Three Votes a Day

The World Caves In

Imagine for a second sitting in your doctor’s office and hearing the one thing you were sure it couldn’t be.


Imagine that you’ve purposefully lived your life – through diet and exercise and priorities –  to avoid this exact diagnosis.

Now imagine the doctor explaining there is no cure for this cancer. And that while there are treatments, your cancer hasn’t progressed enough for those treatment to help. That basically, you’ll have to sit and wait until the cancer gets worse before you start to treat it.

The Ship is Sinking

My dad, a 2:30 marathoner, a tennis coach, a studied vegetarian, was not one to sit and wait. So when this foreign diagnosis became domestic, he sought to understand how a man who had deliberately made  healthy choices throughout his life, had developed multiple myeloma, a rare blood cancer.

Storm at Sea

He read every study he could find. In 2003, the year of his diagnosis, researchers had already found a link between pesticide exposure and multiple myeloma. My father has lived in an agricultural region of California for most of his life. There, where farmers spray crops from the sky, he had unknowingly and involuntarily ingested the pesticides intended for the avocado groves and strawberry patches up the road.


In addition, pesticides seeped into my dad’s system through a diet rich in fruit and vegetables. Though he always washed his produce, even the most vigorous scrubbing won’t remove all pesticides. Some are even powerful enough to pass through the skin of a tomato. (And the outlook is even worse in carnivore-ville. The pesticides that cows, pigs, and chickens ingest accumulate in their tissues before being passed on to the human consumer.)

They are all aiming for me

Instead of feeling helpless against a cancer with no cure, instead of feeling hopeless waiting for his cancer to progress so his doctor could attempt to treat it, he built a battle plan on choices that were still within his power to make.


He learned about organic fruits, vegetables, and dairy. He got to know the stores and markets and farmers who sold them. He even discovered organic foods in the prepackaged and frozen sections of grocery stores.


His decisions weren’t just about his own health. They were about our family’s health. Our farm workers’ health. Our community’s health. Our environment’s health.


My dad shifted from consumer – one who uses things up – to contributor, strengthening a food system through choice.

In my last post, I wrote at length about privilege of choice. And buried somewhere in the long list of choices that landed me on the other side of the equator, I mentioned the privilege to choose one’s diet.

But eating pesticide-free food is more than a personal choice.

It is a vote.

In the words of Michael Pollan, “the wonderful thing about food is you get three votes a day. Every one of them has the potential to change the world…that’s an amazing power that we have.” (More on that here.)

(For those who don’t choose organic because of the upfront extra cost, I recommend reading this Pollen article and the FAQ halfway down this one as well. Pollan offers great advice that fits in well with the theme of choice.)

I’ve been thrilled to partner with Amy’s Kitchen, both on and off the triathlon course. The family-owned vegetarian food company has been supporting my family since my father’s diagnosis in 2003 when we were just learning about organic eating. They make convenient (and delicious) organic food for people who would like to cook from scratch three times a day, but who have prioritized training or parenting or studying or otherwise saving the world.


So why am I in Chile writing about voting with my fork right now?

For two reasons:

  1. It’s National Organic Month.
  2. I’m really missing the organic choices I had back home. And in missing them, it drove home the point that I made in my last postwhat a privilege it is to be able to choose.


So, what are you voting for today?


The Privilege of Choice


Climbing around Fox Glacier, New Zealand

The word timshel—‘Thou mayest’— that gives a choice. It might be the most important word in the world. That says the way is open. That throws it right back on a man. For if ‘Thou mayest’— it is also true that ‘Thou mayest not.
(John Steinbeck, East of Eden).


Biking from Hanoi to Sapa, Vietnam

If my trip around the world had a theme, it would be choice.

Years ago, as a Peace Corps volunteer, living and working in poor, rural communities, I began to grasp the concept of choice. I began to see that completely by virtue of where I was born – the family, the street, the city, the country – my life is awash in choice.

The ability to choose is a magnificent privilege.


