Tuesday, February 24, 2015


I have a lot of stories from my years in the Peace Corps. I have a least a dozen stories that involve all sorts of shenanigans, from the campaign to get Eddy Urbina front teeth to the time my mom hopped on a random stranger's horse and rode away, bareback.

But no other story holds a candle to the one involving two large men, a small cat, my living room, and a Spanish book of yoga poses from 1972. But I'm getting ahead of myself.

I've gotten more and more into storytelling this past year. Having a blog will do that to you. And just as I'm getting into writing stories, the Northern California Returned Peace Corps Association (NorCal) starts up a storytelling series, the Story Jam. Over the past year, Story Jam has consisted of Returned Peace Corps Volunteers getting up on stage and telling their stories. I'd been meaning to attend a Story Jam for months. Because before I knew it, I was standing on stage telling my tale of lost love. Below is my story.

Or you can listen to the audio version of the story here: http://picosong.com/2ycF/

In my home in Gualaco, Olancho, Honduras I had mice. They would pitter-patter every night on the side of my bed, trying to crawl into it with me. So I got a cat. I didn't have mice anymore. 

Instead, I had a best friend. This was a very special cat. "Mi Primer Mascota." My first pet. I named her Bella, bathed her, put a flea collar on her, brushed her fur, let her sleep in the bed with me, potty trained her, and even bought her Gati, special cat food only found in the capital of my department, over two hours away.

The kids loved playing with Bella

Everyone in the village knew my cat; my special gringa cat (pink and white striped "gringa" flea collar and all). I loved this cat with all my heart and soul. When you are the only person living in a small village without your family, you have two choices: you can either miss your family inconsolably. Or you can make your own family. Bella was my family. I named her after my Aunt. I would take pictures of Bella and send them to my mom. I had never had a pet before and Bella was 100% mine.

Meanwhile, I was a new Peace Corps volunteer, always looking for something to fill my time. Around the same time I left for my two plus years in Honduras, my best friend decided to quit her job and move to a yoga retreat in Hawaii. Despite my reluctance to accept yoga into my life at the time, she had sent me off with a deck of yoga cards. I couldn't think of a better project to occupy my time than translating the yoga cards into Spanish. Frequently people would see me around town, at the school using the copier machine, or at the internet cafe, translating the instructions into Spanish. It took up a lot of time.

My yoga deck of poses

One of the very best things about living in my village was the Sierra de Agalta National Park that surrounded us. A group of Gualacans (my people) were "guides" who knew the park like the back of their hands. They would lead me to the Caves of Susmay any time I wanted. They helped me climb La Picucha, the tallest mountain in our department. These guys had day jobs, but being guides was the thing they were most proud of. I spent countless days with these guys; they became my closest friends.

So it wasn't too surprising when I got a knock on my door at 9pm one night. I was almost in bed. But Moncho (real name Ramon) and Eddy were at my door and they were super excited; they had just found a book, in Spanish, of yoga from 1972. And they couldn't wait share this information with me. What the hell, I thought, yoga hasn't changed in a few thousands years, what's another 20? Their poses should be the same as mine.

Moncho asked me if he could show me what he'd been working on. I didn't see why not. It was late, but they were already here and they were so excited. So Moncho quickly swept my living room floor clean and started one of the most difficult poses in all of yoga; he would attempt to do a tripod, leading into a head stand. 

Here's the thing about Moncho Belis: Moncho is a great guy, heart of gold, but also a former alcoholic always one step away from falling back off the wagon. His years of drinking had begun to catch up with him and he was what Hondurans refer to as "panzon." He had a literal beer gut. This guy weighed at least 200 pounds.

Moncho & Eddy

So to watch Moncho attempt the headstand was nothing short of miraculous.  But, along he went: elbows on the ground, legs on his arms, legs heading straight up in the air, and then legs coming down faster than you could imagine. But that's when I saw it. I gasped in horror as Moncho sat up. I was the first person to see the blood that completely covered his back. Then I saw my cat. Bella then started running around in little circles, blood shooting out the side of her head. Finally she dropped down dead and I just took off running, screaming and crying. I woke up the entire town. "What's the crazy gringa going on about now?" they started asking each other.

