Race Review: Pointe-Claire Half Marathon and 10K

When I traveled to Mexico in January, I woke up to find that there was a marathon running right past my hotel. My first thought was “I can’t believe I didn’t think to look to see if there was a race this weekend.” Ever since that experience, I decided to make it a point to check out local races when I travel, especially if I’m visiting another country. Fast forward 6 months and I began planning a work trip to Montreal. Once I had the dates, I started looking for races. There were several to choose from, but for some reason, I was drawn to the Pointe-Claire Half Marathon. The race supports the Alzheimer’s Society of Montreal which is a great cause, but I was hesitant because it was pretty far from downtown Montreal. I went with my gut feeling and signed up anyways. Here are my thoughts and my full race review.

Race Review: Pointe-Claire 10K and Half Marathon

Since this was my first Canadian adventure, I didn’t really know what to expect from Montreal and I was a little nervous about the commute outside of the city center into the suburbs. I had never heard of the little town of Pointe-Claire, but when I saw the race map, I just knew it was the one. It turns out that Pointe-Claire is one of the cutest towns I’ve ever visited! If you’ve ever watched Gilmore Girls, the Stars Hollow vibes are just oozing out of this sweet little town. It is small, quaint, and just overall adorable. I didn’t see Luke’s coffee shop anywhere, but I wouldn’t be surprised if he has a cousin in town with a similar setup.

Registration

If you aren’t familiar with Montreal, you may not be aware that most of the city speaks French. Even though most people will greet you in French, I didn’t meet anyone who didn’t also speak English (which is good since I know zero French other than the Le Poisson song from the Little Mermaid). Most of the menus, signs, etc. are all in French so it is good to have some sort of translator app if you need some help. The same thing goes for the race registration website. If you don’t speak French (like me), you are in luck because it is easy enough to switch to the English view on their website. They have several race options ranging from a half marathon (or a 21.1 KM as they call it) all the way down to a 1 KM or 2KM for the kids. Registration is very simple and there are no hidden surprises. The race coordinators are wonderful about sending email updates and they post even more frequently on their Facebook page so you can stay up to date with everything that is happening.

Packet Pickup

This race does things a little differently from other races I’ve ran. You have two ways to pick up your race packet. You can either do it in the days leading up to the race, or you can pick it up on race day. This sounds pretty normal, except if you want to pick up your race packet early, you have to schedule an appointment. Personally, I didn’t want to have to schedule a time because I knew I would be busy exploring the city and I didn’t want to be locked into a certain time or day. Because of this, I opted to pick up my packet the morning of the race. The Pointe-Claire race was very small with only about 3,000 runners total across all the races, so picking up day of was not an issue at all. They were very quick and efficient and I had plenty of time to watch the half marathon group take off before my race started. The entire process took maybe 5 minutes total. The “race packet” was very basic with a bib equipped with timing chips, a race shirt, and some safety pins.

Race Morning Logistics

Transportation:

My main concern on race morning was getting to Pointe-Claire from Montreal early enough to get my race packet and be ready by the start of the race. This race has a pretty late start time compared to most races I’ve done which was nice for the morning commute (especially since I stayed out WAY too late the night before). I was originally planning on taking the metro to the bus station and taking a bus into Pointe-Claire, but I panicked and thought I wouldn’t make it in time so I took an Uber. The Uber ride was about $30USD and took about 25 minutes. In hindsight, I should have taken the bus because I would have had plenty of time. Montreal has an awesome public transportation system and it is really easy to navigate your way around the city. There is a weekend transit pass you can purchase for $13.75 CAD that is valid from 4 PM Friday to 5 AM Monday morning. If you are in town for the weekend, I would highly recommend you take advantage of this deal! We used our passes not only to get around the city all weekend, but we also used them to get back to our apartment from Pointe-Claire as well as getting to the airport for our flight home. Had we used Uber the entire weekend, it would have cost hundreds of dollars. If you take advantage of the bus system, you can make it to Pointe-Claire in about 45 minutes to an hour depending on how close you are to a metro station/bus stop. Give yourself a little bit of extra time in the morning and save your money for post race beers and poutine.

Pre-Race Information:

Since packet pickup went very smoothly, I headed to the bathrooms and then on to the start line. There were only a handful of portable toilets available, so I would recommend using them as early as you can. If you go early, the lines are short, but the closer it gets to the start of the race, the longer the lines get. Even when the lines are long, they move quickly, but I would still recommend going early if possible. There is a bag check available if you would like to leave stuff at the registration booth. Just drop off your stuff with the attached ticket on your race bib and you will be able to pick it back up after the race. The bag check is supervised, but I probably wouldn’t recommend leaving any valuables just in case something were to happen.

One of the unusual things about this race is there are different starting lines for each of the distances. Make sure you are familiar with where your race is starting because you can’t hear the announcements very well from the registration area unless you are paying close attention. The half marathon course started right by the registration area, but the 10K started quite a ways up the road and was not visible from the registration area. All of the announcements are done in both English and French which means it takes a little longer to get started, but I definitely appreciated the English announcements. Even though this is a small race, they release runners for the half marathon, the 10K, and the 5K in 3 waves for each race. There is one minute between the release of each wave.

Starting Points for Each Race

The Course

If you like awesome small town views and fast, flat courses, this is the race for you. For most of the race, I was blown away by how gorgeous this course was. You run by the lake, through the parks, into neighborhoods, and through the middle of town. It had all of the small town charm you could ever hope for. You start the race running by the lake and through neighborhoods and parks. Once you make your first big turn, you go down into a tunnel that goes under the main highway. One of the cool things the race coordinators did was they let all of the race participants vote on which song they wanted to hear in the tunnel and Eminem’s “Lose Yourself” won this year. The tunnel is warm and muggy, so it was a nice distraction to have some fun music blaring. After you get out of the tunnel, you will run through several more parks and there is quite a bit of shade on this part of the course. However, once you turn onto the bike path that runs beside the highway, be prepared to get some sun because there is no tree coverage for this stretch of the race. Once you reach the golf course, you’ll go through a second tunnel back to the other side of the highway. You’ll get to run through more neighborhoods and then through the middle of town. Once you make it to town, you’ll know the finish line is right around the corner. Normally this is where I would give a full analysis on all of the hills on the course, but there weren’t any hills that are worth mentioning. They are all very small and very short and I couldn’t consciously call them “hills.” The overall elevation gain for the 10K was 161 ft. If you are looking to set a PR, this could be a great course to do it on.

If you are running the Half Marathon….

 

You will make two loops around the course I described above. The half marathon starts at 8 AM and the 10K starts at 8:30. For your first loop, the course will be pretty wide open and you won’t hit much race traffic. Once you start your second loop, you will join up with the 10K group at some point but where exactly depends on how fast you run. If you are trying to set a PR, be aware of this because some of the course is fairly narrow and you’ll have to make your way through the end of the 10K group before you can get back into a crowd that is going your speed. Another thing to note is there is a 3:30 time limit to complete the half marathon. You have to be off the course by 11:30 so the roads can resume normal operation.

One of my favorite things about this race is there are 3 pace bunnies available to help you pace yourself at the right speed. The 3 paces are 1:45, 2:00, and 2:15 finish times. You may be asking yourself “what’s a pace bunny?” and it is exactly what it sounds like! Instead of running a half marathon carrying an awkward sign, the pacers wear hats that have bunny ears attached to the top. The paces are written on the bunny ears so you know which one to stick close to. This is the first time I’ve seen “Pace Bunnies,” but it is kind of a genius idea! I’m hoping it catches on and more races start doing it.

Course Support

The course support was very well organized. There were water stops along the course every mile to mile and a half for a total of 6 stops (unless you are doing the half marathon and then you can double it for 12). The first stop was around mile 1.5 and the next 3 stops were spread out pretty evenly about a mile apart. The last 2 stops were very close to each other towards the very end of the 10K course. Every stop had adequate amounts of Gatorade and water when I went through with the 10K group. I’m not sure how the second lap was for the half marathoners, so it might be wise to bring a handheld water bottle as a backup. After going down the sunny greenway for a second time, you definitely won’t want to get caught without water. The volunteers were very attentive and made sure you weren’t standing around waiting for water or Gatorade. There were not portable toilets on the course that I saw, but if you are running the half marathon, you will have the opportunity to stop at the ones by the registration area. I didn’t notice volunteers handing out GUs or snacks, so if you need it, you may want to bring your own nutrition.

Since this is a small town and a small race, there weren’t large crowds out to support the runners every step of the way, but there were quite a few that had cute signs and cheered us on. If you need a lot of crowd noise and music on the race course to keep your morale up, it may be a good idea to bring some headphones to distract yourself. Personally, I was so distracted by the beauty of the course and the town that I barely noticed there wasn’t music around every corner. A lot of the local residents also recognized how hot the weather was that day and had sprinklers and water hoses set up to cool off the runners.

Post Race Food and Activities

All of the post race food was set up by the registration area and included water, juice, kind bars, and bananas. When I finished the race, there was no line at the snack station, but once all of the half marathoners started rolling in, the lines got pretty long. The volunteers were great at keeping the line moving though.

There were quite a few booths set up in the park area by the registration tables that had gear and information about local shops. There was some apparel for sale as well if you wanted to do a little bit of shopping. I did a quick walk through, but I didn’t spend much time looking since I was planning on riding the bus back to the apartment and didn’t want to carry a bunch of stuff back with me. There was also a kids fun zone set up by the lake full of bounce houses and activities for the kids. Since there is a 1K and a 2K race for the kids, it was a great place for the kids to hang out before and after their races.

After the race was over, I grabbed my medal and my snack and headed back to the bus stop. I originally planned to spend the morning in town and eat breakfast after the race, but I decided to head back to the apartment to put on some dry clothes. It seemed like there were a few options for food in town, but I would expect them to be pretty busy after the race.

Weather

If you head to Canada and think this is going to be a nice cool race, you may be sadly disappointed. Compared to June in Tennessee, the weather was very pleasant, but it was still pretty hot. The humidity was low, but since some sections of the course aren’t shaded, it would be wise to put on some sunscreen to protect yourself from the brutal sun. I talked to some local women on the course and they said it was hot every year for this race. Make sure you hydrate and dress for hot weather.

Lodging and Activities

Pointe-Claire is a very small town which means there are not many lodging options that are close to the start of the race. You may be able to find something on airbnb, but your best bet is to stay close to the airport or in downtown Montreal. The public transportation is very easy to navigate, so enjoy a weekend downtown and take the bus out of the city on race morning. I talk more about the transportation system under the Race Day Logistics section. If you choose to drive into Pointe-Claire, the later you drive in, the crazier the traffic gets. The roads begin closing at 7 AM so it will be a little harder to navigate into the neighborhood and towards the park. By the time we headed back to the bus stop, there were cars parked on every side street and many more trying to find parking for the 5K, 2K, and 1K races that were about to start. Plan ahead and get there early.

Montreal is an amazing city and is only about 10 miles away. Even though it is a long bus ride into the city, I would highly recommend staying there. There are lots of amazing restaurants, shopping, and plenty nightlife options. The half marathon doesn’t start until 8 AM and the 10K starts at 8:30, so it really isn’t a bad commute. If you are looking for more info on what to do in Montreal, I will have more info about that very soon. Until then, just shoot me an email and I’ll help you out.

