Marathon Maniacism

Taking the Insanity to the Next Level

Well, the next notch on my belt has been completed.  I have joined the ranks of the officially crazy runners and am now a Marathon Maniac!

The easiest way to qualify for admission to this insane asylum is to run 3 marathons in 3 months.  After my finish in Portland, Maine, I knew just what I had to do.  And I had an accomplice:  Marathon maniac #169, my online friend, Shell.

I never had much interest in the Seattle marathon due to its odd timing (the weekend after Thanksgiving) but new challenges call fohouse_thanksgiving_miscz059r sacrifice … from Rodney, my ever patient and supportive spouse.

So, after a big Thanksgiving feast with family, we hoof it up to Seattle to spend a quick two nights with a friend.  I meet my running buddy on a dark and stormy morning at a nearby Starbucks (of course) and off we go.

By the time the race starts, it’s still chilly, but the rain has stopped and we even see “sunny breaks” now and then during the race.  The plan is to run recovery pace for the first half, then kick it up by a min/mile for the second half.  This is a very gratifying strategy since for the entire final 13 miles we spend our time easily passing other runners left and right.  We make it look so easy!  And it was.  We had lots to talk about and the route was picturesque – it seemed like a simple 10 mile warm up.  Maniacs everywhere were waving at my maniac friend as we ran and all I could do was dream of the time I could join their ranks and be thought of as “normal” again.  We finish happy and with ease.  Two marathons in 2 months is a piece of cake!  I can’t wait to make it three in three.

So, 2 down, just one more to go.  I can almost feel the Marathon Maniacs singlet against my skin.  The Christmas Marathon south of Olympia is a veritable maniac gathering ground.  Yellow and Black singlets everywhere greet me.  The cold weather (20 degrees at the start) does not seem as inviting.  However, with my goal in mind, and the easy Seattle experience behind me, off I go into the chill and frost!

Luckily, I have Dick and Heidi, two very dear friends on my side.

Photo of Kate with Heidi & Dick
Kate with Heidi & Dick

They meet and greet me along the way.  They flash signs encouragement- literally (“Go, Kate, GO!”  “ALMOST a Maniac!”)

Photo of Heidi holding a motivational sign reading "Go Kate Go!"
Heidi holding a motivational sign reading “Go Kate Go!”
Photo of Dick holding "Go Kate. ALMOST a manaic!" sign.
Dick encouraging me on with “Go Kate. ALMOST a manaic!” sign.

And … they hang onto my jacket when I’m too hot.

Photo of handing of execess baggage at the Christmas Marathon
Handing off my jacket and other excess baggage

They bring me warm gloves when I’m too cold.

Photo of Kate getting gloves from Heidi & Dick's car
It’s pretty darn chilly and I unpack gloves from the back of Heidi & Dick’s car

They even …

document my progress on video. Narrated by my niece Kimber.

This race seems somewhat harder at the beginning.  In the middle I’m downright tired.  After 20 miles I’m really, really tired.  But, the negative splits pacing strategy at least gives me something to think about while I’m trying to make my way back to the finish line.

Photo of Kate running on highway
Starting to falter about mile 20 with 30 still to go.
christmas marathon about midway
Around mile 25, I start calculating my “split” times to keep from getting discouraged.

I run down and pass a few people here and there.  I contemplate stopping and walking.  But, then I realize that the only way to get to the end is to…get to the end. If I walk it just takes longer and probably won’t really feel that much better.  My cavalier attitude that “3 in 3” is no big accomplishment begins melting away along with my strength. But I keep plodding on.

Finally …

the end is in sight and, as usual, a final burst of energy drags me over the finish line, complete with my own cheering section and banners “U R a Maniac!” The ALMOST is crossed out. I now am officially crazy enough that all the other crazies welcome me into their runners’ asylum.  I happily enter.

Photo of me and Heidi embracing at the Christmas Marathon Finish Line
Me and Heidi embracing at the Christmas Marathon Finish Line
Photo of me and Heidi just past the Christmas Marathon finish line
Me and Heidi just beyond the finish line. Heidi looks just as pleased and proud as I do.

Well now.

