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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Boston Strong

I have been struggling to write about my experience running the 2017 Boston Marathon.  There are so many different emotions swirling around in my head that it has been difficult to distill it down into a post of under 1000 words.  I could write a book about that race.  Today I realized the theme that most describes my Boston Marathon experience.  It is a cliche but it fits:  It took a village.

It took a village to get me to the start line.  In mid-February – 8 weeks before the race – I couldn’t run more than 6 miles before my ankle started to scream at me.  I knew I needed to address the issue or I wasn’t going to be able to run the race.  I went to a physical therapist, Jessica, and a rehabilitation fitness trainer, Carrie, who helped me work on ankle strength and flexibility.  Carrie identified issues with my gait.  She gave me a mantra to say as I ran, words that help my brain focus on proper form.  I kept my running coach, Jenny, informed of my issues and she made adjustments based on feedback on my runs.  Jennifer, my massage therapist, dedicated hours to ensuring the muscles in my ankle, foot, calf, and quads were loose.  Through their collective efforts my 6-mile ankle was ready for 26.2 miles.  Each of them was instrumental in getting me to the start line.

It took a village – a very large village – of race organizers, volunteers, police, and emergency responders to put on this race.  The logistics for a race through 8 different cities and towns over a distance of 26.2 miles are more than you can imagine.  They spend a year on organizing the event, coordinating resources and planning for every possible issue.  I bet the race director was monitoring the weather forecasts all week like I was.   Every time I looked it seemed the race day temperatures were predicted to be higher than the last forecast.  On race day it was in the 70s – warm for any race and particularly warm for someone like me with Transverse Myelitis.  Ever since my experience at the 2015 Rock ’n’ Roll Half in Savannah, Georgia, I am always concerned they will run out of water on the course.  That would be disastrous.  But the race organizers had that all covered and there was no shortage of hydration for the runners.  Security was never a concern either.  The course was lined with local, state, and military police, on foot and on bicycles.   This was one of the best organized races I have ever had the privilege to run.

It was not exactly the top of the hill but close enough

The number of volunteers was incredible – 9,500 – that translates to one volunteer for every 3 runners.  The only other race that I recall having as many volunteers was the 2015 Tokyo Marathon.  The volunteers stood for hours, on an unseasonably warm April day, handing out water, Gatorade, and Clif gels.  And they were the friendliest bunch of people too.

In case you forgot something, you could get it on the way to the corrals at the start line in Hopkinton

The last two turns before the finish line

I felt an incredible sense of community as I ran.  The people along the course came together to celebrate with the runners.  This is their race, a source of pride for Bostonians.  Many people who lived along the course handed out water, candy, oranges, and ice.  Some even played music to entertain the runners as they passed by.  The runners were welcomed.

Because I am not a Boston Qualifier, I participated in the race as a member of a charity team benefitting the Charlestown Boys & Girls Club.  Most of the kids in the club come from disadvantaged and even harsh circumstances.  Hillary Clinton once wrote that it takes a village to raise a child.  The kids in Charlestown need a village to provide guidance as they navigate all the challenges facing kids today. The money the team raised will help them support an increasing number of kids who participate in the club activities.  Another member of the Charlestown Boys & Girls Club team put it so eloquently: “kids are 25% of our population but they are 100% of our future.”

I wish I was as fast as a shooting star

I have run for several charities before but none has touched me the way this one did.  Enclosed with my team singlet were notes and drawings from the kids, thanking me for running for them as well as providing words of encouragement.  In their minds I was doing something very challenging to help them.  For one day I was their hero.  What they didn’t know is that they were inspiration to me.  When I had doubts on race day about finishing the marathon, I only needed to think about those notes to keep going.

Yes, I would have liked to be a Boston Qualifier and entered the race without a fundraising obligation.  But I never would have made a connection to a community of kids who need my help.  They made my race about more than a medal.  This race is a cherished memory for me because of them.

Over $36 million was raised for the various charities participating in the Boston Marathon charity program.  The charity runners included many first time marathoners too.  I encourage anyone who wants to run the Boston Marathon – both runners who qualify and those like myself who don’t – to participate on a charity team like the Charlestown Boys & Girls Club.  Boston puts on a great race.  Fundraising for their community is a terrific way to show appreciation for their hospitality.  Because it really does take a village.

