A lot of happiness for $2

I’m currently in London for little reason other than I wanted Mexican food and pho. But as I generally do when I’m on the road, I bought a few postcards and have been writing them whenever I stop for a meal or coffee. See, I’ve learned that sending postcards is one of the highest returns on investment I can get. In London, depending on where I get the postcard (four for £1 in the newsagent, or one for £1.05 at the airport), it costs me about $2 to send a postcard back to the States. But as I’m writing the postcard, the recipient is at the forefront of my mind and, well, quoting Dickens from Christmas Carol

…and had remembered those he cared for at a distance, and had known that they delighted to remember him. 

And maybe that’s it. When I sit in a Starbucks or my favorite Vietnamese restaurant in Holborn, and write a postcard to somebody, that person is kinda sitting at the table with me. I imagine him or her finding the postcard in the mail – and let’s face it, that’s what you’re going to notice among the various bills and things – and stopping to look at the picture and read the few lines I wrote. So we make a connection – just separated in time.

I’m also touched – to the point of verklempt – when I see my postcards (or even pictures of them) magneted to refrigerators or tacked to bulletin boards. With electronic everything these days, the mailbox is often little more than junk – even the bills we used to get now arrive electronically. A postcard is a word from a different place, perhaps even from a different time, when that was how people communicated.

It is not my wont to give advice here, but if you’re on the road (or if you’re not), buy a postcard and a stamp; send it to somebody you care about. You’ll likely not make a better investment of money or time that day.

Happiness waiting to be delivered.

A smile waiting to be delivered

P.S. If you’re on the road, send a postcard to yourself at home. My friend and colleague Nicole Atkinson suggested that as a way of building a scrapbook of travel memories. It’s now the first card I send when I’m away.

Hills Schmills

I’d never done the Asheville Half Marathon, but decided to come back from the Isle of Man to do it with Lisa this time. I have to say I was nervous – Asheville’s hills are notorious runner-busters, but after training on the Isle of Man’s hills, I thought I shouldn’t give up more than maybe 30 seconds per mile.

For reasons known only to the race organizers (traffic?), the race started at 6:00 this morning. Here on the western edge of the eastern time zone, it doesn’t get properly light until about 7:30, so Lisa and I walked toward the race start (a 1.2 mile warm-up) in complete darkness. As we got out of our neighborhood and toward downtown, more racers began to appear out of the gloom – I found myself humming the “Woodstock” song.

We got to the race area and it was lit up like noon in the actual race start area. Looked like this:

Run 13.1 from hereThat number (5:44:27) is actually the “wall clock” time – essentially 5:45 in the blessed A.M. But at 6:00 A.M. on the dot, they turned loose the elite runners. We were in the back two corrals, but unlike the bigger races, there were just nine corrals, so we got started relatively soon. At 6:20, as part of group H, I trotted off into the dark. The weather was in the low 50′s and stayed there pretty much the whole race – a perfect running temperature.

First tune on the headphones: Rubberband Man.

How much more of this do he think we can stand?

We better be able to stand about 13.1 miles more of it.

We ran through some posh neighborhoods of northern Asheville in essentially complete darkness, with relatively gently rolling hills and the first 3-4 miles just flew by.

Before we began the descent to Merrimon Avenue, the sun was beginning to rise and we got a beautiful vista across the northern mountains. We dropped down and across Merrimon Avenue and I took the headphones off, pausing Skateaway so I could listen to the bagpipe player. He was in full kilt regalia (as you do), and his music was bouncing off the hills above him and serenading runners for a couple hundred meters in either direction.

Sign near Woodfin: “Of course it’s hard; if it were easy, it would be your mamma”

That was also the first truly gnarly climb of the run, but I made it up okay. Then we turned the corner, left the Asheville city limits and headed into Woodfin (Woodfin:Asheville :: Daly City:San Francisco, if Daly City were full of double wides). Crossing over I-26, I glanced to my left and whoa – what a view. It was a postcard quality view out over Mt. Pisgah and its surrounds, the exact colors that give the Blue Ridge Mountains its name. Two women were right next to me chatting away. I pulled off my headphones, leaving “Sing a Simple Song” running and said, “Ladies! Look left!” They glanced over and did the same double take. “OMG so beautiful!”

