Boston Strong

I have been struggling to write about my experience running the 2017 Boston Marathon.  There are so many different emotions swirling around in my head that it has been difficult to distill it down into a post of under 1000 words.  I could write a book about that race.  Today I realized the theme that most describes my Boston Marathon experience.  It is a cliche but it fits:  It took a village.

It took a village to get me to the start line.  In mid-February – 8 weeks before the race – I couldn’t run more than 6 miles before my ankle started to scream at me.  I knew I needed to address the issue or I wasn’t going to be able to run the race.  I went to a physical therapist, Jessica, and a rehabilitation fitness trainer, Carrie, who helped me work on ankle strength and flexibility.  Carrie identified issues with my gait.  She gave me a mantra to say as I ran, words that help my brain focus on proper form.  I kept my running coach, Jenny, informed of my issues and she made adjustments based on feedback on my runs.  Jennifer, my massage therapist, dedicated hours to ensuring the muscles in my ankle, foot, calf, and quads were loose.  Through their collective efforts my 6-mile ankle was ready for 26.2 miles.  Each of them was instrumental in getting me to the start line.

It took a village – a very large village – of race organizers, volunteers, police, and emergency responders to put on this race.  The logistics for a race through 8 different cities and towns over a distance of 26.2 miles are more than you can imagine.  They spend a year on organizing the event, coordinating resources and planning for every possible issue.  I bet the race director was monitoring the weather forecasts all week like I was.   Every time I looked it seemed the race day temperatures were predicted to be higher than the last forecast.  On race day it was in the 70s – warm for any race and particularly warm for someone like me with Transverse Myelitis.  Ever since my experience at the 2015 Rock ’n’ Roll Half in Savannah, Georgia, I am always concerned they will run out of water on the course.  That would be disastrous.  But the race organizers had that all covered and there was no shortage of hydration for the runners.  Security was never a concern either.  The course was lined with local, state, and military police, on foot and on bicycles.   This was one of the best organized races I have ever had the privilege to run.

It was not exactly the top of the hill but close enough

The number of volunteers was incredible – 9,500 – that translates to one volunteer for every 3 runners.  The only other race that I recall having as many volunteers was the 2015 Tokyo Marathon.  The volunteers stood for hours, on an unseasonably warm April day, handing out water, Gatorade, and Clif gels.  And they were the friendliest bunch of people too.

In case you forgot something, you could get it on the way to the corrals at the start line in Hopkinton

The last two turns before the finish line

I felt an incredible sense of community as I ran.  The people along the course came together to celebrate with the runners.  This is their race, a source of pride for Bostonians.  Many people who lived along the course handed out water, candy, oranges, and ice.  Some even played music to entertain the runners as they passed by.  The runners were welcomed.

Because I am not a Boston Qualifier, I participated in the race as a member of a charity team benefitting the Charlestown Boys & Girls Club.  Most of the kids in the club come from disadvantaged and even harsh circumstances.  Hillary Clinton once wrote that it takes a village to raise a child.  The kids in Charlestown need a village to provide guidance as they navigate all the challenges facing kids today. The money the team raised will help them support an increasing number of kids who participate in the club activities.  Another member of the Charlestown Boys & Girls Club team put it so eloquently: “kids are 25% of our population but they are 100% of our future.”

I wish I was as fast as a shooting star

I have run for several charities before but none has touched me the way this one did.  Enclosed with my team singlet were notes and drawings from the kids, thanking me for running for them as well as providing words of encouragement.  In their minds I was doing something very challenging to help them.  For one day I was their hero.  What they didn’t know is that they were inspiration to me.  When I had doubts on race day about finishing the marathon, I only needed to think about those notes to keep going.

Yes, I would have liked to be a Boston Qualifier and entered the race without a fundraising obligation.  But I never would have made a connection to a community of kids who need my help.  They made my race about more than a medal.  This race is a cherished memory for me because of them.

Over $36 million was raised for the various charities participating in the Boston Marathon charity program.  The charity runners included many first time marathoners too.  I encourage anyone who wants to run the Boston Marathon – both runners who qualify and those like myself who don’t – to participate on a charity team like the Charlestown Boys & Girls Club.  Boston puts on a great race.  Fundraising for their community is a terrific way to show appreciation for their hospitality.  Because it really does take a village.

Contact me if you would like to donate to the Charlestown Boys & Girls Club Boston Marathon team.  The kids would appreciate anything you can do to help them.

Running Away From the Finish Line

Frequently people I meet will tell me about races they think I have never heard about, races they think I would want to run.  Last fall someone told me about the Wings for Life World Run.  When I heard how the race is organized, I knew immediately it is one I have to add to my “to-run” list.

The Wings for Life World Run was started in 2014 to raise awareness of the physical and medical challenges faced by paraplegic people and raise funds to help find cures for spinal cord injuries.  This race is held the first weekend in May.  It is unique for several reasons.  First, the race, which is held in 24 countries all over the world, starts exactly at the same moment, 11AM UTC (Coordinated Universal Time).  For some locations it is the middle of the night; for others it maybe be the middle of the day or early morning.  Regardless of location, everyone is running at the same time throughout the world.

Source: Wings for Life World Run website

Next, there is no finish line in the traditional sense.  Instead there are “Catcher Cars” that start out a half hour after the race starts.  The cars travel initially at 15 km per hour and slowly increase their speed.  Global satellite navigation is used to ensure that the Catcher Cars around the world are synchronized. When a Catcher Car overtakes a runner, the race is over for them and they have to board a bus back to the start area.  In essence, the runners are not running to a finish line.  The runners are trying to run away from a mobile finish line that is trying to catch them.

