Study Abroad in Scandinavia – Week 2

[If you missed the Week 1 recap, find it here.]

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May 29

Week two began with a daytrip to the college town of Lund, in southern Sweden. This is a great place to escape the city, relax, check out the cathedral you see above, perhaps collect some data, and definitely eat some delicious cardamom buns.

One of my favorite things about Lund is a lovely botanical garden, where we had a class meeting and discussed the concept of flow. The garden’s colors weren’t as vivid as last year’s, probably due to a drought, but we still found some nice patches.

May 30

Today was our last full day in Copenhagen. We had a fairly long class, mostly on work-life integration and “busyness bragging”. Lunch was all about going to favorite places one last time: the organic hotdog cart, the bagel shop, that one ice cream/churro place, coffee coffee coffee. Dinner was a pre-ordered meal that was…hilarious.

img_0550Joe and I were staying in the Norrebro neighborhood, which was ground zero for the first night of Distortion, a massive music festival that is better described in photos. Just imagine this scene over a square-mile or two. And imagine us trying to wheel huge rental bikes through this. We were not popular.

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May 31

This was our day to travel to Stockholm, a five-hour train ride that left at 8:20 a.m. Despite a few snafus for Joe and me (a cab that didn’t show and my desperate plea to a stranger to please drive us to the station), it all went smoothly. This is always a great chance to catch up on sleep and reading.

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The students met with a DIS rep to take them to their housing, which is north of the city in a suburban area called Sollentuna (I remember this by picturing a mopey fish). Joe and I settled into our Gamla Stan (“Old Town”) Airbnb and immediately watched the previous night’s series finale of The Americans. Priorities.

June 1

Today started with a summertime must-do: a lunch cruise into the Stockholm archipelago, a chain of 30,000+ islands that stretches east from the city into the Baltic Sea. Many Swedes have summer houses and boats here (1 in 10 Swedes owns a boat) and it’s an important part of warm-weather recreation.

img_0649.jpgWeather is usually a primary concern for me on this study abroad, because so many of our activities are outdoors. But it’s barely mentioned here because we continue to be so ridiculously lucky!

 

After the cruise, we had a class meeting on the small island of Skeppsholmen. Topics were friluftsliv and the feeling of awe, both very appropriate for the day.

There was some Gamla Stan wandering, too. As a well-preserved medieval town, pretty much everything here is photo-worthy.

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We found the oldest statue in Stockholm, the “little boy who looks at the moon,” and rubbed his head for good luck.

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Without too much planned for after, we all ended up at our apartment for a very stimulating class discussion! img_0661(Okay, it was actually a show-and-tell of our wedding photos.)

June 2

Today was largely a free day for students to collect data and explore Stockholm. I had planned to run the marathon (read all about that here) and was so happy and surprised that a group of students chose to spend a few of their free hours watching and cheering.

 

In the evening, most of us went on the Stockholm Ghost Walk, a tour of Gamla Stan that gives us a dark lesson into the history of Stockholm: mass executions, brothels, doomed searches for buried treasure, and not one, not two, but three different types of the plague. And lots of restless spirits. Good fun.

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June 3

Yet another beautiful day to spend outside. We all took the streetcar to Skansen, the world’s oldest outdoor museum.

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img_0814It’s massive and has all kinds of exhibits about traditional Swedish life (imagine a Swedish Colonial Williamsburg), but the Nordic animals were the biggest hit.

 

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June 4

A big class day. The DIS facilities here are housed in the Royal College of Music. They practically require a retinal scan to access, but they’re quite nice when you do.img_0687.jpg

A bonus: the school’s metro stop, Stadion, features this:

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Stockholm’s metro is sometimes called the world’s longest art museum.

Anyway, we had a morning class meeting, a lunch break, and an afternoon guest lecture on Swedish politics from DIS professor Steve Turner, an American who’s been living in Sweden for 40 years. This was an intellectual high point of last year’s program, and was perhaps even more so this year, given the increasing frictions here and an important upcoming election.

img_0884It’s all too easy for us to leave here feeling like the Scandinavian countries are doing everything right while we are, umm, not. This lecture highlighted the complications of implementing the social welfare system and the moral conflicts woven into immigration policy. In short, it filled in some important gaps.

