Hashtag, Thunderhike.

I gave a speech this weekend to the AHTS (Alabama Hiking and Trail Society) about nurturing and encouraging children’s love of hiking. It’s way too long in its current format to share here (it was 45 minutes – perhaps the longest I’ve ever talked at one time ever), but in the process of writing it, and in particular in the process of writing the FAILS section, I found a story I wrote last fall but never shared here. And it really deserved sharing.

Our family stays at the Oak Mountain State Park cabins for a week every November, at that idyllic time of peak fall colors, crisp fall temperatures, and in general manic magic that happens when Alabama is no longer 100 degrees. This past year’s trip had been spectacular in every way. The weather couldn’t have been more lovely, we led hikes every day, we used the cabin canoes constantly, and we enjoyed every second.

181106 oak mountain tranquility lake sunset IMG_0264 S

We had one last hike scheduled on our last day there, and it was to be our longest hike – a crescendo of perfection, if you will.

I never checked the weather. I had been lulled by the beautiful weather of the prior 6 days, and had also gotten used to life with one wobbly bar of cell service and no wi-fi in the cabins, and had very nearly become rustic in my addiction to information. The skies were blue! And the wind was so nonexistent that the lake was a gorgeous mirror! I vaguely remember Chris saying that it was supposed to rain that afternoon – late that afternoon – but that’s all I knew. 

181103 oak mountain in the fall IMG_9369 S

We gathered a few friends and drove up to the top trailhead so that we could one-way hike back to the cabins – because what could be a more delightful way to finish our week than a downhill one way hike on a lovely day. 

As we approached the trailhead, I noticed the sky looked awfully gray all of a sudden. I pulled up my radar. There was rain coming, but the storm was well to the west of Tuscaloosa. No way was it going to catch us. I checked the written forecasts again – they were still saying late afternoon. And it was only 10:15. We were FINE.

radar 1015 IMG_2001

We started hearing thunder about two miles in. 

“That was totally an airplane, right? There shouldn’t be thunder yet.”

I pulled up my radar again. “It’s still west of Tuscaloosa. Surely we’re okay.”

But I noticed that storm was moving much more quickly, as if it had an appointment with a group of people in the woods that it didn’t want to miss.

We have several kids that REALLY don’t like thunder. They immediately looked at me with accusing eyes, asking what have I gotten them into and should we head back?

I wasn’t exactly sure how long the one way hike was, but I was pretty sure that we had time to make it to the cabins. Why turn around? Then we’d lose our net downhill.

Ten minutes later, a long, loud peal of thunder. I pulled it up again. The storm was now through Tuscaloosa and bearing down on us. And this storm had all the colors. Green. Yellow. Orange. BRIGHT BRIGHT RED.

Holy. Crap.

What the…

I gathered and gently warned the kids. 

“Okay. Just so you know…we’re gonna get wet. But we’re going to get off this ridge trail sooner than we planned, and we’ll be okay.”

…Because we were basically the highest thing for miles. Except for the trees. It’s never a good place to see off a cliffside when there’s thunder in the area. 

We started picking up the pace. We kept on our ridge, nervously listening to thunder, trying to push through to the trail that would lead us downhill. 

It began to rain on us around mile three. Noah began to get angry. He hates storms. He hates thunder. And, as he is in an extreme rule-following place right now, he DEFINITELY doesn’t believe in being in the middle of the woods during both.

We finally made it to the intersection and began to head downhill. The rain picked up, but not too bad. Then we turned on red, which was great because it was nice and wide and not steep like orange, but was also awful because it was nice and wide and there was no tree umbrella coverage happening. 

The red trail is usually a boring wide road trail, but thanks to the exceptional fall colors and the full covering of fallen leaves on the road and the vibrance of color that the rain lended to said trees and leaves, it was SPECTACULAR. It didn’t matter that it was raining and there were now visible flashes of lightning and the thunder was most definitely getting louder. We had found ourselves in Fall Nirvana.

At least that’s how some of us felt.

Err, I felt.

Noah, not so much.

By now, he also had to pee. Badly. And he doesn’t believe in peeing in the woods, either. So now he was Rain-Angry and Pee-Angry and REALLY Thunder-angry. Soon he would be Sploshing-Shoes Angry as well but I didn’t tell him that.

