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‘You’ve Put a Huge Smile on Boston’s Face’

(This is part 2 of my story about the 2014 Boston Marathon. The 2015 race is Monday, April 20.)

Read Part 1

It began with the invitational entry four-time Boston Marathon champion Bill Rodgers transferred to me. It ended with a scrumptious lobster pie dinner hosted by my family.

The King and I: With Bill Rodgers at 2014 Boston Marathon, after he gave me his invitational entry so I could run the most important Boston ever.

The King and I: With Bill Rodgers at 2014 Boston Marathon, after he gave me his invitational entry so I could run the most important Boston ever.

In between was the most meaningful race of my life, and the lives of most others in the field: the 2014 Boston Marathon. As we all know, the 2013 Boston Marathon ended in the horrible bombing tragedy. For months, the status of the 2014 race was in doubt, though my status was certain: I wouldn’t be going. A nagging ankle injury, sustained during qualifying season in 2013, sealed my fate.

Two things happened to change all that. BOSTON STRONG came alive and, to speak bluntly, shoved it right up the you-know-what of all would-be terrorists; and Boston Billy gave me the gift of a lifetime.

I showed up in Boston in shellshock after Bill arranged for his race slot to end up on my lap. Immediately, I felt a different vibe than the other three times I’d raced. Everywhere, people talked about it. The media devoted most of their news coverage to it. My relatives, who had seen my previous races, were beside themselves that this family member was running (as well as my cousin, Bryan Widmann).Unknown While I wasn’t yet in full marathon form (that would come six weeks later, in San Diego’s Rock & Roll Marathon), it didn’t matter. When you get an invite from a Boston legend, you go.

It’s safe to say several million runners worldwide wanted to toe the starting line at the 2014 Boston, to be a part of history, something beyond ourselves. To be among the 35,000 who got in?

As I write this, nearly a year later, I’m getting tears and goose bumps. That’s how much it meant.

I first understood the scope two days prior to the race, when I drove downtown and picked up my number and swag bag. The race expo was packed, beyond anything I’d ever seen. So was the entire Boston Back Bay area, especially Boylston Street, the site of so much carnage just a year before. My friend, Kathryn Van Artsdall, was also racing for the fourth time. Her husband, my longtime buddy Mitch Varnes, and I were trying to meet up. Good luck with that: too many people.images-1

I then sought out Bill Rodgers, my hero when I was in high school and he was the world’s greatest marathoner. We’ve had a number of runs, get-togethers and good times during our friendship that began in 2008 (including a fabulous run at Walden Woods and Walden Pond, 25 miles to the west), but this was different. “Just run the best you can,” he whispered in my ear. “You’re starting in back since you’re a last-minute entry, so you won’t run your normal time. Forget about it. Soak up what goes on out there. You will never have an experience like this.”

How right he was. Here are a few of those experiences:

Starting line, Hopkinton: While standing in my corral, a drone flew overhead, huge snowplows blocking side streets, and law enforcement stood everywhere. They were scanning the throng like Secret Service agents while openly thanking we, the runners, for having the courage to return. I had never thought of us being courageous; it was more like, “What do I have to do to get in this race?” As for those who were running down Boylston Street when the bombs hit in 2013 and were back again? Now they were courageous.

Starting line, Hopkinton, part 2: The crowds. Wow. They were massive, loud, rowdy, and ready to uncork a year of pent-up agony and rage with a street celebration for the ages. We were the headliners. I’d like to say this scene was repeated intermittently during the next 26.2 miles, but that’s grossly understating it. This was the scene on the entire course.

Mile 3, Ashland: The start was tough for me, because I was a 3:30 marathoner running in a 5-to 6-hour crowd due to the late entry. While trying to find space to run, I jogged shoulder-to-shoulder with two men wearing NYPD shirts. “So you came up from New York?” I asked.

“Yeah. Great day, isn’t it?” one replied.

I smiled. “Like your shirt.” Normally, I wouldn’t look twice at a police T-shirt, but on this day, it felt good to see one next to me.

“Well, I’m NYPD.”

“That’s cool you took the day off to run,” I said.

“I’m on duty,” he smiled. “So is my friend. We’ve got 20 officers in the pack.”

How impressive was that? No stone unturned,” I said.

“Not this year. Everyone in this race, and crowd, is going to have a great time.”

P.S. Out of 1 million spectators, one was arrested, and that for public drunkenness.

Mile 8, Framingham: Unbelievable crowds. Unbelievable noise. People are shouting, “You’re our heroes!” “You make Boston great!” “Thanks for coming out!” They’re surging onto the road to slap fives and bump fists, to touch us, to feel a part of it. At points, they constrict the already narrow roads so much that we feel like we’re running in single file. I look at two women running next to me. All three of us have tears in our eyes. It feels like the most incredible dream, except that it’s very real.

Mile 12, Wellesley: This is where the famous Wellesley Girls line the course, a half-mile of crazy, brainy co-eds toting signs that say, well, some pretty inviting things. We could hear their screams from a half-mile away – literally. I’ve seen more men cause runner jam-ups on this section of the course by crossing to the right side to get their hugs and kisses. This was even more insane. A couple of girls hopped the barricade and teamed up to hug and kiss a 60-year-old, right in front of me.

Mile 14, Wellesley: Where you at, family? I reach the gas station just past the halfway point, where I usually stopped to see family members, grab my drink bottle, shoot photos, and change shoes (if necessary). Normally on race day, about 30 people hang out in this little “quiet spot”. This time, there were at least 500. I needed to change shoes, but I couldn’t find my family. They were there, but swallowed in the crowd. I also needed to put the Velcro wearable holding my cell phone and money onto my other arm, but was fumbling with it while trying to run at the same time. A spectator stepped out and, without saying a word, stopped me, and switched the wearable to my other arm. Then she disappeared into the crowd. Just like that.

Mile 21, Heartbreak Hill: I was spent, my goal time long since evaporated, but I wanted to run – and not walk – up the four Newton hills. Mission accomplished. At the top, three Boston College co-eds saw me and held out pints of beer. “You rock, dude!” one yelled. Another said, “Can you imagine our parents kicking ass like this guy?” They laughed and offered me a chug. I’ve not had a beer since Reagan was president, but that was tempting.

Mile 24, Brookline: The greatest ten seconds of a week full of amazing moments. I was broken down for the first time since my first marathon in 2003, relegated to the “marathon shuffle”, just trying to move one foot in front of the other. The crowds were so massive that the barricades extended several feet onto the road. As I struggled to keep going, a uniformed Brookline police officer stepped in front of the barricades and yelled, “35870! You’re my f****** hero! Go get that medal for all of us!” I’ll never forget that cop. He helped get me to the finish line.

Post-Race, Alewife Subway Station, Cambridge: I had just taken a cab to the subway station, awaiting my Aunt Judy, who was crawling through traffic to pick me up. While I was slumped outside on a café patio chair, my medal around my neck, a diner came up to me. “Did you just run the Marathon?” she asked. “Yes… it was awesome, but I’m happy it’s over.” “All of you are heroes. You’ve put a huge smile on Boston’s face, honey. Can my husband and I buy you an iced tea? Lunch?” How many times had each of us 35,000 runners been called heroes over the past few days? Ten? Fifteen? More? It was overwhelming.

Evening, at dinner: My aunts Janet and Judy, Uncle Brian, and I enjoyed a luscious lobster pie dinner. To be more precise, I ate two dinners while they each had one. My legs were vice-gripped, but my smile was wide and fixed. As was our family custom in 2005, 2007, and 2009, I wore my accumulated medals to the post-race meal, so I had all four on.

An older couple came over to us. The woman said, “I am very proud of you.” Her husband added, “I’m even more proud to be a Bostonian tonight.”

My family sat there, as slack-jawed as me.

