Semi-Marathon International de Nice

 

A beautiful day in Nice, France, 25 April 2014.

A beautiful day in Nice, France, 25 April 2014.

I got the idea to run this race about three years ago. I was looking for a way to have a travel adventure combined with a race. I thought it would be nicer to my wife to pick a half marathon so she would not bear the burden of my recovery from a marathon, which is not always pretty. After searching on-line, I found this race, which seemed ideal. It is run right around the time of my birthday, is in a beautiful location, and it bills itself as international. Perfect! So, what took me three years to do it, and how did it finally go?

The race is run late in April, and when I got the idea, I was also signed up for Boston. So that year was out. Then it took another year to really decide to do it. Finally, it took about six months of planning for the time off, to figure out what was needed to sign up, and make plans for the whole trip. The website for the race, http://www.nicesemimarathon.com/v14/ did not have an updated site until around October of 2013, and then it was still French only. About a month later, the English version was up, although the instructions for filling out the registration were only in French. Not too challenging, though, as they were quite clear. The race required a doctor’s certificate stating I was fit to run, but none was provided on the website. If you are a French runner and belong to a running club, apparently this is required for the club, and only your membership is needed. If you are a foreigner, you need the certificate. I was able to find one on the Paris Marathon website, had my friend, an internist, certify me, and sent it in by email. Voila, I got confirmation I was registered. The cost was 17€ plus 2€ service fee.

As it turned out, this year’s version fell one day after my birthday, my 60th, so it could not have come at a better moment. Yes, an age bracket change. We booked tickets to Nice planning to arrive on the 25th of April, to give a day for orientation before the race. Never having been to Nice, we did not know the city layout, or where would be best to stay. After a bit of a search on line, and finding out a couple of hotels we tried first were sold out, we reserved a room for three nights in the Best Western Hotel New York Nice, a long name I know, but centrally located and not far from the start of the race.

Today, finding out information about how to get from place to place is relatively easy. On-line sources are plentiful, and one can usually tell the reliable sources. Keys to look for are good grammar, a recent date, and a reliable blog or website devoted to travel. We were able to discover the bus from the airport at Nice into town cost 6€, and there are two buses depending on where you want to wind up, the 98 and the 99. More interesting is that with the help of Google maps, one can plot the walk to the hotel, know exactly how far it is, and even see street views so the landmarks are recognizable. This is all part of the fun of planning a trip to unknown places. We easily got through airport customs, made our way to the bus station at the airport, got tickets, and were delivered to Gare Central, the main train station in the center of Nice. From there we were able to walk to our hotel, which took about 20 minutes, along the Av. Jean Médecin. We were pleasantly greeted at the hotel by a desk clerk named Nella, who registered us and help us get further oriented. Our hotel room was very attractive, and had large glass doors leading out onto a small balcony. Across from us was a Monoprix supermarket, and caddy corner was a very large outdoor café and bar.

After getting situated in the room, we walked towards the old part of Nice where the expo was, in order to pick up my number. The expo was small, and outdoors under tents, in the oldest part of Nice. This is now a spot for shops and restaurants. A large flower mart took up the center of the main pedestrian street, and restaurants and bars with plenty of outdoor seating occupied either side. There were also many small shops selling local specialties. One was entirely devoted to sardines in cans, with many variations.

Picking up my number.  Dossard is French for bib.

Picking up my number. Dossard is French for bib.

The people manning the tents for the expo were extraordinarily pleasant and helpful, and it was no problem to find my number.  I then went to the next tent to pick up my goodie bag with my T-shirt and the usual things they add, like advertisements for other races, and samples of sports bars and drink.  One odd standout, though, was a large jar of Tikka Masala, which is an Indian sauce of tomatoes, lemon, coriander, and other spices used to make curry.  While this may not be typical pre-race food, and I certainly wouldn’t recommend it, it does point out that the sponsors do get to show their wares.  We planned to enjoy it after we returned home.

After picking up my bib and Tee, we wandered through the old part of Nice.  We were hungry, and while late in the day in Nice, we were still on eastern standard time.  So, we stopped at a fish restaurant called “La Grande Voile”.  Our dinner there was just satisfactory.  I cannot recommend this restaurant, based on the fact that the waitstaff made themselves very scarce even though we were one of only a few couples dining at the time, and also they brought the wrong fish.  But, my appetizer, a bowl of mussels, was quite good.

Mussels at La Grande Voile.

Mussels at La Grande Voile.

When we returned to our hotel that evening we were just amazed that our children had arranged for a bottle of Champagne to be brought to our room. Accompanying it was a card wishing me happy birthday and good luck.  It seems we have taught our children well!

A very nice bottle of Champagne delivered to our room.

A very nice bottle of Champagne delivered to our room.

We went across the street to the grocery store, bought some strawberries, and sat out on our little balcony, enjoying the view, and our bottle of Champagne.  I am aware that eating mussels and drinking Champagne before a race may seem foolhardy, but I thought I would at least have a day to recover before actually running.

