Beautiful. Windy as Hell. I took first place female.
Beautiful. Windy as Hell. I took first place female.
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).
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.)
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
Hari Garimella accompanied by his wife and young son, just returned to the White Rock area after successfully trekking the mountainous 56-mile Comrades Marathon in South Africa. A version of this article was first published on Advocatemag.com.
A few years ago I read a piece in Runner’s World magazine about editor and former professional runner Bart Yasso’s experience running the Comrades Marathon in South Africa.
Even here in The States, among the running community, Comrades is notorious. In Africa, beginning in 1921, it has reached Super Bowl — or World Cup, even — levels of acclaim.
The race involves running about 56 miles through the mountains of South Africa in under 12 hours.
It is more popular, say the editors at RW, than the Boston Marathon, with as many runners, from as many various nations; the entire country — anyone who isn’t racing or spectating — watches the 12-plus hour television broadcast, they marvel.
After first reading about the event, I too was enthralled. Unlike our usually precise American races, the 56 miles is an estimate. “They change the course every year and no one minds,” RW editor Amby Burfoot says. There seems less a spirit of competition than a spirit of community. A group of physically disabled students sing for the runners. Most participants, aside from some elites, aim not for a particularly fast time, but to strategically pace themselves to finish before the 12-hour cutoff. At 12:00:01 a course marshal fires a shot. Anyone who has not crossed the finish line at that point did not run (according to the official results, anyway).
At that point, runners stop where they stand and fall to the ground, often wailing, moaning and weeping from exhaustion and disappointment, one former participant tells RW.
To finish before that dreaded gunshot was the goal of 39-year-old White Rock Running Co-op member and Texas Instruments employee Hari Garimella, who just returned to the neighborhood after racing the 2014 Comrades ultra-marathon.
“During the course of my training and previous experiences of running a few ultra-marathons, which included tasting my first ever DNF (did not finish) on a 50-mile race at Palo Duro Canyon, I realized that I was going to have to get very disciplined on my training, as the Comrades run was going to be my longest-ever race,” Garimella notes in his race report that you can read in full here.
Garimella says he trained near White Rock on Saturdays, with his running club. The rest of the week he ran with his dog, Dunbar or his friend Viresh Modi, who also was training for Comrades.
His preparations began with a New Year’s Eve marathon followed by six months of daily runs, which included several long training runs of 21, 31 and 35 miles, and one day of rest per week.
When he arrived in South Africa last week with his wife and son, he says his appreciation for the historic event grew, following a trip to the Comrades museum and meeting a few renowned Comrades competitors. (Former Olympic runner Zola Budd — famous in the 80s for her bare feet and for becoming tangled with American runner Mary Decker during a disastrous 3,000 meter Olympic race in 1984 — was one of the top female competitors).
Garimella’s strategy, he says, involved walking some on the uphill sections and running nonstop on the downhills. Despite temps in the near 90s and more hills than he ever could have imagined, he stuck to it. Mostly. With just 5k to go, fatigue forced him to walk, but a fellow runner motivated him to finish the last of the 89 kilometers fast.
“I felt this motivation come out of nowhere. I thanked my new friend, and all of sudden ran the remaining one-kilometer, and ran it strong. I got to the Kingsmeade Sahara stadium and could hear the entire stadium cheering for the runners,” he says.
“I saw my wife and son on the sidelines and waved to them. I kept running strong and in a few seconds I crossed the finish line. I was done and had succeeded in finishing my first Comrades marathon in 11:13:12.”
He says his wife, Nirisha, and son, Jay, are his biggest cheerleaders. “My son is going to be a better runner than me soon.”
Garimella is home and intends to take a couple of weeks rest before resuming training. His plan? The 2015 Comrades, which will run the opposite direction (with more uphill than down) of this year’s race. He says he will continue regular uber-long runs, which he thinks contributed vastly to his healthy condition at Comrades, and he will run more on hills and add weight training to strengthen his quads. Read more from Hari here.
Sidenote: Zola Budd reportedly has been stripped of her age group win at Comrades for failing to properly pin on her runner identification information.
Note: I wrote this on the plane home from Boston, fell asleep and neglected to edit and post it for one solid month. How’s that for grade-A procrastination.
A bad, short training season, low thyroid and vitamin deficiency
In the weeks leading up to the Boston Marathon, I was depressed, and not in an AJ Soprano, I’m-gonna-drown-myself-in-the-pool sort of way, but as in, my whole body was physically tired and I was seriously concerned I wasn’t going to be able to run a marathon. Especially one as hill-acious as Boston.