Neltume, Chile

I can choose to be educated or not, to marry or not, to have children or not. I can choose my city and my career. I can choose my diet  and my doctor. These are choices that the people in my Peace Corps villages do not have.

I can choose my priorities.

For the last 3 years, I chose a basement apartment over a condo with a view. I chose one bike over one for every season. I chose to skip designer fashion and drinks.

I chose to save money.


Arlington, Virginia, USA

And with the money I saved, I chose a seven-month world tour over a down payment on a house.


As a holder of an American passport, I can choose from 147 countries to visit simply by showing up at the airport or bus terminal. No visa required. (More on that here.) My counterparts in Nepal and Ecuador wanted nothing more than to visit the United States. Just visit. But based on the country in which they were born and the passport they hold, the choice was not theirs to make.


Bhairahawa, Nepal

With my 147 options to choose from, I’ve been making my way around the world. Vietnam and Australia and New Zealand and Mozambique and South Africa and Swaziland and Chile. I have a few more months, 140 more options, and a heart overflowing with gratitude.


La Parva, Chile

None of this is to say that my choices should be yours. That would belie the meaning of choice. For the privilege of choice lies in the ability to choose, and not in the choice itself.

What choices are you making?


Mackay, Australia

And She Can Definitely See It Now

Chile_Forest for the Trees

She was living in Washington, DC. There, people would talk so much about their jobs. What do you do?, they would ask. I run, she would say. But that wasn’t what they meant. They would brag about how much they worked. And worry too much. About salaries, and proposals, and promotions. Sometimes it was hard to see the forest for the trees. So she traveled to Patagonia to stand in the middle of the forest. And she can definitely see it now.


That time the Ironman CEO asked me why I race pro

Juxtaposition. Danang, Vietnam.

“To understand me, you’ll have to swallow the world.” – Salman Rushdie, Midnight’s Children.

It was the inaugural Vietnam 70.3.

The morning before the race, I sat at a breakfast table with Ironman CEO, Andrew Messick. As a lifelong student of international affairs, I took the opportunity to ask him about the challenges Ironman (and Sunrise Events) faced in pulling off an event of this caliber in Vietnam, a country in early stages of economic development, under single-party Communist rule, and with only the tiniest of triathlon communities. When he noticed my questions were rooted in something deeper than small talk, the conversation shifted to my education and then to my career in strategy consulting.

One by one, the others moved on with their mornings, until only Mr. Messick and I remained in conversation. When we eventually got up from the table, it was his turn to ask a question. “Why do you race pro?”

As I gathered my thoughts, Mr. Messick tried to answer the question for me, “it’s for the free registration, right?”


(As a side note, registration for pros is not free. Qualifying athletes pay a fee of $800 that covers registration for WTC events for the calendar year.  And there are no refunds or transfers, even for injury.)

Until his last comment, I had really enjoyed my conversation with Mr. Messick. He has received a lot of negative press for perpetuating gender inequality in sport, but I had pushed that aside and found common ground elsewhere.

(If you know the basics of the Ironman gender equality debate, move on to the next paragraph. If you are interested in learning more about WTC’s institutionalized discrimination of female professional athletes and the context in which I viewed Mr. Messick’s comment, here are a few pieces to get you started: 1) Interview with Chrissie Wellington, Ironman legend; 2) Article from Julia Polloreno, Editor of Triathlete Magazine; and 3) Tri Equal’s homepage.)

After injuring my hip in March, I was all smiles to be running again!

I told Mr. Messick that my initial voyage into triathlon had been motivated by a desire to raise awareness for the Multiple Myeloma Research Foundation (the MMRF). I explained that the MMRF’s tireless work to bring blood cancer treatments to market had extended my father’s life and that I use triathlon as a vehicle for giving back to the organization that has given my family so much. My hope in racing specifically as a pro though, I explained to Mr. Messick, is to shine a brighter spotlight on the MMRF than I could do as an amateur, to further elevate the foundation’s status, and to give more hope to more cancer fighters.

