Sunday, June 24, 2012

Things I Learn About People (maybe just Ultra Runners) from my Dog

So we took Enzo to the Canal for another canoe trip.

Anyone who knows Enzo knows that he is a very vocal pooch.  His baseline reaction to anything that strikes him as potentially dangerous is to bark as loud and hard as he can at it.  Sure, this sound like a normal dog reaction.  I know he is just being a dog.  The only problem is I am not always sure what he will interpret as a threat.   Mostly any size dog at any distance is a threat.  A shrimp used as bait on a canal in Florida was a threat.  The Sheephead Fish we caught off the shrimp was a threat, but in Enzo's defense that thing had horse teeth and I was kind of scared myself.  Duffle bags or bat bags at baseball fields are threats. Once a fire hydrant in the dark was a threat.  Sometime shadows are threats.

We pull into the dirt lot and exit my car, just as a group of teenage guys with tackle boxes and fishing poles walk by the car.  They are a few steps ahead of us and look at Enzo.  They couldn't help it because Enzo decided they were a threat and started barking at them.  If Enzo ever barks at people, it is always from a distance and once he get closer to them he softens up and becomes friendly.

One turns back to see this yappy pooch in a life jacket and melts...."Awwwwwww! Look at that dog with the vest on!!!"  He turns back and keeps walking towards the canoes.  We are going the same way and we are right behind them.  We end up in a small group as we cross the canal over a foot bridge.  Enzo stops barking and takes a spot right in the middle of the group.  I can feel his body language soften as he seems like he likes being in the middle as we all move along.  I comment to Sid, that I think Enzo thinks we are a pack.

We get our canoe before the guys get theirs and we head off down the canal.  Enzo finds several more threats along the way... a bullfrog, a large grey heron, and what seemed to be a group of partridge or some other small set of birds walking along in the brush.

As we travel back to return our canoe, the guys are in theirs floating in the center of the canal.  Enzo spots them.  The guy who commented about Enzo's vest at the parking lot quickly, with great joy, says "Hey! Cool! There's the dog again!" Enzo barks back, but with his friendly bark... the bark he gives when he sees someone he knows coming towards him.  It is his "Hey There! In know you!" bark. The bark with no fear or anxiety.  He was just talking.

At that moment, it became so clear to me that a relationship developed between this guy and my dog.  I find this fascinating because it happened in moments only.  There relationship began when Enzo barked and the guy acknowledged Enzo with positive regard.  It was solidified when we all walked as pack over the foot bridge and Enzo got in the center of the group.

That was all it took to bond in a positive way.  Just seconds of moving along together with a common goal in a common direction and at a common speed.  Now my dog and this guy were friends.

This made me think about ultra runners.  Rarely do two or more ultra runners spend time running together at race, moving along with a common goal, in a common direction and at a common speed and not emerge from that experience immediate and fast friends on some level.  There must be someone primal about pack running that immediately solidifies friendships in moments.

Saturday, June 16, 2012


ram·bling  adj.
1. Often or habitually roaming; wandering.
2. Extended over an irregular area; sprawling: a large rambling country estate.
3. Lengthy and digressive: a rambling speech.

rambling  adj
1. straggling or sprawling haphazardly; unplanned a rambling old house
2. (of speech or writing) lacking a coherent plan; diffuse and disconnected
3. (Life Sciences & Allied Applications / Botany) (of a plant, esp a rose) profusely climbing and straggling
4. nomadic; wandering

I enjoy the running I do with Team in Training because I get reminded about just how many questions new marathoners have.  In the past we have discussed shoes, hydrations packs, stomach cramps, and other common concerns.  

Today as we physically rambled along the trails and paths of a beautiful NJ park, I got to verbally ramble with the group about fueling and bonking and what to do to avoid this. I enjoy this topic because in order to understand how attempt to avoid bonking, we have to discuss a whole lot of related topics, like hydration, electrolytes, and fuel consumption.  

