Wednesday, September 23, 2009

My All-time Top 5 Running Shoes

My friend Tim recently blogged his top five running (training) shoes ("over the years"). It prompted me to write a blog about the same. Although Tim found it a bit difficult to narrow his list down to a top five, I had no problem, rattling them off without a second thought. The fact of the matter is that, although I have worn good shoes over the years by Asics, Adidas, Brooks, New Balance, and Saucony, there are very few shoes I considered "great." Maybe ONLY five. And much to my dismay, every single "great" shoe I've worn has either been discontinued or upgraded to something that only remotely resembles the original. Bill Dieter at Second Sole once told me I represented only ten percent of the population when it came to running gait. A podiatrist once told that watching me walk looks like my feet belong on two different people. Maybe that's why it's so difficult for me to find great shoes, and I've been relegated to searching the shelves in discount shoe stores looking for the one remaining pair, in my size, that slipped out to the general public. It doesn't happen often but when it does, it's akin to finding buried treasure.

In retrospect, as I review my top five, I can't help but wonder if something else was responsible for my favorite shoes going the way of the Dodo. Afterall, these are NOT pretty shoes. In fact, I remember trying them on, only to wince at the color/design when they were taken out of the box. And yet, I saved the worn versions of all of them (see photos below). That being said, I present a list of my top five training shoes of all time, in no particular order:

Adidas Ozweego (original): these shoes had an upper that looked like a quilt and they were the first Adidas shoes I ever saw without parallel stripes - I used to call these my "clown shoes" because of the way they flared out at the ball of the foot, and because it was the only shoe I ever wore in women's size 10:

Asics Gel Lyte Ultra: one of the lightest training shoes I ever wore, it had the most comfortable tongue of all time (it was hard-wired to the flaps) - this shoe came out when the Gel Lyte series version number was "3" and there was no "Asics DS" series:

Asics Gel Lytespeed: almost a racing flat with lots of cushioning and very little tread, and in neon colors, another very comfortable tongue design - the "split tongue" which was more like extra padding along the flaps - I ran my first Boston Marathon in these shoes:

Saucony Grid Azura (original): these shoes looked like they were made out of "stocking" material with a blue tiger stripe pattern, but, were they comfortable, and light and airy - these shoes could never be worn in the winter:

New Balance 826 (a relatively new shoe): I just ran in these shoes last year, only to find, when I went back to get a new pair, they were discontinued and replaced with something cost-prohibitive (for me) - I've since combed the internet for a single remaining pair, only to come up empty handed time and again:

Last of all, the honorable mention goes to the original Saucony Lady Jazz (from 1981) - my first real pair of running shoes, received as a Christmas gift from my parents after extensive research in Runners World magazines after school in my track coach's classroom. I don't remember them being bad-looking, but it may have been because I retro-fitted them with Star Wars shoe laces.

Monday, September 21, 2009

A "Real" Moutain Bike Adventure in Italy

No doubt, those who read my first Italian bike adventure blog are still laughing (at me). It's amazing the compromises I'll make to avoid confusion when I don't speak the language. However, I changed my tune for my second bike ride after a tip from the hotel manager that morning.

It was our last day in Pisa and my last chance to ride before we left for three days in London. To avoid a repeat experience, I asked the hotel front desk clerk for another shop in Pisa that rents bikes. To my surprise, he suggested I go back to the original rental guy, and, get this, that rental guy has "plenty of bikes" in the "shop." Oh, NOW you tell me. I marched out, determined to get what I wanted this time, because the day before I had found a great place to ride -- a trail along the old Roman aqueduct that led to the mountains. Those mountains would be my first destination.

I walked down the street and around the corner... only to find that bike rental guy was not even set up yet. I waited on the corner for about half an hour... then watched for another half hour while rental guy brought out each and every multiple-person Surrey bike (thanks to Google, I now know what they're called). And just as he finished putting up his display, two soon-to-be bikers jumped at the chance and got there right in front of me. As I walked up, they were haggling about something... rental guy looked up... ah, recognition: "How can I help you today?" I said "I want a REAL mountain bike, not THAT one" -- I pointed to my previous bike and continued: "you know, so I can ride up a MOUNTAIN" -- I pointed toward the mountains (I think). He said "you, come with me." The couple in front of me followed us. He led us to the shop and behold, there they were: scooters and mountain bikes... a veritable playground of two-wheeled vehicles. So THIS was it. The couple gets first pick. Then he wheels one out for me -- oh no, not another Bottecchia. I wondered: is Bottecchia is the Huffy of Italy? Where were all the Bianchi bikes? For cryin' out loud.

But again, time was short and I didn't want to argue. Besides, this one actually LOOKED like a real mountain bike. You MUST be kidding -- this mountain bike had its OWN rental rates: €13 for six hours. Come on, rental guy, cut me a break. No deal. I handed him €13 and my drivers license this time. It was 10:51 a.m. -- he said "I give you deal, I mark it 11 a.m." Big whoop. I grabbed the bike and got on my way, adjusting the seat when I was out of sight.

