Month: September 2008

My AC Nemesis

CIMG6145 Around 3:30 Saturday morning, I woke up to find my hydration pack soaked, and a big puddle on the floor — there was a hole just big enough that it lost half its content overnight. A slight panic set in, but remained as calm as one can be while dealing with a crisis before a 100 mile race. The interim solution was a piece of duct tape, hoping my hasty patch job would make it until I would see my pacer/crew at Chilao.

The morning was warm — VERY warm. I have not experienced a start at any race that comfortable in a long time — definitely not at AC in the last 4 years I’ve done it. My goal this time was aggressive compared to my previous finishes — I wanted to get as close to 26 hours as possible, knowing realistically that it would likely be more around 28 hours. I would’ve been happy with that, since my fastest time so far was just over 30 hours, which I happened to do a week after I ran Wasatch last year. My concern though, was my left ankle that I originally hurt at San Diego in June, which never really got a chance to heal properly since I kept re-injuring it in subsequent races, most recently at Bulldog a few weeks back.

Catra was also shooting for a course PR, but we would not be running together this time — our first 100 miler which we would be on our own. She was excited though, since she was looking forward to being paced and crewed by her Crossfit friends from Team Elite Fitness Academy in Monrovia.

As most races go, the beginning went just fine, although I do recall last year, I had some serious stomach issues before I even made it to Inspiration Point (mile 9.3). This year, I was right where I wanted to be — 2:04 into the first aid, 10 minutes faster than my previous times.

CIMG6182 I got to Vincent Gap (mile 13.9), just after 7am, right at the 26 hour pace, and readied myself for one of two longest stretches in between aid stations. Even though I thought I made it up and over Baden-Powell (the course high point at 9400′) faster this year, I was actually 2 minutes slower, which could’ve been because of my tumble, plus a slight detour to get some water at the spring by Little Jimmy’s campground.

This was when I began feeling a hot spot underneath both feet — flashback to 2005/2006 when I had the same exact issue. Déjà vu! I decided to continue on and make an assessment while climbing up Mt Williamson — at the top, I concluded that I would need to get my feet taped up, or at least take a look at what was going on. When I entered Eagle’s Roost (20 minutes off pace), I couldn’t find anyone who could help me, so I continued on — big mistake.

The paved section out of the aid station is one part of the course I really dislike — this is the detour for Cooper Canyon, where they are trying to protect some endangered frogs. It’s a gradual uphill on the highway, then a steep downhill into the Buckhorn campground. Once at the bottom, it’s a slow grind up to Cloudburst (mile 37.5)

When I finally arrived, I knew my feet were bad, so immediately requested for someone to help fix them (didn’t even need to look). Mark Weineke happened to be there, got his kit, then patched me up — both heels already had silver dollar-sized blisters, and one was already sliced open revealing raw skin underneath. The thought of running over 60 miles on those was not very comforting. I left there close to 2:30pm, almost an hour behind my original pace, but knew earlier that my goal was to only finish this time around.

The next section to 3 Points (mile 42.7) should’ve been fast and easy, but it was slow going because of my feet. Luckily, the terrain is relatively non-technical, so it didn’t bother my blisters too much, and I arrived at 3:45pm.

For once, I was looking forward to the asphalt road up to Mt Hillyer (mile 49.1), since I knew it would be easy on my feet, but forgot how long it took to actually get there. Good thing was that most of the trail section leading there was relatively smooth. I got to the top at 5:30pm along with three other runners.

I knew the trail down to Chilao (mile 52.8) would be difficult, so wasn’t looking forward to it, but at the same time, I wanted to get to the aid quickly so that I could get my feet re-taped for the remainder of the race. As we climbed to the top, I joined up with Wally and Howie, who immediately dropped me as we began our descent. Near the blacktop, I was also passed up by Carl Borg — out on his first 100 miler attempt.

