On Finding Nemo: Swimming at the Lake

20130803-162159.jpgEach summer, we head up north to my husband’s family lake house in upstate New York. It’s right on the border of Bennington, Vermont and in close proximity to the starting line of the  Shires of Vermont Marathon, which I ran this past April. Being away from home for a week meant adjusting my training accordingly. There isn’t a lot to do at the lake except enjoy the outdoors and relax, so it’s the perfect place for me to go for a run or unroll my yoga mat. This summer, my main focus was preparing for my fall marathons, but I’ve also spent some time on my bike to prepare for the upcoming Steelman Triathlon. I’ve been enjoying the time on my bike, but my training for the swim has been sub-par, at best. As our visit to the lake approached, I knew it would be a great opportunity to increase my confidence in the water.

For awhile, I aimed to get to a pool once per week and crank out a little more than a mile. As summer wore on, I decided laps in my own pool in my backyard would suffice. It’s a rectangular shaped in-ground pool, but quite a bit smaller than a lap pool. Finally, I decided I’d just wait until we headed up to Babcock Lake for vacation and spend time in the water. I know how to swim, and I realize I’m not setting any records. All I really needed was some open water swim practice.

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I think if I could swim in a lake all summer long, I’d swim often. It’s not convenient to practice in open water at home but it’s much more fun. Swimming in a pool at the gym is monotonous, even when I pull out my little book of workouts and have a goal in mind. The whole act of going to the pool is annoying and inconvenient. At Babcock Lake, my “pool” is conveniently located in the backyard and my workout is to swim the length of the lake and back to the house. The temperatures are pretty cool everyday, but it warms up enough by noon or so that I was happy to get in the water and work on my open water swim skills.

Each time I’d get ready to swim, my husband would get in one of the kayaks and row alongside of me. I guess it was to make sure I wouldn’t drown, or in case I needed to take a break. Either way, it was cute and I loved that he would join me. He was usually my only company, but a few times a bunch of his family members hopped into the rest of their kayaks and came along for the trip. I think it’s just over a mile round trip, and I could do it in just under 30 minutes. It’s about the amount of time I’d like to finish the swim portion of the triathlon. Since I only had the chance to do this for a week, I’m not sure if it actually helped. It did, however, increase my confidence in swimming in open water. The triathlon is in exactly a week, and I’m getting really excited for it.

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As for running, there is no excuse for me not to get in the mileage while we are staying at the lake. There isn’t much to do besides relax or spend time out on the water, so there are no excuses for me not to run. I finished out last week’s mileage and ran 62 miles for the following week, meaning I ran a total of 71 miles during our stay. I only took one rest day from running during our entire trip this year. When I first began running, getting me to go out for a run at the lake was like pulling teeth. I would be lucky if I were motivated enough to go out once or twice during our stay, and never for more than four-ish miles. Each year, I’d enjoy running more and more and I’d figure out routes to keep things interesting.

20130803-162147.jpgThe weather is usually just right, but the terrain and elevation make running challenging. It’s extremely hilly regardless of where I run, and it’s a few thousand feet above sea level. A few years back, I got very lost on some of the back roads and it resulted in a much longer run than intended. It was an uncharacteristically warm day, and I went for a 11 miler. 11 miles turned into 17 miles and a ride home from a total stranger, so I stick mainly with the loop around the lake and a few of the very main roads.

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The hills and elevation present a challenge, but it’s a nice change of scenery from the Lehigh Valley. Since my routes are a bit limited at the lake, running tends to get a bit monotonous by the end of our stay. I ended up doing my long run (an 18 miler) on Monday, before the routes began to bore me. I just keep the pace relatively easy since the hills and elevation are challenge enough. There’s never a flat area, you’re either running up or down a seriously steep hill. I try to choose routes that are uphill on the way out so I can cruise on the downhills at the end of my run.

