Run The World #4 – Dave Heeley

For the fourth in our international runner series, we venture into ultrarunning territory.

In April 2015, British runner Dave Heeley became the first blind athlete to complete the 250 km (156 mile) Marathon des Sables – a course across the Sahara desert known as the “toughest footrace on earth”, equivalent to running six regular full marathons back-to-back. The then 57-year old father of three, known in running circles as “Blind Dave“, completed the six-day challenge running through sand dunes, rocks and dried rivers, contending with temperatures rising up to 50°C during the day and below freezing at night, with all his provisions on his back.

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Marathon des Sables

“Blindness has encouraged me to see another way.”

Dave was running to raise funds for the Albion Foundation, which uses sport to strengthen the local community, helping children and adults with disabilities and learning difficulties to both excel in sport and transit from education to work . He had two guides on the route – Rosemary Rhodes and Tony Ellis. In an interview with British Blind Sport, Heeley was quoted as saying, “Running makes you a bigger part of the community. You never know what it might bring and where it might take you.

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Fundraising for the Albion Foundation

Dave Heeley was born on 24th November 1957. At age ten, he was diagnosed with retinitis pigmentosa – a genetic, degenerative eye condition that causes breakdown and loss of cells in the retina. Beginning with decreased vision at night and in low light, loss of peripheral/tunnel vision, and progressing to total blindness, Heeley lost his vision completely in his twenties. His dream of joining the army shattered, young Dave knew he was going blind, and that his options were to stay negative or positive. He opted for the latter. “Am I going to sit here for the next fifty years waiting for that tree to disappear? No!” He spent years developing skills in Braille, computers, carpentry, and even now loves designing things and building furniture. He used a walking stick initially, until his first guide dog Peter changed his life. The four-legged friend gave him confidence, mobility and adventure.

 

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Dave-Heeley

The monumental feat at Marathon des Sables wasn’t Heeley’s first dip into the record books. In 2008, Dave became the first blind man to complete the Seven Magnificent Marathons challengerunning 7 marathons on 7 continents in 7 days. His route took him from Port Stanley in the Falkland Isands (Antarctica) to Santiago, Chile (South America), Los Angeles, USA (North America), Sydney (Australia), Dubai (Asia), Nairobi, Kenya (Africa), and ultimately finishing with the London Marathon (Europe). He was 50 at the time. 777 was undertaken to raise awareness for guide dogs for the blind. As Dave described the feat later, ” 7 days and 168 hours, of which 20 hours I slept and approximately 35 hours I ran; the rest was spent travelling. Travelling over 35,000 miles in the air, passing through some 34 different time zones,  running for 183.4 miles in temperatures ranging from -2 to 39°C“. His guide runner Mac was the third sighted person along side Mike Stroud and Sir Ranulph Fiennes to have achieved this superhuman challenge.

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777- start at the Falkland Islands
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777 – completing one of the legs at Dubai
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777 – ending the challenge at the London Marathon

 

“Life is not about what you can’t do, but what you can do.”

In 2011, Dave Heeley ran ten marathons in ten days, travelling from John O’Groats to Land’s End, cycling between each stage. Called “Top2Toe“, the challenge aided the Macmillan Cancer Support in their centenary year.

 

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Preparing for a 100 km cycling event, “Wheels For Change”, with tandem partner and guide Steve Dugmore

In 2016, he learnt swimming because he wanted to undertake “Escape from Alcatraz” – considered the toughest triathlon in the world. At 7.30 am on the morning of the 12th June, Dave along with his guide Tony leapt off the San Francisco Belle moored briefly alongside Alcatraz prison, into the cold, rough shark infested waters of San Francisco Bay, 58 minutes later hitting the beach, transferred onto the tandem and the San Fran hills taking 1 hour 18 minutes, finally donning the trainers hitting the cliffs and sand, taking 1 hour 24 minutes, crossing the finish line. Finally escaping from Alcatraz in 4 hours 14 minutes and 11 seconds, with smiles of relief!

