Open Water Swim and a missed shark attack….I think.

Every place has some culture-specific toughness…

In Minnesota, cyclists were their entire closet plus a snowboard mask to ride their fat bikes around the frozen lakes in -20 degrees.

In Europe, you casually ride few mountain passes in a day and just like that, you got 7000m of elevation in your pedals.

Col De Turini, France

Last Sunday, I found it in Melbourne. I knew that the Aussie are quite water-affine but wanting to swim in 10.5 degree water temperature in the ocean in the dark???? Isnt that a bit over the top?

Who worries about the sharks, deadly jellyfishes and all the other sudden-death-inducing monsters in the deep dark? Do I have to worry for everyone?

In any case, I had to sign up for this madness.

Three friends joined this event and the debate became not so much whether we are doing this 1km in freezing cold water. Nope. The 100% toughness score would be only awarded to the real-deal swimmers – the ones without wetsuit.

I was out. I joined the sissy category.

Please dont get fooled by the relaxed posture of these men and women. It was COLD! I had happily worn everything from picture above.

 So, the event started. Swimmers headed out to the first cone. I was still trying to assess chances getting bit, eaten, devoured by anything around me. I decided the meat around me would keep me safe for a while.

But another problem emerged. Although I have an entire two months of 25m-calm-heated-pool training in me, I could not really apply all learned to this choppy, dark, salty water without any tile-like bearing points five meters under me. It made me uneasy.

After a this-is-real-shit adjustment phase and a few comforting breast strokes, I decided to give this whole freestyle stroke a go.

Head in the water. After about 2 seconds and a heavy load of hyperventilated salt intake I decided breast stroke would do the trick.

On the way back to the awaiting crowd of worriers.

Apparently, breast stroke was seen as an emergency way of moving forward because in no-time I had a rescue kayaker on my side. And no one in sight! The sharks wouldnt eat that quickly, would they?

I dabbled with my grandmother breaststroke along the ocean. Where had I to go? The kayaker told me to target the blinking lights in the distance. But he didnt tell me which of the thousand ones he meant. Thanks to my fogged up goggles the number of blinking lights was limited.

The time passed. I think.
And eventually I felt the ground under my feet.

Fazit: Great event. A lot of stuff blinks from the ocean. Sharks do not like me. Wetsuit was a damn good idea!


Race in Cyprus – 4 Day challenge for every runner
If you enjoy running (no matter if recreational or elite), warm weather and like the idea to take your post-race recovery nap on the beach then the Four Day Cyprus Challenge might be just perfect for you!

Cyprus is located South of Turkey in the Mediterranean Sea
Being very new to running, I decided what better way to get great workouts in than heading into the sun in middle of November for a 4 day running event.
The four days were compromised of very different running races.

It all started of with a 6km flat, paved time trial, each runner starting 10 seconds apart. Sounds easy, right?

Well, right from day one tactics are played because the winner would be the one with the fastest time of all four races combined. 
So do you run those six kilometers hard and hope you have enough left at day 4 or play it safe but potentially losing valuable seconds? 
Either way, day 2 would test your physical and mental limits with a 11km off road race with an 600m elevation gain. If it’s not your quads that scream for oxygen, your lungs will! The race strategy on this day is pretty clear: survive!
Even in November, Cyprus can offer temperatures around 20°C (68F)

If hills are not your strength, you can shine on day three at the off-road half marathon with a 8km descent. But not so fast. You need to work for this treat by climbing up 10km beforehand.

Although the idea of running downhill sounds fantastic on day 3, day 4 might be a different story, especially if your legs are not used to descending.
The “fast” 10km on day 4 through the near-by town Paphos will make sure to remind you of the past three days. Setting a new personal record seems to be out of question, but how much slower the time will be depends on the tactics you played the last three days.
Fantastic views from the mountains

All these intense moments are shared with a great, welcoming, friendly community of about 200 runners of every age and ability. At every finish volunteers and runners cheering for other runners. You share the stories of glory and pain. 

And if you happened to wake up and forgot what you signed up for, you will remember at breakfast when watching your fellow runners hobbling back and forth to the buffet. But dont be mischievous because you will too!

Either way, it’s all good fun. The fantastic, upbeat atmosphere of the runners, the top-notch organization, the beautiful scenery combined with the welcoming Cypriot mentality make this a perfect vacation in November (and since it is off-season, no tourist crowds anywhere!)

An epic hike – How to get dropped right out of the parking lot

Last weekend I joined a few Kiwis for a tramping trip in the Fjordland – at least that was the plan.

Reality was far away from it.

