Hiking Chimney Tops after the Great Smoky Mountains wildfire

Our first trip back to the Great Smoky Mountains since a wildfire destroyed the condos where our family has stayed the last 30 years was bound to feel strange.  

After the fire last November that consumed 17,000 acres of the national park and 1,684 structures in Gatlinburg, I figured we’d be inhabiting a charred wasteland. For the most part, though, the strangest aspect of our whirlwind weekend was how much seemed the same.

Inside the 800-square mile park, the burned area amounts to less space, relatively speaking, than a skinned knee. And I didn’t arrive in time to join family members who visited the rubble of the Highlands, or stay long enough to make the journey myself, so I chose to remember our old accommodations and that mountainside neighborhood the way it was.

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The concrete shell of the Highlands on the mountainside overlooking Gatlinburg. 

The place we stayed this year wasn’t as nice, nor was the view as breathtaking. But the upside to staying on the edge of town was that we could walk just about anywhere we wanted to go. None of our family’s favorite dining establishments were affected by the fire, so that, at least, felt familiar.  

Because of heavy rain one of the two days I was there, there was time for only one group hike. Chimney Tops was the unanimous choice, because that trail had been closed for renovations the last couple of years.

It’s only a couple of miles long, but it’s one of the most arduous trails in our repertoire because it’s a fairly steep grade. (Among the renovations are more than 600 wooden steps in a section where mud always made the climbing that much more difficult.)

We quickly split into two groups, with my sister Traci, my oldest daughter Rowan and I falling back to stay with my brother Brent and his 4-year-old daughter, Kyla. She’d successfully tackled the trail to Grotto Falls a couple of days earlier, but her determination quickly fizzled on Chimney Tops. I carried Brent’s heavy backpack full of water and kid supplies while the other three took turns carrying Kyla.

It was slow going, and Traci couldn’t help fretting about her kids getting to the mountaintop long before we did, where they were bound to climb out on the rocks that always give the parents in our group a virtual heart attack because of the sheer drop off the other side. (I wasn’t too worried myself, as Colleen and Rowan were my only offspring on this hike, and both are terrified of heights.)

“It’s probably a good thing I’m not up there,” Traci said, reasoning that maybe she would be less nervous not seeing them in action.

They weren’t, though. The peak of Chimney Tops was where last year’s fire started, and in our excitement to hop on the trail we hadn’t noticed the sign saying the last couple hundred yards at the top is now closed – maybe for good, as it turns out.

Though the mountain itself will endure, the stability of that outcropping for human passage may no longer be feasible. So “climbing up on the rocks at the top of Chimney Tops” may become just another story from the past – a legend retold by family daredevils with more embellishment each passing year.

 

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We could see the outcropping at the summit of Chimney Tops trail, but the last couple hundred yards of the trail that leads to it is now closed – maybe permanently – thanks to the November 2016 wildfire at Great Smoky Mountains National Park. 

 

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Racing in the neutral zone

“Pro-America,” read the bumper on the car ahead of me at a traffic light one day last week. “Pro-Freedom!”

I wished I had one just like it, only with a third line at the bottom: Anti-Trump!

A T-shirt would be even better. Knowing I was going to a big race on Sunday where runners often dress in all sorts of goofy costumes, I began fantasizing about how satisfying it would be to add my own human billboard to the mix, challenging the absurd notion that rightwingers somehow “own” patriotism.

I never got around to having the T-shirt made up, primarily because I didn’t want to draw attention to my missing race bib. We’re budgeting pretty tightly since my husband got laid off, so when our youngest asked to run the River City Rat Race I paid her registration fee but decided I I’d just tag along for moral support. It was my first time running “bandit,” and I didn’t feel great about it, so even though it was hot I resisted the urge to grab a cup of water or any postrace goodies.

It was my first race of any kind this year, actually – I’m STILL dealing with plantar fasciitis – and I’d almost forgotten the simple pleasure of “running with the herd,” especially on such a gorgeous (if unseasonably warm) fall day.

In the end, I was glad I’d opted against wearing a political statement. Given how hard it is to go a single day without being reminded of this Uncivil War blasting all around us, it was almost intoxicating to be part of a moving mass of humanity and not know or care which side anyone was on.

