Long runs and seriously, what’s up with this weather, London?

29 Apr

I have decided that 57F/14C and sunny is the perfect weather. A few weeks ago we were driving along the Thames, sun beating down but still a nice breeze in the air, and I made this revelation. I also made another decision — I was going to run to Big Ben the next week. This was an easy decision to make from the comfort of the car, but took a little more convincing once my long run day arrived. But I did it — I ran 8 miles, my longest distance to date. I was not accounting for the massive amount of tourists that would be blocking most of the pavement when I calculated the route. It turns out running by Big Ben seems a lot more glamorous than it is. There’s a reason most runners stick to the royal parks when running in central London.

And speaking of running in royal parks, remember how gutted I was that I did not receive a place in the Royal Parks Half? Well, this happened the other day:

richmond half email

I’m officially registered for the Richmond Half on September 18. It’s a bit outside central London, but we’ll get to run through Kew Gardens, which sounds awesome. (And yes, the Richmond Half is in London, not Virginia, USA, which makes it hard to google!) The website tells me the race is still 141 days away, which seems like ages, but I’m sure it’ll sneak up on me. Once it gets closer I’m going to attempt to adhere to a training program to ensure I’m ready to tackle the 13.1-mile beast.

And since I opened with talking about the weather, I’ll close with it.

This morning I looked out my window and saw a brilliant blue sky. I was debating about whether I wanted to run, but the British Sun Guilt kicked in and I decided to go for it. I busted out the extreme 70 spf sweatproof sunscreen (can never be too safe!), donned my sunglasses and set out. It was 52F/11C, which is almost ideal running weather.

…30 minutes later I was covered in snow. SNOW. In April. When it’s 52 degrees. Someone please explain to me how that is scientifically possible?! I was a mile away from home, soaking wet and shivering. I could barely feel my fingers as they struggled to grip my plastic bag-covered iPhone (I always keep a little baggie in my pocket for these exact scenarios). There’s an old saying in the running community that you never regret a run — even when you have a really crummy one and you’re just not feeling it, you’re still glad you got out there. As I was struggling to wipe the rain drops and melted snowflakes off my sunglasses with my frozen fingers, I wondered if that was 100% true.

angry snow

April Degustabox UK

20 Apr

Today I received my second Degustabox. Since I got the first one on offer, this was the first one I was paying full price for (£12.99/$18.60), so I was eager to see if I got my money’s worth.

When I got the tracking email this morning I constantly refreshed the page, even though DPD is really good about giving you a delivery window and even shows you what number you are on the driver’s schedule. I quickly realized that this was the reason I signed up for the subscription box service — food is always great, but I love the anticipation and surprise factor. I was so freaking happy today just because a mysterious box of snacks was going to arrive at my flat. That’s reason enough to keep the service (and maybe reevaluate my life priorities … or not).

But of course there’s the products too. And this month’s box was a good one.

april uk degustabox.png

Perhaps Degustabox heard my suggestion last month of including more healthy items. I’m really looking forward to trying the Sugarly sweetener, rice blends, sparkling green tea and Pop Chips. And of course fruit snacks and chocolate are always good. The only thing I didn’t really like was the spicy jerk seasoning, but maybe I can find a way to tone it down so it’s not 3-flames hot.

april uk degustabox insert.png

The total retail contents of the box is £20.46, about a pound less than last month’s. I started doing a calculation of how much I would spend on just the things I would buy, but then I realized I probably wouldn’t go out and buy anything in this box. And yet I like it all and look forward to eating it, which I think is precisely the point of snack subscription boxes — you get to try things you normally wouldn’t. I think I may be hooked.

How to cancel a non-refundable Priceline hotel reservation

12 Apr

Have you ever used Priceline’s Express Deals feature? It tells you certain features of the hotel, like the neighborhood, star level and average price, but doesn’t tell you the actual hotel until after you book it. I’ve had good luck with it in the past, getting a 4-star hotel room for the price of a 2-star. But sometimes the deal seems too good to be true. And then suddenly you find yourself googling “How to cancel a non-refundable hotel on Priceline.”