Race Swag

Even though the race swag was simple, it was well made. This was my first international race and I love that I was able to bring home a medal as a souvenir. One of the really nice things about this race is that they offer a medal for all of the races, including the kids 1K and 2K. If you are traveling with kids and wanted to do something fun and active that is out of the norm, this would be a great option. The shirts this year were a fun shade of neon green and have a V-neck top which I find much more comfortable than the crew neck shirts. They are also a little longer in length which is great if you have a long torso like me. I rarely wear race shirts because they are usually too short and very uncomfortable, but I will actually wear this one around!

Race Photography

All of the photography for this race is free of charge. The coordinators post all of the pictures into albums on their Facebook page and encourage participants to download them and share them on their social media pages. I almost always buy my race photos, so this was a nice surprise for me. The only downside of the free photos is you will probably have to spend some time digging through the pictures to find yours. They are free though, so it’s hard to complain about that!

Fundraising

The Pointe-Claire races support the Alzheimer’s Society of Montreal and some of the proceeds from this race are donated. Since 2013, they have donated $187,000! In order to generate more fundraising, this year the race web page includes a link where you can create your own campaign to raise money for Alzheimer’s research. All you have to do is go to the fundraising tab at the top and you can either start a campaign or you can donate to a runner. If you start a campaign, you can register as an individual or as a team. Starting a fundraiser is an excellent way to stay motivated during your training. I’ve done this before to support a cause I believed in and it made the race and the training much more meaningful to me.

Conclusion

This was my first international race and I couldn’t have asked for a better experience. Everyone I talked to was so nice and the views were beautiful. The proceeds go to a good cause and I was able to bring home an awesome medal as my Canadian souvenir. I love that this can be a race you do on your own, or you can make it an event for the entire family. Montreal is an amazing city and June is a beautiful time to visit. If you have been thinking about visiting, I would 100% recommend planning your trip so you can include this race in your travel itinerary. If you have any questions or want any more information, please feel free to send me an email or leave a comment and I’d be happy to answer any questions.

Happy running!

-xo Nancy

How to Successfully Train for a 5k

When I look back to when I first started running, it is kind of comical to think about all of the mistakes I’ve made. I didn’t have anyone to teach me how to be a runner or show me the right way to do things. All I had was a pair of crappy tennis shoes and a sister-in-law to encourage me and push me to keep going. I was scared and intimidated by failure, so I didn’t try to find a running partner or a group. Instead, I came home everyday, laced up my shoes, and went running. After 6 months, I finally ran my first 3 miles with no walking. Fast forward 3 years and things are now much different. I’m using this experience and coaching new runners so I can help them have a much better start than I did. This is my second year coaching a couch to 5k training group, and here are my thoughts on how to be successful.

Show up.

Out of all the “tips and tricks” to successfully completing a 5k, the most important things is that you show up and put in the work. The East Nasty Potato to Tomato training program just started last week, so if you are participating in this program, just show up. I remember how intimidating it was the first time I ran with a friend. She was a close friend, but I was so worried she’d judge me because I was slow. I was worried she’d leave me and I’d still be running alone. I was worried she’d never want to run with me again because I wasn’t good enough. Knowing what I know now, all of those thoughts and fears were silly. Every runner has a story and every runner started somewhere, usually somewhere very close to other beginners. In my experience, most runners want other people to be runners too. We love to share our knowledge and experiences and encourage new runners to keep showing up because that is what keeps the running community alive. If you miss a day or even a week, don’t let this be the reason you stop coming. You may need to move to a slower group or you may need to redo a run, but if you keep showing up and keep putting in the work, you will have a successful training and you will finish your 5k.

If you are reading this and you are not part of East Nasty’s training program, that is ok. This still applies to you! You may not have a scheduled session with an organized group, but what you do have is a commitment to yourself. There is a reason you decided to train for a 5k, so keep that thought and don’t let go of it. On days you don’t want to run, bring that thought back up and find the motivation to lace up your shoes and walk out your front door. Once you get going, you will more than likely keep going. Show up, do the work, reap the rewards. I know it sounds simple, but that’s because it is. If you live in the Nashville area and are interested in this program, check out the program here or here.  I encourage you to come out and join us because you’ll never have more fun learning to run.

Sign up for a race.

I don’t know about you, but I’m not a fan of throwing money away. If you are serious and want to run a 5k (or any distance for that matter), sign up for a race. Once you are signed up, you have paid money and have officially committed to reaching your goal. On days you don’t want to train or don’t feel like running, you’ll have a little nagging voice in the back of your head reminding you that you’ve already paid for this race. Let that nagging little voice be motivation for you to show up and do the work.

Don’t lock yourself into a single pace or pace group.

If you are a new runner, more than likely you don’t have any experience knowing how to pace yourself. A lot of times we will set arbitrary goals for ourselves such as “I want to run a 5k in 30 minutes.” I think this is a fantastic goal and one that I set for myself at one point in time, but depending on your current fitness level and previous running experience, this may or may not be a realistic goal for you (at least for your first 5k). When we set lofty goals and then find ourselves falling short, human nature is to get frustrated and start talking ourselves out of our commitment. We say things such as “I’m really too busy right now to train, I’ll wait until I’m done working on A, B, and C” or “Summer running really wasn’t a great idea. Let me stop and try again in the fall.” Don’t listen to these thoughts. You CAN do it. Following a 5k training schedule only takes 30 minutes to an hour 3-4 days a week. However, you will want to track your progress and continually reevaluate your goals and adjust as needed.

When I first started running, this was the number one reason why it took me 6 months to run 3 miles continuously. On my running intervals I was running really fast, and then on my walking intervals I was walking really slow. When it came time to run more and walk less, there was too wide of a pace difference between the two and my fitness levels at the time didn’t allow me to maintain that running pace. I would end my runs disappointed because my overall pace wasn’t in the range that I had set for myself. I didn’t know it at the time, but I was sabotaging my own training even though I had good intentions. If I had run slower and walked faster, my overall pace would be faster and I would have been much closer to my goals. Learn from my mistakes and do it the smart way. If you find it hard to breathe comfortably during your running intervals, you are going too fast for your current fitness levels and need to slow down. One thing I want to make very clear is just because you slow down, this does not mean you are not reaching your goals. Running a 5k in 35 minutes instead of 30 is a whole lot better than not running a 5k at all. All this means is you have an opportunity to run another 5k and see how much you improved after another round of training.

If you are currently training with East Nasty…

You are very fortunate to have a group of wonderful coaches to cheer you on and we want you to succeed! In the first few weeks of training, it is hard to tell if you are in the correct pace group. In the beginning, you walk more than you run and the runs are short. As the program begins to build, you’ll have a better idea of your current fitness and you’ll need to decide for yourself if you are in the correct group. Even if you love your coach and don’t want to disappoint them, just know they will love you regardless. Every coach out there will support your decision to leave the group and step down to a slower pace group (and will more than likely encourage it!) because your likelihood of success will be much greater if you are comfortable. Our success is determined by your success, so we want you do what is best for you and your body.

Hydrate and fuel your body properly.

If your motivation for training for a 5k is to be healthier, lose weight, be more active, or anything else health related, this is such an important piece of the running puzzle. A lot of people make the decision to live a healthier lifestyle and try to change EVERYTHING at once and it becomes completely overwhelming. You are trying to eat healthy, count calories, train for a race, cut out sodas, and fifteen other things all at once and it is a total shock to your body and to your mind. Instead, try a different approach. You are reading this because you want to run a 5k, so let’s start there. You are already making changes to you physical activity (or at least thinking about it) so make that your number one priority! Don’t worry about the dieting and the calorie counting and all of that other stuff. It will be too much for you to handle. Instead, focus on the running and focus on drinking water, especially if you are training this time of year when it is hot out.

What will happen is you will go out for a run. You will work really hard. You will get really sweaty. You will be really tired. You will be really hungry, and then it hits you. You don’t have groceries at home and you definitely don’t have the energy to go to the store, buy ingredients, come home and cook, and THEN eat. You’ll remember how hard you just worked, so instead of grabbing a fast food burger, maybe you grab a fast food salad. Next week, maybe instead of grabbing your normal afternoon soda, you remember you have a run after work so you drink a bottle of water first. After that is gone, you still want the soda, so you drink that too, but you are already kind of full from the water, so only drink half of it. Over time, all of these little changes add up and the next thing you know, your lifestyle has completely changed. You may not have noticed it right away because it was so gradual, but the end result is the same. Most importantly, you weren’t miserable the entire time. Just like with your 5k training, it is a process. Let it naturally build and focus on one or two things at a time. Once those one or two things become part of your normal lifestyle, add another one until it becomes normal too. It’s ok if you mess up and have a cheat meal. Just be patient and keep moving forwards.

Ask for help.

This is the tough one, especially for me. Anyone who knows me knows I’m as stubborn as they come. Because I’m stubborn, I’m also driven. If I set out to do something, I’m going to do it, especially if someone tells me I can’t. However, this also usually means I do things the hardest way possible. If I could go back in time and start over, the number one thing I would change would be to ask for help much earlier than I did. I struggled with some injuries, pacing myself, wearing the wrong shoes, and many other things a seasoned runner could have helped me with. I let my fear and my stubborn personality hold me back, so don’t do what I did. If you are training with East Nasty, you basically hit a gold mine of seasoned runners who want to help you. If you have something that is hurting or doesn’t feel right, talk to your coach. If you have no idea where to start when it comes to buying running shoes, talk to your coach. If you aren’t sure if you are in the right pace group, talk to your coach. That is why we get paid! Kidding. We don’t get paid…but we’ve all been in your shoes at one point or another and are here to help you learn from our mistakes.

If you aren’t training with East Nasty, that is ok! Believe it or not, there are a lot of resources in your own community that you probably didn’t know about. Start with people you know, even if you don’t know them well. Maybe there is someone on Facebook that you went to high school with that started running the past few years. Maybe there is someone at work who is always talking about their next race. Runners typically love talking about running, so if you are listening and looking, they will stand out. Build up some courage and start a conversation with them. If you are lucky, you probably have a running group in your own community. Show up for runs or join their local Facebook page and start asking questions. If they don’t answer or aren’t very nice, who cares! They don’t know you and you don’t know them. Just keep trying and eventually you’ll find someone who is willing to help. If you don’t have anyone to talk to or you can’t find a running club, go to your local running store and talk to someone who works there. When I first started running, I was having issues with my feet. I just kind of assumed it was my shoes, so I went to a local running store in town. It turned out that not only were my shoes terrible, but my calves were so tight that they were causing a lot of pain in my feet. I left that store with my very first pair of real running shoes, but also with a lot of information and help that I never would have gotten from ordering shoes online. It’s a lot easier said than done, but don’t be afraid to ask for help. It will only benefit you in the long run (get it? Long run? Not funny? Ok…I’ll stop).  As always, if you would like to talk about something running related, please reach out! I love to talk about running and I am very passionate about helping new runners get started. I may not have all of the answers, but I’ve made a lot of mistakes and have a lot of experience in things not to do. Just shoot me an email and I’ll be happy to give it a shot.

Have fun.

