Going the Distance

It is not unusual these days to hear about people running ultra marathons. I am always in awe of people who run distances greater than a marathon – 50K, 100K, 50 miles, 100 miles, or even more. Some races take multiple days to complete. It boggles my mind what people can do.

I read a news story last week about a man in Arizona, Hal Gensler, 68 years old, who just celebrated his 9,000th consecutive day of running. Hal ran track in high school and college but stopped when, like most of us, he couldn’t find time in his schedule to get a daily run in. Then in his early 40s, he started running again and decided that he was going to run every day. Hal has run in all sorts of weather – brutal cold winters in his native Minnesota and staggering triple digit heat in his current home in Arizona. Hal doesn’t time his runs or measure the distance he goes. He just does it; it is his goal and he is sticking to it. Hal is a much more dedicated runner than I am.

Coincidentally, I just finished an interesting book about a cross country race dubbed the Bunion Derby – “C.C. Pyle’s Amazing Foot Race – The True Story of the 1928 Coast-to-Coast Run Across America” by Geoff Williams. I had stumbled upon the book by accident. I could not imagine what it would have been like to run across the United States in 1928. This was long before there were fancy running shoes with cushioning and gel insoles, sweat wicking material for shirts, electrolyte replacements like Nuun and Powerade, and energy replacements like gels and goo. This was a book that I had to read.

There were 199 runners entered who ranged in age from 15 to 63 years old. The runners came from all over the world and many different backgrounds, among them farmers, bank clerks, lumber jacks and students, all hoping to win the $25,000 first prize. The athletic ability of the entrants was just as varied. Several were part-time or former boxers – boxing was the #2 most popular sport in the US after baseball (boy, have times changed!). There were some accomplished runners (including 45 year old Arthur Newton who set the 100 mile record in 1928 at 14:22:10) as well as race walkers. According to the doctor who performed pre-race physicals on all the athletes, only 6 had run over 25 miles daily to prepare for the race.

The race started in Los Angeles and ended in Madison Square Garden in New York City. For 84 days in a row, the runners got up and ran to the next town on the route. The shortest distance was 17 miles and the longest was 74.6 miles. Most days the runners covered between 30 and 50 miles. They ran through the desert, over mountains where the altitude challenged them, on gravel and sand, even an abandoned stage coach route. While some had the 1928 equivalent of running shoes, others wore inconceivable footwear such as logging boots or patent leather street shoes. Not surprising, the runners suffered many injuries including sunburn, blisters, tendonitis, shin splints, fallen arches, and lost toenails (some things never change even with better shoes). It was not uncommon for runners to get hit by cars, especially if they were running in the dark.

It took a toll on the runners mentally to run day after day for 84 days. I remember doing the Dopey Challenge this year and after four days I was ready to be done with running. But 84 days in a row is just crazy. A few of them did go out of their minds. Out of the 199 runners who started, only 55 finished the 3,421.5 miles to reach the finish line in New York City.

Running 9,000 days or even just 84 days in a row – both are too extreme for me. I am happy to run three days a week. But it is important to exercise. Hal Gensler recognizes this. His advice is simple and something that everyone should listen to – “You don’t have to run but get out and exercise.”

Want to learn more about the Bunion Derby? I highly recommend that you read the book and learn about the runners’ motivations, their struggles during the race, and their determination to reach the finish line. You can also find out more about the race at “The Great American Foot Race” web site which accompanied the 2002 PBS documentary by the same name.

The Three Ss of Running – Shoes, Shirts and Socks

Last year there was an article in Runners World magazine where the author said he could tell he had become a runner by the piles of sweaty running clothes waiting to be washed. According to him, all runners have piles of dirty running clothes. Yes, I have lots of running clothes either waiting to hit the washer or hanging to dry (you never put running clothes in the dryer) but I think that there are some other indicators that I am a runner.

It all starts with the shoes. Runners are picky about their shoes and when we find a pair that works, we stick with them. When I started running, I found that Sauconys Pro Grid Trigon Ride 5 were the most comfortable for me. One of the problems is that shoe manufacturers will change the shoe designs periodically. A shoe that fits great now may not be so wonderful when it gets tweaked to the new design. Many runners will stock up when they hear that a shoe is being discontinued. I learned this and started hoarding the Sauconys that I loved. Eventually I ran out of my stock pile and had to find a new shoe. I was fortunate because eventually the shoe design morphed back into one I could wear happily again. I gave up the hoarding though. It takes up too much space in my closet.