Please learn from my mistake, friends.

priceline express deal scam

The Express Deal hotel seemed like a steal — originally $188 a night, now $60. It had free WiFi, free breakfast and a gym. Sure, it was 2 1/2 stars, but a lot of decent hotels are. I compared the perks and price with hotels on the list view and deducted the mystery hotel was the Fairfield Inn — it had to be! It was in a perfect location, got stellar reviews, and for $60 a night would be an absolute steal. So I bit the bullet and booked the deal … only to find out the mystery hotel was not a Fairfield Inn. It was a Craphole Inn (not actual hotel name). A Craphole Inn that I was now going to be spending 6 nights in by myself in a few months because Priceline Express Deals are non-refundable and non-cancellable, no ifs, ands or buts. I stayed up late reading reviews, trying to assure myself that drug and prostitute solicitation doesn’t happen to every guest at Craphole Inn and I probably wouldn’t even notice the stench in the hallway and stains on the sheets. But once I saw a review mentioning bed bugs, it was the last straw. I could not spend 6 nights (or even one night) at Craphole Inn. I had to find a way to cancel the uncancelable.

I called up Priceline and tried the “I was tricked!” route first. Because I really was tricked — Craphole Inn would never go for $188, even during a special event in the city. Its average price is $70 or $80 a night, which makes the $60 deal understandable. When the trickery route wasn’t working I switched to the “woe is me” routine, explaining that I did not feel safe staying at Craphole Inn by myself and I never would have booked the deal if I knew this was the hotel I would get. “Sorry, Express Deals are non-refundable. There is absolutely nothing I can do. Sucks for you,” the Priceline guy said (I’m paraphrasing). I asked to speak to a senior representative. Surely he could sort me out. So I explained my situation again to him, using both the trickery and safety excuses, and was met with the same response — “Sucks for you. It’s not Priceline’s fault one of our listed hotels happens to be in Sketchy McSketchsville. Your reservation cannot be cancelled.”

And that’s when I used the tip I learned in my google search  — the tip I should have used first.

“What if I call the hotel and they agree to cancel?” I felt like I was grasping at straws — why in the world would this strategy work? But apparently I had said the magic words.

“If you can get the hotel to agree to the cancellation and call us back with the person’s name you spoke to, MAYBE we can work something out.”

Bingo.

But what was I going to tell Craphole Inn? That I wanted to cancel my reservation because of the bad reviews and bad neighborhood? I dialed the hotel before I had a chance to chicken out.

“Hello, I would like to cancel my upcoming reservation, please.” I decided polite and straightforward was the best approach.

“No problem,” the woman replied. She was so nice I almost felt bad about calling her place of employment Craphole Inn. In 10 seconds she had my reservation cancelled. It was almost too easy — as if Craphole Inn was used to people trying to back out of Priceline Express Deal reservations. I took down her name and called Priceline back. The Priceline representative put me on hold while she called Craphole Inn to confirm my cancellation, and then just like that I got an email confirmation of my refund for my non-refunable booking. I had successfully cancelled the uncancellable.

So it’s possible, friends. I wouldn’t recommend it, because there’s always a chance the hotel won’t agree, but it turns out you CAN cancel a Priceline Express Deal.

Here’s my tip for booking Express Deals: Only book them in cities where you are familiar with all the hotels available and there are no Craphole Inns you wouldn’t want to be stuck with. Sometimes the Express Deal hotels are not listed in the List View (Craphole Inn wasn’t) so there may be more possible hotels in that area with that star rating and those amenities than you think. You’ll also notice that when a hotel is not a craphole, the Express Deal will list the guest rating. I should have noticed that was missing from Craphole Inn’s listing. That’s a clear sign to stay away, lest you spend an hour of your afternoon on the phone with Priceline begging to cancel a non-refundable booking.

priceline express deal

TL; DR: Call the hotel first. Ask to cancel. If they agree, take down person’s name you spoke to. Call Priceline. Give them hotel person’s name. Wait while Priceline calls hotel to confirm cancellation. Be relieved you don’t have to stay at craphole.

Ode to Churchill the Corgi

8 Apr

As you may have noticed with posts like this, I really, really love corgis. But unfortunately my current living situation does not allow me to have a dog. While I enjoy scouting for them on runs through the park, the next best thing to having a dog is having a family member get a dog. Though it’s been over a year since we lost Squirt, my parents are still not ready for another dog. Late last year Stephen’s family’s chihuahua Xiao Bei crossed over the rainbow bridge, which gave Stephen and me a new mission: get his family a corgi.

