Saturday, May 31, 2014

China Must Sees - Did they live up to the hype?

Our trip to China was through a tour company called Affordable Asia. As it was a guided tour, the itinerary was set and there wasn’t a lot of time to go off on our own to explore, which we were ok with since we had thought it would be hard to get around the country due to its size and language barriers. One thing we made sure of was that each city stop included the “must see” attraction on the itinerary. So, did these famous icons live up to their hype? 

The Great Wall - Beijing, China

Hype status: Exceeded expectations

The Great Wall was one of the main reasons we had for booking the trip in the first place. We imagined what it would be like to actually walk on this famous piece of history that we have seen in pictures and on TV so many times before. The drive from our Beijing hotel to the Badaling section of the Great Wall took well over an hour, and we sat  excitedly anticipating the highlight of our trip.

Turns out it did not disappoint! I didn’t appreciate how massive it actually was (over 4000 miles long) until standing on it myself. It was also much steeper than I had ever imagined, with some sections being almost straight up! We were only given 2 hours on the wall with the tour, but I honestly could have hiked it all day long as it was such a surreal feeling to finally be there. It was also a great workout!  

Great wall of China
Just as spectacular in person as in this picture!

Great wall of China
Way steeper than we originally thought!

Great wall of China

Great wall of China

Terracotta Warriors - Xian China

Hype Status: Met expectations

This is the other main tourist attraction in China that has years of history behind it. These statues date all the way back to the early 200’s BC! The army was created to be buried around the emperors tomb to help protect him in the after life. The guide told us that prior to this, they would just bury people alive to get the job done. Crazy! 

What’s even more interesting is that these treasures weren’t found until 1974, and that was by accident! They found close to 8000 warriors, but they were all in pieces, and archeologist have been putting them together ever since. They were even on site working on them while we visited! 

The wow factor in all this is that they were able to put so many back together, it’s like working on a never ending puzzle! The pictures we had seen prior to arriving really captured what the site is like, but it was still cool to see it in action. 
Terracotta warriors Xian
This is how the warriors are first discovered - in pieces
Terracotta warriors Xian
Archeologist hard at work to piece them back together

Terracotta warriors Xian
And meet the army!

Terracotta warriors Xian

Terracotta warriors Xian
Terracotta horses - part of the cavalry

The Bund and financial district - Shanghai China

Hype Status - Met expectations

We have all seen the famous skyline of Shanghai, known as the Bund, in pictures. Our tour included seeing this icon during the day, so we didn’t get as much of the Wow factor up front. It was still impressive to see all the skyscrapers and the pearl tower across the river that didn’t exist a mere 30 years ago. That’s a lot of progress! 

The real attraction is to see how these buildings are lit up with neon lights at night. While we didn’t end up having time to see the view from the famous Bund at night, we did take a metro directly to this area and go to the top of the Shanghai World financial center, which is their tallest building at 492m and 3rd tallest in the world. These titles will soon be removed once Shanghai finishes construction of their new building which will be 632m. It was a bit foggy when we went, but overall the area did not disappoint. 

The bund Shanghai
The Bund

The bund Shanghai

Pearl tower shanghai
Pearl tower view from the financial district

We were happy with our tour’s choices of attractions to include, as we felt they really did live up to the hype. What do you think of these famous icons?

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

China - know before you go

We just returned from a 9 day trip to China visiting Beijing, Xian, Shanghai, and Suzhou, While we had an amazing time, there are some things I wish we knew in advance that would have made travel there easier. So, I’m putting this list together for you to learn from our mistakes and avoid any of your own travel bloopers.

1. Airport security - If you’re a frequent traveler like us, you know the drill. Shoes off, laptop in security bin, liquids in the small ziplock back, and your good to go right? Wrong! We found the security in Chinese airports to actually be tougher than we experience at home. While we didn’t need to remove our shoes, they did scrutinize our electronics every single time. They wanted not just the camera in the bin but the individual lenses as well, and even the cords to every electronic device we were carrying. We also had trouble twice with our checked luggage. First we got flagged for our outlet converter, than for a magnet in Shanghai that they thought was a battery. Everything worked out ok in the end, but still wish we knew ahead of time.

