From Start to Finish
From start to finish

Espiens, France 20-07-2009

I have been meaning to do this for a long time: to write a little bit after training runs.

A little background might be in order.  I am training now to run the NYC marathon on November 1st.  I have always run short distances a few times a week but just about a year ago became interested in distance running.  Since then I have run half marathons in Angkor Wat and Phuket.  So far that’s the furthest I have run.  But some of the long training runs are now up to half marathon distance.

As the training runs get longer and more frequent I realize that a whole lot of nonsense passes through my mind, as well as the occasional piece of insight.  It’s something like dreaming or perhaps what Ray Kurzweil calls lucid dreaming.  One train of thought, which might last no longer than a few strides, blends into another seemingly unrelated topic which may stay with me for a few kilometers.

So that’s the plan.  A few words from start to finish.

Soooo Slow

Espiens, France 23-07-2009

My last run was two days ago.  I am about to head out the door in a few minutes for the next which is meant to be longer and faster than the last according to my training schedule.

I ran so slow on a short run two days ago.  I chose to run the day after a long run (they come once a week) even though it would normally be a rest day.  It was hot. But I think the real reason for the excruciatingly slow pace is that Joanna arrived the night before.  Her arrivals are usually a good enough excuse for me to open one bottle too many of Buzet.

The run did not start well.  I dropped my ipod before leaving the house and apparently broke the nike+ receiver.  Luckily I had a spare.

The technology that can be involved in recreational running these days is astounding.  In addition to the high performance shoes and dry-wick shirts that prevent obscene injuries like bleeding nipples, here are a few pieces of tech that are involved in my running:

The nike+ receiver and transmitter.  The receiver plugs into the bottom of my ipod and the transmitter fits into the shoe.  Together the devices can measure distance and pace.  I’ve read that it works by measuring the amount of time one foot spends on the ground which somehow approximates speed.  Combining that with the clock in the iPod will give me distance. I can set the iPod for a certain distance or time and then select a playlist of music.  But the nicest (or nastiest) feature is the pleasant and encouraging voice that comes on to tell me that I’ve completed so many kilometers or have so many to go.  Nicest when I am through the halfway point; nastiest when there is more than half of the run remaining and I am struggling already.  Everyday is different.

The Nike+ website.
After each run the iPod syncs the data to a public website that records all my runs and stats.  Since I started using the Nike+ device on October 22 last year I have run exactly 780.6 km at an average pace of 5:46/km. On the site I can compare my stats to other runners and join into a ‘Challenges’ that runners post.  Right now I am ‘competing’ in two challenges.  The first was to run 500km in 6 months starting last Feb 1.  There are 8 people in that challenge from the US, Brazil, France and Japan.  The guy in Japan runs so far almost everyday that he finished the challenge in about 2 months.  I just finished the 500K last week (4th one to finish).

NYT Training Schedule and Log. Here I found a training program that suits me.  I can download the schedule to my google calendar that then syncs to my HTC G1 phone.    Its great to have on-hand the schedule of up coming runs.  The runs include some nice variety:  easy runs, pace boosters, fartleks and long runs etc   The site also has a log to enter my runs.

Tangerine! BPM analyzer
. This little piece of software analyzes all the songs in iTunes and tags them with their Beats Per Minute (BPM).  140 BPM or greater are fast enough for me.  Its sometimes surprising what songs fall into this BPM range.  All the usual suspects are there: The Clash, Barenaked Ladies, just about any ska band… but some odd ones pop up. Like Frank Sinatra’s ‘Luck be a Lady’ which is a surprisingly good song to run to, no matter how cheesy the lyrics are.

Orthopedic Inserts by Dr. Wade. I have a slight tendency towards pronation in my gait which torques my knee.  I found that my knees were quite sore for a day or so after any run past 10k.  I met an eccentric American chiropractor in Saigon who practices a bit of sports medicine.  He spent some time with Pygmies in Africa.  Its seems being short and walking barefoot on uneven ground all of your life leads to exceptionally good posture and bone alignment.  So I guess Wade had to find another place to work.  Judging by the traffic in his office, the Vietnamese have many more posture problems than the pygmies.  The inserts have completely eradicated the knee problems.

Glucosamine-Chondroitin Tablets. These were also recommended by Dr. Wade.  A natural supplement made from bovine bone or shellfish shells that is thought to play some action in joint functioning.  It also helps avoid knee pain.