If you don’t listen to anything else I’ve said in this overly long post, please listen to this one thing. Running is supposed to be fun. Not like “going out drinking with your friends” fun or “eating a funnel cake at the fair” fun, but running should be the kind of fun you have when you are proud of yourself for stepping out of your comfort zone to do something that’s hard. Yes, some people run marathons and do IRONMAN triathlons and all kinds of other hard stuff, but they all started somewhere. This is your journey and you should enjoy it. Not every single run is going to be fun because at the end of the day, it is supposed to be hard. If it was easy, everyone would do it. However, if you are miserable, something is probably wrong. Go back and read through the other points in this post and see where you may be going wrong. Maybe you need to slow down or maybe you need to get new shoes to help with your aches and pains. Once you pinpoint your issue, try again and see if it is more fun this time. If you are looking for additional ways to make your training more fun, try some of these:

Find a running buddy or group.

I’ve tried a lot of ways to make running fun and this is always my number one choice. If you can find a reliable friend or group, it will motivate you to show up because 1) you don’t want to disappoint your friend and 2) you get to hang out and chat with your friend. They always say misery loves company (kidding), but on a more serious note, once you find a running friend, use each other for motivation and support. You will both have good days and bad days, so when you are having a good day, use that energy to motivate your friend. When you are having a bad day, let your friend be your support and let them try to motivate you. You will be amazed at how much your friendship grows through running.

Make a new playlist.

Making a new playlist is a very simple way to get yourself out the door. If you make a playlist full of songs that make you happy, you’ll naturally be happier when you step out that door for your run. If you spend an hour working on your playlist, you’ll be anxious to listen to it and will find it easier to put on your running shoes later that day or the next day.

Buy a new running toy.

Sometimes getting a new toy or gadget is enough motivation to get out the door. Maybe you set a goal to not miss a run for a month and once you reach that you’ll buy yourself a cool new GPS watch. Or maybe after you finish your 5k, you promise to get yourself a new pair of headphones you’ve been wanting. Buying a new toy can keep things interesting and you’ll be motivated to lace up those running shoes even if it’s just you can play with your new gadget.

Try a running app.

This is kind of embarrassing, but when I first started running, I was desperate for some motivation. I found this running app called “Zombies, Run!”. The idea behind the app was that you were living in a post apocalyptic world that was overrun by zombies. You are one of the runners who goes out and completes missions to get supplies or save people or whatever. All of the episodes were about 30 minutes or so, which was the perfect amount of time to go for one of my training runs. It sounds super silly, but it was a lot of fun! I’d go run just because I wanted to listen to the next episode. There are other apps out there too, but this is the one I started with. Now that running is just part of my normal life, I use apps like RunKeeper and Strava to connect with other runners and to keep up with their activities. There are a lot of options out there, so you’ll just need to find what works for you.

When I set out to write this post, I never intended for it to be this long. This is a topic I’m very passionate about, so I didn’t want to cut it short. Running is hard, but the more fun you have, the easier it gets. I hope you enjoy the process of training for your 5k and I know you’ll do great. If you have any questions about anything at all, please don’t hesitate to reach out and ask! Just shoot me an email or comment on this post and I’ll get back to you.

Happy running!

xoxo – Nancy

 

 

Crystal Cave Adventure

I don’t know what it is about caves, but they have always fascinated me. Maybe it stems from Jules Verne’s story about descending to the center of the earth through volcanic tubes in Iceland, or maybe it is just the idea of exploring the last bit of unknown in this world, but I’ve always been drawn to them. When we went to Belize, I had one of the best cave experiences of my life. It was hot, and humid, and I probably lost about half my body weight in sweat that day, but I would do it again in a heart beat. Crystal Caves are the real deal.

The Caves

Most of Central America lies on a large bed of limestone, which is very susceptible to corrosion from water. When rivers and rainfall run across this limestone base over the course of hundreds and thousands of years, intricate cave structures are formed. Even though Belize is one of the smallest countries in Central America, it has one of the largest cave infrastructures. The Crystal Cave tour begins with a  very long, hot, humid hike with a lot of incline through the rain forest to get to the entrance to the caves. It takes about an hour, but don’t let this scare you. Even though the hike is hard, stick with it because all of the hard work pays off. As we hiked, our guide taught us a lot about the nature around us. He pointed out birds, plants, and other wildlife along the way which helped distract us from the hike itself. We even stopped so he could coax some tarantulas out of their homes.

Once you finally get to the entrance of the cave, you’ll begin your descent. More than likely, you’ll already be sweating, but don’t expect the cave to cool you down. When we went, the cave was as hot and humid as the outside temperatures and we all sweated a lot. At this point, you’ll need to put on your helmet and your headlamps because it gets dark fast. As you begin your descent, you’ll see some of the Mayan remains such as fire pits, pottery, and even some bones and skulls. To the Mayans, caves represented the underworld and a ceremonial space. They would would use parts of the cave for human sacrifices, burials, and other types of ceremonies. Our guide taught us a lot about the culture and the history behind these wonderful caves and also let us experience true darkness.

As you continue your descent, you’ll go much farther than the Mayans ever did. There is a lot of climbing and maneuvering your body in awkward positions and there are also a few very tight squeezes. You’ll start wondering where the name “Crystal Caves” came from and why you are doing all of this work, but as you continue on your journey, it will all begin to make sense. You’ll start to see twinkling as you head into different sections of the cave. The crystals come in different shades of blue, white, and red, depending on what the particular rocks in that area were made of. Just when you think it couldn’t get more beautiful, you turn a corner and it does. If you are lucky, you’ll make it all the way to Wonderland. Our guide kept telling us about Wonderland and asked if we wanted to keep pushing forwards or if we wanted to turn back and go swim. We all agreed that we could swim anywhere, but this was our one shot to see Wonderland. I wish I could find the words to accurately portray this incredible place, but it is something you have to experience for yourself. It is truly indescribable and pictures will never do it justice. Everywhere you turn, there are crystals covering every inch of the cave and they have mostly been undisturbed by human contact. Our guide had us take off our shoes so we didn’t break any of them and we hiked around Wonderland barefoot. Some of the crystals are small and delicate, so it was important that we had complete control of our feet and didn’t crush them. It sounds crazy, but it was an experience I’ll never forget.

Unlike some caves, the cave does not loop in a circle or come out the other end. At the end of the descent, you’ll have to retrace your steps and head out the same way you came in. You’d hope the hike out would be easier, but it is equally as hard. Just focus on how good Rum Punch will taste once you get back to the van. Once we made it back to the entrance of the cave, we took off the hot helmets and hiked to another nearby cave that was on our way back to the van. It had a big lake inside and we all jumped in and washed the mud and sweat off our bodies. It was so refreshing that none of us even bothered to change clothes and just jumped in with our hiking clothes. Once we made it back to the van, we changed into dry clothes and ate homemade chips and salsa and drank rum punch together feeling proud of what we had all accomplished.

What to Bring

Exploring Crystal Caves is an all day excursion, so you will need to come somewhat prepared. Unlike most of my cave experiences, these caves are very hot and humid, so whatever you you bring with you will probably get wet and/or muddy. Here is my list of recommendations for what to bring and wear.

Clothing

  • lightweight water wicking clothing
  • closed toed shoes or hiking boots

Be prepared to sweat A LOT. You will want to wear comfortable clothes that are water wicking. Cotton is not a good idea because it will hold water and you will feel even hotter during your excursion. Closed toed shoes are also highly recommended because certain areas in the caves will not be good on your feet if they aren’t protected. I wore hiking boots and they felt a little clunky in some of the more delicate areas, but if you have some closed toed hiking sandals those will be good. Most importantly, whatever you wear in these caves WILL get muddy, so make sure it isn’t something you want to keep nice.

Packing List

  • Water
  • Light snacks
  • Backpack
  • Change of Clothes (can leave in the car)
  • Waterproof Camera
  • Bug Spray
  • Bathing suit

Most of the food and water should be provided by your tour guide, but depending on your own personal needs, you will want to bring more water and possibly snacks. I drank about 2 liters of water while I was in the cave and drank more when I got back to the van. You will definitely want to bring a change of clothes to change into once you get back to the van. You will be soaked through and through, so it was very refreshing to be able to change into something dry before the long drive back. Bug spray is also a good idea, even if you leave it in the van. You will have a long hike through the rain forest to the entrance of the caves, so protect yourself from bug bites. Depending on your tour, you may have the option to go swimming after the caves, so you will probably want to bring a bathing suit with you. We went for a quick swim after, but we all just jumped in with our hiking clothes because we didn’t have the energy to change.

Your tour guide should provide some essentials, but you may want to check before you start the tour. Here are some things you will need that should be provided:

  • Lunch
  • Water
  • Helmet
  • Headlamp

Don’t stress too much about packing, but coming prepared will make your day go much more smoothly.

Out of all of my travels, this was one of my favorite excursions. It is a very physically demanding experience, but the reward was worth it. In a way, it is like I have my own little secret because no one can look at pictures and see the true beauty of these caves. Pictures will never be able to capture the twinkle and intricacy of the crystals, but instead they just look like cool rocks. You really have to get out and do the hike for yourself to really understand.

Have you ever had an adventure that left you feeling this way? If so, I’d love to hear about it. Happy travels!

-xo Nancy

 

 

How to Plan a Road Trip Through the Yucatan

If you’ve never taken a road trip in another country, you need to add it to your bucket list. We have done it a couple of times now, and I really enjoy it. Having a car gives you a lot of flexibility and makes moving from city to city much easier. The Yucatan is a very friendly and safe part of Mexico, so renting a car and driving was a quick and efficient way to get around. We only had about 2 weeks for our trip, so we wanted to spend as little time traveling as possible so we could see and do all the things on our list. There are a lot of ways to plan a road trip, but here are my tips for planning a road trip through the Yucatan.

Plan Your Trip Length

For most people, the duration of your travel is somewhat preset. If you work or have children or have other priorities outside of travel (I think this applies to most people), then you probably only have a limited number of days to dedicate to travel. This range could be any amount of time starting with a long weekend all the way up to months of travel. Depending on how much time you have to spend, this will determine how long your road trip will last. The longer you have to travel, the more places you will be able to visit and the more activities you will be able to participate in. However, don’t let your limited schedule discourage you from road tripping through the Yucatan. You can still have a nice trip with 4-5 days. Once you know how long you have to travel, you can begin planning the fun stuff.

Decide on Dates

Just like with the quantity of days, your dates may be limited as well. You may be a student trying to plan around school breaks, or maybe you are a professional trying to travel during your slow season at work. Whatever your situation is, you will need to decide on dates that work best for you. The weather in Mexico is warm all year round, so there are no limitations when it comes to playing in the sun. However, when you go will determine what kinds of crowds you will face, what kind of prices you will pay, and what kind of activities will be most fun.

There are two main travel seasons in the Yucatan, high season and low season. Both have their advantages and their disadvantages, so you’ll need to figure out what matters to you most.

High Season: November – April

High season begins around November and ends around April. For a lot of people, they choose to travel during this time because they are trying to escape the cold, they have time off for the holidays, and the weather is really pleasant in the Yucatan around this time. This is what is known as “dry season” because there is minimal rain and maximum sunshine. We visited in January and it only rained once while we were there. It was a little too chilly to get in the water at the beaches and we had to wear wet suits while scuba diving, but the weather was perfect for walking through the cities and hiking through ruins.

