Why Run Ultras?

JT knows why he runs ultras.

JT knows why he runs ultras.

Why do you run or want to run ultras?  Gary David joins me to discuss some of the reasons survey respondents gave when asked a similar question.  We also discuss Gary’s first 50 miler he raced over the weekend and some other stuff.

Let us know in the comments why you run or want to run a 50 or 100 mile race.  What makes you want to do ultra races?

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46 thoughts on “Why Run Ultras?

  1. Many reasons…in no certain order:
    a) Camaraderie.
    b) Getting on trails that I would otherwise never get to see.
    c) The challenge of never knowing if you will see the finish line when you are standing on the starting line.
    d) My fitness interest of choice.

    • Thanks Brett. I like the fitness aspect too. I was just talking with someone yesterday about how cool it is to know you can cover so much ground on foot and go places were most people can’t (or are too lazy to).

  2. So, after listening to your show, I put a photo of myself wearing a skort and the latest hydration pack on my Twitter profile, renamed myself “ultra Christina” & set my Strava workouts to “public”. Just wait; I’ll take “attention whore” to a whole new level.

    But seriously, on the “look at me” point, I totally agree that lots of fitness freaks are attention seekers. At the same time, people tweet and FB about everything, not just their workouts, so this hardly distinguishes the ultra-scene. So it’s interesting to ponder … just how much weight can we place on the kind of egocentric motivation you guys are describing as one of the driving forces behind the “explosion” of ultrarunning? It’s one thing to buy the gear and call yourself an ultrarunner. It’s a whole other thing to actually run for 8 hours at a time or whatever. Is the weirdo-cred (in combination with the “in-group” experience), we supposedly get for being a part of the ultrarunner “tribe”, sufficient motivation to actually train as much as we do?

    Maybe, but I doubt it.

    I think there also has to be something intrinsic, personal & beneficial about the experience of running itself, or people wouldn’t do it for hours on end. Or would we?

    Love that someone’s attempting to look at the socio-cultural side of this. Looking forward to hearing more detail about the actual survey results.

    • I think the egocentric aspect is just a part of it but definitely there. I’ve witness several occasions where people “pull the trigger” on a race registration from soft peer pressure. I have many emails in my inbox that say something like, “I saw everyone signing up for “X” 50 miler and just decided to go for it!” Tan would probably agree that he went through with the San Diego 100 because many folks he knows have run or are planning to run one.

      It also serves the purpose to make long distances seem doable, if not almost commonplace. “She ran a hundred miles??!! I can do it too, then!”

      I definitely agree it’s good to have some intrinsic value. I was telling Stephen that very same thing on Hope Pass yesterday. If you don’t feel in tune or a part of what you’re doing, the landscape, the environment, the beauty of it all, then you’ll never be fully successful in rugged 100s. You have to be filled with so much more than just desire to finish in a certain time. You have to value the process and the “being in the moment” and not just the result.

    • ha love it. totally agree Christina! Although I have to admit I do like my super cute ultra runner girl skirts. But I don’t feel worthy wearing them unless I’m wearing an ultra. It would be funny to show up at a 10k wearing a 2L water backpack, super cute running skirt, calf sleeves, headlamp then blog about how hard it was and what a badass I am. haha. Good podcast. Like the related podcast on the Identity of the ultra runner too.

  3. Next on Elevation Trail: why Tim hates puppies, kittens and the sound of a baby’s laugh (and why you should too)

    • I definitely don’t like any sounds from babies, other than the sound of the car as their parents drive them away from me. Kittens are ok but cats are out. All puppies, young or old, are the best.

  4. We run because we like running. We run on trails because we like to run on trails. At a certain level, it is pretty simple.

    On another level, it gets more complex because the distances we run go beyond the simple enjoyment of the activity. In fact, the distances detract from the immediate enjoyment of it because of the pain and discomfort it can cause, not only physically at that moment but also in terms of the guilt we feel by training, the struggles associated with the daily grind of it all, etc. This raises the question of why do it to the extremes that we do it.

    The personal (ego) gratification and social support both reinforce each other. We put ourselves out there in our accomplishments, and people give us admiration not only because they are impressed, but because they recognize that what we did is important to us. I might hit the “Like” button more out of knowing how important a post is to someone than out of actually liking the post itself. We are social beings, and how others see us in no small part shapes how we see ourselves, which of course can fuel a positive self-image.