My position on most things related to running is to quote Sheehan and explain that we are all an experiment of one.  I also like to use myself as an example of someone who has done absurd things which turned out to bring me some success.  For example, I fueled my best marathon with 6 gels.  This seems excessive to most people.  I took 1 before the start.  I opened 1 at the gun and sipped it through mile 4.  By mile 5 I opened my third, by mile 10 I opened my 4th, by mile 15 I opened by 5th, and by mile 20 I opened the last one I could tolerate.  I drank water and gatorade at each water stop.  I took a few e-caps at the start and half way.  I ran a 3:15 and took 3rd place in the race.  

This admission of gel gluttony often gets some reaction.  This leads me into my next question which is how well do we understand how many calories we burn per mile and how much fuel we need to succeed.  Most new runners have no idea how many calories are in one gel let along how many calories we burn per mile. 

In general, most runners think a good rule of thumb is to guess 100 calories per mile.  So that suggest that without counting a few ounces of gatorade or anything (usually liquids) that I consume pre-race, I am burning 2600 calories during a marathon, while consuming 600 calories in gel.  It no longer seems so absurd to consume so many gels for a marathon.  It even seems like maybe I should be taking more. 

This leads us to discuss how much energy the body stores.  We know that carbohydrates are the primary energy source for muscles.  Specifically, glucose, the product from breaking down carbohydrates is the fuel we use.  Glucose get stored in the body as Glycogen.  Apparently we store glycogen in our liver (100 g) and in our muscles (500 g).  The 500 g in our muscles will provide us with close to 2000 calories worth of energy.  If you don't fuel up properly or allow your body to be depleted, you may have less.

Ok, so  this suggests that the 2000 calories of energy stored in my body plus the 600 calories I consume during the race is enough to get me through the marathon.  It seemed to work for me that day. 

However, I recently learned that the 100 calories per mile rule is not so accurate. Apparently this information has been floating around for years, but I did not know it.  According to the cited article the most accurate formula for determining your "net calorie burn" (calories burned minus basal metabolism) is to multiple your weight in pounds by .63.  So a 120 lb woman burns about 75 calories per mile.  This information is not terribly crucial.  It could help with making sure your recovery meals are not more than your net burn if you are attempting to lean up.,7120,s6-242-304-311-8402-0,00.html

After spending all this time pointing out how I consumed a bunch of calories and ran a bonk free marathon, I then like to share the story of my PR 50k from 2011.  During that race, I consume some real food prior to the event and only fueled en-route with 2 gels and about 20 oz of gatorade.  I ran a 4:15 31.06 mile race with a 5 second negative split with my last 5k faster than my first. 

How can it be that a ton of gel was just as good as two.  My only explanation is that the body burns energy in mysterious ways.  Weather may be a factor to help us stay hydrated and tolerate fuel. Also I am a fan of occasional depletion training.  I tend to trained depleted when I run with TNT.  I believe that as we training more, we use less fuel because we get more efficient, but what do I know?

I share my 50k low fuel story after seeming to suggest that tons of gel is the way to go to show that there are many ways to fuel a race. I believe that good training helps us run more efficiently so less fuel will be needed.  I believe that good pacing can help avoid a crash at the end.  But most importantly I believe that we have to just experiment with what works for us and it may vary as we get fitter.  Newer runners, who may run slower and less efficiently may need to fuel differently than leaner, lighter, faster, more efficient runners.  

I have found success and failure with both consuming a lot and consuming a little.  I am sure there are elements that can't be identified that do influence what each runners needs.  So I encouraged those I was with to alternate their fueling.  Some runs train by consuming more fuel.  Other runs, train by consuming less and just see how it feels.  

I have no idea what is the absolute right way to fuel a marathon, but what I do know is that we need carbohydrates, electrolytes and water.  Give the body those things in moderation and it should make the experience of running a marathon much better than if you fail to supply one of these vital elements. 

