The Varied Impressions of California, as seen by Alabamians.

A couple of weeks ago, Chris and I went on our seventeenth anniversary trip to Newport Beach, California.

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It was a completely random destination, chosen not by desire but by necessity, as we had reservations in St. Thomas, then St. Thomas went and got hit by two hurricanes. They cancelled our reservation and gave us a limited array of choices in which we could rebook. Which was fine, because we love choosing odd places to travel.

We chose Newport Beach because we went to San Diego a few years back and loved it (aside from me breaking my nose while sleepwalking, as one does, but that wasn’t exactly San Diego’s fault), and I’m always up for an excuse to visit California. Plus, there seemed to be some state parks nearby, and we are a bit on the active side these days when we vacate together.

We had no idea, however, that Newport Beach was the epicenter of south-of-LA wealth and snobbery.

I kept the Realtor app open as we drove around, just to gawk at the house prices, that ranged, on the beach, between 10 and 51 million.

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And the cars. The clunkers in Newport Beach are Range Rovers. The okay cars are Teslas. But really, life is only good if you’re driving a Lamborghini or Ferrari. My favorite was to take pictures of the orange “you’re going to get towed” warning stickers on the sides of these cars. Did they care? Nah. They probably had 10 others at home.

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I learned the ridiculous array of performance SUVs that are now available – besides Porsche, you can get your SUV in Maserati or Alfa Romeo. Because there’s no better way to waste performance engines than having extra cargo space and a bunch of kids spilling their sticky fruit snacks in the backseat.

While the cars were fascinating, the people were perplexing. I caught multiple people staring – staring at me. In a judgmental glare. And when I caught them, they didn’t blink. They just kept stare-glaring. I spent the week trying to figure out what exactly it was about me that singled me out as DEFINITELY not fitting in.

Was it my purple hair? In Cali, I’m pretty sure purple hair is so 2004. In fact, did anyone in the entire town have hair a shade darker than white-blond?

Or was it my clothes? Could they tell that I definitely had never stepped foot into their minimum-$1,000-for-a-camisole boutiques?

Or is this what people mean when they gush about how southerners are just so nice to strangers? We don’t stare-glare?

I finally landed on hips. They had clearly eradicated hips in California many years ago (we realized there’s a such thing as skinny, and then there’s California skinny), and they were so shocked that I would still have such ancient things on my body that I might as well have been infected with a mix of Polio, Bubonic Plague, and Leprosy. And they were desperately hoping my hips weren’t contagious.

But let’s back up to our flight.

I love flying. It’s fun, adventurous, you get to see things from a new angle, and it’s a perfectly fine excuse to sit and read with zero guilt.

When the plane we’d be leaving Birmingham in landed from its previous flight, a Stewardess hurried off the plane first. As she walked out of the tunnel, she exhaled and said to the employee at the desk, “Praise the LORD we’re on the ground!!!”

This *seemed* like a bad sign to me. Was our plane a bit of a junker? Did they have an engine blow? What exactly made that flight worse than her other many every day flights?

When we got on the plane, it became apparent when I walked by row 16.

The smell of vomit was nearly visible.

Thank goodness the overwhelming aroma faded before row 18 where we were slotted to sit. But ohmygoodness – it was a full plane, and somebody had to sit on The Dread Row 16. They deserved a full refund and a year of free flight vouchers. I sat there, wondering what exactly had prompted what must have been a raging waterfall of puke two rows ahead of me. Was there turbulence, or did someone have Ebola? What was floating around at the microscopic level in the recycled air I was ushering into my body?

Our second flight, though less vomity in smell, definitely ramped up my paranoia. My stomach began aching. Hurting all over. Badly enough that by the time we landed, I felt like the only way to feel better was the hold my stomach together with my arms. It was not a familiar ache, and not one I could readily tell how to eradicate. Chris and I stopped at the grocery store and I began scanning the small medicinal aisle, looking for anything that might help a mysterious plane-plague stomach ache. I landed on Gas-X. Maybe I had expanded like a potato chip bag.

Sure enough, five minutes after inhaling those chewable tablets, I felt human again and my fears of Death-By-Plane began to abate. I googled this to see if it was normal, and I learned my second valuable medical fact of the week (the first had been the phenomenon of Asparagus Pee – did you know about Asparagus Pee? The science of who can and cannot smell and/or produce asparagus pee is well worth the NPR story.)

