Arts and Culture, Food, Running, Stories, Travel

The ALESIA Trail

A long time ago, when the Roman civilization was flourishing and France was still known as Celtic Gallia (Gaul), there lived a chap who dared defy Julius Caesar. He was known as Vercingetorix, and you may have come across his name, which is strewn liberally all through pop culture, most notably in the Asterix comic book series or film. Wikipedia says his name meant Great Warrior King, and  as a chieftain of the Arverni tribe, he attempted to unite the Gauls to rebel against the Roman legions. When Caesar built not one, but two fortifications to cut off both the city, as well as the Gallic allies who came as relief, the Gauls lost the Battle of Alesia and the Roman Empire was created. Vercingetorix was held captive, brought back to Rome, marched the streets and finally executed.

A statue of Vercingetorix in Alise-Sainte-Reine, commissioned by Napoleon III.

A statue of Vercingetorix in Alise-Sainte-Reine, commissioned by Napoleon III.

It’s a sorry end, but the man went down as a hero. So widely celebrated is this part of Gallo-Roman/French history, that the running community has decided to celebrate it with the Alesia Trail, a trail race that takes runners through the forests and villages of Burgundy, in the ancient battle site of the Battle of Alesia (52BC). It offered four distances – 16km, 25km, 34km and 51km. The Ninja Turtle won her bib on RunningHeroes, which included the post-race meal, and she was absolutely stoked.

After fourteen races since the end of February 2015, this was to be the Ninja Turtle’s fifteenth and last race of the year, and as luck would have it, a final hurrah to summer.

The duo rolled into town a day in advance and took a moment to enjoy the landscape of the Burgundy countryside during the bib collection. Alise-Sainte-Reine sits atop a huge hill, and the view was magnificent, but it did mean that the race will finish with a climb back uphill, and what a mother of a hill it was.

The race commences and finishes at the statue of Vercingetorix, which sits atop a huge hill.

The race commences and finishes at the statue of Vercingetorix, which sits atop a huge hill.

GodzillaPin decided to calm the Turtle’s anxiety by taking her sightseeing, so they drove to Flavigny-sur-Ozerain, where their B&B accommodation was, and popped by the lolly factory and the medieval crypt. By the time they checked into their B&B, the Ninja Turtle was tired enough to sleep. They were greeted by their host, who was very friendly, but when she inquired who was running the race and what distance, the Ninja Turtle was met with a rather impressed and skeptical look.

But first, a pre-race meal at the Cheval Blanc.

The next morning, the duo woke up bright and early, and their host served up a lovely breakfast of fresh fruit salad, yogurt, breads and spreads. The Ninja Turtle also got a whole flask of coffee to herself, which came to 4 cups! They were joined by the other two guests in the B&B, a couple from Paris who were also in town for the race. The husband was running the 16km, and the same look of disbelief crossed their faces when GodzillaPin announced proudly that the Turtle was doing the 34km.

Some fun facts from the organisers:

1600 runners across the four distances. 26% of all runners were women, and 74% men. 15% (240 runners) were doing the 34km distance, and the average age of all runners was 41. There were to be 160 volunteers, which meant 1 volunteer to 10 runners. The runners will run a combined distance of 41138km in 8 hours!

A map of the 34.2km route.

A map of the 34.2km route, with a climb of 1200m (3937ft) and a total elevation profile of 2393m (7851ft).

While driving to the starting line, the Ninja Turtle decided to err on the side of over-dressing, with the option to remove layers, than to risk freezing through the race. Although the forecast was a nice sunny day, it was 9°C (48°F) at the starting line with cold winds. She made it to the starting line with barely a few minutes to spare. The duo hadn’t counted on a traffic jam to happen, but with the road closures on narrow streets, it was inevitable. GodzillaPin dropped the Turtle off, and she hiked uphill to the starting line. The queue for the toilets were too long, so she found a bush close by. GodzillaPin joined her a few short minutes later for a good luck kiss, and off the runners went.

Ready... steady... GO! (The Ninja Turtle in white cap, lagging close to the back of the pack once more.)

