New York

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July 2, 2013

Two days later I’d rolled down from West Hartford to New Canaan, Connecticut to stay with my friends Laura and Kevin. I hadn’t seen them in years and showing up at their house that warm day as Laura greeted me with toddler in tow brought me so much joy. Laura showed me around the charming, wealthy town of New Canaan with the understanding of both a resident and a tourist. We poked around the shops selling Lilly Pulitzer dresses and sweaters printed with anchors and whales. We ate lunch in a charming sidewalk café as she greeted her Pilates clients passing by. We finished the day playing with her daughter on the living room floor. We also talked about all the places to visit in New England. I was filled with the exuberance of travel that comes a couple days into a vacation. Laura also helped me plan my first “border crossing” of 5K in 50 states.

Having already run in the state of Connecticut, I’d planned my run while staying in New Canaan to be in New York State since I could cross the border in under 30 minutes. Laura recommended nearby Pound Ridge State Park and in under two hours I had driven to, from, and run in another state. It was a quiet park with lush, green trees, a pond and a bit of construction nearby. Pairing the construction with the continued humidity, the run wasn’t as peaceful as I’d hoped, but it was thoughtful. I reflected on the fact that just by staying in nearby New Canaan I was able to “do New York.” I thought about how different New York would have been if it had been the New York City Marathon I’d planned to run over a year before. I thought about how even though it was hot and sticky this New York run was comparably so much easier than a marathon. I reflected on how lucky I was to run Santa Barbara with friends and to be in the great state of New York today, ending the run at my trusted Chevy Impala rental, and, in a mere 30 minutes, my friends’ home. In a way I’d come so far to run New York. In another it was just across the state line.

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Connecticut

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June 30, 2013

Connecticut is where things get interesting. Connecticut is the first state I ran in after I decided to run a 5K distance in all 50 states. After being inspired by Dean Karnazes’ 50 marathons in 50 states in 50 consecutive days I had crafted my own goal. I’d planned a 10 day trip to New England to see friends and run in 7 states. I’d carefully mapped out where I would stay and run, considering the time of day of the run, what I would be doing after the run, if a shower would be available and when and where I would eat. I allowed for traffic, flexibility and the surprises of travel but those 7 states were a core reason for the trip. My friends were consistently accommodating and supportive of my project.

The morning of my 34th birthday I woke up in West Hartford, Connecticut, told my friend I’d be back in a half hour and went for run. West Hartford and Connecticut in general never fail to remind me of home, either a home I’m from or one I dream of. The white colonial homes, bright green maples and rolling green lawns remind me of my childhood in Madison. The weather was also the same sticky humidity I tolerated as a young girl at tennis practice. Running through it on my 34th birthday at the start of something new brought a lovely sense of completeness. I was in a familiar yet new land, with an old, familiar friend, embarking on a project based on love of running and ambition. After the run I did my first social media post related to 5K in 50 States: “Good Morning, Connecticut!”  No photo, no hashtags, no hope of sponsorship or more than a few likes from the reliable friends. Just the location, 3.1 miles on the clock, and my quiet smile in celebration of the years that had been and those to come.

I’m writing this paragraph over two years and 16 states later after getting some shitty news, trying to reclaim that sense of hope and wonder from Connecticut. The only way I can think of is to go somewhere new and do what I love: run. Where to next?

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Florida

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March 9, 2013

In the winter of 2012-2013 after reflecting on the fall marathon and the nearly sub 2 hour half the spring before, I was in fine form to run a half in under two hours. Newly single and tackling dusty ambitions, I joined a running group for weekly speed work. Running track on Monday nights in the Seattle winter took willpower but was also a lot of fun. I met new people with all sorts of different goals. Most of them were much faster than me but some were coming back from injury and walked around the track with support from the group. There was something exciting about being zipped up in running tights, turtleneck and hat, sprinting around the track under the bright, white lights, watching my breath puff in the cold, black air. I felt part of something bigger than my personal goal. And, following the team’s formula, I actually was getting faster.

