Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Cool Runners I know, Episode 1: Verna Troutman

"Endurance is nobler than strength and patience than beauty." John Ruskin (English writer, 1819-1908)

Welcome to a series of entries that I plan to write about--yeah, you guessed it--cool runners I know. These are the real people that inspire me every day. And I'm really going to enjoy telling their stories. I had no trouble picking my first victim, Verna Troutman. I hope I did you justice!

When I think of ultra-marathoners, one person comes to mind. Verna Troutman. Verna's running career exemplifies both amazing endurance and profound patience. Humble, gentle and full of placidity in her runs, she can truly run forever.

The longer the distance, the more likely you'll find her name at the top of her age group. Reading about her accomplishments, you'd think you are reading about a 30-year old. But no! In the October 2005 Equalizer 24 Hour Run Gray's Lake Park, Des Moines Iowa, she was the top female overall, and second runner overall, both male and female, with 78.4 miles at age 62! For the 2006 Patriot's Run (9 hours, 11 minutes), she was the top Female Finisher with 52 laps (37.9 miles). At age 63, she finished her first 100-miler at Mother Road 100 in November 2006.

I picked Verna first because she holds a special place in my heart. Verna was there when I finished my first marathon; I remember her bending down to look at me and say something that I barely heard through my sobbing and tears of joy and relief that my two plus year goal of finishing a marathon had finally been reached. And, I chose a woman purposefully--a woman of strength, grace, beauty. And one whom age has not tarnished. Her goals are big and she gives me hope for my future too. Verna, I hope I'm running ultras at 63! You rock!

You'll note out to the right in today's posting a block of Verna's Favorite Running web sites. I only knew two of them, and enjoyed poking around a bit, and I hope you do as well.

Before I interviewed Verna, I asked two other people to contribute to this story. First, Gary Walker (aka, Gary Runner), my long-suffering running buddy who puts up with me on most of my long runs. I'm not sure how he does it without any long-term psychological damage. Then again, maybe that explains a lot!

Gary says:
"In my eyes, Verna is a “professional” runner. Not because she’s an Olympic Medalist, but because of her knowledge of the sport, dedication to the running community and perseverance of running goals. She has extensive experience with every event distance from 5k’s to 100-mile Ultra’s and everything in between. She is involved with the running community – locally and nationally. She qualified for, and finished, the Boston Marathon (and has the jacket & hat to prove it)! She is a certified Chi-Running Instructor and spends vacations at Marathon training camps. She is always positive, encourages others and is an inspiration to us mere mortal runners!"
Next up is Bill Harkins. Yes, the Bill Harkins. I told him what I was doing, and asked him for a quote.
"It would take a book, not two pages, to sum up Verna. She was the WIN For Kansas City (Women's Intersport Network) Senior Sportswoman Of The Year in 2003.

Though primarily a distance runner, IBM asked Verna to enter the Kansas City Corporate Challenge races one year. Verna won medals at most of the track distances and in the 5K, shocking the entrenched runners who had no idea (and little fear) of this "newcomer." She successfully defended her status the following year.

Verna helped me through the darkest days of my life—by keeping me running and reminding me that you don't have to be strong all the time; it's okay to lean on the strength of others.

There was a time when I could beat her at any distance. Alas, that was then, this is now. She surprised a lot of people along the way. People who outrun her in group runs are beaten by her in races. Few were aware of how very hard Verna trains in private.

Quick summation: intelligent, determined, competitive, gracious, beautiful, competitive (did I say that?), and a loyal friend. Oh, yeah. It takes Verna about eight miles in a race to get warmed up!"

My Interview with Verna

Finally, I asked Verna a few questions. It was my intent to edit this a bit, maybe not publish all of the questions, but I was so moved reading it, I couldn't cut anything out! I owe a tremendous thanks to Verna, Bill and Gary. Thank you for your help not only in this celebration of Verna, but in your every day ways you have helped me to become a runner.

Alex: Ok, I have to ask, what is your definition of "elite runner"?

Verna: In my opinion, “Elite runner” refers to those runners who not only have a talent that stands out, but who also have the passion and the willingness to do the work to develop that talent to its maximum potential. We see them getting the sponsorships and placing high in running events.

Alex: And, how long have you been running?

Verna: Almost sixteen years.

Alex: That's kinda cool... like me, you weren't always a runner. Why do you run?

Verna: I started running to manage my weight. I continue to run because there is nothing else I would rather do. It defines me. It connects me with the Universe.

Alex: You've done so many things which are amazing. Of what accomplishment are you most proud?

Verna: I am most proud of finishing the Mother Road 100 in November of 2006. I do not have a talent for speed but I can stay on my feet for a long time.

Alex: Yes, you can! What was your first ultra like?

Verna: It was the Afton 50K in Afton State Park, Afton, MN. It is held in July and I did it in 2001. It is a two loop course and Bill Harkins ran the first loop with me. Although it was a warm day, my training in the heat of Kansas City must have paid off. Except for some anxiety about missing the first loop cut-off time, I felt good throughout the entire event and thoroughly enjoyed being in the woods and in the fields as I ran along. I remember moving over for some folks on horses and enjoyed the sight of such magnificent animals. There were plenty of hills rising up the rocky ravines from the river and I recall picking my way carefully back down on the steep downgrades. There was also a stretch of flat trail along the river to look forward to. I remember a stretch of single track snowshoe trail as having particularly rough footing. John and my granddaughter, who was seventeen at the time, hung out for hours waiting and watching for me to come through the first loop, and then back again for the finish. I had promised my granddaughter that we would go shopping at the Mall of the Americas afterwards and we did! The following week I met someone who turned out to be a runner, and as we were getting acquainted I proudly reported that I had finished my first 50K. She said, “Oh, a 50K, they’re easier than marathons because you don’t have to run as hard.” That certainly took the wind out of my sails, but it turns out she was right.