The following day, Saturday, we awoke to warm sunshine streaking through our window.  Since this was the day before the race I wanted to get in an easy run to keep the muscles toned.  I put on my shorts, a shirt, and my running shoes and headed out to the large path along the ocean for a practice run.  It seems I was not the only one.  About a dozen or so other runners, some with Semi-marathon shirts on, were doing the same.  We ran along the Promenade des Anglais, the last half of the semi-marathon to be run the next day, where signs were being set up for the race, portable toilets were being set in place, and meanwhile the usual beach activity was still going on.  Artists were setting up their stands to display their scenes of Nice, beach denizens were hanging out chatting with each other, and, along the surf, many surf-casting fishermen and women had their lines in the water.

The day of the race came fairly quickly, although the race starts at a very reasonable 9:30 AM.  Our hotel had breakfast for twelve euro, not a small sum for cereal, pastries, ham and slices of cheese.  Normally, my wife and I would buy the same from the market, and have breakfast in our room, but for various reasons we didn’t get set, so I had the hotel breakfast.  Then, it was time to do the usual pre-race preparation.  I got on my shorts and singlet, pinned my number to the singlet, and got on my socks and running shoes.  In addition, I put on my rain jacket, since it had already started drizzling under heavy clouds.

In front of our hotel, ready to head down to the start.

In front of our hotel, ready to head down to the start.

Walking down to the start, we passed through the beautiful Place Massena, bordered on both sides with spouting fountains from large rectangular paved areas.  Seven tall poles holding up sitting figures represent seven continents which are lit from inside with colors that change, representing conversations.  The centerpiece, a very large (7 meter tall)  nude statue of Apollo surrounded by his planetary helpers, was a controversial piece when first displayed and spent some time on the outskirts of town until it was moved back in 2011.  Finally, the buildings behind the statue are elegant, stately and make a striking backdrop.

Place Masséna in Nice.

Place Masséna in Nice.

We got to the start area, and got oriented.  With some time left before the start, I went for a brief warmup run.  The crowd grew, as the runners and their families gathered.  It was a typical pre-race scene, with lines at the portable toilets, lots of milling around, and at one end of the area, a couple of trainer types were leading an exercise routine to music.

The parcours of the race.

The parcours of the race.

The total starting the race, including both the semi-marathon and the 10K, which started together, was about 5,300.  The 10K runners ran the first half of the semi-marathon course which circled through the streets of Nice.  Then the semi-marathon course continued out along the Promenade des Anglais to the Nice airport, turned and headed back along the same route to the finish line.

At the start, getting ready to join the throng.

At the start, getting ready to join the throng.

The race got underway in typical fashion, with the blast of a horn.  I made a small tactical error in not moving closer to the front for the start.  As with many popular races, the crowd toward the back is not really going for time.  With the narrow streets and large number of runners, that meant the pace when I crossed the start line was slow, and with a tightly packed group it was difficult to move ahead. Along with a number of other runners in the same predicament, I had to move to the sidewalks to get my pace up and move ahead of the crowd. This presented a problem with light poles, onlookers, and a few other obstructions. The runners were enjoying themselves, though, and as we went through the tunnel under the central train station, there were a lot of hoots and yells which echoed back. The first five kilometers passed back close to the start, then the second five were a loop through the eastern part of town, again heading back to the start. At this point, the 10 K runners peeled off to their finish, as the rest of us 21.1 K runners headed out the Promenade des Anglais for the second half of our race, a flat run out to the Nice airport and back. The finish was deceptive. As one got closer to the end, a large, inflated arch over the road looked like the end, but it was just an advertising banner. The real finish line was on a slight turn toward the ocean then along a carpeted finish over the line.

The stars of this race were the Kenyans.  A group of six Kenyan men finished in 1:01:31, 1:01:32, 1:01:33, 1:01:34, 1:01:36 and 1:01:38, the first of whom was Kennedy Kipyego.  The first woman to finish was also Kenyan, Janet Kisya, in 1:10:59.  Both of these runners ran personal bests in this race.

Of course, I didn’t see much of them, although the out-and-back nature of the second half of the race did give us commoners a glimpse of the front runners as they whizzed by heading toward the finish line.  All the other runners cheered these champions on as they sped by.

The last power surge, heading toward the finish line.

The last power surge, heading toward the finish line.

As races often go, the last few miles, or in this case, kilometers, seemed to never end.  Finally, I could see the 20 K marker and new the line was near.  Racing in kilometers is great; the last kilometer is shorter than a mile!  As I crossed the line, I heard the announcer call out “États-Unis”, and I knew it was for me, since there were no others of my countrymen around me.  I raised my arms as I crossed the line, pleased to have made my goal of running this race.  My finishing time was a bit slow, which I justified by the slow start and the long plane trip to get here.  Never mind, though, I was quite happy and satisfied.  My ever-supportive wife, Kathleen, caught me right at the finish.

Just after finishing, catching my breath.

Just after finishing, catching my breath, arms akimbo apparently in the style of the race.

I was a bit dehydrated, dripping with sweat, and a little shaky.  I drank down one bottle of water and most of a second as I passed through the finish area and collected my medal.  I think the medals mean a lot for a marathon, perhaps a little less for a half marathon, but I was quite pleased to have this memento.

Representing my home club at the Semi-marathon International de Nice 2014.

Representing my home club at the Semi-marathon International de Nice 2014.

As my wife and I walked together out of the race area and back to our hotel,  I told her all about the race course, the challenges and the beauty of the course.  We then started to plan our afternoon of sightseeing.  We headed back to the Place Masséna and on to our hotel, saying au revoir to monsieur Apollo as we left the area.