Since I’m not running Boston this year (though I requalified at the 2014 Rock & Roll Marathon in San Diego), I will observe my tradition for non-Boston years — running 15 miles in the early morning and then watching part of the race online. I will think about my friends (and my cousin, Bryan, who will be shooting for a sub-2:50), remember last year, and run in silence to remember the victims of 2013. I will thank God for giving me the good fortune to run in four Bostons.

I will also call Bill Rodgers and thank him, again, for putting me into a race like no other. The Marathon starts at 10 a.m. EDT. Go onto www.baa.org for live coverage. Hope you’ll check it out. I know I will. 2014-04-28 05.58.09

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Looking Back on 10 Years of Boston Marathons

(This is the first of two stories on the Boston Marathon, which takes place Monday, April 20.)

For the past ten years of my life, the third week of April has featured one event: the Boston Marathon — or, as they say in New England, “The Marathon,” as if everything else is secondary. While I won’t be toeing the starting line in Hopkinton, MA on Patriot’s Day this Monday, the memories of my four Bostons will flood in as 25,000 runners take to the narrow New England streets for the 26.2-mile journey to downtown Boston. To be more specific, my love affair with this race will carry on.

Near the finish line of the 2005 Boston Marathon

Near the finish line of the 2005 Boston Marathon

Most of all, the course came to life. I’d read about it, watched several Bostons (including a scouting mission in 2003), and heard the stories. I’d even run part of it in 1975, while staying with my grandparents in nearby Arlington. Now, I wore the telltale blue and yellow unicorn medal around my neck. I also found out the difference between identifying as a marathoner and a Boston marathoner. I rarely made the distinction, but when I did, others turned to me with a different expression on their faces. Why? Because Boston is one of only two marathons that require you hit qualifying time standards (unless you’re raising funds for charity). The other? The U.S. Olympic Trials.

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With my mother at the halfway point, 2007. Yes, it was that cold.

My second Boston was 2007, when a cold Nor’easter storm ripped through Massachusetts on race day and turned the course into a rainy wind tunnel. We ran into head winds sometimes topping 35 mph. As if 26.2 miles under perfect conditions wasn’t enough! It remains the only race in my life I ran entirely in a jacket (and I’ve run races at temperatures as cold as 15 degrees). However, I now knew something about pacing on this course, and re-qualified with a 3:27. The 2007 Boston had added significance, in that it was my mother’s second and final time watching the race. She and my aunts, Janet and Judy, and my cousin, Sister Louise, met me at the halfway point, where I quickly changed shoes, grabbed my special drink concoction, and shot photos before I resumed.

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Boston Strong — the theme for all 35,000 of us runners in 2014.

In 2009, I came back for more — and set a lifetime best of 3:09.33 at age 50. The first realization was almost surreal, running so much faster despite my age. I wore my “Team Heidi” shirt, in honor of my mother, who died in 2008. So did the fifteen or so family members stretched along the course. It was my one perfect marathon, with half-marathon splits of 1:36 and 1:33. I still had enough left to charge the final 600 meters down Boylston Street to the finish line, in front of a massive gauntlet of fans that screamed and cheered. For any recreational marathoner, chugging down Boylston is the ultimate finish — especially when it ends with a lifetime best. Four years later, Boston took on a much deeper meaning when the bombs went off — including one in front of Marathon Sports, where my brother and sister-in-law were standing when I finished in 2005. What a sad, tragic day.

The King and I: With Bill Rodgers at 2014 Boston Marathon, after he gave me his invitational entry so I could run the most important Boston ever.

The King and I: With Bill Rodgers at 2014 Boston Marathon, after he gave me his invitational entry so I could run the most important Boston ever.

Which is why, to me, nothing compares to last year, 2014. Four-time Boston champion and distance running legend Bill Rodgers emailed me out of the blue two weeks before the race and offered me his invitational entry. Billy and I had met in 2008, shared some good times and excellent runs, and become friends. He made the ultimate friendship gesture, handing me the keys to racing heaven for the most important Boston in its nearly 120-year history. I wanted to run so badly, but due to an ankle injury the previous summer, had been unable to qualify despite being in my best shape since 2009. My prime condition was helped greatly by Brad Roy, my high school track and cross-country coach, who gave me the workouts and tutelage that led me to a 1:33 half-marathon at age 54. Then I hurt my ankle. Oh well… Bill took care of that problem. I showed up not quite in marathon race shape, as I was aiming for the Rock and Roll Marathon in San Diego six weeks later (in which I qualified for Boston for the sixth time, including 2015, though I won’t be making the trip this time). It didn’t matter. For the 35,000 of us runners, this race carried far more meaning than posting a good time. (Next: A closer look at the 2014 Boston Marathon, when a city could cheer and smile again [and did they ever!]) 4 Boston Medals

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Peak Experience in the Sierras: Getting Our 100-Mile Runner Home

(This is the second of a two-part blog on pacing my friend, David Nichols, in the Western States 100-Mile Endurance Run, one of the toughest running tests in the world and the most storied and prestigious ultramarathon.)

Read Part One

Pacing an ultramarathoner reminds me a lot of ghostwriting or co-writing books. As my friend, veteran ultra pacer and 50/50 marathoner (as in, 50 completed marathons spanning all 50 states) Kenny McCleary, advised me on Facebook before Western States:2014-06-28 06.13.17

Enjoy the day. A pacer has to be part navigator, part psychiatrist, part nurse, part minister, part drill sergeant. But most of all, just be a Barnabas today – an encourager. Only a few souls on this planet have the opportunity or the courage to experience what David gets to live out today. I hope you find the job of pacer/crewmate to be as fulfilling as I have.

With pacing, as with ghost- and co-writing, you check your ego at the door. The only run that matters is his. You do whatever it takes to bring out his best, and take care of him on the trail. No matter how many miles you run alongside, the only accomplishment that matters is your runner crossing the finish line and grabbing that belt buckle.

Pacers just starting off with competitors at Foresthill earlier in the day

Pacers just starting off with competitors at Foresthill earlier in the day

When we arrived in Foresthill, Dave was 15 minutes ahead of the clock. He’d been almost 10 minutes behind in Michigan Bluff, so he made up 25 minutes in seven miles. Substantial. After weighing in (he’d gained back two pounds) and eating from the quasi-buffet line of hot and cold foods (grilled cheese, soups, quesadillas, cookies, rice balls, etc.) that typifies a Western States aid station, we jogged cross-town and met Don and Craig. They noticed that Dave was a different person than the one they’d seen 90 minutes before. He sat down in the chair, and we went through our crewing ritual … while the clock ticked … and ticked …

Once we left Foresthill, it was pushing 11 p.m. A full night of trail running awaited. Dave and I got into a conversation about the last crew stop. “Do you think we needed to be there that long?” I asked.

“No,” Dave said as we jogged toward the woods.

“I don’t, either. That was too long, especially with the aid station right before it. Maybe we can go faster next time.”

After a moment of silence, Dave said, “I won’t be sitting anymore the rest of the race. I’ll towel off, grab what I need to grab, and go.” Nice sentiment, Dave, but there’s 38 miles left to go … about 11 hours at this pace … and you’ve already gone 62…

Mountain running, anyone? For 100 miles? This is the course profile of Western States. It hurts to just look at it.

Mountain running, anyone? For 100 miles? This is the course profile of Western States. It hurts to just look at it.

He didn’t sit down again.

At that time, we encountered a runner from Tennessee who couldn’t keep down food or water. She was heaving as we passed she and her pacer to begin another lengthy descent in yet another canyon toward Dardanelles. “You OK?” Dave asked. “Anything we can do?” He and I were thinking the same thing: Stop and help if she needs it. That’s the rule of the road, especially in ultra running.

“I’m OK, I’m OK,” she gasped.

Within minutes, she and her pacer were right behind us, and her spirits were lifting. “You know,” I said, “when I coached high school cross-country, we used to have mid-summer practices. When my kids got sick on the course, I told them they were now officially cross-country runners.”

She thought about it for a second. “So this makes me an official ultra runner, right?”

“You were that a long time ago, but yeah … right.”