Alex: Hm. I might disagree on that point. Well, what has been the hardest for you?

Verna: Finishing the Mother Road 100 was hard, but I would have to say that the hardest was the Bohemian Alps 50 Mile in Brainerd, Nebraska in September 2004. It was harder because the urge to quit was so overwhelming. In the Mother Road 100 I never once had to fight the urge to quit. Bohemian Alps 50 Mile is a low key, small event held on the country roads of Nebraska and there is a reason they call it the Bohemian Alps. The first has to do with the ethnicity of the early settlers of that area and the second has to do with the topography of the land. The rolling hills were carved out by receding glaciers and they rise and fall in endless, steep undulations. They are the type of hills that reckless teenagers pick to “hill hop”, often with tragic results. The temperatures rose into the mid-nineties that day and I had been struggling since about thirty miles. John had been hop-scotching ahead of me on the course and as he waited for me at forty miles I began to get a second wind. He reports that he would see me top a hill and disappear down again, only to appear again at the top of the next hill and so on it went. In turn, I would see the car as I topped a hill only to have it disappear again as I headed down. My second wind momentum carried me along to where he was waiting but the minute I stopped I was immediately overcome with lightheadedness, and nausea. I learned later that my error probably had to do with stopping too quickly in midst of that renewed push but it was too late. I was ready to quit. I was in agony because my first attempt at fifty miles had resulted in a DNF and the thought of another DNF was more than I could bear, but there seemed to be no choice. I felt that bad. Wise John had me get in the air-conditioned car, and even though I was insisting it was over, he made no move to take me away from there. We sat in the car for about ten minutes and I began to feel slightly better. Finally, I got back out of the car and forged ahead one foot in front of the other in the heat. I had taken my watch off and did not pay any attention to the pace or how long it took to cover each mile and I ordered John not to tell me. I kept going and told myself that I had to finish so I would never have to do another one. At one point there was a horse whinnying at me from the top of a hill and it seemed to me that he was encouraging me to keep coming. As evening approached and it began to cool down, I was able to actually run the last few miles. And I did do another one, three weeks later.

Alex: Holy cow. Another one three weeks later? Now that took courage. Do you have a favorite runner? Who? Why?

Verna: My favorite runner and personal hero is Carolyn Mitchell. She inspired me and encouraged me from my first days in Big Miles Training of Kansas City. She is now 71 years old and has run somewhere around 80 marathons. She will be running the Antarctica Marathon on March 5, 2008. She is amazing.

Alex: Do you have mantra you use while running?

Verna: I do use mantras and they have varied over the years. In 2002 while training for the Detroit Marathon I had been reading "Programmed to Run" by Thomas S. Miller. The author uses the term “audiogenics” to describe image-enhancing words you say to yourself as you run. I took his description of efficient running style and turned it into the mantra, “Load…, Fire…, Fly” …. I literally repeated this mantra for the entire 26.2 miles in Detroit and the result was the Boston Qualifier I was after. Since becoming a ChiRunning instructor I have incorporated different words into a mantra to help me with improving my ChiRunning technique. Currently, I am working on trying to run with a lighter foot strike and my mantra has been, “Eggshells… Hot Coals… Lean…” The image of running on eggshells and hot coals does help.

Alex: That reminds me. Can you talk a bit about Chi running?

Verna: Discovering ChiRunning was almost surreal in the way that I immediately and instinctively knew that the ChiRunning program was for me. I discovered it at the Boston Marathon Expo in 2004 where I met Danny Dreyer, and bought his book. He did not even have to try to sell me. In fact, I talked to him very little because it was time to be getting out of there and back to our hotel to rest. I bought the book, had him autograph it and left. After reading the book, I decided to go for a week-end seminar to learn more and then that was followed by a decision to become an instructor as a means of further enhancing my ChiRunning understanding and skills. I love the way ChiRunning is so logical and so in keeping with the laws of physics and the laws of nature. I see it as a means to keep me running into old age. I am teaching ChiRunning and ChiWalking classes on a limited basis. I plan to focus on it more intently when I retire from my day job.

Alex: So, What's next for Verna?

Verna: I have found that focusing on a quality spring marathon helps me with my speed and then I focus on ultras in the fall. The Mother Road 100 was supposed to be a one time event but, as it turns out, a Mother Road Part 2 is planned for November of 2008 and I am entered. It will be on a different course, this time on Old Route 66 in western Oklahoma. I will do some other ultras leading up to it, probably the Patriot’s Run and the Heartland 50 Mile. My spring marathon will be the Lincoln Marathon in May. My goal is to run as well in Lincoln as I did in Rochester, MN last May. If I do, I will be going to Boston again in 2009 but we will see. There are no guarantees. I have learned that training and participation have their own rewards.

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