Where I went wasn't all that much of a mystery. I went to the home of my then Honduran boyfriend. I banged on the door, screaming for him. He was the only other person in the town who could even fathom how much I loved this cat. I woke him up. I also woke up his entire family. I screamed, "Moncho la mato, Moncho la mato!" - "Moncho killed her". And that's when things went from bad to worse. See, my boyfriend's brother's name is also Moncho. So his mom and dad thought either a. someone had killed their son Moncho or b. their son Moncho had killed a girl. Either way, it was looking bad. Everyone was upset.

And then my boyfriend had to explain a completely foreign concept to his parents; Karen was inconsolably upset because Moncho Belis had just killed her cat. Relieved their own son Moncho was okay, they started to stare confusingly right at me. At that point they knew I was crazy; how could I get so upset about an animal? Animals were meant to be kept outside, literally at arm's length all the time. It's not like a family member was gone.

Once I had mostly calmed down, I knew I had to go back home, to confront the scene of the crime. I headed home. Moncho was gone, but Eddy was there waiting for me. The floor was mostly cleaned up, but it still looked like the scene of a very bloody crime. And it was beginning to smell like one.

Eddy told me that Moncho had gone home. That's when I realized what my running away had done; it had told Moncho that I couldn't look at him ever again. But that wasn't true.  It was a freak yoga accident that killed my beloved cat. It was absolutely an accident.

I knew I had to talk to Moncho right away, so I went right over to his house. He was so sad, I just couldn't be mad at him. He very apologetically told me, "Karen, I am a lover of all animals. I could and would never hurt your cat. My children can attest to this fact. I have never harmed another living creature in my life!" 

Remember I mentioned these guys all had day jobs? Well, Moncho was a fumigator. The emotional side of me knew it was just an accident; the logical side of me knew we'd have to some day revisit just what it meant to be a fumigator by profession.

Back at home we put Bella in a box. I apologized to everyone around me for my crazy outburst that night, but my period of mourning had already begun. I put a sign on the door. "Hubo un accidente, no hay clases hoy." There was an accident, there are no classes today. I wasn't about to start telling everyone what Moncho had done. 

But I lived in a small town; everyone already knew. By noon the next day, Moncho already had the nickname "Matagato." Cat-killer. The cat was out of the bag. Everyone knew Moncho Belis had killed my cat.

We ended up burying Bella in my backyard. Eventually I accepted what had happened to her. And what about me and Moncho? I really did forgive him and we ended up becoming great friends. Even if he is a matagato.

Watch out for the cat-killer!

Sunday, February 8, 2015

charcot marie foot

"Symptoms, then are in reality nothing but the cry from suffering organs"
-Dr. Jean Martin Charcot

Ever since I can remember I've suffered from mid-sleep charlie horses. If you're not familiar with the term, I get cramps in my calves while I'm asleep. Yes, I said while I'm asleep. In complete and total pain is a very jarring way to wake up.

So you can imagine my surprise when, halfway through my very first marathon, both my calves started actively cramping. Calf and foot cramps, until that point, had been reserved for laying down and/or sleeping. But instead I found myself running (for over two hours) through the active cramping in my lower legs. When I finally finished the race, medics put ice bags on my calves. While that helped relieve the pain a bit, removing the ice resulted in two of the worst cramps of my life; charlie horses so painful I dropped to the ground, screaming and swearing uncontrollably and scaring the medics who had circled around me and my family. All I could think was, "I haven't had a calf cramp this bad since I was fifteen years old." And I probably hadn't.

Running a marathon (and smiling) while my legs are actively cramping

If you've never suffered from a calf cramp (or in my case, many many calf cramps), you are lucky. They are painful. I'm never sure when they'll start, I do not know how best to ease them, and I absolutely do not know how to prevent them.

