Becoming The Wind

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Salmeron-0487am. I had been wrapped in my sleeping bag for less than two hours, fully clothed and exhausted beyond logic. My feet were a throbbing and swollen mess and covered in blisters that were a chilling reality that I could drop out of the race at any checkpoint. It was the start of Day 4 on the long stage of Grand to Grand, a six-stage and seven-day fully self-supported foot race spanning 170 miles from the North Rim of the Grand Canyon to the summit of the Pink Cliffs of the Grand Staircase in Utah.

I had already covered 96 miles over three days and just spent 24 hours on my feet in the effort to complete the 54 miles of the long stage. I arrived at checkpoint 6 at 4:30am after a grueling 8 miles over 4 hours in the dark of night. Never before had I been enfolded in total darkness and had to navigate my way by the small beam of my head lamp and the faint trail marked by LED lights scattered across the black of a night landscape fraught with steep, sandy and unsteady terrain. “Keep moving” was the endless mantra of my meditation as I forced my legs and feet to execute the demands of my mind. My 15lbs race pack was digging hard into my shoulders and back and the desire to drop it became overwhelming.

Checkpoint 6 had hot water and was one of the sleeping checkpoints on the 54 mile long stage. It’s regrettable that in my effort to save a fellow racer from dropping out, that I inadvertently compromised my own race plan. We met at checkpoint 4 as we were the last two racers making the cut-off. He was in bad shape and wanted to quit. Quit. Really? No way! No bloody way! I convinced him to continue to checkpoint 5, six miles ahead of us. Saving him from quitting became my most important focus and although I felt strong and able to run, I matched his speed of less than 2 miles an hour, thereby adding significant time to my own journey. I learned that night that one can only save oneself and that withdrawing from a race is a very personal decision.  I had to continue to checkpoint 6 alone in the pitch black of night.

Dawn broke as I left checkpoint 6 with approximately 17 miles left on the long stage after a short reprieve and a much needed cup of hot soup. The next 4 miles were spanning across the Coral Pink Sand Dunes in Utah. Near Zion National Park, this is the only major sand dune field on the Colorado Plateau. I timed my departure so that I would see the sunrise across the dunes. I knew that crossing the dunes after already been on my feet for 24 hours would be tough, I just didn’t know how challenging.

Alone once again, as I was the last runner to leave the checkpoint, the sand dunes were covered in the chilly shadows of early morning. Daunting, and with the wind whipping hard at my body, I sought out my mantra of “keep moving” to focus my mind on the task at hand. Each step made me sink calf length into the sand. My gaiters kept the soft pink sand from eroding my blistered feet any further but the exhausted effort to dig my legs out of the sand abyss with each step was staggering.

So often I have encountered pure magic. Sometimes it has been while scuba diving, or on mountain tops or in the simple pleasure of a spectacular sunset under a big sky in Dallas. Frequently it is because I seek out the magic in the art of living a life lived well. I have learned that there is incredible beauty in each day. However, the wonder that the sunrise over the sand dunes in Utah bestowed on me will forever be etched in my mind and heart. It was the gift granted to me from this extremely tough and relentless endurance race.

Salmeron-015The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho was on my 9th grader’s summer reading list and out of boredom on a flight from Costa Rica I read it. What a read. What a story. If you have not yet read it, read it now.
As I watched the sunrise that morning in Utah over those dunes, stripped from every ounce of veneer, exhausted and on my knees in the sand, I discovered that I too am an alchemist.

(Side note: I’m the little figure on the dunes in the picture.)

(Side note: Alchemy is the art of liberating parts of the Cosmos from temporal existence and achieving perfection which, for metals is gold, and for man, longevity, then immortality and, finally, redemption. Thanks Wikipedia.)

Santiago sets out to find his destiny and personal legend and after a long journey he had to transform himself into the wind to save him from execution. As the wind was whipping around me and the sand was hurling itself against my skin on the dunes, I too realized that I can become the wind.

Like Santiago, I believe that when we reach through the Soul of the World and see that it is part of the Soul of God, we discover that it is also our own soul. And that we can perform small miracles every day.  I finished the 54 mile long stage in 31 hours. It was brutal, unforgiving and liberating. It forced me to rise beyond what I thought was possible. It pushed me to a new frontier in my mind. The journey was awesome. I went on to finish the 170 miles of Grand to Grand and I earned my belt buckle. There were many moments during the seven days that I was left breathless and inspired by the beauty of nature and the splendor of the human spirit. However, sunrise across the dunes will always be a special bead in the necklace of my soul.

Gifts and Gratitude

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Maria Callas’s beautiful voice is caressing me this morning and the blend of it, along with the daring and bold way the sun is illuminating the freshly washed world after days of rain, is a wonderful cocktail.

Named “Grace” in Yiddish and a verb “to happen” in Icelandic, ”Henda” certainly does not allow me much anonymity in the online world. A few keystrokes on Google will lay out a roadmap for any stranger to know much about me. However, our online personas are just one facet of the sum of our parts. To really know me, you must spend time with me, talk to me and listen to the story that is uniquely mine. Like peeling the layers of an onion, online data today is just that, the thin outer skin.

