On running and writing and what I’m chasing

Editor note: I wrote a similar post years ago. Recently I polished it up a bit to include in a writing workshop submission. I’ve recently taken leave of my job as publisher of the Advocate Magazine in Dallas, where I worked almost 10 years, in order to 1. Help take care of some family members who need me. 2. Work on independent writing projects, including a book. Don’t roll your eyes, haters; I am writing a fucking book. I’m also going to run a 50 miler in February and attempt 100 by the end of the year. (I’ll also get back to writing on this blog, hopefully with an updated look soon. (My job, though I loved it, left absolutely no time for pleasures such as writing about running.) 

So, anyway, here’s the essay. 

On writing and running 

My heart hammers, demanding release from my body, all of its limitations. This poor heart, captive in here some 40 years, never knows what fresh torture awaits.

My muscles are shredded, porous, sponges soaking up lactic acid, slowing my stride. Heat ignites a fire, an inferno now, in my belly. Flames lick at my esophagus.

I need an antacid. I need water, Wait, no. I am going to throw up. But, I’m so fucking thirsty. Have I ever been this parched? My feet. There they are down there, throbbing. Blood. Is that blood on my shoe? Yep — seeping, spreading like a crimson firework in slo mo. This hurts. What am I doing? Why? I chose this. I choose this. What compels me? I might die today. 

What was it Orwell said … something about a “horrible exhausting struggle, like a long bout of a painful illness …”? Yes. Yes. His words enter my sizzling brain. “One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven on by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand.”

George Orwell meant writing a book, of course.

Were he a distance runner, he might have said the same about that inexplicable compulsion.

What are writers so desperate to expel from inside? What is the runner chasing? Evading?

If Orwell cannot figure it out, my ruminations are of little use.

So I just keep moving, into the agony. With a smirk, it welcomes me, as a dominatrix welcomes a masochistic client, the one who wants to leave bruised and beaten and “surf out of the session on a wave of pain and endorphins … with this beautiful clarity of focus born of the extreme sensations [she] causes.”

(Source: Violet Fenn at Metro magazine, “Why do people visit a dominatrix? Men explain the appeal.”) 

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Me at writing workshop in Archer City, TX


I have a story idea. Someone has done something remarkable. I want to tell the tale well. I long to make the reader feel what I feel — the admiration, the inspiration, the wonder or frustrations I experience when I extract answers, those bricks I will use to construct narrative.

But for hours, sometimes days, after interviewing the extraordinary someone and his family, acquaintances or adversaries, I stall.

I think about all the ways to convey the story, but I am inept.

It is beyond me, molding profound ideas into words that will make you appreciate it, understand it, the way you must.

If I fail to adequately astound the reader — I fail those who so generously gave to me their thoughts and quotes and ideas. Sometimes they cry. Blessed be the criers, the honest, the raw. I mean, I really love them. Even if I meet them once, they live in me forever.

The teenager who took his 6-year-old sister to a playground at their apartment complex where — while he shot hoops on the adjacent basketball court, like usual — she was abducted and murdered. How he has fought to tip the scales of justice in his family’s favor ever since.

The 50-year-old lawyer, journalist and “Matlock” enthusiast who, after a year in Ethiopia’s most deranged prison, fled with his family — each of them brilliant, like him — to the States, where he now delivers pizzas to apartments in northeast Dallas.

You deserve so much better than I can give you. Epic Fail. It’s what the kids say, or used to say. Epic Fail. Epic Fail. [You are an] Epic Fail.

I fret and bite my nails. I pick at my skin, gnaw my lower lip and cheek, and pull out strands of hair. I stare out windows and at screens. The weight of my weakness exhausts me. Coffee.

Nothing to it. Sit down at your keyboard and bleed, to paraphrase Ernest Hemingway.

Eventually I start typing. I hate every goddamn word. I delete and write. Delete and rewrite. Delete. Delete. I delete so much that the “delete” key on my computer pops off.

Then after minutes or hours of struggle, I pluck out a sentence that pleases me. Then a second. These first two sentences give me confidence and I fall into a rhythm, writing sentences. (“As word got around, other renters — some who knew the child and her family and still more who did not — emerged by the dozens from their units to join the search.”)

I have a page full of words on the screen, I still write bad sentences, but they don’t torture me, because before them stand good, proud sentences — proof that I am capable of good, proud sentences.

I recognize and banish bad sentences. I correct my form and finish strong. That is, when things go my way.