All of this sounds great, but there are still a few disadvantages. One disadvantage is everything costs more. All of the hotels and tour companies know this is when tourists will arrive, so they increase their prices. Sometimes it is only 15-20%, but depending on where you stay and what activities you want to do, prices can increase up to 50%. It is still possible to travel on a budget even with inflated prices, but you have to work a lot harder at it and give up some of the luxuries you may be able to afford if you were traveling in the off season. The other big downside of traveling in high season is dealing with all of the other travelers and tourists. The beaches are more crowded, the hotels are more crowded, there is more traffic, and the attractions are more crowded. When we travel to remote places, we don’t like to share a “secluded cenote” with 1000 other people and we don’t want to have our pictures of Chichen Itza overrun with other visitors. If you play it smart and plan accordingly, you can minimize this frustration, but you’ll never be able to completely avoid it.

Low Season: May-October

Low season begins around the End of April and lasts through the end of October. The weather in the summer is extremely hot and muggy and there is a much greater chance of rain during this time. Hurricane season is from June 1 through November 30, but don’t let this stop you from visiting during this time. Just because it is hurricane season does not necessarily mean there will be hurricanes during your visit. There will still be plenty of sunshine, and a little rain can help keep you cool if you are out hiking in the heat. We traveled to Belize in May 2016 and it was actually really nice. It isn’t the Yucatan, but very similar weather. The weather was really hot, but bearable, and we had so many excursions all to ourselves.

If you don’t mind the extra heat and want to travel on a budget, low season is the way to go. Everything tends to be cheaper and the crowds aren’t as hectic. You can move at a slower pace and you can get a feel for the true culture of the Yucatan. You also have a lot more flexibility with lodging and activities because most places won’t be booked in advance. Everyone is different and has to make their own decisions about what is important. For me personally, I’ve traveled both ways and I tend to enjoy the low season a lot more. I can deal with worse weather if it means less crowds.

Create a Budget

For most people, the two things that will most likely be the limiting factors of your travel are vacation days and your budget. A lot of people think that traveling around the world is an expensive hobby, but it doesn’t have to be. If you are traveling from the U.S., Mexico can extremely affordable, but it can also be an expensive, luxurious vacation. This is why you need to budget. I’m not going to go into the ins and outs of budgeting and personal finances in this post, but there are a lot of resources out there to help with this. It is up to you to set your budget and figure out what you can afford. Regardless of your budget, there are a lot of ways to save money on a trip like this, and here are just a few.

Travel in low season.

As I mentioned above, traveling in off season can save you a lot of money. The weather isn’t as good, but the prices are much lower and the crowds are much more sparse. It’s a lot easier to find a bargain when hotels aren’t booked full.

Stay in an Airbnb or a hostel.

Airbnb has become one of my favorite ways to travel. I love getting the opportunity to immerse myself in the local culture while also saving a ton of money. Win-win!! Typically, Airbnbs are MUCH cheaper than traditional hotels, and this is definitely true if you get out of the resort areas. The more basic the accomodations, the usually, the cheaper the price. If you’ve never used Airbnb, you can save $40 on your first visit by going here.

If you really want to save money and don’t mind giving up a little bit (or a lot) of your personal space, you should try staying in a hostel. Not all hostels are stereotypical party zones with big dorm rooms. Some actually offer private or double rooms as well as free breakfast and wifi at prices much lower than hotels and Airbnbs. They may be pretty basic, but you’ll need to ask yourself how much time you’ll actually be spending in your room. If you don’t mind sharing a dorm room, you can easily book rooms for under $10 USD per night. Savings like that can really add up over a week or two, plus you’ll get the opportunity to connect with other travelers and potentially make new friends.

Spend more of your trip off the beaten path.

Another really easy way to save money on your trip is to stay outside of the tourist zones. Typically, the further out you go, the cheaper prices get. This is also a great way to get to know the local culture. We spent a few of our days in Valladolid, and it was just a fraction of what we paid during our time in Tulum. There was less traffic, fewer tourists, and everyone was extremely friendly. The town was charming and there was an awesome cenote just a few blocks from our hotel. Don’t be scared to get out and explore the smaller towns, especially if you are on a budget.

Pick your Destinations.

Once you know your dates and have a budget, it’s time to start planning where you’ll stay. The activities you want to do will more than likely determine where you’ll want to spend most of your time. If you want to go scuba diving, you’ll need to be close to the beach, like Playa Del Carmen . If you want to visit Chichen Itza, you’ll want to be somewhere close to that area such as Valladolid or Izamal . If you want to immerse yourself in traditional Yucatan culture, Merida is the place for you. The Yucatan is full of adventure and has a wide variety of things to see and do. Each person is unique and will prioritize differently, but once you decide what is important for you, start picking your destinations.

Plan Your Route

Now that you’ve decided what you want to do and where you want to go, you’ll need to figure out what order to visit the cities and how long to stay. The amount of time you spend in a city will be determined by how much you want to do. We spent the most time in Tulum because we wanted to finish our diving certifications as well as visit the ruins, the beach, and cenotes. There are so many different ways to plan a road trip through the Yucatan, but here is how we planned our trip:

Our Itinerary

For our trip, we wanted to finish our SCUBA certifications, party for New Year’s, visit Mayan ruims, and spend some time in the colonial town of Merida.

Here is how we did it:

Days 1-2: We flew into Cancun and picked up our car and then made our way towards Playa Del Carmen. Since it was New Year’s weekend, it was very busy. We explored the town, partied, shopped, and ate a lot of tacos.

Days 3-7: After new years had passed, we headed on to Tulum. This was our base for SCUBA diving. We spent the first day exploring our hotel and the beach, 2 days diving, and the last  day exploring the town of Tulum and the ruins. I ended up getting extremely sick while we were here, so I also spent a lot of time taking mysterious medicine and laying in bed. It wasn’t ideal, but we made the best of it.

Days 8-10: The morning of day 7, we got up early and headed to Merida. It was about a 4 hour drive from Tulum, but we still had half a day to explore. Our visit was during Meridafest, so there were a lot of cultural activities happening all over town. If I could go back and plan my trip again, I would have spent more than 2 days in Merida. It is a beautiful city with a lot of character and I didn’t feel like we got to see nearly enough of it.

Days 10-12: Our last stop was Valladolid. We spent the first part of the morning in Merida, but made our way to Valladolid in the early afternoon. Our main motivation for stopping here was to be close to Chichen Itza. I wasn’t expecting much when I booked a couple of nights in this small town, but I really enjoyed my time here. Cenote Zaci was my favorite cenote of the trip and it is right in the middle of town. We were also only about an hour from Chichen Itza and it was closer to the airport than Merida. I would have liked to spend a few more days here, but we will have to add that to a future trip.

There are so many ways to plan a road trip, but this is what works for us. I hope you will try it some time and let me know how it goes! Have you taken a road trip before and have tips to share? I’d love to hear about them. Just leave them in the comments below. As always, feel free to reach out with any questions you may have. I’m always happy to help.

Happy Travels!

-xo Nancy

Visiting Tikal

Recently I posted about visiting Chichen Itza, one of the 7 wonders of the world. I love visiting Mayan ruins and learning about their ancient culture. As wonderful as it is, I wouldn’t say that Chichen Itza is my favorite Mayan Ruins. For me, Tikal was mind blowing. Maybe it was because it was the first archaeological site we visited or maybe it was because of how large the site is, but we loved our time there. We spent an entire day visiting the site, and we could have spent 3 more days without seeing everything. It is the largest archaeological site in Central America and covers about 6 square miles. Even though we only had a day there, we fell in love and covered a lot of ground.

Getting there

We were staying in San Ignacio in Belize and  were trying to decide what we wanted to see. We only had a few days, so we wanted to make sure we got the most out of them. After looking at our options, we decided to take a day trip to visit the Tikal. Since Tikal is located in the rain forests of northern Guatemala, getting there was an adventure in itself. We were staying at the Midas Hotel in San Ignacio and arranged our trip through them. They were wonderful and made everything extremely easy. All we had to do was show up early in the morning and they took care of the rest. We met with a driver and a guide in the lobby the morning of our trip, and we were the only ones on the tour that day which was awesome. We loaded into a truck and started our day.

San Ignacio is very close to the Guatemalan border and crossing the border can be intimidating. Looking back, it actually wasn’t that bad. About 20 minutes into our trip, we reached the border and were instructed to get out of the truck. At first we were pretty worried because we didn’t understand what was going on. There has been some conflict at the Guatemalan/Belizean border and our driver couldn’t cross the border. I don’t really understand all of the immigration rules, but I do know the Guatemalan driver couldn’t pick us up in Belize and our Belizean driver couldn’t cross the border. Our guide walked us through customs and on the other side, another driver was waiting for us. Our guide had dual citizenship which is why he was able to accompany us so easily. I would highly recommend getting a tour guide because it made this process go much more smoothly and made it a lot less intimidating. Border crossing took about 20 minutes and we were on our way driving through beautiful Guatemala. It took a couple of hours to get to the site, but it was well worth it.

When to Go

We chose to visit Belize/Guatemala in the middle of May during “shoulder season”. It was extremely hot, but most of the spring break crowds had cleared out and rainy season hadn’t arrived yet. Dealing with the heat was bearable since we basically had the entire country to ourselves. Most of the attractions we visited were virtually empty and we were the only ones on most of our tours. As long as you don’t mind sunny, hot days, I would recommend this time of year.

What to Bring

Be prepared to do a lot of walking and hiking while at the site. If you go in May like we did, you’ll also want to be prepared for extremely hot weather. Here is a list of what I would bring:

  • water
  • snacks
  • hat
  • cash
  • passport
  • sunscreen
  • bug spray
  • sunglasses

Out of this list, the most important item is your passport. If you don’t bring that, you will not be able to go across the border and you will not be able to do your tour. If you bring cash, there are vendors at the ruins where you can buy a drink or a snack. We only had Belizean money and they were able to do a currency exchange for us. We probably overpaid for our snacks by doing that, but it was worth the convenience. Since it is extremely hot, you are going to want to have plenty of water with you so you can stay hydrated on your long trip. Our guide also had some water for us, but it was nice having extra available. We had a backpack to carry all of our stuff in which was very convenient. Sunscreen and bug spray also came in handy. A lot of the grounds are shaded, but you’ll still be in the sun a lot. Come prepared and you’ll thank yourself.

What to Wear

This is going to be one of those “do what I say, not as I do moments” because I didn’t get to choose my outfit the day we went to Tikal. When we arrived in Belize, my luggage did not make it. I know all of the things I should have done while packing, but I didn’t do any of them.  The only clothing I had was what I arrived in. Luckily, I had on comfortable travel clothes, but they weren’t what I would have chosen to wear for 4 days straight. Anyways, ignore my outfit in our pictures and just know you want to wear light, comfortable clothing.

If you are visiting in May, you’ll be sweating a lot, so something that wicks sweat is a must. I was wearing cotton on our trip, and it held moisture and I felt soggy all day. Go for lighter colors because it will help reflect the sunlight and will keep you cooler overall. Sunglasses are a must to help block out the blazing sun, and if you are a hat person, a hat or visor would also be a nice accessory. I wore my Teva sandals that day, and they were perfect for hiking around. You’ll want to wear footwear that is comfortable, but walkable. Anything like a good pair of tennis shoes, hiking sandals, or hiking boots will work fine. I’d avoid cheap, plastic sandals if you can because there is a good chance they could break while climbing up and down the ruins. Since the trails are well traveled, open toed shoes work fine.

