Europe 2015 Day 16: Pisa and Florence

A Europe trip was long overdue for this New Yorker. I managed to clear 19 days (flight time inclusive) to figure out how to plan such an itinerary and came up with:

Day 1 – Fly from NYC to London overnight
Day 2 – Check in hotel, brief sightseeing, sleep
Day 3,4 – Explore London
Day 5 – Daytrip to Paris via Eurostar
Day 6 – Travel to Edinburgh, sightseeing
Day 7,8,9 – Tour the Scotland highlands
Day 10 – Travel back to London, Harry Potter tour
Day 11 – Fly from London to Barcelona, sightseeing
Day 12-18 – 7 day cruise
Day 19 – Fly back home

The most challenging part is planning it all (and saving enough money as well). The flights, hotels, where to go, how to get there, things to avoid, not getting lost, saving money, optimizing time, eating, bathroom stops, what to pack, currency, backup plans for when things go wrong, survival, etc. Somehow, everything went according to plan with a few minor mishaps. Follow me on my travels as I cover the itineraries, highlights, and other random encounters and experiences.

Pisa

The ship docks at the coastal town of Livorno but mostly everyone just wants to drive through Toscana to see Pisa and Florence, drink wine, eat pizza and gelato, and take selfies.

The drive to Pisa isn’t a long one. Once the Torre Pendente (Leaning Tower) is in sight in the Piazza dei Miracoli, everyone recognizes it like they’ve seen it somewhere before but never up close. The strategy is to show up first thing in the morning to avoid the crowds. Then, you have to identify the best photo spot before people accumulate in your background. And finally, be creative and have fun with it.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

There is also a huge church and baptistery but  people get distracted with the leaning tower, the star of the show. Throughout the 45 minutes we had, I dedicated at least 10 take some photos of these overlooked buildings.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

After an brief visit, we headed to Firenze (Florence). Unlike Rome, it seemed like a ghost town at first since the locals are mostly on vacation during the summer. But the tourists soon filled up the city center. A group of us ate at a restaurant near the Piazza Signoria. The statues are always cool to check out.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

I thought Florence was prettier than Rome. Actually, in my mind, Florence is what I imagined Italy to look like. Restaurants and shops everywhere. Most buildings follow a yellow and red pattern. In the Piazza del Duomo, the building that dominates the entire city is the cathedral with the largest brick dome in the world; Cattedrale di Santa Maria del Fiore. You feel so small as you approach and circle around it. The large dome is something special. An amateur engineer (never built anything before) named Filippo Brunelleschi designed the massive dome more than 600 years ago without ever revealing his secret. It remains somewhat of a mystery how he and his team were able to stack 4 million bricks into a dome the size of half a football field with precision. If there was a slight error of even a fraction of an inch then that error would propagate upwards and make the dome unstable. Also, it was accomplished without modern support systems and without it collapsing on itself. What is known is that he used a clever zig-zag pattern for the bricks and ropes in a flower pattern throughout the process. Just imagine how it felt to stand at the roof of the cathedral prior to the dome’s construction and placing the first brick. And how would you transport 4 millions bricks to the roof in the first place? He also invented his two-way pulley system. If you have time then this documentary is a good watch: (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wEUe8mq8CKs). I’m an engineering major so naturally, this interests me. Ok, photo time.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

You can actually walk up 463 steps to the top of the dome but that line was really long. What kind of view of the dome would one get if they were standing on top of the dome itself? Instead, I chose 414 steps up Giotto’s Campanile (Belltower) for a few euros and 10-15 minute line. In my opinion, this was a better option since get as close as possible to the dome without being in top of it. And of course you get a great view of the overall area.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

With only 1.5 hours left, it was time to give myself a running tour. Yea, when you’re low on time, just run. Perhaps I was the only one running on along the riverside, but it was awesome. I headed to Ponte Vecchio; a bridge full of shops and a very popular selfie photo spot.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

There is another viewpoint area across the Arno river called Piazzale Michelangelo. It’s quite a hill and I was a hot sweaty mess by the time I reached the top, but the views are worth it. Also, the fake David statue stands on the summit of the hill. Running back down was a breeze but I had to restock on water, Italy is quite hot.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

The real David statue is located in the Academy of Fine Arts which is a short walk from the Duomo. The wife went with some friends and snapped these photos while I was on my running tour. Sometimes you have to split the experience to have photos of everything at the end of the day, especially with limited time.

20150820_084927 20150820_084121

With some time to spare, I checked out the courtyard of the Uffizi Gallery. I recognized a few statues like Amerigo and Galileo.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Finally, with one last glimpse of Ponte Vecchio, it was arrivederci to Italy…

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

NYC Marathon 2014

11413_1414946266It’s the race that started it all. 4 years ago, I remember watching the elites on TV and feeling inspired to run my farthest during that time; a 10K. I couldn’t imagine running 4 times farther than that. That’s just crazy. 4 years later, I would have to agree that it is kinda crazy. And it’s even crazier to run the NYC marathon after already running a marathon 3 weeks prior… while gaining 15 pounds since last year and with a shin splint. Also, it was colder than usual (upper 30s and into the 40s) and winds were 30 mph from the north (the direction to run for most of the race). Some say it was the worst weather in 20 years for the NYC marathon. My story is less of a success story and more of a survival story and a lesson learned. Just look at that route, how could anyone resist trying it out at least once?