Except sometimes they don’t. Sometimes the rhythm evades, or it is interrupted by the awareness that there was a hole in my planning. A question I forgot to ask or an angle I overlooked until it was too late. Then I have to go back. Sometimes I have to rework everything. Under deadline, I don’t have time to make things better and I publish an unsatisfactory story. Incomplete. Inadequate. Or worst of worst: Good Enough. Not bad enough to KILL altogether, but when presented to an audience it hangs its head, knowing it could have done better.

Who else realizes the piece didn’t live up to its potential? It doesn’t matter. It eats at my ego. I cringe when I look my words on the page.

But when it all goes perfectly — when I plan properly and the words, after the inevitable early hell, flow and I finish strong and the critics say, “Good Job” — then comes the high, the reckoning.

Only those who can endure being intensely uncomfortable for long periods of time will ever know this particular reward. It requires a heightened tolerance for punishment and relentless pursuit of the thing that exists on the other side of the pain, the kind of pain most people don’t know anything about, with apologies to Barton Fink.

Fink, the Coen brothers’ tortured writer, says something else about pain: “I’ve always found that writing comes from a great inner pain,” he says. “Maybe it’s a pain that comes from a realization that one must do something for one’s fellow man — to help somehow to ease his suffering. Maybe it’s a personal pain. At any rate, I don’t believe good work is possible without it.”

(The conversation ends with another writer’s equally sensible take: “Waaal, me? I just enjoy maikn’ things up. Yessir. Escape. It’s when I can’t write, can’t escape m’self, that I want to tear m’head off and run screamin’ down the street with m’balls in a fruitpickers pail.”)

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We’re having fun, right?


My dependence on running — traversing long and longer distances in increasingly shorter timeframes — looms in the same psychic place.

Pain announces itself in the early stages of focused training. Sweat in the eyes. Legs like lead. Nausea. Pounding heart. Lungs afire. Imminent hours loom like a prison sentence.

Blisters on the bottoms of both feet, 30 miles into a 50-miler.

Barfing, overheated, just 16 miles into a 50-kilometer race — do the math — 14 miles, more than two hours, to go.

But I willingly advance. For the clarity of focus …

Razor focus on a goal, and on the pain that stands between it and me, makes every little thing — yesterday’s shame, sick mom, sister’s cancer, sister’s kids, dead friend, wayward son, children in need, homeless man on the corner, Trump’s tweets, work deadlines, towering laundry, spousal furies, a hemorrhaging savings account — fade into a blurry background.

But when an attempt results in failure or I am left behind in a race or I pull a hamstring and miss weeks of practice while competitors run on — oh, the outsized misery.

When at mile 18 of a marathon I realize I must have missed something in my preparations and I fall out of rhythm, never to return to the goal pace.

The Finishing Time stares me in the face, mocking me, permanent record, until a new one takes its place.

I run day in and out, with painstaking effort.

I forfeit comfort, sleep, late-night revelries, greasy foods and potent potables. Relationships suffer. I run when it’s 100 degrees, in snow or downpours, when mosquitos are swarming and when my muscles are hurting or when I want nothing more than to watch TV for a couple of hours.

When 26.2 miles isn’t enough, I run 30, 50 … someday soon, 100 miles.

When I race, whatever distance, I want the sacrifice to show — no, shine — in my performance. I want my competitors to say, “She must have worked her ass off to run that kind of race.”

There’s no use pretending otherwise: I am highly motivated by competition. I am. Runners are. Writers are. “There is a real competition among writers,” Hemingway once said.

So when observers see my struggle, my red face at the finish, my mediocre time, I hear them (possibly imaginarily) say, “She probably didn’t train hard enough.”

Still I would rather blow a race entirely than be middling.

It’s a gamble — running hard and without caution in a competition. My cohorts call it “Kamikaze style.”

Kamikaze hurts. There is a line you can’t cross, but it is difficult to see, so it is easy to run right off the cliff and die (metaphorically, that is, except when trail running in the mountains, when this becomes a literal peril).

I could start out conservatively and gradually progress and run a good-enough race. But it’s only if I give everything I have, perfect my pain and hold on — breathe with no oxygen, surge on melting muscles — do I stand the chance of having satisfactory results.

A remarkable race gives me confidence like a good opening sentence gives me confidence. A poor performance churns my stomach and saps my strength and makes me wonder if I am done for keeps.

I risk misery and shame, which the odds seem to favor, chasing the chance to feel mighty for a moment.


