Wednesday, April 30, 2008


A couple days have passed since I ran more than three hours along the Elbe river. Most pain has receded from my legs. My thigh muscles aren't so tight anymore, and my pathetic hobbling has markedly improved. I'd call it limping now. From the safe distance of a few days, the race doesn't look so bad.

There is a theory according to which the greater the suffering is, the sweeter the memories will be. I wholeheartedly subscribe to this. Heroism is rarely in the moment. Most often, it's in the stories told and retold years later, with sweet nostalgia in the eyes of the one looking back. The cold becomes more biting, the pain unbearable, the effort superhuman. Rain becomes diluvial and the sun scorching like a furnace.

I have a repertoire of such stories. Be it mountain biking through icy mud in St. George or road racing through sheets of rain in the Vercors, be it summer hiking in arctic Romania or snowbirding in a thumb-numbing blizzard, none of this was fun while I did it. All of it was misery and pain, and it's what stories are made of. A few months from now, I will look back on the marathon in much the same way.

At this moment, though, I'm looking forward. Not only have I missed my goal on Sunday by less than three minutes, I'm also not good for age by the same margin and thus ineligible for direct entry into next year's London Marathon. To change this, to erase the shame, I might just go back to Dresden where a city marathon will take place in October.

On the other hand, shouldn't I set my sight on other challenges now that the marathon has been conquered? So thought my sister when she gave me a recorder and a beginner's guide, suitably scientifically written for me. She put music in front of me as the ultimate difficulty. Ten minutes a day and I should be fine, she said, but I'm afraid here's something I'll fail at. I promise to try, though – until my neighbors knock my door in.

Monday, April 28, 2008


Yesterday was marathon day. The Oberelbe Marathon was staged, for the eleventh time. The course is a pleasant stroll down the river, from Königstein to Dresden. I was in the crowd of twelve hundred jostling for position at the start line. It was warm, and I was ready for glory.

The ten days leading up to the race weren't as inspiring as the twenty minutes before the starter's gun. I had struggled with some sort of a bone ache. My shins were hurting from deep inside. I could walk, but running felt like screws were being drilled into my legs. This pain abated with every passing day. On Sunday morning it was gone almost completely.

Almost, but not quite. Setting out at an easy pace, making my way through slower runners that were more aggressive before the start, or simply faster to line up, I got constant messages from my shins. Ignoring them was easy, as they were subtle. Unfortunately, my knee heard them and reacted. It started piercing my with little jolts of pain.

I went on all right, but at half time, I had to let go of my companion of the eight kilometers before that because I couldn't keep up anymore. In line with my speed, my heart rate went down, and there was nothing I could do to make it go up again. Going faster was no option. Around kilometer 25 my spirits sank the lowest. The bike path stretching into the distance in front of me, the river to the right and meadows to the left, nothing seemed to move. It felt like the finish was out of reach and not coming any closer. People kept passing me.

When the outskirts of Dresden came into sight, my mode rose but my speed remained abysmally low. If anything, I slowed down even more. At one aid station, I almost stopped to have my water. My legs were quick to point out if I gave them a little rest, they'd take a long vacation. If I wanted to finish, I'd have to keep running without a break.

That's what I did, and I did eventually reach the stadium. I was not exhilarated. I didn't even feel happiness at finishing. There was only relief, and it was quickly replaced by the emotional emptiness of utter exhaustion. Lying in the grass and drinking translucent frothy liquids someone kept handing me from a big bucket seemed like the most blissful thing in the world.


A day later, I can look back at the race and recapitulate, sort the good and the bad, and survey the aftermath. The course, support and weather were great, the spectators enthusiastic. The three groups of cheerleaders on the way really did cheer me up, as did the various drum circles. On the other hand, I did not experience the famed runner's high on the course. After the first hour, I started hating was I was doing. There was no pleasure. Crossing the finish line, I was not elated out of my mind with a sense of epic achievement. Now, the second and fourth toes of each foot are embalmed in gelatinous bags of blister and I cannot put any weight onto my left leg. I hobble like a eighty-year-old with severe rheumatoid arthritis. Why do people do this to themselves?

Oh, and I missed my goal of finishing in under three hours by a little bit. I'll have to do it again, won't I?

