Monday, March 31, 2014

Spelunking in Iceland! and some recovery beers...

By: Janine

I am always on the hunt for great deals on vacation packages, so when Travelzoo advertised an Icelandair package that had the best prices I had seen to date, it was obvious we had to jump on the opportunity. The package included roundtrip airfare on Icelandair from Newark airport to Reykjavik, a choice of hotels to stay at for 3 nights in the city center (we chose hotel CenterKlopp) which also included free breakfast, a Northern Lights boat tour the first night, and a visit to the Blue Lagoon complete with a comfort package experience (included towel, robe, an algae or volcanic face mask, and 1 free drink at the bar in the Lagoon.) We scored all this for only $732 per person! 

Hotel Center Klopp Iceland
Our hotel Centerhotel Klopp. Great location in the city center
I texted a few friends about the deal and we ended up being a group of 7 for the trip. Last Thursday, vacation time had finally arrived and we boarded our 5 hour overnight flight to Reykjavik. We had decided before arriving that we wanted to do a short spelunking excursion with Arctic Adventures that Friday afternoon of our arrival. The tour was very pricey at $142 per person, but we paid the premium because the caves were only a short 30 minute drive outside the city center, and the whole excursion only took 3 hours. This was important because we were all running on only a few hours sleep from our overnight flight and didn’t want to be sitting in a bus all day.

What is spelunking you ask? At first, I thought this was just a fancy word for walking inside a cave. Boy was I wrong! It is actually crawling, sliding, rolling, or getting through the cave any way possible, due to small openings and jagged rocks everywhere. The tour came complete with helmets and headlamps for safety as well. 

Tip: If you decide on this winter excursion, be sure to wear good hiking or snow boots and dress warm and in layers (we wore thermals and ski clothes), as the jagged rocks do a number on your shoes and clothes and your clothes get a little wet and dirty from the ice.

 We knew we were in for a very physical activity when we saw the very tiny yet steep opening to the cave. We had to lay on our backs and slide into the cave as if on a sliding board, and the guide was waiting inside to stop us from crashing into the rocks below. I might have screamed a little as I was sliding the 10 feet or so down...

Spelunking Iceland
This was the opening to the cave. It really is this small in real life too...
Once Inside, we started following the guide as he showed us different rock and lava formations, some of which had frozen over and had made these amazing icicle formations. At a few different times throughout the tour, the cave narrowed and we had to crawl combat style on our elbows and knees through the caves. This was difficult because the rocks were sharp and digging into our knees; kneepads sounded like the best invention ever at that moment and I was bummed we hadn’t thought of it. It also didn’t help that we were all holding our cameras in one hand while trying to crawl, making it harder on ourselves. After our second crawl, I stood up too soon and cracked my head against the jagged rock on the cave ceiling. I thanked the universe for the helmet, as I didn’t feel a thing and without it I’m 100% sure we would have started off the trip in the hospital.

ice cave formations iceland
Ice formations in the cave

We reached a really dark spot inside the cave and the guide had us turn off our headlamps and sit in silence for a few moments. He then told us a few Icelandic folklore stories about zombies, which wasreally eerie to listen to in complete darkness. In earlier times in Iceland, the good people of the country didn’t know much about hypothermia. During their long and cold winters, people would suffer from hypothermia and go into a coma of sorts. Family members had thought they died and kept them in their farms while they were preparing for a burial. Since it was warmer inside the farms, the people would slowly warm up and regain consciousness, but since their family members had believed they were dead, they thought their awakening loved ones were now the undead, aka zombies, and proceeded to kill them by bludgeoning them to death with hammers and other blunt objects. Eventually medical knowledge progressed and this ceased to happen a few years later...
caving iceland
Your looking at lava covering in ice. This was all over the ceiling and floor, making it very slippery
caving iceland
Inside the cave
We took a lot of pictures even though this was a very fast paced excursion. At one point myself, Brian, and a friend of ours got a little behind while taking pictures. The group had moved on and were no where in sight. We came to a fork in the cave, and were lost. Unsure of which way to go, we called out to the group and heard nothing. After about a minute of indecision, we thought we saw a faint light in the narrow opening and went that way. We found the group! Relieved, we were careful to keep up the rest of the trip, as getting lost in a freezing cave on the first day of our trip would not have been cool...

