Tag Archives: travel

Comrades Update: Travel Planning

Original image from: https://www.flickr.com/photos/iancvt55/6314700070/in/photolist-aC1uk9-7cYPhE-fAyY4o-jKFePi-ZXab-6QEB4N-6SQ7xD-6SQ7nT-d5ucD5-76QjnX-5ow5kw-fAyXyw-66Sjgb-5FuGyS-7vNP6P-m5b95-nnnEQk-6mHAFT-e2QeAZ-e2VTTu-oRAFkR-5A31TT-fAkg52-63ftaU-9pYeeN-9s5We-rG94fu-63fmdw-4ACyTV-6mMLaQ-9wyE74-8eC3Cs-4iM16r-5vzsQS-74grSb-pGEjMR-rSqcgQ-82vDDR-f5hqhY-nvpRHk-67ocDp-4yySQ-6hqjby-oLEPqU-NzbD8-fAu4Kq-r5Q2ZV-4phHeA-ff1Aq9-pPyM6

Comrades running training is going well.  I’m less than a month until my qualifying marathon, and despite a few annoying not-quite-injuries-but-not-quite-right issues I’m dealing with, all signs point to a decent qualifier.

But now that we’re t-minus six months from heading to South Africa, I’ve turned a lot of my attention to putting together my travel plans.  Fortunately, the whole reason I’m going is to do this race with my dad, and he was a travel agent in a former life.  Long ago he acquired the nickname “Suntan Steve” thanks to his love of travel planning, so I’m not exactly going in to this trip blind.

After a lot of discussion, we’ve decided that I will meet my parents in Johannesburg, and from there we’ll catch a flight up to Zimbabwe for a few days at Victoria Falls.

The local name translates as “the smoke that thunders”– and I cannot wait to hear the roar of the water.  (For those of you new here, I am a water person.)  While we are at Victoria Falls, we’ll do some very easy hiking around the area to take in the natural beauty.  We also have a helicopter tour planned.  I’ve traveled all over the world in all kinds of planes, trains, and automobiles, but I have never ridden on a helicopter.  I’m only the tiniest bit anxious about it.  But to see the Falls from that vantage point will be absolutely spectacular.  After the view on high, we’ll enjoy a sunset cruise on the Zambezi River.  There’s also a daylong excursion to Chobe National Park in Botswana for a safari.

I am so excited about the prospect of seeing Africa’s “Big Five.”  I have no doubt that I will be awed by the imposing grandeur and power of these animals.  I am looking forward to this portion of the trip because it will be a totally new-to-me set of experiences….but it should be thrilling without being exhausting.

After these four days of natural wonders, my parents and I will fly to Durban.  My dad and I need a few “down days” before Comrades.  We’ll hang out at our hotel, visit the Comrades Expo (before the locals arrive), hopefully meet some of the other American Comrades I’ve been chatting with online, and basically just hang out.  I haven’t decided yet whether I want to do the bus tour of the Comrades route (and potentially lose whatever small amount of confidence I have managed to muster) or if I want to go into it with only the excitement of the day to carry me through.  I have a while to decide.

My husband will arrive in Durban on Saturday, May 28th.  I will try very hard not to go Pre-Race Crazy on him.  He will, after all, have just spent 40 hours travelling after a week of solo parenting.

Sunday, May 29th is race day.  It starts early, with at 2.30am bus departure to the start in Pietermaritzburg.  The pre-race festivities start around 4am, and the cockrell crow start is at 5am.  That’s when my 12-hour time limit starts.  I hope to arrive back in Durban under my own power before 4pm.  I’ll hang around the stadium, cheer on the other Comrades, and then waddle back to my hotel and sleep.

We are departing Durban the day after Comrades, and I’m wondering if I’ll regret this decision.  Obviously, I won’t be moving very fast.  But I’ve also read that a lot of the international runners meet up for a brunch Monday morning.  I’d like to stick around for that, and then we’ll grab a flight to Cape Town Monday afternoon.

We’ll spend a few days in Cape Town, taking in the sights.  I’ve heard the city described as a cross between San Francisco and Honolulu– sounds good to me!  I want to go to Robben Island, to see the site where Nelson Mandela was held captive and launched the South Africa we know today.  We’ll see if I feel up for hiking up Table Mountain.  Doubt it!  Pray for good weather so we can ride the cable car.

We’ll head out the Garden Route and spend one night at a game reserve.  While some reviews liken these parks to glorified zoos, I wanted my husband to have some experience of African wildlife during his stay.  Also, I wanted to drive the garden route anyway, so it makes sense to combine this journey with a stay at a lovely lodge.

