Someday is Now

There are fascinating people you can meet when you take that first step to say hello.  We were reminded of that during our recent vacation in Montana.  While passing through Bozeman, we stopped for lunch at one of the restaurants along Main Street.  I noticed a bicycle, loaded with gear on the front and back, leaning against the railing separating the dining area from the sidewalk.  I pointed to the bicycle and told my husband it probably belonged to someone who was riding across country.  We looked up to see a tall slender man, wearing bike shorts and carrying a bike helmet, walking past our table. My husband (whose preferred activity is bicycling) greeted him and they chatted.  Turns out, Ben, the bicyclist, was biking across the US.  It was a dream he had for years.  Someday he was going to do it.  When he retired, Ben started to plan his trip and someday started to get a lot closer.    Now here it was.

In one of those “It’s a Small World” moments, it turned out Ben lives about 50 miles from us.  Since we are practically neighbors back home, we asked Ben to join us for lunch.  He didn’t hesitate.  With beers and food ordered, we sat back to hear about Ben’s adventures as a TransAmerican bicyclist.

As we ate, we peppered Ben with questions.  When did you start your cross-country trek? Mid-April.  How many miles have you biked? About 3,400 with another 1,200 to go before finishing in Oregon.  How much does all your gear weigh? 75 pounds.  Where do you sleep at night? Outside, sometimes along the road, sometimes in a hotel.  What do you do if your bike breaks down?  Carry spare parts like extra tires and inner tubes.  How many flat tires have you had so far? Two (the first when he took his bike into a hotel room and a tack in the carpet pierced his tire).  Did you sell everything you own to do this? No, just his truck.  He will buy a new one to drive back home from Oregon when he finishes.  When do you think you will finish? October.

Ben was taking his time on his trip.  Typically, I hear about bicyclists crossing the country in 14-20 days, traveling from west to east.  Ben was taking a different approach.  He had started in the east (Delaware) and was heading west.  This wasn’t any mad dash for him.  Ben was visiting friends and family along the way.  Some places he would stop to go to a baseball game.  In others, he would rent a car and make a side trip for sightseeing before hopping back on his bike to continue his journey.  Ben takes a couple of days off too, only biking 5 days a week.  To plan his route, Ben worked with the Adventure Cycling Association.  Their headquarters is located in Missoula and Ben planned to stop by to say hello.

As Ben talked, I noticed that our waitress would linger each time she stopped at our table.  She was listening to Ben talk about his experiences.  I watched her eyes get bigger and more full of life as she listened.  Finally she explained she wants to go on a similar adventure and is trying to convince her husband.  She wants to start with a bike ride through Glacier National Park. She has some fear of what she might encounter.   “Could I really do it?”  Ben assured her she could.  All she needed to do was get a bike and start training.

It was a fun lunch.  I enjoyed listening to Ben’s stories and making a new friend in the process.  When we left the restaurant, I found I was as excited about Ben’s journey as he probably was.  While I don’t think riding across country on a bike is in my future, I admire Ben for doing it.  I look forward to getting together with him again to hear about the rest of his trip.  It certainly is an incredible adventure.

Interested in a cycling adventure of your own?  Check out the Adventure Cycling Association’s web site for ideas, tips, routes, maps, and more: https://www.adventurecycling.org

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Just Say No to No

Recently my husband handed me an issue of Sports Illustrated, pointed to one article and said “read this.” The article was about Jeff Glasbrenner. When Jeff was 8 years old, he lost his right leg below the knee in a farming accident. He spent 47 grueling days in the hospital during which he had 14 surgeries, developed gangrene, and twice was resuscitated when his heart stopped. I cringe at the thought of how scary this was for a young boy. When he was finally discharged, his doctors sent him home with a list of activities that he must never attempt including swimming, biking, and playing any kind of sports. He was basically told “you can’t be a kid anymore.” For years Jeff followed his doctors’ instructions but he longed to be involved.

When Jeff went away to college, he met another student, Troy Sachs, from Australia who had his leg amputated below the knee when he was 2 1/2 years old. Troy was a world-class wheelchair basketball player. The next day Troy had Jeff out on the basketball court. While Jeff had natural ability, it took time for him to fully develop his skills. Jeff went from working the scoring table at his sister’s basketball games to playing the game he dreamed of.

Jeff went on to become a professional wheelchair basketball player. A couple of years later he was invited to participate in a 200-mile charity bike ride from Charlotte to Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. Despite having never used a hand-crank bike, Jeff enthusiastically agreed. From there he moved to a regular road bike, to swimming and running, and then completing Ironman Triathlons (25 total, in case you are counting).

Jeff and his wife have two children, one of whom, Grace, has a genetic disorder that causes her to have seizures. Through a program for people with physical disabilities, Grace tried rock climbing. They noticed that she never had a seizure while she was on the wall. Jeff got involved in rock climbing too and that led to him becoming a mountaineer, climbing mountains in North America, South America, and finally the biggest one of them all, Mt. Everest.

