My “Joy” Run

Those of you who know me, or who follow this blog, have heard me talk about Fellow Flowers.  Fellow Flowers is an awesome company that honors women and their journeys, both in running and in life.  As the name implies, a large part of what connects our group are the flowers that we choose to wear in our hair.  There are thirteen different flowers, each one a different color and with a different meaning.  Most women involved with the group own many different flowers, but find that there’s usually one or two that especially resonate with them.

For me, that flower has often been the yellow one, “Joy.”  The description of Joy is as follows: “Joy, happiness and confidence.  To smile for a reason.  To appreciate sunshine.  To find your happy.  Embraces laughter, believes in dreams.  I run because I get to.”  That last sentence in particular has always been one that I connect to – “I run because I get to.”  Running has given me so much in life that I try to always remember how privileged I am to have the opportunity to do this as much as I do.  I probably wear my joy flower more than all of the others combined.  The petals are now ratty and frayed, some nearly falling off, but I continue to clip it in to remind me of how lucky I am to have the chance to do what I love.

Fellow Flowers recently announce a virtual run series, focusing on the thirteen different flowers.  The first run, coincidentally, is for joy.  When I first heard this, I was excited about the thought of signing up.  Joy is my flower.  Of course I should do this one.  I began to picture what my joy run would look like.  It would definitely be on the trails.  It would probably be fairly long.  A beautiful autumn morning with the sun beaming through the trees.  Then reason kicked in.  See, I don’t really like virtual runs.  For me, the joy of running races is to be out in a new location, with like-minded people, celebrating something we all love together.  I appreciate the idea behind a virtual run, the thought of connecting runners across great distances, but it has just never felt that meaningful to me.  With my new job, money is tighter than it used to be, and I realized that I couldn’t justify spending the money on a race that wouldn’t make me super happy.  I decided it was wiser to pass.

Then of course, we hit the officially race period, and it felt like every day, women were posting on social media about their “Joy” runs.  I felt a bit left out.  Ironically, reading about others “joy” runs was bringing me less joy.

Over the years, my kids and I have run together a handful of times, but it’s not something we do regularly.  I am normally running too early, or too long, for them to be able to reasonably join me.  Last week, however, they began clamoring for a run together, so we made a plan to go out for a short run on Saturday morning.

Saturday was a jam-packed day, as they often are when you have young children, and the only way for us to fit in our run was to go early.  Like 6am early, which means that it was still pitch-black outside.  I wasn’t sure how the kids were going to react to running in the dark, but we got up, got dressed, and outfitted ourselves in headlamps and reflective vests.  The first thing they noticed when we got outside was that it was dark enough to see the stars.  (I love that I have kids who notice things like that).

We set off down the street at an easy pace, our usually busy neighborhood surprisingly peaceful and calm.  We crossed through the main intersection, then turned onto the quiet neighborhood streets.  As I loped along with my kids by my side, I realized that I was feeling a sense of peace that can be hard to find in my busy days.  On that run in the dark, the kids and I were isolated from all of the noise and distractions and busy-ness of the outside world.  It was just the three of us together, sharing something that we loved.  The thrill of being outside in the dark invigorated them, and they ran with a sense of ease that they don’t often have.  We covered three miles with only one short break, and it’s hard for me to think of another run that I enjoyed more.

I realized in that moment that I didn’t need to pay an entry fee and pin on an official bib to be able to experience a “joy” run.  I didn’t even need the beauty of the woods, or the calm of a leisurely morning.  I didn’t need hours to myself to gather my thoughts.  I just needed a dark stretch of pavement and two beaming children by my side.

When we finished, the sky was just beginning to lighten.  There were no medals waiting at the finish, no crowds there to welcome us home.  There was just the comfort of our front door, the wagging tail of our beloved dog, and the satisfaction of knowing that we had started our day together in the best way possible.

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Our blurry attempt to document our early-morning run.  

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Ragnar Trail Wawayanda Lake Race Report

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In fourteen years of running, I have discovered time and again that the first time attempting a new type of race or distance is usually a challenge, and that subsequent attempts at a similar race almost always yield better results.  I don’t know why that continues to surprise me.

Last year, I ran my first Ragnar Trail ultra with my awesome teammates in West Virginia.  The experience overall was a fun one, but I really struggled with my running throughout that weekend, to the point that I probably would not have attempted another ultra Ragnar Trail without their encouragement.  When I discovered that the entire team was up for another race, however, I knew I couldn’t be the one to hold us back.  We signed up for Wawayanda Lake, hoping that the closer location and later date would provide us with more ideal conditions.  My feelings towards the race vacillated as the date drew closer, but my teammates’ excitement, coupled with our decision to have a “Harry Potter”-themed team eventually won me over, and I went into the race weekend feeling great.  Wawayanda definitely did not disappoint.  In an attempt to keep this more concise than many of my past posts, I’m going to attempt to break the highs and lows into a bullet-ed list.

The Highs?

  • The location was beautiful.  The Ragnar village was situated right on the banks of Wawayanda Lake, and teams had the option of camping by the beach or up in the woods.  Our team happily chose a spot in the woods, which kept us near the action, but gave us a greater sense of privacy.
  • The autumn date allowed us to have beautiful fall foliage and ideal running temps.  The cooler weather made it easier to run and comfortable to hang out in the village in sweats in between legs.
  • The layout – There was so much space at the race that it made it feel like a much smaller race than WV did.  Multiple boards with runner info made it easy to keep track of when your next runner was expected to return.  There was also plenty of nearby parking.
  • Running with an experienced team made a huge distance.  We all had an idea of what to expect, which made the entire experience more relaxed.
  • Our team theme – Last year we were too focused on the actual running to pull together much in the way of a theme.  This year, we decided we would be “Hogwarts Express” and we went all out.  From team shirts, to coordinated hats and scarves, to incredible campsite decorations, our team radiated “Harry Potter” love the whole way through, and it made everything a lot of fun.