Thursday, April 24, 2008

shaving legs

Like most weeks before it, this one was crazy. I had planned to ease into holiday mood before going to Germany tomorrow, spend a few evenings at home, maybe write a bit. I've neglected writing almost entirely, it's so depressing. It's not for lack of topics. I have so many stories in my head and, sadly half-finished and forlornly awaiting completion, on my computer that I can hardly keep track anymore. But I rarely feel chilled enough to kick back and let the words flow. It's not the inspiration that's missing, it's the discipline.

It could be because I'm either spectacularly disorganized or a busy social butterfly drinking life in the big city like a wahoo, according to legend, drinks water. I'd like to think it's the second because that makes me go to sleep with a smile on my face every night, but it's most likely the first. In fact, I should probably have written it dysorganized to allude to its pathological character.

Tonight, one thing was high on my list. For the first time in a while, I was gonna shave my legs. I felt the marathon on Sunday deserved that. Shaved legs give me the illusion of speed and superiority. Sadly, having come home from a colleague's tequila-infused farewell party, I didn't get around to it. I have to draw my psycho-boost from knowing that the weather is predicted to be perfect, warm and sunny.

Before running, I have to travel, and before traveling, I had to pack. This took place in a frenzy, clothes being stuffed into a backpack and luggage being minimized. My computer shrank to the size and weight of a USB stick in a few seconds, and I'll still have everything I need. I even remembered, at the last moment, to put my ClifShots into Ziplock bag. It would be a shame if airport security confiscated my energy booster for fear of terrorist activity.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

reading books

I don't listen to the radio much. Whenever I move to a different country, I re-discover the joys of this medium, but the excitement wears off quickly and I start to get bored. I can't find the patience to sit and listen for hours. The radio wakes me up every morning and then, exhausted from the exercise, goes to sleep all day.

Despite my isolation, a few pieces of pop-culture trivia make it trough to me. I have heard of Lake Wobegon, and I know the name of Garrison Keillor, the radio host who invented this place to tell stories from the bizarre to the quaint, and always from the prairie. The setup intrigued me, and I yet I was left out – or remained outside, as I could never be bothered to figure out when the show was on air. When I saw a book of Keillor's, We Are Still Married, at the Oxfam bookstore, it was mine in a blink.

I have to say that I'm mildly disappointed, especially given that the book promised more than I had expected. Keillor used to write for the New Yorker. I love the New Yorker. The book contains many stories initially published there. It could have been perfect. That it wasn't I blame on repetition. The New Yorker is a cornucopia of styles, topics and formats. The book was too uniform. While most stories were good and some positively hilarious, in quick succession they lost much of their charm. Give me one such story per New Yorker, and I'd have a blast.

Sad as it is to say, the other book I recently finished reading was even less enjoyable. Right before going to Istanbul, I got Orhan Pamuk's memoir of the same name. After dragging my patience through chapter after uneventful chapter, by the end I could still not say what this book was really about. It doesn't tell Pamuk's biography, but neither does it tell the biography of the city. Most paragraphs seem concerned with the tristesse Pamuk claims is unique to the city, characteristic for it and essential for understanding it. I didn't get it, and I'm not enamored with his writing. Snow is sitting on my shelf, unfinished after two years, the pages I've read so far inevitably melting into oblivion, and I haven't come one step closer to finding out why Pamuk was awarded the Noble Prize for Literature.

The books I'm presently reading entertain me more. I bought Salman Rushdie's Midnight's Children a while back, and it's a riot of a read (though nothing compared to the riots that will be staged when his Nobel Prize is announced). My Jordanian friend and frequent visitor to London warmly recommended John Steinbeck, and I enjoy The Winter of Our Discontent very much.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

couch potato

This week I got two emails from the guys running the Dolomites Marathon, a grueling 140-km road bike race through the Dolomites with hardly a flat mile and endless climbs. I did this race last year; a friend organized a group to go and helped me get in. Apparently, it's not that easy. There are always more willing to ride than can be accommodated, even with 8500 spots.

The first email informed me that I was pre-registered, and if I wanted to keep my spot I'd have to tell them by this Friday. I have no intention of riding the marathon. My bike is one year older than last year, and already back then I wanted to throw it out because it was falling apart. It's my commuter beater now. I did not react to the email.

