Redefining Hard.

A Guest Post by Chief Editor and Baby Daddy, Chris.

I’ve written about running before, several times. Running tourism, my first half, my first marathon, my second marathon. A central theme in all my running blogs is accessibility. As in, you can do this. You, the reader, if you are in reasonably decent health, can train and accomplish these things. I still think this is true.

I recently ran my first ultramarathon, the 27 mile option at the Lake Martin 100/50/27 mile endurance event on the trails at Russell Lands at Lake Martin. It was, by far, the most difficult athletic thing I have done. It was just a bit longer than a marathon by distance, but trail miles are very different from road miles. The terrain was at times technical, steep, slippery, sticky, and/or wet. The trails were full of roots, rocks, mud, clay, stream crossings, leaves, and pine straw. At times it was a 30 foot wide dirt road. At times it was a 12” wide single track ditch. As advertised, the rolling hills are relentless.

IMG_1069I was still feeling great after 90 minutes. {Photo Credit: Tanya Sylvan}

That said, I think for most of you, even an ultramarathon is achievable. It may seem crazy, but this is the heart of new, first time accomplishment – it redefines hard. You move the standard for what is physically and mentally possible.

So whether you are looking at a Couch to 5K program, 10k, Half Marathon, Full Marathon, 27 mile or 50K Ultra, 50 mile, 100 mile, or or a 150 mile race that starts with jumping out of an airplane and falling the first 2 miles (this does exist), that feeling of impossibility is just that – a feeling. It is not reality.

The truth is that with a realistic training schedule, a little knowledge about gear and injury prevention, some practice at hydration and exercise-related nutrition, and the support of your local running community (in my case, the BTC and the BUTS), you can do this.

FullSizeRender-3Rocking my BUTS gear after the race.

So, with all of that heady stuff aside, I’ll get practical. As are all first-time endeavors, it was a learning experience. So I will let you benefit from the wisdom of my experience.

What I did right:

Read. I read bunches of blogs about trail running, ultra running, gear, all of it. I read every line of every page of the Lake Martin 100 website, which is really thorough about all things course, preparation, and survival. (Gaiters For The Win!!)

Listen. I picked all the trail runner brains in my orbit. I did what they said. I like to benefit from the wisdom of everyone else’s experience. Because of others, I had all sorts of goodies like a blister kit, wet wipes, and super greasy feet impervious to water.

IMG_1065 copyI was still feeling good at the Heaven Hill aid station. {Photo Credit: Random Dude.}

Train. I asked a 100 mile vet what trails I should train on. She sent me to harder ones than I planned on, but I am so glad I listened and did what she said.

Overprepare. I had about 500 miles worth of Tailwind (advanced Powerade), snacks, sunscreen, bugspray, and socks in my drop box at the main aid station. Extra everything.

IMG_1063Ahhhhh, downhill. {Photo Credit: Tanya Sylvan}

What I did wrong:

Under hydrate. I drank approximately 5 liters of fluid, but I was on the course (including resting on benches and at aid station stops) over 8 hours.

Around mile 22, my legs began teetering on the brink of charley horses, twinging with every little trip, giving that moment of panic when you feel the muscles begin to tighten and curl.

At one point I intentionally fell down to immediately relieve the tension before it could tighten any further. By the time the race ended, I was walking all the hills, even the tiniest 1% grades, because even a minor incline was inducing the beginnings of Nightmare on Cramp Street.

Most of my trail training just happened to be on cold & dry days. The day of the race was humid, at times sunny, & after awhile, hot.

TMI, but after a final 6:35am pre-race port-a-potty stop, I didn’t pee until 4:30pm, long after finishing, rehydrating, and showering. Bottom line: under those conditions, 5 liters wasn’t near enough.

Not long enough training runs. My longest trail training run several weeks before Lake Martin was 16 miles. Since I had run a full road marathon 5 weeks prior to this race, I didn’t feel like a 20+ mile long trail run was necessary. Oops.