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Prepped for Alcatraz with his guide Tony
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Swimming leg of the Alcatraz Triathlon – with a model shark named after his guide dog Seamus

His sporting endeavors are sponsored by Pertemps, UK, who also donate to his charity which works in partnership with the West Bromwich Albion Football Club, and £1000 are donated for every Great Run he completes. In 2017, since it was his 60th year, he took on the Great Run Series‘ entire world events calendar – starting in Edinburgh and finishing in Ethiopia, all in aid of the Albion Foundation. The series included two full marathons, six half marathons, two 10 mile events, ten 10 ks, one 5 mile race, and four 5 ks. In October the same year, he ran two races on the same day – the Birmingham International Marathon and the Great Birminghim Run. In May 2019, Dave took part in the Velo Birmingham & Midlands 100 mile bike ride, and also the 100 km Wheels For Change cycling event – to help raise funds for UNICEF along with his tandem cycling partner Steve Dugmore. In June this year he ran the Comrades Ultramarathon in South Africa.

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An innovative fund raiser for the “7inSeven” – a series of 7 cycling events across the UK

“I sat down the other day and calculated that, including training, I’ve run about 58,000 miles in my lifetime.”

Dave is always up for challenges. He has gone skiing, water skiing, horse riding, motorcycling, abseiling, but he enjoys nothing more than running! His book “From Light to Dark” was published in February 2016. Veteran record-breaking English explorer Sir Ranulph Fiennes has foreworded the inspirational tale of triumph over adversity.

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With copies of his book

 

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7 Days – a short film based on the life of Dave Heeley, released in February this year.
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Guide dog Seamus looks appreciatively at a bus named in Dave’s honor.
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Dr. Dave Heeley, after receiving an honorary doctorate from the University of Wolverhampton

Sources:

~www.blinddaveheeley.co.uk

~www.pertemps.co.uk

~www.sundaypost.com

~In The Running – Phil Hewitt

Run The World #3 – Sister Madonna Buder

“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 BuderThe 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.

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“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.

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As a young equestrian enthusiast, before she joined the convent.
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At age 23, with the Sisters of the Good Shepherd

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.

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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.

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Featured in a Nike ad

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!”

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The bike portion of the Kona World Championship, 11th October 2014

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.

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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.

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Cover image of her book

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.

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The Iron Nun – Sister Madonna Buder

 

Sources:

~www.globalsistersreport.org

~www.thenational.ae

~www.triathloninspires.com

~www.tampabay.com

~In The Running – Phil Hewitt

Run The World #2 – Achim Aretz

Put your best foot backwards!

When Achim Aretz runs, you can’t follow him. At a pace where many can’t even move forward, Achim’s ingenuity has caused him to run himself  into the record books by completing the world’s fastest backwards half-marathon and full marathon.

On 31st October 2010, Achim Aretz broke the six year old world record set by Chinese Xu Zhenjun over the marathon distance in reverse by 58 seconds, and his new record still holds at 3:42:41, set at the Frankfurt Marathon. Aretz reveals how Kenyan Wilson Kipsang couldn’t believe that a 3:40 hr marathoner could be in the record books. At the Hochwald Middle Rhine Marathon in Koblenz on 28th May 2011, Aretz broke his own previous record in the half marathon retro distance set in 2009, by completing in 1:35:49.

Achim Aretz was born on March 13, 1984 in Essen, Germany. He studied Geosciences in Münster and obtained a doctorate in Darmstadt from the Technical University. How does a passionate runner suddenly decide to run the other way round? The reason is “a crazy idea”. Aretz chanced on retro-running when he woke up with a hangover. To shake it off, he went for a run with a friend. Aretz was so slow that his friend started running backwards to while away the time. Aretz joined in for fun, and found he preferred it. He later discovered from the social network “Studivz“, that there really is an international retro-running scene, and decided to henceforth compete as a retro-runner. He says the attraction was the mental challenge, and the fact that he was developing different muscles compared to runners who run forward. His runs are both solo as well as with friends. “When I am running alone, I have to look back maybe every ten meters. When I am running together with friends, they tell me what lies behind me.”

