Chicago – My Kind of Marathon

People have told me the Chicago Marathon was their favorite race. Other people have told me how much they hated that race. I ran the Chicago Marathon a couple of weeks ago so I now have formed my own opinion about the race. Of the big city races I have run, the Chicago Marathon is one of the best.  To put it another way – the Chicago Marathon is my kind of marathon.

First off, the location is perfect. Chicago is centrally located so it is an easy trip from the East Coast or the West Coast. Chicago is a great place to visit too. There are many excellent restaurants, plenty of shopping, and interesting museums. I didn’t want to walk around much before the race so I enjoyed the architecture boat tour on the Chicago River – a fabulous way to get a unique view of the stunning buildings that make up the Chicago skyline.

Yep, it was fun back in the L corral

With such easy access for everyone across the country as well as around the world (from over 100 countries), the Chicago Marathon is a big race. About 45,000 runners participated in this, the 40th anniversary of the race. At the start, runners were divided into three waves with multiple corrals in each. They staggered the wave starts so there were about 30 minutes between each wave. I was in the last corral in the last group – the L corral. Doesn’t get worse than that but I have to admit – it was fun back there.

Don’t see this kind of booth before a race too often

Since Chicago is located on the shores of Lake Michigan, I thought it would be at sea level. Surprisingly to me, the elevation in Chicago is about 600 feet – higher than New York, which is only 33 feet. The marathon course itself is pretty flat too – not many hills in Illinois. The course is a big loop through all the different neighborhoods of the city. The race is a great way to see Chicago’s rich ethnic diversity.

This was her first marathon

The race started in Grant Park behind the Art Institute on South Michigan Avenue and headed north to Lincoln Park, past the zoo. There were plenty of spectators holding interesting signs and cheering along the way. We ran past a senior citizen assisted-living center where the windows were plastered with motivational signs for the runners. Some of the residents sat by the windows waving at us while others sat in wheelchairs along the road, clapping and waving flags.

And this runner’s last marathon

In Lincoln Park I ran past a car on the side of the road with the windows rolled down. Its radio was tuned to race coverage. I could hear them interviewing the men’s marathon winner. He had finished and I was still at Mile 6. That was the most discouraging moment of the race for me – the winner had finished and I still had 20 more miles to go.

Just north of the park we turned back and started heading south towards the central part of the city. As we ran, we passed beautiful brownstone townhouses and many cheering spectators. It was definitely a lively crowd. This was also the section where I did my first (and, I hope, my last) face plant in the middle of a race. Fortunately, I was up and running with no significant physical injury (though my ego took a big hit).

When we got back to the center of Chicago, we made a right and headed west. This part of the race was very enjoyable. We ran through Greek Town and Little Italy. At one point, I smelled pizza baking. I was tempted to make a detour to find the source of that mouth-watering smell. I doubt I could have run another 13 miles after eating pizza but I made a note to look for Chicago-style pizza after the race.

Charity Block Party

The best part of the race was at Mile 14 where the Charity Block Party was set up. I was stunned by the number of charities represented. There were EZ-Up tents, side-by-side, one after another, lining both sides of the road, representing charities whose runners were fundraising for them. I have run more races than I care to admit but I have never seen anything like the Charity Block Party. It was amazing to see tents for Leukemia & Lymphoma Society, American Brain Tumor Association, Best Buddies, Muscular Dystrophy Association, Alzheimer’s Association, and The Organization for Autism Research (OAR) to name just a few. Each was manned by enthusiastic cheering volunteers. I was so overwhelmed by the sight of all these groups that I stopped just to look at them all. It is incredible how galvanizing a cause can be for people and in such a positive way.

The next part of the course took us through Pilsen, Chicago’s second largest Hispanic neighborhood. There were many mariachi bands and dancers along the course in Pilsen. It was the liveliest and friendliest part of the whole course and my favorite.

The last 6.2 miles of the course were the toughest. We turned onto Wentworth Avenue and ran through the huge red gate that welcomed us into Chicago’s Chinatown. There were plenty of cheering spectators here but once we left Chinatown, things were less exciting. This is typically the point where runners will hit the proverbial wall in a race – where there aren’t so many cheering spectators or interesting things to see. The only thing that kept me going was the realization that each step was getting me closer to the finish.

As I ran up South Michigan Avenue towards Grant Park and the finish, I could tell when I was getting close to the finish by the noise and the crowds.  The crowds got thicker and the noise got louder as I approached the first of two final turns on the course. I was not prepared for the little hill we had to run up after the first turn. I shouldn’t complain – I run longer and steeper hills on my training runs at home.  After the final turn, the finish line was straight ahead. I could hear the announcers reading everyone’s name as they crossed the finish line. Joan Benoit Samuelson was one of the announcers and I was hoping to hear her read my name. Honestly, when I finished, I only had one thing on my mind and that was getting my checked bag and taking a rest. If she said my name, I sure didn’t hear it.

I can see why people like this race so much – cheering crowds, beautiful buildings, unique neighborhoods, each with its own character and feel. I am a Chicago Marathon fan now too. I’d like to run that one again (without falling though). I didn’t get my post-race pizza so that would be a reason to go back. The Chicago Marathon should be on every marathoner’s to-run list.

This is my second post about the Chicago Marathon.  Check out my first post about my race – Chicago – How Bad Did I Want It.

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Chicago – How Bad Did I Want It

I just came back from running the Chicago Marathon, one of the 6 World Marathon Majors.  I know you want to read about the race itself but you have to wait until my next post  for that.  I first need to write about my race.

Last week before I traveled to Chicago, I picked up “How Bad Do You Want It?” by Matt Fitzgerald.   The book is about mastering your mental game in order to reach your fullest potential.   In the first chapter of the book, Matt wrote about Sammy Wanjiru, a Kenyan marathoner who won the 2009 Chicago Marathon.  Sammy returned the following year to defend his title.  He admitted at the press conference the day before the race he was only 75% prepared.  2010 had been a difficult year for him.  Sammy had suffered injuries to his knee and his back, and contracted a stomach virus that interrupted his Chicago training.  On race day, Sammy was up against tough competition on a warm day.  He went out too fast.  The last three miles were a battle of wills between Sammy and his rival who was in the lead.  When everyone else had written Sammy off, he dug down deep to keep going.  Sammy came from behind to beat his rival by 19 seconds and win the race.  Where logic might have said Sammy would be lucky to finish the race, he instead proved how bad he wanted to win it.