9am flag-off for the 34km race. Ready… steady… GO! (The Ninja Turtle in white cap, lagging close to the back of the pack once more.)

After a long and hard season that culmulated in a half marathon PR just two weeks ago, the Ninja Turtle had just one simple objective: to simply finish the race and enjoy herself while at it. There are some runners out there who snub this absolute lack of competitive spirit; perhaps you believe that if one ain’t pushing hard, there’s no difference from doing just a training run, so why pay the money to join a race? Well, that may be the case for road races, but as far as the Turtle is concerned, there is no way her training would take her through the forests and hills of ancient battlefields, and she runs her trail races as experiences to be lived. Besides the faster one runs, the sooner the experience is over, which makes it terrible value for money. That’s not to say the Turtle doesn’t make an effort, she still runs in these events, because everyone else is doing it and it’s a great sensation to be flying through the landscape. Also, this race had 2 time limit checkpoints.

Landscape like this.

Landscapes like this. Lovely Charolais cows soaking in the sun, staring at the nutters running by.

The race had four water stations,three of which offered up food, and one of them with a time-check. The first of which these was in Flavigny-sur-Ozerain, where GodzillaPin waited to capture some photos of the Turtle.

The villages offered up a picturesque change from the countryside and the forest landscapes.

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It was truly a fantastic experience, as most of the race took the runners along soft forest soil, which was an absolute pleasure compared to some of her previous races. That said, the Ninja Turtle does not wish to downplay the difficulty of the race, as there were moments where runners still had to deal with sharp rocks, and at two points, the course became very technical, and runners were obliged to use cords to descend and to climb up the impossibly steep trail. To get an idea of what the Ninja Turtle lived, one of the participants from the previous edition made a video of the race.

The Ninja Turtle passed the mid-point time check and clocked in at 2h 13m 29s, ranking 164 overall. By the time she’d crossed the finish line, she’d finished the race in 4h 11m 3s, and moved up to 134 of 211 finishers. It was a pleasant surprise too, to discover that she ranked 10th among the women (29 finished), and 4th in her age group category (11 finished). Perhaps they’re not terribly impressive results to some, given the size of the competition, and frankly, the Turtle didn’t care. She was simply glad to receive some post-race TLC from a couple of amazing volunteer physiotherapists. She also enjoyed the chance to socialise with some of the other runners (they saw Asterix, a Roman soldier, and here the Turtle poses with Getafix), and quite possibly the reincarnation of Vercingetorix himself! Guilhem had run the race twice before, and this hardcore young man is the face of Alesia Trail. That’s him on the poster! He also did spectacularly well, coming in 10th overall in the 51km. And he’s only 22…

Overall, it’s been a great race season, filled with extreme experiences, new PRs, personal growth and above all, the chance to celebrate the love of running.

The Turtle has no doubt that 2016 will bring more racing fun and adventure, but for the moment, she is ready to hang up her running shoes for a few weeks, for she has earned a much deserved rest.

The happy end to a chapter.

The happy end to a chapter.

Stories, Travel

Reflections on China

Prior to the Ninja Turtle’s visit to China, she had certain preconceptions about the place. Having only visited the country once – and this was way back in 1999, on a primary school trip to Beijing – her knowledge of China was vague at best. Sure, she knew the country had made progress in leaps and bounds, but when one is stuck with the memories of a public schooling system with too many hyper-disciplined, super-enthusiastic students crammed into a tiny classroom fighting to answer every single math question, and public toilets in a brand new state library with no doors on the cubicles, it’s hard to know just what to anticipate.

First and foremost, the infrastructure is pretty well established. There are certainly a lot more cars than bicycles on the roads now, which also explains the constant curtain of grey that hangs on the horizon. Let’s just say those aren’t rain clouds.

Since it has been over 10 years since the Ninja Turtle has lived in a Mandarin-speaking environment, her confidence was initially shaky. Sure, she occasionally speaks Mandarin with Mother and Papa Turtle, but mainland Chinese will very quickly point out that the Chinese diaspora speak bastardised versions of proper Mandarin.

