Hot Tub Time Machine

“We still need things from our parents—some understanding, some piece of love, whatever it is. There never comes a time when you … don’t sort of hope, even in their decline, that they can still be there for you.”

Anderson Cooper on anticipatory grief

This is a story about getting drunk in a hot tub, but it’s not quite as exciting as the circumstances imply. For that, please proceed directly to a very different corner of the internet.

It was a Thursday, two days before my thirty-fifth birthday. I had a shitty workday and, by quitting time, needed to soak in our hot tub with a big glass of sparkling rosé in hand.

We hung out in there for a while as a family, and I had such a lovely buzz going that I fetched another glass and returned to the hot tub as Aaron and Evie got out. I sipped and scrolled on my phone as both forms of bubbles melted away my tension. I must have exhausted the content on my social media feeds because I ultimately found myself in my voicemail archive, staring at dozens of entries indicating messages from my mom.

Since her early onset Alzheimer’s diagnosis in 2019, my mom has slowly slipped away. It happened so gradually that every time I visited, her general reticence and increasingly jumbled words seemed normal. But I remembered, staring at those voicemails, that she was once upbeat and articulate. She once knew how to call me, and did so often to confirm plans, thank us for coming by the house, or check on us during inclement weather. And she always called on May 21 to sing happy birthday to me.

Two habits that drive Aaron crazy—my tendency to keep my phone on silent and never answer calls, and my total disinterest in deleting anything—proved valuable in that moment. My voicemail archive held pieces of mom I thought were lost forever.

I began listening to her messages and transported back in time. It was 2018, and my mom was wondering what time we were meeting at the mall for our Mother’s Day shopping trip. It was 2019, and she needed to know my Social Security number to update her beneficiary information for a new insurance plan. It was 2020, and had I heard about this virus going around?

I closed my eyes and listened to the mom I used to know, the mom who no longer existed—at least in any way she could communicate to me. I let my now intense buzz convince me that I had just missed those calls, that she was still the same. I could call her back right now and say, yes, I will stop by the store on my way over and pick up a bag of ice; no, don’t worry about paying me back.

And then I listened to the birthday messages. She and my stepdad sang an exaggerated version of happy birthday, with my mom replacing “dear Devon” with “dear sweet Devie Doodle Bug.”

It was then I started crying, realizing I’d never get a birthday phone call or voicemail from her again.

This is a small loss in the grand scheme of everything Alzheimer’s has stolen from us. But that evening—thanks in part to potent rosé—it unleashed a tsunami of grief.

In an effort to Be Okay and enjoy my life, I rarely tap into that deepest level of hurt. I’ll shed a few tears every now and then, particularly during therapy, but mostly I keep things tight. With my defenses down, I gasped for air as sobs overtook me.

I found myself wrapped in a towel, crumpled on my bedroom floor, raging over the phone to my stepdad about how fucked up this whole situation is. Why her? Why us? He understood and talked me down from the height of my hysteria.

Eventually I pulled myself together enough to get dressed and take Wally for his nightly walk. As we set out around the neighborhood, I called my mom on the off-chance she’d answer the phone. I just wanted to hear her voice. I just wanted to know she was still here.

She didn’t answer my call. Normally I would leave it at that, but something compelled me to try again.

“Hi, Mom?” I said, my voice cracking. “How are you?”

“What’s wrong?” she asked, concerned. I couldn’t believe she’d recognized the heartbreak in my voice.

“I just miss you,” I replied. “You… live so far away.” Our physical distance wasn’t the problem, but I didn’t want to mention the real issue.

“I know,” she said. “I miss you, too.”

I started crying again, struck by her clarity. It was 8:30pm and she was probably exhausted, yet she was able to express herself in a way I hadn’t witnessed in a long time.

Our phone conversations—on the rare occasions she answers—typically last about five minutes. I tell her everything that’s happened in the few days since I saw her last, then run out of things to say. She doesn’t contribute much, and there’s only so much silence I can bear to let hang between us.

On this night, we talked—like, a real back-and-forth conversation that mostly made sense—for 19 minutes.

We talked about my birthday coming up in a few days, and she asked how old I was turning. “Thirty-five,” I said, and she laughed: “How can that be? I still feel about forty!”

We talked about memories from when she really was forty and I was eleven, which were much more vivid for her than anything that happened in the past week. We talked about how she was worried that she hadn’t heard from Don lately, even though I know he calls her multiple times a day, every day. And we talked about how we missed each other, and how she was sad to hear me sounding sad. We said we loved each other, and that we’d talk again soon.

After we hung up, I took huge, deep breaths and tried to memorize everything about what had just happened. I had taken a photo of a stunning sunset during our chat. I took a screenshot of the call log. I wanted tangible evidence that I had gotten my mom back, if only for 19 minutes.

It struck me that I hadn’t been mothered in a long time. It’s not something I really appreciated when I did experience it, and it’s not something I realized I’d missed until that moment. My mom and I always had a good relationship—except for a few teenage years, when my hormones may as well have been napalm—but it’s not like I constantly turned to her with my boy troubles or friend drama. I didn’t seek from her the words of parental wisdom you hear at the end of every Full House episode.

But she was always there for me for the big things, like when my BAC was higher than my GPA the first quarter of college and I was hospitalized with pneumonia from wearing only skimpy going-out tops to freezing frat parties. Or when I wanted to go on the pill and asked her to take me to the doctor since I was still on her health insurance, and she did so without judgment. Or when I revealed I was thousands of dollars in credit-card debt after graduation, and she helped me make a plan to pay it all off instead of admonishing me for my stupidity. (She was relieved since she thought my big secret was that I was pregnant—which I never was, thanks to the pill.)

I still try to rely mostly on myself (and my therapist) to manage life’s everyday struggles. I like to keep my sadness contained, not wanting to infect others. Keep things tight, right? But it turns out I do still need my mom.

I went on to have a lovely birthday weekend, celebrating in person with friends and all different parts of my family, including my mom. I didn’t get a happy-birthday voicemail, but I did get an in-person rendition, which is definitely better. Someday that will be gone, too.

As a mother, I now understand my birthday means even more to my mom than it does to me. It’s my birthday, but it’s her Birth Day. I think about how April 29, 2016, is the most special day of my life, and figure May 21, 1987, must be right up there for my mom. I’m her second kid, but she made it no secret she wanted a girl and would keep trying until she got one. I may have come bursting out before she could get a desperately wanted epidural, but I think I made up for it with the fact that she’d never have to go through that again.

I try to be grateful for what I have left of my mom and not focus on what we’ll lose next, or guess at when she’ll leave us for good. I’m conflicted between wanting to keep her earthside forever and wanting her to be released from her pain.

She endured my excruciating arrival; I’ll endure her excruciating departure. Love is at the center of it all.

I don’t know what happens to us after we die. I’m humbled enough by the magnitude and mysteries of the universe to admit that. I respect anyone who possesses the faith to be certain that heaven or hell or some other manner of afterlife awaits us. There is safety in certainty. I prefer to marvel at all the possibilities.

My mom has always said, half jokingly, that she’ll haunt me when she’s gone. If she has any choice in the matter, I’m sure she will. But if there is some grand plan for our existence, I don’t believe hanging around my house and flickering the lights is her destiny. I like to think she’ll move on to something better.

I hope her energy, unleashed from the plaques and tangles that choked it in this lifetime, finds freedom as something wonderful in the next. Maybe she’ll be a bird or a butterfly. Maybe the universe has a sense of humor and she’ll be an elephant. Or maybe her energy will disperse, becoming one with the elements. Maybe it will coalesce, on occasion, when it feels some force pulling it back together and toward something it once knew.

When my mom is gone, on my birthday, I’ll listen for her. Maybe I’ll let my skin go wrinkly in the hot tub and remember that night it was a time machine. Maybe a spring breeze will tickle my neighbor’s wind chime. Maybe I’ll close my eyes and believe it’s my mom calling to sing to me.

