Not Just Running, Racing

I run a lot of half marathons and marathons but in reality, for me they aren’t races.   As the funatical runner, I am drawn to races with themes such as the Flying Pig or the MO’ Cowbell, or races that allow me to run some place interesting, like down the Las Vegas Strip at night.  It is a great way to see the sights while running.  I have never viewed  any of them as true “races”.   It is just a bunch of people getting together to run and have fun.

Last spring I heard about the inaugural USA Half Marathon Invitational.    A group of running enthusiasts saw that there wasn’t a comparable event like the Boston Marathon for the half marathon distance.  They wanted to create a half marathon that was more about competition than entertainment.   They created the Invitational along the same lines as the Boston Marathon where runners would have to qualify for the race by running a half marathon within defined qualifying standards.  I was curious to see where I stacked up for this event.  I had run quite a few half marathons early in the year.  When I checked the qualification standards, I was surprised that I qualified under the Open Division criteria.   I realized that I may never qualify again so I immediately entered the event.  This was going to be the real deal – a half marathon race.

Carb loading the night before the race at Flippi's Pizza Grotto in Little Italy

Carb loading the night before the race at Flippi’s Pizza Grotto in Little Italy

Five days before the race I learned that the course would have a time limit of two and a half hours (translating to a 12-minute per mile pace).  Most of the half marathons I run have time limits of between three and four hours.  While I can run much faster than that, it is always reassuring to know that I have a buffer if things go wrong on race day like they did at the Rock ’n’ Roll Savannah Half Marathon two weeks earlier.   I wasn’t the only one nervous about the course time limits.  Several runners that I talked to at the Expo were nursing injuries and didn’t feel they were in top shape.   My ankle was still not 100% either.   Additionally, there were 6 course cut-off points.  If I got to one of them too late, they would pull me from the course.  I was so worried about those cut-off points that I wrote all of them on my arm the morning of the race.

Before the race start I looked around at the other runners.  This race was different than other half marathons I ran this year.  There weren’t any runners dressed up as Disney characters or wearing sparkle skirts.   Everyone I saw was dressed for speed.  I wondered how many of them normally went “shopping” at the start line of a race or stopped to pick up coins along the course.  I think I was probably the only one.  (I didn’t shop at the start line this time but I did pick up a dime during the first mile of the race.)

The first few miles of the course took us from downtown San Diego up into Balboa Park.    Some of the runners were not use to hills and had a difficult time during those first miles.  I was so anxious about keeping up my speed that I was having trouble getting my breath.  Then I remembered something that my running coach, Leanne, told me to do to control my breathing.  She told me to sing or talk out loud.  I started repeating a mantra out loud as I ran.  I probably looked like a crazy person to the runners that I passed but within a mile I had my breathing under control.

As I approached the 10K point in the race, I noticed a man along the side of the road. Runners were yelling to him, and running over to the side of the course to greet him.  It was Meb Keflezighi and one of his daughters.  Meb was giving high fives to the runners and posing with them for selfies.  How incredible is that?  In the ultimate role reversal, the runner we have all cheered for during the Olympics, the New York City Marathon and the Boston Marathon was standing along the side of the course cheering for us.  Yes, I stopped for a selfie with Meb.  I was amazed that this incredible athlete was standing there cheering for runners much slower than him.  I have met Meb before and he is the most gracious athlete that I have ever had the honor of meeting.  Later I heard many other runners comment that seeing Meb along the course gave them the motivation to push harder during the rest of the race.  We had just had an encounter with one of the greatest marathoners ever, perhaps a little bit rubbed off on us.

Meb and Me

Meb and Me

After I crossed the finish line, I stopped and started to cry.  Although it was not my best race this year, I finished it without being pulled off the course.  I had done it.  For the first time in my life I had actually raced.   As I stood there crying, a man wearing a USA Half Marathon Invitational jacket came over to me, probably to make sure that I wasn’t hurt.  I recognized him immediately as Meb’s brother, Merhawi Keflezighi (or Hawi).  Hawi’s company helped organize this race.  Hawi was as gracious as Meb.  He smiled at me and gave me a big hug as I cried on his shoulder.  I composed myself enough to say thank you.  I wish I had thanked him for helping to create this event.  It was a chance for me to test myself as a runner and to actually race.  The weeks leading up to the race had been challenging and despite not being in top form, I did better than I thought I would.IMG_3386

When I went to San Diego, I thought that this would be a “been-there, run-that” kind of event for me.  But when I got back home, I realized that participating in this race has motivated me to improve my running skills.  How well could I do if I really prepared for the race?  I will never know unless I try.  I hope that the USA Half Marathon Invitational is held again and that I can still qualify.  I want to run it again and see if I can do even better.

