Man versus Beast

Many people think being a runner is unnatural, even dangerous.  They probably have this perception after hearing stories about runners developing knee problems or back problems, even dying prematurely.  They argue that cars were invented so there is no need to run.

There is no way that a human could run as fast as a cheetah, which is the fastest animal with top speeds of 68-75 miles per hour.  But cheetahs are sprinters, not distance runners.  That is where humans have the advantage.

According to Daniel Lieberman, Professor of Biological Sciences at Harvard University, the anatomy of the human body has features that help endurance running.  Humans have spring-like arches in the feet, short toes, long tendons in the legs, large gluteus maximus muscles, and unusually large joints in the legs and spine.  Additionally, there is a ligament at the base of the skull that stabilizes the head when running.  The human body is not covered in fur like many animals and has lots of sweat glands so humans perform better in heat.  Cheetahs, like other cats and dogs, only have sweat glands in their paws and have to rely on panting to regulate their body temperature.  The bottom line is humans may not be built for speed but we are built to run long distances.  We just need to learn how to run and use our bodies as they were intended.

In the documentary “Fair Chase” ten elite distance runners went to New Mexico to prove that a human could run down an animal.  Their prey was the second fastest animal on earth, the pronghorn that can run up to 55 miles per hour.  They were trying to prove before the bow and arrow was invented, early man survived by using persistence hunting where a team of hunters track an animal over long distances.  The objective of persistence hunting is not to outrun the animal but to run it until it overheats.  At that point, the hunters can overtake and kill their prey.  Persistence hunting is still used today in Africa, Australia and parts of Mexico.  Amazingly, the runners in “Fair Chase” chased a buck for over 20 miles in temperatures upwards from 88 degrees before the buck disappeared into a herd.

Although the runners were not successful in taking down their prey, I don’t think that we can say that it would not be possible to run down an antelope.  The antelopes knew the terrain much better than the runners.  The runners also had to climb over barbed wire fences the antelopes easily jumped.  In the prehistoric times, there wouldn’t have been any barbed wire fences.  Fortunately for us, today we just need to hop in the car and drive to the nearest grocery to pick up dinner.  No running involved there.

If you want to try your endurance running skills against an animal, there are a few options.  First, there is the “Man vs Horse” race in Llanwrtyd Wells, Wales every June where runners compete against horses on a 22-mile course.  The race has been held every year since 1980.  A human runner has only won twice –  in 2004 and 2007.  The other race is “Man Against Horse” in Prescott, Arizona held in October.  That race was started in 1983.  There are three distances – 12, 25 and 50 miles.  The 12-mile course is over rolling terrain while the 25-mile and 50-mile courses are more challenging, over steep rocky terrain, mountainous trails and back roads with elevation climbs of up to 7600 feet.  Weather can be at either extreme – sunny and warm to snow and hail.  Horses seem to be the overall winners in that race too.

While I have no desire to try racing an animal, I am glad to know that my body is designed to run all these marathons and half marathons that I do.   I don’t worry about knee problems or back problems.  In fact, I feel pretty good.   Yep, I am a marathon racing machine.

Professor Lieberman has co-authored a paper on endurance running with Dennis M. Bramble titled “Endurance Running and the Evolution of Homo.”  If you want to learn more about why humans are such good endurance runners, check it out.   

Outside Online published this article about the elite runners attempt to catch a pronghorn

Fair Chase was a very interesting film.  Here is a link to their web site.   

How Do You Define Adventure?

A couple weeks ago I was looking for an interesting film to watch on the long flight to Utah for the Zion Half Marathon.  I found a documentary called “The Five Elements of Adventure.”   Given that my goal is to have more adventure in my life, I was curious to learn what Matt Walker, a mountaineer and the film’s creator, thought the five elements of adventure are.  For all I know, I could be missing a key element of adventure.

The first element Matt said is getting out of your normal environment.  This makes total sense to me.  The way I look at it is you can represent your environment in a Venn diagram.  Your normal environment is a circle within a MUCH larger circle.  Things get boring and monotonous if all you do is stay inside your little circle.  You have to break through into the bigger circle to see more of what is out there in the world.  If you live in the mountains, go see a desert.  I can guarantee that life is a lot different there.  As Matt puts it, getting out of your ordinary routine results in a shift in your perspective on life and living.Screen Shot 2016-03-30 at 6.32.10 PM

Next, Matt says there needs to be uncertainty about the outcome of what you are doing.  Predictable by definition means “able to be foretold or declared in advance.”  Sounds like another word for routine to me, just the thing adventure is suppose to take you away from.  You need to go for the unpredictable.  This element reminded me of Mike Hall, the cyclist in the TransAm Bike Race and his view of adventure.  The cyclists in the race couldn’t predict what was going to happen every day.  Everything was up to chance, fate, or whatever you want to call it.  They controlled nothing but how they handled each challenge thrown at them.  If everything was predictable, it would be the same as any other long bike ride that they take.

The third element, according to Matt, is passion.  Matt feels that to have adventure, you have to do something that gives you tremendous joy.  As he sees it, people are getting lost in the monotony of their daily lives.  They need to get lost instead in something that they love to do.  I understand that one.  When I worked, there was no time in my days to do anything that gave me joy or personal satisfaction.  I guarantee you – there was no adventure in my life.  I often felt like I was just existing.

