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.

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Arts and Culture, Running

A Tribute to Vaco

When I first arrived, you jumped upon me
Knocked me over, and licked me with glee
Back then, the French tongue, I could not comprehend
But you showed me with no words that we’re to be friends

Your eyes were huge, your heart was bigger
You always wanted to share my dinner
But never mind if I gave you no food
It never destroyed your joyful mood

You taught yourself to open doors
Despite your only having paws
And knew when bedtime rolled around
You’d nuzzle us, then head underground*

When I first started running years ago
Unfit as I was, the going was slow
As I slogged through valleys resembling canyons
You came along as a faithful companion

Until your joints gave out one fine day
No more runs, but you still loved to play
Sure, age was slowing catching up
But deep down inside, you were still a pup

Who roamed the street we lived on, free
Strutting between number 2 and 3
To check on Grandpa and Grandma Rabbit
Your loyalty was a daily habit^

You were doing fine, but all of a sudden,
We got the news: you went to doggie heaven
I didn’t even get to say “Farewell,
I love you, good doggie, you were swell”

Goodbye dear Vaco, you’re one of a kind
You’re loved by those you’ve left behind
Though you most sadly did depart
You’ll forever live on in our hearts.

*For many years the dog’s bed was in the basement, where it was cooler and more comfortable. He’d jump up on his hind legs, open the door and descend the flight of stairs when he decided it was bedtime, but never before wishing us goodnight by licking a hand or nuzzling against us.

^Grandpa and Grandma Rabbit live about 100m down the road from GodzillaPin’s parents’. The dog would once again, open the front door and let himself out, cross the road carefully and trot down the pavement to make sure the old folks are OK. Every single day. That dog had more filial piety than most human beings.

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Food, Running, Travel

Trail des Passerelles du Monteynard

Warning: Long post. This is a race review which comes with a background story.

Although this blog may present a charming life of travel, food and fun, several incidents over the last few months have conspired to creating a sense of pressing urgency within the Ninja Turtle to redeem herself. First, there was the accident of falling from a height of 2.5m onto concrete while on holidays back in November last year (and the subsequent few months of recurring nightmares where the Turtle was falling to her death in some way or another), leaving the Ninja Turtle with a perpetual sense of mortality ever after.

Then, there was the crushing defeat of her first DNF at the Trail Yonne back in May; after months of training for the ultramarathon event, increasing her mileage, cleaning up her diet and quitting all the good stuff in life (wine), she found her limits against Mother Nature.

More recently, she’d “lost” her job (word used loosely here – she had in fact, painfully decided to walk away from it) when everyone around her pointed out the fact that it was not normal to be busting her balls for ridiculous hours at a token pay that equated to exploitation. Nor was it normal that none of her writings on the site were ever attributed to her name, and since she’d taken all promises in good faith, she’d only learnt that she was being used when she finally tried to sort out a contract and was essentially told that she was not worth a paycheck.

The breaking point came when she’d gone back to Singapore and was on a couple of occasions, treated with such little respect with regards to her time, that within a week or so, she’d lost a couple of kilos due to missing out on sleep, meals, and even the chance to use the toilet, and fell so ill with a raging fever that for a while, they were worried she’d contracted MERS during her stopover in Dubai. After months of dedication, she pretty much has nothing to show for her work. Worst of all, during this period of insanity, the Ninja Turtle had neglected GodzillaPin on various occasions, choosing to prioritise meeting rushed deadlines over quality time (especially at Easter).

The Ninja Turtle is choosing to reveal all this information now, as she had kept some or all of it from various friends and family out of shame. The thing is, while the Ninja Turtle may not be competitive, she handles failure very poorly (perhaps this is exactly why she’s not competitive). Some people bounce back quickly, but she’s the sort to withdraw into a darkened room, curl into a tight ball and wash her wounds with tears of self-pity. Melodramatic, for sure. Thankfully, she’s had amazingly good friends like Sonic and Krazy Kow who rallied by her side immediately, but also Mother, Papa and Baby Turtle who showed her unjudgemental and unconditional love, and GodzillaPin who readily forgave her for the few awkward months, so she wouldn’t all but give up on writing and running completely (which would have been really stupid).

So these were the Ninja Turtle’s primary motivations for signing up for the race, which fell on the weekend of her birthday. She’d wanted a chance to redeem herself, to celebrate life, and to take on a challenge because life goes on.

Arriving at the Lac du Monteynard on Sunday morning for the race after only 6 hours of sleep. The landscape soon woke the two sleepyheads up.

Arriving at the Lac du Monteynard on Sunday morning at 7am for the race, after only managing 6 hours of sleep. The landscape soon woke the two sleepyheads up. The race organisers provided a very regular shuttle bus service from the parking to the start line because we all know runners are capable of running for hours, but walking 10 minutes is like death.

The Ninja Turtle at the starting line. She'd had her coffee and bread with jam, drank a litre of water by then, and did her business twice (in the bushes because OMG the queues for the toilets) so she was all set to go.

The Ninja Turtle at the starting line. She’d had her coffee and bread with jam, drank a litre of water by then, and did her business twice (in the bushes because OMG the queues for the toilets) so she was all set to go. The bibs displayed the race course with its evelation and refreshment stops upside down for the runners’ benefit. Clever!

The race was stated to start at 8.30am and it was quite timely (her watch read 8.33am). There were 812 people registered for the 35km race, but only 750 showed up at the starting line. The sun was already out by then, and all the runners’ were sporting hydration packs that were full to bursting. The Ninja Turtle looked at the mountains around her, thought about the 1900+ elevation gain and 1900- descent that awaited her; her brain failed so she resorted to humming “She’ll be coming round the mountain” instead.

