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Crow Pass Trail: 24 Miles of Alaska

I mentioned in a post earlier this year that I was planning on running Crow Pass Crossing, the 24(ish?)-mile backcountry trail race, which takes place July 26th this year.  I have since decided it’s probably not in my best interest to run it this year, and will be saving up my registration fee for 2015.  That decision, however, didn’t prevent me from jumping on the opportunity to preview the course this past Sunday, June 29th.  I joined two other runners, Evan and Michelle, both of whom plan to race next month, for a casual hike/jog of the trail.

“Casual” is a funny term to use describing the trek.  For the actual race, runners are required to carry a substantial list of required gear to be prepared for anything.  The weather can change suddenly and extremely, and there are additional dangers, since it is, after all, the Alaskan backcountry.  Bears, moose, steep drop-offs, glacial rivers, snowfields, cow parsnip.  Then there are the logistics of just coordinating the point-to-point expedition.  Driving from trailhead to trailhead is 50 miles, so it’s either the 150 mile routine of driving two cars to the end point, carpooling to the start, completing the trail, and then driving back to the start to pick up the other car, or finding someone nice enough to chauffeur to the start and from the finish.  Adding in childcare needs, and an acute knowledge of being undertrained for such a feat, and I nearly backed out all together.

Luckily, the stars aligned in more ways than one, and due to having some very generous and kind people in my life and community, taking on the trail made sense.  To prepare, I assembled a modest collection of gear.  All week, the weather forecast predicted rain for Sunday.  Because of the elevation change, rain in lower areas may be blizzards up above, so in addition to my standard running layers, I stuffed a wool shirt, rain shell, running tights, extra socks and gloves in my hydration pack.  I made some date and coconut butter bars (recipes appearing here), filled my 2L bladder, and called it good.  Well, except for the revolver.  It is Alaska after all.

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Back towards Girdwood, less than a mile up the trail.

We started on the Girdwood side at about 7:30am with not a cloud in the sky.  I ditched my gloves, tights, and wool layer, but kept my rain shell just in case.  Plus is was brand new and seemed sad to leave it.  The trail climbs steadily for the first three miles.  I began the ascent at an easy jog, but within a quarter mile or so realized that might be a bit too ambitious.  My training lately has not been particularly consistent or focused, but can perhaps be described as sporadic and opportunistic.  My pace eroded to a steady hike, interspersed with jogging on the flats and stopping entirely for photo ops.

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The long up.
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Looking back over covered ground.
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Finally met up with the sunrise.
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Forest Service cabin near the summit.
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Snowfield about 1/4 mile from the summit.
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Crow Pass Summit! Elev: 3,500 feet
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Taking it in.
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Loving life!

Evan and Michelle had pushed a bit harder than I did to reach the pass, but waited for me at the top.  By my clock, I made it in 1 hour, 11 minutes.  With all of my dawdling on the way up, I have no concerns about making the hour cut-off next year during the race.

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Glacial views at the pass.
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21 miles to go!

After the pass, the remaining 21 miles are mostly downhill.  That always sounds like a piece of cake, but I’m frequently reminded that downhill running is my weakest area.  It doesn’t take much descending to trash my quads and leave me tiptoeing.  To remedy that issue, I’m planning lots of single-leg squatting and leg-pressing to prep for my upcoming runs.

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Eagle Glacier and Eagle River
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Gently rolling portion of the trail, but peppered with large rocks and hidden with tall grasses and cow parsnip. Deceptively technical, and it went on for miles.
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Red columbine
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Deep ravine cleaved down the valley.
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Somewhere before the distant mountains, but behind the closest ridges, is Eagle River, which we followed for the second half of the trail.
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I couldn’t have asked for a more perfect day!

The descent from the pass to the river should have been the easiest part of the trail, but presented a series of challenges.  The trail was often rocky, and a few of the larger ones left me scraped and bruised since the tall and lush grasses concealed them from view.  The relentless downhill pounding is taxing and really takes it out of my legs.  But the views are spectacular!

