It’s a good day when you can retire with a book at the end of it. And it’s a literary achievement for a reader when all those good books accumulate and the year kicks off to a great start. There’s no time to waste on mediocre books, and there’s truly a sense of satisfaction when all the books you read turn out to be gems.
A summary of books read this month:
~The Wall by Jurek Becker – A collection of stories by a survivor of the Holocaust, using his memories at the concentration camps to weave out stories. 4/5
~Bombay Balchao by Jane Borges – A novel about the Goan, Mangalorean and East Indian Catholics in Bombay, travelling from the 1930s to the present day. 5/5
~Silent Was Zarathustra by Nicolas Wild – A graphic novel cum biography of the humanist Cyrus Yazdani, along with a history of Zoroastrianism. 4/5
~India’s Most Haunted by K. Hari Kumar – Essays of haunted places, superstitions, rumours, folktakes from around the country. 4/5
~Tödlicher Schnee by Felix & Theo – A crime novel about a private detective on holiday at a ski resort, who inadvertently gets pulled into a series of murders at a global environmental conference. 4/5
3 books read on kindle:
~The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky – A novel about a teenager living life on the sidelines; ‘watching instead of participating’ in life. 5/5
~Zorgamazoo by Robert Paul Weston – A verse novel about a duo of misfits trying to save the world from boredom. 5/5
~Booked by Kwame Alexander – Another verse novel about sport and books. Enough said! 4/5
Emma Collins stopped celebrating Christmas the year her mother passed away. Christmas, for her, meant family and tradition and preparing cakes and sweets together, and it has failed to have the same meaning anymore. Emma works as a journalist with ‘The Examiner’, a local newspaper for which she writes obituaries. The ‘Good Homemaking’ magazine had run a nationwide contest a month ago, for the best fruitcake recipe in the country – the winner of which would be announced on Christmas Day. Emma finds herself with a new job description – to interview the finalists of the fruitcake competition, and present a series of articles as a build-up to the Christmas season.
“Fruitcakes are like in-laws. They show up at the holidays. You have no idea who sent them, how old they are, or how long they’ll be hanging around your kitchen.”
“Fruitcake is about the ritual of a family recipe. The longer the ritual is repeated, the more it becomes part of the holidays.”
The reader is taken through Emma’s life in the weeks leading up to Christmas – her earnestness in making a name for herself as a journalist, a boss who doesn’t take her seriously, a colleague cum best friend and sole support system, her estrangement with her father, her mourning over her mother’s death. The author begins every chapter with quotes by real life chefs and bakers, on what fruitcakes symbolize to them. Emma’s journey as a journalist also comes across beautifully, as someone who documents the lives of others but personally feels she has hardly made a smudge on the page of her own life. Her aversion towards Christmas and the festive season shows us how not everyone celebrates festivals the same way, depending on what memories are attached to specific days/seasons. Her interviews with people from various walks of life reveal the stark differences in each finalist’s life story, along with the common bond they share through their love for baking. From an octogenarian widow to a young mother of four, Emma receives life lessons along with fruitcake lessons from an unassuming bunch of people.
“When I was with my husband, I felt there must be something lacking in me. Now I don’t think so anymore. Time will do that, you know?”
“I never could figure out people, but I know a whole lot about fruitcake.”
The more Emma goes over the notes of her meetings, the more she realizes that the interviews are not so much about fruitcake as much about the people themselves. “Lessons about life, wrapped up in a fruitcake recipe.” From traditional fruitcakes to personalized ingredients like chocolate or apples, and even no-bake recipes, Emma comes across a variety of methods to prepare the same product, which serves as a metaphor for life, in that, each of us lives our own journey. There are contestants who spent several years trying to bake the perfect fruitcake, only to realize that their life was what needed working on instead. Some divert from traditional recipes and use ingredients of their choice, serving the lesson of doing what you love and not following the herd. Others use the no-bake option because they want to “enjoy it now” – a lesson for living in the moment.
There are different fruitcake recipes provided in the book for the reader to try out. All-in-all, a sweet Christmas story that doesn’t succumb to clichés. Macomber writes with the right mix of humor and romance. Those who love baking and animals would enjoy this book. The epilogue was a tad drawn out and could have been done away with, but otherwise a cheery Christmas read that gets you into the festive spirit.
“There are many types of civilization, depending on what you’re used to. Icy fog and torrential rain, punctuated by snow – though beautiful – had driven cats indoors,and brought life to a standstill.”
The No. 2 Feline Detective Agency is a series of books led by a feline detective duo. Hettie Bagshot and Tilly Jenkins are summoned to solve a case a few days before Christmas. The elderly Lady Eloise Crabstock-Singe lives in a manor off the Cornish coast, and believes her house is haunted by the ghost of a cat who wants to finish off the entire Singe family. Lady Eloise’s sister and brothers have already been brutally murdered by the hands of Christmas Paws, who shows up every Christmas Eve to wreck havoc on the Singe family. Eloise is the only surviving member, and is certain it’s her turn this Christmas and fears she has been brought to reckoning.
This cracking cat crime is an absolutely delightful and entertaining read for the Christmas season, populated by a world without people that cat lovers would certainly enjoy. All the characters are cats, and Mandy Morton has given each of them their own distinct character traits. Hetty and Tilly are named after the author’s own cats, and the other characters are based on her friends’ pets. Our protagonists are avid readers, and the book is peppered with literary references which are an absolute treat for book lovers. The word play is all animal-related – Santa Claws, Agatha Crispy, The Daily Snout, Cat of the Baskervilles, and the title itself being a take on Charles Dickens’ novel. A fun, feline read that is definitely recommended if you’re looking for something lighthearted and witty.
“The grass flows and you flow, too. Think of it as becoming one with nature.”
