Khao Lak

3 Jun

* Disclaimer ~ parenthood and various work scenarios have not increased the promptness of my blog posts. Please enjoy tales of our April break, only delayed a month or two. ūüôā

Over the past few years, we’ve tended to plan beach bum vacations for our April holiday. I often find myself a bit burnt out at this point in the school year, the weather is generally hot as can be, and the water festival of Songkran takes place during our break.¬† Given these factors, laying around on a beach and enjoying the water splashing while one is already in a swimsuit is ideal. This year we followed our trend, and headed south towards the lovely stretch of beach that is Khao Lak.

Khao Lak lies about an hour’s drive north of Phuket along the Andaman coast. The formerly tiny village of Ban Khao Lak has spread to incorporate multiple beaches, and today the whole area goes by the name. We stayed on Nang Thong beach, a smidgeon north of the original village. The beach in front of our hotel was a long, lovely expanse of smooth sand, with gorgeous palm trees and pine trees overlooking the water.¬†One morning during Oliver’s nap, I took a stroll north along the beach. The soft sand and refreshing breeze were so pleasant that I walked nearly 4k before I encountered a lagoon that prompted me to turn back. The beach along my walk was remarkably empty. At one point, I found a rope swing dangling from a tree. I sat in near solitude, admiring the contrast between the dark pine trees and the intensely blue water.

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In my research prior to visiting, I had read that Khao Lak was “underdeveloped”, which sounded ideal. Although the beach had its fair share of hotels along it, they were quite spread out, with stretches of forest between them. The single main road through the village was lined with restaurants and souvenir shops but the jungle began quickly on the far side of the strip. One of the first things I noticed during my beach walk was the lack of manmade noise and the shockingly loud sound of the resident cicadas. The insects are loudest during the heat of the day; at midday near the beach, they were loud enough to make conversation challenging. (check out the video below). According to the internet, buildings are restricted to the height of a coconut palm, so hopefully Khao Lak retains its jungle/nature vibe for years to come.

 

There is another unfortunate reason for the lack of development. Khao Lak was deeply affected by the 2004 tsunami that struck Thailand and other parts of Asia. The existing resorts and vegetation were mostly wiped out, and the death IMG_8179toll was tragically large. Remnants of older resorts were visible during my beach walk. One afternoon, we visited Police Boat 813. On the morning of December 26th, the boat was anchored offshore guarding one of the royal princesses and her family. It was swept nearly 2k inland by the giant waves, coming to rest in an open field. Today the boat stands as a memorial to the tsunami victims. A remembrance ceremony is held there every Boxing Day, and there is a small museum with photos and other information about the event. To me, the most remarkable aspects of the memorial are how intact the boat appears, and how far from the sea it is. Its presence is a solid reminder of the power of water.

Aside from our boat visit, we were pretty lazy during the week. Our hotel had multiple pools, and we spent a large portion of each afternoon with Oliver enjoying hisfullsizeoutput_1886¬†pool float, and his parents enjoying an adult beverage from the swim-up bar. Munchkin man loves playing with sand, but isn’t such a fan of the ocean and waves. One evening I tried to take a mama/son sunset selfie, but our proximity to the sea prompted displeased bubba faces. He adores pools and baths, so hopefully he grows to love the ocean as well. Khao Lak was delightfully laid-back and family-friend, so chances are good we shall return!

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Riding the Thai-Burma Railway

13 Apr

I’ve had this blog post open for nearly six weeks, and for some reason I haven’t been able to find the motivation to write much of anything. Today I finally decided that all I really¬†want to share on this topic are the photos I took. Long story short, we had a few days off for Makha Bucha Day at the beginning of March, and we went over to Kanchanaburi. We booked a delightful hotel on the banks of the Kwae Yai River (known incorrectly as the River Kwai), and thoroughly enjoyed the ambiance. One morning, we took a train ride on the Thai-Burma Railway. The train crosses the famous bridge and meanders through the countryside towards the border with Myanmar. Oliver and I were pretty psyched about the train ride; Orestes was psyched about our enthusiasm. The train ran through some very rural landscapes, and the scenery was gorgeous. We went over some rather rickety bridges, and ended at Krasae Cave, which doubles as a temple. We then took a car up to the Hellfire Pass, and wandered about to explore a bit (Orestes had never been up there before). Oliver enjoyed sightseeing, and I got my exercise in while walking the rail bed with a 24-pound baby strapped to me. Should you find yourself in Thailand, I highly recommend (Kanchanaburi, not the hiking with a baby part, although that’s enjoyable too ūüėČ ). For those curious about the history of the area, check out my older blog post on the subject here.

