Friday, 30 July 2010

My First Ever Triathlon! (aka the crazy things I do on my birthdays)

I have a history of doing 'interesting' things on my birthdays. I think digging latrines in Ghana on my 18th is probably the most random, but I think this year classes as the most painful!

My birthday started at 4am EST with me hopping in a car to drive 40 minutes away to Mercer County Park. Why would I do such a thing? To put myself through over 3 hours of endurance sport of course! Yes, I was going to compete in my first ever triathlon, and to make things a little harder for myself I had chosen to do the 'olympic distance' rather than the usual beginners' route of 'sprint'.

A sprint triathlon consists of a 750m swim followed by a 20km bike and finally a 5km run (approximately 1/2 mile swim, 13 mile bike and 3 mile run). Instead, I would be doing double that - 1.5km swim, 40km bike and 10km run.

Now I was never the sportiest child (as many of you know!), and although I rowed (a lot!) at Wadham and joined the cycling team at Rutgers, my body isn't exactly made for running and I've never been a strong swimmer. In fact, as of January this year I couldn't swim with my head underwater - in fact I couldn't really put my head under water without panicking a little and gulping in a lungful of water...

So why on Earth would I choose to put myself through this? Well for two very special reasons. First, to help raise money for KEEN New York, the most amazing charity I volunteer with. KEEN runs a sports program for disabled and special needs children in New York - for absolutely free. It's a charity I feel very passionate about so being able to help them raise money means an awful lot to me.

My other reason is my Granda, Robin Wilson. A year and a half ago my Granda passed away after a relentless year-long fight with Motor Neurone Disease. MND is a horrific disease that attacks the connections in your brain leaving the sufferer with little to no control over their bodies. Even though there have been some high profile cases (for example Stephen Hawking) it remains a relatively unknown disease. The MND Association works to help sufferers and their families as well as conducting research into finding a cure for this horrible disease.

When my Granda lost his fight against MND, my Gran set up a 'Tribute Fund' so that any money the family and friends raise or donate to the MND Association would be recognized under my Granda's name.

So on a cold December night I decided that on my 23rd Birthday I would complete the NJ State triathlon to raise money in the US for KEEN New York and back home for my Granda's Tribute Fund and the MND Association.

7 months of (relatively) intense training followed: for the swim I took group swimming lessons to upgrade from 'head-out-of-the-water-breaststroke' to 'head-in-the-water-freestyle'; for the bike I completed my first ever college road season with the Rutgers Cycling Team and in the process got two podium finishes in Men's Intro and upgraded to racing in Cat D; and for the run I pretty much tried to ignore and avoid running as much as I could!

So let's get onto the actual race! I arrived at the Park at around 5:30am, just as transition was opening. For those of you that don't know, transition is where you leave your bike and running gear for you to change into mid-race. I unpacked and built my bike and headed over to set up my towel by my rack. I placed my running shoes, cycling shoes, running cap, race number, a couple of carbohydrate gels on the towel and put my helmet and sunglasses on my bike ready to put on in a very speedy fashion.

As recommended I headed out for a quick spin on the bike to make sure it was all working ok (although after checking it about 20 times the night before I would have been shocked if it didn't!) and came back to find transition filling up. We were all grouped together by our 'waves' - that is the group of people we would be starting the swim with. Waves went off in 5minute intervals, starting at 7:30 with the elites, Under 19's, Men 20-24 and Men 60+. The next wave would be me, with other 20-24 year old men and 50-54 year old men and the waves would continue until the final wave at 8:20. I started chatting to the guy next to me who was also 23, and it was his first ever olympic triathlon too which made me feel a bit better about being a 'newbie'. What didn't make me feel better was seeing the guy opposite me (with his age, 20, on his calf like the rest of us) put on a Team USA speedsuit with his name plastered all over! Intimidated doesn't begin to cover it...

I tried to put this out of my mind and set off for a quick run just to keep my legs moving - it was already warming up and promised to be a scorcher which didn't bode well. With the quick run out of the way I headed over to the swim area and the nerves started to build. Originally I was going to be using my amazing Xterra wetsuit during the swim but the USA Triathlon council rule that if the water temperature is above 78F (25.5C) then using wetsuits makes you ineligible for prizes and if it is above 84F (29C) then no-one can use wetsuits. The water temperature got taken at 6:30am and was found to be 88.5F (31.5C) - way too hot to even think about using a wetsuit! I hopped in the water with my sexy bright orange swim cap and goggles for a warm up swim, and my first experience of open water.

Now, everyone had warned me about open water swimming and how different it was to being in a pool, and it certainly is! I was slightly surprised to find the lake warmer than the pool - I mean it was just like walking into a bath - but started off with my freestyle. I did a quick 100m to get the feel of it - and was feeling pretty good! Feeling confident I got out of the water and waited in the holding area for my wave to be called.

After a rendition of the National Anthem (American not British!) it was soon my time to start and I entered the water along with the 100+ other people in my wave. I immediately noticed how close we were going to be during the race, and I positioned myself towards the side and back so I would stay away from the main free-for-all. Even so, as soon as the start gun was fired I immediately found myself in a sea of flailing limbs. I tried to keep calm and just concentrated on keeping a steady rhythm in my freestyle. This was great until around 100m in when I suddenly got kicked square in the face (a fairly common experience in open-water swimming it seems) and proceeded to swallow what seemed to be half the lake. In reality I just took in a mouthful of water, but needless to say I started to panic.

This was one of the points where my training and preparation really helped - I did just what the Rutgers Triathlon Training Course (Keith Cook) and my swim teacher (Jess Pogo) told me to do, I flipped onto my back and started back stroke while trying to calm myself down. A lovely lifeguard came over to check if I was ok, and after reassuring them I was fine and had just had a scare I flipped back over and tried to get back into the swim. I realized that if I stayed with freestyle I would probably have the same thing happen again, so I started breaststroke and continued with this for the rest of the course.

I knew that swimming breaststroke for the 1500m would be slower than freestyle, and that it would take more out of my legs - but on the other hand I could sight really well and was a lot more comfortable like this. I set off and caught up with the stragglers of my wave and cemented myself in the back 10-20 swimmers. After a little bit the wave behind us caught up and I got passed by a few of the faster swimmers (swimming close enough to earn me a couple more kicks to the face) but as an added benefit I could keep them in the corner of my eye and use them to sight rather than concentrate on the buoys. I worked my way up a little in my wave to the front of the trailing group of 20 or so and settled in for the swim - even passing a couple of the slow swimmers from the first wave. The turnaround came and all was going well - until we turned around.

It was nearing 8am and the sun was rising above the tree tops - a picturesque scene, unless the sun happens to be straight in your line of vision and consequently near blinds you! I had on my tinted goggles but this made no difference, there was so much glare and my goggles soon started to fog up. This made sighting hard, if not impossible, and I don't think I actually could see a single buoy on the way back. However, luckily for me (?) the bulk of the wave behind me had caught up (as well as some faster swimmers from the wave after that) so I simply kept an eye on the various legs passing me and tried to follow them to help me sight. There were a couple of times I was sure I had gone off course (and I dread to think what my line must have looked like from the shore) but soon I hit (almost literally) the final yellow buoy and made my turn to the shore.

Once again I could see, and sped up my stroke to get out the water and into transition as soon as I could. I toyed with the idea of doing the last stretch freestyle, but decided not to push my luck. As my goggles had fogged up, I still didn't have perfect vision and so found it slightly difficult to see when people were standing up to get out of the water. I had read in one of my books that you should leave standing up until last minute so that you didn't have to do lots of energy-sapping running through the water. That seemed a particularly smart idea and so I kept swimming. It turns out that what the book didn't warn you about is underwater shelves of concrete. You see, we were exiting at the ramp for the marina, and said concrete shelf occurred a few feet out from shore, ending in a rather sharp edge. So I proceeded to hit both knees rather hard, drawing blood on my right that didn't really hurt but did make me look hardcore for the rest of the race!

