April 15, 2014

The first prep race for China

The Great Wall Marathon may be over a year away, but the preparation has already started.  When I announced my plans to run it, my friend Stacy asked if I'd like to run a half marathon with her in Chesapeake, Virginia - the Dismal Swamp Stomp - which took place this past weekend.

Stacy is kind of not human.  She's done 6 marathons, a few half Ironmans, maybe even a full Ironman (I can't remember), and she gave birth to her second child a mere three months ago.  Half marathon 3 months postpartum?  No problem.  If you're Stacy, that is.  If that were me, I'd still be trying to cross the finish line.

This small, flat race was scheduled for a Saturday morning.  That meant fighting traffic leaving DC on a Friday after work, which is never, ever, ever even remotely enjoyable.  Chris and I left just after 5pm.  Thanks to a horrific truck accident hours earlier, we averaged a whopping 35 mph the entire trip.  6 hours after we left DC, we arrived at the hotel that I Hotwire-ninja'd a few weeks back.

I hate driving.  The only thing I hate more than driving is driving in DC.  And this is why.

After not enough hours of sleep, it was race time.  The weather simply couldn't have been more perfect - sunny, low humidity, and temperatures in the low 60s.  I was hydrated and had downed plenty of coffee, but I was still feeling the 6 hour car ride and the lack of sleep.  As we took off, Chris was napping happily in the car.  I was a tad jealous.

The course was an out-and-back that followed a canal trail through the Great Dismal Swamp.  The name sounds like something that will suck the life out of you, but the course was beautiful.  And flat.  Gloriously flat.

I actually thought I had a shot at finishing in under 2 hours.  Then I hit mile 11.  Nope, nope, nope, nope, nope. Mile 11 was my come-to-Jesus mile.  Why am I doing this?  I should just walk.  Why the hell did I drive 6 hours is infuriating traffic to do this to myself?  Is that bird mocking me?  What am I doing with my life?  Why am I running on a perfectly beautiful Saturday morning?  I should be getting ready to go sit on my ass and drink mimosas and then take a nap.  WHY DO I HATE FUN?

And then just past the 12.5 mile marker, I started to hear people cheering.  Racers that had already finished had ventured back down the course to cheer us on.  Spectators at the finish line were yelling.  

I picked up my pace a little bit.  I got to the finish where the crowds were, including Chris waiting with his iPhone to take a picture.  I tried to not look wiped the hell out.  When I saw the picture later, I just looked kind of constipated.  I can live with that.

Stacy finished a few minutes later, beating her goal time by about 2 minutes.  She rocks.

Stacy's family came over, and we made our way over to the post-race area, where we found runner refreshments of pizza and beer.

Pizza and beer!  At 10am!  This is why I do this.  This is why we drove 6 hours in traffic.  Screw you, waterfowl, I have beer.  This is why I ran 13.1 miles on a beautiful Saturday morning.  THIS IS FUN.

Even better, Stacy gave me her beer tickets since she's nursing a 3 month old.  More beer for Chris and me.  I read once that beer is a good recovery drink.  I don't care if it is or not.  I'm rolling with it, and please don't tell me otherwise.

It was absolutely perfect outside at this point.  Sunny, breezy, perfect temperature, band playing, good friends, and pizza and beer at 10am in a beautiful state park in southern Virginia.  And I beat my old half marathon time by 9.5 minutes (!).

The next morning, Stacy's 3 year-old son was at the hotel breakfast table wearing a Superman outfit.  As you do.  I almost asked him where he got it, but I realized I knew the answer.  He gets it from his mama. Stacy is definitely Superwoman - with super ideas like traveling to run flat half marathons in the glorious springtime weather.  I'm beyond happy that she invited me to join in the fun (traffic and mile 11 be damned) and happy that we both had great races because of it. Now I just have to run twice that distance on the Great Wall of China.  GAH.

March 12, 2014

My new addiction

It started off as such an innocent and thoughtful suggestion.  Chris discovered the BBC's Travel Geoguessr game, which shows you 5 different locations via Google Earth and prompts you to guess where in the world you are by using your mouse to move around and zoom in and out.  The closer you guess, the higher you score.  He thought I would like it.

He was wrong.

I am head over heels, balls to the wall obsessed with this thing now.  This is my Angry Birds, Candy Crush, and Farmville all rolled into one.  It's even worse than when I got Tetris on my computer as a kid and played it so much that I had dreams about playing the game.

The BBC only put this thing out on the world wide web 3 months ago.  Do they have a 12-step program to help people ween themselves off of it yet?

Let me know how you like it.  My highest score so far is 12,506.  I have no idea if this is a good score or not, but I'll be happy to take on some competition.  Like I need a reason to play this thing any more furiously.

Happy guessing, and good luck not getting completely sucked in.

March 10, 2014

How to win at the Hotwire game

Hotwire is a great place to find stellar deals on flights, rental cars, and hotels.  You know, as long as you don't mind being kept in the dark about where you're staying, who you're flying with, or whose car you're driving.

