Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Alone But Not Lonely

In the last month or so, as I've told people about my plans for traveling, the most common question (by far) that I've received is, "who are you going with?" And the answer -- no one -- seems to throw people off.

Lots of us aren't terribly comfortable being alone. I'm no different. I prefer to be around people. I can be shy at first, but when I am comfortable with someone, it can be very hard to shut me up. I like laughing and joking around and just interacting. I'd rather do (most of) my workouts with training buddies. When I was working, I always made an effort to get out of the office with friends to get lunch or coffee, instead of slaving alone in front of the computer all day. And then there's social media-- let's just say, I like it.

But at the same time, as I've grown, I've gotten much more comfortable flying solo. When I first moved to Chicago, I lived on my own for the first time, and while it took some time getting used to, I started to love the independence and being able to do my own thing. Now, even when in a relationship, I like having my own space. I don't mind dining alone (which is not to say I don't prefer company), and I will even occasionally go to a bar by myself. If I strike up a conversation with someone else...great! If not, no worries.

But traveling mostly solo for a year is a whole different animal. And there are times that I really, really worry that after a little time on the road, I'm going to quit feeling alone (not necessarily a bad thing) and start feeling lonely (one of the worst feelings). By my thinking, if anything's going to derail my trip, it's going to be loneliness.

But on that front, I just passed my first test. Over the past two days, I've driven 20 hours in 5 states (Illinois, Wisconsin, Iowa, Nebraska, and finally, Colorado, where I'll be for the next couple weeks) Alone. Add to that 6 hours of riding in Madison, the majority of which was solo, and there's been a lot time for me to just be alone with my thoughts since Saturday. Who knew what could happen?

I've done long drives by myself before, and I know that if you're not in the right mental state at the get-go, they can be a little crazy making. I've had times when I started a trip a bit upset or worried about something in my life, and hours of driving later, I'd had plenty of time to obsess and get myself nice and worked up. Driving gives you no outs. When the loneliness hits, you can't just turn on the TV, or take a nap, or surf the net. There's music on the radio, but that only goes so far. It's just you, with your thoughts. And when those thoughts aren't good....it can be miserable.

But my 20 hours wasn't bad at all. I got bored, for sure. I did a little talking on the phone. I did a LOT of jamming along to the radio. I made a few stops. First, in Williamsburg, Iowa, where I stayed in a very quirky Best Western that was decorated as though it was actually the set of a Western movie....

And second, in Gothenburg, Nebraska, where I took an extra 20 minutes to drive into town and see a original post office from the Pony Express.

Whether it was worth the detour is a good question (the answer to which is 'no') but I'd never been to Nebraska before, and my rule is that I have to DO something in a state (other than just driving through) to check it off my list. This counts, and now I have no need to return to Nebraska, which has to be the most soul-crushingly boring state I've ever driven through.

This was Nebraska. It looked the same the WHOLE WAY

But most of all, I just drove. There were no deep thoughts, no major epiphanies. I didn't "find myself," but truth be told, I'm not really looking. I just observed, reacted, and moved forward until I was finally making my way up "the little dirt road on the left that has a little brown sign marking it" to Betsy and Jeff's house in Evergreen, CO, where I'll be staying for the next couple weeks.

This is the view from their front porch

The ease with which I got through this drive encourages me. I think I'm in a good mental state for this trip. Quite honestly, it's been a really long time since I felt this content in life. I'm not euphoric, I'm not even emotional, I'm just perfectly content. That bodes well for my travels. And frankly, it bodes well for my upcoming athletic endeavors.

So, for now, I'm not really afraid of the loneliness. I'll be perfectly fine. And in the short-term...there will be no opportunity for it. I met Betsy and Jeff's daughter, Clare, this morning. She's almost 2-and-a-half. As she was leaving this morning to go to daycare, she informed me (about 6 times) that as soon as she gets back, we are playing. This is not a debate. So now, I'm off to rest up for that.

Friday, July 27, 2012


This past week, I officially kicked off my round-the-world trip the way anyone would-- by riding my bike from small town to small town in Iowa during RAGBRAI.
I first heard about RAGBRAI a few years ago from Pam, a partner at my law firm. She'd just returned from the trip, having assembled a group of family and friends to ride with her across Iowa. I hadn't ridden a bike for more than 5 years, but I was intrigued by her RAGBRAI stories- she told me how this wasn't just a cycling tour, it was a rolling party. The small towns through which RAGBRAI passed went all out, serving up pork chops, pie, fried Snickers, basically any Iowa-type junk food you can imagine. And, of course, there was beer. Beer after the ride. Beer during the ride. Beer (or Bloody Mary's) before the ride.
Our team and our RVs
Fast forward three years, I was now doing some riding myself, and Pam, having recovered from a knee replacement (rock star) decided with her husband to revive their RAGBRAI team and have another go at it. I pretty much invited myself along, since I like biking, I like beer, and Pam and Randy (her husband) are one of the coolest and most fun couples I know (even if Pam is/was my boss.) There was also room for Anne, one of my tri buddies, who works in education and uses her summer breaks to fill up on adventure. So we committed (to the first three days of the ride, anyway, we've still got an Ironman to train for, and given how trashed my body still feels a few days later, it's a good thing we didn't try to do the whole week....triathlon training after that would have been seriously compromised.)
It takes someone with far more writing talent than I have to really do justice to the craziness that is RAGBRAI. It's a story better told with pictures, so I will tell it with pictures (some of which I stole from others-- thanks!)
But, first, anyone who knows me knows I tend to get myself into bad situations due to nothing more than my own dumbass-ery. And RAGBRAI is the type of event that is prime breeding ground for dumbass moves. To wit:
The $50 Bill Move

