Boys week: Sicily road trip

Straight after I returned from Istanbul it was time for Alex’ half term holiday. So bike out, kid in and back to the airport next morning. First stop was Germany for grandma’s 80th before we headed to Palermo to have our annual road trip – this time around Sicily. It was overall enjoyable, in particular the warm weather, Mount Etna and the Sicilian landscapes. However, i dislike the constant chaos in cities, the generally poor state of infrastructure and many dirty spots with garbage on streets, in nature and no one seemingly giving a damn. It’s sad to see.

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Happy birthday Oma Renate!

80 years is quite a number and so the family came together to celebrate the occasion at Margaetenhof in Gohrisch. It turned out rather nice and i had plenty of time to catch up with many family members. We even had a little after party back home. Sweet!

Off to Sicily…

We arrived in Palermo late afternoon from Berlin, picked up our little rental car and headed for the town of Castellammare del Golfo. I hadn’t booked any accommodation for this year’s trip, but brought the tent along for a bit of camping with alex. He likes it very much.

The first night, after our first of many pizza’s, we spent on a seaside camp ground that Alex had spotted. Due to luggage constraints (going camping with hand luggage only) i had only brought a sleeping mat for alex. So I resorted to some of the felt fittings and door mats of the car to insulate the cold. Very practical. The waves made quite some noise (i like it, but alex claims to not sleep well when they are too loud) and heavy rain made for a wet and stormy night. Inside the tent all was fine though and we woke up to a brilliant morning next day.

Sicily economy: The island remains one of italy’s five autonomous regions and has a very rich past. Over the centuries, Sicily was ruled by most of the large european powers at their time (even germans) leaving a diverse mix of culture and architecture behind. Economically and despite healthy tourism it is a tough spot and at c15% has the highest level of expatriates of any Italian region. The ongoing involvement of the mafia doesn’t help albeit less now.

Zingaro nature reserve, Erice & Marsala salt flats

On our first full day we spent the morning hiking in Zingaro nature reserve. We took the coastal path, checked out some houses converted to museums and a big cave. Swimming was not an option due to strong winds that day. Overall almost 7km – enough for the little man today.

For lunch we headed for the medieval hill-top village of Erice. Views were a bit hazy, but the architecture makes a visit worthwhile nonetheless. From up there we spotted our next stop – the nearby salt flats of Marsala.

Here, for centuries, salt is extracted using a system of ponds and windmills and the resulting salt decorates the landscape by way of white hills all over the place. The salt museum provides a good overview with tours in English available.

Stuck in mud

We had again big plans for the next day and kicked off with a visit to Torre Salsa nature reserve. I followed google maps that led me to an increasingly worse road. off-road pretty much. Previous days rain had softened the ground and we ended up getting proper stuck with our tiny city car in the middle of nowhere.

Not being able to move and with no one around we headed for the park entrance some 20min away on foot. I was hoping some ranger would be there (usually these reserves have an official gate and often charge for entrance and/or parking). The last stretch of the road was now more akin to a river and no ranger in sight. Well, we at least little swim on a pristine beach with unsurprisingly noone else around.

On the way back an english couple helped us out later on joined by two frenchmen and of course Alex. Eventually we got the car going after trying all tricks we could come up with. Thanks guys! We would still be there without your help.

We skipped the rest of this day’s agenda, which was chiefly the valley of temples (though we glanced at it driving past near the city of Agrigento), and rather had the car cleaned (the guy af the car wash couldn’t nt believe his eyes!). By nightfall we were in our room, showered, clothes washed (well, i tried my best), had takeaway pizza amidst 5 envious cats observing our every move and all the dirt was a mere memory. What an adventure!

Vendicari reserve & Syracuse

After some driving and lunch in one of the many eco resorts we headed for Vendicari nature reserve amidst great weather. The reserve is home to many animals including several bird species. Recent rain had also left its marks here with several pathes closed off due to flooding. We found a nice spot near the beach for the afternoon and Alex got busy with wave jumping and playing in the sand.

The night with spent in Syracuse, more specifically the island of Ortygia. It has a port and a lovely, largely traffic free old town be it quite noisy at times. More pizza please!