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The alders were a welcome change of scenery after leaving the miles of lush meadows and approaching the river.
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Michelle and Evan up ahead, crossing Eagle River.
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My turn. Nothing like glacial melt on tired legs!

It took us about four hours to climb to the pass, and then descend to the river, which is about halfway through the trail, and right on schedule.  We were hoping for an 8 hour crossing, which is significantly slower than the 6 hour cut-off for the race, but much faster than the two and three days some of the backpackers we passed were taking.

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Eagle shaped cloud over Eagle River.

After the river crossing, about 12 miles remained of the trail.  Had I been a bit fitter, it would have been a blissful joy to fly all the way to the Nature Center.  The trail mostly flattened out and was wide and fairly clear.  Pretty much a dream run.  My leg juice gauge, however, was approaching E.  I did a lot of hiking, a little jogging, and after a couple of hours, no more picture taking.  Beautiful!  Beautiful.  Pretty.  Yep.  Yep.  Uh-huh. Uh.

Michelle and Evan drifted farther and farther ahead so I charged forward alone for the last couple of hours.  As the miles went on, I crossed paths with more and more other runners and hikers, so I knew I was getting closer to the Nature Center. Some looked happy to be out in Alaska on a beautiful summer day, and others looked as beat as I felt.  I’m certain the fatigue wasn’t showing on my face, though, because I felt genuine gratitude through the whole trail for all of the factors that allowed me to be out there that day.

With about four miles left, I decided I was too tanked to try running any more.  With two miles left, I was so bored of walking, I had to run.  I dug deep and passed onto the patio of the Nature Center in Eagle River running, 8 1/2 hours after leaving Girdwood.  Not bad for a lazy Sunday.

I owe a ton of thanks for this gun-toting, beta crossing of Crow Pass.  A big thank you to Jan for chauffeuring, Evan for his expertise and guidance on the trail, Maria for generously posting baby-duty, LJ for keeping me realistic, Zaz for the beer and peanut butter cups, and Michelle for making the dream become reality!

Good luck to Evan and Michelle when they take on the trail again in a few weeks for the 2014 edition of Crow Pass Crossing!

 

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Beautiful!
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Pretty.
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Uh-huh.

Aftermath: I was physically unready for the trail.  Although I finished successfully, and felt pretty good afterwards, my legs were sore for a record-breaking (for me) four days.  I had a nice selection of bruises and scrapes from the rocks on my shins and knees, and what I believe is a mild reaction to cow parsnip.  Nothing, though, that will keep me from preparing for 2015!

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March Forth: The Motto in Motion

I had my birthday early this month and, for the first time in 30+ years, noticed that my birthdate has an intelligible homophone: March Forth.  While a simple statement, the phrase has a wide range of applications, and feels particularly potent for me right now.  I expressed my surprise on Facebook that I had failed to notice “March 4th” sounds like anything other than a date, and a cousin mentioned that perhaps I haven’t been ready for it until now.  That seems like a legitimate explanation.

The following Saturday, I was able to put the phrase into practice.  Two months ago, I registered for the Snow Canoe Loop 11-Miler in Willow.  At the time, I was only running one non-stop mile at a time, but thought I had plenty of training days to work up to 10-12 miles.  My longest run before the race ended up being 6.  If this had been a road race, I probably would have backed out, but a few factors made it seem like the run would be doable, despite my lack of preparation.  The course is by default broken up into small sections.  During the summer, the course is a trail that links up a series of small lakes.  The idea is to alternate carrying and paddling a canoe through the loop.  This time of year, the lakes are frozen, so the entire trip is done on foot.  The topography creates a nice mix of flat open trail across the lakes, and gently rolling terrain in between.  I planned to keep a nice, sustainable run across each lake, no more than a mile at a time, then hike the portages.  Since I’ve been hiking through the snow with a baby up to five miles, I thought a 1/2 run, 1/2  hike with only my body weight sounded altogether reasonable.  Overall, all I needed to do was March Forth, and eventually I’d reach the finish.