What’s better than a streak of accomplishments three months long?  Well, keeping that streak going, of course!

On my way to another 50 mile race in April, what’s more “natural” than monthly “training runs” which just happen to be races?

So, now I have three 50K races scheduled one each for the months of January, February and March 2006. Long training runs supported by aid stations so I don’t have to go it alone nor carry all my own equipment? Yes!

I’m there!

January’s event is even better.  The tail 50K ultra starts at 3PM.  You guessed it, running on trail, in the winter mud and cold and  in the dark!!  True running bliss.  And Manic #169, Shell will be there to do it with me.  The details will follow here as they unfold.

Until then I bask in the warm glow of my newly validated maniacism.

finish line

On to Boston!

Boston! Hey! We’re talking Boston here!

For many marathoners, qualifying for and running in the granddaddy of all marathons – the Boston Marathon – is the goal and the dream. For most races, anybody can plunk down the entrance fee and run – unless there is a limit on the number of entrants.  For Boston, you must “qualify.”  For each gender and 5-year age increment, there is a specific compulsory qualifying time that you must validate by running in a certified marathon within the previous two years.

Luckily, as you get older (or you are female) the qualifying times are slower.  I was able to meet my qualifying time of 3 hours, 50 minutes on my second marathon finish. Many younger people spend many years trying to reach this goal.  Lucky for me the old lady category isn’t nearly as challenging.  There’s finally something in running where not being in my 20s or 30s is an advantage!

Now that I’ve qualified, I’ve plunked down my entrance fee, reserved a hotel room and I’m currently training for my Boston debut.  The course promises to be challenging: there are the 20,000 other runners I’ll be wading through, as well as “Heartbreak Hill” and the Cemetery Mile downhill stretch that follows.  My goal is to re-qualify and leave open my option to run Boston again within 2 years.This year’s Boston Marathon promises a much hoped-for bonus: I will finally have the opportunity to meet my online coach in person!

Look here later for my full race report after April 18th, 2005 — the 109th running of the Boston Marathon.

Boston 2005—This is it!

The Boston Marathon is an event like no other and the people of Boston, as well as those who come to watch, hold this race in high regard.  Want to be a mini celebrity for a few days?  Run Boston. Our official marathon jackets and shirts made it easy to pick us out of a crowd.  When you talk to a local, or ask a question, they always pause to ask if you ran the marathon.  When you say yes, they ask how you did then give lots of positive feedback on your accomplishments no matter what your reply.  Even on the plane home.  As I was filing to my seat, someone saw my jacket and asked me if I ran.  When I affirmed, a dozen nearby passengers clapped loudly for me.

Hurry up and wait

The logistics of this race are difficult to imagine.  They bus most of the twenty thousand runners from downtown Boston out to the start in Hopkinton, 26.2 miles away.  So, our group (me, coach Jay, Mike and Pam) met in the lobby of the hotel at 6:30 AM and made our way, with the crowds, to the subway so we could get in line to load on the busses.  Waiting in line would be a common theme for the day.

We had heard that marathoners ride the subway for free on race day.  Yet, as we entered the train, everyone seemed required to pony up a transit token.  The conductor just  sat there, mute, not encouraging anyone to take a pass.  That is, until Jay got to the front of the line. Jay just shrugged his shoulders and displayed his open tokenless hands to the conductor who just turned his head and let Jay pass.  We who followed him continued to place our tokens in the meter, like the sheep we seemed to have become.

Experienced and bold companions are a must for navigating the logistics of Boston Marathon.  Arriving at the bus loading area, we met another mass of people standing in lines.  Jay cunningly snaked us into the middle of a loading line and in the chaos, no one “behind” us seemed to notice (or care). We loaded into a bus fairly quickly so we didn’t have to stand around in the Boston Commons for a prolonged period of time.  By this time we’ve already done a fair amount of walking and standing around.

The bus ride takes about an hour.  We passed through several toll stations without paying, then exited the expressway to find ourselves at the last toll booth troll who refused to let us pass without paying a toll.  The driver seemed as flabbergasted as we were … even as other arriving busses passed through other lanes without stopping, there we sat arguing with the troll.  After about 5 minutes of haggling, some deal was struck and finally off we went.

