Friday, March 21, 2014

Race Across the USA (RAUSA)

I am pleased to announce that last week, I was honored with acceptance onto the Core Team of athletes participating in the inaugural Race Across the USA (RAUSA), a 3000-mile journey from California to Maryland across the mid-drift of the American Heartland. These ten runners will be racing to the nation’s Capital with several goals in mind, “but the primary one,” as the RAUSA site explains, “is to raise awareness about the childhood ‘inactivity’ epidemic. According to the CDC, childhood obesity has more than doubled in children and tripled in adolescents in the past 30 years. At the present time, 18% (or almost one in five) children, aged 6-19 in the United States, are obese.” So, the RAUSA is a charity run –and the specific charity is the 100 Mile Club®.

The 100 Mile Club® is a non-profit 501(3)c organization designed to provide “a low-cost solution to ‘inactivity.’ Kids are challenged to run (or walk) 100 miles in a school year.” In most American school districts, there are approximately 170 days each year. This would require each child to walk/run less than a mile per day to reach their goal. The program costs only $10 per student a year to fund and the secondary aim of the RAUSA is to raise funds for those families who cannot afford the cost of the program.

The RAUSA traverses 3000 miles from January 16th to June 2nd of 2015. It begins at the Pacific beaches of California, and heads almost due east across Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina & Virginia to pause at the White House, and then terminate at the Atlantic Coast of Maryland. The trek will last 140 days, and will average around a marathon (26.2 miles) per day for the entire journey.

I wrote a piece on transcontinental runs back in the Spring of last year (05/30/13). I find it ironic and humbling to be able to participate in such an undertaking. Here is a brief excerpt from that article:

It is a little-known fact that before modern-day ultra-marathon runner Dean Karnazes completed a solo crossing of the US, men from all walks of life made it from Los Angeles, California to New York City, NY, nearly 85 years before him. Dean’s route virtually mirrored that established by race organizer C.C. Pyle, the brains and finances behind the first transcontinental race in America.

March 4th, 1928 saw nearly 200 men line up to begin what would become an 84-day footrace covering roughly 3400 miles. The race began in Los Angeles, with contestants from Canada, Estonia, Finland, Great Britain, Germany, Italy and the United States. The cost of admission was a hefty $125, but supposedly included square meals, lodging and incidentals along the way. The route followed Historic Route 66 from LA to Chicago, and then veered east to NYC. Most of Route 66 was still a patchwork of urban pavement with long expanses of dirt, mud and holes in between towns. By the end of the Mohave crossing the first week, the 199 starters had already dwindled to around 130.

This RAUSA follows the historic Bunion Derby route until the halfway point around Dallas TX. From there, it stays east as opposed to veering north to Chicago.

In addition to a registration fee, there is a fundraising minimum of an additional $2000. Anyone interested in running a few miles with me while I cross your state, contributing to the 100 Mile Club® fundraising goal, or simply wanting more information, please contact me ( or check out the race site (
The Graveyard 100: Race Recap

Many people say that after the first time, anything becomes easier. Unfortunately, that isn’t always the case in ultra-marathon. After my first successful one hundred miler last February, I refrained from competing for the full five weeks leading up to the Graveyard 100. This North Carolina race is located on the Outer Banks, and spans from Currituck Lighthouse to the Ferry at the southern tip of Cape Hatteras. It is ‘rated,’ as all ultra-events are, by its difficulty of grade and surface. GY100 ranks a meager ‘1’ on the difficulty scale, meaning it should be easy. The race director took great pains to ensure no one left that course feeling cheated out of a challenge.

Brandon Wilson, of RacENC, designed the course and implemented the inaugural GY100 four years ago. I actually remember reading a newspaper article about him trying to plan this race way back in 2010. Brandon is a former Marine, Ultra-runner, and one of those folks that truly takes pride in ripping out feats that folks just didn’t know they had within them. He designed this all paved, point-to-point course with one goal in mind –to make the easiest rated course the most difficult to complete. Here is how he did it.

First, he chose a string of islands connected by bridges in the Atlantic Ocean. Wind, storms, heat, sand and flooding all occur there (sometimes simultaneously) in the early Spring. The 2013 race had so much flooding that the course had to be modified to a shorter out-and-back format with much of the pavement being under water. Fortunately for those of us this year, only a few areas were completely submerged. For those of you unfamiliar with the terrain of the OBX, here is a quick synopsis. The first 50 miles of the course was primarily residential beach houses with the ocean to our left. Upon hitting the ‘halfway bridge,’ the road was quite literally flanked by about 250-500 meters of sand dunes on either side, with ocean to the left, the sound to the right, and nothing else but wind ahead.

