26 February 2011

The Space Between

What a week! It has been long, stressful, and exhausting -- not much different than any other week. It started off pleasant enough, but quickly deteriorated to the point where it stands at the moment. At least tomorrow is Sunday and the week is essentially over.

In additional to regular work, I've spent the past few evenings giving private lessons to a new client, which is always a stressful experience for me since it means having to get used to a new personality and learning style.The fact that I am not exactly 'Miss Outgoing' adds an extra challenge since my natural response to feeling nervous is to fall quiet, which I can't exactly do if someone is paying me to teach them martial arts. It is a dilemma, to be sure. On the plus side, my regular students have been improving rapidly. As much as it alarms me to admit this, I will miss them when I leave in a few months time. I am almost certain that the youngest boy will transition into a regular academy, and so I've spent a fair bit of time researching schools in the area. 

After enjoying my time off on Presidents' Day by going to the Science Museum to see the History of Medicine exhibits (which I've seen on three previous occasions and never changes, but I still enjoy), I spent the rest of the weekend running and essaying with a bit of eating and sleeping thrown in for kicks. In fact, I spent most of the week in essay crisis where the words just would not flow from my mind to the paper (er...computer) and everything that emerged seemed like utter crap. This was compounded by the fact that I had to make the very hard decision not to sign up for the 2011 Marine Corps Marathon on Wednesday. (I would have to start training the week after the Stratford Marathon -- and I just don't think I could handle that). After completing my essay on Friday (and finding out that a class had been cancelled), I ran my first 17-mile training run. To say that it was hard would not adequately describe how I felt while doing it. Due to various reasons, I have gotten even less sleep than normal this week, culminating in Thursday night's essay-writing frenzy. I was tired when I set out and the feeling only got stronger as time wore on. My stomach decided to act up in the middle and my legs began to feel like lead. I was forced to alternate running and walking for the last 3.5 miles, and spent most of it pep-talking/cursing myself to finish. Miserable.

Wednesday was the final London Colleges League cross country race at Brunel in Uxbridge. After taking the Tube for an hour (and fretting over whether or not we were actually going to make the race), we walked through Uxbridge to the race course, which consisted of a serious of football (soccer) pitches in a residential area. Since the race was so far out of the way, there was a low turnout for the race - King's brought only 8 runners (a far cry from our first race when we (seemingly) had dozens!).

After warming up, we ran the 2 mile course. For the women this meant running around the rugby pitch (where rugby practice was in full swing), detouring into the center of the field through a muddy bit that I suspect was added to satisfy the 'cross country' element, around a smelly mound that was very suspect, and then round the backside of the football pitch until we reached the start. We did 2 laps of this for a race of somewhere around 2 miles. The walk to the course was longer than the entire race! Anyway, I was apparently having a good day because I was able to maintain a quick pace throughout the entire race, finishing 15th at 12:40. Afterward, we headed to the Brunel Sports Centre for the LCL awards ceremony. As we waited for the race secretary to calculate the results, we snacked on the various biscuits (cookies) and cakes (muffins, cupcakes) that we managed to produce. Apparently we seemed to think that an army of KCL runners were going to turn up because there were 2 types of absolutely fab cookies, a batch of delicious cupcakes, and my muffins (Very Culinary's Brown Butter Mixed Berry Muffins).Considering that we managed to demolish everything amongst the 9 of us (a guy from UCL joined us), I'd say that the sweets were well-received!
Our semi-coordinated plan to bring sweets resulted in enough cakes and biscuits (muffins and cookies) to feed an army, not just the KCL runners who turned up.
King's Ladies I team placed 3rd in the London Colleges League
After an hour's wait, the proceedings began, but were immediately interrupted by a fire alarm triggered by the steam from the centre's showers. The collected mass of runners headed outside and re-assembled near the tennis courts where the race secretary Mike Baggs began his year-end report of the race results and the finances of the League. Once we returned to the sports centre, there was a presentation to commemorate Bagg's 32 years of service to the League (he is retiring), and then the awards presentation began. It came as little surprise that the St. Mary's Ladies I and Ladies II team's took 1st and 2nd as they are a sports-focused university. I was quite pleased to hear that the King's Ladies I team took 3rd.

Attending the awards ceremony at Brunel was a bittersweet moment for me as it marks the end of my final (and only) cross country season. The sport is not popular beyond the university level in the United States and I don't see myself having the time or organizational skills to attempt to start up a mini-league in HoCo. (Can you imagine? We would have to run at the Rocky Gorge reservoir and make the runners wear neon colors so as not to be mistaken for deer during hunting season!) In the past, the sports that I have participated in have mostly been individually-focused. Karate and horseback riding certainly are. My one experience with a team sport, rowing, was not entirely pleasant due to the cattiness that ultimately emerged amongst the team members. But my cross country experience at King's seemed to be the perfect mix of both worlds. Running is an individual sport, but it is nice to have the support of a team, to be able to push yourself in order to assist your team. And it certainly helped that the people on the KCL team were so lovely!

