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October 29, 2009

A Monterey Ghost Story

“The life of the dead is placed in the memory of the living”

- Cicero (106-43 BC)


For many years, my trail running group has occasionally done a “cemetery run”, winding our way through fire roads and single track trails in order to reach the tiny graveyard of an old pioneer family long forgotten by time and neglect. Recently, I tried to learn more about the family who eternally rests near my favorite training ground, only to find that very little is known about them.

So in honor of Halloween weekend, I altered the course of my weekly bike ride with my 11-year-old son in order to explore the area better, and tell him about one of the most mysterious and fatefully haunted locations I’ve ever come across. Think of this as our true-life Monterey County ghost story.


Our tale begins on the former … hang on a second. That doesn’t look quite right. Let me just reach down to this dial here …


There, that’s better. Halloween stories should be told in black and white, don’t you think? OK then – our tale begins on the former Fort Ord military area, more than 7,000 acres of land now used as recreational open space by trail runners and mountain bikers alike.


The landscape welcomes us gently, and I use our warm-up period to introduce the story of the Whitcher (seriously, that’s the real name) family who homesteaded on this land in the late 1800s, only to vanish almost without a trace aside from the remote, meager cemetery that hints at their hardships.


To reach the site, we’ll have our work cut out for us; Fort Ord is known for its rolling, rugged terrain, and our destination lies nearly eight miles away across several ridgelines that we’ll go up and over along the way. (If you’re curious, I did a GPS profile of the ride here.) It was easy for us to imagine how difficult it would be for anyone to forge a comfortable existence out here nearly 150 years ago.


The Whitcher family occupied this land for nearly 60 years, primarily residing in a farm house in the nearby Corral de Tierra area, better known to Steinbeck fans as the Pastures of Heaven. They once owned thousands of acres here, and yet – unlike nearly every other owner of an original “rancho” or “adobe” land grant – absolutely nothing that I know of in Monterey County bears their name.


After cresting our second major climb, our route takes us past a locked gate and down a lonely fire road …


… where even the normal sights begin to acquire an ominous veneer. It’s very likely that these trees knew the Whitchers personally - and their reaching branches may be silently straining to tell us about the other fathers and children who passed this way so many years ago.


The tree cover remains fairly dense until we reach a clearing on the outskirts of a long abandoned community (more on that in a minute) – and about 100 yards off the main road, we finally reach our destination.


The humble cemetery that is the resting place for the family of Thomas Rose Whitcher. It’s only about 20’ long by 10’ wide, but holds the gravestones of five people.



The grass grows long in the center of the plot, but the site shows signs of occasional visitation: a wreath on the cross, flowers at its base, and an artificial cluster of berries or grapes on another headstone.


At the base of the cross is the marker for Mary H. Pearson, who at age 36, represents the oldest person in this plot. The remaining stones – with one uncertain exception – start larger but decrease in size according to the age of the deceased.


Ned Eliger Whitcher, November 8, 1862 - April 29, 1879. Ceased breathing.


Floria Elvira Whitcher, July 19, 1866 – February 17, 1875. Returned to God who gave her.

The next gravestone is the most heartbreaking, even 130 years removed:


Harry Whitcher, August 5, 1875 - September 16, 1875. Quit acheing.

If little Harry’s marker was the most heartbreaking, this final one is the most mysterious:


A small, plain, chipped slab, with nothing more than the initials H.W. Is it another infant? An animal? Had the family become too poor to have an official tombstone made? The answer might be in the wind, or in the trees ... but neither of them are talking.


Overlooking the gravesite from a slight rise is a boarded-up barracks from a former Army post. For most of the 20th Century, the East Garrison barracks housed hundreds of servicemen, and this area also contained a schoolhouse, church, and general store. The Army closed the base in the early 1990s, and the land was eventually turned over to developers. A housing project broke ground, but ran out of money in the recent financial meltdown – so now the whole area sits vacant: abandoned barracks, vandalized and dilapidated buildings, streets halfway built and then forgotten. It’s a literal ghost town, all within shouting distance of the enigmatic graveyard.