On Sunday night, in a beer garden in Cherokee, Iowa, I answered an age old question: What will Amanda do for $50? Answer: She will fish a $50 bill out of a port-o-potty. Yeah, I went there. Here's what happened: I had a $50 bill in the back pocket of my jeans skirt. It fell out of my pocket, and into the toilet. I thought about it for about 5 seconds, and then went in after it.

Now, before you judge, consider that there were multiple factors that went into my decision. For example:

  • The State of the Port-o-Potty: Cherokee was well-prepared for the thousands of cyclists that descended upon their small town, and had toilets a plenty. The port-o-pot was in quite good shape, really. My $50 bill was floating nicely right on the top of the blue liquid under the light of the moon, with no visible piles of anything gross around it.
  • The State of my Employment: As of six days ago, I no longer receive a pay check. So $50 means a little more now.
  • My Beer Consumption: Substantial. We'd been going for a while. That may have affected the decision making.
So yes, I fished a $50 bill out of a toilet. But I bathed both myself and the bill in ample quantities of hand sanitizer and then used that bill to buy more beer, to help me forget what I'd done.

The 8th Wonder of the World

On the first day of the ride, Anne and I rode our 55 miles, and rode them like total RAGBRAI rookies-- we started early, with our group, but we rolled through the mid-point towns (or stopped quickly), and got the ride done pretty early in the day. The real way to ride RAGBRAI, we learned, is to take advantage of the mid-point towns. The rest of the members of our group stopped for hours at the designated "meet-up" town, drinking beer and loving life. Because of that, we got the final town well before the RV arrived, and killed a couple hours in the mean time drinking 4 beers a piece in a small, "air-conditioned" local bar.

A few hours later, our camp was set up, and I decided to get in the 30 minute run that was on my training schedule. Never mind the beers, or this:

Doing this run at all was a dumbass move, but it was also remarkable because it was during this run that I found the 8th Wonder of the World: a stretch of highway in northwest Iowa, that, when run in an out-and-back fashion, is uphill BOTH WAYS. What a remarkable geological anomaly!
It was also during this run that I gained a fan. He was a guy on a bike, but likely not a RAGBRAI rider. He stopped me while I was running, and asked "is there a lake over that overpass?" I told him I was sorry, I'd just run a ways up the road and hadn't seen a lake but really wasn't sure. He was incredulous: "You know NOTHING about a lake?" Nope, nothing, sorry. He grew even more frustrated. "So you're just out here, running along a highway in 104 degree heat. And you know nothing about a lake. You're awesome."
Of course, he said it in a way that made it clear that he thought I was anything but awesome. I sort of agreed. And I finished my run (still uphill, of course) really kicking myself and feeling horrible about not having better knowledge of the lakes outside Cherokee, Iowa. Oh well.

The Extra Credit Ride
On Tuesday, the ride was supposed to be about 85 miles, with an optional loop that would (I thought) take it up to 100 miles. Dumbass Move #3- committing to the extra loop, and refusing to compromise.
This day ended up being brutal. It was still hotter than the surface of the sun, but we also had the added fun of an extremely strong headwind for, oh, probably 2/3 of the ride. Seth, Randy & Pam's nephew, and I made a good team, and we fought through the day, taking turns blocking the winds and jumping into pace lines whenever we could. The wind was so bad that I'd hammer it, riding at an effort level that had me basically foaming from the mouth, and look down at my computer and see we were going...a whopping 16 miles per hour. It was horrible, horrible, horrible. We should have just done the 85 miles and called it a day, but we were stubborn. And it was not fun.
We got so hot that we stopped to go down this slip 'n slide into a muddy river. Gross.
And, of course, I forgot to consult a map, and became extremely, extremely grumpy when we hit 100 miles...and there was no town in sight. We pulled over to the side of the road as soon as we hit triple digits, I threw a little temper tantrum, and then we spent some time commiserating about how we never wanted to ride bikes ever, ever again. The day ended up being 108 miles, and it just about killed us.
And now....the pictures.
The mass of people, in one of the towns along the way
You may think Iowa would be flat. It's not.
So, so confused. There was no stool in the bathroom, FYI.

Me and a guy who dressed like a banana the whole week

There were times when I was grumpy, and those times were before I'd had coffee. Or when I thought we were done with the century ride, but still had 8 miles to go.