TIPS: Bring a large ziplock bag to hold all your power cords. That way, you won’t be     
          fumbling around in your luggage at the security line to find them all. If you have a soft   
          camera bag, you are allowed to open it up in most cases to expose the camera and   
          lenses to avoid taking each one out individually. 

Keeping our power cords in one placed helped get us through security


2. The bathroom situation - We’ve all heard various rumors on the lack of Western style facilities throughout China. While I definitely saw more than my fair share of squatter toilets, there was usually always at least one Western toilet in each restroom, with the exception of 1 time in Xian airport. Hotels had facilities nicer than we have here in the USA. The one thing I didn’t account for was a lack of toilet paper in bathrooms! Some had none at all, while other’s had one roll near the paper towels when you first walk in.My advice is to carry some toilet paper with you at all times, better safe than sorry!

I came prepared to the Beijing airport! 

3. Diapers - or lack thereof! Like the toilet paper situation, there also seems to be a diaper shortage in the country. But fear not, China has a plan B - ass-less and crotchless pants! I had heard about this before we arrived but had thought it occurred in more rural areas of the country. Imagine my surprise when we walked passed a squatting baby right next to porta-potties at the bird’s nest in Beijing and later dodged a pee puddle forming from a little boy at the Temple of Heaven. Think twice before putting anything on the ground anywhere in China, and watch where you walk!

butt-less baby pants china
Photo courtesy of Brooke vs the world

4. The food - Now, this was something I knew before I came, but still worth mentioning here. The Chinese really dislike wasting food. So much so, that they will eat animal/fish parts that we wouldn’t even think twice about tossing... Picture fish heads, animal stomachs, balls, feet, etc... If it comes on the animal, it will show up on your plate! On top of this, if it is alive, they will cook it (in most cases)! Fried bugs are a thing in Chinese night markets, and I even indulged in one of these myself, which I will save for a later post! 

XIan night market food
What animal is this???

5 . Currency - Everyone knows the Chinese use the Yuan. But, what we didn’t realize was how common it is for vendors to give change in counterfeit currency. We were warned by our tour guide not to get 100 Yuan bills for this reason and to keep with small bills as much as possible. In fact, this caused a slight argument with the front desk as they exchanged our $200 US and claimed to only have 100 Yuan bills to give us. After some discussion, they agreed to give us 10 Yuan bills, and not realizing we agreed. Turns out a 10 Yuan bill equates to about $1.60 US, so we were basically walking with a wad of singles the whole time! Bette safe than sorry though, as a few people on our tour were given counterfeit 50 Yuan bills and were stuck with them. The moral of the story, use small bills, but I recommend 50’s and 20’s as 10’s were a bit too small!

Chinese Yuan
Different denominations of Chinese Yuan

Overall we had a great visit, and would have made things easier on ourselves if we knew some of the things we know now! Do you have any tips to add?

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Zombie Mud Run race recap

It's about time I write a race recap about our last obstacle race of 2013, the Zombie Mud Run in East Windsor NJ.  We had purchased a deal on Amazon local and paid $42 to be both a zombie and a runner after our zombie shift, which I was pretty excited about. We originally had a group of 6 people to do the event, all 6 of us being zombies and then 3 of us going on to run the race after. We bought some fake blood and zombie like makeup on clearance the day after Halloween for the zombie portion and were prepared to go all out. However, the day of event, 2 of the zombies couldn't attend, and with the weather being way colder than it should have, we scrapped the idea of fully zombifying ourselves and instead opted to dress as warmly as possible. It turns out we didn't need our own makeup a they had a transformation shed onsite where makeup artists zombified you for free!

Zombie mud run east windsor NJ
Sadly the only photo we have, don't we look scary??

The race actually takes place in the field of terror, which is a massive haunted corn field during Halloween time, and was now the perfect place to be chased by Zombies. We were given a belt with 3 red flags on it for the race portion, and then hopped into the back of a pick up truck to be driven to an area for our zombie shift. We ended up being towards the end of the course and were instructed to scare people but not try super hard to take away their flag if they only had one left. It was actually way harder to grab flags than you would think. Many times, people would slap your hand away or push you out of the way, forgetting that this is all for fun...

