2018: the year Zumbro out-Zumbroed itself

When I chose Zumbro to be my first 50-mile race, I was optimistic. It’s a race in a place I enjoy, full of people I love, and it has a generous 18-hour cutoff. It would be hard work, but not outside the realm of possibility.

Until the weather blew in.

I woke on Friday morning in a warm hotel room, the sound of rain pattering on the sidewalks outside. My plan was to hunker down here as long as possible, knowing I wouldn’t sleep well at camp before my midnight start. I got restless, though; Zumbro was calling. I’d dropped off my husband with our camper the night before, and I was ready for the big day to begin.

With activity all around me, my day was uneventful. Hours of rest and almost-napping were punctuated by trips to the Start/Finish area. The 100-milers were cycling in and out as the day wore on, covered in mud from the slick, sloppy, course. The rain came and went, and without cell reception to check the weather, my hopes were rising. Maybe the blizzard would miss us.

I was curled up in the camper for yet another fitful nap at 8pm when the thunder and lightning started. The winds pounded the camper as rain and sleet came rushing back in. By 10pm, the tapping of sleet had turned to a splatter, and I smiled from my blanket cocoon, assuming we were settling in for a night of drizzle.

Outside, however, was nothing but snow. Where only hours earlier the landscape had been brown and muddy, it was now whitewashed. The flakes were monstrous; enormous conglomerations of wet snow that smacked me in the face like well-aimed snowballs. The beacon of the Start/Finish area was now invisible, obscured in the whiteout.

For the 50-milers, this is where the story began.

“We debated letting you start tonight,” the race director told us. The conditions were treacherous, and by the time we reached Aid Station 1/4 in only 3 miles, we would experience life-altering conditions. It would not get better. “If you’re not confident, take the shortcut back to the start.” There would be no on-course rescue; the ATVs and shuttles were getting stuck in the mud and snow. Be safe, be sure. Or don’t start.

With that, we were released into the darkness.

The hills were steep and slippery. It wasn’t the mud, and it wasn’t the snow. It was the unholy demonspawn that was born when the two mixed in just the right proportion, packing the snow into ice with a slick sheen of mud over the top. The conga line of runners was moving slowly, deliberately, as we climbed the narrow path.

As the path widened and the field began to spread, I settled into a rhythm behind another runner. His name was Charlie, he said, and we chatted briefly, companionably as we slogged through the mud. It was hard to tell exactly how deep each muddy stretch was, until you stepped and sunk to the shin. The air filled with the sound of feet. Plop-shhhlockplop. Plop-shhhlockplop. Once, my foot came out without my shoe, and I delicately fished my foot back into the deep hole, reseated it into my shoe, and carried on.

And still, we were climbing. It felt like miles. It might as well have been miles. Then, we were at AS 1/4. Glowing lights, cheering, applause. I felt overheated, but here in the valleys, sheltered from the wind, it was hard to judge what level of layering was appropriate. We all dressed ourselves expecting the worst.

It got worse. It got better, but it got worse.

Sometime soon after AS 1/4, Charlie dropped me. My world reduced from two headlight beams and a pair of guiding feet to one solitary circle of light. Runners would pass or be passed, but I found myself very alone in the woods, in the dark. I liked it that way.

Where the footing was bad, it was very bad. At AS 2/3, I sat down to dump mud from my shoe and scrape little clods of dirt off the soles of my socks. There were places on the course where I would ski down small hills of mud, using my poles to catch myself. And there were other small hills of ice, where catching myself was harder. Scarier. It was never more than a few feet at a time, but it was enough to rattle me.

It was somewhere after AS 2 – before I would see it again as AS 3 – when I decided this would be my only loop. The icy descents were too hard, and though they were few, I knew I was risking significant injury. I filed it away: Noted. One loop. Check.

And where the footing was good, it was very good. Stretches were beautiful, soft, runnable. I got into the rhythm with my poles, pulling myself ahead, up and over. When it was good, over and over again, it was incredible.

In these times, I would need to remind myself: One loop. All of this isn’t worth falling down a tiny little hill.