The view for most of the ride (but usually more crowded, this was during the extra credit loop that took the ride to 108 miles)

When it's a hunded million degrees out, you bet we'll hang out in the air-conditioned bowling alley

The specificity of the name amused me. Can you imagine a scenario where someone would be like, "you're at Bonanza Wash North? No, no, no, you need to be at Bonanza Wash SOUTH. Major difference."

We ate dinner at places like this Mason Lodge, which had an $8 spaghetti dinner

One of multiple pork chops on a stick that I ate


Webster City put their tractors on display

After 242 riding miles in 3 days, I can't say I wasn't ready for a break, but RAGBRAI was an amazing experience. I'll be back for sure, hopefully for the whole week!


Saturday, July 21, 2012

Adventures in Moving

This week was moving week. In other words, this week was hell.

Last Saturday, six days before movers were to arrive and needed to clear out of my place, I arrived home from my race, surveyed the situation, and determined that there was absolutely no way I was going to be able to get everything packed up in six days. So I did what any responsible 32 year adult does when faced with an insurmountable task -- I called my mother, begged her to get on a plane to Chicago and come help me, and then took a nap. When I woke up, I went out for drinks. That's good, old-fashioned workmanship for ya.

I despise moving. Absolutely hate it. Which may explain why I found myself in such a desperate sitaution less than a week before moving day. This move was particularly daunting because of the organization it required....I essentially divided all of my belongings into five categories: 1) pack for trip; 2) pack for my six-weeks of pre-trip couch surfing/ Ironman training; 3) storage; 4) goodwill; 5) trash. I'm not real big on organization either. I really hated this week.

Fortunately you are never to old to rely on the help of mom, and my mother saved the day by dropping everything to come help me. She also helped out with the mid-week drive to and from Cleveland to drop my two cats off with my sister (and her dog) for the year. Yeah, I'm a cat lady. A really guilty-feeling, slightly traumatized cat lady, though, so let's talk about something else.

I don't have any particularly interesting anecdotes about moving this week, we've all been through it and we all know how stressful and exhausting it can be. But for anyone out there who may be contemplating a move and needs a gentle reminder of the perils that may befall you, here are a few lessons:

  • You may, in an effort to just get one room done, accidentally pack up all your silverware on Tuesday, and then, on Thursday, realize you've fallen to a new low when you eat an entire bowl of rice with your hands.
  • You'll probably, at some point, drop something heavy, like, say, a printer, on your foot, and have that momentary panic that you've just ruined your triathlon season.
  • You'll make so many runs to the Salvation Army drop-off that the volunteers start calling you by name.
  • If you have swim practices on your schedule, you'll start squeezing them in very late at night, and you'll realize that the midnight crowd at the 24 hour gym is very, very... special.
  • You'll sorta forget to eat real meals and will reach moments of insane hunger that lead you to make really bad nutritional decisions.... like snacking on gels because there's nothing else around, or eating caramel corn for "lunch."
  • It is possible to have a strong 17 mile run just a few hours after said "lunch" of caramel corn. It is not, however, suggested.
  • You'll suck it up and ask friends to do favors for you that seem completely unfair to ask-- like taking both of your bikes in to the bike store to get repaired before RAGBRAI while you drive to Cleveland.
  • Inevitably, something else in your life will go wrong (like, say, a bank, completely botching the replacement of a lost debit card, leaving you without the ability to obtain cash when you have movers already at your condo that need to be paid in cash), and you will respond in a completely uncharitable (read: bitchy) way.
  • If there's enough stress in your voice when you're speaking to customer service at a bank, they'll immediate escalate your call to the VIP division, even when you're not a VIP. There needs to be a lot of stress in your voice for this to happen.
  • You'll start to get by on 3 hours of sleep a night, and you'll ask yourself, "didn't I just quit a job to get away from this nonsense?"
So it was a fun week.

But now, I'm all packed up, with my stuff split between a storage facility and my car. And we're in a car on the way to RAGBRAI. So things are looking up!


Monday, July 16, 2012

Battle with the Triathlon Gods

On Friday the 13th, my six-month old laptop computer, having previously been declared completely dead by both me and the Apple store, mysteriously came back to life and is now working perfectly.

So what, right?  Who (except me) cares?

Here's what.  Good things aren't supposed to happen on Friday the 13th.  That's the day for bad luck.  It was also my last day of work (a topic for another blog post that I may or may not write).  Another good thing.  So on the universe's day for bad luck, I had two really good things going in my favor.  The universe was not happy.  And it let me know, with the assistance of the Triathlon Gods.

Later that afternoon, my friend Andrea and I had planned to travel to Hudson, IL for the Evergreen Lake International Triathlon.  This was a Saturday race, but neither of us could skip a full day of work, so we figured if we got out of town by 3:30 or 4:00, we'd get to the race site in time to check in and get in a quick workout before pitching a tent and calling it a night.  (I camped at this race last year and it was convenient and fun, and neither of us were taking this race super seriously, so we figured sleeping in a tent was OK).  I worked out a tight time schedule for the day that would get us out of town before rush hour started.

