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

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Comrades, inspiration, marathon, people with true grit, running, trail running, ultra, Uncategorized

Dallas runner finishes famous Comrades Marathon

White Rock Running Co-op team member Hari Garimella ran the 2014 Comrades ultramarathon: Photo courtesy Garimella
White Rock Running Co-op team member Hari Garimella ran the 2014 Comrades ultramarathon: Photo courtesy Garimella

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).

Students from the Ethembeni school for disabled children performed for Comrades runners: Photo courtesy Hari Garimella
Students from the Ethembeni school for disabled children welcomed Comrades runners with singing and dancing: Photo courtesy of Hari Garimella

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.

Garimella family in South Africa: Photo courtesy of Garimella
Garimella family in South Africa: Photo courtesy of Garimella

“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.

inspiration, running, trail running, ultra

Dallas women kick ass at Rocky Raccoon 100

I spent last Saturday night in front of my laptop watching the results of the Rocky Raccoon 100-miler.

Seamus — the mutt I adopted from Nicole, the RR100 champ — accompanied me as I followed the race online.
Seamus — the mutt I adopted from Nicole, the RR100 champ — accompanied me as I followed the race online.

My friend Nicole Studer won the women’s race, for the second year in a row (Nicole fostered my dog Seamus and brought the two of us together, so I will forever be indebted to her; he is the best mutt in the world – just look at him).

The second-place female Kaci Lickteig began gaining on Nicole over the last several miles and the 16+ hour ultra came down to a near neck-in-neck with Lickteig just three minutes behind Nicole at the finish. Whew – what a day.

Worth noting: the ultra-running/trail-running community did a bang-up job on coverage with live streaming, tweeting, Vine-ing, blogging, etc. so kudos to irunfar.com and endurancebuzz.com.

Below is the write up I posted on Advocatemag.com about our area’s kick-ass ultra-running women.

White Rock Running Co-op members James Ayers, Brent Yost, Nicole Studer, Eric Studer and Brent Woodle

White Rock Running Co-op members James Ayers, Brent Yost, Nicole Studer — and her hubby Eric Studer — and Brent Woodle are exhausted but ecstatic after a long day at the Rocky Raccoon 100-mile race.

Ultra-running is a fringe activity that is gaining popularity, and women from the Dallas and White Rock area are proving to be leaders in the sport.

An ultra-marathon refers to anything longer than the 26.2 miles that is a regular marathon — 50k, 50 miles, 100 miles and beyond — and they typically are run on dirt trails (and frequently over mountains and other grueling terrain).

We wrote a year ago about White Rock-area resident and White Rock Running Co-op member Nicole Studer when she won the Huntsville Rocky Raccoon 100-mile race.

This year’s Rocky Raccoon 100, held this past weekend, served as the USA Track and Field 100-mile Trail Championship, and Studer defended her title against an even tougher field of women than last year. She won again; she ran under 16 hours and beat second-place Kaci Lickteig from Nebraska by just three minutes.

Another neighborhood woman, Shaheen Sattar — who also improved last year’s time by more than an hour — placed third.

Dallas Running Club member and neighborhood resident Bryan Fisher snapped this pic of Claudia Zulejkic, who he supported as she tackled the 100-mile race.
Dallas Running Club member and neighborhood resident Bryan Fisher snapped Claudia Zulejkic, who he supported as she tackled the 100-mile race.

Claudia Zulejkic, who you’ll find most days working at Bikram Yoga Dallas on Mockingbird-Abrams, ran all day and night, completing the 100-mile ultra-marathon in a little more than 25 hours and placed in the top 25 women out of more than 100 who started the race.

The finishers all benefitted from the help of pacers and crew, they say, and therefore several members of the neighborhood-based Dallas Running Club and White Rock Running Co-op participated in that capacity.