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Colleen used to hate to run, but she really, really wanted to run the River City Rat Race.  

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The horror of eating

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Lola the ball python consumes a mouse. 

Lola didn’t mean to bite Doc Ferriss Oxide.

She’s famished, hasn’t eaten in a week, been pacing around her enclosure – or what passes for pacing when you’re a python – and on top of everything else, her eyesight’s not so good. So when the lid opens and a hand reaches in, how was she supposed to know it wasn’t dropping a befuddled mouse into her lair, but humoring a little girl’s request to watch Doc hold the snake?

There wasn’t much blood; it was just a nip. The instant Lola realized this piece of mammalian flesh was attached to a body bigger than hers, she relented.

And yet, watching Lola in action shortly afterward – hugging a Stuart Little lookalike with the force, Doc Oxide tells us, “of 10 blood pressure cuffs” – you realize that despite what people say, a ball python could most certainly kill a human. If a belt or a scarf can strangle something as vulnerable as a human neck, you think this muscular  5-footer couldn’t do the job?

Luckily, snakes – unlike my own species – rarely kill anything they don’t intend to eat.

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Doc Ferris Oxide, aka Neil Ainslie, feeds Jake the garter snake while Lola, left, and sixth-grader Owen Stein watch. 

I volunteered for this assignment.  As a trail runner, it’s counterproductive to haul a snake phobia into the woods. Photographing Stuart Little’s horror is like a front-row seat to the live production of my childhood nightmares. This particular photo, in fact, proved too graphic for the hometown paper, which opted to run this  more conventional shot instead.

Once Stuart’s head vanished and only his feet were sticking out, though, I found myself viewing the scene from Lola’s perspective. Without taste buds, does a snake ever get to experience the joy of eating?  

I suppose Lola is used to nudging her meal into her mouth without the benefit of hands. But what an inconvenience!

Does she ever worry about some critter getting stuck in her throat?  

On this point, at last, I find common ground, recalling the time a burned bit of veggie burger crumble lodged in my windpipe.

Nobody was home but the dog, who watched with curiosity and apparent pity as I tried, unsuccessfully, to dislodge the speck sealing off my oxygen supply.

As the seconds ticked past, I contemplated my options. Dial 911? There was no way an ambulance would arrive in time. Were the neighbors home? Would they answer the door? We weren’t great friends. In their place, I might pretend I simply hadn’t heard.  

Time was running out. I sank to the floor next to Buddy, realizing this might be it: I’d never see Bob or the kids again. Such a stupid, pointless way to go. And yet instead of rage I felt increasingly calm. Resigned to my fate.

And then suddenly, inexplicably, the seal was broken. Air!

Apparently I’d relaxed enough for my throat muscles to stop constricting … or something. I guess I’ll never know exactly what happened. For quite a while after that I was a much more careful eater, obsessed with patience and gratitude, though eventually, of course, I returned to my hoggish ways. It’s my nature.

Watching Lola eat, repulsive as it was, ultimately helped me view her as less of a monster. She can’t help being a carnivore. That doesn’t mean I liked being near her: As a mammal, I can’t help feeling nervous around a creature capable of viewing me – even inadvertently – as prey.

Luckily, I’m not likely to encounter the likes of Lola running trails in northeastern Indiana. (Though it could happen – I have a hard time forgetting the time some idiot dumped half a dozen ball pythons about 10 miles south of here a couple of years ago.)  

The snakes I do see, much more frequently than I’d care to, are more like Jake, the little garter snake in the enclosure next to Lola’s at the Upper Wabash Conservation and Science Center in Bluffton.

In a way, he’s a much more disgusting eater than Lola is. The day I visited, Jake was gulping down creatures that were still very much alive – though I can’t say I felt as sorry for the doomed worms as I did for the mouse.

Compared with Lola, Jake seemed about as dangerous as a tube-shaped toad. Note to self: Remember that the next time I go for a run in the woods.

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Jack the snake eating dinner at the Upper Wabash Conservation and Science Center in Bluffton, Ind. 

