State vs. National

Eric had heard really good things about the Big Bend State Park (as opposed to the National Park that people mean when they refer to Big Bend.)  So, we took a day to visit it.  We stopped at a ranger station as we did every time we saw one.  Eric really likes talking to park rangers, and I really like to eavesdrop as he does it because it’s pretty endearing.  I was teasing him about it a little in the car–about how that would be a great gig for him when he is an old man–and he quickly dropped some information that made me understand that he had done some research into the profession in his younger days.

The ranger pointed at a few places on the map and told us it would take about two hours to get to the first hike.

And that’s when I realized I didn’t know much about the state park.  I immediately started asking where the nearest gas station was because I wasn’t prepared for a four hour, round trip journey.

I also hadn’t counted on there being no paved roads in the state park.  The national park had smooth roads, and Eric and I joked that even when they posted signs saying “rough road” the terrain was smoother than a lot of roads in Austin.  Here, after a beautiful, scenic drive (most of the drives in both parks could be considered scenic because they were pretty drives that you had time to appreciate as you could never drive more than 45 MPH).  After turning off a lovely, but winding drive, we hit rough, sandy roads where no signs apologized that the trip might be “rough.” But it was.

The state park is a very specific thing, and if you are interested in remote camping or mountain biking, it has a lot to offer.  However, I kept referring to it as “primitive,” which I think is a fair description, especially compared to the other park a few miles away.

The state part was also the place where we had our closest brush with danger.  We were setting off on a trail that was only marked with little rock piles to indicate you were still going the right way.  They weren’t always close together, and somehow we lost the trail.  But because the land was flat and barren, everything looked like a potential trail, and it became tricky to figure out where we went wrong and get back on track.

The sun beat down on us the entire time.  We once found the tiniest sliver of shade provided that we pressed up against a large rock situation.  I have a greater appreciation for people who have managed to create a life in some pretty forbidding terrain.  In the heat, I stumbled, reactivating an old ankle injury, and we pushed on because the original trail had been a loop, so maybe we would eventually circle back around to the car.

At one point, Eric left to go scout the area since we had a choice to either climb a hill or keep going around.  He left me and scrambled up.  Left alone for a while, I started exploring the surrounding area and realized there were signs that animals had been there.  Specifically, there was poop, and by the size of the poop, I guessed it was left by something fairly sizable.

I didn’t want to be on my own any more, and I started calling up to Eric.  I had to yell for a while before he appeared at the top of the hill he scampered up.  When he finally did appear, he said, “Stay there! I’m coming down!”

I did not like the sound of that, and I liked the next thing he said even less.  “We should go back the way we came.”

The way we came?  All the way back there?  It felt impossible and exhausting, and I did not want to do it.

He explained that we were lost enough that retracing our steps was the best way to make it back to the car, and I really wanted to be back at the car.  He did not, however, explain that while he’d been scouting, he, too, had seen some animal scat.  And also? Bleached, sun dried bones.

While heading back had seemed like a bad idea, I felt a lot better when we found our familiar sliver of shade and sat down to eat some oranges.  Eric told me what he’d seen at the top of the hill, but instead of being scared, I was relieved that he felt like we were far enough away from the poop and the bones to tell me about them.  He wouldn’t have done that unless he felt we were comparatively safer.

Slowly, things started to look familiar again, and finally we started seeing little rock piles that once again meant we were heading the right way.  I realized I was beginning to feel less freaked out about the possibility of dying in the desert when I started making terrible jokes.  “What if those rock piles aren’t trail markers?” I asked.  “What if that’s a trick that bears have learned to lure hikers to their lair?”

Eric laughed, but he maintained with the confidence of an Eagle Scout that they were legit trail markers.

“I’m just saying the next time we come to a ranger station, ask them about the rock piles.  Be vague, like, just mention that we notice them, and see if they take credit or if they say they are made by tricky bears!”

Eric laughed, and I felt sure we wouldn’t be eaten by wildlife.  Not today.

We did go to a ranger station, but Eric didn’t ask about rock stacking bears.  Instead we downed sodas and Snickers bars, and then we explored a little store that had books.  We checked both a pamphlet of animal tracks and scat as well as a children’s book for sale called Who Pooped in the Woods? but nothing matched what we had seen.  We will never know who or what pooped in the woods.

