Local marathoners reflect on what makes them run

Distance runners test their strength, endurance and willpower

On Monday, April 21, more than 60 runners from Menlo Park to Mountain View will join 36,000 fellow runners in the 118th Boston Marathon.

For some, it will be their first time to run in one of the country's most competitive and popular races. Many will strive to break personal records and meet the goals they have trained months for. And for a few, it will be a chance to return to the race they were unable to finish after last year's dual bombings that killed three people and injured 264.

"It's something we feel we have to do," said Judith Taksa Webb, a nine-year Boston Marathon veteran who will be running her 10th and final Boston race Monday. "Runners are brave, they really are, and strong-willed."

Webb is just one of a countless number of local runners who thrive in a race that is the ultimate test of endurance and willpower on body and mind.

"You see a lot of people whose goal is simply to finish a marathon, right? To say I did this really hard, universally acknowledged difficult activity," runner William Lane said.

Runners have their own personal reasons why they push their bodies to run 26.2 miles and prove what they are capable of; these are a few of their stories.

Lori Shoemaker

While living in Boston, Lori Shoemaker, 45, decided to make a lifelong dream come true and ran her first marathon in 2009.

She went on to run the Los Angeles Marathon in 2012 and returned to Boston in 2013.

Last year, the Palo Alto resident was running with three teammates from the Friends of the Public Garden team to fundraise for Boston's public parks. It was supposed to be her third and final marathon.

But a half-mile away from the finish line, Shoemaker was suddenly stopped by the wall of fellow runners who had been forced to abruptly end the race, urgently trying to make phone calls to family and friends following the bombings.

In the surrounding chaos, Shoemaker had no idea that one of her teammates, Allison Byrne, had been seriously injured by the second bomb as she was running towards the finish. A large piece of the pressure cooker bomb had blown off and become embedded in her leg.

"We didn't hear the blast," she said. "Coming down from the underpass you take a right. There are so many people cheering you. At that point, everyone had a weird look on their face."

Shoemaker, who had previously worked in the conflict zones of Uganda, Yugoslavia and Albania for the International Committee for the Red Cross, was struck by the violence of a terrorist event so close to home.

"I had worked in conflict zones. I was used to land mines. But this was different. When you are in a conflict zone you expect and prepare for it. This was in peacetime. This was hard to reconcile," she said.

A few months later, in June, Shoemaker returned to Boston to visit Byrne after she had some time to recover and wanted to reconnect with her teammates. While in town, Shoemaker and fellow teammate Brian Ladley returned to the site of the bombing to run the last half mile where the finish line would have been.

"It was very much beyond a moving experience. You realize how close you were," she said. She had stopped along the way to get the feeling back in her toes. Those few extra minutes had prevented her from becoming a victim, she said.

Like many of the other 5,700 runners who did not get to finish, Shoemaker will be returning to Boston this year to finish what she started.

"It's really important to be able to say you finished it," she said. "You don't go through something like this and say 'goodbye.' It's still very raw. It's really terribly emotional.

"What's really encouraging is that there are a lot of runners signed up, and they will not be afraid. At this year's race, there isn't going to be one empty inch for 26 miles."

Judith Taksa Webb

At the age of 36, Judith Taksa Webb said she came in touch with her own mortality after losing a close friend to melanoma.

Seeking to change her lifestyle, Taksa Webb was influenced by a new "boom" of running culture in the late 1970s and the urging of her husband at the time to try running.

Between classes for her bachelor's and master's degrees from San Francisco State University and raising her two children, Taksa Webb soon found herself running three to 10 miles, five to six days a week and became a self-described running addict. Referring to her ex-husband, she said jokingly,"He sort of created a monster."

At first, she began racing 5 and 10k's every weekend; she then moved on to half marathons. In 1989, at the age of 46, with the urging of her good friend, former Bay to Breakers Race Director Len Wallach, she signed up for her first full marathon in Honolulu, Hawaii, a feat she had never deemed possible up to that point.

Taksa Webb finished the race in three hours and 46 minutes. She described the experience of running such a long distance race for the first time:

"It's like having a baby; sometime between mile 16 to 20 you say, 'What am I doing here? This is horrible, and I'll never do it again.' Then as soon as you cross the finish line you can't wait to train for another one."

Approximately 50 marathons later, the Woodside resident said she is "starting to lose count" on the number of races she has completed. For her 70th birthday last September, she ran the Blackmores Sydney Marathon and was the oldest woman in the entire race.

She has faced her fair share of injuries and setbacks, including a pulled hamstring, pelvic stress fracture and hyponatremia after running in 88-degree heat at the Boston Marathon in 2004, which landed her in the hospital. Even after an intensive surgery last year, Taksa Webb hasn't been deterred and runs an average of two or so marathons each year.

