Run The World #9 – MIRNA VALERIO

“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.

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Skirt Sports 13er
Skirt Sports 13er
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Colorado Rockies – 6-Day Ultra

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.

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Finger Lakes 25K, 2013
2010 North Face Half
North face Half Marathon, 2010

 

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.

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Juilliard Choir Recital

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.

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Running through a forested trail in Georgia
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Atop North Carolina’s Whiteside Mountain, National Geographic 2018

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.”

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Yoga by a waterfall near Georgia’s Blackrock Lake, National Geographic 2018
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Black Mountain Monster – 12 Hr Ultra, 2017
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Great Alaskan Marathon Cruise, 2013

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.

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Warming up before a morning run

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.”

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Tough Mudder – an endurance event involving a series of obstacle races.

The link below is an indicator of all the races Mirna has participated in, from 5Ks to 100Ks.

https://www.athlinks.com/athletes/248654801/results

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.

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A copy of her memoir

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.

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At a book signing event

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.

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Blackrock Lake in Georgia, National Geographic 2018

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.”

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Mirna with her son and husband
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On the cover of Women’s Running

 

Sources:

~www.huffingtonpost.in

~www.runnersworld.com

~www.national geographic.com

~www.themirnivator.com

Run The World #8 – ALEX & JAMIE SCHNEIDER

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.

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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.

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Alex with Kevin McDermott, who was instrumental in identifying Alex’s athletic gift.

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.

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Jamie and Alex at Boston 2013

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.

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Alex at Boston 2018 with coaches Boyd Carrington and Sal Nastasi
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The trio at 2019 Boston, where Alex achieved his PB of 2:48:03

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. 

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Alex with coach Carrington at Massapequa, 2018

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.

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Working together as a team.

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.

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Dad Allan with a new bike for mom Robyn, as she accompanies Jamie on his training runs.

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.

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Jamie, Robyn and Alex
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Jamie with dad Allan

“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.

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Jamie and Alex at the Massapequa 5K Firecracker race, 2018
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The proud “Autistic and Athletic” family.

Sources:

~www.autismrunners.com

~www.newsday.com

~www.espn.in

Run The World #5 – Moire O’Sullivan

Moire O’Sullivan is a mountain runner and adventure racer. The Irish runner is a regular podium finisher at adventure races all around Ireland, such as Quest Killarney, Quest Glendalough, Dingle Adventure Race, Gaelforce West, and Westport Sea2Summit. She was the first person to complete the Wicklow Round within twenty-four hours, an endurance run spanning a hundred kilometres over twenty-six of Ireland’s remotest mountain peaks. Adventure Racing (or Expedition Racing) is a multi-disciplinary sport involving running, cycling and kayaking, navigated over an unmarked wilderness course, spanning anywhere between hours to weeks in length. Moire not only competes and wins, but beats the men along the way.

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Running through the forests in the Wicklow Mountains during the Quest Glendalough Adventure Race 2017.

Moire O’Sullivan was born in 1976 in Derry. As a child, she was interested in science. She played netball until the age of eighteen, when she quit to focus on the viola, and consequently played in the Ulster Youth Orchestra. She has a BSc in Chemistry and an MA in Administration and Management. After university, she worked for missionaries in Kenya. Having spent seven years in Africa, she returned to Ireland and took up mountain running.

In July 2008, Moire made a solo attempt on the Wicklow Round. After twenty one and a half hours she collapsed, two summits from the end. Battered and bruised, yet undeterred, she returned a year later to become the first person ever to complete the Round in less than twenty four hours. Her passion for mountain running that took her from the heights of some of Ireland’s most impressive mountains to the depths of her own human limitations, is chronicled in the 2011 book “Mud, Sweat, and Tears”.

In 2018, she completed the Denis Rankin Round, a challenge to summit all the peaks in the Mourne Mountains over 400m in height within a 24 hour period. She also won Ireland’s National Adventure Racing Series in 2014, 2016 and 2017.

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Quest Killarney 2016
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Mourne Mountains 2017

Moire makes it seem like a breeze, but the years 2014 and 2016 are particularly remarkable because she not only had two children in 2013 and 2015, but also won the National Adventure Race series both times. In fact, Moire had even raced the twenty-four hour Northern Ireland’s Sperrin Mountains when she had not yet discovered she was pregnant at the time. Olympic medallist Sonia O’Sullivan credits Moire for her insights into the challenges of bringing children into the world while continuing to live the life of a top level athlete – a true inspiration for mums who run. Champion hill racer Jasmin Paris refers to Moire’s 2014 and 2016 feats as a winning journey through motherhood and mountains. Surprisingly, it was motherhood that got the formerly mountain runner into adventure racing.

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Running down Strickeen Mountain at Killarney 2014

I was pregnant with my first child, and feeling tired and fat. I was so depressed that I couldn’t race in my current condition that I started to flick through my phone to see what my mountain running friends were up to. They were biking through the Gap of Dunloe, kayaking around Muckross Lake, running up and down Mangerton Mountain. That’s what I wanted to do!

