2016 STEM Toy Gift Guide

Recently I received a Facebook question from a friend:
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This was such a fun question to answer!  I’ve spent the last year combing catalogs, blogs, and conferences for this very thing in order to stock the STREAM Lab with engaging tools and toys.  I’ve been able to watch how my students react to each of these items, plus what my own kids (5 & 8) choose to play with each day after school.  So in case there’s another mom or teacher out there trying to navigate the multitude of STEM toy choices, I offer you my kid-tested, teacher-approved list:

A Definite YES:
My top 6…

 

 

  • Sphero SPRK Edition Around $80sphero_sprk_edition
    This works with easy to use, free apps.  Don’t ever buy a remote control anything again…buy this instead!  My kids are getting another Sphero product for Christmas, the Ollie, because you can use it outside.  (Shhh….don’t tell them!)

 

  • Ozobot 2.0 Bit Around $50ozobot-bit
    I like this one because not only can kids code using Ozobot’s apps, but it also reads code drawn on paper with regular Crayola markers.  And it’s so darn cute.  Check out what my students created for our Ozobots in class!

 

 

  • Microscope Around $85microscope
    This microscope had great reviews on Amazon when Grandma was picking one out for Chica, and it didn’t disappoint.  We have quite the collection of dead bugs and plant parts in containers around the house thanks to this gift.  These prepared slides turned out to be fascinating too.

 

  • Zoobs $55 or lesszoobs
    Like the Keva planks, these are virtually indestructible and hard to lose.  With a little imagination, you can make almost anything, but hats and glasses are a favorite in our house.  The set I’ve linked is what I have in my classroom, but you could easily get by with a smaller set for home.

 

  • Prime Climb Around $30prime-climb
    I found this game thanks to a tweet for a Kickstarter campaign.  It’s a math nerd’s dream.  If a board game can be beautiful, this is.

 

Yes, But…$$$
These are all highly recommended, but I feel like they are a little pricey.  I would suggest holding out for a good deal.

  • Legos Price Varieslegos
    In our house, one can never have too many.  One of the best deals I have found is Black Friday at Walmart.  They usually have a really big set of basic blocks as a door buster.  It’s worth waiting in the line.

 

 

  • Magna-Tiles or Magformers Price Variesmagnatiles
    If either of these are ever the Amazon Deal of the Day, let me know!  Bubba has a small set, but I want more for the lab.

 

  • Big Ball of Whacks Around $25big-ball-of-whacks-6-colors
    I have to admit, I think I like this toy more than the kids do.  It’s great for anybody that likes to fidget.

 

 

 

  • Goobi $100 or lessgoobi
    Hmmm….do you see a pattern?  Three out of four of my “too expensive” items are magnets.  Stay away from this toy if you have a little one that still put things in his or her mouth.

 

Yes
All of these are things I highly recommend, just not enough to make my Top Six list.  

  • Marble Run Around $40marble-run
    This particular set is good quality and has lots of interesting pieces.  Bubba especially likes this toy, but he still has a hard time building it on his own.  This is a favorite toy to pull out when we have a babysitter or Grandpa over to play.  You HAVE to watch this!

 

 

  • Makey Makey Around $50makey-makey
    If your kids are into Scratch, this is a great add-on.  Chica still needs some help with this one, so I’d recommend it for older kids.

 

  • GeoPlay  Around $25geoplay
    These seem to take a while for kids to get into, maybe because they don’t go together in the same way as other building toys.  I think the longer kids play, the more they like them.