Finally, the distance a given runner completes is determined by how fast and fit they are as runners.  For each race, a 100 km course is prepared.  Slow runners may only be able to complete a 10 km distance (or 6.2 miles) before the Catcher Car ends their race.  Faster runners may be able to complete a marathon distance (about 42 km).  The current record for the furthest distance a runner covered before the Catcher Car caught them is an amazing 88.44 KM (almost 55 miles).

The winners are the male and female runners who are able to run the furthest before being the Catcher Car gets to them.  There are winners for each location as well as overall global winners.  Remember Michael Wardian, the winner of the 7 marathons on 7 continents in 7 days?  It shouldn’t surprise anyone that Michael has been the overall global winner of the Wings for Life World Run – twice!

I definitely plan to run the Wings for Life World Run.  I might not get very far before the Catcher Car passes me.  But until it does, it will be exciting to be part of a global running event, happening across the world at exactly the same moment.

Interested in participating in the Wings for Life World Run?   Check out their website for more information.  Can’t get to one of the race locations?  There is a virtual app to enable runners to participate wherever they may be.  There is also a goal calculator to help you determine your expected time and distance.

Our Sixth Sense

Recuperating from my broken toe has taught me a great deal about recuperating from an injury, the importance of rehabilitation, rest, and patience.  (That last one is very difficult for me.)  Two broken bones within two years will do that.  From my experience I can tell you that your body gets a bit discombobulated when you break a bone.  Your body parts know their job until something bad happens like a broken bone. Your body will try to figure out a way to work around any limitation a broken bone puts on it.  That is when the trouble can start.  I have been learning all about this from my new hero, Carrie, a certified rehabilitation fitness trainer who is working to get me back in shape for the Boston Marathon.

Carrie has been teaching me about proprioception.  Proprioception is considered by some to be our sixth sense.  It is a system of receptor nerves (proprioceptors) that tell our brains where the various parts of the body are, if they are moving, and how they are moving.  A good example of proprioceptors at work is walking on a moving train.  As the train car sways from side to side, you have to adjust your body as you walk.  Otherwise you will run into things or even fall over.   Your proprioceptors are sending information to your brain so that it can tell your muscles how to adapt to the swaying car.  Injuries such as broken bones in our feet or ligament damage can disrupt the proprioceptors.  When our “sixth sense” is not working properly, we can have balance issues or our stride and posture can be off.

I noticed a few months ago my balance seemed off.  For example, I was having difficulty balancing on one foot while going up and down stairs.  I don’t need any more broken bones so I decided to get help to sort myself out.  Enter Carrie. During my first appointment with Carrie, she put me through some tests and proved what I had suspected.  I was putting more weight in my heels instead of the balls of my feet.  The wrong parts of my feet were engaged when I was walking (and when I ran).  As a result, I had developed a nagging pain in my ankle that increased with my long distance runs.  I could only run 6 miles before my ankle started to scream at me.

Carrie explained the proprioceptors in our feet send information to our brains about the running surface – whether it is hard or soft, even or uneven, flat or steep.  Using this information, the brain tells our bodies how to adjust to the conditions – things like our stride, our gait, and which muscles to use.  When I broke my toe, I disconnected some of those proprioceptors so my body was improvising – and badly, I might add.  Worse, I was at risk for more injuries.

My sixth sense is in these Sauconys

Over the last month Carrie has given me specific exercises to get the proper muscles firing again.  I have been following her instructions for strength training exercises for my feet as well as my core.  There are a number of balance exercises as well.  I am regaining my “sixth sense.”   My running form has improved and the pain in my ankle has disappeared.  No more 6-mile ankle for me.

If you are experiencing recurring injuries or have injuries that are not improving despite periods of rest, I highly recommend that you seek out a rehabilitation fitness trainer.  Someone who understands how the body moves will be able to assess how you might be compensating for an injury and help you make the appropriate corrections to prevent further injury.  I am grateful to have Carrie on Team Funatical Runner.  I don’t think I would have regained my sixth sense of proprioception without her.

A Truly Memorable Race

Recently someone asked me, of all the places that I have been on my running adventures, which was the best place I have visited.  I thought about it for a moment.  I have run in so many memorable places that it is difficult to pick just one.  Every place I have traveled to has had something unique – London, Berlin, Tokyo, Disney races through the Magic Kingdom, Montana, Colorado, Vermont, coming home from Mississippi via the City of New Orleans train, running on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway are just a few.  I am not sure that I could even narrow it down to five.

But there is one race I will never forget – the 2016 Zion Half Marathon in Utah.   Although I ran that one a year ago, I can still remember each step as if I ran it last week.  Below is my post about that race.   I also wrote a follow-up on this amazing story that shows further why what happened at this race was something miraculous.  And if you have an extra few minutes, read the follow-up I wrote  Miracle at Mile 4 – An Epilogue.  I think you will agree that it is not something one will easily forget.

Miracle at Mile 4 (originally published on March 16, 2016)

The Court of the Patriarchs in Zion National Park

My latest half marathon was the Zion Half Marathon outside Zion National Park in Utah.  The race was put on by Vacation Races, the same folks who organized the Rocky Mountain Half Marathon that I ran last year in Estes Park, Colorado.  Of all the races I have run, the Zion Half was in the prettiest part of the country.   And of all the races I have run, this is the first one during which I prayed.  It was all because of what happened at Mile 4.