The Ruins

I can’t begin to accurately describe how much we loved these ruins. They were the first set of ruins we visited on our travels, and maybe that’s why we are so partial to them. The grounds are extremely large and you can walk for miles and miles and still not see everything. Unlike other sites like Chichen Itza, a lot of Tikal has yet to be excavated. You will see mounds of dirt all around and every one of them represents a pyramid that has yet to be uncovered. To me, this was part of the charm.

If you are with a tour guide (which I would highly recommend), they will explain the evolution of the grounds and what each piece meant to the Mayans. We walked for what seemed like hours, and then our guide told us to turn around. We were right in the middle of the great plaza. It was an amazing sight. This is where you will find most of your vendors with snacks and drinks, so go ahead and take a break. Find a shady spot and enjoy it. One thing I really love about Tikal is how interactive you can be with the ruins. Most of the Pyramids can be climbed and the views from the top are spectacular. Most people are familiar with the “Star Wars View” and it was so cool to be able to see it in person. Whether you are a Star Wars fan or not, it is still an incredible view. It is a long hike to the top of Temple IV, but it is the only location where you can see 3 different pyramids.

Besides hot weather and a lot of ruins, you will also have the opportunity to see a lot of native animals. While we were there, we saw howler monkeys, toucans, and the national bird of Guatemala, the Quetzal. This is another example of why it is so wonderful to have a guide while visiting these ruins. He was able to point out all of the animals we probably would have missed otherwise.

We really enjoyed our day at Tikal and would eventually like to make a return trip. If you want more detailed information, check out their website. Have you been to Tikal? If so, do you have any tips or tricks? If so, leave a comment below. I’d love to hear about it!

-xo Nancy

What I Learned About Running From a 6 Year Old

Even though I’ve only been running since October, 2014, I consider myself an experienced runner. I’ve ran quite a few half marathons, a full marathon, and I have more races on the calendar later this year. I’ve been a couch to 5k coach and I have been a running mentor to several friends. I still have so much to learn about running, but I had no idea that my 6 year old nephew would be the one teaching me. This year Rex, my nephew, wanted to run a 5k for the first time. He did a couch to 5k program to train for his first real race, and I was constantly blown away by his positive attitude and perseverance. He may only be 6, but he is wise beyond his years and a runner through and through . Here are his words of wisdom.

If you want it, you have to work for it.

My sister-in-law, Jennifer, and I have been running together from the beginning. Both of us have always been athletic, but neither of us had ever been runners. After finishing our first half marathon only a year into running, we were hooked and we have collected quite a few medals over the years. One day, Rex asked Jennifer if he could have one of her medals, but he didn’t really understand how much work was put into our collection and the sentimental value each medal holds. She told him if he wanted a medal, he had to earn one. Not long after they had a talk about medals, Rex came to her and asked if he could run a 5k so he could get a medal like her and Aunt Nancy. She told him he would have to train and it would be hard, but he was determined and still wanted to to do it. At first, he wasn’t really a fan of running because he started to learn how hard it was, but after a few weeks, he found his legs and really got into the training. He stuck with it and followed the program. The harder it got, the harder he tried. He knew what he wanted, and nothing was going to stop him from reaching his goals. If we approached our goals with the same ambition as a determined 6 year old, we would accomplish more than we ever dreamed. He was faced with many road blocks, but never once did he lose sight of his end goal.

Medals are great, but some things are more important.

Once Rex asked to run a race, Jennifer and I were on the hunt for a 5k that gave out medals, but it was not an easy task. Most 5ks don’t give out finishers medals, but we finally found one, so we immediately registered. We were so excited that we even told some of our friends who had kids and they registered too. Just a few weeks before the race, we found out the coordinators had a change of heart and were no longer giving out medals. Jennifer and I were frustrated and angry because we knew how heartbroken Rex would be. He was working so hard to reach his goal of getting a medal, and it wasn’t going to happen. We withdrew from the race and signed up for a smaller race closer to Jennifer’s house, but they weren’t giving out medals either. Jennifer sat down with Rex and explained what had happened. At 6 years old, he took the news with grace and maturity, more so than most adults. He told her he understood, but as long as he got to run with her and Aunt Nancy, he still wanted to do the race. I was absolutely blown away by the maturity displayed by a 6 year old. He had every reason to be upset, but instead he reminded us that there are things that are more important than a collection of medals. Doing things you love with the ones you love should always come first.

When it rains, you run faster.

As race day approached, so did thunderstorms. The forecast showed a lot of rain and the potential for thunder and lightning. Jennifer and I were both pretty concerned about running in the rain as well as the possibility of a race cancellation. We have both ran in the rain many times before, but we didn’t know how Rex would take the news. As usual, he had the most positive outlook and turned a bad situation into something good. He told her “I hope it does rain. If it rains I won’t get as hot and I’ll be able to run faster.” Out of all the times I’ve made myself run in the rain, never once was I excited about it. At 6 years old, he taught me that we can’t change the weather, but we can change our perspective.

Even though it is really hard, just don’t stop.

On race day, we were accompanied by Rex’s good friend, Clara. For her New Year’s resolution, she told her mom she wanted to run a 5k. While waiting for the race to start, Clara and Rex were playing and talking and were both really excited for the race to start. I asked them if they were both going to run the entire race, and Clara made a comment about how hard running the whole race would be and she didn’t think she could do it. Rex jumped in and said “When it get’s really hard, you just don’t stop. You have to keep going even though it is hard.” I couldn’t help but smile hearing him say this. It isn’t really new advice, but to understand this at such a young age is so inspiring. Through his training, he learned that running is hard, but he also learned you don’t just quit because something is hard.

Even if you are last, never give up.

Race day finally arrived, and both kids were beyond excited. The course had a lot of hills, and they took on each one like the little champions they are. They flew through the first mile ahead of the pack and started the second mile. The humidity was high due to the approaching thunderstorms and it was already getting hot. They finished the second mile and were on their way to the finish line. Rex started getting hot and needed to cool down, and about halfway through the last mile, he got really upset. It was completely understandable considering the heat and humidity, but Jennifer and I kept encouraging him and he kept going, tears and all. Even as we approached the finish line, I thought he would be happy to finish his first race, but he just continued to get more upset. Friends and family were waiting for us at the end, including Clara. I pulled them both aside and let them know how incredibly proud I was and awarded them both with medals for finishing their races. Rex thought he wasn’t getting one, and immediately went from being upset to all smiles. We hung around for the awards ceremony and Clara ended up getting first in her age group and Rex came home with second place in his age group.

After the race, Rex finally explained why he was so upset so close to the finish line. We were well on our way to the finish line and he could see all the people in front of him, but when he turned around a looked behind him, no one was in sight. He thought he was in last place and everyone was ahead of him. Even though he thought he was in last place, he still finished the race and pushed all the way to the end even though he was upset. He realized after the race was over that there were still a lot of people out running, but in the moment, he didn’t know that. He ended up finishing 22 out of 64 runners overall. At 6 years old, this is an exceptional accomplishment. As runners, we tend to be so hard on ourselves and we forget that it’s not always about how we compare to all the other runners. Whether you come in first place or last place, all that matters is you are out there doing the work and trying to be better than you were on your previous run or in your previous race.

-xo Nancy

10 Must See Places in Iceland

Unless you’ve been living under a rock the past few of years, you’ve probably heard about how wonderful Iceland is and know that it is currently a “tourist hotspot”. Known as the land of fire and ice, Iceland has been drawing millions of tourists every year, which is about 15 tourists for every native that lives there. That’s pretty phenomenal. So what is it about Iceland that has tourists flocking there? I could go on and on for hours about why Iceland should be on your bucket list, but I’ve narrowed it down to 10 must see places.

1. The Blue Lagoon

The Blue Lagoon is one of the most iconic attractions in Iceland. Even if you don’t know anything else about Iceland, you’ve probably at least seen a picture or two of the Blue Lagoon. There is a lot of debate about whether or not it’s worth a visit, but I don’t think you could have a top 10 list and not include it. Personally, I really enjoyed our time there and had a really good time. It was a little pricey and it was a little crowded, but I would have regretted it forever had I not visited. I wrote another post all about the Blue Lagoon if you want to read more about it. You’ll have to make your own personal decision about whether or not you want to visit, but even if you choose not to go, you do need to visit one of the many other hot springs in Iceland. The Blue Lagoon is man-made, but there are plenty of other options that are completely natural and also completely free.

If you don’t want to visit the Blue Lagoon, but still want an experience of a lifetime…..

you should check out the Reykjadalur natural hot springs. When we first arrived in Iceland, we decided to go on a “short hike” and visit the Reykjadalur natural hot springs on our way to Vik. We had read that the views were incredible and they had recently added some changing rooms. Well, much to our surprise, our short hike turned into about an hour each way and a lot of steep, uphill climbs, but the hot springs did not disappoint. There were several times on the way there that we thought “maybe we should turn around” and “what if we aren’t going the right way.” In the end, I’m glad we stuck it out. We were already pretty tired from the overnight flight before we did the hike, and afterwards we were completely exhausted and slightly delirious, but it is an experience I’ll never forget. We watched the sun rise above the mountains and we soaked in the hot water until we couldn’t stand it anymore. I’d do it all over again in a heartbeat.

 

2. Black Sand Beaches

Thanks to all of the volcanic activity in Iceland, a lot of the beaches have beautiful black sand. The beach gets its color from the basalt lava that ran into the ocean and eventually created black sand. Unlike a white sand beach that has extremely fine sand particles, the black sand is made mostly of small, coarse rocks.  I had never been to a black sand beach (or any color sand beach other than “sand-colored” for that matter), and it was completely breathtaking. It was pretty windy and cold, but I would highly recommend visiting. This particular beach is Reynisfjara Beach in Vik, Iceland which is on the southernmost coast of the island. We stayed in the town of Vik and it was very easy to cross the street to get to the beach.

As beautiful as this beach is, it can be dangerous. It is too cold for tanning and definitely too dangerous for swimming because the currents and waves tend to be very strong. However, it is a perfect spot for photo enthusiasts, professional and hobbyists alike. If you go around to the other side of the cliff, there are gorgeous basalt pillars that look like something out of this world. We tried to go get pictures of them, but we ran into torrential rains and decided to continue on with our road trip. If we ever make it back to Iceland, it will be top of our list for a revisit!

3. Reykjavik

Reykjavik is the largest city in Iceland and it is home to about 60% of the country’s population. Most people who know anything about Rekjavik are familiar with the colorful houses, Hallgrímskirkja (the big church), and Harpa the concert hall, but Reykjavik has so much more to offer. We loved wandering around the city looking at all of the beautiful street art and window shopping around the town. If you don’t feel comfortable with just darting off into a strange (but extremely safe) city, we highly recommend booking a spot on the city walk tour. It is a free 2 hour tour around the heart of Reykjavik where you’ll learn a lot about its history and lots of cool facts about not only the city itself, but Iceland as a whole. For my fellow runners, they now offer a private running tour as well!

