Running Highs and Lows of 2018

For the past several years, I’ve run three half marathons a year, in my quest to run a half marathon in all 50 states. Because I make a racecation out of every race, and spend at least a few days checking out the area with my family after the race, I simply can’t afford to do more than 4 a year (which I used to do), nor do I have the vacation time, and since I’ve run all of the southern states with races during the winter, I usually run races in the spring, summer, and fall now (with a couple of exceptions like Utah in February 2017).

I began 2018 by running the Famous Idaho Potato Half Marathon in Boise in May. Idaho was state number 42 for me and this race was a highlight. The race began in a canyon, which was beautiful, and the course was nicely chosen as it ran along greenways and had water views of the Boise River several times. I managed to finish just under 2 hours, which I hadn’t done in quite a while. Because of the excellent course, volunteer stations, post-race goodies including a potato bar, and overall vibe of the race, it’s high on my list of favorite half marathons.

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Famous Idaho Potato Half Marathon

The following weekend after the race in Boise, I had to start training for race number two of the year in Alaska, which I’ll get to shortly. First, though, a word on running through the heat and humidity during the summer, which I did a post on here. I’ll be honest, running through the North Carolina summer is tough. I’m just not that much of a morning person to get up at 5:30 to run before work, so I ended up running after work, when the temperature was often around 90 degrees, sometimes in the upper 90’s with high humidity on top of it. Yeah, it’s every bit as brutal as it sounds, but I did it, with very little running on the treadmill.

Finally in August, I ran the Skinny Raven Half Marathon in Anchorage, Alaska, state number 43. I was very much looking forward to spending some time in Alaska and running the race in Anchorage. Although the race wasn’t one of my favorites, I wouldn’t say it was a low point of running. The race shirt and medal are my absolute favorites ever from any race, I got to go to a pasta lunch with speakers Bart Yasso and Jeff Galloway, and the race was well-organized, so it does have all of that going for it. Some people would probably enjoy running along the greenways that the race was on, but I just found it a bit disappointing since I run on greenways all the time at home and was hoping for something more unique to the area.

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Packet pickup for the Anchorage RunFest with my favorite race shirt ever

In September, I ran my first 5k in almost 20 years, not counting the one I ran with my daughter at her pace a few years ago. So this was the first 5k I ran at my pace since the very first race I ran as an adult, and funny side-note, they were both in mall parking lots. I ran the Color Vibe 5k in Raleigh, North Carolina. Color Vibe is a huge conglomeration with races in all 50 states and Washington, D.C. plus several other countries.

When I signed up for the race, I didn’t realize that it was untimed. Still, I thought, it would be something new and fun. Originally, the plan was for my daughter to run it with me, but the morning of the race she decided she wanted to run at her own pace. There was a local Zumba instructor leading the crowd before the race start and everyone seemed to be in good spirits. However, it was hot (80 degrees at the start) and not a single bit of shade along the course. I found it hard to be motivated to really try my hardest since it wasn’t timed. Ultimately I discovered I’m more competitive than I may have thought, and fun runs just aren’t for me. As expected, we were covered from head to toe in colored powder by the end of the race and my watch had me finishing in 23:33. I should have been happy because it was a definite PR for me, but since it was unofficial, I felt like it didn’t even count. What should have been a high for me turned out to not really be, although I wouldn’t count it as a low either. My race review is here.

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Post-race Color Vibe 5k

Sometime in September, I began experiencing some boredom in my running routes. First I thought about changing my route for my long runs, Changing My Long Running Route- Maybe, then I began finding new running routes for my runs during the week, Exploring While Running and Fighting Boredom. I discovered entire neighborhoods I never even knew existed even though I drove within a few miles of them to and from work every day. More importantly, I began to realize there was absolutely no reason to run the same route four days a week during the week. There are greenways all over the place where I live and even where there aren’t greenways, there are nice, safe neighborhoods where I can run. This helped with my boredom and seemed like it was going to get me through the training plan for my final race of the year.

Then it all came crashing down. I had noticed I was getting more and more out of breath on runs. This went on for months, honestly, but I kept thinking it was the heat and humidity. When it finally cooled off and the humidity dropped and I was still out of breath when I would try to run, I knew for sure something was wrong. I suspected it was low iron, and I have a history of this, so I know exactly what it feels like. Sure enough, when my blood work came back, my hemoglobin level was 6. The normal range for women my age is 12-15. This was bad, very bad. Even worse, I had a half marathon coming up in less than three weeks.

I started taking a high dose of iron prescribed by my doctor and continued to run, no matter how slowly. I figured running slowly was better than not running at all. It was hard and frustrating though. Running up a small hill felt like I was climbing a mountain. During one of my long runs, after every mile I had to pause my watch, stop and catch my breath before I could go on. I did that for 12 miles and yes, it was some of the longest miles I’ve ever run.