    As with anything, there is that line between doing the routine sharing of accomplishments and complete narcissism. I don’t know what the line is, but is it any more healthy to not share anything with others? Do we start to become isolated in our Protestantism of suffering alone and making sure that we do not try to draw attention to ourselves?

    • To view this maybe a little more positively, I think these types of accomplishment blurbs can also just be an attempt to start iterative communication, not just one-way bursts. Most of us are hungry for community, and I think just as often as “look at me”, people are saying “communicate/play/be with me”. I think the accomplishment stats get listed because it’s the measure of a runners worthiness of being included in the community.

      I’ve liked to run long distances since i was young because it’s meditative. Running ultras attracts me because it’s like a long retreat of this type of meditation with fellow practitioners.

      • The main function of Twitter is “one way bursts”. “LOOK AT ME!”
        Gary’s right that my immediate thought I had on your comment (other than what I just said about Twitter) is that, yes, it can be to elicit communication, like “look at my brand new bitchin’ Camaro!” The expected response (communication) is positive reinforcement. You can see this when the goal is thwarted when a comment/response isn’t just a gushing “attaboy!” God forbid if you question a workout: “You just did a 30 mile run with 9,000 ft of climb a week before your goal race? That doesn’t seem to be smart training.” Suddenly, the initial boast is tarnished and the boaster becomes defensive.

        The question of whether what we discussed was in a positive or negative light is puzzling. It’s simply an observation that ultrarunning has blossomed in conjunction with the blossoming of fluid social connections (internet, blogs, facebook, twitter, instagram, etc, etc.). And, I think, it’s not only helped make ultrarunning seem [more] ordinary but it’s changed the population of the sport from (speaking in general here) people who did it for the purity of the experience, e.g. Ed the ultrarunning physicist in Michigan in 1992, to people today who seem to often be motivated by what people will think of their exploits/achievements.

        When I started running ultras and nobody in my social or running circle (and I had a running club I founded with over 700 members over a 4 year period!) ran ultras, I have to admit that I was partially motivated by the: 1. uniqueness – being different and 2. the praise from my peers for running long distances. Those probably made up 10% of the motivation at that time but they were clearly important to me. Whenever I’ve thought about DNF-ing a big race, one of the concerns are that I’ll have to publicly acknowledge the failure and that fear of showing weakness to the world has helped to pushed me to finish races.

        As I said, I’m generalizing. I know ultrarunners who have absolutely zero interest in people knowing about or providing accolades for their ultrarunning exploits. Kevin Rumon is a prime example. Anyone heard of him? Top 10 at Western States three times, 6:39 at American River 50, 3:54 at Way Too Cool 50k, ran Leadville 100, Wasatch 100, won Miwok 100k, just ran 4:05 at WTC50k three months ago at 52 years old. No blog, no twitter, no facebook, no boasting, enjoys talking about the sport but not his accomplishments. He got into it and does it for different reasons. There are many people out there like Kevin but we don’t typically hear about them for obvious reasons. He never moved into the public forum or put up his electronic billboard.

        My observation (neither intended as positive or negative or judging) is that people get into ultrarunning and are driven to do certain distances because they feel people are watching and they want to be impressive. They may say that they got into it and do it for personal challenge and that may certainly be part of the motivation. But they also thrive on and are pushed by the ego and praise from others. My guess is that if you took away many people’s electronic billboards – FB, Twitter, Blogs, etc. you’d see a shift in many of their running lifestyles, training, race schedules, and running gear. The influence, motivation, and self-image is much different when no one is looking.

  5. I think that this is such a great point. Because these types of posts are basically asynchronous and not directed to a next speaker, there is the sense that it is a kind of soliloquy. But as you rightly point out, there is an element of being a first turn of talk that is attempting to prompt a conversation. I can hear Tim saying that the conversation is being prompted to be about the person’s achievements, a virtual pat on the back and atta boy or atta girl. So is it a conversation about me that I am trying to prompt?

    We haven’t said the word yet, but “bragging” is a cultural phenomenon, meaning that self-boastng can be taken very differently based on different cultures. It can also loo very different based on those cultures, be they social class, gender, geographic region, nationality, religion, age, etc. Whether or not it is bragging/self-boasting or sharing is probably going to be based on that cultural frame and interpretation of the act.

