IT’S DECEMBER. IF YOU’RE A RUNNER, THIS MEANS MAKING PEACE WITH THE DARKNESS. You could always go inside and hit the treadmill. Resist the urge. There will be plenty of time for treadmill running next month when the farm country winter really digs its teeth in. December temperatures in Kansas City usually top out around 45. That’s still running shorts weather! Add a stocking cap and gloves, and the cool, crisp winter air will leave you refreshed and ready to hit it hard a half mile into your run once you’re warm and toasty.
But what about the darkness? With fewer daylight hours, you might need to mix up your warm season routine. If running alone in the dark feels feel eerie, you can always buddy up or join a group run. Check the IndieFit Daily Fix section to find local runs that span the dark months.
But the holiday season offers opportunities that aren’t usually mentioned in running magazines. For example, Christmas lights courses. Find a neighborhood that goes all out with the Christmas lights and design a course. You’ll be feeling sorry for the people packed in their cars who don’t get to soak up all the Christmas cheer that is better felt on foot. I like to run my Christmas lights course with my family. My daughter is much more into short sprints than continuous running, so sprinting from lit up house to lit up house makes for a fun game. Short walking rests allow her (and me) to rest and get a better look at the lights. Just make sure you are lit up as well (and I’m not necessarily talking egg nog!). Reflective clothing and a light will keep you safer on the streets.
If trail running is your thing, a good headlamp will help you see the trail in the dark. I’m still in search of the perfect headlamp. I’ve tried several of the less expensive $15 -20 lights, which work fine for me (although I’m prone to lumens-envy – everybody’s light seems a little bit brighter than mine, but I think it has more to do with forgetting to regularly replace the batteries). Kansas City has some fantastic trails and there are weekly group runs at several of them. Running down a wooded trail in the frosty winter air on a clear night with only light from your headlamp and the stars is great, and hitting the trails right after the first snowfall of the season — or during the snow itself — is one of those favorite winter experiences you can’t get on a treadmill.
Last year I went for a group run on the trails at Wyandotte County Park. I like to run with the men, so that night I was booking along through the woods on a leaf and snow covered trail faster than I’m normally comfortable with. About halfway into the run, I heard some of the guys ahead of us start cussing as they disappeared down a steep hill. Once I made it to the top of the rise and started down the other side, I found out what all the commotion was about. I fell on my butt and slid down the snow-covered hill determined not to get left in the lurch! At the bottom I got back on my feet and started back in. Sometimes you just have to go for it. Running fast and free at night with a group that’s faster than you can take you out of the day-to-day, and the added mindfulness necessary to prevent falling on your face can help you feel more connected with nature. Plus, you can feel good that you’re a badass who runs through the dark woods as temperatures dive below freezing.
December also has two really cool races at Wyandotte County Park, one on the roads, one on the trails. The Mid America Running Association puts on the Chili run on December 12th, 6.5 miles on a paved road that winds through the park. The Trail Nerds host the Alternate Chili Trail Run on December 5th, a 10 mile course on the park’s trail system. Both involve eating a warm bowl of chili afterwards.
The shorter December days make it even more important to get outside and soak up the fresh air of winter. It saps the cold and gloom of the season, and your hot shower and dry clothes will feel all that much cozier for the effort]]>
By Japhi Westerfield
ABOUT A YEAR AGO, TANYA KHVITSKO – WHO IS QUICKLY BECOMING ONE OF KANSAS CITY’S BEST KNOWN RUNNERS – went for a short three-mile jog south of KU Med Center on a familiar course. Somewhere near State Line and 42nd Street she fell hard. Tanya was trying out some new gear and had an equipment malfunction. When she woke up in the arms of a “cute police officer,” all she could think to do was profusely apologize for being sweaty. That’s how running in Kansas City seems to go for the 25 year old Lenexa grad student. Even injuries that result in a concussion come with an upside.
It wasn’t always that way. Tatsiana Khvitsko was born in Belarus, four and a half years after the Chernobyl nuclear disaster. After the explosion at the Soviet nuclear energy facility (which today is in modern Ukraine), the radiation cloud drifted north and Belarus took much of the resulting radiation. The health fallout from the unprecedented incident was profound. The blast caused 31 immediate deaths, mostly among plant workers and the fireman who fought the resultant blaze. The United Nations reported that nearly 5000 additional emergency workers died from longer term exposure over the next 15 years. Blast zones around the facility, where human activity is restricted and wildlife has moved in, include the Polesie State Radioecological Reserve that extends into Belarus. This and other no man’s lands stand in mute testimony to how the event froze time for many Soviet-era citizens.
