North Pole Marathon

April 9 15, 2018

This was a big experience.  There’s a reason so many people who run this race wind up self-publishing a book about it.  I thought I’d do my write-up this time as a FAQ, to try and organize my scattered thoughts.  Most of these are actual questions that friends and co-workers have asked me.  Can you guess which ones aren’t?  Book may or may not be forthcoming 😉

Frequently Asked Questions

Q: How cold was it?

At the time the race was run, the temperature was around -30 to -35 degrees C (-22 to -31 F).   We had great weather – bright, clear and calm – which I think was a major factor in the director’s decision to start the race at 10:30 PM, just a short time after the final group arrived at Camp Barneo.   The horizon did start to haze up the following morning as the rear guard were still out on the course, and clouded over later.  Overall, I think we had much better conditions than they did at this year’s Boston Marathon, when you take into consideration how the runners had dressed in anticipation for the day.

Q: Was the race really at the North Pole?

The start line was 89°34’00″N, 91°44’31″E, roughly 30 miles from the geographic North Pole.  The camp drifts with the ice.  After the marathon everyone took helicopters to the Pole.  There’s no permanent marker, so we brought along one provided by the Camp for photo ops.

Q: What was the course like?

The course was a ~2.6-mile loop run on the sea ice, with an opportunity to step into the mess tent to warm up at the end of each loop.  Think ice floes are flat?  They’re frozen undulating ocean, the troughs filled with dry, incredibly fine white powder, and pressure ridges forcing blue blocks of ice into low walls piled with snow.  A short portion of the loop ran down the airstrip, where the snow had been scraped away by bulldozers and the ice leveled to make landing of the flight from Svalbard possible. 

Q: How did you train? Did you train for the cold?

Obviously there’s not a lot of opportunity for training in the snow in southern Arizona.  Among my takeaways from the Antarctic Ice Marathon was that running on snow – the uneven, unpredictable terrain sliding in random directions underfoot without warning – required the same kind of alertness and skill set as trail running the crumbling granite hills around Phoenix.  And the same tired muscles in weird places afterwards!  I signed up for Aravaipa’s DRT trail racing series, including their Evolution Pass, while doing the occasional training run out at Pass Mountain and grinding out most of my training miles on the local roads.

Some people from warm climates, like a South African couple at this year’s race, trained for the cold by renting a deep freeze and putting a treadmill inside.  I neglected to ask them afterwards whether it helped.  In my experience it’s psychological rather than physical; at temperatures that low the cold feels more like pain than cold, and it’s weird to have ice crystals on your eyelashes and snot freeze in your nose.  If you’re properly dressed the temperature won’t be a dealbreaker.

Q: How did you dress?

  • Feet:
    • Hoka One One Stinson trail shoes,
    • thick alpaca socks with thin silk sock liners. 
    • Also chemical toe warmers that didn’t work.
  • Lower half:
    • Base Layer: Winter-weight running tights,
    • Thermal layer: midweight fleece pants,
    • Wind shell: Eddie Bauer Duraweave Alpine pants (serious heavy-duty gear that I had to cut down for length and “hem” using duct tape that mostly held for the duration of the race.)
  • Torso:
    • Base layer: InkNBurn pullover (heavyweight technical shirt),
    • Thermal: Midweight fleece pullover,
    • Wind shell: Land’s end waterproof jacket
  • Head:
    • Buff, later swapped out for a thin balaclava and my Untraced breath mask,
    • Oakley A-frame goggles,
    • alpaca hat with earflaps
  • Hands:
    • Dakine thermal mittens (without liners)
    • Chemical handwarmers

The “serious” runners seemed to have fewer layers down below, and probably more technical kit.  Many people taped their faces, in particular their noses, to stave off frostbite.  I was fine without, but I did stop and get warmed up in the mess tent almost every loop.

What I wished I’d had was a pair of down-filled trousers to wear while not racing.  I couldn’t find any locally, it got down to the wire, and I thought “eh, I’ll be OK!”  But I would’ve been a lot more comfortable with them, especially when we wound up spending more time on the ice than scheduled.

Q: What kind of other supplies did you need?

Barneo Camp provides packet coffee, tea, hot chocolate and cookies 24/7, and basic meals at set times, so in addition to any performance drinks or goodies you need during the race, it’s good to bring some extra food, which you can easily buy at the supermarket in Longyearbyen.  Because of the “odd” start time, I wound up slurping a cup-o-soup (pot noodle) right before the start.  During the race I had a hot drink at every loop, and dipped into the bag of dates I bought in Longyearbyen.  I also ate the two Mojo bars I brought from home.  Not touched: the GUs and Sports Beans – I needed stuff with substance.

USB batteries to recharge my electronics probably wasn’t needed, but I felt better having them topped off.

Q: Is there anything else you didn’t bring that wished you had brought?

Yes!  iPod, toothbrush/toothpaste, bottled water (the water at Barneo is hot, melted seawater -slightly salty.  Bottled fresh water is available for sale, also a limited selection of booze at a markup – you’re paying for location.)

When the word came down to be ready in the morning, it was a mad last-minute scramble to decide what went in the bag and what stayed behind in the hotel. 

Q: How long does it take to get there?

Overnight from North America to Oslo.  I took the short flight from Oslo to Longyearbyen the next day.  The flight from Longyearbyen to Barneo by private plane is roughly 2-1/2 hours.

Of course, this is the Arctic, a place where shite still happens. A single AN-74 is shuttling the entire marathon field, along with various expeditions, tourists, and Guinness World Record aspirants between Svalbard and the Pole.  A delay on the outbound departure leads to a crowd of restless runners snarking in the lobby of the Radisson Blu for hours.  Our flight back to Longyearbyen was delayed over 24 hours when a metre-wide crack appeared across the runway, revealing the ocean below.  “You get an extra night at the North Pole – for free!”

Q: Did you see the Northern Lights?

No, in April it’s broad daylight the entire time.  Even in Longyearbyen the sun was only below the horizon for a couple hours, so it never got dark.

Q: Was it a high-altitude race?

No, it’s on the sea ice, so basically sea level plus a few feet.

