Planning to Visit Greece? Consider Going to Crete for Beautiful Beaches, Incredible Hiking, and Less Crowds

Many people choose to visit Greece via cruise ship, stopping at the popular islands of Santorini and Mykonos along the way. Often cruise ships leave from Athens or also commonly from Rome or Venice in Italy, although there are a multitude of cruise options in this area. I understand the draw; it’s much easier to let someone else choose the itinerary and take care of everything along the way.

I often travel differently than most people, however, so it’s fitting that when I went to Greece, I chose to spend the majority of my time on the island of Crete. It was considerably cheaper to fly into Athens instead of Crete, so I spent a few days in Athens and saw the major sites there. Although I liked Athens, I didn’t really love it, as you can read here: I’m Sorry but I Just Didn’t Love Athens.

Transportation

Options for traveling from Athens to Crete are by ferry, which take from 7.5 to 11 hours, or to fly, which takes a mere hour flight time. This was a no-brainer for me, so I flew and arrived in Chania on the northwest coast, where my hotel was. You can also fly into Heraklion, further east on the island. Although I wouldn’t recommend having a rental car in Athens, it’s necessary if you want to explore Crete on your own. Drivers in Greece are aggressive and some of the roads in the remote villages are not in the best condition so there are those factors to consider, but if you can manage to stay on the major highways at least the majority of the time, you should be fine.

Hiking

If you’re staying in the Chania area, just south of here is the White Mountains Protected Forest (Lefka Ori), a great place to hike. This is where you can find Samaria Gorge and Agia Irini Gorge. Both Gorges are easy to do on your own; just pay a small entrance fee and you’re off! The paths are well-marked and well-maintained. Just be sure to bring your own water, snacks, sunscreen, and sturdy shoes.

White Mountains Protected Forest

For views of Crete’s highest mountain, Mount Ida, drive east from Chania to Kouloukonos. There’s a cave and a rocky path to the summit with great views of the area. Very close-by is Ideon Andron, also called  Psychro Cave/Diktean Cave, a limestone cavern said to be the birthplace of Zeus.

Inside Diktean Cave

On the far eastern tip of Crete you’ll find Richtis Gorge near the tiny village of Exo Mouliana. As you can imagine, this area isn’t frequented nearly as much as the gorges on the western area of Crete, so it’s a great place to go if you want to get away from other people. There’s also a stream and a waterfall here, so bring your swimsuit if you want to get in the water.

Beaches

Another reason to stay in the Chania area is for the beaches, since many of the best beaches are here. In fact, one of the top-rated beaches on all of Greece is in Chania, Elafonissi Beach. This beach has crystal-clear water and soft white sand. The part with sunbeds and umbrellas gets extremely crowded so either come early or late in the day to minimize crowds or find a quiet spot on your own. Balos, Falassarna, Sougia, Glyka Nera, Krios, Marathi, and Loutraki Beaches are all in the Chania region and are all consistently ranked high as far as beautiful beaches in Crete.

Elafonissi Beach

Heraklion and Rethimno also have some beautiful beaches including Preveli, Plakias, and Rodakino Beaches (in Rethimno) and Matala and Tymbaki Beaches (in Heraklion). These beaches tend to have coarser sand than the beaches in Chania but they are still great options. Prevali Beach is actually where a river flows into the sea, forming a lake next to the sea, so it’s unique in that sense.

Historical Sites

There are four major historical sites in Crete:

Gortyn- site of the Gortyn Code, the oldest and most complete known example of a code of ancient Greek law.

Hagia Triada Royal Villa- Minoan settlement on the western edge of the same ridge as Phaistos. Not as substantial as Minoan palaces.

Knossos- controversial site due to the “reconstruction” by Sir Arthur Evans but nonetheless a significant Minoan historical site thought to have once been the center of political and ceremonial events of the time.

Phaistos- an important center of Minoan civilisation, once the wealthiest and most powerful city in southern Crete.

To avoid ticket lines, you can buy your tickets for archaeological sites, museums, and monuments in Greece in advance through the Archaeological Resources Fund e-Ticketing System found here: https://etickets.tap.gr/.