I took that as a sign to stand up, proceeded to do so and stumbled out of the water and up to transition. I had a mental image in my head of me jumping out of the water and sprinting to transition and out on my bike in super quick time - instead I stumbled and half-jogged up the hill to the transition area to find everyone on my rack had already headed out on the ride. I was a little disheartened but knew that the bike was my strongest area so I had a chance to catch some of them. I quickly wiped my feet on my towel, put on my sunglasses and helmet, grabbed a couple of gu's (carb gels) and put on my shoes to head out of transition. For safety, you are not allowed to exit transition on your bike so I had to run a good couple of hundred yards to the mounting area. Now if anyone has tried to run while holding a bike they will know it is kinda awkward. If anyone has tried running (or even walking) in cycling shoes with cleats then they'll know that it is kinda awkward too. Combining the two resulted in a weird half-jog half-skip to the mounting line.

Soon enough though I was mounted and off on the ride. Finally I felt comfortable - I knew what I had to do, knew I could do it and knew I wasn't going to die (unlike he swim!). The day before I had been discussing with Molly (a seasoned triathlete on the Rutgers Cycling Team) about what I should aim for in terms of speed for the 25.5 mile course. I originally thought I would try for an average of 19-20mph and she agreed with me: "Just make sure you don't drop below 17mph (except on corners) and don't go over 21-22mph unless you're really feeling great". Well I wasn't feeling all that amazing after the swim so started by aiming for the 19mph mark.

It was slightly strange that the hardest part of the whole bike was probably the first mile or two - my legs had gone from 38 minutes of lateral movement in the swim to strictly vertical movement in a short space of time and it took them a little time to get adjusted. It also took a little time for my tri shorts and top to dry, during which there was a fair amount of shuffling on the saddle to try and get comfortable (I should have known better than to expect to get comfortable on a racing saddle!).

After the first couple of miles I got into my groove (and my bum got into it's groove in the saddle) and settled down for the rest of the ride. I hit a comfortable 19mph and soon started to gain and pass people. That being said, every few minutes a guy with a crazily nice triathlon bike (with aero bars, disc tires and aero helmet) would waltz past me like he wasn't even putting any effort into going 25mph in a time trial. That being said, I kept an eye out on everyone's calves to check what age group they were in and was pleased to see me pass a couple of 20-24 year olds during the first lap of the two lap course.

In triathlon you aren't allowed to 'draft' at all - that is, ride close behind another bike to avoid air resistance slowing you down. I never realized until I started racing on the cycling team how much drafting assists you - that is why team time trial times (where you race in a line to assist drafting) are so much faster than individual times. In fact, triathlon rules dictate that you have to stay 3 bike lengths behind the person in front, unless you are passing them. The only problem with this course was that, on the second lap round there ended up being a mix of fast and slow riders that resulted in a bit of a mess to be frank. That being said, there was no need for a few of the more professional riders to hurl abuse at the other riders - I thought it was a bit disrespectful to be honest, everyone was there to compete in the same race after all!

Coming towards the end of the second lap I was feeling pretty nice, and finished my second carb gel as I was turning into the home straight. I ended with an average of around 19.5mph, pretty much exactly where I wanted to be. Hopping off the bike I started to jog towards transition in that same awkward gait and was pretty relieved to get my bike shoes off and running shoes on. I also put on my cap and running belt (a elasticated belt with my race number attached) and headed out onto the trail.

The running course consisted of two 5K loops, and we were assured that there would be "plenty of shade". This would be pretty important as the temperature had kept rising all morning and the sun was beating down pretty strong. Luckily we would also pass water stations seven times - stocking not just ice-cold water but also Heed, an electrolyte drink to help replenish all the minerals we'd be sweating out during the course.

I started off on the run with that familiar lead feeling in my legs I'd experienced in Brick workouts (cycling followed immediately by running) during my training and by the time I hit the first water station my hamstrings had loosened a little and I started to feel pretty good. Then however we exited the shaded forest and the sun started to beat down.

And how the sun did beat! The heat started to really get to me and by the second water station (only about a mile and a half in) I was really feeling it, stopping to not just have one cup of water, but two and another one tipped over my head to cool me down. I later found out from the EMT (first-aid person) that the temperature had hit over 100F (38C) during the run, although all I knew during the race was that it was far too hot for me! As the run carried on I got hotter and hotter and found the run harder and harder.

Pretty soon after the second station I had to stop running and walk for a short portion, just to get my pulse under control and also as a vain attempt to cool down. I proceeded to run for sections and take short walks to stop me from dying and at the next couple of water stations I took at least a couple of waters, poured a couple over my head and made sure I drank some Heed.

Crossing the halfway mark felt great and as I passed transition I could really feel the burn in my legs. We had been warned that the second half of the run was less shaded and they weren't lying - luckily just after the halfway mark we hit one of two 'special' water stations. What was so special was that these water stations had buckets filled with ice cold water and a load of flannels. Competitors could take these flannels and put them on their neck and run with them for a bit to help cool down. I can't even describe how amazing it felt in that kind of heat to have something so cold - needless to say every single runner was stopping and picking one up!

As the heat was rising and my fatigue growing I started distracting myself in various ways - first off by singing to myself (and sometimes out loud). Unfortunately the song I had stuck in my head was "Run Away With Me" by Kerrigan & Lowdermilk (an amazing song that I urge you to check out) that starts with the following lyrics:
"Let me catch my breath,
This is really hard.
If I start to look like I'm sweating,
That's because I am."
Needless to say, every time I started singing I couldn't get past these lyrics because I would start laughing at how apt they were (I think the picture shows pretty well how sweaty I was by this point!). About 4 miles in though, I found a strategy that worked well for me - I would count every time my left foot hit the floor and started by running to a count of 100, then walking to a count of 50 and repeating. I then started to lengthen my runs getting to 150 running, 50 walking.

Just so you don't think I was 'wimping out' by doing this running/walking thing, I didn't see many competitors around me that didn't walk for at least a small portion of the run. I mean, it was seriously hot out there. So hot, in fact, that just before the turnaround in the second 5K I passed the guy who was next to me in transition lying passed out next to the road with an EMT. It turned out he had heat stroke and I paused to make sure he was okay. The EMT assured me he would be fine and I carried on to the turnaround (and the second set of cold flannels). I was pretty shocked to see him like that and made sure I drank 3 or 4 waters at the station to ensure I didn't collapse like him. As I headed back I noticed he had regained consciousness and his father (also competing in our wave) was with him while the EMT poured cold water over him and made him drink water and Heed. As I passed I made sure he was okay and carried on, relieved he was okay but slightly shocked too. I carried on with my counting steps and resoaked my flannel (which was now looking very sexy under my cap [thank goodness no-one took any pictures!]) at each water station. I got into a strange kind of groove and before I knew it I was hitting the 6 mile marker (after passing someone else in my age group along the way).

As I turned the corner towards the finish line I couldn't quite believe it was actually there and I started to run for the line. Carrying on counting I hit 326 steps as I crossed the finish line - with the race commentator announcing my name. To say I was knackered was an understatement, but to say I was ecstatic was even more so!

I had finished in 3 hours, 16 minutes and 25 seconds - pretty much smack bang in the middle of my target 3-3.5 hours so I was pretty chuffed! That being said, I definitely think next time (and there will be a next time!) I can get sub-3hrs... I placed 592nd out of a field of around 1000 which I was pretty pleased with, and I was even more pleased to find out I hadn't come last in my age group! In fact I was 25th out of 32, not great but not too bad either. Unsurprisingly my rank in the bike was much better than in the swim or the run (in the 400s for the bike, 600s for the swim/run) and I placed in around the top two thirds for all the men.

All in all I was really pleased with how I did - I started by just really wanting to complete the whole thing (and not come last!) and in the end I feel I logged a respectable time considering how hot it was and the fact it was my first ever triathlon. I certainly have caught a little bit of the triathlon bug and am looking to do a sprint in September with Molly. I don't know if I'll ever get to the obsession level of Ironman's (or even half-Ironman's) but I'm certainly looking forward to racing again.

At the end of the day though, I wasn't doing this just so I could do a triathlon (although that is now ticked off my Bucket list), I was doing it for the two spectacular charities I mentined earlier. At the current moment my fundraising totals stand at $320 for KEEN New York and £400 for MND Association, far outstripping my aims of $250 and £250! I want to take a moment to thank each and every single person who donated, no matter how large or small the sum of money was - I can't express my gratitude enough, and the money you have given will enable both of these charities to carry on their excellent work.

