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Body

Becoming Your Best

July 17, 2015
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Photo by Paul A. Smith, Simply Perfection Photography, 2015

The message is everywhere: with the right shoes, the right watch, the right diet, and the right trainer, you can become anything you want to be. In the Age of Aspiration, where we all want to be the best, even hoping to transcend our physical limitations, all we need is the right equipment and the right attitude.

But can we? Can we be actually be more than ourselves? Or should we focus on being our own true selves, the best that we can be, thereby fulfilling our genetic potential? Indeed, each and every one of us is unique, born with the capability to realize our own genius. A few years ago, I decided that’s what I wanted: a chance to become the best that I could be.

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Up until now, I’ve sought challenge and fulfillment in physical exertion. From childhood, I wanted to push myself up mountains, ski down them, ride great distances on horseback. I wanted to do. When I looked at photos of men summiting Mt. Everest, their gender didn’t concern me, but the accomplishment inspired me. I wanted to be there, too.

I got there.

In the early 1990s, I set my goal: to climb the Seven Summits, the highest peak on each continent. Between 1992 and 1996, I traveled across the world and pushed myself past fatigue, past brutal weather extremes, past feet that looked like they’d been in a blender. I attempted Everest three times, and summited once. I knew and worked with some of the most talented mountaineers of the day, and I discovered the inner peace that comes with complete exhaustion.

Yet, as much as I met those challenges, I never felt like I was fully living up to what I could do. Then I discovered the sport of CrossFit and the CrossFit Games, the ultimate test of genetic potential, where players compete at the leading edge of every physical ability humans are made for: strength, endurance, flexibility, and balance. To even make it on the field, to compete against dozens of other supremely talented women, would be a tremendous honor. So I embarked on this grand adventure, the quest to qualify for the Games, just to see where my genes would take me.

Photo by Paul A. Smith, Simply Perfection Photography, 2015

Photo by Paul A. Smith, Simply Perfection Photography, 2015

 

Asterisk

I never participated in team sports when I was in school. Title IX didn’t come along until later, and girls didn’t typically play sports—they were encouraged to become cheerleaders. That didn’t interest me, so I found my outlet in the mountains, alone. That experience gave me strength, endurance, and a high threshold for pain: all advantages in CrossFit. But I had to learn—and am still learning—how to move efficiently and use my strengths in new ways. I needed to become flexible—both in muscles and mind—in a way I’d never done before.

I first started competing in CrossFit in 2012 . At first, I was solidly in the middle of the pack. But in 2013, I placed third in an All Master’s competition against a field of tough women. Standing on the podium was exhilarating, and I wanted more.

Eighteen months ago, I dedicated myself not only to competing but excelling as a player in the 2015 CrossFit Games. I put together a team of coaches, nutritionists, peers and trainers who advised me every step of the way. I wrote up a plan, I followed it (with a few minor tweaks). To my surprise, I advanced into the 60+ Division this year. And, in April, I qualified for the Games, which commence in three days.

In these 18 months, I’ve seen that anyone, with time and dedication, can meet his or her own potential. People who train for the CrossFit Games have varying skill sets and body types: some of us are tall and strong, others are small and agile. But we all work at the limit of our genetic abilities, and I’ve come to relish the feeling of hitting that mark, the ache of your body and mind stretching forward beyond what you ever thought possible.

I’ve realized that chasing a dream of being the perfect athlete, or the perfect body, is a fool’s errand. We can’t all become the ideal—whatever that ideal might be, in any given age—but we can all strive to be our own best selves, whether that’s to compete in the Games or to lift a weight you never thought possible or to run a mile faster than ever before. In my training, I’ve met many people who are reaching for their own personal bests in many different arenas. They aren’t all doing CrossFit, but they are all living up to their genetic potential. They are all inspiring.

On July 22, I will walk onto the field knowing that I am the very best athlete I can be. By doing so, I will have won the Games before they even begin. I am going into the competition in a state of “personal best”: never stronger, more nimble, faster, or skilled than I am right now.  And I will walk onto that field grateful—for all the support I have gotten these past few years, for the chance to stand among a field of my peers, and for the privilege of living a life that has allowed me to express my genetic potential.

