Monday, December 12, 2022

A view from the front (seat)

It was in November 2021 that Rachel Tillas took her first steps into the world of ultrarunning by competing in the MMTR 50. But it started in July of 2021 when Belinda, Rachel's mom, messaged to tell me Rachel had converted from the 400m distance run so quickly in high school to a marathon. But more importantly, as one of Rachel's high school coaches, Belinda thought I should know that Rachel had mentioned trying Hellgate one day. My response? "Alrighty then. She needs to start going with me to the mountains. This makes me happy."

And to the mountains we went. I was the tour guide and Rachel my companion. She was bright and mature, contributing to great conversations despite the almost 40 year age difference. But soon enough, I did her no favors by asking her to join me on no more than a handful of other runs. I consistently held her young, spry self back. I was too slow to be any good to her. With colleagues at the hospital who ran fast, strong and long, I found myself beneficially replaced by those who could aid in her development way beyond what I could offer. So, the last time we were together in the mountains was a week before Masochist when I met her along the course to provide aid during the training run and help her navigate the course. I also assisted her family in crewing during the race but no running on my part was required.

Skip ahead to the fall of 2022.  As a welcome break after completing her Family Nurse Practitioner and Doctor of Nursing Practice degrees, she and her husband, Jordan, headed for the hills. Literally. They spent four months out in the big mountains of Colorado, Utah, Montana, Wyoming, Idaho, Washington, California, and Arizona. She ran while Jordan worked remotely. Miles piled up as her body toughened to the rigors of training. She even set an unsupported female FKT for the Zion Crossing. To say she was ready for Hellgate, returning to Virginia just a week or so prior, would be a gross understatement. I said as much to race director, David Horton, when her application to this year's race was submitted. Rachel deserved a shot. She was awarded a bib.

Belinda and Rachel at the start
Rachel leaves nothing to chance, that's for sure. I should not have been surprised to see her race plan when it arrived in my inbox. Two packs were to be used, swapped out at each crew access point. We were instructed to place 5 gels and two bottles with a single Nunn tablet each for one aid station. Eight gels and 2 bottles with two Nunn tablet each at another. The details were precise for each aid station. Plus, estimated times of arrival within a ten minute window and estimated splits were all neatly recorded. Nothing was left to the imagination.It made me a little nervous.

I sat with Belinda and Rachel during the entertaining race briefing Friday night, which, incidentally, was anything but brief. Shortly thereafter, we packed up and headed to the start several hours before most. Strategically parking to enable a quick get-a-way to claim a premium parking spot at the crowded Petites Gap aid station, we chatted to pass the time, Rachel anxious for the start. When the time finally came and after the national anthem was sung by the make-shift choir of individuals clad in tights and running shoes, 138 competitors, each with their own agenda, sprinted (or shuffled) off into the night. The race was on.

Belinda and I waited for Rachel to emerge from the darkness and into the flickering light of the 8-mile aid station. The moisture falling in the form of drops surprised us. Rain had not been predominant in the forecast. However, the weather app anticipated the precipitation to cease in 29 minutes. That prediction would prove blatantly false throughout the night. Nevertheless, Rachel arrived reporting a strong start and feeling good. She was the 12th woman to make it to the gap at Petites. We quickly swapped packs following our specific instructions before she ran away from us. Off we went to wait for her to complete the next 15 miles.

My view from the front seat of the car was ideal. I was warm, dry, and could see every runner who approached. We once again readied the pack per Rachel's instructions and settled in, wondering if and when the aid station would be set up. (The Petite's Gap folks had to break down that station before positioning themselves at Headforemost Mountain, the place where we now waited.) As runners came through, we paid particular attention to the women. The first came through and then the second, third, fourth, and fifth. And there was Rachel, now the sixth woman. Again, the exchange was brief, perhaps 30 seconds including a quick pee behind a parked car. She looked good.

Off we raced to Aid Station 5: Jennings Creek. A cheerful campfire sent sparks high into the sky, crew members huddled around and engaged in small talk. A colorful unicorn surrounded by Christmas lights created a festive atmosphere despite the dank and dark night. We witnessed the dance of headlight beams descending the sweeping switchbacks above. We counted the bouncing ponytails entering and exiting the aid station. One. Two. Three. Four. Five. Again, Rachel was Number 6. I had told her she needed to do only two things in the first 46 miles, one of which was get to Jennings Creek in the dark. She did. I had managed that feat only once or twice in my ten Hellgate finishes but never as soon as her. Rachel's first half of the race was proving impressive. Very impressive.