This morning, in the second email the organizers thank me for registering and confirm my participation. Do they know something I don't? Last year, I thought it was kind of crazy, driving 1000 miles to ride my bike for a day. Combined with a few days' vacation in the Switzerland and the Austrian Alps, it was just defensible. This year, from London, it'd be totally nuts. Let's not even mention the utter lack of preparation. No one seems to care I haven't ridden my bike in nine months.

What is it with people always assuming I'm active and sporty and need to exercise? It all started back in Salt Lake when my roommate took me mountain biking and then racing. I would have been content just sitting on my sofa eating ice-cream... Same thing in Grenoble. Everyone asked me if I was a cyclist and if I had already done this climb or that. How can I resist? Here in London, I even got talked into doing a marathon.

I like to say that I prefer lounging in my comfy chair reading books and writing my blog. But to be honest, after a short while I'd get restless and feel the urge to go out and run or cycle or play. I admit I'm not made for the couch after all, but I won't do the Dolomites marathon this year.

Sunday, April 13, 2008


Today, the circus was in town. Granted, for some the London Marathon is a race. The winning time of just above 2:05 attests to that. Many, though, participate to raise funds for all sorts of good causes. These charity racers are what gives color to the race as many dress up in outrageous outfits. Last year, there was chain gang of 17 who group-ran the course. This year, the uncontested stars of the show were a bunch of Maasai warriors running with shield and spear. They were as outrageous and hilarious as anyone but with the little twist that they were real. They had come to London to raise enough money to build a well in their village, which these guys had apparently never left before. I just hope they raise more than their two-week all-expenses-paid trip to London cost in the first place, but it's probably better this way than sending them money for nothing. Awareness is priceless.

In any case, I don't care about the London Marathon as such, but it is important for me as a marker. My own little challenge, the Oberelbe Marathon, is staged in two weeks. I should be getting ready by now. It's too late for the long runs. The base must be built. Speed is what remains to be trained.

Since I haven't done a run longer than 20km all year, I decided to squeeze something in before time runs out completely. 20km on Saturday, followed by 30 on Sunday – that sounded doable. After sitting out the worst rain in lab, I went out on Saturday afternoon in fine form. However, at the end of the first 10-km-loop through Hyde Park, it started raining so badly that I was ready to chicken out. Normally, once I've made up my mind, nothing can come between me and bailing. But this time, something did. Crossing my start/finish line right in front of Prince Albert Memorial, I hit the split-time button on my watch instead of the stop button. I took this as a sign, kept going and was rewarded with the most magnificent double rainbow I have ever seen shortly thereafter. It was so close I could almost touch it. Then the rain stopped and 40 minutes later, when I finally finished, I was happy to have continued.

Today, the weather was similar, but there was no rainbow, and after two laps it got so cold and miserable that I couldn't summon any motivation for a third. My legs were hurting, my hands went numb, and faint pain did a bizarre Maasai war dance dangerously close to my left knee. I was afraid to do more damage than good if I continued.

Exiting the tube on my way home, I hobbled down the stairs like a crippled chicken in a coop.

Monday, April 07, 2008

just wondering

You have to wonder about the UK. What keeps this country going? No matter where you look, left or right, things fall apart faster than you can dive for cover. Take the airports, for example. Heathrow's new terminal 5 has been one long disaster ever since it opened. I don't think any bag has been reunited with its just-arrived owner right away. Carrier belts keep breaking down (assuming they were installed in the first place, of which I'm still not sure) and software that scans tags and matches bags with passengers quickly follows.

Yesterday, two inches of snow managed to create a chaos of epic proportions, worthy of a blizzard dropping two feet. More than a hundred flights were canceled at Heathrow, close to 100 at City, and a good dozen at Gatwick. The snow was long melted when the majority of these cancelations took effect.

The tube is its own paradox. It appears to be working just barely on good days, with escalators moaning under the weight of thousands, trains creaking in their tracks, and signal failures just failing to bring everything to a standstill. Surprisingly many days are good days, and the system as a whole works much better than you'd fear - or expect for its daring bricolage of cables and ancient maze of tunnels. The age of the system shows everywhere you look, and yet it rises to the challenge rather admirably. Unlike Old Faithful, this will not go on forever.