I put about 300 miles on a pair of shoes before I replace them (I keep a spreadsheet to track the number of miles on each pair). When a pair is getting near the end of their life, I will start breaking in a new pair. At any time I have two or more pairs of the same looking shoes floating around in my closet. I number each pair on the soles so I can tell the old pairs from the new pairs. One time I was in a hurry to pack for a trip and in the dim light of my closet, I grabbed the left from the #10 pair and the right from the #12 pair. It was not until I reached my destination that I noticed I had packed an unmatched pair. I had to laugh at myself. Yes, I would say that the shoes are an indicator that I am a runner.

When you enter a race, even a 5k, they will give you a shirt. In the past, the shirts were usually cotton t-shirts. Most races now will give you a technical shirt made from sweat wicking material. At first I thought this was really cool because I didn’t own any technical shirts and was constantly washing the few I had. I have run so many races now that I have more shirts than I know what to do with. One of the local race organizers gives runners the choice of getting a $10 coupon to a running store in lieu of a shirt. I take that option now whenever I enter one of their races. Despite that, I still have more shirts than I can stuff into my dresser drawers. The overflowing shirt drawer is another indicator that I am a runner.

For me, the number one indicator that I am a runner is the number of running socks I own. Every runner has their own race rituals. It could be anything from laying out all their running clothes the night before to a special breakfast that they eat race day. There are also things that runners never do before a race. The biggie is on race day runners never eat anything new or wear anything new. Despite that rule, I always wear a brand new pair of Balega socks. There is something about putting on a new pair of socks on race morning that energizes me. They are more cushiony and soft. My feet need that kind of comfort right before I put them through 13+ or 26+ miles of work. I even wear new socks for shorter races like 5Ks and 10Ks. The $10 coupons that I get instead of t-shirts help pay for my “new socks” race ritual. At the Heartbreak Hill Half Marathon in Boston, all the runners got a free pair of Balega socks. I was delighted.

I have accumulated a lot of socks since I started running. In one year, I ran 24 races so that was 24 new pairs of Balega socks. To help me match them up after they come out of the wash, I started to put a code for each race on the toe of each sock with an indelible marker, such as “HH” for Historic Half, and “MCM” for the Marine Corps Marathon. The Dopey Challenge, which consists of a 5K, 10K, half marathon, and full marathon, made the sock marking more difficult so I just resorted to A, B, C and D to distinguish each race’s socks. Unfortunately, the marks don’t last and over time get blurry. I have a couple different styles of Balega socks, which helps with the matching process. Despite marking them and buying different styles, I am fairly confident that I frequently wear mismatched socks.

How about you? What tells you that you are a runner?

My overflowing running sock drawer

My overflowing running sock drawer

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Two Feet or Four

I took a vacation to a dude ranch in Montana recently and spent a week riding a horse and moving cattle. It was an incredible experience. The scenery in Montana is breathtaking and the abundance of wildlife inspired me and my travel companions to start an informal game of Animal Bingo (nobody won since we never really kept score). I am really a runner at heart so taking a vacation that did not involve Body Glide and race bibs seemed unusual. During the trip I thought about ways to combine a passion for running with an appreciation of four-footed companions. I found several ways you can do just that.

First, there are pack burro races, a sport whose roots go back to the 19th-century miners in Colorado. In a pack burro race, a runner has to lead a burro by a 15-foot rope over a prescribed course. The runner is not allowed to ride the burro and the burro must carry a pack saddle with 33 pounds of traditional mining gear, including a pick, gold pan, and shovel. Race distances are between 4 and 29 miles. The runner and the burro are a team. If the burro won’t move, the runner has to figure out how to work with the animal to get it going. The runner may push, pull, drag or carry the burro, though I am not sure how you carry a burro. The Western Pack Burro Association, which organizes these events, prohibits any cruelty to the burros, including the use of needles, prods or whips. A team can be disqualified if the runner cannot control their burro. According to the WPBA’s “Burro Racing 101” tips, to do well in burro racing it “helps if you can run a decent 10K or finish a marathon.” Don’t have a burro for the race? No worries – there are people out there that will let runners borrow one of theirs for the race. As strange as it seems, burro racing even has its own “Triple Crown”: the 29-mile Fairplay race; the 22-mile Leadville race; and the 12-mile Buena Vista race. The WPBA web site has pictures of past races. All kinds of runners take part in the races. It looks like it would be fun to watch one.