Do It Now

My step-father could best be described as a grumpy old man.  He was a World War II veteran having served in Europe as a bombardier on a B17.   He was an opinionated man who was stuck in a bygone era.  He liked Manhattans and martinis.  He didn’t like animals or little kids.  He refused to wear the jeans that my mother bought him and chose to wear old suit pants to work in the yard.

But for all his faults, he had one philosophy that I could understand and embrace.  After my mother passed away and his own health started to decline, he started to realize that there were things that he could no longer do.  He would listen to me talk about what I wanted to do in life.  It was during those conversations that he would look at me and repeat the same advice:  “Do it now, kid.  Do it now.”  He knew that time was running out for all of us.  If I wanted to do something, I needed to get hopping.

This week I remembered my step-father’s advice.  For the second time this year, I lost a beloved dog.   I collected my favorite photos of her and put together a slideshow to music as a tribute to the sweetest creature I have ever had the privilege to know.  The slideshow included a photo that I took last April.  It is an up-close photo of her eyes.  She had beautiful eyes.  I had wanted to take that photo for a long time but for some reason just never took the time to do it.  I only took that photo because people commented on a creepy photo I posted of a mosaic of human eyes from a New York City subway station.  I replaced the creepy eyes with the prettiest eyes that I knew, those of my beloved dog, Meri.

Meri's beautiful eyes

Meri’s beautiful eyes

Looking at that photo the other day, I realized that, had I not received complaints about creepy eyes, I never would have taken a photo of the pretty ones.  Who knew that a few months later my dear dog would be gone?  It underscored the lesson that my step-father was trying to teach me.

Maybe you have something that you have been planning to do.  An old friend you want to reconnect with.  Some place that you have wanted to visit since you were a kid.  A skill that you want to master.  Whatever it is, take my step-father’s advice – Do it now, kid. Do it now.


The Buddy System

When I was in grade school, the teacher would often pair students up with buddies.  You held your buddy’s hand as you walked from the classroom to the library or gym.  Your buddy was there to make sure you didn’t get lost.  It was probably the easiest way for the teacher to control the children that outnumbered her.

The buddy system was something we learned at a young age but buddies didn’t stop at grade school.  There are buddies in the military and scuba diving.  In these situations, buddies are watching out for each other’s safety and welfare.  I don’t know any diver who would be daring enough to go out without a buddy.  A buddy can be a lifesaver.  On Saturday I ran the Rock ’n’ Roll Savannah Half Marathon and the conditions on race day made me use the buddy system there too.

I was looking forward to heading south for my last blast of warm weather before winter sets in.  Forecasts for the weekend’s race were for lows in the 60s and highs in the 80s with humidity levels at 80+ %.  It was going to be a warm race.  I was somewhat concerned because these are not ideal Transverse Myelitis (TM) conditions.  I have my heat mitigation strategies but I was going to be using the replacement for my yellow scarf (lost in Berlin) for the first time.  Keeping my core cool is critical for any warm weather running.  My ankle (the one that I twisted in Berlin) was still bothering me too.  I was going to have to keep my head to get through this race.

The race was scheduled to start at 7 AM.  In the corral I chatted with a mother, Julie, and her daughter, Allison.  Julie was running the half marathon relay and Allison was running her second half marathon. They were a little nervous but they looked prepared for the race.  When our corral reached the start line around 7:25 AM, I told them to have a great race and we all headed out at our various individual paces.

It was foggy when we started but that quickly burned off.  Unfortunately, the Savannah humidity stayed in place.  At times it felt like I needed a snorkel to breathe.  It was in the second half of the race that I started to see that the weather was having a negative impact on some of the runners.  I saw more people than normal walking and every one of them was pretty much soaked with sweat.  I saw overheated runners off on the side of the course.  There was no breeze to cool us off.  It was clear that the conditions were taking their toll.