You will discover that finding the splendor in ordinary moments and everyday life is important to me. I’m told that I struggle to accept that the mundane dictates most of our day-to-day. True. I decline to accept. Instead, I seek out the magic in each day and allow the mundane to co-exist. Each day that I live is a gift I shall never take for granted. I know that my two very close encounters with my own mortality shaped my thirst to drink my life from a gushing fountain instead from a glass. My gratitude that I learned early to live without reservation is boundless.

When we sit down and talk you will learn that I struggle intensely with the Christmas season. I find it deeply commercialized and wish that so many business bottom lines were not tied to the spending habits leading up to Christmas. I have a desire each year to spend time in a country that does not celebrate Christmas just so I can escape the sheer frenzy of so many people’s urgency to buy and buy and buy. This year I wanted to take my kids somewhere to show them the magic beyond the distraction of commerce. I wanted to install in them a sense of wonder and an understanding of a gift not measured by any monetary value. I wanted to blow their minds.

A few layers deeper, you will realize that I don’t find God in a church. Instead, my cathedral exists on mountain tops, under a desert night skies and witnessing the glory of a sunrise or sunset. It’s the lavish gift that nature bestows on me that allows me to embrace the glory of God and the magnificence of creation. It’s in that space that I can hear my thoughts and find comfort in my heartbeat. I can be silent. I intentionally seek out these moments daily and it’s their greatness that overshadows the ordinary of every day.

The aurora borealis (northern lights) has been on my bucket list for a long time. Before scientific explanations, they were perceived as omens and prophecies. Their radiance stirred as much fear as it instilled wonder, and they became part of our superstitions and fairy tales. I had a profound need to witness nature’s most impressive light show personally. It was my gift to my children this Christmas.

Elusive and as natural as air; finding them takes special effort if you don’t live in the far north. But often the journey to discover a Wonder can be equally rewarding. We arrived on Christmas Eve in Yellowknife, the capital of the far Northwest Territories of Canada, just 250 miles south of the Arctic Circle, and it was -35F. Frigid, icy, freezing, frosty . . . sorry, none of these words accurately describe what “cold” feels like! My eyelashes were frozen after a short walk down the block and little icicles quickly formed around the hairs in my nose.

I rented arctic gear for us as the warmth of our own ski-clothes was utterly inadequate. Even then, you find yourself dressed four layers deep under the bulk of your outerwear. After an hour outside on a snowmobile, I had to bite back the tears as my feet and hands were hurting so much from the cold.

(Side Note: Yellowknife sits on the north shore of the Great Slave Lake, the deepest lake in North-America at 2,014 feet, and the 10th largest in the world. Each winter an ice road is made linking Yellowknife with Dettah, a fishing camp that has been occupied by the Dene people for hundreds of years.)

At 9pm on Christmas Eve we drove 30 minutes out onto the Great Slave Lake on snowmobiles to a little cabin away from the city lights. Optimum aurora viewings require clear and cold nights, with prime time between 10pm and 4am. Without any guarantee that there would be any aurora, my expectations were high and I could only hope that my Christmas wish would come true. After about an hour, faint green ribbons were crossing the sky. Elated, I rapidly started taking pictures, hoping to capture their beauty. Slowly they intensified and my camera was able to display reds surrounding the green that were not visible by the naked eye. The frigid air caused you to linger for brief intervals outside before you had to seek warmth inside the cabin.

At 10 minutes past midnight, Christmas morning, the sky burst alive with a light show my imagination could never envision. The solar wind that collided with Earth’s magnetic field at that moment produced a magnificent array of colors. Red, green, violet and orange ribbons were twirling and skipping above the frozen tundra. Covering the entire night sky and dwarfing the stars, it was as if the glory of God was dancing across the heavens. I wanted to reach up and hold them close. But like true Wonders all I could do was allow myself to be swept into a visual and sensory celebration of life.

My camera ran out of battery power earlier that night. I’m glad, because no picture could ever capture what we witnessed. The images are forever burned in my mind and I shall often enjoy the memory of a Christmas night like none other. My gratitude for this gift is endless.

I have seen the sunrise over Mount Everest and Machu Picchu, listened to the thunder of Victoria Falls, gazed upon the Taj Mahal and recently camped at the remote North Rim of the Grand Canyon. If we continue our conversation, you will find that seeking out the Wonders of our world bring me much joy, but that it is the small miracles of each day that matters most.

Agony and Ecstasy

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Zen music is softly piping into the room and my face is gently cradled in the doughnut pillow of the massage table. My sore muscles are eagerly awaiting the expert touch of the therapist and the promise of relieve from the hell I inflicted on every part of my body the day before. The spa menu at La Posada in Santa Fe reads like the who’s who of indulgence: Rejuvenate, Spirit of Santa Fe, Renewal, Restore  . . . After much contemplation I selected “Rejuvenate” and surrendered myself to 80 minutes of pampered bliss.