Matt’s fourth element is mindfulness.  For something to be an adventure, Matt says you have to be in a mental state where you are fully present in the moment.  When you are mindful of what you are doing, you aren’t distracted by other thoughts.  In today’s world, that is a tough one.  Most people are busy multi-tasking, only partially paying attention to what is going on around them.

Finally, Matt’s last element is companionship.  Matt believes that you have to share an experience with others in order to get the most joy from it.

After I finished watching the film, I sat back and evaluated my running “adventures”.  I certainly had the first one down.  I am traveling to races in places as varied as Tokyo, Berlin, Montana, South Carolina, and Utah.  In the process I have gotten exposure to different parts of the world.  I have seen things like snow monkeys in Japan and a ghost town in Utah, eaten foods like wild Maine blueberries and Montana huckleberries.  I never would have enjoyed these things if I had stayed in my little circle.  As a result, my little circle got a bit bigger.

My races may all seem predictable but they really aren’t.  I never expected the extreme weather we had for the Rock ’n’ Roll Half in Savannah that ultimately caused the race to be halted.  I had never run in a mud race but in Utah I got a little taste of what a mud race might be like.  When I ran the Rocky Mountain Half, I had never run a race at high altitude.  It was a very different experience running at over 7,500 feet, one that required me to adjust my racing strategy.

Yes, I am passionate about my running.  I have tremendous gratitude and joy that I am still able to keep moving.  Many people with Transverse Myelitis don’t have that gift.  It is something that I can’t stop doing.

I am a little light on the mindfulness part.  The only place where I experienced what Matt described as mindfulness was when I ran outside Zion National Park.  Without any course entertainment or other distractions along the way, I got caught up in the beauty of the scenery.  I found myself focusing on each breath, each footfall, the wind on my back, and the rain on my face.  My mind became very calm and I felt an overwhelming sense of peace.  It was a spiritual experience.

For companionship, I always have the other runners, some I know beforehand and others I meet along the way.  My running companions (including my “running spouse”) and I have shared many running adventures (and a couple misadventures) over the years.  Through those adventures we have created shared memories and forged friendships that I cherish.  I will never forget the “buddy” I made during the Rock ’n’ Roll Half in Savannah.  It was a difficult race and we helped each other get across the finish line that day.  My fellow 50 State Half Marathon Club members have also added companionship to my racing.  We come from varied backgrounds and areas of the country but we share a passion for running.

Screen Shot 2016-03-30 at 9.08.57 PMThe comedian Chris Rock once remarked some people say life is short but life is long and you have to live with the choices you make.  I think it is too long to stay confined in a little circle.  Adventure starts when you make the decision to step outside your circle and into the unknown that lies beyond it.   By taking that first step outside my circle and into the big one, I know that I am putting myself on the road to adventure.

Matt Walker has a website and a blog.  Check it out.  Here is a teaser for Matt’s film “The Five Elements of Adventure” but I encourage you to watch the whole film (available on iTunes).  In addition to his message about adventure, you will enjoy the beautiful scenery of Nepal while you plan your next adventure.

Uphill or Down?

I am always on the lookout for a new way to add adventure and exercise to my life. Don’t get me wrong – I enjoy running but sometimes I wonder if there isn’t something else that I could be doing. My husband likes to bike so cycling adventures frequently catch my eye. Recently I came across two that astounded me.

Most runners that I know hate hills. In fact, many of them will go out of their way to NOT have to run up a hill. The cyclists competing in the “Dirty Dozen” bike race in Pittsburgh make all those anti-hill runners look like a bunch of wimps. The Dirty Dozen is an informal (i.e., no entry fee) race up 13 of the most grueling hills around Pittsburgh. The race has been going on for the last 33 years – always the Saturday after Thanksgiving. What surprises me the most is that each year more and more people show up to do the race. While the route is only 55 miles, the climbs up the Pittsburgh hills will kick the butts of even the most experienced cyclists. There is one hill on the course with a 37 percent grade that the city claims may be the steepest paved urban street in the world. The hills are so steep that it is not unusual for bikers to fall over as they try to climb them.

I grew up riding a bike in Pittsburgh. I remember riding my bike from my home in the suburbs into downtown Pittsburgh. It was a great ride downhill into the city. I barely pedaled after I crested the hill, though I was riding the brakes a bit at some places. Coming back home was a different story – I never pedaled so much in my life and my thighs were burning. From my firsthand experience biking in Pittsburgh, I am amazed that people travel from all over the country to tackle the Pittsburgh hills two days after feasting on Thanksgiving dinner. Purposely seeking out hills to bike up sounds a bit nutty to me but if everything was just smooth, flat road, life wouldn’t be as interesting or challenging.

Cyclists who prefer going down hill can head to South America and Bolivia’s Yungas Road. The 35-mile road connects La Paz in the Andes Mountains to the Yangas rainforest area, descending 11,000 feet along the way. Much of the road is only 10 feet wide – for two-way traffic too – and unpaved. There are no guard rails and drop-offs of up to 2,000 feet. The weather conditions can make traveling this road even more dangerous – rain, fog and runoff during the rainy season, rockfalls and dust that limits visibility in the summer.

