Sunday, May 18, 2008

Biking from Brussels to Mainz (May 15-17) after World Harmony Run at the European Parliament (14/15 May)

World Harmony Run enthusiasm at the primary school Claire Joie

Making friends with Daniela, with her German flag

The reception of the World Harmony Run at the European Parliament in Brussels and a visit to a local, very multi-cultural primary school with the torch was a great opportunity to pack my bike into our rented car in order to bike back from Brussels to check out the main part of the biking route for August.

After a few inspiring and impressive hours in Brussels, including an exhibition of paintings by Sri Chinmoy, the founder of the World Harmony Run, on Wednesday at the European Parliament and a meeting with local school kids who did a great performance for us on Thursday, I said good-bye to my friends around noon and took off on my bike with not more than a backpack with some fresh clothes, rain gear, toothbrush, maps and mobile phone.

My plan was to check out the major part of the bike route for August in reality, not just on a map, and it proved a very good idea, since particularly in Germany things became much more complicated than the map would suggest.

Biking from Brussels towards Aachen via Tervuren, Tongeren, St. Truiden, Maastricht and Vaals, along the beautiful park landscapes and alleys with majestic old trees and huge rhododendron bushes, with softly rolling hills that I like so much more than just plain flat surface, was a great experience. Bike paths along the Belgian national roads and in the towns all the way to Aachen made it very easy. With its little neat houses of dark brick, interspersed with some white patterns, reminding of northern Germany and England at the same time and very little industrial zones compared to Germany, it felt very "cosy". Only when I looked up the history of Belgium at home, and its involvement in Africa and the Congo (passing by the Royal Museum for Central Africa near Tervuren and the "Aligator-Fountain") did I realise how much violence was still going on here only some 100 years ago!

I reached Aachen around 9 p.m. (about 137 km), after a longer ice-cream and vegi-burger stop in Borgloon to take schelter from the 5 p.m. thunderstorm with thunder and lightning and heaviest downpour, and only after I had checked in did the rain come back.

Next morning, Friday, I started around 10 a.m. from the Place of Europe in the city center of Aachen via Düren and Bonn towards Koblenz (another 135 km). This part became considerably more complicated due to less perfect bike paths in Germany and the need to take to "village roads" quite often with main roads tending to turn into dangerous highway-like speedways for cars only.

With many stops to ask for a safe way without too much extra mileage and hills, I made it in sunny weather to Bonn, where the first adrenaline rush set in when I suddenly found myself - without lights - in a long city tunnel. I learned to avoid the federal road B9 which at first was great to bike and make good headway on, until the safety side strip disappeared and cars thundered close by me at 120 km/hour (second adrenaline rush). When I stopped at an exit of the B9 at Sinzig to figure out if I should rather turn to the village roads, a police car stopped behind me and a nice police lady supported this idea very strongly.

So down to the bike path along the Rhine, very scenic, but much slower and a bit longer, with a big problem: the helpers' car won't be able to accompany me all the way in August. We will need an extra biker and meet every half hour or so whenever the road and the bike path touch. Hopefully I won't have to bike along this path at night (and fall asleep in the middle of nowhere).

I reached Koblenz still in daylight and pushed my bike up the last few meters to the fortress of "Ehrenbreitstein" on the other side of the Rhine, with its youth hostel and a spectacular evening view over the Rhine valley. It had rained quite a bit here and would be raining again during the night, but Indra - or however was in charge up there - was benevolent and had kept me dry all the way again.

Festung Ehrenbreitstein with youth hostel and spectacular view

Next morning, when I hopped on my bike again around 10 a.m. to speed down the fortress hill, the sun came out through the thick clouds, and again the day would be dry, in spite of the weather forecast.

Only about 117 mostly flat kilometers until Mainz. I enjoyed the rest of the famous scenic Rhine route, which I had loved as a child growing up near Frankfurt, including the famous Loreley at St. Goar. The bike path now stayed close to the B9 for most of the time - no problem for the helpers.

Around 6 p.m., after a last climb before Mainz, I reached the train station with a last downhill speed - happy and a little exhausted, of course. For the last 6 months my bike training had been minimal, so I was extremely grateful and confident after these three days.

I have come to realise more clearly what a challenge is ahead of me. But I know I have biked 560 km at a stretch in two triple-ironmen not too long ago. Of course now there will be more swimming before - but less running afterwards!

I feel like another important piece of the big triathlon puzzle is completed - and it will all come together perfectly at the right time, this is my deep inner conviction. I feel as if there is a guidance behind it, from within.

The next few days will be recovery and some swimming, then the Mannheim marathon on Saturday, and then into more serious swim and weight training, the next long swims and slowly into cold water.

Monday, May 5, 2008

12 /24 hours of Basel, 3/4 May 2008

The 20th anniversary of the 12 and 24-hour-race in Basel, organised by the Swiss Sri Chinmoy Marathon Team with a record number of participants from 24 nations, was another good and inspiring training opportunity for August. For me, even running "only" for 12 hours was hard work, but nevertheless I enjoyed it immensely. I did only a bit over 73 km, but felt strong at the end - very encouraging for the "big event". Due to relatively few woman participating with no other woman in the 50 to 60 age category, I even received a trophy for just finishing (7th place women overall).