It was kismet that I happened to start reading the book a few days before I headed to Chicago.  This was the very question I had been asking myself as I trained.  It ended up being the question I asked myself repeatedly as I ran it.

My journey to the start line was bumpy to say the least.  I originally was scheduled to run the 2016 Chicago Marathon.  I broke my big toe in July 2016 and was unable to train in time for the race. I deferred my entry to this year.  While I struggled to recover from my broken toe, I developed ankle issues that required physical therapy and help from a rehabilitation fitness trainer.  In April I ran the Boston Marathon but didn’t quite feel 100% yet.

After Boston, I turned my focus to Chicago.  My training was going well until mid July when I experienced flashing lights in my peripheral vision.  A visit to the ophthalmologist revealed I had detached vitreous.  I was instructed not to run until the flashing lights stopped.  If I ignored my doctor’s instruction and ran, I risked developing a torn or detached retina, even possibly loss of eyesight in my eye.  I refused to let this latest challenge derail my goal of running in Chicago.  I knew how badly I wanted to finish that race.  For three weeks I found ways to maintain my cardio condition without running and jostling my head.  I rode a stationary bike.  I did water running.  I worked extra hard on strength training in my Pilates classes.  I bounced back quickly when I resumed running.

In early September I ran the Kauai Half Marathon.  It was the longest distance I had run since my last half marathon in July.  I felt like I was back on track.  Life, however, had other plans.  A week after I returned from Hawaii and the day after my 16-mile training run, I developed a cough that quickly deteriorated into bronchitis.  I was exhausted from coughing all night.  My allergies kicked in and exacerbated my condition.  I was unable to run for over a week.  When I finally resumed training again, I found breathing was more difficult and I was running much slower.  The marathon was only two weeks away and my longest run had been 16 miles.  For some runners that might have been enough to pass on the race.  But I am not most runners.  I was determined to run in Chicago.  I knew it wasn’t going to be easy but I was willing to endure whatever I encountered in order to finish.

Transverse Myelitis, injuries, illness – nothing was keeping me from going for my dream

On race day I felt good.  I followed my coach’s advice and kept telling myself I was strong and I was prepared. I didn’t allow my mind to be clouded by negative thoughts.   As I stood in my corral, I was confident, not nervous.  I chatted with the runners around me, reassuring first time marathoners who were questioning their own preparations for the race.  Finally our corral headed to the start line and my race began.

Although the course was crowded, I was running well until  mile 6 when I started to feel a twinge in my ankle, the one that had bothered me during my Boston Marathon training.   I knew I had to keep the pain in check or it would only worsen.  I remembered the marathon monk and how he meditates while he walks.  By focusing on his breathing, the rhythm of his walk, his mantra, or just emptiness, the monk is able to ignore his physical pain and quiet his mind.  I decide to follow the marathon monk’s strategy.  I visualized my ankle muscles relaxing.  In a short while, I no longer felt the pain.

The Chicago course was full of bends and turns.  I was advised by my coach to run the tangents, in other words, run the straightest line possible.  Around Mile 10.5 I began maneuvering myself in preparation for the next turn. I looked over my shoulder to ensure I was not cutting off another runner.  In doing so, I took my eyes off the direction I was headed.  I tripped over something in the road and fell.  Two male runners behind me quickly scooped me up and put me back on my feet.  My fall happened very quickly, which was probably a good thing.  I didn’t have time to try to catch myself or I might have broken my wrist or arm.  I had skinned my knees but otherwise I was fine.

After cleaning off my scrapes with a Wet One, I started running again.  My knee was throbbing from the pain and I could see it was starting to get swollen.  But I only had one thing in mind – finishing the race.  I kept asking myself “How bad do you want it?”  Did I want it enough to ignore my scrapes and knee pain to keep going?  I thought again about the marathon monk.  He endures pain and exhaustion in his quest.  I thought about Sammy in 2010.  I would not let my mind keep me from my goal.  I pushed myself and finished faster than I had planned, given the warm temperatures and my interrupted training.  I wanted it bad enough and I proved it.

I saw this sign at Mile 24 – it gave me the strength to make it up the hill at the end

I wasn’t the only one in Chicago on Sunday who proved how bad they wanted it.  Jordan Halsay, a young American marathoner, was running only her second marathon.  She finished 3rd in her first marathon, the Boston Marathon in April.  In Chicago, her coach had cautioned her about running too fast in the first half or she would not have enough energy for the second half of the race.  As Jordan ran, she realized she had a decision to make.  She could hang back with the pack and run for a personal record (PR) or she could stick with the leaders and compete for a podium finish.  She decided to compete.  We saw how badly she wanted it.  Jordan finished third in her second marathon appearance, knocking two minutes off her previous PR and putting her in second place on the all-time list of American marathon performances.  Yes, Jordan wanted it.

In his book “The Last Lecture” Dr. Randy Pausch talked about challenges – the brick walls that he ran into that prevented him from achieving his dreams.  He pointed out the walls were not there to keep him from achieving his goals but to show how badly he wanted to achieve them.  Because as Dr. Pausch pointed out, the walls are there to stop people who don’t want it badly enough.  They will quit trying.  I had encountered my own walls while going for my 5th World Marathon Major finish – injuries, illness, the heat on race day, and even a fall in the middle of the race.  Ultimately, I proved how badly I wanted to finish.  I am now just one race away from achieving my dream of completing all 6 World Marathon Majors.  No matter what – I won’t quit.