I know, I know — in both writing and running, I am the only one who really cares. Is anyone really observing, judging, giving one damn at all? Naturally, no.

They skim a story and say, “That’s interesting,” or “That’s dumb,” and move on.

They might see I ran a 3 hour 9 minute marathon and think “That’s good,” or “That’s slow,” never imagining that, though I am in unrelenting pain, I am floating on a cloud because I have been attempting for years to break 3 hours 10. Triumph derived from torture — the opiate of the masochistic.

No one is watching — I am no Olympian or Pulitzer contender.

In this life, I am a writer and a runner primarily to meet my own needs and desires.

That doesn’t change the euphoria when the gamble pays.

It doesn’t change the despair in failure.

I need both.

If I met success with every essay or article or pitch or with every chase, there would be no magic in it. I need the pain; good work is impossible without it.

So bring on the failure. Bring on the defeat. Bring on the broken ego and battered spirit. Bring on the misery and the cosmic discomfort. The weary eyes, fingers, feet.

Purge. Pursue. What? I cannot name it. All I know is that the chase sometimes is a cleansing (of spirit, mind and body) and, at best, it ends in something like an awakening, the full view, if for a moment, of another realm outside this life and all of its limitations. It hits like that shock of recognition when a piece of art or music moves us, but at a higher voltage. There is a light, a clarity, only those who embrace and endure extended bouts of suffering can know.

10k, racing, running, Uncategorized

Trinity Levee 10k

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Always wear your White Rock Running Co-op shirt to races, and you will be surrounded by friends. Also, what is with those poses (me and Carlos, to left?! Hahahar)

Here’s what it looks like to be third overall female, missing second by literally one second! (Punches self in face).

I also came in first masters female, but they gave me the Third Overall plaque rather than the First Place Masters—no prize monies either way, so I’m totally fine with not being called out on my old age.

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A podium finish is cool. I am old, though, and only getting older, as are we all, if we are lucky …

Kudos to fellow White Rock Running Co-op member Brent Woodle who came first place overall.

Garmin stats: Ran a very even race. This is thanks to running with a heart rate monitor.

The Trinity Levee course was great. A few rough patches, and it starts out on the Margaret Hunt Hill bridge, but it turned out to be net downhill because the finish line was under the levee. (I wish I had known this when I started; I held back a bit, thinking I would face an uphill on the last mile).

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Here’s one of those rough patches. But how cool is this photo with the infographics (that was my slowest point of the race :()?

As it always is with races of two distances, the problems happen when 5k-ers merge with 10k-ers. As I turned the last corner, as I dropped my speed to a 6:15 pace, I found myself behind three side-by-side-by-side 5k runners with no way to pass.

I hollered as I approached their heels, “Please let me pass!” And I swear I said yelled “Please.” Not one of them heard or acknowledged me, I assume because they all were wearing headphones. So I wound up slowing down and eventually passing in the muddy area aside the trail.

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Gotta take the #badracephotos with the good, right? Here’s where the 5k and 10k merged. Yeah, I see the fanny pack too, but we’re not here to judge. At least she’s not blocking out the world with headphones.

Remember that ONE SECOND? Still, I have no one to blame but myself. I could and should have had more than that one second cushion. Hindsights: Maybe I should have started at the front. I lined up about 10-12 deep at the starting line, which also was a mistake that cost me seconds.

Dozens of slower runners toed the line right UP FRONT of this very crowded field. How people do not intuitively know that this is wrong, I will never figure out. At least no strollers or dogs were in my way.

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Awesome idea: Cypress at Trinity Groves partnered with race organizers to provide FREE race photos. Hopefully we will soon say goodbye to the racket that is the race photo business!

Now that I seem to be somewhat back in fighting shape, I plan to hone in on the 10k training. I’m doing speedwork about two times a week. I’ll start posting the training schedule here on the blog again. I don’t know if anyone reads it, but it helps me to have everything posted here anyway.

I hope to improve on this time at the upcoming Celebration White Rock 10k, March 24. (Full disclosure: I have a free entry via my magazine, East Dallas Advocate.)

My 10k PR is 40:43. My goal is to beat that. My pie in the sky is to break 40, but the cool weather is waning and so are my chances of doing that this season.


Runners gather to remember David Stevens

At the Dallas Running Club parking lot, attendees picked up candles for a 7:30 p.m. vigil for murdered runner David Stevens: Photo by Rasy Ran

An estimated 150-plus gathered last night near White Rock Lake to honor the life of fellow runner David Stevens, who was killed last week on the White Rock Creek Trail in Lake Highlands. Most of those people did not know Stevens but felt a close bond with him nonetheless.

