Monday, July 3, 2017

Life and Merrill's Mile RR: having the courage to be as raw and real as possible

July 1st, 1:30 p.m.

For the umpteenth time in my life, when things didn't go as planned, I have turned to running for a bit of therapy. Partially for the ability to feel in control of something, but partially to physically exhaust myself to the point that I am more patient, more kind, and more understanding. Sometimes I need those qualities to treat other humans better, but more likely, I need it to treat myself better.

Losing my job just over a week ago was a direct punch to the face. It was unexpected and certainly left me questioning everything I have done as a professional. I went through all the grief emotions. And though I felt enormously flawed, I also couldn't help but feel guilty. Guilt because of all the things I still was grateful to have. Tremendous people in my life that have lifted me up. A roof over my head and food in my belly. A healthy body. The ability to keep dreaming despite feeling pushed to the ground. But there is no denying that there were dark moments over the last 10 days. 

I told myself I would give myself a calendar week at the very least to consider my options. I updated my resume, made contacts on LinkedIn, reached out to former colleagues, and forced myself into becoming comfortable talking about it. I started with the most appealing positions first and slowly moved into things that I would consider or felt I met the qualifications. 

Radio silence until Wednesday.

In the first few days, I dreamed about the AT as an outlying possibility. It wavered from really possible to really financially irresponsible and I pecked at research. Because I wasn't hearing anything back immediately from any future employer, I allowed myself to fester on this dream. Advice trickled in and I even went so far as to compile a list of gear I would need to begin the journey.

But Wednesday came and I got my first bite of returning to work as a "normal" adult. It made me feel empty inside. I went through the motions of the interview and while I could picture myself in the position, it didn't make me feel any sort of joy. At the end of the day, I knew that if prolonged, I would have to accept whatever was offered to me. I could always look while I worked, but I feared that I would get stuck in something that I ultimately did not want to be doing. And I don't want to live to work. I want to work to live. 

Again, the guilt. I should be grateful for any opportunity. I should take whatever it offered. 

But Wednesday morning, I had found out about a former colleague passing away far too young and wrote a brief manifesto about my crossroads. I went for a run. I started out slowly as it was taper week and I had already used my rage energy to run a 5:57 mile the previous Friday. My mind was wandering and as I made the turn around, I started to get sad and angry again. Sad that the stupid adage of "only the good die young" was so poignant in the situation. And angry that it took someone's death to make me aware of my life.

It seems like a simple decision when put into that context.

But as the week came to an end, I had 5 interviews and the very millennial attitude of I only want something that enjoy. Am I sabotaging my own chances of being a viable employee? What if I turn something down and I don't get any more offers? Am I being too greedy and should I just be gracious with what I am offered?

I'll never know how the other way would turn out. That's the thing about decisions. You don't get a redo. My logical brain is weighing the pros and cons so hard on every situation that I feel like my brain is going to explode. And the few minutes I find in peace every day without the anxiety of the unknown are rare.

But when I run, I am at peace. It is all I have to do in the moment. It is all I have to concentrate on. No matter what else is going on, I cannot change the past and I cannot worry about the future.     

July 1st, 7:30 p.m.

Adam and Megan have traveled an hour to see me off. There is no trade-off for them as spectators and I cannot help but feel overwhelmed by the fact I have such good people in my life. Dan raps on my car window in the rain and tells me that his wife and daughter are also staked out in the car. A short while later, the rain stops and Adam helps me pull out my gear. Jay has come down from Raleigh on a very last minute decision to cross Georgia off his list. Soon after, I see Sam out on the course, plugging away at his 100 miler. And look, Sarah and Sean are here too!

We chat a bit with everyone and bide the time until the 9:00 p.m. runners line up at the starting line. A few of us are called to check our timing chips and suddenly, it's go time.

There is a pack of us that starts out running mid-9's very comfortably. Jay and I are super chatty the first mile and I almost forgot that we had spectators as we came around the first lap. Hi Megan! Hi Adam! It is surprisingly comfortable for an evening in July in Georgia and after a long week of limiting my runtherapy due to the taper, I am ready for some miles.

On the second lap, I high-fived Megan and gave Adam a kiss before they took off for the evening. Our pack continued to go around and around for the first hour with steady conversation and introductions. I had been outed as the overall winner from the prior year which put pressure on me in both good and bad ways.

At the 45 minute mark, I stopped to grab a gel and my handheld. 12 hours is a long time to stay on top of calories and hydration and I was hoping that I could be as successful as last year. The pack thinned a bit in the next hour and then it was just Jay and I. Every time I saw someone on the course, it was a boost and though I didn't run with Hal, he did leave me a bag of popcorn in my camping chair.

I had another gel at about an hour and 30 minutes in and that marked the end of any strategy for nutrition. Jay and I separated at some point and I started just clicking off the miles in the low 9's. At first, I was a little concerned to lose company so early on. However, it did make it much easier to just run by feel and not be as concerned with staying in stride. I continued to reevaluate my effort and backed off when I felt like I was pushing the needle a little too far.

By the end of the 3rd hour, I was feeling good about my overall pace and pretty much on track to repeat the prior year's performance. It rained for about 15 minutes or so and I was happily cooled off. My guts were rebelling a bit and I felt instant relief after a porta-potty jaunt. My miles in the 3rd-4th hour were some of the best, but I was digging myself into a hole by avoiding calories and hydration. I ignorantly clipped off some sub 9's and would later pay the price.

After hitting the marathon mark just past the 4th hour, I picked up my iPod as a treat. The rain caused one of the earbuds to be full of static and so I just had one in my ear. Coupled with my inability to be comfortable at time, the music situation was hurting more than helping. I think I ended up tossing it onto my chair after about 3 laps.