The prelude to my rejuvenation was a lovely lunch on the patio with a celebratory glass of fine New Mexican Gruet accompanied by a ceviche avocado salad and Kobe beef tacos in Napa cabbage leaves. Wrapped in my soft Spa robe in a nice shady spot next to the swimming pool, I allowed the chatter of a group of soon to be newlywed youngsters to transport me into a deep siesta.

It was a far cry from 24 hours earlier when I poured trash cans full of ice in a bath tub at the Holiday Inn Express in Los Alamos. My legs and feet were still covered in the fine black ash from the high desert I just returned from after a grueling 10.5 hour battle to the finish line of the 2nd toughest 50k (31.2 miles) race in the country – The Jemez Trail. I reluctantly forced my limbs to fold and stretch into the freezing water, knowing that the ice bath will bring relieve from the throbbing and speed up recovery from the self-inflicted inflammation of my tissue and joints. I could only hope that my neighbors would not take the screams coming from room 325 too seriously.

panoramaThe black dirt clinging firmly to my skin was a harsh reminder of nature’s fury when a mountain burns.  All day the evidence of the Las Conchas fire was unmistakable on the trail. Solitary charred stumps were the only tribute to the once majestic ponderosa pine forest that was violently destroyed by a sea of orange flames. But I was amazed how quickly new growth sprouted green amongst the black of despair, evident again of the resilience of nature.

My therapist Stacy had begun the herbal exfoliation and quickly the room was filled with the intoxicating smell of sandalwood, sage, and peppermint. While the mixture was drying on my exposed skin, she expertly massaged my feet. “Oh, yes! Please don’t stop!” my feet were rejoicing in ecstasy. Shame . . . poor babies . . . but unlike previous races, not a single blister scarred their surface. Did I finally stumble upon the elusive answer to my feet? Before the race I lathered them in Body Glide prior to double socking in Injinji toe socks and Drymax running socks. Amazing . . . From now on a tube of Body Glide will be within easy reach.

I’m not naturally an early riser and getting up at 3:15a would never be part of any daily routine. Rising at that hour with the sole purpose to eat two hours before the start of an ultra endurance race also firmly classifies me to the “abnormal” group. Although not known for routine, I’m a creature of habit when it comes to race preparation. I may pack for an international trip 15 minutes before departing for the airport, but I meticulously lay out my clothes, gear and food in a neat and orderly row the night before a race.

As I sped in my little grey nondescript rental car to the start line, I questioned the logic of a 50 mile race at this stage of my training. Am I really ready to take on the distance? Am I willing to accept the genuine possibility that this will leave me with a DNF (Did Not Finish) next to my name? On paper it sounds very attainable  . . . 3.3 miles an hour at a fast walking pace certainly can be done. But 50 miles is a very long way.

picThe 5a start meant that 167 “abnormals” were congregating closely with little head lamps as dawn was still waiting in the wings. The almost full moon’s light illuminated the landscape in a silvery glow and the mountains were shapeless black silhouettes against the horizon. Large and ominous, their sheer size reiterated that I was not in Texas. We were off. I slipped into an easy pace and kept my eyes glued on the spot that my head lamp was painting in the dirt trail. Swiftly the terrain changed to very uneven and treacherous, and my inexperience quickly caused me to slip to the very back of the pack. Oh well, it was nice to run with the group for a few miles. I almost felt that I belonged, even though, unlike my fellow trail runners, I was wearing a 10 pound racing pack and running with Leki sticks.

In front of my eyes, the black of night transformed into the deep indigo of dawn. Mother Nature held its breath with me as the imminent fiery ribbon of the rising sun was about to crack dawn wide open. I never tire watching the drama of a new day unfold and count myself lucky to witness such a grand display surrounded by the majesty of the Sangre de Christo range. This is why I came . . .  to be reminded again how singularly remarkable nature, and life, is.

My 6:15a arrival at the five mile check point put me well within my goals. Feeling strong and confident, I had high hopes that the day may exceed my expectations. Then we started to climb . . . Thesaurus has several other words: scale, ascend, scramble, rise, increase, mount . . . but I’ll just stick with climb . . . my bravado vanished like cotton candy in your mouth. By mile seven I knew that I would be switching to the 50k as the 50 milers climb this mountain twice. I reached for my iPod since I needed music to help propel myself up the steep mountain side. It was a 4,000 feet vertical ascend to the summit of Pajarito mountain at 10,400 feet and the runners resembled a chain gang slowly working their way to the top.

My heart and lungs were exploding and I was gasping for air with each laboring step. My Garmin Fenix was dutifully recording the altitude and my progress at about 45 minutes a mile. When I finally emerged from the dense pine and aspen forest, my panoramic reward was breathtaking. To my east, the vista stretched over the Rio Grande Valley towards the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, and to the west, over the Valle Caldera Grande.

bench(Side note: On the summit of Pajarito ski mountain stands a bench with expansive views of the mountains as well as Valles Caldera National Preserve. The bench was constructed in memory of Steven Karl Yeamans, skier, biker, rafter, machinist, photographer, and all-around well-liked guy. He died short of his 40th birthday but I have been unable to find out how. I would really like a bench high on a mountain top and will make sure I designate funds in my estate for its construction. I hope my friends will come to visit, and linger, while enjoying the magnificent view. And bring a good bottle of red or a fine French Champagne and lets reminisce about all the good times we shared.)