So at 2:00, per my carefully crafted schedule, I said my final goodbyes at work, and went to pick up my car, which was at the body shop getting some work done.  Long story short, when they pulled my car around, it sounded just like a Harley-Davidson.  When I dropped it off two days earlier, it had not sounded like a Harley-Davidson.  I looked incredulously at the mechanic, who got down on the ground, looked under the car, and muttered off a few choice words.  Not a good sign.  Apparently, while my car was parked overnight in the lot, thieves had come around and used a circular saw to remove and steal my catalytic converter.   This is, apparently, a thing that happens.

So off I went, just a little bit (or maybe a lot) peeved, to the rental car agency, where of course, the only vehicle they had that would fit two bikes in the back was an HHR.   Have you ever seen anyone, any single person, that drives an HHR that's not a rental?

Look at that hot ride! (and Andrea)
By the time I'd gotten my monstrous embarrassment of a rental car, driven home, and picked up Andrea, we were almost two hours behind schedule.  It was now the peak of rush hour and was raining, so traffic had slowed to a stand still, since apparently the lack of rain in Chicago this summer has resulted in Chicago drivers completely forgetting how to drive in the rain.  45 minutes into our trip, we'd moved approximately 3 miles down Western Avenue.  And just as we were finally pulling onto the highway, Andrea suddenly blanched, and said, "I think I forgot my helmet."  So back into town we went, back through the rush hour traffic, which wasn't moving any better the opposite direction.  Our "schedule" was doomed.  Happy Friday the 13th.

We finally arrived at the race site a little after 9:30 PM.   No time for a pre-race run or swim.  No time to scope out the course.  No time to relax.  Only time to pitch a tent and go to bed.  If you want true comedy, watch two city girls with relatively minimal camping experience try to pitch a rented REI tent in the dark.  We got it done, but I'm still not sure how.

Very early the next morning, Andrea and I both hustled around, trying to get everything ready for the race.  I was feeling pretty calm and chill.   But the Triathlon Gods weren't done with Andrea.  She found me in transition about an hour before the race, and looking more annoyed than anything else, said "I don't think I'm racing."   Somehow, she'd lost a skewer bolt for her front wheel.   Having torn the HHR apart, she couldn't find it anywhere.  Bike support was either lost or running late, and she couldn't find another skewer.  Happy Day-After-Friday the 13th.

But don't worry, the story has a happy ending.  She found a replacement bolt just in time.  But the feeling was ominous.  I can't speak for Andrea, but I can't say I didn't start the race wondering what else could go wrong. 

The Race
Evergreen is a small Olympic distance race, but there's a separate elite wave and they pay a decent amount of money to the first three finishers, so it attracts some pretty fast people including a few pros.  I raced in my age group last year but decided to step it up this year and race in the elite wave.  It's good mental training, and it's nice to start first and not have to swim around the earlier waves.  But honestly, after looking at the start list, my goal was to not be last.  Shoot for the stars!

The Swim
This race started with a swim, as triathlons tend to do.   And I completed the swim.  But apparently I missed the memo that the racing actually started with the swim.  I'm not sure what I was doing out there, but it was closer to a leisurely stroll around the lake than a hard effort.

Here's my list of excuses:  The water was warm, no, hot (84 degrees) and that made me a little sluggish.  I had a bad first few hundreds and the front pack quickly swam away from me, leaving me to go at it alone.  My swim cap fell off, and I swam with my hair loose for the last third of the race (the former pool swimmer in me shudders to think of the drag).   I couldn't spot the exit and zig-zagged all over the place.
Race pictures aren't in yet.  This isn't me, but it is a fairly accurate representation of how fast I was going.
But those are all excuses.  I just had a really bad swim, and was rewarded with a personal worst swim time.  By a lot.  Including those half-hearted triathlons I did without training in college.  I have a swimming background, so to come out of the water so far behind is new, but everyone has a bad day from time to time, and now I know I need to buckle down again with my swimming.  No more cutting my Lake Michigan swims short due to nothing more than boredom and seaweed annoyance (seriously, the seaweed is out of control this summer).

The Bike
After a clumsy transition, I set out on the bike, and immediately felt like crap.  Apparently, my legs decided not to show up to the race.  I could feel all the biking and running miles I'd put in in the last week, and three minutes in, I was ready to throw in the towel.

But, if you read my last race report, you know that my biggest struggle right now is not with anything to do with swimming, biking, or running, it's what's going on between my ears.  Since my mental meltdown in Lubbock, Texas,  I've given a lot of thought to the mental game, and I came armed with some new strategies.  I figured this experience (feeling pretty horrible this early in the race) was going to be a good mental test.