Q: Did you see Santa’s Workshop?

No, nobody gets in there.  Santa’s Workshop is locked down like Area 51.


North Pole Playlist on YouTube


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Isn’t It Good?

Preparing for the North Pole Marathon

Holy cats, only three weeks left until the day I’ve been planning for since I first got home from the Antarctic Ice Marathon over three years ago!  I’m going through my gear checklist, making some last minute purchases, and feeling stiff and sore from my exertions this weekend.

I spent Saturday romping around the White Tanks pursuing my first ultramarathon goal, which alas eluded me.  Mesquite Canyon 50K – last spring I raced the 30K distance and vividly remember scrambling up the near vertical two miles of Goat Camp while the 50K and 50 milers rained down on me from above.  It was my turn to scramble down this year.  At Black Canyon aid station they said I looked out of it, came in bent over way to the left, and made me sit down for a rest.  I’d been feeling pretty good before the descent and so thought that once I got back up over the top I’d be fine.  Filled up with water and sent off with a pocket full of dates, I swore and cried the two miles back up Goat Camp and finally won over the top to a magnificent view of the cotton fields of the West Valley.

Over the next few miles I turned the decision over in my head, listening to my body and trying to decide whether I was making excuses or making a rational judgement call.  If the ascent to Ford Canyon was anything like Goat Camp – and my memory of the course’s elevation profile said it was – then I didn’t have enough left in the tank to tackle that last nine miles.  When I reached Mesquite aid station circa 22 miles it was well after the cutoff, but I’d effectively scrubbed the race well before.  From Mesquite it was another two miles out to the nearest aid station where I could catch a ride to the start/finish area and my car.

So, while I was disappointed that I didn’t earn a finisher’s glass and an Evolution Pass series medal, I did manage to get my long run in, and a full-body workout as well!  That night at the Symphony I kept nodding off during Tchaikovsky’s 5th; fortunately I’d booked a hotel room across the street as a treat.

Sunday I dragged out my Mom’s old blue cardboard suitcase that I stored my Antarctic gear in and tried it on for size.  I’ve gained some inches in the butt area and needed to get a new pair of wind shell pants in a larger size – I want to be able to move, after all!  Although the middle layer fleece pants still fit tolerably, I decided to get and alternate pair to wear pre- and post-race and have available as a swap during the marathon.  In Antarctica I hadn’t planned on using the fleece bottom layer during the race, but found I needed it.  There I’d been able to rent down-filled pants for my non-race wear from ALE, which won’t be available in Longyearbyen.  Fortunately Eddie Bauer still makes the same fleece pant and wind shell, and their website is having a smokin’ sale without which I would probably have a heart attack over the price of the latter.  Better than freezing my buns off, I suppose.

Goggles – yes, replaced those after leaving them on a shelf in the dining hut at Union Glacier.  Hey, I was tired!  Also drunk.  Surprisingly I have three complete sets of long johns, so I’m all set in that area.  Sufficient hats and gloves and still have my Untraced face mask.  Need to check my supplies of handwarmers/footwarmers and motion sickness tabs.

Finally, I have been attempting to learn a bit of the local language, despite leaving this a bit too late as usual.  So far I have mastered, in Norwegian: “I don’t understand Norwegian.”

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I bless the rains

Note: In July 2017, I completed my quest for a marathon on each of the seven continents, when I completed the Amazing Maasai Marathon as part of a Marathon Tours package.  In all, I spent three weeks in Kenya and Tanzania, including a stay in the Maasai Mara at the beginning of the Great Migration, and a climb to the top of Kilimanjaro.  It was a very rich experience, and I’ve only just now gotten around to the marathon writeup.  Enjoy!

The Amazing Maasai Marathon, Laikipia, Kenya

July 25, 2017

“Who’s going to see the blind rhino?”

Two hours plus a steady flow of Tusker beer and local Kenyan merlot have whipped conversation up to a volume rivalling the rain pelting down outside the vinyl tent walls surrounding the patio.  The race briefing won’t be happening tonight.

Just a few days earlier, I’d been puffing up the hill behind Aberdare Country Club, our small group of runners leaving the golf course and colonial brick buildings behind, up into the forest where waterbucks came springing out of the brush and across the trail before the startled frontrunners, until the bush opened out into a plain populated by giraffes, zebras, elands, gazelles…. In my head, at the base of my brain, a voice said, this is the reason you run, this is where your ancestors took to two feet, this is the most human thing in the world.  After Aberdare, we’d spent several days at Sweetwaters, a luxury tented camp overlooking a watering hole.  Mornings before breakfast and in between game drives clumps of runners paced the perimeter just inside the electric fence, spurring the occasional grazing ungulate to spring back over it.

This reception, at the lonely Morani’s Cafe in the middle of the Ol Pejeta preserve, comes at the end of game drive at the end of a long day.  The rain has blessed the restaurant grounds with a flood.  As the evening winds up, we’re led out the back way to our land rovers.

Next morning the Marathon Tours group, 20-odd runners, pack up our luggage and we all pile back into our utes to head out to the marathon camp.  In east Africa it’s customary for the six-lane divided highways to be punctuated with speed bumps that bring traffic from a sprint to a crawl.  At each bump entrepreneurs can be found selling everything from bottled water to pineapples.  However, we opt for a Western-style supermarket for last-minute supplies – peanut butter, bottled water, birthday cake – before heading off to Kimanjo Secondary School in rural Laikipia County.

The funds raised by the Amazing Maasai Marathon go towards high school scholarships for young Maasai girls whose families couldn’t afford school fees and would otherwise go directly from primary school to marriage and childbearing.  In addition to further education, simply having the extra few years to grow up can have a dramatic effect on their quality of life.