Back in my little haven of bliss, my freshly exfoliated skin was ready for the next phase of pleasure. The massage. I selected the “Buddha” scented oil and soon my limbs were just a pile of mush under the expert touch of Stacy. I allowed myself to be transported back to the moment in the race when I could almost glimpse the elusive runner’s zone.

During a race, I enter my dead zone after about a third into it. I start to lose interest and become a plodder. Music cannot pull me through and the whiny voices in my head drive me crazy with their unstoppable “Are we there yet?!” This time though, I had a secret weapon: Audio books!  The wonderful essays of David Foster Wallace about “Consider the Lobster” and “How Tracey Austin Broke my Heart” allowed me to arrive at the second to last checkpoint with a new leash on the final nine miles.

(Side note: A skill one learns growing up in South-Africa is how to squat in the bush without getting your shoes wet. And thanks to my trainer Mo, I can also hold a wall squat these days for four minutes. Needless to say, needing to pee on a trail race sometimes necessitate a fast and artful squat maneuver. Particularly when the high desert has no large trees to hide behind and the front runners of the 50 miler start to overtake you!)

finishLeaving the aid station with the end in sight, I decided it was time to flip the switch. My “finals” playlist has me trained like Pavlova’s dog and I only switch to it in a race when I’m ready to let it rip. My feet was flying over loose rocks and sand, and I could feel the power and energy surge through my body. I tackled the downhill skiing thru the loose sand on my feet but never hesitating in my quest to fly. For the next seven miles I was transported to that sacred place that real runners regularly visit when they are in the zone. During my short visits I grasp the allure and know the power of that place, both in one’s mind and in the harmonious execution of muscles, joints and bones, all working together in a symphony of motion. For now I’m happy to just stop by on the occasion.

My 80 minutes of bliss is rapidly coming to an end. My new friend Stacy gently informs me that she will be waiting for me outside with bottled water. My time in the Land of Enchantment was terrific and rewarding on every level. Maybe next year I will be ready to take on that mountain twice and write 50 miles next to my name, but today I’m content with 50k and a quiver overflowing with arrows of joy, triumph and delight.

Allow me to quote my other friend, Theodore Roosevelt: “It’s not the critic who counts, not the man who points out how the strong man stumbled, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena; whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs and comes short again and again; who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions, and spends himself in a worthy cause; who, at the best, knows the triumph of high achievement; and who, at the worst, if he fails, at the least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who know neither victory or defeat.

Identity

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For many years I have kept a drawer in my heart filled with the want and hope that one day I could move back to South-Africa.  I have wrapped myself in the comfort of a blanket with stars and stripes on one side, and the rainbow flag of the new South-Africa that I left behind on the other. I have proudly affirmed myself an “American  African” to anyone inquiring about my origins, and although I raise my hand across my heart during the Star Spangled Banner, I must confess that except for the first and last lines, I don’t really know the words. I also don’t know the words to “Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika” (God Bless Africa) except for the few lines in Afrikaans found in the middle. I guess that makes me a pretty pathetic American and African patriot.

Identity plays such a role in our formation of self. Who am I? What defines me? What expresses my uniqueness, my character, and that part of me that makes me the one of a kind that each of us is? I left South-Africa at such a young age, full of rage for the unfair hand of cards I drew growing up in a world that required me to battle when I should have been allowed to just play. My fury raged against the forces that took away my childhood innocence at a tender age when I should have been just loved unconditionally. I was angry at the unjust years of struggle to redefine my destiny using just my own unwavering faith and strength that I would never allow myself to just become another statistic of circumstances. When I left the country of my birth, I left with the intention of never returning. I left with the burning desire to find a safe harbor, a port where I could drop my anchor and reinvent the identity of a very battle worn soldier. I was coming to America, the land of great opportunity and a new beginning, the land where dreams as big as a Texas sky come true.

Thirteen years later, in 2006, the tragic and untimely death of a very close and special person led me back. Like a very premature salmon run, I returned to the place of my birth. And I discovered that under my new found American heartbeat, my African blood was running strong. I recognized that my blanket was always double sided and I wished that I could one day come back to live in the country I was from and reclaim some of the missing years. I fell in love all over with the beautiful African light, the incredible vibrancy of an African life, and the way my soul is quiet and at peace when I’m surrounded by the African bush.

But . . . the years I spend in Texas and Dallas have been mounting, and the drawer filled with longing for my African dream has become much smaller. Like so much else, life happens when we make other plans. Slowly over the course of the past 23 years I have developed a deep love, not just for this wonderful country, but also for the great state of Texas and for Dallas. Last night I watched the sunset over White Rock Lake and the downtown skyline. This is my city, my ‘hood and my comfort. I’m proud to call Dallas home.

The inspiration to this blog started because I contemplated my own very recent Texas roots against a 7th generation Texan. How can it ever compare? Does it make me so much less of a true one from the Lone Star state? No, it doesn’t. Instead, what matters is the desire and commitment from both of us to want to make Texas the best place through our efforts and energy, both for the newbies like me, and the many generations before and after.

