Are Ultra Marathoners Crazy Or Sane? Depends Who You Ask

Less than a week ago I was on the beautiful trails of the Prince William Forest Park in Triangle, VA for a little stroll called an ultra marathon. Reflecting back to the day, I’m still in a bit of shock that I completed a total of 45.5 miles.  That came out to 7 spins around the 6.5 mile looped course, just under a 12-hour time frame.  Had I done one more loop and some change I would have had two marathons under my belt in a day!  Whew! And for those of you keeping track via steps–my Fitbit calculated over 90,000 steps that day.

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The peacefulness of a trail run. Photo credit: Athletic Equation

dsc05223The 12-hour Athletic Equation Adventure Trail Run was so different than anything I have ever done in my life and in many ways so much more rewarding. The course was a 6.5 mile loop and you completed as many loops as you wanted to between the hours of 6 am and 6 pm–we all started together and participants decided when they had enough. My friend Sarah who did the race as well (and knocked out 32.5 miles!) warned me that I would either love the experience or hate it (blame her for getting me to sign up) and never do such a thing again.  Well, folks…for those who know me, it’s probably not too difficult to guess that I loved it!  A huge part of that was the warm and welcoming trail running community.  Unlike the marathons I have participated in, this race was so much more laid back.  Yes, it was crazy challenging, but being outside in nature rather than on a city street just has a completely different vibe. Also, the smaller size of the race (about 100 runners total) was a stark contrast to big city marathons that host thousands of people.  Throughout the day people were encouraging one another on the trail and sometimes even stopping for a moment to chat trail-side or at the aid station.   Even if you knew someone had already lapped you once or twice it didn’t matter because we were all out there to experience the day together. Because of the length of time on our feet, pacing also takes on a whole new meaning.  The marathon is all about even splits or if you’re lucky negative splits (when the second half of your race is faster than the first). I’m not sure exactly what the ultra is about–survival!?  On one of my last laps one guy on the course shouted, “I’m running positive splits!” which was a pretty funny way to describe this craziness.  Unlike with shorter distances, if you go out too hard too quickly you’re going to pay for it rather quickly and there will be no way to recover with so many more hours ahead of you.

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One of many bridges we crossed.  Capture the flag?  No just the orange streamers to mark the course. Don’t get lost!

The week leading up to the race I was so nervous (I was eating everything in sight and just felt a bit off all week) but for some reason the morning of I felt really calm and composed.  Don’t get me wrong, I was excited but I didn’t have nerves the way I have before a marathon…or even worse before a triathlon (and I’ve only done a few sprints).  While I didn’t know exactly what the day would bring, I think the fact that I did not set a mileage goal made me less inclined to put as much pressure on myself.  Something that I have a tendency to do–overachieving can be a blessing and a curse.

So the night before and morning of I loaded my car with all kinds of extra gear, most of which I did not need–change of clothes and running shoes (in case the trail shoes gave me trouble–they did not), multiple pairs of socks (I made 4 sock changes throughout the day), calf compression sleeves (a first for me and so amazing), a headlamp, a visor, sunglasses, sunscreen, bug spray, a camera, an array of snacks (in case I couldn’t stomach the food they had–I did fine though),  Nathan pack for hydration, and extra bottles with my electrolytes mixed in. I was in bed by 9:30 the night before and when the alarm went off at 4 am I was up and ready to go!  I purposefully did not exercise on Thursday or Friday leading up to the race so my legs were raring to move come that morning.  Upon my 5:10 arrival, I parked and little did I know I would get a primo spot right by the trail head which was great for coming on and off the course and being able to quickly grab items. I found my friend Sarah and made my way to packet pick-up. After a little bit of time to get my gear in order, hit the restroom, eat a banana with peanut butter, and drink my IDLife Pre-Workout mix, it was time for Race Director Alex to give us a quick 3-minute spiel of the day.  He called all the first-time ultra runners to the front and congratulated us for being out there.  We all got donned with some Mardis Gras beads and were asked to wear them for at least one loop.  I was officially inducted into this new community.