The school consists of several one-storey buildings in a landscape that looks quite a bit like the Sonoran Desert, minus the saguaros.  We’re invited into the cafeteria for a tasty lunch of githeri, a local bean-and-corn stew.  (Most of the food we’ve seen at our hotels & safari camp has been Western or South Asian.)  The girls sing their school song for us in wonderful harmony; then the scholarship girls give a short speech about their favorite subject or career goals.  After lunch there’s free time to walk the grounds.  This is a co-ed campus; the boys are compelled to stay in class while the older girls walk the visitors around, but there’s not much instruction going on as the attraction of the lesson plan wanes in favor of watching, and showing off to, the foreign visitors and our cameras.  There are several classrooms, a science lab, a library so far devoid of books, and a vegetable garden where they’re using some familiar xeriscape tricks like the sawed-off upside-down soda bottle for irrigation.

All the non-local runners stay in the marathon camp the night before.  The two-person tents line the bank of a deep and dry river, with small toilet and shower tents behind each, basically a rustic version of our tented camp at Sweetwaters.  Around bonfires in the river bed that night we finally get our race briefing: the elephants that were in the area earlier have been shooed off into the valley, so we don’t have to worry about them on the course.  That’s always good to hear.

Next morning we’re driven to the start line in the middle of a dirt airstrip.  A crowd of locals have already gathered, most of them schoolkids here to run the 10K.  And since you’re probably wondering this, no, we’re not running alongside any of those elite Kenyan runners you’ve heard so much about (and seen immortalized on T-shirts, bumper stickers….)

The first mile or two of the course is what I call a “stealth hill”, a gradual uphill grade that looks flat.  My favorite.  Not.  At the first water station I stop to stretch out my already-wooden calves, and the lady in charge provides me a calf massage before sending me on my way!  Overall the course is undulating but not horribly technical.  The path/road is the one used by the locals on a daily basis, and weaves among family compounds where children rush out to grab the hands of passing runners, and hillsides scattered with goats.  Although I brought my hydration pack, there are plenty of water stations along the way, manned by people in traditional Maasai garb, and by soldiers with rifles to scare off the wild animals that never make an appearance.  The closest we come to elephants is a group of camels that wanders across the airstrip as I’m coming around to close up my first loop.  The half marathoners, who have all finished, cheer encouragement as I go past.

In what seems to be becoming a pattern this year, I run out of steam soon into the second loop.  The day is getting warmer, and the altitude – although everyone in the Marathon Tours group has had a week to adjust – is also getting to me.  A Maasai gentleman greets me, clasps my hand, and wants a closer look at my hawk tattoo.  There’s a little double-back at the top of the hill, where I can look back and see that there are two runners behind me as I drag my sorry butt along.  (This turns out to be my big-hearted tentmate Nissi and an injured runner she chose to walk with.)

So here’s where I need to discuss something unfortunate.  Apparently, in previous years some runners or other tourists handed out sweets to the children along the route.  People, F*CKING DO NOT go to foreign countries and give candy to strangers’ kids!  Their parents don’t want them begging from strangers, and it is not the least bit cute to be struggling along at Mile 20 with little fingers prying into your pack and little voices pleading for chocolate like some kind of Bizarro World* aid station!  End of rant.

It’s a long slog up the airstrip to the finish line, but somehow I manage a leap into the air, nearly catching the race organizer / photographer off guard.  A cute little girl puts the medal over my head, and my seventh continent is done!

Back at marathon camp, the staff have filled our shower bucket with hot water and I have a good scrub to get all the dust and salt off. That evening we drive to the top of a hill overlooking the camp for a “sundowner” – an adult beverage and a variety of delicious nosh.  That satisfies my race-stressed stomach, and I turn in early while down at the mess tent the party carries on.

On to Kilimanjaro!


*For those unfamiliar with Superman mythology, Bizarro World is a planet like Earth where they do everything backward



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Although my old self was hard to find

Bunbury 3 Waters Marathon, Western Australia

April 9, 2017

There’s a bite in the air (it gets chilly here at night on the shorefront) and the sky is lightening as I make Gullmy way down to the clubhouse at the edge of the green playing field roped off into a starter chute and decked with vertical flags.  A local runner helps me figure out the drop boxes for my handful of GUs and energy bars; one is located at the finish arch, which all marathoners have to pass through on the first lap, and the other at the table just across the street. 

My friend Clive has come down from Perth to cheer me on, which will prove vital later.  The ultra runners have gone on their way; I ditch my Galloping Gertie pullover and join the marathon corral.  It’s a small field of about 100 that takes off at 7:30, describing a half oval around the field before passing under the arch and out onto the street as the sun is just climbing into the sky.

I know this is going to be a tough grind due to my lack of training.  I’ve done my math and I have my strategy.  I can finish under the cutoff with a 2 mile run / half mile walk ratio if I keep my walk at a brisk 16:00 pace.  Just as important – I need to not get caught up in the excitement and keep my running pace down to where I can sustain it, preferably between 11:00 and 12:00.

The course parallels the Indian Ocean for 5 miles before looping inland to circle the eucalyptus-shaded Bunbury Big Swamp conservation area.  I’ve fallen in with two younger women and for the time being discarded any walk breaks because the morning is pleasant and the conversation enjoyable.  Running a marathon while talking about running other marathons: it’s what runners do.

Back out to the seaside road (hi Clive!) we continue south up a long shallow grade to a turnaround.  It’s here I let the other ladies go ahead as my pace has been a bit quicker than I’m comfortable with, and settle into “solo runner” mode.  Past the clubhouse, a twisty hilly bit around the lighthouse, and between miles 7 and eight an out-and-back on a jetty where raucous white cockatoos clamour and hang upside down from the streetlights.  The northern leg of the course goes out and back through parks, past open-air restaurants that will fill with Sunday brunchers, and a little loop through suburbia before the return.  (Note: Aussie public loos talk to you and play sappy 70’s ballads.)Photo by Clive Chaote

Running through the arch I’ve completed the first lap in good time, about 2:32, and here is where the grind begins.  Stopping for a drink and to grab a Picky Bar, I lose momentum and am struggling to keep my pace below 13:00.  Making the second loop around the wildlife preserve I’m all alone and feel like I’m the last person.  There’s a black swan floating by, the first one I’ve seen on this trip, and two birds like deep blue iridescent coots.  I concentrate on keeping the legs going.  This time on the southbound uphill I take a walk break, but am alarmed to find I’m not able to keep a 16:00 pace.  Back to the shuffle run.  My friend rides by on his bike.  “How are you feeling?”  Effing tired, that’s what.