The season started in late October with the Parliament Hill race. I was terribly nervous and dead certain that I was going to finish last. This feeling was heightened by the fact that there were several hundred runners in attendance (of which KCL contributed 2 dozen or so), it was my first time racing cross country, I was in the throes of Achilles tendonitis, and I was not used to running a race (non-chip-timed) with men and women. I was so nervous that I almost missed (actually, I did miss) the starting call. I went from talking with a team-mate to 'It's started! Hell!' and frantically attempting to make up the time I had lost. I never quite recovered from that 'oh shit!' feeling of being taken by surprise and spent most of the race in a daze, with lungs burning from the cold air. In the end, all of that worry was for nothing, as I finished 28th of 90 women. Next on the agenda was the Richmond Park race. I had been warned that there were deer in residence, but these things were more like moose with huge antlers! The race itself was tough and I turned my ankle in the last quarter mile, but was spurred on to the finish by our team president.

The third race at Wimbledon Common was, in my opinion, the best. At 2.8 miles, it was the longest and involved proper cross country elements - mud, hills, water. Brilliant. I had a great time running this course and sometimes felt like I was flying as I ran down the hills. Other runners did not enjoy it so much. Several got lost (it is through the woods), many fell in the mud, and one managed to do a complete forward roll in front of me when we were going down one of the hills. Afterward, we headed to a quaint pub for a well-deserved cup of tea and some brownies.

The final race of last term was held at Hackney Marshes, which is destined to be an Olympic car park by this time next year. It had snowed the day before and I spent the morning of the race hoping that it would be cancelled. No luck. After a long Tube journey, our team trekked along the icy road through the outskirts of Hackney. It felt like we walked forever and the surroundings were incredibly dodgy as we passed through industrial yards and along train tracks. When we arrived at the course, we huddled for shelter in an open-sided, tin-roofed hut, and 'manned up' to relieve ourselves in the woods. Cross country truly is a glamorous sport, I swear! The race itself was tough. It was so cold that I was never able to adequately convince myself to strip down to my running vest, and so ended up racing in my hoodie and gloves. The ground was frozen and I never regained (or, indeed, ever truly possessed) full feeling of my feet. I was soo glad for the cupcakes that one of my teammates made and for the long hot shower that I enjoyed when I finally returned home.

This term kicked off with the race at Prospect Park in Reading. It was unremarkable other than the fact that the only large hill of the race had a charming pub at the top, which was motivation enough for me to head towards it. (Oh for a cold pint of cider!) And the season ended with Wednesday's race at Brunel. But this does not mean that racing is over just yet. KCL turned out a team at today's Hyde Park Relays. It was cold and rainy, but good fun. I ran the 4th 2.2 mile lap for the KCL Women's I team and managed to maintain a strong pace despite yesterday's 17-miler. And we will head to Oxford in 2 weeks time for the Teddy Hall Relays, which I am really looking forward to. Should be good fun!

 That's all from me for a bit. Just wanted to post to let friends/family/strangers know that I am still alive since I do have a tendency to seemingly drop off the face of the earth otherwise.

A few pictures from today's Borough Market trip:
Flour Power City Bakery at the Borough Market

The Middle Market at Borough Market

Fresh fish. Very fresh.

Squid, mussels, and an unknown fish

Two of my favorite foods: tomatoes and garlic.

Cathedral Street entrance to Green Market

Chilies at Brindisa

This one is for John: multiple types of baklava

24 February 2011

20 February 2011

I swear, the strangest things happen to me. And my life seems to have gotten even stranger now that it involves children (disclaimer: not my own) on a daily basis. Take today for example:

"Sensei Rebecca, are you married?"

The question caught me by surprise, especially as I was in the midst of teaching a lesson on the merits of the various kicks in Tang Soo Do. I stopped speaking and stared down at the speaker, a 7-year-old boy whose head barely comes to my waist. "Er --no," I said, taken a back by the question. "Why do you ask?"

"Oh.  Last term you used to talk about your boyfriend all the time and this term you don't. That's what happens when people get married," he stated in a voice that implied that this was proven fact."What happened to your boyfriend?"

"I don't have one anymore." I did not like where this conversation was heading and so attempted to steer it back in the right direction. "Ok, I want you to give me ten front kicks on each leg. Concentrate on proper form. Remember, you are hitting the target with the ball of your foot, not your toes."

He was not to be deterred. He performed the first front kick, but continued his questions. "Why? Are you broken? My brother breaks up with girls because they are broken."

I wasn't even going to touch that one. Why me? I thought. Why didn't I get the child who asked where babies come from? At least then I could tell him to ask his mum. "It's a long and complicated story. One that I don't want to talk about. And sometimes people break up because they no longer like each other. Not because they are 'broken'. Come on, that was only 2 kicks. And bring them up. You can kick higher than that. No cheating!" I had long since learned that, at least where 7 year-olds were concerned, saying 'It's a long story' was not enough to prevent further questioning.

"Oh." He fell silent and I thought that I had finally succeeded. We worked on improving his form for a few minutes before he surprised me again. "Will you be my girlfriend? I want to tell everyone that my girlfriend is a ninja. And I want you to show them your ninja moves" Ah, so the truth finally emerges. He then proceeded to spend the next five minutes jumping around the gym room, yelling in (his version of) Japanese, attempting flying kicks and rolling around on the floor mats. I am so glad that I don't have children/have to interact with them for more than 2 hours at a time. I swear I would die of exhaustion.

