Runlikely: Long Slow Hungover Distance

My scheduled mileage for the long run this week was 20 miles, but for the 50k race, I need to hit just about 21 miles in under 6 hours and 30 minutes in order to make the cut-off. So earlier this week, I figured: let’s just go an extra mile to see if you can do that.

But, ah-ha, I turned 30 on Friday. I had friends over Friday night and had two (2) glasses of wine along with a full dinner and cake, but, being THIRTY now, I woke up hungover. That kind of low blood sugar, drained, mildly nauseated misery. I spend longer than intended in the bathroom, pack my bag, and convince myself to get going.

It turns out it was going to be a morning of buzzkills. In the haste of packing my bag, I forgot to bring my earbud. I forgot the bandana that I use to wipe when I pee. (I am reminded why I really need to pack my running pack the night before.) As I approached the trailhead with my stomach churning, I realized I’d eaten spicy food for lunch the day before. Hungover and spicy food? Which God do I pray to for GI distress?

I was 0 for 4 and I hadn’t even started the 21 mile trail run. And my right foot was giving me problems—the outside of it, right where the outer arch turns into the heel, gave me a mild zing with every step.

I’d eaten the usual: a bagel and a latte. This morning the bagel felt weird in my mouth, like the wrong level of salty. It was a sunny day and the high was supposed to reach 73 degrees. The latte felt like it was swishing around in my gut. Is this the run I puke on? I wondered.

This week’s run was the same trail as last week’s, for simplicity’s sake. (It’s not that easy to find 20+ mile trails that have the right elevation gain and no snow right now.) The Palouse to Cascades Trail is uphill from the trailhead but super super gradual. I try to jog parts of it, but the more I try, the more my stomach sloshes. Forget it. I’ll just walk. And walk I do, at a decent clip, turning off onto the Ollalie Trail and starting to go up in earnest. The good weather means the mountain bikers are more plentiful today, and I mostly leave my headphones out so I can hear the whoosh of them coming down the trail.

I try to jog some of the very short flat or downhill sections that come on the way up, but my stomach backs up into my throat. People talk about sweating out hangovers all the time, right? So this can’t possibly last all day?

It doesn’t. By mile 8 or so, I feel OK again. I pass some bikers trying to help a fellow biker with a flat tire. I decide not to try to summit Mount Washington (I don’t need the extra elevation gain) and continue along the Olallie Trail. I call out “Hey there!” over and over again, nervous about the idea of seeing an animal. The mountain bikers—two men and a woman, who I’ll call The Trio—pass me again, which lessens my fear. I catch up to them again as they navigate over a brief uphill snow patch.

“How are you doing?” one of the men asks.

“I’m doing!” I say. “How about you?”

“Well my heart rate is like 300 beats per minute and my cholesterol is through the roof,” he says.

“You, too!?” I laugh and make my way past them. Up ahead, the woman is still riding, and then she stops to wait for them.

When I reach my half-way point and turn around, The Trio is splayed out where the woman has stopped, with one of the men with his feet on the trail’s bank and his back on the ground, relaxing.

“Is there snow up ahead?” the other man asks. They’re planning to go until the snow stops them.

“No snow. I don’t think you’re going to run into any,”

“Oh man,” the man says. “I should have paid you to say the trail was covered in snow!”

I tell them I’m sure they’ll catch me soon and I start on my way back. The trail is mostly downhill, but it’s rocky and my feet are pounding. My shoes have been great—no blisters—but I’m questioning whether they’re too minimalist for long runs. If I really go for it, I’m afraid I’ll bruise my feet should I land on a rock. So I do what I can, shuffling down, down, down. I step to the side as more mountain bikers come up, I jump to the side as they come down.

One young duo passes me on the way up, and an hour or so later they pass me on the way down. “You’re making killer time! We were wondering when we’d see you again!” the woman says. My knees are starting to hurt, and I feel like I’m moving at a snail’s pace, so I appreciate it.

I jog by a mountain biker stopped at a viewpoint. “You’re running this thing?” he says.

“It was mostly a hike up,” I say. “And praying for my knees on the way down.”

Later, he’s coming down the mountain and stops. “How are the knees?” he asks.

“Sore!” I say. He asks if I’m OK, if I’ll make it. “Oh yeah,” I tell him, and then he heads on his way.

About four miles from the car, I head mountain bikers so I step to the side again. It’s The Trio, and they skid to a halt seeing it’s me. “How’s the downhill going?” I ask.

“FUN!” the woman says.

“That’s quite a hike you just did,” one of the men says.

Here’s a mental game I play on these runs: how many people say “have a nice hike!” versus “have a nice run!” To be clear, it’s a nice sentiment either way—I like the pleasantries of the trail—but when someone says “have a nice run!” it definitely gives me more of a boost. Only one person, the mountain biker at the overlook, called what I did running this time. But hey, at least I got one!

I’d escaped most of the day’s heat being up high but as I got back to the Palouse to Cascades Trail, the temperature had risen and it was humid. Since it was relatively flat/downhill, I tried to pick up my pace and somewhat succeeded.

But I didn’t make the 6:30 cutoff I was hoping for. Starting the day with a hangover didn’t help, and my legs being so sore on the downhill made it hard to go fast. Strava also suggested I spent at least an hour not moving, which must have been from saying hi, the few times I looked at a map, stopping to pee, and filtering water.

But hey: I didn’t puke. No catholes were dug (mostly a bonus because the opportunity for cathole digging was limited on the ridgeline.) And I kept moving for 21 miles. Sore, yes, but uninjured.

Long run distance: 21 miles
Long run elevation gain: 3,986 feet
Effort: Easy+
Time: 7:05 (average pace: 20:16/mile)
Emergency poops: 0

It’s also worth saying that the story of the long run is also a story of the rest of the week’s training, too, and this week I was already showing signs of not being at optimal running effort. Tuesday’s run was scheduled at 6 easy miles but I cut it short. I felt beat, and I was moving slow, and the idea of climbing another hill at Carkeek sapped all the joy out of my body. I couldn’t get out of my head or how miserable this run was feeling. I have work to do, I kept thinking. This run is going to take forever. If I was just faster this wouldn’t be a problem. But I’m not fast. I’m slow slow slow.

I knew I had the 21 mile run this weekend, and I figured it was better to cut back a bit on weekday mileage than zap all of my energy (both physical and mental) early in the week. So I told myself: OK, today we’re going to run for time—one hour—instead of distance. One hour ended up being 3.7 miles. I bombed the last downhill which was fun, and then let myself go back to my car.

I think that was the right call, but also, it felt like I was letting myself down. I ran my scheduled run Wednesday, and Thursday, since I’d gotten my work done, I decided to try to make up for Tuesday’s miles by extending the run. BUT I was allowed to go as slow as I wanted. No racing the downhills, no pushing myself to go faster. A genuine, easy pace. So I did, and I made up the miles, and it put me at a 19:06 mile.

I’m not sure if I would have been better off just letting Tuesday’s miles to go or not. Running training feels like a constant negotiation my body, my mood, and a very chatty, a-holeish part of my brain. The loudest, meanest part essentially has one message all the time, every time, which is: YOU’RE SLOW! Whatever other accomplishment I may have made during the training week—bigger miles, managing to run up that one hill, finding a truly easy pace, having a good time—that voice is on the other side of it saying, “Yeah? You feel good about that? Well, you’re still SLOW.”

And the thing is—I am slow. Very slow! Especially when I’m building mileage and doing long runs and trying to keep an easy pace. I am not self-deprecatingly slow, I am factually slow. I know that mentally bullying myself won’t make me less slow, and yet the voice is still there, trying to remind me that for whatever I accomplish out of this running season, it will not be speed.

I am tempted to tie this up in a bow about overcoming that voice, but that’s not really what I’m doing. This week I’ll have run for some 12 hours. Like the rocky trails and rumbling tummies and sweat and heat and uphills, I am not trying to defeat the realities of this training plan. I’m trying to build the resilience to run alongside them.

Total miles this week: 40+ (or will be when I run this afternoon)
Total elevation gain this week: ~6700
Total hours training: ~12 hours and 20 minutes

Runlikely: Squats are Evil

The best part about these write ups is that I can sit on the couch while working on them.

The latest stats:

Long run: 18 miles
Long run elevation gain: 3,494 feet
Effort: Easy+
Time: 5:31 (average pace: 18:24/mile)
Emergency poops: 0

Total miles this week: 38 (or will be when I run this afternoon)
Total elevation gain this week: ~6500
Total hours training: ~10 hours 45 minutes

The good news for me is there was nothing particularly dramatic about this long run. The bad news for you is it’s a more boring story.

I ran up the Olallie Trail with the goal of going to Mount Washington. The first section is a flat-ish uphill on the Palouse to Cascades Trail (formerly known as the Iron Horse, formerly known as the John Wayne Trail). The trail is primarily used by mountain bikers, which made me a bit nervous, imagining I’d be dodging folks flying down the trail.

Starting up the Palouse to Cascades Trail

But the course is open to hikers, too, and the bikers I went by were nice and courteous. The mountain biking angle made the trail pretty fun—a pretty gentle, steady uphill, with little ups and downs and wide, rounded corners which were fun on the way down. And I think the course is pretty similar as far as elevation gain to the one on the 50k, which makes it excellent training ground. And the fact that it’s essentially one trail the whole way helps, too — I think that’s a big reason why I was able to do this one a full hour and a half faster than the 16 miler last week.