I even had the chance to unroll my yoga mat and get out on the kayaks often. The best place to practice yoga is on the porch, but this year was pretty chilly so my practices were a bit short. Overall, it was a fun and active week, with just the right amount of relaxing mixed in. Usually, I worry that I’m going to lose some endurance or skip a few runs before the end of our stay. This year, I think the challenging roads and frequent open water swim sessions was a refreshing change to my daily routine. I’m excited for the triathlon next weekend, and I can only hope that my efforts swimming, biking, and running have prepared me for the event.

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Quinoa for Breakfast!

When I was sidelined from running with a mystery injury in the spring, I had the brilliant idea to sign up for the upcoming Steelman Triathlon. I resorted to cross training to maintain my endurance and figured I might as well put my efforts to good use. Since recovering and returning to running, I’ve not really put much work in on my swimming. It’s possible I’ve been in the pool just under 10 times in the past few months. I kind of take swimming for granted since I swam for about two minutes back in high school. I’m not a fast swimmer, but my form isn’t terrible so I survive without expending too much energy. We are currently on our annual vacation to Babcock Lake, and I’m spending the week practicing my open water swim skills. I don’t expect a week of swimming to prepare me to swim some extraordinary swim time at the triathlon, but my intention is just to be more comfortable in the water before August 11.

I’m training hard and putting in a lot of miles running, since that’s my favorite of the three sports. Though I’m excited to participate in the triathlon, my main focus is my fall marathons. I’ve been consistently logging 50+ miles per week since I began the Pfitzinger plan. This week, my mileage hits 62. I’ll max out at 70 at some point. I’m good for the run, I’ll survive on the swim…and I actually think I may survive the bike, too. I have this love/hate relationship with cycling. I usually tell people that I hate it. At one point, I didn’t get on my bike for about 2 years. But this summer, it’s been a different story. I haven’t put in crazy mileage on the bike that most cyclists put in, but I’ve done quite a bit for me. Once or twice per week, I join Emily for her general aerobic rides (she’s training for a half-Ironman), which are 90 minutes long. On those days, we cover about 25-28 miles. Once per week, I join her for her long ride – usually about 3 hours, or about 50 miles. This has been going on since before I left for Alaska, so by the time she went on vacation last week I was enjoying riding enough that I actually hit the roads on my own. I wouldn’t say it was a complete fail. I managed to find some 25-30 mile routes, except they were more like mountain climbing expeditions. I also did some “transition workouts” where I run off the bike, which I usually dread. I’m not going to go as far as to say that the workouts felt good, but they weren’t completely unfortunate.

Before our last long ride, I whipped up a bowl of “hot cereal” that I made with quinoa. I’d forgotten about the concoction, but it gave me a ton of energy and kept me full for the whole ride. You can swap the quinoa for any hot cereal. My other favorite hot cereal is any blend by Bob’s Red Mill, particularly the 8-Grain cereal.

Breakfast Quinoa

  • 1/4 quinoa (or a hot cereal of your choice)
  • 1 cup unsweetened vanilla almond milk (or milk product of your choice)
  • 1 teaspoon of vanilla extract
  • 1/2 teaspoon of cinnamon
  • Pinch of sea salt
  • 1/4 cup of blueberries
  • 2 tablespoons organic raisins
  • 1 tablespoon 100% maple syrup
  • 1 tablespoon chopped raw almonds
  • 1 tablespoon pumpkin seeds

Combine the first four ingredients in a small saucepan and bring to a boil. Lower heat and simmer until the liquid evaporates and the quinoa is cooked, adding more liquid if necessary (about 10-15 minutes). Spoon into a bowl, and top with the remaining ingredients, and enjoy!

When enough is enough.