But you don't have to stay entirely in the dark in order to save some moolah, at least when it comes to booking a hotel through Hotwire.  There are ways to figure out with some relative certainty what hotel you're booking before you seal the deal.  I've won at this game twice now. That makes me an expert on hacking Hotwire hotels, right?

Actually, please don't answer that.  I'd like to stay in my little warped bubble in which I am a travel hacking goddess.

But if you do find yourself hunting for a hotel on Hotwire and are hoping for a specific hotel, here's what I've done to ensure that I got the exact place I wanted.  I'll let you decide whether this is expert advice or whether I'm just lucky:

1.  Pull up the location of your choice hotel on Google Maps or equivalent.  If you use Mapquest, don't tell me because I'll make fun of you.

2.  Find the same location on the Hotwire map after searching for the locality that you want.  Various areas with Hotwire deals will be shown in green on the map.  Compare this with Google Maps, and click on the green area on the Hotwire map that covers the location of the hotel you ultimately want. Hotwire will then only list hotels in that specific area.

3.  Look up your chosen hotel's actual website and check the amenities that they offer - free wifi, a pool, free breakfast, pet friendly, etc.  Keep this open and handy.

4. Now, look up said hotel on Hotels.com, Kayak.com, or similar website.  Look at the star classification and the user ratings.  Note that Hotels.com will give classifications by the half-star, but Kayak.com only gives classifications by full-star.  So a 3.5 star hotel may show up in Kayak as either 3 or 4 stars.

4.  Go back to the Hotwire page.  The Hotwire hotels will list all the things that you looked up in #3 and #4.  The "approval rating" may be represented differently on Hotwire than on sites such as Google and Trip Advisor, but if the approval rating is at, say 95% on a hotel on Hotwire and the customer rating score on Hotels.com is 4.5/5 for your preferred place, then I'd say you're on to something. If the star ratings match up fairly well and the amenities are the same, then you're definitely hot on the trail.  If there's only one hotel in the cluster on the Hotwire map that seems to match everything you looked up on your chosen hotel, then chances are you have pinged your hotel.

5.  Book it and see if you were right!  Of course, if you were wrong, don't blame me.  I've only done this twice.  But if you are right, feel free to pat yourself on the back and buy me a drink sometime.

Good luck, and happy Hotwire-ing.

March 7, 2014

How we react to different types of travel

I've traveled in foreign countries in rickshaws, blistering hot trains with no air conditioning and hard seats, rickety buses that should be rotting in a junkyard, and even by camel (sort of).  I took all of these in stride, and even enjoyed them.  Well, except for the camel.

Transportation of champions
So why is it that I can spend hours on a slow-moving train beyond drenched in a puddle of my own sweat and not mind it when I'm far from home, but put me in a nice car with leather seats, butt warmers, climate control, and absolute authority over what blasts from the speakers to go to work every day, and I erupt in fits of rage?  Why do we hate our every day travel that can often be far more comfortable than the travel we engage in elsewhere for kicks and giggles?

I know that in some other countries, the lack of some comforts I'm used to while traveling is simply normal.  I can deal with it when I'm there.  But if I hit traffic in my car or I end up in a metro train car that is freezing cold, I'm livid.  My expectations are higher.  Sure, I'll share a tiny ferry boat that I waited 45 minutes for with a basket full of geese.  That's awesome.  But cut me off in downtown DC so that I get stuck at a red light?  I will curse your existence until I reach my destination, and then I'll probably just keep cursing you.

I'm sure I'm not alone here.  How many people hate their daily commute?  Plenty.  That's how we got all this road rage.  But how many people also simply chose to enjoy their journey when they're traveling freely and of their own choice?  Well, if your travel plans get royally screwed up, yeah, you're going to hate that.  But just the normal process of getting around your destination of choice?  How bad does it normally seem?  Probably not bad at all.  It's an experience!

Now one could argue that part of this difference may be due to the method of transport - namely driving to work every day versus using different forms of public transportation when traveling.  I won't count that out.  But I do know that I can get beyond disgusted when I take the bus or the metro around DC, and I've also done some driving while traveling where I've had a blast.

I've been thinking of these differences a good bit recently, and I'd like to try to start remembering my traveling mindset on my daily commute.  I usually drive to work, and I'd like to remind myself of all the advantages and opportunities that this commute gives me.  I have a comfortable, reliable car that has butt warmers.  God, I love those butt warmers. But best of all, my daily drive affords me some amazing sights every single day - the U.S. Capitol building, the Jefferson Memorial, the Washington Monument, the Pentagon, and the Air Force Memorial.  I also drive over the Potomac River, and if I'm stuck in traffic on the bridge, I can take a moment to enjoy some pretty gorgeous views.

I'd really like to make this mindset stick.  I'll try it today.  I'll probably measure it by how many people I curse from the confines of my car.  But if I can take a moment to enjoy the great sights I pass every day and remember that I am neither on a camel's hump nor sharing my ride with a flock of geese, I'll consider that a good start.