Police suspect Stevens, an engineer and inventor, was killed at random last Monday morning by 21-year-old Thomas Linze Johnson. (Johnson, who reportedly has a history of disturbed behavior, immediately turned himself in and confessed to bludgeoning the runner with a machete-type weapon.)

More on David Stevens here.

An avid runner, Stevens regularly trained on the White Rock Creek Trail and he ran the Dallas Marathon last year.

Attendees gathered outside the Dallas Running Club’s building where they pinned on memorial bibs and ran for an hour before returning to the parking lot for a candlelight vigil.

One of the organizers, Jorge Namè, says that while Stevens was not a member of the running club, he will me mourned and remembered as a friend.

“It felt right to honor the life of a fellow runner even though we did not know him,” Name says. “Also to remind us the we must live life today because you never know what tomorrow will bring.”

I ran alongside Nick Polito, a Lake Highlands resident who says he frequently runs alone along the same stretch of trail Stevens was running when he was attacked. He didn’t know Stevens, but says that once he saw his photo, he recognized his face. “I’d seen him out there running,” Polito says.

Though Stevens was a resident of Sunnyvale, his neighbors told reporters he liked to drive to the White Rock Lake trails for his morning jogs.

Novel Rogers, another White Rock area resident who ran with us, says he did not know Stevens either but that he felt a bond simply because the man was a runner like him. He was there to show his support for Stevens and his loved ones.

The sentiment was similar throughout the crowd: Stevens did not appear to be a social runner, he did not belong to any of our city’s many running clubs, but he was a soulmate because he got up every morning and did the same thing many of us do — run.

Another local runner, Robin Korevaar, says she is considering a memorial — possibly a tree, plant or bench — at the site of Stevens’ death, near Moss Haven Park.

Advocate photographer Rasy Ran contributed to the reporting and took all pictures. 

runners met up for a memorial run and candlelight vigil near White Rock Lake : Photo by Rasy Ran
runners met up for a memorial run and candlelight vigil near White Rock Lake : Photo by Rasy Ran
Dallas runner Lynnlie Tuschoff delivers a speech: Photo by Rasy Ran
Dallas runner Lynnlie Tuschoff delivers a speech: Photo by Rasy Ran
Dallas runner Lynnlie Tuschoff goes through preliminary details atop her Jeep before a memorial run and candlelight vigil held in honor of fellow runner David Stevens: Photo by Rasy Ran
Dallas runner Lynnlie Tuschoff goes through preliminary details atop her Jeep before a memorial run and candlelight vigil held in honor of fellow runner David Stevens: Photo by Rasy Ran
Runners at White Rock Lake participate in a memorial run honoring the life of David Stevens: Photo by Rasy Ran
Runners at White Rock Lake participate in a memorial run honoring the life of David Stevens: Photo by Rasy Ran
Runners at White Rock Lake remember David Stevens: Photo by Rasy Ran
Runners at White Rock Lake remember David Stevens: Photo by Rasy Ran
At White Rock Lake, attendees ran a mile in silence to honor David Stevens: Photo by Rasy Ran
As night fell, runners finished an hour-long run to commemorate the life and death of David Stevens: Photo by Rasy Ran
During the last mile of the memorial run, runners were asked to turn off music, keep quiet, and remember David Stevens, who was killed last week: Photo by Rasy Ran
Lynnlie Tuschoff tears up during her Oct. 19 memorial run speech. She didn’t know slain runner David Stevens personally, but said she "didn’t need to" as she detailed how the community came together strong for the David Stevens’ memorial run: Photo by Rasy Ran
Lynnlie Tuschoff tears up during her Oct. 19 memorial run speech. She didn’t know slain runner David Stevens personally, but said she “didn’t need to” as she detailed how the community came together strong for the David Stevens’ memorial run: Photo by Rasy Ran
More than 150 gathered to remember slain runner David Stevens: Photo by Rasy Ran
More than 150 gathered to remember slain runner David Stevens: Photo by Rasy Ran
Candles lit the parking lot as a crowd commemorated the life of runner David Stevens: Photo by Rasy Ran
Candles lit the parking lot as a crowd commemorated the life of runner David Stevens: Photo by Rasy Ran
Dallas City Councilman Adam McGough joined runners in remembering the life of a runner killed in his Lake Highlands district: Photo by Rasy Ran

Map shows where we run (Dallas, TX)

Hint: It’s White Rock Lake.

