Sunday, November 4, 2018

The race I did not run

It was the third Saturday in October 1994. As I stood in the dark pondering the day, I was a jumbled mess of nerves gone wild. "Fifty miles? What was I thinking?!?"

But then again, when David Horton, the author of this race through the Blue Ridge, chides you with "Bet you can't run fifty miles," there is no recourse but to prove him wrong.

That was then and this is now. A lot has happened over the years. I've been on the top of the podium, run sub-9 hours, but I've also finished a mere fifteen minutes under the twelve-hour cut-off. I've had twenty finishes and two unfortunate medically-related DNFs. I've run the entire length sweeping the course, nearly getting stranded in Montebello because  everyone had already abandoned the finish line. And then was the time I left Virginia's borders so I would not be tempted to run too soon after extensive feet and ankle surgery. But today I did something very unfamiliar. I drove around the countryside and watched.

Today was all about Hannah Quigg, one of my Jr. Shindigglers. Some years ago, after kids I coached in high school caught the adventure bug and followed me to the mountains in their college years, we formed an unbreakable bond. Together, the five of them and one of me, called ourselves the Shindigglers. Oh how I cherish all the miles we shared, the adventures created, and the honesty and openness the trail seems to produce. We did life together, on and off the rocky, dirt paths we trod.

But now those five have grown up and gone away. Sarah lives in Mexico, is married and has a tiny wee one, a Shindigglet, if you please. Abby joined her beloved in holy matrimony this last summer and works as a critical care nurse in Minnesota. Rebecca is hitched to a preacher. Caroline is in medical school. Kendal lives in Texas and will say "I do" this spring. She, too, is a nurse.

With the original Shindigglers no longer available to hit the trails, I've adopted a small but growing group I call the Jr. Shindigglers. I coached Makena in high school and now as a college student, she is running long and strong. In fact, she ran the four races in the 2017 Lynchburg Ultra Series, including this race of masochistic proportions. And then there is Hannah. A classmate of Makena's, she is one of four Quiggs who called me Coach T, sister to Sarah and Abby. She ran the first three 2017 LUS races, but a week before last year's Masochist, her knee went wonky when playing broom ball on the ice. It took months to heal. So on this fine November day, it was time for the monkey to quit taking a free ride on her back. MMTR 2018 was a 50 mile run for redemption.

The night before the race, I asked Hannah to email crew directions. I know the trail so well I could run from point A to point B with my eyes closed. But drive? I had no idea what roads would get me to one or two aid stations. So with directions and coffee in hand, I set off. It was crisp, the sun shining brightly. The trees shimmered with brilliant golds and yellows, the reds just as fetching. I was constantly wowed at the beauty. I couldn't remember a previous race that rivaled the spectacle. But then again, I was never riding the roads in a car nor hanging at an aid station. I wondered if I had
previously failed to appreciate the finest nature had to offer in the heat of the challenge.

Runners approached the aid station, traveling along the gravel track that parallels a swift, bold stream. I picked Hannah out of the crowd, her running style well known to me. She was cruising along sporting a huge grin. With a hug, a few words of advice, and a quick refuel she was off again.

I ran backwards on the course from the next crew access point. Makena had jumped in to keep her company, making spotting the pair easier than picking out a screaming baby in a Sunday service. Laughter and optimism reigned supreme, even when Hannah participated in an impromptu interview for my cell phone. When we arrived at the aid station it was more advice and encouragement, more food, more progress. The two started up the mountain and I started up the car. Quite the contrast from the last 24 years.

I had plenty of time to socialize at the next three aid stations. Chatter was light and easy with aid workers and spectators. It was getting easier to anticipate Hannah's arrivals because I recognized the runners who ran a few minutes in front of her. But in the quieter moments I projected myself into the race, recalling what it was like to have 30 miles on the legs and 20 more to go. Was I jealous? Hum. "Not sure," I thought as I zipped up my coat and snugged my hood to keep the wind from chilling me to the bone.

The last time I sent Hannah down the trail she was 35 miles into the race. Though still smiling and positive, she was getting tired. Makena's time as a companion runner had come to an end. The last miles were going to be foundational to Hannah's development as an ultrarunner. She needed to set her own pace, find her own limits, and come to understand herself in a whole new way. It was an important fifteen miles in which to embrace suffering, solitude, and sustaining grace.

The clock ticked 11:07 when Hannah Quigg crossed the line, exhausted and beyond happy to bring relentless forward progress to a halt. Sausage-like fingers told the story of fluid shifts and electrolyte imbalances. Reddened skin spoke of the increasing cold and biting wind as the sun dropped below the tree tops. But she smiled. She accomplished the task. She started. She finished. She cemented her role as a second generation Shindiggler.

I could not be happier after a race I did not run.

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