 

 

  • Snap Circuits $18 and up
    The fourth grade science teacher in me loves these sets.  The mom in me worries about the pieces being broken or lost.  I would recommend them for at least 8 and up, and check out this adapter that lets you bypass the need for batteries.
  • Sewing Kit, Price Variessewing-kit
    I taught Chica how to sew by hand a couple of years ago.  Then she kept wanting to borrow my stuff and leave it all over the house.  If I ever wanted to use my materials again, I knew I had to get her her own.  I didn’t find a pre-packaged set that I really liked, so I put one together for her.  It included a sewing box, good quality scissors, thread, needles, pins, big scraps of fabric, a seam ripper, measuring tape, pin cushion, and a yo-yo maker.  (That last one was thanks to our CrossRoads friend Peggy!)
  • Root-Vue Farm Around $30root-vue
    This is not exactly a toy, but it’s such a neat contraption for learning about germination, roots, and how plants grow.

 

 

  • Qwirkle & Blockers Around $20 each
    blockersqwirkleThese are two strategy games that our family likes, but they’re definitely best for older kids or adults.

 

 

  • Drill Around $50drill
    I’m a fan of letting kids use real tools as soon as they are able to do it safely.  Papa built Bubba his own mini workbench, and he received a hammer, measuring tape, and screwdrivers that he uses with supervision.  He’s used my cordless drill from school recently too.

 

  • Hot Wheels tracks  Around $60hot-wheels
    A few years ago I stumbled upon an offer for a free classroom set.  I pulled it out for two different classes this week, and I remembered again how much kids like it!  The exact set I have is not available anymore, but you could create something similar with the one I’ve linked above plus these extra track pieces.

 

  • Tumble Trax Around $25tumle-trax
    This is probably the most used toy in the STREAM Lab.  We mounted a huge piece of metal that we got for less than $40 from BMG Metals, much like this tutorial, but a big fridge would work well too. Together with this folding stool, you have hours and hours fun.

 

Quality toys….but not our favorite
So many times I pick out something just knowing that my students or my own kids are going to LOVE it, only to be surprised when they quickly lose interest.  That’s the case with each of these final 4 toys.  Your kids might love them, but they haven’t gotten much play in our house and/or my classroom.

  • Goldibloxs  $15 and upgoldiblocks
    I love the idea behind this toy, but the kit we put together seemed difficult to modify beyond the design offered in the instructions.  I like toys that encourage kids to keep trying new things.  We had one of the very first kits made, so it’s possible that newer models have improved.

 

  • Gears! Gears! Gears! Around $40gears
    This toy seemed great for little guys, but it turned out it was harder to make interesting designs than I had expected.  By the time kids are able to really build with it, I think it seems more like a baby toy.

 

 

  • Q-BA-Maze $25 and upq-ba-maze
    These look SO cool, but both my kids and I find them hard to manipulate.  Because the connections are a bit confusing, the most interesting pieces seem to get broken easily when kids try to force them.  This is definitely geared to older kids.

 

  • K’Nex Price Variesknex
    I bought a bunch of these at yard sales over the summer.  Now I know why I could find K’Nex and never Legos…..kids are so much more drawn to Legos.  I have a brand new classroom set that I plan to break out soon in a small group…maybe I can change a few kids’ minds!

One Final Suggestion
Haven’t we all witnessed the fact that some of the best toys are not toys at all?  They’re trash…..shoe boxes, wrapping paper rolls, bubble wrap, etc.  Check out a leftover Kindergarten small group project that kept Bubba busy most of the afternoon one day this week:

So if you haven’t already, you may want to consider collecting a bin of supplies that could be your kid’s own mini engineering kit.  For tools I’d suggest tacky glue, glue stick, low temperature glue gun, hole puncher, small scissors and big scissors, a ruler, masking tape, Scotch tape, and duct tape.  I’d also get a box cutter, but store this away for only supervised use.  For basic materials consider popsicle sticks, string, cotton balls, rubber bands, clay, straws, and pipe cleaners.  Finally, get a big empty tub where your budding engineer can store all sorts of interesting recycled materials until they’re ready to create the next project.

Then sit back and watch.

How about you?  Which STEM toys are your family’s favorite?  Which weren’t worth it?  Which toys are you considering but aren’t quite sure yet if you’re going to pull the trigger?  I’d love to hear from you!