Udon Thani ~ Ban Chiang 10k 2018

11 Mar

Our visit to Udon Thani for the long weekend of Chinese New Year was perfectly in keeping with my pattern of signing up to run races specifically so that I have an excuse to visit somewhere random. Following my half marathon in December, I registered for another race to keep my motivation levels up. Unique Running, the company that organizes the Ayutthaya and Khao Yai races that I have participated in, added another event to their annual repertoire. All of their race venues are World Heritage Sites, and the new race led around the archaeological park in Ban Chiang. Udon Thani/Ban Chiang seemed perfect for both racing and obscure adventure, so off we went!

Udon Thani is the largest city in the northeastern Isan region of Thailand. Udon Thani was the location of a Royal Thai Air Force base during the Vietnam War; the city grew up around the base, and is currently home to Thailand’s largest Vietnamese¬†community.¬†Today,¬†the local economy is based on mining, commerce, and tourism from people visiting¬†Ban Chiang, the tiny town that lies a forty-five minute drive to the east. Ban Chiang was a sleepy village until 1966, when valuable archaeological items were discovered. Supposedly, an anthropology student was walking through the countryside on his way to interview the locals when he tripped over a kapok root and fell on top of some pots, which turned out to be ancient pottery. The oldest graves and relics date from 2100 BCE, and the most recent to around 200 BCE. Items of interest include bronze weapons and artifacts, which were originally not thought to have been present in the area at that time, and a red-painted pottery type that is unique to the site. Also of note are¬†the remains of a 3,000-year-old dog, who was named Thong Boran by the former king (thong means “gold”, unsure what¬†boran translates to in English). Thong Boran was the official race mascot.

Aside from the archaeological site and adjacent museum, one of the other main attractions near Udon Thani is Talay Bua Dang, aka the Red Lotus Sea (tally¬†~ sea,¬†bua¬†~ lotus, daeng ~ red [I knew that one from ordering wine!]).¬†Technically, it is a lake and the lotus flowers are pink, but it is still most impressive. The flowers are at¬†their peak bloom before the sun gets too hot, so we arose bright and early Saturday morning. We made the short drive south to the lake through some gorgeous countryside, and chartered a small boat (hooray boats!). The first few minutes of our ride were unremarkable; cool breeze, pleasant views, but nothing special. And then… flowers! Millions of bright pink flowers spread across the lake’s surface in a vibrant carpet that stretched as far as the eye could see. The blossoms perched atop green stalks, hovering a foot or so above the shallow water. Certain boat routes were well-traveled, and their bare paths resembled roads winding through the flowers. At various points, our driver floated our pontoon boat to a stop and we spent some time drifting, completely surrounded by lotuses.¬†I went a little crazy with the photography ~ it was hard not to! Oliver also enjoyed the boat ride; he seems to have taken after his mama and makes enthusiastic noises when taking odd forms of transportation (he loves a good golf cart or tuk tuk journey). We spent two hours motoring around the lake before heading back to shore for a cheap and tasty breakfast from the stalls that were set up around the dock. I have read that the lotus blooms are at their prime during cool season, November to February, so we visited just in time!

The following morning, I was up shockingly early (before my child) for the drive out to Ban Chiang. The 10k began at 6am sharp. After our late start in the half marathon, I made a point of being punctual. In Ayutthaya, the race organizers are clearly expecting many¬†farang to participate; signs and announcements take place in both English and Thai. This was not the case in Ban Chiang. I was the one of only five foreigners I saw running, and the only female. At the starting line, the announcer led the crowd in cheers exclusively in Thai. I followed along by raising my arms and yelling when everyone else did, until they began counting down from ten. Sip, gao, baat, jet…¬†Numbers are part of my Thai vocabulary, so I knew to get ready! The race route was delightful. The area around Ban Chiang is very rural, and the course wound past rice paddies and fruit orchards. A fair number of people came out to wave and smile at the runners, and sometimes take photos. At one point, I heard someone holler in English, and looked around to see an older¬†farang gentleman waving at me from inside the gate of a small home. I think he and I were both surprised to see one another!