Sunday, June 10, 2012

American Cancer Society Relay for Life, Woodbridge NJ. 6/9/12 - 6/10/12

Every August 5, I reach another anniversary of my cancer diagnosis.  I began the journey towards survivorship with the discovery that something was wrong on May 13, 2005 (yes, that was a Friday).  To celebrate another year of survivorship, I sign up for my local ACS Relay for Life which is always in June each year.  This is my third year.

I often don't make a huge deal about this event.  I don't beg for funds.  I don't "organize" a team.  I realize the ACS would love to see big teams and lots of donations.  However, due to the underlying emotional nature of my quiet celebration, I am not interested in becoming the director/coordinator of a large number of people.  I would rather be present, attempt to stay up all night (which in itself is becoming more of challenge), share the night with others also touched by cancer, and pay my respects to those who are no longer with us.

So instead of making a huge project out of this event, I simply sign up as a team of one. I post some links asking anyone who would like to join me in some laps to please join my team, make at least the $10 donation, and then meet me at the event at their convenience. This works for me.  Many people wish they could make it, also donate.  I know some very generous people.  Thank you again for your contributions to the ACS on my behalf!

Each year about 5-7 people, some very close friends and some very new friends, show up at various points in the night to walk or jog with me around the park.  Each year I raise about $600, which I think is quite good since I usually don't know if I can commit to the Relay until about 2 weeks prior to the event.

This year was the first year I got to the park alone.  I set up my tent, my table, my chair.  There was a moment when I felt overwhelmed by a sense of loneliness in a sea of people playing games and having fun, so I called Tamra :).

One wonderful gesture that truly helped me feel less lonely occurred as I walked in the back of the pack of 17 survivors, and I passed the luminary dedicated to me by Jacqui.  To see my name and a lovely message helped me know that even when we walk along we are not.  Without fail, every time I go to this event I find myself getting overwhelmed by emotion that sneaks up on me.  As I completed the survivor lap, I was grateful to get the emotions out of my system, especially before my people arrived to join me various shifts.

At 8:30 pm,  Sidney was the first to arrive and wasn't staying long.  He had to be up by 5:30 am to head to the base and needed to go home to sleep.  He walked a few laps, saw Jacqui's luminary and was pleasantly surprised as he showed me what he found.

Just before 9:00 pm Ann arrived.  I "met" Ann on the Team in Training Alumni page and was very flattered that she would come to join me for my run.  It was wonderful to discuss her plans as new marathoner with an NYC marathon entry.   Sid left as Ann arrived.

By 9:30 Tamra arrived as I ran with Ann.  The thing about running at night, is that you can't help but automatically become fast friends.  All I can say about Tamra is that I can always count on her to be around for the extreme ridiculousness I come up with.  She is just an awesome friend and I am always grateful to see her.

By 10 pm Kerry arrived and we continued on the journey.  Walking, running, talking.  We sat for breaks after a few 0.8 mile loops.  Kerry is one of the funniest and smartest people I know.  Her wittiness always catches me off guard and some of the things she has said over the years end up filed away in my mind as some of the funniest things I have ever heard anyone say.  I was so happy to see her.

By 10:30 Lauri arrived.  I was looking forward to Lauri's arrival.  After a recent passing of her dear friend, I wanted Lauri to come Relay with me.  We didn't get to spend enough time talking about the amazing things Angela has done, but I know we both had her in our minds.  I was glad to have Lauri there to make me laugh with her hilarious sense of humor.

By 11:30 or so, Rich had made it.  I met Rich through the Wickatunk Track Club running group page, after my friend Jim Plant sent me a message that I should join the club.  I mentioned in passing that I was doing the Relay and he signed up to run some laps at night.

Jim Plant is a member of the Mangum Track Club in NC, and the Wickatunk club started by Rich is modeled and inspired the North Carolina organization.  As we discussed NC running and who Rich knew on the Mangum Track Club, Rich mentioned how he ran the last bit of his shirt run with Jim Plant.

Almost on cue, as if he knew we were talking about him, at 12:30 I get a text from Jim Plant who was running the Boogie marathon in NC and we got a brief race report.  Awesome timing Jim!