These visually appealing maps from Nathan Yau, who runs a blog called Flowing Data, provide a pretty look at where people are running around Dallas.

Yau collected data from the many apps runners use to track workouts — often the logs are displayed publicly. Then he used the data to outline routes in major cities.

The result? This series of “Where People Run” maps.

Can you spot our city?
Can you spot our city?

“Not only is it fun to see, but it can be useful to the data collectors to plan future workouts or even city planners who make sure citizens have proper bike lanes and running paths.”

No surprise that the Dallas map shows a gazillion circles around White Rock Lake.


“If there’s one quick (and expected) takeaway,” Yau notes, “it’s that people like to run by the water and in parks, probably to get away from cars, and the scenery.”

Granted not everyone digitally tracks walks, runs and rides.

“Yau writes, don’t take these maps too literally. They simply cover the tip of a very interesting iceberg.”

Delve in deeper here.

Dallas, inspiration, people with true grit, ultra

Ultrarunning: Dallas’s Nicole Studer and Shaheen Sattar are rising stars

Photo of Shaheen Sattar and Nicole Studer by Rasy Ran for Advocate magazines
Photo of Shaheen Sattar and Nicole Studer by Rasy Ran for Advocate magazines

That someone from Dallas’ flatland would dominate a sport that involves running insane distances across rugged terrain tens of thousands of feet above sea level seems unlikely. But two White Rock-area women are doing just that — claiming records, breaching usual gender barriers and winning races that cover mileage most of us find wearisome to drive.

Nicole Studer, a 33-year-old attorney, recently clocked the fastest time ever recorded by a female in a 100-mile trail race.

Shaheen Sattar, a 30-year-old Bryan Adams High School graduate, two years ago was the second female finisher at the Leadville 100, a race through the Colorado mountains made famous by the 2009 bestseller “Born to Run” (Matthew McConaughey recently was cast as the lead in the movie version).

“They are doing amazing things and helping raise the bar of excellence for all runners. They are both badasses on the trail with huge hearts.”

In 2014 Shaheen placed among the top 10 women at Western States 100-Mile Endurance Run. Few humans ever even meet the standards to enter Western States (entrants must first place among the top finishers at an approved qualifying 100-mile or 100k race, one “of significant difficulty”; others can secure a place via the Western States lottery). It is the race to which the world’s best ultrarunners flock. Both Nicole and Shaheen will toe the line there this month.

They will start running before dawn June 27 in Squaw Valley, Calif., climb more than 18,000 feet, descend 23,000 feet, cross a cold and rushing waist-deep river and, after 20-something hours on their feet, finish on a high school track in Auburn.

Nicole and Shaheen are friendly rivals who admire one another. They sometimes run together; at a Western States training camp they logged 30 miles side-by-side one day and really got to know each other.

But on June 27, it will be every woman for herself.

Each is close lipped about her specific goals. Shaheen says she hopes to beat her time from last year. Above all, she races against the clock and her own past performances, she says. Her bib number is F9, indicating to all that she placed ninth last year, so she knows they’ll be gunning for her.

Nicole qualified for last year’s Western States, but an injury prevented her from competing. However, as the 100-mile record holder, she too has a target on her back.

Nicole and Shaheen are so good that they frequently rival the sport’s best men.

Take, for example, last April’s Possum Kingdom Trail Run, which included both a 56-kilometer and 52-mile event.

Typically, the winner of an ultramarathon is a sinewy, bearded male. But at this event, Shaheen was the first to emerge from the woods; her dark ponytail bounced as she waved at her sister, Shama Sattar, who cheered at the finish.

“I did not know she was leading. She had been running with a pack of guys. When I saw her, I was so excited,” says Shama, who also is a runner.

Later that day, Nicole won the longer race, beating the first-place male by more than 18 minutes and the second place female by three and a half hours.

David Hanenburg, who directs the Possum Kingdom trail races and other ultrarunning events, says it is unusual for a female to win outright over all males. But these women regularly defy the odds.

“They are doing amazing things and helping raise the bar of excellence for all runners,” he says. “They are both badasses on the trail with huge hearts.”

So how is it that these two women from our sea level neighborhood are killing it on the trail-running scene?

Both are crazy tough and competitive with a freakish immunity to the typical effects of fatigue, averse weather conditions and high altitude.

Both will go mad if they can’t run at least 80 miles a week. Both, like the sport itself, seem on the cusp of being discovered by the more-mainstream athletic world. But how they arrived at this point, for each, is different.

