Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Life Stories on the Run

Cindy Valdez did her best to get out of running the Rock ‘n Roll Half Marathon in Denver last October. She told her husband, Ralph, that she couldn’t do it. She asked her son, Brandon, to take her place. He was busy that day.

So Cindy entered the race, burdened by the sorrow of losing an older sister only a week earlier. “I had no motivation,” she said. “But somewhere inside me there was a small voice telling me that I’d trained hard for this race, that I’d paid my money, and that I’d better just do it.

“The first miles were miserable. I came close to calling Ralph and asking him to come and get me.”

She plodded on, with no pressing reason to quit and no real desire to move forward.

Cindy’s a social person, a true lover of people. By mile nine she needed someone—anyone—to talk to. At her side she caught sight of a young boy, age 14 she learned later, listening to music on his headphones, struggling to keep a decent pace, now and then sinking into a slow shuffle.

“Hi,” Cindy said. “How’s it going?”

“This is my first half marathon. It’s hard.” came the reply.

“You don’t need to take off your headphones.”

But the boy left his headphones off, wanting to talk. He explained that his parents didn’t like it that he’d taken up running. “They say I’m going to ruin my knees, but I love it so much.”
“I’m 60 and I’ve been running for 27 years. My knees are just fine.”

When Cindy asked how he got started running, he explained that the year before he’d been in big trouble in school—poor grades, hanging out with a gang of bad kids, and heading down a road to nowhere good. He hinted that he’d spent some time in jail.

After a difficult confrontation with his parents one day, he left the house angry and ran—as far and as fast as he could. The run made him feel better.

At school he saw a poster inviting kids to join a running club. Before long the boy became dedicated to running. He came to see it as the thing that had turned his life around.

As Cindy listened to his story, the miles clicked away for both of them. She knew now she’d finish the Rock ‘n Roll Half. 

The boy’s pace slowed and Cindy stayed at his side, planning to finish with him. He encouraged her to go ahead and finally she did, sensitive to the fact that he needed his music to keep him going and that he would probably feel most comfortable completing this challenge alone.

Cindy searched for the boy at the finish line, but didn‘t find him among the crowds of people. “I’m sure he finished,” she said.  “No doubt about it.”

Her story was over and so was the ten-mile training run Cindy and I had completed side-by-side on a stunning Saturday morning in the Horsetooth hills.

Life is story and sharing stories with each other enhances friendship. Long runs give us the gift of time to listen.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

The Dan Berlin Story

When Connie DeMercurio was ready to pass the torch after presiding over the Fort Collins Running Club for two years, she did so knowing that a strong board, bolstered by some enthusiastic new members, would carry on. What she didn’t know was that her longtime running partner, Dan Berlin, would step up and agree to lead the running club into the future.

“I was the last man standing,” Berlin says with a smile. “No one else was ready to take on the job.”  Berlin was happy to take over, delighted, in fact, to pay back the Fort Collins running community for what they have done for him.

Relatively new to the sport, Berlin, then 43, was struggling with the increasing loss of his sight five years ago when he decided to try running. Always athletic, he’d been involved with football and track in high school and frequented the gym regularly in later years. “The longest I’d ever run since school days was a three mile jog to the gym,” he said.

No longer able to drive or even find his way comfortably around a grocery store, Berlin wanted to find a way to stay fit and release stress. He tried running on a bike path because he could see the edges well enough and traffic was not an issue. It worked. To keep running, he needed a goal.  He set his sights on the 2009 Crossroads Half Marathon in Fort Collins and embarked on a 10-week “intermediate” training program.

Shortly before the race, Berlin realized that if he ran solo, he’d be a hazard—to himself and to others in the race. He could not see cones marking the course, and running in a pack would present a whole new set of problems.

He called race director John Lonsdale and asked for help. Lonsdale sent out an email and in two days Berlin had dozens of offers. Connie DeMercurio emerged as most persistent and got the job. Then began a journey for the pair that over the years has included dozens of races from 5ks to full marathons.

“Let’s go,” DeMercurio said moments after meeting Berlin for the first time. “There I was in my Crocs, figuring we’d have a bit of conversation before we hit the road, but no, Connie was ready to go the moment she showed up at my house.” They ran two miles that day.

When they race together, an 18-inch nylon cord with a knot at each end tethers them to each other. Connie runs ahead to warn Berlin of obstacles and he wears a vest to let others knows he can’t see.

Berlin finished Crossroads in 2 hours, 10 minutes. Goal met. He didn’t plan to race again. But then he was invited to be on a relay team participating in the Denver Marathon. “We had a blast,” he said. He followed that experience with the Heart Half Marathon in Loveland—the event that hooked him permanently.

In October 2014 Berlin plans a rim-to river-to rim 46-mile jaunt in the Grand Canyon with three friends. “The farthest I’ve ever run is 27 miles,” Berlin said. “I’m up for the challenge.”

Post-script. In October 2014, Berlin did complete an historic rim-to-river-to-rim run to become the first blind person to accomplish that feat and the whole world took notice.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Running with Friends

I often run alone, but I treasure the friends I’ve made through running, and I love to run with them. Many of them were kind enough to tell me why they choose to run with each other.

“My running friends get me out in the morning. I love being social, exercising and being accountable to show up. We meet year round and help each other train for big events.”

One quoted George Sheehan: “The reason we race isn’t to BEAT each other, it’s just to BE with each other.”

“I am a fair weather runner who loves the support and structure of having to meet a group of runners at a specific time and place. This has helped me complete eight marathons. I’ve been running with a dozen runners of varying abilities for nine years. They have become some of my best friends. We’ve celebrated weddings, births and birthdays, and we’ve been there for each other through illnesses. I like larger groups so that a running partner is guaranteed when you show up at 5:30 a.m. or in 90-degree temperature.”

“The best part of a group is that you commit because they are expecting you. The bonding and conversation is great. With a group, I think you sometimes put more effort into your running. ”

“Running in a group challenges you to try new trails and learn to maintain a pace when you are tired. The wonderful relationships that build go beyond running and become a source of encouragement and support in our lives.”

“The group has made me a better runner and allowed me to meet women in different stages and walks of life. Within six months of joining I ran my first half-marathon. I’m hooked. Having a group that meets regularly has pushed me farther than I thought possible. It’s easier to get out of bed when people are expecting you. Runs go more easily when you’re visiting with others.”

“Group running encourages easy conversation. We consider what we say before we speak—you can’t be longwinded when you’re trying to breathe and watch your step as well. Energy and effort multiplies when we are together. Twelve years ago I met a friend at Runners Roost and ran nine miles with her. Since then we have run together through all that life brings us—through sickness injury and recovery, good times and hard times. We have laughed and shed tears, side by side. Life is best when shared with others.”

“I used to run alone. It was my therapy and sometimes my punching bag. But I was stagnant. I met new people and was introduced to new paths and distances when I joined a group. I would never have run my first marathon without their support. The group does more than encourage me to expand my running. These runners have become like family.”

“Don’t run the New York Marathon without your friend.”

“It is okay to share your Body Glide. For every bad thing you say about your husband to your running buddy, you must try to say something good about him.”

“I love this group. I read the emails and run when I can.  They motivate me even though I rarely make it to group runs.”

A running friend may, in the long run, be more important than a coach.