Although a liberal 30 hour cutoff for the race in total, the first half had to be completed in a mere 12 hours. This is a pretty aggressive 100-mile pace for many. There were many water points (most unmanned) to refill water and electrolytes, but only four true Aid Stations with food, medical, supplies, established bathrooms, etc. Some of the water stops had port-o-potties, but the storm leading up to the race had tipped close to half of them over. The storm, in fact, deterred many from even coming out to start the race. Once you hit the bridge by the cutoff, you had at least 18 hours to finish up the GY100’s final 50 miles.

The desolation of the second half was brutal. Waxing fatigue, ongoing nutritional challenges and a waning mental clarity all were augmented by a strong headwind, absolute darkness and a biting cold. Many runners ran without pacers or a crew. I commend their efforts –I relied heavily on mine. Since I am trying to complete four 100-mile races in four months, I am not pushing these races hard. On the contrary, even as a new PR for me, I was in the last few finishing. When compared to Rocky Raccoon last month, this race ranked a 4/5 in mental toughness, even though only a 1/5 in physical toll. Rocky was a 2/5 and 3/5 respectively. I believe Brandon said it best when he warned all of us to discount the rating and “Respect the course.”
Rocky Raccoon 100M

First of all, I want to thank everyone that sent me well-wishes on my second attempt at the Rocky Raccoon 100-mile Endurance run February 1st. It was indeed a success, and now the first of four successive one-mile runs is down. More importantly, though, was what the completion showed.

My last quarter of 2013 was ripe with injury, sickness and misfortune –at least in the training sense. I was unable to get in the prerequisite training miles required to complete a one hundred mile footrace. Or so I thought. For three years, I firmly believed the mantra of the ‘hunnerd miler.’ It is a simple, and time-honored premise. To run a 100-mile race, one must average a bare-bones minimum of one hundred miles cumulatively each week for several weeks before the taper period of the event. I always believed this basic rule of thumb.

Unfortunately, I could not follow this training plan. Time and health prevented me from breaking 30 miles each week, much less a hundred. So what I did was increase my cross-training ten-fold, and really pushed specific run drills for the miles I did run. Instead of a long slow twenty miles, I would do 2 miles of speed intervals followed by 3 miles of hill repeats. I did one day per week of fast-packing with 20-30 pounds and did close to 20 hours of weight-training, plyometrics and bootcamp-style workouts.

Although wary going back to a previously failed race, I felt better physically than I had in six months. I started at a moderate clip, and used a terrain-based run-walk for the first 40 miles. Then I went into a fast power-walk for the last 60. I could feel the residual strength from the targeted run and fast-pack training immediately, but the true payoff was the cross-training classes for core, upper body and leg development. I finished faster than expected and was running again in less than 48 hours.

So I argue that there is another path to distance. If you have the health, the time and the will to get in your 100 miles a week, I have seen the system work time and again. But if you find yourself having to balance life, work and a race deadline, targeted runs and cross-training might be the thing that gets you over the hurdle.

You’ve all heard it. Every seasoned ultra-runner says it. 6-time Olympic running coach Bobby McGee has written copious amounts on it. It, of course, is the mental aspect of running. Little more matters during those low points of an ultra.

No matter to which training philosophy you subscribe, the power of the mind will direct the actions of the body. Last week, I discussed the different approaches to training for endurance events. Neither amount to much unless you’ve conditioned the mind for those 12, 24, 48 or more hours of constant, grueling forward progression. Your legs are only as fresh as your mind allows you to believe. Even a short-term wavering of will can be catastrophic. A decision to drop is instantaneous and irreversible.

Bobby McGee trains athletes to mentally prepare for races. One of his many lessons is to (if possible) simulate or run the actual course beforehand. Try to acclimate to possible weather, altitude, terrain and other factors in your training. This does condition the body; but more importantly, it gives a relaxed familiarity leading up to the event. A great example would be hosting an event at Kiwanis and the Endor trail (CARA, anyone?). Having a home court advantage makes all the difference mentally.