Race morning was a bit stressful.  It rained during the night and the start line area was very muddy.  Walking over to the warming tent and the port-a-potties resulted in running shoes heavily coated in mud.  The start of the race was delayed 15 minutes because people who had driven to the start line couldn’t park in the field due to the mud.  It took a bit of extra logistical work to get cars parked and runners to the start line but the race organizers got all that quickly sorted out.

Big change from running below sea level in New Orleans!

The course started in Virgin, Utah (great name for any runner doing their first half marathon) and ended in Springdale, right outside the entrance to Zion National Park.  The elevation at the start line was 3,546 feet and 3,953 feet at the finish line.  Except for one little bit of downhill around Mile 7, this race was all uphill. 

My mud caked shoes stayed behind in Utah

 

The first mile was a little tricky.   It was chilly but the rain had stopped.  My shoes felt like they weighed an extra 5 pounds because of the mud caked on them.  But the mud quickly fell away and I got going.

As I approached Mile 4, I was passed by two emergency vehicles with sirens going and lights flashing.  They pulled up next to an ambulance along the side of the road.  As I passed the scene, I saw a man on the ground being attended to by a number of people.  It was scary.  That is not a sight any runner wants to see at a race.   I didn’t linger or stand and gawk at the scene.  Three more ambulances flew by me as I continued to run.  I did the only thing that I thought could help this runner and myself.  I prayed.

Later two runners passed me and I overheard one talking about the man.  One said that he hadn’t had a pulse for over 10 minutes.  I couldn’t imagine a positive outcome in that situation.  For the rest of the race I thought about that runner.

When I met up with my husband after the race, I burst into tears and told him what happened.  It was difficult to be happy about finishing the race while knowing that someone didn’t get to run theirs.  Later that day, the race organizers sent out an email thanking all the runners for being cooperative with the changes that had to be made at the start due to the weather.  They also let us know that the runner who collapsed was stable and recovering.  I felt so much better when I heard that.

But the story of what happened at Mile 4, I learned later, is much more amazing than anyone could imagine.  The runner was on a reunion trip with a bunch of old friends, people who had been friends for years but hadn’t seen much of each other.   They didn’t know that he had collapsed until after they finished their race.

When he collapsed, a bicyclist who was pacing his friends jumped off his bike to roll the man over and help start CPR.  (That bicyclist had just gotten re-certified in CPR.)  Even more amazing is that a group of “angel runners” stopped to help until an ambulance and EMTs could arrive.  Among them were a cardiac surgery ICU nurse, two trauma ICU nurses, an ER nurse, a cardiologist, a neonatologist, and a neonatal nurse practitioner.  From the accounts that I have read, these medical professionals – who didn’t previously know each other and were also running the race – came together in an instant to help a fellow runner.  In a situation like this one, seconds count.  For over 20 minutes, they performed CPR on the runner before an ambulance and EMTs arrived with equipment (i.e., a defibrillator).  That this runner came back from being down that long is a miracle.

I look at what happened at Mile 4 and I see the lessons to be learned.  The first is about priorities.  Racing may seem important but it is not more important than someone’s life.  My shoes got muddy and I had to trash them but I was still alive.  The small stuff in life just doesn’t matter.

The next is about the importance of community.  We all are part of this community of runners.  We have to look out for each other.  During this race, in an instant several people stopped everything they were doing to come to the aid of another runner.  They shifted their priorities from racing to helping someone else in a life-or-death situation.  I will never look at the person next to me in a race the same way again.  That person may end up helping me or vice versa.  We are all in this together.

Finally, if I never believed before, I certainly believe now in miracles.  It can only be a miracle that a runner collapses and is immediately surrounded by the people with the specialized skills needed to save his life, that performed CPR on him for over 20 minutes, and that he lived.  It was a miracle.

The Importance of Rehabilitation

For any athlete – professionals or just weekend warriors – it can be very difficult to come back from a major injury.  I am learning this firsthand.  While out on a training run back in July, I tripped and broke my left big toe.  You might not think that breaking your big toe is any big deal (pardon the pun).  However, the big toes are among the most important parts of our body for running.  We need to be able to push-off using the big toes in our feet.  I am finding not only did I need to allow my broken toe to heal, I also needed rehabilitation to restore my flexibility, strength, and balance.

My doctor did not prescribe any physical therapy when I was released from wearing my boot.  I was told to start walking and building back up to running.  I wasn’t given any exercises to start limbering up all those joints in my foot that had gone on an unplanned vacation.

Without any guidance from my doctor, I did the best I could.  In Pilates the instructor had me doing various exercises that involved my foot.  I would do exercises on the Reformer where I would be raising up and down on my toes, balls of my feet, and on my heels.  I used the foot pedal on the Chair to push down using different parts of my foot.  The problem was my foot had been totally immobile for eight weeks.  Jumping back into intense foot work ended up causing me more problems.  Over the last several months, I developed a severe pain in my ankle as well as tendonitis in my lower leg.  It was increasingly difficult to run and we all know how much I like to run.  I was getting anxious as to whether I would be ready for my next marathon.  It is a biggie – the Boston Marathon in April.

I went to see my chiropractor.  Yes, my bones were a bit out of alignment but my foot lacked flexibility.  The joints weren’t fluid and moving as they should.  My big toe wasn’t bending as it should.  I needed to address this problem quickly.  After verifying that I didn’t have a stress fracture, my next stop was my physical therapist.

