Stunning Santa Fe, New Mexico

For my first trip to New Mexico, even though the first part of my time was spent in Albuquerque (Quirky Albuquerque, New Mexico), my time in that city was primarily for a half marathon (The Albuquerque Half Marathon, Albuquerque, New Mexico-50th state). As much as I enjoyed Albuquerque, I’m not sure I would have chosen to go there otherwise, but Santa Fe, on the other hand, was always slated as my highlight to New Mexico. I literally went straight from the race to my hotel for a quick shower and finished packing my bags, (all of which I did in about 20 minutes), before I hopped in the rental car for the one hour scenic drive to Santa Fe. When I was driving past all of the Native Indian Reservations, I kept thinking to myself how much it reminded me of parts of Colorado and Arizona mixed together, not surprising given their geography.

Albuquerque was a good introduction for me to the higher elevation of Santa Fe, since the former is at about 5300 feet and the latter is at about 7200 feet. Santa Fe is a quaint town nestled in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains and it has a definite artsy feel. New Mexico’s capital city isn’t the largest city by population in the state but there is plenty to do year-round. Here were some of my favorite things to do and places to eat in the Santa Fe area.

Quintessential Santa Fe

Things to Do

Museum Hill has four museums all in the same area so you can walk from one building to another. The Museum of Spanish Colonial Art has almost 4,000 pieces of Hispanic New Mexico art. The Museum of Indian Arts and Culture gives more of the story behind the American Indian people in the Southwest and includes prehistoric through contemporary art. The Museum of International Folk Art has 130,000 pieces of folk art from all over the world. There are dolls and unique displays, some of which are enormous with elaborate detail. I enjoyed this museum much more than I thought I would. Finally, the Wheelwright Museum of the American Indian has historical Native American art through contemporary art and includes the Case Trading Post, which sells jewelry, art, ceramics, and textiles. Check the website for hours and tickets: https://www.museumhill.net/

I loved the Museum of International Folk Art so much!

Right beside Museum Hill is the Santa Fe Botanical Garden. This is definitely one of the smallest botanical gardens I’ve been to and it’s entirely outside with no conservatory but I still enjoyed it. There were some unique sculptures and it was nice to just casually stroll around the grounds and not feel rushed to take it all in, which you can easily do in an hour or less. https://santafebotanicalgarden.org/

Even though I had heard of Meow Wolf’s House of Eternal Return, an immersive art experience, I wasn’t sure if I wanted to go. It seemed a bit “out there” to me and I wasn’t sure it would live up to the hype. After going, I have to say I absolutely loved this place! It was bizarre and creative and just made me laugh at times. Although it’s completely hands-on where you have to touch things, crawl through tight spaces, open cabinets and drawers, climb into the dryer, and play the dinosaur rib cage to get the most out of your time there, there were multiple bottles of hand sanitizer in every single room and masks were required. If you’re claustrophobic or don’t like/aren’t able to go through small areas or climb ladders you likely won’t enjoy it as much but many things are completely optional and have multiple entries and exits. I would love to go to the one in Denver now and see how the two places compare (there’s also one in Las Vegas but I have no plans to go back there). https://meowwolf.com/visit/santa-fe

Photos definitely don’t do Meow Wolf justice

One thing I skipped just because I don’t care for her art work is visit the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum but I know it’s hugely popular. She was known primarily for modern art work, of which I’m generally not a fan and the $18 admission ticket seemed a bit steep for someone who probably wouldn’t even enjoy the art. Since art is subjective, there are obviously many people who appreciate her art. You can also visit her two former homes in northern New Mexico, Ghost Ranch and Abiquiu Home and Studio. https://www.okeeffemuseum.org/

If you want to go shopping, which I highly recommend, Old Town is a fun place to walk around and pop into the local stores. There are several art galleries, jewelry shops, and stores selling fetishes, which as I mentioned in my post on Albuquerque are made by the Zuni pueblo people. They carve small animals from stone, wood, antlers, glass, or shells and these animals are sacred, each with symbolic meanings. I didn’t buy a fetish in Albuqueque because none of them “spoke” to me, and neither did any speak to me in Santa Fe. I was looking for something to commemorate my running a half marathon in all 50 states, with New Mexico as my last state, but I’m not even sure what kind of animal would represent that.

Jackalope Mercado is a shop that was recommended to me by a friend who knows someone who used to live in Santa Fe. It’s a large store with an outdoor area as well as indoor items, with mostly pottery and home decor but also a wide selection of souvenir-type items. I was told the Santa Fe Farmer’s Market is a good place for local foods and handmade items but when I went, it was a bust. There were only a handful of vendors and I didn’t buy anything. It’s probably much busier in the summer months than the late fall when I was there.

Places to Hike

Santa Fe is a hiker’s paradise, with a multitude of places to hike for all abilities, with trails ranging from easy to difficult. Originally I thought I’d visit Valles Caldera National Preserve and Bandelier National Monument, which are about an hour drive from Santa Fe. However, after seeing all of the trails that are much closer, I decided to just stay in the Santa Fe area.

I had so much fun hiking in Santa Fe!

Some of my favorite trails were in the Dale Ball Trails, with 22 miles of trails. Right beside these trails is the Randall Davey Audubon Center & Sanctuary with hiking trails, guided bird walks and tours of the Randall Davey Home. These areas are in the eastern part of Santa Fe.

Directly south of Dale Ball Trails you can find a cluster of trailheads; one of my favorites was the Atalaya Upper Trail. You can park at the St. John’s College parking lot (free) and find the Atalaya and Dorothy Stewart Trailheads from this parking lot. Conveniently enough, St. John’s College is right by Museum Hill.

Northern Santa Fe has the La Tierra Trails including Calabasas Trailhead and La Cuchara Trailhead. One day I hiked seven miles along the Rio Grande River (which was dry when I was there) and it was beautiful with the Cottonwood trees all around and their golden yellow leaves that rustled in the wind like paper. I was able to hike at least portions of all of these trails in about five days. Their close proximity to each other makes it easy to go from one trail area to another without losing much driving time in between. https://www.alltrails.com/parks/us/new-mexico/santa-fe-national-forest

Places to Eat

As good as the food was in Albuquerque, Santa Fe raised the bar another level. There wasn’t one place where I ate that wasn’t at least very good and most were outstanding. Some of my favorite places included:

Two sister restaurants La Choza and The Shed for excellent New Mexican dishes https://www.lachozasf.com/ and https://sfshed.com/

Some of the best Ethiopian food I’ve had in my life and one of the best meals I had on this entire trip at Jambo Cafe https://jambocafe.net/

Very good ramen at this small restaurant also with great service, Mampuku Ramen http://places.singleplatform.com/mampuku-ramen/menu

Good pizza if you start to tire of New Mexican food and want something different at Back Road Pizza https://www.backroadpizza.com/

For desert, if you haven’t tried Mexican ice pops, this is a good place. I will warn you all of the toppings and endless options can add up, so be mindful of what you’re ordering. Also, this is a chain and is not only in several places in New Mexico, but also Colorado, Arizona, California, and Florida. https://www.thepaletabar.com/

I’m a huge tea-lover so I highly recommend The Teahouse Santa Fe if you also love tea. They have an enormous selection of teas to drink in the restaurant as well as tea you can buy and take with you. The food is also very good and the setting is quaint with both an indoor seating area as well as a nice patio. https://teahousesantafe.com/

It’s a good thing I hiked so much with all of the good food in Santa Fe!

I really loved Santa Fe and highly recommend going there if you haven’t been. With all of the hiking trails, shopping, museums, and great food, there’s something for everyone no matter what your interests. It is a bit on the pricey side (but not as much as what you’d spend in a large city like New York City or Los Angeles) so you might want to factor the costs in when planning a trip there, especially for accommodations.

Have you been to Santa Fe? If so, what were some of your favorite places or things you did there?

Happy travels!

Donna

Quirky Albuquerque, New Mexico

Not only did I think that is a cute title and I liked the sound of it, it’s also quite fitting. I found Albuquerque to be quirky in many ways, similar to how everyone that lives in Austin, Texas likes to say, “Keep Austin Weird.” There should be a saying for Albuquerque, “Keep Albuquerque Quirky.” Why do I think Albuquerque is quirky? I found many of the local people I spoke to from shops and restaurants to have a quirky sense of humor and many decorations at shops and restaurants were a bit quirky to me.

When I was flying into Albuquerque, I was surprised the area is as big as it is but then again I didn’t really know a ton about the area other than the basics like some things to do and places to eat. I looked up the population and was surprised to find it’s around 565,000, which is only about a fourth of the metro area where I live, but still considerably bigger than the capital city of Santa Fe, with around 85,000 people.