(Side note: I intended to write this blog about my love for all the special places in Texas like Big Bend, East Texas, Austin and the Hill Country, BBQ and Caddo Lake. Be patient. It’s imminent! )

I spent three weeks in South-Africa last year and during the trip I finally accepted that I’m American with just enough African spice to be different. It makes no sense to carry a dream of relocating “one day” to a country where I have no family and I really don’t belong. Instead, I shall visit often to satisfy my hunger and feed my African soul. In the meantime I’ll learn all the words to the Star Spangled Banner and show my deep gratitude for every opportunity presented to me by this great country.

I, Cavewoman

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It is a white tablecloth night. My courses this evening are intricate and accompanied by a crisp French Rose. How well the French grasp the creation of a stylish and complex dry Rose!  I instructed my waiter up front that I was in no hurry. Tonight I have time to take a seat, sip and savor. I have neglected my private conversations and the musings about this thrilling carpet-ride of my life. Busy-ness has interrupted my dinners for one, but tonight I raise my glass to remind myself that no haste and no business deal is worth the sacrifice of losing my one-on-one time I have come to cherish.

photo37Having never lacked passion for all aspects in my life, a friend recently reminded me to bear in mind that the ancient meaning of “passion” was “anguish and “suffering”. 3rd century BC. Maybe that is why ultra endurance racing captivates my imagination as torment and torture are givens to succeed. Earlier today I had a training session with my coach Mo. It was more like a sweating, swearing, and excruciating series of strength building drills that left me panting and fatigued like only a hard work-out can.

(Side note: A favorite movie line was in “Serendipity” when John Cusack clarifies passion: “You know the Greeks didn’t write obituaries, they only asked one question after a man died, ‘Did he have passion?’” In my view passion is greatly misunderstood. People assume that passion will come to them like a flash flood, overwhelming them with a sense of vigor and a pledge to purpose. Instead, passion develops unhurriedly and deliberately. You feel it when you take time to breathe and consider the unique life activities that have value to you. Passion doesn’t seek you out; rather, you discover your personal passions via a proactive pursuit of things interesting and meaningful. That’s what ignite passion in us and allow us to share and be inspired.)

I marvel at the transformation that I witness in my body each day. After four months, my muscles are lean and strong and I’m becoming faster daily. Since mid-December, I have radically changed my diet to Paleo . . . aka the caveman diet  . . . I have eliminated completely all grains, corn, flour, sugar, potatoes, rice, legumes, dairy, and anything processed. I eat healthy fats, nuts, fruits, eggs, vegetables, seafood, lean meat and grass-fed beef. I have learned to bake cakes, bread, desserts, etc. using almond meal and coconut flour. The goal is to avoid food that raises my blood sugar as to avoid an insulin response. For endurance racing, the diet has converted my body from carb to fat burning. The change has been dramatic as my blood pressure is now consistently 115/70 and my recent race performances have validated the incredible transformation. We have tailored my training around a cavewoman’s activities 3.5 million years ago: Lift many heavy things, walk for very long distances carrying very heavy things, and have regular bursts of speed to run away from a sabre tooth tiger and cave lion!

I’m also back in Austin lobbying in my spare time. Chasing woolly Mammoths may be easier than maneuvering in the murky waters of politics. It will be a second attempt to pass the part of Henda’s Law that Gov. Perry refused to sign during the last session in 2011. It is the part that will cover supplemental screening for the highest at risk women for developing breast cancer whom have dense breast tissue. It will allow them to get a screening sonogram in addition to their mammogram as part of their well woman exam. Today supplemental screening is against their deductible and co-pay and many women cannot afford the supplemental screening cost. 40% of all women have dense breast tissue and about 10% of those have a high life time risk of developing invasive breast cancer. Women with dense tissue have a 4 to 5 time higher risk of getting breast cancer than those women with low density breasts.

It’s a no brainer you would think. Why would we not want to screen a woman with a sonogram when we know that her mammogram cannot detect a tumor when her breasts are dense? Why would we not want to give her the best chance at an early breast cancer diagnosis? Why would we not want to treat her when the cost is so much less when her cancer is early, than when her cancer is a later stage and has metastasized? Why would we not want to save her life when the technology exists to detect her tumor early? I don’t know why!

House Bill 495 successfully passed out of committee and will be debated on the House floor very soon. And then, if passed, it will move on to the senate. If passed there, it will land once again on Gov. Perry’s desk and I wonder why would he think this time that it’s worthy of his signature? I can only hope that he recognizes that the worth of saving a woman’s life is so much bigger than the price of politics.

It is a very long road ahead and I carry a very heavy load – the responsibility to try my best. I know it will take a small miracle, but without trying, there would be no chance of a miracle. During the past four years I have become a believer in miracles – big and small! You can watch my recent testimony in the House Insurance Committee here but note that you need the “Real Player” and would need to fast forward to 28 minutes when HB495’s presentation starts. My own testimony starts at 38:57 minutes.