I teach three children all under the age of 13, all of whom do not quite understand the concept of going back to school after college to obtain a master's degree. At this age, they can't grasp why someone, presumably in a reasonably sound state of mind, would want to go to school voluntarily. Furthermore, they don't believe that my field of study 'International Relations' is a real subject since, as the girl told me at our first meeting "They don't teach that at my school and it sounds stupid."

When I turned up for our third class dressed in my running kit (black spandex running tights and a black long-sleeved running shirt) since I had been forced to run from Middle East class on the Strand to where I hold classes, they realized that I had been holding out on them. I, they unanimously decided, was a ninja. My story of being a student of 'International Relations' was a very poor cover-up for the more exciting truth. Apparently, I hadn't been able to tell them the truth because 'the secret ninja code prevents it' and I would have to kill them. Despite my protests to the contrary (and purposely leaving my IR books out for them to see), they have maintained this impression of me. I suppose that there are always worse things to be considered by one's students.


Unfortunately, the mystique surrounding ninjas (and, subsequently, myself) seems to have attracted the attention of my youngest student. Hence today's conversation about my relationship status. Sadly, I had to decline his offer of romance. (He did not take it well: "You have no excuse not to!") But he will get over it. (Further investigation revealed that he has a 'thing' for his teachers - I am not the first one to receive such a proposal.)

Oh, life.

19 February 2011

Lessons From My Long Run

People say that running the marathon is hard, but I would argue that it is the training process that is the harder component.

Training for the marathon is about getting out of bed at 7AM on a Saturday to run a 15-miler.
It is about seeing the pouring rain outside and knowing that this can't deter you because the other options of deferring until Sunday (in which case you know you probably won't end up running) or running on the treadmill are even more non-ideal.
It is about ignoring the initial twinges of pain from knees and ankles, which, by mile 14 have turned into strong protests from your body to stop.
It is about logging the miles alone and knowing that you could stop early because no one would ever know. But in the end, you would know, and to stop would be to fail, so you keep going.

It is about working towards covering 26 miles and 385 yards in under four hours.
It is about making a plan and adhering to it.
It is about experiencing pain and pushing through it.
Finally, it about setting a goal that once would have utterly unthinkable and overcoming enough self-doubt to accomplish it.

Honestly, I think that training for and running the marathon is going to prove to be the hardest thing I have ever done. Earning my two black belts in Tang Soo Do was hard, of course, since I had been training for them since I was seven year's old and each test was 5-7 hours in duration. But back then I had something to work against. From the age of nine, I was constantly told by my teachers that I would never earn my black belt. I was 'too fat, too lazy, too unathletic' to do so. And, being as stubborn as I am, I decided that I would show them. So I earned my 1st degree black belt in March 2002 after a 7 hour test (literally) to prove a point. And in March 2004 I went back and earned my 2nd degree.

This time, however, the only one pushing me towards achieving this goal is myself. My friends and family think I am absolutely crazy. '26.2 miles? Are you mental? Don't people die in the marathon?' are comments that I frequently hear. When WMAR ABC2 news aired 'Running to Death' about 2 weeks ago, I received numerous emails to the effect of 'Look! I told you so!' I think my parents would be more than a little relieved if I admitted that I couldn't do it and switched to the half marathon. But I want to do this, and so the push to succeed has to come from within myself. I won't be trying to prove a point to others on May 8th (well, other than that running 26.2 miles will not actually kill me), but rather to show myself that I can do it. I am still not entirely convinced that I can...especially after a very hard run like today's. But if running a marathon were easy, it would not hold the social importance that it does. The emotional and physical toll may end up being great, but, as the old adage goes, 'what doesn't kill you will only make you stronger'.


18 February 2011

I Wish You Best of Luck

Good news: A new dissertation topic is almost within my reach. I will not disclose the exact nature of my research just yet, but will say that it is non-plague related. Crazy, I know. I figured that after 12 years of researching the plague and Black Death in various capacities, it was time to move on. And believe me, I tried to find a way to incorporate the topic of epidemic diseases into an International Relations dissertation, but to no avail. (Past readers of this blog will know that I first researched the plague for a report in 5th grade and have written every 'free topic' research paper on it since then, culminating in my 100-page undergraduate thesis 'Living Truths in Dying Times: A Social Examination of Plague in Early Modern England').

This is not to say that I am giving it up entirely. I will always hold a soft spot for the topic in my heart (a bit macabre, I know) and may perhaps research it on my own. I will admit that I am a bit of an Ernest Gilman and Samuel Cohn Jr. groupie. I am always on the lookout for a plague-related history conference to attend. I am still a bit bummed that I missed out on this gem:
 From the report I read, not only was Klaus Bergdolt there, but so was Vivian Nutton. Be still my historian's heart! I'm sure a great time was had by all. (Take home message: if you hear of a plague-related conference in the near future, let me know! I'll whip up a paper to submit in no time!)

Now that my history nerdiness has been exposed...

