April 30, 2010

From The Sky To The Seabed

We came to Playa Del Cocos for one thing: scuba diving.

After all that hiking in the forest and that flying in the sky, I was ready for some ocean action. And we were just about to get some :)

We booked a two-tank dive with a small operator on local shores, as opposed to further outings, because we were told there was less current at the diving spots around closeby islands. I wanted to see octopuses (Octopii? Octopussies? Octopae? I hate latin.), Vez wanted to go for the white-tipped sharks. So we did both!

We got up early yesterday morning, caught a quick breakfast and headed down to the dive shop on a bright sunny morning. The weather was gorgeous. We got on the boat, went to pick up a very late Russian dude with an awesome underwater camera, then headed for the first dive.

The water was agitated and the visibility wasn't good. The equipment we rented was kinda crappy, too, and Vez started off with a leaky mask. I was stuck with a huge 12L metal tank so heavy I couldn't move around the boat on my own. But after we got into the water and worked out the kinks, it was all right.

Our dive master, Anton from Belgium, was really good and professional. It helps to have a lead diver who obviously knows what he's doing, so it made me take things a little easier. We went down a guiding line to the sea floor, then around a rocky island in search of the amazing sea life Costa Rica shores are said to harbour...

... And we saw nothing.

It was really disappointing. Oh, we spotted an elusive ray for a couple seconds and we saw a few different species of fish, but the dive, to be honest, was mediocre. Add the fact that we had to come up early and sit in the high waves waiting for the boat to notice us, and it made for a pretty crappy first outing.

We had to get to a bay to harbour the boat from the heavy swells for about 45 minutes between dives, so we all went out swimming and snorkeling around. When we were finally cleared to go out to the second diving spot, I wasn't expecting much.

We got to the second line and started our descent. We'd had time to better adjust the sketchy equipment, so both Vez and I were more comfortable. Almost right after we reached the seabed, we headed for a very nice little wreck of a fishing boat, lying alone on the bottom. Surprise! It was teeming with life!

Loads of parrot fish were swimming in and around the wreck, along with many other types I couldn't identify. But it's when I raised my head and saw a huge school of silver fish (ya know, sorta like the ones who do the riddles in Finding Nemo?) just hanging around a couple dozen feet from me. Thousands of fish.

It took me only a couple fin strokes to get to them. They did not mind my presence at all, so much so that I ended up swimming right in their midst. I had fish 360 degrees around me, no more than a couple inches from my body. For some minutes there, I was a school of fish. I loved it.

Back to the wreck, everyone was hanfging on the other side, and the visibility wasn't good enough for me to see why, from where I was. As I got closer, I quickly understood: several white-tipped sharks, about 5 to 6 feet long, were swimming around the wreck! We were able to get real close and observe them, which made Vez, very, very happy. It was his birthday, too, so I thought that was a pretty cool gift :)

We relunctantly left the wreck to keep going around huge boulders that border the island. The current got really strong and the dive became much more technical. I was very proud of Vez who didn't get swung around and manoeuvered like a pro along the course :)

By the time we got back up, Kaya had gone for her second round of snorkeling in the waves. As she hauled back onto the boat, we realized that without sunscreen, bathing under the scorching sun, she had cooked like a lobster in the swinging waves... so she now proudly sports an awesome one-sided full-body sunburn :)

We all got back to the shore, happy with a fun day of sea adventures. Back to the hotel, we all got some much-deserved sleep, packed our bags ready for the next morning and went to bed.

Next stop : Quepos!

April 28, 2010

Rain, Forest, And Flying High

Oh, wow.

I'm writing this from Playa Del Cocos, on the shores of the Pacific, after coming down from Monteverde, in the mountains.

When my friends told me we were going to the cloudforest, I sorta liked the name. It sounds all misty and fresh, I thought, and I started imagining tree tops in the fog and colourful singing birds.