With a winding path that climbed gently, some runners might have been fooled into a sense of complacency. The worst was yet to come.

With a winding path that climbed gently, some runners might have been fooled into a sense of complacency. The worst was yet to come.

Passerelle is what the French call a bridge. The race took the runners across two simple suspension bridges that crossed the Drac and the Ebron. Built in 2007 using helicopters, these cable bridges span 180m and 220m. Depending on the water level in the artificial lake, the bridges sit 45 to 85m above the water.

The first picture is a sign pointing to the Drac suspension bridge. The race route took the runners across the bridges 4 times in all. The middle photo was taken while queueing to cross the bridge for the first time. The Ninja Turtle was happy but she’d yet to learn what was to come. Almost all the runners enjoyed a magnificent view from the bridges. Sadly, the Ninja Turtle was not one of them.

A few steps onto the bridge, which was swinging wildly from the combined weight of all the runners and the wind, she was seized by overwhelming panic, and paralysis set in. The dizzying height brought back her fear of falling, and her heart rate shot up to 175 despite standing stock still. Each time she had to cross, a fellow runner would hold her by the hand and gently coax her forward with encouraging words, while her tears flowed, her knees buckled and she rambled nonsense about death. She got the names of two runners – Isabelle (mother of 3 who lives in the area) and Judit (a young Hungarian doctor), but not the gentleman whose poor hand she probably fractured, squeezing so hard. Whoever he is, bless his runner’s soul, she hopes he scored a PR.

These photos do little justice to the race experience. The climb was insanely tough, and runners who came with walking poles had an advantage, while those without had to resort to hands on knees. Many runners stopped to catch their breaths (both literally and metaphorically), as the air got thinner as they ascended, but the view was truly spectacular.

Several things the Ninja Turtle did right this time:

1. Pacing herself by effort. As soon as she’d hit Start on her GPS HRM watch, she’d all but ignored the details on it except to occasionally glance at her heart rate. Speed was irrelevant since there was no cut off time for any check points or the entire race.

2. Constant hydration. As the mercury pushed towards 37°C (98°F) on the unsheltered summits, it was imperative to keep drinking.

3. Eating early and eating often. After burning through too many calories to maintain her core body temperature, costing her a DNF at the last race, the Ninja Turtle has learnt her lesson. Eat as much as you can, as often as you can. Also, she skipped the dried and fresh fruits this time, opting for crackers and cheese sandwiches because when you’re drinking about 5L (1.3 gallons) of water, you’d better be replacing the NaCl.

Several things she could have done better:

1. The Ninja Turtle lost 15 minutes at the first water stop. First of all, there was a queue of thirsty runners battling to refill their hydration packs. When everyone else towers over you, you quickly become invisible to the volunteers. After politely hanging around the back for a few minutes, the Ninja Turtle decided to just crawl under the crowd of smelly runners and get her share. However the battle was not over. She struggled for another 10 minutes trying to figure out how to close that stupid device. Lesson: don’t use new gear on race day.

2. The Ninja Turtle may have been doing a few runs on Mont St Quentin and Les Sartelles (military grounds in Moselle and Meuse, featuring hills) sporting a new pair of New Balance trail shoes, so she’s been perfecting her uphill climbs and rolling back downhill in those flashy things. She’s learnt to rotate her hips more and let gravity do some work for her, so she can actually enjoy the sensation of going fast. However, she didn’t take into account that her training ground insufficiently reflected the incline and decline of race conditions. After the first descent, she could feel all her toenails threatening to fall off. After her second descent, her quads were screaming for mercy. Lesson: you can never be over-prepared.

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Useful advice from the running community that’s helped her:

1. Ultra runner Paviter Singh once shared with the Ninja Turtle the technique of thinking of the race not by its total distance, but the number of summits to surmount. The Ninja Turtle found this, combined with thinking of the number of food+hydration pit stops, helped greatly in keeping up morale.

2. Trail runner Jon had recently shared his experience at the TransLantau 50 and how he hadn’t carried enough gels on him for the race, as he didn’t expect to take that much longer to complete a trail (as compared to road). This helped the Ninja Turtle keep her expectations of finishing time in check (i.e. she had none, she just wanted to complete it), and also to carry spare food in her sack in case.

The race was mostly a series of uphills or downhills – very occasionally the runners came across a stretch of flat ground, but most were too tired to run or even jog these brief moments of respite.

After the Ninja Turtle crossed the bridge for the fourth and final time, she’d thought the worst was behind her. It was about 4.5 hours into the race, and she took stock of her situation – the sun was unrelenting but she didn’t feel overheated. She was a bit tired like everyone else, but she’d been eating and drinking enough to feel OK to go on. Her toenails were the only things that truly bothered her, and she was wary of how her gait has changed as a result of it. Now all that was left to do was to face that final monster climb, get something to eat and drink on the summit, and roll back downhill to the finish line. How hard could that be?

Turns out, pretty darn hard. The pain of her toenails hitting the front of her shoe was becoming increasingly unbearable, and the Ninja Turtle started to trip over the roots and the rocks. She didn’t give much thought to the first few stumbles, but then she had a fall. A few concerned runners (Judit included) checked to see if she was OK, and luckily it was nothing serious. Off they all went again.