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The Lows?

  • Less daylight – Autumn gave us cooler temperatures, but a lot less daylight as well.  That meant that I once again ended up running the two hardest legs at night, as well as the majority of my fourth leg in the growing darkness.  It also meant that one of our poor teammates had 4/6 legs in the darkness.  In addition to the increased difficulty of this, she was really bummed to have so little running time when she was actually able to enjoy the sights around her.
  • Food – All of the pre-race materials advertised a complex food truck schedule for the weekend.  We decided to make life easier and take advantage of the multiple offerings, so we brought along less prepared food and more cash this trip.  Thursday night’s dinner, while providing small portions, went okay, but things went downhill from there.  By Friday evening, it was pretty chaotic.  At least one truck didn’t show, others ran out of food, and the lines to get dinner ranged from 30-60 minutes.  Many runners we talked to were unable to take advantage of their “free” Friday night dinner, and there was a lot of frustration.
  • A lack of consideration from some runners.  If I’m going to stereotype, I would say that usually trail runners are a pretty awesome group of people.  They tend to have a deep love of running, be respectful of the environment, and be really chill and friendly.  The majority of runners at Wawayanda seemed to uphold this, but there were a few teams who really ruined the atmosphere for everyone else.  These teams showed no consideration for others, not only talking through the night, but intentionally making noise for no apparent reason other than to be disruptive.  It was frustrating to try to get any rest in these conditions.

The above challenges aside, the race was an incredibly positive experience, so much so that it made it hard to return to real life once the weekend was over.  Within 24 hours, our team was already researching the next Ragnar Trail that we hope to tackle.

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The mental side of running an ultra

In my last post, more than two months ago, I shared about how I was going to drop out of my planned 50-miler in late August.  My birthday came and went, and I’m happy to report that instead of running a 50-mile race, I hiked 4 miles before spending the rest of the day relaxing with my family.  Of course, life is never that simple, and in an attempt to perk ourselves back up after turning our backs on North Country, Jen and I decided to run the Labor Pain 12-Hour over the holiday weekend.  Actually, to be more accurate, Jen went ahead and signed up for the race and I decided that good friends don’t let one another make silly decisions alone, so I joined in the fun.

I could write a typical race report for this year’s Labor Pain, but as I’ve done the race two times previously, and written a report both times, I figured I would attempt something a bit different.  Instead of a traditional race report, I’m going to try to take you inside the mind of a runner as they experience an ultra marathon.

Several weeks before the race: I receive a text from my best friend that she has signed up for Labor Pain, even though we have another ultra scheduled for mid-September.  I immediately tell her that I have to think it over, but will most likely join her.  I spend the next 24 hours debating whether or not to run the race, before deciding that I will be totally bummed and cranky if she runs an ultra and I’m sitting at home alone.  I sign up for the race.

A week before the race:  I realize that signing up for a 12-hour race is a great way to “get over” the disappointment of backing out of the 50-miler.  I begin to feel excited for the race, and for a day spent on the trails with my best friend.  I also begin to check the weather obsessively.

Five days before the race:  I continue stalking the weather, stressing about the predicted heat (highs in the low 80s) after a week of beautiful, 70-degree days.

Three days before the race:  I feel conflicted about the new weather forecast – lower temperatures certainly sound ideal, but the steady, constant rain does not.  Wet conditions = endless chafing in an ultra.

The day before the race:  I try to remind myself that I have no control over the weather and choose to focus on the positive – the rain is supposed to move out early, and unlike most races, there are plenty of covered spots at the start, so at least I can stay dry while I wait.  I celebrate how easy it is to plan for a race that I’ve already run before, and pack my race bag.  I also begin to feel excited for what tomorrow will bring.  A win in Notre Dame’s season opener certainly helps enhance the positive mood the night before.

The morning of the race: I wake up and instantly cock my ear to the open window – no sound of rain.  Excellent!  I get dressed, gather my belongings and then wait impatiently for my husband to pull himself together.  As my desired departure time comes and goes, I resist the urge to snap at my husband and remind myself that a lot of guys would not be willing to give up an entire Sunday to sit on the sidelines of a race.  I have a momentary panic when I get in the car and discover the predicted arrival time on the GPS is 10 minutes later than I had expected.  The return of drizzle on the drive does not improve my mood.

Pulling into the race start:  My anxiety peaks as I realize I have just 45 minutes to set up my stuff, get checked in, and prepare for the race.  Plenty of time in theory, but I appear to have arrived at the exact same time as the majority of the other runners.  The long-ish lines do not help my mood.  I try to plan out the steps in my mind so I don’t waste any time being indecisive.

30 minutes before the race start:  I feel much better after getting my bib number, using the bathroom, and discovering that my husband has set-up the pop-up tent.  I also begin to appreciate my husband a whole lot more as I realize that his attendance means that I don’t have to waste any time or energy figuring out how to organize all my gear under the tent.  A good race crew is invaluable in an ultra, even for ones like Labor Pain, that are relatively easy to organize.  I spend the next 20 minutes bantering with fellow runners before heading over to hear the race director give the pre-race briefing.

Race start:  I wisely line up right near the start line, knowing that anyone further back will get bottle-necked when the course hits the trail less than a 1/2 mile in.  I give thanks for the brim of my hat, which is keeping the steady sprinkles out of my eyes.  I choose to go against convention and push hard for the first 1/2 mile so that I can reach the trail before it gets too clogged.