If you like museums, Reykjavik has several museums that range from historical and informational, such as The Settlement Exhibition, all the way to quirky and weird, like the The Phallological Museum. Most of the museums are extremely affordable and are a good way to learn about the local culture. If you aren’t much of a museum goer, no worries. There are plenty of other things to do as well. To get a picture of the colorful roofs of the city, you’ll want to go to the top of Hallgrímskirkja and you can get your picture here. You do have to pay a small fee to get to the top, but it is worth it when you start getting all of those insta-likes. There is also a vibrant nightlife with plenty of bars and clubs as well as plenty of shopping and coffee shops if you want to sit and relax for awhile. For us, we had the most fun just wandering the streets and taking pictures.

4. Drive the Snæfellsnes Peninsula

If you are doing a road trip around Iceland, you definitely want to include the Snæfellsnes Peninsula in your itinerary. Before coming to Iceland, I was familiar with the Blue Lagoon, the Golden Circle, and the black sand beaches, but I had never heard of this peninsula on the western coast. I didn’t know what to expect, but I was more than blown away. There were basalt columns, volcanoes, gorgeous ocean views, lava fields, and of course the iconic Mt. Kirkjufell. Every time we turned a corner, I was blown away all over again. You will need a full day to explore the whole peninsula, but it is worth it.

Most of the sights were to die for, but one in particular was a complete disaster. I’m pretty sure everyone has seen pictures of Mt. Kirkjufell at some point in time. Usually it will be pictured with a gorgeous waterfall right in front of it, and maybe even rainbows or colorful skies. After seeing these pictures we HAD to add it to the itinerary. We had the location in our GPS and began our search for this iconic mountain. The clouds were pretty low that day and the weather wasn’t great, but we still wanted to go check it out. Since it is a mountain, we thought it would be easy to find it right away, but we searched and we searched but we couldn’t find it. We made a lot of U-turns and looked at lots of maps, and after much frustration, we finally found our mountain. It was right at the entrance of an Icelandic prison. At the time we were in disbelief and pretty frustrated that we wasted so much time hunting for views that seemingly didn’t exist. The waterfalls were replaced with a prison sign and we couldn’t even see the top of mountain. Every time I see one of those beautiful pictures of the majestic Mt. Kirkjufell, I can’t help but smile and think of our version of the mountain instead. It is times like this that remind me not everything will go as planned, and even the biggest “disasters” can lead to the best stories.

5. Snorkel or Dive Silfra Fissure

When most people think about snorkeling and scuba diving, images of warm sandy beaches and tropical reefs come to mind. Scuba diving isn’t the first thing people think of when they go to Iceland, but you should make it a point to add it to your agenda. Iceland is located on the North American and European tectonic plates, and the Silfa Fissure is the crack that runs between them. This is the only place in the world where you can snorkel between two different continents.

The water is crystal clear and you can see for more than 300 ft. Since the water that fills the fissure is runoff from the glaciers, it is very cold. You will want to bundle up under your dry suit and wear some long underwear, preferably made of a material like wool. Your dry suit should keep the water out, but you will be equipped with neoprene gloves and shoes, so expect your face, hands, and feet to get really cold! Another unique aspect of snorkeling or diving here, is the water is very clean so you can drink the water straight from your snorkel or while you are diving. This was an experience that I’ll never regret and I highly recommend it to anyone who is traveling to Iceland. If you want to learn more about the Silfra Fissure, you can read more about it here.

6. Watch a Geyser

If you’ve never seen an active geyser, it is basically nature’s equivalent to a jack-in-the-box. You know it will explode soon, but you don’t know exactly when. The anticipation is part of the allure. You wait and you wait and you start to think it will never happen….and then it does. It is a sight you have to see for yourself. It does have a pretty strong sulfur smell, but for the price (FREE) it is worth it. If you are travelling along the golden circle, this will most likely be on your list of stops. There is also a nice shop/spa across the street with restrooms and food if you need a break from driving.

7. See a Waterfall

Rainbow over Skogafoss

So this one is kind of a joke, but there is definitely some truth behind it. Iceland seriously has a ton of waterfalls, and some of them are probably the most beautiful I’ve ever seen. Because there are SO many of them, they kind of lose their charm after awhile. It seems kind of crazy, but at one point during our trip we were like “Oh, there’s ANOTHER waterfall…*insert eye roll*”. In all seriousness, I would recommend seeing at least 3 of the big ones.

Skogafoss

Pictured above is Skogafoss. This one is about 30 minutes west of Vik, so we were able to stop on our way to our first hotel. We caught it on a sunny day and the rainbows were to die for. It is right off of ring road, so it is nearly impossible to miss it. There are a set of stairs you can hike up as well to get to the top and you get a pretty awesome view from the top. It was extremely crowded when we were there, so it was hard to get pictures without having a lot of people in the background. We were there around mid-day though, so if you were to go earlier or later, you would probably have better pictures than what I was able to get. There is a small restaurant/cafe located at the entrance and we popped in and got some coffee to warm up and help keep us awake through the rest of the afternoon. It is a good place to grab a snack or use the restroom if you are in the middle of your road trip.

Gullfoss

This one is a MONSTER of a waterfall and it is probably the largest waterfall I’ve seen. It is part of the golden circle, so if you are making your rounds via road trip or tour, more than likely it will be part of your itinerary. It was very windy and cold that day, and the mist from the falls didn’t help warm us up any. We didn’t stick around long to visit, but we were able to snap a couple of pictures before getting back in our warm car moving on to our next destination.

Seljalandsfoss

We first learned about this waterfall thanks to our dear friend, Justin Beiber. In one of his music videos, he is running through green grass and behind a beautiful waterfall. That waterfall would be Seljalandsfoss (Skogafoss also makes an appearance, but not until later in the video). Seeing it in person was even more breathtaking that watching it in a music video. We were also drawn to it because you are able to climb up and walk behind the falls. We had been dreaming about going behind the falls for months, but our plans didn’t work out quite as we had hoped. It turns out that when it is really cold, the water from the falls freezes on the path that goes behind the falls. and without using crampons or some other kind of ice spikes, it gets pretty dangerous. We made it almost all of the way before we turned around. Whether or not you are able to run through green fields and behind waterfalls like Justin Beiber, you should still stop and see these because they are gorgeous. They are only a few miles further west from Skogafoss, so if you are going to see one, you might as well stop at both.

8. Visit a Glacier

I have always wanted to visit a glacier, and now I have. This was another first for me, and even though I’ve said this probably 8 times now, it was an incredible experience. Iceland has a couple of glaciers, but we chose to visit Vatnajökull. If you continue around ring road to the northeast from Vik, eventually you will make it to Vatnajökull National Park which is the home of the glacier. We initially drove past the glacier on accident and conveniently ran into a gas station which we desperately needed, so on our way back we noticed something very blue in the distance. At first we didn’t realize you could drive right up to the glacier, but we kept following a road and eventually we were there parked right next to a glacier. We were able to get out of the car and hike around and get up close and personal with it. It was another very cold and windy day, so we stayed and stared in awe as long as we could stand it before we headed back to Vik.

I think this is a great example of why I love Iceland so much. Most places we have traveled, there are a lot of rules and attractions are roped off and you have to pay an outrageously expensive entry fee to see something like this, but not in Iceland. You literally just get in your car and drive right up. No lines. No entrance fees. Granted, you may get your little car stuck and you’ll pay $12 for a beer later that night, so maybe they just don’t feel the need to charge for all of the natural beauty.

9. Visit Borgarnes

Borgarnes was the second town we stayed in. It is located about an hour north of Reykjavik and I would consider it a medium sized town. It is bigger than Vik and all of the little fishing villages we visited, but only a fraction of the size of Reykjavik. It has an actual grocery store which is helpful if you are looking to get some groceries, and it also has some decent shops and restaurants as well. We stayed at a little airbnb in town and it was wonderful. It sat right on a lake and the views were spectacular. We were able to walk into town with ease which was nice because we were tired of driving, and it also had a hot tub which was super relaxing after a day of hiking. There is an attached restaurant that is supposed to be really good, but it was closed for renovations while we were there. I can’t tell you whether or not the food is good, but it looks absolutely charming from the pictures. If you’ve never used airbnb before, you can use this code and get $40 off your first stay.

If you’ve ever seen the movie The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, you may remember that he visited Iceland. While he is there he visits a Papa John’s. The funny thing about this is Iceland doesn’t have any Papa John’s restaurants. They have Pizza Huts (which have hilarious radio commercials), but no Papa John’s. There is a little bakery in Borgarnes that the producers took over for a few weeks during the movie filming and they converted it into a Papa John’s, and as soon as the film crews were gone, it resumed normal business as a bakery. This picture was taken inside of the bakery where the movie was filmed and I would highly recommend you stop in. They have gigantic windows with a million dollar view. If you get there early enough (depending on time of year and when the sun is rising), you can watch the sun rise and eat some delicious pastries.

10. See the Northern Lights

Pretty much everyone who travels to Iceland hopes to catch a glimpse of this elusive light show. I had hoped to see the dancing lights every night we were there, but that just wasn’t how it went. I was in a dead sleep on the overnight flight to Iceland from Boston and the captain turned off the lights and announced he was doing that so we could enjoy the show. I was completely disoriented and it took me a minute to realize what was going on. Sure enough, the Northern Lights were dancing right outside of my window. It was like nothing I’d ever seen before but it was absolutely beautiful. My picture doesn’t even begin to capture the vibrancy or the dancing motion. I just knew I had to snap a picture to remind myself later that it really happened.

After seeing them on the plane, I just knew we’d see them again. Sadly, they never made another appearance for us. Most nights were rainy and cloudy, but the days were windy and mostly sunny. Since it had to rain, I wasn’t disappointed most of it happened during the night hours, but I had hoped to catch one more light show before our departure. If you are hoping to catch a glimpse of the Northern Lights, the best months to travel are late fall through early spring when the days are shortest. We traveled in March and they were very active. My friend went less than two weeks after we did, and she saw them almost every night. There is a lot of luck involved, so don’t be disappointed if you miss them. There are plenty of other sights that will take your breath away. If you would like to track the Aurora activity, you can use this website. It shows where the lights are predicted to be most active and where your best chances are of seeing them. I used it quite a bit, but luck was just not on my side. Hopefully I’ll get another chance in the future to see these amazing lights again.

I feel like I have just barely scratched the surface by narrowing Iceland down to a top 10 list. I could go on and on for hours about all of the other things you can do in this unique country. I’ll be writing more posts soon to provide more details about some of the items in this list, and hopefully I’ll write about some more things that aren’t even listed here. As much as I love talking about and writing about Iceland, I could never fully describe my time there. It is something you have to experience for yourself.

Have you been to Iceland and have a favorite place or activity that I didn’t list? If so, please let me know in the comments. I would love to hear about it. Also, as always, if you have any questions, please just let me know either through an email or in the comments. I’m always happy to answer any questions.

Happy Travels!