She smiled. “Thanks for saying that.” She and her pacer promptly bolted ahead of us. We passed back and forth several times during the next ten miles, creating a nice camaraderie on the course.

Meantime, Dave’s legs had loosened up again, so we ran. And ran. This span between Foresthill and Dardanelles, and extending further out, was dreamlike. We talked, laughed, ran silently and marked each other’s pace while I beamed my headlamp on the trail ahead, and stuck my arm behind me to give Dave coverage with my flashlight. Every time we picked it up the pace, it felt like two guys pursuing something, tracking something … which we were. We were pursuing a belt buckle. I also called out trail obstacles. We marveled at the simple magnificence of running Sierra trails in the middle of the night, no noise other than our footprints and the occasional raccoon, fox, lizard, rabbit or skunk scrambling in the brush, no light other than our headlamps and the bobbing points of light we saw on the trails ahead of us. They looked like little stars dancing on earth. What could possibly be better than running with a friend in such peaceful, desolate surroundings?

I’m sure Dave had an answer: Being done.

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The Ford’s Bar aid station, lit up in the wee hours of the morning. It was a welcome sight after the two miles that preceded it.

The approach to the Dardanelles aid station was marked with Halloweenish signs and a couple of cut-out ghosts (nice). The scene reminded me in a certain way of the R.I.P. tombstone sign we planted at the two-mile mark of our Carlsbad High School cross-country course in 1976. We put it on the middle of a steep, steep incline, nicknamed Riggy HIll (as in, Rigamortis Hill; I returned in June to run it again a few times to prepare for Western States). We averted our eyes; opponents stared at it and let the thought sink in as their legs wobbled. Game, set, match. “You guys were great hill runners,” my coach then and now, Brad Roy, recalled. We were also good psych-out artists, Brad. A funny memory, conjured up at 1 a.m. 600 miles and four decades away…

A Western States competitor, all lit up. Headlamps and flashlights got us through the night.

A Western States competitor, all lit up. Headlamps and flashlights got us through the night.

At Dardanelles, a volunteer, a veteran of a couple dozen Western States runs, pulled me aside as he watched Dave hover over the food table like a famished refugee. “Keep your aid stops to a minute,” he said. “That’s all he needs. Get in, get your food, get your water bottles filled, ask us about the next section of trail if you want, then get on with your run. You don’t have time for anything else.”

Great advice. We heeded it on every subsequent aid stop.

The next section was brutal, in every possible way: switchbacks, rocks and roots, tremendous drop-offs from canyon walls to the American River, steep inclines and descents, runoff grooves in the middle of uneven trails, sand, creek crossings … in other words, difficult to ride on horseback, let alone cover by foot. Especially at night. The frustrating part was that Dave had his second wind (or maybe his third or fourth; you gain several “second winds” during ultras), so we wanted to run … but couldn’t do so steadily. Every time we found a rhythm on the trails, clicking off a half-mile or so, the course threw something else at us.

The Rucky Chucky crossing -- a cooling, refreshing walk through the American River always helps before tackling the final 20 miles.

The Rucky Chucky crossing — a cooling, refreshing walk through the American River always helps before tackling the final 20 miles.

During one stretch, we opened up the pace on a pencil-thin stretch of trail, me leading the way. I looked to the right; a nice Manzanita thicket. I looked left; sheer blackness, nothingness. “Bob, is this one of those thousand-foot drop-offs we’re running next to?” Dave asked, his voice tinged with concern.

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Peering into the future: the scene awaiting us in Auburn — large crowds packing Placer High School stadium and the finish line.

Gulp. “You know what one of the great things is about running at night?” I didn’t turn around; I didn’t want to face him. “You can’t see anything but what’s in front of you.”

We ran directly into my headlamp beam, taking advantage of the night. The advantage? Were it daytime, we never would’ve run on thin single-track with such a precipitous drop-off. In fact, for the past two months, I’d broken into a few wee-hour sweats thinking about how I would pace Dave in these sections, and keep us both from sliding off the hill. Scrambling down a cliffside to retrieve a fallen ultra runner wasn’t on my agenda, though it was certainly on my mind. We kept running.

At miles 72 and 73, we didn’t run much at all. Survive is more like it. We heard Led Zeppelin’s “Over the Hills and Far Away” (appropriate) blaring from the nearby Ford’s Bar aid station. As we ran along the top of the hill, the music – and aid station – sounded a few hundred yards away. Double the acoustics in a canyon, so say six hundred yards. No more. We were pumped, now a good half-hour up on the clock, making it happen…

Yeah, it happened. The course happened. One of the nastiest curve balls of the entire 100 miles snapped at our legs and almost took Dave’s spirit with it. When did Clayton Kershaw show up? We found ourselves descending through a Manzanita grove, on slippery, chalky white hardpack trail with a runoff groove down the middle. The descent kept going… and going… and going… My quads hated the punishment, and I’d only gone 20 miles. Dave’s legs were practically on fire. We adjusted our foot strike posture and leaned back on our haunches, almost like skateboarding, so our butts could absorb much of the stress.

In the next three-fifths of a mile, we descended 1,200 vertical feet. Insane. It would all but fry a mountain goat. We heard the music again, and gave each other a smile and an “attaboy, we deserve this aid station” glance.

The course belly-laughed at us. After running out our soreness on a quarter mile of beautiful, slightly sandy trail, we faced the second half of this crucible: a fire road climbing into the sky, twisting and bending, its banks as steep as some racetrack turns. We grunted and groaned up 400 vertical feet in the next quarter-mile – then hit a short, steep downhill that dumped us into the Ford’s Bar aid station.

Remember all that time we’d gained? Well, nothing like a one-two punch to send us back into scurry mode. We loaded up at Ford’s Bar, and a gracious volunteer ran our refilled water bottles to us so we could keep moving. Unfortunately, the hills sapped Dave’s legs again, and he found it very difficult to run. We jogged a few times in the next couple of hours, but he couldn’t get it going, even during our final two miles before the Rucky Chucky crossing, when sandy bottom trail and mostly flat fire roads offered an opportunity to pick up time. I wanted to push him, as I had in previous stretches, but common sense kept telling me, “He needs to save it for the final 20 miles.” So, we power walked or did the marathon shuffle (the stride of a three-year-old, familiar on marathon courses the last few miles after people ‘hit the wall’).

 

Finally, we passed the Rucky Chucky metal gate, ascended a small hill, and dropped into a raucous river-crossing scene, at which runners and pacers cross the American River by holding onto a cable. We ran to our crew, now just 10 to 12 minutes ahead of schedule but far better than his status at dusk. As Dave walked through the aid station, I told Don, “He’s decided not to sit again until he’s done. His legs tighten up too much and he won’t be able to loosen them up.” Then I discussed Dave’s condition and mental acuity with Craig; his focus was still very strong, much stronger than some other runners I saw out there.

“I’m gonna have to push him hard the last few miles,” Craig said as we finished.

“He responded every time I pushed him hard,” I said. “We conserved energy the last five miles after these God awful hills … I’ll tell you later. He knows what needs to happen. You’re the man. Bring him home.”

My pacing was done. I wobbled around, spent after more than seven hours of trail running, wondering how in the world these people do it for 18, 24, 30 hours in a row. I always admired Dave, but now, my admiration went through the roof.

 

Dave prepares to enter the stadium, with brother Don running alongside. Our ace pacer on the last leg, Craig Luebke, is cheering at the gate.

Dave prepares to enter the stadium, with brother Don running alongside. Our ace pacer on the last leg, Craig Luebke, is cheering at the gate.

Six hours after Craig set out with Dave, and 90 minutes after seeing our glassy-eyed, exhausted runner at the 93-mile crew stop, Don and I arrived at the Placer High School Stadium in Auburn. What a scene: a thousand people on hand, the announcer calling out finishers, families and crew running into the stadium and around the track with their warriors, the monumental test complete. It had been a night and most of a morning since the overall champions, Rob Krar and Stephanie Howe, crossed the line. Krar became the second runner to ever break 15 hours in the event’s 40-year history, running 14:53:22, while Howe won the women’s division in 18:01:42, the fourth-best women’s mark all-time. They were magnificent, as were Ian Sharman and Kaci Lickteig, whose performances enabled them to claim the series titles in the 2014 Montrail Ultra Cup, a mini-tour of six ultramarathons culminating in Western States.