The truth is, there is no hiding from the rain in Monteverde. First of all, you're in the mountains all right. Just wait till you see the pictures. You're actually sitting so high that the air isn't that easy to breathe. Nothing is flat. It's hills all the way down. Oh! And when it rains, it pours.

We'd scheduled for a night hike in the forest on the first evening. Something cool, ya know, with tarantulas and vipers. We got to the ranger station just in time and got our little flashlights and our don't touch anything briefing. And then it started. Light rain at first, say, the worst downpour you'd ever seen. Then, as we got out of the little station and onto the first trail, well, worse. But it was when the lightning started that the guide started saying we might have to cancel...

Hey, did I mention the guy wasn't even wearing rain gear?

Anyways, the lightning got stronger, and the rain, well, let's say at this point it was like being hosed down straight from a fire hydrant. When it got to biblical proportions, our guide called the hike off and we had to walk the trail back, which had changed into a small river in the meantime.

We had just enough time to see a tarantula and a gigantic branch insect. I thought that was pretty cool.

After getting back and saying he was sorry we couldn't go and to come back the next night to see if we could do it again, our guide left the ranger station... on his motorcycle. I couldn't believe it. It was raining so bad that the driver of our little van had to wipe the inside of the windshield with a towel in a desperate attempt at seeing anything. The roads had changed to streams, with rocks tumbling down in the current. And our guide just went back home, on his motorcycle.

I tell you. These Costa Rican dudes, they're not afraid of rain.

We went back to the hostel, drenched. Got a little food and stuff on the way back. Stripped down from our dripping gear and enjoyed some awesome chicharrones (BBQ'ed ultrafat pork), beers and other delicacies until falling asleep, which took me no more than half an hour.

The next morning, we'd booked a "zip line" tour of the cloud forest. Sorta like these Adventures-in-the-Trees things you see all around Quebec, or so I thought. I was a little grumpy, because all the activities in this country are early in the morning, and we had to get up at fucking 7:00 am to get on the minivan. No love for the sleepyheads.

So after a quick breakfast, we all hopped in the van and drove up the mountain. When I realized what we were going to do was called "The Superman Experience", I have to admit I sorta cringed. I thought Tourist Trap.

We got to the welcoming center, where we were strapped down with rock climbing harnesses, hangers, hard hats and gloves. Lotsa gear, I thought, for some little tour around the trees...

After a briefing on how to sit in your harness and hold onto the zipline, up we went to the first platform. Easy stuff. About 300 feet straight, just downward enough to make you go. Exactly what I'd thought. I touched down on the second platform, then I casually looked where the second zipline was headed.

Oh. My. Fucking. God.

The zipline was suspended at least 1,000 feet in the air, above a large valley approximately a kilometer wide! Something you will NEVER see in North America. Heart-Attack-Level-Adrenaline-Pumper. Before I know it, the guide is hooking my pulley onto the zipline, all casual and smiling, makes me sit on my harness, and swings me forward.

Try to imagine hanging by a rope to a metal wire, several dozen feet above the treeline of a jungle made of giant trees at least 300 feet high. Then imagine looking down at your feet, while that forest disappears over a cliff, looking down a valley about 1,000 feet down, while your pulley screams at about 30 km/h above you.

Still with me?

After riding a couple more ziplines over the forest and across that huge valley, we got to a point lower in the park where I thought the ride was over. It wasn't.

We were on a platform rigged on a tree so gigantic I'm not even going to try to describe it. Avatar-sized. We were not even close to its top, and we had to rappel it down 150 feet to finish the course. Having been hooked onto the rappel rope, you had to sit in your harness, hanging in thin air, before they started lowering you down. Insane.

At this point, I'll skip the Tarzan thing where they push you off a bungee platform hooked only on the loose end of a climbing rope that swings you several hundred feet into the jungle.

Because I want to tell you about the last platform.