I wasn't the only person in my household with this mysterious midnight pain. My brother also suffered from mid-sleep calf cramps (and was the one who first used the term "Charley horse" and taught me its meaning). Most of my memories of Dave's calf cramps were during his high school years. Despite being two and a half years younger than Dave, we would both suffer leg pain at the same time, often during the same night. While I would always choose to instantly grab my leg (or legs) and try to massage out the cramp, Dave chose another treatment; he'd try to stomp them out. Dave would suddenly jump out of bed and start stomping down on his leg. Once he was satisfied he'd gotten the cramp out, he'd fall right back onto his bed and into sleep. The number of times I woke up to the sound of Dave stomping his leg are too numerous to count. It was a typical occurrence in our home.

And clearly I still continue to get these cramps. What's interesting to me it that there is very little known about WHY I get searing pain in my calf muscles that wake me up. I have been told about any number of possible causes of my distress, but none of them make any sense. Everyone seems to offer up an unsolicited solutions to this problem. First up, lack of potassium. Sorry friends, but I am absolutely 100% not potassium deficient. It's not the culprit. Trust me; I have my potassium level checked every six months (an unrelated concern). More potassium will not eliminate my cramps; I could eat all the bananas in the world and not get better.

The suggestion that dehydration is to blame for my charlie horses is much more believable. I don't drink enough. I try, especially with all the running I do. But I am always thirsty, most especially in the middle of the night. So I drink a lot. And I pee a lot. And I drink a lot more. But I never feel hydrated.

During my post-marathon calf cramp fit, my mom offered up some life changing information; calf and foot cramping is a symptom of Charcot Marie Tooth disease. Charcot Marie Tooth (CMT) comprises a group of disorders passed down through families that affect the nerves outside the brain and spine; aka the peripheral nerves. I know, it's an odd name for a foot disease (actually it's foot and hand). But it's named after the three doctors (Charcot, Marie, and Tooth) who discovered it. Several members of my family suffer from CMTX, the x-linked form of the disease.

After the marathon I had truly reached my breaking point. My feet had been hurting so bad for so long I had to finally see a podiatrist. Four days later I had the official diagnosis; I have Charcot Marie Tooth. I wish I could say I'm not devastated. But I am. Why else would I have avoided the podiatrist for twenty years? Up until last week I had still hoped I'd hear, "new shoes will fix your chronic foot pain." But they won't. Foot pain is a part of me. Most of the people close to me know my feet hurt every single day. Some days I run with the pain. Other days I run through the pain. But most of the time, I run despite the pain.

Packing for a marathon includes lots of 2nd skin bandages

So what does this mean for a (now official) marathoner? Of course I had to ask my doctor about the running. Would I have to give it up? The short answer is no. With lots of orthotics. And maybe surgery. But first orthotics, lots and lots of orthotics. And new shoes. And stretches. And special exercises. And the frozen water bottle under the foot trick that I promise alleviates plantar fasciitis.

Many people prefer to keep their CMT on the down low. In their defense, the symptoms can become very dehabilitating, especially for men. But I'm putting it out there; I am a marathon runner with CMT. Because I want you to know. And to understand. If we're out walking together, I'd like you to slow down. And when we're out on a hike, the pain might become so unbearable for me we have to either stop for a while or immediately turn back. But the pain won't stop me. I will continue to go out and run. And maybe even hike once and a while. And maybe, just maybe, someday I'll run another marathon. After all, "few things in life match the thrill of a marathon." (Fred Lebow, runner and founder of the NYC Marathon). Mr. Lebow, I completely agree.

I'm already thinking about my next marathon...

Wednesday, January 21, 2015


The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.
~Martin Luther King, Jr.

Five days after signing up to officially run my first marathon, I had a rude awakening. Simply put, I had a bad run. It does happen, albeit rarely. But it hadn't happened to me in a very long time. So long so that I had forgotten how frustrating a bad run can make me feel.

This particular run started the same as all the others. I left work a few hours early to be able to get in a mid-length mid-week run before the sun went down. The weather had been cold for months and the sun still set before 5pm. If I was going to run nine miles (for approximately 90 minutes), I'd have to set out no later than 3:30pm to beat the sunset. It was definitely doable.

