Gratitude for the Gift of Movement

Thanksgiving is this week, a time when people give thanks for many things – a home, food to eat, a job, their family and friends.  For me, and probably for Kayla Montgomery, the thing I am the most grateful for is the ability to move, and especially to run.  Most people probably don’t even think about the ability to move as a gift.  But for Kayla and me, it is something that we do not take for granted because both of us have neurological conditions that could result in losing the ability to move.

At 14, following a soccer injury, Kayla was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis (MS).   It was a devastating diagnosis for an active teenage girl.  For 8 months following her diagnosis, she did nothing but sit in her room.  Then she decided if she couldn’t play soccer, she would run.  And boy did she.  Kayla became the fastest female runner in North Carolina while competing in the 3200 meter event for her high school track team.

Kayla’s MS creates challenges for her when she runs because she loses feeling in her legs.  It begins in her toes and moves up her legs to her waist.  The loss of feeling is triggered by the increased body temperature as she runs.  Kayla can run very fast because she can’t feel her legs, can’t feel the pain from over exertion.  But because she can’t feel her legs, she collapsed every time she crossed the finish line.  Kayla’s coach had to stand at the finish line to catch her.

Immediately following a race, they had to cool her body down as fast as possible so that her symptoms would subside.  For Kayla that is just the cost of competing.  I have to admire how tough this young woman is.  As she lay on the ground being iced down after a race, she could be heard asking “Do you know what my time was?”  A true runner  – through and through.

I was stunned when Kayla said in an interview that some consider her condition an unfair advantage in a race.  Who in their right mind would want that kind of advantage?  Anyone who says that is incredibly insensitive.  I can guarantee you that Kayla would prefer to not have MS.

You may think that Kayla is taking a big risk by running.  But running makes her feel whole again.  There is no guarantee that she will be able to run in a few years.  Kayla wants to get every moment of movement out of her legs as she can.

I understand exactly how Kayla feels.  I have Transverse Myelitis (TM), another inflammatory disorder of the central nervous system where the immune system attacks the nervous system.  Although TM is often a one-time illness, for some people, TM is an early symptom of MS.  Similar to Kayla, I get tingling sensations in my legs when I run.  Running in hot weather is a challenge for me because those symptoms become more pronounced.  I have learned ways to keep my core cool during warm weather races such as putting bags of ice inside my shirt or wrapping ice in a bandana around my neck.

Sometimes I feel like I am a bit fanatical about running in marathons and half marathons.  But like Kayla, I don’t know if/when I will lose the ability to run.  When my doctor told me last year to go run every race I want to do, I took that as a warning sign.  I don’t want to regret not taking advantage of every chance to get out there and race.  I want to have lots of great memories of being part of the excitement as I cross a finish line.

On Thursday, when I sit down for our Thanksgiving feast, I will pause to say thanks, thanks for the ability to move.  Because it is a gift that none of us should take for granted.

Here is a video about Kayla’s high school running career.  It includes video of her last run for her high school team.   If you enjoy nail-biter finishes, you won’t want to miss this!

Embrace the Weather

Okay, I have to admit it. I am a fair weather runner.  If I had my choice, I would only run outside on partly cloudy days with temperatures in the low 60s.  The reality is I have to train in all kinds of weather.

Today was a good example of that.  It was in the 20s but with the wind, it felt like it was in the teens.  I really did not want to go out to run but I am training for the Tokyo Marathon.  I have read that it could be cold and windy during the race.  I need to be prepared for those weather conditions.

As I pounded out my miles today, I was reminded of my coach for the January, 2010 Goofy Race and a Half Challenge, Coach Perry.  The Goofy Race and a Half Challenge is a half marathon on Saturday followed by a full marathon on Sunday.  If you recall, 2010 was the year where the East Coast was pummeled by cold and snow.  The cold weather started in October, 2009 when we were running on 40 degree, rainy days.  It is miserable to be wet and chilled to the bone. November was not much better with colder than normal temperatures and some light snow that fortunately did not linger.

In December the day of our 18-mile run, we got 4 inches of unexpected wet snow.  Many of my teammates bailed after 9 miles but I decided to stick it out.   Coach Perry joined me for a good part of the second half of that run.  As we plowed through the snow, he said many runners would look out the window on a day like that and stay home.  Coach Perry pointed out you never know what the weather will be like on race day.   Those runners would not be ready for bad weather since they stayed inside.  As he talked, I kept thinking about the Goofy.  We would be running in Florida.  There is no way there would be snow in Florida.   Running in snow in preparation for a race in Florida was, well, goofy.

