inspiration, marathon, people with true grit, Uncategorized

This day in sports history: Cuban mailman runs Olympic marathon in dress shoes

… and placed fourth!

Yesterday I happened to be in the car as radio host Norm Hitzges told the story of Felix Carvajal, a legend, apparently, but I had never heard of him. The audio is about 2 minutes and totally worth a listen.

Listen here.

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causes, inspiration, people with true grit, racing, running

Once homeless, now back on their feet

Team members don’t just run the streets. They have lived on them.

At 5:30 on a Wednesday morning at the corner of Corsicana and Park streets Downtown, two figures inside sidewalk sleeping bags snore, and a man in a thick hooded coat leans against The Bridge homeless shelter wall and puffs his cigarette. His gaze follows a few sweatshirt- and athletic-shoe-clad folks as they emerge from the building to join a similarly dressed group in the parking lot.

The bunch, 15 or so altogether, forms a wide circle. After a series of jumping jacks, stretches and a prayer — “God, grant me the serenity …” — they hit the streets.

Though they train during the wee dark hours, the Back on My Feet team, comprising homeless shelter tenants and volunteer runners, is gaining visibility around White Rock Lake.

Back on My Feet member Charles Smith finished the Dallas Running Club half marathon in 2 hours 30 seconds.
Back on My Feet member Charles Smith finished the Dallas Running Club half marathon in 2 hours 30 seconds. / Photo by Miranda Krebbs

They appear in groups — you know them by their crisp white “Back on My Feet” T-shirts — at most Dallas Running Club events, which are held at Winfrey Point or Norbuck Park at Northwest Highway and Buckner.

The organization enjoys a partnership with East Dallas running outfitter Run On!, which donates shoes and gear and drums up volunteer participation.

BOMF’s 6- to 9-month program partners with central Dallas shelters including The Bridge, Dallas LIFE Foundation and Salvation Army to engage homeless populations in running as an avenue to confidence and self-sufficiency.

“Everyone starts with one mile — most have to run-walk that first mile,” says Lea Velez, director of BOMF Dallas, which launched last February.

Lea Velez leads a running group at The Bridge homeless shelter for those working to get back on their feet. Photo by Can Türkyilmaz
Lea Velez leads a running group at The Bridge homeless shelter for those working to get back on their feet. / Photo by Can Türkyilmaz

In October several members raced a 9.2-mile race at White Rock Lake’s The Loop 15k, and some ran the 13.1-mile course at the Dallas Running Club’s November half marathon, which starts in Lake Highlands and winds around the lake and through Lakewood.

“It is amazing to see that type of progress take place. This kind of renews running for me,” says Velez, a university teacher with a background in social work and veteran of 36 marathons and four ironman triathlons. “I know that, personally, when I ran my first marathon, I felt that if I could get through some of the rough patches in the race, I could get through difficult things in other areas of my life.”

As the Wednesday morning runners pick up the pace, member Paula Turner lags behind. “Running’s not really my thing, but I like to come out and walk,” she says. “Lea (Velez) just ran a 26-mile race. If she can do that, I can come out and walk a couple miles.”

A few years ago Turner was living in a tent on the streets of Las Vegas.

“I came from a good family, my mother took me to the theater, we traveled — she raised me right. I had no one to blame for my problems but myself.”

After raising two children, she says, she developed a chemical addiction, which set off the problems that led to homelessness. (According to the 2010 census, about 31 percent of the homeless population reports “substance abuse” as the cause of their homelessness.)

Today, Turner is clean and for almost a year has been living at The Bridge. Her 25-year-old son, who has mental and physical disabilities, also is in The Bridge program.

The three-day-a-week pre-dawn exercise lends discipline and structure to Turner’s life, and she says she feels it is an important component in her overall rehabilitation, which also includes classes at El Centro College.

Group member Ed Fuller, who finishes his practice run out of breath, sweaty and with a smile on his face, says he is mentally stronger, physically healthier and has lost 50 pounds since joining Back on My Feet.

Team Back on M Feet trains before dawn three mornings a week.
Team Back on M Feet trains before dawn three mornings a week. Runners interested in learning more or volunteering with Back on My Feet can attend an upcoming orientation at Run On! Register at dallas.backonmyfeet.org. / Photo by Can Türkyilmaz

“The running hurts, but once the run is over, I feel really proud of what I’ve done. If don’t give up during the races all the times I wanted to give up, you know, why give up now? Keep pushing and by the time it’s over, you’ll feel good about what you did.”

Members who maintain 90 percent attendance during the initial stage of the program advance to the Next Steps phase, during which they are eligible for job and educational training through Back on My Feet.

