family · fitness · Guest Post

There and Back Again: Part 2

This is Part 2 of a 3-part series of staying active while travelling with kids. Parts 1 and 2 take place in Rome, Italy during the author’s travels there without her spouse, with a friend and the friend’s son, during a conference trip. In Part 1, the group goes cycling along the Via Appia Antica on a sweltering hot Roman summer day. In Part 2, they escape the city for the hills above Rome and kayaking on a crater lake.

We actually slept in a bit the morning of our kayak trip, and put in a few hours of work before we headed out on a transportation mode extravaganza that by the end of the day involved walking, taxi, minibus, kayaking, more minibus, train, and a taxi. The task: escape the heat of Rome as the mercury climbed to nearly 100 F (37 C).

Mission accomplished.

We went out to Lago (lake) Albano, a lake in a caldera above which rises the summer home of previous Popes and below which lie the wrecks from naval training battles. It was apparently host to the 1960 Summer Olympic canoeing and rowing events. Pope Francis apparently does not summer there, believing it to be too elitist, and has converted the residence to a museum. The locals appreciate the upside: crowds of devout Catholics and tourists used to flock to the area on hopes of seeing and being near the Pope AND the streets would be shut down by police and his guard. Now, tourists and city dwellers still come for the lake, but the traffic is entirely manageable and the numbers are not a strain.

A screenshot of Google Maps showing Lake Albano, an oval crater lake, with the Sport Club from whence we launched marked in green.

The whole group was quite excited for this one, as well: both adult women (myself and Randi), the two 14 year olds (my Son1 and Randi’s son) and my 11 year old (Son 2, the avid cyclist among us). It was a bit spur of the moment in response to the heat, booked just a few days before as I paged through AirBnB’s new Experiences feature. I hate to give a plug for them cause capitalism and ain’t nobody paying me, but they did hook us up with some folks we would never otherwise have found including the former competitive rowers and kayakers who run the kayak trip we signed up for.

We took a taxi to the train station where we were to meet at the end of one of the metro lines; since the line was closed for repairs, our options were limited. The taxiride took us past beautiful fields and a distant rural section of the Via Appia Antica that we hadn’t peddled out to the day we rode (See Part 1). At the station, we rendez-voused by the “old blue train car” and the guide piled us and a few other folks into their well-loved, battered minibus for a rude even farther out beyond the edge of the city into the hills.

A weathered blue street car takes pride of place in an open area with an enormous agave in front of it, sitting on train tracks that go nowhere.

The lake was formed by two overlapping craters. We set off from a launching spot amongst the reeds near the swimming beach.

To the left, reeds and grasses rise tall above the water. Other kayakers in the group have already paddled out ahead of me. The red tip of my own kayak is visible in the foreground. The water is sandy-colored in the shadows. The rim of the caldera rises in the distance.

We kayaked almost 7 km, out and back across to the opposite side. Randi and Son 1 shared a canoe on the way out, her son and Son 1 had solo kayaks and paddled together much of the way, and I paddled about at will.

Left: the author, sunwashed and hair not yet sweat-plastered flat. Second from left: Randi and Son 1 taking a short break from paddling, Randig resting an elbow on the kayak and leaning back to turn to smile at the camera. Third from left: Randi’s son in a quiet moment, face shadowed. Rightmost: Son 1, eternally with a silly face for a camera, reeds behind him near the starting point.

At various points we were all quite close together in a flotilla as the guides talked us through the plan for the day and the history of the area, with an English-language flotilla and an Italian-language flotilla. We weren’t able to see the ruins of the ancient Roman naval practices that litter the floor of the lake, but we are assured they were there.

From left to right: Randi’s son in his own kayak (short dark hair and pale skin, smiling), Son 1 also in his own kayak (grinning until his face has wrinkles, short dark blonde hair beginning to clump with sweat), Randi in her glasses and baseball cap (dark hair pulled back in a ponytail), and Son 2 (very blonde short hair and pale skin, grinning). The kayaks are all red. Behind them, the rim of the caldera rises, covered in lush green trees. Palatial homes step their way up the side of the hill.