After climbing to the top of a steep hill, you get to an open platform that overlooks the valley I was telling you about earlier. No big deal, you think, I've flown over it three times already. Remember I told you we were also wearing hangers? Check this out. They invert the harness and hook it up to the hangers, on your back. Then, they lift you and clip your pulley to the zipline, and make you slip one foot after the other onto a looped rope that hangs from the pulley. Yeah, you heard me right. You're 100% horizontal, face down, head first. Then they push you above the valley.

I'll just say this: I've dreamt about a hundred times that I was flying like a bird, over mountains and valleys.

There, on top of Monteverde in the clouds, I actually did it.

April 26, 2010

Meeting Costa Rica

It´s funny how I´ve become so reliant on my instincts for so many things in my life. When I decided to head down to Costa Rica, I couldn´t get myself to plan anything or to envision what the trip, or even the country itself, would actually be like. So I didn´t.

It put me in a strange state of mind, which I still have a hard time expressing at this moment. I usually am very eager, on a trip, to just go out an explore and be amazed. This time around, it´s different. I really only want to feel that time is passing slowly, that I am far away, that I bear no responsibility on the world.

And you know what? It´s working magic. I am blessed with traveling with such easygoers as Vez and Kaya, and a brand new friend we made on the way, Steve.

So the only thing I´ve done so far is follow the flow, and it´s taking me places I couldn´t have dreamed of. In only two days, I´ve traveled twisted mountain roads, ran trails at the foot of an active volcano spewing out fiery rocks, crossed the path of wild animals, witnessed wild pouring Cost Rican rain that clears out in fifteen minutes, ate delicious foods and met interesting people all along.

I am now sitting here, in Monteverde, village in the clouds, a cold Imperial at my side, while my friends are eating local cheese and avocado on fresh bread. And I honestly think my smile, in this moment, speaks volumes.

I´ll try and get back to you with more stories as I go, if I go, and when I go :)

Love,

Flint

April 23, 2010

Taking off

I woke up on my own
Today I won’t be a drone
Decided to skip work
I can’t wipe off my smirk

Made coffee and grilled bread
Was barely out of bed
Knew this day would be mine
Cause for once, I’ve got time

Packed my favourite stuff
Not too much, just enough
Fit it all into my pack
I’m leaving the beaten track

Stopped half way for a cigar
A glass of scotch from the bar
Sat on the porch under the sun
My daily life’s already gone

Played music all day long
Nothing but my favourite songs
I breathe deep and smile wide
I have friends by my side

I’ll finish up slow
Get ready to go
After a snack, I’ll go get Kaya
And leave smiling for Costa Rica :)

April 20, 2010

Soggy - Part II

I don’t know if it’s just me, but I feel my head is playing with me when I run. It makes passing time painstakingly slow or starts wandering off in daydreams and stupid ideas while my body loses the pace down to a slow jog. It makes things harder, you know, having to keep your brain on a leash.

I was finishing a long stretch of track by a large basin when the rain finally stopped. KM14. The harm was done, though; large puddles of water were everywhere, mud had poured from the surrounding trails. At that point, I wasn’t even trying to avoid them; it just ruined my stride and I was soaked nonetheless.

The race starts now, I thought to myself, climbing the first upward slope of the course. I’d started seeing some disappointed, suffering runners abandoning. Blue-lipped, shivering. I’d want to help them, put them back in the race, give them the energy they needed to pull it off. It makes me sad, but it also reminds me that this could be my fate at any point if I lose my focus. Nobody wants another Nike run like we did back in 2005.

2005.

One of the most emotional days of my whole life. A 21K ran on a knee and a half. As I recall the suffering and the living hell we went through to cross that finish line, my heart warms up. I think of Joel, Erin. I reach to the back pocket of my running tights and feel through. It sits right there. My Terry Fox dollar coin. I don’t hold dear many material things in this world, but this gift, received in the nick of time, is a personal treasure.