After a while, my focus turned from trying to grab flags to just trying to scare the crap out of people, and with us being stationed in a black tunnel and me wearing all black, this really worked out! An hour later, our zombie shift was over and it was time to strap on our flag belt (or our guts, whichever way you want to look at it) and run the race.

The race was untimed, with the goal being not to lose all your flags. The first obstacle we arrived at was a huge haystack, which we cleared with no issues. Then, after a little more running through a corn maze, we arrived at a big mud/barbed wire crawl. The 3 of us started to crawl though this and it was freezing cold, so a quarter of the way through, i just got out and started running again (cheating I know! but I was really starting to think I had frost bite!) A little ways past the mud, we came to the main draw of this event, the first set of zombies! Some of these guys were really hard to get around, and I already lost my first flag.

We then came to a tall wooden structure we had climb over, which was the only other really challenging obstacle of the day besides the zombies. After clearing this, we picked up the pace as another bunch of zombies were ahead, and of course I lost my second flag. Now with only one remaining flag, I moved it from the side of the belt to the front, hoping that would keep it safer. Then, we approached my absolute worst nightmare... A water slide! Now, on a regular hot day I would have been excited to see this steep slide into a large pool of water, but in my Under Armor cold gear attire in 30 degrees and possibly frostbitten, I was dreading this obstacle! The worst part was it appeared there was no way around it!

So, we all bit the bullet and slid into the water below. It was so cold outside that the water actually felt warm! Half in shock, we all climbed out and continued to run, now soaking wet. After about a minute, I started to freeze again, and we picked up the pace. We went through some of the haunted obstacles like a barn and a school bus, and managed to avoid the zombies. Just when I thought I was in the clear and would finish with one flag, we crossed a wooden bridge and a little zombie kid popped out from out of nowhere, snatched my last flag, and disappeared again!

The final finish was a crawl through another pool of mud, which we weren't excited about! Brian and our friend each had 1 flag left so they got "survivor" medals, while I got the "infected" medal since I lost all my flags. We then had to hose off the mud with cold hose water, and at that moment I thought I was the coldest I would be in my life (we hadn't done the NYC half yet at this time!)

zombie mud run finisher medals
Awesome finisher medals
We got our free beer, but I couldn't even finish it due to shaking from the cold. I just wanted to go change in the car and head back, so we left the festival. 

The cold was really a major deterrent to what was otherwise a fun event. The race organizers listened to feedback about the event being held too late in the year, and this year they are holding it on May 17th. Overall, I think this was a good time and worth doing, but other than the zombies chasing you, the obstacles are not difficult, so great for beginners. I recently saw a groupon for this, so if running from zombies sounds like fun, go buy the groupon and check it out!

Sunday, May 11, 2014

Hiking inside Kilauea volcano on the big island Hawaii

By: Janine

Since mountain biking down a volcano was so much fun, we decided to keep on the volcano theme and hike into the active volcano Kilauea on the Big Island in Hilo the very next day.

Side Note: I should mention that our Hawaii trip was done via a cruise on Norwegian's Pride of America the week after Thanksgiving 2013, and that is how we were able to visit 4 of the main islands - Oahu, Maui, the Big Island, and Kauai, in 9 days. Now, I know cruise ships get a bad rap due to stereotypes of less than active passengers and all you can eat food, but in this case, it really was the most affordable way to see all the islands in a short period of time. We were able to be active almost every day, squeezing in gym workouts, 2 volcano trips, a snorkeling zodiac boat trip, a helicopter ride, and a surfing lesson into those 9 days. We used the cruise as a means of transportation and were off the ship almost the entire time it was docked at the various islands. Any vacation is what you make of it, right? 

Getting back to the hike...The 4 mile loop hike was billed as moderate to challenging, and was expected to take 2-3 hours. We were with a guide for the hike, and we stopped at various points for photos and for explanations on the flora and fauna that was growing along the trail. The view from the trail looking into the volcano was spectacular! It was covered in dried black lava, and had the feeling like we were about to walk onto the moon. 