Entering the first section of single-track: I rejoice when I confirm that I have made it onto the trail before it gets clogged by runners, then instantly dial back the celebration when I realize that the rain from the day before has left large piles of mud on the trail.  With a loop course, I know that this is the best footing I’m going to get the entire day.  I start to mentally prepare myself for a wet, slushy day, even if the rain stops.  I also begin to instantly reassess my mileage goals for the day.

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This is the type of mucky footing that we dealt with for much of the day.

The remainder of the first 5-mile loop:  I focus on settling into a comfortable pace, trying to make sure that I don’t push too hard too soon.  The trail is not clogged, but is busier than I like, and I find myself annoyed by all of the people around, especially the ones who don’t seem to respect personal space.  Why do some runners insist on tailgating?  I step off the trail several times to let annoying runners pass ahead.  I also keep a constant eye on the trail conditions, noting which sections are dry and which are bogged down in mud or puddles.  As we come to the final hill, I find myself celebrating that it is shorter and easier than I remembered.  I quickly remind myself that it appears to grow in length and difficulty with each successive lap.

First pit stop:  The entire time, I’m focused on minimizing my time spent at the tent.  I say a quick hello to my husband, grab my handheld, and head back onto the course.  My spirits are high and I’m eager to log more miles.

Second loop:  This loop is not very memorable, though I do find myself celebrating how much more I enjoy the trails when the crowds have spread out.  I also register that I’m beginning to feel hungry and I need to make sure I take care of that the next time we get to the tent.

Second pit stop:  Once again, I’m focused on getting what I need without wasting too much time.  I relish the taste of the peanut butter and jelly sandwich that my husband hands me.  In my opinion, there are few things that taste better than a fresh pb&j during a race.  I remind Jen that we’re heading into what is traditionally the hardest part of the race for me, and I try to focus on just powering through the third loop.

Third loop:  This loop is memorable and surprising simply because I feel good.  Really good.  There’s not a single point when I hate running.  Usually when I’m 10-15 miles in, I’m beginning to feel tired, but I’m also disheartened by how far I still have to run.  Today, I just feel strong.  The rain has finally stopped and the fog has lifted out a bit.  I appreciate how beautiful the woods are.  I can’t stop feeling giddy that my spirits have remained high.  When I mention this to Jen, she responds with, “Yeah, you haven’t been a bitch at all,” and we both enjoy a good laugh.  A good running partner is every bit as invaluable as a good race crew.

Fourth & fifth loop:  My spirits lift a bit more going into the fourth loop when we connect with our other friend Jen (hereafter known as Trail Jen).  At this point we are close to four hours into the race, and it’s nice to have a new distraction.  Trail Jen is an eternally happy person, and she and I happily chat away for several miles.  In the back of my mind, I note that Jen is unusually quiet, but I realize that this means she’s hit her own personal tough point in the race.  Knowing her the way I do, I leave her alone, knowing that she’ll come out of it at some point.  At the start of the fifth loop, Jen takes off without a word.  It’s surprising and also expected.  Surprising because she appeared to be really hurting, but expected because she usually leaves me at some point in the race.  It’s always a disappointing moment for me, but I understand it.  Jen is naturally a more gifted runner than I am, and so in the majority of our races, she usually pulls ahead of me at some point.  Today I celebrate that we ran together longer than I expected, and that I still have Trail Jen for company.  It is during the fifth lap that Trail Jen and I decide that we’re both going to call it a day after 31 miles.  The messy trail conditions are starting to wear us out, and we decide that a 50k on a tough day is more than respectable.

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Mugging with the two Jens near the start of our fourth loop.

Fifth pit stop:  We reconnect with Jen, who has beaten us back to the tent by a couple of minutes.  She confirms that she’s still feeling lousy.  I share our plan to run one more loop before calling it a day.  I enjoy another pb&j, some watermelon, and an ice-cold Coke.  We head back onto the course for our final loop.

Sixth loop:  Trail Jen and I spend the first 20 minutes of the loop celebrating that this is our last time past all the familiar landmarks.  As we banter back and forth, Jen is with us, but surprisingly quiet.  At one point, she and I pull ahead on the trail and I ask her, “What are your plans after this loop?  Are you stopping or going on?”  She confirms what I already knew, that she wants to try for at least a seventh loop.  With five hours still left in the race, I know that we have plenty of time to keep going.  I also realize that while I’m tired, I feel surprisingly good for this late in a race.  I don’t even need to think it over – if she’s going to keep going, so will I.  I find myself hoping that we’ll stay together, as it would be a lot less fun to continue on alone.  I also admit to myself that if we’re going past 31, I know that we’re going to stay out on the course till 40.  Jen won’t admit it in the moment, but I know her too well.  In fact, I find myself worrying that she might decide she wants 45 after all.  I feel pretty good, but I don’t know if I can mentally gear up for 45, after thinking that I would be done at 31.  I spend the remainder of the lap resolving myself to ten more miles of running.

Sixth pit stop:  We inform the husbands and Trail Jen that we intend to continue on after all.  Trail Jen informs us that we are welcome to continue, but she still plans to stop at 31.  My husband confirms how well he knows me when he says, “I knew you would keep going.”  Funny that he knew it before I knew it myself.

Seventh loop:  Even though I’m tired at this point, I’m in pretty good spirits.  Less than ten miles from the end, and I begin to feel uplifted at the thought of logging another 40-mile finish.  It’s been two whole years since I’ve hit that number.  I try to really break the loop up into segments, hiking hard on the uphills and pushing our pace to a steady run on the flats and downhills.  I note that Jen is running much stronger now than she was two laps ago.  Ultras are funny in that way – you often get an unexpected boost late in the race.