I found plenty of things to do for the days I would be spending in Albuquerque other than the half marathon I ran for my 50th state. For a brief overview, Old Town has most of the touristy shops and restaurants and is definitely worth going to even if you don’t like touristy places. Sawmill Market is a more modern place with an array of restaurants all together in a market hall setting. There is no shortage of restaurants with Mexican food, so much so that you may find yourself getting tired of it, like I did and seeking out alternatives. Here are some of my favorite restaurants and things to do in and around Albuquerque.

The Cottonwood trees were beautiful! I took so many pictures of them!

Things to Do

The Indian Pueblo Cultural Center is a good place to begin your visit to Albuquerque. Here you’ll learn about the American Indians in New Mexico and the pueblos in the area. As someone with American Indian in my family history (my great-grandmother was part Cherokee), I’m always interested in places like this where I can learn more about the history of American Indians. I found the displays interesting but they also made me sad for how poorly the American Indians in this area were treated and what they went through. The $10 admission is well-worth it. https://indianpueblo.org/

Indian Pueblo Cultural Center

ABQ Biopark is a steal for what you get for the price of admission: the botanical garden and aquarium or the zoo are just $14.50 for adults. Each section (the garden and aquarium is one section and the zoo is the other) takes a couple or so hours to walk through so you could easily spend most of the day here if you went to the zoo, aquarium, and garden. In the botanical garden, I really enjoyed the Railroad Garden, Old World Walled Gardens, Mediterranean Conservatory, and Desert Conservatory. Normally I love Japanese gardens but I didn’t care for the one here that much. The aquarium is on the small side but my favorite section was the one with the sharks and jellyfish. https://www.cabq.gov/artsculture/biopark

Why yes, those are naked mole rats in the bottom corner!

If you like science and/or history, there’s the National Museum of Nuclear Science and History, a Smithsonian Affiliate. You may or may not know the main assembly plant for the Manhattan Project took place in New Mexico and the first atomic bomb was successfully tested here in 1945. There are sections devoted to the Cold War, WWII, Nuclear Medicine and Radiation, Nuclear Waste, and more. Admission is $15 for adults. https://www.nuclearmuseum.org/

One thing I didn’t do because I didn’t make reservations in advance and they were sold out the day I could go is take a Breaking Bad RV tour. If you’re a fan of the show, this looks like a fun way to spend three hours on their film location tour. In addition to Breaking Bad filming locations, the tour also includes stops from Better Call Saul and El Camino. I did, however, stop by the Breaking Bad Store in Old Town, which I’ll cover below. If you’re going to be in Albuquerque during a busy time of year or only have a short time planned in the city, I suggest making reservations in advance because believe me, they do sell out. https://www.breakingbadrvtours.com/

Places to Hike

The Sandia Mountains, part of the Cibola National Forest lie to the east and northeast of Albuquerque and are easily assessed by car. There’s a popular tram (https://sandiapeak.com/) you can take to get some great mountain views and reach the ski area and hiking trails. When I was researching hiking trails online in advance, I saw the Sandia Peak Tram was closed for maintenance when I was going there so I had thought about driving to the La Luz Trail and hiking there. However, when I saw the many warnings and read some comments online by other hikers about the sheer drop-offs of 1000 feet and how dangerous this trail can be, I decided not to hike it.

Views for days

“I could slip off the side of a cliff and no one would even know until they found my rental car,” I thought, so I decided to hike another trail that didn’t have sheer drop-offs. This trail went to a CCC building (Civilian Conservation Corps: the former U.S. federal agency (1933–1943), organized to utilize the nation’s unemployed youth by building roads, planting trees, improving parks, etc.) and there were amazing views of Albuquerque below. Even on this trail, there were some places with some steep drop-offs but I tried to stay away from the edge and I felt mostly safe. It was also freezing here and I quickly started to get cold, despite wearing my winter coat, hat, and gloves. When they say it’s 10-15 degrees colder at the top of the Sandia Mountains than down in the main part of Albuquerque, they aren’t exaggerating. It was also extremely windy, which was also a part of my decision to skip the La Luz Trail.

The small structure built by the CCC is shown here

There are a wide variety of trails to choose from in the Sandia Mountains, ranging in distance and difficulty so there’s something for everyone. Just make sure you read about them in advance and decide which one is right for you. There are small fees (a few dollars) charged for parking at some of the lots, including the one at the tram and gift shop. You can either pay by cash, (put your money in an envelope then in the lock box and put a paper hanging tag on your car mirror) or you can pay with an app using your phone, following the instructions at the parking lot. Here’s a link to the Sandia Mountain trails: https://www.fs.usda.gov/Internet/FSE_DOCUMENTS/fseprd574112.pdf

For a bit tamer hiking trails, you can go west of the city to Boca Negra Canyon and Petroglyph National Monument where you can see one of the largest petroglyph sites in North America with thousands of designs and symbols carved into volcanic rock. You can also see petroglyphs at Rinconada and Piedras Marcadas Canyons. $1 or $2 parking fee (daily/weekend) is charged at Boca Negra Canyon but not at the other trailheads. These trails are short and you can easily combine multiple hikes in a day. https://www.nps.gov/petr/index.htm

Places to Eat

As I mentioned above, there’s no shortage of Mexican-style restaurants in Albuquerque. One of the most unique places in my opinion is actually in a pharmacy, Duran Pharmacy, where you can find the usual things you would find in a drug store but also a plethora of quirky items you might find in a tourist shop. Why is this listed under “Places to Eat,” you ask, well, there’s also a restaurant that serves hand-rolled tortillas and some of the best Mexican food in the area. The enchiladas I had were some of the best I’ve ever eaten.

Housed inside the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center is the Indian Pueblo Kitchen. Ever since I first had a taco made with fry bread (I believe my first time was in Arizona many years ago), I loved it so much I’ll seek it out when I’m anywhere in Arizona, Utah, or now, New Mexico. My taco with fry bread here was every bit as good as I remembered it to be.

Taco made with fry bread- so good!

If you find yourself tiring of yet another enchilada, taco, burrito, etc., Sawmill Market is a nice option with a variety of choices for lunch or dinner. I went to a pasta place where they made the pasta fresh and it was delicious! There are some Mexican restaurants but also places with Vietnamese food, pizza, burgers, bars, coffee shops, dessert places, and even a restaurant with Louisiana-style food. This is also one of the few places in the area where parking is free.

The Grove Cafe and Market is a great choice if you’re one of those people who could eat breakfast all day, because you can do just that here. In addition to breakfast, they also serve lunch and have cookies, cupcakes, and French macarons on the weekend.

Shopping

Old Town has several dozen unique shops, art galleries, and jewelry shops all within a walkable area. There is metered parking in addition to parking lots so just park your car for an hour or so and plan on exploring all of the quirky shops here. As I mentioned in the paragraph above, the Breaking Bad Store is here and not only can you buy shirts, collectibles, mugs, etc. here but you can also pose by the props from the TV show and see memorabilia from Breaking Bad, Better Call Saul, and El Camino.

Some of the photo props from the Breaking Bad Store

There are also many jewelry shops selling turquoise and other locally-made jewelry in addition to the many “fetishes” you’ll find. Fetishes are primarily made by the Zuni pueblo people. They carve small animals from stone, wood, antlers, glass, or shells and these animals are sacred, each with symbolic meanings. For example, bear paws represent inner strength. I was told by a shop keeper not to seek out a particular fetish but when the right one for me would present itself, I would just know. I looked at some but none spoke to me so I didn’t buy any.

For even more local shopping, head to Nob Hill, Albuquerque’s largest independent shopping district. You can find Mariposa Gallery with locally made arts and crafts, jewelry, and sculptures. In the summer, Nob Hill hosts Route 66 Summerfest with music, food trucks, and show vehicles and in the winter there is Nob Hill Shop and Stroll for holiday shopping.

In summary, Albuquerque is New Mexico’s biggest city and is a fun place especially if you enjoy hiking, history, and great food in a beautiful desert setting along the Rio Grande. The elevation is around 5300 feet, which is relatively low for a mountain town and unlikely to cause severe altitude sickness in most people. I found the quirky little aspects to just add to the city’s uniqueness and charm.

Have you been to Albuquerque? If so, what did you do and what were some of your favorite parts of the city? Did you also find it quirky?

Happy travels!

