Marathon!

Reprinted with permission of The Daily Astorian
Friday, April 30, 2004

Merrill goes the distance in her first marathon

Forever Fit
By RICHARD FENCSAK
For The Daily Astorian

Kate Merrill grabs some water at the finish lineCompetitive distance running is no longer just about putting one foot in front of the other as quickly as possible. Manufacturers such as

Adidas-Salomon (can Nike be far behind?) are dreaming up “smart” shoes outfitted with sensors, tiny motors and a microprocessor with the memory and power of the first desktop computers.

Information gathered automatically adjusts the cushioning of the shoes while the runner is in mid-stride.

Still – thankfully – some folks like Dr. Kate Merrill just want to go out and run, with or without high-tech footwear. Profiled on the April 30 front page of The Daily Astorian, the popular Astoria physician recently participated in her first marathon, Avenue of the Giants in Northern California.

“I didn’t know what I was doing, particularly,” said Merrill, a California native who completed the 26.2-mile event in four hours, 10 minutes and 31 seconds, right on her goal pace. “I had mid-race aspirations of finishing in four hours” (her halfway “split” time was two hours). Warm weather – the temperature reached 82 degrees – and a course that turned out to be more challenging than advertised took their toll. Thankfully, the many trees lining the course provided ample shade, although Merrill says some stretches were exposed to direct sunlight.

“The gently rolling hills seemed a tad more difficult than I imagined, too. Miles 13 through 20 were essentially all uphill, and the six-mile return trip downhill just didn’t seem to make up for it,” Merrill, who’s 41, said.

Still, this svelte family practice physician, who was out of shape and 60 pounds heavier a year ago, ran the whole way. And if you’re thinking, well yeah, isn’t that the idea of “running” a marathon. Just consider taxing your body in excess of four hours at or near your aerobic threshold without a respite. In hot weather, to boot.

Even seasoned marathoners can “hit the wall,” usually around the 20-mile mark, when their bodies run out of energy (or glycogen stores, as runners like to call their fuel source). Surprisingly, neophyte marathoner Merrill had the opposite experience.

At about 23 miles, she says, “I was really ready to be done. I felt like I was crawling, and I knew I had to really kick it or I wouldn’t make my goal.” So she upped her pace, a formidable late-race calibration requiring a healthy dose of mental toughness and a willingness to suffer – just ask any competitive long-distance runner.

“There was this woman who had been passing me off and on for most of the last half of the marathon, and she looked to be about 200 yards ahead,” Merrill said. “I made it my mission to catch her.”

Sure enough, the determined Merrill reeled in the woman during the race’s final three miles and passed her with a half-mile to go. “I ran as hard as I could that last bit,” said Merrill. “I was gasping for air.” She crossed the finish line to what she remembers were wild cheers from, among others, her husband Rodney, who ran the accompanying 10-Kilometer (6.2-mile) race.

“Those last 100 yards were so hard and people lining the course were so encouraging,” Merrill said as she recalled the thrill, the relief and the joy of completing her first marathon. The woman she chased down before the finish came over and congratulated her.

Merrill says she is far from disappointed with her performance. “I’m sailing on the biggest runner’s high that you can imagine, even if my legs are crippled. And you should just see the blisters.”

Afterward, Rodney and her sister Karen treated her like a queen. “I happily basked in my race T-shirt and with my medal.” she said.

Will Merrill run another marathon? “You bet!” she said enthusiastically. “Just not for a few days.”

finish line

Doctor on the Run

Reprinted with permission of The Daily AstorianDr. Merrill running on the Astoria Riverwalk
Friday, April 30, 2004

Doctor on the run

By Richard Fencsak
For The Daily Astorian

Kate Merrill slims down, gets in shape and is ready to run marathon.

Photo of Dr. Kate Merrill running in a marathon
Kate Merrill, M.D. became a marathon runner to overcome a long period of indulgence and sedentary living.