That’s also the reason for the chain-link fence around two sides of the burial site: it’s technically part of the Army land turned over to developers, but a consensus was never reached about what to actually do with the site in the context of building a subdivision. There was talk of refurbishing the site, and whispers of relocating it … and then the project stopped, so the decision never had to be made. Now the fence is there as a token gesture of protecting a sacred area that very few people pay attention to anymore.

As my son and I pondered the gravesites in the fading afternoon, the air was growing cold, the wind was beginning to howl, and we still had almost 90 minutes of riding to get home, so it was time to be on our way.


The dying sunlight cast long shadows throughout our return, a somber reminder that time is always running out: on our days, on our precious moments shared with those we love, on our very existence. There’s really nothing like a visit to a graveyard on a cold autumn evening to give you a serious case of the chills.


Our ride back was a lot quieter than the journey out – not necessarily due to being spooked, but more likely because we were tired and cold, and contemplating all that we had just seen.

(But maybe a little bit spooked, too. I certainly wouldn’t rule it out.)


Winding through dense patches of trees, now it seemed as if they were reaching out in hopes of capturing us. They wanted us to stay with them longer – either to tell us more stories, or just to keep them company during the approaching cold night. Whatever the reason, my son and I declined all offers, and just kept on pedaling.


Eventually we reached our sta… oops, wait a minute again … let me switch this back on:


Eventually we reached our starting point, threw on some sweatshirts, and loaded up the bikes to drive home.

I’m not exactly sure whether 10 or 15 years from now my son will think back on this ride with fondness, or just feel creeped out by how his father told him morbid stories while dragging him to an abandoned graveyard on a cold gray evening. However, the story of the Whitcher family has captivated me ever since I discovered it, and I think it’s important that those who came before us – even the most downtrodden, star-crossed, and unfortunate souls among them – live on somehow in the people who come along afterwards.

We honor the dead by remembering them – and if nothing else, this was a ride that I think will stay with us for quite a long time.

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October 27, 2009

ECCO BIOM Running Shoe Review

Of all the shoes I’m reviewing this fall, none are quite as intriguing as the ECCO BIOM.

Anytime a company brings a $220 running shoe to the market, there’s going to be immediate skepticism over whether the cost is justified. But when you consider how the shoe was conceived, and all of its unique design innovations, and its elusive combination of high comfort and high durability … you could make a compelling case in favor of it. At the very least, you know that ECCO is trying to earn your money honestly.

Most people know ECCO as the 45-year-old Danish company famous for its luxury dress shoes. The brand has sold footwear in US markets for nearly 20 years, and has even produced athletic shoe models for more than seven years. However, it wasn’t until the launch of the BIOM Project that ECCO had a product with enough unique features and major points of difference to distinguish itself from its major running shoe competitors.


The BIOM is designed as a natural running shoe, preserving the natural biomechanics of your foot and ankle as closely as possible. It is NOT intended to convert barefoot runners, or even to compete with minimalist footwear like Vibram or Feelmax. Rather, it represents a paradigm shift in the standard categorization of running shoes, with a fundamental concept inspired by barefoot runners.

ECCO is one of the very few running shoe companies who openly acknowledge that traditional technologies – cushioning, motion control and stability – have been largely ineffective to reduce the injury rates of runners. They saw an opportunity to reinvent the philosophical approach to creating shoes, with a design based not on correcting perceived shortcomings of the foot, but on mimicking the biomechanics of barefoot running.

(Somewhat related tangent #1: The name of the shoe is a shortening of the word “biomechanics”; as for why it’s capitalized, I have no idea – but I’m making some inquiries.)

(Somewhat related tangent #2: This isn’t some knee-jerk reaction by ECCO to capitalize on the Great Barefoot Craze of 2009. The BIOM is the culmination of nearly three years of design and production – so in most respects, the company was way ahead of the current natural motion movement.)

