Saturday, September 16, 2017

3 inspiring blind dates with Simon Wheatcroft in Silicon Valley

Wow, what a weekend with this unique opportunity to spend time with Simon Wheatcroft, and get another boost of inspiration from this exceptional blind ultra runner who is opening our eyes by his bold goals and achievements, and his passion to apply new technologies to improve the world in general but the life of blind people in particular!

The first time I got to hear about Simon's story, I was actually part of a crowd of more than 10 thousands people as Simon got on the main stage at our 2016 IBM InterConnect conference in Las Vegas. Then we went for the yearly casual run organized by the marketing team later in the week. Because I was so grateful to have this opportunity to meet Simon in person, I decided that I'd give the opportunity to others in the Bay Area when Simon informed a few weeks ago that he was going to do a short stop  in Silicon Valley. Simon was staying at home and I tried to get him to visit IBM again (our IBM Bluemix Garage developed an mobile app for Simon to help him navigate the Namibian desert in a multi-day race last May), but Simon had already a very busy agenda on Friday.
You can see this BBC clip relating the work on the mobile app for the Namibia multi-day race:

With that express visit, I went on to schedule a talk at Sports Basement on Friday evening and a group run at our Quicksilver Running Club's favorite park, Almaden Quicksilver. Then, on Thursday, came a request from the California School for the Blind which Simon was very nice to squeeze in on Friday morning. Like Simon frequently says "life works better when you adapt..." And adapt is the key to the name and mantra of his company, &adapt or

#1 - The California School for the Blind

This came as a total eye opener for me, the fact that we had in the Bay Area the only public school for the blind in California, right in Fremont, and that this school started back in 1860 (yes, not a type, 157 years ago!) in San Francisco.

After hearing about the Friday evening event, their Track Coach, and mobility teacher, Marie Trudelle, reached out on Thursday to check if there was any possibility to squeeze one more stop in for Simon and I'm very glad we were able to do it. Of course, it was a bit hectic to drive through all the Friday morning commute traffic between Cupertino and Fremont then back to Cupertino, at least we could use the car pool lane where available.

What a moving experience to see these kids carefully listening to Simon's story then bombarding him with questions about their respective experiences and also how mobile technology could help them better navigate the dangerous world that the outdoors are for them.

There was this 11 year-old kid who was so excited and on fire with his genuine and smart questions (Photo credit: Neil Bacon):
He recently arrived from Afghanistan with his family and suffers from a very painful genetic disease and his teachers were so happy to see him forgetting about his constant pain for the occasion. And he wasn't the only one moved by this fortuitous interaction, thank you again, Marie, for reaching out!

#2 - Q&A at Sports Basement Sunnyvale

After a busy day in the office in Cupertino and yet another round trip navigating the insane South Bay commute traffic to visit the Tesla factory in Fremont with his travel and running buddy, Dr. Neil Bacon (Founder and CEO of, a Yelp-like platform for patients to rate their healthcare providers), it was time to drive to Sunnyvale where Sports Basement very kindly opened their community room for an informal gathering and Q&A of our local running community with Simon.

With an invite posted on Facebook and relayed by Sports Basement to 32,000 members, I didn't know how many people to expect. And, when Michele, a club mate, offered to cover and bring pizzas and drinks, she said she'd at least aim at the first 30 participants. Well, we ended up being less that this, people have busy lives on a Friday evening... But at least the participants could ask all the questions they had and have one on one interactions with Simon, priceless!

Special thanks to Michele and Dennis for bring the food, and shout out to Sports Basement tor their continuous and generous of our local community by allowing us to organize these events! You can become a Basementeer yourself, benefit from additional discounts and Sports Basement will even retrocede 10% of the profit on any of your purchases to the local educational institution of your choice! A way to remain Panda-riffic if you were wondering, Simon... ;-)
We also had a very special attendee last night, Joel, who became blind earlier this year after a tragic car accident. Joel was so eager to get insider tips from Simon, and Simon was himself amazed at how quickly Joel learned the ropes of coping with the loss of eyesight, challenges ranging from simple tasks such as putting toothpaste on a toothbrush (or rather straight in the mouth), using silverware to eat or moving around and avoiding obstacles with a cane.