-xo Nancy

Race Review: Oak Barrel Half Marathon

When I was initially thinking about what direction to take my blog, I knew I wanted to highlight running in some way. I started thinking about what I could do to provide value to you guys without just rambling on and on about how much I love to run and how you should also love to run if you don’t already. Anyone who knows me well already gets enough of this. Today I’m excited to introduce my new series of posts: Race Reviews. I usually do quite a few races every year, so I want to use these posts to talk about the course, the swag, race coordination, and my overall thoughts about the race or anything I think you need to know, good or bad. I’m not paid or sponsored in any way for these posts. I just want to give my honest opinions to my fellow runners who love to race or want to try it for the first time. Anyways, on to the review!

Race Review: Oak Barrel Half Marathon

Most people are familiar with the rural little town of Lynchburg, Tennessee, whether they realize it or not, all thanks to Mr. Jack Daniel’s. Lynchburg is about an hour and a half southeast of Nashville and it is the home of the Jack Daniel’s distillery. There isn’t much going on outside of the distillery, but the town is quiet and feels like it is stuck in a time way back in history. Every year Jack Daniel’s sponsors a race for about 1,500 runners and this year I was lucky enough to get the opportunity to run it.

Registration

In order to keep this race true to its small town roots, Oak Barrel Half Marathon caps its participants to about 1,500 runners. They do this so they can continue to offer the best coordination and so they don’t overwhelm this quaint little town with more people than it can handle. Because of the runner cap, you really have to be on your A game if you plan on snagging a spot. This year it sold out in about 90 minutes and registration opened 6:30 AM CST on a Sunday.  However, if you don’t get in during the regular registration, don’t freak out. There are quite a few charity spots up for grabs too. You have to pay more (I think it’s about double the normal price), but all of the extra money goes to charity, so really it is a win-win situation. The best way to keep up with when registration is happening is to follow them on Facebook or on their website. The race coordinators are great and they post a lot of updates so you are never left wondering. Once you get registered, the hard part is over. Kind of.

Packet Pickup

Since this is a very small race, packet pickup is virtually painless. Unlike bigger races, there is not a big expo with lots of vendors and shopping opportunities. It is much smaller with a few volunteers handing out your race “packet” which is essentially a bib and a shirt and a few safety pins. The coordination is fantastic and they help you get in and out very quickly. We actually picked up our packets the morning of the race and were done in less than 10 minutes. They understand a lot of runners can’t make it to packet pickup the day before the race, so they do everything they can to make sure everyone makes it to the starting line on time.

One thing I really love about this race is how involved the coordinators are in the local community as well as how much the community supports the race. It is really wonderful to see such collaboration in this small town. During packet pickup, Oak Barrel gave runners the opportunity to win a free entry to the race through a raffle . The only thing you had to do to enter was bring a donation for the local animal shelter. The suggested value of the donation was $10 worth of supplies for a chance to win a $70 entry fee and a chance to sleep in while everyone else is up at the crack of dawn on a Sunday fighting for a registration spot. Even if you didn’t win, you could still feel good about helping out a local charity and it was such an easy way to give back to the community.

Race Morning Logistics

Race morning was very painless. The only real concern in the morning is getting into the town (especially if you are coming from the south) and getting parked before they start shutting down the roads for the course. Since Lynchburg only has a couple of roads running through the town and everyone has to park in virtually the same area, I was pretty worried about trying to park and getting my race packet and getting to the starting line by 8 AM. I left Nashville by 5:25 AM and I was parked by 6:35 AM and the entire parking process only took 5-7 minutes. I would imagine if you arrived later than that, parking might be a little worse, but overall it was not an issue. I wouldn’t push your luck though and make sure to give yourself plenty of time in the morning, especially if you have to drive.

Since packet pickup went very smoothly, we headed to the bathrooms and then on to the start line. There were a lot of race volunteers helping direct runners and helping manage the bathroom lines. As most runners know, bathroom lines on race morning can be a nightmare. For this race there were a few volunteers that helped keep the lines moving. The portable toilets were very clean, lots of paper, and there were an adequate amount of stalls to accommodate the amount of runners. Before we knew it, we were at the start line waiting for the race to begin. Since this is such a small race, there aren’t actual “corrals” and runners are not released in waves. There are several pace signs so runners can organize themselves in the proper order. A few minutes before the start time, the national anthem was performed and the race started right on time.

The Course

If you love amazing views, fresh country air, and huge hills, you are going to love this course. This is NOT a flat course, so if you aren’t used to running hills, you need to find time to practice and do lots of hill repeats. The race is in Tennessee which is known for its beautiful rolling hills. Lynchburg is particularly hilly and the race coordinators tried to find the best course they could. After reworking it several times, they came up with a race that goes uphill for about 5 miles, rolling hills for about 3 miles, and then it ends with 5 miles downhill. This is really a nice course because you get a little bit of a warm up before the serious hills kick in, and after you get tired, you have a nice, long downhill stretch to coast to the finish line.

Since most distance runners are kind of crazy and love a good challenge, the big draw to this course is Whiskey Hill. I’m here to tell you, this hill is no joke. I learned how to run in Nashville, so hills are kind of my specialty. However, Whiskey Hill gave me a run for my money. The hill is about a mile long. It starts off very gradual but it builds as you get closer to the end. By the time you get close to the top, the last little bit is basically straight up. I don’t even know that I have the words to accurately describe it, but be prepared and know it’s a doozy. Even though Whiskey Hill gets all the credit, it is not the only hill. There is a smaller hill right before the big climb (just enough to get your heart rate up), and once you get to the top of Whiskey Hill, it doesn’t level off. You have about 3 miles of moderately steep, rolling hills until you get to the long downhill stretch to the finish. Once you get to the top of the ridge, be prepared for some amazing views, especially if you are lucky enough for good race day weather.

Course Support

Like most aspects of this race, course support was very well organized. There were 7 stops along the course, and I felt they were adequately placed. The first stop was about 2.5 miles into the race, right before the base of Whiskey Hill. The next stop wasn’t until the top of Whiskey Hill, which was right before mile 5. After mile 5, there was a water stop every 1.5-2 miles. Every stop had adequate amounts of Gatorade and water and 3 of the 7 stops also had nutrition, such as cookies, pretzels, and orange slices. The volunteers were very attentive and made sure you weren’t standing around waiting for water/Gatorade/snacks. I brought a handheld water bottle and my own nutrition, but if you didn’t want to carry anything while running, you easily could have made it through the course without bringing your own. There were portable toilets close to almost all of the water stops.

Unlike races in the middle of larger cities, there were hardly any crowds out to support the runners. There were virtually no silly signs, cowbells, or enthusiastic fans to keep up your morale. If you need those things to get through a race, it may be a good idea to bring some headphones to distract yourself. Personally, I really liked how quiet the course was. It was a nice change of pace and I just felt like I could enjoy the serenity of being away from all the city noises for a few hours. The views were phenomenal and I was kind of glad there were no distractions from that.

Post Race Food and Activities

Since the race day weather was really bad this year, we were freezing by the end of the race. We didn’t get to enjoy much of the food, but I do know they had some amazing grilled cheese which really hit the spot after freezing for a few hours. In addition to the grilled cheese sandwiches, they also had Brunswick stew, hoe cakes hot off the griddle, cookies, fruit,  water, and other warm foods to help fill up and keep warm. As far as post race food goes, they had a great selection.

All of the shops in the town square of Lynchburg were open and welcoming to the runners. The welcome center provided a service to etch the race logo onto Jack Daniels bottles as well as an option to add your finishers  time. The logo etching was available for $10 with an additional $5 for your race finishing time. I really wanted to get one, but after the race was over, I really just wanted to warm up and get into some dry clothes. I saw some of my friends with the bottles and they turned out amazing. If I do the race next year, I’ll be adding one of these bottles to my race collection for sure.

If you were interested in doing a distillery tour, you this year they offered a 20% discount if you brought your race bib. Tour prices range from $15 for a standard tour all the way up to $100 for a VIP experience with a distillery tour, a whiskey tasting, and a delicious meal at Miss Mary Bobo’s restaurant. If you know you want to do a distillery tour, it might be a good idea to reserve a spot in advance since it will be a pretty busy day. For more information on tours, check out their website or give them a call for specific questions.

Weather

If you aren’t from Tennessee, be prepared to race in a wide range of temperatures. The weather in April tends to be very mild, but also very unpredictable. You really won’t know what you’ll be racing in until the week of. This year it was very cold, raining/snowing, and very windy, but some years, it can be very hot and humid. Unless there is lightning, the race will go on regardless of how good or bad the weather may be.

Lodging and Activities

If this is a destination race for you, be aware that Lynchburg is a really small town. This will create two problems for you. The first problem is that there is very limited lodging in town and the second being there isn’t much to do outside of a distillery tour and the race. If you want to stay close to the start of the race, you may be able to find an airbnb, but your best bet would probably be staying in Tullahoma which is about 20 minutes away.

If you are looking for somewhere that has more going on than what rural Tennessee has to offer,  Nashville is only an hour and a half away. There are lots of amazing restaurants and plenty nightlife….for after the race, of course. The race doesn’t start until 8am, so it really isn’t a bad commute. Be warned though, 1500 people trying to squeeze into a tiny town with limited parking creates quite a traffic jam. Make sure you get there early if you want to make it to the start line on time. If you are looking for more info on what to do in Nashville, I plan on writing another post about that very soon. Until then, just shoot me an email and I’ll help you out.

Race Swag

I seriously can’t brag enough about how amazing the finisher’s swag is for this race. As with most races, all registered runners will receive a shirt, and for this race it is a very soft, half-zip hoodie. It is not a tech material,  so it is not great for running, but it is very comfortable for lounging or changing into after a run. It is probably one of my favorite race shirts.

Even though the shirt is amazing, the swag only gets better if you actually finish the race. For the past few years, Oak Barrel has partnered with Swiftwick who has provided socks to all finishers. If you haven’t been wearing Swiftwick socks, you have been missing out. They are some of the best running socks I have found. They are moisture wicking and compression fit and I wear them pretty much exclusively. Not only are they some of the best socks, Swiftwick customizes them with the race logo, which makes them even better. This year, you also had an option at the end of the race to choose either a finisher hat or a finisher visor. I chose the visor and cant wait to wear it in the summer.

As cool as the socks and visor are, I really think the finisher’s medal is the real prize. Pretty much all runners get excited about cool medals, but these are pretty special. They are all made by a small, local company, Dot Tool, which is located in an even smaller town, Booneville. The logo is custom designed every year by Schweitzer and they usually incorporate the anniversary year and 13.1 somewhere in the design. This year was the 9th year for the race, so the O in Oak also doubles as a 9. If you look even closer, the B in Barrel is a 13 and they slipped a 1 inside the A for a little nod to the race distance. The maker of the medals was at the race, so it just felt really special to have to opportunity to shake his hand and thank him for his creativity and hard work.

Race Photography

For the most part, I usually end up buying my race photos. My mom and dad are two of my biggest fans, so they really like having the professional pictures. For most races, the photos are extremely expensive, but not for Oak Barrel. You can get race photos for as little as $5 each. They are high enough quality for online posting and can be printed at good quality for up to 8×10 prints. Purchasing the photos was painless and they had all photos uploaded before the end of the day. They don’t have a million photographers out on the course, but they do have some wandering around before the race starts, they have one at the top of Whiskey Hill, and they have one at the finish line.