Once we got to the opposite side, the guides stowed all the kayaks in a great big precarious-seeming pile and sat on rocks and ate sandwiches the guides brought and drank water and swam in the lake and NO ONE GOT STUNG BY JELLYFISH because there were no jellyfish. This seems an odd thing to mention, but several days before we’d gone swimming in the ocean and Son 2 got blistered fiercely in several spots. So, the enthusiasm for no jelly fish was strong. Everyone was glad for a break. One strange feature of the water was that it wasn’t very cool at all. There seemed to be quite warm spots, not just sun warmed but perhaps geologically warmed. We never did get to ask about this, but I wondered if perhaps hot thermal springs feed the lake from below or some other kind of geothermal heating.

So, no jellyfish. There were, however, at least four lizards that Son 1 spotted and loads of red dragonflies darting about above the surface. Randi’s old elbow injury acted up a bit by the time we got to the swimming spot, so her kiddo took over being her kayak companion, a job that has been Son 2’s on the way out. About halfway back (3/4 of the way through a quite long bit of kayaking), Son 2 got tuckered out. One of the guides offered to use her life jacket to tie his kayak to the back of hers. He paddled when he could and rested when he couldn’t and she was quite happy to help. Another guide did the same for an adult who was tapped out, and the guides said they were quite impressed that a kid his age had gone so far without needing help yet, which took the edge off of having to ask.

Because the trip was well-designed to include a nice break, multiple guides to help people get the most out of this kind of activity regardless of physical condition, and also included help from the guides when needed, a good time was had by all across a variety of ages and injuries and capability levels. Those who love doing hard work got to do hard work and those who love swimming got to swim and those who love watching lizards and bugs got to watch lizards and bugs and those who love not being in a hot city on a 90+ degree day got to be on a lake in a caldera instead.

NEXT UP: Part 3 of There and Back Again, in which we are back in the States, Randi and her son have gone back to their home, and Son 2 and I set off on our annual bike ride along some part of the Northern Lower Peninsula of the State of Michigan.

fitness · Guest Post

There and Back Again: Part 1

I am fortunate to be able to travel for work and family, sometimes. On occassion when I travel for work, I bring my family along. This post is the first of a 3-part series on how I stayed physically active this summer while travelling with my kiddos. I hope the series is of some help to folks in re/thinking about whether it’s feasible to pursue fitness activities with kids in tow. Please note that while mine were 14 and 11 this summer, I’ve been able to do a number of activities with them while traveling over the years by taking their stamina into account and not underestimating them. We’ve done some awesome stuff that I’ve never blogged about (hiking on the Isle of Skye when the kids were 11 and 8 springs to mind). This summer was no exception. Well, except that now I am blogging about it.

The author rocking a most fashionable rented bike helmet

This summer, my spouse had other commitments when I was scheduled to travel to Rome for a conference, and yet I very much wanted to bring the children. They’re both borderline obsessed with ancient history and Roman mythology (thanks, Rick Riordan and Doctor Who). I rounded up a good friend of mine, Randi Papke, a woman whose son is friends with my eldest (both 14 at the time of our travels) and we made such plans! So, really, parts 1 and 2 of this 3-part series are There and Back Again With Two Women Over The Age of 40 And Their Kids. For the purposes of this post, I will refer to my kids the same way I do on social media as Son 1 (age 14) and Son 2 (age 11), and will refer to Randi’s son as, well, Randi’s son.

