At least it’s still 2013, right?
(Other than the parts where my second wallet of the year was snatched and our car died on the way home from the airport. Thank goodness for heroes like Marc Lombardi and Margot Murphy!)
I really couldn’t have scripted a more enchanting ending to my Watson Fellowship. One year after I left them and thirty since they last visited Europe, my mom and dad met me in France for the final nine days of my trip. In addition to catching up like our life depended on it, we shared a little bit of my vagabond existence, sight-saw until our legs went numb, and most specially, celebrated their 30th wedding anniversary. Before my trip becomes even more of a muddled dream, here are some highlights from our reunion and my very last week abroad:
A day marveling at the Versailles palaces and gardens (and appreciating never having to sleep in such a pattern-overloaded bedroom or eating dinner in front of a dozen empty-plated guests every night):
A few hilarious, bizarre, unexpected encounters like this summer parade in Strasbourg…
(those would be firework-popping exterminators in pursuit of giant, dancing insects)
It’s only been a week since I hit home, but I already feel like I could have snatched that final excursion straight out of a Disney classic. Having my parents to myself for a full week, I got to describe my journey slowly, thoroughly and spontaneously, get the full scoop on what’s been brewing around Dallas and the Wade home since I left, and give them a little taste of what life has been like for me these past 12 months. Every day had some incredible moments, but the highlight for me was visiting my parents’ honeymoon spot and celebrating their thirty years of mostly blissful, always model marriage to each other.
I’m now back in the real world of Dallas, Texas, and have replaced the thrills of traveling with the excitement of seeing everyone and everything that I’ve missed. I don’t expect my wanderlust to stay dormant for too long, but for now I’m savoring every second of being home.
Fifty weeks ago, I ran away from home. Since then, I’ve traversed 22 countries, slept in 72 beds, exhausted 11 pairs of running shoes, run 3504 miles, and befriended hundreds of the world’s finest humans.
After a spectacular final week with my parents (that update’s coming next), I’m back in Paris awaiting my final flight in the morning and the embrace of a curly, blonde Wombmate that wouldn’t dare be late for the most important pick-up of his life or show his face at DFW in anything but a bedazzled pair of red, white and blue overalls.
The mature, insightful follow-up to this tornado of a year is probably a reflection on the sights I’ve seen, discoveries I’ve made, challenges I’ve overcome, and growth I’ve experienced since July 2012. But there’s only one place that’s on my mind right now, and it packs more punch and pride in its panhandled, bumpy-tailed border than anywhere I’ve traveled and is consuming every last bit of brain capacity I have. So I’m going to let my thoughts of Texas and home run as wild as the legs that bolted away from there twelve months ago as I list, in no particular order, some of the things that I’m most looking forward to returning to:
So what’s next? First, some stability, familiarity, and as much family and friend time as I can convince them is necessary. After a month or two of getting my life sorted out at home, training hard, helping out at my parents’ law office, and starting to process the last twelve months, I’ll move back to Houston for at least this fall. Under the guidance of Jim, my trusted coach for six years and counting, I’ll take a leap into the daunting, exhilarating world of post-collegiate running while assuming a volunteer assistant role at Rice, holding a part-time job, and figuring out what my next big step will be. The only thing I’m sure about at this point is that I want to give professional running my all while I’m still young and fresh. But where? Texas, Colorado, California, D.C, or elsewhere? At what distance do I truly belong? And how will I occupy the time outside of running? Graduate school is likely, but where and in what discipline?
There’s plenty of time ahead to mull all of that over. For now though, about a year after fleeing the coop, there’s only one place my heart and mind belong: my snug, familiar, memory-laden nest in Dallas, Texas, with its root-busted driveway, fragrant magnolia trees, enormous kitchen window, and perfect layout for two parents and two sets of twins.
From the depths of my heart, with its Texas-shaped hole that will be plugged by this time tomorrow, I appreciate y’all sticking with me during my sensational Watson journey. Your support and prayers mean more than I can express and brightened what would have been had a much rougher romp through all those unfamiliar territories and new faces. As fun as it has been describing my journey through this blog, I’m really looking forward to giving my computer and timezone calculations a rest after a few final posts, and catching up with each of you in person in the coming weeks. So those of you currently in Texas– get ready to be squeezed like anaconda prey and to fill me in on your past year. And those of you in other states and other countries– let’s figure out how to cross paths in either your or my stomping grounds as soon as we can. (That means you, hosts who have welcomed me into your home like a long-lost daughter. My door’s as open as yours was and I hope you’ll find that out for yourselves.)
