USA 2015 Day 8/9 – Nebraska to Birmingham

I was in no rush to get up – as I wasn’t getting the shuttle bus until 11:45 I had plenty of time to have breakfast, and get ready for leaving. By 07:30 though I was ready but wasted the morning in the hotel – I felt I’d seen as much of Omaha as I was going to, and couldn’t find any details of other places to see for the time I had available.

The morning was spent looking through some work and watching TV until finally it was time to check out and take the shuttle bus to the airport. Between the wasted morning and the long layover I knew was ahead of me in Dublin, I felt it a shame I couldn’t have arranged the flights better to instead have had the long layover in Chicago so I could have had a quick look around there before moving on. I imagine though I could have spent a fair few hours sightseeing there – a reason to go back some other time.

At 11:30 I checked out of the hotel and sat around in the lobby waiting, the journey to the airport was only 5 minutes but the shuttle was late arriving. I finally left the hotel just after 12:00 and was through the airport pretty quickly. Fortunately this time my luggage would be checked in for the whole journey so the 93 minute layover in Chicago should be possible.

By 12:25 I was ready to find some lunch. On the other side of security though there was only one place to get food and the lady serving food there didn’t understand me – despite this being America and me speaking English. I almost gave up, but then decided to ask for a hotdog as this something she must hear people say every day. Sure enough I was able to get a hotdog, but then didn’t even attempt to get a drink knowing how much trouble it had been just to get that far.

The Omaha airport does have free Wi-Fi however I couldn’t get it to work on my iPhone or my Macbook. I suspect it probably had too many people using it already – something which is common for airport Wi-Fi, but something I hadn’t encountered much on this trip. I used this time before the flight to try and determine how easy the connection would be in Chicago – from what I could tell my flight would be leaving from the same terminal I was arriving in so in theory the short time available would be enough.

The flight to Chicago O’Hare International seemed short, and before I knew it we had landed. I got through the airport as quickly as I could but stopping to buy a sandwich and a cookie to use for lunch the next day as I’d be in Dublin airport without any Euros. It wasn’t much of a wait before boarding the plane to Dublin, although it was delayed by 10 minutes.

For the flight to Dublin it was close to 8 hours so shortly after boarding they served us cheese and crackers with a drink, followed by dinner. At this time the entertainment system wasn’t working so my fourth attempt at watching the ending of the movie “Project Almanac” wasn’t getting too far. For the dinner option I went with the chicken – it wasn’t amazing.

Whilst eating, the entertainment system started to work so I was finally able to watch the end of the movie I’d started watching on the way to Mexico back in May. After it finished I then tried my best to sleep until they turned the cabin lights back on to signal that they were about to serve breakfast.

Breakfast on this flight was a croissant with jam and a drink. They went around twice which meant I was able to have a black tea, and also get a water bottle to use later. We touched down a little later than they had planned to a cloudy and cold Ireland. I was one of the last people off the plane, but I wasn’t in any rush – I was then the only one heading towards the connecting flights desk which meant showing my passport and going through security was incredibly quick.

For the next six hours I would be sitting around in the Dublin airport terminal waiting for my flight home. The time passed slowly and the airport was cold, or at least colder than I was used to which meant it felt cold to me. I had lunch a little earlier than intended too, trying to pass the time. Eventually it was time for the gate to open – but they hadn’t up until then announced what gate it would be. As usual there was a pause between announcing the gate was open, and actually beginning boarding. The flight to Birmingham wasn’t bad, but it was a struggle to stay awake by this point – having been awake for just over 24 hours by the time I boarded the plane.

At last my journey around what had turned out to be five of the United States was over. There had been very little time for sightseeing this time, but it did at least get me to the Johnson Space Center and allowed me to tick more states off my list.

USA 2015 Day 7 – Nebraska

To fit in a longer run I got up at 06:30 and headed out into town; to start with I headed east with the intention of doing the loop of a field I’d planned the night before. After 2 miles though I found it to be an incredibly boring route so ran back into town and ran to the southernmost part of town. I then repeated this, returning to the crossroads and heading west and then north. When I reached the northernmost part of town I cut across in the Wayne State College campus and started running around the Wildcats athletics track. After a lap of this I stopped briefly to take a few photographs and then carried on running back to the hotel.

Breakfast was very basic – scones and bagels along with apple juice. They had hot water for making tea with, but the only tea they had was chamomile, so I didn’t bother. I then got my suitcase ready and prepared for my morning’s meeting.

On the way I got an Earl Grey tea from Miss Molly’s Coffee Company, and we arrived at the College early. The meeting went quickly and before we knew it we were going for lunch with them. We continued to talk over lunch for a couple of hours and then parted ways.

The journey back to Omaha wasn’t that bad – the hotel I would be staying in was actually on the Iowa side of the border. After checking in and ordering a shuttle bus to get to the airport the next day, I dropped off my luggage and headed into town. This quickly crossed me back into Nebraska which is where I stayed until later. The riverwalk took me along the Missouri River, and passed a pedestrian bridge into Iowa.

 

When I reached the Lewis and Clark landing area, I also photographed a sculpture called “Labor” before carrying on into Heartland of America Park. I walked around the edge of the water there, photographing the large fountain in the middle (and getting damp as I walked through it’s spray being blown by the wind) and then headed out and over to the Old Market.

The Old Market is where we had eaten the day before, this time as I was on my own I decided to wander around and see what was there first before deciding on the Spaghetti Works. There I ate Beef Ravioli and then got some ice cream for dessert from the shop over the road.

