Reflections on a Year of Running 2016

As we near the end of the calendar year, many people are reflecting on what 2016 meant to them.  For me, 2016 was many things, but perhaps more than anything else, it was the year when I fully acknowledged just how much running means to me.  For years, people would tell me that I was obsessed with running and I would deny it.  This year, I realized that running is not just something I do, but an essential part of who I am.

I belong to many running groups on social media, and this week, two of them asked us to reflect on, and share about, our favorite running moments from the past year.  While I love this exercise, thinking back over my year of running made me realize that it is impossible for me to choose just one great running-related memory.  There are so many good ones for many different reasons.  I therefore give you a list of ten of my favorite running memories from 2016 (in no particular order):

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Hyner 25K – Hyner is intense.  The hills are no joke.  Two miles into the race I found myself thinking, “Why did I do this?  I’m never going to finish.”  I don’t know that I’ve ever been so uncomfortable, so frequently in a race.  And yet, I not only finished, but far exceeded my expectations.  Hyner was a great reminder that it’s important to step outside your comfort zone.

February 19th training run – Thank goodness for running partners who show up.  It was 18 degrees at the start, and after 4 hours of running, the temperature had only risen to 24.  I don’t think I ever warmed up, and I definitely never felt good.  But we got it done.  This run redefined the temperature limits for me.  As with many difficult experiences, there was immense satisfaction in having survived it once it was over.

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Worlds End Course Preview – I was so intimidated at the thought of the Worlds End 50K that I convinced two friends to join me for the course preview run last January.  We hopped in the car at 5:00 on a Saturday morning for the 3-hour drive to Worlds End State Park.  We arrived at a creek covered in ice and a chilly 24 degrees.  Traversing the trails was challenging due to the frozen leaves and the unmarked course, but it was a dream-like experience.  We crossed over numerous frozen creeks with water flowing underneath.  We somehow managed to keep our footing despite the sneaky ice hidden along the way.  More than anything, we were reminded of the power of time spent in nature with good friends.

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Ragnar Appalachians – 30 miles of trails over 36 hours in mid-August.  The weather was lousy, the course was tough, and my middle-of-the-night run was the hardest thing I’ve ever slogged through.  I had the most incredible teammates, however, and they made the entire weekend such an incredible experience.  I’m already looking forward to our next race together.

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Hill repeats – This was the year that I truly embraced hill repeats, running them on the trails with friends, and around my neighborhood.  The sense of accomplishment that comes after a good hill workout is definitely worth the effort you expel in the moment.

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Dirty German 25K – The special part of this race wasn’t so much the race itself, as the chance to reconnect with Jen.  After a winter of health problems for her, we barely spoke, let alone ran together.  This race marked a success for her, as it proved that she is more resilient than she realized.  It also reminded both of us just how much we cherish our friendship, and that the miles tend to fly by when you have good company.

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Worlds End 50K – This was far and away the hardest course I’ve ever run, and I ran almost the entire race solo, which is an experience I haven’t had in awhile.  Despite that, it was my favorite race of the year.  Worlds End State Park is a beautiful spot, the race course was well-designed, and the aid stations were incredible.  I learned so much about myself in this race.

Ragnar Ambassador – Just after I returned from running Ragnar Appalachians, I received an email that I was invited to become a Ragnar Ambassador.  I can’t explain how excited I was to have the opportunity to represent this awesome racing series.  In the intervening months, I had the chance to discuss Ragnar with runners at races, race expos, and running stores.  It’s so much fun and I can’t wait to run Ragnar PA next June!

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Trails runs with my girls – Almost exactly 2 years ago, I was invited to join a trail run with a group of ladies on New Year’s Day.  What was a group of strangers has turned into an incredible group of friends.  We meet up in all types of weather, for runs both short and long, and time spent with them always makes my day better.  They’ve truly brought joy to the training process.

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Passing the torch to the next generation – Just a few weeks ago, my kids joined me for their first official trail run.  We covered just over 3 miles in my favorite training spot, and as we sped down one of the hills, my daughter called out, “I can see why you love this!”  Sharing something I love so much with two of my favorite people is more special than I can possibly describe.

Thinking back on all of these incredible memories reminds me of how blessed I am to have running in my life.  I can’t wait for a new year of memories to begin!

What were your favorite running moments of 2016?  Leave me some thoughts in the comments below.

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Why I’m Not Participating in a Holiday Run Streak

This is the time of year for streaking.  No, not the crazy naked college kind you might be imagining, but the active workout type of streak.  The one where groups of people commit to running or working out every day between Thanksgiving and New Year’s.  From what I can tell, the streaks often happen either to attempt to maintain sanity during the busy holiday season, or to attempt to ward off the holiday pounds that tend to result from endless celebrations and indulgences.

Several years ago, I joined a Runner’s World holiday run streak.  The guidelines stated that you had to run at least a mile a day, every day, between Thanksgiving and New Year’s.  I completed the streak successfully.  And yet, I have no desire to complete another one.  Usually I’m a sucker for any type of group running activity.  So why not streaking?

In my mind, streaking is most beneficial if you have an issue with accountability.  If you don’t work out, committing to a run streak is a great motivator to start.  If you have trouble with consistency, choose to do a run streak gives you a reason to get out every day.  Now there are many things in life that I struggle with, such as putting away my laundry in a timely fashion, but sticking to a running schedule is not one of them.  I draw up schedules 6-9 months in advance, print them out in an Excel spreadsheet, and then diligently check off my runs as I complete them.  I occasionally cut a run short, or move it to a different day, but it’s rare for me to miss one completely.  So for me, the accountability aspect of a run streak isn’t really needed.

The other reason I don’t like streaks is that I think it actually hurts my running.  See, when I follow my training plan, I tend to run 5 days a week, and do 2 days a week of strength training.  One of those days is an easy run combined with strength work, which gives me one day a week completely off, and another day a week where my legs get a break from running.  I believe that being diligent about days off is one of the things that has allowed me to run at a fairly high training load for so long with very few injuries.  When you are training 30-50 miles a week for 11 months out of the year, recovery days are just as important as active training days.  Participating in a streak messes with that, and tends to lead me to overtraining.

