Arkansas Traveler

One of the things I love most about running is the people. Though I mostly train solo and wouldn’t have it any other way, on race day, I get such a rush from the camaraderie of my fellow runners, the race staff and volunteers, and the friends and family who come to cheer us all on. Very little in the world compares to that feeling of unity, common cause, and all-around positive energy, whether it’s an 80,000-person race or 80-person race. The race I ended up doing in Arkansas this past weekend definitely fell on the 80-person side of the spectrum, but I have truly never encountered a friendlier, more charming group of people, from fellow participants to volunteers, in any race I’ve ever done.

To start from the beginning, I stumbled into the Hot Spring County Homeless Coalition’s Running for Cover 5K Run and Fun Walk by sheer coincidence. For the past few months, I have been trying to visit a friend of mine in Arkansas, but the trip kept getting derailed for one reason or another, most recently because of my cat being sick and not stable enough to leave with a sitter. Fortunately, by late September Kitty Girl had stabilized enough that I felt ok about scheduling the trip, so we finally set a date for this past weekend.

With plane tickets in hand at last, I did a quick search on for races within a 50-mile radius of Little Rock the weekend I was scheduled to be there. My options were either the Soaring Wings of Conway Half Marathon/10K or the Running for Cover 5K. While I am sure the Soaring Wings of Conway Half Marathon/10K is a wonderful event (and I am itching to take another crack at the 10K distance sooner rather than later), the Running for Cover 5K won out for having a 9:00am start time as opposed to a 7:00am start time. When you are Not A Morning Person and ON VACATION to boot, such considerations matter. Especially when your friend, who is also Not A Morning Person, has very graciously agreed to chauffeur and accompany you on your adventure!

After my most recent two hellaciously hot and humid slogs in Pennsylvania and Chicago, I am happy to report that race day dawned 65 degrees and overcast. As I ate my pre-race bagel with peanut butter, I silently gave thanks to the weather gods that I had finally gotten a race day with reasonably ideal weather conditions. Hooray for being able to aim higher than mere survival! I had no idea what course conditions would be like, but if it was flat, I was hoping to break 28 minutes. Barring that, PR-ing would be the next best thing, or maintaining a sub-30 minute pace if the course was particularly hilly. Or at least if I had to drop down to “survival” as my goal, it would be because the course turned out to be something reminiscent of the Leadville 100, not because the weather was too hot. A different kind of challenge!

Besides the info provided on the registration page when I signed up, I hadn’t been able to find out much about this race ahead of time. All I knew was that we were supposed to meet in the Malvern Taco Bell parking lot sometime before the 9am start time. A colleague at work pointed out that this sounded like the beginning of a murder mystery. My worries centered less on being murdered and more on showing up at this random parking lot in Malvern, AR, and finding no one else there. However, I’m happy to report that (spoiler alert) I did not get murdered, and when we arrived at the designated Taco Bell shortly after 8, a good-sized crowd had already gathered.

Once we got there, I made a beeline for the registration table while my friend made a beeline for a coffee refill at the nearby Valero station. Turns out that I was one of just a tiny handful of non-locals participating. One of the organizers asked where I was from, and when I replied, I also mentioned that this was my Arkansas stop on my quest to run a race in all 50 states. She absolutely lit up, excitedly asking how I found the race, and what brought me to Arkansas?

I explained the story, and much to my surprise, it led to my becoming something of a mini-celebrity at this little race. When they made the pre-race announcements, I got a shout-out from the stage and wild cheers from the crowd when they learned of my 50-state plan and that I had ended up at their race for my Arkansas stop. I usually try to avoid the limelight whenever I can and go out of my way to fly under the radar, but in this case, the reception was so heartwarming I couldn’t help but enjoy everyone’s enthusiasm, friendliness, and the general air of that famous Southern hospitality.

Not long after the announcements, it was finally time to head over to the starting line and get into position, runners in the front, walkers in the back. I wasn’t quite sure how fast the group was likely to be, so I seeded myself just behind the runners in the very front. As soon as the clock hit 9:00am, one of the race volunteers shouted, “GO!” and we all took off, dashing out of the parking lot and onto the adjacent side road.

Out on the course and taking in the scenery, it reminded me a lot of Nelsonville, OH, a town just outside Athens, OH, where I went to college. The route passed by a few roadside churches and a smattering of mom-and-pop stores, but the surrounding landscape was absolutely stunning with its tree-lined hills rolling majestically into the distance.