Someone smart reminded me this week that racing isn't all puppy dogs, ponies, and rainbows (or whatever other happy illusions make this list), negative thoughts will pop into your head, and to try to fight them only makes it worse.  Another someone smart wrote recently about a race she had where the bike was just not fun, and when the the negative thoughts started, she just accepted them ("yes, it sucks, it's a sucky sucky race and it sucks.  Get on with it") and then ended up throwing down the run of her life.

So, I tried it.   The negative thoughts popped up.  They always do.  Instead of trying to fight them, I accepted them.  In my mind, I was thinking "this hurts.  This is not fun.  I do not like this."  And instead of trying to think about happy things, I just responded (to myself, kinda weird, whatever), "Yep.  It's not fun.  It does hurt.  It sucks.  You can quit this sport forever after this race.  But for now, just get it done."  At some point, I puked a little.  On my hand.  Internal monologue:  "what the hell?  I just threw up on myself.  This is ridiculous.  After this race, it's over.  No more.  But for now, let's just keep on working.  Finish it up."

Of course, I didn't quit after the race.  But, I did have a pretty good bike, despite having a lonely stretch out there where I didn't see another person for 25 minutes.  It was prime territory for giving up, for slacking off.  But I didn't.  So maybe those mental games worked!

I got off the bike in 5th place, and as I was finishing my ride, I saw Kristin and Tami heading out together in 3rd and 4th.  They had a lot of time on me and are both good runners, so I had no illusions that I'd catch them.  But, I wanted to get out there, see if I could close the gap, and most importantly, have the kind of run that my training indicated that I was capable of.

The legs felt good from the get-go, and I settled into a just-below 7 minute/mile pace.  A few really fast guys blew by me, and then I found a friend.  I'll call him Mr. Congeniality.  See, this race was also a Midwest Collegiate race, and triathlon teams from the colleges in Illinois, Ohio, Indiana, Iowa, and Michigan all showed up.  I think Mr. Congeniality was on the University of Illinois team, but I'm not entirely sure.  We ran together for about 4 miles, but when I say "ran together," I mean I set the pace, and he stayed right on my heels.   So I never actually saw him.

Anyway, Mr. Congeniality was a good sport.  Every time we'd see another collegiate triathlete on the out-and-back, he'd give them a cheer.  "Go Dayton, looking good!"  "Alright, Illini... let's go!"  "Illinois State, you got this!!"  Between that, he chatted with me.  We reveled the downhills.  Commented on the heat.  We were buddies.

But one thing I noticed.... we passed a couple members of the Ohio State triathlon team, and he stayed silent.  No cheering.  I went to Ohio State, I grew up in Columbus, and I Bleed Scarlet and Gray, so I noticed.   But I wasn't surprised.  We Buckeyes are used to other Big Ten-ers not liking us.  It's the jealousy, since we win all the time and are pretty awesome.  I get it.

I didn't even know there was a triathlon club when I was at OSU, but I'll give them some love as a proud alum.

There was a turn-around at Mile 4, and shortly thereafter, a guy ran past me.  I was pretty sure it was Mr. Congeniality, having grown tired of sitting on my heels.  So he passed, and I said something like, "I guess this is the time when I should tell you I'm a Buckeye."  The guy turned, and gave me the most confused "WTF" look I've ever seen.   I tried to clarify, "yeah, you know, I went to Ohio State, I know you hate us, so I guess we're not buddies anymore."

Complete and total confusion. "Uh, yeah.  OK.  Ohio State.  Yeah."

And then I realized it was a completely different guy.  Mr. Congeniality had fallen way back, and I'm here talking college alumni trash in the middle of a race to some random other dude who passed me.  Who was not in the collegiate race.  I started thinking of it from his perspective....that must have been the most bizarre thing anyone has ever said to him as he passed in a race.  I bet he spent the last couple miles trying to figure out what the hell I was talking about.  It makes me laugh, a little.

As for my run, it ended the exact same way it started.   It was incredibly even.  I stayed the same pace throughout, right at 7 minute miles or a little below.  The course was a smidge long, so I claim this race as my fastest Olympic distance run pace ever.  It's still not where I want to be, but it's progress and that's what's important.  I didn't gain any spots but I closed that gap a little, and I made a friend, even if I couldn't pick him out of a lineup, so it was a successful day.  Fifth overall, six minutes faster than last year, horrible swim, good bike, great run, and I'll take it and get back to my training.

I waited for Andrea, who was in a later wave, and right after she finished (looking strong, of course), the rain started.  We ran to our campsite, took down our tent, and hightailed it out of Hudson.

And on the way back, our bad luck continued.

First, there was this.

That's the cop who gave me a speeding ticket on the way home. 
We tried to flirt out way out of the ticket, but we failed.  At that point, all we could do was laugh.

Second, I got home and realized I'd left my debit card in the Arby's we stopped at on the way back to Chicago.  Yeah, I know, we should never have been at Arby's, that's no way to get to race weight, but this summer I've been craving Roast Beef sandwiches and they're sorta healthy (when you don't smother them with Horsey Sauce which I may or may not do) so lay off me, I'm starving.

