Lake Logan Half-Distance Tri Race Report

I signed up for this race before the end of 2015, not sure if I would actually be able to do it, but it was fairly inexpensive (especially compared to Ironman-branded races, even if I can’t legally call this a 70.3…) so I went ahead and signed up anyway. Plus, it was staged at a small Episcopal conference center. Mostly I was nervous about the bike course. According to the website, it was “flatter than people imagine in the mountains,” but what does that mean?

Throughout my training cycle, I was diligent about seeking out hills and not shying away from climbing. I pushed myself in new ways, including a group ride with my cycling team that was challenging but doable. The week before my race, I asked my dad to take me on a route with a bunch of the bigger hills in Williamson County, and that ended up being a great confidence builder.

Pre-Race

Driving from Nashville to Western North Carolina, the scenery changes from small, rolling hills to mountain forests as Interstate 40 climbs into the Smoky Mountains. The temperature dropped ten degrees from Knoxville to North Carolina, and the quality of the air changed – drier, cleaner. On my way to packet pick-up, I drove the last 20 miles of the bike course, including the largest hill on the course – a 1.2 mile climb averaging 6% (but peaking at 11-12%) at mile 41-42. Otherwise, the course didn’t seem any worse than what I rode at home, and there were beautiful sections along the river through the countryside.

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Packet pick-up went quickly, and I stayed for the short informational meeting. As they warned us in an e-mail, there was limited connectivity at the race site. Most remarkably, the setting was beautiful. The lake was clean and clear, nestled among the mountains. I walked through the transitions and found where I would rack my bike in the morning. With a much tougher course profile than my first half-iron distance race, I didn’t think I had a chance at beating my time, so my intention for the race was to enjoy and soak it in.

Race Morning

I was awake before my alarm went off at 4:45 AM, made coffee in the hotel room, and ate a banana while I French-braided my hair and got into my kit. Packing up everything I would need for the next 8 hours, I was out the door by 5:15. The air was foggy and damp as I picked my way through the winding mountain roads in the pitch-black early morning. The race site was abuzz with activity when I arrived and parked, staying in the car to eat an RxBar, drink some water, and organize my nutrition. Smarter, more experienced people had flashlights and headlamps, but the guy next to me helped me pump up my tires with his flashlight.

After racking my bike in transition, I went to get my chip. Unlike the softer ankle straps I’d seen at other races, they had those plastic adjustable bracelets that you might get at a water park or beer festival. I secured it snugly to my ankle without too much thought, but it would come back to haunt me during the run.

Swim – 1.2 miles, 34:51

At packet pick-up, they announced that the lake temperature was 77 degrees. The morning of the race, they said it was 71, then later admitted they took the water temperature at the start and the finish (upstream in the river) and averaged them. I didn’t want to mess with a wetsuit, but I was one of a few people without one.

I was in the 4th wave, and we started right on time. It was helpful that my wave was all in bright pink caps so I could keep an eye on them. The swim was really enjoyable, perfect actually, definitely the best swim venue I’ve ever seen at a triathlon. I felt strong and confident as I passed buoy after buoy, eventually making the turn to head for the exit.

We were fighting a little bit of a current, swimming upstream into the river, and the water temperature dropped about ten degrees. Without a wetsuit, it was COLD, but it also signaled to me that I was close and to pick it up. When the person on the dock pulled me out of the water, he exclaimed, “Wow! No wetsuit!” I saw my mom, and she asked me, “Are you okay?” That was a little bit concerning since I figured either I had swum really slowly or I looked terrible. Really it was just that there were some other very fast women and they were expecting me to come out closer to the front. My time was 3 minutes faster than Route 66 and with a 1:40/100 yd pace, not too shabby!

T1: 3:33

When I got to my transition area, everything was covered in dew – my sunglasses, the Garmin on my bike, everything. I had to wipe down my sunglasses while I was readying the rest of my stuff, and I still didn’t manage to get my bike Garmin started on time. We had to run our bikes a little ways to the road where the mount line was, and then I was on my way.

Bike – 56 miles, 3:20:29 (16.8 mph)

I knew the bike course was net downhill and FAST for the first half, so my strategy was to watch my power and not crush any of the early hills. Per usual, a lot of people passed me, especially early on. After the first 10 miles, I was able to relax and get comfortable. As we climbed and descended some ridges, we got some beautiful mountain views.

For me, the bike course was ideal – enough climbing so that it was challenging but also broken up with some fast, flat sections. When I hit the water bottle exchange at 36 miles, I knew that the tough part was just beginning. Not surprisingly, the big hill at 41-42 miles was tough. I passed several people who got off their bikes and walked. While that was tempting, I knew I could grind my way up it and still have enough left for a strong finish.

We had to climb up and over another steep hill into transition, and at the top of it, I saw a cyclist stopped by the side of the road. I was about to ask him if he was okay, when I realized it was my dad! I wheezed out a “Hi,” and he cheered me on, chasing me back into transition.

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T2: 2:29

T2 was a little rough. I messed up lapping my watch, so it told me to begin running when I still had my bike. Then I got through transition but quickly realized I forgot my race bib and had to go back and get it (not bad but still cost me time).