Gu. An aptly named product.  Little packets of sticky gooey syrup packed with carbohydrates, sugars and vitamins that keep me going on longer runs.  I don’t think I could manage anything past 15km without these.

If Pheidippides had all this gear perhaps he would not have died of exhaustion after running the first Marathon.

What a Difference a Day Makes

Espiens, France 23-07-09

What a difference a day makes.  A day of rest that is.  Also a bottle or two less of red wine the night before a run.  Odile (I am her husband) and Joanna went to the beach to visit a friend so I only had a couple of glasses of wine at dinner with the kids last night. The 12k run today was enjoyable.  It was a pace builder and I managed it well.

Since I had just written the piece about running technology, I was trying, as I ran, to recall if I had forgotten to mention anything else that Pheidipides could have used to survive his run.

It turns out that the run from Marathon to Athens was probably not what killed him.  What few people realize is that he was sent as a messenger to Sparta 120 miles away a week or so before the battle of Marathon.  He arrived at Sparta in less than 36hrs they say.   It was hilly terrain and a horse could not be used for much of the way.  The Spartans were involved in a religious party of some sort and declined to help out the Athenians.  So Pheidippides ran all the way back with the bad news and then immediately joined the battle against the Persians.

The Persians had a cunning plan.  Draw the small Athenian army out to Marathon, wipe it out there and proceed to an unprotected Athens.  Despite being out numbered something like 10 to 1, the Athenians beat the Persians on the plain and drove them back to the shoreline.  Another battle ensued and finally the remaining Persians (still a lot of them) made it back onto their boats.

Plan B for the Persians was to sail for Athens anyway.  After all, the Athenian army was now 26 miles away.  On observing this, the Athenian commanders called upon Pheidippides once again and sent him running to Athens to warn the mostly non-combatant citizens that the Persians were arriving by sea but that the intact Athenian army would be not far behind, via land.  Upon delivering the news of the victory at Marathon, the impending threat by sea and the imminent arrival of rescue by land, Pheidippides finally gave into exhaustion and died.

So Pheidipiddes succumbed not to a mere 3hr, 26 mile run but to 240 miles of running and two major battles in the space of 6 days.  The trot from Marathon to Athens was only a minor contributing factor.  Having known only parts of the Legend – ‘man runs 26 miles to deliver news of victory and promptly expires’ – I, like Michael Clark who wrote about this in Runners World,  was always suspicious.  Why run yourself to death to deliver good news?  Could 26 miles really kill a hardy Athenian?

Provided that I keep the training to less than 240 miles in the six days before Nov 1, and if I refrain from joining in on any large scale, hand-to-hand battles on October 31, I think I stand a decent chance of finishing the NYC Marathon alive.

The Road to Montplaisir

Espiens, France 25-07-2009

I am running from our home in Espiens, Chateau de la Couture, to Montplasir.  I’ve been looking forward to this particular run for a long time. The road signs say it’s  7km from Espiens to Montplaisir, which is perfect for the ‘easy’ Saturday runs that precede the long Sunday runs on my schedule.  It’s hilly terrain past some magnificent Chateaux but on the whole it is more downhill than up.

Montplaisir is the place where I was married to Odile almost exactly 20 years ago. I guess we were technically married in a combination of the mayor’s office and the church in Lavardac but it was the 10-day party at Montplaisir that was the real deal.

It was my first trip to Europe.  It set the precedent bar very high.  I arrived only about a week before the wedding.  Day by day, more and more people from all parts of the world arrived until nearly every flat surface in the magnificent home was being used by someone as a makeshift bed or cot at night.

Each night was a discovery in how effortlessly my in-laws-to-be seemed able to put on an extraordinary feast.  Each night surpassed the previous not only in the quality of the food but also in the way the entire Papillaud family made the disparate international guest list feel as if they had known each other for years.  There was an almost medieval festival atmosphere enveloping the air.   The only thing missing, thankfully, were jugglers and fire breathers.

The festivities peaked with the wedding night and then very gracefully tapered off for another five days as various guests said their goodbyes and returned to whence they had come.  My father-in-law and his friend purpose built a free standing iron BBQ for the 5 day after-party on which they cooked mustard chicken, magret duck breast, sausage and more.  I still have that BBQ.  It is one of my most treasured possessions.  It has served my guests and me well for the past 20 years.