As I was running along near Mile 9, I saw Allison again. The weather had hit her hard.  She was feeling bad and had slowed to a walk.  I was going slower myself because of a pain in my lower leg/ankle that had started around Mile 6.  We had only 4 miles to the finish line.  I decided that the buddy system was what we both needed.   I told her that I would run the rest of the race with her.  Allison was reluctant to hold me up but as we passed a male runner lying on the ground surrounded by a policeman and some medics, I decided I was not going to leave her alone.  (I later learned that a man had died along the course and have this awful feeling that it was the man I saw.)

We shared my Nuun because some of the water stations had run out of supplies (cups, water, or both).  I gave Allison my Honey Stinger Cubes – they helped perk her up.  My leg/ankle was really bothering me so having someone to run with made me slow down.  For the rest of the race we would pick a landmark – a tree, a stop sign – run to it and then walk for a bit.  It was slow and steady progress but we both were feeling better. When we came down to the last quarter mile, we started running.  I was never so happy to cross a finish line in my life.

Crossing the finish line with Allison

Crossing the finish line with Allison

As I was making my way through the crowds to pick up  my checked gear bag, I overheard someone say that the race directors had decided to divert runners because of the heat.  At 9:30 AM the temperature was 78 degrees with a heat index of 87 degrees.  The decision meant that quite a few runners would not be permitted to complete the entire full or half marathon course as planned.  It was a difficult decision but one that needed to be made for the safety of everyone.  There are plenty of races out there.  It is better to live to run again.

This race was a sobering reminder that, even with the best preparations, any of us can end up in trouble.   When that happens, we shouldn’t be reluctant to put out our hand and help someone else.  I recently read about a high school cross-country runner in Iowa, Zach Hougland, who helped another runner who had collapsed on the course during a race.   Because of his act of compassion, Zach and the runner who collapsed were disqualified.  While Zach may have lost the race in the official record books, in my mind, he came in first.

Savannah's haunted theater

Savannah’s haunted theater

Planning on visiting Savannah?  Savannah is considered to be one of the most haunted places in the United States.  On Saturday night, I went on a ghost tour by Afterlife Tours.  I give it two thumbs up.  Our tour guide, Ryan Dunn, has done paranormal research in several Savannah landmarks.  He has been featured on A&E Biography’s television program “My Ghost Story: Caught on Camera”.  During the tour, Ryan shared evidence that he and his team captured during their research.  He explained the historical facts behind local legends, either proving or disproving that spirits existed.  Despite the hair-raising tales, I was tired enough from the race to sleep well that night.

Goals: To Have or Not to Have

I use to tell people to be careful setting goals because they could kill you.  Goals can become the monkey on your back that drives you to do things maybe you shouldn’t be doing.  I would classify myself as being very goal oriented.  Having a to-do list and checking things off gives me a sense of accomplishment.  Lately, I have started wondering about this whole goal thing.

My 50 State Half Marathon shirt showing the states that I have completed

My 50 State Half Marathon shirt showing the states that I have completed

I joined the 50 State Half Marathon Club last year and signed up for the 50 State Endurance Challenge.  This challenge allows me to count both marathons and half marathons towards my goal.  I have been plugging along, checking off my states (23 so far).  But my goal of completing endurance races in all 50 states is nothing compared to the goals of some people I have met over the last few years.  They make me look like a loser.

A 50under4 Club member

A 50under4 Club member

I have met runners with variations on the 50-State-goal theme.  There are people who want to run marathons in all 50 states.   Then there are those people who want to run marathons in all 50 states but complete each race in under 4 hours (as if  running marathons in all 50 states wasn’t hard enough).  They even have their own club – 50under4.  In Atlantic City, I walked from the hotel to the start line with a man whose goal is to run a marathon AND a half marathon in all 50 states.  I don’t think there is a club for that one.

I met a man who has a goal of running a half marathon in each of the 50 states.  He added the personal challenge that he has to finish each race in under 2 hours.  He is moving along on his goal and has over 30 states checked off.  It would be a bit higher but some of the races he completed in over 2 hours.  He won’t count those states towards his goal and will have to go back to run in them again.

