Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Turn The Page

"I'm stricken by the wonder of it all: the everythingness of everything, in cahoots with the everythingness of everything else" - Diane Ackerman

This time of year usually means reflecting on the past 365 days and looking ahead to the next 365...you know, like making goals.Like trying to figure out how you're going to get faster while not changing one thing in your training. Of course, anyway you look at it, my running is a very loose interpretation of training. My daily early morning slog pace IS my racing pace. When I pick up a running magazine and they start talking about tempo runs, fartlek, pickups, etc., my eyes quickly glaze over and I go to the next article which is usually about something like eating chia seeds and mango paste to become a better runner. And then, my friends, I'm done for the night. Ok, back to reflecting.

The boring numbers don't tell a story. They say I ran 1370 miles. For me, that doesn't sound like a big Whoop, but I'm proud of every mile I put in. Back in the 80's (the year, not the temperature), I put in 4-5 years of 3000+ miles, which was a big Whoop. Hardly missed more than a day a week running back then. Now, Strava says I ran 190 times last year. That's a little more than every other day. It also says I ran 303 hours...that averages 1 hour and 35 minutes a run. That impresses me the most...of course some of those runs were 9+ hours which skews the average, but more on that in a bit.

I love trail running and have transitioned at least half of my miles to the dusty, muddy, and mostly hilly trails. Can't say how much elevation I've climbed up, but I do know that for some twisted reason, for all the complaining about hills I do, I seem to seek them out. There's nothing like getting (somehow) to the top of a long steep climb with hands on your knees, your lungs on the ground, quads completely shot, thinking "Now...that...was...great"! However, when going up these hills, I feel like a fully loaded 18 wheeler lumbering up the hill with my hazards on. Whatever!

I "ran" several races this year. I did one road marathon, 4 trail 50k's, a 3-day, 53 Mile Stage Trail Race, and numerous long trail races thanks to the Southeastern Trail Series. Somehow, despite more trips up the Yellow/White Connector than I want to remember, I managed to come in first in the Grand Master's Division of the 7-race Series. As my very good friend, Bill Tucker, likes to say "You don't have to get faster. You just have to get older". David Tosch was the Race Director of the Series, and I swear, he's got a part of his mind that is just plain twisted. Despite his beloved Y/W Connector, there were some "trails" that were merely flags placed arbitrarily in the woods or over leaf-covered rocks. Then there were the downhills on the Blue or White Trails where I could swear all he did was roll a beer keg down the mountain and said "There's my trail!".

I made many new friends and renewed some old ones through the evolution of BUTS (the Birmingham Ultra Trail Society). We began this year as just a bunch of guys and gals that wanted company to run trails with and BOOM! The idea exploded and we now have a slew (I think that means probably a couple of hundred) of new trail runners. Many of these folks came over from the Birmingham Track Club. I've been a member of the BTC since I began running almost 36 years ago, and have watched it grow from a bunch of guys and gals that wanted company to run on the roads with (sound familiar?). The BTC is 1000+ members strong and now I doubt I know 10% of them. When I see race results, whereas I used to know everybody, now, I might as well be looking at results from Tulsa, or Boise, or Tampa. But, we're all comrades in this great sport.

I ran in Boston 2 weeks after the '13 Marathon. It was surreal to run part of the course and cross the finish line so soon after the horror that so quickly marred our sport. Boston will always be very special to me, and that special place will always have a dark shadow that we'll never shake. Definitely the worst part of my '13 running reflections.

I ran mostly alone, but I also ran with many folks that I am more than proud to call friends, some old, some new. I ran with my son to a lighthouse at Cape Cod and ran out of water, and I  ran by myself for hours at Oak Mountain and ran out of water. My favorite runs were any of the many runs I had with my "lost brother" Moha. A better friend nobody could ever want on the trails, roads, or just about anywhere. We've run together strong and we've run together pretty wimpy, but we run together. Several times, 30 miles is just a funfest for us. A full day funfest, but a funfest nevertheless. 

So, 2013 comes to a close, but that's all. 2014 is rarin' to go, full of surprises. You can have plans if you want, but life is full of sharp left turns. Try to roll with them. I'll lace up my Hokas and see what the next run has in store. I hope you all have a good new year, filled with unexpected, but certainly, good memories.