Although he spent years sitting on the sidelines because doctors had told him he shouldn’t be physically active, Jeff got the courage to toss that advice aside and pursue an active life. It has taken him to the top of the highest mountain in the world.

I love Jeff’s story. After reading about Jeff’s experience, I could understand a how he felt. I was training for my fourth marathon when I first began experiencing extreme neuropathy and muscle spasms so severe I could not walk. When I finally received my diagnosis of Transverse Myelitis (TM), my doctor was skeptical about my ability to run again. His words planted seeds of doubt in my brain and made me hesitant to put on my shoes and run. I was fortunate. I was not wheelchair bound but I was still afraid.  At my lowest point I was encouraged by Auntie C. who told me “Transverse Myelitis does not define you. You don’t need to have it control your life.” It was just the kick in the pants I needed to get focused again.

“No” was never a word I accepted lightly when I was growing up. (Sorry for all that aggravation, Mom.) It just meant I had to work harder to make whatever I wanted happen. I decided to try running again. Through the help of my running coach Leanne, I slowly built up my strength. I went from being the slowest runner in her class to running with the front of the pack. With Leanne’s help I got stronger than ever. Since my diagnosis over 6 years ago, I have finished 10 marathons and 48 half marathons plus completed the Rim-to-Rim in the Grand Canyon.

I have some thoughts from my experience and from reading about Jeff. First, doctors can provide information on challenges that I may face. But the only one who can say how physical activity is making me feel is me. Doctors aren’t inside my skin. I have always told my neurologist, Dr. T., we have a partnership in my health. He is another member of Team Funatical Runner. My responsibility is to give him feedback on how I feel. His job is to monitor how I am doing. According to one study of TM patients, exercise promotes functional recovery. Running has helped keep me healthier, even Dr. T. will agree with that.

Second, it is my responsibility to manage any challenges that I encounter such as having a risk mitigation plan for running in the heat and dealing with fatigue. Through trial and error, I have pretty much mastered these. When I told Dr. T. about my plan to run Rim-to-Rim in the Grand Canyon, he yelled at me “your organs will shut down and you could die.” But I planned for my challenges and I did just fine.

Finally, the benefits to my mental health from being physically active are immeasurable. Running gives me a sense of personal accomplishment. When life gets overwhelming, I can always go for a run to put things back into perspective. I might not be the fastest runner out there but I still am able to finish a marathon.

Jeff could have sat back and continued to watch life go by. But he chose to jump in and live it. He started doing all the things his doctors took off the table for him when he was 8 years old. His life is richer because he did.  I thought my TM diagnosis was the end of my running career. A bump in the road maybe but not a brick wall. I didn’t allow someone to tell me what I could or couldn’t do.  Like Jeff, it was really up to me to figure out what I was capable of.  Looking back over the last few years, I can say I am glad I didn’t let “No” stop me.

No, I’m never giving up and I would have to say Jeff isn’t either.

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Moose and Mimosas

To date I have run a full or half marathon in 44 of the 50 states. My most recent race was the Her Tern Half Marathon in Anchorage, Alaska. My goals when I boarded the plane to Anchorage were simple. I wanted to complete the half marathon so I could check off Alaska and to see a real live moose (not a stuffed one or giant moose sculpture). In addition to enjoying a wonderful race, I discovered a fascinating place with a wealth of cultural sights, incredible scenery, and more natural phenomena than any place I have visited. Of all the race trips I have taken, this is one of the most memorable.

Bob – One Lucky Guy

The Her Tern Half Marathon is an all female race with the exception of “One Lucky Guy” (selected from a handful of male applicants). This year’s winner was Bob who, with the encouragement of a female friend, started running 3 years ago to improve his health. He started out walking mostly but now is up to running 5Ks, 10Ks, half marathons, and even two full marathons. Along the way, he has gotten others running too, including his sister and his daughter.

With only 530 women runners plus Bob, the One Lucky Guy, this was one of the smallest races I have done. For some people a small race isn’t very attractive but I enjoy races like this. Because it was small, there were things I would never see at a larger race. Every runner was given a reusable Baggu bag, coupons to use at Skinny Raven Sports (the race organizer) and the Her Tern boutique along with a race shirt. I saw lots of runners making good use of their coupons (because women love to shop!). The medal was a handmade finisher’s bracelet. At the end of the race, there were free race photos and free post-race massages. The post-race refreshments had women in mind: fruit; cookies and cupcakes (including gluten-free options); apple strudel; and for those of legal drinking age, mimosas in a rose garden served in a souvenir champagne glass. Although I never drink a beer after a race, I did enjoy my mimosa!