June 5

Our last day, already?

Today began with class. We first debriefed and discussed the previous day’s guest lecture, then everyone briefly presented their individual project findings. Our allotted two hours of classroom time flew by. We broke for lunch, packing time, and time to do all of those last things.

We met for a last group dinner at a Stockholm mainstay, Kvarnen. We finally got our fill of Swedish meatballs.

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After dinner, we searched in vain for a karaoke place. Finding none, we settled for some very non-Swedish street singing, an Irish pub, and a late-night subway ride with a fire extinguisher incident that I need to learn more about (everyone is fine).

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Last night, someone asked me to define the group in a single word. I couldn’t decide between three:

united – this group of 13 was often all together, and when they weren’t, I could never identify any cliques or anyone who wasn’t a part of things. Everyone seemed to genuinely like each other and look out for one another. I saw a ton of compromise, empathy, and good humor, even in stressful situations.

zany – I never worried about them being bored. They could create fun wherever they went, whether by killing a half hour by making their own beatbox band (complete with a few singles, an album cover, and a t-shirt design), cheering like mad at a marathon (generally not thought of as a great spectator sport), laughing their heads off at a catastrophically bad meal, and certainly many shenanigans I never heard about.  It was so much fun to be a part of this crazy crew. They reminded me to worry less and to laugh a lot more.

resourceful – they quickly demonstrated that they could figure things out on their own. They seldom needed me to point out directions or to suggest where to go. Multiple times, I realized that my suggestions were pretty lame compared to the things they’d find. They were also really good at getting things for free, like this:

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June 6

My last day here. The students seem to have taken the sunshine with them, literally and figuratively. It’s Swedish National Day (think a toned down version of the 4th of July in the U.S.). Many things are closed, my energy is sapped, and it’s suddenly 50 degrees and cloudy. In other words, it’s a good day to blog, pack, and eat one last cardamom bun.

Until next year, Scandinavia!

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Stockholm Marathon 2018 Recap

img_0675 Yesterday was my 10th marathon and my first time ever repeating one. Stockholm seemed like a good choice for a PR attempt, since it’s flat, has low humidity, and is generally cool.

But we’ve been blessed/cursed with record-breaking warmth during this trip, weather that is ideal for pretty much anything…except this.

Although I carbed up like a champ (cardamom buns!!!), I otherwise couldn’t muster too much excitement for this race. After all, I’d run it once before, I was distracted (in the best way) by study abroad, and I knew the heat wasn’t going to lead to any personal records. To make matters worse, the race started at noon, only the hottest part of the day.

It’s hard to do a marathon when you’re not feeling it.

So, why was I doing it? Because I’d paid the entry fee? (Sunk-cost fallacy, but kind of.) Because I told people I was doing it? (Sheepish yes.) Because I didn’t want my training to be for nothing? (Naw. Extra snacks ain’t nothing!) Because I wanted the finisher shirt and medal? (Absolutely.)

For whatever reason, there I was at the start, with 18,000 or so other fools/hardy souls.

img_0725We started outside the 1912 Olympic Stadium in the open sun. I was stuck in a tight pack for awhile, which I hate. Each mile or so, there’d be an aggressive rush to the sprinklers and the water stations as we all attempted to cool down. Shade was a commodity everyone was fighting for. And this course was not the pancake I remember. Two new hills had been added, I swear.

I quickly saw my average pace fall way below goal time and my motivation fell along with it. Everything was annoying me: the people getting between me and the sponge-wetting stations, the restaurants that smelled like fried food, the spectators smoking, the booming speakers that were keeping me from hearing my own music…you name it.

Even when I could hear it, my faithful marathon playlist did nothing for me. The Schuyler sisters tried to remind me of how lucky I was to be alive right now. Michael Jackson called me a pretty young thing. The bearded lady from The Greatest Showman told me that I was glorious. Sara Bareilles really wanted to see me be brave. Nope.

But I did get through this slogfest, in a respectable-for-the-weather 3:48. How come? Because at the one-hour and two-hour marks I saw Joe (wearing the landmark: a SF Giants Dr. Seuss hat) and a big group of students cheering like their lives depended on it, in very non-Swedish fashion. Jantelagen be damned, they were loud. And they had signs. It was THE BEST.

