Runner's Gift List

We’ll be the first to admit it: living with a runner isn’t always easy.

You have to hear the alarm go off in the dark when he (or she) wakes up for an early morning run. You live with muddy shoes and sweaty clothes strewn all over the house. You can’t go 2 days without hearing about some past or upcoming race. It’s enough to drive you crazy sometimes.

The good news is that when December rolls around, runners are extremely easy to shop for. With that in mind, here are some last-minute gift ideas for that obsessive (and sometimes irritating) runner in your life. Most of these can be picked up locally at The Treadmill, Fleet Feet, or REI stores as well as online - see our archive webpage for good product links.

**Online version: all links are to product pages on or other online vendors.

1. Moisture-wicking cap and/or gloves. Cold-weather running is especially harsh on exposed fingers and ears, so if your runner doesn’t already have a nice moisture-wicking cap or gloves, these will be a welcome sight in the stocking. Sugoi makes a great Firewall LT glove and subzero skull cap to keep you warm on cold mornings.

2. Reflector vest or headlamp. Winter brings extended darkness, and your number one priority on the roads is safety. Most running apparel today has reflective accents, but if you really want to stand out, a thin mesh reflective vest will ensure visibility from hundreds of feet away.

Headlamps are doubly effective in that they can be seen from farther away by oncoming traffic, and they also help the runner see any hazards in the road. One lamp in particular, Black Diamond's Sprinter, has an additional blinking LED behind you for even more safety.

3. Car seat cover: Your runner probably drives somewhere for a workout; after the run, chances are that he sits back behind the wheel with muddy calves and sweaty clothes, perhaps on top of an old gym towel. A car seat cover has fabric on one side and an impermeable plastic on the back side, can be tossed over the seat in seconds, and is machine washable. And it’s a lot cheaper than shampooing your car upholstery.

4. CLIF Bloks: These are a chewy version of energy gels, and CLIF makes the best flavors going, including a new citrus flavor introduced this fall that is fantastic.

5. Socks: In the words of Hogwarts headmaster Albus Dumbledore, “One can never have enough socks.” Mike likes Balega, Donald likes Drymax. Your runner may vary.

6. GPS device: These used to be big-ticket items, but the price of technology gets more affordable every year. A company called Soleus makes a wrist-mounted GPS that’s as small as a watch and as accurate as a big-ticket Garmin – all for less than $100.

7. WNLR membership: Every runner needs some kindred spirits, and the Wednesday Night Laundry Runners have members to match nearly every talent level and type of running you can think of. For annual dues of $15 you get social gatherings and running store discounts as well, making it one of the best deals going.  Send us an e-mail for details.

8. The Running Life book: Did you think we’d forget to mention our book? If you know a novice runner, someone who is training for the Big Sur marathon, or anyone who enjoys life from a runner’s perspective, this would make a perfect gift under the tree. It’s available for purchase from our website - see the sidebar at top right.

Happy holidays, and happy shopping!

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Running For Life: The Ric Munoz Story

Author's note: This is an extended version of an article that appeared in the Monterey Herald on December 1st.


In January 1987, Ric Munoz sat stoically inside a health clinic, waiting to hear news that he long expected. He was a 28-year-old marathoner who was logging increasing mileage and faster race times with each passing year. He also had very good reason to believe that he might soon be dead.

Munoz’s fears were confirmed that day: his physician informed him that he was HIV+, and that his life expectancy might be as brief as a handful of months. However, on this World AIDS Day 2011, nearly 25 years later, Munoz is not only still among the living, but remains a talented and successful runner well into his 6th decade of life. His story represents not only the tremendous advances in the medical fight against AIDS, but also the healing, life-sustaining benefits that running offers to all of us.

Along the way, he enjoyed 15 minutes of celebrity fame thanks to Nike – but by the time the company discovered him, Munoz had already been been inspiring people and defying conventional wisdom for years. He welcomed the opportunity to be interviewed – at one time, it was something he was very accustomed to – to share the long, strange, often scary but ultimately uplifting adventure his life took after being diagnosed with HIV.

His story began in the spring of 1983, when his friend Teri Tait Gabrielsen kept pestering him to run a 10K with her. Munoz trained with Teri for a few days, mainly so she’d stop nagging him, and he ultimately finished the 10K race. As it often happens with new runners, 10Ks soon turned into marathons, and Munoz discovered his love for the sport. It’s very likely that his journey would have taken a much different turn if not for his “nagging” friend, and Munoz now says that, “Everything I’ve ever accomplished is owed completely to Teri.”

Ric Munoz and Teri Tait Gabrielsen, 1984

For the next few years, Munoz was what anyone would call a strong, healthy recreational runner; he trained 40 miles per week, and entered dozens of road races from 5Ks to marathons. However, he also harbored a nagging certainty that his life was increasingly at risk with each passing day, which ultimately led to his fateful clinic visit in 1987.

Munoz was “100% certain” of what the result would be. Gay media outlets had alerted people to the looming epidemic as early as 1981, and Munoz realized that he was too deep within the circle of impact to emerge unscathed. “If testing had been available in the late ‘70s or early ‘80s, I likely would have tested positive then, too, primarily because I was part of the group - sexually active gay men - that was at highest risk.” By the time the mid-1908s rolled around, Munoz had already lost several of his friends and running partners to AIDS-related illnesses.

Accordingly, he received the positive diagnosis with complete calm – in fact, he vividly remembers how stunned the person at the clinic was when Munoz heard his test results. “I’m pretty sure he expected everyone who got a positive test to break down and cry or otherwise collapse emotionally,” he recalls. When you’re 100% certain that something is going to happen, it’s tough to have a look of surprise when you find out you’re correct.

Under the surface, however, the notion of being HIV+ was terrifying. Fatality rates for HIV in the mid-1980s were in the high 90th percentile, thus making a positive diagnosis akin to a death sentence. Munoz had already seen many close friends die, usually in horrifying fashion as their bodies progressively deteriorated over a period of several months. “The fear level was indescribable,” he stated. “One guy in my neighborhood, upon learning that he definitely had AIDS, killed himself by drinking a bottle of Drano. He was convinced he had no hope to survive.” The pervading hopelessness was like almost nothing else in the history of modern public health.

Like any dedicated runner would do, Munoz used running as an outlet for his sadness, for his anxieties, for all the uncertainty and emotional thunderstorms that accompany such a dire circumstance. “I opted to accelerate my training and racing schedule immediately after the diagnosis,” he says. “I viewed it as counterproductive to wallow in worry or fear about the unknown.” His weekly mileage and training intensity sharply increased, and Munoz began running the fastest times of his life.

He also noticed that he was very slow to develop any of the tell-tale symptoms of AIDS. At the time, there wasn’t any medical consensus about the impact of exercise in HIV patients, but many feared that physical strain would accelerate the disease process. Munoz challenged his physician: “I put my doctor on the spot and asked if pursuing distance running unchecked would cause the HIV to change from its dormant state to something actively harmful. When he replied, ‘I don’t know,’ that was enough information for me to roll the dice and carry on with my running – an activity I grew to be passionate about and a world I could retreat to indefinitely.”

It wasn’t until several years later that HIV specialists came to accept that physical activity does more help than harm – and it wasn’t until a high-profile superstar athlete contracted HIV that the athletic community felt the impact of what had previously been considered simply a “gay disease”. Ironically, Magic Johnson’s surprise retirement from the Los Angeles Lakers in November 1991 also triggered Ric Munoz’s rise to public prominence as an athlete who had been successfully battling HIV for years.

Munoz is a native Los Angeleno, so when his city went into a frenzy in the wake of Magic Johnson’s announcement, he wrote a letter to the editor of the Los Angeles Times. “I basically said people were overreacting to Johnson’s news, and that he should work to avoid the ‘death sentence mentality’ maintained by many who were HIV positive. With the right attitude, he still had a long life ahead of him,” he reports.

“Thank goodness I was right! I also pointed out all the marathons I’d run to that point (40) and how I never would have run them if I’d bought into the type of ‘it’s-just-a-matter-of-time-before-he-dies’ speculations that his fans and the media were ignorantly tossing Johnson’s way.” Munoz seemed like a lone voice in the wilderness at the time, but it was hard to argue with his own success: in June 1992, five years after being officially HIV+ and six months after Magic Johnson’s retirement, Munoz ran a lifetime-best 2:44 marathon. He was now running more than 10 marathons per year, and still not showing signs of the disease.

Columbus Marathon, 1992

Munoz’s story was compelling enough that the Times did a profile of his marathoning and living with HIV. Over the next couple of years Munoz would be profiled by other publications including the New York Times – and in November 1994, he received a phone call from an advertising agency representing Nike. The company was inspired by his story, and recruited Munoz to appear in one of its popular “Just Do It” television ads.

“I’ll never forget the phone call,” he says, “from the creative executive asking if I’d be interested in appearing in the commercial. I thought he was kidding, of course. But after repeated assurances that Nike was very serious about doing the ad, I immediately agreed.” Sure, the personal exposure would be nice, but Munoz had a higher purpose in mind. “It also occurred to me that if I turned them down, there was a strong possibility the ad might never get made.”