I was so tired just a month before the race, that I was falling asleep, literally, in the middle of the day at work. I was taking four-hour naps on a Sunday. I was struggling to keep up with my running contemporaries. I was failing to maintain my typical tempo pace, even during a 15k race.
I finally went to the doctor for lab work, which showed low thyroid.
Nothing new — my thyroid has been low for almost 10 years that I know of. Every six months, doc increases my dosage a bit. This time, after the labs, the doc’s assistant called to say I was very low in vitamin D as well. What does that mean, I asked the assistant, who replied, “It means you need to take a supplement.” Thanks for that flippin’ wealth of information, lady.
So she told me to start taking D supplement and to pick up a new more-potent RX for Synthroid. On my own — thanks, Google — I learned that D deficiency makes it tougher to absorb synthetic thyroid. That made me feel better — like I had a lead. I did as instructed and also began taking a multivitamin with iron every night. I never had done this for long because vitamins usually make me puke. But taking it at night on a half-full stomach (because I never eat dinner ‘til like 9, at least) and then going to bed made it work.
Ok, back to Boston training.
So, within about 10 days of this vitamin supplementation, I was no longer taking George Costanza-style naps at work. I felt markedly better. And my last long run of 16 miles, which was eight days before the marathon, felt OK. Not fabulous, but OK. And I started getting excited about Boston.
Fine-tuning my attitude
The week leading up to the race was production week at work, so I was too busy to get too panicked.
I made it a point to do a (relative) lot of running with friends who I enjoy being around. Talking to them helped me put things in perspective. If I am all worried about my personal time and performance this year, after what the city of Boston and the marathon participants experienced last year, I am a selfish asshole. Basically.
I was going to be in Boston on the day that the city, the runners and all the fans of the sport take back Patriot’s Day. That alone was a reason for insurmountable gratitude. Though I trained hard, the time on the clock this day would be secondary.
In the days leading up to race day, I hardly checked the weather. Usually I check compulsively starting 10 days out. I was not as worried this time.
I was a little concerned about finding my way around the city — and I had every right to be — but about the race itself, I was not freaking out.
I am not religious, but I do frequently chat with the god of my understanding (a.k.a. pray) and when I was praying about this race, I got the distinct message to let go.
I did the carb-starve and carb load the same as I did before Louisiana. This has become a very important step in my improvement at long distances. See this post for a more-detailed explanation.
Leaving on a Sunday was nice because I had all day Saturday to pack and rest up.
I left Dallas at 6:30 Easter morning and arrived at Boston at 11 a.m. I got confused about the location of my hotel in relation to the marathon expo. Note to future Boston travelers: there are two convention centers in Boston. The Boston Convention Center is not where the marathon expo is. It is adjacent to my hotel. All along I was thinking my hotel was outside the expo, but it actually was three miles away.
OK, so that meant I was lugging my suitcase 1.2 miles up Boylston Street to the Hynes Convention Center. The crowd thickened as I progressed up the street. Congregants were exiting en masse following Easter service at the church, and I rolled over a kid’s foot with my suitcase and he commenced screaming.
I finally realized why thousands of people, including TV reporters and cameramen every few yards, were crammed together here in the street. I was at the Finish Line. Before I knew it I, and my suitcase, was stepping over the iconic blue paint, and my head was buzzing with the voices of hundreds of runners and running fans, speaking in myriad languages. Tons of people were already donning the bright orange 2014 Boston Marathon jackets, and reporters were stopping them for interviews. It all was, as one of my friends later said, surreal.
I took a very deep breath as images from last year’s bomb aftermath bloodbath filled my head. I was a little distressed that the Finish Line was not as somber as one might expect — instead there was giddiness and photo snapping and selfies. I get it, but it was unsettling.
I found a back entrance to the race expo—thank God because security was examining bags and I had a freaking suitcase with me.
Got the shirt/number and hauled ass to the nearest exit, where I easily caught a cab to my hotel. I wanted nothing more than to rid myself of that horrid suitcase.
The Westin Boston Waterfront is really nice and a little removed from the chaos, which is good for me. I rested for a couple hours and then walked over to a pub where I got a pre-race dinner, baked mac and cheese, at about 4:30 p.m.
Usually before a marathon I eat my last big meal at like 1-2 p.m., but since this thing was starting at 10:25 a.m., I figured I’d eat later.
I actually feel asleep easily after watching a Boston Marathon special narrated by Ben Affleck. It featured a guy who was found after the bomb clutching his own disembodied leg. He got married this past week at Fenway Park.