Nicole picked up running in middle school after the basketball coach denied her a spot on the team and introduced her to cross-country.

The young Chicago native was fast enough to earn a scholarship to Northwestern University, but she was no Olympian, and once she graduated, she did not expect to continue her athletic career.

“I figured that I was retiring from running when I finished school,” she says.

Shaheen only tried it while working the early shift at White Rock Athletic Club (now Gold’s).

“You know that inside track? It takes like 11 laps to make a mile. That’s where I started running.” She says a group of senior citizens eventually persuaded her to run with them outside.

Nicole finished law school at Baylor, where she met husband Eric Studer, joined the consulting firm Towers Watson and adopted a dog, Stella. “My running changed a lot when we got Stella. She was so hyper, so we ran all the time.”

To satisfy her competitive streak, Nicole entered races. Without considerable effort (she had tossed the watch, the training log and the pressure that went along with competitive running) she qualified for the Boston Marathon, won the Fort Worth Cowtown Marathon and broke the elusive three-hour barrier at the Houston Marathon.

Shaheen entered races too, her performances a bit more pedestrian.

She was thrilled to finish the Chicago Marathon in just over four hours. When she ran the White Rock Marathon in 3 hours 41 minutes, someone told her she was a minute from qualifying for Boston. “That was the first point where I thought about a qualifying time,” she says. After that she focused on speeding up.

Almost every serious runner suffers setbacks and injuries, but Shaheen’s was more harrowing than most.

On an early morning run, a car struck her, hurling her over a 6-foot fence.

“I was running on the sidewalk. I could see it coming. It just hit me head-on and knocked me into someone’s backyard.”

She was hospitalized with a punctured lung, broken ribs and a fractured fibula.

She ran the White Rock half marathon three weeks later.

“The doctor said it would be painful but that I couldn’t further injure myself. I was already registered and the race was sold out, so I went.” By that time she had proved capable of running a half marathon in 1 hour 26 minutes. It took her 2 hours 6 minutes to run one with a broken calf bone and ribs.

Both Nicole and Shaheen arguably could improve at traditional distances (5ks to marathons), but neither is interested in the type of training that would take (intense speed intervals on a track, weight training, regimented mileage — something similar to the rigorous schedule of collegiate athletes, Nicole explains).

Both embrace and thrive in the looser atmosphere of trail and ultrarunning, where instead of trying to get necessarily faster, you go farther.

Nicole’s 5:30 a.m. runs grew longer.

“It got to be 10, 11 a.m., and she still would be gone,” her husband Eric says.

Shaheen started rising at 3:45 a.m. to fit in her daily run.

Because ultramarathoners run 14, 24, 30 hours at a stretch, they sometimes rely on a crew to assist them during competition with food, drink and clothing changes.

In the past few years, Eric has learned — from trial, error and the advice of trail veterans — how to support his wife.

“My job is to be at the aid station when she comes through. I have a kit (bandages, clean socks, water bottles), but she is low maintenance. Sometimes I am just there to tell her to keep going. Tell her if someone is gaining on her.”

Shaheen and Nicole both raced the Leadville 100 in 2013 — that’s when Shaheen placed second. Nicole, having a “bad day,” placed ninth.

Eric admired Shaheen’s support crew at Leadville — which included Shama, her mom Sian, brother Shahid and boyfriend/runner Steve Henderson. “They were like a well-oiled machine,” he says. “And I have to hand it to Steve — he knows what he’s doing.”

In order to train for alpine races like Leadville and Western States, Nicole and Shaheen seek out the hilliest parts of our neighborhood. Lakewood’s Loving hill is a good one, Nicole says. Eric cringes and says he remembers trying to follow her up Loving on his bike. Shaheen says the streets of Lake Highlands, north of Flag Pole Hill, offer surprisingly challenging hills. She adds that northerners don’t benefit from Texans’ heat training.

The real secret might be our area’s running community. “Dallas has some of the best people to run with anywhere,” says Nicole, who is a member of the White Rock Running Co-op (a club open to runners of all levels — see thewrrc.com). “My training partners are so great and such nice people. It makes it fun.” (Stella the dog isn’t so enthusiastic about running during the summer months.)

“The win is a small part of this sport — community and encouragement are the more predominant themes.”

Shaheen does much of her training solo, but she also has formed relationships rooted in running, like the one with aforementioned Steve Henderson, which began a few years ago when she accepted an invitation to join a co-ed relay racing team. Today they are totally in love and live together in a house on White Rock Lake.