Though she had to keep moving quickly to continue on on her mission, Belinda and I felt no compulsion to risk rushing through the thick fog plaguing some roads on which we traveled. Rachel had 17 tough miles to run out of the darkness and into the light before reaching us at the busy Bearwallow aid station. We had less miles than that to drive. Still, crewing a fast runner provided us the opportunity to arrive before many of the other crews to claim a front-row parking spot with a panoramic view from the front seat. Belinda's husband (Mike) met us there and she joined him in the front seat of his vehicle. That meant I had the car to myself. I wondered how the young runner might be feeling, becoming nostalgic of my previous runs on this more than challenging course. I envisioned her pushing the pace on the gravel and grassy downhills. But how would she feel about the leaf-covered, rock-strewn, ankle-busting, off-camber Devil Trail? That section could make or break her. I prayed it would not be the latter as she covered those hellish miles for the first time ever.

As dawn broke and the rain backed off, I left the front seat in exchange for a campfire-front seat to
await Rachel's arrival. Again, as women began to filter through we counted heads. One. Two. Three.
Four. Five. Six...and close behind seven. Sixth-place Rachel did not look chipper as she glanced over her shoulder to see how close number seven was to her heels. "That was so long and hard," she moaned. The wind had gone out of her sails, legs rendered tired and unresponsive. Still, as her Mom and Dad got her situated with the pack exchange, she reached for a small brownie, the first morsel of non-gel food to enter her mouth. Locking eyes, I spoke. "Rachel, remember. Don't be stupid. Do what you are supposed to do when you are supposed to do it, and how you are supposed to do it. Things can get better but you need to be patient. Work through it." She nodded and started the tough next climb. I fought back tears as I spoke, empathizing with her. Too many times I left that same aid station wondering how I could ever cover the next 20 miles. Those emotions can become overwhelming, the task seemingly impossible. Again I breathed a silent prayer for her to regain confidence and strength.

It's a family thing

With the next aid station closed to crews due to a mud slide on the Blue Ridge Parkway, we arrived at the Day Creek Aid Station - the last of the race - and once again settled in for her to complete another 14 miles. As had become our practice, we strategically positioned the car so we could see every approaching runner, readying ourselves to spring into action with the arrival of our favorite gal. By this time, Jordan, Rachel's husband, along with her sister and months-old "Baby Bear" had arrived. It was fun to chat and catch up while we waited. In time, the familiar count began as female runners passed by. One. Two. Three. Four. Five. Would Rachel be the next one to emerge from the trail?

We noticed positions among the top five women had shifted compared to the Bearwallow aid station. But yes, here she came, identified by black tights, black shirt, and the black pack. Her face was a mix between sullen and mad. She was behind her predicted arrival time and not happy. I know that feeling so well. The only thing she wanted was to be DONE! No small talk. No stopping. No words. Not even a glance sideways. Without breaking stride, she peeled off the pack, Jordan handing her the prepared red one. I immediately decided against uttering a single word. That would only irritate the wound created from 13 long and hard hours on the trail. Instead, I snapped a picture or two and watched her push forward on mission to end the misery. "And we came for that?" Hannah, the sister, jokingly quarried once Rachel was out
of earshot. The group's tension broke at the thought of this ten-second non-encounter.

Now we rushed toward the finish, having to drive over three times more miles than she had to run. Creating a family viewing area just feet from the finish line, Belinda cuddled Baby Bear, Mike took a position at the last turn into the finish, and Hannah and Jordan settled into their camp chairs. Meanwhile, I chatted with friends about upcoming adventures. Then the count began. One. Two. Three. Four. Five. After the fifth woman completed her journey, I shifted to a spot leading to the finish shoot where I could see her come around the bend. Finally, I motioned to the family. "There she is! There she is!" I hoped beyond hope that she would be smiling. I did not want her to feel defeated because she would miss her projected time by a smidge less than 14 minutes.

I took pictures as she ran up the slight incline to the painted line in the grass. I was pleased. A faint smile graced her face. I felt a tremendous sense of relief. Anger, frustration, and pain gave way to the joy and dignity of completion. Though she suffered, it did not defeat her. She never gave up. Her stubborn determination awarded her with a sixth place finish in her first race over 50 miles in a time only possible in my wildest dreams.

Though I had pangs of sorrow and remorse, memories of a better me, and a wisp of a compulsion to enter Hellgate once again to battle the miles, my view from the front seat proved to be simply wonderful.

Like this kind of writing? Check out the book options by Rebekah Trittipoe..

Wednesday, November 2, 2022

A walk in the park and a pink finish line

By the time I finish most races, I've figured out at least the first paragraph of my post-race story. This was one of the few where the story twisted in a big way by the time I finished the 3.5 hour drive home. But let's start at the beginning.