This is especially so in Singapore, where the people arguably speak a creole. What some people take pride in as bilingualism is in fact, generally a substandard ability to faintly grasp two languages just enough to get by. To the Singaporean-Chinese ear, mainland Chinese speakers have a very strong accent when speaking in Mandarin.

After a day or two however, the Ninja Turtle got accustomed (thanks perhaps in part to her 4 years of Chinese-school education… yes yes, she went to a Chinese-education school, no need to point and laugh hysterically). She even got complimented on her Mandarin skills by a few people, which is not so different from when the French back in France compliment her for speaking English really well…

Another pre-trip concern was the food. Shameful confession of the week: the Ninja Turtle loves food, but food doesn’t always love the Ninja Turtle. This is especially the case in Singapore, where the Ninja Turtle lives like royalty – she eats a plethora of exciting dishes in food courts, hawker centres, restaurants, and inevitably, spends a lot of time the following day sitting on the throne… So there were questions as to just how well her guts could handle food in China (Mother Turtle could offer no real helpful advice in this area) and also, whether she’d get used to the taste.

A quick word on the standards of service in China: it is AMAZING, and the Turtle isn’t just measuring this against shoddy French service standards. The hotel staff were almost creepily efficient at their job, and it took the Ninja Turtle until the end of her stay to appreciate and get used to it. On day one, she requested a quiet corner, and was given a very comprehensive explanation of how buffet breakfasts worked while shown to her table.

Ironically, when she asked where the coffee machine was, she was told that the coffee would be brought to her table. Now the Turtle likes her coffee in a very particular way, so she said no worries, she could serve herself, it was a buffet after all. The service staff gave her a very injured look, as if the Turtle had challenged her very purpose of existence by cheerily suggesting self-service at a buffet breakfast. A few back-and-forths of insisting who would get the coffee later, the Turtle relented.

Day Two onwards, everyone on the team seemed to know everything. She was greeted warmly each morning, no repeating her room number, automatically shown to a quiet corner, served her coffee and glass of water, and checked upon every 15 minutes to see if the meal was up to standard, and the coffee topped up like magic. As she left, she was waved off by no less than 5 people, wishing her a pleasant day. It felt like these wait staff were customer service angels, and the hotel restaurant Customer Service Heaven.

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There was one thing the Ninja Turtle was looking forward to in China, but sadly, it did not eventuate. Not often does the Turtle visit a new city and not take the opportunity to run in it, exploring the sights. Sadly, the quality of the air was enough to make this asthmatic Turtle think the better of it. After all, running is meant to improve one’s health, not compromise it. And truly, it’s not fun at all when one is wheezing like Darth Vader after 500m.

Fortunately, the hotel where the Ninja Turtle was staying in had a fitness centre, and possibly the best treadmill she's ever used in her life.

Fortunately, the hotel where the Ninja Turtle was staying in had a fitness centre, and possibly the best treadmill she’s ever used in her life.

She even went for a dip in the swimming pool, but got severely told off for not wearing a swimming cap, even though she saw no signs, nor received any instructions about the matter prior to going in the water.

She even went for a dip in the swimming pool, but got severely told off for not wearing a swimming cap, even though she saw no signs, nor received any instructions about the matter prior to going in the water. It was the one and only time on her trip she feigned complete ignorance of the language and pretended she didn’t understand a damn word that was being yelled in her face.

So there you have it, some reflections of China. A vibrant and exciting country that’s straddling two worlds – developing and developed – with most of its ancient history and culture still thankfully preserved despite the Maoist regime, and a culture of keeping up with the Joneses driving its domestic consumer spending (although that is probably still peanuts in the grand scheme of its economic growth). Five days isn’t enough to go by, but this simply means one thing: the Ninja Turtle will definitely be returning to China for more.




The spirit of a nation

Arts and Culture, Stories, Travel

The Spirit of Australia

Another day, another adventure into the heart of Australia. This time, the Ninja Turtle took a trip along the Murray River.

Australia's longest river commencing in the Australian Alps, traversing three states - NSW, VIC and SA.