My physical therapist got me going on a set of exercises that are improving the strength in my ankle as well as improving the flexibility of my foot.  She also hooked me up with a personal trainer in the clinic who works with patients on more involved rehabilitation.  Both my physical therapist and personal trainer confirmed something that I already suspected.  My running (and walking) gait had changed as a result of my broken toe.  I wasn’t pushing off of my big toe on my left foot.  I was compensating by using other parts of my foot, resulting in an unnatural gait.  My body was totally out of balance.  I was on the road to more serious problems in my ankle, lower leg, hips and potentially also even in my right leg and foot.

The personal trainer used the GravityFit system with me.  The GravityFit system helps you to understand what muscles should be engaged to do things like stand, sit, and squat.  I put on each of the different pieces of GravityFit equipment that provide feedback on my form.  I understood instantly what correct form felt like, when my core was engaged.  Establishing that understanding (and muscle memory) helped me to identify when my form was right and when it was wrong.  With my new-found knowledge, my balance immediately improved.

Once I understood what correct form was, the personal trainer then worked on my gait.  I was putting my weight into my heels when I walked and ran, possibly from an unconscious fear of putting weight onto my big toe.   She showed me the proper way I should be walking and running.  I focused on shifting my weight onto the balls of my feet.  When I took a few running steps, I was able to push-off from my big toe.  There wasn’t pain in my ankle.  Granted the muscles in my foot, ankle and lower leg need to be strengthened but at least now I feel like I am working on getting back to where I was.  More importantly I will be rehabilitating my foot without causing myself more problems.

screen-shot-2017-02-23-at-10-25-02-pm

This experience with my broken toe has taught me that I can’t go it alone.  I can’t just do things that I think will help me fully recover.  I don’t know much about recovery and rehabilitation.   I was relying on a disjointed patchwork of self-prescribed strategies – massage, Pilates, and chiropractic adjustments – I thought would help me get back to pre-July shape.  I was doomed to failure.

What I really needed was people with the expert knowledge of injuries and rehabilitation to get back to pre-injury condition.  I have that team in place now.  They are giving me exercises to improve my strength, flexibility and balance.  Massages supplement the work the physical therapist does and remain an important part of my recovery.   Everyone knows what is at stake for me.  They are confident that if I do my part, I will reach my goal.

My foot is responding very well to the physical therapy and personal training.  I can see improvements already.  Today I had no pain when I was running hill repeats.  To me that is a huge improvement.  I know my running form was better because I learned what correct form feels like.

My advice to anyone who gets a significant injury is to work with someone who is certified in rehabilitative fitness.  Don’t do what I did and self-prescribe a rehabilitation program that can backfire, causing more injuries.  If you care enough about training for a big event, don’t short change yourself by not getting the expert help you need for rehabilitation.  In the long run, you will bounce back faster and probably stronger.

How important is the big toe for running?  Here is an article that explains just how critical it is  http://www.kinetic-revolution.com/big-toe-extension-running-gait/

The GravityFit program was extremely informative for helping me find my core and use it to improve my balance and work on my gait.  

Mississippi or Arkansas?

img_7395My latest running adventure took me to Greenville, Mississippi for the Mississippi River Half Marathon.  (There was also a full marathon.)  This was the first time I ran a point-to-point race that started in one state and finished in another.  The Mississippi River race started in Arkansas and finished in Mississippi.  You might be thinking I was able to cross off two states with this race.  The rules for the 50 States Endurance Challenge only allow you to count it for one, either the state where the race starts or the one where it ends.  I plan to return next year for the Mississippi Blues Half in Jackson so I counted this for my Arkansas race.

img_7375The closest airport to Greenville is in Memphis.  I flew into Memphis, rented a car and drove down US Rt 61, the Mississippi Blues Highway.   The road took me past Clarksdale, home of the Delta Blues Museum.  If you are a Mississippi Delta Blues fan, Clarksdale should be on your list of places to visit.  Unfortunately, I didn’t have time to stop and visit the museum but I definitely would like to go back.

img_7397Most runners I know look for races with courses that are a flat as possible.  Of all the races I have run, this race course is the flattest.  The only “hill” on the course is the Greenville Bridge, the start line for the half marathon and the halfway point for the full marathon.  The Greenville Bridge is an impressive cable-stayed bridge that opened in 2010.  While we waited for the half marathon to start, runners busied themselves by taking selfies with the bridge towers in the background.  It is a beautiful structure.

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The Greenville Bridge

In one of those “It’s a Small World” moments, I bumped into Colin Wright on the bridge before the race.  Colin writes the Canapeel blog and participated on the running bloggers panel with me in Tulsa, Oklahoma last November at the Route 66 Marathon Expo.  We were pleasantly surprised to see each other again.  He was as engaging and happy as I remembered.

When the race started, we crossed the bridge over the iconic Mississippi River.  It was early in the morning and very peaceful to see the sun peaking through the clouds above the river.  I expected to see barges or other boats on the river but there weren’t any, just birds enjoying the water.

img_7404Although rain was predicted for race day, it never rained but boy, was it humid.   I don’t do well in humidity.   Fortunately,  there were plenty of water stops manned by very friendly volunteers who kept the runners both hydrated and entertained. In addition to the “official” water stops, there were plenty of the unofficial kind.  Continuing the Southern hospitality that I experienced in Jackson, people living along the course were handing out treats like donuts, cupcakes, water, Gatorade, and beer.img_7407

In the finishers tent, they had an impressive spread of post-race food — bananas, oranges, donuts, chips, pizza, water, soft drinks, and beer.   Plus they had massage therapists giving runners seated massages.  I am a huge fan of small races like this because they treat runners very well.  Two thumbs up for this one!

