Friday, August 31, 2012

Destination Races - a Trip to the Northeast

This all started back in January when I realized just how cool it would be to try for a half-marathon in all 50 states.  As already written in an earlier blog entry, I had a pretty good head-start what with having Hawaii, California, Michigan, Ohio, and Texas.  So some internet research uncovered a couple of websites that list races all over the country and I was soon scouring those sites and marking my Google calendar with "possibles" that looked promising.

My last "destination race" was to Milwaukee in June to run the Rock 'n Sole Half Marathon.  Now I'm packed and hitting the road, heading for the Northeast.  There's a little half marathon in Wilkes-Barre PA - Wendy's Kids Half - and then, the following weekend, another half-marathon in Manchester Center VT...the Maple Leaf Half.

I was on the road by 6:00 AM on Tuesday morning, with a revised route to avoid Hurricane Isaac's path.  Originally I was going to drive east on I-10 to I-59 north out of Slidell.  But this route might be clogged with evacuees leaving the NOLA and Slidell region ahead of the storm.  So instead, I headed northeast on US 59 to I-20 across to Birmingham and north to Gadsden where I planned to stop for the first night.  It was a very long day, well over 750 miles...the longest of the trip.  Travel was smooth once onto I-20.  I'm always amazed at how little traffic there is on this route, far less than on I-10 to the south or I-30 to the north.  It was all uneventful and my stay the first night at a Fairfield Inn using Marriott points was nice and restful. 

I woke up early the next morning and was back on the road earlier than I had originally planned.  This was a good thing, as significant construction on I-59 to Chattanooga really made for slow-going.  I watched as the time of arrival on my GPS kept marching later and later.  Even though this day was shorter by over 100 miles, it looked like it would be as long, time-wise as the first day. 

Then, once into Virginia, traffic was moving smoothly until just south of Roanoke.  Significantly decreased posted speed limits seemed to create a huge bottleneck.  I just can't understand how these lower speed 'safety zones' can actually be safe.  Traffic really bunches up in these zones, and cars and 18-wheelers pack in tightly and jockey for position, changing lanes frequently as the drivers look for an opening. 

Add to this the more aggressive driving style typical of the Northeast.  I was amazed at the serious tailgating!  Several times I had cars and trucks within inches of my rear bumper, as if pushing me closely from behind could make a difference in the string of cars in front of me.  I was very happy when I got to Stephens City, where I was stopping for the night at a Holiday Inn Express.  This room was also free, using some of my rewards points.  As Holiday Inn Expresses go, it was much less luxurious than many of them, but it was clean.  My only regret was not walking back out to my car that night to retrieve my own pillow.  The hotel's pillows were awful!

I didn't sleep as well the second night, and was awake way too early!  I forced myself to linger, take my time getting started, actually having a sit-down breakfast at the hotel.   I only had 225 miles to go to Wilkes-Barre and didn't want to get there too early to check in to my hotel. 

The last bit of I-81 up through the mountains of Pennsylvania is always a great and entertaining road, even when in a car and not on a motorcycle.  And then my GPS was telling me to exit the interstate and descend into the city of Wilkes-Barre and to the hotel, the Best Western Genetti Hotel.  It's a fabulous hotel!  I originally had booked myself into the Ramada hotel downtown, but was troubled by the bad reviews it has consistently gotten on TripAdvisor and Google.  Then, about three weeks ago, I got back onto Google maps and searched my other options.  I'd noticed the Best Western when originally searching for a hotel, but had discounted it, given my experience with other Best Westerns.  But the reviews were all so positive, with everyone giving it high scores for location, cleanliness, comfort and amenities.  So I cancelled my Ramada reservation and booked myself into this Best Western.

I am so glad I did!  It is gorgeous!  Beautiful property, beautiful and large rooms with all new and plush furnishings, a restaurant on the property, and the rate includes a full hot breakfast in that restaurant.  It's as nice as any Marriott or Hilton I've stayed at.  There's a lovely outdoor private pool in the back surrounded by landscaping and trees with a nice covered patio to sit and catch a breeze.   By contrast, the Ramada is a multistory brick facade looking stark and old and dingy as it sits hard by the noisy town square.

Once checked into my room, I looked out my window and could see down the street to the town square, where there looked to be a festival or market going on.  I quickly dropped my things off and headed back down to the street and up to the square to check it out. 

