“One time, at band camp…”

Friday, April 4th, 2014

Somewhere along the paved slope of a road known ruefully as Nasty Grade, my wife Erin gasped these words over her handlebars. It took a minute, but the other dozen riders us–hypoxic and churning the pedals up the steep central Californian road–finally realized she was joking, and laughed. We’d been thinking the same thing: How can she possibly have enough breath to tell a story right now?

L to R: Christina Liebner, me, Erin Lopez

L to R: Christina Liebner, me, Erin Lopez

The ride was part of a three-day training camp with the Oakland Triathlon Club, a get-acquainted weekend with the drought-stricken landscape in California’s Monterey County. We will compete in the annual Wildflower Triathlon on May 2. The race is known as one of the most difficult; club member Trish Sampson once told me, “I’ve never done Wildflower and said afterward, ‘That went well.’” Coming from Trish, an Ironman Arizona finisher and four-time competitor in this race, it explains a lot about why the rest of the club wanted to preview the course.

This year promises to be especially challenging. When Erin raced it five years ago, there was water in Lake San Antonio. Now, about ten thousand athletes will swim in what’s left of it–a puddle by comparison, located 2.2 miles from the swim-bike transition area. It means that the 10K run usually reserved for the race’s final leg will be split in two: 2.2 miles before the bike, and 4 miles after it. And the general heat, hills, and pre-race hype will be the same as always, stoked by the mass of athlete campers who pitch their tents and fill the valley with our sport’s answer to Woodstock.

Dear Rain Gods: the lake goes here.

Dear Rain Gods: the lake goes here.

But for now, over a month before the race, the location is all but a ghost town. Our group of twenty-two athletes came together in four cabins along the dry lakebed, pretty much isolated from civilization except for another tri team further down the hill, a herd of deer, and a pack of coyotes who visited the camp at night. (The wild pigs, subject of a stern warning on the campsite fence, must have heard about triathletes’ legendary appetites in general, and our fondness for bacon in particular.) In short, we had one of the most popular triathlon courses in the world almost to ourselves.

Without its water to attract a boating and fishing crowd, the lake’s industry is in hosting triathletes: the swim course is already well-marked with signs to the shore, a map, and buoys. When Erin, Chris, Jessica, and I swam on a sunny Friday afternoon the water was cool but not uncomfortable; Saturday was cloudier, however, and the water was downright cold. I’ll at least pack earplugs with my race gear next month, but will probably skip the neoprene cap. Either way, expect extremely poor visibility underwater, and watch out for some quicksand along the shore. (Seriously!)

The Olympic course bike is very rolly, with two more significant hills just short of midway–though not nearly as painful as Nasty Grade on the long course. After the those two big ones on the way out, expect a smooth, slow, aero-bar-friendly descent to the turnaround, and an almost exact (smooth, slow) uphill on the way back into the rollers. The road is a little rough in places, but there is no need to fear the descents as long as your water bottles are secure.

And the 4-mile run… Well, after the short stretch of rolling road out of T2, there’s a hill. It’s called Beach Hill, and you’ve got a mile of sharp, steep switchbacks to play the rhyming game with that name all you want. And you will want. My advice: When you first see people running 200 hundred feet above you, you’ll know it’s right around the corner. Don’t get intimidated, and give your legs a few minutes to get used to the grade. Find a rhythm, and keep your mental composure. After you top out, there is a long downhill followed by more trail rollers–but by that point, you will probably be able to hear the finish line.

Although for us, last weekend, the only sound was the wind. Maybe helped along by this isolation, what struck me again about OTC is the speed of connection between people and the overwhelming friendliness of our group. Of course, we could bond over our shock at the dry lakebed, Nasty Grade, Beach Hill, and the joy of eating so many good meals. In fact, we hardly needed to talk about anything else. Yet aside from the particulars of conversation (which are plenty often arbitrary, anyway) there is a basic affinity that I feel comes from OTC’s best asset: its people.

And that’s why, as Erin and I made the three-hour drive back to Oakland on Sunday afternoon, just about every story we told started with, “One time, at tri camp…”

Thanks, OTC and Chris Van Luen, for a great adventure!

Thanks, OTC and Chris Van Luen, for a great adventure! (Photo by Jessica Russell)

(Photo by Jessica Russell)
(Photo by Jessica Russell)


Starting Line: Thoughts on the 2014 Race Season

Tuesday, February 25th, 2014

This week, the Oakland Triathlon Club announced its 2014 Elite Team. I’m extremely humbled to be a part of this group, which includes some of the Bay Area’s most promising athletes: Ian Ballentine, Christina Liebner, and coach Mitchell Reiss. We are already training for a very full season of Olympic-distance races: our top events include Wildflower, Escape from Alcatraz, and Oakland’s very first Oakland Triathlon.

Looking mean, in a very welcoming, OTC kind of way.

Looking mean, in a very welcoming, OTC kind of way. (L to R: Mitchell, Ian, Christina, me)

Considering that my last triathlon was in 2009 or 2010 (it was that long ago), I’ve been training as if my life depended on it. In a week, I swim more  than I did for the entire year and a half that I lived in Texas. I’m back to doing my pleasure reading on the bike trainer, and stealing glances at my Garmin every couple of minutes on my “relaxation” runs.