About a-third to halfway up the Mother Ascent, the Ninja Turtle slowed down. The trail had become treacherously technical, and she was stumbling more frequently. She knew it wasn’t light-headedness, it was a combination of muscular fatigue and those damned toenails. On a small brief stretch of downhill that was rocky and dusty and hell, the Ninja Turtle fell a second time, this time, much harder.

She laid sprawled on the ground for a moment, engulfed by searing pain all over. A few runners came up from behind, and one stood beside her with his arm stretched out, without hurrying her at all, just waiting for her to be ready to be hauled onto her feet. She gritted her teeth, and grunted in pain while she was yanked up, and took stock of the situation. Covered in dust all over, she had blood streaming down her left forearm, her knee and her right hand, which bore the brunt of the shock, was stabbed by 3 stones. Her right hip was grazed through her clothing and began to bloom with a giant bruise.

The Ninja Turtle has a weak stomach for blood. She has a terrible history of fainting at the sight of blood, her own or someone else’s. When she saw all that blood gushing out of her hand, she almost vomitted in pain, fear and disgust. Other runners coming by all asked if she was OK, and a few of them helpfully squirted her wounds with water from their bottles. After a few painful minutes, a parade had overtaken her, and the Ninja Turtle was left all alone.

She looked at her GPS: 28.7 km. The final water stop was on the summit at 30km (a bit farther, since she’d run more than the official distance measured) and the finish at 35.1km. The sun was shining, the butterflies were flitting amidst the mountain flowers, and the Ninja Turtle decided to take however long she needed to finish the race, but there was no way in hell she was going to DNF again.

Sniffling like a baby, she switched gears back down to Tortoise Mode and plodded along, daintily avoiding those stupid stones, singing to herself some silly nonsense to reassure herself that all was fine. When she got to the final water stop she went straight to the first aid van. The man laconically glanced at her, asking “had a little accident, did we?” before looking at her wounds and proceeding to declare they were superficial grazing. He sauntered to the food table, took a bottle of water and poured it over the Turtle’s wounds. The Turtle howled in pain, and he looked bemused. “Surely it’s not that bad?” he said.

The Turtle was very unhappy. In her great huffiness, she departed after washing out her contact lenses, forgetting to eat and drink something. Turns out, there was still another kilometre of climbing before the descent began. BAH.

The Ninja Turtle took a good hour or so to finish the last few kilometres of the race. The descent was steep, the terrain incredibly technical, and she knew that psychologically, she could not afford another fall. Her toenails occasionally reminded her of their misery, but by that stage, the Turtle was in pain all over, that it became a game of rotating her focus on different injuries. Her right hand was bleeding afresh and she could not look at it. On the way back down, she was overtaken by another several dozen runners; on a cliff edge, yielding the path to runners who cannot afford to lose momentum means taking the outside edge of the cliff so they don’t risk slipping and falling off. The Ninja Turtle would stand breathless, letting the others pass, hoping she wouldn’t fall off herself.

A kilometre from the finish line, the Ninja Turtle took out her phone to ring GodzillaPin. The plan was for her to call, so they could arrange to meet somewhere easy to locate each other. After 3 attempts however, the Ninja Turtle gave up. GodzillaPin was not answering. She burst into tears but quickly stopped – it was hard to see the road.

Emerging from the forest trail, the final stretch of the race took the runners along a pebbly stretch of the beach, where holiday-makers were barbecuing and frolicking in the cool water of the lake. Covered in dust, sweat and blood, hobbling over the ridiculously uneven ground strewn with pebbles, the Ninja Turtle must have been quite a sight, hobbling with a grimace. The crowds gathered to cheer her on, and the Ninja Turtle’s heart leapt as little kids came running up to her, demanding high-fives.

Finishing the ordeal in 6h 5m 3s.

Struggling across the finish line.

As the Ninja Turtle crossed the finish line, her GPS read 36.75km in 6 hours 5 minutes 3 seconds.

The results came out later that evening and the Ninja Turtle’s ranking was as follows:

Gun time: 6 hours 5 minutes 29 seconds

33/67 (SEF) Senior women

52/148 Women

371/635 Overall

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To reward herself for finishing the race, GodzillaPin had prepared for the Ninja Turtle a cream, ham and cheese pizza that was bigger than the size of her head.

To reward herself for finishing the race, GodzillaPin had prepared for the Ninja Turtle a cream, ham and cheese pizza that was bigger than the size of her head. She’s earned it, don’t you think?

With this race complete, the Ninja Turtle felt ready to leave behind all the pain and sorrow of the last several months. She’s redeemed herself, and she’s ready to begin on a new page with another year added to her age. Life keeps going, and we’ll just keep on rolling.

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Arts and Culture, Food, Travel

The Ninja Turtle Makes A Pilgrimage

Today was a public holiday in Zhenjiang, China. Rather, it was a “make-up” holiday for 端午节, which fell on Saturday 20 June this year. 端午节 is sometimes also known as Dumpling Festival or Dragon Boat Festival or Double Fifth Festival (because it falls on the fifth day of the fifth lunar month), and from its various names, one can only guess at the significance of this wondrous day.

This is a holiday to commemorate the poet and politician 屈原 (c. 340–278 BC) who lived back in the Warring States era of the Zhou Dynasty. A quick summary of his story goes as such: patriotic chap served in high offices, his royal leader allied with the enemies, chap gets banished for opposing royal leader’s decision and accused of treason – btw chap gets all emo and writes plenty of poetry during this period – some years later their city is betrayed by allies and in despair, chap flings himself into a river full of piranhas. The local folks panic and race out in boats (hence the Dragon Boat Festival), chucking sticky rice dumplings into the river to feed the fish so they won’t eat his cadaver (hence the Dumpling Festival).