The Heraklion Archaeological Museum, located in the center of Heraklion city, is one of the top museums in Greece and in Europe as well, sits on the site of a Venetian Franciscan monastery destroyed by an earthquake in 1856. Here you can find Minoan artifacts from all over Crete.

Also worth checking out, especially if you’re staying in Chania is the Archaeological Museum of Chania. This museum in a former Venetian Franciscan monastery houses a wide collection of Neolithic and Minoan artifacts as well as treasures of the late Roman periods. 

Minoan Palace of Knossos

Crete is a big island and it would be impossible to see and do everything in just a few days or even a week but it is possible to see many of the highlights I mentioned here in a full week. If you have 10 days to two weeks to spend, that would definitely give you more time to fully explore the island and all it has to offer.

Lastly, I would like to say how friendly and kind I found the people in Crete. One morning we drove to what we thought was an open restaurant for breakfast, only to quickly figure out the restaurant was not open yet. My Greek is pretty much limited to knowing the letters of the alphabet and it was clear the restaurant owner did not speak much English, but between us, it was conveyed that our family would like some breakfast.

An older woman quickly went back to what I can assume was the kitchen and whipped up a tasty Greek breakfast for us, and the man and woman both had huge smiles on their faces the entire time. When the bill came it was reasonable and fair. It seemed clear we were their guests and they were happy to have us, even if it was before the restaurant was supposed to be open.

Have you ever been to Crete? If so, what did you do there? Do you have plans to go to Crete someday?

Happy travels!

Donna

Five Lessons in Life I Learned Through Running

As I wrote in my very first blog post, Why I Run, I feel like I’ve always been a runner. I ran for the sheer joy of running when I was a kid and other than taking a few years off during college prompted by severe shin splints, I’ve been a runner pretty much as soon as I could run. Even though I was on my grade school track team (does that even count?), I was never on my high school cross country or track team nor was I part of any running teams in college. In other words, other than my grade school track coach I never had a running coach so everything I’ve learned about running I learned on my own.

Being a runner for so many years has also taught me how to interact with people and be a better person myself. I’ve learned many life lessons through running and I’d like to share some of them here. For each one I tried to give an example that relates to running and then give an example that relates to life in general.

  1. Treat others with kindness and respect.
    • As a runner, I probably tend to notice stories about runners treating each other with kindness and respect more than a non-runner might but I feel like there have been so many examples of stories showing the kindness of runners toward each other.
    • One example is when high school track star Meghan Vogel was at the Ohio state meet in 2012. Vogel was competing in the 3200 meter race, where fellow competitor Arden McMath dropped to the ground a few meters short of the finish line. Vogel ran to McMath’s side where she guided her to the finish line, allowing McMath to finish ahead of herself.
    • This one should be obvious how it applies to life outside running and I’m not saying people that don’t run aren’t kind and respectful of others, it’s just that I tend to notice it more in runners probably because of the bond that runners have with one another.
  2. Food is fuel for your body. 
    • You quickly have to figure this one out when you start running. If you don’t have the proper amounts and types of food and hydration, your runs will be short-lived and you’ll crash and burn.
    • Famous runners have recently cashed in on this by publishing cookbooks specifically aimed at runners. Some of the more popular ones include “Run Fast, Eat Slow” by Shalane Flanagan and  Elyse Kopecky, “Racing Weight Cookbook” by Matt Fitzgerald, “The Athlete’s Palate” by Yishane Lee, and “Eat and Run” by Scott Jurek.
    • Likewise in life outside of running, food should be treated as nourishment for your body. If you fill it with junk, eventually it will catch up to you in the form of obesity, diabetes, or other health problems. That’s not to say you should always deny yourself the occasional special treat, just remember if you have it every day, it’s no longer a special treat but a part of your normal diet.
  3. Listen to your body.
    • Aches and pains can become worse over time if you ignore the early warning signs. Most of us learn it’s better to take a few days off until you feel better rather than pushing through the pain, only to injure yourself worse and having to take months off running.
    •  This one can be tough for runners to learn, but once you learn to do this, it’s key to a long running relationship.
    • Likewise in life outside running, if you feel a nagging pain in your back or other part of your body, the longer you ignore it, the longer it will take to go away, and in fact may not just go away on its own.
  4. Getting enough quality sleep is crucial.
    • Sleep is the single most important element when it comes to running. If you haven’t slept well or only got a few hours sleep the night before trying to tackle a race or a long run that will only make it harder for optimal performance.
    • Not getting enough sleep or not sleeping well night after night wreaks havoc on your immune system, hormonal system, and even makes it harder to maintain an ideal weight.
  5. Having “Me Time” is important for your health.
    • Mothers often struggle with this one. You’re busy taking care of your family and it’s often tough to squeeze in a 30-minute run, especially if you also work full-time outside the home. Not only is this important for your physical health, having time to yourself to go for a run is also important for your mental health. Find a way to make this work for your situation, whether it’s working it out with your partner, taking turns watching a fellow runner’s kids, or calling a babysitter. You should never feel guilty for taking time for yourself.
    • Even if you don’t run, it’s important to take time for yourself, whether it’s taking a relaxing bath, going for a walk, calling a friend, or just sitting down to enjoy a steaming cup of hot chocolate by yourself.
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Stopping to smell the irises on a run!

