A Day in the Woods.

I started running four years ago. Well, I actually ran for a short time 15 years ago when Chris started running, and I hated it. A couple years in, unrelated to running (maybe), I had to have two foot surgeries, and my surgeon told me I’d never be able to run again, and I totally did a fist pump and whispered “yaaaass” (except the word yaaaass hadn’t been invented in 2005.)

But five years ago, I was diagnosed with Dysautonomia, which is a really annoying and life-altering nervous system dysfunction that is helped by even more annoying lifestyle changes, like drinking insane amounts of water, going easy on caffeine and sugar and all things delicious in life, eating healthy, getting lots of sleep, and – you guessed it – running.

(We do get to eat a lot of salt, so that’s the one decent change.)

I waited a year before I tried the running option. I REALLY didn’t want to – especially since Dysautonomia makes you feel exhausted and sometimes makes you black out when you stand up – it seems like running would be an exceptionally stupid idea.

But I was finally desperate for something that would make more of a difference. So I tried it. And within weeks, I was actually enjoying running, because of the difference it made in my quality of life. Staying in bed when I felt bad just made me feel more dizzy and woozy, but if I got up and ran, I would feel like a normal human – within a mile of the beginning of my run.

But, as with literally all things that help Dysautonomia, running also hurts it. Because dehydration is a constant factor that must be fought, and running, though it helps circulation and blood flow, clearly increases dehydration. So I decided that, for me, running helped until it didn’t – too much and it hurt. I did a few half marathons, decided I didn’t really *love* races (I much preferred the introversion and solitude of a quiet run), and committed that I would never do a full marathon.

26.2 miles is much too far to be helpful.

Then I fell in love with trail running. The kids and I love hiking, and so being able to enjoy my solitude of running while moving at a much faster pace (than with the kids) on the trails became my favorite way to treat Dysautonomia. Plus, being alone in the woods basically feels like you’re with a counselor. It’s the best therapy.

I still didn’t have any interest in racing, so I was happy to chill with the kids as Chris did a 27 mile trail race, a 50K trail race, a trail race series, and an absolutely insane 50 mile trail race.

Whatever, dude.

But when he returned from his 50 mile race, he told me, rather pensively, that he really thought I should do the 27 mile race at Lake Martin with him (which is just one measly loop of the two loops he’d just finished.) His reasons: we enjoy running in the woods together, it was a beautiful course, and he believed that I could do it.

I ignored him for a few months.

Then I ignored him a little longer.

Then I had a hysterectomy and he quit mentioning it, as the race would be 90 days post-surgery.

Then, three weeks before the race, I texted him.

“Sign me up. The kids are going to my parent’s for that weekend. I want to do Lake Martin.”

I was completely uncertain if I could finish the race, but I was willing to try.

Then the anxiety set in. What was I going to permanently damage? Would I fall? I do tend to maim myself when I fall…What if I am unable to move anymore when I’m miles from an aid station? How many more months of physical therapy would this race buy me?

I hardly slept two nights before the race, and the day before I was a sleep-deprived anxiety bubble. I just wanted to enjoy a weekend away with my husband, but for some reason this race had really gotten under my skin.

Chris, in all his wisdom, took me sunsetting Friday night to calm me down. Much like running, sunsets have a therapeutic effect on me.

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It totally worked and I slept great Friday night – until 4am when it was time to wake up and get ready to race.

(The race didn’t actually start until 6:45 but Chris has a nasty habit of waking up extremely early for races so that his digestive system has time to work and since we were staying in a camp cabin together, I woke up too.)

We took our time and gathered our supplies (these are just mine – poor Chris had to find room for me in his aid station box.)

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Then we headed to the starting line. The gun went off at first light, and we headed into the woods in a giant pack of about 300 people doing various lengths of race (27, 50, or 100 miles.)

A lot of the trails are single-track, and after being behind and in front of gaggles of people for quite some time, I whispered to Chris, “I really pictured this more of a you-and-me-alone-in-the-woods thing…”, and he said “Well stop for a minute and let all of them pass us.” and I was all like “WHAT?? NO!!” because I’m too Type A for trail races.

But I did finally have to stop and readjust my shoe laces, which let all the people around us get ahead of us and I breathed deeply and said “Ahhhh. That was the best shoelace tie ever.”

At 7.25 miles, we came to the first aid station.

photo 13(My socks were SO GREEN because it was St Patrick’s Day, which was a convenient excuse since all my socks tend to be overly bright.)