For the walk back I took a shorter route until I got to the pedestrian bridge – I decided to cross over that into Iowa just to have pictures of the Missouri Rivers from both sides of the border. I was back at the hotel by 20:00 and relaxed for the rest of the evening.

USA 2015 Day 6 – Kansas to Nebraska

I got up at 06:30 to go for a slow 3 mile run – by the time I got going I found that the temperature was already in the low 20’s. It also proved to be a run of many stops due to the number of busy intersections I needed to stop at the lights for. This was a little frustrating as it meant I never really got to find a rhythm, but I did do 4 miles due to this instead.

Back at the hotel I quickly showered and had breakfast so I could get packed for the next journey – today once I was picked up, we’d be driving north through Iowa and into Nebraska to the small town of Wayne. We got on the road at 09:00 and began the long journey. To start with the road swiftly took us into Missouri and this continued for quite some time.

Before leaving Missouri behind us we stopped at a truck stop and bought some “go-live” fudge for the customer, and also got a few supplies to keep us going until lunch time. Shortly after this stop we crossed over the border into Iowa and carried on driving along the interstate until we reached Omaha.

The area in Omaha where we parked had cobbled streets – it’s an area with plenty of food places and the one we were going to have lunch at was the Upstream Brewery – a place that specialises in beer, but also has a reasonable food menu. I went for a Chicken BLT without the tomato, so really it was more like what we’d call a “Chicken New Yorker”.

After lunch we were back on the road for a couple more hours. After Omaha a lot of the scenery was very similar – mostly corn fields. Eventually we left Iowa behind us and crossed into Nebraska and eventually arrived in the small town of Wayne.

By American standards it is a very small town where at last count the population was around 5,660 – a lot of which were likely employed by or attending Wayne State College. Other than the college there are not many buildings which are large.

The Cobblestone hotel I was staying at was on the outskirts of town, but due to the size of the town it meant that we were also no further than about 2 miles from the other side of town. This presented me with something of a question – my marathon training plan suggested I run 8.5 miles for the next day and this would mean I could actually run from the east to west limits of the towns and still not run far enough, I’d have to get creative with a route, or accept that I’d be running along a fairly major road (albeit with far less traffic than any of the roads I encountered in Kansas City).

For the next hour or so I caught up on activity from the office, before we headed out to eat at The Max. This of course was a every short drive and before we ate I took a few photos of the area. Whilst taking photographs a Monarch Butterfly fluttered passed me and landed on the road. I took a couple of photographs and then let the butterfly step onto my finger – I then took it over to some flowers, and tried to convince it to step off and onto them so I could take more pictures with a better background.

The food at the Max was all fried, but it was also every cheap. They offered hamburgers at under US$2, so I went for a double hamburger and then ordered a cup of Coca-cola. The food wasn’t that bad even if it was greasy, but it was still better than some places I’d eaten.

After the food I then walked back to the hotel by myself – I wanted to see what buildings I could photograph and in doing so I photographed a couple of the churches along the route and then continued passed the hotel so I could photograph the water tower that had a “Wayne America” sign on it.

Back at the hotel I then relaxed for the remainder of the evening and also caught up on some more work.

USA 2015 Day 5 – Kansas

After a tiring weekend it was time to work again – for today’s meeting I’d be meeting up with a colleague visiting Butler Community College. I was feeling far more refreshed than I had – after a slightly interrupted 4 hours of sleep. The breakfast at the Holiday Inn was actually the best one on the trip to date as there was a good choice available.

I was picked up from the hotel at 10:00 which gave us plenty of time before our meeting. It wasn’t far away either which meant we had time to prepare in the car park before turning up early. It was a good meeting and we found plenty to talk about, even after a break where a number of us went over to eat at a sports bar called Willies. I went for a chicken burger with fries which was about on par with many of the other meals I’d had the past few days in the US. In the afternoon the meeting then continued on and eventually, even though it could have lasted longer we had to say goodbye as we had a long drive ahead of us.

Due to the recent increase in highway speed limits it meant we actually arrived in Kansas City at around 18:50, after only 150 minutes. Along the drive I was expecting to see masses of corn fields, and barns – the sort of thing that TV shows and movies led me to believe Kansas was like. I did see some scenery that reminded me of this misconception, but on the other hand there were areas that could easily have been England.

Once I’d had chance to change we then drove into the city and was driven passed a number of the buildings on the outskirts of downtown, and was told how the city is actually half in Kansas and half in Missouri – something I hadn’t realised previously. As we crossed this border it meant that I’d actually already been into 3 US states on this trip, and with the drive through Iowa to Wayne in Nebraska it would be a total of five states in total.

Usually I only count a place as having been visited if I step outside of an airport there and take a photograph. In the case of Missouri, I did actually take a photograph from a place we stopped at called the Liberty Memorial. This is a large monument that towers over the city and is a memorial to those that died during the First World War. Underneath this memorial there is also a museum – the first museum in all of the United States to be dedicated to this war.

From here we drove downtown and parked near an area with a lot of restaurants. I was told that Kansas is famous for it’s barbecues so I was taken to a place called Fiorella’s Jack Stack Barbecue. The dish I went with was a combo one that had Crown Prime beef ribs (which had amazing thick meat on), chicken, burnt ends, Hickory pit beans, and cheesy corn bake. It tasted amazing, but there was also an incredible amount of it – despite this I tried my best to finish it all and then had a chocolate dessert. If it hadn’t have been for the knowledge I’d be running the next morning I would probably have finished it.