In the morning we managed to observe a fisherman sorting his early catch of fish, squid etc from his net.

Up the volcano and more time at the beach

Mount Etna is the tallest active volcano in Europe at 3,300m and sadly a mass tourist attraction. The volcano is very prominent even in the rather hilly sicilian countryside and was calmly letting some smoke out.

The very top was not accessible due to a collapse the night before. So we headed up to 2,750m by cable car from where a offroad bus took us close to 3,000m.it was windy and cold and some leftovers of last seasons snow remained visible.

The visibility was amazing and the guide helpful in explaining where different eruptions occured over the years. Alex was most amazed by the warm earth that you reach by digging a mere 5 or 10cm into the ground. It is an active volcano after all.

After Etna we headed for the town of Taormina. No appetite for sightseeing though. Alex wanted to get back to the beach. No objections from dad!

It was a last night camping for us, but not before scoring some very tasty ice cream. Alex went for strawberry, i had chocolate. However, as soon as he tried mine i could read in his face that he wanted to swap. Well, fair enough son 😊

Active volcanos around the globe

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Last evening in Palermo

We followed the coastal highway to Cefalu – a picture postcard place in Sicily. The weather was kind again and so… beach of course. Alex loves being in the water, which for me was a touch cold (i am a bit of a girl, no disrespect, when it comes to that).

Once the time was up we headed another 50min to Palermo with its cathedral and vibrant old town. I really enjoyed meandering through the busy streets. It appeared some sort of town festival was on (it wae Saturday night too).

Alex finally got his lasagne and i had pasta as well. Be even tried bruschetta for the his time on the promise of the waiter for a present if Alex ate it. Well, he ate three and got nothing. Not cool i think, but heh.

Nice evening to finish off a great trip. Time to get back to london next day and leave the sun behind (well, i shall have it back in a few days).

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Sultan’s trail (part 5): Istanbul & A trip on memory lane

Distance: 252km| Total: 2,004km

After 20 days in the saddle my 2000km journey from the Stephan’s dome in Vienna, via Bratislava, Budapest, Belgrade, Sofia and even a bit of Greece all the way to Istanbul is over and many fantastic memories are made.

It was not easy even though the daily distances between 60-120km are not huge as such. It is the constant moving and getting on the saddle despite sore legs (bum!) or bad weather that is the real challenge. It is a mental test, less so a physical one i think. In the end the route proved shorter than planned, as i stayed away from some of the off-road GPS track to save time and because some parts were just hard with my touring bike and ended up in pushing it.

In any case, it was amazing to travel through this part of europe, catch up with friends, meet many new people and see both nice and not so nice parts of the six countries i crossed. Cycle on!

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Heading south from Edirne

I left it late to leave Edirne (pronounced with a long E). Sleep, breakfast and not feeling in a rush. It was a cold morning. Grey. Looked like rain is on the cards sometime today. There are some 250km left to Istanbul and i figures i give myself three days to cover them.

Today i followed the highway D100 most of the way. Not to appealing judging by traffic passing by, but a good road leading straight to Istanbul. The other plus is the hard shoulder. 2m wide and thus making for a perfect cycle lane. Nice actually with many fields passing by.

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First stop was Havsa late morning. I stopped at a local tea place and found myself soon in the company of two older turkish guys (not that they bothered to ask if they could join ✌️). One was the owner. We talked about my trip and one told me of his son living in Germany. He was there too as Gastarbeiter and thus german was the chosen language. People clearly not happy with what the lira has done though seemingly in the believe the USD had gone up rather than the lira down!?! Maybe just lost in translation.