With cut-offs harder to make and the felt-pressure to train oppressive, my first foray into timed racing occurred in May of this year. With no threat of being pulled from a race because I was too slow, my mantra became "Run a little, walk a lot." I was relatively happy doing that for about 22 hours and 50 minutes, stopping shy of 24 hours since I had miraculously clinched second place and would likely not have been able to complete another loop in the remaining time to add it to my total. So when my friends, Rick and Michelle Gray from TN, shortly thereafter invited me to run the last edition of the Buffalo Mountain Endurance Run, I signed up immediately.

Knowing from experience that a lot of ground can still be covered by a pedestrian pace, my nominal training deceased even further. Long days at work, plenty of gardening chores, and a desire to be a "normal" grandma reduced my running to a mere 20ish miles some weeks to maybe 35ish miles for an exceptional week. Not exactly the kind of time-on-feet that leads to championship performances. Still, after 30 years of training under pressure, I wanted relief. A curiosity developed to see how much I could do on how little. 

Waking up Saturday morning--race morning--I noticed a little nasal stuffiness, not a surprising find since my granddaughter has had a running case of the sniffles and a cough for some time now. But no worries. I headed out to the old Methodist camp where I would engage with the 1.25 mile loop over and over again. I watched as the 36 hour runners, having started an hour earlier, came and went, many walking every step. It had not occurred to me that most in the 36 hour race had no intention of actually being out there for 36 hours. Rather, they wanted enough time to accomplish a goal without being stressed out by napping for several hours or coming and going at will. Others, however, looked like they were on a mission, hunting down that elusive line between possible and impossible.

Those of us in the 24 hour race began our quest an hour after the long-haulers took their first steps. The course was a 400 yard downhill run on blacktop, a hilly gravel and grass loop around a small lake (complete with a trio of very vocal geese), another 100 yards of blacktop before a short section of gravel and 50 yards of "trail." Then it was more blacktop, a short gravel loop running through a pool bathhouse (with heated restrooms and running water!), finishing with a climb back to the start at the top of the hill and across the timing mats. Spigoted coolers sat outside the lodge for self-service fluid refills, while food lay spread out across a round table just inside the building. It was a convenient set-up.

It did not take very long to identify where I should walk and where I should run. It was a gorgeous day to be traveling along on foot and being a part of the inchworm of humans making steady forward progress. For a little while, I chatted with Sarah Lowell, a talented 60-yr old runner I had met years ago. Then there was Rob Apple, an ultrarunning legend with over 800 ultras to his name. On the short trail section I met Joyce Ong, a 72- year old woman shuffling along with her arm in a sling. She raced every weekend in October at timed events for 12 hours, 48 hours, 96 hours, and this race's 36 hours. Two weeks ago she fell and broke her clavicle in 2 places. "I'm just grateful to be out here," she offered.

Though I witnessed most runners talking and laughing within their groups, I never stayed with another for any length of time. It's not because I didn't want to, although I did feel a certain pressure to run when she ran or walk when he walked. The relative solo nature of my race occurred because I stopped to refill  a bottle or sit for moment when my companion did not, or visa versa. I simply was not in sync with anyone for any length of time to enjoy hours on end of unbridled conversation.

Throughout the hours, I reminded myself to be like Joyce, appreciating the ability to waddle on for long periods of time. When my mind went fuzzy on several occasions, I turned on my Super Sleuth mode to find a reason why: Was it a matter of calories? More caffeine needed? Do I just need five minutes in a chair and a chance to pierce toe blisters and reset my internal clock? When my groin protested on yet another downhill run, I analyzed my gait and found a more comfortable position. And when those walk/run spots identified early on in the race became nearly all walk and no run, I accepted it as par for the course-literally. Problems came but all were resolved, at least in part.

I tried hard not to think about the actual number of hours to which I had committed. 24 hours is a really long time. A lot of life transpires within that period of time as the earth spins on its axis. But why had it not occurred to me that had I signed up for 36 hours, it would have given me the margin to go longer and slower to claim a 100 mile buckle, of which I have so few? I could have even rested for several hours and still made the distance. But then again, I reasoned, the thought of going beyond 24 hours when I was at 18 was repulsive. Did I really NEED a cool belt buckle, the ultimate sign of ultra accomplishment? Good decision, right? RIGHT?!?!

As time progressed, I noticed I was becoming increasingly more congested. I resorted to mostly mouth breathing, as my nostrils plugged up. My thoughts went to Addy, my sniffly granddaughter who I had carried off to school before leaving for the race. I probably picked up something from her. Nothing more than a common head cold. No big deal.