The resulting commercial was filmed in one day on the trails of Malibu Canyon State Park. The director was Joe Pytka, a legendary ad industry figure who was also responsible for Nike’s “Bo Knows” series as well as the Larry Bird / Michael Jordan “Nothin’ But Net” spots for McDonald’s. It’s beautiful in its simplicity: interspersed among scenes of Munoz running on scenic trails, a series of black title cards appear onscreen: Ric Munoz, Los Angeles … 80 miles every week … 10 marathons every year … HIV positive.

Nike’s landmark “HIV Runner” spot premiered on February 9, 1995 during that night’s episode of ER. It had an immediate impact on the running community, and shattered popular misconceptions about living with HIV. Director Joe Pytka later said it was one of his proudest ads, and it was ultimately named one of the 50 greatest TV commercials of all time by Entertainment Weekly magazine. Munoz spent time hobnobbing at Nike headquarters in Oregon and became friends with company founder Phil Knight. The commercial aired globally, and Nike flew Munoz to London to help promote its original airing in England on World AIDS Day 1995.

Ric Munoz and Phil Knight, 1995

Of course, fame doesn’t ensure ongoing health, and running doesn’t provide immunity from disease. Munoz had typically been reluctant to take AZT or DDI, the treatment drugs available at the time, because of their significant side effects. “My doctor respected my wishes, but also warned me that one day the HIV would be too strong for my immune system to handle,” he says. The doctor’s prediction came true in 1998, when Munoz acquired an opportunistic infection called cryptosporidiosis, and his T-cell count dropped significantly. Normal healthy individuals have a T-cell count between 500 and 1500, and a count below 200 in HIV+ individuals increases the risk of fatal infection. In mid-1998, Munoz’s T-cell count was 3; if he had deferred treatment just a bit longer, he most likely would have perished.

Fortunately for Munoz, his crisis coincided with the advance of antiretroviral medicines called protease inhibitors, and he finally relented to his doctor’s urging to try the new medications. His T-cell count began to rise, and the infection eventually was entirely cleared. The brush with death taught Munoz an important lesson: from that moment on, he reports, “I never doubted my doctor’s advice again” on the importance of a regular medication regimen.

He also never relented on his determination to push the limits of his athletic performance – and shortly after the deathly scare, Munoz turned his attention to ultramarathons. In November 1998 he completed his first 50-mile event, and for the past decade he has competed in some of the most famous ultramarathons in the world, including the Comrades 56-miler in South Africa, and the Western States 100-Mile Endurance Run in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Nowadays, however, he does so with the blessing of his medical team.

“My current doctor is a marathoner,” Munoz says. “Hearing me describe the six 100-milers I’ve completed over the past two years has gotten him thinking about trying an ultra himself; he’ll likely start by doing a 50K. He’s voiced no objection whatsoever to the ultra distances I’ve raced.” His physician monitors Munoz’s bloodwork closely and tests his T-cell count four times annually; last year, Munoz’s number was a robust 904, the highest count he’s ever recorded.

He has also enjoyed a string of good health enviable by anyone, regardless of their HIV status. “My health is really good these days, and it’s kept stable for at least the past 10 years,” he reports. “The last time I had a cold or flu was nearly two years ago. I can recall numerous times over the past few months when I’ve felt the rumblings of a cold coming on and then seen those rumblings disappear after I’ve gone out for a run.”

To date, Ric Munoz has completed 155 road marathons and 26 ultras, including six 100-mile finishes. He’s still a member of the Nike family, receiving free shoes and apparel, and he occasionally gets invited to the Nike campus to speak with employees or share his story for other promotional purposes. Sometimes he gets recognized at races, but he says, “So many years have passed since the commercial first aired, that makes it a less frequent occurrence.” As each race and each year go by, he becomes more like another face in the crowd – a notion that he wouldn’t have believed in his wildest dreams more than 20 years ago.

At the Western States 100, 2011

More importantly, his journey has instilled the same blessings of peace and insight that many cancer survivors experience: the knowledge that every day is precious, and that life needs to be savored and enjoyed, because we never know when we’ll cross our final finish line. “I never lose sight of the fact that today could easily be my last day on Earth,” Munoz says. He’s “grateful to be around to see another World AIDS Day”, and takes life one fragile day at a time.

Munoz considers his identity as a runner and that of an HIV carrier to be one and the same. He states that, “My resiliency has endured over the years; I owe a huge chunk of that resiliency to the inner strength and physical strength I’ve developed through long distance running - the 100-mile events in particular.” He is just as disciplined about his medical regimen – regular checkups, blood testing, two drugs taken every day of his life – as he is about his training, where he continues to log 70-80 miles per week. He has a list of ambitious running goals, and one very ambitious health goal: “I hope to be around to see the eradication of AIDS, as difficult as that may seem today.”

That last notion might not be as far-fetched as it initially sounds. Given how utterly bleak things looked 30 years ago, and realizing how far medicine has progressed since then, it’s not hard to imagine that another 30 years from now we might be talking about AIDS in the past tense, just as we do with polio today. And as a robust 53-year-old with healthy activity habits and a potent treatment regimen on his side, there’s no reason to think that Munoz won’t be there to enjoy it.

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Women Rule!

We were prepared to title this column “Wet and Wild,” but with the rain holding off just long enough for all but the late finishers, weather wasn’t a major factor on Sunday. Instead, the story of this year’s Big Sur Half marathon weekend was the women, who truly shined.

US Olympians Magdalena Lewy Boulet from Oakland and Blake Russell from Pacific Grove battled in an epic women’s race, with “Magda” coming out the winner. Watching them in full flight with Monterey Bay in the background is awe inspiring.

65% of our half marathon entries were women, and this is not unusual. At the fitness expo, Lisa Beckham of the Competitor Group reported that they organize 28 marathons and half marathons across the nation, all with similar demographics.

We asked some women runners at the weekend’s events why they ran and some themes were evident. Tracy Clark, a young mother from Elk Grove said,”It’s ME time, a much needed break, and it’s energizing.” Tara Clark and Avril Waddle, competitive local runners in their 40’s who often train together, commented, “It helps us stay sane, we can talk both good and bad about our husbands, and we can eat chocolate guilt-free.”

Females of every age gave impressive answers at the weekend races. Sisters Alondra (age 9) and Andrea (age 7) from Del Rey Woods Elementary said, “It’s healthy, it’s good for you, and it’s fun.” Emily Passey and Olivia Chapa, freshman runners from Aptos High School who just finished their cross-country seasons, said, “Running is relaxing, and you can think about life.” Sharron Douglas, the 73-year-old retired principal of Carmel River School, runs for health, explaining “It makes me feel good both during and after any run.”

It was hard not to notice Norina Florendo and her friends from San Francisco, celebrating loudly and happily after the 5K on Saturday. Norina just started running two years ago and has already helped 7 of her friends start running programs. They finished their first 5K at Lovers Point on Saturday and proudly displayed their medals, then headed down the coast to Nepenthe to celebrate their acheivement.

Several businesses that cater to women runners were present at the expo. Sunny Arada is a runner and recent Fresno State grad who started a business called “Endure” that sells running-themed jewelry, necklaces, and shirts for women. She says, “It takes a certain personality to run regularly.”

It also takes a certain personality to be a mother – and according to local psychologist (and mother of 4) Dr. Kathryn Hambley, “Running makes me a better mother.” There were also more than 100 members of the group Athletes for Adoption in bright red shirts at all the weekend events. November is National Adoption Month, and the group picks our race weekend as their annual fundraiser. According to Darren Denlinger, the Chairman of their Board of Directors, “It’s the best race there is anywhere in November.” We wholeheartedly agree.

Motherhood almost came early to one runner, who didn’t want her name mentioned. She is seven and a half months pregnant and felt contractions just before the mile 4 aid station of the half marathon. Although the race has outstanding organization, labor and delivery services are a tall order for most aid stations. Luckily it turned out to be false labor, and our mom-to-be cautiously dropped from the race.

It was a day for the women all around; even the local running club’s “predict your own time” contest was won by a female, Anne Goode. Anne takes home a 6-pack of Sierra Nevada for running just a few seconds off her predicted time. She wouldn’t share any with us – she must be waiting for her girlfriends.

Congratulations to everyone who ran on Sunday – even the men! We’ll see you all next time.

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Star Gazing

The Big Sur Half Marathon on Monterey Bay is Sunday and for once we almost feel like watching instead of running.

The elite coordinators, Steve Butler and Greg Mislick, have assembled one of the best fields for any race in the country. Rudy Novotny, who travels around the U.S. to announce races says, “it’s the best woman’s field I have seen in quite some time.” And we know the men’s field is full of stars as well.

We have the second (Magdalena Levy Boulet), third (Blake Russell), and fourth (Zoila Gomez) finishers from the 2008 Women’s Olympic Trials marathon in Boston.

If you are not running on Sunday we suggest you take the whole family and find yourself a great position to watch the race. We recommend standing near Lovers Point on Ocean View Boulevard. The course turns left from Ocean Avenue up Fountain into Pacific Grove, then back down to Lovers Point on 17th, then heads out to Asilomar and back. You should be able to see the elite runners go by 3 times – at 3.75 miles, 4.5 miles and 11 miles into the race.

While you are waiting for the elites to come back you can encourage the 8,000 other runners who are giving their all. Maybe they will inspire you or your kids to start running and enter the race next year.