When we first started talking about traveling in Rome, I asked the three kids to each pick out something they wanted to be sure to do in Italy. While Son 1 had the simple request of finding a store that sold cards in his favorite fantasy game, Son 2 asked for what he always asks for when we travel: a cool bike ride unlike anything we could do at home. No problem, for a mere mile from our AirBnB in Rome lay one of the great wonders of Roman engineering: the Via Appia Antica which once connected Rome with Brindisi, allowing trade (and military movement) to travel hundreds of miles on a cobblestone surface from central Italy to the far southeastern corner of Italy, or what you might think of as the heel of the boot which is the metaphor so often used for the shape of Italy. And along that nearby stretch of the Via Appia Antica lay a large archaeological park in which Catholic Church buildings and homes coexist with sites thousands of years old, including several catacombs open for tours. Given this combination of factors, every single one of the five of us was pretty excited about this option. In fact, we looked forward to it for months.

When we finally arrived in Rome in July, we looked at the weather forecast and blanched: with the exception of one day early on and right at the end, it would be well over 90 Fahrenheit (about 33 Celsius) most days. So we decided to do our bikes trip our first full day in the city when it would only be in the high 80s F (30 C or so). We walked through the neighborhoods between us and the bike rental shop handily located at the northern end of the archaeological park, discovering along the way a grocery store, a whole host of serviceable apartment buildings with balconies trailing flowering vines and verdant with vegetable plants, and grates in the streets filled with cigarette butts. A small detail, but it struck me.

We also passed, at the edge of the archaeological park near the bike shop, one of Rome’s famous Nasoni. These public water fountains take a variety of shapes, but Nasoni (“big noses”) all have crystal clear ice-cold safe drinking water running constantly. Some, like the one at the Vatican Museum, are embedded in statuary. Others, like the one we stumbled across at the edge of the park, are humbly functional and, in the weather we were about to experience, entirely welcome at every turn. We refilled our water bottles and continued on to find our bikes.

The nasone on the edge of the archaeological park. It is a tall grey cylinder with small decorations such as a leaf pattern carved into the domed top. A spigot sticks out the side, and clear water streams from it. The part of the Nasoni below the spigot is brownish-greenish from algae growth but the water and the metal of the spigot are pristine.

The EcoBike shop appears on maps as Centro Servizi Appia Antica. It has bikes for children as well as adults–not as good as our ones at home, but perfectly serviceable–as well as a wide range of bike helmets and bike locks. They also rent e-bikes and electric golf carts for folks who might have reasons to not pedal as their primary source of power, and offer tours on bike or otherwise. But we are the ride-around-a-self-guided-tour sort of folks, so it was much appreciated when EcoBike staff provided a map of the archaeological park and oriented us to traffic patterns including how to take a side street with very few cars until we got to the section of the Via Appia Antica where cars are no longer allowed except for residents. Not coincidentally, it turned out, that section is also the one that is paved with ancient cobbles which you can technically ride a bike on but which we found ourselves moving up onto the well-worn dirt paths on the side to avoid. I wouldn’t have wanted to bike the rest of Rome without a better sense of the local unspoken rules of the road, but this experience was no trouble at all. The few vehicles we encountered seemed to expect to encounter us, and were slow and patient.

Son 2 circling back to see whether I was slow due to taking pictures or just… slow.

The views were pretty amazing right from the get go, with ruins just casually scattered, well… everywhere. The local cicadas filled the air with their hot summer buzz, and a good cross-breeze added to the wind of our passage without giving us too much of a headwind. In short order, we discovered astoundingly old and modern things along it dating back 2000 years and as recently as pretty darned modern, and also bars and eateries and nasoni at regular intervals.

I was, at this particular moment, a bad blogger as I completely failed to make a note of which structure this was. There were so. many. structures. It was amazing.

We were surprised to discover that a number of the sites, including the first catacombs we stopped at, were closed for the noon hour. This is pretty common, as we would learn. So we carried on until we came to one that was open continuously. We stopped to enter, buy tickets for a tour, grab some ice cream while we waited to be able to enter the catacombs, and then see what there was to be seen at the Catacombs of San Sebastian. The ice cream was, by this point, a needful thing. Everyone got something containing sugar at cold temperatures while we waited in the shade on the not-as-cool-as-you’d-think marble steps.

Son 2 knows where it’s at on a hot day after some hard work.