Love the bling - the center of the medal spins!

Love the bling – the center of the medal spins!

I headed back to my hotel to clean up then drove back to Memphis.  It was time for the adventure part of the weekend.  I visited Graceland, the home of Elvis Presley.  Although I am not a big fan of his music, I wanted to see this landmark everyone raves about, particularly the Meditation Garden where he is buried.  It was interesting but not what I expected.

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The gates to Graceland

I won’t be racing again until April when I run the Boston Marathon.  For the next two months I will be putting all my energy towards staying healthy and getting prepared for the race.  I am running for a charity and I want to give them my best performance.  In the meantime, I have plenty of things to share with you so stay tuned for some interesting reading. 😉

Setting Records in January

Winter is not the time of year I expect to hear about new running records.  But that is exactly what happened in late January.

Ron Hill probably has a big pile of shoes

Ron Hill probably has a big pile of shoes

First there is Ron Hill, a 78-year old former Olympian who lives in England.  Ron was a running streaker who had run at least one mile every day.  During a run in late January, Ron started having pains in his heart.  Ron was concerned about his wife and family so he decided it was time to hang up his running shoes and end his streak at 52 years and 39 days.   I would call Ron the Cal Ripken of running.

Although Cal’s record for most consecutive baseball games played will probably stand for a long time, there are a number of people who could break Ron’s impressive record.  I wrote about the US Running Streak Association (USRSA) a year ago because I was following the running streaks of several runners (Did They Make It?).  In looking at the current active streak list on the USRSA’s web site, I saw 66-year-old Jon Sutherland’s streak is over 47 1/2 years.  As long as Jon stays healthy, he has a good chance of breaking Ron’s streak record in less than 5 years.  In the meantime, I hope Ron basks in the glory of having the longest streak record.  That is one heck of an achievement.

The other records set at the end of January were all associated with the 2017 World Marathon Challenge.  I wrote about the World Marathon Challenge at the end of 2015 (7x7x7).  Participants run 7 marathons on 7 continents in 7 days.  If you think about it, the World Marathon Challenge is also a running streak of sorts.  The only difference is that it ends after 7 days (though I am sure somebody somewhere is thinking about how many days in a row they could run a marathon, if they haven’t tried it already).  When I wrote about this challenge last year, I thought it was a flash in the pan (the price alone would deter a lot of people).  But the number of runners has grown every year with only 9 men and 1 woman in the first year (2015) to this year’s challenge with 22 men and 9 women.

The records set with this year’s participants are impressive.  Sinead Kane from Ireland became the first blind person, guided by John O’Regan, to complete 7 marathons on 7 continents in 7 days.  Guoping Xie set a new world record for women by completing 7 marathons on 7 continents in 6 days 8 hours and 30 minutes.  Nahila Hernandez became the first woman to run an ultra marathon (50K or 31.0686 miles) on all 7 continents in 7 days.  And to think there was a time when women were not allowed to participate in the marathon because there was a fear it would physically harm them.

But the big record was the one set by Michael Wardian, a 42-year-old ultra marathoner who has a day job working as an international ship broker.  From the first race in Antarctica where the windchill sent the temperatures to -30C to the last in Australia, Michael set a blistering pace for each race.  He won all 7 stages of the challenge.  Michael set a world record for the average time for completing each of the 7 marathons – 2:45:57.  Michael’s overall time to complete the 7 marathons on 7 continents was 6 days 7 hours and 25 minutes.

Michael is no stranger to world records.  In 2007 Michael set the record for running the fastest marathon while pushing a stroller with his son in it.  He even finished that race in third place.  In 2015 Michael set the world record for the fastest 50K run on a treadmill in 2:59:49. In 2016 Michael set the record for the fastest runner to complete each of the 6 Abbott World Marathons (Tokyo, Boston, London, Berlin, Chicago and New York) in one calendar year, averaging 2:31:09.

I am not sure what is left for Michael to run.  He has run the most challenging ultra marathons all over the world.  He even ran at the North Pole (in the 2014 North Pole Marathon).  Michael isn’t the type to stay home, running local 5K and 10K races.  In a recent interview, Michael said he likes to do stuff that scares him.  I don’t doubt for a moment Michael has something he wants to try.  No matter what it is, I will be cheering for him.  He is an incredible athlete.

Interested in running 7 marathons on 7 continents in 7 days?  They are currently taking applications for the 2018 challenge.  Visit their website for more information http://www.worldmarathonchallenge.com

Running a Race Indoors

At the start of 2017 my objective was to finish the remaining 13 states in my 50 States Endurance Challenge.  I had most of my races picked out but I was having trouble finding a half marathon in Connecticut that fit into my jam-packed schedule.  Looking at the race calendar on the 50 States Half Marathon Club website, I found a race in Hartford, Connecticut in January – the Arena Attack.  January in Connecticut can be full of ice and snow.  That wasn’t a problem for this race.  It was going to be run indoors around the concourse of Hartford’s XL Center.