Channel your inner Kenyan or Ethiopian: When you are watching the elites look for several things about their running form. It can make you a better runner. Look for how relaxed they run and how great their posture is. Look for quick leg tempo – try to incorporate that in your own running. Kenyan runners Fred Tumbo, Bernard Langat, Benson Cheruiyot, and Abdelaziz Atmani should be at the front of the men’s race with Ethiopian’s Ezkyas Sisay, and Gishu Dida. Sisay just finished 9th in the New York City Marathon on November 6th after leading for much of the race.

Belainesh Gebre, from Ethiopia, last year’s woman’s Half Marathon winner and course record holder at 1:09:43 recently withdrew, but according to Steve Butler, we have 15 women entered this year who are faster than last year’s second place time. And 9 of them have sub 1:15 half marathon times.

Root for the Home Team: You can admire the Kenyan’s and Ethiopians but we want you to yell loudly for our local heros who also happen to be national stars. We’ll even tell you their numbers so when you see them you can yell their names frantically. Believe us when we tell you it helps.

Blake Russell from Pacific Grove is number 38. Blake was on the U.S. Olympic team in the marathon in 2008 and the only U.S. finisher in Beijing. She has a half marathon best of 1:11:45. A few weeks back she came in 3rd in the U.S. 10 mile championship.

Brooke Wells, a Carmel High and U.C. Berkeley grad, who now lives in San Francisco is number 7. Brooke has a half marathon best of 1:15:40 set earlier this year.

Fasil Bizuneh, born in Indiana but lived on the Monterey Peninsula for 4 years when he was with the Big Sur Distance Project. Fasil is number 45. He was the winner of the very first Big Sur Half Marathon and should be right in the mix with a half marathon best of 1:02:47.

Crosby Freeman, is a Monterey Peninsulan by association, as he is Brooke Wells boyfriend. Crosby is number 24 and lives in the San Francisco Bay Area. He has a half marathon best of 1:04.

Whether you are running or watching we know it’s going to be an exciting day on Sunday.

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You Be the Coach

Many of our running partners have sons and daughters running on local high school cross country teams this fall. It’s fun to follow the progress of the 2nd and often 3rd generation kids from running families. It is encouraging to see the kids following the healthy habits of their parents and enjoying the sport.

Running is one of the few high school and college sports that can be a lifelong participant hobby. Most people don’t realize that Cross Country is the largest participative sport in the country at the high school level. It’s easy to have a team as costs are low, you can have a competitive team with only 5 runners, you can train almost anywhere, and both girls and boys can participate.

But many kids leave the sport after their high school experience for various reasons; including time and pressure from college and family commitments. Many find the competitive grind difficult and never equate their running with fun; it becomes work and full of pressure. Many get injuries during cross country season and become frustrated.

We feel it’s the coach and the parents responsibility to emphasize to high school runners that running is not only an individual challenge but it can be a lifelong way to health and well being. Student runners should understand the link between running and health as well as reasons for the types of training they are asked to do. The coach should explain the reasons for speedwork, running hills, gradually increasing distance over the course of the season, running drills, and other workouts they are asked to do.

One issue that always comes up in our discussions is if you were a high school coach would you allow runners to miss practice for other activities? Would you allow runners to run in competition if they miss several practices? Would you allow the talented faster runner that competes in another sport during cross country season to come out and run for the team, even though you have very hard working runners that practice every day that are not as fast?

We may be idealists, but if we were coaching in high school we would let any student run and compete for the top 5 spots, that wanted to. We would want to get as many kids running as possible. An uncertain and slow Freshman or Sophmore, if coached and motivated properly, may become a Senior Star.

High school students should be encouraged to try different things. If someone wants to be in band or math club or student government or drama, and it’s the same time as cross country practice, then make arrangements for the student to run on their own.

We still feel that cross country is an INDIVDUAL sport where the team environment can be extremely motivating in having runners go faster. Training together provides motivation and spirit and improvement but it’s basically an individual sport and improvement and performance is based on internal motivation and desire.

And what about fast talented runners that do other sports or miss practices due to other activities. We say “Let Them Run” in meets if they are faster than those that are practicing every day. In scholastic classes, do teachers on tests, ever make allowances for those that aren’t “intellectually gifted” by giving them extra credit for studying more, even if they do worse on the test?

Success in life and running depends on a combination of talent and hard work. It’s an important lesson that is best learned early.

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A Wife On Your Back

Guys out there, listen up: Maybe distance running isn’t your thing. And maybe you’re not particularly suited for track races either. That doesn’t mean you have to give up your dreams of athletic glory through running.

Maybe what it means is that you have to find the right wife.

More specifically, perhaps it’s time to find a female partner and try your skill at wife carrying, a sport where men race each other through an obstacle course of dirt, ramps, forest terrain, giant logs, and a 1-meter deep water hazard – all while physically carrying a woman along the way.

Wives can be carried one of four ways: 1) traditional piggyback (considered very amateur), 2) Santa Claus-style with the wife flung over one shoulder, 3) Fireman style with the wife around the neck and over both shoulders, or 4) the Estonian carry, where the wife hangs upside-down on the man’s back, with her legs around his shoulders and her face at his rear end.

Yes, it sounds funny, but wife-carrying is serious business. The 12th annual North American Championships just took place over Columbus Day weekend - giving you 50 full weeks to prepare for next year’s event –and the World Wife Carrying Championships (WWCC) have become hugely popular. Competitors from all over the world square off in this unique test of fitness, strength, agility, and teamwork, and the winners are rewarded with the wife’s weight in beer.

That’s right … beer. So the heavier your wife, the greater the reward – but only if you win. But don’t think you can just marry some anorexic in order to gain a competitive advantage; the minimum wife weight is 108 pounds, and females weighing less are required to wear a weighted rucksack to meet the standard.

Wife Carrying Championships feature many similarly strange rules, and perhaps the oddest one is this: the wife you carry doesn’t even have to be your own. According to the official rules, “The wife to be carried may be your own, the neighbor's, or you may have found her further afield.” The only requirement is that she is at least 17 years old.

The World Championships originated in Finland and take place there annually. There’s historic context to all this: some say the event commemorates a 19th-century marauder whose gang raided small villages to steal food and kidnap the town’s women. Others think it recalls a custom of young men sneaking into neighboring villages to steal someone’s wife for their own, literally carrying them back to their own house. Sure, it’s barbaric, but realistically, there probably weren’t many other sports in early Finland aside from wife stealing.

As you might expect, Finns dominate the world championships, but there’s another country whose runners do shockingly well: Estonians, whose carrying method revolutionized the sport. Although it looks ridiculous, the Estonian Carry is remarkably efficient, and Estonian teams ran away with multiple titles before the rest of the world finally followed suit.

The Estonian Carry is fraught with all sorts of embarrassment and/or danger; consequently, the wife’s spirit and determination are often considered equally important to success as the husband’s physical skill. The WWCC page describes the ideal wife as, “composed of humor and hard sport on a fifty-fifty basis.” Which brings us back to our original thought: if you’re not finding the success you seek in running, maybe the best thing you can do for yourself is to find the right girl.

Come to think of it, that’s not a bad lesson for our non-running lives as well.

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Running Characters

Characters make your Running Life more interesting and we’ve run with our share. Usually what happens on the roads and trails stays on the roads and trails; but we’ve decided that the statute of limitation has expired and we’re going to tell a few stories. These characters have moved away and we’ve changed the names below anyway.

You can definitely learn from your running partners and have a lot of laughs as well.

The Stealth: “Doug” had a job that kept him travelling a lot and even when he was home his hours were unpredictable. He knew where and when we ran each morning, but we never knew when he was going to show up. Even though most of our early morning runs were done in the dark “Doug” always wore black shorts and a black shirt.

He was a very fast, efficient, and quiet runner and loved to unexpectedly come up behind us and yell loudly; or sometimes lay in wait ahead when he knew we would be passing. Believe us when we say this is startling and caused an adrenaline rush that lasted for several miles. It helped our training.

“Doug” also provided some unexpected advice when we had a discussion of what male runners wore under their running shorts. The choices were to just use the lining of the running shorts (nothing), a jock, boxers, or briefs. “Doug” added another choice as he casually commented that he wore his wife’s underwear as it was more comfortable and didn’t chafe. Stealth indeed.

The Pitt: The conversation in our group (both men and women) is typically wholesome, family oriented, and rated G, but when “Dave” was running the subject always turned to sex. He had a “Brad Pitt” complex, thinking he was irresistible to women. Whenever we ran by any attractive woman on the trail, “Dave” would politely wait until she passed and was out of earshot, and then say, “She wants me.”

It became so standard that whenever the group ran by any woman, the entire group, including the women, would chant, “She wants me!” at the same time as “Dave”.

Often on very long training runs, typically over the 20 mile mark, a type of Runner’s Tourette’s Sydrome sets in where the mouth doesn’t filter what the brain is thinking. It was then that EVERYONE on the trail would hear “she wants me”, “he wants me”, or “it wants me” as they were near our group. It made for some embarressing moments but like the stealth, caused a training benefit, as the group tried to sprint away from “Dave” whenever another walker or runner approached.

Special Forces: We had a military Special Forces officer run with us for quite a while and he taught us one very important thing. Experienced runners are usually very aware of their bodily functions and timing and if there is a possibility of “going” on the run they carry toilet paper and a plastic bag.