I'll see you on the 2014 roads - AL

"One child lost is too many...One child saved can change the world"

Sunday, December 22, 2013

My Unintended "Bearly" Ultra At Red Mountain

"I run 17 miles every morning. People ask me how I keep my teeth from chattering in the wintertime. I tell them I leave them in my locker." - Walt Stack

So, after completing the much blogged about Southeastern Trail Series here in Birmingham, I was ready for a break. The last race came a few weeks ago with the Tranquility 50k, and when I somehow came across that finish line, I thought "well, that's enough of that for a while". My legs were tired, I had completed what I had set out to do (complete the "Long Series" - the longest races), it was almost the end of the year, and I figured a little break was the (cough, cough) smart thing to do. In other words, I was just ready for a little break. In 35 years of running, I hardly ever plan for breaks, but my ankles were telling me that if I want to keep doing this stuff, it might be a good idea to back off a little bit once in a while. 

The problem lies that I have the mind of long distance runner and that mind is a long way from my ankles. Any of you out there that are in the same endurance boat as me know what that mind does...it warps any rational thinking into making you believe that every run that comes along that is marathon distance or longer, in the woods, up a mountain, through a creek, from sunrise to sunset, has got to be a good idea, right? For some twisted reason, you have to do it. So, here I was, literally a few days after the Tranquility 50k (my 3rd 50k of the year) and I am reading about the race being put on by our local club, BUTS (Birmingham Ultra Trail Society). We just formed this year and our (free) membership exploded. I can't tell you how many members we have because pretty much you said you wanted to be a member, liked the Facebook page, and voila! you're a BUTS member! Ok, back to the race, the Bearly Ultra Trail Run, a 27 mile run (get it? Bearly  ultra? Bearly intentionally spelled wrong due to the Bear Logo) at Red Mountain. Now, I had every intention of NOT running this race, UNTIL I saw that because it costs money to do some of the cool things BUTS did this year, like buy beer and reserve State Park sites, and order shirts, and buy beer, we were going to have to start charging a nominal membership fee (not yet determined). Now here's the baited hook - if you run the Bearly Ultra, your dues for '14 are paid! Now, I'll gladly pay $100+ a couple of times a year on new running shoes, but I'll drive across town to save a dime and the twisted mind says "hey, pay the 50 buck entry and get free dues (never considering that dues will be way lower than that). So, the hook was set and I HAD to run another race before the end of the year. 

I didn't let my feet in on the secret until the morning of the race when I began to go through the race rituals I've built up over the years and they got wise..."Hey, Al, what's with the PB&J sandwich followed by a banana? And you NEVER pin your Dad's Purple Heart Pin to your shorts unless you're racing. And why all the Gu? One or two are usually enough. Something's up, isn't it?". The truth is, I put in far fewer miles before this race then I usually have. And mentally, ha, that's a good one. I figured, Ok Al, just get out there and get 'er done. The course was 3 loops of 9 miles each with about 900' of elevation. The first 3-4 miles of each loop was pretty hilly, but no crazy-ass climbs like in David Tosch's Series Races. I figured, as I'm slow as cold molasses and my ankles just don't like hills, each loop would be around 2:45 each (told you I was slow). THEN, on the Thursday before the Saturday race, Dan Ripple, the RD, sends out a last rah-rah email to everybody, and there, buried deep in the email, was the tiny print of cutoffs he was instituting...nobody could start the 3rd loop if they finish slower than 5 hours for 2 loops, and there was an 8 hour race cutoff! OK, this meant absolutely nothing to no one because they're all way faster than that, but now my gut said whoa Nellie! Yeah, like I just thrive off new pressure.

December in Alabama should have cold, brisk wind from the North, but this day brought temperature in the 70's with a chance of thunderstorms. Fortunately, this is my favorite weather, so good so far. Then, my buddy, Moha, decided at the last minute to join me for at least one loop. He had run the Rocket City Marathon a week ago and hadn't put in a running step since. If you're a (semi) reader of this blog, you know that Moha and I (known as lost brothers) have put in thousands of miles together over many years, but his balky knee has kept him off the trail for about 6 months. It was great to have him show up. Back to the race...two miles into it, the two lost brothers took a wrong turn and got lost and did an extra 1.3 miles ("Just wanted to make sure it was an ultra...27 miles was cutting it too close"), so right off the bat, we were behind and had to pick it up (ha!) to make up for lost time. At 4.5 miles of each loop was the BUTS Aid Station, music blaring, cheese & bacon quesadillas cooking, and all the support and fun any runner could ever want. Plus, they had my all-time favorite aid station food - watermelon! Because we had picked it up, we actually did our 1st "long" loop in a speedy 2:21. 