I have never felt so immediately comfortable and at home as I did when I first discovered Montplaisir.  I suppose its one of the many reasons I like coming back here whenever I can.  But this is the first time I have arrived by foot.

My brother Sean recommended one-way runs like this.  Now I understand what he meant.  The sense of arrival certainly beats the out and back loops that I have been running.

I also discovered that it’s 9.05km from Espiens to Montplaisir not 7km.

Long Runs

Espiens France, 27-07-2009

I don’t sleep well the night before long runs. I am anxious and fidgety.  I worry that I will wake up to one of those days when I just don’t run well.  That happens from time to time.  It’s simply not possible to predict which will be a good running day and which will not.

This particular long run was scheduled for a Sunday.  I prefer to make the Long Runs early in the morning whenever possible.  But I did not wake up until 11am.  It was already very hot and looked as if it would only get hotter.  I postponed the run to the following day.  It was a good decision.  On the same hot day at about the same time I woke up, France’s President, Nicholas Sarkozy, went running in the park around Versailles.  He collapsed after 45 minutes and had to be taken to the hospital.  Sarkozy probably didn’t have the option to postpone his run to Monday.  Still, this small decision, although born mostly out of procrastination, makes me feel wiser than the President of France.

Monday is ideal.  There is light cloud cover and the temperature is perfect. I run my furthest distance yet: 25km in 2hrs 37 minutes. I check my time at the half-marathon distance (21km).  My watch shows 2hrs 10 minutes.  I am pleased so I reward myself by opening my last packet of Gu and venture into new and unknown distance territory.  Only 4 more kilometers to go!  It’s a good day for running.

I’ve chosen another one-way route: from Espiens to Nérac, through a circuit of the Parc de Garenne past the remains of a Templar Castle, then to Lavardac on the old road from Nérac, across the wooden bridge into the XIIIth century walled village of  Vianne and back to Montplaisir in Lavardac on the other side of the Baïse this time.

The terrain and views are varied and spectacular.  I like to imagine what people were doing on the same roads and paths 400, 500 or 800 years ago.  Nérac was an important location before and during the reign of Henri IV in the 16th century.  The women in his family: mother, grandmother and wife were renaissance era humanists and intellectuals.  The court in Nérac attracted all sorts of philosophers, artists, poets and probably a fair number of hanger-ons, rogues and opportunists.  My sort of people…. Henri was apparently most interested in watching women bathing in the river below his chateau.

Vianne is a 13th century perfectly preserved walled town built by a reputedly cruel lord called Jourdain de l’Isle in 1282.  He was loyal to the Edward I of England, the son of Eleanor of Aquitaine and Henry Plantagenet.  It changed hands between the French and English many times during the 100 year’s war and finally became permanently French in the 1400s.

What was on the minds of the people who traveled these paths and roads way back then? Were they walking? On horseback? Driving a mule cart to sell their produce at market?

Surely they had to be thinking about many of the same things I do.  Is my family well provided for and prepared to deal with the world? Will anybody buy these damn things I am bringing to the market?  What are my old friends and family up to right now?  What do people really think about me?  Am I a good person?  Will the gates of Vianne be open when I arrive?  Will there be French or English behind the gates?  Will they let me in?

What’s for dinner tonight?

I hope some of the good wine remains.

Running with David

Support Team

Espiens 09-08-09

Today, I finally get a support team for a long run.  All summer I have asked my kids, nephews, nieces, guests, Odile and anyone else who cared to listen if they didn’t want to take a leisurely bike ride while I ran.  No takers.

This is my last run in France.  My son and my nephew finally agree to join me on the bikes.

A support team will be great.  They can carry my water and Gu.   I won’t need to drive around dropping re-filled Badoit bottles along the route before the run.  It will be nice to have company.  Most importantly, I can imagine that I am such an important runner-athlete that I have a support team.

Dreams like this rarely turn out as I expect.

I choose a particularly vicious 27km route for this last run.  This time I will not shy away from the hills. If I go downhill, I will go uphill, meter for meter.   Not one, but two hill climbs of about 300m each will come after the 15k mark.  This run will be a bit longer than my training scheduled prescribes.  But I can’t resist pushing the distance barrier out a bit further.  It’s my last chance to run in France.

