Monday, September 20, 2010

Two Women, Two Stories, One Goal

(A) Jill White runs down a Putnam County lane in preparation for next Sunday’s Komen 5K. (Photo by Dallas Smith). (B) Uber-runner Margie Stoll completes a track workout in July of 2008, running on the Harpeth Hall School track in Nashville where she does most of her training. (Photo by Hans Stoll).


Most of the work I do these days falls under the heading of either "home maintenance" or "public service." Neither one pays me any money. And I'm not counting running. It doesn't pay either. Pro bono, I believe, the lawyers call that kind of work. But I'm not whining. All that fits neatly into some kind of plan, I suppose.

One public service gig I got talked into was to write a promotion story for the local Komen Race for the Cure 5K. Fortunately for me, I knew a couple of interesting women to write about. If the story of their experiences helps bring in some runners, well, then I'm glad I put it in the paper. From the Herald-Citizen, September 19, 2010.


Two women of different generations, different backgrounds, will join in common cause next Sunday when the second annual Komen Race for the Cure 5K kicks off. Hundreds of runners will join them. The 5K starts at Tucker Stadium at 2:00 p.m., September 26. Race village opens at noon.

Local runner Jill White is half the age of Nashville’s Margie Stoll. Mrs. White was reared in rural Smith County and has always lived in Tennessee, while Mrs. Stoll lists the urban locations of St. Louis, Chicago, Philadelphia and Washington, D.C. as her past homes. Both women are seasoned athletes. Their paths converge next Sunday.

Mrs. White attended the Komen 5K last year. Her blond hair was just then growing back out, and she wore a baseball cap for cover. Despite her recent bout with breast cancer, she may have won that race. She thought she was the first cancer veteran across the finish line. Then she realized she’d failed to put the timing chip on her shoe. “No chip, no time,” is the warning all racers know. “I was so mad!” she says.

Don’t count on her making that mistake this year.

She learned competition early, when she was growing up on the family farm near Gordonsville. Her father put up a basketball goal. He showed her how to shoot a hook shot. The hook shot didn’t take, but other shots did.

Mrs. White, who stands 5 feet 8 inches and is now 33 years old, played forward four years for the Gordonsville Tigerettes. She was co-captain during her senior year.

She recalls many games. In one, against Trousdale County, she scored 28 points. “I was a three-point shooter,” she notes simply.

And so she was. She recounts another favorite moment.

“The real highlight was my senior year and playing Celina, a big rival, and we were down by two points.” Although not the intended shooter, as the last naked seconds ticked off the clock, she found the ball in her hands and could not help but do what instinct and her dad’s teaching and four years of basketball playing demanded: she put up the shot. It went in.

“I shot a three-pointer, and we won!” The gym erupted in celebration. “And it was crazy!”

Then life after high school settled in. A stint at Volunteer State, interrupted by work in a factory and in the office of a nursing home, eventually led her to Tennessee Tech. In 2003 she earned a B.S. in Business Administration.

She also won the Golden Eagle 10K that spring just before graduation. She’d taken up running in the late 90s and had finished several road races and even several sprint triathlons. She had transferred her competitive spirit from basketball to racing.

“I took up walking and then walking got boring. I started running.” She has been running ever since. Except for one rude intermission:

Just six months after marrying insurance agent John White, in March of 2008, she discovered breast cancer. And her course changed.

Margie Stoll’s story began some 36 years before Mrs. White’s. Mrs. Stoll, who is 69 years old, has re-defined running in the state of Tennessee, at least for the older set. Age group state records are maintained for each year of runner age. Mrs. Stoll has set, and holds, some fifty such records, ranging from the 1-mile distance through the half marathon. Running Times magazine ranked her as the third best runner in the U.S.A. in her age group. At the 2009 National Senior Games Mrs. Stoll won two gold medals and two sliver medals.

Born in 1941, Mrs. Stoll grew up in Lombard, Illinois. She describes it as, “a pretty small town in those days. There was a cornfield at the end of my street.” The house she grew up in had been in the family since 1936. “So I never had to change friends. I had the same friends from kindergarten through high school.”

The bucolic beginning was bound to end. She went off to Washington University in St. Louis, where she earned a degree in French in 1963. After working briefly for a brokerage firm, she resumed studies, at the University of Chicago, where she gained a teaching certificate.