Wally: Part 2 (and More Life Stuff)

Wally turned out to be everything his foster Karen said he was and more: an incredibly sweet little guy who loves all people and dogs; calm most of the time, yet super bouncy and energetic when he’s ready to play; remarkably quiet, unless he feels like he’s not getting enough attention; and so loving and loyal to us, his new family.

Karen did a great job potty training Wally, so aside from a handful of accidents in the first few weeks, we successfully skipped that hurdle of new dog ownership. Our only challenge was that Karen had allowed him to sleep in her bed, so he repeatedly tried to join Aaron and me in ours the first few nights, but eventually got the memo and learned to settle into his dog bed in our room.

I figured January would be a slow month after the holidays when I could really focus on getting to know Wally and establishing a new routine with him. I was wrong.

My mom contracted Covid at her memory care facility, and my stepdad and I heard the news from her on the phone before we ever heard anything from the facility. She isn’t the most reliable source, so we were left wondering if she really had it or not until we could get ahold of the head nurse. It turned out she had indeed tested positive during regular testing of the entire facility—and was luckily asymptomatic—but for some reason it took them nearly 24 hours to contact us, her family, and let us know.

That was the cherry on top of a huge pile of grievances we had with that facility, and we decided then and there she needed to move ASAP.

Moving is stressful for anyone, but especially for someone with dementia who needs to be in familiar surroundings to feel secure and grounded. The first time we moved her into memory care, in January 2021, it took her about three months to settle in. That period was extremely stressful for her and for us, with many phone calls and visits that ended in tears on both ends. I was not looking forward to going through that again, but we knew it was for the best.

I chose that initial facility under impossible circumstances, in a pre-vaccine world when we weren’t allowed to go inside most facilities to tour them in person, when I was desperate to give my stepdad some relief from being a 24/7 caregiver, and desperate to help my mom—who had lost an alarming amount of weight and struggled with paranoid delusions at home—in any way I could.

I don’t blame myself for choosing the wrong place, but I did see this new move as a way to right that wrong.

I started from scratch all over again, calling every memory care facility I could find on the Eastside and gathering all the information about availability, pricing, activities and more. I narrowed the options down to six—a mix of assisted living/memory care, dedicated memory care and adult family homes—and scheduled three intensive days of in-person tours and assessments.

The thing about memory care (and I supposed regular assisted living) is that you can’t get the full picture of how much it will cost each month unless you do an assessment with the facility’s nurse, where they ask all sorts of questions to determine the level of care a person will need. The higher the level of care, the higher the cost, on top of the monthly rent for the room itself.

For example, a room in memory care might run $4,000 per month in rent, but care might start at $3,000 per month for a low-needs person and go up from there if they need more assistance dressing, bathing, eating, etc. There’s also a one-time “community fee” due upon move-in that can be $1,500 to $5,500 or more, which really makes it painful to move.

(Is this the first time you’re realizing how much memory care costs? Did you know most families have to pay out-of-pocket? In the Seattle area, $7,000-$10,000+ per month is the norm. Here’s your nudge to make sure your parents have long-term care insurance!)

Because cost was a decision-making factor for us, I scheduled the tours and assessments together so we could walk away from each facility knowing exactly how much it would cost—which was super efficient, but made for three very long and exhausting days. We’d do one tour and assessment in the morning, eat lunch, then do another in the afternoon. Talking with strangers about the specifics of your mom’s terminal illness for an hour twice a day is draining. Touring sad little hallways filled with people who aren’t sure where or who they are is heartbreaking. Trying to decide where your mom is going to live—and quite possibly die—is… I can’t think of the right word, but it fucking sucks.

After the last appointment of each day, I had about a 45-minute drive home by myself when I’d blast loud, happy music and drink in all the lovely sights of the world—puffy clouds, streaks of sunset—and transport myself from the land of the dying back to the land of the living.

And when I got home, there was Wally.

Not to say that I didn’t find comfort in Aaron and Evie, but dogs bring a different sort of joy. They’re invariably, unabashedly, ridiculously thrilled to see you each time you walk in the door. They give amazing, furry snuggles. They don’t ask questions, however well-intended, that might make you cry.

Sweet Wally came right when I needed him most.

The great thing about this journey to find a new place for my mom was that she came with us on all these tours. Last time, my stepdad and I peeked into memory care windows and talked to facility directors without her, worried that she would get confused or freaked out by the process.

This time, she was ready to get the hell out of her old place and was thrilled to see all these new places. She had definite opinions on which places she did and didn’t like, and best of all: the winning place was a clear, unanimous, enthusiastic yes from all three of us.

We chose a dedicated memory care facility, which has three floors that my mom can move about freely, including a secure outdoor garden area she can access at any time. It’s clean and bright and cheerful, with friendly and helpful staff that seem happy to be there. It was the only place that brought me to tears as we toured it; the only place where it felt like she could really live, not just exist, before she dies.

It was such a relief to choose this wonderful new place in early February and give notice to her old facility, making plans to move her in March. And then! Evie got Covid.

It was inevitable, since Covid seemed to rip through her elementary school after the holidays. Luckily, she was fully vaccinated and only had a day or two of mild cold symptoms, and Aaron and I somehow never had symptoms or tested positive. Still, it was another challenge to have her be home and contagious while Aaron and I tried to keep her busy and keep up with our work, plus quarantine ourselves. Walking Wally (while wearing a mask) was my only escape.

In March, my mom’s move went as well as it could go. It took us from very early morning to late evening, but we got her completely moved in and set up in her new space. Unlike last time, when we had to direct people through the window on where to place her furniture, my stepdad, brother and I were able to set up everything just how she liked it. I carefully made her bed and folded her clothes. My brother organized her bookshelves and placed her framed photos just so. It felt amazingly redemptive to do it right this time.

And then I figured life would be good for awhile, having accomplished this herculean task that consumed the first few months of the year.

But remember the three-month settling period I mentioned last time we moved my mom? It was hard this time, too.

Despite the fact that we knew this place was such an improvement from the last one—better food, nicer people, brighter and more beautiful surroundings—my mom still had her complaints. It was after a few of these unhappy phone calls that I realized no place would satisfy because the real problem wasn’t the place; it was the dementia. And there was no place I could move her and nothing I could do to fix that.

I realized this in the midst of a session with my therapist. “All solutions with dementia are imperfect,” she said. I wrote that down because I have to accept that as badly as I want to make things right for my mom, there’s only so much I can do.

As much as I hoped this move would improve things, the satisfaction I got from it was short-lived. I got so caught up in the doing, and didn’t anticipate the rush of sadness that would fill me once the doing was done.

I desperately looked forward to the first day of spring, craving literal sunshine to brighten up life. And wouldn’t you know, we had the gloomiest, rainiest Seattle spring in a decade.

But Wally got me outside three times a day regardless. We walked and walked, rain or (rare and blessed) shine. We went to the off-leash dog park any time it wasn’t too rainy or muddy, and I loved watching him goad bigger dogs into chasing him around in big circles. He kept me moving in a season when I wanted to get back into a regular running routine, but just couldn’t bring myself to endure the rain when I wasn’t training for anything.

It also made such a difference to wake up each morning to his little face peeking up at me from my bedside; to have his constant companionship throughout mundane days working at home; and to have his quiet, loving presence in the room during my biweekly therapy sessions. He’s not an emotional support animal, but he manages to be more than just a dog, too.

Maybe part of it is that Wally has given me the opportunity to save him in ways I can’t save my mom. She had to leave her home; I took Wally into mine. I can derive daily satisfaction from meeting Wally’s needs by feeding, walking and playing with him; but even when I try my best to give my mom a better life—by spending quality time with her, taking her shopping, moving her to a new place—I still feel like I’ve failed her because the inherent cause of her pain remains. All solutions are imperfect.

And Aaron? Despite not wanting to get a dog in the slightest, even he had to admit early on that Wally is a pretty great dog. Over the past six months, I’ve watched Aaron go from cautiously tolerating him to actually liking him to downright loving him. He’ll swear otherwise if you ask, but he has indeed said the L-word, and you can see it plainly in the way he always sprinkles a little rice on the floor for Wally as he cooks, and chases him around the living room, and clearly enjoys it when Wally chooses to snuggle with him instead of me.

