Thursday, November 17, 2011

Did you see the back on that pig? Yeah, but check out the thighs on that chicken… Illegal substances and other food hazards in the China food system

Steroid loading?
I just ate a chicken salad at a local café down the street from my apartment here in Hong Kong.  Now I’m wondering if I’m going to test positive for steroids.  And there is a possibility the lettuce was laced with heavy metals.  Oh the woes of eating in China. 

One of the things that I looked forward to the most when moving to Hong Kong was the chance to immerse myself in a new food world.  Already a fan of Dim Sum and Cantonese cooking, I was excited to take my taste buds to a new level while living in China.  I imagined the plethora of various mushrooms, greens, squashes and cabbages that are a large part of the Chinese diet.  Fish, Chicken, Pork - - it all sounded great to me.  Then I opened the newspaper shortly after arriving and paused.

"Toxic Vegetables"

"Illegal Steroids in Meat"

"Health Warning:  Pollutants in Fish"

"Hong Kong Athlete Banned because of low levels of Clenbuterol in her system"

As one friend best described it, China is the “Wild West” when it comes to industrialized farming.  Very few standards are in place, and there is very little, if any, government oversight.  So it’s eater beware.

Steroids in Meat, Athletes Sanctioned

Spanish cyclist Alberto Contador and Hong Kong badminton player Zhou Mi have something in common.  They both have tested positive for Clenbuterol.  So have five footballers from Mexico and a Danish Cyclist.  But the levels in their bodies have been so low that it would be impossible to have any performance benefit.  Specifically for Zhou Mi, her levels were 50-100 pg/ml (picograms per millilitre).  For Contador, I believe the levels were even lower.  According to the experts, less than 100 pg/ml is not enough to have any sort of performance benefit.  The culprit is most likely not performance enhancement.  The culprit is in the food.

Clenbuterol is a steroid that creates a higher yield of lean meat in animals, and is a banned substance for use in animals in most countries, even China.  Clenbuterol is also on the list of substances banned by the World Anti Doping Agency (WADA).  Any amount of Clenbuterol found in an athlete’s system would constitute a doping infringement.  Which means a two-year ban on competing for the athlete. 
Looks yummy, but is it tainted?

But just because it’s illegal doesn’t mean it isn’t being used in China (and Mexico and Spain).  In fact in China, it’s known to be commonly used in beef and swine as a way to get to lean, bulky animals.    A recent article in the South China Morning Post (SCMP), Hong Kong’s English newspaper points out that the problem is wide spread in China. 

According to the SCMP, in an article from November 12th, “The famous German Sport University Cologne issued a warning to athletes in February regarding clenbuterol use in China. An investigation presented at the Cologne Workshop on Doping Analysis analysed urine samples of 28 travellers returning from China to Germany. There were low concentrations of clenbuterol in 22 of them.”
The university warned of "risks of inadvertent doping with the beta2-agonist clenbuterol when travelling to China".

WADA just re-instated the Danish cyclists and the five Mexican football players basically saying that their athletic federations have provided enough evidence to show that the steroid came from tainted meat.  Zhou Mi is not so lucky.  Even though the levels of Clenbuterol found in her system were minuscule, and couldn’t possibly affect her performance in a positive way, she doesn’t have the voice or the clout to get the decision overturned.   Contador’s case is coming up November 21st.  So we’ll see what happens on that front.

But in the meantime, what’s an athlete in Hong Kong to do?   Outside of owning your own farm (which it is reported the Tianjin judo team does), should athletes here be vegetarians?

Toxic Vegetables

Turns out, vegetables from China have tremendous risks too.  The Guangdong region, home to the Pearl River Delta, is one of the fastest growing sectors of wealth in the world.  Home to an exploding industrial area, Guangdong is also one of the most polluted areas of the world.  The area is also where the farms are located that feed much of the Guangdong province, and the nearby Hong Kong area.  And, if the rivers that are irrigating the farms are polluted, then you can guess that those same rivers that flow into the ocean create a toxic hazard for the marine life.  
Hong Kong's source of meat and produce

Regarding the Marine life around the Guangdong (Pearl River Delta) area, the SCMP recently reported:

“The Guangdong Oceanic and Fisheries Administration reported that more than 40 per cent of waste water discharged into the sea last year was excessively polluted. It found that eight rivers flowing into the sea off Guangdong carried 1.08 million tonnes of pollutants, including petroleum, nutrients, heavy metals and arsenic. The area of polluted inshore seawater was 4,153 square kilometres.
"Guo Pengran, a Guangdong-based expert on hazardous chemicals, said there had been abundant research showing that the water and sediment of the Pearl River Delta contained many heavy metal and organic pollutants.
"'The pollutants will build up in marine animals,' Guo was quoted as saying by the Yangcheng Evening News. 'What's more serious is that the toxins are multiplied through the food chain and can eventually damage human health.'”

From the GreenPeace website regarding the Pearl River Delta area:

"In 2009, Greenpeace researchers sampled and analysed wastewater discharges from various companies, finding a diverse range of hazardous chemicals, including heavy metals such as beryllium, copper and manganese as well as high levels of organic chemicals. These substances are associated with a long list of health problems such as cancer, endocrine disruption, kidney failure and damage to the nervous system as well being known to harm the environment."