Moha decided he felt pretty good to do another loop..."I'm ok". "How's your knee?". I'm ignoring it. It will learn". The 2nd loop was not as pretty. My legs were reminding me that I have one speed (or slower) and although I was trying to push harder, all that came back was "I'm givin' her all I've got, Captain" (Scotty, Star Trek, 2009). Moha kept pushing me despite my whining. Mo is from Iran and although he's been here for a couple of decades, if he, or I, gets tired, we get hard to understand. At one point when he asked me to repeat something for the 3rd time, I said, "God Moha, learn the damn language" at which point he calmly says "If I haven't learned it by now, I'm not going to!". It was funnier at 17 miles. 

We struggled that loop, I was close to toast and we finished the 2nd loop in 5:02 (remember the lately instituted cutoffs?). 
Big Dan, the Evil RD: Good going Al, you made the cutoff!
Me: No, I didn't
Dan: Yes, you did!
Me: No, damn it! I didn't
Dan: You ran extra the first loop. Go on.
Me: Rules are rules. What about people behind me?
Dan; Ain't nobody behind you. Get going!

Mo had to get something quick from his car and I made an effort not to loiter, so I told Mo he'd catch me. Now, I've been running ultras for 30 years so I know how to get in & out of aid stations quick. At this point, I found an even faster way...just forget to fill your water bottle! Yep, a half mile down the road I realize I have an empty bottle...CRAP!! Do I run back? No, there's a big time factor there and a HUGE embarrassment factor. Fortunately, the race Gods were just having fun with me, because heading back towards the start is David Christy, the best dang Race Photographer in the world (See his site here). He poured his whole water bottle into mine...what a literal lifesaver. Moha caught me and the 3rd loop actually went better than the 2nd. It never fails to amaze me, but when you're dead tired, with many hours and miles behind you, if you're with a friend, you can still laugh and genuinely have a great time eating the rest of the race up. Folks doing 100 milers often talk about being dead at 60 miles, but their pacer got them through...and I think what the hell did they talk about for 40 miles? Nothing and everything, that's what! Went through the BUTS A.S. for the third time...had watermelon for the third time, slammed down a couple of Mt Dews and was off.  When we went through the marathon distance, Mo announced "Good, now I don't have to run for another week!".The two sweepers, brother/sister Jimmy & Lisa, caught us, but we nosed them out at the tape. We always seem to bring in the sweepers. We finished in 7:44, well under the the dreaded cutoff. 

For a race I really didn't necessarily want to do, once again, it was a great memorable time. In just about all my races, there comes a time when you just want to chuck it all, but every single doggone time, you cross that finish line and you have no clear recollection of feeling terrible. You can say you felt bad, but you don't feel it. All you feel is "God, I love this sport". 

Tomorrow morning, I'm getting on a plane to Boston for Christmas, and you know what? I'm not bringing my running clothes. No running for a week...just playing with my grandkids. Should be a ball. Hope you all have a great holiday.

I'll see you on the roads - AL

"One child lost is too many...One child saved can change the world"

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Someday is Today

"When you're about to quit, remember why you started"

Back in 1995, I was training runners for old Vulcan Marathon here in Birmingham. Even though I had been directing the training clinic for 11 years at that point and had been long distance running for 16 years, I was having a little bit of a running burnout. Oh, I still enjoyed running, but the newness, the passion, the goals, they were all starting to fade. I ran the Boston Marathon for the first time that year, and after that, it was almost like "Well, what could top that?". I had sworn that I would never run Boston again because it had been everything I had hoped it would be and it would NEVER be as good, so I didn't want to tarnish the memory. I did, in fact, go back 4 more times over the years, but you know what? Even though it was an incredible experience each time, I was right, it was never as good as that first time.