We had a couple of miles to do before our next turn, which would then put us a little over one mile from the cabin. So, basically, a lot of miles in the increasing storm.

The thunder picked up considerably. There were deafening booms surrounding us, and we were sure lightning was going to strike in front of us at any moment. Noah was now crying with a ferocity that only hatred toward his over-adventurous mother could cause.

I checked the radar again.

Not only had the storm sped up, but it had tripled in width. AND THEN IT SLOWED DOWN. Now it was crawling along my radar, and just getting wider and wider and WIDER. There was no point in finding shelter – this storm was going to stick around for a while. So I just told the kids that the only way back was back, and the faster we went, the less of the storm that would reach us.

Radar 1135 IMG_2007

By the time we got to the Red/Yellow connector, we had arrived into the middle of the storm. Rain was now sheeting at us sideways, and the trail had immediately transformed into a rushing river.

So not only were we being deluged from the top down, we were also being sloshed from the bottom up.

Levi, Noah’s best friend, slipped and fell under the tide. He was now muddied completely and bawling. 

But somehow, for just a minute, Noah miraculously rallied. I thought he’d found a new person inside of himself. He held up both his arms in weight-lifting pose, let out a primal scream, and yelled “ONE MORE MILE!! WE CAN DO THIS!! LET’S GOOOOOOO!!!”

Then half a minute later, he cried “THIS IS THE WORST DAY EVER!!!”

We scaled a couple narrow, high ridges with a long drop to the creek at only a slip of the foot. We made it to the half mile mark. To the quarter mile mark. 

And finally, we saw it. The clearing. The promise of a cabin. Of warmth and dryness and coffee and hot chocolate. We sprinted for it, only pausing under the pavilion to take a selfie that might as well have been underwater, as wet as we all were. 

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Then we made it in. Noah passed out clothes to Levi and Luke, and I passed out clothes to the mothers. We turned up the heat, made hot beverages, got everyone blankets, and sent the kids off to have some recovery iPad time. 

The mothers sat around reminiscing about our fabutastic adventure. Kelly was on the end of the spectrum of “THAT WAS AMAZING AND SO FUN!!!” Christen, who’s a little more cautious, had made fantastic progress since the last time we got caught in the rain. She was staring out the window, holding her coffee, saying, “I never panicked except that one time when… ——— !!! WHAT IN THE WORLD IS HAPPENING?? 

She squealed out in horror, the caught herself and started hysterically laughing. 

Kelly and I whirled around to see what was happening, and the big, oafy, old Ugly Duck of the lake (Rusty, as the kids had named him), was voraciously riding atop one of the tiny female mallard ducks, violently pecking at her neck and de-feathering her in the process.

The kids had heard Christen squeal and ran in to see what our next calamity was.

“MOM!! Rusty and that other duck are in a fight!! Oh! It’s over now. Rusty won, I think. Look at him strutting around!! His neck is so funny!!”

He was indeed walking the walk of the victorious, rhythmically gyrating his neck as he walked to show that he was absolutely The Stuff. 

Needless to say, Rusty finished off our day with a bang.

It’s a Dream, Not a Race.

Guest Post by Chris the Husband

Lake Martin was my first 27 mile race in 2016.
My first 50 in 2017.
My first 27 with Rachel in 2018.
I wanted it to be my first trail 100.

I planned it for over a year. Before Rachel and I did the 27 together last year, I knew I wanted to go for 100 this year. That’s a lot of time to think and talk, to plan and train, to powwow with a handful of other like-minded people in Facebook groups, and to dream.

By the time we arrived at the lakeside rental cabin on the night before the race, “me” had turned into six people (me, Rachel, Christen, Kelly, Ashley, and Ali), four of them there for their first 27, including my 12-year-old daughter Ali (she wrote her race report here.) It’s fantastic that the magical community atmosphere and scenic adventure of this race is spreading to other people.

2019 Lake Martin IMG_1476 s(Photo Credit: MRuns)

The trails are all on private property of the Russell Forest Trail System. The basic race is a 25 mile loop, with 4 sections. The 27 Mile Fun Run = 1 loop plus a 1 mile out & back with a turn-around point at mile 26. The 50 = 2 loops. The 100 = 4 loops.