As winter pushed on, I knew that for every long run my pace had to be at or under 9:03. It was a magic number far below my conservative marathon pace of 10:45. Still, it was within my reach. That winter I also started dating a fun-loving fellow in his twenties. We stayed up late in bars discussing our liberal arts education, in his basement apartment while he played Matt & Kim’s “Daylight” on the keyboard, or in my apartment making out, listening to Spoon albums. It was an intense time of late nights, both on the track and with the guy, and early morning runs. I probably overdid it a few times. I definitely overdid it one morning on the trail when I felt myself getting sick. But I also felt invincible: I was seeing a cool guy and was closing in on a sub 2 hour half. Who cares that I was hocking up green goo on the Burke Gilman trail? I was keeping that 9:03 pace. When my date took me to the airport the morning I left for the Miami half-marathon, I was ready.

I wasn’t just running a half in Miami, but staying with my dear college-friend Jared and her husband and son. Jared and I hadn’t seen each other in twelve years but reconnected in a way that was both surprising and no surprise at all. I told her stories of the guy, my training and life in Seattle and got to know her beautiful family. We spent the first few days of the trip cruising around Miami, seeing the sights and running errands with her two-year old, stopping for “sweeties and treaties” along the way. Saturday morning of the race Jared’s husband and son kindly drove us to the start in South Beach before dawn. The clubbers were winding down and we were just getting started.

Jared and I already had an agreement that I would do what I needed to make my goal. Jared is an incredible, easy runner with a solid cross-country team base. She can pick up a pair of new shoes and, without breaking them in, be ready the next day. She has fancy running gear but can also run in T-shirts. Most incredibly, she was agreeable about matching my 9:03 pace. I know she can run both faster and slower, but for her to simply match a pace I’d been hovering around for months was impressive. When we tackled those vast, inclining bridges of Miami I was glad she was there. The adjustment to the hot Miami weather didn’t make the race any easier. It was the only race I’ve ever run when I had to think about and push my pace the entire time. To do that for almost two hours, running, is a long time to put forth that kind of extreme effort. It was a repeat cycle of effort and checking my watch for 9:03. When Jared and I approached the last two miles I knew I had to pick up the pace if I wanted to make my goal. We exchanged a few tired words as she waved me ahead.

I have never been more tired from running, not even in the marathon, because I have never pushed myself so hard. In any other race or training run I would have slowed down but this sheer exhaustion was why I was there. I had travelled to the furthest tip of the country, done speed workouts in the dark, dead of winter and stayed up late and gotten up early to run this pace. I blasted my music and pushed myself as I hard as I could. When I crossed the finish line, according to my watch, I had finished under two hours. But I needed the official results. When Jared finished not far behind we congratulated each other and indulged in the finishers’ snacks including pretzels, bananas and beer. The beer was a perfect reward to a hot run and the official race results: 1:59:46. I made it, by 14 seconds. Never had time, and such a small increment of time, made such a big difference. I thought about all the effort I put in to make those 14 seconds and what would happen if I’d been 15 seconds slower: I would be bummed. I’d have to tell my family, friends, and the guy. I’d have to train all over again. Choose another race. Pay for another race. Possibly travel to another race. But I didn’t have to do all those things because 14 seconds matter. Think of all the clusters of seconds we waste every day. Even now, we’re writing and reading, presumably not against the clock. Sometimes when I’m not being productive I think about how hard I pushed myself to keep those 14 seconds. Sometimes it pushes me to write, research, reach out, or otherwise be productive. Sometimes it just brings me a moment of quiet to know that when brought to task, I can push it to the limit.

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Arizona

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I’ll get this out of the way: Arizona is my least favorite place to run. Which is unfortunate because my parents have a house there. Theoretically, any time I need a reprieve I could jet off on a direct flight to Phoenix, settle in to their quiet, stucco house in their quiet cul-de-sac, go for a healing run in the morning and sit on the deck at twilight sipping margaritas with fresh lime. It never seems to work out exactly that way though. Yes, I both run and drink margaritas every time I visit but rather than “healing,” each run is more like a contemplative review of my parents’ health, my own health and fitness level and “what I’m doing with my life.”