House Committee Hearing

photo38Endurance racing has become my sanity check when the speed of the balls spinning above my head makes me dizzy. I spent a portion of this past Spring Break camping next to the Syllamo River deep in the Ozarks in Arkansas amongst many other endurance racers. I was there to compete in a three day stage race: 50K, 50M and 14M; and eager to put my new found fitness and strength to the test.

I ran the Bandera 50K back in January near San-Antonio in the Hill Country and earned my T-Shirt and medal after eleven grueling hours battling rain, extremely muddy trails and such steep ups and downs that caused me to hesitate at almost every stride. So the 31 miles of Day 1 in the Ozarks under clear blue skies held little angst. The terrain was kinder and I felt that I could make the nine hour cut-off easily, especially since I have tapped into my inner primal blueprint.

Oh, how the best laid out plans with the finest intentions can go so terribly wrong! I did so well until I took a wrong turn at mile 24 and found myself utterly lost in the mountains and woods. Ugh! Henda! You complete idiot! It was the one race that I left my race pack in my tent as I figured I’ll be done long before dark. Low on supplies and water, without a jacket, no headlamp or whistle; it was the moment where I embarrassed all my warrior and cavewoman ancestors. I started to cry. I was lost and scared. My cell had 10% power and a very low signal. Not knowing what else to do, I called 911. The small miracle of that day was Sandy, the 911 operator. Her calm voice caused my panic to subside and the confession of my fear was liberating. The ranger found me after an hour and I gladly abandoned the rest of the race for Day 1. The 50 miles on Day 2 held no appeal and I happily spent the day in the little town nearby soothing my wounds.

photo36Day 3 arrived in a dense cloud cover and a fine misting rain quickly penetrated every crevice and left you damp and cold allover. The forest floor was slippery and wet and soon my shoes were caked in thick mud. But I had a large score to settle with several cavewomen. A new friend slipped me a supplement just before the race start called Vespa Power. Although I don’t try new thing at the start line, I decided that some bee pollen and wasp extract could hold the key to my redemption. I started slow but quickly threw caution to the wind and started to run up and down the mountains. Wow! It all worked together! My legs, my energy, my music, being completely in synch with my surroundings at that moment . . . Wow! I was a winged creature hurling myself recklessly down a mountain at breakneck speeds with complete zeal. I was trusting my landings on the earth under my feet and allowing my body to bend and twist with the path. The serenity of the woods penetrated the very fiber of my being. I have never been that connected to any run . . . I was running with my whole heart. It was a miracle day. I finished the 14 miles in record time and found my inner cavewoman along the way applauding and cheering me on!

I signaled the waiter for my check and as I finish the last drops of my celebratory glass of Rose, my wish is simple: When I die, I hope my friends will agree that I embraced passion in all its forms . . . desire, hunger, anguish, torture, ecstasy, and enthusiasm.

Quitting

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day1_1Five weeks. That’s how long it took me before I could wash the Kalahari sand out. For five weeks my gear bag and I had a silent stare off each time I entered my bathroom. “Unpack me” …. “No, I’m not ready, leave me alone!” … “Unpack me … ignoring me won’t make me go away!” … “Dammit, I’m not ready!” Inside the bag hid the memories that I was not yet prepared for. I didn’t want to look at the T-Shirt I didn’t earn the right to wear. I didn’t want to put away my bib number and checkpoint card with all the unmarked time slots. I was not ready to wash my sweat from my racing pack. Much of my hesitation was born from my own insecurity and doubt about my endurance racing future. As long as that bag was sitting on the floor, I didn’t have to decide.

It also took a while to write about the day in the Kalahari when I changed from a racer to a crew member. After I completed the Himalayan 100 in 2010, I stared at myself in the mirror in my hotel in Delhi and asked myself who I was? I wanted to run down the streets and shout to people about what I just did. I felt such elation and accomplishment for completing my first ever race, let alone a 100 mile ultra stage race in the Himalayas just a year after having received a breast cancer diagnosis. I was so proud of myself.  I felt unstoppable, on top of my world, where I could reach out and touch each star within my dreams.

After I finished the Trans Rockies 120 last year, I was again overwhelmed with the warmth of victory. I basked in the glory of my medal, the T-Shirt, endless memories, and the company of my many new friends.  I have pictures with bouquets of flowers in my arms and big, happy smiles.

This time after the Kalahari Augrabies Extreme another very silent, one way mirror conversation happened at 32,000 feet across the Atlantic 10 hours into a 17 hour flight.  I looked into my haunted eyes in the tiny toilet and wondered if I had what it takes. Could I really ever complete a self-supported race? Am I strong enough? Am I tough enough? Self doubt doesn’t eat you up; instead, it slowly gnaws away at you until you are left with the scraps of your once grand ambitions.

quit1I often revisit 1:25p on day 2 when I decided to withdraw from the race. Such a nice word – withdraw – so much kinder than loser, quitter, failure . . .  Sigh. I know. Please. I have heard it all. Showing up at the start already made me a winner. Only 45 people out of more than 1.7 billion signed up. I didn’t quit, I was injured. Yeah. I know. But that does not make it any easier looking into my own eyes, because when I am 100% honest  . . .  I wasn’t prepared properly. Period. No excuses. No bullshit. I was not. And I knew it long before 1:25p on day 2, when it was 122F under a thorn tree in the Kalahari Desert . . . when I quit.