    Now I want to go see what literature there is on bragging!

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  7. Gary, I think you raised an interesting point about self-boasting varying between different cultures. In my social media experience, I see the largest amount of self-boasting (or self-promotion) coming from women in their mid-to late 20s. While twitter and FB certainly provide an ideal form for this self-promotion, I would also say that the desire for self-promotion existed within certain groups prior to the existence and popularity of twitter & FB. Drawing solely on my own experiences as a 20-something woman out of college, starting a career in the pre-social media era of the late 90s, I can say that the need for validation of one’s choices and actions among peers was quite strong. It was just expressed differently. One of the big differences now, I think, is that folks are seeking validation of their choices and actions from strangers, as well as people that they actually know ( especially on twitter). My personal opinion here is that validation from strangers is really unsatisfying (ie: support from someone who I know and trust feels much more genuine than “support” from a twitter follower in 140 characters). However, if individuals do not have people in their life who can give them this genuine support that they seek, and if they don’t feel genuinely supported and cared for, they may continue to seek this validation from strangers, in the hope of filling that emotional void.

    Also congrats on your first 50!

    • This is exactly what I was wondering since I have no experience at being a 20-something female. Thanks for your point. And then I think we can extend this element of “the stranger” a bit because if people are identifying with each other as part of this larger ultrarunning, are they then strangers is the classic sense? i may not know you personally, but you are a runner (and ultrarunner more specifically), and therefore the element of trust is more quickly established (whether rightly or wrongly). So are we/they seeking validation from “strangers”, or seeking validation from community members?

      There is some literature on empathic online communities, especially around medical conditions, in which people form quick trust bonds and are able to create very close support networks despite their lack of co-located interactions. I’ve seen this personally, and yes it is mostly women who are the discussion boards in which the medical conditions are affecting their children or parents (husband could participate too, but generally don’t). Quite simply, women and men talk (or don’t talk) about things differently. Deborah Tannen has written some great stuff on this point.

      And can we get validation from other people in our lives who don’t run ultras? Do they “get it” to the point where we feel they can give us meaningful validation? Or do we just get the usual “That’s crazy” or “I only like to run when I’m chased” comments. Perhaps the only place people can go for that kind of validation is from others in that community who understand where they are coming from.

      Thanks for the congrats! It was an interesting experience.

  8. I get and to some extent agree that there is some element of a “look at me” approach with it all. With close to 2600 posts on my blog, I am sure there are more than a handful of posts that were of that take.
    I don’t see that necessarily as a bad thing. When I started the blog, it was to put my training in a public forum to a.) get feedback as to if it was right, b.) by making my training, goals and approach public I’d force myself to be more accountable c.) to have a historical log that I could review in the “cloud.”
    More or less, these are still some of the objectives as to why I post there and with the frequency I do. There are certainly other things I post there – mostly because I have some interest in them or because I want to capture something for the sake of memory.
    Ultimately, and perhaps I am in denial, for me the blog helps me be accountable. Knowing that there are folks who are looking helps that. I see that as slightly different than doing it for some sort of ego stroke.

  9. This guy had me carry all this sh*t for 25 miles, and now he doesn’t write, he doesn’t call, he doesn’t return my texts. I feel so used : (

  10. First, congrats to Gary on his first 50. I’m kind of happy to hear that he was puking at the finish, because that seems to be the way I finish 50’s after having done two (racing & pacing)… I run for the beauty and enjoyment of it, the freedom to go wherever my legs can take me and to see my 43 year old self kick my 28 year old ass. I love seeing improvement, even while my body’s breaking down in other ways.

    I do blog and use facebook and twitter, but consciously to a) inspire others b) keep a journal of my experiences and c) let my friends and family around the country keep tabs on what I’m up to. It’s funny, but while the 99% that I know personally do not run ultras, let alone RUN, I don’t feel worthy of their admiration at all. I’m not fast, but I do know how to finish and I know that most (if not all) of them could do the same thing if they wanted to. So I don’t personally see it as a big deal, but they do, which is kinda funny to me. I’m sure there is some ego in it, but since I’m always comparing myself to the fastest ones, I don’t think of it as bragging especially since I’m a back-of-the-packer. :-)

    • Thanks for the congrats! For the record, there was no puking involved, although I think that would have been cool. The thought of being able to lay down at the finish was an attractive option. Thing was, I literrally had fallen and couldn’t get up! Someone had to help me up! Not pro.