I finished the 10k at a speedier pace than I had mentally planned on, so I was quite pleased with myself. As I stretched and hydrated around the finish line, a Thai fellow approached me and introduced himself as “an important cardiologist”. He and his team of nurses had participated in the racing, and he called them all over to meet me. I ended up in their group photo; I’m still kicking myself that I didn’t request a copy on my phone! I did find a photo of the cardiologist in the official race pics. I ended up in several other selfies as well. We’re fairly used to getting stared at now that we live in Asia, but the gawking was particularly intense over the course of the weekend. The internet seems to think there are many expats living around Udon Thani, but it certainly felt like foreigners are still considered a novelty. I loved the countryside around Ban Chiang, and told Orestes we should return another time to relax in one of the available homestays. We’ll see if he agrees. ūüėČ

Canal Boat & Bikes

25 Feb

The last time my mom visited, we took a fabulous bike tour of Sukhothai. She has spoken of it glowingly, so on this visit I suggested another biking adventure. I’ve become quite the fan of the Grasshopper bike tour company; I’m also a huge boating enthusiast, so when I saw that Grasshopper offered a tour combining bikes and khlong boats, I was sold. Mom readily agreed and off we went! Our tour group was small: mom and I, a French couple, and our guide (I believe his name was Tob). We departed from the bike shop near Khao San Road early in the morning, and followed a series of narrow, twisting alleyways until we reached the bank of the Chao Phraya River. A large portion of Old Bangkok lies on the west side of the river, across from most of the modern city. One of the sections of Old Bangkok is the former Portuguese settlement of Santa Cruz. The Portuguese were the first Europeans to formally recognize the Kingdom of Siam, and Santa Cruz was established by Portuguese traders. As our ferry crossed the river, we could see the Church of Santa Cruz, the first stop on our tour. The church was constructed in 1769, and was originally made of wood, but it has been reconstructed several times. The current brick-and-mortar church is cream-colored with pink trim. The main dome is also intensely pink, making the church quite visible from the river.

The area around the church is called¬†Kudeejeen, which roughly translates as “Chinese Shrine”. The first Chinese Buddhist Shrine in Bangkok is located not far from Santa Cruz, and the area is an eclectic mix of traditions. Kudeejeen is known for some Portuguese culinary treats,¬†specifically¬†kana¬†farang kudeejeen,¬†or “Chinese Monk Candy” (kanom = dessert, farang = Western foreigners,¬†jeen = Chinese). The treats are a Portuguese cupcake recipe with Chinese toppings, and¬†supposedly are¬†the first kind of cake made in Thailand. We stopped at the¬†Thanusingha Bakery House,¬†one of the oldest in Bangkok, and sampled some of the cupcakes along with Thai tea. I wasn’t that enamored of the cupcakes, but the building that houses the bakery was charming. The houses in the area are the traditional Asian shophouses (shop downstairs, living space upstairs). For preservation purposes and protection from floods, many of these shophouses now have concrete walls on the first floor, but retain the older teak boarding on the upper floors. The teak is beautiful, and is elaborately decorated with carvings on many of the houses.

After our midmorning snack, we cycled along the back lanes to Wat Kalayanamit. The temple has strong Chinese influences, and houses the largest seated Buddha in Bangkok. The statue nearly fills the prayer hall, and is most impressive. Outside the main hall there is a giant bell. Ringing it is thought to bring good luck, so we did! Our second temple stop was Wat Hong Rattanaram. Inside the temple is a sacred pool; legend said there was an ancient rock containing scripture lying at the bottom. The rock was recently found and is on display nearby. Taksin the Great, a famous king from the 18th century, used the temple as a staging point for his armies. Before heading off to battle, King Taksin would march his armies past the temple. Priests stood on platforms and sprinkled holy water as they passed below, ensuring good fortune. It must have worked because King Taksin successfully liberated Siam from the Burmese.

