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. 

thunderhike after IMG_2013

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.

2019 Lake Martin IMG_1500 s

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.

2019 Lake Martin Team 26-mile-turnaround-double-pic-IMG_6353 s

After one mile, we finished!

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2019 Lake Martin Team Ali-Rachel-Finish-Line-IMG_6368 s

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.

2019 Lake Martin Team Ali-Chris-Finish-100-IMG_6538 s

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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On Becoming a Spelling Bee Drama Queen.

We Callahans like Spelling Bees. There’s something so…objective about spelling, and yet so very challenging as well, because English is stupid. Every year at the beginning of the school year, I check the Scripps site daily for the release of the year’s list of 450 words. Because you can never be too early in starting your study process. 

And process is exactly what we have. I call out the words, the kids spell them, I write down (twice) the words they miss – once in my notebook, and once in theirs. They rewrite and study from their notebooks, and I use my notebook the next day to review the words they missed, then call out another batch of words. At the beginning of the year, the process is taxing on me, because Noah is an agonizingly slow speller. So I leave myself plenty of margin for what I call Patience Doodles – a skill every homeschool parent needs in spades.

Spelling Bee Drama IMG_5923

After five months of practice on the 450 words plus the extra word lists, it was time for the Homeschool County Spelling Bee. In Alabama, there are 67 counties – except when spelling bees are involved, in which there are 68. Each county has a county bee for public and private schools, but all homeschoolers in the state are shoved into Homeschool County.

(Which, as with previous years, I spent much time pondering what Homeschool County would look like, if it were an actual geographical location. So many Chick-Fil-As. The thrift stores are full of denim skirts from homeschool days past. The hair length is three times the national average. Every car has a CC sticker on it. And the entire county absolutely REEKS of Lavender and Thieves.)

This was our first time participating in Homeschool County, because in years past, we’ve had Regional bees, from which the top three go to Homeschool County. Two years ago, Ali got fourth place in Regional  (or, as we like to call it, First Place of No More Studying), but we’d never broken through to Homeschool County before. But this year, they cancelled regionals and compiled us all into Homeschool County, meaning that Ali and Noah would both get their chance to shine.

This was the first bee we’d participated in that was on a Saturday, which meant that Chris would get his first experience as Spelling Bee Dad. I explained to him beforehand that though the bee starts at 1pm, expect a lengthy amount of time set aside for explaining the rules. It’s best to be prepared for such things, and as he told me later, about halfway through the rules, he was super glad I’d warned him.

One of the rules is about an appeal. It’s always given as an aside, with a “we really hardly ever need these, and I haven’t seen an appeal in years, but if you find yourself needing to make an appeal on behalf of your student, go to the back and get an appeal form.”

Every time she states this rule I have a picture in my mind of Appeal Mom. She’s a total stage mom, the kind that yells at the teacher when her kid gets into legitimate trouble, and who is always convinced that everyone is out to wrong her kid. I mentally shake my head at her obnoxious entitlement. Good thing she doesn’t exist in Homeschool County.

We began the bee. As always, I wrote down every word with my own legend attached to it. The only reason I do all of this paperwork is to keep my own jitters at bay, my hands from shaking, and my heart rate down. Writing soothes me and keeps my stomach from cramping when it’s time for my kid to spell again. Oh – and I mark the homonyms because I like playing the game “what in the world is a homonym to that word?” in my head. One must have coping mechanisms.

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(Yes, I misspelled homonym the first time I wrote it on my legend. Yes, Chris caught it and giggled silently at me.)

Spelling bees are for first through eighth graders, all grades together. Noah, being in second grade, had only made it through studying the first 250 words. He spoke confidently and accurately, though, and was doing quite well. When it got to round five, I whispered to Chris “this is probably Noah’s last round.” But no – he spelled cardboard correctly, cheering me at the fact that he got as far as he possibly could have based on what he’d learned. As expected, he spelled out in the next round, came and sat down beside me and whispered “We never studied gangrene!!” 

Ali was still going strong. She had memorized all 450 words, and had studied quite diligently into the extra word lists as well. But I was still nervous – because panic and accidental mistakes are easy to make.

By round nine, there were only six spellers left. When it was her turn, she was given the word tetrarch. My eyes widened. My brain began spinning. I definitely did not remember that word on the lists. And I could tell she didn’t either. She asked for the definition. She quietly thought. And, completely without surprise to me, she spelled it incorrectly – tetrark. 

She came to sit down and I whispered, “Do you remember that word?” “No!” 

I did a mental checklist of all of the other words in the round. All the other words were straight off the word list, right around the 400s. I scanned the 300s and 400s. There was no tetrarch.

I had Chris re-scan them. He couldn’t find tetrarch. 

And, before I could consider my actions, I stood up and walked to the back of the room to get an appeal form.

The room let up an audible gasp. Or maybe it wasn’t audible. Maybe I just felt the mental gasp from everyone in the room.

Chris later admitted that he was shocked at my sudden turn into Appeal Mom, and had a Hamilton moment as he watched me gear up for my first duel…

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I whispered to the official that tetrarch wasn’t on the word list, but we clearly weren’t “off-list” yet (what happens when the 450 words are used up), as all the other words that round had been on the word list – I knew since I wrote them all down. She agreed that I should fill out an appeal form.