There are two aid stations full of fluids, food, people, love, help, smiles, and festivity. All you could want. More than you need. These people really care and will care for you.

The race is directed by David and Marye Jo Tosch, the owners of the Southeastern Trail Series. It starts around sunrise on Saturday, and ends on Sunday afternoon. The technical cutoff is 32 hours. The actual, real, final cutoff is clarified by the race manual. (Yes, there’s a manual.) The manual states that “You must be off of the trails before dark. This rule is enforced. The trails are patrolled. You may NOT be on the trails after dark on Sunday.”

Pre-Race Training & Prep:

I had not trained with long distance or speed, but with time on my feet. Morning runs were frequently followed by afternoon hikes with the family. I also did a lot of mental preparation, listening to podcasts, reading race reports, and reading books by ultrarunners to prepare me for the mental fight against quitting. My plan was to maintain a steady-state, focused on physical efficiency, conservation, recovery, and mental tranquility, knowing that the heart of finishing a 100 is in the unknown, in the ability to solve problems that arise that you don’t anticipate, when you are at your weakest and it’s hard to think clearly.

I also tried to improve my odds of survival by taking advantage of the medical knowledge around me. As training wound down, I had some plantar fasciitis in my right foot, and a friend, Kristen Zeanah, a PT who makes house calls as 10X Physiotherapy, gave me some helpful treatment and solid recommendations. House calls! The wisdom Rachel has acquired in her fight against dysautonomia has had ripple effects to helping many people, including me. Before the race, I got a vitamin-loaded IV bag, a month of red light therapy, and fancy electrolyte powders to drink.

Several people asked me before the race: Are you ready? Susan Donnelly, a guest with Suman Silwal on his MRuns podcast, gave my favorite answer: “A new distance, a new challenge, is always a leap of faith. You don’t know if your body can endure it, but you believe it and try.” Suman is a Birmingham running icon, and the only now 6-time finisher of the Lake Martin 100. Friday night we enjoyed the pre-race dinner and Suman’s traditional speech. This year the slogan was: “Give your body a chance to finish.” I hoped I had done enough to give my body that chance.

Race Day:

Saturday morning I was up at 3:30, having water, coffee, and my traditional brown sugar and cinnamon Pop Tart.

We arrived about 20 minutes before the race started, and I staked out my personal aid station with the Paloma Blancas, some friends who graciously invited me to join them for the weekend. I laid out my chair and box full of supplies in a corner of their tent near the start/finish line and cabin aid station to use for my numerous resupply stops, gear swaps, and wardrobe changes.

The first 26 miles was mostly spent with Rachel and Ali. It was a fun, festive, beautiful day, and I was happy to be with my family in a place I’ve grown to love.

I try to take care of my feet. (Remember in Forrest Gump in Vietnam where Lieutenant Dan tells them to keep their feet dry?) I put Bodyglide and diaper cream all over my feet. About four miles into the race, I slipped on a tiny log crossing, and planted both feet (kerplunk!) completely underwater. It took me a few silent minutes (other than the squishing of water in my toes) to settle down the fury in my head. This race generally does not require you to get your feet wet at all. The creek crossings are easy.

I had extra shoes, socks, and diaper cream in both of my drop bags, but the more I thought about it, the less I wanted to focus on maintaining perfect foot conditions. That was a good call, because I clumsily got my feet wet half a dozen times throughout the race (I didn’t try to cross that log again.) I went with “if it ain’t broke don’t fix it.” I wore the same socks/shoes untouched the whole race.

I hugged Ali at the out/back turn-around at mile 26 – it was such a proud dad moment. I was sorry I couldn’t be there to see her finish, and said goodbye to my wife and daughter. I’m so proud of Ali for finishing strong and happy and so thankful to Rachel for training, supporting, and pacing her.

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I would be alone from mile 26 to 78+.

As good as the weather was, the hot afternoon was more of a struggle in the sun than I had hoped. But I felt strong, and moved conservatively and consistently, trying to focus and enjoy the moment, and not worry about the giant task ahead.