After that we’ll make our way to the Cape Town airport and head home.  All in all, my trip will be 16 days.  This will be the longest I’ve been away from my children ever– when my husband and I went to Peru, we were gone 8 full days (plus the night before).  My husband will be gone 9 days inclusive of travel, so everyone is comfortable with leaving the kids for that length of time.

Not that we know what we’re doing for childcare yet, but I’m still trusting it will all work out…





Image from Ian Halsey


Comrades Update: It’s Wednesday!

weekdays (frome crossword series)

WHOA!  What are we doing here?  It’s Wednesday!  OnBalance is a Monday/Thursday thing, right?!  What’s going on?

My friends, I’m happy to say that I’m going to be here every few Wednesdays through 2105 to update you on my plans for running Comrades Marathon in May.  I suspect that once the calendar turns 2016, I’ll be posting about Comrades even more often.  And come April and May?  It’s going to be all Comrades, all the time (well, at least on Wednesdays).  I have to have someone to talk to about my training and its associated obsessions, and I love my husband too much to make him crazy with my incessant chatter.

I like you, too.  So if you hate posts about running or travel or running and travel, give Wednesdays at OnBalance a pass.   I’ll be posting my regular family/fitness/life/balance musings on Monday and Thursday as always.

But if you’re even mildly curious about the preparations for running a 56 mile race on the other side of the world and the adventures therein, make sure you’re here!

(And if you’re curious about this whole Comrades thing or you have no idea what I’m talking about, use those tags over there ——————————————–> and click on the one that says “comrades” to find all the posts about this wacky undertaking.)

What do you have to look forward to?

I’m going to keep updating my progress toward my Comrades qualifying race, the Dallas Marathon, coming up in December.  I’m also going to let you know about our travel plans and how we’re going to make the most of our time in Africa.  There were some negotiations with Mr. Balance to honor his concerns about leaving our three kids for such a long time.  We’ve got a plan now, and everyone is excited about the adventure ahead!

All of this– and lots and lots of running talk– is coming to OnBalance on a Wednesday soon.

Thanks for your support!

Summer Running on the Cape


When you live in Austin, summer running is about maintenance.  The heat and humidity make it nearly impossible– or at the very least unadvisable– to train to the seek great improvement during June, July, and August.  (And in some years, May and September, too.)   Even though this summer has been refreshingly cool in Austin, I still love my annual escape to the Cape because of the cooler temperatures I enjoy while running.

Want to join me on my favorite 5K route, from my  in-laws’ house to the beach?  Come along!

Here we go:


The first part of the run goes through a neighborhood of traditional Cape-style homes, where many year-round residents live.  The streets are wide, not heavily traveled, and mostly rolling hills.  Then I hop off the paved road an onto this shaded dirt road:


Last Summer, I saw a fox run across the path about 50 feet in front of me.  I was a mix of thrilled and scared.  Thankfully, it was pretty intent on going from the forest on one side of the road to the other, and it had no interest in me.

I cross the Old Kings Highway and start running past some impressive old estates.  This home is from the early 1800s…I assume the tennis court off to the left was added later.  🙂


Then I pass one of the most quintessential Cape sights– an old stone wall with a barn on the land beyond.  What you can’t see is that Cape Cod Bay is just on the other side of the barn, down the cliff.  If there are any animals in the barn (which I doubt), they’d have an awesome view.


Up and down a few more rolling hills, and I pass one of the most– no, THE most– spectacular estate I’ve ever seen. You can’t tell from the photo, but this is at least 20 acres. Again, the Bay is just on the other side.  In mid-summer, the hydrangeas are bursting with color along the fence line, and there are daylilies lining the roadside.  The whole sight is one of genteel old money.


Adjacent to the impressive estate (which I refer to as the Ralph Lauren Estate, even though it is not) is an old cranberry bog.  It is still active in the autumn, but in summer it is a beautiful mix of reeds and wildflowers.


This home, one of my very favorites anywhere on the Cape, was one I got to see being built over two summers just a few years ago.  I love the modern interpretation of classic Cape-style elements.  It’s beachfront location doesn’t hurt, either.


Finally, I can see our family’s favorite spot, which we’ve nicknamed “Little Beach.”  You can see that it’s not so big, but it’s also not crowded:


In fact, on this morning, there was only one family there when I arrived:


And it was my family!


Look what they brought me:


What a great way to start the day.

Comrades Marathon Update: Planning & Logistics


This is the second in an occasional series about my preparations for the 2016 Comrades Marathon in South Africa.  The first installment is here.

Eleven months from today, I hope to be among 20,000 runners pounding the 90 kilometers (56 miles) of pavement between Pietermaritzburg and Durban, South Africa in Comrades Marathon.