Pelicans on the Murray River

The Murray is Australia’s longest river, commencing in the Australian Alps and traversing three states – NSW, VIC and SA before reaching Lake Alexandrina, where it empties into the Indian Ocean. The first explorer who traversed the Murray was the celebrated Captain Charles Sturt.  The significance of the Murray cannot be understated – it is a water source exploited for livestock and agriculture, a popular destination tourism and recreation, and of course, a natural habitat for native wildlife.

On the way down south, the route took them through Jervois. Many early settlers sought valuable land along the Murray for agriculture and animal husbandry – the history of cattle farming in Jervois goes back a couple of hundred years. Only a few years ago, this whole stretch of flatland were emerald green pastures, irrigated with water from the Murray and dotted with dairy cows.

Looking something like that.

Looking something like that.

Sadly, South Australia suffered a drought in 2008/2009, which saw the government pressuring the dairy farmers into selling back their water rights. Today, little remains of what used to be a thriving dairy industry, and much has turned into scorched and unproductive land.

Vast stretches of dry emptiness.

Vast stretches of dry emptiness.

Milk from the few surviving dairy producers go into making cheese...

Milk from the few surviving dairy producers go into making cheese…

Specifically, mozzarella

Specifically, mozzarella!

Next, they took a ferry across the Narrows at Narrung – a choppy opening between Lake Alexandrina and Lake Albert, to reach Raukkan.

Along the way, they passed many of these dried out salt lakes with a thick white crust of salt. Yes, Australia is very dry.

Along the way, they passed many of these dried out salt lakes with a thick white crust of salt. Yes, Australia is very dry.

To get an idea of just how big Lake Alexandrina really is, here's proof. The lighthouse in this photo is the lighthouse for the lake, one of its kind in Australia.

To get an idea of just how big Lake Alexandrina really is, here’s proof. The lighthouse in this photo is the lighthouse for the lake, one of its kind in Australia.

Raukkan is a small Aboriginal community

Raukkan is a small friendly Aboriginal community

It is one of the very few around where visitors do not need a special pass/permit to enter

It is one of the very few around where visitors do not need a special pass/permit to enter.

Some of the architecture around are the original buildings constructed back in the 1800s during the settlement. They are built with limestone from the area.

Some of the architecture around are the original buildings constructed back in the 1800s during the settlement. They are built with limestone from the area.

Raukkan is also the birthplace of David Unaipon (he worked as a sheep shearer in that very shed).

Raukkan is also the birthplace of David Unaipon (he worked as a sheep shearer in that very shed).

David Who? you say… Well, you may better know him as this man:

Unaipon, who has been called "the black Leonardo", is an indigenous Australian of the Ngarrindjeri people

Unaipon, who has been called “the black Leonardo”, is an indigenous Australian of the Ngarrindjeri people.

Some quick facts about David Unaipon:

– He was a  writer, inventor, public speaker
– He created a basic design for the helicopter about 2 decades before the first one was invented
– He served as an advocate for indigenous welfare
– He wrote poetry and stories that were published in books, but was never credited (he could also quote Milton)
– Of course, despite all his achievements, success was denied him due to overt and pervasive racism
Here is a timeline on David Unaipon’s achievements. Here is an excellent write-up by Kidman on the life of David Unaipon.
For all their "otherness" society treats the Aborigines with, they are no different from the rest of us.

For all their “otherness” society treats the Aborigines with, they are no different from the rest of us.

They live, they love, and they die... as we all do.

They live, they love, and they die… as we all do.

Acknowledging the traditional landowners is an important step to reconciliation for past wrongs, and it is with the hope of reaching a better mutual understanding, that Australia shall truly be able to progress.