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Then, after a beautiful sunset, the cold night became a much deeper struggle as the temperature felt much, much lower than the forecast 49. I have no idea what it was. My short sleeves were no match for the thick, damp cold that settled on my body and crept deeper and deeper into it. My breath was visibly thick in the light of my headlamp. My knees and sore legs ached in the chill, and stiffened, slowing my pace. It was frustrating. My legs just wouldn’t go as fast as I wanted.

I tried to get warm at the aid station heaters, drinking hot broth and potato/rice soup, but that only lasts for a few minutes. So the logic became: just keep moving until dawn.

The sun will be up in 8 hours. Keep moving.
The sun will be up in 6 hours. Keep moving.
4.
2.
1.

As the first light began to creep over the horizon, I began to have math problems. I wasn’t using my GPS watch to track my pace. I was running on perceived effort, aid station to aid station, watching the cutoff paces on a folded chart in my pocket, and trying to conserve my body and use all the time I was given.

But the cold night had slowed me too much.

At this pace, I couldn’t be finished before dark. In my foggy brain, I tried to add it up again and again, but coming into the Cabin Aid Station at mile 68 I faced the death of a dream. I’d continue on at least to 75, maybe 83 – I had all day, but I had to tell David and Marye Jo that I wasn’t going to make it. I tried to keep things in perspective – I have a lot of wonderful things in my life, but in that moment, tired and hurting, I was devastated.

I finished loop 3 section 3 (63-68), and found David and Marye Jo. The sun was wide awake, shining brightly. I told them my math, and tried to hide my sadness.

2019 Lake Martin IMG_1495 sFaking a smile for the camera at mile 68. (Photo Credit: Callie Cole)

But the Tosches were so encouraging!

“Yes, you technically have to be off the trails by dark, but “dark” is much later than sunset, and the last few parts of the course are on gravel roads and dirt roads, so you’re not technically on the trails at that point.”

They just quietly smiled at my stunned face.

Are you serious?? Okay then!!

A warm smile began to grow deep inside me. I refilled my bottles, and headed out for loop 3 section 4 (68-75).

I ran like I hadn’t planned or trained to do at all in this race. I flew through the woods, careening down hills and leaping rocks. I couldn’t believe I was capable of this effort level after the night before, but I was so invigorated by the possibility that I could still have my dream. This was at high risk of falling, getting injured, and blowing my energy reserves (see you later race plan!), but it sure was fun!

The fast running warmed and loosened my cold stiff legs and knees. I was back! I finished that section in 1.5 hours with a huge smile on my face, and left myself just enough time to reasonably do the 4th 25 mile loop before dark.

2019 Lake Martin IMG_1494 sGenuinely smiling for the camera at mile 75. (Photo Credit: Gordon Harvey)

I backed off my frantic pace but kept pushing myself as I felt I could, pushing hard up the climbs with my trekking poles and letting gravity scoot me down as fast as it liked.

Rachel paced most of section 1 (75-83) and all of section 2(83-88), and tolerated my groans and frequent stops to lean on my poles and get my breath. She kept me entertained with stories of their post-race celebrations and recovery from the night before.

I noticed on section 2 that I was really hot and my mouth was pasty dry. I had been drinking fancy electrolyte drinks, but I decided not near enough water. I was CRAVING ice water. I filled up my 1.5 liter bladder at Heaven Hill, and dumped ice in my hat.

By this point, I was last, and everyone knew it. The last two Heaven Hill aid station workers drove away right after I left for the last time, smiling and waving as they went. They were there just for me.

Kelly paced section 3 (88-94), and listened patiently to my teary devastation/rebirth story from the night before. I had another burst of energy for this “easier” section and powered through it quickly. I drained the first 1.5 liters of water and refilled it again before section 4.

Did I mention I was last? When I finished 94, David and Marye Jo needed to leave, so he gave me the buckle, we took pictures, I got a few congratulatory hugs from the last couple of folks there, and then, unwilling to let it out of my possession, I put the buckle in my pack and carried it the final 6.3 miles.

2019 Lake Martin IMG_1446 2 s

2019 Lake Martin IMG_1458 s(Photo Credits: MRuns)

David gave Rachel his cell number to let him know what time I finished, and off we went on the last section. I expected the finish line would need to be taken down by the time we came back.