And then right before my eyes it was 6 am and my new adventure had begun!  With head lamps guiding our way, I was paying particular attention to the path before me to make sure I didn’t trip over any roots or rocks. After about a mile or so into the race I randomly started talking to a guy who was ahead of me and the funny thing is that he ended up being my running buddy for the duration of the race. Reflecting back on the day I recall that on my drive there I was praying in my car about the race, that I (and all the runners) wouldn’t get injured or sick, that my body would hold up, that I would have fun, and that I would meet someone new during the race who could help encourage me along the way. And all of that certainly happened.  Having someone to talk to truly helped get me through the race because I wasn’t bored at any point or focused too much on how much I just wanted hour 12 to get there!  Someone once told me that if you can carry on a normal conversation while running you are doing just fine (or maybe you are just going too slow) and is a good way to control your breathing as well.  For my new friend Rob, who is in training for a 100-miler, this was just another day in the park. No pun intended.  So when I   had a tendency to get a little overeager and pick up the pace he was good at telling me to slow down and we made an effort to make sure we walked every single hill.  So unlike the marathon where I was set on keeping a certain pace and running the entire race, the run-walk method is a must on the trails.

Throughout the day there were a couple of tumbles–none from me–those trail running shoes were ah-mazing (future blog post on that).  But poor Sarah did a wipe out at some point. As I crossed paths with her a loop or so later I saw that she had scratches on her knees and arm.  But she’s a fighter and kept on going!

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In her words: “Dirty shoes. Scraped knees. Baby food. Must be a race.” Photo credit: Sarah Topping

And later on my last loop of the day I saw another guy with bloody scraped knees holding a rag on his scraped hand. I asked if he was ok and he said yes, just a little fall!  Yes we runners are tough (and stubborn) cookies.

dsc05216I had been thinking during the week leading up to the race about what on earth would be going through my head while I’m out there for so many hours–what would I think about, meditate on, pray about, make decisions on, plan, bucket list, zone out on, sing about, etc. (because I knew my phone battery for music and podcasts could only take me so far).  Well my day of introspection was still there but in a very different way since I had a new friend to talk to. And you certainly do get to know someone well on a 12-hour run. Once the surface level chit-chat is over you basically have a decision to make, much in the same way that any relationship in life must go–do you ditch your new running companion because they are boring, annoying or too talkative and do the rest of your run alone; sneakily fall back and start running with another unsuspecting runner (maybe in fact you are the one who should be ditched); feign stomach cramps at the rest area; or simply make the decision to stick with the person and keep on truckin. Well the running pace seemed good for both of us and since we each seemed to have plenty of random conversation starters to keep the time interesting and entertaining we kept on running.

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We were RUNNING. Photo credit: Athletic Equation

And what does one talk about for 12 hours in the middle of a forest? Just about every topic imaginable–exercise, diet, music, business, politics, faith, family, relationships, marriage, divorce, music, travels, races, life struggles, pets (mainly “piggies”), and lots and lots of other musings because you do start to go a little punch drunk when you are moving for such a long period of time. I remember my training buddy from my first marathon…another Robert…and the interesting conversations (and groaning as we ran up hills) that ensued on long runs.  There is just something about running that seems to bring down walls when you have a captive audience and what else are you going to talk about otherwise. Later when we saw other runners putting on their headphones (and we forgot to grab ours) I was a little jealous because it would have been nice to get some music playing.  So what does one do in that case–well pull out the songs in your head and start singing.  That was probably more him than me though.

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Somewhere along the course (loop 6ish) with my new running buddy, Rob.

I remember when I was training for my first marathon and the first time I ever passed the 10 mile mark.  I was with my marathon-training buddy, Robert, on the trail and I was so excited that day!  So during this race, as we approached the 26.2 mile marker and later the 50K mark, I again had to do a little happy dance–I could now officially call myself an ultra marathoner.

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Quick selfie! Looking pretty good nearly 30 miles in at this point. Quick stop at the car to change some socks before getting some provisions.