I did, and at the end of round ten, the pronouncer called me up to see my appeal form. I explained. She did a search on her computer and showed me where tetrarch was: Word #408. There it was, right there, on her computer screen.

I walked back to my seat and pulled out my folder again, and they started up round eleven. I found the right page and began scanning. 

And this is what I found:

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I DID NOT HAVE A WORD FOUR OH EIGHT.

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How even.

What even.

It just was not there.

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Without thinking, I stood up and walked to the back of the room. For an unprecedented, nay historic SECOND APPEAL.

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I took my laminated word list with me. The official, as I was, was dumbfounded. 

At the end of the eleventh round, upon seeing my Double Appeal Mom behavior, the pronouncer called for a ten minute break. The crush of guilt and shame at somehow becoming THAT mom overwhelmed me. So I very apologetically showed her my word sheet. She added herself to the count of dumbfounded individuals. I told her that I understood that too many rounds had gone by to let Ali back in, and would be fine with whatever they decided.

There was ten minutes of deliberation. Much discussion. Much look at that missing #408.

While we waited, Ali was both excited about being out and excited about being put back in, as she had a basketball game right after the spelling bee, and if she were out, she’d be on time. I asked, “Do you want me to go ahead and tell them not to worry with it? You can be done…” She looked at me like I was crazy. “NO WAY!!! I want back in if I can get in!!”

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And they decided that, since this was a Scripps Spelling Bee and that clearly Scripps had made a mistake, Ali should be allowed back in – but that she had to spell two words correctly, for rounds ten and eleven, to earn her spot. They explained it very well to the whole crowd, so that there were no misunderstandings as to why they were making an exception to the rule. She finished up her explanation with “And if you have a problem with this, don’t bother to appeal – you can only appeal for your own speller.” 

Boom.

Then,

“No pressure, Ali. Are you ready?”

I sat on my hands.

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She spelled her first word flawlessly. 

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But then her second word. Oh, her second word. 

This time, it was all my fault.

You see, I always look up the pronunciations of words that I don’t know, of which there are always plenty, like mille-feuille and recherché and netsuke. But if it’s a word I do know, and I’ve been pronouncing all my life, it doesn’t occur to me that I might be wrong. (And, for the record, I’m wrong a lot. So many words are “reading only” words and I find out years later that I’ve been saying them incorrectly in my head all my life.)

Her second word was Phaeton.

Go ahead – pronounce it mentally.

Did you pronounce it fay-TON?

Well, you’re doing it wrong.

The pronouncer pronounced it FAY-uh-tun.

Which, when spoken aloud, sounds nothing like fay-TON.

I cursed myself for my mispronunciation.

I cursed myself for not telling Ali “Now, your mother is a serial mispronouncer. If anyone says a word you’ve never heard, search your memory for other spelling words that are KIND OF like it to see if perhaps your mother has mispronounced it wrong all her life.”

And, as expected, she did not spell it correctly.

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So not only was I Double Appeal Mom, but I followed that up by being Hijacker of my Own Daughter’s Success Mom. If only there were a bee for that.

Epilogue:

…Ali was just relieved that she made it through the Spelling Bee without any (of her own) dumb mistakes, and she made it to her basketball game happily free of Spelling Bee anxiety.
…I was relieved when our beloved Spelling Club leader, Miss Melissa, got home and immediately checked her own word lists and also found that she was missing Word #408.
…And next year, we’ll definitely use those Scripps recordings for
ALL word pronunciations.
…Last night, Chris and I were watching a British Drama after bed. They referenced their fay-TON. I screamed “fay-TON!! fay-
TON!!! I’m just British, you see!!!” – it did not help regain anyone’s Spelling Bee Glory, but it also didn’t wake up any children, so we’ll call it a win.

Things You Don’t Want to See In The Woods.

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“Because you don’t want to be alone in the woods and run into some random guy with an axe….”

These are the things girls say jokingly to each other when setting out for a trail run together. However, I run in the woods alone fairly regularly, and when I do, my mantra is more like “So I’m out here in the woods all alone and haven’t seen anyone for miles and am starting to feel creeped out BUT what are the chances that the one person I do see is an axe murderer?”

Axes apparently play a big part into the worst-case-scenario imaginings of woods and women. And that’s just where axes are supposed to stay. IN OUR IMAGINATIONS.

Except for this one time.

My friend Christen and I were out for a trail run. We were enjoying a very nice, normal, and safe loop around a well-trodden lake at a local state park. We hadn’t seen many people out that day yet, but there were a few. It had been a quiet mile or two when we saw a guy ahead of us with two dogs. It was a single track trail, so he pulled off to the side with the dogs well before we approached, as is how it usually goes for the oft-followed “the slower person pulls off the trail” rule. 

Except that he also felt the need to yell reassurances to us.

“Don’t worry!! They’re very friendly!! They won’t bother you!!”

I’m not a fan of dogs, but I’m also not usually worried about them. I found his warning…odd. He had just finished his reassurances when I reached his bend in the trail.

…And I noticed that he was leaning on a waist-length handle. My eyes followed the large handle down to the ground…where I saw a nicely sharpened, shiny axe blade.