"Running marathons is not a natural thing to do to your body. But there's something beautiful and painful that happens. It's purposeful, and there's something beautiful about moving the body in nature -- to me that's the ultimate," she said.

And for the past 20 years, Taksa Webb has shared her love of running by organizing weekly trail runs from Woodside to Huddart Park through her organization, Vintage Athletic Association. She is passionate about promoting the visibility of older runners and has made it her mission to establish more age-specific divisions in competitions beyond the 60-and-up range.

"It's almost like creating your own family," she said, reflecting on her running community. "Runners tend to share a lot of values; they're usually educated; they're adventurous; they're health-oriented -- and they're a little bit nuts in a good way."

Tim Wong

In 2005, Palo Alto resident Tim Wong, 51, was working abroad in Hong Kong and looking for a new challenge in midlife.

A casual runner, he found himself drawn to the strategy and formal structure of training for a half marathon in which he could gradually work towards his goal one week at a time.

"In running a marathon or a half marathon you need to have a program, you can't just get up and do it," he said. "So you plan it ... building the foundation and working on strength, at the same time building endurance.

"That builds clear structure and that was really exciting. It's like wow, just plan it and do it and there you go, you achieve your goal. Plan it and do it -- it's very simple."

The plan is what Wong calls his "blueprint" for helping him to achieve his running goals over the past nine years. After he finished a Hong Kong half marathon, he went on to complete 10 marathons, two triathlons and a few ultra marathons. He said the methodology he applies in training for and completing races has expanded to how he tackles problems in his professional and personal life.

"As you do endurance sports, a lot of it is mental. The muscles are there, but can you stay focused during the race? To stay focused for a few hours is something that we're not used to," he said. "It gives you confidence in life that you can have that focus and stay the course."

Wong will be running the New York City Marathon this fall and is currently training for another triathlon near Vancouver, Canada. Wong reflects on that first race in Hong Kong, which has kept him inspired to keep running races.

"Everyone was out there with different interests and goals. ... They're doing something that is (an) additive to their life, doing something that would enrich their lives, and it was very energizing to be with others who are at the same destination -- partners in a destination."

Zachi Baharav

After running for 23 hours straight up an endless series of steep trails and twisty roads over the span of 100 miles, half in the pitch black, "You really get to know your body," said Zachi Baharav.

Baharav, 49, is an ultra marathon runner. He has run 10 marathons and 25 ultra marathons, which typically range anywhere from 30 to 100 miles.

Growing up in Tel Aviv, Israel, Baharav would take every opportunity to be outside and run, hike and backpack. When he moved to Palo Alto with his wife in 1998 he joined local running clubs and started running all over the Peninsula. He ran his first marathon in San Jose but developed cramps at mile 18 and hit the wall.

Discouraged by how painfully his race had finished, he said, "I thought there must be a better way to do that," and he began training for a second marathon. When he was out on a group run, a friend told him about the Western States 100 Mile Endurance Run that runs from Squaw Valley to Auburn, Calif.

Unfazed by the amount of mileage, Baharav was drawn to the less competitive nature of ultra-marathon runs, which require more endurance, self-sufficiency and patience versus the speed and technique of road marathons.

"When you're on the road, you kind of have to keep pace, like, 'Oh, I ran this mile so fast and that one so slow,'" he said. "Whereas on the trails there's nothing like that. You can't compare a mile going uphill with a mile going downhill."

Baharav calls his long runs his "morning meditation." He embraces the long hours as a time to be by himself out in nature to clear his mind.

"You have time to think about everything," he said. "You get into the zone and just fly.

"It helps you put everything in perspective about what's important or what's not important in life. You resolve it somehow."

Baharav is also trying to share his joy of long-distance running with fellow runners by organizing a few "adventure runs" around the Peninsula. About once a year he leads his own version of San Francisco's Bay to Breakers race, starting from the Palo Alto Baylands, winding through Woodside and finishing in Half Moon Bay.

He encourages runners to explore trail connections they weren't aware of before.

"It's a much more spiritual experience being out there out on the trails," he said. "This perspective of ultra and connecting far-away places is something that transcends running in some sense."

Jordi Perez

Jordi Perez's goal is to run around the world.

Since 2006, the 36-year-old SRI International chemist has been keeping a log of all the miles he has run, hoping to one day reach the nearly 25,000-mile goal.

Perez hasn't always been a runner. Growing up in Barcelona, he played basketball regularly and was seeking the same thrill of competition when he moved with his wife to Menlo Park eight years ago.

"This is a way, as long as you're healthy, you can keep the competition going forever because you just set yourself a goal," he said.

After completing a half marathon, Perez challenged himself to run the San Francisco Marathon in 2008 with the intent to run a faster race than his father had years prior in Spain.

But he was caught off guard by how under-trained he ended up being when he hit the dreaded "wall."