Seventh pit stop:  It’s a great feeling stopping back at the tent and knowing that the next time we see our husbands, we’ll be done.  We quickly refuel for the final time and head back onto the course.

Eighth loop:  The eighth loop almost has the feeling of a victory lap.  For me, it’s a chance to celebrate everything that has gone right with this race.  My fueling was totally on point.  I paced well without pushing too hard.  I remained mentally positive.  I’m feeling really good.  Halfway through, Jen mentions that she thinks we’re on pace to set a new PR time for the 40-mile distance.  Of course, we can’t remember our exact PR time, and we’re mentally shot at this point, so we spend way longer than we should trying to make the math work out.  I feel cautiously optimistic that we can PR, then instantly remind myself to keep it in check, since I’m not exactly sure what time we are trying to beat.  As we reach the field near the end of the loop, I urge Jen to continue running, informing her that we should be able to come in under ten hours if we keep our pace up.  I don’t know what our previous PR is, but I know it’s definitely over 10 hours.  We run the final 5-10 minutes with a focused intensity, crossing the line for the final time at just under 9 hours and 52 minutes.

At the finish:  I feel total joy when we cross the finish line, immediately followed by relief that we are done.  When we reach the tent a few minutes later, I’m overcome with tears.  It’s impossible to fully describe the feeling of finishing a tough race.  There’s excitement, mixed with relief, mixed with exhaustion, mixed with the disbelief that you just accomplished something so crazy.  As I finally stop moving, I allow myself to fully feel the pain of ten hours of running.

The following days:  The week after an ultra is always hard for me.  I start out on such a high, only to quickly realize that most of the world really doesn’t care, or if they do, they don’t understand.  After an ultra, all I want to do is relive the entire experience for anyone who will listen.  Unfortunately, there are very few people who actually want to hear the details of a 10-hour race.  There’s this almost irresistible urge to tell everyone what you’ve done, coupled with the desire to remain humble so that you are not viewed as a braggart.  On top of that, there’s a bit of uncertainty.  It’s hard to know what your next goal is after you’ve completed a race that consumed your life for several months.  It’s usually at this point that I begin to search out my next running adventure.

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Celebrating our third 40-mile finish and a new PR time!

Why I’m not attempting a 50-miler this year

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Planning to spend the summer enjoying plenty more trail adventures with great friends.

This blog post is titled: “Why I’m not attempting a 50-miler this year.”  For most people, that’s not even something that needs to be addressed – it’s a given.  Actually, for me in any other year, this would be a given.  And then last fall, I had one of those weird nights where my best friend and running partner texted me about an interesting looking race called the North Country Trail Run.  And somehow, in the span of 90 minutes, I went from never having heard of the race, to signing up for the 50-mile option.  On my birthday.  In Michigan.  Our texts the next morning were pretty hilarious, as we realized the enormity of what we had just signed up for.

In November, when I sat down to plan my racing schedule for 2017, I based everything around North Country.  I worked my way backward from that race, choosing to run several random trail races simply because they would be good training for North Country.  My entire focus was on getting myself strong enough to take on 50 miles in the middle of Michigan in late August.  I had a plan.  I was focused.  This was going to happen.

Then life intervened, in the way that I’ve found life usually does when you think you have everything planned out.  In February, I took on a part-time coaching job.  It allowed me to get back into a sport I loved, but with 8 hours of coaching on top of an already packed schedule, I found that I began to get even less sleep than usual.  In an attempt to not stumble through each day as a total zombie, I began to cut a few of my weekly runs a bit shorter, in favor of 15 more minutes of shut-eye.

A few weeks later, I took that hard fall on the trails, which led to a cracked rib.  It was a full six weeks before I had a full range of motion without pain, and while I never stopped running during that time, I did cut back my mileage a bit more in an attempt to heal.

Several weeks after that, I learned that my school was cutting my teaching position for next year due to enrollment challenges.  Now on top of everything else that I was juggling, I began a full-scale job search.  As I sit here at my computer in late-June, life feels pretty relaxed.  I could not say the same for this past spring.  In fact, looking back on it now, I’m still not sure how I got through those few months.  The answer probably comes back to coffee.  I pretty much gave up coffee a couple of years ago because it tends to make me shaky.  This spring, I was back to drinking it on a daily basis, and even then I was barely keeping my head above water.  I was working 1 1/2 jobs, searching for a new one, driving the kids to gymnastics and baseball, and still running about 30 miles a week.  I was sleeping less than 6 hours a night.  It was not a good combination.  Something had to give.

I broached the idea of skipping North Country with my friend Jen in early May.  I was just so stressed, and the thought of preparing for a 50-miler was adding to my stress.  And I realized that it was silly to stress about something I love so much, like running.  We discussed it, then decided we would see how things went at Kettletown, our planned 50k, before making any decisions.  Of course, regular readers might remember that Kettletown did not go as planned.  We severely underestimated the challenging terrain, and after calling it quits at the 30k mark, the thought of 50 miles seemed completely ridiculous.  On the long car ride home, I told Jen that North Country was not going to happen for me this year.

A few weeks later, I had a great racing experience at Ragnar PA.  It was my first strong race of the year, and it gave me a bit of hope that this year might not be a total wash.  That same weekend, two of my friends and training partners crushed the 100k at Worlds End.  I was beyond happy for them, but it sparked a bit of jealousy as well.  Here they were completing a 100k and I was walking away from a 50-mile race without even attempting it.  I began to question my decision.

The following weekend, Jen and I arrived at Big Elk Trail Marathon, a race that we signed up for solely as a training run for North Country.  At the starting line, I shared with her my recent thoughts, and how I was now once again considering the idea of making the 50-mile attempt at North Country.  Jen assured me that she was still undecided herself, but that she knew she didn’t want to run the race alone.  We decided that we would see how Big Elk went and then make a decision.