Still, I could feel the iron was slowly building back up in my body and while I wouldn’t say I was feeling completely better when it was time for my next half marathon (not even close, really), I knew I could at least finish it even if it meant walking, a lot. The White River Half Marathon was in November in Cotter, Arkansas, state number 44, and in hindsight after running the race, it was the absolute best race for me at the moment.

As you might guess from the name, the race is along the White River, which means it’s flat. More importantly, the first mile is downhill and you don’t have to run back up the hill at the end either. Although I can’t say for sure because I was so completely wiped out at the finish that I forgot to hit save on my Garmin and I ran more by feel so I didn’t check my watch hardly at all, I’m pretty sure my first two miles were my fastest and I seemed to be consistent after that. I finished in 1:57, which was 4th in my age group. I was of course thrilled, especially given my health. This was a great way to end my racing for the year and give my body plenty of time to get back to normal. You can read my full report on the White River Half Marathon here.

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The home stretch of the White River Half Marathon

How about you all- any running highs or lows you’d like to share?

Happy running!

Donna

 

 

 

 

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10 Reasons to Skip the Cruise and Stay in Grand Cayman Island Instead

Caribbean cruises are hugely popular and many stop at Grand Cayman Island, which is a British Overseas Territory. However, many of these cruises arrive at Grand Cayman Island in the morning and depart in the afternoon. To really get a feel for the island, I suggest you stay at a hotel on the island and rent a car or take taxis to be able to see and do more. Here are some of the things you can do in one week:

  1. Beach hop! In addition to the famous Seven Mile Beach, there are so many more white-sand beaches. If you stay on the island for a week, you will have time to explore them all and decide for yourself which ones you like the best.
  2. Eat your way around the island. There are some diverse restaurants spread around the island, ranging from those offering Mexican food, Italian, Indian, Australian with a Caribbean twist, Caribbean, steakhouses, seafood, and gourmet restaurants.
  3. Explore the island’s newest nature attraction:  Caves at Cayman Crystal Caves, only recently opened to the public.
  4. Go shopping in one of the most beautiful open-air shopping areas I’ve ever seen at Camana Bay. In addition to a nice array of shops and restaurants, you’ll find the area nicely landscaped with plenty of trees, flowers, fountains, and seating areas.
  5. Try out all of the water sports. You can rent jet skis, kayaks, stand-up paddle boards,  go sailing, parasailing, snorkeling, scuba diving, or deep sea fishing. Many people from cruise ships will arrange a tour to go snorkeling at Sting Ray City but if you stay on the island, you can do much more than that, at your own leisure.
  6. Have your choice of where to stay. You can stay in a plush hotel like Westin, Marriott, Ritz-Carlton, or a bed-and-breakfast, a family-friendly resort, or condo.
  7. Take in some historical sites. Georgetown gets much more busy and crowded when cruise ships are in, but if you choose a day when no cruise ships are in town, you’ll be able to walk around and have a more enjoyable day. Elmslie Memorial Church, the National Museum, the Government Post Office, the Government Library, and the Town Hall are all historical sites in Georgetown. In Bodden Town, learn about the island’s history at Pedro St. James castle, a wonderfully restored 3-story house overlooking the water.
  8. Go to Hell. Hell is the name given to a large outcropping of sharp limestone rocks in the district of West Bay. Sure it’s touristy but it’s still fun. While in the area, visit the Hell Post Office where you can send a letter postmarked “Hell” and take some photos with devil-themed props from the nice people who live next door to the post office.
  9. Kayak through bioluminescent waters and experience the fairy-dust-like magic as you skim your hands or kayak paddle along the water. You can only do this on certain nights when there is no moon. You can also touch a jellyfish; my husband and daughter both did this. Our guide showed us how the jellies in this area don’t have that potent of stingers so you feel only slightly numb after touching them (or so I’m told since I didn’t touch one). Bonus- see dozens of sea stars at nearby Starfish Point during the day before you go kayaking at night.
  10. Experience a moon rising. We were lucky enough to be able to see this on our first night and it was truly magical. I know it doesn’t sound nearly as fascinating as it actually was, but the only way I can describe it is to say it’s sort of like a sunrise, only in reverse, so you see the moon slowly rise over the horizon until it’s high in the sky.
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Cayman Crystal Caves
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Starfish Point
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Camana Bay Shopping Center

I have a couple of more in-depth posts coming that cover some of the things to do I listed here, but this was meant to pique your interest.

Have any of you been to Grand Cayman Island? Did you stop as part of a cruise or did you stay on the island? Have you ever seen a moon rising?

Happy travels?

Donna

Book Review- What Made Maddy Run: The Secret Struggles and Tragic Death of an All-American Teen by Kate Fagan

I first heard about this book while listening to the Another Mother Runner podcast about it, which you can find here. The co-host, Dimity McDowell said both she and her teenage daughter had read the book and she recommended that any parent with teenagers who might end up on an athletics team in college to read this book. Well, my teenage daughter is a runner now so I thought I should definitely read this book. Not to exclude the other co-host Adrienne Martini, who also had some helpful insight and comments of her own, having gone through depression herself and having written a book about it.