Run: 13.1 miles, 2:18:51 (10:36 pace)

The run course was two loops of an out-and-back course with the “out” being net uphill and the “back” net downhill. Fortunately, it was mostly shaded, but the first 3 miles or so felt brutal. I wondered if I would manage to finish. Once I hit the first turn-around, my mood improved dramatically as I seemed to float downhill for the next few miles. Coming back into the transition area, I caught up with a woman in my age group, and we encouraged one another. I was happy to see my parents and the other spectators, which gave me a huge boost, especially knowing I was going to be heading back uphill.

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I kept telling myself to make it to the turnaround at the top of the hill. By this point, everything hurt. The aforementioned plastic bracelet was digging into my ankle with each step. I could feel chafing developing in my underarms and along my heart rate monitor strap. But all of that was dull noise compared to the screaming in my legs. Coming up on mile 11, I started to get very emotional. I was going to make it, probably even PR, in this beautiful location with my family and friends cheering me on. “I get to do this,” I thought. “I get to do this.”

I passed the last aid station and tried to put the hammer down, but there was nothing to hammer. The gal I had been leapfrogging passed me and then I passed her and then she passed me. Coming into the final stretch, she found a gear I didn’t have and left me in the dust as we rounded the field toward the finish line. After she crossed, she immediately collapsed with cramps, and I patted her on the back and congratulated her before getting a water bottle and my metal.

Total: 70.3 miles, 6:20:11

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Overall, this was a great race, and I would definitely come back and do it again. However, if you have spectators, they need to be prepared with their own food, drinks, seating, and entertainment (books, card games, etc.) as the setting is extremely isolated (but beautiful!). I hope that I’ll cross that finish line at Lake Logan again some day, maybe even faster next time!

Croatia, Part 4: On the Way to Vis

Part of the struggle of a Big European Vacation is that there’s so much to see that you return back home in need of a vacation, which is why we deliberately scheduled a very relaxed second-half of our trip. While it would’ve been nice to island-hop down the coast, it was also wonderful to explore a single island and really soak up its particular culture. I chose Vis because everyone who has been there loves it. It’s low-key but still has enough to do and see and places to eat. It’s not as developed as many of the other islands because it was home to a Yugoslav military base and closed to foreign visitors until 1989. But we’ll get to that later.

Zadar

After an early breakfast, we left the mountains and lakes of Plitvice and headed for the coast. Right around the time we were in Croatia, a video of the Sea Organ in Zadar started to go viral on Facebook (Like, I must’ve been tagged 20 times). Since Zadar wasn’t too far out of our way, and we had some time, we decided to swing by and see the famous Sea Organ, even though it wasn’t originally in our plans.

Even though we only spent a few hours there, I really enjoyed Zadar. When we arrived in the Old City, there was some sort of citywide school festival going on, and the streets were bustling with parents and children. The whole city had an energy to it that was exciting, especially considering that Zadar was bombed to smithereens twice in the 20th century (by the Allies in WWII while under Italian occupation & by the Yugoslav Army in the 90s). However, the Sea Organ was kind of a disappointment. I guess we weren’t there at the right time with the tides and the waves, but all we saw were some steps going into the ocean with some holes cut in them. Whomp, whomp.

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On the Roman Forum, Roman ruins pop up out of the ground (including the intact column pictured above), and kids were playing on the ruins of temples and colonnades with their friends. There are also remnants of the Venetian rule of Zadar like the Land and Sea Gates that led into the city. We could’ve spent a lot more time  in Zadar, but our ferry connection to Vis from Split was calling to us. First, though, we took a wrong turn and ended up in the boatyard, staring at a fence that kept us from entering the highway we needed to be on.

Split

Evidently, Split is a popular stop for a lot of Adriatic cruises, as it definitely has a port-of-call feel to it, but not necessarily in a bad way. It’s also a huge transportation hub with buses and ferries, so our first item of business was to figure out where we were supposed to line up to get our car onto the car ferry later that evening. Then we set out to explore.

Even though I was pretty sure I had told Joe about Diocletian’s Palace, neither of us were entirely prepared for what it would be like. Basically, the city took over the palace, so within the palace are bars and restaurants, cafes and jewelry stores, and lots and lots of sunglasses and shoe shops. It’s not as much a museum as a living, breathing part of the city.

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We did the walking tour as outlined in my guidebook: wandered the streets of the palace, rubbed the toe of St. Gregorious of Nin (for good luck and so that we’ll come back to Split), shopped for gifts for our parents in the Basement Halls of the palace (also a location for some Game of Thrones filming!), and then drank a glass of wine. Diocletian was an infamous persecutor of Christians, but now his palace is home to several churches, including a cathedral. Boy, bye.

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Some ominous thunderclouds started to roll in as we snacked on some gelato on the Riva, and suddenly, all the other tourists and us were taking shelter as the rain poured in and the palm trees along the Riva whipped their fronds back and forth. We managed to take shelter under a sturdy awning, but once the rain started blowing in sideways, we got drenched. All the while, we were doing the math on when to leave and get our car to take it to the ferry. The rain lightened up enough that we made a mad dash for the car but were still soaked to the bone by the time we arrived. It was still raining when we boarded the ferry and departed for Vis.

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Had we planned a little better, we would’ve grabbed a sandwich to take with us onboard, but rain, so we ended up having wine, potato chips, and a chocolate bar. Eventually, it cleared up, and we went up to the top deck to watch the sun set over the Adriatic.