Of course, I’m not saying that run streaks are bad in general.  As I stated above, they can be a great way to build up your training base, or learn to become more consistent with your training.  For me, however, I plan to head into this holiday season the same way I usually do – with my trusty Excel sheet in hand.

In Running Limbo

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These laid-back autumn runs have been nice, but I’m ready to get back on a real schedule.

Anyone who knows me, knows I’m a planner.  I like following a schedule, in life in general, but especially in running.  It’s one of the many reasons that I hate taking time off.  I feel much better when I’m working towards a goal.

After making it through my gauntlet of autumn ultras in October, I forced myself to take a bit of a break.  Of course, I had all this extra time on my hands, so I used it to plan out my racing schedule for the next year.  I planned to run North Country 50 miler in August, Worlds End 50K in June, Dirty German 50K in May, and Hyner 25K in April.  Life was good.

Of course, as always seems to happen when you make a plan, the universe decided to throw me a curveball.  My Ragnar team captain from 2014 sent me an email.  He’s getting the team back together for this June’s Ragnar and he wanted to know if I was in.  As a Ragnar Ambassador, I should really run the race, but I was going to hold off because I really wanted to do Worlds End again.  It felt like this was a sign, a reason to run it this year, so I agreed to join him and put my dream of a return to Worlds End on hold.  My plan was slightly shifted, but still good overall.

Then I received my daughter’s gymnastics schedule.  This is her first year competing, so I knew we would have some meets we would have to work around.  I was concerned there might be one scheduled on the same day as Hyner, but it ended up being a week later.  All good.  Of course, until I scrolled down and discovered that her state championships are the weekend of Dirty German.  The really fun part about gymnastics meets is that you rarely find out the day and time of your actual session until a few weeks beforehand.  Which means that I could be clear for the race, or I could discover that I couldn’t run it just 2 weeks out.  It would be awful to train for 4 months to have to miss out on the race.

So now I’m at a total loss for where to go next.  Logic would say that I should forget about the longer spring races and just do Hyner and Ragnar in the lead-up to North Country.  I hate that idea.   This past year has taught me just how much I love trail 50ks, and I want to run another one.  The training helps me to balance all of the stress in my normal life, and I know I won’t commit to the training unless I have an actual race in my future.  I was feeling so desperate today that I found myself considering a 100k for next fall.  Stupid.

I need the universe to send me some kind of obvious, clear-cut sign.

Early Morning Run Small Moment Writing

My students have been learning how to write “small moments” – taking an ordinary event in your day and making it interesting by zooming in on the small details.  After sharing with them that I might choose to write about a morning run, I had to go ahead and give it a shot.  Here are the results:

My alarm goes off at the ungodly hour of 4:15 am.  I should be used to this by now, but it’s always a brutal reality check.  I stumble down the hall to the bathroom, brush my teeth, put in my contacts, and don my running clothes.  A headlamp and a reflective vest round out my outfit.  I tiptoe downstairs, take a few sips of water, slip on my running shoes, and step out the front door.

The air is warm and humid, much more reminiscent of summer than the October morning that it actually is.  I wait for my GPS watch to register, watching the clouds drift across the partial moon.  Two cars pass on the main road ahead, and I’m surprised that anyone else is up at this ridiculous hour.

My watch beeps to signal it’s ready, and I head off down the street in a relaxed walk.  At the corner, I turn downhill and break into an easy pace.  I steal quietly through the early morning, the crunching leaves under my feet the only signal that I am there.  As I pass the nearby cemetery that I love to run through, I register how eerie it feels in the dark.  I temporarily silence my iPod, enjoying the quiet around me.

I turn onto another road and make my way toward the steep hill that is my goal.  I’m always nervous sitting at the stoplight at the top of it, which means that it should be perfect for the hill repeats I have planned for this morning.  I reach the bottom of the hill, click my iPod back on to an upbeat tune, and start chugging my way up, focusing on quick footfalls and strong arms.  At the top, I turn and walk back down, breaking into a gentle jog at the halfway point.  I head back up the hill four more times, focusing on maintaining a strong pace each time.  After the fifth and final trip I turn around and head back for home.

I take a shorter route this time, noticing that more cars have started the early morning commute.  I arrive back at my front step in no time at all.  Four miles, not a bad start to the day.  The humid air and the hard effort have left me surprisingly sweaty.  I open my front door, greet the wagging white fluffball before me, and return to the world of responsibility.

Blues Cruise Race Report

My first trip to Blues Cruise this past weekend marked my third and final 50K of the past month.  You might assume that someone who is experienced enough to tackle three ultras in one month would be wise enough to run without any major mistakes.  You would be wrong.  Blues Cruise reminded me that even the most experienced of runners make stupid decisions at times.

For only the second time in my life, I did not stalk the weather forecasts in the days leading up to the race.  It wasn’t till about 12 hours before that I realized they were calling for 97% humidity at the race start.  I’m actually a pretty decent hot-weather runner, but humidity is an entirely different story.  My last humid race experience was Delaware Half Marathon, which did not turn out well.  I reminded myself of my mistakes in that race, resolved to make better choices, and then made the exact same mistake again.

I felt great going into the race.  I ran Naked Bavarian last March, so I knew where to go for the race start.  I arrived nice and early, picked up my bib, distributed some Ragnar postcards, and then met up with my favorite former roomie, Steph, who was also running the race.  We happily passed the time before the start catching up and planning our race strategy.  The main goal for both of us?  Start easy and then ramp up the intensity if we felt up to it.

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Hanging with Stephanie and representing Ragnar before the race start.

You see where I’m going with this, right?  Stephan informed us how competitive the field was, cautioned us to walk the wooden bridges, and sent us off right on time.  I positioned myself in the middle of the field and settled into an easy early pace.  I actually had my GPS working for once, and I checked my pace frequently in the first few miles.  I saw numbers hovering around a 10 minute-mile, registered that it was too fast, and resolved to settle down.  I didn’t.  I kept justifying the fast pace.  I felt strong.  It didn’t feel that fast.  My breathing wasn’t labored.  Maybe I was just on track for an amazing day.  Stupid.  Naive.  I definitely should have known better.