Western States champions Rob Krar and Stephanie Howe talk trail story after their near record-breaking performances.

Western States champions Rob Krar and Stephanie Howe talk trail story after their near record-breaking performances.

Montrail Ultra Cup series winners Ian Sharman and Kaci Lickteig, aka "Pixie Ninja"

Montrail Ultra Cup series winners Ian Sharman and Kaci Lickteig, aka “Pixie Ninja”

Lickteig is known in the ultra community by her nickname, “Pixie Ninja,” perhaps the best athlete nickname I’ve heard in nearly 40 years as a journalist. I asked Stephanie Howe about it. “It’s perfect,” she said. “Kaci is an assassin out there.” Case in point: she won all eight ultras she entered in 2013, came to Western States despite basically no recovery from her previous ultra (a win) – and placed sixth.

Dave's victory lap, flanked by Don and Craig.

Dave’s victory lap, flanked by Don and Craig.

Our runner was magnificent as well. Dave took his victory lap at 10:45 a.m., flanked by Don and Craig, with me shooting photos from behind. Tears had been in Don’s eyes for twenty minutes; now, they also came to mine.

As we moved around the track, I thought of all the hopes, doubts, aches, pains, discomfort, dehydration, sunburn, scratches, bites, blisters, mental self-arguments and talks with Jesus Dave had in the past 29 hours, alone or with one other person on a trail that gave no quarter. I thought of Dave and Don, running the final 600 meters side-by-side, brothers in life and in this pursuit. For them, six months of planning and training culminated with the final piece of the 100th mile. It was an incredibly moving moment.

What it's all about – the Nichols brothers, moments after Dave crossed the finish line. A very touching moment.

What it’s all about – the Nichols brothers, moments after Dave crossed the finish line. A very touching moment.

After Dave crossed the line in 29:49 and received his medal, we waited 90 minutes for the presentation of the coveted belt buckles. Dave stretched out on a brick retaining wall, dead to the world. Don and I had some fun, taking a couple photos of our runner laid out on the rack, then Craig and I walked to the refreshment stand and grabbed breakfast. Craig hadn’t eaten meaningfully in a day, either, having somehow marshaled Dave’s energy enough to get him home in plenty of time. I still don’t know how Craig pulled off his pacing feat. I would imagine a few whipcracks accompanied the encouragement as they passed through Brown’s Bar, the Auburn Lakes meadows, up a final nasty hill at the 99-mile mark (that hurts just writing it) and into town.

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Finally, it was time for Dave’s crowning moment. We helped him to his feet and took a slow 200-yard walk to the awards tent. A few steps after reaching the grass, Dave winced. “Oh man, a hill.” I looked down. There was the tiniest bump on the football field, maybe six inches top to bottom. For a man who just completed something only a sliver of humanity would even attempt, and whose legs were barely functioning, a six-inch bump is a hill.

After watching the elites grab their prizes, for averaging 8:30 to 9:00 per mile for the whole 100 miles, we cheered madly as Dave received his belt buckle. It was his turn to plant the flag on the summit.

Dave collecting his belt buckle and accepting congratulations from Tim Twietmeyer, who won Western States five times among his 25 sub-24 hour finishes in the race.

Dave collecting his belt buckle and accepting congratulations from Tim Twietmeyer, who won Western States five times among his 25 sub-24 hour finishes in the race.

Then I remembered something: Dave is also a two-time Boston Marathoner. How many people have run both Boston and Western States, the most prestigious annual events in marathon and ultramarathon? In 40 years, only 7,500 runners have finished Western States – many of them repeat or multiple finishers. So let’s say, liberally, 6,000 different souls. Of those, how many own Boston unicorn medals? A thousand? Two thousand? Certainly not more. He joined an exclusive club.

Dave repeatedly credited all of us as a team, a nod to his humility. We appreciated his words, but sloughed them off. This is your barbecue, big guy. While Don, Craig and I became brothers-in-arms through our seamless support operation, that’s the extent of what we were on this weekend: support for the man with the belt buckle.

And with that, your hosts for this 100-mile Western States odyssey sign off, with our lead warrior, Dave Nichols, second from the left.

And with that, your hosts for this 100-mile Western States odyssey sign off, with our lead warrior, Dave Nichols, second from the left.

 

 

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Peak Experience in the Sierras: Western States

(Part One of a Two-Part Blog on this writer’s experience pacing David Nichols in the Western States 100-Mile Endurance Run.)

I’ve enjoyed and written about many peak moments in nature — trekking in the Himalayas,

Dave Nichols stands at the starting line, all smiles. How would he feel 100 miles later?

Dave Nichols stands at the starting line, all smiles. How would he feel 100 miles later?

commingling with curanderos in the Amazon, countless hikes and river swims in the Bavarian Alps, Rockies, Sierra Nevada, Big Sur and dozens of other stunning places. I’ve also experienced a fair share of endurance running — ten marathons, a pair of 24-hour relays, and countless 15- and 20-milers deep into forests and along mountain ridges.

Never have I experienced a greater combination of nature and endurance than the Western States 100-Mile Endurance Run. And I wasn’t even competing. I was a pacer for David Nichols, who traveled from Lexington, Ken. to tackle the mighty Sierra Nevada and, more specifically, the same trail cut by the 49ers during California’s Gold Rush. Along with Dave came my fellow pacer, Evansville, Ind.-based marathoner Craig Luebke, and Dave’s brother Don, our crew chief – the pit boss for our “driver”, as it were.

Competitors mingling at 4:30 a.m. on race morning.

Competitors mingling at 4:30 a.m. on race morning.

Western States is the Super Bowl of ultramarathoning. The best 100-milers in the world, along with about 400 super-conditioned athletes, flock to Northern California to duel on terrain and in weather conditions that make you sweat just viewing the topographical maps. Between the start at the Squaw Valley ski resort and finish at the 50-yard line at Auburn’s Placer High School, there are mountains. Passes. Scree-filled escarpments. Nasty ascents and descents. Creek and river crossings. Rocky trails. Sandy trails. Single-track ridge trails from which, if you look over the side, you can see the American River a thousand feet below, ribboning toward Sacramento. Canyons. More canyons…

My guess is that Dave won’t be training through canyons anytime soon. I think after 29 hours of trudging up and down the American River canyon system in heat pushing 100 degrees, he’s good on that experience for a while.

Which brings up the weather. The Sierra Range in early summer is typically very hot, with temperatures approaching 120 degrees in the heat-protected river canyons. At the highest point of the Western States course, 9,000 feet above sea level, it can also be very cold, with several feet of snow still on the ground. Wind is almost always a factor. How does a person deal with all this, and still cover 100 miles in a day?

Our cast of characters after the Montrail 6K climb up Squaw Valley, which Craig and I ran.

Our cast of characters after the Montrail 6K climb up Squaw Valley, which Craig and I ran.

I drove up to Tahoe City out of both curiosity and commitment, part of a memorable year of racing. As one who will never run a 100-miler, I thought it would be great to taste the experience as a pacer. Also, I’d spent three years in nearby Nevada City as a college professor, during which I’d hiked and run countless miles on similar terrain; local knowledge never hurts. Plus, it would be fun to run with Dave again, after the 5K, 10K and half-marathon duels we had between 2006-2010.

The experience turned out to be far more than I could have imagined. It wasn’t a run. It was a testament to endurance, resilience, adaptability, strength, courage, determination and guts. I could go on and on …

…and that’s what we did. We ran on … and on … and on …

Dave, in front of the fully loaded crew SUV. We'd load and unload the back many times in the next 30 hours.

Dave, in front of the fully loaded crew SUV. We’d load and unload the back many times in the next 30 hours.