A farmer's market!!  I dove right in, cruising the stalls, people-watching.  The fruits and vegetables were glorious!  The riot of colors grabbed my attention and dragged me from stall to stall, each one looking more luscious than the last.  Jars of homemade jams and preserves, bottles of local honey, fresh-baked all looked so good!  I was sucked into buying a basketful of fresh plums.  I wanted to buy so much more, but knew how impractical that would be! 

As I stepped out into an open area, I spotted a good-looking, well-dressed man sitting on a bench eating what most definitely looked like a homemade whoopie pie.  "That looks so good," I said to him.  "Where did you buy it?" 

Tempting colors!
He looked up at me and grinned, wiping the chocolate crumbs from his lips. 

"It's very good!  I bought it from that stand over there.  See the one with the checkboard canopy?"  I did see it and thanked him, saying that I was craving something sweet and was heading right over there.  And sure enough.  It was an Amish family, selling produce, honey, and some homebaked treats, includiing these Whoopie Pies.  Oh, my!  They were $1 each or 6 for $5.  What a bargain!  How could I resist?!  

So now I was carrying a bag full of plums in one hand and a bag full of Whoopie Pies in the other.  A stop at my room was in order, to drop these off, after which I walked down to the park along the river to see the views.

Northampton Street bridge over Susquehanna River
It is clear from the architecture that there was serious money in Wilkes-Barre at one time.  The downtown area is looking a little seedy, but it's evident that the city is struggling to bring it back to life.  The land along the canal has been reclaimed with nice parks and paved paths, there are young trees planted along the sidewalks in downtown.  Benches line the sidewalks along the central square area, and these seem to always be filled with people enjoying an iced cappucino or visiting with friends.
Wilkes-Barre City Hall

When I returned to the hotel, I sat on a lovely bench under some shade trees and it was then that I noticed the gorgeous old building across the street.  It's the old City Hall.  I love this architecture.  It's typical in the old industrial towns in the Northeast, and is often the archtecture used for old armories or civic buildings.  Sort of an American Gothic style.

Tomorrow I can get out and explore a bit after breakfast, find someplace to have lunch, then chill out in front of a movie on the TV, eating Whoopie Pies!

Thursday, August 30, 2012

Starts Out as a Visit, Becomes an Evacuation

Last week my son called to say he wanted to come over from Mandeville with the kids to spend a three-day weekend.  My daughter-in-law was having an Officer's Wives get-together and so he wanted to get the kids out of the house to give her "breathing space."

So I made a grocery store run to pick up kid-friendly foods for the grandkids and adult-friendly food and beer for the adults, and they showed up around 5:30 PM on Thursday evening.  

It was a great visit!  We went to the pool on both Friday and Saturday.  We took the kids to Brazos Bend State Park to see the alligators.   I knew they'd have baby alligators at the visitor center.   And baby rat snakes.  And a tarantula.   We went to Steak 'n Shake for lunch.  We made pizzas for dinner.  We had "mini cinni's" - Pillsbury cinnamon rolls cut into thirds before baking - for breakfast.  We watched the movie "Cars."  Twice.  I bought a 16" bicycle for Trevor and he rode it whenever he could.

But there was a hurricane moving into the Gulf of Mexico with increasing odds that it would hit in the New Orleans-western Mississippi coast region.  Sunday morning, as my son was getting the last bits and pieces packed into his car for the trip back to their home, he got a call from his wife and it became clear to him that she was getting nervous and worried.  So a plan was hatched.  The grandkids would stay with me, my son would head for home in Mandeville, and my daughter-in-law would start driving from Mandeville to my house with a meet-up at the midway point to exchange cars.  Good plan!

A previously planned trip for me, up to the Northeast to run in a couple of races, meant not taking full advantage of the grandkids and daughter-in-law visit.  My loss, but on the bright side, my house wouldn't sit empty and my family would have a comfortable place to stay until the hurricane passed through and damage, if any, could be assessed.

Monday, August 20, 2012

It's Been a Wild Ride!

10 years and a quarter of a million miles on two wheels.

 It was August 2002 and my mid-life crisis had ratcheted up another notch.  Just seven months before, I’d run in and successfully completed my very first full marathon, all 26.2 miles’ worth.  I finished that race, proudly displayed my finisher’s medal and then asked myself, “Now what?”  There’s nothing like the anticlimax of completing something difficult, something that required months and months of hard work and sacrifice to achieve.  But there I was, deep in that anticlimax and wondering what could possibly top it for fun, excitement, and fulfillment.