Because split second unexpected situations in life sometimes can make one speak before thinking, I immediately shot back, “I’m more worried about your axe than I am the dogs!”

He nudged it lightheartedly.

“Oh, this? It’s just in case we see any snakes.”

I am a fan of snakes, however, and quickly shot back again. .

“What?? Why would you kill snakes?? You can’t kill snakes! You’re in a State Park!!”

(Not to mention that he was also carrying a VIOLENT and (not-yet-)BLOODY FREAKING WEAPON in a State Park and SURELY this was NOT okay.)

He jovially said, “Oh, don’t worry, we just kill the poisonous ones.”

By this time we were 100 feet down the trail from him and the reality of my rather rash and impudent conversation was starting to sink in. Had I just argued with the very first axe-wielding man-in-the-woods I’d ever run into on a trail run? 

Yes. Yes I had.

Obviously if I run into a real axe murderer, it’s gonna go so very well.

Meanwhile, Christen was having her own personal crisis. She pulled up beside me, panting, and said,

“Oh my goodness I didn’t even notice that he had an axe until you said something. THIS IS WHY I CAN NEVER RUN ALONE.”

We discussed axe man for the next mile, then pulled into a nearby bathroom. There was a State Park worker at the bathrooms, and I went back and forth, back and forth with myself as to whether I should report Axe Man. She seemed like such a nice State Park worker…I didn’t want her to die.

And then I heard him, not far off, whistling for one of his dogs…and I didn’t want to die for being a rat.

So I didn’t report him.

As we ran away from the bathrooms, he pulled alongside us in his truck.

Here it goes. Here we go.

“Y’all are making me just exhausted with all your running!!”

Yes, yes we are, sir. We’re clearly the problem here.

The Ballad of Nearly Headless Noah, or How to Give a Kid Hair Stitches.

I have paranoid, careful children.

They get it from their father.

I mean, while growing up my family made fun of me for being too paranoid, but next to Chris, I’m basically tightroping across Niagara Falls every dang day.

Having such a careful family does much to mitigate our injuries.

(Other than mine, as I am not as careful when I sleepwalk. But that’s been a while, so there’s that.)

But every now and then, things go awry. And if things are going to go awry, of course they’re going to go awry at bedtime. Such was the case a few Saturday nights ago.

Noah was quite hyper right around bedtime. He was acting the fool in our bedroom while Chris and I were laying in bed taking a moment to zone out before the time came to put the kids in bed. 

…And we were doing the same after the time came to put the kids to bed – because bedtime is Chris’ job and sometimes Chris lets the kids stay up late.

(So obviously, we know who to blame for the forthcoming catastrophe.)

Noah fell purposefully on the (carpeted) floor laughing, but his laughs quickly turned into screams. It took me a couple wails to realize the changeover had occurred, at which time I hopped out of bed and sat down to comfort him, assuming it was just another one of those bumps.

It also took me a minute to notice that his head was bleeding. Somewhat profusely. Not quite dripping-on-the-carpet profusely, but definitely at the level of I-can’t-begin-to-tell-where-you’re-injured profusely. Apparently, his head had found the corner of the rocking chair when in downward motion.

There’s always one parent that is panicky in a crisis, and one parent that becomes more calm in a crisis. In my experience, the Panicky In A Crisis Parent is also the Let The Kids Stay Up Late Parent. So I took over the situation of calming the child and the husband and giving the husband jobs to do to keep him from bashing himself on the head repeatedly for not putting the children to bed two minutes earlier.

(The PIAC parent also constantly analyzes and optimizes every situation to mitigate unnecessary risk, while the CIAC parent has taken all of the ER trips in our 18 years of marriage (dang you, sleepwalking and avocado), so personal experience in a crisis helps.)

I waited until the crying subsided, checked for any signs of concussion (it was obviously a flesh wound and his brain was in proper working condition), ordered a comb be brought to me from my panicky servant, and carefully combed the hair away from the general bloody area, desperately trying to find the offending fault line.

I still couldn’t tell.

I took a picture of the now neater-brushed but still quite bloody head and texted it to two friends: a Pediatrician (that just so happened to be working in Children’s ER at that moment), and a nurse, hoping that one would check out my bloody pictures and tell me whether it was an ER-Worthy head bleed or not.

The Pediatrician called. He confirmed that there were no signs of concussion and said that he thought I could handle it with a bit of careful braiding (“Braiding??” I said, thinking of my son’s short and fine hair, and he said “Well, knotting would work.” Yes, as if that makes it easier.), but he was going to need to see the depth of the wound first – which meant I was going to have to wash that head.  

Thankfully, Noah had calmed down from the initial shock, and was even calmer still at the realization that me handling it saved him from the ER, so was impressively amenable to his head being flushed in the sink. He watched as the bright pink water went down the drain, adding his own squeamish commentary.

“OH! That is DISGUSTING!! That is the NASTIEST water EVER!!”

Wash,

Rinse,

More combing,

Another round of iPhone pictures and texts.

Yes, the Pediatrician definitely thought the cut was such that hair stitches could hold it in place.

“We even do them in the ER sometimes. You just take a little bit of hair from either side of the cut and tie it together. It helps if the hair is coarser…but try it and see what you think.”

