You Gotta Have Balance

At the end of last year, I asked my running coach for a week off.  To be honest I was burned out.  I had trained intensely all year to run three marathons.  Mentally, I just wanted to check out for a bit and not be driven by a training schedule.  It seemed as if my life revolved around training runs and cross training days.  I had one rest day a week and it never seemed like enough.  I longed for a day when I could curl up with a book and doze off.  The irony of the situation is on my 2017 vision board I had the goal to “improve physical and emotional balance.”  Well, that sure didn’t happen.

Coach Jenny blocked off a week – we called it the “Chill Week” – where I was expected to do nothing.  No running, no cross training, nothing.  Funny thing was I couldn’t do it.  I took a Pilates class.  I ran a couple of days.  I even ran a 5K race.  I guess that is what happens when a Type A amateur athlete takes a break.

It was then I realized my life had become very one-dimensional.  My entire life revolved around training to run races, planning race trips, running races, and recovering from running races.  Hmmm.  Doesn’t sound too balanced.  It sounds boring.

I am not alone.  It is a challenge for all athletes (professional, collegiate, amateur) – how to balance their commitment to their sport with other aspects of their lives – family, friends, work to name a few.  I have heard stories about football players who are so dedicated to being the best they can be on the field that every waking moment is devoted to their sport.  They have intense workouts to build up their strength.  They watch films of games to glean lessons learned from wins and losses.   They follow carefully regimented diet protocols.  They probably dream football plays.   But there is more to life than football, just like there is more to life than running.

I decided to fix the balance in my life.  On my 2018 vision board I put a few goals that have nothing to do with running, marathons, or training for a marathon.  One goal is to become more connected with my Airedale, Alex.  I want to work with him and train him to compete in several different dog sporting events.  Alex is very engaging and wants to have a job.  We can work together to develop our teamwork to compete in things like Obedience, Rally, and Nosework.  Alex is happy to have more time with me.  Our first few times in competition weren’t as successful as I would have liked.  Okay, so I can’t control the outcome every time I do something.  Lesson learned.  I know if I continue to work with him, he will master anything we try.  In the process, Alex will become an even better companion.

My other goal is to read more books.  I love to read as evidenced by my bookshelves that are spilling books out onto the floor.  I want to clear out some of my books but I need to read them first.  During my Chill Week, I organized my books and started reading them.  In one week, I finished three books – a mixture of fiction and non-fiction. There was something energizing about reading. The books entertained me, informed me, and inspired me.  I bored a few people as I excitedly explained things I discovered in those books.  (Just my advice – avoid getting bit by sand flies.)

I read “The Double Helix” by James D. Watson about his Nobel Prize winning work on the discovery of the structure of DNA.   It was fascinating to learn about the people who did the scientific research into one of the most important biological discoveries, a discovery critical to understanding genetics.  I was surprised by how competitive scientific research can be.  Winning a Nobel Prize is like winning the Super Bowl for a football player. Although Watson worked long hours on his research, he also understood the importance of having time to do things outside the lab.  Playing tennis, spending time with friends, taking in a cultural event.  He felt he needed to do other things “to avoid narrow-mindedness and dullness.”  Good advice from a Nobel Laureate.  That is exactly what I want to avoid.

During a recent race, I found myself thinking about another book, “When Breath Becomes Air.”   The author, Paul Kalanithi, was a neurosurgeon who at the age of 36 was diagnosed with stage IV lung cancer.  In addition to medicine, Paul was very interested in the philosophy of science.  His book is about his life and his death.  In the book he tries to answer the question what is it that makes a life meaningful?  He faced many challenges following his diagnosis as he tried to make sense of his life.  Paul quoted a line from Samuel Beckett’s novel “The Unnamable”, a quote he kept repeating to himself: “I can’t go on, I’ll go on.”  Sadly, Paul died before he could complete the book.  His wife, also a doctor, finished it for him.

One of my mantras for race day

That quote popped into my head during a recent local race when I questioned whether I would be able to finish.  Okay, I was whining.  The reality is my race was nothing compared to what Paul went through during his final days.  But it made me adjust my thinking.  In running, particularly endurance running, the mental aspect is just as important than the physical aspect.  If I am struggling during a run, I think of that quote and Paul.  Whenever I think I can’t go on, I know I can and I will.

As I looked back on the last couple months where I have worked on rebalancing my life, I had an A-ha! moment.  I realized my non-running activities were teaching me lessons that helped improve my training and running.  I might have initially thought I was wasting time.  Instead of strength training, I was reading books about science and philosophy, and teaching Alex to do a recall.  How could those things make me a better runner?  But they were.  The lessons I was learning can be applied to my running.

A good example of this is Shalane Flanagan.  She suffered a back injury a year ago that prevented her from running for two and half months and kept her from the start line of the 2017 Boston Marathon.  Shalane had been running competitively for over 10 years.   Her injury put her on the sidelines but it enabled her to do things she never would have been able to do if she was in heavy-duty training mode.  She co-authored a best-selling cookbook.  She took a vacation with her family.    When she came back to training, she came back strong.  (I bet those recipes for good food in her cookbook helped too.)  We all know what happened next.  Boom!  She won the New York City Marathon.