20130722-153446.jpgSummertime is my most favorite season to practice yoga. My muscles are always so much warmer, and the relaxed days make it easy to focus on my practice when I’m on my mat. On days where I can get out of bed with the sun and finish my run in the early morning hours, I’ll sometimes meet up with my friends so we can practice together. It’s something I don’t get to do quite as often during the school year, and it’s such a treat. In summers past, I spent a lot of time in Philadelphia practicing ashtanga yoga with my teacher, David Garrigues. This summer, I’ve been training for the upcoming Steelman Olympic Distance Triathlon. Though I’m still practicing daily, I’m doing it locally. Summer is usually a season of learning and progression in my asana practice since I get to work with David frequently. But without traveling to Philly, I haven’t learned any new asanas. Even though I’m not frequenting the mysore room at AYS (Ashtanga Yoga School of Philadelphia) this summer, I’ve learned some valuable lessons and progressed in my practice in ways that needed to come from within.

I always talk about how my yoga practice is constantly humbling me. Last fall, I began learning third series (Advanced A). It’s extremely intense and challenging, but a LOT of fun. Each day, I’d rush out of work to get out for my run as quickly as possible and then try to fit in a 2+ hour yoga practice, six days per week. Four of the days included my third series postures, because it requires consistency to avoid injury. But all of the rushing around started to take a toll on me. What I was doing to myself was impractical, and it took the fun out of it. This went on from August through April, just a few days before I ran the Boston Marathon. After Boston, it all caught up with me. I was upset about the incident at the marathon, injured, and burned out. I avoided my yoga mat. The thought of spending hours on my mat and attempting my third series postures exhausted me and made me want to cry. It all finally caught up to me: I was trying to do too much.

See, when it comes to running and yoga, it’s fun for me. It’s not a chore. Many people turn to these types of activities for a healthier lifestyle, as I originally did. I’ve been running for about seven years now, and practicing yoga (in some capacity) since I’m 16 years old. Sure, I love the health benefits, but I find a lot of joy in both. There are days where I don’t feel great when I’m out running or my yoga practice is exhausting, but I still enjoy that time and look forward to it each day. But (get ready for the oxymoron) my yoga practice was stressing me out. Yoga. Stress. What? So when I decided to get back on my mat, I abandoned my “standards” went back to what drew me to the ashtanga practice.

I went back to primary series, and to modifying postures. I went back to blocks, straps and props to make the postures feel good instead of forcing myself into something that I wasn’t really ready for. I finally acknowledged that something is up with my right hamstring – you know, something I avoided since September. Some days I’d do full primary, and others I’d stop at Navasana. The important part is that I was getting on my mat every single day. A few weeks later, right after the final posture in primary series (Setu Bandhasana), I had the urge to do Pashasana. I went up to Kapotasana and realized how much I missed second series.  My back was pretty sore the next day, but I decided to do it again – this time, I stopped before Eka Pada Sirsasana, my former nemsis. I avoided Eka Pada for about another week, but I was starting to miss the postures that follow it, like Pincha Mayurasana, Mayurasana, and the seven headstands. After a few more days of practicing and feeling good, I did a few prep postures, took a deep breath and whipped my leg behind my head. Sure, it felt a little stiff, but not completely unfortunate.

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Easing myself back into my practice and starting from the beginning was an important lesson for me. It reminded me that it’s okay to go back to the basics and revisit the foundations in any activity to rediscover what drew me to it in the first place. I tend to completely avoid situations that stress me out and shut down when situations are overwhelming. But avoidance, in any aspect of life, won’t get you anywhere. Breaking down my practice into smaller parts and revisiting my foundation was humbling, especially considering what I was doing prior to making that decision. But it was (and still is) much more productive than completely avoiding and abandoning my practice altogether.

When I got back from Alaska, I was still practicing second series straight through to the headstands, but I wasn’t really ready to even think about third series. During the recent heat wave, I was practicing second series in my yoga room. As I finished the seventh headstand at the end of the sequence, I had the urge to go into Vashistasana. Then Vishvamitrasana. Kasyapasana. And then there was Chakorasana, which is right where I stopped. I’m still not ready to go past that point. I won’t avoid it forever, but I’m just not ready for it yet. I’m still not really practicing third series again, and I’m not sure I want to at this point in my life. Physically, I just don’t know how practical it is for me to do right now with the amount of miles I’m running.  Primary series and second series work well with my lifestyle, compliment my running, and bring me joy. Third series, however, requires all of my attention, focus, energy, strength and endurance. It doesn’t leave much time or energy for anything else. Acknowledging that this part of the practice may not be what I need right now was another important lesson for me. I tend to take everything to the most extreme level, and it isn’t always a good thing.