As one might expect, 200-300 people were killed in accidents along the road each year, resulting in the road being called “Death Road”. The road was cited by the Inter-American Development Bank as the most dangerous road in the world and funding was secured to build a safer road. The new road was opened in 2007 and took most of the traffic with it. That was when bikers from all over the world started showing up, attracted to the challenge of riding down Death Road. There are about 30 tour companies in La Paz that organize bike trips down Death Road. The names of the tour companies give you a sense of what sort of challenge awaits – Mayhem, Vertigo, Black Widow, and Gravity Assisted Mountain Biking. Every year more bikers come to take on Death Road. Bikers haven’t fared any better than people in cars, trucks, and buses. Over 22 bikers have died since 1998.

I know a few bikers who would probably love to tackle Death Road. I will pass on this challenge. Just watching videos of people biking down Death Road makes me uncomfortable. Climbing up the Dirty Dozen has more appeal than zooming down an unpaved road with sheer drop offs. You can always hop off your bike and walk up the hill, though that seems to defeat the purpose. Come to think of it – I will stick to my running shoes.

I found this interesting video by WQED (the PBS station in Pittsburgh) about the Dirty Dozen bike race. I guarantee you won’t complain about biking up another hill after you watch this.

You have to see video of biking down Death Road to appreciate how scary it really is.

I thought this BBC Top Gear episode where they went up Death Road was amusing but I still don’t want to go there.  

Where Are They Now?

The other day I started wondering about some of the people I have written about in my blog posts.  I decided to find out what they had done since I wrote about them.  It was interesting to learn who was still swimming, running, cycling or whatever.  I continue to find their stories interesting and inspiring.  (In case you forgot the details or missed the original posts, I provided links back to them.)

Lewis Gordon Pugh was the focus of a post back in August (Ultimate Ice Water Challenge).  Lewis is famous for swimming in freezing water in places like the North Pole.  In 2014 Lewis became the first person to complete a long distance swim in the 7 seas – Mediterranean, Adriatic, Aegean, Black, Red, Arabian, and North Sea.  During his swims, he saw no sharks, no whales, no dolphins, and no fish longer than 11 inches, a testament to declining marine life.  Lewis hopes his swim motivates the countries bordering these waters to create more marine protected areas.  For everything he has done to bring attention to the health of the world’s seas, National Geographic named him one of its 2015 Adventurers of the Year.

I wrote about William Trubridge back in October (Week 7 of Recovery).  William is still free diving at Dean’s Blue Hole.  In December 2014 he went to break his own record and, despite diving 102 meters on a single breath and without fins, his dive wasn’t officially recognized.  William forgot to remove his goggles on arriving on the surface – disappointing I am sure.  Besides free diving, William has taken up the fight against seaborne plastic, which is having a devastating effect on all kinds of sea life.  Even coral is consuming micro plastic with fatal results.  William has kicked off the #PlasticChallenge to raise awareness and get people involved to save our oceans.

Reza Baluchi appeared in a post about his failed attempt to run from the US to Bermuda in a big bubble (October’s Bubble Running).  His bubble bit the dust when it was being towed back to the US.  Undeterred, Reza is working and saving money to build the next generation of his running bubble.  You have to admire someone with as much determination as Reza.  I just hope the next time he attempts this feat that he has a support boat following him.

Sadly Steve Abraham (January’s 365 Days of Commitment) was only able to bike 3 months, just shy of 17,000 miles in his attempt to break the record for biking over 75,000 miles in one year, one of the longest standing records in any sport.  Steve was cycling 100-200 miles a day when he collided with a moped and broke two bones in his ankle.  He is working on rigging a recumbent trike so he can pedal with one leg.   From someone who crashed and burned while running, my advice to Steve is to sit back and heal.  The record will still be there when he is back to full strength.

Meanwhile, Kurt Searvogel, an American who started his own attempt 10 days after Steve, is still going.  Kurt has covered over 19,000 miles and is averaging over 200 miles a day.  Looking over his progress, I think Kurt is a serious contender to not just break the record but shatter it.

I haven’t heard any more stories about races being disrupted by trains in the middle of the course (October’s Trains and Volcanos).   The volcano part of that post was about the Mt Cameroon Race of Hope.  This year Yvonne Ngwaya won the race.  She has won the race six times – five times consecutively –  and is getting closer to breaking Sarah Etonge’s record of seven wins.  Sarah, known as the Queen of the Mountain, is a local hero in Buea where the race is held.  It will be a sad day when her record is broken.

I have written a couple posts about people who run a lot – as in every day – called streakers.  Take Hal Gensler (July’s Going the Distance).  Back in July he had run 9,000 consecutive days.  Well, now Hal is up to 9,260 days (or 25.35 years).  In January (365 Days of Commitment) I wrote about Robert Kraft who has run over 14,711 days in a row (or 40.28 years).  Robert is still running too.  But neither of them holds the record for the longest streak, according to the US Running Streak Association.  That honor goes to Jon Sutherland with a running streak of 16,759 days (45.88 years).

Kayla Montgomery (November’s Gratitude for the Gift of Movement) finished her first collegiate cross country season last fall as a freshman at Lipscomb University.  Kayla who has MS must still have someone at the finish line to catch her.  She inspires her teammates who realize that Kayla isn’t guaranteed anything, especially the ability to move.  It was an adjustment for her to go from high school competition to NCAA D1 level competition.  But Kayla loves to run and she is going to keep on running.  Take THAT MS!