This is the version taught to the Ninja Turtle as a child. There are several other pretty cool legends involving dragon worship or celebrating a female character called 曹娥, both of which are pretty amazing but neither of which are familiar to the Turtle, so she dare not elaborate, but here’s the gist. Coincidentally, the fifth day of the fifth lunar month falls pretty close to the summer solstice (longest day of the year) in the northern hemisphere, so perhaps it was all simply an excuse to party hard?

Anyway, the Ninja Turtle knows it’s a public holiday in Zhenjiang, China this Monday because no surprises, she’s right here. Catching the early morning flight bright and early at 8am from Singapore to Shanghai yesterday, she rode another 4 hours in a car to reach Zhenjiang. Since it was a public holiday, she got to do a spot of sightseeing with her relatives and a new acquaintance at possibly the most famous landmark of Zhenjiang – 金山 (Golden Hill).

Jin Shan Temple in Zhenjiang.

Jin Shan in Zhenjiang.

金山 (Golden Hill) has quite the history to it. Although standing only at 44m tall, it houses 金山寺 (Golden Hill Temple), built some 1600 years ago, and has a pretty cool story attached to it. The legend of the White Snake (白蛇传) in Chinese literature goes as such – some young boy eats some immortality pills and pukes it out; a white snake spirit who’s like, hundreds of years old swallows the pill and takes on a beautiful human form. A tortoise grows jealous of the snake’s immortality. Some years on, the boy grows into a man and meets this beautiful snake-woman and they fall in love, while said tortoise turns into a human monk called Fahai. Man dies of shock when he discovers his wife was a snake, snake-woman revives dead husband with magical herbs, and husband still loves her.

All well and good except the tortoise-monk had a vengeful streak so he imprisons clueless husband in 金山寺; snake-woman tried to free her husband by flooding temple and some innocent folks died as collateral damage, but her powers were limited cos she had a bun in the oven. Tortoise-monk captures snake-woman and imprisons her in some pagoda while her husband was consigned to life as a monk (but later their kid comes back to save them or something… look, it was like the ancient version of Game of Thrones meets The Hobbit plus some Xena/Hercules thrown in for good measure and it all gets rather complicated with animal-people so the Ninja Turtle can’t remember it all OK? But Google will give you more if you’re so inclined.) Apparently this was a story started as an oral tradition and is now one of the four great Chinese folktales. And  金山寺 was the setting of this epic tale, so the Ninja Turtle could only gape like an idiot while wandering around the site the entire morning.

The lotus flowers were only beginning to bloom...

The lotus flowers were only beginning to bloom…

Going in, the first sight was of vendors selling joss sticks, to be burnt as offerings to the gods/spirits/something.

Going in, the first sight was of vendors selling joss sticks, to be burnt as offerings to the gods/spirits/something.

So of course the Ninja Turtle HAD to buy some.

So of course the Ninja Turtle HAD to buy some.

A photo with her 三姑 (auntie on dad's side of the family; his third sister) at the entrance.

A photo with her 三姑 (auntie on dad’s side of the family; his third sister) at the entrance.

Walking in, the Ninja Turtle quickly learnt that there was in fact, more than one temple; in fact there were a cluster of them. She didn’t take any photos out of respect since it was a religious site with people praying and all, but she did spend a good long time gaping at the incredible sculptures of the four sky gods, the eighteen arhats, the various buddhas and the Goddess of Peace. Her new acquaintance taught her how to kneel on the red silk pillows, offer prayers and the proper etiquette to bow.

Here is an idea of the various temples and pagodas at the site. The colour yellow/gold indicates royal endorsement, specifically from some emperor dude called Emperor Kangxi in the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911).

Here is an idea of the various temples and pagodas at the site. The colour yellow/gold indicates royal endorsement, specifically from some emperor dude called Emperor Kangxi in the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911).

The writings of the emperor (the Ninja Turtle poses with her 二叔 - uncle on dad's side of the family, second bloke in the family which means Papa Turtle is the oldest male in the family).

The writings of the emperor (the Ninja Turtle poses with her 二叔 – uncle on dad’s side of the family, second bloke in the family which means Papa Turtle is the oldest male in the family).

View from the top of Golden Hill.

View from the top of Golden Hill.

On the way back down, the Ninja Turtle was treated to the sight of people throwing coins (trying anyway) into the mouths of the stone sculptures. Apparently if the coin goes in, the person will get wealthy.

On the way back down, the Ninja Turtle was treated to the sight of people throwing coins (trying anyway) into the mouths of the stone sculptures. Apparently if the coin goes in, the person will get wealthy.

Second Uncle Turtle explained that these were Buddhist scriptures that were conversations between Buddha and the Sky Emperor (think along the lines of Plato's The Republic if you will).

Second Uncle Turtle explained that these were Buddhist scriptures that were conversations between Buddha and the Sky Emperor (think along the lines of Plato’s The Republic if you will).

What Second Uncle Turtle explained to the Ninja Turtle while strolling through the temples was this – that everything is nothing and nothing is everything. What we see around us is all but an illusion, and what is eternal (that is, the soul) is invisible to the eye. What we cannot see remains eternal, and all that surrounds us is transcient and temporary.