Contact me if you would like to donate to the Charlestown Boys & Girls Club Boston Marathon team.  The kids would appreciate anything you can do to help them.

Setting Records in January

Winter is not the time of year I expect to hear about new running records.  But that is exactly what happened in late January.

Ron Hill probably has a big pile of shoes

Ron Hill probably has a big pile of shoes

First there is Ron Hill, a 78-year old former Olympian who lives in England.  Ron was a running streaker who had run at least one mile every day.  During a run in late January, Ron started having pains in his heart.  Ron was concerned about his wife and family so he decided it was time to hang up his running shoes and end his streak at 52 years and 39 days.   I would call Ron the Cal Ripken of running.

Although Cal’s record for most consecutive baseball games played will probably stand for a long time, there are a number of people who could break Ron’s impressive record.  I wrote about the US Running Streak Association (USRSA) a year ago because I was following the running streaks of several runners (Did They Make It?).  In looking at the current active streak list on the USRSA’s web site, I saw 66-year-old Jon Sutherland’s streak is over 47 1/2 years.  As long as Jon stays healthy, he has a good chance of breaking Ron’s streak record in less than 5 years.  In the meantime, I hope Ron basks in the glory of having the longest streak record.  That is one heck of an achievement.

The other records set at the end of January were all associated with the 2017 World Marathon Challenge.  I wrote about the World Marathon Challenge at the end of 2015 (7x7x7).  Participants run 7 marathons on 7 continents in 7 days.  If you think about it, the World Marathon Challenge is also a running streak of sorts.  The only difference is that it ends after 7 days (though I am sure somebody somewhere is thinking about how many days in a row they could run a marathon, if they haven’t tried it already).  When I wrote about this challenge last year, I thought it was a flash in the pan (the price alone would deter a lot of people).  But the number of runners has grown every year with only 9 men and 1 woman in the first year (2015) to this year’s challenge with 22 men and 9 women.

The records set with this year’s participants are impressive.  Sinead Kane from Ireland became the first blind person, guided by John O’Regan, to complete 7 marathons on 7 continents in 7 days.  Guoping Xie set a new world record for women by completing 7 marathons on 7 continents in 6 days 8 hours and 30 minutes.  Nahila Hernandez became the first woman to run an ultra marathon (50K or 31.0686 miles) on all 7 continents in 7 days.  And to think there was a time when women were not allowed to participate in the marathon because there was a fear it would physically harm them.

But the big record was the one set by Michael Wardian, a 42-year-old ultra marathoner who has a day job working as an international ship broker.  From the first race in Antarctica where the windchill sent the temperatures to -30C to the last in Australia, Michael set a blistering pace for each race.  He won all 7 stages of the challenge.  Michael set a world record for the average time for completing each of the 7 marathons – 2:45:57.  Michael’s overall time to complete the 7 marathons on 7 continents was 6 days 7 hours and 25 minutes.

Michael is no stranger to world records.  In 2007 Michael set the record for running the fastest marathon while pushing a stroller with his son in it.  He even finished that race in third place.  In 2015 Michael set the world record for the fastest 50K run on a treadmill in 2:59:49. In 2016 Michael set the record for the fastest runner to complete each of the 6 Abbott World Marathons (Tokyo, Boston, London, Berlin, Chicago and New York) in one calendar year, averaging 2:31:09.

I am not sure what is left for Michael to run.  He has run the most challenging ultra marathons all over the world.  He even ran at the North Pole (in the 2014 North Pole Marathon).  Michael isn’t the type to stay home, running local 5K and 10K races.  In a recent interview, Michael said he likes to do stuff that scares him.  I don’t doubt for a moment Michael has something he wants to try.  No matter what it is, I will be cheering for him.  He is an incredible athlete.

Interested in running 7 marathons on 7 continents in 7 days?  They are currently taking applications for the 2018 challenge.  Visit their website for more information http://www.worldmarathonchallenge.com

0 to 26.2 – Tips for New Marathoners

My laurel wreath and first marathon medal

I learned a lot of lessons while training for my first marathon

When I participated on the running bloggers panel at the Route 66 Marathon Expo, one of the questions we were asked was what advice we had for first time marathoners and half marathoners.  It is a good question, one that I would break into two parts – training tips and race day tips.  It occurred to me many people have probably set the goal of running their first endurance event this year.  Now that they have set their goal, they may be thinking about how to achieve their goal of running a marathon or half marathon.  Where do you start?  In this post, I will share my training tips.  I’ll write about race day tips later.

