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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Running, Raptors, and a Rodeo

Vacation Races is a terrific organization that puts on races near national parks.  It is a wonderful way to combine running a race with a visit to a national park.  In 2015 I ran their Rocky Mountain Half Marathon and in 2016 I ran their Zion Half Marathon.  Both races were challenging but memorable.  Last weekend I traveled to Jackson, Wyoming to run my third Vacation Races half marathon outside Grand Teton National Park.  The race was as enjoyable as the others.

One of the Grand Teton peaks

I arrived in Jackson a few days early so that I could get acclimated to the higher elevation.  I toured Grand Teton National Park, hiking some of the trails to shake out my legs.  The Grand Teton scenery is incredibly beautiful with snow-covered mountains peeking out behind the clouds.  As I walked up the trails near Signal Mountain, I was amazed by the wild flowers and the intense smell of pine trees.  There wasn’t any noise from traffic, just the sounds of birds and the wind rustling through the aspen trees.  It was a big change from life back on the East Coast.

Each of the four entrances to the Jackson Town Square has an arch made from antlers

Jackson is a fascinating old Western town.  None of the buildings is over 3 stories high; the majority are only 2 stories.  The raised sidewalks are made of wood.  The only thing missing from the streetscape is hitching posts for horses.  Throughout the town there are bronze sculptures of historical figures, cowboys, Native Americans, and animals including life-size deer, moose, and elk.  I don’t think I have ever seen so much public art in such a small town before.

The race expo was held in the same area where the race would start.  The Vacation Races folks try to eliminate waste so they encouraged people to bring their own bag.  For those of us who forgot, they had a tent set up where you could make a bag out of an old race shirt (free race shirts provided).  I quickly made one to carry my bib and all my purchases at the Expo.     In addition to various vendors, Park Rangers were on hand to provide information about Grand Teton National Park and the wildlife there including bears (both Grizzly and Black).   It was a small but very pleasant Expo.

This race was almost all up hill!

Views of the mountains as we ran

The race started early, at 6:30 am.  As we started running, almost every turn gave us a different view of the mountains.  Although my rehab trainer tells me “head down” when I run, it was very difficult to do during this race.  There were so many things to see like the hot air balloons flying down the valley with the mountains looming in the background (sorry, my pictures of the balloons didn’t turn out well).  There wasn’t any music along the course but that was wonderful because we could listen to the birds as we ran.  Between the elevation with a steady climb of 580 feet on the course and stopping to take pictures, my finish time wasn’t my best.  That didn’t matter to me because this was a race course to savor, not one to rush through.

After the race, I took time to visit the Jackson Hole Historical Society Museum.  They had fascinating exhibits on life of the early settlers, trappers, cowboys, and Native Americans.  The guides in the museum had plenty of stories about Jackson’s more colorful residents from the past.

Peregrine Falcon

Later I visited the Teton Raptor Center.  Their mission is to rehabilitate injured raptors; support research projects on raptors; and provide educational programs.  (A raptor is a bird that hunts and kills with their talons/feet and eats by ripping up the meat with their beaks.)  They showed us several birds who are not able to be released back into the wild because of the severity of their injuries (e.g., blind in one eye, amputated wing parts, paralyzed feet).  Among the birds on display were a Great Horned Owl, Red-Tailed Hawk, Peregrine Falcon, Eastern Screech Owl, Kestrel, and Bald Eagle.  It was fascinating to see the birds up close and learn about their unique characteristics.

Saturday night was rodeo night.  Although they didn’t have all the typical rodeo events, I was able to get an idea of what a rodeo is all about (this was my first rodeo).  There were events for bull riding, bucking broncos, team calf roping, and barrel racing.  Little kids participated in mutton busting where they tried to ride a sheep for 8 seconds.  It is a lot harder than you think to ride a sheep.

Wyoming – My 42nd State, only 8 more to go!

I highly recommend the Grand Teton Half Marathon.  The scenery is beautiful with pine forests, wild flowers, mountains, and an abundance of wildlife.  If you still feel like moving after the race, you can go hiking or kayaking on one of the many lakes in the park.   I enjoyed seeing a different part of the country with such an interesting history.   For me it was definitely an adventure.

I loved the idea for reusing an old race shirt to make a bag.  I am going to look through my old race shirts for one that would make a fun bag.  I found this link with instructions on how to make a bag from an old t-shirt:  https://snapguide.com/guides/make-a-tote-bag-from-an-old-t-shirt-no-sewing/

I stayed at the Wort Hotel, a historic hotel with such an amazing display of photos and western art it could be a museum.  The rooms were very comfortable and the staff was pleasant and helpful.  I would definitely stay there again.