While on the subject of thank you's, I have a few more to give. First off, to Keith and Michelle Cook from Solis Performance Training, who ran the Rutgers Triathlon Training Team. I had a lot of fun learning about training for the triathlon (with all the other awesome people on the course!) and without some of that knowledge I would have found the race a much harder ordeal. Also a big thank you to Jess Pogo who ran the group swim lessons and without whom I wouldn't have even managed 100m in the swim, never mind 1500m.

On a similar vein I want to thank Molly Hurford who I know from the cycling team and is a hardcore triathlete (she's training for an Ironman this year - that's a 2.4 mile swim, 112 mile bike, followed by a full marathon - mental, right?) but was so nice in responding to the many stupid questions I had about tri's. I can't wait to race with her in September at the Skylands sprint, and if you get a chance have a look at her blog at Death Before DNF - it's a really good read!

I've also got to thank all the people outside the training side. First off, Nichole and all the KEEN bunch (especially the ridiculously awesome Coaches Committee) - you guys are amazing! Next to the Rutgers Cycling Team who taught me how to ride competitively (even if I do still get scared in a peloton). Next to all my friends from home, Oxford and across here in the States who never failed to tell me how crazy I was for doing this.

Finally I want to thank my family and all their support - Gran, James, Sam and most of all my mum and dad. Thank you for listening to me endlessly waffle on about what training I had been doing and thank you mum and dad for buying me the wetsuit for my birthday even if I didn't get a chance to use it (I'll use it at Skylands, I promise!). A special thanks to dad for nagging me to do more training and stop complaining - he might not know much about triathlons but he certainly got me to train more (even if it was through guilt-tripping!).

Most of all I want to thank my Granda, who inspired me to do the triathlon and kept me going throughout. He was an amazing man, and if I grow up to be even half the man he was I will be very lucky. I'm honored to have been able to call him my Grandfather and was thinking about him a lot during the race. I'm not going to lie, when my Dad told me on the phone that "Granda would have been proud of you" after I had finished, I was in tears, but this turned to laughter as my dad reminded me that his actual response would probably have been "That's good, but why didn't you break 3 hours?!?".

Well, that is it for my race report - if you have made it through all 5000 words I am highly impressed - it probably was just as much an effort as doing the triathlon itself! Even if you just skimmed to the end - thanks for checking in anyway! And if anyone still hasn't donated and wants to, my sites are:
and these will be staying open for 3 months so there is plenty time left to donate! (Also, if you want to enter the prize draws, I'll be conducting the draw on August 15th so make sure you donate, and tell me which draw you want to enter, before then)

That's all for now - I've got my written qualifying exams at the end of August so I have a month of heavy revision coming up so there will be more radio silence (sorry!) but hopefully I'll be able to put a few more posts up in the Fall!

Later Days


Friday, 14 May 2010

Review: American Idiot on Broadway

Tonight, I saw American Idiot on Broadway for the first time and all I can is: Wow. This is musical theatre for the MTV generation. This is the future.

Let's back up a little and give some background. American Idiot is a musical based on the Green Day album of the same name, along with a smattering of songs from their consequent album, 21st Century Breakdown. If you've heard the album, then you probably realised that it is not your run-of-the-mill collection of rock songs, these songs tell a story. In short the songs cover the idea of rebellion and compliance, and everything that both of these entail.

So Michael Mayer (award-winning director) and Billie Joe Armstrong (lead singer of Green Day) sat down and wrote a book for a musical based on the album, following three friends down very different, yet somehow similar, paths of life. The show started with performances at Berkeley Rep in California before transferring to Broadway in March 2010.

That's enough for background, now to review the show. First, the tickets. I went with two friends and tried to get some rush lottery tickets. There were 25 tickets available and the lottery was open from 6-6.30 after which the drawing took place. It seems like everyone wanted to see American Idiot that night, as there must have been well over 100 people trying for the lottery. The girl running it said how unusual it was to get such a large group on a Thursday night, but I guess most universities had finished that week and people were treating themselves by a trip to the theatre. Unfortunately, we didn't win the tickets (the lottery is for the front two rows with tickets at $27) but were offered partial view box seats for $37 and we decided to go for them.

The seats weren't bad, but were definitely not the best view in the theatre! I was in the left box and struggled to see anything of Will's story, a shame, but I feel his story was probably the weakest of the three (although this may have been influenced by my limited exposure to it) so it wasn't the end of the world. My two friends, on the other hand were sat in the right box and missed some of Tunny's story, a bigger loss in my eyes. Either way, I still think getting the tickets for under $40 was reasonable, although I would pay more in the future to have a better view.

The show is slightly unusual in the fact that it runs for 90 minutes without an intermission, and for good reason. As soon as the red curtain raises the show is off with a seemingly boundless energy which doesn't abate until after the final curtain call and encore. I think this is the thing that really struck me about the show - the energy the actors project is immense and almost tangible (and the spit they project is definitely tangible - a downside to the lottery rush tickets it seems!). I honestly do not know how these guys do it night after night, they must be knackered after every show! I have not seen a show with this much energy before and can only compare it to the atmosphere I saw in the recording of the final performance of RENT on DVD - the entire audience had that connection with the stage, exactly how theatre should be.

So what was the show like? Amazing, to sum it up. Yes, the storyline is rather thin at times, and the dialogue virtually non-existent, except for Jimmy's periodic letters to friends and family, but this doesn't matter. The storyline is enough to hold the thing together, but doesn't get in the way of the music and performance. I was surprised to find that it didn't feel like they had moulded the story to the songs (as often happens with 'jukebox musicals') and it all just 'worked'. The choreography is raw yet tight, and the physicality of it is a perfect fit for the music.

The arrangements of the music I could talk about for many paragraphs, but I'll refrain myself to just one. I know Tom Kitt's work from the fantastic Next To Normal, and he has worked his magic yet again with American Idiot. Although ultimately Green Day wrote all the music, Kitt transforms the pieces with complex harmonies and backing orchestrations while keeping the raw edginess of the original work. I am very disappointed Kitt won't have a chance to be recognised for his orchestrations at the Tony Awards, but am very happy he got nominated for the Drama Desk Award. A special mention must also go to Carmel Dean, surely the coolest conductor on Broadway - rocking it out on stage in knee-high converse boots and a mini skirt all while playing piano, accordion and somehow managing to keep all the musicians and singers in check!

The staging was brilliant and really conveyed a sense of oppression and was a reminder of the information overload we get in modern society - particularly during Tunny's 'revelation'. Again, the set conveyed the rawness of the subject matter - reminiscint of a warehouse, full of scaffolding and suchlike. There were some clever double uses for the scenery (the 'Holiday' scene comes to mind) and I think it worked very well - any more and it would distract from the stars, the actors.

Where do I begin? The ensemble were dynamic and integral to the show, most of the cast had at least a couple of lines of solo and the fact that the actors of the smaller parts were given the solos during the curtain call was a nice touch. Onto the main characters, and I'll try to sum each one up in a sentence.
  • The Extraordinary Girl (Christina Sajous) was an pleasantly unexpected surprise for me and was impressive in both her vocal and acrobatic skills during 'Before the Lobotomy/Extraordinary Girl'.
  • St Jimmy (Tony Vincent) was a frenetic ball of craziness and Tony Vincent played this madness with so much conviction, and back it up with some striking vocals.
  • Heather (I saw understudy Libby Winters) unfortunately was often out of my view due to my seating but her anger in 'Too Much Too Soon' (special mention to the talented Alysha Umphress in that song and her vocals in 'Rock and Roll Girlfriend' showed real talent.
  • Whatsername (Rebecca Naomi Jones) deserves at least one of this season's awards for supporting actress. Her vocal abilities are phenomenal (see '21 Guns' below) and her acting sublime - also she's damn brave for spending most of the play in just a pair of skimpy knickers!
  • Will (Michael Esper) was again, unfortunately out of my view, but his vocals and what acting I saw was superb. All three of the male leads meshed perfectly together, both in character and vocals.
  • Tunny (Stark Sands) was a real stand out performance - I really believed he had gone through hell during the storyline and his voice was clear yet heartbreaking - you could hear his pain in every line.
  • Johnny (John Gallagher Jr.) is the glue that holds the show together and projects it into something mind-blowing. I have been a fan of Gallagher Jr. his Tony Award winning performance in Spring Awakening and back in January got a chance to see him perform solo at the intimate Rockwood Music Hall in New York. Even so, I did not expect such a performance form him - the fact he got overlooked for Best Actor by the Tony's is simply unbelievable. He managed to cover virtually every emotion, his guitar playing was frequent and excellent and his vocals were both raw and pitch-perfect. His energy is relentless and mesmerising, and you need to see him in this NOW!
Ok, so I guess I didn't quite manage just one sentence for the last few... oops!

