We took our first vacation in 6 years in May. Part of the reason why it wasn’t a priority before was that the two week-long beach trips we took years ago nearly killed me. Having to care for small children away from home is a giant pain in the ass. Home is where all of the things are they are used to. Getting them used to naptime and bedtime and meal time in a strange place makes no vacation relaxing.

But I noticed in May that even with older children, if you’re the primary caregiver, vacations are still exhausting. I still had to do laundry halfway through our trip, I still monitored meal time and food needs for 3 of the 5 people. I packed snacks everywhere we went and tried to organize schedules so everyone got to do what they wanted. I got up stupid early to take advantage of early park hours just so I didn’t make everyone else suffer through my need to photograph every inch of Diagon Alley and Hogsmeade and so I could practice my spells without people being bored.

My vacation was still very much about caring for the family. I did all of the packing for Nikki and Wes, I loaded up the car for the trip and drove halfway. On the day we left I packed everything into the van myself and then when we got home I did all of the laundry from the trip.

Vacations are damn exhausting.

But today? I leave for a real vacation. I leave tonight and come back late Monday night. 5 days of worrying about ONLY myself. No one else will be depending on me for clean clothes or meals. I won’t have to clean the kitty litter twice a day or wash dishes. I won’t have to pack lunches or cook dinners. I won’t have to worry about bed times or leg cramps or nightmares. It’s me and only me for FIVE DAYS. I can wake up and run and not worry about whether or not Donnie has a workout first.

My brother and his wife are flying me to Denver as a birthday gift. They’re flying my Mom out too and we’re all spending the weekend in Breckenridge. I get to see my one nephew that I haven’t seen in over a year (I think? I’m pretty sure it’s been since they came for my 50-miler.) and I haven’t seen my SECOND nephew yet! He was born in January so I haven’t met him yet. I AM SO EXCITED.

Of course there’s still the Primary Caregiver stuff I have to do before I leave. Make sure all the laundry is done. Make sure the house is clean enough that it can be picked up for a showing. Make sure there’s groceries and pet food and kitty litter. Make sure Donnie knows schedules and obligations while I’m gone.

But once I’m on that plane? It’s all him. And all I have to do is make my nephews love me in 5 days. (The baby should be easy to win over, I’ll have to bribe my older nephew with ice cream and candy when his parents aren’t looking.) (Just kidding, Guys!)

I might blog from there, but I’m not sure how the internet availability will be. I’ll definitely be posting pictures of mountains on Instagram. I’m actually doing a 10K on the Fourth in Breckenridge which should be interesting. I ran in Denver when I visited several years ago and it was terrible because they have this weird situation where THERE IS NOT ENOUGH OXYGEN TO RUN. Luckily the ONLY time limit is that I have like an hour and a half to get to the aid station at mile 2.8. Even with no oxygen, I think I can swing that.

See you in the mountains!

“Fake Parachute Pants” Is Going To Be The Name Of My Memoir

I had something going on every night this week. And y’all? I am NOT a night person. If you want to meet me for breakfast or for a run at 5am – I am ALL over that. But an evening workout or dinner and a play? I’m the WORST. Luckily my workouts were with people who knew me well and my social outing with someone I could relax around so this week it wasn’t so bad being out “late”.

(I had to put that in quotes because I was still home by 9:30 every night. SOOOO LATE FOR ME.)

That meant I had no time after work or dinner to do the domestic chores like dishes or laundry so I’ve been doing all of that in the morning which has been TOTALLY CRAMPING INTO MY BLOG TIME. Luckily, this week is an anomaly because if I really went that long regularly without blogging I’d have to start paying a therapist.

The play I saw last night was called “Love, Loss, and What I Wore” and it was written by Nora Ephron and performed by a couple of my friends. Y’all? I LOVED IT. If you are local, you have two chances to see it, if you’re not local keep it bookmarked in your mind in case it pops up in your community. Basically it’s storytelling around clothing and it got me thinking of all of the memories I have associated with an item of clothing. Or an outfit. I walked out of there thinking of NO LESS that 20 stories I’ve probably never told on this blog, all surrounding clothing.

SO! Today? You get the one about the Michael Jackson concert.