All year, I’ve been writing about world-class runners and world-class hosts. I now want to introduce you to a third type of world-class influences on this trip: my nearest and dearest friends from home.
Other than a few special occasions (like this, this, and this), their presence this year has been confined to email updates, Skype chats, prods for NBA (non-blog-appropriate) info, and the occasional revamped Sisqo song in a video message.
But not last week!Armed with two weeks of vacay time, hot-off-the-press Masters diplomas, and a globe of possibilities, two of my best friends from Dallas jetset all the way to Scandinavia for a supersonic spin through Copenhagen and Stockholm and a full week of Finnish fun with their girl B. Not your average vacation or reunion destination… nor your normal amount of fun or folly.
Claire and Matt’s arrival in Helsinki coincided perfectly with Midsummer’s Eve, one of Finland’s biggest holidays that empties cities as Finns flock to countryside cottages for a weekend of grilling, eating, drinking, sauna-ing, swimming, boating, mosquito-slapping, and celebrating this special time of year in which the sun refuses to fully set.
After we rented a cottage online and I wrangled up some new Finnish friends, we hit to road to Kangasala, Finland, population: Pia and Bob Taylor (but don’t even play like you’ve never thought about vacationing there).
Once we settled in and got the lay of the land (by which I mean that Claire and I napped hard while Matt trudge-trudge-TRUDGEd through thick fields and patched up a sinking canoe with a homemade grass plug), our Frinns arrived and kicked the weekend off right with a good ole stranger-on-stranger prank.
I woke the next morning bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, all ready to forage in the shrubs and moss for our breakfast. The hordes of mushrooms the Badger raved about never materialized, but we did make a tiny strawberry skewer (serving size: 1 small rodent).More importantly, the Badge got a second opportunity to prank us by hiding a package of mushrooms under some moss and waiting until we found it. Tricky Badger!
A long run, some breakfast tacos, and one last bro-sauna later, easily the best Finnish Midsummer celebration we’ve ever had came to an end as the Badger, Antti-Pekka and Kari hit the road, leaving three wannabe Finns to brave the elements on our own for the rest of the week.What didn’t come to an end was our excessive use of Badger’s trademark “Come on, MAYNE!” Not even close.
For the next five days, Claire, Matt, and I alternated between quiet, leisurely cottage time and aimless explorations through nearby towns, filling the in-betweens with Suomipop, Yksi (“one” in Finnish and a highly recommended change from Uno), and more scrambling to catch up on all the scandals and happenings from last year.The Finnish countryside must be one of the most underrated destinations in the world, and I’m so thankful that the three of us got to reunite and unwind in such untraditional, picturesque surroundings.
Other than one refueling mishap (don’t even talk to us about Finnish gas stations), our rental car was perfect for scooting around the countryside and taking day trips to nearby towns. Tampere and Jyväskylä offered nice glimpses of less touristy towns and both had a few jewels tucked inside. Also, 10 bucks to anyone who can pronounce the second one without sounding like a fool!
For the last two nights of Claire and Matt’s visit, we rolled back to the Sink to do a little city-exploring and island-hopping. Though I was awestruck for the second time by Helsinki’s massive churches and cool Russian architecture, the highlight for me was Suomenlinna, an 18th century sea fortress that spans six islands and contains elements from its time under Swedish and Russian control. The whole area teems with molehill-hideouts, dark stone tunnels, and mossy crags, and made me want to do a little defending on Finland’s behalf (but not in the winter, for more than a few hours, or for real).