Studer, an attorney by day, tells us her toenails are a little messed up, but other than that she’s feeling good.

injury, inspiration, marathon, running, running as religion, ultra, Uncategorized, White Rock, White Rock Marathon

A year ago he was near dead from a freak accident, now he’s ready to run the Dallas Marathon

An almost-recovered Brandon Cumby ponders his upcoming 26.2-mile race: Photo by Danny Fulgencio, Advocate Magazine

This story originally is published in the December 2013 Lake Highlands Advocate and East Dallas Advocate magazines.

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.

The accident
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.

Running therapy
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.”

Brandon: Photo by Danny Fulgencio, Advocate magazine
Brandon: Photo by Danny Fulgencio, Advocate Magazine

The marathon
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.

Carry the Load memorial, causes, inspiration, ultra

‘Carry the Load’ a 50-mile weighted *wog

Day one kickoff of the Carry the Load walk
Day one kickoff of the Carry the Load walk

This Memorial Day — Sunday through Monday — I participated in the Carry the Load event, an overnight walk in support of men and women who have made great sacrifices for community and country.

(A version of this post also was published on Advocatemag.com Monday, May 28.) *Wog, if you didn’t know, is a walk/jog or a jog that is the same pace as a walk.

The 'Vietnam' couple at the top of flag hill
The ‘Vietnam’ couple at the top of flag hill

A couple of Navy SEALS from Dallas started Carry the Load three years ago. The event, which lasts from afternoon Sunday through noon Memorial Day, began as symbolic effort — a 20-plus hour walk while carrying a weighted pack — to show solidarity with and gratitude for military members and veterans, police, firefighters and their families who have sacrificed lives, body parts, years, etcetera in order to save lives and serve country.

Stephen Holley, a LHHS grad and co-founder of Carry the Load, flanked by LH Exchange Club members Jon Alspaw, Justin Bono, addressed the Exchange Club a few weeks ago about Carry the Load.
Stephen Holley, co-founder of Carry the Load, flanked by Lake Highlands Exchange Club members Jon Alspaw, Justin Bono, addressed the philanthropic club a few weeks ago about Carry the Load.

The inaugural 2011 walk took place at White Rock Lake, in conjunction with the White Rock Lake Centennial celebrations, and was attended by maybe a hundred people. Attendees could choose to walk any distance during any portion of the 20 hours, or spend the whole 20 hours out there. They may carry a heavy pack or a tiny flag — whatever they wish. Participants this year were encouraged (and rewarded with parking passes, camping access, etc.) for raising $200 or more, but anyone could register for free.

The Young Marines group treks the Katy Trail
The Young Marines group treks the Katy Trail

By its second year, the event had gained popularity, moved to Reverchon Park and the Katy Trail and secured more money for various worthy organizations.

This year, I contemplated participating, because I have several family members who are military vets, cops and firefighters.

After interviewing, for a story, Mark Barnett of Lake Highlands CrossFit who was putting a White Rock area team together, I became even more interested. But I had recently suffered a running injury and wasn’t confident about walking a long distance.

Then, my grandfather Tom Hughes, a WWII veteran — who served with the elite Carlson’s Raiders, who came so close to death on Guadalcanal that he was dropped onto a pile of dead bodies, and who received the Purple Heart Award — died, a few weeks ago, at age 89.

Remembrance wall at Reverchon park, courtesy Facebook/Carrytheload
Remembrance wall at Reverchon park, courtesy Facebook/Carrytheload

The next week, we held a military internment at the National Cemetery and I saw how much the ceremony with the color guard, gun salute and bugle-rendition of Taps meant to my pops — a Vietnam veteran — so I decided I needed to Carry the Load this year. The gesture, I felt, would mean a lot to my dad my family.

I signed up a week before the event and raised $401 dollars from friends (my running buddies, of course) and relatives. I promised on my ‘fundraising page’ that I would traverse a mile for every ten dollars raised. That meant I had to walk 40 miles (on an injured foot and no training in more than a month). I was not prepared for that. But I would do my best.