But she gained much more; it was there that she met husband-to-be Hans, who was working on a Ph.D. in finance. They married in 1967. By then Dr. Stoll’s work had taken him to the University of Pennsylvania.

There then came a two-year stint when they lived in Washington, D.C. while Dr. Stoll worked a year for the Securities and Exchange Commission, and another year when he did research as a visiting professor for the Federal Reserve.

It was there, in 1969, that Mrs. Stoll took up running—and in a very unusual place. “We lived near Arlington National Cemetery, and I used to run through the Cemetery. They probably wouldn’t allow that now,” she says wryly. She ran for exercise and because she liked the feel of running.

Meanwhile, her husband was becoming a distinguished scholar of finance. The family returned to Philadelphia, and then eventually settled in Nashville in 1980, when Dr. Stoll accepted a position at Vanderbilt University. (Until his recent “semi-retirement” there, he held an endowed professorship and was the director of a research center.)

They had been settled in the new town for a year. Then cancer called. That brought a brand new challenge, one unlike running or finance, either.

It is that challenge that the Komen Race for the Cure seeks to help women meet (men, too, occasionally). It is a challenge that Mary Jo Smith knows all too well; she is this year’s race chair. Tennessee Tech First Lady Gloria Bell is the honorary race chair.

Says Mrs. Smith, “I had a really good friend who passed away from breast cancer. And I never want to see another sister or friend go through that.”

Mrs. Smith expects up to 1,800 runners in this year’s race, leading to a significant organizational challenge. It is one Mrs. Smith is well prepared to manage. Until recently, she was the special events coordinator for the state of Ohio. She retired and moved to Cookeville in 2007.

Since 2008 Komen Upper Cumberland has funded over $300,000 for education, screening and treatment for breast cancer throughout the 14-county region of the Upper Cumberland.

The signature event, says affiliate president Eileen Stuber, is the Komen Race for the Cure 5K. The race course has been certified by USATF. Chip timing will be used. More race information can be found at Runners can complete online registration there.

Cancer comes around at unhandy times. Mrs. Stoll would tell you that; her discovery came in 1982 when she was new in Nashville and without nearby friends. Mrs. White would tell you that, too; she was just beginning a marriage. Although the cancers of the two women fell 30 years apart, there seems a weary sameness to their treatments: a round or two of surgery followed by six months of chemotheraphy.

Those treatments are dreadful and make a patient feel awful. Mrs. White described the mood in the car when husband John would drive her to Nashville. “It was quiet. We didn’t talk very much. I had to mentally prepare myself.”

All her hair came out: “Eye brows, eye lashes, everything.” For her, losing her eyebrows was the worse. Their loss most made her appear enfeebled, she thought. “The good thing was I didn’t have to shave my legs,” she said laughing.

Mrs. Stoll went through a similar routine in 1982, but with a special cruel twist: she couldn’t talk about it. Breast cancer was somehow considered embarrassing and shameful back then, hushed up. Stricken women suffered in silence.

Mrs. Stoll can talk easily about her experiences now. But she notes, “I wouldn’t have said all this until about five years ago.” The Komen races in Nashville changed that, released her. Remembering the 2002 race, she says, “It seemed like a festival, a total different atmosphere than the hospital.”

Mrs. Stoll can look back on breast cancer with the accumulated wisdom of nearly 30 years. She prefers the word “veteran” over “survivor.” Her thoughts on why are compelling:

“I think of a survivor as someone who has gone through a lot of pain and hardship…I like to think of myself as a veteran. The ones who are the real heroes are the ones who went through the pain and had a harder time…and somehow it was stacked against them. Because they died, that’s why there is an organization like Komen.”

Margie Stoll and Jill White will toe the line in common cause next Sunday. They know how to suffer hard and they know how to run hard. Expect one of them to be the first cancer veteran across the finish line.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

The King of Caribbean Marathons and a Boy Who Wanted a Watch

It seemed likely I'd never find Jason. A couple months after I'd sent an e-mail inquire to the race director, I quit thinking about it. Then a message suddenly arrived from Gail Jackson. "I know that kid," she said.