I woke a few times in the night, but slept OK, considering it was race night.
Getting to Hopkinton was smooth. I had been to Boston Marathon back in 2011, but I stayed in Framingham, so didn’t get the full experience hopping on one in a massive fleet of county school busses. A convoy of yellow busses carried more than 35,000 runners to a town 26 and-a-half miles away. On the bus, I met runners from Jersey, Ontario, New York, other parts of Texas, San Diego … you name it.
Upon arrival in Hopkinton, a temporary “Athlete’s Village” houses the marathon entrants.
Again, there are runners from all over the world. Boston is one of those races where you have to wait around for a long time pre race. It can be chilly, so people wear warm clothes that they can discard prior to the race. Therefore, you see a lot of folks walking around Athlete’s Village in funny getups — men in thrift-store suits, people in funky old coats and sweaters, three guys were in Breaking Bad style lab suits and one couple was wearing what looked like their hotel bath robes.
I fortunately ran into two friends, Brent and Ally from the WRRC, right off the bus.
We hung for a while. Brent who’s planning a 2:50 marathon started in the wave before us. Ally and I got in the bathroom line. And waited, oh, 45 minutes. We were supposed to head to the start at 9:50 and were still in line at 10. Nightmare. All around us people were dropping drawers and letting it all out on the grass. We opted to wait for the box. It was ugly out there. There were not enough toilets for 36,000 participants. I cannot imagine being one of the volunteers who had to clean up that dump after we left. Bless them.
Once your wave is released from the Athlete’s Village, you walk almost a mile to the Starting Line. By now the elites and the top-of-the-field runners have started.
My wave’s corral had started by the time I got to the line, but I tried not to panic. One volunteer told me: Don’t worry. The time doesn’t start until you cross the mat. So I took a minute to stretch and breath, and then I jumped in with wave 2 corral 4.
The first mile of Boston is fast no matter what. It is very downhill, and people are lining the roads screaming. I mean just bellowing like soccer fans.
I thought I remembered the course as all-downhill the first half, but it is far from that. It is net down, but there are rolling hills through this entire race.
At the start, the temps are OK. It’s in the mid-50s, but it’s been worse. See 2012. I consider running at the pace of my last marathon, about a 7:20 minute mile, which seems doable for about 30 minutes. It becomes very clear that the temps are rising quickly and by mile six people are mumbling about the heat. Layers of jackets, long sleeved shirts, mittens and arm warmers are flying from the course (anyone who started with a jacket on was just in all-out denial anyway).
At that point I decide to run by heart rate for a while. The Coach and I had discussed an acceptable range and agreed that exceeding that range early on would spell certain bonk. It was tough though, with the rolling hills, to keep my heartbeat in range. I knew I could not afford to tax myself too much early on, because I remembered how tough the Newton Hills are.
Around mile 5 maybe, we pass a bar with a parking lot full of what appears to be a Hells Angels-type biker gang. They are going nuts. One girl near me says, “A gang of bikers at a bar at 10 a.m. cheering for a bunch of marathon runners.”
The crowds along the race route never thin. There are some deeper, more-intense crowds at certain points, but there never is a quiet moment. It always is a sea of runners ahead and a throng of screaming fans on both sides essentially for 27+ miles.
Going through Framingham (mile 8), the spectators roar with marked excitement and I see ahead that I’m passing the famous Team Hoyt. This is a father son team that has run the Boston Marathon for decades straight. Theirs is an amazing story.
I try to take Shot Blocks every 20 minutes; I took an S Cap electrolyte tab before and during the race; I sip water and pour the rest on me at most water stops. By noon it is in the mid 60s. Great for spectating; bad for marathoning. By mile 13, when we run through the Wall of Sound at Wellsley College my legs are sore. The downhill is rough on the quads. The raucousness of that crowd propels me for the next 5k, which is where the Newton Hills begin. At this point my pace had fluctuated between 7:20 and 7:5x minute miles. My slowest miles are through the hills, but I feel surprisingly not bad. First, my legs actually find some relief running up. It’s like an opportunity for my quads to rest. Second, I begin passing a lot of people. Entering Newton, I see several runners full-stop at water stops or walk or wander over to the med tent. You don’t see this on a good day in Boston.
Heartbreak Hill is not necessarily a bad hill. Loving Hill in East Dallas is decidedly more intense. It is just the placement that makes it so tough. It is the highest of several hills that follow some serious rollers that are net downhill. It is just a really tough terrain to train your body for if you do not live in Boston.