But my name’s on my bib so I get personalized attagirls from the volunteers and occasional spectator, and Clive’s apparently told them that I came all the way from Arizona.  It’s nearing noon as I launch into the north leg for the second time, and getting warm (along with the seaside humidity).  The cockatoos have retreated to the trees, reduced to grumbling under their breath.  Around mile 22 I do some head math and drop to a walk.  I have enough time left on the clock that I can walk it in and still make the cutoff.  I can do this.  Runners passing me on the return from the turnaround offer words of encouragement:  “Keep ticking it over!”

All the out-and-backs on this course mean that I now know exactly how many people are behind me:  a husband and wife from Singapore running a marathon a month; a barefoot runner named Geoff in bush attire (think Crocodile Dundee with a beard); and a man that I don’t know any interesting facts about, sorry.  Approaching the lighthouse for the last time, I hear footsteps behind me: the Singapore woman passes me at the steady pace she’s held all day.  Well, good on her.

Less than a hundred feet from the finish I hear footsteps again.  It’s too much.  I pick up my pace and start running.  “Still some gas left in the tank!” says Geoff.  The two of us accelerate ridiculously down the chute in a crazy ass sprint to the finish line, finishing neck and neck at 5:54:03. 

FinisherAustralia!  My sixth continent!  Done and dusted!




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If your mind don’t move and your knees don’t bend

“No plan survives contact with the enemy” – Helmuth von MoltkeIMG_2462

The Plan

Following Rio de Janeiro, I’ve been in cruise mode, basically maintaining my running with 5Ks over the summer and fall, with the occasional longer race.  Now it’s time to start getting ready for the Bunbury 3 Waters Marathon in April.  My basic training schedule will follow the training plan I used for Tokyo, with some revisions to build in some cross-training: I have a new personal trainer at the gym for strength work, and I’ve discovered that the branch over at Tempe Marketplace runs BodyCombat twice a week.  I have a shiny new Garmin Forerunner 235 that locates the satellites in seconds rather than minutes, doesn’t chew battery and has a built-in heart monitor, yay!

I like to do races for my long runs, so I sign up for a bunch;  although Bunbury is a street race I sprinkle some Aravaipa trail runs into the mix when they correspond to the distance I need to run that weekend because the Aravaipa events are always tons of fun.  There’s a hill just around the corner from my house that mimics the profile of the few hills on the Bunbury course, so I can train there on weekdays – perfect!

The Reality

Barely two weeks into my training plan, I’m car #3 in a 3-car smash-up.  My GP tells me no running and no weights until my broken ribs and sternum heal, 6-8 weeks at least.

The Plan

My GP also says “let pain be your guide”, so I’ll start with walking short distances, then increase my mileage and mix in some easy running, and see how it goes from there.  I can walk the New Year’s race I’ve signed up for, and when I fly up north for my Mom’s memorial service I’m staying near a park where I can walk.  I’ve also got the elliptical trainer at home that I can work with.

The Reality

I manage the 5K doubleheader over New Year’s, but I’ve caught a tenacious cold that on the flight to Seattle blows into my left ear and turns into a hellaciously painful infection.  The doctor at Urgent Care grounds me and I spend the rest of the week holed up in a Holiday Inn Express chugging OJ and watching true crime shows on TV.  My training is suffering from serious failure to launch.

The Plan

It’s now the second week of January.  I look for low-impact activities I can do that will get my cardio back in form, and find CycleZone classes at my gym – great aerobic workout according to my heart monitor, and there’s also lots of core work.  For my trail races, I’ll drop down the lower distances and walk them until I get the all-clear from my GP.  I’ll also try walk/running at the Saturday morning EVR group run in Gilbert.

The Reality

My first couple EVR outings, using the walk/run strategy, are tough.  I’m hyper-vigilant that I don’t stub my toe on the pavement and trip, feeling fragile like I might shatter if I fall.  I start out only running short stretches of a few hundred yards and I’m out of breath quickly, my ribcage not wanting to expand.  Gradually I expand my running stretches, ending up with a strategy of 1 mile running to ½ mile walking that works well.  Walking the trail races is frustrating but at least I’m getting some good exercise.  Meanwhile, I’m sticking with CycleZone and the elliptical.  By the end of January I get the word: my ribs are completely healed and I can resume all my normal activities.  Things are looking up!

The Plan

It’s the first week of February and clearly there’s not enough time for a traditional buildup to the marathon with built-in recovery weeks, especially starting from where I’m at now.  From here I can only do a straight ramp up and hope I can get my long run to 18 or 20 miles before marathon day.  I reset my goal to finding a run/walk ratio that will let me finish Bunbury before the 6 hour cutoff.  I also decide to ditch the 30K Mesquite Canyon trail run in March in favor of the same mileage as a street run; I need to be training to the terrain that I’ll be running in the marathon.

The Reality

Hey, I’m back to weight training again!  And expanding my run/walk ratio.  On February 25 I run the HM distance at the Mesa-PHX Marathon using 2 miles running to ½ mile walking, and finish in 2:32 – not a PB by a long shot, but not shabby either!  The following weekend, I’m so sore on my 15-miler that I have to switch to longer and more frequent walk breaks and I’m feeling like crud by the end.  By Monday I clearly have an upper respiratory infection, by midweek I’m in bed coughing up green shit, and Friday my GP is telling me “Yep, I’m seeing a lot of that this year.”

The Plan

It’s now the third week of March.  My training is in the toilet.  The Aravaipa homepage entices me with photos of record wildflower blooms in the White Tanks and I say screw it, I’m doing 30K at Mesquite Canyon, just throw myself at a ridiculous course that’s going to be nothing but an endurance exercise where I come in dead last and just have some fun!

The Reality

Following a grueling grind up Goat Camp trail, I find myself cruising along at altitude hip-deep in yellow brittlebush, orange mallow and gloriously blue lupin, just enjoying the day.  Somewhere between miles 12 and 13 I trip and face-plant into a boulder.  It’s two miles to the next aid station, where they patch me up.  1.5 miles to the aid station after that, where they patch me up some more and offer a ride to the finish line.  I decide to walk it.  It’s only two more miles, and I want my damn finisher’s glass.  Curiously, I don’t feel fragile any more.