Author Kate Fagan is a sports writer for espnW, ESPN.com and ESPN The Magazine and was a college athlete herself. She doesn’t have children of her own, so she can’t write from a parent’s perspective, but she does write from a former college athlete’s perspective. Fagan interviewed Madison Holleran’s friends and family, read Maddy’s phone messages, emails, and social media feeds to try to perhaps portray a bigger picture of what might have happened to lead to the tragic death of Madison Holleran by suicide.

Right from the beginning, you know what you’re getting into by reading this book because you know how it ends. What you don’t know at the beginning is just how quickly things can turn from bad to worse to desperate in someone’s life, even when things appear fairly smooth on the surface. Despite telling her closest friends and family members she was not happy at the Ivy league University of Pennsylvania, no one could have predicted she was so completely out of hope that she would take her own life.

What stands out the most to me is the pressure kids have to face during college and for most of them, there is little to no professional help when they need it. When Madison sought help from counselors at college, she was given a lengthy wait time, which to me is unacceptable. More resources need to be available, especially for freshman or new students.

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You may say pressure is nothing new; kids have always faced pressure in school that increases steadily through high school and peaks during college. True, pressure has always been there, but it does seem like the pressure kids are facing now is much greater than 20 years ago. All of this pressure results in anxiety and it seems like teens today are at an all-time high rate of anxiety. From the moment they enter middle school, they’re told they need to get good grades so they’ll get into AP and honors classes in high school, which they need to get accepted into “the best” colleges, then they need to excel in college to graduate with honors to get “good jobs.”

This is just the academic portion of the source of anxiety. When you add in athletics in college and how demanding the schedules are for college athletes, you have the perfect storm. Madison went from playing soccer, her self-professed true love in high school to running for University of Pennsylvania on a scholarship. She clearly missed playing soccer and wasn’t happy running at college partly because of the demanding schedule, to the extent that she typed a letter to her running coach explaining to him why she wanted to leave the team, and she brought her mother along for the meeting. However, her coach didn’t want to see her leave the team and ended up talking her into modifying her workouts but not leaving, to which she agreed.

Another aspect that Fagan covers thoroughly is social media and how it can downplay or mask negative feelings. For example, if I texted a friend that I had a bad day but then added in some silly emoticons, it might look like things weren’t really as bad as they were; the tone can easily be misinterpreted by the receiver. Tone is always difficult to portray electronically, whether through an email or text. Madison also was sure to always put up photos of herself and friends on Instagram that on the outside looked like everything was great.

So as a parent, what can we take away from this book? For starters, don’t assume you can just send your child off to college and everything will be wonderful- they’ll make friends, do well in their classes, and adjust easily. In fact, a majority of students that go away to college are woefully under-prepared both emotionally and physically. We aren’t doing our children any favors by doing their laundry for them all the time and never discussing difficult subjects with them. It’s the ultimate job of a parent to prepare their child to be an independent adult.

Keep the communication lines open, which you’ve hopefully done from the start with your child. Ask them how they feel about something rather than assuming how they feel. Make it clear that if they’re ever not happy about how things are going in their life, they should talk to someone about it, whether it’s a roommate, RA, counselor, friend, or family member. It should also be clear that if they want to transfer schools or drop out of a sport, that’s perfectly acceptable and while it’s a big decision that shouldn’t be taken lightly, it’s certainly a viable option.

When Madison mentioned to family members she wanted to transfer schools, she was told to wait it out just a little longer, but clearly she couldn’t wait any longer. I’m sure her family had no idea things were as dire as they were with Madison, and I think that’s a huge takeaway from the book. No one ever truly knows how another person is feeling. Maybe that’s the most important thing we all need to remind ourselves.

Did any of you play on a sports team in college and if so, what was your experience like? What about you guys with kids- do you tend to avoid “difficult” conversations with your teenagers? It’s tough, I know. Teenagers especially often become quiet or don’t want to talk about certain subjects with their parents, so it’s a fine line to walk as a parent to ask questions and get conversations going but not be so pushy you scare them away. Mental health is a subject many people shy away from talking about but it’s an important topic that needs to be discussed.

Happy running!

Donna

 

Hiking, Bathing, and Admiring Holiday Lights in Hot Springs, Arkansas

Following my half marathon in Cotter, Arkansas, and the completion of state number 44 on my quest to run a half marathon in all 50 states (race report here), I decided the best place to spend the vacation portion of my racecation was in Hot Springs. Hot Springs is about a 3 1/2 hour drive from Cotter, a small town in northern Arkansas, and is about an hour from Little Rock.

Hot Springs is the number one tourist destination in Arkansas, with more than 6 million visitors per year. It’s evident the area caters to tourists, with the plethora of tourist shops, restaurants, and hotels, along with some of the more touristy things like a wax museum. One of the big draws for outdoor lovers is Hot Springs National Park.