The morning started out cold.  The start time wasn’t until 10am, but by 9:30, the temp was still only 0* F.   I was glad I brought my INKnBURN Tech Tube.  At that temperature,  the air was piercing to breathe, but adjusting the Tech Tube so I was breathing through it warmed the air just enough to be comfortable. Snow Canoe

In most races, I use an app on my iPhone to track my pace and mileage.  In this race, my biggest concern was keeping the battery from freezing.  I stopped by REI a few days ahead of time  to look for carriers, and found a waist  pack.  I would feel absolutely ridiculous wearing it in a way that could be seen by anyone, but being able to keep my phone under all of my layers seemed like my best bet at having a functional phone if I needed it.  The carrier really limited my accessibility, so I just pushed “Start” on my running app at the beginning of the race, and forgot about it, though I did miss the nice lady who lives in my phone and announces each mile marker.

In the early part of the race, I settled in to a pace that felt like I was covering a decent amount of ground without being overly ambitious.  There had been some recent snowfall, but the trail had been traversed by several snow machines, making the surface packed but soft.  The sun was shining, the snow was fresh, and the air was crisp; overall, it was a beautiful day to be out.

I was surprised with how good I felt.  The small turnout of 22 runners spread out quickly, and I was satisfied with the spot I assumed in the queue: towards the back of the middle, but not last.  Though the snowy surface created some slow going, it was still easy to at least remain at a consistent pace.  As the miles added up, I continued to feel great and even started catching up with and passing other runners.

Tramping down the trail, it didn’t take me long to recognize my first rookie-Alaskan mistake. The sip of water I had taken earlier from my hydration pack had filled the tube with water, which promptly froze solid.  Too late I remembered reading a tip about blowing air into the straw to force all the water back into the pack.  I considered stopping to dump the rest of the water instead of having it slosh pointlessly behind me for the following couple of hours, but figured in a life or death situation I could drink straight from the bladder.

After a few miles, I had acquired a follower.  He was pretty close behind me, but being so bundled up, chit-chat was semi-impossible.  All I could knew was that it was a guy, so for the following miles, I ran the possible scenarios through my head.

“He wants to pass, but I’m blocking the way.”

“I should step off the trail so he can get around.”

“I’m walking up this hill; he hates me.”

I finally decided that self-conscious paranoia was really a waste of my time and energy, so I settled on, “He approves of my pace, and has decided to match it.”

With the frequent alternations between wide, flat, open lakes, and quiet, wooded hills, the miles passed quickly.  At each lake crossing, the temperature would shoot up.  Running completely exposed in the sun, I would start considering stopping to pull off a layer.  Maintaining forward movement paid off each time.  It was back into the trees and shade, and the air temp would lose about 20 degrees.

Without my phone handy, I tried to estimate about where I was.  Just as I was thinking I had to have gone at least 4 miles, I saw someone standing in the distance.  Four miles was a major underestimate.  The person was manning the race’s one aid station at mile 6.5.  At the aid station, I stopped for some water and was introduced to Jay, my follower.  He confirmed my final conclusion.  He’d started out with a group that was too fast, but my pace was just perfect.  With just 4.5 miles left, we started back out on the trail.

I’d been trying to count lake crossings.  I knew there would be 16 total, and I thought I’d done 9 already.  The countdown was on.  Several lakes later, and I wasn’t sure if there were 2 or 3 left, but I knew my legs were about done.  All the sun was making the snow soft, and the lateral sliding was taking its toll.   The loop part of the course had come full circle, and I was heading back along the beginning of the course, though each section now seemed much longer than on the way out.

