How I Travel

Oh, how I wish I had a dollar for every time anyone has ever asked/told me any of the following:

I’m so jealous, I wish I could do that!”
Ugh, if only I had the money!”
If I ever had the time, I’d go.”
Don’t you get scared/lonely/tired of traveling by yourself?”
“…yeah, but you’re young and a woman.”

Maybe you, reading this right now, have even thought the same thing about me. You see pictures on Instagram and posts on Facebook: Peru, Thailand, Aruba, etc. and think, how does she do it? The money, the days off work?

Let’s get one thing straight here: I am no different than the average person. I am not rich, “just lucky,” or any of that. And it would make me furious to hear how some people just assumed all of these things about me or the way I lived my life, simply because they didn’t know. I worked my ass off to get to where I am and for the things that I have accomplished. I work a full-time job, take writing classes, pay my school loans, struggle to maintain a social life, go to the gym, etc. and still get a decent night of sleep like everyone else. I am an ordinary girl, who just decided what she wanted and went out to get it.

While there are certainly traveling tips I’ve picked up over the years, nothing will get you there until you can understand and accomplish #1 on this list.

  1. You have to want it bad enough.
    It seems so simple. Who doesn’t want to go on a vacation, explore somewhere new and fun, make memories seeing the world instead of being at work? But it’s more than that. You have to want it bad enough that you are willing to make sacrifices to achieve it. You have to want it more than you fear the unknowns or what-ifs. More than you doubt yourself and your abilities. You have to want it more than you make excuses for the reasons you can’t do it. “I want to travel, but…” No. If you truly want it more than anything, you will find a way or make a way. This goes not only for traveling, but whatever you want in life. A degree, to get in shape, etc. You have the power. Mindset is everything.
  2. You have to be willing to sacrifice. 
    I get it. Money holds us back. Not once did my parents give me money to go on trips. I don’t come from a rich family. I’m still paying student loans (and probably always will be until I die). So what are you willing to give up? I worked a job I was miserable at for a year, but it allowed me to save up money to spend five months in Europe. I don’t get Starbucks every day. I recently sold my car. I don’t buy Michael Kors purses or go out drinking every weekend, because those things don’t bring me happiness. I’d rather spend my money on experiences. If you know that you can cut back somewhere- do it! I also didn’t stay in nice hotels when I went on my first solo international trips. I stayed in very cheap hostels, in dormitories, and ate bread and Nutella sandwiches, and carried a water bottle that I would refill at water fountains so I could have something to drink. I hardly ever went out to eat. Not glamorous, but that’s the truth. I wasn’t dirt poor, but I wanted to save my money for other things. Not eating out for every meal, every single day, allowed me to buy flights to Belgium and Switzerland. And believe me, I’d trade dinner at a restaurant for that kind of adventure any day of the week.
  3. You have to be flexible and open-minded.
    Maybe you’ve been dying to go to Chile, but flights are so expensive for the time you want to go. If you work, can you change your vacation days and go when flights are cheaper, in the off season? If not, can you look into other destinations that are more in your budget? Google Flights has an amazing tool that allows you to view the varying prices of flights over time, and also track when the price fluctuates. I went to Aruba over July 4th weekend. During the summer, my department gives us the option of working flex time (basically working 10 hours days four days a week, and then having a day off). I usually take Fridays off so I can have a long weekend, which is really convenient for traveling. Example: I worked that week Monday-Thursday, 10 hour days. Had Friday (my flex day) off. I left for Aruba Thursday night. Since July 4th was on a Tuesday, I only took off Monday, July 3rd. And there you have it! A five day vacation, only taking one day of PTO. I also was able to pay less for the flight, because I chose one with an overnight layover in Charlotte, where my best friend graciously allowed me to stay at her apartment. I was able to put up with longer travel time because of the payoff. I strategically planned it this way to my benefit. You just have to think outside the box, which leads me to my next point…
  4. You have to be smart and put the effort in. 
    This one goes hand-in-hand with being flexible and open-minded. Maybe you’ve seen an amazing Groupon for Italy, with airfare and everything included! Before you purchase it- consider the small details in print. Is your airport even listed as a departure point? If it isn’t, how much is it going to cost to travel to the next closest airport? How many meals are you really getting, if any? Look up the hotels they’ve listed. How much is the nightly rate, and how much is airfare for those dates? It might actually be less expensive to book it yourself, separately. Vacation packages are usually solely for the convenience of not having to plan it yourself, and if that’s why you want to go that route, then more power to ya! But, if finances are a factor, do your research. Can you stay at a more affordable hotel than the one they’ve pre-selected for you? Is the airfare cheaper if you leave the day before or come back the day after? When I travel solo, I try to be as economical as possible. Where some would normally take a taxi, I go on foot. I walk everywhere. It allows me to be among the locals more, to really get to experience a city and see more of it, and also is great exercise. I also really feel like I’ve earned it, in a way I can’t explain. But the same goes for excursions and tourist sites. Instead of going with a big group or private guided tour, can you pay the minimum of the entry fee, find a less costly way of arriving there, and explore the site yourself?
  5. You have to overcome your fear.
    People tell me I am “brave” or ask how I am not scared to travel alone. I’m never sure how to answer this. I was scared to death before I went on my first trip alone. I still get anxiety over so many things. As a woman traveling alone, I constantly have to have my guard up and be aware of my surroundings. People don’t see or understand that it isn’t fun 100% of the time. It can be so stressful and exhausting. But the reward is all in the rest of the experience. I refuse to be held back from the fear of “what if”. The risk of NOT taking the risk is a lot greater for me. Bad things can happen in the States (or whatever your home country) as well as South America, in any city, to anyone, at any time, whether they are alone or not. I don’t want to be on my deathbed regretting not following my dream because I was worried about what “might” happen. Traveling alone made me realize what I am made of, and to be comfortable with myself, which is something I had to learn. You’re going to be with yourself the rest of your life, might as well start getting to know who that person is. Do I wish sometimes that my family or friends could come with me? Of course. But they would never hold me back from going just because they couldn’t go. The reality is that if you wait for someone else to be ready, you may be waiting forever. It all comes back to #1, a single question: How bad do you want it?