Donna

Running Highs and Lows of 2021

What a year for running 2021 was for me! I won’t ruin the surprise if you don’t know by now, although unless you’re brand new to my blog, I’m sure you already know what I’m referring to. Anyway, I always like to recap my races and running in general for the year and include any high points as well as low points I experienced so here goes!

At the beginning of 2021 with the pandemic still raging strong and most people other than healthcare workers and other essential workers not vaccinated, races were still kind of in the unknown territory for 2021. After most races were cancelled in 2020, I’m sure race directors wanted to at least attempt to put on their races in 2021 but there were still so many factors that seemed to keep changing all the time, like state and local mandates. Many areas of the US were only approving small races in the early months of the year.

I had three remaining states to finish my quest of running a half marathon in all 50 states: Minnesota, Iowa, and New Mexico. My registration for the Albuquerque Half Marathon had originally been for April 2020, which got pushed back to November 2020 and again to November 2021 so I knew I was going to run that race as long as it didn’t get postponed again. That left Iowa and Minnesota. I saw the IMT Des Moines Half Marathon was being held in October and after I read a statement from the race director promising open regular communication leading up to the race and a generous cancellation policy, I signed up for that race, leaving only Minnesota.

Originally I had wanted to run a half marathon in the Minneapolis/St. Paul area; however, I couldn’t find any half marathons for the months I wanted to run there, basically mid-June through August. The Garry Bjorklund Half Marathon in Duluth had a waiting list and I wasn’t willing to gamble on that. Finally, I found a tiny half marathon in Lake City and after confirming with the race director that it would take place in person in June, I signed up for that race. That meant I would be running half marathons in June, October, and November. The last two races were only three weeks apart, not ideal, but doable.

Since my first half marathon of the year wasn’t until June, I had plenty of time until I needed to start training. Looking back on my Strava training calendar for 2021, I ran a surprisingly decent number of miles in January and February, which was good for building a baseline when I started training roughly 12 weeks before my race.

My boss passed away in April after a two-year battle with pancreatic cancer and I decided to honor him by running miles in his name and asking for donations from co-workers of ours and friends of his. The idea was to run as much as I could the month of May and see how much money I could raise. He had been an avid runner and we had often talked about running and my races so I thought it was appropriate that I ran to honor him. I ended up running 194 miles in May, which was 50 more than I ran in April. Although losing him was a low point in my life, being able to honor him and donate all of the money I did to the cancer center where he was treated meant a lot to me and it helped me deal with the grief, as did running all of those extra miles.

With my daughter before the half marathon in Lake City

With my body stronger than ever and with me in the best pre-race shape I had likely ever been in before the Circle of Life Half Marathon in Lake City, Minnesota, I felt more ready than ever. When I drove the course the day before the race and saw how difficult it was going to be, I knew there was no way I could even come close to a PR but I knew I could at least finish it with a decent time. As I wrote about in my post on the Circle of Life Half Marathon, Lake City, Minnesota- 48th state, between the loose gravel road and hills, this was one of the most difficult races I had run. There were definite lows during the race and I had to dig deep to push through but I managed to finish around 2 hours and it was a high having my daughter run it with me (although she wasn’t literally running by my side, as she was dealing with some Achilles issues and was slower than me).

The following month in July, I had the privilege of running the Peachtree Road Race in Atlanta, Georgia, the largest 10k in the world. It’s so popular there’s a lottery to get in and somehow both my daughter and I got in. I can’t say enough good things about this race. Even though it’s held every year on July 4th, which is always hot in Atlanta, if you manage to run it in the morning, like my daughter and I did, it actually wasn’t that hot. However, there is a rolling start that’s based on qualifying times you submit when you learn you get in the race.

I hadn’t run a 10k in almost 20 years but I had run a 5k recently, although it was only recorded by me on Strava. I’m sure because of all of the recent cancelled races they were more lenient than usually in accepting qualifying race times, but my time was obviously accepted because I was put in “C” group, the third group, since they start with “A” and go down the alphabet, with A group starting first and B group starting 10 minutes later. My daughter had cross country races that I submitted and she was put in B group so we pretty much started together.

Some Atlanta police “mounties” behind me after the Peachtree Roach Race

As I wrote in my post: Peachtree Road Race in Atlanta- My First 10k in 19 Years!, I loved this race so much! It was one of the highest of running highs of the year for me. Even with the hills I felt like I was flying on the course and the miles just ticked by so quickly.

I took a short break from training mode after the Peachtree Road Race until I started back again the end of July, when I started training for the half marathon in Iowa. Little did I know that the IMT Des Moines Half Marathon would be so outstanding. Running this race was most definitely a high for me. I loved everything about this race from beginning to end. Like during the Peachtree Road Race, the miles just flew by and I ended up finishing with a PR and my fastest time ever for a half marathon. IMT Des Moines Half Marathon, Des Moines, Iowa- 49th state. My split times were consistent and solid throughout the course, no doubt due to my consistency with training in the months before and the baseline level I had before training. How I Managed to Finish My 52nd Half Marathon with a Personal Record (PR)

After the Des Moines Half Marathon

As I mentioned earlier, I had just three weeks after the half marathon in Des Moines until my half marathon in Albuquerque. The Albuquerque Half Marathon was to be state number 50 for me and I was so excited not only to run the race and finish my 50 states quest but to go to New Mexico for the first time. However, this race just had too many problems and issues and was so poorly organized that it never could have fulfilled any expectations I might have had.

I try to keep an open mind before going somewhere new, running a new race, or basically going into anything new and just see how things go. Ideally, I like to have zero expectations. With this race, yes of course I was excited but I really had no idea how things would go. I did know I would be by myself since my daughter couldn’t go with me and a friend who mentioned possibly meeting me there said she couldn’t go after all, but I was fine with that.

Honestly, I was a bit let-down to see how poorly the race was organized, and I think that was amplified because it was my 50th state. You can read my full race report here: The Albuquerque Half Marathon, Albuquerque, New Mexico-50th state if you missed it. In the end, I had to remind myself that this was always all about the journey and not just one race. So what if this race wasn’t fun and filled with all kinds of extras like at the half marathon in Des Moines. I had the pleasure and privilege to run in Albuquerque and more importantly in the remaining 49 states of the United States as well and for that I’m truly fortunate and thankful.

At the finish line of the Albuquerque Half Marathon

All in all, I had a pretty fantastic year of running in 2021. There were more highs than lows overall. I’ve never taken the ability to run for granted and this year I felt especially grateful to be able to run and to travel to races. Most of all, I made memories that I will forever cherish.

How was your year in running? Any particular highs or lows you’d like to share?

Happy running!

Donna

How I Managed to Finish My 52nd Half Marathon with a Personal Record (PR)

I ran my first half marathon in November 2000 in Wilmington, North Carolina and ran my 52nd half marathon in October 2021 in Des Moines, Iowa. Both courses were relatively flat and both had similar temperatures. Of course I was 21 years older when I ran the race in Iowa, well into my 40’s at that point. However, I finished the race in Iowa with my fastest time to date for a half marathon. How is this possible?

I’ve read from different sources that most people reach their peak for running about ten years after they start running. I don’t believe this applies to people like me who ran on my grade school track team; otherwise I would have peaked in my early 20’s. However, I didn’t start training for and running half marathons until 2000. Still, if the 10-year rule applied to me, I would have peaked around 2010.

Looking back at my race times from 2008 through 2010, those were some of my slowest times for a half marathon. I was struggling with anemia for the first time around this point in my life and it went undiagnosed for a long period. When I was finally diagnosed with anemia and started taking iron supplements it took my body over a year to fully recover.

The Gulf Coast Half Marathon in Mississippi in 2010 was one of my slowest half marathons

In fact, even though I had run a half marathon before where I finished under 2 hours, I wasn’t able to do that again because of anemia until the Frederick Running Festival Half Marathon in May 2015. I set a PR of 1:55:28 with the next race I ran, Spearfish Canyon Half Marathon in July 2015. Finishing out the year with the Dixville Half Marathon in New Hampshire and another sub-2 hour finish, 2015 was obviously a good year for racing for me.

Beginning in 2016, I had a string of difficult races including one at a relatively high elevation in Colorado, so I didn’t manage another sub-2 hour finish until May 2018 when I ran the Famous Potato Half Marathon in Idaho. Just when I was feeling like I was getting my legs back again, anemia struck once again. A few months before the White River Half Marathon in Arkansas in November 2018 I learned why I had been struggling with my training runs- I was severely anemic so I started taking iron pills immediately. Despite being anemic, I still finished under 2 hours and was fourth in my age group, which makes me wonder just what I could have done had I not been anemic.