On the way up, I kept a steady and slightly relaxed hiking pace and didn’t need to stop at any point. I listened to the final episode of Rabbit Hole by the New York Times, and then switched over to Dr. Death, which I’d started months ago on a road trip but never finished. I grimaced several times hearing about just how terrible this doctor was, and it may have made me step more carefully on the way down (do not fall and need surgery, Colleen, you never know who that doctor might be!!).

I kept meeting a couple of mountain bikers who were stopped for breaks. “You must have got up early!” they said when they rode past me on the uphill. Then I caught them again just before the trail descended briefly. “It’s you again! Bet you can’t catch us on the downhill.” And then finally I met them where their ride ended. “There she is!”

Maybe it’s dumb but I’ve always loved these interactions outdoors, and I missed them during the pandemic, when people were much more cautious about interacting with strangers. Most of it is that I really like people, and I like the small comraderies of doing a hard thing together, even if you’re doing it separately. But part of it, too, is a bit of magical thinking: when I know there are people ahead of me, my brain relaxes and thinks that I won’t have any animal encounters, or more specifically, won’t be mauled by a cougar or bear. (Or charged by a deer, which has now been added to my mental fear bank.)

Of course, this doesn’t make any sense. Having a mountain biker a mile ahead of me doesn’t mean a bear can’t decide to wander down to the trail, or that a cougar isn’t watching. (I mean, I do like to think they steer clear of active trails much of the time, but on the other hand there was a cougar so aggressive at the Mount Baker Trail I used to frequent a couple of years ago that they shut the trail briefly, so…)

But I’ll take the respite from worrying about animals, and when I passed those mountain bikers, I didn’t know if anyone else was on the trail ahead of me. So my brain started creating spooky stories. I thought I heard a rustle and spun around, spotted what I thought was a bear, and jolted—only to realize it was a tree stump, like the dozens of tree stumps I’d passed all day. As I turned off onto the trail for Mount Washington, a narrow little strip of footpath through tall, thin trees, I started stressing that I would hike face-first into a cougar den or bear foraging den. “Hey there!” I called out every five seconds. Just in case the imaginary bear hadn’t heard the last one.

When I got to a steep uphill, just shy of my nine-mile halfway mark and just shy of the summit, I thought: nahhhh and turned around. “Hey there!” I called out every five seconds, again, just in case. I stopped to pee, and then “hey there!”‘d again.

And then ahead of me was another woman runner. “Sorry about all the hey-there’s. I freaked myself out about seeing a bear.”

“I get it,” she said. “Have a safe run!”

The way back down was anxiety-free because I’d already run those trails, so the magical thinking told me there couldn’t be any animals. I also passed several people coming up on bikes or hiking, which helped.

That said, according to my watch, my downhill pace was worryingly slow. Like 15, 16 minute-mile slow. I don’t know if that was a fluke of the watch — I certainly didn’t feel like I was going that slow — or if the trail was steep enough that I was putting the “brakes” on. In which case, I really need to practice getting my feet to move quicker and getting comfortable moving fast downhill, since that’s what’s going to help me make up time from the uphills. It’s a balance, though, because downhill… hurts. Or “hurt” might be extreme, but it’s quite taxing. One of my knees started to ache a little, and my feet were really taking a pounding.

I’d felt really good and strong until mile 10 or 11, but then my muscles seemed to start sending signals to my brain: “hey! we’re freaking tired!” I tried eating a little more, thinking that could be part of it, and eating didn’t seem to hurt. (I’d eaten a bagel for breakfast and drunk a latte, and 3/4 of the way up the trail I’d eaten a ham and cheese croissant. I’d also been sipping Tailwind. After that I switched to the Huma gels I’d brought.)

But I kept going. My hip twinged a little but nothing too wild. My butt got sore. And as the trail flattened out, I picked up my pace a little. I got to the bottom and then ran further up the Palouse to Cascades Trail, doing a 1:30/30 run/walk to finish off my miles. When I turned to go back to the car, I managed some sub-13-minute miles going down the trail, even though I was very tired and walk/running.

One thing I noticed toward the end of the run is that I was having a trouble getting a deep breath. It felt like I was holding a lot of tension in my torso/chest, and couldn’t quite get my lungs to expand. I’m not sure what to do about that, but something to think about, considering I’d still have another 13 miles to go at the 50k.

As far as the rest of training (and the title of this post) — it was quite humid this week which made my weekday runs kind of miserable. I mean, they were fine, they were just slow and sweaty as hell.

However, on Tuesday, after 6 miles, I decided to add in some “3-minute mountain legs,” which coach David Roche recommends for trail runners. It’s essentially reverse lunges and single leg step-ups onto an elevated surface. He recommends 25-50 of each. I did 15 reverse lunges on each leg, 15 step ups onto a low bench at the park, and then added in 10 side lunges for each leg.

I… was so insanely sore. Walking up the couple of feet of my driveway to get the mail, I groaned and grunted. Steps were brutal. I was hobbling for days. It made the rest of my training week significantly harder (I was recovered by the long run, luckily.) Run 16 miles? Sure, my legs say. Squat 15 times? Forget about it.

Which tells me two things: I could probably really use these to improve my uphill hiking and possibly my downhill running, and also I need to start smaller. (And maybe stretch those muscles right afterward.) I’m going to try doing them today after my run, and depending on how sore I am, again on Tuesday, so that I don’t ever end up sore on my long run from lunges.

Runlikely: Charged by a Deer

Miles: 16
Elevation gain: 4,131 feet
Effort: Moderate (I tried to keep it easy but what is easy about 4,000 feet of elevation gain?)
Time: 6:50 (average pace: 25:27/mile)
Emergency poops: 1 but not quite an emergency

I woke up this morning to a dream I was starting a backpacking trip and was trying to stuff a bunch of things into my pack last-minute, which wouldn’t fit, so I was stuffing them to a garbage bag strapped to my backpack before realizing I didn’t actually need a double sleeping bag in addition to the sleeping bag that was already in my backpack. And I could probably leave behind the takeout container full of Chinese sautéed pork, too.

I don’t know what the metaphor there is other than perhaps I was feeling out of my depth about this mileage. Still, I got on the road at a reasonable hour, grabbed a bagel and latte to try to repeat the no-gut-problems success of the last run, and headed to the Highpoint Trailhead for a day spent running around Tiger Mountain State Forest. At the trailhead , the coffee meant a trip to the porta-potty that I hoped would tide me over for the whole run.

I started the run on the very flat Tradition Lake trail to warm up and then headed up the Tiger Mountain Trail. Honestly not a ton to say about it: green, mossy, pretty typical PNW. Climbs to nowhere in particular. There was a very cool, long bridge over a creek that was so covered in greenery that I couldn’t see it but could hear it.

My nipples start hurting for reasons I don’t understand (is it because it’s cold? are my water bottles cold and making my nipples colder? are they chafing?) but rather than try to understand the exact mechanism, I pulled Aquaphor out of my pack and slathered them and called it good.

Very quickly I realize, uh, wow, this is a lot of elevation gain I’m racking up here. According to my watch I’d climbed ~2,000 feet in the first 5 miles (and the first mile was flat.) As mentioned, the ups and downs are… pretty pointless. I couldn’t see through the trees or anything, so as I get to mile 4.5 I text Mark to let him know my plans have changed. I’m not going to do an out and back on the Tiger Mountain Trail—the idea of turning around at mile 8 just to tackle these ups and downs again sounds not very fun. Instead, I’m going to make a loop out of the multiple trails that go around the park.

The first adventure was to tack on a summit of Tiger Mountain 2, which essentially consisted of a big radio tower. There was an itty bitty view through the trees.

A hiker had told me it was only 20 minutes further to Tiger 1, so I figured: OK, there next. This meant running down a steep dirt road, and then huffing and puffing up a steep dirt road.

Just as I was laughing about how ridiculously steep the road got (which I did not capture well in photos but I would have been nervous to drive a car up it), I turned to my right and, WHAM!, Mount Rainier was out in all its glory.

That was a great mood booster, since I didn’t know if views were going to happen on this run. I got a cheesy photo of me and the mountain and then kept going. There’s a fun Hiker Hut at the top made out of metal with benches inside. I can’t say I’d be eager to stay there but maybe if I was caught in a storm.

So far, despite the elevation gain being more than I expected, I’m feeling good. It’s great temperature for running, the weather is nice, I just got to view Mount Rainier, and the rest of the trail won’t be a repeat of things I’ve already seen. Delightful! I head down Poo Top Trail—it’s narrow and rooty along a tree-covered ridgeline and relatively steep, so I’m not moving super fast, but I’m having a good time. I descend about 500 feet and am a stone’s throw from a road crossing when the title of this blog post becomes relevant: I come across a doe and her fawn.

I don’t often see big wildlife on trail. I’ve never seen a bear in the wild. I’ve never seen a mountain lion. Despite hiking in Arizona regularly and 700 miles in the California desert on the PCT, I’ve only ever come across three rattlesnakes. I consider this lucky because I have no interest in screwing with wildlife, especially when I’m on my own.