To quote John Oliver – Holy Shit. That’s some pretty heavy stuff to be talking about on a public holiday Monday morning. Contemplating Life, the Universe and Everything before wine o’clock gives the Ninja Turtle some serious heebie-jeebies. Fortunately, distraction was at close hand…

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So wraps up the Ninja Turtle’s adventures on her first morning in Zhenjiang, China. It was an emotional morning, and she was left contemplating how despite being of Chinese descent, there was so much of Chinese history and culture she was unaware of. The world is a large place, and in a cosmopolitan globe-trotting generation, there’s a lot we learnt of ourselves by seeing the unknown in new places, but sometimes, the only way we can truly know ourselves is by returning to our roots.

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Food

Every meal tells a story

It’s been a while since this blog has featured a Tasty Tuesday post, so today, the Ninja Turtle has decided to share a few pictures of some meals, and what makes an otherwise just-another-plate-of-food kind of special.

The first time the Ninja Turtle bought and cooked plantain. GodzillaPin likes it really ripe and sweet, fried in coconut oil, while the Turtle likes it still starchy green, boiled and mashed.

The first time the Ninja Turtle bought and cooked plantain. The duo learnt that GodzillaPin likes it really ripe and sweet, fried in coconut oil, while the Turtle likes it still starchy green, boiled and mashed.

The time when GodzillaPin went grocery shopping alone and decided to spoil the Ninja Turtle by buying a kilo of asparagus. Do you know how expensive that stuff is?!

The time when GodzillaPin went grocery shopping alone and decided to spoil the Ninja Turtle by buying a kilo of asparagus. Do you know how expensive that stuff is?! You’re looking at a skillet of true love.

On weekends and public holidays, when GodzillaPin doesn't have to go to the office, the duo like to sleep in a little bit, and have breakfast together. When they first met, GP only ate sweets at breakfast, now he's a convert. That's a sunny-side-up on Nordic toast, dusted with Australian dukkah. The basil sitting on the slice of bûche de chèvre came from the potted plant, a gift from their German friend Batman.

On weekends and public holidays, when GodzillaPin doesn’t have to go to the office, the duo like to sleep in a little bit, and have breakfast together. When they first met, GP only ate sweets at breakfast; now he’s a convert. That’s a sunny-side-up on Nordic toast, dusted with Australian dukkah. The basil sitting on the slice of bûche de chèvre came from a potted plant growing in their apartment, a gift from their German friend Batman.

That time when the Ninja Turtle was too exhausted to cook dinner after a day of work, running, laundry, housekeeping, managing the bills, etc etc... GodzillaPin took over in the kitchen and it's generally a 50-50 chance of disaster or miracle. This time round, it was a miracle.

That time when the Ninja Turtle was too exhausted to cook dinner after a day of work, running, laundry, housekeeping, managing the bills, etc etc… GodzillaPin took over in the kitchen and it’s generally a 50-50 chance of disaster or miracle. This time round, it was a miracle.

Post DNF-race, the Ninja Turtle was on an alcohol-fat-and-sugar bender to drown her sorrows (and after months of deprivation, she's earned it!) Dinner that night included a bottle of champagne, duck rillette with gold-flecked wine confit on pain d'épices (gingerbread).

Post DNF-race, the Ninja Turtle was on an alcohol-fat-and-sugar bender to drown her sorrows (and after months of deprivation, she’s earned it!) Dinner that night included a bottle of Mercier champagne, duck rillette with gold-flecked wine confit on pain d’épices (gingerbread).

A close-up of the gingerbread-duck-confit combo. It may look disgusting in this photo, but taste-wise, it was THE BOMB.

A close-up of the gingerbread-duck-confit combo. It may look disgusting in this photo, but taste-wise, it was THE BOMB. The gold flakes add a touch of extra luxury.

Finally, this was the dish the duo recently shared at a Canadian restaurant - caribou steak with cranberry sauce. Did you know that Charles Darwin was as enthusiastic about eating exotic animals as he was about identifying them?

Finally, this was the dish the duo recently shared at a Canadian restaurant – caribou steak with cranberry sauce. Did you know that Charles Darwin was as enthusiastic about eating exotic animals as he was about identifying them?

Anyone else with interesting and memorable food tales?

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Running, Travel

Lessons from a DNF Race

On 2 May 2015, the Ninja Turtle attempted her first ultramarathon trail. The following video tells the story.

After a week of grieving and moping, the Ninja Turtle exhausted her emotional response to the disappointing outcome, pulled herself together, and made that video.

Six months of preparation, discipline and sacrifice; hundreds of euros spent on the trip, and her race was truncated by bad weather. She has cried, she has sulked, she has mulled over it. She has cursed the gods, her fate, and the ill-aligned stars. She has rehashed the event in her mind over and over, trying to draw some lesson from it – something, anything, to pinpoint her errors, her faults, her weaknesses. Something to blame, and to avoid repeating the next time.

The thing is, there’s probably none. She has followed her training plan to the T (save for a week after her accident of falling onto concrete from a loft 2.5m high), fighting against incredible pain on several occasions. She’d run in the heat of the Australian summer, the humidity of Singapore and the frigid winter in Europe.

She’d cut back on alcohol, modified her diet to become fat-adapted, sorely missing out on beef hor fun, curry puffs, Hokkien mee, sushi rolls… (it’s a list too heartbreakingly long to continue so she’ll stop there).

She’d trained in the prescribed heart rate zones. She’d done the mileage she had to do, and for a while, she celebrated PRs for her 10K, 10 miles and marathon distances all in the same racing season. It seemed as if all the fatigue, sleeplessness and ravenous hunger were worth it, promising a celebratory finish to an amazing race season.