I was then back at the hotel not long after 22:00 meaning I would hopefully have a decent night’s sleep at last.

USA 2015 Day 4 – The Alamo

Still feeling incredibly tired I woke up at 05:30 without an alarm, after at best 3 hours of sleep – perfect timing for going out for a run. I had originally planned for 14 miles however the area I was staying in did not look good and didn’t really offer any routes that would be 14 miles. My best choice was to do identify a loop and to do laps. I found a route that was just under 4 miles but on my first run of this loop I was chased by two dogs that two different owners had left out overnight.

I think the increase in pace didn’t help, as I found that as with some of my other recent runs I needed to walk at a few points. This did have an advantage though as it gave me chance to sip some water and to wipe the sweat from my eyes (it was still incredibly warm and humid in San Antonio). By the time I got to 8.5 miles I decided I’d had enough and went back to the hotel. I realised that this was short, but then I thought some more and realised the week before when I should have been doing 8.5 miles I’d actually raced a half marathon – so I rationalised that these balanced out.

After a shower I went for breakfast; or rather, what they were calling breakfast. This was porridge oats – something I’ve never eaten before and found myself not very keen on, along with juice and a cup of tea. I decided to take the tea with me back to the room and drank it as I ate one of the cereal bars I’d packed.

For the next couple of hours I packed and confirmed with Hotel Contessa that following the issues I’d experienced that they would be happy for me to leave my luggage there as I looked around the town. With this knowledge I checked out and got a taxi back into town (another US$30 which the Hotel Contessa should have paid for as it was their mistake that led to this). When I got to the Hotel Contessa they didn’t understand that I wasn’t checking in or out, and was only leaving my luggage there, but eventually they took it and I was on my way to the Alamo.

When I arrived at the Alamo Plaza I found there was quite a queue waiting to get in – most of which was in the sun. After about 10 minutes in the queue I found that it would be free to get in and I’d only need to pay if I wanted to use an audio guide or pay for a battleground tour guide. Eventually I got to the front of the queue waiting to go in and at that point I found that they don’t allow photography inside the buildings there.

Inside the building I then realised something else – I wasn’t queuing to get into the Alamo, I was queuing to look around this one building. Inside they had a number of different state flags, a few artefacts from the battle and the original door.

Outside of this main building there is a courtyard you can walk around, and also a couple of other buildings. The long barracks is another you can’t take photographs in, but in the shop they didn’t seem to mind. I then tried to get a few external photographs of the mission without people in the shot, however this proved to be almost impossible!

Having given up on this I went over the road to the Subway to have some lunch. This didn’t cost quite as much as it normally would as a kind person in the queue behind me gave me a voucher that reduced the cost of a sub. What was good about going here for lunch was that I could have a drink, and then refill it to take away with me.

I took a slow walk to the San Fernando Cathedral to take more photographs – I arrived there just as Sunday mass ended which meant again it was difficult to get a shot without people in view. I then wandered over to the City Hall and the Spanish Governor’s Palace but decided they were not worth taking photographs of – instead I walked back to the steps down to the River Walk.

For the next few hours I wandered along the river walk, taking the different routes available and trying to see as much as possible. It was hard work in the heat and by this time the drink I’d taken with me had run out also. By 14:10 I’d seen as much as I was going to so sat down on a set looking over the river walk by the Hotel Contessa.

Not being one to stay sitting for long, after 10 minutes I went up to the hotel to collect my luggage and get a taxi to the airport which cost around US$30. I’d arrived and was through security by 15:00, but again after paying US$25 for checking in my luggage! The downside to this though was not many choices available for food – I’d wanted to get a sandwich I could take away with me, but nowhere did this. My best choice was to have a sit down meal instead, but I did at least get to use the free Wi-Fi.

For my meal I decided to go to Gourmet Burger, though not before trying one place and not getting any service. I went for a Philadelphia burger with a mango drink – it wasn’t amazing but it was at least something to eat. I realised at this point how thirsty I still was – I consumed the drink and found myself still in need of more.

The flight from San Antonio to Dallas was a full one and got in at 18:58 – by the time I’d de-planed, collected luggage, transferred to terminal B via the shuttle link, checked back in and through security 70 minutes had passed. It turns out it was a good idea to have had that buffer there between landing and available check-in time for the flight. Unfortunately this flight again cost me US$25 to have my luggage checked in. I did think the ones that work had arranged had luggage costs already accounted for, but I guess with this flight they managed to miss it out – same as I had for the flights I’d booked.

I was due to board the flight at 21:50, but as it got close to that time it was then reported that the flight had been delayed by 77 minutes – looking at the flight tracker application on my phone indicated this seemed to be a regular occurrence. I now wouldn’t be getting into Wichita until 00:55 and I had no idea if I’d be getting a shuttle service, or getting a taxi for the 1 hour journey to the hotel in the town of El Dorado.

During the flight I saw an incredible thunderstorm that flashed with increasing ferocity. It was unlike anything I’d ever seen before, and at times there were flashes from multiple places at the same time and on occasion to flashes in what appeared to be the same place (who said lightning doesn’t strike twice?!).

When we landed the airport was quite empty, and the luggage appeared on a different carousel to what was advertised. I was then able to confirm that there was not an airport shuttle available so instead I went over to the taxi rank.

At 01:20 I got on what I was told was the last taxi and began the journey to El Dorado. It wasn’t a pleasant journey though – the taxi driver was chewing tobacco which was making a foul smell, and it appeared he was trying very hard not to fall asleep either. At 02:05 the taxi arrived at the hotel, though the driver then took this opportunity to tell me the card machine wasn’t working and that he’d need cash. This was an incredible annoyance as at US$90 this wouldn’t leave me much cash left for the remainder of the trip.