The three Back on My Feet teams have about 50 members, and 75 percent have moved on to Next Steps. Since the club’s formation less than a year ago, 61 members have run races, 25 have obtained employment, 11 have found housing and 27 have enrolled in job training or academic classes.

Some, such as 47-year-old Gloria Z. — a former gang member and heroin addict who joined Back on My Feet while she was staying at The Bridge — continue with the group even after they have found a home.

“The program turned out to be like a rock for me — gave me strength and helped my self-esteem,” Gloria says.

She ran a four-mile race last summer when the Dallas Running Club made BOMF a race beneficiary at its Bloomin’ 4 Mile. The group members threw a housewarming party when Gloria moved into her first apartment.

“They brought all their warmth and loving care to my house,” Gloria says. “Everyone who runs, they are my angels.”

Learn more at dallas.backonmyfeet.org.

UPDATE: When I ran the Philadelphia, I encountered several BoMF Philly peeps. That one one of the 1st Back on My Feet branches!

*First published by East Dallas and Lake Highlands Advocate media, December 2011 issue.

inspiration, people with true grit

Aging and running well with Peter and Miki Snell

Here’s my full story from the Advocate about running great Peter Snell. Included is a video by Advocate photog Benjamin Hager. Earlier, I posted about some of the running philosophies Peter and his athlete wife Miki shared with me during our interview. 

Movies have been made and books have been written about the first runner, in 1954, to break the 4-minute mile. Peter Snell wasn’t the first, but in the 1960s, the New Zealander ran a sub 4-minute mile at least 15 times; the best set a world record at 3 minutes 54 seconds. During that era, he also won three Olympic gold medals and broke multiple other middle-distance running world records.

Today he is Dr. Snell, 73, a renowned expert in exercise, physiology and aging, and the director of the Human Performance Center at the UT Southwestern Medical Center at Dallas. He has authored or co-authored 60 published papers on exercise-related research, and written a book called “Use it or Lose it: Be Fit. Live Well,” in which he shares well-researched secrets to successful aging.

Today Peter Snell rides his bike to work daily, often accompanied by his wife, Miki Snell. Photo by Benjamin Hager
Today Peter Snell rides his bike to work daily, often accompanied by his wife, Miki Snell. Photos by Benjamin Hager

He is still learning amazing things about the capabilities of the human body.

Peter Snell and his wife, Miki, live on a shady road north of White Rock Lake. The Olympian is tall with thick gray hair. He speaks softly with New Zealand brogue. He thanks us for giving Miki time to get cleaned up.

“She’s been working on the deck all morning,” he explains.

Miki Snell, a petite, pastel-clad blonde who practically glows with energy, offers a tour of the house. Sun spills into an open atrium and shines on a shelf of trophies, medals, plaques, framed newspaper clippings and photos.

The room opens to the deck that stretches out across a densely wooded backyard and a running creek. From the outside the home looked modest, like other houses on the street, but upon closer inspection, it’s rather incredible. The house is kind of like its owners.

The Snells like working in the yard, gardening, riding bicycles and golfing. They are world-class competitors in the sport of orienteering, which requires both physical and navigation skills (and fitting into sleek orienteering outfits that make them look like a superhero duo).

They understand that physicality and mental sharpness is fleeting, but they seem to have discovered the secret to getting the most out of their bodies and minds. “Consistency,” Peter Snell says. “You don’t have to kill yourself, but you must stay active. Put it on the calendar.

Peter Snell won five Olympic Gold medals in the 1960s
Peter Snell won five Olympic Gold medals in the 1960s

“You can’t age well without exercise,” he says.

Snell quit running competitively at age 29, but after a stint in sales, advertising and endorsing products, he still felt drawn to athletics. He didn’t want to participate professionally in sports anymore, but he longed to learn more about human physiology and the ways athletic sport and

health interrelate.

At 34, he moved to the United States and enrolled at University of California Davis as a freshman. He notes that in the United States, it was reasonable for a man to start an education and a new career later in life, whereas had he stayed in New Zealand, he probably would have been expected to settle down, maybe do a little coaching. He could have enjoyed a nice retirement in New Zealand simply resting on his laurels. It was, after all, the country that made both a stamp and a bronze statue in his honor and named him “Athlete of the 20th Century.”

But this was a man who thrived on intensity. At 34, the guy made famous for his strong finish had barely started his race.

He paid for medical school mostly from game show winnings.

“I didn’t have much money, but I was invited to be on ABC Superstars, a show that was popular in the 1970s — you competed against other professional athletes but never in your own sport. I crashed on my way to winning first place in the bicycle race, but I still won enough to stay in school.”