Currently Us

Eating
Chica:  Her new-found love is shrimp.  I think the kid could exist on shrimp and mac and cheese alone.  Since school only serves these most favorite foods about once a month, she mostly packs lunch.  Emphasis on she.  Yay for eight.
Bubba:  School lunch.  Thank the Lord for one less thing to do in the morning.
Me:  Also school lunch.  Again…one less thing.

Reading
Chica:  Upside-Down Magic, a book she got at the book fair.  This is slightly better than the Pokemon library book she’s been attached to lately.
Bubba:  Pup & Pop.  It has been so interesting to observe the differences in how the two of them learned to read.  Chica was a whole language girl, guessing most of the words by context and the beginning letter sound.  Bubba wants to sound out ev-er-y-th-ing.
Me:  Teachers’ Knowledge and Its Impact, an article for my VT class.  I’ve wanted to write a blog post all day, but I told myself I had to finish my reflection on this article first.  It hasn’t happened yet, but here I am.  Oh well.

Listening
Chica:  Hamilton.  Right Hand Man is her most frequent request.
Bubba:  Hamilton.  While waiting for the bus, he was singing, “I’ll kill your friends and family to remind you of my love.  Dadadadadaaaaaa….”  Jay sent him off with reminders that this was a line that he could not sing at school.  Fingers crossed.
Me:  Hamilton.  Today may favorite song is Dear Theodosia.  “You will come of age with our young nation…”

Watching
Chica:  Pokemon.  I admit I’ve never watched it.
Bubba:  Pokemon.  Tonight while Jay and Chica made dinner, I asked him to explain it to me.  I heard about gyms and battles and the league and…well….that’s pretty much all I got.
Me:  Jimmy Fallon clips on YouTube.

Saying
Chica:  She’s going to make her Halloween costume.  We’ve got one more day to figure that out.  Ugh.
Bubba:  Yes to more things.  Like this week he said yes to helping me sort recycled materials at school.  We spent an entire hour working together happily.  Who is this new kid?
Me:  I’m going to run the RNUTS.  Yes, I’m pretty sure I AMNUTS.

Playing
Chica:  The violin.  When I remind her.
Bubba:  Anything his buddy Westin is playing.  I love our sweet neighbors.
Me:  The how-long-can-I-keep-my-house-picked-up game.  I’m going on one week.  Chica asked me if this was a record.

Hoping
Chica:  She will finish her Girls on the Run 5K next month.  I am amazed at the confidence she has gained by participating in this.
Bubba:  We will go anywhere but home every day after school.
Me:  I can make it through another week without dropping one of the too many balls I’m juggling.  Last week I turned in my homework late.  I don’t like that feeling, but, realistically I’m on the other side saying, “So what?”  The world keeps turning.  I’ll still pass the class.  Life happens.

Learning
Chica:  Focus and responsibility.  I’m thankful for her teacher who is incredibly patient and understanding.
Bubba:   Ants.  We had an oh-so-engaging dinner conversation this week about how many body sections ants have.  His teacher is always doing something to get that guy thinking!
Me:  How to use tools.  Last week it was a band saw.  Today I watched Jay use a miter saw, and I’m pretty sure I could do it by myself.  Tomorrow I’m going to use a dremel.  Sharon Bulson would be proud.

In case you enjoy looking back as much as I do…
Currently Me 2014
Currently Bubba 2014  (I guess Chica got missed….sorry kid.)
Currently Me 2013
Currently Chica 2013
Currently Bubba 2013

I Hate You

There are lots of good things about four.

Four means he can buckle and unbuckle himself from the backseat, and it doesn’t take an eternity.  Four means I can trust him, sometimes, to go into the men’s bathroom and come out with his hands actually washed with soap.  At four he can reach the faucet to get his own cup of water and unlock the front door when my hands are full.

But four also brings heavy new words.

I hate you.

……………

At two or three, there was screaming.  High pitched, ear-piercing, scream-bloody-murder-until-you-pull-the-car-over-and-make-me-stop screaming.

