Thursday, October 27, 2011

A trip to the Afghan Souk

One of the new teachers at school, a woman who - with her family - came from Denver actually, asked if I could organize a trip to the Afghan souk because she had read about it on our blog last year. So a few weeks ago a group of people from school traveled by bus to the Afghan souk in Jeddah. Because of traffic on a Thursday night (like a Saturday night in the West), it took nearly two hours to get to the actual area in Jeddah. The Afghan souk is really a series of shops on a narrow street in an Afghani region of the city. The one way street is always jammed with cars trying to get to someplace else; in addition, there are cars parked helter-skelter on either side of the street - some angle-in front parking and others attempting some form of parallel parking. The "sidewalks" that line the street and are in front of the shops vary in dramatically in height and stability, so 15 women in abayas but no head scarves stepping up and down these sidewalks and swerving into the road when necessary makes for quite a sight, I suppose. The little side streets are mostly dirt, strewn with garbage and roaming mangey cats. At the start of the street was a fruit and vegetable market, set up in carts and temporary tables; the ground was covered with dried fish remains, which we all stepped in on our way back onto the bus at the end of the evening, prompting the driver to ask if anyone had perfume. In this area, we have found two amazing Afghan shops. The first, with just carpets, has doubled in size since I was there two years ago, and is well-lit and comfortable. The Afghan men who run the shop welcomed us into their shop, immediately started helping us with carpets, and offered us sweet tea. These knowledgeable men can swiftly toss carpet after carpet from a 50-carpet stack, describing each and watching for the interest from the customer. They had silk Persian carpets, Islamic prayer carpets, wool carpets, and blended carpets - all handmade, of course. They could describe why one carpet might be more expensive than another by showing us the small knots per inch on the back of the carpet. Nearly everyone in our group enjoyed sweet tea and purchased at least one carpet.

The other shop, the one I have written about before, has an entire front room dedicated to carpets and then several back rooms filled with antique furniture, and some newer renditions, mirrors, carpet-covered ottomans, and random food-serving items from India, Pakistan, and Afghanistan. I found an old Indian cherry wood coffee table that I liked. It looks like a intricate small old door set down into a door frame, laid flat, and attached to four legs. A sheet of glass sits above the actual wood table top and is set into the frame. I negotiated the price with one of the owners, and then asked if they could clean the table and get the glass for me. "No problem," they insisted. Next I asked if they could deliver it to me on our campus about 70 kilometers from Jeddah. "No problem," they said. I gave them a card which gave our location in Arabic, their eyebrows went up, and suddenly I realized that it might be a problem. Another man who seemed to be 'in charge' came over and they discussed my situation for a long time. Finally, he turned to me and said, "No problem. But you will have to pay 200 SARs ($56) for the delivery." I said that was fine. On the card with our campus address, I wrote my first name and my cell number. I asked what I should pay him at the time, and he waved his hand, saying, "No problem." I left the store. I was not sure if I would ever see the table, but I hadn't paid any money, so I was not too worried.

art on the coffee table

Three days later, I received cell phone calls while I was in my classroom. I
could not understand the person on the other end of the phone, so I gave my phone to my student, Abdulrahman, and he translated back and forth for me. It turns out that it was one of the Afghan men from the shop, waiting at the gate, with my table! I borrowed a friend's car, drove out to the first gate, apologized for not having an abaya, and went to the visitor center parking lot. There was a small truck with my table. The man lifted the table into the back of my friend's car, refusing any help from me, accepted the payment for the table plus the delivery, and left.

Later our friend delivered the table to our neighbors' garage, since we were not at home, and we reclaimed it finally that evening. It is now one of the main places that Hayden works on homework and Logan works on his many art projects. It reminds me that a person's word can mean so much, a commitment to sell and buy, and to follow through on an agreement. No receipts or papers or agreements in writing were ever considered.

Thanks for reading, Jennifer

Friday, October 14, 2011

A traveling suitcase

Dear all,
As David has written about his race, his training, and his reflections on returning to the Ironman after twenty-five years, I will write about the more mundane details of our lives. David successfully flew from Kona to L.A. to JFK and on to Jeddah, arriving on time, meeting the KAUST taxi driver holding a sign with his name, and happily making it home. We were all excited; Hayden was making dinner, and Logan was making a welcome home sign. After hugs David was telling us about the medal he won and some other things he had gotten, and he said, "Oh, maybe I should just go ahead and open my suitcase. I know I have some laundry." (An understatement, to be sure.)