So while there are no new asanas being added to my practice at the current moment, I’m still learning and growing through my yoga practice. It’s teaching me to honor what I’m feeling each day, whether it means modifying postures or stopping at navasana. Or maybe it means slowing my pace when I’m out for a run and I’m just not feeling 100%. I’m not saying to abandon all schedules or training plans. Structure is still a necessity for progression and improvement. You should always strive to complete your full practice or follow your training plan each day. But some days your body has a different plan, and you have to honor that too.The tricky part is determining whether you are feeling tired or injured, or just lazy.  Consistency is important for improvement, but so is proper recovery and rest. Sometimes, the key is just knowing when enough is enough.

Heat Advisory + Triathlon Training = Tropical Fruit Smoothies!

Here in PA, it’s really hot. Temperatures are soaring in the upper 90s these days, and the humidity is off the charts. Accuweather keeps sending me frequent push notifications to warn me that we are in the midst of a heat advisory. I don’t need the little messages on my phone to tell me that. I am well aware that it is really effing hot outside.

All week long, I’ve pretty much done the same thing. Wake up early and head out the door a little before 6:00 am to begin whatever I planned to accomplish each day. When I get back from my run or ride (or both), I set up shop in my “yoga room” (the sunroom off of my living room) and aim to spend some time on my mat. It was an addition the former owners put onto our house, and it eventually will be gutted and renovated along with the rest of the house. In the meantime, it’s a great space to practice yoga if you can get past it’s appearance. Not all of the windows actually open but on super hot days like these, I open the door and the functional windows to let some air in. By the time I’m done with yoga, I pretty much look like I was swimming, rather than practicing.

Yesterday, however, I took the day off from running and headed out on my bike for a nice easy ride, followed by a long yoga practice. When I was finished, I was pretty dehydrated. So I jumped in my pool and headed directly to my kitchen to whip up a smoothie. I’d gone to the farmers market the day before and bought lots of goodies, some of which I cut up and froze for the purpose of smoothie making. I started tossing ingredients in my Vitamix. What I came up with was pretty freaking tasty.

Tropical Fruit Smoothie

  • 1/2 cup frozen pineapple
  • 1/2 cup frozen mango
  • 1 cup frozen papaya
  • 1/2 frozen banana
  • 1 cup unsweetened vanilla almond milk, coconut milk, soy milk, real milk…whatever you want
  • 1/4 cup unsweetened shredded coconut (fresh coconut would be glorious, too)
  • 1 medjool date
  • 1/2 tablespoon chia seeds
  • 1/2 tablespoon hemp seeds
  • 1 teaspoon coconut extract

I had a few slices of watermelon in my hand but I stopped myself for fear of sending my body into hyperglycemic shock or something along those lines. I suspect I should add some greens next time to balance it all out, like a cucumber or something. However, the resulting smoothie was refreshing, hydrating, filling, and super delicious. It makes enough for about two 12 ounce servings, and comes in around 215 calories per serving. I drank both servings. Oops.

Double Trouble

I’m finally settled back into the summer rhythm after my adventures out west. In the week following the Mayor’s Marathon in Anchorage, I “rested” by hiking all over Denali National Park and running a few miles. Once I came home, I got back on my yoga mat to heal my body from the stress of traveling and running marathons. I also jumped into preparations for the upcoming Steelman Olympic Distance Triathlon in August that I somehow managed to sign myself up for. I had about a week until I would begin preparing for my fall race schedule. I took the training plan I’m following and repeated the first week twice, giving myself the opportunity to build up some solid base mileage. I kept all of my running fairly easy and relaxed. So technically, I started training for the fall last week, and now I’m in week #2.

