Sunday, July 24, 2011

The last hoorah's of Euro Trip 2011!

I don't even know where to begin.  

Let's try the present moment.

I am writing up this blog on a plane again, but in a wholly different place emotionally than I was about three weeks ago on my return flight from the US Championships. On the way home from Eugene I was fighting back tears, and seriously questioning my place in the professional running world. However, I concluded by saying I have faith that I am ready for a breakthrough...

Well, I cannot be happier to report that I was finally correct in my assessment, and a breakthrough is exactly what I experienced in my final three European races.  I had a little Italian racing spree, competing on Wednesday, Sunday, and Tuesday in Nuoro, Padova, and Lignano, respectively. From those three races, I won my second ever pro race in a near-best time, I ran a big 1500m PR, and then topped it off with a LOOONG awaited PR in the 800 last night. I can't even describe how good it feels to be coming home after such a successful trip...though at the same time, I almost wish I could stay and keep the train rolling! 

Currently going on my 20th hour of travel, and no sleep...I'm borderline-high. I keep catching myself gazing out the window at the endless sky, the sun finally setting...then closing my eyes, breathing it in deep, and letting a smile creep to my face. I realize how incredibly cheesy and stupid this sounds, but it is the truth, and at this moment it is such beautiful truth. I am loving this sense of renewal, affirmation, and peace that I have right now.

Ok, so let me share some of the details of this past whirlwind of a week.

I left my house in Leuven early last Tuesday morning...but not without a proper goodbye. I was the first from our group of athletes to leave the city, so on Monday, everybody decided to celebrate my last night in Leuven like it was my birthday or something. We all went out for dinner, and enjoyed one final round of Belgian waffles and ice cream for dessert. It was pretty fun, I must say. 

I flew from Brussels to Rome (another exotic place to check off my list of "places I have been"...haha, if you count the airport), and then connected to a smaller airport on the southern Italian island of Sardegna. We then took a van from the airport to the official meet hotel in Nuoro, another hour or so of driving, but definitely an entertaining drive. Sardegna is endless mountains, green, and beauty. We cut through the sides of mountains, up and down hills, and even through tunnels that went straight through the rock. Besides the gorgeous location, my other first impression was: dang, it is HOT here!
I got to rest for maybe an hour or so after arriving to the hotel before a bus was taking athletes to go to the track for a pre-meet workout. I still hadn't had a chance to run, so I hopped on. We drove for kind of a long time again, and suddenly I noticed a glimpse of red like track surface through some trees. I blurted out: "oh, there it is!" to my seat mate, but then as soon as I said it, I thought no...that can't be it...

This track, to say the least, was not in the best of shape. It looked oddly small for some reason, the surface was worn and replaced, and worn again, it had a dry dirt infield rather than grass or turf like we're used to seeing, leaves were blown in and collecting in the first get the picture. Not to mention the fact that it was hot like the surface of the sun out there, and like most things in Sardegna, it was basically a small flat area, carved into the side of a mountain (meaning for all you distance people, no logical place to warm up around the track without hitting some serious hills in every direction).

I am describing all this in great detail because what happened next was one of the funniest things I have ever seen occur as a collective group of athletes enter a track for pre-meet. We all got off the bus, walked through the gates, AND JUST STOOD THERE. It wasn't the usual routine where you usually just find a place to drop your spike bag and get straight down to business. It was almost as if no one even knew where to begin in the heat and on this poor dilapidated track in the middle of hill country.           

As a kid, have you ever had your parents do the thing where they stop the car and make you get out to "walk home" because you were fighting with your siblings in the back seat? Haha..I don't think I have, but this situation kind of reminded me of what some kids might look like as the car drives, "They're coming back, right...? This is a joke, right...?"

Eventually the shock wore off, and rather than just standing there, we all got to business. Not without a couple nervous laughs and people asking, "is this REALLY the track we are competing on tomorrow...?" I was already feeling pretty awful from all the travel, so this environment was not exactly encouraging to me, but like everything else on these trips, you just have to go with the flow and make the most of every opportunity.