With Stephen King celebrating his 72nd birthday last weekend, and the movie releasing next week, it was apt to read this collaboration with his son, Joe Hill on this seemingly fun family holiday, which soon turns nightmarish. A pair of siblings on a long distance road trip, find themselves on a deserted strip of road parallel to a large field. Sounds of a child in distress emit from within the field. The boy doesn’t sound too far away, but it’s easy for a small kid to get lost in towering blades of grass. Within minutes of entering the field on their rescue mission, the brother-sister duo lose track of each other, feel disoriented in blades over seven feet tall, and get entangled even further in the verdant mass while trying to follow each other’s voices. Turns out there are more people similarly lost in the tall grass, and though they can hear each other, they can’t seem to find the owners of the voices. Directions and time melt in the grass. “There is no morning or night here, only eternal afternoon. If we had shadows, we might use them to move in the same direction”, reflects one of the characters. The grass has dew throughout the day and cannot be burned, new blades shoot up as soon as old ones are crushed under foot, and the “softly flowing ocean of green silk” appears to move even though the people are still, causing them to move without moving.
The father-son imagination of King-Hill elevates the horror to another level, and might not be suitable for all readers. Caution is recommended to those who get squeamish easily, as the story has a lot of gore. King is known for his detailed writing – the fun elements with a character who speaks in rhymes and another with a fondness for limericks, are easily interspersed with the brutality of its stomach churning moments. The protagonist/antagonist/lead character/side character, which ever way you see it, is the grass. And Stephen King proves once again why he is the king of horror, with his ability to find fear in the unlikeliest places/events. A disturbing read, but recommended for horror buffs.
“Ever since I was little, my mother had told me, if you don’t know something, go to the library and look it up.”
Like most of us who have grown up on books, our unnamed narrator decides to visit the town library to issue some tomes. But strange things happen at the strange library. In spite of reaching almost near closing hours, the librarian insists that he read the books there itself, since those particular books are for reference only and cannot be issued. The narrator follows the librarian to the “reading room” – a long-winding walk through a labyrinth of corridors in the basement, where he is promptly locked up and told he can’t leave until he finishes reading all the books the librarian has given him.
The only other presences in the reading room are a talking sheep and a mysterious girl who bring him three meals a day. On questioning his fellow captives, the duo reveal nobody ever leaves the reading room. Once they finish reading the books he has given them, the librarian cuts off their heads and eats their brain, thereby consuming all their knowledge.
A quirky story with dark undertones, that takes you into the surreal world Murakami is known for. Past and present merge, as do reality and fantasy. Perfectly quipped by the mysterious girl who turns transparent at night, “Just because I don’t exist in the sheep man’s world, it doesn’t mean that I don’t exist at all“, Murakami gets the reader to think about how real reality really is, and which world is fantasy when the two collide.
As the narrator laments, “All I did was go to the library to borrow some books“, it is not just the characters sucked into the nightmarish library, but the reader who is also drawn into the peculiar world of Haruki Murakami. The book is printed in typewriter font, giving it an old world charm. Chip Kidd’s illustrations are vivid and brilliantly carry the story along, with bright colors contrasting the dark theme. This one is sure to have book lovers thinking strangely about libraries and suspiciously about librarians by the end of the book.
My rating – 3/5 for the story, 5/5 for the illustrations
“Embrace what is difficult so that you may progress. Welcome what makes you frightened.”
Mirna Valerio is a marathoner, ultramarathoner, and trail runner. She ran the 50K NJ Ultra Trail Festival in 2013 and the 35-miles Georgia Jewel in 2014. 2015 was eventful with the 12-hour Midsummer Nights’ Ultra in June, Finger Lakes 50K in July, 35 miles at the Georgia Jewel in September, and 100K at the Javelin Hundred in October. She was back for the 50K Finger Lakes in 2016, and ran the Black Mountain Monster and NJ Running With The Devil – both 12-hour runs in the months of May and June respectively, along with the NYC Knickerbocker 60K in November 2017. 2018 saw her run the 50K Run Amok, and this year she ran the Shore2Shore in April and the Strawberry Fields Forever in June – both 50K ultramarathons. She has also done several 10Ks, 15-milers, half marathons, 25Ks and full marathons in the interim.
The 43-year old, 5-foot-7, 250-pound African-American dressed in a ball cap, fitness top, knee-length running tights, and training shoes often receives a double take, which she responds to with a smile and a wave. Despite racism and body-shaming, she continues challenging stereotypes and inspiring others to do the same. “I think that people are really having trouble grappling with the idea that fit comes in many forms and that people can still participate in athletics no matter what kind of body they have,” she says.
Mirna was raised in the Bushwick section of Brooklyn, bordering the Ridgewood neighborhood. Poverty, drugs, gangs, violence, absent fathers, single mothers, children locked away in apartments to avoid the danger of the streets, type 2 diabetes scourging the community – Valerio knew this world as she was growing up, but love and grit instilled strength and propelled her on an extraordinary trajectory.
Mirna was never a runner. In high school, she thought soccer involved too much running about, and decided to opt for hockey instead, assuming it was like golf – “walking through the field”. Realizing she couldn’t even manage the running drills before the actual game started, she decided to start running as “training for the warm-ups”. Running helped her not only in hockey but also lacrosse, a sport she loved, was good at, and wanted to get better at. “I started running to condition, to be able to be a better contributor to the team. It made me feel better. I fell in love with the act of running early in the morning.” While turning into an athlete, Valerio spontaneously blossomed as a singer. She taught herself to play piano by ear and sang gospel with her church choir. Excelling academically at the same time, Mirna demonstrated a particular gift for languages.