Most of the time with the screaming I kept my cool, trying to remember Jay’s words: It’s only a phase, it’s only a phase.  But on desperate days I screamed right back at him, threatened the wrath of Daddy, or just tried to whip it out of him.  That was not pretty.

But the screaming taught me something.  While it feels oh-so-good in the instant to throw my own ugly mommy tantrum right back at them, it’s never good afterwards.  Minutes or even seconds later, there’s that sick to my stomach feeling that serves as a reminder that I just demonstrated the exact kind of behavior I am trying to get rid of in my kids.  So I would stew a little longer, finally resolve to let go of my pride, apologize, and then try to have the conversation I should have had the first go round.

So now I try hard to skip my own tantrum and go straight to the calm convo.  For my teacher friends, I’m all about the reteaching part of PBIS.  Hear me – I still screw up plenty.  Last night at bedtime, for example, Ugly Mommy put the kids to bed via shouts from the basement.  Ugh.  Still not pretty.  But I’m trying to do things differently.

I think today in the doorway of my classroom he was expecting, hoping perhaps, that he’d push me to that ugly point with those three tiny words.  Eight letters.  Ihateyou.

But I took a deep breath and reminded myself that he doesn’t actually hate me.  Instead of the swift smack to that chubby spot on the back of his leg that I wanted to give him, he got an earful instead.  It went something like…

I love you, Bubba.  I know you don’t hate me.  I know those are words that you say because you are angry.  You are angry because we have to leave right now which means you have to stop playing the iPad.  Next time when this happens, you can say, “I don’t like it when I have to stop.  I wish I could play longer.”  But you don’t need to say those ugly words.  Those words hurt my feelings, and you don’t really mean what you are saying.

I hope he heard the most important part:  I love you, Bubba.

Maybe he even heard: I love you, Bubba, even when you’re begin a jerk.  I love you enough to keep reteaching you, to keep reminding you to not sin in your anger.  Say what you mean, but leave out the extra.  I know there will be even bigger screw ups than Ihateyou in the doorway, and I will keep loving you.

Iloveyou.  Eight letters.

…………..

Yesterday I heard a teacher friend say something that I just have to add.  She explained that whenever there’s a problem in her classroom, she looks at herself first.  Instead of, what’s that kid’s problem, it’s, what can I change?  

This.

While I certainly can’t bear the total responsibility of my four year old’s words, I have to admit that I contributed to it.  I dragged them to school for yet another day of hanging out while Mommy works on projects.  I worked right up until the time we needed to go, so we had to hurry.  I probably hadn’t given enough of a warning that go-time was coming.

Yes, the four year old has room to grow, but so does this (almost) thirty-four year old.

Rested and Thankful

I’m two weeks into my summer break, and I’ve already enjoyed two vacations.  I feel so very rested and thankful for the time off.

The Monday after school let out I flew to Boulder, Colorado for NASA’s MAVEN Elementary Teachers’ Summit.  In a nutshell….teacher nerd camp.  I planned a free day on either end of the four day workshop to explore Boulder on my own.  It was glorious.

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Then this past Friday my family of four headed out for a camping trip at James River State Park.  The weekend was full of hammock swinging, hunting bugs, and S’MORES!  This trip was also glorious.

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On one particularly slow stroll back from the bathhouse this weekend I started to contemplate just how different these two trips were, but how I still thoroughly enjoyed both.  Below are a few of the more interesting comparisons….

Dinners
CO: I ate all but one dinner by myself in a restaurant along downtown Boulder’s Pearl Street Mall.  I was that person who took a picture of my meal each time.  I spent the first few nights feeling self-conscious for dining alone, but I eventually ended up enjoying the freedom of choosing a spot to eat without having to consider anyone else.