Despite all of these erupting negative feelings, the good Lord creeped in to reveal himself in a really unique way to me that evening. He showed me beauty like I've never looked at it before. Maybe it was the shabby condition of the track that served as such a perfectly stark contrast to everything going on there, maybe it was the breathtaking views of the mountains surrounding us on all sides...I don't really know...

All I can say is, suddenly I felt an incredible sense of awe at the beauty of track and field- all of it. I was captivated by the graceful elegance of athletes running so quickly, efficiently, and smoothly through space with bodies perfectly sculpted for movement.

As a woman, I am hard-wired to be my own worst critic about my physical appearance, but while I was appreciating the beauty of everything and everyone else there, I came to the realization that I am in the midst of all these other athletes because I too am beautiful, and I am capable of making something beautiful with my very movement. My sport can be a work of art, and I can be both the subject and the artist. This was a nice, idealistic conclusion to come to at that less than ideal track. Luckily, as we were being picked up to go back to the hotel, word was spreading fast that this was NOT the track we would be competing on the next day! :)     

So the next day was race day! The track was indeed nicer, but the weather still quite hot and windy. Even in the shade as I waited to warm up, the heat was radiating through me on the blacktop, and I was slightly concerned about my odds of running very well that day. It felt like the conditions were much better for napping than racing, but I tried to put that in the back of my mind, and convince myself that heat is good for the 800m! 

Funny international racing experience: Immediately before the start of the race, we were all divided into our lanes, pacing and waiting for the starter to send us off. I was literally facing the opposite direction from my starting line, not paying attention at all, when suddenly I realized all the other athletes were toeing the line, waiting for the gun! Oops! I guess I should learn "on your marks" in Italian! As soon as I turned around and got in my set position, the starter shot the gun! I am sure it was only like 3 seconds for me to figure out what was going on, but I bet it seemed like forever to everyone else who was already set before me, so sorry!

Anyway, I got out hard, found myself in first position at the break line, and just kept pressing forward. I wasn't sure how close everyone was behind me, but I wasn't about to look back. Because it was so windy that day, i hadn't really anticipated to run that fast, but at 600m, I heard that my split was still 1:29, and thought to myself, shoot! I can still run pretty fast today! I poured it on for the last 200m to win in a time of 2:01.96, and I was very encouraged to run such a fast time in less than perfect conditions, without people to chase in front of me. Plus, it was pretty cool to earn my first and second-ever professional wins back-to-back!

Next stop: Padova! It was a nice change from Nuoro because it was cooler in temperature, had a few more cool places to walk around the city, and was much flatter for running. There was a river just two blocks away from the meet hotel, so  we pretty much ran there every day. They had a nice warm up track to do our premeet, and an even nicer yet stadium to compete at. The weather threatened to storm, but held out, and we had some excellent conditions for a fast 1500m field. Since there were so many talented women in the field, I pretty much felt like I was destined to run a faster PR than what I did in Ireland. I set my sights on trying to run 4:12, even writing down specific split times on my hand that I should try to hit in order to run that time. The race went pretty much exactly as I had hoped, I hit my splits, and felt pretty darn good running a new PR of 4:12.11! It was another happy night for me to make a big drop in my 1500, and gave me this feeling that my last race in Europe, an 800 in Lignano scheduled two days later, was going to be a good one too.

So last but not least, I returned to the beach town of Lignano. We only had a day to travel from Padova to Lignano and also recover and prepare for the next night's race, so it was pretty quick-turnaround time, but we still managed to take a walk on the beach and enjoy the place a bit. The next day, the weather couldn't have been more perfect, the race had a stacked field, and yet again, I felt like it was inevitable for me to run a new PR in the 800. I went out there, and jumped somewhere in the middle of the pack, and rode the energy through to a 2:00.41. I was slightly disappointed to be the first woman in the race to NOT go under two minutes, but I would be crazy not to be happy about s new personal best time since 2007. It had been a long time coming, and I actually felt so great in the race, like there is more good to come- a good note to end the trip on. 

Now it's time to go home, see my family, my hubby, and move into s new house in a week! I am so blessed, and so happy.      


Sunday, July 10, 2011

From Ireland, to Belgium, and soon to be Italy!