To improve a skill, we sometimes have to step away and do something totally different for a bit.  When we come back, we are refreshed and have a different frame of mind.  It will be reflected in an improved performance.   I have seen how it has helped me.  I’d say it helped Shalane, too.

 

 

To Tell The Truth

I recently celebrated a birthday, the kind where you move into a new decade.  I wasn’t looking forward to getting older.  I decided to do the only thing on my birthday that a funatical runner can do – run a half marathon.  My birthday was on a Sunday so it was easy to find a birthday race.  The race was going to be held in a state I hadn’t yet checked off – Mississippi.  I registered for the Mississippi Gulf Coast Half Marathon in Gulfport. Of course, as is the case with most of my race trips, this one was not uneventful.

Leading up to race weekend, I received emails from the race organizers with information about the race as well as things to do in Gulfport and Biloxi.  I noticed in one email there would be a 5K race the day before the half marathon.  If you ran the 5K and the full or half marathon the following day, they would give you a special “Double Down” award – a 10-inch seafood tray.  At the last minute I decided to register for the 5K.

As my luck would have it, the weather in Biloxi and Gulfport when I arrived was terrible.  It was snowing and sleeting.  The temperature on Saturday morning was in the 20s when I headed to the 5K.  The runners huddled together at the start line while various announcements were made and the national anthem was played.  Soon after the national anthem was over, the race started.

Normally, I would do some sightseeing as I ran.  That day it was too cold to linger at any spot to take pictures or look around.  I decided to run the race as fast as I could so I could go back to my warm hotel room.

At the finish line, there was a tent set up where two people were printing off preliminary results for the runners.  Most races I enter don’t have results available at the finish line.  I had run fast and I was interested to see how well I had done. I went over and waited in a short line to get my results.  They handed me a slip of paper that showed my time, my age group, and my placement in my age group.  My preliminary results showed I came in 3rd.  The only problem was the results showed me in the wrong age group.  They had me in the age group I would be the next day on my birthday.  Although I was thrilled to have finished in 3rd place, I knew the results were wrong.  Someone else had earned that 3rd place finish.

I went over to the results table and explained the problem to one of the race organizers.  At first, they seemed reluctant to do much about it.  The prizes for age groups were only for 1st and 2nd places.  It wasn’t like I would be stealing anything from anyone.  But I knew it was wrong.  I could not steal the joy from another runner who rightfully had earned that placement.  They took my information and when the official results were posted, I was listed in the correct age group.

Integrity is important.  If the running shoe was on the other foot and someone had erroneously been awarded a placement I had earned, I would expect them to make certain the error was corrected.  It might not seem very important to some people.  But if they wouldn’t correct something as seemingly inconsequential as an erroneous age group, where would they draw the line?  When would it be important enough for them to point out an error in their favor?    There is a saying “The end justifies the means.”  In my book it never does if you compromise your integrity.  Not just in sports but in any situation in life.

2017 – What a Year It Was

This year has been one with more adventure than I ever could have imagined.  I have been walking around thinking about 2017 and everything that happened.  Even though it was not all smooth sailing, overall 2017 was a very good year for me, one I will never forget.

I may be the Funatical Runner but this was not a year in which I ran a great deal.  I only completed 3 full marathons and 9 half marathons.  That might seem like a lot of running to most people.  But compared to 2015 when I ran 3 full marathons and 13 half marathons, this year I felt like a slacker.

My star medal for completing the 6 World Marathon Majors

My running goals for 2017 were to finish the 6 World Marathon Majors (I had 3 to go) and to finish my 50 States Endurance Challenge (there were 13 states left in that).  I thought it was doable.  But this year wasn’t kind in the health department.  I experienced ankle issues leading up to the Boston Marathon, then an eye problem in July, and finally a nasty bout of bronchitis in September. I had to make a choice between my two goals.  I decided to focus on finishing the 6 World Marathon Majors and running the Boston, Chicago and New York City Marathons.  In November, I stood in the Abbott World Marathon tent at the New York City Marathon finish line and cried when they handed me my star medal for the 6 World Marathon Majors.  I had realized a dream I had been working on for 3 years.  Today I still have four states to go to finish my 50 States Endurance Challenge and that is ok.  I may finish that up in 2018.  Then I again might not.  I always leave the door open so I can take advantage of any new opportunity that may pop up.

Although I didn’t make all my running goals, this year made me realize how much I am enjoying the journey to achieving them.  My first and last race trips of the year were to Mississippi.  In January, I went to Jackson for a race that ended up being canceled due to an ice storm.  With all flights canceled, I hopped on the City of New Orleans train from Jackson to Chicago to make my way back home.  I never would have decided to ride the train if I wasn’t stuck in Jackson.  I am sure glad I did.  It was an adventure.