BETTER NEWS: My little brother, John, was accepted into Towson University yesterday!!!
John in his normal everyday attire. Just chillin' with the Towson Tiger. NBD.
It was his first choice school, and he will be transferring from Howard Community College to complete his degree in some sort of technology-related subject. I am not exactly tech-savy so the mere name his major is enough to send me spiraling into confusion, which is why I can't recall what exactly he is majoring in. Anyway, I am very, very proud of him because I know how hard he has worked over the past two years at HCC and throughout high school. Way to go Johnny!!!!

We love each other...really
(And if you are wondering how long it took me to make that wonderful picture celebrating John's educational success - an unnecessary amount. But no sacrifice of time is too great for my little brother. One day he will look back on all of this and say 'Wow, she was a pretty good sister. Who else would give up their {valuable} time to make rudimentary PaintShop pictures for their brother?')

17 February 2011

Thursday Night Dance Party

I've somehow managed to run 20 miles in the past 2 days. Go figure. No more running for me until Saturday's long run of 15 miles. Knowing my luck, I'll somehow manage to injure myself and have to pull out of the Edinburgh half which, considering that my tickets arrived today, would be rather disappointing.

In other news, there appears to be a dance party going on in the room next to mine. I was just attacked by a bottle of water that was vibrated off my shelf and on to my head by the sheer volume of the music.

From the sound of it, I am imagining a scene much like this:
However, considering that this is a student halls and the people I live with are first year undergrads, the reality is probably far more similar to the following:
Still, the pounding bass driving the club-worthy beats offers a nice contrast to the rather depressing reading material I've been focusing on for the past two hours: rape as a weapon of war. It is times like these when I feel that perhaps I should have chosen to study the psychology of happiness or laughter - something more cheery.

It is strange to think that graduate school is winding to a close. I have 6 more weeks of classes after this, a month and a half of spring break/exam preparation, 2 exams, and then that is it. I'll do my dissertation at home over the summer, but that will be according to my own schedule rather than one set for me. The hardest part will be over and once the dissertation is handed in (mailed in, actually) then the real world beckons. And what then? It seems less and less likely that I will move to the Isle of Mull to become a horse farmer and tour coach driver (although the idea remains appealing on days when I am feeling particularly pessimistic about my future career options). Or perhaps I could petition the Scottish Government to re-open the weather observatory on the top of Ben Nevis. It closed in 1904 because no one could really be bothered to live on top of the mountain, but give me access to a space heater and a steady supply of Diet Coke and I imagine that I could get on quite well up there. It can't be that hard to measure the weather.
Future home sweet home?
Upcoming Events:
Wed., 23 Feb: Final XC race at Brunel, Uxbridge
Fri., 25 Feb: OSINT essay 2 due
Sat., 26 Feb: Hyde Park Relays
Thurs., 3 March: Last presentation in Middle East class
Wed., 9 March: Teddy Hall Relays in Oxford!
Sat., 12 March: 20 mile run (Ugh. There me thought of this freaks me out.)
Sun., 13 March: DAD COMES!

14 February 2011

The following appeared as a status on a friend's Facebook page today:

"Never make anyone a priority who only makes you an option."

It is strange, but this quote made my entire day better. Perhaps one day I will no longer be just someone's 'option'. I harbor grand delusions, I suppose, since this is simply not how the real world works, at least as far as I have seen and experienced.

Anyway, off to bed with my hot date: the 2009 Arab States Human Development Report. Yeah, after some scare tactics (inadvertent, I might add) by my father, I have decided that it is time to become wedded to my dissertation. At the end of it all, at least I will walk away with my master's degree (and some crazy stories - like being hit by a moving vehicle, being cheered on my runs by homeless men, watching people fish in the Thames), which is an accomplishment that certainly merits a party...and perhaps another trip to the Royal Mile Pub in Wheaton (*hint hint*).

13 February 2011

Valentine's Day is tomorrow. Expect to see more on this topic in tomorrow's post. I'm quite sad thinking about it at the moment, so can't trust myself to write something appropriate. Everyone says that it gets better over time, but when? It's been over a month, and it still hurts. But whatever. What is life without a little (or a lot) of pain?

In other news, yesterday I ran 15 miles. This is the furthest I have ever run and I did it in 1 hour, 56 minutes. This may seem impressive, but considering that I started off at a 6:45min/mile pace (ridiculously, stupidly fast) and was someone near a 8:10min/mile pace by the end, it is really not. If I were to pull the same stunt on marathon day (and succeed), I could potentially pull off a 3hr 22min marathon. Hah! So not going to happen. It was one of the most painful/difficult runs I have ever done. I had tried to map my route so that I would run from my flat across Tower Bridge, along the Thames until I reached Westminster, head towards Buckingham Palace, and then circle Hyde Park and Kensington Gardens twice, for a total of 15 miles. Unfortunately, my second trip round the Parks saw me at 14 miles - 1 mile short of my goal. This may not seem so problematic, but when you've mentally told yourself that you will hit 15 miles when you hit Hyde Park corner for the second time and that, upon reaching it, you will (mercifully) be allowed to stop, it can be quite disheartening to realize that you've actually got another mile left. I'm really glad that no one was around me as I ran that last mile as I spent the entire time complaining.