The bus dropped us off not very close to the Athlete’s Village and we had to walk uphill quite a while to get there.  Already the day was growing warmer; but there was still a breeze cool enough to make me glad I was wearing my warm up pants and that I brought along my jacket.

The Athlete’s Village is a holding ground for all the runners. You can think of it as part Woodstock and part refugee camp.  There’s a large stage from which a few speeches were given and a few musicians played to keep us diverted for the several hours we had to wait.  The sound system was marginal and most of it was indecipherable.

There were booths where folks were handing out free stuff to feather our drop bags with (power bars, fold up rain jackets (?!), etc).  There was a big tent in the middle and it was already full of waiting runners.  Every one staked out the piece of turf where they would pass the time.  Just like at the beach, you could see all manner of reclining equipment.  We had a few Mylar blankets spread out for us to share.   But others brought real blankets or folding chairs or, believe it or not, blow up mattresses!  We found a spot in a more remote corner near the shade (but not near enough, we would realize after sitting out in the direct sun for more than an hour).

Helicopters flew in low, probably shooting film for TV.  Planes trailed indecipherable message banners.  It was a carnival atmosphere without the rides. And we were the main attraction.

After claiming our space, we made the first of several walks to the port-a-johns. Here are a few helpfuls for using port-a-johns in a crowd of 20 thousand or so:

  • Never stand in line at the first port-a-john you see.  Look for a more remote location where people are less likely to venture;but … balance this with the extra walking required to find the most remote one.
  • Stand in the shortest line (no brainer) but …
  • Pick a longer line if the shorter one has lots of women in it.
  • Wish for good luck.  I stood in a remote, short, men only line at my last trip and it moved slower than all the others around me.  Go figure.

After traipsing back and forth between the waiting grounds and the bathroom lines for several hours, we moved to the starting corrals to wait some more.  We all paused long enough to apply sunscreen and write on ourselves.  Honestly, the Boston marathon is a mass of running billboards.  As people wrote their names and favorite slogans and symbols all over themselves with marking pens, they reminded me of warriors adorning themselves with fierce-looking war paint just before battle.

I lost my group while getting in our last pit stops before corral placement.  I walked back to my drop bag then joined the throng of runners making their way past the drop bag busses and into the corrals.  I met a couple of other runners in corral 14 and we decided that to try to stick together for moral support.  So there we stood, waiting, again, for something to happen.

The folks of Hopkinton must be a patient lot.  Or a resigned one. Many runners took liberties—using any area, private or not, for a last minute pit stop.

Loud speakers on all the telephone poles blared to give us an idea of what was happening up at the starting line—someplace around the corner and so far ahead of us that we couldn’t even see it.

There was a moment of silence for Johnny Kelley, then the national anthem. Fighter jets roared overhead on their 4 minute trip to Boston.  We would be much longer in getting there.


Finally the starter’s pistol went off and the race began! Well, for some people anyway. We just stood there like traffic at a gridlocked intersection.

Some people are known to moo in the corrals.  I didn’t hear any mooing near me but we were packed in like cattle in a feedlot. The rising temperature made me worrythat I would soon be off to the slaughter.

Eventually the crowd lurched ahead and we began to walk.  Then we stopped.  Walked. Then stopped again.  Several minutes after the starting gun, we could finally keep a steady walk, then a little faster until … we turned the corner and everyone around us started to run!

Not me.  I could see that the starting line was still about 50 yards ahead and my new companions and I reasoned there was no sense  making the race any longer by running before  we actually got timed.  Once we hit the starting mats we took off running the first downhill.

Running seemed pretty effortless at the beginning, as it always does for the first few miles of a marathon.  As usual I had to keep our pace in check as the obligatory mass of people ran around us.  I figured we’d be seeing them later.  It wasn’t too hard to find a spot to run, but weaving in and out got to be pretty dangerous.  I even saw a rear-end collision when someone unwisely stopped dead in the middle of the road to drink at an aid station as another runner sped toward her while blithely taking in the sights.  BANG! OOF! OUCH!