Katrina tree art in Biloxi – a live oak destroyed by a hurricane, transformed into something beautiful

In December, I went to Gulfport, Mississippi during another snow storm.  Who would have thought I would have encountered winter weather in Mississippi TWICE in one year?  Fortunately, this time I was able to run the Mississippi Gulf Coast Half Marathon and check that state off my list.  In February, I ran the Mississippi River Half Marathon, a race that started in Arkansas and ended in Greenville, Mississippi (I counted it as my Arkansas race).  For this race I flew into and out of Memphis.  It was a long drive to Greenville but because of it, I drove through Clarksdale and discovered the Mississippi Blues Trail.  On my way home, I stopped in Memphis to visit Graceland, the famous home of Elvis Presley.

The Arena Attack Half in Connecticut

This was also a year of firsts.  I ran my first race indoors in Hartford, Connecticut – the Arena Attack Half Marathon.  It was definitely a unique race – 65 laps around the concourse of an arena used for hockey and other events.  Thankfully the temperatures inside were kept low to maintain the ice so the runners didn’t overheat.  The Fargo Half Marathon started and ended indoors in an arena.  While that seemed odd, it turned out to be one of the best setups for a race – plenty of indoor bathrooms and seating for spectators to watch the race on giant screens.  I fell for the first (and, I hope, last) time in a race, the Chicago Marathon.  Fortunately for me, I have learned to fall without breaking bones.  I just skinned my knees in Chicago.  When I look at my race photos, I can easily tell where I was when the photo was taken by looking at my knees.  If they are bleeding, it was after Mile 10.5 where I fell.

Young male moose having a snack

I hoped to see moose at the Grand Teton Half in Wyoming.  I even got up at 4 AM to look for them but it never happened.  Maine was another possible opportunity to see a moose.  I didn’t see one there either.  I finally saw moose in Anchorage along the race course of the Her Tern Half (my favorite women’s only race) and at a park at the end of the airport runway.

Napali Coast, Kauai, as seen from the helicopter

In August, I went to Kauai, Hawaii to run the Kauai Half Marathon.  I wasn’t sure what to expect, certainly not the chickens that are EVERYWHERE, including the car rental parking lot. The only way to see all of Kauai is by helicopter.  The Blue Hawaiian helicopter tour I went on will always be at the top of my list of favorite adventures.  I would go back just to do that again.

Paula Radcliffe

Every sport has its super stars.  This year I had the privilege to meet many from the world of marathon running.  I enjoyed a dinner speech by Joan Benoit Samuelson in Boston then walked with her back to her hotel, chatting like I had known her forever.  I saw Joanie again in New York and she congratulated me on finishing the 6 World Majors.  In New York, I also met Bill Rogers, Kathrine Switzer and Paula Radcliffe (current holder of the women’s marathon world record).    Without a doubt, my biggest honor was running the New York City Marathon for Meb Keflezighi’s MEB foundation.  As a member of Team MEB26, we ran with him in Central Park two days before the race.  It was a surreal experience.  Meeting all those elite runners made my New York City Marathon much more special than it already was.

In May, I ran in Eugene, Oregon.  The Eugene Half Marathon finished on the legendary University of Oregon track.  There are plenty of running legends associated with that track, including Bill Bowerman (Oregon track and field coach and co-inventor of Nike shoes) and running legend, Steve Prefontaine.  While I was in Eugene, I visited Pre’s Rock, the spot where Steve died.  Many other runners visit Pre’s Rock as evidenced by the medals, running shoes, race bibs, and other objects they leave behind.

A marathon monk on his quest (photo from the cable car station on Mt. Hiei)

I am glad I set the running goals that I did.  Through running the 6 World Majors and the 50 States, I have traveled places I probably would never have gone.  I never dreamed I would go to Japan.  After I went there for the 2015 Tokyo Marathon, it became one of my favorite places to visit.  I returned to Japan in June.  While in Kyoto, I saw a marathon monk as he passed through a temple I was visiting.  It was a magical moment that left me speechless.

A Chicago building with a map of the Chicago River on its side

Through my travels to the 50 states, I have developed a better appreciation for how diverse our country is.  The USA has mountains and tropical beaches, rain forests and deserts, and plains where the horizon stretches for miles. There is stunning architecture in the big cities like Chicago as well as smaller ones like Biloxi, Mississippi.  While I could have read about these places, I enjoy seeing them for myself and discovering the ones that no one writes about.  Plus I had to travel to Maine in order to taste a lobster roll.  They are as delicious as people say they are.

A weather vane of a witch riding a broom on an old bank building in Biloxi

Part of me doesn’t want to finish this journey.  There is so much more to see as well as places I want to visit again, like Alaska.  I am planning my 2018 race schedule.  I might finish my 50 States Endurance Challenge.  I am thinking of resuming my 7 Continents Challenge or I could run a race in each of the Canadian Provinces.  There are many possibilities.  Regardless of what goals I set, I know wherever I go, it will be an adventure.

Only 4 more states to go!