Ninety percent of the food in Hong Kong comes from Mainland China.  Although the pollution issue is not just isolated to the Guangdong area, it is notable that over thirty percent of the vegetables sold in Hong Kong come specifically from the Guangdong area.  Additionally, over 30 percent of the seafood in Hong Kong comes from the oceans near Guangdong.  The problem is determining what thirty percent. 

Can you pick out the produce with toxins?
In the first few weeks I was in Hong Kong, I had been buying an organic brand thinking that there was some safety in buying organic.  After reading an article about hazardous chemicals in the food system in the SCMP one morning, I did a little research on the brand. The farms where the “organic” vegetables come from are squarely in the Pearl River Delta area.  Looking at it on a map, it’s obviously squarely in the midst of the pollution. 

What is an athlete (or anyone) in Hong Kong to do?

After talking with some friends, both expats and local, the general consensus is to not trust anything from China.  The risks are just too high.  It’s possible to have that level of control when eating at home; it’s just darn expensive.  The choice is: pay the equivalent of $4US dollars for an “unlabeled” chicken (most likely from China), or pay $20 US dollars for a chicken flown in from Australia.  I can pay $1US for a head of local broccoli, or I can pay $4 US for a head flown in from Australia. 

One Pricey Chicken...$175 HK = @ $20 US
Ok, so go broke eating at home is an option.  What about eating out?  Well, the advise from the Hong Kong Anti Doping Committee is to "only frequent reputable restaurants and stores."  What does reputable look like? How do I figure out who is using non-tainted meat and vegetables?  With the cost of food rising, how can I ensure that the Thai place down the street that I love, or the western café where I often grab a sandwich and coffee are making the decision to pay double or triple for their meats and produce than simply purchasing readily available meats and produce from China?

I don’t have answers.  But what I have found is that we are paying double or triple our normal grocery bill.  I buy only non-local, non-China vegetables, and most of my protein comes from overseas.  Nice carbon footprint – but it’s that or roll the dice with my families health and my reputation as a clean athlete.  When we eat out, we have to avoid the hole in the wall place where people are lined up around the corner for a bowl of something that smells really good. 

Interestingly, after the warning in February from the German Sport University Cologne regarding clenbuterol use in animals, although China officially denounced the study, apparently in March China started cracking down on farmers using clenbuterol.  So maybe that's what it will take to further clean up the food system.  We just need a bigger voice.  I can get angry and blog about the toxins in the food system, but truth be told is that I will also pay extra to circumnavigate the Chinese food system.  But others less fortunate do not have that choice.   Almost fourty percent of the Chinese population lives without access to a safe source of drinking water.  They eat what they can afford.  And what they can afford is likely highly toxic. 

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Snakes Alive!!!

Not in Oregon any more ...

Alright, confession time.  When I finally confirmed our family was moving to Hong Kong Island from Bend Oregon, I was somewhat excited to see that there were no predatory animals on the island.  Snakes, yes, but from what I read, snake sightings are VERY RARE, and besides, they tend to run away.  Although the snakes that are on the island can be venomous (with the two to worry about being cobras and a small green snake that can be aggressive), the other snakes such as pythons and giant rat snakes are non-venomous.  The bite may hurt but they will not (likely) kill you.  But no mountain lions, bears or other large animals that can lurk in the minds of runners, and occasionally show themselves during the most unexpected time of a run.   Don’t read this to mean that I don’t like and appreciate these animals  and their place in the ecosystem, I have just had enough interactions to give a quiet cheer knowing that I probably wouldn’t have to worry about them while exploring the trails of Hong Kong. 

Thinking back to the words that I read that snake sightings are “VERY RARE” I should have known that that applies to the person who spends most of their time in the shopping malls (seemingly the preferred way to spend time off for the average Hong Kong worker), versus the ultra-runner who seeks out interesting, unpopulated trail on a regular basis. 
We moved to Hong Kong mid-August.  My first three weeks in Hong Kong were hot and humid – ugh – I’d come back from a run more drenched than if I had stood in a shower with the water on full blast.  Living in the high desert of Bend, I never had to worry about sweating so much I couldn’t keep my shorts up.  Now I finally know why shorts have the waist cord – that little cord is all that keeps me from certain jail time for indecent exposure.    But, no snake sightings…to that point.
The green in this map of HK island is all park with trails!!