caving iceland
The view on the walk back to the van wasn't all that bad either!
We exited the cave through a different opening than we entered into, and boarded the van to head back to the hotel. We had so much fun on the excursion, but were exhausted from our lack of sleep. What better way to wind down but to take a brewery tour in Reykjavik immediately after caving?

The tour was called Taste the Saga . The cost was $45 per person for a 2 hour tour, and included pickup and dropoff from our hotel to the brewery by Iceland excursions. This was unlike any brewery tour I have ever been on as it started out with us all sitting around a table in a room with a full bottle of Gull beer to drink each. After the gull, we were given cans of Boli and Polar Bear beers to share, which equated to almost a full can per person. While drinking our beers, we were told the history of alcohol and their prohibition in Iceland by a very animated lady, who was very entertaining. Our last drink was pitchers of beer to share (after the previous drinks, I don’t think anyone noticed what kind of beer it was) that were mixed with Brennivin, a type of Icelandic Schnapps also known as “Black Death,” and vodka.

brennivin aka black death
What the Icelander's call "Black Death" pictured from our before tour shot

Gull beer iceland
Beer 1 of the tour

boli beer iceland
Beer 2...

polar bear beer iceland
Beer 3

I guess they figured everyone was drunk at this point... Non alcoholic drink...

Now that everyone was good and drunkish, we were led to the actual tour part of the brewery tour. We were given hair nets, but didn’t actually get anywhere near where the beer was made. Instead, we looked down at the machines and the hops, yeast, barley, water, etc from a balcony whilst the guide explained the process. It became clear that the tour was more about drinking and entertainment than the actual brewery, but we were all ok with this. They gave us one last beer that had just been brewed fresh, and it tasted amazing. We went back to our seats for one last non alcoholic drink of malt extract and orange soda before it was time to board the buses and go back to the hotel.

If you have time on your trip, I definitely recommend Taste the Saga as beer is expensive in Iceland and they really give you your moneys worth at the tour. 

Coming soon... days 2 and 3 in Iceland - the Golden Circle and Ice Climbing on a Glacier

Friday, March 28, 2014

The NYC half - race recap from a beginner runner

By Janine:

I wasn't prepared for this race. I signed up for the race lotto thinking I wouldn't get picked, and when I was, I started training but was not consistent due to the Polar Vortex, short days, and me being a wuss.

On race day, the temperature was freezing with high winds. Brian and I wore our Under Armor, hats, gloves, and balaclava’s, and were still freezing. Quitting occurred to me before the race even started, but I had come all the way there and was determined to finish.

Our wave start time was 8:10. ( Brian was scheduled for the faster 7:45 wave but started in the 8:10 to avoid waiting around at the end.) He moved to the front of the line while the rest of us (myself, our friend, and her friend) started in corral 27.

The course started in Central Park for 6 very hilly miles, then went down 7th avenue through Times Square, turned onto the West Side Highway for a few miles, and ended on Water and Wall street.

NYC half 2014 course map
NYC half 2014 course map

Mile one- I cross the starting line and the adrenaline gets the best of me. I take off way faster than I should, realize this after about 3 minutes, slow down, and stick with our friends. 

Mile two - A runner announces we just made it up the first big hill. That was a hill??? Wow, maybe I do have this after all, i’m feeling great.

Mile three - We get into a bottleneck of sorts where the course zig zags. It forces our pace a little slower, and I’m ok with that as I know there is a long way to go.

Mile 4 - The three of us are still together and going up another hill. I am still feeling good and make it up the hill with ease.