I am not going to bother to go over training plans.  I am not an expert in how to train.  In fact I still rely on a running coach to get me ready for a marathon.  Some running stores offer training programs to prepare for races.  There are plenty of training plans available on the Internet from running experts like Jeff Galloway, Hal Higdon, and Jenny Hadfield.  You can also train with charity programs such as the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society’s Team in Training (TNT).  In exchange for fundraising, the charity provides a training plan, supported weekly long runs, and entry into a specific event.  I have run 11 races for charities. It is rewarding to cross the finish line knowing that I have helped someone else while participating in an event.  This spring I will be running the Boston Marathon for a charity.  Whatever training plan you use, I recommend that you follow it to the letter.  There is a reason why they tell you to cross train or stretch.  I have always done better when I don’t ignore the portions of a training plan that I don’t like.

Okay, now to the advice that you probably will only hear from me.

Know the Course – My first marathon was the Country Music Marathon in Nashville.  I watched the video of the course that was posted on the race web site.  By the end of the video, I was terrified.  What had I signed myself up for? I was convinced I would never be able to finish the race.

I decided to approach the course like it was an enemy I needed to conquer. To beat it I needed to know the course very well.  I printed out the course map, which included the elevation map (or as I call it, the EKG line), and studied it.  I knew every turn and hill along the course.   Each time I ran, I visualized myself running the race.  At the end of every training run, I saw myself crossing the finish line.  After each of my long runs, I would highlight that distance along the course map.  For example, when I finished my 16 mile training run, I highlighted the course map up to the 16 mile marker.  It was a visual reminder of the distance that I had already run.  If I could run it in a training run, I could run it on race day.

By knowing the course inside and out, I didn’t have any surprises on race day.  I knew exactly where I was all the time and what was coming up ahead.  I beat the course that had once terrified me.

Treat every training run as a dress rehearsal for race day – During your training runs, you should be doing everything exactly as you plan to do on race day.  That includes having the same breakfast you plan on having on race day; wearing the same running clothes and shoes; using the same hydration and nutrition you will have during the race.  By trying things out before race day, you will find out what works for you and what doesn’t.  If you travel to a race like I frequently do, confirm how you will get your preferred breakfast on the road.  Will you be able to get oatmeal at 4:30 AM in your hotel?  If not, then you might want to try other breakfast options while you are training.

Find out what sports drink they will have along the course and try it during a training run.  If you can’t handle the sports drink the race will have, then you will need to come up with an alternative hydration strategy.  You might want to carry your own fluids, which means getting use to wearing a hydration belt.

When I ran the Tokyo Marathon, runners were not allowed to carry any fluids.  We had to rely solely on the water stops.  I always carry my own hydration so I was concerned.  I needed to figure out how I would handle this on race day.   My strategy for training for this restriction was to practice only taking fluids during my training runs at the corresponding miles where the water stops would be on the course.  On race day, I was prepared and everything went smoothly.

I remember training for the Wine and Dine Half Marathon at Disney World.  Back then the race started at 10 PM at night.  I wasn’t sure how I would handle a race that started when I normally would be asleep.  To prepare for the race, I ran a couple of training runs at night.  I learned that I needed to adjust my pre-race meals plus take a nap in the afternoon.  I was prepared and it ended up being one of my all time favorite races.

I used a similar strategy when I trained for the Disney World Dopey Challenge (5K, 10K, half and full marathon over 4 consecutive days). I practiced running increasingly long distances over 4 days.  My Dopey dress rehearsal helped me understand how tired my legs would be each day.   I adjusted my post-race recovery plan to ensure I would be ready for the next day’s race.

Actors use dress rehearsals to ensure they deliver the best performance on opening night.  Runners can ensure they have the best race possible by using the dress rehearsal strategy too.

Run in all kinds of weather – While many runners love running in the rain, I hate it.  (I wrote about being a fair weather runner in an older post, Embrace the Weather.)  Given a choice, if the weather forecast is for rain or snow, I reschedule my run to another day or run on my treadmill (or as I call it, my dreadmill).