Finally, I just want to mention a few highlights and things to look out for. First up was 'Give Me Novocaine' sung by Esper and Sands. This was personally one of my favourite songs on the original album and I was pleased to see it stay close to the original. I was slightly taken aback by the accompanying scene between Gallagher Jr. and Naomi Jones - let's just say they made the scene very believable!

My second highlight also involved Gallagher Jr. and Naomi Jones and that was the little gem of 'When It's Time' - a previously unreleased track that Gallagher Jr. sings. In this one song, we suddenly see a hidden depth to Jimmy's character and his heartfelt outburst ends up being all the more bittersweet as the story progresses.

Finally, my last highlight is the final scenes from 'Wake Me Up When September Ends' through 'Homecoming' and then 'Whatsername'. The music was fantastic and took on a new meaning and I was surprised to find myself welling up during 'Homecoming'. If you have seen it you might recall which section I mean, and the range of emotions the characters went through projected themselves making me suddenly very emotional (not something that usually happens to me during theatre).

All in all, American Idiot is a new genre of theatre that is raw and edgy, more musically complex than you might expect, funny (e.g. 'Favorite Son') but also serious and contains more energy than you can shake a drumstick at. I urge you to go see this at any opportunity, I plan to see it again when I return from the UK and take it all in again. This isn't chicken soup for your soul, but Jack Daniels for your inner rock star.

'21 Guns' by Green Day and the cast of American Idiot (solos by Rebecca Naomi Jones, Christina Sajous, Mary Faber and Billie Joe Armstrong)

Wednesday, 24 March 2010

Philadelphia Phlyer

This was my second weekend of racing and it was the Philly Phlyer - a team time trial (TTT), circuit race and criterium spread over two days. I had performed reasonably well in my first weekend coming 16th, 21st and 22nd out of a field of around 50 intro men's riders, but I was looking to improve on those results in these races.

First off was the TTT (Team Time Trial) in the gorgeous Fairmount Park along the river, and it was a lot of fun - although one of our guys was late to the start line so we ended up doing the whole 6.7 mile course with only two people instead of the recommended 4 person team! This meant it was rather painful, especially as my teammate didn't have time to warm up (he locked his keys in his car before the race) so started cramping meaning I had to 'pull' (ride at the front and put in the most effort) for quite a bit during the first half of the race. Still we scored a respectable time, and ended up second... out of two intro teams! In our defence, the other team had the full 4 people meaning 2 of them could 'mule it' (where you pull for long stints towards the start of the race and pull out when you are tired) and still have the required 2 men cross the finish line. Still, it did earn Rutgers 11pts in the East Coast College Cycling Championship and it was a lot of fun.

Next up was the circuit race with a field of 25 intro men, a similar course to the TTT but with an added hill (fun!) and so a little bit longer. Originally the race was 2 laps for the intro's, but after a long delay due to a nasty crash in the category before us we ended up doing just the one lap (although that was more than enough!). The course consisted of a downhill followed by a ~2 mile straight followed by an up and down hill followed by coming back along the straight before climbing the first hill then a sprint finish. Coming up the hill halfway through the race there was a pair that had broken off the front followed by a group of 3, then I was right at the front of the main pack behind them. Knowing it was now or never I really pushed it and caught the group of 3 that had broken off. We left the main pack well behind as we headed down the straight and started cycling through the 4 of us (each taking turns pulling) as we gained on the pair. I took the lead just before the end of the straight and with a big push attached us to the back of the front pair. Unfortunately, we still had the hill to come, so we all were out of our saddles, pumping the legs and trying to stay with the group. Amazingly, an RIT rider started his final push halfway up the hill, and although I was tempted to try to catch his wheel, I knew I needed to keep something for the sprint, so stayed in 4th position to the top. Then it was a full loop of a roundabout before the sprint finish, and as we looped I started to stand up on the pedals and really work the strokes. I passed the guy in 4th as we left the circle and started gaining on the Yale man in second. Unfortunately the final straight wasn't quite long enough to catch him, and I crossed the finish line in 3rd! I was pretty ecstatic, this was a hell of a lot better than I expected to do, and the 6 of us in the front group cooled down together all thanking each other for a good race and talking with excitement for the next day and the Crit. Here's the photo finish of the Circuit race:

Road race

The Criterium was being held at the Philadelphia Naval Yard and the industrial area definitely gave the race a different feel to the luscious green parkland we had been riding through the day before. The Crit was a 6 corner crit in an 'L' shape, requiring a bit more handling skill than the Rutgers crit, especially as two of the corners were *very* tight and with the same 25 man intro field as the day before I knew it was going to be a good race. I was pretty nervous going into the race, I was worried that yesterday's result had been some kind of fluke, and I felt a little pressure to make sure I did well in the Crit too. After our coached lap (all the intro races get a 'coached' lap where we cycle slowly around so we know the course before racing) we were off for our 5 laps of the 1 mile course. I immediately dropped much further down the pack than I wanted too (around 15th or so) which wasn't in my original plan (I had hoped to stay around 5th or 6th). I therefore started to slowly work my way up the pack, gaining 2 or 3 places per lap until the final lap when I was sitting around 7th or so. As we turned onto the final straight I knew I needed a good sprint, especially as there was a slight uphill and the front 9 or so riders were in pretty close proximity. Up once more out of the saddle I started to will my legs to push that little bit harder and before I knew it I had passed one guy, then another, then another to rock home in 3rd - my second podium finish of the weekend! I couldn't stop smiling as I returned to the Rutgers tent and everyone was congratulating me. Here's the photo finish of the Crit:


Overall I had earned myself 8 points (5 for 3rd in circuit and 3 for 3rd in Crit) as well as the 11pts in TTT (which don't count towards my individual total) placing me 4th in the ECCC Division 1 Intro Men overall championship! Unfortunately, I'm not going to have a chance to gain more intro points as, after discussion with my teammates, we all agreed that I should upgrade category and start racing in the D Men field. This means longer races (over double what I had been racing), more racers (the average D field is between 40 and 80) and much faster opponents - but I am definitely up for the challenge!