      • I guess I was unconsciously looking for identification as puking loves company. One thing I forgot to add was that I paced my first 100 at Bighorn last weekend and got to meet and run with a lot of back-of-the-packers. They impress me more than the elites in how they gut out a finish in 30+ hours. One gal came in to the turnaround point (48 miles) having run through deep mud in sub-freezing temps and falling face first in it miles before. She saw my friend recover her stomach by puking and figured if my runner can head back out into the cold and finish, so could she. She ran the entire 52 miles with no pacer and finished an hour ahead of us. What a rock star. Another guy we leapfrogged with was bent over with back problems 10 miles from the finish and came in second to last because he refused to quit. I am in awe of those people!

        I know pacing is considered to be an unselfish thing, but I feel like I received so much from the beauty of the course, the enjoyment of running with a friend and meeting so many amazing runners and aid station folks that I am the better for it.

  11. Dudes, I kind of got the impression from you podcast + Various Other Things that people say about “why” kind of lumps people into two categories, those who are in it to win it (Serious Competitive People) and people who do it for community and fun and challenges and possibly look at me bragging to their social media types. I’m not a huge fan of stereotypes, and while there is some amount of merit to these stereotypes- BUT NOT MUCH.

    I can speak, as a Slow Person, I am extremely competitive, despite the fact that I am lucky if I finish in the top 65% of women. I very often get LAST or second-to-last in my age group. In fact, because I am a 29 year old woman, a demographic that is not included in the mid-life-crisis-holy-crap-I’m-fat-and-have-had-a-desk-job-my-whole-life demographic that 50% of the male 40-60 age group falls into, there are very few actual Slow 29 year old women, thus resulting in an incredibly skewed distribution of racers. That is okay. I am not here to wear a tutu and instagram pictures of me on the course and get accolades from my friends (people like that PASS me in races!). Even though I will never ever win anything, I race hard. It may not look like hiking a hill at 18min mi is “hard,” but it is hard for me, and I am racing- anyone around me. I don’t care if it’s a 78 year old guy with a bovine heart valve, or the tutu-instagrammer- I race them. I do ultras because I am competitive and I like to race, and enjoy improving, passing people and as cliche as it sounds, enjoy the challenge. My strava is private and I don’t twitter. I don’t care what anyone thinks of my 8.2 mile run at 11:47 pace anyway. You’ll think it’s crazy-ass slow, my aunt will think I’m a super hero. It’s just daily life for me.

    So anyway, message to fast dudes out there (including you two!): the next time you talk to some poor sap who finished hours behind you, do not assume that they updated their facebook account and chatted with the volunteers and strolled along during the race. They very well may have given it their all, even though they are Slow. (And even if they did just stroll along- who cares!) People race for many, many different reasons, but taking ultras seriously (and for non-social media purposes) is not just for the fast people! Just offering a different perspective! Cheers!

    • I don’t think there was any distinction in the type of runner when we brought up the use of social media outlets. I clearly stated that I have “promoted” my training or racing on my blog (using the example of my run just this last Tuesday). In fact, many of the “in it to win it” folks post their bigger workouts, sort of like chest pumping or posturing before a goal race. So, I’m not clear what your angle is in your comment. Recognizing a trend or pattern is all I’m doing. Ultrarunning has grown up with (and perhaps with the help of) abundant social media. It’s made it somewhat less unique or “weird”, thus more ordinary and, in perception, accomplishable, as well as serving to motivate many to get out there and train and race because people are “watching”. Of course this doesn’t wrap up everyone under one blanket (I point that out in one of my comments, i.e. Kevin Rumon, who likely won’t even know I referenced him because of his detachment from the swamp of self-validating social outlets) but it’s prevalent, saturating, and, thus, noteworthy.