Hong Kong Island is the most densely populated island in the world.  Some 1.2 million people are squeezed onto this island of 31 sq. miles.  So how is this so livable?  Thanks to the visionaries who planned the city development, almost 40% (I've also heard this quoted as 70%, but I'm not sure) of the island is dedicated to green space.  The green space is divided into multiple major parks which encompass the central part of Hong Kong Island. Pretty much from anywhere on the island, one can be on trail or a connector to trail in a matter of minutes.  The trail might be paved, but at least it is car free and usually surrounded by greenery.  Trail running here is a mix of asphalt, stone, stairs, single-track dirt, and technical rock and root running.  And very hilly.  I think last week in my 90+ mile of running, I managed over 17,000 ft. of gain, and that’s without trying to get in hill repeats. 
Once we found a permanent apartment, I started frequenting the trails on the north east side of the island.  Since I hadn’t seen any snakes in my first three weeks, I was growing bolder in choosing my routes.  One morning I spied a marked but not well maintained trail going up a large stream towards the top of Mount Butler.  After about a quarter of a mile off the main track the trail turned into rock hopping up stream.   Water, rocks, sun.  These are the three things I think about back in Bend when I am in rattle snake territory.  It usually is the recipe for snakes sighting, especially in the morning when snakes are out warming up their bodies.  But is that the same in Hong Kong?   I shouldn’t have been surprised when I jumped on a rock, and out of the rock one step ahead moved the largest snake I had seen to date.  Five to six feet long, and with a circumference of my lower forearm.  I think as soon as it felt the vibration of me landing near a rock where it was sunning itself, it decided to get out of the way.  So it moved, faster than I’ve ever seen a snake move, in a direction away from me.   My snake radar was on extra high for the rest of the run…
Similar to first snake I saw - probably Chinese cobra
Three days later, and still with a little extra hop in my step from my snake sighting from a few days earlier, I was out on a longish run.  In my mind, there were two areas to be weary of snakes in Hong Kong, one was rocky terrain next to water, and the other being the very dense rocky, rooting overgrown trails where I would imagine a snake would be happy hanging out under the leaves or terrain underfoot, or better yet, in the trees which are overhanging the route. 
This is the type of terrain I thought I'd see a snake...but I was wrong
In my three hours of running, I had made it through what I thought was the snakiest terrain, the rocky rooty overgrown stuff, and was congratulating myself on not seeing any snakes.  I let out a sigh of relief and checked my watch, thinking I had only about 20 some minutes before I was done.  As I glanced at my watch, I heard what sounded like a large animal moving through the brush on the hillside to my left.  As I turned my head left to see what it was, I saw the mid-section of a snake, the circumference of my calf, shooting out of the brush on the hill about an inch behind my left shoulder.  Three thoughts came to mind in that instant: 

1)      This was a very different snake than what I saw three days earlier – dark greyish green with a light belly versus the solid black color of the other snake, and HUGE;

2)      It was moving really fast;

3)      If the body was at my shoulder, the head was somewhere around my legs…
SPRINT!!!  I had just had a snake conversation with an Aussie friend who recalled an incident from his boyhood in Australia where a cobra chased his friend on the beach. 

Can't get this image to load right, but look at it with your head tilted right...this is where the snake came in - from the left side at shoulder height.

Similar to the midsection I saw near my left shoulder.  Snake I saw was darker - olive/grey with light belly.
I didn’t know if this particular snake was chasing me, or if it was chasing something else and I got in its way, or worse, something else was chasing it…but my feet reacted before anything else, and I sprinted.
About a minute further down the trail, I came to an intersection where there are always people.  I really really wanted to see people.  But there were none.   I stopped, and just stood there, shaking and laughing because I really wanted to cry, but I can’t because I live here now and I can’t just leave tomorrow.  WTF!!!??? was all I could think.    My husband is dying to see a snake, and I can’t keep away from them.  And a huge snake…HUGE…how are the citizens of Hong Kong not terrified???
I still had about a mile and a half of trail before I hit the road that led to home.  To say I shook the rest of the way is an understatement.  I jumped 10 feet at any rustle in the brush.  I finally saw other humans, and they had the look of complacency - - even happiness.  How could anyone on this trail be …just be… with monsters lurking in the brush?? 

I’ve told this story to really anyone who will hear it here in Hong Kong.  I just want to know if anyone has had something similar.  Is this a regular occurrence – giant snakes coming out of the brush??  Two large snake sightings in three days?  Here is the general consensus of those locals who I have polled:

1.        The snake was likely a giant rat snake or a python.  If it was a python I should be “happy” because sightings are very rare.  
2.       Large snakes don’t really chase down their prey; they wait for the prey to come to it.  Therefore, the snake was probably spooked by something, and moving in the general direction of downhill.  I was just unfortunate enough to cross the trail at the exact moment it came hurling out of the brush.

3.       These big snakes will bite when spooked/cornered.  I’m probably luckier than I think I am.

My general conclusion is that I have used up all my snake karma for my time in Hong Kong; therefore, I should not see another snake for a really really long time.  Although this theory was tested, only a week later, when I was out running with a new friend from Hong Kong, Claire Price (ultra runner extraordinaire – keep an eye out for her results).  We were in a dry and sunny section when my foot almost landed on a small snake.  The little snake (6 inches??) was confused and couldn’t figure out how to get away.  My brain registered the snake a second before Claire yelled “snake!”   Then she said she “never” sees snakes in this area.  Her other comment was that my shoes – which are bright green – might be a part of the problem.  She has been running the same trails for years, and has had a few snake sighting, but nothing like my experiences in such a short time.  I have since changed to different colored shoes.  And haven’t seen another snake…

Monday, June 27, 2011

Western States - a Bearish Ending

I was in Northern California last weekend for Western States 100.  Nature handed us a beautiful day as we headed out from Squaw Valley at 5am on our 100 mile journey.  

Everything was going to plan – start conservatively, have a solid middle and then hold on for the end.  Except the end threw way more at me than I planned.