After three days shopping, running together, setting and re-setting plans for pacing, going to official meetings, and double- and triple-checking gear checklists, Dave and Don declared us ready. The first realization hit me: you are no longer in marathon land, Bob. When racing marathons, you typically don’t eat, nor do you stop for more than a few seconds – if at all. Ultras require eating to sustain the body, plus designated stops on the course for clothes changes, first aid, food, drink, pep talks, and getting weighed to make sure you haven’t lost too many pounds.

It’s not merely a different type of race. It’s a different world entirely.

Craig and I at the top of Squaw Valley's gondola lift, elev.  8,900 feet, aka the finish line of the Montrail 6K.

Craig and I at the top of Squaw Valley’s gondola lift, elev. 8,900 feet, aka the finish line of the Montrail 6K.

The morning before race day, Craig and I entered the Montrail 6K, a 3½-mile up-the-gut ascent from the base of Squaw Valley. We ran up an intermediate to advanced-level ski run, climbing from 6,400 to 8,800 feet. We also scouted for Dave, because he’d be moving up the same hill the next morning – for the first 3½ miles of his 100-miler. Yes, Western States leaves common sense in a cloud of Sierra dust. Aren’t you supposed to go down a ski run? A never-ending stream of quirky moments added to the fun, such as Dave asking me at mile 59 the next night, “Why are we stopping to look at the stars?”

“Because you’ve gotta see them,” I said, breaking into a teaching moment. Guess I reverted to my years at Ananda College, about 50 miles away. “They’re amazing up here… hey, there’s Scorpius. Cygnus. Orion. Cassiopeia…”

“If I miss my time by 30 seconds…”

I did have a reason (which I’ll share later). This type of repartee occurred countless times on the trail, multiplied by 369.2014-06-28 07.06.55

The 369 official entrants started at 5 a.m., and were cheered into the first climb by hundreds of crews, friends and family members. We hustled to Robinson Flat, the first crew stop at the 30-mile mark. We had to drive to Auburn, then drive right back up Foresthill Road – about 110 miles in all. Along the way, we passed through miles of charred forest from last summer’s fire, which would’ve erased this year’s race had volunteers and trail crews not spent nine months restoring 19 miles of trail. Craig and Don also received their first taste of narrow, windy Sierra Nevada upslope roads with their steep turns and four-digit drop-offs, which led to a comical moment involving fear.

“Oh yeah,” I said to Craig, at the height of his angst, “we’ll be pacing Dave on trails with drop-offs like this – at night.” I couldn’t resist.

I’m sure that Craig will exact sweet revenge on me one day in the future.

Where did the smile go? At mile 30, Dave looked tired and depleted. The realization of Western States' physical brutality had set in.

Where did the smile go? At mile 30, Dave looked tired and depleted. The realization of Western States’ physical brutality had set in.

We waited at Robinson Flat for an hour and a half, during which I marveled at the crew set-ups, the fantastic race organization, and the runners themselves. When Dave came through, he was on goal pace – but looked like he’d run through a desert and smacked a wall. We were concerned. This is not how you want to look or feel with 70 miles still to go and the midday heat cranking up. Don was already feeling an inner tug, as in, “do I act as his crew chief or his worried older brother?” He’d fight that fight a few more times.

A word about Don. The focus of an ultramarathon is the runner, and then the pacers enter the picture for the second half of the race. Hardly ever are support crews recognized. Don is a recently retired, fun-loving Midwesterner, borne of rock & roll and hard work, a former competitive runner in his own right. He did an incredible job keeping us organized with equipment, stops and taking care of Dave’s needs. Every stop required different gear. We made numerous adjustments during the race – the most significant of which I’ll get to – and Don left the running/strategizing portion to Craig and me. However, he took on the tough, unsung stuff, not the least of which was an agonizing instance where he had to talk to his brother about whether or not to leave the race. I vaguely knew Don before this weekend. Now, I know him. He is an amazing group leader.

We took care of Dave, sent him back on his way, and headed down to Foresthill, the only town on the Western States Trail.

Foresthill is a cozy hamlet in the Sierra foothills, about 20 miles outside Auburn. It serves as the symbolic center of Western States, even though it falls 100K (62-mile) into the race. Since we didn’t expect Dave at the next crew stop, Michigan Bluff, for several hours, we pulled up chairs, ate sandwiches, and watched the front of this race – the elites, astonishing in their fitness and efficiency. They passed through town running 7:00 to 7:30 miles, which I’d take for a 26-mile marathon any time. We watched eventual men’s winner Rob Krar run down Max King along the frontage road – one of two strips of pavement on the entire course. We also watched eventual women’s champ Stephanie Howe lope by, her long stride, waist-length hair and 5-foot-10 runway model’s body not what you’d expect for an ultra runner’s physique. Then again, these are outliers. What should we expect?

Craig figures out our revised pacing plan and the pace Dave needs to run, while Don does what any normal person would do on a beautiful, lazy summer afternoon in the Sierras.

Craig figures out our revised pacing plan and the pace Dave needs to run, while Don does what any normal person would do on a beautiful, lazy summer afternoon in the Sierras.

Meanwhile, we had work to do. Dave was struggling, and Craig, Don and I had to decide whether to pace him at Foresthill, or pick him up in Michigan Bluff, at mile 55. That would mean extra running for both Craig and me. While we thought about it, our numbers cruncher (Craig) got to work, figuring out what was needed for Dave to finish under time and get that belt buckle. Since I was the first pacer, I prepared my drinking belt, headlamp, flashlight, running gear and gels, and suited up.

Our decision was made after we arrived at Michigan Bluff, once a gold rush boomtown of 3,000, now a sweet enclave of 40 homes. Michigan Bluff was where Leland Stanford (he of the university) set up the first of his mercantiles and ferried supplies from the San Francisco docks to the gold rushers. (To this day, horseback riding remains a ready source of local transportation.) As the sun carried daylight with it into the far horizon, still no sign of Dave. Craig ran to the other side of Michigan Bluff to serve as our lookout. I started stretching as Don switched into big brother mode and entertained the idea of convincing Dave to bow out. “Problem is, he keeps thinking he’s gonna disappoint the rest of us,” Don said. “But I can’t let him stay out there if he comes in here all messed up.”

“I’d never be disappointed. Just getting out there and going this far, on this terrain, in these mountains is quite the accomplishment,” I told him. “I’m just happy to be here with him.” I meant it, though I did relish the chance hit these trails at night.

Finally, Dave popped into view, about 90 minutes behind what we’d expected. Why? He went through hell between 45 and 55 miles, where the American River canyon system kicked into high gear with bone-crunching climbs and falls in high heat. It used to claim prospectors back in the day… and took its shot at Dave as he baked in the relentless sun. Since Dave is from the Midwest, maybe the mountain remembered how it used to punish pioneers.

Dave weighed in – down nine pounds since the race began – and he and Don took the 300-yard walk to our pit stop. I can only imagine what was said. Minutes later, Craig ran up and told me we were pressing on. As I stretched again, Dave showed up, sat down, and we applied cold compresses on his quads, wrapped a cold towel around his neck, reloaded his drinks, and gave our little pep talks. I thought I was in a fight corner between rounds.

 

We set out at 8:56 p.m. Our goal: to make the river crossing at Rucky Chucky, mile 78, by no later than 4 a.m., hopefully sooner. While that sounds slow to a 5K or 10K specialist, consider the circumstances: Dave had covered 55 miles, the terrain was beastly, and he had to reserve enough strength for the final stretch.

After not running at all for six hours, due to the terrain and his flagging spirits, Dave started jogging again. We bit five minutes off the clock within the first two miles of flat and gentle downslope. Certainly, having another runner with him helped, someone to talk to, especially after spending 16 hours on the course alone. Also, he knew we were running against the clock – a daunting prospect when there’s still 45 miles to go. He had to negative split the race (run the second half faster than the first) … a concept I understand and have done in marathons and shorter races, but boggles my mind when you’re talking about 100 miles.