She continued to run all the way through college, and recreationally through her twenties and thirties. In 2008, while driving to the school she taught at, she felt sharp pain in her chest. She was only thirty-three then, and her son who was with her had just turned five. Blood tests later revealed excessive arterial inflammation. The health scare prompted her to start exercising seriously. She started with 5Ks, subsequently graduating to 10Ks and 15-milers. Her blood pressure, resting heart rate, and cholesterol readings dropped down to healthy levels, and the inflammation in her arteries reduced. She started training for her first marathon, the Marine Corps Marathon, in 2011.
Shortly afterward she was drawn to trail running and ultras. She took to the solitude and challenge of the mountains, and also liked the comradeship and spirit of the trail-running community. “Part of a health journey, a fitness journey, a wellness journey — whatever you may call it — is finding what makes you happy. What about running makes you happy?” Reminiscing about a camping trip to the Catskill mountains at age eight, Mirna reveals how she fell in love with swimming in the lake, hiking, and just being outside all day; the sights and the smells all firmly etched in her memory. She loves being outside, whether hikes or camping trips. Long-distance running gives her an opportunity to be outside with a purpose. “Taking care of my body, exploring the limits — or my preconceived limits ― about what I thought I could do. The real appeal of it is pushing my body, pushing my mind, pushing my spirit.”
Mirna works at the Rabun Gap-Na-coochee School in the town of Rabun Gap, where she serves as Spanish teacher, choir director, and head coach of the cross-country team. She believes in uplifting the community, the value of discipline, and the pertinence of encouraging people to put their health first. Optimism and ambition pour over into every aspect of her life and splash onto the people around her as well. Her grasp of the complex relationship people have with fitness and her own existence as a plus-size woman who has completed several ultramarathons and marathons — along with her bubbly personality and sense of humor, all make her an inspiring role model.
But she has her share of detractors as well and knows critics serve to criticize. “People say to me, ‘Anyone who runs as much as you do deserves to be skinny.’ ‘If you do all this running, why are you still so fat?’ People look at me and think, ‘Big as this girl is, how can she possibly enjoy her sport? She’s really just punishing herself.’ They don’t think I’m for real, that I’ve earned the right to call myself a runner. Some people don’t understand why I run in the woods. They think I’m gonna get kidnapped. Others have their own ideas about what I should or shouldn’t be doing, but I just do it anyway.”
The link below is an indicator of all the races Mirna has participated in, from 5Ks to 100Ks.
She runs about 25 miles a week if she’s not training for a race, 35 if she’s gearing up for an event, with the bulk of the mileage logged on a long weekend run. “Ms. Valerio is the most energetic teacher on campus,” says James Trammell, a senior at Rabun Gap, and co-captain of the cross-country team. Mirna is known to project an aura of inclusiveness in running: No matter who you are or what you look like, you have a place in this sport. Storyteller Jenny Nichols considers Mirna as the definition of a trailblazer. “She is redefining what a runner looks like and she’s doing it with style, grace and a huge smile. Mirna reinforces the fundamentals: Work out, be active, and eat a high-quality diet. Weight loss should be the by-product of a healthy life, not the goal. Writer John Brant is in awe of her all-encompassing pleasing personality.
Mirna’s memoir, “A Beautiful Work in Progress“, was published in October 2017. “It’s not about me being a fat athlete—I want to reach out to anybody who wants to feel good in their own skin, exercise, and enjoy things that they may not feel able or welcome to do,” she says.
Mirna has never won any event, she is not the fastest or strongest-looking runner around, she doesn’t have a weight-loss story, and doesn’t have any disabilities. Why is she featured here? Because she is testimony to the fact that everybody can run. One doesn’t need to be on the podium, or lose weight, or run through medical conditions, or overcome visible obstacles, or have people constantly talking about them, to be considered inspiring. Even if no one praises you or writes or reads about you, you still run because it’s something you love to do. Everyone has their own journey and should proudly partake in it, irrespective of what others say.
Mirna sets her running calendar at the beginning of each year, so that people can join her on her runs, as part of an initiative called “Wanna Run With Mirna?” This was her entire running calendar for 2018:
April 7-8 Throwing Bones Run on the Mountains to Sea Trail with Kenny Capps, Boone NC
April 14 – BAA 5K, Boston MA
April 16 – Boston Marathon, Boston MA
April 28 – The North Face Endurance Challenge Series 50K, Sterling VA
April 29 – The North Face Endurance Challenge Series 10K, Sterling VA
May 3-4 – Toughest South, Somewhere in TX
May 25 – Azores Trail Run 65K, Blue Island, Azores
June 1-3 – Skirt Sports Ambassador Retreat and 13er, Boulder CO
June 25-29 – City Kids Backpacking, Canoeing Jackson, WY
July 5-9 – Trail Running Adventures Retreat, Morganton NC
July 21-22 – Tough Mudder Long Island, NY
August 14-19 – Trans Rockies 6 Day
September 13-16 – REI Outessa, Waterville, NH
September 21-23 – Ragnar Adirondacks, Lake Placid, NY
September 27 -October 1 -Hiking Retreat in UT
Mirna realizes that whatever might be your journey – as a runner, a woman, a mother, or whoever one may be – somebody might be looking at you or looking at the things that you do and say, “Oh wow, I didn’t know that we could go and run for six days in the Colorado Rockies. Maybe I could try to do 5K.” We are all not on the same page, we don’t all have the same capabilities or the same financial ability to do things. But “things are possible – like going for a walk“. Mirna’s sixty-year old mom goes backpacking with her. What are her own sources of inspiration? “You’re not always going to be motivated. And that’s the reality, you cannot live by motivation. Because you’re not always going to be inspired. You have to be disciplined.”
Alex and Jamie are identical twin brothers, diagnosed at 21 months of age as being severely autistic. Neither can communicate verbally, they cannot cross the street alone, and display self-injurious behaviors. But with running shoes on, they’re making a statement larger than any words can convey. Alex ran the Suffolk County Marathon in 2016 in 2:56:20 (finishing in second place overall), the NYC Marathon of 2017 in 2:50:05, and achieved his current personal best of 2:48:03 at the Boston Marathon this year. The siblings have run 27 marathons and over 400 races in all, with Alex even having run ultramarathons. The Schneider Twins – as they are known in running circles – are also accomplished pianists.
