The irony of Montenegro’s “wild beauty”

Everything appeared lush and green. Every shade of turquoise or blue under the sun seemed even more dramatic along the Montenegrin coast. Is that a snowcapped mountain facing the Bay of Kotor? This bay is huge! The bus driver isn’t exactly taking his time. He’s zooming around the Bay of Kotor. There’s large puddles from the rain. The road is hella slippery. Sharp turns over a mere two hour bus ride is not exactly my forte.

Welcome to Montenegro! Are those advertisements along the cliff wall? On one side is a stunning show of the Adriatic Sea. Endless horizon, wispy clouds, and so much sky. No islands in sight. Not at all like the islands that seemed to converge upon Split. Look, they’re advertising furniture on that cliff face! Interesting choice.

In Budva, the Old Town was an unusual mix of konobas, English pubs, beer gardens, and Chinese restaurants. Everyone has a kid. You could probably trip on a stroller if you’re not paying attention.

Along the water, you’ll find fishermen offering their boats as a taxi to one of the many beaches that you can only reach by water. You can even take a water taxi from Budva to Sveti Stefan!

Back in Przno, there’s maybe five restaurants, a few bars, and a really big casino, which appears to be the highlight of this once quiet fishing village.

The brightly lit building with spotlights is Casino Maestral. Along the Adriatric, the "maestral" is the name given to the pleasant summer breeze.

The building in the center is Casino Maestral. On the Adriatric, “maestral” means a pleasant summer breeze.

Just behind it is the hilly community of Podlicak, our home for the month of May. The rent was unbelievably low for the shoulder season (but nearly triples for the peak season). We had a great setup for work and we were reasonably close to the city.

There were trails leading up to the mountain near where we stayed, but it literally felt like running up a mountain. We also didn’t learn until after three attempts at reaching the ridgeline that horned vipers are quite common around these parts. Chris practically stepped on one in our neighbor’s backyard.

That meant, I couldn’t really wander around the rocky trails by myself. So I was left with running the route to Sveti Stefan and back. There was a coastal path that almost connected Przno to Budva, but it required a 400m walk along the main road. Why are there no sidewalks? Further south is another town, Petrovac, which had a few trails nearby but it was a hike to get there.

The thing is, though, there used to be plenty of trailheads around the area. Looking at satellite views of Przno, we could see where the paths begin but when we’d go there, there would be a condo being built on top of it. Or the trailhead is now behind someone’s private property so you can’t get to it. There is just so much development everywhere. It’s not hard to imagine that, in ten years time, there just won’t be much wild beauty left along the coast.

For now, it’s still pretty incredible once you gain a bit of elevation, and Miločer really does feel like a park early in the morning. Although, if you start anytime after 7:30am, all you’ll hear is construction work in every direction.

Sveti Stefan from Miločer Park.

Sveti Stefan from Miločer Park.

Some of the best views of Sveti Stefan were all from the hillside.

Some of the best views of Sveti Stefan were all from the hillside.

The view from our local bar.

The view from our local bar.

Storms rolling in...

A familiar view of storms rolling in from our top floor apartment.

One of the beaches in Budva, viewed from the citadel.

One of Budva’s beaches, viewed from the citadel.

I can see the appeal. The beaches are beautiful and a swim in the ocean will change your entire perspective of this city.

From Split to Przno

We were chasing clouds on our way to Montenegro. They just sort of sat along the road like spectators to a show of travelers passing through. As if to say you think Croatia’s beautiful when it sunny? Wait til’ you see this.

After Arcos, Split felt more like a home to my running. There’s no shortage of hills, trails, pedestrian paths, and ideal running weather. You can run along the shoreline to one of the smaller seaside towns south of Split or run north towards the tip of the peninsula within Marjan Hill.

Marjan, itself, is mostly a dense pine forest with both marked and unmarked trails. Some areas are rocky and remote, others are better paved and well-trodden. It’s often one breathtaking turn after another, with the wind at your back, and wildflowers, blackbirds, and butterflies to keep you company on the trails. Whereas, the main path towards the city is lined with agave plants, wild fennel, and wild asparagus.

Marjan is also a giant open playground for little dogs, kids, mountain climbers, hikers, and cyclists. Yet, for as many people who visit Marjan each day, it’s not hard to find yourself alone for miles at a time. It’s a place to be alone and to feel like you’re somehow part of this city.