One early morning on the roads, the Special Forces guy had a need and no one had toilet paper. “Paul” did what none of us would have even considered in a time of need and resourcefully headed to the nearest house that had newspaper delivery. He politely ripped the classified ads for his own use, and folded the rest of the paper back the way it was.

Unfortunately when we started writing our column and he had a need on Thursdays he made a point of grabbing the sports. This wasn’t so Special.

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Go Out and Play!

“Play is essential to development because it contributes to the cognitive, physical, social, and emotional well-being of children and youth.”
- Clinical report in PEDIATRICS, January 2007

“We run, not because we think it is doing us good, but because we enjoy it and cannot help ourselves ... The more restricted our society and work become, the more necessary it will be to find some outlet for this craving for freedom.”
- Sir Roger Bannister

When it comes to playtime, our society actually starts children out pretty well. It’s not until adulthood that things get screwed up.

The vast majority of elementary schools – including all of them on the Monterey Peninsula – include daily recess as part of the curriculum. It’s the time when kids leave the world of book reports and multiplication tables behind, and escape to a world of four square battles, double-dutch routines, JUST RUN, or any magical adventures they can imagine.

In middle school, recess is gone, but most kids have physical education classes every day, an “active break” where hopefully they are instructed in the importance of regular exercise and exposed to a variety of sports and games. When they get to high school, unfortunately P.E. isn’t required for 4 years, but there is a wide selection of athletic teams awaiting their participation.

Anyone who has played high school sports can tell you those memories are among the most cherished in their entire lives; every practice they attended, and every play of every game makes some tangible contribution to their experience and emotional happiness. Even for those who didn’t play sports, the fondest childhood memories are typically related to time spent playing outdoors: climbing to a tree fort, bike riding through the neighborhood, or splashing in a river or lake.

But when kids become adults and eventually take on jobs and families, they find that the world doesn’t place the same priority on recess and playtime. If they cling to those games they loved as children – by playing in rec leagues, taking lessons from a local club, or signing up for various races – they sometimes sense the “real world” frowning upon them. Parents aren’t supposed to leave their kids with a babysitter so they can work out; upwardly mobile career workers aren’t supposed to have free time for exercise; respected professionals aren’t supposed to be seen in sweaty running clothes.

Grown-ups gradually internalize these expectations and feel guilty or self-centered for taking time to exercise, even though it still stimulates their emotional well-being. And when life gets crazy and schedules get tight, exercise is almost always the first thing to drop off the priority list. “I just don’t have the time any more” is the most common remark you’ll hear from former lifelong athletes, and it’s the reason we hear most frequently when catching up with runners who used to train with us.

The irony, of course, is that exercise never ceases to be a necessary part of our happiness and healthy development. Adults can find the same satisfaction and enjoyment from games and races that they did as children. For the two of us, running offers the same escape from the troubles of the world that play breaks did when we were in elementary school. In fact, we find that whenever life gets the most difficult, stressful, or hectic, those are the times when we need our exercise outlet the most.

Exercise is recess, and it’s just as important now as it was when you were a child. Go outside and play!

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Honoring September 11th

“I ran. I’ll never forget the sound of the building crumbling behind me. I didn’t turn around. I just ran and ran and ran.”
One survivor of the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001.

Mike gets personal about September 11th.

Screaming and running have always been our primal human fear defense mechanisms. Running away is the natural thing to do.

At some point in every race and often in daily runs every runner is faced with a moment of decision; do I keep on running hard and be physically uncomfortable or do I back off and take it easy? It is at these moments that each runner looks within and often discovers who they are or who they can be.
It’s at that moment and by that decision that the runner feels most alive.

In three days I honor the 17th anniversary of September 11th. No, that’s NOT a typo. Actually the story starts on Friday October 15th, 1993. My first wife Sue was running at the Hartnell College track in Salinas and suffered a cerebral hemorrhage due to an aneurysm. No warning signs, no behavioral changes, no headaches in the previous months. She required immediate surgery and an MRI indicated she had Glioblastoma Multiforme 4, a diagnosis you never want to hear, advanced brain cancer.

She was 46 and outwardly extremely healthy; maintained a healthy weight, a runner, a swimmer, never smoked, only drank alcohol occasionally and it was red wine. She ate all the recommended foods, with a lot of fruits and vegetables; never used extra salt, didn’t have high blood pressure or high cholesterol, always ordered dressing “on the side”. She maintained a fairly easy-going personality and we had three relatively stressless and wonderful children.

All of us runners and health addicts who think we are “bulletproof” should think again. Lifestyle choices are only one part of the puzzle. After the surgery, the doctor said the prognosis was less than a year and she passed away 11 months later on September 11th, 1994; a precious and vibrant life gone at a far too early age.

She and our family struggled during that 11 months, but my running thrived (as meaningless as it seemed), as I used it and my running partners for stress relief, strength, and comfort. I ran and ran and ran.

September 11th was our unique family day for memories for seven years until 2001. It still is, but we now share it with the entire country. Somehow it only feels right that September 11th should be a national day of honor and reflection.

We had 11 months to confront and face death and talk about it and the consequences. I can only imagine and pretend to feel the pain of those whose loved ones left for work on a “normal” day, or to take a plane on a “routine” business trip, and they never saw them again. No time to even think of goodbyes. Nearly 3,000 people died; 411 were firefighters, police, and paramedics who ran into the World Trade Center buildings and overcame their fear.

On September 11th, instead of re-creating pictures in our mind of the horrors of tumbling and broken buildings, and airplanes falling from the sky, we should think compassionately of those precious and vibrant victims that died and their grieving family members. Make it personal.

Before you go for a run on September 11th, and every day after, make sure you are running toward something and not away from it. And hug your family before you go.

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Lessons From Your Pacers

At this month’s Salinas Valley Half Marathon several members of the Wednesday Night Laundry Runners club joined the race as pace group leaders, or “pacers”. They compared notes afterward and their observations are both instructive and insightful for novice racers.

Here’s the job description of a pacer: given a target finish time they try to finish just under that goal time; it’s best to run each mile as consistent as possible based on the course conditions and hills. They carry balloons so other runners can pick them out and try to keep up. Pacers provide encouragement to those following them.

Pacing is a fun job; you experience all the excitement of a race without the stress of competing for best times or age group awards. There’s a bit of pressure, however, to keep the right pace all the way through. We’re happy to report that all of the pacers at the Salinas Valley Half finished in exactly their assigned goal times.

Here are some of the lessons they learned en route:

1. Everybody starts too far up. This is epidemic at nearly every race. Even though there were prominent signs marking the projected pace times at the start line, each of the pacers ended up passing dozens of people who thought they’d try to get our fast and get a head start on. In the age of chip timing, this strategy is especially foolish.

2. Even splits result in a lot of passing. This is the related corollary of observation #1. During the early miles, pacers running even splits had to avoid runners who shot off the start line with more ambition than talent. Later on, a steady pace assures you of passing these same runners who are now struggling just to make it to the finish.

3. Trust your body - not the runners around you. Some pacers remarked that runners with them made comments about going either too fast or too slow at various points of the race. Good pacers – and any good distance runners – learn to know different paces by feel, not by how the “starting too fast” and “finishing too slow” crowds are moving. The best even-pacing strategy is to practice a given speed in training and then work within that same zone on race day.

4. You can rally. All the pacers observed that during the final few miles of the race, whenever they passed somebody, that person would try to keep up for a while, recognizing that he (or she) was slipping behind the goal pace. Many runners rallied enough to stay ahead of the pace balloons – so just because you’ve hit a bad patch doesn’t mean you can’t regroup and finish strong.

5. Keep your eyes on the prize. Pacers reported that runners approached them after the race to say they could see the balloons in the distance and they kept them in sight all the way to the finish. Sometimes you need a visible beacon to keep you focused; if there isn’t a pace group in front of you do the same thing with a fellow runner in the distance ahead.

6. Races are parties. Spectators aren’t used to seeing runners with helium balloons tied to them; some pacers heard comments like, “Happy Birthday!” and “Where’s the party?” That’s a nice mindset to have during a race – because really, any race should be a celebration.

The next time you’re at a race, feel free to match strides with a pacer; you’ll end up running a smart race, have shared fun with the group, and you might learn a few tips along the way.

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Changing Your Running Form

“Don’t let the sound of your own wheels drive you crazy.”
- The Eagles, “Take It Easy”

Historical running wisdom has been that you cannot change the way you run; the way you looked while running around the playground as a kid is basically the same way you look when running on streets or trails as a grownup today. The biomechanics you were born with either provide you a lifetime of injury-free running, or a plague of constant injuries.

However, in the last few years there has been a lot of scientific research indicating that you can change your running form – and doing so might actually be good for you. Whether you are a beginner or elite, making your running form more efficient can make you not only faster, but less likely to incur injuries.

This “unconventional wisdom” started a few years back with the barefoot and minimalist shoe boom. Running barefoot or with minimal shoes forces your foot strike - the way your foot hits the ground - to be on the midfoot or forefoot, with a much softer impact than traditional running shoes. Traditional running shoes have highly padded heels and more lift in the heel and promote a heel strike while running.