Finally I was able to get to my room and sleep, even if there was a lot of noise from the air conditioning unit from the corridor causing vibrations across the room’s floor. Sleep was welcome.

USA 2015 Day 3 – Johnson Space Center

Again I couldn’t sleep, waking up at 3am and sitting around until it was time for breakfast. Before breakfast I ordered a taxi so I could be out of the hotel by 08:15 – I wanted to make the most of my time at the Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center. Breakfast was a buffet again – I went for a few bits that looked relatively familiar and got a cup of tea to go so I could get ready.

The taxi to the Space Center cost me 70 USD, in part due to the driver having forgotten a road was closed and so he had to backtrack and go a different way. When we got there he asked what time he should pick me up, I said 15:30, yet he insisted he’d pick me up at 15:00 instead. I wasn’t that happy about this but figured if I was quick I might be able to cover the entire place in 6 hours.

I joined the queue waiting for the Space Center to open, but as I did so I saw others push into the queue, even though the majority of people were queuing properly. I didn’t say anything though as it didn’t really make that much of a difference. When they did open I headed straight to the queue for the tram tours.

For the tram tours there are three to choose from, all of which stop off at “rocket park”. The first one I went on, the blue tram, went to the building that was home to the historic Mission Control used in the days of the Apollo missions. The red tram was for visiting the spacecraft mock-up facility where they train and test, and the white tram was for the current mission control (same building as the historic mission control) but didn’t open until 11:30.

Mission Operations Control Room 2 (MOCR-2), Historic Mission Control

As the blue tram tour proceeded it took us through the Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center and told us about some of the buildings that we passed. Eventually it got us to the building 30 (named Christopher C. Kraft, Jr. after a retired NASA engineer), the one that is home to mission control and here we disembarked. After 80-odd steps we got to MOCR-2, the room where they had once monitored nine Gemini and Apollo space missions – including Apollo 11, the mission that saw Neil Armstrong step foot on the moon.

The equipment in the room has been put back to how it was at the time, and for the tour I was on could only be looked at from the room that was used for astronaut’s families, politicians, and even Presidents to watch from. We sat and listened to details about these rooms, all whilst the “Level 9” tour got to look around inside the room. I hadn’t realised when I booked my ticket that there was an option to get a greater level of access to the facilities.

A section of the Saturn V rocket

Looking back at the full Saturn V rocket

This visit felt brief, and the tour carried on in the tram, pointing out more buildings and the Astronaut memorial grove until eventually arriving at the rocket park we had passed earlier. There are a couple of rockets (Mercury-Redstone and Little Joe II) and engines outside, but inside the hanger is a Saturn V rocket – one of only three remaining in the world. The rocket itself will not have been into space as the old Saturn V’s were disposable, but it is real.

Saturn V booster rocket

For a while I walked around it, amazed at being so close to a rocket I’d been very interested in when I was younger. It was an iconic part of space exploration history, a symbol to the American people of what they had achieved, but also what they have (for now) lost – the ability to reach to the stars and step foot on the moon. There is hope though that the Orion will restore America’s ability for manned space exploration. I wished I had spent more time with this rocket, and took more time to get better photographs, but I knew time was limited. At least now the rocket I had read about in books was one I had seen with my own eyes.

Texas Longhorn Cattle

Once I’d finished taking pictures I wandered over to where they were keeping some long-horned cattle in the field. The JSC Longhorn Project is a CCISD/NASA collaboration which is used for teaching locals about livestock, and is also a reminder of the ranch history of the land on which the Johnson Space Center now resides.

Back at the Space Center, I joined the queue for the red tram – this one took a little longer to queue for, but once they got going we covered not just some of the same things, but also some other buildings too. This time it went to building 9 (the Space Vehicle Mock-up Facility – SVMF) where they have spacecraft mock-ups for training, and also where they test some of their new equipment such as robotics. At present it also provides storage for their new rover – the Small Pressurised Rover (SPR) which is designed to have crab-like movement. Although there was no one working in the lab at the time, you could actually see one of the Orion capsules that was being worked on.

ISS Modules

Orion Capsule

Small Pressurised Rover (SPR)

Space Vehicle Mock-up Facility (SPMF)

This facility was used during the Apollo 13 disaster to come up with a solution on the ground – one of the major benefits of having this facility available. Once finished there I stayed on the tram, skipping the rocket park, and heading back to the Space Center. Although the white tram tour had begun I decided to go to their Zero G dining area to get some food. I went for “3 tossed chicken” which was chicken in barbecue sauce and potato hashes, a moon pie (basically a double decker Wagon Wheel chocolate bar), and some apple juice.

Feeling refreshed I then looked around the adjacent souvenir shop for a while – this resulted in me buying a long sleeved t-shirt, a NASA mug, and a Johnson Space Center magnet. I had been tempted by a few other things, such as the NASA polo shirt that looked like the ones that the crew used – but I decided that if I ever get the opportunity to visit the Kennedy Space Center (which I hope I will next year) then this would be something to buy there.

I then ventured back into the heat and joined the short queue for the white tram. Although short it did take quite some time before boarding a tram, possibly as much as 45 minutes. The white tram took me back to building 30, but to a different entrance that took us to the new mission control for the ISS, and what will be the eventual Mars mission.