I had a picture of all six dinners here, but I decided to spare you.  These were just two of my favorites…some cheesy goodness from Pasta Jay’s and empanadas from the farmer’s market.
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JRSP:  I ate each cooked-over-the-fire dinner with my sweet family at our tent site.  Chicken hobo packets, pizza on naan, and hot dogs, all washed down with perfectly roasted marshmallows.  This time I was too busy enjoying it to snap any pictures.

Dishes
CO: None.  I tried to tip well out of thankfulness for this fact.
JRSP:  I willingly took this job under our unspoken division of labor.  My introvert self rather liked the few minutes at the bathhouse all alone.  I’ll admit there was no rushing this task.

Accommodations
CO: A-  I stayed in University of Colorado Boulder dorms called Williams Village North.  We each got our own room and shared a hall bathroom.  I would have given them an A if they had just sprung for a fitted sheet.
JRSP:  A.  When you spend a night in the pouring rain and wake up with just the normal amount of Virginia summer stickiness, that’s a sign of a winner of a tent.  Thank you Nana and Papa for the loaner!

Learning
CO:  So much!  We learned about the history of Mars, planetary magnetism, solar flares and coronal mass ejections, the geology of Mars, and on and on and on.  I also learned a ton just from comparing stories over lunch with like-minded teachers from all around the country.  While our acronyms and standards might be slightly different, we all face the same challenges and posses the same passion for what we do.
JRSP:  Camp songs still motivate tired or scared hikers.  Two nights in a row we hiked to an overlook on a trail that was mostly uphill.  On the first night there was much grumbling and begging Bubba to keep up.  On the second night I remembered the magic of Herman the Worm and Fruit of the Spirit’s Not a Coconut, and we were up that hill in hot minute (or 30??).  On the way back down in the dark, let’s just be honest, Mommy and Daddy were scared.  So we sang every song we could think of, as loud as we could manage while carrying kids on our backs, in an effort to scare away anything that might be lurking.  It worked.

Hiking
CO: On the final day of my trip, I got up early to go for a hike in Chautauqua Park.  Actually, I thought I was going for a trail run, but that quickly turned into a big ol’ JK when I saw the trails.  Straight up and mostly rocks make for a better hike than run.  Anyways, it was an absolutely gorgeous day, and I completed two different trails: Royal Arch and the 1st and 2nd Flatirons.

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JRSP: The kids found a trail behind our campsite and we decided to explore it this morning.  The Cabel Trail was a multi-use trail, and I quickly learned that Bubba didn’t recognize horse poop.  Fun times.

Biking
CO:  This was my transportation method of choice thanks to Boulder B-Cycle.  The program keeps track of your miles, and I rode over 25 miles during the week.  Boulder has bike trails every where, so this was very easy to do!
JRSP:  My kiddos are still trying to figure out the whole bike thing.  We brought bikes and rode them once, but there was much drama involved.  We’ll need a few more years, I think, before this will really be fun as a family.

Reading
CO:  While I started a book on the plane, I ended up perusing the Facebooks and emails each night before bed.  Blah.
JRSP:  There was basically no cell service.  Yaaaaaaay!  (That was a for realz cheer…no sarcasm.)  I finished The Outcasts of 19 Schulyer Place and started Elijah of Buxton.  And yes, these are both books I snagged from my classroom library shelf when I packed up my room.

And last but not least…

Showers
CO: One a day.
JRSP: One.

Summer on, friends.

P.S. Saw this in Boulder.  Can you read the yellow sign?  Guess that’s a thing now.
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These Days…