Ultrarunners are pretty awesome in general, but there was a particularly great group at Blues Cruise.  I passed the first 10 miles bonding with my fellow runners.  I did my best to reassure the newbies, and chatted about my favorite races and training spots with the veterans.  As I was wearing my Ragnar Ambassador gear for the first time, I did my best to work Ragnar into the conversation whenever I could.

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This race had the best aid station volunteers, including those at Aid Station 2.

By the time we hit the second aid station, I could tell that my spirits were starting to drop, but I told myself it was just that we were approaching the 10-15 mile mark, which is usually my least favorite part of a race.  I was wrong.  I was actually starting to feel the effects of pushing hard in such humid conditions.  The temperatures were in the low 60s, but my tank and capris were completely soaked.  My stomach, which had been so steady in my earlier races this season, began to churn, and I knew I was in trouble.  I decided to put aside my lofty time goals, and just focus on getting back on track.

I slowed my pace, drawing out the hikes on the uphills, and tried to ease my run into a gentle glide on the flats and the downhills.  I ignored the lovely and tempting food spread at the next two aid stations, sticking to Coke, a little salt, and my trusty Tailwind.  I actually found myself feeling slightly dizzy at a few points, never a good sign on the trails.  That’s when I really dialed it back.

I know that most people read race reports to learn more about the course, and I wish I could share in greater detail.  To be honest, I was having too much fun socializing in the first third of the race to pay much attention, and I spent too much time trying to control the damage in the latter two-thirds of the race.  I did register that the woods were lovely with the start of autumn showing in the leaves.  It was cool to travel so far and still always find the lake on my right-hand side.  I enjoyed the festive feel of running alongside many cornfields and I appreciated how smooth the trails were, and how well they had held up to all of the rain we had in the days leading up to the race.  The ground was squishy in spots, but there were surprisingly few puddles.  I’m not so sure that I trust the elevation chart, however.  In the past year, I’ve run a lot of hilly races, but this one definitely felt like considerably more than 3000 ft of elevation.

The beautiful woods, open fields, and just one of the endless hills that we ran up.

By the time I hit the awesome aid station at mile 21, I was simply trying to get through the remainder of the race, one mile at a time.  My stomach was feeling slightly better, but I was still not in great shape.  In fact, when asked what I needed at the aid station, I wittingly replied, “The finish line.”  The guys gave me a hug, refilled my water bottle, and then sent me on my way.  I never really felt better at any point, but I somehow found another level of resolve for the last 10 miles of the race.  I began to push myself back into more of a run, limiting my hiking to the steeper uphills.  I wasn’t running fast, but I was steadily moving forward.  I began to pass some runners again, which was a tremendous mental boost.  I’m never the fastest one out there, and I don’t mind being in the middle of the pack, but it’s demoralizing when you are feeling lousy and then you continually get passed by numerous runners, no matter how friendly they are.  Having the opportunity to start passing some people gave me the boost of confidence that I needed.

It also helped that the second half of the course was the exact second half that I ran at Naked Bavarian in March.  I recognized the trails, and so I had a general idea of what to expect.  I kept telling myself that I was going to get to the finish, that sometimes a finish alone is victory enough, and that by choosing to run so many races so close together, I had to accept that they weren’t all going to feel great.  It’s funny to think that just two years ago I was terrified to attempt my first ultra.  And there I was on Sunday, feeling let down that the finish time of my third ultra in less than a month was going to be about 20 minutes off my goal time.  Sometimes it helps to have some perspective in the moment.

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I tried to take advantage of the smooth singletrack in the final miles.  

The final five miles featured a lot of slight downhills, with a few short but evil uphills thrown in to keep you awake.  I cursed the uphills, sometimes out loud, hiking them as quickly as I could to get past them.  I was beyond relieved when I came to the final long uphill stretch.  Not particularly steep, but I remembered it from my previous race because it felt like it dragged on forever.  I was delighted to find one of my favorite cheerleaders at the top, a biker who managed to be all over the race course, always with a loud and cheerful, “You can do it!” to offer the runners.  That guy seriously rocked!  I sped through the final cornfield, came out onto the road, and made my way down the final hill and onto the grass to the finish line.  In my mind, I sprinted toward the finish in impressive fashion, but in reality, I probably stumbled across it with a horrific grimace on my face.  Either way, I was thrilled to discover that even with my crash-and-burn performance, I salvaged a sub-7 hour time, which would have been my PR until two weeks ago.  Again, perspective.

I collected my awesome finisher’s jacket, grabbed a plate and some post-race munchies, and settled down on a bench to try to refuel a bit before starting the drive home.  The latkes, applesauce, and watermelon all felt fantastic on my tender stomach, and the Coke was an added bonus.  I also enjoyed a bit more conversation with a few of my fellow racers.  The best surprise was stumbling over to my car a few minutes later to find that Steph was still hanging out.  She can usually finish a good hour ahead of me in road marathons, but a bum ankle gave her fits throughout the day and she ended up coming in only about 20 minutes before I crossed the line.  We enjoyed rehashing the course a bit while I changed, then snapped one more photo, exchanged sweaty hugs, and headed on our respective ways.

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We look a lot happier than we felt.  Must have been those awesome finisher jackets.

Overall, Blues Cruise was not the fabulous experience I was hoping for, but that was definitely a fault of mine, not the race.  My fellow runners were an awesome, enthusiastic, and inspiring bunch.  The aid station volunteers were utterly fantastic, and they kept me smiling even when I was feeling my worst.  I’m not a big fan of all those hills, but again, I think my perspective was skewed since I was feeling so lousy for much of the race.  I hope to come back again, run a smarter race, and enjoy all that this awesome course has to offer.

Boulder Field 50K Race Report

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The beautiful sunrise at the start of the race.

If you are a frequent visitor to this page, you may have picked up on the fact that I’m a planner.  This is usually never more true than when I have a race approaching.  In the weeks leading up to a big race, I tend to stalk the weather forecasts, memorize the course and elevation, and plan my clothing, food, & hydration down to every last detail.  This past week, I threw all of that out the window in the lead up to Boulder Field.