White Flight Control Room (MCC-21)

ISS Mission Control

We were told that tours to this building will soon end, possibly as soon as a couple of years time as it will soon become a busy centre of operations. At present the ISS mission control wasn’t being manned, but we weren’t allowed to see it – instead we saw the newly refurbished “White Flight” flight control which the ISS control will move into shortly whilst theirs is renovated. It will be amazing to think that in the next couple of years this room would be in control of Orion flights as they gradually make their way to what they hope will be a Mars mission in 2040.

In recent years the control rooms are no longer known as MOCRs (Mission Operations Control Room), but now as FCRs (Flight Control Room) as since the launch of the Space Shuttle they were seen as more flight orientated than mission orientated.

Skylab EVA

Mercury Faith 7 capsule

Apollo 17 Command Module

Astronuat and Lunar buggy diorama

Back at the Space Center I then looked around the “Starship Gallery”. I bypassed the theatre part as I wasn’t really that interested in watching films about things I’d likely already know. As I first entered I saw a replica of Skylab (America’s first attempt at a space station orbiting Earth) they used for training. From here I went around to the start of the tour and saw the exhibits that include the actual Apollo 17 capsule, the Mercury 9 “Faith 7” capsule, Gemini V, and the lunar rover trainer. A lot of these they had put against appropriate backdrops so that when taking photographs it would look like they were in space.

Next up was an area designed to look like one of the Space Shuttles, the craft that was recently retired from active service. This wasn’t a great area, but it did include a mock-up of how the space shuttle’s flight deck looks. From the signage that was about it suggested this was more for educational purposes, though I couldn’t really see any reason for it to be.

The next area is the Astronaut Gallery – this features the country’s largest space suit collection, but also includes something rather special. In amongst the suits they have the restored prop of the Galileo Space Shuttle used in the filming of the original Star Trek TV series.

Star Trek TOS “Galileo” Prop

Next to this area is one that covers the ISS – there isn’t a massive amount to photograph here but they do have a live show that covers life on board the ISS and the challenges that they face. I did watch part of this, but it didn’t really cover anything that documentaries hadn’t. One interesting fact though is that the water that they reclaim from urine is actually cleaner than the water we drink here on Earth, even that which is in bottles.

ISS module interior

Before leaving the Space Center I had a look around the larger shop that they have there and the Space Center plaza. By the time I left it was 15:00 so I had timed my pace around the place quite well. I was back at the hotel by 15:30 and then instead of picking up my luggage I walked around the town to see if I could find anything else to photograph and was also looking for somewhere to get pre-made sandwiches from that I could take to the Amtrak station later. After covering at least 5 miles I went back to the hotel and asked if they knew anywhere I could go – they advised me of a supermarket a few blocks away where I was able to get a beef-filled croissant, a New York cheesecake and a couple of drinks.

Back at the hotel I sorted out my luggage and asked if the hotel staff knew if my directions to the Amtrak station were correct. Sadly the lady had no idea what an Amtrak was and didn’t realise they even had a train that went through Houston. Despite this, I walked just over a mile to the Amtrak station, apparently having taken the correct route. It was a very warm walk as by the time I got there it felt like I’d had a shower in warm water – the station wasn’t that much cooler either. After checking in my luggage I then had to sit around and wait until we started to board the train at 18:30.

The Amtrak train is very different to trains I’ve used before – this one was two stories, and some of the coaches had beds in them. The one I was in just had every spacious seats that were designed to recline a long way. This train got me into San Antonio at 23:30 – 35 minutes earlier than scheduled.

As I’d thought ahead and prepared a map I was able to walk from the station as it was only 1.6 miles to the hotel, but along the way I decided to make a diversion to photograph the Alamo at night. I was surprised at how many people were about, and even after 00:00 it didn’t show signs of getting quieter.

The Alamo

The Hotel Contessa was easy to find, but alas this was not the end of my night. They told me that despite my prepaid reservation that they were overbooked and had arranged for me to be in the Days Inn – a motel so far out of town that it was almost at the airport. I was too tired to argue, but I made sure that they paid for my taxi to get me there. I was not happy, but there wasn’t really anything I could do about it. It would have made more sense though, and I’d have been happier, if they’d booked me into a similar hotel somewhere in the vicinity of The Alamo or the Riverwalk – the two reasons I’d booked this one.

I arrived at the Days Inn at 00:40 and found that the air conditioning wasn’t working and the neighbours were incredibly noisy. The place looked like the sort of cheap motel you’d see in the movies – the sort you’d see fugitives stay in. It was difficult, but eventually I was able to get a few hours of sleep.

USA 2015 Day 2 – Tyler to Houston

Even though I’d not had much sleep lately I found myself awake at 03:00, seemingly from the time that the apartment’s fridge joined in the cacophony from the air conditioning fan. For the next few hours I tried to sleep, but couldn’t so got up at 06:00 and went for a slow 4 mile run around the area.

The area around the hotel, and the rest of Tyler for that matter, doesn’t have sidewalks which meant for the entire run I was either running on the road, the grassy banks, or in a cycle lane when available. The six lane road was a little questionable, but I ran along it anyway. After I’d done 1.6 miles I decided to head back as I was doing a “there and back again” style run, but I found I’d missed my turning and inadvertently ran a little further than planned. After finishing 4 miles in humid heat I was drenched and could barely see, but at least after a shower it was time for breakfast.

The breakfast at the Staybridge hotel was quite unusual – you don’t have to tell anyone your room number, or have anyone explain what to do. You just turn up and figure out where everything is. I had quite a mixture for breakfast, but I did at least get a cup of tea – the same type I usually end up with whilst travelling (one of these days I’ll take my own tea bags).