Matt and Claire’s visit ended way too abruptly for my liking, but not without one last “Come on, MAYNE” as they strutted their stuff out of our criminal-infested hotel (my bad! or good?). Our entire week was wonderful, but the best part of it all (fine– besides the popcorn fridge) was having two easy-going, joke-cracking, long-time buds by my side who I felt not one speck of pressure to be polite, serious, or guest-y around. They reminded me that my eagerness for home is justified and cemented the fact that I do indeed have the world’s most loyal, fun, sincere, and witty friends. So thanks, you two, for spending your precious vacation time getting very jet-lagged, sleeping in a mosquito-ridden hut, “showering” in a sauna, and brightening up last week and the end of my trip in a way that only close friends are capable of. On a scale from Sheep to SKG, I love y’all a RatchDaddy amount and will forever be thankful for our awesome, unusual, Finnish reunion.
For my last two nights in Helsinki, I crashed with Venla Paunonen and her boyfriend Mikko for the second time, and got to know the lovely Paunonen family a little better through Venla’s impressive speed session and a day in nearby Porvoo.They were my last true hosts of this trip and I couldn’t ask for a better family to end on. Thanks for the meals, bed, tours, and 5am ride to the airport, Paunonens, and I hope and believe that we’ll cross paths at some races or training camps in the future!
As of last Sunday, I can FINALLY say that I’m happily reunited with my dear Mom and Pop after a year apart. We’re last-hoorah-ing in France this week before storming Dallas on July 9th, and I’m delighted to get to share the tail end of my Watson journey with them. I can only think of three elements that would make this reunion better, and their names are Matt, Rachel, and Luke. Fortunately, though, in less than a week we will all be inhabiting the same state and timezone and boy, am I ready for that!
The good thing is that it makes for a bright and buzzing finale to this explosion of a year!
Upon leaving Turku last week, I spent the first five days in almost as many different towns and beds. Bear with me as I attempt to tame my scattered thoughts and bring you up to date to this past weekend. And then etch summery Finland into your mind for the next time you wish for more hours in a day. Your slumber might take a hit, but the sunshine will do wonders for your spirit, productivity, and attachment to this country of 188,000 lakes (and almost as many saunas, it seems).
Last Monday, I caught a train from Turku to Siuntio, a quiet rural town within an hour of Helsinki. Although Siuntio historically boasts one of Finland’s strongest track clubs, the running scene I traveled there to explore was not so much a culture as an individual.In addition to being a very accomplished runner in the 80’s, participating in a number of World Championships and running a 2:14 marathon, Henrik Sandstrom and I share a special connection that I couldn’t leave out of my Finnish tour. During his competitive career, he spent time training in the Alamosa, Colorado altitude, home of the iconic Adams State running program and alma mater of my coach, Jim. There he forged a lasting friendship with one of Jim’s buds, Pablo Vigil, who was an extraordinary runner (4-time consecutive Sierre-Zinal Champion and Colorado Running Hall of Famer) and has perhaps the most zeal for life and running of anyone I’ve met. In addition to some other key connections and ideas, Pablo put me in touch with Hendrik and initiated one of the most interesting and unusual stays of this trip.
After a quick scoot through the area in the car, on a run, and through a club track session, Hendrik and I arrived at a beautiful old schoolhouse.
Not part of our tour, the building that functioned as a school from 1900-1969 has since been renovated into the Sandstrom family home. I slept in a room that used to house the unmarried female teachers (only the male headmaster was allowed to be married), next door to a cook’s room that is still equipped with a stove, and above the main classroom with some sweet old-school exercise equipment.
After a delicious home-cooked dinner, I had the privilege of poring over Henrik’s 30+ year-old training logs and hearing all about the rich running tradition in which he grew up.I couldn’t decipher most of his comments, but I could appreciate the times and distances and guess the nature of the words following especially good or bad workouts. I found it neat that some sessions and techniques span cultures and decades (8x1k with 90 seconds rest, Sunday long run, ~8 mile tempo run) and was delighted to encounter some familiar names like Joe Vigil, Pablo Vigil, and Pat Porter. What a privilege this was for me to learn about the revered Finnish running school from a big contributor and to add one more link to the American-Finnish running chain.
The following day began with a 1 hour-turned-1 hour 40 minute run on the windy, hilly roads surrounding Henrik’s house. Sometimes you’ve got to capitalize on especially brilliant terrain, weather, or feelings, and that run hit all three. After that, with no time to spare in my less-than-48-hour visit, Henrik and his co-worker Pia whisked me around Siuntio and beyond to show me some of their favorite spots.