With a surprising absence of sleep-deprived hallucinations during the waning hours of nighttime, I made the decision to make 80 miles my race goal. Hence, when the clock hit 23:10, I decided I was done. Through. El Fin. Even the fact that Sarah, a woman in my age group, was still going and would beat me, did not deter me from sinking into a chair to snuggle into a blanket, hands and fingers ridiculously swollen, body now trembling. Yes, I felt a twinge of guilt at losing my competitive drive, knowing we were at the same spot on the same lap when I stopped. (She ended up running 2 more laps to gain the women's 24-hour win at 82.5 miles. I came in second woman and fourth overall at 80 miles.) Still, I guess choosing to "race" in those last 50 minutes was not something I wanted to do bad enough. For that, I admit to pangs of whimpiness.

I was back at Rick and Michelle's house by 0800, the end of the 24-hr race. My friends and I chatted before they left for church and I started scrubbing away at the slime and sweat. But not even the steam in the shower could open up my clogged head. My head ached as I slipped between the sheets and attempted to sleep. But sleep is hard when one cannot breath.

After a few hours of restlessness, I headed the car back toward home. Feeling increasingly more listless, I made a stop at a Taco Bell, taking a 10-minute nap there. Then it was a stop at Walmart to purchase a boatload of daytime and nighttime antihistamines and decongestants, my credentials checked by a cashier to make sure I was old enough for the purchase. (That was amusing.) Additional stops occurred to get rid of race-accumulated fluids and slough off the deep-down lethargy overtaking my being. It was a relief to pull into the driveway in one piece.

I spent Sunday night on the couch to avoid transferring whatever crud I was dealing with to Gary. I had no energy the next morning, which is really not that unexpected given 80 miles on the body. But this was different. I asked my boss if I could work remotely for the day. She agreed, but those meetings were painful, my mind cloudy and muddled. With a Thursday flight to Arkansas for a speaking engagement, Gary suggested I put to use a Covid testing kit to good use "just in case."

Two little pink lines immediately showed up on the test strip. Shoot! After nearly three years of avoiding the C infection, that virus was giving me a run for the money. But where did I get it? Did Addy give it to me? Nope. She tested negative. Did I get it at work? Possibly. At least one co-worker was confirmed to have it at the time of this writing. But does it matter? Not really. My flight has been canceled. My key-note will be delivered virtually. 

I had no idea my race would end with a pink finish line. But it did.

Tuesday, October 11, 2022

Hungry and struggling?


(An excerpt from The EveryDay: 366 Real Stories for Real People by Rebekah Trittipoe) 

Picture this. You are in the wide-open African savannah. Mountains rise across the plains, tall, wispy grass swaying as the breezes blow across the hot, dry landscape between here and there. A herd of elephants gather to the right, gazelles bound across the plain with antelope and barbary stags grazing nearby. Down by the watering hole, hippos wallow in the mud to fend off the heat, and crocodiles maintain their submarined pose in hopes of capturing unsuspecting prey.

But across the way is that pride of lions laying in the shade of a particularly large baobab tree. The old wise males seem oblivious to the antics of the juvenile lion cubs, while the lionesses maintain constant vigil. The lions are near the top of the predator ladder, few other animals being much of a threat. The young lions have learned their hunting skills from the older lions. Speed and agility play in their favor. More times than not, a prowling cat brings home supper.

But there are times when the pride goes hungry. The chased gazelle leaps out of harms’ way at the last minute, the antelopes escape across the river, or the lion simply gets weary in the chase. There is no meal. Even the strong and swift fail from time to time.

Psalm 34 begins this way: I will praise the Lord at all times. I will constantly speak his praises. I will boast only in the Lord; let all who are helpless take heart. Come, let us tell of the Lord’s greatness; let us exalt his name together.” The writer goes on to brag of the Lord’s providence and protection; how He calms our fears, extends joy, protects, and provides.

And then comes a comparison. “Even strong young lions go hungry. . .” I guess the lion is not perfect all the time. The lion runs into hard times. But, and this is very important, “those who trust in the Lord will lack no good thing.” That means always. Every time. No misses—unless God deems the miss to be a good thing. This should give us confidence that no matter our strength or outcome, we can fully trust God to not withhold what is best for us in the moment.

Today’s Truth: Even strong young lions sometimes go hungry, but those who trust in the Lord will lack no good thing. Psalm 34:10

Wednesday, August 24, 2022

Excuses: Is there a lion lurking outside your door?