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Chickens and The Sea

My most recent race trip took me to Hawaii for the Kauai Half Marathon.  I was never interested in visiting Hawaii.  For someone who lives on the East Coast, Hawaii is a long trip – over 10 hours alone on airplanes, not my idea of a fun time.  Then I saw the movie “The Descendants”.   The Hawaiian scenery was beautiful – palm trees, blue ocean water, white foamy waves breaking on sandy beaches with the mountains in the background.  I decided I wanted to see that Hawaii in person, not the “Hawaii Five-O” version I see on television.  Since Hawaii is one of the 50 States, I was obligated to run a race there anyway.  With “The Descendants” in mind, I picked the Kauai Half Marathon as my Hawaii race.

Breathtaking sunrises everyday

The first thing I noticed when I arrived in Kauai was the chickens.  There are chickens everywhere.  They were in the rental car parking lot.  They were wandering alongside the road on the way to the hotel.  They were outside the grocery store, at almost every scenic overlook, and at the beach on the south shore.  Wherever I went, there were chickens.  I joked to someone at the Kilauea Point National Wildlife Refuge that the chicken must be the state bird of Hawaii.  They bristled at my comment.  The state bird is actually the Hawaiian Goose or Nene, the world’s rarest goose.  I saw a couple of those at the Wildlife Refuge but overall I saw many more chickens than Nene.

The other thing I noticed was the Hawaiian words, towns, and street names.  I recognized the letters but I couldn’t, no, I wouldn’t even try to pronounce the names of some of the places we went.  I visited Wales earlier this year and had a similar challenge with the Welsh language.  The official Hawaiian alphabet has only 13 letters – five vowels (which can be pronounced two different ways) and eight consonants.  Although the language was on the decline, efforts are being made to reintroduce it.  I hope they are successful because I find the language beautiful.

I was apprehensive about running in Hawaii.  Heat is the equivalent of Superman’s kryptonite for people like me with Transverse Myelitis (TM).  In hot weather, TM symptoms can flare up (referred to as Uhthoff’s phenomenon).  The air temperatures in Hawaii range from lows in the mid-60s to low 70s and highs in the 80s – perfect for people lounging at the hotel pool but challenging for endurance athletes with demyelinating conditions like mine.  I have to take extra precautions when I run in hot weather to manage my core body temperature.  I use a “Keep It Chill” gaiter made of a Xylitol infused fabric.  My gaiter has a cooling effect as long as it is wet.  In most instances, my gaiter has been able to help me manage my body temperature in warm weather races.  The race in Kauai was more challenging because the temperature was in the 70s at the 6 AM start.  My gaiter dried out quickly and stopped cooling me off before the race even started.  I realized I had to stay focused on managing my body temperature to finish this race.

This woman was handing out wet sponges around Mile 7 – My Hero!

The owner of a store I visited in Hanapepe the day before the race told me the race course was tough.  She said even some of the elite runners from Kenya thought the course was difficult.  I brushed off her comments.  She wasn’t a runner.  What does she know?  I have run hills and in heat.  I wasn’t going to have any problems.  But when I started the race, I realized she was not exaggerating.  Although the scenery was gorgeous and the sunrise as the race started was breathtaking, the first 7+ miles were all up hill.  It somehow seemed appropriate the music coming from the stroller being pushed by a male runner was Led Zeppelin’s “Kashmir”.  It fit the grind I felt running uphill in the heat with limited shade.  I tried to keep up with him just because I enjoyed his music but he sprinted ahead of me.

Tunnel of Trees

I enjoyed a respite from the sun between Miles 5 and 6 when we ran through the Tunnel of Trees, huge eucalyptus trees that formed arches over the road.  They provided welcomed shade.  About Mile 7.5 the course started a downhill to the finish by the beach.  I was able to make up some time.  While I didn’t have my worst half marathon finish, it certainly wasn’t my best.  I am just happy I was able to complete the course.

While I was in Kauai, I took a helicopter tour of the island with Blue Hawaiian Helicopters.  A helicopter tour is the only way to see Kauai since most of the island is inaccessible from the ground.  I was delighted to be assigned the seat in the front row next to the pilot.

View of the Na Pali Coast from the helicopter

Because of its perfect weather and beautiful scenery, many movies have been filmed in Kauai.  During the tour, our pilot pointed out places we might recognize from movies including Mana Waiapuna (commonly referred to as “Jurassic Park Falls”) and the nurses’ beach from “South Pacific”.   We flew over Waimea Canyon, the famed “Grand Canyon of the Pacific”.  Finally we flew into the center of Mt. Waialeale, the ancient volcano that created the island of Kauai.  Mt. Waialeale is also one of the wettest spots on earth, with an average rainfall of 450-500 inches annually.  Not surprising that we saw many waterfalls all over the island.  The helicopter tour with Blue Hawaiian Helicopters was the best part of my trip to Kauai.  I would do that again in a heartbeat.

In case you don’t know the song, here is a video of Led Zeppelin performing “Kashmir”.

My favorite version of “Over the Rainbow” by the late Israel “IZ” Kamakawiwo’ole, a famous Hawaiian singer.   The scenes at the end were filmed at his funeral.

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A Life Lesson from Mr. V.

My running adventures (and my blog posts) have been sporadic since July because, well, life got in the way.  That is my way of saying I have had two relatively minor health issues to deal with.  I don’t do inactive very well.  If you want to make me very depressed, tell me I can’t run.  To fill my time, I started working with two former classmates on a grade school class reunion.  We have been trying to find people we haven’t seen in many years.  When I find a missing classmate, we will start chatting about their school memories.  They share stories about significant events during the school year, how a particular teacher made them feel or lessons they learned from them.

Hearing their comments has triggered my own memories of my teachers.  One was particularly timely.  I had learned Mr. V., a teacher who had been very influential in my life, had passed away last month.  Mr. V. had more pearls of wisdom than anyone I have met.  A particularly memorable one was the famous why one should never assume.   At the time it was a bit off-color for high school kids but I can guarantee everyone who heard that pearl remembered it.

