Southern Spain is the Place for Me

RW and I spent a couple of weeks this winter in and around Seville, Spain, followed by a few days in the Canary Islands. This trip was awesome because 1. It was not freezing cold. 2. The sun was shining. and 3. Spain is full of friendly people who are always smiling and exercising. I will note that we were the only people out running before about 9 AM. But I am also certain we were the only people in bed at 11 PM. This is evident by the amount of club goers we met out on our run as well as the amount of drugs we were offered at the same time. 

Seville is a city full of history and culture, but at the same time is small enough to feel manageable and not too touristy. We went to Jerez de la Frontera to see the Andalusian horses at the Foundation Real Escuela Andalusia del Arte Ecuestre. The horses were stunning, the trainers were amazing, and the performance was breathtaking. Go there if you can. Horses are graceful athletes and kind souls and it will make you feel better about everything to watch them. 

We traveled to the town of Arcos de la Frontera, which is one of the famed Pueblos Blancos of Southern Spain. These villages were originally settled by Berber famers in the 9th-10th century, and were set up in their fortified positions once the Christians and the Moors began fighting. We went to the church that had been built on top of the mosque (as was super common) and they had actual mummies in there! Weird.

This area is also known for the production of sherry. I tasted some… maybe it is an acquired taste.

Gibraltar is a quick trip south from Seville, so we spent a day exploring “the Rock” with Carl, our guide. Super interesting place. Not super interested in paying 70 Euro for two cheeseburgers and some beers. Thanks, England. At least there were monkeys.

Once we got to the Canary Islands, it was down time all of the time. Well, sort of. RW plugged in to work and worked a few hours each day, while I tried to get tan and read mindless books. We went to Tenerife and it was certainly more developed than any of the Caribbean islands that I have been to. It was a really nice break from “touring” to just sit and drink and chill out.

I have another trip to Southern Spain planned for the fall and I am really looking forward to explain more of the place with sunny skies and friendly faces.

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How to Travel around Europe

These are the things I have learned over the last three years of travel. Keep in mind that I am slightly high maintenance and I don’t like crowds so my suggestions might not be the best for everyone. I look forward to hearing other people’s tips and tricks!

Plan trip and book tickets:

Many options exist for booking airline tickets. To travel around Europe, my favorite is Skyscanner, because it aggregates the major brand airlines as well as several of the budget ones. There are many smaller brand airlines that do not show up on searches, so if you really want to figure out every option, go to the airport website directly to see what airlines fly in and out. Skyscanner also has an “everywhere” option, so if you have a random four day and want to see what options exist, it will give you some great choices. 

For intercontinental flights, Google Flights is the easiest to use and gives the best information. It filters flights based on criteria such as total flight time and layover length. In comparison with Expedia, for example, Google Flights will not show you a flight that is twenty dollars cheaper if it has a longer layover. I like that Google assumes I would prefer to spend twenty dollars and not make my trip longer and therefore more terrible.

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While booking, be aware of carry-on bag limits on the budget airlines. RyanAir allows a carry-on and a purse/laptop bag, but EasyJet only permits ONE bag- you must be able to fit your purse into your carry-on to get on the plane. If you plan to check a bag, it is cheaper to do it online at the time of booking.  Get creative! When my best travel buddy and I went to Morocco, knowing we planned on shopping till we dropped, we put her empty suitcase into mine, so we only had to check one bag on the way down. Another friend of mine brought gently used clothing to donate on the way there and then filled up with Moroccan swag on the way home.

Don’t forget to print your tickets if you fly RyanAir.

Random tip: You can buy fresh bufala mozzarella after security in the Napoli airport. It is sealed and packed for the airplane, just make sure you have room in your bag if you are flying EasyJet.

When you are buying tickets, I strongly recommend booking your airport parking at the same time. I have been caught twice without parking available (once at Treviso and once at Marco Polo) and that is a situation I would definitely wish upon my worst enemy 😉 At Bergamo, book your parking at P2 so you do not end up having to park in the far lot (P3) and take a shuttle. For all Milan airports, use http://www.viamilanoparking.eu/  There are also off airport parking lots, but I have not used any of them. Venice Marco Polo is marcopolopark.it. There are some off-airport locations here that will apparently clean and detail your car while you are gone which sounds pretty awesome and something to check out. FYI, if you book parking through RyanAir (an option as you are buying your flight) it is the same price as on the parking website.

Trains are allegedly another great way to get around Europe. I, however, have barely taken them (except the fast train to Venezia) because I can usually find plane tickets for way cheaper and even with driving to airport and parking it is usually quicker.