But one of the guttural consequences of the disaster was the effect on children born in the fallout zones. The most common problems of these “Chernobyl babies” were thyroid issues, including thyroid cancer. But thyroid disease wasn’t the only malady attributed to the radiation. Khvitsko, who doctors both in Belarus and the US say is one of these Chernobyl babies, was born with missing limbs and deformed fingers on both hands. Before her first birthday she was already a congenital, “below the knee/above the knee” double-amputee. Her parents sent her to live in a boarding school for children with disabilities 300 km north of one of the most poisonous places on earth. She made her first baby steps when she was four years old using heavy wooden prostheses. Most of the time she got around on crutches.
Life improved when she turned five. While she was still living in the boarding school, a group of Kansas City area doctors, on a trip to Belarus with what was then called Project Restoration, learned of Khvitsko and came to examine her at the school. Eventually she was invited to travel to Kansas City for the summer to receive medical treatment and physical therapy. There she was fitted with better prostheses. The therapy helped, but she needed regular treatment, so the doctors arranged for her to start coming t o Kansas C ity every summer. She stayed with an American family who treated her like their own daughter. She started going by the name Tanya when she was stateside.
Khvitsko told me that from the very beginning people in the US treated her differently than back home in Belarus where she could never wear shorts or dresses in public because, as she said, her n e i g h b o r s there felt sorry for her. She never wanted anyone to feel sorry for her. Kansas City provided an opportunity for a life less defined by her disability. In 2008 her “American family,” as she now called them, helped her come to the Kansas City to enroll at Mid-American Nazarene College in Olathe. She’s been here ever since.
One day when she was at church, Khvitsko met another woman with prostheses. After studying Tanya’s equipment, the woman said she needed better quality walking legs. During her senior year of college she did some research and found a clinic in Florida that could help her get a new more advanced set of prostheses. She had hoped the new legs would provide better mobility – and a shot at running – but, even though they were far more comfortable than her older units, they still wouldn’t allow her to do anything more than walk. She spent several days at the clinic undergoing therapy and adjusting to her new legs. Then on the last day of her visit the doctors surprised her. Somebody had anonymously donated a blade for Tanya, and along with another prosthesis for the leg that was amputated below the knee, she now had a set of “running legs” as she calls them.
Tanya was elated. Remember, she had had never run before, not once. She told me, “I always tell people now, appreciate your legs. I never had a chance to run. I never had the legs to run. I didn’t even know what it felt like.”
The experience was electrifying.
“When I got a chance to run for the first time, that’s when my confidence went up as an individual and as a female. With my walking legs, I can wear jeans. I can wear long dresses. Nobody knows I have a prosthesis. But when I wear a blade, I can’t hide my legs. If I wore jeans it would look goofy, you know? So that’s when I realized, I am so much more powerful, so much stronger. I am beautiful in my own way because of those legs.”
But the running itself was what surprised her the most at first. For awhile it was the only thing she wanted to do. “When I first put on those running legs, I was running so fast, I felt like I was flying. This was the first time I’d ever run, and it felt like what I’d imagine flying must feel like. I always tell people, in some ways I am flying, because I have no feet. I have no legs at all, so with my blade, I’m really flying.”
That’s when her journey changed. Instead of being a disabled Chernobyl baby, Tanya had become an adaptive athlete. In 2012, a few months after she got her running legs, Tanya ran her first 5k. A year later she ran her first half marathon. Since then she’s been a non-stop runner, entering races almost every weekend. She was able to run right away, but it took her a couple of months to get thehang of her new running legs. In particular, compared to walking on prostheses, she had to strengthen her core. Many runners have issues with their knees, but for Tanya, it’s her core and lower back that take most of the pressure. With the blade, she had to learn how to balance, how to move her hips in order to will the blades to follow her direction. “When non-adaptive runners run, they don’t have to think about where their feet go. But for me, since I can’t feel where I step, I had to figure out how can I step on a big rock and not fall down.“
It was like a non-adaptive athlete trying to run on stilts. The blade doesn’t have any sensory feedback. Tanya had to teach herself an intermediate for feeling. It was all about controlling her upper body. “When I run, I use so much of my upper body and my lower back. I have to do a lot of ab work to make sure my core is strong.”