Conclusion

I don’t repeat races often, but I will definitely be doing this one again, possibly on a regular basis. As far as races go, Oak Barrel is very affordable compared to some of the bigger races. I really feel like it is a bargain and you get all of your money back in custom swag.  I would not consider this an easy course, but out of all the races I’ve done, it is definitely one of my favorites. I love a good challenge and The team of race coordinators is one of the best I’ve ever seen and they are really only here for the runners. Unlike the big races, this race is here for the runners, not for the money. I seriously can’t sing enough praises about this race. Even though I was injured and we had really unfortunate race day weather, it was one of my favorite courses and can’t wait to get another crack at that hill.

You’ve now reached the end of my first race review. If you feel like you’d like to see more information or feel that I glossed over something that needed more details, just leave me a comment and I’ll add more. I want to use this a template for future reviews, so feedback is very helpful! Thanks for reading and I’ll have more reviews coming soon.

-xo Nancy

Tips for Visiting the Blue Lagoon

When we visited Iceland last year, I was really on the fence about going to the Blue Lagoon. There was a lot of conflicting information out there about whether or not it was worth a visit. I knew it wasn’t a natural hot spring and was really just there for tourists, but it is an iconic landmark within the country. After all, it is the most visited attraction in Iceland. After a lot of thought, we all decided we couldn’t make a trip all the way to Iceland and not visit. Even though some may simply consider it a “tourist trap”, it is still an experience I won’t ever forget. I won’t lie and say that it was the most mind blowing place we visited during our trip, nor will I say it is the best hot spring in Iceland. However, if you feel like you’ll regret it forever if you skip out, here are some things you should know before and during your visit.

1. Book Ahead of Time

Before going to Iceland, I really didn’t think much about when or what time we would visit the lagoon. I just assumed we would just show up when we were ready. I quickly learned that wasn’t the best plan. Over the past few years, Iceland has become a tourist hot spot, and for good reasons. It is the land of fire and ice, and at times, you don’t even feel like you are still on planet earth. Because of the boom in the tourism industry, the Blue Lagoon can get very crowded and they no longer accept walk-ins. You must book your ticket in advance. Since we waited until we got to Iceland to start thinking about our Blue Lagoon visit, there were very limited time slots to choose from. For us, it worked out. We ended up with really nice weather and a gorgeous sunset. Don’t make the same mistake as us though. Make sure to book ahead of time. Just go to this website to make your reservations.

2. It is Expensive

Most of the hot springs in Iceland are very affordable, but none of those hot springs are THE Blue Lagoon. Because of it’s popularity, it is quite pricey (as are most things in Iceland). A single basic entry fee is 6900ISK which is roughly $70 USD and it only goes up from there. If you are on a budget, this can put quite a dent in your total funds. Luckily, with the online booking, you can book in advance so you don’t have to come up with the cash on the spot. Booking in advance doesn’t save you any money, but it does allow you to choose when you pay, so you can work it into your other expenses.

3. It is Close to the Airport

If you are renting a car and driving around ring road, this isn’t that big of a deal. We were able to fit it into our schedule without too much shuffling, but we had a couple of days already in mind for when we wanted to visit. It takes about 30-45 minutes by car from Reykjavik to get to the Blue Lagoon, but if you go straight from the airport it only takes a few minutes. If you are coming in on one of those obnoxiously early morning flights like we did, heading straight to the Blue Lagoon from the airport. You’ll be tired from the overnight flight and relaxing at a spa is a good way to spend your morning. From here, you can either head on to Reykjavik, or wherever your first stop may be. If going straight to the Blue Lagoon doesn’t work for your itinerary, you can also hit it as your last stop before you fly home. Just book your reservation several hours before your scheduled departure and you’ll already be close to the airport for your returning flight. 

4. Mud Masks are Included

That’s right! The silica mud mask is included in the price of admission. Once you are in the water at the Blue Lagoon, all you have to do is swim up to one of the spa stations and you can start putting mud on your face. Leave it on for at least 5 minutes and your face will feel much softer afterwards. While you are waiting, you can take creepy selfies like we did.

5. Towels are Not Included

Unless you are planning on getting the premium admission, towels are not included. You’ll definitely want to pack your own so you can dry off after you are out of the water. The water stays pretty warm, but once you get out, you’ll get chilled pretty quick. The sooner you can dry off, the sooner you can warm up. If you like to pack light and don’t want to try to cram a bulky bath towel in your luggage, try getting a yoga towel. They are great for travelling. They aren’t the most absorbent towels out there, but they are much more packable and work fine for something like this.

6. You Have to Shower Before Entering

This might seem obvious, but you do have to shower before entering the Blue Lagoon. There are a lot of posts out there claiming you have to change in an open room and get completely naked and then everyone is going to be watching you while you shower, but this is definitely not the case. The showers have curtains so you don’t have to feel completely exposed to a room full of women. There is body wash available as well as conditioner. Take advantage of both of these items, especially the conditioner. If you think you’ll want to shampoo your hair as well, you’ll need to bring your own for that.

7. Condition Your Hair

Conditioning your hair is a MUST if you are going to be in the water at all. The silica used in the mud masks will wreak havoc on your hair if you choose not to condition it. A lot of people say don’t get your hair wet at all because it will turn to straw and will never recover, but personally, it didn’t bother me. I never completely submerged my head, but I didn’t have my hair pulled up and it was in the water quite a bit. I had a good amount of the provided conditioner in my hair to protect it, and once I rinsed it out, my hair felt like it normally does.

8. You Won’t Need Your Wallet

If you were worried about how you were going to carry your wallet around in the blue lagoon without getting it sopping wet, fear not. Once you get inside, they give you a fancy bracelet to wear. The bracelet is used basically like a charge card and once you are ready to leave, you cash out. You also don’t need to worry about where to store your stuff. In the changing rooms there are plenty of lockers available for use. The lockers link to your bracelet, so really you don’t have to carry anything with you. Except a camera. You’ll definitely want one of those. It is probably a good idea to go ahead and get something to waterproof whatever kind of camera you plan on using because there is a good chance it will at least get damp.

We really did enjoy our time at the Blue Lagoon. It was close to the end of our trip when we visited, so it was a nice change of pace after all the driving and hiking we had been doing. If you’ve visited and have tips to share, just leave them in the comments below. As always, if you have any questions or want to know anything else about or time at the Blue Lagoon, don’t hesitate to ask. Happy travels!

-xo Nancy

 

Chichen Itza: How to Visit Without the Crowds

It seems like almost everyone has heard of Chichen Itza at some point or another, and for good reason. It is one of the most well known tourist attractions in the Yucatan, one of the 7 modern wonders of the world, and a UNESCO world heritage site. Like most popular tourists attractions, there are a lot of, well, tourists. Large crowds, long lines, and lots of strangers in your vacation pictures are just a few of the side effects of visiting a popular attraction which sometimes can lead to a negative experience. Imagine if you could get a personal guide and an almost empty site to explore without hundreds of people and tour buses hanging out in the backgrounds of your photos all for way cheaper than booking an excursion through a tour company? Luckily, your visit to Chichen Itza can be exactly that.

Getting there

When we were initially planning our road trip through the Yucatan, we knew Chichen Itza was on our list of activities we definitely wanted to experience. I knew we would have a car since we were road tripping through the Yucatan, but I didn’t want to have to make a trip all the way from Merida or Tulum. We decided to spend a couple of days in Valladolid which is only about 45 minutes from Chichen Itza. I’ll be making a separate post about Valladolid soon so stay tuned.

From Valladolid, you can either take the toll road to Chichen Itza (180D) or you can bypass it and take 180. We did it both ways and personally, I didn’t think the toll road was worth the fee. It was about $10 USD and it is pesos only. The road was very empty and it was a fast ride. Once you pay the toll there and the toll back, it can get quite pricey. On our way home we took 180 and it took about the same amount of time and you got to drive through a couple of small towns. The scenery was better and it was free.

Once you get to Chichen Itza, you have a couple of different options for parking. The first option is to park your car alongside the road before you enter the park and walk up the drive. It is a little bit of a walk, but it is free. We took option number two, which was to drive into the park and pay about $2 USD to park inside the gates. Since we were in a rental car, I didn’t want to risk it getting damaged parked on the side of the road, but it is probably perfectly safe if you choose to go this route. If you plan to pay to park your car, make sure to have some pesos handy.

When to Go

If you want to beat the crowds, you are gonna need to set your alarm clock pretty early. Most tour buses start rolling in around 9-10 in the morning, so you’ll want to get there before they do. I was a little worried about how bad the crowds would be because it was January, one of the busiest times of the year. We decided to visit on a Monday because the weather was supposed to be really nice and we wouldn’t have all the extra weekend visitors. We left Valladolid around 7 in the morning and got to Chichen Itza right as it was opening at 8. There were a few people already there, but for the most part, we had the whole place to ourselves.

Not only did we have the ruins to ourselves, but since we were there before the tour buses, the shop keeper were still setting up their shops. We weren’t interested in shopping or buying trinkets, so it was nice not having someone yelling at us every 5 ft trying to get us to buy jaguar calls or Mayan masks. Another one of my splurges was I wanted to hire a personal guide. Since it was so early, we didn’t have any problems picking one up at the entrance and it was really nice that our “tour” was just the two of us. Another added bonus is you only spend a couple of hours visiting, so by the time you leave, you still have your entire day to go visit cenotes in the area.

Hire a Guide

If you do a lot of research on this topic, you’ll get a lot of conflicting advice. It is totally a personal preference, but I would highly recommend getting a personal guide. When we first walked past the ticket booths into the actual archaeological site, I was very surprised at how small the site was. When you hear about Chichen Itza being one of the 7 modern wonders of the world, you imagine a massive site with lots of pyramids and excavated areas. We visited Tikal in 2016, and it is HUGE. He couldn’t have seen everything even if we had a whole week. I was expecting the same for Chichen Itza, but the site really only consists of one pyramid, a ball court, the observatory, a temple, and a few other small things. If you go wandering around on your own, you will be done in 30 minutes and will miss out on interesting facts about the site.

Our guide was fantastic. He was an older Mayan man and was very knowledgeable about the ruins and Mayan history, plus he spoke English was was a must for us. He was able to show us all of the inscriptions and what they meant and why they were significant. Even if I had noticed the serpent heads or the skull pictures, I wouldn’t have understood why they were there or what they meant. He also pointed out areas that were still being excavated and was able to explain why they did a full restoration on half of the pyramid, but only a partial restoration on the other half. Since we have visited several Mayan sites over the years, he was able to help us link them together through history and why each one was significant. It was 700 pesos per person, but I think it was completely worth it. Don’t make a trip all the way to Chichen Itza just for a selfie. Splurge a little and you can learn so much more about the site.

Price Breakdown

So how much did it cost to visit Chichen Itza? I’ve broken it down below so you can see how much each part cost individually, including our tour guide splurge. All prices are shown in pesos.

Entrance Fee: $232

Personal Guide: $700 pp

Parking: $30

Total: $1662

When converting that to USD, it comes out to about $90 for the entire day for 2 people. If you were to book a tour with a group, they are about $100 USD per person, plus you are there with thousands of other people and have to share your tour guide with 20-40 other people. If you can, I would put in a little extra work just so you can have an overall better experience for a fraction of the price.

If you have any more questions or if you are planning your own trip to Chichen Itza, please feel free to leave a comment or shoot me an email. I’d be happy to help you out!

-xo Nancy