(I learned about this fact in my first ever highly specific and exactly correct answer to googling a medical problem. “Why does my pee smell absolutely horrible?” and Google suggested I might have eaten asparagus. And behold, I had just eaten asparagus for the first time in years!)

(Google is smarter than she used to be. Pretty sure five years ago she would have just told me I was dying of Malaria and left it at that.)

Back to plane gas, which was the second medical fact I learned – the gas in human’s stomachs does indeed expand like potato chip bags when in the air. It’s quite a normal problem and I was just the lucky one who had this problem but wasn’t forced by my body to embarrassingly relieve the pressure while on the plane (which is also, apparently, common.) Blinding stomach pain is preferred any day.

After I recovered from The Grand Expansion of Gases, the trip was just lovely (aside from all the stare-glares that seared their way into my fragile self-consciousness. But you Californians can’t help your rude ways. You just need to move to Alabama and learn some manners.)

Chris and I walked for five hours the first day, biked 20 miles the second day, ran and hiked the third day, and ran and hiked the fourth day. And oh yeah – got one more run in the fifth day before our plane left.

We tend to really relax on vacation these days.

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(We would have done more relaxing if it hadn’t been so dang cold, but you gotta keep moving over there. Unless you’re in a hot tub.)

(Which we did get in once. And we sat at the pool gazebos and watched the native bunnies eat the grass. And I read two books.)

The vistas of California were so breathtaking and vast that it was almost too much to take in.

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It was as if we were inside a postcard and couldn’t quite comprehend the depth and largeness of the canyons below us, the mountains above us, and the gorgeous sea.

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The mountains directly above the coastline were so steep that we’d count the number of times our ears popped while driving up them (seven times was the record.)

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The sea life in the tide pools along the coast had gorgeous, colorful anemones and very busy crabs.

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Every square inch of not-building-space had flowers. Beautiful, unique, overflowing flowers that smelled divine. Wild flowers, cultivated flowers, every kind of flowers.

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And then, Chris found me a Pirate’s Tower at which to take sunset pictures. Because he’s the best and that’s why I’ve been married to him for seventeen years.

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We had to park at the top of a hill, walk down a steep road, a few hundred steps, skirt across some giant rocks while the waves crashed into us, and withstand the tide coming in with giant waves up to our knees while taking the pictures.

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I had 20 pounds of sand in my shoes and have had to wash them twice to eradicate the smell of putrid fermented Pacific Ocean, but it was totally worth it.

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There were also ocean-flowing caves,

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Arches,

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And creepy rabbit holes on offshoots of offshoots of offshoots of trails.

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(Which turned out to contain a real live human “den” made out of sticks and twigs and graffiti and crepe paper, which can only lead us to believe it was a opium den, since opium is the only drug that requires a den.)

(Crack requires a house. Meth requires a lab. Pot doesn’t require anything. But opium needs a creepy-rabbit-hole-in-the-middle-of-California-wilderness DEN.)

Speaking of California Oddities, we found this upper-crust society (to which we’re considering shipping Thomas The Cat),

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This ice cream shop that my kids would never be allowed to eat at,

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A Dad I never want to meet,

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And “steaks” that would never be allowed to go by that name in Alabama.

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California was a lovely dream.

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A dream I wasn’t at all ready to leave behind.

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But at least I didn’t have Plane Gas on the way home.

The Long Haul. With Kids.

This past weekend, while on a hike, Ali and I were talking about our Hiking Club Summer Bucket List. I told her I’d asked the other moms what they’d wanted to do this summer, and asked her what she wanted to do.

She lit up.

“I want to hike farther than I’ve ever hiked. I want to hike ten miles.”

“Okay! We can do that sometime this summer.”

“Actually I want to do it as soon as possible.”

It was supposed to be a pretty week and I’m a total enabler when it comes to a gorgeous hike, so I checked with our hiking club, warned that this was going to be the most we’d ever done and please only consider your oldest children for the hike, and began gathering supplies.

(A ten mile hike is no joke – especially when you’re going somewhat slow. You’re talking hours on the trail, and it requires water and snacks and provisions and probably a few band-aids.)

But somehow we got it all together AND convinced a few friends that this was a good idea in less than 48 hours, and on Monday morning, we met at Oak Mountain ready for the hike.

Five Moms. Four walking kids. Two riding babies.

We can do this.

I mean, maybe. Who knows.

No, we can do this.

We started out from the top of the ridge so that we didn’t have to climb any serious mountains, and gazed down from the cliffs at Peavine Falls, the bottom of which would be our glorious ending point.