He put the suitcase on the floor and commented on the fact that the handle on our new suitcase was already broken. He unzipped the bag and looked uncomprehendingly at little boy clothes with Spiderman on them. We all stared, afraid to accept that this was not David's suitcase, though it was identical to ours. A bit of a panic. What to do? I tried to get a ride with a friend back to the Jeddah airport, but he had too many other errands, so I arranged a taxi - though it could not go until 2:30 am. Finally, after a meal, David realized that we should both go, return the suitcase, and look for his. We borrowed our neighbors' car and drove back 70 km to Jeddah's Saudi terminal. An hour later and with a lot of help from several men who worked for Saudia Airlines, we had returned a suitcase which was not ours (but which was wanted by a young Spiderboy) and understood that David's suitcase had been tagged with the name of another traveler and had been sent to Brussels! We supplied all the information we could, were given a file number and a phone number, and headed home.

the traveling suitcase
We tried to call American Airlines because the agent in Kona was the one who had mistakenly tagged the bag incorrectly, and the bag had never left the control of that airline, though Saudia was now helping us. We got a clarification that Saudia had submitted correct documentation and was searching for the bag. The phone number, however, had not yet had anyone answer. Sigh. David sent an email to the baggage claim department for American Airlines in the Brussels airport. Did you know such an email existed? A few hours later, he received confirmation that a bag with the correct baggage claim number had been re-routed to Frankfurt and then on to Jeddah. I again called the ghostly number with never an answerer - and received an answer. Yes, his suitcase was in Jeddah at the North Terminal. Wow!

David and Hayden again borrowed a car and went to the Jeddah airport once more, hoping that the baggage claim ticket David had was actually for HIS bag and not someone else's bag. It was correct. The right suitcase was returned to him, and they have just returned home. Truly, despite it all, don't we have so very much to be grateful for?

Thanks for reading, Jennifer

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Kona, Hawaii, Ironman 2011

Everyone competing in Kona has a story, often an amazing one. For some, the road to Kona is paved with personal struggles - the bilateral amputee, the cancer survivor. For others, competing in Kona is the culmination of athletic achievement, the holy grail destination in a very personal endurance sport journey. One person I spoke with had been trying to qualify for Kona for a decade and had finally, thankfully, made it in just a few months ago. Of the nearly 2,000 competitors, almost half were Kona rookies, most were quite young, and all were ambitious.

Having competed at the Hawaii Ironman three times in the mid-'80s, this has been a week of reflection on what was and what is Kona for triathletes. Inevitably, the sport and the resulting race times have changed. While there is no getting around swimming, biking, and running 140.6 miles in a day, the fact that so many are now doing Ironman, and doing it so well, points to the rapidly evolving maturity and popularity of this iteration of endurance athletics. The top athletes of the race's first decade at Kona - Dave Scott and Mark Allen - would, I think, more than hold their own against the top guys today (especially if they could ride the same bikes!). The sheer numbers now participating in the sport have meant more depth and competition, and not just at the pro level but at the age-group levels as well, which brings me to the 50 - 54 male age group. As we inevitably learn, there are physical limits that accompany growing older. What I learned yesterday is that there are an impressive number of guys who are flirting with, and arguably regularly redefining, those limits. Where before there may have been one guy in his early 50's transcending age, today there is a plurality and, well, this makes for a much more interesting race!

crossing the finish line
Going into the race I knew a few things. For one, all triathletes know that times established at qualifier races rarely translate as easily in Kona. For every athlete who establishes a personal best here, there are probably a dozen for whom it's a long, long day. Additionally, Darwinism is alive and well at Kona. While an athlete may have "easily" qualified at one of the more than two dozen races around the globe, there is nothing easy about racing at Kona, even if you happen to have a relatively smooth day. If it's not the choppy surf, it's the sometimes relentless jockeying of a mass swim start with 2,000 folks. If it's not the endless hills of the bike course, it's the punishing winds off of Mona Kea. And if it's not the mid-afternoon heat during the marathon, it's the humidity, the seemingly endlessness of a marathon after the swim and bike. In the end, Kona has a way of letting you know who's boss; your job during the day is to realize that Kona's course holds the trump cards and racers must play by her rules.