Just before the aid station, I was met with Willem who was supposed to pace me from there, but he wasn’t able to because he was sick. Oh well…I was used to doing 100’s solo anyway, but was bummed because I knew that he would’ve been a good pacer. Interestingly enough, he paced Catra a few years back before we started dating.

CIMG6191I sat down, and luckily found Deb Clem, who happened to patch me up at 2 previous ACs. For some reason, this process has become routine unfortunately. I saw many people there — runners who dropped earlier, pacers, crew, etc, including my friends Robert Baird and Jeff Stein.

I was at the aid station for 30 minutes, then headed out just after 7pm (14 hours in) for the remainder of the race — the section I was most familiar with. The good thing was that I knew what lay ahead, and the bad thing was that I knew what lay ahead. At that point, I was still a little behind a 30 hour pace, but well within cutoff. It was still early, and I knew I’d be slowing down as I approached the most difficult sections of the course, so didn’t want to waste too much time.

I did relatively well going into Shortcut (Bill Ramsey’s station at mile 59.3), since the terrain was downhill and smooth most of the way, until a short steep climb at the end. I made it there around 9pm, about 30 minutes behind my previous year’s pace.

From there to Newcomb’s (mile 68) was basically a 1.5 hour mostly downhill stretch on fireroad, followed by another hour+ climb to the saddle. In the past, I’ve had trouble there, but felt relatively ok (other than my blistered feet) this year, arriving at 11:30pm or so.

The 6.6 miles to Chantry (mile 75) would normally be fun along a rolling and windy fast singletrack, but after having almost 70 miles under your belt, plus it being dark, made it a bit more challenging and less fun. I ran briefly with Kristin Farley and Dave Campbell, two local ultrarunners along that section.

My arrival at Chantry was around 2am — 30 mins slower than last year, but almost 30 mins faster than 2005, and I was still surprisingly close to a 30 hour pace. At that moment, I was not concerned about my finish time, but just making it before the cutoff. What I hoped to not have to do was to walk all the way in, but knew what would be coming up the next 25 miles, which did not make me feel too confident based on the condition of my feet.

CIMG6239After thanking David Overstreet who helped me at the aid station, I set off alone into the darkness, which is always a bit unnerving, but the familiarity of this section made me feel more at ease. I was still moving well, or at least I thought I was. My foot mainly bothered me on the downhills, although it still hurt on the ups as well, but just not as much, since I could use my forefoot more. In the past, this is where I would begin to fall asleep, so usually looked forward to the bench at the Wilson trail junction where I’ve had to take a nap in all my previous ACs — this time, I actually declined an offer to join Kristin and her pacer Wendy along with Jussi, who were all taking a breather there. When I reached the toll road, I caught Mike Stephens who I recognized from last year, and would not see again until after the finish.

In a way I was looking forward to the downhill into Idlehour (mile 83.8) because I needed a break from the long climb, but at the same time, I knew it would be painful. I got to the aid just before 5:30am, greeted by a big chicken and Barefoot Ted — I thought I was hallucinating at first, since I rarely see chickens on the trails.

I knew along this section, the sun would be coming up, and hoped it would give me some much needed energy, but realized it would unfortunately do nothing for my battered feet. I would see no one here until just before the Sam Merril aid station (mile 89.3), where Jussi finally caught up to me.

We both left there around 6:30am, with a long technical stretch ahead that I wasn’t looking forward to. Middle Sam Merril has always been known to be chewed up by the mountain bikers, and one of the most rockiest sections of the course. I ended up having to walk (or rather tip-toe) the entire section down to Echo Mountain, and also up all along the Mount Lowe railway.

Once I got to Sunset, the rocks would ease up, but would remain technical enough that I still couldn’t really run. Just before I reached Millard around 10am, Linda Dewees caught up to me, but could not maintain her pace. I had almost exactly an hour to get under 30, but knew it would not be possible based on what lay ahead, and the condition of my feet, as the pain had become excruciating.