It was dark when we arrived in Vis town, and we slowly made our way over the mountain (lots of hairpin turns!) to Komiza, where we had arranged an AirBnB. Tomas, one of the owners, met us in the middle of the road and helped us get settled. His English wasn’t great, but we were able to communicate (except when he told us that we were okay leaving our car parked in the handicapped space overnight – parking ticket!). He also brought us carob-flavored grappa and some lemonade made from the lemons on the property. We were definitely ready for bed that night.

Vis Island

The next morning, we woke up in an Adriatic dream world. I felt like I was on a movie set, except this was real life. We strolled down to the Riva to find some food and found ourselves in paradise.

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Several restaurants actually served breakfast due to the yachts they get stopping by, and I was overdue for a big omelette. That breakfast also came with the best bread I had ever had, which we devoured with olive oil. We strolled around town and popped into a travel agency to book an afternoon gastronomy & military tour of the island. While our AirBnB hosts did some of our laundry, we headed to the local town beach for a swim.

I’d probably need a separate blog entry just for our tour, but it was incredible. I wasn’t that excited about the military component, in part because I didn’t know what to expect. We went into the abandoned military installation (with helmets and lights), walked around, and learned a lot of history. Goran, our guide, was very entertaining and knowledgeable. Previously, he’d had some high-powered jobs and basically up and quit to move to Vis for a less stressful lifestyle. He also referenced that he had done his obligatory time in the Yugoslav Army only to be fighting the Yugoslav Army a few years later, including watching his best friend die.

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From there we sampled different flavors of rakija and snacked on some traditional foods at a farm.

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After that, we learned about some different battles on the Bay of Vis, and Goran regaled us with his impressions of various national groups before we went to a military bunker-turned-wine cellar to taste some wine.

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With some more snacks to accompany our vugava and plavac mali, we were satiated with knowledge, wine, and food. We arrived back in Komiza after sunset with new friends and a deeper appreciation for the island where we’d be spending the next several days.

Next Up: Beaches & Food of Vis

Previous: Part 1 – http://www.calledtoendure.com/croatia-part-1-introduction-first-days/

Part 2 – http://www.calledtoendure.com/croatia-part-2-istria/

Part 3 – http://www.calledtoendure.com/croatia-part-2-the-section-where-we-drive-a-lot/

Croatia, Part 3 – The Section Where We Drive A Lot

Part 1
Part 2

Ljubljana, Slovenia

When I was extensively planning our itinerary, trying to decide what parts were absolutely necessary and what I could live without seeing, my husband helpfully asked a co-worker of his where we should go…after I had more or less solidified the itinerary. She got Joe fixated on Ljubljana, but I vetoed it because it was substantially out of the way and didn’t fit in. About three weeks prior to departure, I realized I had overestimated the time we might want to spend at Plitvice, leaving us with an extra day and night. Once again, Ljubljana was on the table.

And lest my audience think that everything was perfect, I had picked up Joe’s cold in the meantime and wasn’t feeling 100%. The otherwise great and inexpensive AirBnB in Pula was on the top floor, so we needed to sleep with the windows open, but there weren’t screens, so I was itchy from mosquito bites in addition to general jet lag. It all kind of hit me while we were in Ljubljana. Nevertheless, I was determined to enjoy myself.

So Monday morning, we got up early to make the 2.5 hour drive from Pula to Slovenia so that we could make it there in time for our 9 AM bike tour. The border crossing was uneventful, but we needed to pick up a highway pass once we crossed. The morning was misty and gray as we drove through the green mountains of Slovenia, arrived in Ljubljana, and managed to park with minimal issue.

As promised, Ljubljana was stunning. After the Italian vibe of Pula and Istria, Ljubljana felt much more Central European, very Austrian in culture and architecture. The center of the city is closed to vehicular traffic, and cafes, bars, and restaurants line the riverbanks and squares. Nearly everyone we met spoke English flawlessly (a boon, seeing as my Slovenian is even worse than my Croatian), and Slovenia uses the Euro.

Trying to see as much as we could in a minimum amount of time, I booked two tours: our bike tour, led by Watermelon Ljubljana by Bike and a food tour with Ljubljanajam.

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On our bike tour, we heard a lot about the history of the city and explored a bit outside of the centre, seeing the remnants of old Roman walls and where the river splits. Our guide also took us to Metelkova, a center for contemporary art, clubs, studio space, etc. on the site of an old Yugoslavian army barracks. When we stopped for a bite to eat in Tivoli Park, it began to rain, so our tour was cut a little short. There was actually another young American couple on our tour with us, and I asked them if they had gotten any weird reactions when they told people they were going on vacation to Croatia and Slovenia. The woman’s boss had responded, “Why would you want to go there? All that’s there are thugs and communists.”

Thankfully, we were able to use the time to get checked into our hotel (Cacao Rooms) and rest up before our food tour. Iva was a fabulous guide through Ljubljana and led us through the market, picking up some cherries, on our way to our first stop.

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One of the things that made Iva such a great guide was her obvious passion and love of Ljubljana’s food scene. From cheese to craft beer (did you know Ljubljana has an AMAZING craft beer scene?) to wine to gelato, she led us to the best places. Seriously, I still think about the strawberry-basil gelato I had.

After our tour came to a close, Joe and I hiked up to Ljubljana Castle to work off some of that food and get a view of the city from above. There is also a funicular for those who prefer not to work up a sweat.