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En route at the Frankfurt Marathon
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At a press conference after the Frankfurt Marathon, where he set the current world record for fastest reverse full marathon.
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At the Hochwald Middle Rhine Marathon, where the current world record for fastest reverse half marathon was set.

 

Medical specialists have confirmed that running backwards allows better recovery from certain knee and ankle injuries. Retro-running has been found to burn more calories with twenty percent less effort than running forward. Performance analyst Mitchell Phillips has underlined the benefits walking or running backwards brings – it is a great way to cool down, and also improves balance and increases neuromuscular efficiency. Phillips describes it as the perfect remedy to cure the imbalances between anterior and posterior chain muscle groups (like the hamstrings and quadriceps, for instance). In his book “Backwards Running“, Robert K. Stevenson describes retro-running as a fantastic activity for physical conditioning and training. It is considered healthy to occasionally tear the body out of everyday movements and break out of set habits. Not only other muscle groups, but also senses such as hearing are strengthened.

Running backwards has a meditative character“, says Aretz. “I perceive the environment differently when I walk backwards.” He does not see what lies ahead, but what he has already done. His ambition is not to win medals, and the main thing in competitions around the world is an opportunity to meet old acquaintances.

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With his friend Gregor Schlüter and centenarian marathoner Fauja Singh at the 29th Frankfurt Marathon

The 35-year old geologist runs up to 80 kilometers a week backwards. He explains how reverse runners start with the forefoot, thereby avoiding the typical rolling over the heel motion that occurs while moving forward. Beginners struggle with sore muscles at the beginning (as in any other sport), and many with knee problems have found it to be a beneficial alternative for relieving pressure on the knees. Several other sportspersons have also incorporated and benefited from retro-running, including boxer Gene Tunney and wrestlers William Muldoon and Ed Schultz.

Achim Aretz shares some tips in the Westdeutsche Allgemeine Zeitung for those who want to start running backwards:

Started very slowly and for a short time. It’s best to use a flat surface, such as a tartan/synthetic track. One needs to get used to going into the unknown. Bumpy terrains are not the best places to start to train. Not seeing the track is an unfamiliar situation for the mind and there is always the fear of falling. He cites the most difficult obstacles being dogs who can’t figure out what he’s doing. Training with a partner can be very useful for beginners because the partner can give instructions and set the direction. It helps when the retro-runner does not have to turn his head constantly – which can cause sore neck muscles. In addition, the mind is trained differently, because when one goes forwards and the other backwards, “right” then suddenly becomes “left” and vice versa.

In an interview with Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, Aretz reveals how Germany is a strong reverse running nation – they have many record holders up to the 5000 meters distance, and Aretz himself hold the records for the half marathon and full marathon distances. Achim Aretz has also authored a book titled “Faszination Marathon Andersherum“, where he talks about his journey as a retro-runner, shares scientific insights into the physical differences between running forward and backward, the challenges to the brain to break out of set patterns, and how changed perceptions bring new ideas and insights into running as well as to life.

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Achim Aretz’s book on backward running, originally written in German.

 

Sources:

~www.welt.de

~www.faz.net

~www.waz.de

~www.achim-aretz.de

~www.baukasten-dateien.de

~In The Running – Phil Hewitt

Run The World #1 – Violet Piercy

Our running group here will be celebrating its ninth anniversary next month. Over the last nine years since its inception, there has been a tradition of a city-wide coming together of all distance runners, to run a 21 km (13 miles) stretch on the city roads every first Sunday of every month. As a result, the anniversary run is going to be held on the seventh of July this year. As a line up to the celebrations, I will be writing a series of articles, featuring international distance runners.

First up is Violet Piercy, considered the pioneer of women’s running.

Violet Piercy is recognized by the International Association of Athletics Federation as having set the first women’s world’s best in the marathon distance. Now-a-days, women of all shapes and sizes run along the streets and compete in marathons around the world. But there was a time when running was considered injurious to women’s health, and one of the rules of the Women’s Amateur Athletic Association (WAAA) was that no race should exceed 1000 meters, since any distance over a kilometer would be a “strain” and adversely affect child-bearing ability. Violet Percy blithely broke the rules of the WAAA and even broadcast an account of it on the BBC.