And if you ask most any ultrarunning aficionado — race organizer David Hanenburg, for instance — it is that romance, those friendships and camaraderie, that shared experience on the trail, rather than the qualifications, records, times and trophies, that define the sport.

To him and other ultrarunning diehards, it’s about more than just trying to prove you can complete some “deranged distance.”

“The win is a small part of this sport — community and encouragement are the more predominant themes,” says Hanenburg (who blogs about ultrarunning at endurancebuzzadventures.com).

On the trails you will see frontrunners cheering on the back of packers, he says. He has witnessed Nicole and Shaheen doing so — in fact, he says, they have cheered him on, even in races that they finished far ahead of him. It is their hearts that make them good at ultrarunning, he says, and it is ultrarunning that makes them (and him, and other runners, too) better humans.

See results from the Western States Endurance Run at wser.org

This article first appeared in the June 2015 issue of Dallas’s Advocate Magazine, written by me, Christina Hughes Babb


Grasslands: 50 miles of mud

Photo by Nick Polito
Photo of my feet by Nick Polito

At mile 30 of the Grasslands 50 Miler, I had this blog post written in my head:

I made it through more than 30 miles of my first attempt at a 50-mile run. Due to a late start, a few wrong turns and horrendous course conditions, I packed it in after completing 50 kilometers …

But as fate would have it, I found myself — after some exasperating words with friends, a handful of chia seeds and a shot of something that wasn’t Gatorade — heading back into the bush for 20 more miserable miles.

There was mud. More mud than I have ever seen, and I have seen mud. Different varieties of mud, which I will now list in order of how much I hate them, from least to most despised.

Packed sand — soggy, silty dense sand, like the ocean shoreline, a pleasant enough ride

Muddy water — sludge pools that soak socks and shoes, but don’t much hinder your stride

Deep wet sand — this ankle-deep slimy silt covered a large part of the course, at a glance it almost looked like the dense sand, but when your feet hit, they sunk, and so did your hopes and dreams

Wet cement — you know that sexy scene in “Ghost”? Take Demi Moore’s pottery muck, pour it all over your feet, and you’re off!

Red clay mud — orange-y red glutinous goop that aggressively sucks shoes off feet, each slap, slurp, slap, slurp-sounding disgusting step feels like prying free from a vacuum.

Negra mud-zilla (black mud) — all the characteristics of red clay, but this tacky terrain also managed to work its way inside socks, forming large clumps between the toes and balls of your feet

Sometimes one or more of the muds mingled.

One woman became stuck in a mucilaginous mixture of black and red. Fellow runners dislodged her.

Some altogether lost shoes.

Over the hours, the mud formed an adhesive that glued shoe to foot.

In places, large piles of green-ish horse manure topped the mud, a thing that barely registered.

Through trial and error we learned that a thicket of thorns hid amid the trailside grasses and that any attempt to run there would result in mutilated flesh.

Also, when slipping into the mud, clutching a bush for support would result in stigmata-style palm injury.

I spent the night before the race at the Ramada Inn in Decatur, because I did not want to be late to the race.

I pulled up directions to the race the night before the race, noting that it was about a 25-minute drive from the Ramada. I gave myself more than an hour to get there, because I was afraid I might get lost, and I did not want to be late to the race.

635628151275264975I got lost, badly, on the dark, unmarked backroads of Alvord, TX, and was about 40 minutes late to the race.

Driving in the predawn hours, I did not see a soul for some 30 minutes — when I finally saw another car, I flagged it down and the driver happened to be coming from the starting line, and he pointed me in the right direction.

When I arrived, a kindly volunteer told me not to worry. She would jog me to the trail entrance.

It was 6:45 a.m. (the race began at 6) and still pitch dark.

I bid her farewell and headed into the darkness alone.

The first stretch is a 4+ mile out and back before commencing the first big loop, so I almost immediately encountered runners heading back. I saw my friend Novle, who I was supposed to run alongside, and he said he’d wait for me back at the first aid station. I caught up to him just past said aid station, thank the gods, because there was ample opportunity for getting lost, which we did anyway, but not as bad as I would have had I been alone.

Once I found Novle — sure we complained about the mud and how much extra effort we were exerting and how our hammies were already screaming, but — the first 18 or so miles were quite enjoyable. On the second loop, however, from 18-30 miles-ish, frustrations ensued and mounted.