I plan to write a full race report for Big Elk, but in a nutshell let me say that it was a great course that I fully enjoyed until the temperatures skyrocketed.  By the time I crossed the finish line, temps were in the upper 80s.  I felt strong on the run, but I ran the entire second half on my own, which gave me a lot of time to think.  During that time I realized that I probably could finish a 50-miler, but that I wasn’t sure if I actually wanted to.  I shared my thoughts with Jen upon finishing, and was happy to hear that she was in complete agreement with me.  After dealing with the heat at Big Elk, neither of us had any desire to double our distance in a late summer race.

And so that’s how we decided to give up our 50 mile dreams, at least for the moment.  I’m realizing that I don’t need to compare myself with everyone else to feel satisfied with my running.  Yes, my friends completed a 100k.  That is awesome and amazing.  They are awesome runners.  Forty miles is the longest distance I’ve ever run.  I think that’s pretty damn awesome too.  I’m not sure what the future holds.  I may still make an attempt at 50 miles someday.  For now though, I’m going to focus on enjoying my miles without the pressure of a big race hanging over my head.  After such a stressful spring, it feels awesome to take a few steps back and just enjoy running for the sake of running.

The overlooked female athlete

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Just a few of the awesome, strong female runners who I regularly tackle the trails with.  

The focus of my running last year was to take risks and attempt races that would force me outside my comfort zone.  No race did that more than Worlds End Ultramarathon, a stunningly beautiful and challenging 50 and 100k (I ran the 50k) in northeastern Pennsylvania.  While I sadly had to miss this year’s race, due to a conflict with Ragnar PA, I closely followed all of the excitement online, and I was eagerly looking forward to signing up for next year.  Today, one of the race directors, David Walker, shared with the online group some of the challenges with the way the race was portrayed online by Trail Runner Magazine.  In addition to botching the official race name, Trail Runner Magazine neglected to mention any of the female finishers in the 50k race.  One could argue that the write-up was incredibly brief overall, and that the lack of any female finishers was a minor oversight.  In the 7 sentence blurb, however, 4 sentences were devoted to noting the accomplishments of male runners, while just 1 sentence mentioned any of the female athletes.  This unfortunately mirrors a nearly identical incident with this year’s Hyner View Trail Challenge, when a local newspaper article summarized the race and the male winners, but neglected to mention a single word about any female winners.

When Dave posted his frustrations to the Worlds End Facebook group, along with his response to the magazine, there was instantly a great deal of support from runners of both genders, praising his determination to stand up for the rights of female athletes.  It was heartwarming to see so many people speaking out about the issue.  While women have made great strides in equality over the past hundred years, there are still huge obstacles that women face, and that is most certainly true in the world of athletics.

A recent article I read stated that while women now make up 40% of all sports participants, they receive only 4% of the media coverage of sports.  Of that piddly amount of coverage, much of it is of a questionable nature.  Female athletes, even those at the very top of their game, are much more likely to be asked about their looks or their families in an interview, rather than their skill.  When you think of a female athlete, what names first come to mind?  Of those women, how many of them have received media coverage for their attire or their appearance as much as for their accomplishments?

I’ve always been a fan of sports movies, and I was just entering my teen years when the movie “A League of Their Own” came out in theaters.  For any of you who may have missed it, the movie focuses on the women who played professional baseball after most of the male players were drafted into WWII.  It’s a sweet, fictional comedy, but repeatedly throughout the movie are references to the fact that people will only really be interested in watching girls play baseball if they find them to be attractive.  In fact, several of the players are originally told that they can’t join the league because they don’t have the right “look.”  Yes, it’s a fictional movie, and yes, it is set almost 70 years ago, but I would argue that not a lot has changed in sports since that time.

As female athletes we face plenty of adversity already.  Female trail runners train just as hard as their male counterparts, along with added challenges, such as their personal safety, that are heightened concerns.  It’s only fair that they receive equal commendation for their accomplishments.  None of the women I know, or men for that matter, run these races for the notoriety that it brings, but it would be a big step forward for all athletes to see both the male and female winners equally represented when a race receives a write-up.  One of my favorite things about trail running is that the directors of these races are so committed to putting on top-class events for their participants.  From my first experience, I’ve admired the work that David Walker and Jeff Calvert do to make Worlds End Ultra a reality for us runners.  Dave’s determination to stand up for his female participants is just one more example of what a great advocate he is for the sport of trail running, and for female athletes in general.  I now have yet another reason to look forward to towing the line in Forksville next June.  I already know that those in the trail community will celebrate the female finishers as much as they do the male finishers.  Now wouldn’t it be great for the media to do the same?

Ragnar Pennsylvania 2017

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The medals all together to create an awesome message.

I’ve been dragging my heels on writing this post for three weeks now.  I could blame the end-of-the-year craziness, or my son’s nonstop sport’s schedule, or lazy summer days.  All of those excuses would apply.  I think the biggest reason I haven’t attempted this post, however, is that I find it overwhelming to consider how to capture the magic of Ragnar for anyone who hasn’t experienced it firsthand.

For those of you who may not know, Ragnar is a racing series that takes place in about 40 locations around the country.  They have both trail and road events, but both types of races are team relays.  For simplicity’s sake, I’m going to focus on the road events, since that’s what PA was.  For a road race, you compile a team of 12 (or 6) friends and run approximately 200 miles nonstop, which takes teams between 24-36 hours.  There are 36 predetermined “legs” in the race, which means that each runner runs 3 different times.  The total mileage usual ends up being between 12-24 miles per runner.