I know!  I’ll learn how to ride a motorcycle!

So ten years ago, on August 15, 2002, I got into my car and drove to the north side of the city for my first day of MSF class.   I earned my motorcycle endorsement on August 18, but it took me more than a month to get up the nerve to buy a motorcycle, first a little Yamaha Virago, then a V-Star.  Easy, short day rides with a local riding club gave me some street skills and helped me to gradually overcome those first-time rider jitters.

Then, the following summer, a trip to Colorado to ride the Rockies changed everything.  Suddenly my local riding area had been expanded.  A couple of years after the Colorado trip, a 4,000 mile round trip to NH to attend the races at Loudon during Laconia Motorcycle Week demonstrated the shortcomings of my “ride,” a V-Star 1100 Silverado.  Every time I stopped for gas – and it was painfully frequent – my riding partner pulled his BMW GS Adventure off to the side to wait for me to fuel up.  He filled his own tank only every third stop.   The frustration of frequent gas stops and the desire to cover long distances efficiently meant a change was badly needed.  My very own BMW moved into the garage as soon as I got home from that trip.

This was a game-changer for me.  My riding grew dramatically once again.  I now had a mount better suited to serious travel and set out nearly immediately after acquiring that BMW to start my first IBA National Park Tour, heading to Big Bend, Ft. Davis, and Carlsbad Caverns to collect some “ink” over Labor Day weekend:  my first of many IBA NPT stamps over the next 12 months. 

But it didn’t stop there.  When I collected the last National Park stamps needed to fulfill the IBA requirements of at least 50 parks in at least 25 states for that first IBA certificate, I felt that same anticlimax I felt after completing my first full marathon.  Now what? 

Hardly had I put my first National Park Tour submission into the mail to the IBA when I started my second tour.  Thus began an addiction that resulted in completing five National Park Tours, two of which were Silver (usual NPT requirements plus at least one park in the four corner states of FL, CA, WA, and ME).  It was lots of miles and lots of travel to collect a National Park Tour certificate each year for five years.

 In March 2006, I earned my first IBA SaddleSore. Well now… that was an interesting challenge!  Not only was I hooked on collecting national park stamps, I now had another new affliction:  long distance endurance riding.  When I wasn’t collecting National Park Stamps I was now accumulating SS1000’s (seven to-date), one SS2000, two BBG’s.

 Between the IBA National Park Tours and the IBA endurance rides, not to mention the Motorcycle Tourers Forum (MTF) events which took me all over the country, I was really racking up the miles on that first BMW, the next BMW, and whatever other motorcycle happened to be sharing the garage at the time.  Twice I made it into the "High Mileage" club, a distinction earned in the BMW MOA annual mileage contest...Top 25 female riders.  One of those two years I ranked 11th!

 But now I’ve weaned myself from the drug that is “National Park Stamps.”  I’ve retired from doing National Park Tours – five is enough.  I no longer have the burning desire to stretch myself through harder endurance rides – I’ll probably stop at two BBG’s.  Fortunately, I never became addicted to doing bonus rallies.  Two Cape Fear mini-rallies were enough for me.  I earned a third-place finish on my second try and now I’m afraid that’s as good as it will ever get for me.

 So back to the running.  I started running in January 2001.   One year later I ran my first full marathon.  Then I ran another full marathon a month later.  I ran a full marathon each of the next two years.   I grew to like running at least as much as I liked motorcycling, and both of these activities came into my life at nearly the same time.    

 A few years into my running, I discovered the joy of doing what are called “destination races.”   It didn’t take long for these two interests – running and riding – to clog up my calendar and compete for my time and money. 

 And then…I discovered a new quest, a quest just as crazy, just as addictive as National Park stamp-collecting.  And a quest that has come along at just the right time.  This discovery came  soon after retiring from doing National Park Tours and, admittedly, soon after motorcycling was just beginning to lose its appeal for me. 

Here’s the quest:  Do 50 half-marathons, one in each of the 50 states. 

That’s crazy!  But oh, so cool! 

Travel?  Check.

Challenge?  Check.

Fun?  Check.

Expensive?  Check.

Can I manage to do this and still maintain the level of riding I’d maintained these last few years?  Probably not.  In fact, looking at my ride calendar I can see that, for 2012, the half-marathons are winning the competition for my time and money. 