 

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The New York City Marathon Will Move You

Earlier this month I ran the 2017 New York City Marathon and I have been struggling to write about it.   It has been difficult because so many different emotions are swirling around inside me.  I started out wanting to write about what a world-class event it was.  I have never heard people refer to a race as being “world-class”.  When people use this term, they mean that whatever they are referring to is the best of the best.  The race organizers, the New York Road Runners (NYRR), have thought of everything when it comes to planning the race to ensure the runners have the best experience, all the way down to therapy dogs in the runners villages while we waited for each wave’s start.  Never saw that before.

Over the weekend there were a number of opportunities to meet and greet the elite runners, ones that I have watched and admired for years.  I saw Bill Rodgers, Paula Radcliffe, and Ryan Hall on one panel.  Afterwards I had an opportunity to talk to Bill.  He chatted with me as if we were long-lost friends catching up on things.  I listened to Joan Benoit Samuelson telling an audience of runners what to expect on each mile of the course.  She pointed out different spots where it could be windy.  She gave tips on how to handle the bridges, which are the real hills in the race. When I was running through Brooklyn, I remembered what Joan said about the winds and how to deal with them.  Because of her tips, I remained focused as I ran.  I can’t think of any other sport where professionals make this kind of connection with amateurs.

With over 51,000 runners from 139 countries, it was like a runners version of the United Nations.  There were flags from all the represented countries lining the course near the finish line.  I rode the bus to the start on Staten Island with a group of runners from South Africa.  As we waited in the cold and wind in the runners village, I shared space blankets and running stories with runners from California, France, and Switzerland.  The camaraderie I experienced was special.  We were all one big group of cold runners waiting to head to Central Park.  Everyone was happy.

The race director, Peter Ciaccia, understands the commitment people make to train for a marathon.  He wants to ensure that every finisher, whether they are the first ones or the last, is cheered at the finish line.  Peter has a tradition of being there for the final finishers, even if it takes them over 8 hours to finish.  I have never heard of a race director of any race doing that.  He was even joined by some of the elite runners.  I want to go back and be one of the people cheering for those final finishers.

When I couldn’t get too far with the “world-class” idea, I started thinking about November and how it is the month of giving thanks.  There were so many times over marathon weekend when I was thanking someone.  This race required a lot of volunteers – 12,000 volunteers who worked the Expo, stood for hours on their feet at water stops along the course in the cold rain, or guided exhausted runners at the finish.  There were the hundreds of police and military personnel who protected the runners from the runners village all the way to Central Park.  Without them and the volunteers, there would be no marathon. I thanked them all as I ran by.

As a member of the MEB Foundation team, I thanked Meb Keflezighi for inspiring us by his incredible marathon performances, especially the win we all will remember – the 2014 Boston Marathon.  I also thanked him for showing us how someone can overcome adversity and achieve greatness.  I think I was the only person who called him “Sir” instead of Meb.  But to me, he is running royalty and informally calling him by his first name didn’t seem to convey the respect I have for him.

There was Kathrine Switzer, the first woman to officially enter and complete the Boston Marathon, who was one of the speakers at a pre-race dinner I attended.  Following her speech, I had an opportunity to meet Kathrine and thank her for making it possible for me to run a marathon.  Without her there would never have been a funatical runner.

But I still wasn’t happy with the direction my blog post was going.  Then I received a gift that pulled it all together for me.  It is a bracelet engraved with the saying “prove them wrong.”   Those three words define the accomplishments of so many of my running heroes.   In 2014 no one expected Meb to be a contender for a podium finish in Boston.  But he proved them wrong – he won the race.

In 1967 no one believed that a woman could run a marathon.  Women were too fragile; people actually thought women’s uteruses would fall out.  Then a brave woman, Kathrine Switzer, entered the Boston Marathon and finished it (not without controversy).  Kathrine proved them wrong.  In doing so, she started a discussion that ultimately led to athletic organizations across the world to allow women to participate in running events longer than 800 meters.

In 1984 the world watched the first women’s marathon in the Summer Olympics.  A young woman runner from the United States passed up the first water stop on what was a hot Los Angeles day.  I remember the commentators saying what a mistake it was.  The other runners had all taken their hydration.  Not Joan Benoit Samuelson.  She kept going and ended up pulling away from everyone.  Joan won the gold medal.  She proved them wrong.  She knew how to win.

There is Shalane Flanagan.  She had to withdraw from the Boston Marathon in April due to a fracture in her lower back.  Coming into the race, Shalane said she was thinking about retirement.  I understand.  Training for marathons takes a lot of time – time you can spend with your family doing other things.  Mary Keitany, a three-time New York City Marathon winner, was the favorite to win.  But anything can happen on race day.  Just like April 21, 2014 was Meb’s day, November 5, 2017 was Shalane’s day.  Shalane proved them wrong.  She proved she had what it took to win the race.