Hot Springs National Park isn’t your typical park, since it’s located within and around the downtown area of the city of Hot Springs. The area was first protected in 1832 as Hot Springs Reservation but did not officially become a national park until 1921. The National Park Service has the perfect recommendations for how to spend your time at Hot Springs National Park here. Admission to the park is free.

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There are several options for hiking trails within the park, with some easy and others considered moderate. We ended up hiking most of the trails while we were there. If you don’t enjoy hiking or can’t hike, there is also a scenic drive through much of the park. I recommend either hiking or driving to the Mountain Tower, where you can go to the top for some great views of the area. You can either take an elevator up or go up stairs on the outside of the tower, for the same price, $8 for adults. There’s also a gift shop at the tower.

I highly recommend taking a traditional bath at Buckstaff Bathhouse, which we did, but with a bit of warning. Buckstaff Bathhouse doesn’t take reservations so you walk in, give them your last name and what services you want, pay, and go to sit and wait (upstairs for women, first floor for men) until an attendant calls your name. My last name is admittedly not the easiest to pronounce or spell, given the prevalence of how many people have trouble pronouncing and spelling it correctly. However, my daughter and I waited, and waited for our names to be called. A couple of times they called out names that no one else answered to. I later found out they had been calling our name even though never did they say anything remotely like our last name. Only after three other women that arrived after us were called back, did someone finally realize their mistake in skipping us. One attendant told me she had called our name repeatedly and asked why we didn’t answer. I told her we were sitting there the whole time and no one said anything that sounded like our name. Lesson learned- give them a very simple last name at the front desk, something that’s impossible to screw up.

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Despite having to wait much longer than we should have upon arrival, the bath treatment more than made up for it. To begin, you have a bath drawn in a private tub that’s very long, and I’m tall so it was fantastic to actually be able to stretch out completely, where you sit in the whirlpool mineral bath first. Next, I was taken to an area where an attendant put hot towels around my shoulders and lower back. After that, I went to a sitz bath, then to a wet sauna, and finished off with a needle shower. All of this cost just $33. You can add on extras like a massage, a loofah scrub, and a paraffin treatment for hands. I’ve seriously never felt more recovered after a half marathon than I did after the race in Cotter, and I completely believe it was due to the traditional bath at Buckstaff Bathhouse.

The final thing we did in Hot Springs that turned out to be one of the highlights of our time there was visiting Garvan Woodland Gardens. Normally, November wouldn’t be an ideal time to visit these gardens since not much is in bloom then but there is a lights display that is one of the best I’ve seen and well worth a visit. Holiday Lights is open November 17- December 31 and admission is $15 for adults and $5 for children. You walk around the 4 1/2 miles of land, with different areas decorated in different themes; you can also rent a golf cart for extra admission. Don’t forget to take a peek at the stunning Anthony Chapel which as my husband put it, “is made for weddings.”

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Lily pad scene, one of my favorites from Garvan Gardens

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Anthony Chapel at night

Some of our favorite restaurants in Hot Springs include:

Superior Bathhouse Brewery

Grateful Head Pizza Oven and Beer Garden

Bone’s Chophouse (a bit away from the touristy downtown area with phenomenal service and great food)

Cafe 1217 (“gourmet to go” dine in with great-tasting healthy options)

Hot Springs, Arkansas is a fun place to spend a long weekend or a few days. There are plenty of offerings to suit pretty much anyone, whether you want a girls’ weekend at the spa, hiking at the national park, or you’re a foodie and want some great food in a scenic spot. There’s also horse racing, an amusement park, Lake Catherine State Park, a science museum, and the Gangster Museum of America. I’m not exaggerating when I say every single person we talked to seemed genuinely nice and were happy to see us and talk to us. Even with all that Hot Springs has to offer, it’s an added bonus that the people are one of its greatest attributes.

Have any of you ever been to Hot Springs, Arkansas or do you plan on going someday? I know Arkansas isn’t on the radar of many people unless they live in states nearby, but it really is a beautiful area of our country with a lot to offer!

Happy travels!

Donna

 

White River Half Marathon, Cotter, Arkansas-44th state

This is part of a series of posts from my quest to run a half marathon in all 50 states. Arkansas was my 44th state.

If you want to run a marathon, half marathon, or 5k on a blazing fast course, run one of the the White River races in Cotter, Arkansas. Seriously, this group of races is well-organized, has great volunteers, has technical long sleeve shirts for all runners, huge medals for all runners, and medals for age group winners in addition to the fast courses.

Packet pickup was quick and easy the evening before the race at Cotter Schools, and there was also the option of packet pickup the morning of the race. I got my shirt, bib, and chip shoe tags (I hadn’t seen those in quite a few years) and was out in less than 10 minutes. Shirts and some other things were being sold there but honestly I just wanted to get to dinner so I didn’t spend any time looking around. There was a pre-race pasta dinner but I wanted to try some local barbecue instead.

