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The Storm

Last week, on the second anniversary of my coming to America, we had a hurricane. Last year’s encounter with Hurricane Irene – whilst destructive elsewhere – was largely, for me and those I knew, a spectacle to watch online and a day or two of enforced domesticity. Hurricane Sandy, however, is still being acutely felt today, both by those directly affected the damage and those citizens of New York who were able to escape unscathed.

By good fortune, I fall in that latter category, losing only my internet connection and local amenities for a day or two, and my subway service for the foreseeable future — 10 days later, the tunnels are still flooded and electric signals likely ruined. But I have heat, I have water, I have power, my building and belongings are safe and I’m unharmed, so I shan’t complain about any smaller inconveniences when I have the luxury of working from home and a bike to get anywhere else I need in the city.

What’s really struck me about this hurricane is not the damage it caused, but the response it has provoked from normally-cynical New Yorkers. Requests for volunteers were swamped within minutes of being posted: I was turned away from three stations before finding a just-set-up soup kitchen in Coney Island where I could exercise the desire to physically help some of those worst-affected.

Donations still continue to flood in (and, alas, are still needed) and masses of stories continue to surface about individuals and local businesses giving power, generators, hot meals and everything else they can to those affected. Those with power ran extension cables outside for those without to charge appliances, those with generators drove hours to give them to those without power and those businesses with the ability to cook food gave it all out for free to the communities that have supported them throughout the year.

Sandy Power Sharing

There were cases of price-gouging too though. Hotel rates went up to $1,000 a night, though this was somewhat assuaged by Race to Recovery in which runners in the cancelled New York Marathon gave up their pre-booked hotel rooms to storm refugees. New York Sports Club charged $35 for non-members to shower, and lost a good amount of members when that came to light. There are many more similar stories coming to light, and the Attorney General has vowed to prosecute each one, as in New York it’s

Illegal for merchants to sell products at unconscionably excessive prices during an abnormal disruption of the market.

What wonderful phrasing.

Overall though, there’s been a real sense of coming together in this oft-segregated and anonymous city. I used to love New York as an entity to be interacted with, but now, I’m starting to love it as a community to be a part of.

Xx

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Super Spartans

This Saturday, I underwent the most trying physical experience of my life, running the 11-mile Super Spartan race on the Mountain Creek Ski & Snowboard course in Vernon, New Jersey. The ski lift wasn’t operational and bridges were sparse, so between the 30 obstacles laid out, we had to climb up, and down, and up, and down the ski slopes; and swim across the lakes and rivers interspersed between them. A Tornado Watch and intense storm shut the course halfway, but we continued on regardless, through abandoned water stops and obstacles, with only our fellow Spartans for safety and support.

Here is my story. It’s not a short one but, neither was the race.

Super Spartan Before

High spirits before the race

Warmup
Our race started at 2:30 in the scorching midday sun, to the usual inspirational call-and-reponse speech and a charge through the smoke and fire onto the first hill.

This first hill was, of course, a ski slope, as were the three that immediately followed it. The first 30 minutes or so were spent in this fashion, walking up endless inclines in scorching heat, with smiles on our faces and minds firmly fixed on what was to come.

Mountain Creek ski map

Our home for 5 hours

A couple of easy obstacles later – some up-and-unders and cargo netting – we came across a river with some boats parked at intervals within. Plunging into this provided much needed relief from the heat, and swimming across the river and under the boats was the first challenging obstacle of the event.

Past this, spirits still high and muscles nicely warmed, we ran through some beautiful nature, through thankfully flattish forest trails and around lakes, passing Jersey party kids listening to Call Me Maybe with beers in hand and laughing at soaked runners. Then thin balancing poles embedded in the mud to be run across, with 15 burpees for anyone who fell. In fact, most people, feeling confident about the race after the flat stretch, dropped for a quick workout even after succeeding. This was not, it turned out later, a wise use of energy.

Descents and Storms
After this was a tricky downhill section, made heartbreaking as we saw dispirited and tired Spartans trekking and crawling back up the very incline we were heading down on the other side. At the bottom was some much-needed water, and smiles prevailed as we got to the next obstacle, a 25-foot jump off a cliff into the water below with a decent swim at the bottom. Peer-pressure reigned supreme as people stepped to the edge and nearly bailed upon seeing the sheer drop beneath them, but were convinced by chants and clapping behind. A couple of folks even chose to jump despite not being able to swim, but at this point the course was still open and lifeguards were on duty to pull them out.

Running back uphill after this, drenched once again, the weather turned in just a handful of minutes, going from the scorching sun that greeted me as I took my heart into my hands and leaped into the water, to darkness beneath ominous clouds, with violent winds ripping the very water from our skin into a light mist.