Hitting 50K was the next milestone and I was plunging hard and fast into the pain cave. I stopped talking to people as I went by. The next 2 hours were completely and utterly miserable. I knew I needed to eat, but I kept passing the aid station because my stomach was a wreck. As the 6 hour mark loomed, I desperately wanted to throw in the towel. Everything hurt. My stomach, my legs, and worst of all, my mind. I couldn't wrap my head around running for 6 more hours.

I went to the darkest crevices of my mind. The self-loathing was cutting me deeper with each mile. I screwed up at life. And now I am screwing up running too. Mentally, I was 99% certain that there was no way I was going to find a happy place again in the race.

At 6 hours and 28 minutes, I stopped to do damage control at the aid station after emptying my guts at the porta-potty. I knew even if I was going to spend the next 5+ hours walking, I needed to get my stomach under control. I ate a slice of orange and drank a cup of ginger ale. I walked about 50 feet beyond the start/stop line and started making noises like a dog about to puke.

And then I puked everything I had just consumed. 6 violent and painful pukes.

I brushed my mouth with the back of my arm and stood still for a moment. And then I moved tentatively forward. Into a walk. Into a jog. Into a run.

Though I knew I was basically running on empty, I felt better than I had for about 15 miles. I gave myself a few more miles and then decided to try some broth. I'm not a soup person. And I was shoving ice in my sports bra half the night to stay cool even though it was in the 60's. But Sarah's love broth was a magical experience. I drank a cup of it and within minutes, felt like someone had injected me with a power boost. As I came around with my empty cup in hand, I asked for a refill.

At 8:14, I passed the 50 mile mark. 7 minutes slower than last year. I felt a little defeated and couldn't do the runner math to figure out that I still had a shot at a repeat performance. But the broth definitely got my body going in the right direction and though the miles were wearing on me, I was in a much better spot than the 2 hours prior.

My strategy dropped into the run/walk category over the next 12 miles. I would start walking at the start/finish line and pick up at the D2 sign. It was maybe about 1/8th of a mile. It would allow me a minute or so to digest the few things I could manage at the aid station. And mentally, it gave me something to look forward to every lap.

As the sky started to lighten, I felt a sense of relief knowing that I could get rid of my headlamp and visor. Plus, being able to see the other runners was huge. We could yell out to each other across the loop because we could finally see each other!

Nearing 7 a.m., I realized that I actually had a 100K PR that I was about to beat. This gave me a huge mental boost towards the end. And last year, I was trying to just hit 100K so I stopped and did a lot of walking after reaching my goal. This year, I had a shot at cracking 70 if I stuck with it the last 2 hours. I allowed myself a little bit longer walk as reward for the 100K and then kept on plugging away.

My mind was settled, my stomach was tolerable, and now I just had to overcome overuse soreness. The upper outer portion of where the hip meets the glutes meets the thighs on both sides were aching. Of the three pains, I can handle the body soreness easiest so I was relieved that this was the devil I was dancing with late in the race.

I really wasn't paying much mind to the overall standings until the last couple of hours when Jay checked on them. Loop races are weird because you never really know who is in first. Even the fastest runners will stop for aid and walk at some points. I was a lap ahead of the field and unless I experienced a breakdown and/or someone found a second wind, it was likely I could pull off an overall win.

Sean was pushing me to go for 71, 72, but I was definitely content to hit 70.X. As soon as I realized that hitting 70 was a possibility, I really just stayed in the moment. There was no outside noise. No dwelling in the past. No dreaming about the future. Just one foot in front of the other. Breathe steady. Stay moving.

The best part of the race usually is the last mile. But this one was especially great because I got to finish with Joseph and Cary who had been part of our pack at the beginning of the race. Both had hit the 100K mark and we all walked the last mile together with less than 20 minutes left on the clock. I don't even remember what we talked about, but that kind of camaraderie in ultras is easily the best part of doing them. It was so distracting that the finish and finish line experience was kind of a blur.

We all stood around and talked for a bit before collecting our medals and going about the rest of the morning. Jay and I had breakfast beers and sat soaking in the sun before we parted ways. I bid Sam good luck as he continued his 100 mile journey and high-fived John on my way out.

As I drove down the winding roads heading home, I honestly couldn't believe how dark things got around 3:30 a.m. and how I somehow managed to keep going. The body is an extraordinary thing--I am grateful for the one that allows me to do what I love. These experiences prove that things don't always go as planned. And maybe it's a bunch of idealistic hogwash, but I like to think that getting roughened up makes me appreciate all the things I am still so fortunate to have.


Sunday, June 18, 2017

Midsummer's Dream Year 2: Sweet Revenge

I wanted revenge on this race. The 2016 version was by far the worst I have ever felt in a race. In my life. I've run longer and harder before, but last June, I took a serious trip to Funkytown and was physically uncomfortable for about 80% of the race.

I was so afraid that I was going to have a repeat of last year that I hesitated to sign up until the week of the race. I had a miserable training run on Monday night. My legs felt like concrete and I had no energy. I never cut runs short, but this was exceptionally bad.

So of course I went home and signed up for revenge on the worst race being held that Saturday.

I hadn't pinned a bib on since Boston and it seemed weird that I had gone 2 months without racing. But I had been running a lot--over 200 miles in May despite traveling 16 days in Europe. And before last night, I had racked up 100 miles in June.

There was a teeny bit of a taper in the days leading up to the race, but I had logged 58 miles the week prior and over 6,000' of ascent with my crazy run/hike/camp trip. I was a little worried that I wasn't going to feel fresh at the race, but I also knew that it was really important that I push myself now for my long term goals.

Luckily, I felt really good on my shakeout run on Friday afternoon and I was able to spend all day Saturday off my feet. I stuck with low fiber carbs, hydrated through the mid afternoon, and took a midday nap.