Speaking of cane, the California School for the Blind its White Cane Day 2017 on October 18th where everyone is invites to a free rap concert on the eve, and a walk-a-thon at Lake Elisabeth on Wednesday afternoon (questions or RSVP: James Rudder at (510) 936-5506).

#3 - Group run at Almaden Quicksilver

The last encounter with Simon before he was flying back to Los Angeles this Saturday afternoon happened at the Almaden Quicksilver County Park. Again, very few people too this opportunity to meet Simon but the fewer the merrier for quality time with him!
We were 8 at the start, then Bill who, at 82, had kept up with us for the first 3 hilly miles, decided to return to the parking lot after our detour on April Trail. At the top of Mine Hill, we ran into David and Tiffany who had started at the Hacienda entrance. So that made 10 overall, enough to call it a group run finally! And small enough not to get on the Rangers' radar fortunately... ;-)
Simon very much appreciated the new smoothness of the fire roads which have recently been scrapped to remove the toxic minerals from the ground (it's good to know we've run all these years on these trails without much of a warning!).

We continued our historical visit of the park with the April Tunnel, the Powder House and the San Cristobal Tunnel Entrance, sites and artifacts dating 150 years, as old of the School for the Blind!

I planned the tour so that we started with most of the climb, then went on with the gradual down along the reservoir with great views of Mount Umunhum (Grand Opening tomorrow, upon pre-booking, or Monday to the general public, so exciting after this long wait!), a nice ride on Randoll and finished with the last section of New Almaden, a much trickier single track to navigate for Simon, but a great test to fuel his dream of running Western States in a couple of years! We'll certainly need Neil's trail description expertise to succeed in this endeavor. What a task to keep highlighting every rock emerging from the ground, gulches of all sizes traversing the trails, the size of every root, the tree trunks or branches too close to the trail, a constant flow of words, phew!

We had a bit of an interesting episode to go around and over a large tree which was blocking the trail but everybody helped Simon get through without a single scratch, and no poison oak in particular, phew!

Great memories and bonding are formed when overcoming obstacles and supporting each other!

And, typical and illustrative of the diversity in Silicon Valley, what a surprise to find out that David was living in the UK at a place close to Simon's. Small and connect world! And, yes, they figured from their accents! ;-)
All that running with Simon surely made all of us realize how much we were taking for granted. I've ran this trail many time but never paid so much attention to all the details of it, except maybe when doing trail maintenance and actually removing roots or rock from the trail. Speaking of trail maintenance, and down trees, our Trail Maintenance Chief, Paul Fick, is hosting a trail work session next Sunday, September 24 (you can also join our Facebook group, Quicksilver Trail Runners, to hear about more opportunities to help out!).

Here is a 3D fly over of our tour of the park:

And the Strava profile:

With such a Western States dream, expect Simon to visit again! When this is case, I hope more will take the opportunity to get to know him and get further inspired to overcome any obstacle you may encounter in your lives. And adapt...!

Friday, September 15, 2017

A quick recovery run in the park: Golden Gate XC Open

I'm so behind... Last Sunday, I posted my UTMB race report, one week after the fact. I actually had written the text on the TGV between Chamonix (well, Bellegarde) and Paris on the following Monday evening but then got caught up with work and overseas travel before I could make more time to pick and include the right pictures.

And, last Sunday, we had our PA (Pacific Association) USATF (USA Track & Field) LDR (Long Distance Running) quarterly meeting in Golden Gate Park. I'm getting more involved these days in our MUT (sorry, yet another acronym, and not even an IBM one... Mountain Ultra Trail) subcommittee, so much that I gelt compelled to drive up to San Francisco to meet the rest of the LDR volunteer gang.
Why in Golden Gate Park? Because the meeting was after a XC (Cross-Country) competition, the Golden Gate Park Open. I can't commit on running the 8 or so races of that XC Grand Prix but, once in a while, I like to get my legs moving and measure myself against the real fast guys doing cross-country. One week after running 60 grueling miles in the Alps, how bad could it be. As a matter of fact, my next big race is a 10K (Trailblazer) at the end of the month, so better return to some speed.
Because of another one-time event, the standard GGP XC course was changed and shortened to 6.02 kilometers (you've to love how they measured the 0.02 on very uneven trails in the woods! ;-). Obviously, the difficulty wasn't the distance on that one. Neither the elevation, although there were a few short climbs to go over. It turned out that it was exceptionally hot that day in San Francisco, better wear a singlet that morning, which is the default uniform for most of the XC teams anyway. Our Quicksilver Ultra Running team obviously doesn't compete in XC and I was the only one to wear the QRC jersey.