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img_0825Then, when I thought they were done (because who wants to spend all afternoon watching a marathon?) they surprised me at the finish line, which ends with a half-lap around the stadium track.

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img_0722Did I mention that this was the best? Marathons often deliver the full range of intense emotions, but I don’t remember going from angry and alone to joyful and supported in such a short time. It makes the fact that this was not my personal best day seem very incidental.

And, whether I have them to blame or to thank, I know that this will be me. Just maybe not for a little while.

 

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Boston Marathon Recap

This started as a travel blog. But it’s accidentally become more of a running blog. And a sporadic one at that.img_9251

I’ve gotten into the habit of writing recaps of my major races. Yet with spring on the horizon and finals week approaching, I’ve been putting this one off. Plus, what can I say that hasn’t already been said much better here, here, here, and so many other places? Plus: pressure. This was The One. I’ve been chasing the unicorn, quasi-literally and figuratively, for so long. I should be able to muster up something articulate! Thoughtful! Reflective! Instead, I feel monosyllabic, much like I was during the race itself:. UGH! BLAH! SHIIIIT!

But, to keep up with this mini-tradition, I’ll do my best to lend something to the conversation.

With less than a week between myself and this race, I must admit that, despite all of the ughs and blahs, my first Boston was pretty freakin’ great. Yes, I know it was maybe the worst weather in the race’s 122-year history. I know about the hypothermia and the crowded medical tents and the relatively slow finishing times. I was there. I have my own experiences of stinging rain, crippling headwind, waterlogged shoes, and nonfunctional fingers at the ready. This thing sucked. It was hard. Ridiculously, unforgettably, and indescribably hard.

To prove my point, check out a few images of the Athletes’ Village in Hopkinton, before the race even started.

 

But if I wanted easy, I’d stay home or take a beach weekend. The marathon is hard. We do it for that very reason. For the challenge, for the stories. To experience the new and the singular. To feel alive and vibrant. To redefine what is possible. To brag. To be a badass.

Given all of that, on every single front, Boston 2018 delivered. Challenge and badassery galore. An experience like no other. Stories for decades, with grim photos to back them up (see above, and below, and any other blog or webpage chronicling this day). As for feeling alive…does it get any better than pushing through the wind, dodging puddles, rain stinging your face, music blaring, without a care in the world for what exists outside of this tunnel of cold, wet misery?

 

Alive does not necessarily mean happy. But there were even some weirdly happy moments during this thing. Wearing a wacky but really toasty outfit of running clothes under massive Goodwill throwaway sweats under a Tyvek suit under a plastic poncho to the start was hilarious! And losing my “real” running hat – all technical and sleek – and having to wear the Pippi Longstocking monstrosity I got at the Goodwill as a throw-away? Funny stuff! (This hat was actually awesomely toasty and kept my headphones secure. Love you, Pippi-hat!) Looking at – but thankfully passing by – the Athletes’ Village, with its ankle-deep mud and hundreds of pairs of discarded shoes? Also a riot. Later, during the race, the Wellesley tunnel – thinned out as it was – provided a massive boost. And I had to laugh when a surprise crosswind swept through, so swiftly that my anklebones bumped into each other and drew some blood. The absurdity of this! WTF!?

Yep. I got my money’s worth. And that’s saying a lot. Did I mention that, in addition to everything else, I had to go buy a new Lululemon outfit because of the shifting forecast and my poor packing? (I was not alone.) Add another $250 to the tab. Still – worth it!

And my performance? Given the downhill nature of the first half, I was not too surprised to be going at PR-pace (sub 3:30), albeit smartly. But the weather just got worse, my spirits got lower, and the hills appeared, as I knew they would. I dropped back and did what may be the hardest thing of all – let go of my PR hope (which was never really part of the plan anyway) and tried to be compassionate to myself in the process.

While this was not a glorious race or triumphant finish, I ran my third fastest marathon – a 3:39:46 – and beat my bib by a cool 6,008 spots. And I still have all my fingers and my toes and a love of running. Win!

 

So, let’s have a redo next year, Boston. And while I like an edifying experience every now and then, I also heard that I missed out on some serious cheering and crowd love thanks to these elements. Mother Nature, you can be a little less dramatic next time, mmmk?