For one thing, we took some wrong turns — the course is well marked, but it is difficult to mark 50 miles of wilderness, so when you stop seeing markings, you know you are lost. So you turn around and go back until you see the proper markings.

The mud on this loop was particularly debilitating — when my watch was still working, I noted that a certain mile took almost 19 minutes to cover. I stopped noting after that one.

During this loop, Novle mentioned that an old calf injury was acting up, so he told me to go on. (He threw in the towel after that loop, but he hung around until I finished — even though I, on multiple occasions, threatened to end his life).

So I was mostly alone. Approaching mile 30, I decided that I was done. I would get to the next aid station, conveniently located at the start/finish area, and I would alert the volunteers that I was bailing. With that, I was excited. I was happy that I was going to be done, 30 miles in the bag, not bad, I told myself. A 50k in those conditions, I assured myself, not bad at all. Good, in fact. You know, I probably should do a 50k before a 50 miler anyway. This is for the best.

Yes, I had it all worked out.

When I arrived, my old friend Nick Polito was there. A badass ulrarunner, Nick is coming off an injury, had run the half and was volunteering the rest of the day.

“I’m done,” I told him. He asked if I was hurt. “No.” Was I puking? “No.”

“Then you are not done,” he says. “Why are you here, Nick?” I whined. “Go away.” Then: “You aren’t even close to done,” another person says to me.

“I am going to kill you,” I say to Nick and to this other person I do not know. “I hate you. And I hate you,” I say to them, respectively looking each in his eyes. Like smug assholes, they just smile at me, and I tell them to remind Novle that because he convinced me to run this race, I am going to kill him as well.

They promise to pass the message along, and I head back out.

The next 10 or so miles actually were the least muddy and most runnable. I kept a steady jog going through most of this.

At mile 30-something, a herd of deer crossed the running path. I thought I might be hallucinating, but a couple of other dudes saw them too.

I approached a guy walking who was from Iowa. He had run Leadville and done a full Ironman, but this was just too much, he said, noting that he was going to stop at the 41-mile pass.

My cell phone kept buzzing, which bugged me. Thing is, I did not have my cell phone with me. Yes, mild sensory hallucinations occurred.

In fact, I carried nothing. It was cool enough that I was OK without a water bottle. I carried one on the first loop, attached to my hand with a tube sock, courtesy this DIY video, because I forgot the handheld.

At mile 41 I came back through the start/finish area. Still, Nick was there. I said to Nick, “WHY ARE YOU STILL HERE?” I really still wanted to quit. The Ironman/Leadville guy was quitting. I wanted to quit too. I was pretty mean to Nick.

Nick and the other volunteers ushered me off on to the final loop, the loop marked in red, the 9-mile, muddiest of all loops loop.

Four or so miles into this loop, I passed two guys. They were chatting. They told me they were taking it easy, that they wanted to “take it all in” and I say, that is exactly not what I want to do.

I passed them.

It started raining.

It felt good.

I heard voices, in a good way.

Nicole (100-mile record holder): The faster you go the sooner it’s over.

Tarahumara Indians: When you run on the earth and run with the earth, you can run forever. (I had the earth all over me, literally, so theoretically I could run forever).

Nick (who I have now forgiven): It’s OK to cry on the trail. I’ve cried on the trail.

At this point I was no longer trying to find ways around the mud; I was just landing inside it, sinking into its depths, splashing, sticking, withdrawing. My shoes were no longer coming off. They were glued to my feet now. I was one with my shoes.

Eventually, I saw two posts with the word FINISH on them. This is the finish line, I thought deliriously. Where is everyone? They must be gone. I must be the last one here. Then I realized, no — that is just a post pointing toward the finish line ahead.

Then, about a quarter mile from the real finish line, I missed a turn.

Fortunately the guys I had passed earlier saw me and began screaming at me.

I turned back and followed them to the actual finish. Conspiracy theory me thinks they waited a hair longer than necessary to holler.

I was pissed that they passed me. But happy that I did not continue along the path back into the wilderness and away from the finishing area.

When I finished, Nick and Novle and a spattering of other people were still there. I like them again, and no longer wish to inflict their deaths.

“You are the third place female,” a race volunteer told me, and gave me a belt buckle (for finishing) and a glass (for placing). Realistically, I think there were hardly more than three females who completed the race, so I might have been as close to last as first.

Now it was raining and cold.

My shoes would not come off, so I found some scissors in my car and surgically removed them. When I finally was separated from them, I chunked them in the trash.

In my bare, muddy feet, I returned to the Ramada.

This night, there would be no insomnia.