Boulder Field, which had both a 50K and 100K option, was a brand new race put on by Stephan Weiss of Uberendurancesports.  I have run many of the Uberendurance events in the past, and they are always fantastic.  When I saw that they were creating a new, more challenging race in Hickory Run State Park, I knew I had to try it out.

Of course, while September tends to bring great running weather, the start of the school year is hardly the ideal time for me to prepare for a big race.  I was so swamped with work and kids’ activities that I barely gave the race a moment’s thought until Friday afternoon.  I made a batch of waffles, packed on my race gear, and set my alarm for a ridiculously early weekend wakeup.

After an unusually good-night’s sleep, I got up, made some breakfast, and hopped in the car to head up to the race.  I had miscalculated the time needed to drive up, and that along with a missed turn caused me to arrive just about 40 minutes prior to the race start.  Fortunately my attitude for this race was to just go out and enjoy it.  I hadn’t even planned a goal finish time.  I wished my friend, Nicole, “good luck,” lined up at the start with 3 minutes to spare, and took off with the other 150 runners.

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Smiling with Nicole at the start.  This all-star went on to finish as the 2nd overall female!

Stephan had warned us that the first 12-mile loop was the more challenging section of the course.  The first few minutes gave us a nice easy warm-up before we turned onto some gradually uphill single track.  The single track at this race was impressively narrow.  I don’t think I’ve ever run through more branches.  It allowed me to feel a bit bad-ass, as if I were bushwhacking through a jungle, but it did make the first few miles a bit challenging.  With so many runners in single file order, it was hard to get into a good rhythm at the start, as the hills caused a lot of start & stop running.  After about two miles, the course opened up slightly, and I was able to settle into a relaxed pace.

I’d never been up to Hickory Run before, and I was impressed by how beautiful the course was.  It didn’t hurt that we had lucked out and scored perfect early autumn weather as well.  We reached the first aid station about 5 miles in, then looped around for 4.5 miles before returning to that aid station.  The loop brought us to the first challenging terrain of the day, as we encountered several decent climbs.  There was also a downhill section with some technical footing that required a fair amount of focus.  After making it back to the first aid station for the second time, it was just a short 3 miles back to the start and the third aid station.  Along the way, we ran along the “Shades of Death” trail, which was much less intimidating than the name implied.  While it boasted a lot of tricky footing, it also included several beautiful waterfalls.

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The second part of the course was a large 19-mile loop.  I started that section in high spirits which quickly began to fade as I found myself struggling to maintain my pace.  What had previously been a comfortable run turned into a challenging slog, and I found myself taking frequent walk breaks.  Though I know that the half-marathon mark is often a challenging spot for me, I was dispirited to discover how the race had become so difficult so quickly.  After about a mile of this, I was passed by another runner, who commented about the never-ending hill.   I was running without any kind of tracking device, and the hill that we were on was so sneakily subtle that I hadn’t even realized that it was to blame for the increasing challenge.  I was so relieved that I could have kissed the kind soul that clued me in.  Even better, just after he passed me, the terrain leveled out and then began to slope back down, allowing me to get back into a good rhythm.

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The lovely, but deceptively uphill trail through the woods.

I know that we hit the fourth aid station somewhere around 16 miles, but for the life of me, I have no recollection of the course at that time.  I just remember feeling relieved that we were past the halfway point, as that’s always a mental hurdle for me.  A few miles past that aid station, we hit another long stretch of technical single track, and after struggling with my footing for a couple hundred feet, I slowed to a fast hike.  I felt pretty good at that point, enough that I was annoyed at the slower pace, but I just didn’t fancy the idea of trying to cover the last 10 miles of the course on a twisted ankle.  Fortunately just as I was getting truly annoyed at all of the little rocks, the course opened up into a more runnable section of packed pine needles.  I coasted along for almost a mile before we reached the infamous boulder field.

While I was initially disappointed to learn that we would only be crossing the boulder field for about 200-yards, by the time we got there, that short distance felt plenty long enough. While some boulders were quite steady, others shifted underfoot, requiring a high level of focus.  There was a good-sized crowd hanging out on the far side of the field and it was nice to encounter some spectators after seeing no one but racers for many miles.  We also reached the fifth aid station right after the boulder field, which provided another appreciated boost.  PB& J was my snack of choice at this race, and I happily scarfed another sandwich quarter and some Coke before continuing on my way.

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The infamous boulder field, the race’s namesake.  

The course between the fifth and sixth aid station was a very runnable five miles.  I was pleased to find that my legs felt strong (at least, as strong at they can 5 hours into a race) and I think I managed a good pace on the gently sloping terrain.  There were several other runners nearby, and that also provided a good burst of energy, as I focused on staying close to them.  We all came to a brief pause when the trail appeared to stop at a creek crossing, but after navigating our way through a somewhat dubious tunnel, we found some pink tape and were happily back on our way.

I came into the final aid station feeling optimistic that we were nearing the finish, and after a very short stop and one more sandwich quarter, I happily continued on my way.  The course continued to be kind, sloping gently downhill for more than a mile, and I tried to maintain a comfortably hard pace throughout.  After almost 20 minutes, the course turned back into the woods, where we encountered some gently rolling hills, some narrow footing, and a couple of sharp switchbacks.  This section reminded me of parts of the Worlds End course, and I actually found that I appreciated the varied terrain.  It was definitely preferable to the unending hill that followed.

With about 2.5 miles to go, the course turned onto a paved road that went up and up and up.  Honestly, at that point in the race, after so much runnable terrain, it felt like a sick joke.  I believe I said as much to two other runners.  I focused on trying to power hike as quickly as I could.  After many minutes on the road, the course turned back onto the grass, but the hill continued.  I couldn’t see any other runners before or behind me, and when I lost sight of the pink course markers, I felt doubt creeping in.  I almost turned around, afraid that I had somehow gone off course so close to the end of the race.  Fortunately I pressed forward, and a minute or two later, I found a piece of pink tape that assured me I was on the right track.

Of course, it was a huge relief when the course leveled back out, and then began to slope back downhill.  I picked up my run, trying to maintain as hard of a pace as possible for the last few minutes.  Of course, without any tracker I had no idea how much farther I had to go, and despite the downhill slope, I found myself feeling impatient to find the finish line.  It was such a relief to turn back toward the lake, and to hear the cheers coming from the crowd.  I gave it my all the last few hundred yards, running in as quickly as I could to finish in just under 6:45.  Not at all bad for a race that I started with no expectations.