16156979-mmmain

Marathon Day

Most runners start their day at 4AM. Getting 50,000+ runners to the start line is a complicated process. Transportation involves car/taxi rides, buses, trains, and/or the ferry. Fort Wadsworth, Staten Island is where all the runners gather and it resembles a concentration camp somewhat with everyone sitting/laying on the grass or in tents with police and armed soldiers walking around. I luckily was in Wave 1 this time and started the race with the first group at 9:40AM.  I found some fellow runners to stretch with and exchange a final “good luck everyone, see you at the finish, this is it” chit-chat. After a long and cold wait at the start, the cannon finally fired. Boom! This is the point of no return. Running on the Verrazano bridge is my favorite part of the race. What an epic way to start a marathon. But that wind tho…

There were some strong wind gusts on the bridge which had us all holding on to our bibs. It would be tragic if the wind blew your bib away. Several runners wore plastic bags over themselves prior to the race as a wind breaker only to be thrown away at mile 1. I recall looking up watching all the plastic bags spiraling in the air above us. Several runners were tripping over unwanted clothing which wasn’t thrown to the sides properly. Prior to the race, they were giving out free Dunkin Donuts winter hats. I wore mine and was quite happy with it, but then it blew off my head just like several others, meh. As epic as the bridge start is, the weather conditions kind of dampened the mood a bit. It was like, oh man, is the wind going to blow me around like this during the entire race? Should I have postponed to next year? What have I gotten myself into? I tried taking photos but they all came out awful, so here are a few aerial shots from the Espn and TCS NYC marathon sites.

nyc2014_1 MDB_0887_Start_mara-webpage_0 nycmarathonbridge 2014TCSNYCM_Transportation-to-the-Start-page nyc2014_2

First of all, I was kind of beat up after the Chicago marathon. Within the 3 week window, I only ran 3 times (21 miles total); barely a taper. Why? Shin splint. But I thought to myself, if I didn’t run too much than the splint would fade away and I’d be all set for the NYC marathon. Little did I know. The shin splint returned as I started descending the Verrazano bridge (mile 2). I’ve run with this sort of thing before, but I’ve never run a marathon with one. This was going to be painful indeed. It was only a matter of time before the limping starts. But let’s see how long I last.

Although the weather wasn’t the best, this could not stop the infamous NYC crowds from being on the sides of the course. It was nice running through the neighborhoods of Brooklyn again (Bay Ridge, Sunset Park, Park Slope, Boerum Hill, Prospect Heights, Clinton Hill, Williamsburg, and Greenpoint). As expected, it was one long street parade. Brooklyn is everybody’s favorite borough to run in because most of the course is flat and the crowds bring it. I actually forgot about the shin splint for a while as I gave some high fives and smacked those “touch here for power” posters. After 2 hours or so, I reached the halfway point at the Pulaski bridge into Queens and felt a sharp pain which made me walk for a bit. Oh no, not now. I was already running slower than usual and had to take it even slower to prevent putting any unnecessary pressure on the right leg. I’ve gotten this far, and can’t stop now. Running through Long Island City, Queens isn’t the Queens that I usually run in and not scenic at all. Foreigners will never know how pretty Queens is, but oh well. And after 2 more miles, the big one approaches; the Queensboro bridge. I don’t know anyone who enjoys this part; it really sucks at mile 15. Actually, the only thing to look forward to on this bridge is that moment when all of the runners spill into 1st Avenue in Manhattan where a stadium worth of people await.

My leg was taking a beating all of the way up 1st Avenue to the Bronx. But shin splint aside, I was feeling quite exhausted at miles 18-19 anyway. Marathons never get easy do they? All I have to say is, I’m glad that I ran successfully at the Chicago marathon because this one was a fail. Can’t win them all I suppose. Many runners usually hit some sort of wall in the Bronx at mile 20, but I hit a wall and then fell off of a cliff. I recall walking for a few minutes and hating myself for deciding to run this day. Even walking hurt like hell. Since quitting is never an option, I had to limp-run or gallop all the way to the finish line. From South Bronx into Harlem and all the way up 5th Avenue into Central Park. The crowds were always cheering and were very supportive. I may have to be a spectator next year because it would seem that they were having much more fun than the runners. Perhaps my lowest moment was when runners were passing me by the hundreds during the last few miles. Several runners were still full of energy while interacting with the crowds like champions. There was even a moment where someone power-walked passed me (huh). The clock was already passed my finish time from last year and I had 2 miles left. Something that should’ve taken 30 minutes went on for an hour. I eventually reached the finish line under 5 hours. This was the hardest marathon of my life. It took 2 weeks just to have the strength to write this post and relive the traumatizing day again. Every medal given out that day was certainly well-earned and fought for. And let’s not forget the 30 minute Central-Park-Exit march of 10,000 zombies wearing blue marathon ponchos and marathon medals. All I have to say is, never ever run a marathon if you don’t feel at least 95% at the start. Lesson learned.

nycmarathon2014

Thoughts:

Regardless of how it turned out, the NYC marathon is still the king of marathons. For many people, it’s a life changing experience. For me, it was the “path to the marathon” which changed my life. It led me to a life of site-seeing NYC via running (and blogging about it), whether it was alone or with other runners that I’ve met throughout the years. And as for vacation trips, being able to run for at least 2 hours enabled the possibility of unique experiences which would not have been possible otherwise. From a few blocks to a marathon, it is one the greatest “challenge accepted” decisions to take.

In conclusion, it has been one crazy year. 3 marathons (Disney, Chicago, and NYC) (and even a Mt. Rainier summit). My best time was 4:19 at Chicago and I’m content with that even though 4 hours was my original goal. For the first time, I intend to take a really long break from running and most likely run half-marathon distances at a maximum in 2015. So what’s next? I’m not sure, but after years of working on my legs, it’s about time I build up the upper half. There are other countries to see (and run through) and there are other mountains to summit. Let’s see what 2015 has to offer.

Chicago marathon 2014

20141012_174043

Some people travel to go on vacation and relax, while others travel to climb mountains and run marathons. 4 years ago, I decided to get outside and run for the first time. 4 years later, I finished the Chicago marathon; my third marathon with a personal record. But before the marathon report, I present some sights of Chicago.