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As dusk settled on Ljubljana, we snagged a table at a wine bar along the river and watched the evening hustle and bustle with glasses of delicious, local 3.5-5 Euro wine. Kids and their parents rode by on bicycles or strolled along with gelato in-hand. Friends chatted around beers and pizza. It was almost too idyllic to be real.

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Plitvice National Park

If you go to Croatia, you do not pass Go, you do not collect $200, without going to Plitvice National Park. It’s not really close to anything (though nothing is THAT far by American standards), but it is marvelous and unlike anywhere else on Earth. From Ljubljana, we had a 3-hour drive, so we slept in a little and were on the road by 9 AM. A good chunk of the route is on a smaller, slower highway, winding through little villages and hamlets. We were getting hungry, and so we pulled over at a small town to get something to eat at a bakery, picking out a burek (meat pie) and a couple pastries for less than $3.

I had booked us at the Plitvice Hotel, paying a little bit more for a lot of convenience. The hotel is located in the park, so we didn’t have to pay to park, and we could just walk to the entrance. Also, if you stay in a park hotel, you can get your pass stamped for an extra day at no cost. Eerily, the hotels in the park used to be army barracks (obviously, they’ve been renovated since then). In fact, the first shots of the Yugoslav Wars were fired in Plitvice National Park. We checked in but couldn’t get in our room yet, so we left our luggage in the luggage room and headed for the park.

At Plitvice, there’s a whole set-up of electric boats and buses to get to the various paths. Throwing a wrench in our plan, the path to hike down to the Lower Lakes was flooded because they’d had so much rain. Anyway, it took us a little while to get to the point where we were actually seeing the lakes. We started with the Upper Lakes, taking a bus up to the top and then hiking down (I recommend doing it that way rather than hiking up).

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Like much of Croatia, I couldn’t believe that it looked exactly like the pictures I had seen of it – the water just as azure and clear. Much of the path is on boardwalk, and we could see how the Lower Lake pathway had probably flooded, as even the Upper Lakes were very full.

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Real talk: the selfie stick came in handy, majorly.

After we finished with the Upper Lakes, we still hadn’t seen the largest waterfalls (including Veliki Slap, the 78 meter high waterfall), and the crowds were thinning out as the afternoon went on. Fortunately, there was a way to see them that didn’t involve getting wet. It had already been a long day, but we pressed on.

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After all that walking, we relaxed with a cocktail on the hotel deck overlooking the park before heading down to dinner. There aren’t that many great dining options in the park, but we had a perfectly fine dinner in the hotel restaurant. Breakfast was included as well, so we ate quickly before hitting the road once again, this time due south for some island time!

Up Next: Zadar, Split, and Vis Island!

Croatia, Part 2 – Around Istria

Previous post: Croatia, Part 1

On Saturday, we had booked a tour with Bike Tour Istria to ride from Pula to Rt Kamenjak, a nature preserve at the very southern tip of the Istrian peninsula. With it being shoulder season, we were the only two people on the tour, along with our guide. We were fitted on mountain bikes and away we went. The route terrain varied from paved roads to packed dirt roads to legitimate mountain biking once we were inside the preserve.

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After riding for a while, we took a break to swim in the crystal clear, blue-green waters. It was chilly but felt good.

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Then the more intense mountain biking started. I struggled a little bit on the loose rocks, but with views like those, I didn’t mind walking a little bit more than I had planned. We stopped for a beer at the Safari Bar, way up above the cliffs, chatted with our guide some more, and then headed back. By the time we got back to Pula, we had ridden about 25 miles and were pretty exhausted, sweaty, and warm.

While Joe napped and did some work, I headed down to the beach below our AirBnB to read and swim. Since we were tuckered out from our day of adventure, we stayed close to home and walked up the road to a nearby restaurant, Gina. We had heard and read positive things about Gina, but it truly was a lovely experience. Our server helped us pair a bunch of local wines with the tasting menu, including a prosecco made by a neighbor, and after we were finished eating, glass after glass of rajika (similar to grappa) kept appearing in front of us.

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The next day, we set out to wind our way up towards the medieval hilltop town of Motovun, the epicenter for Istrian wine and truffles (the mushroom kind, not the chocolate kind). Our first stop was Bale, a medieval town known as a kind of artist’s enclave. Not surprisingly, the town was sleepy on a Sunday morning. Many people were in church, but we wandered around, admiring the old stone walls.

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From there, we made a stop at the Limska Draga Fjord, an inlet that formed when the Istrian coastline sank during the last Ice Age, allowing the sea to rush in. It’s about 10km long, 600m wide, and has steep valley walls that rise to a height of 100m. It’s also the home to oyster and mussel farming as the waters are very clean. We were just going to stop by and see it and maybe eat a few oysters, but we were tempted by a guy offering an excursion on the fjord, so we paid the 100kn per person for the hour-long cruise.

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After that, we ordered our seafood from the water where we had just sailed. While the fjord is a beautiful sight, it was very touristy, and we saw a lot of big buses full of tourists. Our waiter spoke to us in about 6 different languages over the course of the meal and generally seemed very busy. By this point, it had started to rain, but we pressed on towards Motovun.