As I mentioned at the top, I’m a huge fan of Uberendurance events.  This race was every bit as wonderful as their other events.  The aid stations were top notch, the swag was high-quality, and the course was fantastic.  I would love to have the opportunity to train on those trails on a regular basis, and I’d happily return to this race again in the future.

Labor Pain 2016 Race Report

Some of you may recall my awesome experience at last year’s Labor Pain Ultra.  The stars pretty much aligned for that race, and it was fantastic in so many ways.  My experience at this year’s Labor Pain was quite different, but still wonderful in its own right.

When I signed up for this race, my goal was to hit 40-50 miles in the 12-hour allotted time limit.  Then this summer occurred and I decided to try to balance running and life a bit more,  which caused me to rethink my goals for Labor Pain.  I went into the race yesterday with the plan to play it by ear, with the goal to at least come away with a 50K finish.

One of the big changes about this year’s race is that I was approaching it completely solo.  Last year, I had my favorite running partner alongside me, along with a variety of awesome friends who came out to accompany us on some of our laps.  I knew that this year was going to have a very different feel without anyone else along for company.  Fortunately I’ve gotten pretty good at running by myself over the years, and I’ve learned how to zone out when I’m on the trails.

I’m also blessed to have the most supportive family ever.  My husband must have been able to tell that I was a bit reluctant to be on my own, because he decided that he and the kids were going to join me for this one.  We all piled into the car before sunrise on Sunday morning to make the 70-minute drive out to the Reading Liederkranz, where the race was held.

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2/3 of my awesome race crew and cheering squad.

I love running races that I’ve run before because it’s such a more mellow feeling the second time around.  Going into this race, I knew the course, knew the best place to park, and knew where to set up our stuff.  We arrived nice and early, got everything unloaded, and set up camp for the day.  I checked in, received my bib, pint glass, and t-shirt, and got fitted for my long-sleeve finisher’s shirt.  With all of the official race business taken care of, I made a quick stop at the indoor bathrooms and then relaxed on my blanket with the latest copy of Runner’s World.

I’m sure I’ve mentioned before how wonderful it is to go into a race with such a low-key atmosphere.  About 3 minutes before the race was scheduled to start, Ron Horn, the race director, asked everyone to head over to the starting line.  Once there, we received some helpful and humorous reminders about the race before we were sent off on our way.

Labor Pain is a 5-mile loop that you run as many times as you want in the given 12-hour limit.  Having been there last year, I knew what to expect on the course and was prepared for the bottleneck that tends to occur when you first hit the singletrack trail  a little over a 1/4 mile into the race.  This year I lined up right near the start and I was pleased to find that it allowed me a smoother transition onto the trail than last year.  We wove briefly through the woods, circled down onto the grass and around the pond, and then headed up into the main portion of the trails.  As I often find in races, it took me the first few miles to settle into a comfortable rhythm.  It was made more challenging by the hillier first half of the loop, as well as the fact that I was running without my GPS.  When I hit the aid station at 2.5 miles, I checked my watch and realized I was considerably ahead of my goal pace for the first lap.  I slowed slightly, and that, combined with the lengthy downhills on the second part of the course, allowed me to get into a comfortable rhythm.  I came through the timing chute about 5-minutes ahead of my target time, fast enough that my family was still sitting at the blanket unprepared for my arrival.  My husband helped me grab a quick drink and my handheld bottle, and then I headed back out for my second loop.

I settled into a good rhythm over the next several loops.  Once the course entered the heart of the woods, it followed a gentle uphill slope before hitting one of three real hills on the course.  The first hill had a steep portion, followed by a longer stretch of gradual uphill climb, which feels easy enough on the first lap, but progressively more challenging the later you get in the race.  I got into the habit of hiking this stretch until it took the slight downhill turn to the stone wall.  Once over the wall, there was a nice stretch of downhill paved road for a few minutes before the trail returns to the woods.  What follows is a very runnable section that winds around for about a half a mile before bringing you to another road crossing and the aid station halfway through the loop.  The aid station is always a welcome site because it also signals easier terrain ahead.  Following the aid station, there’s a good 1/2-3/4 of a mile of mostly flat trail before the course turns to the second hill of the loop.  This one is steeper, but also shorter than the first hill.  At the top, there’s a very technical, but short, rocky section and a few more brief ups and down before the course turns downhill for good.  You run along a mile or so of gently downhill-sloping trail before coming to another road crossing that loops you around to a short grassy section of the course.  This connects you back to one final road, with one final descent, before a punishing, but mercifully short hill at the very end of the loop.  Honestly, after all my climbing at Hyner & Worlds End this year, that hill was a lot less intimidating than I had remembered.

On each of my laps, I tried to take advantage of the numerous flat & downhill sections of the course.  I struggled a bit on my third lap, which is a historically difficult part of most races for me.  It was somewhere around that point that I decided that I was going to just run the 50K.  I knew that I would be able to push on for a further distance if I really wanted to, but I honestly just didn’t feel the desire to do so.  It was a gorgeous day and I wanted to just enjoy my time on the course and then wrap up and head home with my family while the sun was still shining.  As I moved into my fourth lap, I was pleased to find that the discomfort I was feeling, while definitely still there, had kind of streamlined.  The more I run ultras, the more I find that for me, the hardest part is somewhere between miles 10-18, when you start to hurt & feel tired, but know that you are still really far from your goal.  After you acknowledge that discomfort, it often tends to level out, and I find that much easier to deal with because I know that to expect.  For laps 4-6, there was still a lot that was hurting, but it didn’t get any worse, so that, combined with my desire to cross that finish line, allowed me to keep moving forward at a steady pace.

The last lap was actually quite enjoyable for me.  Every time I came to a new section of the course, I found myself chanting “last time through here” in my head.  It was such an uplifting feeling to know that I was almost done.  When I ran through the transition area for the sixth time I chucked my handheld to my husband, begged him to meet me at the finish, and then ran out on the short stretch till I found the 50K turnaround mark.  Along the way I spotted several runners who were returning to finish their milestone distances, and it was so exciting to know that I was about to be one of them.  I reached the turn around, flew down the final hill, and sped into the chute for the final time, happy to report that I was calling it for the day.