This time around, I’m following a plan from the book “Advanced Marathoning” by Pete Pfitzinger. It’s a relatively well known tool among runners, but I was generally happy with the training plans I’ve used in the past. Since running my first Boston, I’ve always been intrigued by the “Pfitz” and finally decided to jump on the bandwagon. I purchased the book while I was sidelined, and started using one of his plans after I ran in Buffalo, to prepare me for Vancouver USA. I followed his four week “multi-marathoning” plan, and but cut out one of the weeks since I didn’t exactly have four weeks in between races. It got me to the starting line, and helped me run a PR. I don’t think three weeks on the Pfitzinger plan is the only reason that I had a good day in Vancouver, but I think it boosted my confidence. I see the value in his methods and decided to give it a shot for the fall.

What I like most about his training plans is he recognizes that people run multiple marathons each season, and addresses how to approach and train for them. However, he doesn’t recommend less than four weeks between each race – something I disregarded twice during the spring when I ran back to back weekends. As a matter of fact, my fall race schedule is shaping up and it presents a new challenge that I’ve hesitated to try in the past. A double marathon weekend. That means two marathons, one weekend. 52.4 miles in two days. I realize there are people out there who run ultra marathons and cover this distance in one day, but I’m not one of those people. So yeah, I’m feeling like this is going to be one tough weekend and my toughest challenge to date. I’m up for it.

To prepare, I’m following Pfitzinger’s plan of running 55-70 miles per week. I usually run 50+ miles per week at my peak of my marathon training. I’m kicking things up a little, but not excessively. I could have chosen one of his plans with more miles (70-85 miles per week), but I really want to make it to the starting lines of both races. I don’t think running more miles than what I’ve settled on would be beneficial because I don’t have the base to begin running 70 miles a week right out of the starting gates. I did, however, feel it was necessary to moderately increase the amount of miles per week that I’m running specifically because of the nature of my goal. As far as pace goals go for these races, I have none. Just to run both races, and live to tell about it. Well, and knock two states off of my list in the process. I’ll be hitting up New Hampshire for the Saturday race, and Maine for the Sunday race.

The other interesting principle that Pfitzinger builds his training plans on are the “medium-long runs”. He considers a medium long run to be anything in the 11-15 mile range. So, not only are you doing your “long run” each week, but a medium-long run is included. For example, in the week where I run 70 miles, I have a 22 mile long run but also a 15 mile medium long run earlier in the week. Since I’m preparing for two days of long mileage, I feel as though this would be another worthwhile training principle to incorporate. It also falls in line with my personal philosophy:  if you want to get faster and stronger, run more miles. Sure, speed work and hills will help but it’s no substitute for endurance and a strong base. Any intelligent marathon training plan spends the first few weeks (or more) focusing on building mileage. Speed and intensity are incorporated later, when the body is used to the distance.

I ran the Quadzilla 15K at the Trexler Game Preserve on Sunday, and my time was a few minutes slower than last year. I’m not bummed because I’d already ran 54 miles for the week and biked 50 miles the day before. I didn’t taper for that race and it wasn’t one of my target races, so I just went out and ran as hard as I could that day. The humidity was almost unbearable but I still felt pretty strong and was the 7th female to cross the finish line. It wasn’t a PR and I didn’t win any awards, but I still consider it to be a successful day. It also made me realize how much I want to get out and run the game preserve trail more often, because that’s some badass hill training to incorporate in my schedule.

Besides the double weekend, my fall schedule is full of some great races. As Pfitzinger reinforces in his book, you can’t race them all. Meaning it’s a good idea to have different goals for different races. My goal for the double weekend completing is to come away relatively unscathed. In November, I’m heading down to West Virginia for the Marshall Marathon, and in December I’m off to Alabama to run the Rocket City Marathon. Both are potential PR courses. I’m currently targeting Marshall as my potential PR race, but I wouldn’t be opposed to racing Rocket City, either. I also have a number of shorter distance races in my schedule, so I have to be realistic and smart about which ones I race, and which ones I run for fun. Alabama could end up being a fun run with no goal except to check the state off my list. I’m okay with that, because I’m okay with signing up for races without the intention to actually race them.

