Belgium Under Bright Lights

Remember when I quit my job and bought a ticket to Spain in 2013? Where’d we leave off on that story of European adventures? Ah, yes. Ibiza & Paris.

It’s been three years since I existed in these photographs. Three years since I traveled to Belgium by myself. Three years since I met some of the closest people to my heart.

One thing I love about solo travel is that not only does it allow for self-exploration, but it also is how I’ve met the most incredible individuals. People always think that traveling alone has to be so lonely. And yes, sometimes, it can be. But it’s all in how you look at it. When you travel with a group of friends, you tend to stick with that group of friends. You talk among yourselves, go everywhere together, etc. However, when you are alone, it’s easier to be approached and more likely that you’ll approach others. Of course, this depends on whether or not you can put your fears (or pride) aside.

I can promise you right now that what stuck with me from this particular part of the trip is not the Renaissance architecture , the taste of chocolate, or the country itself, but the wonderful friends I made while exploring its cities.

Read my journal entries for yourself.

BELGIUM (BRUSSELS)

Tuesday September 10, 2013-  Here I am, about to board my flight to Brussels. I wish I would’ve booked this trip better. I still have to figure out what I will do when I get there, and pick which part of the country I am going to explore. I’m overwhelmed but so excited.

Okay, so I loved flying on Brussels airlines. They served a small roll with cheese and sauce, and orange juice, and a small chocolate. Loved it! Basically I just love food. Brussels airport was confusing. Ugh it was rough, but then even though my taxi ride was 60 euro, it was worth it because I had the sweetest old man as my driver and he showed me a lot of the sights of the city as we drove past. I checked into my hostel, a bunk bed in a private part of housing up the street that is just for females. My roommate hadn’t arrived yet. I charged my iPad a bit, researched some tours, and finally decided on Ghent and Bruges trip …took off on foot toward the city and of course it poured down rain. The map of Brussels I’d been given was awesome, really helpful. I went to see the Use It center and saw a girl with bright red hair and an infectious smile. It was there I made a friend- Radka.

She’s from Prague. We traveled in the heart of the city together and talked nonstop, she’s just lovely and so much better with direction than I am.

We set our sights on waffles- I mean, you can’t be in Belgium and NOT get them! Mine was tomato and ham and then with Belgian chocolate for dessert. (Yep- definitely got two. Told ya, I LOVE to eat.)

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We saw Manneken Pis ( a famous 1618  bronze statue of a little boy pissing into a fountain) which is pretty small in person. We took several funny pictures, walked on and stood in awe at the Grand Place (Grote Markt) and Royal Palace (official palace of the King and Queen). Stopped at Cafe Bizon, which reminded me of a small Irish pub, and I got Gueze Boon and Kriek Boon (hint of cherry flavor) and the easiest sour one to start with, Radka informed me.

It was so good to finally have some girl talk. We talked about relationships and travel, life and love, things we wanted to do in the future. And we laughed and laughed. It was hard not to be happy around her!

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I thought I was funny.

I was very tired at this point from a long day with little sleep. We decided to call it a night, and got cat called in Chinatown on the way back to our hostel. We laughed it off, but I think secretly pat ourselves on the back. We felt so alive and beautiful.

It was hard to say goodbye. Radka and I made possible plans for me to travel to Prague soon. I don’t know if it will work out, but I sincerely hope it does. She has been a blessing to have.

BELGIUM (BRUGES)

Wednesday September 11, 2013- I woke up early for my trip to Bruges. I  hurried to get ready, and grabbed a piece of bread with jam and called a cab to meet at a hotel for the departing spot. I was so late.  Luckily the receptionist called for me and I’m now on the bus, so stressful. Made a mental note to not let that happen again.

So I just met two people on the bus that became very dear to my heart very fast…Kathy and John from California. I can’t remember what got us talking, but once we did, we didn’t stop! They are incredibly kind people and I’m feeling very lucky that I chose this tour, so that our paths could cross. We started off in Ghent, which was a small and cute town.  We explored St. Bavo’s Cathedral when we got off the bus and then roamed as we pleased. It was pouring out and cold, so I tried to find some warmer clothes but they didn’t have too much, and it was more than I wanted to pay. [I started this trip off in June and in Spain, so I packed almost all summer clothes, with only a couple pairs of leggings and long sleeve shirts. At this point in my trip, I’m trying to be very careful about money, because I don’t know how things will work out or how long I’ll stay overseas.]