My Mom worked for a charity services group when I was little. When the Michael Jackson Thriller tour came to town, the charity (which helped children) was given tickets and they had more tickets than kids so my Mom took me. I WAS SO EXCITED. But I had nothing to wear. So, my Dad took me to Hills which was a discount store that had clothing (In my memory it was like the Wal-Marts of today, but it may have been even cheeper) and we found a pair of fake parachute pants. I say “fake” because parachute pants had a specific fabric to them and these? These were more like plastic cargo pants.

BUT STILL! Close enough. They were maroon and I wore them with a white top with stripes that totally didn’t match but my pickins’ were slim and I was just excited I had something close to cool.

Except they were essentially plastic. And we were going to a hot arena for a crowded concert.

And they melted. ON ME. There was a non-plastic lining to the pants, THANK GOD, but the plastic outer layer? Melted around the ass area. I never wore them again.

The concert was amazing, I could barely see Michael Jackson and it was before the days of multiple Jumbotron Screens so I felt a little short-changed. Like, Why do they sell tickets here if we can’t see them? But it was still my first concert and my first melted clothing.

It happens to everyone at least once, right?

At least everyone who buys their clothes at Hills.

Split Timing at Mile 5

Turning My Kids Into Future Race Directors

Yesterday was my first day “off” in a whole week! My first rest day! I did 9 workouts in 7 days and then didn’t do SHIT yesterday and it felt great! What did NOT feel great was the incredible amount of binging I did as I was just so damn tired and when I’m tired all I can think to do is eat. So, you know, Yay! for consistent workouts! But Boo! for eating my weight in french fries!

Our town has a big race every Memorial Day. It’s the Cotton Row 10K. There’s a 5K and a 1-mile fun run too, but the big event is the 10K as it’s been running for 30+ years and it involves this fantastic hill that is so steep the road has actually been graded (grated?) to provide better traction for cars. It’s basically 3 miles uphill, and then 3 miles downhill. I was trying to do it in sub-56 minutes for several years (bake in the day they only gave out participation items if you did it under 56 minutes) and finally met that goal last year so this year I decided to finally give back to the event and volunteer. Nikki and I worked packet pickup (which we do for a lot of races, she loves packet pickup) on Sunday and then we all sat at the 5-mile mark yesterday calling out split times for runners. It was pretty great and it always makes me feel good to get my kids out volunteering at races because I want them to understand how many people it takes to get these races going. If you’ve ever run a local event but haven’t volunteered, try to find a way to do that, it will be eye-opening.

Packet Pickup on Sunday

Packet Pickup on Sunday

Split Timing at Mile 5

Split Timing at Mile 5

Split Timing at Mile 5

Split Timing at Mile 5

We have two ways to be “in the loop” for volunteer opportunities in our community. One is our Huntsville Track Club. It’s very cheap and I’m a member and some of the opportunities come from emails with them. BUT – most of the requests for volunteers pop up in a Facebook Group a local person started years ago: We Run Huntsville. It’s a “closed” group, but he lets anyone who is a real human join. It’s actually a pretty great resource all around for group runs and advice seeking, but that’s where I see people post requests and online signups for volunteer opportunities. I tell the kids that I like to volunteer more times per year than races I actually participate in so that, in some way, I’m balancing things out on the side of me giving back more than I take.

Nikki LOVES to volunteer. She just loves feeling like a grown-up and being a part of a big group trying to accomplish something. She actually cried a few weeks ago because Wes and I were going to volunteer at a race and she couldn’t help because she had a soccer game. I can’t tell if Wes actually likes it or not, he usually just plays on his DS but at least he shows up and knows there are people involved with these events that do it just because they want to help. We’ll see if he becomes more involved as he gets older.

I don’t do a lot of volunteering at the kid’s school. I tried this year but failed miserably and have probably been put on “banned” lists at this school for the rest of my life. BUT! I do a lot of volunteering at our local running/triathlon events so I’m hoping – in the big picture – that helps things balance out.

Do you have any events through school/work/church at which your kids can help out? Do you find that maybe one of your kids like it more than others? I never really got E out doing that kind of stuff but I’m really hoping Wes eventually enjoys it like Nikki does. I don’t want that kind of thing to feel like an obligation, but I do want him to give back since he participates in local events too!


The Hidden Secrets of Diagon Alley and Hogsmeade

I didn’t do a lot of research on our trip because I started seeing too many detailed photos and didn’t want the entire experience spoiled for me, but I did do some which meant we were able to find some of the secrets of the parks. We also had a charming family, I guess, because we had wizarding assistants helping us quite often and sometimes they told us things we might not have known if we hadn’t researched it ourselves. So! Here are some of the things we discovered while we were there.