The race is set in four loops, each intersecting at one of two aid stations. So every 6-8 miles, you have the opportunity to refill your water pack, get food, fill a Ziploc bag with more food for later, use the port-a-potty, and eat a pickle from the communal pickle bowl (because pickles help with cramps…supposedly.)

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(It’s worth noting that hand sanitizer is a foreign concept at trail races and being a mom and frequent user of such really made me think about what all was floating in that pickle juice as I reached in and grabbed my pickles right after using the port-a-potty. But apparently this is part of the trail running mindset, and I really better get used to it.)

Before I was ready, Chris said “Okay, I think we’re ready to get going again.” As often happens with me, I forgot that I could say “Wait!! No!!” until it was too late. So I spent the next loop growling about how I really needed to pee one more time before we left because he should know my bladder basically has two chambers and it’s a known Dysautonomia symptom and now I’m going to have to pee for six miles and how can I possibly run if I have to pee.

(He’d told me pre-race I could say anything I wanted to him during the race and he would just take it. So I whined with pleasure.)

He told me to just pee in the woods.

I told him there was another couple too nearby (incidentally, our next-door-neighbors back at the lodge. I didn’t want to spend the evening on the porch talking about them coming up on me leaning on a tree in the woods.)

I whined more and looked for a hidden space.

I kept looking behind me and seeing the other couple.

Chris said “Let’s just let them go by us then you can pee wherever you want.”

I said no because who just stops and lets people pass them in the middle of a race.

Finally, after three miles of increasing urgency, I found a turnoff trail, walked down it a hundred yards, into some briars, and leaned against a very large and hidden tree.

Only after I utilized said tree did I realize it’d been caught up in a brush fire at some point and was covered in charcoal…and now, so was I. In all the places.

I walked back out to the wide red dirt road that was the race path at the time to find that Chris had actually held up the other couple and was chatting with them.

I said “What?? You thought I was just going to be peeing in plain sight?? That was the whole point in waiting three miles!”

We set off with them, and I realized running with other people wasn’t so bad – as long as you weren’t on a single-track trail where you were stuck looking at their butt.

We made it back around to the aid station at 13 miles and Chris wisely gave me ALL THE TIME IN THE WORLD.

My IT band (on the side of my knee) started hurting a bit in the third loop, which I had fully expected at some point, so we began walking more and running less. My Ultra Hydrating Plan continued to make me need to pee, and I got less and less paranoid about the whole procedure. Chris was so proud of my trail-racing-culture-embracing of barely hopping to the side of the trail that he might’ve bragged about it to one of our running friends.

Yay.

At mile 18 we came back through the main aid station at the start/finish line, and by now my IT band was getting fairly painful. They had chiropractors on hand from The Farm, which specializes in Ultra Running, and Sloan made me do 100 stretches in 30 seconds as she barked commands at me, helping to force my IT band to allow me to finish the race. I grabbed my spray can of BioFreeze out of Chris’ trail box and we headed back into the woods for the final loop.

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It was slow. It was hilly. I had to do a wide-legged duck walk to go downhill without burning pain. At one point Chris was chatting when he said “If, I mean WHEN you finish this race…”

I picked up a rock.

He threw his hands to his face and yelled “YOU CAN’T THROW ROCKS AT ME!!”

I guess that didn’t fall under the “You can say whatever you want” clause.

But he didn’t say the word “If” again.

The last loop was beautiful. It butted up against the lake, but the hills. I received three new FitBit Elevation Record badges while we were on it.

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At mile 23, We found a bench and sat for a few minutes. It was excruciating to get up and start again, but I was able to run for a bit after that.

At mile 24, we hit Rock Bottom.

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There was a bench there, too, but I was DETERMINED not to give Rock Bottom the pleasure. So we started up the steep incline.

We made it back around to the start/finish line – but that was just mile 25. To make it the official 27.1 miles (just long enough to call it an Ultra Marathon), we had to go out and back as if we were starting a second loop.

The one mile out, though downhill, was the longest mile I’ve ever hobbled. At one point, after it’d felt like five miles, I definitely yelled at the trail “OH COME ON!!!”

But it was pretty. There were horses.

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…Who didn’t care at all about my feats of impressiveness.

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On the one mile back to the finish line, I desperately wanted to see at least one human coming toward us – to know that I wasn’t absolute last. And we did. He was hobbling and looked in as much or more pain as me, but I mentally thanked him for his service and kept limping up the hill.

After nine hours and twenty minutes (and getting lapped by three people doing the 50 mile race), we got these.