I lost Jay at some point and found myself alone in the trees.  I wasn’t sure if the next lake was the final crossing, or the second to last.  I decided to plan on expecting two more.  That way, I wouldn’t be disappointed, and I might even be pleasantly surprised.  This particular portage ended up being the hardest.  It wasn’t hilly, but was a long stretch of small rollers.  They would have been fun on a snowmachine, but were a mild form of torture on spent legs.  I resorted to hiking as fast as possible, which was a welcome reprieve.  The section was certainly runnable, but as long as I continued to March Forth, I felt no guilt.

The trees opened up, and I picked up my pace across the lake.  On the far side, the trail went straight up, or so it seemed.  I went back to my fast hike, not sure of what lay in wait for me over the hill.  To my delight, cresting the hill brought me not another lake, but the downhill road that led right to the finish line.  During my final trudge up the hill, Jay had caught up, and brought encouraging words.

“You pulled me most of the way, so you have to finish first!”

That was enough to put the spark back in my step.  In an attempt to sprint to the finish, I discovered my legs were essentially numb.  It was a welcome feeling.  I crossed the line to my waiting family, which was the most welcome feeling of all.

Other than my frozen pack, my race plans all worked out.  I even had a fully functioning phone that managed to record the whole race.  Admittedly under-trained, I not only finished, but had a great race on a beautiful day in an awesome place, and even ended up as the 4th female.  With such success, I’m ready to live March Forth every day of the year.

The Last Great Race on Earth

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On Sunday, March 2, I loaded up my two little boys and headed north to Willow.  We’d been to Willow before, when we went up for the Winter Solstice 5k, but Sunday was a whole new world up there.  We went to see the start of the Iditarod!  The idea of the Iditarod has always inspired me.  I’m sure I have a predisposition towards grueling races of insane distances over rugged terrain.  Although I have no immediate plans, I know I’ll run 100 miles someday.  The challenge is just too tempting.  With that internal beast calling to me, there was nothing I could do to resist going to see 70 individuals, each with 14 -18 dog teams, start on a journey of over 1000 miles through vast expanses of western Alaska.

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Sunday’s weather was beautiful: clear skies, radiant spring sun, and temps just above freezing.  Absolute perfection, since the start line was nothing short of an outdoor festival.  Starting at 2 o’clock, one musher left every 2 minutes, so the start lasted for almost two and a half hours.  It was truly a spectator event.  Amongst the crowd of thousands, there were camp chairs, tents, fire pits, beer coolers, snow machines, hockey games (it all took place on a lake), sleds, and everything and anything else you could want for a winter celebration.

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As I watched the teams pass on the beginning of the trail to Nome, I couldn’t help but feel a wave of emotion for each one.  Considering the planning, training, sacrifices, and commitment of each racer all wrapped up in the history and legacy of the race itself, I knew what I was witnessing was, in fact, a very big deal.  In my brief glance of each team, I felt nervous and excited for them all at once.   I tried to imagine what each one must be going through: the adrenaline rush of being ushered off by thousands of cheering fans at the beginning of 1000 miles, countered by the anxiety of entering into the unknown of wild and uncontrollable variables.  For each team, be they rookies or 30-year veterans, the same possibilities lie ahead, of unexpected dangers and disasters, or anticipated victory and glory.  I know experience must be a huge advantage, but this is Alaska.  Anyone who enters this kind of endeavor with 100% confidence would be nothing short of delusional.

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Looking over the list of entrants, it is interesting to see the diversity.  Most racers are from Alaska, and a few are from the Lower 48, but it is an international event.  There are participants from the predictable home countries of Canada, Norway, and Sweden, but also less expected locales of New Zealand, Australia, and Jamaica (!).  In addition, there are almost 20 women on the roster.  You can follow this year’s Iditarod here.

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Experiencing the start of the Iditarod was truly an awe-inspiring event.  I hope to make it an annual family tradition.  Maybe one day I’ll feel all those same emotions (multiplied by a million?!) for my own boys-turned-mushers!