My day started at 2:15 am after nearly five hours of sleep. Having learned my lesson from Port Elizabeth, I ate early the night before, consumed only carbohydrates the day before, and was in bed by 7:45 pm. Bob Flanigan, a triathlete from Richmond, VA, happened to also be staying at the same B&B and proved to be tremendously helpful with final preparations. Bob is heavily involved in the sport, with a triathlete coaching business, Central Virginia Endurance, and various other sports commitments, and it was simply fantastic having him here as a resource and now friend. By 4:00 am he was up and we were eating the default race-day oatmeal breakfast and putting on the game face. There was not much conversation at breakfast as both of us were preparing psychologically for battle, with dread and with anticipation.

We left at 4:30, drove as close as we could to the start and walked the three blocks to final check-in, which involved getting our bodies marked with the race numbers, checking our electronic anklets to make sure they weren't duds, getting weighed as part of a study, shedding our casual clothes and belongings and bagging them for later pick up, applying anti-chaffing balms and creams and, not least, putting on that vital sun-bloc, pressurizing our bike tires and re-checking the food and drink we'd stored, going to the bathroom at least one last time and, finally, joining the hordes waiting to get into the swim start venue after the start of the pro field and the singing of the Hawaiian state anthem.

By 6:45 am most age-groupers were in the water, warming up nervous swim muscles, and gradually inching toward the 100m wide start line, now in deep water and much more spread out than it used to be due to this era's larger field sizes (and greater number of Type-A athletes). Exactly at 7 am the cannon went off and, suddenly, the months of training and waiting were over, the big race underway. In '84 I recollect 1250 competitors, with many of them not as well-prepared as many are today. Consequently, if you got off the line relatively smoothly in those days you could jump on the "swimmers' train" and have a fairly uneventful, and fast, first leg. This is not so in today's triathlon world, at least not for the non-pure swimmers of the triathlon world who, like me, don't come from competitive swim backgrounds and have had to learn to swim well as adults. While the first few moments were clean and fast, as all swimmers made a bee-line toward the first course marker off in the distance, a convergence of fast and aggressive swimmers began occurring and, soon, the inevitable bumps, slaps, and kicks of folks trying to be in the same place at the same time began occurring. To be sure, some contact is par for the course in mass swim starts, but stories of tough Kona swims are legion. The difficulty of this year’s swim was perhaps compounded by nastier seas than usual during the week due to the latent effects of an apparently big storm off of New Zealand. With choppier seas than normal and consequent decreased visibility, following another swimmer's toes was tougher and sporadic physical contact perhaps a bit more understandable.

Although I knew that I wasn't swimming as well as I might, I was still a bit surprised and dismayed upon exiting the water to see the clock already at 1:05. Oh well, if there's another tidbit all ironman athletes know, it's that the swim rarely decides the race; I took consolation in that as I jogged the requisite path in the transition area through the showers, to the bag pick-up, via the changing tent, and then to the bike. I knew I had prepared well for the bike leg and so, as I set out on the bike course, I strove to get into the rhythm, coaxing the swim muscles to transition into bike engines, reminding myself to be patient and confident.

Again, the sheer number of better athletes, and my slower than expected swim, made for a very crowded bike route, especially through the first half or so of the 112-mile bike course. For a time, it was virtually impossible to be the requisite 7m or more behind any leading cyclist, so you just had to do your best to play by the rules and not put doubt in the mind of any of the many bike referees scurrying about on motorcycles and doing their best to keep the day fair and safe. Upon passing the first of four penalty tents on the bike course, it was clear that many had pressed their luck too much; at least a dozen cyclists were standing in or near the penalty tent, each holding the stopwatch he'd or she'd been handed upon check-in, painfully waiting the four required minutes while standing by their bikes, unable to go to the bathroom, eat or drink as the race unfolded next to them. It must have been frustrating and yet I'm strongly in favor of keeping a no-draft race.