If you look at a map of the Phoenix suburb Surprise, it appears fairly easy to navigate. It’s a checkerboard-like grid of roads. But within each square is a convoluted ball of yarn of cul-de-sacs named after coniferous trees, desert plants, Hawaiian Islands and Anglo-Saxon surnames with the occasional “145th St.” thrown in for good measure. Sounds simple enough to navigate? Surprise! You’re in Surprise. Most street names repeat themselves in one or more quadrants. So you may think you’re on the right track on Ocotillo Lane in one checker box when your destination is really four squares over. Or, the nemesis of runners, walkers and drivers alike, the anticipated arrival to your destination on 145th St. when it’s actually on 145th Lane. Did I mention most streets within a checker box are curved, rippling across the square ending in the quintessentially tan, stucco, one-story home or, sometimes, a large cactus with a river of gray rocks masquerading as water? None of these complaints are real problems but when it’s a sunny 60 degrees in December and your body doesn’t know how to respond to dry heat and you’re staying with your parents and you can’t walk to any incorporated business other than Bingo at Riverboat which is not at all a riverboat but a white building with two gray “smokestacks” sitting in a “river” of asphalt, you freak out a little. I inevitably end up reflecting on the last time I visited Surprise, which was usually a year prior, and what, if anything, has changed.  Had I progressed in work or personal relationships? Was I any wiser or more athletic? How’s my parents’ health? What’s with my running that I can never seem to have a good run in Arizona? Were these cul-de-sacs metaphors for my choices? Haven’t I been here before? Am I looping forward or backward? Why am I out here alone? Where is that bright spot on the horizon? How much longer? Is this the right direction? Why is it taking so long to run such a short distance? Where is home? Last time I called my mom to get directions home, which was a couple cul-de-sacs away.

I convinced myself the last trip would be different. I created a playlist called “Breaking Badass” packed with dusty, desert, driving and running hits like America’s “A Horse with No Name,” J.J. Cale’s “Any Way the Wind Blows” and Alexander’s “Truth.” I pictured my dad and me cruising the highways of Surprise like Walter White and his sidekick Jesse from Breaking Bad. Instead of carting meth, we would pack our Ford Taurus with freshly picked citrus and drive off across the rust-colored country. But, surprise! You’re in Surprise and long stretches of roads die at either very long stoplights or a winding subdivision. In the end we did get the citrus. Not with Breaking Bad panache, but we got it.

Sometimes running is a pain in the butt. It’s a convoluted snarl that, even though you’ve done it a before, is a little clunky and confusing. Sometimes you have to just pause in the tangled mess of a suburb with parking lots meant to look like water, call your mom, and ask how to get home.

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Texas

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March 2012

I went to Texas to visit my friend Kim and take in South by Southwest in Austin. But I wasn’t staying in hip, trendy Austin. I was staying with Kim thirty minutes away in San Marcos, home to The Lyndon Baines Johnson Museum. I liked staying in San Marcos. It was easy to get around by foot or car, Texas State University is a pretty campus along the San Marcos River and there were delightful shops selling cheap Mexican pastries and burritos. Most of all, I was relieved to be away from the crowds of “south by.” My stay in San Marcos meant Kim and I indulged in surrounding barbecue country and visited south by in the day and came home to quiet at night. It also meant that I woke up in that quiet town each morning and went for a run.

Those morning runs weren’t particularly ambitious: I didn’t have any navigation devices so I took it slow to be sure I didn’t get lost. I also just couldn’t seem to get past the Texas heat. On each run I contemplated what the weather reminded me of. There was a bit of desert feel like in Arizona but also something different and dewy. I ran by a willow tree dipping into the dirt with exhaustion. I’d never been to the bayou, but I imagined it was something like that willow tree.  Just beside that willow tree something happened to me that in my 20 years of running had never happened before: I got cat-called.

When I heard the yelps from the road I turned to see what they were about. In a big white truck were a couple of guys whooping and cheering. It took me a moment to process that these two individuals were, number one, yelling at me and, number two, somehow thought it was ok to yell at a runner. My reaction was less about being a female and feeling violated and more about being alarmed and frightened as a runner.

In some ways running is a very simple thing: you put on the right shoes, pick the right songs and just get into it. But there’s also something bold and declarative about the act. You’re saying: hey, world, I’m out here, on my own, moving quickly. Things maybe be juggling and jostling around and you might think my stride is strange but I’m still here. When I run I have the perspective of an omniscient narrator. I see the trees, hear the music, and feel the dirt as my senses bring stimuli into my world. I never felt, until that moment, that I was in someone else’s world.

