Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Visiting Israel: Masada and the Dead Sea

Finally, finally, FINALLY getting around to sharing the last of my Israel travel recaps. Sorry this post has taken so long! (If you missed my earlier recaps, here's my Israel arrivalTel Aviv recapJerusalem Part 1, and Jerusalem Part 2.)

While we were staying in Jerusalem, Adam and I took a day trip to Masada and the Dead Sea.

The Judaean Desert
We left Jerusalem early in the morning and drove into the Judaean Desert. The landscape was no joke. Unlike the deserts of the western U.S. with which I'm pretty familiar, the Judaean Desert has no cactus, no tumbleweed, no flora or fauna of any kind. There wasn't a single remnant of life to be seen. It reminded me of the biblical images you see in The Ten Commandments, et al.
Jerusalem is approximately 2,500 feet above sea level. By comparison, the Dead Sea is nearly 1,400 feet BELOW sea level and is the lowest land elevation in the world. We stopped at the sea level demarcation point enroute.
We drove past a number of kibbutzes (agricultural settlements) as we approached the Dead Sea. This picture was taken from a visitor center and was one of our first glimpses of the water. The mountains in the distance are Jordanian.
After about a 90-minute drive, we arrived at our first destination. Masada is a desert fortress atop an isolated rock cliff overlooking the Dead Sea.

Masada has a lot of history which I won't attempt to cover here. In short, it's a UNESCO World Heritage site and was the site of the last Jewish stronghold against the Roman invasion. From the UNESCO website:

"Masada is a symbol of the ancient kingdom of Israel, its violent destruction and the last stand of Jewish patriots in the face of the Roman army, in 73 A.D. It was built as a palace complex, in the classic style of the early Roman Empire, by Herod the Great, King of Judaea, (reigned 37 – 4 B.C.). The camps, fortifications and attack ramp that encircle the monument constitute the most complete Roman siege works surviving to the present day."

Many folks choose to hike to the top of Masada. It's a popular activity in the early morning to view the sunrise; however, for us to do so would have meant waking up at around 3:00 AM! No, thank you.

Adam and I elected to ride a cable car to the top. Here's the view as we were beginning our ascent:
Once we arrived at the top, we walked around marveling at the amazing archaeology and views.

Below is another view of the Dead Sea and the Jordanian mountains. The Dead Sea has been receding in recent years. I understand this is primarily due to the diversion of water sources for agricultural purposes and other usage. The seawater levels have declined so much that the Dead Sea has now split into two bodies, which you can see here:
This is the "iconic" view of Masada on top of the cliff:
Here is an example of the archaeological ruins. The fortress design was quite sophisticated, especially given the era in which it was built.
Here's an example of what the ruins looked like from the inside. The black line denotes where the walls stood when the fortress was originally discovered. Anything above the black line was reconstructed.
This was Camp F, one of several Roman legionary camps built outside of Masada in preparation for Roman siege:
After completing our tour at Masada, we were ready to move on to our next destination. 

The Dead Sea
It was a quick drive from Masada to the Ein Gedi Spa along the Dead Sea.

Enroute, we learned the Dead Sea is almost 10 times saltier than the ocean, meaning no living creatures can survive in it (hence the name). The water and mud are filled with minerals which are reputed to be highly therapeutic.

Ein Gedi has sulfur pools, mud baths, a traditional swimming pool, a private beach, and locker rooms. The premises were initially built along the Dead Sea shoreline, but due to receding water levels the beach is now quite a distance away. The facilities provide a tractor-shuttle to transport visitors back and forth, but Adam and I decided to walk. It took us about 15 minutes on foot.

Here was the view from the beach. The shoreline looks like white sand, but it is actually salt-encrusted mud.
Check out the salt crystals caking the water walkways. I thought the salt would feel like slippery ice minus the cold, but it actually felt like pointy rocks.

Our tour guide in Jerusalem had advised us to wear water shoes on the Dead Sea beach and in the water due to rough surfaces. At the last minute, I bought a pair at a gift shop and they were worth every penny/shekel. The salt formations at sea bottom were very sharp and jagged. Even with my water shoes on, I had to wade in slowly.

The seawater was pretty warm and sure enough, the saltwater made all the swimmers extremely buoyant. It was fun and a little weird to float around so effortlessly! We were warned not to get any saltwater in our eyes, so I was very careful. However, I did accidentally get some in my mouth and it tasted AWFUL - like a musty, sludgy salt slurry. Blech.