Rachel paced section 4 (94-100) and quietly followed me as I started to fade, really fade. She was struggling herself at this point, having run 27 the day before and then pacing me almost 18 grindingly slow miles. This wasn’t her first time for end-of-100 pacing at great cost to her own body.

I had several Sunday afternoon hallucinations, mostly on red dirt roads:

  • A man on a bike (a tree branch),
  • A man in red shirt (a fence post),
  • An ice cream truck (just nothing there),
  • And the “nest”. 

I sat down on a log and thought I’d kicked over an old wasp nest or something similar. Rachel says there was literally nothing there. I still say it was there.

The waves of exhaustion started to wash over me and I struggled to will my body to keep moving. In my excitement of actually doing loop 4, I hadn’t taken in nearly enough calories, but I was soooo close. 

2019 Lake Martin IMG_6498 s

Rachel began regularly offering me a few spicy gummy bears and pretzel goldfish to try to get me there. She says the gummy bears weren’t spicy, but I know what I tasted! I was still struggling with the heat, and I felt a strange sensation. A bead of moisture on my left temple. After consuming 2.5 liters of ice water rather quickly, I started sweating.

Oops. I had no idea how long I had stopped sweating.

Kelly and Ali met us near the end at a lovely creek crossing with an inviting bench, appropriately named Rock Bottom. I passed up this last chance to rest, focused on the finish, and pushed toward the end. My ultramarathoner wife and new ultramarathoner daughter were beside me, while new ultramarathoner Kelly took the video and pictures.

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Finish Time: 6:53.
Sunset Time: 6:58.
Dark Time: Who cares? I was off the trail!

The finish line was not gone, but was still waiting patiently when I jogged up Tucker Road for the last time, just as I had imagined it. We had the finish line and the cabin all to ourselves. Me, Rachel, Ali, and Kelly. It was surreal, my tired crew alone there in the glorious sunset, like a dream. As if it was all there just for me.

Because it was.

They left it up for me. 

IMG_1505

And in decent weather, they would leave it up for you. Or anyone. Because these people are the kindest and best of humans.

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Epilogue:

I settled into a chair with a groan, and Rachel graciously took off my shoes and socks. I think she was curious about the carnage, but it wasn’t terrible. The sun was setting slowly behind the cabin porch. I thought to myself, as I hear many others say, “That was amazing. I will never do that again.”  A few days to reflect have softened my stance.

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My overall time was 36:00:05 – the second slowest on record, and I couldn’t be happier. Ali and Kelly presented me with special custom awards they made while they waited on me to finish.

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I know that doing 100 miles takes a toll on your body. I already knew I had a few blisters and some thigh chafing. I’m pretty sure I may lose a toenail or two. Of course everything from the waist down ached. That had been true for much of the race.

The nearly immediate impacts of stopping and resting for 15 minutes were chills, shivering, chattering teeth, and hiccups when I started trying to eat/drink. I showered and could barely eat anything before crawling into bed. (The ravenous hunger is known to come later.) I slept well, but not longer than a normal night. (The fatigue is also known to last for days, not cured by a single huge chunk of sleep.)

It’s been several days, and I feel good physically. I took five days off of exercise, and then went for an easy run. I’ll limit my effort level for a few weeks to make sure I give my body the chance to fully recover. Fun fact: I dreamed about being in an eternal race for several nights in a row after the non-eternal race.

I am so thankful to everyone involved. The race volunteers took wonderful care of me for two days. My friends sent tons of encouraging messages throughout the week and the race. Rachel went above and beyond as usual to keep me alive. Ali cheered and hugged me along on both days. Kelly was up for anything to help. And I still get a little misty when I think about the kindness and compassion of David and Marye Jo.

12, going on 27.1.

Guest Post by my daughter, Ali Callahan.

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So I decided to become an ultra marathoner.