I am not sure why he asked or what he’ll do with the information or if he’ll remember our conversation at all, but I stopped there. There were so many more reasons, but this wasn’t the venue for a conversation of such magnitude.

Mr. Messick would have had to come with me the following week on my bike trip through rural Vietnam to understand why I race as a pro.

For the same reasons I climbed Half Dome with my dad on my 16th birthday, and taught at a high school that serves five Indian reservations, and lived in a rural Nepali village without running water, and taught sex education in the northern Andes, and backpacked through Central America and Indonesia and Cambodia, and climbed to the top of Borneo’s highest peak, and studied 16 hours a day for 2 years to get my masters degree in foreign service.

That is, to seek a greater understanding of my world, and to use that knowledge to leave it a better place than I found it.

I’m not sure Mr. Messick will ever see this post, but if he does, I hope the pictures and captions that follow convey what Julia Polloreno, Editor of Triathlete Magazine, wrote on my rapid rise in the sport: “For (Kendra), triathlon is simply a medium that allows her to live more adventurously, consciously, gratefully.”

And now, my trip through northern Vietnam in pictures and words:

I cycled through this northern Vietnamese village at the end of lunch hour, which the school kids spend at home with family. Three of the kids ran alongside my bike for 2 miles on their way back to school and then invited me into their classroom. And just like that, it felt like Peace Corps again.

I leave the comfort of my borders to gain perspective, to contrast my views, to challenge my preconceived notions. Before I was here, I never stopped to think what the Vietnamese would call the war. In Vietnam, they call it the American War. #howsthatforperspective

The Original Farmers’ Market. Danang.

When I moved from my homestay in town to the race hotel, I took a lesson from the locals. Don’t hire a taxi. Figure out a way to transport it all myself!

She may not look like much, but today the Bumble Beast carried me 60 miles from outside of Hanoi into rural Vietnam. Just the first of a four-day bike trek to the Chinese border, to Sapa, and to adventures I can’t even dream up yet.

Picking up a few bike handling tips from the locals. #harderthanitlooks

Recruiting Young Talent.

I live for the sweet spot of travel, when the people I meet are as fascinated with me as I am with them. I lost track of how many times I found that sweet spot on my cycling adventure through Vietnam.

During a wet and windy morning of cycling, my fingers had gone numb. So you’ll understand why I stopped to try everything this woman was grilling in her shop – eggs, corn, chestnuts, sweet potato, and bamboo sticky rice. And the tea. Oh, the tea.

The little guy really wanted to be in the picture with me. He is H’mong, one of the ethnic minority groups in NW Vietnam. They have preserved their dress, language, and customs. His people farm the terraces down below us.

When I pedaled past this rural soccer field, I saw more than an impeccable pitch. In its manicured surface, I saw a community that had reached the stage of development that allows precious resources to be reallocated to sport. Soccer explains the world, Franklin Foer wrote. And if he’s right, then this field tells a story of Vietnam rising.

Find a way.

Pedaling a heavy bike through the backroads of #vietnam forces a pace slow enough to see and feel what I’d otherwise miss in a car on the highway. And don’t we all need to remember – or to learn for the first time – how life feels in slow motion?

As we cycled through quiet villages, I asked my guide if I might, as an American, encounter hostility or resentment. My guide, like all of his generation, lost aunties and uncles in the war. No, he said without hesitation, that is part of history. We look forward, he said. We don’t live in the past. #wisdom #sportsdiplomacy

This morning I gave my muscles a little pep talk. We’ve been moving forward for a long time now, guys. (A lifetime, really.) Today, we’re going up. Lan Ha Bay.

I wanted to ask her, when it’s all around you everyday, do you still see it? And then I wondered how I’d answer that question in my own backyard. Lan Ha Bay, Gulf of Tonkin, Vietnam.

Kayaking into my dreams. Lan Ha Bay.