Another item from the shake-your-heads-in-disbelieve department are residential buildings. Century-old structures have risen in value without any value being added to them. Windy windows, as old as the building, let heat escape unhindered. Walls have never seen the slightest insulation, and paint only sporadically. Rickety doors open onto dilapidated balconies. Some buildings seem to be held standing only by the hope of their inhabitants. With the arrogance of a German, I sometimes wonder how highly developed this country really is that I ended up in.

With Imperial College I don't wonder where I am. This university tries hard and successfully to be top notch and has build an enviable reputation over the decades. Word has got out. People hear and come. Today I had lunch with Hartmut Michel who won the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1988 and is now a visiting professor in our department. Later in the afternoon, he delivered a talk and a podium conversation with Stanlay Prusiner who won the 1997 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine and is here on a half-year sabbatical. Two weeks from now, Craig Mello, the 2006 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine winner, will give a talk at Imperial. It's enough to get me all giddy about science.

Sunday, April 06, 2008

seasons in reverse

On Friday, my dad went to Windsor and had a great day out. I spent an hour around lunchtime strolling around St. James's Park, drinking the sun like others drink coffee. This beautiful spring day betrayed the first hints of summer, and it's only April.

Yesterday was not nearly as nice. We went to Kew Gardens, the famous botanical garden. After ambling for hours through it vast swaths of grassland studded with trees from the world over, speckled with ponds, rhododendron groves, pavilions and pagodas, we finally came to what Kew is most popular for, its gigantic Victorian greenhouses. This was good timing because the day tipped from lousy and grey to miserable and wet exactly when we opened the door to the Temperate House. The weather couldn't keep this from being a good day. It ended in style with a splendid dinner at the Nepalese restaurant next to where I live.

Yesterday, I borrowed my dad's 85mm lens to play around with. On a small-sensor digital camera, it becomes an effective 130mm lens, almost long enough to shoot birds in the park but much too long for anything useful in the city. This I knew, but I wanted to find out how I'd get along with the manual focus just in case I ever want to buy additional glass. Unfortunately, the Nikon D40 only auto-focuses with modern lenses with integrated motor. Second hand lenses are off-limits if you don't get your subject sharp yourself. I was happy with the challenge and got some nice pictures but mostly I was reminded what a truly fantastic lens my 30/1.4 is. Exactly what I need for the city, life and low light.

Today, my dad is flying back to Dresden. Looking out of the window, the first challenge of the day was daring to go outside. Earlier that morning, it had started snowing hard. While it wasn't cold enough for the snow to stick around, it made for a frightening sight. Especially considering it's April.

snow to the right

Dad just called that his flight has been canceled. What a fuck-up.

Wednesday, April 02, 2008

who's the fool

OK, I'm the fool. I posted the wrong link yesterday. What do I care about human bags of fat? Here's the real link: BBC movie about flying penguins


The other day, Harriet Harman, a Member of Parliament, visited her constitution of Peckham in a stab-proof Kevlar vest. Peckham, in the south of London, not only has a bad rep but also corners you wouldn't want to visit during the day and areas you'd avoid at all cost at night. Gang violence runs high, and every now and then, teenagers are killed in brawls. The Member of Parliament likened her wearing a protective vest to "wearing a hairnet at a food factory or a hard hat at a building site" as if violence was the way of doing business there. Wouldn't you think someone on an official tour was safe, especially if surrounded by police, as was the case? Maybe the appropriate protective gear would have been a pair of diapers. Given how afraid she was, she might have wet her pants. In any case, she certainly made a fool of herself.

I was gonna add something about the funny folks at Citroën who fool no one by claiming that they've finally, after decades of trying, created a large sedan of exceptional quality, one liable to make the German competition wet its pants. Unfortunately, their website doesn't work without glitches. How you extrapolate that to their cars is up to you.

The BBC, on the other hand, are no fools, and their site works. Here's an amazing video showing footage never before seen of penguins going the way of the peregrine falcon. It turns into a sort of fake-life Madagascar towards the end, but the beginning is incredibly well done. Get ready to be fooled.

And yes, all of this should have been posted yesterday.