The Things That Really Matter

Sometimes, it’s all too easy for us to compare ourselves with others, and feel like we come up short. Everyone else seems to be richer, smarter, funnier, younger, more beautiful, more successful etc etc… than our little old selves. Their lives are more interesting, they’ve travelled more, seen more, eaten more, lived more, everything more than us, and pretty soon, we wonder why anybody even loves us, and we’re probably going to finish up spending our twilight years on a front porch rocking chair, polishing a rifle and scaring off any visitors, eventually dying alone and completely forgotten until about three weeks later when the neighbour’s dog finally dares to venture close enough…

OK, so maybe most people aren’t quite so dramatic when it comes to their self-esteem. Or are they? Consider how we’re a culture of self-obsessed narcissists while simultaneously suffering from the plague of self-loathing. Like many teenage females of her species, the Ninja Turtle used to spend way too much time worrying that she failed to measure up to certain ideals and standards. In retrospect, it’s very shameful to admit it now, how shallow and superficial her obsessions were, but truth be told, it’s the norm. Her concerns mirrored those of everyone else’s, as she’d fit right in to conversations as long as she spoke the same language of self-criticism.

It was all thanks to running that she’s finally learnt to perceive her body differently – not what it looks like, but what it can do. Her once too-big thighs are now strong and muscular. Her cursed lack of height is now seen as a gift, for it’s a shorter way to go if she trips and falls. A million tiny flaws all dissolve to oblivion as she learns how inconsequential they all are. It’s not that running has given her a perfect body (if anything, she can no longer zip up a very expensive pair of leather boots because her calves are now disproportionally big). It’s just that running has given her a whooping dose of perspective about what truly matters.

So much in the media today is about health, but none of it makes any real sense because it’s all conflicting information. Like this article in the Guardian points out, it’s hard for people to make healthy choices or engage in healthy behaviours if they’re so full of self-hatred. Perhaps it’s a bit of stretch to point fingers as the skinny for the current poor state of health, but for a long time now, we have been confounding thinness with good health, and come on now, admit it, we’ve all been guilty at some point of judging another person based on their physical appearances.

The truth is, there are some thin folks who live off hamburgers and chain-smoke, and some bigger-sized people whose blood work will put the rest of us to shame. We don’t know anything about people just by looking at them. Of course, a fat person is a fat person, and it’s impossible to argue one’s way out of this fact without a good dose of unawareness or self-deception, but it’s very cruel to make a moral judgement simply based on general assumptions. A fat person is simply that, a fat person. Just like a skinny person is simply a skinny person. Nothing more, nothing less.

By programming children to attach negative connotations to the word fat – and by extension, positive ones with being thin, we have all done ourselves a huge disservice. We’re taking a lazy mental shortcut, and one which, given the number of “overweight” in our world today, essentially lumps the majority of people in the not-good-enough basket. Where do we draw the line? Worse, it’s exactly this kind of reasoning that teaches young girls (and boys) to say “I feel fat” instead of “I fear I won’t be getting an A for biology after all”. Cue: all sorts of eating disorders, stage left.

The ongoing debate of personal responsibility in health further reinforces the notion that people get themselves to a certain state because they’re too lazy/stupid/(insert judgement here). Too easy is it to say “nobody held a gun to your head to eat the pizza”. Time-pressed working parents who pull 12-hour-days struggling to earn enough to survive cannot skip down to the local markets at 10am like the privileged among us, to select organic peaches and broccoli with a cost per kilo of their hourly wage. When the kids want a hot meal at the end of the night, and another 30 minutes on their feet in front of a hot stove is out of the question, a family pizza deal for the price of one kilo of said peaches and broccoli doesn’t look half bad after all.

Perhaps we are better off saving our judgement then, for those who are in charge of creating this entirely perverse and arguably criminal situation where fresh food is left to rot, instead of being redirected to where it’s needed most.

We need to start creating a culture and an environment where girls and women do not bond over overt self-loathing (remember Mean Girls?).

We need to start empowering girls by directing their identities towards what they can do, not what they look like.

We need to start encouraging people to love and respect themselves, if we want to see evidence of this in their food and lifestyle choices.

We need to stop making moral judgements on people, based solely on their appearances.

We need to stop making choices that permit the exploitation of the Earth, the people who work on it, the predatory pricing that nudges us towards picking up the less-healthy choices and a complete disconnection between ourselves, the planet, and our food.

We need to stop worrying about the inconsequential rubbish of what’s on TV, who’s pregnant/divorced/gained weight, or the pimple on our chin.