Within a few miles people were already peeling off to pee at the side of the road–men and women alike—in plain view.  None of the rest of us had any interest in gawking.  They were focused on getting where they needed to be and so were we. And there was still a long way go.

From the very beginning, there were plenty of spectators lining the streets yelling their encouragement.  They had BBQs and one biker bar seemed to be having quite a party themselves.  Music greeted us from many home stereo systems set out on the lawns.  Before long there were generous spectators offering all manner of sustenance.  I partook of water, Gatorade, popsicles, oranges, bananas and most welcome of all, ice cubes.  There were also plenty of high-fives to go around.  Whole lines of kids begged runners to slip them some skin and most of the time they were obliged.

Not the best of all possible starts

I was annoyed that there were no aid stations until about mile 3.  The sun was already oppressive and I was feeling parched.  I could sense that, although I was feeling capable, I had serious doubts that I could hold my goal pace through the Newton hills.  By mile 5, I already felt a hot spot on each foot where blisters were starting to form.

Once we hit the aid stations I started taking water and Gatorade.  I developed a routine: One cup of water in me, one cup over my head, and/or over my chest.  I tried to avoid dripping into my shoes for fear of worse blistering.  Folks with hoses provided us with a welcome spray now and then.  Within the mile it took to run between aid stations, my soaked head completely dried out.  It was pretty dry out there.

After the first hour I lost my new friends. Now I focused on my own race, which, by this time, was starting to feel pretty bad.  We passed by a lake and I really wanted to jump in for a swim.

The road rolled up and down, then down and up, but i twas rarely flat.  The mass of people in front, like cars of a roller coaster, predicted what was coming next.  Sometimes they dropped out of sight above us then reappeared below as we crested another hill.  At one point I looked behind me and saw the freight train of people stretch on into the distance.  This was reassuring as I was starting to feel that I must be near the end of the pack.

The scream tunnel

At the 13-mile point comes the famous scream tunnel at Wellesley College and true to every account I’ve read, this was a highlight of the run.  They yelled with all their might, it seemed, for each of us individually.  If your name was visible, you got personal encouragement to keep going and respectful comments that you were something special just to be there. I expected it to be “lame” and didn’t think it would affect me in the way some people had reported; but despite myself I swelled with emotion.  I remembered all the hard work I’d done, alone almost every day out on the road, suffering or joyful all by myself with only my own desire to push me to achieve my place in this race.  All the suffering seemed worth it.  I had to choke back the tears and as I headed down the hill away from their cheers I noticed my pace had dropped by a full minute.  Whoa!  Time to rein it in.

Until now I had been able to maintain my pace pretty well.  My first splits were 849, 842, 844, as I purposely held back as planned.  After this I tried to keep even pacing.  Since it was hotter than I preferred, I decided right away to pace conservatively, knowing that by 16 miles there was no way I would be “feeling good” and able to pick up the pace. (832, 837, 815, 824, 830, 822, 831, 828, 830, 835, 831, 843, 833 – mile 17). I stayed within about 2 minutes of goal pace until the Newton hills.

By this time I was grateful to find the ice cubes to keep me cool.  I put one in each hand to let them melt over time, then searched for a new supply.  I was feeling the effects of the heat draining me.  Weaving in and out to get to the aid stations cost me time and added distance to the race.  Yet, I didn’t do any walking except to grab water and drink and then, only after I hit Newton. Obviously, I was already spent, however and my splits show it: 918, 928, 911, 942, 957! (to mile 21).   The hills in this section are, each taken separately, not difficult, but after a full 17 miles of up and down, they really slowed me down.  I knew that all I had to do was get to mile 21 and it would be essentially all down hill from there.  This thought kept me going.

Once I hit the Newton hills I tried to stay in the middle of the road and just looked down instead of up.  “Just keep moving, just keep moving,”  I repeated to myself, as though it were my mantra. Eventually I found myself running lockstep with some other fellow up the center yellow lines and we ran in silence (other than our gasping) for quite a while.  After a while we started a clipped conversation.  “where you from?” “Mississippi.” “me, Oregon.”  Not much depth to it but we made our introductions.  Having someone to run right at my side to share in the misery made all the difference.  Silently we urged each other to keep going.  At one aid station I even waited for him to finish getting his drink so we could continue on together.  Once we reached the top, I lost him (but he found me at the end and I thanked him for his help).