Mile 5 - Another hill. Ok this is starting to get old. This one seems steeper than the others. I decide to grab a gatorade at the water station, and lose our friends. My face has finally thawed out and I take off my balaclava, but my hands are still frozen so gloves stay on.

Mile 6- starting to go downhill, and it’s the last mile in Central Park. I can’t wait to get out of the park, i’m over it. My legs are still feeling ok, and my Map My Run app announces that my shitty time isn’t as shitty as it usually is. I start to believe I might actually finish well.

Mile 7 - Times square. My adrenaline rush comes back. I see photographers and get excited. I grab a water at the water station and rush back onto the course. Map My Run announces I ran this mile in 9 minutes and change, and I think maybe I went too fast, so I slow a bit.

Mile 8 - I see the gatorade (or whatever brand they were) GU packs, after the water station. I grab one, struggle to open it. I am starting to get tired. I am in desperate need of water to wash down the GU.. Fail on my part. The app announces I ran 8 miles but I don’t see the 8 mile marker anywhere on the course. Oh crap, the app is wrong!

The real mile 8 - I turn onto the West Side Highway and am hit with a wall of wind that is probably capable of blowing me over. I start to freeze all over again. Almost a full half mile after my app announced 8 miles, I see the 8 mile marker on the course. Shit, my times are all off now. I have no idea how slow I am actually going, and I’m cold and tired. I might not make it...

Mile 9 - I see a water station in the distance. My hip is starting to tighten up, and my nose has now been running for 9 miles straight from the cold and is starting to get raw. I tell myself it’s ok to start walking through the water stations. I get a gatorade and a water, and take my time finishing it. Just keep going....

Mile 10 - The 2:30 minute mile pacer group passes me. It is a low point in the run. I feel like I can’t go any further, but I put one foot in front of the other at a painfully slow pace and keep moving. I start to wonder how far back I am and if I will even make the 3 hour cutoff, since my app is now completely useless.

Mile 11 - I take an extra long walk with my water after the water station. People that look out of shape start blowing by me. My morale is low, and I keep telling myself I just better finish under the cutoff and get that damn medal after all this.

Mile 12 - Ok, almost there, 1.1 more mile. You came this far, you can do this. Every step is painful. I am so tired I just want to walk the rest of the way, but convince myself to keep going some how. My pace is so slow it’s almost a walk anyway...

Mile 13 - ok, on the last mile! Who cares how much it hurts, you are almost finished! I pick up the pace slightly, then enter the tunnel. My app starts going crazy saying I went 15 miles. That really pisses me off. It’s dark in the tunnel and my attention temporarily goes from being tired to trying not to fall or run into anyone. The signs start changing to meters. 800, 400, 200.... Almost there.

Last .1 mile - OK, keep running, pick up the pace and finish strong. This is being recorded after all. I got this... Anyone can run .1 mile! 

I crossed the finish line! Phew. I turn off my useless app, and start looking for my medal, which is nowhere in sight. The time clock was started on the first wave, and I’m too tired to do the math to see if I made it on time. Then I see the medal station and feel a huge sigh of relief. I get my medal and a heat sheet, then see Brian. He tracked my time on the NYC half app and tells me my time is 2:29. Under 2:30!!! yay!!! I know this is still a terrible time but am happy for the extremely small victory of finishing under 2:30. I decide I’m not taking the medal off for the rest of the day. Brian tells me he finished in 2:01 , and I’m so proud of him.

NYC half 2014 finisher medal
NYC half 2014 finisher medal

We enter the recovery zone, and by this point I am so cold I can’t feel any fingers and am shaking uncontrollably. We use the foam roller for a while and get a call from our friend who is by the Staten Island Ferry terminal. We go inside and try to warm up, which isn’t working too well. We get our obligatory picture wearing our medals, then find a place to eat and have celebratory beers.

NYC Half
Frozen but proud to be finished

This race was definitely one of the hardest things I have ever done in my life. But, it was a learning experience. I now know how I should approach my training differently, and will wait until I am fully trained and at a much faster pace before signing up for my second half.