Between loops runners had to go through the start-finish timing station and that is where I greatly enjoyed my 10-15 minute breaks to do a quick stretch, take a restroom break, change out socks (the new trick I learned from Rob was to use Body Glide and rub it between my toes to prevent chafing–blisters were close, but this did the job), get some food/hydration, and have some chit-chat with the volunteers and race director. They were all awesome!!

Going into the race I was unsure whether I would want to or be able to eat the food that they provided so I had back-ups just in case (a lot of which I did not end up eating). Here’s the run-down of what did go into my belly that day (at least from what I can recall). First starting with the food brought from home:

  • 1.5 homemade rice cakes (made by Sarah) that had fresh raspberries and mint inside.  Delicious, cooling, and easy on the stomach.
  • image4-6 (I lost track) homemade energy balls (made by me) that had oats, dark chocolate chips, peanut butter, coconut flakes, slivered almonds, dry tart cherries, and IDLife chocolate whey protein shakeimage
  • 1 IDLife HER Bar (100% certified organic, non-GMO, gluten-free and Kosher super foods–the Kid and His bars are awesome too, by the way)
  • Couple of slices of fresh pineapple
  • 1/4 of a grilled chicken sandwich
  • 1 pouch of organic fruit and veggies on the go (GOGO SQUEEZE)

Things start to get a little fuzzier in the aid station itself. Every time I came through there seemed to be something new added to the menu and it is intriguing to me the things that we runners can eat while moving our bodies.  It’s a good thing I’m not lactose-intolerant because I ate a lot of cheese!  Makes me a little sick thinking about all of this stuff now.

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Mmmm food and lots of it! Photo credit: Athletic Equation

  • Handful of pretzels and Chex mix
  • 3 pirogies filled with cheese
  • 1/4 of a grilled cheese sandwich
  • 1 or 2 cheese quesadillas
  • Handful of boiled potatoes with salt
  • Couple of strawberries and banana slices
  • Small cup of chicken noodle soup

My hydration plan:

  • Nathan pack with water (70 ounces)–I carried my water pack on my back for laps 1, 6 and 7
  • 5 smaller water bottles filled with IDLife Hydrate (total of 50 ounces)–I filled these up and froze them the night before, then had them in my cooler by my car for swapping between loops.  This was great and made my load so much lighter.  Halfway through the course there was a water jug, so I was able to refill them. This electrolyte mix is so much easier on the stomach than Gatorade and there are no added sugars!
  • 1 cup of Gatorade at the aid station
  • 1 sip (literally) of strawberry Fanta at the aid station (I can’t stomach soda anymore, but felt I should at least try!)
  • Couple of cups of water at the aid station

ESTIMATED TOTAL OF FLUIDS ON RUN: 175-185 ounces (I will not even attempt to estimate the calories of food I ate during the run.)

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Muscle shot! #IDLife

Another thing I learned during this race is that ultra runners are a bit of a different breed…and races all have their own little traditions.

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These ladies were great, a new costume change every loop!  Photo credit: Athletic Equation

For example, somewhere along the way a participant went by carrying a blow up white goat!  Rob yelled, “THE GOAT!”  I had no idea what was going on, but apparently the race director always has this goat that he hands off to a lucky runner who has to carry it for one loop of the course. By the end the goat was looking hot (not in a good way) and deflated.

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God’s glorious wonders of nature.

As far as photography went for this race, it was pretty low-tech.  Again runners took turns carrying the race camera (a small Go Pro type camera) with them with the duty of getting photos along the way.  I brought my camera out with me for the last couple of loops because I wanted photos to remember the day and to show the beauty of the trail that I got to spend time with for 12 hours! A few I grabbed from Athletic Equation’s Facebook page as well to add some more variety.