When I arrived at Reverchon Park in Turtle Creek Sunday afternoon, I couldn’t believe the crowd. There were thousands of people here: Soldiers dressed in full long-sleeved fatigues and combat boots carrying huge backpacks (it was 90 degrees), firefighters carrying massive hoses and heavy gear, people with obvious injuries from IEDs and fire (one man walked hours painfully slowly on crutches), parents with children, a sweet-but-tough couple with matching “Vietnam Vet”/”Vietnam Wife” T-shirts (they covered the first seven-mile loop while stopping for cigarette break or two) — a vast array of people came, and it was beyond the sort of attendance this event has seen in years past.  Funds raised this year totaled $1,073, 390. Continue reading

El Scorcho 50k, people with true grit, probably a bad idea, running, ultra

El Scorcho 50k: mucho suffering, good amigos, stories magnifico!

As I ran — make that shuffled — toward the finish line of my first 50k, I begged my stomach to accept, without a fight, the water I’d just given it.

It was about the time I saw the members of the Dallas Running Club on the final stretch — the winning female who had lapped me twice and was now resting comfortably included — that it all came back up.

For 50 yards or so I ran, unloading what seemed like buckets of undigested H20 in my path. I crossed the finish line and stumbled toward the sideline, puke continuing. A friend, Jose — not before taking a picture (these are how running friends are, folks) — helped me to a chair, where I sat with my head dangling between my knees.

A girl handed me a towel. A medic-type grabbed my arm.

Jose stepped away a minute and returned to tell me I hadn’t crossed the finish line.

“What the fu*k?” I say.

“Yeah, your tag (on the shoe) needs to cross the mat. You didn’t go over the mat.”

“Ah shit,” I muster.

I get up and stumble over to the mat and wave my right foot across it. There. It is done. 5:35. I told my husband I expected to finish in “a little over four hours – probably four and a half.” One of several stupid misconceptions I had concerning El Scorcho, the 10-times 5k-loop, in July, at midnight in Fort Worth Texas.

“Paul looks like death and Christina is on the death bed.” —Jose Vega

I was all set to start slow, at slower than nine minute per mile pace, but a storm came through Saturday night and the weather cooled to about 75 and I said to Paul, who would run with me, “Since it’s cool, we can run faster than planned. I mean, we can do 8:30-8:40s in our sleep, right?”

Paul — who I once considered a smart guy — agreed to this ridiculousness, which was in no way what we had practiced for.

It took about 12 miles (four El Scorcho laps) to recognize that that “pace-we-could-run-forever-pace”, was not a pace I could run forever. In about another three miles, my stomach was very queasy. As we embarked on the fifth lap, just halfway through, I threw up for the first time.

As we started the sixth loop, Paul began talking to me about my breathing and “toughness” and “hanging in there” among other bullshit. I started talking about quitting. “Plenty of good runners have dropped out of this race before,” I told him.

“You’re not dropping out,” he told me. He talked me through most of the seventh loop — stopping and walking through each water stop with me — “Just make it to the next light, he’d say. “We are going to do this in little sections,” he’d say  — though he could have kept running at a good clip at that point.

But by mile 21-22, after I had lost the ability to keep down any fluid, Paul was telling me I should probably call it a night. I was scaring him. Each time we passed the start/finish point, I leaned down over my bag, guarded all night by Jose, to grab a towel or piece of ice, but I was really hoping that by leaning over I would lose consciousness whereby, through no choice of my own, I would be forced to lie down.

But I kept standing back up.

So I would start walking and next thing you know I’d be jogging again. Jogging-walking through water stops-jogging … by the last six miles, I was able to continuously jog slog.

I simply stopped drinking anything so I stopped barfing for a while. Paul — who already had been suffering a bad case of plantar fasciitis — was barely able to walk now. I think if he’d not stopped with me, he’d probably have finished and would have been fine — this is a guy with a 4-hour-flat 50k under his belt. He told me to go ahead and in my extreme delirium and desperation to finish, I did. (I know. I am a jerkface and I am sorry, Paul.)