But I think with the right mindset, these hills are not so intimidating; they are all short. None last more than about a quarter mile, I think.
Now, the best part of my race comes after Heartbreak Hill. I know I am overheating, but I am stoked after making it through Newton and there is a long downhill and there is an awesome group of Boston College kids along said downhill and I give one of them a high five and the others start going nuts and slapping my hand and it is like, neverending. I high-five probably 50 people there. I am whoo-hooing and thanking them and then — good times end — the wave of nausea hits. Dizziness. OK. Calm down, I say. I retreat to the opposite side of the course where there are no geeky-cute 20-year olds tempting me with their high-fives.
With five miles to go, there are people walking. Guys cramping up and hobbling. Mile 22-24 is the worst. I am in serious pain in my quads and I am red, sunburned and I just felt red-hot, like my face is going to explode. At each water stop, the water on my face feels heavenly. During the last third of the race it is between 65-70 degrees. It is not the worst conditions you can get, but it sure ain’t the best.
I am pretty happy to see Brent W, another member of the WRRC who was out with an injury but cheering, at mile 24.
After that I am praying hard. “Carry me home, please!”
Every other race or marathon I run, this is the point where it hurts so bad that I’ll come up with any reason to slow to a more comfortable pace (a walk seems preferable). My reason, usually is, “Oh there’s no reason to kill yourself; it isn’t Boston or anything.” But today, I did not have that one.
“It is Boston,” I tell myself. “Hold nothing back.”
The turn onto Boylston Street is bittersweet. I am trying to take in the scene. The crowds. The history of this race. The buildings and businesses that suffered in the wake of last year’s destruction. But, argh, it hurts bad. I can see the finish now but it is so far. I am just over 3:20 and I can see the Finish. I am pushing. I feel a pain equivalent to that of giving birth. It is that pain that you would never tolerate if you didn’t know that a) it would end soon and b) the reward would be worth it.
Then I step across the line. I think my time (by my watch) is 3:23, but later learn it’s officially 3:24:00.
I struggle to stay upright, but I have a huge smile on my face. The people are still lining the section after the finish line, cheering for us. At the end, runners walk “Mile 27” — stop at medical if you need, get water, food, your medal, check the leaderboard (American Meb Keflezighi won!) and finally exit at Boston Commons. As we limp outside the official corridors of the race, a massive mob of Bostonians stand, hooting and hollering “You did it!” You beat them!” “We beat them!” They are speaking, of course, about them — the young terrorists who wreaked havoc on this city last Patriots Day. “Thank you for running!” they shouted.
“Thank you. Thank you so much,” I answer. And some tears come out of my face.
Post race reflection, gratitude
That night, as I celebrated with friends at a Boston bar, I fully appreciated the sadness that must have engulfed this city following the last marathon. One friend mentioned how he felt guilty even going to eat at a restaurant that night and retreated to the suburbs for dinner, out of respect. Many runners packed up and went home that night; those who couldn’t hid out in their hotel rooms, feeling sickened.
It was a stark contrast to this year. The whole town filled with runners. Every business in Boston sported a motivational running sign in the window. Random citizens stopped runners to thank them for being here. Fun-loving, money-spending, crazy tourist marathoners fill the bars and restaurants.
At the celebration with my D-town team, one of our more-seasoned runners, “Coach Steve,” made a toast:
“A year ago,” he says, “they stole our opportunity to celebrate. A year later, we are back … and I am so proud of everyone … Boston Strong 2014.”
Originally printed in the East Dallas Advocate Online Magazine.
A year after the terroristic and deadly bombings at the Boston Marathon, members of the White Rock Running Co-op say they are grateful to be returning to the 2014 race.
Lochwood resident James Ayers had departed the race grounds an hour or so before hell broke loose last year.
He left Boston last year grateful for he and his wife Amber’s safety (she was waiting for him near the finish line), impressed by Boston’s swift resilience and determined to return. But, like the rest of the day’s marathoners, bafflement and depression trumped a wide range of other feelings.
A sub-three hour marathoner, James handily qualified for the 2014 marathon, and the couple decided returning to this year’s race would be a privilege.
“Being a part of this year’s race is important to me because of its significance. This particular race seems to epitomize overcoming adversity. The belief that we press forward in life despite difficult situations and circumstances is something that is important to me,” Ayers says. “To see the way the city came together after last year’s horrific events was incredible. I don’t doubt that this year’s race and the events that surround it during Patriot’s day will serve as another chance for the city to move on and become stronger. It will be a special day for the city and one that I am very proud to be a part of.”
