Charming Charleston- How to visit without breaking the bank

If I had to describe Charleston, South Carolina in one word it would be charming.  The city is full of charm from its architecture to its restaurants and even more importantly its people.  With a population of only around 130,000 encompassing roughly 110 square miles, this city packs a punch with personality.  However, all of this charm does not come cheap. Charleston is a relatively expensive city to visit, especially for a city of its size.

First a bit of history. Founded in 1670 by English colonists, Charleston has some history under its belt by American standards anyway.  Charleston had grown to a wealthy city by the mid-eighteenth century and prospered because of the sale of rice, cotton, and indigo. Everything came to a halt in April of 1861 when there was an attack on Fort Sumter by Confederate soldiers in Charleston Harbor, thus triggering the Civil War.  Charleston took some time to recover and rebuild after the war finally ended in 1865.  However, some say it was this slow recovery that gave Charleston its current architectural charm.  Rather than rebuild new buildings, Charleston opted to repair and as a result many historical buildings still exist today.

The USS Yorktown is at Patriot’s Point Naval and Maritime Museum

Historical Charleston is lined with cobblestone streets and there are rows of pastel antebellum houses.  You can take a horse-drawn carriage ride through the elegant French Quarter and Battery district and hear some stories about the area by your (hopefully) entertaining guide.  The Battery promenade and Waterfront Park are lovely areas to take a post-dinner walk. Options abound for walking tours of the city from ghost tours to historical walking tours to culinary and pub tours.  If you would rather take your tours on the water there are numerous boat tours as well. Of course you could also just take your own self-guided tours and stroll along the area and take in the scenery as my family and I did.  That doesn’t cost a penny!






If it’s shopping that interests you, take some time to meander through the stalls of the City Market and browse the local wares.  You can find jewelry, hand-woven baskets galore, various kinds of art, snacks and local foods, and handmade clothing for starters with the option of going to the day market or night market.  There are of course numerous vintage and antique shops throughout Charleston in addition to unique boutiques with men’s, women’s, and children’s clothing. You don’t even have to spend a dime; just browsing at all of the local unique finds can be fun!


You would be hard-pressed to find a restaurant in Charleston that has sub-par food. I have yet to have eaten at a restaurant that was bad, although I’m sure it’s possible.  When we were there this past August, we started our culinary adventure at Spero and we were not disappointed.  When my 10-year-old daughter asked if she could have her sandwich without the homemade sauerkraut that came with it, the chef came to our table and asked her if she would just give it a try and if she didn’t like it, she could send it back and he would happily make her another sandwich without kraut “lickety split.”  She agreed and ended up loving her sandwich, whereas before she absolutely detested sauerkraut, even when we were in Germany and had it there.  My husband and I loved our sandwiches as well.

Other restaurants that were every bit as fabulous were Poogan’s Smokehouse, Butcher & Bee, and Brown Dog Deli, just to name a few.  But I think my favorite was brunch at High Cotton.  This is where I experienced the best shrimp and grits I have had in a very long time.  The first time I ever had shrimp and grits was on my first trip to Charleston many years ago and that memory still remains vivid.  A meal at any of the aforementioned places is not exactly cheap but they may just be some of the best meals you’ve ever experienced. One way to save a bit of money is to eat breakfast at your hotel or B & B, pack a picnic lunch, and just eat out for dinner.  Even better may be to just eat out for lunch and if you have a kitchen in your hotel room, cook dinner in your room.  You can pick up some freshly caught seafood and have a delicious, quick, and easy meal for much less than eating out.

Where to stay in Charleston?  If you want to stay in the historical district, it will cost you.  Most hotels are around $300/night and up during the summer months before taxes and fees.  Bed and breakfasts abound and you can usually find one a bit under $200/night but this isn’t an option for families unless you rent multiple rooms as most only have one bed in the room.  Another, more affordable option is to stay in Mt. Pleasant.  Mt. Pleasant is a wonderful choice to stay especially if you plan on spending time at the beaches since it is about 15 minutes from historic Charleston, Sullivan’s Island, or Isle of Palms, with both of the latter having nice beaches. There are numerous options for hotels in Mt. Pleasant, many of which are much more affordable than those in historic Charleston.