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It actually was fun. I never thought about quitting, and (don’t tell Chris this) I already want to do another one. Clearly they lace the medal with some sort of illegal drug because why.

The total count: I peed 4 times in the woods and 4 times in port-a-potties. Whether I’m an ultra anything else, I’m SO an ultra hydrator, and that kept me from dying on the trails. And, per the official results, I actually beat seven people. I immediately regretted not wrenching out of Chris’ handholding finish and sprinting ahead of him so I could’ve beat eight people.

That night I woke up at 2am in a miserable panic with a fever (a pickle juice fever?), nausea, intense knee and hip pain, and a burning anger at my husband because he said right before we went to sleep “we’re going to sleep SO DEEPLY tonight.”

But I forgave him when he got up, brought me Tylenol, bread, and a Sprite, and made sure I felt better before he dozed back off into his deep sleep.

The next morning I was fine except that my legs definitely never wanted to move ever again. The sign at our cabin had never been more true.

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But Chris told me I’d be worse if I didn’t keep moving, so we went to take some more pictures of the surrounding beauty, and then went back to the finish line to watch some of the 100-mile racers finish (making me feel like a total wuss…but not.)

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But most importantly, I didn’t die or even permanently damage myself.

So, Dysautonomia. There are certainly days where I have to stay in bed for large portions of time, and that probably won’t change.

But not this day.

And ultimately, Dysautonomia has indeed altered my life. It’s given me running. It’s given me hiking. And it even gave me photography.

So I’ll say as often as I can, and I definitely said it on this day…

Not Today, Dysautonomia.

Pokemon Is The Best Thing That Ever Happened To Me.

My exhaustion of hearing about the HP of every Pokemon ever created can be a heavy burden. And I grow weary of hearing the difference between GX and EX and Ultra and Mega and X. I languish from my child asking me for eBay searches and Amazon browsing for more and more and more Pokemon cards.

But oh.

The power one wields when a child of questionable temperament falls hopelessly and completely in obsession with something is indeed a very, very effective power.

It is worth every banal conversation. Every. Last. One. Of. Them.

Noah is not a people pleaser like his sister before him. So I must find new and creative ways to constantly encourage him in the way he should go. Some things work, some things don’t. But nothing – NOTHING – nothing in the creation of everything has worked as blazingly efficiently as Pokemon Cards.

The first use that made my eyes light up with the power I now held had to do with dirty plates.

Noah has never, not once, picked up his dirty lunch plate or snack napkin or gummy wrapper and put them away without being told to do so.

No matter how many times I tried to tell him he needed to do it without me telling him, or offering him tickets to help him remember, or threatening consequences if he didn’t remember – it literally did not matter. He would not, could not remember to pick up his trash.

But then one day I told him if you don’t pick up your trash, I will take away two Pokemon cards. And the next day he didn’t pick up his trash. And I don’t think he had even conceived of how cruel I could possibly be until that moment. When I told him to go get his Pokemon book and I thumbed through, looking specifically for the cards he talked about the most.

I took two of his most precious cards. His Jumbo Snorlax GX and his Mega Charizard.

He cried. And cried. And cried some more. There is no possible way that he will cry so many tears of grief when I die. He used all his tears on Snorey and Charz.

Since that day, at least a month ago, he has not left a single plate or piece of trash out after consuming food. Not one. He went from a .000 batting average to a 1.000. And, for the record, the consequences weren’t even permanent. I sprung Snorlax and Charizard from the slammer after a couple of days for good behavior, with the dire warning that next time, they would find a permanent home swimming with the fishies in the septic tank.

(Before we continue, I need to say something to Chris. No, dear, if you’re reading this, I would never *actually* flush Pokemon cards down the toilet. I know how you coddle our septic tank as if it were a colicky newborn baby. But I must add an appropriate amount of drama to my threats to be the loving, effective mother that you desire me to be.)

My second brilliantly evil use of Pokemon cards was to get my daily dose of exercise. I’d bought two junk boxes of random Pokemon cards off of Amazon a while back to use as prizes. I had so far used them as rewards in mental math contests between my children (turns out Noah is really good up in his head with math and can nearly compete with his four-year-older sister – when appropriately motivated), so I invented the most genius exercise game ever created for kids. WAY better than Nintendo Wii.

Pokemon Run.

For every quarter mile you run without stopping* or complaining, you earn one Pokemon card.

* Up to five second walk breaks were permissable for road crossings and side stitches and such.

For every continuous mile you run, you get two bonus Pokemon cards, bringing the potential total Pokemon cards up to six earnable per mile.