Although this race has been rated among the most difficult half marathons in the world by halfmarathons.net, I was not intimidated.  I am always looking for ways to vary my half marathon and marathon experiences.  I have run through amusement parks; around auto and horse racing tracks; through professional football and baseball stadiums; over a covered bridge; across a desert; up a mountain in Colorado’s Rocky Mountains; and through a mile-long underwater tunnel that also crossed an international border.  This was going to be another new experience.

The Arena Attack races were the idea of Scott Sutter of the Southern New England Athletic Association (SNEAA).  Scott ran track and cross country in college in South Carolina.  If the weather was too hot or rainy, the coach would make the team run interval workouts on the concourse of the field house.  Fast forward to 2012 when Scott remembered those indoor workouts.  He knew in the middle of winter the race calendar in New England is pretty empty.  Running on the concourse of an arena would be perfect for dedicated runners looking to get in a long run.  Let’s face it – runners are pretty nutty.  They will run anywhere they can.  SNEAA offers a 5K, marathon, and two half marathon heats as part of the Arena Attack.  Not surprising – all of the races in Hartford sold out.

When I mentioned to my running group that I was planning to run this race, they brought up several concerns.  Would the course be crowded with runners? What would the temperature be inside the arena?  Would the floor get slippery at the water stop?  Would it be boring running in circles?  None of these things worried me because Scott addressed them all in the pre-race guide.  I was focused on the positives.  I would be running on a flat course in Connecticut (can’t find many of those even along the coast).  There would be multiple bathrooms along the 330-meter course and I would never be more than a few steps away from any of them (and no lines!).  I would have to run 65 laps around the arena but it would be better than slogging out 13.1 miles on a treadmill in January and I could check off another state in my 50 States Endurance Challenge.  From my perspective, this was a win-win.

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It was funny to see runners passing under the photo on the wall of an outdoor race

Since the course is narrower in a few spots, the number of runners is restricted.  There were two heats for the half marathon with between 35 and 40 runners in each.   (The marathon was run concurrent with the two half marathon heats and was restricted to 25 runners).  I ran in the second heat of the half marathon.  Not only was this my first indoor race, this was the smallest race I have ever run.  When we got going, everyone quickly spread out and settled into their own pace. I never felt crowded like I do in a race with significantly more runners where we run on wide streets.  I also liked that the tile floor was laid out in stripes that were like lanes all the way around the concourse.  They were easy to follow.

img_7301The arena is home to the Wolf Pack hockey team and a number of kids’ hockey teams.  They keep the temperature inside the arena in the 50s so the ice rink doesn’t melt.  I think the ice also helps to keep the indoor air temperature down.  Scott had recommended runners wear shorts and singlets.  I followed his suggestion and was comfortable.  Although it seemed strange, I also wore a visor just to keep any sweat from rolling down into my eyes as I ran.

The water stop was one table set up with water, Gatorade, and bananas.  Marathon runners had separate tables where they could leave their own sports drinks and nutrition items.  During the pre-race briefing, Scott emphasized the need to prevent spills on the course.  Wet floors would be hazardous to the runners.  Kudos to all the runners – I never saw any spills.

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I passed this sign 65 times.

As we ran, there was music playing to keep the runners entertained.  Races like the Rock ’n Roll series have bands or DJs set up every mile or so along the course.  In actuality, runners only hear them when they get within about 25 yards of the band or DJ.  It ends up being occasional little spurts of music.  The rest of the time we are left alone to listen to people huffing and puffing as they run.  This race was different.  Since we were running around the arena, I could always hear the music.  It was a change for me because  I don’t run wearing earphones and listening to music.  I use my training runs to think about things I need to do, work out problems, or just take in the scenery.  I wouldn’t say that I disliked hearing music the entire time.  It was just another different aspect to this race for me.

In addition to the Arena Attack races in Hartford, SNEAA also holds another set of Arena Attack races in Mullins Center on the campus of the University of Massachusetts Amherst.  The Mullins Center is a little smaller so half marathoners have to do 67 laps instead of 65.   The Amherst edition of Arena Attack sold out too.

Overall, I have to say the Arena Attack Half Marathon was an interesting race.  The number of runners was small and everyone was sensible about the “don’t spill water” request.  I never had to stress out about finding a bathroom along the way.  Even better I didn’t have to carry my own water bottles.  The water stop was never very far away.  The availability of bathrooms and the water stop made this a very pleasant race for me.  The only suggestion I have to improve the race would be to liven things up a bit.  It might be fun to allow runners to suggest songs for the music playlist.  Maybe even have a little commentary every once in a while too (“this song goes out to Justin who is finishing up lap 38!”).

I would recommend anyone looking for a new twist on racing to consider running one of the Arena Attack races.  Running indoors is definitely a unique experience.

0 to 26.2 – Tips for New Marathoners

My laurel wreath and first marathon medal

I learned a lot of lessons while training for my first marathon

When I participated on the running bloggers panel at the Route 66 Marathon Expo, one of the questions we were asked was what advice we had for first time marathoners and half marathoners.  It is a good question, one that I would break into two parts – training tips and race day tips.  It occurred to me many people have probably set the goal of running their first endurance event this year.  Now that they have set their goal, they may be thinking about how to achieve their goal of running a marathon or half marathon.  Where do you start?  In this post, I will share my training tips.  I’ll write about race day tips later.