Photo by Paul A. Smith, Simply Perfection Photography, 2015

Photo by Paul A. Smith, Simply Perfection Photography, 2015

A Gut Feeling

June 9, 2015
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Draped Seated Woman, Henry Moore, 1957-58


“What is my perfect weight?” is a question which has vexed me ever since I started to train for competition. If you ask the weightlifters, they will tell you to train heavy, since more mass can push and pull more volume. If you ask the gymnasts, they’ll claim featherweight makes it easier to move through space. And the endurance people say, forget weight: body-fat percentage—fuel on board and the capacity to tap into it—matters most. So the answer, like everything else, falls to the individual athlete to decide.

My instincts tell me that I should lose 5 to 8 pounds before the Games. I don’t think it is an amount so great that my barbell PRs will suffer, it will make pull ups and track work significantly easier, and if I can do it by losing fat, not muscle, my endurance should be improved as well. But the only way I know how to lose weight is to drastically cut calories. In my case, that would be from 1800 per day — a number calculated by a test of my resting metabolic rate taken several months ago — to, say, 1200. Considering the intensity and duration of my daily workouts as I train for the CrossFit Games, this diet plan would almost certainly have me passed out on the floor at about 3:00 every afternoon.

I asked my coaches for referrals to nutritionists who might counsel me on optimal diet for performance and weight loss, and it was Sean Waxman who introduced me to his former classmate in grad school, Chris Talley, and his company, Precision Food Works. Chris has been working with elite athletes for years, using his experience as an aerospace physiologist (studying how to keep astronauts from losing muscle mass and bone density while in zero gravity) to come up with a unique nutritional approach to increase those same measurements for those of us who remain earthbound.

Chris’s work begins with an analysis of blood and urine samples, said to be the most comprehensive such evaluation out there. Mine looked at possible food allergies, cardiovascular health indicators, amino acids profiles, nutrients and vitamins, fatty acid profiles, and more, all of which affect rate of fatigue, mental and emotional states, metabolic syndromes, digestion, and toxicity. My report took almost four weeks to prepare .After carefully reviewing its 18 pages with Chris, the short answer is that it’s not that what I’m putting in is wrong; it’s that my body hasn’t been able to process it properly. My gut flora is out of whack.

That the microbiome—the countless tiny organisms that call our bodies home—plays an important part in human health has been a big story in the past few years, but I’d somehow missed the memo. Chris suggested a broad spectrum probiotic (with more than 35 live strains) to reinvigorate the beneficial flora in my intestines.

Another suggestion he made: stop wearing lip gloss. I apply the stuff at least fifteen times a day, and am constantly biting my lips in concentration while training, effectively eating it. My blood tests detected toxic metals in my system, and Chris hypothesized it might be from the cosmetics. If you look closely at the clear gloss, you can see tiny sparkles of chromium. Even these tiny amounts accumulate over time.  To clean it up, he asked me to toss some cilantro into my evening meal for about three weeks.

He strongly advised against changing my diet in any substantial way, being just 40 days away from game day, but predicted that these tweaks will have me running so much more efficiently that I will likely lose weight anyway.

Walking Man I, Alberto Giacometti, 1960

Walking Man I, Alberto Giacometti, 1960

Our bodies are machines, and I’m trying to fine-tune mine to the highest pitch I can before the Games. Luckily, these are easy fixes: an oil change, instead of an engine replacement.

Prep Work

May 29, 2015
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Rudolf II of Habsburg as Vertumnus. Giuseppe Arcimboldo, 1590.



I love food. When I look at my fridge, I want to see pleasure, not obligation. Not antithetically, training also demands that I eat thoughtfully. I need to eat not only for taste, but for performance.

I follow a plan that ensures that I have energy when I need it, in balanced proportion (more or less 40% carb-30% protein-30% fat) without the sluggishness that follows a heavy meal (I eat about 1800 calories per day). But I’m often traveling between gyms during the day, which means I don’t have time to get home to prepare a sit-down lunch for myself. And my days are usually so packed that when I come home hangry, I won’t be forced to make a desperate choice, because what I need and want to eat will already be there waiting for me. I need good food, fast.