Dark clouds started to form as I drove the hour west towards the race site. As soon as I pulled into the parking lot, the sky opened up and it began raining sideways. Thunder. Lightening. Ugh. I texted John and decided to stay dry as long as possible. Around 8:15, I grabbed my umbrella and decided to pick up my bib so that I was ready even if the rain didn't quit by 9:00.

Fortunately, it started to slow down and I lugged my cooler and gear through the muddy gravel towards John's set up on the course. By the time I laid out my stuff and changed into my shoes, it was pretty much time to line up. I spotted Nikki and Pete and we made our introductions. Luckily, I was geared to go because without any warning, the start gun sounded and we all kind of looked around in disbelief.

A couple of kids took off first and beelined down the course. I tucked into the pack behind Nikki, Pete, and Nicole. Our group had a couple of other guys and the 6-7 of us stayed pretty tight through the first 4 loops. The course was a mess for the first hour. Huge puddles of water extended over the entire path and the single track section was muddy and slippery. There was one really bad section where mud and water was up to your ankles and there really wasn't any good way to avoid it. Being a 1.2 mile course, everyone knew that we would be dealing with the water and mud all night.

It was extremely humid after the rain. I looked around at the other runners and by the end of the first lap, everyone was coated in moisture. Shorts were sopping wet. Skin glistened. Temperatures hovered in the 80's. I knew I was in for a long night of staying on top of keeping my core cool and staying hydrated.

On the 4th lap, Nikki, Pete, and Nicole peeled off to their gear and I stuck with a guy who had been with our pack. I decided to grab my handheld that was half frozen from my cooler on the next lap and a gel. The guy was keeping a solid pace and holding just below 9s which was where I wanted to be.  I stuck with him another 2 laps or so and then stopped for a bit longer as we crossed lap 7.

I had been hungry since the start, but my digestive nightmare from the year prior had me fearing putting too much on my stomach. So I decided to just try to get calories every 45 minutes during the race. The first 2 gels went great. By the time I was at 2:15, I was feeling sloshy and not interested in eating. The next 45 minutes went really downhill, really fast. My mind was struggling big time. The only reason I was still moving ok was 100% muscle memory. I really, really wanted to quit at 3 hours.

The strange thing was that nothing inherently hurt. My stomach was sloshy, but it wasn't painful. It was warm still, but I wasn't overheated. My legs were tired, but I still had something to give. My mind drifted to the insanity that I was going to run twice as long in 2 weeks in nearly similar conditions.

I started making deals with myself. Make it to 3 hours. (Later: Make it to a marathon. Make it to 50K. Make it to mid-30s (re: 35). Make it to my course PR.)

Luckily, Dan, Casey, and Alyssa showed up around midnight. I have never been relieved for course support in my life. They came at my race low. I ran a half lap with Dan and while it didn't push me out of the funk immediately, it did help to reset my race. As I headed past the 3 hour mark (and didn't quit with the 3 hour racers so I had to keep going), I started aiming towards the marathon mark.

Dan and Casey ran with John for a bit and it was awesome to hear their cheers as we passed each other on the course. I was starting to alternate hydration every other lap. Sometimes I would stick ice cubes in my sports bra. Sometimes I would suck on ice cubes in my mouth. Sometimes I would annoy myself for a half mile as the ice rattled in my bottle. I guzzled Powerade at one point and felt better for a few minutes, but then had a bit of sloshy stomach.

I grabbed half of an Uncrustable just before the marathon mark, knowing it was critical I start getting calories in my system. Just before 4 hours, I crossed the 26.2 and kept right on going. I ran a couple more laps until I stopped at the aid station and promised myself a 5 minute walk break. A cup of jelly beans looked good and I grabbed a few pieces of watermelon. I threw this odd combination in my mouth and used the walk break to digest the calories.


I walked about 4 minutes or so total, but the break and the calories had me feeling human again. My legs were now the only source of ill as they were feeling tired at 4 hours, 20 minutes into the race. 50K was the next benchmark and Dan picked up a few miles with me.

Once I crossed the 50K mark at 4:44, I felt like I was going to be able to gut out the last hour. I wasn't quite sure if I was going to be running 9s or 11s, but either way, I'd end up in the mid-30s at least.

Dan ran a bunch of miles towards the end when I was far less talkative and far more focused. Luckily, he pushed the pace just enough. It was hard to hold on at times, but I just tried to keep up as much as possible. I grabbed some pretzels at one point towards the end and they were dry and hard to chew. I spit out half of them on the side of the track and kept running.

Doing some quick runner math, I knew I could do one more lap if I came in at 5:47 or faster. I told Dan I wanted to run in with a beer and that he was essentially relieved of his pacing duties when we got to the second to last lap. Fortunately, the knowledge that I could stop at the end of the final lap was enough to push me to run it sub-9.

Dan met me at the aid station with the beer and I ran down the final 100 meters with the cold can in my hand. Casey got a bunch of photos of me finishing and I was so relieved to just finally stop. I cracked open the cold beer and drank about a 1/4 of it as we stood around watching people come in to finish.

We got some more pictures with John and then we walked to our setup so I could change out of my shoes.

I started feeling queasy and hobbled over a few feet out of the way to puke a few times.

Oh running. Such a glamour sport.

Puking made me feel better fortunately. Casey walked down with me to pick up my finisher's medal, t-shirt, a few snacks, and hang out for the awards.

First place! 39.6 miles. A new PR!

We walked back to the setup and I worked on my beer while we cheered John on for a few more laps. As it neared 4 am, we all decided to call it a night. We all mourned a little that he still had many more hours to cover alone. It was a long, slow ride home, but I was happy to be in warmish, dryish clothes headed for bed. And happy to have (mostly) gotten revenge on this race!
Strava data here.

Sunday, June 11, 2017

How I lost my bear vault down a mountain

I think the first time I remember having my breath being taken away by nature was approaching the Grand Tetons from Yellowstone on a road trip my mom and I took in 2006. Every time I drive north towards the Appalachian Trail and see the peaks on horizon, I feel myself take a little gasp.