But who knows what the weather will be on your race day.  It isn’t like the race directors will move a race indoors if the weather is bad.  Not every town has indoor tracks.  Where would they get thousands of treadmills on a moment’s notice anyway?  I recall when the Mississippi Blues Marathon was canceled two weeks ago, someone on Facebook asked why they just couldn’t move the race indoors.  It just isn’t one of the contingency plans for a race.  Except for ice or thunderstorms, you need to be prepared to run in whatever weather greets you on race day.

Do you have any tips you would offer to new marathon runners?  What helped you get through your first race?  What did you learn the hard way?

Why We Run

I remember when I first started running many people questioned why I wanted to do something they thought was a waste of time.  From their perspective a marathoner runs for hours and hours and the only reward they receive at the end is a piece of medal on some ribbon, a banana or bagel, and very sore muscles.  I guess when you put it in that context, running seems a bit silly.  As someone pointed out to me, that is why they invented fossil fuels – so we didn’t have to run everywhere.

I was reading the obituaries one day and one caught my eye.  It was for Wendy Bailey, a woman who passed away from breast cancer at the young age of 47.  In her photo she had a beautiful smile, the kind that would welcome anyone she would meet.  As I read about her life, I realized she was the kind of warm friendly person you would love to know.  There was a quote in her obituary that struck a chord with me.  “When you constantly challenge yourself, you discover a lot about who you are.”  Marathon runners understand how true that is.
screen-shot-2016-11-15-at-10-11-41-pmI can tell you from my own experience there is something that happens to you when you finish your first marathon.  You are not the same person who started the race.  Crossing the finish line transforms you like a butterfly coming out of its cocoon.  Before my first marathon, I was intimidated by many things.   I was not an athlete and the thought of running a marathon was frightening.   But after I crossed the finish line of my first marathon, I was never afraid of anything again.  Along with my medal came a big dose of self-confidence.  Hey, if I can run 26.2 miles and not die, I must be much stronger than I thought.

There are plenty of reasons why people decide to take on the marathon.   They may be running to raise awareness and funds for a cause that holds deep meaning for them.   People run to fund research to find cures for diseases like breast cancer, Crohn’s disease, or neuroblastoma, or for social causes like clean water in Africa.  I ran my first marathon in honor of a friend who was battling an incurable form of lymphoma, fundraising in the process.

Other people may be striking back at something that has taken away their own ability to move such as wounded warriors.  They prove to themselves the strength they still have.  In some cases, people are striking back at abilities that they never had.  A good example is Tatyana McFadden who was born with spina bifida and has not known anything other than a wheelchair.  Tatyana has won 11 marathons.  I have watched Tatyana compete and she is an amazing young athlete.

As for me, I was healthy when I started running until Transverse Myelitis changed my life five years ago.  While I started running to show support for my friend, now I run for myself.  I don’t know what the future holds for me.  If the music is going to stop some day, I want to make sure I cram in everything I want to do while I can do it.  I won’t let TM run my life.

Kathrine Switzer said once “If you are losing faith in human nature, go out and watch a marathon.”  Running a marathon takes courage, determination and strength (both mental and physical).  When you watch a marathon, you will see all kinds of people.  They all have one thing in common – they had the courage to show up at the start line and challenge themselves.  And at the finish line, as Wendy said, they will have discovered much more about who they are.

Remembering the First Women’s Olympic Marathon

Watching the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio has made me remember the 1984 Summer Olympics.   There were a number of iconic moments during the 1984 Games.   I wrote about them back in the early days of the Funatical Runner.   This blog post puts me in the mood for the next two Sundays when the world will see who will win Gold in the Women’s and Men’s Marathons.  And you know I will be cheering for Meb.  😉

I didn’t start out a runner in high school or college like many people I know. The seeds of my running career were planted in 1984, the year that Los Angeles hosted the Summer Olympics.

The 1984 Summer Olympics were pretty amazing. It was the first time in history that the Games were not sponsored by the government. Peter Ueberroth was put in charge of making everything happen but without funding from the US Government. Ueberroth ran things like a business and assembled a board of entrepreneurs and other business people. Through corporate sponsorships, private funding, and a huge price tag for the television rights, they came up with more than enough money for the Games. Ueberroth did such a good job managing things that he was named Time’s Man of the Year.