I’m also remembering that the nature of triathlon training is schizophrenic. Fitting two longish workouts into one day means suddenly shifting mental gears (and clothes) between desk and bike–two places where I give my all. Compartmentalizing never feels quite natural, but it’s a survival strategy for most age-groupers; unless, of course, your rich aunt just died and left you a hefty race stipend. Then, there’s a drive to get better that creates this urge to measure everything: heart rate, time per pool lap, length of a bike interval, last week’s running pace, the five-millimeter difference between one set of pedal cranks and another. One day at the gym, I caught myself counting sips at the water fountain, and wondered if all these numbers were literally making me crazy.

Yet, at least for me, I do all this counting with the understanding that triathlons are still totally relative. Lots of people are just going to be faster. And more important, there are athletes of all speeds whose dedication and pure heart for this sport completely humble me.


…Like this guy (on the right), who ran past as I was waiting for my wife to exit T2 at the 2011 Ironman Louisville.

…Like this guy (on the right), who ran past as I was waiting for my wife to exit T2 at the 2011 Ironman Louisville.

And this is the spirit of what makes me so happy to race for the Oakland Triathlon Club. Besides being backed by some great sponsors, it’s THE most diverse group of athletes I have ever met. It’s California’s fastest-growing (and best!) triathlon club–and in my opinion, probably the most inclusive and friendly one on the whole planet. I can’t wait to push my physical limits with these folks this year, and continue to meet and write about our goals and accomplishments. 

Here’s to a SAFE and HAPPY 2014 race season!

This Is Your Valentine

Friday, February 14th, 2014

Valentine 2014

What matters to me on Valentine’s Day, what’s worth saying in a national storm of pink and red mylar balloons and overpriced greeting cards, is thank you. It has been a big year for love.

So, thank you for wearing a rainbow, even if you’re straight.

Thank you for painting Facebook red with HRC’s logo on March 26 and 27, the days when Supreme Court heard arguments in the Windsor and Prop 8 cases. This was purely coincidental with our wedding, but to us, it felt like the whole Internet had unknowingly sent us flowers.

Thank you, Mom and Dad, friends, and in-laws for coming to the wedding.

To the young Coast Guard yeoman, who processed my official spouse ID in September: as you waited for the card to laminate, you folded your hands under your chin and asked us, “So how did you meet?” My heart thanked you profusely because you saw the two of us women sitting there as nothing more or less than a love story to brighten up your morning.

Thank you to all the people who don’t miss a beat when I say wife.

Thank you for having our backs. For supporting us. For speaking up for us when our own voices shake. For reinvigorating the meaning of friendship. For loving us back.

This Valentine is for you.

Who is Nawal El Saadawi?

Monday, February 10th, 2014

Nawal El Saadawi Reader

One of the great delights of my Arabic classes is encountering Arab writers and activists who are little known in the West. This delight is something akin to discovering cousins on the other side of the world–or, in the case of Nawal El Saadawi, an Egyptian doctor and lifelong activist for women’s medical rights, discovering a woman who could easily be my main character’s mentor (or my main character herself, plus about fifty years).

This morning I am reading her 1990 essay on women and Islamic fundamentalism, and I found a passage that really resonates with the sentiment behind the world I created for ROOM 100:

We know that our [women's] battle is economic and political, against both external and internal exploiters. But those exploiters try to transform political and economic wars into religious ones. . . . The fundamentalist movements are a mask for other battles, and a distortion of all religions.

(From here, p. 98).

A Confluence of Cultures along the Plains of the Dead: A review of Yangsze Choo’s THE GHOST BRIDE

Friday, February 7th, 2014

The Ghost BrideThe Ghost Bride by Yangsze Choo

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

In this lovely cross-genre debut, Yangsze Choo creates a haunting world of her own between paranormal YA, historical, and multicultural fiction. If I hadn’t discovered the book through a recommendation, I would have eventually found it on the Indie Next list, among the Goodreads Choice Award finalists, with B&N’s Discover Great New Writers picks . . . In short, it’s everywhere, and there couldn’t be a more deserving novel.

Teenager Li Lan is presented with an usual marriage proposal: to wed Lim Tian Ching, a dead man. It’s 19th-century Malaysia, on the rocky fault line between superstition and science, and Li Lan is much more interested in her suitor’s handsome (and alive) cousin, Tian Bai. Both young men are from a wealthy family to whom Li Lan’s father owes a debt, and when Lim Tian Ching’s ghost starts to invade Li Lan’s dreams, accusing Tian Bai of murdering him, her fate seems increasingly bound to his family’s. She tries fending the ghost off with spirit remedies, but overdoses and winds up with one foot in the world of the living and one in the Plains of the Dead. Driven to find her own deceased mother and understand the true circumstances of Lim Tian’s Ching’s death, Li Lan finds herself allied to a powerful creature of the underworld–and soon, deciding between loyalty to her family’s traditions and an uncharted future full of magic and adventure.

The writing really excels. Like all good magical realism, the Plains of the Dead and its otherworldly atmosphere are at once totally inventive and utterly tangible, from its corrupt bureaucracy, to its strange colors and textures, to the faceless paper servants that populate its cities. I found myself invested in the debts, obsessions, and agendas of the spirits that surround Li Lan, and really, this is why I read: to be so convinced that the impossible exists that I’m opening a book in the grocery store line, in bed at 1 a.m., or while riding my bike (on the trainer; safety first).

This was a fast, satisfying story, with an atmosphere that ends up being the most impressive aspect of an already formidable debut. I can’t wait to read what follows.

View all my reviews

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