The DNF was thus an incredibly bitter pill to swallow. The Ninja Turtle’s boss, an ultramarathoner himself, told her there are many reasons for DNFs, and indeed, the weather is one that’s truly beyond the scope of runners’ control. She’d trained well, toed the line in peak condition (no injuries, having tapered brilliantly), and stuck to all racing conventions: nothing new on race day, stay hydrated, poop before running, smile for the cameras, enjoy the experience and make friends with fellow trail runners.

She did all that and still she DNFed.

After 7 hours in the relentless rain, having covered 49.4km and about 1000m+ elevation according to her GPS, her clothes and shoes were soaked through, and she’d lost her gloves. Despite all the noodle soup, sandwiches, coffee, cake, tea, chocolate and bananas she’d eaten, her temperature dropped. With the winds picking up in the darkness of the night, the rain still pouring and the temperatures dropping even further, she suffered her worst defeat ever when a gust of wind blew just as she turned around a corner, making her feel so ill, like she’d been violently punched in the guts, and her knees buckled.

Thankfully, GodzillaPin was there to witness it all. He’d come to St Julien du Sault to meet the Turtle for a moral boost, and was in fact, holding her hand and walk/jogging alongside her the very moment she’d caved, remarking only 2 seconds before that how icy cold her hand was.

The volunteers arrived, and shortly after, the medics whisked her into a heated ambulance where her pulse and breathing were measured. She hadn’t stopped shivering, and was begin to feel slightly drowsy and a little confused. Her bib was removed and she was declared out of the race, and brought back to Sens in the vehicle, with GodzillaPin following behind in his car.

The heartbreak came slowly, in waves. That night itself, the Ninja Turtle was simply numb with cold and the only thought she had in mind was: DNF. Sitting in the hot bath back at the hotel, having washed away the mud, she could only console herself with the thought that at least she was not passed out in the forest between St Julien du Sault and Villeneuve-sur-Yonne, in the rain, in the middle of the night.

Over the following two days, the physical ache of running almost 50km of muddy trails was frequently matched by the emotional devastation of failing to finish. The Ninja Turtle felt betrayed by both the inclement weather, and a constitution too weak to handle the rough elements. Mentally, she was certain she would have made the 85km, but physically, despite the 1000 miles she’d logged on the hills of Moselle, in the valleys of Meuse, along the coasts of Sydney and on the sandy beaches, in gorges and ravines of South Australia, along the highways of Frankfurt and Marseille, through the villages on the outskirts of Paris and on the country roads of Lorraine, the canal networks of Singapore and Metz, morning, noon and night, she was still unable to support the cold rain in wet clothes and shoes. She had found her limit.

So that’s it. Life isn’t fair; if it had been sunny like last year, no doubt she wouldn’t have cracked, but there is no point speculating. She couldn’t possibly have trained for these conditions, so she’s not sure she can regret anything. That’s the lesson out of this race – she’s given her 100% and she has failed through no real fault of her own. Sometimes, we cannot seek to blame anything or anyone, but rather, we must simply accept how things are, learn to let go, and move on.

Above all, her spirit has not been beaten by this experience, and she shall rise from the ashes to try and try again. One day, the stars will align in her favour and she shall be ready to claim the victory of daring to chase a dream.

In the meantime, all that’s left to do is to turn away from her grief, and properly thank every single person who has supported her on this remarkable journey with their faith, confidence, and words of encouragement when the Ninja Turtle needed them most. Rod Lowe, Baby Turtle, Sonic the Hedgehog, Krazy Cow, Yellow Jersey, and above all, GodzillaPin.

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Running, Travel

Spring 2015 Race #3: Marathon de Marseille

Hello, world! This weekend, the Ninja Turtle and GodzillaPin are checking in from not-so-sunny Marseille! This trip is not over yet, but they are already prepared to file it into the “one of life’s many ironies” folder for old age. A few weeks ago, the Ninja Turtle decided to sign up for the Marathon de Marseille on a whim (OK fine, she and GodzillaPin received a nice angpao for Chinese New Year from the very generous Mother Turtle. Given their fast-advancing years, they no longer have to “save up for college”, so they decided to invest into another lesson in Life’s Classroom a.k.a their euphemistic excuse for travel.) Of course, this means it wasn’t her A race for the season, but she figured, why not do a test run for the real thing? After all, the Marathon de Marseille corresponded well with her training plan, so she might as well seek some sunshine down south, right?

The train ride from Metz to Marseille took almost 7 hours – which is about a flight from Melbourne to Singapore, but nowhere near as fun, despite their discounted First Class tickets. The seats were enormous, but there was no entertainment on board. Sadly, the trains in France don’t offer internet either. They woke at 5am to catch the 6.02am train, and arrived in time for a late lunch and it was off to the exposition.

Another race by ASO Challenges, which manages the big city races like the Marathon de Paris and Marathon de Lyon.

Another race by ASO Challenges, which manages the big city races like the Marathon de Paris and Marathon de Lyon.

A Haribo van! For those who are unfamiliar with the name, it is a candy brand.

A Haribo van! For those who are unfamiliar with the name, it is a candy brand.

The route map for the race. It loops, and loops, and loops...

The route map for the race. It loops, and loops, and loops…

And a name board with all the names of racers.

And a name board with all the names of racers.

Despite waking early, they didn’t get to bed till 11pm, thanks to dinner reservations that commenced at 8pm. The Ninja Turtle may or may not have flirted with disaster when they ordered pulled pork burgers, pork belly with deep fried polenta, a squid and feve salad, and a local dish called a brandade, best described as a mash of sweet potato and cod (yes, the cod mashed in), and dessert of Lebanese pastries. It wasn’t carb-loading, it was sheer gluttony. Photos to come.