So I sat in the floor with my son, carefully grabbing tiny tufts of his silky fine hair from each side of his bleeding brain crevasse, and began tying them together, therefore forcing the two sides to come together and join as one. But the second I let go of the knots, no matter whether I single, double, or triple knotted them, they immediately unwound themselves, reopening the Canyon of Blood.

I knotted. I reknotted. I thought. I sighed. And, uncharacteristically, Noah found himself full of gratitude and encouragement.

He rubbed my arm and said “Thank you for trying to fix my head, Mommy. I know you can do it.”

This kid did NOT want to go the ER and endure real stitches.

Chris suggested bobby pins, and found my stash. As I suspected, they didn’t have enough grip. I dug around in my hair supplies and found two hair clips, but Noah didn’t have enough hair to keep those in place. So Chris fashioned a thickener of rolled-up toilet paper, which acted also as a blood mop, and we placed it across the sealed crack, pulling the two clips, holding the ends of my two hair stitches, in the opposite direction.

It. Was. Perfect.

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Now all we needed was a device to keep it from coming undone in the night. Because by now it was 10:30pm and we would very much like to see our son in bed.

We borrowed a cloth hairband from Ali, and our masterpiece was completed.

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We had medically cobbled together our son, ALL ON OUR OWN. Albeit with some incredibly helpful expert advice.

The next morning, all was still in place. Not wanting to disturb the lovely healing process going on under that TP, we left the contraption in place – despite it being Sunday – and stuck a beanie (with light-up Christmas lights – which is very distracting in January) on top of the whole contraption. And we threatened him within an inch of his life against any movement in Sunday School other than raising his hand to say “Yes ma’am”, “The Bible”, or “Jesus”.

At the recommendation of the doctor, Noah’s lifelong dream of not having to wash his hair came true (at least for a week), and then we resumed normal life, other than us calling him Nearly Headless Noah on the regular.

Last night, upon the fourth washing of his hair, I inspected the situation and discovered that the scab was fully separated from his head and just hanging out in his hair.

So I sat him down and began carefully removing it, then placing the bits of scab, entwined with clumps of hair, in his hand. He was not nearly as thankful as he had been that first night. 

“Why do I have to hold the scab? It’s disgusting!!”

“Because I don’t have another hand. But you know if you put the scab under your pillow, the scab fairy will come.”

“Why bother? I know it’s you.”

“What?? Do I LOOK like a scabby fairy?!”

“Well you’re the Tooth Fairy so you’ve gotta be the Scab Fairy too.”

“Have you ever noticed that pepperoni looks like a scab? We should call it scabbaroni.” 

I finally got it all out, then inspected my unbelievable, gorgeous, lovely, stunning work. He had a small pink scar, perfectly aligned, with no lumps or bumps. I was definitely ready to be a brain surgeon.

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So what did our family learn through this experience?

…Hair Stitches are amazing and will save you hundreds of dollars and dozens of hours in ER visits.

…Put the kids to bed on time so no one splits open a head.

…And Pepperoni Pizza is not a recommended meal right before removing scabs.

To see allll the pictures of the whole process, click here. Bloody pictures are only for people who like that sort of thing.

Spit and Polish.

My Mom has chickens. And as such, I know way too much about chickens. I know that the rooster shows his love by plucking a ring of feathers off of his favorite hen’s backs while he’s also…on their back. I know that you can buy aprons for favorite hens to protect their poor feathers from being brutally pulled while they are en flagrante. And I know that washing poop off of eggs is the wrong way to go about cleaning eggs – you do not wash poop off of eggs, because that also washes off the bloom which keeps bacteria from entering the porous egg shell – the bloom for which that poor, featherless hen put her life and soul into creating. The way you get rid of chicken poop is by sanding it. You go after those eggs with the same sander that you might use on your kid’s matchbox derby car.

Now let me clarify – if you are the owner of such chickens and well used to chicken poop and the avoiding therefore, you don’t bother sanding it at all – you just artfully crack the eggs, making a seam where there is no poop, and don’t let the inside of the eggs touch the outside. But if you’re giving your eggs to others, who may not be so intimately acquainted of the excrement of egg-laying fowl, you get your sander out and you sand that deuce right off.

(My mom would like me to clarify here that she only sands / gives away the cleanest eggs that have a tiny spot or two. All regularly pooped-upon eggs are used in her own kitchen.)

(And let me add that she makes a seriously fantastic breakfast. Never once has it tasted like crap.)

As I mentioned in my last post, I spent a lot of time at my parent’s house in 2018, hanging out with my Grandmother. My Dad was undergoing a cancer study that required he and mom to stay downtown near UAB for days at a time, and then later in the summer, my parents were in a battle against his failing liver, doing everything and going everywhere they could (including driving to Pennsylvania to see a renowned specialist before they even had an appointment) to try and preserve his life.

Mammaw and I talked about so many things I’ve always wondered – we talked about how she met my Grandfather (who passed away when my mom was 10 years old), we talked about why she never even dated, much less married again in the more than 50 years since then, we discussed her real-life memories of what I was watching on The Crown (my Grandmother and Queen Elizabeth are the same age, so it’s fascinating to hear memories of Queen Elizabeth’s younger days from Mammaw’s point of view), and we talked about the doll that she always wanted for Christmas but never got. (I looked it up on eBay for her – a 1920’s Shirley Temple doll – but I did not, sadly, buy her one for Christmas, as it was $500.)