Bottom line: Don’t spend your life waiting and wanting.

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P.S. Check out my article, What Keeps Us, if you want to learn more about getting out of your own way.                                                                           sig2

The Launch

One day before my 27th birthday, I celebrated the release of my first chapbook, Next to Everything that is Breakable (Finishing Line Press 2017) at the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh.

Over 50 of my friends, family, and colleagues came out to support me as I launched this chapbook into the world.

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The author & the artist.

Books were for sale, as well as artwork by my dear friend Catherine (who also took the photograph on the cover of the book).

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Catherine’s creations with my poems.

Around 2:30 p.m., people arrived to mingle and get refreshments. Shortly after 3 p.m. my mentor, Tess, welcomed the audience and introduced me.

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Tess & I.

I became overcome with emotion as I looked around the room and thanked those that had helped me so much, for I knew without them this endeavor would not have been possible.

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After the reading, I signed copies of books and spent precious, too-short moments with the guests- even my high school English teachers came!

It was an intense whirlwind of an event, but I’m thankful for how smoothly it went. Seeing the people I love come together to show their support for my passion was the highlight of my birthday weekend.

Check out some pictures below:

P.S. For those that were unable to make it to the launch party but would like a signed copy of the book, please message me!

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The guest book!

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A Year in Review

Remember that bucket list I had for 2016? Gotta be honest here, I’ve been crushing it.

*At the end of this year, I will have gone on four international trips:

-I took my mom on vacation to the Dominican Republic, something I’ve always wanted to do.

-I’d been waiting to see South America for a long time, so I finally bought a ticket to Peru and Bolivia in July for travel that same month(Which was a little crazy, yes.)

-I had yet to explore a new country with my boyfriend, so we booked a trip to Iceland in October.

– In less than a week, I’m heading to Thailand and then South Korea.