The boys are 16 and fit.  The only problem I anticipate is that they will get bored with the running pace and cycle ahead with my water and Gu.  But they don’t know the way.  In the worst case, I figure they will have to wait for me at junctions where a turning decision has to be made. These come every 4 or 5 kilometers.

It never occurred to me that they could get bored and find strange ways to amuse themselves behind me. Twice I had to reverse course and find them.  I was at turning points that I did not want them to miss.  They were behind me.

At about 5k I point out an extravagant camouflaged palombière hunting-hide I had noted a few days earlier.  It is a three story tower-like steel affair hidden in a copse next to a small patch of vineyard tucked away in a forested area.

A palombière is used to hunt the palombe, a delicious migratory game bird that is related to the pigeon.  It’s just bigger, gamier and tastier than a pigeon.  The palombes live in northern Europe in the summers and Spain in the winter.  To get to Spain they have to cross over the Pyrenées.  I feel for the palombes.  They dislike big hills as much as I do.  Whether you are flying or running, a big hill is a big hill and gaining altitude does not come without effort.

One palombe, centuries ago, must have decided that it was best to rest in the forests of the Aquitaine and Gascogne before taking on the Pyrenées.  Very sensible, I say.  Word spread and DNA coding passed it down the generations.  Now, all palombes stop for a few weeks in the forests near here during the Fall.  I imagine they rest, enjoy the Indian summer sunsets of southwest France and exchange tips on the best places to eat, drink and pick up chicks in the Costa del Sol with anticipation and delight.  In this way, the palombes are very much like the English.

Over those same centuries the men of Gascogne have perfected another tradition.  It’s a tradition that is shared amongst male cultures all around the world.  Guys need an excuse to hang out in tribes, drink, eat, tell outrageous stories or outright lies and generally make fools of ourselves out of view of our spouses and off-spring.

The Gascons do this very well.  It’s been a tough summer.  Ankle biting kids are not in school.  Obligatory trips to the crowded beach are required.  Cold rice salad dusted with sand must be eaten.  After resisting the urge to shoot fellow travelers in grid-locked holiday traffic on the way home, they head off to their elaborately constructed palombières for a week or two in the Fall.  Now they can hang with their buddies and finally shoot something.

I dreamt with my brothers of building the ultimate tree houses, forts and command centers.  We once started digging holes in a wooded public park with a complicated bomb shelter in mind. The cold war was still going on in those days.  Progress was good until a policeman with no sense of humor shattered our grand architectural plans with threats of fines and prison.

If you ever shared such a dream you will love a palombière.  They have command posts, bunkers, camouflaged corridors with shooting ports, net traps and wires strung about on pulleys for the ‘bait’ birds.  The best palombières also have ovens, stoves, refrigerators, bunks and, I suspect, wine cellars.  In the forts of our childhood the only thing we were truly missing was an enemy.  The Gascons only have the palombes now that they can longer shoot English who are still around planning forays to the Costa del Sol.

The hunting methods aren’t terribly sporting.  But I don’t think hunting is the real point of palombières.  A few unsuspecting birds are captured live in the spring loaded net traps.  These are tied to wires run through pulleys back to the command center.  As the wire is pulled the bird gets agitated.  The palombes, as a species, appear to have a bit of the Good Samaritan in them.  When seeing a fellow in distress will fly down to help.  That’s when they get shot, cleaned, cooked and eaten by grown, unshaven, unwashed men with a skin-full of Armagnac.

Its bad form to intentionally shoot the bait bird on the wire.  But I am sure that a few are executed at the end of the week.  When Armagnac and the DTs have permanently ruined your aim, you still need to come home with some profit from a week of hunting.

I am not a hunter but I wouldn’t hesitate to spend a week with the guys at a palombière.

About a kilometer (downhill) past this particularly grand palombière where I left the boys, I am waiting at the next turn. And waiting and waiting.  Finally, I run back uphill to find the boys.  We meet half the way back. The tires, spokes, chains and seats of the bikes are caked in mud. There is a fair distribution on shorts, T-shirts and behind a few ears as well.  I don’t ask what happened. Clearly it’s something between guys that is meant to take place out of view of girlfriends and parents.  Trespass laws may have been broken.  Add another kilometer to the run.

I’ve crossed the 12k mark.  I am on the canals but there is a turn.  I must cross a lock/bridge to the other side although the path on this side continues.  They will miss the turn.  So I am waiting and waiting and waiting.  It’s not good to stop running for this long.  So I start running back.  I find them casually cycling and chatting.  This time I am thirsty and a little bit angry.  I take a quick drink and demand an explanation.  It’s been flat for the last 5k after all.