I don’t know what I was expecting from Motovun, but it exceeded all of my expectations. Driving towards it, it appeared to be like something out of Game of Thrones (the Eyrie!) or a fairytale, perched on a 277m hill above the Mirna River. The Venetians built two sets of thick walls, fortifying the town in the 14th century. In the on-again, off-again rain, we strolled the walls of the town with great, dramatic views of the valley beneath, particularly with the clouds and fog.

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Our real destination was Konoba Mondo, just outside the city gates, well-known for their truffle dishes.

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Carpaccio with truffles, gnocchi and risotto with truffles, all washed down with wines from the valley below.

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Then the adventure began. On our way back to Pula, I noticed we were lower on gas than I had thought. Since we were in a bare-bones rental car, I wasn’t sure how much gas we actually had, but we needed to get some sooner rather than later. Then we drove through several torrential thunderstorms. The mood was tense. Much to our dismay, most rural Istrian petrol stations are not open on Sunday evenings. Thankfully, as we got into a town just outside of Pula, there was a well-lit, bustling petrol station. I think my husband nearly kissed the fuel pumps. Disaster averted!

Frankly, I kind of wish we had spent a little bit more time in Istria. We never did make it to Porec, another charming seaside town, and there is so much to explore. The food culture is truly great, and while the water is a little cooler than further south, it’s just as clear and clean. Late May was the perfect time to go, as the weather was warm but not hot. I think a lot of people skip Istria in lieu of island-hopping along the coast, but I would highly recommend adding Istria to your Croatian itinerary.

Next, we’ll head across the border to the capital of Slovenia, Ljubljana, and then back to Croatia for a visit to Plitvice National Park.

Croatia, Part 1 – Introduction & First Days

Why Croatia?

Croatia first got on our tourism radar from the television show Game of Thrones. Kind of dorky, I know. Dubrovnik, at the southernmost tip of Croatia, doubles for King’s Landing on the show, and several other places also feature prominently. Then I started to do my research, and I discovered a place that shouldn’t exist – pristine natural features, historical artifacts, a tradition of local wine & food, a friendly tourism industry, relatively inexpensive for Europe, and not jampacked with tourists.

We opted to rent a car so that we could have a little more freedom to explore. Unlike more western parts of Europe, Croatia does not have a comprehensive train system. They do have a pretty good bus system, and we saw a lot of people using it to get around the country. I’m glad that we rented a car, but it was also the source of some our biggest anxieties and misadventures. At one point, we got a parking ticket for about a hundred American dollars, but considering all of the traffic laws I probably broke, that was the best-case scenario.

Before we left, a lot of people asked us if it was safe since the last time anyone across the Atlantic paid attention to Croatia was during the Yugoslav wars in the 1990s. Yes, it’s safe. Croatia is part of the European Union, though they currently use their own currency (the kuna, at an exchange rate of about 6-7 kuna to the US dollar). Most people in the tourism zones speak English, and many speak German, Italian, and sometimes Russian as well.

I would’ve been lost without Lonely Planet’s guidebook, and I highly recommend both the Anthony Bourdain and Rick Steves episodes on Croatia. Our phone plan through Sprint includes Global Roaming, which meant we had access to both 2G data and text without having to purchase a SIM card or anything, so that came in handy as well.

Getting there

We flew from Nashville to Atlanta to Amsterdam to Zagreb, the capital of Croatia. Both of our layovers were substantial, so we had time to eat. Our flight from Amsterdam to Zagreb was full due to the Corpus Christi holiday, but we flew right over the Alps. The Zagreb airport was not large, and customs/immigration all went very smoothly. We picked up the rental car through Sixt (renting cars in Europe is the time when being able to drive a manual transmission comes in handy) and were on our way west towards the Istrian peninsula.

Istria

Geographically, the Istrian peninsula encompasses parts of Croatia, Slovenia, and Italy. There is a long Italian cultural history in Istria, such that most of the town names are in both Italian and Croatian. Istria is basically Italy on the cheap, complete with Roman ruins, delicious wines and olive oils, medieval hilltop towns in the interior, and stunning beaches and seafront towns on the ocean.

For our time in Istria, we settled in Pula at an AirBnB that was part of a larger family villa overlooking the Stoja Bay ($52/night), about 3 km from the town center.

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There are more charming towns in Istria than Pula, but I found the blend of modern shipping industry with Roman ruins sort of lovely. The city center itself can be a bit touristy, so out towards the Stoja camping grounds where we stayed was a nice break, plus we had the benefit of the beach. Like much of Croatia, the beach was rocky rather than sandy, though the water was clear and blue. There is also an Ironman 70.3 in Pula that finishes in the Roman amphitheater in the center of town, so that’s now on my bucket list.

That evening was the only night I could get reservations at arguably the best restaurant in the Pula area – Konoba Batelina in Banjole (konoba means “tavern” or “bistro,” more casual than a “restaurant”). Batelina is run by a family of fishermen, and the chef, David Skoko, specializes in creating masterpieces out of what is normally considered “trash fish.” It’s not open for lunch. It’s not open on Sundays. And it’s not open during August (the busiest tourist month). When you’re a rock star, that’s how you roll.

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We started with a number of small plates, moved onto a delicious risotto, and finally selected a couple of smaller fish from the plate of whole fish they carried from table to table (grilled whole, head-on). It was a wonderful introduction to what eating in Istria would be like – fresh, local, great-tasting food cooked with care.