-I also traveled to Minnesota, Georgia, Delaware, and Illinois, among other places.

 

* This year I got serious about my poetry and started submitting my work, and it paid off:

-So far, I have had over 15 poems published in anthologies, literary magazines, and journals!

-I won first place at the 2016 Sigma Tau Delta International Convention for my collection.

-I had essays in Thought Catalog & Odyssey Online.

-I read with the Pittsburgh Poetry Roadshow & Voices From the Attic launch party.

-I celebrated my first year of blogging!

 

 

But, 2016 wasn’t all smooth. I also had some scary stuff happen with my health.

*I had a pacemaker put in, but was determined to keep running and I finished:

-Pittsburgh  5k

-Pittsburgh half marathon

-GNC Liberty Mile

Erie full marathon

EQT 10 Miler

 

I made this list not to be conceited, or talk about how great my life is (trust me- it isn’t always!) but because I’m incredibly proud of my accomplishments this year and have worked really hard to get to this point. It’s taken sacrifice, hard work, and admittedly, a couple breakdowns, but I’m so happy with where I’ve arrived.

I’m a big believer in being proud of your achievements, because why shouldn’t we be? If we don’t, who will? You’ve worked your ass off. Celebrate your victories. Don’t let jealousy in. Don’t be bitter. Don’t worry about coming off as “bragging.” Uplift each other. Support each other. You traveled to a new country? I wanna see! You committed to a healthier lifestyle? That’s awesome! You graduated? Great work!  Go ahead & show it off. I’m proud of you.

For those of you feeling stuck: I was there. I promise if you focus on the things you love and make them a priority, they will become your reality. I stopped putting my dreams off this year, and look at what happened. 2017 can be your year. Go get ’em.

 

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P.S. Happy holidays everyone!

I’ll check back in a couple weeks when I’m back in the States.

 

I Am: A Marathoner

As of last year, only 1% of the U.S. population had run a marathon. On Sunday, September 11th, I became a part of that 1%.

It’s funny to think how I got to this point. Truth be told, I’m not really sure. I was never a runner. And then, one day, I just decided I wanted to be. I began running just two miles, increasing my distance until I was running half marathons. (Read more about my running journey here.) I was falling in love with the longer distance, but I still wasn’t sure if I was crazy enough to do a full marathon. I mean, 4+ hours of running?! WHY? HOW?

But then again, why not? I had already accomplished something I never thought I could. Maybe I could do this, too…

So, I signed up before I could change my mind. My original plan was to run the Pittsburgh marathon in May, but that came to a halt when I had my surgery. So I shifted my plans for a couple months later and set my sights on Erie, close to my hometown.

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Picking up my bib number on Saturday.

I was familiar with the course of the Erie marathon, as it’s held at Presque Isle State Park. I had run the Presque Isle half marathon in July of last year with my boyfriend- his first half marathon.  It was a flat, easy course- just one loop around the park. (For the marathon, obviously, it is two loops.) Looking back, my surgery causing me to change from Pittsburgh to Erie was all a blessing in disguise. Let’s be honest- the marathon distance is challenging enough without adding in all the hills! I was really grateful I was doing this flat loop instead of Pittsburgh’s killer course.

Don’t get me wrong, I still had my doubts. I knew this was going to suck. No matter how confident I feel in my training, or how much I understand that the race will go just fine, I always get pre-race jitters, every time. My long runs throughout marathon training had been extremely painful and discouragingly slow. I wasn’t worried my pace, or coming in under a certain time, or about anything else but just finishing. Still, my stomach was in knots that morning. I put body glide (a godsend) everywhere, under the straps of my sports bra, between my thighs, on the backs of my ankles, and quickly got dressed. I arrived when the park opened up around 5:30 AM. (Props to JJ for getting up so early on his one day off!) It was still pitch black when we parked. I started the walk to the porta potties, flashlight in hand. I’d go pee about 7 more times before the 7 AM start. Chalk it up to nerves or a weak bladder, or maybe both. While in line, I saw my friend Debra (pictured below), who was looking to beat her time to qualify for the Boston marathon.