The opening ceremonies for the 1984 Summer Olympics were something that only Hollywood could pull off. The opening ceremonies were held in the LA Coliseum. There were cards on all of the seats. At one point, everyone was directed to pull out their card and hold it up. The effect was to create the flags of all nations competing in the Games. It was an impressive sight. The other incredible moment was when 84 grand pianos were rolled out with 84 male pianists dressed in light blue tuxes who played George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue.” It gave me goosebumps. To this day, when I hear that song, I see all those pianos. John Williams composed “Olympic Fanfare and Theme” for the Games and they played it during the opening ceremonies – incredible music that was perfect for the event. Let the Games begin!

My oldest sister was living in Los Angeles at the time. They needed a lot of volunteers to help run things so she volunteered. Her assignment was to be a course marshall for both the Women’s and Men’s Marathons – a job that involved keeping spectators from wandering out onto the course during the races. I lived on the East Coast and did not see her often. My husband and I decided we would watch the marathon events on television in the off-chance we might see her in action as a course marshall.

This was the first time that the Summer Olympics included a Women’s Marathon. The race was held on the first weekend of the Games (the Men’s race was held on the second weekend). Joan Benoit (now Samuelson) was one of three runners representing the US – a spot she won 17 days after knee surgery. Going into the 1984 Games, Joanie held the world record for women in the marathon – 2:22:43 at the 1983 Boston Marathon. I liked her when I saw her because Joanie is short like me – a mere 5’2”.

The runners lined up, the gun went off, and 50 women marathoners were off to the history books. While it might not seem like there is much strategy to running a marathon, there is. Nobody wants to lead the pack early on because your legs might not be able to carry you the distance. Runners trade the lead position from time to time during the race. This race was a bit different. Perhaps the women were not acclimated to the hot, muggy Los Angeles weather but 14 minutes into the race, Joanie got tired of the slow pace and pulled ahead of the pack. Remarkably, she stayed there for the remainder of the race.

I remember the camera being focused on Joanie, the other runners visible well behind her. She was wearing an oversized painters hat (not some fancy runner’s cap) and the right shoulder of her singlet had fallen down her arm. For the rest of the race, I kept wanting to reach through the television and pull it up for her. I was mesmerized by this woman, running through the LA heat and beating what I understood were some of the greatest women runners at the time. When she came into the Coliseum, the crowd went wild. It was clear that she was going to win as she ran a final lap around the track to the finish line wearing a smile 26.2 miles wide. She finished with a time of 2:24:52.

While Joanie blew everyone away with her performance, there was another incredible runner that day who I will never forget. About 15 minutes after Joanie crossed the finish line, Gabriele Andersen-Scheiss, a runner from Switzerland, entered the stadium. She was suffering from heat exhaustion and every step she took looked like it would literally be her last. She was hunched over and staggering. Medical personnel came to her but she waved them off – if they had touched her, she would have been disqualified. Instead they walked along side her as she made the last lap around the track. It took her almost 6 minutes to finish. She collapsed into the arms of waiting medics when she crossed the line. Fortunately for Gabriele, she recovered but she is still a vivid reminder of the dangers of running in the heat.

The 1984 Games were also marked by the famous collision between Zola Budd, an 18-year old barefoot runner representing the UK, and the US favorite Mary Decker-Slaney in the final of the 3000 meter race. The collision caused Mary to fall, wiping out her dream of an Olympic medal. The crowd booed Zola for the rest of the race. Zola dropped back well out of medal contention. It was later determined the collision was not Zola’s fault. I think about that collision every time I am in a close pack of runners in a race. I don’t want to be Zola or Mary.

After the 1984 Games were over, my husband and I decided that maybe we would take up running. We put on our tennis shoes (no, we didn’t have running shoes) and headed to the track at a nearby high school. After about two laps around the track, I was hot and bored. I didn’t understand how anyone could enjoy this running stuff and vowed never to do that again. My husband who had not run since college pulled his hamstring. He quit too. That was the start and end of my running career. At least, I thought so at the time.

(And in case you are wondering, I never did catch a glimpse of my sister along the course.)

There isn’t great quality video available of the 1984 opening ceremonies where “Rhapsody in Blue” was played.    This will give you an idea of how fantastic the pianists played.