We started by slyly sending them photos of my favorite Instagram corgis, like Super Corgi JOJO. Then we upped the cute factor with puppy photos. They were sold. His cousin began researching breeders and sent us photos of prospects. We vetoed a few before Stephen sent me this photo followed by “Yes?”

china corgi breeder

He was perfect. I couldn’t wait to meet him, even if he was halfway across the world. The day they brought him home I begged Stephen to ask them for more pictures.

corgi puppy eyes.png

His cuteness was addicting — I couldn’t get enough. I watched him play fetch over Facetime. I saved every photo of him Stephen’s family sent.

“What’s his name?” I asked Stephen.

“He doesn’t have one yet,” he replied. Then he said we could help name him. After he vetoed my Chinese translations of “little butthead” and “short legs,” he said we should pick an English name. We wanted a human name that was stately and English and easy to pronounce.

“Churchill,” I suggested, conjuring the great British statesman and first person to be made an honorary citizen of the United States… and also the adorable bulldog from the insurance commercials. (Source of this photo: an article stating that more British children can identify the Churchill Insurance dog than the wartime prime minister)

churchill dog

And just like that the little corgi had a name. Churchill. I watched Churchill eat his dinner over Facetime and promptly pass out in his bed. I treasured every sweet photo.

corgi puppy passed out.png

Stephen said even his uncle, who is not a dog person, was falling for Churchill. How could anyone not? I wanted so badly to go to China to visit Churchill in person. I knew the chances of me being able to cuddle him as a puppy were slim, but I looked forward to meeting him someday.

And then Stephen got off the phone with his cousin and dropped this bomb:

“Churchill’s dead.”

I thought it was an April Fools joke. Apparently so did his cousin, not realizing that April Fools’ Day has been banned in China.

Stephen’s family was so in love with Churchill that they took him on an adventure in the mountains. He likely ate something that was poisonous and died the next day.

I was heartbroken. We were all just getting to know Churchill. I never even got a chance to properly meet him, and now I never will. The little guy was supposed to have his whole life ahead of him. I always knew someday he’d cross the rainbow bridge and frolic with Squirt and Xiao Bei, I just didn’t expect it to be so soon.

corgi puppy toy

Goodnight, sweet prince.

March Degustabox review

2 Apr

On the first day of one of my journalism classes back at university the professor asked us each to name our media guilty pleasure. Most of my classmates said Perezhilton.com, because his site was super popular back then, and I believe I said Dave Barry’s blog. But if I had to answer the question again now, I’d probably say blogs that involve people photographing and reviewing the items they received in their subscription boxes.

Confession: I am obsessed with subscription boxes.

Confession #2: I have never actually received a subscription box.

Subscription boxes are all the rage now. They make them for beauty products, snacks, baby products, jewelry, candles, games, underwear — basically anything that can be packed into a box and shipped out every month for a monthly or yearly fee. I’ve always been intrigued by them, but I never subscribed to them, mostly because of my bi-continental lifestyle. Birchbox, the leading makeup and beauty products subscription box, launched in the UK, but I couldn’t convince myself to join. I liked looking at the items inside (see above about subscription box blogs), but knew I wouldn’t use half of them, and my makeup counter is already cluttered as it is. And then while reading one of my guilty pleasure subscription box review blogs, I came upon Degustabox — a monthly surprise food and drink subscription box for people in the UK. I love surprises! And food & drink! And most importantly, because I love food & drink, I would likely eat everything in the box so there’d be no waste and counter clutter.

I immediately signed up under the introductory offer. A whole box of food and drink surprises for £5.99 was a deal I couldn’t pass up. Unfortunately I signed up at the beginning of March so I had to wait 3 weeks for my first box to arrive. When it did, I couldn’t contain my excitement. Because this is what subscription boxes are really about — not so much the actual goods inside, although those are, well, good, but the surprise of it all — what will I get?! It reminded me of my childhood trading card collecting days. The cards themselves didn’t matter as much as the what-cards-will-I-get? anticipation.

march degustabox uk.png

The box came with a handy sheet describing each product and listing its retail price.

march degustabox products.png

All the items in my box had a total retail value of £21.49 — not bad for £5.99, or even £12.99, the normal price of the box.