Later, I went to try the mud baths. The mud was cold to apply and obviously doesn't result in the most flattering image. I was terrified when I saw my own reflection. Do I look like one of those green women from Star Trek?
Doing my best "it-girl" fashion post to cross-balance my alien-like appearance.
I waited for the mud to dry, then rinsed off/soaked in some of the hot sulfur showers. Ahhh, life is good!

Freakish appearances aside, the mud treatment worked wonders on my skin. Best natural skin exfoliate/softener, ever! I definitely understand the hype.

All too quickly, it was time to get dressed and make the trek back to Jerusalem.

And so finally ends all of my Israel travel recaps!
This vacation was one of the most impactful trips I've ever taken in my life. Even so, the week's explorations barely scratched the surface of all that Israel has to offer. There was so much more I would have loved to see had there been more time.

My sincere thanks and gratitude go out to all the people of Israel for their sincere warmth, hospitality, and kindness, and for treating us like family everywhere we went. Until the next time!

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Favorite race medals

Linking up with MarciaPatti, and Erika for Tuesdays on the Run.

The topic of the week: this year's race medals. Yay!!!

I earned a total of 17 medals this year. The count includes the "extra" medals I got for completing a Rock N Roll Remix Challenge plus three Rock N Roll races during the calendar year. #WillRunForBling

Here are my five favorites from 2015:

#5 - Super Bears Shuffle
As you all know, I am a huge sports fan. I love the usage of the iconic Chicago Bears logo as the medal. Simplicity and pure symbolism at its finest.

#4 - Fort2Base
I appreciate anything military-themed and this design is so classic. The medal is double-sided with an image of the Fort Sheridan Army Base on one side and the Great Lakes Naval Base on the other. The ribbon includes the emblems of all five military units.

#3 - Rock N Roll Chicago Half Marathon
(Please disregard the asphalt photo background.) What a gorgeous depiction of the Chicago skyline with all its stunning architecture, complete with the two lakefront trail runners. The sparkly detail in the "Chicago" lettering reminds me of the marquis sign at the Chicago Theater!

#2 - Rock N Roll San Antonio Half Marathon
Such a beautiful array of colors! The San Antonio Riverwalk image is very accurate, in my opinion. I like the ombre colors on the ribbon, which blend right into the medal. There are so many intricate details, especially the two runners on either side of the bridge.

#1 - Cinco de Miler
A three-dimensional medal shaped like a Mexican sombrero with a dazzling array of colors and a bottle opener on the back? Yes, please! This is the most uniquely-designed medal I've ever received. I love the creativity!

Tell me about your own favorite medals! Do you like designs that are simple, over-the-top, sparkly, nontraditional, etc., etc., etc.?

Monday, December 28, 2015

Training and holiday week recap - Dec 21-27, 2015

To all that celebrate Christmas, I hope you had a wonderful holiday!

After a 5-day weekend, I am back in the office trying to get reacclimated.

Here is more about my workout/holiday week:

Stationary bike - 30 minutes

This workout ended up being very rushed. Normally my company's fitness center is open until at least 6:30 PM. I showed up around 4:25 PM and learned it would be closing at 5:00 PM that day (holiday week hours)! Good thing I got there when I did. I squeezed in 30 minutes on the bike before making a mad dash out the door.

That night, I went to the Bulls vs Nets game with a colleague. The festivities were fun, despite the Bulls losing in heartbreaking fashion (although, my colleague is a diehard Nets fan, so of course had a different opinion, LOL). It's always fun seeing the contrast between Bulls games and Blackhawks games at the United Center. Both teams put on a fantastic in-game experience!

Pure Barre class - 55 minutes

Pure Barre's motto is "lift, tone, burn" and wow, do the exercises ever burn. As I've said before, it's easy to see why these classes are effective. It's all about burning calories the old-fashioned way!

It was Adam's birthday so we went out to dinner at one of his favorite local neighborhood joints, Hello Tacos De Cero. We played the birthday celebration card as an excuse to order way too much food and stuff ourselves silly!

Pure Barre class - 55 minutes

I took the day off work and spent the day scampering around the city in mad holiday-preparation mode. Same workout sentiments as the day before, but even more so since this was my second consecutive day of barre class.

My dear friend Vanitha, who is home for the holidays from Washington DC, came over that night. It was wonderful to catch up with her! I am already scheming when I can go to DC next and get together with her again. =D
Dinner at Greek Islands
(photo by Adam)

After dinner, Adam and I watched Return of the Jedi as quickly as the DVD would play! (Are you noticing a theme here?) I finally accomplished the mission to see Star Wars Episodes 4, 5, and 6 before seeing The Force Awakens. (Folks, in retrospect, this was not an easy challenge. Note to self for next time: PLAN AHEAD.)