The 21-mile mark

As I saw the sign indicating the 21 mile mark, I knew we were at the top but wondered just how I was going to bring it home the final 5.2 miles. By then I was pretty spent and had to just fight the urge to lay down and die. No, not really that bad, but I was darned tired.

“Just keep going, just keep going.”

All around me, people were walking.  By this time the seeds of doubt that I planted, even before starting, hit me (“Don’t plan on a PR at Boston”; “Just have fun — enjoy the experience”; yadda yadda).  I lost my concentration and, with that, I could feel myself giving up. I even quit checking my splits once I saw I was 6 minutes over my goal. 837, 859, 943, 931, 937.

Of course, there is no way to know for sure, but I suspect that I could have pushed harder if I hadn’t succumbed to defeatism.

I passed an awful lot of people in those last 5.5 miles, even at my diminished pace. I even passed a few runners who were being attended in the street or on the sidewalk by medical personnel.  That’s a sobering sight. Those last 5.5 miles seem as long as the whole rest of the race.

Fortunately, the crowd support nearly doubles in this section and it really kept me going.  My parents and husband apparently were at the last turn onto Boylston street but I never saw them. They saw me, but I never heard their shouts above the roar of the crowd.

The last mile

As I hit the Citco sign indicating we had arrived at the last mile of the course, I kept thinking… if I just run a little faster I’ll finish sooner and this agony will end.  So I “sprinted” in the last few blocks. My finishing time was 3:54:41, a full 12 minutes slower than I had trained for.  As I neared the finish line I raised my arms over my head and crossed over. Finally, things would be better.

But I didn’t feel better.  I still felt horrible.  Hours passed before I felt halfway human again.

And, as soon as I finished, the hurry-up-and-wait started all over again.  Walk a few steps,  stand in line to get water.  Walk a few steps, stand in line to get Gatorade (by this time, lemon-lime Gatorade is NOT my favorite).

All I wanted to do was lay down and rest.  I paused and bent over to rest with my hands on my knees only to attract the attention of the medical personnel.  “Are you o.k.?”  I just nodded and, thankfully, they left me alone.

Even though I was in a sea of people, I felt completely alone.  Everyone was engrossed in their own agony or elation and there wasn’t much chit chat.  Most of us just looked stunned.

Still waiting for the pain to stop, to start feeling better, I stood in line and got my Mylar blanket, then stood in line to have my timing chip removed.  By the time the medal was placed around my neck, I was too tired and sore to really care that much.

At least I wasn’t gasping anymore.  Eventually, I found the right line to stand in and got a bag of potato chips!

Tasty chips, resting body

I looked around for a place to sit and eat. But this wasn’t a sitting area; it was designed to keep you moving through.  No thanks. I found a stretch of curb beside the barricades where a few others were sitting or laying.  I found an empty spot next to a big garbage truck that was parked by the curb.  I balled up my Mylar blanket into a maksehift pillow and laid down to eat my chips.  I wasn’t sure I would be able to get back up again but that was a worry for another time. Right then, I didn’t care.

None of the other people around me were talking.  Most were hardly moving.  But, after I ate my chips I found my second wind and my legs didn’t seem quite as painful.  I got up under my own steam and (you guessed it) stood in line to get my drop bag.

After some more wandering, I miraculouslybumped into Pam and Mike and we made our way back to the hotel.  Rodney and my parents were waiting in the lobby Starbucks with the laptop open displaying my splits and final time.  They had been able to track me all day and knew just when to make their way down to the street to see me run by.  Now I could sit and admire my medal and share all my war stories with my family.

Next year

I’m disappointed in my performance but contrary to first appearances, I am in no way dissatisfied with my experience.  As with my two prior marathons, I have already started planning for next year, plotting how I will return and redeem myself.  Regardless of the pain it inflicts, finishing a marathon, especially Boston, imparts a huge sense of accomplishment that is down-right addicting.  It’s no wonder so many people strive and work and push themselves to be able to bask in the glow of a 50-cent bag of potato chips and a mylar blanket.  Well, and the medal is nice, too.