I explained the rules to the kids. Noah shivered with excitement. Ali, who also enjoys Pokemon cards but doesn’t need as much motivation as her brother, was also excited to get something for something she’d do anyway. And probably secretly relished the opportunity to earn more than her brother, but she’s a people pleaser. She’d never say so.

The run was every bit as magical as I’d hoped.

Noah is usually complaining just for his own personal entertainment at the .2 mile mark. But this run, there was no complaining. None at all. The kid even got a wretched side stitch and DID NOT WHINE. He was leaning over while running, cramming his hand into his side, BECAUSE HE NEEDED THAT LAST POKEMON CARD.

Ali earned 19 cards. Noah earned 12. And they were both thrilled and freaking thankful that I had taken them on such an amazing run. And begged to have another one soon.

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There is nothing like finding the currency that motivates a child. It’s as if I truly finally am in charge of my situation. I use Pokemon cards like they grow on trees now, and it’s worth every penny of all the money I send to Amazon.

So, mothers. So, fathers. I urge you. Find your currency.

Find it soon.

And treasure it with all your might.

An Education of the Wild Yeasts.

In my thirty-six years on this planet, two things have completely eluded me: Jury Duty and Sourdough Starters.

Although not even being considered to sit on a John-Grisham-worthy international espionage trial did bother me, being left out of the sourdough club disturbed me at a more intrinsic level.

I was beginning to think that all of the sourdough starters in the whole world must have died between my childhood and my motherhood, because I remember my mom receiving, using, and eventually killing many starters, and in the in between, making fresh, hot, sourdough bread a semi-regular occurrence. Yet never had I ever even heard of one of my peers having a starter, and never had I ever been offered one myself. Perhaps my mother was actually an Infamous Sourdough Starter Serial Killer and my family had been put on a Don’t Share List. Or perhaps it was me. Not having the ability to produce fresh bread did lend me to feeling Imposter Syndrome at a deep level. I mean, was I even momming?

It was a painful quandary.

I wasn’t ready to tackle the issue of being ignored and/or avoided by the judicial system, but it was past time to address The Mystery of Dough. So in January, I posted this Instagram photo.

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Within a day, I was offered not one, but two starters.

My life had finally begun.

I graciously accepted the starter from the person I would see the soonest. She brought it to me, in an insulated bag, at the Homeschool Spelling Bee. WHERE ALL STARTERS SHOULD EXCHANGE HANDS.

Melissa-The-Sourdough-Fairy gifted me with a large yogurt container with vents cut into the lid, along with a full 8 1/2 x 11 page of typed instructions. This page included a not-to-shabby pedigree for my starter, tracing its roots through two other homeschool moms and 12 years of shares.

And now I was the owner of this beautiful new baby.

I carefully carried it home, placing it gently in my cupholder and looking at it warily, wondering if it would spontaneously bubble out and fill my car. But when we arrived home, there was a present from Thomas-the-Porch-Cat on my welcome mat, as always. Except instead of the usual gag-inducing treats, it was a perfectly preserved chipmunk. I ran inside, placed my starter on the counter, grabbed my camera and props, and ran back out to play. After I appropriately memorialized the beautiful creature left behind just for me, I moved on with my day, extremely satisfied.

That night, when Chris got home, I proudly showed him my starter. I explained to the children my severely limited knowledge of how it worked (thinking, at the time, that I sounded like a seasoned expert), which was the exact point in time that I remembered that it was brought to the spelling bee in an insulated bag. CLEARLY I was supposed to put it in the refrigerator when I got home and now all these hours had passed because I let a chipmunk distract me and oh my goodness did I just kill my first starter before I even produced a single loaf? Maybe serial starter killing does run in my family what have I done!!

Chris, though an eager eater of all homemade goodness, laughed. Then comforted me with the words, “If you killed your sourdough starter because you were too busy staging roadkill, I will love you for that. We’re more of a roadkill homeschool family than a bread-making homeschool family.”

“BUT FRESH BREAD! DON’T YOU WANT FRESH BREAD!”

“Yes but, the story!!”

I did some frantic Googling and discovered that all was okay – I’d likely just made my yeast more hungry, it was hard to kill a starter, and it would probably prove itself to be alive the first time I fed it.

I quickly refrigerated it, and fed it as soon as my instruction pamphlet allowed. It happily ate the food, grew, and then grew into a lovely dough upon mixing.

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I made my first ever sourdough loaves, and finally felt like a Real Housewife of The Deep South.