To that end, ECCO launched the BIOM Project with three main resources: 1) the company’s existing and ongoing body of research on natural foot structure, 2) a partnership with Dr. Peter Bruggemann, one of the world’s foremost experts in running biomechanics from the University of Cologne, and 3) collaboration with professional triathlete Torbjorn Sindballe as a real-world test lab. The result was an innovative concept with several unique features, which also meets the demands of a high-performance running shoe.

So what distinguishes this shoe from any others on the market? Here are some of the highlights:

· Instead of using a cookie-cutter straight last or curved last, ECCO created a true anatomic last based on the scanned foot profiles of 2500 runners.

· The anatomic accuracy is enhanced by a direct-injection process of polyurethane (PU) in the midsole. It’s an advanced construction method of bonding the upper to the midsole which also improves the shoe’s durability. The BIOM is the only running shoe on the market that is built using this direct-injection process.

· The entire midsole - and a significant portion of the outsole - of the BIOM is made of PU; there is no EVA in the shoe at all. (In the photos above and below, everything green is PU.) In lab testing, PU has roughly three times the durability of EVA – which means that the midsole breaks down three times more slowly, theoretically giving your shoe a lifespan that is up to three times longer. ECCO’s official claim is that the shoes can last approximately 1.5 times longer than traditional EVA shoes – but that factor alone could help justify the expense of this shoe.

· High-traction rubber outsole components (above photo) are placed strategically to improve grip, but spread minimally to decrease weight.

· The midsole sits lower than traditional running shoes, with a rounded heel construction to diminish rearfoot impact.

· Flex points (above photo) in the outsole mimic barefoot motion.

Furthermore, rather than classifying its models into traditional categorizations, ECCO differentiates the BIOM based on running speed. This makes sense when you consider the differences in your form between sprinting and distance running; as a general rule, when increasing your velocity, you shift more workload to the midfoot and forefoot regions, with less impact through the heel. (The classic example to picture is a group of world-class 100-meter runners; their heels barely touch the ground at all while racing.)


Consequently, the two models available are BIOM A (identified in photo above), intended for runners who frequently run a 6-minute mile pace or faster, and BIOM B, which is intended for the 6-to-10 minute miler. The BIOM A sits lower to the ground, with less slope from heel to forefoot than the BIOM B. Individual specs between the two are as follows:

BIOM A men’s - heel 20mm high, forefoot 12mm
BIOM B men’s - heel 24mm, forefoot 14mm

(a BIOM C, for “occasional” runners, and a trail running version of the BIOM are both in the works for 2010, but not currently available.)

Overall weight of the BIOM A is 10.5 oz, which places it higher than a racing shoe, but lower than the majority of traditional trainers on the market. The dense polyurethane midsole in place of EVA adds some weight, but the tradeoff is increased durability as described above.

In my testing, I tried a BIOM A – not because I’m a sub-6-minute runner, but because I’m coming to the shoe from the background of being a barefoot runner. I wanted the model as flat and close to the ground as possible, which could be a difficult adjustment for someone transitioning from traditional running shoes.

The adjustment period is a critical factor in a newcomer’s success with BIOM, and the company advises a six-week breaking-in period. One of Sinballe’s roles with ECCO was to create a training plan (posted on the website and in BIOM brochures) to ease customers into the shoe naturally.

Another design innovation that mimics barefoot running is a roll bar structure just forward of the heel, which serves as a pivot point to promote midfoot impact instead of heelstrike. If you’re already a midfoot striker, you may barely notice it, but if you’re a regular heel striker, you may initially feel like you’re rolling over the top of the shoe while shifting your weight forward.

Further enhancing the efficient energy transfer from heel to forefoot is a very rigid midsole shank from the heel to the forefoot. The shank opens up in the forefoot to allow the toes to spread slightly, providing a powerful pushoff. The rigid shank plus the dense polyurethane midsole might make the shoe feel slightly stiff during the first few runs, but I noticed that I settled into a nice midfoot strike and smooth transition through the ground contact phase of my running.