Ah yes, hills. Did I mention those? While the course was mostly flat and thus familiar terrain for this Chicagoan, we did have one substantial hill to contend with. The fun part was during the first half of the race, when we got to run down said hill. I just went for it, gleefully flying as fast as I could go without completely losing control and falling on my face. I felt like a small child, and it was all I could do to keep from squealing with delight. The simple pleasures in life, amirite?

After the downhill sprint, I dropped back to my normal race speed, which I figured I would hold through the turnaround point until I had to contend with the uphill climb, then I would maintain perceived effort level. It was some time shortly after the turnaround that I noticed, much to my surprise, that I was actually one of the lead female runners. Holy crap! I realized at that moment. I might actually place! I had never found myself in such a position before (and to be real, likely won’t again for quite some time), but it definitely provided a huge boost of energy and motivation going into the final stretch!

At last, I saw the uphill stretch looming ahead. “All right, you got this,” I said aloud to myself, psyching myself up for what I knew would be the hardest part. Yet, I trusted that the speedwork I’d done for the past few weeks would get me through the climb without too much trouble, and it turned out to be true. Once I got to the top, I stole a peek over my shoulder, and realizing I was home-free with no one in striking distance, I sailed for the finish line about half a mile in the distance, crossing the line 3 seconds under my previous PR time (which, I may add, I set on a very flat course!).

But the best part of all? Y’all, I PLACED, outright winning my age division! As someone who is very used to back-of-the-pack finishes, I could hardly believe it, and I got such a kick out of the fact that I actually for once had to hang around for the awards ceremony. Plus, in waiting around, I got to meet some lovely people, with conversations ranging from what states I was planning to hit next to (more importantly) where my friend and I should go to get breakfast afterwards (the answer, as it turns out, is Randy’s City Cafe, in case you find yourself in Malvern sometime and need somewhere to eat).

In all seriousness, I couldn’t have asked for a better all-around race experience or a friendlier group of folks to run it with, and I will absolutely treasure the memory of this race (and the rest of my time in Arkansas) for a long time to come. To the good people of the Hot Spring County Homeless Coalition, thank you so much for the warm welcome and for putting on such a fantastic event! And more importantly, kudos for the important work you all are doing in your efforts to aid those in need and bring a much-needed homeless shelter to Hot Spring County.

To support the efforts of the HSCHC, mail a tax-deductible donation to:
Hot Spring County Homeless Coalition, Inc.
P.O. Box 472
Malvern, AR 72104

Banner reading "Running for Cover 5K Run / Walk, HSC Homeless Coalition" hanging on the front of the stage.

Taco Lentil Soup

With the weather starting to cool off, soup/stew season has officially arrived! To “celebrate” on this dreary, drizzly day, I whipped up an old favorite: taco lentil soup. I got the recipe from a friend (original source uncertain), who made it for me when I visited her for dinner a few years ago. Since then, I’ve played around with it a bit, always enjoying the little variations I’ve come up with, but it’s always been a reliable fixture in my rotation, whether I’m running or not! Tonight’s version is featured below.


  • 2 tbsp olive oil
  • 1 medium yellow onion
  • 1/2-1 tsp salt (to taste)
  • 1/4 tsp black pepper
  • 1/4 tsp crushed red pepper flakes
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1 packet taco seasoning (I like Ortega or Old El Paso)
  • 1 14.5 oz can vegetable broth + 1 can water
  • 1 14.5 oz can diced tomatoes
  • 1 14.5 oz can black beans, rinsed and drained (can also substitute ~1 cup dried black beans)
  • 1 14.5 oz can garbanzo beans, rinsed and drained (can also substitute ~1 cup dried garbanzo beans)
  • 1 cup dried brown lentils, rinsed


  1. In soup pot, heat olive oil over medium-high heat. Add onion and season with salt, pepper, and red pepper. Sauté until translucent, ~5 minutes. Add garlic and taco seasoning, stir until taco seasoning evenly coats the onions, and sauté for another minute.
  2. Add the broth and water, tomatoes, beans, and lentils. Bring to a boil, reduce heat to low, cover, and simmer for 45-60 minutes, or until beans and lentils are tender.
  3. Serve with sour cream (or plain yogurt) and shredded cheese as toppings. Pairs nicely with a plain or whole-wheat baguette.
  4. Serves 4-6.


