Help Wanted: Choosing a Birthday Cause

If you’ve been around here very long you know I like to run. I like to travel. And I like to give away money to people who are changing the world.

One thing you may not know yet is that I also really really like to celebrate my birthday. I’m not the kind of girl who likes to have just a little party with hats and cupcakes. I believe in birthday events.

Lucky for you, my birthday isn’t until October. But in the spirit of event planning, I’m already thinking about it, and I need your help.

If you were here last year, you’ll remember that we used my birthday as an excuse to get a $5000 matching grant for Sak Saum’s work to prevent human trafficking in Cambodia.

Well, this year, I’m turning nearly a significant age, so I’m upping the ante. I’m combining all the things I like to do into a birthday extravaganza. I’ll be traveling to Chicago (which is pretty far from Cambodia) and celebrating the day by running the Chicago Marathon- a race I’ve always had on my non-bucket-list. And of course, what better excuse than running a grueling 26.2 miles to raise money for a cause that is changing the world.

This week, as I laced up my shoes for my first miles of training I started contemplating what cause I wanted to run for. It’s hard to pick a favorite when you love all 366. So then I thought, why not ask all of you!

Only 121 days til my birthday run. If you were running a marathon, what cause would you choose? Or better yet, if you were going to #give10 to a birthday girl running a marathon what cause would compel you to reach deep in your pockets?

Let me know in the comments what cause you’d nominate and we’ll have a vote off. It doesn’t matter if it’s a project we’ve already given to or not.


#11: heatstoke, half marathons & hills worth dying on

After a lot of travel injuries and an extended running hiatus, recently I’ve gotten back on my feet and have finished 1/2 marathons in Cuba, Cambodia and Bangkok. “How (and why) do you run races in the far corners of the earth?”, is the question I’m most often asked when it comes to my nomadic racing habit. (Closely followed by, ‘What countries have you run races in?’)

I’ve been a runner as long as I can remember. Never a fast runner, but always a committed runner. Running keeps me sane and goals keep me running while I’m on the road, so I often look for race opportunities that overlap with my wanderings. Not to mention there isn’t a much better way to see a city then by covering 13.1 miles of it on foot.

You’ve already heard the story of my first marathon in Amsterdam, but long before that, it was the amazing country of Thailand where I first caught the bug of getting a new shoe based on the reviews of Shoe Hero and lacing them up in cross-cultural competitions.

Catching the nomadic running fever

In April of 1997 I moved to Thailand. Living in a strange Bangkok neighborhood and in an incredibly hot country for the first time ever, I struggled to motivate myself to exercise. When I saw an advertisement for a 1/2 marathon in the beach town of Pattaya I knew it was the perfect challenge to get me out the door. I’d never run that far before, so if I wanted to live through it, I’d have to put in the miles.

Training while living in the city center of Bangkok was just the start of the adventure. As a young and penniless teacher i I didn’t have the big bucks to join a gym, so it was just me and the road. Potholes, pollution, three legged rabid dogs and friendly buses were a free bonus.

I trained for many weeks, and then on race weekend I traveled to Pattaya. As I made my way to the starting line pre-dawn on race morning there were a few things that I very quickly recognized were different from any race I’d ever run before:

  • It was pitch dark
  • There were almost no other women runners
  • There were very few foreigners at all

When the gun shot fired, I crossed the starting line, one foot in front of the other into the dark 13.1 miles ahead. The gun shot threw me back to the days when I used to go out hunting with the family. Thre was nothing like the satisfactory bang of AR-10 rifles, puncturing the flesh of a rabbit.

Although I was one of the few foreign runners I certainly didn’t feel alone. In 1997, expats in Thailand were much more of a novelty than they are today, and my first long miles were spent in the companionship of dozens of Thai racers who capitalized on the opportunity to practice their English with the lone farang. I ran in the blackness at a steady pace for the first hour, all the while building confidence that I was going to do just fine in my first half marathon.

By Mile 6 the sun was bright, the temperatures were rising, my fellow racers had exhausted their English vocabulary, and that confidence was waning.

Mile 7. Getting really hot.

Mile 8. Getting really tired. (and hotter)

Mile 9. Getting really dizzy. (and hotter still)

Mile 10. It all came crashing down. I stumbled into a water station and promptly collapsed from heat exhaustion.