I’d clenched my jaws. Oooh that feeling, I know it so well. I just visualized; I reached inside of my mind to gather some strength and motivation, and did I ever find some. I come out of the hill strong, and I start picking up speed again. This time, I try to save some of the energy for the last stretch. My confidence is rising.

A pair of cops are under a bridge. They’re cheering as I pass, and I’m surprised to think this is probably the first time in my life I’m happy to see them.

Then I start to wonder, after all that “head time”, where in the course I might be now. I’d stopped looking at the markers a while ago and for some reason, I refused to take a single look at my stopwatch the whole race. I’m not gonna start now. Instead, I take this as something to look forward to. Soon enough, a big orange marker appears. Could it be? It says 17.

There’s a sharp turn and a bridge to cross, and a small crowd is gathered there. As I close in, I see a friendly face; Humberto is standing there in his rain gear, brave against the elements. I’d seen him two times already, in the distance, but this time I would pass right next to him. I look up. He’s smiling. He knows. As he raises his hand up for a much welcome high-five, a jolt of energy zaps my entire body. Hands clap. I roar. I feel like I’m flying. Thanks, brother, and can’t wait to be side by side in Ottawa :)

I stay in this moment for as long as I can. My legs are starting to stiffen and I know I shouldn’t be pushing at this point, but the energy’s overwhelming. This is something I’m gonna need to learn to control. It makes my stride uneven and my overall effort level curve look like a strip of bacon. Ooohhh, bacon.

I’m approaching a set of curves. I’m not recognizing the specific section of the track and I’m thinking it’s bad to have designed the last kilometers of the course to be so curvy. How the hell am I supposed to gauge my remaining effort if I can’t see the finish line?

There’s another orange flag. I get my head up. Oh my god. It says 1! This is it. I’ve done it. I’ve not only completed the course, I’ve got just enough energy in store to finish strong. I reach for my belt, grab my last squirt of gel – been saving it – and switch to my Rage Playlist. I’m gonna give it all.

Every step I take is longer, stronger. My arms start to swing frantically as I pass every single runner who’d passed me over the last couple minutes. This is going so well. The end is curvy and filled with large muddy puddles, gravel and loose crap all over and the runners are slowing down, afraid to slip or take a bad fall. I’m not slowing. I’m not afraid. I’m a fucking tiger.

Last curve. The asphalt resumes right beyond it. I expect the finish line to be standing right there, almost at arm’s reach. And then it hits me. Right there, all alone, another long, orange, stupid, motherfucking marker. Says 20. Like a 2x4 to the face, I come to the devastating realization that the “1” flag I mistook for the last marker was a wet, shriveled “19”.

It’s over. My lungs are burning, I don’t have a single ounce of energy anymore, and there’s still a kilometer to go. I think I’m about to cry. As I slow down to a mere jog, every single runner I’d passed so proudly flies by me, cranking up their last bit of energy to finish strong. I, on the other hand, is going to cross that line looking like a wet hungover zombie with concrete shoes.

Funny how thoughts of despair can carry you just enough hundred meters to make you see the finish line. As soon as it came in sight, I emptied of everything but the increasing stomp of my feet frantically rushing forward. One last look up, the arch is there. And a big surprise.

There’s a “gun time” display at the finish line. As I cross, it says 1h54!

At the summit of my adrenaline, after the hugs of victory and the satisfied smiles of fellow runners finishing their challenge, my day gets even better. I get my “chip time”. I double-check it, in disbelief. It says 1h51:30. I just achieved what I hope to be the first of a long series of personal records.

And I haven’t felt so alive in a long, long time.


I'll see you in Ottawa.

April 19, 2010

Soggy

An account of my first barefoot half-marathon

I’m standing at the starting line, among a couple friendly faces and a sea of jumping people. The air is electric. I check one last time that everything’s in place. My music, my food, my water. I still can’t really believe it, yet.

This is the big day.