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After 4 free teas i had to move on to the town of Babeski with a little rain drizzling down. I was hungry and tried the fast food version of Döner. Dont! While cheap (€1 including coke) it was not very tasty at all. Well, fast food. I also managed to fix myself up with a local SIM card even though i understood nothing. People just speak turkish. Not even a hint of english. Much more problematic than in the other countries i have to say. Well, i got my data now. 😁

I moved on to my final destination today – Lüleburgaz some 80km into my day. First up, a place to stay. Since turkey has banned booking.com (well, it still works from abroad or with foreign SIM cards or if you use a browser with hidden VPN like puffin), i now use alternative websites and checked into a nice hotel for less than €20/night. Best to get the details online and then go there. Saved me 30%. Time for a little washing today. My bike gears smells horrible and the roof terrace is an ideal place to hang it all up. 😉

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Culture check: i have been to turkey many times though mainly in Istanbul (a different planet). So far, it feels a bit weird. Not sure why, but it seems like a different world. One thing is the language barrier that i am not used to generally anymore. The turkish language is just very different. The other thing i noticed is the tendency to do things local. Like turksih pizza, electronics, ice cream, kit at, cars at times and not to mention all the imitated clothing etc. Gives it all a bit of a copy taste to me. For me, italian pizza as well as ice cream is just better.

I actually listened to the press conference of the german national team ahead of playing france tomorrow. I think we will get killed and am not on the side of our coach. Mentally the team still needs a complete restart. Well, lets see tomorrow. I hope i am dead wrong.

I spent the evening texting with laura and frances and had some beers while watching turkish soap operas. Strange, but enjoyable. Bedtime…

Cycling to the seaside

The journey to Silivri was uneventful and mainly along the D100 again for the best part of 95km. Up and downhill went hand in hand. The wind picked up though and as you would expect not in the right direction 😐. I was getting closer to the sea.

Late afternoon i had made it and was welcomed with a nice and warm evening. I booked myself into a local hotel (€16 a night for a big room with sea view and breakfast… Cant argue with that).

I spent the evening having food and a few drinks in the seaside restaurants and reminded myself of previous times in Istanbul… By listening to turkish rapper Ceza. Fast this guy!

Istanbul – here i come

It must have been my latest start on the tour other than that rainy morning in Serbia. Only 11:30 or so i was rolling towards Istanbul. A good 70km left to my final destination. Traffic now picked up markedly and the signposts with the remaining km to Istanbul acted as a sort of count down. 60km, 40km, 20km… And suddenly i was in the big city.

Traffic was crazy as i maneuvered towards the blue mosque. About 10km were left when a cycle path (a blue cycle path) made life substantially easier. I stopped at the embankment to take in the scenery – fishermen, large vessels anchored, people taking a stroll.

And then i was done. I made it to sulthanahmet and had my memory picture taken at the blue mosque. I was pretty tired and happy to have arrived. Now time to hang out two days in this fabulous city. My sultans trail was over.

So off to the hostel and dinner with a bunch of other travellers from all over the world.

Istanbul: Conversations

I had no intention to do much sightseeing having been here before. My legs also begged for a rest. But i wanted to catch up with two people i hadn’t seen in a long while.

First up was Lale, who i worked with back at kbw on the eastern European coverage. She had since worked for a london wealth management boutique, done her MBA in paris, worked for credit suisse in wealth management and now runs the office for a turkish AI start-up. We both had our stories to tell about our lives and people we both know. It was fun.

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Second was Hasan. He used to be our local brokerage contact here in Istanbul, but more importantly he is a great guy. I remember well when i came here with aldo to launch turkish banks research, the time in istanbul meeting rooms, clubs and rooftops as well as our trip to ankara… Most notably the road trip back by car. Good times. We headed for a restaurant in taksim and talked for a few hours. Good to see you man. All the best.

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Hair transplant central

The first weird thing i saw was several guys with head bandages near the blue mosque. And i many more i counted after in the streets of Istanbul. Turns out that the city has become a prime destination for hair transplants with costs around GBP1500 vs. GBP12000 in the UK. I guess the weak lira will keep customers coming.

So now off to the airport. Got my bike box sorted albeit i was called back by the good man having paid him with a fake TL50 note apparently… Justice came quickly, as the guy at the airport burger king (yep, sorry) charged me me TL51 but gave it back to me 🤔. So we are square turkey! Time to drop off the bike af home quickly and get ready for the next trip.