Born in 1990, the twin toddlers were growing up energetic and playful, when over a period of several months, playfulness was replaced with inexplicable meltdowns, repetitive behavior, and a complete lack of response to anyone or anything around them. They weren’t reaching age-appropriate milestones in their communication patterns, and would throw incomprehensible fits. Talking about the discovery of them being autistic, mom Robyn reveals, “I was terrified. But instead of letting that fear paralyze me, it propelled me into action. We will do everything for Alie and Jamie, and we will start doing it now.” Parents Robyn and Allan started home schooling them, and along with a small group of other determined parents, turned their home into a therapy center, which subsequently became the Genesis School in 1995 – opened specifically for those with autism.
Being nonverbal, the boys couldn’t talk about what they liked, but much could be discerned from their reactions to activities. Increased agitation or acting out were signs they didn’t enjoy something. Calmness, or even a smile, counted as positive indicators. They tried horseback riding, swimming, gymnastics, soccer, karate and basketball. While some activities were more successful than others, the boys’ love of exercise and its ability to help calm them became apparent.
Now twenty-eight, the Schneider twins started running when they were fifteen years old. Mom Robyn discloses how the family had heard about a running club that paired experienced runners with those with developmental disabilities. “We always wanted to explore because they can’t say what they like and what they don’t like, so the only way for us to know is to experience things”. Alex and Jamie began running three times a week and eventually began participating in races. Given the boys’ severe autism, finding coaches who could intuitively understand and work with them was difficult. And even though the boys are identical twins, they are unique in their approach to running. Alex is exceptionally fast, but doesn’t know he’s being competitive and is more euphoric about putting on his bib at the start of the race. Jamie on the other hand is a social runner, lingering around water stations with the volunteers and taking his own time to finish.
According to coaches Shaunthy Hughes and Mike Kelly of the Rolling Thunder Running Club, Alex and Jamie were natural runners. The boys didn’t know when to stop, and would only stop when told to do so. They didn’t understand pacing, and every run was a race. Kevin McDermott – the fastest runner on the team – then became Alex’s personal coach, and under his tutelage and methodical training, Alex consistently began setting new records each year.
The boys participated in numerous races for their high school cross country team. After eleven years of coaching Alex, McDermott moved away in 2017, from where Boyd Carrington and Sal Nastasi took over. Robyn runs shorter races with Jamie, and her husband Allan runs with him on longer distances.
Mom Robyn speaks about their sensitivities, characteristic of autism. In the aftermath of the Boston bombings, they had stopped running and eating. The boys were diagnosed with catatonia – a condition that affects behavioral, motor and vocal responses. At the New York City Marathon in 2014, someone once blew a giant horn in Jamie’s ear, and he exhibited self-injurious behavior that lasted for fifteen minutes on the route. In 2018, braving some of the worst weather conditions in the 122-year history of the event, Alex completed the Boston Marathon in a (for him) disappointing time of 2:56:54. A few weeks later, at the Long Island Half Marathon on May 6, Schneider finished seventh overall at 1:16:30.
According to coaches Nastasi and Carrington, the boys do not understand the concept of elapsed time and can’t even lace up their own shoes, but their athletic gift needs to be nurtured. The coaches have reported finding themselves transformed by the experience of spending hours with someone who resides in the mysterious realm of the spectrum. They don’t know the difference between a 5K and a marathon. They won’t eat or drink if food and water are not offered. They have no sense of the weather or temperature, and do not express pain. Their coaches are always on the lookout for slight changes in gait or running mechanics that would suggest a problem. They pace them to direct them through the course, remove hazardous obstacles on the route, offer a jacket if it’s cold, are attentive to road crossings, check constantly for injuries and blisters – all requiring great diligence and responsibility that goes beyond merely training an athlete to finish strong.
Stephen Shore, a PhD professor who has Asperger’s Syndrome says, “Such single-mindedness is a hallmark of the condition. A number of us do have great focus. When we focus on something, that becomes the entire world.” Repetitive behaviors, fixated interests, strict adherence to routines – all characteristic of autism – are also helpful for training. Russell Lang, director of the Clinic for Autism Research, Evaluation and Support at Texas State University, reiterates how running as a sport emphasizes repetitive behavior, which aligns itself well with the characteristics of autism.
Parents Robyn and Allan both began running because of the boys. Allan, 62, suffers from multiple sclerosis but discovered that running helped him feel better physically. Robyn began running at Allan’s insistence while she was battling breast cancer, and found a joy and freedom in running. The discovery of running helped them all spend more time together as a family.
When Alex and Jamie aren’t pounding the pavement, they enjoy swimming, horseback riding, shopping and going out to eat. They also play classical music on the piano thanks to the Occupational Octaves Piano Program and weekly lessons. They don’t read music, so when learning a new piano piece, the keys are labeled with colors, and colored pipe cleaners are attached to the brothers’ fingers. They even play in concerts and recitals.
“The thing that warms my heart is when people look at our boys and see them as runners or pianists, not as kids with autism,” says Robyn said. “Alex and Jamie have abilities, they just show them differently. So, when people respect them and celebrate who they are and what they can be, it makes all the difference. A difference that extends well beyond 26.2 miles.” In addition to caring for her sons, running and advocating on behalf of those with autism, Robyn has written a memoir, “Silent Running: Our Family’s Journey to the Finish Line with Autism.””Even though my sons will never read the book, my inspiration was to leave a legacy for them,” she informs. Alie and Jamie Schneider live in a very different world. And yet, it is one in which the simple motion of putting one foot in front of the other has made a significant difference.