Considering how little I have done in the past week, it is slightly shameful that I haven't updated my blog until now...But, at the same time I would argue that doing nothing has been just exactly what I've been needing for awhile.

Rewinding just a bit, I will pick up where I left off in my last blog, the 1500m race in Cork, Ireland! Well, I was very pleased with the way the race went. Because I had just gotten across the pond a couple days prior to the race, and not 100% adjusted to the new time zone, I took a conservative approach to the race, telling myself I will run my own race, and not let other people influence me too much. I calculated out the splits I would need to run for a 1-second PR, and decided I would just try to run like clockwork, staying as close as I can to those split times. Well, I did just that, ran a tiny personal best of 4:15.11, and felt amazing doing it. Had I known I was going to feel so good already, I would have tried to get up a little higher in the race, because after finishing that one, I had a feeling of complete certainty that I can be even faster than that next time. It was very encouraging, and fun to run a personal best right off the plane. I am working on trying to get at least one more 1500m race in Europe to really see what I'm made of in that event right now. Beyond that, I have decided it is so nice to switch things up and run other events. Jumping in a 1500 after some disappointing 800 races gave me some perspective, and the pace being just a bit slower, made me feel really relaxed out there.

Next on the agenda after Cork was flying to Brussels, Belgium, and then taking a short train ride over to Leuven, Belgium. I've been based here for a week now, and as I mentioned earlier, haven't done a whole lot of anything. When we first got here, it took some time to settle into the big ol' house I am staying in (this house, by the way, is crazy! It has like 5 stories, with two bedrooms on each floor, winding up and up the stairs seemingly forever. We've got one community kitchen downstairs, one community bathroom for the 6 of us living here, and things are working out pretty well). The house is a bit of a distance from the track, some nice running trails, the grocery store, and city center (basically all the places I might go here), so the first day a bunch of us went to rent some bikes to get around. Turned out to be a great idea! Last year, I walked sooo much back and forth from the track and stuff, these bikes are really saving my legs from some extra miles! Other than that, we've made it a point to take as long as humanly possible to go to the track, run, make breakfast and shower in the morning, so by the time we're done with all the essential items of the day, it is usually well past noon. The rest of the days have been filled with reading books, going on some bike rides, trying to keep in touch with people from home (Internet was a bit sketchy for the first few days, had to bike into the city center to get the free McDonald's wifi!), and going out to buy ingredients, and make fun dinners. It's a lifestyle I'm not accustomed to, and sometimes get bored, but I also appreciate it so much and can see the value in de-stressing my life, enjoying the company of the other athletes here in my same position, and focusing on what I came here to do: run well.

Speaking of running, I competed in my second European race yesterday, in Kortijk, Belgium. We took the train from Leuven over there, had some of the meet people pick us up at the train station and take us right to the track, the trip itself took around two hours, so I was a bit nervous about feeling flat by the time we got there, but I went into this windy race feeling alright, and excited to put myself to the test once again. From the gun, I jumped right into the lead, on the tail of the rabbit, who did nothing wrong! Yaaay! She dropped out around 500m into the race, and then it was just me and the wind, and close footsteps behind me, making me feel like I was running for my life. I just barely managed to pull out the win, which again, was very encouraging because as far as I can remember, this is my first professional win! At this level, it is quite a bit tougher to pull that off I have realized.. My race time was pretty slow, around 2:03 mid, but with the wind in basically a solo effort, I was happy, and I got some prize money and chocolates for a prize to top off the fun!

After we got back, I had a great night going out to eat with the ladies of my house here (Gabe, Katie Follett, Julie Culley, Annick Lamar). The restaurant we went to had an odd requirement that you HAD to order a beverage, so I got a "Shirley Temple"...aka sprite and cherry juice. This was a favorite drink of mine since I was a kid and though I was the only one at the table without a glass of wine, I wasn't teased too much over my juvenile taste in drinks. We toasted to better races to come, to meeting and spending time with great people who are all on similar tracks (no pun intended...well, kind of I guess pun intended I guess!), and called it a night.

Next up, I fly to Italy on Tuesday, will race in Nuoro, Italy on Wednesday, and then hopefully get in one or two more Italy races before I head home on the 20th! This trip is going fast, but slow at the same time, but I am doing my best to enjoy it while it lasts, make the most of it, and have no regrets in my races. So far, so good!