Holland Reynolds (March’s Pain and Inspiration) is a sophomore now at Colgate.  Holland is doing well both academically and running (outdoor and indoor track).  She has earned a few career bests at Colgate.  Coach Jim’s influence was undeniable when she was in high school.  I bet every time she toes up to the start line, Coach Jim is on Holland’s mind (and I think that Coach Jim is watching her from above too).

In my first post back in June (Observing National Running Day) I wrote about Harriette Thompson who had completed her 15th Rock ’n’ Roll San Diego Marathon and set the US record for the fastest marathon in the Women’s 90-94 category.  Harriet is still running.  In the last year, she has completed some shorter distance races – 5k, 8k, and 4 Mile.  I am interested to see if she will run her 16th San Diego Rock ’n’ Roll Marathon next month.

I also wrote about Reinhardt Harrison in that first post.  Reinhardt is 11-years old now and still tearing up race courses.  The two events where he seems to perform the best are the 5k (where his PR is 19:01) and the half marathon (with a PR of 1:31:33).  His claim to the world record for 10-year olds in the half marathon was rejected (because the original race course was altered after it was certified).  I don’t think it would have lasted long though.  That is one very competitive age for half marathoners.  Who knew?  On March 7, 2015, Jack Butler, a 5th grader who trains with his Boston Qualifier mom, broke the half-marathon record for 10-year olds with a blazing 1:31:08 in the Lucky Run in Davis, California.  Jack didn’t get much time to savor his achievement because two weeks later, Elliot Daniels broke Jack’s record by almost 2 minutes running the Oakland (California) Running Festival in 1:29:14.  Afterwards Elliot said, “It was pretty hard at the end.  I got pretty tired.  But I did it.  I’m happy.”  Funny.  That is how I feel after my races.

While reading about all these 10-year old half marathon phenomenons, I found stories about other young runners (boys and girls, some as young as 6) setting world records in 5k, 10k, 10 Mile, and half marathon distances.  It almost took my breath away.  Hey, US Olympic Team – we got some real contenders on the horizon!

I plan to keep following these people – Kurt and his quest for a cycling record, Reinhardt, Kayla, Holland, Jack, Elliot, and the streakers.  They remind me of what I can do when I put my mind to it.

Interested in the fight against seaborne plastic?  William Trubridge has a contest to see how committed and creative people can get in the fight against seaborne plastic.  See how you can get involved and maybe even win a prize at  #PlasticChallenge 

Pain and Inspiration

“One thing about racing is that it hurts.  You better accept that from the beginning or you’re not going anywhere.” – Robert (“Blazin’ Bob”) Owen Kennedy Jr, American distance runner

On Saturday I ran a half marathon at the Summit Point Motor Sports Park in West Virginia.  I expected a flat course; all the race tracks I have seen on television look flat.  It wasn’t.  There were some short but steep hills that we had to go up.  Plus it was cold.  There was nothing to block the wind blowing over the 4 inches of snow that fell two days before the race.  My hamstrings were starting to bother me.  My mind was starting to throw in the towel from the pain when I remembered the documentary “Running for Jim.”

In the film the girls on a high school cross country team talked about how painful it is to run.  I was surprised to hear them all say this.  I thought the best runners never experienced pain when they ran.  I thought there was something wrong with me because I experience pain in races.  In the Tokyo Marathon, both my hamstrings started hurting somewhere between 10km and 20km.  It wasn’t an agonizing pain – just an uncomfortable feeling that reminded me that I have hamstrings and they weren’t real happy.  But during that race, I just focused on one thing – the finish line (and snow monkeys the next day).  I was in the zone – running with pain was meaningless.  It just was.

On Saturday I was having a hard time getting into the zone so I started thinking about the main focus of the film – Jim Tracy, a  San Francisco high school running coach who was diagnosed with Lou Gehrig’s disease (ALS) and his 2010 state championship girls cross country team.  ALS is a deadly disease, one that slowly robs its victim of the ability to move, a disease with no cure.  The team was devastated to hear about their coach’s diagnosis at the start of the season.  They saw how he was starting to struggle with his mobility and that inspired them to work even harder.

Jim was a tough coach.  He expected a lot from his team.  The term “tough love” comes to mind.  He didn’t lavish them with praise.  He pushed them to be the best they could be.  Jim believed that it is purely your decision to be a champion.  You just have to be committed.  The 2010 state championship showed just how committed his team was.

The championship meet took place on a rainy, unseasonably cold day in November.  Holland Reynolds was the team captain.  Before the 3.1 mile race started, Holland gathered her teammates together for a group cheer.  They were going for the record 8th state championship under Jim.  She looked at each of them and said they had to win it for Jim.  This might be the last time he coached a team to a state championship.  They had to do it for Jim.

The race of 169 runners was full of excitement from the starting gun.  To say that Holland and her team were inspired would be an understatement.  One of Holland’s teammates fell in the first 100 yards and was in last place.  She got up, kept running, and finished in 16th place.  Another teammate – who had never led a pack before – led the pack for more than half the course and ended up finishing in 3rd place.  Another was really a soccer player and was running in her first state championship; she finished  25th. Yet another teammate ran the fastest race of her life and finished 36th.