In his Olympic-training days, Snell had unquestioningly followed the instruction of his coach, the famous Arthur Lydiard, and as a result, became his country’s greatest runner. While in medical school, he says, he actually began to understand his coach’s methods — tons of endurance training built up certain muscle fibers and stamina that allowed him to finish stronger than any other runner

of the era. And he acquired an understanding of exercise’s role in maintaining stamina, strength and good health for the long haul, wisdom that would shape his future.

He learned that exercise is an effective intervention for metabolic, hormonal and heart problems and that it helped kids recovering from leukemia as well as HIV-positive patients, and, most importantly, Peter Snell says, it improves the overall quality of life.

Through regular exercise, we preserve muscle mass, explains Dr. Snell. “It is that loss of muscle mass that makes us frail as we age.” And regular exercise doesn’t just protect the body, he says, but also boosts brainpower.

“We have long felt that exercise is neuroprotective, improving memory and mood. Today imaging is allowing those theories to be proved,” Snell says. “There are even studies showing that women who exercise have less incidence of breast cancer, that exercise protects tumor-suppressing genes.

“Exercise does a whole lot of stuff drugs do, without the side effects.”

Miki and Peter Snell’s mutual athletic interests brought them together. Miki was also a runner, one of the first women to run in and win Dallas’ Thanksgiving Day Turkey Trot. She learned that Coach Arthur Lydiard and Peter Snell would be leading a workshop. “I knew who [Peter] was. All of us runners did. I was very excited to meet him.” At the time, she was in her 30s, he in his 40s, and they hit it off right away.

Peter needed a dinner date, Miki accepted and, two years later, they married.

Eventually, they grew bored with running — it’s predictable and tough to improve after reaching a certain age, they say — but they have remained passionate throughout the years about exercise, which Peter Snell calls “the fountain of youth.”

Each day Peter Snell rides his bike to work from his home near Northwest Highway and Abrams to work at UT Southwestern in downtown Dallas. Miki often accompanies him halfway before returning home on her bike. They are part of a golf league at Top Golf in Lake Highlands, and they are competitive, even (perhaps especially) against one another, in the lesser-known sport of orienteering. It combines cross-country racing and topography tests in which a map and compass are used to find specific points on a landscape. Contestants compete to be first to pass through each point.

Miki and Peter Snell are world-class competitiors in the growing sport of orienteering. Photo by Benjamin Hager
Miki and Peter Snell are world-class competitiors in the growing sport of orienteering. Photo by Benjamin Hager

Peter, also a champion in his orienteering age division, likes the sport because it is one of the few at which one can improve as he or she gets older. Miki’s goal usually is to beat her husband, she says with a grin. But she is totally serious.

“I beat him a lot,” she says. “People say, ‘How can you beat him?’ But it’s about reading the map as much as it is physical ability.”

Miki Snell, a former professional dancer and Braniff flight attendant, has won several national orienteering titles in the last 20 years. Staying fit, in the long run, is about finding something that is fun, she says. For her, fun is trouncing others — younger orienteerers, fellow Top Golf leaguers and her husband, who is sitting quietly, smiling at his wife (they are obviously kindred spirits). “Competition is fun,” she says, “makes you feel like a kid.”

Peter Snell gets up and heads toward the kitchen, returning with a little gadget. “That reminds me,” he says. “I forgot to put on my pedometer today.”

They like to see who walks the most steps on a given day.

A competitive spirit can drive daily exercise, Peter says. If you don’t have a driven spouse like Miki to challenge you, compete with yourself, he says. “Keep a log. Challenge yourself to reach a goal.” As incentive for non-competitive types, he suggests planning a skiing or hiking trip and then train for that. “I am often asked what is the best exercise, and the answer is: the exercise that you enjoy and will do.”

inspiration, marathon, other sports, people with true grit, Peter Snell, racing, running, running celebrities, training

Running legend Peter Snell, Lydiard method, other cool stuff

Peter Snell shows me the track shoes that ran a 3:54 minute mile.

In Aug. 2008 when I was writing a story, Gold Diggers, about Olympic medalists who live in the Dallas area, I learned that the legendary New Zealander Peter Snell, winner of three gold medals (1960, ’62, ’64) in the 800 (twice), the 880 and the mile (Snell broke the four-minute mile 15 times, with a best of 3:54) respectively, lives right here in the White Rock Lake area.

In fact, my running group has passed right by his home on an occasion or two. Today he ‘s Dr. Snell and he researches exercise and aging at UT Southwestern. Last week I interviewed him for a story we are doing about (in a nutshell) aging well, and I derived a little wisdom, or at least something to think about, from our talk.