Wally brings joy to my stepdad and mom, too. He comes with me and Evie on our visits every weekend, and we take him on walks around the neighborhood and to the park. We toss his squeaky toys down the hall and laugh as he chases and pounces on them. He and Evie bring energy and levity to these visits. Together, they bring my mom firmly back to the land of the living, if only for a little while.

Now it’s summer. The days are brighter, literally and figuratively. It’s hard to remember a time before Wally was part of our family. And I hate to think of a time far in the future when he won’t be, because there will surely be a huge, Wally-shaped hole left behind.

I’ve always been a dog person and now, I think, I’ll always need a dog. I have the love to give, and I need the love they give.

I sure am grateful for his.

Wally: Part 1

Aaron and I had a deal: when Evie turned 18, he could get a motorcycle and I could get a dog.

I’ve been firmly anti-motorcycle since 2010, when I met him in the midst of his recovery from a horrific accident. He was extremely lucky to survive, and still experiences pain and discomfort from the injuries he sustained.

I wasn’t about to lose him to another motorcycle accident—especially once we had Evie. Over the years, he asked dozens of times if he could get a motorcycle, and I always answered that he could once Evie was fully grown.

As for the dog, I figured I’d need to get one when Evie (presumably) moves out so I’d still have someone to take care of. I’ve always been a dog-lover. Aaron… has not.

He had a bad dog experience as a kid and at his former office, which allowed dogs that would apparently whine and bark and annoy him while he was trying to work. He also hates slobbering, shedding, wet-dog smell, etc.

So it seemed like a fair compromise for Aaron to get the thing I hate and for me to get the thing he hates in the distant, hazy future, circa 2034. Yay, marriage!

Then my mom got sick, and I began to rethink everything about how life should and would unfold.

My mom should be planning to retire soon so she can spend time enjoying her hobbies: quilting, gardening and more. It breaks my heart that she’ll never be able to do those things again.

I realized 2034 isn’t guaranteed, and I didn’t want to be the one who held Aaron back from one of his life’s greatest passions because I was afraid.

In October 2020, he bought a motorcycle—a project to take apart and rebuild more than to ride.

In August 2021, he ask if he could get another motorcycle—and I thought, what’s one more?

In December 2021, he asked if he could get a third—and I threatened to get a dog if he went through with it. It was a bluff that I felt sure he wasn’t willing to risk calling.

Well, meet Wally.

I began searching Petfinder for rescue dogs before Christmas. We went to the Humane Society to see some dogs in person (in dog?), and even met up with a 40-pound dog who needed to be re-homed due to the family’s baby developing a dog allergy.

We realized that we couldn’t handle a big dog, but didn’t want a super tiny dog either, so I narrowed our search to dogs between 18-30 pounds. I chatted on the phone with a few rescues and discovered a terrier mix or poodle mix would be ideal to keep shedding to a minimum. I also wanted a young or adult dog, not a puppy; I’ve been catching up on my sleep ever since Evie was born and didn’t love the idea of more sleepless nights. I saved searches on Petfinder for all my criteria and checked for new arrivals several times a day.

After losing out on a few dogs and submitting other applications that went unanswered, on December 29 I searched “terrier mix” in our area and clicked through pages of dogs until I found one named Rocko who’d been on Petfinder for 19 days. He only had a single photo: a closeup of his face with one ear flopped back.

His description said:

Rocko is 1.5 years old and 20lbs. Up to date on vaccines, microchipped and neutered. Good with other dogs, kids and cats. Rescued in Tijuana. Arrives 12/17.

It was very little info and I had no clue what his body looked like, but his coat looked wiry so I figured he wouldn’t shed a ton. Why not submit an application and find out more?

This was my first time applying for a dog through Casa Dog rescue, and I was shocked when they reached out to the friends and family I’d listed as references within hours of submitting my application. I heard from a volunteer later that same day, who answered a few questions and put me in touch with Rocko’s foster, Karen, a kindly woman in her 60s who lived alone. She spoke glowingly of Rocko, telling me how loving and calm and quiet he was. He was potty trained and had been sweet with her five-year-old grandson on Christmas. He sounded perfect.

We had a huge snowstorm right after Christmas, and Karen lived an hour away, but we made plans to meet Rocko once the roads weren’t so icy. It took a week and a half, and I used the time to buy dog supplies and make sure our house was ready in case we took Rocko home with us. I was terrified someone else would swoop in and take him, but Karen and I kept in touch and exchanged photos and videos, and she felt certain we were the right family for him.

“I’m so glad he’s going to have a whole family to love,” she said.

I was so nervous on January 8, the day we met him—nervous he wouldn’t be anything like I thought he was and we’d walk away disappointed, and also nervous that we’d take him home and discover we were in over our heads. Most of all, I was nervous Aaron would hate him.

I can’t say it was love at first sight once Karen opened her front door. He was shaggy and unkempt looking, with wild hair sticking straight out from both sides of his neck like a lion’s mane. But as we petted him and took him on a walk around the neighborhood, I saw he walked so well on a leash and was the perfect size for then five-year-old Evie to handle. He had a long neck and body, a curled tail and short legs that made for the cutest little trot. It was a no-brainer that we’d take him home for a two-week trial adoption.

Karen was the sweetest and packed up a few of his favorite toys and treats to take with us. She was sad to see him go and offered to watch him for us if we ever had the need. She asked if we had a new name in mind for him and was delighted with the answer: Wally.

The ride home was when I fell in love. With Wally awkwardly curled up in my lap, shaking, I knew as I snuggled and comforted him that he wouldn’t be going anywhere.

To be continued!

Autonomous Bombs

“The problem with Alzheimer’s is the problem of losing our autonomy—losing the ability, early on, to self-determine our lives.”

Dr. Jason Karlawish in conversation with Brené Brown

My mom is like Beyoncé: she keeps shit to herself until she’s good and ready to let you know.

It’ll be crickets for a year, and then one day—boom—Queen Bey drops a visual album packed with generation-defining music, choreography and cultural commentary. She just blew up your life, and you’re welcome.

My mom’s bombs are a little different. She doesn’t aim for shock and awe; rather, she tries to figure out all the messy details behind the scenes and minimize the damage before making her big reveal. But there’s fallout nonetheless.

I woke up early on the first Saturday of summer vacation in 2003. I had just finished my sophomore year of high school and felt excited, free, like anything was possible. I was cutting strawberries for breakfast when my mom came into the kitchen and asked me to follow her outside.

Uh-oh—what did I do wrong? She instructed me to get in our car.

In the two minutes it took us to drive from the newer end of our apartment complex to the older one, my mom explained very simply and with little emotion: “I am asking your father for a divorce. I am moving out today. I have my own apartment with a bedroom that’s yours if you want it.”

Boom.

We parked and walked up to a second-floor apartment. She pulled out a key and opened the door. I walked into a fully furnished home. There was a couch, a coffee table, a dining table and chairs. Throw pillows. A painting on the wall. This was not a spur-of-the-moment decision; she’d been building a new life for months.

I don’t know how long we were there before she said this next, but I feel like it wasn’t long: “I have a TV being delivered and I need you to stay here and sign for it while I go tell your father.”

BOOM.

Alone, in an apartment I’d never seen before filled with furniture my mom chose, I understood life would never be the same again. I wandered into the kitchen and opened a cupboard. It was full of canned soup. And it was only then that I started to cry. 

The rest is a blur, but my mom did move out that day, and so did I. I didn’t choose my mom over my dad; I simply wanted my brother to have a bedroom. Money was tight, and my brother had slept on a mattress on the living room floor of our two-bedroom apartment for months. If I left with my mom, he could have my room. So I did, and he did.

It’s not for me to detail what went wrong in my parents’ marriage, but I will say that my dad was (and is) a very sweet guy, and we didn’t flee from abuse or violence or anything like that. My mom didn’t want to split our family up any more than she had to. She stayed in the same apartment complex so I could walk just a short distance to see my dad, and my brother could pop over to our place whenever he wanted.