The 2019 edition of the Comrades Marathon finds itself in the record books, thanks to Gerda Steyn who became the first woman to break six hours in the up-run race, knocking more than ten minutes off the previous mark.
“I had never won this race before, so that was my first goal. Breaking the record was just a big bonus on top of the win.”
The Comrades Marathon is an ultramarathon run annually in the KwaZulu-Natal province of South Africa between the cities of Durban and Pietermaritzburg. It is the world’s largest and oldest ultramarathon race. The direction of the race alternates each year between the “up” run (87 km with more uphills) starting from Durban, and the “down” run (90 km with more downhills) starting from Pietermaritzburg. South African runner Gerda had a record-shattering day in June this year at the 98-year old Comrades. The 29-year-old broke the women’s up-run record by more than 10 minutes when she finished in 5:58:53. This made her the first women ever to break the six-hour mark in the up-run at the 90K (55 mile). She even placed 17th overall.
In an interview with The Independent, Gerda shares, “This year, I sort of didn’t plan and decided to go with my ability. When I got to halfway, I was looking at my watch, and I knew I was on a course record, so I knew my race would start now. I gave it my all, and I left it all on the road.”
The previous mark was set in 2006 by Russian Elena Nurgalieva who ran a 6:09:23. In addition, Steyn also became the first woman since 1989 to win both Comrades and Two Oceans Marathon (South Africa’s gruelling ultramarathons) titles in the same year.
Born in 1990 and raised in the small town of Bothaville in the Free State, Gerda Steyn studied Quantity Surveying and Construction Management at the University of the Free State (UFS) between 2009 and 2012. She ran a couple of cross country races while studying, and played soccer and hockey for her university. Gerda grew up on a farm and like many South Africans used to watch the Comrades Marathon on TV. “It wasn’t as much the winners who inspired me the most, but rather the size of the field. I was convinced if all those thousands of South Africans could do it, I could too.” And though Comrades fascinated her year after year, she never ran consistently or even joined a running club.
In 2014, she moved from Johannesburg to Dubai to work as a quantity surveyor, and joined a running club there to meet new people and make friends in a new country. It was during this time that she met other runners from around the world who had participated in the Comrades Marathon before and were gearing up to participate again that year. Being from South Africa, she felt she had to join them. One of the members of the group, British pilot Duncan Ross, would later become her husband, and the activity which brought them together would ultimately unearth Steyn’s remarkable hidden talent. As preparation for her debut Comrades, she entered the Dubai Marathon in 2015. Runners over the age of twenty qualify when they are able to complete an officially recognized marathon (42.2 km) in under five hours (The criteria for 2019 was 4h50). During the event an athlete must also reach five cut-off points in specified times to complete the race. The full-time worker and part-time runner successfully recorded her first ever Comrades Marathon finish, her maiden attempt at the 87km in 2015 in an unremarkable (according to her) time of 8:19:08. Returning the following year, she covered the gruelling course more than an hour quicker in 7:08:23, and in 2017 she displayed her full potential for the first time, stunning the elite women’s field to take fourth position on the Comrades ‘up’ run.
Gerda says she started taking running seriously in 2018, and came second to Ann Ashworth in a terrific women’s race. She also won the popular 56km Two Oceans ultra-marathon in Cape Town last year. In October the same year, she set a personal best of 33:36 to finish fifth at the FNB CitySurfRun 10km race in Durban, and in the following month made her international marathon debut, recording thebest time for a South African entrant in the New York Marathon, stopping the clock at 2:31:04 over the 42.2km distance and ranking 13th overall. Irrespective of which distance she competes in, Gerda believes, “it is a matter of digging deep and stepping out of my comfort zone with no regrets after crossing the finish line”.
To help boost her time and performance, Steyn reached out to running coach, legendary former Comrades winner Nick Bester of the Nedbank Running Club in South Africa, who helped shaped her daily running routine. Post her 2018 runner-up position at Comrades, Gerda said, “I think that I can still improve physically and emotionally. But I am enjoying the process and extremely excited to see what I can do.” Her finesse at the Two Oceans in April 2019 catapulted Steyn’s career into a new realm, outclassing a strong field to retain her title in 3:31:29. Completing the race just 53 seconds outside the 30-year-old record held by local ultra-distance icon Frith van der Merwe, she proved that the long-standing mark could be broken. Her 2019 wins have made her just the third woman ever to win the Two Oceans Marathon and the Comrades in the same year and the first woman to complete an up-run in less than six hours. Spending time in the French Alps, preparing for rigours of the Comrades, she came into the race confident that she had a fast time in her.
Steyn anticipated an early race and she got one from 2018 winner Ashworth. The pair pushed each other forward from the gun and set a pace that enabled Steyn to ultimately shatter the up-run record by over ten minutes. She felt like she had a record-breaking run in her after increasing her fitness levels between the Two Oceans win and the Comrades. Club runners praise her tremendous positivity, and almost always find her with a smile on her face, giving her the moniker of The Smiling Assassin – smiling her way to the podium.
“2018 has been a fantastic year for me. After Comrades I have been training specifically to improve my speed over shorter distances. I surprised myself in the last two months racing against the top runners over 10km and definitely feel like it comes down to the training.”
The secret to her success, Steyn explains, is mixing up the type of training she does which allows her body to better recover from the inevitable strain of road running. “I am a big believer in cross training – running takes a lot out of your body and therefore I mix my training up with cycling and other exercises. I find that it not only keeps me less prone to injury, but also makes my training more exciting. The most important thing is to believe in your training, and to to stick with what works for you.”