We wrote these occurrences off as revenge by the Triathlon Gods for actually having good races despite all Triathlon God efforts to prevent said outcome.  So hopefully we're even now, Triathlon Gods.  Right? That's it, right??

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Camp Naperville

If you’ve followed this blog or my facebook posts, you’ll know that I’ve always considered the starting point of my big adventure to be RAGBRAI, in Iowa.  All along, my goal for my trip has been to put myself outside of my comfort zone.  In fact, I wanted to make the URL for my blog something along those lines, but not shockingly, I didn’t come up with the idea and someone took it already. 

I was wrong though.  The first stop in my “outside the comfort zone” tour wasn’t Iowa, it was a Chicago suburb.  Naperville, to be precise. 

Ever since I finished college, I’ve been a city girl.  When I came to Chicago, I rented a condo on the 19th floor of a high-rise close to downtown, and congratulated myself on how “worldly” I’d become.   I kept a car but I rarely used it.  I walked to shops and ran in the shadows of skyscrapers.  I went to shows and concerts and kept my ear to the street, constantly in search of the coolest new bars and restaurants.     For lots of years, the extent of my interaction with the Chicago suburbs was an isolated trip or two to Ikea.  That seemed like enough. 

But when I started doing this triathlon stuff, I started to realize that for all its attributes, there are a few things the city lacks.  Namely, places to ride.  And places to run.  And hills.  And soft surfaces.   Yeah, we have the 18-mile Lakefront Path, which has an amazing view and is just so very Chicago, but as soon as the temperature rises above 50 degrees, that path becomes filled with tourists, roller bladers, people with their dogs on long leashes, marathon training groups that move 6-abreast, just-out-of-the-frat-house sand volleyball teams that don’t go anywhere unless they’re in a huge pack, Lance wannabes dressed in  full kits and weaving through the traffic at 25 mph while riding aero,  etc., etc., etc.    It’s not ridable, it’s dangerous, and it’s stressful.
From the Lakefront Path.  Pretty, but hard to enjoy when you're avoiding collisions.
So, for the past few summers, I’ve been trekking out to the suburbs with increasing frequency to get in my training.   And I’ve discovered that the suburbs are like a whole different, wonderful triathlon world!  They have nice roads that you can ride on for hours on end without (as much) fear of getting hit by a car or doored!  They have running trails, in real parks, that are soft-surfaced and with some actual change in elevation!   They have really good masters’ swimming programs and open-water swimming areas that force you to actually do some sighting instead of just swimming along a retention wall!  It’s amazing!

This summer’s been extra suburb-y for me, in part because I’ve found the most gracious of Naperville-ian hosts-  Liz, and her husband, Chris (and also Max, the almost-two-year-old, and Boss, the champion Chihuahua).  Liz very kindly allows me to tag along on her workouts from time to time, and it’s been tremendously helpful for me as an athlete.  She’s a machine, and in just trying to keep up, whether or not I’m successful, I’ve had some real breakthroughs.  A while back we did a long run, which started out comfortably enough.  But then, the pace just kept getting faster and faster and faster.  She was still chatting away, throwing out inspirational quotes, making suggestions about running form and strategy (“See that girl up there?  We’re going to pass her with authority.  Just like in a race.  No problem”).   I, on the other hand, couldn’t manage much more than a few grunts and one really pathetic-sounding “how much longer?” plea as we got closer to the end.  I mostly focused on not puking, trying to make my legs keep moving, and attempting to keep my internal monologue, which consisted of a string of swear words, actually internal.  Between the curse words, I just kept telling myself, “stay with her, don’t let her go.”  And then when we were (finally) done, I looked down at my watch and realized that the last 10K of our long run was faster than my existing 10K PR.  I can’t think of a much better confidence builder than that.     

Anyway, last week, with a mid-week holiday and a complete lack of work to do at “work,” I headed out to the ‘burbs to get in some good training.  Liz and Chris very graciously offered up their guest bedroom, and Camp Naperville was on.  Come Monday evening, I peaced-out of the city and headed west.    Workout One was at the Quarry, a strange sort of swimming hole/ open water/ beach area.  
The quarry

Liz’s masters’ team was doing an open water practice there, so I jumped in.   We swam around for a little, dodging teenagers, swimming under and through the lap lanes (the lifeguards were not happy), sprinting from lifeguard chair to ladder.   So far so good.  Next, the coach paired us up for some drafting work.   Liz and I are pretty close in speed so we became a duo.  We swam a few hundred yards, taking turns leading.  Then, the coach offered up the brilliant idea of partner swimming….where one person pulls, and the other person grabs their feet and gets dragged along. 

And I think at this point, Liz took a look at me, and realized Amanda’s Camp Naperville wasn’t such a good idea after all.   Yeah, I’ve got five inches and whole lot of pounds on her.  This partner-pulling thing was fun for me-- she’s pocket-sized and I hardly even noticed she was there—but not so much fun for her.  We made it work, though.  When it was Liz’s turn to pull, I just kicked my legs as hard as I could and she muscled her way through, and soon enough, we were done and headed home for the first of several delicious meals (they eat well out in the suburbs).          