Apollo's back, passing on our way back to the hotel.

Apollo’s back, on our way back to the hotel.

Un détournement de Chamonix.

Chamonix

Chamonix, and a view of Mont Blanc

On my return from Chamonix, the most common question asked of me was how I was treated by the French.  I said very well, but my friends weren’t buying it.  Weren’t they rude and dismissive? Or, do I speak French, and so had an easier time.  Or, if one just makes an attempt to speak French, is that enough?  Until one travels to a foreign country (foreign to the traveler, not so foreign to the people living there), it is difficult to understand the experience.   In the case of Chamonix, it is an international resort, welcoming adventuresome people from all over the world throughout the year. French is the native language, but English, German, Italian, Japanese, Arabic, Russian, Turkish, and Polish, were among the languages I heard while there. There is no doubt about it’s French nature, though. This is evident in the super marché, or super market.  Generally, ski towns have very nice super markets, and here is no exception.  But the meats and cheeses were the best, the wines excellent for about $7-10, the alpine butter delicious, and the choices of fresh vegetables, superb.  It was a very busy place, and typically, around 4 to 5 PM, the locals were crowding the store to buy food for dinner.  It is not customary there, to stock up for a week or more.  How would the food be fresh?  There were boulangeries (bakeries) on every street, and the image of a person carrying a baguette or two sticking out of the bag or backpack is real.  The bread is devine, crusty, yeasty and just the right texture.  Pâtisseries, the pastry shops selling incredible raspberry tarts, eclairs, and other sweets are also common, their wares displayed in windows to lure in the customers.
I don’t speak French, at least not well enough to engage in a conversation, and I may never, but I took the time to learn a little, and have picked up some over the years. While this is an international town, not everyone speaks English, so it helps to know a bit of the native tongue.  Whenever I am in France, I am reminded of the brilliant essay by David Sedaris, “Me talk pretty one day” , in which he describes his attempts to get conversant in French. It is so funny and true, and dangerous to read in company. You’ll embarrass yourself.

I was in Chamonix for a ski trip with friends from Pennsylvania and the UK.  We are an interesting mixed group, thrown together by chance and acquaintanceship, and of varying abilities on the slopes.  Yet we invariably have a great time, and plenty of adventure to boast about.

Teresa and AJ, among the UK set, enjoying the alpine sun.

Teresa and AJ, among the UK set, enjoying the alpine sun.

We arrived in Geneva on Sunday, March 2, and took a van to Chamonix.  We were dropped off at our elegant Chalet close to the center of town.  One advantage of going with a sizable group, there were eleven in ours, is that we can rent a whole chalet together, and get the benefits of a kitchen, nice rooms, and comfortable living areas.

Our chalet, Chalet Arkle, on Rue Joseph Vallot in Chamonix.

Our chalet, Chalet Arkle, on Rue Joseph Vallot in Chamonix.

Our chalet was, according to the “bible” left for our perusal by the owners, originally a home built for a physician in Chamonix, over 100 years ago.  It was solidly built, and the current owners upgraded everything to modern standards, with bathrooms in all the bedrooms, a huge, modern kitchen with an industrial stove, and even an outdoor hot tub, which we certainly did make use of.  A few peculiarities of local life:  recycling is done, but one must carry the trash and recyclables to receptacles in town, where there are big bins for trash, glass, plastic and paper.  Bags are not free in grocery stores.  They do sell reusable shopping bags, though.  Vegetables and fruits are weighed by the customer on a scale near the produce section, which spits out a label with the weight and cost.  Without this, one is sent back by the check-out person to fulfill one’s responsibility.

Famous early members of Le Compagnie des Guides de Chamonix

Famous early members of Le Compagnie des Guides de Chamonix

Chamonix is famous for extreme sports, winter sports, and mountain climbing.  The mural above shows early, formative members of the Compagnie des Guides de Chamonix, an association for the guides in this region.  The woman depicted at the top, Marie Paradis, at the time a worker in a hotel, was the first woman to climb to the summit of Mont Blanc, in 1808.  Chamonix was the home of the first Winter Olympics, in 1924.  Mont Blanc, the tallest mountain in Europe, can be seen clearly from the town, and is a primary attraction here.  The Vallée Blanche is the ski route off of Mont Blanc, accessible from L’Aiguille du Midi, the highest reaching cable car in the valley.  It is unmarked, unpatrolled and quite a challenging run.  I did this run in 2003, with a group from Philadelphia, led by a guide named Christian.

Entrance to the Vallée Blanche

Entrance to the Vallée Blanche

The trek down to the start of the ski run, Vallée Blanche

The trek down to the start of the ski run, Vallée Blanche

Our guide, Christian.

Our guide, Christian.

Some of our group did this same run this year.  I decided not to go, having done it once and survived.  The skiing, though, in this region is not easy.  While there are slopes meant for beginners and intermediates, they are pretty tough due to their steepness and iciness.  Up high at the top of the multiple ski areas which surround the valley, the snow is good and the views amazing.  But the runs at that height are steep, ungroomed, and mainly moguls.  My friends Teresa and Kristine and I took on the second most challenging descent, off the top of Grand Montets, the Point de Vue run along the Argentière glacier.

Frank and Kristine at the top of Grands Montets

Frank and Kristine at the top of Grands Montets

Point de Vue run off Grands Montets

Point de Vue run off Grands Montets

The Argentière glacier along the Point de Vue run.