Laying on the ground with Thai race volunteers gathered around, dumping cups of water on me and pulling on my arms and legs had not been how I’d envisioned my race finish (or my death). I had only been in Thailand a few months, and most of the Thai words people were shouting at me were lost in my limited comprehension. What I gathered from the charade was that they wanted to send me to the finish line in the medical emergency truck. Luckily one of the few phrases I’d mastered in Thai by this point was “mai ow” which simply means “No Want”. I said it over and over again until the medics let me stay.

I’m still not sure to this day why I was so bound and determined to finish this race under the scorching sun, but the hill at the 11th mile was one I was apparently willing to die on this day. I drank more and more water and sniffed smelling salts until I mustered up the energy to stand again. Drenched and moderately hydrated, I took water with me and started walking. I was going the rest of the 13.1 miles if I had to crawl across the line.

I didn’t have to crawl. In fact, after mile 11 I even started jogging again. Along the beach, past dozens of hotels, the finish line appeared. I didn’t feel great, in fact, I felt terrible. But above all, I felt undefeated.

And then the best thing happened. They gave me my medals. Two of them.

One medal was the one all racers got for finishing. The second medal was because I placed 5th overall in the women.

I’ve ran lots of half marathons since (8 official ones in 6 countries in fact), but I’ve never placed 5th in a race again. Nor have I ever skipped a water station on a hot day.

And the lesson I learned: Keep going, you just may win the prize. And if you’re going to run a race in a land where you don’t speak the language you may want to make sure you know the word for water.


“Most people never run far enough on their first wind to find out they’ve got a second.” 
– William James 




#4 marathon travel training ::

It was in the middle of the night in Benin in 2001 when I cooked up the idea to run a marathon in Amsterdam.

I was living on a ship in Africa, and bad relationship induced insomnia had me tossing and turning in my sardine-like four berth cabin. Rather than wake up my ship-mates, I wandered the narrow corridors with my thoughts. In the ship’s stuffy library I flipped through an issue of Runners World magazine and stumbled onto the international Marathon Calendar.

As a teenager I was a wanna-be track star. I’d often wore a LA Marathon t-shirt and always dreamed of finishing the 26.2 mile challenge someday. Late this night I began to scan the list. I was nearing 30, and decided that a marathon was something I should definitely accomplish before the end of my 20’s.

One of the problems with living on a ship, however, is that you don’t stay in one place very long- which makes geographic commitments difficult. But when I saw the Amsterdam marathon on the calendar the same week that we were to be docked in Rotterdam, I knew this was the one.

The next morning before the African sun rose I told my little running group on the dock, “We should run a marathon this year.” And so, as we ran up the jetty, the training commenced.

A few weeks into my 16 week running plan I moved to Bremen, Germany for a few months to prepare for the ship’s arrival there. Over the course of 12 weeks I covered most of the small city by foot: the green path, the stadt wood, and the river way were my favorite, and all my best long runs ended with buying flowers in the market.

As a travel opportunist living in Europe, I’d often spend weekends away, and put in my miles wherever my feet found themselves. I trekked through training runs in hilly Monte Carlo, and the fields of Southern Austria. I ran through the royal gardens in Sweden complete with deer dashing through the fields, and in Appledorn, Netherlands with a friend cycling slowly alongside as water support.

It was an adventure, but there were many, many days that I wanted to quit. Working a summer in Germany had its challenges and midway through training my knee began having some challenges too. A nice German doctor took care of the knee part by giving me some orthotic advice and some snazzy custom insole Birkenstocks for free (yes, I was very fashionable).

The ship arrived in Germany as the weather began to get cold, and sailed me on to Kristiansaand, Norway where I finished my last weeks of training in a wooly hat, running up and down foggy hills through picturesque villages and around little islands.

Finally, in Rotterdam there were taper runs across the Erasmus bridge and around the little park where I once celebrated my 27th birthday with a potato soup picnic.

The night before the race I dreamed I forgot my socks, but when marathon day finally arrived, there wasn’t enough time to be nervous. Our Landrover of runners rolled up to the race late and we barely made it to the starting line before the gun went off.