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In 1926, probably in response to the acclaim received by American Gertrude Ederle, the first woman to swim the English Channel, Violet ran from Windsor to London, thereby becoming the first Englishwoman to attempt a marathon and the first to be officially timed when she ran 3:40:22 on 3rd October 1926 on the Polytechnic Marathon course. She started at 4:27 pm, and was slowed down by suburban traffic outside Battersea Town Hall, till she finished at 8 pm. This time stood as a world record for the next 37 years, until American Merry Lepper ran 3:37:07 in California’s Western Hemisphere Marathon on 16th December 1963. Englishwoman Paula Radcliffe currently holds the world record for the fastest women’s marathon, with a time of 2:15:25 set in London in 2003.

Piercy fell into obscurity over the years, and athletics historian Peter Lovesey conducted a series of investigations into her athletics career. As we inch towards 2020, almost a century has passed since Violet Piercy ran the marathon in the 1920s, when the rules barred any woman from running more than two laps. Research by various historians shows that Violet ran five marathons between 1926 and 1936, in a pair of walking shoes with cross straps and heels. Piercy’s white jersey, black shorts and dance-like shoes serve as a priceless insight into a runner from a different era.

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An iconic picture of  Violet Piercy accompanied by three cyclists and followed by a car during a race in 1927.

Violet Stewart Louisa Piercy was born in Croydon, Surrey on 24th December 1889. She was 36 at the time of her first distance run, and her athletics career carried on till the age of 46. Over a period of 12 years and between two world wars, Piercy was widely regarded as an eccentric and feisty runner, who had a flair for slapping court cases against people who upset her. Rules were “tosh and piffle” to Violet, who ran solo marathons to prove to the world that women could be good at sport and endurance events. She referred to the sport as being based on rhythm, co-ordinated movements and clean living.

Reactions to her feats at the time?

The Westminister Gazette wrote: “It must be hoped that no other girl will be so foolish as to imitate her.”

Piercy’s response: “I am the only long-distance woman runner in this country, and people rather shout at me about it. I really don’t see why they should. Running is about the healthiest form of exercise a woman can have.” Piercy worked as a doctor’s secretary and encouraged others to take up distance running, but no one took up the challenge in her lifetime, and her runs were always solo.

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A news clipping of Piercy in 1934 from the Clapham Society

The second world war affected her stream of marathons, and there is no trail of hers since the 1950s. She is known to have passed away in a London hospital in April 1972, having suffered from brain hemorrhage, hypertension and chronic kidney-related infection. Violet Piercy had languished in obscurity for about 70 years, but the British Pathe archives, the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, and Track Stats magazine have been instrumental in finally securing for her the recognition she deserves.

The link below is from the British Pathe website, and is a copyrighted video of Violet Piercy.

https://www.britishpathe.com/video/camera-interviews-the-runner/query/Violet

 

Sources:

~www.claphamsociety.com

~www.britishpathe.com

~www.clappedoutrunner.com

~In The Running – Phil Hewitt

For A Rainy Afternoon – Book Review

Title – For A Rainy Afternoon

Author – R J Scott

Genre – LGBTQ fiction, novella

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“I was never happier than with my nose in a book, tea next to me, and maybe a couple of chocolate chip cookies on a plate. Add in rain against the window and I was in heaven.”

Robbie works at the post office in an idyllic English village. The post office houses a café and a reading area, where people meet to discuss and exchange books, while sipping tea and relishing cakes. An elderly lady, Maggie, who loved books and reading and baking, and had bought the building that houses the post office and café, passes away, bequeathing the entire property to Robbie, while the rest of her estate has been willed to Jason, an American writer. As far as the villagers know, Maggie never had any family and lived her whole life alone in the village.