Holland, the best runner on the team, was in second place for the first 2.5 miles of the race when she started to slow down.  She was being passed by other runners.  As hard as she tried, she couldn’t run any faster.  She just kept pushing towards the finish line.  With just 3 yards to go to the finish line, the unthinkable happened.  Holland fell, overcome by dehydration and hypothermia.  Holland was disoriented but was determined to finish.  She did the only thing that she could do.  She crawled.  After she crossed the finish line, she was immediately swept up and taken to an ambulance.  She had finished in 37th place.  The team had won the championship.

Video from the race ended up on the Internet and soon every news organization was reporting on Holland’s stunning finish.  The following year Tom Coughlin, the head coach of the New York Giants football team, used the video to motivate him team.  He used Holland to show his team what finishing and commitment looked like.  Hard to imagine that an NFL player can be moved to tears over a girl high school cross country runner but it happened.  All season long, the Giants remembered Holland’s determination to finish.  That year the Giants finished in first place – they won the Super Bowl in February 2012.

Sadly, Jim succumbed to ALS in 2014, four years after his diagnosis.  But he succeeded in coaching his team to two more state championships from his wheelchair.

Through pain came inspiration.  Jim inspired and motivated Holland and her teammates to win the state championship. Holland’s fall and subsequent crawl across the finish line inspired and motivated an NFL team to go out and win the Super Bowl.  That is pretty powerful stuff.

I know that running a marathon or half-marathon might be painful.  Some days it might hurt more than others.  It is reassuring to know that I am not alone in that.  In my next race, my strategy will be to acknowledge that I may be in pain but not focus on it.  Instead, I will think about Jim and Holland, and focus on the finish line.

Check out the Running for Jim web site but I really encourage you to watch the award-winning film.  It is a tremendous story that doesn’t end at the finish line.

Week 7 of Recovery

It has been over 7 weeks since I broke my arm on a training run.  While I know that my arm is healing, it still seems like it is taking a long time.   In addition to the physical discomfort from my broken arm, I had the disappointment of missing races for which I had been preparing for months.  I derive joy not only from running a race but from the preparation for a race too.  Instead of being a participant, I ended up being a spectator.  That was really difficult.

I feel for Julius Randle, a rookie player on the LA Lakers basketball team, who fell and broke his leg during his NBA debut and the season opener.  There had been high hopes for Julius to become a star player on the team.  Now he will be out for the season.  Teammate Kobe Bryant said that they will “find a silver lining” to Julius’s injury.  Someone made the same comment to me about the silver lining of my broken arm.  I am still trying to find it.

I am slowly making progress.   With the help of massages, I am getting the locked-up muscles in my shoulder area loosened up.  Massages have increased my mobility in my arm/shoulder and reduced my pain.  Less pain means that I sleep better and sleep is extremely important for healing.

Keeping active was impossible for the first 3 weeks.  I tried walking in my neighborhood but my arm bounced when I walked and irritated my shoulder.  I resorted to riding a recumbent exercise bike, which is much less enjoyable for me.  I wanted to find a way to run again.

In order to run, I needed to get a running bra that I didn’t need to pull over my head – something that I can’t do one handed.  A friend who works in a running store helped me find one that I can easily put on.  Last week I was able to put on my running shoes and run 3 miles.  My husband said he hadn’t seen me smile that much in a long time.  I was finally on the road back.

In the last 7+ weeks I have watched a lot of documentaries and read a lot of books. Most recently I watched “Breathe” about William Trubridge, a Kiwi who attempts to break his own world record free diving, diving unaided, to a depth of 300 ft.  For his dive, William went to Dean’s Blue Hole in the Bahamas, the deepest blue hole in the world.  I didn’t enjoy this film that much but I am not sure why.  It seems insane to dive to those depths with the distinct possibility of passing out and drowning.  William who can hold his breath from 7 1/2 minutes also does some crazy contortions to get as much air in his lungs as possible before he dives.  I found it disturbing to watch William prepare to dive.  In the trailer, you can see William’s contorted body.  Here is a link to his web site in case you want to check him out.

I also watched “There is No Finish Line: The Joan Benoit-Samuleson Story” (which helped get those disturbing images from “Breathe” out of my mind).  I have been a fan of Joanie’s since the 1984 Summer Olympics and this film made me an even bigger fan.  It was interesting to learn how Joanie came to become a runner and what drives her, not only on the race course but in her non-running life as well.  I had to laugh when Joanie recollected what her mother said to her when she won the Women’s Marathon in the 1984 Olympics: “will you stop running now?” I don’t think any of us can imagine Joanie not running.

One thing I tried to avoid during my recovery was couch surfing.  Every day was focused on getting moving again.  I recently read about three college friends who took the couch surfing concept to a whole new level.  They bought a 1996 Dodge van off of Craigslist, loaded a futon into the back with their 2 dogs, and headed off from Burlington, Vermont on a four month, 18,000 mile journey around the United States.  Apparently the trio had planned to take this trip last year but had to postpone the trip when one of them suffered a spinal injury.  When he recuperated, they agreed that this trip would be a celebration for all of them, but especially of his recovery.