I have, however, come across deer on hikes before. It usually goes something like this:

*sees deer* “Oh!”

*deer jumps away immediately to safe distance*

So color me confused when this mama dear and her fawn do not head for the hills (or the downhill, in this case) when they see me. I backed up and tried to give them space, but they kind of just kept lingering in the same spot. At one point, the doe went into the brush just off to the side, and the baby tried to follow but quickly jumped back on trail. (That baby almost looked too tiny to deal with the underbrush, but I am not a deer scientist, so what do I know.) We are at an impasse. I don’t want to hike 500 feet back uphill in the wrong direction (I don’t want to do it so much that if the thought even crossed my mind, my brain immediately dismissed it as a plausible course of action. Hike uphill to avoid a male deer? A moose? A bear? Sure. But not a doe.)

“Go on!” I keep telling the deer. But she’s not moving, and I’m sure as hell not going to walk up to 120+ pound wild animal with its baby.

So, I decide, I will be the one to trudge down the mountainside into the fern and poky green-leafed things and what I really hope is not poison oak (I am not a botanist either, clearly.)

This was a dumb idea. Because even though I knew I was not trying to harass these deer, this doe did not know that, I would come to realize. I shuffled down the side of the mountain some 15 feet to where there were some trees I could use to balance as I tried to make my way parallel to the trail. As I got just past where the doe was (I couldn’t see the fawn anymore) I said again, “Go on!” Nothing. I don’t know why I thought telling her to go, like a neighborhood dog, would do anything to encourage her to move. I tried again, “Go on!”

At some point, I either say “Go on!” one too many times or tried to move in a way she didn’t like, and in a flash, the doe charged down the hillside at me.

While I could tell you what to do in the face of black bear and mountain lion with some confidence (make yourself big, yell), and even grizzly bear (back away slowly saying “woah bear,” have bear spray ready, uh, pray), and heck, maybe even sharks (punch ’em in the nose!) I have no idea what you’re supposed to do with a deer. I have never seen a trail sign detailing how to handle deer. I had no idea a deer with no horns would even charge. (Let’s blame the patriarchy for that one.)

So what I did do is yell, “Get out of here!” The doe froze, and meandered back up to the trail. So I tried to move again, and she charged down the mountain again.

“Get out of here!”

We did this probably eight or nine times. Once she charged when I just turned my head to figure out what my next move could be.

Meanwhile, I’m thinking:

I really should have just googled what to do with a deer who won’t move before I trampled down this mountainside.

What is her plan, exactly? To ram me down the mountain? To head butt me to death?

If I have to use the SOS button on my InReach because I get head butted down a mountain by a deer, maybe it would be better to just disappear out here.

I’m considering whether to throw something at her, but having recognized my complete lack of deer-knowledge, I’m not sure if this will scare her off or piss her off more. I’m holding onto a thin little tree for balance and wishing I was behind one of the more substantial trees to my right or left, but whenever I try to move, she charges me.

And she seems to get closer with each charge, and each time I yell at her, it’s like she’s learning: “That’s it. That’s all this dumb lady has. I literally have eyeballs on the side of my head I’m so far down the food chain but even I could be an apex predator next to this dumb ape.” At one point she starts nibbling on some trail-side leaves she’s so unthreatened by me.

So the next time she charges, I yell, and I also break a branch off the tree I’m holding onto and throw it at her. This, finally, seems to spook her enough that she bounds back up to the trail.

To be honest, I don’t remember the sequence of events after that — whether she kept bounding or moved slowly up the trail or whatever, but I am pretty sure that was her last charge. I struggled to grab a few more big sticks in case she decided to charge again and bushwhacked my way parallel to the trail a few more feet before getting back on the trail itself. I carried those sticks for a good half mile before accepting that she wasn’t coming after me.

What Gaia thinks the deer encounter looked like. I wish I’d been able to move that much.

Compared to getting charged by a deer, the rest of the run was uneventful. I had to dig a cat hole around mile 10. I summited Tiger 3. On the way down back toward the trailhead, I started down a trail that said “unmaintained.” Another trail runner was headed up. I asked how the trail was.

“Rough,” she said.

“Like, terrible?”

“It’s not too bad, but it’s about 2,800 feet in 1.2 miles.”

“Oh, nope,” I said, marching back up the short distance I’d come. “I’ve had enough of that today.”

The way down Tiger 3 wasn’t exactly gentle on the knees/quads/spirit, but better than that, at least. I got back to the trailhead and had only gone about 13.5 miles, but managed to rally to run the Tradition Lake trail again (this time to the end) as well as the flat Bus Trail. This time around I realized why it was named that.

I didn’t read the trail signs but my guess is it’s because of the giant bus.

That is, by far, the most beat up I have felt after a run so far. It feels like someone has bludgeoned my legs. On the way home, I picked up a gyro and fries and a root beer hoping to undo some of the damage with pure calories—I should have probably had a full sandwich or something on me instead of just the Tailwind, gels, and banana that I did. (I also had a granola bar but it would probably take several more hours of starvation before that sounded appetizing.)

After I got home, I looked up what you’re supposed to do with deer. It sounds like it’s pretty rare for a doe to be aggressive with a human, even when her fawn is around, so lucky me. (It’s more common when there’s a human and a dog.) But does can be aggressive in the spring with their new babies and bucks get aggressive during rutting season. And in case you see one, the internet has informed me the best practices are, in this order:

  1. Hike your stupid ass back up the mountain, even if it means an extra 500 feet of elevation gain and the trail turnoff is RIGHT. THERE.
  2. Climb a tree, if you’re lucky enough to be near a climbable tree and have the speed to climb a tree as a deer charges you.
  3. Act big and shout
  4. If it does ram you, curl into a ball and cover your neck to protect the important stuff and hope they go away.

(Summarized from here.)

But throwing a stick (at a DOE!!! I wouldn’t even try it with antlers) didn’t seem to hurt.

Runlikely: Trail Training Starts

Whoops. I know it’s been a bit. I went out of town to visit my aunt and didn’t bring my laptop, and then figured I might as well wait until my next long run. So here we are.

The basic update is that, instead of running almost exclusively on roads (there’s a .5-1 mile section of trail I like to run on my neighborhood loop but it’s mainly pavement), I’m doing 2-3 runs per week on trails, including my long run. And that… has upped the difficulty. Trails slow everybody down (maybe especially me), and there are lots of little muscles waking up for the first time in this training round.

I got through all my scheduled runs while visiting my aunt (3/5/3/11/3 for a 25 mile week), including a long run near and around Tully Lake. That 11 miles took me up to the top of Tully Mountain (a 600′ elevation gain, which is small by PNW standards) then back toward the lake and around it. It went fine! No emergency pit stops, I brought enough food and managed to fuel well, and I found a groove that had me cruising the flats and downhills.

Miles: 11.5 (on trail)
Elevation gain: 1,306
Effort: Easy (though I struggle to start easy, I fell into an easy pace by the last miles)
Time: 3:33 (average pace: 18:33)
Emergency poops: 0

The view from the viewpoint at Tully Mountain

I was stoked, because I wasn’t sure if I’d have to cut back my mileage to accommodate running on trails. But so far, my body seems game. It helps that I’m not even hazarding an attempt at running uphills at this point and instead am trying to hike them strong. I’ll be doing some hill-specific training drills, but everyone’s advice for your first ultra is to hike uphill and run the flats/downhills, so that’s what I’m practicing in training. (The idea is that the physical cost of running uphill is more likely to wear you out than save you time unless you’re an extremely fit runner—and there are uphills that even elite runners would choose to hike to be more efficient.)

That said, this elevation gain was a little less than what I’d be facing on race day (which is 2,000 feet of gain in 7 to 8 miles), and a lot of it was small ups and downs around the lake rather than a steady uphill like I’ll be facing at the race. But there aren’t 1,000+ feet mountains to go straight up in western Massachusetts where I was at, so I did the best I could. A good chunk of this run was dirt roads, too, which is way less technical than most single track.

Some stuff that worked on this run is I tried out Tailwind, which is a supplement that is supposed to provide all of the electrolytes and carbohydrates that you need while running—and it’s supposed to be a type of sugar that’s easier on the stomach. I’m not sure if it’s the Tailwind that meant my stomach didn’t turn into knots, or just the more varied terrain/pace of trail running, but it tasted good. I ate breakfast (bagel with cream cheese) about 20 minutes before I started and packed a banana. I had other snacks with me but didn’t need them.

The other real winner of this trail run was the podcast Out Alive by Backpacker, which my friend Wayne recommended to me. They’re true stories about people who find themselves in near-death situations in the wilderness and how they got out. They’re 20-30 minutes long and I’ve been enjoying the heck out of them. (I am very open to podcast recommendations for these long runs! I like stuff about the outdoors, and I don’t like True Crime.)

I wasn’t too sore/wiped out after this run (which was on a Friday–three days of running in a row), but for logistical reasons took the next day off, and then ran again on that Sunday. My ankles/calves were very not into it on that run. I’m struggling a bit because I feel like taking a day off makes it very hard for my ankles/calves to get back into the swing of things, but I do need rest days. I fell off of the strength exercises I was doing to make sure my hips are strong while I was traveling.