At the center of the story is a collection of limited edition books by Monroe Kitchener that Maggie has addressed to Robbie. Over repeated attempts to recreate Maggie’s famed applesauce cake, Robbie tries to figure out why Maggie left her property to him. What connection does she have with Monroe Kitchener? And who is the American now living in her cottage? Are all these questions somehow inextricably linked to Maggie’s past that the villagers know nothing of? As the secret ingredients to the applesauce cake slowly reveal themselves, an ephemeral story from Maggie’s past also starts unravelling from over seven decades ago.

A pleasant story to read on a rainy day, with tea and baked treats – just like Maggie would have enjoyed it. The writing however doesn’t match up to the story and is a bit of a letdown with its lack of structure. The characters aren’t well sketched out, and with the exception of Maggie, we know nothing about anyone else. Too much print space is spent on Robbie and Jason, but without any real character development. The mystery of Maggie’s past, the story behind the books and their author Monroe Kitchener are all rushed through. All-in-all, an excellent story line that lacked in presentation. Recommended as a one-time read, but a better writer could have made this book a lot more memorable.

My rating – 2.5/5

Books For Every Occasion

“Yoga is like music: the rhythm of the body, the melody of the mind, and the harmony of the soul create the symphony of life.”
~B.K.S. Iyengar

Recommending two books on the occasions of International Yoga Day and World Music Day.
The Goddess Pose” is a biography of Indra Devi – the woman who brought Yoga to the West in the early twentieth century, from where the practice rose to the global phenomenon it continues to be. 
In “Master on Masters“, veteran musician and sarod maestro Amjad Ali Khan writes about the lives of some of the greatest icons of Indian classical music, having known many of the stalwarts personally – all eminent musicians of the twentieth century.

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Have you read either of these books? Are there any other non-technical books (memoirs, biographies, stories) on these subjects you would recommend?

Birthday Bookathon 2019

Halfway through the ‘Birthday Bookathon’. As part of the yearly goals I set on my birthday each year, my reading goal for this year was world literature in translation – an ode to translators, without whom many of the books we read would not be accessible to us unless we knew every single language in the world. I have selected languages from each letter of the English alphabet, and the aim is to read one book (at least) from each of the languages corresponding to a letter. I began on the 14th of November (my birth date). Today we are at the half way mark, and these were the books finished in the past six months.

~Albanian – The Accident – Ismail Kadare
~Bangla – The Greatest Bengali Stories Ever Told – Arunava Sinha
~Cantonese – Never Grow Up – Zhu Mo
~Danish – The Last Good Man – A.J.Kazinski
~German – The Bird Is A Raven – Benjamin Lebert
~Hungarian – Iza’s Ballad – Magda Szabó
~Italian – Six Characters in Search of an Author – Luigi Pirandello
~Japanese – The Travelling Cat Chronicles – Hiro Arikawa
~Persian – The Blind Owl – Sadegh Hedayat
~Russian – The Heart of a Dog – Mikhail Bulgakov
~Swedish – The Girl Who Saved the King of Sweden – Jonas Jonasson
~Turkish – Istanbul Istanbul – Burhan Sönmez

This is the original blog-post I had written on my birthday when I started the reading list. Another fourteen more languages to go. 🙂 I am trying to keep one language for each alphabet, but I also have books from more languages, which will be read as I get the time.

Sam & Chester – Book Review

Title – Sam & Chester

Author – Jo Bailey

Genre – Non-fiction

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I thought it would be apt to end April by reading a subject the month is dedicated to. April is celebrated as Autism Awareness Month, to raise awareness about people with autism spectrum disorders. “Sam & Chester” is about a child, Sam, who lost the ability to speak and function properly at age two. The toddler who was seemingly growing “normally”, suddenly cut off from the world, grew increasingly isolated, and often suffered meltdowns. He was officially diagnosed as autistic at age four. Chester was a tiny ginger piglet, the only brown one in a litter of white piglets – the one that no one wanted. “Sam & Chester” is the story of two children who didn’t seem to fit into their worlds, and found solace in each other. Sam’s mother, Jo (the author of the book), beautifully describes the relationship between her son and his pet cum best friend, as they help each other get through life.