However, the question is still very contentious among medical professionals. Many still believe that runners with less-than-perfect biomechanics have no business trying to run barefoot, and should rely on structured shoes or even orthotics. However, most are beginning to accept that efficient running isn’t dependent nearly as much upon the shoe as it is upon the runner.

Whether you wear shoes or not, there are several things you can work on in order to reduce your chances of injury. Next time you are out for an easy run, listen to determine how your foot strikes the ground. Are you a “noise-maker” who lands on your heel and then slaps the ground with your forefoot, or do you run silently with a soft footstrike?

Practice running quietly. There are several ways to do this and all require repetition, concentration, and practice. Try to land more in the midfoot. Take shorter quicker strides. Don’t overstride. You might try leaning a bit more forward but when you do this don’t bend from the waist, but from the ankles.

Danny Dreyer wrote a popular book called “Chi Running,” in which he claims you can improve your running form by concentrating your energy on balance and flow. He identifies 10 components of good running technique and we’ve added some explanatory advice after each one: flexibility (stretch for a few minutes each day), posture (run upright, no slumping), good leg motion (don’t overstride), cadence (quick short steps), body sensing (sense tension and relax your muscles), mental focus (concentrate on making changes), upper/lower body coordination (both work together rather than in opposition), good breathing habits (deep belly breathing), bent knees and elbows (improves arm and leg swing), and staying relaxed (consciously relax your muscles and run comfortably fast).

More and more runners are now doing actual drills once or twice a week, usually before or after running, to improve their form and flexibility. You can have fun with skips, high knees, butt kicks, irish dance, striders, hurdle step-overs, quick feet, and many more. Just Google “running drills” and you’ll find lots of them.

Like anything worthwhile, changing your running form takes a bit of effort and some study, but there’s no question it can lead to a healthier and more enjoyable running life.

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Local Race Information

One of the most common topics of conversation among runners is what their next race will be, or how their friends did in recent events. This week we’re keeping you up to date on local running news - or as our Wednesday Night Laundry Runners newsletter puts it, “All of the news of the fit in print.”

If you are thinking about running the Big Sur International Marathon on April 29th, 2012 – we know it seems like a lifetime away – you better enter NOW. Marathon entries went on sale July 15th and close to 1,500 people registered the first day and 2,000 the first week. Race entries are limited and the field is already about 65% full. Go to to enter.

The Big Sur Half Marathon on Monterey Bay on November 20th is about 65% full as well. The 5K and JUST RUN 3K on November 19th are going to be in downtown Pacific Grove this year instead of Cannery Row. Races will start at Jewell Park, be on fairly rolling paved streets, and finish at Forest and Lighthouse.

The 2nd annual Salinas Valley Half Marathon is August 6th and is extremely close to a sellout even though the field was expanded from 1,300 to 1,800 this year. This popular race also added a fitness expo at Hartnell College, open to the public, from 2PM to 7PM on August 5th. The elite men’s field is like a who’s who of former Salinas Valley high school and Hartnell College runners that have become national stars. Included are Diego Estrada, Danny Tapia, Jesus Campos, Mario Mendoza, Miguel Nuci, and Anthony Solis.

The very next day, Sunday August 7th, will see the Carmel Valley Fiesta Mountain Run, a challenging trail run for everyone with a sense of adventure. Some hardy local athletes are doing the SV Half and the Fiesta Run on back to back days, and the Fiesta run will recognize those runners with their own race category. Register at

The Just Plane Fun Run, kids’ mile and half mile races, will be September 25th at the Salinas Airport. Put on by the Salinas International Air Show and the Just Run program, kid’s last year started near Monster Trucks and did a few laps on the runway after they were “cleared for takeoff” from the control tower. Kids and their families received discounted tickets to air show events as well. This one is a “can’t miss” if you have kids under 14.

Some other local favorite races you should put on your calendar are the RLS Run in the Forest (5K and 10K) on October 8th and the Big Sur River Run (5k and 10K) on October 22nd.

Finally, a couple of local running notes: Congratulations to Dan Zulaica from North County and Stella Gibbs from Marina for competing well in the master’s (over 40) track World Championships in Sacramento last week. Stella finished 10th in the 50-54 age group 5,000 meters on the track. Dan finished 13th, and 2nd from the United States, in the associated 50-54 marathon.

We hope to see you at all these local races.

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Ten Rules From Above

A few days ago we were running in the heat to get Donald acclimated for a 100-mile run on the Tahoe Rim Trail this coming weekend. It was a long hilly run on the trails of Fort Ord, at the hottest time of day in the mid-afternoon. We were both wearing thick cotton sweats and hadn’t had any water for a few hours.

We had placed water bottles under a large rock a few days earlier, but when we got there the bottles had evidently been tampered with, and water was spilling out from under the rock, completely undrinkable. Disappointed and parched, we continued up the hill. At the summit, the sun shone brightly from behind a bush that made it look like it was on fire.

It was then that we heard the voice.

Each of us thought it was a hallucination, but we both heard it: deep, powerful, and mysterious. “Fear not,” the voice said, “for I have wise advice for you.”

Donald was too overwhelmed to talk, but Mike said, “What advice can you give Donald for his 100-miler?” The voice replied sternly, “Listen carefully to these ten rules.”

“First, and most important: I will be your only coach. Don’t take advice from anyone else!” We both nodded our agreement.

“Run only for enjoyment and personal challenge; don’t idolize the finisher’s medal or the glory of spectators.” That sounded profound, and it seemed like the voice was indeed rather wise.

“When the miles grow difficult, don’t start cursing me. Remember, you’re the one who signed up for this crazy thing.” Fair enough, we suppose.

“Take a good long rest at sundown on Friday until your race begins on Saturday morning. It probably wouldn’t hurt to say a few prayers that night, either.” That sounded reasonable.

“Be thankful for the slow twitch muscle fibers you inherited from your father and mother, and honor them by not overworking your muscles to cause lactic acid buildup.” Apparently the voice had some exercise physiology background as well.

“Speed kills! Pace yourself wisely throughout the race, and don’t race to keep up with any competitors.” Coincidentally, this is one that Donald struggles with quite often.

“If your pacer [a safety companion for the last half of the race] is a female, be careful of becoming too emotionally involved with her!” Our wives would appreciate that rule. Suddenly the sun started to set lower in the sky, and the voice began speaking really fast.

“Eat and drink properly at every aid station, but don’t steal anything from another runner’s drop bag!” That one seemed like common courtesy.

“Don’t exaggerate or complain about factors that might slow you down, like illness or injury. Everyone faces similar challenges, and nobody likes a sandbagger!” The voice seemed to be scolding us a bit, before taking a more respectful turn …

“Don’t covet the lifestyles of your neighbors who seek short term pleasures. You’ve trained diligently and faithfully – now run with perseverance, and in striving for the larger prize you’ll be generously rewarded.” And with that, the voice fell silent.

We stared at the bush and each other for a few minutes in silence, then started back down the hill slowly. Donald said, “Well I guess we know what our next column is going to be.” Mike replied, “Sure … but who will believe us?”

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What gets you out the door to run each day? How do you stay motivated? How do you lace up your running shoes when you really don’t feel like hitting the streets or trails?

The answer is different for everyone – you are an experiment of one – but there are several ways to increase your chances of doing your daily run and continually enjoying it.

Schedule your run like any other meeting: If you have regularly scheduled runs and places to meet it becomes easier. Put your runs on your calendar and it becomes a priority. Eventually it will become your favorite habit.

Find a group or a friend: When you run with others it becomes harder to miss a running appointment. For most runners it is more enjoyable to run in the company of friends. Time passes more quickly and you share everyone’s successes in running and in life.

Enter a race: For most people entering a race becomes a fun commitment to train properly and a challenge to try and run faster. Runners realize there is a direct correlation between how well and consistently you train and how you will run in the race.

Learn about your sport: Reading health related articles about the benefits of running and an active lifestyle make you more aware of what a great thing you are doing for your body and spirit when you hit the roads and trails. It’s the best gift you can give to yourself each day.

Mix it up: Don’t get in a rut of always running in the same location each day. Running and your life become more interesting if you run trails and hills, rather than always pounding the pavement. Choose different locations, terrain, and challenges when you can.

Get Competitive: Try to improve your times by doing some speed work and faster running on some of your training days. Even if it is just short “pickups” from telephone pole to telephone pole, it improves your efficiency as a runner and leg turnover. Compare your times from one race to another and challenge yourself to do better. Pick a “nemesis” who you want to beat and know that they are out there training every day. Try to beat them in your next race. Make yourself a faster runner.

Take it Easy: On the other hand, if you are naturally competitive and feel a bit burnt out by always “training” and being race ready, then step back and take it easy for awhile. Don’t enter any races for 3 or 4 months. Just go out and run easy and run with joy. Learn to enjoy the act of running and feeling good in the moment.

Take on a new challenge: Tired of the same old 5 and 10K’s? Challenge yourself and add variety by entering some trail races; or pick a new distance and location. Look for 8K’s or 20k’s or try to do an ultra. Choose a vacation destination and look for a race there. Try an overseas marathon. The possibilities are endless to spice up your Running Life.

List your reasons to run: Go ahead make yourself a list of all the benefits of running. Then take a few days off and see how you miss it. Come back eager to get out the door and run.