Snell’s coach was Arthur Lydiard, famous for putting his short and mid-distance runners to 100-mile training weeks. Snell still believes in the Lydiard training method. Only now, unlike when he was running the miles back in the 1960s, he says understands why the method made him a great runner. “Back then I was just following directions, he says.”

It’s complex, but basically, the incredible stamina produced by weekly hilly (“slow, 6-minute per mile”) 22-mile runs and daily 17-18 mile jaunts, allowed him to have a devastating kick at the end of short races.

(Check out this video of his two record-breaking miles for an example. )

Lydiard’s method also includes plenty of hills, intervals, race pace and such, but at its heart is miles and miles. In fact, in a Time magazine article, a source remarks that when a competitive runner reaches exceedingly high mileage and the joints begin to ache and the pain is enormous, most coaches ease up, but Lydiard would keep pushing until the runner “becomes insensitive to the pain.” (You can see here why the Lydiard method is sort of controversial.)

Snell poses with other sub 4-minute milers — can you find Roger Bannister?

Snell says the mile race begins at the 3/4 mark. The first three quarters are about positioning and relaxing, he says.

That translates too to marathoning — the marathon begins at mile 20, I’ve heard many more- experienced- than- me runners say. The key is feeling good and staying on target up to that point, then having enough in the tank to go strong for six miles. A good, sturdy base and frequent race-pace running, it would seem based on my studies and experiences, is key to making this happen.

That doesn’t mean 100-mile weeks, but it means significantly more than the 35-45 mile weeks I once relied on for marathon preparation.  But the problem with upping that mileage is balance/knowing when to say ‘enough’ — at 60-70 mpw, I am hurting. My knee is swollen, my heel is sore and my achilles is tender and tight.

Running Times a while back ran a comprehensive piece about Lydiard training. It addresses my issues. Here are some highlights; I totally recommend that serious runners read the whole thing:

Miles are “money in the bank”. The more you have the greater your currency to buy ATP’s (the units of energy your muscles need for contraction) and the faster you will eventually be able to race in any event that has a large aerobic component.”

Train based on feeling. Lydiard looked at modern technology — whether a coach yelling split times from the sideline or a watch that beeps — as training wheels. He would prescribe runs at half effort, full effort, or seven-eights effort and said the runner needed to develop a rapport with his/her body — we need to learn to trust the inner coach, he said.

Balance workouts/ breakdown and buildup. This is tricky. Despite what the aforementioned Time article said, Lydiard believed recovery is important. *”While Lydiard pushed his runners, he offset the overtraining syndrome by preparing them for optimal recovery with base training, gearing the training to be feeling-based, and adjusting workouts according to the athlete’s recovery response. The art of good training calls for an accurate assessment of which side of the adaptation curve the runner is on — catabolic or anabolic — and prescribing appropriately: a recovery run or a workout. There are simple ways of assessing this: An elevated morning heart rate, poor sleep, low energy, sore muscles and bad mood are all indicators that the runner needs further recovery and a workout of any intensity is contraindicated. Once the “spark” has returned the runner is ready for the next “stress.”

Have good timing. Three-four weeks taper, higher mileage during earlier weeks of training, more skills and speed in the weeks before taper … *”It is one thing to maximize the amount of energy at the disposal of an athlete. It is another to channel that energy into the event that matters. To ensure one’s best form is achieved on competition day, a Lydiard schedule is always written from the goal backwards, allotting the amount of time needed for each phase and using the remaining time for base training …  There is nothing more confidence-building than the somatic knowing of thorough preparation.”

Miki and Peter Snell, at home near White Rock Lake

After the 1960s, Snell didn’t do any competitive running. He met his wife Miki at a speaking engagement. She was also a runner — in the 70s she won the Turkey Trot three times. Together they have done a few short triathlons, and they are really into orienteering. They are both still quite competitive, especially with one another. They call exercise “the fountain of youth”, and they , now over 70, are living proof.

So whether you are running 100 or 15 miles a week, keep it up. Consistency, Snell says, is far more important than anything else.

More story in the November Advocate magazine, coming soon.

*quotes from Running Times 

Boston, marathon, people with true grit, probably a bad idea, racing, running, Uncategorized

Not running Boston in April? There are other options

Any runner who qualifies should probably run the Boston Marathon at some point, because — as sappy and cliche as it sounds — it’s the holy grail, grandaddy and big momma, if all of those things are simultaneously possible, of marathons.

I fully appreciate the history of the Boston Marathon and what the event has meant to our sport. The magic is in the feeling of accomplishment and reward: the opportunity to run in the footsteps of the greats and being included in an exclusive tribe of accomplished athletes. I get that.