Tadhg, my son, has thrown our only 10 euros into a thorn bush and could not retrieve it.  Scratches on his arms and legs and neck are proof of something.   I don’t want to know any more.  Add another kilometer plus plus to the run.

I run on, the first hill will come after another 3k.  It starts at the massive and somewhat creepy Chateau of Buzet.

18k mark. That hill was big.  Very big.  At the top is a turning decision.  And I am waiting and waiting and waiting.  There is no chance I am running back down that hill to find them only to run back up again.  I’ll walk home and call in a ‘Missing Persons Report’ before I run that hill again.  There is still one more hill to go.  So I wait.  They arrive.  This time with a good excuse.  They tell me it’s much harder to ride a bike uphill than it is to run one.  I have to believe them.  I don’t ride bikes.

We climb part of the next hill and get to another turn decision.  I am now in an area that I don’t know except from Google Earth. I know there is a 2K gentle climb to Xaintrailles from here then a nice 3k downhill to Montplaisir, our finish line.  Straight feels correct but it looks like a farming road that might dead-end.  Right could work.  It’s a bigger road and those show up on Google Earth.

This time I make the mistake.  I choose right.  It’s flat for 500m.  It looks promising.  Then with a shudder I see that it drops steeply ahead of me where my support team is racing down the hill.  For the first time all day my support team is ahead of me.  Figures. I can’t abandon them and turn around to the correct road.  But the thought does cross my mind.  So its down, turn left and start climbing again.  Add another one or two kilometers and another hill to the run.

Finally we are at Xaintrailles and we are all in familiar territory.  My ipod says; “Congratulations you have accomplished you goal”.   But there is another 3k to go to Montplaisir. At least it’s all downhill.  Arthur, my nephew, knows the way.  Off they go, with permission this time.

I wouldn’t trade that support team for any other today.  They carried my water and Gu and provided company, as well as plenty of entertainment, some good laughs and a bit of mystery.

The boys arrive to all the glory and congratulations twenty minutes before I come plodding in.  I get a cool glass of water, a pastis and the satisfaction that I have run nearly 31 kilometers, four of them by accident.

I also realize with some shock that I could easily have run the rest of the way back to Espiens.  For the very first time I feel that running a full marathon is not out of my reach.

Elevation Map in Feet and Meters.  Total gain: 2,250ft / 686m

Tan Son Nhat Speedway

Saigon 23-08-09

I am on an early morning run in Saigon.  It doesn’t take a genius to conclude that hot, humid, over-populated, polluted cities with sidewalks reserved for street vendors and scooter parking are not ideal for marathon training.

If I want to run outdoors it has to be done at the crack of sparrows.  Two reasons.  First, it’s too hot to run after about 8am. Even in the evenings the heat of the day lingers while the smog settles in for the night.  Second, by 8am there is already too much motorbike traffic on the roads (and sidewalks) to run.

On weekdays I am generally confined to the electric highway in the gym.  On the weekends I venture out into this urban combat zone.

There are some advantages to treadmill training.  The gym is air-conditioned and the machines face a floor to ceiling window.  I have a view on a busy downtown intersection.  From here I can watch near misses as scooters run red lights towards oncoming buses.  Or see the occasional legless beggar negotiate the crosswalks that drivers routinely ignore.  Scenes like this stop my mental whining about having to run in-doors.

Fartlek, tempo and interval runs are also much easier to manage on a treadmill.  Below are two pace graphs of Fartlek runs.  The first was outdoors and the second on a treadmill.  If an intern working the late shift at the ICU saw that first chart she would surely call for a crash cart and a de-fribulator.

The out-door runs have their advantages too, compared to France.  I don’t have to worry about water.  It’s for sale at sidewalk stalls every 50 ft or so.  Also available are noodles, frying tofu, cigarettes, strange soy drinks, motorbike repair shops, petrol for sale in milk bottles, barbers, puppy-for-sale, racks of sub-standard motorbike helmets and just about anything else that you can imagine.  When I see a stretch of sidewalk with absolutely no vendors I know to cross the street.  These are generally the areas that the neighborhood citizens have by mutual consent agreed will be a public toilet.  They get a lot of overnight use judging by the smells.