The Argentière glacier along the Point de Vue run.

Frank, Teresa and Kristine after successfully descending off the top of Les Grands Montets summit.

Frank, Teresa and Kristine after successfully descending off the top of Les Grands Montets summit.

During this trip we also spent a day on the Italian side of Mont Blanc, the Monte Bianco side, in Courmayeur.  To get there, we took a bus from Chamonix through the famous Mont Blanc tunnel.  This eleven kilometer long tunnel runs under Mont Blanc, and was the site of a fire in 1999, due to a truck catching fire which was carrying flour and margarine.  Thirty-nine people died, and the tunnel was closed for three years after that for repairs and improvements.  Our bus left from the Chamonix train station and took us directly to the ski resort on the other side of the mountain, with no problems to report.

Our group, waiting for the bus to Courmayeur.

Our group, waiting for the bus to Courmayeur.

Skiing in Italy seemed a bit more fun and lighthearted than skiing on the French side.

Enjoying a break in Courmayeur.

Teresa, Christine, Simon, AJ, Drew, Eric, Jen, Paul, Kristine and Frank enjoying a break in Courmayeur.  Thanks, Will, for taking the photo.

The challenges were there, too, as we learned ascending to the top of the Youla gondola.

Looking down from the top of the Youla gondola station, see if you can spot the helicopter.

Looking down from the top of the Youla gondola station, see if you can spot the helicopter.

Simon, Will, AJ, Kristine and Paul at the top of the Youla gondola.

Simon, Will, AJ, Kristine and Paul at the top of the Youla gondola.

Drew, Jen and Eric, part of our Pennsylvania contingent, with Monte Bianco looming over us.

Drew, Jen and Eric, part of our Pennsylvania contingent, with Monte Bianco looming over us.

Traveling to really get away, to have an adventure, take some risks, and be out of range of work allows one’s batteries to recharge.  We had great food, some cooked by our chalet’s caretaker named Abdel.  He is Algerian by birth, with a Moroccan passport, and he loves to cook.  He prepared several dinners for us, including a Moroccan style dinner, and a fondue dinner.  Always he would include fresh salads and lots of vegetables, unlike what a restaurant meal might provide.  We played a truly bawdy card game called “Cards against Humanity”, which we learned from our UK representatives, was heavily weighted toward Americanisms.  Nevertheless, it had us rolling with laughter.  We drank plenty of beer and wine, and completely enjoyed ourselves.

I arrived home late Sunday night and had to be at work the following morning at 6:30.  It was a jarring reminder that I don’t live the holiday, jet-set life full time, only on special occasions.  I also have a half-marathon coming up, and the week of skiing is hardly preparation for a run.  I did run a couple of times in Chamonix, with Will, the eighteen year old who needs to stay in shape for lacrosse.  Good that I was able to keep up with him, although he did carry a backpack on our runs.  By the way, the French people I met were very friendly and forgiving of my grade-school French.  It was a great get-away, and I am looking forward to the next big adventure.

Wheeling around Western Mass.

Picturesque New England farm in western Massachusetts

Picturesque New England farm in western Massachusetts

I’ve discovered that running is not bad training for cycling, but cycling does not really cross train one for running. Nevertheless, it is a decent break in the marathon training schedule to take a few days off from running. What better way to maintain some cardiovascular fitness than to spend four days cycling in the hills of Western Massachusetts?
I have been heading up to Northampton, “Noho”, every summer for the last ten years to spend time road cycling with an outfit called Ride Noho. My discovery of this cycling camp experience started with a trip to Italy in 2002, to spend a week cycling at the Italian Cycling Center. This is a cycling camp created by the curmudgeonly George Pohl, who, it was said, knows a whole lot about cycling, but won’t tell you all you need to know. The idea of the camp was to have a home base in one place and take rides in different directions each day. It is based in the tiny town called Borso del Grappa, or “pocket” of (Mount) Grappa, which is at the edge of the Veneto, and at the foothills of the Dolomites. I spent a challenging week there with two of my friends, going on rides up switchback roads into alpine highlands above Valdobbiadene, through narrow paved streets of towns like Asiago, and plummeting back down the mountains to neighboring Basano. Our fellow riders were accomplished road cyclists, most of whom spent some time in amateur racing. George kept the challenge going in the evening during prosecco hour, when we had gathered at the outdoor patio to enjoy a glass of the area’s signature sparkling wine.  George read the menu choices only once, and stared disapprovingly, and silently, at anyone who dared ask him to repeat an option.
Looking for a similar experience of challenging cycling without the expense of traveling to Italy, I discovered Ride Noho. It turns out the creator of this outfit, Aldo Tiboni, had also been to the Italian Cycling Center. Instead of looking for a similar experience, he created one, although, as he points out, without the grumpy attitude. Aldo wanted the same approach, i.e., have a home base and take off on different rides each day.  For a very reasonable daily fee, one is provided overnight stay in a hotel or motel in Northampton, a delicious breakfast at Sylvester’s restaurant, a ride fitted to the abilities of the cyclists, and lunch at another Northampton restaurant.  Dinner is not provided, but Northampton and the surrounding areas, including Amherst, have an overabundance of excellent choices for dinner.