Friday, March 14, 2014

A Ridiculous Post - ROC 5k

The Ridiculous Obstacle Race is an untimed 5k fun run with obstacles similar to something you would see in the Wipe Out TV series or maybe on the old Nickelodeon. Being a sucker for any new obstacle races in the area, Brian, a friend of ours, and myself signed up for the October event in Brooklyn.

Unfortunately, the government shutdown botched the event’s plans and they were forced to change the date to a week later and move it from the Aviator Center, where these types of races are held on a regular basis, to the parking lot of the Aqueduct racetrack. The later date meant that it was a lot colder than we would have liked, and setting up in a parking lot surely effected the course set up and number of obstacles. There was supposed to be the usual post race party with vendors, beer, etc, but there were none to be found on race day.

The one major advantage to all this, however, was that many of the runners who had signed up originally couldn’t make the new date, so there weren’t that many people there and at times we had the course to ourselves to repeat obstacles as much as we liked. We were also allowed to show up to any start time we wanted due to the low attendance.

Being named the Ridiculous Obstacle Race, participants are encouraged to dress ridiculous and there were costume contests to judge just how ridiculous we looked. While we didn’t wear full blown costumes, Larissa from The Traveling Mortician and I did partake in looking ridiculous by wearing rainbow tutu’s. Brian chose to wear regular clothes...

Ridiculous obstacle race tutu
We took ridiculous to new levels with these tutu's

Our wave went off at 1:30pm and we ran for less than a quarter mile before arriving at the first obstacle, which were about 5 barricades to get over. We easily cleared these and continued on the course which oddly went up stairs into a building/convention area and exited into the top deck of the parking lot. We could tell this was not the intended set up of this course and wondered how much better it would be if they had it at the Aviator center. 

Ridiculous obstacle race brooklyn
Brian and I on the top of the parking deck, an odd addition to the course
On the parking deck, we came to one of the most anticipated obstacles of the course, the world’s largest moon bounce. We took our time bouncing across this as it was more fun than challenging. We then came to an inflatable rope climb which you had to slide down once you reached the top, which we quickly managed. Next up was the wooden wall climb, and there were walls of varying lengths. I went for the second highest wall while Brian easily scaled the highest wall.

Roc Race world's largest moon bounce
The worlds largest moon bounce lived up to the hype. A lot of fun!

Worlds largest moon bounce

After these 3 obstacles, it was back through the same convention area and down the stairs. There was also an elevator in the building in case you were already ready to quit. Once we were back on the ground, there was a stretch of running before we came to the monkey bars with an inflatable bottom that was filled with suds. We had a a lot of fun with this obstacle and Brian snapped a picture of me doing a pull-up on the last monkey bar. We hadn’t seen any race photographers up until this point so we were glad we had brought our waterproof camera to document the event ourselves.

Ridiculous obstacle race monkey bars
The start of the monkey bars, they had their own emcee

Ridiculous obstacle race monkey bars
The foam machine at the bottom added an interesting aspect to the obstacle

Ridiculous obstacle race monkey bars
Pull-up time!
After the monkey bars, we came to the main obstacle of the entire event, which was the wrecking ball. You had to walk across a spinning balance beam while a huge wrecking balls consistently heads in your direction threatening to throw you off into the water below. Brian went first and wiped out about halfway through, I followed in the same manner. Larissa went last and had a pretty bad wipeout right at the start, losing her sunglasses. We asked the volunteers if we could jump in and look for them and he briefly allowed Brian to do so, but he couldn’t find them and they asked us to move along as to not hold back the other racers and check back later.

We all took a second attempt at the obstacle. Brian wiped out more towards the end, and Larissa wiped out for a second time as well. I was able to cross without falling on my second attempt and was overly proud of myself. 