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Regardless of his feelings about what kind of homeschool family we are, my husband was incandescently happy with the hot fresh bread slathered in freshly mixed honey butter (or butter honey, as Noah prefers it to be called) that I had coming out of the oven as he walked in the door from a wet run.

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As the weeks passed and the successful loaves stacked up, I became obsessed with my little pet, reading more about what a starter really is, and even buying the new novel, Sourdough, which only deepened my understanding and unhealthy adoration of my starter. I have since been going around explaining to everyone what starters are and how they work.

Because you see. There are wild yeasts floating all around us. And you catch them and create a starter by leaving out flour and water for a week, feeding it more flour and water and taking some out. The wild yeasts are all like “Well, honey, doesn’t that look like a delicious home!” and set up a colony in your paste. Furthermore, Wild Yeasts like to travel with their BFFs, good bacteria, and those guys are super protective of their yeasty friends. So they guard their new encampment, refusing entry to bad bacteria, gross mold, or other things that might want a crack at your lovely flour and water.

(Except if I tried this, The Porch Cat would, with certainty, vomit directly into the starter, and no good bacteria can hold that sturdy a stronghold.)

It’s a genius system, clearly proving that God wants us eating bread. And people have been catching these wild yeasts for 5,000 years. So OBVIOUSLY, Sourdough is Paleo.

THEN, the wild yeast feast on the gluten of the flour, supposedly (though I haven’t had a gluten-sensitive test subject yet) making the end product gluten free. Because they pre-digest the gluten for you, turning it into gases which make your bread rise and create those lovely sourdough air pockets in your finished product. So apparently, wild yeasts are also gluten sensitive, because it gives them the worst gas.

As I became more and more intrigued by my paleo, gluten-free, basically-a-vegetable bread made for me by an entire microbial universe, I found myself perhaps in an unhealthy existential relationship with my bread. Because that’s normal, right? I pondered their civilization, their families, their lives, and hoped that when I cooked one cup of them, they’d sent me the penal colony of yeasts – perhaps the ones that had committed yeasty crimes were the ones in my measuring cup. It was like olden Australia, but the penalty for your crimes was being baked into a loaf. Because otherwise I was baking my chefs and eating my artisan breadmakers. It was all very confusing. But that didn’t stop me from making the world’s best hamburger between my dead pets.

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Meanwhile, I was making multiple loaves every week, and instead of a January Whole 30, we had a January Dough 30, and let me tell you – it’s a much more delightful way to spend that miserable month.

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I spread my loaves around to friends and family as best I could, although I must say it was difficult – there were multiple times that I was going to take a loaf to someone who had a death in the family or a sick child, only to remember at the last minute that they were gluten-free, or paleo, or on a ketone diet, or some other such limiting factor. I felt like getting all loud and Oprah-ish and in some faces about HOW AWESOME BREAD IS, but I didn’t. I just kept my bread and quietly ate another slice slathered in butter honey.

I even made three varieties of Stromboli with my dough, which had been for a long time one of Chris’ favorite creations from my mom (although she made it with regular bread, since she long ago murdered her sourdough starters.) Now I really felt like I had arrived in wifedom.

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Then my wild yeasts had a baby. (i.e. I fed them but then didn’t feel good and so didn’t make dough.) If you do this, you’re supposed to throw away a cup of starter to make them think you made dough, but although I can bake my tiny friends, I cannot just dump them down the drain to live out their existence in the septic tank. Talk about a penal colony. Septic tank wild yeasts are definitely the kind of colony that will rise up through the drainpipes, riding on steeds of poop, and drown you in your sleep.

So instead, I made a baby.

I took an old sour cream container, cut vents in the lid, and made a new starter. Then I messaged my small group.

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Nikki was the chosen new owner of my fresh baby yeast puppy.

I took the bundle of joy to her with a copy of my sheet of instructions/family tree. I am positive that when Nikki got home that night, she did not get distracted by roadkill and mistreat her puppy. However, I did check in with her the next morning to see how he slept his first night in his new home, and she told me that he was great, he’d slept well, and that she’d named him Yeastopher.

That’s right. Clearly Nikki deserves a wild yeast universe more than I. It had not, until that moment, occurred to me to name mine.

Naturally, I spent all day pondering the possibilities, and finally settled on Kanyeast. Pronounced (so you won’t be embarrassed if you ever find yourself addressing my yeast family,) as con-YAYst. Then I updated my feeding log to show my true love for my Yeast Puppy Colony Universe.

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So, yo bread, I’m really happy for you, Imma let you finish, but sourdough is one of the best loaves of all time…one of the best loaves of all time.