The streets of Saigon are incredibly active from even before sunrise.  I am not the only one who has discovered that it’s too hot and crowded to do much outdoors after 8am.  There are hundreds and hundreds of people out and about along the roads and small parks that I run through. I ran over 280 kilometers in the time I spent in France.  I saw only one other runner and the occasional cyclist there.  Saigon mornings couldn’t be more different.  There are crowds to rival the panicky shoppers found at a Wallmart on Christmas Eve.

I see comrades of every age engaged in both familiar and exotic exercises.  A type of speed walking is common.  It’s not the Olympic style speed walking where after 20 miles skimpy shorts are wedged tight up the sweaty cracks of athletic women who look best from behind.  It’s something that involves a very energetic swinging of the arms while walking at a fairly normal pace.  I’ve been hit pretty hard in the thighs and nearby regions a few times when my vigilance fails.  A polite apology always follows along with a bit of shock when the accidental offender sees that I am a foreigner. I’ve yet to see another foreigner on the runs around my house but I am sure a few have passed me in cabs on their way home from the bars in Pham Ngu Lau.

There are Tai Chi groups scattered about and once I saw a woman practicing slow concentrated movements with a very sharp looking sword.  She had a respectful amount of space around her.   In a few parks there are regular jazzercise sessions going on with very loud, blown speakers , an awful musical selection and always one or two incredibly camp looking dudes who have snuck into the midst of the pack of middle-aged women.  What are they thinking?

Badminton is very popular especially amongst the very old.  They string nets across pathways and tie them off on trees.  If they use fishing wire I have to be extra careful not to garrote myself on a line.  Since the players are so old and short these are sometimes strung very low.  I’ve only been caught up once.  So far….

On Sunday mornings I regularly see a troop of very serious martial artists.  Or they might be a very competitive Dragon Dance team in training.  Mostly teenagers.  All in black Karate outfits.  In idle moments, they do standing back flips while waiting for the next drill.  The drills are done in unison and sometimes dangerous sticks and poles are flung about.  Surprisingly, there are very few runners and not many of those look like they are running distance.

Almost everyone, whatever they are doing, looks content but also determined.  I feel that they are preparing for an energetic day ahead.  One full of hope, promise and progress.  This is what I like about Vietnam.  It moves ahead.  Not always in the way I would like or in ways that I understand but ahead anyway.

Getting up at this time and seeing what people do in the very early mornings explains a lot to me.  Saigon is a town of early risers, even on the weekdays.  This is not unusual in a culture and econmy that is fundamentally an agrarian one.  Now I know why the girls in our call center quickly scarf down their noodles or rice then turn off the lights to nap through the rest of the lunch hour.  I understand a little better why people in the office start to fade or get cranky around 4 or 5 pm.  And now I know why they have dinner as soon as the sun goes down, slam down 5 beers and a bottle of whiskey and are home in bed by 8:30pm.

I did see something new on my long run this morning.  My house is near the Tan Son Nhat airport.  Access to the airport is via a flat, straight six-lane road of about two kilometers.  The road is one of the few with wide and relatively clear sidewalks so it’s inevitably part of my long run course.  Today, it seemed that that motorbike traffic was bigger and louder than what I would expect.  At the end of the wide street the sidewalk was lined with people sitting on their parked motorbikes, which were pointed towards the street.  I thought they were looking at new billboards on the other side of the street.  I really am an idiot to think this.  But I work in advertising so what should I expect?

It seems that while I was gone someone decided to set up an illegal drag strip for even bigger idiots on this stretch of road.  These guys have removed mufflers or whatever else slows them down.  They have bored out the cylinders of their 50cc scooters and probably a fair amount of gray matter between their ears while they were at it.  They remove their helmets.  I suppose its just added weight or perhaps it’s a condition of betting that helmets are not allowed.  In any case, there are obviously very few brain cells to protect.  They wait for the light to turn and off they go popping wheelies on ridiculously small scooters, trying to look cool in front of the gathered crowds.  They generally speed against traffic to get back to the start line when they finish.  It saves them about 3 seconds by not having to cross over the correct side of the road.

I’ll probably see some of these guys again.  They will be the new paraplegics trying to cross the busy intersection below my electric highway at the gym. I only hope they don’t crowd out the land mine and Agent Orange beggars that really need the cash.

