Thursday, July 26, 2018

Chasing Rainbows; Reflecting on loss, love, and my first 50 mile ultra-marathon. A guest blog by Farahnaz Afaq

This guest blog submitted by Farahnaz Afaq is a powerful tribute to her brother who died unexpectedly within days leading up to her first 50 mile ultra, Free To Run, in Vermont, USA. Farahnaz was born and raised in Afghanistan where she experienced trauma and extreme gender discrimination. She wraps the memory of her brother around her heart.  This is a story of running beneath rainbows in search of peace and harmony. 

It's a good day to be alive,


Three o’clock AM - the hotel’s wake-up call is ringing while my alarm goes off in the corner of the hotel room. I crawl out of my side of the king-size bed that I am sharing with my friend Zahra. Blind in the dark, I find my way to the bathroom. I look at myself in the mirror and think to myself that this is another day. The pain is hurting my heart and I am overwhelmed by the feeling that it will stay there forever. But then I slap myself and tell myself that today will be a new beginning. After months of training like a maniac for my first ever 50-mile running competition, losing my beloved brother only a few days before the race had completely thrown me off course and made me contemplate quitting. But I knew he would have wanted me to compete.  “I cannot give up. I have not come this far to give up now. I cannot let down my brother who was my inspiration and friends who supported and helped me so I would be prepared for the race.” I thought fondly of Mac, Joan, Barbara and Roy, Spartanburg, SC family who had taken care of me and made sure I did not lack anything during my training. 

I originally signed up for the race to support Free to Run, a non-profit organization that empowers and educates women in conflict-affected communities (like many in my native Afghanistan) by providing them outdoor activities. Growing up in Afghanistan and as a refugee in Pakistan and Iran, Free to Run’s mission spoke to me very much. As a child, I was not able to do any kind of outdoor activities or sports, just because I was a woman. I was constantly reminded by my society that the purpose of being a woman was to raise children and take care of the family. There were many things that I was forbidden to do or have because of my gender. In fact, when I was young, I loved the rain because of the likelihood of rainbows appearing. I desperately wanted to walk underneath a rainbow, because of an Afghan myth that said to do so would change your gender - and I wanted nothing more than be a boy…

Free to Run’s emphasis on sports, and giving greater confidence to girls that they can do the same things as boys, is just what I would have loved to have when I was young, and I was willing to sign up for a 50-mile race to support this great organisation.

Then everything changed. In the week before the race, I read the terrible news from facebook that my brother Sadullah had passed away unexpectedly back home on Friday, Sept 8th. I cried and cried and cried and hoped a family member would tell me that the news were wrong. I kept calling my family all over the world, none of them answered. But after hearing my sister’s voice at 10:00PM I realized that the news were correct and I was not having a bad dream. It was a harsh reality - it never occurred to me that I might lose my young brother. My entire body ached and I felt my heart was on fire. I wanted to be with my family so badly to share the grief. But I was in my room surrounded by Joan, Barbara and my roommates, Elena and Juliana, who were confused and did not know the reasons behind my screams and crying. Running was the last thing on my mind. And yet here I was, on the morning of race day on Sept 16th, somehow trying to get through the day, and survive a brutal 50-mile run.

Four thirty AM - I met my American host family on the trail. They were already wide awake and started cheering as soon as they saw me. After Zahra’s and my short speech on Afghanistan to the twenty fellow 50-milers, I found myself following my headlights on the Pittsfield trail running in the dark.The trail was a 12.5 mile loop, which we had to do four times. While doing my first lap, I started thinking of Sadullah, my life’s purpose and the hope I recently lost, trying to find inner peace and strength.

I ran the first and second laps fast without even noticing. I was the first woman to complete the first lap, and still in second position by the time I finished the second lap. I had so much emotion inside of me, that I ran 25 whole miles without feeling any physical pain. Instead, I was remembering little funny moments I had with my brother. As my host family from Vermont had told me “wrap your brother in your heart and just run with him.” That is what I did; I felt his presence throughout the 12:27:00 hours I was out there, climbing hills and sighing out the pain when running downhill.