There was another big change: he began to rehydrate. He’d dehydrated himself beyond the weight crucible Western States sets: if you lose more than 4% of your body weight, they reserve the right to remove you from the race at a weigh station (every 10-15 miles). They rarely do it, but the fear was in his heart. He took extra drink bottles out of Michigan Bluff, and I kept telling him to drink. His legs loosened up, he started running better, and we clicked off time while enjoying beautiful Sierra foothill countryside, along with favorable trail conditions. His legs were celebrating after the mess they’d traversed all day.

At mile 59, as we ascended Volcano Canyon, I decided to make sure he drank up. That’s when I started pointing out the stars. Dave couldn’t figure out what I was doing, but when you’re in the Sierras on a warm summer night, the stars look like golf balls, and it can feel like you’re one with the heavens. If you bust your ass for a hundred miles, you deserve the experience. That’s what I told him. I also made sure that, while stopped and allowing his legs to relax, Dave took his mind off the race for a second and drank every drop, since he could reload at the Bath Road aid station a mile away.

All told, we stopped for a minute. I took a good-natured ribbing on the course for this move, and Craig and Don joined in later. (OK, boys, you’re right: I’m unconventional. But hey, whatever works…)

(Read Part Two)

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Why Boston Rules The World: Musing on My Run in the Marathon

(This blog also posted today on the Innovation & Tech Today magazine website; I serve as the editor of the magazine.)

UnknownSome quick thoughts on the convergence of running, technology, and one of the greatest and most inspiring sports events to ever take place …

I just returned to San Diego from Boston, where I ran in my fourth Boston Marathon. This year, the 26.2-mile journey from Hopkinton to Boston’s Back Bay took on far more meaning, gravitas and stature than any previous marathon, here or anywhere else in the world.

When April began, I was planning to run Boston – in 2015. I was eight weeks into a 16-week training plan that would culminate in re-qualifying at the Rock & Roll Marathon on June 1. So, my intention was to be race-ready and to peak on June 1. Not that I had time to do it any other way. I’ve spent this month finishing the rewrite of one book (Just Add Water, the biography of Clay Marzo to be published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in Spring 2015); proofing the galleys of another (When We Were The Boys, Stevie Salas’ memoir [which I co-authored] of his days as Rod Stewart’s lead guitarist on the 1988 Out of Order Tour, to be published by Rowman Littlefield in September); and lining up the Summer issue of Innovation & Tech Today.

However, an amazing email came my way that proves, again, the absolute power of networking in business and in life: four-time Boston champion Bill Rodgers, who is a friend, offered me his invitational entry. So, with 12 days’ notice, I switched gears and flew back east, taking my not-quite-ready-for-prime-time legs with me.2014-04-21 09.17.35

Thanks to last year’s tragic bombings, the entire world watched to see what would happen in Boston. More than 1,000 media outlets were on hand, along with 36,000 registered runners and a crowd exceeding 1 million. They came to honor the survivors who were running or walking, to take that glorious run to the finish line down Boylston Street themselves, and/or to celebrate determination and resilience – and to stare down those cowards who would try to disrupt our way of life. In this case, a massive celebration of fitness at the world’s oldest footrace, one that poured an estimated $200 million into Boston. Not bad for a three-day Patriot’s Day weekend.

I ran Boston before large crowds in 2005, 2007 and 2009. Never has the crowd approached the fever pitch we experienced in 2014. “For a few hours, we got to feel like rock stars,” I told my friend, Stevie Salas, who is a rock star. We were treated like rock stars, too, from police who high-fived and thanked us for coming, to strangers in cafes and restaurants who saw the distinctive medals around our tired necks and bought us meals or drinks.

images-1Along with runners, media and spectators came one of the largest rollouts of law enforcement and surveillance technology ever presented at a public event. More than 3,500 uniformed and undercover officers from a dozen agencies (including the FBI, DEA, ATF and Homeland Security) were on hand. They were vigilant, their eyes always scanning the streets; they reminded me of Secret Service agents. A few locals even questioned the massive police presence (really?). However, the police were not only very friendly, but also openly thanked us for coming to Boston to run, then started asking individual questions about our race. In their eyes, we were all in this together.

The cops’ sincerity and welcoming attitude amidst incredible security goes on from there. As we pushed toward the finish line, many high-fived us and cheered as loudly as the spectators. A Brookline cop leaned toward me at mile 24, when I was visibly struggling, and yelled, “You’re f****** awesome! Keep pushing! Own the finish line!” Talk about being caught up in the moment. (BTW, thanks to that officer for getting me going again…)

I’ve been to a lot of sports events. I’ve never seen anything like it. They were over-the-top accommodating. My spine is tingling just writing this — one of many times it’s tingled as the enormity of the journey into Boston starts to open up each and every little experience as the days pass.

Early in the race, I ran next to two of about fifteen NYPD officers in the field. Before passing them (one of the things you can do on a race course, if not on the road!), I mentioned how cool it was that they were running. “We’re also on duty,” one told me. How smart is that, to have fifteen on-duty officers in the middle of the pack?

The technology was impressive. Drones, streetlight-mounted cameras, scanners, robots and the latest in law enforcement equipment covered every bit of the course. Before we boarded shuttle busses to the start, we runners were scanned, too. So sensitive was the scanning that I was questioned about a tube of chapstick and two packs of energy gels. Normally, one might think, “over reach”. Not in Boston. Not this time.

Consequently, out of one million people who poured into the Boston area and along the course, one person was arrested. For public drunkenness. And only two unattended bags were picked up (neither harmful). That is a mind-boggling statistic.images

The other bit of eye-catching technology came from the running shoes themselves. If you ever want to see the very latest in shoe technology, go to the staging area or starting line of a marathon. Especially a prestigious race like Boston.  Every new shoe from every major manufacturer was on the line. You would think marathon shoes would carry some weight, since you need cushion, heel and arch support, side stabilizers and aeration to cover 26 miles, right? Not five years ago, the lightest halfway decent marathon racing flat was about eight ounces. Well, I showed up with 5-ounce Mizuno Wave Sayonaras… and didn’t suffer so much as a blister on the hot, dry day.

However, the shoe story of the day came from a company not normally considered a player among running shoes. It was Skechers, more popular for their Joe Montana-endorsed (and very good) walking shoes. A few years ago, Skechers made an interesting move when they signed then 35-year-old Olympic medalist and New York Marathon winner Meb Keflezighi to an endorsement deal. Meb, a San Diego resident, was a household name to millions of runners but seemingly past his prime, a good way for Skechers to make an imprint in a very lucrative market with plenty of turnover. Let’s face it: runners go through shoes almost as fast as Lady Gaga switches hairstyles and outfits.

Unknown-1 A funny thing happened in Boston: Meb made the largest imprint U.S. marathoning has experienced since Alberto Salazar broke the world record in 1982 and Joan Benoit Samuelson won the inaugural women’s Olympic marathon in LA in 1984. Now 38, Meb became the first American in 31 years to win Boston, a victory magnified by the significance of this year’s race. Now everyone in the sports world is asking themselves, “What technology did Skechers build into those shoes to make someone as esteemed as Meb feel comfortable enough to race in them?” (And no, it wasn’t just about the money side of his endorsement deal; ask golfer Rory McIlroy what happens when the new equipment doesn’t work right.)

That’s the beauty of running shoe technology: just when you think it’s tapped out, something new happens. Just three years ago, Newton was known as a town on the Boston course, the place where a fig bar was invented, and the last name of a mathematician who was clunked on the head with an apple. Now, it’s one of the three top-selling brands.

It’s going to take awhile to recollect every moment of the six days I spent in Boston, and the events surrounding the Marathon itself. Thank God I’m a writer: I can write down the moments and then unfurl the scenes as they happened, and how I felt.  I can recollect all the conversations with runners, officials, fans, media and cops, and turn on my memoir writing afterburners to make some sense and order of them. On second thought, maybe I don’t want to, at least not yet. It’s like picking stars out of the universe. Right now, best to immerse in that universe where, for one day, everyone came together and joy and positivity ruled.