After a comfortable night’s sleep with Boss the Chihuahua by my side (I’m told he likes all visitors, so I don’t feel too special about him selecting me as his bedmate), it was up and at ‘em.   And now, Max was in the picture. 

It was that morning, before we’d even gotten to any of the exercising, that I truly went outside of my comfort zone.  I’m not scared of the swimming, biking, or running…I know how to do those things.  Yeah, I may have to do them faster in Naperville, but I’ve got the basics down.   What scares me a little, however, is domesticity.  And kids.   See, I just don’t have that many of them in my life, and being in the city, I haven’t had to interact with children very much.  I’ve got a couple little cousins in other cities that I see on holidays, and some of my friends are starting to have babies, but my experience is limited. 

So I have this very strange, but very real fear when I meet a child that he or she won’t like me.  I start feeling a little insecure, like, what do I say? Do I talk in my normal voice?  How do I act?  Am I coming on too strong, here?  What if they think I’m annoying?  It’s like a first date, but weirder.  At least I (sorta) know how to act on first dates.    

** This kid insecurity all started, in case you’re wondering, with a little guy named Ethan.  I coached age group swimming when I was in college, and Ethan was the younger brother of one of our swimmers.  He was probably 3 or 4, and everyone loved him.  He had this cute little fist bump he’d give to anyone and everyone.  Except, of course, for me.  He steadfastly refused to give me a fist bump.   I’d even try to hide my face behind other people and just reach out my fist, so he wouldn’t know it was me.  No dice.  He’d pull back his fist as quick as he could and glare at me.  Every freaking time.  So I became paranoid.  Kids hate me.  My own kids are going to hate me.  I can never be a mother.  Because I’ll have kids who end up being total brats because they hate their mom so much. It’d be a disservice to society.  I wonder where Ethan is now, he’s probably 13 or 14.  I wonder if he’d still hate me if he saw me.

But back to Max.  I had no reason to worry about Max.  He’s about the happiest, cutest, friendliest kid I’ve ever encountered.  This wasn’t the first time I’d met him, and we’d gotten along pretty well in the past, but you never know what any day holds. That morning, he woke up with a smile, ready to conquer the world, starting with toaster waffles covered with “cheese” (coconut) and blueberries.  He smiled and laughed throughout his entire breakfast.  He’d take his sippy cup full of milk, chug it down like he’d never tasted milk before, then slam the cup triumphantly back down onto the table like a college kid participating in a Irish Car Bomb chugging contest, gasping like he’d just swam 25 meters under water.  I’d laugh because: 1) it was funny; and 2) it was completely inappropriate that watching this toddler consume milk reminded me of a drinking contest, and it amused me that my mind went in that direction.  Then Max would laugh because: 1) it was funny; and 2) I was laughing.  We were off to a great start. 
See?  Super cute and smile-y.  And he's got his own coffee (ca-ca) mug. 
After breakfast we played a little.  He showed me his toys (they are very cool), and then I showed him my toy.   My toy, of course, is an iPad.  I don’t know what I was thinking.  See, I don’t know the right things to do with kids.  Out of the comfort zone.  But Max loved him some Angry Birds, and you could see the electronics addiction forming very, very quickly.  When we left a little later to go out, there may have been a few tears shed about leaving the iPad behind.   It went into hiding shortly thereafter.   Whoops.

And just as I was starting to feel comfortable in the suburban, hang-with-the-kid mode, we took it up another notch.  We headed to the mall. 

The goal of the mall trip was to find an indoor place for Max to play, since it was getting up to triple digits outside.  I tagged along because: 1) malls contain stores, and I like to shop; 2) I was told there would be coffee; and 3) it seemed appropriate that since I was in the suburbs, I should go to a mall.   When we got there, first stop was, of course, for coffee (“ca-ca”, in Max-speak).  Second stop was the indoor playground.   It’s a fenced in area with a big, fake wooden tree with a big, fake wooden tree house, surrounded by big, climbable statues of forest-y sorts of animals. We entered the gate, Max kicked off his shoes and ran off to play with all the other kids, and I stood there with Liz and Liz’s mom.  The playground had benches, filled with moms and nannies and grandmas and some dads, too.   I suddenly felt really insecure.  I didn’t see any other city-dwellers-tagging-along-with-their-suburban-friends-to-the-mall.   Would we even know each other if we saw each other?   Can the others tell I don’t belong here? Where should I stand?  Do we just stand here and watch them play?  What do I do?  Others seem to be on their iPhones.  Should I get out my iPhone?  Crap, I didn’t even bring my iPhone.  Am I going to be the only adult in this playground without an iPhone?  I turned to Liz and said, “I have never felt more out of my element.”   I wasn’t even dressed right.  Where was my Lululemon, dammit?