  • Sauté onion with ~1/4-1/2 cup red wine.
  • Add 1 cup of frozen corn (or 1 14.5 oz can) along with the beans.
  • Throw in a few cups of your leafy green of choice about 10-15 minutes before taking the soup off the heat.
  • Add a few tablespoons of chopped cilantro at the very end, or use as garnish.

The Psalm Distances

For something short and sweet…

Yesterday, my Facebook memories reminded me about the time I read an internet comment where someone thought the 26.2 (marathon runner) bumper sticker on someone else’s car stood for a Psalm verse. In the spirit of this person’s confusion, I Googled the Psalm verses corresponding to various race distances. The hilariously apt results:

26.2 (marathon): Test me, O LORD, and try me, examine my heart and my mind. So far, not a test I have accepted.

13.1 (half marathon): How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me? I would say this a very accurate description of what mile 9 feels like.

6.2 (10k): Be merciful to me, LORD, for I am faint; O LORD, heal me, for my bones are in agony. Those middle distance races will do that to you.

3.1 (5k): O LORD, how many are my foes! How many rise up against me! Sounds like starting line chaos to me!

But seriously, these all need to be made into T-shirts, if they don’t already exist.

Spectating in Chicago: #ChicagoMarathon 2017

Even though I’ve now lived in Chicago for a few years, it still blows my mind that major national and international events happen here with some frequency. Events that show up in major newspapers and get covered extensively on national and international news. Except now they are close enough to where I live that I can sometimes actually see them in person without a whole lot of logistical challenge. Oh, the Chicago Marathon will be happening this weekend? Cool. Let’s just hop on the L and head over to Lakeview to catch a glimpse of some OLYMPIC MEDALISTS AND RECORD-HOLDERS PASSING THROUGH TOWN, NO BIGGIE!

Truly, you know you are a running geek when you wake up before dawn in an attempt to catch the world-class runners at miles 8-9 of a marathon. I have watched races before, usually to cheer on friends who are running at mere mortal pace, but have never been there early enough to see the true elites. Truth be told, I was so excited for this that I actually woke up a few minutes before my alarm clock, which basically never happens except maybe Christmas morning.

[Image: Sun just barely peeking over the horizon in a clear sky over Lake Michigan] I am a complete night owl, so this sight is not one I see with any kind of frequency.
While the weather was a little hotter than ideal for running, it was perfect for spectating. We got to Lakeview around 7:30, which fortunately gave us a few minutes before the action happened, unless you count “action” as being “watching unsuspecting cars accidentally turn onto the course (after first driving the wrong way down a one-way street!!!) and get yelled at by the police and course marshals.” Which in that case we did have a little bit!

Soon enough, though, we saw the lead police cars and motorcycles, with the first pack of wheelchair racers close behind in formation. So many people think races are boring to watch, but I guarantee these people have never seen a live, major marathon. Seeing the first group of athletes barreling down the street, for every division (wheelchair, men, women, and then the masses), was nothing short of humbling and inspiring.

The first pack of wheelchair racers pass by in a blur. Somewhere in this photo is the men’s wheelchair division winner Marcel Hug.
The lead pack–men’s division. If you zoom in and look really closely, you can see the head and orange shoes of this year’s men’s winner Galen Rupp.

NOTE: I had every intention of getting a picture of the women’s lead pack, but I was too busy trying to spot the favorite Tirunesh Dibaba (today’s winner for the women) and Jordan Hasay (3rd place finisher today and now second-fastest ever American woman marathoner) to actually have time to take the picture by the time they had already passed by. Mea culpa!

As a rec runner, it is mind-boggling to see the elites in the flesh, running as fast as they are and making it look so effortless. Their biomechanics, and strides are nearly flawless. No hip wobble whatsoever, no extraneous bobbing or arm motions, beautiful efficiency and economy. They looked like they were out on a casual Sunday long run, barely breaking a sweat, except then you realized they were nearly keeping pace with the lead car, i.e., an actual car (with a digital time display mounted to the back) that was doing more than just idling along.

Gradually, more and more runners started filling the course. Behind the elites were the sub-3:00 folks, and what surprised me most was just how big a contrast there was in terms of number of people on the course between sub-3:00 and 3:00. When the 3:00 pace group appeared, it was almost visually like the start of another race all at once.