Ravenel Bridge connects Mt. Pleasant and Charleston

The beaches near Charleston include Isle of Palms and Sullivan’s Island.  Isle of Palms has more than 6 miles of beach and many restaurants, bars, and souvenir shops.  There are public restrooms and public parking (pay lots).  The feel is much more touristy at Isle of Palms than at Sullivan’s Island and on weekends it is much more crowded than Sullivan’s Island. Sullivan’s Island has no public restrooms, very few restaurants (all are on Middle Street), no hotels or high-rise condos, and less options for parking.  However, in exchange, the beach at Sullivan’s Island is much less crowded and more peaceful.  Soft, beige powdery sand is at both beaches and wild dunes add to the beauty.  Other than possibly paying for parking, going to these beaches is totally free so you can spend all day here, pack a picnic lunch, and hardly spend any money.

Kiawah Island is a barrier island 15 miles south of Charleston and was ranked one of the Top 10 Beaches by Forbes in 2013.  It is primarily a gated beach and golf community but Beachwalker County Park is open to the public and although quite expensive, a very nice place to stay is The Sanctuary at Kiawah Island Resort.  One of the first half-marathons I ran was in Kiawah Island.  If you’re a runner, I highly recommend this for a fast marathon or half-marathon. Rates for condos are deeply discounted the weekend of the race making it much more affordable.  See my post Kiawah Island Marathon and Half Marathon, South Carolina-4th state.




How to get to Charleston, South Carolina if you’re not lucky enough to be within driving distance?  Charleston International Airport is a joint civil-military airport 12 miles from downtown Charleston.  Once here, a rental car is recommended, as public transportation exists but is not nearly as comprehensive as in bigger cities.  However, it would be possible to rely on CARTA, the bus system, and DASH trolleys in the downtown area, if you supplemented with taxis and Uber.

Once you visit Charleston, you too may fall in love with the city’s charm and be left with a longing to return that stays with you after you’ve returned home again.

Shamrock Marathon, Virginia-24th state

This is part of a series of posts from my quest to run a half marathon in all 50 states. Virginia was my 24th state.

We all see people wearing race shirts from previous races all the time, right? Well, I ran the half marathon of the 2012 Shamrock Marathon and Half Marathon in Virginia Beach, Virginia quite honestly because I saw a guy at the gym where I work out wearing a shirt from the race and it piqued my interest. When I asked him about it, he was very enthusiastic about the race and the course, so I thought I would give it a shot. This was definitely one of the biggest half marathons I had ever run, but it was so well-organized, the crowds weren’t an issue.

This race is held on the weekend of St. Patrick’s Day, so a lot of people that run it go for the party atmosphere. I was a little concerned about partiers being loud and keeping me up the night before the race (go ahead, call me old!), but that wasn’t an issue fortunately. The weather was nice while we were there and we got to enjoy the area before and after the race. Virginia Beach can be pretty expensive, especially hotels in the area, and it is fairly touristy so this place certainly isn’t for everyone. The sand sculptures on the beach were really cool and a very popular spot for photos after the race.

I felt like I got a ton of swag at this race, too; much more than I had at any other race. I got a short-sleeve technical shirt, hooded sweatshirt, running hat, small rucksack bag, in addition to one of the coolest medals I’ve received. The medal was a bottle-opener in the shape of a shamrock so it was functional as well as fun. Fun was pretty much the vibe from start to finish for this race. I highly recommend it.

So back to some more details about the race. It was in the low 50’s at the start of the race and overcast for the majority of the race with low wind. The course was completely flat and went through neighborhoods, past a military base, and ended at the boardwalk by the beach. There were plenty of aid stations with volunteers and people playing music along the course. Despite the fact that this race draws large crowds of runners, there are corrals so at least when I ran, the course didn’t feel crowded at any point.

I was glad I had chosen this race for my half marathon in Virginia because I enjoyed everything about the race from beginning to end. My finish time was also an improvement over my past several races, with a finish time of 2:07:40.

If you’re flying into the area, the closest public airport is Norfolk International Airport, 13 miles away. Another option is Newport News/Williamsburg International Airport, 35 miles  away in Newport News, Virginia. There is a trolley system, the VB Wave that is part of the city’s public transportation system. Depending on where your hotel or B & B is, you may be able to walk to many restaurants, bars, and shops. If you stay on streets that are numbered in the teens to twenties (for example, 19th or 25th Street), you should be able to get by without a rental car. However, if you prefer more peace and quiet and stay accordingly on a street at either far end (10th Street or lower and 30th Street and higher), you will definitely want to either rely on the trolleys, a rental car, or taxis.


