Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Book Review: The Moonlight Palace

Just the other day I met a man who grew up on a tea plantation in India that had been in his family since the 1930s. As you can probably imagine, I was fascinated about his childhood, since suburban Austin was pretty plain vanilla in terms of my own childhood experience. As he was talking about elephants and governesses and other hopelessly exotic things, I couldn’t help but draw comparisons to a book I’d just read, The Moonlight Palace by Liz Rosenberg.

Agnes Hussein, descendant of the last sultan of Singapore and the last surviving member of her immediate family, has grown up among her eccentric relatives in the crumbling Kampong Glam palace, a once-opulent relic given to her family in exchange for handing over Singapore to the British.

Now Agnes is seventeen and her family has fallen into genteel poverty, surviving on her grandfather’s pension and the meager income they receive from a varied cast of boarders. As outside forces conspire to steal the palace out from under them, Agnes struggles to save her family and finds bravery, love, and loyalty in the most unexpected places. The Moonlight Palace is a coming-of-age tale rich with historical detail and unforgettable characters set against the backdrop of dazzling 1920s Singapore.

When I read the description, this book sounded to me like The Little Stranger, minus the ghost aspect and with a more exotic locale thrown in. Needless to say, I jumped at the chance to read and review it, and the book did not disappoint. Parts of it are a bit silly or absurd, like the descriptions of Agnes’ crazy family members, but the main gist of the story--a young girl trying to keep her family together, pay homage to her past, and embrace the new and different ideas of the 20th century--is one that we can all relate to in one way or another. Good coming of age stories have a way of feeling timeless, and this one definitely fits the bill. If you’re looking for that in a book, plus don’t mind a beautiful and exotic setting, pick up The Moonlight Palace. It’s a short read, but definitely worth it for the descriptions alone.

If you're interested in reading The Moonlight Palace, I have a copy to give away to one lucky reader! Leave a comment below with your best exotic locale book recommendation and I'll pick a winner at random next week.
Disclosure: TLC Book Tours provided me with a complimentary copy of this book to review. The opinions and views are all mine.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

2014 Chicago Marathon Race Recap

So I ran a marathon. Although I've been running fairly consistently for about 15 years now, I finally feel like a real runner. Ridiculous? Probably, but the marathon distance felt like the last frontier for me, and now I've broken through that barrier. Would I do it again? In a heartbeat. Um, once my legs recover enough so I can walk down stairs normally again, that is. Here's my recap of the whole crazy thing. It's long, so grab a cup of coffee and a comfy seat.
My mom took this picture of me and D at the expo at McCormick Place. Yes, my mom flew all the way to Chicago to cheer us on and hold all our stuff and generally just be helpful and supportive. She's the best.
We went to bed early on Saturday night, after a pasta dinner at Quartino, one of my favorite Italian restaurants in Chicago. I actually managed to sleep pretty well the night before the race, and when we woke up I felt well-rested and ready to go. We ate breakfast, got ready, and then headed to the red line to pick up my mom at her hotel. We left our Air BnB apartment at around 6:30am, just as the sun was beginning to rise. As we walked to the train stop, down Wells street (which we would later run down), they were already setting up for the race and had blocked off the street to traffic. The only people awake at 6:30am on a Sunday seemed to be runners and cops.
The start line in Grant Park. So many people! So many different running outfits!
We got off at Monroe, with about a million other people, and headed up to Michigan. I really had to go to the bathroom by this time (I took hydrating very seriously all weekend), so we ducked into a Subway on the way to the park. The line was LONG, and it was moving slowly, but it was kind of nice to focus on that instead of getting more and more nervous about the race, which I was in danger of doing. The people we met in line were really nice too, and chatting with them took my mind off the race. Once we finally got through the line it was about 15 minutes until start time, so we dumped all our outerwear with my mom and headed for the park. We had to go through security, where they metal-detector wanded us and everything, and then looked for our start corral. 
Corral G represent!
With 45,000 people running the race, the park was packed, but it was a calm, orderly chaos. We found our corral and got in kind of a line/kind of a mob to get into the corral. We slowly moved up into the corral as earlier waves took off, and then people started shedding warmup clothing. D and I took a few selfies, and then a few more, and then got serious about setting up our phones, getting everything else just like it needed to be, and getting ready to run. Those few minutes between when we got into the corral and when the group actually started moving went by really fast.
As you can see we take our selfies very seriously
Suddenly we were off, and crossing the start line to the marathon. It was really quiet at first, because the area was secure and so there were no crowds, so we were just running through Millennium Park like it was no big deal. The first hour or so of the marathon is kind of a blur. I was thinking about my mom and where she might be, and I was trying to look around and soak up the fact that I was running through the streets of one of my favorite cities in the world. The course was amazing, and lets you run through streets that are otherwise completely clogged with cars, 24/7. I didn’t have my music on for a while, so it felt kind of quiet, other than the crazy crowds, that is. We wound past downtown and past Marina City, which I love, and over another bridge and then back down south. D and I joked that it was the longest walking tour ever, and then I started pointing out architectural features like the Monadnock Building and the Chicago Board of Trade.
Pretty soon we are not going to feel as "yay!" as this photo conveys
Once we got to north Lincoln Park/Lakeview, the crowd really picked up, and it seemed like a huge party. There were street performers and stages set up and drag queens and it was really rowdy and fun. Definitely a great place to spectate. I felt like I had a lot of energy by that point, and even though it was only about 6 miles in I had already eaten all of my jelly beans, which seemed to be sitting pretty well. I started to wonder if I'd brought enough fuel with me.