I started doubting myself the weeks leading up to the race when I hurt a tendon in my foot. It was an ice cream injury, simply missing the step at my daughter’s favorite store, Yumi-licious. I doubted myself even more on the endless bus ride to the Kalahari when one of my new race friends commented that my pack was too heavy compared to my body weight. And self-doubt raged inside me when I encountered my first sandy river beds on day 1. I have never walked in sand like that, let alone run! I knew then that, regardless of the heat, the chance of me finishing was slowly dimming.

But I just wanted to finish. How hard could that be? It’s only 155 miles over 6 stages. Long, yes, but not much longer than the Rockies. Just to finish? Certainly I’m capable? I have finished two other races, haven’t I? I live and train in Dallas, hot as hell in the summer. Certainly I can handle heat? I’m mentally tough, I don’t quit, and I’m a survivor. I was racing for a cause. I have to be almost dead to quit, don’t I?

(Side note: Self-supported races change the playing field for wannabe runners like me. When you have to strap on a pack in the desert and carry all your supplies for 7 days, you just entered the endurance race version of “The Hunger Games”. You can be taken out by so many variables. Your margin for error shrinks from small, to very slim, to none.)

camp3Only seven women entered the race and how proud was I of those six girls at the finish line! I was in great company. Bakiya gave the boys a stiff run for their money and finished in the top. Sanet made the Afrikaans girl in me proud with a very strong finish. Bridget ran the Himalayan 100 with me and is a true non-quitter with the best cleavage around. Annie, with the gorgeous curls, just kept walking like the wonderful Jonny Walker commercial. Laura was the veteran of the Kalahari and could hear the sand whisper as she passed. And finally Pam from Singapore showed that a tough girl can have the sweetest smile.

Spiderman was the sweeper behind the last runner. Can I just say one thing? I never want to be swept again. Ever. It screwed with my head space. I knew he was waiting for me. Sitting under a tree watching me struggle thru the endless sand. I would listen to his quad bike engine, needing him to speed up to come say hi, simultaneously wanting him to go away and let me fight thru my demons alone. He became a lifeline on day 2 when I was limping from tree to tree. He was my insurance policy that I was not lost. I’m grateful for his kindness when I needed it most, but I wish I was not swept. I wish I did not have someone who agreed with me at 1:25p on day 2 that it was perhaps not a good idea to continue.

day2_4After Doc Jann and I agreed that my patella tendon took a lot of stain from the steep climb out of a gorge, and that continuing may cause a more serious long-term injury, I was taken to the crew camp with several other racers that were the other casualties of day 2. No words were necessary to express the agony we felt. Our eyes told the story of the intense disappointment of a “dnf – did not finish – after many months of training and thousands of miles travelled to be at the race start. We all came to finish, but that day the Kalahari Desert had other plans for us as my fellow fallen comrades also suffered a combination of injuries, dehydration and illness.

I have struggled with my decision to quit endlessly and have second guessed myself over and over. Could I have gone on even with my knee injury? What if I just went to the next checkpoint? What if, what if, what if. ..  Ugh!! I met a seasoned racer recently who gave me sound advice: Never doubt the decision you made in the heat of battle. Trust that you knew best then. Looking back the picture always looks different. Ok. As I breathe . . . I did the right thing. I withdrew because it was the right decision under that thorn tree that day when it was hotter than hell, when I was limping with 125 miles and 5 days left, and with a pack that was 10 pounds too heavy. I accept my decision. Just breathe.

top1I have questioned my racing motives every day for five weeks while fighting with my gear bag. What do I want to achieve with ultra endurance racing? Is it really just about a T-Shirt and medal? To just finish? A race notch on my headboard?  Proving to myself that I’m alive post cancer, because I’m afraid of dying? NO!! I now know that it is my sport. It is what I love doing and I want to do it better. I want to give it my best shot and “just finish” is no longer enough. I love the places that the toughest races on earth take me. But above all else, I love the people I meet and the friends I make. I don’t want any more to be the wannabe pretend runner that tries to wing it. I want to show up at the start line prepared and ready to race. For real, for me, with no excuses.

(Side note: I’m fortunate to live near a state of the art performance center, Playtri, which is an official USA Triathlon Certified Performance Center, the highest honor USA Triathlon can bestow on a training facility. I needed some serious coaching and training as I obviously don’t have a clue how to train myself, and as of Dec 1st, I’m one of their new members. I have delegated my training regime to my coach Mo. Although stubborn, I do follow direction well, especially when I need plenty expert advice, guidance and help. After a month of hard work I just ran a personal best on Dec 30: 6 miles in an hour, 10min a mile! Wow! I can actually run!)

start2Failure never tastes good but I learned more about myself and what I want and need than had I finished this race and came back to Dallas wrapped in a T-Shirt with a trophy. The Kalahari Desert knew that I was not ready to graduate from its rocks, sand and hot terrain. It wanted me to come back when I was worthy and prepared to take on its sandy riverbeds, gorges, cliffs and heat. Thank you for a priceless gift.