What about you fellow runners? What are some life lessons you’ve learned through being a runner?

Happy running!

Donna

Fun in the Sun in the Outer Banks, North Carolina

I’ve been to the Outer Banks of North Carolina many times. My first time was with my mother and brother when my brother and I were both teenagers. Since then I’ve been all up and down the Outer Banks, which stretches from Corolla in the northern tip, down to Kill Devil Hills/Kitty Hawk/Nags Head in the middle, and Hatteras and Ocracoke in the southern portion. At one point or another in my life, I’ve been to every portion of this series of barrier islands.

This summer I had a trip planned to Kitty Hawk after winning a story contest with the prize being two free nights at a hotel on the beach in Kitty Hawk. Even with the pandemic in full force in North Carolina, we were able to have a great time and relax a bit. Everyone we saw in public was wearing a mask, there was hand sanitizer everywhere we went such as at our hotel, shops, and restaurants, and the beaches are wide and long enough it was easy to socially distance from other people.

Like I said, this wasn’t my first time to the area but it was my daughter’s first time to this particular part of the Outer Banks. I wanted her to see the Wright Brothers Memorial and Jockey’s Ridge State Park in particular. I also wanted to take her to some of the locally owned restaurants and little beach shops. Most of all, I wanted to allow her to have a nice, quiet, relaxing weekend and have some fun before all of the stress of high school started.

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My daughter’s first time in the Outer Banks (l) and 2020 Outer Banks vacation (r)

Jockey’s Ridge State Park

Jockey’s Ridge State Park is a fun place to spend an hour or two, more if you want to try hang gliding. It’s the tallest living sand dune on the Atlantic Coast and covers 426 acres. You can go sand boarding, fly a kite, watch the sunset, go hang gliding, or just walk along the dunes. There are three very short trails, one of which has brochures at the trailhead. Most people just wander around and end up watching the people trying their hand at hang gliding with Kitty Hawk Kites, the only company that offers hang gliding lessons on the dunes.

Every time when I’ve been to Jockey’s Ridge State Park, I’ve just walked around taking in the views. It’s always been quiet and serene and the dunes are large enough that even if there are several other people there, it can feel like there’s hardly anyone else but you. The dunes seem like they go on forever but it is fairly easy to reach the point where you see the end where they meet the ocean. You can get great views of the surrounding area from this vantage.

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Jockey’s Ridge State Park

Wright Brothers National Memorial

The Wright Brothers National Memorial is impressive whether it’s your first or fifth visit. If you’re not familiar with the history behind the memorial, Wilbur and Orville Wright forever changed the world with the first successful powered airplane flight at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina in 1903. The two brothers lived in Ohio but chose this area of North Carolina to test out some theories about flight they had beginning in 1900.

This is another place in the Outer Banks where you can spend an hour or two just walking around. For some reason, the memorial seemed even bigger to me this visit. There is a great visitor center that serves as a museum that’s full of historical information and photos but it was closed due to the pandemic. You can check out the First Flight Boulder and the Flight Line with boulders that mark the first flights on December 17, 1903. It’s funny to see the first three boulders clustered together and then the fourth boulder noticeably further from the previous boulders. I can imagine the Wright brothers’ excitement when they were able to fly to that fourth boulder.