Engine Failure

Hoi An, Vietnam, 30-08-09

The sound of metal grinding on metal is not comforting at 30,000 ft. This is particularly true when I am sitting on the port side window above the wing (and fuel tank) of a domestic flight in the developing word. It’s even worse because I heard the loud ‘Clunk’ (not really the ‘Bang’ you would expect) that preceded these alarming grinding noises. It came from the engine that I can see a few feet away through the tiny scratched up window. As it grinds it also vibrates, visibly shaking the wing and the cabin floor beneath my feet.

‘This is not good’ I say to Sam. He is by far the biggest of the three of us and somehow got the middle seat. ‘No, its not’ he says in a very flat voice. He flies a lot for work and knows the difference between turbulence and engine failure.

We tighten our seat belts and type quick good-bye text messages to our wives. Or at least that’s what I send. For all I know, Sam might be canceling a dinner reservation for later in the evening. I figure that somewhere on the way down we will pass into cell tower range and my G1 phone will have time to send out at least one message before impact. Now I wish I had bought a G1 Gulfstream instead of this trendy geek’s version of the iphone.

This is how my first experience in a triathlon begins. Work and family schedules have conspired to put us on the 9am flight to Danang for a race in nearby Hoi An that starts at 2:30pm. The flight time from Saigon is only about an hour and a half so we will have plenty of time to get to the venue, set up Sam’s new bike and let Brian, our swimmer, have a look at the ocean. But we did not factor possible engine failure into our travel schedule.

The pilot shuts down the engine and starts a gentle turn to the left. It appears that we will be heading back to Saigon. This makes sense. We are only 20 minutes into the flight and the runway at Tan Son Nhat is massive. It was built during the Vietnam War, or the ‘American War of Aggression’, as it is known in this neck of the jungle. It can handle some very big planes and a lot of traffic. I am not so sure how up to date the fire services are. The passengers and flight crew are remarkably calm. Maybe they don’t realize what is happening. After a few minutes the pilot or co-pilot officially announces that we are returning to base for ‘technical’ reasons.

We land on one engine in what must be textbook emergency landing procedure. It’s a smoother landing than most but I can feel the airframe torque as it brakes with just one engine. It has been a long time since I have witnessed passengers and flight crew clapping with genuine enthusiasm for a landing. I guess they did know what was going on. I suspect we would have seen a bit more emotion between the engine failure and the successful landing if this were a domestic flight in the US. But as we head to the exit we do notice that one clever traveler has been wearing his motorcycle helmet on board.

There are two other tri-athletes on the flight. These are the real athletes who will be doing all three legs of the event, not an over-the-hill relay team with a combined age of 142.

The five of us gather around the Vietnam Airlines desk to see if there is any chance of arriving in Hoi An before the race starts. Amazingly, the airline finds another aircraft and we are in the air by 11:30. Man with motorcycle helmet is still with us, chinstrap fastened. Quite a few other passengers have decided that today is not the day to fly. The original flight was completely full. This one, also an Airbus 320, is now one quarter empty.

Sam has arranged for a car to pick us up and after only one wrong turn that added an unnecessary 10 minutes to the journey we arrive at the venue 30 minutes before the start. Sam has arrived from Singapore yesterday with a brand new bike still in the packing carton. He has never ridden this bike before. While he frantically puts it together we find our registration kit, which a friend had picked up for us under false pretenses. The rules strictly stated that registration would be closed 1 hour before the event starts and you must pick up your kit in person.

We arrive with only 10 minutes to spare at the beach start-finish-transition stage where athletes put their bikes, running shoes and other gear for the switch between the swim, bike and run stages. Brian scopes out the buoys marking the swim course and declares, “This will be a piece of piss, mate”. This means “easy” if you are from Australia. I am glad he is doing the swim and feels this way about it. I would take a wholly different view if I were the swimmer. It’s windy and choppy. I can see a side current from left to right that even the jet skis struggle against.

Once the bike is set in its pen, we are told that we have to go to the body marking stage. Here they stamp the number 252 (Team Edge’s entry number) on our biceps. I don’t know why this is needed for the biker and runner. We also have numbered bibs to attach to our shirts. But I think it will look cool so I don’t object until I see that the girls have to roll the stamp pad around a bit to get the whole number on my skinny arms. You would have to stand in front of me and walk slowly around my side to see the whole number. Luckily my shirt has sleeves so this embarrassment will be mostly covered up.