I ran Ragnar DC, another road Ragnar, back in 2014.  I ran with a team that was largely strangers, and yet for this introvert, it was an incredibly awesome experience.  When my team captain from DC invited me to join his team yet again for Ragnar PA, I jumped at the chance.  There were eight of us returning from the original team, which means that we invited 4 newbies to join us.

Our team didn’t have a chance to meet before race day, so the first time that I met my new teammates was when we arrived at our van at 5:00 am on Friday morning.  I knew that three of our four new teammates were female and I just assumed that most were somewhere in the 35-50 year-old range, since that’s where our team basically averaged last time.  Imagine my surprise when I discovered that the two new women in my van were actually high-school seniors.  Our team captain’s daughter was the youngest member of our team back in 2014, and this time around, she convinced several of her friends to join us.  All in all, our team ended up being composed of 7 high school/college students and 5 middle-agers (how did I get into that group)?  It gave the team a markedly different feel from my one previous experience.

Usually I try to go through a race report in a chronological fashion, to give you the full experience of the race.  That’s not really possible with Ragnar, unless you’re willing to write a race report that goes on for 10 pages.  Instead, I’m going to try to put into words why you should consider running a Ragnar race of your own.

There’s a magical feeling about covering such a large distance on foot, and the way that Ragnar is set-up helps you to truly internalize the length of each and every leg.  I began the race as runner 1.  That means that after I took off from the starting line, my teammates hopped back into the van and drove alone the course until they got to the start of leg 2, which was just about four miles away.  Four miles is not that long a distance, but it certainly seems longer when you are driving it slowly and passing numerous runners along the way.  We repeated this pattern for just about every leg, and I was repeatedly awed when I considered how awesome it was that our team was working together to cover this cumulative distance.

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The sleepy members of van 1 at the start of the race.  

The course itself was incredible.  We began in downtown Lancaster before quickly moving out into the rolling hills of Amish country.  It would be hard to imagine a more beautiful, peaceful setting.  Lovely tilled fields spread before us, barns and silos were plentiful, and black-and-white grazing cattle dotted the bright green grass.  We saw numerous Amish families working the fields or digging in their incredibly tidy gardens, and they graciously gave us a wave or a head nod as we passed by.  I never realized that brightly colored laundry could look so lovely when it’s flapping in a gentle breeze over a green lawn.

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Just a few of the shots we took along the earlier parts of the course.

After the first twelve legs, the farms and fields began to turn to more wooded landscapes.  As we moved through the night, and our second round of legs, the course gradually began to climb into hillier terrain as we approached the Poconos and the finish line.  A steady rain began right around the start of my final leg, and it followed us for five of the first six legs we ran that morning.  The gray, foggy start to the day added to the surreal feel of running for more than 24 hours on barely any sleep.

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Many people cite the sleep deprivation as a reason that they are not willing to take on a Ragnar.  I won’t lie – it’s pretty brutal.  I got about 3 hours of sleep in my first Ragnar back in 2014.  In this race, I think I managed closer to 2 hours, and it was broken up in two separate stints.  There were definitely moments when I could feel the lack of sleep hit me like a brick.  There were also large blocks of time when I felt an incredible amount of energy, however, even with so little sleep.  You see, for 36 hours you are continually surrounded by hundreds of other teams of runners, who all share your love of the sport.  Running is so often a solitary activity, and Ragnar allows it to feel like one big running family.  It’s a fantastic way to bond with total strangers that you will likely never see again.  In my mind, it’s worth it to give up a little bit of sleep to experience that kind of magic.

One of the best parts of Ragnar is that teams traditionally cross the finish line together.  Our final runner came into sight and we greeted him, handed him his team shirt, and jogged with him across the finish line just after 6:00 pm on Saturday morning.  Our team had its fair share of adversity along the course and so it took us nearly 35 hours to complete the race.  Even so, we crossed the finish exhilarated and proud of our accomplishment.  On the ride home, all I could think was that I really wanted a shower, some sleep, and to plan out the next Ragnar that I was signing up for.

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Kettletown Trail Challenge

Also known as Amanda & Jen’s terrible, horrible, no good, very bad race.

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How we felt throughout much of the race.

Okay, I should start by saying that the above statement is an exaggeration.  Kettletown is put on by Trail 2 Trail Series.  Their motto is “We don’t do easy.  You won’t forget it.”  That perfectly summed up our experience at yesterday’s race.

I wouldn’t say that we went into yesterday untrained, but I’ve definitely been better prepared for races in the past.  A stressful 2 months of working, job hunting, and dealing with kids’ spring sports schedules had taken it’s toll and I was already exhausted on the drive up to the race on Friday.  A poor night’s sleep and the realization that I had left my hydration pack at home did not improve anything, nor did the rain that showed up out of nowhere on Saturday morning.  By the time we hit Kettletown State Park, we were already rethinking our plan to run the 50k in an unknown location.

Kettletown is an unusual event.  With five different distance options, it caters to a wide variety of runners, who had the choice of signing up for the 5k, 10k, 20k, 30k, or 50k.  We realized at packet pick-up that the vast majority of the runners were signed up for the 5k or 10k options, with only 15 runners registered for the 50k.  In an attempt to allow the distance runners to get onto the trail without a big bottleneck, they sent the 30k and 50k runners off five minutes before the rest of the field.  While this did let us access the trail without any back-up, it made for frustrating and dangerous conditions a mile in, when we were quickly set upon by the fast moving lead runners, some of whom appeared to have no idea of how to politely pass others on a trail.  We quickly agreed that we would have preferred the early bottleneck to the frustrating feeling of constantly having people breathing down our necks.