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Stopping to check out this interesting lady’s foot gear…she said the sock boot things were to protect her from poisonous snake bites.  Guess I’m gonna be out of luck if something bites me!  Photo credit: Athletic Equation

As I began the 6th loop of the course I saw Sarah at the aid station.  She was really feeling the pain of the course and said she was going to walk the last one.  I decided, ok this will be my last loop and then I will go out and find her and walk the rest.  On the way back in to finish that loop I saw one of my boot camp instructors, Ken, and his wife walking towards me.  What an awesome surprise to see a friendly face I knew!  I told them to keep walking and they would eventually find Sarah and that I would come back to meet up with them.

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Trail run photo shoot. Photo credit: Athletic Equation

Meanwhile, Rob said he was going on to get one more loop in so he took off.  After another moment chatting with my friends, I headed back toward the starting area.  The volunteers were asking me are you going out for another loop or turning in your chip?  I hesitated…um, I don’t know, I’m going to find my friend!? One volunteer looked at the clock and said, “you have an hour and thirty minutes you can do it!”

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She’s got this!  Photo credit: Athletic Equation

And with that he started shoving some boiled potatoes in a bag for me and I took off again. That was a stop with no restroom break or idle chit-chat.  So off I went…in my head still not certain what I would do when I met Sarah.  I finally saw Ken and his wife and they were already heading back toward the parking lot.  He said keep going, you got this!  I was flying on that trail..running the uphills, trying not to wipe out on the rocks and uneven surfaces. I took a few moments to take it all in, to breathe in the fresh air, to appreciate this amazing gift of running I’ve been given and the ability to push my body in ways I never dreamed about.

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Smiles all around!  Photo credit: Athletic Equation

Halfway through I saw Sarah, but I just had to keep going.  I could feel the finish line.  With about two miles left on the course I caught up to another girl (who I later learned was on her 8th loop and came in second overall female!) and Rob who was a little surprised that I went out for another lap.  A few more inclines to go (cursed hills) and I was on my way to a 45.5 miler under my belt!  Crossing that finish line was pretty awesome…while there weren’t huge crowds of people waving their cowbells like at most road races, the community of runners who were out there that day and their families cheered us in. I found this to be so rewarding…runners who completed their race cheering other runners in to the finish.

 

Later my friend Jenn, another boot camper, joined us–she went out to do a loop of her own to get a workout in–and it was so nice to have the support!  I chowed down on a burger and some chili and then it was time for the awards.

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It was really nice–all the first-time ultra runners got a plaque and they handed out engraved beer glasses for folks who completed a 50K as well as special glasses for all the top finishers!  I learned that I came in 10th place for women which I cannot believe!  Seven of us ran 45.5 miles and the top three women did one extra loop for a total of 52 miles. In total, I was out there for 11:41:07 with an overall per mile pace of 15:25 (which includes the time spent hanging out at the aid station). My last loop was my fastest with an 11:52 per mile pace. The top male finisher ran 71 miles!

After the awards it was time for a little bit of stretching with Jenn.  I didn’t last long as my stomach was finally catching up to me and grumbling at all that cheese…I’m sure the burger didn’t help things. But it felt so good to sit for a few minutes before getting on the road to settle back in at home, shower, and head to bed.

I’m so thankful for the beautiful day–literally perfect temperatures in the high 70’s/low 80’s with a nice cloud cover throughout the day; my friend Sarah for teaching me the ropes of ultra running and going on training runs to help me get acquainted with the course; my friends Ken and Jen for supporting us out there and helping to keep us encouraged in our weekly early morning workouts in the nation’s capital; to all my friends and family members who reached out and wished me good luck–even those who think I’ve lost my mind; my new run buddy Rob for making the day a more fun-filled one and teaching me a thing or two about life and ultra running strategy; and the awesome race directors and volunteers who also spent 12 hours on their feet making sure we were well-fed and hydrated and had a safe and memorable time on the trails.