I had passed Tracy Garneau for the lead around mile 90 at Browns Bar Aid Station.  We exchanged pleasantries, and then my pacer, Prudence L’Heureux, and I, set off for the Hwy 49 Crossing (93.5) where we would see our crew for the last time, then onto No Hands Bridge (mile 96.8).  I had been battling stomach issues since the trail from Forest Hill down to the river, so although I was still moving forward, and close to hitting the sub 18-hour time frame, I wasn’t feeling especially spiffy.  But I didn’t think I needed to feel spiffy, as I knew I was extending my lead over Tracy, and we had less than 5 miles to go.  So when I heard what sounded like a big guy charging the downhill around 95 miles, I shifted aside and waved him through.  Well the him was a her, and it was Ellie Greenwood.  “That” I thought to myself “is impressive.”  I tried to respond for all of 10 feet, but knew I just didn’t have it in me to challenge her pace on the downhill.  But, I thought that there was a chance that she was going to blow up, and I still had the ability to run, and was able to run the hills.  Knowing we had our last big climb ahead of us up to Robie Point, I didn’t think I was out of the game. And once I hit the pavement of the last mile, I knew I could fly.

“Stop!”  Prudence my pacer had stopped in the middle of the trail as we were about ½ mile from Robie Point (98.9 miles).  “Bear.”  I wasn’t that concerned – just yell and clap and a bear is supposed to run away.   The bear was going up a tree overhanging the trail, and Prudence was sure she saw a cub with it.   Mom and cub, now that is a little more concerning.  We paused for a few seconds, then decided to make some noise to scare if off.  We clapped our hands and waved our arms and yelled as we moved forward.  The bear dropped to the trail and started towards us hissing.  The thought flashed in my mind “I didn’t know bear’s hissed.”  We yelled some expletives as we ran back down the trail.  We stopped after a couple hundred feet, sure that the bear wasn’t fully charging us, and gathered ourselves.  What the hell do we do?   There was no way to “go around the bear” as the trail is cut into a hillside, with thick brush and rock on both sides.  We considered running back down to No Hands to get some help, but I ruled that out.  We could see the aid station lights at Robie Point, so we started yelling for them.  No response.  We yelled louder, flashed our lights.  I couldn’t believe that another runner had not come up the trail yet.  Finally we saw a headlamp moving down the trail from Robie Point.  Wanting to make sure the person knew what to expect, I yelled “be careful, it’s a bear with a cub”.  The headlamp turned around and went back up. 

After what seemed like an eternity, but was probably only 10 or so minutes, Tracy and her pacer showed up.  According to the splits, they were 7 minutes back at Hwy 49 crossing, and add another few miles to that, we were probably 10 or so minutes ahead.  Our conversation went something like this:  “Why are you stopped?”  “Bear and cub, and she’s angry.”  “Oh bear, we have those in Canada, let’s go.”  So as Tracy and her pacer lead the way, the bear once again drops out of the tree and starts for us.  We all run back down the trail. “Oh shit, you were right, she is angry”   “Yeah, that’s why we’ve been standing here for TEN MINUTES!!” 

As we all contemplate the situation, we see another set of lights coming up the trail.  Another runner, male, and a pacer.  “Why are you stopped?”  “Angry bear with cub.”  “FUCK THE BEAR, I WANT TO FINISH!!”  “We don’t want to see you get mauled.” He flashes his lights up the trail and sees the bear in the tree.  “Shit, we should all just stick together, walk slowly, stay as a group.”  Thinking there is safety in numbers, we all start up the trail, sweet-talking the bear “Please let us by, we just want to fin…”, Bear drops out of the tree and it’s all elbows and high knees.  I am ashamed to say that my only instinct was to make sure that I am not the last person.  There is no camaraderie when you’ve got a bear chasing you uphill.  At least we had gotten past the fulcrum and were able to go up the trail instead of down.  After about a hundred yards, we realized the bear let up, we all slow down.   Shaking our heads and still affected with temporary Tourette’s, we make our way to the aid station.

The volunteers at Robie Point were sparse with their words.  We said “There was an angry bear on the trail.”  “Yes.” “Did you hear us yelling at you?”  “Yes.”  That was it.  Granted there is probably nothing in the volunteer manual on “angry bear containment,” but I found it interesting at mile 99, I had more words than they did. 

With a little over a mile to go, I am emotionally done with the race.  Prudence and I start jogging in, both still dumbfounded about the bear experience and all the time lost.  With about a half-mile to go, we hear fast moving feet and see lights coming from behind.  Then I hear the voice of my friend, Nikki Kimball.   My first reaction is “Nikki is feeling better and having a great race.”  Then I realize it’s me she’s racing.  “Nikki, did you see the bear on the trail?”  “No bear, just a rattle snake”  “Your not going to make me race you in, are you?”  With that, she did not respond, only accelerated.  Honestly, had the tables been turned and it was me catching up to the second place person, I would race too.  So, it was game on.  Half a mile to go and we are approaching 10k race pace.  We hit the track with me in front, and I hear my sister yell “she’s catching you!”  So I shift gears once again to put a little more cushion in between us.  As we cross the finish line, all I can think is “Really?”  Did this last 5 miles really just happen?   (video of the sprint finish)

Saturday, June 4, 2011

Comrades 2011


I returned to South Africa last week to run the historic Comrades Marathon race.   The specifics:  86.97 kilometers (54 miles).  This year was an “up” run – starting in Durban and ending in Pietermaritzburg.  The first marathon climbs about 2200 ft, with very little decent.  The remaining 28 miles rolls, gaining about  3500 ft and losing about the same.  20,000 people entered the 2011 race, and I think I read 14,000 showed up at the start. 