Finally, there is Justine Galloway.  Justine was running for Team Fox, Michael Fox’s foundation, and fundraising for Parkinson’s disease research.  Justine isn’t a normal runner.  She has a neurological disorder called runner’s dystonia.  The only way Justine can run is to run backwards.  With the help of a guide, Justine completed the New York City Marathon.  I am sure there were people who didn’t think she could do it.  But Justine proved them wrong.

They say the New York City Marathon will move you.  I went to New York expecting just to run another 26.2 miles through another big city.  I didn’t think there would be anything special about it.  But they proved me wrong.  I came home with more memories than I ever expected to have.  It moved me in ways I never thought possible.  It is a very special race that every marathoner should run at least once.

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Chicago – My Kind of Marathon

People have told me the Chicago Marathon was their favorite race. Other people have told me how much they hated that race. I ran the Chicago Marathon a couple of weeks ago so I now have formed my own opinion about the race. Of the big city races I have run, the Chicago Marathon is one of the best.  To put it another way – the Chicago Marathon is my kind of marathon.

First off, the location is perfect. Chicago is centrally located so it is an easy trip from the East Coast or the West Coast. Chicago is a great place to visit too. There are many excellent restaurants, plenty of shopping, and interesting museums. I didn’t want to walk around much before the race so I enjoyed the architecture boat tour on the Chicago River – a fabulous way to get a unique view of the stunning buildings that make up the Chicago skyline.

Yep, it was fun back in the L corral

With such easy access for everyone across the country as well as around the world (from over 100 countries), the Chicago Marathon is a big race. About 45,000 runners participated in this, the 40th anniversary of the race. At the start, runners were divided into three waves with multiple corrals in each. They staggered the wave starts so there were about 30 minutes between each wave. I was in the last corral in the last group – the L corral. Doesn’t get worse than that but I have to admit – it was fun back there.

Don’t see this kind of booth before a race too often

Since Chicago is located on the shores of Lake Michigan, I thought it would be at sea level. Surprisingly to me, the elevation in Chicago is about 600 feet – higher than New York, which is only 33 feet. The marathon course itself is pretty flat too – not many hills in Illinois. The course is a big loop through all the different neighborhoods of the city. The race is a great way to see Chicago’s rich ethnic diversity.

This was her first marathon

The race started in Grant Park behind the Art Institute on South Michigan Avenue and headed north to Lincoln Park, past the zoo. There were plenty of spectators holding interesting signs and cheering along the way. We ran past a senior citizen assisted-living center where the windows were plastered with motivational signs for the runners. Some of the residents sat by the windows waving at us while others sat in wheelchairs along the road, clapping and waving flags.

And this runner’s last marathon

In Lincoln Park I ran past a car on the side of the road with the windows rolled down. Its radio was tuned to race coverage. I could hear them interviewing the men’s marathon winner. He had finished and I was still at Mile 6. That was the most discouraging moment of the race for me – the winner had finished and I still had 20 more miles to go.

Just north of the park we turned back and started heading south towards the central part of the city. As we ran, we passed beautiful brownstone townhouses and many cheering spectators. It was definitely a lively crowd. This was also the section where I did my first (and, I hope, my last) face plant in the middle of a race. Fortunately, I was up and running with no significant physical injury (though my ego took a big hit).

When we got back to the center of Chicago, we made a right and headed west. This part of the race was very enjoyable. We ran through Greek Town and Little Italy. At one point, I smelled pizza baking. I was tempted to make a detour to find the source of that mouth-watering smell. I doubt I could have run another 13 miles after eating pizza but I made a note to look for Chicago-style pizza after the race.

Charity Block Party

The best part of the race was at Mile 14 where the Charity Block Party was set up. I was stunned by the number of charities represented. There were EZ-Up tents, side-by-side, one after another, lining both sides of the road, representing charities whose runners were fundraising for them. I have run more races than I care to admit but I have never seen anything like the Charity Block Party. It was amazing to see tents for Leukemia & Lymphoma Society, American Brain Tumor Association, Best Buddies, Muscular Dystrophy Association, Alzheimer’s Association, and The Organization for Autism Research (OAR) to name just a few. Each was manned by enthusiastic cheering volunteers. I was so overwhelmed by the sight of all these groups that I stopped just to look at them all. It is incredible how galvanizing a cause can be for people and in such a positive way.

The next part of the course took us through Pilsen, Chicago’s second largest Hispanic neighborhood. There were many mariachi bands and dancers along the course in Pilsen. It was the liveliest and friendliest part of the whole course and my favorite.

The last 6.2 miles of the course were the toughest. We turned onto Wentworth Avenue and ran through the huge red gate that welcomed us into Chicago’s Chinatown. There were plenty of cheering spectators here but once we left Chinatown, things were less exciting. This is typically the point where runners will hit the proverbial wall in a race – where there aren’t so many cheering spectators or interesting things to see. The only thing that kept me going was the realization that each step was getting me closer to the finish.