The actual course began on a couple hundred feet of paved road before turning right onto the trail.  The entire first half mile went straight up hill.  Not wanting to walk so early in the race, we pushed on running much farther than we usually would have under similar conditions.  As a result, we reached the first mile completely winded and demoralized.  I had a hard time both catching my breath and banishing the negative thoughts running through my brain.  It was not an auspicious start to the race.

The race course followed a rough figure-eight pattern, looping back through the start somewhere between 2-2.5 miles before curving back out on a longer loop that ended up back at the start/finish after approximately 6.2 miles.  Of course, this meant that we should have run the entire course five times to reach our ultra finish.  I must admit that I was not really a fan of the first section of the loop.  Between the long uphills and all of the people on the trail, the first section was just one big exercise in frustration.  We passed through the midsection and continued back out on the course.

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Try crossing something this wide while being passed by other, faster runners.  Yeah, that actually happened on loop number one.

The early part of this back loop instantly won me over.  We crossed a lovely wooden bridge before hiking up and over a variety of large rocks that ran along a creek with numerous waterfalls.  The sound of the babbling water was beautiful, and was a great reminder that we run these races to celebrate the peace of time spent in nature.  About a half-mile in, the trail crossed a road and headed back uphill, away from the creek.  Along this next section, we actually encountered some decent runnable track, although the endless rocks and roots still required a great attention to detail to keep our footing.  After a lengthy, winding climb, we suddenly found ourselves on a large rock with a beautiful view of Lake Zoar below.  We took a moment to take a photo and take in the stunning vista before returning to the trail and continuing our climb up.  The trail actually included several decent climbs, including a few that forced us to go hand over foot up some large boulders, until we reached the highest point of the trail a little over 4.5 miles in.  Fortunately we headed back downhill for most of the remaining miles.  The last mile was probably my favorite, with a fairly smooth runnable track, followed by a return to the creek and the waterfalls.

We realized partway through the first lap that it was going to be nearly impossible for us to stay on our feet and still stay on pace for an 8-hour finish.  While it was disheartening to decide that we were giving up our ultra goal, it was also a bit of a relief, as it allowed us to back off the pace slightly.  We crossed the finish line of our first loop in 85 minutes, stopped briefly to grab some fluids and a few bites of food, and then quickly headed back out.

We were relieved to find that our second loop was shockingly empty compared to our first pass through the course.  Unfortunately that wasn’t enough to lift my mood on the first part of the course.  For more than a mile, I fought with pessimistic thoughts, reminding myself that its happened at some point in every longer race that I’ve run.  I usually make it much farther than 7 miles before being plagued by such negativity, but I tried to put that behind me and just enjoy the course and the favorable weather.  Jen decided that we should use the second loop as an opportunity to take photos that would hopefully show how challenging the course was, in an attempt to make us feel a little better about giving up our distance goal.  It was a good plan, giving us a fun distraction for awhile, and allowing us to vent some of our frustration in the shots.

Giving a giant “thumbs down” to the endless rocks that we traveled over along the trail.

Our moods lifted for a bit in the middle of the loop, but as we neared the end, we were both dragging quite a bit.  It was only sheer stubbornness and the desire to return home with more than a half marathon finish, that got us back out onto the course for a third and final loop.  The first section was again tough, but as we passed through the middle one more time, I felt my spirits begin to lift.  It was wonderful to realize that the next time we crossed that bridge, we would be staring down at the finish line.  As we climbed the top of our first big hill, and came once again upon the beautiful vista, we actually paused enough to step off the course and take a seat looking out over the lake.  I can’t recall ever doing that before, but it was a special moment, and one that was definitely needed that far into the race.  After documenting the moment with one more photo, we set back up the trail to finish out the race.

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Stopped and looking out at this scene one more time was the highlight of the race for us.

Coming back along the creek one final time was a great feeling, as was crossing the finish line and announcing that we were done for the day.  After helping ourselves to some fantastic watermelon, we checked in with one of the volunteers, who shared that she thought there were about 8 runners still on the course attempting the 50k.  It turns out her estimate was pretty accurate, as seven runners managed to finish the 50k distance at the end of the day.  Thirteen others, including the two of us, crossed the line for official 30k finishes.  I must admit that it did lift my spirits a bit when I learned that of the 158 total finishers at the race, only 20 people made it to the 30k mark or greater.  A true testament to how challenging the course actually was.  While I can’t say that we plan to return to Kettletown in the future, we did appreciate the beauty that we found out on the trails, and the chance to spend another day together exploring a new park.

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Just a few more photos to highlight some of the beautiful, but challenging terrain that we traversed throughout the day.  

 

Learning to love ourselves

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I run with an awesome group of women.  Seriously.  These women are rocking life in so many ways.  They are caring wives.  Devoted mothers.  Hardworking career women.  Unbelievable friends.

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Over the past few years, we’ve have logged hundreds of hours of running together.  We’ve run in heat and cold, rain and sunshine, sleet, snow, and mud.  On our runs, we talk about everything under the sun.  The challenges of balancing work and home.  The joys and struggles of motherhood.  The random weird injuries that are nagging us.  We work through our hardships and celebrate our successes.

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Today, as usual, our conversation ebbed and flowed continually as we covered the miles.  I’m not sure how, but eventually we got around to body image.  As I’ve shared before, I struggle with maintaining a positive body image.  It’s something that’s always in the back of my mind, but I chalked it up to my perfectionist personality and my background in gymnastics.  I’ve always admired the women that I run with.  They are fit, strong, and seem incredibly comfortable in their own skin.  Imagine my surprise when several of them admitted to frequently judging or criticizing how they look when they glance in the mirror.