Bubba sings all the wrong words to Toby Mac from the back seat of the van.
We eat a $5 dinner on Wednesday nights with friends.
Chica asks questions about Star Wars I can’t understand, much less answer.
My trail shoes are collecting dust in the back of the closet, wishing for spring.
Little people pant legs are getting farther and farther from the floor.
My everydayallday mantra is, “Choose joy.”
I crawl in the bed before the little people are asleep.
I have almost perfected the buzz cut.  I only missed two spots this week.
I spend the free time that I don’t really have making my STREAM lab wishlist.
I marvel at my students who make our crazy ideas work.
Jay does about ten times more housework than I do.
I can’t wait for my master’s to be done, but I’m already scoping out what’s next.
Bubba’s first words to us in the morning are often, “Did you read the Bible yet?”
We eat more pizza than I’d ever care to admit.
My pants don’t fit.
Jay takes Bubba to school some days.  This is glorious.
Bubba begs for “homework” to do in the evenings.
Chica has started to pick outfits out for herself that almost match.
Jay loves his new job.
We visit the library every week.
I don’t make enough time to see friends.
Bubba can buckle himself.
I check my email too often.
Chica’s favorite toys are Keva planks.
We move slowly through the book of Genesis.
Bubba asks me to grow my hair long.
We still serve popcorn as our Sunday night dinner.
When there’s a choice to make, Bubba asks Chica what she wants first.
Bubba and I want sauce on everything.  Chica never wants it.
Bubba gives hugs freely.  I just got one.
I wish for more time to write.

Eyes Wide Open

Almost exactly one year ago I wrote this:

P.S. I’m taking a Facebook break, friends.  Mostly it’s about regaining some of the enormous amount of time I waste there.  I’m thinking, though, that less time wasted means more sleep.  And more sleep might mean eyes wider open to watch out for those opportunities for joy.  I’ll try to let you know how it goes.

I mostly stuck to it.  It helped that I made Jay change my password because I have the self control of a four year old when it comes to plans like this.  I admit I did end up checking a few favorite pages regularly like HONY and Ginger Runner and Momastery, but there’s only so much time to be wasted when you don’t log in.

This week, though, I had to break my fast and get Jay to rack his brain for the password he chose so many months ago.  I needed to contact a few people that I don’t have in my address book for a school project.  And while it was initially fun to scroll through new baby pictures on pages of far off friends and see signs of new relationships on others, I found myself right back where I didn’t want to be a year ago.  Jay, time for another password.

Perhaps my only tiny hesitation is that not signing on to Facebook for a year makes you miss notes like this:

Dear Tracy, I know school has started and you are very very busy, but it has come time to gently remind you that were another post to appear on your blog, your fans would very likely enjoy it.

This September note from a sweet college friend made me smile.  With the help of her gentle reminder, here I am again.  Better late than never?

So back to the sleep and eyes wide open and joy.  I can’t say that it happened just like that.  I’m sure this comes to no surprise to anyone who really knows me, but I quickly filled my extra time with everything but sleep.  This semester I completed over half of my master’s degree and ran a marathon.  Sleep was squeezed somewhere in between, and it was rarely enough.

But as for eyes wide open and joy…I think it’s a yes.

I don’t have Facebook photos to prove it.
I don’t have blog posts to prove it.
I don’t have a journal of 1,000 (or even 47) gifts to prove it.

Joyful still:
For new Life Group friends that encourage us through their struggles and ours
For legs that were strong enough to run 17 miles and then walk 9 more
For neighbors that show relentless love
For friends that let you cry in their kitchens
For new friends, if only for a short season
For God-planned reunions with old friends
For a new job for Jay after many months of waiting
For slow mornings with all four of us piled in the bed
For five minute emails from a friend half way around the world
For the Word that is taking root in our lives in such real ways
For five dollar family dinners on Wednesday nights
For a husband that willingly washes the dishes and puts the kids to bed
For the precious personalities of my two year old friends at church
For heartbreak and forgiveness and reconciliation
For eyes wide enough open to see growth in my children as a result of prayer
For Friday afternoon silent dance party bus dismissal
For the giving-est group of parents a teacher could ever want
For handmade gifts by Chica
For Bubba’s thumbs up and winks

Oh, and one more…
For friends that remind me it’s time to write again

May your 2016 be filled with joy and eyes wide enough open to spot it, friends.