The Plan

It’s now the fourth week of March.  The Phoenix Pride Run is this weekend, and I’m signed up for the HM + 5K “Challenge.” My strategy: repeat my Mesa-PHX run/walk strategy for the HM to finish at about the same time, then treat the 5K as a cooldown.  This should be easy-peasy.

The Reality

I get hung up on the 2:30 pacer, who is running hot by about 5 minutes (as I later reckon) and push the running segments too hard, finishing tired, sore and cranky in 2:28.  The 5K is a true recovery as I walk most of it (albeit a brisker walk than many of the families taking part).

It is now two weeks out from the Bunbury 3 Waters Marathon.  The other drivers’ insurance companies have just, finally, contacted me about the accident in December.  I need to, right now,  fill out medical forms for my Kilimanjaro trip in July.  My water heater just broke.

The Plan


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The Moneygoround

Today’s post is a little different from my others; rather than talk about my training or latest race experience I’m going to address my accident last December, or rather, some of the more tedious elements of its aftermath, namely paperwork, billing, and insurance.  Yep.  You might want to skip this one if you’re not in need of a sleep aid.  On the other hand, I’m hitting stuff that I, as a very fortunate individual taking my first trip in an ambulance at age 55, was unaware of and would very much have liked to know.  I encourage you to read on.

By the way, before I start

Scottsdale Osborn is an excellent hospital with an attentive nursing staff (as I discovered when I accidentally sat on my call button) who took care of me through a confusing and traumatic episode in my life.  I have no complaint about their level of care.

Everyone bills separately

To date there is no TV medical drama, soap opera, or reality show centering on the billing department. The fact is, every doctor you see in the hospital, specialist or not, bills separately.  The ER doctors bill separately from the other doctors via a place in the Midwest that wanted to know whether to bill my medical or auto insurance.  The medics in the ambulance bill separately from the ambulance company, which didn’t get my insurance card at all.  The tech who fitted my finger splint billed separately from the company that provided the splint and the hand specialist who determined I needed a splint and wasn’t in Cigna’s network despite their website’s claim to the contrary.  But the X-rays, CT scan, and MRI were bundled into the overall hospital bill, which also covered room/board, nursing, meds, labs.  And all these had to bounce off Cigna first, then come back to me before I knew what I actually owed.  Three months later I think the last of the bills from this one visit has finally trickled in.  I think.

Pre-approval required

Reviewing my paperwork post facto, I find that the official reason for my admission to the hospital’s trauma floor was Hemothorax.  And that Cigna had to pre-approve this.  Is Hemothorax a big insurance fraud issue?

You need to ask for your medical records

When my cat had kidney surgery, she left the hospital with a detailed report including images and a minute-by-minute post-op nursing log.  Me, not so much.  My discharge instructions were slender and mostly said to take my meds and followup with my GP (and yeah, you definitely want to do that).  Granted, the doctors did discuss my care in detail while I was there, which advantage my cat did not have during her surgery, but the combination of shock and morphine reduced my fact-retention capability to a feline level.  I went back later to the hospital to get my actual reports and images; that said, there was no additional cost and just a short wait while they copied the files to disk.  Seeing the images for myself, I understand why the specialists get paid the big bucks to interpret them.

“Balance billing” ate my medical rider

This link written by a lawyer describes “Balance billing” far better and more concisely than I can.  But let me break it down for you in terms of how it applied to my situation.  (Where $$$ are specified in the following they’ve been rounded to make easier to follow.)  I have a pretty typical high-deductible insurance plan through my employer. The bill from the hospital for my overnight stay was the big Kahuna, around $27,000 as submitted to my health plan.  The “in-network” negotiated price for these services was $18,100, of which Cigna paid $17,300 and I paid $800 out of pocket.  I had previously bumped my auto insurance to $2000/person to cover this gap.  But – the hospital had filed a lien against any money I might get from insurance or lawsuits related to the accident.  And that lien was for the full $27,000.  So my $2000 payment from Farmer’s went straight to the hospital.  Although this was my highest single bill, the others added up to about that $2000 that I never saw.

(Note: The legality of “balance billing” apparently varies from state to state, but is currently legal in Arizona.)

Not a fender-bender

We didn’t all get out of our cars and exchange insurance information.  I left on a back board, the other victim I later learned died on scene, and the driver at fault had to be cut out of his vehicle.  Four months out and I still don’t know whether he even had insurance, and without an official yea or nay I can’t pull the trigger on my Uninsured Motorist coverage and get reimbursed for my out-of-pocket expenses.  Which, by the way, I don’t see any of until that lien is completely paid off.

Yes I feel a little ungrateful grumbling about this

I’m grateful to the medical personnel who cared for me; to the people who invented, engineered, and lobbied to make mandatory the safety features of my car that kept me alive; to my friends Pete & Donna who interrupted their dinner to drive across town and keep me company in the ER; for the safety net of the 911 system, which incredibly did not exist when I was a kid; grateful that I’ve healed so quickly; and aware every day that if I’d left work just a few seconds earlier that day I might not have come home.

Next post I’ll be back to happy running reports, I promise!

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Half a page of scribbled lines

A month and two days ago, my car slammed into two others at a speed of 50 mph.

Among my great simple pleasures is opening a brand new calendar and filling its blank pages with plans for the coming year.  I’ve also long enjoyed poring over maps; as a girl I’d pull out the family atlas and flop on the floor, conjuring images from place names: Sargasso Sea, Craters of the Moon, the Great Australian Bight.

Last year, I had mapped out my final push to img_2348-squaremembership in the Marathon Grand Slam Club: Australia in April 2017, Africa in July, and on to the North Pole in 2018.  Next came studying the elevation profile for the Bunbury 3 Waters course, finding to my delight that the few “hills” matched the one just around the corner; then selecting the local races from Phoenix’s vast smorgasbord to ramp me back up to the full marathon distance in a scant four months’ time.