My running has been on hold for the last week while I deal with asthmatic bronchitis.  Since I can’t run, I spend more time working on the reunion planning.   One day another one of Mr. V’s pearls of wisdom popped into my head.  “You have to get really sick every so often to appreciate what good health is.”  I haven’t been sick in a very long time – broken bones, detached vitreous (story for another day) yes but no illnesses.  I have been fortunate.  Mr. V. was absolutely right though.  I had taken the simple act of breathing for granted.  This illness has reset my attitude.  The simple act of breathing out and breathing in is one I will never take for granted again.  Without that, there is no running and the Funatical Runner is just funatical.

Originally this blog was intended to focus on stories about my travels to marathons on the seven continents and endurance running with Transverse Myelitis.  It has since morphed into stories about running an endurance race in each of the 50 States as well as the 6 World Marathon Majors and doing it while dealing with the effects of Transverse Myelitis.  More and more though, I see this blog isn’t really about running adventures because running isn’t everything (although there are times when I think it is). It is more about life itself, the journey and how all the pieces come together.  Running is just one of the things that happens along the way.  Thanks, Mr. V, for helping remind me of that.

In case you have never seen it, this was the source of Mr. V’s pearl of wisdom about what happens when you assume.  Credit to Jerry Belson, writer for the “Odd Couple” television series.

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Someday is Now

There are fascinating people you can meet when you take that first step to say hello.  We were reminded of that during our recent vacation in Montana.  While passing through Bozeman, we stopped for lunch at one of the restaurants along Main Street.  I noticed a bicycle, loaded with gear on the front and back, leaning against the railing separating the dining area from the sidewalk.  I pointed to the bicycle and told my husband it probably belonged to someone who was riding across country.  We looked up to see a tall slender man, wearing bike shorts and carrying a bike helmet, walking past our table. My husband (whose preferred activity is bicycling) greeted him and they chatted.  Turns out, Ben, the bicyclist, was biking across the US.  It was a dream he had for years.  Someday he was going to do it.  When he retired, Ben started to plan his trip and someday started to get a lot closer.    Now here it was.

In one of those “It’s a Small World” moments, it turned out Ben lives about 50 miles from us.  Since we are practically neighbors back home, we asked Ben to join us for lunch.  He didn’t hesitate.  With beers and food ordered, we sat back to hear about Ben’s adventures as a TransAmerican bicyclist.

As we ate, we peppered Ben with questions.  When did you start your cross-country trek? Mid-April.  How many miles have you biked? About 3,400 with another 1,200 to go before finishing in Oregon.  How much does all your gear weigh? 75 pounds.  Where do you sleep at night? Outside, sometimes along the road, sometimes in a hotel.  What do you do if your bike breaks down?  Carry spare parts like extra tires and inner tubes.  How many flat tires have you had so far? Two (the first when he took his bike into a hotel room and a tack in the carpet pierced his tire).  Did you sell everything you own to do this? No, just his truck.  He will buy a new one to drive back home from Oregon when he finishes.  When do you think you will finish? October.

Ben was taking his time on his trip.  Typically, I hear about bicyclists crossing the country in 14-20 days, traveling from west to east.  Ben was taking a different approach.  He had started in the east (Delaware) and was heading west.  This wasn’t any mad dash for him.  Ben was visiting friends and family along the way.  Some places he would stop to go to a baseball game.  In others, he would rent a car and make a side trip for sightseeing before hopping back on his bike to continue his journey.  Ben takes a couple of days off too, only biking 5 days a week.  To plan his route, Ben worked with the Adventure Cycling Association.  Their headquarters is located in Missoula and Ben planned to stop by to say hello.

As Ben talked, I noticed that our waitress would linger each time she stopped at our table.  She was listening to Ben talk about his experiences.  I watched her eyes get bigger and more full of life as she listened.  Finally she explained she wants to go on a similar adventure and is trying to convince her husband.  She wants to start with a bike ride through Glacier National Park. She has some fear of what she might encounter.   “Could I really do it?”  Ben assured her she could.  All she needed to do was get a bike and start training.

It was a fun lunch.  I enjoyed listening to Ben’s stories and making a new friend in the process.  When we left the restaurant, I found I was as excited about Ben’s journey as he probably was.  While I don’t think riding across country on a bike is in my future, I admire Ben for doing it.  I look forward to getting together with him again to hear about the rest of his trip.  It certainly is an incredible adventure.

Interested in a cycling adventure of your own?  Check out the Adventure Cycling Association’s web site for ideas, tips, routes, maps, and more: https://www.adventurecycling.org

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Just Say No to No

Recently my husband handed me an issue of Sports Illustrated, pointed to one article and said “read this.” The article was about Jeff Glasbrenner. When Jeff was 8 years old, he lost his right leg below the knee in a farming accident. He spent 47 grueling days in the hospital during which he had 14 surgeries, developed gangrene, and twice was resuscitated when his heart stopped. I cringe at the thought of how scary this was for a young boy. When he was finally discharged, his doctors sent him home with a list of activities that he must never attempt including swimming, biking, and playing any kind of sports. He was basically told “you can’t be a kid anymore.” For years Jeff followed his doctors’ instructions but he longed to be involved.

When Jeff went away to college, he met another student, Troy Sachs, from Australia who had his leg amputated below the knee when he was 2 1/2 years old. Troy was a world-class wheelchair basketball player. The next day Troy had Jeff out on the basketball court. While Jeff had natural ability, it took time for him to fully develop his skills. Jeff went from working the scoring table at his sister’s basketball games to playing the game he dreamed of.

Jeff went on to become a professional wheelchair basketball player. A couple of years later he was invited to participate in a 200-mile charity bike ride from Charlotte to Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. Despite having never used a hand-crank bike, Jeff enthusiastically agreed. From there he moved to a regular road bike, to swimming and running, and then completing Ironman Triathlons (25 total, in case you are counting).

Jeff and his wife have two children, one of whom, Grace, has a genetic disorder that causes her to have seizures. Through a program for people with physical disabilities, Grace tried rock climbing. They noticed that she never had a seizure while she was on the wall. Jeff got involved in rock climbing too and that led to him becoming a mountaineer, climbing mountains in North America, South America, and finally the biggest one of them all, Mt. Everest.