But during the third and fourth laps, the pain caught up with me; I felt it crawl up to my legs, especially my knees and ankles. The pain was real and I was assured that I am not having a bad dream about my brother. Luckily, my pacers Taylor and Marie were wonderful in distracting me. While climbing uphills I blacked out a few times, felt sick to my stomach and got really bad cramps underneath my right rib, but I kept going. I kept thinking to myself, “Today is my day to change my life and tomorrow my story will change many others, especially Afghan girls’ lives, so do not give up!” Miles 42-48 I walked most of the time, not feeling my legs except sharp knee pain, with Marie’s words echoing in my ears: “One step at a time! Remember, every step forward makes us get closer to the finish line. You are not competing against anyone but yourself. I want you to cross the finish line with a smile.” She was right, my entire life has been filled with challenges, but with the support of my family, I have always kept moving forward. When I was a refugee girl at three years’ old, I was told that if I wanted to live, I must not stop running until I had crossed the border. I was taught that death was possible at any moment. When I was six years old, I was told to leave my only childhood toy, a doll, behind in order to carry bread for our survival while crossing another border. But today I was running towards my dreams, in search of lifting myself up in order to find myself again and in order to get the lost hope.

With the cheers and love of my American host family, Mr. Robert, Ms. Lea Ann, Hanah and Colin, I managed to make it to the mile 48 aid station. Mr. Robert took my Camelbak to refill and Marie asked me to stop and eat something. But my mind was focused and my eyes zoomed through the woods and saw nothing but the finish line. Wobbling around I crossed the road and entered into the woods. Mr. Robert and Marie’s voice echoed in my ears “have something to drink and eat.” But I did not understand what they were saying. I turned back and with the loudest voice I could muster, I screamed “I love you all!” I heard my host family saying “we love you more!” and Ms. Lea Ann ran behind me and made sure I was good to go. I took a deep breath and started running again. Marie caught up with me and gave me some of her water. Mr. Robert on my left and Ms. Lea Ann on my right started running alongside me. Both were prepared to hold me if I fell. I felt the power, energy and love. I let go of the grief of Sadullah’s loss and filled the void with my family’s love. I promised to cross the finish line with a smile and to “turn this pain into positive energy and love for my family, friends, nephew, niece and unborn children” as my master, friend, teacher, role model and my life changer, Connie had said.

The race in Pittsfield was not only about finishing my first 50 mile ultramarathon. It reminded me that life is filled with ups and downs, that we have to make sure not to give up easily despite hardships we might be facing. It reminded me that even though I might feel weak, I am stronger than I think. Weak because there are certain things in this world that are impossible for me to change. Nothing I will do will bring my brother back. Strong, because there are many things I can change. For instance, I did this race despite going through the hardest time of my life. I did it because it matters. This was not only about running and my capabilities of how far my mind and body could go. This was about humans rights and equality and showing my appreciation for the opportunities and freedoms I have been given.

As a naive child, I chased rainbows all the time, in my quest to become a boy. But now I proudly stand tall and say “I am a woman” … “an As a naive child, I chased rainbows all the time, in my quest to become a boy. But now I proudly stand tall and say “I am a woman” … “an ultra-marathon woman!”

Written by Ultra-marathon Woman, Farahnaz Afaq

Wednesday, July 11, 2018

The Great New York Running Expositions 2018; A guest blog by Melissa Budd

This race report by Winnipeg ultra-runner, triathlete Melissa Budd is about Melissa and her running friend David Fielder's experience at the The Great New York Running Exposition. This course is 100.3 miles and runs through all five New York boroughs. The cut off is 30 hours and the race begins and ends in Time Square. Spoiler alert... Melissa gets lost, she loses her passport, she takes a tumble, but does she finish?  Read on dear friends!  It's a good day to be alive, Mike

Melissa Budd, 3rd row, left of centre, burgundy hat
On June 23, 2018 at 5:00 AM I embarked on a unique race called the TGNY100 – The Great New York Running Exposition. I blame this endeavour on my friend, Sean Mick. I met Sean doing Lean Horse 100 in 2017. I made a simple comment on one of his posts about the run on Facebook, and six months later, I’m in the greatest city in the world with 100 miles in front of me. Sean lives in New York and offered his place to crash, and a guide to run with. How could I say no? 

The TGNY100 is the brainchild of race director Phil McCarthy, assisted by Trishul Lorne Cherns. Cherns is impressive, he has run the Sri Chinmoy Self Transcendence 3100 mile 3 times . This run is even more awe inspiring in that it consists of a one mile looped city block in Flushings Queens. Trishul is originally Canadian but now lives in NYC and has finished 250 ultra runs. Phil McCarthy, the R.D. is equally remarkable. He holds many ultra records and has run races like Badwater, Western States, and many 24 hour national championships. He also finished first at the Sri Chinmoy 240 hours in 2013. These two guys are legends! Check out this short film about the race. 