My biggest challenges in training for the marathon have been figuring out how to adequately fuel and hydrate during my long runs and for the race itself. It seems simple enough: bring a water bottle and some sports gels, right? Not quite, at least not for me. I have trouble drinking water on the go or carrying a water bottle for long periods of time. The sloshing of the water in the bottle annoys me. And I learned the hard way during the Patrick Henry half marathon that Gatorade/Powerade is not an option for me. The last three miles of that race were absolutely horrible due to the stomach cramps that resulted from taking just a few sips. As for fueling - I've not even begun to tackle this one yet. My stomach/digestive system is extremely temperamental/sensitive even during the very best of times (i.e. not running), which is why I have had to switch to a no-meat, relatively bland, whole foods nutritional plan. I can't even imagine what ingesting a sports gel like GU would do to me. Ugh.

After my 15-miler finished in Hyde Park, I decided to treat myself and take the Tube back to Borough. (In actuality, this was less of a treat and more of a necessity since my legs were unlikely to carry me the 5 miles back home). I was thirsty after such a long run and decided to grab some cash out of the ATM in the station to buy a bottle of water at a nearby stand. This turned out to be a bad move on my part. I got to as far as telling the ATM how much money I wanted to withdraw when suddenly the screen went black and the 'Windows has experienced an error' message popped up. "Don't you dare!" I exclaimed out loud, as the distinct sinking feeling that accompanies the realization that things are about to get difficult descended upon me. I frantically pressed the 'cancel' button, all the while repeating "No!", but to no avail. I watched as the blue screen of death appeared and then the ATM died entirely. In a futile attempt to get it to eject my bank card, I hit the machine a few times, prompting it to emit a low hum and blink, but no further progress was made. I spent a further five minutes standing in front of the ATM, vainly hoping that it would suddenly overcome whatever error had caused it to crash and spit out my card, but eventually realized that it would do no good. My Barclay's card was gone forever, doomed to be picked up and destroyed by whatever HSBC technician happened to come to repair the machine. And so my 'glorious' 15-miler ended with my riding the Tube back to London Bridge, running (but really hobbling) down Borough High to my flat, and sitting on hold with Barclay's customer service hot-line for the better part of an hour whilst waiting to cancel the card. The lesson to be learned here: Never buy bottled water when you can simply wait to use a tap.

11 February 2011

Booked train to Edinburgh for the half-marathon? Check. Leave King's Cross on Thurs. April 7th, will be back in London by 11:05pm on the 10th. (Allows me enough time to drop in at the Consulate, plus at ₤55 round-trip...not too shabby! Would have been twice as much to fly and I am never taking mega-bus again). 

Tentative travel plans in April: (Haven't booked because am still debating whether or not I should go)
April 13th: London to Venice Marco Polo
April 17th: Train from Venice to Milan
April 19th: Milan to Seville
April 23rd: Seville to London

May (once I figure out when exams are):

Speed Dating for the Unwilling

"Why the hell am I doing this?"

This was the first coherent thought that I had this morning, or at least the first one that was not so profanity-laden that it is suitable for publication. I may be relatively mild-mannered during the day, but first thing in the morning and the monster that is my insomnia takes over. I operate on four or five hours of sleep during the best of times, and yesterday could hardly fall within that category.

After an 8.5-mile run yesterday morning, a few hours in the library, and four hours of class, I returned to my flat only to frantically continue working on a presentation on the crisis in the DRC for my OSINT class. (Talk about a depressing topic! Since 1998, the 'Africa's World War' has left 5.4 million dead, 2 million displaced, and 450,000 as refugees. 45,000 people die each month, mostly due to the indirect causes of war: disease, starvation, and lack of neo-natal/pregnancy care). The powerpoint proved harder to put together than I anticipated, and my group members and I were still emailing back and forth at midnight. I fell (literally) into bed at 12:45am, falling to sleep somewhere around 3:30. (Friggin' insomnia). Still, even if I wasn't actually sleeping, it felt wonderful to be lying down.

And yet, despite this, 6:30am saw me forsaking the warmth of my blanket cocoon for the freezing cold of my room. (As to why it has been freezing cold considering that the actual weather outside has been rather temperate is a mystery to me. Wind channel, perhaps? There is no A/C unit in my room to generate cold air. I rather suspect that it is my heater doing this just to spite me.) By 7:15am, I was outside starting my 6-mile run. Commence mental cursing and my first coherent thought of the day. The run itself was utter rubbish. My legs hurt when I woke up, which is never a heartening sign, and I could swear that I was dozing off as I made my way down the stairs of my apartment building.

Why do I do it? I have absolutely no idea. If I take the time to think about rationally, it simply does not make sense. Me, a chronic insomniac, wakes up early to go engage in an activity which, for the first ten minutes or so, is not entirely a pleasurable experience. So I just prefer not to think about it rationally, and simply classify myself as 'completely mental'. I must be considering that tomorrow is my first-ever 15-mile run. 