For the second half of my week, I headed to the 1952 Olympic host city and former training grounds of most Finnish greats: Helsinki.Before passing me off to my next host, Henrik treated me to a sightseeing run through the city, lunch in the trackside Olympic Stadium Cafe, and a peek down on Helsinki from the Stadium Tower (which is precisely 72.71 meters tall to match Matti Järvinen’s gold medal javelin throw in the 1932 Olympics).In addition to the ’52 Olympics, the stadium hosted the first World Athletics Championship in 1983 and the 2005 World Championships as well. I got a kick out of the track’s notorious “curves” that cause all sorts of fury and DNFs, loved the unobstructed view of the city, and tried to envision the electricity that filled the stands when Emil Zatopek of Czechoslovakia won the unheralded 5k, 10k, and marathon Olympic triple.
From there, I linked up with another Alamosa/Pablo connection and the orchestrator of my next few days in Helsinki, Ari Paunonen. As the editor-in-chief of Juoksiva (the Finnish equivalent of Runner’s World), one of Finland’s best runners in the 70s and 80s, the husband of a former 2:04 800 runner, and a current coach to his two middle-distance daughters, I couldn’t design a more ideal or gracious ambassador of Finland’s running scene than Ari.
While answering my blast of questions about his roles as athlete, coach and editor, Ari took me to some must-see spots and events for a running visitor. First up was the Olympic Museum, which I walked around for an hour with a propped jaw and protruding eyeballs.On display was some awesome memorabilia from the 1952 Olympics as well as from Finland’s participation in other Olympic Games. I was impressed by it all, but my favorite parts were the Paavo Nurmi showcase, featuring his uniform, travel bag, golden bust, and gilded spike, some dramatic action shots of the Flying Finns, and a little movie theater featuring short films on Finnish heroes like Lasse Viren and Ville Ritola.
That evening, Ari and I went to an area track and field championship at the Olympic Stadium warm-up track with quite a resume of its own, having endured plenty of pounding from the likes of Paavo and his successors. I always like watching meets, especially when steeples are being chased, but this one was extra enjoyable due to some stellar and swift Finnish company…Joonas “Badger” Harjamaki (one of Finland’s top steeplechasers today and a former Lamar University runner!), Arto Bryggare (bronze medalist in the 1984 Olympic 110m hurdles and silver medalist in the 1983 World Championships), Tommy Ekblom (2-time Olympian in the steeplechase and “The Head Coach of Everything”), and Ari Paunonen (current Finnish record holder in the mile (3:55.65) and indoor 5k (13:55.76) and co-record holder, with Lasse Viren, in the outdoor 3000m (7:43.20)). Talk about a past and present Finnish dream team!
The Helsinki fun continued that night with Ari’s driving tour past the city’s celebrated landmarks, the entire next day with a Badger-led sight-seeing extravaganza, and a really nice run with each of them through their favorite stomping grounds.
I haven’t had much brain space to process everything I’m doing and seeing– my body and mind feel like they hopped on a hamster wheel a few weeks ago and are still cruisin at max speed– but suffice it to say that Finland is providing an awesome, electric ending to this global tour. I’ll do my best to organize my thoughts to an acceptable degree so I can do justice to this wonderful country and these last couple weeks of my trip. Stay tuned for an update on a glorious, outrageous reunion with two of my closest Dallas friends, the cottage we rented in the Finnish backwoods, and our attempt to assume full Finn status in less than a week.
To end, I’d like to wish everyone a Happy Midsummer (the topic of my next post), a Merry Half Christmas (from Santa Claus’ home country), and a Happy 21st Anniversary to my home, sweet home in Dallas.
With less than three weeks until I touch down on Texas soil, I’m officially on the homestretch of my Watson journey. If this were a marathon, I’d be in the 40th and penultimate kilometer; a steeplechase, the final of 35 barriers. Like those races, I’m mustering up as much energy as I can to finish this year off with a powerful kick and walk away without any regrets or missed opportunities.