March 5, 2014

My interview with Amateur Traveler

I had the great fortune of being interviewed about my hometown of Mobile, Alabama with Chris Christensen of Amateur Traveler for his podcast series last month, and the podcast has just been released!  You can listen to it here:

Amateur Traveler Episode 409 - Travel to Mobile, Alabama

Amateur Traveler is one of the most popular travel podcasts there is, and Chris has won quite a few awards over the years for doing his thing.  For any place you want to go, Chris has probably interviewed someone about it.  Mongolia?  Covered.  Papua New Guinea?  Done.  South Dakota?  Yep.

I first found out about Amateur Traveler from my good friend Jason at Hull Financial Planning.  He and his wife snagged the 3 of us an interview with Chris about our trip to Namibia a few years back.  It somehow worked with all 4 of us connected via Skype from different locations.  I was downright impressed, and I've been a fan of Amateur Traveler ever since.

So if you care to know more about Mobile, or if you just want to make fun of how I sound during an interview, here's your chance.  Learn/mock away!

February 26, 2014

Plane boarding decoded

I came across this article by Wise Bread the other day on how airlines decide how the masses should board their planes, and it answered questions I'd always had about airline's varying boarding logic but never really thought of enough to research, myself.  Thanks, Wise Bread!

Back in the day, I had Silver status on both Delta and US Air.  It was wonderful.  I got priority boarding, better attention from customer service, and my name was automatically added to the first class wait list for each flight (and I got upgraded quite a few times).  But I lost my treasured priority status a few years ago, and I have greatly missed it.  So now I play the boarding game with the rest of humanity.  Will I be in the last zone to be called?  How many boarding zones does this airline even have?  I will totally cut off that old lady with a cane to get to the front of the line when my zone is called.  Move it or lose it, lady. Will there be enough space for my carry-on bag?  If they make me check my bag, I swear I will throw a tantrum to rival that of any toddler...

So from now on, instead of making offerings of stale pretzels and mini bottles to the airline gods, I'll just check this article to see what seat I should book on my chosen airline to ensure that I don't get stuck boarding last and possibly fighting with overhead bin space and overzealous flight attendants that want to rip my carry-on from my hand and shove it in the cargo hold.  

January 25, 2014

The first step to China

A few weeks ago, I admitted that I had agreed to do something that I swore up and down I would never, ever do - run a marathon.  Amy and I will be running the Great Wall Marathon in China in 2015.  Is it too early to start panicking?

There's a bit more to it, though.  The Great Wall Marathon is supposedly one of the most difficult marathons in the world.  It's steep, the steps of the Great Wall are nowhere close to being an even height, it'll be hot and humid, and China is not winning any air quality awards.  We can't just waltz over the Pacific and make this our first 26.2-mile jaunt.  We'll die if we do that.

We realized we need to run a starter marathon as part of our training.

At this point, I'm really asking what the hell I've gotten myself into.  I went from swearing never to run this distance, and now I'm going to do it twice.  But I also said the same thing about running a 10-miler and running a half marathon.  I've done both of those twice now.  So somehow it seems fitting to do two marathons, too.  Something seems strangely appropriate about having done two of each, but that's probably me just making too big a deal out of the number 2. It doesn't matter, really.  What matters is that we have a LOT of running ahead of us in the next 1.5 years.

This isn't something we can prepare for last minute.  Too bad, because preparing for things last-minute is how I got through college.  But preparing to go to China is going to be much more fun than preparing for a thermodynamics test.  So last week, Amy and I started looking into domestic marathons in order to pick one for our starter.

After some Googling and putting a shameless plea for input on Facebook, we narrowed it down to three fall marathons - Portland, Richmond, and Philadelphia.

Portland:  I am dying to visit Portland.  I love the west coast, microbrews, and coffee.  I have the feeling that if I visited Portland, I would have to be dragged home kicking and screaming.  The race itself got fantastic press online, but the main draw for me was the location, itself. The only problem with it is that it's an expensive race, and getting out there and back will be much more expensive than getting to the other two races.

Richmond:  Richmond also got rave reviews online, and I have a few friends that have run this one.  The course falls partly along the James River, which is just lovely.  Richmond is just a pretty town, and I know some great people that live there.  But I lived in Richmond previously, and really, I'm kind of looking for an excuse to see someplace new.  Signing up for a race is a good excuse to see a new location, right? Right.

Philadelphia:  But of course, this one got great reviews, too.  One thing in particular that people kept mentioning was the immense crowd support for this race.  It sounds like the entire city comes out to cheer whether they know anyone running or not.  That's pretty sweet.  Also, I've never exactly seen Philly.  That's pretty embarassing given the fact that I've lived a mere 2 hours away for 8 years now.  I've done work at the airport there a number of times, but all that meant was that I took the train to the airport, worked at the airport, slept and ate at the airport hotel, and went straight back home.  I've never actually seen the city itself.

So which one did we pick?  Drum roll please....


Our first major milestone toward not dying in China will take us to the city of brotherly love for a nice, 26.2 mile stroll.  And of course, as part of our training for the Great Wall, we'll have to run up and down the Rocky Steps.  This also seems strangely appropriate, don't you think?