Anyone who knows me knows my obsession with endurance/survival stories. I love reading anything to do with conquering physical challenges and the bigger/longer, the better. I've read multiple books now about people hiking the AT and am fascinated by how many humans are drawn to this challenge on a yearly basis.

It's kind of surprising that while I done a number of trail runs and hikes on the AT, I had yet to do any proper camping. So being a complete newbie at anything beyond car camping, I thought I would take baby steps in this adventure. I decided on 2 days/1 night of running/hiking/camping. The "plan" slowly came together and I knew a lot of the adventure would just be deciding how I felt at the time. I borrowed a backpack from Megan and a sleeping bag from Dan and bought a bear vault to store my food.

I got up at 6 on Wednesday morning and had a quick breakfast before hitting the road to Unicoi Gap. My plan was to run south on the AT from Unicoi and aim for about 20 miles total. 10ish out and 10ish back. I knew the first climb would be tough and the elevation profile heading back would prove challenging on tired legs. But the purpose was to spend some time on the trails and get some ultra training under my belt.

The morning was unseasonably cool and I was super comfortable in a tank and shorts. I contemplated bringing a 3rd water bottle for my pack, but ultimately decided against it due to the weather and my water filter. 

From Unicoi, I began my adventure. The first mile was indeed a beast. Around 1000' of gain in a mile. I barely ran 10 steps and instead power-hiked for about 20 minutes. 
Fortunately, it leveled out a bit after a mile and then I enjoyed a nice little decline for a short while as I approached the Blue Mountain shelter. It was a bit rocky and technical so I just took my time as I traveled down the south side of Blue Mountain. Once I got to mile 3, I came upon a really beautiful descent full of ferns, greenery, and smooth single track. If you are a trail runner, you know this paradise is what we live for!

Though it was short-lived, I experienced a lovely little "up" on this section and had fun navigating the twists and turns as I descended the mountain. Soon, the trail returned to rocks and I was frustrated that I had to slow down and watch every step. Knowing that I wanted to keep the adventure going for another day made me a bit more cautious in my speed and step.
 Fortunately, I hit mile 5 and then cruised down a very low grade descent for the next 3 miles. There were a few hikers out and about, but it was really wonderful to just enjoy a bit of solitude. The temperature was holding out and while I wasn't feeling super fresh, I did feel like I had another few hours of good, hard running in me.
At Low Gap, I stopped and looked at my map and knew that another 1.5 miles was very doable (for a total of 20). I didn't have anywhere to be and I could spend all day running if I really wanted to. When I hit the 10 mile marker, I felt as though the terrain looked pretty familiar and so I pulled out my phone to look at some Strava data. Last summer, I ran south to north to a section very close to where I was. Comparing maps, I decided to close the gap and ran until I was sure I had passed the section. I was now at mile 11.3ish. I ate some jelly beans and took a selfie.
On the way back, I felt pretty decent through the rolling hills. But as soon as I started up the very gradual ascent, I started to hit my low point. I was still running, but it was very, very slow. And I had no energy. I had a Huma gel. I drank some water. I stopped at a teeny waterfall. I was really warm and looped my shirt up to get a little relief.
 I stopped to take a few pictures. 50% because the tree tunnel was beautiful. 50% because I needed to rest.
I knew I was nearing the rocky section, the climb back up Blue Mountain, and the terrifying descent of 1000' on dead legs. I'm not sure if it was the knowledge of completing the task at hand or if I just was riding the wave of a long run, but I did start to feel better towards the end. Though I wasn't really hungry, I was shoving gels and jelly beans down in order to give me any sort of boost I could get. I was getting pretty low on hydration, but there were plenty of water sources along the trail and I knew I could stop if I started to feel really bad toward the end.

Luckily, I hit those last 5 miles pretty smoothly and managed to do a short parking lot loop to hit 23 miles total on the day.
 I pulled out my camping chair and downed some icy water and a mandarin from my cooler. It was heavenly. Because it was mostly cloudy, I sat out for probably 30 minutes just relaxing after my run. There was no rush to get back to civilization. I was camping that night and it was only 3pm. I changed into a dry top very awkwardly in my car, ate half a bag of kettle chips, and fell asleep in my car seat.
When I woke up from my nap about 45 minutes later, I felt really good. I drank a bunch of water and then made my way to my next parking spot. A fire road with a river crossing and plenty of bumpy holes made for an interesting and beautiful drive to Indian Grave Gap.
I fumbled around in my car for a bit pulling all my stuff together to camp for the night. I planned to hike up to the top of Tray Mountain and find a spot to camp within a half mile or so of the summit. I could do a short run or hike that even if I had time and felt up to it. I shouldered my pack and headed up the trail. Though I had 23 miles under my legs, the walking actually felt good once I got into a groove. 
 There were a few scenic lookouts along the way up the mountain and it was really, really quiet as many hikers had likely stopped for the evening.

 I hit the summit and started to descend the other side after hiking nearly 3 miles. My pack must have started to bounce going down and my bear vault full of my dinner and snacks popped out of my pack. I had it wrapped with bungee cords around the top and it seemed to be okay in my short tests. Luckily, it fell towards the mountain and I retrieved it easily. I used my long-sleeved shirt to re-position the vault and then kept going. A short time after that, it popped out of the wrong side.

Tumbled down the mountain.

Like Plinko, it knocked into trees as it rolled easily down.

I threw my pack off and tried to listen for it as I awkwardly "chased" after it. The side of the trail was very vertical, very covered in thorny underbrush, and very hard to navigate. I went down about 1/10th of a mile and the very vertical trail dropped straight down. The only hope I had was that it might have landed in front of a tree. Except I couldn't even see my own feet because the underbrush was so thick.