Day 2

Our first full day in Pula was dedicated to exploring Pula. We woke up to go on a run, were directed to a wooded trail loop near the Lungomare by the daughter of our AirBnB host, got lost, got found again, and then were ready to go. First stop, the Pula amphitheater.

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This Roman amphitheater was built in the first-century entirely out of local limestone and designed to host gladiatorial contests with seating for up to 20,000 spectators. Pretty amazing. It made me think about how long the Titans stadium will last or the Houston Astrodome.

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Other Roman ruins included the Temple of Augustus on the Forum, still a busy meeting place, and the Triumphal Arch of Sergius, erected in 27 BCE. We also wandered through the market and through various squares until we stopped for a bite to eat. Having seen so many gelato vendors, we decided to treat ourselves, only to find out that a scoop of gelato was going to run us about 7 kuna (just over $1). Gelato every day!

After an afternoon nap, we drove up the road to Rovinj (Rovigno) for drinks and dinner. Rovinj is a Mediterranean seaside dream. You can stroll up and down the harbor and then enter into the narrow, winding streets of the old town. The bell tower of the Church of St. Euphemia dominates the landscape.

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Along with all the German tourists drinking mojitos, we enjoyed a cocktail at Valentino, sitting on cushions among the rocks on the water’s edge and watching the boats come and go, as well as a few dolphins. That evening, we dined at Kantinon, again partaking in fresh, local seafood (who knew that fresh sardines were so good?) and the complementary malvazija wine

Next Up: Mountain biking and medieval towns in Istria, plus 24 hours in Ljubljana, Slovenia

My First Track Meet

Over a month ago, I entered and raced in my first track meet – the Nashville Track Classic. I’d first seen the event advertised in a local running store’s e-blast and saw that it worked well with my schedule. It was late Saturday afternoon, and I had a professional obligation that morning. Sure, I had grown up attending my brother’s track meets, interminable affairs in the blistering Texas summer heat, but I’d never actually run in one myself. Having taken up actual speed work on a track for a couple years, I was curious as to what I could run in a raced mile and even a 400 (one lap around the track).

My husband accompanied me to the event, and my parents showed up to cheer me on. I warmed up and watched the little-bitty kids practice the start for the 100 meter dash. All of the adults in attendance looked really fast and like they knew what they were doing. My stomach was doing flips, but as we all cheered on the little kids careening down the track with gargantuan smiles, at least one in a tutu, it reminded me that this was supposed to be fun.

Finally, they called for the mile participants. There would be two heats – one for everyone under 18, one for everyone over 18. Great. I would be in the same heat as the sub-5:00 milers in their racing flats and their team singlets. I lined up towards the outside with a few others, the gun sounded, and we were off.

Very quickly, I found myself in no (wo)man’s land, left way behind by the faster group and considerably in front of the slower people. My body protested the quick pace at first but then settled into it as I completed the first lap. The second lap was tough as my body and mind got into negotiations on how long exactly we would be running this pace. On the third lap, I was focused on getting lapped by the light-footed pack of twenty-something men who passed me like I was standing still. I was trying and failing to do the math with my splits. My legs and lungs were on fire. Into the last straightaway, I could see the clock and pushed with everything I had left to squeeze under 7:30. Official time – 7:28.82.

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It was horrifically hard but also very satisfying. Even in a 5K, I hadn’t experienced quite that degree of burning, of run-till-you-vomit (I didn’t vomit). I didn’t have too long to think about it before I was lining up for the 400.

This time, I was in a heat of 8 runners. At least one guy used starting blocks. I just ran as fast as I could around the oval. The lactic acid was still fresh in my legs from the mile, and I felt vaguely as if I was running through quicksand despite the high effort level. And just like that, it was over. 1:35.38, still faster than I’ve ever run in a timed setting. I was also last and no one cared.

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Perhaps I am an equal opportunity runner – happy with the short, sharp pain of the mile or the mental & physical fatigue of a marathon. Both require mental as well as physical fortitude. Do not stop. Do not slow down. Yes, it hurts, but it will be over soon (“soon” being relative depending on the race). As opportunities and obligations arise in other parts of my life, it’s refreshing to think about focusing on shorter distances, on speed. In the running community, it often feels like one has to be training for a marathon in order to be a “real” runner, and I’ve been there and done that. At some point, I’d like to go back to it, but for now, I’m looking forward to exploring just how fast I can be.

Ode to Stitch (2007-2016)

“Awww, Stitch.” Without fail, that was the reaction every time we called the vet and identified ourselves as Stitch’s people. Even sick and smelly and gross, he was sweet. Over the past few months, he has put up with enemas and medications and IV fluids, ultrasounds and x-rays, and rarely protested too much.

Stitch came into our lives just over four years ago. His previous living situation was a little too stressful for him, and his family reluctantly decided to re-home him. Joe and I had talked hypothetically about getting a third cat, but I had definitively vetoed a kitten at that point in our lives. Joe wanted to take him in, but I wasn’t so sure and insisted on a trial period. When his family came to drop him off, the children were thrilled to see our giant cat condo and knew Stitch would be happy here. I remember telling my best friend, “I can’t believe we have three cats!” She laughed and said, “Really? I always knew you’d end up with three cats.”

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Stitch adjusted relatively well. He wasn’t interested in being the alpha male and readily accepted his place in the social hierarchy. When he first emerged from under our bed, he hopped up on my bathroom counter. Later I would learn this was him asking to drink out of the faucet. He loved water and would even wet the crown of his head in it.