The parts of Zumbro that are normally dreaded were fantastically runnable, thanks to the weather. The sand coulees were soft with snow, the perfect consistency for effortless running. The rocky descents were packed, the rocks less threatening under inches of snow. I ran spots that ate me up last year, during an historically warm Zumbro 17, and it felt wonderful.

One loop.

After AS 3, the game changed. The climb up Ant Hill passed quickly this year, with the enormity of the looming hill reduced to a small circle directly in front of me. My hike was strong, and I was anxious to get to the long, moderate ridge at the top.

As I crested the hill, no longer nestled in the trees, the wind hit. Weather reports had anticipated 22mph winds, and the gusts were much more. The snow was whipping here, crawling across the trail into knee- and thigh-deep drifts. Within minutes of a runner passing, their footprints were obscured. Every step was breaking trail here. Sometimes, a howl of wind could be heard, and I would crouch down, turning my face away, bracing into the gale. In daylight, I knew I could look out across majestic vistas and see for miles. In the dark, I suspected I was inches from certain death, and the valley was waiting to take me.

I’ve been cold while running, but never quite like this.

I traversed the ridge like this for over a mile, trudging and ducking and trudging some more. The descent from Ant Hill, a treacherously rocky hill that claims ankles every year, became more runnable as the blizzard went on, transitioning into soft, snowy track with only hints of rock.

And then I was back into the valleys. The mud was firming up with the cold, the difference between wetness that spills over into your shoes and softness that maintains a deep footprint. The footing was improving as the race went on.

One loop. Still reminding myself.

The long gravel road went on for a lifetime. I was awake and alert, but still, I heard voices in the woods and slew that surrounded me. Laughter. Or maybe just the creaking of trees and the shaking of snow. The branches were hanging low, sometimes scraping faces and heads, heavy with snow and ice; some snapped and cracked with the weight. I stopped to tie the same shoe over and over again, the frozen laces unwilling to behave.

AS 1/4 came and went for a second time, sending me onto the final leg of the course. There were only a few miles left, with a long singletrack section that felt like home. The snow here was perfectly packed, soft underfoot, winding through the trees. The sun was just beginning to rise, casting the landscape in dark greys, and my heart skipped. I smiled, I ran, I was full of joy here. I wasn’t ready to be done.

Finally, the singletrack dumped me out onto the rutted, flooded, muddy road leading to the finish. Less than a mile of hopping over and around tiny lakes and streams and it was all over. I ran across the snowy field at the campground, focused on Start/Finish. My husband stood waiting, cheering, as he’d been doing for nearly every runner since Friday morning. I burst across the line, beaming, exclaiming to anyone who would listen: “That was amazing! I’m not going back out, but that was amazing!” Surrounded by friends and loved ones, I felt invincible. For a few minutes, I was invincible.

My loop time was 5:55, a decent time in these conditions, but not enough for a viable 50-mile. I felt good – really good – and was ready for more; seeing my time made choosing to stop that much easier to stomach.

And that’s where my Zumbro 2018 race tale ends. The next 10 hours were spent alternately huddled in the car and mingling with friends. I finished healthy, uninjured, and proud. It was the best DNF I could have ever hoped for.

Post-race systems check: Achy ankles and knees, tender feet. No blisters, no chafes, no sprains. A little sore the next day, but will be ready to run in a few days. Onward to the next adventure!

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Friday
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Saturday

Moose Mountain Marathon 2017

The race had been on my schedule since the new year, and in spite of my recently-fractured ankle, I was optimistic. Due to lingering soreness, my training plan didn’t kick into high speed until summer. By the time I reached peak week, I was happy and feeling fit, though I knew I was behind by a few weeks. I was in “do your best” mode.

In the week leading up to the race, I was a proper mess. A niggling soreness in one of my toes seemed to escalate into a full-blown sprain – or something – and I spent the week prior trying to stay off my feet with my toes taped together. I was waking in the middle of the night, inexplicably frantic. I was panicking over my three-day work week, and my mother was flying into town to accompany me to the race. Logistics, work, and injury were swallowing me up. So I did the one thing I’m really good at: I freaked the hell out. Every minute of every day.

I was absolutely impossible, and it’s a wonder my family endured me.