The course is 100.3 miles. It runs north through Manhattan, over the Broadway Bridge into the Bronx, through parks and greenways to Orchard Beach, over the Triborough Bridge into Queens, through the Queens park corridor, including Flushing Meadows Park/Unisphere, then to Rockaway Beach, Coney Island, and the Brooklyn Bridge back to Manhattan. The terrain is generally flat to gently rolling, with the biggest hills coming in the first 10 miles up through Inwood Hill Park, and the larger bridges that are crossed. There are about two miles of trails in Van Cortlandt Park and a short trail section at Orchard Beach and another short section in Alley Pond Park, otherwise the course is all paved. 

Melissa was here.
My runner partner in crime David and I boarded a plane, and late Wednesday night, we found ourselves cabbing it to the upper west side to meet Sean and start our adventure! Thursday was great, Sean, being 8 months recently local, was a phenomenal tour guide. I wished I had known how far we were going to walk that day, I would have opted for running shoes, not cute shoes. We explored Manhattan and I was loving every moment. We went through Central Park, used the subway, toured the southern tip, visited Trinity Church, walked up and down the Brooklyn Bridge, saw the George Washington Monument, the Statue of Liberty, the location where John Lennon got shot and so much more. 

Thursday evening, I got the opportunity to see the show “Hamilton” again on Broadway. I absolutely love Hamilton and find the story to be life changing inspiring. On Friday we took a bike ride to see Columbia University, gawk at the beautiful Riverside Church and pick up our race kits. I did have one stressor though, to make a long story short, I was passportless on Friday. I called the consulate, but I couldn’t do anything about it until Monday. All I knew was I could not fly out on Sunday. I was stressed out, however, like my husband Leigh said, “There are worse things than to be stuck in New York for a few extra days”. I tried to put it out of my mind, although I felt uneasy without a passport. 

What happened to Spiderman? Send us a message if you read this.
Saturday morning started with a 3:30 am wake up, breakfast (avocado on toast) and a 4 am subway trip to Time Square. We found the start and waited as the anticipation grew. There were all kinds of people from all over the place. There were 2 other people from Canada, people from Germany, locals, Japan, Philippians, and Australia. There were 129 people on the official start list with 22 of the entrants entered in the 100Km and the other 107 in the 100 miler. Some people had full out costumes like Spiderman and a cowboy wearing tiny cheetah booty shorts. 

We started out with a few words from the RD and then the countdown. Off we went, heading north out of Time Square, to Broadway, Columbus Circle and then Central Park. Those miles ticked off quickly. I ran and chatted with Sean, while David went back and forth finding out people’s names, where they were from and being his social effervescent self. We made our way up the Hudson River. The weather was perfect! We were all worried about rain (the forecast said it was to rain all day) but there was nothing. It was humid, but not hot and most importantly, not wet. Running along the Hudson river was beautiful. We ran under the George Washington Bridge. Apparently, if you go over the GW Bridge, you can get on to “The Long Path” which is a 358 mile trail to Albany. Someone just completed the FKT (fastest known time) this month on that trail (9 days, 3 hours and 6 minutes). Perhaps if my passport didn’t come through on Monday – the Long Trail might be something to think about. We ran past these unique stone structures along the Hudson. Sean told me that they were not fastened together in any way, just free standing. I thought that was incredible. 

About 7-8 miles in and we started up to Castle Hill where I unfortunately bit the asphalt on one of those nasty sidewalk outcroppings. Hit the ground with my left shoulder. It hurt, but my pride took a bigger beating (I hate it when I do that). Brushed myself off and kept going making sure to look down instead of around so much. Arrived in Van Courtlandt Park around 16 miles. Some nice trails and greenery. Then past Orchard Beach where the water and sand looked so pretty against the grey/blue cloudy sky. At the marathon distance, we got to Middletown Road aid station. I found it kind of liberating not wearing my Garmin. I really had no idea what the time of the day was or how far I was into the run. I just had it in my mind I’d be running all day (and night). That’s all I needed to do. We were now in the Bronx, which is a grittier area. Through Hell Gate Pathway to Randall’s Island. Randall’s Island is home to 20 tennis courts and 60 playing fields. Massive recreational area. 