CIMG6222I was glad to get off El Prieto onto some flat asphalt, which I normally would not welcome due to the impact, but this time, it was much easier on my blistered heels. After the last climb which took us from the old finish up to the road to the new one, it was a long gradual uphill. I was able to run fairly well all the way in, and ended up crossing the finish line only 13 minutes slower than last year, my second fastest in my 4 finishes at 30:17. Catra came in about 40 minutes later to finish in 30:57 — her 6th AC.

This was my last 100 miler for 2008 — this year, I completed 6 total: HURT (Jan), Coyote 2 Moon (Feb), San Diego (June), Bighorn (June), Tahoe (July), and AC (Sept).

Meaning of life…

Every once in a while, I come across a good article in the newspaper — this one definitely hit home, and made me realize how we oftentimes take things for granted. It’s been about 10 years since I lost my father to cancer — I was out-of-town when he died, so never got a chance to say goodbye. My mother, also suffered from the same fate, but even though I was at her bedside, I did not have an opportunity to tell her how I felt before she lost her battle.
I started my letter, and hope that you will too.

College students study death to learn the meaning of life

Kean University students visit the dead, the dying and convicted murderers. Along the way, they learn to value what they have.

By Erika Hayasaki
Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

September 3, 2008

UNION, N.J. — The dead man lies naked on a metal table, a small cloth covering his groin, mouth open, arms rigid and cocked.

A blue-gloved autopsy technician thrusts a hefty razor into his chest, unzipping his brown skin to reveal a thick layer of yolk-colored fat. He pulls marbled meat from the bone.

The man was 30, an only son, married, a father of three. Around 9:40 p.m. the night before, someone shot him in the head. Now, a technician at the New Jersey Medical Examiner’s Office in Newark is holding his lungs, tar-speckled as if covered with spores of mold.

Rebecca Schmidt, 21, a ponytailed biology major, stands over the body, alongside a dozen of her Kean University classmates midway through the eight-week summer course Death in Perspective.

“They’re looking for the bullet; come see,” says Professor Norma Bowe, 49.

Schmidt leans in, captivated by the disfigured ball of metal lodged above his left ear. She breathes through her mask sprayed with perfume, which does little to block the smell of death: feces and rotten eggs.

This is so cool, she thinks. Schmidt has seen death plenty of times, but never the inside of a corpse.

For the last decade, Bowe has led her classes of 30 students into the refrigerated tombs of bodies stacked bunk-bed-style in the morgue and into hospice bedrooms, glowing from television screens, occupied by the sickly and soon-to-die. She guides them through the barbed-wire fences of Northern New Jersey State Penitentiary, past the outdoor recreation kennels where gang members sweat and swear, to a law library where they sit down with murderers.

Her students are from suburban small towns and inner cities. They enroll in Bowe’s class because they are curious about her unusual field trips. But something more powerful also draws them here: a need to know how we die, and why. What happens to our bodies, and is there such a thing as the soul?

The poet and philosopher Khalil Gibran once wrote:

You would know the secret of death.

But how shall you find it unless you seek it in the heart of life?

Bowe guides her students by this principle. There is a three-year waiting list to get into the class.

“This is his tongue,” another autopsy technician tells the students, pulling out the slimy bundle of muscles of a 73-year-old man sprawled on a table next to the gunshot victim. His face is peeled from his skull, forehead folded in a flap over his stubbled chin. The medical examiner’s report said he had been distraught over his wife’s recent death and hanged himself in his garage.

A young woman fights tears. Other students turn away. After a few minutes, three leave.

One by one, more exit, until three are left. One is Schmidt.

On the floor next to her feet, the shooting victim’s belongings lie strewn across a white sheet: a tangerine and red flame-colored T-shirt and sneakers that match, a blood-soaked white undershirt, four packs of Newport cigarettes, a few dozen MetroCards for the subway, $211 in cash.

As a volunteer emergency medical technician, Schmidt has looked into the eyes of people dying as she gave them CPR. It’s weird, Schmidt says, to feel their bones crush beneath her palms as she tries to press life into their chests.