Mom arrived and we headed northward with little fanfare, and after dropping our things at the rental house, we dropped by the aid station at County Rd 6. This was to be Jamison’s second year at the helm here, and I was excited to show Mom what this “trail running” business was all about. We didn’t spend much time there – an hour or two – before moving on to Caribou Highlands to catch the pre-race briefing. I’d considered returning to County Rd 6 after dinner, but miraculously found myself getting tired, and I was in bed and asleep by 9:30. (This officially marks the best night of sleep I’ve ever had before a race. I slept like a rock.)

The morning of the marathon, my alarm went off early – or, would have, if I hadn’t already been checking it every five minutes for the previous half hour. I wanted to get some food in and digesting early, so I packed away some calories at 4:30am before crawling back into bed. By 6:30am, I was up and more-or-less ready, and we were out the door shortly after 7am.

The race start was everything I remember from 2015, when I brought Jamison up for his running of this same race. Briskly cold, teeming with people, thumping with what my uneducated ears guessed was the Beastie Boys. The routine was comforting. A short wait in a long bathroom line, a last hug to family, some words exchanged with a friend, a countdown, and we were off.

The much-anticipated conga line wasn’t bad, save for a handful of people who said “Oh, go ahead and pass, I’m walking” after being way too far forward and causing a logjam. I took a deep breath and reminded myself that every step of walking here would be energy better spent later.

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The stretch to Temperance passed beautifully, uneventfully. The surrounding chatter of the first mile or two slowly faded as people spread out, as I hoped it would. Listening to conversation can be a nice distraction, but out here, I wanted nothing but the birds and the wind and the rushing of water.

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Alongside the Cross River, this wish was fulfilled. Two miles of solitude, surrounded by forest and river, alone with my thoughts. I was brimming with cautious happiness; I was moving well, at least a minute ahead of pace, already worried that I was going to burn up. I’m always worried. But I trotted along, occasionally passing others as surely as I was being passed. I set the goal here that I needed to roll into Sawbill feeling fresh, and so long as I accomplished that, the rest of the race would take care of itself.

Coming into Temperance, I was greeted by Mike M., who commented that I was looking good. I ate a potato and a bit of PB&J, slammed a glass of Ginger Ale, and headed back out. Jason T. was sitting across the road from the food table and he called out my name as I jogged out, and we exchanged greetings and thumbs-ups before I disappeared back into the woods.

Checking my watch and comparing to my pace band, I was irritated that the numbers didn’t seem to add up. I was behind, yet I knew I’d been ticking off faster miles than I’d calculated. I made a mental note to ask Jamison when I saw him; I knew he’d be waiting with my mom – and cold Mountain Dew – at the bridge crossing over the Temperance River.

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My strategy of quitting caffeine in the weeks leading up to the race worked like a charm. At Temperance, I found Jamison and Natalie K. standing at the bridge, and just across the way, Mom sat in the sun reading a book. As I slammed my first Mountain Dew of the day, I mentioned to Jamison that my times seemed off. He pointed out that my calculations were based on round miles, and I’d rounded down for Temperance. I was around 10 minutes ahead of schedule. Fired up, I gave a round of quick hugs and got my butt in gear.

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I knew the climb out of Temperance was a slow one, sure to pick slowly, ruthlessly away at me, so I elected to walk much of this section even when I had the inkling that I could run. The tales of Carlton Peak had prepared me well, and it was so inflated in my mind that by the time I’d crested it, I was surprised it hadn’t been more difficult. Coming down, I found myself wanting to run, but stuck behind a handful of people who were just a little too quick to comfortably pass. In addition, my gut started to grumble unpleasantly, which made anything more than a slow trot uncomfortable. As these miles passed by, I grew anxious for the next aid station.

My stomach had settled enough as I neared Sawbill that I charged in aggressively, focused on finding my husband. I’d already unbuckled my vest, and when I saw Jamison chatting with another runner, I bellowed for him and thrust my vest at him. I had one desire in the whole wide world, and that was the bathroom. I heard him call “You’re here already??” and saw my mom’s look of surprise as I ran past. I was nearly 20 minutes ahead and feeling fantastic, with the exception of the bathroom urgency. I ended up taking in no food here, and after putting away some more Mountain Dew, I headed up the hill and out of Sawbill.