I am not going to bother to go over training plans.  I am not an expert in how to train.  In fact I still rely on a running coach to get me ready for a marathon.  Some running stores offer training programs to prepare for races.  There are plenty of training plans available on the Internet from running experts like Jeff Galloway, Hal Higdon, and Jenny Hadfield.  You can also train with charity programs such as the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society’s Team in Training (TNT).  In exchange for fundraising, the charity provides a training plan, supported weekly long runs, and entry into a specific event.  I have run 11 races for charities. It is rewarding to cross the finish line knowing that I have helped someone else while participating in an event.  This spring I will be running the Boston Marathon for a charity.  Whatever training plan you use, I recommend that you follow it to the letter.  There is a reason why they tell you to cross train or stretch.  I have always done better when I don’t ignore the portions of a training plan that I don’t like.

Okay, now to the advice that you probably will only hear from me.

Know the Course – My first marathon was the Country Music Marathon in Nashville.  I watched the video of the course that was posted on the race web site.  By the end of the video, I was terrified.  What had I signed myself up for? I was convinced I would never be able to finish the race.

I decided to approach the course like it was an enemy I needed to conquer. To beat it I needed to know the course very well.  I printed out the course map, which included the elevation map (or as I call it, the EKG line), and studied it.  I knew every turn and hill along the course.   Each time I ran, I visualized myself running the race.  At the end of every training run, I saw myself crossing the finish line.  After each of my long runs, I would highlight that distance along the course map.  For example, when I finished my 16 mile training run, I highlighted the course map up to the 16 mile marker.  It was a visual reminder of the distance that I had already run.  If I could run it in a training run, I could run it on race day.

By knowing the course inside and out, I didn’t have any surprises on race day.  I knew exactly where I was all the time and what was coming up ahead.  I beat the course that had once terrified me.

Treat every training run as a dress rehearsal for race day – During your training runs, you should be doing everything exactly as you plan to do on race day.  That includes having the same breakfast you plan on having on race day; wearing the same running clothes and shoes; using the same hydration and nutrition you will have during the race.  By trying things out before race day, you will find out what works for you and what doesn’t.  If you travel to a race like I frequently do, confirm how you will get your preferred breakfast on the road.  Will you be able to get oatmeal at 4:30 AM in your hotel?  If not, then you might want to try other breakfast options while you are training.

Find out what sports drink they will have along the course and try it during a training run.  If you can’t handle the sports drink the race will have, then you will need to come up with an alternative hydration strategy.  You might want to carry your own fluids, which means getting use to wearing a hydration belt.

When I ran the Tokyo Marathon, runners were not allowed to carry any fluids.  We had to rely solely on the water stops.  I always carry my own hydration so I was concerned.  I needed to figure out how I would handle this on race day.   My strategy for training for this restriction was to practice only taking fluids during my training runs at the corresponding miles where the water stops would be on the course.  On race day, I was prepared and everything went smoothly.

I remember training for the Wine and Dine Half Marathon at Disney World.  Back then the race started at 10 PM at night.  I wasn’t sure how I would handle a race that started when I normally would be asleep.  To prepare for the race, I ran a couple of training runs at night.  I learned that I needed to adjust my pre-race meals plus take a nap in the afternoon.  I was prepared and it ended up being one of my all time favorite races.

I used a similar strategy when I trained for the Disney World Dopey Challenge (5K, 10K, half and full marathon over 4 consecutive days). I practiced running increasingly long distances over 4 days.  My Dopey dress rehearsal helped me understand how tired my legs would be each day.   I adjusted my post-race recovery plan to ensure I would be ready for the next day’s race.

Actors use dress rehearsals to ensure they deliver the best performance on opening night.  Runners can ensure they have the best race possible by using the dress rehearsal strategy too.

Run in all kinds of weather – While many runners love running in the rain, I hate it.  (I wrote about being a fair weather runner in an older post, Embrace the Weather.)  Given a choice, if the weather forecast is for rain or snow, I reschedule my run to another day or run on my treadmill (or as I call it, my dreadmill).

But who knows what the weather will be on your race day.  It isn’t like the race directors will move a race indoors if the weather is bad.  Not every town has indoor tracks.  Where would they get thousands of treadmills on a moment’s notice anyway?  I recall when the Mississippi Blues Marathon was canceled two weeks ago, someone on Facebook asked why they just couldn’t move the race indoors.  It just isn’t one of the contingency plans for a race.  Except for ice or thunderstorms, you need to be prepared to run in whatever weather greets you on race day.

Do you have any tips you would offer to new marathon runners?  What helped you get through your first race?  What did you learn the hard way?

Running Blues

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It is hard to believe but my most fun race adventure didn’t even include a race.  This past weekend I was registered to run the Mississippi Blues Half Marathon.  At the end of the weekend, I had traveled by plane, train, and automobile (no boat!) through 5 states yet I never put a foot into a running shoe.  Although I missed the race, I had one interesting adventure.

img_7228The Mississippi Blues Half was a race I was really looking forward to running.   Just like the Route 66 Half Marathon is considered to be THE race to run in Oklahoma, the Mississippi Blues Half is considered to be THE race to run in Mississippi.  I had heard many reports from other runners about how much they enjoyed this race.  I was looking forward to going to Jackson, Mississippi to not only run but enjoy the many clubs with live blues music after the race.   For weeks I kept hearing Bruno Mars singing the lyrics “Jackson, Mississippi” in his famous song “Uptown Funk.”  This was going to be a great trip.  Mother Nature, however, had other plans.

The weather forecasts in the week prior to the race kept changing.  Some days it looked like the weather was going to be bad.  The next day it looked like the bad weather would miss them.  Despite the changing weather forecasts, I decided to make the trip.