Steyn begins her day between 5am and 6am, with a breakfast of a bowl of oats and coffee. “I never skip breakfast.” She then goes on a run that can take between an hour and two hours. “For soft runs (when she’s focusing on building fitness), I don’t focus on kilometres, I focus on the allocated time for running,” she says. When she’s at peak training for an event, she starts focusing on mileage. After the run, Steyn goes home to freshen up, and then it’s gym time. This includes weights, swimming, cycling and various other types of strength training. She then goes home for a hearty lunch. With the morning’s gruelling routine, it is important for her to wind down later in the day. For Steyn this includes a nap and, possibly, a physiotherapy session after lunch. She says coach Bester taught her the importance of remaining injury free. Running can take its toll on one’s body, any form of self-care during the training period is very important. Steyn loves to go for walks at the end of the day in order to unwind. She emphasizes the importance of nutrition – “For me, it is important to put in what you take out of your body at all times.”
Her fledgling career has risen to spectacular heights in just a few years, with the 29-year-old quickly cementing her place as the country’s top women’s ultra-distance runner. Record-breaking performances notwithstanding, Steyn has decided to put the ultra distance on hold to pursue an Olympic dream. “This was a big goal for me and it’s a dream come true, so it’ll be hard to top this, but I have a lot of goals.” Steyn will be dropping down to standard marathon distance in a bid to qualify for the Tokyo Olympic Marathon in 2020. A Comrades record won’t count for the Olympics and Steyn will need to earn her place in Tokyo. Steyn will need to adjust to shorter distances and put up the kind of times that not only allow her to qualify for the Olympic marathon but suggest that she can do well in the race. Her tactical approach to the Comrades suggests that she has the ability to turn herself into an Olympic medal contender. “The marathon for me is a whole new world, but after today I will take some time to figure out where I go to from here”, she had said after the win last month.
Steyn splits her time between Dubai, Johannesburg and France. She goes hiking in the French Alps, but says Lesotho’s Maloti Mountains as well as Johannesburg are her favourite places to train and hike.
Regardless of whatever targets she sets herself down the line, however, there is no doubt she will be back. “Comrades is part of me, part of who I am and part of who I want to be in the future, and I think there is more I can put into this race, so it’s a very exciting time for me.”
Abebe Bikila couldn’t find a comfortable pair of shoes for the 1960 Rome Olympics. So he ran barefoot. He won gold. Set a world record. And created history in the sport of long distance running, making East Africans a force to reckon with ever since.
The sixth in our series on international runners, Ethiopian marathoner Abebe Bikila was the first sub-Saharan African Olympic gold medallist, and the first back-to-back Olympic champion. He won his first gold medal at the 1960 Summer Olympics in Rome while running barefoot, and won his second gold at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, which made him the first athlete to successfully defend an Olympic marathon title.
Abebe was a member of the Ethiopian Imperial Guard – an elite infantry division that safeguarded the Emperor of Ethiopia. He was a soldier before he became an athlete, rising to the rank of a captain (shambel in Amharic); therefore his formal designation was Shambel Abebe Bikila. He was instrumental in establishing East Africa as a force in long distance running. Abebe participated in a total of sixteen marathons in his athletics career, winning twelve. According to Olympian and sports journalist Kenny Moore, Abebe was responsible for the great African distance running avalanche. He brought to the forefront the relationship between endurance and high-altitude training in all kinds of sports. The Abebe Bikila Award is presented to individuals for their contributions to long-distance running. Mamo Wolde, Juma Ikangaa, Tegla Loroupe, Paul Tergat, and Haile Gebrselassie are all recipients of the Abebe Bikila Award.
Abebe Bikila was born on August 7, 1932 in the small community of Jato. His birthday coincided with the 1932 Los Angeles Olympic Marathon. As a young boy, Abebe played gena, a traditional hockey game. In 1952, he joined the 5th Infantry Regiment of the Imperial Guard in Addis Ababa. During the mid-1950s, Abebe ran 20 km (12 miles) from the hills of Sululta to Addis Ababa and back every day. Onni Niskanen, a Swedish coach employed by the Ethiopian government to train the Imperial Guard, soon noticed the twenty-four year old, and began training him for the marathon. In the 6,000-foot high mountains, he led Bikila and others through grueling workouts. Runs were up to twenty miles, including repeated sprints of 1,500 meters and barefoot runs over the rocky soil. In 1956, Abebe finished second to Wami Biratu in the Ethiopian Armed Forces championship.
In July 1960, Abebe won his first marathon in Addis Ababa. A month later he won again in Addis Ababa with a time of 2:21:23, which was faster than the existing Olympic record held by Emil Zátopek. Coach Niskanen entered both Wami Biratu and Abebe Bikila in the marathon at the 1960 Rome Olympics, which would be run on 10th September. In Rome, Abebe purchased new running shoes, but they did not fit well and gave him blisters, leading to the decision to run barefoot instead. The race started late-afternoon and finished at night. Abebe’s winning time was 2:15:16, twenty-five seconds faster than runner-up Ben Abdesselam at 2:15:41 and breaking Russian marathoner Sergei Popov’s 1958 world record by eight tenths of a second. On crossing the finish line, Abebe began to run in place, saying that he could have run another 10–15 km (6–9 miles). He returned to his homeland a hero. The emperor awarded him the Star of Ethiopia and promoted him to the rank of asiraleqa (corporal). Bikila’s gold was the first Olympic medal by a black man, and marked the beginning of a new era in international competition.
In the 1961 Athens Classical Marathon, Abebe again won while running barefoot. This was the second and last event in which he competed barefooted. The same year he won the marathons in Osaka (Japan) and Košice (Slovakia). While in Japan, he was approached by a Japanese shoe company, Onitsuka Tiger, with the possibility of wearing its shoes; Coach Niskanen declined the offer. Between his Olympic wins in 1960 and 1964, Abebe also ran the 1963 Boston Marathon —and finished fifth in 2:24:43. This was the only time in his competitive career that he completed an international marathon without winning. The race was won by Belgium’s Aurele Vandendriessche in a course record of 2:18:58.