Wednesday, 10 March 2010

Rutgers Classic

        Back when I first heard I was heading to Rutgers, I contacted the Crew team (rowing) to see about joining the crew team when I came over to the US. I was told that unfortunately the Crew team only accepted undergraduates, as graduate students were ineligible for many college events. I was understandably disappointed, but I decided that I would try out a new sport instead.
        Now it seems a fairly common switch to change from rowing to cycling (for example, Rebecca Romero won a silver medal in the women’s quad in 2004 before winning a gold medal in Beijing in the individual pursuit in track cycling) so I decided to look into cycling with the Rutgers team.
        Immediately after contacting them I was struck by how welcoming the cycling team was - there were a few grads on the team and everyone was very generous in their advice and support. Hence, when I arrived in New Brunswick, I hunted out Kim’s Bike Shop - a local store owned by the parents of a past Rutgers cyclist. I met with Dave (who graduated a year earlier) and I eventually decided to go for a GT Carbon Sport.
        Fall term was then spent getting used to the bike. If anyone has never ridden a road bike before (like me) then you might be surprised just how different it is compared to a mountain or commuter bike. For a start, it is pretty wobbly - if you aren’t that confident and take a corner a little sharply you will end up on the floor. Secondly, you have to get used to using cycling shoes and cleats - where you ‘clip’ your shoes into the pedals enabling you to apply power throughout the whole pedal stroke, not just the downward section. Now when I first tried to use cleats I promptly fell off the bike... Luckily I was indoors at the time without anyone watching, and after a lot of practicing while holding onto the wall I finally was brave enough to try actually cycling.
        The difference between road cycling and ‘normal’ cycling is quite pronounced, but road cycling is hugely more efficient - everything is designed for maximum speed: lightweight frame, drop bars for aero body position, cleats to enable power throughout the stroke, thin tires for minimal friction, the list goes on and on. It may be a little uncomfortable to start with, but you soon get used to the new body positions and movements. I started going on group rides with the cycling team as soon as I felt confident, usually riding in the groups for the ‘over-insulated and speed challenged’, so the pace wasn’t crazy and we stayed together as a group. I also started increasing the distance I would ride, towards 25-30 miles solo, and peaking at a fantastic 58 mile Princeton group ride in January.
        In the meantime I had signed up for a triathlon (I’ll be doing a proper blog post about that later) and through a combination of exercise and good nutrition had lost 37lbs in 4 months, hitting my target weight of 180lbs (12st 12lbs) just a matter of days before my first ever cycling race - perfect timing! My first race would be the Rutgers Classic weekend (the first weekend of the East Coast College Conference), and would actually consist of 3 different styles of racing - Individual Time Trial (ITT), Criterium (Crit) and Circuit Race. It was great that my first race would be on home soil - being familiar with the course made me feel a lot more comfortable. I would be racing in the Intro Men, a category for beginners, or near beginners that meant we would be ‘looked after’ - whatever that would mean!
        After multiple emails, team meetings, sign-making sessions and beginners racing clinics, race weekend loomed, bringing with it a whole bag of nerves. On the Friday night we did the slightly mundane tasks essential to a well run race: sweeping key corners of heavy gravel, marking out potholes, flyering cars to let them know where they weren’t allowed to go. Then it was time for an early night and good night’s sleep before a 5am wake up call. Getting up that early I grabbed a quick bowl of oatmeal and headed down to Johnson Park, where the ITT was going to be held.
Individual Time Trial
        Unlike a lot of riders there, I was kind of looking forward to the ITT, and not unexpectedly it turned out to be my best event. The ITT consisted of a 2.7 mile course with two 180° turn-arounds that you had to complete as fast as possible. You were completely on your own, being sent off in 15s intervals and drafting (riding close behind another rider to avoid the wind) was illegal.
        I suppose it is probably the rower in me (with all those 2km tests!) but I really liked the idea of just being me against the clock - if I was fast I would do well and no external circumstances would affect the result.
        After a 5am wake-up call I was down at Johnson Park helping set-up and then I was hopping on the trainer to get warmed up for the race. A trainer is a little stand that you attach to your back wheel. Your wheel is then placed on a small cylinder that offers resistance through either fluid, magnets or wind (although the latter makes it sound like you’re powering a jet engine not just riding a bike...). This means you can ride your bike while stationary, allowing you to get your legs warmed up without having to weave your way through cars attempting to park. Before I knew it the Introductory Collegiate Men (Intro Men) were being called to the start line and I was off!
        The race was certainly hard, and my legs were pumped full of lactic acid by the end but it was also kinda fun. I had a fairly quick start averaging 23-24mph on the first stretch, trying to ensure I took Pat’s advice and took the most direct line from apex of corners to the next apex and it was great to hear some of the Rutgers guys encourage me when coming out of the first U-turn, just when I was starting to really feel it in my legs. Coming back up the course I managed to pass the rider in front of me and, after avoiding a stray line of geese, was at the second U-turn, where Cristian was yelling at me to catch the guy in front. I didn’t want to let him down and sure enough I soon passed the guy who started two in front of me, however by this point my legs were in quite a bit of pain! I was passed by a really quick DeSales guy right at the finish line (he placed 5th in the Intro Men) but otherwise was pretty pleased with my run.
        I later found out that I finished the course in a time of 7:38 and that put me 16th in a field of around 50-60 Intro Men - a result I was very happy with! It would also have placed me 78th out of the 120 D-Men (the next category above Intro) so that was pretty pleasing too. It was much better than I expected (I originally just hoped to not finish last) and after the race I was pumped for the Criterium that afternoon!

        After finishing the ITT we cleared up the course materials and headed over to Busch Campus for the Crit around the training bubble. Now a Criterium is a style of race where riders race over a very short lap (usually around 1km) that is usually in a square with sharp 90°+ corners so technique is key. As an Intro I would only be racing for 20 minutes, unlike the hour the A Men would be racing. For the 30 minutes before the race we had our ‘Intro Clinic’ reminding us of cornering technique, a very important skill if we wanted to still be on our bikes at the end of the race! Very soon though we were lined up at the start line and setting off for 2-3 ‘coached laps’. Coached laps are something they do for intros to help us get comfortable with the course - we head round with some A riders from the different universities who give us tips and pointers for the actual race. Although these were non-competitive laps, there was certainly a bit of jostling for position to ensure a good start position.
        I managed to line up at an end of the second row on the start grid and before I knew it we were off for our 5 lap race. I soon found that I could happily keep up with the main pack (around 30 riders), and slowly worked my way towards the front. I then did something pretty stupid: I made a big push the second lap in. I was taking the first corner of the lap and realized that the rest of the front pack weren’t really putting full effort in so I whipped around the edge and took the lead. I tried to pull away and create a bit of space between me and the pack, however I soon realized just how much more difficult it is to ride on your own versus in the pack. I only managed around half a lap before the main pack caught up with me, and my legs were screaming at me by this point. To give them a little break I headed towards the rear of the main pack and enjoyed the ease offered by drafting. Unfortunately after spending my legs too early I struggled to work my way back up the pack and by the final lap I was firmly in the middle/rear of the pelaton. It didn’t help that on laps 3 and 5 I had guys crash out just in front of me on the final corner, resulting in me having to take wide lines to avoid getting caught in the carnage. As I turned onto the home straight of lap 5 I stood up and started my sprint powering through to earn the 21st spot on the board from the same field as in the morning.
        I certainly learnt a few things with my first Crit experience, that I will be taking with me into the next few weekends. Firstly, I need to be much more tactical about when I push. If I had left the push until maybe the 5th lap there is a chance it could work - if I know I will be able to put that extra burst of power when others can’t it may work out a pretty good strategy for me. I also learnt that crashes are pretty scary, but if one happens around you they are surprisingly easy to avoid (generally it just means taking a slightly non-standard line). Finally, make sure when you go for the home sprint that you have enough control over your bike - I saw one guy from a university that will remain nameless who in the sprint of my race stood up for a big push, and promptly lost control of his bike and crashed, taking off all the skin on the end of his thumb and good lot from his thigh in the process... Not fun...