 

 

 

We had a good day in the park and there were some cool hikes, though we did also have a close encounter with a large number of bees.  I think we would both go back, but we agreed that we should have done a little more research on the park before we went.

 

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West Texas is Crazy Beautiful

Look, I wish there was a more clever or unique way to say it, but basically West Texas…holy shit.

Eric finished a massive job that he’d been working on, and in education, Spring Break is a good time to get out of town because very little will happen that week.  So, Eric and I planned a vacation.  I am not a planner by nature, and Eric is a skeptic, so he never believed we would actually take a trip together.  Perhaps just to spite him, I made it happen.

Spring Break, it turns out, is a terrible time to head to West Texas since everyone who isn’t coming to Austin seems to be heading out to Big Bend National Park.  By sheer dumb luck (and a healthy amount of procrastination), I waited so long to book our trip, that we actually arrived in West Texas in the middle of Spring Break and made it to Big Bend as most people were leaving meaning that we avoided the crowds for the most part.  Dragging my feet really worked out for me in this instance.

I am going to write several posts about our trip, but it seems fair to start with the sheer, amazing, rugged beauty of west Texas.  On the drive from Alpine to Terlingua, where we stayed during our time in Big Bend, we pulled over several times to get out of the car, take pictures, and just gape at the big Texas sky.  Every single place we stood, it felt like we were staring at a postcard.  Turn slightly to the right or left, and we were nudging each other to look at some other incredible vista.

In fact, Eric walked several feet from the highway to pee, and he returned only to tell me I had to come see something.

“Oh, I thought you were peeing,” I laughed.

“I did, but the view over here is incredible.”

I thought this was a weird trick to just make me look at a puddle of piss, but I followed and I had to agree that, indeed, the scenery was incredible.  There was a steep bank and standing on the edge of it, the land dropped away, opened up, and kept going for miles.

During the four days we spent in the desert, we just kept taking photos of everything around us, and there were dozens of times when I decided to just put my phone down and take it all in because photos can convey the beauty to some extent, but they can’t capture the vastness of it.

West Texas…holy shit.

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Tattoos on the Heart: The Belief in Slow Work

As soon as I finished reading the physical copy of Tattoos on the Heart by Father Gregory Boyle, I got an audio copy from my local library.  When I got close to being finished with the audio version, I bought a paperback copy.  There is so much big, chewy stuff in here, and I wanted to keep unpacking the stories as well as committing them to memory.

The book is about the work that Father Greg (or “G” as most people call him) has done working in a poor, urban parish in Los Angeles.  This book is not only about his experiences as a priest, but also his work with Homeboy Industries where gang members are given jobs and work experience in order to find an alternative to gang life.  There are so many things about these stories that surprises me.  The amount of pride and grace that these men and boys feel over having a job or being treated “like I’m somebody,” contradicts the notion that people are poor because they don’t want to work.  There is so much pride in having a job that one young man tells G he has a job as the rat at a Chuck E. Cheese.  He admits that the job sucks, but he is proud that when his son is born he will know his father is a “workin’ man.”

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So many of these stories–stories where you manage to say the right thing, stories where you said the absolutely wrong thing, stories where a person doing the right thing can bring positive change to their life, and stories where even though someone did the right thing, and it all ended up going to shit anyway.

At times, this book reminded me of what I love about the work that I’ve done with teenagers, and at other times, I am blown away by the work that Father Greg does because I could never do the kind of work he does let alone with such compassion, grace, and faith.  It is perhaps not surprising that a book about 20 years of working with gang members would involve quite a few funerals, but every one that is covered in the book feels crushing because G talks of all of the homies with the dignity and respect and affection that we should all be so lucky to experience.

All of the chapters are well structured collections of stories exploring a theme, and all of them are lovely sermons.  The one that has stuck with me weeks after I finished the book for a second time is the notion of Slow Work.  Slow work is the notion that big, hard life changing work doesn’t happen in an instant.  It takes time, and it can seem painfully, frustratingly slow, but in order to work you have to keep showing up with the right attitude and an open heart and you keep trying and maybe it will work and maybe it never will, but you have to keep showing up because if you quit, then things don’t get better.  That doesn’t make you a sucker, and it doesn’t mean that you don’t hold people accountable, but you do it because you do not believe that a person who has made bad choices should be dismissed as a bad person.