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See you on the trails! Photo credit: Athletic Equation

You might be wondering post-race how I have felt…let’s be honest here…sore, stiff, tired.  But with that said being active has actually been better than propping my feet up all day.  I’ve done some yoga sessions, went to boot camp a few times (possibly not a good idea though), have been foam rolling, got a massage, and have taken some nice hot Epsom-Lavender salt baths. The interesting thing is to see how different parts of my body feel on different days.  During the race and a few days after it was mainly my right side that hurt, now it’s my left side.  My body must be re-calibrating itself in some way. My eating, unlike the week before the race, has gotten back to normal too. Clearly a few aches and pains are part of the story and I am excited to get back to the trails very soon.  More than anything else, though, those miles taught me a lot about perseverance and strength both physically and mentally.  Mentally probably more so, as my longest training run was only about 12 miles.  And I know that I don’t take any of it for granted.  I trust that God guides my life path forward and in many ways running to me is so much a metaphor for that journey. While I don’t entirely know the rationale for having chosen to run that many miles, I know that there is a reason behind every decision we make. And as for whether ultra marathoners are crazy or sane–I’ll leave that to you decide and welcome your comments below. 

“Let the heavens rejoice, let the earth be glad; let the sea resound, and all that is in it. Let the fields be jubilant, and everything in them; let all the trees of the forest sing for joy.” Psalm 96:11-12

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Gateway To The West

Earlier this week I was in St. Louis for work which was exciting because most of the Midwest is uncharted territory for me.  As I like to do anytime I’m visiting a new city, I went for an early morning run.  I was lucky enough to have company this time as two of my colleagues were just as eager as me to check out some morning views of the Arch before sitting all day at our meeting.

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Early morning selfies with Laura and Arianne

 

Since we were staying downtown it was super convenient to find our way around, other than a bit of construction that made our search for the entrance to the Arch just a bit confusing.

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Beautiful morning view of St. Louis

We first ran over Eads Bridge which connects St. Louis, Missouri to Illinois.  We thought it was very cool to say that we ran all the way to Illinois.  As I later learned, the bridge connects to a city called East St. Louis, Missouri (I find that so odd!) and (if only we knew) it is the home to the Gateway Geyser which is the second tallest fountain in the world.  eads-bridgeIt was built to complement the St. Louis Arch and spews water up to 630 feet to meet the height of the Arch. The Eads Bridge was built in 1874 and is on the list of National Historic Places as a landmark.  It was tall and I can see why–to accommodate steam boats that would make their way down the Mississippi River.

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Happy to be out playing tourist!

We took some photos of the Arch from the other side of the bridge–pretty spectacular view!  If only a steamboat drove by!

We meandered our way back into the city and into Archway Park to take in the spectacular view of the enormous structure. Certainly puts the Washington Monument to shame!  It was even difficult to get a full shot of the entire structure up close. Photo credits for the morning shots go out to my colleague, Arianne, who was sweet enough to snap some photos of me running without me knowing!  What a great way to start the morning.

The following day after our meeting ended I walked down to the Arch again with some other colleagues.

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The arch reminds of a rainbow shining brightly over this beautiful old Catholic church

 

We snapped a few more photos before heading over to the baseball game with colleagues–Cubs vs. Cardinals (Cubs won).  Perfect weather, great meeting and some good Midwestern fun built in.  ‘Til next time…meet me in St. Louis!

 

 

 

 

 

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Pre-Ultra Marathon Musings

It’s less than two days until my next running adventure begins—a 12-hour trail run in a national park. In all honesty, I don’t even know how to feel right now about this upcoming venture. Before big races I usually have a mixture of excitement and nervousness. But this one I’m unsure what to think! Friends keep asking me what my mileage goal will be, but since I’ve never run an ultra in my life I’m not racing for a personal best.  The race itself is a 6.5 mile figure-8 (sort of) loop, so if we were to do the math (and if I was running at a 4-hour marathon pace) I’d be on target to do 78 miles which we know would be absolutely insane AND unattainable!  The top male winner last year didn’t even reach that distance.  So no…I am not setting a goal.  What will be will be…

trailOthers (most) just think I’m plain crazy. Maybe true!  My mom told me the other day, “Honey, just remember you have nothing to prove to anyone!” Believe me, I know all these things, but there is clearly something in my genetic makeup that has always pushed me to my outer limits.  And while I’m not a big risk taker—never sky dived or bungee jumped—I do find myself from time to time jumping head-first into an adventure without fully thinking through all the details first.