As I talked about in my post about last year’s experience, South Africa has a complex political and social environment.  Granted huge amounts of progress have been made since the end of apartheid in 1990, but coming from the United States, it is difficult to not feel a little out of step with the surrounding environment.   South Africans live in a very “on guard” state.  Durban itself can be very unsafe.  Daytime safe zones dot the city map, and security guards are in place 24/7 to ensure these areas stay safe.  At night, movement is extremely restricted, and day and night, taxicabs are scrutinized to ensure they are “safe” before taking a ride.   That being said, there are only a few bad eggs that make it an unsafe environment.   But it is the vast majority of the people of South Africa that are the grounding force and make the overall experience wonderful. 

This year I ran for NedBank, a South African based running club.  The athletic system in South Africa is organized around a club system, which comes into play in major events such as Comrades.  Serious contenders run for a South African club which gives the runners access to crew points along the course as well as club incentives and other perks such as transportation and accommodations. 

I chose to stay at a small Bed and Breakfast versus staying with the team at a large hotel.  It was important to me to be able to prepare my own food and to distance myself from the pre-race commotion.  At the recommendation of my friends from Bend who were also running Comrades, Geof Hasegawa and Tonya Littlehales, I booked a room at the Rosetta House, which is located in the “safe” neighborhood of Morningside in Durban.  Being at the Rosetta House allowed me to be able to walk to a local grocery store, chill when I needed to chill and to have a wonderful, home environment from which I could prepare myself for the race.  Bill and Lee, owners of the Rosetta House, were over the top in helping to accommodate my needs.  Their hospitality and the quiet location was exactly what I needed in order to recover from the travel and get myself mentally prepared to race. 

The race started at 5.30 am.  In order to avoid the anxiety from last year where we arrived at the start only 5 minutes before the gun, we left the B&B at 4 am so that we would have plenty of time to navigate the congestion and arrive without raising my heart rate.   

It maybe funny to read, but the race went by in a blur.  One would think that running for six and a half hours would be tedious with a lot of time to think and take everything in, but I really don’t remember much. The first half seemed dark, and the second half I was uber focused.  The highlights for me – the first third I didn’t feel snappy.   In fact, I thought I was going to have a mediocre day.  So this reinforced my mantra to conserve in the first half so that I could run the second half.    By the halfway point, I felt my energy start to flow, and I started pulling away from the people around me.  The last quarter of the race, I was in full flowing mode.  I felt like I was running solidly, and assuming that I could keep a steady flow of calories coming in, I was going to be able to hammer to the end.  I think I was six minutes back from the Russian twins at the halfway point, and was able to pull in four of those minutes in the last 27k. 

The stats:  7.10 per mile pace through 42.96 kilometers; 7.08 pace for the remaining 44 kilometers. 

One surprise that I had was how long and steep the final climb, Polly Shortts, was with less than 12k to go.  It’s proof that you can study something on a map, and even run it from the other direction (down) and neither does it justice for hitting such a long, steep climb almost 50 miles into a fast road race.  Most people around me were walking up the hill.  I remember mentally thinking “oh good, no one is running this hard, so I’m just going to do a plodding run up it.”  And plod I did, but I managed to pass a handful of runners along the way.  In fact, the video of me coming over the crest of Polly Shortts says it all - - I can see how heavy my legs felt and how it took a good 400 meters to get rolling again. 

Once again, the crowds along the way were phenomenal.  It's hard to express the complete joy I felt in the second half all due to the people who came to watch the race and who put so much energy into cheering and encouraging each and every runner.  How can I ever repay that?  Thank you, once again, South Africa. 

Comrades Results:


      Stephen Muzhingi (ZIM) 5:32.45
      Fanie Matshipa (RSA) 5:34.29
      Claude Moshiywa (RSA) 5:42.05
      Jonas Buud (SWE) 5:42.44
      Gift Kelehe (RSA) 5:43.59

      Elena Nurgalieva (RUS) 6:24.11
      Olesya Nurgalieva (RUS) 6:24.35
      Kami Semick 6:26.24 (US)
      Ellie Greenwood (GBR) 6:32.46
      Farwa Mentoor (RSA) 6:35.49

Friday, April 29, 2011

Heading back to South Africa for the Comrades Marathon

Since I am only three weeks away from departing once again for South Africa to run the 56 mile Comrades Marathon, I thought I would publish the write up I did from last year.  Enjoy.   Also, here is the video from The North Face that also tells the story.
 - - - - 

Here I am, two days before running what has been called “the greatest footrace on earth”, steadily making my way up the hills of Polly Shorts, an infamous section of hills within the Comrades race course, and my head is filled with negative thoughts.  I’m running with my teammates Nikki Kimball and Lizzy Hawker. We are scoping out the Comrades course, running small sections, and primarily trying not to be killed in the process.    The air is filled with dust and smoke.  We are running into a strong hot and humid headwind.  Cars are zooming past seemingly unaware that their tons of steel are inches away from our bodies.  There is no shoulder.  We jump into the hay or ditch on the sides when we can. 