Brian has just enough time to squirm his way to the front of the 150+ pack before the start sounds. It’s a 1.5-kilometer open ocean swim. The first swimmer comes out of the water in less than 15 minutes. I don’t know much about swimming speeds (this is the first triathlon I have ever seen) but this seems awfully fast to me. The leader doesn’t head to the transition stage as I expect. Instead, he goes back into the water for another lap. “I don’t think Brian knows he has to do two laps”, I say to Sam. We laugh.  “Oh no, this will be comically tragic”, says Sam. Brian is about the tenth guy out of the water. He’s given everything on the final leg. It’s an amazing accomplishment. He is 57 years old in an event where the oldest age category is 40+.

As we expect, Brian bursts onto the beach looking very pleased with himself and starts heading to the transition stage. An official who is also ‘calling ‘the race on PA system catches him in time and explains that Brian must complete one more lap. He tries to dismiss the official with ‘”No worries mate, we are only doing the Olympic Distance triathlon not the Iron Man version”. ‘Yes’, the official says very slowly like he is explaining this to a sick child who cant understand why his friends aren’t allowed to come over to play, “That’s why you have to do another lap. Each lap is only 750 meters”. We can hear bits of this over the PA system. It is indeed comically tragic.

Into the choppy ocean he goes again. Where he found the energy I have no idea. He still manages to finish the full 1.5K in 36 minutes and in 16th place overall. A truly awesome performance.

Brian transfers the timing chip to Sam and promptly collapses in a corner of the transition area where he won’t be run over by bikes or wet swimmers making the transition. .

Now Sam is racing into a mild headwind up the South China Sea coast on his new bike. It’s nice to have a new vehicle. But it’s better when you read the owner’s manual.  Sam hasn’t had a chance to review the course map so he has no idea where he is going, how long he will be in a headwind, how many kilometers are left after each turn. Fortunately, he can follow at least 15 riders.  Now it’s a good thing Brian was not first out of the water.

The wind picks up to 20 knots plus and Sam finds himself struggling in a very low gear. But he can’t figure out how to get the new bike into a higher gear range. There don’t seem to be enough levers and switches. Maybe he left something in the box?  He can change the little gears on the back wheel but has no idea what shifts the big gears around the pedal crank. He’s stubborn and proud. He’s sure he can figure this out on his own. The wind just keeps getting stronger, more and more cyclists pass him and he’s moving slower and slower. Finally he breaks down and asks a competitor with a similar bike how to change gears. He gets his answer not long before its time to turn around and start heading down wind. I must admit, the mechanism is not very intuitive.

The run is the last leg. So I have had 2 hours to study the course map and worry about the heat and wind. I get very lucky. Big clouds start rolling in at the same time Sam does. This cuts the heat down measurably. We transfer the time chip and I start running. The course is fantastic. Three laps on a loop that consist of newly built open roads along the exposed shoreline followed by a winding path through a local village on the leeward side of this small peninsula. The shoreline section is against the wind now but the runners don’t get the benefit of a trailing wind on the return half of the loop. The village lies low and the buildings cut off the wind. Village children gather in packs and run alongside us from time to time. Some are amassing collections of cold sponges, water bottles and half empty sports drinks that are being passed out to runners at two aid stations on the course. They are having as much fun as the competitors.

Near the end of the last lap I pass a guy I know from Saigon. He is much bigger, fitter and generally tougher than me. Another Australian…. As I pass him, I catch my breath and put a bit of spring in my step.  “Hey mate, good to see you here!” I say as I lope past him. He is bewildered.  He can’t figure out how a guy like me can get ahead of him and still look so fresh. He has no idea that I am just the runner in a relay team. I’ve only been at this for 45 minutes or so. He’s been in the water, riding a bike in wet shorts and running for the past 3 hours. He looks tired.

The best part about being the runner in a relay team is that I get all the glory at the finish line. It’s me alone crossing the line at 3’04”which would be a very respectable time for a single athlete to complete a triathlon. It equates to 45th place overall and 2nd in the relay category. Imagine that: 44 guys and girls can complete the entire course on their own steam faster than the 3 of us can as a team. And we would have been even further behind if it weren’t for Brian’s amazing swim.

(From left to right) Sam Fischer (not really from Brooklyn), Brian Shapland (the old man in the sea), Patrick Looram (Glory Hog)