David Fielder... that gait, that arm swing, pure DF.
From there, we went over one of my favorite parts of the course, the Triborough Bridge (or the R.F. Kennedy Bridge). It is a long high suspension bridge where you need to go up steps to before climbing up to the top. I’m not sure what the elevation is, but it is the highest bridge I had ever been on. Great views all around. The Triborough is a complex of bridges that serve Manhattan, the Bronx and Queens. It crosses 3 different bodies of water and links three different boroughs. I think I could come back to NYC and just do a bridge tour. We saw Spiderman on the bridge, but a moment later he was gone. We really don’t know where he went. Perhaps his Spidey sense was tingling and he got out of there. Never saw him again for the whole race. 

Off the bridge, we got into Astoria, Queens and made our way to the “World’s Fair Marina” aid station. This place was rocking. I heard the aid station before I could see it. Came in and as soon as they saw me, someone ran out, put their arm around me (all the while ringing a cow bell) and ushered me into the aid station. They had so much stuff. Even hard liquor on ice! Almost felt like I should stay for the party but knew I had to move on. Looking back I saw that this was mile 42. I was still feeling good, no stomach upset, legs felt good – highly unusual in an ultra but I liked it. 

From there the race continued on to Grand Central Pkwy, past LaGuardia airport (which I hoped to get on after I “cross my fingers” got a new passport), and a huge cemetery, St. Michael’s Cemetery (I would also be happy doing a cemetery tour – I love walking/running in a cemetery) Little Bay Park, Alley Pond Park and Kissena Park. We went through residential streets, greenways and dirt paths. We got to Flushing Meadows Corona Park. This park was amazing. Got to see the Unisphere which is “the World’s largest World structure. The whole park seemed to be alive. Lots of music, families and food vendors. The Unisphere is 12 stories tall and made of stainless steel. The three rings encircling the globe represent the orbits of the first Russian cosmonaut, the first American astronaught and the Telstar (the first active communications satellite). It is in the middle of a huge fountain. 

Continuing on, soon we were in Forest Park which had some larger hills. It was all the way down hill to the 100Km aid station and our drop bags. Sean, David and I took a few minutes there to change, recharge and get headlamps for the evening. There was lots of pizza there as well as eggplant parmesan? I really wasn’t expecting the level of aid we got. The RD described the race as semi fat-ass (self sufficient), however, I didn’t consume one thing I had brought – I got everything through the aid stations. Semi fat ass, my ass!! Don’t get me wrong, I loved the level of support. They even had a massage therapist at mile 51 (Tony worked on my shoulder for 2 minutes as I was refilling my water, it was really sore after the fall). 

try finding these arrows in NY City in the dark@
It was between 7pm and 8 pm when we left the aid station and settled into a pace for the night, we went a long time on Cross Bay Blvd which was right along the water. This is where day became night. It was becoming harder to navigate at this point. The only markings on the course were spray painted yellow arrows. Sometimes they were on the street, sometimes they were on the road. If you missed one you could become horribly lost. We saw a huge stuffed sock monkey on Veteran’s memorial bridge climbing up a lamp post – it made me smile. On the bridge, we saw the lights of the McArch. Visions of hot salty fries and a cold coke made me hungry. I asked if they would mind if we stopped there – it was mile 70 – I deserved a break, didn’t I? The guys said they would wait while I went in.

Got my fries and Coke and came out. I was surprised to see just David there. Sean said he would meet us at the next aid station that was less than ¼ mile away. Unfortunately, this is where things started to go wrong. We got to Rockaway beach and made a wrong turn, went left instead of right. This resulted in David and I getting very lost. We spent an hour looking for the aid station that was 250 meters away. That being said, we found the Shore Front Parkway and after an hour and a half, we found a yellow arrow. I can’t tell you how relieved I felt. We followed Rockaway Beach Blvd for a long time until we got to the aid station at Jacob Riis Park. We had no idea where Sean was and hoped we could find him because we missed him AND he had asked to carry my race instructions before we got separated. We only had the yellow arrows to follow and intermittent access to my google maps. At the aid station, we told them what happened, that we missed the Rockaway Beach aid station but we found this one. We also asked if Sean had come through. They said that he and another participant dropped at that point. If I had known that fries and a Coke would have caused all of this, I wouldn’t have got it!! Big regret. 