Willis Tower:

20141010_121108 20141010_121050 20141010_124014a 20141010_121838 20141010_124119

Cloud Gate (The bean mirror):

20141011_104028 20141011_104258

Chicago Sightseeing:

20141011_105744 20141011_110013 20141011_110239

Navy Pier:

20141012_180834 20141012_181447

Marathon Day

Just when I thought it couldn’t get louder and wilder than the NYC marathon, Chicago was just as loud and wild with 40,000 runners and 1.7 million spectators. My marathon training was mediocre this year due to a Mt Rainier training conflict and a new fondness for lifting weights. Also, I gained 10+ pounds over the past 6 months (mostly muscle I hope). But I figured, I’d gladly sacrifice many hours of marathon training for one painful final marathon hour, which is inevitable anyway. Besides, I just wanted to enjoy my 26.2 mile tour of Chicago and its countless neighborhoods without the stress of time goals.

20141012_071651 20141012_071754

The line-up at Grant Park was quick and organized. The security line was actually shorter than the pee lines. I literally left my hotel at 6:30 and was standing in my corral at 7:30 ready to start the race. By the way, the weather was mid-50s and no major hills on the entire course. It doesn’t get better than that. On your mark…

First half:
Surrounded by skyscrapers and crowded streets in the city center, the first 2-3 miles are a blast and great way to start. It’s not the epic Verrazano bridge beginning but it is awesome in its own way. From Grant park through Streeterville, passing the Magnificent Mile and back to The Loop (city center). There were runners from all over the world wearing their country’s colors as well as domestic runners wearing funny costumes. The crowds had all sorts of signs and costumes, live bands, loud horns and cowbells; it was one epic 26.2 block party. It was NYC all over again. The volunteers were exceptionally lively and looked like they were having the best time of all. Yep, that’s me wearing shades and a skull buff on my head throwing the “3 finger” gesture for third marathon.

756038-1179-0006s 756040-1115-0002s 756029-1174-0046s 756035-1342-0015s

Several neighborhoods reminded me of Brooklyn and uptown Manhattan – Near North Side, Lincoln Park, Lakeview East, Park West, Old Town, River North, and Near West Side. Since I was feeling alright, I decided to high-five any hand that was sticking out of the crowd. Whether it was a huge Hulk glove, “touch here for power” poster, or a confused looking kid with his hand out, they all got my high 5. It’s the best when there is a line of hands; combo. This went on for miles, like a big whirlwind of noise and running. One of the best moments was when we returned to The Loop, where my biggest fan (the wife) was waiting for my sweaty hug in front our hotel. My wife said I looked fine after 12 miles and then told me to keep running. How tempting it was to just go right upstairs and take a nap. At the halfway point, the real race begins…

Second half:
It was just like the first half, but painful toward the end. We ran through more neighborhoods – Greek Town, Little Italy/University Village (where the Rocky theme song was blasting), Pilsen (largest Latino community), East Pilsen, Chinatown, Bridgeport, Park Boulevard, Bronzesville (adjacent to IIT college campus), South Commons, and Central Station. The crowds were so full of energy (and full of booze in some areas). Spectators were handing out all sorts of food like oranges, bananas, Kleenex, Vaseline, Twizzlers, power gels, tamales, beer, etc. The crowds were loud as hell for one mile and quiet during another mile as we ran through the neighborhoods and the roads which connect them. By mile 18 (Pilsen), my high fives ceased as my enjoyment transformed into struggle, it was only a matter of time. The fatigue and pains started kicking in. Throughout the many twists and turns of the second half of the route, the Willis tower was always in sight and served as the finish line marker; a ray of light. Also, it became 10 degrees warmer, ugh. And something I learned: wearing shades hides the exhaustion face in the photos.

756045-1279-0044s 756049-1157-0039s 756053-1085-0044s 756020-1149-0021s

Every mile felt longer and longer. Stronger runners started passing me by, but that was fine. I knew it would be over soon. The final hour was painful indeed as I resisted the urge to walk. The water stations were like heaven tables with angels handing me water and Gatorade. I only have glimpses of images in my head during the last few miles, a kind of drunken memory of it all.

The last 2-3 miles was a straight run up Michigan Ave to the finish and I was possibly running as fast as I power walk. At mile 25, I felt like passing out regardless of the liters of water and Gatorade in my system. My body was failing quickly. It is during these last moments where you ask yourself, why am I doing this to myself? Why run a marathon? The answer becomes clear. To know what it feels like to run the Chicago marathon and to know what it feels like to finish it, to feel victorious, and to feel alive. If I stop at mile 25, I’ll never know, so I must finish. After an eternal final mile, the finish line was in sight; it’s the most beautiful sight. 4 hours and 19 minutes! 8 minutes faster than Disney, and 15 minutes faster than NYC. VICTORY!

756014-1568-0007s 756081-1193-0048s 756084-1144-0049s

Thoughts:
The path to the marathon continues. I have a score to settle with NYC. Thanks to the Chicago marathon experience, I feel prepared for the NYC marathon rematch in 2 weeks. Most importantly, the taper period starts now which means less running and more eating, excellent. For anyone who ran the NYC marathon or any one planning to run the distance, I highly recommend Chicago. You won’t regret it (until mile 20+, hehe).

A one mile sprint and 2 marathons

So, the question I wanted to answer was: Did the Mt. Rainier training and the actual experience make me a better runner? One month later, my conclusion is – not really. Nevertheless, it didn’t make me any worse. The path to the marathon continues with a double whammy this year: the Chicago marathon and NYC marathon just 3 weeks apart. But there is strategy to this madness, one marathon serves as my final long run practice session for the other. Well, I think it’s a clever plan.