Volunteer at a local race or get someone new started in the sport: When you help at a race or see someone new get started the eager enthusiasm is infectious.

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Are you Race Ready?

We are entering the summer racing season and most of you have entered some important local races. You might have a sense that you are ready to set some Personal Records but how do you tell for sure? We’ve developed another self administered test that you can pull out and take a few days before your next race to judge just how ready you are to run fast. So get out your scorecard, and let’s get started!

Followed the Training Plan: You had a well conceived training plan you followed to the letter obsessively for the last 3 months - Score 10. You followed a training plan, except for a few missed days here and there, for the last 2 months - score 7. You didn’t have a plan – but ran very consistently for the last 2 months – score 5. You’ve been running a few times a week for the last 2 months – score 3. You just realized you have a race this coming weekend – score minus 1.

WEIGHT: You look so skinny that your friends ask you if you have been sick – score 10. You are at the lowest weight you have been in the last 3 months – score 8. You have maintained your goal “happy” weight for the past month – score 5. You’ve gained a few pounds lately but you are sure it’s all muscle – score 3. Let’s go have another donut – score minus 1.

Speedwork: You have been doing speedwork consistently over the past 2 months and your times have been getting faster on the track – score 10. You have been doing speedwork once a week for the past 2 months – score 8. Occasionally you try some faster running on the roads or track – score 5. You don’t do speedwork but know what it is – score 1. You don’t know what speedwork is – score minus 1.

Shoes: You are going to run your race in racing flats – score 10. You don’t own racing flats but are going to run in your lowest weight shoes – score 7. You are going to wear your most comfortable running shoe – score 5. You only own one pair of running shoes – 1 point. You are going to buy a new pair of shoes for the race – score minus 3.

Attitude: You are totally going to “go for it” and try to set a Personal Record – you know it’s going to hurt - score 15. You aren’t totally confident, but feel pretty good about your fitness and don’t mind feeling a little pain – score 8. You are going to start conservatively then ease into speed mode – score 5. You are going to be social and enjoy the scenery – score minus 1. You don’t know what pain is – score minus 5.

OK it’s time for the results! Check your race–ready score and place it in one of the following groups:

50 to 55: As good as it gets. You are ready. Just go do it.
38 to 49: Be confident. It looks for sure like you will have a good race.
25 to 37: This is OK. No P.R’s for you, but a good consistent time you’ll be happy with.
15 to 24: Have you ever been called a “plodder”?
Under 15: We certainly applaud you for being off the couch and participating. Have fun.

Best wishes to everyone in your upcoming races.

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Elevation Confusion

“You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows.”
- Bob Dylan, “Subterranean Homesick Blues”

Any runner will tell you that it’s incredibly easy to realize when you are running into a headwind, or whether you are headed uphill or downhill. You can also be relatively certain about the distance you’ve traveled, especially if there are mile markers on the road or if you’re wearing a GPS.

But how high are the hills you climbed? And how much climbing have you done over those miles you’ve measured? Answering those questions sometimes requires an advanced degree – and even then, you’re probably not certain of your accuracy.

Case in point: prior to our Big Sur Marathon preview article, we attempted to quantify the differences in climbing between the traditional course that features Hurricane Point and the out-and-back course that includes the rolling hills of Carmel Highlands twice. Researching the subject was one of the most mind-boggling ordeals we’ve experienced lately.

We started with the elevation profile on the race website, which indicated that the total climbing over the new course was 2400 feet. The data came from a Naval Postgraduate School scientist who used a USA Track and Field website mapping tool. He explained to us that the elevation information is stored in US Geological Survey NED database tables, and then extrapolated over a known distance (in this case, 26.2 miles).

Another tech-savvy friend of ours used his Garmin GPS watch for two previous Big Sur Marathons as well as this year’s modified course, and shared with us his GPX files, which plot latitude and longitude points alongside data from the USGS database. His readings showed approximately 1750’ of climbing for the standard course, and 1630’ on the new course. He also explained that handheld devices rely on triangulation of satellites in the “GPS constellation” for accurate position reporting, and visibility of a 4th satellite to add the elevation component – and it was right around here that our heads started to spin.

That’s not all, however … because our friend’s data from his two Big Sur Marathons on the standard route also deviated by about 100’ from each other. We asked him to explain, which opened the floodgates to a whole world of fractals, calibrated barometric variables and fluctuating weather permutations, smoothing algorithms, and numerous other scientific conditions that we couldn’t begin to comprehend. Suffice it to say that any elevation data you see in course profiles is going to have a degree of uncertainty – in some cases, quite a significant amount.

Fortunately, none of this distracted from the task at hand on race day for our tech-savvy friend Brian Rowlett, who ran 2:53:05 for 15th place overall last Sunday, using his Garmin GPS watch as usual. It’s worth noting that his time this year was virtually identical to his personal record from the standard course, even though there was (according to his watch) slightly less climbing this year. External conditions such as wind and air temperature might have made an impact as well, but honestly, who the heck really knows?

All that the two of us learned for sure in this process is that we like to stick to simple considerations like knowing which way the wind is blowing. From now on we’ll just refer to our local marathon as a hilly, challenging course, and leave the elevation data for the scientists to figure out.

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Scenes From A Marathon - 2011

This year’s Big Sur Marathon was somewhat strange – and we’re not talking about the revised course. Rather, it was because neither of us ran in the main event; Mike was busy fulfilling his board member duties, and Donald ran the 5K with his daughter. However, hanging around the expo and marathon village all weekend gave us plenty of interesting stories to share.

JUST RUN 3K: The festivities started on Saturday with a record number of kids and a magnificent day at Lovers Point. The marathon was proud to give $12,000 to local schools based on participation.

Largest Fitness Expo ever: There were 70 exhibitors this year – the most ever – and some very interesting new additions to the bunch. Perhaps the most intriguing was the Regenerect booth, where visitors could win samples of an herbal non-prescription product that is “better than Viagra”. They claimed their product helps male performance on the road as well as the bedroom, but cautioned, “if take it before the race, make sure you in the front instead of behind anyone.” We swear we’re not making this up.

“Just the 9 miler” syndrome: A lot of runners at the expo, when asked what event they were doing the next day, had a tendency to look at the ground with hang dog expression and say, “I’m just doing the 9 miler,” or the 10-miler, or even the 21-mile walk. To all of those participants: there’s no reason to apologize for your event, so be proud of whichever one you’re doing. It sure is better than sitting on the couch.

Toughest Double Award: About 10% of the starters (322), in this year’s marathon, had run the Boston Marathon 13 days before - but we’re awarding our “toughest double” award to local CSUMB Corporate Relations Officer John Houseman, who completed the half ironman Wildflower Triathlon on Saturday, and finished the Big Sur Marathon in 4:00 on Sunday. He looked great after the race as well.

The Out and Back: We spoke to several experienced runners after the race to get their opinion on the differences between the “regular” course and the “out and back” course used this year. Mark Ferlito of Carmel who ran 2:31 at Boston and 2:47 at Big Sur, Ian Hersey of San Francisco who has done 9 Big Surs, and Aracelly Clouse of Santa Cruz who finished 6th woman, all agreed: this year’s course is a minute of two slower for the “good” runner. The uphill start, rather than the downhill first 4 miles in Big Sur, have you mentally struggling to make up time. The beauty and difficulty is about the same. They all enjoyed the “mental diversion” of Point Lobos as it was new scenery near the end of the race.

How do you say chafing in German? We met Mario Peschke, who came from Munich to run the marathon and stay with his friends, local runners Bob and Linda Bebermeyer. Mario ran the race in lederhosen and when we asked him why, he answered in broken English, “Because een Germany it ees not funny to run in lederhosen, but in California eet ees.” Mario ran 3:50 on a day that ended up very very warm.

The Reale/Lohrmann family: 6 months ago Bob Lohrmann passed away at age 45 from cancer. His wife Allison, son Peter, and nephew Robert Reale, from Connecticut were inspired to train for the Big Sur Marathon and ran in Bob’s honor. It was Robert Reale’s first marathon and he ran 4:50. Son Peter ran an inspired 3:10 in his father’s honor.
We were honored to meet and talk to them.

LEI Day: We learned from Melanie Block of Carmel that May 1st is Lei Day in Hawaii. Every year Melanie and 4 friends compete in the relay under a different themed team name. This year it was The Wicked Wahinis in honor of Lei Day. Last year they were Gang Green for environmental reasons.

Best Predictions: We have two friends who proved to be somewhat clairvoyant. Brian Rowlett of Carmel Valley predicted he would break his own Big Sur best of 2:53:14 and ran 2:53:05. Nick Fleming of South Carolina wanted to break 3 hours at both Boston and Big Sur and ran 2:59:30 at Boston and 2:58:57 at Big Sur.

Hospitality: We want to thank Jefferson Seay for being hospitality manager for Big Sur events. It’s a big job to feed 14,000 people. Among some of the items: 350 gallons of coffee, 24 kegs of beer, 100,000 compostable cups, 275 dozen bagels, 75 gallons of hot soup, 9000 boxes of raisins, 1,725 artichokes, 11,000 juice boxes, 100 cases of bananas. You’ve earned a break, Jefferson! But don’t rest too long; it’s almost time to start training for next year’s marathon.