At 08:45 I checked out and got to leave my camera bag and suitcase behind to pick up later. The 1.8 mile walk to Tyler Junior College was a warm one, and by the time I got there it felt like I had melted into a mess. It felt unprofessional to get there sweating like crazy, but I think fortunately they didn’t realise I was. At this point I understood why there were no sidewalks – no one walks anywhere because it’s too warm to do so at this time of year! I was dressed in shirt and tie, but couldn’t bare to put my suit jacket on with the heat the way it was. The people there were great – they were friendly and interesting to talk to, and got me a glass of ice cold water to drink as we talked.

After my meeting they gave me a lift in an air-conditioned Mustang back to the hotel where I picked up my luggage, got changed and ordered a taxi to the airport. This taxi ride consisted of the driver leaning over his broken chair, telling me his life story and about how he had been in prison for 5 years. I think I’d have preferred it if he had watched the road instead really. The fare for this journey was US$30 though for some reason he only put US$25 on the receipt – which is probably what it would have been had we not been stuck in traffic.

Although I was at the airport 6 hours before my flight they still allowed me to check my luggage in. One unusual thing though was that as they don’t have an x-ray scanner for checked baggage they asked me to remove my lock so they’d be able to check it by hand later before it is put on the plane. This didn’t sit too well with me, but I didn’t really have a choice so removed the lock. It also cost me an extra US$25 to check the bag in as well as apparently it wasn’t included in my ticket. This probably meant my flight from San Antonio to Dallas on Sunday wouldn’t have it included either.

Although a small airport, it has a food place that online reports it to be open until 16:00 so I decided to see what sort of food they did. They don’t yet have a menu (it sounds like they’ve not been open long) but from the list of things I was told they did I decided the most appetising of them would be the chicken and fries. This meal with a bottle of cola came to less than $10 – cheaper than most food places outside of airports!

The food was a little on the salty side, but at least it was warm food. I also took the opportunity to go back and buy a chocolate muffin and some water to use as my evening meal as I doubted I’d be able to visit anywhere, or have the energy to by the time I’d be in Houston.

To pass the time I then sat in the airport terminal on my laptop, catching up on some work. I had been tempted to walk the 1.8 miles from the terminal, along the 6-lane road to the Historic Aviation Memorial Museum as the reviews of the place were very good. By the time I’d eaten though I wouldn’t have had much time there though as they close quite early during the week. To make matters worse the heat outside had gotten worse whilst I’d been indoors so it’d have been a every warm and humid walk if I’d have gone.

Just after 18:00 I went through security as they wanted to close up, but I didn’t have to wait long – they started boarding the plane early and we had left the gate 15 minutes early. We then arrived in Houston 28 minutes early and the airport believed we hadn’t even left Tyler yet (the flight only takes 40 minutes from gate to gate).

On the way to the luggage carousel I bought some more water as I was starting to feel dehydrated, and by the time I got there my luggage was waiting there for me. I then ordered a taxi – it took 45 minutes to get to the hotel due to the distance, and this cost me $56 on my credit card, and then another $5 as a tip.

When I checked into the Residence Inn they commented that a taxi ride to the Johnson Space Center would likely cost me around $60 due to it being the weekend I’d be going. The cost of having a short detour to see the space center was rapidly increasing! The hotel room was another apartment style one, and was a really comfortable room. I then relaxed in front of the TV, watching “Uncle Buck” and eating my food for the remainder of the evening.

USA 2015 Day 1 – Birmingham to Tyler

For the first time since 2009 it was a business trip that would be taking me abroad. Whereas previously I had gone with a couple of other colleagues, this time I was flying to the US alone. Due to the number of weekends I had busy over the course of the year it meant the only way I could fit in this trip was to fly out mid-week, but this did also mean I’d have some downtime at the weekend to use for sightseeing (I couldn’t use two weekends unless I left the trip until December due to other commitments).

Unfortunately the best flights I could find meant that I had to get up at 04:00 in order to get to the airport on time. As it turned out it was good that I arrived a little early as it took a whole hour to get through security due to the immense queues, and also having to wait several minutes to have my bag rechecked during security. When it was time to board this seemed a little chaotic also – caused by the doors for the gate not working. It seemed typical that following this the headphone socket for my chair on the aeroplane then didn’t work, and after they rebooted the media system for the plane I then started getting audio – just not for what I was attempting to watch!

The flight included plenty of drinks, and also a light lunch (something that was supposed to be pasta along with a bread roll). After almost eight hours we got into Newark, NY. Before I could move on to my next flight I needed to clear border control, baggage collection, customs, baggage recheck, security and then get across the airport to the next gate.

As it turned out though the flight was running 30 minutes late when I got there which meant when I’d arrive in Houston I’d only have 35 minutes before my next flight was due to leave. However this soon changed and we were told realistically we wouldn’t get into Houston until 17:30 – 5 minutes before my flight was due to leave, despite only a couple of minutes previously being told otherwise.

More time passed, and again the situation changed – they told us the plane had arrived in from Boston at 14:45. They still needed at least another 30 minutes for passengers to disembark and for them to prepare the plane though. This confirmed I’d miss my connection to Tyler as we boarded the plane over two hours late. Whilst waiting for this I sat underneath the charging station at the gate, attempting to use the 30 minutes of free wi-fi but the signal was terrible from my iPhone, but okay from my laptop.