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Race morning, November 17, was even chillier than I was hoping, at 31 degrees. Someone mentioned how it was 70 degrees at the start of last year’s race, so I was thankful it wasn’t that warm (but I think 70 at the start is unusual). Racers for the 5k, half marathon, and marathon all started together at 7 am but fortunately the course never felt crowded, even at the beginning.

Here’s part of why this course is so fast. The first mile was downhill, and the course leveled out after that. We turned around at about mile 7.5 so we didn’t have to go back up the hill from the first mile. The course was on quiet, country roads and while the course was open to traffic, the handful of drivers we did see were courteous and gave runners a wide berth when passing. We got a couple of glimpses of the White River but mostly we saw fields and rural homes. There was a field with a couple of horses watching us at one point too.

Tailwind, water, and Gu gels were offered on the course. The volunteers at the aid stations were friendly and did a good job but there was almost no crowd support on the course, as would be expected for a small race in a rural area.

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The medals for the 5k, half marathon, and marathon are all personalized to each distance

If you follow my blog, you may recall that I recently found out I’m anemic. Just a couple of weeks before this race, my hemoglobin was 6 (normal for women my age is 12-15). Despite that, I still managed to finish in 1:57:31, 4th in my age group, 61 overall out of 287. I haven’t run a half marathon this fast since 2015. Needless to say, given my poor health, I was thrilled with my result. Unfortunately I forgot to hit save on my Garmin at the finish so I have no idea what my split times were. I also made a point of not checking my watch during this race because I just wanted to run more by feel.

As I mentioned earlier, the race medals at the finish were huge and pretty cool-looking. There were also space blankets, which was a nice touch given how cool it was that morning. There was chocolate milk, water, donuts, bagels, bananas at the finish line, and then there was even more food at Cotter School.

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The finish!

My daughter ran the 5k and came in 2nd in her age group, so my husband and daughter went to get her age group medal at the school, where the awards ceremonies were. There were sausage biscuits, bananas, lemonade, Gatorade, coffee, hot chocolate, chili, and a variety of soups when they went at 9:00 for the 5k awards. I showered and changed after the half and went to the school around 10:00 and then they had pizza instead of sausage biscuits but everything else was the same.

To be a small race, this is one of the best I’ve been to. While the course wasn’t one of the most scenic I’ve ever run on, it wasn’t bad and it was definitely one of the fastest courses I’ve raced on. The volunteers were great and the food afterwards was good and plenty of it. There was also a shoe recycling area and it looked like quite a few old running shoes were collected. If you’re looking to cross Arkansas off your list, I highly recommend this race!

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Just a portion of the shoes collected at the race

www.whiterivermarathon.com

Do any of you have plans to run a race in Arkansas or have you already? If so, which one do you want to run or have you run? Do you like races in small towns along back country roads or do you prefer racing in bigger cities with big productions like the Rock n’ Roll series for example?

Happy running!

Donna

 

 

Why I Run- Version 2.0

My very first blog post was titled, “Why I Run,” and you can read it here. It’s a quick read and pretty basic. I recently started thinking about this question more in-depth. Sure, I run because I enjoy it and how I feel when I’m running, but I think running is more complicated than that.

As I mentioned in my first post, I’ve been running pretty much since I was a young child. Unlike my parents and older brother, I loved running, riding my bike, and swimming. Long story short of why I’m not and will probably never be a triathlete, I taught myself to swim as a kid and can actually swim half-decently in the sense of moving from one place to another but my form is terrible.

Still, as much as I enjoy swimming and cycling, these sports aren’t my true loves. Running always has been and probably always will be my first choice of activity. Although I may not always feel in the mood to run when I start, I almost always finish feeling better than when I started.

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Running in the Canary Islands

One thing I love about running are all of the health benefits. Contrary to popular belief by non-runners, running is not “bad for your knees.” In multiple studies, they’ve found that the average runner has lower incidence of osteoarthritis in their knees (and other joints). Runners also have lower incidence of a multitude of diseases and other health issues such as obesity, heart disease, multiple types of cancers, stroke, diabetes, dementia, depression, and the list goes on.

Sure, runners sometimes get injured and if enough time isn’t taken off running to let the area fully heal, that can lead to long-term problems like arthritis for example. However, I would argue that it wasn’t simply running that lead to the long-term complications, but the fact that the person was running when they shouldn’t have. This could happen with any sport, such as “tennis elbow” with a tennis player leading to more complications later in life if they don’t let their bodies heal.

Fortunately, I haven’t had many major running injuries and only once in my life had to deal with iliotibial band syndrome (ITBS). Once I figured out what I needed to do (mainly stretch and use a foam roller regularly), that ugly little problem never reared its head again.

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Half marathon in Colorado- one of my toughest because of elevation!

