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|
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.