I washed my gear bag and its contents on Dec 1st when I started training for my next race that I’m registered for: The Grand to Grand Ultra, September 2013. Running from the north rim of the Grand Canyon to the Grand Staircase in Utah. 167 miles over 7 days, 6 stages and again fully self-supported. Take note: I’m not showing up to “just finish”! I will be back to complete the Kalahari Augrabies Extreme Marathon in 2014 – the 15th anniversary of this great race, in an enchanted land, amongst strangers that became friends and family.

Endurance

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While at the University of Pretoria, South-Africa, I worked on Sunday nights at a restaurant that featured a Jazz band. Every Sunday night they dedicated “New York, New York” to me and every Sunday night I was re-infused with the intense desire to come to this great land of opportunity.

I had no idea how to make that happen but like much else in my life, I figured it would reveal itself. Little did I know that 25 years later I would run across New York City’s bridges and through all five boroughs in my first marathon. November last year I got my medal, my T-shirt and the right to say that I finished the NYC Marathon in 6 hours. But New York provided me with so much more. Over a 26.2 mile stretch, I touched the hands of many, and looked into the eyes of the hundreds of spectators that came out to cheer us on. Strangers shouting my name ducted taped to my chest . . . “Go, Henda, Go!” . . . It gave my legs the extra power to keep going. And it became the wings on my feet during the last 4 miles in Central Park to the finish.

But it was the runner at mile 11 that touched my heart the deepest and whose image is burned forever in my memory. I regret not stopping to ask his name and to share with him how much I admired his tremendous accomplishment. I regret not sharing with him how profoundly I was touched by his strength. With two artificial legs and both arms amputated above the elbow, it was his courage to race that remind me that we race because we can and not always to win.

Fast forward to springtime in Dallas. Why not participate in one of the toughest mud races in the world, the Tough Mudder? Well, to be accurate . . . Why The F Not? That was our team name when I convinced four friends to come crawl thru mud and scale walls with me and run 12 miles between obstacles. I learned about the Wounded Warrior Project and again my heart was touched by the team of men that started in our group. Their teammate raced with an amputated arm while carrying the Wounded Warrior flag. Once again I was left speechless by the tremendous ability for our spirits to soar if we allow greatness to enter our minds.

Once again I got my T-Shirt and the coveted orange head band. But this time at a steep price as I fell half a mile from the finish and got seriously hurt. It was on a half pike obstacle where the point was to run, leap and grab the arms of fellow Mudders. Unfortunately I slipped, and, unable to leap, slammed into the half pike face first. I blacked out with a possible concussion, broke two teeth, what looked like a broken nose and a blood pressure low enough to cause discussions of an airlift.

After 45 minutes in the medical tent I was stable and begging to finish the race. It took plenty pleading and crying to convince the staff to allow me to return to the place I was picked up. I walked the last half mile to the finish and earned my finisher headband and T-shirt with mud, blood and teeth dust on my face! It’s doubtful that I would ever do a mud race again.

Which brings us to the epic journey I’m about to embark on. The “Big Daddy” of South-Africa, the Kalahari Augrabies Extreme, a 155 mile ultra-endurance race over 7 days and 6 stages, fully self-supported. To quote from their website “Participants must carry all their supplies, clothes and compulsory safety/survival equipment for the duration of the event. Overnight shelter in camps, and water, which is strictly controlled and distributed during the race, is supplied. The event goes way beyond merely covering 250 kilometers in extreme conditions; it is a challenge to get past what normal people would regard as crazy, and achieve one’s personal goals.”

I have trained all summer in the convection oven of the Dallas heat. I have learned to accept 24 pounds of weight on my back while running, and to drink water heated by the midday sun to boiling point while letting my GPS compute the 50 miles a week I was putting on my feet. I have learned about nutrition and managing my hydration. When every ounce counts, you become a guardian to excess and a bean counter for every calorie that goes in the pack.

Here is why I love ultra-endurance racing . . . I love being pushed beyond my limits. I get off on that. I need it. I need the exercise regularly to remind myself that I can go beyond what may seem insane to most people. And I don’t get challenged enough just day-to-day. So, I need to take myself to a place where I can experience that sense of self over and over. Where I can come face to face with that force inside me that has guided me all my life, and know that it’s intact and solid. I find comfort to know that I have that strain of toughness in me that can endure and then go beyond. I love feeling that freedom from ordinary, from normal, from being part of the herd.

Am I ready? I don’t know. All I know is that I shall run/walk this race one checkpoint at a time. I shall surrender to the heat and the terrain, to the sand, and the weight of my pack pressing into my right breast scarred by my surgery and radiation. I shall willingly accept that it will take a “keep moving” attitude until I get to the finish. I shall think of the runner at mile 11 in NYC and of all the women that have battled and won their struggle with breast cancer. And I shall dedicate this race to the memory of all the women that lost their race with cancer. I shall complete this desert race for them because I can and I wish they did.

My most treasured gift this year is a bumper sticker from my daughter that reads “Why be normal?” Indeed. Why? It’s more fun not to be.

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