I actually arrived at the site 30 minutes before the start of the Masters race, and just in time to see the first gals finishing, with a very impressive kick from the Impala and the Aggies of course!

Winner, Teresa McWalters, Impala:
2nd place, Danielle Katz from Hoka Aggies:
And the Aggies took 9 spots of the top 20, wow!

My warm-up was short because it took just a few minutes to be completely sweaty, yikes!

I knew only one runner in our race, Jeff Hongo, also from the Aggies, and decided it was wise to stay just behind as he was in my age group and we were running with many younger Masters (40 years and above). Half way though, I felt good enough to pick up the pace and pass him and the teammate he was running with and progressively picked a few places although I couldn't see the head of the race.

On our way back to the polo field and its long track, there was a very narrow and uphill single track and I got stuck behind two runners who had slowed down, thinking I was going to lose the lead I had created in the second mile. Up on the track, I pushed the pace then, especially as I was excited to see the finish line. I started sprinting with what I thought was a quarter of mile to go and was breathless when the course monitor sent us on the first out and back we had to do in the first mile, ouch.

But I wasn't going to DNF this time, with less than a mile to go, so I kept pushing harder... At the finish line, I had no idea what my place was, I just knew I had given it all at 6:03 min/mile pace on an uneven surface (22'49"). As a matter of fact, my GPS watch was happy, celebrating with vibrations two new records since I bought it in December last year: fastest mile at 5:37 and fastest 5K at 18:17. Oops, these are far from my PRs, it shows I haven't worked at the track for the past 9 months, I'd better get back to it!

While I was cooling down on the course, I ran into Bill Dodson, 82 and took me a while to realize he was still in the race. I ran along, helping him finding his way on this convoluted course in the woods, not having any other competitor to follow.

Yet, he wasn't the last one in his heat, he had 6 runners behind him! Including his buddy David Norlander, 78, from the West Valley Joggers and Striders.
We even got cheered by teammate Kat Powell:
Later the published results showed me in 19th place and 2nd M50-59, not bad given that XC isn't my thing. There was prize money only for the first place Senior, not this time for me, and kudos to David White from Empire Runners for clocking a 21'38" on this course!
All the results on the PAUSATF website.

I must say that I was very impressed with the speed the results were published given that the whole process is manual: registration, timing and inputing the results in a laptop via a correlation between the series of finishing times and the bib stubs. Such an old way compared to chip timing but still very efficient, kudos to all the volunteers and USATF officials!

Speaking of a joyful one, here is George Herbert Rehmet, serving both USATF and RRCA:
I also had a good chat with another ultra runner, Ron Guttierez, who lives a few minutes from the Golden Gate Park and couldn't resist entering this short race either. It was a surprise to me to learn that Ron had run the TDS in Chamonix last week, yet we didn't meet over there.
The third race was the Open Men one, with the impressive and inspiring young speedsters.

Two years ago I was uplifted by a few cheers from local ultra elite Alex Varner so I was happily returning the favor this time, "Go Alex!!"
After that, and a few more miles on the course albeit not really cooling down in this heat, we had our official LDR meeting, whose content was much more formal than the setup which looks more like a picnic! ;-)

On to a new job for me in our MUT subcommittee. After winning 11 consecutive Grand Prix, it was time that I step up to release Bill from his duties, he had done so much lately to keep our subcommittee afloat, he can now focus even more on his own ultra running. And all forms of running, like cross-country last Sunday. Long live Bill and the MUT Grand Prix!
PS: Tom Bernhard's video of our Masters' race (see also the Women and Open Men ones)