OK, this week’s long run:

Miles: 14
Elevation gain: 2,352
Effort: Easy-moderate
Time: 4:23 (average pace: 18:50)
Emergency poops: 0!!

First, the good stuff: I ran 14 miles, which is the farthest I’ve ever run, and I did it on a trail. Cool! My stomach was fine the whole time, though I’m now carrying a ziplock, wet wipes, and a trowel in my running backpack. I followed the same procedure as last time: bagel for breakfast, Tailwind in one of my waters, and banana, but I also had a Huma gel and a Hammer gel because I had less Tailwind than I needed. I also had a oat milk latte with my bagel, which, talk about a gamble. But again: fine! No tummy troubles whatsoever. And the Out Alive podcast was a great companion again, although I have now binge-listened to every episode and will need to find something else.

Training for the week overall had gone OK—I did a five mile trail run with 1,083 feet of elevation gain on Tuesday and tried to do some downhill sprints to get more comfortable running downhill fast. I did a speed workout (3 x 3 minutes fast, equal recovery) on my neighborhood loop, which went OK, and then an easy run that did not feel easy. I couldn’t find a chill pace and kept speeding up and then walking and trying again. My hip was bothering me—I’m assuming IT pain. I’d fallen off of doing the hip exercises a PT recommended to me but have since started again, and am trying to think “hips forward” while running to try to engage my glutes better.

As far as the long run, my ankles were not pleased. I planned to do a “long” warm up by hiking for 10 minutes but they were so mad that I think it took 40-50 minutes before running became even a remote possibility. At one point, I thought: am I going to have to hike this whole 14 miles? No way, that will take me forever. So I told myself if I’d hiked for two and a half hours and my legs/ankles were still not OK with running, I could turn around and hike back to the car, regardless of how many miles I’d done. (The thought being I could aim for a similar amount of “time on my feet.”) But after 50 minute, I started being able to run for extended periods of time and, voila, 14 miles became possible.

I have some funny magical thinking around hiking—I’ve never hurt myself hiking. I’ve been sore, tired, grumpy, blistered, but never injured. So there’s a part of me that feels like hiking is a low-risk activity. Therefore, the fact that so much of this is going to be about improving my hiking means my risk of injury is less. (Having known many people who have hurt themselves hiking, I logically know that’s not true. But the magical thinking is still there.) But either way, my hiking experience is helping with the trail running. If I hadn’t woken up for several days in a row with sore ankles and still been able to crank out 15+ mile days, I would have been afraid to push on this long run.

The trail was uphill that most of the time going in, which I didn’t realize. The elevation gain mimicked the race’s pretty spot-on, which is great. Sometimes the uphills are obvious, other times they look like flat but feel like hell. I only realized some sections were uphill when I ran the way back and realize I was going flying down. Uh, also my butt seemed to be doing a lot of work on this trip. My glutes felt very… engaged.

I wasn’t familiar with the area I was hiking/running, and so I was having to figure out navigation while I ran, too, which slowed me down, though I’m not sure how much. My Garmin gives me the overall time, but Strava often deletes anything where I’m not moving—and for this run Strava cut a full half hour off my overall time (which would have made my overall pace more like a 16:50). So that gives you some indication of how much time it eats up to be like, “wait, where am I going?” I tried to choose a route that was simple to follow (Tiger Mountain Trail) and went far enough, but then there were trail closures not long in and I had to re-route. That meant several miles on dirt roads rather than trails.

Speaking of which, after I turned back from my half-way point, I ran into another runner who was confused where the trail went. “I just spent a half-mile bushwhacking and I’d like to avoid doing that again. Do you know where the trail goes?” So I showed him the map on my phone. He told me he was glad he ran into me, which was nice—I don’t feel like part of the “running” crowd because I’m so slow, but at least I can still be useful for navigational purposes. I’m glad to be vaccinated and able to talk to random strangers without being nervous about being unmasked.

At the end, I was a half-mile short of my 14 mile goal so doubled back to get that last .5. I was wiped by the time I got to my car. Not the most wiped I’ve ever been (last summer after a hike I had to stop mid-way home to eat because I wasn’t sure I’d make it home otherwise), but not as energetic as after the 11-mile run. My bra started digging into my back with the backpack, so I might need to experiment with other bras.

Oh, and my feet. I’ve been getting recurring blisters at the big toe joint of my foot. I have wide feet, but I bought quite wide shoes and so was confused why I kept getting blisters. Turns out, I think it was the calluses I’d developed there. I’m trying to scrub those away so they don’t keep causing problems. And it seems to be working, because despite 14 miles, no blisters. That’s a big win in my book. (Running is such an attractive sport.)

I got home, ate, drank, but didn’t take a nap because I had socializing plans. Today I’d planned to do an 8 mile hike but I’m tired and got a late start – I’m still debating whether to go on a longer hike or a shorter run, and I think I’m leaning toward the latter.

I am still very nervous about making the cutoff times for this race. It doesn’t seem impossible, but it does seem like I’ll have to hope everything goes near-perfect in training. It’s unlikely that my running pace will get much faster by July, but I think it’s reasonable to think that my uphill hiking can get more efficient, and that I can get better at running downhills faster. Those things will help trim time off my miles and make the cutoff possible.

Runlikely: The Humbling Half Marathon

Miles: 13.1
Pace: Moderate-hard, for me
Time: 2:43:41
Emergency poops: 1 (shoutout to the perfectly placed porta potty)

The long and short of this post is: the half marathon went fine!

I woke up early, managed to use the bathroom in the morning (not always a given), wasn’t feeling especially nervous, and got to do a few stretches before the run. Great! The weather was pretty excellent — not raining but not super sunny the whole way. And I hit my time goal (or very close to it) at 2:43 — I’d been half-hoping to get close to 2:40 and basically feel like I managed it.

On the other hand, it was not without its trials and tribulations. Over the last two days, my period had been threatening to start–just a little bit of blood but then it would cease. WEIRD and not a thing I’ve experienced before. So in addition to being worried about my gut, I was also worried I might start bleeding at any moment.

At the beginning of the race, I started too fast, which I do not know how to stop doing, and then eased off into more reasonable paces. But that first couple of miles were rough on my system—my stomach started cramping early and my I felt a weird kind of anxiety in my body, which I think was because the sun was shining directly on me the first couple of miles. I was warm and running too fast and thinking, oh shit, what have I done. What am I doing!?

Once the sun backed off and my pace slowed down, my mind cleared more and I tried to just focus on the run/walk intervals I set for myself. First 2 minutes runnning/30 seconds walking, and then when that felt like too much, backing off into 1:30/30. I thought about standing up taller and increasing my cadence. Most of the time, it just felt like a long run where people cheered me on every once in a while.

Other times, I caught myself thinking: I am the slowest person out here. And I am trying so freaking hard.

I was mostly able to keep those at bay for the first chunk of the race. I kept a couple of runners in eyesight distance and was like, it’s fine, there’s someone else out here about my speed. I was in the first wave of runners who started at 8 a.m., and I tried not to pay too much attention when another wave of runners who had started behind me sped past—or even lightly jogged past. Good for them!

I’d brought tortillas with me as food for the run, because I haven’t had much luck with sugary foods and my gut. (Admittedly I’m still unclear if it’s sugary foods that are making my stomach cramp or if it’s spicy food the couple of days before a long run, but I didn’t want to risk either.) Eating a tortilla while running is challenging, and anyway, it didn’t work. After eating my stomach was like, “who wants to eat at a time like this!?” and started bothering me.

It calmed down after a few minutes, but then when I tried eating again, it bothered me again. Cool. I kept an eye out for porta potties, which the race had said would be along the course, but wasn’t spotting them. Well, better hope I get lucky, I thought. Then I spotted one, but there was a line of a few runners and my stomach wasn’t actively bothering me. Nah, I’ll just keep going, I thought.

And I did, and it was fine, and then I picked up a cup full of Nuun around mile 9. Maybe I needed electrolytes! I thought.

HA.

HA.

Not only did it taste gross (in my opinion), it immediately made my stomach start grumbling again. It calmed down, but lowered to a dull roar of discontent. Like imagine the Jaws music here. I knew there was something in the water and it was getting closer, even if it had not yet ripped off any limbs.

I tried to just focus on my run/walk ratio, and gave up watching my pace and hoping for the 2:40 finish, because now I was just hoping I could finish without having to poop my pants and/or poop in one of the random farm ditches on the side of the road (I had certainly seen other racers dash off to the side, but I’m assuming they were peeing. ASSUMING.)

Luckily, up ahead: a porta potty! With — oh god, was there no line!? My stomach chose this moment to cramp hard, and I got myself into the unoccupied toilet, gave my butthole a moment to unclench, and then got to pooping. “Excellent timing, body!” I told myself.

I was in there for about three minutes (I counted later) and walked out feeling pretty good. My legs were a bit stiff from the lack of movement, I figured I definitely had to let go of my 2:40 dreams, but: I was OK! I had not had to shit in a ditch! And I was not bleeding through my pants!