XTERRA Richmond 21K Trail Run 2015

About three months ago, on the eve of the Shamrock Half Marathon, I sat at the table of our rented beach house recording future training run distances on a calendar.  I should have been sleeping, but I instead needed to know what was going to come next.  I’ve set the far-off goal of completing the Richmond Marathon in November, but I needed a few shorter races in the meantime to keep me focused and motivated.  First up….XTERRA Richmond 21K Trail Run.  Today was the day!

My training leading up to the race went well.  I ran Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday most weeks, alternating between a hilly three mile loop in our neighborhood before school and the treadmill at the Y in the afternoons.  The highlight of each week was my long run on Saturday mornings.  As the weather warmed up and dried out, I tried to do as many of these runs on the trail as possible.  I twice logged miles on the Buttermilk Trail in Richmond.  My last two long runs were on Liberty Mountain (11 miles) and on the trails parallel to the Blackwater Creek Trail (12 miles)…two of my favorite spots in Lynchburg.  With school getting out this past week, I was also able to catch up on lost hours of sleep.  I was feeling ready!

Our family headed to Richmond Friday after lunch, and we stopped at REI before making our way to Grandma’s house.  We downed a great pre-race meal from Joe’s Inn and then took the kids for a quick swim before bedtime.  Grandma and the little people decided to sleep in the tent in the backyard, so I got to sleep fairly quickly.  I slept completely unencumbered by any pesky snugglers.  It was beautiful.

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We had decided that Jay would take me to the start, and the rest of the family would wait at the Reedy Creek Tunnel aid station.  From there they would be able to see me three times during the race.   Jay was kind enough to drop me off near the start so that I could pick up my packet while he went to park the car.

Bag checked.  Porta-Potty visited.  Bib pinned.  Husband hugged.  Before picture taken.  Let’s do this!

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The first mile and a half were ridiculously hot.  We started in the Brown’s Island/Tredegar area and ran past this cool spot, over a bridge, and across the Flood Wall.  I blew through the first aid station way too fast.  I grabbed only one cup of water and ended up pouring most of it on me.  I promised myself that at all other aid stations I was going to slow down and actually drink something.  I know that I should have expected the heat when signing up for a race in Richmond in June, but I’m not going to lie…it caught me off guard.  Even at 8am, the sun felt pretty brutal, but I kept trucking knowing that we would get to the trail soon.  I was so relieved when we finally dipped down into the shade.

I don’t remember much of the next section except for the steps that RVA-ers call the “Mayan Ruins.”   The runners in front of me had come to a slow crawl up these steep steps.  For half a second I was a bit annoyed.  Then I realized that I couldn’t have moved any faster than we were already going, and I quickly got over myself.  Two girls behind me decided they were taking the road less traveled and went up the steps that were around to the right.  I think they realized it wasn’t any faster, however, when they ended up right back behind me at the top.

The main thing that kept me going was knowing that my family was waiting for me at the Forest Hills Park aid station.  I could hear them cheering before I could see them.  Both kids wanted to give me a hug, and I gladly obliged.  I dumped a couple more cups of water on myself, downed a few, grabbed a gel, and kept going.  There were several switchbacks right above their watching spot, so I got to see (and hear) them a few more times.  By this first loop of the park, there were a handful of us that were all doing about the same pace together.  One guy behind me told me that it was his fourth time doing this race, and warned me to save my energy for the second loop.  Turns out I felt much better the second time around.  I think it had to do with the fact that I had at least a little bit of an idea how far I had left to go.  There were no mile markers, so the first time around I just kept wondering how close I was to seeing my family again.

I remember a few other things from the park loop.  At one point we crossed a creek.  Both times over it I dipped down and splashed water on myself to try to cool off.  It helped for about 30 seconds.  :)  Right before the aid station there was a really skinny cement bridge to cross.  I remember being a tad bit nervous that I would run right off the thing, but I was too embarrassed to slow down and walk.  The second time around there was an old man standing at the end with a big bouquet of sunflowers.  Somebody behind me joked, “Oh, how nice! You brought me flowers!”  He didn’t seem to get it…just confused why several sweaty people were running straight at him.