For the current moment, the countdown is on for the Steelman Triathlon on August 11th. I’m following my marathon training, biking often, swimming a little , and getting on my yoga mat daily to prepare. My first goal is to just have fun with it. My secondary goal is to beat my time from when I did the race in 2009. I’m swimming less, but biking and running much more. And finally, my most challenging goal is to break three hours. Ultimately, I’m going out there to have fun and be among my friends, which I’ve already been able to do throughout the training. So really, I’d say I already achieved my first goal.

Mayor’s Marathon (Anchorage)

State #18: Alaska
The Mayor’s Marathon
6/22/2013

State number 18 is in the books! Alaska was one of the most incredible places I’ve visited, and the marathon was one of the most challenging courses I’ve run. I feel so fortunate that I had the opportunity to visit this breathtakingly beautiful state and run the Mayor’s Marathon. Warning: this post will be quite long as I’m sure I’ll go off on tangents about my overall experience in the last frontier.

The Mayor’s Marathon is a Saturday marathon, and it was the least amount of recovery time I’ve ever had between races of that magnitude. We flew into Anchorage on Tuesday, but the marathon wasn’t until Saturday. So, I did what anyone would do before a marathon in Alaska: headed to Seward and spent three days kayaking, hiking, eating fresh salmon, and enjoying the midnight sun until long past my usual bedtime. Since I pushed the pace in Vancouver USA the previous Sunday, I decided not to do any running before the marathon in Anchorage, but I stayed active all week long. Much to my surprise, I wasn’t as sore as I’d expected after Vancouver. Just a little tightness in my left calf, which subsided a few days later. The rigorous hiking trails we explored in the days leading up to the marathon kept my legs fresh. I intended to do a few shakeout miles on Friday, but we woke up and hiked to Exit Glacier in the Kenai Fjords National Park instead. It was several miles of hiking and equivalent to the distance I would have run, so I called it even.

The Expo

With only six days between the two races, I felt like I was on auto pilot. The expo was on Thursday and Friday afternoon, so we arrived at the expo in the middle of Friday afternoon. It was located in downtown Anchorage at the Sheraton. At the expo, the only item runners received was their bib: no bag, no swag, no frills. I expected that, since it is a relatively small event in relation to most other races. I also knew that since it was their 40th anniversary, many of the resources were being used to throw a party at the finish line. Overall, it was a small expo with few vendors. One of the vendors was the local running store, the Skinny Raven. They were selling some shirts for the race so I purchased one. The actual shirts for the race were distributed at the finish line. I wasn’t sure what to expect from such a small race and I really wanted something to commemorate running in Alaska.

We stayed at a hostel in downtown Anchorage called the Bent Prop Inn. They have two locations, downtown and midtown. We stayed downtown since the finish line for the race was right around the corner. Besides the fact that I felt badly about having to wake up earlier than my friends on race morning, this quite possibly could have been the best place I’ve ever stayed prior to a race simply for its amenities. Being as it was a hostel, I purchased all of my usual pre-race food items at a local grocery store and stored them in the huge communal kitchen. The hostel and the kitchen were clean and well-stocked with any cooking appliance or utensil imaginable. As long as you purchased your own food and cleaned up after yourself, you could use whatever resources the hostel provided.

The Race

The strangest part about being in Alaska at this time of year is experiencing the summer solstice. It’s the land of the midnight sun, and it truly doesn’t get dark. At all. Ever. Wake up at 2am and you’ll still see rays of sunlight reflecting off of the mountain tops, illuminating the whole state. It’s the most incredible experience. Before going to Alaska, I was slightly concerned that I’d have trouble sleeping. After acclimating to this strange phenomenon, I ended up being completely fine. By the eve of the marathon, I slept like a rock and woke up still not feeling like I had to run another marathon. I went through all of my race morning rituals: a quick shower, braided my hair, got dressed, and headed down to the kitchen to brew coffee. I made my usually Starbucks and had all my pre race foods: unsweetened vanilla almond milk for the coffee, Ezekiel bread and almond butter. I headed to the starting line feeling somewhat prepared.