Likewise, to everyone else, we hope to see you all again next year.

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Out and Back Race Day Strategy

In most years, a milestone moment for runners in the Big Sur International Marathon is turning the corner at the 10-mile mark and staring up at Hurricane Point, the most intimidating climb in the race.

On March 16, a large section of Highway 1 just north of Hurricane Point slid into the ocean, forcing the marathon board to create a revised out and back course from Carmel that eliminated the climb up Hurricane Point. So this year’s course must be easier, right? Well, not exactly … in fact, it could actually be more difficult.

Losing Hurricane Point wasn’t the only major change in the course; also gone is the Bixby Bridge, the Point Sur lighthouse, and the redwood forests of Big Sur. However, the course is more easily accessible to spectators and race support volunteers, and there are a couple of new additions that make the course just as appealing and rewarding as ever for runners.

For those 3,000 athletes entered in Sunday’s marathon, here are some strategic tips for taking on the new course.

The new course isn’t easier – it’s more difficult: Don’t believe us? Here are two numbers for you: the traditional Big Sur course has roughly 1700 feet of climbing; according to the BSIM website, this year’s course has 2400’. Veteran BSIM runners know that the hardest hills are in Carmel Highlands – and this year you get to run all of them twice. So if you were complaining about not getting to run up Hurricane Point, fear not – your legs will get an even tougher hill workout this year.

Start conservatively! The hills will punch you in the nose right off the bat this year; there’s no gentle 4-mile downhill to warm your legs up. It’s always sound advice to start marathons conservatively, but it’s especially important this year, otherwise you’ll be red-lining before you reach the first aid station. Through the first 10K, whenever you’re in doubt about your pace, slow down. Be patient.

Watch the camber: When running through Carmel Highlands, the road is cambered in places from inland side to coastal side. Normally, these miles are the end portion of the course so runners have enough space to choose the most efficient line. This year that stretch starts at mile 3, where runners will definitely be more crowded. It’s worth spending a few extra seconds to maneuver onto the best part of the road – and this year, the aches you feel from the camber will be equal on both sides, since you’ll run it in the opposite direction on the return. Lucky you!

Enjoy the tailwind (for a while): Most years the prevailing wind blows northwest to southwest, which is a problem for runners heading due north. This year you’ll most likely have a tailwind for the first 12 miles to help push you over all those early hills.

Feed off the crowd: One of the coolest aspects of an out and back course is that you see every single other runner in the race, which makes for a nice mental distraction if your legs are getting weary. You’ll see the leaders – that will be easy. Look for the first woman. Check out the relay runners and make up your own distractions; the first teenager, the first gray-haired guy, the first fat guy, the first woman wearing a skort. Look for people who seem the same age as you. Look at the crazy outfits that people wear. When you get close to the turnaround, look for people who look tired and resolve to reel them in later. As you make your way back celebrate all the people who are out there with you; feed off their collective energy to make your own efforts a little easier.

Beware of landmarks: This is for previous BSIM runners. During the last half of the race all of those familiar landmarks that designate certain points of the course will be completely off. Rocky Point doesn’t mean you have 10 miles left, it means you have more than 12. Soberanes Canyon and Garrapata Park don’t signal the final 10K. The Highlands Inn is a lot more than 5K from the finish. Keep reminding yourself of this so you don’t get discouraged when the numbers on the mile markers are smaller than you expect.

Savor Point Lobos: No, you don’t get to run over the Bixby Bridge this year, but from a scenic standpoint you get a very fair exchange: passing through Point Lobos State Reserve, one of the most beautiful sections of real estate in Monterey County, which has never been part of the Big Sur Marathon course before. Enjoy the breathtaking views in Point Lobos and know that you got a great tradeoff; after all, when you run the regular course you only actually see Bixby for a few seconds before you’re on top of it and gone.

It’s still magnificent: Just like any other year at Big Sur there’s a lot of remarkable stuff to enjoy throughout the race. You’ll probably have the fog early and the sunshine later. You’ll have pastoral hills on one side and a majestic coastline on the other. You’ll hear plenty of music, including the grand piano and the famed Taiko drums – and because of the course layout, you’ll get to hear each of them twice. You’ll see oversized mile markers that are whimsical and motivational. You’ll get free hugs near mile 21 and fresh strawberries a half-mile later. And you’ll get a hand-carved finisher’s medal signaling that you’ve completed one of the best marathons in North America.

Good luck to everyone who is running tomorrow. We hope you enjoy every minute of it.

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Out and Back

As practically everyone knows by now, a sizeable piece of Highway 1 is currently sitting in the Pacific Ocean. To runners, Highway 1 is better known as the Big Sur International Marathon course – so when the announcement was made that the world-famous course would be altered, some portions of the running community went into a bit of a tizzy.

Take it from us: don’t worry about the Big Sur Marathon. Everything will be fine.

First, let’s clarify something from a practical standpoint: there’s absolutely no way that the regular course could be used this year. Even if a makeshift road is in place by race day – an uncertain bet thanks to weather complications and inevitable construction delays – the road can’t possibly handle the nearly 200 buses that travel back and forth on race morning. Concern for runner safety has to be the top priority, and the race board made the right decision in changing the course for this year’s event on May 1st.

A similar natural disaster caused a re-routing in 1998, which marathon veterans lovingly call the “out and back” year. If you’re superstitious, it’s interesting to note that 1998 was the 13th presentation of the Big Sur Marathon and this year is the 26th. 1998 was also the first year Wally Kastner was Race Director and Dr. Hugo Ferlito was Chairman of the Board, presenting them with a significant trial by fire. Ferlito stepped down last year, but Kastner is still the RD, so the reroute isn’t uncharted territory for him.

We checked statistics from the out and back 1998 race and the regular course in 1999, which both enjoyed nearly perfect weather. The average men’s finishing time in 1998 was 4:08 and in 1999 was 4:09. The average woman’s finishing time was 4:27 in 1998 and 4:26 in 1999. It’s likely that the supposed “advantage” of not climbing Hurricane Point is compensated by running through Carmel Highlands twice. Course times were so similar that the men’s winner in 1998, Srba Nikolic, ran 2:21:36 and the following year ran 2:21:37 while finishing second to Arsenio Ortiz’s 2:19:16.

The big difference in logistics is that in 1998 the course repairs were on Hurricane Point, south of Bixby Bridge, which allowed a full 13.1 miles of road from Carmel before the turnaround point. This year’s damage is north of Bixby, requiring an additional 1.75-mile detour through Point Lobos on the way back up the coast. This year’s runners will be the first ever to race through the breathtaking coastline of Point Lobos, which could provide a much-needed pick-me-up between miles 22 and 24.

Another difference from 1998 is what we’ll call the Facebook effect, which has proven to be something of a mixed blessing. When the course change was announced, runners took to posting hundreds of comments on the BSIM Facebook page. Some of the initial commenters were out of town participants who questioned whether the road was really unrunnable, or whether the race should offer refunds because runners couldn’t experience the Big Sur coastline or Hurricane Point. The anger and rudeness of some of them made us cringe, but each one was replied to professionally by the BSIM staff.

Fortunately, the majority of comments were sympathetic, encouraging, and upbeat, and it’s been great to see how most of the running community has resolved to make the best of a difficult situation and embrace this year’s race for the unique challenge it offers. We can assure them that the race will be just as fantastic as usual.

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Running In Place

It’s never easy to watch a friend go to prison – but that’s exactly what we experienced last month with a training partner named Charlie Engle, a former Salinas resident who began his running career as a member of the famous Big Sur Marathon “centipede” team in 1991 before becoming one of the most admired and accomplished adventure racers in the world.

Last month, Charlie was sentenced to a 21-month prison term after being found guilty on 12 counts of bank and mail fraud, and using that money to help fund his ambitious adventures. The story of how Charlie went from that first marathon to running in place inside a jail cell is a cautionary tale about how our passions can sometimes overwhelm us.

Charlie always had an intense fire burning inside him; his ongoing struggle was how to channel that fire into something constructive rather than destructive. Although he was seemingly healthy during that Big Sur centipede run, he was battling a 10-year addiction to drugs and alcohol that started when he was only 17. He went “cold turkey” on July 23, 1992 and has been clean ever since – he simply found a more legitimate outlet for his energy and compulsive behavior. He traded in his drug use for excessive adventure running.

He eventually moved to North Carolina and immersed himself in the world of ultrarunning, continually looking for harder and harder challenges. He did the Badwater race, 135 miles from Death Valley to Mount Whitney, where it’s common for the soles of your running shoes to melt from the heat. He ran the 130-mile Amazon Jungle Marathon in Brazil, and won the 155-mile Gobi Desert Marathon in 2006. He competed in several Eco-Challenges, involving running, hiking, canoeing, swimming, climbing, and lots of all-around suffering, and became a charismatic star when those events were regularly televised.

Along the way, Charlie also became a very sought-after public speaker, using his life as an example of overcoming challenges and living life to its fullest potential. Anyone who’s heard him will tell you that Charlie lights up a room: he’s charismatic, funny, entertaining, self-deprecating, and above all else, inspiring to listen to.