By the time we left the gate it was 16:10 and took another 20 minutes until we were in the air. They did make up 50 minutes in the air, but we still arrived late in Houston – meaning the flight had already gone. I then spent the next hour queueing at United’s customer services desk, by which time the number of staff on it had halved. Fortunately they were able to get me on the next flight to Tyler, but this wasn’t until 21:17 so they gave me a food voucher for $7 as well.

I walked around the majority of the terminal before deciding the only place I could get hot food quickly would be Subway. With how long it had been since I’d eaten anything I was tempted to just eat at the first place I could find, but I needed it to be quick as I couldn’t risk missing the flight – the next one wouldn’t be until the following day.

It seemed I managed to confuse the person that worked at Subway though as my meal came to over the $7 so I gave them money also. Confused, the employee there commented that they can’t give change for vouchers – I explained this was okay as I’d be using the voucher in full and getting change from the additional money I’d given them. They insisted it didn’t work like this and I gave up on trying to explain this before the discussion got too heated. As it turned out though they still gave me my change so I’m not entirely sure what they were talking about, but then they didn’t like me asking for a receipt!

I boarded the final plane (one the locals refer to as a puddle jumper) just before 21:00, but it seemed that my camera backpack may have to be stowed in the hold due to the luggage bins being too small on this plane (very small). Fortunately the air attendant was able to put it in one of his empty cupboards. We had to wait a while before taking off though as they were missing three passengers, one of which they said was a wheelchair user. Two of these never turned up so eventually we left without them.

During the flight I heard one passenger ask the other passenger where they were going – the answer obviously being “Tyler” as they were both on the same plane to a small airport that had no further flights that day, and to which only served airports that Houston also did.

It was almost 22:00 when we landed, and Tyler is one of those small airports (though not as small as some I’ve been through!) so I knew it would be fairly quick to get through. Walking off the plane and into the terminal you arrive pretty much into the lobby which is also the baggage claim area and departures. My bag was one of the first off and then my next task was to figure out how to get to the hotel.

There was nothing in the airport really, and the only places open were two car rental places. I asked at one of them if there was somewhere to get a taxi from and they just gave me a telephone number – not much use really as I couldn’t use my phone for it. I wandered around outside, contemplating the two hour walk it’d take to get there, but eventually I went back inside and asked at the car rental place if there were any pay phones. Fortunately they let me use theirs and I was able to order a taxi.

After a short wait the taxi arrived – for the next 25 or so minutes we drove from the airport, through the town, passed the impressive looking college buildings, and to the hotel. All this time the driver was asking questions about England and genuinely seemed curious about what it is like – though when I first spoke he thought I was Australian. The fare seemed a bit pricey though at US$25. Fortunately it didn’t take long to check in and just before midnight I was finally able to sleep after around 25 hours awake.

Rugby Half Marathon 2015

I felt incredibly under prepared for this half marathon – since the London Marathon the farthest I’d run was 11 miles, twice, but both times at a far slower pace than what I’d been running around London at. I knew a personal best was out of the question for this race so my goal was to just get around it. After all, it’d be nice to increase the distance again and would hopefully help with the marathon training.

The outlook for the day was rain, but at least it’d mean that it was cooler – I’d been trying to convince myself that the severe loss of speed was down to the weather having heated up considerably. It’s a little disheartening to try your best and to be slower than you were, and it makes it difficult to find motivation to continue running. However if I went into this race deciding I’d just run it and see, with no pressures, then maybe it’d bring a bit of fun back to running.

We got to Rugby in plenty of time and parked up at the car park the organisers had suggested. It was then about 10 minutes from there to the Leisure Centre they were using for the registration. This was nice and easy and was just a case of putting our name into an tablet and telling them the number it reported back. What’s a little crazy though is that they handed over the “finishers tee” at this point which meant we’d have to do something with it before the race. A lot of people were wearing them, though neither of us particularly wanted to so we headed back to my car and dropped off the tees there and got ready to race.

At this point I suddenly realised I hadn’t paid for the car parking, so paid the £1 – but then minutes later found out that because it had been opened especially for this event the car park was actually free today. The registration we had walked to earlier had been where the finish was located, and from where we were parked it was another 10 minutes to get to the start in Caldecott Park. As we waited it rained briefly, but not particularly heavy so at this point I hoped that was all the rain we’d be getting.

The start pens seemed a bit close together – there were small spaces for 1:30 to 2:00 and 2:00 to 2:30, but then I remembered that there were probably only a couple of thousand runners so it may be that they weren’t entirely sure how many they’d be getting in each area. The race started on time, though it seemed a little bit of a false start as we reached the bottle neck of the park entrance – a lot of us were having to stop to wait, or slow to a walk for an opportunity to get through.

The course then continued through the city of Rugby and before the first mile was over the city started to give way to countryside. Before I even reached 10K into the race I’d already walked twice – the hills were a little more tiring than I was expecting and the “closeness” of the air wasn’t helping matters. I did manage to keep the walking fairly brief at that point. There was one hill that just seemed to go on for ever and that was the first time I had to walk, even though it turned out I was pretty much at the top of the hill by this point.

There was little support (by which I mean pretty much none whatsoever) whilst in the countryside, but it did pick up again as we went through the villages of Barsby and Kilsby. At points where I found myself walking (there were considerably more after the 10K mark) as I passed people there was the occasional person calling out my name (which is on the race number) telling me to keep running. It was a mental battle though, and I was struggling. Time seemed to pass so slowly, yet at the same time it felt like I’d been running forever.