The next few years are going to require a lot of people being willing to engage in slow work.  There are a lot of protests and demonstrations, and God knows that I can’t leave a message on my senator’s voice mails because they are full (and no one seems to be interested in clearing them out so that more people can leave messages and be heard).  And not all of the resistance and protests will prevail, and that could very well lead to tragic stories of people whose government has turned its back on them.  I’m not happy or indifferent to that fact, but that is the challenge of doing slow work.  You keep showing up and you keep working because that is the only way things get better.

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Nasty Women for the Win

One of the arguments that I regularly have is about Jane Eyre.  I hate that novel, and I talk about my hatred for that book more than a little bit.  Almost always there is a woman standing nearby who is shocked at that revelation, and I get up on my soap box.  The other thing about hating Jane Eyre, is that as an English major I have read the book at least 3 times cover to cover.  Each time, I got a little more annoyed that Jane is kind of a boring character.  That Rochester is a complete asshole who is rude to Jane, then admits that he loves her, then tries to marry her even though he’s already married to a crazy lady who is living in his attic that he was hoping to never have to mention.  I’m not rooting for that couple, and then when they finally get together at the end, Rochester is badly injured and by marrying him Jane becomes not only wife but also nursemaid to a complete jerk.  Nothing about that makes me happy.

What does make me happy is the update to Jane Eyre called Jane Steele.

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The book does not try to hide that it is drawing from the source material, and references to that dreaded Victorian inspiration appear throughout the book.  My favorite two are one where Jane Steele mentions that Jane Eyre was kind of a lousy detective, and the other is that very early on in the modern update, the line “Reader, I married him” is updated to “Reader, I murdered him.”

She is not referring to her love interest but rather of an abusive cousin–something the two Janes have in common–which is revealed within the first few pages of the book, so it is less a spoiler than it is a reason to consider reading this book.

The author, Lyndsay Faye, seems to have more general affection for Jane Eyre than I ever did, but she has made modern updates that change Jane from a silently suffering victim of abuse, to a novel about a strong heroine who fights back.  Often fatally.

While those changes feel very satisfying at a time where women are fighting and celebrating their reputations as “nasty women” who insist on persisting, which are definitely my kind of women.  So, not only does a heroine willing to get blood on her hands pretty satisfying, but Jane Steele features a love story that I can get behind.

Her love interest, Mr. Thornfield, is  a modern day Rochester complete with some mysterious secrets and an ability to look sexy while brooding.  The difference is that he is also funny.  He speaks to his young ward in a mock-grumbling way that is mixed with a large dose of affection and teasing.  Instead of being an actual glowering jerk who is clearly only cruel because he is also damaged (aka the type I was most likely to love in college), he is actually good natured and caring.  What’s more, Jane doesn’t have to be nearly murdered in her bed for him to start kind of being nice to her.

This reimagining or update or whatever the proper literary term for it actually is has not made me love Jane Eyre any more than I ever did, but it has made me glad that it existed in order to bring me to Jane Steele.

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Books Are Not a Luxury–Reading as Resistance

I have written a lot about running and exercise because, much like Rio Silvestri in Kelly Luce’s Pull Me Under, running is a way of getting out of my head.  It is a way of coping with anxiety and depression.  But working out is something I had to learn to enjoy.  Before running and becoming a gym rat, I was an avid reader.  Television and movies were in the mix too, because I was growing up in a small town and those things were how I was able to escape rural life and experience different lives in other parts of the world.  I lived vicariously through them.

I also find it satisfying to log things that I have finished, which is why I love Goodreads.  Every time I finish a book, I go online to log it.  I read 59 books last year–a mix of physical books, ebooks, and audiobooks–and when I heard about the project Books Are Not a Luxury, I was interested.  I have been struggling a lot with the recent presidential election and am still struggling with the best ways to process and respond to what that means for me as a person who works in (1) a nonprofit that (2) focuses on education and (3) where we work with low income, first generation students who are often (4) people of color and also sometimes dealing with (5) being undocumented.  If the project could help me learn more about different perspectives it could inform my work and also help me work through a lot of questions I have about what Donald Trump’s America might mean for the work that I do and the students I work with.