But Mammaw also napped a lot, and so I found myself wandering around my parent’s house, reading or editing photos or helping the kids with school or staring at the patina of my parent’s lives. And one day, during the especially dark days after my Dad had gotten terrible news and things were looking very bleak and desperate for all of us, I noticed a picturesque sight – a sight that spoke to me at a primal, ridiculous, find-humor-in-the-darkest-days kind of way.

It was this.


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Immediately I pictured it as the front of a poetry book. If I wrote poetry, it would sum up my worldview perfectly: Cynical. Sarcastic. Yet desperately optimistic.

This is my poetry book that will never exist.

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As an added bonus, a friend pointed out that it sings perfectly to the tune of “Standing on the Promises of God.”

Go ahead.

Take a second.

Sing it.

Sing it aloud – it really lifts the spirits.

Don’t forget to go high for the refrain at the end.

So the second half of 2018 was marked by pain I’d never experienced before. My Dad passed away in September. It’s something I still struggle with daily, and I’ve come to recognize my coping mechanisms well: when I feel sad and don’t realize it yet, I love to obsessively online shop for deals. I immerse myself into a book. I crave sugar. I want to watch a mind-numbing television show (preferably British Dramas – we’ve made it through The Crown, Victoria, and are now working through Poldark.) I sometimes do all of these things at once. I’ve tried replacing my shopping with selling now, and have found that it is just as therapeutic to sell things on eBay and Poshmark as it is to buy them, and way more healthy for the budget. I’ve explained to Chris that I’m not exactly selling things to make money – I’m selling things to feel better. How bad can that be?

But I’d like to take a moment, and sand off the free-range chicken shit of the year, and talk about the good things that happened.

…The kids and I started a Hiking Club. It grew to 50 families by the end of the year, and we hosted 174 hikes and covered 657 miles. My kid’s love of the outdoors, along with their endurance, increased dramatically. And, in those hundreds of hours in the woods, we all grew stronger friendships and made new friends.

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…The kids and Chris set state running records for their ages (pro tip: find a running length that doesn’t have a record yet for your age.) In October, we took part in the Endless Mile race with our friends Christen, Luke, and Levi. The race was beyond fun – I highly recommend joining us next year. Chris ran the 48 hour race, and ran a total of 101 miles, snagging the 100 mile record for his age. Ali and Noah, along with Luke, Levi, and Christen, ran the 6 hour race. Ali ran 18 miles – but only 17 counted in her 6 Hour state record because she finished the 18th mile 10 seconds too late. Noah and Levi tied for 6 Hour the state record and ran 14 miles. Luke also got a 6 Hour state record for his age at 17 miles. Christen ran 23 miles. I had signed up for the 6 hour race, but ended up bumping up to the 24 hour race to help Chris finish – I ran for 15 of those hours, and did a total of 42 miles (no records for me, alas – except for a personal distance record which I don’t plan on besting anytime soon.)

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…I found a near-miraculous solution to my back pain and improved my running abilities.

Picture Birmingham grew incredibly, being able to donate three times what I’ve donated every other year. God brought about many fantastic opportunities to design art for corporate spaces and to be able to do much bigger projects with my photography. By the end of the year, over $33,000 total had been donated to The WellHouse, and $14,000 of that happened in 2018.

…I got to spend all of the aforementioned wonderful time with my Grandmother, and was able to get to know her better. And through that opportunity, she blessed me greatly by allowing me a reason to regularly be with my Dad in his final months.

So was 2018 a bad year? Yes. It was a bad year. It was a terrible year. It was a year I never would want to experience again, and still brutally marks my every day. But was it a good year? Yes. It was a great year. It was a year I’ll never forget and a year I’m thankful for.

Because I’m cynical. Sarcastic. Yet desperately optimistic.

Backwards Blessings.

My 92 year old grandmother, my Mother’s mom, moved in with my parents in Mid-April, five months before my dad passed away. I remember the week she moved in – it was an extraordinarily chaotic week for our entire family. Mammaw had had a bad day at her house, which was the impetus for getting her to move in. My sister-in-law’s stepdad passed away the same day. My Dad was in the middle of his first round of Clinical Trials at UAB, requiring him to stay in a hotel downtown three nights every three weeks. My Mom had her Master Gardener’s annual plant sale coming up, for which she was responsible for many preparations. I had a Picture Birmingham pop-up shop at West Elm that weekend. We all pitched in, trying to do what we could…keeping my brother and sister-in-law’s kids so my sister-in-law could be with her mom, helping with Mammaw so that mom could get ready for her plant sale and also accompany dad to the doctor.