The beauty of this book is that it is not just a book about our animal friends. Jo Bailey touches on a cornucopia of themes within the book. Just as autism is a spectrum disorder, Jo delves into various subjects surrounding her son’s life. Ultimately it is not about a child with autism, but a family with autism – everyone in the child’s immediate surroundings is affected by and responsible for the child’s development. Jo describes her own divorce with her husband – touching the topic of how relationships between parents of a special child are affected, the shift of blame, or denial of the condition altogether. Striking balance when one child is autistic and one is not – how does one differentiate between a meltdown related to autism, or a regular tantrum by a child? When the autistic child is the older sibling, and the younger sibling shows faster developmental gains, how is the relationship between siblings affected? How much of a role do grandparents and cousins play? And of course, the presence of pets in the lives of special children. Autism is characterized by a lack of verbal communication, and animals seem to instinctively build a connection – they can teach communication and empathy without saying a word. Chester brings a whole new light to the narration. Pigs are considered the fifth most intelligent animals in the world – even higher than dogs. They are more trainable than dogs, have better focus than chimps, and excellent memory. A great many learnings here about an unconventional pet.

Many books have been written on similar themes, but Sam & Chester strikes a chord on many levels. It is not just the story of a boy, but also the story of a mother. And Jo Bailey does a commendable job in bringing her family’s story to us. You don’t need to be an animal lover to read this book; it is powerful on many counts.

My rating – 5/5

Autism and Running

Autism Awareness Month is celebrated in April, with April 2nd being the occasion of World Autism Awareness Day. Let’s meet the Schneider twins. 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 and a spring in their steps, they’re making a statement larger than any words can convey. They are runners. Alex ran the Suffolk County Marathon in 2016 in 2:56:20 (finishing in second place overall), and completed the NYC Marathon of 2017 in 2:50:05, his personal best. The siblings have run 26 marathons and over 400 races in all, with Alex even having run ultrathons. The boys are also accomplished pianists.

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Alex and Jamie Schneider

Now 28, the Schneider twins started running when they were 15. Their mother Robyn Schneider reveals how the family had heard about a running club that paired experienced runners with those with developmental disabilities. According to coaches Shaunthy Hughes and Mike Kelly of the Rolling Thunder Running Club, Alex and Jamie were natural runners; the only hurdle being finding a running partner for Alex who was exceptionally fast along with being especially gifted. 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 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.

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Alex with coaches Carrington and Nastasi

Robyn runs shorter races with Jamie, and her husband Allan runs with him on longer distances. The boys have limited communication skills but display receptive language – they require simple words and slight gestures to understand and respond. They cannot fathom how long a race is and will only stop when they cross the finish line. When the Boston bombings levelled the finish line in 2013, Alex had already completed the race, while Jamie was still on the route with their father (ultimately being stopped and ushered away at mile 22). 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. Their coaches pace them to direct them through the course, hydrate them when thirsty, remove hazardous obstacles on the route, offer a jacket if it’s cold, are attentive to road crossings – all requiring great diligence and responsibility that goes beyond merely training an athlete to finish strong.

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The Schneider Family

Tommy Des Brisay was a highly active child. He began walking at 8 months of age, bounced on his trampoline for hours on end, and slept only 3 hours a night. He was diagnosed with autism at age two, and would run whenever he was stressed or upset. Running was all he knew – without comprehending traffic, weather, strangers – thereby exposing himself to all sorts of dangers. When he was fourteen, his father took him along on his daily run, hoping to channelize his movement. “Take something someone is instinctively driven to do and make it into a positive“, says his mother Mary Ann. The medications he was taking to cope with the challenging symptoms of autism, caused Tommy to battle weight issues. Consistent training helped him shed 35 pounds and brought down his 5k race timings to 24 minutes. The first time he won a race, he was confused about where everyone else was, so he turned back and ran the route again. Tommy, who will turn 27 this month, now runs the 5k at 15:17, a half marathon at 1:10:34, and a full marathon at 2:38:50. He “passes time” on the route by reciting lines or singing songs from his favorite movies. The speedy timings don’t sync with the seriousness of the runner, because he doesn’t realize he’s competing. According to his dad, Tommy’s pace usually keeps him surrounded by serious runners who look at him in bewilderment while they’re breathing hard and he’s humming a tune from a Disney movie.