Although he spent years sitting on the sidelines because doctors had told him he shouldn’t be physically active, Jeff got the courage to toss that advice aside and pursue an active life. It has taken him to the top of the highest mountain in the world.

I love Jeff’s story. After reading about Jeff’s experience, I could understand a how he felt. I was training for my fourth marathon when I first began experiencing extreme neuropathy and muscle spasms so severe I could not walk. When I finally received my diagnosis of Transverse Myelitis (TM), my doctor was skeptical about my ability to run again. His words planted seeds of doubt in my brain and made me hesitant to put on my shoes and run. I was fortunate. I was not wheelchair bound but I was still afraid.  At my lowest point I was encouraged by Auntie C. who told me “Transverse Myelitis does not define you. You don’t need to have it control your life.” It was just the kick in the pants I needed to get focused again.

“No” was never a word I accepted lightly when I was growing up. (Sorry for all that aggravation, Mom.) It just meant I had to work harder to make whatever I wanted happen. I decided to try running again. Through the help of my running coach Leanne, I slowly built up my strength. I went from being the slowest runner in her class to running with the front of the pack. With Leanne’s help I got stronger than ever. Since my diagnosis over 6 years ago, I have finished 10 marathons and 48 half marathons plus completed the Rim-to-Rim in the Grand Canyon.

I have some thoughts from my experience and from reading about Jeff. First, doctors can provide information on challenges that I may face. But the only one who can say how physical activity is making me feel is me. Doctors aren’t inside my skin. I have always told my neurologist, Dr. T., we have a partnership in my health. He is another member of Team Funatical Runner. My responsibility is to give him feedback on how I feel. His job is to monitor how I am doing. According to one study of TM patients, exercise promotes functional recovery. Running has helped keep me healthier, even Dr. T. will agree with that.

Second, it is my responsibility to manage any challenges that I encounter such as having a risk mitigation plan for running in the heat and dealing with fatigue. Through trial and error, I have pretty much mastered these. When I told Dr. T. about my plan to run Rim-to-Rim in the Grand Canyon, he yelled at me “your organs will shut down and you could die.” But I planned for my challenges and I did just fine.

Finally, the benefits to my mental health from being physically active are immeasurable. Running gives me a sense of personal accomplishment. When life gets overwhelming, I can always go for a run to put things back into perspective. I might not be the fastest runner out there but I still am able to finish a marathon.

Jeff could have sat back and continued to watch life go by. But he chose to jump in and live it. He started doing all the things his doctors took off the table for him when he was 8 years old. His life is richer because he did.  I thought my TM diagnosis was the end of my running career. A bump in the road maybe but not a brick wall. I didn’t allow someone to tell me what I could or couldn’t do.  Like Jeff, it was really up to me to figure out what I was capable of.  Looking back over the last few years, I can say I am glad I didn’t let “No” stop me.

No, I’m never giving up and I would have to say Jeff isn’t either.

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Moose and Mimosas

To date I have run a full or half marathon in 44 of the 50 states. My most recent race was the Her Tern Half Marathon in Anchorage, Alaska. My goals when I boarded the plane to Anchorage were simple. I wanted to complete the half marathon so I could check off Alaska and to see a real live moose (not a stuffed one or giant moose sculpture). In addition to enjoying a wonderful race, I discovered a fascinating place with a wealth of cultural sights, incredible scenery, and more natural phenomena than any place I have visited. Of all the race trips I have taken, this is one of the most memorable.

Bob – One Lucky Guy

The Her Tern Half Marathon is an all female race with the exception of “One Lucky Guy” (selected from a handful of male applicants). This year’s winner was Bob who, with the encouragement of a female friend, started running 3 years ago to improve his health. He started out walking mostly but now is up to running 5Ks, 10Ks, half marathons, and even two full marathons. Along the way, he has gotten others running too, including his sister and his daughter.

With only 530 women runners plus Bob, the One Lucky Guy, this was one of the smallest races I have done. For some people a small race isn’t very attractive but I enjoy races like this. Because it was small, there were things I would never see at a larger race. Every runner was given a reusable Baggu bag, coupons to use at Skinny Raven Sports (the race organizer) and the Her Tern boutique along with a race shirt. I saw lots of runners making good use of their coupons (because women love to shop!). The medal was a handmade finisher’s bracelet. At the end of the race, there were free race photos and free post-race massages. The post-race refreshments had women in mind: fruit; cookies and cupcakes (including gluten-free options); apple strudel; and for those of legal drinking age, mimosas in a rose garden served in a souvenir champagne glass. Although I never drink a beer after a race, I did enjoy my mimosa!

Post-race mimosa

The thing that impressed me the most about this race is how supportive and encouraging it was for the women runners. It was apparent some of these women were running farther than they ever had. The course was out and back, mostly on the Chester Creek Trail. Along the course there were motivational messages written in chalk on the pavement. Since most runners have their eyes focused on the ground before them, we always saw the messages. A few of the water stops were manned by young men in tuxedos, cheering the women runners on.

The last half mile or so of the race was up “Happy Hill”. At that point in the race, a hill was the last thing I wanted to see. As I ran up it, I watched people coming down from the finish line and running alongside runners who were struggling, encouraging them to keep pushing. Over and over those cheerleaders came down to escort another runner up the hill. I have never seen that kind of support in any race. I have run several women-centric races including the Tinker Bell Half, Princess Half, and the Nike Women’s Half but the Her Tern Half Marathon was the best of them all.

There really was a moose in those bushes

Not only did I finish my Alaska race (Goal #1 – check!), along the race course there was a female moose with two calves. Two paramedics were standing nearby, keeping an eye on the mom in case she started moving towards the race course. I stopped to take a couple of photos of the moose but she was difficult to see among the bushes.