We had lunch alongside the¬†Bang Luang canal. I learned recently that¬†luang means “royal” ~ apparently the royal family used to take boats to and from the palace along this canal route. Tob went to purchase our lunch, and returned with giant plastic bags filled with what appeared to be rainbow-colored cheese puffs. It turned out to be fish food; huge Mekong catfish inhabit the canal, and people pose for photo ops while feeding them. The fish were voracious! (see video below) After ensuring that both the fish and the humans were well-fed, we crossed the khlong to the Artists’ House, aka Baan Silapin, a teak building over 200 years old that is part art gallery, part theatre. Local artists perform traditional Thai puppet shows daily, working to keep the ancient craft alive. The puppeteers dress entirely in black, and dance along with the puppets. The show was a mixture of Thai, English, and visual comedy that needed no translation. After the show, we posed with the puppets.

The final portion of our boat and bike tour was the boating! From Baan Silapin, we loaded our bikes onto a private long tail boat, and set off along the khlongs. I’ve mentioned before that Bangkok is known as the “Venice of the East“.¬†The canals are quite similar to streets; there are intersections with signs, and doorsteps leading down to the water’s edge.¬†Tons of trees and flowering bushes overhang the canals, and many of the houses have small gardens that back up to the khlong.¬†Mom and I were both ready to relax, and it was nice to sit back and enjoy the scenery. Tob had sharp eyes, and spotted several enormous monitor lizards sunbathing on various perches near the water. I had been wanting a good monitor photo and I was psyched that Mom got to see them. Eventually, we exited a side canal into the Chao Phraya, crossed back to the east bank, and cycled back to the shop. Our boat/bike tour was a lovely way to spend one of Mom’s last days in Thailand!

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Kompong Phluk Floating Village

14 Feb

After our first week of winter break in Hua Hin and Phetchaburi, we returned to Bangkok to collect some fun visitors: my sister, Corinne, and my mama! They arrived early Christmas morning, and we promptly whisked them to the beach on Koh Samet. We followed up beach time with some New Year’s¬†celebrations in Chiang Mai, and cultural explorations in Siem Reap, Cambodia (where the Angkor temples are located). Since I’ve already written about most of these places, I shall refrain from going into detail. However, we did have one new adventure that I think is blog-worthy. During our previous two visits to Siem Reap, we had focused solely on the temples, along with a brief exercising adventure when I ran the Angkor Wat Half Marathon in 2016. There was one item of interest that I was still curious about in the area, the Tonl√© Sap Lake and the floating villages that surround it. I spent one day revisiting some of the main Angkor temples with mom and Corinne, and then Orestes and I took the opportunity to sign up for a half-day tour of¬†Kampong Phluk, one of the floating villages. The pic at left shows my lovely men on a long tail boat.

The Tonl√© Sap is the largest freshwater lake in Southeast Asia. The name translates to “large river, not salty” (tonl√© = large river, sap¬†= not salty), which is more commonly translated as Great Lake. The lake connects to a river of the same name, which feeds into the larger Mekong River. Due to Southeast Asia’s seasonal changes, the Tonl√© Sap River does something rather unique; during monsoon season when the lake is regularly inundated with floods, the water level rises and the river waters flow downstream towards the Mekong. During dry season, when the temperatures bake and it rarely rains, the lake shrinks dramatically, and the water flow in the river reverses, with water leaving the Mekong and flowing back towards the lake.

The villages surrounding the Tonl√© Sap have adopted a construction style that allows them to cope with the massive fluctuation in water level. The vast majority of the buildings – houses, schools, police station, post office – are built on stilts six to ten meters high.¬†We visited at the beginning of January, which lies squarely in between the wet and dry seasons (technically it was SEA’s third season, “cool” season). The lake waters were on the low side, so the houses appeared precariously perched in the sky on their wooden stilts. The villagers navigate primarily by boat, and have constructed giant bamboo stairs or ladders leading from their front doors down to where their boats are docked. We saw all manner of creative floating construction; my favorite were the chicken coops built atop giant plastic containers.

Kompong Phluk’s Buddhist temple is one of the only buildings in the village that is not raised or floating. The temple sits on the highest point of land available. Our guide showed us the mark halfway up the temple steps where the flood level hits during rainy season, but the main building stays dry. Some of the houses near the temple are also surrounded by land during dry season, so we were able to walk around a little bit and see more of the village.¬†Many of the houses are painted a lovely shade of blue, and the juxtaposition between the blue, more modern houses and the traditional bamboo and palm leaf houses was quite interesting. It also happened to be recess time for the local school, so tons of elementary students in uniforms were out in the street playing wild games and staring with interest at the tourists wandering through. Some of the kids were particularly interested in Oliver, and he watched them in fascination.¬†A few of the school children were eating bags of what appeared to be steamed shellfish, and the ground was littered with tiny, bluish shells.