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Tommy Brisay

Scientists are beginning to explore what makes running as a sport a potent tool for people with autism. Autism is a spectrum disorder with a wide range of symptoms and behaviors, along with individual variations that go along with it. The spectrum is primarily characterized by deficits in social communication and interaction, and restricted or repetitive patterns of behaviors, interests and activities. Both, the Schneider as well as Brisay families, have pointed out how running has reduced anxiety in their children. It increases their social circle, giving them opportunities to practice their language and communication skills. Over the ten years that Tommy has been a runner, he has been less reliant on medication and experienced fewer meltdowns. Tommy did not speak till he was seven and his verbal abilities only grew through his teens, which his parents credit to running as being the catalyst. Research has also confirmed what both families have noticed with regards to running and autism. At the Academy of Pediatric Physical Therapy section in the 2016 Pediatrics Annual Conference, researchers from Achilles International and New York Medical College presented the findings of their studies on autism and running. Statistically significant improvements in social awareness, cognition, endurance, communication and motivation, and fewer restrictive and repetitive behaviors were seen in those who ran for a minimum of two days a week.  While exercise in general can benefit people on the spectrum, running offers it’s own unique advantages.

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Mikey Brannigan is one of the most prominent runners known to be on the autism spectrum. He was diagnosed with autism at 18 months of age, and couldn’t speak until he was five. Team sports were out as he couldn’t understand rules and scored for opposing teams. When he was fourteen, his dad Kevin took him to Rolling Thunder (the same club where the Schneider twins trained), where he was found to keep up with older and more seasoned runners. Organized running got him on the high school varsity team, and by senior year he was one of the top runners in the country. According to his mother Edie, running also brought about boosts in his academics. In August 2016, the then 20 year old shattered the four minute mile barrier, running at 3:57. Brannigan hopes to make the US Paralympic team in 2020 or 2024. Jonathan Bruno was diagnosed with autism at age two and a half, and was sixteen when he joined Rolling Thunder. He ran his first full marathon in 4:48:08 at the 2008 NYC Marathon. He has run 10 NYC marathons and 8 Boston marathons so far, along with one 50k Ultrathon, running for various charities. According to his brother Verlaine, he doesn’t understand the concepts of pace or time and needs help with reading and directions.

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Mikey Brannigan
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Jonathan Bruno

19 year old Zoe Jarvis runs a 5:16 mile and credits running to helping her make more friends. The running community is inclusive and a runner is a runner, says Tommy Brisay’s dad. “He’s not an autistic guy or a different guy, he’s just a guy running“.  21 year old Grace Ling was diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome at age eight, and credits running to giving her the motivation to do things. Andrew Novis, 55, is also afflicted with Asperger’s Syndrome (one among the autism spectrum disorders), and ran his 18th Boston Marathon in 2017 in 3:11:24. He runs both marathons and ultrathons. “You can choose to look at autism as a disability or as a collection of abilities“, says Tommy Brisay’s mom, and it holds true for all these runners on the spectrum.

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Zoe Jarvis
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Grace Ling
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Andrew Novis

Repetitive behaviors, fixated interests, strict adherence to routines – all characteristic of autism – are also helpful for training. Coaches of runners with autism need to be diligent about their athletes being impervious to pain and not communicating about pain the way other runners might. People with autism are usually prescribed occupational therapy, speech therapy, applied behavior analysis, and social skills groups. According to Russell Lang, director of the Clinic for Autism Research, Evaluation and Support at Texas State University, all conditions do not require complex interventions. How does one decide which form of intervention is better than the other? Most professionals recommend exercise only to counteract weight gain as a side effect of medications prescribed to manage symptoms associated with autism. Exercise, however, could eliminate the need for or reduce the dosage of these medications in the first place. (Christopher McDougle, Lurie Centre for Autism). According to Tommy Brisay’s dad, running is the best medication for his son. Russell Lang reiterates how running as a sport emphasizes repetitive behavior, which aligns itself well with the characteristics of autism.

