A delayed summary of the books I read in July 2020. The titles last month covered a range of genres from historical fiction, memoir, horror, true crime, fantasy fiction, political thrillers and translated literature. I was lucky to have picked some stunning works and I’d recommend them all to anyone who likes these genres.
~The Hole by Hye-Young Pyun – A Korean-English translation of a psychological thriller described as a cross between Stephen King’s “Misery” and Han Kang’s “The Vegetarian”. The protagonist finds himself paralyzed following a car accident that kills his wife. His mother-in-law is the only living family member, who takes it upon herself to be his caretaker, nurse, guardian, physiotherapist, by removing all experts from the scene, only to neglect him thereafter. An atmospheric novel depicting the horrors of isolation, loneliness, depression, helplessness, claustrophobia, the terrors of not knowing versus the brutality of knowing and being unable to do anything. The horror is subtle rather than in-your-face, unraveling as the novel does. And a gorgeous cover, too, with its own significance in the story. 4/5
~Only in Spain by Nellie Bennett – A memoir of dance, food, travel, journeys and experiences. The author works as a saleswoman at a store in Sydney. A chance encounter with a Flamenco class at a local dance studio kicks off an obsession of sorts with the dance form, taking her to the place of its origin, Seville in Spain. This leads to a newfound love for the country, its culture and people, because the Flamenco is not just a dance but a way of life. An endearing narrative of the writer’s tryst with the dance form. A book sure to trigger fernweh and make you want to travel, dance, eat, learn new languages, and meet people. 4/5
~Such Small Hands by Andrés Barba – A Spanish-English translation based on the true story of an orphan who was killed by other children at an orphanage in Brazil, who ended up playing with her body parts for a week before the murder came to light. As horrifying as the event is, the prose is beautiful, hypnotic, lyrical. This book is not just about the story, but a lesson in writing itself. Disconcerting and heartbreaking but morbidly beautiful, a masterpiece of a work by translator Lisa Dillman who requires her own applause for this one. 5/5
~Ring by Koji Suzuki – A Japanese-English translation of the horror classic known by its many movie adaptations in both Japanese and English. A mysterious videotape that kills the viewer within one week of watching it. If the movies scared you, the book ups the ante by several notches, with a detailed narrative on the origins of the tape and how it works, along with the significance of the title. Eerie, disturbing, and chilling to the bone even without the iconic scene from the movies, a must-read in horror fiction. 5/5
~The Invisible by Seb Doubinsky – A political crime drama set around a mysterious hallucinogenic drug, with people getting killed on the way for knowing too much. Politics, crime, poetry, fantasy, an alternate universe of noir. A place where the culprit is not a person, but a system. A strange book that I came across on Meerkat Press, a publishing house that comes out with some very different, but very good books. 4/5
~The Last Wish by Andrzej Sapkowski – A Polish-English translation of the Witcher’s origin story. Written as a series of short stories, the reader is taken along Geralt of Rivia’s many adventures, interspersed with the present timeline as a prelude to later books in the series. Are monsters identified by their looks or behavior? A world of djinns, elves, wizards, sorceresses, spells and elixirs – brilliantly translated into English, retaining the wit and humor of the original. Fantasy fiction at its best with a wonderful character of the White Wolf, his choices and actions. 5/5
~The Stationery Shop by Marjan Kamali – Historical fiction delving into the political upheavals of Iran, a world of coups, poetry, letters, books, food, culture, immigration and more. A story about a tiny neighborhood stationery shop, and a story about everything else. A mix of epistolary and framing, past and present and parallel stories, Marjan Kamali is a powerful voice in Iranian literature, with a subtle yet effective narrative. 5/5
~Blanky by Kealan Patrick Burke – Set around the death of an infant caused by suffocating on her blanket, Kealan Patrick Burke brilliantly handles a dark theme in describing the horrors of losing a child and the associated sadness, loss, grief. A haunted blanket can be scary, but the ghosts outside are no match for the ones within. A book that deserves a read just for the writer’s take on the subject. 5/5
In light of what’s happening in the world right now, a glimmer of joy found its way to me a few days ago. I had the distinction of being one out of seventy-five people from around the world selected by Reese Witherspoon for a virtual discussion on her book of the month, The Henna Artist. The Oscar-winning actress and producer runs a worldwide book community through her Hello Sunshine Club that serves as a platform for women’s stories. US-based author of Indian origin, Alka Joshi’s book was chosen for the month of May. As part of their month-long activities surrounding the book, Reese and Alka had organized a series of sessions through various social media platforms – a live class with an actual henna artist who taught us to draw mehendi designs, interviews with professional henna artists, and even cooking sessions according to recipes of the book.
On the last day of the month, a virtual book meet and discussion was scheduled, with Reese picking 75 readers from across the globe to be a part of the session with Alka Joshi herself, and actress-memoirist Tembi Locke moderating the discussion. We gathered from different countries and time zones to hear Alka and Tembi discussing the book, followed by a “breakout” session that had us separated into smaller groups of eight or nine people to share our thoughts on the book more intimately. Here again, I had the distinction of being clubbed in the same mini-group as Alka, being lucky enough to speak with the author personally. We then returned to the main group and shared what each group had discussed separately; and those who hadn’t spoken with the author could ask her questions. I have not interacted much with authors before, and this was a unique experience of spending an entire month with a book and being able to speak with the writer about it. The time zone difference made it past midnight in my part of the world, but it was a session of distinction to be involved in.