I think it’s fair to say my mom believed the marriage had run its course. I also think she knew my dad would try to talk her out of leaving—and he did still try. But by Monday, we were gone, and she had officially filed for divorce.

With hindsight, I realized she must have been stockpiling money from her job for quite a while to afford a whole separate apartment. And that new hobby she’d taken up over the past year—running—served as her alibi while she shopped for her secret TV, arranged her secret furniture and stacked her secret soup.

These are the things I think I know. I can’t even imagine the things I don’t. I try to put myself in her shoes for just one second, executing this escape plan completely alone, and I find myself breathless from the weight of it. Also, simultaneously impressed and heartbroken by the ingenuity of it.

She’d waged a secret battle for her autonomy, revealing its very existence to her opponent only after she’d already won.

My parents’ divorce was finalized in the spring of 2004, and one month later, my mom closed on a modest home of her own. The furniture she chose moved into the house she chose. So did the man she chose as her partner. 

Together, they built the garden she’d always dreamt of: raised beds for vegetables, lavender for the bees, sunflowers for my mom since they’re her favorite. I lived there, too, as I finished high school, and intermittently during and after college as I found my footing. I helped water the garden whenever I lived there.

When my mom married her partner in 2015, she reclaimed her German maiden name, Behrens—derived from Bernhard, a compound of the elements “ber(n),” meaning bear, and “hard,” meaning brave, hardy, strong—and hyphenated it with her husband’s Sicilian surname, Macaluso—meaning freed, liberated.

Janet, brave and freed.

In December 2020, my brother, stepdad and I gathered around the dining table with my mom, masks on. The three of us had privately agreed it was time to look into memory care. As the death toll of the pandemic peaked, her cognition and ability to live independently plummeted. She was no longer safe in the home she chose.

This was not like one of her bombs. We explained to her the benefits of moving to a place where there were other people like her who had trouble with their memory, and how she’d be well taken care of by professionals. We showed her pictures of private rooms and read aloud from activity calendars. She cried with joy at the thought of being able to socialize with other people and participate in activities tailored for her abilities. She gave us the green light to begin the process of choosing a new home for her.

My stepdad and I researched places together, but he left the final decision to me.

I tracked down nice second-hand furniture for my mom’s room, and Aaron and I drove all around the Eastside in a borrowed truck, picking up the pieces of her new life.

We sorted through her belongings—clothes, books, quilts, photos—to decide what would stay and what would go. Everything we packed got a permanent label. I wrote her name hundreds of times.

And on January 29, we loaded the last of her things into our cars and held our breath when it was time for my mom to say goodbye to her home.

I gasped for air beneath my mask as I held back tears. My brother’s brow crumpled. But my mom was placid and detached, not quite sure what all the fuss was about. This house she’d chosen, the garden she’d planted, the autonomy she’d fought so hard to seize meant little to her disease-altered brain.

I’d pictured so many scenarios playing out in this moment, but never this one. Compared to all the scenarios I’d imagined, I found this one to be the saddest.

Due to COVID restrictions, we were not allowed to help set up my mom’s room. We simply dropped everything outside the building and relayed basic directions through the window regarding furniture placement. Her clothes, books, quilts and photos were tucked away and arranged by strangers. We said our goodbyes in the lobby, our masks absorbing our tears as she was led away to her new home.

I imagine her standing there alone, in a room she’d never seen before filled with furniture her daughter chose, with the vague feeling life would never be the same again.

Boom.

I hope she forgives me for blowing up her life. I’ve long forgiven her for blowing up mine.

I understand now we were both just doing the best we could for each other.

Today, my mom lives a life she didn’t choose. Alzheimer’s continues to steal her autonomy each day. She can’t decide what she’ll eat or when to take a shower. She can’t pick out her clothes or put them on without assistance.

But inside every shirt, every pair of pants, every sock and every shoe, I have written her name.

Inside, she is still Janet, brave and freed.

All Your Joys & Sorrows

“Pa threw mattresses into the wagon. Ma carefully spread their patchwork quilts over them. ‘We can’t leave these behind,’ she said. ‘All our joys and sorrows are sewn up into the patches.'”

Eleanor Coerr // The Josefina Story Quilt

The quilt my mother made for my daughter tells a story she didn’t intend.

The front, meticulously pieced together in 2015 when she found out I was pregnant with a girl, features strips of brightly colored fabric cut on the bias, perfectly straight, edges crisp—the work of a lifelong quilter.

The colors were chosen with intention: pink, of course, but well balanced with sunny yellow, sprightly green and a rich purplish-blue. You’d find these colors just before dawn on a spring morning, when the dusky sky gives way to the sun’s rays spilling onto new shoots of grass. 

Evie was born on such a morning in late April 2016, just before dawn. By the time the light and those colors crept in through our window, we barely noticed; she had already illuminated everything.

The back of the quilt bears Evie’s full name, birth date and statistics, machine-embroidered by another woman onto a patch that my mom then sewed on by hand. The stitches are clumsy, like the ones I made when my mom taught me how to make my own little quilts when I was eight years old. I can’t remember exactly when she sewed this patch—2018, 2019 maybe—but I remember it took a long time for her to do it and to return the quilt to me.

Somewhere in those years, between the front and the back, when I was busy feeding, wiping, shushing, bouncing, not sleeping and falling deeply in love—learning to be a mom—my own mom began to slip away.

There’s a feeling that accompanies the deepest hurts, in the very back of the throat: an involuntary clenching that can’t be relieved by methodic breathing or swallowing hard. When I get that feeling, I know the best course is to surrender to the tears, let myself make the ugly, contorted faces, scream if I need to. 

That feeling means something different to everyone. For me, it’s the feeling of missing my mom. Not the one who’s here now, but the one who was lost between the front and the back. The one whose wry observations and easy laughter grew quieter until they disappeared. The one who danced around the room when she found out she was going to be a grandma, then hesitated to play with her granddaughter for fear she would do or say the wrong thing. The one who booked flights and ordered catering for years as an executive assistant, then struggled to make sense of a digital clock.

Sixty-one is not an age at which one should be diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, yet there she was. Sixty-two is not an age at which one should be moved into memory care, yet there she is.

There are so many losses to grieve. And the trouble is the losses continue to mount as my mom’s cognition declines. There are days I wonder if things will be better when she’s further along and not so acutely aware of what’s happening to her. I almost want for her to slip into some blissfully ignorant state, like floating on her back in calm, cool water on a stiflingly hot day. Then I panic that she’ll disappear beneath the surface for good, and I hold onto her tighter.

She recently said to me, “I’m afraid one day I won’t know who you are.” I’m afraid of that, too. I took a deep breath and said, “I know. That might happen. But that’s OK. I won’t hold it against you.” Another deep breath. “I think even if your mind doesn’t recognize me, your heart will still know who I am.”

I think of the hundreds of hours I’ve spent with my daughter pressed to my chest, my skin alive with the warmth and sweetness of hers. I think of the searching eyes that have stared into mine since the very first time they opened. Could I ever be in a room with her and not feel, somewhere in my bones, the pull of those invisible threads that bind us?

The mind may fail, but the heart still knows. 

I will meet you wherever you are today, and tomorrow I’ll meet you there, too. 

I will walk with you to the very end, holding your hand, holding nothing against you. 

And when I have to let you go, I’ll gather the quilts your hands made, sewn up with all your joys and sorrows, and crawl beneath them, awash in the warmth of your love.

Summer 2019 Road Trip: Bozeman, Yellowstone & Jackson Hole

Oh, man—the world is much different than it was the last time I posted! What a carefree summer I had last year, running a marathon with a bunch of other people and not worrying about them breathing all over me. Masks were for Halloween; Corona was still just a beer. It was a simpler time that I hope we can all enjoy again someday soon.