One final distinguishing characteristic of the BIOM shoes are the uppers, which are available in two different styles for both the BIOM A and BIOM B: either traditional textile mesh (pictured above), or a breathable yak leather. While the use of yak leather initially raised some eyebrows, it’s really an ideal case of a company using innovation to enhance its social responsibility rather than worsen it.


The yak is a Himalayan pack animal raised for similar purposes as American cattle - primarily labor and milk, and then sacrificed for meat. However, unlike US livestock, yak hides are very thick and oily, and the leather is very difficult and expensive to tan. ECCO spent two years developing an efficient yak tanning process, and now buys most of their supply from Sherpas in the region who otherwise would simply discard it. ECCO is justifiably proud of its efforts to minimize material waste while providing a unique high performance material for its footwear.

As you would expect, there is a difference in ventilation between the open mesh of the textile version and the perforated yak leather, but it’s not as great as you’d imagine. I was fortunate enough to test both versions, and found the yak leather to be remarkably thin, super soft and surprisingly cool. The small sacrifice you make in ventilation with the yak leather is probably compensated by its improved durability compared to the textile upper. Again – if you’re paying a lot of money for these (and trust me, you are), you want them to remain in top shape as long as possible.

Which brings us to the matter of cost. The textile version of the BIOM A retails for $195, and the leather version sells for $220. While select models from other shoe companies (think Newton Gravity, Asics Kinsei, or Nike Air Max 360) are creeping upward into this neighborhood, BIOM has clearly established itself as the most expensive running shoe on the market.

It’s a pricing strategy that ECCO doesn’t apologize for; throughout its history, the company has staked its name on creating premium products at a premium price. They know that there is always a segment of the consumer market who wants the best and is willing to pay for it. I equate this to drivers who prefer driving a BMW when a Volkswagen will run just as far and just as effectively. Think of ECCO as the BMW of the running shoe market: you will undoubtedly get incredible engineering and performance, but whether that justifies the high cost is an individual decision.

Finally, a couple of considerations if you're looking to buy the BIOM …

1) U.S. availability of the shoe is limited to a “premier distribution” of approximately 50 running specialty stores. ECCO places a great deal of significance on supporting independent retailers, and developing their knowledge base and product expertise. It’s great for potential customers who have questions about the BIOM – but the downside is that if you want to try a pair on for a test spin, you might need to travel a ways. A list of vendors can be found on the BIOM Project site.

2) The fit of the shoe is slightly tricky in that it only comes in full sizes, and seems to run slightly big. I wear a size 11 US/44 Euro, which put me right between the BIOM size 45 (for US sizes 11 to 11.5) and size 44 (US size 10-10.5). The 45 was a bit roomy, and I had a better fit with the 44s. If you’re buying from the Internet and have questions about the sizing, it’s probably worth a trip to your nearest vendor to make sure the fit is correct.

Obviously, there’s a lot of information to chew on here … which is probably the way it should be if you’re thinking of spending over $200 for a pair of running shoes. The BIOM is definitely unique compared to any other product on the market, and ECCO deserves credit for rejecting the traditional models of shoe technology and developing an innovative alternative.


(Related post: read my interview with David Helter, GM of ECCO USA, here.

*footwear provided by ECCO USA
*See other product reviews on sidebar at right. If you have a product you’d like reviewed, contact me at
info@runningandrambling.com.

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October 25, 2009

The Barefoot Files: Training Update #6

“Listen to the talking heart in my chest –

With this gift good Lord I am blessed –
There’s a lump and it’s in my throat –
I’m in love with the wilderness.”
- Red Hot Chili Peppers, “Naked in the Rain” (song after post)
**

In my last report, I indicated that I wasn’t sure where the end point of these training updates lay; this week, I think I’ve reached it.

