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.





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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 ...