Tanya does group strength and conditioning classes at Real Fitness and Conditioning by the KU Med Center. Her current goal is not just to get faster but to run longer distances without stopping. The main challenge is her back. To run a 10k non-stop is the first step. She still has to walk during any distance longer than 6 miles, but she hopes through her conditioning work to overcome this. Like all runners, she’s had her injuries and setbacks. About a year ago she got a new running knee for her leg without the blade. That’s how she came to find herself in the arms of the policeman. On her first run, she was unaware that her prosthesis hadn’t been tightened properly. Something popped and she ended up on the ground with a mild concussion.
Tanya’s accomplishments include two Rock the Parkway half marathons and too many 5ks and 10ks to count. The half marathons were difficult. She has to keep her back in the same position for more than 13 miles. The first 10 miles were OK but the last three seemed impossible because she was in so much physical pain. For days after the race, her lower legs were so swollenand blistered, she couldn’t put on her prostheses. Moisture is the enemy of prosthetics users. Non-adaptive athletes can wear socks that absorb moisture and prevent blisters and rashes. For Tanya, if she’s sweating, the sweat just stays there until she takes off her prostheses.
In 2012 Tanya graduated with a degree in Corporate Communications. Now she’s enrolled at William Jewell working on a master’s degree. She admits, beyond helping others, she has no idea what she wants to do with her life. She’d like to work with amputees or, barring that, with anybody she can help, especially young girls struggling with self-esteem. She’s already doing it; she regularly gives talks to small groups in the area about her own struggle and how her experiences can help them.
Tanya has developed a special bond with her adoptive home. “I truly love my country. I love Belarus and I miss my family. But I love my adoptive country too, especially Kansas City. But look at me. I’ve been here seven years. Look how successful I’ve become, not just as an athlete but as an individual. I’m confident. I’m not afraid to open up and talk to people about my prostheses. I don’t think people feel sorry for me here, but back home in Belarus, I know they would, and it would close doors for me. I’d have to force myself to talk to people. People treat me there like I’m a special person, and I don’t need that. I’m getting my master’s degree now. And that’s what I try to tell adaptive athletes I meet. Don’t feel sorry for yourself, even if others do. We’re all adaptive. Whether you’re wearing glasses or I’m wearing prostheses, we’re all adapting to this world in some way. If you’re feeling sorry for yourself, you’re just bringing yourself down. There are times when I get upset, when I want to have legs. Look, I’m a girl. I’d love to wear heels. I’d love to wear a short dress where my legs would look fantastic. But because I wear prostheses, I get to meet so many people, and hopefully I help people. Chernobyl may have taken my legs from me, but it gave me so much more instead.”
She might not know what she wants to do with her life after graduate school, but she’s certain what her main running goal is: 26.2. She would love to break the female double-amputee record for the marathon. “Will I do it? I don’t know, but I’m going to go for it. I’m going to try my best,” she told me.
What’s certain is that she’ll have many area supporters as she works towards her goals. “When I run races, everybody just comes up to me. ‘Hey Tanya!’ I know so many people here now. Kansas City is my new home, I feel like I’ve grown up here, at least the most important part of my growing up, even if it came a little later than for most people. I love this place.”]]>
Photo by Zach Bauman
PARKVILLE NATIVE JERAMEY JORDAN IS IMPATIENT. He started working at Pro Athlete, Inc., the world’s largest Internet retailer of baseball bats, in high school and bought his first house at age 19. He couldn’t shake the thought that an idle four years hitting the books would amount to nothing more than an expensive pit stop, so after graduation Jordan put college on hold, worked ferocious hours at Pro Athlete, and on weekends turned his house into a house party.
The Freshmen 15, or in Jordan’s case the Freshmen 35, isn’t just for college kids. Decent paychecks, rivers of beer, and his hard working lifestyle brought success – and a weight problem. Jordan wrestled and pumped iron in high school, but never hung out with the track and cross country guys. Now he had to do something to lose weight, so he began running, took a breather from the house parties, and started logging serious road miles. Eventually he entered his first half marathon. Jordan was hooked.