 

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Reeling in the years

The exercise I logged this weekend was hard to quantify: Without a FitBit, I had no real way of knowing how many miles I walked after parking the car on Friday night and using only my feet for transportation as my husband and I explored our old stomping grounds at Indiana University with some of the best friends I’ve ever had — one of whom I hadn’t seen in 30 years.

We got drenched in sweat and rain. Though the only time I broke into a run was a futile attempt to escape a downpour, I was on a nonstop runner’s high all weekend.

Nobody could have predicted the strangeness of the occasion: Saturday was both the 150th anniversary of the Indiana Daily Student and the last day of print publication for Bob and I’s former primary employer, The News-Sentinel in Fort Wayne.

We had to sneak past construction barriers to get a photo in front of Ernie Pyle Hall, home of the former School of Journalism, which is being converted into a Campus Welcome Center. The official “celebration” was at Franklin Hall, home of the glitzy new Media School funded in part by IU grad Mark Cuban. It’s a technological marvel, with the fastest computers on campus in its virtual reality lab. The future of journalism is waiting to be discovered there, though nobody knows exactly what that might look like.

Given all the uncertainty in the air, it was hard to know what to feel as I signed Ernie Pyle’s desk, a ritual for the outgoing editor-in-chief ever since the Pulitzer-prize winning correspondent’s death in World War II.

Somehow there was a period in the 1980s when this ritual was forgotten, and so a handful of us former editors whose signatures were missing were asked to sign retroactively on Saturday. At a time when I most often sign my name on a screen, applying Sharpie to such a hallowed wooden structure gave me a little shiver.  

Will anyone still be signing Ernie Pyle’s desk 150 years from now? That’s hard to picture, and not just because there isn’t much space left on the drawer designated for that purpose.

But at breakfast on Sunday, an old friend who now works for the university told us how they handled the sad realization that the expansion of the School of Business required the removal of a tree planted by the late legendary chancellor Herman B Wells. Jenny told us the school took starts from that tree and planted 500 new ones.

It’s not the same. But maybe it’s better.

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Signing Ernie Pyle’s desk with my old friend Kate McKenna, whom I saw for the first time in 30 years over the weekend. (That’s what happens when you live nearly 900 miles apart and raise seven kids between you.) It was amazing how we were able to pick up right were we left off. From now on, we’re going to get together once a year. 

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1 tiny change that’s made a big difference

“Writing is harder on my body than running is. I’m relaxed when I run. But when I write, I tend to hunch over my laptop, unconsciously flex certain random muscles, just basically distort my body into cramped, unnatural positions. Lately, I find myself hobbling when I get up from the computer…”

— Scribblings in a notebook from earlier this summer

Underneath the above fragment, written in all caps and underlined, was this admonishment: MUST GET TO YOGA CLASS!

I did, briefly, before deciding to try “30 Days of Yoga” at home instead. Not surprisingly, that didn’t work out as planned. I didn’t get in a full yoga session every day. But I did start incorporating a couple of basic poses into my everyday routine. Weirdly, the primary pose that I now do every single day is the one thing I most detested in class. And that, apparently, is what’s responsible for an amazing turnaround in my flexibility.

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Looks easy when other people do it, but it wasn’t for me.

It wasn’t just that it hurt my incredibly tight hip flexors to sit cross-legged. I simply could not force my legs into that position. In class, I’d have to sit on a block to get anywhere close. Most of the time, I didn’t even try.

I needed a distraction, and the obvious answer was the very thing that was causing my problem in the first place: My laptop.

Now when I start writing every morning, I sit on the floor with my back against the sofa. I force myself to get in cross-legged, or as close as I can get. It still hurts to do this. But I breathe into the tightness, focus on a particular thing I want to write about, and stay in that position as long as I can. Sometimes if I get really absorbed in my writing I can stay there up to 20 minutes or so.

I can’t really remember when I first realized I was no longer hobbling when I got up from the computer every morning. It was a pretty gradual thing. But the biggest eye opener came over the weekend, when Colleen asked me to go hit some tennis balls with her.

The last time we did this was probably July or August, and I definitely remember feeling like Frankenstein on the court. It’s like my 52-year-old muscles were so used to running in only one direction – straight ahead – that they’d forgotten how to make quick lunges off to the side. I felt like I needed an oil can and maybe some steel wool to knock the rust off.