The best laid plans, as they say.

I’m sitting out on the porch now with broken ribs and a cracked sternum.  The good news from my GP is that my level of physical fitness prevented worse injury* and is also helping me heal faster than average.  The bad news: OMG NO running, NO anything that might jar or strain my ribcage, and above all if it starts to hurt, STOP!  The Midnight Madness 5K doubleheader changed into a brisk, furious walk, and I dropped Aravaipa’s San Tan Scramble completely.  I have an elliptical trainer in my kitchen, and my gym has bikes and other low-impact equipment that I can build up my endurance on.  But I’m frankly going stir-crazy, and the only cure I know for that is a good run.

So yesterday morning I joined East Valley Runners group run.  I walked five miles along the canal in my Hokas with occasional short running breaks, using a deliberately low impact gait that probably looked super dorky.  And it didn’t hurt.  It didn’t hurt later, either. 

Bunbury is still in my sights – I’ve just had to lower them to finishing before the 6-hour cutoff.   My overall pace on Saturday was 15:22, so I’m not there yet, but I will get there.  My first marathon was the Dutchman, which I was poorly prepared for, and which I walked part of, and finished in 5:35.  I’ll get there.  And I’ll be blogging my progress here.

*I’ll also give a nod to the inventors of seatbelts, airbags, and safety glass; those who lobbied for automobile safety standards to be made law; and those who designed, engineered, and built my car to essentially give its “life” to protect mine.


I’m still raising money for the Amazing Girls Fund!

I would be really stoked if we could come up with $500 because that’s enough to see one girl through four years of high school!   A donation of any amount through *this link* will get you a postcard from me at the Amazing Maasai Marathon in Kenya!

Oh yeah and while I’m at it

Follow my FB page, Journey to the Top of the World

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Down on copperline

IMG_2046-cropGalloping Gertie Half Marathon

Gig Harbor and Tacoma, August 13, 2016

Once upon a time my home town was known primarily for a bridge that fell down, Almond Roca, and an arsenic-spewing smelter.  The smelter is gone now, and the bridge was replaced long before I was born, but the legend of “Galloping Gertie” still clings to the span across the Tacoma Narrows.  This run was originally meant as a diversion while I was visiting my Mom in hospice, but she couldn’t stick around and so I wound up running it in her memory.

It’s a warm sunny morning when I join the other runners congregating in the lobby of the Galaxy Theater in Gig Harbor.  The area has built up considerably since I was a kid, the start and finish located in a plaza of trendy restaurants with sculptures and hanging baskets of flowers everywhere.  It’s a leisurely morning for me as the half doesn’t start until 8:00; I have time for a cup of coffee at my hotel and a pastry and fruit cup from the box breakfast the hotel provided.

The first mile of the race is downhill.  Speeding down Pt. Fosdick road, I can sense as each runner around me goes from “Whee!” to “OMG, I have to run up this on the way back!”  The course begins to undulate, passes into leafy shade.  There are fir needles underfoot, wild blackberries along the edge of the road, then a long wall of cattails before the course turns left and climbs towards a tunnel.  On the other side we pop out into sunlight and are running downhill again towards the foot of the bridge. Wild rose bushes line the pedestrian walkway, packed with red rose hips and clung to by late season scarlet blooms.

The steel cables stretch to the towers overhead, the dark water of the Narrows glitters underneath.  These are the towers whose lights I watched from my bedroom window before the trees grew up; the train’s horn that I’d sometimes hear at night wound along the shoreline.  As I crest the span, taking photos, I’m passed by the 2:20 pacer.  If I have any strategy, it’s to hang out somewhere between 2:20 and 2:30, and that’s what I wind up doing for the remainder of the race.  Mount Rainier is just visible, a white apparition hovering in the haze above the hills.

Once on the Tacoma side I climb again, cross Highway 16, and then climb up through the tree-lined War Memorial Park.  (Can you sense a theme to this elevation profile?)  The next few miles are a ramble through the neighborhood overlooking the bridge, wood shingle homes with gardens that I envy with my Arizona eyes, overflowing with sunflowers and blooms of every color, especially green.  Several kind folks are out offering garden hose spray downs due to the heat of the day, which I decline politely: “I’m from Phoenix; this is nothin’!”

Somewhere in here I pass the 7-mile mark, making this my longest run since Rio back in May.  I’m taking short walk breaks on the hills now, as I retrace my steps back to the bridge and over to the Gig Harbor side.  Ahead of me, a runner yields to temptation and samples tart blackberries from the brambles at the side of the road, and I follow his example.

The heat may not match Arizona’s, but the sun is taking its toll and I’m happy when we drop into the shade of Pt. Fosdick road again, even though it’s a long uphill slog.  Tired of the song Candida that’s been running through my head the past 10 miles, I dial my mental iPod to Walk Off The Earth’s Happy.  It quickly morphs into: “Crappy!  Shuffle on if you feel like you really want to puke-a!”

“This is the last hill!” a volunteer promises, and then I’m routed through this zig-zagging course through the back side of an office complex.  Rounding the parking garage I see the finish line and just stop.  It’s like 200 feet away and I’m tired and don’t want to keep moving.  Somehow I pull my act together and cross the finish in just under 2:30.


She likes to mooove-it mooove-it!

This was a well-organized race with great volunteers.  I had to dash back to my hotel to check out, but got to hear some of the actually quite good band at the afterparty.  Swag was a good quality ¾ zip pullover with the race logo.  Scenery: see above.  Recommended.


Garmin activity


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It’s Only a Whimsical Notion

SAM_3843 - Copy

Rio de Janeiro Marathon

May 29, 2016

This race was a late addition to my 2016 plan, due largely because some running clubs don’t consider Rapa Nui to be proper South America; I’m glad I did, though, not least because of the needed bounce it gave me following my Shotover Moonlight disappointment.