During this section I also remember contemplating some of the differences between road races and trail races.  This is only my second trail race, and there’s this whole new added element of passing people that you don’t really have to worry about on a wide road.  Several times I heard people right behind me that I thought wanted to pass, but it turns out they seemed to be fine with following my slow, slogging pace.  Other times I got right up behind somebody else and then had to really convince myself that I had enough juice to pass them and then stay in front.  More than once those people passed me again at the aid stations while I was busy dumping cups of cold water on my head.  I also got lapped in the park loop by three or four of the guys who went on to win the race.  Impressive.

After I passed my family for the third time, I headed into the Reedy Creek Tunnel where the race volunteer promised me air conditioning.  I admit I was so out of it at that point that I believed her for a half a second.  Ha.  The water crossing that I had heard about turned out to just be maybe three inches of running water.  No biggie.  My favorite part of the whole race, however, was the bouldering we had to do to cross the river.  I’m sure my tired self bounding crawling over the huge rocks was quite a site, but the race volunteers were quite encouraging at this point.  One guy said something like, “Just power yourself over to that big rock, climb this ladder, and then you’re in the shade!”  I joked to him, “I don’t think I’ll be powering anywhere at this point,” as I basically slid down the rock on my butt and then leaned forward to catch the next one with my hands.  I’m certain he was lying, but he said, “Looked pretty powerful to me,” as I climbed the ladder.  I’ll take it.

By the time I was winding my way through Belle Isle, I was alone.  No more leap frogging with runners around me.  At this point I was really thankful for the hundreds of signs put up by the trail organizers because I never worried that I was going to get lost.  As I came out of the wooded trails, I was relieved to see the suspended bridge because I knew we were almost done, but the section right before it was especially hot.  It was at this point that I realized that my goal of 12 minute miles was out of the picture.  I just kept trying to remind myself to finish and finish well.

On the road between the suspended bridge and the finish, I started leap frogging again with another tired runner.  He would walk, and I would jog slowly past him.  Then he got up enough speed to pass me, and I didn’t have it in me to power past him.  As we approached the finish line, cheered on by three especially great volunteers, I had passed him.  But at the very last stretch, he tried to pass me one final time.  I sprinted with everything I had left (which wasn’t much), and it appeared we crossed at exactly the same moment.  Turns out the official race results say I beat him by exactly one second.  Woot!  It’s the little victories, huh?  My final time was 2:36:13 which was a pace of 12:29 per mile.

I found Jay, drank a few more cups of water, and we sat in the shade a while to cool down.  We then went for a kid-free post race meal at Millie’s, a restaurant I read about in another runner’s blog.   I got the Huevos Rancheros, and it was absolutely amazing.  Go there!

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Jay asked me when I was done if I’d run this race again.  Definitely, yes.  Here’s my quick list of grows and glows to sum it up:

Grows:
Mile markers.  Maybe this is taboo in a trail race, but I really like knowing how far I have left to go.
Finish line.   The race course took a sharp turn at the very end, which meant you couldn’t see the finish to gauge how far you had left to go.  I’m always leery of starting to sprint too soon, and this time I waited too long.
Heat.  Maybe the race organizers could work on that for next year?  JK.  More like, maybe I need to do a few mid-day training runs so I’m not such a wimp.

Glows:
Course.  The race is called an “urban adventure,” and they aren’t joking.  I liked how varied the trail was, and the runners really got a few beautiful views of the city.
People.  The volunteers were helpful, and so were the runners.
Signage.  I never really had to worry about getting lost.
Family.  It was SO good to have them waiting for me at Reedy Creek.  I’m not sure what else would have kept me going!
I finished!  Though I didn’t make my goal of 12 min pace, I am choosing to be excited that I completed this tough course, with a smile, injury free.

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Now on to training for the next race!  Up next:  Percival’s Island 5 Miler.