saturday night! The earlier races were as you would expect at a high quality distance meet, where everyone is out to put in a good early season time. There were exciting finishes to many of the races, none more so than the women's 5000m, where World 1500m bronze medalist Shannon Rowbury (who had been training in San Louis Potosi while I was there) undid the 100m lead that Olympic 10,000m bronze medalist Shalane Flanagan had in the final lap, and went on to win by a clear distance. It was good to know some of the people racing, and Hannah (England) looked to be in prime position to win the women's 1500m with 200m to go but unfortunately didn't have the finishing kick to take it. But the highlight of the evening was the last race, the men's 10,000m.

Billed as an area record attempt by Olympian Galen Rupp, the race more than lived up to expectations, produced many personal bests, and an American and a Canadian record. The biggest shock of the race was the fact that, though Galen finished inside the old American record, he had to play second fiddle to fellow Nike representative Chris Solinsky, who, with a scintillating final 800m of 1:55 ran away to achieve the first sub 27 minute race by a non-African born athlete. Most surprisingly, this was Chris's debut at the distance, and he still considers himself a 5,000m runner!

Interesting post race analysis on the world's most popular athletics website reveals that Solinsky is also the biggest athlete to break the 27 minute barrier, and by a long way. I really like their message board post of the week:

If you set a paradigm concerning who will excel at some endeavor by reference only to those who have done well in the past and then enforce the paradigm by coaches or talent scouts or even the athletes themselves, then you never even test your paradigm and you will not know what human limits exist.

Give a shot to the tall sprinter (Bolt) at 100m, the slow twitch marathoner at 5000m(Ritz), the heavy middle distance runner (Solinsky) at 10000m, and if they fail, they fail.

Add to that, the short guy in the high-jump (Holmes), the guy with the unconventional sprinting action in the 400m (Johnson), and the woman with the bobbing head in the marathon (Radcliffe) and there is hope for anyone. Who said that you need to be like those that have gone before you?

Saturday, 1 May 2010

Bambi and an Amazing Journey

Apologies for the lack of updates of late. My last week in Mammoth Lakes was characterised by snow, sunshine, more snow, and some great training. It seems that I'm acclimatised to the altitude now, and even better, I get to run at sea level for a few days. After training at 2,400m for two weeks, sea level running is very easy. Shame that it won't last!

Yesterday afternoon I got a lift from Mammoth Lakes most of the way to Palo Alto, where I am now. And what an amazing journey it was. Not only was it cheaper than a flight, but it gave me the chance to see just about everything that California has to offer, in one afternoon. Wind, rain, snow, sunshine, rainbows, mountains, hills, plains, rivers, waterfalls, lakes, forests, marshes, and green pastures, all made for an awe-stuck 6-hour drive.
Mono Lake, which was the epitome of tranquility when we visited a week and a half ago, was more like a roaring ocean today; the wind causing rippling waves across it's troubled surface, and the rain showers in the distance giving the scene an eerie feeling. And that was just the start of it.

Along the way, we navigated multiple mountain passes as we crossed the Sierra Nevada; passed by Lake Tahoe and the surrounding ski slopes (nearby Squaw Valley hosted the 1960 Winter Olympic Games); drove through Christmas Card-type scenery where the snow was clung to pine tree branches; and witnessed yet another snow shower, before finally descending into the Sacramento Valley.

After being dropped off at Walnut Creek station (thanks Scott and Audry for taking me that far), I made my way across San Francisco via two trains. The first, the BART to Millbrae, just beyond SFO, ran smoothly and it was from there that I saw the first rainbow that I've seen in years, and got my first glimpse of Golden Gate Bridge. Upon reaching Millbrae, however, I realised that I had just under 1 hour to wait for my connection. That wouldn't have been too bad, but for the fact that it was the windiest and coldest train station I have ever witnessed. And believe me, I have endured some pretty cold, prolonged stays in train stations. When I didn't freeze to death last night, I'm pretty sure that I could handle Antarctica (not that I'm going to rush there, or that I would ever, by chance, happen to find myself on the Southern-most Continent).

There I am, moaning about the environmental conditions again. I do realise how lucky I am. Honest. Especially when I hear that another British bank holiday weekend is going to be dominated by rain.

Anyway, Palo Alto - why am I here? Palo Alto is a town in the San Francisco Bay Area, 35 miles from ('if you're going to') San Francisco and 12 miles from ('do you know the way to') San Jose. More importantly, it is home to Stanford University, which tomorrow will host the Payton Jordan Cardinal Invitational, America's premier T&F meet for distance runners. There are tasty fields entered, and strong contenders from both Ireland and Britain in most of the events. There is even talk of a possible American record in the men's 10,000m. Hopefully there will be some exciting results and photos from the event to post tomorrow.

Today, I took a walk around part of the campus, and was very impressed. I'll be adding it to my (not so) short-list of favourite University campuses. Here are a few photos I took.

And so the the Bambi reference. No it's not a pet-name that I have given myself. I actually saw a baby deer this evening on my run. In fact, it was no more than 2 meters from me when I spotted it, before it turned around and bounced off into the distance. Special! Of course I didn't have my camera with me, but who needs photos when you have memories?

And so, that's me back up-to-date with my updates. Good luck to all the Birmingham boys and girls competing in BUCS Championships over the weekend. I look forward to hearing how everyone did. For the rest of you, enjoy the rain!