Her, her boyfriend Frank, JJ, and I stood together as she said the most heartfelt prayer, just minutes before the gun went off. We said our goodbyes to the boys and headed to get lined up. Already, I could feel something much bigger washing over me. I was overcome with emotion. Pull it together. You can cry when it’s over, I told myself. Or during.

And then, before I could process it, I was off. I slipped into an easy 9:30 min./mile pace. I’d made a mental note to start out slow, as the energy and adrenaline from being part of a race and surrounded by other runners tends to make you start out too fast. I wanted to finish strong. Plus, let’s be real- I was gonna be out here for a while.

Around mile two, the sun began to show off. I could see the soft pink colors coming through as the clouds parted above the lake. The peaceful sounds of the waves coming into shore, the rhythmic pitter-patter of feet on asphalt… this was my happy place. It was indescribable.

Up in front of me, I saw a group of three women, probably in their 50s. They were keeping a solid pace, decked out in the brightest matching outfits. Dang, I thought. That’s remarkable. They were double my age and kicking ass! That’s #goals right there. After running alongside them, I joked, “I’ll just stick with you guys.” They smiled and said,”Feel free! We’re shooting for a 9:50 pace.”

Although I could very easily run a 9:50, all my long training runs had been so much slower. With the chest pain I was sure to encounter like I had before (thanks to my pacemaker) and the wall I was sure to hit around mile 18, I was certain I’d have to drop back after some time, and I told them so. But at least I could run with them for the time being.

“Coach” Barb, Sue, Tina, and Cheryl were from Rochester, NY. They were wives and mothers, teachers and longtime runners. And they were downright inspiring. Kind. And fun! The miles quickly passed as we talked about our different journeys with running, my surgery, who was cheering them on, and what we would treat ourselves to after this was all over.

Since the race was two loops around the park, I was able to see JJ at mile 6.5. He ran out to me with a bottle of water, asking if I needed anything. The women assured him I was in good hands.

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Erie Marathon course.

Before I knew it, we had run a half marathon! With the steady flow of conversation, the miles flew by! It was a beautiful run- the crippling heat and humidity that we had been plagued with all summer disappeared to leave us comfortable at around 65 degrees with a cool breeze. We honestly lucked out with such great conditions.  JJ met me again as I passed the halfway mark, with a gel in hand. I wasn’t a fan of them and, I’m ashamed to admit, had not used them during my training runs- although I had every intention to. The consistency made me gag. But I knew that I needed the energy, even if I felt good now. It was a strawberry kiwi carb BOOM, already torn open for me. I took it in small doses. It was surprisingly not that bad, I’d maybe even say it was good!

Soon we passed mile 15, then 16, and 17. They had water stations with Gu brew, and vanilla bean Gu gels. I made sure to keep hydrated, although between you and I, I’d had to pee since mile 4. Keep it together, bladder. Barb offered me a salt tablet, which helped. I checked my Garmin watch- it was almost 10 AM. I’d have to keep an eye out for my parents, sister-in-law, and niece, who were coming to watch me finish. As soon as I spoke those words out loud to the girls, I heard a familiar voice shout my name. There they were! They had driven past, and pulled off to the side up ahead around mile 19.5. My dad came out and ran beside me for a minute or two, which was a sweet moment. I was sure he was going to get kicked off the course, but he didn’t. JJ was on my other side with a vanilla bean gel in hand, already opened for me. (Yes, he is officially the best.)

They said encouraging words and then they were gone. I relucatantly began to take the gel. It was definitely not as great as the last one, and I struggled to get it down. I chased with water at the next stop. I still felt much better than I had anticipated at this point, but I was beginning to feel it. Sweat poured from every part of me. My face and body felt drenched in sweat and sticky Gu brew and gel residue. The tag on the inside of my shorts was rubbing against my lower back, and even though I’d used glide, my sports bra was rubbing against my right underarm. I knew I would have a bad chafing mark once this was done. Yet, we had made it past mile 18, with no “wall” to be found!