Forty days before the 1964 Summer Olympics in Tokyo, Abebe felt pain while training. He was diagnosed with acute appendicitis, had an appendectomy on September 16, left the hospital within a week, and was all set to run the marathon on 21st October, this time wearing Puma shoes. Abebe began the race at the back of the pack until about the 10 km (6 miles) mark, when he slowly increased his pace. He entered the Olympic stadium alone, to the cheers of 75,000 spectators, finishing with a time of 2:12:11.2, four minutes and eight seconds ahead of silver medalist Basil Heatley of Great Britain. Abebe did not appear exhausted after the finish, and he again performed a routine of calisthenics, which included touching his toes twice then lying down on his back, cycling his legs in the air.
In the book “Olympic Marathon: A Centennial History of the Games”, Charlie Lovett writes, “For Bikila, no strategy was necessary. He slowly increased his lead, running with total concentration and precision. His body seemed to float down the streets. He ran using the least amount of energy and his smooth strides and motionless head made the race appear effortless.”
He was the first runner to successfully defend an Olympic marathon title. As of the 2016 Olympic marathon, Abebe and Waldemar Cierpinski are the only athletes to have won two gold medals in the event, and they both did it back-to-back. For the second time, Abebe received Ethiopia’s only gold medal and again returned home to a hero’s welcome. The Emperor promoted him to the commissioned-officer rank of metoaleqa (lieutenant). He received the Order of Menelik II, a Volkswagen Beetle and a house.
In May 1965, Abebe returned to Japan and won his second Mainichi Marathon. In 1966 he ran marathons at Zarautz (Spain) and Inchon Seoul (South Korea), winning both. The 1966 Incheon–Seoul Marathon was the last marathon he ever completed. He did not finish the Zarautz International Marathon in July 1967 due to a hamstring injury, from which he never recovered.
In July 1968, he joined the rest of the Ethiopian Olympic team training for the Mexico Olympics. A week before the race, Abebe developed pain in his left leg. Doctors discovered a fracture in his fibula, and he was advised to stay off his feet until the day of the race. Abebe had to drop out of the race after approximately 16 km (10 miles) and Mamo Wolde won that year in 2:20:26.4. This was Bikila’s last marathon appearance. He was rewarded with a promotion to the rank of shambel (captain) upon his return to Ethiopia.
On the night of March 22, 1969, Abebe lost control of his Volkswagen Beetle while trying to avoid an oncoming car. It overturned, trapping him inside, and he was only freed the following morning where the Imperial Guard hospital declared him quadriplegic – paralyzed from the neck down. On March 29, Abebe was transferred to Stoke Mandeville Hospital in England, where he spent eight months receiving treatment. Although he could not move his head at first, his condition eventually improved to paraplegia, regaining the use of his arms, though he was paralyzed from the waist down and never walked again.
In 1970, Abebe began training for wheelchair-athlete archery competitions. In July that year, he competed in archery and table tennis at the Stoke Mandeville Wheelchair Games in London. The Stoke Mandeville Games were an early predecessor of the Paralympic Games. In April 1971, Abebe participated in games for the disabled in Norway. He competed in archery and table tennis and defeated a field of sixteen in cross-country sled dog racing with a time of 1:16:17.
Abebe was invited to the 1972 Summer Olympics in Munich as a special guest, and received a standing ovation during the opening ceremony. Speaking about his accident in a 1973 interview, Bikila said, “Men of success meet with tragedy. It was the will of God that I won the Olympics, and it was the will of God that I met with my accident. I accepted those victories as I accept this tragedy. I have to accept both circumstances as facts of life and live happily.”
Abebe Bikila died at age 41 on 25th October 1973, of a cerebral hemorrhage related to his accident four years earlier. He received a state funeral, was buried with full military honors, and Emperor Haile Selassie declared a national day of mourning. Many schools, venues, and events, including Abebe Bikila Stadium in Addis Ababa, are named after him. The American Community School of Addis Ababa dedicated its gymnasium (which included facilities for the disabled) to Abebe. Bikila was not only one of the greatest marathoners of all time, but also won at paraplegic games post his accident – truly a source of inspiration the world over.
On March 21, 2010, the Rome Marathon observed the 50th anniversary of his Olympic victory. Winner and fellow Ethiopian runner Siraj Gena, ran the last 300 meters (984 ft) of the race barefoot and received a €5,000 bonus. A plaque commemorating the anniversary is mounted on a wall on the Via di San Gregorio, and a footbridge in Ladispoli was named in Abebe’s honour. In 2010, the Italian company Vibram introduced the “Bikila” model of its FiveFingers line of minimalist shoes.
A clip of Bikila running the 1960 and 1964 Olympic marathons:
Moire O’Sullivan is a mountain runner and adventure racer. The Irish runner is a regular podium finisher at adventure races all around Ireland, such as Quest Killarney, Quest Glendalough, Dingle Adventure Race, Gaelforce West, and Westport Sea2Summit. She was the first person to complete the Wicklow Round within twenty-four hours, an endurance run spanning a hundred kilometres over twenty-six of Ireland’s remotest mountain peaks. Adventure Racing (or Expedition Racing) is a multi-disciplinary sport involving running, cycling and kayaking, navigated over an unmarked wilderness course, spanning anywhere between hours to weeks in length. Moire not only competes and wins, but beats the men along the way.
Moire O’Sullivan was born in 1976 in Derry. As a child, she was interested in science. She played netball until the age of eighteen, when she quit to focus on the viola, and consequently played in the Ulster Youth Orchestra. She has a BSc in Chemistry and an MA in Administration and Management. After university, she worked for missionaries in Kenya. Having spent seven years in Africa, she returned to Ireland and took up mountain running.