Shamrock Marathon

Kaiser Realty Coastal Half Marathon, Alabama-23rd state

This is part of a series of posts from my quest to run a half marathon in all 50 states. Alabama was my 23rd state.

When I read this blurb about the Kaiser Realty Coastal Half-Marathon, I thought this was a good race for me: “Why run it. For the wildlife. At this backcountry race across the trails of the 6,150-acre Gulf State Park and wildlife reserve, don’t be surprised if you spot a great horned owl or gopher tortoise along the route. The mostly flat course meanders beside swamps, beaches, and rivers, and finishers will be rewarded with local seafood cuisine.” How could I resist? I signed up immediately for the 2011 race.

This race was sponsored by BP and they had paid for elite runners Deena Kastor and Johnny Gray to be there although they weren’t actually running the race. I had never seen Deena Kastor in person before and was surprised to see she was even tinier than I thought she was. She and Johnny both gave inspirational talks and got the crowd pumped before the race.

Well, except I wasn’t exactly feeling pumped; I was feeling more like drained and exhausted. In the days before the race I had been sick with a cold and was running a fever the morning of the race. I remember telling my husband that running a half marathon was just about the last thing I felt like doing at the moment but of course I sucked it up and ran it anyway.

The majority of the course was on a paved bike/running trail that sheltered us some from the sun and wind. Although you would expect the course to be flat since it’s in a coastal town “at the beach,” the course was slightly uphill and there was a strong wind, so it wasn’t as easy as I expected. Only about one mile was on the road and we could glimpse the ocean then but it’s not like we were running along the coastline.

Despite my cold and fever I passed several runners the last few miles and was thrilled to see the finish line. My finish time was 2:15:08. The finisher medal was small and plain, but the post-race food more than made up for it. The food after the race was absolutely incredible- a full on southern spread of crab cakes, shrimp and grits, crab corn chowder, seafood gumbo, rolls, shrimp and oyster po boys, chicken fingers, and more; definitely some of the best post-race food I’ve ever had.

My family and I relaxed in Orange Beach before and after the race. Orange Beach is a clean area with powder white sand and not overly touristy. There aren’t a lot of hotels (not sure if there are any really) in the area so I suggest searching airbnb or renting a condo or beach house through Wyndham Vacation Rentals. The race is held on Thanksgiving weekend so it’s typically quiet then but the weather is still pretty warm. It’s a great place for a racecation!


Kaiser Coastal Half Marathon

Missoula Marathon, Montana-22nd state

This is part of a series of posts from my quest to run a half marathon in all 50 states. Montana was my 22nd state.

Ah, Missoula, Montana. I have fond memories of you. The Missoula Marathon and Half Marathon is in July every year, which means while much of the US is sweltering, it is quite comfortable there. I have to admit, I broke a cardinal rule of running races for this race in Missoula.

I had only brought shorts (no pants) with me for this race but a cold front suddenly came in and they were predicting temps in the low 40’s the morning of the race, which was too cold for shorts for me. I found a local running store and bought the last pair of running capris they had in stock, which a kind sales lady dug out from the back store room. The race was the next day so I had never worn these before let alone run in them, but it was either that or freeze my buns off. Everyone tells you to never wear anything you’ve never run in at least once during a race, and I had always followed this to the letter. However, buying those capris turned out to be a good decision and I was glad I had the extra coverage to help keep me warm.

From this race forward, I always make sure I pack running pants, shorts, capris, short- sleeve tops, and long-sleeve tops for every race, no matter where because as I learned here, the weather can be very unpredictable. I know some of you may be thinking, “40 degrees is actually quite nice for a race,” but I live in the south, and we don’t see temperatures that low until winter is nearing or in full force; certainly not in July. I just wasn’t used to running in temperatures that low.

The Missoula Half Marathon of 2011 was one of my favorite half marathons ever for the scenery, the people, and the course. This race does have a 6 am start so if you’re not an early morning person, that could be an issue. I think it helps with the temperatures, though. At the start it’s usually around mid 50’s (although as I said for me it was only in the low 40’s) and up to the high 70’s around noon. The course is very scenic and fairly flat, taking you though the countryside, along a river, and finishing in downtown Missoula.