One in A Million

You might think that every marathon is the same.  Same race, just different place.  I can tell you from my experience that they are not.  This past weekend I ran my twelfth marathon, the Virgin Money London Marathon.   It was very different than any other I have run.  Someone said the London Marathon is “so much more than a race.”  Truer words have never been spoken.

This was a special year for the race.  The London Marathon started in 1981 with a mere 7,000 or so runners.  This year over 39,000 runners were entered.  At some point during the race, the one-millionth runner was going to cross the finish line.   To generate excitement before the race, the organizers started the #oneinamillion campaign about this remarkable milestone.  As of today, they are still trying to determine who the one-millionth runner was.  I might not be that one-millionth runner but I am hoping I crossed the finish line before them.

There are runners who have completed every London Marathon since it started.  They call them “Ever Presents”.  They started tracking the Ever Presents in 1995 when there were 42.  This year the number of Ever Presents was down to 12, all male runners between the ages of 57 and 79.  I can’t imagine running the same race for 36 years in a row.  I have to take my hat off to these gentlemen.  They are committed.

The race among the elite runners was full of excitement. The overall male winner, Eliud Kipchoge, finished in 2:03:05 – the fastest London Marathon finish and the second fastest men’s marathon record – only 8 seconds off the current world record of 2:02:57.  The overall female winner, Jemima Sumgong, fell at Mile 21 when another runner clipped her heels.  She went down hard, striking her head on the pavement.  But she got back up and kept going despite a gash on her head.  Jemima worked her way back into the lead and finished in 2:22:58.

Officials from Guinness World Records at the finish line

Officials from Guinness World Records at the finish line

The race partners with the Guinness World Records (GWR) folks so that amateur runners attempting world records can get record verification immediately after completing the race.   Anyone who planned to attempt to break a record during the race had to apply to GWR prior to the race.  They also wore special signs on their backs indicating they were working on a GWR attempt.  There were 55 record attempts during the 2016 London Marathon.  I saw several of them during the race.  Of these, 31 were successful.  Here are a few of the new records for fastest marathons set at the 2016 London Marathon:

Fastest four-man costume

Fastest four-man costume

  • In a four-person costume achieved by four real life firemen who ran wearing a fire engine.  They completed the race in 5:25:02.
  • By a man wearing chainmail in 5:45:51.
  • Wearing a full body dinosaur costume (man) in 3:08:34.
  • Dressed as a plant (a man dressed as a forget me not in a flower pot) in 3:02:43.  This runner also is the current record holder for the fastest marathon in a wedding dress.
  • Dressed as an organ (prostate) in 3:13:20.
  • Dressed as a bottle (in this case, a bottle of Wimbledon Brewery beer) in 3:09:37.
  • Dressed as a crustacean (a lobster) in 3:17:57.  My biggest fear realized – I was beaten by a guy dressed as a lobster.
  • Dressed as a fast food item (hotdog) in 3:57:17.
  • A woman dressed in a full-body animal costume (polar bear) in 4:22:08.
  • Two person costume (horse and jockey) in 4:21:21.  They must have beaten the two runners I saw dressed as Native Americans wearing a canoe.

    Two man costume attempt

    Two man costume attempt by runners dressed as Native Americans and wearing a canoe

Major Tim Peake, a British astronaut ran the fastest marathon in orbit by running the marathon on a treadmill in the International Space Station while we ran through London.  As he ran, Tim watched a video of the route on his iPad.  He had to use a harness to keep himself on the treadmill while he ran.  Tim finished his “London Marathon” in 3:35:21, only 16 minutes slower than his time running the 1999 London Marathon.  If there is a record for someone running the same race on Earth and in space, he should get that one too.  While Tim ran in orbit, Martin Hewlett ran in London and set the record for the fastest marathon dressed as an astronaut in 3:06:26.

One of the most amazing records is the one set by three men for fastest four-legged marathon.  They finished in 4:44:19.  I can’t imagine the amount of coordination that it took to keep them all in synch for 26.2 miles, especially for the runner in the middle who had each of his legs tied to one of the other runners.