He loved water and his female people especially. He wasn’t much of a cuddler. For a breed named for how they go limp like a ragdoll when you pick them up, he would go stiff as a board and start jerking spastically. But every so often, I would be sitting on the couch and he would crawl into my lap. If, per the book title, all cats have Asperger Syndrome, Stitch was our cat farthest down the spectrum. Until he figured out how to get down from the cat condo, he would sort of parachute off the top – less of a jump and more of a controlled fall from six feet up.

When his behavior changed a few months ago, we hardly noticed. Sure, he was a little more reserved, secluding himself in some odd places, but that wasn’t abnormal. He wasn’t a terribly active cat to begin with. We chalked it up to social stress – the relationships between the cats or my husband’s constant packing and unpacking for business trips. Knowing what we know now, that was probably the beginning of this disease process, the lymphoma that also took his littermate a couple years ago.

Of course I’m sad, but with Stitch, because we took him in as an adult cat, I always had more of a sense of stewardship with him. We didn’t own him; he wasn’t really ours. He came into our lives as a gift and a blessing for however long we had together. He brought us joy and beauty, an inner calm and sweetness, and it was our privilege to take care of him. I’ll miss his quirks – his fur covering my bike shoes, the way he obsessively pawed after using the litter box, him head-butting my arm while I put on mascara. And part of my grief is feeling like I failed, that we were entrusted with this beautiful creature, and ultimately, I couldn’t keep him safe – from death, from genetics, from the seeds of cancer mottling his kidneys.

Being a relentless optimist, I can’t help seeing the good things that have come out of this whole journey. All of the veterinarians and techs we’ve interacted with have been amazing and taken such good care of us and Stitch. The heartbreak and grief of losing a pet is so common, and so many people have expressed their love and prayers and support. Thinking about being a two cat household again feels refreshingly manageable, especially with all of our comings and goings as summer begins.

So this morning, we’ll say good-bye to Stitch. I’ll kiss the tapered point on the top of his velvety head for the last time. We’ll all cry and pray and give thanks to God for the animals that break our hearts, yes, into pieces, but also wide open.

Dickson Endurance Tri Race Report

I’m not sure what I was thinking when I signed up for this race – probably something along the lines of, “It’ll be good training, nice to get a longer race under your belt early in the season. It’s a small race; you might even podium!” While I was still slogging along out there on the bike, and the sprint tri people were leaving, I was very envious of them. “I should’ve just done the sprint,” I muttered to myself.

Pre-Race:

I showed up to the race site at Montgomery Bell State Park with plenty of time, only to be greeted by a long, slow-moving line snaking down the hill to packet pick-up. Evidently, some volunteers hadn’t shown up. I hadn’t put my gear in transition, and by the time I got my packet and body-marked, the best spots were taken. The speaker for announcements was on the strugglebus and kept cutting in and out while the race director was trying to tell us what to do. None of this was boding well. Ultimately, the race started 20 minutes late, and the longer-distance women were already the last to start.

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Swim – 1 mile, 24:50

The swim venue was awesome. The lake was smooth with no current or anything, and a temperature of 66 degrees. This was my first race with a wetsuit, and I had only practiced with it once, six days earlier. I swam a little bit before waiting for my wave out of the water. We would swim two laps of the rectangular course, and suddenly, we were off. Some women took off out of the gate, but I was trying to get into a comfortable rhythm. I felt good, even in the wetsuit. I swam past a bunch of guys around the back half of the first lap and continued to pass people on the second lap. From the results, I learned I was the first woman out of the water, which none of the spectators thought to tell me.

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Then I tried to power-hike up an extremely steep hill while peeling off my wetsuit. It wasn’t pretty. In hindsight, I should’ve put my flip-flops down at the water because I wasn’t running anyway and the rough concrete/twigs/etc. ended up doing a number on my feet. Getting everything together for the bike, my motto was, “Be quick, not in a hurry.”

Bike – 38 miles, 2:18:29 (16.4 mph)

The bike course was 2 1/2 laps around the state park – rolling terrain and one substantial hill (that we climbed 3 times). I neglected to notice or remember that getting back into transition also required climbing a doozy of a hill. Not surprisingly, I got passed a bunch on the bike, more in the second lap than the first, by 7 women and most of the men I had swum over. I hate getting passed, but I kept trying to talk myself back into riding my own race instead of trying to chase people. The temperature was rising, and I did pretty well eating and drinking early on. At one point, a beaver ran in front of me on the road, and I yelled at it to get out of my way. I could tell I hadn’t been spending enough time on my bike because my back and hips revolted before my leg muscles did. Mentally, I was relieved to turn back into the park and have a big downhill until we had a big uphill. I wanted something left in my legs for the run, so I sort of lollygagged up the hill and then coasted back into transition.

T2+Run – 15K, 1:35:42 (10:17)

Everyone had said prior to this race how terrible the run was. They did not lie. It was out-and-back, constant up-and-down. Fortunately, it was mostly shaded and had plentiful aid stations. I felt terrible for the first mile. I re-calibrated my race plan to just do what I could do. That meant a lot of walking uphills, which I tried to make up for by crushing the downhills. By the time I got to the turnaround, I felt better than I had out of T2. Not too far behind me was another woman in my age group, and she looked like she was moving. I cruised downhill to the final turn and last big uphill where I slowed to a walk/jog. I kept looking behind me for my competition, but I couldn’t see her. Her specter kept me making forward progress faster than I would’ve otherwise. Finally, the parking lot! The finish line! My competitor finished less than a minute behind me.