Planning on driving? Treat yo self and get a Telepass from your bank. Seriously, who wants to wait in the super long queue to pay tolls when you can fly through the Telepass lane? It costs less than five euro every three months for the privilege of having it, and they auto-debit from your bank account quarterly. Too easy. Also get the list of AGIP/Eni gas stations before the Italian borders from someone so you know where to stop and fill up (I got mine from an FRG meeting). Don’t forget to get your vignettes for Switzerland and Slovenia!

As far as hotels, my must haves are breakfast, wifi, and a central location. There is nothing worse than being hungry and caffeine deprived trying to find your way to the central part of the city in the morning. Always book a refundable hotel room. It may cost a few euro extra but you will thank me later when there is an Army “emergency” and your husband’s trip gets canceled. AirBnb- I use it sometimes but I prefer hotels in general. Definitely personal preference here. 

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Pack for your trip:

This part is easy- get a backpack that fits a ton of stuff but can still be considered a carry-on and use it. Don’t be that person dragging a roller suitcase over cobblestones through every medieval city in Europe.

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Bring a hat, scarf, and gloves if there is a chance it is going to be cold where you are going. It will always feel a little colder than the actual temperature and then you end up buying gear in every city you visit and then you get home and are like “Why do I have so many pairs of gloves that I don’t even like?”

Get packing cubes and airtight space spacer bags. Not only will this help you be more organized, you can also fit a surprising amount into a backpack. I have one for all of my electronics to ensure I always have my chargers and adapters, as well as a small ziplock with a couple days worth of random medications (Advil, cold meds, stomach meds, etc) that I toss into my backpack every trip

I have a toiletries bag that is exclusively for travel, so I am not switching things back and forth between my bathroom cabinets and the bag. Just refill the liquids and off I go. 

Survive the Italian Plane experience:

Ok, so you’ve been in Italy a while and you know that Italians and lines are not really a thing. As in, lines don’t exist here, so don’t bother. Boarding and deplaning a flight in Italy is the equivalent of Black Friday at Best Buy EVERY. SINGLE. TIME. Everyone has a seat assignment, but even people with no carry-ons to shove in the overhead bin will straight up trample you to get on that plane first.

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Trying to get your stuff out of the overhead once the plane lands? Don’t for a minute think that anyone else on the plane is going to let the rows in front deplane in any sort of order- the old nonna in the back is going to hold her purse like QB1 just threw it 70 yards down the field and she is almost at the end zone…. Watch out, she’s coming through. Sometimes a stern, well timed “Aspetta!” can at least catch someone off guard enough to pause and give you a second to get out into the aisle. Stand your ground, box out your elbows, and be prepared to be knocked around a bit.

You have arrived! If you are me, you have already researched how to get to your hotel or starting point for the day when you land. I love doing free walking tours when I get to a new city. It is a good way to get the lay of the land, learn a few things, and maybe meet some cool people. Do you have any other travel tips for newcomers to Europe?

2/3 of a Race Recap: DNF at St. Polten 70.3

DNF. Three letters that elicit all sorts of emotions from an athlete; fear, shame, pain, sadness.

I experienced my first “Did Not Finish” this weekend at the Ironman 70.3 race in St. Polten, Austria.

Training wise, I was ready to crush this race. My swim was strong, I am biking significantly faster, stronger, and smarter, and I had been running enough that it wouldn’t suck too badly. I was really looking forward to the bike portion as the course had a lot of fast and flat, as well as three hills. I have this weird goal in my head that if I can break 3:00 on the bike then that means I am a legit triathlete. I read somewhere that this is the average bike split for a half distance tri. I also logically know that this means nothing since every single course is different and the conditions/weather will never be the same. Nevertheless… this is what I have in my head. I have crept closer in each race, and I really thought this was going to be the one.

My other goal was to break 6:00. I also know, logically, that having a time goal like that for an unknown course can be challenging. But, after my monsoon race in Pula where I came in at 6:00.15 with some whiny baby walk breaks on the run I knew that I would be able to crush that in Austria.

Race weekend started off like any other- meet up with friends, play Tetris in the cars with all of our gear, and drive to the race. The drive up took a bit longer than expected, thanks to a random Italian policeman who was actually doing his job (Who knew your bikes couldn’t block your license plate and taillights when you travel?!)

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“I do not know; this is just not possible” “OK, well tell me how to fix it.” “I do not know; this is just not possible”

Race day weather was forecast to be total garbage. 100% chance of rain with temps in the 50s. The wind was blowing like mad the day before and did not really let up that much for race day.