Screen Shot 2016-04-27 at 7.19.17 PMI was most impressed by the number of charity runners.  The London Marathon had more charity runners than any other race I ever have run.  Approximately 3/4 of the runners were raising money for one of the over 80 charities associated with the race.  For the “have-a-go” runners (as one newspaper referred to first time marathoners), entry through a charity guaranteed them a spot in a very popular race plus a way to support a cause that was important to them.   By raising money for a charity, they have a way to honor a loved one who was lost to cancer or a stroke, or show support for a family member or friend suffering from diseases like Colitis or mental illness, or help raise awareness about various social causes.   They become someone’s hero.  Not surprising that the world record for fundraising through a marathon was set at the 2011 London Marathon by Steve Chalke who raised £2.32 million (nearly $3.4 million by today’s exchange rates).

One of the many runners dressed as a rhino

One of the many runners dressed as a rhino

Many of the charity runners wear costumes to help raise money for their cause.  I saw runners dressed as Star Wars Storm Troopers, Paddington Bear, Sponge Bob, film and book characters, full body dinosaur costumes, an old fashioned desk telephone.  As I passed a man dressed as a toilet (who was running for water.org), I teased him by saying I disliked when a toilet runs.  He laughed and replied that he would be flush when he finished.  There was a large number of runners dressed as rhinoceros (for Save the Rhino).

Screen Shot 2016-04-27 at 7.19.05 PMShortly after the race, I learned that a runner had collapsed at Mile 23.  It was David Seath, a 31 year old Green Beret in the British Army who was running for Help for Heroes, a charity that provides support to wounded service members.  He had set a modest fund raising goal of £250 ($365).   He died later at a hospital.  News of his death shocked everyone and his fundraising web site was flooded with donations.  As of today, people have donated over £69,500 ($101,000).  One of David’s friends created another fundraising web site in his memory also to benefit Help the Heroes.  That web site has raised over £93,000 ($135,813).  Between the two fundraising web sites, over £162,500 ($236,00) has been raised for Help for Heroes – all because of David.  From such a terrible tragedy came more money than David could ever have imagined raising to help an organization that was important to him.

Of all the races I have done, the London Marathon is right up there at the top of the list.  It is a celebration, a chance for runners to test their limits and possibly set new world records, and an opportunity to be heroes to the charitable organizations many of them were supporting.  Yes, it was much more than just another marathon.

Although I am running faster these days, I ended up finishing about 15 minutes behind my personal record (PR) for the marathon. My husband was disappointed that I didn’t push myself more and go for a PR.  But I had decided before the start that this race was special, one that I needed to savor.  Along the course, I took time to stop and take pictures, to capture some of the excitement.  As I neared the finish line, I didn’t want the race to end.  I paused for a few moments between Miles 25 and 26 to look around and soak it all in.  It was a fabulous race.  I was one in a million.

Here is a link to the press release listing all of the new Guinness World Records set at the 2016 London Marathon.

Do you want to run the London Marathon?  Travel partners like Marathon Tours can get you in the race.  I have travelled to several races with this company and I have never been disappointed in them.  They know the races, provide the most convenient accommodations, and help ensure you have a pleasant running vacation.  Check them out!

World Records

MES20061A year ago we lost our beloved dog, Dillon, at the age of 6 1/2 years to hemangiosarcoma, a very nasty cancer.  The weekend after he died, I decided to enter a 5K to help get my mind off losing him.  Surprisingly, I got 2nd place in my age group.  First place was awarded a pie (for second place I got a Dunkin Donut hat).  I decided to enter the same race again this year.  I had high hopes that I would finish in the pie.  I could tell when we lined up at the start that this year there were more women runners in my age group.  I had my eyes on a pie and I was in better shape than last year.  My best efforts on race day weren’t good enough.  I finished 3rd – out of pie placement.

I know many people who strive for podium finishes at races.  Heck, I am just happy to finish a race and not hurt for days afterwards.  If you can’t earn a spot on the podium, you can always try for a world record.  I don’t mean a record like the fastest marathon (which is 2 hours 2 minutes 57 seconds set by Kenyan Dennis Kipruto Kimetto at the 2014 Berlin Marathon) or the fastest half marathon (58 minutes 23 seconds set by Zersenay Tadese of Eritrea at the 2010 Lisbon Half Marathon).  Those records would be a real challenge for recreational runners like me to beat.  Recreational runners have the best shot at breaking world records that most people ignore.  Things like the fastest marathon dressed as a dairy product, or a plant, or even carrying an 80-pound pack.  Elite runners don’t train for those kinds of records.  From what I saw on the Guinness World Record website, as long as you are willing to put in the training effort (and be a bit creative), you can get a world record too.