We also saw the Castle of the Counts of Flanders/Gravensteen Castle and drove through the countryside.

Upon arriving in Bruges, Kathy, John, and I walked the cobbled streets around one of the most romantic cities I’ve ever stepped foot in. We saw Minnewater (Lake of Love) and paused for some photographs. From there, we explored City Hall, the Market Square, and even more incredible sights.

We stopped to have lunch at a really nice restaurant…which normally I wouldn’t have done and stuck to my bread and Nutella sandwiches or got a cheap sandwich from a street vendor, but I technically did have the money and I really wanted to eat with them. We had cheese croquettes, beef stew in a beer sauce, and then chocolate mousse for dessert. It was the most I’ve treated myself on this trip. John got mussels and let me try some when he found out I’d never had them before. We had delicious white wine and shared fries.

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They reminded me so much of my parents back in the States who I missed so much, and I nearly broke down and cried when they insisted on paying for the bill…It was such an unexpected and kind gesture. They didn’t know how much it helped. They told me all about their children and how they met. Her daughter was getting married in two weeks so she bought a lace handkerchief for her and some chocolates…They took an interest in my life, asking about my travels and experiences, applauded the journey I was on. We devoured orange chocolate sticks and stopped for a beer since the weather was quite awful and we chose not to go on the boat in Bruges. The natural conversation and company more than made up for it! I’ve never felt so connected so instantly. Age didn’t make a difference, we felt like longtime friends. Kathy and I exchanged e-mail addresses and promised to stay in touch. I miss them and the comfort of their presence already.

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Gloomy day, but still beautiful!

Thursday September 12- I showered this morning, packed up, checked out of the hostel and printed my boarding passes, then scarfed down breakfast. Headed out to find the Nord station and to the vintage shops, hoping to find some warmer clothes. One had everything for four euros and if I didn’t have to carry my luggage on my back and was the old me, I would have bought so many clothes. It’s funny how you realize you don’t need all these excess material things. The other was small but had a jackpot- an outdoor raincoat. The lady said she’d take it for 14 euros but I only had twelve on me and she gave it to me. I FINALLY HAVE A JACKET. This time, I did cry. I had something to wear in this rain and colder temperatures, but the kindness of strangers, and the friends that I have made here, have been the sunshine that’s been missing the past couple days. Somehow, I know I’ll be seeing them again soon.  I grabbed my luggage, feeling completely rejuvenated, and walked to the Nord train station, ready for whatever was next.

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26.2 thoughts on 26.2

Remember my last post on becoming a marathoner?

It was an incredible experience, but let’s get real- I still felt like I was getting hit very hard by an 18-wheeler in slow motion. For those of you who swear on your life you’ll never run one, here’s an inside look from my perspective.

 

1.Really, all races are just an event you pay for  just to stand in line for porta potties and slowly die.

2. Wow. I can’t believe I am actually about to do this. Why would anyone do this?

3. OMGherewego! Can’t turn back now.

4. Remember, start out slow and get comfortable, we’re gonna be here for a while. Like, a VERY long while…

5. You’re running a full marathon while everyone else is still asleep or nursing a hangover. Yay, go you! (Oh, how things have changed.)

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6. *Sees sign “If Trump can run for this long, so can you.”*  Oh boy, that’s a good one.

7. Look at these women. They are kicking ass right now and are probably twice my age. #GOALS

8. This sunrise would be so much better if I was sitting on the beach instead of running past it.

9. I really have to pee. Already. Ugh, of course I do.

10. Down goes gel #1. This won’t be pretty.

11. Yep, that’s the most disgusting thing I’ve ever had. *Chases with water.*  Whoa, they’re wearing speedos at this water station. *Chokes on water.*

12. Great job on running a half marathon! Now, all you have to do is just do it all over again. Piece of cake.

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13. Look, there’s my family!!! Thank God.  (Running this isn’t easy, but standing & waiting this long for me probably isn’t very fun, either.)

14. I didn’t even know I could chafe there.

15. Swallowing a salt tab while running…probably not the best idea.

16. If I drink more, I’ll have to pee more. But if not, I’ll risk dehydration. Decisions, decisions.

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17. *Smiles at every camera man*  If I’m only doing this once, I need to look good in these pictures.