That’s when he noticed what every observant weekend road racer knows, that each race is really two races, one for the people who line up within 25 feet of the starting line and one for everybody else. He also “pretty much figured that the guys who were going to win wore a singlet with the words ‘KC Smoke.’” So Jordan read everything he could on the Internet about running, got help from local coach Eladio Valdez, and focused in on a singular goal – to earn his own KC Smoke singlet. This would take a “Level B” qualifying time in a certified race longer than 800 meters. He had his work cut out for him.
Kansas City is a running town, no doubt about it. We have, per capita, more race finishers than any major city in the Midwest. Hospital Hill is one of the oldest, toughest half marathons in the nation (“Broadway” may be a place where the neon lights are bright, but for generations of KC runners it’s also the hill where your quads and calves once screamed out “Enough Already!”). 10 months a year runners can pick from a diverse menu of 5ks, road relays, half marathons, trail races, 100 mile ultras, mud runs, color runs (ambulating tie-die parties inspired by the Hindu Holi Festival with volunteers who launch paint and glitter bombs at participants), cancer fund raisers, and even one or two beer miles (combined drinking/running races that take place on a track and involve chugging a cheap beer at the beginning of each lap. Puke and you’re disqualified).
Just as great music towns overflow with mutton-chopped guitarists, wicked female drummers, and slackers who fill the clubs, they also usually have a great record label (like Seattle and Sub Pop). So it is with great running towns, but instead of a record label, great running towns have an elite training group, a tribe of top caliber speedsters who work parttime at running stores, coach middle school cross-country, get people psyched up about weird shoes like Vibrams and Hokas, and serve as local rock stars to the thousands of people lining up at weekend races. Portland has Alberto Salazar’s Nike Oregon Project, Mammoth Lakes has Team USA California group, Colorado has a half dozen colorfully named teams based in hipster mountain hamlets.
Our closest equivalent is the Kansas City Smoke. Officially certified an elite development team by USA Track and Field, the Smoke is a group of 30 or so men and women who have qualified at either Elite, A Standard, or B Standard levels. It also reflects in many ways how Kansas City matches up against other running towns.
There’s no really good metric for measuring a city’s running mojo. Linear miles of paved trails and Jerry Brownian pedestrian laws don’t work, nor does the gross domestic product of local running stores. You might think counting Olympians would be incisive, but the scarcity of Olympic spots – at most 3 for men and 3 for women in each of the 5 distance events longer than 800 meters – skews the story; the top American running town by that standard would be Elkhart, Kansas which has produced 2 Olympic medalists. It might be better to focus on the number of Olympic trials qualifiers a city can produce since every four years hundreds of very fast runners battle it out for the three spots in each distance event. Using this metric, Kansas City’s running capital might be growing.
The Smoke launched 8 years ago with the goal of developing runners for the Olympic trials. If Kansas City ever makes it into the top echelon of running towns, Randy Wasinger will deserve part of the credit. The KC Smoke director is quick to point out that, although the Smoke hopes to send athletes to the Olympic Trials, “we are not a true elite team – we’re one notch below that. All of our runners are self-coached, or work with their college coach. The girls and guys on the team are there because they want to keep their competitive running dream alive.” It’s a po werful bond.
Marathon running is incredibly popular – almost 500,000 people f i n i s h e d a US M a r a t h o n last year – but it can be hard to make ends meet if you are on the elite end of the sport. All but a handful of professional distance runners in the US aren’t much better off than bass players in alt.country bands who have to travel around in vans and live off merch sales. That’s where the Smoke comes in. After taking over as director 2 years ago, Wasinger polished the team’s operational strategy and landed a few key sponsorships. The money is used to defray costs for Elite and A Standard runners when they travel to races like the USA Track and Field Nationals. At meets and big races across America, people in running circles are beginning to notice the Smoke. Wasinger said “If you ask about Kansas City, people know we have a great running scene. The Smoke is about development. When a runner gets fast, we’re happy if he can graduate to some of the more elite programs. But Kansas City has a great reputation.”
Most of the Smoke runners live in the metro, but the team also draws from nearby towns. At least twice a week, Joe Moore and Kory Cool train together on the gravel roads outside Manhattan, Kansas. Moore, who grew up on a farm in Green, Kansas, population 128, is a mostly full-time runner. Little Apple native Cool coaches at Manhattan High. On their long runs, Cool said they have different strategies for dealing with rural dogs who won’t take no for an answer – Cool hurls rocks while Moore uses a back-off-now-dog voice that sounds a little like Hulk Hogan when he points his finger and shouts “You!” but without the scarf.