There is also an area with reconstructed 1903 Camp Buildings where the Wright brothers lived and worked during the summers of the three years they spent there. After their successful flights in 1903, they returned in subsequent years but abandoned the camp site in 1911. Now you can see a reconstructed hangar and living quarters of the brothers. While I was checking it out, a park ranger pointed to the bunks at the top part of the living quarter and said the brothers were so excited when they figured out how much more comfortable it was to sleep in the top part of the wood cabin than on the ground. I didn’t think to ask why until later so I’m not sure if it was simply a softer place to sleep or an escape from the inevitable ants and other bugs on the ground.

As always, the National Park Services website for the Wright Brothers National Memorial is full of information for planning a visit or if you’re just interested in the history, which you can find the link for here.

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What about the beaches?

If you do a  Google search to ask what are the best beaches in the Outer Banks, it’s likely Kitty Hawk will come up as one of the best. Honestly, I don’t see much of a difference in the beaches whether you’re in Kitty Hawk, Kill Devil Hills, or Nags Head. The sand is consistently the same golden color and the beaches are wide and long in all three areas. There are some pretty decent waves, though nothing like you see in the Pacific Ocean. Nags Head does have Jennette’s Pier, the longest public pier in North Carolina, which sets it apart from the other nearby beaches.

Since the Outer Banks consists of more than just Kitty Hawk, Kill Devil Hills, and Nags Head, I should also mention a few of the other beaches in the Outer Banks. From Rodanthe southward including Avon, Hatteras, and Ocracoke there are unincorporated communities and villages most with only a few hundred residents. This area is quiet and not full of chain restaurants or hotels so if you like to really get away from it all, this is a great area for that. Just north of Kitty Hawk, you’ll come to Southern Shores, Duck, and much further north is Corolla, where the wild horses are.

My daughter’s first trip to the beach was to Duck, North Carolina, as shown in the first photo above. Duck is known to be one of the most dog-friendly beaches in the Outer Banks, but that wasn’t why we chose that area. Honestly, a co-worker of mine had a condo there and was renting it out at a good price so we decided to check out that area since we hadn’t been that far north. It seems to be a bit more expensive than Nags Head and the surrounding cities and caters more to the upper middle-class and upper class. However, the beaches are pretty much like what you see as you go south along the Outer Banks, just quieter.

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A word about the food

The Outer Banks is full of seafood restaurants, as you can imagine, some are over-the-top cheesy and touristy, like Dirty Dick’s Crab House (a chain restaurant), plus plenty of chain restaurants specializing in fried seafood, but there are also plenty of locally-owned BBQ restaurants like High Cotton and Pigman’s. We stumbled upon a wonderful small Italian restaurant, Josephine’s Sicilian Kitchen after an Asian fusion restaurant we had plans to eat at turned out to be closed, even though their website said they were open (no doubt COVID-related). So you see you can find much more than just seafood restaurants if you do just a little looking around (not that I don’t enjoy seafood, it’s just good to have options).

We also discovered the closest thing we’ve been able to find to true Hawaiian shave ice at Booty Treats Ice Cream and Shave Ice. I had a coconut shave ice with cookie dough melt-in ice cream sprinkled on top and my daughter had banana shave ice with chocolate melt-ins and we both loved our choices. Another of our favorite ice cream shops is Kill Devil’s Frozen Custard and Beach Fries. I had been here before a long time ago and it was still as good as I remembered. They have a huge selection of sundaes, malts, floats, milkshakes, hurricanes, but also have some pretty good sandwiches and are well-known for their fries so come with a big appetite!

Accomodations and Day Trips

There are plenty of options of where to stay, depending on if you’re coming by yourself, with a friend, family, or group of friends or family. You can find by far the biggest selection of places to stay in the middle part of the Outer Banks- Nags Head, Kill Devil Hills, and Kitty Hawk. This goes for hotels, Airbnb properties, and house rentals. Likewise, you can find the biggest range in prices of accommodations in the middle part. Because there are fewer options in the northern and southern sections, the prices tend to be higher in general.