Post-race mimosa

The thing that impressed me the most about this race is how supportive and encouraging it was for the women runners. It was apparent some of these women were running farther than they ever had. The course was out and back, mostly on the Chester Creek Trail. Along the course there were motivational messages written in chalk on the pavement. Since most runners have their eyes focused on the ground before them, we always saw the messages. A few of the water stops were manned by young men in tuxedos, cheering the women runners on.

The last half mile or so of the race was up “Happy Hill”. At that point in the race, a hill was the last thing I wanted to see. As I ran up it, I watched people coming down from the finish line and running alongside runners who were struggling, encouraging them to keep pushing. Over and over those cheerleaders came down to escort another runner up the hill. I have never seen that kind of support in any race. I have run several women-centric races including the Tinker Bell Half, Princess Half, and the Nike Women’s Half but the Her Tern Half Marathon was the best of them all.

There really was a moose in those bushes

Not only did I finish my Alaska race (Goal #1 – check!), along the race course there was a female moose with two calves. Two paramedics were standing nearby, keeping an eye on the mom in case she started moving towards the race course. I stopped to take a couple of photos of the moose but she was difficult to see among the bushes.

With the race out of the way, I could enjoy the other things Alaska has to offer visitors. I drove north to Eklutna, to see the spirit houses in the graveyard of the St. Nicholas Orthodox Church. Spirit houses are a unique burial custom that combines practices of both the Russian Orthodox Church and the Dena’ina, an Athabascan people native to this area of Alaska for over 1,000 years.  (Read more about the spirit houses in this NPR article.)

On my way back, I stopped at the Alaskan Native Heritage Center, which provides information about Alaska’s 11 major cultural groups. There were interesting demonstrations of native art, dances and games as well as examples of the buildings and customs unique to each group. Docents representing each cultural group answered questions and explained the exhibits. I left with a deeper understanding and appreciation of Native Alaskan cultures.

I was surprised to learn Anchorage is as far west as Hawaii and as far north as Helsinki, Finland. Because it is so far north, in the summer months there aren’t any hours where it is dark. They experience longer periods of civil twilight each day, where there is just enough sunlight that you don’t need artificial light to see outdoors. I didn’t need the headlights on my rental car at 11:00 PM. It didn’t get pitch black out while I was in Anchorage either. I understand now why black-out blinds were noted as one of the hotel room’s amenities.

Anchorage has beautiful parks as well as an 11-mile bike trail called the Tony Knowles Coastal Trail. There were several places to rent bicycles for a ride along the trail. In the winter, the trail is used for cross-country skiing. I walked the trail where it passed through Kincaid Park. The park is over 1500 acres of birch, cottonwood, and spruce trees with an abundance of wildlife including moose, bears, fox, and many types of birds including eagles. Another trail took me to the north end of the Anchorage Coastal Wildlife Refuge where I walked down to the stoney beach. The views of Cook Inlet and snow-capped mountains in the distance were breathtaking. I didn’t see any moose in Kincaid Park or at the wildlife refuge.

View from the beach of the Anchorage Coastal Wildlife Refuge

I visited Earthquake Park, a 134-acre park located in an area where an entire neighborhood slid into the sea during a 1964 earthquake, the worst to ever hit North America. The earthquake measured 9.2 on the Richter scale and lasted over 4 minutes. There were fabulous views of the Knik Arm and Chugach Mountains. I saw plenty of mosquitos but no moose.

Young male moose having a snack

The final park I visited was Point Woronzof Park, located between the end of the runway at the Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport and the sea. There were sweeping views of Cook Inlet, a wide variety of birds, and the biggest treat of my whole trip – two moose, a young male and young female. These weren’t hiding in deep brush. I took several photos of them as airplanes flew overhead on their approach to the airport. (Goal #2 – check!) I had been told the best place to see a moose was at the airport. Those people were right.

I was disappointed I did not get to witness the Alaska bore tide in Turnagain Arm. A bore tide occurs in about 60 places around the world where a rush a seawater returns to a shallow and narrowing inlet from a broad bay. The one at Turnagain Arm can reach 6-10 feet tall and moves at speeds of 10-15 miles per hour. Sometimes surfers can be seen riding the tide in. I drove down to Beluga Point, a spot along the Seward Highway, where one can see beluga whales as well as watch the bore tide. Unfortunately, I wasn’t there at the right time to see the bore tide in action. I didn’t see any whales either.

Alaska is very different from any other place I have traveled on my Funatical Runner adventures.  I will never forget finally seeing a moose but there was so much I didn’t get to see.   I plan to visit Alaska again to watch the bore tide during one of the 4-5 days per month that it is the highest. I would love to see the beluga whales too. I want to see Denali’s peak from Anchorage or, better yet, visit the Denali National Park. If I go at the right time, I might even be able to see the Aurora Borealis (viewable from late August to early April). I can’t wait to go back!

I didn’t have time to visit Anchorage’s Gravity Hill.  This isn’t really a natural phenomenon (more of an optical illusion) but it would be fun to see.

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