As I ran up South Michigan Avenue towards Grant Park and the finish, I could tell when I was getting close to the finish by the noise and the crowds.  The crowds got thicker and the noise got louder as I approached the first of two final turns on the course. I was not prepared for the little hill we had to run up after the first turn. I shouldn’t complain – I run longer and steeper hills on my training runs at home.  After the final turn, the finish line was straight ahead. I could hear the announcers reading everyone’s name as they crossed the finish line. Joan Benoit Samuelson was one of the announcers and I was hoping to hear her read my name. Honestly, when I finished, I only had one thing on my mind and that was getting my checked bag and taking a rest. If she said my name, I sure didn’t hear it.

I can see why people like this race so much – cheering crowds, beautiful buildings, unique neighborhoods, each with its own character and feel. I am a Chicago Marathon fan now too. I’d like to run that one again (without falling though). I didn’t get my post-race pizza so that would be a reason to go back. The Chicago Marathon should be on every marathoner’s to-run list.

This is my second post about the Chicago Marathon.  Check out my first post about my race – Chicago – How Bad Did I Want It.

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Chicago – How Bad Did I Want It

I just came back from running the Chicago Marathon, one of the 6 World Marathon Majors.  I know you want to read about the race itself but you have to wait until my next post  for that.  I first need to write about my race.

Last week before I traveled to Chicago, I picked up “How Bad Do You Want It?” by Matt Fitzgerald.   The book is about mastering your mental game in order to reach your fullest potential.   In the first chapter of the book, Matt wrote about Sammy Wanjiru, a Kenyan marathoner who won the 2009 Chicago Marathon.  Sammy returned the following year to defend his title.  He admitted at the press conference the day before the race he was only 75% prepared.  2010 had been a difficult year for him.  Sammy had suffered injuries to his knee and his back, and contracted a stomach virus that interrupted his Chicago training.  On race day, Sammy was up against tough competition on a warm day.  He went out too fast.  The last three miles were a battle of wills between Sammy and his rival who was in the lead.  When everyone else had written Sammy off, he dug down deep to keep going.  Sammy came from behind to beat his rival by 19 seconds and win the race.  Where logic might have said Sammy would be lucky to finish the race, he instead proved how bad he wanted to win it.

It was kismet that I happened to start reading the book a few days before I headed to Chicago.  This was the very question I had been asking myself as I trained.  It ended up being the question I asked myself repeatedly as I ran it.

My journey to the start line was bumpy to say the least.  I originally was scheduled to run the 2016 Chicago Marathon.  I broke my big toe in July 2016 and was unable to train in time for the race. I deferred my entry to this year.  While I struggled to recover from my broken toe, I developed ankle issues that required physical therapy and help from a rehabilitation fitness trainer.  In April I ran the Boston Marathon but didn’t quite feel 100% yet.

After Boston, I turned my focus to Chicago.  My training was going well until mid July when I experienced flashing lights in my peripheral vision.  A visit to the ophthalmologist revealed I had detached vitreous.  I was instructed not to run until the flashing lights stopped.  If I ignored my doctor’s instruction and ran, I risked developing a torn or detached retina, even possibly loss of eyesight in my eye.  I refused to let this latest challenge derail my goal of running in Chicago.  I knew how badly I wanted to finish that race.  For three weeks I found ways to maintain my cardio condition without running and jostling my head.  I rode a stationary bike.  I did water running.  I worked extra hard on strength training in my Pilates classes.  I bounced back quickly when I resumed running.

In early September I ran the Kauai Half Marathon.  It was the longest distance I had run since my last half marathon in July.  I felt like I was back on track.  Life, however, had other plans.  A week after I returned from Hawaii and the day after my 16-mile training run, I developed a cough that quickly deteriorated into bronchitis.  I was exhausted from coughing all night.  My allergies kicked in and exacerbated my condition.  I was unable to run for over a week.  When I finally resumed training again, I found breathing was more difficult and I was running much slower.  The marathon was only two weeks away and my longest run had been 16 miles.  For some runners that might have been enough to pass on the race.  But I am not most runners.  I was determined to run in Chicago.  I knew it wasn’t going to be easy but I was willing to endure whatever I encountered in order to finish.

Transverse Myelitis, injuries, illness – nothing was keeping me from going for my dream

On race day I felt good.  I followed my coach’s advice and kept telling myself I was strong and I was prepared. I didn’t allow my mind to be clouded by negative thoughts.   As I stood in my corral, I was confident, not nervous.  I chatted with the runners around me, reassuring first time marathoners who were questioning their own preparations for the race.  Finally our corral headed to the start line and my race began.

Although the course was crowded, I was running well until  mile 6 when I started to feel a twinge in my ankle, the one that had bothered me during my Boston Marathon training.   I knew I had to keep the pain in check or it would only worsen.  I remembered the marathon monk and how he meditates while he walks.  By focusing on his breathing, the rhythm of his walk, his mantra, or just emptiness, the monk is able to ignore his physical pain and quiet his mind.  I decide to follow the marathon monk’s strategy.  I visualized my ankle muscles relaxing.  In a short while, I no longer felt the pain.

