On Chasing Pointless Dreams

It’s 5:00 am, Sunday morning. There’s a pinkish tinge in the sky, light enough that my headlamp isn’t doing much, but not light enough to distinguish the small variations in vegetation that differentiate trail from not-trail at tree-line. I’m standing on a steep hillside, feet wedged into muddy gaps between the roots of knee-high grass bushes of some sort, where the map says there’s a track. I’m sobbing without any actual tears, and yelling loudly. At no one in particular, since I figure the guy ahead of me is a mile or so gone by now and hope the one behind isn’t any closer. I’m so blinded by frustration that I don’t make the simple decision to backtrack 100m to the hut I just passed and look again for the trail. Instead, I just keep stumbling and swearing my way through the bushes towards the ridgeline, where I can see the pole line I’m meant to pick up at the top. Each time I check the map, I notice that I’ve advanced very slowly towards Pole 333, while time, specifically the time I felt I needed to be at Pole 333 in order to have a shot at the course record, is advancing quite rapidly against me.

I eventually reach the pole line, take in the bright pink sky and note that it really is truly magnificent, but I don’t currently have time or energy for magnificence. My every thought is focused on the ground in front of me. I want to run, my legs want to run, but on the other side of the disappearing night, I had bolted down a steep and rocky ridgeline to outrun a thunderstorm and rolled my ankle in the process. (Note: I had actually sprained it, but I’ve never sprained an ankle before, so I didn’t know this at the time) So each step has to be carefully planned- planting it perfectly flat is okay, but there’s not too much perfectly flat ground to be found. Mostly it’s rocks, either loose or deeply embedded, waiting to snag toes. The toe-snaggers hurt worst of all. So I pick my way across, in fits of jogging and walking, moving up an agonizingly long but gentle climb. I crest a ridge and see the green tent marking the penultimate aid station in the distance, and it’s 5:45. I’d wanted to be there at 5:15 am.

I think about the 25 hours and 89 miles behind me. I think about the months of Keira repeats and physio and foam rolling and planning. And I decide I probably won’t make it to the finish in time to beat the course record. I also decide I owe it to myself, and to the 30 young girls who will ask about the race on Monday, to fight for it anyways, until the very minute I cross the line.

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The Course

Alpine Challenge is billed the “toughest 100-miler in Australia,” and with the exception of the newly-created piggybacking GSER100, I have to imagine it is. It was hard for me to imagine an Australian race matching up to the bigger elevations available in America, but I have to say, this course makes Cascade Crest look…. easy.

The course is essentially a large 60 km loop with two side loops (40km and 60km) attached. The main loop (and 60km race course) starts with a beautiful descent and steady climb in the first 25 km before rolling along in the high plains (read: open grasslands and ridgelines with views all around) for most of its remaining length.  The 100-mile course turns off after the first big climb to summit Mt. Bogong in a 40 km loop with two large climbs and two steep, technical descents. Then you get 20 km or so of theoretically-pleasant flat or rolling running, before taking off on the 2nd side loop, which is 60 km of soul-destroying descents and steady climbs. More than half of the elevation change for the whole course is in this loop, mostly packed into 50 brutal km. Then you finish with more rolling up and downs, tagging Mt. McKay before heading across alpine grassland (read: least stable surface ever) and down a ski run.

There’s 1 mile of pavement in the entire course, and maybe 15 miles of fire track (half of it is loose, uneven, rock-filled track of 4WD dreams, not smooth gravel like you might expect). The remaining single track is sometimes beautifully smooth, other times barely distinguishable from surrounding bush. The track had been mostly cleared of downed trees which would have made it significantly more unpleasant to run.

The Prep

I’ve been focused on this race since March. Originally, I wanted a Hardrock ticket for 2018 and 2019 lotteries, but then as I learned more about the race my goal evolved into testing myself against what looked to be a very hard course.

I changed a few things in my training for 2017 that I think served me well. They are both obvious.

First, I increased my weekly mileage by increasing the frequency and consistency of my running. I averaged 44 miles per week over the year (vs. 35 in 2016), and 68 MPW in the six weeks before taper. I was battling hamstring and glute issues most of the year, but I was able to manage them (although not fully resolve them) while still increasing mileage. Because of this, I did fewer long back-to-back sessions, which I was anxious about. In retrospect, it was smart not to unnecessarily fatigue my legs.

Second, I did interval work- tempos of 5-20 minutes once or twice a week. I wasn’t sure if this was working, but based on the cardiovascular strength I felt all day, I must have done something right.

I planned the race well. Initially, I thought 26 hours, since it’s the same elevation gain as Orcas, but I hadn’t actually looked at finishing times, and when I saw only a few guys had ever finished under 26 hours, I adjusted my expectations to 30 hours, maybe 28 hours on a great day. (Having done the course now, breaking 26 hours is totally do-able, and I think without an injury, I could have gotten close)

I broke the race into four arbitrary sections, based entirely on approach: (1) Start – Warby Corner 2, (2) Warby Corner 2 – Pole 333 1,   (3) Pole 333 1 – Pole 333 2  and (4) Pole 333 2- Finish. My plan was conserve energy in section 1, run in section 2, employ every bit of mental strength to stay positive in section 3, and just get it done in section 4. For the most part, this is exactly how the race played out.

The Race

My goals were A) finish the race and get the lottery qualifier, B) run under 30 hours, and C) place as well as possible.

Section 1- Start to Warby Corner 2 (64 km)

I started the day feeling relaxed and ready for a long day of suffering. I was worried about the tightness I’d been having in my hip flexor and lower back, and sure enough, I started to feel it at about mile 2. I stayed calm and positive, knowing I had the mental drive to finish no matter how long it took. I enjoyed the easy descent before settling into a cruise up the first climb chatting with a few others. I was surprised to be more than hour ahead of my predicted split at Warby Corner, but I was feeling great mentally, not taxing my heart at all, and enjoying the day, so I kept going. The descent to Big River was slow but John, the guy I’d come up to Warby with, caught up with me on the climb towards Mt. Bogong and we chatted and hiked up to the checkpoint. Summits in the Australian alps are never that exciting, and Mt. Bogong was beautiful but I wasn’t keen to hang around. We took off down the spur, picking our way across a rocky ridgeline. I was running with a few guys at this point, and it was all sunshine and smiles and chatter. I felt amazing- focused, excited, and strong. I was still sticking to my plan to not push anything, and settled in to an easy pace as we climbed back up towards Warby Corner. The final mile or so was an easy flattish fire trail run across the plains, and I jogged this most of the way. The clouds had burnt off by now, so I was feeling the heat and trying to regulate my pace accordingly.  

Section 2- Warby Corner 2 – Pole 333 1 (64- 85 km)

At Warby Corner for the second time (64 km), I refueled on chips and watermelon (trying to stay electrolyted) then took off on the high plains section. I had planned to run as much as possible between 64 and 88 km, given that it was mostly long flat stretches or gentle climbs. I stuck to this plan, and despite the blazing sun, kept moving forward at roughly 12-min miles. I reached Langford gap a few seconds behind another woman, whom I assumed to be the leader of the 100 miler. I quickly grabbed food and dry socks from my drop bag, as the heat combined with wet socks from river crossings was starting to stir up some gnarly blisters. I said thank to volunteers and took off just ahead of the other woman. We traded places a few times between Langford and Cleve Cole Hut, before I stopped for a few minutes to fix my blisters. (I never caught her name but realised after the race that it was Nicole Paton, the women’s 100km winner). 

I reached Pole 333 (85ish km) feeling a bit low- the heat of the day had sapped some of my earlier enthusiasm for the endlessly rolling high plains, and the uneven terrain of the pole line was getting frustrating. I headed down into the morbidly labelled  “Mortein Alley” – the 60 km section where “runners drop like flies”. I felt smug when I saw the sign, but I had no idea what was ahead.

Section 3- Pole 333 1 – Pole 333 2 (86 km – 145 km)

First, there was a brief descent to Cobungra Gap, then a steep climb up Swindler’s spur. I was extremely hot despite it nearing 6 pm, and realised I might have been falling behind on hydration after baking in the sun all day. I focused on climbing at a sustainable effort (something I’d deliberately practiced in training) and eating and drinking. I made it up to the Loch Car Park aid station (102 km)  just after 7:30 pm.  The volunteers were extremely kind and helpful, and I heard chatter of thunderstorm warnings (“with potentially damaging hail”) on the radio. I knew they would hold me at the aid station if they thought thunderstorms were coming, so I got out quickly before they could change their minds. I was in a rush, having realised how close I was to 26 hour pace and not wanting to waste any time, let alone get held at the aid station, eager to get going again. So, of course, in my haste I left the aid station without my poles and spare headlamp batteries. Luckily I hit a hill in a few hundred meters, turned back and only lost 5 minutes or so in the mistake. I was annoyed at myself, but I got on with it.   I took off towards the summit of Mt. Hotham, then descended to the road to pick up Bon Accord Spur.

I’d heard things about Bon Accord Spur. I’d heard it was hard. It drops 3800 feet in 3.7 miles, but a mile of that in the middle is a rolling plateau, so it really drops 3800 ft in 2.7 miles. In fact, the final mile and half loses 2100 feet. This is not easy running if there is a good trail for footing. If said trail is narrow, overgrown, and full of loose potato-sized rocks and sticks, it’s basically a death trap.  

But let’s start the top of the spur, which involves a small climb along a ridgeline before beginning the brutal descent. It was past sunset, 8:30, nearly dark, and it was moody. I could see rain all around, and was thankful there was none on me. Until there was rain on me 20 seconds later, and then it was hail, and as I scambled to get on my rain jacket, a crack of lightning off to the North. It was far enough away, but given how fast the rain moved, I didn’t want to wait around. Lightning struck again, this time to the West, and again, South. I reached the turn off for Bon Accord spur and could see the treeline a few hundred metres below. I ran, fast, recklessly, fueled entirely by visions of getting fried by a freak lightning strike. I was below the treeline in 5 minutes, and the worst of the storm passed quickly, but the adrenaline took a while to wear off. As soon as it did, I noticed that my ankle was really really sore. Any uneven step made me wince in pain, but cautious about developing a compensatory stride and hurting myself worse, I just focused on moving slowly. At the time, it was the toughest descent I’d ever encountered, although it would become the second toughest in a few hours. I reached the Washington Creek crossing 45 minutes later than expected, despite my burst of speed at the top. I was disheartened, upset, and only became more so when I realised the rest of the “downhill” to Harrietville started with a few hundred feet of climbing.

Eventually I reached Harrietville, where I initially confused a loud karaoke party for the aid station. Once I located the correct tent, I loaded up on water and prepared for a long climb. It was 10:45 and I hoped I could make the 12 km, 4400′ ascent to the top of Mt. Feathertop in 3 hours. I set off, helped to the trail head by a random guy decked out in fluro and pink who was just out being moral support for runners. Seeing as I’d been alone for 6 hours or so, and would be for the rest of the night, it was great to have the tiny extra bit of human interaction.

I climbed in the dark, putting on music for the first time. I tried to stay positive, but noticed my hiking pace was slowing, particularly on anything uneven. I hit a low on my way to Federation Hut, when 100 m felt more like 1000 m and I was whiny BEFORE making the final steep 1km ascent of to Mt. Feathertop. To my surprise, I’d caught up to Viv and his pacer at the start of the grunt but they quickly outpaced me, and I didn’t see them again until after sunrise.

It was blow-you-sideways windy, 1:30 in the morning, and I was scared of more thunderstorms blowing in, as the trail angel from before said there were a few around. I hit my second worst low of the entire race- I was uncomfortable, scared, and tired.

There was no view as a reward, no tag to grab or bib to punch- nothing for your efforts except knowing you’d done the right thing. I headed back down, alternating between trying to run and being forced to walk by pain in my ankle. It took me almost as long to descend Feathertop as it had to ascend it.  I started to worry about Diamantina Spur, which drops 2300 ft in 1.8 miles (not counting the 6 or so small rises and falls along the way).

I soon reached a signed turn off to the river, only 3.5 km away. What followed was almost an hour and a half of cursing, bumbling, and slowly, slowly inching my way down a “trail.” My ankle was, obviously, in pain, but I’d lost a fair bit of my sense of balance as well, and just staying upright took 100% focus. I was so grateful to have poles for this section, and don’t think I would have been able to get down in one piece without them.

I finally reached the river, and set out on a nice section of logging road towards Blair’s hut. I relied a little too heavily on the Avenza map and let myself pass the very obviously signed turn off, wasting about 10 minutes and an extra km or so in the process. When I finally crossed the river, I struggled but eventually picked up the correct trail. One last climb to go.

I had focused a lot of concern in my planning on the Feathertop ascent, and ignored this final long climb, which at 750 m or so, wasn’t small. It also seemed to be the steepest of all the climbs. After climbing for much longer than anticipated, I reached Weston’s Hut, so close to the top of the climb, and soon after found myself entirely off trail and sobbing in frustration.

I knew there was meant to be trail, but I was too tired to find it, too tired to make a better decision, and so I just bashed my way to the poles. It wasn’t smart, it wasn’t efficient, but I did get there. I reached Pole 333 (91 miles) at 5:55, more than half an hour after I’d anticipated getting there. The preceding 16 miles had taken me almost 7 hours- the slowest I’ve ever moved in a race. I thought there was essentially no chance of getting the final 9 miles done in just 2 hours given how I felt, but I committed to running as much as I possibly could.

Section 4- Pole 333 2 – Finish (145 – 160 km)

I took off along a pole line, shuffling, and eventually reached a fire road, along with a few hundred foot climb I was not expecting. I tried not to think about how the unanticipated climb would affect my pacing, and alternated jogging and walking until I reached the top. A long, and painful descent to Pretty Valley Pondage followed. The aid station volunteers let me know that I had plenty of dirt road ahead (yay! But also, only half true!) and that the final peak, Mt. McKay, was not quite as far away as it looked. I quickly grabbed some blueberries, water, and set out up a gently sloping road, just ahead of Viv, who was in a low point. I felt great climbing Mt. McKay- the smooth dirt road meant no serious ankle pain, and the gradient was soft enough to run most of it. I reached the top in 45 minutes, giving me 45 minutes to make it back down from the peak and to the base of the ski lifts.

The initial descent on the dirt road felt great, but then, cruelly, we were sent across “the desert” which was just a pole line with no beaten track. The clumped grass underfoot was wildly uneven and as much as I wanted to and needed to run, my body wouldn’t let me. I hobbled across, assuming Viv would fly past me at any minute. After a km of torture, the pole line finally let out on a dirt access road. 3 km to go, 23 minutes to make it before 8 am. The dirt road went quickly, and the final descent towards the finish, on a ski run called Last Hoot, was steep, grassy, and not nearly as fun as it might have been uninjured. Running hurt, but walking was not an option.

I rounded the corner to see the finish chute, and I was greeted by Justin, a few volunteeers, and Viv’s crew. It was an unceremonious finish, but I was overjoyed. The clock read 7:58. I’d managed to do the last 15 km in 2 hours, despite the climbs and shitty surfaces. It was good enough for 15 minutes under the course record. I did a little victory whoop, and then went to sit down. In that moment, I was more proud than I’ve ever been in my life. It was, in the scheme of things, a pointless thing I’d accomplished. But the value of these silly goals is not the achievement of them; it’s the experience of chasing them: finding things within yourself you didn’t know existed, and feeling the satisfaction of giving your absolute best effort to something you love. 

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Crusing along the high plains early in the afternoon.

The Aftermath

Despite running on it for 50 km and walking around a bit on Sunday, by Monday there was no doubt that I’d sprained my ankle. A quick trip to the doctor and an xray confirmed a sprain but luckily no stress fracture. A week later, it’s still tender at the joint but the mobility is coming back and I can get out for walks.

The post-event depression stayed away for a few days, but now with the inability to run and the lack of success in the Hardrock lottery, it’s starting to hit hard.

The Takeways

Experience is so beneficial in 100s. Knowing what to expect mentally helped me move more quickly out of low points.

Smart volume makes a difference. My legs and lungs felt strong even at 90 miles, despite shorter long runs in training. I don’t know anything else that this could be other than higher mileage overall.

Eating is key. Anytime I felt crappy, if I ate, I was better in 20 minutes.

It isn’t over until it’s over. Finding that final bit of strength and courage to battle for something I really wanted made me so proud.

The Gear

Ultimate Direction AdventureVesta (the best pack ever)

Outdoor Research Helium II jacket

Black Diamond Z Poles

Salomon SpeedCross 4

Trusty Red RaceReady shorts

Team 7 Hills Pearl Izumi singlet

Black Diamond Polar Ion headlamp

Ultimate Direction cap

Stance socks

Smartwool PhD hiking socks

Nutrition

This is what I remember eating. I averaged 150 cal/hr most of the day, maybe a bit less at night. No stomach issues all day.

5 Stroopwafels

80 Natural Confectionary Dinosaurs

3x ziplocs Potato Chips

5x Salted Caramel GU

1x Snickers bar

2x Granola bars

Watermelon

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Eulogy for Lucy

We woke up the Saturday before Christmas at 6:00 AM to windows layered in frost and an inch of fresh snow on the ground. The wind and rain that made Friday so nasty were gone, replaced by bitter cold and a tease of sunshine. We drove the 7 miles or so from our campspot on the FS road outside of Tusayan up to Grand Canyon Village, where we parked at the Bright Angel Trailhead to cook some breakfast before setting out to run down to the river and back up. It was just past 8 AM, probably 15F outside, so we crawled in the front seats to treat ourselves to a little car heater action while we finished our coffees. Justin cranked up Lucy, turned on the heaters, and about 20 seconds later, the engine shut off.

For 2 hours we (mostly Justin, honestly) tried to get the motor to turn over again. We hoped at least that we could get her started one more time and then drive to a mechanics to find out the real issue and get a fix, saving ourselves a tow. Eventually, we bit the bullet and called a shop in Flagstaff that came with a decent recommendation from the mechanic at the Grand Canyon. They were happy to tow us for $250, which considering it was a 4-hr round trip drive, seemed like a decent deal. We had a few hours until the truck showed up, so we were able to sneak in a quick run down into the canyon a mile or two and back up. It was hard to think about running or anything else except getting the car in shape, and I was in a pretty bad mental state coming back up.

Our tow truck driver Alfred was a friendly local guy, and the 80 miles back to Flagstaff passed pretty quickly as we chatted about cars, politics, airplanes, and traveling. He dropped us at the shop and wished us luck. Within a few minutes of starting the diagnostics, the mechanic came back with some bad news: one of the bearings in the timing belt pulley had seized, shredding the pulley and the belt in the process. It’d be an expensive fix to replace the whole timing assembly, but we had no choice. He mentioned that there was a small chance that the ruptured belt might have slapped the engine valves and damaged them, but he hadn’t seen it all that often on Subarus, especially if it broke at low speed, so he didn’t think we should be too concerned.

Except, the valves were damaged, and to replace them required taking out the whole engine block, several days worth of labor and a couple thousand bucks as well. There’s no way to know that until the timing assembly is repaired, so we still had to pay for that, only to find out that Lucy was drivable, but with imminent engine failure. I lost it in the lobby of the auto shop when they told us. Lucky for me, Justin kept it together and settled up with the mechanics so we could get somewhere and figure out our next steps.

We could have taken a risk, kept pushing on east with only 3 cylinders, but she was rough to start and we knew there was a 50/50 chance we’d end up stuck out in the middle of nowhere, needing another tow, and probably 200 miles from a rental facility.

Later that night, as we were sorting out a plan over beers , Justin compared it to having to decide to put down your pet. She’s still alive, but old and sick, and it’s just not practical financially to keep her going. It’d be easier if she just kicked it, wouldn’t start, wouldn’t move, and we had no choice about it. Instead, we had to drive her around a few more times, pull everything out of the back, and leave her behind in the de facto junkyard at the shop. Our plan right now is to drive a rental back to SC, buy a used car there, then swing back through Flagstaff and get the rest of our stuff (including our new-ish roof box) on our way back to Seattle. Driving across the country in Lucy felt like an adventure- not always seamless or Type 1 Fun, but still an adventure. And maybe it’s just our current level of sadness, but driving across the country in a rented sedan feels like a level of hell.

It’s been tough emotionally, which is only compounded by the expenses we definitely weren’t expecting. Money is only money, and there are much bigger problems in the world, but when you work hard and save and make sacrifices, it almost physically hurts to lose it unexpectedly.

There will certainly be more challenging times in our lives together as a couple, but losing Lucy feels like the end of the season of adventure we’ve been living. Her demise snaps us back to the reality of our situation: for all the fun we’re having, we’re not employed, money isn’t endless, and you have very little control over most of the plans you make. We will get another car, and have plenty of adventures in it (and hopefully fewer headaches), but Lucy will always be special. She’s the first car we’ve owned together, our first shared project, and the place we’ve made a lot of memories in. We’ve put a lot of love and energy and miles into her, and always assumed she’d kick along until our adventures this winter were done.  We left her parked facing the mountains.

 

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Mammoth Lakes, Lucy’s favorite place
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Summer gear + 2 music student passengers = cozy
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Proud of the platform!
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Lucy handling the crazy roads of the Lost Coast
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When we almost risked Lucy’s life by accidentally camping in a homeless encampment
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Starting our big summer journey crossing the Columbia
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Test drive before the summer madness began
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Alicia’s inspirational trip to Copper Ridge
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Thanks for keeping us safe at night Lucy!
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1st time we slept in Lucy was before this hike up to Goat Lake, July 4th 2013

Lombok: exhaustion and gratitude

Lombok is fascinating but we are simply worn out. Its been a wonderful but long 4 months since we moved out of our apartment. With 10 days left in SE Asia , we found ourselves struggling to finish up on a positive note, mentally and physically wiped. We’d seen small villages. We’d explored on scooters. We’d stayed in tiny shacks and fancy resorts and everything in between. We snorkeled with sea turtles, went to yoga classes, trekked the rice paddies. We were done, except we were not.

A trip around Lombok by scooter let us move at our own pace and find quiet and friendly places where we could reconnect with why we travel. We were tired of the hustle and the lack of schedule, but we pushed forward, scaled back, and found some peace. Now with only 5 days left in our Southeast Asian adventure, our taste for adventure is sated and we’re winding down our trip with some familiar territory and lots of coffee.

The beginning of the travel weariness started for Justin in Malaysia, 3 months after we’d moved out of our place in Seattle. He’s been cycling in and out of it ever since, trying to live in the moment but also yearning for some stability again.  For me, it kicked in with the discovery of bed bugs in our very upscale villa on Gili Air. The horrified owners did everything possible at 10 pm to get the room as clean as they could, but thé bugs were still there and I still got bit and I still couldn’t sleep just thinking about it. I don’t fault them at all, and they were so helpful and apologetic and freaked out, but getting dozens of bites in a very expensive room was the final straw of travel frustration.

We have often found ourselves stuck between traveling comfortably and traveling in a way that feels more authentic. On the nicer parts of the tourist track (Nusa Lembongan, the Gilis), you might as well be in Hawaii for the lack of local life. But when you travel away from places built to cater to tourists, you get swamped with locals, because you stand out as a tourist, and you are immediately a target. Hello Sir! Where are you going? Hello Miss! Money please! We start slipping back into the assumption we work so hard against that no one wants to have a genuine conversation with us. But often it seems there’s always an angle, and that angle is money. Justin put it well- it’s tiring to play the role of tourist for 7 weeks. 7 weeks of (mostly) surface level interactions. 7 weeks of bargaining, avoiding, budgeting, saying no no no no no without feeling like an asshole.

Its hard to feel that you’re constantly disappointing people. We know it’s a poor country. We totally understand people are only trying to make a living. But we can’t buy everything, and we don’t want to, and it’s almost impossible to escape the assault. Even sitting down to dinner in a warung (for authentic local food) opens you up to hawkers of all sorts.

There is so much good to be found, however, if you steel yourself for some minor inconvenience.  We think of ourselves as the type of people who can handle (and even enjoy) the less glamorous side of travel. We like the slow boats, we like talking to people, we like, no, love learning about local life. But the fact remains that we are a job to most of the people we meet. A guaranteed or potential source of income. We still strive to connect as humans. It brusises the ego when we aren’t acknowledged as more than a wallet, but it is because of our privilege that we even get to consider how we relate to others- our actions as travelers are entirely geared towards enjoyment and not about our economic well-being. We are lucky, very very lucky.

There are also, of course, people and moments that make every bit of discomfort totally worth experiencing. Our stay in Lombok taught us that it is totally possible to be tourists and still connect genuinely with local people.

We rented a scooter and left our bags at our homestay near Mataram. We rode to Tetebatu and checked into our homestay, where we were treated to lunch and coffee and plenty of friendly conversation. We wandered around the tiny village in the afternoon, declining tour offers and waving hello to school kids. We ate dinner early at a warung but arrived home to find ourselves invited to dinner on the porch with the family and other guests. We politely declined, as we were full, went to sleep, and woke up to sunshine and roosters and mosques and family chatter. We organized a tour over breakfast, then spent the morning exploring villages and markets and forests with our guide, before retreating from the rain to share a home-cooked meal on the floor of his house. Hours passed as we drank coffee, snacked, and chatted. The afternoon was much the same once we walked back to the homestay, flowing into a simple dinner and then into drinks, and back into coffee again. We talked music and politics and local life. We went to bed late, warm and well-fed and happy.

The next morning we visited the local school. I was so immensely humbled by the welcome we received  (excited kids and gracious teachers), and just being in the classroom made me excited to get back to teaching as soon as we settle. I can only hope we left a positive impression, because the visit certainly made a big impact on us.

After one last coffee, we headed down to Kuta Lombok, where we expected hassle and dingy tourist facilities. We got both, but we also got a welcoming hostess who insisted on making us food, a clean room and good shower, and cheap tasty warungs. Luckily for me, there was also a clinic nearby, as the bed bug bites from Gili Air kept coming up and developed into a full blown allergic reaction. After 2 days of unbearable itchiness, a benadryl injection and some prescription strength antihistamines finally got it under control. It wasn’t a pleasant experience, but I was so grateful we had travel insurance so the decision to get treated was easy to make.

Our second day in Kuta was meant to be all about the beach, but it rained most of the day, so we relaxed and read instead. We did make it out for some afternoon beach time, and found the surrounding  beaches beautiful, rugged, and surprisingly empty, save a few hawker families and a handful of tourists. Note to future travelers: Kuta beach itself is not great, but worth a walk if you’d like a little more local flavor- beach boys, kids, dogs, and picnicking families abound. The beaches East and west are much nicer.

Segar beach

Mawun beach

We’re slowly winding down now, we’ve made it back to Sengiggi/Mataram and are mostly spending the days drinking coffee, reading, and trying to fix our MacBook (such a fun way to spend 10+ hours and counting). It’s a good time to reflect on the things we’ve learned on this trip so far and to absorb a little deeper the experiences we’ve had. There’s a lot to process, but amidst our exhaustion there is an immense amount of gratitude to the people we’ve met and places we’ve seen. We may be done with Indonesia for now, but we have so much more to learn from this country, and can’t wait to make it back again.

Slow boat!

Getting Out of Bali

Bali. The word alone conjures images of palm-fringed tropical beaches, poolside lazing, and dense jungles permeated with the sound of “Om.” It’s the Caribbean/Mexican getaway equivalent for Australians, a cheap short flight to cheap tropical bliss. *For the unaware, Bali is an island in the Indonesian archipelago, not it’s own country. On Instagram, it’s the vacation spot you’ve always dreamed of: 5-star luxury at 2-star prices. And for Justin and I, it was the focal point of our SE Asia trip, because it was here we were meeting up with our friend Katherine (Spee) from Seattle. For almost a year, “BALI!” had been the rallying cry when the 3 of us were struggling to get through a late night at the pub. We’d dreamed a lot, planned little, and were excited to explore a new place together.

We knew that there were a lot of hustlers and touts in Kuta, the town you fly into, and that the overdeveloped strip running from Kuta to Seminyak was the equivalent of Myrtle Beach, SC. So we planned to stay here for just one night before heading north to Ubud, a land of lush rice paddies and yoga retreats (we’d heard). To be fair, the tone for the start of our visit was set by our journey from the airport to our homestay.  Spee had arranged for the driver she used the day before for a tour to pick us up at the airport. We said SURE! When we arrived, we had a text that quoted $10, which we knew was too much, especially when we looked up the location of our homestay and it was less than a mile from the airport. But by the time we saw his price, he had already been at the airport waiting for us for an hour. So we went with it. It took 20 minutes to get out of the parking garage (at this point we would have already walked to our homestay), and then he proceeded to drive the wrong direction while telling us about how much people usually tipped him and tried to get us to commit to a ride later in the evening to go eat chicken or something silly like that. To finish the ride, when Justin accidentally gave him 220,000 instead of 130,000 (the 10,000 and 100,000 is easy to confuse), he didn’t comment or offer change, just took the money and ran. Needless to say, we didn’t use his services the next day.

But we were at a homestay which was beyond peaceful and beautiful, a traditional family compound with a few luxury hotel rooms built inside, complete with a swimming pool, temples, and a delicious breakfast. We relaxed a little. There was air conditioning, a good shower, and a comfortable bed.

After a joyous reunion with our beloved Spee, we went for a walk to find some lunch. Without a map to guide us, we wandered where we knew, the overcrowded strip the driver had mistakenly gone down earlier in the day. It was impossible to go more than 20 feet without being a) honked at by a taxi, b) grabbed at for a massage, or c) having to dodge a large sweaty sunburnt Australian. Nevertheless, we found a nice meal at a fancier coffeeshop and then retreated to the peace of our homestay pool.

The next day we headed to Ubud, and despite an easier transport situation, we were less than impressed with the deluxe family bungalow we’d rented for the 3 of us. It lacked air conditioning, and they were building a new unit right next to the pool, so the soundtrack of peaceful frogs and birds was interrupted most of the day by hammers and powertools. There were monkeys though- an endless source of amusement and mild danger- they would snatch any food you brought outside of the eating area, no negotiations allowed.

This was how all of the Bali we saw was: mostly a sensory overload, with some really wonderful moments sprinkled throughout. I recognize how ridiculous it is to complain about the tourism industry as a tourist. But it was hard to feel relaxed at any time, as you were constantly hassled with offers for transport and massage. The few moments of peace to be found, I feel guilty to report, were mostly in decidedly upscale Western places, like the yoga studio with $10 classes (they were really good!), or the restaurants charging $8+ for a main (also, really really good!). And the process of getting somewhere calming (walking down crowded roads, negotiating taxi fares, etc) was so stress-inducing that it almost made it not worth the effort.

We spent most of our time on Bali proper in Ubud. I’m not sure how I feel about Ubud- it was a paradise on the one hand, but one that imported so much of what made it great that it felt completely inauthentic. There were plenty of artisans around the area, and some genuine and beautiful artwork. But the combination of tourist shit and yoga retreats and upscale art shops resulted in an overall feeling (and a look) that this was a place where white girls go to “find themselves” by doing exactly what they do at home: go to yoga, drink overpriced cocktails and espresso, do macro/vegan/raw diets, and shop. The place was flooded with hundreds of girls that looked just like me, people trying to sell you stuff, and rich older white folks. It was, to say the least, not what we came to Indonesia for.

We hoped Nusa Lembongan would be better. The island lies 15 km or so off the coast of Bali and has a reputation as the new tourism hot spot. We booked a nice place (way above our budget), mostly because I felt guilty about the place we stayed in Ubud. Our plan was to have beach time, sun time, and relax without the pressure of taxis or tours or massages. Our resort was one of those perfect places that really lives up to the photos. We were pleased, and soaked ourselves in the luxury. We’d eat a nice breakfast looking at the water, then ride scooters around the backroads and beaches before returning in the afternoon to sunbathe and read and get ready for dinner. There wasn’t much to do on the island except swim and read and eat (although I was able to get in some good runs!) so after a few days and the necessary snorkeling trip, we were done there as well. Also, we’d pretty much spent through our splurge money and were ready to get back to the cheaper way we’d been traveling all along.

We literally had to look back on Bali, from the shoreline of Nusa Penida, to see what we  missed about the island. While all we saw when we were there was endless towns and scooters and traffic, when we looked from afar there were huge peaks and jagged coastlines, all cloaked with green jungle. We knew there were trekking opportunities, but Spee and Justin were both keen for beach time, and we were all so tired of being hassled to take tours that organizing a trekking tour (the only way to do it) seemed like a terrible idea. This was almost definitely a mistake, we realized while staring at the towering summit of Mt Agung from the shores of Lembongan. We were too caught up in how much we didn’t like the typical Bali tourist trail to seek out the places that might appeal more to our tastes. We aren’t tourist trail people, and our big mistake in our Bali trip was trying to pretend like we were. Fortunately for us, with roundtrip flights only $400, we’ll have plenty of opportunities to come back and find something to love.

 

Nusa Penida, or Home

When traveling, especially for long periods of time, I think the goal, even if it goes unspoken, is to find a place that makes you feel more like yourself. A place that allows you to drop the habits and expectations of your everyday life and blossom into a version of yourself that feels complete and natural. A “home away from home” as these places are often called, speaks to your values and strips away the unnecessary to give you opportunities to seek happiness/fulfillment/relaxation/whatever you need.

Fortunately for those of us who value and seek calmness, there’s not a recipe for a dream spot that will appeal to everyone. While I’d heard wonderful things about Ubud, and found it to be charming in some ways, it was a place I’d like to visit again for a few weeks, not uproot and move to. Similarly, Singapore was amazing and rich and so darn comfortable, and I could even see us happily living there for a year, but I wouldn’t call it a place that feels like me. Too much city, too little nature.

Before coming to Nusa Penida, we’d heard that it was a place where you’d probably get lost (guidebook) and a place that was mostly uninhabited (Balinese). There were approximately 3 paragraphs in our guidebook about the entire island, and 17 accommodation options listed on Booking.com. While I was immediately enticed, I also worried that the lack of facilities meant we’d be struggling to find the basics for survival. Looking back, it almost seems silly. We took a small fishing boat over from the busy but small island of Nusa Lembongan, where we’d been blowing our hard earned money on a fancy micro-resort (max capacity of 8 people) with a clifftop infinity pool in which to watch the ocean all day long. A quick ride later, we were on the shore at Toyapakeh, one of 2 towns on the island. As we drove to our bungalows, the driver pointed out some decent restaurants and gave us a bit more background on the island. Apparently, barely populated means 35,000 people. The beach is lined with shanties, shacks, and detritus from decades of seaweed farming along the coast. There are cows and pigs everywhere, tied with thin blue lines to palm trees, happily munching away on the nearby vegetation. Chickens run everywhere, as do dogs, cats, and the occasional goat and duck.

Spee holding onto the seaweed collecting baskets on our boat ride

We checked into our bungalow ($28/night for 3 with AC), rented scooters, snorkel gear, and set off to explore. We ate at the warung (cafe) across the street, where the owner’s little boy dumped out his whole bucket of toys on our table, then proceeded to “cook” us a really nice plate of mie goreng, before we got the real stuff from his dad. We bought fuel from the same family, then headed for the often-Instagrammed Angel’s Billabong (sad to report it is mainly just a large but glorified rock pool- the adjacent Broken Beach was WAY cooler). We knew the road was rough, but we had no idea what was in store. Had we checked the maps before leaving, we would have known to counter-intuitively head inland first, but we naively decided to stick to the coast and after a few kms of fresh pavement, ended up on a “road” that’s really a 4WD track. It reminded us of the drive out to Mattole Beach on the California coast- constant ups, downs, and hairpins, all at angles that seem illogical. It took over an hour to go about 20 km.

This is the good road!
Just two explorers, watching the manta rays swim below

At one point we got stuck on a steep hill that was an obnoxious mix of loose gravel and big chunks of pavement laid down probably 20 years ago. We had just passed some children walking home from school, who ran up behind us and eagerly pushed us up the hill as they showed off all the English they knew (Hello! How are you? What is your name?) before waving us goodbye. A few minutes later, we stopped to check the status of our tires, and a father and son from a nearby home came out to help us, adjusting a few things here and there before sending us safely on our way. On the way back, the same family insisted that we come take shelter from a monsoon shower in their garage. Everyone we passed smiled and waved, yelled “Hello!!” or was otherwise extremely warm and friendly. We finally reached the beach, and it was all crystal blue water, stunning limestone cliffs, and rolling farmland- so similar to the coasts near Kiama and in California that it almost felt like home.

Driving back, we were caught in a heavy monsoon shower, but the elation from our adventure kept us from getting too down about it. Plus, the laughs of all the locals as our parade of soaking wet foreigners passed by helped to lift our moods and let us laugh at ourselves a little bit as well. After stopping by for a snack at the same little hut we’d had lunch at, we unpacked and did some research on the island. Later on, we found dinner at a beachfront warung, where we played with a kitten, joked with the owner, and then headed home for a few rounds of cards and a beer on the front porch of our bungalows.  Apart from the noise of the geckos (no, really, they are LOUD) and the ubiquitous roosters, we slept soundly and woke up to a charmingly sunny morning. There’s a little English/Indonesian coffee shop and gallery situated right in front of our bungalows and we headed there for a decidedly Western breakfast and a big cup of Bali coffee.

I could continue on with the various adventures to be had: snorkeling off the beach, scrambling down cliffsides to fresh springs along the ocean, exploring cave temples, driving the stunning coastal roads, eating at all the local warungs and restaurants, chatting with the multitude of friendly school kids, but I think I’ve given enough examples to make a point. After one month of traveling (exactly one month, as if it was scripted for a movie), we’ve found a place that feels genuinely warm, offers ample adventures, and happens to be affordable as well. So we’re staying. Not forever, just a week, but long enough to absorb a little more of this place, see the hills and hidden beaches, read some books, learn some Bahasa Indonesian, and focus on what makes us feel complete: the right balance between adventure and relaxation, good food and good conversations, meeting and learning from new people.

Malaysia : Balance and Contrast

The advantage (and disadvantage) of stepping out of familiarity into an adventure is the almost certain exposure to the extremes. You will experience physical and emotional discomfort, but also absolute bliss. Physical sensations are heightened, meaning you notice more and feel more whether you want to or not. In Malaysia, we found that the richness of the place was in the contrast between pleasure and suffering, and more so the balance between the two. There were some things we disliked about the country, but the things we loved were amplified as a result.

We arrived in Penang, Malaysia after a flight from Krabi. Its also completely possible to connect over land, but it entails 12ish hours of buses and taxis and for about $20/pp more you can take a one hour flight. Being averse to wasting time, and having some surplus in our budget, we went with the flight. We picked up a car in Penang for the week- we knew there were a lot of things we wanted to see that required driving, and we didn’t want to rely on taxis or organized tour groups.

In the end, I’d second guess renting a car again, especially for our itinerary. While it was helpful in seeing a few sights, especially in Penang and Ipoh, there was also the added stress of driving in a country with road conduct vastly different from the western world. People passed on blind corners of curvy mountain roads, tour buses crammed their way down narrow 2-way streets, and pedestrians, lacking sidewalks, took to the edges of the lanes. Justin drove the whole time, and while I knew I couldn’t have done nearly as well as he did, my anxiety as a passenger turned me into the backseat-driver-from-hell. That being said, having autonomy over plans, and avoiding crowded transport and taxi scams for a week was pretty nice.

Back to Penang. We stayed in a hostel, which after several days of luxury lodging on the beach was a bit of a shock, but gave us an opportunity to be a bit more social. And the location, right at the junction of Little India and Chinatown, in the heart of the historic district (and backpacker ghetto) meant plenty of opportunities for sightseeing and cheap food within walking distance. I’ll write an entire post about the food in Malaysia, but for now, I’ll just say that it’s mindblowing good.

We spent most of our 3 days in Penang exploring Georgetown and seeking out new foods to eat. We loved the city for its size and the diverse mix of cultures. A little history lesson: Penang was one of the British Straits settlements and this early trading establishment brought along many Chinese and South Indian workers and merchants, along with a lot of money. So there are grand colonial buildings mixed with gardens and Chinese shop houses. But more impressive than the architectural mix of cultures is the religious harmony that results from a long history of sharing the same small island. A block away from where we stayed, there was a mosque, a Hindu temple, several Buddhist temples, and a Methodist church, all lying over a short stretch of the same street. The tourist billboards termed it something hokey like Axis of Harmony, but the sense of tolerance and peaceful coexistence was legitimate, and refreshing amidst all of the hateful discourse we’re hearing from the Australian and US political fringes. It wasn’t just buildings sitting peaceful next to one another; shopping malls and hawker centers alike were packed with people of varied races and religions, going about their daily lives in, for lack of a better word, harmony.

We met a pair of guys from Penang and KL out at a bar one night, and asked if the vibrant multiculturalism we saw in Penang actually worked as well as it seemed. They said, well, it depends on where you are. In the cities, it works, and the constant influx of Western tourism and businesses helps keep it that way. In the rest of the country, Malay cultures and Islam are dominant and there’s more racism (against South Indians in particular.) We didn’t notice the racism when we traveled into Ipoh and the Cameron Highlands (although we’re white, so why would we?), but there was certainly a larger Muslim influence, and I felt more comfortable adhering to the conservative customs of the area and wearing pants and sleeves around town.

After a few days in Penang, we drove away from the coast for the first time and headed to the Inland city of Ipoh. The attraction was rumors of cooler weather and jungle scenery, plus a less – traveled city and more amazing food. Some of these things were true- we visited some amazing cave temples set into vast limestone cliffs, and the more open landscape led to some cooler breezes. But the city itself was unremarkable – the food and architecture paled in comparison to the same attractions in Penang. The brand new apartment we were so keen for turned out to be basically a Bluth  home (for non-AD fans- absolute lowest end cheap) without very basic things found in a cheap hotel, like a kettle or cups or shades on some windows. We got out as soon as possible (which was 2 nights of awful sleep with alarms, power outages, and loud neighbors), and didn’t even get back our deposit as the manager was nowhere to be found at checkout.

We headed further inland, to the Cameron Highlands, where, we had been assured by Lonely Planet and Trip Advisor and various travel bloggers, gorgeous mountains, cool nights, hiking, and small towns awaited us. I’ve been trying to come up with a good analogy for what our arrival was like. For you Seattle folks… imagine you’re told you’re going to visit Mt. Rainier, and you actually  end up in  Rainier Beach.  For Australians, imagine you think you’re going to the Blue Mountains, and you actually end up in the busiest strip mall in the Western suburbs. We counted 57 giant tour buses lining the tiny road one morning. There was decent food, but nothing like the culinary paradise of Penang. The hostel we stayed at was fine, but full of younger people seeking mostly to get drunk and do guided walks along the local trails.

Speaking of the trails, they were the whole reason we came to the Highlands. I was craving a trail run desperately. Upon arriving, we found out that some were closed due to armed muggings, others were mostly overgrown, and all were not recommended to do solo. Now, I’m usually pretty brave, but the thought of bashing down an overgrown root – strewn trail with a potential to get mugged, in the rain no less, was, to put it lightly, not appealing. Nevertheless, I headed out to the most used trail, which was supposed to be a nice riverside jaunt. I missed it the first time, but circled back and found a small muddy footpath lined with litter, running alongside a polluted waterway along the back of some apartment buildings. I’m sure you’re all hoping that I stuck it out 200 meters and it became a wild jungle wonderland. It didn’t. I turned around and kept on the only sidewalk in town. I found another trail, tucked across the street from more apartments, but when I followed it, I ended up winding through some very poor and remote  farms and abandoned that trail too. The disappointment was intensified by how strongly I disliked the town- the whole reason I’d come was for good trails, and that was turning out to be a myth. Trying to find the good, we hit another trail in the morning, but trail is a misnomer – it was like a muddy obstacle course, and due to the clouds, there was no summit view to speak of, just moss and telecommunications towers. I tried to keep a good attitude, and a huge group of middle school aged students and their teachers coming up after us helped, but it was still hard to enjoy because it was so different from what we expected.

We bolted to Kuala Lumpur, which entailed 3 hours of nerve-wracking driving (very narrow curvy roads, no lines, no shoulder, and traffic all over the place), and a long stint in gridlocked traffic. Did I mention we had a handy GPS unit from 2001? It was good at giving us a big map we couldn’t zoom in on, announcing turns and exits approximately 3 meters before they came up, and insisted on taking us the wrong way down one-way streets.

Why does one day or place or experience impact more than another similar one? We will definitely come back to Malaysia, particularly Penang and KL, as we appreciated the deep mingling of cultures that characterized both of those cities. I’ve come to think it’s the contrast and balance between the good and the bad that makes things vibrant. Following our hellish descent from the Highlands, we found KL to be equally overwhelming, but with a dose of comfort and a cleanliness that balanced out the noise and crowds. We watched as thousands of people strolled the shopping mall and parks at night, enjoying the cooler air and light show in the shadow of the glamorous Petronas towers. It was ironic that this scene was more peaceful and calming than anything we saw in the Cameron Highlands, but you don’t always get what you expect while traveling, and I guess that uncertainty is part of the appeal as well.

georgetown-2

(All photos by Justin Richards)

Slowing Down (whether I like it or not)

It’s 1:30 pm in Railay Beach, Krabi Province, Thailand. True to historical weather patterns that we hoped wouldn’t play out, it is dumping rain for the 3rd time since we woke up. I’m wrapped in a plush cotton robe, sitting on the front porch of a large 4-star bungalow in the shadow of towering limestone cliffs, overlooking a lush garden, and I would be perfectly content except for one thing. There’s nowhere to run.

Railay Beach lies along a narrow isthmus surrounded by aforementioned giant cliffs. There is a “hike” that goes to a lagoon, but it’s about 900 m round trip and is so steep that most of it is rope-assisted. There’s presumably a beach, but at high tide, there’s none to be found. I think to myself, I could have (should have) run this morning before leaving Ao Nang with its miles of flat road, but know full well I woke up and decided not to for a few marginally legitimate reasons (pouring rain, no sidewalk or shoulder, trash smell, comfort of bed). Too late now; we’re here for 4 days.

I’ve been planning since the start of the year to take it easy with the running on this Southeast Asia journey. I figured after two basically back-to-back seasons of 100-miler training and racing, my body could do with some rest. While there’s a few trails here and there that look exciting, truthfully, our trip is mostly inconducive to running much beyond an hour. I’ve managed to get in about 20-25 miles a week, all mostly easy and slow because it’s too hot and steep to push the pace without overheating. Also, since there’s nothing I’m training for, why would I run in a hot, trash-filled mud pit dodging diesel trucks and scooters?  I’ll happily just stay right here in this hammock and eat another banana.

Except that no matter how many articles and expert opinions I read that tell me taking an extended break is a good thing, the pictures and posts from friends tackling great adventures back home gnaw at me in the special FOMO way that only social media can. I should be absolutely thrilled at my current situation, but part of me (the driven, competitive, primal and, I guess, normal part) feels that I am being lessened with each day that I don’t put in a solid grind on the trails. In the panicked way that our brains work when they don’t have enough to do, I envision this period of less miles per week turns into no miles per week, followed by loss of all aerobic capacity, strength, musculature, a 40-lb weight gain, and a life spent reading crappy novels next to the pool (hey, the selection here is mostly in German, so I took what I could find). I know it’s illogical, but anyone who’s endured a break from training, forced or not, will know exactly what I’m talking about.

Maybe a break would be easier if I were more satisfied with my performance at Cascade Crest (which I’ve already analyzed as had-it-coming, and have accepted on a rational level but not an emotional one). In addition, it took me almost 3 weeks before I had a run that felt good after CC100, and it was barely 4 miles. It’s hard to not feel that I should have recovered faster and felt fresher after a race that was slower than I wanted, even when the data points suggesting the need for extensive rest stared me right in the face (lingering aches, need for lots of sleep, elevated heart rate, irritability). But there’s a gap that still exists between the runner I want to be and the runner that I feel like I am, and it’s hard not to be working my butt off RIGHT NOW to close that gap. Truthfully, what I probably need more than a physical break is a break from that mentality, and thus we are on a trip without trails.

Now, it’s not all gloom and doom, although it would be, were my obsessive need for accomplishment not redirected into more appropriate channels (such as daily core workouts). Beer also helps.  When there is a place to run that looks nice, or a particularly strong urge to move, I make it happen. I’m aiming for an hour a day of exercise of any sort, whether it’s yoga or paddle boarding or swimming or hiking or climbing or kayaking or whatever else looks fun and doesn’t cost $100. I’m also writing more, reading more, and just watching people more. My slower metabolism means I don’t feel hungry 24/7 like I do when training, so therefore I spend less money feeding myself, and have more money for kayaks and beer. It may take daily positive self-talk to get through, but I might manage to make it until December without a single run over 10 miles. And by then, we may have a date for Justin’s citizenship interview, and I can start planning a race calendar, and build back up my mileage, and become obsessive about running all over again.

If you’ve ever taken an extended break from training, what strategies did you use to cope? How did the break help or hurt you after you went back to racing again?