Aldo Tiboni, of Ride Noho

Aldo Tiboni, of Ride Noho

Aldo, the creator of Ride Noho, is a remarkably nice person.  He’s also one mean cyclist.  He seems to live for the ride, at least in summer, when he goes out almost daily with groups of varying skill, taking them on rides through the undulating countryside of the northern and western parts of Massachusetts.  Accompanying him, and providing inspiration for anyone who feels sex or small size is an inhibiting factor, is Elaine, his beautiful and athletically gifted wife.  Elaine is a dynamo disguised in the sweetest demeanor.  She can hang with all but the fastest cyclists, climb as if she’s dancing on the pedals, and keeps a mother hen’s eye on everyone to keep them safe.

Eileen, being the center of attention, deservedly so.

Elaine, being the center of attention, deservedly so. (photo from 2011 trip)

Over the last ten years I’ve had many great rides with Aldo and Elaine.  We’ve done the Cosby ride, the backwards Cosby, the ride out to Shelburne Falls, out past Amherst, and taken a few climbs up the short but steep climb to Sugarloaf Mountain, in Deerfield.  We have done a one hundred mile ride into Vermont and back.  The most memorable rides, though, have been our climbs to the peak of Mount Greylock.

Mount Greylock in the distance

View from afar of Mount Greylock

Mount Greylock, the origin of the name is a bit obscure, sits in the upper western part of Massachusetts, in Adams, near Williamstown.  It is the highest mountain in Massachusetts, and has an impressive view from the top extending more than 100 miles.  While it is possible to make a long cycling trip starting in Northampton and finishing at Mount Greylock, or even doing a 100-plus mile round trip, our usual approach is to drive to the ranger station on the southern route up the mountain and start our ride from there.  This past August we did just that.  My friend from college, Keith, who lives near Boston, and I were the only two guests of Aldo and Elaine this week.  We started out early from Northampton with our bikes secure in the rack atop Aldo’s van.  We stopped along the way at the marvelously named “BreadEuphoria” bakery in Haydenville for some coffee and a pastry.  About an hour later we arrived at the ranger station.  Meeting us there was Bob, friend of Aldo and Elaine, and co-leader on many of their rides.  Bob is in his 60’s, eats vegan, and lives an idyllic life in the hills of western Massachusetts, doing what he likes, which is cycling.  On the off chance Aldo has attracted some hammer heads who can really move or climb, Bob is there to work them until they are exhausted, and have gotten their money’s worth.  To Bob, it seems like a walk in the park.

Bob and Aldo

Bob and Aldo, getting their bikes ready for Mount Greylock.

Since neither Keith nor I are in the category of “hammer head”, Bob also serves another function, which is to be absolutely entertaining with his knowledge of the history of the area, his wry sense of humor, and general good nature.

The ride starts from the parking lot of the ranger station with a fast descent down Rockwell Road.  We then do a long route around the base of Mount Greylock, taking on a few hill climbs to get the legs ready, and stopping for a quick restroom break at Williams College in Williamstown.  Each time I have done this ride I have been reminded by my companions what a great art museum Williams College has.  One of these days, I will need to go check it out.  Williamstown is also the staging town for the start of the Long Trail in Vermont, which starts a few miles northeast at the end of Pine Cobble Road.  That’s another of my desires, to someday hike the Long Trail in Vermont.  Leaving Williamstown, we continue on to Notch Road, and the start of the ascent.  From this, the northern approach the elevation starts at about 1200 feet.  The route to the top is about 8 miles, and the summit is at 3491 feet.  The climbing starts quickly and sections of the climb reach the upper teens in percent grade.  One does get a little break from time to time where the road almost levels, but then the climbing starts again.  At around 3200 feet there is a mile of flattish rolling road which is a nice respite before the final climb to the summit.  While not the longest or most difficult climb I’ve done, this ranks up there in the top ten, and has certain characteristics which make it stand out.  It is a particularly scenic climb through natural forest.  The road surface, while pretty good most of the time, does have ruts, ice heaves and warning bumps where hiking trails cross.  Car traffic is light, thankfully.  And the view from the top is very impressive.

We all started together although Bob quickly went off the front, presumably to make sure no earthquakes had taken out sections of the road.  Aldo was behind him, but not by far.  Keith, Elaine and I started together, but I stopped along the way to snap a photo of an odd looking building.

Odd structure along Notch Road, up Mount Greylock.

Odd structure along Notch Road, up Mount Greylock.

Keith and Elaine kept going, while I tooled along, keeping a steady climbing pattern going.  In the saddle at my lowest gear, out of the saddle a couple of sprockets up, then back to sitting kept my climbing going.  Close to the top, I caught up with Keith and Elaine.  While Elaine was just being her protective self, she could very easily have shot up the mountain faster, Keith and I were dragging a bit as we crested the summit.

Near the summit of Mount Greylock.

Near the summit of Mount Greylock.

By reaching the summit, one joins a list of accomplished adventurers and naturists who have climbed the peak before.  This list includes Timothy Dwight IV, president of Yale University in 1799, the writers Nathaniel Hawthorne, Herman Melville, and Henry David Thoreau, and the physician and writer Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr.  In 1929, a segment of the Appalachian Trail was cut to crest the mountain, and since then a multitude of backpackers have visited the peak.  Intrepid skiers of the 1930’s cut a ski run on the mountain called the Thunderbolt Ski Run.  It almost faded to overgrown obscurity until the late 1990’s when it was cleared of trees and brush.  Now, it is a challenging, steep run taken by skiers and borders who hike up, then descend the ungroomed, unlit, and unpatrolled fast and steep run.