He adds that he thinks this year’s race will be about as safe as it possibly can be.
“I think there is always going to be some small worry with any large public event, and I’m sure that Boston probably won’t be the last time we see a tragedy like last year. But what can you do? Unfortunately it is the world we live in today.
Marathon organizers have taken major measures, such as prohibiting all bags and adding checkpoint screenings. Instead of tightening the race, however, they increased the field by some 9,000 runners. That means this will be the biggest Boston Marathon with the exception of 1996 when they allowed more than 36,000 runners in honor of the event’s 100th birthday.
Preston Hollow resident and WRRC member Ann Marie Brink ran her first Boston Marathon last year and was back in her hotel room before the blast.
This year she’s back and her husband Greg Brink will be cheering her on.
“Running the race after last year’s events is an honor,” she says. “I hope that by running, cheering, and volunteering we can all help the city of Boston reclaim Patriot’s Day as the celebration that it has traditionally been. The fact that it will happen the day after Easter lends even more weight to the idea of renewal and rebirth.”
Full disclosure (or am I just bragging): I also am a member of the WRRC will be running the Boston Marathon Monday.
After a serious reckoning over a case of plantar fasciitis last spring, I ditched my Vancouver and St. George marathon plans and took some time off. It was awful.
In August I restarted running 20 minutes at a time. I began working with Coach Eric more than a year ago, which has improved my running, but has been hard work. I have always worked hard at running, but in a haphazard way. Now it is channeled and focused. I put in several weeks this season of 80-100 miles sans injury (I am dealing with some calf pain during this last week, which I’ll mention in a minute) and by the November DRC Half Marathon, I was back where I was last year at this time, which was an all-time best for me.
I did track work and base building during August and September and averaged about 55-60 miles per week during that phase with two harder speed and interval workouts per week. In October and November I moved to twice-a-day easy runs with two harder runs worked in per week, one of them long. The longest runs I did were about two hours (16 miles) with an added hour (6 miles) later that same day — I think I only had a day or two that actually was that long.
Right before I started the two-a-days I had a half-week off due to a family emergency. I had two days off in November when I just felt like I was falling into overtraining territory. I took one day off the Friday after Thanksgiving. Other than that, I haven’t taken any days off since late September.
Many of my running friends have asked me how — with a full-time, demanding job and children — I manage to work in the mileage.
Here are a few tips:
1. Read about someone else who does it. Sheri Piers has become my inspiration. She’s about my age – a year or two older – and works as a nurse practitioner (they can prescribe medicine so basically, a doctor). She has a slew of kids and manages to clock some 90-130 miles per week.
She has come in the top 10 in Boston two of the last three years, winning 1st and 2nd place respectively in the masters division in the last two Boston Marathons. She qualified for the Olympic marathon trials.
Someone reportedly asked her, ‘What happens if you don’t get up to run tomorrow?’ And [she says], ‘What do you mean? There is no not getting up. I have three alarm clocks going.'”
2. Learn to be alone. I love running with my group when possible, but I had to learn to love running alone, because I don’t have time to arrange for accompaniment through all these miles. (Though some have been known to meet me at the track for mile repeats at 5 a.m. or at the lake for a 9-mile loop at 4.). The secret to my getting through the long slow miles is – drumroll – a subscription to Audible, where I download books. When things got really tough, I began listening to running-specific books — there is a novel called Flanagan’s Run that I return to time and time again. It is about a cross-country (literally) footrace in the 1930s and it is based on a real event, the 1928 Bunion Derby.
There is a scene that gets me especially pumped in which the runners on their trek through the Rocky Mountains start mornings with a chant.
“’I am a distance runner, my bones are light, my muscles lean. My heart will pump blood forever flushing my blood with oxygen.’ Their voices would echo through the mountains … the litany occasionally would be shouted, as if it were not merely an affirmation of their nature, but a gesture of their defiance. ‘I am a runner. I live as a runner. I eat as a runner. I see the weather, the road the world as a runner. I have come to run …”
In the beginning, one of the runners finds the words trite, like a prayer you recite in church, he says, but as the days wear on, he shouts and believes he is now describing himself.
I listen to all manner of books and novels and I mix in some runner and triathlete biographies and I also listen to music.
3. Mix up the terrain. Instead of the same routes day in and out, I drive to different parts of Dallas to do my runs, or I run from work in Lake wood or hit the Katy trail and Downtown Dallas. I love being out of town, where I can find new places to run.