So case in point, I’m on the verge of pushing my body further than it’s ever been pushed. If nothing else, I’m telling myself that Saturday is just another day at the park—a really long day at that! As long as I can stay upright for 12 hours I will be happy.  No problem, right?  I’m simply going to be out there to take it all—to experience a day in the ultra-runners’ world, to enjoy God’s gift of nature, to be quiet in my thoughts and to encourage the other runners around me. Piece of cake…I’ve got this! national-park-photonps-boundary

As I anticipate the day ahead, some of my goals are to a.) stay injury-free, b.) have fun and c.) forge new connections with others who are just as crazy. I’m sure when all is said and done it will be so much more than that!

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Here are some shots from a few training mornings at the park as I celebrated the National Park Service’s 100th Anniversary this summer.

Happy Trails!

 

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Back-to-School Healthy Habits

Whether you have kids getting ready to begin another school year or not, September is a reminder that those dog days of summer are almost over. And while summer for most of us is a time of being active and outdoors, it can also be filled with many temptations—hot dogs at the ballpark, ice cream at the beach, cotton candy at the amusement park.  So if you “cheated” a bit on your diet and workouts this summer, think of September as your re-set button.  It’s a great time to take stock of where you are on your personal health and wellness journey.

If you are like most humans, you may need a little help jump starting those “back-to-school” healthy habits before your busy schedule puts them on the back-burner. Here are a few tips to get you started:

  • Set a goal for yourself

You may have had the best of intentions back in May, but, ahem, that big goal you were planning to tackle this summer somehow got lost in the shuffle. Don’t beat yourself up, but this time let’s keep it front and center.  First, write down your goal on a piece of paper.  Then rip it up!  Yes, you heard me.  imageI want you to rip it up.  Now rewrite the goal this time cutting it in half. For example, if you want to lose 10 pounds in the next two months, I want you to drop it to 5. Want to run a 10K?  Start with a 5K.  Take your new goal and tape it to your bathroom mirror so that every time you brush your teeth you are reminded of its importance.

  • Conduct a pantry purge

If you are looking to eat healthy getting rid of the temptations is a necessary step and it starts with cleaning out the kitchen. Pull out the trashcan and pick up every item one-by-one that is in your pantry and refrigerator.  imageToss out the foods that have expired as well as those that don’t seem to ever go bad!  imageIf there seems to be no shelf life, chances are that product is loaded with a ton of preservatives and unrecognizable ingredients (that are undoubtedly going to keep you from accomplishing your new goal). You’ll be amazed at what’s lurking inside your kitchen.

  • Make a grocery list and plan ahead

The trick here is to keep this simple. It’s time to get down to the basics.  You’ll want to have on this list all the opposites of what you just purged in step 2. Think fresh fruits and vegetables, lean meats, and whole grains. A list that I love that is good for runners and non-runners alike is called the Runner’s Ultimate Grocery ListimageFind a couple of simple go-to healthy recipes (e.g.: grilled chicken atop a spinach salad chock full of colorful vegetables) and shop for those items that will be your meals for the week.

  • Find an accountability partner

Lastly, you may have all the best intentions to stick with your new action plan but let’s be honest, it’s much easier to give ourselves an out when no one else is watching. A few busy days, late nights and over scheduling can quickly lead us down the path of no return. So find a trusted friend who will encourage you and push you a little outside your comfort zone when you feel you are slipping.  Set a challenge together with built-in daily or weekly check-ins to keep one another accountable. When you reach your goal it will be so more fun to celebrate your accomplishments with someone else!

And just remember you’re in the driver’s seat of your new year. There is no time like the present to set some healthy habits in motion and get moving today!

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Are you looking for help on your goal setting, pantry purge, grocery list development, and accountability? I’m happy to help get you started and if you are serious about taking your health to the next level, IDLife–the incredible health and wellness movement that I’m a part of–has three day-by-day 28-Day Challenges (weight loss, fit, and performance) that can jump-start those back-to-school habits now. Fill out the form below to schedule your FREE consultation.