After a few meandering miles around town, the legendary Hawaii ironman bike course is essentially an out and back route across the endless up and down lava, lunar-like ramparts of Mona Kea before angling 19 miles to the west and then north to the turnaround at Havi, very near the northern tip of the Big Island. If the monotony and heat of the lava fields doesn't zap your strength and determination, the final climb to Havi, predictably into brutal head- and cross-winds, can make a mockery of even the strongest of cycling skills. Fortunately, the legs were willing yesterday, and the endless stream of cyclists provided a consistent incentive to keep passing and pushing on. By Havi I knew that I was having a strong leg. I did not know that I had exited the water in 18th place out of 129 in my age group, just as I didn't know that I was going from 18th to 3rd during the bike, but I had a feeling that the stars were aligned and that the result would be helpful. The final 30 miles were tougher. Fewer were the fading cyclists since by now I had apparently caught up with the stronger riders and, I suppose, I was also trying to mentally prepare for what I knew would be a tough run.

The second transition proved once again how tough it is to pretend you're a runner after having biked and swum for 6+ hours! As I hobbled through the required loop around T2 (as the second transition is called), I prayed that it would get easier. I also prayed that a lack of longer mileage runs due to protracted bout of tight achilles in the months leading up to Kona would not preclude a reasonable performance.

Apparently, the run started out well. Dave Lindahl, a longtime training partner from Seattle Nordic skiing days, who'd kindly joined me in support of my efforts here this week, had cleverly volunteered to work at the aid station at miles 1 and 9 on the out and back section of Ali'i Drive of the run course. As runners went by he was able to identify the two guys in my age group ahead of me and let me know how far back I was - about seven minutes, apparently, at mile 1, but then less than two minutes back by mile 9. I tried to relax and get into an easy rhythm. At each aid station I took the cold sponges, then water, the energy drink or cola, and then finally the cup of ice, which I promptly tossed into my race hat and which then provided much needed cooling over the next mile, whereupon I went through the same ritual again.

Although I knew I wasn't running as well as I could, given the lack of mileage and the limited road miles I'd done in preparation - for obvious reasons, Saudi Arabia is primarily a land of treadmill runners (to the extent that anyone runs at all) - I liked my chances and felt encouraged. But then again, in the back of my mind I knew it would eventually be not so much a race of catching those in front but of holding off those faster runners coming from behind. Well, I gave it everything I had, but I was powerless to do anything about the two guys in my age group who went by me after the final turnaround at the Energy Lab, still with eight or so miles to go. I wanted so to stay with them, but I just couldn't, and pretty soon I was doing all that I could to cut my losses and hold on to what I was estimating was a 5th place spot. The final miles seem endless, my body on the verge of throwing in the cards, but somehow I found the energy to keep going and, eventually, I could hear the loudspeaker at the finish line, feel the energy of the huge crowds lining the course. And then there it was, the final 400m or so along Ali-i Drive to the hallowed finish line and then, with reserves from who knows where, my body was summoning up its last milligram of adrenaline and I was somehow gaining speed to the finish, elated to finally be there and under reasonable power. A happier sight cannot be described; I have been fortunate enough to have competed in a lifetime of endurance competitions, and none have forced me to reach down as deeply as did yesterday's race.

So, all things considered, I'm very pleased with how the day went. The four guys who beat me are incredible athletes, and it was truly an honor to pit my abilities against the best in the world and be in the mix at the top of the age group, especially in the latter stages of the race. In the end, having the top five guys within five minutes of each other at the finish line shows how deep and competitive and balanced a field there was out there yesterday in the 50-54 age group. I came to Kona with high ambition and come away with a deep respect for the sport, and especially the age-groupers, happy to have been able to give the day my best with the best.

Special thanks to my wife and boys, without whose support this endeavor never could have occurred. It takes a village to nurture and support a Kona triathlete, and I'm truly grateful to Jennifer, Hayden, and Logan especially for putting up with my antics these past many months. For the rest of you who supported my Kona Quest (and you know who you are), I say "thank you" and hope that one day I can return the favor.

Aloha from Kona,