When we run we have to slip into the world in a new way. We have to be aware and protective of ourselves. We have to understand that someone’s reaction to us may be more about them and less about us. Who knows why those guys shouted out at me. It was rude, jarring, and thought-provoking. It is also why I continue to seek out running and travelling: wondrous things happen all the time.

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Oregon

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May 20, 2012

By the time I got to Oregon for the Rock n’ Roll, I was already a runner. I had signed up for the New York marathon and knew this would be my only race beforehand. Although I didn’t have a time goal, I was in decent shape and pumped to be in the great running state of Oregon with the support of Portland running friends.

The Portland Rock n’ Roll half traverses several bridges and features bands scattered across the course. But, true to form, I was locked into my iPad waiting at the start, smiley, eager, and bopping around to Taio Cruz’s “Dynamite.” I was off like dynamite. Running in somewhat familiar territory was the perfect set up: I knew there were hills and bridges but not knowing exactly when they were coming up was the right amount of race day excitement. I ran by families sitting on their front stoops having coffee and eating breakfast, a charming vintage shop I vowed to return to when I had more time, and my friend Sarah who jetted around the city to wave and cheer at multiple points. Despite the gray, rainy weather, I was right on track. And then I saw a clock: I was way behind. How was I making (in my book) such bad time? “It must have been the hills,” I reasoned and pushed myself further. Around mile nine my time was still slower than I thought so I pushed myself even harder, up a hill, in the rain. I charged the end of the race like my legs would fall off and saw the clock: 02:12:03. I felt I had run a great race, had a fun time, waved to the kind folks of Portland, and pushed myself harder than ever but was still disappointed. I shared this with Sarah, a seasoned runner, on the dreary walk back to her apartment. She assured me that I had both done great and looked great on the course. Back at her house I showered, ate, and lay down on the fluffy comforter in her guest bedroom. Then I hopped online to check out the race results. There I was with a chip time of 2:01:24!

Chip time is the time on your racing chip attached to your shoe. Thus, your accurate race time as it picks up the times you cross the start and finish lines. The clock time or gun time is measured by the time the race started. So, if a lot of runners start ahead of you (which is the case for me) your clock time will be noticeably slower than your chip time. The ten-minute-plus difference in my time was both a surprise and explanation. I had never run an average 9:16 mile. I couldn’t believe what I had been tricked into running—and yet I could believe it because I still felt it in my legs. With affirmation of my speed and a newly found burst of energy I drove to the charming vintage shop I’d run by, bought a scarf and took myself out to lunch. Then my energy started to wane. After a long drive home to Seattle I felt worse and ended up home sick the next few days. I had pushed myself too far. But I had still done it. After the chip time/clock time lesson I could really call myself a runner. A runner who was ready to break a two-hour half marathon.

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California: Part 2

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November 10, 2012

Running for pleasure, with friends, or easy groovin’ to your favorite indie jams are all fine and good but there comes a time in a runner’s life to leap across the pavement, dominate the hills, dance around the obstacles, high-five the roadside fans, pass everybody for over two hours, and fly like a bat outta hell for 26.2 miles because it feels really, really good. For me that day was November 10, 2012.

But let’s back up. California Part 2 might have been New York Part 1 had a chain of events unfolded differently.  In March of 2012 I’d started dating someone who had recently signed up for the New York marathon. He had his own set of reasons for taking on the challenge which I respected and admired. But I was also a little jealous. Why was he going to run a marathon and I wasn’t? Moreover, why had I been running half my life and never even considered it? There was no reason why, at age 32, I shouldn’t run a marathon. So I found a training plan (Hal Higdon’s Novice 1) and got going. I wouldn’t call marathon training the easiest thing I’d ever done but it also wasn’t the hardest. With my solid running base, a relatively stress-free life, a temperate climate and the option for a run commute home, I was easily able to integrate marathon training as part of the new normal. Sure there were a couple days in the last month before the race when it was really tough to run 6 miles after running 10 the day before. Not because I was sick of running (nope, didn’t happen) but because my legs hadn’t recovered from the run prior. All in all it was a fun, vibrant time. I was also securing my entry by fundraising for the Arthritis Foundation. Friends and family from all over supported the cause and my training. I felt their support on those tougher days.