That’s not to say that my transformation to a barefoot runner is complete, or that there aren’t a lot of new challenges to conquer - it’s just that the practice of logging and reporting every run has become a bit tedious, as I’ll explain more in a minute. But first, let’s put the numbers up here, if just for old times’ sake:

Week 12: 4 barefoot runs
- 20 min (after shod run)
- 45 min
- 70 min
- 35 min

Week 13: 4 barefoot runs
- 50 min (with 30:24 5K)
- 20 min (after shod run)
- 20 min (after shod run)
- 35 min

If each week reads generally like the week before, that’s the way it feels from my standpoint as well. On some days I jog out a mile or two after a longer shod workout, and other days I’ll devote a larger chunk of time to spend entirely without shoes. I feel like I’ve settled into a pretty good groove, where running barefoot is just another facet of my overall training.

Even my family is getting accustomed to the routine. Remember this picture that I took after a neighborhood 3-miler a few weeks ago? Well, now when I come home from a weekend run, my youngest daughter usually meets me on the steps to watch me take my foot picture. Of course, she likes to include herself in the game, too …

… so we’ve got a lot of pictures like this at home.

As mentioned previously, there are still a lot of new horizons for me to explore on this barefoot adventure, and I’m going to continue to do so. I want to get more resilient on dirt and trail surfaces, I’d like to stretch out my barefoot runs to ever longer distances, and I’m itching to develop some speed (see my 5K time above - tantalizingly close to sub-30. Whoo-hoo!). I’ll still report on those developments, as well as particularly memorable runs like my morning on the Embarcadero as the weeks and months roll by.

On that note, a couple of stories stand out from the last couple of weeks:

I’ve mentioned more than once that dirt running is going to be my final frontier as a barefooter; the sharp, irregular terrain is absolutely merciless on my naked feet – which, perversely, makes me all the more intrigued to conquer the challenge.

I started thinking about what kinds of trails would be best for easing myself into things: Someplace flat. Someplace with relatively soft soil. Someplace where the dirt is groomed on a frequent basis. Someplace with a scenic backdrop to help me pass the time.


Someplace, in other words, like a big open agricultural field – which the Salinas Valley just happens to be famous for.

I’ve written before about running and riding through these fields, and I find myself drawn to them ever more frequently over the past several weeks. It’s really a topic that deserves its own post, which I’ll put together in the near future.

The other noteworthy run happened at the end of my weekly 12-mile trail run early one Tuesday morning. All of the weather forecasts form the evening before warned about a fierce winter storm rolling into our area during the night, so when I lumbered out of bed at 4:45 to the sound of only mild rainfall, I considered myself a bit lucky, and headed out to join the regular group run.

Our collective luck held out through about 90 minutes of the run, as the storm never escalated beyond light sprinkling with heavy wind. The skies began to open up about 10 minutes away from our destination, and by the time we finished, the heavy stuff was just beginning to come down.

After reaching my car, the thought occurred to me: When was the last time you ran barefoot in the rain? And since I couldn’t even think of such an occasion, I decided to make one right then.

I kept my running clothes on, stripped off my shoes and socks, and spent the next 20 minutes dancing around in what was now a legitimate full-throttle storm. As the wind howled, and the rain pelted my face, and my feet felt the chill of cool water, there wasn’t anything else I wanted to be doing.


It was crazy and primal and juvenile – but it was one of the most intense experiences I’ve ever enjoyed. Good Lord, I am blessed.

**
Postscript: If I ever had to create a "desert island" collection of my five most enjoyable, most enduringly listenable albums of all time, RHCP's Blood Sugar Sex Magik would have a secure place on that list. It was arguably the band's high-water mark, and although this song wasn't a hit single (and never had an official music video), it stands out as one of the best funky jams ever made by a band famous for its vast repertoire of jam funkiness.

Red Hot Chili Peppers, “Naked in the Rain” (click to play):



*See previous training updates on sidebar at right.

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October 24, 2009

U2 Stops the Traffic

(Admin note: this is the follow-up post to the trivia question I asked in this post about a certain landmark in San Francisco. The story itself has nothing to do with running, but if you’ve hung around here for any length of time, you know that's never stopped me before.)

*
In November of 1987, U2 hadn’t comfortably settled into their newfound status as the Biggest Band in the World.