I had ambitiously planned to take another barre class. In the end, I opted not to because I was too sore and still had a lot of holiday preparations to complete.

Early on, I was thankful for the rest. Then my muscles started loosening up later in the day, making me wish I had pushed through a class! Nevertheless, I know the rest was helpful.

My parents came in for the holidays. Before Christmas Eve dinner, we all went out to see The Force Awakens. For those of you that have seen it, let me know so we can talk about it. In the meantime, I have to share how much I love BB-8! He is the cutest droid, EVER.

Run 5 miles on the treadmill

First run in 2.5 weeks! I was apprehensive about loss of conditioning, but it was barely noticeable. I am guessing the effects would be more pronounced at longer distances? Either way, the run felt strong. For the first time in a long time, I remembered why I love being a runner. I'm still not ready to jump in feet-first with race-planning or setting new running goals, but I am starting to feel like my old self again.

My family and I did our traditional Christmas Day dinner in Chinatown. The neighborhood was packed, as always.

Pure Barre class - 55 minutes

After so much holiday eating the day before, it felt really good to get back into the studio. I started feeling improvements in strength, which was so motivating. There's nothing I love more than seeing results!

Pure Barre class - 55 minutes

At this point, two consecutive days of barre is still all I can handle - but the post-workout soreness is definitely getting less pronounced. Woo hoo!

My book club gathered for a holiday potluck brunch and book exchange, which was a lot of fun. Thanks to Amy G. for hosting! I've got so many new books to read and don't know where to start!
Brunch, glorious brunch!

My outlook for this week:
More barre classes, trying to get back on track with healthy eating habits, resting, getting into the spirit of things on New Year's Eve, and gearing up for my busiest time of year at work.

What about you? How was your week and what are you looking forward to in the new year?

Linking up with HoHo and Tricia for the Weekly Wrap.

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

2015 Running Lowlights

While I did have many running highlights in 2015, I certainly had plenty of struggles, too. Here are some of the year's biggest lowlights:

By far the most miserable heat and humidity I've ever experienced at a race. You know it's going to be a rough day when you're already dripping sweat while just standing and waiting in the starting corrals. 

I was so relieved to see that finish line.
It's a good thing this picture was taken from the knees up so you can't see the puddle of sweat growing around my feet.

My rain-soaked race trend continues.
I got rained on during a number of races this year, but there were two in particular which were exceptionally awful: the Rock N Roll DC Half Marathon and the PAWS Run For Their Lives 8K. 

Of the two, Rock N Roll DC's rain was comparably lighter; however, the temperatures were in the 40s so I was miserably cold the whole morning (including pre- and post-race). I never wrote a recap of the PAWS 8K, but the temps were in the 70s and the race was obviously shorter. However, the PAWS race had rain coming down in buckets and the course was a venerable mud pit. There was one underpass where we were literally up to our shins in muddy water.

Honorable mention: The Fit Foodie 5K got cancelled due to course flooding. This was the first and only race I've ever signed up for that got cancelled on race day due to weather.

Rocking the always-stylish garbage-bag dress before the Rock N Roll DC Half Marathon.

I will not be hitting my annual mileage goal this year.
My target was to run 750 miles for the year. This averages out to 62.5 miles per month. I stayed on target through October. I even logged 10 extra miles during both August and September. For a short while, I had grandiose visions of getting to 800 miles for the year.

Everything came crashing down in November. I did a ton of traveling that month, which drained me of momentum and motivation. After completing the Rock N Roll San Antonio 10K and Half Marathon in early December, I had had it. I haven't run since then and I have no regrets about taking the time off. 

Right now I'm at 711.2 miles for the year. I don't think that number is going to change before year end. Even if it did, I will most certainly not be logging 38.8 miles in the next week.

The road ends here.

My ancient 5K PR still stands.
With the exception of my 5K PR, I've recorded new PRs within the last few years for all "traditional" race distances that I've attempted more than once. Unfortunately, my 5K PR is the only one still standing from well over a decade ago. 

In 2014, I got within shouting distance with some very hard effort. Even so, I got so spooked that I didn't even make an attempt this year. In all of 2015, I only ran one 5K race, the Super Bears Shuffle, which was definitely not a targetable race.

Way to play the avoidance card, eh?