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I spent the day in my Flutter Pullover from INKnBURN.  I layered it over a merino shirt, and was warm enough all day.  I thought the Flutter print was fitting for the day, since monarchs annually migrate 2000 miles!  For 15% your first order from INKnBURN, use code INBSK14 at checkout.

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Ground Zero and The Plan to Rebuild

Under normal circumstances, I can confidently refer to myself as “A Runner”. 5 miles? Piece of cake. 10 miles? Sounds like fun. 15 miles? Let me check my schedule, but I can probably fit it in.

These days, I’m not facing ‘normal circumstances’. On Monday, I ran 0.1 miles. And that was my highest mileage day in months. And what caused my little jaunt on the treadmill to end abruptly at one-tenth of a mile? Oh, just the feeling that my pelvic floor was going to fall out.  Yuck.

Recovery from baby #2 is definitely following a different timeline than baby #1. The first time, I started running with the jogger at three weeks postpartum. This time, at a month in, I’m barely able to plod along for 60 seconds, pushing nothing. Luckily, I was in super-good shape when I got pregnant last winter, or who knows the state I’d be in now.

The last race I ran was as a leg in the Redding Marathon relay in January. I thought I could squeeze in a couple more races even after I was pregnant, but that became not so much of a priority after the fact, and my 2013 race calendar was cleared. 2012 had been a pretty good running year for me.  I ran my first road marathon at the Carlsbad Marathon, had two solid 15k trail races (even won third in my age group!), and got a 50k PR at the Siskiyou Outback.

ImageI will never be this tan again. Thanks, Alaska. Siskiyou Outback 50k, July 2012.

Feeling ambitious, I filled out a 2014 race calendar online. I added in every Alaskan race I was even remotely interested in. Then I actually looked at it. And smacked myself.  My motivation was rooted in both in antsiness from taking the year off, and the novelty of the new and amazing selection of races available, but it was just stupid. I was looking at a half marathon on a Sunday, and a 24 mile trail race the following Saturday. Without seriously abbreviating my plans, I was sure to be a sad, quivering pile of injured mess by next fall.

Here’s what my edited, annotated (and still ambitious) calendar looks like:

  1. Willow Winter Solstice 5k, Willow, December 21, 2013. This is extremely tentative depending on if I feel ready.  If anything, it will probably be more of a 3 mile hike in snowshoes.
  2. No Canoe Loop 11-miler, Willow, March 8, 2014.  In the summer, this loop covers a long stretch of lakes. Paddle across one lake, hike your boat to the next, repeat.  In winter, no floating is required.
  3. Kal’s Knoya Ridge Run, 8.5k, Anchorage, May 22, 2014. Part of the Alaska Mountain Runners burly series.
  4. Red Shirt Lake Trail Run, 6 mi, Willow, May 31, 2014.  A nice looking trail race for after the snow season.  It looked like a fun reintroduction to running on actual dirt (read: muddy as hell!).
  5. Robert Spurr Memorial Hill Climb, 3 mi, Bird Ridge, June 15, 2014.  Another in the Alaska Mountain Runners series.
  6. Mount Marathon, 3 mi, Seward, July 4, 2014.  This one’s kind of a big deal.  It even has a Wikipedia page. It was created on a bar bet that no one could run up and down Mount Marathon in under an hour. The lottery opens January 1.  The drawing system is weighted by the number of times you’ve tried to get in.  Being my first time, I’m not counting on this one, but I’ve been known to be lucky.
  7. Crow Pass Crossing, 24 mi, Girdwood, July 26, 2014.  This is my ‘A’ race of the year.  Traveling from Girdwood to Eagle River by car is a 50 mile drive, because the highway circles all the way around the Chugach mountains.  This is only a 24 mile run from Girdwood to Eagle River because is shoots straight over the mountains.  The first 4 climb, and the last 20 descend.  Downhill running is not my strength, so I have my work cut out for me.
  8. Alyeska Classic Mountain Run, 2.5 mi, Girdwood, August 16, 2014. The final race in the Alaska Mountain Runners series.  May be passed up if my almost-kindergartener is ready to run a 2k in Anchorage the same day.  He’s already expressed interest, and his running interests will certainly trump mine.
  9. Lost Lake Run, 16 miles, Seward, August 23, 2014.  I’ve been advised that this run is amazingly beautiful.
  10. Kesugi Ridge Traverse Trail Run, 28 mi, Denali State Park, September 6, 2014.  6-9 hours of running with Denali as a backdrop?  Count me in.  Photos I’ve seen from this point-to-point trail are breathtaking.  Hopefully the weather will be such that views are available, but September can be quite squirrely and unpredictable.  This will be my toughest race ever.  