I felt great for about 20 miles. The last 7 were so much harder than they had to be. I wish I had done a 22 mile training run before I tapered down for the race. The single track inclines felt steeper and steeper as I went along, until I looked like I was sneaking up the secret path to Mordor, crawling with my weary hobbit legs at a 22:00/mile pace.

IMG_0992Mile 23. No comment.

What else:

When I got to Mile 23, the trail was named Rock Bottom. I sat on a bench. I took off my pack. I texted with friends. I just chilled. I did not see one other human for that entire section of the course, a 7 mile loop between aid stations. I assumed I was last, and I was just fine with it.

IMG_0993Rock Bottom wasn’t so bad.

I only got off track once for about 100 yards, but quickly retraced my steps and got back on the well-marked course. This is not unusual, but you can’t be lost for long. There are blue flags EVERYWHERE on the route, and signs marking every turn.

As it turned out, I wasn’t last. The last 2 miles of the 27 were an out-and-back to a spool of plastic tape to prove you made it to the turnaround. After I got my blessed piece of blue tape, I turned around for the last mile victory lap, and passed about 5 or 6 people. They looked just as tired as me.

IMG_1062-2The final stretch – I didn’t die! {Photo Credit: Tanya Sylvan}

But all of that eventually ended in a glorious wave of cheering, high-fives, a medal, pictures, fluids, potato chips, delicious soup, flip-flops, and later a giant cheeseburger.

FullSizeRender-4Kowaliga Restaurant. A+.

All together, it was a fantastic experience. The every-flavor forest was so many different kinds of beautiful. The lake itself was a frequent canvas behind the rustling trees. The birds and frogs and babbling streams provided the background music. The camaraderie of crews, pacers, and fellow racers – both old friends and people I met during the race – was worth the price of admission. The aid station volunteers were aggressively helpful and sincerely compassionate.

I definitely plan to do another ultra. Maybe a 50K.

And I will benefit from the wisdom of my own experience the next time I redefine hard.

Second Time’s a Charm

Guest Post by Chris the Husband.

Last year about this time, I ran a full marathon for the first time – with a disgusting sinus infection in a light rain – and called it a win. I finished without being miserable. This, boys and girls, is why we train – not only so we survive the challenge, whatever it is, but so we don’t have to feel miserable afterward.

Its been a whole year, and I haven’t gotten any slimmer, but I have kept running. And I’ve gotten faster. So this year, I had a goal in mind – to shave a LOT of time off of the Mercedes Marathon. Last year, I just wanted to finish, so I took it easy. This year, I wanted to see what I could do.

In pretty much all of my life, a pound of preparation is worth far more than an ounce of hassle, so I joyfully strategize and plan details to optimize everything. In marathon terms, it means several things.

It means that Rachel gets full credit for booking a last minute hotel room for Valentine’s Day within 100 yards of the starting line.

It means my fitness plan included a Tour of Italy at 2:00pm the day before to go along with soup, breadsticks, and Alfredo sauce.

It means going to bed really early, not too long after watching the sun set behind the silent course, marked and waiting.


It means getting up early enough the day of the race to go to the bathroom so many times that the trips get named after Star Wars movies.

3:45 Wake up before alarm. The Phantom Menace.

4:00 Study weather [as if.] Drink full bottle of water.

4:15 Drink first cup of coffee. Attack of the Clones.

4:30 Do awkward stretches in the dark.

4:45 Think about breakfast. Revenge of the Sith.

5:00 Eat oatmeal with brown sugar. Bring breakfast to wife.

5:15 Second cup of coffee. A New Hope.

5:30 Lubricate everything with Body Glide.

5:45 Re-evaluate wardrobe choices. The Empire Strikes Back.

6:00 Chapstick everything that doesn’t have Body Glide.

6:15 Actually get dressed. Return of the Jedi.

6:30 Start to head to the race. Nope. The Force Awakens.

6:45 Group photo.