Bob, Frank, Elaine, Aldo and Keith at the summit of Greylock, with the Veterans War Memorial in the background.

Bob, Frank, Elaine, Aldo and Keith at the summit of Greylock, with the Veterans War Memorial in the background.

College friends Keith and Frank at the Greylock summit.

College friends Keith and Frank at the Greylock summit.

View looking east from the summit of Mount Greylock (2010 photo).

View looking east from the summit of Mount Greylock (2010 photo).

The weather at the summit can change quickly.  As we arrived, it was nice and sunny, with a great view.  Moments later we were enshrouded in a fine, chilly mist.  That was our signal to head back down.  The descent is not as screamingly fast as one would like, taking the southern route.  In fact, there’s a bit of a climb half way down, but eventually we made it back to the ranger station.  We cleaned up in the restroom, got the bikes back in the racks on top of the van, said adieu to Bob, and drove back to Northampton.

The last two days of our stay this year in Northampton we had two other rides through the bucolic surrounding countryside, including one through Amherst and past the home of Emily Dickinson, famous poet and recluse.  Her house is now a museum dedicated to her life and her works. Again, this is a worthwhile destination for exploring, like the art museum at Williams College, but one for another trip.  Not having read much of her poetry, but being familiar with it, I searched online for a collection of her works.  What I found astounded me, a 3000 plus page collection, only to find that almost all of it was published after her death.

Emily Dickenson House

Emily Dickinson House, Amherst, Massachusetts

The last night in town Keith and I ate at Northampton’s Argentine steakhouse, Caminito, reminiscing about old college days, rides we’d taken, and keeping each other up to date on what career paths our kids, now in their twenties, are taking.

Aldo and Elaine provide an excellent cycling experience with Ride Noho, for all levels of riders.  But my trip to Noho is just as much about getting together with an old friend (or several, when we have a larger group), and unhitching from the stress of daily work.  As for my upcoming marathon, well, we’ll just have to see how it goes.  I’m feeling pretty decent with my training, and I don’t think taking off the four days from the running schedule will seriously impact my performance.

Frank K.

Why I Didn’t Run in Hawai’i (part three, the final part)

Hawaiian Islands

Hawaiian Islands

We finished our boat tour of the lava flow into the ocean, full of awe at the spectacle of being so close to flowing melted rock.  Rather than head back to Kona, which would be a two hour drive, then return again the next morning, we decided to spend the night at a bed and breakfast close to Volcano National Park, which would be our next big adventure on the big island.  This also meant skipping the Saturday morning run with the Big Island Running Company, which I had planned to do before realizing how tightly packed our itinerary would be once we got here.

We stayed overnight at the Aloha Crater Lodge, in Volcano Village, close to the entrance to Volcano National Park.  This is a small Bed and Breakfast in a converted house within the rain forest, with very reasonable rates.  They have five rooms, each with room for three to four occupants, and the breakfast is provided in-room, with a coffee maker and a small refrigerator stocked with milk, juice, cereal and fruit.  Being in the rain forest as it is, the room was very humid, but the bed was nice and comfortable.  Close to the lodge there is a lava tube, which is a large cave-like tunnel created by the flow of lava.  They give tours daily of the lava tube, but we decided not to participate, since we would be seeing the same thing on our bike tour of the national park.

Aloha Crater Lodge

Aloha Crater Lodge

We arranged for a tour of Volcano National Park with BikeVolcano.com, a company which offers several different bicycle tours of the park, although not every tour every day.  They require a minimum number of people signed up to do a tour, and one needs to sign up at least 48 hours in advance.  They also will ride rain or shine, since it rains often on this side of the island.  We were able to sign up for their shorter tour, although we really wanted the longer one.

Like any other national park, there is a nominal fee to enter.  We drove up to the visitors center, and had some time before our tour started to look at the exhibits and browse the gift shop.  Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park extends from the summit of Mauna Loa to the sea, with Kilauea being the active volcano.  Our bike tour company pulled up with their trailer to the parking lot.

Jaggar_sign_crop688

Photo obtained from national park service web site.

Naturally, the first order of business was for all the participants to sign a waver saying we wouldn’t hold them responsible if we fell into a volcano, or any other mishap.  We were driven up to the Jagger Museum, where we would see the giant caldera of Kilauea, which has its own name, the Halema’uma’u crater.  Thomas Jaggar was an M.I.T. geologist who started the study of volcanoes scientifically here in 1912, in response to the eruption of Mt. Etna in Italy in 1908, which claimed 125,000 lives.  The caldera is very wide, and has an enormous pool of lava churning in a central pit.  There is an impressive time-lapse video on the park website of the glow from Halema’uma’u as the sun sets, revealing the glow from the central lava lake.

vapors from Halema'uma'u

Vapors coming from the central pit of Halema’uma’u crater

At the Jaggar museum, overlooking the Kilauea caldera.

At the Jaggar museum, overlooking the Kilauea caldera.

Along the edge of the caldera is a hiking trail.  The tiny white dot in the photo is a sign warning hikers to not go off the trail.