Earlier in the year, they released The Joshua Tree, the album that launched them straight into the rock music stratosphere, and were drawing tens of thousands of fans at every sold-out tour stop of the summer. They couldn’t walk down the street anymore without a flash mob and hundreds of photographers stalking their every move. Yet they still loved the youthful spontaneity of their early years, and felt like they were losing touch with fans who couldn’t afford concert tickets.

The documentary film Rattle and Hum was conceived as an effort to share the tour experience with that base, and one day on San Francisco’s Embarcadero, the band gave its fans the ultimate gift of spontaneity: a free lunchtime concert in Justin Herman Plaza.


Photo from U2tour.de

The concert was announced on short notice (less than 24 hours by most reports), but still drew 20,000 people to the foot of Vaillancourt Fountain to hear a nine-song playlist. The crowd spilled into the surrounding streets and brought traffic to a standstill in all directions.

Near the end of the show, Bono (a future Time Magazine Person of the Year, mind you) climbed the lower portion of Armand Vaillancourt’s Quebec Libre! sculpture and spray painted the phrase Rock & Roll Stops The Traffic above the impromptu stage.

Photo from U2tour.de

Afterward, San Francisco’s mayor was outraged, threatening fines and jail time as punishment for such a public display of vandalism. The argument escalated until Vaillancourt himself was contacted to learn if he supported the act.

The sculptor defended Bono's gesture, declaring that from a societal standpoint, graffiti is sometimes a necessary evil for young people who lack the same access to mainstream media that people of higher power and influence enjoy. San Francisco’s mayor knew better than to pick a battle with one of the city’s most popular artists – to say nothing of the Biggest Band in the World – and let the issue rest without further consequence.

Vaillancourt then supported the band in the coolest way possible: the following night, he personally attended U2's Oakland concert, and climbed on stage to write "Stop the madness" in front of 70 000 people.

The scene at Herman Plaza is forever captured in their 1989 movie Rattle and Hum (click to play):



Which is why the song "All Along the Watchtower" was playing in my head throughout last weekend's run.

(So I guess the story is a LITTLE bit about running ... )

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October 23, 2009

Anti-Monkey Butt Powder

(Admin note: I know I promised a U2 post for this weekend; that one’s coming tomorrow. In the meantime, I’m throwing together a somewhat odd product review that I’ve been extremely delinquent in posting. You’ll quickly see why.)


If there was ever any doubt about my willingness to accept just about any product offer that knocks on my e-mailbox, allow me to present a review of Anti-Monkey Butt Powder.

The Anti Monkey Butt Corporation (seriously – it’s a real corporation) was founded in 2003 by a couple of hardcore dirt bike racers, and their product is designed to eliminate the friction and chafing that cyclists and runners experience during multi-hour activities.

You know what I’m talking about; it goes by a lot of names: Saddle sore. Scarlet cleft. Jungle rot. Or, in this case, monkey butt.

So these two dudes created Anti-Monkey Butt Powder for improved comfort during long activity. They tested various formulas before settling on the right combination of ingredients (which are apparently top secret, as they’re nowhere to be found on the website).

Honestly, I don’t typically have severe problems with chafing, so it’s hard for me to vouch for the effectiveness of AMBP. However, I used it for a handful of mountain bike rides during the summer, and it seemed to decrease the amount of sweating in, um … delicate areas. So I guess I can say it works as advertised.

This clearly isn’t my area of expertise, so I don’t know how AMBP compares to using plain old baby powder, or BodyGlide or other types of saddle creams and balms out there. I will say that they have one of the coolest mascots I’ve seen in a while, and they sent me some stickers that my daughters love.

(Funny tangential story: My 5-year-old daughter continually confuses the names of a couple of products I’ve received – so in the mornings, when I’m in the process of making a monkey shake, she asks me, “Are you making your Monkey Butt Shake, Dad?,” which of course sends her siblings into hysterics. It’s happened enough times that she’s probably mixing the names up on purpose now – but it’s always good for a nice laugh before heading off to work or school.)