It’s not the sight of someone’s blood, or broken body, or last breath that disturbs her. What Schmidt can’t understand is why, in those moments when death is before her and her adrenaline is pumping, she cannot bring herself to feel truly sad.

“OK, guys, gather up,” Bowe tells the students outside the coroner’s office. “Any thoughts?”

The students stay hushed.

“Say something,” Bowe says.

The woman who had been on the verge of tears breaks down.

“Come here,” Bowe says, hugging her, as Schmidt and the others watch.

“It’s good to be alive, right?” Bowe says. “Did you notice how fragile we are? We have no business taking our lives for granted.”

It is a Monday in May, the first class of summer session. Bowe’s assignment: “Write a goodbye letter to someone or something you have lost.”

“Go where it’s scary,” Bowe says, “go where you don’t want to.”

Schmidt, a former athlete, shifts in her seat. Seeing dead people? No problem. Delving into her emotions? Not so simple. There is a science to ignoring.

Something happened to her when she was 15. It’s her secret, and it changed her. At 16, she signed up to be an EMT. Her first call: a dead man who had been in bed for two weeks, decomposing.

“People look at me like ‘How can you do this?’ ” Schmidt says. “I wonder, ‘Am I too cold?’ “

The class members introduce themselves: “I’m a psych major,” says Vatasha Daniels, a baby-faced 22-year-old. She lost someone seven years ago, but she’s not ready to admit this to everyone.

“I took this class,” Daniels says, “because I felt like it would just be interesting.”

Next to Daniels sits 24-year-old Danielle Pante, who seems unflappable as she tells her story: “I lost my mom when I was 4. Two years later my dad’s girlfriend died of cancer. In high school, I lost three of my friends — two car accidents and one OD.”

A week later, after the students’ first writing assignments, Pante is crying and gasping for breath in class, reading her goodbye letter to her mother aloud. “I think about you every day, and wonder what life would be like. . . . “

“We’re here,” Bowe says. “We don’t care if you cry the whole way through.”

Another girl tells of a father coping with cancer. Another admits to having been raped.

But some truths aren’t ready to be revealed.

Schmidt tucks her paper away, crossing her arms, avoiding Bowe’s eyes, hoping she will not call on her. Please don’t ask me to read, she wrote on the assignment before submitting it.

Daniels looks at her desk, knowing she didn’t write the goodbye letter she should have. The pain is too raw.

Four weeks before we die of old age or after battling disease, our body feels cold. Our mouth and fingernail beds develop a bluish tinge — our circulation is shifting, Bowe says in a lecture on the stages of dying. Three weeks in, our blood moves away from the digestive system, we lose appetite, the liver begins to go. Capillaries in our nose thicken. Two weeks in, our eyesight fades. One week in, the kidneys start to give way. A day or two before, our breath shortens. A few hours in, heart rate increases, blood pressure drops.

“You know how great that feeling is, when you first meet somebody you’re really attracted to?” Bowe says. “The same chemical will flood your brain when you’re dying.”

The body takes care of our pain.

“At the end of our life, we have a lot of wisdom,” Bowe continues, “and we have a lot of regrets.”

Bowe grew up in an abusive family in New York, and her struggle to cope led to a fascination with death and suffering. As she grew older, Bowe gravitated away from her parents, and spent years working as a nurse in emergency rooms and hospice care centers and studying psychiatry, in which she earned a doctorate. She has witnessed hundreds of deaths.

It is halfway through the course. On a muggy June afternoon, Bowe and a prison guard at Northern State Penitentiary lead the class through metal detectors, under a sniper tower, past a barbed-wire fence where entangled birds die and rot. The prisoners wail and curse and bang on windows and bars.

The students meet the murderers in the law library. One says he broke into a home and the woman wouldn’t tell him where the safe was, so he killed her.

Daniels feels no sympathy for the men. Other students ask the inmates questions. Daniels has a few pounding inside her but says nothing.