On Saturday it was like I was a different person, moving around the court and actually having fun rather than just dutifully and painfully humoring my kid. It’s astonishing to me that simply sitting for a few minutes in cross-legged position every morning has made this big of a difference, but there’s no other explanation I can come up with.

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Leading the weigh

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Debbie Powers, left, lost 100 pounds to make her high school’s pom-pom squad  after her aunt, Frances Milan, right, took her to Weight Watchers in the 1970s. Now Powers is the longest-serving Weight Watchers leader in Fort Wayne and a healthy-eating advocate for several projects around town. Her Aunt Frances is still one of the regulars at her Sunday afternoon meeting.   

I interviewed a 34-year Weight Watchers leader for my final column to appear in the print edition of The News-Sentinel, which will roll the presses for the last time Oct. 7 before going all-digital*.

One of the things I admire about Debbie Powers is that she stresses eating healthy over a grab bag of diet tricks. One of the reasons I moved away from Weight Watchers in recent years – aside from the fact that I was sometimes going to ridiculous, wrestler-style sweat tactics to “make weight” once a month – was that I wanted to eat less sugar. Though I lost 90 pounds on the program back in 2010, I found myself inevitably saving points for this or that treat. And because some treats took up most of my daily points allotment, I wasn’t necessarily eating a very balanced diet.

But after sitting in on one of Debbie’s classes recently, I’ve found myself counting points again. Though all my dietary experiments of the last few years have helped me shift toward eating more whole foods, the reality is that I’ve often been eating too much. I’ve been trying to make peace with carrying around 10-15 extra pounds, and in my case it’s been fairly easy to rationalize because I was never normal weight to begin with. Even as a high school athlete, I was always on the chunky end of the spectrum. Maybe it’s time now, finally, to combine eating healthy with eating less.

Debbie lost 100 pounds to make her high school pom-pom squad back in the 1970s, went back to Weight Watchers as needed over the next few years, then became a leader in 1984. But she’s not just a Weight Watchers leader; she’s a healthy-eating advocate who volunteers all over the Fort Wayne community. I first met her while doing a story on the “Our HEALing Kitchen” program at New Zion Tabernacle back in January. It was awesome to witness a church supper in a mostly African-American community where people were drinking bottled water and eating fajitas made with fresh veggies.

Debbie’s message, no matter what group she’s working with, is the empowerment that accompanies good nutrition.

“If you eat healthy,” she likes to say, “you aren’t going to have all the medical bills.”

Amen to that.

*Technically there will still be a micro print edition that will be inserted in the morning Journal-Gazette, but the physical newspaper as we know it will cease to exist. (And no one expects that weird hybrid of an experiment to last very long, anyway.)

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Running therapy 101: Training your brain to spot the open door

The topic for last week’s running therapy sessions – and many more to come, I’m sure – was set on Sept. 11, when my husband lost his job and his car on the exact same day.

Neither event in itself was terribly shocking, as both the car and the newspaper were clunkers far past their prime. His Taurus is headed for the scrapyard, and The News-Sentinel is jettisoning its print edition along with nearly half of its skeleton crew.

Good thing my sister and I recently upped our mileage to include a weekly 10-miler.

The ensuing chaos waves that ripple out from a major life disruption are every bit as predictable as the smaller kind, as it turns out. So I really wasn’t even surprised to discover, driving to Saturday’s running rendezvous spot, that not only had my purse rode off to Fort Wayne in the car  I usually drive, but the gas tank on the vehicle I was appropriating from our son was on empty.

“There was a time when I would’ve just been fuming about how everything always seems to go wrong at once,” I told Traci as we headed out on the first of 15 laps around the 4-H Park.

Instead, I was grateful to have grabbed three bucks for making copies at the library afterward. While I’d have to skip the library now, it seemed incredibly lucky that I just happened to have exactly enough money to buy a gallon of gas.

Given how much air time we had to fill during that 2-hour run, I rambled on about how I’d spent most of the summer trying to train my brain to focus only on the good parts of any given day. I’d been wondering if my “positivity vision” was getting any better as a result of all this training, and one day last month I realized it had.