One of the folks working the snack bar had a tip jar out for a very charming reason so I dropped them a Euro in support.

A tip jar in a snack bar at the Catacombs of San Sebastian reads “Help I need Money for Techno Party”

The catacombs of San Sebastian were well worth the few Euros for a tour down into the coolness below the earth, out of the hot and the sun, our hair already caked with dried sweat. The history was only half the draw, but such history! No pictures allowed, alas, below ground. The catacombs themselves were the Ur catacombs, as it were: the first below-grown burial chambers to be called “catacomb.” When Christianity first spread to Rome, its adherents did not follow Roman cremation traditions. Instead, they needed a place to put their dead that would not leave them prone to being eaten by wild animals or destroyed by their persecutors. The abandoned quarry beyond the city walls that became the catacombs of San Sebastian was perfect for these purposes. But the church above ground was magnificent, with a ceiling decorated in a style not unlike the Sistine Chapel but in much bolder colors and textures, with trays demarcating one piece of art from another but covering the entire surface in a riot of gilt and jewel tones. No inch of that ceiling was left unattended.

We left the church of San Sebastian and sat for a moment in the shaded courtyard behind the cafe under flowering vines until everyone was feeling up for pedaling on through the hotness. We had, in what would have been clever if it hadn’t been so fortuitous, spent the brightest part of the blazingly sunny day underground and inside or sitting in the shade with cold drinks/food.

The Via Appia Antica recedes into the distance, lined with tall narrow evergreen trees. To the left, we see a ruined segment of wall, and behind it a modern home with a bright green garage door and a small white car parked in front of it. To the right, we see a low wall and a black sign reading, in both Italian and English, “The Ancient Via Appia, with its monuments and trees, is an indivisible and unique complex, recognizes as a monument of significant national interest. It symbolizes a monumental historical landmark of everyone’s heritage. You have to respect and protect it for future generations.” There are also some QR codes which we could presumably have used to pull up further information, in different languages.

We carried on and began to reach the old parts of the road, a combination of more recent tiny even cobbles and old giant square-foot cobbles worn by thousands of years of traffic in which one could sometimes see what might have been wagon wheel ruts.

On the left, you see a close up of the worn, giant cobbles. This part was very uncomfortable to ride on and we hopped up onto more recent even cobbles along the side or, farther down the road, up onto worn tracks in the soft arid dirt on either side of the road. The cobbles shine in the sun, pitted by the years. On the right, Randi pushes on ahead of me, riding on the more recent even cobbles with the oldest part of the road to the side. The kids are way in front. Behind the walls are residences.

We did reach a point where we just couldn’t go any farther having decided we were about halfway done. The road surface and the heat had taken its toll. Before we turned around and headed back, though, we took a group selfie. We weren’t out of good, yet!

Left to Right: Me, then taller Son 1 and shorter Son 2, then Randi’s Son, then Randi. We are all smiling, having decide to just sweat and not worry about it. You can see the soft dirt paths alongside the ancient cobbles and, in the distance, ruined walls soft with erosion as well as Italy’s distinctive stone pine AKA “umbrella pines” whose lower branches self-prune as they grow to great heights.

Along the way back, we stopped at a sandwich shop. It was delicious, but a lot of the flavor came from hunger which is, as they say, the best sauce. The cold beer Randi had was, she attested, perhaps more necessary than any cold beer that came before it.

It was a footsore, butt bouncing delight to walk to the Via Appia Antica, ride it, walk around, ride back, and return on foot. I confess that for the last mile or so of the ride, I was up on my pedals cause ain’t no way my butt was going to sit that seat another second. Up on pedals, wind in your hair through the slats in the helmet, on a good surface after a hard day’s work in the hot sun with an ancient city laid out before you kinda can’t be beat.

I took two videos for y’all if you want a sense of it, at different points on the ride, first farther out on the road where the trees and the fields open up (well outside what would have been the city walls of old Rome) and then on our way back in to return the bikes passing through the residential area. You can hear the cicadas hard at work, and the bicycle bell on my bike gently tinging from the bumps.