18. Almost to mile 20, I can do this!

19. Is that Lake Erie in my sports bra or just a pool of sweat? Ick.

20. What’s the probability that I will lose a toenail from this? Because I think I am right this second.

21. Oh. Crap. So this is the wall they were talking about… just ran smack into it.

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22. Do I even have kneecaps anymore? I can’t even feel anything.

23. *Thinks about quitting 587 times* *Curses everything under the sun* *Hates people who have already finished and/or are still looking good at this point*

24. This is the worst. Why would anyone put themselves through this? Dedicating this mile to how stupid I am for signing up for this in the first place.

25. You’ve got less than a 5k left. SUCK. IT. UP.

26. You are SO close! Soon you’ll be eating chocolate cake and celebrating and wearing that medal around your neck all damn day. Keep going!!!

26.1. DONE. I FINISHED. OMG. I DID IT. I can cross this off my bucket list and NEVER do it again.

26.2. I heard Richmond has a nice fall marathon…I wonder if I could get a new PR if I just train harder?

 

Never say never 😉

 

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I Am: A Marathoner

As of last year, only 1% of the U.S. population had run a marathon. On Sunday, September 11th, I became a part of that 1%.

It’s funny to think how I got to this point. Truth be told, I’m not really sure. I was never a runner. And then, one day, I just decided I wanted to be. I began running just two miles, increasing my distance until I was running half marathons. (Read more about my running journey here.) I was falling in love with the longer distance, but I still wasn’t sure if I was crazy enough to do a full marathon. I mean, 4+ hours of running?! WHY? HOW?

But then again, why not? I had already accomplished something I never thought I could. Maybe I could do this, too…

So, I signed up before I could change my mind. My original plan was to run the Pittsburgh marathon in May, but that came to a halt when I had my surgery. So I shifted my plans for a couple months later and set my sights on Erie, close to my hometown.

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Picking up my bib number on Saturday.

I was familiar with the course of the Erie marathon, as it’s held at Presque Isle State Park. I had run the Presque Isle half marathon in July of last year with my boyfriend- his first half marathon.  It was a flat, easy course- just one loop around the park. (For the marathon, obviously, it is two loops.) Looking back, my surgery causing me to change from Pittsburgh to Erie was all a blessing in disguise. Let’s be honest- the marathon distance is challenging enough without adding in all the hills! I was really grateful I was doing this flat loop instead of Pittsburgh’s killer course.

Don’t get me wrong, I still had my doubts. I knew this was going to suck. No matter how confident I feel in my training, or how much I understand that the race will go just fine, I always get pre-race jitters, every time. My long runs throughout marathon training had been extremely painful and discouragingly slow. I wasn’t worried my pace, or coming in under a certain time, or about anything else but just finishing. Still, my stomach was in knots that morning. I put body glide (a godsend) everywhere, under the straps of my sports bra, between my thighs, on the backs of my ankles, and quickly got dressed. I arrived when the park opened up around 5:30 AM. (Props to JJ for getting up so early on his one day off!) It was still pitch black when we parked. I started the walk to the porta potties, flashlight in hand. I’d go pee about 7 more times before the 7 AM start. Chalk it up to nerves or a weak bladder, or maybe both. While in line, I saw my friend Debra (pictured below), who was looking to beat her time to qualify for the Boston marathon.

Her, her boyfriend Frank, JJ, and I stood together as she said the most heartfelt prayer, just minutes before the gun went off. We said our goodbyes to the boys and headed to get lined up. Already, I could feel something much bigger washing over me. I was overcome with emotion. Pull it together. You can cry when it’s over, I told myself. Or during.

And then, before I could process it, I was off. I slipped into an easy 9:30 min./mile pace. I’d made a mental note to start out slow, as the energy and adrenaline from being part of a race and surrounded by other runners tends to make you start out too fast. I wanted to finish strong. Plus, let’s be real- I was gonna be out here for a while.

Around mile two, the sun began to show off. I could see the soft pink colors coming through as the clouds parted above the lake. The peaceful sounds of the waves coming into shore, the rhythmic pitter-patter of feet on asphalt… this was my happy place. It was indescribable.