For the past 6 weeks, the marathon training went on as usual: the 5 bridge 18 mile route with friends, the lonely 16 mile long run in the neighborhood, the awful 20 mile long run in 85 degrees, the merciful 13 mile long run, and of course all of the 10k speed and hill sessions after work. Is it just me or does this whole running thing not excite me as it used to? Did the routine kill the thrill? Is it time for a new hobby? Hopefully this is just a phase and that the marathons will renew my motivation to be the best runner that I can be. To be honest, the one race that I was eager to run for the past few weeks was the 5th Avenue mile, a one mile race! Yep, just 20 city blocks or so.

91b9bf81e11befb0c8526d9b43d0e4b1

OFF TO THE RACES:
Fifth Avenue Mile @ Fifth Avenue – Central Park, NYC
September13th, 2014. 9:30AM and 68 degrees. 5,610 finishers.
Results: 6:09 pace, 1580th place, ~72% percentile, (C-)

nyrr_fifth ave mile_06

Have you ever wondered, what is your fastest mile? This race is the answer. My current PR for a 5k is 7:35 pace, so I figured that a good goal would be slightly under 7 minutes. 6:30 would be some sort of miracle.

Let’s fast forward to the part where I’m in the front lines in the male 30-34 group. “On your mark”, Boom! Oh man, we’re all running for our lives, like being chased by zombies or a T-rex, or just an old-fashioned outrunning explosions. The whole front line left me in the dust. Runners that were head to head with me are breathing so hard even with my iPod blasting, but so was I. Only 5 blocks in and I’m huffing and puffing while starting to slow down already, nooo. But wait, the large digital timer at the 1/4 mile mark says 1:30. According to my calculations… NO slowing down Jon, we can get 6:30 for sure!

cheetah-jump_493_600x450

The second quarter-mile was uphill, God why? But who cares, we must fight! Damn, I missed the second clock and I can’t recalculate, and runners are passing me like crazy, ugh, so frustrating. I can’t slow down now, cmon!

The crowds became louder by the third quarter-mile. My mind has only 3 thoughts:
1. This is my only shot at this
2. It’s all over in a few minutes
3. As bad as it feels, do not slow down
As hard as I push, runners continue to zoom by, making me feel like I’m slowing down. Ugh, it’s so hard to breathe. Doesn’t matter, must give it my all. This is not a fun race. It’s a battle, and we all want to be victorious.

And the fourth quarter-mile, time to run for my life. We all know this is where you sprint to the death. If $100 bills were all over the street, we would all run past it. Everyone has their ugliest faces at this point. Grunting, squinting eyes, and teeth. Oh man, I feel like throwing up, but wait, I can see the finish line 3 blocks away, and the digital clock says… under 6:00! What!? I lost it and blacked out into rage mode. Finish! Final time, 6:09, a miracle for me. Whoa, I feel dizzy now and also a bit wheezy, but it was worth it.

Random Thoughts

The Chicago marathon is on October 12 and the NYC marathon is on November 2; there’s no turning back now.

Iceland 2014 – Part 5

Iceland. It’s RUN time.

Day 6: The South
What would a vacation be without a long run session? I woke up at 5am for a mission to run from the hotel to Svartifoss (Black falls) and back before breakfast at 7:30. I had the route all figured out except for some minor details, such as the uphill trail running portion one mile from the waterfall. I kept confusing meters for feet and always ended up ascending 3x more than expected. Words can’t describe what it felt like to run on a long empty road with wild Icelandic sheep on your left and mountains and glaciers on your right.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

And most of all, it was a refreshing 40F that morning. After reaching Skaftafell National Park, I saw Svartifoss in the distance. Eventually, the hard work paid off, as it usually does.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

On the way back, I realized that it was earlier than I thought. So I took a detour and ran down another trail which led me straight to the Skeidararjokull glacier outlet. I got as close as possible and then headed back to the hotel. So much to see and do with so little time. Skaftafell requires a half day at least. Sky running may be in my future.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

For miles, as long as the eyes could see, there were flat barren plains resulting from the aftermath of the 1996 glacial lake outburst flood. Look what water does to bridges (and what remains of it).

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Moving along the ring road, we arrived at Dverghamrar, a small canyon with hexagonal basalt columns in the middle of nowhere. It was like the Icelandic Stonehenge.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Not much further along the road, Mt Lomagnupur stood majestically at 2500 ft. It’s the highest cliff face in Iceland. This looks like an epic hike, maybe next time.

27658329

Further south-west were the lava fields of Eldhraun and cairns of Laufskalavarda. It was interesting to find an area where we could contribute in adding rocks to the expansive cairn collection. Knocking one over by accident probably would have caused a disturbance in the force.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA 2014 Iceland-1789

Near the southernmost town of Vik is the Reynisfjara black lava beach. But in Iceland, you can always expect that a beach is not an ordinary beach. You can’t help but wonder if dragons lived there once upon a time. Lava rocks on this beach make good souvenirs since they are free and made in Iceland.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

After a brief stop in the Skogar folk museum (turf farms with rocks for walls and grass for roofs), we made our way to the mighty Skogarfoss (Forest falls). As always, there was a path toward the top where I eventually end up. The photos would’ve been better but it was so cloudy.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA 20140627_123048 2014 Iceland-1854-Edit - Copy <– Once again I’m a dot

By this point, you could see the strato-volcano Hekla (4,892 ft) and the infamous Eyjafjallajokull (Island mountain glacier, 5,417 ft) known for shutting down air travel in 2010 when a volcano under the glacier erupted. Ben Stiller in the Walter Mitty movie has a great time pronouncing this one. I hear there are great hiking trails around these lands.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

And guess what? Another waterfall stop. Even so, each waterfall is unique and a sight to be seen up close. Not too far from Skogarfoss is Seljalandsfoss, which has a trail that takes you behind the waterfall. The sky was finally clear of clouds and the rainbows appeared. Just for fun, I tried going right under the falls. It was worth getting soaked for.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Don’t worry, I didn’t forget about the Golden Circle; Iceland’s most popular tour. Stay tuned.