One of my favorite runs this season was in early October. My cousin got married on a Sunday in Galveston. I stayed the night but had to be back to the office in Dallas by noon Monday, so I rose at 4 a.m. and hit the sea wall for a 90-minute (split into three intervals) tempo run. It was the first cool run of the season — 69 degrees. At first I could only hear the ocean, but as the first hour wore on I could see the hint of sunlight rising over the horizon and the last mile was done right on the sand in my bare feet. It was magic.
If you are running more than 70 miles a week, some of it needs to be done on grass (or sand or trail dirt). I do a lot of running at Richland College, on the soccer fields and track.
I do some treadmill too. I don’t mind it at all, because I have my books.
4. Want it. Really, no one is going to run this much unless they have a reason. And there is no good reason to do this, unless you are one of the handful of young people working toward a scholarship or sponsorship in distance running. You just find that you want to or you don’t. If you don’t care about dropping 20 minutes off your marathon time, then it would be stupid to spend 12 hours of your week trying to do it.
I started running because I wanted to say ‘I ran a marathon’. Now I keep working because I want to be a good runner. I don’t really know why I want to be a good runner. I am too old to become a professional runner or an Olympic runner. But still I have this tugging desire to see what my limits are. It doesn’t make any logical sense. It doesn’t make any logical sense that one would climb a mountain, risking his life, simply for the thrill of reaching the top and looking out at the world from great heights. He does it not for money or material winnings, but for a feeling. I haven’t had the urge yet to climb a mountain, but I think that feeling I get at the end of a well-fought race is similar to the feeling a mountaineer gets when he reaches the peak. The less attainable the peak, the greater the feeling.
Anyway, now I have essentially completed the training and the race is one week away.
One week ago, I would have told you I am in the shape of my life. My recent marathon pace runs — done by heart rate — have been in the 7:00-7:15 range. I ran the 8-mile Dallas Turkey Trot in 52:31, about a 6:31 per mile pace.
But I limped away from that race and am now nursing a soleus strain (diagnosed by the internet) and will do the last week of my training on the elliptical.
One important thing I learned last season was to not put all my hopes into one race. When I put in the work, all sorts of positive things happen. Maybe that includes meeting my marathon goals, or maybe something doesn’t work out and I learn a new lesson. Like the main character, Doc, in Flanagan’s Run, “He knew who he was … he had gotten to the center of himself … he had no need to prove anything …”
A new personal best and an attainment of goal time, however, is a much-desired affirmation.
Temps on race day, blessedly, will not be hot like last year. However we might freeze and we might get a nasty wind.
I do not care. I have been waiting for a cold marathon, one for which I am properly trained, for years. Bring it on.
A freak accident left him burned, broken and dependent, but this White Rock-area runner intends to finish what he started training for two years ago — the Dallas Marathon
On a cool November morning, Brandon Cumby rounds the last turn of the Dallas Running Club Half Marathon at White Rock Lake. Feeling better and stronger than he’s ever felt in a race, he smiles at the breaking sun and crosses the finish line in 1 hour, 51 minutes and 14 seconds.
His time places him at a nondescript 416 among male finishers. But considering where the 33-year-old runner was little more than a year ago — facedown in mud, spewing blood from multiple orifices, nose and ribs broken, flesh smoldering, no discernable pulse — the finish ranks him decidedly outside the realm of ordinary.
In summer 2012 Cumby began training for the Dallas Marathon, but his plans screeched to a halt in August. Cumby cannot cohesively recall anything between July 28 and Aug. 24, he says. But family members and friends help him piece together the events that nearly snuffed out his future.
On Aug. 13, a Monday, the air conditioner in Cumby’s car died. After leaving the North Dallas office where he worked as an accountant, Cumby stopped at his friend Scott Boyle’s house. He figured he could park in Boyle’s driveway, hopefully fix the blower and avoid a sweltering drive home.
While Cumby toiled under the hood, Boyle and mutual friend Michael Baker played with their new toy — a high-tech remote-control helicopter.
By the time Cumby joined them, the sun was sinking, and visibility was low.
“They were ready to take it in — they didn’t want to crash it. It was expensive. They’d pooled their money to buy it. But I asked them to do a couple more runs. I egged them on, telling them to fly higher, do crazier stunts.”
Promptly, the copter crashed into a nearby tree, embedding itself in the uppermost branches.
Boyle went for a ladder.
Cumby, confident in the strength gained from his marathon training, and feeling responsible, was determined to climb and retrieve the object himself.