That said, at around mile 9.5, I was definitely not going to be putting anything in my mouth again, thanks. Figuring out long run nutrition would be a problem for next week’s Colleen. Unfortunately, I probably could have used some carbs, as the last miles reeeeally dragged. I just kept focusing on the run/walk. You only have to run for 1:30 and then you can walk.

And as those miles dragged, I also started thinking: oh God, what have I done signing up for a 50k?

I am not even 1/3 of the way through what I will be doing in a 50k.

This race is FLAT. In the 50k I will have climbed 2,000 feet by this distance.

There is no freaking way I can do a 50k.

Luckily, right in this particular pit of despair, I spotted a friend who had come to cheer me on, Julie. I wasn’t sure it was her — her hair was especially blonde — but she had her two pugs with her, and she was STARING at me. So I stared back. And then she waved and I imagine said something encouraging that I cannot recall anymore. The course went on a detour before doubling back to the start, so it would be a quick walk for her to the end. “I’ll see you at the finish!” she said.

Instant mood lift! My legs moved a little faster, and as I turned toward the detour, I saw two other friends, Natalie and Loomis, and my husband. I waved and they waved back. I’m doing it! I thought.

The next two miles dragged, even though it was the prettiest section of the course, the shaded Lowell Riverfront Trail. Runners were passing each other regularly, since the course doubled back on itself, so people were throwing out “good jobs!” left and right.

But I just wanted to see the turnaround point, where I knew it would be a straight shot back to the finish. Run, walk. Run, walk. Run, walk.

At the turnaround point, I spun around the cone and then started feeling like the end was in sight. I was tired, but I was also passing the (admittedly few) people who were still behind me. “Good job!” I said. Good job good job good job. I started saying it to everyone. And then, as the end came into view, I picked up my pace. I saw Natalie and Loomis and Mark and Julie. And across the finish line I went. Natalie said they were all surprised I was smiling, since other folks had looked really beat. I’ll take it!

Afterward we got some food. I was tired and definitely started hobbling as my muscles cooled down, but it was nothing worse than the day after a hard backpacking trip.

The spiral really started when I got home. Even though I’d done what I’d set out to do — hit the pace I’d been trying to hit, made it through, didn’t feel especially beaten up — I couldn’t get that thought out of my head. How the hell am I going to do a 50k? I thought about how I wish I hadn’t started this blog series because then I wouldn’t have to try, I could put it off for another year, two years, forever. I’m just too slow, I figured. If I’m a 12:30 pace at a moderate-hard effort on completely flat ground, my pace is going to be impossibly slow on trails and elevation gain and over 30 miles. There’s no freaking way.

So I do what I always do when I’m stressed, and I googled the hell out of it. I read 50 reddit threads. “slow runner 50k??” “back of the pack 50k” “chasing the cutoff 50k”

None of it satisfied the part of me that was essentially asking: is this even worth trying, or is this 100% doomed to fail?

And it’s worth saying that it’s not the possibility of failure that bothers me. It’s the possibility that everything could go RIGHT — my stomach could be fine! the weather could be perfect! my legs could handle the terrain! — but that I would just be too slow. For some reason, that activates a very scared, very sensitive part of me. I can accept that crappy things happen that you can’t forsee, and it sometimes changes your plans. I really don’t like the idea that you can prepare, train hard, and not be good enough to even participate.

I posted the question of whether this was possible on reddit, which is a dubious choice, and mostly got encouraging feedback, and then also got feedback that I should already be running 40 miles per week if I want to achieve a 50k and that I’m essentially stupid for not doing that. But I’m pretty convinced that it would be very difficult for my body to maintain 40 running miles per week for more than a few weeks at a time, at least in this stage of my running experience. I’m pretty sure it would be more likely to open me up to injury than success. And I want, at the very least, to make it to the start line.

So after all that, I might be reworking my training plan a little bit to try to get a few more miles in ahead of the 50k, turning runs into hikes when I’m feeling fragile, and even backing off of mileage if I feel like I’m courting injury. I’m back in the boat of thinking: I can at least try. My focus is going to be on maintaining my easy running stamina while trying to improve my uphill hiking, which is pretty weak at the moment, and to not get injured.

But it’s pretty clear to me I’m going to be chasing the cutoff. And as much as it’s going to be physically challenging to run/hike 31 miles in 10 hours, getting my brain to be kind as I try may be the hardest part of all.

Runlikely: The 50k Training Plan

I have two summers of running training to go on, which means I do not have the kind of wisdom necessary to plan my own 50k training. (And arguably won’t have the physical stamina necessary to run a 50k, but we’re gonna keep it positive around here!)

What I do know is that my body doesn’t seem to like running five days a week, and that I need to be careful as I start entering higher mileage for any niggles or exhaustion. Two summers ago I pulled a groin muscle (self-diagnosed; it felt like running with a flat tire) after racing a 5k as hard as I could and then trying to run 10 trail miles the day afterward. Ah, the bravado of inexperience. I’ve read that it’s better to enter a race slightly undertrained than slightly injured, and I’m taking that to heart.

I’ve already had some achilles issues that I had evaluated by a physical therapist, who gave me some very simple stretches and exercises to incorporate, as well as some hip exercises to keep my IT bands from getting angry.

With that in mind, I’m generally using this Couch to 50k training program from Week 5 onward after my flat half marathon May 2. I like that it’s four days a week, with back-to-back runs midweek and on the weekends. It means that I’ll mostly only be giving up my Saturdays to training, where other plans put a mid-distance long run in the middle of week. If all goes well, I’ll be doing weeks 5-12 twice, since I have time, and adding an additional 2 miles to my long runs the second round.

Go read the full post about this plan for more info.

During this training, I’ve got a few trips planned to visit family and friends, and one vacation with my husband. (We’re both vaccinated and will be following all public health guidelines.) I’ve tried to plan those around my lower mileage weeks, but I still have a 16 mile run on the books one Saturday in Hawaii. In July. (Is it possible to have preemptive heat exhaustion?)

Keep in mind I’ll be entering into this having just trained (and run) a half marathon, so I’m not actually starting from the couch. But I am starting from minimal elevation change, which is one part of this plan I’ll have to experiment with. Do I build elevation into every run? Specific runs? Long runs? I’m not sure what my body will tolerate. If nothing else, I’ll be doing shorter runs/hikes that mimic the two most significant climbs on the course (~2,000 feet and ~1,500 feet).

Also, I plan to do plenty of walking/hiking. I’ll be hiking anything more than the mildest climb, running the flats and downhills—with some speed work and hill sprints mixed in occasionally, depending on how my body copes. Ultraruns, from what I’ve heard, can be completed or failed on descents—if your quads aren’t ready for the pounding of downhills, it can end the race for you.

I’ll also be swimming, biking, and potentially walking and hiking as cross training—again trying not to overdo it and respecting the fact that I’m asking a lot of my body. I’ll be trying to mix some strength work into the week, too, but it’s my least favorite activity, so it’ll probably be bare-minimum activity to try to keep easy-to-fatigue running muscles strong. And then yoga/stretching and massage gunning my body as required.

So this is the plan. I like plans, because they give you a direction to head, but if I do this well it’s going to mean sometimes foregoing the plan—namely, backing off when I’m not recovering well. But I think the hardest part is going to be not getting caught too much on my pace, which I’m sure will be discouragingly slow.

I’m trying to remind myself that, even if I come out of this slow and unlikely to finish the race in the allotted time, I will still be in excellent backpacking shape for the season. But only if I don’t hurt myself in the prorcess.

Runlikely: A 50k Training Journey

Two weeks ago, I pooped my pants during an 11-mile long run.

I have come very close to bowel bombs in the past, namely while hiking a ridge on the PCT after brazenly eating extremely spicy pasta out of a hiker box the night before, but I’ve never actually failed to get to a natural or manmade commode in time.

In this case, I was running a paved rail trail in the Seattle area—long, smooth, flat—and caught between a housing development to my right and the Samammish River to my left when my stomach cramping went from idle threat to GI emergency. I was .3 miles from a certain bathroom, and I was nearly sure there was a porta potty a mere .1 miles ahead. But it didn’t matter—I didn’t make it.

Instagram story on the day in question.

I’m not a runner by nature. I didn’t play sports growing up. My freshman year PE class required high school students to run a mile in under 15 minutes in order to pass the class; I achieved a 14:59, which I maintain required numerical fudging on the teacher’s part. I spent a few weeks one summer trying to learn to run with my mom, who would plod slowly and consistently while I sprinted and collapsed again and again. Another summer after college I started trying to jog to and around the manmade lake near my apartment in Tempe, Arizona, sometimes briefly getting a sense of what it might be like to enjoy running (sometimes my legs would tingle like they were eager to keep going even as my lungs spasmed) but never actually enjoying it.

But even as a non-runner, I did slowly start to enjoy exercise. I did a lot of yoga; I hiked a lot of miles. Two summers ago, frustrated by the hour drive required to reach any trailheads, I started a Couch to 5k training program to try to build cardiovascular endurance for the summer hiking season. My shins ached for weeks, but I caught the bug, and I started training for a trail half marathon. That ended in a pulled groin muscle. The following summer, I signed up for and started training for another half marathon—then coronavirus.