7:03 Run.

The actual running part is not terribly interesting for you, the reader, so I’ll spare you all of that. There were some really bright moments. Some of my Birmingham Track Club Saturday Morning Long Run people were working a water stop at Railroad Park, and familiar faces are always a pick-me-up. Plus, you have to make it look good for your friends, because they will take pictures of you and post them – so you best be smiling.

IMG_6084Photo Credit: Bob Sims, BTC Water Stop Volunteer

Last year, I took several handfuls of gummy bears from volunteers along the course, trying to baby myself through the race, but this year, with a vast 1 marathon under my belt, I took a few more chances.

The Birmingham Ultra Trail Society (BUTS) is another fine organization that operates a water stop, and they are somewhat notorious for their varied offerings to weary runners. On my first pass around mile 10, I got high-fives, smiling familiar faces, and a miracle.

A face I can’t remember extended a plate in my direction. I looked down, and thought I had lost my mind.

That can’t be. It looks like – is that – ? – it is.

I reached out with my sweaty gloved hand, and grabbed a perfectly reasonable handful of bacon. After a shocked thanks, as I kept running, I lifted my hand to my mouth, and in that cold morning air, that fresh, hot, greasy, salty bacon was the best thing I have ever put in my mouth.

The second time I passed them, 13 miles later, I took the heart-shaped Little Debbie cakes, also delightful. Not bacon-level, but still much needed and fantastic for getting icing on your lips to keep licking off for the last few miles.

I pushed myself hard on the second loop of the course, and I did it. I took 35 minutes off of my time from last year. Thank you again, bacon. As I came in to Linn Park, my dear sweet wife and several running friends were waiting and cheering for me – I so do not deserve any of these people.

I finished the race, slowed to a staggering walk, got my medal, my swag bag, and started peeling off my toboggan and gloves. I grabbed a Powerade bottle and shuffled to the exit gate, pausing for a second to have the staff mark my bib.

Less than one minute from the finish line, the moment I emerged through the gate onto the sidewalk, swaying like a leaf in a gentle breeze, a well-meaning lady caught my eye from 12 inches away. “Excuse me, would you take our picture??”

I almost didn’t believe she meant me. My heart was pounding, my hands were full. But here she was, handing me the phone. I lifted it with my swag and junk loaded hands, and tried to stabilize myself while the five of them posed.

I took a second look at them. And a third. The runner in their soon to be well-focused and carefully taken picture was the apparent twin of my ex-girlfriend from 18 years ago. Whatever. I managed to tap the screen a few times and smile at them as I handed their phone back.

I found Rachel, and off we went into the post-race party to get Jim n Nicks BBQ and celebrate. I got my food, and headed to the sauce/pickle table. Lemme tell you, runners, just because you ran a marathon does not mean that the rules of polite society are completely gone. There were 2 giant bowls of scratch-made pickles, each with its own tongs. And the dude in front of me grabbed a stack of pickle slices with the tongs and went straight to his pie hole with it. BOGUS. PARTY. FOUL.

I got my pickles from the other bowl.

I could bore you with my time and and pace, but instead, here are fun statistics:

Fitbit Steps in my marathon: 41,345.

Lose It calorie credit for my marathon: –3,828.

Trips to the bathroom during the race: 0.

New members of the Birmingham Ultra Trail Society: 1.

Let me say, if you didn’t read last year’s post, or if you did, you can do this. I’m 39 and over 200 pounds. If you start slow and train properly, you can do this. There is a welcoming community in your town ready and willing to encourage and push you to do things you would never do on your own.

Editor’s Note: He’s right. You can do it. But it might be helpful in meeting your goals if you don’t have a littering aversion like our daughter.


Lessons Out of Appleton.

Guest post by my Dad. To see all of his previous guest posts, click here.

I was angry.  But then, I had a right to be! As I arrived at the airport and turned in my rental car, I received a text message that my 10:15 flight was delayed until 2:30. Why couldn’t they have sent the text 15 minutes earlier? At least then I could have kept the car and seen the sights that were to be seen in beautiful Appleton, Wisconsin.