Arriving in Rio de Janeiro after an overnight flight from Houston, I have just enough time to decompress, throw on my running gear, and join the rest of the Marathon Tours group for an afternoon “warm-up” run along the Ipanema promenade.  It’s a holiday in Brazil, so the street in front of the hotel is closed off and crammed with bathers, walkers, strollers, vendors, skateboards, surfboards, diners, bicycles, children, parents, umbrellas, all milling about chaotically like atoms in a cup of warm tea.  It’s look sharp and every runner for herself as we dive and dodge to avoid collision!  The more ambitious runners head northwards to Copacabana, but I settle for 3 sleep-lagged miles up and down the beach.

Friday and Saturday are for sightseeing.  I pass on the hang gliding, not wanting to risk an injury right before a marathon, but I’m reminded this was something I really wanted to do when I was a teenager and not old enough.  Well, if I had a “bucket list”, that just went back on it.  Saturday night I join a small group going out to Anna’s, a terrific Italian place not far from the hotel, to load up on pasta.

Race Day

Yes, the race packet included spaghetti!

Yes, the race packet included spaghetti!

Sunday morning arrives dark and early, since it’s an hour’s ride to the start line.  Our tour guide has awesomely arranged for the hotel to provide us a grab-and-go breakfast well before normal hours, and the lobby that’s been haunted by Louis Vuitton models (no, really) all weekend is now filled with colorful runners.

The sun is rising as our private bus drops us off at Praça do Pontal park. I have to say this is my first race where I’ve seen surfboards wander through the staging area!  This being a small field of around 8,000, it’s easy to find a spot to cheer on the elites as they tear off half an hour before the rest of us.  Then I take a photo for a Brazilian lady posing putting on her lipstick in front of the starting arch.  You go sassy lady!

At last we’re off, flanked by a camera drone, and heading southward for a quick loop before heading back north towards Rio.  Suddenly there are cobblestones and people holding signs reading ciudad! and something else in Portuguese that probably refers to this half-block of mini-bollards the pack finds itself mincing its way through.

Most of the race course follows the coast road that runs between the high-rise hotels and the beach, with occasional jogs inland.  The first four miles, though, are undeveloped, with the sea to the right and a lagoon to the left, and a fresh morning breeze ameliorating the effects of the sun, already beating though still low in the sky.  Every now and then a food shack passes on the right, not yet open for business.  Surprisingly for smaller marathon, it takes a long time for the field to start spreading out, and there’s a lot of elbow bumping and general jostling.  (I later saw on Facebook where one of the official buses got lost on the way to the start, so some of the crowding could have been latecomers filtering up through the pack.)

About six miles in we hit the first hotel strip and suddenly I’m running alongside a city bus, and it’s a toss-up as to which one of us will win as a typical Brazilian traffic jam is in progress.  Then I’m through the first “built-up” stretch, up a freeway ramp and then it’s a climb to the blessed cool of the first tunnel, where it’s apparently tradition for runners to scream at the top of their lungs.  A few miles on, in the next tunnel, Beethoven is blasting.  We emerge on a cliffside high above the surging ocean and descend to the next stretch of beach.

From here on in the heat is in earnest, climbing to nearly 80 (F) by the finish.  There seem to be more water stations than I remember from the course map, and the volunteers are fairly aggressive about passing them out, or maybe I just look like hell in the second half.  Water is provided in foil-sealed cups, and sports drink in bags that must be ripped open with the teeth.  It takes be several before I get the hang of getting most of the drink in me, rather than on me.

At some point in here I had to go looking for a safety pin as my bib blew out one of its holes and was left dangling lopsided from my bib holder.  Note to self: learn to say “safety pin” in the local language before a marathon.  One of the volunteers does provide me with a pen, which I use to punch a new hole in the bib that I can thread onto the holder and be on my way.

Past the hotel at Ipanema, on to Copacabana and the final stretch of beach.  It’s very hot and surreal in these last miles; there’s tents, and a guy playing a grand piano, and pedestrians criss-crossing the course – I narrowly miss bowling into a man and his baby daughter idly turning figure-eights on a bicycle – and the only food station on the route.  Oranges, IIRC, and what look like pita crackers.  Just before the final tunnel and still a few miles from the finish, a knot of runners line the course, offering high fives and words of encouragement.

Around the beach to the peninsula and the green park and cheering runners and it’s a Xeno’s arrow kind of finish, the finish line always just around the corner, but eventually I cross it, melting and salty.  I collect my medal, fruit, and water, happy that I remembered to pack sandals in my drop bag, and join the rest of the group at the Marathon Tours flag.

5:26:43, not my best time, but not my worst either.

Some final notes

For all the zika scare, I didn’t see a single mosquito the entire week, either in Rio or in Iguazu after the race.  There was a 24-hour stomach bug going around the hotel that caused some runners to drop their distance, and others had probleIMG_1812 - Copyms with the heat, so your basic stuff that happens.

Although the expo has a separate packet pickup for foreigners, it’s really a local event; most of the pre-race materials are in Portuguese only, and one of the two official photography sites only accepts Brazilian-style addresses.

Contrary to what I heard at the time, there’s really no overlap between this course and the 2016 Olympic Marathon course.  The Olympic course is a three-lap loop that has its turnaround in the same green park where the Rio Marathon finishes.

Garmin Activity


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That Was Patrol, This is the War

Shotover Moonlight Mountain Marathon

February 20, 2016  Hill (1024x768)

To be clear. Before I begin, to explain why what I suspect will be a very fragmented race report is that way, I DNF’d on this one.  Did so spectacularly.  And yet I’m not embarrassed to say that this marathon kicked my ass.


My very first marathon was the Lost Dutchman, my 50th birthday present to myself.  Another milestone, for my 55th I treat myself to a few days in Tahiti, where it proceeds to pour rain for the next three days.  I spend most of the time reading and drinking coffee on my balcony overlooking the restless ocean, but do manage a short road run up the hill behind the hotel, in half an hour soaking my gear to where it takes 24 hours and the application of a hair dryer to undampen them.

Thursday & Friday

A little apartment on a hill overlooking Lake Wakatipu is my home for the next few days, or rather it’s my luggage’s home. After packet pickup and the mandatory gear check, I drop my rental car at the finish line at Moke Lake and join the other runners, Kiwis and Aussies all, taking the overnight option at Ben Lomond Lodge.  The marathon is run on the massive Ben Lomond sheep station in New Zealand’s South Island, the only time this private farmstead is open to the public.