During Rocky Raccoon, I went in determined. It was a “vindication” race. I had failed this mild course once due to a wavering mental state. By identifying that weakness and spending months overcoming it, I had little chance of failure. I did, however, start to hit the “dark moments” around 88 miles, as the temperature dropped 35 degrees and it began to pour rain. In fact, this RR100 had the lowest completion rate (57%) of its 22 year existence. Most folks dropped early from the high temps and humidity or at the end when the deluge began.

The key is simply this –You will conquer any event you truly want to complete. Stay mentally strong, either through simulation training or a hard-as-nails pacer that when keep you moving against your shattered will. It really is all mental. Training is essential, but the mind determines the only outcome that matters. Will you leave with blisters, bruises and depression, or blisters, bruises and a buckle? Your body is going to be battered either way, so why quit without the prize?

In mid-January, I was asked if I would be interested in going to Japan as an “Ambassador-runner.” San Antonio has a sister-city program harkening back to the Eisenhower Presidency, and Kumamoto is one of those nine locations (to include Monterrey & Guadalajara, Mexico; Las Palmas & Santa Cruz de Tenerife, Canary Islands, Spain; Gwangju, South Korea; Kaohsiung, Taiwan; Chennai, India; and Wuxi, China). With Iceland now six months past, and only domestic races on the foreseeable horizon, I immediately agreed to be a part of the program. This was the single-best decision I have made.
Ten days before departure, I met with the City of San Antonio’s International Relations staff. I was a bit anxious upon my arrival, as all contact had been through email and phone calls. I wasn’t sure the City of San Antonio realized that their single representative was a tattooed and kilted man sporting an 8-inch Van Dyke goatee. I felt like a pirate –until I was greeted with enthusiasm and an unmatched generosity. This office put me completely at ease. They outlined the program, presented their expectations and even provided materials to help me transition into the social and cultural aspects of Japan. In fact, their primary aim was for me to be myself, have a great time and simply “enjoy Kumamoto.”
With only four days before departure, I experienced the difficulties in changing dollars to Yen. The exchange rate is roughly 1 to 100. For example, 50000 Yen is $500, give or take. The problem is that it is rare for someone to stroll into a San Antonio Wells Fargo and order 50000 Yen. We had to add a rush from a sister branch, and with a looming snowstorm, it still was touch and go whether or not I’d have any spending money for this trip. Fortunately, I got my 50K Yen the day before my flight.
The City of Kumamoto was covering every expense once I hit the ground in Japan. The marathon, hotel, meals and most entertainment was comped as part of the sister-city exchange program. I was required to cover the transportation to and from Japan, and any souvenirs, extra snacks and coffee, incidentals, etc. I could not believe I was the only one (of five available slots) to pounce on this opportunity. Wednesday morning, at 4:00AM, I began a 21-hour flight that hopped from San Antonio to Houston, then crossed the Pacific to Tokyo, Osaka and finally, Kumamoto airport.
I was greeted by a charming young lady holding a CHRIS KNODEL sign in the baggage claim area. It was Misaki Tateo, the project manager for SA-Kumamoto Programs (International Affairs Office), City Promotion Section –Tourism, Culture & Exchange Bureau. She got me to the Kumamoto Hotel Castle, by way of an orange juice and rice ball purchased at a local 7-11 convenience store. She, along with my Canadian interpreter (and Coordinator for International Relations, Cultural & International Affairs Section) Ciaran Dudley, would be my guides throughout this journey.
Following a traditional Japanese breakfast, I linked up with Misaki and Ciaran. My exposure to Japan truly began; and to be perfectly honest –I will never be the same again. This trip literally altered my projected course. I have raised my expectations of what life can provide. I feel that this chapter ended an era, and fostered a new path.