Some of the amazing art on display in the Wort Hotel

The Teton Raptor Center has a project, the Poo-Poo Project, underway to help prevent cavity-nesting birds from entering vault toilets through the ventilation pipes and becoming entrapped.  Vault toilets are the self-contained restrooms found in many of America’s wilderness areas, featuring vertical ventilation pipes that mimic the natural cavities preferred by some species for nesting and roosting. Birds enter the vault toilet through the ventilation pipe and get stuck in the ‘basement’ of the vault toilet.  Thousands of birds become entrapped and die in bottom of vault toilets in the US each year.  Cavity-nesting birds also can be entrapped in other types of open pipes as well including irrigation pipes, ventilation pipes, dryer vents, and chimneys.

The Poo-Poo Project is addressing the problem by installing vent screens on vault toilets.  You can help the Poo-Poo Project two ways. First you can notify the Teton Raptor Center of any vault toilet in your area that needs to have a Poo-Poo screen installed.  Second, you can make a donation to cover the cost of a Poo-Poo screen(s).  Donations can be made as gifts in honor or memory of someone too.  You can find out more information about the Poo-Poo Project at http://tetonraptorcenter.org/our-work/poo-poo-project/.  I was happy to make a donation for two Poo-Poo screens.  

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I Ran Far in Fargo

Recently while flying to a race, I thought about how silly this all seems – traveling to 50 states to run endurance events.  Aren’t they all the same?  How can any race be different?  26.2 or 13.1 miles is the same not matter where you run it, right?  My most recent race in Fargo, North Dakota reminded me that every place is different and every race is unique in its own way.

The start line inside the Fargo Dome

The Fargo Marathon/Half Marathon claims that it is “fast, fun and friendly”.  I ran the half marathon and I have to agree.  Fargo is very flat and the few “hills” we had were mere bumps in the road compared to other places.  The only course that is flatter than the Fargo Half Marathon is the Arena Attack I ran in Hartford, Connecticut.  Funny thing is both the Arena Attack and the Fargo Half have one thing in common.  A portion, if not all, of the race is run in an arena.  The Arena Attack was run entirely inside on the concourse of Hartford’s XL Center.  The Fargo Half started and finished on the arena floor inside the Fargo Dome.  We only ran a short distance inside before heading outside to run through the streets of Fargo and neighboring Moorhead, Minnesota.  We finished up back inside the Fargo Dome too.  For marathoners looking for a BQ (Boston Qualifier), this is the race for you!  Flat and fast.

Over 1 mile of elm trees lining the course

Although the whole idea of starting and ending inside sounds a bit odd, there are many benefits.  There were plenty of restrooms for runners to use before the race – much nicer than port-a-potties.  The temperature inside the arena was controlled so we didn’t need toss clothes at the start or space blankets at the finish to keep warm.  There were plenty of seats inside for spectators to sit and cheer for the runners at the start and the finish plus they could watch the action along the course on the Jumbotrons.  That would be the best way to watch a race.

These spectators had a fun way to enjoy watching the race

The residents of Fargo were very welcoming.  I stopped along the course to take a picture of an elm tree-lined street and started talking to a woman about her beautiful trees and Dutch Elm disease.  She ended our conversation by asking me to come back for next year’s race.  People living along the course definitely enjoyed the race.  They had some of the best signs.  Usually I see the same old signs at every race.  Not in Fargo.  They came up with very unique and creative signs to keep the runners laughing.   They put EZ-up tents in their front yards and were handing out water, licorice, and fruit (including peeled oranges).  It looked like many of them were treating race day like a big party.

The Fargo Marathon/Half Marathon boasts over 58 locations of bands or DJs along the course.  They had entertainment I had never seen before.  I saw a group of bagpipers, one of whom was playing a bag pipe that looked like a shaggy dog.  There was a group of Norwegian accordion players.  My favorite was the Dancing Cowboy – a cowboy who was dancing as I ran by to Pitbull’s “Timber”.  He looked like he was having a great time.  I heard songs I haven’t heard in years along the course too, including the Prince song “Let’s Go Crazy”.  All the entertainment made the race a lot of fun.

The Dancing Cowboy

When I finished, they had pizza, fruit, bagels, donut holes and cookies for the runners.  As I ate my post-race treats, I watched runners finish.  I can’t think of another race where I was able to hang around after I finished and watch the rest of the race.  It was exciting to hear the announcer say “another Boston Qualifier finishing!”  Everyone in the arena would cheer.