Onward! Five little weeks until the beautiful, PR-friendly Stockholm Marathon. #gluttonforpunishment

Chicago Marathon Recap

On October 8th I ran my 8th marathon through the crowded, lively streets of Chicago. This was, by far, the largest marathon I’ve ever run (in fact, it’s the second largest in the world, and the fact that they pull it off so smoothly is pretty incredible). I trained all summer, using the FIRST program, to break 3:30 (A goal), or to break 3:36:55 (a PR; the B goal), OR to qualify for Boston ’19 (sub…3:40? Who knows!; C goal), or to finish without being broken – physically, emotionally, or spiritually (D goal). It’s good to have goals.

I missed my A goal by an almost laughable three seconds, running a 3:30:02. The rational part of me is thrilled by an almost 7 minute PR and a nearly 15 minute BQ on a hot day. The rational part of me is amazed to be setting big PRs at 39, and grateful to have emerged uninjured and eager to keep running. But that emotional part of me is plagued by all those things I could have done to get those three seconds back. If only I’d taken a turn tighter, pushed harder, left my iPod alone, skipped the deep dish pizza on Friday night, walked less the day before, eaten one more gel, eaten one less gel, lost a few ounces. You name it. I didn’t collapse at the finish, so I surely had something left! Ok, stop. Stop!! It’s a win.

The Chicago Marathon is famous for being flat and fast – a world record course if the weather is kind. But that’s a big if. For us, the weather was…ok. The humidity was on the lower side to us Virginians, after training through the sticky summer months. But after about mile 18, the sun was definitely a challenge. And the crowds! I called this race “the introvert’s nightmare” only partially in jest. If you’re someone who thrives on cheering and cowbells and funny signs, it’s your jam. But if you, say, want to listen to an audiobook, forget it. Too loud. If you want to listen to your own thoughts, even, you may have a hard time. I’m still figuring out the kind of races I like best, but I suspect that this was a little too overstimulating for me. It was a great experience and I’m glad to have done it, especially with good friends. But I also like to run my pace, feel in control of my thoughts and of my body, and be able to access a toilet at the start.

Even though I’m still figuring it out, I love any opportunity to talk about running, so I’d agreed to give a guest lecture to the JMU marathon class the Wednesday after the race (this is a class that trains students to run their first marathon in a semester – so cool, and very unusual!).

Knowing this was going to happen, I’d been taking mental notes throughout the training cycle and during the race itself. There’s nothing revolutionary here, but my tips for them included:

  • Work your core. Planks, bridges, etc.
  • Mimic race day as much as you can – clothing, fueling, terrain, waking up early. Mimic race day as much as you can. Study the race website and learn all that you can about the event.
  • Plan to be cold at the start (or to discard old clothes at the start). If you’re comfortable before the race, you’ll be too warm during it!
  • Fight the urge to go out too fast. You can’t bank time.
  • You can’t cram for the marathon. It’s not an exam. Training must be spaced out over many weeks or even months.
  • The wall is real. You will have dark moments in those later miles, you’ll want to quit, or maybe to die, and you will learn about yourself as you fight through this.
  • You’ll feel the full range of emotions. You can go from feeling strong and triumphant to defeated and miserable in a matter of minutes. [At this point in the lecture, I started to wonder why I loved something that sounded so dreadful.]
  • You will redefine what you think is hard and what you’re capable of.
  • You might become a lifelong runner, or you might cross this off your bucket list and never want to do anything like it ever again. Don’t feel like you need to decide right away.
  • Afterwards, walk around, stretch, roll. Fight the urge to be catatonic. You will thank yourself later.
  • [I didn’t tell them this but I thought about it.] The marathon is like the worst boyfriend ever. You put so much thought into your outfit for it. You try to lose weight for it. You bring your A game. It exhausts you. It calls the shots. It’s unpredictable: one minute, it’s making you feel strong and beautiful, the next it’s breaking you down, leaving you powerless and pained. And yet you may keep coming back for more, and very few people understand why. But hopefully your time with it will ultimately make you stronger.