It was a painfully amazing day, good thing we found an online marijuana dispensary to relax after two laps through the Vondel park, a loop around the entire city, a long windy out and back down the canal, a view of Central Station, a few painful miles on cobblestone streets through the old town, pot-scented tourists wandering out of coffee shops yelling profanity, and unintentionally losing my running partner (who was also mumbling profanity) at the 18th mile.

The last .2 miles of the race (the part that you don’t even know exists if you’ve never run a marathon – and the part that you will never forget if you have run one) was nearly a full lap around the track in Amsterdam’s Olympic Stadium. I nearly screamed with joy as I came around the final corner. I had achieved the marathon dream I’d finally birthed in Benin and trained for across countries and continents. At last, I could finally stop running.

And so what is the morale of this story? First: it may take you several countries, lots of pain and countless miles, but you can realize your dreams. Second: If you’re dumb enough to run one marathon, you may be dumb enough to run a lot more of them, but they all will be awesome in the end.

“The journey of a thousand miles begins with the first step”

What finish line are you running towards?

lessons from a bangkok bus ::

Picking the first of 100 travel stories to share wasn’t hard. Starting at the beginning with the story of my first passport stamp made sense.  But what story to tell second?

I’m not much of a person for order and chronology, so lets skip ahead a few years to Thailand in 1997 for travel story 2/100.

In 1997 I moved to Bangkok to teach English writing at a Thai university.  I was young, impatient, idealistic, and determined. (I’m still impatient, idealist and determined, but older now).  Bangkok 14 years ago was also much like it is today: crazy, chaotic, congested and operating by its own set of western-logic-free rules.  In short, Bangkok was ready to eat me alive with a smile.

For some unknown reason, idealistic and determined me chose to train for my first ever half-marathon in Bangkok, one of the hottest and most air-polluted cities in the world. This story could be about how many times I tripped in a gaping hole in the pavement while running and fell flat on my face while smiling Thais looked on and giggled, or about how I both passed out and placed in that very race I ran.  But those stories are for another time.  This story is about my weekend running ritual.

My 1997 home in Bangkok was approximately three miles on foot from the well-known Jatujak weekend market.  It was the cheapest place to buy anything I could possibly ever need or not need.  Each weekend I’d brave the heat, grey air, three legged dogs, and missing sidewalks and put in some miles.  On days when I needed to shop, I’d defeat Bangkok traffic by running one way to the market, doing a few laps around the park, finishing my shopping, and hopping the bus home.

On the day of this story, I had run to Jatujak , picked up a few things I needed, and jumped on the bus for a quick lift.  Only that day, like most days in Bangkok, there was nothing quick about the bus. If you know anything about Bangkok traffic you will understand that many days walking is actually faster than being in a “moving” vehicle.

We had gone about a mile and then came to a dead stop.  Everyone around me was patient and smiling and serene.  I on the other hand was dripping with sweat, legs cramping and completely frustrated. I’d had enough with the non-moving bus.

I grabbed my bags and pressed the button for the bus to let me off. It didn’t even have to stop to open its doors because it hadn’t moved in so long.

Free on sidewalk, I started running.  With my shopping bags.  At midday under the Bangkok sun. May I remind you, that on a regular morning jog people started at me like I was insane when I took to the road for a jog.  Let alone a foreigner, running in the noon heat with their shopping.

I got about 10 minutes down the road, as the traffic along side of me thinned.  Sure enough as I was jogging along the bus I had defiantly disembarked crept up behind me.   If this had been in the US, I’m sure the bus would have blown by me as the passengers remarked how dumb I had been to get off and run.  But in a pure Thai manner, the bus began to honk its horn to get my attention.  (and perhaps to ensure that anyone in the entire vicinity who hadn’t already been watching me was now).

The driver pulled the bus up beside me, opened its doors and beckoned me back in. In my perfect memory all the people on the bus cheered when I hopped back on, but perhaps I was just hallucinating from near heat exhaustion, and they were all just smiling in their patient way that I obviously hadn’t mastered.

I rode the bus the rest of the way home that day.  Embarrassed and educated in my own impatience.  To this day when I’m stuck in traffic or nearly losing it in a long line and contemplating if I should change lanes, I sometimes remember the lesson I learned from that day on the Bangkok bus.  Perseverance is the fastest way to getting where you’re going, even sometimes when you’re stuck in a traffic jam.

Are you a waiter or a runner?