First, You need a Wand

I think Ollivander’s at Diagon Alley is a little more like the movie, but we got our wands in Hogsmeade Ollivander’s. You need to go do the 7 minute “demonstration” show first because it’s really cute. If you have kids, go early and make them wear their robes. Chances are they’ll get chosen for then demo. NOW – they don’t get the wands for free, of course, but my kids both felt really honored and those are the wands they picked out. There are 14 “Ollivander Originals” and the shop in Diagon Alley has little plaques on the wall explaining each of those. But then you can choose character wands. I chose Luna’s. The gold labels are the interactive wands and they’re $45 but totally worth it if you’re going to be there for a few days. Regular wands that aren’t interactive aren’t much cheaper so might as well get the ones that do magic. If you’re only going to be there for one day? It might not feel worth it, but by the time the trip was over we had all had fun with all of the spells in both parks. It takes awhile to get the hang of it and we really enjoyed the early morning hours to practice/play without lines and crowds at each spell.

Find the sensor

There are black camera looking things at all of the spell locations and those are the sensors. You can’t always find them, but if you do, it gives you a place to kinda “aim” and you know when the red lights around it blink that you’ve done the spell right. Some of the window displays (like the plant shop) have so much going on and moving around, it’s not always obvious what your spell is supposed to do. You don’t need the spell map because there are gold plaques on the ground at each spell so you’ll know where to stand and those plaques show you the wand motion you’re supposed to do.



BUT! Take your map to Knockturn Alley

You do want your spell map in Knockturn Alley. And you want to stand with it under one of the blacklights. That’s all I’ll say so you don’t get spoiled!

While you’re in Knockturn Alley…

There is one big spell location in the middle of Knockturn Alley, right outside Borgin and Burkes. You point your wand at the sensor and there’s a giant skeleton on a screen that will start doing what you’re doing. It was the kid’s favorite spell spot of both parks. There are 5 spells in Knockturn Alley and I think they were all “easiest” because – evidently – bright sun can affect the sensors and it’s always dark in Knockturn Alley.

Also – go to Borgin and Bourkes and go stand by the vanishing cabinet in the back corner. You’ll hear the canary that Draco used to try to get the cabinets working in the 6th book/movie. Also – look out for the great moving WARNING! posters and fun ads around Knockturn on the walls. There’s a lot to see there even though it’s dark. Also, the shopkeepers in Borgin and Burkes stayed in the character of evil wizards.


Speaking of Shopkeepers

All of the employees stay in character and there are great ways to take advantage of that. If you or your kids buy stuffed magical beasts and carry them or their wands through King’s Cross, the employees will all act bewildered by the “sticks” and the “weird animals”. Wesley carried around Buckbeak and all of the attendant’s at King’s Cross (because you’re in London at that point) were all, “What is that?” It was cute.

Knight Bus

Outside of King’s Cross you can go see the Knight Bus and talk to the conductor. He stays in character as does Dre Head hanging in the window. Dre Head will talk to you for REAL. Like, he told me he loved my naturally curly hair! Make sure you talk to them as much as possible because they’re fun. The conductor told the kids not to use their magic in London. It was cute.


Hidden Spells

In Diagon Alley there are TWO hidden spells currently. It seems like there might have been three at some point but we made sure to ask several employees and there are only two now. They’re not on your map. One is in the window of the Scribbulus Writing Implements, the window to the right. There’s a mapped spell on the left window, but the right just point your wand at the book and do a triangle motion. (You’ll see the sensor.) What happens next happens in (evidently) 14 different ways so you can stand there for awhile and do it over and over again. Makes you look really cool too because there’s no stamp on the ground so it’s like you’re really magic! The second location is in the window of Mr. Mulpepper’s Apothecary. Point your wand at the pile of poop and do the same triangle motion. That one is not as obvious visually but you’ll feel the wind coming out of the window as you do it.

Goblins of Gringotts

Go to the Gringotts Money Exchange and ask the Goblin questions. We asked him if there was a dragon in Gringotts and he answered perfectly. You have to be loud and clear. He also asked us follow-up questions and was impressed we knew the answers. This was all super impressive since he’s animatronic, not a human in a costume. Also – if you want a great reaction, ask him (clearly), “ARE YOU A HOUSE ELF?!?!” Let’s just say he does NOT like that question.