There’s not much reason to get too hung-up on where you choose to stay because you can also easily drive from the southern portion of the Outer Banks to the northern portion in a day. Say you decided to drive from the Hatteras Lighthouse to Corolla to check out the wild ponies. It would take about 2 hours each way, notwithstanding traffic along the way. Still, that would be a pretty fun way to spend a day. Another option is to drive to Roanoke Island, which has historical sites and the North Carolina Aquarium. Say you were staying in Duck and drove to Roanoke Island for the day, that’s only a 45 minute drive each way. The point is, if you’re going to be in the Outer Banks for at least a few days, it’s easy to check out more than just the city you’re staying in, and there’s so much to see in this area, I encourage you to do so.

Have you been to the Outer Banks? If so, where did you go and what did you do? Is this a place you’ve wanted to visit but haven’t made it there yet?

Happy travels!

Donna

 

 

 





Confessions of a Mother Runner

I have one child, a fourteen-year-old daughter who loves to hear the story about how she “ran” her first half marathon while in my tummy when I was pregnant. I had been running half marathons and other distances well before I was pregnant so when I told my ob/gyn doctor that I wanted to run a half marathon in my first trimester, she just said for me to take it easy and not push too hard. I had an uncomplicated pregnancy and not only ran that half marathon, I was able to continue to run until I was about 8 months pregnant, at which point the pressure on my bladder was too much so I switched to the elliptical trainer.

Once I got the green light to run again after my delivery, I noticed some changes in my body that had happened during pregnancy. I developed iliotibial band syndrome (ITBS), which is a common running injury, apparently because my ligaments had gotten looser when I was pregnant and we runners want relatively tight ligaments to hold everything in place. Despite the pain from ITBS and not really being able to run more than a few miles without excruciating pain in the side of my knee, I ran a half marathon in Ohio, my first postpartum race, when my daughter was almost 7 months old.

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The half marathon in Arizona when I was pregnant

I had a jogging stroller that I used to run with my daughter as soon as she was able to sit and hold her head up on her own. If you’ve never pushed a child in a jogging stroller, let me tell you, it’s HARD! Not only is it hard to push the extra weight of the child plus the stroller, it’s hard to coordinate the pushing and running. Do you push with one hand, both hands, or do the push-off then do no-hands for a few steps? I ended up doing all three. Then there are the turns. Jogging strollers are different from regular baby strollers because they have three wheels instead of four, which makes it easier to maneuver them, but it’s still not easy. I ended up pushing my daughter in the jogging stroller until she was almost 2 years old. At that point she was done with strollers of all sorts and she would put up the biggest fuss you’ve ever seen when I tried to strap her into a stroller or a car seat too for that matter (but she still had to ride in the car seat for a few more years).

Being able to take your child with you on runs in a jogging stroller helps on a few different fronts. For one, it gives your spouse a break from having to take care of your child. For another, it gives you some special one-on-one time, as long as your child enjoys being in the stroller. Finally, many kids seem to enjoy being out in nature and seeing all of the new sights go by when they’re in a jogging stroller. For other kids, the rocking motion puts them to sleep. My daughter would just sit there and look around, taking it all in, so I believe she enjoyed the jogging stroller until she reached the point where she didn’t want to be strapped into anything.

When my daughter was still really little but too old for her jogging stroller, I remember how she would react when I would tell her I was going out for a run. She would always give me a big smile and when she was old enough to talk she would always say, “Have a great run, Momma!” Never did I get the push-back from her where she begged me not to go. It’s like it didn’t even occur to her to ask me not to go for a run. Seeing me go for a run was such an ingrained part of my family’s life that it was just normal to her.

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Going to races to cheer me on also because a normal part of my daughter’s life

Like any mother runner (or father runner) knows, it’s difficult to squeeze everything in. I’ve always worked full-time and have been running half-marathons since before my daughter was born, on average 3 or 4 races a year. My daughter has been what I would call fairly active in activities over the years such as swim lessons then swim team when she was older, gymnastics lessons, Girl Scouts, soccer teams, ballet lessons, piano lessons, art lessons, and on and on. Fortunately my husband and I were able to work together to coordinate all of this plus our work schedules but it hasn’t been easy. I would often run laps around the park or neighborhood where she had soccer practice or swim team practice. I would dress for a run, drop her off, then run as long as I possibly could until it was time to pick her up again. Sometimes it wasn’t as long as my training plan called for, but as mother runners, we do what we can.