I knew I was too sick to stay out there any longer than necessary. At that point, I honestly believed there was a chance I could die. I saw my husband at the start/finish area and he’s all, “you did it” and I just walked over hugged him and said, “sorry, I still have about three miles to go.”

It was about a mile from the final finish that I could no longer resist the water. I was dying of thirst. So at that last aid station, knowing better, I slammed a full cup.

The result: the scene described at the front-end of this story.

After I got my damned foot over the finish line, I was hauled off to the medical truck where a nice guy stuck a tube in my arm and “bypassed my stomach”, giving me some essential fluid.

At one point when things were bad, Paul said to me, “I think you just get in these situations so that you have something interesting to blog about.”

Maybe it’s true.

No one wants to hear the braggadocios ramblings of a runner for whom things constantly go well (no offense ladies and gents, because I have friends and contemporaries for whom things seem to usually go well and I am actually very proud of them and I will surely write of them at another, better time); we don’t need to hear lengthy descriptions about how all went perfectly. Screw that.

My audience (Hey, Dad and my 4-6 friends!) wants the struggles, the pain, the violence, the dramatic horrifying puke-filled finishes. (Uh … right guys?)

I remember reading a book called, “Diary” by Chuck Palahniuk in which, if I remember correctly, an entire town collaborates to make the life of a young artist as miserable as possible, because “suffering is necessary to create art.” Do I believe that? Is that why I subject myself to such suffering? So I can someday write a masterpiece?

Hilarious. No, seriously. It sounds good, though. No, really, I just can’t get my shit together.

Nevertheless, one of these days, when I do have a perfect race, you will only need look back on this (or this) and you will understand that I paid my dues.

inspiration, people with true grit, running, trail running, ultra

Dallasite does Western States 100

First published on Advocatemag.com, the website of the Lake Highlands Advocate magazine June 25.

Lake Highlands runner Nick Polito at mile 30 of Western States, just before getting his second wind.

Lake Highlands runner Nick Polito this past weekend completed the Western States 100 Mile Endurance Run in 28 hours 47 minutes. Yeah, so the guy seriously ran for almost 29 hours straight. Well, he would correct me there—he says he walked up the steepest hills (about 18,090 feet of climbing overall) and ran/walked the final 20 miles.

Before entering Western States, which began at 5 a.m. last Saturday at the base of the Squaw Valley ski resort and finished Sunday at a high school track in Auburn, California, Polito had to qualify by completing another endurance run in a certain amount of time.

Polito—who lives in Lake Highlands with his wife Sunny and sons Christopher, 14, and Luke and Campbell, 7-year-old twins—took up running several years ago and showed promise.

I met him through the Dallas Running Club way back when he was working to qualify for the Boston Marathon. He indeed ran the Boston Marathon and a year later ran it again in under 3 hours, which is a feat for anyone, but especially impressive for a guy in his 40s.

So, I guess he just needed more of a challenge. For Western States, he says he trained about 13 hours a week or 80 miles per week in the three months leading up to Western State. That’s a time-consuming hobby for a father of three who also works full time, so support from the family was essential, he says.

“They are supportive and very proud. They do just about anything I need to accomplish my goals. They know that running is my passion and in many situations my social outlet,” he says. “They give me the time and on race day they love to come out and support. For a 100 miler this means 24-30 hours of running around in the rain to only see me for three minutes at a time.” Christopher served on Nick’s Western States support crew.

During the race, Polito says he felt bad 30 miles in. “At the top of an 8700-foot climb, it started to hail, with gale-force winds,” he says. By mile 30 he thought he might stop, “but I told myself I would not quit. They would have to pull me off the course and I didn’t see anyone big enough to do that. After my climb up Devil’s Thumb, mile 48, I had my strength back.”

Today he feels a “little tired” but mostly high from the experience. “A lot of that has to do with all the support I get from friends and family.”

For better or worse, he’ll need to return to regular life for a bit now. “The reality is I am back to being dad and life with the family and work gets started right back up. I look forward to a couple of weeks of rest and no running.”

He has another race, a mere 50-miler, planned for October.