By 2:00 am Jess texted to report she was lost b/c the GPS park street address I found online actually sent people up the block about 1/4 of a mile.  By 3 am she had arrived just as Rich needed to get home.

With a little break in the tent at 4 am for rain, Jess and I walked a few laps through sunrise. At 5:30, she needed to get going to meet the TNT running at the GWB run.

By this point I had 29.9 miles and I decided that 50k would be a nice place to stop.  Tamra had taken a nap and woke up for my final laps.  As I hit 31.06, I stopped my watch noting that it took me over 6 hours longer to complete this 50k than my best 50k effort.  Tamra noted that out of all the crazy crap I come up with, this night was one of the most pleasant.  I agreed.

I moved my car closer and thought about how I tired I was.  I didn't have much to pack but I thought about how nice it would be if Sid was here to help me carry my gear to my car so I could make just one trip.  And there in the distance, I saw Sidney walking towards me. He decided to stop over before he left for work just to see if I needed any help.

That was nice.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

One Step at a Time...

I sat across from Barbara (yes the names have been changed) and asked her to draw a boat, a lighthouse and a storm.  She protested that she can't draw a straight line.  I insisted this really isn't about the drawing and if she humors me she will see I am being honest with her.   I explain that she is free to tear up her artwork at the end of our session if she wishes.  It made her feel better to know she could destroy the potentially embarrassing evidence of her childlike expression.  She trusted me, sorted through my art materials and gave this a shot.

It took months for me to be in this seat, the one across from Barbara as she sat in her recliner in the bay where she gets infused twice per month for hours.  She has colon cancer that spread to her liver.  She has been getting treated at the Cancer Center from before I started last March.  Since then, I often walked past her bay, occasionally asking her to give art therapy a try.  She would wave me off, politely, say no thank you and tuck her wig-covered head down into her word search.  She would busy herself with puzzles while the pump whirred in the background for hours.

Something about her changed a month ago. I could feel it.  She made longer eye contact with me as I walked past.  I could tell she wanted to share her thoughts with someone and she was sizing me up.  I offered my services again.

Despite feigning resistance for consistency's sake, I knew she would create something.  I gave the directive to draw a Boat, a Lighthouse and the Storm and she got to work.  I picked this topic after reading about it in compilation about Favorite Therapeutic Techniques. I have been experimenting with this one in a variety of settings and learning how it reveals a person's attitude towards adversity.

I could have asked Barbara to stand on her head and we would have likely gotten to her story anyway.  It didn't matter what I asked of her, she was clearly ready to open up.  After some time working with all the materials (magazine photos, water color paint, markers, colored pencils, etc) I had to offer, she presented me with her image of a boat collaged over a picture of a lighthouse, with watercolor painted rain falling over half the scene. A bright sun shined on the right half.  The boat was far to the left headed though tumultuous waves as it neared the shore.

I asked her what was going to happen.  She shared that boat wants to get to the shore.  I asked what it needed to make sure it made it.  She immediately shifted to first person (I love when this happens), explaining "I need to navigate carefully through those rough waters near the coast since I don't know what is under there and it looks dangerous.  Also, I need to pray."  I asked if she thought she would make it.  She beamed that she believes she is almost there.

I asked how her treatment was going.  Here was her moment. This is why I was here.  She shared that she had a scan recently and that all those stubborn lesions that had threatened to take her life had shrunk!  In fact, only one small one remained. This meant the the treatment was working.

We talked about the relationship between her picture of the storm and her treatment. She recognized the powerful parallels.  She appreciated being able to see that she was still concerned about booby-trapped coast lines that are tricky to navigate. She fears getting to close to success and then crashing because she wasn't careful.  She can see the sunshine and knows where to go.  She is so close that she finally feels safe talking about feeling better.  About feeling lucky. About feeling stronger.  She dated the picture and packed it away to keep.