Ride the Forbidden Journey

There are so many wonderful treasures to see in the line going to Forbidden Journey that you have to ride it. You’ll see so many things from Hogwarts like the entrance to Gryffindor Tower and the statue with the humpback that the characters use to sneak into Hogsmeade. There’s also great interaction between portraits and scenes with Dumbledore and the Trio that will give you a type of “backstory” to the ride. When you get to the actual ride, ask the staff if they’re legs get tired walking on the treadmill all day. They stay in character to answer. If you’re motion sensitive (it’s one of those “simulator” rides) then keep your eyes closed during the “screen” parts – that’s what I did. But then non-screen parts didn’t bother me and you get to see the whomping willow and Aragog. As long as I closed my eyes the second we got to the screen, I was fine. The visuals of the screens is what screwed with me.


Ride Escape from Gringotts

This ride is the same with with the screen but it’s harder to ignore. I only rode that one once because the lines were AWFUL for that one. And the majority of it was the screen scenes so I kept my eyes peaked a little to see what was going on so it made me queazy. This one is interesting though because you’re basically Bill’s guest of the bank DURING the robbery scene of the 7th movie. There are TWO Bellatrixes – the real one (with Voldemort) and then Hermione with the trio trying to steal the goblet. It’s fun. Glad I did it, but only did it once!

The Shows

There are two shows at each location and try to see them both. They’re short but fun. It seems like there are variations to them but in Diagon Alley there Celestina Warbeck and a great puppet show performing stories from the Beedle and the Bard. In Hogsmeade you have the Tri-Wizard pep rally AND the frog choir which was my favorite!

The Food/Drink

The food is stupid expensive like with the entire park, BUT, I thought it looked way better. Most of the other park you’re talking pizza and hamburgers but both at 3 Broomsticks and Leaky Cauldron you could get meals that felt more like they were fresh and unique. Also a quicker way to get Frozen Butterbeer as those lines get REALLY long in the heat of they day. If you don’t like regular Butterbeer, give the frozen stuff a try. We all loved it. Also – notice there are NO sodas in either place. They really try to keep the “feeling” of the magical world completely different from the rest of the parks.

This photo has nothing to do with the app, just adding other photos where I can because I have so many!

The Magical Things That Improved Our Universal Trip

So much for a daily play-by-play! I can not believe how busy last week was. I did find time every day to do a small photo dump to Instagram, but I never checked my email, blogged, or did any other maintenance of my digital life which means today is going to be FAN-FREAKIN-TASTIC! 900 emails, here I come!

I think I’ll need to break down our trip into several blog posts so I’m really sorry to those of you who couldn’t give two flying craps about our trip. Hopefully by next week I’ll have it all out of my system if you just want to stay away another 7 days. But! If you’re curious about it or thinking about making your own similar trip (even to Disney, a lot of this would relate to that as well), you’ll love these next 7 days!

I’m going to start by telling you some of the things that “made” the trip, or at least made it significantly easier/better. Some of the things we planned, some we didn’t and just lucked upon. Also? I may add random photos throughout just to show them off since I can’t provide perfect context for everything. Like this great photo!


The Hotel: Cabana Bay


We decided early on to stay on site as many of you told us that and it was the best advice. It allowed us to get a package deal which, overall, definitely made the cost of the on-site hotel a lot less different that just comparing it’s per night to the cost of another per night elsewhere. But it gave us access to the shuttles to get us to/from and this turned out to be KEY because it allowed us to go early, take a mid-day break, and return again later. The days we did this we were able to miss the peak line times. If we had been in our own car and staying in a hotel a little further away, this would have been a headache and we would have just been stuck there all day. But this hotel also gave us that hour-early entrance to Hogsmeade and this was my FAVORITE part of the trip. That hour early meant we could A) Practice our spells without long lines or crowds at each spot, B) Ride the rides we loved without any wait, C) Get tons of pictures without crowds in them and D) Get on the earliest train over to Diagon Alley to be there when it opened to enjoy the same low-crowd benefits there.

But – on top of all of the conveniences it offered – the hotel itself was great. We had a suite which we really needed with 3 adults and 2 kids. There were two great pools, one with a water slide and one with a lazy river and EVERY NIGHT they showed movies by the pool. This turned out to be the perfect end to every day, letting the kids swim and watch part of a movie (we never finished them) while we swam some nights, and other nights just got took a beer (from our own fridge) in a plastic cup out to the pool to relax at the end of the day. If we go back again (our dream would be to go back again in 3 years) we’ll stay in the same place, we loved it.