Mammaw had moved in because she wasn’t doing well. She couldn’t see or hear very well, and she had an infection that was making her somewhat delirious. She needed a female caretaker at all times, so Mom, Mom’s sister, and I were trading up staying with her. I was super nervous the first time I went to sit with her for five hours. My gifting, unlike my mother, is not care-taking and is definitely not long periods of visiting without doing anything. I am much more like my father – an administrator, someone who needs to be busy when with other people, and a writer instead of a talker. I don’t know what to say in person (if you’ve ever tried to talk in person about something that is vulnerable to me, you are already well aware of this.) But God gave me the idea of reading aloud to Mammaw – I read aloud to my kids all the time, and I had lots of favorite books I could read to her. Plus, the thing that Mammaw missed most due to her declining vision was reading, so it was perfect. I read nearly an entire book to her in the first few weeks, before she broke it to me that she could barely hear me (despite my yelling the pages.) But it helped me get into the groove of sitting with her, and by then I had come to enjoy our time together and had learned to talk better.

But I didn’t realize what a striking blessing Mammaw had specifically been to me until the week before dad passed away. I had been sitting with Mammaw one to three times a week for five months by then. One day I was sitting and talking to Dad after they got back from his last doctor’s appointment. It all of a sudden hit me that I had never, in these last few months of his life, worried that I was not there enough, or that I was there too much. I’d never even wondered if I was bugging them or if I was too distant. I was at my parent’s exactly as often as they wanted and needed me there, and they were thankful that I had been there. Sitting with Mammaw had enabled so many positive things in my life:

– It enabled me to serve my parents in a practical way, rather than feeling useless or wondering how I could help them.

– It enabled me to be present with them on a weekly basis, visiting before and after their appointments.

– Many times just Mom was gone somewhere and Dad was at the house, and Dad would use those days to purposefully invest in my kids while I sat with Mammaw. It was those days that dad taught Noah how to drive the tractor, let both kids drive his truck, and included my kids on making the backsplash tiles for Mom’s kitchen that he was designing out of clay and pressed leaves from their property. Mammaw being there gave my kids more time with their Granddad.

dad and kids

– Mammaw allowed me to never once worry about being there too much or too little or even thinking about those things – and I am prone to worrying, so that in itself is a miracle.

– Serving my parents in that way allowed me to demonstrate to my Dad that I am and will be here for my Mom. I think I have not always been demonstrably servant-hearted to my parents because they’ve always been so very self-sufficient that I didn’t know what could I offer them. Plus, for the last 12 years, I’ve had their grandkids – so most of our interactions have been grandkid-centered. I’d lost the ability to converse / serve / be there for my parents, and I hope that Dad seeing me be there in his last five months assured him that I’d be there for mom after he was gone.

Furthermore, my mom is a caretaker. And Mammaw being there after my Dad’s death is, I think, so very much a blessing to my Mom. She still has her mother, she has someone to care for, she has someone to confide in, and she’s not alone. Mammaw may have wondered at times why she’s still on this earth, why she’s 92 and one of the only ones left of her generation, but I think it’s for my Mom. And, in those last five months, it was also for me.

I was able to tell Mammaw all of this a few weeks after my Dad died, and thank her for what she’d done for me. She cried, I cried, and she said “Thank you, Rachel, for telling me all that. I loved your father so much – he was such a good son-in-law to me and took such good care of me. I’ve felt so bad that I couldn’t do anything for your parents during all of this, and it makes me feel so good that I was able to help after all.”

God’s blessings sometimes come in backwards, unexpected ways. Never underestimate your value to others.

190108 Ali's 12 Birthday IMG_0758 sMammaw, Mom, Ali and I at Ali’s 12th birthday. Mammaw is doing wonderfully well now.

My Experiment With Red Light Therapy.

Two months ago I had chronic and continuous back pain (caused by dozens of recurring muscle knots) – I was seeing a Physical Therapist regularly, taking a muscle relaxer at night, 1-2 doses of ibuprofen a day, and having to take 1-2 heating pad breaks every day.  I also had sharp hip flexor pain when I tried to run, and an inability to get comfortable while sleeping. 45 days later, I now have zero back pain, I am running with zero pain AND at a pace that is 1 to 2 minutes a mile faster than I have been able to in over three years, and am falling asleep faster and sleeping comfortably.

I know. Sounds like an infomercial. But let’s start by where I’m coming from.

I’m a skeptic. Especially regarding the newest, greatest, fix-everything solutions. They never seem to work on me because placebo effects don’t work on me due to my extreme skepticism. Which sucks, really. I’d love to have some placebo effects.

However, I am an optimistic skeptic.

I’m an early adopter of new things, and get excited about those things, but then I take a deeply analytical and objective view of them, and therefore cannot convince myself  that they’re working. I take good notes, I measure results without emotion, and I usually come up short. So I try all the things, and I keep doing hardly any of the things.

So the fact that I am objectively, absolutely, 100% convinced of the results I have seen in the past month and a half is mind-blowing – especially to me.

After three years of regular physical therapy visits for my back, legs, and other ailments, and a year of my physical therapist continuously telling me that he thought I could benefit from Red Light Therapy, I bought a book – “The Ultimate Guide to Red Light Therapy” – that put the thousands of scientific studies into plain English, read the book in one night, and ordered my first Platinum LED BIO-600 Red Light that same night. The book documented the many ways red light therapy had been proven to help the body, and the list of extensive FDA approved red light therapy uses won me over.

Within days, my back was significantly better and I was able to quit taking all medication. I never went back to my physical therapist – I had no need. Two weeks later, I bought the second Red Light.

PlatinumLED Bio-600 Therapy Light in use

So what the heck is Red Light Therapy and why haven’t you heard of it?