Following a hearty family-style dinner and convo at the Lodge, complete with venison vindaloo and other delights, we toddle off for the night to the A-frame cabins, across a meadow that cries out for you to recreate the spinning Julie Andrews Sound of Music opening scene. NZ observes daylight saving time so it’s still dark when I get up the next morning and I’m not prepared for the sky full of stars here in the heights of the Remarkables mountain range, far from the lights of Queenstown.

With the pinkening of the cloud scraps in the eastern sky come the helicopters bearing those who stayed at Moonlight Lodge further up the mountain. In short order we’re all packed up and flying down Skipper’s Canyon towards the start line, the green-and-yellow hills, so similar in form to the mountains of the Sonoran desert, rising up from the grey foaming Shotover River, the pilot pointing out highlights of the race route as we go.  We’re still under a weather watch, a big storm system poised to break rain across the mountains sometime today.  If the race officials decide it’s too risky, the race can be halted or the marathoners told to drop to the 30K course at any time.  For now the morning is gorgeous, sunlight turning the tops of the hills, and I’m feeling ready.

Rainbow over Stoney Creek Siphon. Tiny figures of runners along single track.I haven’t been able to practice on all the same terrain that this marathon covers – in particular, the river crossings in Arizona generally don’t have water in them – but between driving up to Flagstaff over the summer and working my way up to 20 miles at the Aravaipa trail races around Phoenix, I feel like I can handle this. I expect to be slower than my training runs, but that’s OK.  I can finish.

The Challenge

The race starts on the rocky beach below Skipper’s Canyon bridge. A hundred-odd runners surge across the stones, then bottleneck on a short, steep, narrow trail bounded by thick vegetation; it levels out and is very cruisy for a few minutes, then opens out onto another beach, mixed stones, grass, and brush: not so cruisy.  Up another steep hill and then single track along a barren ridgeline, scree slopes falling steeply off to either side and nothing but the sky above.  After a while the course, marked by pink ribbons, moves to a trail halfway down a steep green slope.  A sheep, unseen uphill, bleats, and I laugh.  The field of runners towards the rear spreads out, and I’m mostly on my own with the occasional companion.  AWe dip down into a wooded area straight out of Middle Earth, and some minor stream crossings that are nothing compared to what will be coming up later.

Somewhere around the 10K mark, I think, I discover that the companions I’ve been keeping pace with are running the 30K, as they split to go ahead on the level, and I’m directed right to climb up to another ridgeline. I find myself on a near-vertical slope covered in huge tussocks of saw grass taller than me, with no track other than occasional glimpses of pink ribbon at the top of long wires.  It’s a time-consuming and sweary struggle to get through, and I’m exhausted by the time I get to the top.  Nevertheless I pick things back up and run the length of the ridge to the drinks station at the far end.

This is the top of the world, the view of green hills stretching beneath for mile upon mile, a brisk gale snapping the pink ribbons and spitting rain. The gal at the drinks station gives me the pep talk, points out the road that I’ll be dropping down to, and will eventually take me to Ben Lomond Lodge, the slightly-past-halfway point.  I’m concerned; there’s a cutoff time I have to meet at the Lodge, my time’s not been great and I’ve just lost a bunch of time coming up that slope.  I head down the slope towards the road, and it’s just as steep as the ascent, and although the tussocks are far smaller I’m terrified of rolling an ankle and sprawling head over heels for hundreds of feet.Forest (1024x768)

…and here is where my memory gets muddy. I think there were some more forests, some river wading, more climbing up to ridge trails.  Suffice to say this course doesn’t really have any “easy” bits.  At the next checkpoint the volunteers aren’t as encouraging.  “Do you want to drop down to the 30K course?” they ask.  I consider.  How far to the Lodge if I keep going? 5K is the answer.  The cutoff is really looking unlikely at this point, but for 5K I’m game… except it isn’t 5K.  It’s 5 miles.  There’s another dip down into forest, a mud pit where I sink to my knees and fall over, thoroughly coated, a river crossing higher than my knees, a ladder…. It’s raining, I’m too drained to keep up a running pace, ready to pack it in… and still no effing Lodge!

Finally I see a farm building up ahead and drag up to it. It looks different somehow.  A voice calls out, “Do you want a ride down to Ben Lomond?”  FML, this isn’t even Ben Lomond Lodge, it’s Moonlight Lodge!

And so the injured, the weary, and the less fleet of foot cram wetly into a couple of ATVs for the moderately scary ride to the finish line at Moke Lake, where there is coffee and sushi and a place to change into dry clothes; and where I give another runner a lift back into town in exchange for helping me keep on the left hand side of the road.

EpilogSadly awaiting the ride to the finish line.

I hope this recap doesn’t discourage anyone. The course for the Shotover Moonlight Mountain Marathon is breathtaking, but way out of my league.  Note that the 30K option covers the same territory, but without the climbs up to the ridgelines.  I spent the week following the race exploring the white sand beaches of the southern coastline, an area known as the Catlins, nursing the nasty head cold I got from my frolic in the Remarkables, and revising my 7 Continents plans, since I wasn’t able to tick off Australia/NZ this year.

Tips if you go

On the mandatory gear list, “thermal” means thermal underwear aka longjohns, like you’d buy from WIntersilks or Land’s End. “Survival bag” is an insulating silver mylar bag (not a blanket) large enough to crawl inside.  There are shops on Shotover Street where you can pick up anything you’re missing.

There is no cell phone coverage at Moke Lake and no transport provided back to town from the finish. You can drop a car at the finish like I did, or bum a ride with someone.

The event is established and well-run, but there was apparently some problem that kept race confirmations from going out to some entrants, and blocked email from certain servers from reaching the director. This wasn’t a problem with the Ben Lomond Lodge or any of the other NZ businesses I had email contact with.

The course map for the marathon is released only a few days before the event, and then only in person (in order to discourage runners “scouting out” the route on private land), but here’s an elevation profile to whet your appetite:

elevation profile

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