I got interested in the world records last year when I was writing about Harriet Thompson who became the oldest woman to complete a marathon.  I went out to the Guinness World Record website and started searching “fastest marathon”.  There are so many world records associated with the marathon and the half marathon, it would make your head spin.  Many of them are set by people dressed up in a costume.  I can’t imagine running a race dressed as a cactus or a toilet or wearing over 61 pounds of medieval battle armour.  What was even more difficult to believe was these runners are completing a marathon dressed as a toilet or a banana or whatever considerably FASTER than I can run one dressed as a regular runner.  (Oh, and the guy who ran dressed as a toilet – he beat out competition from two other runners dressed as toilets in the same race!  It brings new meaning to “the toilet is running.”)

In looking over all the marathon world records, I noticed that many of them are set at the London Marathon.  At the 2012 London Marathon a man set the record for fastest marathon run dressed as a vegetable (in his case, a carrot) of 2 hours 59 minutes 33 seconds.  That was also the year that a runner completed the race wearing the tallest costume in a marathon (26 feet 2 inches); his costume was the Blackpool Tower.  There were 30 world records set during the 2014 London Marathon and 34 set at the 2015 race.   It occurred to me that I missed my chance.  I should have been working with my coach to train for the 2016 London Marathon dressed as an eating utensil (a spoon perhaps?) so I could get a world record.

I was scratching my head about a couple of the records.  The record for fastest marathon dressed as a female film character is 3 hours 53 minutes 40 seconds set by a woman dressed as the bikini-clad version of Princess Leia at the 2010 London Marathon.  The record for the fastest marathon dressed as a male film character is for a guy who ran as Captain Jack Sparrow in 2 hours 42 minutes 52 seconds at the 2013 London Marathon.  Surely there is someone who has completed a Disney Marathon dressed as Princess Leia  or Captain Jack Sparrow faster than those records.  I have seen lots of women run Disney marathons dressed as a fairy, complete with wings, tutu, and wand (even Pixie dust).  One of them has to have beaten the current record of 3 hours 20 minutes 52 seconds set at 2011 London Marathon.  Disney races are well-known for costumed runners.   I wonder if Disney runners are missing their opportunity to go down in the Guinness record books.

Given the recent interest in barefoot running, I thought it was interesting that the record for the fastest marathon run in bare feet (2 hours 15 minutes 16.2 seconds) was set a long time ago at the 1960 Olympics.  The only newer records for barefoot marathon running are for the most barefoot marathons run on consecutive days (10) and the most barefoot marathons run in one year (101), both set by Eddie Vilbar Vega in 2014.   Eddie was required to carry a GoPro to record every footstep to prove he was completely barefoot.  He also had to take pictures of the soles of his feet at the start, during and at the end of each race to prove he hadn’t run in shoes.

Trying to break the record for the most runners dressed as Santa at the 2012 Las Vegas Great Santa Run

Going for the record of most runners dressed as Santa at the 2012 Las Vegas Great Santa Run, benefitting Opportunity Village

Some of the world record holders had a lifelong dream of setting a Guinness World Record (like Sean McShane who completed the fastest marathon dressed as a zombie in 3 hours 18 minutes 38 seconds).  But in reading the  stories behind the records, I realized many were running dressed up in silly costumes to raise money for charity.   The guy dressed as a toilet was raising money for WaterAid.  Eddie the barefoot runner was running to raise awareness for the 300 million children worldwide who do not have shoes or adequate footwear.  Then there is David Babcock who ran while knitting and set the record for the longest scarf knitted while running a marathon (12 feet 1.75 inches), raising money for an Alzheimer’s research charity in the process.

I have never been one for wearing a costume in a race.  I tried it once and it was such a disaster that I refuse to ever do it again.  But if you think you want to go down in the record books, take a look at the Guinness World Record website and see what record you’d like to break.

The world records for women are 2 hours 17 minutes 42 seconds in the marathon set by Paula Radcliffe at the 2005 London Marathon and 1 hour 5 minutes and 9 seconds in the half marathon set by Florence Kiplagat of Kenya in Barcelona, Spain in 2015.

The Most Feared Person in a Marathon

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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