The Back Story
Kalina and I use to stay up late making armpit farts with straws. Although technically she’s my aunt, there’s only 2 years between us and I love the memory of her teaching me to dance to “Walk like an Egyptian.” She’s one of those people that builds up others. We all want friends that we feel safe with, that have our backs, that love us without feeling like they have to make excuses for us, and that look for the good, even when they might see the bad. Kalina is one of those people.
Maybe it’s Kalina’s story that has made her this way. Maybe it’s her world traveling. Maybe it’s her running. Maybe it’s just her gift to all of us and we’re being left better because of it. I’m so inspired by her and this Dynamo spotlight is revealing, raw, and witty all at the same time. She’s passionate about people.
Kalina’s story is part of Dynamo, a series of posts dedicated to showing real people, real power-houses, who inspire me and the people around them in their healthy living. They might not always think they do, but I believe that we each influence others more than we realize or recognize. That inspiration is empowering for others and themselves. I believe in the good of every person and I believe that this, other Dynamo stories, and stories to follow can change our outlook, our dedication, and our perception of the people around us. Up next in the Dynamo community, I introduce Dynamo: Kalina.
What is something you love about yourself?
I am so glad I was born with a sense of independence and adventure. Even from a young age, I printed out pictures of far-away cities where I wanted to live someday. At age 10 I read the now famed Hot Zone by Richard Preston and decided I wanted to work in a high-risk lab or studying Ebola in the tropics. Before then, I was convinced I would be an astronaut (and heartbroken when I learned astronauts had to have 20/20 vision – an innate quality I have never possessed). When I see trails, I want to run down them at full speed. When I hear about dangerous or challenging cities and countries, I want to explore them or work there. I am not afraid of being alone in the world, and I’m not afraid of being surrounded by total strangers. I always wonder what’s around the next curve and will usually put forth the effort to find out. As you can imagine, this has made some runs a bit longer than intended. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve had more and more moments when I feel absolute satisfaction with who I am and where I am in the world – and I’m always grateful for the qualities in me that have brought me here. I’m no dare devil, but there’s such value in being unafraid. My mother might disagree.
I have never been satisfied with the status quo – which is why I think running is such a great sport for me. You can always improve. Run another race, run faster, have more fun, run in a new city. There’s always another bend in the road, and for me, that’s the most exciting part.
Do you have a hero? If so, why are they?
I have many heroes – most of whom are people I know. My mom, my sister, my incredibly driven, successful, down to earth, and FIT niece who writes this blog…
But if I had to pick just one, I think I’d land on my Aunt Reba. She died when I was a chubby 10 year old, mostly paying attention to Startrek and school work (clearly I was a popular kid). I never really knew her as much more than a well-educated woman who had lived in NYC for a majority of her life. It was only much later in my life that I chanced upon her story in a book by my favorite author, Barbara Kingsolver. The fact that I found her at all is the result of such an amazing series of events, that I still hardly believe it happened. But that day, sitting in an airport in Canada, on my way to the People’s Republic of China, I learned that Aunt Reba had actually changed the world. She was the editor in chief of the Socialist Worker’s Party newspaper for many years, and worked alongside her husband to fight for the rights or low-wage workers in America. She fought for the underdog, she was incredibly important in history, and because of the time (the 1930s and 1940s) and the scare of the day (communism), she couldn’t really share that life with her family. We never knew. I imagine her breathing a huge sigh of relief somewhere in the afterlife, at the moment I chanced upon her name in that book, that someone in her family FINALLY knew about and understood the work to which she devoted her life.
I’ve since researched Reba and learned that she was tight with Frida Khalo (!!!!!!!), worked alongside Trotsky, and made a huge difference and intellectual contribution. She grew far from her roots – in part due, I’m sure, to a sense of adventure and a lack of fear. I am truly inspired by her life. I bet she was or would have been a killer runner.
What is something rewarding about what you’re doing currently in your job?
My job involves working with ministries of health in low- and middle-income countries to improve their cancer control and cancer treatment policies and plans. Recently I spent 4 months working in Indonesia on tobacco control measures. I fell in love with the country and became very dedicated to help the policy makers there pass and implement evidence-based policies that will truly curb smoking rates. Indonesia has the second highest smoking rates among men in the work – almost 68% of men smoke. And more than 40% of boys aged 13-15 smoke. The health consequences of this type of behavior are devastating for a country – both economically and in terms of people’s personal health and wellbeing.