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Jonathan Bruno sees himself as an Autism Superman

Sources:

http://www.autismrunners.com

http://www.runnersworld.com

http://www.theartofautism.com

http://www.autismsuperman.com

The Autism Anthropologist

Eine Buchrezension – A Book Review of Miss Hamburg

The beauty of language is that it opens up so many new avenues of communication. We can talk to more people, watch movies and read books in their original form, learn about different cultures. This blog site features write-ups mostly in English to cater to a wider reader base. When I post in any other language, the English translation follows the original post. I started learning German a few months ago, and have been attempting to read books in the original language, on the recommendations of librarians. The past few weeks have been busy, and I just finished my Deutsch A1 exam yesterday. I’ve barely even scratched the surface of the vast expanse of German literature. Like every little drop adding to the ocean, we start with baby steps and gradually increase our strides towards bigger things.

This is a review of the book Miss Hamburg. I’m attempting to write in German (and the English translation will follow below).

Der Buchtitel – Miss Hamburg

Die Autoren – Theo Scherling und Elke Burger

Genre – Fiktion

Sprache – Deutsch

Ein Buch aus der Leo & Co. Serie – des Bücher über eine Kneipe. Leo is einen Maler und eine leidenschaftlicher Koch, und Besitzer der Kneipe “Leo & Co.” Unsere Protagonistin Anna ist eine Studentin, die Teilzeit in der Kneipe arbeitet. Anna liest eine Anzeige von einer Modelagentur und möchte mit einem professionellen Portfolio einsteigen. Ihre Freundin Veronika, Boss Leo und Oma Trude, zusammen mit dem Fotograf Kai helfen Anna dabei. Ihr anderer Freund Paco scheint es nicht glücklich, dass Anna mit dem Modeln anfängt. Das Buch führt uns durch die Reise diese Gruppe von Charakteren, die Anna bei ihrer Verwandlung von der Kellnerin zum Model unterstützen und im Miss Hamburg-Wettbewerb beenden. Nervenkitzel, Missverständnisse, Freundschaften, Familie – der Leser wird zussamen mit Anna.

Eine mittelmäßige und kurz Geschichte. Gut herausgeätzte Charaktere und eine interessante Übersicht, die von Klischees ferngehalten wird. Eine etwas ausgedehnte Erzählung hätte das Leseerlebnis verbessert. Das Buch wird von einer Audio-CD begleitet, die eine große Hilfe ist, um die Aussprache beim Erlernen einer neuen Sprache zu üben.

Empfehlenswert, wenn Sie Bücher mit einfachen Handlungssträngen mögen – aber ohne Klischees – die menschliche Gefühle berühren.

Bewertung – 3/5

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For English readers,

Title – Miss Hamburg

Authors – Theo Scherling and Elke Burger

Genre – Fiction

Language – German

A book from the Leo & Co. series – a number of books featuring various incidents surrounding a pub of the same name. Leo is a painter and passionate cook, who runs the pub “Leo and Co.” Our protagonist Anna is a student who works part-time at the pub. Anna chances upon an ad by a modelling agency, and wishes to enter by creating a professional portfolio. Her friend Veronika, boss Leo, and grandma Oma Trude, along with Kai the photographer, encourage and help Anna in the endeavor. Her other friend Paco doesn’t seem too keen on Anna taking up modelling. The book takes us through the journey of this motley group of characters as they assist Anna in her transformation from waitress to model, culminating in the Miss Hamburg contest. Thrills, apprehensions, misunderstandings, friendships, family – the reader is taken on a roller coaster along with Anna.

A mediocre story line, which I felt passed too swiftly. Well etched out characters, and an interesting synopsis that stay away from clichés. A little drawn out narration would have enhanced the reading experience and given us more time with each character and their role in Anna’s life. The book is accompanied by an audio CD, which is a great aid to practice pronunciations when learning a new language.

Recommended if you like books with simple story lines – but without clichés – that touch on human emotions.

My rating – 3/5