The next day, the Ninja Turtle was up at 5am once more.

GodzillaPin refused to get out of bed, but thought it funny to take a candid photo.

GodzillaPin refused to get out of bed, because who wants to be up at 5am two days in a row?

He did however, leave a cute little message of encouragement on the bib to remind the Ninja Turtle what was most important.

He did however, leave a cute little message of encouragement on the bib to remind the Ninja Turtle what was most important.

They agreed to give the Turtle 5 hours from the starting time of the marathon, to meet her at the finish line. Then, throwing back her coffee quickly, the Turtle was out the door. The marathon started out in the Calanques, and racers could only access it by the race shuttle bus, that ran between 6am and 7am. Why so early, when the race was meant to begin at 8am, was beyond everyone. Even more baffling was the number of racers for the marathon category – 499! Seriously?!

The runners spent an hour in this bar, where they were served coffee, tea or hot chocolate, little cakes and I-kid-you-not sardines.

The runners spent an hour in this bar, where they were served coffee, tea or hot chocolate, little cakes and I-kid-you-not sardines. Love the name of the bar, by the way.

So, recall how they chose to come to Marseille because of the sun? Well, this goes down as one of the most miserable races the Ninja Turtle has ever signed up for. Running along the coast with the rain beating down on them, and gusts of wind buffeting from all directions, the runners at least had moral support from the locals who came out to cheer them on. Sure, they were only a handful of spectators, but the number of competitors for a big-city marathon was also shockingly pitiful so it was just a bunch of madmen hanging out on an early Sunday morning in bad weather, no biggie.

Arriving at the starting line at 6.45am for an 8am race. WHY?!?!?!

Arriving at the starting line at 6.45am for an 8am race. WHY?!?!?!

Les Goudes, a little village in Marseille with spectacular views of the Calanques and the sea.

Running through Les Goudes, a little village in Marseille with spectacular views of the Calanques and the sea.

At any rate, the Ninja Turtle is just so thankful this was not her first time running a marathon; had it been the case, she would never run a marathon again. Within 2km, her shoes were soaked, and by the 10th km, she had to stop to squeeze water out her technical socks. The good – there were plenty of water and refreshment points, the bad – the sugar cubes were melting in the rain, the ridiculous – the organisers must have thought it funny to insist on sponge stations. When things are looking bad, just think of how bad others have it. The only people more pitiful at this race than the marathoners were the volunteers manning the sponge stations. They were literally begging the runners to have a sponge.

The race route took the runners into the city centre twice. The first time they approached Vieux Port, GodzillaPin was standing at the window of their hotel room, armed and ready to shoot.

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The Ninja Turtle looked up afterwards, but they were busy waving to each other, so no better photo than that.

It was just before this picture was taken when the first of the marathoners blew right past the Ninja Turtle, closely followed by the second and the third. At least there is one advantage of running a looping course – you get to run alongside the elites, even if it’s for half a split second, and pretend, imagine, fantasize, just for a moment…

The semi-marathon runners who’d joined the marathoners a while back, were fast approaching their relief, and picked up their pace. This may have thrown some marathoners off their intended pace, being swept along by the energy and the spirit of the crowd, for the semi-marathoners easily outnumbered them. Not long after, the marathon route split off and headed towards La Canabière, where the Ninja Turtle caught up with 5 marathoners who were clearly pacing with the semi-marathoners, for she overtook them without really speeding up at all.

The next 10km were slightly lonely and confusing. By now, the few marathoners were scattered throughout the route, and there were stretches where the Ninja Turtle saw no other marathoner. This was bad news, because the route passed the starting point for the 10km race, and for a while, she was beginning to wonder if she’d taken a wrong turn and gone off-course (which was grounds for disqualification, surely?) The signage was non-existent, and when she finally found some volunteers who were managing the traffic for the race, she had to politely wait almost a whole minute for the gentleman to finish his joke before anyone paid her attention, and waved her along in the right direction. Oh well.

Since the Ninja Turtle was not in any particular hurry, the delay hardly mattered. (The course entertainment was amazing, and she danced along to the music or drumbeats with each and every band.) That was her third stop on the race, the second being to pee behind a bush in the park. Hey, if the men can do it, there’s no reason why women should be discriminated against. 26.2 miles is a damn long way to run, especially when the volunteers at the water stops insist you drink up, and drink often. That turned out to be a lesson to the Turtle in and of itself – drink according to thirst. Not only did she have to make a pee stop, there were consequences to come.

In the meantime, she happily slowed down to chat with any marathoner who looked like they were struggling. It was raining, it was windy and cold, and all the good runners were far ahead or long done with the race, so a bit of shared humanity was very much necessary for everyone. There was an old bearded man who looked like Santa Claus after a diet, struggling with his knee; they chatted for a few minutes before he shooed her along, insisting he was fine. There was a young man with the most incredibly springy afro, who was doing so well in the earlier stages, but had slowed right down to a walk due to digestion problems. There was another man who looked most annoyed when the Ninja Turtle asked if he was OK, answering “obviously not!” in the grumpiest possible manner. When she asked if she should seek first aid for him, he looked chastened and replied “no no, don’t worry, I’m not going to die thank you”.

By the 32nd kilometre, the Ninja Turtle was forced to make 2 more stops. She hadn’t been keeping an eye on her pacing at all, just running according to her feel i.e. – knees OK, feet OK, lower back OK, shoulders not hunched, arms relaxed, breathing is fine, chest is not tight, still smiling… all good. However, something didn’t feel quite right, for her vision was starting to blur.