TO BE CONTINUED:

Getting Vertical

There is usually a low point in the journey to greatness. This is when you are presented with a choice. Is the prize worth the effort? If it isn’t, then go on another journey. If it is worth it, then there is another question to ask. Did I make a wrong turn somewhere, or, is there another way to escape from this low point? Here is a short story.

Mt. Rainier Training Session 2:
Total elevation gain: ~3,000 ft
Total backpack weight: 35 pounds 
Total hike time: 4 hours

brace

I decided to revisit the Hudson Highlands and increased the difficulty a bit. I figured it would be easier to just summit Mt. Taurus (~1,400 ft) twice. Unlike previous hikes, it became hot really fast, from 65F to 80F. And the insects! Did you know how much I hate flying bugs? The way they buzz in your ear and attempt to enter any hole in your face for no reason. They also have a tendency to bite or sting whenever they feel like it. The woods is a scary place for me during the warmer months. Spider webs everywhere, gnat swarms, bees hovering around me, and mosquitoes chasing me during my entire hike in the woods. Occasionally, a camouflaged frog would jump out of nowhere and scare the crap out of me. Also, there were hoards of these grasshopper creatures that would jump as I passed by. A few of them actually crashed into my body and face; this just got me crazy. As in a sparring match, I kept my hands up to keep my face protected (good thing there was nobody around to witness how stupid I must’ve looked). The insect repellent was useless. A gallon of water was not enough to quench my thirst in this heat. The only thought on my mind was: Never Again!

Fotoware

What madness drove me to enter this Temple of Doom insect chamber and confront the things of my nightmares for 4 hours in the heat? To summit Mt. Rainier of course. How can I continue my training throughout June and July if I couldn’t handle the conditions of late May? Am I done? Is this it?

I’m at the low point. So I ask myself: “Is the prize worth it?” I’ve gotten this far and can’t stop now. So I then ask myself: “Is there another way?” After much deep contemplation, I’ve decided to stop the outdoor training. And then it hit me. I live in NYC; the land of the skyscraper mountains. I could simply walk-up a bug-free staircase and I take the elevator down to focus 100% on the vertical ascent.

images (1)

All I had to do now was to find a tall building in which the management would allow a non-suspicious looking dude with a 40 pound backpack to have staircase access. After being turned down by a few large hotels, I began to ask around. Then finally, I asked the right person at work who happens to live in a building with 24 floors. The staircase access was granted after explaining my quest. Here is my new mountain:

24floors

Look at this 24 floor mountain. It’s more like 23 floors since the thirteenth floor is always missing for some reason. If you assume that each floor is 10 feet high, then it’s easy to calculate how many floors you need to walk up. Let’s do this.

Mt. Rainier Training Session 3:
Total elevation gain: 312 flights ~3,000 ft
Total backpack weight: ~35 pounds 
Total hike time: 2 hours

Success. 312 flights! 2.6 flights per minute pace (including breaks and elevator time).

Mt. Rainier Training Session 4:
Total elevation gain: 408 flights ~4,000 ft
Total backpack weight: ~35 pounds 
Total hike time: 2.5 hours

Yes! 2.72 flights per minute pace (including breaks and elevator time). I’m already feeling confident enough for the Day 1 Rainier challenge. The requirement is to ascend 4,500 ft in 4-5 hours. Feeling unstoppable, I decided to take it a step further and give myself a stress test. Why not run a 5 mile race and then run home from Central Park for an additional 9 miles the following day?

OFF TO THE RACES:
Portugal Day 5 miler @ Central Park, NYC
June 15th, 2014. 8:00AM and 63 degrees. 5,027 finishers.
Results: 7:55 pace, 1486th place, ~70% percentile, (C-)

A counter clockwise loop of Central Park minus Harlem hill. To be honest, I didn’t feel like racing to begin with. Somehow I ended up running a sub-8 race anyway. The 9 extra miles were hot and sweaty but not too difficult, as if I could’ve kept going somehow. From Central Park to the Queensboro bridge then homeward bound via Queens blvd.

5670699166_f0dc374589_z

I actually enjoy the noisy journey home and save a whopping $2.50 subway fare. Actually, I don’t save anything because I have to buy water and Gatorade from the bodega instead.

Random Thoughts

I just started watching Hannibal; a combination of Monk and Dexter. I recommend this one after watching the first season last week. It’s been a long time since I’ve been on vacation. I find it funny that it now has become necessary to figure out how to make time for workouts while vacation planning. Setting up running routes requires some serious Googlemapping. But I don’t think I’ll get lost on the Ring Road…

Color running and Corporate Challenges

Two new running experiences to add to the list:

OFF TO THE RACES:
Color Run@ Citi Field, Queens, NYC
May 31st, 2014. 9:00AM
Results: Un-timed Race

TLGA14_05_04930

This was a 5K on my list for a while now but never came around to it until now. Why now? The Color Run finally hit Queens, about a 5K away from where I live. If you know me by now, then you already know what had to be done. Yep, wrap a long weekend run around this event. A 5K to get there, the 5K Color Run, and the 5K home. I made sure to wear clothes that would be destroyed along with $5 shades for eye protection. Lots of free things at Expo such as a headband, shirt, bracelet, and socks, but not my style.

Firstly, FloFoto was on the course taking pics and the above photo was only $5 (MarathonFoto could learn something with the $25 photos). The crowd was much larger than I thought, and younger on average. For the first time, I was feeling kinda old (I’m above 30). Not many people actually ran this thing, many just walked it. Put it this way, when my wave launched, I was in the lead for 2-3 minutes, feeling like a Kenyan. And the course, ha, a snake course inside and outside Citi Field’s parking lot, ehhh.

colorrunmap 20140531_085359

Perhaps at around each kilometer or so, you have to pass through color zones where you get powdered in a certain color. Pink, Blue, Orange, Purple. No red? I was looking forward to red on my face, aw. This would be the first finish line that didn’t have a clock. The slogan is “Happiest 5K on the Planet”. This was a “fun run” after all. Also, it was the first time where I saw someone pull out a cigarette and smoke it right at the finish line.