Well, shit.

I stood for a moment. No food. 26 miles on my legs. 3 miles from my car.
The good news is that I was able to climb back up to the trail and easily find my backpack. I was hungry, but I knew that another hour of walking was not going to be horrible. I wasn't hurt. I had water. I was just really annoyed that I lost my $70 bear vault that I didn't even get to really use. And I really wanted that rice I had cooked the day before.

I hiked back down the mountain. I went through the stages of grief about the stupid vault. By the time I made it to my car, I was laughing at the stupidity of my situation. Though I wasn't smart enough to pack food in various places in my pack, I was smart enough to have a bunch of stuff in my car. So I opened up my camping chair and used potato chips as a spoon for a tuna pouch. Because my damn spoon was in the bear vault.

As I was sitting in my chair, a thru hiker who set up camp a feet away came over. His trail name was Pudge and he had just graduated college. We ended up have our weird dinners together. He had a Lipton rice/noodle thing and I had my tuna pouch/potato chip dinner. I was covered in mud up to my knees and I am fairly certain he probably hadn't showered since he left the prior Saturday. But somehow we don't even notice these things. We talk about our significant others, hiking, running, food, life, etc. I tell him about my bear vault (and he offers me food!) and how I am going to need to go back up the mountain at least partially so I am not car camping. He tells me that bear vaults are not really needed after June 1st. Or at least that's what he'd read. Doh!

After about an hour, I start to pack up my stuff again and offer him a mandarin from my cooler. I remember reading that many hikers crave fresh fruit because it is so hard to carry on the trail. He was thrilled at the offer.

As I shoulder my pack again, I tell him that I will leave my spare key in the gas cap for him in case he wants/needs anything from my cooler or the myriad of weird stuff I keep in my car. I tell him to use my camping chair as long as he'd like and just toss it in the car either that night or when he breaks camp in the morning. He seems shocked that I am trusting him with my 12 year old car after our brief encounter, but I think how the value of human experience is worth more than any junk in my car/including my car.

I head back on the trail and am comfortable hiking in my long sleeve. Oh wow. June. Georgia. And I am wearing a long sleeve. I make it to a clearing on saw on my initial ascent/descent and decide to set up camp.
 This is the view from my camping spot.
The sunset is very, very orange and though it is partially covered by trees to the west, I take a few minutes to just sit and watch the sky change colors.
As I climb into the tent, I realize I am still caked in mud from the day. I take my time using baby wipes to clean off the grit. Over 30 miles on my feet and 7.5 hours is certainly far from any distance or time PR for me in a day, but it definitely was a unique experience doing all of it solo.

 The wind was really strong throughout the night and I woke up a few times as it whipped through. However, I felt reasonably refreshed when I got up and started piling in the calories as soon as I could.
 The scenic view spot was a bust. It was incredibly foggy in the morning and the mountains were completely covered.
But it was also blissfully chilly and I got dressed and packed half in the sleeping bag. Once I got going, I was really comfy in a long sleeve and shorts.

I got back to my car around 8:00 a.m. and decided to go for a run along the fire roads because I was literally surrounded by mountains on the trails. With 5000' of gain in running the day before, I was happy to run just 1000' of gain. I ran a few miles in once direction and came back to my car before heading a couple in the other direction. I finished at 9:45 and my friend had arrived to hike a bit with me. I decided to run one more mile for an OCD and even 31 miles (50K) of running between the 2 days. Afterwards, my friend treated me with Starbucks and a yogurt smoothie. I downed both and we headed up Rocky Mountain. 
We hiked 1.2 miles to the top, had a little rest at the summit, and then turned around to head back. He needed to get back to Atlanta, but I was happy to share a little bit of my adventure with my running buddy.

I drove back to Unicoi Gap and then refilled my pack. I planned to hike the mile section of trail I had missed between Unicoi and Indian Grave and then play the rest of the day by ear. I saw an adjunct trail on my way up and remembered seeing the same trail name on my run earlier in the day. I used my map to find where it might intersect and headed that way. It was starting to get hot and I was glad when I finally found the the tree-covered trail again.
When I got back to my car, I was at 47.6 total miles between hiking and running. I didn't have anything else I had to do the rest of the day, so I decided to make that crazy climb back up Blue Mountain in lieu of going to another trail.

This was about a mile from the finish. I had to get back to my car so getting to 50 miles was inevitable.
 This picture of all the greenery was in the final descent. Like most nature photos, it doesn't do it justice. The sounds, the smells, the feel of the air. But don't worry, I can take you there!
50 miles total. 31 running. 19 hiking. 12,058' of gain. 160 ounces of water. A bunch of candy bars. 5 Huma Gels. 3 clothing changes. 1 bag of jelly beans. 1 bag of kettle chips. 1 bag of granola. A lot of dirt. A lot of character building moments. A lot of fun. Ready for my next adventure!

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Bucket List Trip to the Baltics (NRR-mostly)

It was late afternoon and sunlight was pouring from all open windows scattered throughout the flat. Our luggage was scattered across one room and we were scattered across the sofa in room facing the street. The four adjoining rooms were perfectly Scandinavian. They were functional, minimalist, and dotted with slivers of personality of the owner. I know absolutely nothing about jazz, but the rich instrumental music filled the space with quiet power. As we both nodded off, I felt secure, comfortable, and complete. It was an oddly perfect few hours of our trip--one that will stand out in my memories as the museums, castles, and art blur as time ebbs on.

I had long promised Adam a non-running trip. When his 40th birthday was rolling around this past December, we had been anxiously seeking various cruises to celebrate. Dubai, South America, Panama Canal, Southeast Asia, Greece, and the Baltics were all on the table. Ultimately, we drug our feet and couldn't make any decisions for months. However, I received a tip about an airfare war in March and within a couple of hours, we solidified our trip to the Baltics. 