In July 2008, Moire made a solo attempt on the Wicklow Round. After twenty one and a half hours she collapsed, two summits from the end. Battered and bruised, yet undeterred, she returned a year later to become the first person ever to complete the Round in less than twenty four hours. Her passion for mountain running that took her from the heights of some of Ireland’s most impressive mountains to the depths of her own human limitations, is chronicled in the 2011 book “Mud, Sweat, and Tears”.
In 2018, she completed the Denis Rankin Round, a challenge to summit all the peaks in the Mourne Mountains over 400m in height within a 24 hour period. She also won Ireland’s National Adventure Racing Series in 2014, 2016 and 2017.
Moire makes it seem like a breeze, but the years 2014 and 2016 are particularly remarkable because she not only had two children in 2013 and 2015, but also won the National Adventure Race series both times. In fact, Moire had even raced the twenty-four hour Northern Ireland’s Sperrin Mountains when she had not yet discovered she was pregnant at the time. Olympic medallist Sonia O’Sullivan credits Moire for her insights into the challenges of bringing children into the world while continuing to live the life of a top level athlete – a true inspiration for mums who run. Champion hill racer Jasmin Paris refers to Moire’s 2014 and 2016 feats as a winning journey through motherhood and mountains. Surprisingly, it was motherhood that got the formerly mountain runner into adventure racing.
“I was pregnant with my first child, and feeling tired and fat. I was so depressed that I couldn’t race in my current condition that I started to flick through my phone to see what my mountain running friends were up to. They were biking through the Gap of Dunloe, kayaking around Muckross Lake, running up and down Mangerton Mountain. That’s what I wanted to do!”
Coming from a running background, Moire learned how to ride a bike outdoors, how to use indoor rollers; hiring a coach to train her for this new discipline while also taking her pregnancy into account. On apprehensions of a first time mum about how fellow athletes would feel having a pregnant woman in their midst, Moire shares “Post my third trimester, I decided to join a local cycling club. Scared they might prevent me from riding, I concealed my pregnancy from them. It was only when my belly started to bulge from beneath my biking jacket that I had to eventually come clean“. Her first tryst with adventure racing was the Killarney Adventure Race, the same videos and pictures she had seen of her friends.
On a mothers’s bond with her child, Moire reveals, “During the fifth month, I competed in an adventure race that involved biking, mountain running and kayaking across the Inishowen Peninsula, in North-West Ireland. Running off the summit of Slieve Snacht, half-way through the course, I got the mother of all stitches. I knew there was nothing I could do except descend the mountain and seek emergency medical help. When I reached the mountain’s base, the pain had somehow dissipated, so I ran straight past the medics. I continued on and completed the course after five hours of racing. It was only after crossing the finish line that my baby delivered the mother of all kicks. It was his way of communicating that he had no further interest in racing“.
When her elder son Aran was four months old, Moire entered the Sea2Summit adventure race that involved running and biking around a remote mountainous area in the west of Ireland, carting her husband and baby down to Westport, with a car full of baby gear. She finished the race in third place. When Aran was twelve months old, she ran the 66 km Gaelforce West.
The 2018 book “Bump, Bike & Baby” chronicles her personal journey of these two years – learning about motherhood, and bringing up two children while simultaneously training for, and subsequently winning a series of races. Moire shares an honest account of her apprehensions of becoming pregnant while at the top of her sport, her experiences as a new mom in 2013, the quest to find other mum-athletes who could teach her a thing or two, getting back to training with a toddler, and repeating it all over again in 2015, striking a balance between her children and the sport she loves. As Moire describes it – a journey from carefree mountain runner to responsible mother of two, to unbeatable athlete.
“You can get back to racing and training. It’s a struggle, but you can.”
Moire cites her inspiration as track cyclist Susie Mitchell, who trained through her own pregnancy, and four months after giving birth won a World Masters track title. She also credits her coaches who guided her appropriately through walking and swimming during the latter months of pregnancy, with proper race training post delivery. “No one can fully prepare you for the seismic shift your life takes once you have a baby. You are totally responsible for making sure they are safe, clean, and fed. Before children, I could go for a day-long run in the mountains if I wanted to. With a baby around, one that I was breastfeeding exclusively, military precision timing was necessary for me to leave the house for even an hour.” Moire stresses on the importance of using time efficiently. “Every training session had a specific focus; whether it was strength and conditioning, or power sessions on the bike, or time spent rowing in the gym“.
Irish marathoner Padraig O’Connor describes Moire as a phenomenal athlete who passes friendly words of advice or encouragement to fellow runners, before she flies off, leaving mere mortals in her dust. What pushes an athlete at the peak of their game? What frightens them? “Thefact that I was abandoning my baby to go and train continually plagued me with guilt. How could I be so selfish, taking time out for myself? But returning from these training sessions, I knew it was the right thing to do. Not only was I getting my body back into shape, but training was also reminding me who I was as a person, before I took on this additional role as a mother“. Whether one is involved in sports or not, races competitively or recreationally, Moire’s journey is inspiring. We all belong to different tribes, but Moire teaches us how to strike a balance with different identities, combining life, family and sport.
“I love it when new mothers say, ‘you helped me to think through how to be me.’”
Moire previously worked for international aid agencies throughout Africa and South-East Asia. Her job took her around the world, enabling her to run in Australia, Bali, Bangladesh, Cambodia, Democratic Republic of Congo, Hong Kong, Kenya, Laos, Myanmar / Burma, Nepal, New Zealand, Spain, Singapore, South Korea, Tanzania, Thailand, USA, and Vietnam. She had tried to run in Afghanistan, but was forbidden by security staff. She now lives in Rostrevor, Northern Ireland, at the foot of the Mourne Mountains, and runs her own company “Happy out Adventures“, that aims to bring people to experience and enjoy trails and mountain slopes, while teaching them how to travel outdoors and respect nature.
Her hope is that her journey encourages women to keep fit – before, during, and after kids. “If you’re lacking inspiration, go for a run!”