[Image: thin group of runners coming down the street] Still the sub-3:00 crowd, but not quite at the level of “keeping up with the lead car.” Obviously still very, very respectable athletes.
[Image: much more robust crowd of runners coming down the street] The ~3:00 crowd, per the pacer’s sign roughly in the center of this photo. We are now solidly in “mere mortal” territory, but still faster than most people will ever be.
And the crowd of runners just kept coming from there, never noticeably thinning out the entire time we stayed, which we did until we saw some of the 4:30-ers, then decided to call it a wrap.

By the time I got home, all I wanted to do was go on a run, inspired by seeing so many fantastic runners of all shapes, sizes, and speeds in today’s Chicago Marathon. I’m not quite ready to take on the distance just yet, but after today, I will admit the siren song of the marathon is calling me just a bit more loudly and insistently than before. Someday I will do it, and maybe even in Chicago. But no matter what, it will be far, far behind the lead car!

Tales of a 5-Miler, Then and Now

I still remember my very first 5-mile run. It was summer 2010, and I was just finishing up a 10-week stint at the Brevard Music Festival in North Carolina. I had gone to Brevard as a rising senior in my college’s music program with the intent of getting myself ready for auditions the following year. By the end of my junior year, though, I had started seriously doubting whether a performance career was really, truly what I wanted for my life. Perhaps going to a summer music intensive in the midst of such an earth-shattering epiphany wasn’t the most logical course of action, but I had already gotten scholarships and grants to cover the cost, paid my deposit, and figured that regardless of what path I took after graduation, going to Brevard would be a good learning experience, both for music lessons and life lessons. Besides, it would be a change of scenery, and that alone would probably do me some good as I figured out what exactly I wanted to do next.

Though my daily schedule was packed with lessons, rehearsals, and personal practice, I carved out time on most days to run around the beautiful campus with its tree-lined paths, sparkling lakes, and rolling hills. Generally I kept my runs to 2-4 miles, but I looked forward to them as a calming ritual of sorts. When the uncertainty of my life direction seemed almost unbearable at times, running kept me grounded and in the present moment. I loved the steady rhythm of it, focusing on timing my breathing with my footfalls, and just being outside, enjoying the sunshine and the scenery of the Blue Ridge Mountains. I even made a few friends at the camp who sometimes ran with me, including a run two of us did one night at about 10 p.m. under a perfectly clear, starry sky…which I highly recommend trying if you ever get the chance!

The day I did my 5-mile run that summer was the day before I was scheduled to head back home. As the sun set on my final day at camp, I decided I was going to go for it. That elusive 5-mile run was happening, and nothing could stop me. Surely if I could finish that run, I would be able to finish the upcoming year of my degree program and sort out my life direction. With my reserves of determination filled to the brim, I set off towards town, slowly but steadily, savoring the scenery and soaking it all in. At the 2.5-mile mark, I turned around and headed back, buoyed by the conviction that I was definitely going to make it, and just as dusk descended, I triumphantly returned to camp. I had averaged something like a 12 minute/mile pace, but by golly I had finished, and my friends celebrated with me at a picnic table outside the rec building. 5 miles! I had really done it! And sure enough, much like I got through that run, I got through my senior year and figured out next steps, the cumulation of which have gotten me to where I am now.

I couldn’t help but think of that run tonight as I went for a 5-mile tempo run after work. These days, 5 miles hardly feels like the monumental challenge it did 7 years ago, at least in terms of distance alone, though adding the element of speed certainly kicks the difficulty level up a notch. As the sun ducked behind the buildings and the cool dusk set in, it took me back to that night in the mountains of North Carolina, my determination to hold my speed now mirroring the determination it had taken just to finish back then. When I got back home and looked at my stopwatch app, it showed that I had managed to hold a 9:23 pace for the duration of my run. Sub 10-minute pace for 5 miles…I could hardly believe my eyes; it was the first time I’d ever cracked the 10 minute/mile pace for anything over 3 miles. This was a feat I could have only dreamed of that summer at Brevard, but I’d finally done it.

Obviously, I am by no means the fastest runner out there. I never will be, but I’ve long since accepted that, and besides, that has never been my goal. The beauty of running, to me at least, is how the sport grows with you over time, how you only really ever compete against yourself, and how you get to celebrate whatever milestones are meaningful to you. Tonight, I took a moment to savor the fact that I had dropped over 12 minutes from my very first 5-mile time as well as the progress I’ve made both in running and in life since that summer at Brevard. While it’s always good to be looking ahead and striving to improve, sometimes, it’s just as necessary to look back and see for the sake of perspective just how far you’ve actually come.