The group also wanted to show how varied the American landscape is.  So when they hit a scenic spot, they would haul out the futon and take a selfie of the whole crew – dogs included – sitting on the futon.  There are pictures of them next to pristine lakes, straddling railroad tracks, in flower filled meadows with mountains in the background, in deserts, and even on the beach in Southern California.  Sometimes they hauled the futon over rocks, and an occasional river to get the right photo.  You can see their photos here.

So no couch surfing for me.  I will be slowly putting one foot in front of the other, trying to remain upright, focused on my next race.

Trains and Volcanoes

I know a lot of people who have done a Tough Mudder race and rave about how much fun they are.  An obstacle race that involves water, mud, and live electrical wires is not high on my to-do list.  In fact, I don’t think it even makes my list.  I am happy running in marathon races that are more like taking a sightseeing run through a city.  I have visited some very interesting places and running through them gives me a sense for what they are really like.  I don’t need to crawl on my stomach through muddy water, dodging barbed wire or climb over walls as part of a race (though I have climbed over snow fencing to get to the port-a-potties one last time before a race start but I don’t think that counts).

I can’t imagine the reaction of the runners in September’s Mill Race Marathon in Columbus, Indiana when a train approached a railroad crossing about a mile into the marathon course.  No kidding; this really happened.  Speedier runners heard the train whistle, picked up their pace, and bolted across the tracks, narrowly being missed by the train.  The train stopped, blocking the crossing for the majority of the runners.

Runners are pretty determined people, especially those that are going for Boston Marathon qualifying times.  The police and railroad personnel tried to keep the runners away from the train but to no avail.  Some runners ran across a field and cut through woods to cross the tracks ahead of where the train stopped.  Others climbed between the railroad cars.  Some very brave souls crawled underneath some of the cars.  Finally, the train’s engineer blew the whistle and started moving again.  The police were fortunately able to keep people from being flattened by the train.  It was an obstacle that no one, especially the race organizers, had expected.  I can’t say that I would have been one of the foolhardy runners that slid underneath or climbed over a railroad car, especially with an impatient train engineer with a schedule to keep.

Check out the news reports here. If you go to YouTube, you can see these two videos of the runners that are jaw dropping:  video 1 and  video 2.

Trains on the course are nothing compared to what I saw in the latest documentary that I watched “Volcanic Sprint” about the Mt. Cameroon Race of Hope.  This has to be the most physically challenging race I have ever heard of.  Mt. Cameroon is the highest peak in Western Africa at 13,435 feet.  It also happens to be an active volcano; it last erupted in February, 2012.  The race is held in Buea, which is about 2,800 feet in elevation.  The course has the runners start at the stadium in Buea, heading towards Mt. Cameroon for the climb to the top and then heading back down the mountain to the stadium.  The out and back course is about 24 miles.

The top runners can earn more in the 4+ hours it takes to complete the race than Cameroons earn in 4 years.  The incentive to win makes this race very competitive.  The locals cheer the most for runners from Buea.  Sarah Etonge, a local favorite, has won the woman’s race 5 times and has been named “Queen of the Mountain” complete with a statue in her honor.

The race is difficult for a number of reasons.  First, there is a 10,000 foot elevation change and runners can get altitude sickness.  Second, the temperatures fluctuate 50 degrees between the stadium and the top of the mountain where it can be windy, rainy, sleeting or even snowing.  Visibility also becomes a problem.  Finally, being a volcano, the terrain is very rocky and rough.  There is no nice path.  The best runners scramble on all fours to get up to the top.  Others use a walking stick to help get up the mountain. One woman runner’s shoes were shredded by the terrain.  Someone gave her shoes to wear but when she got back to the paved roads, she took them off and finished the race barefoot.

At the top, each runner’s bib is marked as proof that they made it and then they head back down.  Here is where things get tricky.  Speed going down the mountain is the key to winning but it is also very dangerous.  In the film, many runners took horrible falls as they ran down.  I can’t imagine how it would feel to wipe out on volcanic rock.  Though they did not say, I was convinced one had a broken leg and another had broken some ribs.  Over 46% of the 300 or so runners in the race quit.  There is no sag wagon; they had to walk back to the stadium in Buea.

One of the most interesting things about the race is how the spectators get involved.  When Sarah – who was going for her 6th win – got back to the paved roads, it seemed like the entire town was running behind her and cheering.  I don’t think that you would see unentered people on a course like that anywhere else.  Crowd control is a big deal at most races.

I continue to recuperate but I have to admit I am getting more antsy.  I am not so sure how many more documentaries I can watch.  There are loads of surfing, motorcycle racing, and skiing films but I am not so interested in those.  I will keep up with the recumbent bike and maybe get out for some brisk walks.  The only thing the doctor told me not to do is fall.  Now that is a doctor’s order I plan to follow!

Bubble Running

When you have a lot of time on your hands like I do right now as I recover from my broken arm, you end up reading all sorts of crazy things on the Internet. Last Wednesday I found an article about a man, Reza Baluchi, who was trying to “run” from Florida to Bermuda inside a large plastic bubble – a journey of 1,033 miles. The pictures I saw of his bubble reminded me of one of those plastic balls you can put a hamster in so it can roll around a room.  Mr. Baluchi had apparently successfully used his bubble to go from Newport Beach to Catalina Island, about 32 miles in 2013.  This story caught my interest and I kept looking for updates on his progress.