I found my way to the trail and I rode. Despite low air in the tires, the bike felt surprisingly good and shifted well. I rode to a little town called Asciano, built into the side of a mountain. I rode up the first hill I saw. It was so steep I thought I would do a wheelie and flip the bike over backward. Not good. I turned around. Half way down, I realized there were no back brakes -- not "worn" back brakes -- NO back brakes. Why didn't I check?? I ground the front brakes to a halt and got off the bike. Sure enough, the back brakes were broken. I put on my bike maintenance hat... I tried to remember how mountain bike brakes worked -- I just had to pop the the cable in the slot, right? Not so easy. I couldn't do it. I loosened the back wheel -- ah, that did it. Disaster averted, and I was on my way. But not before I learned that my dad wasn't the only pissed-off Italian man behind the wheel. One angry driver let me know how he felt about stopping in the road. Even though he was the only driver ON the road.

I rode down to the main drag and saw signs to Lucca. New plan: I would ride to Lucca and find a mountain or two on the way. The road to Lucca was perfect for cycling -- so perfect that there were groups of bikers decked out in their fancy bike outfits on the same route. I knew I had found THE place to ride. I rode through a nice town called San Giuliano Terme. When I reached Lucca (about 14 miles), I had found no mountain roads, so I turned around and went back the same way. I passed that first little town of Asciano and kept going, still hoping for a mountain workout. When I reached the town of Calci, there were signs that read something like "vista panoramico" and "Monte Serra." My correct assumption: there was a mountain called Monte Serra with a great view at the top. I followed the signs.

I rode up. And up. I stopped to get water (one great thing about Italy is the water fountains everywhere). I filled my water bottle and continued. Up and up, and up and up. I saw riders coming down. Lots of riders. I mused to myself that I had found the Italian equivalent of Everett Road hill in the Cuyahoga Valley. But it just kept going. I stopped to take photos of the scenery. I saw a sign that the summit was about 12k away... time was tight and I wanted to be back before Jim got out of his conference. I decided to turn around. But I rode to a point where I could get a photo of how high I was. Vista panoramico. I snapped a few photos, took in the view, and headed down... down down down down... I watched the road bikers fly by. I smiled. I found a mountain and all was good.

I finished the ride along the aqueduct and back to Pisa. My watch said just over four hours. Rental guy asked me if I was done. I nodded - he handed me my license. He asked me how the bike was. I said "good - you might want to put some air in the tires." For some reason, I felt no need to mention the brakes.

On the way back to the hotel, I saw a street vendor selling something familiar. Gatorade. And in my favorite flavor: Arancia!

Saturday, September 19, 2009

First Bike "Adventure" in Italy

My first four days in Italy were "running" days. I saw a different city every day - Milan, Ravenna, Florence, and Pisa. I had no time to find alternate ways to work out. Thus, my first attempt to bike was the second day in Pisa -- the first day of my husband's aerospace conference. I would be alone all day, so I decided to rent a bike. I wanted to ride to a Mediterranean beach which, we were told was only about ten miles away.

It was an adventure from the get-go, starting with the bike shop. It took me 15 minutes to find it because it wasn't at the location advertised. It was on the street. Around the corner. Across from the tacky souvenir shop. What else would I expect when the window sign has a map with a dot that says: "YOU are here" with an arrow pointing to another dot, one that says: "WE are HERE"? Duh! And all that time I had been looking for a business with a door.

So, yeah, it's the guy that rents six-seater bikes for groups to tool leisurely around Pisa. I didn't see any regular bikes, but thankfully, he spoke English. The ad says they rent hybrid and mountain bikes. I pointed to the add and said: "hybrid"? He pointed to a clunker girlie bike that looks like it's seen better days (see photo) -- not at ALL what I was hoping for. I gave it that once-over and pointed, again, to the statement on his ad: "Hmm, do you have a mountain bike?" He looked at me like I wasn't "getting it" and said "yes!" emphatically, and pointed, once more, to the very same bike. Clearly he thinks I'm an idiot. Or doesn't realize I'm a cyclist. He spoke: "Dees one - dees one for you." He was not to be swayed. He pulled out the rental rates. €13/day. Clearly, I must bargain. I asked for hourly rates. He reluctantly pulled out a second chart. €5/2 hours. Now THAT'S more like it. If I'm going to ride this ridiculous bike, I'm not taking it for more than a couple hours.

The business deal took place. Not finding my drivers license, I reluctantly surrendered my passport as collateral and handed him a €5 note. He gave me a quick lesson on how to lock up the bike. In these parts, security requires a massive chain that weighs over 10 pounds attached to a gigantic key lock that probably weighs more. After the lesson, he tossed the giant chain in the giant basket on the front of the bike -- a basket that will be heretofore known as my "water bottle cage."