And now for my much-anticipated (for me to write at least) account of my speed-dating experience! Earlier this week, a friend of mine who has been severely depressed at the thought of being single for Valentine's Day (which is this coming Monday and I am determinedly not thinking about) dragged me to a 'London Loves' speed dating event. I think the rationale behind this was that I was single too, so of course I would just love to go to a dating event. Please. I went, but it was entirely against my will. 
That venerable source of knowledge, Wikipedia, defines speed dating as "a formalized matchmaking process or dating system whose purpose is to encourage people to meet a large number of new people....Men and women are rotated to meet each other over a series of short 'dates', usually lasting from 3 to 8 minutes." At the end of the event, you tell the host which 'matches' you wish to forward your contact details on to. In short, this is my personal version of hell. I am not good at small talk (nor do I really like it) and have the habit of simply not talking when I've nothing meaningful to say. This can be particularly discomforting to strangers, but works out well for me since it weeds out those whom I probably will not get on well with and requires minimal effort on my part.

So how was it? Not as bad as I thought. I didn't come to the event looking for romance, and I certainly didn't find it. I did not 'click' with anyone. There was no magical 'spark' (if such a thing even exists. I remain skeptical, but then again, as my friend says, I am a bit bitter). The majority of the men I met were either much older than me or were highly self-absorbed. Think the 'I'm a lawyer who drives a BMW in a city where the daily parking charge is absolutely ridiculous' type. Definitely not my scene. I had one guy, after finding out that I am a vegetarian, spend the entire 7 minutes listing off the benefits of eating meat and then get quite miffed when this failed to elicit an 'I've seen the error of my ways' from me. Another man talked for the entire 7 minutes about his job as an accountant for an international banking firm without letting me have a word in.

The most memorable, however, was an 'interesting' fellow who strongly hinted towards having some
particular...interests...that I learned about when I was 15 through watching a memorable episode of CSI: Las Vegas. I am still emotionally scarred. I will not go into details about this particular hobby of his as I have family members who read this blog and do not want to be responsible for their early demise. Suffice it to say, it is weird and I did not ask for his contact details at the end of the night. I don't think I have ever been so glad to hear a bell ring (signaling the end of the round) in my life. Final conclusion: not a complete waste of time (since it provided me with plenty of fodder for this blog, although I have had to edit out a lot), but certainly not worth the ₤10 I paid to attend. (My friend paid the rest because there was no way I was shelling out more than that for something I didn't want to attend in the first place).

(Side note: Never Google 'crazy runner'. If you do, you will end up with this image, which is a bit worrying:

My eyes are burning! (And now yours are too!)

09 February 2011

Pretty much a documentary of my everyday life in London.

08 February 2011

'Is that wind or is the hotel falling down?' (AKA: BUCS Cross Country Championships 2011)

(Photo taken by a team-mate)
 Those who are frequent readers of my blog will know that when I say 'I will continue this tomorrow' I really mean 'sometime within the next month...maybe'. My word is golden when verbally given, but in writing (and especially on this blog), not so much. Life happens, you know?(It is for this precise reason that the quality of this post is significantly lower than I would have liked. I am posting it as is because I fear that if I delay much longer I will forget to put it up.)

So...back to BUCS. Neither wind nor rain nor cracked ribs was going to keep me away, although all three certainly tried. On Saturday morning, the team awoke (relatively) early to enjoy the hotel's complimentary breakfast. Self-labeled as a 'Victorian guesthouse', the Awentsbury was quaint but clearly was unused to having more than 3 or 4 guests at a time.I felt a bit bad as they clearly had not planned for having 19 hungry runners, but we had booked months in advance. And we were courteous.

The race was held at Sennelly Park outside of Birmingham. The course consisted of a small loop (roughly 1k) and a large loop (roughly 2k) with lots of hills. In fact, there were very few flat bits in the entire course. The only part that could be considered relatively flat was incredibly muddy and windy. The Men's Long Race was 10k and began at noon. Our top runner came in at 46th place, but a valiant effort was put forth by all Uni. of London men, as the pace was fast and the course particularly challenging.

Next up was the Women's Race at 1pm. The wind was absolutely howling by this point and as we (all 330 or so of us) lined up at the start, a fine rain started to fall. Unlike road racing where it doesn't matter how far back you start as chip timing means that your race starts whenever your chip crosses the start line, cross country is a free-for-all. We did wear ankle chips for this race, but they were there simply to confirm our finish times. The point of cross country is that you are actually racing against everyone else, and so how you start can have a huge impact on the rest of your race. Although I wanted to make sure that I was positioned mid-pack so that I wouldn't get boxed in by slower runners, a team-mate pointed out that it would not be do me any good to be elbowed in the ribs at the start. (Elbowing and spiking (hitting other runners with the spiked bottoms of your cross country shoes) are the two main ways that runners will try to sabotage each other's races). So I took a spot well towards the back and spent the first portion of the race (the short loop) fighting my way past the slower runners.
Photo by a team-mate

By the time I hit the beginning of the first large lap, I was in the groove. I made up a lot of ground on the first downhill and found the first major hill to be relatively unchallenging. By the middle of the second lap, however, the wind and the mud were beginning to take their toll on me. Most of the time the wind was pushing against me, making me feel as if I were working twice as hard to get the same result. At the same time, the mud was attempting to suck my shoes off and made getting a good footing very difficult. Still, it wouldn't be proper cross country without it. The final loop was the hardest, and at some points I really just felt like it might be wiser to either walk or die - it was a toss-up between the two. In the end I did neither and finished the 4.8 mile course (it was over the 7k advertised!) in 35:37-ish. I was the 161st woman to finish (out of 318 finishers). That'll do!