Meanwhile …

My summer plans are to complete the Mount Hood 50-mile trail run at the end of July.  Then it’s on to a fall marathon where I hope to improve my qualifying time so I can move up a corral or two at Boston next spring.

About Weight Watchers

What’s the Secret?

I’ve lost over 60 pounds. That’s a third of my former body weight. And – in response to one of my patients who caustically challenged me – yes, I’ve kept it off for over a year.

I don’t think there’s much magic involved in weight loss.  There are no special combinations of food with fat-burning hidden qualities. There is no silver bullet.

Now, a lot of people don’t like to hear that. They want a silver bullet. And so they fail. They wander from one charlatan to another. And, amazingly, they come to the conclusion that they are failures. That is so wrong. And it is so sad.

Reality = Choice

Once you realize there is no silver bullet, once you realize there is no magic, there is freedom. Freedom to choose. Freedom to be responsible. To win on your own merits.

It’s basically a matter of accounting.  Add up the calories you take in, deficit the calories you expend and what ever is left over is how much you store.  Use up more than you take in and you have to get the extra from your “savings” – your fat stores.  If you do this over time, you lose weight.  If you take in more than you need over time, you gain weight. It’s about that simple.

The big problem for most folks is that they don’t have a clue about the nutritional value of the foods they eat. This should be something we learn as we grow up. We should be taught to pay attentionto the information that is readily available on the product label of everything we buy at the store.

Somehow we have decided, as a society, that giving notice and import to this information just isn’t “normal” behavior.  But it should be!  Everyone should know how many calories are in a cup of pasta, or a hot dog or a glass of milk.

The beauty of programs like Weight Watchers is that they give you the tools you need to learn the calorie count of the foods you eat.  It’s a simplified method of calorie counting.  But it’s more. It rewards you for healthy eating behavior.

Then it’s up to the you to apply this knowledge and stop eating the extras when your body is sufficiently fueled for the day.  Not many people have a natural knack for sensing how much they need to eat – or drink.  If we just had cravings for what our bodies needed, none of us would have a weight problem.

Learning what I had to know to eat right took a lot of time and effort at the beginning.  You have to invest in the learning curve whenever you want learn something new.

Now I can look at a plate of food and estimate fairly accurately how many calories it contains, how much fat, how much fiber.  This knowledge gives me the power to control  what I eat and make the choices I prefer.

Sure, I love chocolate. And I eat it.  Listen, because this crucial: A sense of deprivation leads to failure!

But when I do indulge, I don’t throw up my arms and say I can’t do it.  I don’t proclaim myself a failure.

I simply accept the fact that I have to compensate for it somewhere else. Either I cut back on my other calories later or I exercise a little more. There’s no cheating nature out of its account balance. You can fool yourself. But you can not fool your body.

The support I’ve derived from the Weight Watchers website has been invaluable, perhaps crucial, to my success.  Even now, over 2 years since I started this journey, I still sign on everyday and “talk” to my virtual friends.  My circle of friends has expanded from just those who helped me with the weight loss to include my current group of running pals.  I’ve discovered that, like myself, some of them play in both arenas.

Used wisely, the World Wide Web is a wondrous source of support, encouragement, and wisdom.

Thank you, my friends! Thank you.

Weightwatchers.comHere is a link to my WW friends who are fellow runners:


finish line


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

Merrill goes the distance in her first marathon

Forever Fit
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

How it all started

I’ve arrived – in a big way!

Okay. Let’s face it, I let myself go.

After so many years of delayed gratification–eight years of college and three years of residency–I finally had the opportunity do whatever I wanted – to eat out when I wanted, indulge my fondest cravings. It seemed to make up for all the times I had to deny myself these things because I couldn’t afford  it or I didn’t have the time.

Indulge I did.

No one told me I couldn’t.  And I was a grownup. I could do whatever ICMH_pic wanted.  Blissfully in denial, I paid no heed to the effect that inactivity and overindulgence was having in my body.