The first book was Invisible Man, Got the Whole World Watching  by Mychal Denzel Smith, and it was a good place to start.  At the end of last year, I read books that focused on the experience of people dealing with either being undocumented or who had family members who were undocumented.  This book, like Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me, addresses what it is like to be a young, black man in America.  I highly recommend both.

What I like about Mychal Denzel Smith’s book is that it shows the evolution of thought about identity, which you don’t often see let along in a single book.  It was helpful because I am also going through a similar process so the parallel is both important in that Smith acknowledging his blind spots also allowed me to realize and admit to my own in a way that helped me focus less on guilt over past mistakes and more on doing better–and constantly circling back to check that I am not lapsing back into old habits.  He writes: “It speaks to how deeply ingrained bigotry can become and why vigilant self-reflection is needed to undo those lessons.”

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The other thing that is nice about the way he examines his evolution of thought and recognition that in advocating against racism, he was fighting against bigotry that primarily aligned with his identity which was not just black but also straight and male.  Realizing that, he was able to correct and expand the definition to include others that he previously did not include in that original definition.

I appreciate his candor on these things because, frankly, I am tired of people who feel they are so certain of the “right” way to do something and who shout down or dismiss people who don’t agree with them.  As both a woman and as a person who goes to church, I feel like it is hard to speak about those things because I am not doing them “right” according to people who are really loud on the subject.  Add to that the fact that I work with people of color, but am a white lady, there is a lot of anxiety about whether I am the right person to do the work that I’m doing or what right I have to speak up about something like religion* while I am living with a man that I am not married to and have for years, much to the chagrin of my parents.

* a religious view that is very liberal and focuses more on the idea of service, humility and helping others instead of a highly rule-based system that seems to take a lot of joy in judging and pointing out people who do not follow those rules.

So, seeing Smith talk about making mistakes of omission or depicting moments when a teacher challenges him, pokes him in the shoulder and causes him to rethink his approach to things is important.  Because it allows that we will naturally have biases we aren’t always aware of.  We will have blind spots or find ourselves in a situation where we don’t behave perfectly and that the important thing is not that we lose all right to then be advocates but that we learn from them and we do better.

Smith’s book in some ways was my introduction to my own blind spots.  I have for the most part moved past the idea that as a white lady I am not the right person or the most qualified to do the work that I do. I work with students and with others who work with students.  I have figured some things out from experience and making mistakes.  I handle things differently than I did when I first started working with Upward Bound years ago.  I might not be the ideal person–because I did have a very different experience with education and school and family than many of the students that I work with–but I am qualified because I care about and believe in teenagers and their potential.  Just actually giving a shit about teenagers is not a guaranteed quality you will find in everyone who works with teenagers.  I generally like them and enjoy working with them.  I want to help, and I try to give them accurate information and help them navigate the educational system.  I will not always be perfect, but I try to be honest and to give a shit and treat them with respect.

The first week and the first month and maybe the first semester I taught high school, I was not sure I had any right to do the job of teaching in a highly diverse school working with predominately low income students.  Now, I am more aware of the things that make me a good fit for the job, but I had to work through some doubts and insecurities.

What Smith’s book did help me see is that for all that I thought I had figured some things out, I also was ignorant of a lot of the realities of what it means to be a person of color.  Smith talks several times about how he never believed he would make it to his 20s in a society where so many black men are killed at a young age.  I have taught many young, black men who were brilliant and curious and funny and I always believed they had bright futures ahead.  I never considered that they might not have believed they would live to see 29.

I also never realized that some of my students were undocumented.  I advised them to research and think about colleges and never had any idea that their legal status would be a hurdle they would have to figure out before they could go to their dream school.  All of this is just ignorance on my part.  I’ve learned more, and then I’ve (hoefully) done better.

“Check your privilege” is an annoying saying to me.  Not because I think that it is not true, but because I think it is an easy thing that people say to others that often is only useful if it gets unpacked, and all too often in my experience, it is tossed off as a catchphrase rather than treated as a moment to examine power dynamics at play.  Reading Smith’s book, I became much more aware of things I have not had to consider an that I have therefore not considered in dealing with others.  That realization will make me better as a person and better at my job.