Post-Race

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I chatted with my competition briefly, and we congratulated one another and dissected our races. It turned out, I got 2nd in my age group (out of 3) and 8th woman out of 24. Earlier in the week, I had convinced myself that I very well might be last, so all of that was a pleasant surprise. Despite being a small race, I did have a “Maybe I don’t actually suck at this” moment. As in any race, I learned a lot about myself, my training, my mental game, and my competitiveness. Difficulty aside, it was a great way to kick off the 2016 triathlon season!

Preaching Life As Marathon

The first Sunday of Advent this year marked an occasion for me – preaching the whole way through the three-year cycle that is the Revised Common Lectionary. Sure, I missed a Sunday here and there for vacation or the bishop’s visitation, so technically I haven’t preached EVERY Sunday, but serving a small congregation, it’s me in the pulpit 46-47 Sundays a year. The call to the pulpit was a large part of my discernment to the priesthood. I love preaching, both the act itself and the preparation. I love that I serve a church that trusts me on occasion to toss out what I’ve written and go with the Holy Spirit or to try something new and creative. I love that if a sermon falls flat, I get next week (and the next and the next). I love the mystery of trying to determine how the Holy Spirit took the words I said and used it to speak to someone in the pew.

But right now, I am tired. In previous years, I’ve taken vacation the Sunday after Easter, but this year, I did not. I severely underestimated the toll on my creativity and my passion for preaching that those Holy Week and Easter sermons took out of me, as I’ve homiletically limped through the Easter season. The parishioners to whom I have confided this assure me there has been no drop-off in quality, but I feel it. I’ve been counting down the weeks until I get a break (only four more sermons until vacation!).

I know this feeling from my running and racing life. Others often say, “It’s a marathon, not a sprint,” but actually having run marathons gives you a different perspective on that saying. I know the feeling of having to push through mental and physical (and spiritual) walls, the times when it hurts at mile 13, but you just keep putting one foot in front of other, and, almost magically, you start to feel better (or you at least get used to the pain) at mile 18. I know the way I bribe myself into progress: Just make it to the next aid station. Three miles until you take your next gel. Maybe there will be cookies/orange slices/beer at that aid station. I know the way miles can vary erratically, the way it takes me nearly five miles to even be at peace with the fact I’m making my body do this (again).

And so, in this extended metaphor, my upcoming break from the pulpit is not the finish line; it is an aid station. If this were an ultra-marathon, it would be a chance for me to sit down briefly, change shoes, eat a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, and tend to my blisters and chafing. It’s a chance to refuel, to stretch, to be inspired and cheered along.

For the past several weeks, when I sit down to work on Sunday’s sermon, a part of me whines, “I just can’t do this anymore,” but just like in a marathon, there is a smaller, quieter, more determined voice that says, “Yes, we can.”

General Life Update: On Discernment & Transition

Between 2007 and 2008, I graduated from college, got engaged and then married, applied to seminaries and divinity schools, went through the discernment process for the priesthood, and moved from Texas to Tennessee, all while working a 9-to-5 job at an insurance company. It was stressful and anxiety-producing and also incredibly spiritually beneficial. I had to truly trust in the path that God was laying out for me in my vocation and my new marriage. Throughout that year, several people asked me, “Why are you doing all of this at the same time?” As if I had planned to make myself crazy by taking all of this on in the span of a year.

Up until now, most of my discernment and transitions have occurred with a definitive ending and new beginning – graduating from high school and going to college, graduating from college and finding a job, graduating with my masters and getting ordained, finishing my year of CPE and finding a call. So it is a new and freeing experience to be discerning “in the midst.” Rather than the pressure of finding “the next thing,” I’m feeling like I legitimately get to discern, to take risks, and to experiment.

One of my major pet peeves of blogs is when the blogger is like, “OMG you guys! I have such big news, but I can’t share it with you yet. Stay tuned!!1!!1!” And I am totally an oversharer, so having to keep some things on the DL has been a little painful, but that’s not really the point. In some ways, I feel like I’m back in 2007-2008 in that I’ve been asking myself, “Why are you doing all of this at the same time?” But it’s also exciting and fun in addition to being terrifying. Some if it is having difficulty refusing exciting opportunities. Some of it is just timing. I see it with my other friends too. Now that we’re in our late 20’s and early 30’s, things are starting to take off with family and career and personal lives.

It’s also really awesome to look at my life and some of the new potential projects and some of my current projects and just be like, “Yeah! I’m crushing it!” Things are humming on all cylinders (except for this week when those cylinders get gummed up by dealing with a sick pet). I had a great Holy Week and Easter! I am learning Snapchat! I’m going to Croatia in May! I’m writing a bunch! I was on a podcast (check it out here)!

I would love to tell my anxiety-ridden 22 year-old self that it does get better, that there are bigger and better plans than the ones you have for yourself, that you’re setting yourself up for your 30’s to be awesome despite finding the occasional gray hair and noticing the increase in wrinkles around your eyes. This is the good stuff, and it’s only the beginning.