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Like Running On A Cloud

Today I bought my first pair of trail running shoes–On Swiss performance running shoes–at Potomac River Running store. It was the only pair of trail runners they had in stock in my size but I was sold. It certainly helped that the guy selling them was wearing a pair and absolutely raving about them.

I’m so pumped to try my Cloudventure pair of shoes. Developed in Switzerland with the Swiss Alps as fertile ground for these product developers, I have no doubt they must be good.

And I also see that the company is doing an East coast tour right now so I have a feeling we will be seeing more of these shoes in the near future! I’ll report back on how they work out for me.

Time to fly!!

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Happy Running Trails

The time has come for a brand new adventure—one of which I am wholly unprepared, but maybe I’ll just surprise myself! Recently I signed up for my first ultra-marathon—that’s right, you heard it here. I expected more people to tell me I’ve gone insane, but surprisingly not too many have…hmmm does that mean that I already am? Guilty as charged…

Over the last few months I’ve been yearning for a new challenge. Should I sign up for that Olympic distance triathlon (which I still have yet to do), tackle another marathon, stick to the half distance? Right now, the idea of training for a swim-bike-run just felt too daunting of a task to work into my schedule, as the last few months have been incredibly busy with a large work deliverable. And I am committed now to focusing more on growing my IDLife business. But over the last few months I have felt my fitness levels improve immensely.  I feel stronger than I’ve ever been and my competitive spirit has desired to see how much improvement I have made since my last marathon (5 years ago this November). I’ve always been intrigued by the ultra-marathon, especially those that are through peaceful wooded trails.  So when my friend, who has blogged on my site about  ultras she has completed, told me about this race, I checked out the website and said, “ok, I’m in!”

In September I will be running the 12-Hour Adventure Trail Run at Prince William Forest Park.  I have hiked there once and it’s a beautiful part of our National State Park system here in Virginia.  How fitting that this is the 100th Anniversary of the National Park Service! With a field capped at 100 runners and a race that only pits you against the clock, I was more eager to hit “Register” since I can run (or walk or crawl) as much or as little as I want.  The only requirement is to complete at least one of the 6.5 mile figure 8 loops.

This may be the craziest fitness adventure yet! Now to buy some trail running shoes (any suggestions?) and figure out my hydration and food plan for the big day!

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Blue Skies Are On The Way

The true meaning of snow birding really hit home for me last week during a trip to Tucson, Arizona. While temperatures were snowy and cold back home with most of the East coast experiencing temperatures in the teens or below freezing, I was basking in the 80 degree record-high days. That extra dose of Vitamin D and seeing a blue sky each day did me a lot of good!

There’s not much one can complain about when you are getting great quality family time in a beautiful setting with perfect weather! As my readers can tell from reading my blog, staying active is an important part of my life and trips like these make me question (at times) why I would choose to live anywhere that gets winter. Don’t get me wrong I love to do outdoor winter activities like skiing and ice skating but after a while putting on all those layers just gets really old! And it’s not like Washington, DC experiences extremely bitter temperatures. But getting away (especially in the dead of winter) makes me more appreciative when I visit beautiful places and go on new adventures.

Durng this trip I experienced some great hiking–one half day at Catalina State Park Canyon (about a 10 mile hike to the Romero Pools with my brother and sister-in-law) and a shorter late afternoon stroll through Coronado National Forest National Park’s Sabino Canyon (about a 3 mile hike with my aunt and uncle). Along with my dad we also did a two-hour horseback ride through the desert one morning

Here are some highlights:

Saturday hike at Catalina State Park
Before we began our hike we checked out an Arizona wildlife display that was set up by park volunteers. There were animal hides you could touch–from rabbits and javelinas to deer, mountain lions, bears and coyotes–and individual cages of live animals and reptiles that one may come across in the state–everything from mice and rats to the lethal rattlesnake and Gila monster (he was kind of cute though).