OK, back to 1995...well, early 1995...I was doing a long solo run in Homewood, preparing for Boston, when I ran into a group of about 6-7 runners. Seeing that we almost were running in a parallel universe, I asked if I could join them, figuring the company would take some of the remaining 10 miles of sluggishness out of my legs. I asked what they were training for and they said the Napa Valley Marathon. That seemed like a long way for such a large group from Alabama to be going, but it turns out they were running with a fund-raising group called Team-in-Training. I knew absolutely nothing about the group, so they explained that TNT was a part of the Leukemia Society of America (later to become the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society of America) and they in return for raising monies mostly for research, would receive training, gear, and get a trip to Napa Valley.  During our run, they found out I was a Physical Therapist and asked if I would come to one of their meetings and talk about...well, whatever I could talk about! I wound up doing about 4 talks before they headed out to California and I promptly more or less forgot about TNT.

A few months later, a friend of mine, Julie Green, asked if she could stop by my work to talk to me. She told me that she was now working with the Leukemia Society and was directing the Team-in-Training program. Turned out the current coach was quitting and some of the running group had mentioned me as a replacement. As I was already doing the Vulcan group and pretty active with the Birmingham Track Club, I really wasn't that interested, but Julie is very persistent (hard-headed) and finally swayed me into taking up the reins. Julie, who was not a runner at the time, still tells the story that the only reason she ran her 1st marathon was because I I told her I didn't think she could!  She was a businesswoman, wore high heels, didn't have time to train. What would you say?  I was only trying to keep her from getting hurt, but she got fired up seeing all these runners and went from Zero to Marathon in five months! She even raised the money as a participant.

So, I got my passion back, and for the next 15 years, until 2010, I was the Run Coach for B'ham's TNT program and had excellent help from friends of mine along the way, Ken Harkless, Charles Thompson, and Prince Whatley. To this day, Ken and Prince are still actively involved in TNT coaching. From the first day, we would preach the word that every dollar raised would make a difference. Slowly, we saw survival rates improve and would pound into our trainees that this is good, but MUCH more is needed. Each event brought in hundreds of thousands of dollars to be funneled towards research. We ran and we prayed for "a Cure" of this horrible disease.

Then came the Big Breakthrough...the development of Gleevac in 2001. The drug Gleevec is an example of how funds raised through Team in Training are helping patients. Gleevec is a molecularly targeted treatment for chronic myelogenous leukemia (CML) – a cancer that, before Gleevec, had at least an 85% death rate. Gleevec is a drug that uses cancer cells to attack other cancer cells found in a body while not destroying healthy cells. The 5-year survival rate dramatically improved from from 15% to almost 95% today! The researchers for Gleevac were almost exclusively funded through TNT. We now felt a direct connection between our efforts and the results of those efforts.

In 2010, I reluctantly turned the coaching reins over to Ken and Prince. TNT will always have a very special place in my heart, but like other passions that pass with time, I lost direct connection with the program, the runners, the mission. That is until this week...maybe you caught it on the news....when I received an email from the LLS:

Dear Al,
Just three and a half years after a clinical trial demonstrating the first successful and sustained use of genetically engineered T cells to fight leukemia, LLS-funded researcher Carl H. June, M.D., and his team at University of Pennsylvania and Children's Hospital of Philadelphia presented more promising results this week at The American Society of Hematology (ASH) conference in New Orleans. 

The latest results involved both adults and children with advanced leukemias. For these patients, this therapy was the last option available, as all previous therapies had failed. Among the first 59 patients who received this experimental cellular therapy, 89% of patients were cancer free after treatment.

"These findings show real promise for critically ill patients, who have run out of options. And they clearly demonstrate the ability of LLS-funded researchers to use innovative bioengineering methods to activate the immune system to kill cancer cells." said Lee Greenberger, Ph.D., chief scientific officer of The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society. 

Because of support from people like you, LLS has been able to invest $15 million in Dr. June's work, with an additional $6 million committed through 2017. Your donations are having a real impact for blood cancer patients today. 

Thank you,
John E. Walter
President & CEO

Do you realize how HUGE this news is? Using running as a vehicle, Leukemia now is at the Tipping Point of a cure. Without TNT, research would never have gotten the funding through Government channels alone, and discoveries like these could still be decades away. TNT has generated $1.4 BILLION (that's Billion with a "B") for research since it began in 1988.  I always said our goal should be to put TNT out of commission. I am so proud to have been a part of TNT, as every single participant should be. You did this! We did this! Someday TNT won't be needed anymore. Someday Leukemia will be cured. The new LLS slogan...Someday is Today!

I'll see you all on the roads - AL

"One child lost is too many...one child saved can change the world"