Gail owned the hotel in Negril where I'd stayed and she'd worked on the marathon's registration committee. "I was at his school yesterday...and asked if after the race did he go for a swim and talk to a white man?" she wrote. The boy's answer had been yes. He was the one. His real name was Oraine.

I promptly mailed one of my 100-lap Ironman watches to Gail to give to the boy. It was a watch I'd actually used in an Ironman triathlon. Sending him a watch I'd used seemed more personal than buying a new one. I put it in the original box with it's instructions along with a note of good wishes from me.

A month later, Oraine sent a letter thanking me. He liked to draw, and he included a pencil-drawn portrait on green paper. In his letter he said, "If there is anything you want me to do for you in drawing don't be afraid to ask."

Here is the story, from the Herald-Citizen, April 10, 2005.


After I crossed the finish line I quit running and starting staggering, stumbling like a backward-walking drunk. I was okay. But my legs were confused—by fatigue and the sudden non-running. The music was pouring down and the heat was humming.

I’d just crossed the finish line of the Reggae Marathon at Long Bay State Park in Negril, Jamaica. It was December, 2004.

A young man sharply dressed in a white polo shirt and dark slacks handed me a cell phone.

“Want to call home?” he asked.

Good idea! The free call was a promotion of the carrier for which he worked. I dialed my home number but couldn’t get an answer—or rather I couldn’t tell if I got an answer, the music was so loud. So I walked a 100 yards away from the stack of speakers pumping out Reggae, across a field of grass toward the ocean, and tried again.

And there was Jo Ann’s comfortable voice from far-away Tennessee, bouncing off a satellite, yet sounding next door. She’d answered the first time, she said, but couldn’t hear anything except noise. I told her I was okay, that I’d had a poor run, but that I wasn’t surprised by that. The usual stuff.

After returning the phone, I went to check on partial results posted on a board past the booming speakers, and discovered that for the male age-group 60-99 I’d finished first with a time of 3:37:25. At most places where I run, that wouldn’t win a cakewalk. The competitive field here was not very deep, and the heat was a factor.

Under the female age group 20 to 29, I saw that a young woman named Shannon from West Virginia had finished third. With about a mile to go, I’d pulled even with her. We were both just trying to survive, and we chatted a bit. But she was running a little slower than I was. Finally I went on. I knew she was feeling terrible.

“I’ll see you at the finish line—if I get there,” I said.

“Oh, you’ll make it; you look strong,” she said.

Runners! Bless their happy little hearts—always upbeat and encouraging. They’ll say you’re looking good and running smooth, even when you’re dying—even when they’re dying. They can’t help it; it’s how they are. Running makes them crazy.

I meant to keep my promise to Shannon, so now I went back toward the finish line looking for her. I found her glued to a chair under a beach tent. She hadn’t gotten very far. When I told her she’d taken third she was so pleased she began warming to the idea of going to the Country Music Marathon that I’d told her about.

“That’s not very far…” she said, and trailed off, visualizing another marathon—even while the pain of this one was still in her legs. Here you see another trait of runners: terrible memory.

When I was a kid my dad liked to drink coconut milk. He’d drive a nail into the eyes to make holes and pour the milk into a glass. I learned to like that, too.

At this race, that was a piece of good luck. A man was trimming the shucks off coconuts with a machete, deftly whacking away over a plywood board that served as a chopping block. With the last whack he sliced the top off one and held it out to me. I dropped in a drinking straw and walked away sucking on the coconut, a new kind of post-race hydration—one lacking carbonation, artificial coloring, preservative or sweetener.

Race management had set up a medical center in the beach house, an open-air, wooden structure the size of a five-car garage. Dehydrated runners lying on cots and tables were getting IVs and massages. I didn’t need either one. I asked the woman doctor if I could leave my shoes in the corner.

“That’s an unusual request! But I guess it’s all right,” she said.

I didn’t want to lose my shoes—it was a mile walk back to the hotel.

“I’m going for a swim,” I told her.

“Go north. We’re only 90 miles from Cuba,” she said.

“I need to practice.”

I walked straight into the Caribbean wearing my sunglasses, cap, running shorts and singlet, race number still pinned to it, marathon medal dangling around my neck. The water was exactly the right temperature.

Nearby a half-dozen Jamaican men and women of mixed age tossed a soccer ball around. A young boy dived in my direction. I watched as he swam the whole distance under water. He came up facing me wearing a friendly smile, a handsome lad with short dense hair.