In fractured flashbacks, Cumby recalls ants biting his hands as he climbed the tree, looking way down at his friends and feeling the first pang of anxiety, seeing the power lines in the distance (avoid, he noted to himself).
He couldn’t get to the helicopter, he assessed. But he could climb close enough to loosen it from the branches, if only he had something long with which to prod it.
A neighbor who had joined the guys below handed him an aluminum pool-skimmer pole. Perfect.
He was clutching the pole with his right hand when his foot slipped. Falling in the direction of the wires, he lost control of his arm, which launched the pole over his head and into a power line.
A deafening “hmmmmmm!” shot through the air.
The hum was so powerful it made your teeth chatter, the witnesses say.
Then there were flames — orange and blue, that looked like they were shooting from Cumby’s belt buckle and from behind his knees, Baker recounted.
Then he fell, maybe 20 feet, “like a rag doll doing a gainer,” one witness later told him.
Motionless, Cumby lay prostrate. Boyle rolled him over; Mud clogged Cumby’s mouth, blood gushed from his nose and face, he was black and blue, smoke was rising from his groin and he smelled like burning flesh.
Boyle, a onetime lifeguard, searched for a heartbeat, a pulse. Nothing. He began chest compressions and kept working until paramedics arrived.
EMTs intubated, defibrillated, pounded Cumby’s chest until, finally, mercifully, his heart sprung to life.
But Cumby still was in grave danger. He was bleeding internally.
His friends say that even in his bed at Parkland Hospital, blood was seeping from his nose and mouth, from everywhere, it seemed.
The doctors could operate, they told Cumby’s loved ones, but his chances were not good. As his family waited with the hospital chaplain, a team of surgeons administered 22 units of blood and, against the odds, repaired Cumby’s lacerated liver and abdominal wall well enough to keep him alive. Later, burn and trauma surgeon Dr. Francis Ali-Osman later told Cumby that 100 out of 100 other people in his situation would have died before surgery.
Alive, but not well
The days and weeks following the first operation were the most mentally and physically agonizing of Cumby’s life, he says.
He was released from the hospital temporarily at the end of August. In his condition, he could not live alone, so he moved in with his grandparents. Clothing felt like sandpaper on his sensitive skin. Movement was nauseating. Stillness was unbearable.
“The pain and swelling from my burn excisions was unbelievable — I couldn’t tolerate walking or sitting down without one of those donut-shaped pillows.”
He couldn’t sleep, experienced hot and cold flashes, and lacked an appetite. A walk to and from the bathroom exhausted him.
“Before I had the accident I was fit. I rode a Harley, played the guitar, ran, cycled, worked on building lean muscle … I had lived on my own since I was 22, had relationships, had a house, was financially independent. Now I couldn’t live by myself or cook my own meals, drive or wash my clothes. I took medication out of a daily pill sorter so I wouldn’t get mixed up.”
And there was this hole in his gut, he says, whose source was anxiety over the idea that he might never run another mile.
But there is no space left in your head for marathon dreams when, say, the open wound located near your genitals inflames and oozes blood.
During a trip to the Parkland emergency room, Dr. Ali-Osman told him the wound wasn’t closing — it is called dehiscence. Cumby would just have to give it time.
“The anxiety of having an open bleeding wound in a sensitive area is worse than the wound itself,” Cumby says.
Before his groin-area wound healed, he was readmitted to the hospital because, once it became clear he would live, surgeons needed to mend several sinus and facial bones broken during the fall (fractured rib and cervical bones also were dealt with separately).
This time, doctors cut a line from one ear, over his shaved head, to the other. They folded down the skin, repaired the bones — adding synthetic bone filler and wire mesh where needed, Cumby explains — and sewed him back together.
Seemingly endless sleepless nights and sickening withdrawal from opioid medicines — tremors, insomnia, nausea and increased sensitivity to pain — followed.
For weeks, his face remained swollen beyond recognition. He weighed 143 pounds, down 30 from his training days.
Several mornings on end, he had his stomach pumped — exploratory measures to determine the effectiveness of his digestive system. Unbearable abdominal pain sent him to the emergency room on multiple occasions. Digestive distress and stomach pain are results of postsurgical ileus and abdominal adhesions, respectively, Cumby explains.
Through it all, doctors prodded Cumby for information.
“They seemed to wonder how I had survived,” he says. “Their best guess is that my fitness, the running, saved me.”
Two weeks after his release from the hospital following cranial surgery, Cumby snuck out of his grandparents’ house. He needed to run.