It’s now been five months since COVID-19 first sent Washington state into lockdown, and the isolation has had me dreaming about future and past travels. We did an awesome road trip last summer, so I thought it would be fun to relive and write about it here. It was also the next big life event right after the marathon, so I’ll pick up right where I left off. It was so nice to go straight into vacation mode and rest my legs, taking two weeks completely off from running and formal exercise.

Every other summer, Aaron’s dad’s side of the family does a big reunion, which is always so much fun and a great way to catch up with family members who are scattered all around the country. In years past, we’ve gone to Suncadia Resort in Cle Elum, Washington; Union Pier, Michigan, on the shore of Lake Michigan; and Monument, Colorado, just outside of Colorado Springs. Last year, our destination was Jackson Hole, Wyoming.

Our first stop along the way was Kellogg, Idaho, where we stayed one night at an Airbnb near Silver Mountain Bike Park so Aaron could do some mountain biking. We had fun riding the 3.1-mile gondola to the top of the mountain—it’s the longest gondola in the U.S. and takes just over 30 minutes one way! Evie and I hung out at the top and played in a very convenient bounce house while Aaron did several runs down the mountain. If we’d had more time, we would have loved to go to the resort’s indoor water park (now a terrifying idea in the COVID era!).

Then we continued on to Bozeman, Montana, where we stayed three days with our friends the Pacinis, who moved there from Seattle a few years ago. We had a blast hiking, swimming at their country club, eating at some amazing restaurants (Jam! and Blackbird were faves) and visiting the Museum of the Rockies. The Pacinis have three kids—at the time, their son was eight and their twin girls were four—and three-year-old Evie had such a blast playing with them.

Palisade Falls in Bozeman.
Evie wished she could be triplets with Ava and Brooklyn!

Museum of the Rockies has the largest collection of dinosaur remains in the U.S.!

We loved Bozeman and could totally live there if it weren’t for the brutally snowy winters. We’ll definitely be back!

En route to our final destination for the family reunion, we swung through Yellowstone National Park and put in a solid half day seeing some amazing sights, including the artist paint pots, Grand Prismatic Spring and, of course, Old Faithful. Then it was time to head to Jackson Hole!

Grand Prismatic Spring.

Well, we actually stayed in Swan Valley, Idaho. Turns out that large rental houses are crazy expensive in Jackson Hole! So we stayed in essentially the middle of nowhere, but the house was incredible and the scenery was unbelievably beautiful. Despite how small the town was—not even a grocery store for miles and miles—it was the perfect place for lots of family fun.

The view from the front of the house—stunning!

We spent a day exploring Jackson Hole proper, enjoying lunch and beer at Snake River Brewing and then walking around the cute downtown.

Another day, Aaron and a group of guys went four-wheeling at some sand dunes, and I went with Kelsi on a horseback-riding adventure with Swan Valley Outfitters! (Evie stayed at the house for a fun day with her aunties and cousins.) A guide took just the two of us on the most beautiful three-hour trek through fields and woods to the Snake River, where we ate a picnic lunch before heading back. It was so lovely and peaceful.

Another little adventure that was super close to our house: a trip to Fall Creek Falls. Who knew Idaho had this incredible scenery?? You could even climb down into a cave and look out from behind one of the waterfalls.

Back at the house, we had a “field day” that Aaron’s sisters set up with all sorts of fun games to compete in—and like with any family, the teams got super competitive! The kids loved running through the sprinkler and jumping in the bounce house, too.

It all culminated in a big water balloon fight, then s’mores around the campfire. Ahhh, summer! Does it get any better?

So brave.

Once the kiddos went to bed each night, the adults got into some serious cards—euchre is this family’s game of choice, and it gets vicious! As fun as all the daytime activities are, my favorite memories from these reunions tend to involve the late-night tension and shit-talking from these games. All in good fun, of course. 🙂

Ahhh, what a nice trip down memory lane. Love these people!

Anyway, now I’m feeling slightly less resentful that we don’t have a big trip like that this year. I suppose lots of folks actually are on road trips right now, since there are ways to do it somewhat safely. The Swan Valley house looks like it’s still getting plenty of use, anyway! I look forward to when we feel comfortable traveling again, and I certainly hope it’ll be safe to do our next family reunion in summer 2021.

Next, I’m excited to write all about my attempt to train for the 2019 California International Marathon (key word: attempt), the beginning of my yoga practice and my experience at the Nourish + Escape Retreat in Bend, Oregon, this past October! It was a wonderfully relaxing weekend of cooking, yoga and hiking, and it came at just the right time in my life. Stay tuned.

2019 Jack & Jill’s Downhill Marathon Recap

Who had the most fun at this race??

I’m gonna go ahead and say me. 🙂

I’ve never felt more joyful to be at a start line, to cross a finish line or to run all the miles in between.

It felt like a looong year coming back from last summer’s injury, and at times it was hard to believe I’d ever be ready to run this race. But once I finished my 20-mile run and began tapering, I knew I’d done all the physical work I could do. Then, it was time to start the mental work.

I listened to running podcasts throughout my training, and anytime a host asked a guest about the best books they’d recently read, they all seemed to mention Deena Kastor’s memoir, Let Your Mind Run. I figured I’d give it a shot during the extra downtime I had in the three weeks leading up to the race.

If you’ve read the book, you already know it’s a game-changer. If you haven’t read it, get on it! I credit so much of my positive mental state during this race to the things I learned from Deena. I shared so many amazing quotes from the book to my Instagram stories, and one in particular stood out and rang through my mind again and again:

What I needed, I had. What I was seeking, I was. The accumulation of miles and wisdom were present, ready to be written in the race.

Deena Kastor, Let Your Mind Run

I was wary that I hadn’t included enough downhill running in my training—hello, it’s an entirely downhill race!—but I had purposefully avoided it since it’s so hard on the body and likely contributed to my injury last summer.

I pushed that and every other doubt out of my mind, simply trying to believe that I was well-prepared and ready to crush the race. Anytime a negative thought threatened to creep in, I squashed it with something positive:

I am so strong. I am so ready. This is going to be FUN!

I thought it. I felt it. And then I lived it.

My wonderful friend, neighbor and running buddy Hallie offered to drive me to the start line at Hyak, near Snoqualmie Pass. The course is point to point, and the alternative to being driven is to wake up really freakin’ early and ride a shuttle bus to the start, so I was very grateful to her! Also, it meant Aaron and Evie could sleep in a bit before cheering me on later.

It was so great having Hallie there with me, as she’s run this race twice before and knew all the right things to say. It was also nice to be able to take shelter in her car, since it was about 55 degrees and raining when we arrived at the start around 5:45 am. Everyone else was huddled under every available shelter, so it was nice to be able to stay warm and dry just a tiny bit longer.

On the drive up, I drank my usual Fab 4 smoothie, which literally no one would ever recommend you drink before a marathon! It contains spinach, kale, chard, cucumber, chia seeds, collagen, nut butter, frozen blueberries and coconut milk. So much fiber! So the opposite of what everyone says you should have before a race! (So don’t follow my example. 🙂 )

But I’ve had it every morning for the past six months or so, including before all of my long runs, and it’s always worked for me. And by “worked” I mean it gives me reliable results in the bathroom and keeps me full with about 530 calories of goodness and lots of protein.

I hit the porta-potties immediately upon arrival, then went back to the car, got all my gear on and did my dynamic warmup in the rain.

I wore my Ultimate Direction hydration vest with watermelon Nuun in the bottles and six vanilla bean Gu gels in one of the pockets. I had my phone in another pocket, and headphones around my neck ready to listen to podcasts through most of the race (creature of habit!), and then pump-up music for the last six miles or so.

I also had a headlamp on since the beginning of the marathon course runs through the Snoqualmie Tunnel, a 2.3-mile stretch of pitch blackness. It’s very cool, but a little scary if you’re running through it alone, which I did last summer!

After my warmup, I was cutting it really close to the 6:30 start time to squeeze in one last porta-potty stop, and I really had to pee. I ran over to the lines and hoped they’d move fast. Hallie, bless her, grabbed me a Ziploc bag and wrote my bib number on it so that I could put my headlamp in it and toss it in a box after the tunnel, then retrieve it at the finish line.