Barbara was just one patient I saw today, prior to preparing for my run home at the end of my shift.  I love running home from the Cancer Center.  It makes me feel like I have come a long way.  When I see my patients in the waiting room and they observe me on my way to run, I see them smile because I know they know I had cancer too.  I don't even mind that my run is through some urban areas that are quite the opposite of running through the natural beauty of woodsy trails.

Today was special, not only because I got to be a witness to Barbara's joy, but because just before my shift ended I was gifted by our dietitian a package of wool hats donated to her by a charity.  She gave away the hats to everyone who would take them, but about 20 remained.

As I shared my plans to run/walk all night at the American Cancer Society's Relay for Life to celebrate my 7 years of being cancer free this weekend, the dietitian insisted I take the hats to the relay and pass them on.  Hats really are a big deal. I still have all my hats, especially the rainbow striped one my brother gave me to keep my head warm and brighten my day.  It was a hat, glove, scarf set. I wear the gloves at ultras now.

Twenty handmade knitted wool hats are a little bulky and we scrambled to figure out a way for me to get them home. She found a small apple store bag in her desk that held them perfectly. This, of course, made me think of Steve Job's recent passing from Pancreatic Cancer.  He was able to buy the best care and it gave him about 8 years.  Cancer does not discriminate.

I changed from my work clothes to my running clothes, which today consisted a neon yellow shirt given to me by the Ulman Cancer Fund for Young Adults at the Half-Full Tri Relay last October.  The back of the shirt says Wanna Fight. I didn't know this for the longest time.  I often wondered people behind me in races would comment that they really didn't want to fight me.  I often wonder what I was I doing that made so many people say this to me.  The front of the shirt says boldly 'Team Fight!"  I feel strong when I wear this shirt.

I secured the apple store bag of hats to the back of my running pack and took off through the urban jungle, getting the raised eye-brows I have become used to.  Clearly running down the streets of Elizabeth is not usual.

I am not sure if it was my outfit of the bright yellow Team Fight shirt with loud navy blue shorts and red shoes, or if it was the apple store packaged wool hats for cancer patients, or if it was the fact that I was running home, relatively fast, from the cancer center that made me feel like a cancer fighting superhero.  I felt like I had a purpose.  Like I was on a mission that was meaningful.

What I do know is that this feeling changed as I passed the mile long stretch along the cemetery.

It was there that I wondered just how many people were in that cemetery that were not as lucky as me. Cancer sucks.  It is brutal.  It is unpredictable.  Some of us recover.  Some of us beat it because we catch it early and/or treatment works.  Some of us beat the crap out of bodies in the process.  Cancer somehow has a way of even making those who manage to escape it's clutches feel badly.  Survivors Guilt.

I am grateful that I did survive but I honestly don't feel that I had to fight hard for it.  I feel more that I was lucky and for that reason I try to give back.  In addition to possibly helping others, I also want to be sure I am ready to fight again if my own cancer returns.

This is how I ended up running through a tough neighborhood, carrying hats and dressed like superhero in a hydration pack.  But as I pass the cemetery, I am overwhelmed by the sense that a few hats or some art therapy or a little fundraising may not do as much as I would like to believe.  Sometimes things feel futile.  However, I am very much aware that doing nothing is certain to help no one.

As I turned onto my street, I was a little surprised by my run.  It took me just over 1 hour and 2 minutes to get the 7.5 miles home.  That is about an 8:16 pace while lugging a few pounds of gear.  This was my fastest commute yet.  I was inspired.  Usually, I feel like the wind is in my face whole way.  Today I felt like I was running downhill.  It felt incredibly easy, as it should.

I am lucky. I know this. I am grateful.  Seven years out and I am able to run strong.  Seven years ago I wasn't sure what would happen next.  I wish there was more that could be done to help others hurry up and feel the way I do today.  My success lies in early detection and a personal ability to decide on the most aggressive treatment I could tolerate.  Even as a lucky survivor, remnants of trauma remain as I often wonder how long it will take for me feel like I don't have to worry about feeling like I did seven years ago again.

So for now, I run and hopefully I will figure out what I am doing one step at a time.