As November approached, conditions worsened in New York. Hurricane Sandy wasn’t slowing down nor was the city’s heated range of emotions on holding the marathon in the wake of loss and destruction. In the end my boyfriend and I decided to skip the race and the trip (he had already had to cancel his race registration). Shortly after, the marathon was cancelled. I know we had made the right decision but I was still left with strong, fired-up legs ready to run a marathon. Coincidentally, a ladies running group my friend belonged to was running the Santa Barbara half the weekend after New York. They’d already rented a charming hacienda and had made plans for dinners, massages, and wine tastings. Could I join? They welcomed me in. Remember the series finale of Sex and City when Harry shows Charlotte a photograph of their soon-to-be adopted Chinese baby and Charlotte says “That’s our baby. I know it. That’s really our baby”?  That’s how I felt about the Santa Barbara marathon. It wasn’t something I’d planned for but had somehow come to me. It was the race I was meant to run.

In Santa Barbara, after a day or so of wandering around Sideways country, tasting olive oils, shopping amidst the fancy ladies of SoCal and carbo-loading I was “ready to dance.” I barely slept the night before the race but who does? I’m consistently amazed by what our bodies can do on sheer adrenaline. The first two-plus hours of the race moved at a slow, warm-up pace to the sounds of Dan Savage’s “Savage Lovecast” podcast. If you know this program you know that it’s, number one, a podcast and, number two, a lengthy, detailed talk of sex and relationships: sometimes funny, sometimes depressing, sometimes both.  My podcast choice was intentional and based on the best marathon advice I’d received: treat the first half of the marathon as a warm-up; the race doesn’t begin until mile 13. When I leapt over the rubber road marker at mile 13.1 and hit play on “Eye of the Tiger,” I became someone else.

For the second 13.1 miles I listened to a wonderful, terrible mix of Ke$ha, Gaga, Rihanna, and Taio Cruz with a few hard-hitting 80s and indie rockers in for good measure. I also passed people the whole way. I achieved a negative-split, the sought after goal of running the second half of a race faster than the first. The feeling of passing people for not just one mile but thirteen got my mind in a spin. What kind of a person was I now? I felt like a combination of Sasha Fierce and Rocky Balboa: a lean beast let out of her cage. I was now a person who succeeded, who was somehow better than someone else. The girl who got into the best school, got the guy, and rose to the top of her career. The girl who wore delicate, expensive gold necklaces instead of junk jewelry from Forever 21. Or had this girl been there all along? Who could I be when presented with a clear, manageable challenge? Who would I be if that happened on a regular basis? Could I do this in aspects other than running? Sailing past the orange groves, rolling hills, and trails through the Santa Barbara suburbs I thought that maybe I could. As these questions and thoughts passed through my head I was still running. And when I planned at which mile I could refuel with sports beans I was still running. Hours passed and I was still. running. When I approached the steepest hill at mile 24 listening to Joy Formidable’s “Whirring,” wailing: “All these things about me you never can tell…” and kept running and climbing without ever experiencing “the wall,” I knew I could be that person. The last mile of the race was a blur of elation. Fellow runners cheered “you go, girl” as I passed. Charging down the final hill, I was both a part of the terrain and the sky, as though little birdies were lifting me into those blue, California skies. Listening to OneRepublic’s “Good Life” I felt that I could keep going, that an ultra-marathon (50 plus miles) was in my grasp. When I burst into the stadium at that last .2 mile I saw my friends waving and cheering with surprise at how happy and energized I looked at the end of a marathon. I did a little dance before I crossed the finish line to prove they were right.

When people ask about my marathon I tell them the truth: it was the most fun I’ve ever had. It’s the typical marathon tale of hard work paying off but also the story of surprise adventures. The lesson that the experience you’re meant to have is not always the one you plan to have. It gave me a four-hour and forty-three-minute window into my best self. California showed me who I can be.

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California Part 1

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November 2007

California is a state of both tremendous mileage and support. Although my distances in California were not intentional 5K in 50 States runs, they marked the first instances of combining running, travel, friends and family.