Of course, it could have been sunny. Or warm. Or both. But the early spring weather was grey, humid, and cold. Really fucking cold. I waited until the last possible minute to take my street clothes off and put on my FiveFingers, trying to stay as warm as I could. People are walking around with megaphones, warning that the starting gun is about to go off. I take a deep breath. It’s about to begin.

Bang.

It’s overwhelming. The energy is so high, it seems you could fly. The long line of thousands of eager runners slowly starts to move, like a big jittery multi-colored caterpillar. Before I know it, the wave of movement hits me and my friends and we’re on the move. Don’t freak. Focus.

One last look at Kendra. She’s smiling. In an instant, I’m reminded why I’m doing this. For fun. I smile my teeth stupid and I get moving. It takes me less than five seconds to start feeling like I’m stuck in a herd of slow cows and I can’t fight the urge to speed up serious.

As I pick up speed, I know that this could be a fatal mistake. Giving in to the excitement, starting strong only to run out of fuel somewhere along the way. “Don’t jizz your shorts, idiot”. I laugh. It’s all right, I think, I’ll get the stress out of my system, warm up quicker, find my pace, and then cruise.

The first 100 meters wasn’t over that a light rain started coming down. Not much more than a little mist, at first, but enough to get me worried. Any accumulation of water on the track means I will have to endure soaked, cold, soggy feet for the whole race. At the first turn, there’s already a large patch of mud and gravel. The track is packed with runners. I can’t avoid it. I step in reluctantly, and instantaneously feel the mushy, cold mud rushing in. Suddenly, my cross-country training doesn’t feel so crazy or useless anymore...

Runners are looking at me funny. Some are smiling, others have puzzled looks of disbelief. I suddenly realize that of 3,500 runners, I’m probably the only barefoot dude, so I’m getting the same kind of looks runners who show up to races dressed as giant chickens or drag queens must get all the time. People in the crowd are nudging others, pointing at my feet. Some send me thumbs up, others seem to think I’m not going to last five minutes. I don’t like the attention. Breathe. Look forward. Find your pace.

The drizzle quickly turned into a shitstorm. The wind picked up, too, and the rest of my clothes rapidly matched the state of my feet. At this point, I made a decision; for what it’s worth, I’m giving it all. I’m not gonna try to save up some energy or run a restrained, controlled 21K. Fuck it. If these are the conditions we’re gonna get, I’ll run it to the top of my lungs, maximum effort, head down. At least I won’t be cold.

So I keep my speed up. Every couple minutes, I feel my energy crashing. I regret my decision to rely on SportBeans for energy, as the PowerGel seems to give me a much better boost. Hey, there’s nothing I can do about it anyways, I only have two pouches. It’ll have to do. I follow the advice from that nice girl at The Running Room (sip it). It works. I’m just afraid that every little boost I get is the last...

The distance markers start to go by. 7, 10. I look down, most of the time. Seems it took me forever to complete the first half of the challenge. I try not to think of the distance that remains. I know I’ve slowed down sensibly since a couple minutes, and my initial motivation is starting to escape me. I separated from my friends a long time ago, no one’s in sight. It’s me and the track. I feel alone. For the first time today, I’m afraid.

A little pinch on my elbow. Shaken out of my thoughts, I turn to see a little lady, shining a large smile at me. She points at my feet, gives me a “hang loose” and a wink as she passes. It is impossible to explain the feeling completely; it’s like she hosed down my worries and gave me a warm bowl of soup. I know, it makes no sense. But man, does that ever feel good. I love you for what you did, smiling lady.

I reached the 11KM marker in pouring rain and strong winds.

At least I was half way.


- To be continued -

April 12, 2010

Awaiting The Starting Gun

Here we are. I’ve been talking, I’ve been dreaming, I’ve been training. I’ve had my ups and downs, my worries, my high hopes, my reality checks. I ditched my doubts. I ditched my shoes.

Now I’m about to confront the Beast... and all I have to do is sit and wait.