So leaving it, was pretty tough. Actually, leaving Split meant saying goodbye to a beach that’s a 5min walk away from us. It was goodbye to wonderful cappuccinos by the riva, great beer selections, and unbelievably fresh seafood.

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Yet, there was also something exciting about being in transit again. We needed a temporary place while we figured out a more permanent stop. So we took a bus south – to Montenegro.

Our battered suitcases were piled on the sidewalk again; we had longer ways to go. But no matter, the road is life. –Kerouac

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This picture was taken from our bus and that long stark grey wall of mountains make up most of Croatia’s mainland coastline, which is about 1,777 km long. I think we’ve seen 1,500 km of it between Split to Pržno and back to Split then towards Rijeka before turning inland to go to Zagreb.

The trip to Pržno was about 7 hours including an hour and half stopover in Dubrovnik. It’s probably the shortest trip I’ve ever taken for multiple stamps in my passport on the same day. Although, perhaps, one of the few bus rides I’ve ever taken where the prospect of careening off a rocky cliffside didn’t seem outside the realm of possibility.

Dubrovnik was not at all what I expected. We didn’t see much of it, since we were essentially just passing through. Although, the Old Town was somewhat of a surprise. There were just so many tourist knick knacks being sold on the street and maybe twice or three times as many tourists as you might find within Diocletian’s Palace. The sheer size of the Old Town’s walls were unreal and so was the slice of pizza that made my day.

Best photo I got out of our rushed visit was with this guy in the background. I think it's awesome!

Best photo I got out of our rushed visit was with this guy in the background. I think it’s awesome!

So we continued even further south and, about three hours later, we finally made it to Pržno. An odd little tourist town that used to be an old fishing village. Pretty much the best view we’ve ever had for a temporary office space and home.

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What It’s Like to Move A Startup to Spain

It was sheer luck that Smashrun recently ended up in Spain. We  needed the change. Something about living in suburbia for the past year and a half felt wrong. We hadn’t seen most of our friends, we rarely went out, we spoke to only two other people on a regular basis and the highlight of our social life was waving to the lawn guys across the street once a week. Our work still felt tremendously meaningful, but our only outlet for stress was running around our neighborhood.

I get that it’s hard to achieve both meaning and happiness but that doesn’t mean it isn’t worth a shot. So, we packed up our bags, including a 30 lb computer tower and two monitors, and moved to a small town in Spain.

A Quick Background on Smashrun

Smashrun is our data crunching analytical site for runners. It started out as one of Chris’ personal projects, which evolved into a full blown repository for run data collected by various apps and devices. We’re a bit of a stats haven for runners, we shamelessly dig deep into the details of your run data, and we let our personality run wild when you break through a running milestone. Really, what’s the point if you can’t stay motivated?

Why We Moved to Spain

Arcos Trails

Sometimes it’s necessary to detach yourself from the familiar to rekindle your awareness of where you stand in your life. Talking to complete strangers in a foreign country can do that to you too. It flushes out your identity and reminds you of all the little things that you might not otherwise pay attention to like: why you’re an entrepreneur, why you moved to a small town in the middle of nowhere in Spain, or why you say you’re “American” when you were born in a foreign country and lived there for 10 years before leaving.

Speaking to complete strangers in a bar or a supermarket in a foreign language is so much worse than talking to a VC. You’re not even asking for capital and yet they want to know everything about your startup. In Arcos, they also want to know whether or not I cook, if I go to church, what my plans are for Christmas, and why I like to run. You’re always answering questions. You can’t not have an answer.

Travel fundamentally changes your life. Experiential lessons are often served more quickly than you might prefer, and that’s okay. Changing is living. This is why we moved.

But, why Spain?

The Spanish economy has suffered quite an economic catastrophe and they’re just starting to show signs of recovery. You would think that means everyone, everywhere, in Spain would be ridiculously and blatantly bitter, but you would be wrong.

Like most other small towns, people treat you like tourists for the first week or two but, it quickly changes when they realize you’re staying longer. It’s hard to not spend at least 20 minutes at the deli or meat counter without the person asking you about your day. I have to memorize all sorts of small talk before heading out, because I’m worried I’ll look like an idiot for not knowing what to say other than what I already said last time.