Up in front of me, I saw a group of three women, probably in their 50s. They were keeping a solid pace, decked out in the brightest matching outfits. Dang, I thought. That’s remarkable. They were double my age and kicking ass! That’s #goals right there. After running alongside them, I joked, “I’ll just stick with you guys.” They smiled and said,”Feel free! We’re shooting for a 9:50 pace.”

Although I could very easily run a 9:50, all my long training runs had been so much slower. With the chest pain I was sure to encounter like I had before (thanks to my pacemaker) and the wall I was sure to hit around mile 18, I was certain I’d have to drop back after some time, and I told them so. But at least I could run with them for the time being.

“Coach” Barb, Sue, Tina, and Cheryl were from Rochester, NY. They were wives and mothers, teachers and longtime runners. And they were downright inspiring. Kind. And fun! The miles quickly passed as we talked about our different journeys with running, my surgery, who was cheering them on, and what we would treat ourselves to after this was all over.

Since the race was two loops around the park, I was able to see JJ at mile 6.5. He ran out to me with a bottle of water, asking if I needed anything. The women assured him I was in good hands.

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Erie Marathon course.

Before I knew it, we had run a half marathon! With the steady flow of conversation, the miles flew by! It was a beautiful run- the crippling heat and humidity that we had been plagued with all summer disappeared to leave us comfortable at around 65 degrees with a cool breeze. We honestly lucked out with such great conditions.  JJ met me again as I passed the halfway mark, with a gel in hand. I wasn’t a fan of them and, I’m ashamed to admit, had not used them during my training runs- although I had every intention to. The consistency made me gag. But I knew that I needed the energy, even if I felt good now. It was a strawberry kiwi carb BOOM, already torn open for me. I took it in small doses. It was surprisingly not that bad, I’d maybe even say it was good!

Soon we passed mile 15, then 16, and 17. They had water stations with Gu brew, and vanilla bean Gu gels. I made sure to keep hydrated, although between you and I, I’d had to pee since mile 4. Keep it together, bladder. Barb offered me a salt tablet, which helped. I checked my Garmin watch- it was almost 10 AM. I’d have to keep an eye out for my parents, sister-in-law, and niece, who were coming to watch me finish. As soon as I spoke those words out loud to the girls, I heard a familiar voice shout my name. There they were! They had driven past, and pulled off to the side up ahead around mile 19.5. My dad came out and ran beside me for a minute or two, which was a sweet moment. I was sure he was going to get kicked off the course, but he didn’t. JJ was on my other side with a vanilla bean gel in hand, already opened for me. (Yes, he is officially the best.)

They said encouraging words and then they were gone. I relucatantly began to take the gel. It was definitely not as great as the last one, and I struggled to get it down. I chased with water at the next stop. I still felt much better than I had anticipated at this point, but I was beginning to feel it. Sweat poured from every part of me. My face and body felt drenched in sweat and sticky Gu brew and gel residue. The tag on the inside of my shorts was rubbing against my lower back, and even though I’d used glide, my sports bra was rubbing against my right underarm. I knew I would have a bad chafing mark once this was done. Yet, we had made it past mile 18, with no “wall” to be found!

That is, until we reached mile 21. It came out of nowhere. I had been feeling hydrated, had energy from the gels, my legs were sore but still feeling strong, until that moment. I knew this was every bit (if not more) mental than it was physical. I tried to repeat the mantras in my head. My mind is an athlete. Finish strong. Your mind will give up before your body ever will. You can do this. Keep going. One foot in front of another. But with every step I took, I just felt that much weaker. That much closer to wanting to quit. I hadn’t walked once this whole time, maybe I could just take a break…but I didn’t. Tina and Sue kept running, and so did I. We were at mile 22. SO. CLOSE.

We began doing our dedication miles. I thought of Debra, who had no doubt finished by now. I hope she got her BQ. I thought of her strength and her faith, her gentle yet fierce nature, her prayer that morning. I thought of all the times she answered my endless running questions and was always patient and willing to help. I thought of how thankful I was that we went from coworkers to close friends. I looked up to her in every way.

“I need to slow down,” I said to Tina. “You guys keep going. I just need to slow down a little.”  She nodded breathlessly in agreement. “Me too.” 