Fortunately I was able to get my iron levels back up to normal fairly quickly and by the time of the Seashore Classic Half Marathon in Delaware 2019, I was able to finish second in my age group with a sub-2 hour finish. This was a deceptively tough course too, so I was happy with my performance. At my next race, the Star Valley Half Marathon in Wyoming I finished with another PR, at 1:53. Finishing off the year with the Hot Cider Hustle Half Marathon in Nebraska, I was happy with a 1:54 finish, especially given I had to stop and tie my shoe during this race.

After the Star Valley Half Marathon in Wyoming, one of my favorite races of all time

After COVID hit and races everywhere were cancelled indefinitely in 2020 instead of running the three half marathons I was supposed to run in New Mexico, Minnesota, and Iowa, I ran a virtual half marathon as part of a fundraiser for the Australia wildfires. It felt like just another 13.1 miles on the greenways I always run on and I wanted more. I signed up for a virtual 5k and decided to try to really push myself, thinking at the time there were going to be awards given, so I at least had some motivation. That 5k was my fastest by far and it showed me a glimpse into what I was capable of (I Ran My Fastest 5k, but Does It Even Count?).

I began to push myself harder and I ran more in 2020 than I ever had before. This was during the early months of the pandemic, when many businesses including my work place were shut down indefinitely, and I had much more time on my hands. Instead of sitting around watching the depressing news updates or Netflix and gaining the COVID-15, I decided to get outside and do something healthy. I also started going on walks on days when I didn’t run and doing some core work every night. My body felt stronger than it ever had.

When I ran the Circle of Life Half Marathon, Lake City, Minnesota- 48th state I felt ready but the course turned out to be one of the toughest I’ve run because of the gravel road and hills. It was one of those races I was happy to be done and it didn’t really matter what my time was (2 hours even). I have no doubt if I hadn’t been in as good of shape as I was it would have easily taken me another 15 or 20 minutes to finish. This race further emphasizes how much the difficulty of a race course makes on your finish time as well.

We definitely earned these medals at the Circle of Life Half Marathon in Minnesota

I was able to keep up my fitness from the time of the half marathon in Minnesota until my race in Iowa in October. I continued nailing my training workouts. If I was supposed to run 6 miles with a 1 mile warmup followed by 4 miles at tempo pace then a 1 mile cooldown, that’s what I did, no more, no less. If my long run called for 13-14 miles, I ran 14. I also continued doing strength training at the gym twice a week and core work every night. More than anything, I was consistent. I think the bottom line here and key to everything is consistency.

When race day came for the IMT Des Moines Half Marathon, Des Moines, Iowa- 49th state, my plan was to shoot for 8:45 minute miles but ultimately go by feel. Since I was able to go faster than that and still felt great, I went with it and because of my level of fitness I was able to continue at that faster-than-ever-before pace. A lot of times you hear people say you should start slower and gradually speed up or speed up for the last few miles. For me, consistency was once again the key and it worked better for me to have my mile splits be more consistent throughout the race. If I would have started slower my finish time would have been slower because there’s no way I could have run my last few miles faster than what I did even if I would have started out a bit slower.

Really there’s no magic formula when it comes to achieving a PR in a race but there are some things that make a huge difference. One is the course conditions. It’s one thing for a course to be flat and quite another to be flat but have strong winds (Kiawah Island Half Marathon, I’m looking at you). Also, some people don’t do well on flat courses and their bodies actually respond better to some rolling hills. Choose your course wisely.

Perfect weather and course conditions plus consistent training helped me achieve a PR in Iowa

The second and most important factor in running a PR is to choose a training plan that will work for you, giving you just enough of a challenge but not so difficult that you can’t run the prescribed runs. You don’t want to feel overtrained but you also want to reach your potential by pushing yourself just the right amount. You also need to be consistent with the training plan and not skip workouts or cut them short.

There is a final factor that may sound a bit woo-woo but I absolutely believe in it and that’s the power of the mind. If you don’t truly believe you can run a PR or even run a “good” race (whatever that means to you) then you won’t. However, if you go into it with an open mind and just say, I’m well-trained and I’m just going to do my best and see what happens you might just see some magic happen.

What has worked for you in the past when you ran a PR at a race?

Happy running!

Donna

My First Solo Vacation

Although I have traveled for work-related trips before without any family or friends several times, I had never truly traveled by myself for a vacation until I went to Des Moines, Iowa for a half marathon recently. I have heard several bloggers and podcasters say how much they enjoy solo travel and how everyone should try it at least once in their lives. After doing it myself this time, I have to say I truly did enjoy it.

Overall, there are many pros to traveling by yourself, which I’ll list some of here. Of course, everyone is different and I’m sure my perspective at this point in my life is unique to me. Still, some of what I’m about to say may inspire some of you to take your first solo trip or at least plant the seed. So here are some of the pros to traveling by yourself:

You can do whatever you want, when you want. As a mother, this one was pretty big for me. My daughter is now sixteen and for the past sixteen years, I’ve always had to consider my daughter’s wants and needs when on vacation. Yes, the easy way out would have been to have just left her at home with a close friend but I always felt like kids benefit from traveling the world so there was never a vacation that she didn’t go on with me.

When she was really young, I had to make sure she got her naps in and went to bed on time and when she was older I made sure I included her in the decision-making on what we did. This was the first time in sixteen years that I only thought about what I want to do and it was huge. I found myself skipping things I would have normally done (like going out for dessert just about every afternoon) and instead choosing things I know she wouldn’t have liked. Besides my daughter, there was also no husband’s wants to consider, which of course was also huge for me to not have to consider for once.

You can go to sleep whenever you want and wake up whenever you want. I realize this kind of goes under the first pro but it seems like to me it should get its own paragraph. Again, as a parent, this one is pretty big. Not having to consider anyone else in the room and being able to stay up as late as you want (and make as much noise as you want) and then wake up without anyone else waking you up is a big deal.

You really get to know yourself a bit better. When you’re by yourself 24/7 and are only in the company of strangers when you go out in public, you pretty quickly get into your own head. If you’re not already comfortable in your own skin, this could be pretty scary. Fortunately for me, during the pandemic, I read more self-help books than I had in my entire life because I went through a rough patch in my life. Because of that, I now see aspects of myself I couldn’t see before and know myself better than I ever have (I guess that’s one good thing to have come of the pandemic for me personally anyway).

You also get to know the place you’re staying better. Now this one surprised me. I’m not sure why but for the first time ever I felt like I learned my way around the area (Des Moines) almost immediately upon arrival. It could be the incredibly easy grid layout they had for the streets there, but I don’t think so. I’ve been to other Midwest cities and other cities that are laid out in a similar grid-style and I never felt like I figured my way around as quickly as I did in Des Moines. I think it was purely the fact that I had no one else to help me so I knew instinctively that I had better figure my way around quickly. Yes, of course I had Google Maps but I found myself turning it off after a couple of turns because I already knew where I was going.

Strangers will talk to you more when you’re by yourself. This could be a good thing or a bad thing, depending on who the stranger is. When I was in the Denver airport for a layover on my way to Des Moines, a woman sat next to me and started chatting away incessantly, something that would not have happened if I had been with someone else. She was obviously lonely and just wanted someone to talk to, but when she wouldn’t stop talking after what felt like a solid 30 minutes, I told her I needed to go to the restroom and slipped away. I’ve also noticed other strangers were more chatty with me at restaurants and other public places when I was by myself. Usually, this was a good thing.

Of course, the single biggest con that I can see with solo travel is you don’t have someone close to you to share special moments with. That stunning sunset, the unique sculpture, or the amazing dinner you had by yourself will just have to be enjoyed by you and you alone. The best you can do is snap a photo and send it to someone or make a video call but it will never be the same as if they were with you in-person. When I finished my half marathon in Des Moines, I made a video call to my daughter but of course that only lasted a few minutes and once I hung up I was still by myself.

Still, I agree that everyone should go on at least one solo vacation in their lives. I believe it’s good for the soul and who couldn’t use more of that?

Do you take solo vacations or do you always travel with friends or family? Are you curious about taking a vacation by yourself but never have? Tell me about your experience with solo travel.

Happy travels!

Donna

IMT Des Moines Half Marathon, Des Moines, Iowa- 49th state

This is part of a series of posts from my quest to run a half marathon in all 50 states. Iowa was my 49th state.

Before COVID and the pandemic, I was supposed to run a half marathon in Cedar Rapids, Iowa in September 2020. At that point I would have already run a half marathon in New Mexico in April of that year, followed by Minnesota in June, and the race in Cedar Rapids would have been my 50th state. All three of those races got shifted or cancelled completely so now in 2021, I still have not run a half marathon in New Mexico but I ran Circle of Life Half Marathon, Lake City, Minnesota for my 48th state in June of this year. Confused? Blame it on COVID.