Ridiculous obstacle race wrecking ball
The infamous wrecking ball

Ridiculous obstacle race wrecking ball
Probably the best obstacle I have seen at a 5k to date
After this, obstacles were close together and there wasn’t much running to be had. There were many different inflatable slides, a slip and slide full of foam, a section with tires to traverse, a rope section to cross, and a tarzan swing. I epically failed at the Tarzan swing as I didn’t let go when I was supposed to and started heading back towards the platform. A volunteer helped me stop, whoops... 

Ridiculous obstacle race tarzan swing
Brian timed this picture perfectly to show my obstacle fail

Ridiculous obstacle race slide
The ascent to one of the slides. It was slippery and steeper than it looks

Ridiculous obstacle race slip-n-slide
After the foam slip-n-slide

We came to one final slide that had a volunteer spraying a hose on us as we climbed to the top. While the course was fun, we didn’t enjoy running around soaking wet in the cold October air. We slid down this last slide into the finish line to end the course. We then took some pictures by the bubble machine, covered in suds. 

Ridiculous obstacle race foam machine
They might have overdid the suds at the foam machine a bit

Since there was no after party, we changed and got ready to leave. We tried one last time to have the volunteer recover the missing sunglasses, but were told we would have to wait until they drained the water out of the obstacle and that we could contact them to mail them back to Larissa. As it turns out, she never received them. They told her they gave them to the lost and found at the Aqueduct, and the Aqueduct told her that after 48 hours they give any lost and found items to charity. She didn’t know they even had them until a week after the event, so we aren’t sure what really happened there.

We found this race to be a good time but the obstacles weren’t very challenging, so it is a good obstacle race for first timers. It also is the perfect set up to get race pictures as any spectators would have had access watch most of the obstacles. We would definitely run this again and are considering signing up this year if it comes back to the area!

A Colorful Run - Color-me-rad 5k

By Janine
After we did our first mud run in July, we were hooked on obstacle/theme races. The very next week, the Color Me Rad 5k was taking place at the Metlife stadium, so we signed up. This is a 5k where volunteers throw colored cornstarch at you as you run through the course.
Our wave time was early Sunday morning, at 9am. We arrived at the stadium wearing all white, our color me rad sunglasses given to us at packet pickup, and I wore color me rad socks I had purchased. They also gave out “Rad” tattoos, which I put on my bicep and later regretted because I had to scrub the skin off my arm in the shower after the event to get it off. (So if you do this race, think twice about the tattoo!)We had someone take our before pics and then walked to the starting line to find a mass crowd already lined up. 
Color Me Rad 5k before pic
Looking squeaky clean before the run
After asking a few people what their start time was, we realized that there was no enforcement of your registered start time and you could get in line any time you wanted to start. This was slightly irritating because had we known, we would have got in line earlier, but the line moved pretty fast and before we knew it we were running.
They had a DJ playing music that could be heard throughout the course, so we didn’t need our own headphones. There are color stations at every kilometer, and the volunteers were tossing the powder on people as they passed by. I always made sure to slow down or even stop for a few seconds at the stations to try and get as much color on me as possible. Sadly, most of the powder did not stick. At the next kilometer, the color was being shot out of some sort of color hose gun. They mixed it with water and it stuck well, but only made a few small lines in our shirts.
We then came up to a water station, where it occurred to us that wetting our clothes would help the cornstarch stick better. From there we were covered in green, blue, and purple. At the finish line, they handed us each our own packet of corn starch to throw. We used it on each other to complete our look for our after pics. We were covered in color from head to toe, and it even got in my teeth…
Color me rad after pic
Amid the colorful crowd with pink teeth
The after party was full of energy and had water, granola bars, and tons of free samples. They had a picture area with different colored backdrops to get your photo in case the photographers on the course missed you. We did a jumping pic, and I later purchased it on the website for only $5.
color me rad jumping pic
Rad Jumping Pic

Color me rad pic
Notice my bicep tattoo...
The Color Me Rad is what I would describe as a 5k for beginners. While we were beginner’s ourselves, we had a few months of running a 5k distance under our belts and at this point we knew we would easily complete the distance running. It seemed most of the people that signed up had planned to walk most or all of the distance, and we spent a lot of time trying to run around large groups of walkers. If you are just starting to get back into shape, sign up for this event! It is untimed so there is no pressure to make a personal best or to even run the whole time. And, most importantly, it was a lot of fun. People came in all sorts of costumes and tutus, and were all ages, shapes and sizes. There were even a few kids at the event, and it was stroller friendly. So, get off that couch and get running!