Additionally, although Indonesia has some smoke-free spaces laws, they are largely not well implemented. As such, many people who DON’T smoke (including my dear friends!) are exposed to second-hand smoke on a very regular basis,. This has health consequences for everyone, but especially vulnerable populations like pregnant women and young children.
There is a lot that can change there to better protect the public health of the Indonesian people. More than any other spot on the globe currently, I feel driven to help be a part of the solution, and to work with the Ministry of Health to implement evidence-based policies that will curb use rates and improve public health. I’m lucky to get to do this work. I can’t imagine a better gig.
What is challenging about what you’re doing in your profession?
Well, my job challenges me every day. I can’t remember the last time I didn’t look out on the day and think, “man, can I do this?” I am lucky to get to work on a huge variety of topics in two regions – SE Asia and Africa. I get to work with Zambians on cancer registries, Botswanans on implementing a national cancer control plan, Indonesians on tobacco control, Ethiopians on accurately counting the prevalence and incidence of the cancer burden in their country. In addition, I get to work alongside some of the best minds in the world on these issues. It’s an intimidating undertaking. Every morning I’m challenged to really believe I can do it. And every evening I’m overwhelmed by what I haven’t gotten done. Running helps on both ends – it has certainly helped me believe in myself, and it’s a great mind-clearer. My poor brain is frenetic in nature, and running is about as close as I get to real meditation. It helps me refocus on non-work life and focus on the positive accomplishments happening, rather on what still hasn’t happened.
You travel the world for your job, what has traveling the world taught you about taking care of your body?
More than anything, my travel adventures have taught me that exercise – and having the time to do it – are a luxury. In many countries, the urban environment does not allow for outdoor running, maybe because of lack of sidewalks, air pollution, or traffic. And in many places, if you don’t do your run by 5AM, it’s too hot to do it outside. Many countries don’t have gyms – or have them and they are a luxury reserved for the very well-off. I’ve run on treadmills in New Delhi, India, Lusaka, Zambia, Jakarta, Indonesia, and Shanghai, China, and each time, I’ve felt among the really lucky ones.
In some places, going on a run is still a foreign idea. In Rwanda, when I would hit the hills, people would ask me why in the world I would be exerting myself if there was really no need.
Taking care of your body comes in different shapes and sizes. For me it’s eating a lot of fruits and veggies and running all the time. In other places, it’s plumping up and conserving energy. It’s all relative. And all bodies are beautiful. But fitness is a good idea.
What location has changed you the most and why?
Gosh, this one is tricky. I’ve spent significant time in both Asia and Africa, and both have made their fair share of imprints on me. But I guess the place that has changed me the most is my most recent adventure in Indonesia. A friend said to me before I left that she felt like this trip would change my life. I believe in kismet, karma, fate, destiny – whatever you want to call it – and although I tried not to look too hard for the life-changing event, it was in the back of my mind the whole trip. By the beginning of my 4th month, in the absence of a real “event,” I rationalized that the life changing nature of the trip was the fact that I had grown immensely professionally, I had fallen in love with a country, I had worked hard and overcome challenging scenarios, I had laughed, I had found balance, I had run every day for a whole month. I knew I would carry those 4 months with me always, but it was subtle in terms of a life changer.
Just when I had found real peace with the change inside myself, there was the event. And for my final two weeks away from the US (one in Jakata and one in Shanghai), I found new hope, new perspective, new friends, and most importantly, I was reminded that the universe can jump up and shower you with gifts at the most unexpected times. Isn’t life great?
Have you met any inspiring people from another country you can tell us about?
So many! Sam is my dear friend in Rwanda. I met him in 2010, while living in a house where he gardened and tended to many of the household chores. He’s from a village outside of the capital city of Kigali. In his mid-20s, he decided to enroll in medical school at the University of Rwanda, a school about 100 miles south in the city of Butare. Sam is a guy of few resources, but he’s done well and is just about a year away from a medical degree. Rwanda is a country with so few doctors you can almost count them on your fingers and toes, so his work will make a huge difference in the lives of his countrymen and women. About a year ago, Sam’s sister passed away suddenly. She left him with her three children to raise. Sam has not only been a parent to these kids, but has continued his studies. He keeps in touch and is always a friend. I can’t wait to get back to Rwanda to see him again.
One of my favorite things about my job is meeting new people. The world is both big and small and every single person on the planet has a fascinating story to tell. One of the best things you can do is listen with an open mind – it’s amazing who you’ll find out there. And who will find you!
When did you decide that you wanted to run?