Circuit Race
        On the Sunday it was the turn of the Circuit Race. This would involve much longer laps (around 4 miles) that would include more corners, a couple of small hills and a lot more riding in the pack than the Crit. The race would last for 30 minutes in total, including a ‘coached lap’ like at the Crit. The races would also get longer as the category increased, ending with a 90 minute race for the A men racers.
        The race was around Livingston Campus (One of Rutgers’ four campus at New Brunswick) and would include 8 corners and at the end a slight hill leading into a long downhill straight making for an exciting finish.
        As with the Crit, we had a beginners clinic beforehand, this time concentrating on drafting and bumping - two slightly scary, but ultimately essential techniques. Drafting is the art of riding close behind another rider to stay in their slipstream, making life much easier for yourself. To draft effectively there should be a matter of an inch or two between your wheels, so obviously it can be slightly dangerous, hence the workshop to teach us how to draft safely. Luckily I had already had quite a bit of drafting experience through team rides so this wasn’t anything new, however even with this experience, when someone slammed on their brakes in front of me I only just managed to avoid being sent flying, and in the process managed to knock the rider behind me and send him to the floor. Luckily no one was hurt and it certainly got the message across that drafting could be dangerous if someone acts without warning.
        After a few laps of the car park drafting each other we headed to the second half of the clinic - bumping. As the circuit race was longer than the Crit, most of the riding would be done in the pelaton and so there would inevitably be a little bumping of elbows etc. As was clearly pointed out learning how to bump was about making sure you didn’t fall over and not (!) a technique to take out other riders. To practice we rode over a patch of soft-ish grass and in groups of three practiced hitting elbows and shoulders, and responding by putting enough pressure back to stop the collider, but not so much as to send the other rider flying. After a few groups hitting the decks (including a spectacular fall between three members of the Yale team) everyone pretty much had the hang of it and there was time for a quick loo stop before the race started. In the toilets there were people getting changed and so I asked someone “Is this the queue for the loo?” to which I got the response “Oh, so you’re from McGill, are you?”. Never mind the fact I had my Rutgers cap on (the rest of my kit was hidden under my hoody and tracksuit bottoms) but I am pretty sure I don’t sound much like a Canadian!
        Soon enough we were on the start line and setting off for our coached lap. As with the Crit, even though this lap was non-competitive, there was certainly a lot of jostling for position - I for one did not particularly want to start at the back end of 50-odd riders if I didn’t have to! The course was much less technical than the Crit but it also surprised me just how close we were riding next to each other, this was definitely going to be interesting!
        After lining up again the race started and I managed to cement myself towards the front of the pack. After avoiding a crash in front of me (people seem to like to crash just in front of my bike...) I dropped a little towards the back of the main pack, but found that on 5th corner (which I thought was fairly easy) people were loathe to apply much power, so I simply took the outside line and was back up toward the middle of the pack. I again attacked on the uphill at the end of the circuit, putting myself again towards the front.
        The second (and final) lap I planned to attack on the 5th corner again and at the finish, but found as I turned the 4th that I was stuck in the center of the pack, without much options to get to the sides to make the push. This was pretty frustrating and it was only on the 7th corner I was able to start working my way up. Coming up the hill towards the final straight I found myself in a bit of no man’s land, I had broken off from the group but was a little too far to catch the 20 or so riders out front. Hence the final stretch was hard work and I ended up sprinting against one other guy also in the no man’s land.
        I managed to win the sprint and ended up finishing a very respectable 22nd in the same field as the day before. I was really pleased with this result - coming in the top half of all three races was much better than I expected - but I feel that if I could have attacked a little earlier and been a bit more aggressive in moving up the pack during the last lap I could have done a little better. At least I now have some idea of tactics for the next few races, and what works and doesn’t in terms of race plans for me. I definitely think in the Crit I need to just stay with the pack and push on the final lap, whereas with the circuit I need to attack a little earlier to ensure I’m not stuck in the center of the group towards the end.

        All in all I had a fantastic weekend racing - the races were completely different to anything I’ve done before but were a lot of fun.


Tuesday, 9 March 2010

Fulbright Enrichment Seminar

        Every year, enrichment seminars are put on throughout America for first year Fulbright Scholars, allowing them to discuss topics pertinent to the ideals of the Fulbright Scholarship - mutual understanding and using it for worldwide benefits. This year was no exception, and Fulbright hosted around 10 different conferences all across the country from the start of February through March, encouraging scholars to discuss the important idea of social entrepreneurship - that is using business models with a social conscience to benefit people and communities.

        Scholars were not given a choice of host city, but could specify which dates would be best suited - in my case the last weekend of February. Hence I found myself on a snowy Thursday morning at the end of February sat on a plane ready for a 6 hour cross-country flight to San Francisco, CA. I seem to have a habit of flying during pretty severe snowstorms - and sure enough by 9am around two thirds of the flights scheduled were cancelled. Luckily our flight wasn’t too delayed and before I knew it I was up in the air.

        To say I lucked out was a bit of an understatement - from random assignments for my Gateway Orientation and Enrichment Seminar I had got Miami and San Francisco! Landing in 65F sunshine immediately brightened my mood and after a quick frozen yogurt at the airport I got onto the supershuttle to the hotel at Fisherman’s Wharf. Having a hour or two before the seminar started I decided to get a quick run in - heading along the bay. The 4.5mile route took me past Alcatraz and halfway along to the Golden Gate Bridge - amazing!

        That evening was full of introductions, and culminated in our welcome dinner with our keynote address by a social entrepreneur and academy award winner who had flown from Washington DC specially to give the address, and was flying straight back afterwards - talk about dedication! The speech covered a whole range of topics from what exactly is ‘social entrepreneurship’ to how we can get involved.

        The next couple of days were focused on discussing Social Entrepreneurship and how we can get involved. This included panel sessions with current entrepreneurs, case studies and working on ideas of our own. All the scholars were split up into around 8 groups, each being assigned a topic to try and solve through social entrepreneurship.
        To give you an idea of the kind of projects we discussed, our group was assigned environment, and we developed a business model to help clean up and educate Buenos Aries in Argentina. This involved hiring unemployed to clean up rubbish from streets and parks in Buenos Aries, and in exchange offer them free education and advice to try and get them back on the job ladder. This would not run as a charity, but rather as a business, competing for contracts from the government and private businesses, and looking to make a small profit that could be reinvested in the project. All this planning culminated in the group presentations and our group earned the runner-up slot! It was a great experience to really think through a project like this, but I realized that its probably better for me to just stick with the maths...

        Part of the enrichment seminars is always a volunteering opportunity, and the San Francisco conference was no different. Three projects were being supported: teaching in a local school, clearing up local parks and, the one I was assigned to, helping at the San Francisco Food Bank. If you have never heard of a Food Bank before, this is a big warehouse where food that is donated is collected, repackaged and distributed to projects such as soup kitchens and homeless shelters. Most of the food is either ‘staples’ such as rice, pasta and beans or food that is nearing its ‘best-before’ date. This food may be perfectly edible for a long time after the expiration date, and so the food bank can repackage and distribute this food instead of it going to waste.
        Our project was going to consist of some repackaging, this time of bulk supplies of frozen carrots, frozen sweetcorn and pinto beans. These were provided to the food bank in large tonne weight bags, and we would be repackaging into 1lb bags so that they could be easily given out to the needy. After our safety brief we got to work, and I got given the job of moving the food to the tables where others would sort into smaller bags - basically, all the heavy lifting! All I can say is that frozen carrots weigh a surprising amount, and I certainly made up for not getting to the gym while in San Francisco! It was great to help out with such a worthwhile project and be part of a chain that will end up feeding thousands of people in the Bay area.
        On the Friday evening we split off into pairs and threes and met a local family for dinner. These hosts generally had some link to Fulbright or IIE and myself and Teresa (from Argentina) were matched with Nancy Schneider and her lovely family. Nancy had been a Fulbrighter in Germany, studying public transport solutions whilst her husband Rick worked in air travel. They had two very friendly daughters Rebecca and Katie and we all headed to their favorite local restaurant for dinner.
        The whole evening was a lovely sociable occasion, and I learnt a lot about San Franciscan life - from what the girls were doing at school (including a heated argument about the relevance of Shakespeare!) to the local sports teams and attractions. I was overwhelmed by just how welcoming the family was and after dinner (which Rick insisted on paying for, even after I offered to pay my share) we headed for a quick tour of San Francisco in the car including the town hall, china town and other local landmarks, all accompanied by a fantastic commentary from the family. It was certainly a memorable night and a highlight of the whole conference.

        On the Saturday afternoon, after presenting our ideas, we had a couple of hours of free time, so myself and Jaykar (a UK scholar studying Public Health at Harvard) went to meet up with Mary O’Hara (another UK scholar, a journalist based in SF). It was great to catch up with both of them and see just how different our Fulbright experiences have been. Both Mary and Jaykar are here for around a year, so they have had much busier years, trying to pack in all their experiences whereas I can take it a little slower on the traveling front. We met in the one British-themed hotel in SF (complete with Beefeaters at the front door!) and spent a good hour or two chatting away before heading out to see the Chinese New Year parade.
        San Francisco has the largest china town outside of Asia and so the celebrations were like nothing I’d ever seen. The amount of people out was staggering, and there was parade float after parade float ranging from the stunning to the captivating to the ridiculous (I mean, a McDonalds themed float? Honestly?). Pretty soon we had to head to the docks for our evening cruise around the Bay, and we found out just how hard it is to move through thousands upon thousands of spectators when you need to get somewhere in a hurry!