So with no real major running injuries to speak of, I’ve seen multiple benefits to my health. All I have to do is look around at other people my age and hear about all of the health issues they’re going through to know what an advantage running has given me for my health. Most of these people I’m referring to are overweight, so honestly if they would lose the extra weight, many of their health problems would go away and they wouldn’t even have to ever run as long as they lead a healthy active lifestyle. I’m not one of those people that thinks everyone should run; just because I choose to run doesn’t mean I think everyone else should run as well. I always say whatever activity that will get your heart rate up and you enjoy doing is the one that’s best for you.

Running has also shown me and my family many parts of the United States we most likely would never have seen otherwise. By having the goal of running a half marathon in all 50 states in the United States, we’ve traveled to some pretty small towns over the years. While there have been some places that we absolutely fell in love with but might not have gone to if not for the races (Rhode Island, South Dakota, Vermont), there have been a few places that we were not that enamored by (North Dakota, Oklahoma, Mississippi) but were still happy we got the opportunity to go. Overall, there have been more places we’ve loved or at least liked than ones we didn’t care for.

Outside of races, I feel like I must truly love running just to be able to train for the half marathons that I do run. My current half marathon training plan includes runs 5 days a week. I feel like if I didn’t inherently love to run, I would pretty quickly get tired of running that many times a week. Lately I’ve loved checking out new areas to run both around where I live and near where I work as well.

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Checking out new running routes!

Running has shown me some enormous neighborhoods that I drive by every day going to work but never even knew existed until I decided to check out some new running paths. I’ve discovered some greenways and walking trails that go on for several miles in one direction, sometimes connecting with other greenways or trails. Simply by having the attitude of “let’s see where this goes,” I’ve discovered huge areas that I never would have seen if not for running.

It’s no secret I love to travel and whenever possible, I’ll combine my love of travel and exploring new places with running. Over the years some of the most memorable places I’ve run outside the United States were in places like Costa Rica, the Canary Islands, Canada, and Austria. I’ve seen things when running that I would have missed if I would have just driven by it in a car and I’ve often gone back later to explore the area more in-depth.

In summary, I guess I love to run because it helps keep me healthy and it helps show me the world, both near and far.

Why do you run?

Happy running!

Donna

Alaska Itinerary and Travel Tips

Of all of the 50 states in the United States, Alaska is consistently in the top 10 most-visited states. Although planning a vacation to Alaska can seem a bit challenging, it’s certainly not difficult to do on your own. Alaska is by far the largest state in the United States, at 663,300 square miles and many of the major cities are vast distances from each other. Further, much of Alaska is only accessible by water, making it even more challenging to visit, hence the popularity in Alaskan cruises. But what do you do if you or your traveling companions get motion sickness on boats and a cruise is not an option or you just don’t want to take a cruise? Of course, you dive in and start planning your own itinerary!

Some questions you may ask when planning a trip to Alaska:

How long should I spend in Alaska?

The longer, the better, given the enormous size of the state and the fact that only 20% of the state is accessible by roads. For most people, roughly ten days to two weeks is a good amount of time to spend on your first visit, to get a “taste” of Alaska. It’s best to focus on visiting a few areas rather than trying to cram in a dozen different areas and spending much of your time in transit from one place to another.

Getting to Alaska and Getting Around

Although there are many small airports in Alaska, major airports include ones in Anchorage, Fairbanks, and Juneau. Other communities with jet service in Alaska include Wrangell, Petersburg, Sitka, Glacier Bay/Gustavus, Yakutat, Cordova, Kodiak, Dutch Harbor, Adak, King Salmon, Dillingham, Bethel, Nome, Kotzebue, Barrow and Prudhoe Bay. As mentioned above, only 20% of Alaska is accessible by roads, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t consider driving an option. We picked up our rental car in Anchorage and were able to drive to all of the places we wanted to, without any problems, and we didn’t need a 4×4 vehicle either. This was during the summer, so if it’s winter, be prepared to drive on snowy roads. Taking the Alaska Railroad is also an option for getting between cities.

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When is the Best Time of Year to Visit Alaska?

In my opinion, there is no “best” time of year to visit anywhere and Alaska is no exception. Summer is the most popular time to visit Alaska, with mid-June to mid-August being peak season. If you prefer warmer weather and plan to do a lot of hiking, July through early August are your best bets but if you want to see the Northern Lights, the winter months when it’s the darkest are best. If you plan on going to Denali National Park, the park’s only roadway remains open through early September for bus tours although a 15-mile portion of the road is also open for private vehicles. Crowds are a bit thinner during the shoulder months of April to May and September.

Tips for Planning your Alaska Itinerary

If you plan on going during the busy summer months, book in advance whenever possible. Bus tours through Denali National Park sell out months in advance, as do campsites and accommodations in more popular areas of the state.

Because of the remoteness of the state, WiFi is non-existent in many rural areas. Cell phone service is also spotty at best in many places, even in some of the bigger cities. Download Google maps offline and drop pins on places where you want to go so you have access to areas where you don’t have coverage.

Pack for cool or cold weather even in the summer. I was a bit surprised to learn the average daytime highs in August are usually in the low-to mid-60’s Fahrenheit (16 to 19 degrees Celsius). This coupled with the fact that it rained many days made it feel pretty chilly, which brings me to my next tip.