2014-04-28 05.58.09

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Home from Vacation: Paying Witness to a Most Inspiring Achievement

When a man dressed in tux and tails rolls his baby grand piano into a meadow, and plays classical music for passing runners while the sun rises to herald a 55-degree morning in Southwestern Montana, you know it’s going to be a good day for a half marathon.

Loading onto the buses at 5 a.m.

Loading onto the buses at 5 a.m.

Somehow, this very unusual sight made perfect sense for a day that could have been a real bummer, but turned out to be one of the more memorable feel-good experiences I can recall.

This past weekend, we were in Missoula, home of the University of Montana, to celebrate my return to the Boston Marathon. So I thought. Missoula was my qualifying race, and as of a month ago, I was primed to run around 3 hours, 20 minutes, easily below the 3:30 standard for 26.2 miles that I needed to get into my fourth Boston. All I had to do was stick to the workouts, rest and recover, taper down, avoid injury …

Avoid injury. Like a runner in Missoula told me Saturday, “that’s half the battle to get to the starting line, isn’t it?” Well, I didn’t avoid injury. I developed a sore heel, Achilles tendinitis, and a strained calf muscle. That erased my final five weeks of training, so I had to watch fellow competitors cross the line to the cheers of thousands. What a major, demoralizing disappointment …

Only, it wasn’t.

I switched focus to the positive, and was it ever positive. I watched my sweetheart, Martha Halda, add another notch to her ongoing legacy of life, which she is chronicling in her memoir, A Taste of Eternity, now being reviewed for publication. Martha entered the Missoula Half-Marathon, a miracle in itself when you consider that in a 1999 car accident, the impetus of A Taste of Eternity, she broke her pelvis and hips in many places (among many grievous injuries) after her Ford Expedition landed on top of her. She’d overcome a “you won’t walk again” diagnosis to walk the Dublin Marathon in 2003. Now, ten years later, she was trying the long stuff again … only this time, she would walk much faster, and do more than walk.

While Martha made her way around the picturesque 13.1-mile course that wound into the Norman Rockwell-like neighborhoods

Half marathon race leaders at 7-mile mark

Half marathon race leaders at 7-mile mark

of South Missoula, my job was to cheer her on and shoot photos. I’ve ‘caddied’ for others before, joining Martha in a 5K last Thanksgiving Day, course-hopping like a jacked-up rabbit to urge on the Union County High cross-country teams I coached, and helping my friend and former UCHS cross-country coach Jeff Brosman complete the Evansville Half Marathon in 2008.

This was different. First of all, I’m not 100% healed yet, so just getting onto the course played into the day. Four days before, while hiking in stunning Glacier National Park, I’d felt my calf twinge during a steady uphill climb, which forced our party of four (my high school running coach Brad Roy, his wife Susan, Martha and me) to take an easier, flatter route. It was by no means a safe bet that I would do anything but sit at the finish for three hours and wait.

I mapped out a shortcut from the finish to the halfway point, and ran five easy miles to get there. All good: no pain in the ankle or calf.  A police officer saw me heading west with my Missoula Marathon shirt on (they gave full and half runners different colored shirts), and she cracked, “You’re going the wrong way!” I heard that more than once …

After arriving, I shot photos for awhile, cheered on passing runners, and waited for Martha.

Martha pushes ahead of the pack at the halfway point

Martha pushes ahead of the pack at the halfway point

She wanted to power walk at 14-minute mile pace, which is a little more than 4 mph – a very fast walk. Since I was sitting at the 6.5-mile mark, I expected to see her 85 to 90 minutes into the race. I talked with spectators, fumbled around with my iPhone camera, stretched my legs, soaked in the tall field grasses, oaks, cottonwoods and blue spruce …

She charged around the corner. Running, not walking. I looked at my watch: 78 minutes. Already well ahead of goal pace! I scrambled to get ahead of her and shoot photos as she ran past. The glow on her face was sublime; happiness and joy never wore a more beautiful expression.

For the next four miles, we ran-walked the course together (the wonderful Missoula staff and volunteers were incredibly nice about letting ‘caddies’ amble alongside their racers for short periods of time). Martha kept pushing and throwing short running intervals between her walk segments. I was surprised, because a week before, we’d nearly argued while on a long walk together, due to my analytical breakdown of paces and finishing times. Or, as Martha would say (and did), “ANAL-ytical”. You know, “If you average 14 minutes per mile, you’ll finish in 3 hours, 4 minutes.” When you’re walking the backside of Oceanside Harbor on a sweet summer morning, seagulls and boats bobbing in the still, warm water to your right, it’s best not to go scientific on your loved one!

Kids cheering on runners with their signs

Kids cheering on runners with their signs

One of the many Victorians on the course route

One of the many Victorians on the course route

As we ticked off miles, I watched her stride, body alignment, and the looks on her face. The coach in me. She talked with others as they passed or she passed them, kept her eyes focused straight ahead, smiled and enjoyed the amazing old Victorian homes, and kids offering gummi bears, lemonade, smiles, and cute signs. I marveled at the turnout. In all my years of racing, I’ve never seen a bigger on-course crowd for a race in a small city. It exceeded many big-city races as well. Nor have I seen greater enthusiasm, with the possible exception of Boston. It was obvious why Runner’s World magazine anointed Missoula the nation’s top marathon (in 2009).

Martha looked strong. Very strong, in spite of the fact her hips were hurting, and she grimaced every time she slowed from a running interval.

Refueling on gummi bears at mile 10

Refueling on gummi bears at mile 10

Still, she wouldn’t change her strategy. She smiled, lengthened her long stride to compensate for a slight slowing down of pace, and moved forward. One thing I know about this girl: She will finish what she sets her mind to do. Whenever possible, she’ll do so with the same ‘I love life’ smile on her face as she wore on the Missoula streets.

As we passed 10 miles, it was almost time for me to leave the course for my next task: Shortcutting to the finish line, across the bridge from Clark River (named for William Clark of Lewis & Clark fame), to shoot photos of her finish. Her pace had slowed, but she’d gained more than enough time earlier “to do something very special,” I told her. “Just hold this pace for three more miles, stay out of the aid station traffic jams, and even if you don’t run anymore, you’ve got it.”

We kissed and I headed off, but not before texting Brad and Susan Roy, who were following Martha’s progress through my text messages. “She’s on 2:55-56 pace. Looking strong. She’s got it,” I texted.

“WOW! Fantastic!” Brad texted back. That’s where I learned my supportive, ever-positive coaching philosophy from … the Master.

The ambiance of Missoula, including throwback ice cream walk-ups

The ambiance of Missoula, including throwback ice cream walk-ups

A few minutes later, I immersed into the pandemonium of the finish line. Crowds were lined four deep from the tape to the start of the bridge, a good 200 meters away. Every time a runner charged across the bridge, the PA announcer called the name and the fans cheered. Every time.

Soon enough, Martha reached the bridge and broke into a finishing kick. As a former collegiate 800-meter runner, she knew how to kick. She was between two packs of runners, each 20 meters away. She ran alone, which lit up the PA announcers – and the fans. As they cheered her across, I felt shivers in my spine. If only they knew her story, I thought. But they will, when her book comes out.

Martha pushes for home in front of large crowds on the Clark River Bridge

Martha kicks for home in front of large crowds on the Clark Fork River Bridge

I shot photos as pride and joy surged through my heart. As she hit the tape, I looked at the clock time: 2:58. Her actual chip time would probably be a couple of minutes faster, since it takes two or three minutes to get to the starting line when you’re amongst a field of 3,500. “I think you ran 2:56,” I told her. An achievement-filled, adrenalin-aided smile broke across her face.

Martha’s goal was to finish the half marathon in 14-minute pace, or 3:04. Her official time was 2:56:00.7. By anyone’s measure, that’s busting the doors down.