The other bonus to staying at the Bent Prop’s downtown location was how easy it made getting to the race. The starting line for the marathon and half marathon are in different locations, but they end at the same place. For the marathon, the start was located further away, at Bartlett High School. You could drive there, but I’m not sure what the situation was for getting your car back after the race was over. However, they had a great solution: three locations in Anchorage for runners to grab a shuttle to the starting line. There were three locations, and three pickup times for each location. You could opt for 6:10am, 6:40am, or 7am. I chose 6:40: not too early, but early enough that I could either grab the 7am or have my friends to cart me up to the start if something went terribly wrong. Luckily, it everything went smoothly and the bus arrived right on time. It was a small race, so the bus was only half full. The stop I chose was only two blocks from the hostel. It was honestly one of the most pleasant and easy race mornings I’ve ever had.

At the starting line, there was a line of porta-potties (they call them “Rent-A-Cans” in Alaska) and vans lined up with tables and plastic bags for runners to check their gear. Runners found the table that corresponded with their bib number and were taken care of by a volunteer. In addition to the amenities outside, the high school was open with facilities for use inside. I sat inside for awhile, but it was excessively warm in the school so I ended up going outside.

At the start, they sang the national anthem and played the Alaska flag song. There was a gun start and we were off. Strangely enough, the first 5.5ish miles were on the actual highway. In Alaska, they have lots of paths and trails everyehere, including ones that run along the highway. Seems odd, but the views were breathtaking. As you left the school and emerged onto the highway, you were surrounded by endless views of snow capped mountains. It’s like that every time you walk out your door in Alaska, but being immersed in it while running truly gives you the opportunity to appreciate the breathtaking surroundings.

Around mile 6, we left the highway and headed to the back roads of Anchorage. The course began to change terrain and get much more challenging for a number of reasons. The first relay exchange was around this time, and so you were faced with people entering the race with fresh legs. Not much of an issue at mile 6, but it gets a little harder to watch as the relay exchanges occur during the later miles of the race. Runners are entering the course with fresh legs but you’re beginning to get more and more fatigued. It kind of messes with your head. It’s not their fault that you chose the marathon over the relay, but it doesn’t make watching them start their leg and fly by you any more fun.

The second challenge is around mile 6.25. The asphalt is gone and your running along an unpaved road. Most of the back roads in Alaska are like that. It’s not the normal cinders I was used to: it was large rocks, making it easy to lose your footing. For the first 11 miles, I held a sub-8 minute pace and felt surprisingly strong. Somewhere after that poing, I realized I wasn’t used to this type of surface and slowed down significantly. My ankles got tired quickly and I rolled them quite a few times. I was still on a high from my PR from the week before so I just relaxed and enjoyed the course. As we continued along the unpaved roads, I noticed some signs posted along the trees warning people not to go off the road and into the surrounding fields. There was unexploded ammunition in the areas surrounding the roads from World War II, so we were basically running through a mine field! I thought that was pretty cool.

At mile 13.5, the terrain changed again. The unpaved roads took you to a trail head that led you through the woods of bear country. It was only wide enough for runners to run single file, and it was also easy to lose your footing. Rocks, tree roots, and little steam crossings added to the challenge. It was the middle of the woods, and there was an older woman standing along the courses ringing a bear bell. I knew I was in bear country, but I was still a bit naive – until we happened upon some pretty fresh bear scat. I didn’t see any wildlife (at least, not in Anchorage) but I ran with a slightly different awareness from that point on. I met a woman after the race who finished about an hour and a half behind me, and she said she saw a moose around mile 13. I was a little disappointed that I didn’t get to see any wildlife during the race, but I was able to see lots of it in the week after the marathon.