A late afternoon run around the lake

I prepared to run the same as always; I taped up my toes (covering my blisters), set up my iPod, and drank a good amount of water. I had just hit the ground running, when boom, the problems started exploding from every direction. First, my running capris were too loose. And I really had to pee. Then my prescription sunglasses wouldn't stay on. And my headband wasn't tight enough. And then my knee brace wasn't tight enough either. And one of my running earbuds broke off. What was going on?

Then, seemingly out of nowhere, my asthma flared up. I had used my inhaler before the run, as I always do. Yet there I was, less than 10 minutes into a 90 minute run and I couldn't breathe. If you have ever felt short of breath, it's awful. Imaging trying to run through the shooting side pain that then ensues. In case you're trying to imagine this scenario, let me just tell you that you can't run through this pain. You have to walk until the pain subsides (usually helped along for me with copious amounts of cold water and more use of the inhaler).

Things were going terribly. I kept thinking about the shortest distance to my car, where I could hop in, drive home, and wash away the horrible terrible run. After first finding the nearest bathroom, of course. But instead of running away (literally), I took the time to ask myself the following: Was it really worth just giving up completely? Or could I possibly find a silver lining somewhere in this crappy, painful Wednesday afternoon run? 

Immediately, I knew there were several lessons to be learned. So I first focused on the physical issues, the things right in front of me that I could control. I focused on breathing until the asthma was under control. Then, as quickly as possible, I ran to the nearest restroom, only one mile away. I wedged the broken ear-bud into my ear, and rolled over my pants so they became tighter. I pulled up my knee brace. Now I was getting somewhere.

Then I decided to focus on the things a little more out of my control. I started to think about what I could accomplish that afternoon, using the opportunity to test myself; to see how fast I could run one mile. Because the need to complete all nine miles was clearly a thing of the past. I also took the time to look around; it was an absolutely gorgeous afternoon on the lake.

Having a bad run wasn't fun. I wouldn't call it a positive experience. Instead, it was humiliating, tough, and, most importantly, humbling. It put me in my place. For the past six months I had been slowly moving forward. What started as 8 miles soon turned into 13, then 16, then 18 and finally 20. It led me to believe I could and would run a complete marathon. 

But this bad run didn't deter me. A bad run can't stop me and doesn't set me back. A bad run grounds me; it reminds me that am human and I am allowed to have a bad day. I am allowed to take a rest and yet still be prepared. And the problems I encounter on a bad run only further prepare me for race day. 

This mid-week no pressure run was not an integral part of my training plan. It wasn't one of my precious weekly long runs. I've never had a bad long run (except that one way too hot morning in Mexico). In fact, I've enjoyed every single long run. There have been over 16 of them. And they've been nothing short of awesome; even the ones where all I could think about for miles was just putting one foot in front of the other and heaving myself to cover a new, longer distance.

Long runs have gotten me to the point where I could say it out loud: that I'm training for a marathon. They have been the crux of my training. But I can't forget about all the little runs in between. All the sprints on the treadmill. All the jogs through the snow in 30 degree winter. All the evening runs with only a flashlight. And every day at the gym in between. Because running is nothing, if not fun. 

Except on a bad day; a day that running has kicked my ass. But a bad day doesn't defeat me. It never will. Because I have already won. I have already run for longer than I ever thought possible. I have not only run 20 miles, but I have loved (almost) every mile of it. To a runner, this is a definite win.

Not too easy to find a running path in a city that's only 7x7

As a follow up, I'd like to mention that two days after this particularly bad run, I went out and ran the nine miles I had originally planned to complete. It went well. Then two days after that run, I went out and ran 22 miles. My longest run ever and my last marathon training long run. The pressure was on and all I can say is the run just felt awesome.

Sunday, January 11, 2015


"The miracle isn't that I finished. The miracle is that I had the courage to start."
-John Bingham

Some days I feel completely committed to my marathon training plan. Other days I feel I've committed a grave mistake. Only on race day will I know how it will all turn out. Because I've made a commitment; to run the Surf City Marathon on February 1, 2015. It'll be my first marathon. But it might also be my last.