Between Kompong Phluk and the wide open lake lies a huge stretch of mangrove trees that locals call the drowned forest. Our motorized long tail boat docked, and we had the option to take a canoe ride through the mangroves with a local lady from the village. Our guide explained that this is how the women make money with their boats when the fishing isn‚Äôt good. Clearly, this is a bit of a scheme to earn a few bucks from the tourists that pass by. On the other hand, the villages don’t see many tourists, and I can hardly fault the locals for trying to make a living. Also, I love a good boat ride, so off we went. Gliding through the mangroves was very peaceful. Mangroves are simply amazing so far as I am concerned. They prevent erosion, provide fish habitats, can survive all sorts of floods/storms/salt, and look snazzy to boot. These particular mangroves also had tiny shellfish growing in clumps all over them. I suddenly realized where the school children’s snacks had come from.

Finally, we re-boarded the long tail and headed out onto the Tonl√© Sap. I must admit to slight disappointment here; our boat swung a wide arc, and then began the return journey, through the village, back to the dock. We saw very little of the lake itself. What we did see was vast and hazy. I’ve read that sunset over the lake is lovely, but with a tired munchkin man we weren’t about to loiter for several more hours. The village and mangroves were delightful, so I’m officially checking this one off our list.

Phetchaburi

4 Feb

I keep an ongoing list of places I want to visit in Thailand. The longer we have been here, the more obscure the locations on the list seem to be getting. Phetchaburi doesn’t qualify as truly obscure ~ it is listed in the Lonely Planet Thailand as a top twenty destination ~ but it is definitely off the beaten path for the typical two-week tourist. Phetchaburi is the name of both the city and the province, located along the Gulf of Thailand, a bit north of Pranburi¬†(where we spent part of last winter break) and Hua Hin. We had several days of rather chilly beach time in Hua Hin before heading up to Phetchaburi. I was most curious about the area’s cultural items: an old hill-top palace, a temple in a cave, and Khmer ruins. We spent two and a half days at a cute little guest house on the outskirts of Phetchaburi, enjoying the fresh air and seeing the highlights.

On our first afternoon, we took a tuk tuk to explore some of the closer sights, Wat Khoi and Wat Phranon.¬†Wat Phranon has a huge reclining Buddha; at nearly twenty meters long, it is¬†one of the four largest reclining Buddhas in Thailand. In most temples, you can stand quite close to reclining Buddhas, and I¬†love the way they loom impressively over you. However, the close quarters and grandiose size makes them awfully hard to photograph. The temple also had some monkey residents, which I am never a fan of. Oliver made irked noises at the monkeys ~ smart boy. Wat Khoi was rather unique. It had some of the usual carvings and naga statues, but it also had statues of football players wearing jerseys. Along one outer wall there was a giant, silver, bas-relief mural with scenes depicting sea monsters attacking ships and eating people. Eclectic is the word I’d use to describe Wat Khoi.

The following day, we enjoyed bundling up for breakfast in the garden before setting out for the main sights. The first stop was Tham Khao Luang Cave. We climbed a paved walkway with some monkey denizens, passed through an archway, and headed down some steep stairs into the cave. The entrance was rather unassuming, so I was unprepared for how impressive the caves at the bottom were. There are two large caverns, both with rays of sunlight streaming through holes in the ceiling, and stalactites dangling overhead. The first cavern houses the main Buddha image, which is completely coated in gold and stands over four meters high. The second cavern is filled with numerous smaller Buddhas, tucked into corners or standing in rows. Many have incense, flowers, or other small offerings placed in front of them. The caves also have bats, which I love, and more monkeys. We watched one particularly cheeky monkey steal a plastic bag of loot from a tourist, who chased it back up the stairs and somehow managed to retrieve his belongings. 