A month ago, I was invited for a 50km+ hiking trip by Andrew – my current roommate. Sounded epic, adventurous and tough. Oh I was totally game!

Well, the closer the time came to prepare for this hiking trip, the more I thought about its meaning. 50k on my feet, walking, not turning pedals, but walking.
When exactly did I do that the last time? No memory!

With the approach of action time, I learned the small but significant details: We would start the track at around 10pm and run to a hut up the mountains, “but don’t worry, Monika, we are walking the uphills and run the flats and downhills”. The run would take 2-3 hours if we are fast. Then sleep until sunrise (6am) and run/hike to the end of the trail and hike back.

After some intense discussion with my ligaments, joints and muscles waist down, I decided not to be a sissy and go for it. Getting ready for the hike meant packing for all weather conditions New Zealand has to offer aka snow,hail,sun,rain,showers,and everything between.
I think by the time I tested my backpack I had four times as much clothes with me on this 24h adventure than for my eight day bike ride the week prior.

11pm in the parking lot we were finally ready for the adventure. While I was packed in three layers, everyone was half-naked. I naively ignored this more than obvious warning.

When I was still adjusting the straps on my backpack my fellow hikers started running towards the trail. I lurched my heavy legs into forward shuffling mode when I realized that was not enough to catch up.

The flat terrain was not exactly flat as it rose to 3-4% and my quads gave me the distinct and clear “above lactate threshold alert”. The Kiwis kept going. I, confused, what this all meant for the next 49.5k. After a few kilometers they notived my absence, stopped and waited for me. Me, huffing and puffing approaching them, “no need to wait for me!”.”No worries, we are just getting rid of clothes.” (Uhm, which clothes?)

Well, we planned that game for another three times when they stopped waiting for me “No worries, we are stretching” “No worries, we need to eat something”. But eventually they ran out of excuses to stop for me and I ran totally out of gas – lactate has fully invaded my lower extremities. Battle was lost!

And I got really tired – that feeling when you do a really high intensity workout and all of a sudden you could just lay down and fall asleep – that kind of tired! Fortunately enough, after an eternity and a half (around midnight) we stopped at a hut, and Andrew said I could sleep on the cushion surface in the main room of that hut. A nod later I was knocked out on a narrow padded bench in a kitchen of an isolated hut in the middle of a forested mountain while they ran for another two hours up the mountain.

And that was the end of my planned hike with the Kiwis. In the morning I carried on alone and decided after another eight hours of hiking up and down mountain that a proper nap in the car would be justified while waiting for the crazy Kiwis to return.

Lesson learned: Don’t underestimate the fitness of a Kiwi with their incredible natural playground in their backyard!


What happens in Hawaii…The Naked Truth

(This happened mid-Dec 2013 on my way to New Zealand)

I probably had the most entertaining and random 48 hours in Hawaii, I could have ever imagine.

It all started that a male middle-aged stranger (connected through a cycling hospitality website), Mike, greeted me with a typically Hawaiian flower lei at the airport at 9:30pm. As a woman travelling alone it’s not always a good idea to go with a male stranger.

However, I felt good in this case. He is gay and lives with his partner in an apartment. 

On the way to their apartment we planned the next day, it would be a tour around the island, Oahu, followed by a dinner that spontaneously popped up for Mike.
The next day, the sightseeing tour was amazing, the beaches are incredible. No question why Jurassic Park, Lost and other big movies were filmed here. Mike asked me if I wanted to go to the beach swimming. Hell yea! I asked him if we could stop somewhere so I can change into a bikini. He said ‘no need, we are going to a nude beach.’

Ehhh! What?

Okay, that caught me somewhat off guard and I tried to pretend it wasn’t a big deal.
After an eternity of awkward silence I asked if I could show up with my bikini anyway.
Sure, he said…whew, at least that.

So I went with a gay guy to a nude beach. Who would have thought that!
Once we were there, a few others were laying rather exposed and relaxed in the sun. Mike started spreading one huge  blanket across the sand.
Where is the other blanket?
The blanket that was meant for ME?????
Very nice of him to offer to share, but no way am I sharing a blanket with a naked guy, gay or not (at least not on this day ;).
I saw a hand towel in his bag – a very ,very small one. I grabbed it and spread the mini piece in safe distance next to the huge blanket and settled there.
The first minutes I was VERY focused on the sea. I didn’t care too much to blink left or right. After a while though I was okay with my surrounding and I actually was able to have a proper conversation with Mike lying on his blanket in…ummm…nothing.