Lest I put the cart before the horse, I assure you there is a tremendous amount of logistics to be sorted in the coming months.  Before undertaking such an adventure, there are a million important little details that must be considered.  There are also several really big details to determine, and those are the ones I’m working on ironing out right now.

First up is the financial commitment.  While it may seem obvious that a trip from Austin, Texas, USA to South Africa is expensive (and it is!), I’ve begun plotting the expected costs.  From airline tickets– both international and within South Africa– to lodging to on-the-ground activities, the budget is coming together.  Here’s the deal: I am unlikely to go to South Africa again.  This means I’m going to take advantage of being there, visiting the sites of Cape Town and going on safari are non-negotiables.  These aren’t cheap adventures, but if I’m going to go all the way to South Africa, I’m going to enjoy myself.

The secondary aspect of the financial commitment is the length of the trip.  In order to take advantage of all that South Africa has to offer– and the travel time of the 9,000 mile (as the crow flies) trip– the trip is likely to be at least two weeks.  May and June are my high season for work, as my swim lessons are in full swing.  This means that not only will I be spending a lot of money on the trip, but I’ll be giving up a meaningful amount of income while I’m away.  I have this figured in to my budget as well.

And then there’s the question of whether I’m going to go on this adventure by myself or if my husband will come, too.  I’d love to have him with me to experience this unknown-to-me part of the world, but an already expensive trip times two….

While the financial hurdle is considerable, perhaps my greatest obstacle to Comrades is childcare.  I have three kids.  My three kids go to three different schools.  They participate in after-school activities.  They require things like transportation to school and events, decently nutritious regular meals, and thoughtful attention.  If my husband comes along, we now have to find someone to to watch the kids for the duration of my/our trip– without incurring tremendous additional expense– and that is highly unlikely.  One set of grandparents (my parents) will be in South Africa, as my dad is also planning to toe the line at Comrades.  The other set of grandparents (my awesome in-laws) would likely love the chance to be with their grandkids for part of the time, but two weeks is a really long time to ask.   So I’m exploring options, including time swaps with friends who are also keen to do some couple travelling and hiring a friend for a few days.  As for now, I’m going to trust it’s all going to come together.

The good news is, I have plenty of time to work these issues out.  I also have time to prepare myself emotionally for missing out on a pretty big family milestone: our final kid’s final day of preschool.  We have a kid at this beloved school on-and-off since 2007, so saying goodbye is going to be hard.  I’ll also miss the boys’ last days of school, which will likely include the big 4th grade Texas History Pageant for my middle kid.  These are the highlights of parenting young children, and I’d be lying if I said it didn’t matter that I will miss them.

Of course, preparing for a 90K race also requires a fitness plan.  I’ll cover that plan in my next Comrades Marathon Update in a few weeks.  Stay tuned!

Throwback Thursday: Packing for the Inca Trail

Last week I wrote a post for those of you thinking about trekking the Inca Trail.  Today’s post is for those of you getting serious about undertaking the adventure!

Depending on the company you trek with (we used and LOVED Alpaca Expeditions), you may or may not have a company-supplied bag to give some of your items to a porter, leaving you only with a daypack.  We had 7KG each of items we could give the porter, so we were really careful before we left about separating out items before we left the US so we wouldn’t have to deal with reshuffling items in Peru, or even worse, at the weigh in.


In fact, we went one step further and put individual outfits/days of clothes into gallon ziploc bags and sleeping clothes in another bag.  We put these ziplocs plus most of our toiletries, extra shoes, and headlamps into the porter’s bags.  The sleeping bags and air mats we rented and pillows we were loaned also went in the bag.


In our daypacks, we had raingear, cameras, bug repellent, sunscreen, hand sanitizer, toilet paper (in a small baggie), lip balm, passports, a small bit of money, a few energy bars, gloves, arm sleeves, and caps.  I very quickly figured out a system to tie my fleece jacket to the outside of my daypack so I could take it off and put it back on as the weather changed…which it did quite frequently.  I wore a 12L daypack (the bare minimum I’d recommend), and my husband wore a 30L pack.  Both had padded straps on the shoulders and chest & waist straps.

But here’s what you really came for…..

What do you need to pack for the trek?