(An excerpt from "The EveryDay: 366 Real Stories for Real People" by Rebekah Trittipoe)

It is 8:30 p.m., darkness has arrived, and I am sitting here on the couch having a conversation with myself. I did not run today, nor did I yesterday or the day before. I had been doing so well with consistency; six to seven runs each week. What is happening? Yes, my morning routine was messed up because I was Addyson’s taxi back to her mom. Then it was pressing work on a writing project, a phone call, volleyball practice, and prep for a meeting tomorrow. Then home, clean up the kitchen, unload the dishwasher, prepare supper, clean up, and head to Wal-Mart for needed items. And oh, yes, it is thundering and promising to downpour outside. How could I possibly squeeze in a run?

Sounds like lame excuses to me. I should know. I excuse-make a lot! After I come up with the excuse, I rationalize away my decision to appease the inevitable guilt I feel. What a sorry mess I am! 

Recently, I read a story about Lou Gehrig. Though many associate his name with the disease, back in the day he was well-known as a New York Yankee. It is reported that his initial role on the team was as a back-up fi rst baseman to a guy named Wally Pipp. When ol’ Wally got sick, Gehrig covered the base. He played so well that Pipp never regained the starting position. But get this, despite seventeen hand fractures during his career, Gehrig never missed playing in a game for thirteen straight years. That comes down to 2,130 games! Who does that? Well, not many, that’s for sure. What an amazing ability to find a way despite the challenges. No excuse—valid or not—kept him from the mission.

Reading that fun fact confirms I am a wimp. It is so easy to make an excuse of why I did or did not do something. I may even give great lip service to its importance, but when it comes down to it, I back out. I read in Proverbs an interesting verse describing someone so lazy that he claims a lion waits outside to devour him. Hence, he has no recourse but to stay inside the walls of his home. Lest I scoff at that fella, I am challenged to examine my own lame reasons for not running, not taking time to read, ignoring prayer, or neglecting relationships. Shame on me. I best finish this story and get in a workout before it gets any later than it is. 

         Today’s Truth: The sluggard says, “There is a lion outside! I shall be killed in the streets.”        (Proverbs 22:13 )

Tuesday, May 31, 2022

Run a little. Walk a lot.

I was on a mission. Mind you, a mission is not a goal. A mission grows roots that reach to the depths, providing an anchor to render the mission immovable.

Let's not confuse a mission with a goal. Sometimes the goals we set (Read the blog post) are not completely within our control. We set our sights on a big win, a personal record, or a championship trophy. The weather is brutal, the trail is a quagmire, or our opponent pulls off a once-in-a-lifetime race. We fail at reaching our goal. That never feels good, which is why understanding our mission is so critical.

When I signed up for the Black Mountain Monster 24-Hour race (BBM), I forced myself to contemplate my mission rather than set a finite goal. After what I saw as a failure at the 2021 Yeti 100-miler (Read the blog post), I really thought I was done with racing after almost 30 years of the long stuff. But I suppose Black Mountain become a way of doing penance for quitting at mile 62. 

The mission? Simple. "Run a little. Walk a lot." And I did just that.

I'm a 65-year old gal who has gotten a whole lot slower over the years. I no longer stand on podiums after being chased by runners from behind. Rather, I have become the chaser in search of just making it past the cutoffs. 

Since BBM tends to draw runners living in proximity to the line of the simultaneous 6, 12 and 24-hour events, no one had any preconceived notions of what my performance should be. That was a relief. All anyone had to know was that the lady with silver hair and crepey-looking skin showed up for a long walk in the woods.

Did I train frantically for this event? No. In my best years of running, I would have never arrived at the start without getting in as much training as possible, often sacrificing family time and overall health and well-being in the process. But now? After coming close to throwing in the towel all together, my approach to "training" since the YETI debacle last fall is vastly different. I run when I can and when I want to. If I miss a day--or two--I have learned to live with that. My weekends do not always include a long run because, quite frankly, other things (like time with my granddaughter or house projects) are more important at this stage of life.

Was I nervous to look squarely into the face of 24 hours on my feet? Sure. That is a long time considering my average of 25-35 miles per week. But then again, walking with purpose is much less destructive on tendons and ligaments. And, with lessened aerobic and anaerobic conditioning required compared to running, high mileage loses importance if praise-worthy performance is not part of the mission. That said, I specifically prayed for wisdom to recognize real warning signs of impending doom during the event. I knew my mission, but did not want to do something stupid in keeping it.

We weaved ourselves repeatedly through a 3.125 woodland course, arriving back at the start/finish aid station at the conclusion of each lap. A little single track here, forest road there, with grassy fields thrown in for good measure made up the course. With torrential downpours the day before, unavoidable shin-deep mud bogs were more suitable for pigs than runners. 