Now that we knew what to look out for on the trail it was time to begin our trek! We would hike part of the Romero Canyon Trail to the Romero Falls, about five miles each direction. We were prepared with a backpack full of water, snacks, sandwiches for lunch, as well as hats, sunglasses and sunscreen. It was hot and the further along we got the more layers came off.

Arizona hiking is so much different than hiking through an East coast trail. For one there is little shade because trees back home are replaced by cactus here. It’s a unique kind of beauty to see as you gaze at the mountain side speckled with cacti instead of pine trees. And it’s very rocky and dusty–it is the desert after all.

The trail meandered slowly along the mountain. We scrambled around rocks and said hello to folks as they passed us coming down. The higher we hiked the more peaceful it became. There were a few moments of “are we there yet?” but most of the climb we just enjoyed unending beauty before us. After a while we found a shaded spot for noshing on our sandwiches and to take a little breather. Then we continued just a little further scaling down some large boulders until we made it to the pools which looked like heavenly bliss with real gold specks sparkling within the water. We questioned for a moment whether we should go in the water and oh yes you bet that we jumped in! My brother and I went in first and on the count of three under we went. My sister-in-law was next and to her pleasure I’m sure I filmed a cheesy video as if she were training for the 2016 Olympic Games polar bear plunge event. That water was so icy cold so lying on the warm rocks after was amazing. We hung out there for about an hour. Taking in God’s glory at this little slice of heaven is one that I won’t ever forget.

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Walking back down was much faster with the highlight being the late afternoon views and some folks passing us on the trail telling us they saw a Mojave rattler–one of those deadly reptiles we learned about earlier. Yikes!! Luckily we didn’t spot him.

imageOverall this hike gets 5 stars in my book and I’d recommend anyone to try it who has an adventurous spirit. It’s not an easy hike, but one that most semi-active people could handle. There are also shorter (and longer) hikes available in the park.

Monday morning horseback ride

Monday was reserved for horseback riding. Our group took a meandering ride through the Catalina desert. My horse was a Buckskin named Haus and the oldest horse in the group, about 18 years of age if I recall.

After they saddled us off we went one by one staying in line in the order they put us. Along the way in the distance was an old ranch with a church on the property. And then just beauty all around. A few spots we climbed a bit and at times the horses got distracted and wanted to stop to chew on grass. Of course anytime mine did that, the horses that my dad and uncle were riding also decided to stop. The guide (aka “trail boss” as we called him) must have been getting annoyed with me for slowing down the ride and swung his horse from the front of the line over to me to give me a quick lesson on the reins to keep my horse from being tempted. I had to chuckle a bit because the others were doing the same thing. But he must have thought I was the most inexperienced of the group (which I may have been when it comes to horse riding). I really wanted to go a little faster so for a brief few seconds I got my horse trotting. My uncle said he was purposefully letting his horse eat to allow himself to hang back from the group and go faster from time to time. My aunt was in her element as she grew up riding a horse named Susie. Dad and Joe fit the part of Cowboys with their hats. Flowers were in bloom and it felt like spring had truly arrived.

Monday afternoon hike at Coronado National Forest, Sabino Canyon After some lunch and relaxing at the pool I joined my aunt and uncle for a shorter hike at Sabino Canyon. This trail was a bit more tame and flat. In fact there were a lot of runners so if I lived in Tucson this would be a place you’d find me after work. We hiked to a waterfall that was very pretty. Wildlife spotting–a tiny lizard (no Gila monster) and a roadrunner. The mountains were beautiful this time of day and I really just wanted to take it all in forever. Next time I’m back I will spend some more time exploring this park as well as many others.

All in all Arizona has a lot to offer this time of year. If you can time it right and get great weather you are in for a treat. In addition to hiking you can’t beat the Mexican cuisine and you’ll do yourself good by visiting little towns like Tubac where we attended an arts street festival. A lot of talent in the region–be it art or jewelry making. And the Tucson gem and mineral show too is a neat thing to check out as well. I’m going to make February snow birding a tradition now. I’m ready to take on these last few weeks of winter but spring time can’t get here soon enough! Happy trails!!

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