Sultan’s trail (part 4): Enough of Bulgarian mountains – off to Turkey

Distance: 480km |Total: 1,752km

My morning in Kocherinovo started bright and early in order to catch a bus to the monastery. My host told me there is one bus from the village at 7am. Well, it left ten to seven without me. Great i thought, as i was sipping away my coffee at the empty bus stop. But then things came quickly together. A bus to Rila bus station (7.20am) and from there with a smaller bus to the monastery. So here I come…

A visit to Rila Monastery

The monastery is the largest in Bulgaria and probably the most important cultural repository of the country. It was named after its founder, the hermit Ivan od Rila, who lived in a nearby cave in the 10th century. The complex measures 8800qm and reminds me a bit of Montserrat near Barcelona (though transport links for the latter are way superior).

The architecture is pretty impressive and the complex is in a good shape. The museum offers thematic overviews of its own history and overall Bulgarian culture. No fotos allowed.

When i got there i went straight to the church where people were praying and singing. I lit two candles as well to pray for two people close to my heart even though, as a protestant, i am technically in the wrong place (details, details…).

Back to my bike now…

Uphill (UP-UP-UP HILL!) to Bansko

Man i am tired. Twice my route today had me cross mountains. Must have been close to 2000m altitude gain in total. God knows. Feels like 5000 to me anyway.

First up the hills behind Blagoevgrad. All offroad that meant a lot of pushing uphill and incouded a small fall on the downhill bit (not hurt though). My bike is just not made for this kind of stuff. No grip uphill and skidding easy downhill. Leaving that aside, the views were stunning. Loads of goat herders about as well and up top these little things even caused a traffic jam. Well, three madly barking dogs convinced me to stay back anyway.

By 3pm i made it past these hills and had still 26km to go (35ish done). First up lunch that came with a surprise… The guy asked me if i speak spanish. Si señor, a veces 😉 👧🏻. He must have worked in spain for a while and told me about his views on immigration. Must be pretty bad now in germany he said and that he is not a fan of open borders anyway. I guess he joina my old serbian friend with his views. His food was brilliant though. Chicken soup and ‘bob‘ – a white bean & pork dish (the latter is his addition). His wife was probably not with him in Spain for we spoke Russian. Less of a conversation, but helped to make my order easy. I left with a full stomach and compliments for my language skills. Gracias & спасибо to that!

The second hill was better to the extent it was a road. Well, the traffic towards bansko was crazy. Maybe because it was friday and people went for a weekend into the outdoor hub. I don’t care… The way people drive here reminds me of kids games. I have the bigger car and need to go faster. Few slowed down and many blasted right past me.

My bigger worry though was the 10km uphill stretch from the the lunch place. It literally never stopped going up. Maybe 100m flat bit once every 2km. I must have used up my swear word allowance for a month. I mean seriously… Does this hill ever end. Everytime you think it has… It goes right up again. I ended up pushing again. Who cares. My legs were tight and tired from the morning already.

Naturally i missed the train i planned to take to get me back on route, as my visit to Bansko was an extra that has taken me further south than planned. Always wanted to see that bulgarian ski resort that i used to mention in my research as one of the problem spots in the real estate crash in eastern europe in 2008ff. So bansko it was for a night though i opted to get some rest instead of exploring the village. Exhausted!

Off to Dimitrovgrad – the bulgarian one

Today is a rest day on the train. Gets me back to plan having added some 200km by visiting Rila & Bansko that has taken me further south rather than east from samokov. The train is a narrow rail one that slowly moves from village to village with the mountains around Bansko slowly disappearing in the back. Great scenery.

I met a Bulgarian man who used to live in Vienna and hence spoke german pretty well. He was helpful sorting tickets and finding a place for the bike on the train (different to serbia, this train doesnt have a bike compartment). He complained that ruthless excess construction has destroyed much of the charm bansko used to have. I agree. Villages nearby are even worse. Happens when governments just look for a quick buck rather than approving only sustainable development. Next step is to further enlarge the ski area… Something the mountains cant entertain very well, the man thinks.

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I arrived in Dimitrovgrad (same name as the last bigger town on the serbian/bulgarian border) by nightfall, ate and followed another disastrous performance of 🇩🇪 losing 3:0 to 🇳🇱… Good night!!!