Charlie’s next ambition was to be the first person to run across the Sahara Desert. He dreamed of the run serving a humanitarian mission to raise awareness and money for the clean water crisis in Africa. Part of his outreach effort was creating a movie called Running the Sahara, which documented the journey of Charlie and two other adventurers as they successfully ran for 111 days across 4,300 miles of the African continent in 2007. Although it was an extremely noble accomplishment, this is also where Charlie’s ambition apparently began to get the best of him.

According to federal prosecutors, Charlie partially financed his movie by money obtained by real estate loans and mortgage fraud involving properties in Virginia, as well as exaggerating his income to become eligible for these loans. When the financial downturn hit, no matter how far he ran, Charlie could no longer stay one step ahead of his collectors and prosecutors.

Charlie tells his version of the events and about his life in prison on his personal website at – a blog fittingly called “Running in Place”. He views his situation as just another physical and psychological challenge to overcome, and vows to get through it and back to serving the public as he did before. For everyone’s sake, we hope he’s able to succeed.

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On The Cover

Pay attention, kids - it’s time for a pop quiz! Here’s a two-part question for you:

1. Who was the last distance runner to be on the cover of Sports Illustrated magazine, and

2. What year did this happen?

If you don’t know the answers, don’t worry – we didn’t either. We had to look them up.

Making the cover of Sports Illustrated is a coveted honor, placing an athlete in the spotlight of the American sports scene. Considered cumulatively, cover appearances indicate who our greatest icons have been through the years. Michael Jordan leads the pack with 56 covers, followed by Muhammad Ali (38), Tiger Woods (30), and a three-way tie at 22 between Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and Jack Nicklaus. Lance Armstrong, the world’s most famous cyclist, has 10.

Still scratching your head about our quiz? 50 years ago, you wouldn’t have had any problem. During the first half-century after SI’s first issue in 1954, runners appeared on nearly 60 covers, averaging at least one per year. The magazine’s very first Sportsman of the Year was awarded to Roger Bannister, and in the era when milers ruled the Earth, distance runners were commonly featured in the magazine, especially during Olympic years. But somewhere on the road to the 21st Century, distance runners seemingly fell off the map.

In the last 15 years, only 2 covers have featured runners, both of whom were sprinters: Marion Jones in October 2000, and Usain Bolt in August 2009. The good news is that Jones’s appearance wasn’t related to her drug scandal, which happened several years later. The bad news is that by the time it did, the sports world seemingly didn’t care about track anymore.

With 30 million runners in the United States and 11 million race finishers last year, we would think that American distance running accomplishments would be recognized more regularly. It’s not as if our athletes haven’t done amazing things recently. Alan Webb broke a high school mile record that stood for more than 30 years. Meb Keflezighi and Deena Kastor won Olympic marathon medals in 2004, and last year Meb became the first American in to win the New York Marathon in more than twenty years. Ryan Hall ran the half marathon in less than 60 minutes a few years back, and Chris Solinsky broke the American 10K record last year in Palo Alto.

It’s not just Americans who get overlooked: the two greatest distance runners in history, Haile Gebreselassie and Kenenisa Bekele of Ethiopia, who have dozens of world records between them in distances from 3000 meters to the marathon, have never made the cover. In fact, being featured in SI is perhaps the only accomplishment that neither of them has captured.

Which brings us to our quiz answer: if you go all the way back to July 29, 1985, you’ll find Mary Decker Slaney on the cover after defeating Zola Budd in the first rematch after their fateful collision at the 1984 Olympics. It wasn’t her first cover appearance, as two years and one surname earlier – at that time she was simply Mary Decker - she had been named 1983’s Sportswoman of the Year for setting six world records between the mile and 5K. Despite her brilliance, nowadays Mary isn’t even the most famous Decker to appear on the cover – that honor undoubtedly goes to 2010 swim suit cover model Brooklyn Decker (but we can certainly understand the popularity of that one).

You have to go back even farther – more than 30 years - to find the last marathoner on the cover, when Alberto Salazar was featured after winning the 1980 New York Marathon. Before that, Bill Rogers made the cover in 1979 after winning at New York for the 4th time in a row.

So if you’re a runner looking to get on the cover of SI someday, your best options appear to be 1) set multiple world records, 2) win the New York or Boston Marathons 4 times, or 3) become a swimsuit model. Although running has innumerable benefits for all of us, it’s clear that becoming famous isn’t one of them.

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Beauty in Darkness

Author's note: this week's Herald column is an excerpt from a longer article on Donald's website, which you can read in its entirety here.


Many runners have a sense of foreboding about venturing into darkness - the vast unseen, unknown, and potentially dangerous realm that awaits us in the early mornings or late evenings. And at this time of year when darkness consumes larger portions of our waking hours, fear of the dark is enough to keep some runners stuck in bed, or retreating to the drudgery of an indoor treadmill.

Ultrarunners, on the other hand, grow to embrace the dark. Many 50-mile or 100K races require some dark miles at the beginning or end of the course, and 100-mile events necessitate running through the entire night. We build up to the challenge of braving the night gradually, typically rising early or staying up late to get our long training mileage in, developing a comfort level with the darkness in small doses from one workout to another - from one rewarding moment stacking upon others - until the inconveniences of the task are nearly forgotten.

To novices, the darkness causes an uneasiness like feeling adrift on uncharted waters – but once you’ve navigated it a number of times, that sensation becomes familiar, and you develop a greater appreciation for the experience of traveling through. Eventually, for many of us, those dark hours are actually some the most memorable and rewarding portions of our running adventures.

Donald was reminded of this recently, as he has a standing date to go jogging with his 9-year-old daughter one night per week after he gets home from work. In December and January, that means running in the dark for part or all of their time together – a prospect that was initially met with some reluctance by his daughter, but one that she’s gradually embraced a little more with each passing week.

Her acceptance started during the Christmas season, running through neighborhood streets lined with holiday lights. It continued as the stars became more prominent in January, and they talked about the constellations and all the stories across the sky. Finally, it was cemented while running on an abandoned airfield, where the ambient lights disappear, and the darkness becomes expansive. With nothing but quiet solitude and a pair of headlamps, his daughter initiated the following conversation one night:

Daughter: This is kind of neat, with everything quiet while we’re staying in this little dome of light.

Donald: I know. This is actually one of my favorite things about doing long ultra races – you spend a lot of time running in the dark like this, just enjoying the darkness and silence.

Daughter: It’s peaceful.

Donald: Yup. And a lot of other things. I really love it.

They’ve developed a familiarity with the night, finding beauty in the darkness, enjoying their time together and the experience they’re sharing. For Donald, it’s been an unexpected pleasure of these dark, cold months.

Don’t let fear of the darkness prevent you from finding similar pleasures. Grab a headlamp, recruit a training partner (this is a huge motivating factor), and venture outside to chart your own journey through the great unknown.

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Who Won?

We often make fun of sports like gymnastics and figure skating where victors are determined by judges. There are no style points in running, and the first person to reach the finish line is the winner … right? Surprisingly, it doesn’t always happen that way.

Age group road racing may be the only sport where you don’t know who your rivals are, or where they might be on the course. Heck - even in competitions where napping is commonplace, such as the Iditarod dogsled race or multi-day boat races, you’re usually aware of your competitors’ relative standing. In running, sometimes you don’t know these things until the race is over – and even then, it still might be a mystery.

We were reminded of this after last fall’s Big Sur Half Marathon, where Mike was engaged in a battle he thought he won, only to realize that wasn’t the case.

After pushing the pace for the first 10 miles, Mike was unexpectedly passed at mile 11 by a runner that looked old enough to be in his age division. He courageously hung with the challenger for 2 more miles before summoning a furious sprint in the homestretch, ultimately passing and beating the other runner by 3 seconds.

It wasn’t until the award ceremony that Mike realized that his heroics were for naught; because the race was chip timed, each racer’s overall time was calculated from the time they crossed the start line. As it turned out, the other runner had crossed the start 5 seconds later than Mike – giving him a victory over Mike by 2 seconds.

It wasn’t the first time Mike was on the wrong side of a chip controversy; one year earlier at the San Francisco Marathon, he entered the day before the event, placing him in the 10th starting corral. In a race of 20,000 runners, the start is controlled by having corrals of 1,000 runners begin at two-minute intervals to ease congestion on the course. The race used microchips so each person received an accurate time from the starting mat to the finish line, and Mike ran 12 minutes faster than anyone else in his age group.

Naturally, he should have won – except that at San Francisco, age group awards were based on gun time, and some of the runners with 20-minute head starts crossed the finish line ahead of him.

In that same race, the woman who crossed the finish line first overall wasn’t declared the winner, and didn’t receive the prize money she had earned. Race organizers ruled that since she didn’t declare herself an elite runner before the race started, the other top runners didn’t recognize her as a competitor. Clearly, it was a strange day all the way around. To their partial credit, race organizers eventually awarded the first female her winnings, but Mike’s age group situation was never remedied.

Such problems would be eliminated if everybody clearly knew who they were competing against. To improve visibility in competition, USA Track and Field now requires runners in championship races to wear bibs on their back indicating their age group. Triathletes have done this for years, as part of the pre-race check-in process is to have your age group stamped on your calf muscle.

Until all road races adopt similar policies, the best you can do to avoid this controversy is to and know the rules of competition for each particular race. And of course, if you’re going for an age group award, it always helps if you can train hard and run extremely fast.

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