The rest of the University of London women's team finished strong as well, with our top runner coming in at 34th. In a field as competitive as the one at BUCS, this is no small achievement! After we had recovered with Jelly Babies, cookies, and clementines, we walked over to the bottom of the hill to support our Men's B team in the shorter 8k race. I didn't envy them as by this time the course was simply nothing but one giant mud pit. Our men's team ran well and we celebrated their achievement by piling into taxis (much to the dismay of the drivers, who had to deal with the muddy aftermath) and heading back to the hotel for naps, snacks and warm showers (not necessarily in that order).

Following a nap of a few hours, we reconvened and went to dinner at an Indian restaurant. I have only had Indian food on one prior occasion and so spent the better part of an hour deciphering the menu. This was not an issue, however, as it took over an hour before our orders were taken. The food itself was delicious. I ordered the 'vegetable saag (something) garlic' with rice and a (huge) naan. So much food, but so delicious! (Perhaps more exciting was the fact that my stomach didn't give me trouble like it usually does when eating, well, anything.) The fact that I washed this down with 2 pints of Magner's cider probably helped. :) Afterward it was off to the Uni. of Birmingham's Student Guild for the after-party. It was a strange experience, especially as I: a) haven't been to any student-type parties since February of 2010 at SMCM, and b) haven't been single at a party since December 2009. :( Like I said, a strange (not entirely welcome) experience, but fun nonetheless, though I think it is safe to say that my hard-partying days, such as they were, are well behind me at this point. It was a tame evening for me.

Competing at BUCS was a special moment for me as it represents a highlight (although hopefully not the crowning highlight) of my running career. Had you told me two years ago that I would be competing in a cross country race (let alone championships), I would have thought you mad. I only started running (sort-of) in the fall of 2008 when I studied abroad at Oxford as a way to work off the doner kebabs and Katy ciders consumed at the pub by night. I competed in my first race, the 10k Bupa Great Edinburgh Run, in May 2009, by training 3-4 days a week with a few laps around the Meadows in Edinburgh. I remember that most days I would do perhaps 2 laps (around 2.5 miles) and usually had to walk at least once during that time. I ended up walking up most of the Queen's Drive hill in Holyrood Park and down the Cowgate during the Great Edinburgh run, but I finished. And that feeling was amazing. I didn't actually race again (in a real race) until January 2010 with the New Year's Resolution Run in Patterson Park, Baltimore. So my 'competitive' racing career has been relatively short. I still find it mildly odd that I manage to do so well in my races, because part of me is still clinging on to the memory of the days when I couldn't. As I cooled down after finishing BUCS, all I could think was 'how did I ever get here?' It just seemed unreal.

Running has changed my life in ways I never expected, and I have watched as my love for it has spread on to my family and friends. To those who believe that they are too slow, will never be able to run X distance, don't consider themselves a runner: do not give up! Persistence will help you achieve your goals. Even if you can barely make it one lap around the track, that is a start, and everyone has to start from somewhere. Running is less about the distance or splits that you run and more about the changes you bring within yourself. It is about working until you can accomplish your goals, about pushing yourself even when you want to give up. Everyone starts from somewhere and what matters is not the point at which you start, but how far you are willing to go.

In the next post: my recent speed-dating experience!

06 February 2011

Super Bowl Sunday

It is Super Bowl Sunday!!!! OMG!!1!

I'm not a football fan at all, so this is simply yet another Sunday in my life. But for most people in the United States, it is THE highlight of the winter sports calendar. Beer, nachos, salsa, and peanuts undoubtedly flew off the shelves at most supermarkets this morning and will be consumed in absolutely appalling quantities tonight. Body paint will be applied to the chests of individuals who would be better off leaving their shirts on. The infamous 'beer hat' will make a mass appearence. And families will be divided along the lines of who they support (Green Bay Packers or the Pittsburgh Steelers? This is clearly a matter of life and death, and choosing the wrong allegiance could result in disinheritance.) 

Keep it classy America - Source
I was born and raised in the US, and yet I still do not understand this custom. The only time I have ever even been faintly interested in football was when the Baltimore Ravens went to the Super Bowl in 2001 and then it was only because everyone else seemed so keen on them winning. (They did. My Baltimore-raised father was so happy.) There seemed to be a chance that the Ravens would go to the Super Bowl this year, a possibility that resulted in my neighbors back in MD displaying their allegiance on flags attached to their front porches and cars, but they lost to the Steelers at the last moment. Tragic. Anyway, to those readers for whom Super Bowl Sunday has assumed pseudo-holiday status: Good luck! I hope that the insert chosen team's name here win!)