Kilauea volcano viewing point
Kilauea volcano overlook
Kilauea volcano in Hilo
It looked like we were about to walk on the moon!
Hiking Kilauea on the big island hawaii
Mid hike
Since the volcano is still active, there were still areas where steam was coming up from the ground. We spent some extra time at the bottom taking more pictures, and looking at some different colored lava rocks. There were even some plants growing out of the lava! Crazy! After everyone was satisfied with our pictures, we began climbing back up the trail on the other side and out of the volcano. This was the part that we had thought would be challenging, but the trail wasn't as steep as expected and I honestly wondered where this hike got its challenging rating from as we were out in no time! (Maybe it's all the running we have been doing that made it seem easy, haha)

Kilauea volcano steam vent
One of the steam vents inside the volcano
Kilauea lava rock
One of the more colorful lava rocks
plants inside Kilauea volcano
Plant growing in the middle of the volcano, no big deal...
The tour also included a 20 minute stop at Akaka falls after the hike. There was a paved trail surrounding the falls with more stairs than most people on the tour cared to climb after our hike. But, since we’re nuts, after we snapped a few pictures from the best viewing point, we decided to jog the rest of the trail, including all the stairs! We got back to the parking area way before the rest of the crowd, and the guide asked us if we had ran the trail, which led to a good conversation about local Hawaiian races and how the next time we make it back to Hawaii we need to make it a point to sign up for one. Destination races - yes please!

akaka falls big island hawaii
Akaka falls
If you should find yourself in Hawaii on the big island, I highly recommend doing the active tour that takes you inside the volcano. There were many non-active versions of this tour available where a big Greyhound size bus drives about 50 tourists right up to the crater rim and gives you about 10 minutes to fight your way through a massive crowd to take a picture of the view, before leaving, never experiencing the lava formations at the bottom. Don't do this! You haven't experienced Kilauea unless you go that extra distance and hike inside!

Thursday, May 8, 2014

TD 5 boro bike tour 2014

By: Janine

Yesterday we were fortunate enough to partake in the largest biking event in the USA, the TD NYC 5 Boro Bike Tour! Approximately 32,000 riders signed up for the rare chance to see NYC by biking 40 miles through the streets, without the threat of being hit by a cab in the process. The tour starts in Manhattan, then enters the Bronx, Queens, and Brooklyn, ending in Staten Island where a festival awaits.

TD 5 boro bike tour 2014
Race swage - Helmet cover, bib, and bike plate
I'll admit to being ill prepared for this event. While we run regularly and have biked many times before, we had only taken our mountain bikes out once this season and that ride was only 18 miles on a mostly deserted Henry Hudson trail. We have no experience with road cycles, and our only street biking has been a few laps around our suburban neighborhood on occasion. We knew it would be a challenge to complete all 40 miles on mountain bikes, but after talking to friends, we were assured that it was a relaxing day and easy to complete. A few friends even told us they bar hopped in the middle of the tour!

Our day started super early Sunday morning as we drove to the Staten Island Ferry. We had thought we were ahead of the game for our 9:15 tour start time, which was the last wave, but when we arrived at the ferry parking we soon realized everyone had the same idea.  We put on our tour swag and headed towards the ferry entrance, where we would wait in line about 40 minutes and get sniffed by a drug dog before the ferry finally departed at 8:40. Believe it or not, even having lived in NJ for my entire life, this was my very first ride on this ferry! The views of the Statue of Liberty from here were incredible, and best of all, the ferry is free!

TD 5 boro bike tour
The line for the ferry

TD 5 boro bike tour
Enjoying the ferry ride

TD 5 boro bike tour
Not the greatest pic, but the ferry provides great views of the Statue of Liberty
Our late ferry departure meant we arrived in NYC at 9:10, and now thousands of cyclists were all trying to make their way to the starting line. This led to a bottleneck right of the bat, and even though we were told to mount our bikes by tour volunteers, the stop and go made that impossible and most people opted to walk their bikes until the bottleneck cleared up. At about this time I decided to flip on the GoPro camera that Larissa of had lent to me so I could video the event.