I spy a rare side road that seems to have no traffic.  I can’t bear another minute of our current situation, so I say “let’s get the hell off this road” as I point to the side road.  Although we are ditching our ride up the road, we are certain they will come back to find us.  We all breathe a sigh of relief as we lightly jog on this small slice of heaven.  No cars, shielded from the wind, we are momentarily happy.  We discover that the road leads to the Imvelo Ranch, home to an endangered species of antelope.  The sign and locked gate marking the entrance to the Ranch are our first signs of any wildlife in between the urban jungles of Durban and Pietermaritzburg.  We snap some pictures, hooked up with our ride, and are off to preview the remaining sections of the Comrades course. 
In front of the Imvelo Ranch 
But my head is still filled with conflicting feelings.  When we arrived at the Hilton in Durban the Monday evening before the race, we were warned to not go outside at night.  After thirty hours of travel, I settled for shaking out my legs on treadmill as hard as concrete.  The next morning, we inquired where we could jog.  The helpful concierge gave us very specific direction on the “safe” route to get to the security guard lined boardwalk, where we were then free to jog back and forth.  Since the Hilton is positioned close to downtown Durban, we found that simple things like going to the grocery store two blocks away required us to be handed off from security guard to security guard as they guided us to the store.   If we wanted to eat out at night, we needed a cab ride to a safe street lined with restaurants, which had invested in security guards for tourists and locals looking to eat in safety.  Returning from dinner called for a thrice over of the cab and driver to make sure we were stepping into a safe taxi.  Every local who we interacted with had their own story of car jackings, robberies, etc.    Locals have seemed to figure out how to live with the ever-present fear of violent crime, and as tourist, we were learning the same. 

But it wasn’t just the security issues that were bothering me.  At the core of my discontent was the discovery process we were involved in, peeling back the layers of what seemed like a very modern society – fast and efficient airports, eight lane highways, luxury accommodations for the most discerned traveler, creature comforts for all needs, and some of the best, freshest food I’ve encountered away from the farmer’s markets of Oregon. What we were uncovering was a conflicting view of this seemingly modern society.  
Primary mode of transportation
On the four lane highways, autos would zoom past people walking on the sides of the highway, with their feet as their only form of transportation.  Shantytowns could be found right outside of the urban areas.  The constants smell of smoke lingered in the air from both the burning of fields and the fact that a large part of the population still uses fire for cooking and heating their home. 
Home in Chesterville
The region surrounding the Comrades racecourse, KwaZulu Natal, has the highest rate of AIDS infections in the world.   Nearly forty percent of the women in this region are HIV positive.  It also has the highest rate of orphans in the world, with one quarter of the estimated two million children orphan by AIDS in South Africa found in this region.   And it goes on…South Africa also has one of the highest rates of rape in the world.  According to the South African organization People Opposing Woman Abuse (Powa), a woman is raped in South Africa every 26 seconds. Shockingly, only one in nine rapes that takes place in South Africa is ever reported - out of the reported cases, only 7% lead to a convictions. (Powa).
Two days after arriving in Durban, we had the opportunity to visit Chesterville, a township along the Comrades course.   Because we knew about the orphan crisis prior to our trip to Comrades, our team from The North Face had created a partnership with a local charity, Starfish Greathearts Foundation.  Formed in 2001, Starfish has been working with the people in community based organizations of South Africa, to fund, train, oversee and empower them to deliver quality care to children who are orphaned and vulnerable due to HIV/AIDS.  Our team has been working to fund a project in Chesterville called Vukukhanye. Knowing what we knew about the tidal wave of orphans in the region surrounding the Comrades course, we could not think of Comrades without thinking of the orphan crisis.  The two are inextricably linked in our minds.
Preschool in Chesterville
Vukukhanye was formed in 2002 in response to the serious threat to child and family welfare caused by the HIV/AIDS epidemic within the township of Chesterville.  The program focuses on the provision of care, support and counseling for abandoned, abused, neglected, orphaned or homeless children.  Vukukhanye links in with the community and other relevant organizations to promote family stability and improve the social environment of children within its area of operation.
“We must look to the future and try our best to find ways to help the increasing number of children who will be without parents – both orphaned and abandoned …We are on the path to a catastrophic situation and need to make the best use of the available time to arrive at ways of caring for these children”  (Ross Halkett, National Council for Child and Family Welfare, South Africa)
Vukukhanye loosely translates to “Arise and Shine” in Zulu.  It reflects the communities optimistic hope that they will show the world that they can rise above their circumstances.  What really struck me about the visit to Chesterville was how proud and optimistic the people are. Living in a one-room hut with on and off electricity and water, the people of Chesterville are proud.  Their houses are tidy and their clothes are clean.  
Mother and daughter in their tidy, tiny home
We visited a preschool, afterschool sports program (Sports for All), three different houses/family set ups, and a Foster Home.  Vukukhanye is involved in all, supporting in various ways.  The social workers are amazing people, but it really is the spirit of the community helping individuals in their community that is so strong.  It is the grandmothers in the community who are taking in the children without parents.  As Jenine, one of the social workers involved in Vukukhanye pondered, “What will we do when the grandmothers die?”