Stick me in a board room, or a courtroom, or in a client meeting, or even in front of all my colleagues giving a presentation, and I’m comfortable.  I know what I’m doing.   But plop me down in a suburban mall in a fake little fenced-in forest, and I’m completely out of place. 

Eventually Max got tired of the tree and was accidentally tackled by another little kid, so we moved on to the train and the “Fun Bus” and the “Vet Rescue” van.  Oh, and I bought a handbag, because while I may not know how to act at the kids’ playground, I still know how to shop.  Overall, it was a very successful trip.

When we got back home, Max went down for a nap and Liz decided that twelve noon would be a great time for her to get in her run for the day.  Never mind the temperatures in the upper 90s/ low 100s.  She’s a little crazy like that.  I scoffed, and happily agreed to keep an ear out for Max and lounge on the couch, in the comfort of the A/C, while she ran.  I’ll run later, when it’s sane.

She got back 30 minutes later and burst my bubble.  She told me I should get out there now and do my run.  “Mental toughness training,” she said.  What I think she meant was, “revenge for the unfair partner swim matchup,” combined with “punishment for the Angry Birds addiction.”  So I got out there, and did it.  It was, in one word, miserable.   Enough said about that.

The rest of the time was filled with cycling on beautiful, low-traffic  roads.  Tuesday night we rode out to Fermilab, which is a huge government particle accelerator lab or something that is almost entirely closed to traffic.  To get there, we had a 20 minute ride or so through town.  Liz and Chris kept apologizing for the traffic and the stop lights.   But compared to what I’m used to riding in the city, it was nothing.   No cars buzzed me from a distance of six inches.   No one carelessly parked their car on the side of the road and without looking, opened the door right into my path.  No one swore at me.  The drivers were polite and cautious, and it amused me that Liz and Chris felt bad about the traffic.  Seriously, guys, this is heaven. 

That night, Chris and I sat outside trying to watch for fireworks (they were blocked by trees) while Liz watered her lawn and landscaping for at least two hours.  The girl’s competitive, we all knew that already, and when the Naperville subdivision announces that there’s a prize for the best looking yard, you better bet she’s got her eye on the prize.  I predict a Waterstraat best-looking-yard championship in the very near future.  Put your money down now, and remember, you heard it here first. 

The next morning, Liz headed out to do an impulsive 5K on the hottest 4th of July in the last century while I hung out with Chris and Max in the A/C.  At least this time, she didn’t come back and tell me that now it was my turn to go run a 5K.  Instead, Chris, Max and I rode bikes to the Caribou to meet her post-race.  Chris and Max had a cruiser bike/ Burley combo all rigged up already, and then among the 27 random bikes in the Waterstraat garage/ basement, we found a great neighborhood-cruising bike for me—a vintage 5-speed, brown Schwinn with a 8-inch diameter head light.    It was perfect.   And as I cruised along on that bike to the coffee shop (where we, gasp, left it unlocked and it was no problem at all), I couldn’t help but think that I’d already sort of started my trip.  I was experiencing a life completely different than my own.  It didn’t require foreign lands, foreign languages and airline tickets.  Just an hour-long drive.

I finished up my camp with another bike ride with Liz, out in St. Charles.  She’s already written an eloquent-as-ever blog about that ride, which I can’t really add to with any skill.  But to reiterate: the ride was really, really hot.  There were hills.  And llamas.  And it was really, really hot.
A llama, safely in the shade, wondering what these crazy cyclists were doing out there.
When we finished, Liz said the five most beautiful words ever to hit my ears:  “Let’s go to the waterpark.”  It was a fantastic idea and a fantastic afternoon floating in the lazy river.  And when we got back home, there was Max, smiley as ever, ready for some more playing, and Chris, who quickly whipped together some chicken and waffles (and bacon).  I couldn’t have felt more content.  Because let me tell you, there’s only one thing I  can think of that tops off a good ride in the country, a Sponge Bob popsicle, and an afternoon at the waterpark…. and that thing is homemade breakfast for dinner.   

After dinner, I bid adieu to my ever gracious hosts and declared an end to Camp Naperville.  I headed back to the city, to the traffic, to work, to my condo getting more and more full of boxes, feeling well-rested, content, and like I’d already started my vacation. 

That night, I went to a rooftop 4th of July party.  The City’s fireworks show, taking place southeast of us, was pretty lame.  So we all turned towards the west, where we saw not one, not two, but six suburban fireworks shows across the horizon.  I started chatting with a guy who’d just moved to Chicago.  He said, “where are we looking?  What’s out there?  Whose shows are those?”  I responded, with the confidence of someone who had just been there, “oh, those are the suburbs.  They’re magical places.  They have finished basements.  Streets with no cars.  Waterparks.  You can ride your bike to the coffee shop and park it out front, without a lock.”  He just looked at me, and said, “wow.”  It may have been a “this girl’s nuts with her suburban affection” wow, but I think it was more a “what a wonderful sounding world” wow.  And on that front, he was absolutely right.