The finish line party is the main event of the Color Run. It’s like a mini-concert with a lot of free stuff being tossed into the crowd. Once the crowd is large enough, the countdown begins and everyone throws their color packets in the air. I was wise to hold my breath for the whole half-minute. I recall opening my eyes for a split second only to see grey everywhere.

20140531_095549(0)  20140531_095445

I would’ve partied with the younger crowd but this 30+ year-old needed some breakfast. Besides, the mainstream music these days isn’t my style and I still have one more 5K to run. The journey back home was quite amusing. Little did I know that the powder mixed with sweat made me look freaky and received some strange looks, hehe. Somehow, I ended up green-ish, a color that wasn’t used at all.

20140531_105941

OFF TO THE RACES:
JP Morgan Corporate Challenge @ Central Park, NYC
June 4th (and 5th), 2014. 7:00PM and 75 degrees. 28,000+ finishers.
Results: 8:10 pace, 4993rd place, ~82% percentile, (B-)

2013_CC_logo_3C-1

A 5K (3.3 miles actually) after work, this sounded like a good idea. This is a race where you don’t sign up as an individual but instead, sign up as a group with your company. Me and some colleagues entered Central Park with 10 minutes left, which was a really bad choice. Chaos! Thousands of walkers and runners were all mixed together without a proper corral assignment system. First come first served, late comers like myself were “punished” for not getting there sooner. We were stuck on the line to the start line, for about 30 minutes. After waiting for 10 minutes, I already regretted signing up and just wanted to go home. It just became hotter every minute while being herded with the crowd while sharing the air with everyone.

At the start line, you have to quickly become a master swerver if you wanted to race it. I may have even jumped over a few people. This is a race but there are too many people walking everywhere! To avoid crashing, you had to get off the road and run in the dirt and grass. My expected 7:30 pace ended up as an 8:10 pace, boo. It was just a big mess, a first and a last for me.

Random Thoughts

Less than 2 months left until my Mt. Rainier trip. Last week, 6 (2 guides and 4 clients) climbers died on the mountain via the Liberty Ridge route; a technical route for experts. There hasn’t been a disaster like this since 1981. Also, the guides are with AAI; the same company I signed up with. Although I’ve never met these adventurers, I was still shocked and upset at this news. If this never happened, then just maybe, those guides would perhaps be taking me up Rainier. As amazing and beautiful as Rainier is, it can be a monster.

After doing some research to find some relief, I learned that the Liberty Ridge route and the Muir route (for beginners like me) are on opposite sides of the mountain and there hasn’t been any fatalities on the Muir route with AAI. Also, safety is the top priority. Summit day could be cancelled due to risky weather conditions. I’d rather live to reach the peak another day. Although it may seem scary, I’m actually content and look forward to the summit attempt.

My favorite Half marathon

index
As a young lad (4 years ago), I decided to become a runner. My first race was the Brooklyn Half marathon 2011 in which I struggled to finish in 2 hours and 4 minutes. Non-existent calf muscles, kung-fu pants, and cheap bandana to a race? Yep, I had a lot to learn.

https://jcpathtomarathon.files.wordpress.com/2011/12/83161-597-003f.jpg
That was the start of a new lifestyle for me. Although I swore to never run such a distance again, that distance has become the norm every weekend for 2 years now.

In regards to the Brooklyn Half, I’ve never missed an opportunity to revisit my first race course, my favorite race. In the following year, 2012, I finally ran the Brooklyn Half marathon under 2 hours (1:56). Since the end of 2012, I trained hard so that I could run it under 1:50. At the Brooklyn Half 2013, I was a minute too slow (1:51). This 1:50 barrier remained ever since. No matter how hard I pushed on any training run, the total time was always greater than 1:50.

IMG_198622460382461

Throughout 2014, I barely trained to be honest. It was mostly due to a brutal winter and the shift to a different goal (Mt Rainier). At the NYC Half marathon in March 2014, after running 2 full marathons a few months prior (NYC 2013 and Disney 2014), I made another attempt to officially break the barrier. My performance wasn’t any better, but not worse; 1:51 again. Sometimes you have to accept things. Just like there is a terminal velocity for how fast something can fall, I have reached my terminal velocity for a Half marathon. For the past 2 months I’ve been running only twice a week (one 10K and one Half). I’ve been more focused on weight training (upper body), my “Crazy Abs” workouts, and my “Empire State” stairmaster workouts (100 flights with 30-40 lbs). The Brooklyn Half 2014 was right around the corner and I already had my expectations; another 1:50+ race. So I raced the Brooklyn Half like, whatever man. My finish time, 1:45:45. What?!

OFF TO THE RACES:
Brooklyn Half @ Brooklyn, NYC
May 17th, 2014. 7:00AM and 58 degrees. 25,587 finishers.
Results: 8:05 pace, 4924th place, ~81% percentile, (B-)

bkhalf_elevation I don’t recall much from the first 6 miles, but the weather was great. Once you pass the mile 7 marker, you exit Prospect Park and enter Ocean parkway; 6 car lanes wide and no uphill. Its one of my favorite moments.

BK2014_SightsofBK07

The miles just went by. At mile 12, I starting thinking that there was a chance at breaking the barrier this time. With Coney Island in sight, slowing down was out of the question. I thought “perhaps I can beat my time by a whole minute or 2”.

BK2014_SightsofBK11 BK2014_SightsofBK15

Crap, just passed the finish line and my GPS lost its signal. I still don’t know my finish time. How was I to pose in the finish line photos, victorious or failure? Both?