I peed just in time (and it was a BIG one, so I felt good about my hydration level 🙂 ), then ran over to the start and squeezed in between the 3:55 and 4:00 pacers. I wasn’t planning to follow a pacer at all, but I figured that was a good spot for the pace I wanted to start out with.

Cut to the National Anthem, a few tears that threatened to escape my eyes and a very excited selfie. It started raining a little harder and I was all for it. Party in the rain!!!

They did a wave start to minimize crowding in the tunnel, and I was in the third group to go. We were off, and I was smiling so big from the very first step!

Grateful. That’s what I felt as we ran the short distance to the beginning of the tunnel. I couldn’t believe I was finally running a marathon for the first time since Big Sur in 2015.

Running through the tunnel with so many other people was so much fun. Compared to running through it by myself or with just a few other people, all the headlamps lit it up like it was practically daylight. It didn’t feel crowded at all, and I easily maintained a nice bubble of personal space. It felt cold in there at first, but I quickly warmed up and maintained a pretty perfect temperature for the rest of the race.

The bad thing about the tunnel is that it really messes with your GPS and you can’t trust the pace on your watch at all. I’d glance at my pace every now and then, and it would say I was running 9:45 pace or something, but I knew to ignore it and just keep going. People would pass me and I’d keep thinking, “Run your own race.” Mile one is not the time to freak out about going too slowly.

The tunnel seemed to fly by (again, running with other people makes a world of difference!) and I very carefully put my headlamp in the Ziploc bag, zipped it shut and tried to throw it in the box… and wound up hitting an older female volunteer standing behind it directly in her crotch. WHOOPS!!! I said, “I’m so sorry!!” and she said, “It’s OK!” Mega fail. But it did bounce off of her and land in the box. 🙂

After that, we hit the three-mile marker and I noticed a few things: my watch clocked in at 25:XX, so no way was I running 9:45s in the tunnel, and my watch said I’d only run 2.75 miles so far. All kinds of jacked up. Again, I just noted the discrepancies and didn’t worry about them. I felt good and was running at a comfortable pace, so I continued doing that.

I popped in my earbuds and turned on an episode of the Ali on the Run Show featuring Mirinda Carfrae, the three-time Ironman world champion. Fun fact: Aaron and I were in Kona on our honeymoon in 2014 and saw Mirinda come back from a 14-minute deficit off the bike to win the race! Noooo big deal. If there’s anyone who could keep me feeling motivated during a marathon, it’s her!

The interview was great and I just chugged along. I ate Gu #1 around 4.5 miles, and crossed the 7-mile timing mat at 1:01:05 (8:44 average pace). I’d planned to start out around 8:45-8:50 pace and then try to speed up after the halfway point, if possible, so I felt great at that point. I ate Gu #2 around mile 9.

Then, around mile 10 or so, my headphones shut off for no apparent reason. When the battery is about to die, it’ll usually say “battery low” in my ears several times, then eventually shut down. This time, it just said “power off” and that was it. Umm, OK?? I had fully charged them before the race, so I have no clue what happened. I tried turning them on again a few times, but they just kept shutting right back off.

It’s so funny that I trained for so many hours with these headphones, and THIS was the one time they chose to randomly die on me, but I didn’t dwell on it. I just figured that I was meant to pay attention to the sounds of the race—the crunch of footsteps on gravel, the cadence of my breathing, the rain—and accepted it.

Deena’s quote rang through my mind once again:

What I needed, I had. What I was seeking, I was.

I looked forward to seeing Aaron and Evie at the halfway point and focused on that. Somewhere around this time, I passed the 3:55 pace group. I didn’t really mean to, but I was running how I felt like running and it worked out out that way. The pacer was very vocal with his group, encouraging everyone and whatnot, and I was surprised to hear his voice fade into the distance behind me. Now that he was back there, I vowed to not let him pass me.

I crossed the 13.1-mile timing mat at 1:55:08 (8:47 average pace). Still on track and feeling good!

Evie and Aaron were THE CUTEST when I saw them, cheering me on with a big, bright pink sign that said “Go Mama!” I threw my dead headphones to Aaron and said, “I feel great! See you at the finish!” Another runner commented on how cute Evie was and gave me the warm fuzzies all over again. 🙂

I ate Gu #3 around mile 13.5. I think this photo was taken just before I took it out of my vest. Thank you to USA Endurance Events for the FREE race photos!

This race course is so freaking beautiful, winding through forests and over bridges, passing sheer rock walls, waterfalls and breathtaking views. Who needs podcasts?? I was happy to have my full attention on everything around me.

The rain was light enough to not be bothersome. Even when the wind picked up a bit, it felt nice and cooling, and I didn’t mind a bit. It felt like nothing could ruin this race for me!

My mental strategy was to not think about how far I’d already run, but focus on how far I had left to go. For some reason I broke it down into 10 miles + whatever, and that seemed so manageable. At 15 miles, “only 10 miles plus 1.2! That’s so easy! I can do that in my sleep!”

When I hit 17 miles and had only single digits’ worth of miles left to run, I was THRILLED. In my mind, I was practically done. It sounds funny now, but it worked so well!

I think I ate Gu #4 around mile 17.5. Along the way, my watch had adjusted to nearly match up with the mile markers, but then it kept on going—it was telling me I’d already run 18 miles, for example, but then I wouldn’t hit the 18-mile marker for another quarter mile. That was hard on my mental game, but I tried to keep track of how much it was off so I’d know when to expect the next mile marker. By the end, it was off by almost half a mile.

It seemed to take forever to get to 20 miles. I crossed the timing mat in 2:57:52 (8:54 average pace). I was stoked for several reasons:

  • I was not hitting any sort of wall.
  • I had less than an hour of running left.
  • I knew I could PR, barring complete disaster.

At that point, I hadn’t taken anything from any aid station and was getting low on my Nuun. I unscrewed one of my bottle tops as I ran up to the next aid station and quickly dumped three cups of water into it, screwed the top back on and kept running.

I knew around mile 21.5, we’d transition from the John Wayne Trail to the Snoqualmie Valley Trail, which meant we’d kind of run around a switchback at the Cedar Falls trailhead and begin our final descent to the finish line. Again, it seemed to take forever to get to that point and I was eagerly anticipating it! There were big puddles along this stretch and my legs got pretty muddy, but somehow I kept my socks dry. I ate Gu #5 somewhere around here.

Finally we made the turn onto the SVT. I heard the 3:55 pacer behind me as I made the turn and was like, goooo! He never did pass me. 🙂

My legs were feeeeeeling the downhill. I had expected my knees and quads to be in pain, but it was actually my calves that were like, “Hiiiii, what is happening?!?” They felt very heavy and like they might cramp up at any second.

Inspired by Deena Kastor yet again, I imagined that what I was feeling was actually all the power I’d built up in my calves over the past five months, and I pictured the ground sending energy back up into my legs with every step. When I started to worry about cramping, I just thought, “Nope, not today!”

I had made a Spotify playlist for this portion of the race called BREAK THE GLASS, as in “break glass in case of emergency.” Even though my headphones were dead and gone, I still wanted to listen to it, so I turned it on just loud enough so I could hear it and angled my phone in the vertical vest pocket so that the speaker pointed up toward my head.

I’M SORRY if that is an asshole move to play music out loud and potentially disrupt other runners when they’re in the zone, but the field was pretty strung out at the this point and I figured if anyone was mad at me, I could just run away from them. 🙂 No one ever said a word, so it was either quiet enough that nobody could hear, or they actually liked the music, or they were just too polite/hurting too much to yell at me.