A couple weeks later, our 20-mile run was snowed out by a storm that left 20 inches of new snow on the ground.   Our run was rescheduled and we headed out in the bitter cold.  This time our challenge was black ice in spots that had melted then refroze.  I remember runners yelling out “Ice!” to warn the people behind them of slippery roads.  Again, I kept thinking there is no way we will have black ice in Florida.

Even our last training run before heading south to Florida was a challenge.  It was 20 degrees with wind chills in the teens.  Not a lot of the team showed up for the training run.  Many of those that did quit half way through because of the cold.  One of my teammates had icicles hanging off the back of his hat. I ran the whole distance.  To keep motivated, I kept telling myself that it wasn’t going to be that bad in Florida.

When we headed to Orlando for race weekend, the cold snap had embraced Florida as well.  The weather forecast for the Saturday and Sunday races was more in line with what we would have back in the North.  The Disney race folks sent emails to the runners telling them to prepare for colder than normal temperatures and pack water resistant clothing.  The big news when we arrived was that iguanas (not a native Florida species) were “lapsing into a kind of involuntary hibernation, and falling out of trees.”  It was an opportunity for them to be scooped up and re-homed.

Saturday morning the temperatures were in the low 30s for the start of the half marathon.  As we waited for the race to begin, it started to rain and sleet.  Because it was so cold, there were even a few wet snow flakes!  I was dumbfounded.  It was cold and windy with periods of rain for the entire race.  But because of Coach Perry, I was prepared.

We hoped that Sunday would bring warmer temperatures for the full marathon but no such luck.  It was even colder.  The temperature at the start of the race was 28 degrees and windy.  Although there were no clouds in the sky, I don’t think we ever made it out of the 30s that day.

Snow, sleet, rain, wind – we had trained in it all and encountered it during the races.  Oh, and our black ice training also came in handy.  At each water stop during the marathon, the spilled water and PowerAde had turned to black ice on the road.  I walked through all the water stops just to avoid falling.

I thought about that crazy race weekend today as I was blown along by the wind.  It reminded me that I really should embrace the weather, no matter what it is.  Race day could be windy like it was today.  I  have trained in it so I know what to expect.  Weather on race day is something we can’t control.  I just hope there isn’t any black ice.  I still am under doctor’s orders not to fall!

We Are Marathoners!

I tuned in the television to watch the New York Marathon last week and saw this ASICS commercial.  I love this commercial.  It captures the essence of marathoners.   Since I have been sitting on the sidelines, missing out on my fall races, this commercial helped me feel a bit of the marathon excitement.

Yes, people run dressed up in costumes.  It is fun to see how creative people can be with their running attire.  Runners dress up as all kinds of things – Disney characters, super heros, bananas, Gumby, you name it.  I remember seeing a group of runners at a race in Disneyland, each of them dressed as a character from “Alice in Wonderland.”  Their costumes did not hold them back either – they blew right by me.  When we ran the Dopey Challenge in Disney World, my running partner – a 6’ 3” former Marine – wore a gun metal sparkle skirt.  It was part of a fundraising challenge for the charity we support, the Ishan Gala Foundation.  In addition to raising money, he got many compliments on his outfit.   For his next race, I have challenged him to run dressed up as Tinker Bell as a fundraiser for the Foundation.  I can’t wait to see him in his green wings!

I had to laugh at the part of the commercial about hating and loving hills.  Like most runners, when I consider races to enter, I always look at the elevation map (or the EKG map as I call it) to see how many hills the course has.  Down hills are great – gravity helps pull you along.  But up hills can zap your energy.  And having a hill towards the end of a race is a real challenge.  Heartbreak Hill along the Boston Marathon course is at Mile 20, when runners are starting to hit “the wall”.   I ran up that hill that during the Heartbreak Hill Half Marathon last June.  I can see why runners don’t like it.  It was a real kick in the pants.

That first comment in the commercial – “We leave nothing to chance.” – I think is really a euphemism for runners are superstitious.  The commercial opens showing a runner first in bed, gear all laid out next to them, and then preparing for a race.  The way that runners get ready for a race is almost a ritual.  All that preparation is to avoid things like blisters and chafing.  I do the same thing. I have my gear all ready for me to get dressed in those early morning hours before a race.  I have an order in which I get dressed too – always the same order too.

But I know many runners, myself included, take this a bit further.  For example, I always wear the same running bra for every race – always the light green one.  I don’t wear it in training runs, only when I race.  I don’t know if I think it is “lucky” or gives me any special ability on race day.  I just know I would be uncomfortable wearing any other bra in a race.  At those recent back-to-back races, I had to wear a different bra for one of the races.  I am embarrassed to admit I felt uncomfortable racing when I wasn’t wearing the green one.  I dread the day when the green one is worn out.