Most doctors’ offices look and feel sterile, with a typically bland decor, uncomfortable chairs and a smattering of ho-hum magazines
Dr. Kate Merrill’s office showcases a cheerier milieu. Inside her professional quarters at the southwest corner of Astoria’s Columbia Memorial Hospital is a wall-sized collage of engrossing photos. Many highlight some of the almost 200 Astoria babies the family medicine physician has delivered. Other pictures feature the “former” Dr. Merrill.

“See that one? That’s me! And that’s me, also,” Merrill says, pointing to photos of a heavy-set woman who appears to be in her late 40s, draped in a shapeless blouse and a pair of baggy pants.

Merrill, who is 41, doesn’t deliver babies anymore. This svelte physician with short-cropped hair and a winning smile also doesn’t remotely resemble the person in the photos.

“I’ve lost 60 pounds during the last 12 months,” says Merrill. Dressed in a red sweater and charcoal gray slacks and wearing understated earrings, she looks more like a college student than a doctor. “Not delivering babies has given me time to do other things.” Like training for a marathon.  Specifically Northern California’s Avenue of the Giants Marathon, a 26.2-mile event held in Redwood National Park that Merrill, a California native, will participate in Sunday.

Running marathons isn’t usually the norm for physicians, who often are too busy to exercise, much less train diligently for such a grueling event. “Most of us go into medicine learning that good health is important,” Merrill explains, “but we’re taught to put almost everything else before taking care of ourselves, including our own health.”

Merrill’s colleagues concur that she’s special. “The change in Kate has been awe-inspiring,” says Dr. Kevin Baxter, an osteopathic physician who provides call coverage with Merrill. “She’s an example of a physician who provides time for herself, which a lot of physicians don’t do.“

Younger doctors, Baxter believes, are more aware that being physically fit positively affects relationships with patients. “Kate’s an example of an up-and-coming age of physicians. She has me provide coverage while she goes out and runs.”

Merrill, who moved from the Seattle area to practice in Astoria, says the town is entering a golden age of medical care. “We’re attracting a wider variety of specialists. But it all starts with quality primary-care doctors and a great place to live. I chose a medical career because I wanted to have a life with purpose and to make a difference in other people’s lives.”

Echoing the comments uttered by so many neophyte runners, Merrill says she started running so she could eat more heartily. She began by walking and running four or five times a week, typically alone. Her first race, which she successfully completed, was the 10-kilometer (6.2-mile) Great Columbia Crossing, the annual October walk and run across the Astoria Bridge from Washington to Oregon.

The next step would be to attempt every distance runner’s dream race – the marathon.

Merrill has some running history. While in junior high in Bakersfield, Calif., she competed in distance events. “I knew there was some underlying talent there, and I wanted to dig it up to see if it was still around,” she says. Perusing books and Web sites dedicated to long-distance running armed her with the necessary training information.

Wisely, Merrill began slowly, gradually increasing her mileage about 10 percent every week to a maximum of 45 miles. Within a year, she firmed up and slimmed down, steeling her resolve while toning her body and attaining what competitive athletes like to call a “cut” physique.

“Training for something like a marathon is a lifestyle change,” she says. “It changes your relationship to food and and how you spend your free time.”

Merrill even has involved her husband Rodney, who’ll participate in the Avenue of the Giants 10K race. “He has no desire to run much more than that,” she says, laughing.

No matter the undertaking, perseverance has been in mainstay in Merrill’s life. “You pick a goal, fashion the recipe and try your darndest to get there,” she says. “The time that I spent overweight gives me a lot of cachet with patients who struggle with the same thing.” Her personal goal for Avenue of the Giants is about 4 hours, 15 minutes.

“I’ve never missed a run, and I’ve never stopped when I’ve intended to run the whole way,” says Merrill about her training.

“Life can get in the way of taking care of yourself. Now I’m feeling that spark again – like when I was a kid.”

finish line