As I approached the ticket counter, there were several other travelers in line in front of me. All seemed to have the weariness on their face that I was feeling. When I finally got to an agent, she was quite helpful, seemingly not affected by the other travelers that were as angry as I. She informed me that there was a mechanical issue on my original flight and that they were bringing in another airplane for us, causing the delay. She dutifully checked other possible flights and connections, through different airports that would get me home at some hour more palatable than the 9:48pm now scheduled (instead of the 3:15 I was originally scheduled to be home.) No dice. I was to sit in Appleton for the next four hours, then sit in Detroit for FIVE hours, because the delay would cause me to miss my connection.  I could feel my anger rising.

About an hour in to my wait, I got another text from the airline. My delayed flight had been rescheduled now to 12:30. Good news. I could now make my connection in Detroit and all would be well. I gathered my possessions and trudged toward the gate.  Boarding seemed to take an extra long time and I wondered for the thousandth time why they load airplanes front seats first. Although we were the only plane leaving Appleton, we sat interminably at the end of the runway. The pilot finally came on the intercom and explained that Detroit Central was trying to work us in to the landing queue, so we would have to wait.


Finally airborne, the flight attendant barely had enough time to get down the aisle with the drink cart before we were on final into Detroit. The weather was bad and it was a bumpy ride. Our gate must have been at the other end of the airport because we taxied for at least 20 minutes. As we got off the plane, I realized that unloading is only slightly more efficient that loading. I checked with the gate agent for my next gate – B-15. We had arrived in A terminal. Good thing I had carried on my bags and not checked anything – if I hurried, I could still make the flight. Rushing from the end of the A terminal to the center, down the escalator and through the quarter mile long tunnel to the B terminal, turn left and hustle down to gate 15.

Something wasn’t right.

No one was around.

No airplane was at the gate.

I went across the concourse to gate 14. After waiting for two other passengers to ask their questions, I finally got to the agent. No, the Birmingham flight at B-15 had left four hours ago. The 3:10 flight is at A-43. ARE YOU KIDDING ME!!!

Back through the B concourse, through the now half mile long tunnel, up the escalators turn right and run to the gate. Just in time to see the gate agent close the door to the jet way. “I’m sorry sir, you weren’t here, we allowed a standby passenger in your place.”


I tried to calm down, and succeeded, but only a little. When the supervisor arrived I calmly explained the events of my morning, although through clenched teeth. He listened carefully, repeated back the story to me in order to let me know he understood then apologized for inconvenience.

INCONVENIENCE! This was going to go down in memory as one of the worst travel days in memory!  And I’ve had quite a number of bad travel days – MOSTLY ON HIS AIRLINE!

He did offer a food voucher so that I could at least have a decent meal while I waited the FIVE HOURS for my flight. I went to my new gate (in Concourse C no less) and settled in to wait. And wait. All the time fuming about my “inconvenience.”

When we finally boarded I settled into an aisle seat, calmer now and beginning to realize that I was only an hour and a half from home. It’s going to be okay.

Then she came in.

She looked to be about 25. She had a baby strapped to her chest and a toddler in tow. They, of course sat in the seats directly across from me. She was struggling with her carry-on bag, a diaper bag, a booster seat, and the toddler. I helped her get settled, putting her carry on in the overhead as she dealt with the toddler. The baby was fussy and I was beginning to think that my bad day was about to continue. Sometimes babies don’t react well to cabin pressurization and scream the whole flight. Great.

Luckily, all three of them were sound asleep by the time we had taxied out and headed for Birmingham. It was a quiet flight and I had a little time to reflect on the day – trying to put my anger behind me and focus on the fact that I would soon be home and I could sleep in my own bed. I mused about the marvel of modern air travel in general and how you could wake up in Appleton, Wisconsin or San Francisco and sleep in your own bed that night 2500 miles away.