Mr. Baluchi had protein bars, bottled water, a GPS, and a satellite phone with him but he did not have any support team in a boat following him.  When the US Coast Guard checked on him the first time on Wednesday, he was a bit disoriented but refused to stop his adventure.  He did ask for directions though.   The Coast Guard wisely monitored him and no one was probably surprised when he activated his Personal Locating Beacon on Saturday so they could rescue him.  He was extremely fatigued.  Apparently it also gets really hot in that bubble (120 degrees).  He had only made it 70 nautical miles off Florida.

I became very curious about Mr. Baluchi so I visited his website to learn more about him.  According to his website, he has completed several marathons and a few ultra marathons.  In 2007, Mr. Baluchi ran around the perimeter of the United States, a distance of over 11,700 miles in 202 consecutive days.  (I found this interesting because I once wanted to drive the perimeter of the United States in a red convertible.  I did a lot of research on the route but that was as far as I got with that idea.)

Mr. Baluchi also has “a dream to run through all 194 recognized countries in the world.”  His objective for this goal is to inspire people to unite.  I know that running races on each of the 7 continents or even in all of the 50 states is ambitious.  But all 194 countries?  That is a bit crazy.  Some of those countries might not let him in, especially since he left his passport in the bubble that is still floating around out in the ocean.

For some reason, Mr. Baluchi’s big adventure reminded me of one of my favorite documentaries “10 mph: Seattle to Boston”.  This film follows two friends that quit their jobs and cashed in their 401ks to pursue a dream of riding a Segway across the US.  When I watched this film, I thought about how much courage it must have taken to chuck everything and go ride a Segway for 100 days.  They asked Segway to help sponsor their trip but the company declined to provide any free or discounted equipment. (Segway did give them a little party and a couple Segways when they arrived at the Segway headquarters at the end of their journey.)   As one might expect, they met many interesting people and learned a lot of interesting life lessons as they rode across country.  It is a fun film.  You can see the entire film on YouTube.

I think the reason why they were able to make it across the US on the Segway was because they had a team of people committed to the success of the trip.  Mr. Baluchi might want to get a team behind him before he heads out again.

I am hoping that I get the green light from my doctor this week to start physical therapy.  That will put me a step closer to getting back into my Sauconys and heading out for a run.  In the mean time, I have started riding a recumbent exercise bike to try and get back into shape.  It feels good to work up a sweat again.

Take a Hike!

When I was growing up, “Take a Hike” was a rude way of telling someone to leave.  But I have found that taking a hike is a great way to exercise – or if you are training for a marathon, a great way to cross train.  It can get boring when all you do is run on the same routes.  Hiking changes things up, gives you a chance to see some new scenery and work your muscles in a different way.

Last year when I was training for the Rim to Rim of the Grand Canyon, I went hiking every weekend on the Appalachian Trail (AT).  The AT is a 2,180 mile footpath that stretches from Georgia to Maine.  Hiking on the trail was a great workout – much more enjoyable than doing the Stair Master at the gym.  The portion of the trail that I hiked is particularly challenging with lots of ups and downs that gave my quads and hamstrings a good workout.  I was happy I had hiking poles with me.  They were like another pair of legs.

The AT attracts people from all over the world. I met hikers from the UK, Germany, and all over the United States.   Several of the hikers were also marathon runners so we compared experiences at various marathons and they gave me recommendations for races.   Some hikers were planning to hike the entire trail (thru hikers) including a large group of German men who had seen a documentary on hiking the AT.  Most people don’t have the time to commit to a thru hike and end up doing it in phases.  If you are interested, Bill Bryson wrote a very funny book about his thru hiking experience called “A Walk in the Woods”.

With my broken arm, I can’t hike right now so I did the next best thing this week.  I watched a documentary called “Mile . . . Mile And a Half” about a small group of five photographers and videographers who hiked the John Muir Trail (JMT) in California to capture the beauty of the trail.  The JMT runs from Yosemite National Park south through John Muir Wilderness and Kings Canyon National Park, ending in Sequoia National Park.  This is the same area made famous in photographs by Ansel Adams.  Although the JMT is only 219 miles long, it includes 10 mountain passes, 6 of which are in excess of 11,000 feet.  The pass at Mt. Whitney, the highest point in the contiguous US, is at the southern end of the JMT and is over 14,000 feet.  The altitude and strenuous hiking proved to be too much for one man in their group and he dropped out.

The hikers were carrying their food, camping gear and all their camera equipment.  When completely full their backpacks weighed between 55 and 75 pounds (they had 4 cache drops of new supplies along the way).  The year they did their hike was a 200% snow year, meaning that there was two times more snow than average years.   They were hiking in July and the snow was still deep in places.  The conditions were so difficult that many other hikers they met along the way had turned back.  But this group kept going, even when all they could cover was one mile an hour.  It took them 25 days to hike the JMT; 14 of those days they were hiking through snow.  There were also many river crossings and a couple were down right scary because the water was higher than normal and flowing very rapidly.