Along the edge of the caldera is a hiking trail. The tiny white dot in the photo is a sign warning hikers to not go off the trail.

We had some time to peruse the exhibits on volcanology at the Jaggar Museum, learning about the difference between a shield type vs. a cone type of volcano, how volcano activity is monitored, how geologists collect lava samples (which can be tricky, and dangerous as we saw), and what makes up the airborne emissions from volcanoes  We were then directed to the parking lot and were assigned a bike.  The bikes were Sedona hybrid bikes, made by Giant.  They were adjustable to match our own frames, did not have toe clips, and were equipped with three front rings and seven gears in the rear.  They were set to the second ring in front, and their was a briefing from the tour guide regarding how to shift.  We would be riding on paths and roads around the park, and there were a few hills involved.  We got a chance to practice riding around in the parking lot before we set out.  Our guide was well equipped to give us our tour, as he was a graduate with a geology degree, and he had a special interest in volcanoes.  He also seemed to be very laid back, with long hair and a bright, easy-going demeanor.

Our guide in red, and fellow cyclists at one of the stops.

Our guide in red, and fellow cyclists at one of the stops.

We were taken by steam vents, down old roads partially destroyed by lava flows, and to other crater formations within the park.  One particularly interesting phenomenon is the lava tube.  These are long cave-like channels through the ground which are conduits for flowing lava.  They can be a few hundred yards long, or several miles.  They provide insulation for the flowing lava so it remains molten as it travels through the tube, eventually draining their contents out onto a lava field or into the ocean.  One of the most famous of these is the Thurston lava tube, named after the Honolulu newspaper owner who helped Jagger get his start studying volcanos, and who personally discovered this tube.

Looking into the Thurston Lava Tube.  Note the flat floor, from cooled lava, and the lava level marks on the side walls.

Looking into the Thurston Lava Tube. Note the flat floor, from cooled lava, and the lava level marks on the side walls.

We walked through a portion of this tube, about 100 yards, and exited up through a vent whole.   It is located within dense jungle growth, with steep crevices and sharp rocks all around.  We were told this tube goes on farther, but that section is closed to the public.  A side crater of Kilauea, Pu’u O’o, is the source of the lave we watched flow into the ocean, and it travels there through tubes like this one.

Typical of the ground around the lava tube, it is all crevices and rock with jungle-like overgrowth.

Typical of the ground around the lava tube, it is all crevices and rock with jungle-like overgrowth.

Discovering this lava tube originally would have taken some fearless exploration.  We also cycled to see a steam vent, where steam, not lava vapors, were coming up through a crevice in the ground.  Unlike the vapors from the lava, which contain all sorts of harmful airborne particles and gasses, this steam was just water vapor.  Interestingly, many people treated this crack in the earth like a fountain, and threw coins into it, I suppose, to curry favor with Pélé, the goddess of volcanoes, whose home is Kilauea.  It is considered tabu and a serious crime against Pélé to take anything such as volcanic rock away from Hawai’i.  A popular story told to us tourists is that the main post office in Hilo has a collection of rocks sent back by visitors who took them away, then suffered Pélé’s wrath.

We finished our tour on bikes looking at several other impressive craters, such as the “Ever-Smoking” Crater, with its numerous vents of smoke rising, and the Kilauea Iki crater, near the main caldera of Kilauea, where an eruption in 1959 reach heights of 580 meters (1900 feet) occurred.  A USGS film documenting the eruption was made, and is available in four parts on YouTube.

At a stop along the way, on our bike tour of the Hawaiian Volcano National Park

At a stop along the way, on our bike tour of the Hawaiian Volcano National Park

After finishing our bike tour, we headed back to the gift shop, naturally, where I picked up a refrigerator magnet showing lava flowing into the ocean, and a book on volcanoes, called “Volcano Watching, Revised 2010 Edition”.  It is short, but filled with well-written explanations about the science of volcanoes.  We then headed back to our car for the two hour drive back to Kona, along the southern perimeter of Hawai’i.  We stopped for lunch at a well known bakery and restaurant called Punalu’u Bake Shop.  It is known for its sweet breads, and for excellent sandwiches.  We also stopped along the road at an old cemetery, which had grave stones present from the late 1800’s forward.  The grave sites were notable for many above ground or partially buried stone containers of the caskets, presumably due to the difficulty of digging into rock.  Since there were a number of family members visiting relative’s graves here I did not take any photos.

Arriving back in Kona, we went to our hotel, for a bit of rest before our repeat trip to see the amazing dancing manta rays.  Sea Paradise, our manta ray tour company, has a guarantee (with asterisk) which states one gets a second opportunity for no extra charge if manta rays are not seen.  We were determined not to allow the letdown of the first trip discourage us.  Again, we headed back to the check-in office to sign the usual release forms, and to get our wet suits.  We then drove back to Keauhou Bay, waiting for the boat to load.  We had a beautiful sunset and also watched canoe racers practicing turns around a buoy.

Canoe racers practicing in Keauhou Bay.

Canoe racers practicing in Keauhou Bay.