The best thing about this race has to be the wonderful organization and great atmosphere.  It’s just full of people who truly love trail running.  Throughout the day I chatted with numerous other runners, both those who have run races I’ve finished, and those training for ones I’ve considered.  It’s really cool to be able to share a course with such a wide range of runners.  Some are doing their first trail race and hoping to hit 10 miles, some are walkers who want to complete their first marathon, and others are ultra stars who are crushing 50 or 60 miles.  People are so encouraging to one another, that it makes it a lot of fun to share the trails with them.  The perks of the race are pretty sweet too – this year we received a pint glass, tech tee, and car sticker for pre-registering.  Every finisher also receives a custom item (this year a long-sleeve zip-up tech shirt) about 6-8 weeks after the race.  Those finishing milestone distances (26.2, 50K, 40 miles, 50 miles, 100k) get that noted on their shirt.  In addition, there’s a tremendous food spread at the start and finish.  I brought a lot of my own food, but I also supplemented that with some chips, pretzels, gummy bears, and half a veggie burger.  There’s very reasonably-priced food for spectators, and my husband was able to enjoy a cold beer while the kids happily munched their hot dogs and played on the shaded playground.  Labor Pain is a race that truly invites you to bring along the whole family.

I enjoyed the beautiful weather, felt good on the course, and finished with a time and a distance I felt proud of.  My return to Labor Pain just reminded me, once again, that this is definitely a race worth returning to each year!

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Feeling good at the end of the day.

Ragnar Trail Appalachians Race Report

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Smiling at the beauty of the yellow loop and the nearness of the finish line.

Once upon a time there was a girl who loved to run.  She loved to run in the sun and the rain, in the heat and the cold, but she especially loved to run in the woods.  This girl learned of a team relay race that would allow her to run in the woods with her friends, and she could think of nothing better.  She dreamed of the race for more than a year, before finally finding a few friends who were willing to join her in this experience.

These friends also loved to run, and they convinced the girl that it would be more fun to run the “ultra” version of the race.  The three friends found a fourth crazy to join the tribe and they happily registered and began to plan their adventure.

Then life happened.  And slowly, one by one, each of the friends had to back out of the race due to other obligations.  The girl was sad.  She thought her dream of running this crazy race was over.  Just when all appeared lost, her closest friend recommitted to the race.  And then they found two other crazy runners willing to join them.  And they set out for an amazing weekend, where they ran, laughed, and lived happily ever after.

Okay, all silliness aside, this was our experience two weeks ago at Ragnar Trail Appalachians.  Of course, the real-life version was not so glossy, and had a few more bumps along the way.  But the overall experience was indeed magical.

I spent the week leading up to Ragnar stressing as only I can do.  My legs were still dragging from our week of hiking in Maine and I was worried they wouldn’t recover in time.  My lack of recent camping experience made me feel completely naive, and I worried about being unprepared.  And then there was the forecast.  It varied from day to day, but all networks seemed to agree that we could count on a 40-90% chance of thunderstorms for all three days.  Hardly ideal weather when you are off to camp and run in the woods.  I packed as best I could, said a lot of prayers, and took off for West Virginia on a sunny Thursday afternoon.

I watched the weather the entire drive down, but other than a few brief sprinkles, the sun held.  It appeared that I would at least have the opportunity to set up camp before any showers hit.  After snagging a prime spot in the woods, I set about lugging way too much stuff up the hill to our site.  Always wanting to appear self-sufficient, I managed to get our large tent up and staked by myself, then set off to check out the area and check in our team.  With that job completed, I waited impatiently for the remainder of my team to arrive.  By nightfall, my husband had joined me, along with two of my three other teammates.  We ate a quick dinner, managed to catch a bit of the meteor shower, and then settled ourselves in to get some rest before the Friday morning start.

The weather held throughout the night, but shortly after daybreak on Friday, the clouds rolled in.  We were hit with a torrential rainstorm that lasted for close to an hour and managed to soak just about everything in camp.  Fortunately our clothes and electronics remained dry, safe inside Ziploc bags, but the tents, chairs, and sleeping bags all took on a damp, musty feel.  The first teams, set to go off at 8am, were pushed back to a 9am start, so we all waited impatiently for an improvement to the weather.  Luckily, despite the damp start and the foreboding forecast, our early morning shower was the only rain we saw that weekend.  In fact, as the temperatures and humidity continued to climb, we found ourselves almost wishing for a few brief showers.  When the weather cleared, we walked down to witness the start of the race, then returned to camp to re-organize and dry out our belongings.  Our first runner, Miriam, was scheduled to take off at 10:30am.  After meeting up with our fourth teammate, Scott, and then cheering Miriam out onto the course, we returned to camp to attempt to prepare for our own individual legs.

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Miriam, looking strong towards the end of her first leg.

Traditional Ragnar teams consist of 8 runners, each running three legs for a total of just under 15 miles a runner.  Our overachieving team was registered as an ultra team, which meant that with just 4 runners, we were each responsible for 6 legs, totaling nearly 30 miles.  We chose to run our legs back-to-back three times, to allow us a bit more rest between legs.  Our lead-off runner, Miriam began with a strong 8.1 miles, then passed the team bib to me, warning me to watch for rocks & snakes.  Never the warning that you want to hear before heading out for 10 miles of trails in the blazing sun.

I started my run on the red loop, which immediately captivated my interest with the beautiful ferns.  They must have been put there to lull runners into an optimistic start, because the red loop gave me fits the entire way.  It started with almost a mile of gradual uphill running, during which I had a hard time settling into a comfortable pace.  About 1.5 miles in, you came to some large and narrow boulders that required the use of both hands to traverse safely over and around.  After making it through the boulders, I found all of the water that the earlier storms had left on the course.  I attempted to side-step the first puddle before giving up and charging through.  Imagine my surprise when I stepped into the puddle and immediately sank more than a foot down into the mud.  It was shocking how deep that deceptive little puddle was.  Over the next two miles, I splashed through more puddles than I could count, soaking my feet every single time.  Halfway through the loop, I reached the gradual, but long uphill.  Seriously, that sucker was close to a mile long, marked with snarky little signs with sayings such as “Dig Deep-er” and “What hill?”  When I reached the water stop at the top, nearly 4.5 miles in, I joked that it was all downhill from there, only to be told that the hardest section still lay ahead.  Fortunately the volunteers were either joking or untested trail runners, as I found the final two miles to be the most runnable part of the red loop.  I finally made it back to the transition area, exhausted with a 3.5 mile green loop still ahead of me.