There are a couple of bonuses included with this race. The renowned Olympian runner Jeff Galloway began a partnership with Run Wild Missoula in January 2011 to promote the Missoula Marathon and Half Marathon. Every year since then he has given numerous talks, hikes, and even a 3 hour running school the weekend of the Missoula Marathon. Another bonus is you get a free race day victory stand photo (printed out for you) at the Sunday Expo at the Caras Park Pavilion as well as a link after the race to download an on-course photo free of charge.

There were plenty of food and drinks at the finish, including some local beer. My finisher medal was hefty and colorful and also matched the shirt I received at packet pickup before the race. Although I was still struggling with my speed while I was training for this race due to my recent bout with anemia (see my post on Oklahoma-21st state for the full story), I thoroughly enjoyed this race and was happy with my finish time of 2:16:53.

After the race, my family and I went to Glacier National Park and from there to Banff National Park in Canada. I highly recommend both parks, in addition to Missoula. The mountains and lakes are absolutely stunning and these are some of the most beautiful places I have ever seen. This race is a nice opportunity to make it into a racecation.



Missoula Marathon

Arbuckles to Ardmore Race for Mercy Half Marathon, Oklahoma-21st state

This is part of a series of posts from my quest to run a half marathon in all 50 states. Oklahoma was my 21st state.

Anemia is something that only vegetarians have to worry about right? That’s what I thought until I was diagnosed with anemia even though I had never been a vegetarian. Going into the Arbuckles to Ardmore Race for Mercy Half Marathon in Oklahoma, I finally understood why I had been struggling with running, heck even walking without getting out of breath for many months, if not years.

When I ran the race in 2011, it was the second year for this race and the strong headwind that day kept times far higher than the inaugural race in 2010. The strong wind on top of the fact that I had just been diagnosed with anemia resulted in one of my slowest half marathon times to date. Before the race, my doctor actually warned me not to run (at all, let alone run a half marathon), but like in the past, I let my stubborn attitude win and I chose to run it (well, sort of.  It was more like run/walk it).

My race times had been slipping over the past few races Mississippi-20th stateWisconsin-19th state and especially in the year leading up to this race I had been really struggling to get my breath when I ran. At first I thought I was just getting older and this was par for the course. I had not had a recent loss of large amounts of blood and I wasn’t vegetarian but I also was not taking a daily multivitamin with iron. Then one evening I was out of breath and so dizzy I had to hold onto the wall after going up one flight of stairs at home that I realized something far more serious must be going on.

I went to the doctor the next day and was told my iron and B12 levels had plummeted and my red blood cells looked irregular. My doctor prescribed me these enormous pills that included mega doses of iron along with vitamin C and B12 and told me to take it easy until my iron levels were back up to normal. Since I would easily get out of breath and be forced to walk, my body pretty much forced me to “take it easy” or at least not run all-out, which would have been downright impossible. One thing I started doing that helped and I highly recommend any pre-menopausal woman to do is take a multivitamin with iron every day.

Fortunately, the half marathon course was overall a pretty nice one except for the huge hills about 3/4 of the way into the race, which I walked of course. If you’re looking for a race in Oklahoma with more of a small-town feel than Oklahoma City, this would fit the bill. The volunteers and aid stations were well-manned and plenty and the swag was pretty nice (both a short-sleeve and long-sleeve shirt and a nice medal).

To get into more race specifics, we ran from near Turner Falls in Arbuckle to Ardmore. The course went uphill at the beginning, then downhill for a couple of miles, and finally the rest of the course consisted of rolling hills until miles 9 and 10, where there were huge, long climbs uphill. We ran into strong winds of about 20 mph for the duration of the point-to-point course, which made for an even more difficult course.

The weather other than the wind was in the low 60’s until the last half hour or so of the race, when the sun came out and it started to warm up quickly. We finished at Noble Stadium, a high school track, which I normally enjoy but that lap seemed to go on forever at this race. There were cinnamon rolls and other delicious goodies at the finish. I got a long-sleeve finisher shirt on top of the short-sleeve shirt I had received at packet pickup, which was unexpected and a nice bonus. My finish time was 2:35:42.