BKhalf2014_1

I later found out that my finish time was 5 minutes faster than ever before for a Half marathon. Victory! Finally, a finish time that I’m proud of. Could I reach 1:40 someday? BK Half 2015? Maybe, but first, a full marathon under 4 hours please! In conclusion, the weight training, Crazy Abs, and Empire State stairmaster made the difference this time. I wonder how much of a difference it can make in a full marathon. At the finish line party, it was good to meet up with several runners who I haven’t seen since 2013. Also, I finally met Dominick; a fellow jogger blogger http://1etc.wordpress.com who killed it with a 1:35. He may have convinced me to try out a west coast race next year.

Random Thoughts

Although I’ve been focused with the Mt. Rainier training lately (2 months left), there is still time for trying new things. The new race last year was the Spartan race, and it was cool, but not for me. This year, it’s the Color Run. I couldn’t turn it down especially since it’s only a 5K away from my building. We’ll see how it turns out this weekend. After watching Godzilla and Neighbors, I would say, watch Neighbors and just Youtube the final Godzilla scene. Also, Bates Motel is a show that entered my list of approved shows worth watching.

 

No time for breaks

7f8cbfe6-ad74-11e3-b5e4-123139077938-medium

With 3 months left until the glorious Mt. Rainier summit attempt (yes attempt), there is simply “no time for breaks”. If I’m not running, I’m lifting things. If I’m not lifting things, I’m doing tornado kicks and swinging swords, staffs, and kwandos in the kungfu temple. If I’m not at the kungfu temple, I’m hiking trails upstate. If I’m not hiking upstate, I’m going up/down my 6 story apartment building with a 30lb+ backpack until I reach 80 flights. Rest days force themselves in my schedule as my body makes sure to remind me by shutting itself down every now and then. This is what I get for booking 2 marathons and a mountain summit within 3 months of each other.

IMG_195504041614725

There comes a point in ones training when the doubts infect the mind like a disease. As for marathon training, it may occur when you don’t see any progress in speed or mileage after a few weeks of consistent training. As if you’ll never become fit enough to reach your goal. I’m starting to have doubts about Mt. Rainier, but I still have to try. As a runner, a hill is a hill. They require some effort especially if the uphill lasts for a half mile or so, but you know that there is almost always a downhill right after. Also, the only extra weight required is the weight of your clothing. But what if there is no downhill? And what if 20%-25% of your body weight is added on your back? And what if the uphill is non-stop for hours, for 2-3 days straight? This is the monster I face.

Mt_Rainier_peaks

Approximately half of the people who attempt to summit Mt Rainier are turned back by fatigue (not in good enough shape), altitude sickness, or bad weather. Additionally, it can get quite dangerous toward the top and there have been some accidents. With so many obstacles, could this average city dweller summit this 14,411 ft giant? Although I don’t have control over the weather, I can at least be in good enough shape to not be turned back. This is where the training comes in…

_

Mt. Rainier Training Session 1:
Total elevation gain: 2,250 ft
Total backpack weight: 30 pounds
Total hike time: 3 hours and 30 minutes

After 7 guided hikes since September 2013, I became confident enough to be an independent hiker. The Hudson Highlands is one hour north of NYC via the Metro North rail. With 25 lbs in my backpack and 3 liters of water, I started my first solo journey at the Washburn trail head; a mile or so walk from the Cold Spring station. The goal was to summit Mt. Taurus (1,400 ft), descend back down and switch to the yellow trail. Descend further until the red trail intersection but remain on the yellow trail while ascending 450 ft to Breakneck Ridge (white) trail. Finally, descend back via the yellow trail and then exit via the blue trail to complete the loop. The additional 100 and 150 ft hills on the yellow trail resulted in a 2,250 elevation gain; half of the July’s end goal.

taurus

Although many hikers begin their Hudson Highlands journey via Breakneck Ridge, deaths occasionally occur due to its steepness. I just don’t have time for dying right now and ascending that type of steepness with a heavy backpack isn’t the training I need anyway. It took an hour to reach the Mt. Taurus summit and there were several viewpoints along the way.

20140506_132900 20140506_133915

20140506_135102 20140506_144116

I enjoyed the trek but my trapezius muscles have never felt worse (the backpack). The yellow trail was rather flat until the red trail intersection. By this point, the steepness had me using my hands to manuever around rocks; light scrambling. All of the marathon training didn’t make this easy since different muscle groups are required. My back and neck muscles were sore, followed by the upper glutes. I found myself alone surrounded by trees and rocks with nothing except my thoughts to keep me company.

20140506_145658 20140506_150222

Every 10-15 minutes or so, I just stood there catching my breath, chugging some water while thinking “What the hell are you doing out here Jon”, and “Will you be able to get out of here before dark or get out alive?” I was supposed to exit the way I came, but my water supply was almost empty and I was quite exhausted after 3 hours. Once I was on the blue trail and noticing that I had a little less than an hour to catch the train, I just started jogging. Don’t ask where this energy reserve came from. I managed to keep jogging until I reached the road and then kept going until the train station with a few walk breaks of course. Ha, the marathon training finally came in handy; I made it in time for the train (only one each hour). Not bad for my first real Rainier training session.

Meanwhile in Central Park…

OFF TO THE RACES:
Run As One 4 miler @ Central Park, NYC
April 27th, 2014. 8:30AM and 48 degrees. 8,029 finishers.
Results: 7:38 pace, 1493rd place, ~81% percentile, (B-)

IMG_296151296150186

Just when I thought my performance suffered over the winter, I whipped out a 4 mile race effort equivalent to my record last year. There is nothing much to report here, just another Central Park loop and perfect weather. It was the run home which I found to be much more interesting. I bumped into a wolf pack runner, Matt, who also raced the 4 miler with his buddy from the UK. It turns out that his buddy ran the Boston marathon under 3 hours, which was a week ago.