My second week in Turku was full of running-related activities that I was fortunate to share with my fabulous host family and now close friends, the Hellstens. If he were still alive, Paavo Nurmi would have turned 116 years old on June 13th and his hometown paid tribute to him all week long. Here Helena and I are at his statue in the middle of town, jazzed up for the occasion with some wreaths:
The house he grew up in, now a museum, is only open to the public once a year and my 14 days in Turku conveniently coincided with this year’s open house.Along with Juha, my host and stand-in coach, I hung out in the tiny one-room home that Paavo shared with his mom, sister, and brothers, and the even smaller kitchen that they rented out to another family until Paavo earned enough money in the 1920 Olympics to buy the whole place. We heard a few interesting stories about him, my favorite being the time he showed up for a meet and was only paid part of his promised appearance fee. In response, he only ran part of the distance he was entered in. Sounds fair to me, but the Finnish athletic association didn’t think so and subsequently left him off of the next Olympic team. Hefty price to pay for a little joke, I’d say!
We sandwiched the Nurmi home visit with some standard Turku sight-seeing, first checking out Aboa Vetus, a fascinating museum and archaeological site built around real 14th century ruins from Finland’s oldest city and former capital.
The Nurmi celebrations continued the following weekend with the annual Paavo Nurmi Games, one of the most competitive track meets for Finnish athletes. After a really pretty, rainy forest run with my friend and Juha’s athlete Annti-Pekka, I enjoyed an afternoon full of races and field events in Nurmi’s honor and cheered on some friends I met the week prior.
I also tried two new running activities during my stay with the Hellstens, one of which I think I have some potential in and the other, sadly, which I do not. The promising one was a half marathon, which I was invited to run about two weeks beforehand. I had just decided that I didn’t want to race duing the last bit of my trip due to chronic sleep deprivation, all of the moving around, and the difficulty of getting in really high quality workouts, but the idea of getting in a tempo run with hundreds of new friends and a few water stations in a new area of Finland was too good to pass up. So away to Forssa I went, along with Juha, Annti-Pekka, and A.P.’s friend.
The event was really well organized and the course was beautiful (though a little more breezy than ideal), and I latched onto a group of guys for most of the race. It was a nice, comfortable introduction to 21 kilometers of road-racing and I’m pumped to make an honest half marathon debut when I’m rested and specifically trained.
The second new event for me was orienteering, though my future in that discipline is much less promising. Anna, Juha’s sister, was an excellent (and way too patient) coach, politely correcting me every time I misinterpreted all those squiggles, circles, lines, and doodles that some people call a map. You’d think that all of the running and exploring I do daily would make me an ideal candidate for the sport, but sadly it isn’t so.
In addition to dashed dreams, my little trial run in the forest behind the Hellsten’s house infused me with a fascination with Jukola, a famous event and national affair that took place the following weekend. Juha and Helena gave me the full run-down on the 7-person, all-night orienteering relay that brings many of the world’s best orienteers to Finland each summer (over 16,000 participants this year!).(picture from http://www.ocff.at/joomla/index.php/news/102-news/112-jukola-vereinsreise)
After learning about the complex logistics, rules, and tactics that are involved, I decided that I should either stick to pure running or weasel my way into children’s orienteering competitions where all I have to do is chase a string around a forest path. That, I think I could handle… especially when I’ve got nearly two decades on my competitors.
In between all that action, I was treated to some delicious Finnish and Helena-ish food, and snagged quite a few recipes from her repertoire during my visit.I reciprocated with a TexMex feast on my last night, which teased my tastebuds in anticipation of the real deal just around the corner.
I got yet another taste of Finnish food during an afternoon of running and Texas reminiscing with Johanna, who is freshly home from a year of studying and running at Sam Houston State University (one of Rice’s nearest neighbor schools). Her meatballs and blueberry pie were divine and it was so nice to chat with her about some familiar places and Texas memories.
My Finnish segment is only halfway over, but my marvelous stay with the Hellstens came to an end on Monday when I transitioned to the Helsinki area. Juha and Helena treated me so well during my two week stay, showing me all around the area, taking me on awesome runs, and giving me my fill of summertime saunas (if that’s even possible). I especially appreciate their elongated effort to speak in English during my whole visit, even to each other, which I know can be effortful for non-native speakers but which kept me connected and involved. I miss that sweet family already, and must admit that mealtimes are a bit lackluster without Matilda’s theatrics and Melissa’s My Little Pony chatter. So thanks, Hellstens, for making my last substantial home-stay a memorable and excellent one, and for providing me with the ultimate display of Finnish culture and running.
