Got No Time

When is a race trip not fun?  When you get to the airport and check your race results online and they don’t show you finishing the race.  This happened to me in May when I went to Iowa to run the Des Moines Women’s Half Marathon.  I had a few nerve-racking hours before I was able to get the issue resolved.  My experience is a good lesson about how race timing devices work and what a runner can do to minimize the possibility of a timing issue.

“Nomade” by Jaume Plensa in the sculpture park

Before I tell you more about my timing issue, let me say a few words about the race.  The race started and finished at a little winery.  All the runners were given Shape activewear 1/2 zip tops and an engraved stemless wine glass (to enjoy a post-race glass of wine).  I was surprised by how flat the course was – one of the flattest I have ever run.  Many of the runners were doing their first half marathon.  It always makes me happy to see people toeing the start line for the first time.  This was a great race for first timers.

Now let’s talk race timing.  Since I started running in 2007, I have seen a variety of methods used for timing runners in road races.  Simply put, timing a race involves capturing a runner’s identity (via bib number) and the time they crossed the finish.  In very small races they use manual methods, involving someone manually hitting a button on a handheld machine or pulling off a number on the bottom of my bib.  Manual methods don’t work for races with a large number of participants.  

3 sample bibs with B-tags, a plastic transponder from the London Marathon and a yellow ChampionChip

Enter technology, specifically a passive RFID (Radio Frequency Identification) transponder (also known as a chip) that a runner wears.  When they run over a mat on the course, the transponder communicates with the timing device to capture their identity (i.e., bib number).  An audible beep sounds whenever a runner passes over a timing mat.  Timing mats are positioned at the start and finish lines, and, in longer races, along the course to ensure the runner has completed the full course.  There are many different kinds of chips: reusable plastic disks (a.k.a. ChampionChips), or plastic or cardboard squares that attach to the runner’s shoes; single use transponder tags that are attached to the runner’s shoes (D-tags); or single use transponders attached to the back of the runner’s bib (B-tags).  Looking at the bibs from my races, there appear to be several vendors providing bibs with B-tags.  Some look like a little strip of plastic while others have foam over an aluminum looking strip. 

The Des Moines race used a B-tag transponder with a little strip of foam, which was attached to the back of the runner’s bib number.   Although the race directions state the runner should wear the bib on their chest, many runners attach them other places – on their thigh, on their back, or to the bottom of a race belt or hydration belt.  I have a Fitletic hydration belt with toggles to attach my bib.  That was how I wore my bib at the Des Moines race.

The race results showed me starting the race and passing over the first of three mid-course mats.  After that, I had no time.  I recalled running over a mat near the half way point in the race and not hearing any beeps.  I thought it was strange since it was the exchange point for the relay team.  I also didn’t hear any beeps at the next mat nor was there anyone monitoring it to ensure the equipment was working, another thing I thought was strange.

As I sat in the Des Moines airport, I synched my Garmin to the Garmin Connect app on my iPhone.  I took screen shots of the data from my race including my time, distance, and map of the course I ran.  I emailed the race director, explaining my problem and included the screen shots as evidence I completed the course.  Using these, he was able to confirm I did complete the race.  The official results were updated to show me as a finisher.  

Until I received his email, I was very stressed.  I couldn’t imagine running a race and not having the timing mats capture me.  It made me wonder how often this happens; what the USATF (USA Track and Field) rules are for timing distance races; and whether there is anything a runner can do to ensure their run is appropriately captured. 

When I got home, I did some research. I was surprised to learn that there aren’t any standards defined by the USATF for the timing equipment in distance races, just recommended best practices.  I found a few races where there were large numbers of runners whose times were not captured.  These could have been instances where the timing equipment was not functioning (e.g., the mats weren’t capturing transponders due to lack of a power source) or there was a large-scale issue with the transponder quality.  One USATF suggested best practice is to film the finish line.  The film can be used to identify runners whose time might not have been captured and validate them as finishers.  For this reason it is important for a runner to wear their race bib on their front and have it clearly visible.  The 2018 Boston Marathon is a good example of this.  Because of the miserable cold, rainy weather, many runners experienced timing issues.  The humidity could have also interfered with the timing devices.  Runners were bundled up in jackets to fight off hypothermia and in doing so, covered up their race bibs.   The process of identifying them as finishers became more difficult and video of the finish line was used to confirm they finished.