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The evil, but deceptively beautiful red loop.

Luckily for me, the green loop was both the shortest and the easiest leg in the race.  I also benefited from a surprising treat.  Ragnar Trail races allow a pacer at any point, and Scott’s wife, Monika, jumped in to run the green loop with me.  Her cheerful presence was a welcome distraction from the seemingly endless miles.  The benefit to running green after red was that the green loop felt quite easy in comparison to what I had just been through.  Still, I finished my second leg, handed off the bib to Jen with a warning about the puddles, and then returned to our camp with worryingly tired legs.

I had planned to try to take a nap before facing my nighttime legs, but a friend and fellow runner convinced me to join her for one of the free yoga sessions that was being offered.  The yoga was fantastic, easing some of the soreness in my tired legs and giving me hope that I might actually be able to make it through this experience.  As team captain, I was worried about what I had talked my teammates into.  Fortunately they all excelled with their initial legs, and we went into the second round in high spirits.

Miriam began her second evening leg as the sun was setting, so I knew that I would be facing my second run in the dark.  I was nervous, as my nighttime legs were the two harder ones, yellow and red, back-t0-back for a total of 11 miles.  My wonderful husband, Michael, sensed my concerns, and offered to join me on the trail.  He’s not a trail runner, and I tried to pretend that I would be fine on my own, but he saw right through my bravado.  We agreed that I would tackle the yellow loop on my own, before meeting him for the red loop.  I set out onto the yellow loop right around 9pm, and I was happy to find that even in the dark, the loop was quite runnable.  The terrain was fairly technical, but I kept my eyes trained on the ground and managed to keep a pretty good pace.  All was going fairly well, until a stumble right near the end of the loop caused me to doubt myself and made me realize just how tired I was.  Concerns over the weather the night before had kept me from getting a sound sleep, and it was rapidly catching up with me as I tried to navigate the uneven terrain.

Mike joined me for the start of the red loop, and I can’t express how grateful I am that he was with me for that part of the race.  I fell apart on the red loop, pure and simple.  I fell less than half a mile into it, then quickly stumbled several more times in quick succession.  My exhaustion hit me like a hammer, and that, combined with my fear of more falls, made it difficult to even move forward at a walk.  All I could think about was how I wanted to finish the loop and crawl into my sleeping bag.  Mike was great, urging me onward even through my fumbling and my tears.  Once we got a few miles in, I slowly regained some confidence, and we began to run the easier sections of the trail.  The earlier puddles had turned to thick, sucking mud, which made the ground even more treacherous.  The thought of my teammates kept me moving forward, and eventually, mercifully, we saw the torch lights marking the bridge over to the transition area.  I found Jen, gratefully handed her our bib, and, after bathing myself in the hose in an attempt to remove the layers of mud, returned to camp where I quickly changed and fell into an exhausted sleep.

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Early morning, day two.

As often happens, the morning brought with it a renewed sense of hope.  I was embarrassed about my slow pace during my nighttime legs and was determined to make up for it on my last two runs.  I was also eager to experience the yellow loop in the light, as I had been told that it was particularly beautiful.  I headed back onto the course just before 8am, tackling the green loop first.  I focused all my energy on maintaining an even pace, with the goal of making it through my 8 miles in less than 2 hours.  The green loop went by without a problem, and I was thrilled to find that I would have company from Monika once again for my final loop.  The yellow loop was every bit as lovely as I had been told, with the early morning light adding to the beauty along the way.  I continued to push as hard as a could, making just a few brief stops for photos along the way.  When we reached the bridge for the sixth and final time, I couldn’t have been more relieved.  I handed the bib to Jen for the last time, gave her a high five, and once again trudged off to find the hose.

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My favorite sign along the way.

Anyone who has run a distance race will tell you that no matter how low you get during the race, the high when you finish is an unbelievable feeling.  At the end of my sixth leg, I was physically exhausted, but riding a wonderful emotional high.  I changed clothes, collected a delicious looking breakfast from my kind husband, and then parked myself in a camp chair along the race course, where I was able to cheer on other runners as they passed.  Now that my running was completed, I was finally able to fully enjoy the celebratory atmosphere of the other runners and campers around us.  Miriam and I watched Jen pass by near the end of her first leg, then circled around to the transition area a bit later to welcome her in and send off Scott on his final two laps.  With the sun blazing in the sky once again, we found ourselves almost wishing for a passing shower to break the relentless humidity.  Fortunately, we saved our strongest runner for the end, and Scott managed to cover the hardest two legs in a little over two hours.  The four of us ran across the finish line together, collected our awesome medals, and basked in a hard job well done.

Jen and Scott, killing it on their respective final legs.

Ragnar was both more amazing and more challenging than I had anticipated.  I couldn’t have asked for three better teammates.  They tackled each of their runs with determination, remaining upbeat even when I was feeling downtrodden myself.  Our awesome race crew kept the campsite organized, jumped in as pacers when needed, and made sure that we kept our pace chart updated so we wouldn’t miss a transition.  They also broke down the entire camp at the end of the race when we were feeling too exhausted to do much more than eat and rest.  By the time the race had finished, I was already looking forward to the next opportunity to run a Ragnar Trail race.  The challenge of the experience made the finish that much sweeter.  As an added bonus, a week later I discovered that I had officially been accepted as a Ragnar Ambassador.  I can’t wait for more Ragnar adventures in the future!