Day one was a cultural whirlwind. Like San Antonio, Kumamoto has many sister cities (to include runners from Aix-en-Province, France; Heidelberg, Germany; Kaohsiung, Taiwan; Ulsan, South Korea; Suzhou & Shanghai, China). Most of my interaction was with three German runners and the delegate from France. We toured the Kumamoto Castle, visited the Suizenji Garden and actually got to tour the Lafcadia Hearn residence museum. We grabbed a Soba noodle lunch and even had a traditional Matcha Green Tea at the Garden. Everything was beautiful, simple and ritualistic. For an OCD, type-A personality that follows a structured day bordering on uber-discipline –this was a place of perfection.
The first day ended with a fourteen course meal that ranged from various soups, vegetables, seafood, chicken, noodles, tofu and rice. The Japanese incorporate the full spectrum of food colors into every meal, thus insuring that every essential vitamin and mineral is represented. Flavors lean towards bitter (vinegar) and salty over sweet and the sours. The exception to the lack of sweet flavors is in the alcohol. I tried a bit of plum wine that made the sweetest Rieslings and European dessert wines taste bland. Dinner was fabulous, and the conversation with my hosts was both enlightening and filled with laughter.
Day two began with the Hosokawa Mansion, the residential estate of one of the Shogun’s Feudal Lords. Ornate clay tiles adorn a traditional rice paper walled structure. The low beams and intentionally squeaky floorboards (Nightingale Floors) served as defense mechanisms. The labyrinthine floor plan surrounded various gardens. The mansion is truly a sight to behold. Everything was an example of the purest simplicity and minimalism. From there, we saw the Kumamoto Fujisakidai Baseball Grounds, various Buddhist Temples and Shinto Shrines. Finally, as afternoon brought us closer to the Marathon Exposition and Banquet dinner, we went to the Wakuwaku Za Culture Museum.
The marathon exposition was in the center of one of Kumamoto’s expansive shopping arcades. The entire city was adorned in flags, flyers and banners advertising the event. Remember, the Kumamoto Castle Marathon is put on by the City of Kumamoto, not a corporate entity. This event is part of the city’s civic pride, and although only in its second year, has grown to over 13500 participants –which is comparable in magnitude to the Walt Disney races. And not unlike Disney, the City has created an iconic figure that has become one of the most recognized figures in Japan. Kumamon was born in 2010, and has come to represent Kumamoto City. This black bear with round rosy cheeks is a fan-favorite, and is everywhere you look –city busses, bathrooms, building murals, pamphlets, store windows and restaurants. At least in Kumamoto, Kumamon reigns supreme.
Day two ended with the pre-race banquet, a very formal affair where the sister city delegates were presented to the public. In addition, the mayor of Kumamoto met with each of us to wish us luck at the marathon. Mayor Seishi Kohyama is a runner himself, and actually was gearing up to complete his first marathon along with us (I am proud to report that he did, in an impressive time of around 4:30). At the banquet’s close, after the speeches, presentations and an impressive display of samurai skills from an entertainment troupe, we were all pleased to see Kumamon take the stage. At the prodding of the French runner, I joined him onstage to dance with the iconic bear. He apparently has a much choreographed routine not unlike the Margarina –but more animated. So, Kumamon, the Frenchman and the kilted Texan flailed around wildly to the delight of all present before returning to the final sleep before the marathon. So far, so good…

The race began at 9:02AM. But before we were to line up at the start, we headed to the Town Hall to meet with the mayor a final time. Logistically, this complicated things for those runners that followed a strict (and often superstitious) pre-race routine. Luckily, I am not one of those. I am very superstitious –I just am a bit more malleable in my pre-race preparation. I believe I will not race well without my goatee (or Samsonite, as it has been dubbed). I wear an Aztec Axe blade totem for strength. I cover the Ironman tattoo with a compression sleeve during runs and the opposite with doing multisport events. I also will not begin a run without the prerequisite pot of coffee. Other than that, I’m pretty easy.
The mayor greeted us, pumped us up for the run and we made our way down to the start. Although I had made sure that the directors knew that I would not be doing this marathon quickly, they had me in the starting corral next to last year’s winner. The Germans were there to compete, and were shooting for sub-3:00 hour times. I was hoping for a 5:00-5:30 finish just coming off of the Rocky Raccoon 100. At 9:00, the 30K runners began. At 9:02, our gun went off. The race was on.
I saw the projected winners and the Germans take off. I moved a bit to the side of the road, and although severely congested for the first five miles, stayed out of everyone’s way. What surprised me was how many spectators there were. I found out afterwards that over 100000 people lined the course during the event. There literally were no breaks in this wall of people cheering us on. As the field thinned, I moved to the left side of the road and began high-fiving the spectators that were pointing to me and holding out their hands. My arm remained up and out for the remainder of the 21 miles. I have never been rallied that much before. The energy literally charged me throughout the event. Women would run out from the houses with baskets of dumplings and cherry tomatoes. Every two miles presented more aid, water and restroom facilities. I had never been in an event this stocked, well run or logistically orchestrated.
Two stretches of the course were trying. The first was a midway section of around 6-7 miles that I have dubbed the “death corridor.” This linear out and back was fully visible in its entirety, and with the rising artic cross-winds was a bit demoralizing as a midway point. The second harsh area was the final two kilometers. As an impregnable fortress, the castle is on the highest point in Kumamoto. This meant that the finish was virtually straight up a strategic embankment. Mentally, this was very difficult. Many runners just broke into a walk and crossed the mat panting. I managed to maintain an increasing speed that resulted in a finishing sprint. But there was nothing left after that. 
Unfortunately, having my Garmin hand out ‘High-Five-ing’ the entire race made me unaware of my running pace. Instead of the 5:30 I was aiming for, I ended up finishing in 4:15 –a full 1:15 faster than I should have. Shortly behind me, the mayor had a strong finish and a hearty welcome. The Kumamoto Castle grounds had Bento boxes, live bands and a huge picnic area for runners and spectators. The medal was very classy, and results printed out on a collector’s certificate that came with a small frame. The finishers received a full-sized towel and great shirt. I really could not offer much in the way of improving this venue.
We celebrated at a traditional Chinese restaurant and dined together a final time. Now that the marathon was over, the sister-city delegates were going in different directions. I was heading to Aso, Japan, with the Chinese, while the Germans and the Frenchman were heading to other venues. It was a dinner filled with laughter and tidings, but you could feel the sadness of parting. I slept hard and awoke for my final day in Japan.