Another option is the sport of Ride and Tie. I learned about this event from an interesting mother and daughter I met at the dude ranch. The Ride and Tie is an endurance event involving teams of two people and one horse. The teams run 20 to 40 miles on trails and cross-country. There are usually 10 to 50 teams competing in an event. In a Ride and Tie, the people alternate who rides the horse and who runs. When the rider reaches the agreed upon transition point (or tie), they tie up the horse and start running. When the runner catches up to the horse, they untie it and ride to the next tie point, passing their teammate as they go. There are mandatory ties where the horses have to be checked by a veterinarian. It sounds a bit like a mash-up between Leap Frog and a Ragnar Relay but with a horse. There is strategy involved since you have to decide who will run which legs of the race, depending on the running ability of the people, the terrain, and the condition and speed of the horse. It usually takes 5 to 6 hours to complete a 25-mile course or 7 to 8 hours for a 40 mile race, though more competitive teams are faster. Horses and runners are sharing the same course and the start of the race can be crazy as horses and runners take off. Like burro racing, if you don’t have a horse, the Ride and Tie Association can help match you up with a teammate.

Finally, if you would rather test your running skills against those of a horse, then head to Llanwrtyd Wells, Wales where they hold the Man Versus Horse Marathon each year. The race started from a debate at a local pub in 1979 whether a man could beat a horse over a long distance. The debate led to a race in 1980 with 15 horses and 50 runners over a 22 mile course. So far the race has been won by horses every year except 2004 when a British runner won and 2007 when a German runner did. The race has become increasingly popular and most recently included 600 runners and 50 horses. They also increased the distance slightly to 23.6 miles. If traveling to Wales is not possible, there are a few similar races here in the US including a Man Versus Horse race in Indian Wells, California with 10-mile and 26.2-mile courses.

As for me, the only horse that I could ever outrun would be one that stopped to eat every few feet. And while I am intrigued by the thought of competing in a Ride and Tie race, I would have to significantly improve my riding skills to do one of those. For now I will stick to what I know I can do – running marathons in a pair of Saucony running shoes.

P.S. Do you have a dude ranch on your bucket list? Check out the Hubbard’s Yellowstone Lodge. They offer both horseback riding and fly fishing adventures. Situated in the Gallatin Mountains and overlooking Paradise Valley, the lodge is the perfect spot for some R&R. Plus the lodge is only 17 miles from Yellowstone National Park, widely recognized as the first national park in the world.
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Unsung Race Volunteers

It takes a lot of volunteers to put on a marathon.  You need people that staff the bib pickup at the Expo and answer pre-race questions. On race day, you need people to direct runners to their corrals at the start, and hand out medals, water and food at the end of the race.  Water stops along the course alone could require as many as 250 people, depending on the number of water stops.  All sorts of people staff a water stop – charity groups, boy scouts, girl scouts, retired people, or people who just like being on their feet for a long time and possibly getting wet. 
 
I am not sure what volunteers get for their contribution – a t-shirt maybe.  One of the volunteers at Disney World told me that they get a free one-day pass to one of the parks.  If you are a retiree in Florida, that would help with a visit to Disney World with the grandkids.  At pre-race briefings, seminars and in race literature, they always tell you to thank the volunteers because without them there wouldn’t be a race.  Runners thank people along the course but probably not nearly as much as we should.
 
There is one other group of volunteers that I never hear anyone thank – the people who live along a race course.  No one asks them to support a race.  They hear about it either in the news or when signs go up a few days before race day warning that roads will be closed and street parking will not be allowed during certain hours.  They don’t really get a choice; it just happens.
 