After what felt like a half hour of walking the bike, and my legs all scraped from the pedals, we finally approached the starting line. It was very high energy and set us off to a great start. They had split the crowd into 2 starting shoots, breaking up the bottleneck, and getting us off to a decent starting speed.

For the next few miles, we road down 6th avenue, and there were street performer's and cheering spectators. We then entered Central Park, and the road became more crowded with cyclists. Central park is very hilly, but since it was still early in the ride our legs cooperated and we were rewarded with some speedy descents back down hill. 

We exited Central Park and moved into Harlem, which was another first for me as I had never been before, so I really enjoyed taking in all the sights. We made our way into the Bronx and over Madison Avenue and Third Avenue bridges. Some bike traffic accumulated here as there was an accident and we had to stop to allow the ambulance through, but the volunteers did a great job and we were moving again in no time. 

 By the time we got over the bridges I was starving, having not eaten the proper breakfast before the tour. We accidentally missed the first rest stop, so we tried to pick up the pace a bit as the next one wasn't until mile 16. 

Around this time the Go-pro went dead, so below is the first half of the tour consolidated all the Manhattan and Bronx footage into 1:20!

 Since we had a bit of a late start, we were diverted to the tour shortcut, which skipped Astoria park in Queens and went right towards the Queensboro bridge. When we realized this we were a bit disappointed that we were missing Astoria park as I also had never been there and we wanted to do the full tour, but it turned out to be a good thing as the hard part of the ride was still ahead and my legs were starting to get tired.

Biking up the Queensboro bridge was one of the harder parts of the tour, and my tired legs and empty stomach weren't having it. I ended up doing a ride/walk combo, walking the bike for a few minutes every time my quads were on fire from peddling uphill. 

TD 5 boro bike tour
On the Queensboro Bridge
Finally, we made it to the rest stop. It had just what I needed to fuel me for the miles ahead. I had a banana, a bagel, and was given a bag of pretzels and a box of raisins which I saved for later. There were also stations to refill our water bottles and they even had Gatorade as an option.

 Feeling refreshed, we headed back out into the tour and onto Brooklyn. Unfortunately, this is also the part of the tour where the wind really picked up and it became hard to pedal.  About a mile before the Brooklyn rest area, a lady passed me too close on my left, and without warning. She clipped the edge of my handlebar, turning my bike sharply to the left, making me lose my balance. I was able to jump off and grab my bike, just barely avoiding becoming one of the many crash victims we saw that day! Brian asked me if I needed a break, but I opted to continue on to the rest area at mile 27, where Chipotle awaited with free tacos! That was some good motivation!

TD 5 boro bike tour brooklyn
Beautiful view of NYC from the Brooklyn rest stop
Here is where the tour got really difficult as the wind picked up so rapidly it swayed my heavy mountain bike, and we were about to begin a mostly uphill ride to the Verranzo bridge. We crossed a starting line which was the point where the one mile steep uphill bridge ascent started. By this time my quads were on fire like I never experienced before, so I employed the bike/walk method again. Just when I was about to completely give up and walk the rest of the way up, I saw some motivation in the form of sidewalk chalk on the bridge "Sweating is what it feels like to be alive." That was just what I needed to peddle the rest of the way up that bridge!

We finally made it to mile 36 which was the festival in Staten Island! We only stayed for a few minutes, as we had to now bike the remaining 4 miles back to the ferry parking lot. We stopped to take a few pictures of the beautiful view, then crossed the 40 mile finish line where an ice pop awaited us, and went back to the car. There was no shortage of food at this event!

TD 5 boro bike tour festival
The festival - it was very crowded

TD 5 boro bike tour
Another great view of NYC from Staten Island
I was quite disappointed in my performance at this event. Even though I made it to the end of the tour, the last 10 or so miles for me in the wind were not easy and I took a few more breaks than I wanted to. I also felt defeated having to walk up portions of the bridges. This is more motivation to stick to my workout plans so this doesn't happen again! (Brian of course had no trouble completing the distance or the bridges)

Overall, I think the event was a great experience, and I highly recommend giving it a try, but I will admit it was quite dangerous at times. Having 32,000 people biking at various levels of skill and experience means you have to be extra aware of your surroundings while participating, and I would strongly suggest being experienced in cycling before signing up. In retrospect, riding a mountain bike on this 40 mile tour was not one of our smarter ideas, and being runner's and not bikers, we were perhaps part of the issue.  My advice for future bike tours would be to have waves based on the MPH you expect to ride, therefore keeping the faster cycler's at the front of the pack, similar to starting corrals in road races.