I was conservative from the start. My mission stayed on repeat in my head: Run a little. Walk a lot. Up through about 25 miles, that run/walk thing worked well. From 25-40 miles, I became more selective in choosing to run. But for what would be the last 31+ miles, I essentially walked with purpose and fervor. If you want to know the ending, I ended up as the second woman and the first person (man or woman) in the 60-69 age group. Overall, I was 16th out of 71 runners entered in the 24-hour event, officially logging 71.88 miles.

But there is more to the story than a fluke podium finish in a race absent of top-tier woman competitors. Never before have I had to discipline myself to be so patient for so long. When I noticed fewer runners on the course after 4:00 PM (the finish time for the 6-hour entrants), I made myself look forward to cooler temps in a few more hours. I interacted with other runners as we passed by. I kept guard of my attitude by being pleasant and happy every time I passed the Start/Finish. I looked forward to being embraced in the darkness of the coming hours.

By 10:00 PM, the 12-hour mark, it was necessary to prevent my mind from thinking that my race was only half-way done. It became imperative to remind myself: "Just. Keep. Going. 12 hours in the context of a lifetime is miniscule, You are fine. Nothing is wrong. You love the dark. Make the most of it. Smile. Be smart, not stupid."

The almost deafening noise of waking birds marked the crack of dawn. I had made it through the night without falling asleep. Two laps once I hit 60 miles seemed harder than usual, despite edging me closer to the finish. I completed my last lap at 22:55. For the miles to be counted, I would have to run the next lap and make it back before the clock struck 10:00 AM, the 24-hour mark. Honestly, to do that I would have had to push hard. I wasn't sure I could trust my legs. I had made it thus far without injury or incident, and I wanted to keep it that way. When the official timer surprised me with the fact that second place was solidly in my hand, I decided my race had come to a successful conclusion. I had run a little, walked a lot.

So, are there life lessons for the athlete, the teacher, the coach, the business person--well, any human-- buried within the story? I think so.

1) A clear mission is foundational to accomplishment. If an activity or action does not lead toward the mission, then it is time to reconsider one, the other, or both.

2) Slow progress is still progress. Patience to embrace and appreciate each moment is critical.

3) Control what you can control; mostly attitude and perspective. Don't worry about what is outside of your control.

4) Avoid discontentment after the fact. My miles were slow and steady but not at all impressive compared to when I could run 100 miles in 20 hours. But I am not now what I was then. That has to be okay because time changes things.

5) Never underestimate the importance of constant forward motion. You can cover a lot of ground if you just keep on walking on mission.

Mission accomplished.

Tuesday, April 26, 2022

10 reasons to be dead last

I swept the 35 miles of the Promise Land 50K trail. If you have a picture of a white-haired old gal with broom in hand whisking away sticks and stones, that's not it. Not that the white-haired old gal is wrong. It's simply the broom part is not even close.

A trail sweep is a runner whose job it is to stay behind the last competitor, taking down the plastic streamers that mark the way. The obvious reason is to have the course de-marked at the conclusion of the race. A less obvious cause is to deal with any human carnage that may occur: a runner who gets in trouble and may even need medical attention. My job is to do what it takes to stay with the runner and get him or her to safety.

Now that we got that definition out of the way, allow me a few minutes to lay down my top ten reasons to run a race without any hope of a personal best or age-group award. Sweeping is a task that necessarily demands last place.

10. The clock does not apply to me. When a race begins, the clock starts ticking. Competitors must cross the finish line before the clock strikes the final moment. In fact, the runners must arrive at designated aid stations within a fixed time limit lest they be forced to stop. Following the last runner often makes me late as well. But do I stop? Nope. My task is to find and follow the new last runner. Being late is A-OK.

9. The birds chirp louder. Because I run alone sans the chatter so common among runners, the hour following the break of dawn fills with a cacophony of ornithopic song. I am left to wonder what they are saying as one group antiphonally answers another. I almost feel selfish enjoying the private concert.

8. I can dawdle at aid stations. I can only imagine what it must be like to know you are last because I am running on your heels. I try hard to avoid becoming the race's Grim Reaper, being careful to stay in contact but just out of sight. So, when I get to an aid station, it's good if I chat and snack to give the runner more space as they head down the trail to the next aid station before I once again pursue.

7. The flowers are prettier and the streams more picturesque. I know intellectually that the flowers and cascading streams are not dependent on who views them. But it seems to me that the petals are brighter and the waterfalls more spectacular, putting on a show for those who are slow enough to notice.

6. Slow is expected. Yes, a sweeper stays behind whoever is running at the end of the line. That ensures slow, which is particularly helpful when a sweeper's speed is also slow.