"It was terrible," he explained. "The last two miles I thought, 'I'm never going to make it.'"

When he went home for Christmas that year, he endured some teasing from his father, who was able to maintain the family record for a little longer.

"I was getting a lot of crap from him," Perez laughed.

The experience of that first race and the subsequent eight marathons he has finished has given Perez a humble and flexible attitude.

"There's always something, at least in my experience, that goes wrong in the race. The perfect race doesn't exist," he said. "You get tired or didn't hydrate enough. ... It happens often that you train for many months and then you go there and try to do your best and it can go really bad. ... If you're really passionate about this and put a lot of effort into this it can many times be frustrating."

The upside though, Perez said, is that it's extremely rewarding and fulfilling when a runner has a good race, knowing all the factors that could go wrong -- and it's what keeps him running towards his goal to run around the world. So far, he's 34 percent of the way there.

Joanie Burnside

For most of her life, Mountain View resident Joanie Burnside, 56, always wanted to run.

Born with an atrial septal defect, she had a hole in her heart for the majority of her life.

As a child she was forbidden to participate in any form of athletic activity by protective parents who worried she would collapse. In recent years, her health started to wane as she became more fatigued and struggled with pneumonia.

After the encouraging of her doctor in 2009, she underwent open heart surgery to have the hole and a valve repaired. Since then, she said she has been given "a new life."

"Getting this new heart for me and being able to do things physically that I'd never thought I would be able to do is really a gift, a huge gift for me," she said. "I never thought I'd be running 14 miles at a time. I mean, that was nothing I ever expected to do."

With her new life, Burnside set a goal for herself to run a marathon. In 2010, she ran the Nike Women's Marathon in San Francisco. Then, she thought she'd go for another one and completed the Morgan Hill Marathon the year after. She again ran the Nike Women's in 2013, but stopped after mile 20 after realizing she would not be able to finish the race in the allotted time. She will be running the Big Sur International Marathon on April 27, which she says will most likely be her last marathon.

During the hours-long training runs, which she refers to as a "second job" along with her first as a nurse, Burnside said she uses the time to reflect on her faith to help her get through the mileage.

"When I'm running, that's my prayer time; I pray for a lot of different people and a lot of different things, and he teaches me things as I'm running. It's like my way of listening and hearing from him," she said.

Though Burnside is dealing with a foot injury that she worries will impede her Big Sur race, she said running marathons, for her, has never been about shattering personal records.

"I don't want to run for pride. I live that God would be honored through my life and if running honors him then I've met my goal. If I run for pride, then it's useless."

William Lane

When asked why he loves running, William Lane, 27, jokingly cited the famous exchange of Mount Everest climber George Mallory, who, when asked why he wanted to climb Everest, simply stated, "because it's there."

Lane was raised in an active family in Asheville, N.C. He began running track and cross country in high school but didn't get into distance running until moving to Stanford University for his graduate degree in 2012.

When he moved to California, he was seeking a way to get to know the area better through a local running group.

One day, he happened to walk by the university bookstore and met Ph.D. student Tom Parise, who was wearing a Stanford Running Club T-shirt.

Lane joined and quickly found himself in the long-distance wing of the student group. Encouraged by many of his marathoner friends in the group, he began racing competitively and trained to get faster and faster.

"It was very much a peer effect. I was around people who were excited about racing, especially long-distance racing, and I fit the bill," he said.

With Parise and another friend from the group, he ran his first marathon, the San Francisco Marathon, in 2013 with a time of two hours and 53 minutes. All three ran a race that qualified them for the Boston Marathon this year. But the last six to seven miles had been physically and mentally tough to get through, he said.

"The last six to seven in my first full (marathon) I was thinking, 'This is miserable, this is miserable, this is miserable, I want this to be over, I want this to be over, I want this to be over,' but then I crossed the finish line and the first thing you think is, 'Why didn't I go faster?' It's kind of funny," he said.

To get ready to run Boston this year, Lane has been training consistently with Parise. On weekends they usually do long runs, averaging about 20 miles, from Stanford to Los Altos Hills, the Purisima Creek Redwoods or Russian Ridge open space preserves.

"We often joke to each other and say, 'Which direction do you want to run?'" Lane said, remarking on the beauty and proliferation of good running routes in the area.

"I think even people who have spent their whole lives hating running are sort of willing to give it a chance when they come here because everyone else runs," he said. "And you can't beat this place for any kind of running training. This is it; this is the place to be. We have year-round running weather."

Jenna Boren

On a recent afternoon at Printer's Cafe on California Avenue, Menlo Park resident Jenna Boren, 37, fondly recalls the experience of running her first marathon. It was her first year out of college, and at 22 she was running the MedTronic Twin Cities Marathon in Minneapolis, Minn. In the crisp October air she and the array of runners of all ages and abilities ran past scenic lakesides and tree-lined streets, cheered on by hundreds of spectators.