Anyway, the playlist gave me just the energy I needed and made me so happy. I felt joyful and lighthearted even as my calves threatened to seize up at any moment. Here it is, to give you an idea of the vibe:

  • Rock and Roll – Led Zeppelin
  • Runnin’ Down a Dream – Tom Petty
  • Stronger (What Doesn’t Kill You) – Kelly Clarkson
  • California Girl – Cheap Trick
  • Tom Sawyer – Rush
  • Good Times Bad Times – Led Zeppelin
  • Toys in the Attic – Aerosmith
  • China Grove – The Doobie Brothers
  • Don’t You (Forget About Me) – Simple Minds
  • Let It Go – Idina Menzel
  • Feelin’ Alright – Joe Cocker
  • Listen to the Music – The Doobie Brothers

Basically high-energy classic rock with a dash of Kelly Clarkson and the triumphant anthem from Frozen, then finishing off with some happy, chill songs that brought me through the finish line. So random, yet so perfect.

I ate Gu #6 at mile 23 or so in the hopes of fending off cramps, and just focused on putting one foot in front of the other.

At one point, I curled up my toes to try to loosen up my feet, and that legit made my calves cramp. It caused me to stumble a bit, like Bambi trying to walk on ice, and another woman asked if I was OK. I shook it off and kept running, vowing not to change anything again and just keep moving!

I look happy enough at mile 25. Almost done with this thing!

Those last few miles were so rough and felt like they took forever, but according to my splits on Strava, I kept a pretty even pace: 9:06, 9:07 and 9:06 for miles 24-26. I did stop for maybe five seconds at mile 26 to quickly stretch my calves for the final sprint, which I did at 8:24 pace.

Get. Me. To. That. Finish. Line!!!

I saw Hallie and her kids, Evie and Aaron cheering alongside the flags lining the final stretch and was sooo happy! I freakin’ did it and overall felt stronger and better than any other marathon I’ve run!

I finished in 3:54:16, a five-minute improvement on my previous PR from the 2013 Chicago Marathon (3:59:13) and a 20-minute improvement on my most recent marathon time from Big Sur in 2015 (4:14:12). It may have been a downhill marathon, but it came with its own challenges and required just as much strength to get through as any other!

Take the splits with a grain of salt because, y’know, tunnel:

I smiled the whole way across the line, then burst into a kind of dry heave/ugly cry, feeling so overwhelmed to have come so far, literally and figuratively. I couldn’t wait to hug everyone.

Bless these people for waiting and cheering in the rain. How often do you get a cool, wet marathon at the end of July?? Perfection!

I spent the rest of the day relaxing at home, attempting to stretch and foam roll but not getting very far because my legs were in so much pain, and hobbling around. I hobbled pretty solidly for three or four days. I don’t think I’ll be doing another downhill marathon anytime soon. 🙂

I’ve taken this past week off from all exercise, and will probably take next week off too since we’re going on vacation! Then, I’m excited to gradually begin running again and work toward my next goal.

For now, I’ll continue to bask in the immense joy I’ve gotten from achieving this one.

GEAR
Shoes: Brooks Glycerin 17
Tank: Lululemon Swiftly Tech Racerback
Bra: Senita Sarah
Shorts: Brooks Chaser 3″
Hat: Oiselle Runner Trucker
Vest: Ultimate Direction Ultra Vesta
Hydration: Watermelon Nuun
Nutrition: Vanilla Bean Gu
Headphones: piece of shit, don’t buy them 🙂

This post contains Amazon affiliate links.

From Injured Runner to Marathon Finisher

I’ve neglected this blog in favor of the ease of Instagram, but I want to catch you up on everything that’s happened since last fall. Spoiler alert: I just ran a marathon! And not just any old marathon; I ran a five-minute PR!

I’ll write a full race recap to share all about how I got to the finish line. But first, here’s how I got to the start line.

After I got injured in July 2018, I went to physical therapy once a week through September to correct my SI joint dysfunction and build strength in the surrounding muscles. Then, I began working with a running coach in October to improve my form and slowly begin to run again. And by slowly, I mean sloooowwwwlyyyyy.

My coach gave me strict orders to not do too much, too soon. That meant sticking to an easy mix of running and walking, and keeping my heart rate between 135 and 145 bpm, which was equivalent to about a 12:00 min/mile pace. It was so hard to be patient, but I followed his recommendations!

We met several times through November, working on things like a warmup routine and form drills, and then I took a complete break from coaching and running through the holidays.

However, I stayed active by walking on the treadmill for an hour at a time several days a week. I watched a lot of Scandal. I also started the Bikini Body Guide program (BBG) from the beginning again just before Thanksgiving to get stronger and help keep holiday pounds at bay. It worked on both counts!

On January 1, I felt full of hope for 2019 and ran a symbolic mile around my neighborhood to mark my return to running. I ran it in 9:16, which was definitely too fast for my fitness level, and it made me feel achy in the SI joint area. 😦 I went back to a mix of walking on the treadmill and very slow running/walking outside, and scheduled another package of sessions with my coach.

I was so pleased to see big improvements in my ability to complete my coach’s drills with proper form due to my increased strength (especially core). Thanks, BBG! It made me think, “Huh… there’s really something to this idea of whole-body fitness when it comes to running.” (Duh.)

I continued to follow my coach’s guidelines with easy running/walking, and gradually decreased the amount I walked and increased the amount I ran.

Finally, on February 23, I felt good enough to run a full four miles and completed them in 38:34 (9:38 pace). I wasn’t exactly following coach’s guidelines… but it felt great to me, mentally and physically.

From there, I just kept on running. Three miles one day, five miles another day. By the end of March, I felt solid enough to start training for Jack & Jill’s Downhill Marathon—the same race I’d trained for in 2018, but couldn’t run due to my injury.

My coach wasn’t exactly supportive of my jumping right into marathon training, but I chose a fairly conservative 18-week training plan (Hal Higdon’s Novice 2) and figured I’d take it one run at a time and see how far I could get. Highlights of the plan:

  • Four days of running per week
  • No speed workouts
  • Two rest days per week
  • 1 hour of cross-training per week
  • Peak week of 36 miles
  • Longest run: 20 miles

Compare that to the aggressive plan I followed last year (Hal Higdon’s Advanced 1):

  • Six days of running per week
  • 1 speed workout per week
  • One rest day per week
  • No cross-training
  • Peak week of 58 miles
  • Longest run: three 20-milers

Like night and day!

And, no surprise, I felt so much better following this easier training plan. It was so manageable, and I never felt burned out.

Unlike any other time I’ve trained for a marathon, I actually completed all the runs (except when I skipped the entire first week of the plan since I was so sick with a cold) and cross-trained by riding my bike for an hour every Sunday starting in week six.

I think the cross-training made such a big difference. I ran long on Saturdays, rode easy for 12-13 miles on a local trail on Sundays, and on Mondays my legs felt so much more recovered than if I hadn’t done anything at all.

I also grew to really love my time on the bike! Riding in (mostly) perfect weather in the spring and summer felt like total bliss. It was awesome and freeing to be able to cover so much more distance in an hour on the bike than any hour I’d ever spend running, and I got to see my usual running routes in new ways. I was also able to do a few rides with Aaron when the grandparents were watching Evie, which was super fun for me and probably very slow and boring for him. 🙂

Another thing I did differently: I consistently worked on my core strength with The Dozen workout (recommended by my running coach) and on my hip strength with the routine my physical therapist gave me to do at home. Well, I did all this sporadically for the first several weeks, then really buckled down for the final eight weeks and did core 2x/week and PT 2x/week.

I figured out that I could use my lunch break at work to go down to the (free!) gym in my building and do these strength workouts, then run in the evening. Breaking up the work made it seem less daunting and gave me more free time in the evenings. A typical week looked like this:

  • Monday: midday PT
  • Tuesday: morning core + run (I work from home on Tuesdays)
  • Wednesday: midday PT + evening run
  • Thursday: midday core + evening run
  • Friday: rest
  • Saturday: long run
  • Sunday: bike

I quickly established this routine and never looked back. Hitting the gym added a nice break to my day and made my lunch (eaten afterward at my desk) taste so much better. 🙂

I can’t stress enough what a huge difference this strength work made in my training and in running the marathon itself. In the past, when my long runs got up to 15+ miles, I always remember my lower back and shoulders feeling so tired and sore by the end. This time around, they felt perfectly fine. Sure, my legs were tired, but the rest of my body felt well-supported and strong.