What’s next for me? My least favorite part: recovery. Then:

  • The CAT Trail Half, October 28th. Practically in my own backyard, yet very much outside of my comfort zone. I suspect I’d like trail running, if I can keep my competitiveness and Garmin-obsession at bay.
  • The Richmond 8K, November 11th. Also running the last few miles of the marathon with a friend who’s gunning for a BQ.
  • The Rehoboth Beach Half-Marathon, December 2nd. Driving some of the JMU marathon kids up there for their big event, and shooting for my first sub 1:40 half.
  • Some other stuff, probably ill-advised.
  • The biggie, the unicorn, the life goal: my first Boston Marathon, April 16th. What a way to celebrate turning 40.

Tobacco Road Marathon Recap

Don’t start crying now — you’ll hyperventilate!

This is literally what I had to tell myself a mile from the finish line of the Tobacco Road Marathon. I tried to maintain my composure while also allowing myself to bask in the achievement of a major life goal – qualifying for the Boston Marathon – which I’d pursued with varying degrees of dedication since 2008. Finally!

I finished in 3:36:56, a 9+ minute PR and a very comfortable 8+ minute BQ. It’s not an overstatement to call this a peak experience of life.

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Whether it’s a PR or a PW, every single race has lessons to offer. Here are ten things I learned this past Sunday.

  1. When the starting line gets fenced off (about ten minutes before the race), don’t hop the fence to get to your desired starting spot. It’s a great way to tweak something. Find an open spot and walk through it like a normal person. You have plenty of time.
  2. If you’re debating whether or not you’re overdressed, you are.
  3. A great audiobook will help you happily pass the early miles, when you might just want to be distracted from the enormity of your task. Then, when you switch to your music later in the race, it’ll provide much more of a jump-start. (For me, the formula was: loud music for the first two miles, until the cacophony died down, then Tina Fey’s Bossypants, which never fails to crack me up — and in this context, surely made me look crazy — then my Hamilton/Rush/Dear Evan Hansen/In the Heights/Queen/Lady Gaga/etc. mix from mile 16 to the end).
  4. If strawberry-banana flavored anything is unappealing to you, then condensed, thick strawberry-banana Power Gel will be nothing short of revolting when offered to you at mile 22. You will be tempted to take this gel because it is free, and gels can cost two whole dollars, and lookit you sticking it to the man and getting your money’s worth. Don’t do it.
  5. Core work is absolutely key for maintaining stability in those last miles. Thanks to CXWORX at ACAC, my hips didn’t hurt nearly as much as usual, I felt less fatigued, and I was able to keep decent form.
  6. Smiling and thanking volunteers helps you feel like a human being. And those small moments of connection might just keep you going.
  7. Pouring water over your head – even when it’s not that warm out – feels amazing and gives you such a rush! Just make sure there’s enough water to go around, and also make sure that it’s not Gatorade.
  8. Consider not running with a pace group leader. They can go out way too fast. (The 3:40 pacer started out at sub-8:10 pace with about 15 people following him. By mile 24, there were two left.) Trust yourself. And know that passing your goal-time pacer in those last miles feels amazing. Especially when he calls out, “Go get it, girl.” And you say, “Hell YES I will!” And then you do.
  9. You are not too old.  Many studies find that marathon performance peaks in one’s late-20s. But, for many of us,  we more than make up for the slow slide into decrepitude with grit, smarts, and strength training. (See?) At 39, I feel faster and stronger than ever. (Well, not today. Today I can barely walk. And forget stairs. But, usually.)
  10. Find people who push you, who inspire you, who make this whole crazy endeavor fun. I wouldn’t have achieved this huge goal without these amazing, fast, hilarious ladies who made getting up at 5:30 am on Saturdays in the winter something I actually looked forward to.

This race was fantastic, with our group picking up BQs, PRs, and age group awards right and left.

Next up, maybe Copenhagen in late May, which feels crazy right now, but also too cool to pass up. Then Chicago in October. And (how much do I love saying this??) BOSTON in 2018!!

Running’s Peaks, Ends, and Mindgames

Two weeks ago, I was crippled by a pretty trivial decision: run Huntington Beach, CA’s Surf City 10 Miler, the distance I had signed up for, or heed the warnings of both my physical therapist and my aching Achilles and drop down to the event’s 10K.