The App

We would have not had as easy of a time planning moment to moment without the Universal Studios App. It was GREAT. It showed you wait times that were pretty accurate, show times, and gave you walking directions WITH PHOTOS to get from any point. My favorite thing was that you could make a restaurant or a show or a ride a “favorite” and then look at those all at once. After day 03 I made a list of favorites of all of the things everyone wanted to make sure they did the last few days and we just pulled up that list constantly to see what wait times were the shortest etc. I highly recommend the App!

This photo has nothing to do with the app, just adding other photos where I can because I have so many!

The Battery Pack

However, make sure you tell your phone to only keep the location services going when you’re using the app, and then make sure the close the app every time you’re done with it because it drains the HELL out of your iPhone battery. I was already draining batteries quickly with the constant taking of photos, so I had to really watch the app. But this is why I’m so grateful I had the battery pack I bought for Donnie’s Ironman in September. This is the one we used and it charges two phones at once. I carry it in a kind “hard” pencil pouch that I found during school supply season for $1. It’s not a box, but it’s not a bag, it provides some protection but isn’t too heavy. It’s big enough that you could even plug in the phone to charge and put it back in the container for awhile. Donnie and I would have been in trouble every day without that charging pack.


The Wand Bag


Wesley took this photo outside of the Leaky Cauldron and you’ll notice I’m carrying two bags. I planned this, but it turned out to be perfect for reasons I didn’t predict. I knew I wanted to carry my purse because it’s quick/easy access to my Nikon and my wallet and it has zipper pouches where I was able to keep things like the kids tickets at quick grab. (You have to have the tickets to get between the parks using the Hogwarts Express.) But the bag slung over my back, I mainly carried that for the battery pack. That battery pack wouldn’t fit in my purse with everything else, so I decided to bring this bag too. I stopped carrying that bag a long time ago because it’s not really easy access. It hangs over your packs so you basically have to take it off to get stuff out of it because the zippers are at a slant and if you try to do it while wearing it, stuff falls out. BUT! It would be perfect for the battery pack and I could just wear it and not think about it.


You can see it a little better in this picture. But you know what it turned out to be perfect for? FIVE WANDS. You really only wanted/needed your wands in the HP parts of both parks, but throwing them in a backpack or a purse might cause them to get damaged. The tips are sensitive (although we took two to Olivander’s for “repair” and they “repair” them at no cost/trouble) so you don’t really want them getting slammed around too much. I was so grateful for that bag after we bought our wands! It was the perfect size and kept the wands safe and easy to retrieve when the need arose.


Universal gives you these flimsy tickets to use for every day of your trip and I knew on day 01 that they’d be worse for the wear by the end of the 7 days. So, Donnie and I bought lanyards to carry those and our room keys in because you have to have your room key for early access to Hogsmeade. I kept the kids stuff in my purse because it wouldn’t all fit in the lanyard, but for the most part, those lanyards made things much easier. You obviously wouldn’t have to buy them there, but I thought it was a great souvenir.


You can see us both wearing them here, on the Hogwarts Express. He got Spiderman, I got Ravenclaw. Nikki ended up using her souvenir money to buy a Ravenclaw one too, but I only let her keep her souvenir gift card in there and her room key, those admission tickets were so flimsy and IMPORTANT I wanted to keep them on me at all times!

Souvenir Gift Cards

We gave the kids their souvenir money on Universal Gift Cards and didn’t give it to them until day 03. This way they were in charge of spending, keeping up with the money. And if it seemed like an impulse buy we thought they’d regret, we’d step in. We did that with Wes who insisted that he was DYING for this little Universal Studios Waist Bag – made him wait a whole day – and he still bought it and it’s his favorite thing from the trip! They both picked out an assortment of things from different places in the parks. The cards were perfect because it wasn’t cash, but it still kept them in budget without us having to think about it.


That’s a good round-up of the things we did that made the trip a lot better in ways we might or might not have anticipated. I’ll do more round-ups throughout the week of things you don’t want to miss in the Wizarding Worlds (the secret treasures, so to speak) and hidden costs you don’t expect. I hope this isn’t too boring for most of you!

Now! To the grindstone!