The evidence came when I literally tried to open a door that was unexpectedly and inconveniently closed – and found myself reacting not with frustration but curiosity, wondering which “door would open” now that my chosen path was unavailable.

It should be noted this was a disappointment of the most minor variety: I really wanted a Diet Mountain Dew to clear my foggy brain before a meeting, but the Dollar General where I’d planned to procure one was unexpectedly closed due to a cash register problem. Diet sodas being as ubiquitous as air, I felt fairly certain I’d be able to find another source even in a downtown as decrepit as Bluffton’s. And I did, and had an extremely pleasant walk I wouldn’t have had otherwise, and still made it to my meeting with a minute or two to spare.

“It’s not like that was a life-changing experience, but it felt like progress to someone who’s always had a tendency to imagine the worst-case scenario in any given situation,” I told my sister – who was no doubt looking on the bright side herself, realizing that while she was cursed with listening to me yak, at least she wasn’t the one using up all her oxygen.

In a way, this feels like being a kid who finally learns how to shoot a layup, only to discover your next game is against the Harlem Globetrotters. It’s one thing when the closed door bars access to a cold drink; it’s a whole lot scarier when the thing that’s taken away is your family’s primary paycheck.

But humans have been yakking about the fortuitous opening of that mysterious “other door” for centuries. I feel fairly confident we’ll find it eventually –  just like Traci and I found some upsides in figuring out how to adapt our running to my ongoing struggle with plantar fasciitis.

I’m taking comfort in this small omen as well: Even though I had to skip my postrun library stop, I discovered on a taxi mom errand a few hours later that the library now stays open til 2 p.m. on Saturdays.

So I got to go after all – and it was a much more productive visit, because this time I actually had my library card with me.

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P.S. Yeah, I’ve noticed the photo problem on this page. I’ll get around to dealing with it one of these days.

 

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A hike through the Great Black Swamp

Watching hurricane updates over the weekend, thankful to have our evacuated daughter back home and praying for loved ones who were riding out Irma huddled in a closet, it was weird to be simultaneously absorbed in writing about a hike through what was once known as the Great Black Swamp.

greatblackswampLike Florida, this 1,500-square-mile monster that once stretched from northeast Indiana well into Ohio was once nearly impenetrable to would-be settlers. Like Florida, the land was eventually drained and revised into something its human inhabitants found more suitable. And in both cases, few of the current residents give much thought to how dramatically different their surroundings would be if it weren’t for these major makeovers.

I read an interesting piece over the weekend arguing that Florida should never have been settled in the first place. That’s not an argument I’m going to get into, having spent some fun times in Florida as recently as a few weeks ago — in the very house where close friends/cousins Dan and Toni are maybe just now emerging from that closet. Nor would I suggest that residents of the former Great Black Swamp abandon their homes and let nature take over. But reading Ryan Schnurr’s account of hiking along the Maumee River – the former Great Black Swamp’s drainpipe into Lake Erie – was fascinating as well as eye-opening.

xInTheWatershed-1-450x651.jpg.pagespeed.ic.k51UBTMlaTGrowing up here on the edge of Limberlost territory, not too far from Hoosier naturalist and author Gene Stratton-Porter’s home, I figured the Great Black Swamp was just another name for the same place – the term used on the other side of the Indiana-Ohio border. But it turns out they’re in two different watersheds. Flush your toilet in Limberlost territory, and that water’s headed for the Gulf of Mexico, via the Wabash and then the Mississippi rivers.

A watershed isn’t something most of us think about. But in his meditations on the history, geology and biology of the current land he was exploring all over again along the Maumee, he found himself dwelling on all the ways these layers of meaning intersect. I find myself looking at not only the land, but at parts of my own life, in new ways, using lenses I wasn’t previously equipped with.

Talking to Schnurr last week, I kept thinking about how in my family there are two schools of thought when it comes to hiking: Those who like to conquer a trail, and those who like to experience it. I’m probably more philosophically suited to the latter, but since losing weight seven years ago I’m more often in the group that’s zipping on ahead, trying to get to the finish line.

Thank goodness for people like Schnurr, who take their time and try to understand what they’re seeing when they go for a walk – casting light the rest of us can use to better perceive our surroundings as well.  