Visiting Russia was at the top of my own list. After taking an Imperial Russia course at Emory as part of my history minor, I briefly sought out adding a Russian Studies minor to my diploma. Though I ended up 2 credits short in the end, I truly enjoyed the classes I took in Russian history and literature. My favorite book of all time is Doctor Zhivago and my collegiate copy is well-worn from multiple readings. Sometime before I neared 30, I started writing down a bucket list and included "Visiting the Hermitage Museum".

Though I knew our time in Russia would be limited for this trip, 2 days would give me enough of a taste to satisfy a bit of my curiosity. Current politics aside, the country has such a fascinating and unique history that seeing even a smidgen of it was going to make me happy.

Top 10 (in no particular order)
The Hermitage Museum
Stockholm with new friends
Tivoli Gardens
Eating outdoors in Tallinn
Soviet Nuclear site
Listening to jazz on Saturday afternoon in Copenhagen
Table 322 antics
Ice Bar
Run in Amsterdam (side note: I ran 104.4 miles on vacation!)
Painting Russian nesting dolls

Monday, May 1-Tuesday, May 2: Atlanta-->London-->Amsterdam
We flew from Atlanta to London, London to Amsterdam. I slept for about 6 hours on the overnight flight and felt anxious to spend at least of couple of daylight hours in Amsterdam being productive. Adam slept maybe 20 minutes on the plane and was exhausted. So I left him to nap in the hotel and I took off on a 5 mile run around the town.

I finished in a park a few blocks from the hotel and walked around a bit just enjoying a chilly afternoon. When I came back, we asked the front desk for a quick and inexpensive dinner recommendation and ended up getting a Hawaiian pizza (me) and a gyro (Adam) at a little restaurant near the hotel.

Wednesday, May 3: Amsterdam-->Copenhagen
Our flight to Copenhagen was super early and we ended up paying extra for the shuttle to get us to the airport at gross o' clock. We killed a little time at the Copenhagen airport Starbucks (re: I needed a Venti and a croissant) before we hailed a taxi to the port. I was a little nervous that it was too early to check in, but luckily we pretty much just walked right up and didn't even have to stand in a line!

We spent the next couple of hours grabbing lunch, saying good-bye to WiFi, and checking out the boat. I went to the gym for a run after the muster station drill and then enjoyed some wine on the balcony before dinner.

Our table of ten started out slowly with introductions, but warmed throughout the evening. There was an older couple from Israel who would only be with us the first night as they got their seating time mixed up, but the other couples would eventually be the people we spent most of our last day on the boat with. Kevin & Nicola from Ireland, Karen & Rodrigo from Guatemala, and Mike & Derrick from Philly (via Canada) would prove to be an added bonus to our amazing trip.

Adam and I had a drink at the pub after dinner and listened to the guitarist play a myriad of classic rock songs.

Thursday, May 4: Sea Day
Going across time zones, we lost an hour on our sea day. But Adam was still catching up on sleep and happily spent half the day lounging in our room. I made my way to breakfast and then hopped on the treadmill for 15 loooooong miles on one of 2 treadmills facing the mirror. Even my iPod couldn't save me from the boredom.

Adam and I got a late lunch after that and then wandered around the ship until we stumbled on BINGO. Sleep slapped me across the face at that point and so we went back so I could catch a nap myself before we got gussied up for formal night.

Dinner was even better with more conversation this time around and luckily there were very little lulls in the conversation. It was really fun getting to know people from all over the world and as each day progressed, I began to look forward to our dinners together more and more.

Friday, May 5: Riga, Latvia
We decided when choosing shore excursions to do a basic city tour in Riga. Our guide walk us around the small town and gave us information about various sites as we passed them. Most of the tour groups ended up listening to an organ concert for half an hour in the Riga Cathedral, built in 1211. Though it has been modified throughout the years, there was certainly that "old bones" feeling about the interior.

The tour itself was okay--it was difficult to hear our guide sometimes and we often would catch just the beginning or the end of the importance of a site. However, the day was absolutely stunning and seeing a city that looked very different than home was a great experience.

After returning to the boat in the late afternoon, I headed to the gym (again) for a 10 mile run. I was hoping to retain as much run mojo as possible and wasn't sure how much I could keep up the momentum as the trip wore on.

Saturday, May 6: Tallinn, Estonia
Tallinn was one of the few cities we didn't have an agenda. After speaking with my mom and a colleague, they both indicated that just walking around the old city was perfectly lovely and no tour was necessary. So we took the shuttle from the ship to the old town and proceeded to spend the next couple of hours wandering the streets of Tallinn. We saw beautiful flower markets, old fortresses, and cobblestone lined streets that looked like something out of a movie. I bought a hat from a wool shop and eventually, we sat down for beer and a hearty snack in the main square.

Sunday, May 7: St. Petersburg, Russia
Unless you apply for a private visa, the easiest way to see Russia while cruising as an America is to go with one of the ship tours. Disembarking the ship was vastly different here as each person had to have a 2-day visa created for them. Much in the way TSA checks your boarding pass and ID, the customs officials go over your documents. However, instead of glancing at you, the agent stares at you for an uncomfortable amount of time before creating your visa and handing you back your documents. 
As the Hermitage was on my "must do" list, I knew one of the excursions had to include a visit to this museum. We spent the first morning of St. Petersburg there and while it was a crazy chaotic mess from start to finish, it certainly did not disappoint me in the least. The architecture, the history, the collection of paintings, and opulence was incredible.

We were lucky that our guides gave us a few personal stories from growing up under Soviet rule, but they also seemed more guarded in sharing their overall opinions than in other former Soviet countries. The city is lined with blocks upon blocks of housing that look like giant warehouses with windows. They are simple and architecturally uninteresting. It is a vast contrast to the gilded palaces and cathedrals that were built during tsardom. 