After the beach I decided to be more careful in what I agree on.
We continued our sightseeing tour, saw how coffee is made and pineapple is grown until we went to  the dinner party.
I ended up eating in an expensive seafood restaurant with Mike and six of his friends. So me and 7 gay guys… it was absolutely awesome. When one guy realized that I was freezing in the restaurant he disappeared and came back with a T-Shirt which he just bought nearby in a store. Never had that happened to me!

The next day was interesting in a very different way. The plan was to ride bikes with another new aquaintance, Hanna and two of her friends. During introductions, her friend asked me questions I am not usually asked about.
What is my sign? What time is my birthday? Where was I born?
During our rather more relaxed ride Hanna suddenly stopped and asked me if I believe in spiritualism. Well, not really. “That’s ok”, she said “but I wanted to tell you”, she continued, “that Paul (the friend who asked me those interesting questions) started seeing people. I am absolutely fascinated with it.”

Okay….well, I guess I haven’t really thought about that yet.
At the end of the ride, I learned that I have 142 sunshine years in me. So I have that going for me…I guess??

After Hanna and I went to the swimming pool and it was time to get ready to get changed, I was about to test my newly attained comfort in nudity and was ready to change in the public area.

No one around! So who cares?!?

Well, Hanna was in disagreement when she was yelling “No,No,No”!!!

I looked at her astonished.

“Security cameras everywhere!”

Oops.

Okay, not expecting that it could any better, the security people at the airport gave me one last laugh. When they scanned my carry-on they found my chamois lotion. When the security guard asked me about its purpose I gave him a rather detailed explanation.  He let me keep it if I told his boss how awesome he is. That was a no brainer!

Aloha!

A crash that broke my neck – literally.
Apparently I still haven’t acquired the skill to catch myself with my hands since my last crash four years ago. Both times I successfully let my face take the entire impact. This time was worse though.
I was looking forward to Wednesday Worlds, a group ride in Eagan. We were supposed to ride 70 mi. I decided to ride to Eagan from my place to get a solid ride in before the gravel race on Saturday. I met up with the guys and off we were heading East on Cliff road. We were about 10-15 people and we rode two deep going about 23mph. There was quite a bit of car traffic but we had a wide shoulder so it didn’t matter.
I was chatting with Mike about a gravel ride clinic I am planning on putting on in the next months. I was sitting third wheel when all of a sudden a big chunk of asphalt popped up in front of me. Before I could react I hit it straight on, lost control of the bike and made my way over the handlebar. 
While tumbling screaming across the pavement, the riders behind me were able to avoid riding into me.
I knew immediately I suffered some serious road rashes.
An ambulance ride later and five hours in the ER I got the entire list of damage.
Almost the entire list!
Broken collarbone, four facial stitches, two chopped teeth and a solid amount of road rashes which required that the blood pressure cuff was put on my calf.
Two days later I learned that I also broke my neck…or better two transverse processes in my neck. Apparently not a big deal. There is nothing I could do for it.
Riding a recumbent is a heck of a workout!
Five days after the ride I was able to ride again…a recumbent bike. But this would not be possible without the help of so many great people. The accident showed to me how amazing this cycling community is. I would like to thank everyone who helped (I apologize if I forget someone):
  • Thanks to all the riders on the group ride for helping out and for not running me over 😉 I received immediate medical help. It sounded like there was quite a lot of logistical stuff going on I was not even aware of.
  • Thanks to the fire fighter and the neighbors who stopped and helped out!
  • Thanks to Dominic and Roger who came to the ER and made sure I was entertained for five hours!
  • Thanks to Tom for taking care of me after the crash! I cant thank you enough!
  • Thanks to Angie Rake for taking care of my face! That is huge having an expert to make sure I do not get any scars! (http://www.dakotavalley-oms.com/)
  • Thanks to Jon Falkowski for the dental reconstruction! You rock! http://www.thedentalhealthcenter.net/page/show/203662-dr-jon-s-falkowski
  • Thanks to Grand Performance for taking care of my broken bike.
  • Thanks to Penn Cycle for the recumbent bike getting me back in the game.
  • And of course, thanks to everyone for all your well-wishes! I am so grateful for all your help!

The planned ride of the Maah Daah Hey Trail in North Dakota this weekend was changed to a multi-day hike! I am excited!