Inclines wreaked more havoc on me than usual (and that's saying something).
I've spoken ad nauseam about how much I hate hills. This year more than ever, I realized the truly awful extent of my hill weakness. Anytime I ran outside of Chicago city limits, I got smacked upside the head.

Most of the offending races had either a few noteworthy hills, or some stretch of general hilliness that eventually leveled out. However, I would earmark the Hub City Half Marathon as my lowest point (no pun intended) because the hills pretty much never stopped. It was the worst hill-beating I've ever experienced at a race.

Your turn! If anyone wants to share any of your running lowlights from 2015, I love hearing your battle stories!

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

2015 Running Highlights

Before I kick things off - today is Adam's birthday!!! Please wish my wonderful, darling husband the happiest of happy birthdays!!!!!!!!! Cheers to many, many, MANY more. =)
HAPPY BIRTHDAY, sweetie!!!
I haven't run in over two weeks. Not a single step (unless you count darting across a traffic intersection when the "walk" sign has begun its final blinking warning).

I don't miss running at all. Not one bit!!!

I know I should probably get back on track soon to avoid completely losing my conditioning, but honestly I don't care that much. (Horrible, I know.)

All of that aside, I am linking up with MarciaPatti, and Erika for today's Tuesdays on the Run topic, which is "Highlights of Your Running Year."

Looking back, I was pleasantly surprised how many high points I had in a year where running often seemed more burdensome than fun.

I set new PRs in the 10-Miler and Half Marathon
The 10-Miler PR was one of those magical days where I learned the body is capable of much more than what the mind believes. I actually set three new half marathon PRs during the year! I was thrilled when my third PR result achieved my year-long goal of breaking 2:10.
From the CARA Live Grit 10-Miler with Marcia, Erin, Sara, Wendy, and Zenaida

I crossed a few more states off of my goal of racing in all 50 states.
I ran in Washington, DC (and a little bit of Virginia), two races in Indiana (here and here); and two races within 24 hours in Texas (race 1 and race 2).
From the Rock N Roll DC Half Marathon

I also added two new countries to the list of locales in which I ran. What amazing experiences it was to run in Seoul and Jerusalem!
Representing Chicago at the Olympic Park in Seoul
(By the way, I still have one more long-overdue Israel travel post in the works which I'll hopefully share soon.)

I ran the highest number of races for the first time and/or purely for fun/swag than ever before. This includes the Shamrock Shuffle, the Race to Wrigley, the Cinco de Miler, the BTN Big 10K, Fort2Base (also a new-to-me distance), and the Super Bears Shuffle.
From the Race to Wrigley 10K

I experienced no major injuries this entire year. I don't think I'll ever be completely devoid of the niggling aches and pains resulting from wonky knees and hips. But I am proud and relieved to realize that for an entire calendar year I never experienced any physical problems that resulted in me involuntarily taking time away from my training. That is a HUGE win for me. I credit running my training runs at a comfortable pace, plus doing lots of yoga, strength-training, and cross-training.
All in all, 2015 turned out to be a pretty darned good running year for me. Cheers to great things in 2016 still to come!

In the meantime, stay tuned for an upcoming post on my 2015 Running Lowlights (thanks to Pete for the idea!)...

Monday, December 21, 2015

Training week recap - Dec 14-20, 2015

In case anyone was wondering, I did NOT get through all three Star Wars episodes this past weekend.

*hangs head in shame*

I'll include the details alongside my daily recap.

Treadmill - walk 10 minutes to warm up
Lift - 25 minutes

I like to use the stationary bike to warm up, but today all the bikes were occupied (which is a rarity). I wasn't feeling like working out today and had dragged myself down to the gym. Instead of doing my usual full-body lifting routine with 3 sets of 8-10 reps on everything, I elected to do single drop sets. I wanted to get in and out of the gym as quickly as possible!

Since I've already listed my typical lifting routine here and here, I won't spell it out again unless I make any noticeable changes going forward.

Yoga class - 45 minutes

Zumba class - 50 minutes

Stationary bike - 10 minutes to warm up
Lift - 45 minutes

Back to the usual 3-set practice today. The workout felt great. I felt improvements in strength, which was hugely motivating. 

I tried to mix up the order in which I did my exercises, and it definitely made a difference. I only did a single deadlift set since I had saved deadlifts for last, and my hands were hurting from gripping the bars. I am thinking more and more about getting a pair of weight-lifting gloves.

Yoga class - 55 minutes

A few weeks ago, my company's fitness center brought in a new yoga instructor. Today was the second time I've taken one of her classes. They are quite challenging! I usually consider yoga days to be "active rest days" but not this day.