I think I’ll see where this new addiction takes me.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Meditation in the Grocery Aisles

I used to hate going grocery shopping.  It was an evil necessity, one that I'd put off until I absolutely could put it off no longer.  But that's when I was still working.  And that's before they built this awesome, upscale H-E-B Superstore just a couple of miles from my house.  

You see, H-E-B also owns Central Market, and shopping in C.M. is like dying and going to food heaven!  And this H-E-B near my house is just a bottle or two of rare and exotic imported fine extra-virgin olive oils away from being a Central Market.  It carries many, if not all, of the premium Central Market private-branded products, and is H-E-B's answer to Whole Foods Market.

Okay...enough gushing!  I'm making myself hungry just thinking about the delectables that I must skip over in order to stock my pantry and fridge with just the necessities.  Well, okay...maybe a few treats manage to slip into the cart here and there.

Now that I'm retired, I love going to H-E-B to get my grocery shopping done.  I go early in the week, usually on Tuesday.  I go early in the morning, just after the weekday morning commuter rush hour has calmed down, usually around 9:30-10:00 AM.  The store is nearly empty, the stockers are replenishing the shelves with fresh-dated items.   I find it soothing, almost calming, to slowly browse through the store, the muted background din of commerce serving as a sort of "white noise" for my mind.

They say that we should shop the perimeter of a store, not the center aisles.  I never really paid much attention to this, just went about my business of getting the necessities.  So today I paid particular attention to my route through the store.   Let's see how I do.

The produce and vegetable section is the first thing I see when I enter.   If I turn left, I'm walking past fresh plums, cherries, strawberries, nectarines and then past all the fresh makings for salads.  If I turn right, however, or continue straight, the route will take me deep into the bakery department. 
Must. Turn. Left.

The produce department merges into the fresh and frozen fish department.  I like this department.  I spend a lot of time and money here.  One time I found a bag of frozen scallops in the freezer case and gleefully scooped them up.  But then a long time - many months, maybe more than a year - passed by and I never saw them offered again.  Last week, there they were again!

The sweet Japanese woman working the sushi counter recognizes me immediately and if my favorite selection hasn't yet been made, she'll put one together for me while I continue my shopping.  When I come back to pick it up, she smiles and bows and wishes me a good day. 

I'm still working the perimeter of the store as I pass through the meat department, sometimes browsing the selections, sometimes passing it by if I know my freezer is well-stocked.  Then comes the sandwich meats and cheeses case.  Two of the aisles that end at this section contain items I need as well, such as Cheerios, coffee, whole wheat crackers.  So a short detour off the perimeter and a couple of quick item grabs and I return to the perimeter once more. 

I gave up all sodas years ago, but couldn't give up the carbonation.  So cases of sparkling water live in my pantry.  Sometimes I just need a cold carbonated drink fix.  It's the only way I can stay off the colas and stay off the caffeine.  These items also live in tall racks along the perimeter of the store.  So I'm doing good on that shop-the-perimeter advice, so far!

I can't avoid a few canned goods though, since things that I like to eat or use in my cooking come no other way.  Ro-tel Tomatoes, the jack-of-all-trades ingredient for a wide variety of dishes!  This is a staple in my pantry.  I panic if I discover I'm out of this item.  Pickled Beets, my all-time favorite childhood memory food (how many 8 year-olds do you know who love pickled beets?!).  Bush's Field Peas and Snaps.  Comfort food.  So a quick dive down this aisle is occasionally in order.

Turning back up toward the front of the store and still keeping along the "perimeter" of the food section, the refrigerated cases contain eggs and yogurt.  Then, unless I need items from the frozen food cases, items like fresh frozen vegetables or fruit, I'm done.  It's best not to dwell too long in this section...this is where the ice cream, the frozen desserts, the frozen pizzas all reside. 

Short lines at the checkout, friendly checker and sacker, and I was on my way out the door.  But wait!!  What's this contraption and what's this delightful aroma?  It was a large cage, almost like that tumbling cage used for door prizes or lotteries, and it was sitting over what looked like a gas grill.  A closer look and I realized it was filled with big green chili peppers.  They were being roasted as they tumbled over an open grill!  And oh, my!  The aroma!  I chatted with the young man working the roaster.  He had a cart next to him filled with boxes of fresh peppers waiting to be roasted.  He told me that the store had an excess of these peppers and decided to roast them.  He said they use the roasted peppers in a variety of their fresh prepared products such as salads, pizzas, prepared meals. 