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 I absolutely loved the quote on the back of the medals, which read: “We believe that being a Ragnarian is about more than being a runner; that misery loves company and happiness is ‘only real when it’s shared;’ that there is a badass inside all of us; that everyone deserves to be cheered at the finish line; that dirt in your teeth boosts the immune system; that what happens in the village, stays in the village; that adventure can only be found if you are looking for it; and that a little sleep deprivation is a small price to pay to watch the sun rise with our friends.  Together we ran Ragnar Trail.  We are Ragnarians.”

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Acadia National Park

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A view of the Bubbles from Jordan Pond House.  

A few weeks ago, we took a family trip to Acadia National Park.  My husband and I first visited Acadia just last year, when we left the kids behind to celebrate our 10th wedding anniversary.  We must have shared too many great stories, because when we began to plan a summer trip with the kids for this year, they eagerly requested that we travel to Acadia as a family.  As we loved our time there last year, we happily agreed.

I could probably write a book about my love for Acadia, even after just two trips, but in the interest of keeping you all as readers, I’ll try to be fairly concise.  Acadia is a fantastic spot for active families, couples, and individuals.  There is so much to do there that the hardest part is trying to fit it all in.  We had four full days up there and we were blessed with beautiful weather, so we made the most of our time.  As my kids are still mastering their bikes without training wheels, we stuck to hiking, but in the future, I hope to return to hit up the numerous carriage roads.

Our Stay:  We stayed at Acadia Cottages in Southwest Harbor, which is on the west side (quiet side) of Mount Desert Island.  For us, it was a perfect spot.  We had a one-bedroom cottage, which gave us just enough space to not trip over one another the whole trip.  We had a small kitchen with a full fridge, a stove top, and a sink, which allowed us to eat most of our meals in our room.  That perk alone was worth the stay.  We found our accommodations to be clean and welcoming, and we appreciated the quiet and peaceful setting.  While on the quieter side of the island, we were still only a 15-20 minute drive from most spots in the park, so it was quite convenient.

Our Favorite Activities:  We spent almost all of our time hiking.  If you are a regular reader, you know that the kids and I have hiked quite a bit this summer, but hiking trails in southeast Pennsylvania is quite different from hiking up the mountains in Maine.  I wasn’t sure what kind of stamina they would have.  It turns out I had nothing to worry about.  They exceeded all expectations, summiting 13 peaks and covering 31 miles in our four days there.  We hit many of the most popular spots, along with a few lesser known trails.  Among our favorite activities:

  • Watching the sun rise from the pebble beach along the Ocean Path.  In addition to a beautiful, peaceful start to the day, we also took advantage of the perfect light for early morning photos.

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  • Gathering wild blueberries along the mountain side.  My son claimed that the berry bushes were “snack stops” and they provided the perfect break when we needed a breather.  We even managed to gather enough to enjoy on the car ride home.  Sargeant, Cadillac, and Dorr Mountains were our favorite places to find berries.

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  • Hiking along the little known “Jordan Stream Path.”  Starting from Jordan Pond House, we went along this quiet path for about 3/4 of a mile until we reached the gorgeous Cobblestone Bridge.  The path followed the stream and even on such a busy day, we didn’t see another soul.  What a great find!

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  • Enjoying the delight of fresh popovers and jam on the lawn of Jordan Pond House.
  • Getting blown away (literally and metaphorically) by the view from the top of North Bubble – a gorgeous clear view of the entire Jordan Pond.

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  • Savoring the fantastic triple berry pie from Island Bound Treats in Southwest Harbor.

A Word of Caution:  We visited Acadia in early August, which is one of their peak visitor times.  While we never found the trails to have much traffic, especially when we headed out early, the parking lots were another story.  We made the mistake of trying to move our car after 10am one day and it resulted in endless circling for a spot, losing my husband for over two hours, and then another 90+ minute wait for free space on one of the Island Explorer buses to get back to the car at the end of the day.  Spotty cell service made the incident that much more tense.  Lesson learned – make sure that everyone is carrying some spare cash, find a parking spot early, and then only travel as far as you can on foot.

If you enjoy exploring in nature, you’ll be hard-pressed to find a more beautiful spot than Acadia.  From the ocean to the mountains, it has just about everything you could hope for.  The trails are plentiful and well-marked and there are plenty of excursions that you can reach by car if you don’t have the stamina for longer journeys.  Put this one on your must-see list!

A Man Called Ove Book Review

Alright, I’m back from my fun adventures over the past month.  After weeks spent in Lewes, DE and Acadia, ME, along with a trip to West Virginia for a Ragnar relay, it’s time to return to “normal” life and begin to prepare for the start of the school year.

Before I totally sink into September school tasks, however, I wanted to share with you all a couple of posts that have been on my mind lately.  The first is a fantastic book that I recently read, “A Man Called Ove,” by Fredrik Backman.

Summer is the time when I get the chance to catch up on a lot of reading, and I recently treated myself and ordered a few “wish list” books from Amazon.  Ove was not on my original list, but I had heard good things, and so in the interest of branching out, I decided to give it a shot.

I must admit that it was a bit hard for me to get into this book.  The book is written in the present tense, which is usually a rule breaker for me.  I’m just not a fan of that type of writing.  I promised myself to give it a chance, however, so I powered through the first few chapters.  Boy, am I glad that I did!

Ove is a crotchety 59-year-old man.  The book begins with a run-in that he has with a new neighbor and then jumps back and forth between the present time and earlier events in Ove’s life.  In a way, it reminded me of “Girl on a Train” in that it is kind of like putting together a puzzle – you slowly add pieces and the picture begins to come together more.  I like books like that, as they make you think and keep you guessing a bit.

The more that I learned about Ove’s character, the more that I fell in love with him.  Honestly, there were times when I just hugged my book because there was a bit of writing that touched me so deeply.  Hokey, I know, but totally true.  Backman did a fantastic job of developing not just Ove’s character, but all of the characters in the book.  There are so many layers to these people, and it makes you want to get to know them in real life.

I know I’m being deliberately vague, but I would hate to give away anything crucial before you have the chance to read it for yourself.  For now, let me say that I laughed, cried, and felt deeply while reading this story, and that when I was finished, I felt a bit mournful to put it down and leave those characters behind.   Please, please, take my recommendation and pick up a copy of Ove for yourself.  It’s definitely worth the read!