After a week packed with holiday parties and gatherings, I was zonked when I got home that night. All I wanted to do was stay home and recharge. I went to bed early.

This put me behind schedule on my Star Wars weekend movie marathon right off the bat.

Plan: Pure Barre class
Actual: Rest

And so began the weekend of movie and TV watching!

Adam and I watched the Blackhawks game. We took a break to do some stuff around the house and cook dinner, etc. Then, we watched the Penguins game, immediately followed by Star Wars: The New Hope.

One Star Wars movie down!

Pure Barre class - 55 minutes

I finally activated my 5-week Pure Barre membership. I thought my consistent weight-lifting and yoga would make barre easier. SO not the case. My arms, abs, thighs, and glutes are all on fire now.

After barre class, Adam and I went to an impromptu brunch with our nephew. He's on college winter break right now and was passing through the city on his way home. So fun!

When we got home from brunch, it was time to cease the active stuff and get down to couch potato business. The pressure was on.

We knocked out The Empire Strikes Back, followed by the Steelers game, then the Blackhawks game.

I feared hitting the wall. During the latter part of the Blackhawks game, I knew I was getting close.

Originally I thought maybe we could manage Return of the Jedi after the Hawks game. But when the moment of truth arrived, I couldn't do it. I had already been glued to the TV for over 8 hours and I just couldn't push through another 2 hours.

Clearly I need more couch potato training.

You'll be seeing a LOT of barre classes on my training recaps over the next five weeks. I want to get my money's worth out of my membership.

And I plan to watch Return of the Jedi either tomorrow night or sometime on Wednesday!

Linking up with HoHo and Tricia for the Weekly Wrap.

Thursday, December 17, 2015

Thinking Out Loud Thursday

Linking up with Amanda's Thinking Out Loud Thursdays.

OK, OK, I'm giving in to the Star Wars hype. My family and I are planning to go see it next week.

Here's the thing - when I saw the original Star Wars movies back in the day, I was too young to fully understand the story. Before next week, I need to get my comprehension in order!

Adam's got the DVD collection at home. Therefore, my critical and time-sensitive mission is to sit myself down this weekend and watch Episodes 4, 5, and 6 in their entirety.

It's going to be a challenge... but I am up for it!

Lest I hit the wall from my complete lack of movie-marathon training, Adam has courageously offered to pace me and watch alongside me every minute of the way. How's that for self-sacrifice!?!?!?

I finally joined the Windy City Blogger Collective. After hearing endlessly positive testimonies, I finally decided to pony up the membership fee.

Best investment, ever. I was already overwhelmed by the amazing array of member events in the first week alone!

Here's a snapshot from my first member event a few weeks ago - a holiday dinner aboard the Odyssey Chicago ship:
From L to R: Erin, Natali, and me
Earlier this week, my friend Rose and I went to a movie night at Block 37's new dine-in AMC Theater. (By the way - the theater is a gazillion times nicer and more posh than the theaters I was used to when I was growing up!)
Rose and me
Last night was the WCBC holiday party at the Hyatt Centric:
From L to R: Maggie, Erin, NataliLauren, Erica, and me
All of these events have been a blast! I am super excited to find out what future events the WCBC team has up their sleeves!

I am planning to get new glasses, contacts, and prescription sunglasses soon. I only wear contacts for special occasions, but I've come to realize how momentous the glasses/sunglasses are. I'm not thrilled with either of my current pairs. Both frequently slide down my nose, and both have arm hinges that get caught in my hair. Next time, I hope to make better choices.

I love how glasses have evolved from being a practical necessity to a potential fashion accessory. I am excited to potentially try something different, style-wise.
I took a curling iron class. It was very helpful and I came away with lots of new knowledge. I also found out about the wide varieties of curling irons available out there. Who knew there were so many products to pick from?

After the instructor demo, we were given "lab time" using ourselves as experimental test subjects. I started getting the hang of things, but I still need a lot of practice! At least I have some ideas now instead of completely floundering around.

(True story: I once inadvertently replicated Sonic the Hedgehog's do with a curling iron. It was a good thing my hair was long enough to tie back afterwards.)

After attending the annual NAAAP Convention for 12 consecutive years, I broke the streak in 2015. I was thinking that would very well be the end of my NAAAP Convention road, and I was okay with that. After all, it's perfectly normal for interests to evolve over the years. There's no time like the present to move in another direction. Explore different pursuits.

This week, I learned the 2016 NAAAP Convention will be hosted in Las Vegas. 

Oh HECK yes!

When can I sign up??? =D