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Runner goodies

I arrived in Jackson two days before the race and headed to the Expo.  It was lively with a blues band playing.  In the runner’s goodie bag, there was a zip jacket, a harmonica, and a DVD on Mississippi blues music.  The finishers’ medal was on display; it was huge!  I was going to have wonderful souvenirs from this race.  Unfortunately, the ever-changing weather forecast had swung back to being ominous.

The marathon medal (the medal for the half wasn't much smaller)

The marathon medal (the medal for the half was only a little smaller)

The day before the race it rained in the morning so I headed to the Mississippi Museum of Art.  It isn’t a large museum but it was unique.  There was a special exhibit – the Mississippi Invitational – with the most unusual work of art I have ever seen – a sculpture made of cicada shells.  I remember as a kid picking cicada shells off the sides of trees in the summer.  They were very fragile and easily crushed.  Nate Theisen had created a sculpture that looked like a basket – 22 inches x 36 inches x 36 inches – using hundreds of cicada shells.  It was hard to believe the  delicate shells could be used for a sculpture.  (Check out Nate’s web page for a photo of the cicada sculpture.)

Someone at the Expo had told me in Mississippi, if you don’t like the weather, wait two hours and it will change.  They were right.  When I left the museum, the rain had stopped and the sun was trying to peak out through the clouds, though it was pretty cold.  I was feeling optimistic about Saturday’s weather for the race.

Merci Train

Merci Train

I walked over to see the Merci train car.  In 1949 France sent a train car filled with gifts to each state in the US (Washington DC and Hawaii shared one) as a token of thanks for the support they received during World War I and II.  Forty-three of the original 49 cars still exist.  As I made my way back to my hotel after seeing the Merci train, I noticed that it was getting colder.

As the afternoon wore on, the clouds got thicker and the ice pellets started to fall.   Things deteriorated quickly and the roads became dangerously covered in ice.  In fact many roads and bridges were closed.  With temperatures not expected to get above freezing before Sunday, the race organizers made the tough decision to cancel the race.  While many runners headed to the hotel bars to commiserate, I spent Friday night researching ways to get home.  I didn’t want to repeat my first 2016 race trip when I was stranded in Austin for 3 days after the race due to an East Coast blizzard.  It was time well spent because late Saturday morning I was notified that my Sunday morning flight home was canceled too.

On Saturday morning I went out to find the streets covered in a quarter inch of ice.  Walking was nearly impossible.  A few runners were going to run the race on their own, even printing out the course turn by turn.  They quickly abandoned their plans when they saw how treacherous it was.

img_7245With many flights out of Jackson canceled and roads covered in ice, I decided to take the overnight  City of New Orleans train to Chicago.  On Saturday evening I boarded the train and settled into my sleeper compartment.  I tried to sleep as we traveled through Mississippi, Tennessee, Kentucky, and Illinois but the Arlo Gutherie song “City of New Orleans” kept playing in my head.  My brain wouldn’t turn off my mental record player no matter how hard I tried.  In Chicago, I took another train to O’Hare Airport where I was able to get a flight home.  The entire trip was an adventure.

Coincidentally, the Disney World Half Marathon scheduled for the same day was also cancelled due to the weather in Florida.  Disney appeased all the affected runners by giving them the race medal, refunds, and park passes.   I would never have expected those things.

Many people posted complaints on Facebook about the Mississippi Blues race.  I think they might have heard about how Disney was handling their cancellation and expected the same treatment.  They complained about the timing of the race cancellation announcement.  They complained about not getting refunds for their entry fees or a free registration for the 2018 race.  They wanted – in some cases, demanded – their race medals.  Their behavior made me angry.  Expecting the Mississippi Race  organizers to respond in the same manner as Disney World did when they cancelled their half is beyond ridiculous. Disney has very deep pockets. I am sure that the Mississippi Blues race took a big hit financially.  One wonders how that will affect them long-term.

I live in the northeast where winter storms are the norm. Superintendents of school systems are always on the hot seat about whether or not to cancel school because of snow. They, like race directors, are going by the weather forecasts (and we know how inaccurate those can be). If they make the decision to cancel school because there is supposed to be bad weather and then it doesn’t happen, they get criticized. If they don’t cancel school and the weather is horrible, preventing kids from getting home, they get criticized. Sounds like race directors are in the same boat. When should they make the call to cancel a race?  I can only imagine the uproar if a race was canceled based on a weather forecast that doesn’t materialize.

Like every other runner, I am disappointed I didn’t get to run.  I feel very sorry for the race director.  He did the very best he could, given an unusual weather event in Jackson.  The race director does not control the weather.  I spoke to him on Saturday.  He displayed concern about my well-being and how I was going to get back home.  He was one of the most gracious, kindest people I met while in Jackson.

As I made my way home on the train, I had time to think about the weekend.  This was my first visit to Mississippi.  The hotel shuttle driver pointed out to me that Mississippi is the hospitality state.  I experienced that hospitality firsthand.  Everyone I met went out of their way to help me, answer my questions.  If I had stayed home, I wouldn’t have seen the locust shell sculpture or learned about Mississippi blues music.  I would never have taken the City of New Orleans train and experienced a sleeper compartment.  It may not have been a race but it certainly was an adventure.  Now if I could just get that song out of my head!

Interested in learning more about Mississippi blues?  Check out the Moonshine and Mojo Hands series.   http://moonshineandmojohands.com