I started running exactly seven years ago. Most people don't have a life changing story; a day when they made a conscious decision to commit to running. But I'm not most people. And I have a story. It all starts with a conversation with my very sick brother in late August 2007.

My big brother and me enjoying lunch at Hot Dougs, 2006

In the middle of a typical daily phone conversation, a nearly wheelchair-bound Dave blurted out "if I had your legs, I'd run." I responded with a barely audible "okay," figuring I'd just shrug the comment off. Instead, at that exact moment, my running career began. A runner was born. After a few initial runs (I'd never run over 5 miles in my entire life) I signed up for the first race of my life; a half-marathon. Then I committed to a running plan. And most importantly, I kept to it.

Six months later, Dave and I had one final chat. It was January 25, 2008 and I remember the evening perfectly. I didn't know it at the time, but that particular Friday night conversation would be our last. With my mom holding the phone to Dave's ear, he asked me how I did in my race. I told him I hadn't run it yet. It was coming up the following Sunday. I was nervous, but I was also prepared. We then went on to talk about other trivial things, like baking cupcakes and turkey sandwiches. Later that night, Dave went to sleep and never woke up. I spent the week grieving with my family. But I was still in half-marathon training mode and because it was winter in Chicago, I had to run a little every morning at a nearby indoor track. But I knew Dave would understand.

One week later, on February 3, 2008, I completed my first half-marathon. Then I sat down with friends and watched the Super Bowl. I don't remember anything about the game. I do remember being so proud of my accomplishment, despite my completely broken heart.

I've run too many races to count over the years. 
Including my first, the Kaiser San Francisco Half-Marathon

But those events didn't turn me off to running. On the contrary, I knew I'd continue to run. I knew I'd have many more 13.1 mile races. And I have. But what I never could have known at the time was that I would eventually commit to running a marathon. That wasn't even in my wheelhouse as any kind of possibility. It wasn't an idea I ever passed around, not to others, not even inside my own head.

Then one day I committed myself to running 26.2 miles. And I was going to do it in front of my friends, family, and a ton of total strangers. All that was left was to actually say the words out loud, find a training plan, and think of a good marathon that was 24 weeks away. Easier said than done. Until I found the Surf City Marathon on February 1.

Seven years into my running career, I have come full circle. On the exact date of my very first race, I'll run my most ambitious. It's been a long journey. Running has always been tough for me. My feet are covered in blisters. I've had to sneak out of the office numerous times to head out on a run before the sun went down. I've cancelled plans too many times to count, given up alcohol, and spent countless hours on amazon shopping for gels, compression socks, water bottles, athletic tape, running shorts, and more. 

But I'm committed to running this race. I'm moderately scared, a little bit obsessed, and probably totally crazy. But I'm also incredibly determined. And strong. I can't remember ever being this strong, both mentally and physically. For the past five months I've gotten in to the habit of going out, spending hours pushing myself through every kind of pain, and convincing myself to do it all over again in a few days. This marathon training plan has forced me to muster up every bit of patience, fortitude, courage and commitment I never knew I had.

I never set out to run a marathon on my race day anniversary. I never meant to put so much importance on a specific time period (the week leading up to the Super Bowl). It's just how this year turned out; the date when my marathon training plan completed. The time has come for me to lace up my shoes and step up to the starting line of an actual marathon. Which I will complete. Because I've already committed myself to seeing my friends and loving, supportive family on the other side of those 26.2 miles.

The Huntington Beach Surf City Marathon is sold out, but you can come cheer on the runners if you live nearby. www.runsurfcity.com

Wednesday, December 31, 2014


It's that time of year again: a time to make new year's resolutions. If you believe in that stuff. I just read an article entitled, "100 Inspiring New Year's Resolutions" - that's right, 100. I'm not going to have even ten resolutions this year, let alone 100. That seems extreme to me (and with a high failure rate, something I don't like to experience).