When we got back to our place, replete and exhausted, I noticed the literal mark of a good day riding.

The author’s leg, taken from above. There is a big dirty tire mark up the middle of her shin.

Next up in Part 2 of There and Back Again: we flee the heat and crowds of the city of Rome for an afternoon in the hills kayaking and swimming in a volcanic crater lake.

family · running

Families and fitness

I hear lots of parents complain that they don’t have time to exercise but by and large my kids have been a force for good in my fitness adventures.

When they were little we discovered the Y’s drop in childcare and that was perfect for attending a group fitness class. After we’d swim together at the family swim. Later when they did swimming lessons of their own we’d use that time to work out. I would see other academics in the Y’s waiting area grading papers but that was never my approach. I’m not sure why exactly but I always felt that if my kids were being active, then that’s what I ought to be doing too.

We’ve always been an outdoorsy family. My daughter went camping and hiking (in a backpack of course) for the first time when she was just 2 months old. Since then we’ve spent a lot of time together as a family hiking, biking, swimming, paddling, and camping.

My children grew up seeing their parents as active. We both rode bikes and pulled them in the trailer. ‘Go faster mum!’ I felt so fast on the weekend when I unhitched the 2 child, max load 100 lb trailer. Whee! Weekends were for hikes in the woods. London is a terrific city for family friendly trails. And as they’ve grown up, each with their own interests and agendas, physical activity has been a big part of my relationship with my children.

My daughter, now 20, and I have vacationed together twice on cycling holidays, once in Quebec on the rail trail, “Le P’tit Train du Nord” and once in New Zealand on The Central Otago Rail Trail. Love rail trail holidays and strongly recommend them to people who want an active holiday and like the idea of being in nature, away from cars. It’s so safe and relaxing. We camped when we did the Quebec rail trail but it’s in ski country and there’s loads of bed and breakfasts. They’ve even turned the old railway stations into coffee shops and bike stores. No shortage of espresso and ice cream on that rail trail.

My daughter and I also do Aikido together. (It started as something all the kids did. You can read about that here.) Next summer we hope to complete the Kincardine Women’s Triathalon together too. In years past we did it as a relay: me on the bike, my daughter on the swim, and my sister in law on the run. See photo below.

The daughter is a keen outdoor adventurer and I look forward to more active vacations together. Latest scheme: Hiking in England.

My youngest is the biggest team sports person in our family, playing rugby, football, and basketball at a fairly competitive level. I don’t think he’s met a team sport that he hasn’t liked. I love it that he encourages me to take up women’s rugby and basketball.

He’s also my everyday gym companion, a fellow early riser. We head out at 6 am most mornings and then when done, I drive him to school for 8 am. When he has rugby practice I take my bike out to the field and usually get in a good 50 km on the country roads near the club while he practices. (My rule is I watch games but not practices.)

I once asked if he minded the ‘mum in lycra with road bike’ appearing at the rugby field and offered to keep my distance. I was so proud of his answer. He said he thought the mums in lawn chairs reading fashion mags were more embarrassing but really he thinks I ought to be playing rugby with the women.

My middle child is the best dog hike companion. We’ve taken dance classes together too. His interests are the hardest for me to share. He’s a terrific dancer, ballet, jazz and modern. He also roller blades rather than bikes. And he loves rock climbing.

I think the people who struggle but who can’t manage to fit it all in are exercise compartmentalizers who think of working out as something extra you do, one more thing that happens after kids go to bed or with a babysitter helping out, not something you do with children. (I explain the distinction between integrationists and compartentalizers here.) In our case physical activity is a big part of the fabric of our family life and I can’t imagine it any other way.

The above photo was taken about 10 years ago, during my literal run up to 40. It was the Santa Shuffle, kids did the mini event (.5 km, I think) and adults did the 5 km. Fun! The photo below is from the Kincardine Women’s triathalon.

relay