The Chicago course was full of bends and turns.  I was advised by my coach to run the tangents, in other words, run the straightest line possible.  Around Mile 10.5 I began maneuvering myself in preparation for the next turn. I looked over my shoulder to ensure I was not cutting off another runner.  In doing so, I took my eyes off the direction I was headed.  I tripped over something in the road and fell.  Two male runners behind me quickly scooped me up and put me back on my feet.  My fall happened very quickly, which was probably a good thing.  I didn’t have time to try to catch myself or I might have broken my wrist or arm.  I had skinned my knees but otherwise I was fine.

After cleaning off my scrapes with a Wet One, I started running again.  My knee was throbbing from the pain and I could see it was starting to get swollen.  But I only had one thing in mind – finishing the race.  I kept asking myself “How bad do you want it?”  Did I want it enough to ignore my scrapes and knee pain to keep going?  I thought again about the marathon monk.  He endures pain and exhaustion in his quest.  I thought about Sammy in 2010.  I would not let my mind keep me from my goal.  I pushed myself and finished faster than I had planned, given the warm temperatures and my interrupted training.  I wanted it bad enough and I proved it.

I saw this sign at Mile 24 – it gave me the strength to make it up the hill at the end

I wasn’t the only one in Chicago on Sunday who proved how bad they wanted it.  Jordan Halsay, a young American marathoner, was running only her second marathon.  She finished 3rd in her first marathon, the Boston Marathon in April.  In Chicago, her coach had cautioned her about running too fast in the first half or she would not have enough energy for the second half of the race.  As Jordan ran, she realized she had a decision to make.  She could hang back with the pack and run for a personal record (PR) or she could stick with the leaders and compete for a podium finish.  She decided to compete.  We saw how badly she wanted it.  Jordan finished third in her second marathon appearance, knocking two minutes off her previous PR and putting her in second place on the all-time list of American marathon performances.  Yes, Jordan wanted it.

In his book “The Last Lecture” Dr. Randy Pausch talked about challenges – the brick walls that he ran into that prevented him from achieving his dreams.  He pointed out the walls were not there to keep him from achieving his goals but to show how badly he wanted to achieve them.  Because as Dr. Pausch pointed out, the walls are there to stop people who don’t want it badly enough.  They will quit trying.  I had encountered my own walls while going for my 5th World Marathon Major finish – injuries, illness, the heat on race day, and even a fall in the middle of the race.  Ultimately, I proved how badly I wanted to finish.  I am now just one race away from achieving my dream of completing all 6 World Marathon Majors.  No matter what – I won’t quit.

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Chickens and The Sea

My most recent race trip took me to Hawaii for the Kauai Half Marathon.  I was never interested in visiting Hawaii.  For someone who lives on the East Coast, Hawaii is a long trip – over 10 hours alone on airplanes, not my idea of a fun time.  Then I saw the movie “The Descendants”.   The Hawaiian scenery was beautiful – palm trees, blue ocean water, white foamy waves breaking on sandy beaches with the mountains in the background.  I decided I wanted to see that Hawaii in person, not the “Hawaii Five-O” version I see on television.  Since Hawaii is one of the 50 States, I was obligated to run a race there anyway.  With “The Descendants” in mind, I picked the Kauai Half Marathon as my Hawaii race.

Breathtaking sunrises everyday

The first thing I noticed when I arrived in Kauai was the chickens.  There are chickens everywhere.  They were in the rental car parking lot.  They were wandering alongside the road on the way to the hotel.  They were outside the grocery store, at almost every scenic overlook, and at the beach on the south shore.  Wherever I went, there were chickens.  I joked to someone at the Kilauea Point National Wildlife Refuge that the chicken must be the state bird of Hawaii.  They bristled at my comment.  The state bird is actually the Hawaiian Goose or Nene, the world’s rarest goose.  I saw a couple of those at the Wildlife Refuge but overall I saw many more chickens than Nene.

The other thing I noticed was the Hawaiian words, towns, and street names.  I recognized the letters but I couldn’t, no, I wouldn’t even try to pronounce the names of some of the places we went.  I visited Wales earlier this year and had a similar challenge with the Welsh language.  The official Hawaiian alphabet has only 13 letters – five vowels (which can be pronounced two different ways) and eight consonants.  Although the language was on the decline, efforts are being made to reintroduce it.  I hope they are successful because I find the language beautiful.

I was apprehensive about running in Hawaii.  Heat is the equivalent of Superman’s kryptonite for people like me with Transverse Myelitis (TM).  In hot weather, TM symptoms can flare up (referred to as Uhthoff’s phenomenon).  The air temperatures in Hawaii range from lows in the mid-60s to low 70s and highs in the 80s – perfect for people lounging at the hotel pool but challenging for endurance athletes with demyelinating conditions like mine.  I have to take extra precautions when I run in hot weather to manage my core body temperature.  I use a “Keep It Chill” gaiter made of a Xylitol infused fabric.  My gaiter has a cooling effect as long as it is wet.  In most instances, my gaiter has been able to help me manage my body temperature in warm weather races.  The race in Kauai was more challenging because the temperature was in the 70s at the 6 AM start.  My gaiter dried out quickly and stopped cooling me off before the race even started.  I realized I had to stay focused on managing my body temperature to finish this race.