When I saw the IMT Des Moines Half Marathon was scheduled for an in-person race October 17, 2021 and the race director promised regular communication leading up to the race plus he would do everything in his power to make sure the race took place in person, I signed up immediately. True to his word, the race director sent out weekly emails with information about the race. Unfortunately since the race was in October, that meant my teenage daughter would not be running with me since she didn’t want to miss school. No one else would be going with me either, which means this was my first real solo vacation and first time traveling to a race by myself (no sherpa but that was OK; there was a gear check).

Packet pickup was at the Iowa Events Center both Friday and Saturday and included something I hadn’t seen in a while, an actual in-person expo with several vendors and booths set up. You could buy shirts, shoes, gels and other running-related supplies or talk to people about products and local running events. There were also speakers like Jeff Galloway, the famous Olympian who has since coached millions on the run/walk method. I picked up my goodie bag and race bib and was surprised to see a long-sleeve quarter-zip shirt personalized with the race name on the front and 13.1 on the back included in the bag.

Social distancing? Nope. Masks? Nah. Good thing I’m vaccinated.

A cold front had moved into Des Moines bringing with it a frigid wind in the days preceding the race. I went on a 30 minute shakeout run on Friday morning and it was 50 degrees, which was fine to run in what I had brought for the race (short-sleeve top and running skirt). However, the temperature was supposed to drop to 40 degrees at night starting Friday and by 8 am on Sunday, race morning, it was only supposed to be 41 degrees. On top of that, it was supposed to increase by 10 degrees in just a couple of hours. I was not happy with the weather prediction for race morning. Welcome to the Midwest, right?

After obsessively checking the weather like a crazy person and also obsessing about what I was going to wear for the race, I decided to stick with my original plan of my short-sleeve shirt, running skirt, knee-high compression socks, beanie, Buff on my neck, and my beloved Turtle mittens. I wore a fleece jacket to the start then threw it in the gear check bag and made my way to the start. It turns out it was a few degrees warmer than they had predicted the night before so at 8 am at race start it was 44 degrees and sunny.

There were around 5000 people running the marathon and half marathon, which both started together and we were crammed-in together tightly (and no one was wearing a mask). It would not have been a good scene for anyone worried about COVID, but that’s not me since I’m vaccinated and don’t have any health complications so it didn’t bother me. My plan was to run around 8:45 minute miles which would mean my finish time would be around 1:54.

The race start was right in the heart of downtown Des Moines and the half marathoners split off from the marathoners around mile 3. The course went by Water Works Park and Grays Lake Park, past the Pappajohn Sculpture Park and ran along the Des Moines River for the last part. It was scenic and pancake flat with the exception of one very minor hill around mile 11. There were bands, first aid stations, and Gatorade/water at multiple points along the course. At one point there were even volunteers holding out tissue boxes with tissues for runners. I’ve never seen that before but thought it was a great idea because it’s common to get a runny nose from cold air when running. Spectators were also out in full force, many with funny posters; one of my favorites was: “On a scale of 1-10, you’re a 13.1.”

I went back later to take some photos of the Pappajohn Sculpture Park

I felt so good right from the beginning that I ended up going faster than I expected. My split times were 8:26, 8:24, 8:21, 8:18, 8:28, 8:21, 8:17, 8:20, 8:23, 8:24, 8:28, 8:33, 8:29, and 8:20 for the final 0.25 miles. Strava had me at 13.25 miles with a finish of 1:50 at 13.1 miles but my official time was 1:51:20, which was a PR for me! I’m still astounded that I PR’d for my 51st half marathon! I finished 12th in my age group out of 110 women. This is a FAST course!

At the finish, we got our medals along with snack boxes filled with pretzels, peanuts, sunflower seeds, an oatmeal bar, fruit snacks, and animal crackers; there was also water and Gatorade plus a chocolate Gatorade protein recovery drink that tasted like chocolate milk. AND there were BBQ sandwiches, oranges, bananas, cookies, and Truly hard seltzer. There was an area set up in a big field with really talented bands playing and cornhole boards and bleachers to sit on. Finally, there were big posters with the race logo for photo ops.

I truly loved this race. Who would have thought my race in Des Moines, Iowa, state number 49 would be so outstanding? The race director and the volunteers did an excellent job putting on this race and I highly recommend it for anyone looking for a well-organized, flat (unless you’re running the marathon; believe it or not, Iowa actually has some hills and the marathon is hilly, I’ve been told), and most of all FUN race.

Have any of you run this race or know anyone who has? Anyone interested in taking a trip to Iowa to check it out?

Happy running!

Donna

Just Two More States Left!

As I type this post, I only have two states left in my quest to run a half marathon in all 50 states, Iowa and New Mexico. Both races are close to each other so in less than a month, as long as all goes well, I will be finished with my quest. Honestly, it feels surreal to say that before the end of 2021 I will have run a half marathon in all 50 states.

It will have taken me almost exactly 21 years since my very first half marathon, the Battleship Half Marathon in Wilmington, North Carolina (Battleship Half Marathon and Gold Rush Half Marathon, North Carolina-My first half marathon (and third and fourth), on November 19, 2000 to finish this quest. Life is funny how things turn out. It was 44 degrees that day with a cold rain that later turned into snow. For the coast of North Carolina, it’s almost unheard of to see snow especially in November so it was definitely crazy and unexpected weather.

I knew that if I were to run the same race the following year it would almost definitely be better weather. That was my hook. I wanted to see just how I could do in a half marathon given better weather and of course better preparation that would inevitably come from another year of running. Had it been sunny and in the 50’s, who knows if I would have felt the drive to run that race again or any other half marathons for that matter.

When I ran the Battleship Half Marathon in 2001 it was sunny and 51 degrees and I shaved off almost 17 minutes from my finish time. At this point I had run several other races including the Kona Half Marathon in Hawaii (Kona Marathon and Half Marathon, Hawaii-2nd state). Not only was I hooked on running half marathons, I was hooked on traveling to half marathons although I didn’t have the goal of running one in every state at this point. Still to this day, I haven’t run a half marathon anywhere close enough to my home that I didn’t have to stay in a hotel the night before.

This was taken after my recent 14 mile training run

They say with children you should get them used to your lifestyle from the beginning so it becomes second nature to the child. For example, if you enjoy traveling and plan on bringing the child along with you, you should travel with the child from the start so they become accustomed to traveling and it’s just a “normal” part of their life.

I believe how you approach running and racing is a bit like that. If you start out running 5k’s near where you live and continue doing that over several years, it would be a much bigger barrier of entry to suddenly travel to a race. But if you’ve traveled to races very early in your racing history, it’s second nature to you and not traveling before a race would seem strange to you. At least that’s how I feel about racing.

The few local races I have run don’t stand out in my mind nearly as much as the ones I traveled to. Sure, I enjoyed the Color Run I ran with my daughter (Color Vibe 5k), a local 5k, but it did seem strange to sleep in my own bed the night before the race and drive back home after the race. Part of the difference could be that it was a 5k and you can’t fairly compare a 5k to a half marathon because of course it’s going to be a wholly different experience. Still, I have run a local 10-miler, almost as long as a half marathon and at this point in my life I have absolutely no desire to run a local half marathon and most likely never will run one.

For me, part of the draw to running a half marathon is the travel aspect and visiting a new area. I know for some people the mere idea of traveling to a race makes them so anxious they would never do that. Then again, I believe travel in general makes many people anxious and I understand that.

There are so many moving parts involved with traveling to a race including just getting to the city where the race is being held, whether it’s flying or driving, finding a hotel or other place to stay at least the night before the race if not afterwards as well, renting a car if you flew to the race, eating and finding suitable things to eat the night before the race so it doesn’t upset your stomach, getting to the race start, and on and on. I know for some people, the thought of planning all of these things is overwhelming and I believe this is why some people are drawn to the companies that have popped up that basically take care of everything for you if you’re traveling to a race so you just have to sign up and show up. A popular one is Vacationraces: https://vacationraces.com/.

Back to my half marathon in Iowa, state number 49. This race is full of firsts for me. It will be the first race where a family member won’t be going to a half marathon with me. This is also the first race where I won’t be traveling to other parts of the state once I get there. In fact, I’m not even going to rent a car but will be relying on the local transportation and ride shares. A friend of mine who lives in Iowa is also running the race so I won’t be totally by myself but for a majority of my time there I will be by myself so I’m calling it my first solo travel trip.