So with that delectable aroma wafting after me, I departed for my car but not before considering stowing my already-purchased groceries and heading back into the store in search of those roasted peppers!

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Getting My Ducks in a Row

I love planning for a trip!  It's half the fun of the whole trip experience, plus keeps me "involved" and helps pass the time of anticipation before the departure date.  Part of that planning is the routing but another part of it is planning the nightly stops along the way.

The next upcoming trip for me is to Denver CO for the IBA InterNational meet in mid-August.  I considered riding one of my motorcycles to the event, but the dreadful and unrelenting heat in the Plains has changed my mind.  So scratch that itinerary and re-work it for a car trip rather than a motorcycle trip.  I can make more miles in the car, having to stop less frequently for gas, and push it a little more in the heat.

Part of the planning is to see how effectively and efficiently I can use my hotel loyalty points.  I belong to a select few of them, so the game is to work several factors in my favor:
  • What are the hotel choices at a logical stopping point along the route?  Will stopping sooner or going a few more miles down the road change the selection?
  • What are the points requirements for a night's stay at one or two of the different hotel choices at the selected stop location? 
  • What is the best price for a night's stay at those same hotels?
  • Is the value/points comparison an effective use of the points?   How does this compare for all hotel choices?
  • Am I better off paying for the room this particular night/this particular trip and saving the points for a later trip?
  • Are there any "red flags" in the reviewers' comments for the chosen hotels?
So my time has been spent playing with all of these variables across several upcoming trips in late summer and into the fall of this year.   Free night at the hotel in Amarillo enroute to Denver?  Absolutely!   Free night on the return trip home?  Not the best use of points, so I'll pay for this room and save the points for a future night on the road.

Two free nights enroute to Wilkes-Barre PA for the Wendy's Kids Half Marathon over Labor Day Weekend is an absolute Yes!  Free nights coming home from that trip?  Another Yes!  Free nights while sightseeing in the week between the Wilkes-Barre race and the Manchester VT race?  Not enough points for all those nights, but a good opportunity to add to that particular points account for future use.

So it looks like I'll spend down a few of my loyalty points accounts in the next couple of trips and then recharge them during trips planned for later in the year.   Then I'll have those points to use for trips coming up in early 2013.

And so it goes.

Friday, August 3, 2012

Little Red FZ6 Gets a "Check-up" Today

Such a pretty full moon greeted me this morning as I stepped out the door into the early morning heat and humidity.  It was still dark, yet the morning temperature was 79 degrees as I headed out for a run.  Lots of folks out getting their walks in early, trying in vain to beat the heat.  My morning is never complete if I don't get to say good morning to my neighbor and her beautiful Golden Retriever!  Morning greetings and licks exchanged, I continued on my way, eager to get my run finished early, eager to get back to the house to get cleaned up and make breakfast.  My little red FZ6 has an appointment for major routine service at the Yamaha Dealer on the Southwest Freeway.

FZ6 gets her all her fluids changed and all
her pivot points lubed.
She was a little overdue for an oil change and checking the maintenance schedule, I knew that she also needed a radiator flush, brake flush, and new air filter.  I figured about 1/2 hour to get to the dealer's for a 9:00 appointment.  So, at 8:25 AM, I was backing the FZ out of the driveway.

But what's this?? No traffic??  The Sam Houston Tollway was a breeze!  Usually this stretch of the Beltway is a parking lot as cars stream on from the entrance ramps, and cars weave in and out jockeying for lane position before the US 59 interchange.  I found myself at the dealership early, but fortunately the service department was already open. 

It's a major service so I had plenty of time to walk next door to Taco Cabana for a coffee and an egg burrito.  A couple of bites of the burrito, though, and I wrapped the thing back up and threw it away.  So sipping on my coffee, I wandered around a bit, watching the sales floor staff arrange and rearrange the bikes, and to admire some of the Ducati's and Yamaha's. 

Derick is the technician who works on my bike and he came out a couple of times to give me an update, which I appreciate.  He said the bike looks good and runs well, no problems.  I thought the chain needed tightening, but he said it was within spec's and didn't need it.  I guess being a "lightweight" with a light throttle hand helps, since it seems it never needs adjusting. 

I was home before noon, just in time to make lunch and settle in to watch the afternoon Olympics coverage.