With the race out of the way, I could enjoy the other things Alaska has to offer visitors. I drove north to Eklutna, to see the spirit houses in the graveyard of the St. Nicholas Orthodox Church. Spirit houses are a unique burial custom that combines practices of both the Russian Orthodox Church and the Dena’ina, an Athabascan people native to this area of Alaska for over 1,000 years.  (Read more about the spirit houses in this NPR article.)

On my way back, I stopped at the Alaskan Native Heritage Center, which provides information about Alaska’s 11 major cultural groups. There were interesting demonstrations of native art, dances and games as well as examples of the buildings and customs unique to each group. Docents representing each cultural group answered questions and explained the exhibits. I left with a deeper understanding and appreciation of Native Alaskan cultures.

I was surprised to learn Anchorage is as far west as Hawaii and as far north as Helsinki, Finland. Because it is so far north, in the summer months there aren’t any hours where it is dark. They experience longer periods of civil twilight each day, where there is just enough sunlight that you don’t need artificial light to see outdoors. I didn’t need the headlights on my rental car at 11:00 PM. It didn’t get pitch black out while I was in Anchorage either. I understand now why black-out blinds were noted as one of the hotel room’s amenities.

Anchorage has beautiful parks as well as an 11-mile bike trail called the Tony Knowles Coastal Trail. There were several places to rent bicycles for a ride along the trail. In the winter, the trail is used for cross-country skiing. I walked the trail where it passed through Kincaid Park. The park is over 1500 acres of birch, cottonwood, and spruce trees with an abundance of wildlife including moose, bears, fox, and many types of birds including eagles. Another trail took me to the north end of the Anchorage Coastal Wildlife Refuge where I walked down to the stoney beach. The views of Cook Inlet and snow-capped mountains in the distance were breathtaking. I didn’t see any moose in Kincaid Park or at the wildlife refuge.

View from the beach of the Anchorage Coastal Wildlife Refuge

I visited Earthquake Park, a 134-acre park located in an area where an entire neighborhood slid into the sea during a 1964 earthquake, the worst to ever hit North America. The earthquake measured 9.2 on the Richter scale and lasted over 4 minutes. There were fabulous views of the Knik Arm and Chugach Mountains. I saw plenty of mosquitos but no moose.

Young male moose having a snack

The final park I visited was Point Woronzof Park, located between the end of the runway at the Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport and the sea. There were sweeping views of Cook Inlet, a wide variety of birds, and the biggest treat of my whole trip – two moose, a young male and young female. These weren’t hiding in deep brush. I took several photos of them as airplanes flew overhead on their approach to the airport. (Goal #2 – check!) I had been told the best place to see a moose was at the airport. Those people were right.

I was disappointed I did not get to witness the Alaska bore tide in Turnagain Arm. A bore tide occurs in about 60 places around the world where a rush a seawater returns to a shallow and narrowing inlet from a broad bay. The one at Turnagain Arm can reach 6-10 feet tall and moves at speeds of 10-15 miles per hour. Sometimes surfers can be seen riding the tide in. I drove down to Beluga Point, a spot along the Seward Highway, where one can see beluga whales as well as watch the bore tide. Unfortunately, I wasn’t there at the right time to see the bore tide in action. I didn’t see any whales either.

Alaska is very different from any other place I have traveled on my Funatical Runner adventures.  I will never forget finally seeing a moose but there was so much I didn’t get to see.   I plan to visit Alaska again to watch the bore tide during one of the 4-5 days per month that it is the highest. I would love to see the beluga whales too. I want to see Denali’s peak from Anchorage or, better yet, visit the Denali National Park. If I go at the right time, I might even be able to see the Aurora Borealis (viewable from late August to early April). I can’t wait to go back!

I didn’t have time to visit Anchorage’s Gravity Hill.  This isn’t really a natural phenomenon (more of an optical illusion) but it would be fun to see.

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Running to Catch a Boat

I broke my big toe last July, one week before the Shipyard Brewing Old Port Half Marathon in Portland, Maine.  I was disappointed to miss the race and vowed to run it this year.  Last weekend I headed to Portland with expectations of running, eating lobster rolls, and seeing a moose.

Lobster rolls!

The scenery around Portland is typical for what I have seen in New England – marshy areas inland, rocky shorelines with light houses, and bays dotted with small islands.  Walking along Commercial Street near the docks in Portland, I saw all types of boats – fishing boats, lobster boats, sail boats, and ferries.  There are many interesting stores along Commercial Street and almost every restaurant advertised lobster rolls on their menu.  One of the best things about running races in coastal New England states is getting a lobster roll before and after a race.  I enjoyed the ones at the Portland Lobster Company.  (In Boston I think the lobster rolls at Luke’s Lobster are the best.)

The Old Port Half Marathon is the second largest running event in Maine, which makes it sound like it is a huge race.  There actually were only about 2,500 runners in the half marathon.  I enjoy smaller races like this.  They have a more relaxed and friendly atmosphere.  Although this would have been the perfect race to dress as a lobster, I didn’t see anyone running in a costume.  With the warm July weather it would have been unbearable to run in a lobster outfit.

Cheering spectators in the west end

The course gave runners a good tour of Portland.  We first headed out to the west end of the city.  There was a mile long hill there that rivaled the infamous Heartbreak Hill in Boston.  After looping through the west end neighborhoods, we headed towards Back Cove at the other end of Portland.  We ran over 3 miles around Back Cove on a flat packed dirt trail.  I took advantage of the flat terrain to make up some time.  I was in a hurry to finish the race.  While other runners were probably running to get the free Shipyard Brewing beer at the finish line, I had other plans.  Casco Bay Lines has twice daily rides on the Mailboat Run.  Passengers enjoy a scenic tour of the islands in Casco Bay around Portland.  I was running to make the 10 AM mailboat.

I ran over the finish line, grabbed my medal, bottle of water and wet towel, and kept running straight back to my car.  After a quick change of clothes, I headed to the ferry terminal to hop on the mailboat.  I boarded the boat and snagged a seat on the top deck at the bow so I would have a great view.