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Auschwitz - dark tourism in Poland

While on our eurotrip, we added Poland to our list of countries specifically to see Auschwitz. After a mix up with our hotel (they said there was an issue with the hotel water and transferred us to a different hotel, not something you feel like dealing with after traveling all day), we settled in the first night and booked a tour through the new hotel for first thing the next morning.

After our eventful night, we were happy to see our Auschwitz tour bus arrive on time. It wasn’t very far from the hotel to our first stop, Auschwitz I – main camp. Our guide took us through the visitor’s center to the main entrance of the camps. We were immediately greeted with the famous sign “Arbeit Macht Frei,” which translates to “Work will set you free,” which is ironic since the most of the Jews were made to work themselves to death.
Auschwitz - Arbeit Macht Frei
The entrance to the main camp
 We were then led to all the main areas of the camp, receiving an explanation from our guide at each stop describing what we were looking at. It was one of the saddest tours I have ever been on. While we both had learned about Auschwitz in school, read about it, and watch movies on the subject, being there in person made the whole event so much more real to us. Others on the tour cried at some of the stops and there were times I almost teared up myself. The only relief from the sadness was that our guide would end every description he gave us with a whispered “at Auschwitzzz” enunciating in an unintended comical way.

I won’t write too much about this tour as the pictures will more than speak for themselves.
Auschwitz barracks
Concentration camp Prisoner Barracks
Auschwitz concentration camp
Concentration camp

Auschwitz gas cans for gas chamber
Gas cans used in the gas chamber, contained cyclone B

Auschwitz prisoner personal items
Prisoner personal items

Auschwitz prisoner shoes
Prisoner shoes

Auschwitz prisoner personal items
More Personal items

Auschwitz prisoner sleeping quarters
Prisoner sleeping quarters

Auschwitz standing cells
Standing cells - prisoners were made to stand for hours to days at a time

Auschwitz shooting ground
They shot those that weren't killed in the gas chambers

Auschwitz barrack bathroom
Inhumane barrack bathroom

Auschwitz Crematorium
The Crematorium

Auschwitz Crematorium

After seeing most of the main camp, the tour took us to Auschwitz II- Birkenau, the prisoner barracks, unloading platform complete with a reconstructed train car, and the ruins of both the gas chamber and the crematoria. This was eerily sad; even more so than the main cguide briefly showed us around explaining a few buildings and then gave us some free time to finish exploring and take pictures on our own.
Auschwitz train car
Train car that brought the prisoner's to camp

Auschwitz railroad

Auschwitz II prisoner barrack
Auschwitz II prisoner barrack

It was a depressing day and when we arrived back at Krakow we decided we would get dinner, go to bed early, and spend the whole next day walking the city. 
Since we had pizza our first night in Krakow, the obvious choice for our next dinner was perogis. The waiter brought out bread that came with what I thought was strange looking butter. When the perogis arrived, they were also covered in this. I tried a small amount of it on the bread and couldn’t place the taste. We did eat the perogis though, and thought they were good. We later found out this strange substance was pork lard! Apparently it is much cheaper than butter and the Polish cook all their food in it! Luckily, we found out right before we left Poland or else I’m not sure I would have been able to eat it!

Krakow perogis
Delicious perogis

Pork lard
It looks harmless, but it is actually pork lard. Can you say clogged artery?

Poland was an interesting country and definitely pushed us out of our comfort zone at that time. Even with all the issues we encountered, we enjoyed our trip and would go back.