At the foot of the next obstacle stood a solitary course staff member, with his 4 volunteer helpers nearby seeking cover from the elements. In his hands he held hostage the rubber bands to be tied around our feet for the next obstacle, and stared out at the crowd of 300 or so Spartans that were massing at the foot of the obstacle waiting on his next words.

We’re on tornado watch, there’s lightning just ahead. The course is closed, the obstacles are closed, you have to go back down to the last water station.

The mob looked at one another and, without word, without gesture and, alas, without a battle cry of ‘SPARTAAA’ decided that, having come this far, the mere potential of a tornado wasn’t going to stop us, and charged the hill past the bewildered staff member who was swiftly discovering a name badge and a clean set of clothes were mere proxies for power once civilisation had been abandoned. 300 Spartans held the Thermopylae against a horde, but a single volunteer with no natural defenses at his side had no hope of stopping this 300 from rushing up the hill and on to glory.

Abandoned
It was in the pouring rain, hail and winds that we struggled up and down hills before reaching our first abandoned obstacle. Here, with no staff or volunteers in sight, Spartans were wordlessly passing 50lb sandbags to one another and working as a group to fulfill Sisyphus’ legacy, bringing these bags up and down a hill, before flipping over tractor tyres in the mud. Having completed these challenges, we began our ascent of a hill which had equal amounts of traffic made up of those quitting the race and heading for the road below; and those gritting their teeth against the elements and beginning their ascent.

It was now, with the ground mere mush and slurry beneath us, that we were to climb the hill which, even when dry and firm, we’d scrambled down with fearful glances at those climbing back up. Bent at the waist, looking like hunchbacks and pressing our palms against the tops of our knees with every step, we’d urge legs straight for just one more cycle. Eventually we’d realise this wasn’t sustainable and, straightening our backs, take a series of more determined steps, looking around at the phenomenal altitude achieved and the immense distance to go, before bending in exhaustion once more.

Walking past the wounded and exhausted littering the sides of the road, lying down and giving themselves completely to the mud and the rain, words of encouragement were sparse as everyone fought their own inner personal battle with the hill.

Endurance is mental, not physical.

It was after we’d scaled this, and run through some more forest trails that the peak of our hardships came and our resolve was truly tested. Rounding an innocuous corner we came upon a sight to cripple the strongest spirit. The previous hills we’d climbed had, at least before the heavens opened, been reasonably climbable. The next few hundreds of metres would be a scramble up a rocky slope, with cargo netting spread over the steeper areas to prevent a full-scale landslide as we dug in hands, feet, knees and elbows and strove for the summit. Weary, battered and covered in mud, all I could do at this prospect was to laugh, uncontrollably and loudly, and as my race-buddy Noemi and other Spartans came around the corner too, they understood, but few joined in the merriment.

The End of Civilisation
Finally, we reached the top. Noemi and I limped in wordless tandem to a muddy puddle here to wash the worst of the mud from ourselves and, as our eyes met over the dirty water, we realised we were pretty far from home, and had a hell of a distance left to cover. The next sets of obstacles, with more running between them, were all empty and abandoned, looking like ruins of some lost and oddly competitive civilisation, but the entire set of racers still standing never considered for a moment simply running past the climbs, hill walls and rope-obstacles.

A rotating cadre of Spartans had even replaced the volunteers, after completing obstacles we would hold down nets, ensure safety on the walls and treat one another for various injuries, including some awful cases of cramp which lent the air of a battlefield to the course with screams of pain howling through the hills.

Eventually we reached a manned obstacle, a set of ziplines across a lake, which Spartans were to pull themselves along whilst hanging upside-down. These were in the process of being dismantled and a smugly dry member of the course staff urged racers to bypass the obstacle and run around it. Naturally, he was ignored with a smile and a nod, and we lined up to take turns on the remaining 3 zip lines whilst the 4th was being winched away. Plunging into the lake after reaching the goal halfway across the wire helped to remove some of the more ingrained mud, and the shock of the water combined with having some new authority to flout perked up spirits, as we continued along with smiles and banter once more the order of the day.

Super Spartan Ziplines

The photographers had all left by the time we reached the obstacles

Yet more obstacles and more muddy paths awaited us after a brief swim. I finally succeeded in passing through monkey bars and scaled walls so high that I could only just get the tips of my fingers onto their rim with a running jump. A heroic volunteer had chosen to drive up with water and man a water station, providing much needed hydration and provoking laughter when, smiling at the wall-climbers nearby, he told us that everything was closed and would we please all just leave the mountain, knowing no-one would think of doing so.