5. Experience is gained as a collector of trail trash. Actually, ultrarunners are very good about not dropping a lot of trash as they scamper along forested trail. However, one only truly appreciates how well-marked a course is when tasked with taking down all those streamers, many of which have become hopelessly entangled among the branches. Thousands--literally--of streamers need to by freed one-by-one from the branches, being careful not to leave the knot. Once in my hand, the game becomes "How many can I stuff in the pockets of my shorts before resorting to the trash bag I carry in my pack?"

4. Taking down streamers adds a huge chunk of time spent on the course.
If I had to guess, I spend at least 25-30% more time on the trail when I do a solo sweep. It becomes an endless sequence of run 100 yards. Stop. Untangle. Pull. Stuff in pocket. Repeat. When my pockets bulge and my pack fills to overflowing, I wonder if those who marked the trail had been overzealous. Surely, we love a well-marked course, but streamers hung every 50 yards on single track with no side trails seems a bit of an overkill.

3. Pee with confidence. With the last runner ahead and no one behind, there is no need to hesitate when nature calls. This is reason to celebrate!

2. I am reminded to get out of my own head to help others. On the tough climb up Apple Orchard, I was feeling rough. I downed what calories and fluid I had on hand, thinking that might be the problem. But when I caught not one, but two struggling runners, I was forced to turn up the encouraging yet empathetic dial while avoiding the "way to chipper" vibe that can easily aggravate. Tending to their physical and emotional needs put my own in perspective and reminded me of my purpose.

1. Sweeping reinforces the idea of persistent patience. There is no doubt that sweeping is a way to serve the ultrarunning community. To hand the race director a course that requires no attention in the aftermath is a gift offered to help ease the mountainous responsibilities carried on the RD's shoulders. But as the sweep, I must accept the fact that I will be out there hours longer than it would take to race the course. I will run outside of the competitors' circle. And yet, those hours spent alone are both instructive and special. 

I think about the hundreds of feet that trod the path before me. Some sped along the course, like the top four men whom I intersected as I was at mile 14 and they were approaching 29 on the way to the finish. While mind-blowing, the truth of a 15-mile gap demanded a reasoned persistence in getting comfortable with the required hours ahead; to contemplate my own struggle and doubts for future racing, to miss the camaraderie of those who triumphed in personal achievement at the finish, to view the nearly empty campground marking the finish when I finally arrived, with nothing left to hint at the glorious finishes with equipment and trash bags packed tightly into the beds of pick-up trucks. 

In retrospect, it was Mission Accomplished. I was dead last, spending a long and hot 11 hours and 11 minutes along the rocky, steep and challenging trail. And, I would do it again in a heartbeat.

Saturday, November 6, 2021

Chasing dreams through golden forests

Pulling into the driveway at 0345, Rachel quickly made her way to the car. The prepared bag of extra clothes and snacks went into the back seat as she claimed the shotgun position. A discussion ensued over which of us slept the least despite valiant efforts to invite slumber. Traveling north toward our destination, the aroma of her warmed-up egg, bacon, and cheese bagel filled my Suzuki. It seemed to provide comfort despite the increasing realization of the task at hand.

As I steered the car along the winding mountain roads, eventually turning into the open field that served as the day's parking lot, we glanced at each other after the car came to a stop. Though Rachel had no means of comparison, I noted that the normal fervor accompanying the start of a 50 mile mountain race was missing. Rather, the majority of the Port-a-Potty's stood ready but empty. Small groups of people made the 50-yard trip to the electronic start line to be sent off at five or ten minute intervals. After checking in but needing to wait for her appointed time, we both retreated to the car to escape the more than chilly 20-something temps. It could have been my imagination, but I am pretty sure I heard the accelerated rhythm of my young friend's heart, reminiscent of E.A. Poe's tell-tale heart. I smiled. I was very familiar with that feeling.

Soon enough, headlamp blazing, she took the first steps of her first-ever 50-mile journey. Though dressed in running clothes myself, my athletic wear was not as much necessary as it was familiar. I made my way back to the car, left the parking lot, and drove toward the Blue Ridge Parkway in the darkness of the 0530 time frame. I hoped I would be able to negotiate the miles and miles of driving along twisty-turny country roads throughout the day. I did not want to fail my young, talented protege' by missing her at an aid station.

I chatted with legendary David Horton at the first aid station. We watched as bobbing headlamps came streaming down the steep hill. Many had no need to stop, just 8 or 9 miles into the race. They came and went quickly, which is why I only got a glimpse of Rachel, who had moved up in the standings. Content that she was moving well, my curiosity was appeased, allowing me to make the bumpy drive back down the gravel road.