 

 

While I wasn’t particularly fast in this race (I did stop to talk to someone about Dutch Elm disease, that cost me some time), I have to agree it was fun and friendly.  If I decide to make my own BQ attempt, this is definitely a race I would consider running.

If you decide to run the Fargo Marathon or Half Marathon, be sure to save some time to see some of the local attractions.  For anyone who enjoyed the movie “Fargo” you can see the wood chipper used in the movie in the Fargo-Moorhead Visitors Center.  The staff there will even take your picture with it.  Just over the Red River in Moorhead is the Heritage-Hjemkomst Interpretive Center where you can see a 76-foot long replica of a Viking dragon ship, built in the 1980s in an abandoned potato warehouse and successfully sailed from Minnesota to Norway.  

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Running in The Land of Pre

When I picked out a race to run in Oregon, the choice for me was simple.  I had to go to Tracktown, USA to run the Eugene Half Marathon, a race that ends on the iconic Hayward Field.   This race was definitely one of the most enjoyable races I have run.

Whether you come to run or not, Eugene is a wonderful place to visit.  Located in the Willamette Valley, the scenery is beautiful – foothills and mountains covered in trees and pines, and flowing rivers with ducks and fish.  I stopped by the Eugene Saturday Market, a market for farmers and artisans covering two blocks of a downtown park.  It was one of the most interesting markets I have ever seen and is reputed to be the oldest market of its kind in the US.  There were also plenty of interesting stores to explore as I strolled the downtown streets.  The Eugene area is also home to many wineries and craft breweries.  I am not much of a beer drinker but I enjoyed tasting the wines from Sweet Cheeks winery at their tasting room in a small downtown mall.

Bill Bowerman (note he is standing on a waffle iron)

Eugene is home to the University of Oregon, well known for their track and field program.  Hayward Field is located on the university campus.  Steve Prefontaine (more commonly referred to as Pre) attended the university and competed in track in middle and long-distance events under Coach Bill Bowerman.  Both Bill and Pre are legends in Eugene.  Bill was a very successful coach, leading the university to multiple national collegiate championships.  He did everything he could to help his athletes improve their performances.  That included coming up with improved shoe sole designs using his wife’s waffle iron.  His innovations ultimately led to him to co-found Nike with Phil Knight.  There is a statue of Bill at Hayward Field.  The statue rests on a base made to look like a waffle iron.

Pre once held the American record in 7 different distances from 2,000 meters to 10,000 meters and competed at the 1972 Summer Olympics.  In a race he liked to take the lead early and stay there to the finish line.  At the age of 19 he was on the cover of Sports Illustrated magazine,  Tragically, he died at the age of 24 when his car crashed into a rock.  The spot is now a shrine called “Pre’s Rock”.  Runners stop to visit, many leaving their shoes, race bibs, and even their medals to pay tribute to a runner who inspired them.  Before I picked up my race bib, I took a quick drive to visit Pre’s Rock.

Sunday was race day for the marathoners and half marathoners.  For anyone who rode a bike to the start line, they had a bike valet (no worries about keeping your bike safe while you ran).  I love race courses in the Pacific Northwest and this one was very pleasant – gorgeous scenery and not much in the way of hills.  It is considered one of the best places to earn a Boston Qualifying time.  The race was lots of fun too.  Spectators had put up fun inspirational signs and people were entertaining the runners including two guys playing didgeridoos.  One water stop included people dressed in gorilla costumes (without the head) handing out bananas.

Coming onto Hayward Field to finish the race was very emotional.  I have never run on a surface as comfortable  as Hayward Field.  It felt like I was running on springs, very cushiony and very little impact on my tired legs.  There were cheering spectators in the stands watching the runners finish.  I could imagine how exciting it must be to compete there.

There was plenty to enjoy after the race was over too.  Runners were handed a reusable shopping bag filled with food and a reusable water bottle.  There was a pancake breakfast courtesy of Krusteaz and grilled cheese sandwiches with Franz organic bread.  This was the first race where I have had this kind of finisher food and it was wonderful.

Every runner I talked to after we finished had the same reaction: we were enjoying the race so much, we hated to see it end.  Whether you are running the 50 States or just looking for a different race experience, I highly recommend that you head to Eugene.

Nike put out this film about Pre.  If you don’t know much about Pre, watch this film and see what Pre was all about.

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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.

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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. 😉