After one of my dad’s many 8-hour round trips to watch me race a few laps around a track, a friend joked that he would swim across the ocean for his kids. I had to chuckle– not because it was such a preposterous statement– but because I could honestly picture him in his deer-skin moccasins, green hunting vest, and trusty headlamp, researching late into the night about the best wetsuits and shark-avoidance tactics, brooding over the best route through the water, and training in the pool until it was time to go.
Happy Father’s Day to you, Pops, and to all you other dads. I love you very, very much and am endlessly grateful for everything that you do.
And a special birthday shout-out to two of track and field’s greatest gifts: the late Paavo Nurmi and James “Jungle Gym” Bevan, my coach, mentor, and inspiration of six years and counting. I’m not sure what the inverse of “coachable” is, but you’re it to the maximum. May your day be filled with as many stranger fist pumps, bumpin Pandora jams, steering wheel drum beats, and outrageous conspiracy theories as you can handle. I’m looking forward to that first North and South session back, you pumping alongside on the Elliptigo and your “Goooood”s and “Beautiful!”s firing me up, more than I can say.
It’s a question I got when I first proposed my Watson year, and one that I now preemptively pause to answer every time I explain my itinerary. And fair enough– even though it’s the former capital and oldest city in Finland, this small city on the southwest coast doesn’t have too many chances to creep into an ordinary conversation.
Unless that conversation centers on track and field; then it’s another story.
Not quite a century ago, Finland was the nest of middle- and long-distance running. The East Africa of the early twentiety century, you could say. Between the resurgence of the modern Olympic Games and the start of World War II, the nation of less than 4 million people took home every Olympic 10,000 meter title except one and won a slew of other middle- and long-distance medals on the world’s biggest stage as well. By the 1936 Berlin Olympics, when three Finnish runners swept the 10k, the distance contingent from that country had appropriately been dubbed “The Flying Finns.”
No one was more pivotal in establishing Finland’s global running dominance than Paavo Nurmi, perhaps the most famous Flyer. Born right here in Turku, Nurmi’s resume boasts 9 Olympic gold medals, 3 silvers, and 22 official world records at distances ranging from the 1,500 meters to 20 kilometers. He’s the only person to win the Olympic 1500 meters (1924), 5,000 meters (1924) and 10,000 meters (1920 and 1928), and two of those were won with only 55 minutes between them (the 1500m and 5k in 1924). In his prime, Nurmi accumulated a 121-race winning streak at distances from the 800 meters and up, and he died in 1973 with an undefeated record in cross-country races and the 10,000 meters. It’s unlikely that any of those feats will be reproduced by a single person, much less the whole lot of them.
While amassing those accolades, Nurmi also played a major role in the advancement of long-distance training. Recognized as one of the first runners to take a systematic and analytic approach to the sport, he demonstrated the value of even-paced racing as well as interval and speed work. He also popularized the use of a stopwatch in training and advocated for a cross-training regimen of walking, running, and calisthenics. Those elements, which seem obvious and natural today, have not always been so.
So here I am in Turku, familiarizing myself with the breeding grounds of the legendary Flying Finns while getting to know the Hellstens, my sweet host family. In between some stunning running around their home, the Paavo Nurmi Stadium, and a nearby national park, Juha and Helena have been showing me a Finnish summer done right:
My two-week stay in Turku will culminate with Paavo Nurmi’s birthday, celebrated annually with an open-house and track meet in his honor, before I move onto Helsinki for the second half of my Finland stint and the essential conclusion of my Watson year.
I’ll leave y’all with one of my favorite running quotes, spoken by Nurmi and introduced to me on one of Maureen’s legendary Ursuline banana runs:
Mind is everything. Muscle– pieces of rubber. All that I am, I am because of my mind.
Sources: “Finding Sisu” by Adam Chase, “Paavo Johannes Nurmi” by TimTim Sharma, “An Illustrated History of Distance Running” by Mike Rosenbaum, http://biography.yourdictionary.com/paavo-nurmi, and dimdima.com.