I don’t have much more to add here, other than to say that if you suffer from monkey butt, you should definitely consider Anti-Monkey Butt Powder as one of your prevention options. A 6-oz bottle is available for less than five dollars at Amazon.com, so it's a pretty inexpensive product to try.

Or, if you'd like to try it for free, I've also got two unopened single-use packets available for a giveaway to the first person to e-mail me at the address below. (UPDATE: They're already spoken for.)

*Product provided by Anti-Monkey Butt Corporation
** See other product reviews on sidebar at right. If you have a product you'd like reviewed, contact me at info@runningandrambling.com

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October 22, 2009

What a Relief!

The world of marathoning has been getting a lot of press recently – unfortunately, for nearly all the wrong reasons.

Most serious and tragic was the story this month of three runners who died in the same race – a nearly inexplicable occurrence, especially in the absence of severe heat or other extreme conditions. On a more lighthearted note, there was the “scandalous” disqualification of both the first- and second-place women’s winners of a marathon in Milwaukee: the first for drinking from a forbidden water bottle, and the second for wearing an iPod (yes, really).

Somewhere in between these extremes of tragic and ridiculous is one of the better marathon stories I’ve heard in quite a while, about a senior runner from Michigan who dealt with unusual adversity in just about the most admirable way you could imagine … and was almost immediately penalized for it. His tale (which is 100% true) is the subject of our most recent Monterey Herald column, which follows below.

**
Running Life 10/22/09 “What a Relief!”

When running towards an aid station in the final miles of a marathon, most runners are looking for similar things: fluids, energy gels, some uplifting words from the volunteers, and perhaps a little Vaseline for problem areas.

At this month’s Twin Cities Marathon, Jerry Johncock was looking for a urinary catheter.

According to the Minneapolis-St Paul Star-Tribune (original story is here), Johncock is an 81-year-old who has finished more than 100 marathons since taking up running at age 50. He also suffers periodically from blood clots that block his urinary tract. During the marathon, he recognized the painful condition happening again and stopped to ask for assistance at the mile 22 aid station. He had hydrated well, but his bladder was struggling, and he couldn’t relieve himself. The medical staff at the race told him they didn’t have the necessary equipment to assist him, and recommended that he drop out of the race and go to a hospital for treatment.

Jerry Johncock; photo from Minneapolis-St. Paul Star Tribune

To nearly everyone’s surprise, a spectator in the crowd stepped up to say that he had a catheter in his car that the runner could borrow. The anonymous stranger retrieved it, the first aid worker helped insert it, and … problem solved! Johncock later called the Good Samaritan’s act “a gift from the Lord” in his time of need.

With his bladder freshly drained, Johncock was completely relieved and ready to roll. He ran strong to the finish, and even with the delay was able to win his men’s 80-84 age group (there were only two runners in the category, but still). At the Twin Cities Marathon, that honor carries a cash prize of $225.

Predictably, since nearly no good deed goes unpunished, when race officials heard of the incident they immediately suspended the official race results pending an investigation and consultation with USA Track and Field, the national governing body of road racing. They wanted to determine whether Johncock should be disqualified for violating race rules when he received the assistance.

From Twin Cities Marathon website

According to USATF rules, a competitor who receives assistance from any person aside from official medical staff may be disqualified. There was also a question of whether Johncock re-entered the course at the exact same location where he stepped off the road while using the catheter.

Fortunately, common sense prevailed – although it took four full days to get there – as Johncock’s time was allowed to stand. He collected his money and was declared the official age group winner. When the race director called him with the news, Johncock had no hard feelings – in fact, he said that he plans to return to the race next year.

If that happens, he said he’ll take one additional precaution: "I'll strap a catheter around my waist."

People say that marathon runners have to be tough, and willing to overcome whatever adversity they face on race day - and we've faced enough difficult extremes in marathon racing to appreciate just how challenging those rough moments can be. But in all our years of watching and participating in marathons, the toughness and determination shown by this octogenarian may be one of the most impressive displays we’ve ever heard of.