My next destination was a new aid station for this newly designed out-and-back course. I had successfully run the older version twenty times in past years, learning the ins and outs of the trails like the back of my hand. Still, there were two sections I had never been on, one of them leading to the aid station to which I was now headed. I parked on the side of the road, the lone car at a place that was normally bristling with excitement. "Strange," I thought, gathering my backpack filled with potential supplies and making the short half-mile trek to the station at the 15-mile mark. Highly expecting the commotion common to an aid station, I was surprised to find nothing but two willing souls and one jug of water at the "Cabin." Oops.

The lost and missing crew members eventually found their way into the woods and set up tables filled with food, beverage, and freshly-cooked pancakes. Sooner than expected, I saw Rachel coming down the hill. "I've been passing so many," she quickly briefed me. Game face on, she spent a slim 10 seconds getting aid. I didn't even have time to snap a photo. Off she went as if on a mission to track down and kill her prey. I was excited, but a little concerned that she may be pushing too hard. I had told her to hold a comfortable effort for at least the first 20 - 30 miles. 

Five miles later, she came down into the lowest elevation aid station on the course. This time, she was on the heels of the woman occupying the third spot. A couple ibuprofen to calm an aggravated groin and a quick refuel prepared her for the grueling, predominately uphill trek back to the Cabin stop. Hence, I drove back around, walked the familiar trail into the woods, this time finding a music-thumping, fully-equipped aid station. I felt a little guilty chatting it up with the gang and other crew awaiting the arrival of their runners because I knew how hard it was to climb back up this mountain. I had my phone at the ready to catch a photo op since I could see her coming. Uh-oh. She wasn't looking too chipper. "Will I see my Mom at the loop?" she barked. I suspected that wanting mommy was not the best sign.

We had previously planned that Rachel's husband, mom and dad would hang out near the infamous "Loop," given that she would pass by that spot three times. Hence, I had not planned on joining them due to the claustrophobic parking situation. My plans changed. Rachel was not happy and appeared to be descending into a dark mental space. I needed to drive up there to have a chat with the family, advising them of how they could best handle a discouraged and tired runner.

She was still not smiling when she arrived. "A girl passed me." She seemed annoyed by that fact. "Rachel, run your race. Suffering is part of this. Accept it and continue to make forward progress." Off she went. I hoped she could work through the low she was experiencing. With that, I departed to drive around the mountain to once again conquer the rough and rocky ascent to the Salt Log Gap station.  Her family was left with the responsibility to motivate and hand a little bit of tough love to Rachel once she completed The Loop. Mom did well to respond to Rachel's "Mom, this sucks!" with “I bet it does. You can do this! Go."

It wasn't too long until Rachel arrived at Salt Log. Still not happy, she complained. "My groin hurts. My feet hurt. My whole body hurts." Houston. We have a problem. Though I had not planned on making the 1.2 mile walk up the mountain to the Forest Valley Aid Station, through which she would pass twice, it was now an imperative. She needed more encouragement, and if I could offer that, I would.

What a relief to see her come back into the Forest Valley Aid station. Her face was relaxed, her gait strong and steady. "Miles 25-35 sucked but I feel a lot better now." Time for me to relax as well. With eight miles to go, she returned to her focused-self, not wasting a second in getting what she needed and pushing forward. She was on her own until the end. I was on my own to find my way to the end in my

Her whole family was nestled into their camp chairs when I arrived at the finish line. It was exciting to inform them of her mental and physical turn-around. As runners who were close to Rachel all day began to come across the line, I knew our girl could not be far behind. Sure enough, though she later told us of excruciating knee and groin pain on the final three miles of descent and the resulting hobble to the finish, there she came. In her first ultramarathon, this 25 year-old newbie managed to be the sixth woman to complete the 50 miles with nearly 10,000 of elevation gain. Not bad. I choked back tears.

After the disappointing outcome of my 100-mile attempt back in September, I have been enormously conflicted about my roles as runner, mentor, and coach. Admittedly, pangs of jealousy struck at various times during the day when I saw friends old and new chase their own dreams amidst the golden leaves. Am I destined to be a "has been"? Are my training days over? Is it "okay" if I end up loving an expanded mentor role?

Mentoring and coaching is pretty sweet, I must admit. I am so thankful for Rachel who came along at the right time to follow me to the mountains and beyond. She encouraged me when I most needed it. It didn't seem to bother her that I was old and slow. It appeared she enjoyed my company and accepted my humble advise. She saved me from myself. Rachel, and those Shindigglers who have come before, do far more for me than I could ever do for them.

I still cannot tell you definitively whether I will train and race again. But I am fairly confident that I will continue to look for opportunities to impact young women, whatever that may look like.

Thank you, Rachel Tillis. Much love and respect. I am incredibly proud of you.

A view from the front (seat)

It was in November 2021 that Rachel Tillas took her first steps into the world of ultrarunning by competing in the MMTR 50. But it started ...