They call it “tapering”. This means I have only one training goal this week, just a few days away from my first, real, official half-marathon: rest and recuperate. Eat right. Carbo-load. Sleep.

I haven’t been this jittery in years. I’ve barely overcome a severe lactic acid problem in my calves after my New-York run, I’m still struggling with my body’s glycogen (sugar) needs versus my sugar-free diet, I feel undertrained, I’m ravaged with uncertainties.

But in the meantime, I’m roaring. I’ve been preparing for this. I’ve gone through the course a thousand times in my mind. There’s something inside that’s been slowly winding up, carefully, notch by notch. All it has to do now is stay still for a week. Steady, Eddie.

I’m in dire need of meditation. I have to sit down, close my eyes, breathe it all out. Transform anxiety into slow-burning fuel. Shuffle my images one last time. Go pick up my race kit. Calmly. Show up at the starting line. With quiet resolve.

It’s the 30th Anniversary of Terry Fox’s epic run today.

There are no coincidences.

April 7, 2010

Snapshots

When I close my eyes, when my mind wanders off, this is where I go. Mountain summits. Desert trails. Lost seaside roads. Street markets. Valleys.

I have retained from my planet roaming a strange set of states of being. They’re a mix of sights, sounds, odors, feelings. They are the smile of the Italian baker in Cinque Terre, the smell of busy Chinese Hutongs and the breeze atop Waimea canyon. They are the sip of wine in a train from Barcelona, the first step down the ferry in Port-Aux-Basques, the Mexican cook’s hug on New Year’s Day.

These little snapshots are pinned and scotch taped all around inside of me. I stumble upon them all the time. They populate my daydreams, my stories. If you could gather and paste them all together, they’d be the best road map of my life and wouldn’t miss a single important moment or significant person.

Each time I step out of the everyday, this is what I’m after. Chasing moments. Shutting off my cultural reflexes, my preconceptions and what’s left of my sense of planning. Letting freedom, openness and enthusiasm breathe out loud. And smiling my teeth dry.

This is what I’m about. This is what I’m going for. The only certainty in my life.

I am a traveler.

April 1, 2010

How to Train Your Dragon

Movie Review

As more IMAX 3D movies are coming out, I always get worried that the magic of the effects will fade away eventually and that this new entertainment experience will slowly become what we expect from any movie we set out to see. But until that happens, if it ever does, I keep enjoying every single piece of cinema I experience through this new medium with the excitement of a 6-year-old :)

How to Train Your Dragon, in that perspective, is every single bit as stunning as the other 3D movies that recently hit the theatres. However, and that’s the great thing about it, the whole thing is not only about highly-polished images and jaw-dropping effects. It’s a very, very cute little story.

In a nutshell, the story is about Hiccup, a little Viking dude who doesn’t look, move, think or behave anything like his people. Everyone expects him to become a dragon killer like his fellow villagers, but he’s not really cut for the job. He’s more of an inventor and likes to tinker in the blacksmith’s shop. On a night his village is being pillaged by dragons, he takes a shot at an elusive Night Fury, the rarest and most feared of all dragons. Against all odds, he shoots it down and the dragon plummets into the nearby woods.

After the fight, nobody believes Hiccup has shot anything and he is ridiculed. But when he sets out to find the dragon in the woods, he’s in for a big surprise. He will make an encounter that will change his life.

Aside from very few ugly bothering little annoyances (Vikings with Scottish accents, WTF – a few really corny scenes - and inexplicably blurred 3D when the camera makes a swift pan during flying scenes), this movie is pure candy.

Toothless, the dragon character, is just lovely. If he doesn’t win your heart in the first couple minutes, you’re either dead or a tax collector. The village folks are overblown and funny, the environment is gorgeous and the story’s engaging and well-written. Add a couple unexpected jokes, some good surprises and breathtaking visuals, and you’ve got yourself a very nice, enjoyable piece of entertainment.

How to train Your Dragon is definitely a kid’s movie. That is, a movie for kids of all ages.