Friday, July 1, 2011

Euro trip 2011 starting off well in Ireland!

I made it safe and sound to Cork, Ireland! Arrived yesterday around noon after about 16 hours of travel and little sleep, but was excited about being here. Flying in, seeing all the beautiful green hills I told Ben Blankenship (a runner from the University of MN who decided to start his European racing travels with me here in Ireland), "This might be my new favorite place I've ever been long as the people here are nice..." (my former favorite place was Switzerland, and the people there were very accommodating). Well, I obviously hadn't done my homework, or I would have known that Cork has a huge reputation for being filled with the most welcoming, hospitable people in all the world. I'd have to agree.
So when we walked out from baggage claim we had a woman ready and waiting to drive us the short distance from the airport to our accommodations (some dorms near the track). She was very kind and seemed quite excited about pointing out the sights here as she drove in the RIGHT SIDE of her car on the LEFT SIDE of the road. I sat in front with her, and felt quite odd being in the "driver's seat" without a steering wheel...haha.
Everyone says that the best way to get accustomed to the new time zone over here is NOT to go to sleep right away when you get there in the morning, so we quickly settled in to our rooms, and changed to go on a run. I ran with three of the guys who plan on racing the 1500m here as well, and it was nice to have company to keep me awake out there!
Next on the agenda was showering, which is a glorious/refreshing feeling after being stuffed in a germ-tube airplane all night! Once I was cleaned up, it was time to head straight out the door again though, because we had all been invited to a reception, and were promised "finger food" if we attended. I was pretty hungry at this point, so it was an easy sell. Plus, the meet coordinating people who were taking care of us at the dorms seemed pretty excited about it, and you never want to let someone down who is that freaking nice to you.
As it turns out, this reception took place at an army base-type establishment, and we started off the event by taking a group picture (with all of us athletes, some military officials, and local governing people) in front of two big 'ol tanks. Then we took it inside for the reception, not without shaking hands with all the uniformed folks, who all said "You're very welcome!!!" enthusiastically as way of greeting. We then listened to some speeches, which was particularly tough for me because I was sooo tired, and we were to listen to the speeches standing up. By the time everyone was done talking, and the finger food finally showed up (and was eaten), I was about toasted. Apperntly so was Ben...on the way back to the dorms he fell asleep through a bit of crazy driving on the left side of the road and loud conversations. Well, him being asleep looked so enjoyable, I decided to take a nap when we got back.
It was 5:30, and I was thinking I could take just a short nap before dinner at 6. I set an alarm, and...woke up at 8:35. Wupps, didn't even hear my alarm. Since dinner was only supposed to go until 8pm, I walked out of our secure dorm building, key card in hand, to go next door to buy a little something to eat. On my way back in, I found out my key card must not have been activated for the front door though, because I was locked out. I went to the office that issued us our keys, locked as well for the night. Next try, I went to the cafeteria to see if there were any dinner stragglers still around to let me in. I walked in to find one of the kitchen staff people just cleaning up. He noticed the food I just purchased in hand, before I could tell him my situation of being locked out, he excitedly pulled out leftovers from the dinner I missed for me to take (another example of their amazing hospitality). Luckily for me, he also had the phone number of someone who could help me get inside too. :) After eating the lovely leftovers provided for me, it was time for bed (again!), and I had a fantastic first night of sleep. This ended day one of Euro trip 2011.
Today's been pretty awesome too. In a nutshell, had some breakfast, went to the track (which is surrounded by gorgeous green Irish scenery), ate lunch at a bistro on campus, and then came back to the dorms to free-load off Will Leer's wireless Internet, write a blog, and watch some movies on his computer. First it was Hot Fuzz, now we're on to Justin Bieber's Never Say Never. Whattaday.
Tomorrow will be the 1500m at 3:25 Ireland time (I think 9:45am at home) in the 60th running of the Cork Citysports track meet. I guess Cork is the 2nd biggest place in Ireland, second to Dublin, BUT this is like the only international athletic competition held in Ireland every year. Cork, it's an honor to be here, and I hope to do you all proud tomorrow!