  • 1-2 pair zip off/convertible hiking pants (I took 1, husband took 2)
  • 4 s/s shirts (tech fabric so they don’t get stinky)
  • 1 l/s shirt (to layer)
  • rain jacket/pants
  • waterproof gloves
  • arm sleeves (I wore mine, husband didn’t)
  • thin gloves
  • fleece jacket
  • PJs– fleece sweatpants, a l/s tee, clean/dry wool socks
  • fleece jacket
  • wool hat or beanie
  • sun cap
  • sunglasses
  • 4 pr good hiking socks
  • headlamp
  • hiking shoes
  • extra shoes (nice to have, but not totally necessary)- we wore keens around camp
  • bug repellent
  • sunscreen
  • toilet paper
  • hand sanitizer
  • lip balm

What you do NOT need to bring:

  • binoculars
  • clean pants for MP (I didn’t, husband did)
  • camelbak– refillable water bottle works just fine
  • excessive snacks– Alpaca gives you two each day.
  • camping towel (unless you plan to use the nasty showers on Day 3; I didn’t, husband did)

If you hike with Alpaca Expeditions, they provide:

  • sleeping bag liner
  • daypack rain cover
  • big poncho (we had rain jacket & pants so didn’t use this)
  • pillow
  • hand towel
  • portable toilet with tp

You can rent from Alpaca:

  • sleeping bags
  • air mat
  • hiking poles

Look how cozy he is!


If you take only ONE thing away from my review, please let it be this: RENT HIKING POLES.  You will be so.glad. you did.   If you have any fear of heights or exposure, hiking poles will really help you in the steep downhill sections of the trail (of which there are many).


I won’t even bother to tell you to have fun.  You’re going to love it.

Good health and great happiness to you!

Summer Running Plans


We had a blessedly cool and wet May here in Austin, but now June is here, the sun is out, and it’s hot, hot, hot.  In order to keep myself motivated through the heat (plus having kids at home, plus going on vacation, plus the extra work of swim lessons), I decided to enter one of the great American summer road races: Beach to Beacon 10K.

Similar to my experience when I ran Falmouth Road Race two years ago, I wanted to run Beach to Beacon because of its important place in American running history.  It was founded by inaugural women’s Olympic Marathon gold medalist Joan Benoit Samuelson as a way of celebrating running in her hometown of Cape Elizabeth, Maine.  And what started as a small race mostly for locals nearly two decades ago has grown into a race that attracts all of the big names in US distance running.  I never tire of the thrill of racing on the same course on the same day as the best of the best.

Last week I kicked off an eight-week training program in preparation for the race on August 1st.  I chose Hal Higdon’s 10K training plan, blending the intermediate and advanced plans to suit my current state of fitness and my goals for the race.  I’m using the Jeff Horowitz  book Quick Strength for Runners  as the strength component of the training plan.  I’m hoping that these plans will help prepare me to run under 50 minutes….that’s a stretch goal, but why not go for it?!

As part of my training, I want to race a 5K to gauge my progress about halfway through the eight weeks.  I’ve registered for the Freedom 5000 on July 4th, and provided it’s not blazing hot, I’ll be ready to run a respectable race.  I don’t think I’ve raced a 5K in more than 5 years.  While it’s certainly not a challenge to cover the distance, I haven’t tried to run anything with real speed on my legs for a long, long time.  It’s hard to force myself to train faster, but it’s essential if I want to see results on race day.

So far, I’m enjoying the training, and I’m definitely looking forward to my overnight in Maine with my husband later this summer.  To run around picturesque Cape Elizabeth– with some of the best runners in the country– and to enjoy some lobster afterwards…what a great day it will be!

Good health and great happiness to you!

Throwback Thursday: Planning for the Inca Trail

Turning 40 last September gave me a good excuse to knock two things off of my bucket list.  In early November, I ran the New York City Marathon.  In mid-November, my husband and I traveled to Peru to hike the Inca Trail.

Upon our return, I blogged about the Inca Trail trek, an experience which filled me with wonder and the memories of which continue to both relax and invigorate me.  I’ve had a lot of friends ask if I think they’d be able to complete the trek, given their fitness level/trick knee/altitude sickness tendencies/aversion to sleeping in a tent.  Honestly, I think most anyone could complete the Inca Trail trek, given the correct training and the right guide.  Furthermore, I think *everyone* who loves to travel and being outdoors should put the Inca Trail (or another Peruvian trek) on their bucket list.  If you choose to go, I highly recommend Alpaca Expeditions.