Ciaran remained with me while the other runner-delegates headed out to their final destinations. I was going to see the fabled Mount Aso –the largest live volcano on the island. During the marathon, the volcano had erupted, so we were told that there might be some restrictions on how close we could approach. Normally, one could go right up to the crater’s edge and look down into the lake within. On the way, we stopped by the natural spring responsible for Kumamoto’s crystal waters and the resulting United Nations award for water purity.
The spring is purified by geothermic activity as it bubbles up through its natural ‘charcoal filter.’ On the grounds is a Shinto Water Shrine. Ciaran led me through the ritualistic ‘Bow and Clap’, a prayer ceremony, and gave me some background history on the differences between shrines and temples. Shrines are for the Shinto gods; Temples are Buddhist. They often look the same, and many have become a fusion of the two beliefs. Whether at a shrine or temple, one can purchase a prayer and loosely tie it to a prayer alter. The wind carries the prayer away –and at that point it will become granted.
After the natural spring, we stopped at a Japanese Kebab Restaurant. Of all the traditional meals I had in Japan, this one really transported me back in time. I could have been in the year 1600. Through the rice paper screens, snow was falling on plum blossoms. The mountains in the distance were misty, with gnarled trees and purple tops. I sat beside a raised charcoal pit. Before me, were five skewers cooking slowly. The first had pear-shaped potatoes covered in a thick dark sauce. The next two were vegetable skewers with peppers and mushrooms. The forth had a thick tofu brick blackened to a crispy shell. Last, was the fish. Now those of you that know me, know this. I have never feared death by fire or flood. My darkest fear is a simple one. I am petrified of fish bone choking. Immediately before me was my darkest fear, and the second the drops of water cease dripping from the open mouth, it would be ready for consumption. I stared at the fish; the fish stared back. Drip. Drip. The drops were slowing. Drip. And suddenly, the matron of the house handed me a skewer with a complete fish –all scales, teeth, fins and tail intact. 
I was with the Chinese delegation for the day. I decided to watch them and see how they attacked this delicacy. To my horror, a beautiful and tiny Chinese woman grabbed the fish in her hand and bit the head right off. She gnashed and ground it into submission, and then simply swallowed it down. It looked simple enough, but you know how fear works. I lightly nibbled at the side and chewed that piece for around five minutes. As my confidence grew, I started working my way from tail to head, but that’s where I drew the line. I stopped at the gills and moved on to the bowl of rice. My fear was conquered –one fish down.
We headed to Mount Aso, and as we suspected, the mountain had been closed. The snow was falling harder, but we got to see the outline of the rising sulfur cloud cutting through the dancing flakes. It truly was majestic –even at this distance. From there I headed to the Kumamoto Airport. My flight this time went to Tokyo, then Los Angeles to San Antonio. Within 24 hours, I was back home with Kristine.
The take-home message is this. Go to Japan. I have never respected a culture like I do the Japanese. I have rarely felt at home in any societal setting –but I never felt out of place there. I will return whenever I can, and hope to spend much time within their borders.