I didn’t tell them I had 2 bananas with me 😉

As we waited to depart, I pulled a banana out of my bag.  I had skipped the free pizza at the finish line and needed something to eat.  At the sight of my banana, the woman sitting next to me yelled “No bananas on the boat!”   Her husband told me to throw it overboard. I wasn’t sure what the issue was with a banana so I asked them why.  I learned superstitious fisherman believe it is bad luck to have bananas on a boat.  They won’t catch fish or will experience mechanical issues with their boat.  Her husband explained sunken ships have been found with bananas in their holds.  I quickly ate my banana before we left to protect the mailboat from harm.

A lobster men setting their lobster pots

The mailboat was a fun way to see Casco Bay.  The beautiful weather meant there were plenty of boats on the water.  The captain narrated during the ride, explaining the history of the bay and providing other interesting information about Portland.  The mailboat made stops at five islands —Little Diamond, Great Diamond, Long, Cliff and Chebeague – dropping off passengers, mail, and freight including a few cars.  Several islands in the bay are only populated in summer months, though a few hardy folks live on others year round.  We had an extended stop on Cliff Island where I went ashore to look around a bit.  When the boat returned to the ferry terminal in Portland, I headed for my post-race lobster roll.

The only moose I saw in Maine

There is so much more to see in Maine beyond Portland.  For this trip I met my goal of running a race and eating lobster rolls.  Sadly, the only moose I saw was on a sign in the airport.  The mailboat ride, though, made up for not seeing a moose.  I ran pretty fast to make that boat and I was not disappointed.  Spending time on the water with the sea air and sunshine was an unexpected pleasure.  I definitely plan to visit Maine again.  Maybe I will see a moose the next time I go.

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Staying Safe

Safety on the roads is one thing both runners and bicyclists have to keep as a top priority.  Hazards come in all forms.  It can be somebody attacking us on a lonely stretch of a trail or a menacing dog with a taste for athletes.  I know someone who was attacked by a raccoon during a run on a February morning.  She ended up being treated for rabies.  There is one hazard that scares me the most – a motor vehicle.  In a battle between a runner or bicyclist and a motor vehicle, the motor vehicle will always win.

At the end of March I was shocked and sadden to learn Mike Hall, a 35-year-old ultra cyclist from the UK, was killed while riding in the inaugural Indian Pacific Wheel Race in Australia.  I became familiar with Mike from the documentary “Inspired to Ride” about the inaugural Trans Am Bike Race, an unsupported race across the US that Mike won.  (I wrote about the documentary in my post “Looking for Inspiration“.)  I started following Mike’s races after watching the film.  I admired him because he wasn’t afraid of a challenge.  He loved adventure too.  More importantly, Mike was a good guy.  He was always willing to help other bicyclists.  It wasn’t all about him.  Although I don’t cycle, his death was difficult to believe.   Gone too young in a tragic way – hit from behind by a car in the early morning.

In June Tim Lalla, a 24-year-old from Chicago, was participating in the Biking for Baseball program to raise money for the B4B Little Scholarship Fund.  Tim was cycling to all 30 Major League ballparks as part of his fundraising – watching games and meeting people.  He had seen games in 10 different ballparks and was heading from Houston to Atlanta when he was struck by a Ford F-150 in Alabama.  The pictures of Tim and his bike after the accident are horrific.  Just a few days after hearing about Tim’s accident, I learned of another ultra cyclist, Eric Fishbein, who was killed while riding in the Trans Am Bike Race.  Like Mike, Eric was hit from behind by a car on a road in Kansas.

Motor vehicles are a danger to runners as well.  In January 2014 Meg Menzies was struck and killed by a drunk driver while running with her husband.  Meg who was training for the Boston Marathon was running on the shoulder of the road when she was hit.  Two months later, Jaime Rowley, a single parent, was fatally hit by a car during her morning run.  One of my favorite local races benefits a foundation established in Jaime’s memory.  Every time I run that race I stop by the foundation’s tent and make a donation.  Jaime could be me.

I remember running one Sunday with Leanne, my running coach at the time.  As we approached an intersection on the trail, she made me stop to look both ways before we continued running.  She told me to never assume that a motorist would stop for me at a crossing.  In retrospect, Leanne was teaching me a very important lesson.  A motorist may be distracted by something in the car or blinded by glare.  If they didn’t see me, I could be hit.  I always stop at intersections now and look before I go.

While there are no statistics about runners killed in collisions with motor vehicles (runners get lumped into statistics with pedestrians), there are statistics on bicyclists deaths.  According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, 818 bicyclists were killed in crashes with motor vehicles in 2015.  That means 818 families have one less person around the table at holiday get-togethers.  Pretty sobering.

I take several safety precautions to improve my odds when running on the trails and the roads.  First, I never wear headphones when I run.  Sound provides very important information about what is around me.  Second, I wear bright clothing when I run – think neon green like construction workers.  Might not be very stylish but I am more concerned with my safety.  Third, when I do run on roads, I run facing traffic and get well off the road when a car approaches.  I never assume that someone will give me a wide berth.  In the past I would run outside at night but I don’t anymore.  I discovered no matter what reflective gear I wore, it seemed as if the cars headed for me.  When the sun goes down, I head for the dreaded treadmill. I continue to follow Leanne’s rule of stopping and looking both ways at an intersection before I cross a road.  And finally, I always wear my Road ID because if something happens to me, I want my family to be notified as quickly as possible.

I think my list of precautions is appropriate for bicyclists too (except they have to bike with the flow of traffic and not against it).  Visibility is important for them too.  Like runners, bicyclists should never assume a car is looking out for you.  With an increased interest in bicycling, safely sharing the road with 4,000+ pound car is a matter of life or death.