But here’s the thing about subscription boxes — they’re only a good value if you actually use all the products and would consider buying them if you hadn’t just received them in the box. There were things in the box that we tore through immediately, like the brioche, crisps, popcorn, rice cakes and Lindt bunny. There are other things that I will eat because I have them, but would never go out and explicitly buy them, like the stuffing and meze to go. So if I were calculating whether I got my £5.99 or £12.99 money’s worth, I wouldn’t include those items. Because I only spent £5.99 I got a good deal, but I’m not sure £12.99 is worth it. However, I think I’ll keep my Degustabox subscription for the next few months, if only because I love the surprise so much (and the food).

Jelly Babies, corgis and running achievements

15 Mar

The very first British candy I ever tried was Jelly Babies. My dad traveled to the UK for work in 2002 and brought me back a host of cool British souvenirs — a die-cast right-hand drive lime green Beetle, a Meat Loaf and Friends CD not available in the US, and Jelly Babies.
jelly babies running fuelI remember thinking how weird and foreign they tasted. Their colors were so dull thanks to the natural coloring and flavoring. And they were covered in this weird white powder (which I later learned is starch, which helps release them from the mold at the factory). Still, my family gobbled them up.

Surprisingly, I haven’t had Jelly Babies since — or at least until today.

When I first got into running I swore to myself I would never run a distance that required me to “fuel” while on the run. I lied. While the length of distance that requires fueling is up for debate (some running pros don’t even fuel during half marathons) and my 5, 6 or 7-mile runs probably don’t require fuel, I wanted to experiment to see how “fueling” would affect me. Most runners use energy gels, which are basically just sugar — expensive sugar. You know what else is basically just sugar? Jelly Babies. According to various UK running blogs and forums, Jelly Babies are quite the popular running fuel. And they’re downright cheap — I got a bag at Aldi for 59p (84 cents).

So I wrapped up 2 Jelly Babies in plastic wrap, stuck them in my pocket, and set off to do 7 miles around Buckingham Palace and St. James Park. I ate the Jelly Babies around mile 4.5 and 5 while stopped at lights. They tasted even more magical than I remembered, but that also could be because I was hungry for anything. It was only when I ate one several hours after I got home that I realized how sickeningly sweet they are. It may have been a little placebo effect, but I was able to dig deeper and really push myself the last 2 miles of my run. A 7-mile run probably doesn’t require fuel, but if it helps a little, I’ll take any excuse to eat candy I can get.

I can’t believe I’ve waited this long in the post to mention it: In St. James Park I saw not one, not two, but THREE CORGIS! THREE! Two of them were together and then I saw another, different one on my way out of the park. As always, I tried to stealthily snap a photo, but this is the kind of photo you get when you don’t stop running:

corgis st james park

I really need to stop being so shy and just talk to the owners, even if I usually am a sweaty mess.

Speaking of being a sweaty mess, I also need to share this running achievement:

march 13 run

On Sunday Stephen and I had our first sub 9-min/mile pace 4-mile run. It was also my first sub-8 min mile. While on most of my runs I’m just happy to stay under 10-min miles, it felt really good to push myself. I wanted to die by the end, but it’s good to know that I’m capable of going faster. As the guy at the running store said almost 3 years ago (!) now, I’m a better runner than I think I am.

Happy February 29th!

29 Feb

I don’t get to write the date that much as an adult, at least not as much as I did as a student. Back then leap year was a big deal. Nowadays I’m just excited I get to date my freelancing invoice 2-29-16. And also blog so I can say I posted on leap day.

So far the most exciting thing that happened to me today is that I got a free frozen pizza at Iceland. I then had to eat it for lunch immediately because it wouldn’t fit in my tiny British freezer. I also had to eat the entire pizza myself because … well, I lack self control. No leftover pizza means I can eat clean and healthy tomorrow, right? Except I also bought this:

creme egg mug

All this time in London and I’ve never bought a proper Easter egg. This one was on sale and I wanted the mug (and of course, the chocolate).

creme egg mug egg.JPG

Here’s to making the most of this extra day, even if that just means eating pizza and chocolate.

pug excited pizza

(This is not my pug, I found this photo on Reddit. If I did have a pizza-loving pug, you would definitely know about it in every single post)

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