        After battling through the crowds and doing a little running we made it to the dock and met up with the other Fulbrighters, and were soon aboard our boat for the evening. The boat was going to circle the Bay while we were served dinner and drinks and possibly use the dancefloor. The first thing I noticed was how rocky the boat was - considering the Bay seemed pretty calm that evening, we were being thrown around a little, drinks were nearly spilling and eating dinner was certainly more interesting than usual! Not only that but there was a mildly terrifying DJ on the decks - she looked like she was out of the 60’s complete with headband and was pretty much forcing people to dance against their will... Luckily I managed to escape her clutches by taking regular trips up to the viewing deck where I saw some amazing sights, from the Golden Gate Bridge to Alcatraz, and all by moonlight - spectacular!

        Unfortunately, Sunday came around far too quickly and before I knew it I was saying goodbye to old and new friends, and promising to keep in touch when we got back to our hectic everyday lives. As I had managed to book a slightly later flight than a lot of people I ended up with a couple of free hours in the morning so decided to head out for another run. I headed out at around 8.30am and started heading up the bay towards the Golden Gate bridge. This time I didn’t stop halfway like last time and kept going, passing a triathlon club swimming in the Ocean, a cycling club heading out on a group ride and a running club that passed me at a speed about triple what I was going! The morning was perfect, sunny but not so warm that I overheated, and with just enough breeze to cool me down without blowing me off my feet. It truly is an amazing run and was rightly voted by Runner’s World one of the Top 10 Runs in America. Before I knew it I was underneath the Golden Gate bridge at a plaque where you can “offer your hands” to the bridge - a completely meaningless gesture, but also a nice way to feel like you had achieved something (there was even a little plaque on the floor for dogs to offer their paws!). I turned around and headed back to the hotel and the second half went even quicker than the way out. Before I knew it I was passing the shorefront shops and arriving at the hotel 7.5miles later - one of my longest runs ever, and without doubt my most memorable. As much as Fulbright organised an amazing conference, I think that run will stick with me most out of the 4 days - I really achieved the ‘runner’s calm’ and felt completely at peace during the run. I forgot all my work stress, all my responsibilities and just lived in the moment, drinking in the peace and calm. This all might sound a little arty-farty but if you run, or cycle or do any long-distance sport you’ve probably experienced something similar at one point during your training - sheer bliss!

        And with the run, that was the end of the conference. I got back on the plane for a 6 hour flight back to New Jersey, leaving the sun and warmth to be greeted by cold and rain. The four days soon seemed to fade into distant memory but they were certainly a highlight of the term so far, so thank you Fulbright!

Monday, 8 February 2010

Superbowl Sunday!

This is just a quick post to let you know how my first ever Superbowl Sunday went...

For those of you who don't know, the Superbowl is the biggest trophy in American Football, and is decided through a playoff tournament between the top sides of the 8 regional divisions, plus some wild card entries, culminating in the great American tradition of Superbowl Sunday.

Superbowl Sunday is when the whole of America stops - more food is consumed than any other day bar thanksgiving (even beating Christmas), fewer marriage ceremonies take place that Sunday than any other in the year, and 151.6million people will watch at least part of the 4 hour extravaganza on TV. This results in many Superbowl Parties - like the one I went to - and that involves a lot of preparation. To put it in perspective, the number of total man hours spent making food for Superbowl parties across America is the same as the number of total man hours spent making the recent blockbuster Avatar - a whopping 10 million. The food consumed is very 'American': 28 million pounds of potato chips (crisps to us Brits), 325.5 million gallons of beer and an amazing 1 billion chicken wings.

The party I went to was a very low-key affair, in fact there was only 4 of us! Workload has been pretty intense this weekend so in fact we had a superbowl/homework party - and it was only a matter of minutes before I was thoroughly confused by both. To be honest though, it wasn't long before we abandoned the homework idea and got engrossed in the game.

American football is a typical American sport - and hence has lots of time-outs, many obscure rules no-one quite knows properly (think very much like cricket) and a huge following. The Superbowl this year was being contested between the Indianapolis Colts and the New Orleans Saints - with the Colts as the favorites and the Saints as the well-supported underdogs (bouncing back from the hurricane and making their first ever Superbowl final).


Needless to say, being a Brit I had to support the underdogs and so was very pleased when the Saints started taking control of the game in the 2nd quarter. They carried on with their momentum and finished the game with a great score of 31-17 (matching the record of greatest Superbowl final comeback after being 0-10 down in the first quarter).


Now one of the other Superbowl traditions is advertising - and it is rightfully called the biggest day in advertising in the world. Adverts are at a high premium costing a shocking $2.8million for a 30s segment, equalling nearly $100,000 per second! Because of their massive viewing audience, and the fact they can make or break a company/product, a lot of thought and effort goes into these, making them often like miniature movies. My highlight this year though has to be the simplistic and rather sweet Google ad I've embedded below - although why on earth Google needs to advertise is beyond me...

All in all, my Superbowl experience was great fun. I was confused for most of the game but still managed to enjoy it, got to appreciate some great plays on the field (including a great 80-yd interception run), got to say "What?!?" many times during some truly incomprehensible adverts, got to see The Who perform their halftime show, and most importantly got to enjoy all this with some friends - bring on Super Bowl XLV!

Oh and thanks to for all the facts and figures!

Sunday, 24 January 2010

We'll take a cup o' kindness yet, for the sake of auld lang syne... (Part 2)

Sorry for such a delay in the second part - I've been completely snowed under by work for the past few weeks!

Now to resume...

When I left off I had just landed back home after an 'interesting' journey, and after meeting mum and dad at the airport, I promptly fell asleep for most of the 80 minute car journey home. Other than being a bit antisocial with mum and dad (although they are probably used to it by now..) it also meant I felt pretty groggy by the time I got back home to good ol' Glororum.

First thing to do was say hello to the dog, Rock, before attempting to stay awake until a reasonable bedtime - to try and fight the joys of jet lag. After getting only around 6hrs sleep in 48hrs straight off the back of finals this was easier said than done; but with the help of the nespresso machine and Sky+ed episodes of You've Been Framed, I managed to stay awake just about long enough. That being said, as soon as 9pm came around I headed straight to bed and I was asleep before my head hit the pillow.

Now usually I'm not that keen on having a lie in - if I wake up I find it pretty hard to stay in bed, never mind fall off to sleep again, and usually struggle to sleep past 10am. So it was a bit of a shock to wake up at precisely 3.30pm - 18 and a half hours after falling asleep! I could quite easily blame it on jet lag (it would be 10:30am back in the US) but I think in reality I was just absolutely knackered!

I then got up and dressed and had some breakfast/brunch/lunch/afternoon snack before doing a little unpacking. It was during the unpacking that I got a phonecall from James which went something like this:

Me: Hello?
James: Hi David, is Mum & Dad there?
Me: Nope, they're out. How are you? I've got so much to talk...
James: Sorry, got to ring Mum & Dad, speak to you soon. *Hangs Up*

Now to say I felt a little snubbed was a bit of an understatement, after all I had just come back from 4 and a half months in another country, but it soon became clear when he rang back 10 minutes later:

Me: Hello?
James: Hi, it's me again.
Me: What's up? Is everything alright?
James: Yeah - Sam just wants to ask you something...
Sam: Hi David.
David: Hi Sam - is something the matter?
Sam: I just wanted to know if you would mind me becoming your sister-in-law?

Of course I didn't mind! And after many congratulations I found out what had happened - the night before, James & Sam had been heading back from Sam's dad's house in Wales when James had told her that she would have 30mins when they got back to pack her overnight bag for a surprise Christmas present. They then headed to the airport where they stayed the night. Early the next morning they took off and soon landed in Paris, the city of love, where they spent the day gallavanting round, taking in the sights and sounds.

Just before dusk they headed to the Louvre to take a few pictures. While getting Sam to take a picture of him in front of the glass pyramid, James gets down on one knee and pulls out a little box. Sam, meanwhile, oblivious to this carries on taking photos (assuming James was just doing a weird pose) - until a group of Japanese tourists start applauding. After the initial shock Sam said "Yes" and much romantic kissing and hugging ensues... Not only that but James then announces that he's got them a table for dinner at the top of the Eiffel Tower.