Local farmers’ markets take place on Wednesdays and Saturdays. Shopping at the Santa Monica farmers’ market is one of my greatest pleasures—a sensual and aesthetic abundance and a chance to talk with the farmers who grow my food and to meet up with friends who shop there, too. But for now, I use a service, Good Eggs, to shop for me, since I don’t have the time to do it myself. They drop off a cooler packed full of locally grown vegetables, fruit, and meat.

Thursdays and Sundays are my rest days, and a perfect time to think about my meals and prep them. This is what’s in my fridge for the next four days:

Thursday

Dinner:

  • Roasted Squab with morels, roasted broccoli and kabocha squash puree
  • Mara De Bois strawberries

Friday

Breakfast:

  • Halibut with braised collards and kale
  • Oatmeal with roasted plum jam

Pre-Training:

  • Bone broth
  • Carrots with sesame and cilantro

Post-training:

  • Roasted sweet potatoes and golden potatoes with Herbs de Provence
  • Braised beef short ribs with peach salsa

Dinner :

  • Opah with tarragon, roasted asparagus and sautéed English peas with lemon
  • Papaya

Saturday

Breakfast:

  • 4 eggs
  • Chicken patties with beet top pesto
  • Sautéed red cabbage with caraway seed, mustard seed, and champagne
  • Apple-cinnamon oatmeal

Pre-training:

  • Bone broth
  • Roasted Celery root with orange, cumin, and coriander

Post-training:

  • Baked sweet potato
  • Blackened Chicken breast
  • Nectarine

Dinner:

  • Duck breast with cara-cara orange glaze
  • Roasted purple cauliflower with balsamic and basil
  • Kiwi

 

Sunday

Breakfast:

  • Pork sausage, asparagus, zucchini, and broccoli saute
  • Oatmeal with almond paste and stewed blueberries

Lunch:

  • Bone broth
  • Roasted rutabaga with lemon zest
  • Chicken breast with chili sauce, cilantro, chives, lime, and basil with tomato
  • Roasted sweet potatoes with herb scented salt

Then I prep. Chopping, zesting, dicing, sautéing, and cooking everything I can: a working meditation. By mid-afternoon, I have a pleasingly stocked refrigerator, organized into labeled containers. In the following days, when I get home, mind and body fatigued past the ability to make decisions, dinner is ready. Voila.

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Going Strong

May 22, 2015
Photographer Herb Ritts.

Photographer Herb Ritts.

This week, Jessica and I started training in the sport of strongman. Despite the name, it is not just for men, nor is it only for strong people. Strongmen events focus on the functional side of fitness, testing the techniques of moving around difficult objects like kegs, yokes, sleds, atlas stones, and chains. Jess and I are both naturally good at it and enthused about adding it to the weekly training schedule.

As good luck would have it, there is a strongman coach here in Venice Beach. Logan Gelbrich is a former pro baseball player and his gym, Deuce, is located in an abandoned auto body shop on a gritty stretch of Lincoln Boulevard. The gym itself is tiny—it might have fit two small cars in its previous incarnation. In fact, it serves as little more than an oversized storage unit for some of the strongman equipment Gelbrich uses in training. Most of the work is done on the concrete parking lot outdoors, in midday heat, mimicking the not-always-perfect conditions one might encounter in real life: say, if your car breaks down, you have to help a friend move a mattress up a flight of stairs, or you need to shovel snow or dig a ditch.

Claudia Schiffer.  helmut Newton, 1988.

Claudia Schiffer, Helmut Newton, 1988.

