The Most Feared Person in a Marathon

In general, the atmosphere at a marathon or half marathon is lively and full of fun.  At the start, there is music playing and runners giddy with excitement and anticipation.  I remember crossing the start line in Birmingham a couple of weeks ago, dancing and running to “Uptown Funk”.  It isn’t easy to dance and run at the same time but I couldn’t help myself – it is a fun song and I was happy to be there.

With any race there are time limits.  The police can only keep roads closed so long before people along the course get angry.  They have to put their activities on hold while the roads around them are closed off to traffic.   To enforce the time limits, races usually have a person indicating the end of a race, called the Balloon Lady.   For runners who are on the bubble between making time or not making time,  the Balloon Lady is the most feared person on the course.

In the race day instructions for the Mercedes Marathon, they mentioned that the “Balloon Lady” would be walking at a 6-hour pace (the course limit).  If a marathon runner fell behind her before the course split at Mile 13, they would be diverted to the half marathon finish.  If they fell behind her after the course split, they would be picked up by the Birmingham Police.  The instructions were clear; there would be no exceptions.

All of the Disney races have Balloon Ladies.   It can be difficult to keep up the minimum pace when you are in the back of the pack at a Disney race.   The Disney races are exciting because you are running through the theme parks.  Disney has all the characters out along the course – Mickey and Minnie Mouse, Donald Duck, Cinderella, Aladdin, Captain Jack Sparrow, Snow White to name just a few.   You can stop and get your pictures taken with the characters.  For some of the characters, the lines can be long.  The lines to get your picture taken in front of the Castle are usually the worst.  If you stop too much, time runs out before you know it.  In the back of the pack, you have to keep looking over your shoulder to see if the Balloon Ladies are catching up to you.

A friend of mine told me about her experience with the Balloon Ladies at a Disney half marathon race.  Her training had not gone as planned.  Race day was going to be a struggle.  She was doing her best trying to stay ahead of the Balloon Ladies.  A guy on a bike came up behind her and warned her that she had to keep moving.  He told her as long as she stayed ahead of the Balloon Ladies, she could keep going.  She was with a group of other walkers.  They all picked up their pace, while casting fearful glances over their shoulder, looking for the balloons.  Unfortunately for her, she had to stop to go to the bathroom.  That stop sealed her fate.  The Balloon Ladies passed her.  She ended up on the sag wagon, the bus that returns the stragglers to the finish.  She said everyone on the bus was crying because they missed their goal of completing a half marathon.  She was offered a medal when she got off the bus but she declined it.  She said she couldn’t take a medal that she hadn’t really earned.

In a way, it is kind of sad.  The runners and walkers on the bus might not have been in the best shape before they signed up for the race.  However, they trained and were willing to take on something that was bigger than anything they had ever done before.  (Remember Mike Hall’s definition of adventure from “Inspired to Ride”?)  I think they deserved a medal just for getting out and trying.

While runners and walkers may fear her, the Balloon Lady ends up seeing the saddest part of a race – the people who tried but didn’t make it.  I don’t think I could be the Balloon Lady.  I would hate being the one who put an end to someone’s dream.

Here is a link to an article I found about the Mercedes Marathon Balloon Lady.  It is interesting to see a race from her perspective.

Running in ‘Bama

The Alabama Theater built in 1927

The Alabama Theater built in 1927

One of the benefits of belonging to a running club like the 50 States Half Marathon Club is you get great feedback on races.  Let’s face it, there are plenty of races out there to choose from.  It is helpful when you can hear what other people thought of the races they have run.

I was looking for a race in Alabama that I could do in the winter.  I had heard good things about the Mercedes Benz Marathon and Half Marathon in Birmingham from other club members.  This past weekend I headed to Birmingham to run the half marathon.  IMG_3736

This was my first trip to Birmingham, and Alabama for that matter, so I didn’t know what to expect.  Birmingham was once a thriving steel town.  I could see the historic Sloss Furnaces (circa 1882) from my hotel room.  Like most steel towns in the US, Birmingham has seen better days.  There were many beautiful old buildings but not much going on in them.

Despite the depressed economy, I found an abundance of Southern hospitality.  A merchant along one of the main streets saw me admiring a bench outside his store and invited me in to browse.  We talked about his passions for Italy and photography.   As I left, he handed me a cup with his store’s logo as a souvenir.