An ultra marathon is anything over 26.2 miles. I don’t remember why I wanted to do it originally, but I have been training for a year. The first race I wanted to do was the Lake Martin 27.1 mile “fun run”, a trail race which my mom has done once and my dad has done a few times. So this year, Mom, a few of her friends, and I were signed up for the 27.1 mile fun run, and Dad was signed up for the 100 mile serious run. Nobody under 16 had ever done any of the distances at Lake Martin, and since I am 12, I was feeling kind of nervous about it (and a little impatient to get it over with,) until it got there and I felt -mostly- better. We were all staying together in a rental house on the night before the race and I went to bed really early.

2019 Lake Martin Team 2019-Lake-Martin-Team-IMG_1540 s

In the morning, we woke up at 5:30, filled our packs, tied our shoes, encouraged each other, and drove to the start/finish line. It was very cold so it was nice to find that the bathrooms were heated. We all got in a huddle in front of the start/finish line, then Mr. David, the race director, fired his gun in the air, and we all started running.

The race was divided into four sections, with an aid station between each one, and then a final 2 miles after the last aid station. It was easier to think about it as four separate trail runs than 27.1 miles as a whole.

First Eight Miles (0-8.2):

There were lots of water crossings and hills, and it was very fun because Dad, Mom, and I were together. However, there was a creek crossing and you had the choice of crossing on rocks or on a log. Mom wanted to cross on the rocks, but Dad and I wanted to go across the log. I stumbled and barely made it across and was about to tell Dad that he really shouldn’t do that because it would be worse if he fell in since he had like 95 miles left, but he was already halfway across. He stumbled in the same place I did, except his foot slipped, both his legs went into the water up to his calves, and he was okay but was frustrated at himself and went ahead for a bit – “to blow off steam”, according to him. At the first aid station I used the restroom, grabbed some pretzels and pickles, and we kept going.

2019 Lake Martin Team Heaven-Hill-IMG_6300 s

Next Five Miles (8.2-13.6):

I was happily skipping, singing, and talking to Mom and Dad. This was probably my favorite loop because we went through/over: a forest where there had been a controlled burn and had lots of burnt pinecones, a wide red road, a trail through tall reeds, and by a lake.

2019 Lake Martin Team ali-heaven-hill-DD731ED5-92CA-4BE6-8CE6-AAD4DD0D9C0B s

When we came back around to the aid station and I did exactly what I did last time: used the restroom, grabbed some pickles and pretzels, oh! And stretched – it feels so good to do a backbend when you have been on your feet for four hours!

2019 Lake Martin Team Ali-backbend-heaven-hill-IMG_6315 s

Next Five Miles (13.6-19):

I was still very happy but tired. Dad was ahead of Mom and I now, because he left the aid station before us. There were way less water crossings. We didn’t think we would catch up to Dad, but we saw him at the top of a hill and I screamed “Dad!!”, and ran ahead until I caught up with him. When we got to the aid station, I got some Mountain Dew and a banana slice.

Next Six Miles (19-25.1):

The first couple miles were okay, but very hilly. Around mile 21, after an especially high hill, I got so tired that I was crying and I couldn’t think. It was so hard. So Mom pulled out her phone and played all my favorite songs, like “High Hopes”, “Hall of Fame”, and “Havana.”

2019 Lake Martin Team under-the-log-IMG_6327 s

I barely made it back to the aid station where I got more Mountain Dew, the volunteers filled up my pack with water, and we left.

Last Two Miles (25.1-27.1):

I was better, but exhausted. It was more fun because Dad was with us again (he got ahead of us when I was crying, but we caught up to him at the aid station,) and the trail was super easy – it was just the first mile of the course again and back. At the one mile turnaround point, we had a group hug and we cheered and encouraged each other, and Dad kept going (since he was doing the 100), and Mom and I turned around.

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After one mile, we finished!

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We ate, drank, got our medals, and cheered our friends as they finished.

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The race took me eight hours, one minute, and 59 seconds. Afterwards, I was glad to be done, and sore. I was so tired the only thing that made sense to say was “ow.” It took a little while to feel satisfied – I had so many emotions I didn’t know what to feel.  The next day I felt better except for my shoulders, which felt like I had carried my cousin Andi for ten miles. But I was able to run/walk the last 1.5 miles with Dad Sunday evening as he finished his hundred miles.

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I think I’m glad I did it, but I wouldn’t necessarily recommend it for other kids. However, I might do it again – if other kids did it with me.

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