Birkie 2013

I had not been on skis for two weeks when I was on the way to the Birkebeiner Ski race. I thought I might have lost that little bit of technique I have acquired the past three months.
Just two weeks before, I raced back-to-back the pre-Birkie on Saturday and the Mora Vasa Loppet on Sunday. The pre-Birkie was a blast. Great snow condition and awesome weather. 
The Mora Vasoloppet on the other hand would test my toughness. It was cold and really windy, 20 mph head wind at the start line. I had a 42km race ahead of me and no motivation.
People were hiding behind the porter potties to shield from the wind. It was freezing. My four layers including two winter jackets did not help. I knew I had to take at least one jacket off before the start to be able to move my arms. If someone had told me it would have been totally fine to get in a car instead to the start line, I would have set a new PR for the sprint to the warmth.
Despite my unwillingness to start the race, I managed to finish it. 
I was slow! 
When I finished, the awards ceremony had started already and I realized that I got a podium finish for my age group! When I walked to the podium still in my ski boots, I thought it was hilarious that I would get a medal for 220th out of 227!
I hadn’t touched my skis since the Mora race when I was on the way to the Birkie. I still had that bad taste from the Mora race in my mouth and was not really excited to race. Would it be as cold and as windy as Mora again?
The day started early: 5:15am, driving to a parking lot and then taking the bus to the racers’ lodge. At 5:30am in the rural part of Wisconsin, there was quite some traffic on the road. I started to realize how big this race would be. I got excited. I would be racing with 8,000 other cross country ski racers – the biggest xc ski race in the US.
While we were waiting for the bus another racer complimented my skis which I replied with that I had been skiing for three months. His response was: “Quite ambitious to race the Birkie after such a short time on skis.” That made me think of what I would actually have ahead of me. 50km of rolling terrain. Yeah, I think he was right. It was pretty ambitious.
In the racers’ lodge, I was waiting for my wave start time. With so many racers, the race is divided into 9 or 10 waves. Previous finishing Birkie times determined which wave one is in. New racers automatically start in wave 9 and 10. I started from wave 9. All waves (but the elite wave) are 10 minutes apart from each other. Since I carpooled with a friend who was in wave 1, I had 2 hours to kill in the lodge with thousands other racers. It was like a zoo.
Finally, time to head to the start line. With two minutes to spare, I found myself in the last row of my wave. 
Hundreds of people ahead of me. Well, there was one advantage. No one could pass me. There was no one behind me.
The race started slow but as soon as the first hill came, it started to spread out. Still, it seemed forever to reach the first checkpoint at 13.5k. Also, every time I went through deeper snow, my right ski did not seem to recoil after the skate movement. (Later I learned the binding was broken so I raced 50km on a broken ski)
But the spectators and the participants kept me entertained. I passed a monkey and a banana on skis. Vikings played drums on top of one of the hills. Beer hand-outs on another hill. I felt like in a reverse carnival.
Every time I saw a crowd bunched up in the distance I knew I reached the next food station. Bananas, energy drinks, gels, cookies and more were provided. Spectators were cheering us on. Music was playing and the volunteers made a great effort to give you quickly whatever you wanted.
The hills were my absolute favorite part of the Birkie because it was not only physically challenging but it also had a strategic aspect to it. Cross country skiers go in lines up the hills. With the trails being very wide, multiple lines form up a hill. Every time I approached a hill, I had to choose which line to take so I quickly scanned bib numbers (=wave placement), technique and snow conditions before I made my decision. It was a fun task to approach a climb.
The kilometers went by, some slow, some fast. There were few racers I skied with for 10k and then one of us left the other one behind. I had my rhythm and stuck with it.
The last 10 km went by so quickly that I wished it would have taken longer. Once I got closer to the finish, more spectators were lined up along the trail making the race go by so fast. The finish line was in the center of the town, people cheering and congratulating on everyone’s performance. 
I had a blast! What a great race to finish the cross country ski season!
Time to get ready for Trans Iowa end of April!

I won the Ski-O race! The What?

Because last week’s 25k ski race was not humbling enough, I decided to sign up for a ski orienteering race. It’s an orienteering race with a map, just on skis.

And once again, I signed up for the longer version of 11 km. But when I woke up in the morning and checked the temperature which noodled around 5 degrees, it did not take a lot of convincing myself that the shorter 5k race would be just fine for me.
It was sunny but cold. By now, I’ve gotten the hang of how to dress for the Minnesotan winter – just put on every winter apparel you find in your closet! Since it had snowed the day before, everything was covered in white. A great day to spend outside!
Everyone registered and received a bib number and an electronic punching chip (to punch into the control points which are located on every check point as proof you were there).







Depending on the race promoter, there are multiple options to prove that you  have been to a check point. For our race, we used electronic punch chips which are worn around a finger. When you arrive at a check point, you stick the punch chip into a control point which records the time of your presence


All the participants, maybe 50 in total, got into a bus and we were driven to the start line. We started on a frozen lake. By now it had warmed up to a balmy 7 degrees. I decided that my warm up jacket would be my racing jacket as well. There was no way I would take any layer off.