Eddie Kendricks from the Temptations

Eddie Kendricks from the Temptations

I recently found the Roadside America web site that provides information on offbeat tourist attractions.  It is a perfect resource for things to see on my funatical runner trips.  I checked the web site to see what attractions were listed for Birmingham.  I found a number of interesting places within walking distance to my hotel, including the memorial to Eddie Kendricks from the Motown group the Temptations, and the Ram-headed Storyteller fountain.  The day before the race I did my own walking tour of the downtown area before heading back to my hotel room to watch the US Olympic Marathon Trials.  Watching Meb Keflezighi (at 40 years old!) make the Olympic team was a great way to get motivated for my race.

Ram-headed Storyteller reading to the frogs and other animals

Ram-headed Storyteller reading to the frogs and other animals

On the elevation map the course looked hilly.  It looked like we would be running up hill from about Mile 4 until Mile 8.  I had visions of the Flying Pig in Cincinnati, one of the hilliest courses I have ever run.  As we stood waiting for the start, I asked other runners around me how difficult the course actually was.  They assured me the hills were not bad.  After the race, I thought about the course and agreed that it wasn’t too bad for a half marathon.  (The full marathoners had to do two loops of the half marathon course; that would not have been as enjoyable.)

There wasn’t much in the way of course entertainment but it was unusually cold – 29 degrees at the start – and windy.   I can’t blame anyone for not standing out in that weather blowing a saxophone or playing a guitar.  In honor of Valentine’s Day there were plenty of red heart-shaped balloons along the course and runners dressed in Valentine’s Day inspired clothes.   I also saw examples of the Southern hospitality I had been enjoying in the signs spectators were holding.

Southern hospitality among the spectators

Southern hospitality among the spectators

The post-race party was held indoors (out of the cold) and included a free barbecue from a local restaurant.

One couple wore matching shirts with a Valentine's Day theme

One couple wore matching shirts with a Valentine’s Day theme

My expectations for what kind of freebies we runners would receive in our goodie bag were high.  My last race was sponsored by 3M and runners received a wide variety of 3M products.  I thought a race sponsored by a luxury car company should be accompanied by, well, a car or maybe at least a significant discount on a car.  The only Mercedes-related products they gave race finishers were a Mercedes hood ornament-shaped medal and a seat cover.

My Mercedes hood ornament medal and seat cover

My Mercedes hood ornament medal and seat cover

I have to agree with my fellow 50 State Half Marathon club members.  The Mercedes Benz Half was a nice little race (only 4,000 runners in the half and 1,200 in the full).  I am glad to cross another state off my “to-run” list.  The next stop on my quest for 50 States will be New Orleans, Louisiana.

What’s a Person To Do?

It is not surprising that people are confused about how best to keep themselves healthy.  There is so much conflicting information out there these days.

I recall an article a while back that had the alarming headline “Sitting down is KILLING you!”  That headline would scare anyone who is chained to a desk all day.  Dr. James A. Levine, director of obesity solutions at the Mayo Clinic and the author of “Get Up! Why Your Chair is Killing You”, claimed that today’s office workers “sit for 13 hours a day, sleep for 8, and move for just 3.”  The result of all this inactivity, according to his research, is heart disease, obesity, depression and deteriorating bones.  Dr. Levine said we need to stand up more.  To help us all out, Dr. Levine invented the treadmill desk (probably not for anyone who can’t pat their head and rub their tummy at the same time).  So sitting is bad for you.

Other experts have suggested that we need to stand up more.  (I wonder if they have a financial stake in stand-up desks.)   But I found articles that claimed standing for long periods of time can increase your risk of varicose veins, back and foot problems, and carotid artery disease.  So standing is bad for you.

I found another article in the New York Times where a reader asked if lying down was as bad for you as sitting.   I thought the answer was pretty self-evident but they had John P. Thyfault, associate professor at the University of Kansas Medical Center, respond.  According to Dr. Thyfault, lying in bed (or on the couch) is as bad as sitting.  So lying down is bad for you.

Then there are the articles that say running causes knee problems and premature death (and articles that say those claims are false).  Still other studies claim excessive biking or swimming will cause bone loss.

So far we have sitting, standing, lying down, running, swimming or biking are bad for you.  How is anyone going to know what to do to stay healthy?  The result is many people do nothing (though nothing is the equivalent of sitting all the time).  I mentioned this confusing information to a co-worker.  Her response was that everyone should just lie on the ground and roll everywhere.  Interesting answer but not practical.

NASA has studied this whole physical activity thing too.  Based on their research, they say you need to stand up for 2 minutes a day, 16 times a day while at work in order to maintain bone and muscle density.  I can see it now: cubicle farms throughout the corporate world having 2-minute breaks throughout the day, kind of like the 7th-inning stretch in baseball but multiple times, where everyone stands up.  It would be a start but I don’t see how that provides any aerobic exercise to anyone.  Aerobic exercise is important too.