             Kesugi Ridge comes with a warning:

Please be aware: This is not a course for beginning trail runners. There are significant climbs and difficult terrain. If you have never traveled the course before, we strongly encourage you to do so. The trail will not be marked, so familiarity with it will be very important. Please do not over-estimate your abilities! The most common, recurring theme regarding weather descriptions reads “lousy weather, cold winds and poor visibility are common”. If you have never run a marathon or race of this distance, please reconsider signing up. If you have only run road marathons, but never tackled trail running, please reconsider signing up. Running the Crow Pass Crossing or Resurrection Pass 50 would be good personal pre-requisites.

             It’s also self-supported:

There will be no aid stations. There will be a race official at Ermine Hill and a trail sweep, but no refreshments out on the course. You will be responsible for your own food and water. Drink water along the course at your own risk. There are plenty of available streams. There is no mandatory gear BUT a few things are recommended: long sleeve tech shirt, wind jacket with hood, wind pants, stocking hat and enough water and food for 28ish miles, plus a trail map. If you choose to drink water along the course, a filter bottle is recommended. Reflective gear and a headlamp may help depending on weather and in case you get lost.

             Sign me up!

So my goals are in place. I’m not going for any speed records this year, just finishes. Crushing old times will be business for 2015. The only problem now is that there is a significant gap between running 28(ish) unsupported, rugged trail miles in possible inclement weather and plodding 0.1 miles on a treadmill. Fortunately, I have over 7 months until Crow Pass and almost 9 to get ready for Kesugi Ridge, and I’m already making progress.

For the past two weeks, I’ve been hitting up the gym Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays. To start out, I walk on the treadmill for a mile, with intermittent attempts to slowly pick up the pace to something that resembles running. Not an exciting way to start my workout, but it’s already getting easier to accomplish the task.

After warming up, I throw in some weights. The first day back, I did some barbell dead lifts, dumbbell overhead presses, and lat pulldowns, with my little audience of Skye napping in his carseat nearby. The second day I started with barbell squats, but was interrupted by gym management. I was fully expecting the confrontation sooner or later, but hoped I would skate by without a liability lecture. Despite Skye being tucked in a corner far away from any [reckless and blind?!] weightlifters, other than myself, the possibility was too great that someone would walk by and drop a weight on him, so we were banished to the machine weight area.

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The past few days, I’ve been limited to machine leg curls, extensions, and presses, and the variety of push/pull upper body choices. I like, and benefit from, free weights much more, but machines will have do for now. I’m making the most of it.

To finish up my workout, I do some 100m and 500m rowing intervals. The whole workout is interspersed with breaks to tend to baby needs, so the process usually takes about 1 hr. 45 min. That works fine for Silas, who is never ready to leave the play area when I come to pick him up. The whole gym situation is a win-win for all three of us: workout time, nap time, and play time.

In the months to come, I’ll be adding in skate skiing (a trail quite literally goes through our backyard), trail running (as conditions permit: we’re mere miles from trailheads in the Chugach State Park), and track workouts (an all-weather track is about a mile from the house).  My current gym workouts are a far cry from where I hope to be in the near future, but they’re wildly effective. I’m back in most of my old clothes, my waist has shrunk an inch in the last week, and on Wednesday, I finally ran 0.25 miles.  Only 27.75(ish) to go.