I was alone. I was five miles from town. I was exploring remote caves used as hospitals during the war. I slipped. There was blood. A young man in an old truck stopped. I didn’t speak his language. He didn’t care. He washed my wound with his drinking water. He held napkins to it. He drove me into town. He bought me this medical kit. After holding myself together for five miles, this gesture melted me into sobs. And he wouldn’t even let me pay him back. #payitforward

In the sauna called #vietnam, I have to drink a full bottle every half hour of my bike ride. Luckily, I can always find a coconut lady with a machete and a smile. #locallysourced #farmtobottle

A massive thanks to my sponsors:
Zoot, for my awesome kit, shoes, and speedsuit

Amy’s Kitchen, for my organic, non-GMO, vegetarian fuel

SmartWool, for keeping my feet happy

Nalgene, for optimal hydration in the Vietnamese sauna

Rose Physical Therapy, for getting me across that line

TheMMRF, for giving me the ultimate reason to race

And to these awesome people:

My coach, Tim of QT2

Fred, Princess, Shirley, Bang and everyone at Sunrise Events

Thao, my awesome roomie

Jason, my host

Mr. Ban, the incredible bike guide from Indochina Bike Tours

On Departures and Arrivals

Roam Map

Vagabond, my friend calls me. You’re in love with leaving. 

As I pack my room, her words drift around in my head.

I was 30 the first time I bought a real bed. The thought of owning something that wouldn’t fit into my car gives me anxiety. My car is a MINI Cooper.


I live in a basement apartment. I own no couch, no desk, no bookcase. The emptier the room, the fuller my dreams.


In my empty basement apartment, you’ll find stacks of Lonely Planets where a table might otherwise be.

For the next seven months, I will be the vagabond my friend calls me. I will leave over and over again.

Cities, countries, continents.


This is the long way home, I tell my friend.

In January, “home” becomes an empty apartment in Portland, Oregon.


Every arrival has a departure. Or is it the other way around?

You’re in love with leaving, my friend tells me.

It’s not the departure I love, I tell her. It’s the arrival. 

Michel Comte Tatjana & Zebra 1996

Life’s Only True Opponent

Life of Pi Boat

Fear is life’s only true opponent, Pi of Yann Martel’s Life of Pi tells us. And he should know.

After a storm on the high seas claims the lives of his zookeeper family and (almost) their entire herd of wild animals, he lands in a lifeboat. For 227 consecutive days, he battles to see the next morning with the only other survivor, a bengal tiger.

Tiger Life of Pi

[Fear] is life’s only true opponent, Pi tells us. It goes for your weakest spot, which it finds with unnerving ease.

For most of us, the weakest spot is the unknown.

You must fight hard to shine the light of words upon [your fear], Pi explains.

Because…if your fear becomes a wordless darkness that you avoid, perhaps even manage to forget, you open yourself to further attacks of fear because you never truly fought the opponent who defeated you.

Ellie by Nicholas Claridge

There is a positive correlation, it seems, between the degree of unknown and the paralyzing impact of fear.

Fear and Unknown

There is also a positive correlation between time lapsed in an endurance race and the number of unknowns encountered.

Shark in the Water

The rain, the wind, the flu, the accuracy of bottle handoffs, the number of tacks in the road, the rate of rainfall versus the speed at which sewers overflow.

Storm at Sea

These are the unknowns in endurance racing. These are the fears that Pi instructs us to identify, to name, to become so familiar with that they cannot exist in the “wordless darkness.”

They are all aiming for me

But in racing, as in life, there are simply too many unknowns to separate out, to name, to categorize, to label.

And so it goes, that we prepare for everything, and then accept that we can’t prepare for everything.

And then we prepare for that.

So how exactly does one prepare for what one can’t prepare for?

In a word, travel.


To a place that’s hard to find on a map. To a destination devoid of your comfort foods, where transportation and promises aren’t delivered on time, and where you have to relearn all the things you take for granted—how to communicate, how to eat, how to shower, and if you’re lucky—how to use the toilet.