This week, Jessica and I learned how to move three things: the atlas stone, a heavy pipe, and a sled. An atlas stone is a ball made out of concrete and can be made in different weights. If you are a do-it-yourselfer, you can make your own; you might have to, since you’ll have a hard time finding someone to deliver a ball weighing 100 pounds or more to your home. Logan showed us how to maximize our grip and friction on the ball. For me, with just nine and a half fingers, the hardest part was just getting it off the ground; then, while still squatting, you hoist it onto your lap. From there, you can actually get your hands under the thing, and using the force of your hips, thrust it up and roll it over your shoulders so it drops back to the ground, guided by your back. I managed to toss #75 pounds while Jess did #95.

I struggled with lifting the awkward and heavy pipe—the diameter is just too large for my hands to fit around. Of course, that is the point. The girth of the axle seriously restricts your pulling power at any weight. Then, as you raise it off the ground, you naturally lose power around the height of the lower ribs, when your arms are fully bent. So at that point you are supposed to rest the pipe on your body by tipping into a swayed back limbo, flip your hands under the bar, and resume the lift from there. I never trusted myself enough at the crux, and twice lost a #95 bar which had been balanced on my chest. Once it grazed my knee on the way to the ground leaving a nice eggplant-sized bruise in its wake.

My favorite was the sled push/pull, not least because I already have some experience: I’ve pulled sleds weighing more than 100 pounds, while wearing skis, on polar mountaineering expeditions. Logan showed us the pulling technique, hand-over-hand on the rope from a seated position, and how to use the power of your legs to push it forward. The chances of seeing a sled event come up in the CrossFit Games this year are good; they’ve been used frequently in the past. I will be ready.

El Mirador, Bill Anderson,  early 1950s.

El Mirador, Bill Anderson, early 1950s.

Game On

May 7, 2015
Fire in the Belly.  Andrew Brischler, 2013

Fire in the Belly. Andrew Brischler, 2013

It’s official: I received my invitation today to spend three days in July at the StubHub Center in Carson, California, competing in the CrossFit Games. I’ve worked incredibly hard to get to this place, but what I feel most is the honor and privilege to be in the company of the many amazing athletes heading to the same place.

After all, this is an event created to test fitness in a way that no other athletic event has ever done. With an emphasis on functional movements, athletes come to the field with no idea what is in store for them: there could be an open water ocean swim, a long run in the mid-summer heat, a rope climb. We might have to lug a bag of sand, or a log, across a field. And any number of more refined movements—like Olympic weightlifting or handstand walking—might pop up as well. This is a contest to crown the “Fittest on Earth,” so we better be prepared to do anything we are asked.

I will be following a training program prepared for Master’s Games Athletes by Invictus and supplementing it with sessions with Sean Waxman and Maddy Curley, a more intensive extension of the work I did to prepare for the Qualifier round.  I will also be adding in some other fun stuff: strongman training, Wing Chun (martial arts), Pilates, and parkour are some of the ideas I have been talking about with Jessica, my training partner (we are pretty much joined at the hip at this point).

This arduous work requires special fueling, and I’ll detail here in the future what kind of meal plan I’m following to optimize my performance and recovery. I won’t be going out to restaurants much, but I hope to be able to entertain at home more, especially because I need the support and love of my friends now, more than ever. And I’m always eager to get a mental break and have interesting conversation about topics unrelated to my work.

Now, I have 90 days to make myself into the fittest person I can be.

Jack Pierson, 2002

Jack Pierson, 2002

Double the Fun

April 18, 2015

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I have almost always worked out alone. Not isolated, mind you. I am rarely in an empty room. But it is something like walking by yourself down a crowded street.

Throughout the years, I have tried many times to get friends to join me at the gym, but it didn’t work for more than a session or two. For many years while training to climb mountains, and now as I train for competition, what I needed from a workout was wildly different than someone looking to maintain fitness. Still, I’ve watched the many athletes in my gym who have training partners with a small twinge of envy. They are never stuck setting up complicated equipment by themselves, which adds an element of inefficiency to the workout, or wondering how to set a good pace or where to take breaks. And even during the most arduous sets, they can laugh at the pain, rather than be overwhelmed by it.