    • Hey,
      Just to reiterate part of what Tim said, there was no attempt to lump into two categories. Sorry if it came off that way. When talking about any topic, attempts to get our hands around it can lead to some oversimplification. I think there are any number of reasons as to why people do these things. At its most basic level, people run because people like to run, and they run on trails because they like to run on trails. Beyond that, I think a major driving factor is because people see what is happening in ultra in terms of the community aspect (especially around my parts from what I’ve seen), and want to be part of it. Tim thesis of the “look at me” factor is also there for some people, giving them the opportunity to do things that are seen as extraordinary and feel really good about themselves from the achievement and adulation they receive (and nothing wrong with that at all). Then there are other other factors that may be too numerous to mention.

      In terms of speed, it is interesting to look at the REALLY fast guys who are winning big races. It is true, as is often the criticism of ultrarunners, that most wouldn’t be able to hang with the elites at a road marathon. While “fast”, they would not be competing for the win. A 2:19 marathon at major events is going to put you around 1 1/2 miles from the winners when he crosses the finish line. And the drop-off may be greater for elite women ultrarunners from the 2:20s that would be needed to win. Point being, fast is always relative. No way I consider myself one of the fast guys, although I really appreciate the vote of confidence! I see myself as a person with is lucky enough to have above average athletic ability (coupled with about 20 years of endurance training at this point). This allows me to race at a certain level, but far below where I would LIKE to be. But I’m having fun, staying healthy, meeting nice people, and seeing things that I otherwise wouldn’t see (like a muddy trail at 2:30am).

      I am always impressed by the people toward the back half of the race. Each year when I watch Ironman Lake Placid, I hang out on Mirror Lake Drive till midnight to cheer on those who are trying to get to the finish under the 17 hour time limit cut-off. I find that far more inspiring than the person coming in first. Speed is over-rated! There is what we call in cyclocross “the race within the race,” meaning that I might be racing for 62nd place in a cyclocross race, but we are racing each other hard and having fun doing it. I totally get that and think it is great.

      And I hope you crush the guy with the bovine heart. You should have heard what he was saying about you before the race.

  12. When I feel like it’s tending towards “look at me”, I start to pull back. It’s about posting things I might want to read myself, and also writing about things are important to me and that I’m proud of. I think it’s pretty clear from reading a blog which it is.

    Then, there’s the sardonic and twisted humor of the mountain hermit.

  13. Although it’s always interesting to hear you guys’ opinions … I’d really like to hear more about the actual survey results – i.e. what the respondents actually said.

    • Hi
      Sorry if the discussion got a little sidetracked. We did go through a lot of the descriptive statistics in the first two podcasts on the survey, so you might find more of that in those. One of the things that I am trying to do, and Tim is good enough to entertain, is a discussion (or analysis) of what the survey provided in terms of data. One of the challenges of survey results is what do they mean? It is really fortunate for me to have people who are doing ultras to give their perspectives on some of the results so that as we (my student and I) right these results up, we are doing so with hopefully more of an informed understanding based on this feedback.

      If there is any particular element of the survey that you would like to hear more about (that’s not in the other podcasts), I’d be happy to discuss those further. There was a lot there and for sure we have a lot more that we could discuss. Thanks!

      • Hey Gary. Thanks. I listened to the first podcast on the survey again. (The second one seems to be unavailable. There’s no link to the audio from the elevation trail website that I can see (anymore), and it doesn’t download in iTunes. Not sure what’s up there.) But anyway, there are some (small) bits and pieces about the actual survey results scattered amongst the interesting commentary here and there in the first podcast. Ultimately, I think what I’m really looking forward to is the paper, when you publish something, so that I can read your lit review, see the actual responses, see what theoretical framework you’re using to shape your conclusions about what the results mean, and so on.

        Overall though, I’m interested in why people run ultras (and tangentially if the reasons are all that different from why people run in general). It’s interesting to go back and listen to the podcast *after* having read Tim’s recent blog post about the egocentric side of social media use and its nexus with the growth of ultra-running. That’s because in the podcast you touch upon this tension between, on the one hand the “new influx of ultra-runners” (quoting Tim) who are “more interested in the accolades” versus what you (Gary) observe out about the survey results which apparently point quite strongly to ultra-running as a vehicle for the transformation of self (i.e. the bit about struggle & redemption).