The test drive - I almost wiped out on first revolution of the pedals. Great - so much for convincing this guy I'm a veteran cyclist. But clearly, this type of bike required some finesse. The handlebars were shaky and the brakes barely touched the tires. Rental guy assumed it was my position and lowered the seat. I got back on. I was now Peter Fonda, riding my chopper. But I had no time to protest, the clock was ticking and there was no time to lose. I rode around the corner out of sight where I could stop and readjust the seat to spare my quads. I headed toward the city wall.

The shakedown - I assessed the situation to determine if a "long" ride was feasible. The handle bars vibrated at low speeds, there was a bump on the tire causing anything in the bottle cage to jump once a revolution. I thought to myself: "throwing the chain" on this bike meant something entirely different. I noticed the brakes only served to slow me down and there were only six gears. Yep. I'm riding to the beach. What have I got to lose?

As I embarked on my quest, I contemplated my biggest fears: mechanical failure, flat tire, getting hit by a crazy Italian man who pulled out on me, getting hit by a smart car and causing IT more damage than the bike, and getting in trouble with the law (but bikers seem to ride everywhere in Europe, even against traffic on one-way streets). Then there was the humor factor: the whole time I was riding, I mused to myself that someone would see me and repeat Princess Leia's reaction to Han Solo upon first seeing the Millenium Falcon in Star Wars: "You came in that thing?!?! You're braver than I thought!"

Determined, I made it to the river (all rivers flow to the sea, right?) and onto the main road following signs for "mare." As I rode, I contemplated the bright side: afterall, there ARE six gears, the water bottle cage is easy to use, the aero position (which I now call "the crouch") is more comfortable than my TT bike, I'm getting new highlights in my hair because I don't have to wear a helmet, my foot muscles are stronger because I have to keep them on the pedals, and the seat doesn't cause saddle sores. Woo!

I made it to the beach in about an hour (including the 30 minutes I tooled around Pisa), which gave me time to check out the sights: beautiful mountains to the north, beachgoers, and seascapes. I took pictures. I met an African man selling silver jewelry who spoke many languages. When I told him I didn't speak Italian, he asked if I spoke French. I replied: "no, Inglese" -- to which he responded by asking me if I was from England. I laughed -- to my delight, this is, perhaps, the only person I've met who would mistake me for an English person. Do I NOT stick out as an American? I told him I was from the United States. He replied: "oo - ess - ay" and then "Obama!!" I smiled. He said "Obama is a very good man" -- and then tried to sell me some silver. Despite the offer of a "good price," I had no spending money and got on my way. When my watch said 1 hour 25 mins, I decided it was time to return.

As I turned to ride back to Pisa, I was confronted with those damn Mediterranean winds... I dialed all the way down to 4th gear and did "the crouch" to gain some speed heading out to the main drag back to Pisa. Local traffic ensured that I barely made it back in time, upon which rental guy assumed: "two more hours?" I was done: "Noooooooo!" I was desperate to be back on foot and in possession of my passport. He didn't push the point. I thanked him, smiled, and ran back to my hotel, happy that I got through one day without Jim and without any major disasters.

Some photos from the beach trip:

Friday, September 4, 2009

When in Rome...

Go running. Unless you can find a bike shop or a pool.

I used to look forward to training while on vacation. Back in the old days... when I was a marathon runner and nothing else. Vacations were easy back then. I didn't worry about finding an ocean, lake or pool to swim in, and I wasn't frantically Googling where to rent a road bike in a non-English-speaking country. All I needed was a pair of running shoes, shorts and a singlet -- my ticket to see the world. Even in the winter. I've run in almost every city I've traveled to. I've seen Paris, Rome, and London at times when most tourists are sleeping. I've gotten lost in Pittsburgh (easy to do) AND New York (next-to-impossible). I've run along Lake Geneva in Switzerland. I've run up a mountain in Scotland. I've run in the Hollywood Hills. I've run in violent wind storms in Brighton, England (see photo), and Chicago. I've stopped along the waterfront trail to admire starfish in Monterey Bay. I've gotten up at 4 a.m. to run in Houston in the summer. And because I AM the disaster magnet, I've even tripped and fallen over road construction barriers in Dublin, Ireland.

So, you ask: why don't I just pack my running shoes and stop complaining? It's simple: because I'm in training for an Ironman 70.3 in November. This is no time for a break. In fact, it's exactly the opposite -- it's time for hard training. How does a triathlete train hard in a foreign country on a limited budget? Your guess is as good as mine. I've scoped out beaches and bike shops in Italy. I've packed clothes for all three sports. I've looked up alternative workouts for swimmers without water and bikers without hardware. And tomorrow, I enter the realm of vacation training.

I will report back on my successes, failures and lessons learned. My one consolation is that I may come out of it with a faster run leg. And some new stories to tell. Hopefully not disaster stories.