“Did you run the marathon?” he asked.

I told him I had. He said he had run the half-marathon distance as a member of a three-man relay team, a special competition organizers had provided for the school children, one I didn’t know about until that moment.

It’s a wonderfully idea to involve the children in something as positive as a race; they face an uncertain future in a country wracked by poverty, drugs, HIV, a soaring murder rate and a floundering economy.

Here we were, an old white man standing in the ocean with an eighth-grade Jamaican boy talking about running. We shook hands. I told him my name, and he said his was Jason. His relay team had taken second place. That was great, congratulations, I told him.

Jamaica’s children left a poignant impression on me, none more so than Jason. His easy, endearing smile was as natural as sunshine. He admired my sports watch, an eye-catching black and yellow number Jo Ann had given me.

“I want to get a watch like that,” he said.

I told him he could get one about like it at Wal-Mart for 30 or 40 dollars. I actually said that! And with that utterance I proved I could be as arrogantly stupid as any North American tourist who ever landed on Jamaican soil.

Exactly which Wal-Mart should he go to, one in Miami or Key West? Well, he’ll just have to check the airline schedules. And what about the 40 bucks?—just a bit over 2,000 Jamaican dollars. He’ll have to save his lunch money. The hard truth is a watch is not likely for him any time soon.

I wanted Jason to have a watch. To develop his running skills, he needs basic training tools. Who knows what he might accomplish? My impulse was to strip my watch off and hand it to him on the spot—I had two others at home. But Jo Ann had given it to me; and, too, it held my mile splits stored in the memory, not yet transferred to my file.

A few weeks after the race, I mounted an e-mail campaign to find Jason. Weeks went by. No luck.

What could Jason accomplish? Most Jamaicans are of African or mixed African-European descent, and, hence likely share the genes of the Kenyans who currently dominate marathon competition.

The success of Pomenos Ballantyne suggests the potential. The King of Caribbean marathons—so-called by the Sunday Gleaner, a Kingston paper—is from neighboring St. Vincent, and he easily won today’s marathon.

At the Negril Tree House on my first night in Jamaica, I had gone to the lobby, an open-air room. A leanly chiseled black man came up to me.

“Did you run the Stockholm Marathon?” he asked.

My T-shirt proclaimed it; I admitted it. At first I was wary and not very warm, thinking he might be a crook. He told me he was Pomenos Ballantyne. After we chatted a bit I realized that the man was indeed a marathoner. And when he told me that his time in the Trinidad marathon was something like 2:17—the number I recall—I realized more.

“Oh…you’re an elite marathoner.”

“Yeah, elite,” he said.

Over the next few days I talked with him several times. I asked him how fast he thought he could run a marathon in cool weather away from the Caribbean heat.

“Two-eleven,” he said.

“That would win the Country Music Marathon! They give big prize money and a new car,” I said.
In fact, that time would win most marathons.

On the Sunday morning after the marathon, I went up to the roof terrace of the Tree House for the breakfast buffet there. In the corner a jazz trio—bass, keyboards, drums—was playing the barn-burner “Mercy, Mercy.” People were still celebrating the marathon. Hotel owner Gail Jackson herself was there, wearing a flowing chartreuse dress, marathon metal around her neck, smiling at everyone. She had run the race, too. Not only that, but the race winner, Pomenos Ballantyne, had stayed at her hotel.

Pomenos was there too, busy talking with people. A tall picture had appeared in the Sunday Gleaner, showing his calm intensity during yesterday’s race. He was a hero. Not wanting to intrude on his party, I sat down at another table.

The band went through Roberta Flack’s “Killing Me Softly” and then took off on “Wind Beneath My Wings.” Pomenos showed why men run races. Women crowded around, waiting to have their picture made with him.

Bette Midler’s familiar melody about soaring higher than an eagle wafted across the terrace and drifted out over a calm blue ocean. Her voice wafted through my head.

Pomenos stood with his arms wrapped around two smiling young women—and soared higher than an eagle.

As he left the terrace, he angled by my table to say goodbye. He was heading back home to St. Vincent. I urged him to come to Nashville for the Country Music Marathon.

“I’d very much like to do that,” he said.

But I didn’t expect it. Travel money was a problem.