Finally, I don’t want to make it seem like this book is a heady examination of philosophies. It is highly readable and often times reminds me of Chuck Klosterman’s pop culture writing in that it takes something familiar and fun.  He talks about being influenced by The Boondocks (a show I also think is brilliant) and Dave Chappelle.  Both of those things often make me uncomfortable or make me pause and, in a sense, check my privilege, while also making me laugh.  He talks a lot about hip hop, which is something I sometimes wrote off as being sexist (one of Smith’s occasional blind spots), but that also gave me a list of artists and songs to check out.  He tells stories that are engaging and funny.  It is an enjoyable read, which might sound dismissive, but honestly I feel it is important to say this book made me think a lot but didn’t feel like homework.  I actually think that is a huge reason to check this book out.

Finally, I was all pumped up to check out the next book in the Books are Not a Luxury list, and then Betsy DeVos was nominated as Secretary of Education, and I started watching the Senate confirmation hearings and I experienced an existential crisis about what it means to work in education and how students and public schools might be impacted, and then I read the synopsis of the next book–a work of fiction–and it contained the sentence: “Dead girl, dead son.  The son did it…” and I knew I had to sit this one out.

I intend to follow the spirit of the project and read diverse books and diverse authors more in 2017, but I also have to nourish my soul.  That’s why I’ve loved books–the can teach me things. I learn all kinds of stuff from books–but they can also be reassuring, comforting, and a source of escapism.  So, I am reading things like the NPR article Schools Can Save Lives and cozy mysteries and books about science and trying to hold all of these different ideas in my head as we head into a new year.

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Run, Lady, Run

There were two things about Kelly Luce’s book Pull Me Under that instantly sold me on it.  The first was that the main character, Rio Silvestri–formerly Chizuro Akitani–was an ultra runner.  In reading a lot of memoirs of endurance athletes, there is something fascinating about people who push their bodies to their absolute limits.  Cyclists often brag about being able to “suffer” more than their competitors.  The motivations that drive people to that sort of physical feat is fascinating.

The other thing was the fact that the book begins with a 12 year old girl walking into a teacher’s lounge covered in blood.  When people rushed to investigate, she held up her hands and said, “This is not my blood.”

Boom!  It was the only book that I specifically requested for Christmas this year.  I just finished it this week.

Let’s talk about the running part first.  I’ve read books about ultra runners before, but they were research based, and I was really curious about a character who is so driven because I wanted to be able to empathize with that drive.  To be able to put myself in that person’s shoes (See what I did there?  *I am so sorry*). But as someone who used to never understand paying money to run a race, or getting up early run with strangers, or even just running more than 3 miles at once, and who has since found real satisfaction in running longer and longer distances, the drive to run 50+ miles at a time becomes something I am curious about.  Something I would like to understand more fully.

There are moments when Rio says things about running that I completely get.

I can’t remember the last time I went so long without the catharsis of sweat, the rhythm of my heart telling me, I’ve got this.  I’ll take care of you.  Just go. I don’t like how I feel when I haven’t run; it’s like my brain and my body are fused.

In the last few weeks, I have felt what Luce describes as the itch in the legs that comes from wanting to run.  To work through the cycle of warm up, sweat, cool down.

There is also this:

This was about getting my mind to a place where it knew when to listen to its body but also when to pat its head like a good child.

The book talks about running as a solitary act, a thing Rio does for herself.  Which I totally understand.  I have started admitting that riding bikes is actually fun, and running is never really “fun.” Running is hard, and it is satisfying.  That’s why I do it.  Because I am able to push myself and see improvement even though running never really seems to get easier.

In that sense, it was reassuring to read those thoughts that I have had and feel understood.  From that perspective, I wish there was more running.

But there was also the matter of a 12 year old girl covered in blood that was not her own.  Before she became Rio, Chizuro was a young girl who killed a fellow student.  The main story of the novel does a lot to piece together the factors that contributed to that event as she returns to Japan in the wake of her father’s death.