The next obstacle, again unmanned and turned back on by some mischievous anonymous racer was the downhill water slide (tarp laid over rocks with water pumped down it) and, with no-one to give directions, I plunged headfirst down this, sustaining a few extra scratches and scrapes, but earning applause and shouts of Pete Rose from the top, and the opportunity to plunge face-first into yet more muddy water at a fantastic speed.

Home Stretch
From here, it was all downhill. With the knowledge that we were more than 9 miles through, given to us by that heroic water-station volunteer, our smiles grew with every step and the sight of some fresh obstacles at the camp couldn’t deter us. The remaining three obstacles were nearly identical to those from the 3 mile Spartan Sprint. The sideways bouldering climb had some extra barbed wire on top to deter cheating. The fire jump was a lot higher.

And then, the barbed wire crawl. What felt like unending death after 3 miles was a mere annoyance after 11. Crawling uphill under thrillingly low barbed wire, with thick gravel and sharp rocks beneath us, the vantage was too low to have any idea as to progress. Crawling on hands and feet worked for the first few minutes, before tired muscles gave way and eventually we were reduced to lying in the mud, rolling our bodies sideways up the hill and allowing any number of rocks to cut and bruise us. Fleeting attempts to resume more sophisticated methods of ascent invariably led to cuts from the barbed wire and nervously outstretched hands trying to still the dangerously bouncing wires.

The End
We cleared the bouldering wall. We cleared the barbed wire. We cleared the fire jump. We ran through the finish and nearly collapsed with hunger, exhaustion and jubilation.

I have used the plural pronoun throughout this post. Only 30% of the starters finished this race, and without others by my side, I would have been on the wrong side of that split. Without the 9 people I started with, 3 of whom I lost early and 4 more who dropped back when the rains started, I wouldn’t have spent the first third of the race in such high spirits. Without runners on every side of me, constantly providing me with support and drawing strength from mine, I wouldn’t have been safe and would have struggled to persevere.

Super Spartan Finishers

Finally, without my fellow Capoeirista Noemi constantly by my side, I would have quit, without doubt. My body wouldn’t have been able to take the punishment and my mind wouldn’t have pushed it on anyway. She was a rock for me, as I was for her.

It was hard. It took nearly 5 hours. Two days later, my body is still a wreck. But it was worth it.

Xx

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Rooftop Antics

My new apartment in Brooklyn comes with a number of advantages, compared to the place in Queens I moved from. It’s not in Queens, for starters. It doesn’t vibrate every time the subway comes past – and one can therefore listen to music with the windows open – and, most importantly of all, it features a spacious roofdeck with beautiful views of the Manhattan skyline, all the way from the Freedom Tower downtown to the Hearst Tower by Columbus Circle and above.

Last night we celebrated the beginning of summer with a barbecue; if there’s one thing men love more than meat, then it has to be playing with fire. We brought along cold beer, a hyperactive dog and summery music, and watched the sun set over the skyline as the clouds rolled in above us to mark the end of the weekend and prepare for a working week that, thankfully, won’t be spent staring longingly out of the window at the blistering sunshine outside.

Rooftop BBQ Fire

Then: an idea. The elevator to our roof extends another block upwards in the centre, for the motor room, giving us both a great vantage point from which to take photos and, more importantly, a blank canvas to work with. What’s the fun in having a portable projector, laptops and remote speakers unless you’re going to make the most of them? We tested it out and, sure enough, could get streamed TV shows working, along with plenty of potential for artfully lighting parties and, predictably, making our own shadow puppets. That’s me hanging off my roommate’s gigantic biceps.

Rooftop Projector Small

Rooftop Projector Fun

But, why limit ourselves to broadcasting on our own building, with a wall that barely stretches 14 feet across? We discovered we can also project across to the building across the block from us, and reasoned that if between the four of us, we couldn’t think of a law or regulation that would prohibit this, nor a reason someone might complain, it was a perfectly valid idea. Assuming we avoid projecting through the windows of the apartments on the left or right hand side, this gives us a viewing screen at least 32 feet wide (and therefore 18 feet high, assuming 16:9), and even allows our neighbours to enjoy the films too. They’ll have to supply their own audio though.

Rooftop Projector Small

iPhones in the dark don’t take terribly good photos.

I love Brooklyn.

Xx

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LA

This weekend, after more than a year and a half in NYC, I finally travelled somewhere in the US further out of the city than a brief jaunt over the river to LA, with a fantastic friend from the UK who was stuck in San Francisco with little to do. It was a bit of a last-minute trip, we made the plans late on the Thursday afternoon, giving me just enough time to Skype my boss a message, then buy and pack a bag for my Friday morning flight.