Turner Falls is a fun area to visit and this area of Oklahoma is a good one for a long weekend mini-vacation. Ardmore is about 1 and 1/2- 2 hours from either Oklahoma City or Dallas/Ft. Worth Airport making it relatively easy to get to from other areas of the country.



A2A Race for Mercy (2019 was the last year for this race according to their website)

Colonial Williamsburg without a ticket

Recently I was going to be in Williamsburg, Virginia with my family primarily to go to Busch Gardens (see my post 5 reasons Busch Gardens Williamsburg has something for everyone) but we were going to have about a half day leftover before we would have to go home, so I thought we could go to Colonial Williamsburg.  An adult ticket online is $25.99 for a “sampler ticket” that includes a visit to 2 trade shops, the shuttle, the public gaol, and a visit to one family home.  A single-day adult ticket for $40.99 will get you all of the aforementioned plus more city sites, trade shops, family homes and gardens, live reenactments in the streets, Governor’s Palace and Capitol Building access, admission to two art museums, and 10% discount on tours and evening programs.  Considering we would only have a few hours in the area I didn’t see spending over $100 for that, so I decided we would not buy tickets at all and see what we could see.

After a delicious breakfast at Aroma’s Specialty Coffees, Bakery, and Cafe we walked around the main street of Colonial Williamsburg, Duke of Gloucester Street.  I knew that some of the homes here are private residences and offices and if there is a British flag flying, that means it’s open to the public.  We kept our eyes open for the British flag and went in several shops such as The William Pitt Shop that sells children’s colonial clothing, hats, toys, games, and books.  We also browsed in Prentis Store that sells unique items handmade by skilled tradespeople using 18th-century tools and techniques.  We found that if a store or building had people standing outside in period clothing that looked like they were guarding the place, that meant you had to have a ticket to enter so after one or two instances like that, we quickly learned to just by-pass those places entirely.  I had read online that the Raleigh Tavern Bakery cranks out hot, fresh-from-the-oven gingerbread cookies every morning so we stopped there to pick up some and quickly devoured them.

Although we just got a little taste of Colonial Williamsburg, given that we only had a few hours to spend I was glad we didn’t spend the money for tickets and just did our own thing on our own pace.  I think if we would have bought tickets we would have felt obligated to cram as much in as we could, which would have just been a bad idea.  We never would have been able to see and do as much as is offered here and we would have just been exhausted.

There is very little you can see and do without a ticket, so if you plan on spending more than a few hours here, you should definitely buy a ticket and plan on spending at least a couple of days here. Bottom line is pretty much all you can do without a ticket is look at the buildings from the outside and browse in the shops and eat at the restaurants.  Would I go back and spend a couple of days to do Colonial Williamsburg properly?  I would and if you’re also a history buff, I recommend it for you and your family.


5 reasons Busch Gardens Williamsburg has something for everyone

When I was a kid, my brother rode the Big Bad Wolf and Loch Ness Monster while I just watched, too scared to go with him. We were at Busch Gardens Williamsburg, Virginia but at this point in my life, I was too scared to ride roller coasters.  A few years after that, I discovered the adrenaline rush from riding roller coasters.  Recently, I wanted to go back as an adult to ride the coasters and let my daughter who had never been there experience the amusement park.  Unfortunately Big Bad Wolf, a suspended roller coaster that was in service since 1984 was closed permanently in 2009.  I love suspended coasters so I missed the boat on that one, but there are plenty of other roller coasters at BGW, which brings me to reason number 1 why Busch Gardens Williamsburg has something for everyone:  there are some great roller coasters here.

Griffon Roller Coaster

Busch Gardens’ newest coaster Tempesto is a launch coaster with speeds up to 63 mph and a complete inversion 154 feet in the air.  Alpengeist is an inversion roller coaster that climbs to 195 feet and riders are hurtled through six inversions at speeds up to 67 mph.  Apollo’s Chariot has a drop of 210 feet and reaches a maximum speed of 73 mph.  Griffon has a 205-foot, 90-degree, 75 mph free fall.  Verboten® is a somewhat tamer roller coaster than the previously mentioned ones.  It is an indoor/outdoor ride with an 88-foot plunge toward the river.  A long-time favorite of the Busch Gardens coasters is Loch Ness Monster®.  This coaster has two loops and stretches 13 stories tall before racing down a 114-foot drop, with speeds as fast as 60 miles per hour.  Loch Ness is what I think of when I think of Busch Gardens Williamsburg.  The fact that is has been in operation since 1978 shows why it’s one of the most popular rides in the park.  It is a classic.