Pack a poncho or lightweight rain jacket. August and September are the wettest months but rain is pretty common in July as well.

Consider hiking with others and/or buy bear spray. Bears are abundant in Alaska, as are moose. Many people may not realize moose are even more dangerous than bears in Alaska. Moose outnumber bears nearly three to one in Alaska, wounding around five to 10 people in the state annually. That’s more than grizzly bear and black bear attacks combined.

Remember that fresh fruits and vegetables cost more in Alaska than in the lower 48 states (as do many other things). As we were reminded with a sign in a grocery store in Alaska, those bananas have to travel a very long way to reach Alaska, which increases the cost. Alaska has a short growing season and primarily cool season vegetables such as beets, potatoes, broccoli, cabbage, carrots grow here, although some fruit trees have successfully been grown near the University of Alaska at Fairbanks. Tourism also increases prices so anywhere frequented heavily by cruise ships will have higher prices, especially in the direct vicinity around the port.

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Itinerary:  11 days/10 nights in Alaska

Stop 1:  Anchorage (3 nights)

Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport is the busiest airport in Alaska, with twice as many passengers in June, July and August as between October to April. This is likely the airport you will be flying into. For most people, it will be a long flight, and you will want to focus on checking into your hotel and resting for the first day and possibly part of the second day.

After you’ve rested up, venture out and do a bit of hiking or just driving around to take in the scenery. On our first full day in Anchorage, we saw a moose drinking water from a small lake just off a highway. This was our first moose sighting, despite having traveled previously to many other places in the US and Canada that are heavily populated by moose, so we were of course excited to stop and take some photos. As mentioned earlier, moose can be extremely dangerous, so make sure you don’t get close to the animals and give them a huge berth of space.

Chugach National Forest, which stretches for 6,908,540 acres in south central Alaska is easily accessible from Anchorage and there are many options for trails and hiking.

Mount Baldy is another hiking option and the trailhead parking lot is only about 30 minutes from downtown Anchorage.

Tony Knowles Coastal Trail is a scenic place to take a walk, go for a run, or take a spin on some rental bikes.

Turnagain Arm is just south of Anchorage and I recommend driving along here and stopping at some of the stops along the way such as McHugh Creek Recreation Area and Beluga Point Lookout.

Some of our favorite restaurants in Anchorage include Snow City Café, South Restaurant and Coffeehouse, and Wild Scoops.

You can find a full description of our time in Anchorage here.

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Stop 2:  Denali National Park (3 nights)

The drive from Anchorage to the surrounding areas of Denali National Park is a long one, taking approximately 5 hours, give or take, depending on traffic and road construction (which we ran into on our way back from Denali National Park). If you can’t get reservations to stay inside the park or don’t want to stay in the park, there are options in the nearby town of Healy or a bit further away, McKinley Park.

I found the options for accommodations in Healy to range from fairly expensive to super-expensive, with nothing other than campgrounds offering anything what I would call affordable. However, I wanted to be as close to the park entrance as possible, so I chose one of the more affordable of the expensive hotels, Cabins at Denali. We had a two-story room, with nothing but a bathroom and entryway on the bottom floor and a huge room upstairs with three beds, a sitting area with a couch and coffee table, dining room table and chairs, microwave, sink, and coffee maker.

You can only drive the first 15 miles into Denali National Park, so you will need to make reservations well in advance for one of the buses. There are many options, depending if you want to get off the bus and hike or just stay on the bus, and how far into the park you want to go.

On our first day in Healy, since we arrived in the evening, we just ventured out for dinner and relaxed for the evening. We took a bus tour for hikers on our second day and it was a full day indeed, since we chose the bus tour that went several hours into the backcountry of the park. For our third day, we hiked on the trails around the areas closer to the entrance of the park that are private vehicle-accessible and went to the sled dog tour.

You can find a full description of our time in Healy and Denali National Park here.

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Stop 3:  Seward (3 nights)

Even though the drive from Anchorage to Denali National Park is a long one, the drive from Denali National Park to Seward is even longer, since you actually drive past Anchorage to get to Seward. The drive took us around 6 1/2 hours, but we stopped to do a bit of hiking along the way and break up the drive.

The area that includes Seward is filled with glaciers, so we decided to stop and hike at one before we reached our Airbnb in Seward. Driving south from Anchorage on the Seward Highway, go to the end of the 5-mile Portage Spur Road. Byron Glacier trailhead is near Portage Lake. It’s a one-mile scenic walk to the glacier face along Byron Creek.

We also hiked to Exit Glacier in Kenai Fjords National Park (which has no entry fee). This is a popular glacier to visit and there will likely be crowds if you’re there during the summer. It’s an easy hike to get to the first viewing area for the glacier. There are actually two viewing areas, one a bit further away, for people that can’t or don’t want to hike the trail, and the one much closer to the glacier. If you want to walk on the glacier, you need to arrange a tour with a guide.

