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.

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