We ran through Old Town and down Wells, right past the apartment that we were staying in, and then the course went back through downtown on the way to West Loop. We ran right by Merchandise Mart, which is such a pretty building, and then we were headed west and out to an area where there weren’t going to be as many crowds or fun cheering. It was kind of fun to see West Loop though, and all the development that has been taking place there in the last three years. It’s definitely much nicer and more developed than it used to be, even just three years ago!
The course started to get really dead and kinda boring in far west loop, by Rush Medical Center and Malcolm X Community College, but then we saw my mom, which was such a miracle! Of all the spectators, and all the people running, and no plan whatsoever for where or when she was going to try to meet up with us, we saw her. We gave her fast, extremely sweaty hugs and then took off again. It was really sunny by this point, so I was kind of annoyed at my long-sleeved shirt, and we decided to take water at every single station from there on out, but other than that we were feeling pretty good. I’d eaten two of my Gu packets by then (around mile 9 and then again at around 16), and was feeling like we could speed up and crush the rest of the marathon.

Miles 18-20 were all through Pilsen, which was one enormous, fun party. It was seriously awesome. The whole neighborhood smelled like Mexican food, and they were playing loud music and waving the Mexican flag, and both D and I just felt great. He was loving the Mexican pride (he's from Mexico) and even stopped to get some chips and salsa from a spectator who was handing out Mexican food! I loved Pilsen. That was definitely the sleeper hit/surprise of the course.

And then we got to mile 22, around 35rd street, and it got really dead. And I just wanted to be done. I did not want to run anymore. D started cramping up and just having really tight leg muscles. We stopped to walk for just a second, and quickly determined that it hurt more to walk than to run so we started running again. I tried to eat a final Gu packet, some vanilla powerade thing that someone had handed out, but it did not taste good to me and my stomach was unsure about the idea so I just threw it out after one tiny taste. We got some more water, and then we both kinda decided that was going to be our last water break. We were 30 minutes from the end of the marathon and just wanted it to be over. Once we turned onto Michigan Avenue, I started counting down the blocks until we would be done. I was being annoyingly positive, and yelling and whooping and stuff. I really didn’t want to walk--I just wanted to be done running for good so I could sit down. My knees hurt, both of my hips hurt--the right one so badly it was radiating all the way into my back--and I just wanted to stop running already.
We kept telling ourselves we had to get to 13th street, so we could see our friend who lived at 13th and was going to come cheer us on from there, and then the finish line, and then we could stop. We just had to get to 13th. All I could think about was counting down the streets. Cermak, 18th, 16th, etc. Then finally it was 13th street, and I saw a big Indian guy in an orange UT hoodie and just went nuts, cheering and yelling at him. He saw us immediately too, and went crazy yelling and running alongside the barrier, cheering us on. It was such a lifesaver to see that guy at the very end of the race.

Then we turned onto Roosevelt Road and into the secure area and the crowd stopped. And we were going uphill, over the bridge, and I have never wanted to stop running so badly in my entire life. I was saying things like “fuck the wall!” and “so close!” to keep encouraging us but wow, I just wanted to walk. A lot of people were walking and it looked like a really good idea, but I wanted to finish and sit down more than I wanted to walk, so we kept running. And then we turned left into the park, the finish line was in sight, and D grabbed my hand and we ran for it (well, slowly). We crossed the finish line, and then immediately stopped running and just kind of stood there. We’d done it. I didn’t feel much, not a big rush of emotion or anything, but was just really, really glad we could stop running and sit down.
We got water bottles, bananas, cookies, bags to hold stuff in, and then came to a table where they were handing out cups of 312 Wheat Ale. Yes, please. We found a little shaded area to sit down, and where lots of other runners were draped all over the grass, and just sat there for a while, kind of stretching but mainly just enjoying how nice it felt to sit. The temperature in the shade was just perfect, and all these little ladybugs kept falling out of the trees and onto our bags and clothing. I ate some snacks and took a few sips of my victory beer and felt very, very happy. Once we’d sat there for a while we decided to head back to the apartment. From the park I called and ordered a Lou Malnati’s deep dish pizza, which would be ready and delivered just about when we’d be arriving back at the apartment. Gotta love technology. We made our way slowly to the red line, got back to the apartment, took hot showers and ate pizza and drank some more delicious beer. We deserved it. We'd just run a marathon.

Friday, October 10, 2014

Chicago 2014

It's here. After almost four and a half months of training, the time to run the Chicago Marathon is actually here. It's kind of hard to believe I'm really doing this, and for the past week or so I've been oscillating between not thinking about it at all and then feeling a little bit panicky. I'm working with a grumpy hip (I've self-diagnosed a cased of bursitis), in addition to all the other little aches and pains and quirks I've picked up during this training cycle, so I haven't run very much in the last week and a half. Instead of feeling "taper madness," where I just want to run and run and run, I've started to remember how much free time I have when I'm not exercising six days a week. I'm not going to lie, it's pretty nice.
We took this picture before our last long training run, the 20-miler we did three weeks ago. That 20 miles was rough. Actually, the first 15 or so were fine, but the last 5 miles, especially the last 2, were awful. My GPS kept messing up and stopping itself for no reason, and my knees and hip really hurt by the end (and for several days after). I keep telling people I could not have gone six more miles after that 20. I couldn't have gone six more feet. But I'm hoping that everyone is right when they say it'll be okay on race day, that the crowds and the adrenaline will get me through 26.2. D keeps promising he'll drag me across the finish line if he has to. Whether or not I take him up on that remains to be seen. I'll be back next week with a race recap. Until then, send go-team thoughts and running-related good vibes my way on Sunday morning!