This week, I found a training partner: Jessica Suver, a CrossFit Games athlete in 2013 and thirty years my junior, who shares many of my weaknesses and strengths. Because we are both tall (she is 6′), we are especially challenged by the gymnastic elements of CrossFit, and we are both strong (Jessica has a 400 pound deadlift!). Because Jessica is not competing in the Regionals Competition this year (and therefore is ineligible for the Games), she decided that the Invictus Masters competitive plan (the program I follow), with its emphasis on building skills while improving strength, would be the perfect way to accomplish her own goal to qualify for the CrossFit Games in 2016. Partnering up with me was her idea. I leapt at the chance.

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Working together, Jessica and I plan to do the same things every day: training barbell at Waxman’s Gym, seeing Maddy Curley for gymnastics coaching, and performing our WODs at Paradiso’s Gym. The only difference is that she will use the weights prescribed for younger Master’s, while I lift the “granny” weights prescribed for me. We’re also planning to do some of the recommended recovery activities together, like hiking and swimming.

In just one week, I have already discovered the benefits of working with a partner. Jessica has been a rower and volleyball player, and I am learning from her aptitude for competition. We can hold each other accountable for really learning the skills we each need. We can spot each other and take video to illustrate constructive criticism. We might even indulge in occasional commiseration. But I look forward the most to a shared sense of accomplishment as we reach our individual goals—double the gratification.

 

A Good Egg

April 14, 2015

 

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Five Color Frame, 1985. Robert Mangold

I love to wake up early. I can linger over coffee and a little bowl of Overnight Oats while I get all my reading done—the New York Times, the New York Post, and the blogs that have aggregated overnight on my Feedly reader—write a bit, and finally, transcribe my Invictus programming, which sometimes requires time-consuming math to work out my barbell percentages. Like most people, I don’t respond well to an alarm, but I’ve learned to make rising pleasurable. I go to bed at 10:00 p.m., and I sleep with my windows and blinds open. First light and the sounds of an emerging day rouse me naturally. By 10:30 a.m., my head filled with news and ideas, I am ready to have my “real” breakfast, which on most days consists of some kind of meat, some green vegetables (spinach, zucchini, Brussels sprouts or cabbage), and eggs.

I have always liked eggs, even during the decades they were at the top of the no-no list. I ate them anyway, because it never seemed to me like there could be anything so wrong about eating a food that felt so right. Contemporary nutritionists have since exonerated (eggs-onerated?) them by recognizing that eggs are a perfect protein for training—they contain all twenty amino acids and vitamin B12, which helps maintain metabolism of carbohydrates.

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For years, I almost exclusively poached one or two of them, perfecting a fat-free technique that requires several kitchen utensils and some careful monitoring to get them just right. Occasionally, I would make them into an omelet and fill it with vegetables and meat. But I almost never scrambled them, and only then when I was hosting a crowd, because I could never seem to get the combo of pan size, temperature and relative number of eggs working together before they became tough, leathery, and lost their essential egginess. Then I watched how Gordon Ramsay prepares scrambled eggs.

He treats his eggs delicately—no brisk whisking in a bowl, no sprinkle of salt while still raw, no butter heating up separately in the pan. Constant stirring, heat alternating with no heat, a healthy pat of butter, and a finishing dollop of crème fraîche. What results is creamy, delicate, delicious. It’s like spending your life stargazing in Central Park, and then seeing the night sky in Wyoming—the same raw materials, but a world of difference in between.

How I make them:

I break four eggs into a cold, heavy-bottomed pan, then add a good chunk of butter—Kerrygold is the brand I prefer. Using a rubber spatula, stir together over low heat until the butter melts, then move off the heat for a few moments, stirring constantly. Move back onto heat, removing occasionally if the eggs start to cook too quickly. Never stop stirring. Just as the eggs start to set, remove from heat and continue to stir for a moment. Then add a (totally optional) spoonful of crème fraîche, some sea salt and pepper, chives if you have them, and stir to combine.

I can’t remember the last time I poached an egg.