After a few days of acclimating to the altitude in Cusco, the heart of the Inca civilization, and visiting sites just outside of town, we went to bed early.  Sleep was minimal but restful on this trip!  We woke up the next morning at 4am, ready for our 4.30am pick up.  Alpaca drove us and our 6 trek companions out to the start of the Inca Trail. We had a prepared-in-front-of-us breakfast then got on our way.
Our guide was Saul, and he let us trek at our own pace (rather than in a single file line), so John and I were usually at the front and would stop at a pre-determined spot to wait for the rest of the group. We LOVED that, as it allowed us to be alone on the trail and not feel part of a mule line.
(I was a little surprised that our guide didn’t really talk along the trail except to point out interesting flora/fauna and explain the major sites along the way, but then I realized a 3+ day running commentary would be exhausting anyway.)
 I also appreciated that Alpaca treats their porters really well.  Our guys were a real team, hiking together and chatting and laughing.  They were well outfitted with proper shoes, hats, coats, pants, etc.  Alpaca also supports their kids’ educations and makes sure the money the porters earn gets to their families.  Our guide first worked the Inca Trail as a porter, so he had a fantastic rapport with the porters– who he preferred to call “chaskis,” Quecha for “Inca Runners.”  And run they did, with impressive loads on their backs and smiles on their faces.
Our equipment– tents, air mattresses, portable toilet, etc– was great, and it made the whole experience really enjoyable.  The food was incredible– one of our group is a chef in Los Angeles, and he was impressed with the quality, freshness, and inventiveness of the food we ate along the way.  There are definitely cheaper companies to trek with, but I am really glad we went with Alpaca.
One thing I had read about in blogs is that the Inca Trail is really “the Inca Staircase.”  I don’t know why I didn’t believe this but OH MY GOD IT’S TRUE.  I have never gone up and down so many uneven stone steps in my life.  The other thing I really liked about Alpaca is that they have a longer Day 2 on the hike, pushing through both high passes on that day.  Other trekking companies end Day 2 after the first pass (the famed “Dead Woman’s Pass) and leave the second pass plus a lot of downhill hiking for Day 3.  While that allows for more even mileage among days 1, 2, and 3, you WILL be sore after Dead Woman’s Pass, so why not have the second one already done, too, and have a much easier Day 3?  Our Day 3 was only about 6 hours of hiking, so when we stopped for lunch, we were done for the day.  It was awesome to have an afternoon free to hang out, play cards, take a nap, and just enjoy that we were 85% done with the trail…and be able to look forward to Machu Picchu day on Day 4.  We just sat back, relaxed, and let the chaskis take care of us.
The only even tiny sort-of disappointing aspect of the trip was Machu Picchu itself.  After 3 days of being essentially alone (just our group of 8 + guide) on the trail and exploring about 10 other Inca sites, getting to Machu Picchu and wandering around with 3000 other people wasn’t so awesome.
Think of it this way: just going to Machu Picchu is like never visiting a church but being insistent on a pilgrimage to St. Peter’s Cathedral.  By going on the hike, we gained so much understanding of the Inca people and the vastness of their empire and exploring so many other sites that it gave us great context for  Machu Picchu….it’s impossible not to be impressed with the ancient site– the size and relative perfection of the site is incredible.  But having all those tour groups herded around did affect my enjoyment of the prized destination.
We did not climb Huyana Picchu (the mountain seen in the background of classic photos) at Machu Picchu because my husband has a pretty significant fear of heights, and the Huyana Picchu trail is steep and exposed.  Four people in our group did it, and they enjoyed the views.  They did say, however, that if they hadn’t already bought their tickets (you have to reserve them when you reserve the trek), they wouldn’t have missed it.
I think all of us in the group were surprised by how sore we were.  Maybe if I’d done nothing but climb stairs for my marathon training, I’d have been okay, but even running a sub-4 hour marathon two weeks before did not give me the fitness to escape the Inca Trail with no soreness.  It’s certainly nothing that should worry most people in terms of their ability to complete the trek, but be ready to work and be sore!
As for the weather, we got so extremely lucky.  Other than a 10 minute rain shower while we ate lunch in our tent on Day 1, 10 minutes of rain while we sat on top of Dead Woman’s Pass waiting for our group, and a thunderstorm while we napped on Day 3, we had no rain.  This meant we never actually hiked in the rain, which is an incredible rarity at any time of year, especially the beginning of the rainy season (mid-November).  No doubt, the weather significantly affected our enjoyment of the experience.  We were ready for lots of rain with full rain jackets, pants, poncho, and waterproof gloves, but it was awesome not to have to use them!
I absolutely loved the Inca Trail.  The history, the natural world of cloud forest, rain forest, sleeping under so many stars, the camaraderie of a group of strangers accomplishing a big goal, eating delicious, fresh food….it was a real thrill.  And while I already dissed Machu Picchu itself, I will say that the first view of the site from the Sun Gate literally took my breath away and put tears in my eyes.  The whole experience was an overwhelming confirmation that humanity is relatively unchanged over the centuries, still trying to get the answers to the same questions.