We need to stop comparing ourselves to others, understand that we are all unique and have something to offer to the world, and start taking action to fix the very real problems of a food crisis, a health crisis, and an economic crisis that is all around us.


Valediction for Peres

President Peres, you have blood on your hands
As of today, the number of murdered stands
At 788 innocent civilians, from the other side
But we know it’ll just keep rising like incoming tide
190 of them were children; did you hear their cries?
How do you explain erasing those unwritten lives?
Shall this go on until one side has launched
Its final ammunition?
Will it not end until each man, woman and child
Is dealt their execution?
This isn’t war, it’s a massacre
Of Judgement Day, have you no fear?
Look God in the eyes, my man
And say you’ve served him well
May He let those young lives then decide
If you belong in hell.


To the women in our lives…

Who have taught us to dare to hope, dream and fight

Who have inspired us to be the best version of ourselves

Who have led by example, what it means to be a woman.

The Ninja Turtle has also been blessed with many mother figures in her life; each bringing a different lesson but they all share one great thing in common – love. Women who have held her when she cried, women who have taught her to dry her eyes, and above all, women who have taught her that crying is an art, and if it’s going to be an inevitable part of life, at least learn to have hankies on stand-by and pizza on speed-dial.

However, this is Mothers’ Day and after all is said and done, the Ninja Turtle has only got one person to thank for hatching her into this world. So this is going to be a reflection in tribute of Mother Turtle.

Mother Turtle brought the Ninja Turtle into this world. Mother Turtle also single-handedly dealt with the Ninja Turtle through her Teenage Mutant years (and by God were they difficult for all). Mother Turtle never criticised the Ninja Turtle’s choice of partners, despite how questionable some of them have been.

However, Mother Turtle’s biggest influence in the Ninja Turtle’s life wasn’t quite so apparent until recently, when all those years of watching Mother Turtle do her exercise routine every night without fail for almost all of the Ninja Turtle’s life culmulated into this idea that when a woman loves her sport, physical activity is something one does for the rest of one’s life. Happily. It’s turned exercise from a self-loathing punishment into a joyful act of empowerment.

In a day and age where media saturation skewers healthy perceptions of body image, so many people talk about teaching young girls to love themselves. That’s all well and good, as long as we remember that the most enduring lessons come not from talking, but from setting a concrete example.

It’s very unlikely that Mother Turtle was above self-critique or dissatisfaction about her appearances; she is after all, a woman who once owned about 30 pairs of heels in various colours. However, the most important thing she’s ever done (or not done), lies in the fact that the Ninja Turtle CANNOT recall a single instance of her disparaging herself. Not once did she ever hear “I’m fat”, or “I’m ugly”, or “I’m on a diet”, or “I really shouldn’t eat that”, or “I look gross in this”, etc.

The same cannot be said for other women; far too often the Ninja Turtle felt a great sense of despair as she hears a grown woman submit herself to statements like “I’m such a cow”, or “no one looks at a fat, old lady like me”. How is a child to respond, when someone he/she perceives as role model, speaks of herself this way?

It’s taken a heck of a long time for this to sink in, but it has dawned on the Ninja Turtle that women need not equate their self-worth to their appearance, nor apply character judgement upon themselves based on food or lifestyle choices. This is the lesson from Mother Turtle, who does her daily exercise with a smile while watching the news, and happily tucks into a beautiful slice of cake over coffee with zero guilt.

There are too many women in this world, good women, good mothers, who undoubtedly want the best for their children. They’re incredibly vigilant over all aspects of their children’s lives, and take great care to ensure the kids are healthy and happy. In doing so, however, a good deal of these women tend to neglect themselves.

Don’t be so harsh on yourselves, mothers. Don’t be so judgemental of your “failures”, so critical of your performance. You’re doing the best you can, and that’s plenty. Your kids learn by watching you, and from one ultimately-non-psychopathic-reasonably-well-adjusted adult’s experience, it all begins with a mother being kind to herself. A child can only love her mother as much as a mother loves herself.

With that…

I love you, Mother Turtle!

I love you, Mother Turtle!