I’m not anxious at all about any of these first times. On the contrary, I’m very much looking forward to traveling by myself and seeing what solo travel is like. A travel podcaster I follow has said before that he thinks everyone should experience solo travel at least once in their life and I’ve heard other people say how much they enjoy traveling by themselves and the many positive things to come of it.

I will be sure to let you all know how the race goes and what I think of solo travel!

Happy travels!

Donna

My First Time Backpacking and Sleeping Under the Stars in Yosemite National Park, California- Days Two and Three

If you missed the first part of this series, you can catch up here: My First Time Backpacking and Sleeping Under the Stars in Yosemite National Park, California- Day One

On our second day at Yosemite, after a filling breakfast of oatmeal with added nuts, chia seeds, and dried apples, we all packed up our backpacks and rode in a van provided by Lasting Adventures about one and a half hours to get to May Lake. I had never heard of May Lake before but found it to be absolutely stunning with trees and mountains surrounding the crystal-clear water.

We only had a short one mile hike to our campsite from the trail head where the van dropped us off. This was a good opportunity for everyone to get more of a feel for hiking with our backpacks. We were told to periodically tighten or loosen straps and see what felt better. As we all found out, it takes some getting used to carrying 35+ pounds on your back (I never got a firm estimate from Bella or Savannah on how much weight we were carrying but it felt like at least 35 pounds to me if not a solid 40 pounds).

Not a bad place to sleep for the night and the views are pretty incredible

As soon as we reached our campsite, the first thing I did was take off my backpack. Then we all set up our sleeping areas, meaning we laid out the Tyvek sheet first then placed the sleeping mat on top, and our sleeping bag on top. We were told everything should be “tidy and neat.”

After a simple lunch of salami and bagels with a view of May Lake, a few of us went with Bella to hike up Mt. Hoffmann and the rest of our troop stayed back with Savannah at the campsite. We were told the hike to the top of Mt. Hoffmann is 6 miles round-trip and the view from the top was great. What I wasn’t aware of at the time is that the elevation of May Lake is 9270 feet and there’s a 2000 feet elevation gain to the peak of Mt. Hoffmann. Oh, and did I mention some of the steepest parts of the trail are covered in decomposed granite, which is notoriously slippery?

See a trail here? Neither did I. Good thing we had Bella to guide us up Mount Hoffmann!

The trail definitely had some incredible views of May Lake and the surrounding area and I was doing pretty well trudging along, trying to keep up with Bella and our fast and fearless girls until we reached the very last part to the summit of Mt. Hoffmann, where I looked down and saw a sheer drop on one side. My fear of heights got the best of me and I announced that I was good where I was; I didn’t want to continue any further up.

Bella found a safe spot for me and our troop’s other chaperone, who said she was happy where we were as well and she would stay with me. I wasn’t sure if she was just saying that to make me feel better but I welcomed the company either way. We watched as the brave girls from our troop continued up the vertigo-inducing steepest part of the trail to the peak with its views of Clouds Rest and Half Dome and took in the views until they joined us shortly later.

When we got back to our campsite, we all changed out of our hiking shoes and enjoyed the refreshingly cold water of May Lake. After the intense hike to Mt. Hoffmann, the water felt great on my tired legs and feet. I could see the girls enjoying the views of the lake and mountains all around us and one kept saying, “I can’t believe I’m actually here. It’s so beautiful.” Indeed, I thought.

After a dinner of ramen noodles fortified with mixed dried vegetables we all collected wood for a fire (May Lake was one of the few places in Yosemite where a campfire was allowed because of recent wild fires and extreme drought in California). Bella really had the fire going and it was just what I needed to take the chill off the air. Because we were so high in elevation, it was considerably cooler here than where we started in Yosemite Valley. We were treated with mugs of hot cider and played a rousing game of Balderdash before turning in for the night.

The many views of May Lake

Day 3 was slated for our longest hike yet, at just around 7 miles. There was a lot of downhill hiking but also plenty of uphill to round things out. With the heavy backpack it was intense and we were all glad when we made it to the campsite. Bella and Savannah told us we would have incredible views of Half Dome from here. They even joked (or perhaps they were serious) that since there was no toilet at this campsite, unlike the previous ones, we could have the best view around when squatting to do our business.

One little note on that subject. I had peed in the wild many times when hiking or camping but I had never been without a toilet when I had to poop, not even on my epic multi-day trek to Machu Picchu in Peru. Believe it or not, the group we were with in Peru even had portable toilets for us spoiled Americans. There would be no portable toilets here. Bella and Savannah briefed all of us on the proper way to poop in the wild, which I’ll share here.

First you need to gather your supplies: a trowel with a blade that’s six inches long, toilet paper, hand sanitizer, and a Ziplock bag to put your used toilet paper in. That’s it. The significance of the six inches for the trowel is that’s the Goldilocks spot for burying human excrement; too shallow and animals can and will dig it up, too deep and it’s not at the ideal depth in the soil for getting properly broken down and decomposed.

OK, so to poop in the wild, first find a spot approximately 200 feet from water sources and trails. Next, you dig a hole six inches deep with your trowel. Then you do your business, put the used toilet paper in your Ziplock bag, and use the hand sanitizer before covering the hole back with dirt using the trowel. The trowel should never touch anything but soil so it won’t need to be sanitized. That’s it! You just pooped in the wild!

Now back to day 3. As soon as we reached our campsite and set up camp, we went to a nearby creek where some of us just stuck our feet and legs in and others fully immersed themselves. As before, the water was quite chilly but refreshing especially after a challenging hike with a pack.

Our view for dinner on day 3- pretty nice, huh?

We had a delicious dinner of rice, soy curls and soy sauce. I had never had soy curls before but thought they were good enough to make a note to myself to look for them at the stores when I got back home. Also, if you haven’t caught on by now, almost everything we ate was dehydrated to save on space and weight. I learned on this trip that dehydrated food has come a long way since I had it many years ago, both in the taste and variety available now.

Bella and Savannah cooked our dinner at what they referred to as the “bluff,” with amazing views of Half Dome directly in front of us. We were hoping to see a bright pink sunset against the granite but it was too cloudy for that so we got a muted pink sky instead, still beautiful. Later, we were rewarded with a night sky full of stars and some shooting stars were thrown in for our added pleasure. Our entertaining guides captivated us with folklore stories about the constellations while we all sipped our hot cocoa.

Not to imply that our sunset wasn’t absolutely gorgeous because it was as you can see!

This was one of the chilliest nights we had experienced, with temperatures in the 40’s, but our sleeping bags kept us warm, and we slipped off to sleep to the sound of utter silence. A few of us were lucky enough to witness the Perseid meteor shower late that night.

To set the scene, this campsite was really deep in the wilds of Yosemite, with no other humans in sight. If I had been hiking in that area by myself without our guides I never would have even known it’s a designated campsite. Also, there was a bear in this area known to swipe bear cans and throw them over the cliff, knowing they would break open when they hit the bottom, spilling out their contents and providing dinner for the bear.

To be continued…

Rediscovering Abundance in Atlanta: Some of My Favorite Places in Atlanta, Georgia

Over the years Atlanta has been one of those cities that has a certain draw for me and I can’t stay away forever. Unlike most other cities I go to, once just wasn’t enough when it came to Atlanta. I first went to Atlanta when I was in college in the late 90’s and I’ve been back a few times since then. I almost moved there straight after graduate school and most likely would have if I would have gotten a job offer there.

Still, when I go back (as I recently did) I’m always amazed at how much the area has grown since my previous visit. I read a projection that they expect the population of Atlanta to grow to 8.6 million people by 2050 (it’s currently just over half a million). Traffic is insane and you’d be well-advised to take the MARTA public transportation system https://www.itsmarta.com/, primarily the train system although there are buses and streetcars as well. Besides, even if you don’t mind sitting in endless traffic, parking is expensive and hard to find especially in the popular Midtown and Downtown areas.

The MARTA trains are abundant, clean, and safe for the most part. Just learn which line your stop is on and if you need to transfer stations and know which direction you need to go. It’s easy to figure out but I’ve always found friendly and helpful people to ask if I was confused about something or forgot something.