I also began to think about the times that things hadn’t gone the way I planned, but somehow God had worked things out in the end. Things I could never imagine. Things for His purposes, not mine. But in the end, looking back, His hand was undeniable. This seemed to be a lesson I had to learn over and over again.

My quiet reflection was interrupted by the pilot. He informed us that there were severe storms right over the Birmingham airport and we were going to circle for a while over Huntsville and see if they would clear out in time.  He said that we had about a thirty minute window, then we might have to land in Huntsville, refuel and wait out the storms.

Instead of anger or a feeling of inconvenience, I felt a reassurance. Reassurance in the fact that the airline was making judgments made on safety concerns, not flight schedules. Reassurance that God was in control, even of this. We circled for a while and every circle when the plane turned north, I was treated to a beautiful sunset in the west. And when the plane went west, I could see the thunderstorm over Birmingham lighting up the sky.  I reflected on the beauty and precision that is creation.

(Meanwhile, Rachel was on a mountaintop photographing the same sunset and storm over Birmingham.)


The fuel window closed and we began to descend into Huntsville. The flight attendant informed us that we would deplane into the terminal and would would be given further information there.

The young mother woke up and asked me what was going on. I explained. She didn’t seem too surprised. She began to rouse the toddler and try to position the sleeping infant back into his carrier. I asked if I could help in any way. She looked at me and asked if I could hold her baby. I was glad to. He snuggled up on my chest and continued to sleep soundly. Mom began to try to get everything organized and I made a casual remark about her bravery, traveling with two kids and all. Three actually, she corrected me. Her husband was in the back of the plane with their five year old. They were a military family, headed home to a small town outside of Birmingham for the first time in two years. From Germany. For her husband’s fathers funeral. They had been traveling for about 36 hours, she thought – she had lost track. Still she had a smile, a weary smile, but a smile.

I helped her with the toddler and her carry-on bag to get down the stairs (no jet way, we deplaned onto the tarmac) and her husband and other son came off the plane a few minutes later.  The Dad had his arm in a sling, having had shoulder surgery a few days before.

The gate agent informed us that the flight crew were at their max hours, and so there would be a bus arriving to drive us the rest of the way to Birmingham (two hours by road), and that we needed to gather all our belongings and wait at the curb. I went to baggage claim with the young family. They had four bags, three car seats and several other items.

“You need help,” I said to the Dad.

“No, no, we have it,” was his reply.

“That wasn’t a question,” I told him. “That was a statement.”

I gathered what I could and we made our way to the curb. I could see what appeared to be some moisture well up in his eyes. “You are the first person to offer us any help since this trip began. Thank you.”

I felt some moisture in my eyes, too.

The bus trip to Birmingham was thankfully uneventful. As we arrived at the Birmingham airport around midnight, I saw a woman on the sidewalk begin to run along beside the bus. When we came to a stop, she was waiting on the young family. When they got off the bus, she hugged everyone, but scooped up the toddler and infant. It was then I realized that she was a Grandmother meeting two of her grandkids for the first time.

I helped Dad unload their bags and car seats from the belly of the bus.  When all were piled on the curb, he stuck out his hand and thanked me profusely. Mom introduced me to the Grandmother, who was still clinging to her grandkids. She thanked me too.

They were thanking ME. I felt ashamed. Here they were, away from family, serving our country and returning home under these circumstances, and still were able to manage a smile.

And then I realized that possibly God had orchestrated my whole inconvenient day to be here to help this young family.

But as I sit here, writing these words, I realize I was not the blessing to them. They were a blessing to me.

God had used my whole day not (only) for me to be there to offer my meager help, but to teach me something. I too often get wrapped up in my own world, outraged at seeming inconveniences, angry when things don’t go as I plan or envision. My plans are so short sighted. My vision is so limited. God grant me wisdom.

“’For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,’ declares the Lord.”
-Isaiah 55:2