Last year, Cool trained for the Ft. Collins marathon, a race that starts at 6500 feet and drops downhill into the city. Two weeks before the race he entered the Abilene marathon, really just to get in a long pre-race training run. He won. The next weekend, again for training, he entered the Garmin Marathon in Olathe. He won that too. On the third consecutive weekend, Cool took first place in the Ft. Collins race, finishing 5 minutes faster than the second place runner. His times for the three respective marathons: 2:36, 2:35, and 2:34.
But even a 2:30 marathon and a trifecta of wins isn’t enough to make the 2016 Olympic Trials. Joe Moore, Cool’s running buddy, has already qualified with an insanely fast 1:03 finish at the Houston Half Marathon last year. Moore finished 56th in the 2012 Olympic trials marathon. His marathon PR is 2:19. Moore is laid back about his accomplishments and says he’s “still trying to figure out the marathon.”
2:19 is in the top 1% of the top 1% of marathon times, but still a few minutes off what it will take to make the Olympic team. This raises the general issue of goals in running. Besides the personal goal to get faster, what shared standards do runners have? Until 1970, making the Olympic team was the only goal for marathon runners. Then the Boston Marathon instituted qualifying times and became a new milestone for fast runners too slow for the Olympics. Since then, the Olympic trials has become an end in itself. Every year the list of new goals worth pursing gets longer.
Smoke member Aaron Davidson, who is only 3 minutes shy of a 2016 Olympic marathon trials qualifying time (using the half marathon option), said, “We’re really blue collar runners. We work full time and find time to train on the side. To really try to make the trials, I’d have to quit my job, hire massage therapists, and work with a coach. But another goal I can try for is the elite gate of the Chicago marathon. Or a top finish at USA track and field. If I didn’t have the benefits the Smoke offers, I wouldn’t be able to spend $400 to travel to race. We just had our first kid. This helps me feel like I’m still in the game.”
A Smoke veteran since the early days, Davidson said, “We’re trying to find more runners who can make our B standards who we can develop to work their way up to the A group and go to nationals. We’re really a development team.”
To attract B Standard runners, the Smoke is getting involved in the community. They help at Tuesday night track sessions organized by the Kansas City Track Club, their primary sponsor. Davidson spoke at the “Running on Solid Ground” series. They volunteer at local races. They’re trying to be more than just the fast guys who show up and win.
This benefits runners like Jeramey Jordan. After months of effort, he finally cracked the B Standard and earned his singlet by running a 4:46 mile at the Kansas City Corporate Challenge, representing Pro Athlete, Inc. where he’s now Facilities Manager. He regularly joins the faster guys for workouts. “These turn out to be mini races for me, just to see if I can keep up. But I’m getting faster. I’ve run the Boston Marathon three times, and my marathon’s down to 2:52 (he finished an hour before the bombs exploded at the 2013 race, barely missing the mayhem at the finish line)”. He’s done USA Nationals, and even pitched in and competed in the steeple chase (without knowing how to hurdle) and race walk (without knowing how to race walk – but who the heck knows how to race walk?). Jeramey Jordan is impatient though, he’s not satisfied to just chase the fast guys. He’s run 11 marathons and 26 half marathons since 2010. One race at a time, he keeps chipping away at the gap between his current PR and the A Standard qualifying time.
Jordan said, “The running community in KC is getting huge. You see a thousand people at every race, and there are six races every weekend. People get together after the races, they get brunch, or go to one of the cool coffee shops. The running scene in Kansas City is starting to really pick up. Hopefully more people will join the Smoke and get f aster.”
Nurturing its B Standard symbolizes what the Smoke does for Kansas City – it’s a trickle down thing. More B standard runners will help the Smoke support more elite runners. More elite runners will help drive participation in big races. Big races will fill up local restaurants and motivate those restaurants to offer healthier fare – and a better IPA selection. All of this will give city officials justification for building new running trails and promoting Kansas City’s mojo as a running town that’s starting to blur the difference between runners who line up within 25 feet of the starting line and everybody else.
To find out more about the Kansas City Smoke’s B Standard qualifying times, visit their website: http:// www.kansascitysmoke.org.]]>