Eventually, I noticed but became conveniently resigned.  I told myself that I was just fated to be a chubby old lady.  Hadn’t all my female relatives struggled with weight issues all of their adult lives?  Wasn’t I just a product of the genes I inherited?Kate's professional staff photo

Plump3I even bought I whole new wardrobe of “fat lady” clothes.  At least I looked better than when I was still trying to squeeze into the smaller sizes.

Life seemed to be full.  I had a great practice, a new beautiful house,  a wonderful accepting husband and a lifestyle that held few limits by normal standards.

Besides, self-acceptance is good, right?

Reality Strikes Unexpectedly and Hard

I was walking through the house admiring my accomplishments when I stepped into the gym.  Yes, I even had a place for the treadmill, weights and piped in music to keep me diverted during exercise.  But I never used any of it. Then it hit me.Kate with Freddie dog

Sure we used to hike in the mountains.  We could walk all day… ten years Plump2_000back.  Now I hardly ever took the time to do things in the outdoors that I used to love.

What if I didn’t get the chance to enjoy the fruits of my labors?

I started to think about the number of patients I had known who “out of the blue” had a devastating life threatening event or diagnosis.  Could that happen to me? Of course.

And I’ve known that for as long as I’ve been in medicine. But, no matter what you know, you can always push it way to the back of your mind where it can’t bother you.

But, if you’re lucky, it rushes you one day when your guard is down. The reality that lifestyle related events don’t just happen to other people.

My blood pressure already ran high and was climbing.   I have a family history of diabetes.

I have a genetic endowment for longevity. Sure, the random strike of cancer could rob me of long life. But it could just as likely a stroke or heart attack! And maybe not a fatal one. I might live a long but debilitated life.

For the first time, I really felt from deep down that I had better get serious about change.

Thanks Karen!

Kate's sister KarenThe family came together at our house for Thanksgiving. That’s when I Picturesto04052004075_000saw my sister for the first time since she lost over 50 pounds.  She had been following Weight Watchers for about a year and having great success.

What an eye-opener.! Karen looked great. And I looked, well, old.  And frumpy.

That was it.  If she could do it, I could–and would.

Not an hour after the family packed up and we waved them goodbye, I was on the computer at the Weight Watchers web site. My erratic schedule made attending local meeting unlikely; so I signed up to get started with their online program.

The next day I started counting my “points” – units based on calories but with certain nutritional preferences factored in.

Over the next year I slowly and steadily dropped 60 pounds.  During this process I began to exercise to enhance my weight loss as well as to up my points. Meaning I get to eat more. Now you’re talking!

As I lost the weight the walking became slow running. At first, I ran because I could get my point deficit in a shorter time.  But I began to like it.  By the time I hit my weight goal, I was hooked on running.

A Whole New World!

A whole new world of self control opened before me.  I had the potential to become something I previously thought wasn’t possible.

If I could lose and maintain a weight I choose, I could also train and improve my running as far as I wanted to push myself.

I signed up for and told everyone I was running The Great Columbia Crossing, a 10K race over the Columbia River.

I found a training schedule and stuck to it – 5 days a week. At the end of the 3 months, I stood in the rain with a bunch of runners and I finished the race under my one hour self-imposed time limit.  What a hoot!

What an accomplishment!  What did I get myself into?

That old drive had kicked in. The same drive that powered me through college, then medical school, and now in my medical practice.

I found myself first wondering about, then contemplating, then actually saying out loud that I wanted to run a marathon. That’s when Rodney, my husband of 20 years, began calling me The Mad Runner.  At first I thought he was making fun of me for running. Now I know it’s just his sense of humor. How? Because he shows up for every run.


Kate recovery from first marathonI did it.  I ran in a marathon.  No, I finished a marathon. 15947

26.2 miles.

Not always fun miles either.  Some were.  Others w
ere grueling.

When it was over, I surprised myself and Rodney by throwing myself in his arms and sobbing uncontrollably.

It was wonderful!

Two years later …

A patient of mine, taken aback by my loss of 60 pounds (1/3 of my former weight) reared back and said:

“Yea, well, let’s just see what you look like a year from now!”

I dedicate this photo to her.


Kate Merrill, 2006

To see the change that took place over time, click here.

finish line