Game = changed.

A few other things that happened during training: when I started the plan, I no longer had time on weekends to meet with my running coach, so I phased out our work together; we last met in April. I learned so much from him—a proper warmup routine, form drills, etc.—but private, in-person coaching is expensive and not something I can afford on an ongoing basis. It’s something I’m certainly open to doing again in the future to continue improving my running.

I also ran a few races! At the end of April, I did the Mt. Si Relay with a team of four other women. We covered 59 miles altogether; my legs were 6.1 mostly flat miles (7:56 average pace) and 6.8 entirely uphill miles (8:27 average pace).

I was thrilled with those paces given that I hadn’t done any speedwork since getting injured. I just ran comfortably hard while listening to podcasts to keep my mind occupied. I was definitely spent by the end of each leg, but I felt strong while running and nothing hurt. It felt amazing to run fast (for me) and not trigger any of the familiar old aches and pains.

Oh, and we WON the women’s open division of the relay with our overall average pace of 7:49! It was a beautiful weather day, and we had a ton of fun to boot.

I also ran the Nordstrom Beat the Bridge 8K in mid-May. I work for Nordstrom, so the event is a big deal in our office every year. The race benefits the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation (JDRF) and every Nordstrom team is tasked with raising a certain amount of money. I volunteered to help lead the marketing team’s efforts this year, and we raised more than $20,000, beating last year’s fundraising! I raised a little over $10,000 of that by asking for donations from friends and family on Facebook, raffling off prize packages on Instagram and selling a whoooole lot of Aaron’s amazing homemade cookies and treats at work over the course of seven weeks. It was fun to be able to make a meaningful contribution to the race this year beyond just running it. Huge thanks to any of you who donated! 🙂

As for the race itself, my only goal was to have fun and hopefully PR, since I was sick (again!) that weekend and spent a lot of energy helping with packet pickup the previous day and the morning of the race.

Luckily, I was able to shave four minutes off my 2017 time for a PR of 40:06 (8:04 pace). I also ran 10 more miles later on to complete the 15 miles I was supposed to do for the day. (This all seemed very normal while I was doing it, but now sounds crazy looking back!?!? I was really terribly sick, but somehow felt better while running!)

I think that about brings us up to speed on everything that’s happened since I last wrote! I documented most of my training on Instagram, so you can always catch up there, as well.

Next up: my recap of Jack & Jill’s Downhill Marathon, aka three hours and 54 minutes of the most fun I’ve ever had while running!!!

Lessons

I am grateful for my injury.⁣⁣
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A year ago, I would have never imagined I’d say that. It’s certainly easier now, on the other side, to see beyond the struggle and heartache, to appreciate the lessons.⁣⁣
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When I surprised myself with a 9-minute half-marathon PR in the spring of 2018, I became intoxicated by the idea of getting faster. I believed I had all this speed I’d never tapped into before, and if I just worked at it, I could run a BQ. So I jumped right into an aggressive training plan filled with speed work, goal-pace runs and many more weekly miles than I’d ever run before. ⁣
I did get faster—but I was stacking block upon block to build a soaring tower with a nonexistent foundation. It’s no wonder it eventually came crashing down.⁣⁣
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It took me a while to recognize that my injury was of my own making. And then I realized I could do it all differently and create a better outcome.⁣⁣
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I’ve spent the last year slowly moving cinder blocks into place. There’s one for strength. There’s another for stability. Another for form. And, to fill in the gaps between those: plenty of patience. Determination. Persistence. Belief.⁣⁣
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I’ve built my foundation. Every step of this marathon, I’ll run on that foundation. I have every reason to believe it will get me to the finish line feeling healthy and happy.⁣⁣
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And then? I’ll look forward to my next goal and start stacking my blocks: a speed workout here, a few more miles there. But not too many. Not too fast. And I’ll continue to work on all the things that will keep my foundation strong.⁣⁣
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I wonder: How high can my tower go?⁣

(Photo taken after my successful 20-mile run. I was tired. 😄)⁣

What I Learned at My First Real Coaching Session

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I was so nervous leading up to this.

My first meeting with Coach Frank left me lacking confidence in my running ability, and a horrible cold left me flattened for a few weeks. I felt like I’d lost all my fitness. When I got dressed for the session, I realized it was the first time I’d put on workout clothes since our first meeting two weeks ago. And before that, it had been since mid-September. That’s a big leap from working out six days a week for months at a time!

But my nerves dissipated as I walked onto the track on a beautiful, sunny Saturday and saw my coach finishing up with another client. She was a woman in her late 40s or early 50s, running at a slowish but steady pace. As she ran laps, I asked Coach Frank how long she’d been working with him. He said a few months. First, they worked on form and gait; now, speed.

In our initial meeting, he had mentioned some of the incredibly fast high-school track kids he coaches, so I was happy to see at least one other person who started with him from square one.

I was relieved to find out I wouldn’t be doing much running that day. Instead, we focused on learning 10-12 warmup drills that I should do before every run. I know from my high-school track days, Runner’s World and every serious runner I follow on Instagram that I should warm up—yet I never do! Those days are over. It was so helpful to have Coach Frank walk me through each warmup drill so that I knew exactly what each one should look and feel like. We’ll continue to work on them in upcoming sessions until he’s confident I have them down.

Next, I ran one easy lap around the track—an effort of 4 on a scale of 1-10. I was happy to finish the lap feeling good and not sucking wind like I’d imagined. I could have done a few more! Also, nothing hurt—thank goodness.

Finally, we moved on to two form drills: one for my arms, and one focusing on legs.

Coach Frank told me that I waste energy holding my arms up higher than they need to be and swinging them across my body as I run. I learned to hold them just above my hips, keeping them bent at the elbow at a 90-degree angle as I swing them front to back (or “hip to pit,” as he says) from my shoulders. Keeping my arms at that 90-degree angle is tough, since I’m used to flailing all over the place. It’s a change that won’t happen overnight. I’ll have to practice, practice, practice until it eventually becomes second nature. I can’t wait to see how this alone will change my running!

The final drill involved practicing an exaggerated version of the proper leg motion I should be doing while running; it also involved the arms a bit. It was like a four-step process in slow motion, and there was a lot to think about. I did it several times on each side as Coach Frank gave me correctional cues. With this, as well as the arm-swing drill, the more I overthought it, the worse I did. Every time I was able to relax and let things flow, that’s when I did well. Isn’t that so true of running, too?

I walked away from the track that day with exactly what I wanted: renewed hope and confidence for my running future. And I really like working with Coach Frank so far. He gave clear directions and gentle corrections, plus praise when I did well. He cracked a few jokes. I had fun learning from him! I’ve paid for a package that includes three more sessions, and then I’ll figure out where to go from there.

I have so much work to do before I start training for another race. I’m signed up for the Orcas Island 25K (recap) again at the end of January, so I hope to be able to do that. And the Lake Sammamish Half (2018 recap) is in March, which I feel like is far enough away that I could be ready.

For now, Coach Frank told me to run no more than a few miles a few times a week, and to really focus on warming up properly, cooling down/stretching afterward and practicing the form drills three times per week.

At this point, I’m running zero miles per week because I’m still trying to get over my cold. I’m through the worst of it, but my coughs are still “productive” (gross) and I still have pressure in my sinuses to the point where my teeth hurt. I was feeling a lot better, but then had a pretty active weekend (pumpkin patch, coaching session, family photo shoot on a 40-degree morning) and by Monday felt like I’d taken two steps backward.

I’m really bummed that I’m missing the best month of fall running. The leaves are ablaze and the weather is beautiful. I guess I could be walking, but I’ve been resting as much as possible in the hopes that it will help me get healthy faster.

Plus, I’m actually enjoying being lazy. Maybe I’ll just write off the rest of October and hop back on the workout/running train with—I hope—renewed energy in November.