If you live along a race course, roads get closed off early in the day, usually well before the race start.  Road closures could be 4 or more hours.  That means you either need to evacuate your home before the road closures or just hunker down and wait it out.  I am impressed by the people who choose to become part of the race.  Instead of staying inside their houses to sleep in longer or catch up on the programs they have recorded on their DVRs, they are outside at the curb.  They choose to become involved.
 
When I ran my first marathon in Nashville, I realized that all these people living along the course were trapped at home on a Saturday morning.  On Saturdays I usually have a long list of errands to run.  Nobody along that route was getting out for any errands for several hours.  There were people standing at the end of their driveways cheering the parade of runners.  I remember apologizing to one woman as I went by for keeping her stuck at home.  She responded that she was glad we were there and invited me back for the next year’s race. 
 
 I have run races where it seemed like there were more unofficial water stops than official ones.  These unofficial “volunteers” hand out their own water, candy, or fruit (oranges or bananas cut in half).  I was surprised to see someone handing out tequila jello shots once (no, I did not take any).  I love it when someone is handing out Red Vines licorice.  I love red licorice, especially Red Vines, and have made U-turns in several races to grab some.
 
The unofficial water stop that I will always remember was one in Missoula, Montana.  The race started outside of town and we headed into the center of downtown Missoula for the finish. In front of a trailer park as we came into town was a table and handmade signs “Runner Water.”  A little girl with long brown hair and big brown eyes wearing an oversized flannel shirt was pouring water from a pitcher into little paper cups.  It probably meant the world to her to be part of the action since she put so much effort into her water stop.  I wish I had stopped and hope that some runners did.
 
In Duluth there were competing unofficial water stops next to each other.  One was staffed by three little girls who were handing out water.  Two doors away was a group of young men handing out beer from a keg.  The little girls tried hard to get the attention of runners – yelling “Have water, not beer!”  Too bad most runners were heading for the beer to the disappointment of the little girls.  Beer was probably more appealing after 22 miles of running. 
 
Warm weather races bring out other needs.  In Boston during the Heartbreak Hill Half, the temperatures started to creep up.  I came across two women standing on a street corner handing out ice about halfway through the course.  I gratefully took some so I could cool off.  Some people will take their hose out to the curb and turn it on for runners who ask for a spray (there goes the water bill).  I have run through hoses in several races.  Because of my Transverse Myelitis, I have to keep my core body temperature from getting too high. The ice and misting from hoses really helps.
 
I ran a race recently in Frederick, Maryland and was surprised to see a couple holding a sign that said “Restroom” with an arrow pointing towards their house.  They were directing runners into their home to use the bathroom.  A number of runners ahead of me did just that.  I was amazed at their generosity to open their home to total strangers.  
 
In Pittsburgh there was a competition among the neighborhoods that we ran through to see which one could show the most runner support during the race.  The competition got people along the course engaged in the event.  Each neighborhood was different and it was reflected in what they did to encourage the runners.  In the post-race surveys, they asked which neighborhood was the best – I think there was a prize (maybe just bragging rights) for the one with the most votes.  I thought this was a terrific idea to keep the race something positive for the people who were otherwise not involved.
 
I am not sure what the best way is to thank these “volunteers.”  I certainly can thank them when I take their ice or licorice, or when I get misted by their hose.  More importantly I plan to keep my eye out for the young “volunteers” – the little kids that want to be involved in the race with their own water stops.  They deserve a special thank you. Who knows – maybe the kids will join us on the course as runners someday.

Birth of a Funatical Runner, Part 3

In 2011 I was running towards my goal of 5 full marathons and 10 half marathons by the time I turned 55.  I had already completed 3 full marathons and 2 half marathons including my first multi-race event – the Goofy Race and a Half Challenge, a half marathon on the first day followed by a full marathon on the second day.  I was training for PF Chang’s Marathon in Phoenix with Team in Training when I noticed that my feet and legs felt weird – tingly, like they were asleep.  I went to my doctor and she explained that I was experiencing neuropathy.  She couldn’t figure out why so she told me to go see a neurologist.  I was more focused on training for my race and thought that I could deal with it later.  I was still able to run, even though I felt odd.  Then one day at a group training run, I went to run the warm-up lap and my legs were paralyzed and would not move.   This happened a few more times before I decided that seeing the neurologist, Dr. T, would be a good idea.