We have no plans on doing the bike tour next year as we want to focus on running, but never say never!

Saturday, May 3, 2014

Volcano biking down Haleakala Crater in Maui at sunrise

By: Janine

It was 2am. We scrambled to get dressed, grabbed our bag, and ran out the door... No, there wasn't a fire... We voluntarily woke up this early to see the sun rise over Haleakala Crater in Maui, then subsequently mountain bike 28 miles down the side of the volcano.

It was still pitch black outside, but the sky was completely covered in stars, shining brighter than we had ever seen before. Our tour was with a company called mountain riders( , and they had warned us to dress warm even though the high in Maui that day was expected to be 85, as it would be cold at the top of the crater.

They were right. As the van carrying about 15 of us drove up the windy road, a chill started to fill the air. When we began approaching the top, the guide started to warn us that we were nearing 10,000 feet elevation (the summit is 10,023 feet) and altitude sickness was possible. He recited the signs of the illness and told anyone experiencing any of these to come see him immediately. This was slightly unnerving , but luckily no one in the group felt ill.

Once we finally arrived at the top, we had a few minutes to dress in our additional layers and we were also provided with wind breaker pants and jacket. It was about 40 degrees up top, but with high winds and no sun, we were all feeling cold.

It was another hour before the sun started to rise. Our group had been one of the first to arrive to secure a great viewing spot , and it paid off. The crater was a spectacular sight , but there were some clouds in the way that blocked parts of the sunrise from being seen. What we did see was still beautiful, and our guides told us we had a good viewing as there were some days that clouds blocked the entire sunrise, leading to many a disappointment.

sun rising over Haleakala Crater in Maui
The sunrise looks beautiful, even through the clouds
Once the sun was fully risen, we piled back in the van and drove a little ways back down to start the main event, volcano biking!

Mountain riders provided us with helmets and mountain bikes specifically designed for the volcano we were about to speed down. The bikes were heavier than usual, and there were no gears to change, leaving nothing but the brakes on the handle bars. Many of the other members of the group looked nervous, but we were excited. We ride bike trails in our neighborhood regularly, but have never done a high speed downhill ride such as this before. The ride began on the shoulder of the windy road and cars sped past us more than a few times. There was one guide riding in front of the pack for us to follow, and there were 2 more people in the van following us, which essentially was our protection from the auto traffic behind us. The guide had given us instructions on different hand signals he would make in front of the pack that motioned us to move deeper into the shoulder, slow down, or stop. The road was a steep downhill and we basically had to ride the brakes the whole way down as to not go too fast around a turn and wipe out. 

The volcano was surprisingly more residential than we would have expected. Besides being entirely paved, there were houses and what appeared to be entire neighborhoods and farms that we passed along the way. Haleakala has been dormant for many years, last erupting in 1790, so there isn't a real threat of losing everything, but with the way Mother Nature operates, that could always change one day. We made a few stops for pictures along the way, and before we knew it, we had successfully made it to the bottom of the volcano and were now biking through the town below. We ended at a beautiful beach (what else would you expect from Maui?) which brought us to the conclusion of the tour. 

volcano biking views on Haleakala crater
Much of the view on the volcano looked like this

mountain bikes for volcano biking
The provided mountain bikes

volcano biking Haleakala crater
In town, after our 28 mile descent down the volcano

beach in Maui
This beach was waiting for us at the bottom of the volcano
If you ever find yourself in Maui with a day to spare, I highly recommend this activity! 
Check out the tour we did through Mountain Riders, which is $120pp if you buy in advance online, a deal compared with rates of other companies. 

Since it is all downhill, it is more of an adrenaline rush than a workout, but still an amazing experience.