Where to Stay

There is an abundance of hotels, Airbnbs, Bed and Breakfasts, and even an Alpaca Treehouse with llamas, alpacas, bunnies, and chickens (https://www.alpacatreehouse.com/alpaca-treehouse). The most convenient and safest place to stay is in the Midtown or Downtown area although I’ve also stayed just north of Atlanta and that was fine albeit not quite as convenient. Prices range from the super-expensive Four Seasons, Ritz-Carlton, Marriott Marquis, and St. Regis to the moderately-priced Doubletree by Hilton, Sonesta, Hotel Indigo, Radisson to the budget-friendly options like Econo Lodge, Days Inn, Motel 6 and so many more. Often the more expensive places to stay are located close to an array of shops and restaurants so the downside if you stay at a budget-friendly hotel you may have to drive or take public transportation for a bit longer than otherwise. Even more important than saving a few dollars, first and foremost make sure your hotel is in a safe area.

Favorite Places

Likewise, there is an abundance of things to do in Atlanta. Here are some of my favorites with a couple of others thrown in that are popular with other people but just aren’t my thing.

Atlanta Botanical Garden- I’ve been here a couple of times and on my most recent visit I discovered places that I hadn’t seen the first time. It’s funny because they even state on their website: “As the Garden evolves, it’s never the same place twice.” I can attest to that so even if you’ve been before, it’s worth going again. I love the “Garden Guide” feature that you can click, choosing specific things like Family Adventure, Flying Solo, Fresh Art and Music, and more, then click which garden (there’s another in Gainesville), how much time you have, and so forth. https://atlantabg.org/garden-guide/

This is definitely one of the best botanical gardens I’ve been to anywhere in the world and also one of the largest and most comprehensive. Tickets are on the pricey side, starting at $22.95 and up for adults but if you enjoy flowers and nature, I feel like it’s worth it. Most people spend a couple of hours here, especially if you don’t stop to have lunch or dinner at the cafe (which is good but also on the pricey side if you get table service).

Fernbank Museum– the tagline is “Where Science, Nature, and Fun Make History” and this is a perfect description of the museum. There are indoor exhibits such as Fantastic Forces, A Walk Through Time in Georgia, Curator’s Corner; outdoor exhibits such as WildWoods, Fernbank Forest, Rain Garden; and temporary as well as permanent special exhibits such as Sky High focusing on birds, Habitat where you can see sculptures and explore four different biomes. Plus you can watch a movie on a giant screen for a bit extra. As a scientist and nature- and history-lover, this place is just heaven to me and worth every penny for the $20 admission. https://fernbankmuseum.org/

The Fernbank Museum

Georgia Aquarium– this is the largest aquarium in the world, whether you’re measuring by number of fish or volume of water. I really like how their exhibits are laid out, for example take the Aquanaut Adventure: A Discovery Zone. This has 49 kid adventures, more than 15 species, and one rope bridge. Here you can learn about aquatic life in extreme environments. In other words, you don’t just walk by tanks filled with fish and other animals, you learn about the animals and gain an appreciation for aquatic animals and the research marine scientists do.

The Georgia Aquarium is heavily invested in research and conservation, a fact that I love. There are also several behind-the-scenes encounters you can pay extra for, which is great if you especially love, say, penguins, seals, or sea lions. Plus, there are many educational programs, both online and in-person, in addition to volunteer programs, programs for military and veterans, and even virtual yoga. Tickets for adults are $36.95 and includes access to all the Aquarium galleries, 4D Theater shows, general-seating Dolphin Presentation, Sea Lion Presentation and supports ocean conservation. https://www.georgiaaquarium.org/

Atlanta History Center– not only is there historical information on events that specifically took place in Atlanta, like the 1996 Olympics, but there are also displays on national events like the 19th Amendment, the American Civil War, and so much more. In my opinion, this is one of the best history centers in the United States and ranks up there with the Smithsonian museums as far as quality and quantity. The outside grounds are also worth checking out, with 33 acres of gardens, woodlands, and trails. You can also have lunch at the Swan Coach House on the grounds of the Swan Mansion and try some quintessential Southern fare like pimento cheese grit fritters, chicken salad tea sandwiches, mint juleps, and homemade pecan pie. https://www.atlantahistorycenter.com/visit

Stone Mountain Park- located in Stone Mountain, Georgia, about 30 minutes from Atlanta is Georgia’s most-visited attraction. Located on 3200 acres of land, you can find trails that range from short and easy to longer and more difficult. One of the toughest trails is also one of the most popular, the Walk Up Trail; even though it’s only a mile, it goes straight up the mountain, much of it on stone, with the steepest parts near the pinnacle. If you’re not able or just don’t want to hike that steep of a trail, you can take a cable car to the top (Summit Skyride) for a fee.

Cherokeee Trail is one of the longer trails, at 5 miles and it meanders along past water views and through the woods. You can also see a 100-year-old Grist Mill (although you can’t go inside) and the Quarry Exhibit to see how the park was made with photos and outdoor displays plus there are extra activities for children that require a ticket. If you plan to just hike around the park for the day, entry is free except for the parking fee. There are a few options for staying inside the park, ranging from a campground with over 400 sites, Stone Mountain Inn, and a Marriott hotel. The MARTA public transportation stops about 1/2 mile from the park’s West Gate or you can take an Uber from Atlanta if you don’t have a car. https://www.stonemountainpark.com/

The bottom right photo is the very last section of the Walk Up Trail, straight up a rock face!

World of Coca-Cola– as you might imagine this museum showcases all things about the Coca-Cola Company. I’ll admit, I’ve never been here, as I’ve never been a big fan of Coca-Cola or any soda for that matter, but I know it’s popular. There are artifacts, a bottling display, a tasting experience (that’s been altered for COVID safety), and more. Most people spend a couple of hours here. Tickets for adults are $18. https://www.worldofcoca-cola.com/plan-your-visit/

Zoo Atlanta- with over 1000 animal species and the only twin giant pandas in the United States, this is a nice way to spend a morning, especially if you have young children but even if you don’t. You can find the usual zoo offerings like behind-the-scenes encounters, giraffe feedings, train rides, and wildlife presentations. The zoo is also actively involved in research and conservation programs around the world. Tickets start at $26.99 for adults and $20.99 for children. https://zooatlanta.org/visit/

Money-saving Tip: If you plan on doing a few of these activities, you should consider buying an Atlanta CityPass. For $77 for adults and $63 for children you will get entry to 5 attractions including Georgia Aquarium, World of Coca-Cola, and Zoo Atlanta plus 2 more attractions that you can choose from Fernbank of Natural History, College Football Hall of Fame, and National Center for Civil and Human Rights. It could potentially save you 45% off ticket prices if you purchased them separately. You have nine consecutive days to use the pass beginning on the first day of use. https://www.citypass.com/atlanta

Favorite Foods and Restaurants

I would be remiss to not include some of my favorite restaurants in Atlanta. Again, there is an abundance of truly over-the-top restaurants scattered all around the Atlanta area. The ones I’m going to list here also rank high on lists like Yelp (because I know food choices can be subjective).

Let’s play “Find the item that doesn’t belong here”

South City Kitchen– Southern food at its best: shrimp and grits, fried green tomatoes, collard greens, Carolina trout are some of my favorites.

Local Expedition Wood Fired Grill– technically not in Atlanta but two locations on the outskirts, Sandy Springs and Alpharetta. Fresh, made-to-order at the counter with choice of protein, sides, rice or salad, or you can get wraps or salads. Great if you’re in a hurry but want something healthy.

Hattie B’s Hot Chicken– besides Atlanta, locations in Nashville, Memphis, Birmingham, and Las Vegas. I ate at one of the Nashville locations first and have since tried the Atlanta location. The chicken is tender and juicy and hot but not too much spice to be enjoyable.

Aviva by Kameel– Mediterranean food. Excellent shawarma, hummus, and falafel.

Atlanta Breakfast Club– need I say more?

Ice Cream Places- we seemed to get on an ice cream kick when we were in Minnesota prior to going to Atlanta recently. Some places we enjoyed include: Amorino Gelato (in Lenox Square), Morelli’s Gourmet Ice Cream (so creamy), and Frosty Caboose in a converted train caboose in nearby Chamblee (the green tea ice cream sundae with crystallized ginger and a fortune cookie on top is genius).

Atlanta is definitely a city where you can pop in for a long weekend or you could stay a week and there would still be plenty to do. Another thing of note is it does get hot and humid during the summer, as does the rest of the Southeast in the US. If you’re not used to sticky hot summer weather, the fall or spring would be more comfortable, or even the winter. The lows in the winter hovers around the mid-30’s and the highs are around the mid-50’s so it’s still not too cold to walk around outside.

Have you been to Atlanta, Georgia? If so, tell me about it- what did you do and what were some of your favorite things?

Happy travels!