Given that these four days may be the only driving I’ll do all year, and that we wanted to make the most of the few days we’ll see eachother this year and the LA sunshine, we hired a quite ridiculous Chevy Camero SS. It was the first time I’ve ever even been in a convertible (not so much call for them in rainy Wales) and now I can’t imagine driving in anything but blazing sun with the roof down and the radio blasting 80′s hair metal: I’ve been well and truly spoiled.

Camero

We discovered, and subsequently spent every evening in, Santa Monica, home of beautiful beaches, crazy actresses on rollerskates, endless live music on the streets at all hours and a hundred cute little bars and restaurants. We skipped the usual tourist themes (I didn’t see a single Hollywood Star) and instead spent the days at the beach or running around the hills in Runyon Canyon. I also got to visit and train with the Mestre of my Capoeira group, based in LA, and that was both an honour and an amazing experience.

Maybe it was just that I was on holiday, or maybe it was just the areas that I visited, but I fell completely in love with LA. The pace of life there seemed so much more relaxed; the people so much happier and healthier; and the hills and countryside so accessible right within the city. And, although talking about the weather is terribly British, and the last resort of small talk, after shared interests in sports and the present locale have been exhausted, I have to talk about the weather. When I arrived there were blue skies and bright, 25 degree sunshine. When I left, it was the same, and the only gap in the middle of this was when the Sunday night provided some light clouding to better backlight the photos of Malibu beach.

Camero

Best of all though? All this novelty gave me an all-time high-score on Foursquare. Competitive travelling: it’s the future.

Xx

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The Irene Diet

The ravages of Hurricane Irene, other than those that made it into the mainstream news, were many. My housemate’s hometown in New Jersey, for example, was turned into a flood plain:

But what’s not available for people to discover, even on YouTube or in small local papers, was the effect that Irene had on individuals like me, those of us completely out of the flooding, power-outage and evacuation zones. Some think I had it pretty easy, but with no transport and everything closed it was very difficult not to look into the alcohol collection and make some bad decisions.

The damage from that seemed to clear up by Sunday afternoon, but I’m sure there were longer-term effects on my health from the hurricane too. I’m particularly worried by the impact that spending two and a half days eating nothing but nachos, chocolate-chip pancakes and bacon will have. Most people in the city I’ve talked to have a similar story to tell: a weekend of junk food and at least one night of debauchery. That may say more about my friendship groups than anything else.

However, if, for fun, we assume that each of the >8 million residents of New York City proper gained a mere 3lbs from the hurricane, then that’s about 10 gigagrams (109 grams) of weight gained overall. This, incidentally, is equivalent to 10 kilotons of TNT, which could produce only slightly less heat energy than the nuclear bomb dropped on Hiroshima, and is the generally-believed size that a terrorist tactical nuclear weapon would be.

If you prefer a different analogy, then we could also say that the (hypothetical) combined weight increase of New Yorkers was equivalent to two-and-a-half times the weight of the army Hannibal famously marched through the Alps, according to my rough calculations.

Fortunately, chocolate chip pancakes aren’t as explosive as Trinitrotoluene and war elephants have a five-day waiting period in this state.

Xx

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Cabin Fever

It’s the calm before the storm right now, and despite my natural tendency to brush off the warnings as overly-conservative measures, people really do seem to be taking Hurricane Irene seriously. Parts of New York other than the low-lying Zone A areas have also been evacuated, and shops are actually starting to run out of more than just booze and coffee: things like bottled water and batteries.

I’ve also taken the opportunity, given my enforced day staying at home, to take stock of the damage done by Irene to other parts of the country. Pictures of flooded homes and roads in North Carolina, alongside some of the devastation done in the Bahamas already by Irene contribute to making this something more than an Internet joke.

In his most recent press conference though, Michael Bloomberg gave every impression of a mayor in charge of his city, being very realistic about the fact that the subway and power grid might not be back up by Monday and having every fact to hand: there is space for 75,000 people in the evacuation centres, only 1,400 are there now; 80% of people in NYC evacuation zones have left already (over a million people have evacuated the Jersey shore); we can expect to lose power in areas but water should be unaffected. He even repeated the key points in Spanish, rather than relying on a translator, in a genuine appeal to the Spanish communities in NYC.

The balconies and gardens around me are cleared of all movable items. Windows are taped up, shops boarded and shuttered up and the streets a lot quieter than I’m used to on a Saturday afternoon. I’m still not worried — in the worst realistic case I don’t expect anything worse than a power outage, but I do now have a respect for hurricanes beyond being an occasional tragic event that happens to someone else, somewhere else.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I have a hurricane party playlist to prepare.

Xx

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