The drill getting into the boat was the same as last time.  We had to take off our footwear and place them in a container before boarding the boat.  We had a different crew this time, but they were just as energetic and confident as the last crew.  The captain, a young handsome guy who appeared to really enjoy his job, was back at the helm.  As we motored out to the viewing area, we were treated to the now familiar talk on manta rays, what they eat, how they are attracted to the plankton, and how the plankton are drawn to the lights.  We were offered tea or juice on the way out, and masks and snorkels were handed out.  Once at the viewing area, we pulled on our wet suits and prepared for the dip into the ocean.  I was a bit concerned that this would be another hour spent breathing through a snorkel in the dark, with nothing to show for it.  We marched down the ladder into the ocean, Kathleen and I, along with about twenty five other people.  This time, I was stationed at the end of the long floating device with the attached lights, next to one of the crew at the very end who helped keep the float in the proper spot.  I started my vigil.  Yes, the plankton, true to their nature, were amassing under the light.  I could see some fish swimming around in the deeper water, and under them were large lava rocks.  Time was passing.  Not wanting to miss the first glimpse of the undersea marvels, I kept my head down, listening to my breathing sounds as my breath passed through the tube.  One becomes consciously aware of one’s breathing in this setting, and instead of it being automatic, one starts to think about it.  I found myself needing to actively initiate inhalation, then exhalation.  Still, the plankton swam about but no manta showed his or her wide wings.  The crew had moved the barge around to the front of the boat, perhaps hoping, as I sometimes do while fishing, that by changing location we’ll get lucky.  I started to look for ways to distract myself, since I was getting cold, and my right shoulder, injured the week before in a fall in San Diego, was starting to hurt.    I started to name the plankton.  There’s Susie, Fred and George, there goes Samantha and Robert, and look, it’s Kealea and Hunahuna, native Hawai’ian plankton.  I followed the path of my little friends as they swirled and scurried about.  I noticed people had left their posts at the barge, and had made their way back to the boat.  Apparently, I was one of the last to hold out hope of seeing a manta that night, along with Kathleen, who, no doubt, was also determined not to give up.  The two of us, though, came to the same conclusion, no mantas tonight.  We swam around to the stern, but as we swam we noticed, no, not mantas, but a huge school of needle fish which were swimming all around us right at the surface of the water.  They made the trip worthwhile.  They have iridescent colors, swim within inches of one’s face and arms, but never come in contact.  They were quite a marvel, and we stayed in the water a bit longer to enjoy them.  We then got back in the boat, stripped off our wetsuits, gave back our masks and snorkels, and sat down for the return to the dock.  The hot cocoa provided on the boat was very welcome, as I was shivering.  We were disappointed, but not overly so.  Again, you can’t command these creatures, you can only try to lure them, and I know our crew did the best they could for us.  After getting back to our car and changing back to clothes, we drove back to our hotel.

The following morning was our last in Hawai’i.  Unlike many trips, the flight out doesn’t leave until late, in our case, 10:00 PM.  So we still had a full day to enjoy just wandering around Kona, not needing to get anywhere.  Kathleen got her henna tattoo freshened up.  I went for a swim in the cove in front of our hotel, with a rented mask, which cost only $5 at the beach side equipment rental.  I saw myriad numbers of incredibly colored fish, with patterns one might think were made up by Dr. Seuss.  In the afternoon, we went looking for a bookstore, the Kona Bay Bookstore, which was difficult to find by walking, as it was tucked into a semi-industrial area, as we later found.  Instead, we found ourselves at the Kona Brewing Company, where they give tours of their brewery and a free beer tasting.  The last tour that day was at 3:00 PM, and they had two spots left.  We signed up.  The brewery, which was started as a very small operation by a father and son in 1995, has grown to major proportions.  The brewery in Kona now only produces kegs, no bottled beer, and distributes it only to the other Hawai’ian islands.  They also sell beer for growlers (two liter bottles one brings to get filled) at their brewery and there is a restaurant on premises, which looked very busy while we were there.  They have partnered with breweries in Oregon, Washington and New Hampshire to produce the beer in bottles sold in the U.S. mainland and other countries.  After our tour, our group sat around two large round tables in the restaurant.  Fortunately, the tables had umbrellas, since it was raining, although we hardly noticed.  We had a great afternoon, sampling five of their various brews including a coffee stout made with Kona coffee, and chatting with our other tour mates.

Across from our hotel, the start and finish of the Kona Ironman Triathlon Championships.

Across from our hotel, the start and finish of the Kona Ironman Triathlon Championships.

Hawai’i has attracted numerous famous visitors, from all over the world.  Mark Twain traveled as a correspondent to Hawai’i, known then as the Sandwich Islands to non-Hawai’ians, and recorded his thoughts in letters back to the mainland.  Herman Melville, Robert Louis Stevenson, Amelia Earhart, and I’m sure, many other famous people, in the era before modern airfare (not to dismiss Amelia Earhart’s accomplishments), traveled the long journey by steamship to visit the Hawai’ian Islands.  Today, it is still a long trip to get here, but definitely worth the effort.

We left Hawai’i that night, having had an incredible adventure and a lot of fun.  I would enjoy going back to do many of the things we didn’t get to do on this trip, such as see sea turtles, do some volcano hiking, and maybe, just maybe, see a manta ray.  I also might go for a few more runs on my return.  We found the local people of Hawai’i to be very friendly and helpful, and they take very seriously the ecology and care of their island.

Aloha Nō!

Hawai'ian sunset, Keauhou Bay.

Hawai’ian sunset, Keauhou Bay.

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