I hated myself for it, but I also reminded myself I was not worried about time. And, I already was doing so much better than I could have hoped for! I stopped focusing on my pace and tried to switch my brain back over to dedication miles.

I thought of this day- September 11th. How I run because I know not everyone can, or ever will again. How if people can survive such terrible and awful things, I could no doubt finish this race before me.

I thought of my body- not the strongest, or thinnest, but certainly capable. Healthy and powerful in its own right. How I hated the recovery period after my surgery when I couldn’t run, and how I promised I wouldn’t take this ability for granted again. How I loved what it does for my body and to my mind.

I thought of JJ- how immensely he cared for me and supported me through this entire ordeal. How blessed I was to have met someone who shows me love in the purest, most selfless ways, and teaches me how to love in the same manner. He changed his work schedule, got up at 4 AM on his only day off, and was my mobile fueling station, running back and forth with supplies I needed. I thought of how hard he works in all aspects of his life, how thoroughly he supports me, how much we both cherish our relationship. How good it was to be this happy.

I thought of my parents- how lucky I was to get two of the most loving, good-hearted people to learn from, parents who so strongly believe in me, allow me to chase my dreams, and are there for me to see me through whether I reach those goals or fail miserably. Who may not understand or agree with every word or action, but still love me. Who have so graciously put my needs or selfish wants first ahead of their own, every single time. And who would do it all over again. Who are the best examples of unconditional love.

And then I couldn’t focus on any of it. I was at mile 23. I wasn’t running, I was surviving. I had barely a 5k left to run. I could do it. This was it. Almost there. Almost home. My senses were in overdrive, I think they just shut off. I couldn’t feel anything. Not my legs, not whether or not I still had to pee, what I was hearing, nothing. There were other runners that had slowed to a walk, some whizzed by, but I wasn’t really paying attention. All I could think about was to keep going, to keep the momentum, to put one foot in front of the other until I was done. I felt like a zombie.

When we were in the heart of mile 25, rounding the corner to the final leg of the race, I parted ways with Sue and Tina. Sometime in the past couple years, JJ started to be the one to drive me across that finish line in a sprint. I knew I would hear his voice boom through the crowd, and I was right. I exhaled sharply and propeled myself forward with every last ounce of energy I still had. My legs weren’t jello, they were nothing. I couldn’t feel the grinding in my kneecaps. I wasn’t floating, though. I was pounding the pavement, breaking past a group of twenty-something guys, pumping my arms which were already stiff and sore and so tired, until I cruised across that finish line and had to remember how to make myself stop and walk again. And to breathe, to be back in reality.

I’d dreamed of this moment a million times ever since I set this goal. It was my first marathon…I figured that I would be so overcome with emotion, so moved to tears, that I’d break down and cry. But I didn’t. I just smiled, caught my breath, and collected my medal, a banana, and two chocolate milks, and tried to process the fact that it was over.

JJ came over to me, tackling me in the biggest hug, and took the load of post-race treats from my hands.My parents, sister-in-law, and niece came just seconds after, congratulating me and full of smiles. I saw Barb, Sue, and Tina and got pictures with them. I told my family the same thing I had told them on the course. I would not have made it through without them. And I knew that it was true. I probably still would have finished, but surely not as strongly and as quickly as I did today. They kept my mind at ease, my feet steady, my body moving. I only prayed that this group of women understood that, and that although they were strangers, knew just how much I was indebted to them. Not only that, but how happy I was to have met and befriended them.

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Barb, Sue, me, Tina.

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This girl got her BQ!

Even a week later, I’m still processing the fact that I am a marathoner. Those 4 hours and 25 minutes passed so quickly, believe it or not, that I wish I could go back and make myself realize I was in them. As I stuff my face with chocolate cake for the sixth night in a row, I try to formulate what those 26.2 miles have taught me. Endurance. Strength. Patience. Pain. Joy. Humility. Gratefulness. Confidence. Pride. Survival. Discipline. I think I’m still learning. I crossed this item off my bucket list, but something tells me that my education is far from over…

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Less Than 72 Hours in Chicago

Bold architecture? Delectable food? Astonishing art? Chicago, one of the largest cities in the states, has it all.

I’ve been looking for a chance to explore this city, and when I saw flights* for less than $100 round-trip (on a holiday weekend!) I took it.