Touching Greece & into Turkey

It was a cold and grey morning as i got comfortable in my saddle. However, the road was kind and seemes to have a small tilt downhill all day. 120km were flying past.

It was some 50km to the border. I stopped in the last village and had a basic chat with shopkepper Maria in russian and english. She told me about the immigrants (now held off by a fence) and how hard it is to make a living around here.

My short time in greece (3 hours?) was an enjoyable ride with some good views, but other than a greek coca cola and greek potato chips offered nothing greek. Well, just passing through anyway.

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The greek/turkish border was busy esepcially into greece with the longest car queues yet. Well, i jumped the queues on my bike and was done in a heartbeat.

Soon the minarets of edirne welcomed me to turkey. The town had instantly a different feel. There was life on the street. People. And the sound of the muezzin. A stark contrast to the often deserted villages in bulgaria, serbia and hungary. Well, a look at demographics explains wonders. Fact is, turkey in the middle of en economic melt down has still more action than many of its EU 🇪🇺 conquered neighbors.

Enough for now. Tired after a decent dinner and a long day on the 🚲. But glad i am in turkey now… Home stretch on my way to Istanbul.

Sultan’s trail (part 3): Through Sofia into the Rila Mountains (Bulgaria)

Distance: 295km |Total: 1,272km

After a lengthy wait at the passport control, I enjoyed a sunny sunday afternoon back in Nis, Serbia. First up i checked if my bike was still there… All good. I was dead tired from the previous festivities and ended up back in the hostel munching away another Serbian hamburger and watching some YouTube stuff on Laos – my destination for February.

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One thing that was missing were my cycling pants. Probably still in london. So before setting off next day i quickly popped to the cycle store. Going without pants is just too cruel on my backside i figured. Gonna be enough pain anyway.

Off to Pirot

The Bulgarian border was a good 100km away on the roads – more if you avoid them and go off-road. The person in the hostel said the first 30km out of Nis are horrible on the road, so i followed the GPS tracks of the trail once more.

 

That worked well for a while until it took me uphill somewhere (generally the terrain is much more hilly now) and roads turned to dirt roads and those eventually disappeared too. I was somewhere in the forest with a GPS yet no trail. Brilliant!

Walking through these bushes would have been hard enough… But with a touring bike and panniers it was yet another challenge. I must have pushed the bike for over an hour before dirt roads reappeared. Scratches from branches all over me and half a forest somewhere stuck on my bike. Fun!

 

Eventually the road had me back and i abandoned my GPS markings for today. Initially it was a bit busy, but soon i was on a sort parallel road next to the new motorway and was in peace. Well, the sun didn’t give me much peace.

By 4.30pm i reached Pirot passing by its castle and called it a day after 80km. I booked myself into Ana Lux hotel, had a massage and a huge piece of meat for dinner. Time to relax a little more. Tomorrow i head for Sofia. The last capital city before Istanbul.

 

Sofia… Its been a while

The border to Bulgaria was some 35km away from pirot and the crossing again very straightforward – much better than at airports 😁

 

The countryside got hillier though all towns and little villages up to Sofia were little inspiring to be honest.

Even Sofia, some 60km from the border, left me unimpressed. Definitely not a great place for cyclists even with some random cycle lanes. Well, i has reached the fifth and final capital city on this trip before Istanbul.

 

After a little sightseeing and a decent sushi dinner on the main shopping street, realising that i remembered almost nothing from a business trip to see the banks years ago, i headed back to the hostel for a lengthy chat with the manager – a Bulgarian lady in her 50’s – before hitting the bed super tired.

She was very friendly yet loves gossiping about other guests behind their back’s… I wonder what she thinks about me 🤣😂 well, not really. Thanks for everything.

Pushing the bike

This days target was Samokov, a town nestled on the foot of the Rila mountains. I chose to go offroad again after leaving Sofia in what seemed an endless straight road out of town.

After a decent climb on normal roads heading for the hills i had to capitulate… Dirt roads are not made for my touring bike. A jeep would struggle on these! My back wheel just kept spinning… So pushing was on the menu all the way up. Sofia’s concrete towers slowly disappearing in the background.