"It's somewhat of an emotional experience," she said. "You feel like you've finished something huge and there's just so much energy from all the people."

That shared experience, she says, is what triggered her love of marathons. "I thought I'd run just one marathon and be done," she said. "But I kind of just got hooked on running and the people I was around. It became my social environment, and so here I am 15 years later and still doing it."

With a background running on the national qualifying cross-country team for four years at Saint Olaf College, Boren started focusing on refining her speed and strength and ran faster and faster.

In sub-zero Minnesota temperatures, she would force herself to get out and train with four layers of running tights on. Her dedication paid off when she reached a personal milestone in 2006 at the Grandma's Marathon in Duluth, Minn., and qualified for the 2008 U.S. Olympic Trials in Boston.

At the trials she struggled with a foot injury, but says she embraced the opportunity "just to say I did it." Boren went on to qualify for the 2012 U.S. Olympic Trials in Houston, which she ran, and is currently working with her coach to gain a spot in the 2016 trials in Los Angeles. Just to qualify for the trials' "B" standard, Boren has to run a 2:43 (two hours and 43 minutes).

Through the approximately 25 to 30 races she has finished, Boren has endured a lot of personal victories. But one marathon seems to have the most lasting impact on her memory. In 2007 she ran the New York City Marathon. The day before, like many other elite runners, she had gathered to watch the men's U.S. Olympic Trials and learned that veteran runner Ryan Shay, 28, had died suddenly during the race. The tragedy stunned the close-knit running community, and many grappled to fully understand what had happened.

"It's hard to believe when you think you're this healthy and something like this could happen," she said.

She describes the conflicting emotions the next day of having to cope with the tragedy in contrast to the excitement leading up to her race. "It was so weird going out and running a marathon the next day, yet I was among the best runners of the world including the world record holder and former world record holder," she said. "It was just very overwhelming."

Presently, the full-time chiropractor and active release provider is finding the time to do two runs a day as part of her intensive training schedule and will be cheering on her husband who is running Boston this year.

"If I didn't enjoy it, I wouldn't keep doing it," she said. "It's a lot of work."

Jason Golbus

Jason Golbus inherited a love of running from his father from a young age. In their hometown of Chicago, his father would frequently race 10ks and also ran the Chicago Marathon a few times back when it was a "dinky" race of about 4,000 runners (it now attracts about 40,000). And when he was 12, the pair would run 5ks together.

In high school he ran cross country and track but set his goal on running a marathon one day. In 1999, he made that goal a reality when he completed the Chicago Marathon. But he wasn't satisfied with just running one.

"The first one you do just to see if you can finish, and once you finish it, you want to see how fast you can go," he said.

For the past 15 years and with 20 marathons behind him, Golbus has made running the long races a big part of his life. "It becomes a lifestyle, you're spending so much time training and seeing the people you train with all the time -- it becomes a real social outlet."

Golbus typically runs with a regular group of friends for a long Sunday run at the Rancho San Antonio Open Space Preserve as well as the weekly runs around Palo Alto coordinated through the Palo Alto Running Club (P.A.R.C). And on his lunch break, he often goes for an hour-long run near his office in Santa Clara.

"I don't ever have to motivate myself and run. It's just a matter of trying to find the time," he said.

His running has even led him to serve as a sort of running ambassador when he was extended the offer to run the marathon in Palo Alto's sister city of Tsuchiura, Japan, in 2013. Together with his wife and kids, the family was taken out for meals and sightseeing by their hosts. "They took really good care of us."

He describes the course in the city located an hour outside of Tokyo as "really pretty country" filled with rolling hills, farmland, a lake and little villages.

"There are a lot of perks to living in Palo Alto, and that was a really cool experience," he said.

Related stories:

New trails spell bright future for Palo Alto runners


Like this comment
Posted by Stephanie M.
a resident of Charleston Meadows
on Apr 19, 2014 at 2:48 pm

I very much enjoyed reading this. Love the personal stories of why people run!

Like this comment
Posted by musical
a resident of Palo Verde
on Apr 20, 2014 at 6:21 pm

10k is enough for me. Annual Morgan Hill AAUW Wildflower run (last weekend), and annual PA Weekly Moonlight run (in the Fall). Incentive to maintain a moderate level of fitness, and quantitative data points thereof.

Are the high-mileage runners doing any long-term damage to themselves?

Like this comment
Posted by Yupp
a resident of Palo Alto Hills
on Apr 21, 2014 at 1:32 pm

They often do damage to themselves. My uncle retired recently after decades as a cardiologist. He saw many, many long distance runners die suddenly because they either:

Think they can eat whatever they want because they burn so many calories, and clog their arteries.

Overtrain and do literal damage to their heart muscle, even causing cardiac sagging.

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

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