I have had the same one resolution every year for the past five years. I think it's a good resolution. I am mindful of this resolution most every day. It's a small, manageable resolution. Every year I resolve to eat fruit every day. I honestly try to eat some form of whole fruit (fresh, frozen, juiced, blended) every single day. And, most days, I complete said resolution. I like attainable, small goals. The ones where I don't feel bad about myself if I don't complete them. Instead, I simply feel a little better (and healthier) if I do complete them. Simple enough?

But back to these 100 resolutions. Some of the resolutions on the list? Practice an instrument more (or take up a new one). I'm going to absolutely pass on this one. As much as I love music, it's not in my plans for 2015. Maybe that'll change, but I'm not setting myself up for a resolution on the last day of the year I am not simply not feeling. Only 99 resolutions left to go. Go on a blind date. Should it be with someone I don't know? Can my significant other attend as well? I think I might skip this one as well.

When did this whole resolutions nonsense begin? I'm assuming it's because many people like to wipe the slate clean on the first day of a new year. But what happens if you mess up on January 1? Do you throw in the towel and consider the entire year a failure? That's 364 days you must endure knowing you are a failure. Not striving for that broken resolution, living sad and broken. And what if the same thing happens again the next year? Another 364 days of sadness? This vicious cycle sounds awful to me.

Instead, I think day one of a "resolution" starts on the day you want it to begin; on the day of your choosing. Maybe I've been watching too many diet and exercise shows, but I know that the race training begins with your own personal day one, whenever that might be. For many people, I guess it starts January 1. For me, it will begin when my Vitamix blender arrives. That'll be the day I begin juicing. Unless it's not. Because maybe the item will sit unused on my kitchen counter for a month. But then one day I'll use it. And voila, thus will being my day one. With a specific activity. use Vitamix machine every day. This is actually no longer a resolution; I plan to develop a habit. A resolution is "use vitamix," but a habit is "use vitamix one time daily." There's a slight difference.

I've heard it takes 21 days to form a habit. I'm not sure this number makes sense to me. I definitely did not run for 21 straight days before I made running a habit. I cooked a lot more than 21 times; I read a lot more than 21 books. I took a gym bag with me to work about three times before it became habit. Maybe I'm ahead of the curve on this one activity?

The web is now filled with 21 day habit apps. The funniest to me is the web app 21Habit

There's nothing wrong with writing down your goal. I also like how the day one starts when you decide it will (good minds think alike.) And I don't even disagree with the next part of the app, where you pay $21 at the beginning of the month and for every day you do said activity (or not do said activity if you are trying to quit) you receive $1 back to you. 

I have heard pretty strong evidence (and seen it myself) that human behavior is stronger when a financial commitment is involved. Even if it's just $1 (although I've never seen it work for less than $5, it just might), it's frequently enough for a person to commit and follow through. What I don't understand is how the accountability works. 

In my experience, accountability makes all the difference. If you don't have to answer or pay a price for something, you will (or won't) do it. It's a completely internal compass you possess. You know right from wrong (or at least you should) and will act the way only you can control. So would I use this app and then lie to get my $21 back? Depends on how badly I want to a. achieve my goal, b. have the money, and c. not feel guilty about cheating. I would venture to say that the majority of the world's population would lie and get the money back. Haven't we all fibbed once or twice before to cancel an unwanted hotel reservation or get something for free? I know I have.

But back to the 21 days. Thanks 21Habit (and 42GoalsBeeminderChains.cc, and Go F#^ing Do It) for organizing my resolutions and turning them in to habits. I don't think a single one of you will work. But at least Go F#^ing Do It uses accountability in its metrics.

The projected likelihood of continuing a behavior, such as meditation

But I'm back looking at the beginning of my 21 days. Okay, I'll give it a shot. 21 days of Vitamixing. But I'm not starting on January 1. I'm starting when I decide to start. I just don't know when that will be exactly. But once it is, I'm sure to form a Vitamixing habit. 

Because 21 days is all it takes, right?