Anyway, on to more interesting news. I spent the weekend in Birmingham at the BUCS Cross Country Championships where I was running as part of the University of London team. I have been looking forward to this event since I found out that I had been selected for the team in December. As my university running career (as short as it was) is coming to a close in June, it is the only 'championship' of any kind that I can possibly hope to attend as more than a spectator. So you can imagine my frustration when a freak accident on Wednesday resulted in my sustaining 3 cracked ribs. Luckily, the ER doctor did not forbid me from running and a Friday morning test run proved that running would be possible, if painful, so it was off to Birmingham for me! The team met at Euston station shortly after my classes ended at 6 and arrived in Selly Oak, on the outskirts of the city, by 8pm.

I honestly don't know what I was thinking when I was packing at 7am on Friday morning before class. I ended up with 3 pairs of shorts, 2 pairs of tights, but no toothbrush, hairbrush, or flat shoes (only packed my spikes, trainers, and boots). I also forgot the book that I had hoped to read on cross-cultural communication, the QDAMiner and WordStat manuals (for the upcoming text coding at my internship) and my Garmin. On the plus side, I did remember to bring my swimming goggles...which i didn't actually need. It was a packing disaster.

And it is here that I will have to leave it for today. The rest of my race report will follow tomorrow.

01 February 2011


Video: 'Barton Hollow' by The Civil Wars

People used to tell me that you don't know what you have until you've lost it. I never knew what they were talking about until I encountered something called 'life' and now I am fairly well acquainted with the concept. I think this same thing holds true with traveling and the concept of 'home'. You never truly appreciate your home until you've left it. When I was growing up, all I wanted to do was leave the US. I dreamed of traveling far and wide. I would have no ties to hold me back, I would come and go as I pleased, and the concept of 'home' would have no meaning. 'Home' would be the place where my family was located and where I was not. But as I've grown older, I've realized that this is not as simple in practice as it is in principle. Like it or not we form attachments to the people and places around us. The goodbyes become a bit harder to say, the tears more difficult to choke back. The concept of having a 'home' is no longer quite as unappealing as it once was.

It is a bit ironic: my forebears made long and arduous journeys across the Atlantic from the Old World to the New in search of something - new possibilities, new freedoms, a new life. Several generations down the road, my grandfathers and grandmothers moved from the towns in which our family had settled to the cities of the north in the search of the same thing - new possibilities and a new life. I am the beneficiary of this new life and what do I do? Return to the same country that my ancestors left so long ago. I am changed for this experience, mostly for the better but not entirely, and the lessons that I have learned will remain with me throughout my life. The most important lesson (apart from 'an expiration date is there for a reason') has been the importance of my family, friends, and home. Yes, I may bitch about them quite frequently, and yes, I may hurt them with my careless words just as they hurt me. (I am, after all, a sensitive soul. Or a drama queen, depending on whether you are talking to my Mother or Father.) But in the end, they are always there. In good and bad, through thick and thin: they are there. And home is the place where I know that I can go when all else fails.

Why did I post this today? I watched the above video 'Barton Hollow' by The Civil Wars and it reminded me of when I traveled to Georgia in 5th grade for the Hendrick (my Dad's mum's family) family reunion. Georgia is the furthest into the 'deep south' that I have ever been. (I've been to Florida, but I don't really count it as the 'south'. It is a unique entity in itself, much like California). It was a strange trip...we stayed in a house that I was (and am still) convinced is haunted. We walked through the forest past dirt mountains that my Dad's cousin poked with a stick to show me how quickly the fire ant residents could potentially overcome a human. In the same forests we unearthed the long-buried tombstones of ancestors whose names appeared as three brief lines in my Dad's genealogical records: name, date of birth, date of death. In between lay a lifetime's worth of memories and experiences, details that forever lost to the winds of time as soon as they passed beyond. We visited the now-demolished Hendrick plantation, saw the site of the farmhouse where 'Great Grand-daddy so-and-so was shot for his Confederate gold' (which has definitely not made it down the line to me), and ate a strange substance known as 'grits'. Perhaps the strangest experience of all was hearing about the 'war of Northern aggression' as if it had occurred just yesterday. My 5th grade self was mystified at this strange culture of 'the south'.

Unfortunately, the same winds of time that erode our physical landmarks on this earth have also been at work on my memory. I no longer remember what it was like to experience that culture so markedly different from the one that I had been brought up in. I don't remember what it was about grits that I didn't like (although, in keeping with my 10 year-old principles, I probably would not try it again) or why I found it so incredibly odd that my Dad's cousins did not drink Diet Coke or Coffee (they're Mormons). My point is that for a long time I've been searching the world for something...although I'm still not quite sure what. I think that after this summer I may have to start looking within the United States itself. I may road-trip it back down to Georgia or to Clifton Forge, VA (population -2...just kidding! It has a population of 4289 according to that venerable and completely unquestionable source of knowledge: Wikipedia).

It is time to come home.

(Except by 'it is time' I really mean 'it will be time in a few weeks'. I've got 9 more weeks of classes, a month of spring break, and a month of exams to get through before this last rollercoaster ride is over.)

"My Father's Father' by the Civil Wars