Everyone has always told me that the section between Sawbill and Oberg is runnable – so much so that I’d started telling runners the same when I worked at Sawbill in 2015 and 2016. Yeah, it’s really not. Not for me, not this year. The mud was slick and thick here, the worst of the marathon, and the roots were heavy. This entire section was a slog as I bounced back and forth among several hundred milers, who were hiking better than I was, but who were running far less. It was during this section that my IT band started to make itself known, which was notable if for no other reason than I never have IT band issues. On this day, the descents were chewing at me, and every so often, a sharp twinge shot through my lateral knee. It was just often enough to keep me wary. The journey into Oberg seemed to take an eternity – a long, unremarkable eternity.

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And then I was there, charging into the station, a full 30 minutes ahead of my anticipated pace. I’d been debating taking some Tylenol here, for certain lady issues (because my body has the best timing ever), but I wanted to be aware of my IT band. So I instead busied myself with eating a pancake and chatting briefly with Mom, who was marveling over how good I looked. I was marveling, too; I felt genuinely, confusingly good. I didn’t understand why my legs weren’t aching, or why my feet weren’t tender. I was 19 miles in, and I always hurt after this many miles. With two more mountains to go, the other shoe was about to drop. It had to.

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I wasted little time at Oberg and rushed myself back out, resigning myself to Moose Mountain. I’d hiked from Lutsen to Oberg and back before, and I remember sitting on the overlook on the return trip, crying. It was too hard, too much, and I never wanted to do it again. This was to be my revenge, if I had it in me. Fortunately, with a little help from a 100-mile train, I got my revenge. I hooked myself to Kate L.’s entourage shortly out of Oberg, and with their drive and strong hiking, we powered up Moose Mountain with little fanfare. I remember laboring and struggling, but I wasn’t going to be dropped here. No way.

I must have spent the better part of two miles with them, listening to them chat, joining in occasionally, and those two miles made my race. Moose could have crushed me, but it didn’t. And at the top, on that beautiful plateau, I had it in me to begin running again. I bade farewell to that beautiful train and trotted on.

Coming down Moose was a challenge, with my IT band angrily protesting again with the descent. I began to worry here that I would be undone. “It hurts,” my brain would say. “No,” I would counter, “it doesn’t hurt. It feels appropriate. It feels exactly the way it should feel after 22 miles.”

The acceptance of my pain as being normal was practically transcendental to me. The IT pain was still there, but it was simply a fact of note, not a point to fret about. It would be fine. It was just a thing that happened.

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In the valley, surrounded by green with the unsettling echo of a finish line loudspeaker, I summoned the ability to run the boardwalks. My delight at feeling fresh (well, fresh-ish) had long since given way to shock and bewilderment; I was objectively undertrained for this. I was objectively running faster than I should have, and running more often. And I was killing it. There was simply no justification for why I felt so good.

Climbing the switchbacks up Mystery Mountain was as tedious as I remember, but after Moose, it was pleasantly tolerable. I was getting itchy now, as I kept checking my watch, wondering how these last miles would unfold. I’d heard so many different accounts of how long the course actually was, and my mile-24 math skills were iffy at best. I knew I was going to obliterate my goal, but by how much? I thought 8:15 might have been in reach, but who knew? At the top of Mystery, I dug in, running wherever I felt certain I wouldn’t fall. I knew that I would hear the Poplar River before I saw it, and that it would herald my impending arrival to the road, and I strained to hear as I weaved through the forest. Mile 26 ended up being one of my fastest miles of the day.

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And there was the road, with the opportunity to run unimpeded. But within a few steps, the pain hit. Real pain. After hours of soft forest floor, the impact sent jolts of pain through my ankles, and I was reduced to a hobble. It wasn’t until I turned off onto the grass of Caribou Highlands that I was able to run again, and I put in a blazing sprint (or, what felt like) as I careened around the pool. I heard my name blaring over the loudspeaker and I started to laugh. Crossing the line, getting my medal, being enfolded into a huge hug from my mom, then Jamison.

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“Did you see your time??” he asked.