Goffredo_Nepal 7

In joining the Peace Corps, I had to temper my fear of the unknown. I didn’t know where they would send me, what I would do there, what language I would speak, or how homesick I would get. To the extent that I could, I prepared for those unknowns. But nothing could have prepared me for what I encountered when I deplaned in Nepal. Even in an international airport, even in the country’s biggest city, it was hard to recognize that thing they called a toilet. And the toilet paper. Where in god’s name was the toilet paper?


Not long after I landed, my gregarious Peace Corps trainer taught me how to use a Nepali bathroom. That is, how to go without toilet paper. Because that is how I’d be going for the duration of my rural service.


So there it was, the first of many more times in that foreign land, I was forced to relearn a task I’d been operating on auto pilot for most of my life. Forced to reframe the way I think—about certain bodily fluids and my left hand and the strict boundary between the two.

Goffredo_Nepal 6

So what do you do once you arrive in the unfamiliar land you’ve chosen as the battlefield between you and the unknown?

You rehearse.

Rehearse meeting these unknowns, rehearse calming these uncomfortable feelings, rehearse facing these frustrations.

You rehearse meeting them not with the fear of the unknown, but with the fearless wonder of a child.

Goffredo_Nepal 5

Because that is the attitude that will prepare you to face all that you can’t prepare for.

In a race.

In a relationship.

In life.

And that, like Pi explains, is how we defend ourselves against life’s only true opponent.

Two Railroad Tracks Diverge

Ready or Not

Guatemalan Bus

When I was 22, I bought a one-way ticket to Guatemala.

For five months and through five countries, I collected conversations. I tucked away these conversations like dollars in a winter coat, sometimes forgetting them but always rediscovering them when I least expected it.

In one such conversation I came to know Maarten, a young but wise Dutch engineer on a year-long expedition.


Maarten, Kgo, and Andrea – Las Isletas, Nicaragua

During his trip, Maarten fell in love and, long before he was ready, became a father. With equal parts fear and excitement, he remarked that though he certainly wasn’t ready for fatherhood, it’s not likely he ever would have been.

That’s the thing about life, he said. If you wait until you’re ready, you never will be.


Wise Maarten and Mentee Kgo

This past December, I was studying the Lonely Planet travel guides, cross-referencing epic volcano hikes and triathlons–two of my favorite pastimes.


I stumbled upon a match in the Chilean town of Pucon.


There, I could swim-bike-run my way across the finish line one day and summit a volcano the very next.


There was just one problem. The race for January 2015 was already sold out. Sold out, that is, but for one small loophole. Registration for the pro field was still open. Though I had secured a professional qualification in 2012, I wasn’t ready for the professional ranks. Each time I qualified since, I continued to kick the decision down the calendar, always hoping next year would be the year I’d feel ready. And now, just a few weeks after my long off-season ended, I was perhaps the least ready I had been since my first qualification.

But when I least expected it, I found that old conversation with Maarten, stuffed into the pocket of my past. Like Maarten and fatherhood, I realized, if I waited until I was ready, I never would be. So I applied for my elite license, booked a flight, and packed my Ruster for my pro debut. 


Epilogue: It’s worth noting here that I landed in Guatemala before I could speak Spanish and without experience traveling alone. In so many ways, I wasn’t ready for that trip. But it was during that trip that I learned to communicate in Spanish, climbed my first volcano, and watched my first triathlon. And the rest, as they say, is history. Now it’s your turn. What have you been putting off because you aren’t ready? Isn’t it time?

Find a Way

Thank you:

To the MMRF for giving me the ultimate reason to race.

To RosePT for getting me to the starting line healthy.

To Ruster Sports for making tri travel a lot easier and much less expensive.

To Nalgene for keeping me hydrated for two weeks of Chilean adventure.

To Zoot for the best wetsuit, tri kit, and shoes.

To SmartWool for socks that I wore for training, racing, and then summitting volcanoes.

To Coach Tim of QT2 for telling me to race the races that excite me.


No oversize bag fees. Go Ruster!