Our rent is only about USD $660/month and while our “line-of-sight” included internet is occasionally an embarrassment to be reckoned with, our neighbor and makeshift landlord across the street has run an ethernet cord from his house to our living room (across the street) so that we can average between 7MB/s – 12MB/s and work all day without skipping a beat.

Arcos is also notoriously well known for its hills. These hills stop you halfway up carrying your groceries, because you (at a ripe young age of 27, way younger than the 70-year old man walking past you) have to catch your breath. Chris, describes it perfectly:

There’s this one hill that leads up the side of the cliff face to the cathedral. We’re using that hill to calibrate a “Level 9″ hill difficulty on Smashrun. It kicks off at a 20% grade, and only rarely lets off, but the bit that’s not over 20% grade is hardly noticeable. Well, what with all the the sweat dripping in your eyes and the light-headedness precipitated by oxygen deprivation.

Each time I run this hill, I make it just a few steps farther than I did the last time before I have to start walking. Let me say that again. Before I have to start walking. No. Not slow down, not dig deep and find my inner champion, but walk….slowly…very slowly. And, when I start walking (very slowly) I don’t start running again, because quite frankly, I would have a heart attack and I would die on the spot. And then I would roll head over heels for next 10 minutes until I reached the bottom of the hill. And then this hill, this level 9 hill, would probably send a boulder rolling down after me and crush me with a kind of grim finality usually reserved for cartoon characters and blockbuster movie villains. You know, because, there’s a slim chance that some prospective hero who knew CPR might be happening by, and this is a hill that doesn’t take chances. It is just that kind of a hill.

This is our level 9 hill that we use for calibration.

This is our level 9 hill that we use for calibration.

These paths were not made for runners but, they sure do a good job of helping us perfect our hill index and tuning those performance factors.

Cost of basic goods?

  • 1 fresh baked loaf of bread: €1
  • 2 kilos of tomatoes: €1,40
  • 1 decent bottle of Tempranillo or a Verdejo: €2
  • 1/2 lb of jamón serrano: €2,33
  • 2 kg of mussels: €1,80
  • 75 grams of caviar: €1,50
  • 1 liter of milk: €0.64
This Is How We Did It

There’s really no secret sauce to how we pulled it off. Before the big move, I searched for all the cities in the world where the cost of living is low and where the internet is good. Then I cross referenced it with cost of plane tickets using ITA Software, I looked at AirBnb/HomeAway options, MindMyHouse, and cost of local travel (getting from the airport to the final destination).

My list actually started out with Nicaragua, Singapore, Munich, Panama City, Ecuador, and Buenos Aires.

Nicaragua, Panama City, and Ecuador were ruled out on the basis of unreliable internet, Munich was ruled out on high cost of living, and Buenos Aires was a steep plane ticket from the East Coast. We also thought about Budapest, but the language barrier was a minor deal breaker and, again, the plane tickets were no good in October. On a whim, we checked out Spain and the numbers aligned. We just needed a low cost of living, decent internet, and a good location for running, and we found it.

Startups Move to Connect or Reset

A lot of people would disagree with our decision to move to a small town in Spain without a startup community. You see, I’m convinced that founders uproot themselves for one of two reasons: to connect with other founders and seek funding or to seek change in order to break out of a mental rut. We fit the latter. Arcos is not a bad place to call home for a few months and it’s just enough of a change to jumpstart our creativity and keep us focused.

Smashrun in Spain

If you want a happy ending, that depends, of course, on where you stop your story. –Orson Welles

After a year and three months at Virginia Beach, I find myself surrounded, once again, with a thoroughly packed suitcase, an overnight backpack, and about two week’s worth of clothing. I took a quick inventory of what I consider “essentials” and noted two pairs of jeans and a pair of solid running shorts. For someone who runs everyday, I should really own more than one pair of shorts but, why mess with what works? It doesn’t take much to wash it and dry it overnight, get going the next day.

I have to admit I miss having more clothes. Or even just a pair of flats that would go with something other than my jeans. Flip-flops get the job done but, not so much during winter. It’s so liberating, though! The idea of living out of a backpack still appeals to me. The “not unpacking my suitcase until it’s laundry day” reminds me of college. My bank account right now reminds me of college! Although, I’m still about to squeeze in one more stamp in my passport before that account hits zero. Really, what’s the point of living if you’re not actually “living”?