I’ve talked a bit about my time in Rwanda. I went there for three months after my first month of grad school to work with a private hospital and the Ministry of Health to implement a Masters of Healthcare Management in their School of Public Health. It was hard and unknown work; I largely charted my own path. In my weeks there, I ate Rwandese food – mostly over cooked vegetables and chicken or goat. I dropped weight fast due to the absence of preservatives, a malaria scare and malaria prophylaxis, long walks up hills, and just an overall lower volume of food. It’s worth noting here that prior to my summer there, I had really packed on some extra weight, thanks to a stressful first year of grad school.
When I returned to the US, I was 15-20 lbs lighter than when I left. I was anxious to keep losing and certainly didn’t want to gain the weight back. So I started to run. At night. In pants. When no one could see me. I took a fair number of falls in those first months as I charted miles in the pitch black Connecticut streets. When I started to run, I could not make it even a quarter of a mile without walking. And about two months into it, my knees threw a fit. I saw a doctor; he told me in no uncertain terms that I was too “big” to run, and encouraged me to stop. Well, if there’s one way to get me to do something, tell me I can’t. I haven’t stopped since.
How has running changed your life?
How hasn’t it? When i started running, I ran in the dark because I was embarrassed to be seen plodding away out on the street. 4 years later, I run in the brightest clothes I can find, and bound across sidewalks at Noon on a Sunday, proud of what I can do. That mentality shift alone is life-changing.
I ran my first 5K 6 months after I started running in 31 minutes. I almost pooped my pants from exertion (seriously) and I “lost” to one-legged, 70ish year-old man in a last-stretch competition. Even so, the first thing I did when I for home was sign up for my next race. Never before had I been able to stick with an exercise routine; I had tried and abandoned running (earlier in life), spinning, Zumba, swimming, biking. But something about becoming a runner in my late 20’s worked – and it stuck! It was the first time in my life that I exercised on a regular basis, all the time, and didn’t stop. I still don’t know exactly why it worked for me, but man, I’m glad it did.
Running and racing has made me a more confident, more outgoing, more spirited woman. It has deepened friendships and deepened my resolve. It has made me the fittest I’ve ever been (thank you, marathon, and please come back, marathon training weight!), but more importantly, made me proud of my strong body and finally (almost) freed me from the number on the scale. It has taken me to new cities and gotten me up early on more weekend mornings than I care to remember. I know the pain of logging 9 miles in a blizzard, 11 miles on a treadmill, 20 miles with no ipod, or even just 3 miles on the days when it feels impossible. Knowing that you can overcome those kinds of hurdles, makes everything else just a little bit easier.
Running has made me more comfortable with me. A true gift.
What has running taught you that you don’t think you could have learned otherwise?
PATIENCE. This sport is not one where you can improve very quickly. And sometimes you improve, only to get slower. But if you keep working, your body will adapt and change and you will get faster. It took me three years to go from a 5K to a marathon. And it took me 5+ hours to run a marathon. Running has taught be to be patient with the passing of time, patient with myself, and patient when things get tough.
Do you have community support in your fitness goals? How has that made a difference to you?
Absolutely – I have GREAT running buds. My friend Sally starting running back in 2010 (same year as me) and our abilities have grown together. Now she runs much more than me, and faster, but we still get in a weekend long run every month or so. Sally has three kids under 5 so when I make a running date with her, there really is no excuse for me if I cancel or don’t make it.
My friend Krissy is another inspiration. She’s tiny and quick, but we have had some great long runs together. I ran her first half marathon with her – and she smoked me! She just had an adorable infant so I’m hoping to capitalize on her pregnancy recovery speeds to get a couple of runs with her in the near future.
When running feels hard, what do you tell yourself to push through?
It’s actually quite silly, but I tell myself to “Stay calm and keep running.” Cliché, for sure, but it works for me. If you really boil it down, running is simple and easy: one foot in front of the other at whatever pace feels right. If it gets really hard, I remind myself that it’s as simple as that.
If that doesn’t work, I pick milestones. “I will run to that bush. I will run to that tree. I will run to that pizza shop and then go in.”
You’ve run a marathon, what did you learn about yourself?
Well, I learned I have a very good short term memory. I wrote a mile-by-mile blog (http://viewsfrommyrun.blogspot.com/) that explains in excruciating detail what the experience was like. (The rest of the blog is rubbish so stop at the marathon post).
More importantly, I learned about the strength I have within myself. I was in tears at mile 16 of my race due to a malfunctioning and painful knee. In that moment, I couldn’t see a way forward, only a way out. It’s hard to verbalize what happened mentally that got me back on the road, wincing with each step, but it happened. When I finished, I thought, if I can do that, I can do anything. The blog summarizes it pretty well, if you’re interested in the nitty-gritty.