 

Coming from a running background, Moire learned how to ride a bike outdoors, how to use indoor rollers; hiring a coach to train her for this new discipline while also taking her pregnancy into account. On apprehensions of a first time mum about how fellow athletes would feel having a pregnant woman in their midst, Moire shares “Post my third trimester, I decided to join a local cycling club. Scared they might prevent me from riding, I concealed my pregnancy from them. It was only when my belly started to bulge from beneath my biking jacket that I had to eventually come clean“. Her first tryst with adventure racing was the Killarney Adventure Race, the same videos and pictures she had seen of her friends.

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Biking leg of Killarney 2014

On a  mothers’s bond with her child, Moire reveals, “During the fifth month, I competed in an adventure race that involved biking, mountain running and kayaking across the Inishowen Peninsula, in North-West Ireland.  Running off the summit of Slieve Snacht, half-way through the course, I got the mother of all stitches. I knew there was nothing I could do except descend the mountain and seek emergency medical help. When I reached the mountain’s base, the pain had somehow dissipated, so I ran straight past the medics. I continued on and completed the course after five hours of racing. It was only after crossing the finish line that my baby delivered the mother of all kicks. It was his way of communicating that he had no further interest in racing“.

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With newborn Aran

When her elder son Aran was four months old, Moire entered the Sea2Summit adventure race that involved running and biking around a remote mountainous area in the west of Ireland, carting her husband and baby down to Westport, with a car full of baby gear. She finished the race in third place. When Aran was twelve months old, she ran the 66 km Gaelforce West.

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Westport Sea2Summit

The 2018 book “Bump, Bike & Baby” chronicles her personal journey of these two years – learning about motherhood, and bringing up two children while simultaneously training for, and subsequently winning a series of races. Moire shares an honest account of her apprehensions of becoming pregnant while at the top of her sport, her experiences as a new mom in 2013, the quest to find other mum-athletes who could teach her a thing or two, getting back to training with a toddler, and repeating it all over again in 2015, striking a balance between her children and the sport she loves. As Moire describes it – a journey from carefree mountain runner to responsible mother of two, to unbeatable athlete.

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Quest Glendalough 2016 podium, with 9-month old Cahal

“You can get back to racing and training. It’s a struggle, but you can.”

Moire cites her inspiration as track cyclist Susie Mitchell, who trained through her own pregnancy, and four months after giving birth won a World Masters track title. She also credits her coaches who guided her appropriately through walking and swimming during the latter months of pregnancy, with proper race training post delivery. “No one can fully prepare you for the seismic shift your life takes once you have a baby. You are totally responsible for making sure they are safe, clean, and fed. Before children, I could go for a day-long run in the mountains if I wanted to. With a baby around, one that I was breastfeeding exclusively, military precision timing was necessary for me to leave the house for even an hour.” Moire stresses on the importance of using time efficiently. “Every training session had a specific focus; whether it was strength and conditioning, or power sessions on the bike, or time spent rowing in the gym“.

Irish marathoner Padraig O’Connor describes Moire as a phenomenal athlete who passes friendly words of advice or encouragement to fellow runners, before she flies off, leaving mere mortals in her dust. What pushes an athlete at the peak of their game? What frightens them? “The fact that I was abandoning my baby to go and train continually plagued me with guilt. How could I be so selfish, taking time out for myself? But returning from these training sessions, I knew it was the right thing to do. Not only was I getting my body back into shape, but training was also reminding me who I was as a person, before I took on this additional role as a mother“. Whether one is involved in sports or not, races competitively or recreationally, Moire’s journey is inspiring. We all belong to different tribes, but Moire teaches us how to strike a balance with different identities, combining life, family and sport.

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Bikes and babies

“I love it when new mothers say, ‘you helped me to think through how to be me.’”

Moire previously worked for international aid agencies throughout Africa and South-East Asia. Her job took her around the world, enabling her to run in Australia, Bali, Bangladesh, Cambodia, Democratic Republic of Congo, Hong Kong, Kenya, Laos, Myanmar / Burma, Nepal, New Zealand, Spain, Singapore, South Korea, Tanzania, Thailand, USA, and Vietnam. She had tried to run in Afghanistan, but was forbidden by security staff. She now lives in Rostrevor, Northern Ireland, at the foot of the Mourne Mountains, and runs her own company “Happy out Adventures“, that aims to bring people to experience and enjoy trails and mountain slopes, while teaching them how to travel outdoors and respect nature.

Her hope is that her journey encourages women to keep fit – before, during, and after kids. “If you’re lacking inspiration, go for a run!”

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Sources:

~www.moireosullivan.com

~www.lessonsinbadassery.com

~www.gaelforceevents.com

~www.questadventureseries.com

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

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