No I like a bit of romance as much as the next person, but this causes a little bit of a problem for me. When I come to propose to my future wife (not for some years yet I guess) how on Earth am I going to live up to this?!? James did everything so perfectly I can't exactly just ask her on the couch in front of the telly, can I?

Of course I am immensely happy for James and Sam. They've been going out for 5 or 6 years now, and I can't think of a happier couple - they are truly made for each other and I wish them all the best for the future. So needless to say, the rest of the holidays contained much celebrating (as if I needed an excuse..).

That night I had a chance to finally catch up with Becca - after 6 months of Skype calls. So much had happened since we last saw each other: grad school for me, med school for her; and we've been best friends for years now so it was really nice to go out for dinner and have a good natter.

Soon enough it was really Christmas (and a white one too!) and after wrapping all my gifts and putting them under the tree I slept soundly on Christmas Eve waiting for Saint Nick to come a knocking. Next thing I know I'm getting woken up by loud "Ho Ho Ho"s from next door in my parents room - whereas to be honest all I wanted to do was go back to sleep! Now I get just as excited about Christmas as the next person (probably more so), but with jet lag I was still adjusting my sleep pattern. I got up however, and spent the next few hours giving and opening presents, calling relatives and generally having a fantastic time. We also headed into the village to see everyone, including my cousin Kate's three kids - which definitely reminded me of the sheer magic I felt at that young an age at Christmas.

Christmas dinner was its usual indulgent self and soon enough I was dozing in front of the fire content that another fantastic Christmas had been and gone. I didn't have too long to sit around in post-Christmas idleness though as on the 27th we were through to the Falcons to watch the rugby, and more importantly meet James and Sam. I did find it funny that up until an hour before the game the Falcons were still asking fans to arrive at the grounds with shovels to help clear the pitch of the inches of snow piled on top - and get a free drink for doing so. I think this shows how much smaller scale rugby is compared to football (the Falcons are a premiership side) but also emphasizes the community spirit in rugby. It really is just a big family that go watch the games.

Talking of family, I finally got to see James and Sam and spent most of the game concentrating on catching up with them instead of the rugby (it was for the best - we lost). After hearing all about the engagement and everything they've been up to since I've been away we finally got home for Christmas #2. Lots of presents ensued including an awesome one I got from them which was a guide to road tripping across the US: providing routes, itineraries, suggested supplies etc. I'm definitely going to be trying that out sometime soon!

The next few days were spent preparing for the engagement party on the 30th and on the 29th Paul and Stéph came and stopped over on their way up to Paul's flat in Edinburgh. It was great to see them and we had a lovely meal with them, the whole family and Becca. It was then time for a movie and somehow it got decided (i.e. Stéph decided) that Stéph would pick the DVD. This immediately had me worried, especially as Sam had got He's Just Not All That Into You for Christmas and offered it to Stéph to watch. Me and Paul had pretty much resigned ourselves to this fate when Stéph suggested American Psycho. I've no idea if I was more relieved at not having to watch a chick flick, or more worried about Stéph's choice of movie!

The next day Paul and Stéph headed on up to Scotland while we got the house ready for the party. Before we knew it the house was packed with relatives, family friends and rugby teammates all having a great time and toasting to James and Sam. It was great to see so many people so happy for them both, and after most had left we ended up with all my family from Bamburgh left in the kitchen. Next thing I know, 'Daydream Believer' is blasting out of the iPod dock and my Auntie Sue is on the kitchen bench and my Mum is on the kitchen table... All I can say is that I think it's best that we don't have any neighbours!

The next morning there were more than a few sore heads in the little village of Bamburgh and I made my way up to Edinburgh for Hogmanay with all of my friends from Oxford. I had an amazing couple of days, catching up, smiling, laughing, partying, eating and drinking (Haggis pizza is delicious!) and generally having a fantastic time! It reminded me how lucky I am to have such great friends and how important it is to keep in touch with them - definitely a New Years Resolution! It all flew past far too quickly though and before I knew it I was back in snowy Glororum packing to head back to the States.

The journey back was just as eventful as the journey home, starting with The Snow. I capitalize The Snow as I can't remember the UK having anything quite as bad as it in a long time, and it pretty much shut everything down. So much so that the usual 1hr journey to the airport took us nearly three times as long and, as such, ended up with me travelling up the night before my flight to stay in the Airport hotel to make sure I caught my flight. At the airport at 8 the next morning I headed to the check-in desk to be told that, as my flight at 11am was going to be delayed, I would be put on an earlier flight, scheduled to leave at 9am. Of course, this was also delayed, and so much so that by the time we de-iced, found our space in the queue and flew down to London, I actually arrived at Heathrow an hour later than the original flight was due to land - don't you just love air travel?

Getting to Heathrow I had to transfer terminals before a 90 minute wait in the security check. Getting through I had only about 20 minutes to grab some sushi before I headed to our gate. Because of the new security concerns we had an extra security check at the gate, where everyone was patted down and had their bags manually searched. To be honest, I really didn't mind this delay - as anything that improves security on flights I can easily put up with. We finally were all aboard and took off for another rather bumpy journey back - this time with nearly 3 hours of added seatbelt time as we jostled our way across the Atlantic.

Arriving back in the US I decided that for the week before school restarted I would experience some 'culture.' Getting in touch with Dana we started to plan our week ahead. First, I headed up to Rockwood Music Hall on Friday night for a free gig by Johnny Gallagher Jr. He is a Tony Award winning actor (winning for his portrayal of Melchior in Spring Awakening) but did a really impressive chilled out set, reminding me of Damien Rice, John Mayer and Newton Faulkner. After his 1 hour set we were about to leave when the next act started to set up and, on a whim, we decided to stay. What followed was an hour of comedic jazz - not a very common genre but side-splittingly funny.

The next night we kept up our culture run with a trip to Broadway - with some student rush tickets. If you don't know what student rush is, it's cheap tickets (usually slightly restricted view) the show gives to students usually via a lottery or first-come-first-served basis. On the Saturday we managed to get tickets to Finians Rainbow for only $25 - pretty cheap! It's a pretty old fashioned musical )written around the 50's) and was funny and uplifting - just what the doc ordered!

Next up was a trip to Carnegie Hall om Sunday night. Fulbright have a cultural program that aims to enrich scholars while they are in America, and the New York branch provides tickets to events in and around the city. So from this we found ourselves at Carnegie Hall for the America-Israel Cultural Foundation's 70th Anniversary Gala; for free! It was an amazing concert, with many talented performers, and introduced me to some pieces I have never heard before. These included the sublime Schubert's String Quintet - which is possibly the most stunning strings composition I have ever heard. In particular, the Adagio is a heartbreakingly beautiful movement - composed only weeks before Schubert died. I've posted a video for this below; I urge you to watch, and hope you enjoy it:

Finally, my week of culture was rounded off with another trip to Broadway - this time to see Next To Normal. For my birthday, Jo had given me some dollars and I found tickets for less than half price, and so decided to use them for this. Next To Normal is a new musical based on the life of a Bipolar mother while the rest her family try to hold onto normality. This may not seem the most typical storyline for a musical, and with a cast of only 6 (mother, father, son, daughter, daughter's boyfriend and psychopharmacologist), and 8 musicians the odds of its success against the big spectacles on Broadway, like Wicked and Lion King, seemed stacked against it.

However the musical is honestly one of the best shows I have ever seen in my life. The music, the acting, the staging and storyline are all perfect. I think it really says something when I could easily imagine the play working without the music - it is so well crafted as a play that, rather than the music defining the show, it simply adds a whole new dimension. Seeing it on a Thursday night, I was also fairly skeptical about having two understudies in the performance, however both were excellent - Meghann Fahy as the daughter blew me away, and I can't honestly see how Jennifer Damiano could have played the part any better. It fully deserved it's mass of Tony nominations, and I am sure if had been up against anything other than the Billy Elliott powerhouse it would have swept the awards.
I really can't express how great this show is and if anyone gets the chance to see it then DO IT! On that note I leave you with a song from the show (one of my favourites), but also check out 'Superboy and the Invisible Girl' and 'I'm Alive' if you get the chance...

Until next time (I'll try not to leave it as long next time!) - take care and keep tuning in!