You haven’t heard of it because it only recently became affordable for consumers to own. Each light that I bought was $799, and their price has since dropped to $699 (and you really only need one, but two makes the process quicker.) A couple of years ago, the cheapest Red Light Therapy device we knew of was $100,000. You can see why I waited until now to try it.

BIO-600 Red Light Therapy by PlatinumLEDSo. What it is. It sounds really hokey that a light could make you feel better in all the ways, but there is a lot of science behind it (thousands of well-run studies), it’s already FDA approved for many uses (and is used by doctors, health spas, and physical therapists), and they actually know what the red light does – it activates, heals, and energizes mitochondria – i.e. The engine of our cells, so it makes total sense that it could help so many functions in your body.

The basic takeaway is this: we as humans need red and infrared light, and we don’t get enough of it. Because of that, our cells are unnecessarily sluggish, effecting our energy, our moods, our muscle recovery and growth, our sleep, and pretty much our everything. By getting a daily or every other day dose of red light, we can have more energy, less pain, and better functioning muscles. Because I was having such extreme and chronic muscle pain, I can absolutely attest to its effectiveness.

I started using the light on December 1, which consists of laying in front of my light (about 6 inches away from it) and rotating angles every 3-6 minutes to let it light every surface of my skin. I have taken 13 pages of notes, documenting daily how I feel in every facet, what time I used the light, how I felt afterward, how I slept, how I ran, and everything else I could think to document. Here is a summary of the red light results I wrote down in my daily notes:

– On the third day of use, my back pain went away. Completely. I discontinued taking ibuprofen and muscle relaxers, and didn’t need my heating pad anymore (though I held onto its use for a few more days because it had become an expected comfort in my life.) Before that, I had not had a back-pain-free day in months.

– Toward the end of the first week, I began to find myself wanting to run longer. I went from having intense hip flexor pain after running 3 miles to running 8 miles with no pain.

– I also noticed at the end of that first week that a pain I’ve had continuously since I started running – sharp knee pain upon walking downstairs the day of and the day after a run – was completely gone. I could walk downstairs with no pain and without leaning on the handrail.

– I found myself falling asleep immediately – something I do not do. I’m normally a 30-minutes-of-wind-down person, all while resenting my immediately-asleep husband. But I was now actually sleepy at bedtime and would feel myself immediately drifting off. It was shocking and magical the first few times it happened.

– Using the light gives me an immediate energy boost. I can wake up sluggish and with burning eyes, then feel energetic and have no eye burn after using the light.

– One of the FDA approved uses is to get rid of cellulite. Three weeks after using the light daily, I went into our bathroom with the most unflattering lighting and did a search for my always-plenteous thigh cellulite. It was gone.

– Starting in the third week, my legs all of a sudden felt bionic when I ran. They had no pain, no muscle burn or soreness, and felt significantly faster and more able. I could run up hills, without breaking pace, that I’d always walked up before. My legs felt like they were putting out no effort. It was spectacular. From there, my speed began ramping up to levels that I literally could not make my legs move before I started using the light. I remember last summer feeling like I was flying one day, and then being discouraged when my pace, still fast for me, was 10:30. I am now running sub-10 miles every time I run – up to 6 sub-10 miles in a row – and have nearly run a flat 9 minute mile (9:08. So close.) For me, this is huge. After my wreck in 2015, I became a much slower runner and have hung out in 11-12 minute miles since then. So to be running 9-9:30 is a huge gain for me – one that is clearly a result of the red light.

Here’s my six mile run from this past weekend next to my fastest run in November, which was the month before I started using the light:

Red Light Therapy Running Pace Comparison
– I also used to get injured when I would run faster than 10 minute miles – I would have knee or ankle pain for several days after going “too fast.” Last January I even resolved to run less in 2018 and hike more so that my knees could be more healthy. Despite the fact that I’m running faster than I have in over three years, I am experiencing no aches and pains from my running, during or after the runs.

– After three weeks, some of my back pain returned. It wasn’t as bad as it was before, and was more localized. I was discouraged, because I couldn’t figure out why it would show back up, but then I was able to pinpoint where it was coming from: our old and unsupportive mattress. The light had stripped away all of my other muscle pain to make it obvious that the one thing I couldn’t red light away – my mattress – was still hurting me. We bought a new mattress and now I am back to zero back pain, all the time.

There are many, many other FDA approved and researched uses for the lights. Although my lack of pain has been miraculous, the thing that got me most excited about the light’s potential are the documented cognitive improvements it can make over time. It’s supposed to make your brain work better, which y’all know I need. If a light could make me able to write again, I would be ever so thankful. That’s still out on trial, but hey – I am writing this, so it’s a start.

So if you’re interested in trying Red Light Therapy, here are my tips:

1. BUY CAREFULLY. Most Red Light products (there are a ton on Amazon) are not powerful enough to work, or they don’t have the correct wavelengths to be therapeutic. The studies have been able to pinpoint what wavelengths and outputs are helpful, and it’s a pretty specific science. The book explains all of this and has several brands they recommend. The two I got are Platinum LED Therapy Light’s BIO-600, Combo Red light. (Edited to Add: Several months after this post was written, the manufacturers contacted me and offered me a discount code to share: GraspingLight gets you 5% off your entire order of any of their line of lights. I receive a small percentage if you use this code, but that does not affect my opinions in this post, which were written before they offered me that code.) I bought Platinum LED Therapy’s lights because it was cited in the book as the least expensive, most effective light, and I have been very happy with them. A local light technician tested and compared my light’s output and wavelengths to a much more expensive brand, Joovv, and they measured the same.