It was somewhere around the time when Runner’s World called Boston “running’s Justin Beiber”, however, that I started to rethink this thing.

Up until a few weeks ago, I intended to sign up for Boston this past Wednesday, when my registration date, based on qualifying time, gender and age, came up. But when I really thought about it, my heart wasn’t in it.

As the running nerds know, the Boston Marathon last year sold out in a few hours, so the Boston Athletic Association changed the registration process, allowing those who qualify by 20 minutes or more, 10 minutes or more and five minutes or more, respectively, to register during the week ahead of the just-barely qualifiers.

(Also as a result of the race’s increasing popularity, next year the qualifying standards will get tougher.)

I was super lucky this past season to run Boston and before that the New York City marathon. I’m glad I did.

But I am so beaten down (OK this is going to be something like a rant) by over-crowded, ridiculously commercialized, overhyped running events.

It goes against the reasons I like running—for its raw physicality, simplicity and because it is a meditative chore that is both excruciating and euphoria-enducing.

I also like the pressure, competition and camaraderie that is present in groups and at large races — but that is not exclusive to this one event, you guys. Maybe it’s the grandaddy, but we all know that when something becomes too mainstream, it loses a little of its magic.

If you aren’t running Beantown, for whatever reason, it doesn’t mean you are relegated to Big D Marathon (God forbid). Check out, say, the Gansett Marathon — it $70 compared to the $150 for Boston and capped at 500 runners.

It’s near the beach in Rhode Island. It is a qualification-only race started by a fast-on-his-feet but slow-on-the-keyboard guy who got locked out of Boston. Here’s a piece about him on NPR.

Other spring races I would really love to try include Eugene Marathon in April or the Buffalo Marathon in May .

Disclosure: My friends will know — so I must admit — that actually what this is all about is my fear and loathing of large crowds. Though I still think I make a good case for dissing Boston …

inspiration, marathon, people with true grit, racing, running

I like this race director a lot

A handwritten note from the ET Full Moon races director

I got this in the mail this weekend …

A few weeks ago I told you guys about the ET Full Moon (and half) Marathon and 51k, a unique and unforgettable midnight moonlit race outside Area 51.

Due to participant error (a few people signed up for the half marathon but ran the 10k) there was a mix-up in the results.

Over the weekend, I received this note from the race director, Joyce Forier: “Congratulations on your first place finish … I am so sorry that the girl who switched (races) took your glory!”

Wow. You won’t see that often. Then again, this woman and her Calico Racing series is not the norm.

**As a disliker of Rock ‘n’ Roll events, crowds of participants who care more about t-shirts than mile splits, and the increasingly ridiculous commercialization of the sport (in many cases, these days, marathons are more of an expensive social event than an athletic competition — so much for the loneliness of the long distance runner, but I digress), I love Forier’s style.

She is a badass, for one: Aside from race directing, she’s run 63 marathons in 34 states, completed eight Ironman triathlons,  12 ultramarathons (including the famous Comrades of South Africa and two 100 milers) and served as crew/pacer for Badwater five times, to name a few.

Not to mention, she’s a Sagittarius, like yours truly, to which she attributes her “wanderlust” nature.

During the aforementioned desert race, during which I experienced a few logistical snafus myself, Forier registered runners and handed out race packets, loaded the buses, calmly got two lost buses of runners back on track, announced the start of each race (a 51k, marathon, half marathon and 10k), greeted runners at the finish line — those are just a few things I personally witnessed. I also rode a bus with a couple of her volunteers — they looked like college kids — who talked about her as if she was some sort of visionary running guru.

Like them, I am a believer.  She has several Las Vegas area races slated throughout the year, including a Hoover Dam marathon and half Oct. 29 that I am seriously considering.

It’s a month out from the Philadelphia Marathon, for which I am in full training mode right now, so I’m thinking the half would be perfect …

**I realize that was sort-of a mean spirited rant about Rock ‘n’ Roll events and such, but I am going to let it stand … I really don’t like them.

healing and recovery, inspiration, marathon, people with true grit, racing, running

Dallas runner makes a major comeback

White Rock area residents Colleen and Eric Nelson are what you might call overachievers — outstanding reporters, dang good runners. It was just following a fall Dallas Running Club half marathon in 2008 that their lives changed. That’s when the driver of a red sedan plowed into a group of runners at Flag Pole Hill.

Eric Nelson, an editor at the Dallas Morning News was hurt the worst. Sunday night, WFAA ran an inspiring piece about the couple’s comeback, which includes a Pulitzer Prize, for Colleen, who also works at the News, and a plan to run The Rock this year.

Watch the video here.