 

Well, nice views compensated for all the sweat and thankfully i had plenty of water with me. The way down was better though i had to carefully maneuver rocks, gravel, sand, bushes…

On the other side, not far from a large lake, i enjoyed a great lunch. Proper chicken soup (TWO in fact) and pork shashlik’s. Delicious 😋.

 

From here it was more or less flat (it never really seems to be in Bulgaria) and by late afternoon i reached Samokov some 70km later. Tired. Even a horse carriage overtook me 😉

 

The hotel Aleks was a great place to stay. The owner is a biker as well and speaks german. Good chat about travelling. He also recommended a local restaurant just around the corner. Very traditional and, as i found out, with huge portions. Tasty though.

 

I slept early after spending a little time watching world stock markets crash (correct?)… Gladly no office for me tomorrow. 🗽💹📉

Too tired…

Aleks prepared filled pancakes this morning and told me about this plans to cycle to the Danube delta in Romania next year. All the best for you man!

It was pretty fresh outside, but i got going just after 9am. The scenery of the Rila mountains remained impressive though i opted to keep to the roads after yesterdays offroad experience.

 

Not an hour into my ride some screws decided to go over board… Again the panniers holders. Clearly due to the rather shaky downhill ride yesterday. Well, it was quickly fixed with a spare screw and cable ties. I also added a little more air to the tires and reached the town of Dupnica by lunchtime after a good 40km. Brisk (helped by a long downhill stretch 😁).

 

To get to the Rila monastery was only 40km more. But i was not at all in cycling mood and tired. So i abandoned my target for today and checked into the town of Kocherinovo to hang out for the afternoon.

Dont know why i am so tired, but my legs just feel heavy. Well, afternoon in a Bulgarian village then that has not a lot more than through traffic to the monastery. Maybe just what i need 🤔🤣😂 Tomorrow off to see the monastery allowing for a good amount of time… After all Aleks told me they keep all the Bulgarian history there. I am curious.

 

A wedding, a christening and two reunions

My 9 day break from cycling proved fruitful for catching up with former classmates (20y reunion!), family at my cousin’s wedding along with a new godson, team Nepal over a raclette evening and Alex who represented his school at a cross-country event. I feel like I should get a special discount for any travel from/to Berlin Schönefeld with three flights in a week by now. Back to Serbia to continue my cycle trip…

20y school reunion

20 years ago I finished off my A-levels before heading to the army for my basic military service. Thankfully we have a group of people who keep the anniversaries in mind and organise a get together every 5 years. We had a school tour with a rather hilarious former teacher and i learned that we had prison cells somewhere in the basement… Different ones for different problems (such as STDs!?!). Many things have changed now that the school has been renamed, extended and hosts a Czech focused class and teachers. But there was still plenty of memories berried those old walls of the former Rainer-Fetscher gym.

The dinner and party in Pirna’s city center was nothing short of amazing. Really good to catch up with old friends until the early hours. Gossip central!

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Denise / Mitko wedding & Anton’s baptism

My cousin finally got married to her Mitko after living together what seems forever to me. Crisp church service including the christening of my new godson Anton and then it was party time in the village of Weissig with wonderful views of the surrounding Saxon Switzerland countryside.

The party was good and many made an effort to surprise the newly weds. Good moments to chat with people who i don’t get to see often. Thanks. I had a good time.

Team Nepal in da house

Jon, one of the Everest climbers, just commenced his time off from service on his ship and stopped over in london before heading to africa to climb Kilimanjaro. Good time to catch up and retell Nepal stories. Rory and Zena came along too for what turned out a fantastic evening over a raclette – my preferred choice to socialize over dinner. Looking forward to the next catch up. And good luck to Rory for his Nepal cycle trip.

Not quite Usain Bolt, but good effort nonetheless

Alex already told me over the phone that there will be a cross-country event with 120 kids from different schools. He was excited to have been picked amongst a handful others in his class to represent St saviours.

He was busy thinking how fast he could be. I was busy managing expectations. His run turned into a series of sprints with some walking in between. Pacing is something he will need to improve. In the end it was just place 94 this time. Room to improve for the next run.