Sports For All Program
One question that had been on our minds, and on the minds of others as we went about talking to large and small groups in the United States about raising money for Starfish Is:  “Why such a high rate of AIDS/HIV infections?”  What we learned is that sex education starts at the ages of seven to eight.  But the cultural beliefs run counter to HIV/AIDS education.  Culturally, the male is very empowered. It is not manly to wear a condom.  Rape is common and unreported.    There is a belief in the townships that a man carrying HIV can rid himself of the disease if he has sex with a virgin. But few of these rapes are reported because the rape laws favor the criminal, not the victim.
We also learned of the concerns about child trafficking with the coming of the World Cup.  Borders and border control are opening and becoming lax to invite the World Cup spectators in, leaving the most vulnerable citizens, the children, open to being smuggled across the border and sold. 
We met a 15-year-old girl, who was abused by her alcoholic father. Her mother and father have since died of AIDS.  She had just given birth to a little girl.  She had to drop out of school because of the infant, and is living in her house taking care of her infant daughter and her 11-year-old sister.  She's HIV positive.  Because of Vukukhanye, she was able to take anti retro viral medications during her pregnancy in hopes of protecting her unborn baby from HIV.  She was to learn the results of her daughter’s HIV test a couple of days after our visit.  As soon as her daughter is old enough to go to preschool, She plans on finishing her education.  Vukukhanye also provides her with food parcels and moral support and guidance.
Teenage mom and baby
After our visit to Chesterville, in the two days we then took to preview the course, I kept wondering how I would see the “magic” of Comrades, as others have called it. Why was I participating this “great race” when a large part of their society was in need of help.  The hype and commotion surrounding this race seemed inconsequential compared to some of the social issues the country was dealing with.  My questions to myself were “Isn’t all of this energy, time and money that is being put into the race, much less the World Cup, misdirected?  How can a country invest billions of dollars, currently estimated at $15 billion between South Africa and FIFA (soccer's international governing body), into the upcoming World Cup, while ignoring a large part of their constituents?  How can this seemingly modern society not protect their women and children?”
Race morning started with all the normal pre race rituals - - an early wake up at 2.45am, quick breakfast and coffee, then a ride to the start.  All was going smoothly until we and all the other 20,000 participants tried to go through the highway toll at the same time.  With the rush of people, we also were exiting the one exit to Pietermaritzburg at the same time.  What seemed like a nicely cushioned timeframe to get to the start ended in a dash out of the car before our predetermined drop off point, a “warm up” jog/sprint to the elite starting area, and then a sigh of relief when we realized we had an entire five minutes to spare.
As we lined up in the elite start corral, we were packed shoulder to shoulder.  Any last minute adjustments, such as re tying of the shoes were impossible.  Nikki, Lizzy and I ended up in the middle of a sea of dark men.  We quickly assessed that we would be stampeded by the masses going out at a five minute pace, so we tried to shuffle our way toward to sidelines, explaining to all who were willing to listen that we were “trying to save our lives.”
And then the magic of Comrades started.  Five minutes before the gun, we were led in the song “Shosholoza” a traditional Southern African folk song. The song was traditionally sung by all-male work gangs in a call and response style. The word Shosholoza means go forward or make way for the next man.  Every single person around me, save Lizzy and Nikki, was singing in a strong voice.  By the third time through, I was getting the hang of the lyrics and attempted to join in.  It was a beautiful and moving moment, and a wonderful way to calm the nerves. 
As soon as the gun went off, I knew I was a part of something much bigger than just a race.  In the dark of the 5.30 am start, crowds lined the street.  As the mass of humanity swirled through the streets of Pietermaritzburg toward Durban, we passed families huddled around open fires, cheering on the runners.  Hundreds of thousands of spectators.  Mostly black. 
 “Ladies!  Ladies!”  “USA”  “Obama”
On one hand, this race seemed so unimportant relative to the poverty and social issues that surround the area.  On the other hand, most of the people that we met in Chesterville knew of the race and were excited to have met runners participating in Comrades.  Running transcends the social class and economic lines and becomes something that anyone can participate in and rally around.  Running is free, it’s empowering, and it can unite a country, if only for a day. 

I had some very strong emotional feelings running this race, thinking about the women who live in fear, the grandmothers who are taking care of large numbers of children in their communities.  How strong and proud these women are, but how the system, from the government to the cultural norms and values around them pushes them down, it doesn’t lift them up. Racing Comrades in the sea of men, I made it a point to connect, smile and make eye contact with the women spectators.  One black woman spectator who I waved to ran beside me for as long as she could cheering me on.  I cheered back to the young girls lining the route.  I high fived the kids, which sometimes almost brought me to a dead stop because their hands formed such a strong grip on mine.
running along...
In all of my years of running, I’ve never had the entire route of a race covered with spectators, sometimes ten deep.  I’ve never felt such a connection to the people, and such a lift of energy from the crowd.  I can honestly say I ran with pure joy the entire route.  For once I was completely unconcerned with time and place. I was in the moment.  Races like this don’t happen often, if ever.    This is the magic of Comrades. 
A huge thank you to the corporations (Workday; The North Face) and individuals (too many to name) who enabled me to raise over $20,000 for Vukukhanye.  The children of Chesterville thank you. 

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

World Trail Challenge 2011 - The USA needs YOU!

Connemara, Ireland site of the 2011 World Trail Challenge

The Mountain/Ultra/Trail Council, which is a council under USATF, is looking for 5 qualified men and 5 qualified women to go to Ireland to compete at the 2011 IAU World Trail Challenge in Connemara, Ireland.  This approximately 50 mile trail race takes place on Saturday, July 9, 2011.  Read more about the race here.