We arrived back at the port just in time to take our second tour of the day--going to make our own Matryoshka dolls. The shop was a souvenir store, but we were tucked away in a corner with a few young women who were Matryoshka artists. A regular sized doll takes upwards of a week to paint and they do every little detail by hand. Apparently, the more decorated the smallest doll, the more the entire doll is worth. Adam and I had fun painting our absurd little dolls. He was lucky enough to get some professional help from one of the sweet girls who made the face on his look a little less scary. Mine just remained scary.

We bought a few items in the gift shop and then walked across the street as a tour group for "Russian tea". They served us blini with whipped creme and preserves and offered tea or coffee. It was a nice treat as we hadn't been able to eat any lunch between tours. We sat with a woman from Florida who had visited 90 countries and was on the boat for months at a time.
Back at the ship, we had open seating for dinner and while we missed our table mates, we ended up sitting with a sweet Irish couple who was celebrating their 40th wedding anniversary and an older Texan couple. It was interesting to just sit and chat with people that I likely wouldn't meet otherwise.

Monday, May 8: St. Petersburg, Russia
The second day in Russia was an all day tour that started at Catherine's Palace in Pushkin. We were able to get the scoop on the celebrations of Victory Day--May 9th. The whole city was preparing for parades and celebrations much in the same way we celebrate July 4th in the US. Streets were decorated with orange and black ribbons as a symbol of patriotic support.
Catherine's Palace is unreal. It even has Versailles beat in my opinion. I took a billion pictures because I just couldn't get over how everything seemed to be gilded in gold. Apparently, they have to go through and re-gild every 5 years? It is certainly one of those places that pictures do not do it justice.

My good deed of the trip came from walking during this tour. We could hear the guide through radio headsets, but it was one-way. Adam and I had started to fall towards the back of the group as we made a long walk from the gardens back to the bus. There was a woman walking with a cane in our group who was falling further behind us. At one point, we started to go out of hearing range of the guide and though I saw her turn in a mass of people ahead of us, the woman with the cane and her husband were way to far back to see the front of the group anymore. So I put my running to good use and sprinted ahead to the guide to let her know that she needed to stop the group and collect the people from the back. We all stayed put while the back of the packers were rounded up.

Back on the bus, we took a few photo stops in the city and then had lunch at a local restaurant where we had Caesar salad, meatballs & potatoes, and a spongy white cake for dessert.

After lunch, we stopped at the Church of the Spilled Blood. Named for the site of where Alexander II was murdered, this was definitely a trip highlight for me. Seeing the onion domes and unique architecture that is so quintessentially "Russian" in my mind was breathtaking. Plus, the festivities of the next day meant that Russians themselves were out in full force, enjoying a beautiful day in their city and lining the streets.

Our last stop was at the Peter and Paul Fortress. Once a prison and execution ground, it still houses the St. Petersburg Mint and most of the tsars buried in the cathedral. The inside of the cathedral is another glitzy building full of marble and gold.
Once we were back on the boat, I headed to the gym for a run and then we were happily reunited with our dinner table to discuss all of our Russian adventures.

Tuesday, May 9th: Helsinki, Finland
A visit to an ice bar was on the docket for Finland. We took a short tour of the city make our way around to a couple of government buildings, embassies, and historic sites.
We ended up seeing our Derrick and Mike from our dinner table while in the square and caught up briefly before hopping back on the bus. It started snowing just as we were heading to the ice bar!
Once we got to Unique Lapland, we were given ski bibs, boots, and gloves to change into. Everyone was able to take a shot of vodka from an ice cup if they desired and then could go play in the snow. There was an ice slide, skis, igloos, and sled dogs that would take people around a training course for an extra 20 euros. The facility is also used for cross-country skiers to practice and piles of snow could be seen in the center.

An hour was just about the right amount of time at the ice bar and we climbed back on the bus for one more stop at the Temppeliaukio Church. This church was built by a carved out piece of rock and has a beautiful copper domed roof.

Our tour allowed for us to be dropped off in the city center and take a later shuttle back so we decided to hang out in town a little bit. I was hangry and Adam was tired so we ended up stopping at Joe's Juice inside a giant shopping center to grab a snack, a coffee, rest, and WiFi. Russia had been very spotty and so we spent a half hour or so catching up and posting pictures before returning to the boat.

Wednesday, May 10: Stockholm, Sweden
Our Irish tablemates Nicola and Kevin (along with latecomer Cece) did not have any excursions planned for Stockholm so we paired up with them to ride the Hop On/Hop Off bus. Somehow, we managed to purchase tickets for the 2 different tour companies and I sprinted back to the ticket office to try to exchange ours. Luckily, they were able to switch them and after that minor SNAFU, we carried on with our day.
We saw important historical sites like the ABBA museum and parliament buildings, but ultimately decided to get off the bus at the old town square. With dumb luck, we happened to walk right up to the changing of the guard at the palace right after I purchased a French hot dog from a street vendor. Because. You know. Travel food.

We lost Cece to the changing of the guard so the four of us walked around the old square for a bit before returning to the Hop On/Hop Off bus. 

We landed back at an area recommended by a local to grab beer and food. There actually weren't a ton of options and we ended up in an Irish pub with Irish people in Stockholm? I tried a local beer and opted for herring as the bartender said it was the most Swedish thing on the menu.
 The four of us crammed into a taxi giggling and happily found Derrick and Mike when we arrived back on board. All of us went to the top deck for the most magical sail away party ever. We were drinking hot chocolate with Bailey's and mulled wine and it began snowing as we started to sail away. The Stockholm archipelago was even more beautiful with snow cover on the tiny islands. Gorgeous scenery, awesome new friends, a randomly fun day--our hearts were full.

 Everyone headed back to get cleaned up for our last formal night and we continued the party throughout dinner, at the atrium disco party, and at the dance club. It was insanely fun.