[I'm writing this post in an Asheville coffee shop while downtown Asheville grooves on a perfect Saturday afternoon. There's an electric guitarist accompanying himself on a Telecaster, via the magic of digital recording and playback. He just fired into a very sweet reading of Little Wing. And some random guy wearing a men's suit and a Rastafarian hat just walked up to his mic and started singing along. It's very Asheville, but I was enjoying the instrumental version, frankly.]

Along there in Woodfin, around Elkwood Road, I took a quick break to stretch my legs. Thinking of Tommy Angelo, I pulled the headphones off and just took in the sounds – runners, the highway, the view to the mountains, all of it. Tommy always tells me, “Take the damn headphones off, look around, listen, and tell us about that.” So Tommy, it was cool having the headphones off and just being in the moment; thank you.

From Woodfin we dropped down onto Riverside Drive and headed back toward Asheville. I think it was along in there that Galway Girl came on and I played that 2-3 times, just enjoying the music and the French Broad River running along beside us. Because after that, it was

The Hill.

250 vertical feet of Bad

I was aware of The Hill – it kinda stands out in the race profile and in runners’ minds. They passed out water and orange slices at the bottom – I took advantage of both, despite having eaten a Gu gel not too long prior. Anything that looked like it would help get me up the back side of the UNC Asheville campus, I was interested in it.

I honestly don’t remember what music was on, I don’t remember much of anything. Rather than my usual “run three minutes, walk one minute” pattern, I switched to maybe 2/2. Whatever – I just put my head down and sent my feet up. I really think this is one of the times when age provides a psychological edge (it certainly doesn’t provide a physical edge). There is a toughness that comes from being on the planet a while and you just think to yourself, “Sure, I’m tired and my legs want to cramp. But people I know push through far more than this on a daily basis. I am out here running for the sheer ‘joy’ of it, and could just decide to walk away any time I wish. Lotta people don’t have that option.” So you put one foot before the other and up you go.

Sign at top of Lookout: “Hills Schmills”

Finally, it was the top of the hill, looking down into UNC Asheville. I kinda hoped the school would turn out in force to cheer us on, but I guess most of them were still recovering from Friday night. Then it was onto Broadway, past the site of the mental institution in which Zelda Fitzgerald died in a fire, and on towards town. It made me tired to think about climbing Broadway all the way back up into town, but they zigged us through our neighborhood (Montford) which gave us a brief change of scenery, if nothing else.

Coming back into downtown and passing the 12-mile marker, I realized I was in good shape to break 2:30. I didn’t think I had a prayer of doing that on this course and that was quite a treat – it gave me a real kick in the pants. Something else gave me a kick in the pants. Right around 12.5 miles, Teardrop, by Massive Attack, came on. I wasn’t even sure why I put this on my “13.1″ playlist. But I must have known something, because as soon as it came on during a run, I knew why I’d added it:

Listen to that song, and you will hear my perfect running rhythm. It fits me so perfectly that I can half-close my eyes and simply become one with the beat. The runners around me become a blur of color that I follow for direction. Liz Fraser (the singer on this song) takes care of the rest. I took that song all the way back in, pulling off the headphones only to lock in on the drum corps that was kicking up a righteous groove as runners entered the final 0.1 mile corral.

I crossed the sensor at 2:28:25 by my GPS (the official race record would give me 2:28:20). Honestly, I’d never expected to beat 2:30 on this course, so I was delighted. Then I hung around to see Lisa into the finish line. She had hit some serious cramp problems around mile 10 and had to walk the rest of the way in. But she finished right around 3:00. Anybody who finishes the Asheville half-marathon (or dear god the full) has my respect. Even the winning runners commented on the hills. There were three wheelchair racers. In an interview afterwards, one of them (with arms like bulldozer pistons) said “I’ve done 50 marathons in 34 states; this might have been the toughest hills yet.” Yike.