The two courses were pretty much identical – both out-and-backs along the scenic, flat Pacific Coast Highway. The 10K just turned back a little sooner. As I pondered this decision: to drop down to the 10K or not to drop down, I went into full-on nerd mode as the concept of duration neglect popped into my head. Based on this well-established psychological principle, if I wanted to have good memories of this race, the total distance or time spent running mattered less than did the emotional peak and the way in which it ended!

So, what did I want from this race? I certainly wasn’t running it for a prize. I wasn’t in competition with anyone. I just wanted to run strong, have fun, and not get hurt. So, I decided to downplay the distance, or the duration, and opted to ensure a solid peak and a strong end. That way, I would have good memories of this special seaside race. The 10K it was.

Looking back two weeks later, I DO have a positive memory of this event. I felt fit and strong the entire time. I ran a negative split and a big PR of 45:06: good for fourth place overall and third in my age group (a shout-out to the dominant 30-39 year-old ladies, eh??).

But, beyond these more objective markers of success are my memories of pride and exuberance: Getting faster as time went on. Passing person after person, without pain or fatigue. And then crossing the finish line, shocked that my sixteenth 10K was, unexpectedly, my fastest one ever.

Did I wish for a second that I had run 10 miles? No way! Distance had become way less meaningful than I’d expected. Duration neglect was alive and well on the PCH. I had a solid peak and a strong end. The miles I’d logged were unimportant.

But sometimes duration neglect can work against us.

Another decision I’m grappling with is whether or not to run the Richmond Marathon in a mere two weeks, given my Achilles pain and other mysterious and enduring foot aches. Here, duration neglect takes center stage again. When I look back on previous marathons, even recent ones, details of the multi-hour slog are all but gone from memory. What remains is that peak – the realization that I am going to do it. That singular sense of badassery and pride as the miles tick by. And then the end – the triumph of crossing the finish line, getting my medal, and maybe eating a massive burger.

I truly want to respect the distance, but it’s awfully hard to do that when my psychological makeup is designed to work against me. 26.2 is a vague notion, manageable – no, conquerable – in the abstract. (And maybe this is a good thing. Would anyone choose to repeat this experience if they could mentally recreate each and every painful step?)

So, to run the marathon or not to run the marathon? As it unfolds over three-plus hours, it will be so much more than a peak and an end. It will be 26.2 miles, a distance that is just plain hard to get my mind around in any kind of real way.

In trying to make a decision that does respect the distance, I consulted the race map, trying to imagine myself at each and every mile. Maybe this could undo duration neglect just a bit. Here goes:

marathon-map

Mile 1-3 – navigate the crowd, try to resist the urge to go out too fast.

Miles 4-8 – a nice straightaway, settle in to a comfortable pace. Enjoy some downhill. Have a gel around 8. Don’t speed up too much.

Miles 9-12 – Cross the James, go through some woods, hit a gradual uphill. Don’t even think about being done yet.

Mile 13.1 – Halfway…only halfway. Be happy-sad about that.

Miles 14-16 – Approach the windy, gradually uphill bridge I’ve heard about. Try not to get psyched out. Fight through. This might be the worst of it. Maybe switch from podcasts to Hamilton. Have another gel.

Mile 17 – Back to downtown, optional bail-out point. Don’t do it! (Unless your Achilles is sending you an unmistakable QUIT message. Then do it.) See Mark. Don’t do the math. Don’t kill people with cowbells.

Miles 18-20 –  Enter potential slog territory. Try to catch up to people ahead of you. Smile when hitting the 20 mile mark. Stop worrying that your toenail fell off. It probably didn’t, and who cares if it does?

Miles 20-23. Enter that boring section of flat and ugly. Just think about anything else. Crank Hamilton. You are not throwing away your shot.

Miles 24-25. You should know at this point if your BQ is likely. And if it is, you will feel so freakin’ amazing. Remember last year’s half, when you hit this section and felt so happy knowing you were going to finally break 1:45? Like that, but better. This is your peak. Bask in it.

Enjoy the massive downhill and cross the finish line!

So, does this pull focus from the peaks and ends from marathons past and give me a sense of the distance and challenge I’m up against? Yes. So why do I feel pumped up instead of intimidated??

Maybe that’s my answer. Bring it, Richmond!