At around 8 miles I briefly found myself running comfortably and thought I’d finally overcome the struggle. It wasn’t long after we left Kilsby though, and approaching 10 miles that I started to struggle again. I started to wonder why I was running, and if I actually like running. I was even thinking that I should abandon future races and make this my last, it just felt it wasn’t going right. Before the mile was over I stopped caring about it though, and was feeling a little more “comfortable” (as much as I can be) with walking some stretches. The route then looped through the Rugby Town FC grounds and as I walked out I was told that the last of the hills were almost over. Such a relief! Knowing this I started running again, as far as the top of the hill and then walked a bit.

Over the next few miles I lost count of how many times I walked but I was insistent I wanted to run from mile 12 until the end. I tried as much as I could – when we entered their sports stadium and onto the running track I found my pace speeding up. It was far from a sprint, but I did realise I was going faster than I should be so started to slow before leaving the race track. This did however cause me to walk briefly, but I knew I was so close to the finish now and that kept me from walking more than just a few steps before running on.

As I got to the 13 mile marker I didn’t do what I’d normally do – instead of sprinting from there to the end I held back until I rounded the last corner and then put as much as I could into a sprint for the last 0.05 miles to the finish.

I finished 75th out of 802 finishers (top 9.4%, 51st in category and 69th male), with a time of 1:37:27 – around 5 minutes slower than my best, but I’d never intended on setting a new PB, and I accepted that with the amount of walking I did I wouldn’t stand a chance of beating it. What I can say though is despite the mental and physical effort this took, I completed the inaugural Rugby Half Marathon. I’m not going to be disappointed as I never had a goal for this race anyway. At the finish they don’t hand out goodie bags like a lot of other races, instead they have an array of chocolate digestives (and other biscuits), white and milk chocolate, slices of banana, and small sweets to pick and choose from and then cups of water to drink from. As you leave the finishers area they then put the medal over your neck before you leave.

After I finished I walked a complete lap of the park before finally finding a way out that would take me back to where the race was still going on. For the next hour or so I stood watching people approach mile 13 and the finish, though the downside to this was I was getting cold from the lack of movement, and the heavy downpours didn’t help much either (though standing near a tree shielded me from the worst of it for a while). Though if people were still out there running in this weather then it shouldn’t be a problem for me to stand out in it either, it was more important I was there to support my friend finish too. I cheered her as she passed the best I could, but with how much I was shaking from the cold I doubt I did much to help. I was glad to have seen her finish though, even if my thoughts were now moving on to getting somewhere warm and dry.

I think the organisation was pretty good – I’ve certainly seen a lot worse, and I think despite the hills the route was quite nice – scenic at least. The spectator support in the city/villages was fairly reasonable, though I heard this had died off quite a bit as the race went on. The route seemed to have the mile markers around 0.2 to 0.3 miles ahead of where my watch seemed to think they would be, though as my watch said 13.11 at the end I presume the course was actually measured correctly and it was just a case of them using the nearest posts for the markers as an approximation. I think the only thing I’d have changed about this race (no not those dreaded hills) is that it’d have been nicer to have gotten a bottle of eater at the end instead of a cup. Even though (unusually for me) I’d had water at every station I was still quite dehydrated at the end and could have done with more than a cup.

After this race my marathon training plan continues with no more races until the Lutterworth 5 in August.

Devon Day 5 – Newquay

I started the day with my second run of the week – a short run of just over 3 miles at a slow pace around the nearby area. This time I decided to try a different route and this one turned out to be quite a hilly one – for just over 1 mile I was running up hill, but it did of course mean I had to run down hill just as far afterwards.

After my run we took our time before heading out, and when we did we first needed to stop by the shops. Eventually though we were on the road and heading south in to Cornwall for the first time this week – something I thought we’d be doing more regularly. Our intended destination was Newquay, an approximate 60 miles away, with the intention of stopping by Tintagel and Bude on the way back. This depended upon how long we’d stay in each place, and how long it’d take to travel there as the roads were quite a mix along the way.

As we arrived in Newquay it had just turned 12:00 so we briefly had a look around and then had lunch before going down onto what was the main surfing beach where all the schools are located. The beach is a pretty nice one and is quite large – it seems the tide goes out quite a long way and leaves rather large pools of water scattered across the beach.

What I didn’t expect to see though was on the adjacent cliff there is the Headland Hotel – the hotel that was used as the filming location for “The Witches”, a film based on Roald Dahl’s book of the same name. In the book though the hotel they stay at is supposed to be in Bournemouth. As I was taking photographs of this hotel we then saw a large aircraft fly overhead, possibly some sort of military one.

Once we’d finished spending time of the beach we started our journey back, and towards the town of Tintagel. When we got there we parked up, but soon found that it was quite a long walk to the castle – more than my sister could manage with her crutches. It was an incredible shame, but it meant we couldn’t really go to the cliffside to see the castle as I’d hoped. Instead we went to a tea room and sat with a cup of tea for a while instead.

By the time we left Tintagel it was getting quite late, but along the way from there to Bude we stopped by two villages – Weeks St. Mary and Whitstone. Both of these we were visiting to look in church graveyards for gravestones of ancestors on the family tree. The intention was that we could get photos of the stones, and if we were lucky find additional relatives we didn’t know of so we could extend the tree back further.

Having visited the graveyards it didn’t really leave us much time for visiting Bude, so as we passed through we picked up some food and carried on home. It was only 25 miles from Bideford so it was always an option to return there on another day. However that never came to pass as the next day we headed home, a few days earlier than intended meaning we wouldn’t get to see the Eden Project as we’d hoped either.