Recently I was cleaning out my closet and I came across those shoes.  You know, the ones that I was wearing when I fell and broke my arm.   Something about those shoes gave me a bad vibe and I have to admit I was reluctant to wear them again.  Sounds silly but those shoes have some bad juju.  I don’t need that hanging around.  I packed them up and took them to my favorite sports store to toss in the shoe recycle box.  Nope, don’t need them.  I am training for the Tokyo Marathon in February.  I am sticking with new shoes that hopefully don’t have any bad juju.  I don’t have to worry about the clothes that I was wearing when I fell.  They had to be cut off of me and were thrown away.

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In many ways, I feel like I am starting all over as I train for Tokyo.  I am doing many of the same things that I did when I trained for my first marathon.  I visualize running the course as I run my training runs.  I printed out the course map and am highlighting the equivalent distance on the map that I have covered in training.  I hung it on the refrigerator so that I can see it.  Seeing how much of the course I have covered in my training runs reassures me that I can complete the race.  I am traveling a long way and I want to make sure I can finish.

When I fell in September, I had been training with the goal of getting a PR in Berlin.  I decided not to put any pressure on myself for Tokyo and just train to enjoy the race.  This is my first international race and it will be a very different experience from any other marathon that I have done.  I can feel the excitement of race day building up already.   The theme for the Tokyo Marathon is “The Day We Unite”.  For me, it will be the day I get reunited with my fellow marathoners. 🙂

I Love Meb!

I read today that Meb Keflezighi has been nominated for Sports Illustrated’s Sportsman of the Year for 2014.  If I had a vote, I would be stuffing the ballot box for Meb.  I love Meb.  I am not ashamed to say it.  I say it loud and proud.  I LOVE Meb!

The Sportsman of the Year award is given to the “athlete or team whose performance that year most embodies the spirit of sportsmanship and achievement.”  Meb has demonstrated these qualities not only this year but throughout his running career.  That is just who Meb is.

Meb’s achievements in the marathon are undeniable.  In fact in the highly competitive world of marathon running, Meb is the only marathoner in history to win the Boston Marathon, the New York Marathon, and an Olympic medal.  In 2004 he won a silver medal in the Summer Olympics – the first US medal in the men’s marathon since Frank Shorter won the gold in 1972.  In 2009 Meb was the first American to win the New York Marathon in 27 years – two years after breaking his hip in the 2008 Olympic Trials (held in November 2007).

In 2012 he won the US Olympic Trials and was fourth in the 2012 Summer Olympics in London.  I remember watching the Olympics and cheering for Meb from my family room couch.  Meb didn’t win a medal but I will never forget what he did after the race.  He didn’t slink off to mope in a tent.  Meb stood at the finish line cheering the runners who crossed after him.  Yes, Meb demonstrates sportsmanship.

Meb’s 2014 Boston Marathon win will be etched in my memory forever.  When he came to the start line, the announcer pointed out that Meb had written the names of each of the four victims of the Boston Marathon bombing and subsequent manhunt on his bib.  He was running for them – and he was running for us.

His performance that day was breath taking, exciting, and unforgettable.  Nobody had expected an older runner like Meb to present a challenge but he dominated the race.  I cried as he ran the last few miles and wept with joy when he won.  Meb had planned to retire in 2012 but he still felt he could run.   I think the world of marathon running is blessed that he did.  Meb has brought excitement to the sport like no one else could.

We all had high hopes for Meb in last weekend’s New York City Marathon.  The weather had other plans.  The high winds made the race difficult for everyone.  He kept with the leaders until Mile 20 when he dropped back to 8th place.  But Meb was not done for the day.  He reached down into what was left of his reserves and went to work.  In the last two miles Meb passed the Olympic champion and the defending New York City Marathon champion to finish fourth place.  One can never write off Meb.

I was fortunate in 2012 to meet Meb in person at the Pittsburgh Marathon Expo.  I saw a short line of people waiting to talk to him and get his autograph.  I decided that it was worth the wait.  When I got up to the table, Meb shook my hand, signed my bib – “Best wishes & run to win – Meb” – and we posed for the obligatory picture.  Afterward he turned to me and asked how I was feeling about the race.  I explained to him that I was nursing a pain in my left foot.  He listened to me then advised me on what to do for it.  An elite athlete giving me advice – I was over the moon.

I have met other elite athletes in my travels to races all over the US.  I won’t call anyone out but suffice it to say that most were fulfilling some obligation to a sponsor to do a meet and greet.  None of them showed any real interest in talking to me.  Meb made me feel like we were old friends.

So yes, if I get a vote, I vote for Meb because I love Meb.

P.S. If you are interested in hearing what Meb listens to during his workouts, here is a link to Meb’s playlist.

I also found this interesting video that analyzes the science behind Meb’s running ability.  Meb’s physical capabilities are incredible.  Definitely worth watching.

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