This summer I’d planned to do the same: train slowly for a half marathon. After leisurely running a 5k loop near my house, I started a run/walk program. But less than halfway through the program, I realized I was already capable of a half marathon distance. It wasn’t exciting. I needed something bigger to train toward or I’d lose interest before summer even rolled around.

Enter the Wy’East Howl, a 50k trail run at Mount Hood: 31 miles, 6,050 feet of elevation gain, 5,000 feet of descent. It’s July 31st, just under three months away from the flat half marathon I’m running on May 2nd.

This is an ambitious goal for me. I’ve backpacked 21 miles before (in the greatest shape of my life, although also while battling a stomach illness), but never come close to running that distance, let alone 31 miles.

The nice thing about ultramarathons is that speed, for most people, is not the point. Finishing is the point. Hiking uphill is encouraged. Walks happen. But there is a time crunch—I have to reach the third station at 20.7 miles within 6.5 hours; I have to reach the end within 10 hours. Those are generous times for flat courses, but elevation gain and trail conditions make everybody run slower. On pavement, an easy pace for me—the kind of pace I’ll need to maintain in order to cover 30 miles—is around 13:30/mi. On trail, it varies wildly, from 16 to 18 to 20+ minute miles. I’ll need to average 19 minute miles over the whole course to make that happen, something I don’t know that I can do.

Of course, that’s assuming I make it to the starting line to begin with. I’ve injured myself running before and it took me out of commission for months—that could happen again. The training could be more than my body can handle. Or there could be other impossible to imagine disruptions (pandemics happen) that could make the race impossible.

But I want to try. I want to go from feeling like an unlikely runner to a likely runner. So I’m calling this 50k training series Runlikely, because like the word impossible, it feels like it contains both sides of the attempt. “Do you think you can run 31.3 miles?” “Ha! Runlikely.” But maybe I’ll surprise myself. Run? Likely.

A few weeks ago even a 7 mile long run seemed unlikely.

I don’t have speed. I’m not lithe and aerodynamic. I don’t have years or experience. What I do have is tenacity. In the case of the unfortunate fecal fiasco, I waddled to the nearest porta potty. I finished my business, texted a few people for levity, cleaned myself up and kept running.

I’m hoping this blog will be a weekly record of the attempt, successful or not, of putting one foot in front of the other. Even when shit hits the, er, pants.

Freelancing in Pie Charts – 2018 & 2019

This post is shamelessly inspired by writer and photographer Lola Akinmade‘s yearly work updates, where she tracked her pitching and income breakdown for an entire decade. She retired the series last year, but as someone who is still new to full-time freelancing, it seemed like a useful exercise for me to try to adopt.

Freelancers: I’m hoping this is useful in some way to see how another writer’s year looked, from how I made money to how often my pitches were rejected, ignored, or resulted in assignments.

Friends who are not freelancers: I’m not sure how much you’ll gain from this, other than a sense of what life is like behind the travel photos and desk pajamas, and an idea of what kind of money I’m making*. Which, if I’m honest, makes me both deeply uncomfortable and feel a little radical. Why AREN’T we talking about money?

*I think it’s important to also say that I am married and very much benefit from my husband’s stable income, health insurance, and desire for lightning-fast internet.

**The main image for this post is from canyoneering in Da Lat, Vietnam earlier this year. I descended into a waterfall known as the “Washing Machine” and then had to let go. Freelancing for me has felt a lot like that waterfall: slippery, terrifying, and it will pummel you, but if you go for it anyway (and nothing too horrible happens), you’ll get safely spit out the other side having had an exhilarating adventure.

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The Year in Freelancing 2018

  • Articles written in 2018: 314  (I’m tired just writing that)
  • Editing: 3 short-term contracts with two different companies
  • New publications: 16
  • Days traveling for work: 46
  • Days traveling total: 51

My Favorite Assignments in 2018

I Tried Bumble BFF & Here’s What Happened – SheKnows

Friendship is one of those things I find intensely fascinating, and it was fun to try to make friends with a bunch of people in a short window of time. The woman I talk about in the article and I are still friends, though she’s now moved to Bosnia to do work with urban development (she is definitely cooler than me).

Whatever Happened to Moderate Fitness? – SELF

This was one of the first stories I pitched that was for a bigger byline and involved reporting. It also started shaping the way that I viewed wellness, which is that most of it is a bunch of marketing hooey.

Tackling the 7,000-Mile Great Western Loop – Outside

Outside is one of my favorite publications. I’d been following Jeff Garmire’s story after meeting him after his Calendar Triple Crown, and I was thrilled to both get this assignment and get to highlight Jeff’s story. This was also the story that made me realize I needed to be less afraid of pitching bigger outlets.

How to Travel and Explore Vietnam – REI

Fun fact—I actually wrote this story *before* I went to Vietnam. I told the editor I was heading there in January, but he needed it by December. I essentially got paid to do deep-dive research on my upcoming travel. At the time, it was the biggest amount I’d been paid for a single article and also the longest word count I’d written.

How Pitching Went 2018

Number of pitches: 159

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This pie chart looks a lot better than it felt. That no response column looks slender because nearly all of my pitches were one-line title suggestions to editors I already had relationships with.

The vast majority of those pitches were for low-paying clients, so even when I *did* land an assignment from a pitch, it wasn’t moving the needle much in my bank account.

What was really padding my year was the fact that those editors also sent me assignments that I hadn’t pitched (out of pity for how many weren’t a fit? maybe), even though those assignments were often low-paying, too.

How Money Went 2018: ~$51,000 Gross (before taxes, expenses, deductions)

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Overall feeling about the year: I was stressed to the max and at full capacity at every turn, often for less money than it was worth. But hustling this hard was a good crash course in writing quickly and effectively. By the end of the year, I was so burned out that I said “eff it” and pitched some bigger publications—and much to my shock, got the work (and the pay.)

Key takeaways:

  • Focus on higher paying clients
  • Pitch bigger publications, they’re not the boogeyman
  • Get some anchor clients

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The Year in Freelancing 2019

  • Articles I wrote: 83
  • New editorial publications: 6
  • New/ongoing content marketing clients: 3
  • Editing clients: 2
  • Days traveling for work: 64

My Favorite Assignments in 2019

Away from Vietnam’s tourist circuit, a Pacific Northwest travel writer finds comfort and charm in Seattle’s sister city – The Seattle Times

I’d told the editor that I was headed to Vietnam and that Seattle had a sister city there that I was considering exploring, and she said to shoot her a draft when I was back. Instead, I visited, went back to my hostel and wrote up the story in a single sitting. It’s one of my favorite pieces of writing from the year.

Outdoors for All: Plus-Size Climbers Challenge Stereotypes – REI

I started getting into climbing this year, and as I tried to find climbers who seemed to better-reflect my body type, I realized there was a real lack of visibility for large climbers. The people I spoke to for this story were candid and passionate and I was so grateful that I got to shine a spotlight on the factors that hold larger climbers back, including lack of visibility in the industry and sizing limitations in harnesses.

Where to Travel for the Best Canadian Wine – Budget Travel

I’d been trying to break into Budget Travel for a year and was happy to have finally done it and to get to highlight the Okanagan, which I had such a blast exploring this year.

How Pitching Went 2019

Number of pitches: 70

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Accepted is clearly a much smaller slice of the pie, but it’s important to note that I pitched way less this year and I was often pitching higher-paying or new-to-me publications.

In other pitch-development news, in September I went to a travel writing conference that allowed me to meet with editors from top magazines and that was a great learning experience that also resulted in a couple of assignments. I’ll be going again in May (to SWITZERLAND!), and then I’ll probably cool it on conferences for a bit.

How Money Went 2019: ~$60,000 Gross (before taxes, expenses, deductions)

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Average per article rate: 150% increase over last year. (That’s a bit misleading because if you look at just the second half of the year, it bumps up even further to a 292% increase. So my average rate *did* take a big leap this year, it just took a while to get going.)

Overall feeling about the year: SO much better than last year. That’s primarily because I had one major anchor client and a few other regular gigs that made money much more reliable and allowed me to focus my energy on assignments that paid well.

Other wins: I was smarter about the travel I did—I took two long plane trips (Vietnam and Chile) and a few closer-to-home trips, rather than a bunch of short trips on weekends, so I got most of my weekends back and felt a lot less stressed. I focused on doing more near home, spending time with friends, and pursuing hobbies rather than just work, work, work.

Key takeaways:

  • I need to stop sitting on my weird/complicated/SEO-unfriendly pitches and just send them, somebody might bite (I didn’t do this much this year but I should have)
  • A little bit of reporting before pitching can be helpful for some stories (and is less scary than it seems)
  • Taking fewer back-to-back trips means there’s more time to pre-research, which means I get more story ideas
  • Anchor. Clients. Are. Key.

2020 Goals

If next year was an exact repeat of this year, I wouldn’t be bummed at all. But having things to work toward keeps me happy (within reason), so here are a few things I’m keeping in mind for next year:

  • Maintain sense of sanity developed this year around the amount that I was working and traveling; ambition is good, burnout is bad
  • Grow per-article rate (which also helps with sanity)
  • Maintain current anchor clients and pursue one or two more
  • Pitch ‘weird’ and specific ideas I’ve been hesitant about
  • Pitch bigger — bigger reporting ideas, bigger bylines, bigger pay rates
  • Pitch consistently, whatever I can figure out that works for me (monthly? bi-monthly?)
  • Continue to develop my photography skills

For any freelancers reading this: How’d the year go for you? What are you working toward in 2020?