I thought the sound of Kansas City had a nice ring to it. Right alongside Google Fiber. That didn’t really fly. Chris made a good point that if this is Smashrun’s final stretch before that fork on the road, we might as well enjoy it … in another country. So, sometime in the end of August, I narrowed down our list of destinations to Panama City, Ecuador, Buenos Aires, Budapest, Munich, Madrid, and Singapore. I cross-referenced it against places with high-speed internet access, low-cost of living, culture, and cheap flights to find Smashrun’s next HQ and we made our decision…

Arcos de la Frontera

This is Arcos de la Frontera. We’re gonna be there in 3 days. Here’s a quick aerial tour:

It’s located about six hours south of Madrid, an hour south of Seville, an hour and a half north of Gibraltar and a reasonably short train ride away from crossing the border into Portugal. Rent is cheap, internet is comparable to where we are now, very few distractions, and the opportunity to see Chris practice a little spanish como la Andaluth just makes it all perfect.

Don’t get me wrong, I like living by the beach (I’m a sun baby!) but I wouldn’t mind staying in a small town on the countryside surrounded by olive groves and vineyards, eating jamón ibérico, and seafood caught off the Atlantic or the Balearic coast.

Of course, the running would be tough. I’d get lost in winding streets, probably get chased by sheep. Or cows. Maybe chickens. It’ll be a perfectly good time! And those hills? Just think “thighs of steel”. I’ll be so ready for marathon season next year.

We’re in a good spot, though. We have awesome runners using Smashrun! Just truly awesome people. They give us lots of good reasons to keep doing what we’re doing. And, I know that sounds really corny but, I’m trying to be sincere here and usually when I try that, things come out super corny.

We have huge plans for Smashrun. I mean: monumental. We’re venturing into some serious data crunching territory, beautiful maps, cross-run analytics, and new badges! I am dying for this release to go live. We’re counting the days.

There will be another week or two more of long nights. A lot of testing. So much time will be spent comparing and contrasting data aggregates from different device sources and file exports from different apps. Working on something that requires so much attention to detail should sufficiently prepare me for the end of year tax season.

Let’s do this.

In Virginia Beach: big fish, not-your-average drinks, and history 101

Chris has a theory. The reason we only go to Asian restaurants in Virginia Beach is because the best food in Virginia Beach are probably made by people, not from Virginia Beach.

We’ve got a new ritual. When we want spicy food, we go to “the Thai place.” When we want sushi, it’s “Volcano.” Friday night Chinese? “Forbidden City.” We’re not creatures of habit when it comes to eating out, so you can imagine how confusing this is to me. But there’s something to be said about consistency: it doesn’t disappoint.

There’s also something to be said about laying low. When you’re bootstrapping, going out can take on a different meaning for your savings… err.. budget. So you buckle down and find other ways to unwind. You know… like cooking your own classy meals.

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And making your own killer cocktails.

Alabama Slammer & Lynchburg Lemonade

Below: a gimlet with a twist.

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Oh.. and we brewed beer. A lot of it. Besides, it’s not like you can just walk into any bar and find a pumpkin ale that had real pumpkin boiled with the wort and had a cup of pumpkin spice and vanilla infused vodka thrown in before bottling. That’s a strictly Chris and Jacklyn craziness that only happens after 6 long work days, lots of bugs, and several hard runs later.

Switchblade Jack Pumpkin Ale

We’re also lucky that Virginia is steeped in history. And most places of interest are within a short drive. The oldest stone fort in the United States – Fort Monroe – is less than an hour away from us.

Fort Monroe Artillery

Remember the Battle of the Ironclads? The three-hour long standoff between the USS Monitor and the CSS Virginia took place just across Fort Monroe. And, of course, there’s Colonial Williamsburg and Jamestown.

Sadly, we didn’t really get much of a chance to explore Williamsburg… our gps navigator told us to turn right somewhere we shouldn’t have and ended up at Waller Mill Park. There’s a trail that takes you around the reservoir at just under 2-miles (3.2km) return. It winds around with a few steep ascents, some renegade tree roots and aggressive rose bushes here and there, and what you might call a dense carpet of acorns in every direction. We even found ourselves on a “drive-through” history lesson on Jamestown Island and and saw the fall colors emerging by Sandy Bay.

Sandy Bay

And somewhere in between all that beauty of nature and Jamestown’s history, is where Pocahontas grew up!