“That prison was horrible, and I am sure it is the closest thing we will compare to hell on earth,” she wrote in her reaction paper. “I went home and said a prayer.”

Daniels’ essays reveal nothing of her personal life. But as classes go on, listening to other students share their trauma nudges her to take a step toward facing her own.

The last day of class arrives. Bowe asked students to write about their most difficult life experience.

“OK, who’s up next?” Bowe says, looking at Daniels.

Daniels nods. It’s time.

“The murder of my older brother on June 24, 2001,” her voice trembles. “My hero, my father figure, a great son, a college graduate, a father.”

Her classmates look stunned. All semester, Daniels had been silent. Even Bowe had no idea.

Someone shot Daniels’ brother, Dwayne, one afternoon in a fight over a woman. He was 28.

Yesterday was the anniversary of his death. Her brother had been raising two boys, now 13 and 17. Today, they live with Daniels’ mother.

“He got 25 to life,” Daniels says softly. “I want to ask him now, was it worth it?

“When I went to the prison I wanted to ask the guys.”

“You still want to?” Bowe says. “Write down exactly what you would like to know, and I will give it to the men.”

Schmidt, the former athlete, never read her goodbye letter aloud. Writing it was enough.

At the end of the semester, Bowe returned her folder of essays. Inside it was Schmidt’s goodbye letter: Dear Brian. . . . I’m not here to say goodbye because that leaves no opportunity for a hello in the future. . . . I want you to know how much I love you.

The letter was to the son Schmidt gave birth to at 15. Too young to raise a child, she gave him up for adoption. She remembers choosing the agency and family. She remembers walking away from the hospital, reeling from heartache.

Depression came in waves. Guilt became her shadow, pulling her back from becoming the star athlete and student she wanted to be.

Bowe keeps Schmidt in mind on the last day of class when she reads them a commencement speech written by Anna Quindlen: The knowledge of our own mortality is the greatest gift God ever gives us. It’s so easy to waste our lives, our days, our hours, our minutes.

Schmidt thinks about this message.

For her final class essay, Schmidt writes: With each situation we are given choices. I’ve decided to live. . . . Thank you Dr. Bowe.

Aweek after the end of summer session, Bowe stands before a dozen inmates. She teaches mental health to the Northern State Penitentiary inmates each week. One is an ex-Mafia hit man. Another beat a man to death and became a Buddhist in prison. Some are the same men Daniels and the other Kean University students met on the field trip. On this day, Bowe has brought Daniels’ questions.

If he was given a chance to say anything to me, my family, or most important my brother’s children, what would he say?

Bowe tells the inmates to respond if they want.

One asks: “Do you think this will bring her some type of solace by doing this?”

“I do,” Bowe says. “I think it’s really hard for people when there’s a lot of unfinished business.”

A few weeks later, Bowe calls Daniels to her office.

Bowe puts on her reading classes and picks the letter from the Mafia hit man.

Living each day with the thoughts of what my actions caused, in a living tomb, is not much of an existence. Yet I am alive and where there is life there is hope.

Bowe finishes, and Daniels cries. “That hit home,” she whispers.

Bowe reads from the Buddhist’s letter:

If I were given the opportunity to speak to the family of my victim I would do so without hesitation. There are a million apologies I’d like to give them, and a million ways to say them. But I’ve already forced myself into their lives by murdering someone they loved. I’ll not dare contact them and offer an explanation then, and reopen wounds they may have closed. . . . That’s something you might consider, even if only to yell at the man, and tell him how you feel.

When Bowe finishes, Daniels says, “I want to forgive him, I do.”

“That’s a big step,” Bowe says.

Maybe one day, Daniels can write a letter to the murderer, Bowe suggests. But first, Bowe tells her, she must write the goodbye letter to her brother that she never wrote for class.

A few weeks later, Daniels will sit at her computer and begin to type: Dear Dwayne. . . .