As runners, we have to do our part to ensure our times are correctly captured.  While we can’t control the quality of the bib tag and the timing equipment, we can make certain we don’t bend or fold the bib tag.  Doing so will damage the transponder.  We should wear the bib on our chests.  This instruction might be difficult for some to follow if they don’t want to put pin holes in their race shirts.  Fortunately, there are reusable bib clips and bib magnets that can be used to attach your bib without putting holes in your shirt.  For some B-tag technology, close proximity to other runners can cause the timing device to not capture a runner.  That was something I was surprised to learn.

The expression “empty suit” comes to mind; another sculpture from the park by Judith Shea titled “Post Balzac”

Looking back at what happened during this race, I believe my bib may have gotten folded up under my Fitletic hydration belt, damaging the B-tag transponder.  However, I also did not hear the beeps when I ran over a timing mat nor did I see someone monitoring all the mats.  Those two things make me wonder if the timing equipment was working,  Regardless, I am very happy my timing issue was quickly resolved.  My Garmin was very helpful in providing evidence I completed the race.  Without that data, it would have been difficult for me to prove.  There weren’t any photos of me at the finish line and I don’t have access to any video tape that may have been taken at the finish.  From now on I plan to do my part by wearing my bib on my chest.  I just hope the timing equipment is working properly.  

We Still Need Good Samaritans

Facebook has a Memories feature where posts from years past will pop up.  Most of the time they are reminders of some place you visited, a funny thing that happened, or a photo from a wonderful day.  Since Memories can’t distinguish good ones from unpleasant ones, you can be reminded of something not so happy.  Such was the case the other day when Facebook reminded me of the day a training run ended in disaster for me.

The post I wrote about that day is still very relevant because I wrote about the help I received from some very good Samaritans.   The world seems less caring for others these days.  Perhaps the post can be a reminder we still need good Samaritans.

Good Samaritansfirst published September 11, 2014

This week’s post is a public service announcement.

The beautiful trail that only a few hours later tried to eat me.

I was out running my 20 mile training run for the Berlin marathon this past weekend when the unthinkable happened. I had just finished my first 12 miles and was heading back out for my last eight when I tripped over a root on the trail and fell. I went down hard. I knew as soon as I tried to standup that I had broken a bone in my arm. I was running by myself which was my first mistake. I was able to call my friend and ask her to come get me as I struggled back to my car in the parking lot 0.2 miles from where I fell.

As I walked back, everything was spinning and turning black. I was going into shock. What amazed me was the number of people who saw me and did not stop to ask if I needed help.  Maybe it was like that scene from “Moscow on the Hudson” where they tell Robin Williams, the immigrant, to look like a crazy man so no one would mess with him. I probably looked pretty crazy at that moment too. There was one woman who I had passed a couple of times when I was running earlier who saw me. She commented to me about what a nice day was to run. I responded that yes it was. I realized then I needed to ask for help, which is not something I normally would do. I turned to her and asked her to please help me because I had fallen. I will never forget what she said.” Today is your lucky day. I am a physician assistant.”  Her name was Rebecca and she immediately went into first aid mode and got me settled. She moved my car closer so that I could sit in the back while I waited for my friend to arrive. She got my Hammer Recoverite drink ready. I had been going into shock and having that drink made me feel much better.

I was still surprised at the number of people who had passed me and not stopped to ask if I needed assistance. I asked Rebecca if I looked bad, like I needed help. She said yeah I looked very bad. I commented to her about the number of people who did not ask if I needed help. In fact one man asked me if there was a path down to the river. Couldn’t he see that I was in agony?

It made me think about what I would do if I came across someone who was in obvious distress. As runners we are out there a lot of times by ourselves and can get into trouble. We are relying on the kindness of others to keep an eye out for us. I hope that I would be a good Samaritan like Rebecca and help another runner out. I am not sure how much I could do because I am pretty squeamish when it comes to medical issues but I certainly could make phone calls and do other things to help out.

It also made me realize that I am not as tough as nails like I would like to believe. Sometimes I need to ask for help too. It is not in my character to ask for help. I am pretty independent.  I am grateful that I had one moment of clarity where my brain realized that I needed someone to help me.  It is important to be able to be open to accepting help from others as well as giving help to others.

Sadly the Berlin Marathon got left in the dust on the trail on Sunday. I won’t be running for about three months. I’m hoping that some of my other races in 2015 will still be possible. Time will tell.

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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