More on my German blog.

Basel Photo Gallery and Results

Saturday, May 3, 2008

May 1st - First Long Outdoor Swim - Infinity In a 50 Meter Pool

(photo Beat Walser)

Finally - my first long open air swim this year! On May 1st many outdoor pools opened. The air was still chilly in the morning, and since I had a 15 km swim on my schedule, which meant at least 5 hours in the water, I did not dare venture into the 19 ° Celsius pool in Heidelberg but chose the 24 ° C pool in Mannheim - what a wimp! And even worse: I started around noon, to catch more sun! Even a Channel aspirant has to be realistic - after spending hours in 27 or even 30 ° C water in indoor pools, a gradual changeover is needed. In 19 degree water I would not have lasted long, as I was able to confirm the next day in Heidelberg, where my left hand stopped functioning properly after only one hour in an almost empty pool. (I know that other Channel swimmers are swimming an hour in 10-11 °C water already, but I also know that I will have enough time to acclimatise still.)

The 15 km went great. Some people may wonder: 5 hours in the pool, just swimming back and forth - that must be so boring! But it's not. Even in this limited space, with my inner concentration and purpose, I feel freedom. There is inner joy, peace, and a real sense of accomplishment. If I had a choice between sitting in an office doing a routine job or swimming laps, I would prefer swimming! (not every day, of course)

The trick with long distances, also in running, is to cut them into pieces, mentally. So the first hour is a warm up (then a short feeding and pee break), the next hour is leading up to the halfway point (next break), the third hour is already past the halfway point (break), the 4th hour: almost there (with some mental dialogue going on, starting at the third hour: are 4 hours maybe not enough? but my "better" half insists: no, if you can do 4 you can easily do 5, and how would you feel if you stopped for no reason? And after all, since I am getting sponsored by some friends, I have to do my job well!)

More easily than bored I tend to get impatient at times at the thought of how far still to go. Then it helps to just focus more and not to think about distance. To feel grateful for the luxury of being here, in clean water, healthy, strong, in an almost empty pool, with the sun and an infinite sky above me, and no pressures whatsoever. Just stroke, stroke, stroke, feel the gliding through the water, enjoy the dancing patterns the sun is painting on the silver pool floor, just try to silence the mind, like in meditation. It IS a kind of meditation, with intense moments of a deep inner feeling of infinity and eternity - eternal moments. At the same time I am breaking down the hour (actually I am counting 3 km - 60 laps, which is a bit more than an hour towards the end) into sets of 30 laps, and enjoy counting from 1 to 30, always with a slight feeling of achievement when the next half hour is "marked off", and always looking forward to the next break and feeding. The counting actually helps focussing - like in Zen meditation, where a beginner can start with counting his or her breath.

At the same time there are always little things happening and changing around me - at times you have to come to terms with a swmmer obnoxiously backstroking into your lane, not understanding that a concentrated lap swimmer may not be paying attention all the time. Or you gratefully pick up speed and intensify your stroke when a good swimmer starts training in the next lane. Or you laugh out loud at the pair of ducks that seem to be perfectly comfortable swimming ahead of another swimmer at the edge of the pool, but who seems to feel bothered by them and splashes around to chase them away.

Visualisation and conscious positive thinking/feeling is another help. Often, after the first 1 or 2 "warm-up hours" which my mind needs to calm down, spontaneously pictures come up from inside - of other events, of the positive feelings during these events, and these experiences are melting with the present. So I can be swimming and diving back into the experience of the 12 hour walk in New York - the nice thing is, in my memory I forget the pain and keep the exhilaration, the flow, the beauty. And I love the feeling that different times and places merge together - not parallel universes (universa?) but a oneness-universe!

Or, a very important visualisation exercise, I picture myself in the Channel, the French coast already visible ahead of me. But I know that now the most difficult part will come where many swimmers have to give up when the currents start going against you. So with every stroke I imagine I am getting closer to the French coast, aware of the fact that it may still take three, four or even five hours. So what I am doing here is nothing, compared to the event itself, but with every lap I do here, the Channel will get so much easier.

I remember, in 1985, after 12 hours in the Channel, when the tide started getting against me and we knew I had another couple of hours ahead, I just thought: wow, now it really starts! I had done 12 hours in training, without difficulty, so only now I was entering new territory. This attitude really helped.

And - in a way, what is important and precious, is not just to reach the goal - that will take care of itself, as long as you give, give, give your effort, determination, discipline and enery - but the time in between, the way. I remember in 1985, when I finally reached the French coast, there was a feeling of "so this is it!" It was great to have done it, there was a deep sense of peace, but the best was the time leading up to it, the 4 months of intense training and inner and outer preparation and the joy of the swim itself - a swim where I felt like melting with infinity.

"The seeker-heart wants to get joy
not by binding,
but by becoming one with Infinity."

- Sri Chinmoy