What do you wish someone would have told you about running a marathon?
Actually, I think someone told me before I went out. I just didn’t believe her. A good friend told me that at some point, I would feel like I needed the medic cart to come pick me up along the course. I, feeling cocky about my abilities, did not believe her. I thought, “sure, it will be hard and I’ll want to stop, but no way will I need the medics.” At mile 14 of my marathon, my knee acted up on my first stop at the ladies room. For the next 1.5 miles, I limped along, telling myself to just keep going and the pain would lessen. But at mile 16, I came to a full stop, a full cry, and a wall that I ran right into. I could not even walk.
In that moment, I returned to my friend’s words about the medic and realized she was right. At some point I would want a medic – and that time was upon me! What spoke to me more, however, was her follow up statement about how I could probably find the strength within to keep going. When I could finally limp again, I walked, then slowly ran for the next 10 miles without pause. All the while wondering how close the medic cart was and if/when I would need to jump on board.
More technically, I also wish someone told me to halt my training at a 16 mile long run. I will never do the 18 and 20 mile runs again when when training for a marathon. Too hard on the knees. If you can run 16 miles, you can run a marathon, believe me.
(The above pictures are from the time Kalina dedicated 39.3 miles over several races to baby Emma. My niece Emma died at 22 days old and Kalina raised several thousands of dollars to help her parents pay medical bills, driven by her running. To read the story, go here.)
You enjoy eating healthy…what does healthy mean to you and why do you think it matters?
I love the way fresh vegis and fruits feel in my body! I am a morning smoothie addict and fill it with as many greens as I can find, with some dark berries and chia. When I don’t have it, I feel different/more hungry/not as good. To me healthy means balanced. I eat a smoothie for most breakfasts and a big salad with nuts for most lunches. But dinners I let my guard down a bit. I love to cook and can make a mean curry. My specialty is vegetables and I can do almost anything with olive oil, salt, a spice rack and fresh vegis. The way I look at it, if it’s whole food, the caloric count is not all that important.
I used to lose weight by eating popcorn and pickles, which I can’t recommend to anyone. Now, an avocado (yes, the whole thing) atop polenta with broccoli, or an eggplant-based baba ganoush over spaghetti squash is my idea of healthy.
But don’t get me wrong…I don’t really deny myself too much. I am a social person living in a big city with no kids. I eat out a lot and so make plenty of healthy (and unhealthy) decisions in restaurants. I’m not a vegetarian, but I do believe in limiting meet intake. I eat full fat dairy over skim anything because I think it’s better. I don’t skimp on things like olive oil or almond butter. And there’s nothing better after a huge run than an ice cold beer. I eat a lot. I’m 5’10, active, and if anything, running has taught me the importance of keeping calorie intake high enough to keep your metabolism roaring.
Do you have a favorite quote that you lean on?
Absolutely. About a year ago, a friend sent me a Runner’s Box, which is a fun little box of goodies and fuel you can send people via post. When i opened the box, there was a quote printed on the top of the lip that has stayed with me ever since:
“The miracle isn’t that I finished. The miracle is that I had the courage to start.”
Starting really is the miracle. Whether it was the beginning of my running journey 4 years ago, the beginning of my marathon, or the beginning of any old run. It is the beginning that is always the hardest – and the part in which you really must exert your will power to get going and believe in yourself.
Another one that I’ll always remember was a quote from Michael Bloomberg. In an interview about his foundation – that works to better the lives of people all over the world through general public health efforts. He said something to the effect of: “I just don’t understand people who stand on escalators. I have absolutely nothing in common with them.” I loved it. It perfectly described my frenetic energy and constant drive to accomplish. Why would you ever stand on the escalator?
And finally, “sleep when you’re dead.” Dark, yes. But truly, why waste time or pass up opportunities? Sleep when you’re dead.
What would you say to inspire others to be dedicated to their fitness goals?
I think the hardest part if believing you can be successful. But you can! It really does take time to realize the result of fitness goals and you must be patient with yourself.
The other thing I would tell them is to find some really good reasons they want to be fit. Fitting into smaller jeans is a nice benefit, but I’ve found that if that’s the main reason you’re getting up to run at 4AM, you won’t get up. Find some reasons that have to do with how awesome you are or how awesome you want to become. Anyone of us is awesome enough to inspire ourselves to greatness…we just have to get in touch with what you asked in your first question – what do you really love about yourself, and how does fitness fit into that picture?