Trekking in Sapa: Days 19 – 21

From Siem Reap I flew to Hanoi. On the plane, I sat next to two Americans from… Florida, I think? (I remember the man’s name was Richard because it got said several times, but I can’t remember the girl’s name.) Yet again, I hadn’t organized transportation from the airport, and so as we got ready to land, I asked if they’d be interested in splitting a taxi. They said yes, and when we landed we ordered a Grab.

Grab is like Uber or Lyft in the states, but you pay cash. It’s supposed to be the ~better alternative to cabs, because the price is agreed upon in advance and you input your destination into the app, so you can tell if you’re going the wrong way.

Which is what makes what actually happened so funny: We got into our grab, and just as we got out of the airport, we saw a bunch of cars being stopped in the road ahead of us. An accident? Some kind of checkpoint? Construction? What was going on?

Our Grab pulled over, told us to get out (along with our bags) and get into a taxi. Uhh… what, why?

“We’re busy now.”

???

After confirming with the new taxi driver that the price would be the same, we got out of our comfortable Grab and squeezed our three American-sized bodies into a Vietnamese-sized back seat (our bags were all piled into the front passenger seat). Basically, I think the Grab drivers have a deal with the taxi drivers to pass customers off from the airport. Well. That’s one way to deal with a tech takeover.

It turned out to be just fine, but I was glad I wasn’t alone for that switcheroo, and I laughed quite a bit. (Things are a lot funnier when you’re with people when they might just be scary on your own.)

I got to my hostel and was unpacking as quietly as possible since there were curtains closed in the dorm (some beds have curtains, which I love, because it’s like having your own personal tent & it’s easier to get changed, etc, but then it’s hard to tell if someone is actually in the room or not), feeling bad about how much rustling my bag made before getting some street food at the hostel’s recommendation. (Recommendation = yelling in Vietnamese at the vendor to see if they were still serving and pointing me over.)

When I came back to get to bed, I was settling in, and another guest crawled into bed, loudly talking and giving a tour of the room via Facetime. Keep in mind it was like 11 p.m. So yeah, at least I didn’t have to worry about my bag-rustling being the jerkiest noise of the night.

The next day I caught a bus to Sapa. Compared to my first sleeper bus, this one was lush – WiFi, the bathrooms at the stops were super clean, some of the beds even had charging USB ports. (Mine didn’t have one and I heard they didn’t work well, but still!)

After the 6 hour ride, we got to Sapa and were in a literal cloud. My plan had been to walk to my hostel, which wasn’t far, but I’d failed to load the directions onto my phone, it didn’t seem like any nearby places were open, and it was so hard to see I wasn’t sure I’d be able to find it well even with maps. So I had one of the taxi drivers that were standing around soliciting us give me a ride. (I also negotiated, mostly because I knew the ride was short and I was half thinking about walking.)

In the morning I ate a pancake. The check-in areas was also a dining area and hangout area, and there was a Polish guy sleeping on the couch. Come to find out he’d slept there all night because he’d gotten in at 3 a.m. and the hostel didn’t want to wake everyone else by having him check in, and also didn’t give him a blanket, so he was shivering on the couch all night. And it was truly cold the night before, somewhere around 40F. I’d used the electric blanket that the hostel provided because I’d had trouble warming up. It made for a very funny (if very grumpy) story in the morning, and he proceeded to complain about many things to me and another American, Noah from Oregon. Noah and I would try to point out the sunny side, the Polish guy would complain more, and the cycle would repeat.

Meanwhile, my tour hadn’t shown up, so I called my hostel back in Hanoi to see what was up. Also, I’d realized I’d left my passport there when I checked out, but didn’t worry too much about it since I knew I’d be going back in a couple of nights — very lucky it wasn’t the day of my departure. After some running around, a taxi driver showed up with a name that wasn’t my name on his list and I went with him.

One of Sapa’s main tourist attractions is trekking. People can choose to do a day trip, stay overnight in a homestay or local house, or stay for several nights.

During the high season (read: not the winter, like now) the rice paddies are really striking. During the low season (aka, now), the rice isn’t growing, so it’s mostly wet ponds and mud, which I knew, but soon came to know on a really personal level. But even if the views weren’t top notch, I thought it would be worth it because on the way you get to visit local villages whose customs are really unique to them and outside of the typical Vietnamese lifestyle.

The taxi driver dropped me off at another hotel, where I rented rainboots, and then we started walking. My hostel in Hanoi had said there would be a van for us to drop our packs off in, but as we walked I noticed that nobody was carrying their backpacks. In fact, I had the biggest pack of anyone, because it contained literally all of my stuff.

There was a group of seven Italians, a man my age from Malaysia, and me in the group. Our leader was Khu, and there were about 10 village women who were also following us for reasons that became clearer later. Giovanni, one of the Italians, started chatting with me early on. “Are they bringing all of your stuff to the homestay?” I asked him. No, he said. They only brought what they would need for the night — the rest of their stuff was in the luggage room at the hotel.

Well. I had 25 lbs of clothing, electronics, and souvenirs on my back. Different strokes, I suppose.

After we descended from the main Sapa town, we started down a mud path and things got real pretty quick. The trails descend through the rice paddies and forest, and the steps, when there were steps, were steep. When there weren’s steps, it was a bit like boot-skiing.

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Tiered rice paddies toward the bottom of the trek

OK, well, I am not much of a boot skier, especially with my laptop and camera in my backpack, so I just embraced the mess. I started squatting down, getting my hands covered in mud, sliding on my butt. The local women kept offering their hands to me to help, but I continued to get dirty anyway.

Eventually, I had a woman on either side of me guiding me down the steep trails, literally saving my butt several times. The rubber rain boots were absolutely necessary but were also making my pinky toes feel like they were going to fall off.

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Chi Chi and Jinju (spelling not confirmed) demonstrating how they held me up as we walked down the muddy paddies

After a few hours, we got off the mud and onto cement, and I changed back into my sneakers. Around this time, the ladies who had been walking us brought out a bunch of different items they were selling — purses and bracelets and earrings, wall hangings and scarves. I’m not a big souvenir person but I bought a wall hanging from one of the women who helped me, and gave the other some money as well. Then they both gave me bracelets — I’m not totally sure if the bracelets are purely gifts, or also a sign to other sellers that the tourists are willing to spend money.

We got lunch, which was OK, but to be honest I miss American food. Cheese. Bread. I am going to demolish a pizza when I get home. Also, I found a chicken claw in my food, which didn’t help. Experimenting with new dishes is fun when it feels like experimenting, and a little disorienting when it’s your only option — and it’s hard for me to eat when I’m not excited about the food, even though I’d just hiked 5 miles. So I mostly ate rice.

Afterward, Khu showed us around some of the shops. She described how the Black Hmong — the name of the local villagers — make their own clothing. Harvesting hemp, pulling it into strips, spinning it, weaving it. They make their own indigo dye, then dye the fabric, and then use beeswax dyed with indigo to make it shiny. The beeswax trik only works once, so most everyone works on their new clothes for Chinese New Year, and it’s a major faux pas to not have shiny new clothes then.

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A machine that turns hand-harvested hemp into cloth

There’s also a buffalo horn, which is used, she says, to relieve headaches — a piece of coal is put in the horn, which seems to create a vacuum inside and leaves a big, round bruise (possibly a burn?) on their foreheads, but relieves pain.

She also brought us by her in-law’s home. Khu is 23, and she’s married with two boys. She’d lived with her in-laws up until six months ago, she explained, when she and husband moved to their own place — a pretty typical series of events.

How do people get married here? I asked.

Khu explained: Often at Chinese New Year, or other big events, a boy and girl will chat for a little bit. If the boy decides he likes her, he kidnaps her.

“Wait, what?” We said.

“You know, kidnap?” Khu said. “He takes her back to his family’s house for four days and three nights.”

Does she know she’s going to be kidnapped? I ask. (Maybe this is a translation issue, I hope.)

No, Khu says. Sometimes she cries the whole time. After the four days, she’s brought back to her family’s house and she decides whether she’s going to marry him. Most of the time — 80 or 90 percent of the time — she says yes. She only might say no if the boy is lazy or she doesn’t get along with his family.

And for girls, there’s money involved — the boy’s family pays about $2,000 USD to the girl’s family. Which is why the son’s parents often are involved in the decision, because they want to make sure they get a good girl who works hard. It’s also why Khu won’t try to have more children, even though she’d like a girl — she’s anticipating having to pay for her son’s wives. (This is why it is good to have girls, because you can recoup on the money you spend for your sons.)

A few other things she shares — school is free from kindergarten to 15. After that, parents have to pay for high school, which is why mostly only boys get to go — often the oldest — and the girls don’t go and instead start getting married. About 90 percent of the kids go to free school, and half of the village goes to high school, she says. Less than that to college.

(Keep in mind, this isn’t a census survey — it’s a local’s perspective shared on a tour group.)