Lets not forget another significant challenge that needs to be addressed: the state bird of Alaska. THE MOSQUITO. Not really the state bird, but it should be. Whether you go to run the race or visit the state, it’s probably your biggest threat. They barely even respond to bug sprays and laugh in the face of DEET. I didn’t use bug spray before the race because I figured I’d sweat it all off, but that was a dumb move. I should have at least put up a little fight, because I can’t even count the number of bug bites I came home with.

Around mile 17, we were back on paved roads and heading towards the city. Out of the woods and back on the pavement brought back the breathtaking views of the mountain ranges. A few miles on the roads and we hit the paved trails through the city. Anchorage has paved foot paths for runners and bikers go on for miles. The trails wind through the entire city and pass though parks, under the main roads, and remain virtually unseen to the people on the streets of Anchorage. The trails end near the water, and it’s up a steep hill through some residential neighborhoods to the finish line at Delaney Park.

The course was extremely challenging, but absolutely enjoyable. My only complaint about the course was at it never went through the streets of downtown Anchorage, only on the pedestrian trails. I only spent a few days in the city, but the downtown area is really interesting. 5th and 6th street, where it crosses with G and H streets has a lot of character. Since we stayed on 6th and G, we were in the center of it all and had the chance to experience downtown Anchorage.

Post Race Party

It was difficult to sprint to the finish because it finished on the grass in Delaney Park. My legs were finally tired from the previous week’s PR, sightseeing, and the varied terrain so I met my ultimate goal, which was to finish the race in under four hours. I ran it in 3:54. I didn’t have any time expectations for this race, but when I’m not racing, injured or pacing someone I try to break four hours. Each race is special to me regardless of time, especially when it means I could cross a state off of my list.

As I approached the finish line, I had tears in my eyes. I feel like finishing a race in Alaska was a monumental step towards achieving my goal. I often worried that I’d knock the lower 48 states off my list but never have the opportunity to make it to Hawaii or Alaska. As a teacher, I can’t really visit those states in the winter. If I’m traveling that far, I want to spend time there before and after the race, which is not really an option during the school year. I realize I’m not even halfway towards my goal, but I’ve already knocked off one of the more difficult states to travel to. It wasn’t even just the fact that I made it to Alaska that overwhelmed me with emotion. It was everything that led me up to that point. Every race and state checked off my list before this one. The spring marathon season replayed through my mind. Being part of the 2013 Boston Marathon tragedy, and being told I couldn’t run any of these marathons because of a “stress fracture”. Driving practically to Philadelphia to run on an anti-gravity treadmill, and slowly easing back into running at the Shires of Vermont marathon. It was all to get me to this moment, and I’m so thankful that I could still participate and finish with a smile on my face.

For a small town race, the medals were pretty sweet. Its a large silver medallion, and the front has the logo for the marathon, and the back has a map of the state of Alaska on it. The half marathoners have the same medal but smaller, with a copper finish and “half marathon” engraved on the medal. The shirts were equally as cool. Full marathoners got long sleeved tech tees in a burnt orange color, and half marathoners got blue short sleeved tech tees. I actually really like getting my shirt at the end of the race. Some people don’t like that, but I think it adds to the excitement and thrill of finishing a marathon.

Retrieving gear bags was simple and well organized. Once I found my stuff, I headed to the food tent. The usual selection was available- fruit, breads, and electrolyte replenishment drinks. Alaska is home to lots of great breweries, so Midnight Sun Brewing Company was the one that supported the race. If you ran the race and were of age, you got a free beer. I’m fairly certain that there was a band, but we were ready for some solid food and a shower so we didn’t hang around much longer. It was sunny and beautiful, and a great day to be a runner.

There’s so much more to say about Alaska. I could go on about the hours spent on the ocean kayaking, and miles of trails we hiked, the wildlife, and running in Denali. I could talk about the food, the breweries, and whitewater rafting through canyons. It was an incredible experience, and an incredible marathon.

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