On our second day in Seward, we took a Kenai Fjords National Park tour with Kenai Fjords Tours, a 6 hour boat tour. Despite taking anti-motion sickness medication, my husband and daughter were still sick for the entire tour. However, I was perfectly fine and thoroughly enjoyed the tour. We saw many glaciers and animals like seals, whales, and puffins. Although this was a highlight of my time in Alaska, my husband and daughter would not say the same thing, so if you have problems with motion sickness, you should probably skip a boat tour here.

For our third day in Seward, we went to what became my daughter’s favorite part of our time in Alaska, Seavey’s Ididaride. Since it was summer, instead of being pulled by Alaskan huskies in a dogsled, we were pulled in a cart by the dogs. The dogs train year-round and you can visit here year-round and see these beautiful dogs that clearly love to run and also check out some of Mitch Seavey’s, (a former Iditarod winner), trophies and race-related gear. We also got to see and even hold some adorable Alaskan husky puppies, which was the icing on the cake for my husky-loving daughter.

Since we had a really nice house through Airbnb to stay at with a well-stocked kitchen in Seward, we stopped at a nearby grocery store on our first day so we could eat most of our meals in the house (plus it was better for our budget). We only went out to eat once, at Seward Brewing Company and really liked our food there.

You can find a full description of our time in Seward here.

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Stop 3:  Girdwood (1 night)

This is an optional stop you could even add on during your time in Anchorage, since it’s a bit under an hour from downtown Anchorage. Since we had a late evening flight back home, I thought it would be a good way to not have such a long drive from Seward to the airport (about 2/12-3 hours) and see a new area as well. It ended up being a good decision and I thoroughly enjoyed our time in Girdwood.

We stayed at the beautiful Alyeska Resort and were able to snag the Summer Tram Package deal where you get free tram tickets when you stay the night. Alyeska Resort is a 300-room year-round hotel with skiing in the winter and hiking and mountain biking the rest of the year. Normally we don’t stay at huge resorts like this, but every now and then I like to splurge, and since it was just one night, it didn’t break the bank.

We took the tram up to the top of the mountain above the resort and hiked around some trails there and were rewarded with some truly gorgeous views. You can hike up and down the mountain and skip the tram, but taking the tram was a good way to save our legs to be able to do more hiking around the top.

Besides taking the tram to the top from the Hotel Alyeska and hiking up there, we really wanted to hike Lower Winner Creek Trail. The trail begins behind the Hotel Alyeska. The first 3/4 mile is a wide, well-developed boardwalk. The next 1.5 miles are easy hiking along a firm dirt trail  through the Chugach National Forest. When you reach Winner Creek Gorge, you’re in for a special treat, the hand tram. The hand tram is just like it sounds, powered by hand, and if you’re lucky, you’ll have people waiting on both sides of the gorge who will happily pull the ropes to get you across the gorge (otherwise you will have to pull yourself across). I have a fear of heights but loved going across the hand tram and highly recommend it.

For restaurants, we liked Girdwood Brewing Company (there was a food truck when we were there with awesome Mexican food), Sitzmark, Alpine Diner & Bakery, and The Bake Shop.

You can find a full description of our time in Girdwood here.

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11-day Alaska Itinerary at-a-glance

Day 1:  Anchorage- flight arrival, hotel check-in, settle in

Day 2:  Anchorage- hiking and/or Tony Knowles Coastal Trail

Day 3:  Anchorage- check out Turnagain Arm

Day 4:  Healy- drive here from Anchorage

Day 5:  Denali National Park- bus tour of park

Day 6:  Denali National Park- hiking, dog-sled demonstrations

Day 7:  Seward- drive here from Healy, with option to stop at Byron Glacier along the way

Day 8:  Seward- Kenai Fjords National Park tour

Day 9:  Seward- Seavey’s Ididaride and hiking to Exit Glacier

Day 10:  Girdwood- drive here from Seward, hiking around Alyeska Resort

Day 11:  Girdwood- hiking Winner Creek Gorge, flight home

I feel like this itinerary hits some of the major highlights of Alaska, but I’m not an expert by any means; I just did a ton of research beforehand. During our time in Alaska, we felt like these places were definitely great choices and we didn’t feel like we were in the car for too much of our time there. That being said, I can’t stress enough if you are prone to motion sickness, skip the boat tours in Alaska. The water can be rough, sometimes with huge swells, and it’s just not enjoyable when you feel nauseous and sick.

Alaska is such a beautiful state with many options, even though it seems like the vast majority of people who go here do so on a cruise. I’d just like to point out you can still see different areas of the state and hike and see some of the natural beauty on your own, without a tour guide from a cruise ship. Even if you don’t like to hike, you can just go for scenic drives in many of the places I’ve mentioned, like Turnagain Arm for example. The drive from Anchorage to Seward is one of the most scenic areas I’ve ever been through.

Happy travels!

Donna