USATF is NOT sponsoring a team, meaning you will not receive any monetary support from USA Track and Field.  But, the IAAF or IAU will provide transportation within Ireland and accomodations.  Seems like you just need a plane ticket and some pocket money.   So if you’d like to see what a real stout tastes like while actually in the home land of Ireland, consider putting this on your list. 

In order to see if you qualify, send your resume to Howard Nippert at  Howard is on the Mountain, Ultra Trail Council and will be receiving and reviewing resumes.  He will let you know if you qualify for the team.  Click here for more specific on qualifying for the team.

As of right now, Howard has only received 6 resumes from men and only one resume from a women.  So let’s step it up, especially the ladies!!

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Running...Baja Style

The family and I recently headed down to the East Cape of Baja, Mexico for a little bit of much needed sun during the long winter in Oregon.  I picked the East Cape because it wasn’t highly developed, was somewhat easy to access from the West coast, and has a good offering of fly-fishing opportunities for my husband.   Running always seems like a second thought for these short winter get aways.    I always figure that I can find somewhere to run for an hour or two – even if it’s just up and down the beach.

In planning this trip, I used Google maps to look at the terrain.  I picked a somewhat secluded simple fly-fishing lodge about 45 minutes north of the Los Cabos San Jose airport for our five day stay.  On the map I could see the main “highway” leading north from Los Cabos, a short dirt road leading east to the lodge on the beach and then to the west, a series of what looked like jeep tracks leading up into a mountain range.  Looked good on the map…

After landing at the Los Cabos airport, we drove northeast toward the East Cape.  After about ten minutes of driving, the clutter of the tourist area of Los Cabos faded away.  Then it’s just desert and a simple two-lane highway.  Every fifteen minutes or so we would pass a single house or restaurant along the highway.  From the car I spotted packs of dogs off to the side of the highway.  Note to self, many stray dogs around the area.  Then I noticed the cattle, usually unattended, on the side roads.  Second note to self, grazing cattle wandering in hills.   Already on my check list of things to watch out for were rattlesnakes and drug dealers.  The former are easy to jump over, you just have to keep your eyes open.  The latter, not so easy to identify.


A few years ago on a family trip to Sayulita, which is on the west side of the mainland of Mexico, I had found what I thought was a fabulous stash of trails north of town.  No signs, just a little double track off a hidden beach that went up into the coastal hills.  I had run there three days in a row, and could not believe my luck at finding this beautiful gem – no people and great views.  Well, my illusion of safety quickly came to an end when on day three, I was the furthest point out and preparing to turn around to head back home.  On the only cross road, I saw a jeep coming toward me.  The hair on the back of my neck immediately came up, but I just continued to run, waiving hello at the same time.  The jeep screeched to a halt and a man started yelling at me in Spanish.  Since my Spanish is limited to greetings and ordering food, I had no idea what he was saying, but he was obviously fired up.  Wanted to disarm his anger, I just said “hola” and tried to indicate I was just there to jog.  When he realized I was a naive tourist, he said in broken English “You are on Drug Lords Property.  They will shoot you if they see you.”    Great, only five miles of Drug Lord trail in between home and me. I indicated to him that I would get out of there and never come back. Talk about seeing an area with new eyes.

 So, Day 1 running on the East Cape, I had my checklist of things to watch out for – primarily one’s with two legs.  I asked at the lodge if it was safe to run in the area.  A pause, a bit longer than I would have liked, but then “Yes, no problems “ was the reply.   I received directions to an overlook, which involved crossing through private property, so I decided to just explore on my own.  I crossed the highway that we drove in on, and headed west on a sandy double track that I had seen on Google maps.    All was going well and I was amazed at how this series of double track might be a great place to run if I could adjust to the sandy footing and the steep climbs.  As I was headed back after a short check out jaunt, I heard a loud grunt and something as fast as lightening went running in the brush on my right side.  It was low to the ground, black and moving faster than any animal that I had ever seen.  So I jumped around to face what I was sure was an ambush from behind.  A second animal about two feet high, probably 40 pounds and moving like a bullet, shot past behind me.  What the hell? 


Knowing most wild animals will not attack unless either cornered or the chase instinct is invoked, I stopped and listened.  Then I walked very slowly for about half a mile.  Figuring whatever it was that I spooked was gone, I did a slow jog back to the lodge.   

“Javalina” is what my animal expert husband deduced.  “They don’t attack people do they?” I asked.    The reality is that they don’t unless cornered.    That was day 1.  The remaining days I encountered angry cows blocking my route home on one memorable run, hundreds of vultures eating something very dead right off the trail on another, and a stray dog, who I decided to not bother, on yet another. 

Regarding the cows…  don’t laugh; of course I have a couple of running and angry cow stories in my running history.  I’ve been charged by an angry heifer once because my dog was taunting it’s calf, and then the dog ran to me for cover.  Cows can match Usain Bolt off the line.  Zigzagging really does work.     I’ve also been stranded on top of a tractor by an angry bull.  He wasn’t going to let me get by, so I had to head for the highest ground around, which was a tractor.   Yes, I was on private property, thus my aversion to cross fenced lines any more.

Anyway, I’ve determined family trips to Mexico and running aren’t for me any more.    I refuse to go to highly tourist areas, but is seems like the fringe is too fringy for me.  I’d rather get my heart rate up by running, not anxiety.