Dr. T sent me for an MRI of my spine and brain, which showed that the myelin sheath on the spinal cord was inflamed in one spot.  To get a more conclusive diagnosis, I needed more invasive tests but race day was less than 2 weeks away.  If I did the tests then, I couldn’t run the race.  I was not willing to skip the race so I postponed the tests until I returned.

My Team in Training coaches knew about the problems I was having with occasional paralysis when I would start running.  I think they were as nervous as me on race day.  None of us knew whether I would be able to make it through the first mile.  Rich, one of the coaches, came with me to my starting corral then walked out to the first mile marker to wait for me.  When the race started, I took a deep breath and hoped for the best.  I got through the first mile with no problems and flashed Rich a big thumbs up as I went by.  I kept running. Dr. T told me to carry meds that I could take if the paralysis came back during the race.  I was happy that I never needed them.

The best part of the race was when I saw my friends, John and Marsha, waiting for me at Mile 18.  There is a rule for marathon runners – don’t try anything new on race day.  At the water stops they were handing out water and Cytomax.  I had never used Cytomax during any of my training runs and didn’t know if it would agree with me.  Rather than risk it, I had given Gatorade to John and Marsha to hand to me so I could refill the bottles I was carrying.  I remember seeing them sitting in their lawn chairs with their two Border Terriers.  God bless them for sitting out in the hot sun waiting for me.  Although I was a sweaty mess when I saw them, I gave Marsha a big hug.  It was just the kind of support I needed to make it through the rest of the race.

When I got back, I finished the rest of the tests.  The diagnosis was Transverse Myelitis (TM), an inflammation of the spinal cord, which targets the myelin sheath – insulating material covering the nerves.  It is a bit like having a frayed electrical wire.  I had done some analysis and discovered that I had bouts of paralysis following my allergy shots.  I stopped getting those and no more paralysis.  I am very fortunate.  There are many TM patients who are in wheelchairs and/or experience pain.  Running is something that they can no longer do.

Initially Dr. T was not supportive of my running.  He told me to resume running slowly.  He made me feel like I was a china doll.  After everything that I had been through, I was uncomfortable heading back out to run.  I joined a running group and was the slowest one in the group.  Then my husband and I signed up for the Great Alaskan Marathon cruise with John Bingham and Jenny Hadfield.  The cruise was a staged marathon, running on the ship, and on land in Juneau, Sitka, and Ketchikan.  Over the course of a week, I ran up and down mountains, and through forests. It was just the thing I needed to regain my strength and confidence that I could run.  When I got back from the trip, I was no longer bringing up the rear in the running group.  I was frequently up front.  I started entering races again; I had a goal to work on!   At each of my check-ups, when Dr. T would ask me how I was doing, I would pull out the medals from my races to show him what I had run since I last saw him. In one 6 week period I ran 3 half marathons – just a bit excessive.  I was able to reach my 5 full/10 half marathon goal with 6 months to spare.

Last summer we learned that I developed another lesion on my spinal cord.  Both Dr. T and I were surprised by this news.  I had gone back to work, a sedentary desk job. Lack of exercise is bad for someone with TM and I think that contributed to the development of this new lesion.  Everything that I have read says that exercise is critical to maintaining the health of TM patients.   At this point Dr. T told me to run every race I want to run.  My new goal is to run a marathon on each of the 7 continents.  I might not be able to hit all 7; Africa might be a problem because the immunizations that I would need to go there could trigger a return of the paralysis I experienced.  I will be running the Berlin Marathon this year and the Tokyo Marathon next year.  Antarctica is lined up for 2017.  I will also continue to work on running a half or full marathon in each of the 50 states.  I have completed races in 14 states so far.  It is a fun way to visit a new place.

Whenever I meet someone who says that they could never run, I tell them that if I can run, anyone can.  I went from being a 40-something couch potato to a funatical runner in just a few short years.  I have told my friend Marnie that I wish that she didn’t have to get lymphoma for me to figure out that I could be the runner that Grete Waitz and Joan Benoit inspired me to be.  I am not sure if TM will let me keep running but I am not stopping now!