As my daughter got older, she asked to run with me. At first, I was so thrilled and imagined the two of us chatting happily while we went for easy runs. Then the reality of that sunk in and the complaining began. She would whine, “Running is hard,” and “I can’t do it,” and “I need to walk,” sometimes only after being out a few minutes. I would always tell her she would be setting the pace and we would only go for about a half hour, walking when she needed to. However, the truth is, the whining and complaining were driving me crazy and after a while I couldn’t take it any more. We stopped running together.

Then I discovered Girls on the Run, a running support group aimed at girls in third through fifth grade that lasts 10-12 weeks and culminates with a 5k race at the end. It turned out to be one of the best decisions I could make for my daughter, although initially she wasn’t as big of a fan of the program as I was. The reason she didn’t care for the program is she thought it was too easy for her and wanted the coaches to push her harder, but I think it was great for her to be able to see what a great runner she was then and gain some confidence in herself. I fully believe that’s what turned things around for my daughter, and ultimately lead her to become the runner she is today. I wrote a post about her experience when she was going through it, which you can read here:  Girls on the Run Interview.

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The Girls on the Run race my daughter and I ran together

Over the years, I’ve become a big fan of products from the store Trader Joe’s. If you don’t have one where you live, maybe there’s something like it with affordable and still healthy options. On many occasions, I’ve come home from work, changed into my running clothes then gone for a run, come home from my run, and made something from Trader Joe’s for dinner, like a pre-packaged stir-fry or cut up some chicken and cooked and sautéed that in an Indian sauce, with some naan and rice (all from Trader Joe’s) on the side. Sure, other stores have stir fries, sauces, and things like that, but Trader Joe’s products often have less processing and/or less preservatives and other stuff you don’t really want in your food. But I don’t want this to sound like an ad for Trader Joe’s. It’s really my way of saying it’s OK to make a quick meal for your family and you don’t need to feel guilty for doing so. Heck, show me any mother who works full-time and trains for long distance races and I’ll show you a woman who at least sometimes cooks quick meals for her family (unless she’ s lucky enough to have a husband who doesn’t run and does all of the cooking. Now wouldn’t that be a dream?).

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A Color Run 5k my daughter and I ran together

As mothers we already feel so much guilt, right from the beginning. There’s guilt if you don’t breast-feed, guilt if you don’t use cloth diapers, guilt if you don’t stay home to raise your child, guilt if you don’t always cook organic, healthy home-cooked meals, guilt if you leave your child with a sitter, guilt if you don’t enroll your child in the “best” preschool, and on and on it goes. We don’t need to feel guilty if we’re doing the best we can and our children are taken care of. Truly, it’s OK to leave your child with your husband while you go for a run, even a long run for an hour or more.

My husband was always fully supportive of me, whether it was my decision to go back to work full-time after the birth of our daughter or my running when our daughter was young and he had to watch her. I know not all women have as supportive husbands, however, which is sad to me. The ability to get out to run is such a mental break for me and my husband was able to see that I’m happier when I’m able to run, and likewise, I’m a better mother to our daughter. If only all husbands could understand this, I believe they would also be more supportive. If you can’t rely on your husband to watch your kids, try trading off watching each other’s kids with another mother runner in your area, or ask a friend, co-worker, relative, or someone else you know and would trust your kids with.

So yes, being a mother is hard and being a mother runner is even harder, especially if you work full-time as well, but I’m here to tell you it can be done. What about work/life balance, you may ask? Honestly, it doesn’t exist, at least not in the perfect 50/50 balance. Some days you may feel like it’s a struggle just to keep your head afloat.

There will be days where you have to work late in the evening, you have to go into work late because your child had a doctor appointment, you have to leave work a little early to squeeze in a run, you skip lunch so you can get in a run, you have to set your alarm for a crazy hour in the morning so you can run before work, you have piles of laundry that have need folded for a week, your bathroom hasn’t been cleaned in over a month. Any of this sound familiar? If you’re a mother runner, I’m sure at least some of it does. We’ve all been there. And you know what? It’s OK. Now stop beating yourself up and get out there for a run!

Are you a mother runner? Do you or did you feel guilty for not being a “perfect” mother?

Happy running!

Donna