Reason number 2:  Busch Gardens Williamsburg is a beautiful amusement park.  It is divided into sections with different European countries as themes.  These sections are Germany and Octoberfest, France and New France, Ireland, Scotland, England, Italy, and Festa Italia, and  Jack Hanna’s Wild Reserve.  Each section has corresponding scenery, rides, attractions, and restaurants.  It is nice to just walk around the park and take in all of the details and the scenery.  If you don’t like riding amusement park rides, you can easily fill your day with shopping, dining, sightseeing, and people-watching.

When you need a break from riding rides, you can always take in a show, which is reason number 3:  the shows are good with high-quality actors, singers, and dancers.  There are 8 family-friendly shows spread out all throughout the day so watching at least one or two shouldn’t be too difficult for most people.  All For One™ premiered July 1 and is about the Musketeers.  Mix it Up! includes a team of chef musicians in Italy’s il Teatro di San Marco.  Celtic Fyre is a popular show featuring Irish song and dance.  London Rocks™ is a musical journey that explores the roots of rock-n-roll and in a 25-minute live action and multi-media rock show.  Roll Out The Barrel includes live musicians, singers and dancers, and incorporates some acrobatics in this musical about a contest in a German village.  Sunny Days Celebration is a sing- and dance-along for younger children and their families featuring  Elmo, Abby Cadabby, Grover, Cookie Monster and Zoe.  I really wanted to see The Secret Life of Predators but there just wasn’t enough time.  This is a live-animal show featuring some of North America’s top predators.  One of my favorite shows is More…Pet Shenanigans.  I love the fact that the animal trainers at the park wanted to incorporate rescued and shelter animals in a show.  The park also supports animal shelters with a program called Happy Tails in which they offer two free single-day tickets to the park to those who adopt a dog or cat from participating shelters.

BGW also offers several special events throughout the year, which is reason number 4: there are five festivals or special events throughout the year.  The Food & Wine Festival is late May through late June.  For the weekend of July 4th, there is the Fireworks Spectacular.  Similar to Octoberfest is the Beer Festival, Bier Fest in September.  The month leading up to Halloween includes Howl-O-Scream.  During the holiday season beginning around Thanksgiving there is Christmas Town.

Often we think of amusement parks as a place to go for fast roller coasters and other rides, but Busch Gardens Williamsburg has many rides, shows, and attractions for younger children, making this park truly family-friendly, my reason number 5.  They call it “KIDsiderate” and while they offer play areas like Land of the Dragons® and the Sesame Street® Forest of Fun™ there are also an abundance of strollers, changing tables, nursing rooms, and of course kid-friendly food offerings.  BGW also takes safety seriously and offer height-check stations to make sure your child is tall enough to ride certain rides.

Although I didn’t even mention any of the other rides, there are many that are a lot of fun and definitely worth checking out!  Some of my family’s favorites include Escape from Pompeii, Le Scoot, Roman Rapids, and Aeronaut Skyride.  Although I’ve never done it, the Rhine River Cruise looks like fun.  Hmmmm, maybe next time!

Logistics:  check the website for up-to-date pricing but generally, a one-day ticket for an adult costs $80 online and $70 for children ages 3-9.  Buying tickets online generally saves you money and time (you don’t have to wait in line to buy tickets when you arrive at the park).  You can also add animal tours, dining plans, and wine tastings online for additional fees.

GPS Driving Directions

Busch Gardens
One Busch Gardens Blvd.
Williamsburg, VA 23185

Busch Gardens is located in Williamsburg, VA at Exit 243A on I-64. Alternative local routes include US Route 60, and State Routes 143 and 199. Major nearby cities include Virginia Beach (55 miles), Richmond (55 miles) and Washington, DC (150 miles).
Flying? Three airports are situated within a 45-minute drive of Busch Gardens.

ORF – Norfolk International Airport
RIC – Richmond International Airport
PHF – Newport News-Williamsburg International Airport

Taking a train?
The Williamsburg Amtrak Train Station is just 10 minutes from Busch Gardens. For more information about routes and schedules, visit Amtrak’s website.

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