But actually, I think I know what got my time under 2:30. Two wonderful friends of mine sent me the most awesome shoelaces ever. They’re teal with black musical notes on them. Laced onto my black Brooks shoes, they look like a million bucks and I am sure they bought me three minutes on the run.

Just a few meters to go

Don’t ever underestimate the value of good shoelace karma when you’re trying to get up a hill in Asheville.

 

The pink shirt

It was in Monte Carlo, at the end of a long European Poker Tour Grand Final. Lisa and I were leaving that afternoon so decided to actually do some “shopping” in the city. Now, envision the scene from Pretty Woman where Julia Roberts is walking down Rodeo Drive carrying almost more shopping bags than she can handle. Good, now completely erase that view from your mind, because that wasn’t me. I thought maybe I could afford one pair of pants and perhaps a shirt.

After a few false starts we found ourselves at the Hugo Boss store in the large “mall” in the center of town. I found a pair of jeans that I liked (they look nothing like any of the Wranglers I ever bought), but none of the shirts I tried on worked at all for me. The shop lady (in her 20′s?) brought over a beautiful linen shirt and said “Try this.” I said “No thank you.” You see, that shirt was pink. Not a subdued Miami Vice pink, but a fairly hot take-no-prisoners pink. I mean, the material was butter soft, obviously well made, but pink?

“I’m, um, 55 years old,” I reminded the shop gal. “You have to try on that shirt,” she said. “Oh go on and stop being a fuddy duddy” said Lisa. So I went in the dressing room. When I came out, the shop girl and Lisa both said that it was exactly the right shirt for me. But seriously – was I going to trust my wife and a woman who stood to make a healthy commission on the sale?

Luckily for me, there was a new judge in town. While I was in the dressing room (I guess), a couple had come in. He was trying on clothes, she was sitting in a chair immediately next to the dressing room providing advice and guidance. Both of them I would have said were in their mid-70′s, and looked, well, awesome. As if life had been not only good to them, but good to them in such a way that they never took it for granted. They certainly had money (they were shopping at the Hugo Boss store in Monte Carlo) but they carried it the way the best wealthy people do – in their inside pocket.

Of course, after Lisa and the shop lady had proffered their opinions, I wanted a different perspective. I turned to the woman in the chair, and said “Et vous, madame?” She turned to look up and I was mesmerized by her crystal blue eyes twinkling back at me – she must have been a stunner in her youth and she was still beautiful. She took  a moment to review the shirt, smiled at me and said,

“J’adore ça.”

Verily, I was never leaving the shop without that shirt. We chatted for a bit, me in my poor French and her extremely gracious about tolerating it. She said that she and her husband were both 80 and he had a shirt that color, so why shouldn’t I?

Eventually the purchases were paid for and put into their Hugo Boss bag (I didn’t even pay attention to the financial damage), I went to the lady, took both her hands in mine, and told her in (likely grammatically egregious) French that I would remember her every time I wore the shirt. She smiled and told me that I looked handsome in it.

The French do have exquisite taste, don't they?

The French do have exquisite taste, don’t they?

Until the European Poker Tour in Barcelona, Spain, which is going on right now, I hadn’t worn the shirt that much, but I’ve worn it twice during the trip – I have probably gotten more compliments on it than, well, all the shirts I’ve ever worn in my life, combined. Every compliment I get (and I do get a few from men) is a delight; it’s all I can do not to preen like a 16-year-old. But the fact of the matter is that the best compliment I’ll ever get for that shirt came the day I bought it, when that beautiful 80-year-old woman smiled at me with those cerulean eyes and said “J’adore ça.

In the woods

I suppose you start to take some things for granted when you live around them long enough. Living within a three-hour drive of Yosemite and then in the heart of the Blue Ridge Mountains, great seemingly unending expanses of forest seemed like one of those things.

Now move me to the Isle of Man, which has been settled for over three millenea. Anything vaguely resembling a tree has been cut down to make a ship mast or a building or firewood. I mean, though I like our verdant England, you only understand how much you miss the forest when it’s not there.