“No, I know I started my watch late, I don’t know what it was. Did I break 8:15? DID I, JAMISON??”

It was 8:14:50, from a goal time of 9 hours.

I remember being congratulated, waving vague hellos as I wandered off to find food, following my family where they led me. There were so many people I wanted to talk to, but in retrospect, I managed conversation with very few. It was an exciting blur.

Ultimately, the race changed things for me. The post-race appraisal revealed one toenail that’ll likely fall off, and an achy IT band that nagged occasionally for the next 24 hours. My ankles were sore for a couple days. Somehow, improbably, that was the worst of it.

So I did what anyone would do: I picked a 50-miler and put the training plan on my calendar. Seven months to race day!

We’ve gotta stop meeting like this!

Life. It’s a funny thing.

I absolutely lost motivation after my last post, and coincidentally, shortly after I wrote it, it was time for me to leave my family on a clinical rotation in a hospital several hours away. Those five weeks meant very little running, and by the time my marathon came along, I was deconditioned and demoralized. Some race-day snafus led to a DNF at mile 18.

And so it went for the next several months. I graduated from school and took a new job, which didn’t work out. From July to November, I ran very little. I revised my life goals, took a simpler job, and got back on track just in time to break my ankle on a run in December.

It was a long, slow slog back to fitness. I ran a 17-mile race in April, which was slow and uncomfortable, and a 25K in July, which was faster and less uncomfortable. Finally, with a trail marathon on the horizon in September, I feel prepared. Things are coming back together, and all is right in the world.

Finally.

200 miles and counting

Today, I rolled over 200 miles for the year so far. Last year, I hit this mark on May 30th. This puts me at a quarter of last year’s total mileage. On February 19.

Working on wrapping my head around that one.

I was hoping to hit this mark yesterday, with an intended 10-mile run. I hit the paths at my favorite park, which turned out to be too snowy to be sustainable for me, and I moved over to my familiar dam route to finish it out.

I felt good, running healthy again, and I was almost three miles from my car when I was wracked by waves of raw, angry emotion. It wasn’t entirely out of nowhere; I’d been simmering all day in feelings of mediocrity, taking it a little-too-personally that my slowness means that a large number of runners think I don’t belong in marathoning. Not a new notion for me, but yesterday, it stuck. It festered.

And almost three miles from my car, I started to cry.

I’m an emotional person. I tear up at commercials, I choke back hiccups at sentimental movies. I have a temper. (Boy, do I.) But this was like nothing I’ve felt in a very long time. Full-body sobs that I couldn’t run through, the repeated words of realization: You’re not getting better. You never will. You’re wasting your time. Just quit. And my god, I believed it. I believed it with every fiber of my being. I turned back to my car.

I continued to cry.

Over the past year, I’ve watched everyone I know surpass me. My husband, who was a dedicated road runner and who I had to coerce over to the trails, is running the ultras I always hoped to. Our good friend, who recently started running, roundly destroyed my PRs within months. Another friend, though still learning, is improving by leaps and bounds every week. I’m so proud of them, so happy for them, and so sad for me.

My mediocrity.

I cried for the better part of ten minutes as I walked along this path I knew so well. I’ve run it over and over again since August. I know every nuance, every rise and fall, every bend. I remember where I saw an owl, where I saw a dead mouse tucked curiously into the crook of a tree branch, where I saw a herd of seven deer just last week, then where I saw a herd of four just around the corner. I think the path knows me as well as I know it, in a way. It’s as familiar as it is tedious. It reassures me.

I’d like to say that I beat back the negativity, but I didn’t. Much of it is true. I’m not really getting much better, and I don’t know that I will. I may always be that woman who people shake their heads at, wondering why I don’t really train for these races (I do) and why I bother at all (why not?).

I didn’t win the battle, but I got over it. I tucked it away, took a deep breath, and started running again. That’s all I can do.

Tomorrow, when I run there again, I’ll remember where I cried. I’ll remember that I didn’t quit. For now, that’s enough.

200 miles down. A whole lot more to go.

Unintentional rest day

It’s not a winter without an illness.