That is, until we reached mile 21. It came out of nowhere. I had been feeling hydrated, had energy from the gels, my legs were sore but still feeling strong, until that moment. I knew this was every bit (if not more) mental than it was physical. I tried to repeat the mantras in my head. My mind is an athlete. Finish strong. Your mind will give up before your body ever will. You can do this. Keep going. One foot in front of another. But with every step I took, I just felt that much weaker. That much closer to wanting to quit. I hadn’t walked once this whole time, maybe I could just take a break…but I didn’t. Tina and Sue kept running, and so did I. We were at mile 22. SO. CLOSE.

We began doing our dedication miles. I thought of Debra, who had no doubt finished by now. I hope she got her BQ. I thought of her strength and her faith, her gentle yet fierce nature, her prayer that morning. I thought of all the times she answered my endless running questions and was always patient and willing to help. I thought of how thankful I was that we went from coworkers to close friends. I looked up to her in every way.

“I need to slow down,” I said to Tina. “You guys keep going. I just need to slow down a little.”  She nodded breathlessly in agreement. “Me too.” 

I hated myself for it, but I also reminded myself I was not worried about time. And, I already was doing so much better than I could have hoped for! I stopped focusing on my pace and tried to switch my brain back over to dedication miles.

I thought of this day- September 11th. How I run because I know not everyone can, or ever will again. How if people can survive such terrible and awful things, I could no doubt finish this race before me.

I thought of my body- not the strongest, or thinnest, but certainly capable. Healthy and powerful in its own right. How I hated the recovery period after my surgery when I couldn’t run, and how I promised I wouldn’t take this ability for granted again. How I loved what it does for my body and to my mind.

I thought of JJ- how immensely he cared for me and supported me through this entire ordeal. How blessed I was to have met someone who shows me love in the purest, most selfless ways, and teaches me how to love in the same manner. He changed his work schedule, got up at 4 AM on his only day off, and was my mobile fueling station, running back and forth with supplies I needed. I thought of how hard he works in all aspects of his life, how thoroughly he supports me, how much we both cherish our relationship. How good it was to be this happy.

I thought of my parents- how lucky I was to get two of the most loving, good-hearted people to learn from, parents who so strongly believe in me, allow me to chase my dreams, and are there for me to see me through whether I reach those goals or fail miserably. Who may not understand or agree with every word or action, but still love me. Who have so graciously put my needs or selfish wants first ahead of their own, every single time. And who would do it all over again. Who are the best examples of unconditional love.

And then I couldn’t focus on any of it. I was at mile 23. I wasn’t running, I was surviving. I had barely a 5k left to run. I could do it. This was it. Almost there. Almost home. My senses were in overdrive, I think they just shut off. I couldn’t feel anything. Not my legs, not whether or not I still had to pee, what I was hearing, nothing. There were other runners that had slowed to a walk, some whizzed by, but I wasn’t really paying attention. All I could think about was to keep going, to keep the momentum, to put one foot in front of the other until I was done. I felt like a zombie.

When we were in the heart of mile 25, rounding the corner to the final leg of the race, I parted ways with Sue and Tina. Sometime in the past couple years, JJ started to be the one to drive me across that finish line in a sprint. I knew I would hear his voice boom through the crowd, and I was right. I exhaled sharply and propeled myself forward with every last ounce of energy I still had. My legs weren’t jello, they were nothing. I couldn’t feel the grinding in my kneecaps. I wasn’t floating, though. I was pounding the pavement, breaking past a group of twenty-something guys, pumping my arms which were already stiff and sore and so tired, until I cruised across that finish line and had to remember how to make myself stop and walk again. And to breathe, to be back in reality.

I’d dreamed of this moment a million times ever since I set this goal. It was my first marathon…I figured that I would be so overcome with emotion, so moved to tears, that I’d break down and cry. But I didn’t. I just smiled, caught my breath, and collected my medal, a banana, and two chocolate milks, and tried to process the fact that it was over.