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Ryan Schnurr on his journey along the Maumee River. (Courtesy pic). 

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Rowan’s ‘mermaid’ smoothie

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This is Colleen. My big sister Rowan got to come home this weekend! She was showing me a picture of this amazing-looking Mermaid protein smoothie she made last week. Isn’t it pretty?

The ingredients, except for the star fruit, dragon fruit and blueberries on top (“to make it pretty for Instagram”), are banana, ice, almond milk and spirulina, which is some kind of seaweed “superfood,” That’s why it’s called a Mermaid smoothie, get it? 

Me being a science nerd, naturally I had to find out more about this mysterious green powder.  (Rowan got hers off Amazon. It’s pretty expensive, though, like around $20.)

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This is the kind Rowan got. It’s grown in California. 

It turns out that it is a kind of blue-green algae that is super-high in protein, iron, calcium and B vitamins. It contains a powerful antioxidant called gamma linolenic acid (GLA), which is hard to find in foods. It’s also high in chlorophyll, which is apparently good at flushing heavy metals from your body. 

Rowan said the spirulina “smells bad but it doesn’t taste too bad.” And so now Mom is of course investigating. (She always gripes at me for not eating enough veggies.)

I highly doubt our Mermaid smoothies will look as pretty as Rowan’s, though.

 

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A real-life lesson in why hydrating with caffeine is a dumb idea

On a run last week I was exploring with my sister whether donating plasma is a creepy or reasonable thing to try, given that I’d come across a coupon purporting to pay $300 over five visits.

Even allowing two hours for the first session, where you undergo a physical, that works out to around $50 an hour.

As a journalist I do a lot of research, but I was interested in Traci’s gut feeling as a health care professional. “Think that’s a bad idea?” I asked.

“No,” she said, “it’s actually a good thing to do,” noting that plasma is a much-needed resource.

We weren’t planning to run the next day so I decided to try it then, figuring that would give me plenty of time to rehydrate beforehand and recover before our next run.

Consumed as I was with whether this was a good move for me, it never crossed my mind that I might not be good enough for them. Not finding easy enough access to the prerequisite number of veins, the nice guy in scrubs told me I could try again in a month – but to make sure that next time I drank more water beforehand.

“But I had like 96 ounces of fluids the day before!” I whined to my sister.

Knowing me all too well, she asked: “So how much of that was coffee?”

Well … I probably had at least as much coffee as water. And then there was that 48 ounces of Diet Mountain Dew I guzzled after Tuesday’s run. Stupidly, I thought I might drink more if I was drinking something with, you know, flavor.

 

“Well, there ya go,” she said, rolling her eyes like I was dumber than a box of rocks, which is a look she’s been giving me ever since she was 3 and I was 11. “Caffeine dehydrates you. However much caffeine you take in, you need to drink twice that much water.”

 

Well, that would explain the weird sensation of feeling like my stomach was so full of liquid I thought I might bust, yet feeling like I was still kinda thirsty.  Suddenly I did feel like a world-class idiot. I guess I did know that caffeine had at least a mild diuretic effect, but that factoid was so deeply buried in the clutter of my mind that I hadn’t factored it into the equation of a busy day. Or maybe it’s just part of an ingrained bias delusion; for somebody who considers herself a health writer, I drink a ridiculous amount of coffee. (Some days that’s about all I drink, though I’ve been trying to work on that.)

Could I really have been a bit dehydrated after drinking so much fluid? It’s not like Traci conspired with the folks at Biolife to teach me a lesson. But some of the studies I looked up suggested maybe it wasn’t quite that simple.

“Several studies have challenged the assertion that caffeine could contribute to a severe fluid deficit,” wrote the researchers in a 2015 meta-analysis of 78 studies reported in The Journal of Science and Medicine in Sport

Interestingly, however, the researchers discovered that females were nearly six times more susceptible to the diuretic effects of caffeine – a finding which they attributed to differences in how caffeine is metabolized.

So yeah, I’m definitely going to be drinking more water and less coffee from here on out. Regardless of how appealing that makes my veins look to a lab tech, I’m hoping that will pay off during our runs – where it just so happens that I’m always the one who’s thirsty first.

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