“All the racers for the 5k short course to the line! Go!”
Well…. I was still fumbling with my map which was given to us a minute prior. Once I was able to attach the map with a safety pin to a band (not an easy task with two sets of gloves) so that I could wear the map around my neck, off I was.

Still working on the setup for my map while the competition is going for the first checkpoint

From my humbling orienteering experience in adventure racing, I had some sort of practice in reading maps.This is how the map looked like:

Map for the short course
Few checkpoints of the course
Here you can see few checkpoints (CPs).  Since there were so many landmarks, a compass was not needed for this race. 

The green lines are ski trails. The pink line is the shortest way from one check point to the next, yet that does not mean that it is the most preferable. 

For example, from CP 1-201 to 2-202 the pink line would leave over a bridge. Thus, for an orienteering race, you most likely race more than the given distance. 

The race went over a few lakes in downtown Minneapolis. It was a great venue.

Since the ski orienteering race was part of a Festival, all kinds of winter activities took place. I skied past an ice rink with speed skaters training, I went through an ice sculpture garden where artists shaped impressive statues out of snow, I passed some skijors warming up for their race, plus I got cheered on by the winter enthusiasts who were not deterred by the temperature.

Oh yeah….and me stumbling passed all of these events with a map around my neck looking lost.

Where am I?

The race finished in a shopping street in the middle of the city; a ski trail had been made specifically for this Festival. 
I followed along this ski trail and approached the finish line. I didn’t realize that I was the first finisher overall until the announcer at the finish line said:

“And this must be Ali, the world-ranked ski-orienteering athlete…wait, the bib number does not match. Who is this racer? Let’s find out!”

They asked me who I was and how I was able to beat Ali. While I clarified that I raced less than half the distance of Ali, she was approaching the finish line behind me. (Apparently, my cross-country ski technique must have improved so astronomically that I got confused with a world-class racer!)

Now looking back the race was so enjoyable that I wish I had done the 11k race. Ski orienteering is so much fun and there are not many (if none at all) ski orienteering races around. A lot of kudos to Peter W. and his team to put on such a unique race in Minneapolis!

Posing with Ali. The finish line is in the middle of a shopping street.


What it means to race xc ski without technique

WARNING: This post might contain sarcasm.
Yesterday, I raced my very first cross country ski race – the Spirit Mountain cross country ski race in Duluth, MN. 
With a solid foundation of about four weeks being on skis, I knew exactly what to look for when screening the flyer of the race description – what is the cut-off time?  Although I was assured multiple times that this would be no problem for me, I was not entirely sold on it. Cross country skiing is said to be all about technique and the only accomplishment in xc skiing so far for me is that I actually move forward.
I had the options between 11k or 25k skating. No question, I chose the longer one. If there had been an option for 60k, I probably would have signed up for that one…always having the speed of a cyclist in the back of my head. Well….I would learn very quickly that skiing is a little slower than cycling. Just a little. Maybe a little more. Maybe quite a lot more for a beginner.
At the start line, the announcer asked everyone to place themselves in the order one believes to finish in. Well, that was easy. Taking the gunner position of maybe 100 starters, I was ready for my first and longest distance of 25k.
The snow was new and soft and as I learned later, was slow. Well, that made two of us. 
Within a few minutes of the race, I did not have to worry about poles or skis everywhere. I had the entire length, width, breath and depth of the ski trail for myself. 
It all of a sudden became very quiet and peaceful gliding in the soft snow in the Northern Minnesotan forest, only the noise of a crooked skating technique and an occasional German swearword.
It was almost too peaceful. I zoned out.  The last few racers that must have gotten lost behind me now finally passed me. But now, I had the forest to myself again. For a long time. 
I could have skied forever, if my triceps, biceps, back, deltoid, and lats wouldnt have started telling me that I usually dont use them quite that extensively.
Another issue was food. 
It would have taken me a solid three minutes to stop safely without crashing, take off the poles, take off the first set of gloves, take off the second set off gloves, reach into my back pocket to get a gel, eat the gel, put on the first set of gloves, put on the second set of gloves, struggle to put the two sets of gloves through the small handles of the poles and then keep going.
I opted for being hungry.
Time went by and I slowly chewed up the kilometers. And eventually I crossed the finish line. I had a blast! 
With the upcoming Birkebeiner of 50k, this was for sure a good experience as to what can be expected in two weeks!
Courtesy of slushsucks