I left Thursday, September 1st and returned Sunday, September 4th. During my stay, my friends Shawna & Shelly were kind enough to let me stay at their apartment that they just recently moved into.

Here’s what I experienced in my short time there:

First experience on the ‘L’

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**The transit system- easy to use, only $20 for a 3-day pass (purchased from O’Hare station) and quite convenient.

A run on Lakefront trail

I convinced Shawna to squeeze in a 2.5 mile run early in the morning. Loved this view!

Wrigley Field

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While I didn’t catch a game here, I could feel the atmosphere from outside the stadium. Cubs fans and gear everywhere!

Views from the Skydeck (Willis Tower)

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The lines were absolutely terrible, but the view beneath my feet made it all worth the experience.

Chicago style hot dogs at Portillo’s

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We got the tip that this local chain was the place for Chicago style dogs, and not only that, but they had delicious chocolate cake- plus it was all very affordable and had a very retro vibe! 

A theft

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Obviously, this was an event we didn’t plan. Shortly after we left Portillo’s, Shawna received an e-mail about a fraudulent charge on her card. Somehow, someone had gotten her wallet. The next couple hours were spent cancelling her credit and debit cards and accounting for everything that would need replaced. It was stressful, but it could have been much worse. Besides, what’s the full city experience without a little chaos?

Riverwalk

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Did I mention I love these colors? I could take my lunch break along the river any day.

Deep dish pizza from Lou Malnati’s

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***Honestly think I am going to crave this delicious, heavenly pizza for the rest of my life. 

Revolution Brewing, Co. beer

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Another must after a long day of walking. Shawna had this in her fridge, and I was a big fan. Spiced with coriander & orange peel.

Navy Pier

For a holiday weekend + Lobster fest going on, this place = absolute madness. However, the crowds were no match for the views of this landmark. 

Jazz Festival

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I picked a great weekend to visit- the jazz festival was going on downtown and we caught a captivating performance in Millennium Park. 

Lincoln Park/Lincoln Park Zoo

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Lincoln Park Zoo is an incredible place to visit if you have kids, as it’s FREE! We walked through Lincoln Park to the beach. 

Lake Michigan

The contrast of the sand & water with the city skyscrapers in the background was incredible to me. And as you can see, I was really enjoying the weather!

Molly’s Cupcakes

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Because sometimes you have to treat yourself! This place was adorable, complete with swings for seats. May I present to you: The Ron Bennington, Blueberry Cheesecake, and Peach Cobbler cupcakes. 

Millennium Park

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Tons of sculptures, cool architecture, and mesmerizing art. This is where a lot of concerts & large events are held.

Cloud Gate (The Bean)

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Jumping for joy because I love this city!

Buckingham Fountain

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Caught this right as the sun was reflecting off the buildings. An incredible ending! This is one of the largest fountains in the world.

Knickerbocker Hotel

I tried really hard to convince the manager to give me the hook up, since the hotel and I share a last name, but he wasn’t having it. He did, however, show us the crystal ballroom where there was a wedding going on. Beautiful, historic hotel.

Stan’s Donuts

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Okay, people. I really loved this place. A wide variety of flavors, old fashioned charm, etc. The donuts were scrumptious, but don’t inhale them and chug your coffee like I did. Also, maybe avoid diabetes and get one donut like a normal person?

 

Some tips:

*Fly Frontier or Spirit–  If you are flying into Chicago, look for cheaper flights on these airlines. If you can do it, only bring a backpack. I flew Frontier and they charge for carry on and checked bags, but a backpack that fits certain restrictions is free. If you’re only there for a short time, it’s all you need!

**Get the Ventra 3-day pass at the O’Hare airport. I only paid $20, and was told that anywhere else, they charge you for the $5 card fee. This lets you take both the L and the buses an unlimited number of times in that 72 hour period.

***Don’t be afraid to talk to locals. I would have gotten so lost if I didn’t ask someone for help, and we would’ve missed out on a lot of great spots if we didn’t take our new friends up on their recommendations. (Obviously, use common sense and your gut instinct when it comes to your safety to avoid any dangerous situations.)

 

So there you have it. There is PLENTY more ground to cover whenever I visit again, but this little getaway was all kinds of perfect.

 

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Have you been to Chicago? What did you love/do/see/eat? Let’s hear all about it!