JJ came over to me, tackling me in the biggest hug, and took the load of post-race treats from my hands.My parents, sister-in-law, and niece came just seconds after, congratulating me and full of smiles. I saw Barb, Sue, and Tina and got pictures with them. I told my family the same thing I had told them on the course. I would not have made it through without them. And I knew that it was true. I probably still would have finished, but surely not as strongly and as quickly as I did today. They kept my mind at ease, my feet steady, my body moving. I only prayed that this group of women understood that, and that although they were strangers, knew just how much I was indebted to them. Not only that, but how happy I was to have met and befriended them.

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Barb, Sue, me, Tina.

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This girl got her BQ!

Even a week later, I’m still processing the fact that I am a marathoner. Those 4 hours and 25 minutes passed so quickly, believe it or not, that I wish I could go back and make myself realize I was in them. As I stuff my face with chocolate cake for the sixth night in a row, I try to formulate what those 26.2 miles have taught me. Endurance. Strength. Patience. Pain. Joy. Humility. Gratefulness. Confidence. Pride. Survival. Discipline. I think I’m still learning. I crossed this item off my bucket list, but something tells me that my education is far from over…

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A Year of Races

One year ago, in the early fall of 2014, I laced up my Nikes determined to prove something to myself- that I could do it. I never set out to become a runner.

It all started when I saw a Facebook post from one of my friends, saying how they had a great 5 mile run that morning. FIVE miles? That was crazy, I thought. Or was I just jealous?

Shortly thereafter, I saw the EQT 10 Miler race advertised, and wished I could be someone who could run 10 miles. Then, I realized, there is no reason why I couldn’t.

So, I signed up on a whim. I still can’t believe that one split decision is where everything changed for me. There was no turning back now! I slowly increased my mileage week by week, until November 9th, 2014, I ran further than I ever had before and completed my first race.

The feeling I got crossing that finish line is something, to this day, that I still cannot put into words. But my addiction was now full-blown, and there was no stopping it. I signed up for my first half marathon, which I completed in Pittsburgh in May 2014.

After a minor surgery and being out for a month, I finally got back into it, and this time, helped my boyfriend train for his first half marathon- Presque Isle in Erie, PA.

My third half marathon of the year (seriously, I was hooked!) was back in my hometown on Ernst Trail. I got my best time ever-  13.1 miles in 1 hour and 52 minutes.

Today, October 25, 2015, was the EQT 10 miler. It was the same 10 mile race that was my first race ever in 2014, and this time it was my last of the season. Everything came full circle.

Almost a full year of racing in, and it is incredible what it has done for my body and my mind, and surprisingly enough, my soul. Pounding my feet into pavement gave me release. Pushing myself past limits I thought I had showed me that the body can achieve anything, it’s the mind you have to convince. And that I’m a hell of a lot tougher than I thought.

Here it is, my year in races:

1. EQT 10 Miler November 9, 2014

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2. Strong Women Strong Girls 5k, March 22, 2015

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3. UPMC Health Plan 5k May 2, 2015

*3rd place in Age Division

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4. Pittsburgh Half Marathon May 3, 2015

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5. Presque Isle Half Marathon July 19, 2015

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6. Ernst Trail Half Marathon September 13, 2015

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*4th place in Age Division

7. Pittsburgh Great Race September 27, 2015

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8. Shadyside 5k October 3, 2015

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9. Donut Dash October 4, 2015

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10. Joggin For Frogmen 5k October 17, 2015

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*3rd place in Age Division

11. EQT 10 Miler October 25, 2015

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Thankfully my boyfriend & my parents put up with my love of the sport. They’ve driven many miles, and dealt with the freezing cold or unbearably hot temperatures just to be there to cheer me on. And they listen (or pretend to) even though I NEVER shut up about my shin splints or my PR’s or anything related to running.

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So here’s to this past year- accomplishments that have challenged and changed me completely. And to 2016, I’m ready to crush more goals. Bring it! 👊

But first…cake. And my couch.

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