Yes, double vision. Whether it was that alone, or confusion and dizziness setting in as well to compound her misery, the Ninja Turtle looked at her GPS watch for the first time to note her pace. She realised that she was running faster than her usual LSD pace, and it was probably time to take some mid-run fuel. Sure, some people may freak out at the idea of only re-fuelling from the 29th kilometre onwards, but the Ninja Turtle’s been doing such slow shuffles for her last 22- 24- and 26- mile training runs that she never had to eat during any of those. She ran according to the logic that slowing her overall pace saved her the time, in comparison to having to dig around with gloves in her running pack for food in the middle of an open field. Food was always there, but only as a just-in-case-she-had-to-wait-a-few-hours-for-someone-to-find-her.

So, back to the marathon. She took a dried fig, which tasted delicious, and then a morsel of banana. Another couple of kilometres on, she took another piece of banana, and was starting to be thankful of how many refreshment stops there were. She wasn’t hungry, and to be perfectly honest, her energy systems seemed really good, and she had no need or desire to slow down. No wall approaching at all. Still, the double vision persisted, and in fact, worsened after every few sips of water. It slowly dawned on the Turtle that it may not be a sugar level thing at all, but quite possibly, overhydration! After all, she’s been accepting every single bottle of water offered to her, which was far more than what she’s used to drinking on her runs.

At the next medical tent, the Ninja Turtle approached three very bored-looking medics playing on their mobile phones. When she asked for salt, they looked around in shame and said they had none. Ah balls. Luckily, there was a cluster of restaurants a few hundred yards up, so the Turtle jumped into Quick (a French fast food chain a bit like Burger King), and was given 2 packets of salt. She diluted a packet in some water at the next two hydration stations, and immediately felt much better.

By that stage, the 10km runners were also sharing the route, so once again, the pacing was determined by the majority. There were thousands of 10km runners to the few marathon stragglers! With 7km left for both groups, the Ninja Turtle had to frequently repeat to herself “slow down!” as she overtook them on the uphill by the dozens. As she passed them, she overheard many complain about the wind, and thought to herself “you have no idea, folks, just how bad it is for the marathoners… you’re only doing 10km and besides, it’s not raining at the moment so what are you whinging about?” Frankly speaking, she was in a hurry to finish by that stage, because she’d had enough of exposure to bad weather, and the negativity all around her was just energy-sapping.

As she passed the hotel where the duo were staying in a second time, a thought struck the Turtle. She’d told GodzillaPin to meet her at around 1pm, and when she looked at the watch, it was 12:15pm. Whoops. So she took out her phone and gave him a ring.

Turtle: Hey babe, where are you?

GodzillaPin: I’m still in the hotel room. I’m just having breakfast.

Turtle: I’m about to finish. I’m on my last kilometre actually.

GodzillaPin: What?! Already?!

Turtle: Yeah, I’ll ring you again when I cross the finish line, OK?

Meanwhile, back on the race course…

Woman running in the 10km (in French): Oh my God! Look at that woman! She’s running the marathon, and she’s talking on the phone at the same time, and she’s running faster than we are! She’s incredible!

The crowds raised a cheer. The Ninja Turtle looked around, and realised it was her they were talking about and cheering on! Seriously, it was the closest the Ninja Turtle will EVER come to feeling like a star. As the finish line approached, and she overtook another handful of runners, the path laid bare before her and with a final kick, she “sprinted” across the finish line with a giant smile and thumbs up for the cameras (not GodzillaPin’s, cos he was still drinking his hot chocolate at that moment, but never mind, he promises to make up for it).

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Hooray!

 

Some lessons learnt:

#1: Proper nutrition is important of course, but one can overload on too much information on the internet, and ultimately, do what suits your body best. Conventional wisdom says to carb-load and avoid too much fats and fibre the night before, but the Ninja Turtle had no digestive problems after the super-greasy calorie-bomb of a meal.

#2: Attitude is everything. The grey skies, the wind and the rain in the “sunniest ville in France” on marathon race day can easily depress anyone. That’s why you should toss all competitiveness to the wind, talk to your fellow runners, thank the volunteers at the refreshment stops, dance with the bands, give high fives to as many little children and thumbs up to cameras along the way. If you’re not an elite runner, it may be the only way you’ll ever make it to the finish line.

#3: Listen to your body. Conventional wisdom says to not try anything new on race day, which is well-intentioned advice but runs the risk of being misconstrued. The Ninja Turtle takes no fuel during her training, but had no qualms digging in to dried and fresh fruit and salt during the race. Some people worry about digestive problems etc if they deviate from their habits in the slightest – know what? If your body can handle running a marathon, it can probably deal with tweaks in mid-run fuelling.

#4: The wall… it’s possible to run a marathon without hitting it. Or even coming anywhere close to it.

That’s 3 races in the bag for Spring 2015, and the Ninja Turtle is pretty pleased to say that with stops and all, she finished in 4h 21m 55s, taking off 28 minutes 36 seconds from her previous marathon time.

Marseille... your weather was awful and your marathon race route made little sense, but you brought sweet memories in the end.

Marseille… your weather was awful and your frequently-looping marathon race route made little sense, but you brought sweet memories in the end.

GodzillaPin finally showing up, with a sports drink and a windbreaker.

GodzillaPin finally showing up, with a sports drink and a windbreaker. One day they will look back and laugh, saying “remember that time you stupidly ran under the rain for 4 hours in the sunniest ville in France?”

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