The thing I found most fascinating was that during the hike, their group grew to 12 and included teachers from Colorado; a brother and sister who had brought 128 pounds of paint and canvases so they could paint the incredible scenery; musicians; and a Japanese woman who was hiking the trail alone. The Japanese woman asked to join their merry group because she didn’t want to drink a beer by herself when she finished.

When they finished, the group had over 5 hours of video, 2,967 photos, and 25 finished canvases.  The four hikers from the original group had lost a combined total of 55 pounds too.  It was an experience that they will remember for a long time.

I can’t say that I have the ambition to hike the AT or even the JMT.  I am more the day hiker type.  But I enjoy hearing about the adventures of others who do.  I can live vicariously through them.

Running/Biking Documentaries

I love documentaries. Documentaries tell the stories of real people living out their dreams or in some cases, just crazy freaking ideas.  There are some incredible stories out there.  Here is my list of favorite running/biking documentaries plus two that I am anxious to see.

Spirit of the Marathon – I saw the “Spirit of the Marathon” a few years after my first marathon.  This film follows six runners, both elite runners and amateurs like myself, as they train for and run the 2005 Chicago Marathon. The film also gives the history of the marathon – from ancient Greece to the modern day race and includes interviews with famous marathon runners.  I like this quote from the LA Times on the film “Even if you’ve never run for anything but a bus, you’ll get swept up in this movie’s inspiring journey”.  The film is great for anyone who is not a runner because it helps them understand what the race is all about. I remember watching it the first time and realizing how much it captured my own experience training and running my first marathon. I still like to watch it when I run indoors on my treadmill. I feel like I’m running another race.



Spirit of the Marathon II – This film has the same format as the original “Spirit of the Marathon.” Instead of the Chicago Marathon, the film follows seven runners from around the world who train and run the Rome Marathon. I’ve only seen this movie once when it had a showing in June 2013 in movie theaters.  One of the people interviewed in the movie put it so eloquently – “The marathon is the biggest totally peaceful community activity in human history. “  I will never forget a woman from California. As she was running the race, she was chattering to everyone. There was an older Italian runner who looked at her and said “No talking! Only running!” This film was the one that made me start thinking about running a race in Europe.

Running the Sahara – As crazy as it may sound, there were three ultra marathoners who ran across the entire length of the African Sahara desert, over 4300 miles, through Senegal, Mauritania, Mali, Niger, Libya and Egypt – from the Atlantic Ocean to the Red Sea.  They ran the equivalent of two marathons a day for 111 days with no days off.  I like to watch this film when I train on the treadmill for warmer weather races.  The soundtrack includes a Pearl Jam song – “Given to Fly” – that I love (and I don’t really like Pearl Jam).  When I run in the heat, that song pops into my head every time.

The film also focuses on the struggle that the people in this area go through to find clean water to sustain their life.  There is one scene that is etched in my brain forever.  They came across a 7-year old boy left alone to watch the family’s goats and sheep while his father went to find water.  His father would be gone 2 days.  He had little food or water and no shelter, just sitting there in the dark, and along come a bunch of white men. He had never seen white men in his life and he was terrified. They gave him food and water, and a flashlight. The last image they show of him is of him sitting in the dark turning the flashlight on and off. I get upset every time I think about that little boy sitting alone in the dark. It is a fascinating documentary that I highly recommend. Check out the web site for the  film and the H2O Africa Foundation that came out of this adventure.



Running on the Sun: The Badwater 135 – I have never seen this film but I am intrigued by the story behind it.  This film focuses on a 135-mile race through Death Valley in July when the temperature is so high it has been known to melt the soles off your shoes.  A place with a name “Death Valley” can’t be good.  Why anyone would want to run through the desert in July is something that boggles my mind.  I would love to see what sorts of runners take on this challenge.  (Apparently, due to safety concerns of the National Park Service, the 2014 race was not held.)

The Ride – Some of you may know the reality show “The Amazing Race” hosted by Phil Keoghan.  This documentary is about the bicycle trip Phil took across the US. We’re talking 3500+ miles of biking in rain, snow, heat, up mountains and screaming down the other side. He met lots of interesting people in his trek across the US too.  Although he originally was doing the ride to mark his 40th birthday, Phil also raised over $400,000 for the National MS Society during the ride. He has a cousin with MS. Phil said “the sad part of it for me is that MS takes movement away from people and I treasure being able to move so much. It breaks my heart that they get this gift taken away from them.”

Phil is making another documentary called “Le Ride” also to benefit the National MS Society.  In 2013 Phil rode a circa 1928 bike (no gears!) and followed as closely as possible the 1928 Tour de France route and schedule.  The clips that I have seen from his video diary show this one will be equally as interesting and entertaining.

Bicycle Dreams – When my husband started biking, I bought this DVD for him.  The film is about the Race Across America, a 3000-mile bicycle race from the Pacific to the Atlantic.  The best cyclists ride over 300-miles a day, barely sleeping (more like naps), and complete the race in under 10 days.  That is just nuts. The film also shows how dangerous it is out there and the risks of sharing the road with cars and trucks.



I am sitting here recuperating from my broken arm, unable to run for 3 months.  Maybe now is a good time to watch one of these videos again.

Updated:  now that I have mastered embedding YouTube videos, I added them to the original blog post and made one factual correction.