Red Light Therapy Book by Ari Whitten

1. Read this book. It has so much valuable information in it, and is an easy read that is objective and informative. He explains the science behind the lights in plain English, and he tested dozens of lights and narrowed down the options tremendously

3. Make it a part of your daily routine. I think the dramatic effects I’ve experienced are because I have used it every single day – and sometimes twice a day.

4. Take notes. Find what time works best for you. I found that too close to bedtime kept me awake, but about 4 hours before bedtime put me to sleep. However, in general I tend to use it earlier in the day for the energy boost. And I can also tell a huge difference in runs after I’ve used the light for the day versus runs before lighting.

So clearly, I’m a believer. I will continue to take notes and use the light daily, and will update its results in the future. Feel free to ask me any questions in the comments, or email me at rachel@graspingforobjectivity.com.

Sequel Post: For my updates and insights after nine months of daily use, click here.

The Incident at Walgreen’s.

161206-Clock-Tower-Crestline-Edit

We were on our way home from dinner. The weather was abhorrent, but we needed two things from Walgreen’s. I went in on behalf of the whole family, because I’m sacrificial like that and also because one cannot trust one’s husband to pick out an eyebrow filling pencil. He probably doesn’t even know I fill in my eyebrows. Or what it means to fill in one’s eyebrows. I was trying to hurry, as we were all ready to get home and out of the cold rain. This whole 38-degrees-and-raining selection on the Weather Jukebox is one of those records that when it starts playing, everyone groans in unison and says “REALLY?! PATRICIA, C’MON. NO ONE LIKES THAT TRACK BUT YOU!!”

But dang it if Patricia hasn’t been hitting that track hard lately.

I made my selections and scrambled up to the counter. Except…that I got behind a lady buying all the Christmas decor. Her questionable hair dye job was about a foot from the top of her head, which boasted of gray strands sticking out any which way. Her double pack of Pall Malls were hanging out of her purse, desperately trying to escape. Her house shoes were a lovely shade of pet hair. And she wanted to make sure that she was able to use the most Walgreen’s rewards possible – whether that was on her husband’s or her account. She impossibly-slowly explained “We never use them … then they expire … and my husband … comes in and gets his prescriptions … but never uses his points … but I might have more … so I need you to check both …”

The patient cashier checked both accounts. Told her that she had $3 available to use. “Is that … on his account or mine … ?” He explained that it was from both accounts and she could use it all.

What a windfall day.

Maybe now we could move forward in this process of CHECKING OUT.

(I was becoming pretty sure that I was standing behind the very same Patricia that selected the day’s awful track on the Weather Jukebox.)

But then she noticed the total. “But all those … decorations … were supposed to be fifty percent off … “

“No ma’am…they’re BUY ONE get one 50% off.”

I internally roll my eyes. I’ll never get out of here. And Christmas decorations are never 50% off before Christmas (except at places where things are always 50% off like Hobby Lobby but we’re not at Hobby Lobby we’re at Walgreen’s and everyone knows that Walgreen’s is more of a buy one get one 50% off kind of place.)

“No, they were … definitely … 50% off.”

The cashier, still patient and smiling (#GodBlessHisSoul) called over the loudspeaker for help.

The manager came up. She said, “They’re buy one get one 50% off.”

“No, they were … definitely … 50% off.”

The manager, not being as patient as the cashier, said rather sassily with a bit of an “Oh yeah?!” implied, “Was it a red tag or a yellow tag?”

Mrs. Patricia Pall Mall looked her dead in the eye. “It was … a blue tag.”

Both the cashier and manager snorted.

“We don’t have blue tags.”

“It was … a blue tag.”

“Well, your total is $26.67.”

“Then … let me … think about it … for a minute.”

OHMYGOODNESS NO. PATRICIA, NO ONE HAS TIME FOR YOU TO THINK ABOUT IT FOR A MINUTE. YOU CAN’T EVEN SPIT OUT A SENTENCE IN UNDER A MINUTE.

But she grabbed all her decor up and headed back into the store. The manager went to the other register and called over to me, “I can take you over here, ma’am.”

She was ringing up my items, shaking her head, and muttering “Blue tag. We don’t have a single blue tag in this store! Not a one. There ain’t no blue tags. You can take your card out now, ma’am. Happy Holidays. Blue tags. Psh.”

As I took my card out, I turned to look over my shoulder – I guess I sensed Patricia approaching.

Indeed. She was shuffling slowly back to the counter, the same hopeful purchases in one hand and … a … FREAKING BLUE TAG in the other.

I nearly walked out the door backwards to enjoy the sight of the Manager and Cashier staring openmouthed at this legendary, impossible, nonexistent, nay, 50% off, blue tag.

The moral of this story is: don’t be a Blue Tag Denier. And make your husband go into Walgreen’s. And if Patricia says it’s 50% off, it’s probably 50% off.