The first time I ran in California was a half-marathon in San Francisco with my dad. We have a photograph of us holding hands running across the Golden Gate Bridge. It is a powerful moment both as a photograph and a running memory. It was the first time I thought about how much fun it is to travel and run with people. It was also the first time my dad and I had ever run together. We’d been runners in our own right but having lived in different states as we became runners, we’d never actually gone out for a run together. Sure, we’d talked about pace in preparation for the race but we’d never run side by side. So there we were, father and daughter, standing next to each other at the beginning of 13.1 miles of hills, bridges and fog. I didn’t have a time goal but I did have a personal pace. While climbing a grassy cliff overlooking the bay my dad said he needed to walk for a bit. I was in a good speed zone and bummed to slow down. I had to stop and think that yes, absolutely, one of the greatest joys of running is to speed up to push your limits, to go beyond what you thought was possible and lose yourself in the musical moment. But slowing down for my dad on that cliff on the San Francisco bay showed me an entirely different side of running that is the sole reason many runners take to the streets each day: togetherness. I could have kept on going for my personal best but then I wouldn’t have that photograph of my dad and I holding hands, running across the Golden Gate Bridge. I also wouldn’t know what a gift it is to a fellow runner to slow down, walk or wait. Without that first race with my dad I wouldn’t be able to fully appreciate all the times after that friends and running group teammates slowed down for me– to say nothing of the times friends and teammates slowed down for me and I didn’t know it.

Speed, strength and musical highs are the reasons I get out there. Knowing when to slow down is why I have stayed, and why others have stayed by me.

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Washington

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Washington State is where I became a runner. And yet even that title came in phases. As I acclimated to Wallingford, my first real Seattle neighborhood in 2002, I started by running a mile or two mixed with walking. I wasn’t necessarily getting fit, but I was running and learning my neighborhood hills. After walking increments and building mileage I was running more than walking and decided I was ready for a 5K. Like any good racer, I carbo-loaded the night before the annual Jingle Bell 5K. Once I finally parked, walked to the starting line, waited and finally got going, I grew frustrated at how loud, crowded and stuffy it was inside the tunnel, the major section of the race. When I got home I realized what a small thing it was to run a 5k race. I also started to piece together what was frustrating about the race and what I loved about running in general.

I love that running requires very little than a well-fitting, supportive pair of shoes. I also love that there have never been more options of stylish (wicking!) running wear for ladies. I love that I can walk out my door and simply begin, by myself, without any ask, permission or special skill. The skill is only to keep going. I love that I can listen to music while I run. And I love that now thanks to Premium Spotify I can very specifically tailor a playlist to suit the exact requests of that run: wistful indie, sleepy 70s, power EDM, poppin’ 80s, dewy spring playtime, land, air, fire, and water. I love that while running I find insight for relationships (“end it now, this isn’t right”) and teaching (“five groups of four!”) and the freedom to choreograph pretend dance routines. I love that I can run for speed, hill workouts, or distance and still the bottom line is to always to keep going. I love the sheer opportunity of running. Most of all, I love that running is the only aspect of my life which always says ‘yes.’ I know that every step I give to running is me saying ‘yes’ to strength, joy and independence. Every alternating step is running saying ‘yes’ back to me. If you pace yourself and treat your knees well, running is an ongoing exchange of acknowledgement and affirmation. I could describe the 20-mile training run in the rain followed by eating a pizza on the floor, or the intense final mile of a 14-miler on the Burke Gilman, full speed, crying to “Like a Prayer,” or the hardest run of my entire marathon training which was three miles around the track behind my apartment chased by an off-leash dog, simply broken in spirit from a hard day. But none of those memories are as important as the overarching task of saying “yes” every time.

Having lived in Seattle for 14 years and running fairly regularly for most of them, training for a marathon, three halves, a handful of 15, 10, and 5Ks, and the regular joy of running, as a very rough estimate, I guess I’ve run between two and three thousand miles in Washington. That’s a great distance to come to know that if you say “yes” to the run, it will always say “yes” back.

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Hawaii

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The Hawaii run feels a little like cheating because I don’t remember it clearly. But I know I ran in Hawaii because it was the first time I ran on the beach. When I tell people about 5K in 50 States, “Have you done Hawaii yet?” is a common question. My answer is not the island adventure tale they probably hope to hear. Fitting, since the unexpected is at the core of this project. Some of the most impressionable runs were those I thought I would simply check off a list, while the states that may sound memorable are just a check-mark.