This woman was handing out wet sponges around Mile 7 – My Hero!

The owner of a store I visited in Hanapepe the day before the race told me the race course was tough.  She said even some of the elite runners from Kenya thought the course was difficult.  I brushed off her comments.  She wasn’t a runner.  What does she know?  I have run hills and in heat.  I wasn’t going to have any problems.  But when I started the race, I realized she was not exaggerating.  Although the scenery was gorgeous and the sunrise as the race started was breathtaking, the first 7+ miles were all up hill.  It somehow seemed appropriate the music coming from the stroller being pushed by a male runner was Led Zeppelin’s “Kashmir”.  It fit the grind I felt running uphill in the heat with limited shade.  I tried to keep up with him just because I enjoyed his music but he sprinted ahead of me.

Tunnel of Trees

I enjoyed a respite from the sun between Miles 5 and 6 when we ran through the Tunnel of Trees, huge eucalyptus trees that formed arches over the road.  They provided welcomed shade.  About Mile 7.5 the course started a downhill to the finish by the beach.  I was able to make up some time.  While I didn’t have my worst half marathon finish, it certainly wasn’t my best.  I am just happy I was able to complete the course.

While I was in Kauai, I took a helicopter tour of the island with Blue Hawaiian Helicopters.  A helicopter tour is the only way to see Kauai since most of the island is inaccessible from the ground.  I was delighted to be assigned the seat in the front row next to the pilot.

View of the Na Pali Coast from the helicopter

Because of its perfect weather and beautiful scenery, many movies have been filmed in Kauai.  During the tour, our pilot pointed out places we might recognize from movies including Mana Waiapuna (commonly referred to as “Jurassic Park Falls”) and the nurses’ beach from “South Pacific”.   We flew over Waimea Canyon, the famed “Grand Canyon of the Pacific”.  Finally we flew into the center of Mt. Waialeale, the ancient volcano that created the island of Kauai.  Mt. Waialeale is also one of the wettest spots on earth, with an average rainfall of 450-500 inches annually.  Not surprising that we saw many waterfalls all over the island.  The helicopter tour with Blue Hawaiian Helicopters was the best part of my trip to Kauai.  I would do that again in a heartbeat.

In case you don’t know the song, here is a video of Led Zeppelin performing “Kashmir”.

My favorite version of “Over the Rainbow” by the late Israel “IZ” Kamakawiwo’ole, a famous Hawaiian singer.   The scenes at the end were filmed at his funeral.

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A Life Lesson from Mr. V.

My running adventures (and my blog posts) have been sporadic since July because, well, life got in the way.  That is my way of saying I have had two relatively minor health issues to deal with.  I don’t do inactive very well.  If you want to make me very depressed, tell me I can’t run.  To fill my time, I started working with two former classmates on a grade school class reunion.  We have been trying to find people we haven’t seen in many years.  When I find a missing classmate, we will start chatting about their school memories.  They share stories about significant events during the school year, how a particular teacher made them feel or lessons they learned from them.

Hearing their comments has triggered my own memories of my teachers.  One was particularly timely.  I had learned Mr. V., a teacher who had been very influential in my life, had passed away last month.  Mr. V. had more pearls of wisdom than anyone I have met.  A particularly memorable one was the famous why one should never assume.   At the time it was a bit off-color for high school kids but I can guarantee everyone who heard that pearl remembered it.

My running has been on hold for the last week while I deal with asthmatic bronchitis.  Since I can’t run, I spend more time working on the reunion planning.   One day another one of Mr. V’s pearls of wisdom popped into my head.  “You have to get really sick every so often to appreciate what good health is.”  I haven’t been sick in a very long time – broken bones, detached vitreous (story for another day) yes but no illnesses.  I have been fortunate.  Mr. V. was absolutely right though.  I had taken the simple act of breathing for granted.  This illness has reset my attitude.  The simple act of breathing out and breathing in is one I will never take for granted again.  Without that, there is no running and the Funatical Runner is just funatical.

Originally this blog was intended to focus on stories about my travels to marathons on the seven continents and endurance running with Transverse Myelitis.  It has since morphed into stories about running an endurance race in each of the 50 States as well as the 6 World Marathon Majors and doing it while dealing with the effects of Transverse Myelitis.  More and more though, I see this blog isn’t really about running adventures because running isn’t everything (although there are times when I think it is). It is more about life itself, the journey and how all the pieces come together.  Running is just one of the things that happens along the way.  Thanks, Mr. V, for helping remind me of that.

In case you have never seen it, this was the source of Mr. V’s pearl of wisdom about what happens when you assume.  Credit to Jerry Belson, writer for the “Odd Couple” television series.

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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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