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My Marathon Monk

Kaihogyo

Three years ago I read a book titled “The Marathon Monks of Mount Hiei” by John Stevens.  The book focuses on the Tendai Buddhist monks who complete Kaihōgyō, 1,000 days of long distance walking, meditation, and prayer over a 7-year period.  Kaihōgyō is by far more demanding than any modern-day athletic endurance event, so demanding that the monks are required to carry a knife and rope to kill themselves if they fail.  Since 1585 when they started keeping records only about 52 monks have successfully completed Kaihōgyō (one monk has completed Kaihōgyō twice!).  Their motivation to attempt such a grueling feat is to achieve enlightenment and become a living Buddha.  I was so fascinated by the marathon monks that I wrote one of my early blog posts about them.  I have wanted to visit Mount Hiei and the monastery where they live since I read the book.  I didn’t have time to travel there in 2015 when I ran the Tokyo Marathon.  Last week I returned to Japan and visiting the monastery on Mount Hiei was at the top of my list of things to see.  Little did I know I was going to see a lot more.

Mount Hiei is over 2700 feet high and straddles two prefectures – Kyoto Prefecture and Shiga Prefecture.  It is a beautiful mountain, covered in trees and flowers, and home to a wide array of wildlife.  The monastery on Mount Hiei was founded 1200 years ago and has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

View of Kyoto from the ropeway to Mt Hiei

Traveling to Mount Hiei from Kyoto was a bit of an adventure. I hired a Japanese guide, Maki, to help me get there.  We went by cab to a train station where we took a train out of Kyoto.  Then we transferred to a cable car followed by a ride on a ropeway (an aerial tram) and, after a short of walk, boarded a bus for the last part of the trip to the Mount Hiei monastery.  Along the way we were treated to breathtaking views of Kyoto, Lake Biwa, and Lake Shiga.  I even saw deer grazing along the cable car tracks.

Bell tower – visitors are permitted to ring the bell

As we walked around the monastery complex, Maki explained the history and significance of each building.  There were temples and shrines of all sizes, though the main temple, Enryaku-ji, was by far the most impressive.  Walking around the complex was not an easy stroll.  It was more like a stair master workout – between each of the buildings, we were going up and down very steep stairs.

Maki mentioned there is currently a monk in the midst of Kaihōgyō.  She lives along the route that the monk takes into Kyoto to visit the temples and shrines there.  Her mother has seen the monk on his walks.  I was thrilled to visit Mount Hiei but the thought of possibly seeing a marathon monk was incredible.  It is not something that happens every day.  Maki found out when the monk would be passing through Kyoto the next day.  He would be stopping at one of the temples I planned to visit, the Kiyomizudera Temple.  I decided to time my visit there so that I could see him.

My Japanese guide for the next day, Miho, was very agreeable to helping me see the monk.  We arrived at a location we expected the monk to pass on his way to the Kiyiomizudera Temple.  Miho checked with the surrounding shopkeepers.  One confirmed the monk would be coming past where we were.  After waiting nearly 45 minutes in the hot sun, we decided to keep making our way up the hill to the temple.  We stopped again halfway up where two roads intersected.  We weren’t sure which road the monk would take to the temple.  Another shopkeeper there assured us the monk came this way and had not yet passed by.  Again we waited.  Unfortunately marathon monks don’t wear tracking devices like runners do in races.  I had no idea where the monk was or when he would come.  I decided I was not going to see the marathon monk and we resumed our walk up the hill to the Kiyiomizudera Temple.

The monk passed so quickly that I was unable to get a picture of him. This photo was displayed in the cable car station on Mount Hiei.

There were hundreds of tourists around the temple grounds.  Kyoto is one of the top destinations in Japan for both Japanese and foreign tourists, and Kiyiomizudera Temple is one of the most visited sites. We stopped at several shrines and smaller temples as Miho explained the significance of each.  Finally we reached the main temple,  Kiyiomizudera Temple.   As we stopped to look at a Buddha who protects businesses, there was a flurry of activity behind me.  I was pushed aside by group of 10-12 men who were surrounding the man I recognized immediately as the marathon monk.  The group stopped in front of another Buddha where the monk knelt and began a chant.  After about 2 minutes, he got back up and continued on his way, still surrounded by the men who cleared a path through the crowd of tourists.  He moved swiftly and quietly, except for the rhythmic sound of his wood walking stick hitting the ground.  I was so amazed that for several minutes I could not speak.  I had never expected to be able to see a monk in the middle of one of his “marathons”.  It was a magical moment, one that I will never forget.

That evening I enjoyed dinner at a traditional Japanese restaurant with low tables and mats covering the floor.  A Geisha in training was entertaining us during the meal.  I spoke to her through a translator about seeing the marathon monk.  We started to talk about my own running activities, including the 2015 Tokyo Marathon.  The Geisha, it turns out, is training to run the Honolulu Marathon as preparation to run the Kyoto Marathon.  It seems as if I can’t escape running even when I take a trip that doesn’t include a race of my own.

When I got back home, I was able to find out more about the current marathon monk, Kogen Kamahori.  He is nearing the end of his Kaihōgyō and expects to be finished this fall.  In 2015 Kamahori completed doiri, 9-days without food, water, or sleep, during Year 5 of his Kaihōgyō .  (Doiri translates to “living death”.  In fact, many monks have died during doiri.)  There were several news stories about him when he finished.

For anyone who wants to experience some of a marathon monk’s course on Mount Hiei, there is the Mount Hiei International Trail Run.  Runners can choose to run either 50 miles (with 5500 meters vertical) or 50 km (with 3700 meters vertical).  After I walked a bit on Mount Hiei, I can tell you that it would a challenging race.  (Here is a link to an interesting blog post by someone who completed the 2016 race:  http://alpine-works.com/2016/06/mt-hiei-50k-international-trail-run/.)  Runners have to be able to follow the whole trail without getting lost (even marathon monks sometimes get lost and they live there).  Among the equipment the runners must carry is bear bells.  I was tempted to take up ultra running so I could enter this race but common sense tells me this is a race for stronger runners than me.  Instead of running the ultra, I would be happy to return to Mount Hiei and hike down one of the trails from the top.  I can’t imagine what I would see if I did that!

Documentary Educational Resources put together a fascinating film about the marathon monks.  Here is a preview of the film.

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