        I think we need a more sophisticated analysis of the relationship between social media and ultra-running than just what I’m going to call “knee-jerk” anti-social-media reactionism (sentiments which I often share). How could communications theory, and other thought about social media in general illuminate how we think about this? I do know that story-telling (whether via words or images) is part of what makes us human, and that while 140 characters may not comprise a fulsome narrative, something more substantive starts to materialize when you look at someone’s tweets or FB posts over a period of time. I read posts by a few recreational ultra-runners on FB and for most of them, their running seems to function as a deep focal point around which they negotiate and transform their personal sense of self. Part of this is about the running, but they make meaning out of the activity through story-telling (yes, on Facebook). Yes, you see lots of pics of buckes and whatnot, but I think there’s more going on here.

        As an aside, something else that would be interesting is a bit of gender analysis – i.e. how male (or female) ultra-runners are constructing & negotiating their own sense of masculinity (or female-ness) through endurance sport. I realize this is a huge can of worms to open, but all you have to do is look at websites & do a bit of discourse analysis … look at all the pics of the “serious looking” dudes with a LOT of prominent muscle on display … Makes me think of the literature on the cultural construction of the “mountain man” …

  14. It’s true that we try to be unique…just like everybody else. But it’s more true now than it was prior to the current ultrarunning boom. It seems to me that social media has an homogenizing effect on ultrarunning. When I first ran a 100 miler ten years ago, it was easy to do it one’s own way, for better or worse. When we all showed up for a race, it felt like more of a collection of individuals. Races started without researching competitors on Ultrasignup, reading their blogs, and comparing training. There were fewer formal instructions on how to prepare. There certainly weren’t as many outlets for individuals to broadcast their methods and training logs. It was easier to listen to how my body responded to training, and to be satisfied with my mileage, elevation gain, and nutrition. Today, it’s far easier to be distracted by some other runners’ statistics, and to be anxious about one’s own. They shouldn’t matter. We really shouldn’t worry about how our running lives stack up against someone else’s, but usually we do. By the time we line up to race in 2013, much of the mystery, individuality, and surprise has been dissipated across social media.

    It’s important not only to race one’s own race, but to train one’s own way. Social media makes that harder to do.

    • You’re spot on, Phil, from my perspective. It’s become much less individual, regardless how much each of us loudly proclaims our individuality and uniqueness, we are greatly influenced and homogenized by electronic social connections. I know my self awareness and assessment is skewed by what I see others/peers doing.

      By the way, you ran your first 100 miler ten years ago and you’re only 27? Wow. You won the second 50k I put on with Inside Trail.

      • Yeah, going for my 10 year buckle at Cascade Crest 100 in August. How to feel prematurely old at 27? Start running hundred milers in your teens. But I could never publish that sentiment on a blog, someone might think I was losing training motivation (wink).

        Good luck at Leadville. Love the podcast.

      • Terrific, Phil – both your comment and going for your 1,000 mile buckle at cascade. Might as well go ahead and win it this year as well. Good luck and congratulations.

  15. Hi Christina
    All really good points, and this is what makes ultrarunning so fertile for academic inquiry. There are a TON of angles to be taken because there is literally (almost) no literature on it. What can be done at this point is to try to take what theoretical frames are out there and see how they apply. Personally and professionally speaking, I don’t try to take a frame and then analyze through it. I try to look at the data (be it qualitative or quantitative) and then go the other (more inductive) way in terms of applying what theory may be relevant to what we are seeing. Soc of Gender is not one of the areas in which I am well versed, so I would shy away from any kind of academic argument on the basis of femininity/masculinity or even more of a “queer” versus hypermasculine analysis (as in “I was going to drop out but I didn’t want to be a sissy” with the operative word being sissy and the historical connotations that can have). The communications theory stuff is great, and what I might try to do down the road is recruit some of my colleagues who have depth in these kinds of areas to help with analysis.

    One of the inherent dangers in all of this is the oversimplification that can happen when trying to discern patterns, especially in bifurcating the categories we use (“There are two types of people,” “there are two reasons why,” etc.). There are a lot of reasons why people are doing the things we do, but stopping there doesn’t really get us to any kind of understanding. Then again, oversimplifying doesn’t help either (and I would say can be more harmful because it can create the illusion of certainty and establish typifications that are forced onto people).

    After the demographics paper is done (which is going to be disappointed dry in many respects compared to this conversation), the display of identity through narrative is likely going to be one of the next papers to come up (especially in relation to pain narratives).

    So much to discuss!

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