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Untitled, from Couples, 1996. Brice Marden

 

 

The Unknown and Unknowable

March 31, 2015
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Tracey Emin, 2014

 

Across the world over the past five weeks, athletes of all ages have tested their fitness in the CrossFit Open—the first stage in a competition to find the fittest people on Earth. Each week, the prescribed workout called on our physical and mental acuity with a range of movements: toes-to-bars, snatches, deadlifts, clean and jerks, overhead squats, chest-to-bar pull-ups, muscle-ups, wall-ball shots, double-unders, handstand push-ups, cleans, rowing, and thrusters. At the end of it, I took Third Place in my division, world-wide.

When I started the year, I thought I had another year to set the groundwork for qualifying. And as I headed into the 2015 Open, I never imagined I’d make the podium. What I earned in this stage was the chance to progress (in three weeks) into the Master’s Qualifier—five days to complete four events in order to qualify for the CrossFit Games this summer. Last year, I finished the Open in 46th place, so I didn’t really take the MQ seriously. But now it seems quite possible that I could land in the top 20 and make it to the Games. Suddenly, my dream looks like it could be a reality, sooner than I ever expected.

 

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Will Be, Tim Etchells, 2010

 

Looking forward, I hope to get in the Games to be on the same field with women who inspire and motivate me. Mary Schwing and Rosalie Glenn came in first and second place, respectively, in my division. They both logged solid scores throughout the Open, evidence that they are powerful athletes by any measure, for any age, beyond classification as “Masters.” To compete with—not against—them would be a wonderful culmination to my quest.

But first I have to get there. In preparation for the intensity of the MQ, I’ve stepped up my training schedule: following the Invictus Master’s Qualifier Prep (which will include TWO training sessions in a day several days a week, three days a week being coached by Sean Waxman, and two hours a week with Maddy Curley. No rest for the weary, it seems.*

The hardest part now is mental: knowing that now I start over. Only 20 of the field of 200 make it to the Games. My first score for the Master’s Qualifier will be my final place in the Open—number 3. But after that, nothing we did in the Open matters. It’s a new start for all of us. Whose brilliant idea was it to become a professional athlete at 60?

 

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Survival Series (1983-1985), Jenny Holzer

 

*The phrase is actually “No rest for the wicked,” but I’m too tired to get up to anything risqué.

 

Letting Go

February 25, 2015

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A few weeks ago, I attended the annual dinner of the American Alpine Club. I look forward to it every year because it is the one day when passionate climbers from all over the world crawl out of their tents, peel themselves off vertical faces of rock and ice, and trek to a common location—this year it was held in New York —for a weekend of lectures and gatherings, formal and informal, and a chance to swap camp stories. From these meetings, there are many flashes of brilliant insight.

Such was the case with the weekend’s special guest and honoree, Reinhold Messner, the most famous living mountaineer in the world. Messner gained renown as the first person to make a solo ascent of Mount Everest and as the first climber to ascend all fourteen eight-thousanders (mountains 26,000’ or more above sea level) without supplemental oxygen, at a time when this was thought to be humanly impossible. At the AAC dinner, he spoke about some of these amazing feats to an audience which included many of his mountaineering friends and peers, people who, too, are intimate with and motivated by the underlying philosophy behind those feats.

“Obstacles energize me,” he said. “The main power to reach a summit is not muscles, it is willpower.” He talked about the power of the mind and working “in the zone,” also known as “flow.” Messner considers this state of total, energized absorption a bridge between stages of frustration and satisfaction, of tension and release, to success.

While I have never come close to his mountaineering achievements (like comparing someone who plays on a local softball league to Derek Jeter), in at least one way I am like him: I enjoy hard work and a deep commitment to facing physical challenges. But here is where we differ: whenever I am very near to achieving a great success, mere steps from a summit or reaching a long-sought PR with a barbell, a little voice inside me whispers “no.”

I’ve never been able to give myself over to a state of flow. I have been near that point, but, unlike Messner, I’ve always thought of it as a precipice where self-control must come in and save the day.

Have you ever been close to success and then, for no apparent reason, listened to that little negative voice? How do you let yourself pass from a state of self-control into “the zone”?

What I Eat

February 12, 2015

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trainonce

 

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traintwice

 

 

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restday

 

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