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The first few miles were lovely and uneventful – the white trail at Oak Mountain is one of my favorites, as it is full of wildflowers and also runs by a stream. The peacefulness is on point.

When we got to our first trail crossing at 3ish miles, we decided it was time for snack. And also there was a good rock and fence post for a group photo – I could put my camera on the post, control it with my phone, and actually be in a photo. I didn’t know Noah dabbed right out the top of the photo, and I also wasn’t doing a good job hiding my phone. But it’s as good as a trail group photo gets.

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We took five photos.

This is the last photo.

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Notice Noah’s dab has morphed into a point-and-scream. But the rest of us haven’t changed a bit. Because his screams of “SNAKE!!!!” and pointing at our feet hasn’t made it to any of our brains yet.

(I don’t know how dabbing helped Noah see this unbelievably camouflage snake, but I will never complain about dabbing my pictures up ever again.)

A baby timber rattlesnake was somewhat perturbed at our rowdying up its rock, and had crawled out in a huff, then a minute later curled up in a ball and had his head up showing his decisively bad mood.

(I took pictures, of course, but as many people do not appreciate my snake photography, if you specifically want to see our one-rattle baby friend, you can click here.)

(You’re welcome, rest of y’all.)

We moved on quickly. We weren’t sure where his family lived, and since he was already so extremely irritable at such a young age, we could only imagine how special his mother’s moods must be.

Our next finds were much more amenable to our attention and presence. Or at least they didn’t have man-killing venom waiting to share, so we enjoyed their company a little bit more.

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In total, we found six toads (and only two peed on us), and this lovely dragon-esque Fence Lizard – note how his belly glows blue.

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He definitely had some leftover prehistoric fire and scales.

We kept moving, through the reeds, enjoying all of the vastly differing views of Oak Mountain. We took a couple wrong turns – one that was clearly the map’s fault, and the rest were most likely my fault.

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…And I did a hiking club first and fed a baby a bottle while walking through the woods.

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(For the record I was never a chill enough baby mama to hike with a baby. I am constantly amazed that Sarah is totally that person.)

We finally got back around to the Peavine Falls area. The original plan was to hike an extra half mile to come into the gorge from the side we were familiar with, and that was slightly less steep. But everyone was tired, we were already at 10 miles, and a shortcut is a shortcut is a shortcut even if it leads out with a sign like this.

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We followed the path down, but it looked just a bit off from what I thought should be there. We reached what should have been Peavine Falls, but instead it was a chute – a gorgeous, flowery, chute of water that was dying to be intertubed down, if we were slightly more daring than we actually are, and also had an intertube.

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I made the executive decision that the kids should play in the water while I tried to figure out where the crap we were. I didn’t know if we were upstream, downstream, around a bend, or exactly what from Peavine Falls, and I needed a minute.

The kids were happy to oblige.

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With some frantic texts to Chris and the studying of my exercise map on MapMyRun, I finally reached the conclusion that we were just *barely* downstream of Peavine Falls, and clearly I’d singlehandedly discovered Peavine Chute, which wasn’t so bad.

We slowly made our way up the trail to the falls, at which point all of us mothers were thrown back at once by a smell.

An overpowering, thick, we’re-about-to-step-in-something smell.

“Is that a skunk??”

“That sure smells like a skunk!!”

I looked around frantically. And then I saw it.

A group of hammocks, some wandering-slowly people…a zombie-ish look to the place.

“That’s not skunk. That’s weed.”

I scouted ahead to check it out.

It was, it seemed, a portable artist enclave. There were painters. There were aerial ropes with people hanging upside down. There were emotionless men with Hawaiian shirts hanging open. And there was a LOT of smoke.

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We wandered carefully into the falls area, completely killing their buzz, while they did likewise for us.

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That Peavine Chute had been a gift of quiet serenity just for us. But we managed to get in the falls and stake our claim, having a little fun before we hiked up and out.

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Our last find of the day happened nearly at the parking lot, and Noah was the spotter once more.

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A massively huge Luna Moth, who was more than happy to let us observe her from all of her magnificent angles.

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Our final mileage was 11.2 miles. It took 6 hours. And these four kids never once whined. They even THANKED me for the hike.

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It was all a true hiking miracle.

Ali logged our hike as she went along in her Trail Notes book, and this was her summary page of the day. IMG_1481

Yup, I think she covered everything.

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.