IMG_273244455666907

Since they were headed to Brooklyn and I was headed home to Queens, I had the opportunity to run with this athlete to the Queensboro bridge and across it. As the super runner admired the sights on the Queensboro bridge, I was breathing hard trying my best to stay alongside him. And then I made the request of requests… “Can you run at your usual marathon pace until we get to Queens? Don’t worry, I’ll be right behind you”. The pace quickly changed from 8:00 to 7:30 to 7:00. He looked like he was jogging, but I was running hard. The pace went to 6:30. He still looks like he was jogging, and I’m running for my life. The pace went to 6:00. By that point, I was just chasing him as he widened the gap between us. Thanks to him, I discovered what it’s like to run at 6:30 pace and right after a 4 mile race, incredible. Once in LIC Queens, we said farewell, and I proceeded to run another 10K to my casa.

OFF TO THE RACES:
Japan Day 4 miler @ Central Park, NYC
May 11th, 2014. 8:00AM and 61 degrees. 5,707 finishers.
Results: 7:44 pace, 1007th place, ~82% percentile, (B-)

1508569_10152084754197409_2222231335387101931_n

Pretty much a repeat of the previous 4-mile race except for the fact that I wasn’t in the mood to race and I missed my chance to pee before the race started. 18 seconds slower under such conditions isn’t bad at all.

 Random Thoughts

I’m in Boston for 3 days next week (business trip) and looking forward to doing some morning running on some new routes (not looking forward to working in the office though). Most importantly, my favorite Half marathon is this Saturday; the Brooklyn Half! Now I’m off to watch the Sunday lineup: Game of Thrones, Silicon Valley, and Veep.

 

NYC Half and Fourteen Peaks

Although Spring is here, it seems that Summer is here as well with the numerous 70F+ days thus far. Warmer weather and more hours of daylight brings more reasons to enjoy the outdoors. After 2 years of not making the lottery to enter this race, I finally got in. This is a “Big” race with 20K+ runners. The route was slightly altered since last year, but in a good way in my opinion. The winter didn’t allow for much outdoor running but I managed to run a few half marathon distances as preparation for this one. 6 miles in Central Park in freezing weather with 18mph winds isn’t much to look forward to but hey, it’s the NYC Half! Besides, when do you get to run down 7th Ave from 59th street to Times Square with the mob?

OFF TO THE RACES:
NYC Half @ Manhattan, NYC
March 16th, 2014. 8:00AM and 31 degrees. 20,750 finishers.
Results: 8:28 pace, 5795th place, ~72% percentile, (C)

nyc1 nyc2

Central Park: What do you get when you have 20,000 cold runners eager to get to the start line but only after passing through customs (security check with only 3 booths)? Madness! Good thing I arrived 45 minutes early, only to have a minute or two left to find my corral and start the race. Bang, it’s go time! Oh, by the way, I raced with a goal time of 1:50. I immediately spot the 1:45:00 pacer and just tried to stick to him as long as I could. It was only a matter of time before the hills would kill my sub-8 min/mile speed. And behold, at mile 3, the route took us up Harlem hill, Twice! It was another 3 uneventful miles until we escaped the park and headed into the concrete jungle.

Times Square (Mile 7): Immediately, the crowds are everywhere, like it was the NYC marathon. Sometimes I think that many of these people are just waiting to cross the street, hehe. This is considered to be the highlight of the race for most of us. For me, it was the mile which had the most space to run. I spotted the camera man blocks away and devised a strategy to break from the mob and get my picture without someone blocking me. Victory!

458214_145873764_XLarge

The West Side Highway: After the brief party, it was time to run 6 more miles down the West Side Highway with the Freedom Tower in the background, all the way down to the Staten Island Ferry. Although the route was flat, it was windy and I was feeling burnt out. Mile 8,9,10, ugh, I walked for a minute to catch my breath at the water station. Mile 11, 12, nooo, the 1:50:00 pacer just passed me. Crap, now I had to chase her to the finish line if I was going to PR or even get close to my goal time. Before the last kilometer, we entered the Battery Park underpass. Wow, a tunnel without the cars. This may have been my favorite part. After almost a mile in the darkness, you see the “light at the end of the tunnel”. With less than a mile left, everybody makes their final sprint, including yours truly. So I finished in 1:50:49. Almost a Half Marathon PR, I missed it by seconds. But hey, that just leaves something to aim for in the Brooklyn Half in May!

HIKE 6: Fourteen Peaks

I have a double life. Yes, half runner and half hiker. A wolf-goat hybrid; a Woat or something. Spring is here which means that the trails are free of snow and ice (I’m not into snow-shoeing). The “path to the marathon” may have ended but there are other challenges to take on; other peaks to summit… Speaking of peaks, I embarked on a 12 mile journey through Harriman State Park last weekend which covered 14 peaks and 4,100 total elevation. With only 5 months left until my 3-day Mt Rainier summit trip, I have to step my game up. The goal is to be able to survive day 1, to have the strength and endurance to ascend 1,000 ft per hour with 40 pounds on my back for 5 hours straight. Right now, I’m not even close.

For this challenging 12 mile hike, I packed a ten pound weight, some food, and 2 liters of water in my back pack. This was really tough. Some uphill trekking segments seemed to last forever. I can’t imagine the struggle carrying 30 pounds more. The views were mostly repetitive and not as scenic as one would expect. Below are a few snapshots. I discovered the last remaining snow/ice. Also, if you focus on the last photo, although we were an hour away, you can still see the New York skyline in the background.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Random Thoughts

Running just hasn’t been the same after the Winter. My drive isn’t there and neither is my enjoyment lately. It’s most likely just a phase. But that’s ok, I have more than 6 months until the NYC marathon. And I just found out, I actually have 5 months until the next marathon…

chicago-marathon-start

That’s right, I was accepted into the Chicago Marathon! The path to a new marathon begins!