I’m reluctant to admit that I’m sick, because I’m just not someone who gets sick. I’ll have a spell of some sort once a year, maybe, but I’m more likely to be taken down by a depressive slump than a physical ailment.

So I’m pretty bad at recognizing them when they come along. I try to explain them away, lying to myself about how it was just something I ate, or maybe I’m just not dressed warmly enough.

Yesterday’s 10-mile run became 5 miles, and I’m still a little cranky about it. I couldn’t regulate my body temperature at all; I was rapidly overheating, but removing my gloves or replacing my hat with a buff gave me nasty chills. I found myself running small loops, so as not to find myself too far from a porta-potty. By the time I rolled over the halfway mark of my intended run, the sun was already low on the horizon and I’d been out for more than an hour and a half.

I told myself, as I sat bundled and still-too-cold on the couch, logging my mileage, that I’d make up my miles this morning, then run my Wednesday mileage in the afternoon. I crawled into bed shortly after 8pm with great intentions.

The good news is that there’s no fever. But there’s definitely no running. Body aches, tummy rumblings, and that lingering feeling of being cold are keeping me indoors.

Hoping that my diligence today (and a few long sleeps) will set me right for tomorrow’s run, but barring a complete turn-around, I won’t be able to rustle up my lost miles. A shame, because this was meant to be a 40-mile week, and that’s a big mental hurdle for me. It would have been nice to conquer.

Such is life. Here’s hoping for a speedy recovery!

Week two: Done. Body: Still functioning.

Last week was only four days of running, but it brought a hefty 36 miles with it.

Tuesday kicked things off with an 8-miler containing 8 reps of speed work; it was meant to be 10 reps, but my legs begged for mercy in the 8th rep.

Thursday was an easy 10-mile aerobic run, which was absolutely gorgeous except for the horrible abdominal cramps I had for the last four miles or so. My stomach had been a bit off all afternoon (maybe it was all the cookies I ate, or the mac & cheese I chased them with…) so it wasn’t entirely a surprise.

I moved my recovery 5-miler to Friday, as Saturday’s forecast was for sub-zero temps and I thought that sounded stupid. 

That leaves today’s medium-long run of 13 miles. I tacked on an extra .1, to round out my first half marathon in months. I ran within the same parameters as last week’s run, mostly; my HR was creeping pretty high by the end, and with a headwind and me getting a bit chilled in 11F weather, I just wanted to be done. I never quite clicked into that place where I loved the run, but I guess that’s how this thing goes. Working for the goals, keeping the race in mind.

I managed to sort out my back issues throughout the week, and hopefully they’ll stay sorted for a while. I can’t afford weekly massages and PT treatments!

Rest day tomorrow, then I kick into a regular 5-day schedule from here on out. I have 40 miles on the plan this week, a mark I’ve only made once before. It’s gonna get interesting in here.

Week one round-up!

Yesterday’s checkmark: 12 miles at what Pete Pfitzinger describes as “medium-long” pace. For me, that means trying to hang my heart rate between 145-165 bpm.

It was mostly successful. I didn’t plan to bring nutrition for the run, so I grabbed a snack on the way. I don’t usually have issues with eating right before running, but this time didn’t go well for me. I spent the first two miles vaguely nauseous and the next two with intermittent stomach cramps. Things really leveled out for the next couple miles, but once I crossed the 8-mile mark, my back started to really tighten up; the muscles I (probably) strained on Tuesday’s snow-day run decided they’d had enough. I fought through it, promising myself I could walk “soon”, but absolutely crashed around 10.75. I just couldn’t breathe properly. I intervalled the rest and collapsed into the car.

Yes, I count that as “mostly successful”. I have a low threshold for these sorts of things. But y’know, I don’t think I’ve run more than 10 miles continuously before. I did make a brief stop after the first two miles, so I technically didn’t break that mark yesterday, but my endurance is getting better and better.

Last week’s tally: 33 miles. Still healthy.

On today’s agenda: Rest and a massage. The last time I had issues with these particular muscles, I hopefully tried to wish them away, and the pain escalated so severely that I couldn’t sleep. With tomorrow’s run looming, I’m addressing it here and now.

Until then, it’s feet up and Netflix. Happy Monday, everyone!