So maybe it’s that this reality has already shaken me a bit. It’s hard to hear these things and not think about your own life — what it might be like to know that your education would stop at 15, that your best prospect would be to hope a decent man kidnapped you and to start having children.

Then she showed us around her family’s home. Here’s an embarrassing truth: I harbor a lot of fantasies about a more rustic time in history. I think sometimes about whether it might be better in the U.S. if we still cooked over open fires and lived in small spaces and spent our days farming and chopping wood.

But walking through the family house after hearing about the educational opportunities for girls shook me from that. At one point — if I counted right — 11 people were living in a house with four rooms, total. There was a wood pit for cooking with a pot and kettle as you first walk in, a large open space with a small altar, and a raised loft with bags of rice. It doesn’t resemble anything I would recognize as a home — there weren’t carpets or couches or windows. I thought of how important it had been to Mark and me, when we were moving, to have big windows to let in as much natural light as possible in gloomy Washington weather. Here in the village, it was midday and the house was dark.

One of the Italian women seems to get upset, too. Khu is explaining that the boys go to high school and college to learn English, but then don’t do jobs where English is required — it’s the women who interact with the tourists the most, while men stay home. (There seems to be an undercurrent here that women do work while men stay home, something I’ve heard expressed from several women since I’ve been here.)

“Then why do the boys go to school instead of the girls? That makes no sense.” The Italian woman says.

“To learn English,” Khu says.

“But they don’t use it,” the Italian woman says.

Khu is smiling but doesn’t seem to know what to say. “It doesn’t make sense to me either,” she says. “But…” But that’s the way it is.

The Italian woman keeps pressing, and I’m getting more and more uncomfortable. “She doesn’t make the rules, she’s just explaining them,” I say, and the conversation winds down and we leave.

Still feeling unsettled, I walked and chatted with Khu and asked her questions. We bond a little because I got married at 17 — around the same age she did. “See, we’re the only two who know what it’s like to be married,” she says, smiling at the group. Khu, for the record, speaks excellent English — she understands really complex ideas in English and is able to respond to them, too, something that hasn’t been the case even with other Vietnamese guides who are in university for tourism. She’s funny, making jokes and laughing with us. She learned all of her English from tourists, selling to them like the women who were following us down the mud mountain.

Sixty percent or so of the houses here have TV, she tells me. Mostly they watch it for the weather, to know when to harvest. But sometimes they just watch TV, too. But not her kids — she doesn’t think it’s good for little kids to have too much TV time. And she feels like more and more young people are moving away from the village, or at least would like to.

Even as I am admiring the incredible handicraft of the locals — reveling in the idea that there is a place in the world where people, quite literally, make their clothing from scratch — when she says that young people are interested in leaving, I am a little relieved. I don’t know what to say here, really. Here is this incredible culture that seems to still be relatively intact considering the number of tourists who come through, but also… what makes a culture? And if that culture survives because it’s limiting what the young people might dream for their futures, particularly the girls…

Or is this just the American dream — the one I think is often more fantasy than reality — tickling at my brain? An ethnocentric way of viewing the world? And do culture and lack of opportunity have to be bedfellows, or is there a third path?

I’m not an expert. I have no idea. Mostly I felt intimidated by an alternate reality that I might have been born into, and an intense relief that I didn’t — that somehow I ended up in a place where not only was I able to go to college, but I was able to study something that feels relatively frivolous (writing.) And dumb for expressing the same sentiment I have heard so many times over and over again about privilege and education, and for having to be there myself to understand.

A couple of miles later we reached our homestay for the night. The hosts greeted us with a hot apple juice drink. After getting settled and taking showers, we ate a really tasty (no chicken feet included) dinner, finished with deep fried banana rolls. We drank what was essentially hot apple cider and talked about Malaysian vs. Italian vs. American lives. It’s cold, and there’s no heating, so we’re all bundled up under blankets while we eat and drink, until we’re ready to sleep.

The next day we decide to take the long, muddier route, but the mud isn’t nearly as bad as the day before. My pinky toes are crying for mercy, but it only takes us about two hours to do the whole hike, a woman named Gha (not sure on spelling) aiding me along the way. I buy a metal bracelet from her, and later a scarf from another woman, and then we hike up a steep, concrete path to our van. I have lunch with Lim (man from Malaysia) and the Italians before catching a sleeper bus back to Hanoi.

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900-year-old temples in Siem Reap: Days 15 – 18

I flew into Siem Reap and got an in-person visa, where they took a scan of my passport, $32, and gave me a visa after waiting about 30 minutes in a crowd of people until they called my name.

This was the first time I hadn’t arranged a way to get to my hostel, which was about 20 minutes away, and so I decided to get a tuk tuk (open bench on two wheels on the back of a motorbike), which cost $9. It was so pleasant — the sun was down, it was about 80 degrees, the breeze was lovely. I swear the air smelled like cardamom (I asked a few locals, who didn’t know what I was talking about, and one of my tour guides did some investigating — likely another type of tree/bush/flower that smells similar).

Fun fact: In Siem Reap, the currency is part US dollar and part riel (local currency). Case in point: Most places would charge you in U.S. dollars, but if your change was $0.50, you would get the change in riel, or if they were short on dollar bills, same thing. Even the visas were paid for in cash USD.

Got to my hostel, cranked down the air conditioning and passed out.

The next day I was still feeling like I didn’t really want to experiment with food, so I ordered breakfast and lunch at the hostel. I wandered Pub Street and Old Market for a little while, buying tiger balm and a few postcards.

The whole purpose of going to Siem Reap was that I wanted to see Angkor Wat, or more accurately Angkor Park, which is a group of some 300 temples that are nearly 1,000 years old. Tourists have been going there since the 1990s, but Tomb Raider really skyrocketed the number of visitors.

Everyone I’d spoken to about visiting recommended a sunrise tour, but I also wanted to see the sunset, which ended being perfect — there are two main routes to see the temples, and each one is a full day’s worth. A sunset tour (which I started at 1:30 pm) meant I could see most of the smaller loop, and the larger loop could be seen during the sunrise tour.

The hostel I was at didn’t offer any sunrise guided tours, so I was signing up for a private tuk tuk when another girl, Maria from Brazil, walked up and joined in, which cut the price of the tuk tuk by half.

Before we left, Maria reminded me that shoulders and knees have to be covered at the temples so I ran back up and changed (I was in shorts) but all I had was pants, so… pants it was. It was a fun day, and it wasn’t nearly as hot as I’d heard people complain that it could be, though I was definitely sweating. The heat was a lot dryer than Vietnam, which made it more tolerable.

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Folks are really persistent about trying to sell you things as you walk into the temples. The other surprise is one of the police officers inside the temples got really into taking Maria and my photo, telling us to stand in specific places, taking panoramas, posing us, etc. and at the end asked for a tip (I gave him $3). I’d heard about police officers sometimes offering to help you only to push for money in exchange, so I’d kind of caught onto what he was doing.

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One of the photos the police officer took

 

Sunset wasn’t a huge glow of colors, but it was still beautiful. And crowded. I’d decided I had enough pictures of the day and instead hung out and people watched and thought about how we all ended up here, at a temple that got shifted between Hinduism and Buddhism, all of us still chasing a sunset worshipping who knows what. Our cell phones, some would argue. The last slips of light on a horizon. History. Travel. Self-creation.

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The next day was a 4 a.m. wake-up for the guided sunrise tour. We skipped breakfast in order to try to beat the major crowds. Of course, there were still tons of people at sunrise, but with very little planning I managed to crouch down in the very center of the Angkor Wat reflection and take about a million photos. Two people with big tripods were next to me, a man narrating the whole thing suggesting white balance changes and ISO and shutter speeds.

“Dang, I don’t think I’m going to get anything today,” he said. I looked at my own photos (mostly blurry, as I hadn’t practiced with my tripod before) and the sunrise in front of me. And… perspective is weird, I guess. In my hands were photos of Angkor Wat. A beautiful sunrise over a beautiful temple with a beautiful reflection in the water. A place I’d never been and will likely never be again, stepping into the light of the morning the way it had for hundreds of years, a whole human history I now, briefly, got to be a part of.

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But also: I get it. Looking at everyday beauty — even the kinds people travel across the world for  — and shrugging. Seeking bigger returns, the dopamine of newness, the urge to make something that hasn’t been made before.

The last weeks of this trip I feel like I’m starting to remember something about slowness. I spent 2018 running from one place to another, high on the adrenaline of trying to fit in everything I possibly could. This trip was, in some ways, supposed to be an antiviral to that. I wanted to remember what it was like to stumble upon things rather than seek them out, to revel in small things. But mostly I have been running around, high on the adrenaline again. Or trying to make a plea deal with the judge in my brain, You’re here, you shouldn’t be resting. You’re here, you should go on every possible adventure. You’re here, you’re going to regret it if you don’t…

The language we use as travelers feeds into that, too. “You skipped Ninh Binh? But that was the best part of our trip!”

“You came all the way here and all you did were the temples? What about the floating villages? The monk blessing? The local dance?”

However much I do, I am always missing something. And then there is me on the back of a tuk tuk, the air a mixture of gasoline fumes and cardamom, the warm air blowing against my skin. Most of the things that have pierced me have happened between the itinerary, when — quite by accident — I gave myself the chance to breathe.