No trees as far as the eye can see

Which brings me to the “plantations”. Of course, to an American, the word promptly conjures up images of cotton fields in the pre-Civil War deep South. Here, they have grown stands of pine trees, creating small evergreen “fauxrests” (© me, 2013). Weirdly, they’ve planted the pine trees in neat orderly rows like good British soldiers, so you can see from one side of these things straight through to the other. I find it disconcerting (the whole point of a forest is that you should be able to lose yourself in it), but any port in a storm.

This looks promising

So it was a few days ago when I went for a power walk (thinking that a run with my stent in was not my best bet) and headed up into the nearby plantation. I’d had a long hard-ish day at work but then had a relaxing 30-minute peace and quiet time at home. I decided I needed to use that good energy and suited up and headed out into the unwontedly warm and sunny late afternoon.

And man, it felt good to be out in the woods. The songbirds, one of the more attractive features of the Manx countryside were killing it, shipping songs yonder, over, under, everywhere. Even the car sounds were relatively indistinct.

Hedgerow writ in pine trees

I power-walked down the paths, cutting through the forest or along the road. I leapt over branches and mud puddles, ultimately keeping up a 15-minute mile (4 mph) pace, which is a nice brisk walk. I went down hills, up them, and across them. I mean, was it like hiking Bent Creek? Of course not. But I cannot describe how good it felt to have a forest canopy over me and pine needle carpet under me.

I alternated between having the headphones on (“Free Falling”, “Rare Bird Alert”, and “Galway Girl”) and pausing the music (which I never do) to let the birdies provide the soundtrack. And somewhere in there, having gotten as deep as one physically could into the place, I realized that the key component of a forest is whether it provides sufficient habitat for faeries, sprites, and the other creatures that make such a place magical. I concluded it did, and that made me happy and content.

Wee folk habitat - that will suffice

Ultimately I racked up five miles, felt great, and headed on in, dripping in sweat and forest exercise-induced endorphins. There were mud splatters all over my shins and calves – it felt really good to see them there.

A random walk in the woods

 

Finally, I have to say that wandering around the little fauxrest, I just felt there was one thing missing that would have made the experience perfect. But as with anything that we need on the island, there’s always one go-to solution…

If you can't get it on Amazon...

 

Bonjour la France!

So, I’m working at the Monte Carlo EPT, which is great fun. I’m getting to do all kinds of television stuff, presentations, speeches, etc. It’s rewarding work and I’m proud to be part of it.

But the food situation is dire, in that there’s rarely enough time to eat right, and when you do get time to eat, it’s seaside French/Italian fare, meaning it’s fresh, delicious, often a bit rich, and way out of my normal eating range.

This morning, I had to go run. We set out to the west – deeper into France, along a pathway that hugged the Mediterranean. At first, it gently undulated, just enough climbs and drops to be interesting. This went on for about 1.5 miles of my planned two miles prior to turnaround. Then I went around the corner, and there they were:

Satanic Stairs

That’s right – it was the satanic stairs. An unspeakable series of narrow, twisty, steep stone steps, each set 20-30 steps, rising and falling before reaching la plage at the end of the trail.

I seriously considered turning around at that point, knowing I could complete the planned four miles by running past the hotel on return, into Monaco, and just count multi-$100M yachts as I trotted along the harbo(u)r. But then I heard Otis and Badblood warming up their air guitars and gargling Listerine to get their throats ready for their 80′s hair-band classic, “Lee couldn’t run his way out of a paper bag!!!” and the crowd favorite, “The closest Lee comes to stairs is playing Stairway to Heavennnnnn!

Muttering under my shallow breath, I went up and down the stairs. Reached the beach, ran across it, then turned around and did the damn things again. Taking everything account, my only (mild, unrealistic) concern hinged on the possibility that I’d slip and fall into the ocean. But there were nice strong cable railings throughout – I wasn’t in any danger, modulo a twisted ankle or just plain dropping of exhaustion.

Neither happened, I finished my run, and after a shower was ready to take on the EPT.

Cap D'ail - the Cape of Garlic