The next stop was Phra Nakhon Khiri Historical Park, and its sprawling hilltop palace. The park consists of three groups of buildings: a palace, a chedi, and a temple. King Mongut had the complex built in the 19th century as a summer residence. We took a rather precarious cable car to the top of the hill, and spent a couple hours wandering about. The buildings are connected by paved footpaths that meander along, nicely shaded by flowering trees. The temperature was quite pleasant, and the architecture was lovely. My favorite building was a small, red tower that was part of the temple grouping. Pra Prang Daeng (Red Pavilion) is an intense brick red color that stood out from the usual white and gold decor. 

Our final stop of the day was Wat Kamphaeng Laeng. The temple is not particularly awe-inspiring, but it is the southernmost Khmer temple in Thailand, and the oldest building in Phetchaburi. It was constructed in the 12th century when the Khmer kingdom dominated a large portion of Southeast Asia. Four of the five main prangs of the temple are still standing, as is part of the outer wall. The contrast of the late afternoon sun against the brown sandstone of the temples was most appealing.

The following morning, I borrowed a bike from our guesthouse and made a quick¬†trip to Wat Mahatat in the center of town. We had noticed this temple the day before as its all-white prangs make it stand out from the surroundings, but Oliver had been tapped out on sightseeing.¬†The parking lot and street outside the temple were bustling, but inside the main temple I was completely alone. The tiny prayer bells that hang all over the temple were tinkling in the wind, and birds were flying about. I lingered around enjoying the peaceful ambiance until a selfie-taking quartet arrived and shattered the calm. On my bike ride back, I admired the river that flows through the center of town, and passed the location where we were told there is a thriving night market. There is always more to explore, so here’s hoping we return to Phetchaburi soon.

 

Ayutthaya Half Marathon 2017

22 Jan

One of the things I love about living in Thailand are the many opportunities for running races in awesome places at a low cost. While I was preggo, a friend recommended setting a post-baby running goal to motivate myself back into shape. The annual Ayutthaya half marathon was perfectly timed to take place almost exactly ten months after munchkin man was born. I figured ten months preggo, ten months to train, and so I optimistically registered.

Since I am a bit of a Type A, I enjoy a good schedule (bonus points if it’s color-coded). I downloaded and meticulously adhered to a Couch to 10k plan, and followed that up with my favorite half training plan. Twenty-eight weeks later… race time! The race date this year was December 10th, which is a delightful time of year in Thailand; cool season has begun and the humidity has dropped. The race begins at 5:30am, so you’re half finished before the sun even rises. A whole bunch of fun people in our Ramkhamhaeng Runners group came up to Ayutthaya to participate in the various races, but my friend Caroline and I were the only ones running the half distance.

We arrived at the race location on time, but in a series of fun events managed to miss the starting bell. We crossed the starting line thirteen minutes into the race, and headed off into the pre-dawn darkness. Caroline is one speedy lady, and she promptly took off like a gazelle, leaving me to contentedly plod along. There were occasional street lights, and helpful signs pointing out the route of the 21k, but other than that I was¬†completely alone. The beginning of races are often a big kerfuffle with herds of runners sorting themselves out, so setting out solo was a very relaxing way to begin the run. The race route leads around several of Ayutthaya’s temples, and through some residential neighborhoods. I passed an elderly gentleman runner around the 2k mark, and a monk beginning his alms rounds. I was bopping along, thoroughly enjoying myself, until I rounded a darkened corner and was confronted by a large pack of soi dogs! Suddenly I remembered why it’s nice to run with a large group of my fellow humans. I paused, the dogs paused, and then they slowly sauntered into the shadows of a nearby temple. I breathed a sigh of relief, and continued on my way. Around 4k I caught up to the race stragglers, and from there on out I was with the herd.

I was pleasantly surprised by how the race felt. Getting back into running shape after pregnancy is quite the process, a process that is ongoing even as I type. I was mentally prepared for the half marathon to feel like death (she said without a hint of drama). However, it felt great! At 11k, I realized I was halfway done, and got a huge burst of energy. I was so pepped up that I had to remind myself to slow down, as there were nearly six miles left to go. I kept up a steady pace the whole race, and finished several minutes under my 2:30 goal. I wasn’t as speedy as pre-preggo, but it was my fastest effort at a long run since the munchkin man arrived, so I was pretty proud of myself. I was so psyched that I promptly signed up for another race! Tales of my February 10k will be sure to appear. ūüôā