“I made it about a half mile before I had to lie down in the grass. I was wearing a heart-rate monitor, and it was going crazy. I walked home.”
A couple of days later he tried it again, with similar results. His mom, though she didn’t understand why he needed this so much, began walking with him, and they eventually began adding small jogging intervals.
Even as he was recovering from electrocution and life-altering trauma, Cumby felt this undeniable urge to run. Why? “I don’t expect anyone who is not a runner to understand this,” he says.
“When I first got out (of the hospital), I was entirely focused on the physical components. I wanted things to quickly return to normal. I needed to go back to work, get in shape, get my own place, make things look and feel normal. Turns out, there’s no quick way.”
Going out too fast can be detrimental in a long-distance race. Same goes for recovery, Cumby says.
He realized he had to go back and build a stronger foundation before he could rebuild his life, he says.
“So I asked myself, ‘What brings you joy?’ That is a good place to start.”
And his answer was: running.
“Running empowers me, centers me, focuses me,” he says.
The exercise strengthens his atrophied muscles and weary heart, but he says it is about much more.
“People think running is physical. It’s not. Most of it is between the ears.”
When he first started running years ago, he learned that.
“At that time, I was overweight, ending a marriage, unhappy, so I started running. Back then, I did my best thinking while I was running,” he says. “It is no different now. It is my Zen.”
Rebecca Baker is Cumby’s running partner. In 2012 the duo decided to train for the Dallas Marathon.
After Cumby’s summer 2012 electrocution, which was witnessed by Rebecca’s husband Michael, the Bakers only wanted their friend to survive.
“Everything was so touch and go for the first few days that we were more worried whether he would live,” Rebecca recalls. “It took a couple of days for them to figure out that he didn’t have any significant spinal injuries, which meant that he would walk again. At one point, he was so disoriented that he thought he had overslept and missed the marathon start. He kept telling his mom he needed his water bottle. Clearly, running was never far from his mind.”
Rebecca says she wasn’t all that surprised when he resumed training. “I was worried that he would try to do too much too soon, but he has done pretty well this season.”
The running community rallied around Cumby after the accident. The Dallas Running Club and White Rock Running Co-op held a fundraiser to help with medical expenses.
In January 2013, the Bakers and Cumby’s lifelong best friend Aaron Stevens (a Lake Highlands resident whose birthday, Cumby points out, fell on the same day of the accident), joined Cumby for a 5k race.
“It took 33 minutes to finish, and I thought I would die,” Cumby says. “But that got me over a mental hurdle.”
He didn’t like being slow, though.
“I am my own worst critic. I look at the other guys in my age group and their race times and feel inferior,” Cumby notes.
However, both he and Rebecca acknowledge that the way he is running now, all things considered, is nothing short of a miracle.
In March, Cumby ran the Rock n’ Roll half marathon in a little over two hours.
Then he registered for the Dallas Running Club’s training program for the December 2013 Dallas marathon.
As the miles increased and Dallas marathon hopefuls ratcheted up the calorie, carb and protein intake, Cumby ran into trouble.
In August he landed in the ER with severe pain and vomiting blood.
His doctor wanted to operate to remove scar tissue growing around Cumby’s intestine.
Cumby begged for an alternative.
“The doctor looked at me like, ‘Let me get this straight. You are refusing surgery because you do not want to interrupt your marathon training?’ and I say, ‘Yes’.”
The doctor made a deal. They would try one more thing, and if his symptoms improved, he could resume training. Cumby said he would try anything.
The treatment was dietary — Cumby would go on a strict low-carb, low-protein, high-fat diet.
To avoid mid-workout distress, he also started fasting for several hours before any long-distance run. The diet essentially goes against everything marathon coaches preach, Cumby says.
But it has worked.
Before racing the DRC Half Marathon in November, Cumby completed a 21-mile training run with the running club’s 4:10-marathon pace group.
When he runs the 26.2-mile Dallas Marathon course on Dec. 8, he won’t be wearing a watch, he says.
“I don’t want to put any undue pressure on myself by worrying about how fast or slow I am running,” he says. “I am just going to concentrate on finishing the race.”
As he expected, while he focused on running over the last few months, Cumby’s life shaped up. He recently got his own place near the lake — the epicenter of Dallas fitness, he calls White Rock — and a new job at a small firm.
He’s learned some lessons: No tree-climbing with aluminum poles. His friends and family are too good to be true. Follow joy. Forget the odds. Do not make specific plans, because you risk short-changing yourself.
After the marathon, he might try ultrarunning or a triathlon, he says.
“I want to see how far I can go.