The guidelines from most government and health organizations say we should be getting 2.5 hours of moderate exercise per week in order to build and maintain health and fitness.  According to multiple studies, 2.5 hours is the sweet spot.  Less than that, you aren’t improving your health.  More than that, some studies claim you might actually be harming yourself.

If you think about it, 2.5 hours is not a huge time commitment but will provide measurable benefits to your health, like lower cholesterol and blood pressure to name just a few.  You just need to set aside the time each week. It is a good goal to work towards.  No more excuses.  As Nike says, just do it.

Looking For Inspiration

I came back from Austin with an unwanted souvenir – a nasty cold that has kept me from training.  While sidelined, I took time to watch the documentary “Inspired to Ride” about the inaugural TransAm Bike Race held in 2014.  The race was organized by the same people who organized Tour Divide.

The TransAm Bike Race covered 4,233 miles over 10 states following the TransAmerica Trail from Astoria, Oregon to Yorktown, Virginia.  It was a self-supported ultra-endurance cycling event (i.e., no support teams driving along with extra gear) with no prize money, no stages, no checkpoints, no teams.  The 45 cyclists who started were on their own.  The film followed them as they raced across the Rocky Mountains, the plains in the Mid-West, over the Appalachian Mountains through Virginia to Yorktown.

I was fascinated by the people who entered the TransAm Race.  There was Jason Lane, a Canadian cyclist who holds the Canadian record for the Race Across America (RAAM, a supported bike race) in 9 days.  Instead of eating real food, Jason was living on a liquid diet called Spiz, used by endurance athletes as well as cancer and AIDS patients.  He refilled his supplies via shipments he had sent to various Post Offices along the way.   Mike Hall, a cyclist from the UK, had completed the Tour Divide in 2013 as well as the 18,000 mile World Cycle Race in 2012.  During the TransAm, Mike was like a machine that never stopped.

The cyclist that I was most fascinated by was Juliana Buhring from Italy.  Ultra-endurance sports in general have an extremely low percentage of woman participants.  But Juliana is an extraordinary woman.   She started cycling in 2011 at age 30.  In December 2012 she became the fastest female to circumnavigate the world by bike.  She completed her journey in 144 days of cycling (152 if you include the flights between segments).

Throughout the TransAm race, I saw her face challenges that would have easily sent me home.  Nothing seemed to upset Juliana.  No tears.  No “why me?”  No pouting.  Time after time Juliana just dealt with whatever life threw at her.  She suffered a bad crash and ended up with a bruised sternum and a badly skinned knee.  Although it hurt to breathe, she kept going.  She had trouble with her seat, which was slowly sinking and causing her knee pain.  She stopped to get it fixed and then kept pushing on.  In Kentucky, her chain broke and she spent hours with a “hillbilly” who locals said could fix anything.  And he did.

There was one scene that I can’t get out of my head.  Juliana was sitting outside a grocery store eating a sandwich when a woman stopped to talk to her.  When she heard Juliana was racing across America, the woman told Juliana she was crazy.  Juliana replied “crazy is sitting behind a desk from 9 to 5.”  When I worked, I sat behind a desk frequently for over 10 hours a day.  I have to agree with Juliana – that was crazy.

I won’t tell you who won the race.  You need to watch the film for yourself so that you can hear each of the cyclists’ stories and see the incredible scenery.   You might think they are crazy too but I am starting to think that ultra-endurance athletes are more sane than we think.

I like the way that Mike defined adventure.  He said “adventure is being willing to take on something that could be bigger than you thought.”  Every day presented new unpredictable challenges to the cyclists including cold and snow in the mountains (in June!); grueling cross winds in Kansas; snapped bike chains and cracked bike frames; bloody saddle sores; dangerous encounters with motorists.  But the thrill of racing and adventure kept them going.

In two years I hope to be finished with my 50 state endurance challenge and all 6 Major Marathons.  I am starting to look for my next challenge, my next adventure.  As Mike said, I just have to be willing to take on something that could be bigger than I think it could be.  I don’t think I am tough enough for the TransAm but there might be another ultra event that I could do.   I will keep looking.

I hope you take the time out to watch “Inspired to Ride”.  It was a good one.

The Adventure Cycling Association is a non-profit organization that promotes travel by bicycle.  Their web site has routes and maps for the over 44,600 miles of cycling routes across the United States.    

I wrote about the documentary “Ride the Divide” back in September 2014.   If you haven’t seen the documentary about Tour Divide (called “Ride the Divide”), rent it.  That one is not to be missed.