In some ways, the pandemic has brought us closer via the virtual world. After my interaction with Alka Joshi, I wrote to her and she recommended some books. Building confidence, I also connected with Yangsze Choo – author of The Ghost Bride which is required reading for a course I’m doing on Historical Fiction – and she replied, too. For someone who is not professionally from the fields of literature, journalism, or publishing, but loves to read, though stays away from trending book challenges or book club events, preferring to do my own reading, it’s a different kind of thrill to read great works of literature and be able to speak with the authors themselves. I plan to do more of this now for the books I read (if the writers are alive, and they reply.)
Here’s a picture from the henna art class conducted by Neha Assar – the Master of Mehendi – who was invited by Reese to take a live class and share her experience of over twenty years as a real life henna artist. I couldn’t procure a henna cone due to the lockdown, and used a glitter pen instead – the nib is thinner than a marker/sketch pen, but thicker than an ink/ballpoint pen.
If you haven’t read the Henna Artist, do check it out. The story is set in 1950s Jaipur, India and tells us about the journey of a henna artist through her interactions with family, friends, clients, acquaintances and strangers. A cultural treat through history. Alka Joshi has had the distinction of her book releasing in the lockdown and still doing so well worldwide. Paperbacks are currently available only in the US and Canada, but the rest of the world has been lapping up the ebook and audiobook versions.
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.”
“I love the feeling I get when I whizz past people younger than me who say, ‘I want to be like you when I get to your age’.”
Third in our series of international runners, as a line-up to the ninth anniversary of my running group here, is Sister Madonna Buder – The Iron Nun!
Sister Buder is the current world record holder for the oldest person to ever finish an Ironman Triathlon. Born on 24th July 1930, the 88 year old is no ordinary nun, and is known in the athletics community as the Iron Nun. The Ironman triathlon consists of a 3.2 km (2.4mile) swim, 180 km (112 mile) bike ride, and a 42.2 km (26.2 mile) run. Sister Buder has competed in 340 triathlons, out of which 45 have been Ironmans.
“I feel like God’s puppet: First I am down,then he pulls me up with strings, and then he pulls the strings to put me hither, dither and yon.”
Sister Buder was 14 when she decided to become a nun. As a child, she was more interested in equestrian events, and even won national championships at the age of 16. She entered the Sisters of the Good Shepherd convent in St. Louis, Missouri when she was 23, where she remained until 1990 when she went to serve with the Sisters for Christian Community in Spokane, Washington.
After over two decades as “Sister Madonna”, she found her second calling – Running! She started running at the age of 45, as a means to keep the mind, body and spirit healthy. Unsure of the reaction “racing nuns” would receive, she confided her doubts to the bishop, who replied, “Sister, I wish my priests would do what you’re doing!” The simple and direct response inspired her to join running clubs, with serious training and racing beginning at age 48, where she ran for the cause of Multiple Sclerosis.
Her thoughts about triathlons at the time? She found swimming claustrophobic, and couldn’t sit on a bike saddle for so long. But she would try. The steely nun completed her first triathlon at the age of 52 at Banbridge, Ireland in 1982, and her first Ironman at age 55. Her sense of accomplishment was met with a simple, “I was content.” Bruder earned the title “Iron Nun” when she became the oldest woman ever to complete the Hawaii Ironman in 2005 at the age of 75. Her current world record for the oldest woman to ever finish an Ironman triathlon was set at the age of 82 at the Subaru Ironman Canada on 26th August 2012. This feat broke the record of 81-year old Lew Hollander’s 16:45:55 set at Ironman Kona in 2011, causing sister Buder to be the oldest person ever (male or female) to complete an Ironman in the 80+ category with 16:32:00. The Ironman organization has had to add new age brackets as the sister gets older and breezes through every age group. She has opened up five age groups through her athletics career, thereby enabling older folks to compete as well. In 2014, Sister Buder was inducted into the USA Triathlon Hall of Fame.
Inevitably, Sister Buder acknowledges the hand of a higher authority in her achievements. She was approaching the 37th km (21st mile) of the Boston Marathon in 2013 when the bombers struck, and she was escorted away from the scene. Running is her favorite part of triathlons, and she can’t wait to get to the final leg. Describing her passion for her favorite sport, Sister Buder says, “I don’t know what runner’s high is. I know what the lows are if I don’t run. When I’m out of bed, the first thing I do is run to mass. Literally!”
The Iron Nun’s training?
“I train religiously”, is how she describes her training. “I know that God has given me this gift. And I have to make the most of the gift. If I didn’t make the most of it, it would be an affront to the gift giver.” She runs to church or every day if the weather permits. She bikes 40 miles to swim in a lake near her house, and goes for longer runs on weekends. She also runs to the jail to talk to inmates and read scriptures to them. Most of her training is solo, since people her age are on grandparent duty. Otherwise, her training buddies are decades younger than her.
Smartphones and computers and the internet are big annoyances to Sister Buder. “What’s all the fuss about?”, she asks. “I’m just a little old lady doing her thing.” And what did she do when she turned 88 last year? Competed in St. Anthony’s Triathlon at St. Petersburg. Her favorite part of competing? “The spirit of camaraderie. I know these people. They are my extended family.” How do her fellow-runners perceive a nun running amidst them? “They think I’ll pray for good weather or something.” Interviews annoy her. But then she prays and meditates and runs 2 miles and calms down. She considers her dual role as sister and athlete complimentary to one another – they both require discipline and are character-builders. Religion aside, she feels if everyone adopted such sporting endeavors and focused on practice, the world would be much better off.
On 5th October 2010, Sister Buder released her autobiography “The Grace to Race“, sharing the wisdom and inspiration of the Iron Nun. Reviews have described it as the courageous story of a woman who broke with convention, followed her heart, and found her higher mission.