Donna

Costs Involved in Running a Half Marathon in All 50 States

By the time I had the goal of running a half marathon in all 50 states I had already run several half marathons in different states. I didn’t officially begin my journey way back in 2000 when I ran my first half marathon on the coast of North Carolina thinking I would run a half marathon in all 50 states. Only after running in Hawaii, a couple more half marathons in North Carolina, and in a handful of other states did my goal begin to form.

Never once did money or specifically how much money it would take to run a half marathon in all 50 states cross my mind. I have always placed a high priority on travel in my life and I looked at this goal as part of my travel plans. It was always my plan to spend as much time as I could or felt like was warranted for each state I ran a race in. For example, I didn’t spend as much time in Indiana as I did in South Dakota. My race for Indiana was in the small town of Evansville and while I could have driven to Louisville, Kentucky and spent a few days there after my race, I chose not to. However, when I ran in Spearfish Canyon, South Dakota, I spent a week in the area going to some of the state and national parks in the Black Hills National Forest.

Beautiful Spearfish Canyon in South Dakota

Obviously I spent more money in some states than others, largely based on how much time I spent in each state. My two biggest expenses for running a half marathon in all 50 states have been airfare and lodging. Of the 50 half marathons in 48 states I’ve run, I’ve driven to about 10 half marathons in less than 10 states. The majority of races have been ones I’ve flown to.

The airfare I’ve spent has varied wildly from less than $200/ticket to upwards of $800/ticket. Until recently, my husband and daughter also accompanied me to every race so that means three airline tickets had to be purchased. I’ve gotten more travel savvy over the years so when possible I’ve used airline miles for some of these flights. For example, for my half marathon in Boise, Idaho, I used 20,000 miles per person and only spent $11.20 each, for a grand total of $33.60 for airfare to Idaho; not bad considering we flew from North Carolina.

Likewise, the money I’ve spent on accommodations for races has varied hugely. Obviously I spent considerably less for places where I only spent a long weekend versus a week or more. Never have I spent thousands of dollars for a place to sleep, whether it’s been for races or just a “regular” vacation, however. This isn’t to say I’ll stay at a Motel 6 in a seedy neighborhood but by this point in my life I’m able to find a place that’s moderately-priced just by doing a little homework and comparison shopping.

Taken after the Star Valley Half Marathon in Wyoming. I LOVED this race!

As I’ve mentioned before, I really like the website https://www.hotels.com/. While they’re owned by Expedia (as I see on my credit card statements but otherwise probably wouldn’t know this), Hotels has a loyalty program. If you stay 10 nights in a calendar year you get a free reward night. This includes multi-night stays at the same hotel. I know for some other hotel rewards programs, they count each hotel stay individually, regardless of the number of nights you stay each time. With Hotels if you stay 5 nights at one of their hotels, 3 nights at another, and 2 nights at another in the same year, you’ll receive a reward night valued at the average of how much you spent over the course of that year per night.

Expedia also has a loyalty program that ranges from blue to silver to gold. Blue members receive 10% off stays (this is the same for Hotels members), Silver members (7 nights or more in a year) receive blue rewards plus perks like spa access and free breakfast (same with Hotels Silver members), and Gold members (15 or more nights) receive silver and blue rewards plus free room upgrades and 30% more points (similar with Hotels Gold members). The difference with Expedia is you don’t receive a free hotel night like you do with Hotels, hence Hotels is the clear winner in my opinion.

I don’t just search for hotel rooms, though, I also comparison shop at Airbnb and similar sites like Vrbo. Sometimes having a full kitchen and the ability to cook your own meals and of course the willingness to do so can save hundreds of dollars versus eating out at restaurants for every meal. Even though the price for a home or apartment rental may be slightly more than a hotel room, if you factor in the savings of not eating out as much, the difference can be worth it. If you’re staying in a big city where parking is a premium and have a rental car or your own car, not having to pay for parking at the hotel can also add up. Bottom line- look at various sites for accommodations and factor in food and parking if relevant before you make those reservations.

This brings me to the expense of food when traveling to half marathons. This will depend on the person and your personal eating likes and dislikes. Some people eat differently when they’re on vacation than when they’re home, too. If you like to go out for steak dinners at expensive restaurants when you’re on vacation that will add up a lot quicker than someone who is happy finding a local grocery store and whipping up dinner in their Airbnb or even picking up a rotisserie chicken and sides from the deli at a grocery store, with no cooking involved. If you’re spending a week at a place after a race and are eating out for three meals a day you’ll spend considerably more than someone who is eating a light breakfast in their room, going out for lunch at local cafes, and only eating at restaurants some of the time for dinner.

Finishing the White River Marathon for Kenya Half Marathon in tiny Cotter, Arkansas

The final expense for running a race in all 50 states is the race entry fee. Although I haven’t tracked it, I don’t believe I’ve spent more than $80 or $90 for a half marathon entry fee. The average entry fee that I’ve personally spent per race has probably been around $65. This has gone up in the last decade, I believe largely due to the swag that’s offered at races. Those hoodies, mugs, sunglasses, and other goodies you get at races aren’t free and the cost for these things are included in the race fee. When I ran my first several half marathons, the only thing I received was a race shirt, not even a medal and of course my entry fees were also much lower than now.

Disney races are also notoriously expensive, with a runner easily spending over $100 just for the entry fee, not even including other extras like a pre-race pasta dinner and commemorative pins. Likewise, races in big cities like New York and Chicago typically cost more than races in smaller cities. Finally, races that are put on by groups like Rock ‘n Roll cost more than races put on by local race directors in smaller towns.

So just how much have I spent on all of the half marathons I’ve run? I haven’t added it all up because I couldn’t even if I wanted to since I don’t have any idea how much I spent on my airfare or any other expenses for my half marathons 20 years ago in Hawaii, Pennsylvania, Arizona and all of the others. Only recently did I start keeping track of how much I spend on travel, which coincided when I started paying attention to things like airline miles and hotel rewards.

Still, it doesn’t really matter how much I’ve spent because the memories I’ve gained have been priceless and I don’t regret a single penny I’ve spent. Not even for the crappy race just outside of Atlanta, Run the Reagan Half Marathon, Georgia-14th state because I had fun in Atlanta after the race and that made it worth it.

After the Skinny Raven Half Marathon in Anchorage, Alaska

This brings me to the point of only spending time in a place for the sole purpose of running a race there, with no real time spent either before or after a race in the area. I realize some people choose to do this, whether for financial reasons or for lack of adequate vacation time, but for me, I never wanted to do that. A huge part of this whole journey for me has been to get to see places in the United States I probably wouldn’t have otherwise traveled to. I don’t feel like you can do that in a day or two.

I realize even spending a week or ten days in a state almost never is enough to really see all that they have to offer. I’ve often felt like I barely scratched the surface when I’ve traveled to a state for a half marathon. When I ran the half marathon in Anchorage, Alaska (Skinny Raven Half Marathon, Anchorage, Alaska-43rd state) and spent some time there after the race, I still felt like I could have spent a month there and only see a tiny part of Alaska simply because it’s such an enormous state and on top of that there aren’t roads to some areas. I’ve done what I could, though, given my amount of time off and money I was willing and able to spend.

With only two states left to go on my journey (Iowa and New Mexico), I’ve spent some time recently looking back on all of the states I’ve been to so far. There were some half marathons that flat out sucked and I would never recommend but there have also been half marathons that I was in sheer awe of the beauty of the area (Running a Half Marathon or Marathon in All 50 United States? Here are the Races in States that I Recommend). Some of the races I ran have been discontinued and no longer exist and some are still going strong.

The Marshall University Half Marathon in West Virginia was a fun one!

I feel like every person’s journey to run a race in all 50 states whether it’s a half marathon, marathon, 5k, or anything else will be unique to each person. Some people prefer races in big cities over small towns, others prefer races with lots of swag while some have no interest in another race shirt or anything else other than running that race, and finally some people choose a race because the timing of it fits in with their personal schedule.

Ultimately each person who has the goal to run a race in all 50 states has to decide for themselves how much money but also how much time they’re willing and able to spend. If someone has the means to drive to more states than I have, that will cut costs considerably, especially if they have a camper or something they can not only drive to the race but also sleep in. I believe anyone can achieve their goal of running a race in all 50 states as long as you make it a priority and have at least a rough idea of when and where you’re going to run, taking into account races sometimes get cancelled so you need to have several back-up plans for each state and be flexible.

Do you have a goal to run a race in all 50 states? If so, tell me about your journey so far. Any questions about my journey or anything I failed to mention here?

Happy running!

Donna

%d bloggers like this: