Living life one pair of running shoes at a time.

It was a bittersweet moment.

I stood in the beer garden of the ABQ Brew Dash 5k, having just completed my last competitive race as a single lady [I’m doing the Bolder Boulder 10k later this month, but fun will be the operative word there]. As I drank my beer and tried to keep warm, I felt the tired afterglow that comes with a satisfactory race performance, but I also felt a tiny bit forlorn.

I didn’t have anyone to share it with – Robin Hood was out hunting, and none of my runner friends could make it.

Apparently I’ve entered a new phase in my proudly-independent life.

To be clear, it was in fact a positive experience on the whole. I had looked forward to this for weeks – running events in Albuquerque that serve beer afterwards are rare, as are evening races that aren’t held in summertime heat. A free beer with my race bib AND I don’t need to wake up early? Sweet!

Here is a fact: May weather in Albuquerque changes its mind constantly. Sunny, warm and calm one day; windy and cold the next. Brew Dash Day leaned towards the latter, which made warming up and hanging out before the race interesting.

But! God decided to favor us runners, because there was only one brief stretch on the course where the wind blew directly in our faces. Whew!

As far as my own race went, I knew on the starting line that I faced some stiff competition. After enough years of racing, you develop a sense for these things. It has nothing to do with what a runner looks like or what she’s wearing or whether you saw her warming up. Maybe it’s some sort of alpha female pheromone.

Anyway. The starting horn blared, and we were off. One girl left the rest of us frankly in the dust, but a group of five or six of us stayed fairly close together. I decided to keep in contact with them and see what happened.

I passed one girl – hooray!! I passed another one – hooray!! At this point, coming up on the last mile, I was tiring but trying to be steady. I was close behind one girl in particular. Come on, I told myself. She’s RIGHT THERE!

It didn’t happen; she edged me by a few seconds. I gave it all I had, but that day, she was the faster runner. I can’t complain, though – I ran 21:37, good for 5th overall female!

I got in line to get my commemorative pint glass and free beer. About then, the temperature dropped noticeably, and the wind wasn’t getting any weaker. No matter! I ran hard, and I was going to celebrate my performance and my last race as a Banks with a tasty beverage, gosh darn it!

So I did. And I did feel a little lonely, but maybe that’s natural. Maybe, when you’re about to commit to spending the rest of your life with someone, it’s right to miss them when they’re not there to celebrate the good times with you.

Does that mean I’ll never go solo to another race? Heck no! After all, if you always have someone to carry your stuff, you’ll get spoiled.

Here’s to my years of running as a single gal – and many more in the future as a married one!

brew

Young at Heart

This week, I came upon the following question:

What is it that makes you feel young?

The question made me stop and stare at the page from which the words peered up at me. I think I even answered out loud: I don’t know.

Good grief!

A tiny bit horrified, I rattled off things in my head: Running? Well, that usually makes me feel good, yes, and empowered…but young? Hmmm. Prayer? That’s a source of comfort and peace, and also, in its own way, empowerment…or what about reading a good book? Relaxing, yes. Fountain of youth, not necessarily.

The point of the passage containing that question was that we shouldn’t lose touch with what makes us feel young. Whether it’s catching rays at the beach, or going out with friends, or just dancing in your living room — it’s important. Knowing what it is, and actually doing it from time to time, is an excellent way to recharge and renew ourselves. We do that magical thing, and when it’s done, we’re better people for it. Probably so much so that the people close to us notice it.

After reading that, I knew I had some homework to do. I am NOT going to end up like one of those grim-faced grown-ups in a Disney movie, who don’t know how to get to NeverNever Land, who think Mary Poppins is certifiable, and who lose whatever it is that grown-ups lose in The Polar Express.

Oh dear. It’s happening already.

I embarked on a mission: figure out what makes me feel young. This week, I’ve concentrated on doing some of my favorite things:

• I’ve run every day.
• I’ve consciously taken time, between buzzing around from task to task and tumbling into dreamland, to slow down and relax in the evenings with Robin Hood.
• I’ve made two pies, because I love making pie, and as I like to say, when the pie spirit moves you, it’s best to let it have its way. Side note: savory pies are delicious, and easy. Give them a whirl!
• I even nurtured a little spontaneity when Robin Hood and I strolled over to the nearby Little League fields to get a dose of America’s favorite pastime, and found the refreshment stand open. How can you not support a Little League refreshment stand?? Our dinner that night was hot dogs, a green chile cheeseburger, and a hot pretzel. We were in heaven.

Did any of those things make me feel younger? I don’t know. I do know that, while doing each of them, there was a moment when I lost track of time. Somewhere, in the act of gently positioning the top layer of pie crust, or not-so-gently (heh heh) pushing a chunk of pretzel into Robin Hood’s mouth, I stopped thinking about what time it was. I wasn’t thinking about any to-do list. I was just enjoying.

Is that what feeling young is all about?

I’m going to continue my mission. This is the kind of homework I actually like!

What is it that makes you feel young?

Go do it.

In 2009, I ran the Nike Women’s Marathon in San Francisco. Not only was it cool because it entailed a visit to San Francisco, which is always fun, but also because it was the biggest group of women united for one cause that I had ever been a part of. I stood on the starting line surrounded by thousands of women who were passionate about running, who had trained for months, and who, no matter what their background, were focused on a common goal: run this race.

It was awesome.

Never since then have I experienced such a tidal force of, for lack of a more academic term, girl power.

Never since then have I realized I missed it.

A month ago, my friend Carrie invited me and a few other friends to attend Living Proof Live, a Christian women’s conference led by a woman named Beth Moore. I had never heard of Beth before, but Carrie had heard great things, so last Friday night we all trekked out to the venue, curious and excited for some good female bonding time.

The place was PACKED. It turns out Beth Moore is a huge deal [if you are a Beth Moore fan, please be patient with me; I truly had no idea]. She informed the audience that there were 5,500 of us there.

5,500!! Have you ever experienced anything like that??

I loved it. Like the marathon I ran in 2009, here was an immense gathering of women united for a common goal. Only this time, instead of 26.2 miles, the goal was spiritual growth. Hey, both require passion, focus, and stamina, no?

Now: about the message laid out before us that weekend. I’m not going to give a summary of everything, because that’s about five hours’ worth of information, and that’s a lot. But two things really hit home for me:

1) Eliminate what you don’t want to generate.
Meaning whatever baggage you are carrying, put it down. Don’t shift it to another part of you; don’t give it to someone else; don’t share it so that both you and someone else carry it. Put it down. And don’t pick it back up. Because whatever we are carrying, whether it’s good or bad, we eventually pass to other people. We might not even notice, but it happens. The question we have to ask ourselves is, are we passing good or bad?

2) Think of three people (or more) whose faith you admire. Guess what? That same God – the one they’re so adept at praying to; the one in whom they have so much confidence and trust – He is with you.

This seems so comforting, and at the same time so empowering. To me, it says that you don’t have to be florid or even eloquent with your prayers. You don’t have to be a shining pillar of faith all the time. You don’t have to be perfect. God’s with you. And knowing that? Well, it’s like getting ready for a run when you’re feeling fit, you’ve got your favorite outfit on, it’s a beautiful day, and you’ve just slurped down an energy gel. You can do ANYTHING.

Here’s to that feeling. And to passing it on.

Womenfolk

Last weekend my friend Alissa threw me a bridal shower. It was, from the first sighting of the balloons on her mailbox to the collecting of the parting-gift favors (starter containers of herbs, and sunflower seed packets), everything I could have possibly hoped for in a shower, and more.

I knew the weekend was going to be good because both my mom and sister Erin would be in town, and the last time they visited Albuquerque simultaneously was…well, I’m not sure that it has actually ever happened. That’s just what happens when you have family scattered all over the country: people have different schedules, and you take visits where you can get them. So all of us ladies under the same roof for an occasion other than Christmas? Pretty special.

We got the visit off to a solid start on Friday evening with dinner at one of my favorite New Mexican restaurants. The boys – Robin Hood and Erin’s hubby – accompanied us to that, but we parted ways the next morning. The boys headed out early to an archery shoot, while we girls got some exercise around the neighborhood, then ate a leisurely breakfast and just…relaxed.

We went over to Alissa’s house shortly before noon, and it wasn’t long before her living room, kitchen, and dining room were filled with chatter. Some of the ladies were good friends; some hadn’t seen each other in ages; and some had never met (it was Mom and Erin’s first time meeting most of them), but the shower unfolded beautifully. Champagne was poured, tasty food was dished out, and the chatter continued.

I wish I had words to describe how I felt, being surrounded by these fantastic women and knowing they had all taken time out of their lives to come and celebrate with me. But I don’t.

Instead, I’ll just say that I’ll never forget it. Also, ladies – thank you for the cards full of memories and marital advice. After poring over them, I put them on my bedside table, where I plan to keep them for a long, long time.

**********

As for the rest of the weekend? On Sunday, the ladies’ goal was to find dresses for Mom and Erin to wear to the wedding. The gentlemen busied themselves with paintball.

Our eyes on the prize, we ladies arrived at the mall right as the stores were opening. We picked our first mark – er, department store – and attacked.

Now I didn’t need Mom and Erin to match perfectly; I wanted them to wear things that they liked and felt comfortable in. And if the color resembled lavender (the more-or-less color for my wedding)? Super.

We were done in an hour.

What can I say? When we Banks women are focused, ain’t nothin’ stopping us.

We had time to kill before our rendezvous with the boys, so we cruised through a couple of errands, enjoying the lovely April day, and then made our way back to the house.

And it was good to see the guys again, after they’d had their adventure and we’d had ours. But I couldn’t, and can’t, help thinking how fortunate I am to have such awesome women in my life.

blogshower

Keep Calm and Pull Weeds

“Only __ days until the big event!”

How do you react when you read or hear that phrase? Does it excite you, scare you, or make you just want to shut down? Personally, I haven’t decided yet.

Between my love/hate relationship with TheKnot.com and my registration success with this year’s Marine Corps Marathon (hooray!!), I’ve seen quite a bit of that phrase lately. And you know…once you give countdowns an inch in your brain, they take that proverbial mile. Or five.

Thus, I found myself compiling a list of events in my future. I could add more to it, but a woman’s got to draw the line somewhere.

Here it is:

1 day until my bridal shower.
8 days until the 2nd anniversary of my first date with Robin Hood.
27 days until Robin Hood’s birthday.
68 days until my birthday.
78 days until THE WEDDING!
197 days until the marathon.

That’s a lot of numbers.

I will freely admit to not caring much for numbers. But the thing is, I actually feel pretty good about everything.

Okay, that was a fib. I’m REALLY excited about the bridal shower. Hey, I get to hang out with fabulous ladies – some of whom I haven’t seen in years – enjoy scrumptious food and champagne, and yes, open presents. What’s not to be excited about?

As for the marathon? Frankly, I’m not even thinking about it right now. I’m keeping my running consistent, and it feels good. 197 days out, I’d call that a win.

And the stuff in between? Well, the birthdays probably won’t be anything too extravagant this year on account of item #5 on that list up there, but they’ll be lovely anyway. I’m not worried.

Item #5, now…you know the feeling when you’re running a race, and you still have a ways to go, but you feel good and comfortable with your current pace? That’s how I feel. I feel content.

Maybe it’s because, several weeks ago, the pastor at church challenged the congregation to have audacious faith. The message stuck with me, so I told Robin Hood about it, and now he reminds me of it when I get anxious. I’m thankful for this.

Maybe it’s because my morning devotionals keep reminding me that “I have strength for all things in Christ who empowers me” (Phillipians 4:13) and I’m finally starting to believe it.

Maybe it’s because of the organizational / get-it-done genes that I got from both my mom and my dad.

It could certainly be due to what I fondly think of as little mundane blessings – those tasks which may not be fun and glamorous, but keep you anchored in the real world. Tasks like pulling weeds; grocery shopping; laundry, etc. Getting tired of planning for something that’s still months away? Just go out and pull some weeds. Boom: instant gratification!

Or maybe I am very, very naïve and will be scurrying around like a chicken with its head cut off come mid-June.

I’m guessing it’s a combination of things. Whatever the explanation, I’m enjoying it.

If you’re counting down the days to a big event, I wish you contentment…and at least one day in a row when you completely forget what that number is.

My grandma turned 90 today. 90! What do you say to one of the most influential women in your life as she enters her 10th decade?

It seems right to say thank you.

So, thank you, Grandma.

Thank you for hanging out with me at the bus stop while I waited for the bus in elementary school. We played “Mother, May I?” and it distracted me from any anxiety that I may have had about the upcoming school day.

Thank you for teaching me the card game classics: Steal the Old Man’s Bundle (sadly, I’ve forgotten how to play that one – you’ll have to refresh my memory during our next visit), Go Fish, and Crazy Eights. If there was some minor gambling involved, too, I swear I won’t tell anyone. I keep looking for a Go Fish table in Albuquerque’s casinos, but no luck yet.

Thank you for giving me the first memory I have of baking. It was during one of our annual summertime visits to you and Grandpa in Buffalo. The boys had gone off on a fishing adventure. You and I didn’t feel like fishing, so we stayed at the house and made brownies, and you showed me how to use a toothpick to see if the brownies were done. As I recall, those brownies were absolutely delicious. And we probably saved at least a couple for the boys. Maybe.

Thank you for your dancing genes. Okay, I say this loosely, because you actually went out on the town and won dance contests, and when I dance in public, the general reaction is equal parts humor and horror. Still, I love dancing, and I don’t care how I look, and I credit you for that.

Thank you for keeping lots of family photos on your walls. There’s no easier, faster reminder of how blessed – and awesome – one’s family is than to have photos of them and look at them regularly. I may only have a smattering of family photos in my own home, but I’m working on that!

Thank you for the Irish heritage. Do I really need to explain that one?

Thank you for instilling in me a love of chili. Now I will admit that it took years for me to gain a proper appreciation of that hearty stew, but it has become one of my favorite dishes in cold weather. Shoot, in any kind of weather.

Thank you for the stories you tell. One of my goals in life is to be able to tell a story half as well as you. Including the off-color ones.

Thank you for being such a tolerant, supportive matriarch to a family of nutty runners.

Thank you for being sassy.

Thank you for showing that keeping a healthy sense of humor goes a long, long way – and that the occasional healthy shot of Bailey’s doesn’t hurt, either.

Thank you for all the hugs.

I guess it all just boils down to this: thank you for being such a terrific grandma.

Happy birthday, and here’s to many more!

Gone to the Dogs

I relish new running experiences. Fun-sounding race making its debut? Sign me up! A friend tells me about a cool trail or road route they’ve discovered? Point me in its direction.

So when Robin Hood and I were dog-sitting for a good friend of ours last weekend, I decided that the time had come.

I wanted to try running with a dog.

Now it helped that the dog – Kiva, the prettiest little pit bull you ever saw – behaves almost absurdly well. I actually don’t think I have ever heard her bark. It also helped that I knew her level of fitness is pretty good, and I knew that virtually any time spent outside makes her ecstatically happy.

Still, I didn’t want to get cocky my first time out, so I planned conservatively: Kiva and I would run a short couple of loops through the neighborhood, early on Sunday morning. No busy intersections, no unfamiliar streets, not a lot of traffic, vehicular or otherwise.

Sunday morning came around, and Kiva knew something was up as soon as I started putting on running clothes. By the time I picked up her leash, she was practically levitating from excitement.

When was the last time you were that eager to go for a run??

I snapped on her leash and we trotted out into the gorgeous spring morning. I had the leash in one hand and a plastic grocery bag – because you just never know – in the other. By then, we were both excited.

I loved it. There is just something about running with a dog that changes your whole perspective of running. As I ran along beside Kiva, I wasn’t thinking about my pace, or how nice it would feel to be back in bed snoozing a little longer. I wasn’t thinking about my plans for the rest of the day.

I wasn’t thinking about myself at all. I was enjoying the scenery around me. When you’re out with a dog who in that moment is just thrilled with fresh air and sights and smells and sounds and life in general, it’s hard not to pick up a little of that feeling. Maybe you hold your head a little higher. Maybe you’re more alert. Maybe you smile, or even laugh, for reasons you would have rolled your eyes at on any other run.

Kiva impressed me. When other dogs barked loudly from behind walls and fences, she cantered on, totally unfazed. When we passed other pedestrians, she gave them a glance and not much else. She didn’t seem to tire at all, and probably could have kept going for a while, had I been able to figure out a way to gracefully run while carrying a bag of dog poop. Turns out it’s harder than it seems [that’s another benefit to running with a dog – it keeps you humble. It’s tough to have a big head when you’re carrying poop].

Would I do it again? Absolutely. That was the most fun I’ve had on a run in a while. The appeal of running with a dog – I finally get it.

Here’s to our four-legged friends.

Kiva

The First Day Of…

Spring is here! Lovely, gracious Spring: that time of blossoms, breezes, balmy temperatures, and…

Ow.

Ow.

Please excuse me, I’ve been a little sore lately. Last weekend, I ran Albuquerque’s (technically, Rio Rancho’s) Shamrock Shuffle 10k. I was happy to keep up with my goal of racing more in 2015, and I was satisfied with my performance, but good LORD, those hills. I felt like I was on a roller coaster. My legs felt like they were some place less amusing. You know those races where you can practically hear your body snickering even as you try to move around and eat protein right afterwards? Yeah…

In addition, I’ve started doing knee-strengthening exercises, courtesy of Runner’s World. Showing my knees some love in order to prevent future injury has been on my to-do list for years, but I’ve never addressed it consistently. I figure if I plan to run a marathon this fall, there’s no time like the present to improve my habits. A good idea, right?

Well, it turns out that in order to show your knees love, you work all the muscles around them. I mean you WORK. ALL. THE. MUSCLES. Around them.

Guess what this causes?

I’ll just say that there is no such thing as being too experienced to feel soreness in all kinds of fun new places.

So please excuse me if I’m wincing as I write this.

But really, isn’t this what Spring is all about? Launching into new pursuits? Coming out of dormancy, shaking things up, and showing reinvigorated signs of life?

And how often is all of that done easily, with no growing pains? Never.

It doesn’t happen in nature: sure, we may think it happens overnight, but it takes a long time for buds and blossoms to burst forth into the world.

It doesn’t happen in running: how frequently do we set PRs in our first race or two of the new year? Doesn’t it take pinning on a couple more numbers before we really reclaim our rhythm – or adjust to a new method of training, racing, and recovery?

It doesn’t even happen at home. At least not for me. When I look at my yard these days, I remember how it looked mid-summer of last year: flowers poking up happily, vegetable plants offering up their goods, and the weeds more or less under control. Remembering all that, I survey my presently desolate flower pots, and the first weeds taunting me, and I go “ulp!”

Progress takes effort. It takes effort, sweat, and, yes, soreness.

One of the many great things about this time of year, though, is that everyone is in it together! All of those plants are working hard at their blossoming business; animals are working hard dragging themselves out of hibernation; and people are working hard finding their groove again, whether it’s indoors or outdoors. Hard work is easier when you know you’re not alone.

And, hello, it’s Springtime. Beauty everywhere! Birds chirping everywhere! No more scraping frost off the windshield!

Okay, so I won’t complain about sore muscles. I will savor them. Because I know that when the soreness dissipates, whatever is left behind will be stronger and better.

Progress takes effort.

Happy Spring, everyone :-)

Losing Wait

There is a WHOLE lot of hurry-up-and-wait in the air right now.

Part of it stems from nature. We’re in the almost-Spring homestretch, when trees are blossoming and flowery fragrances are starting to hit our noses. It’s lovely. But we can’t quite shake out all of our t-shirts and tuck away all of our sweaters, because it’s only mid-March. In Albuquerque, that usually means we have at least one more cold snap before warm weather settles in for good.

Part of it stems from life transitions that seem to be everywhere. I’m in the thick of planning my wedding; my friend Carrie just started planning hers; two other friends are expecting babies in June. Preparing for major events is both incredibly fun and incredibly taxing. We can’t wait for the big day, whether it’s committing to the one we love or welcoming a new life into the world. But between wanting to tie up all loose ends right now (if not sooner) in order to alleviate nerves, and facing the stone-cold reality that loose ends often have obstinate little minds of their own, frustrations can pop up quicker than an overly-eager tree blossom.

Then there are the hurry-up-and-wait situations that just happen. I’ve decided I want to run the Marine Corps Marathon in October — my first marathon as a married woman! But MCM employs a lottery registration system. Meaning I’ll put my name into the lottery today, and then, with butterflies in my stomach…wait. Wait, more than a week, for an email that says Yes or No.

Yup, I’ve realized that trying to get into a lottery marathon might not be the brightest idea for someone who’s 105 days out (thanks, TheKnot.com) from her wedding. I’m hoping that the anxiety from one will deplete the anxiety from the other, leaving me completely serene. Yes, that’s what I’m hoping for. Let me have my fantasy.

In the midst of all this, I do have moments of clear, rational thinking, and I try to make the most of them.

From one of these moments, and after consulting with friends who are or have recently been in the same boat, I’ve come up with this:

Reject the idea of “hurry up and wait.” Just let it go. Let go of the “hurry up” part and let go of the “wait” part.

You ask, “Uhhh, doesn’t that leave nothing?”

Yes. It leaves nothing. But nothing could also be interpreted as:

* Peace
* Stillness
* Calm
* Mindfulness
* Health
* Openness
* Reflection
* Happiness

If we’re constantly chomping at the bit to get things done, to check off one step and move immediately to the next, or anxiously keeping our eyes on the horizon without noticing what’s right in front of us, we lose a lot of those things I just mentioned. At least I do.

This week (one step at a time, people) I’m going to stop trying to do everything at once. Actually, I’m going to stop trying to do everything, period. I’m going to take more deep breaths. I’m going to give more hugs to the man I’m marrying. I’m going to go for longer runs. And I’m going to inhale the fragrance of the blossoming tree in my yard without a single thought to future freezes.

flowers

Snow Truce

Last Friday I was supposed to drive to Denver. I was looking forward to it; I was planning outfits…and then Winter decided to crash the party. Observing what was happening between Albuquerque and Denver on Thursday (snow), and observing the weekend forecast for Denver (snow), not to mention observing that I would be driving solo and my beloved Toyota Corolla does not have four-wheel drive, I canceled my trip.

I was NOT happy with the white stuff.

And then, as if the snow wanted to throw in a touchdown dance, Albuquerque got hit with it on both Thursday and Friday nights. I wanted to declare, “Excessive celebration!” and demand a penalty.

But then I realized snow doesn’t play football, and doesn’t care about its rules. After a good night’s sleep on Friday, I peered out the window on Saturday morning and thought, Ok, yes, I made the right decision in not driving up there. I thought, Ok, yes, having this much snow in a land of persistent sunshine is…kind of cool.

My attitude needed more time to improve, though. Robin Hood and I eased into the day. I had a gloriously long catch-up chat with one of my best friends; he played video games; the fireplace earned its keep. Finally, in the early afternoon, we both got restless. Which meant: snow walk!

We snow-suited up [read: I had plastic bags taped around my legs because I didn’t have actual snow boots to wear] and stepped out into the winter wonderland.

Sort of.

The snow was already melting. Such is Albuquerque and its sunshine.

Nevertheless, we romped along the sidewalks and streets of our neighborhood, exchanging greetings with sledders, shovelers, and anyone else who had ventured outside. We had a snowball fight – really, multiple snowball skirmishes all along the way – and I swear it was one of the most romantic moments of our relationship.

My anger towards snow began to ebb.

The next day, we met up with friends to go inner-tubing. Now I have done plenty of sledding in my time, but tubing? Never. I was intrigued.

We wound up at one of the designated “snowplay” areas on the East side of the Sandia mountains. Once again, I wore my makeshift bags-and-tape gaiters, but no matter. As we trudged through the snow to the picnic area that our friends had claimed, I was already imagining the feeling of skimming down a hill, wind against my face.

While lunch cooked on a grill, Robin Hood and I got impatient and trotted over to the hill where folks were sledding/tubing. I looked at it and got all giddy. It had been so long. Feeling generous in my giddiness, I let Robin Hood have the first ride. As soon as he returned to the top, though, I eagerly took the tube into my arms, carefully selected a good spot, and launched.

It lasted all of 12 or 15 seconds, but those seconds were pure unfiltered joy. My first thought afterwards was, How have I let so much time pass since I last played in the snow??

Snow can be maddening. I’ll be the first to say that. But it does have its redeeming moments. And…every once in a while…it’s actually pretty darn fun.

snow

The Faith Muscle

The other day I got home from work feeling tired, irrationally cranky, and utterly unmotivated. I kicked out of my work clothes, tugged on my running clothes, and headed out the door despite my lack of motivation, because…well, that’s what we runners do, isn’t it? We lace up even when we’re not in the most ideal condition or frame of mind and we get moving, confident in the power of the run to cure all, or at least put things in perspective.

This particular day was mild as far as winter days go, but with a good stout breeze. I began at a comfortable shuffling warm-up pace. I was following a familiar looping course near my house, with the breeze shifting from my face to my back and back to my face. Blocks turned into minutes, which turned into miles.

And…nothing.

My pace didn’t change – if anything, I think it got slower. And my mood didn’t improve one bit. I chalk up the fact that I finished without taking any shortcuts to nothing more than stubbornness.

Let’s face it: some runs are just like that. Real life isn’t a Runner’s World ad. We don’t always attain a “runner’s high”; we don’t always have magnificent epiphanies; we most certainly don’t always look glamorous and serene. Some runs are just…runs.

What’s the point of them, then? Some people would call them “junk miles,” implying that they serve no purpose. They’re not speed workouts, and they’re not long tests of endurance. They’re not even gut-wrenchingly gritty experiences that we can take pride in (e.g. running through a downpour, or in sweltering heat, or in dire need of a bathroom).

Junk, right?

Wrong!

It occurred to me after that run that maybe the point of these seemingly pointless miles has nothing to do with improving physical fitness, or honing skills, or bragging rights. Maybe the point of them is to exercise an entirely different muscle: faith.

The fact that we go running even when we don’t feel like it is a sign of faith, right? As I mentioned above, we’re confident in the power of the run to cure all. But that is just our faith getting warmed up! When the run comes to an end and all has not been cured, what happens then?

That’s when our faith muscle starts flexing. And we don’t even realize it.

What happens after an un-stellar run? Do we give up running? Do we say, “Ehhhh, forget tomorrow’s run; it’s a hopeless case”? No. We don’t give up. We get on with our lives, and when the time comes for the next day’s run, we lace up our shoes and step out again, because we have faith that not all runs will be like the one before.

When we’re in the middle of a run, whether it’s long or short, race or relaxation, and it starts to feel like drudgery, do we throw in the towel and just stop? Nope. Again, that’s the faith muscle going to work.

Faith is the muscle that keeps us going and brings us back. And I for one intend to start giving it a lot more attention – and respect.

Some weekends are all about doing things that need to get done. Those weekends are necessary. But what about weekends devoted solely to doing things we want to do? Aren’t they just as necessary?

I stumbled upon one of those last weekend. Actually, it was more of a splashy belly flop, resulting in a little soreness but also a big grin.

Robin Hood and I got Valentine’s Day off to an early start with Albuquerque’s Sweetheart Run 5k. Our plan was for me to run and him to cheer. As I got dressed, I heard a racket coming from the other side of the house. Shortly thereafter, Robin Hood came strolling into the room, and I gave him a questioning look.

If I had any doubt that this guy is for me, it was erased at that moment. Not because he was coming to watch me run; not because he was bringing a cowbell; but because he was practicing ringing the cowbell.

I nearly swooned.

Off we drove to the race. The weather was fantastic. I was excited to toe a starting line again (my first since September), and to test my fitness.

The starter’s horn sounded, we all surged forward, and…I heard it! The unmistakable clang of a lone but assertive cowbell sending us runners on our way. Pride washed over me. All those spectators along the course, and mine was the one ringing the cowbell. Best fan EVER!

I dashed through that race. I started too fast, but I didn’t care – I felt good. I passed a few people, then settled into a steady-ish pace. The manic energy of the start wore off, but I pressed on, successfully navigated a section of the course comprised of loose sand without falling (hooray!), and finally found myself in the last 200 meters, which were on a track. Time to kick it in!

I don’t know how my finish looked, but I do know that I heard the cowbell again. It pulled me along and I saw a flash of numbers as I crossed the finish line: 21:26! And 3rd place overall female!

sweetheart2015

From there, the day flowed like a happily babbling brook. We ate brunch at one of our favorite restaurants. We visited a Western wear store we’d never been to, just out of curiosity. We went to an expo hosted by New Mexico’s Department of Game & Fish, where Robin Hood was basically in an ecstatic trance for a couple of hours. We ate a steak dinner, with chocolate cake for dessert. YUM.

Our night, however, was not a late one, because our alarms for the next morning were set to…4 a.m.

A-hunting we were going. Specifically, hunting in an area about two hours south of Albuquerque, for a creature that sounded wildly exotic to my ears: Barbary sheep.

Four a.m. arrived too soon (doesn’t it always?). We rolled out of bed, got dressed (thankfully most of the prep work was already done) and hit the road. After some coffee and breakfast tacos, we were doing pretty well – awake and coherent!

We arrived at Robin Hood’s pre-selected spot just after sunrise, strapped on our packs, and started hiking. It began easily enough. We walked up through a valley and kept our eyes peeled. I practiced my “keep quiet and don’t lose your balance” walk. Conditions were favorable, but the sheep stayed hidden. Robin Hood decided we needed a better vantage point.

Riiiight.

The “better vantage point” could only be attained by climbing a steep hill with no trail, lots of scree, a few snowy patches, and mostly dead tree stumps to grab onto.

I don’t recommend grabbing a dead tree stump for support.

Eventually, we made it to the top, and that was something. The view was magnificent, tall grasses waved in the wind, and we had a chance to catch our breath.

After Robin Hood thoroughly examined the surrounding area with binoculars (still nothing), we had a snack and moved on. The wind picked up, but the warm sun compensated for it. We eased along a ridge, keeping quiet, but didn’t see anything. All of the critters apparently were staying out of the wind.

We made our way back downhill. And I was reminded of a great hiking truth: if a hike up loose rock seems tough, just wait for the hike down!

After my nerves were rigorously tested and Robin Hood assured me repeatedly that I would NOT, in fact, start a human landslide, we got past the hardest part blessedly unscathed. Our efforts were rewarded by the sight of four mule deer! I wish I had taken a picture, but all I could do was stare. They were beautiful as they bounded along. Robin Hood muttered something about wishing it was mule deer season, but he had a smile on his face.

We stopped for another food break and started back to the truck. The wind was calmer in the valley, layers came off, and drowsiness began to settle in. It was time to call it a day.

A successful hunt? Maybe not. A great hike on land that rarely sees a human footprint? Definitely.

Thanks for the experience, Robin Hood. :)

barbary

Language Lessons

When was the last time you read a book that changed your life? A book that, as you read through the pages, kept making you pause, look up and make that thoughtful “huh” noise?

I just finished reading such a book: The Five Love Languages, by Gary Chapman. It’s not a new book, and I’ve occasionally heard people talking about it, but I’ll be honest: if I hadn’t received it as a gift, I probably never would have picked it up. I’ve never been much into, how shall we say, touchy-feely books. I guess I figured, I’m a runner and a writer – how much more introspection does one person need? Another way to phrase it: how much more introspection can one person take?

It turns out a lot.

The book, in case you aren’t familiar with it, was written by a guy who’s been a marriage counselor for years. Over that time period, he developed a theory that there are five “love languages”; that is, five primary ways in which people give and receive love. They are: words of affirmation; gifts; quality time; acts of service; and physical touch. The key to a great relationship, he says, is to figure out your partner’s love language and become fluent in it.

Reading the book was like being a new runner and picking up a copy of Runner’s World for the first time, or having someone with a few marathons under their belt hand me a really good book on running. Similar to those feelings of “Oh, THAT’S how I run faster??” or “Wow, I never thought of looking at my body that way,” The Five Love Languages opened my eyes.

In past relationships, I’ve banged my head against the proverbial wall so many times I’m surprised I never got a concussion, all in the name of trying to show my love. Why can’t they see it? I would wonder. Why don’t they love me back?

I never considered the idea that I was going about it all wrong. I never even considered the idea that it was possible to go about it all wrong. I thought “love is love,” and proceeded from there.

Whoops.

I was expressing love in ways that just didn’t register with the intended recipient. I may as well have been in Italy, speaking Spanish loudly and frequently, and getting frustrated as to why no one could understand me.

As for the “Why don’t they love me back?” question – well, maybe they were trying on their end, and were just as blind as I was. No one can unlock a door if they don’t have the key.

Talk about a change in perspective.

Love can be difficult, and messy, and it’s sooo easy to do a flat-out face-plant in the dirt. And then do it again. And again. But the cool thing is that it’s never too late to learn. And no matter how much experience, good or bad, that you’ve got under your belt, there is always room for improvement. The only perfect love is God’s. Working on love, though – the polishing, the improving, putting in the training, so to speak – therein lies the joy of it all.

Here’s to embracing love with all of its imperfections, and never giving up on it.

lovebook

Yes, please.

Asking for help has never been one of my strong suits. I’m getting better at it, but for a long time I was determined to figure things out on my own, due to a potent cocktail of pride, shyness, and plain stubbornness.

I applied that determination to every area of my life. Work: I can totally craft this resume by myself; I don’t need anyone’s help. Running: I can find and follow a marathon training plan on my own, thank you very much. Relationships: Books? Oprah? Asking older, more experienced people for advice? Please!

Thankfully, an even more potent cocktail, called age and experience, has watered that other one down quite a bit. I’ve realized that I don’t and never will have all the answers, and that asking for help is not a sign of weakness at all. I’ve realized the inherent problem behind the phrase “I don’t want to inconvenience anyone” – if I don’t ask for help, it will probably cause much more inconvenience, and maybe even harm, down the line. By swallowing my pride and asking for help, I’m becoming a better employee, co-worker, runner, and overall person.

There’s another side to this “asking for help” business, however, which has proven a much greater challenge. And that is: accepting unsolicited offers of help.

It’s a lovely gesture, right? Someone asking “Is there anything I can do?” So why is it a snap response to say “Oh no, I’m fine,” or “I’ve got this – thanks though!” I know I’m not the only one who does this. Is it because we feel guilty about off-loading some of our burden onto someone else? Or a desire to prove how much we can handle?

These days, I am learning what a load of garbage that is.

I am learning that when someone offers to help, it’s not because they think I’m incompetent. They’re not doing it because they’re convinced they can do it better than me. They’re doing it out of kindness.

I am a firm believer in hard work and perseverance. But now I’m seeing that if I take on everything alone, keeping all the burden and responsibility to myself, I’m like a house whose doors and windows are never opened. Sure, great things can happen inside the house. But how much nicer is it when a cool breeze is allowed to enter? The house feels lighter, cheerier. Healthier.

When I think of moments in my life in which I’ve accepted proffered help without hesitation, most of them are times of great vulnerability – when I physically need help. Immediately after finishing a marathon, for example. Or when I’ve been sick, or hurt. I would like to reach the point where I no longer need to be in such extreme situations in order to readily accept help. Where I can be healthy as a horse, with a smile on my face, and grab that extended hand.

It’s happening. Slowly, but it’s happening. I’m learning that people offering to help is a gift. I’m learning that by accepting that offer, my own time opens up to perhaps help someone else.

Help isn’t a two-way street. It’s a 5-way traffic circle, and it’s way easier to navigate than I ever imagined.

Fresh Air

For all of you New Englanders who are shoveling snow right now, I apologize.

Here in Albuquerque, we hit the mid-60s this week. I went for a walk during my lunch break without a scarf, gloves, OR a jacket. And I was almost sweating by the end. On two of my runs, I wore capris and a short-sleeved shirt. As I trotted along, I felt the strangest sensation on my skin. I was suspicious of it until I realized….wait a minute…

It was fresh air!

I know I’m jinxing myself to an immediate and extended bout of car-encased-in-hard-frost mornings, but I don’t care. I also know that such warm temperatures in January mean nothing good as far as global warming goes, but I don’t – well, okay, I do care about that. But still. I’m going to enjoy this for as long as it lasts.

This is a great time of year to get some fresh air.

During the holidays, we spend lots of time indoors. Indoors to hang out with family, indoors to shop for presents, indoors to watch football, indoors to travel to far-off destinations via plane, train or automobile. And all of that indoor stuff is great! But indoor air, no matter how much we fill it with wonderful holiday aromas, gets stale. We get stale.

After the holidays, there’s a lull. Call it post-holiday blues or a massive sugar crash or whatever you like. The point is that it’s frustrating. We’ve finished the revelry, we’ve put away the decorations, and we’ve gone back to work or school. Time to get back to real life with refreshed enthusiasm, right?

Wrong. It’s winter! The weather outside may still be frightful, but the fire? Instead of being delightful, it just seems like a lot of work (or a higher gas bill). There aren’t any big holidays to look forward to. It’s just…winter.

Or maybe you face the flip side of the coin. Maybe you’ve done such a stellar job of jumping on your resolutions and coming back from the holidays with a bang that you don’t even realize that January, an entire month, is done. Lost to a productive, blinding blur of activity.

Not exactly a picture of shiny optimism, is it? There’s a fix for it, though.

Fresh air!

Fresh air does wonders. In the literal sense, certainly – try spending just a little time outside every day (scuttling to and from the car doesn’t count) and see what happens. There’s something about the feeling of fresh air on skin, even if there’s a chill to it, that acts as an instant livening-up agent.

There’s fresh air in the figurative sense as well, and it can be just as helpful. Want to instigate change in your life? Who says you have to do it on January 1? Why not on February 1? There’s nothing stopping you from adding fresh air to your life. And if you’re one of those who dove fast and deep into 2015, why not come up for a breath of fresh air?

I vote that we all treat 2015 like a long race. Let’s go into it with purpose and smiles on our faces, but pace ourselves, knowing that (happily) we have the whole rest of the year in front of us.

Dressing Up in Denver

The drive from Albuquerque to Denver is blessedly simple. Get on I-25, point your car north, and just keep going.

Last Friday after work, I made that drive to spend the weekend with my friend Emily and her awesome hubby, Robbie. As if hanging out with them wouldn’t be fun enough, Emily had volunteered to be my wingwoman as I faced the exciting-but-scary adventure of…Trying On Wedding Dresses.

Fueled by anticipation, snacks, coffee, and music cranked to road trip volume, the drive passed quickly. Nevertheless, it was late by the time I parked along Emily’s curb, so after a big hug and a quick catch-up chat, we both went to bed. Visiting three bridal shops on insufficient sleep didn’t seem like a sound idea to either of us.

The next morning we cruised through Starbucks for breakfast and lots of caffeine. There I learned Lesson #1 of the day.

Lesson #1: I’m the kind of woman who devours an egg-and-sausage muffin immediately before trying on wedding dresses.

We arrived at the first shop, and I immediately felt out of my element. My outfits consist mainly of jeans and t-shirts, and there I was surrounded by tulle, silk, and lace. And elegance. My God, the elegance was palpable!

Lesson #2: When trying on wedding dresses, bring a friend. One who is smart, gracious, and stylish, who also knows your style. Thankfully, I had just such a friend with me.

My stylist introduced herself, and we got down to business.

Lesson #3: Make appointments. It’s just better that way.

I learned how to efficiently shimmy into and out of dresses. After nearly getting swallowed by a mountain of tulle, I decided that wide ‘n fluffy was not my style. I tried on a veil just for kicks, and to my surprise, loved it. I got to stand up on the little platform and twirl.

My inner bride started to awaken.

We floated to the next shop. I had hit my stride: I knew what I liked in a dress and what I didn’t like. The stylist, like a pacer during a marathon, matched my stride easily, keeping the mood light while remaining focused. Emily snapped photos of the dresses, provided constructive feedback, and asked all the insightful questions that never would have occurred to me.

More dresses! More twirling! More scrutinizing, smiling, shrugging, and squealing!

After the second appointment, it was time for lunch.

Lesson #4: Refueling is VITAL when dress shopping. If it’s in the form of a burger, fries, and beer, even better. Kudos to Yard House for being a great fuel station.

Our last appointment was at 5 o’clock. Guess what? It turns out that looking at wedding dresses all day doesn’t diminish their beauty one bit. As I tried on the last batch of dresses, I felt a little sad that the day was drawing to a close. But what a day it had been: the adrenaline! The flying fabric! (Seriously, those shops get BUSY on weekends). The reconnaissance!

Lesson #5: Just because a woman spends most of her time in jeans and sneakers, and prefers a hairband to a curling iron, doesn’t mean she can’t feel like a princess occasionally.

Thank you to Emily and Robbie for a delightful weekend. And thank you to the Bridal Collection, Blue Bridal Boutique, and Little White Dress for not once mocking my twirling.

whitedress

Savor

First things first: thank you everyone for all the kind comments on last week’s post! I still feel like I’m living in a crazy-wonderful-mind-blown dream state, and I have to remind myself constantly that I no longer have a boyfriend – I have a fiancé. It sounds so formal. Geez.

Right now a word that keeps coming to mind (maybe because I keep hearing it and reading it) is savor. Everyone says, “Embrace the fun of wedding planning, but don’t forget to pause and savor the engagement period. Savor the celebrating. Savor the love that’s the reason for it all.”

In other words, don’t go insane. On behalf of all brides-to-be, I am totally on board with that advice. And what’s a great way to not go insane? Not to mention a great way to savor life more?

You know the answer: running.

I signed up to run a 5k next month. I did this for two reasons: 1) Because of my New Year’s resolution to toe the starting line of a race again (I know a 5k doesn’t seem like a dramatic, glorious re-entry into racing, but it’s better than nothing); and 2) To hold myself accountable to running. Running to me is like a friend that I’ve had for a long, long time. I wouldn’t up and drop that friendship just because I’m getting married, so why would I drop running? As a matter of fact, it’s occurring to me as I write this that the wedding will fall just a week or two before my 20th running anniversary. Two big milestones.

Now that’s something to savor.

Actually, there’s a third reason that I signed up for the 5k: I have a finite number of races before I’m going to be registering for them with a different last name. Maybe it’s silly to care, but I’ve been registering as a Banks since I was 14! Bearing that name, I’ve run races of every distance from 800 meters to 26.2 miles, including whatever strange distance is covered in San Francisco’s Bay to Breakers. I’ve had ugly races, fun races, frustrating races, and races that made me cry with happiness.

I know without a doubt that I’ll run many memorable races with my new last name (I kinda think Shannon Sapp has a nice ring to it), but I will raise my hand up and admit it: I’m a little sad to let go of the old one.

So…

I’m going to savor every drop of my last races as a Banks. I have a goal to run at least two by summertime.

I’m going to savor the fact that I’m engaged to a man who supports my running, and whose family feels the same way. They got me running clothes for Christmas – how cool is that?

I’m going to savor the fact that, with the ever-increasing popularity of running, there are races available just about any time of year for folks like me trying to get back on the racing wagon.

Most of all, though, I’m going to savor this: as I dive headfirst into wedding planning, that necessary pause, that reliable path back to sanity, is just a pair of running shoes away.

pinkshoes

The Best Surprise EVER!

My arm is black and blue from all the pinching it has received over the last seven days. I tell you, it is mind-boggling how much life can change in a week.

I guess I should begin at the beginning.

New Year’s Eve 2014 dawned just like my last several New Year’s Eves. I got up and went to work. Mercifully, the bosses let us go an hour early. Recognizing a golden opportunity, I drove home and promptly took a nap – Robin Hood and I had plans to go to a friend’s house for a New Year’s Eve party, and I wanted to actually make it to midnight. It’s embarrassing when everyone else around you is raising their glasses when the Times Square ball drops and you’re on the couch, snoring.

I woke up from my nap refreshed, and went out for the obligatory last-day-of-2014 run. I did some reflecting on the last year, and thought about everything that had happened in both my running and non-running life. I enjoyed the fresh air. It was a good run.

Our friend’s party didn’t start until 8, so Robin Hood and I relaxed, ordered pizza, and watched TV. When it was time to get ready, I aimed myself at the cute-but-casual outfit I had planned, but the boyfriend put on a sad face when he found out I wasn’t dressing up. Off went the warm jeans. On went the skirt (a wintertime skirt, but still a skirt, on a bone-chillingly-cold night).

Okay, in hindsight, dressing up was a good idea. But there was definitely some nose-wrinkling in the moment.

We went over to the party, where we mingled, enjoyed delicious snacks, and played Cards Against Humanity. I had never played it before, and I LOVED IT. Have you ever played it? It’s like Apples to Apples, only much more…uh…adult. I don’t recommend playing it when small children are present. We played countless rounds, hilarity ensued, and I made a mental note to buy it for myself as soon as possible.

Time flew. Before I knew it, it was time to forget about the game and focus on the TV. Everyone at the party – between 10 and 20 people, I think – gathered in the living room for the big countdown. As the Times Square ball slid down, we all shouted “10! 9!” and so forth.

When we got to zero, the room fell silent. The TV went mute. I hesitated for a second, then thought, well someone has to be loud, and I shouted “HAPPY NEW YEAR!!” Everyone else stayed silent. I was confused and slightly exasperated. Um, hello? It’s the new year? 2015? What’s wrong with you people?!

Then – and I can’t remember if it was of my own volition, or if someone discreetly indicated that I should – I turned to my left.

Then I saw Robin Hood getting down on one knee.

Then he pulled out a little black box.

Then he asked me to marry him.

After that, it’s kind of a blur. According to the video recorded by one of our friends (they were all in on it), I shrieked “YES!!!” and there was much hugging, smooching, champagne spilling, and cheering from the sidelines.

It’s still a blur. The happiest blur of my life.

proposal

On Your Mark, Get Set…

Happy 2015, everyone!

I hope the holidays were fabulous for all of you. For me, they were a whirlwind of airports, hugs, mouthwatering food, more hugs, bright lights, and glorious chaos. I got to run in places that I took for granted for years, and see faces that I stopped taking for granted a long time ago.

The cherry on top? Robin Hood got to meet my family…and won over the whole dang crowd. I think even my 2-month-old niece drooled her approval.

It all went by, as usual, much too quickly, and already I can’t wait for the next time we all hang out together.

But for now…it’s a new year!

In the past, I’ve avoided New Year’s Resolutions. I’m not sure why – maybe I’ve always thought that if I give my intentions a label, they will be doomed to not survive past January 31. Or maybe I’ve just been too busy slurping ruby red grapefruit (they’re in season, and they’re delicious). Or maybe the act of deliberately putting off taking Christmas decorations down takes more out of me than I thought. At any rate, resolutions have never been my thing.

This year, it’s different.

Imagine running a marathon without any mile markers and without a Garmin or any similar self-tracking device. You’d be plugging away, vaguely knowing that you’re making some sort of progress, but lacking a firm grasp of it. There would be contentment, but also…cloudiness.

That’s my current mental state. So I’m setting down mile markers for myself to clarify, motivate, and bring a little concrete accomplishment to my life.

• The first is to pick a race already. I’ve been telling myself for weeks…okay, months…that I need to get back in the saddle (er, starting corral?). Nothing kicks a new year of running into gear like filling out a registration form. I’ve got my eye on two races here in Albuquerque, but I have a weakness for destination races, especially for longer-distance events. And, trying to be mindful of my Texan boyfriend, I figure it would be fun to find a race in his home state. So I’ll pose this question: Can any of you recommend a half or full marathon in the Dallas-Fort Worth or Austin areas?

• The second is to get back into a church routine. I pray, and read devotionals, and my relationship with God has unquestionably improved over the past year. I’m happy about all of this. But something is still missing, which could be explained by the fact that I don’t go to church as often as I could. I found a church that I like. It’s close to home. One hour a week. No more excuses.

• The third is to start twice-a-week walks with Robin Hood. He wants to exercise more. I like to exercise. He doesn’t much like running, so for the sake of convenience, walking it is! We used to have a weekly run/walk routine, which was quality, outdoorsy time spent together, and which culminated in our participation in Albuquerque’s Sweetheart Run 5k last February. Then we just kind of slid away from the routine. It’s time to bring it back. Who knows? Maybe we’ll do the Sweetheart together again.

What will you use as your mile markers this year?

Time plays a major role in my life. Being a runner, with almost two decades’ worth of performances measured by large, bright, relentlessly ticking clocks, I guess that’s no surprise. Working in the field I do, where the rallying cry is “Get this done ASAP!” all day long, I guess it’s really no surprise. Time has become my constant companion, to the point where, if I’m not in a room with some sort of timepiece present, I get a teensy bit uncomfortable.

I know. Even as I write this, I’m cringing.

For me, the sure sign of a successful vacation, weekend, or random day off is if I lose track of what time it is. That means I’m relaxed. That means I’m focusing more on what I’m doing, and who I’m doing it with, then whether it’s being done in a timely manner, or what else I can accomplish in the day’s remaining hours.

It usually takes me a couple of days to reach that state. I like to think this is perfectly normal. I compare it to running intervals – if I were doing mile repeats, or a hill workout, it would be near impossible to instantaneously go from an all-out effort, with arms pumping and heart hammering, to a serene, peaceful standstill. Usually there’s a cool-down period. Maybe some ragged breathing, maybe a staggering shuffle. But instantaneous change? If anyone out there is able to pull that off, you have my admiration!

My point is, it takes time for me to unwind. But it happens. At some point, my eyes no longer fly straight to the clock when I walk into a room. Mealtimes resemble mealtimes instead of just efficient consumption of food. I become much less concerned about how long my runs take. I don’t feel a pressing urge to hurry through post-run stretches, strength exercises, and my shower in order to do whatever else needs to be done that day. In fact, the phrase “needs to be done” starts getting called more and more into question.

Similar to finishing the last interval of a hard workout, or crossing the last item off of my “Christmas gifts to buy” list, the realization that I’ve finally achieved that elusive state of relaxation is one marvelous feeling. It doesn’t matter if I limp into it, or cruise into it, or blink and find that it has taken me by surprise. I’ve let time go, and that’s all that matters.

Everyone says (myself included) that now is the time of year to slow down. Sit still. Stop and smell the Christmas trees. But as we’re surrounded by countdowns (less than a week till Christmas! Less time than that to mail packages!); the hurry-delay-hurry-reschedule-hurry of travel; and all the last-minute stress that invariably pops up, slowing down is a lot easier said than done.

Is it me, or has the well-intentioned counsel to “slow down” become just another source of holiday pressure?

Both speeding up and slowing down imply measurement of time. I say, stop worrying about pace. Fast, slow – does it matter? Less measuring, more treasuring. Let’s focus on what we’re doing and who we’re doing it with, and just let time go.

Have a safe and wonderful holiday! I’ll see you in 2015!

Lightening Up

On Tuesday night, Robin Hood and I met up with a few friends at Albuquerque’s River of Lights. I’ve gone in past years, and what a difference between going on a weeknight and going on a weekend. So much easier to park! So much easier to get tickets! So much easier to take a step without having to worry about trampling small herds of children!

You’re probably familiar with the “River of Lights” concept – a city takes a large public area, does it up with holiday lights, and visitors either drive a route around the lights or walk among them.

In Albuquerque’s case, it’s the Botanical Gardens, and we get to walk around. The lights are spread out all over the park, with varying themes: flowers, marine life, dinosaurs, tractors, you name it. And it’s not just lights. There are carolers, hot cocoa stands, a brass band, and a maze. There are greenhouses and an impressive train display that, if you let it, could probably hypnotize you.

If anyone is feeling a little Grinchy, I challenge them to go to the River of Lights and not have their hearts grow two sizes.

That’s one of the reasons I love the event – or really any kind of holiday light display; the time I spend lingering in front of particularly colorful houses when I’m out running is borderline inappropriate. That warm, fuzzy feeling is irresistible.

The biggest reason I like the River of Lights, though, is that I can walk through the gates and instantly revert to childhood. And it’s perfectly okay. I wanted to explore all of the park’s paths simultaneously, and repeatedly. I tugged Robin Hood’s arm whenever I saw an especially dazzling display (apologies for the bruises, sweetheart). I stood transfixed by a towering light show that was coordinated to flash in time with music from The Nutcracker. The electric trains and the villages constructed along the miniature train tracks evoked squeaks of excitement (ok, there were several squeaks throughout the evening. I’m not ashamed). And, having discovered long ago that there’s really no mature, ladylike way to drink cocoa topped by a veritable Matterhorn of whipped cream, I slurped away contentedly.

I forgot all about holiday stress.

Here’s the thing. Somehow, when I’m standing in front of a live performance of “Carol of the Bells” or gazing out at a sea of neon, I have a hard time worrying. About anything. For a moment, life ceases to be a blur of errands, social functions, lost gloves and shopping lists, and narrows down to what I can see in the twinkling glow of the lights: people. Namely, my people.

I don’t know about you, but this time of year, I always need reminders about priorities. The holiday season isn’t about sending cards out on time, or at all. It’s not about quantities of treats baked or not baked, consumed or not consumed. It’s not even about the lights. Ok, it’s a little about the lights.

Mainly, it’s about love. It’s about spending time with your people. Simple as that. If, like me, you need a reminder, I recommend grabbing one of those people and finding a good light display. A cup of cocoa topped by a Matterhorn of whipped cream doesn’t hurt either.

RiverOfLights

I love a holiday. A holiday that’s actually two holidays in one is even better. And when those two holidays are Thanksgiving and Christmas: whoa. Food! Presents! Chalk! Glitter!

Let me back up.

Robin Hood and I spent Thanksgiving weekend in his homeland of Texas. We began our odyssey on Tuesday evening, driving from Albuquerque to Lubbock, where we spent the night at a friend’s house. On Wednesday, we continued eastward until we reached a parcel of land near the town of Graham. Here we would remain until the following evening – Robin Hood’s family had decided to shift Turkey Day to Friday – with one goal: venison.

Hunting is still shiny and new to me, so I eagerly camouflaged up and joined my man in his tree stand. I was there as an observer (someday I’ll be skilled enough to actively hunt, but not yet) and tried to absorb as much as I could. Not for the first time, I noticed similarities between hunting and another favored outdoor activity of mine: running.

For both, it seems the optimal times are during sunrise and sunset. Whether sitting still in camo or striding along in neon, those hours are magical. They’re a chance to fill ourselves with quiet before a bustling, noisy day, or a chance to relax and exhale at the end of that day.

Perspective is also key in both activities. In hunting, few things are more frustrating than shooting the quarry but then not being able to find it – whether because of a setting sun, a spry animal, or just bad luck. In running, a comparable experience is being this close to a PR, only to have it elude us by a few seconds. Or having one foot out the door to go for a daily run, only to have an urgent task call us back.

None of that is fun. But in both hunting and running, as tempting as it is to stew and re-analyze the situation over and over, we have to maintain perspective. There will be another day. There will be more animals to hunt, and there will be more miles to run. Dusting ourselves off lets the light in.

Long story short: Robin Hood didn’t get a deer. But it was still fun, memories were made, and we drove on to Fort Worth just in time for….

….Thanksgiving-Christmas-Black-Friday-Day-Of-JOY!! The hunting trip delayed Thanksgiving, and the fact that Robin Hood will accompany me to Virginia for Christmas brought about his family’s decision to celebrate Christmas early. Combining the two holidays into one turned out splendidly. We cooked a bunch, ate a bunch, wrote down what we were thankful for on chalkboard placemats, and wore paper crowns. I can’t remember where the glitter came from, but it was there, and it was fabulous. We exchanged gifts, and I caught my eyes welling up more than once.

I snuck several runs in during our stay in Fort Worth, and yup, they were right around sunrise. I wasn’t stalking any deer or chasing any PRs; I was just loping along under tall, leafy trees in early morning quiet. When I reached my turnaround point to head back to the family I’ve come to love, I thought to myself, Louis Armstrong was right.

What a wonderful world.

Happy Thanksgiving!

There’s a lot to be said for blank pages.

True, they can be intimidating. But they’re also opportunities.

When I first sat down to write this post, I was inspired. I was motivated. My fingers flew across the keyboard. It was easy. Then I paused, read what I had just written…and hit Delete.

All I had done with that burst of creativity was write a paragraph of venting about holiday stress. It didn’t make me feel any better – actually, it made me more stressed just looking at it – and I knew it wouldn’t make anyone else feel any better. I was back to a blank page.

This time of year, the opening of the holiday season, is a blank page. We can fill that page with to-do lists and to-buy lists. We can fill it with things that keep us busy, make us stressed, and make us mad. We can even crumple that blank page into a ball, or tear it into pieces, and throw it away.

Or we can do something else with it.

We can fill the page with a list of things we’re thankful for. Of people we’re thankful for. We can draw a picture of a holiday scene (I recommend using crayons or scented Magic Markers. It’s just more fun that way.). We can use the page to wrap a present for someone.

In the spirit of today’s holiday, here are a few things and people I’m thankful for:

Fireplaces. I am loving fireplaces right now. Maybe it’s because for the first time in years I’m living in a home that has a fireplace (even if it’s gas instead of wood-burning), or maybe it’s just because it’s cold outside, but if I’m in a room with a fireplace I find myself unable to stay away. Ahhh…warmth!

Trying new things. Namely, a new church. I like the place and the people and the general feeling I get just from walking through its doors, and plan to attend more services there.

…But not letting go of old things. Namely, running. Between the not-always-cooperative weather of winter, and the frenetic pace of the holidays, it can be tough to keep running in the picture. But knowing what even 20 or 30 minutes of running does for me (especially on the days when that’s the only time I have all to myself) is enough to keep it a high priority. Not to mention the chance to sport my fluorescent pink running jacket always makes my day a little more awesome.

My family. What can I say? I love them and I don’t think I could ask for a better one.

The “Good-Enough Housekeeping” page of Good Housekeeping magazine. Thank God for this. It’s never pretty when we work ourselves into such a state of anxiety that we snap like a turkey wishbone. Can we all just give ourselves (and other people, while we’re at it) a break?

My boyfriend. For having a fire in our fireplace when I get home. And doing a startlingly good turkey imitation. And lots of other mushy love stuff.

This time of year is a blank page. The cursor is blinking. What are you going to write?

fireplace

Medic!

Robin Hood had a touch of food poisoning last week.

While I would never wish anyone the experience of watching a loved one go through that, I will say that it taught me some valuable lessons.

I know that love means thinking of others, and realizing that their needs equal and sometimes trump your own. But last weekend really hammered that home. And the kicker was that I didn’t mind. At all. There was no resentment, no feeling that my time was being infringed upon. I didn’t care that I was up in the middle of the night, Googling symptoms that I shan’t describe. I didn’t care that I used one of my own sick days to care for someone else (hello, I’m not going to work when my boyfriend has been stationed in the bathroom for hours). I didn’t care that I skipped my run that day. Frankly, watching Robin Hood finally sleeping soundly, and then later, actually eating again, brought me peace of mind that could rival any post-run glow.

I realized that I am truly invested in someone other than myself, and it felt nice.

Another thing I learned was humility. No one has all the answers or all the healing powers or all the anything. I helped Robin Hood as best I could, but there was little I could do other than make sure he was comfortable and somewhat hydrated. I camped out in the hallway by the bathroom so I could at least be nearby, and while the floor was surprisingly cozy, it was still frustrating. I didn’t know what to do – drag him to the emergency room? Force water down his throat? Continue doing Internet research and conclude that he has some sort of awful Ebola/E. coli hybrid? I know Googling symptoms is a terrible idea, but I’m not my most rational self at 3:00 am.

Or…wait and hope for the best?

Well, just after I had resolved to drive him to a doctor as soon as he was able to stand, he fell asleep. And slept. And slept.

Then another lesson emerged: patience. And right on its heels, its cousin: faith. After Robin Hood fell asleep, so did I. When I woke up and confirmed that he was still sleeping, I padded to the kitchen. I fixed myself breakfast, and then, sitting at the table, pondered what to do next. I figured, why not revert to routine? I got my devotional books, did that day’s readings, and prayed. I prayed for Robin Hood to get better, and prayed for guidance for myself.

I don’t know if it was the food or the prayer – probably both – but the next time I peered in at my patient, it dawned on me that the best thing to do was to take a deep breath, relax, and let him get the rest he needed.

That night, as I watched him munch toast and sip Gatorade, I thought about the lessons I was learning. I said a quiet prayer of thanks for them. But I suspect that when it comes to realizing the power of prayer, the power of the human body, and the power that we all have to be there for loved ones when they need us…I haven’t even scratched the surface.

Arizona Dreamin’

As I write this, the temperature in Albuquerque hovers around 30 degrees. In 24 hours, I went from running in shorts and a t-shirt to running in long tights, multiple layers, and gloves.

Sheesh, Winter. You could have knocked!

The cold snap makes me doubly grateful for the trip I took last weekend.

About a year ago, my friends Tara and Randy moved from Albuquerque to Scottsdale, Arizona, taking with them their adorable daughter, Avianna, their two Italian Greyhounds, and some fabulous memories. I wished them well and told them, and myself, that I would be out there soon to visit.

Well, life happened, and almost a year later, I had yet to make good on those words. When this dawned on me, I cringed. Then I gave myself a kick in the butt. Then I took action. I checked my calendar; Tara checked hers; and I booked those plane tickets.

It was just a quick weekend trip, but it was so worth it.

Tara picked me up from the airport, and the catching-up began immediately. We arrived at their house, where we were greeted by Randy, the dogs, and a sleepy toddler. After tucking the toddler in, the grown-ups had cookies, wine, and chatted until we were all falling asleep in the living room.

The next morning, after a quick run around a ridiculously beautiful neighborhood (palm trees, saguaro cacti, flowers…ahhhh) we went to watch Avianna play soccer. Have you ever seen three- and four-year-olds play soccer? If not, do so immediately. It was the best Saturday morning entertainment I’ve had in a long time.

After the game ended and each tiny athlete got their snack, we headed to downtown Phoenix to check out a family-friendly Fall Festival. Granted, my weakness for festivals in general makes me a little prejudiced, but it was great! Local restaurants had tents where they sold samples for a dollar apiece – and I didn’t taste one sample that I didn’t like. Pumpkin soup, homemade ice cream sandwiches, tacos, the darkest chocolate I’ve ever had (80%!!)…all of it delicious. And for kids, there was a bouncy house, face painting, temporary tattoos, and a variety of art activities. The sun was warm, the lemonade was cold, and a good time was had by all.

That’s how the weekend went. Hanging out with people I’ve known for years – they were among my first Albuquerque friends – didn’t feel nostalgic so much as just comfortable. When I relaxed on a couch with the dogs in my lap, talked in the kitchen during mealtime preparations, and read stories to Avianna, it didn’t seem at all like a year had gone by. It seemed like we were just picking up right where we left off.

Don’t you love friendships like that? Friendships where there may be hundreds or thousands of miles between you, but when you reunite, the rhythm that you established however many years ago picks right back up? I’m blessed with several such friendships, and knowing their strength has provided comfort more times than I can count.

Tara and Randy: thank you for a terrific weekend. And during my run tomorrow, when I’m all bundled up with my face going numb, I’ll just imagine I’m in Scottsdale, trotting along under citrus trees, in shorts.

Identity

Last weekend I received that oh-so-fun call from my credit card company. Do you know the one I’m talking about? The one where they inform you that a charge has been made waaay out of your usual zip code? Yup. That one.

Thankfully, my credit card company was on the ball and sounded the alarm immediately, so we were able to freeze the card before much damage was done. As I listened on the phone to the very kind and helpful representative, I asked myself wryly, Geez, what about my identity is cool enough that someone would want to steal it?

These days, the phrase “identity theft” is equated with money. Compromised credit card equals loss of money equals stolen identity.

But is our identity gone? Are we defined by nothing more than a small plastic rectangle and/or a string of numbers?

Lord, I hope not.

True, my finances are a part of my life, and necessary, if I want to pay for food, rent, clothing, and other essentials. They’re not, however, my identity. I don’t say “I am my bank account.”

This begs the question: what is my identity? What makes me who I am?

The list is long, but would go something like: I am a runner. I am a writer. I am a daughter/granddaughter/sister/niece/aunt/cousin/friend/girlfriend. I am a Catholic. I am an American. And so on. I’m not including things I do, because I do plenty of things that I don’t associate with my identity. Household chores, for example, are precisely that: chores, not defining characteristics.

I’m realizing, though, that defining characteristics may seem permanent (I’ll always be a runner! My relationship is indestructible!), but are far from it. They’re just as vulnerable to compromise as our credit cards. Just as we have to be vigilant about our credit card information – Is that website really secure? Are we checking our billing statements regularly? – we need to be just as vigilant elsewhere.

In fact, our finances and our “real” identity have a lot in common. It’s generally considered wise to put money into a savings account, right? Well, when I run, those miles go into a bank. Call it the bank of mental and physical health. When I visit my family, that goes into a bank, and when I pray, that goes into a bank. Devoting time to the different aspects of my identity adds value to each one – and the more I add now, the more I can draw from when the need arises. The euphemism “staying afloat” is not just a financial one.

It’s also a common financial practice to invest – to branch out into new areas once we have a secure base. We do research, we pick something worthwhile to invest in, we give, and hopefully, we see growth. Isn’t this something we also do with ourselves? We seek growth, so we look for things to add to our personal portfolios, i.e., identities. How often do we say “I want to be a…”? Going from that statement to “I am a…” takes work, and a little risk, but how gratifying is it when that new investment pays off?

What’s your identity? What are you doing to keep it secure and help it grow?

Scaredy-Cat

Happy Halloween!

All month long, Robin Hood and I have been watching scary movies. Older ones, newer ones; obscure ones, classics. Some have turned out to be goofy; others have turned out to be terrifying.

I have a low fear threshold when it comes to movies. I’ve banned myself from watching scary movies in a theatre for two reasons:

1) I have a tendency to scream precisely when the director wants me to scream. Loudly. Robin Hood claims that I make movies twice as scary for him to watch because of my vocals. Thus, to prevent public embarrassment and to avoid accidently giving some innocent stranger a heart attack, I think it best to keep to my own living room.

2) In an effort to avoid the screaming, sometimes I’ll just look away from the screen or close my eyes when I know something awful is about to jump out. While watching the most recent version of Evil Dead, I had my eyes closed for approximately the entire second half. My point is that I’m not going to pay movie theatre prices if I’m not technically even watching the movie.

The situation is not helped by the fact that Robin Hood has been out of town a lot recently — earlier this week he was in Amarillo for work, and this weekend he’s out hunting (hopefully not running into any zombie elk or possessed bears). Needless to say, I’ve been a little more…uh…careful at night when he’s gone. Leaving a couple of extra lights on and keeping a knife in the bedroom is perfectly normal, right??

Why then, you ask, do I watch the scary movies? Why do I seek them out and cram my senses and imagination full of them? Why do I want what I fear?

The most obvious reason is that it’s a festive thing to do this time of year. And yes…I admit that seeing my boyfriend jump a mile when I shriek is a tiny bit funny. But honestly?

It’s to prove to myself that I can. I can approach something that freaks me out, face it (or, okay, at least listen to it), and stick it out till the end.

Maybe this is also why I’m okay with Robin Hood being away. Maybe I need to get comfortable with being alone in a house at night. Being alone in a house is different than being alone in an apartment. It just is. Shadows and noises that play tricks on the brain are good reminders to breathe, summon up some rational thoughts no matter how difficult that is, and know that everything’s going to be fine.

And maybe it sounds goofy, but I like to think that if I make time once a year to actively seek that which I avoid the rest of the year, it will make me a stronger person. I can watch The Shining and Paranormal Activity and manage to sleep like the dead (heh heh) afterwards? Shoot, I can do anything!

To everyone who hates scary movies: Try a couple. They’re not so bad, really.

To everyone else: Try something that freaks you out a little. I guarantee you’ll feel stronger afterwards. And if, while you wait for that feeling to kick in, you turn a few extra lights on, I won’t judge.

The ‘S’ Word

I’m going to take a deep breath, close my eyes, and just say it:

I am in a running slump. My running has hit doldrums; it has been becalmed; I can almost hear the wind leaking out of its sails: ppffffssshhh.

Boredom has set in.

I know it’s not the end of the world — any runner who has been at it for a few years can tell you that running can get mundane. If they deny it, they’re lying. The routine and discipline we runners pride ourselves on can sometimes be downright wretched. It’s just a fact of the sport. This statement is usually followed by a smile and words to the effect of “But that’s the beauty of running! That’s what gives runners their mental and physical strength and awe-inspiring endurance!”

HA. <—- That's the slump speaking.

The slump will pass eventually. In the meantime, I'm appreciating little shots in the arm. Earlier this week, I went for a run and got rained on — yes, legitimately rained on, in Albuquerque. It felt fabulous. The temperature was cool but not bone-chilling, the rain fell in more or less straight lines, and my ponytail was a gloriously tangled mess when I got home (which no longer bothers me since I've discovered the phenomenal powers of conditioner. Gobs of it.). That rain refreshed me in every way possible.

Then, on another day, I was running along a street in my neighborhood when I heard a vehicle approach from behind. I sensed the vehicle slow down and I turned, not sure if it would be fight or flight, only to see…Robin Hood! He was grinning his head off and blasting the Chariots of Fire theme as his truck rolled alongside me. There is nothing like a surprise cheerleader (especially a handsome one) to brighten up a weekday run. Days later, I’m still smiling about that.

But if there’s anything I’ve learned, it’s that A) slumps (in running or anything else) rarely pack up and leave on their own, and B) relying on external shots in the arm, like rain and great boyfriends, only gets us so far. Sooner or later we have to start tugging on those bootstraps and pulling ourselves out of the slump.

There are countless ways to de-slump. We can change our focus. We can quit concentrating on ourselves so much and do something for those around us, whether through words or actions. We can try something new. We can acknowledge a challenge that’s been dangling in front of us for ages and go for it rather than continuing to shy away. We can even, yes, give ourselves a break, because many a slump recedes after nothing more than a good night’s sleep.

I think my ticket out of this one is a race. I’m not sure which race, or even the distance, but I want something to focus on. Something to give me a rock-solid reason to lace up the running shoes and get out the door. I have this tiny craving to chart a training plan, crank up that “discipline” thing again, and see what happens.

What’s your favorite way to de-slump?

Chili for the Soul

In Kristin Armstrong’s “Mile Markers” column last week, she wrote about the importance of treating yourself to little luxuries. Nothing huge, just everyday stuff that makes other people shrug and ask “What’s the big deal?” — but makes you blissfully happy.

I loved this and got to thinking about a few little luxuries that I’m enjoying right now:

Homemade cooking. I made my first-ever chili last month (don’t worry, New Mexico readers, I love chile, too). Luckily, it was edible, and I decided I wanted to try more recipes. And by “recipes” I mean “throwing together whatever is in the fridge and pantry, saying a quick prayer, then sipping wine from the bottle that I opened to add some fun zing to the chili.” I made my second batch last weekend, and now I’m hooked. There’s just something about soup simmering in a warm kitchen and filling the house with yummy aromas as the weather turns colder. It’s good for the belly and the soul.

Daylight. It’s almost fall-back time, and already you can notice the sun bowing out a little earlier. Let me put it bluntly: I DON’T LIKE IT. I used to enjoy that extra hour of sleep, but now I realize that the extra hour is only noticeable for one night. I’d happily give up an hour of sleep for more daylight. These days, I’m trying to get outside and enjoy late afternoon sunshine as much as possible while it lasts. Although I admit: I do love being able to watch sunsets during my wintertime runs. Silver lining. Speaking of running…

Running. Running enables the aforementioned daylight savoring. Not to mention October is arguably the finest month of the year to run just about everywhere. The temperature, the natural scenery, the abundance of races…it’s tough to beat. And all of those races? You don’t have to run in any to benefit from them! You can’t surf the running web these days without seeing an article about a race that either just happened or is about to happen. It’s instant motivation for a workout.

Not running. I’m not training for any races right now. I’m running simply because I love it. Which feels deliiiiiightful. I can (and do) go for spontaneous long runs…or I can (and do) go and get my hair done. I can decide that today is an “I must run up a hill over and over again” kind of day…or I can run a couple of miles, then come home and do exercises in the living room with ’80s music blaring. I don’t have to worry about any one workout leaving me over-tired for the next day, and I don’t feel (too) guilty about skipping a day. I recommend the experience.

Living with someone. Yes, I count this as a luxury. Living with someone means that I have someone to share that homemade cooking with (and it certainly doesn’t hurt that he contributes to the cooking). Living with someone means that I had someone to help me find, and extract, the microscopic-yet-agonizing splinter in my foot recently. Living with someone is particularly wonderful this month, because it means I don’t have to watch my annual pre-Halloween spate of scary movies by myself. It’s nice when you’re not the only one who wants to leave the lights on all night long.

What kinds of small luxuries make up the chili for your soul?

Family Ties

Yesterday, in an attempt to shake morning sluggishness and distract myself from missing my parents — these visits go by way too fast — I decided to run some hill repeats.

My first ascent was, unsurprisingly, adrenaline-charged and a tad too eager. Panting at the top of the hill, I reminded myself that I wasn’t done. The second ascent, in sharp contrast, was lackluster and unfocused. Apparently, my sluggishness was not to be shaken so easily.

Trotting slowly back down the hill for #3, I tried to come up with motivational tactics. It didn’t work; my mind wandered. I thought of my parents, who were at that moment driving up to Colorado for a visit with my sister and her husband. I thought of my sister, who’s in the home stretch of her first season as a middle school cross-country coach (and doing fabulously). I thought of my brother and sister-in-law in California, who are getting ready to welcome their second child into the world.

When I swatted the street sign signifying the start of my next repeat, it may as well have been a swat to my own head. Motivation? Duh. Family!

For each of the rest of my hill repeats, I concentrated on one family member. I pumped my arms and legs for them; I prayed for them; on their behalf, I gulped air and swiped errant drool off of my chin. I can’t say the last few repeats were any prettier than the first, but they sure felt better.

We talk about the connection to our families in a variety of ways: as “family ties,” “coils,” “tentacles,” and plenty of even less flattering metaphors. All of them illustrate the power of family to pull us in and keep us close. They illustrate the difficulty, or utter inability, we have in completely breaking free of our families.

But what about the other end of those coils?

Sure, ropes and cords can be used to capture, snare, control, and punish. We can look at them and shudder, or fight them, or bolt from them.

They can also be used for good. They can be used to reinforce, extend, connect — and free! Think about bungee cords: people go bungee-jumping all the time. The cord is simultaneously the means to safety and thrilling adventure. Think about hot air balloons: ropes and lines keep the balloon steady on the ground, but ropes and lines also hold the balloon together, enabling us to have the breath-taking experience of floating in the sky.

We can look at our family ties as a rope that controls, or a rope that enables. When we’re with family, especially the family members who have known us all our lives, we can’t hide from who we are. NOT always a pleasant thought. But the ties are also there to strengthen. They’re bungees, to let you have adventure and security. They’re hot air balloon lines, to give you stability and help you fly. They’re lifelines, to pull your thoughts away from yourself for the length of a workout, or to pull your days away from wearisome routine for the length of a visit, or to pull your life away from bad habits for the length of, well, a life.

I don’t know about you, but I’ll take mine double-knotted.

balloons2014

Fall Break

In college, every October we would have a four-day weekend known as Fall Break. Maybe the administrators felt bad about having Spring Break with no corresponding respite in the fall, or maybe they thought that from late August to Thanksgiving was too long to go without any downtime. Whatever their reasoning, no one questioned Fall Break. It was a chance to flee campus for a few days, to exhale the air of lecture halls and inhale the changing of the seasons.

I’m bringing Fall Break back.

My parents arrive in Albuquerque later today, and I’ve taken a week off from work for the occasion. A full, glorious, week!

Usually when they visit, it’s in the summer. There’s nothing wrong with that, and we always have a lovely time, but this time of year in Albuquerque…ahhhh.

If you ask any resident of Albuquerque, “What’s the best time of year to visit?” the answer will likely be October. The main reason for that is simple enough: Balloon Fiesta. And Balloon Fiesta IS a huge deal, frankly because it’s bona fide awesome. I’ve seen the most jaded people I know get downright gushy when it comes to Fiesta. It doesn’t matter whether you prefer watching balloons fill the sky from afar, or whether you like being down in the thick of the action with a camera in one hand and a breakfast burrito in the other. It’s an event definitely worth checking out.

Balloon Fiesta is great. But it’s hardly the only reason October is loved in this town. October brings the real and true arrival of fall weather. Needing a jacket in the morning but shedding it in the afternoon? Delightful! The smell of roasting green chile lingers in the air, and the changing leaves on the east side of the Sandias and along the Bosque are enough to make you forget you’re in the desert. October means visits to McCall’s Pumpkin Patch, and a fluttering among the local running community courtesy of the Duke City Marathon.

October!

My mind is spinning with ideas for things to do with my folks, and I know we’ll have all kinds of cool adventures. We’ll probably go hiking — and not, ahem, have to worry about overheating or starting out early enough to beat the heat! Maybe we’ll get some freshly-roasted green chiles and have them with supper. And we most certainly will get up in the dark hours of the morning, all of us clutching nuclear-strength coffee, to get a look at those hot air balloons.

But I’m also going to relish the unfolding of one of my favorite months. I’m going to take in and remember the look on my parents’ faces when they see the Dawn Patrol balloons all light up at the same time. I’m going to savor the feeling of long sleeves on my arms when I go out for morning runs. I’m going to indulge in a Pumpkin Spice Latte or two…and who am I kidding; I’ll probably indulge in a few yummy pumpkin-flavored beers as well (does anyone have a favorite to recommend?).

The seasons are changing. The air has shrugged off its summertime weight and replaced it with a new vigor. Take some time to breathe it in.

Rocking the Red Tent

I think this was all brought on by watching Spice World on Netflix recently. Even if you were never a Spice Girls fan, it’s wildly entertaining, and I especially recommend it if you have young daughters.

“Girl Power” has almost become a parody of itself in the last decade. People roll their eyes at it, or slap a clever hashtag on their tweets and call themselves feminists.

What would happen if we gave Girl Power more consideration? I don’t mean strutting around in platform shoes and being loud all the time. I mean appreciating the women in your life, and showing it.

Days after watching the movie, I noticed a parallel in the two morning devotional books I’ve been reading. They both emphasized the value of female friends in our lives, and the importance of nurturing those friendships.

As Kristin Armstrong notes:
“Remember slumber parties, playing with one another’s hair and talking and laughing deep into the night? That bliss of friendship is not reserved only for young girls. It is available and desirable to all of us, at any age. God knew we needed each other. He intended us to live in community and share our lives with one another. Think of the girlfriends you cherish today. Thank God for them. Call them. Write to them. See them. Love them.”

Distance doesn’t matter. Neither does the plain fact that life happens and sometimes months go by without seeing friends, even if they live in the same town. There are all kinds of ways you can maintain friendships.

Different books, different authors, same message. For two or three days in a row.

I got the hint.

I’d been meaning for months to visit a friend who moved away last fall; I finally booked that flight. I’d also been meaning to call another friend who I know is going through a tough time; I called her to check in and sent her a care package. Last weekend, I went to a bachelorette party and a jewelry party, and hung out with really cool women at each. And I had the privilege to cheer for (from afar) another friend who did a triathlon in Colorado.

None of these things took a lot of time. I had to ask myself, how often have I brushed off a golden opportunity to spend quality time with a friend(s) because I’m “too busy” or I think my man would disapprove or be offended?

Facing the answer to that question was like doing downward dog in a yoga class: horribly unpleasant, but beneficial.

I don’t want to be the kind of woman who ditches her female friends just because she’s in a fabulous romantic relationship. Or the kind of woman who makes new female friends courtesy of that relationship, and neglects the ones who knew her before. The ones who thought she was terrific with or without a man. I don’t want to wake up one morning and realize that I am completely alone in my red tent (read The Red Tent after you’ve watched Spice World).

When women support each other, phenomenal things happen. And really, truly, it doesn’t take much. It’s not necessary to schedule a twice-a-year four-day girl’s weekend at a five-star resort. A call, or email, or even just a simple “How’s it goin’?” text message can make someone’s day. And a few of those? They could be the difference between a woman being a shrinking violet and a woman who changes the world. Between a woman saying “Oh, I used to run…” and a woman who smashes world records in her 40s (last assignment, I promise: if you don’t know who Deena Kastor is, find out!).

I’m going to try harder to be a good friend. I’m going to hug my man for encouraging me in doing so. And I’m going to dust off my Spice Girls CDs and blast them.

Cheers, ladies!

That Rodeo Feeling

The New Mexico State Fair is in town! That means twirly rides, mind-blowing fried food, magnificent livestock, vendors of everything under the sun, and yes, 10-year-old 4-H girls who make better pies than I do. Sigh. But not to be outdone by any of this is one of the most exciting events I’ve ever watched: the RODEO!

It’s been years since I went to a rodeo, and sitting in the grandstand at Tingley Coliseum on Tuesday night, I asked myself, Why don’t I go to these things more often? I loved every bit of it, from the slightly-alarming-yet-adorable mutton busting to the way the barrel racers just came charging out of that gate. It was awesome.

The most exciting parts of the rodeo, though, were the bronco and bull riders. Talk about being on the edge of my seat, for each and every one of them. The defiance of the horses and bulls; the determination of the riders — how do you fit so much sheer grit into a period of eight seconds or less?

On my run the next day, I got to thinking about adrenaline. Not just your average heightened-senses adrenaline; I mean rodeo adrenaline, the kind that bull riders must feel: a primal, enormous surge of energy that’s met with an equally primal, ruthlessly-pinpointed focus. Where do the rest of us, the ones who aren’t regularly faced with the threat of trampling or kicking or goring, find that feeling?

Well, there were no hooves or horns involved, but the closest I’ve gotten to that feeling recently is through racing.

I ran a 10k last weekend. Correction: I raced a 10k last weekend. I wasn’t looking for a 6.2-mile training run; I didn’t want to see how my legs felt after the first mile and go from there. It had been over two years since I had pushed myself over a 10-kilometer distance, and I wanted to race. I wanted that feeling back.

It came back. The day before the race, I felt some little jitters. I eyed the other runners picking up their packets, sizing them up. I ate a conscientious dinner, and laid out my running gear before going to bed. I put myself to bed at a reasonable hour. Geez, I muttered at myself, it’s not THAT serious. But I went with it.

The morning of the race went fairly smoothly. I arrived with plenty of time to jog around a little, stretch, and make sufficient use of the Porta-Potties. It seemed like no time before I was at the start, doing my usual pre-race quasi-swaying while the race director gave his spiel.

The horn sounded, and we were off! I told myself, For the love of God, don’t go out too fast, and surprisingly, my legs actually listened. I felt good. I settled into what felt like a steady pace. I was racing!

My mile splits confirmed that yes, it had indeed been a while since I had raced a 10k, but no matter. I was pushing myself. I was passing (and being passed by) other runners. I took corners like I meant it. I even finished with some semblance of a kick!

Maybe it wasn’t rodeo-level adrenaline, but it lasted a lot longer than eight seconds.

Where do you find that rodeo feeling?

I didn’t have a plan for the Creede Mountain Run, other than “keep moving forward, even if it means stepping on a chipmunk.”

I had increased my mileage and done a few long runs in preparation, but other than that? There was just a lot of “I think I can, I think I can,” with vague memories of my one previous experience with this race four years ago.

Standing at the start with my sister and her husband, I felt optimistic. Conditions were clear and calm with a touch of chill. In other words, perfect. Erin and Adam knew a few of the other runners, so there was some friendly chit-chat — always an effective deterrent of pre-race jitters. I had gotten a good night’s sleep the night before.

Hmmm, I thought. Maybe this won’t be so terrible.

Fast-forward to the third mile. Erin and Adam were up ahead (I had firmly told them to not hold back on my account), and I was in a loose knot of runners spread along a dirt road that felt basically vertical. I pumped my arms. I more or less lifted my feet. I kept my head up. I peeked around, seeking inspiration from all the awesome runners who were sharing in this ordeal.

All of them were walking.

Crap.

I know that in mountainous races, walking can be strategic and sometimes the downright smartest thing to do. But for some reason, I really, really didn’t want to walk in this race. My time wouldn’t be record-breaking, but the least I could do was run the whole thing!

…Said the woman, i.e. yours truly, who was watching walkers pass her by.

At that moment, it ceased to be about finishing. It ceased to be about making it to the top of the mountain, or even to the top of the current hill. It became solely about Choosing To Not Take The Easy Way.

Was this a pride thing? Absolutely.

I dug around in my brain for scraps of mental toughness. I came up with “Put one foot in front of the other. Now keep doing it. Work those arms!” Practical words, but I needed more than that.

“Do not be terrified; do not be discouraged. Be strong and courageous, for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go.”

!!!

I know, it’s paraphrased within an inch of its life — there’s heavy paraphrasing of the Bible during footraces — but those words from the book of Joshua stuck like glue.

Kinda funny how, when something becomes a “pride thing,” God sticks his head in the door, isn’t it?

Anyway, it helped. I kept running, and made it to the point where the challenge shifts from running up a mountain to running down one. Screaming quads, anyone?? But as I charged downhill — involuntarily; gravity forces you to charge — I looked around. The view of the surrounding valleys and mountains was spectacular. The weather conditions were still perfect. I breathed that high-altitude air deep into my lungs, and told my legs to just get me to the finish line.

They did (no chipmunks perished), with Erin and Adam graciously cheering for me in the homestretch. After we collected our finishers’ schwag (engraved rocks as a nod to Creede’s mining history), we lurched over to a coffee shop. Sipping much-needed java, I reached two conclusions. One: It might be at least another four years before I tackle that run again. Two: If you do a mountain run, you may as well have gorgeous views, and for that, Creede is pretty tough to beat.

Creede

If you take an avid runner and an avid hunter and put them in a relationship, this question must arise: what happens in the fall?

Fall is a prime time for both parties. The runner is probably training for or running in at least one long-distance race, and the hunter leaves town most weekends in pursuit of everything from grouse to bear.

Where is that middle ground?

Robin Hood, my hunting boyfriend, has participated in some of the races I’ve run, and I still fully support hunters doing the running thing. But lately, I’ve started to appreciate the other side of the coin, because it turns out…hunting is excellent cross-training.

Here’s why, in terms of physical cross-training and mental:

PHYSICAL:
1) Cardio. You get a respectable cardiovascular workout — I love those rolling hills of northern New Mexico — but you’re walking, which doesn’t pound your legs as much as running. At least, hopefully you’re walking, and not fleeing from an angry animal.

2) Strength training. Last weekend, Robin Hood split our gear fairly evenly into two backpacks. Granted, my backpack didn’t make me tip over backwards, but after a morning of hiking over hill and dale, I was feeling that burn. And it’s not just upper body work — guess who carries around her waist the in-case-of-emergency gun and ammo, not to mention the GPS? Yup, the girlfriend!

3) Coordination. Also known as walking quietly. Also known as (for me, anyway) reversing a lifelong habit of generally crashing around. It’s tough! Effective hunting requires balance; agility; the ability to maintain quiet, even breathing (even when climbing a long, steep hill); and a stronger core than I ever realized. It’s basically wilderness yoga.

4) Tolerance of the elements. Heat? Check. Extreme cold? Check. Wind? Snow? Rain? Sweat in the eyes? Hunting exposes you to them all. If you’ve sat in a tree stand or in a blind for hours at a time wearing approximately seven layers of clothing, trusting that you’ll get the feeling back in your toes eventually, guess what? You can handle any kind of weather a footrace will throw at you.

MENTAL:
1) Patience. You don’t give up on a hunting trip if ten minutes go by without spotting anything. You also don’t rush recklessly through the woods trying to make things happen faster than they should. Not so different from running — you can’t judge a marathon by the first mile, and you learn to pace yourself.

2) Persistence. Hunting is not as easy as it looks on TV. You aren’t successful every time. Sometimes, there is in fact a long time between successes. Some hunting trips are downright wretched. Sound familiar, runners? Just because you have one less-than-awesome experience doesn’t mean you bag the rest of the season. You make adjustments — you tweak your training, or you move to a different hunting spot — and you try again.

3) Perspective. Hunting is not the be-all-end-all of existence. Neither is running. Last weekend, Robin Hood and I were bear hunting. We saw not a single bear. However, we did see three flocks of turkeys, several grouse (grouses?), scores of chipmunks, and absolutely gorgeous scenery. We stopped at a cool little general store and ate Klondike bars while sipping coffee, which turned out to be delicious. All in all, really not a bad weekend. How often do we runners have trouble finding that silver lining when a run doesn’t go exactly as planned?

4) Reinforcement of a major commandment of both runners and hunters: Thou shalt suck it up. Sleep-deprived? Cold? Hot? Hungry? In a bad mood? Uncertain because of past experiences? Wind blowing in a disadvantageous direction? Rarely are conditions picture-perfect for a run or a hunt. But the thing that makes runners and hunters so cool is this: we do it anyway.

Whether you’re hunting for fast times or big game, good luck this season!

camogirl

Shift Happens

I just pressed one of those big adhesive outdoor thermometers onto the window above the sink in my new kitchen. The action felt fraught with significance, like I was putting an official stamp on something.

Let me ask you: how do you define “home”?

For me, home is a place where I can walk in the door and immediately kick off my shoes. Home is a place where I can sing at the top of my lungs and dance like a fool. Home is a place where I can plunk my sweaty, post-workout self just about anywhere, or shamelessly contort my body into every indiscreet position imaginable on a foam roller, without worrying whether any of it is “proper.” Home is a place where I can swear if I want and cry if I need to.

In short, home is a place to relax: to be able to feel, sometimes physically, the stress of the outside world slide right off my shoulders.

It takes time, creating a home like that. It’s not just a matter of load-up-thin-out-take-down-move-up-move-across-move-in-unpack-rearrange-BAM-new-home! Moving into a new home and actually making it a home require effort not unlike making a new friend. You can’t rush it. You have to get to know each other: the strengths, the weaknesses, the fabulous open spaces, the pesky corner that you keep bumping into but love anyway, the nooks and crannies easily overlooked but bearing great potential.

And while you’re at it, you’ll probably get to know yourself better. I’m not saying new home = new you, but darn if the process isn’t similar. If you want to make a serious change in your non-real-estate life, what do you do? You examine your life, and figure out what you don’t need. You let certain things go. You realize what you cherish and would never dream of parting with. You rediscover treasures you had forgotten about. It dawns on you that you could be sharing what you have with others, without asking for anything in return. You do all this, and keep working at it, and slowly but surely, shift happens.

Somewhere between hanging the last piece of artwork on the wall (using a 5-lb. dumbbell because I couldn’t find my hammer — I was at Level Orange of Interior Decorating Mode, people) and pressing that thermometer onto the kitchen window, I started to feel a shift. A shift away from toil, sweat, sore muscles, and the dread of facing seemingly insurmountable piles of boxes. A shift toward filling the newly-stocked kitchen with yummy aromas, curling up with one of the books that I consciously chose to not give to Goodwill, and savoring the simple pleasure of having an in-house washer and dryer. A shift toward thinking, “Hmmm, maybe my interior as well as my exterior could stand a little of the load-up-thin-out-take-down-move-up-move-across-move-in-unpack-rearrange treatment.”

Best of all, it’s a shift away from combining my home with Robin Hood’s home, and a shift toward creating our home.

When I think about that, the stress of the outside world slides right off my shoulders.

Feelin’ Cloudy

It’s been a cloudy week. Clouds bring dreariness, drowsiness, and after the sad passing of Robin Williams and Lauren Bacall, the clouds have instilled in me a deliciously tempting desire to curl up on the couch and watch Mrs. Doubtfire, To Have and Have Not, and whatever other movies starring those two exceptionally talented actors that I can find on Netflix. There’s the minor hitch that I haven’t yet learned how to operate the TV in my new home, but that’s a story for another day.

One thing I will say about clouds, though, or at least Albuquerque’s recent ones: they bring rain. And rain brings cooler weather. And something about cooler weather — not wintry cool, but heavenly, refreshing summertime cool — makes life a little easier to deal with. Especially when change is afoot.

This is an ambiguous time of year. On the one hand, school has started up again. The back-to-school vibe has nudged the vacation vibe out of the way, and rush hour has an extra dash of, well, dash. Morning hot air balloon sightings are becoming more frequent, Robin Hood is getting ready to go hunting again, and the aroma of the first crop of green chile roasting has slowly begun to drift around town.

On the other hand, hey, it is still [technically] summer! There will be more hot days. There is still camping to be done. And I don’t know about your gardens, but my peppers and squash are not nearly finished yet. Heck, we haven’t even had our big Labor Day wine festival, much less the state fair!

I am not ready to let go of the season yet.

One seasonal-type change that I am okay with is the change my running is undergoing. For most of the summer, it has had kind of a “hang in there and just do it” air about it. From my attempt at a Juneathon, to dealing with a minor injury, to traveling, and finally moving, running has been present in my life (thank God) but it has been, to put it mildly, unfocused.

That’s changing.

On Labor Day Weekend, I’ll be running the Creede Mountain Run in Colorado with my sister. I’ve run it once before and there’s not much you can fake when you’re running 12 miles on a mountain road, so I’ve been running more consistently and getting back to doing weekend long runs. I ran roughly 9 miles last weekend and it felt, much to my surprise, really good. I might just finish that mountain run in one piece!

Two weeks after that, I’ll be running Albuquerque’s Chips and Salsa 10k with some friends, which will be tons of fun, especially if they hand out burritos at the finish line like they did last year. And after the Chips and Salsa? I have no idea. All I know is that it feels good to be tip-toeing back into the groove of training and having at least a hint of a routine.

Hmmm. Maybe I’m more ready for change than I thought.

Lessons in Moving

The finish line of my move is in sight. My apartment is vacant save for a pile of things destined for Goodwill, a couple of nonessentials, and cleaning supplies. Oh, and small herds of dust bunnies. My new home is full of boxes, Hefty garbage bags bulging with blankets and pillows, and furniture awkwardly standing about like someone who doesn’t know what to do with themselves at a party. There’s still plenty of work left to do, but for now I’m thankful that what I need is at least under the right roof.

On my run today, I thought about what I’ve learned (or, more appropriately, been reminded of) about moving during this adventure:

* Don’t make a mountain out of a mountain. Long-distance runners know this rule as “take it one mile at a time” or “break your race up into small sections, rather than contemplating the whole thing as you toe the starting line.” When you know a move is imminent, start the process as soon as possible — pack one box at a time. Fill one dumpster-bound or Goodwill-bound bag at a time. The same goes for when you’re in your new home, surrounded by boxes, all too ready to never smell cardboard again, ever. Recognize that it will take a while to get settled. Unpack one box at a time. Give yourself a break.

* Look up every once in a while. Moving and making a transition in your life are very exciting… and very time-consuming. The details, even if you go about them sensibly, can gobble up your time faster than you can say “change of address.” Remember that there’s more to your life than moving. For me, that means doing a hard-stop every evening, sitting down, and relaxing. It means making time to hang out with my friends, and it means I don’t let valued habits, like running or writing, fall by the wayside just because life is temporarily hectic.

* It’s okay to miss the old neighborhood. My apartment was next to El Dorado High School, and this time of year is when the marching band starts practicing on the back field. Packing boxes last weekend, I heard the familiar sound and realized I would probably never hear it again, and it saddened me. What I’ll miss even more, though, is the running. Living less than a mile from a 9-mile-long paved bike bath, and just a little farther than that from Albuquerque’s glorious foothills, spoiled me rotten. And while I’m really not that far from the foothills in my new neighborhood…what can I say? It’s just not the same. But that brings me to my next point:

* Explore your new surroundings! And what better way to do that than by running? You can find parks, playgrounds, public bathrooms (oh so important), and cool little neighborhoods, just by lacing up and heading out the door. It’s a great way to meet neighbors, even in post-run sweatiness. And yes, sometimes you’ll find a block with lots of large, loudly-barking dogs who look and sound like they maybe want to eat you. Just all part of the exploration process.

* Last but not least: keep an open mind and an open heart. I keep noticing sunflowers in my new neighborhood. Just a coincidence?

Ground

As I hurtled out of control down a slope at the Sipapu Ski and Summer Resort, keeping upright only by the grace of God, my life didn’t flash before my eyes. The only thing flashing before my eyes was terror (yes, I think terror can be visible) and the ground, as I flailingly tried to stay perpendicular to it.

I didn’t look up to admire the gorgeous mountainside scenery around me or the pretty little river below me. Nope, my instinct said, with ferocious authority, “Eyes to the ground! Focus only on the earth right in front of you or you’ll go head-over-hiking-shoes!” Actually, my instinct used much stronger language than that. I listened to it. It worked.

I’ll back up: last weekend, Robin Hood and I drove to Sipapu for a two-day archery shoot. If you’ve never been to that part of New Mexico, right around Taos, I urge you to go as soon as possible. Beautiful country. On the way up, driving through Chimayo, we saw a sunset I don’t think either of us will forget anytime soon.

Anyway.

The course for the archery shoot was on the ski slopes. Not right below them, not paralleling them, but on them. I may not be an Ironwoman, but I’m in decent shape, and walking that course was a legitimate workout. One of the targets sat on a hill that was the definition of Why We Have Chair Lifts. I shot my arrow and scrambled to the top of the hill without incident, and made it about halfway back down when…my foot slipped.

A few minutes / eternity later, I stood panting, emitting noises that I suspect sounded like those of an injured turkey hen. I was staring at the ground. Robin Hood trotted down the hill — making it look so easy, darn him — to confirm that I was okay. No, I wasn’t, I had just ALMOST BROKEN MY NECK, and the incident had done NOTHING to improve my relations with, and longstanding mistrust of, super-steep trails.

But Robin Hood spoke good words, I stopped sounding like an injured turkey hen, and I began to feel a teensy bit silly. I did have a decision to make, though: call it a day, or brush off my clumsy display in the spirit of “the shoot must go on”?

I took a few shaky steps forward, stopped, then took a few more steps. I remembered that the ground was something I could trust. I kept reminding myself of that, one step at a time.

I wish I could tell you that I had the best archery shoot of my life that weekend. I didn’t. At all. But as I kept walking around, I got confident enough in my footing that once in a while I would look up. And when I did, the view — the mountains, the canyons, the wildflowers everywhere — put postcards to shame.

Would I have appreciated the beauty around me as much if I hadn’t almost smashed into the ground? If I hadn’t tasted some humble pie; if I hadn’t been reminded to focus on and appreciate what’s right in front of me? I doubt it. “Grounding myself” just took on a whole new meaning.

Here’s to taking it one step at a time.

sipapu

Eye of the Hurricane

It is HOT. I’m talking the kind of hot where, immediately following a run, you could put flour, shortening, and water on my head, and that tortilla would be bubbling in no time. Earlier this week, I ran, came home, and plopped down on my living room floor to do some sit-ups. My body just said, “Unngghhhh. Noooo.”

Know the feeling?

Even with the heat, though, I’m still thanking God for running every time I lace up my shoes. And maybe a few other times during the day, too. Because frankly, I need it.

Life is a little hectic right now. At work, we’re in the thick of what we call “earnings time,” which in the wire service business happens at the end of every financial quarter. Companies send us massive press releases and are uber-tense about them, on top of regular work. I’ll just say that it keeps us on our toes. Constantly.

Meanwhile, on the homefront, I’m in the process of pulling up roots and moving from an apartment into a house (finally, I can hear some of my friends saying). A rented house, sure, but a house nonetheless. With a driveway and a yard and everything! It’s an exciting time, but a lot of stuff has accumulated in my apartment over the last seven years, and that stuff needs sorting. And throwing away. And taking to Goodwill. And packing. And hoisting. And then when it actually gets to the house…well, after all that heavy lifting, can you blame me for wanting to get out and do some quality cardio?

Running is my moment of calm. It’s the eye of my hurricane. It’s my time of day — even if it’s just 25 or 30 minutes — to shrug off work stress and moving stress. It’s my time to process the fact that I’m about to share a home with the man I love, which means negotiating fear, joy, apprehension, awe, humility, or any one of a panoply of emotions, depending on the day.

I thank God that it IS summertime right now, and I thank Him that it IS 90+ degrees when I’m outside running, because you know what? It forces me to slow down. On multiple runs recently I’ve caught myself going right from my front door into a hustling pace, because my schedule is tight and I have other things I want to get done. Then the sun, and my current not-exactly-marathon-ready level of fitness, join forces to slap me upside the head, and I remember.

I remember that running is a GIFT. And a gift is something to not only be used, but valued. If I rush through a run, treating it as nothing more than just another task to check off, is that really valuing the gift? Is it even really using the gift?

I’m not saying that everyone should run slowly. I’m just saying: Pay attention. Inhale. Exhale. Remember why you run in the first place. If that motivates you to run quicker that day, great. If you realize that’s the first time all day that you’ve been conscious of inhaling and exhaling, and you settle down for a more mellow pace, that’s fine too.

Whatever is the eye of your hurricane, relish it.

The nice thing about waking up at 4 am is that you’re too tired to think about how crazy it is to wake up at 4 am. At that hour, everything takes on monosyllabic simplicity: Get up. Wash. Dress. Eat. Drink strong black stuff. Blink.

Such was the pre-dawn as Robin Hood and I prepared for a bona fide New Mexico Adventure on Saturday. Our destination: San Gregorio Reservoir, in the San Pedro Wilderness. The reason for our journey: fishing. Rumor had it that San Gregorio’s rainbow trout would practically jump right into your frying pan.

We arrived at the lake — after a pretty little hike in — around 7:15 am. Robin Hood found a spot that he liked, and we parked ourselves by the water’s edge. He had his fishing gear; I had my book. Not that I’m opposed to fishing, but I wasn’t about to turn down the chance to relax by a lake and enjoy quality, much-needed reading time.

SG1

While I read (frequently looking up to savor my surroundings), Robin Hood chatted with a gentleman fishing nearby, and before long…there was a tug. Then a splash. Another tug. And in two shakes of a trout’s tail, he had his first catch of the day!

SG2

That catch was followed by more. We relaxed, we snacked (no, not on sushi), we laughed at cavorting chipmunks, and we enjoyed the absurdly gorgeous weather. I even took a couple of turns with the fishing rod, and landed two fish!

Around 1 o’clock, we had caught our limit, released a few more, and were beginning to go numb from sitting on rocks all morning. After cleaning our fish [that was all Robin Hood; I was content to postpone that particular experience], we packed up and made our way back to the truck.

But we weren’t done.

Driving back, we saw a sign for another New Mexico lake: Fenton. I’d never been there, so Robin Hood suggested checking it out. Embracing my lakeside state of mind, I answered “Sure!”

Fenton was more touristy than San Gregorio, but just as easy on the eyes (and soul. I miss trees and water more than I let myself admit). We meant to just drive around a little and then get back on the road, but in cruising by, Robin Hood swore he saw a New Mexican Moby Dick in the water, and the Need To Fish seized him.

He opted for his fly reel this time. I perched on a tree stump and just stared all around at the pines soaring upward and the shimmering expanse of water before me — keeping a wary eye as to where that fishing line was being cast about. No involuntary body piercings for me, thank you very much!

Fenton

Alas, Moby Dick eluded the hook. With both of us beginning to feel the effects of getting up at 4, we called it a day — but couldn’t resist taking the scenic route. Riding through the wonderland that New Mexicans know as the Jemez, I felt like a little kid: do we have to go home?

Before you roll your eyes too much, I admit that it wasn’t an ENTIRELY perfect day: I woke up the next morning to the itch of a poison ivy rash on my leg. Oh well. What’s a great trip without a souvenir?

Here’s to exploring your state.

P.S. The trout was delicious.

Homestyle

Thomas Wolfe said, “You can’t go home again.” I say, “Rubbish!”

What he may have meant was that, after leaving the nest, you can’t go back and expect home to feel exactly as it did when you were 10 or 11. This is true enough. Frankly, would you want it to?

What Mr. Wolfe didn’t mention was that, after leaving and then coming back, home can still be great, just in a different way. Dare I say that home can feel even better once you’ve given it some space?

My friends who have also moved away from their hometowns all agree that the longer we live elsewhere, the less recognizable our “hometown” becomes. New roads are built; familiar buildings get torn down; trees fall; old acquaintances leave. When we return for a visit, we have to sit and think, or even consult a map, before driving routes that we used to know like the back of our hand. Can we even call it our hometown anymore?

This conversation is usually accompanied by sighs and head-shaking. Everything’s changing, we say. And it is a little sad. But isn’t it also kind of…right?

I don’t know about you, but I wouldn’t want my hometown to be exactly as it was 20 years ago. The potholes would be nightmarish!

A little change is natural and healthy. Take the lake up the road from my parents’ house in Springfield, Virginia: Lake Accotink has been a part of my family’s life for decades. It’s lovely, with a fun marina and a roughly 4-mile trail that circles it, providing a terrific resource for runners and other pedestrians who want to escape the pavement.

When we first moved to Virginia, the Accotink trail was…a little rough around the edges. There were several steep, heavily-rooted hills; a couple of ravines prone to flooding; and a handful of other attributes that could turn a trip around the lake into quite an adventure. They’ve since put in bridges and paved over some tricky spots, none of which detracts from the natural beauty of it all. Not to mention, the marina now hosts a variety of camps and outdoor education programs for kids and adults alike.

Now that’s what I call progress.

Accotink

Creek

Another example is Mount Vernon, a.k.a. the home of George Washington. When I went there on elementary school field trips in the late ’80s, I vaguely remember touring the mansion and walking around the grounds a little, but nothing about it really excited me. Now? There’s a museum, an education center with really cool movies about Washington’s life, a stellar restaurant, and so much to see on the grounds.

If Mount Vernon had stayed exactly the same, what would have happened? Would it have become “Mount Vernon Town Center”? An outlet mall?

Thank God it didn’t.

mtvernon

When we leave our hometowns, we don’t stay the same — we grow, we mature, we discard parts of ourselves that hold us back. We do our best to become better. Why should we expect anything different from our hometowns?

And just as we all can and should be proud of how we’ve changed and improved over the years, if things change a little back home, we can and should be proud of that as well.

After all, if we bring someone to our hometown for their first visit, it would be a shame if they plummeted into a bottomless pothole.

Four for the 4th

Happy 4th of July!! And to my non-American readers, feel free to celebrate anyway!

I tried to think of a way to narrow the focus of this post and couldn’t do it. There’s too much to be excited about! As luck and coincidence would have it, though, I was able to narrow my favorite things from this week down to four.

* THE WORLD CUP! I know soccer/football is the world’s most popular sport. I also know there are plenty of people who do not follow it at all (such as yours truly). For those of us in that category, the World Cup is like the Olympics — every four years, we get wildly passionate about a sport that, for the other three years and 300+ days, evokes only vague interest. We learn the names of superstars, with a high probability that we’ll forget them immediately. We gobble up scandals and groan at questionable calls. And if our team makes it further than anyone predicted? Well, “frenzy” is an understatement. My point is: sporting events like this add a fun undercurrent to the daily news feed, and I always support that.

* ARCHERY! Last weekend, the Sandia Crest Bowhunters Associaton hosted the annual Make A Wish Shoot, in which all proceeds went to that foundation. It was a great day. Robin Hood and I were placed in a group with one of the SCBA’s most respected men and his three grandsons, all of whom shot very well — one even got his first bullseye! Afterwards, we stuck around to help take the targets down. This proved more enjoyable than you’d think — I suspect because I got to ride around the archery range on the tailgate of a pickup truck. Let me say: roller coasters have nothing on canyon-deep ruts. After the clean-up, Robin Hood and I shot some arrows at the range’s permanent targets. By the time we decided to take our dusty selves home, we had spent eight hours at the range, and enjoyed every minute.

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* USING ALL THE OUTDOOR COOKING GEAR! It doesn’t matter if it’s a campfire, fire pit, grill, or the sidewalk. This time of year was hand-crafted for outdoor cooking. As you may have ascertained from last week’s post, I’m a huge fan of campfires; this week, my new Dutch oven got its maiden voyage in Robin Hood’s backyard fire pit. Granted, some sweat probably got into the elk stew that we made; there was some minor smoke inhalation; and we smelled like the fire for hours; but it was awesome! And the stew was pretty tasty. I’ve already got my sights set on putting “Dutchie” to work again next week, so if you have any Dutch oven recipes you’re willing to share, let me know.

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* TRAVEL! I’m spending this weekend at my parents’ house in Virginia, and this time I’ve brought a little more than I usually do. Specifically: Robin Hood! He and my parents have met before, but this will be his first time visiting my hometown. I plan to take him to the creek where I used to float boats made of twigs. We’ll go to Lake Accotink, and I’ll point out the place where I did a high school science project, the place where I face-planted during cross-country practice, and the place where a pair of bald eagles have a nest. We’ll watch fireworks over the Mall in D.C. And we will soak up every drop of that infamous humidity and relish it while we can.

How are you celebrating the 4th?

Around the Campfire

I swear, you can smell a good campsite even before you lay eyes on it.

On Friday, a group of us — our number would eventually total 14, plus two dogs — left Albuquerque and headed north. Our destination: a lovely piece of land near the small town of Youngsville, New Mexico, where a couple of the guys had camped previously. We more or less knew where we were going.

We found our site a little after dark (we had left later than planned, but hey, it was Friday, a day for tardiness if ever there was one). I liked it as soon as I saw it in the headlights. A big clearing. Trees. Grass. Cool temperatures. A little stream that we could hear gurgling nearby. Yup, we were in northern New Mexico, all right.

As soon as everyone got their respective tents pitched, we turned our attention to the focal point of the weekend, meaning, of course, the campfire. If you live or have lived in New Mexico, or anywhere in the Southwest, you know what a valuable and rare commodity a campfire can be in the summertime. This time of year, fire restrictions bloom across the land faster than a red wine stain on a white shirt.

We had taken care to select an area which did not forbid campfires, and soon ours was glowing and crackling beautifully. Note: if you do not yet have an expert campfire builder in your circle of friends, recruit one immediately. We pulled up chairs, passed around brownies in celebration of my birthday earlier that week — is there a better place than a campfire to hear “Happy Birthday” sung to you? — and, quite simply, relaxed.

The next morning, we slept in as late as the sun would allow (not very late, given how quickly a tent heats up). After savoring instant coffee and stuffing our faces with delicious, freshly-made breakfast burritos, the day opened before us like a marvelous present. No errands to run, no schedule to keep. I love camping.

We went for a hike up a gravel road that turned into a trail, winding through tall pines. We played an impressively well-organized cornhole tournament, complete with team names and brackets. The boys, unsurprisingly, had brought a few firearms, which led to — at a safe distance from camp — spirited target practice. There were long, idle conversations under the shade of tarps. That night, again, there was the campfire.

Saturday’s dinner was mouth-watering elk fajitas a la Robin Hood, with s’mores for dessert. When was the last time you toasted marshmallows over a campfire? If you can’t remember (I certainly couldn’t), get out there as soon as possible. It may just be the greatest dessert in the world; not to mention the lively debate that usually ensues: light the marshmallow on fire, or just slow-roast it?

Sunday morning was a lot like Saturday, only with breakfast sandwiches instead of burritos. Again, delicious. What is it about eating outside that makes great food taste even better?

After the dismantling of tents and packing of gear (tinged with a little sadness, as always), we all headed home. Several hours later, I showered, did laundry, and relished indoor plumbing.

But I can’t wait for my clothes to smell like a campfire again.

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Love Like Crazy

Two quotes are running through my mind. One is “Love like crazy,” from one of my favorite country songs. The other is “Thank you for hills and the strength to climb” — I don’t know who said that first, but I like it.

Recent events have gotten me thinking about what’s important and what isn’t.

Two concepts often fight for priority rights in my mind (maybe in yours, too): people and things.

We all have things we love. I love my bow and arrows. I love my floppy sun hat, the quilt that my friend Hillary made for me, and the smell of old books. Activities also count as things — I love running. Gardening. Reading. Archery. I could fill a whole blog post with that list.

Things are good. They give us the means to fill our time in fun and productive ways. They give us goals. They fuel passion and ambition. Without things, life would be pretty dull.

But things have their limits. My floppy sun hat, although it protects me from sunburn, doesn’t make me laugh until I’m doing a weird shrieky cackle. Gardening may give me food, but it won’t give me a bear hug. My most recent archery shoot was fun, but not because of the way I shot.

It was because of the people there. Those people made what would have just been an afternoon slinging arrows in dusty, blistering heat into an enjoyable experience that I would do all over again.

People make life. But how often do people get put aside because of things? I’ve often turned down invitations or put off calling someone because I “had to” do this or do that. I’m not saying we need to constantly surround ourselves with people — pssst, I’m an introvert — but seriously, what’s more important: washing dishes (chores totally count as things) or calling a friend to wish him a happy birthday?

I know you’re thinking, “What about the things that make us better people — the things that smooth our rough edges and help us to be great friends, spouses, parents, etc.?” And I would agree; there are plenty of things that do this. I’m thinking especially (surprise, surprise) of running.

Running does make us better people. It makes us healthier and happier. It makes me frankly easier to live with. But it does more than that. To borrow from a theme of one of my favorite writers, Kristin Armstrong, running prepares us. Tackling hills, negotiating gnarly trails, sweating through the last miles of a difficult long run – all of this mentally strengthens us to handle challenges elsewhere in life with grace and aplomb.

But rather than dilute the “people priority,” I think things like running strengthen it. How many of us run, as stated above, to be better spouses, parents, etc.? How many of us start doing something because someone special introduced us to it? Growing a garden is fabulous, but what if we didn’t have anyone with whom to share our freshly-grown vegetables? And correct me if I’m wrong, but isn’t one of the best parts about all that strength we get from our chosen “thing,” running or otherwise, using it to help other people? To share their loads?

Loving things is okay. Just as long as you don’t forget to love people.

Living it Up on La Luz

Robin Hood and I had been planning to hike La Luz (home of the annual La Luz Trail Run) since our anniversary back in April. Other priorities kept popping up like moles you whack in that carnival game, and way-laid our hike — until last weekend!

Our plan was to park at the trailhead early on Sunday morning, hike up the mountain, eat lunch at the restaurant at the top, and ride the tram back down. Sounds lovely, doesn’t it?

We thought so. We started our hike a little after 6:30. The sun still sat behind the mountains, but provided sufficient light to see the trail. The temperature was gloriously cool. We had walked for about a mile when we were struck by what I like to call the “La Luz Conundrum.” My car was at the trailhead. We were going to take the tram down the mountain. The base of the tram was…not at the trailhead.

**Insert sound of forehead-slapping here**

Aaaaaand poof, we could look forward to a few extra miles of hiking! Luckily, there was a connector trail from the base of the tram to the trailhead, so we wouldn’t be completely stranded.

Anyway.

Robin Hood and I took our time, with liberal water and snack breaks, which frequently turned into “Shannon experimenting with her smartphone camera” breaks. When we got close to the end of the trail, we parked ourselves on a huge rock for one last rest and gazed around, marveling at how much we could see and how far we had come.

I’ll say this: if you want to get to know a person better, go on a long hike with them. Long hikes are excellent tests of patience, stamina, sense of humor, patience, adaptability, and patience. EVERYONE in the hiking party will at some point:

* get tired
* get hungry
* want to walk faster or slower
* get sick of leap-frogging the same people repeatedly
* need to pee in the bushes
* wonder if this is the correct trail, or if it’s actually a trail leading to the lair of a giant man-eating chipmunk

…and the list goes on. It’s all about the balance of things. When someone gets tired, someone else suggests a rest stop, or tells amusing stories as a distraction. When someone needs to pee in the bushes, someone else acts as the lookout. It can absolutely work. And if the hike ends with no one having been hurled off a cliff, that friendship/relationship is golden.

Thankfully, Robin Hood and I reached the top without any hurling of bodies. I daresay we were even smiling. We devoured a delicious lunch (a burger for him, a turkey sandwich for me, paired with arguably the best coleslaw ever), bought our tram tickets, and rode in ease back down the mountain.

I wish I could tell you that the hike on the connector trail, back towards our car, was a delightful lark. I wish I could tell you that. We were no longer in shade. It was the middle of the afternoon. True, we had plenty of water, but I’m pretty sure I was on the brink of hallucinations, and I’m also pretty sure that Robin Hood nearly threw a cactus at me when I tried to lighten the mood with some [slightly off-key] singing.

Ah, romance!

But we did it. We made it back to the car. We were smiling. We still liked each other. I even want to do it again some day.

After all, he is an awfully good lookout during a trailside pit stop.

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The Downhill

On Sunday I found myself considering a run in the foothills. The distance I was considering was the longest I’d run since the marathon, and it had been even longer since I had run in the hills at all. After a teensy bit of hesitation, I made up my mind: summertime heat or no, grasshoppers or no (seriously, check it out: http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation-now/2014/06/03/grasshoppers-new-mexico-weather-service/9906329/), it was time for a reunion with the trails.

I always forget how long that initial ascent across the Bear Canyon open space can feel, especially after a lengthy separation from it. I took it slowly this time, trying to appreciate the beauty of nature around me as my body began its gradual reacclimation to summer running (after years of experience, I can confidently maintain that I’ll be reacclimated by mid-September). Finally, I reached what I call the “foothills proper” — steeper hills, yes, but also prettier views.

I continued on, trying not to let my breathing and/or appearance cause too much concern to folks I passed. Yep, nothing like getting back to hill workouts!

When I got to my turnaround point, I paused, took in the view of the hills around me and the city below me, and murmured a slightly wheezy “thank you” to God, to myself, frankly to anyone who was within earshot. Then I ran back down the hill.

Ahhhh.

What else is there in running that compares to going downhill after a long ascent? I’m not talking about those super-short, crazy-steep numbers, I’m talking about looong doooownhills.

When we’re running uphill, we’re focused; our movements are driven; all else falls aside in the wake of Getting To The Top. But sometimes, on really long ascents, the focus…erodes. Our confidence dissipates, and the only thing moving us onward and upward is…what? Muscle memory?

Not like muscle memory is a bad thing, because hey, it Gets Us To The Top. And at the top we can revel in the moment and do a totally-earned victory dance. But then what? If we stay at the top for too long, those muscles that carried us to the top will tighten up. We’ll get cold. Mountain bikers might run us over. No good.

The downhill is essential. The downhill loosens our muscles back up. The downhill gets our blood flowing again, but in a way that doesn’t exhaust us. The downhill provides an opportunity to relax, regroup, and refocus. Our breathing no longer frightens strangers, and everything falls back into place.

After the beautiful, hectic blur that was May, my life is in a brief but lovely downhill stretch. I’m no longer living out of a suitcase. I’ve more or less re-entered my pre-May routine, as far as working, sleeping, and living go. I’m running on a regular basis again — I’ve challenged myself to run every day in the month of June, and I’m determined to do it. And it will be a full two weeks before my next road trip!

It’s the little things.

So, to anyone who is engaged in a long uphill climb of any kind right now, rest assured that you will make it to the top, and you will get your downhill, and everything will fall back into place.

And somewhere in between, I really, really recommend doing that victory dance.

We arrived in the city of Verdun on Tuesday via the TGV, whose motto is: “Someone’s steering this thing, right?”

With only minor head-scratching over the map, we walked from the train station to the hotel. Not only was Le Coq Hardi a lovely hotel, but it had a gloriously towering monument right up the street. I guess when the street name is l’Avenue de Victoire, that’s to be expected.

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Once we dropped our bags in our rooms, we headed out for a late lunch. I had a tasty assortment of cheese and my first beer of the trip.

* Sip of History: Verdun lies in the Lorraine region, which, together with the region of Alsace, went back and forth between French and German ownership several times. The Germans may not have been perfect, but they did encourage an appreciation of beer.

After lunch, we explored. We walked along the Meuse River, passed through the old city gates, noted tempting-looking eateries [who am I kidding? They were all tempting!] saw a handful of monuments, and found the city’s Citadel.

* Sip of History: Verdun was the site of two World War I battles. The first was in 1916, between the French and Germans, when the French famously declared “They shall not pass.” The second was in 1918, this time with the U.S. involved — this was the Meuse-Argonne offensive.

That evening, we ate dinner at our hotel’s restaurant, where I had the best fish — filet of sole — that I’ve ever eaten. Let’s just say there was butter.

Wednesday was touring day! While Erin, Adam and I went for a run, Mom and Dad picked up the rental car Dad had reserved. After breakfast, we all piled into the car — a Mercedes, somehow, diesel, with everything so automatic that it was spooky — and ventured forth into the Lorraine countryside.

Our mission that day was to trace the steps of my great-grandfather, who fought in the 1918 battle. We did just that. We started at Chattancourt, visited Le Mort-Homme (Dead Man’s Hill), and drove through some of the most beautiful countryside I’ve ever seen. We made a side trip to the American military cemetery.

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* Sip of History: The American military cemetery at Verdun is the largest in France. Yup, it’s bigger than Normandy’s.

We walked quietly amidst ruins where towns once stood, and as we drove along, kept seeing signs that noted a “Village Detruit” — a village completely destroyed by war. As we drove along the remote forest-lined road where Great-Grandpa last fought before thankfully coming home, it felt like time had stood still. Sure, the trees had grown back, but other than that, not much seemed to have changed in the last century. I guess that’s a monument in itself.

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All in all, a humbling day.

The next day was devoted to the 1916 battle. We visited two forts: Fort de Vaux, and Fort de Douaumont.

* Sip of History: The forts were part of a chain designed to render Verdun impregnable. It was a terrific idea…on paper. Unfortunately, the forts’ designers didn’t count on weaponry advancements and the effect of constant artillery pummeling.

We learned that at Fort de Vaux, the French held out for an unreal length of time before finally succumbing to the Germans. We learned that the Germans captured Douaumont and clung to it with all their might for eight months before finally succumbing to the French. We learned that in both forts, life was rotten: over-crowding, cave-ins, fires, sickness, and the occasional release of poisonous chemicals were all standard.

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Again, a humbling day.

* Sip of Here-and-Now: Not many Americans visit Verdun, probably because we weren’t involved in World War I for very long. My opinion? More should. There is plenty to learn and see, from the grim French sign advising “Better to die under the rubble of the fort than to surrender,” to the expansive American cemetery, to the somber dignity of the German shrines.

* Food Note: When in Verdun, the best way to do lunch is on the side of the road with a baguette, a couple different cheeses, and a bottle of beer. Also, eat as much Quiche Lorraine as humanly possible. Maybe more.

* Running Note: Verdun is proof that it’s tough to beat a run alongside a river. We ran along the Meuse several times, and it was lovely. We even saw a fly-fisherman.

With a new respect for the past, we returned to Paris on Friday.

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EPILOGUE: The weather finally turned gorgeous at the end of our trip. Better late than never, right? On Saturday, we visited Montmartre. We snapped photos of the Moulin Rouge, ambled through the exquisite Basilique, and walked down the famous staircase. We ate lunch at a bustling cafe, walked through the cemetery (in which we nearly got lost) and by the end of the day, we were darn near experts at riding the Paris Metro!

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We ate yet another delicious supper, and for dessert, at the risk of making this post superlative-heavy, I had the best chocolate mousse I’ve ever had. A fitting end to the journey, I’d say.

The next day, we got up early, caught our shuttle to Charles de Gaulle, and before we knew it, we were over the Atlantic, westward-bound. I thought of the traditional words of customers leaving a French cafe:

Merci, au revoir.

The time: Friday, May 9, a little after 4 pm Eastern.

The place: Dulles International Airport.

The people: My mom, my dad, my sister Erin, her husband Adam, and myself.

The destination: Paris, France.

The emotion: Wheeeee!

Somehow we juggled all of our luggage in a manner that did NOT knock any unsuspecting strangers unconscious. We maneuvered our way towards the gate from which our Air France flight would depart, and I think all of our eyes widened.

The plane was a double-decker, and it was impressive. We filed to our seats and tucked in for the six-hour flight ahead of us. Since we would arrive in Paris around 6 am local time and napping that first day is ill-advised, I wanted to try and get some shut-eye, but that would wait until after dinner.

Two things about dinner: 1) I can’t remember the last time I had an actual meal on an airplane, and 2) It was one of the best meals I’d had in a while, period.

The trip was off to a good start.

I did eventually doze off, and the time passed comfortably. We touched down at Charles de Gaulle just in time for a French sunrise.

We were in France!!!

Buoyed by a tasty onboard breakfast and the adrenaline of arrival, we made our way through customs and baggage claim, exchanged dollars for euros, and found the shuttle that would take us to our hotel.

Navigate Charles de Gaulle Airport? Check!

Before long, we were walking through the doors of Hotel Therese. The hotel is beautiful, with gabled rooms, a steep, curving staircase [we actually encountered a lot of those during the course of our vacation], and great views. Here’s the view from one room:

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Also, it’s within walking distance of the Louvre, the Jardin des Tuileries, the Arc de Triomphe, and dozens of other fabulous places, which doesn’t hurt.

We walked to a nearby cafe for breakfast: Coffee. Pain au chocolat. Croissants. Nuff said.

Fortified, we started acquainting ourselves with the neighborhood. The weather was cool and intermittently rainy, but that didn’t slow us down. We walked, savored, and walked some more. We ate lunch in the Latin Quarter, and I learned a new definition of blissful contentment: Just standing outside Notre Dame and looking at it.

We had an appointment to keep, however: a bicycle tour through Paris. Our guide was a well-traveled Dutch girl named Amber. Amber was very nice. The tour, however, was one of the more nerve-rattling experiences of my recent memory. Steering a bike through Paris traffic, through dense crowds of people, through narrow gaps between sidewalk posts…not for the cycling novice! That said, we did see a lot of cool things, and if you’re into cycling, I would certainly recommend a bike tour as a way to see any new city.

On Sunday morning, several of us stepped out for a run on a route which promptly became one of my favorites ever: We ran the short distance from the hotel to the Louvre, then just ran straight out, through the Jardin des Tuileries, past the Obelisk (commemorating the site of many a beheading), up the Champs Elysees, to the Arc de Triomphe. Talk about a Rave Run!

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After breakfast in the hotel (two delicious pastries and coffee for 6 euros) we did some more exploring. We strolled through the Jardin and meandered up the Champs Elysees, trying to imagine how it will look just a couple of months from now for the end of the Tour de France. We reached the Arc de Triomphe and did some exploring there, including a visit to the top. Like Notre Dame, the Arc did not disappoint — it is every bit as magnificent, if not more so, as you’d imagine.

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We couldn’t leave Paris without visiting the Louvre, but having been warned about the immensity of the place, we went in with a game plan. On Monday morning after our run (darting between early-morning commuters on the Champs is a flat-out fun way to do an interval workout, FYI) we entered the museum with the goal of seeking out the Mona Lisa, Venus de Milo, and a couple of other specific items. We succeeded, but good GRIEF is it easy to get lost in there!

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After the Louvre, we decided to head over to the Eiffel Tower. We had been unable to get tickets to the top before our trip, but Dad was feeling lucky, and we hoped that the wind and rain would keep the competition — er, other tourists — indoors.

Again, success! We got tickets and climbed in. One elevator takes you part of the way up, then you have to get in another to finish the journey. Before we got on the second elevator, we stopped for coffee and a panoramic view of the city, and warily eyed the weather, which wasn’t getting any better. No matter. We were there, we were DOING THIS.

At last we stepped out at the top…and were met with rainy gusts of sufficient force to keep everyone at one end or another, away from the wind tunnels that comprised the other two sides. I think I stayed outside for all of four minutes. Oh well!

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Couples in Paris have taken to putting their names or initials on padlocks, attaching the padlock somewhere prominent, and throwing away the key.

Couples in Paris have taken to putting their names or initials on padlocks, attaching the padlock somewhere prominent, and throwing away the key.

We made our slightly soggy way back our hotel’s neighborhood, where we had another delicious meal, and then called it a day. The next day we would be taking the train to Verdun for an immersion into World War I history.

End Notes:

* The people of Paris were lovely. I can’t think of a single complaint about them.

* It’s worth keeping a few one-euro coins handy. There are public bathrooms in Paris, but you frequently have to pay to use them.

* Every church we saw was awe-inspiring. Every. One of them. Especially Saint Chappelle, with its towering stained-glass windows. Definitely worth visiting if you’re in Paris!

* To conclude: I loved Paris.

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Next week: France, Part II — Vive Verdun!

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