I read several reviews that talked about how the book was really about how there are many different versions of who we actually are.  The mediocre English student in me was worried that if I read the book I wouldn’t pick up on this thing that everyone felt was so obvious, but really, it is pretty hard to miss.  Demonstrating that thesis in some ways makes the narrative feel a little forced in places.  Like the metaphor sometimes took precedence over plot.  However, there is something a the core of this struggle that I love.

Rio is married to someone who does not know about the murder.  She has gone so far as to make up stories of a childhood she never had, to create a false history for herself.  When she goes back to Japan, she doesn’t want her family to come with her because she is afraid of them finding out about her past.  And this lie seems both pretty unforgivable and also completely understandable.

This is something else I wish we had gotten more of in this story, though it takes us further away from the story Luce seems most interested in telling.  But I get the idea that there is something in your life that is so troubling it would be hard to get past.  It makes sense to lie.  Of course, you wouldn’t confess it.  What date is the appropriate time to say, “By the way, I once killed a kid”? The first date seems like the wrong time, but the longer you don’t say it, the harder it is to work that little nugget in.

I do like that Luce depicts the struggle that Rio’s husband has when he finds out.  It is not easily glossed over.  But it is the sort of conundrum that I think makes for good fiction and that I wish more stories explored in a real way, and it is one of the things that I enjoy about reading fiction.

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Back of the Pack

Last week, Eric and I ran the Cap10K, which was a fun time except at the end when it was next to impossible to get a damn banana after running 6 miles, and I thought I might collapse before I could get to a breakfast taco.

Getting into our starting corrals, a helpful sign told me that my group would cross the starting line roughly 20 minutes after the race had officially begun.  That’s because my pace group is running for many, many reasons, but to win it all is not one of them.  Pre-race time is always a little tough because once you are at the race, you’re just kind of waiting for the thing to start.

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Lovely morning for a run! #cap10k

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I think things like: I wish someone here was selling coffee.  But I don’t need more coffee because I’m trying to limit the number of times I stand in an epic line for a port-a-potty.  I wish I’d worn pants. But shorts are going to feel much better once I actually start moving.  Man, that lady looks fast.  How many of the 20,000 people here are definitely going to finish before me.

I also feel a little awkward before the race starts because Eric doesn’t start with me.  We have tried that before, just so we can keep each other company, and it’s all very sweet and cute, but it lasts about 15 seconds before he is already ahead of me, and I’m either with people too fast for me, or he’s dodging a lot of people who are much slower than him.

After the marathon/half marathon, we agreed it was better to be with our actual pace group, and as I stood there, I felt a little weird being all by myself because most people seem to be running with friends.  But it does give me an excellent chance to people watch.

 

The people in my pace group are a comfortingly eclectic mix.  Most of us are tattooed, which always makes me feel a little naked with my un-inked skin on display.  There are young people and old people.  Folks with babies–who sometimes look hilariously unimpressed and bored in their jogging strollers.  Those babies are my favorites.  People with dogs.  There are people who look like they are taking this run very seriously, and then there’s the woman I jogged past who was dressed as a cookie and being chased by a man in a Cookie Monster outfit.  There were tons of superheroes and even a few celebrities.

 

Running in a group of 20,000 people is not something I ever thought I would want to do, but running pretty slowly in the midst of a huge crowd, I find myself feeling a connection to the people around me.  There were two girls who looked to be about 10-12 running in my pace group.  Not a great pace for me, but very impressive for someone who comes up to my waist.  One girl stopped and walked a few times, and her dad was right there cheering her on.  He told her he was proud of her, and I was totally proud of her too.  When I was her age, I thought having to sweat was a form of punishment, but she was out there running strong and seemingly happy.  That girl is awesome!  I would probably have formed a similar fondness for the redheaded girl I noticed in my group if she had slowed down long enough for me to know much about her.  She was kicking ass, and I wish I had cared about being healthy and active when I was her age.

I finished really strong and feeling good, which was nice.  I like a run that is challenging but doesn’t leave me feeling totally destroyed, which is why I really like a 10K.  As soon I crossed the finish line, I lost track of all the people I had mentally befriended while I was on the road, but it’s nice–totally worth the early morning, not enough coffee, looking for parking and standing around chilly pre-race business–to spend some time admiring and connecting for an hour (and a half) with strangers.

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