Since I run for time and place in these races, and usually finish in the top 5 of

Finished!

Finished!

my age division, I never see what happens in the middle of the pack. This entire experience took place in the middle, and opened my eyes to the whole point of tackling a challenge, or a goal: to see if you can do it, and then to push yourself to exceed expectations. I’ve always recommended that serious racers jump into the pack to support someone who’s out there because they want to cross the finish line of a half marathon. For me, it’s a reminder of the joy of running.

In this case, it turned what otherwise would have been a disappointing morning into one of the greatest days of my running life. The best part? I get to experience the afterglow of accomplishment as it shines from Martha’s face every day – even though she winces every time she has to walk downstairs or downhill. Ah, the exquisite agony of sore muscles after a long race well-run …

How sweet it is!

How sweet it is!

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Two Weeks of Creative Madness … And a Lot of Fun

The Memorial Day Weekend is finally here! One more day of yet another crazy cycle of writing, editing and consulting, and then it’s up the coast to Ventura to run in the Mountains to Beaches Half-Marathon – my favorite distance. This is a lick-your-chops race – slight net downhill, mostly flat, starts at 6 a.m., weather 55 degrees and low clouds, finishes on the beach promenade … everyone out there who races knows the right word for these conditions: Perfect.

But now, a recap of the past two weeks, which will also serve as a commercial for the incredible authors with whom I have the pleasure of working (this work is labor intensive, but is it ever fun!):

Ray Manzarek performing in Milan, 2012

Ray Manzarek performing in Milan, 2012

• First of all, thanks for the music to Ray Manzarek and Trevor Bolder, both of whom passed away from cancer this week. I am a huge Doors fan, and have been since “Light My Fire” first hit radio in 1967. Their music and Jim Morrison’s poetry influenced me greatly, and Manzarek paved the way for rock keyboardists everywhere. He also produced the “Los Angeles” album for X, whose bass player/singer, John Doe, was featured in the spring issue of The Hummingbird Review. Meanwhile, Bolder was the bass player on David Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars album, and, for the past 30 years, with Uriah Heep. My friend Robert Munger and I saw Trevor play with Uriah Heep two summers ago. I mean, we saw him. We stood five feet away and had low-tone deafness for a couple days as a result. The great rock band in heaven just became stronger.

• Just got added to the faculty of the Greater Los Angeles Writers Conference, which will be held June 14-16 at L.A. Valley la writers conferenceCollege. It will feature workshops and panels for four levels of writers – aspiring, active, professional, and screenplay. A half dozen literary agents, editors and plenty of writers will be on hand for this informational and networking fiesta. I’ll be sitting on panels for Ghostwriting, Beyond the First Draft, and Rewriting. Will be selling my books Shades of Green, The Write Time, The Champion’s Way, and the latest edition of The Hummingbird Review as well. Really stoked to be part of this conference. If you’re not busy, do come up – prices are very reasonable, and the schedule of events is awesome.

• Speaking of which, I’ll have two new books coming out this summer through Tuscany Publishing: The Best of Word Journeys Blogs, Vol. 1; and my newest poetry-essay collection, Backroad Melodies. Will keep you posted.

clay-marzo-011609• I’ve reached terms with Houghton Mifflin on Just Add Water, a combination memoir/biography of freestyle surfing great Clay Marzo and his life with Asperger syndrome. The book is tentatively scheduled for a Summer 2014 release, and offers a deep profile from inside the skin of Asperger, and how Clay has become one of the very best surfers in the world. Fun “creation” story to this one: my good friend, Mitch Varnes, ran the idea of this biography by me a few months ago. It sounded like a sure winner. It was. The last time Mitch and I brainstormed a publication, in 1993, we emerged with One Giant Leap for Mankind, the 25th anniversary tribute to the Apollo 11 mission and all the astronauts on the Apollo missions. There’s a lesson here: need to connect with Mitch on book ideas more than once every 20 years!

• I’m assisting musician-producer Stevie Salas with his memoir, When We Were The Boys, remembering his days as lead 376462_204666292995418_1130802602_nguitarist on Rod Stewart’s Out of Order Tour – and how they shaped and influenced his remarkable 25-year career that followed. I first knew Stevie in the late ‘70s/early ‘80s, when he played for one of North San Diego County’s hottest cover bands, This Kids. Now, he plays and hangs with the stars (wait: Stevie is a star), having just spent a few days with his boys, the Rolling Stones, while in Southern California. Stevie’s collaborations include work with: Mick Jagger, Justin Timberlake, Daughtry, Terence Trent d’Arby, Bootsy Collins, Miles Davis, Sass Jordan, Bernard Fowler, Glenn Hughes, Matt Sorum … if you know pop and rock music, you know these names. While backstage with the Stones, Stevie dished up a special request for me – a photo of he and Stones backing singer Lisa Fischer, one of the most powerful and sultry singers anywhere. Stevie is not only a great songwriter who has sold more than 2 million solo albums, but a lively prose writer, too, as you will see next year. I’m licking my chops over working on this book, which is about to be shopped by my agent, Dana Newman.

lynne-portrait-for proposal• Just finished editing Home Free, which will be one of the most highly anticipated and well-marketed travel narratives of 2014. It is also one of my favorite editing jobs ever. Author Lynne Martin is going to win over the world with her book, in which she shares she and her husband Tim’s hopscotch life in various global destinations, with all the sights, sounds and travel tidbits you’d expect in a good travel story. However, there’s more: her personality. Get ready to buckle your seat belt for a full-on, humor-filled romp, mixed with outstanding travel writing and enough tense, serious moments to remind us that Lynne and Tim are making their homes in these places, not just going in and out as tourists. Sourcebooks has moved up the release date to April 1, 2014, to capitalize on media coverage and national talk shows – on which Lynne will surely shine.

• Also wrapped the first issue of Innovation & Technology Today, an edgy, front-line digital magazine on the latest technological additions to our world, and the people envisioning and creating these products and services. We focused on smart homes for this issue, while our summer issue will be right up my alley – sports & medical technology. Besides editing the magazine, I also write the Education column – another pet topic. Digital magazines are a blast, for many reasons … that will be the subject of a future blog. The issue will be available through Zinio and Apple digital newsstands June 5.

• Keeping this busy month of words going, also just finished working on Gary Deason’s fine novel, The Columbian Prophecy, which answers the question: what would happen if an extreme, crazed cell of the Catholic Church tied Columbus’ voyages to America to the re-discovery of the Garden of Eden – and determined that to be the End of Days and their time to take over? This is a great story that interweaves Columbian history as you haven’t seen it before, the battles indigenous South American peoples have faced for 500+ years, and the trouble a father and his two daughters get into for stumbling onto the hornets’ nest occupied by these crazed monks. Enough said. Deason is working on agent representation now, so you’ll see this book in the not-too-distant future.

'A Taste of Eternity' author Martha Halda

‘A Taste of Eternity’ author Martha Halda

• Finally, it seems the author interviews on this blog are proving to be a big hit. My recent interviews with Losing My Religion author Jide Familoni, It’s Monday Only In Your Mind author Michael Cupo, A Taste of Eternity author (and my sweetheart) Martha Halda, and Island Fever and Storm Chasers author Stephen Gladish resulted in the greatest number of daily reads in the 5 ½-year history of this blog. (Side note: Storm Chasers was set in Oklahoma’s Tornado Alley; how apropo is that novel today??) So, to follow: Guests in June will include David Abrams, author of the bestselling novel Fobbit; 2013 International Book Award recipient Matthew Pallamary; Sword & Satchel trilogy author Claudette Marco; and Australian therapist Leo Willcocks, author of De-Stress to Impress, one of the most in-depth and proactive books on dealing with and rising above stress I’ve ever seen (and I’ve read a lot of them).

So that’s the past two weeks. I wish you all a fun Memorial Day weekend, remember what we’re celebrating and who we’re honoring, and make it a point to write or do something creative. Outside as well as inside. The next two-week cycle starts Tuesday …

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