I had gotten a new long sleeve wetsuit in anticipation of cold water in the Austrian lake, but I really hate it. I feel like I cannot get my stroke all the way out in front. I also feel like I am pushing against it with my shoulders and my arms feel much more tired (i.e. tired at all) when I swim. So after I picked up my packet, I went for a dip in my sleeveless suit to see if I would freeze to death in the lake. Water temp was 64.4 degrees F, air temp was mid 50’s, so the water felt great.

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Scoping out the water.

Sunday morning- pouring down rain and cold. Everyone checked everything into transition on race morning instead of the day before since the winds were so high- they had knocked everything over on Saturday so race directors opened transition earlier on Sunday to accommodate.

We walked over to the swim start and stood around with our rain gear and wetsuits on until the last possible minute. No one was allowed to get in and warm up due to the poor visibility. The swim takes place in two lakes- you get out and have to travel about 400 m in between the two. There were timing mats coming out and going in, and they said at the race briefing that the time in between did not count. However, looking at the race results compared to my watch, which I stopped while I strolled leisurely in between lakes, I would say there is a discrepancy.

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How fun does this look?

I thought I had a pretty good swim in the first lake- passed a ton of people, spent most of the time not being crowded, and had no trouble sighting. However, I knew something was weird when I went to get out. My feet had gone numb, I guess, because when I went to stand up I fell down when my right leg buckled, and the volunteers had to catch me and help me out. My foot stayed numb the entire trip in between the lakes, so I sort of hobbled awkwardly the entire way, while getting elbowed and knocked into by a bunch of dudes who thought they were going to win the race in that 400 meters. The second lake was ok- my split on the race site includes my stroll so it appears that I floated around and doggy paddled if you look at my time. 

My feet were still numb so I had another difficult time getting out of the water and moving into T1. I grabbed my bag and went into the women’s changing tent, which was full of guys. I changed my sports bra because I figured that would help keep me warm, threw on my tri top, arm warmers, and a rain jacket, and off I went.

I had the worst bike ride of my life. I never warmed up or dried out. I could not feel below my knees. I could not bend my fingers so had to shift gears with the palm of my hand. I had a hard time braking. My shorts were rubbing. I was shivering and so cold. I had a hard time letting go of the bike to get fuel, so I only drank one water bottle and did not eat my nutrition. I cried a lot. I saw a lot of doorways that looked dry and thought about getting off, taking off my wet clothes, and curling up in a ball. The wind picked up my rain jacket like a parachute and sent my bike every which way.

The worst part was that I could not power the pedals at all. AT ALL. No matter what cadence I tried, or what gears I went through, the bike did not move any faster. I felt like I was giving my best effort, but I produced nothing. In fact, my heart rate barely got out of zone 2 the entire time, no matter how hard I was pushing. Something was just not right with me and I could not make it happen.

I decided to not do the run after about 50 k on the bike. I thought pretty hard about it and realized that number one, racing is supposed to be fun. And number two, I had trained pretty hard and am at a great level of fitness. I remember reading a blog by my friend Tricia, who just got her BQ after a couple of tough tries. She DNFed at a marathon with similar conditions, and her coach told her that was a smart move, because instead of using her effort to power through a bad race which would not give her the outcome she was seeking, she could save her fitness and find another race within a few weeks and kill it there. This resonated with me because it makes sense for long-term goals. So I decided to skip the run, since running is the thing I hate out of the triathlon, and running a half when I am frozen, sad, and under fueled to get my worst half distance time ever seemed stupid.

So then I cried more. Suffered through the rest of the bike, and made it to transition. Almost fell off the bike since I couldn’t feel my legs. Got escorted out of transition to the med tent by a nice man who thought I looked like I needed a medic. I was just so cold.

I saw my friend Katherine and her girls when I came out, and started crying even more when they yelled “GO COACH CARA YOU CAN DO IT.” So then I felt like a giant crap piece of garbage for not running. What kind of example is that for them? But again, logically, all it was going to do was be miserable for a slow time, and just finishing is no longer my goal.

I managed to change my clothes and then got wrapped up in a bunch of blankets and got feeling back in my appendages after about two hours of cuddling with the girls.

I stopped being sad about it until I had to tell my other friends. They all had amazing races and I am so proud of them.

I stopped being sad about it until I had to answer all of the good luck and questioning texts from people who could not find me on the tracker.

I stopped being sad about it until I started writing this blog.

DNF. I chose this, knowing it was the right choice for the day, but it still makes me feel disappointed.

I will find another race. Under 6:00 and 3:00 bike split- I am coming for you.

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❤ Love these ones. Also, ❤ their blankets.