Thursday, May 11: Klaipeda, Lithuania
We weren't docking until noon so I used the morning to get in a short run before starting the rest of the day. It wasn't easy after drinking with the Irish all day, but I felt better after the first mile.

Derrick and Mike had also signed up for the Soviet Nuclear Site tour and we arranged to meet beforehand to ensure we got on the same bus. We got a small glimpse of the port town as we left to head out to the site.

I kept thinking how much the countryside looked like Kansas as we made the hour long trek through Lithuania. The landscape was mostly flat fields with a few trees.

We made a stop at Aukštaitija National Park and lucked out on another beautiful day. Lithuania has the highest known density of nesting storks in the world and we were able to get up close to a colony of houses built for storks in the park. 

 After another short drive, we arrived at The Cold War Museum.
 The four white domed buildings are missile silos.
The tour led us into the main area that soldiers used to communicate and live while staying out of the eye of enemy planes. The site was discovered approximately 2 years after it was built--it's crazy to imagine how Google Earth has changed the idea of secret locations.

Though it is hard to tell from the picture, this is a very deep hole that would be used to house a missile.
We made it out!
Our guide in Lithuania was probably the best one we had the entire trip. He was articulate, personable, and a bevy of information. He shared his personal experiences with Soviet soldiers, his family life, and even had a little bit of political commentary.

We stopped at a restaurant for a meal of beer, borscht, potatoes, more potatoes, and potatoes with meat. Our guide warned us that Lithuanians really like potatoes.

Friday, May 12: Sea Day
I decided to try to run a 20 miler on the last day at sea. It was arduously boring, but I broke it up into 3 sections and just tried to keep the pace super easy. After a shower and food, we met up with the table crew and played on the rock climbing wall.
Then we froze our butts off playing 9 holes of mini golf. 

Eventually, we had to have our last supper and we laughed until we cried over glasses of champagne.
Saturday, May 13: Copenhagen, Denmark
I actually ended up seeing Karen and Rodrigo as well as Kevin and Nicola while grabbing breakfast in the Windjammer. One last goodbye!

Adam and I hung out for awhile just outside of the port as we needed to kill a little time before taking a taxi to the Airbnb. I was a little nervous because we had been without communication for so long, but we got the address, found the right place, and the Spanish girls staying prior to us allowed us to leave our luggage so we didn't have to haul it around all morning.

We walked towards the city center and decided to take the Hop On/Hop Off bus to get our bearings on the city. After about an hour, we had completed the circuit and I suggested we get off to grab something for lunch.

Once back at our Airbnb, we reversed the favor for the Spanish girls and then had a lovely afternoon of listening to jazz. Our host left us an amazingly detailed map of places to eat/shop/visit and we found a pizza place a block from the flat.
Scary stairs at the Airbnb.
After our perfect al fresco pizza dinner, we walked over to a giant cemetery where famous Danish people are buried, including Hans Christian Andersen.

Sunday, May 14: Copenhagen, Denmark
I woke up and headed out a couple of blocks to run around the 3 large lakes that separate the city center from the Nørrebro district. The lakes are lined with gravel paths and are basically a runners paradise. I ended up doing 2 loops that equaled around 8 miles or so and loved every second of being able to enjoy a city in this way.

On my walk back to the flat, I pick up a danish (because Denmark, duh) and a coffee at a cute little bakery that offered me a yummy sample of some chocolate deliciousness.
 The middle blue door is the flat!
I convinced Adam that we didn't really want to go to any more castles, museums, etc. and we should visit Tivoli--the second oldest amusement park in the world. It ended up being one of the best decisions of the trip!
People don't just come for the rides like American amusement parks. They buy tickets or season passes often just to enjoy the beautiful park spaces and amazing restaurants. Peacocks roam the grounds and we came at the peek season for bulb flowers like daffodils and tulips. Having all this plus rides?! I was beside myself with enthusiasm.

We had some snacks throughout the day (pretzel, marshmallows, mini donuts), but then ended up wanting some "real food" and decided to eat in this giant greenhouse space right next to one of the lakes. I had a stellar meal and our service was equally outstanding.

As we wandered around the park after dinner, the lights started to come on and I was just so darn happy we had such an amazing day and amazing trip.
Monday, May 15: Copenhagen-->Amsterdam
We had nearly an entire day left to spend in Copenhagen. I went on another lovely run at the lake.
 I stopped into a grocery store on my way back and awkwardly navigated the checkout for some strawberries.
Then I convinced Adam to go on a walk to grab a cup of coffee at Coffee Collective as an appetizer and a gyro for lunch.
He was pretty worn out from the trip as a whole so I let him get a little rest while I headed back to the city center to pick up a book the host had left out as a city guide. I liked it so much I wanted it as a souvenir.
I decided to stop into the Round Tower and climb the winding ramp to the top.
 The view (as usual) was worth the climb.

 I did a little more shopping and then went back to repack. We took a taxi to the airport and soon were headed back to Amsterdam for a quick sleep.
Tuesday, May 16: Amsterdam-->Dallas-->Home
We were in Amsterdam for 8 hours and had just enough time to sleep before going back to the airport. Our flight to Dallas was 11 hours and after the lovely technology of our British Airways flight, we found that they had the overhead TVs on the American Airlines flight. I ended up finishing Shoe Dog and a bunch puzzles in between a nice nap.

Landing in Dallas was jarring to say the least. Gone were all the svelte, conservative mannered Scandinavians. In their place were the 'Mericans. But I was ready to make that final flight back to Atlanta and sleep in my own bed.

Jeff kindly picked us up from the airport and let us tell stories the entire way back to our house. Being reunited with the pups was the perfect end to a pretty perfect vacation.

P.S. Thanks for the memories table 322. You made this trip 100% more fun. We hope our paths cross sometime in the future!