David and I carried on somewhat dejectedly. I did manage to get a pacers written instructions - he felt sorry for us when I explained our plight about the missing race instructions. Went over the Marine Pkwy Bridge, which was pretty with the lights of the city on the other side. Eventually we made it to Coney Island around mile 83 or so (after spending a little more time getting lost). Coney Island was great, but again, in the dark, it is hard to navigate. We wound up getting very lost again. We went to the end of the boardwalk when we shouldn’t have. We had to backtrack several times and ask quite a few people for directions. The confusion was taking it’s toll. I felt like if I got lost one more time, I might quit. Not because I couldn’t go on physically, it was the mental breakdown. Luckily a pacer, who was trying to find his runner, came upon us and asked us how we were doing. We told him we were lost and if he could help us find the aid station. He actually took the time to personally escort us to the aid station. I wished I could have thanked him adequately for the help at the time. I don’t even remember his name. I was just so grateful to find the aid station.

While we were at the aid station we met some runners from Germany and their pacers. We decided to stick with them so that we wouldn’t get lost again. Unfortunately they were walking. It’s hard to walk when you know you can still run but we had to weigh that against running and getting lost again. We stayed with them for quite awhile until we came upon Chad. Chad spoke English (which the German people could but not really well) and he told us the way to go. It didn’t seem that hard. So hoping for the best we left the group and started running again. We pretty much followed the Belt Pkwy until we hit Leif Ericson Park which was only 9 miles from the finish. Stopped for a few minutes and Chad caught up with us. I left the aid station, thinking David was right behind me, but I got a few hundred metres and realized I was alone. I looked back, and in the distance I saw Chad and David walking. I figured that David was wanting to be social (to be honest, I’m not great company after 50 miles – I just get into my head a little too much). So I continued running, following the arrows was much easier in the daylight. Now I was in Brooklyn and knew that the Brooklyn Bridge was only 5 miles from the finish. Not much to note at this point, only noticed that there were a lot of stray cats in Brooklyn curiously watching me run along the street.

I kept running until the Brooklyn Bridge, slowly making my way up. I watched early morning runners passing me. I wished I could tell them, “I’m not normally this awkward looking, I actually look not bad considering I’ve been moving for 95 miles” but I didn’t. I looked behind me and low and behold, David was behind me. We got together after the bridge and made our way to the finish. The last 4 miles were on busy streets and we managed to get lost (yet again) but only a few minute lost – not Coney Island lost. Through the traffic and the pedestrians, David and I got separated again. I knew we were both on the right street – so I continued on to the finish.

When I finally got there, the RDs were there along with a few pacers and supporters. Lots of cheering and high fives. You would have thought I had won with the warm reception I got. It’s always nice when an RD gives a sweaty runner a hug after running for that length of time. David came in a few minutes after me. We got our belt buckles and had to walk to the RD’s hotel room to get our drop bags.

Stats, I came in at 26 hours and 23 minutes, 8th female across and 29th place overall. I was so happy that I hadn’t thrown up once and only had a few blisters to note. I was pleased with how the whole thing went, although I wished I hadn’t gotten lost so much. I got to experience New York in a unique way that really was a once in a lifetime experience. 

The best finish line ever! No gantry. No bells. No whistles. Just a chalk line.
Took the subway back, got a passport picture taken and filled out the passport papers. David had a shower, something to eat, napped for a little and then went off to his flight back. Sean was doing well. He certainly wasn’t moving like someone who had run so far. I guess while he was waiting for us at the aid station, he sat too long and when he got up, he and another guy pretty much fell into each other. 

Monday morning and afternoon was spent at the consulate getting my information in order. I had to rebook a flight for Tuesday. I got my new temporary passport at 5:00 pm on Monday and was clear to fly. My flight didn’t leave until late Tuesday afternoon so on Tuesday morning, Sean took me sightseeing again. Saw the Highline, Union Square, the Flat Iron, Chelsea market and ate the best vegan sushi I had ever tasted. Both Sean and his wife Becky were so wonderful – they never once made me feel like I was an imposition for staying longer (and they didn’t know how long it would take for me to get my passport), I really can’t thank them enough. Getting into the taxi to get to the airport was hard. I really wanted to stay and explore more. However, I guess it is better to leave wanting more than to stay too long and wish you were home. I really can’t wait to go back again.