IMG_0497Doug Kurtis had a unique personal goal.  I met Doug in Duluth, Minnesota in 2013 when I ran the Grandma’s Marathon.  While waiting for the bus to the start line, Doug started talking to me.  He pointed to his bandana that had “200” written across it.  He was 61 years old and was hoping to run his 200th marathon in less than 3 hours that day.  Unfortunately, the weather didn’t cooperate and he didn’t make it.  He finished in 3:05:23 (I would have been overjoyed to run a marathon that fast).   A few months later, I read about him in Runners World magazine.  He was able to reach his goal at his hometown race, the Detroit Free-Press Marathon.  It is a very impressive accomplishment.

There are runners who have the goal of running the same race every year.  Sometimes the races give these runners special names.  The Marine Corps Marathon (MCM) calls them “Ground Pounders”.  There are only two Ground Pounders left who have run all 40 MCMs – Will Brown, 67, and Alfred Richmond, 74.  There are the “Perfectly Goofy” runners who have run all 10 Goofy Race and a Half Challenges at Disney World (half marathon and full marathon over 2 consecutive days).  I know some people who want to be “Perfectly Dopey” by running Disney World’s annual Dopey Challenge (5K, 10K, half marathon and full marathon over 4 consecutive days).  I was Dopey once and that was enough.

When I was diagnosed with Transverse Myelitis (TM), I wasn’t sure I could keep running.  I searched the Internet to find other runners with TM and learn how they handled things like running in heat.  I found a blog written by Kimberly Kotar who also happens to be the President and Founder of the Canadian Transverse Myelitis Association.  Kimberly was a marathon runner when she was diagnosed with TM.  Despite her diagnosis, she kept running with the goal of completing a marathon in each of the 10 Canadian provinces.  She completed her goal last month.

Some runners set a goal to run on all 7 Continents.  I had that goal for a while until I realized that, for health reasons, I can’t travel to all 7 Continents.  Now I am trying to run each of the 6 Major World Marathons.  I might not be able to reach that goal either since I won’t qualify for the Boston Marathon even if I am still running when I am 80.

I started questioning the focus on my goals after reading “How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big” by Scott Adams.  Scott thinks “goals are for losers.”  According to Scott, if you set a goal, you spend all your time working on getting to that goal and that gets tiring.  Ask Doug Kurtis – after he reached 200, he stopped running sub-3:00 marathons because it is a lot of work to run that fast.   Scott also points out that if you don’t reach your goal, then you feel like a failure.  Who needs the emotional baggage that comes with that?

I chatted with Cathy, my hair stylist, about goals as she cut my hair today.  I have known Cathy a long time and she always provides wise advice on things like this.  Cathy told me that she thought goals were good because they put you on a path to where you need to be.  She pointed out that my original goal back in 2007 was to raise money for the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society by running a marathon  in honor of my friend, Marnie.  After that, I kept running and set the goal of running 5 full marathons and 10 half marathons by the time I turned 55.  I did that with 6 months to spare.  She watched me deal with my TM diagnosis 5 years ago.  Running, she pointed out, is keeping me healthy plus I am having fun traveling to races.  My original goal – running to raise money for my friend – put me on the path to something so much bigger.  Score 1 Cathy.

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Scott, however, points out the same thing that I realized when I read the definition of goal.  There is an “end” when you are talking about a goal.  There are only 50 States, only 7 Continents, and only 6 World Majors.  When you have run all those, what do you do next?  Is it time to hang up your running shoes and turn off your Garmin for good?

I remember when I was working in the business world they sat us down at the beginning of the year to define our goals and objectives.  It was a very formal process where everyone signed a document like a contract.  The whole thing had a lot of negative connotations to it.  If the regular goals weren’t enough, they added stretch goals. I felt compelled to meet those along with the already challenging regular goals.  Periodically I would pull out the document with my goals to see how I was doing.  I would get stressed out over the goals I knew were impossible to reach.  Then at the end of the year, they sat me down to see how I did.  Colleagues that didn’t make their goals were put on probation or worse.  Somehow I usually came through relatively unscathed.  They couldn’t make the work environment any more stressful if they tried.

I have been spending a lot of time planning my 2016 race schedule.  It is starting to feel a lot like a job.  My 50 State goal is getting stressful.  I decided today that I am going to look at my running goals differently.  I am going to think about them more as aspirations than goals.  If I don’t make a particular goal, it isn’t a big deal.  I already failed at running the 7 Continents and nobody fired me.  I aspire to run all 6 Major Marathons.  Maybe I will and maybe I won’t.  And maybe along the way I’ll find something even better to do.