We know this story reads like satire but it’s absolutely true. It’s also a nice lesson on the positive attributes that years of marathon running can instill in someone. Our congrats go out to Mr Johncock for finishing his race, and we wish him many more in his future - although we hope the next one isn't quite so eventful.

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October 20, 2009

Barefoot Embarcadero

Last weekend our family took one of those “Let’s cram as much educational and enriching stuff as possible into 24 hours!” trips to San Francisco – so in between seeing King Tut and the science museum, doing some geocaching, enjoying the SF Symphony, and absolutely loving a trip (seriously - you have to do it someday) to Alcatraz, I snuck out of the hotel for an early-morning run through the city.

Without shoes, of course. Because if there’s anyplace on Earth where you're free to look like an absolute weirdo, it has to be San Francisco. And with that, I was on my way.

I always love seeing buildings in this town with early morning sunlight spilling through them. During the other 22 or so hours of the day, maybe not so much – but sunrise in the big city always carries the feeling of promise for the day ahead.


I made a beeline for Market Street, where it was a straight shot to the Ferry Building in the distance, where I’d pick up the Embarcadero.


This is part of Justin Herman Plaza across the street from the Ferry Building. The large sculpture is called Quebec Libre!, and sits in what’s known as Vaillancourt Fountain, because it’s 1) named after the scupltor, and 2) usually filled with water. On this morning, however, it was completely emptied …


… which made for a cool little picture spot.

(*Random musical trivia tangent of the day: the sculpture in Vaillancort Fountain holds a special place in history for hardcore U2 fans. I’ll tell the story in a weekend post, but feel free to chime in the comments box if you know its significance.)


As I reached my first dock, the morning fog was stubbornly clinging to the low-lying hills, like this one on Yerba Buena Island under the Bay Bridge …


… and to the tops of the buildings, like this thin veil atop the Coit Tower.


The Embarcadero is the main drag for recreational joggers in this part of the city, so I got plenty of astonished looks for not wearing shoes.

Most people were friendly about it – several even ran alongside me for a bit to ask the usual “Doesn’t it hurt? What about broken glass?” type of questions. One younger girl even took off her iPod earbuds to talk with me – that’s something of a compliment among twenty-something females, right?


It had rained earlier in the week, so there were lingering puddles scattered along the waterway – and of course, I ran through every one of them. No matter how many times I do it, I always get a charge out of looking back over my shoulder and seeing this image on the ground behind me.


Sunlight bouncing off the building, tree foliage just beginning to turn, and a wispy layer of fog … have I mentioned that San Francisco is beautiful in the morning?


My turnaround point was at Pier 39, where I moseyed up and down the docks a bit …


… and took a little picture break before heading back toward the hotel.



By my return trip, the sun had finally triumphed over the fog, providing some killer views of the nearby skyline.


Another cool thing I love about San Francisco: the older historic buildings that are dwarfed by skyscrapers on either side, but still stand proudly as a reminder of the early days. They give the city its character, and more than a little bit of class.



A farmer’s market was going on back at the Ferry Building. I got almost zero strange looks here: you have to do a lot better than jogging around barefoot to grab the attention of this hemp-growing, organic-farming, incense-burning, vegan hippie peacenik crowd. Not that I tried.


Given that I was in a farmer’s market in San Francisco, I was surprised that I didn’t see more signs like this. There were only about a dozen; I thought the number would be closer to fifty. Kind of disappointing, really.



From there, I just had a long trip up Market Street to get back to the hotel. The sidewalks on Market are made of red brick, which was almost the perfect texture for urban barefoot running: more traction than concrete, but smoother and less hazardous than the asphalt street. If I’m ever elected the barefoot mayor of a small town somewhere, I’ll lobby to have all the streets made out of brick.


After about six miles of barefoot running, I was back in the plushly-carpeted hotel lobby from which I started. It was a good spot to sit for a minute …


… and take one more foot photo. You’d think I would have got some strange looks for taking pictures of my feet in a hotel lobby, but, you know -

It’s San Francisco.

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