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At first I was relieved – at least I’m not the only one who finds this challenging.  I felt reassured that maybe it was common to question your own appearance.  A few miles later, however, and I began to feel angry.  I look at these women and find every single one of them to be stunningly beautiful, both inside and out.  Their bodies are covered in lean muscle that they’ve developed after hours on the trails, days spent running hill repeats, logging laps on the track, and devoting time to core workouts and yoga.  Their spirits shine through even brighter.  They pick one another up, encourage one another, step in whenever someone needs something.

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Excuse my language, but why the hell, with all these wonderful qualities, do they feel compelled to judge themselves based on the existence of a little cellulite, or a few stretch marks?  Why do we celebrate the completion of a 3-hour run and then turn right around and focus on the few extra pounds we feel we are carrying?  Why can we look at one another and see strength, and then look at ourselves and just see imperfections?

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None of us are perfect, but I’ve yet to meet a single woman in the world who is.  All of us are pretty damn awesome.  Maybe it’s time we stopped looking for all of the ways that we are “less than” and started focusing on all of the wonderful ways that we shine.  And maybe that begins by celebrating the amazing things that our bodies can do, not the tiny faults that we think we see.  Because all of us are strong beyond belief.  All of us are moms.  And we want our kids to grow up knowing that strong is beautiful.  Kindness is beautiful.  Determination and courage are beautiful.  And the actions we put out into the world matter much more than any reflection we see in a mirror.

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Friendship and Determination

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Mugging before the race in front of Blue Marsh Lake

Sometimes a race is about more than the time on the finish clock, or the place you end up in.  Sometimes friendship is what matters.  Determination.  Persisting through the challenges.  That was our experience at yesterday’s Naked Bavarian 20-Miler.

Uberendurance puts on such wonderful local trail races that when I saw Naked Bavarian was back for a second year, I couldn’t resist a return trip.  With my first 50-miler on the schedule for August, I’m trying to slowly build my mileage this spring, so this race fit into my training schedule perfectly.  It was easy to convince several friends to join me, and after months of training in our beloved Wissahickon, we were looking forward to a long run in a new location.

As the days ticked down to Saturday, our enthusiasm began to wane slightly.  On the Sunday before the race, on a standard “easy” long run in the Wissahickon, I caught my toe on a root right before the end of my run.  Falls are a common occurrence from time to time when you run trails, but this was a hard one.  I landed on my right side, knocking the wind out of myself.  At the time, I was just concerned with getting my breath back and finishing the run.  A few steps back into it, though, and I realized that I wasn’t going to be able to brush this fall off as easily as some others.

By Monday morning, just taking a full breath hurt, and after slogging through a miserable day at work, I took myself to a walk-in care center just to double check that everything was in working order.  The official diagnosis?  Bruised or broken ribs which would most likely take 4 weeks to fully heal.  (Not so fun fact – only 50% of rib fractures actually show up on an x-ray)  At that point, I was 5 days away from the race.

I ran a total of 5 miles throughout the week.  All of the miles were slow, and none of them felt good.  It seemed ridiculous to attempt 20 when 3 miles were hard and painful.  As we got closer to Saturday, the forecast began to get worse, making me question my decision to start even more.  Running in cold is never my favorite thing and the forecast for the start was temps in the 20s with winds up to 20mph.

My friends were having their own challenges.  The constantly changing temperatures were reeking havoc with Jen’s fibro, and on Thursday, she could barely walk around her house.  Nicole’s leg, which has been nagging her off and on throughout the past year, was also sore.  All of us considered the forecast and strongly thought about backing out.

Fortunately, none of us seriously voiced our doubts to one another until the car ride home, and so we all ended up showing up at Whole Foods early Saturday morning to carpool out to the race.  The drive out was a blast.  I think one of the reasons that I love running in the woods so much is that it gives me a weekly excuse to spend time with these awesome women.  We talked about everything and nothing, my ribs got a great warm-up from all of the laughter, and the 75-minute drive flew by.  We arrived at the start with about 45 minutes to go.  We bundled up, collected our bibs, and tried to convince one another that the cold wasn’t that bad.  After taking refuge back in the car for a little longer, we trudged up to the starting line with less than 5 minutes to go.  Have I mentioned before how much I love the low-key feel of a trail race start?

With almost no fanfare, we were off.  I was just thrilled to discover that I could get through the first few steps without noticeable pain.  It didn’t feel easy, but it didn’t hurt.  So far, so good.  We ran across the grass, up the road, and then onto the trail.  Nicole and Michelle took off ahead as expected, and Jen and I settled into a comfortable pace in the conga line behind many others.

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The sky was gorgeous throughout the entire race.

I don’t think I’ve ever gone into a race feeling less confident.  I completed three 20+ miles runs in February, so it was unsettling to think that I might not be able to make it through all 20 miles here, especially since both the distance and the course should have felt familiar.  I just didn’t know if I could trust my ribs to hold up.

Fortunately, the cold was not as bad as we had expected.  That’s not to say that it wasn’t cold.  It’s just that I had imagined slogging through nonstop headwinds, and we didn’t have that experience.  The winds were pretty noticeable when we were running through the open fields, but much less so when we were in the woods.  The rolling hills, while not always pleasant, did a good job of keeping us warm.  I tried to forget about the miles and just take it one section at a time.

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All smiles early in the race.  Notice how covered we were to combat the cold.

I’m so fortunate that I had Jen with me for this race.  After 12 years of running together, we know one another so well that our race dynamic is just easy.  My ribs were better than I had hoped, but I found that I wasn’t really able to talk the way I usually could, as I had to focus all my energy on just breathing.  Jen kept up a constant stream of chatter that I could contribute to with just an occasional phrase here and there.  Her positive energy was the best medicine I could have asked for.

After surviving a few of the larger hills, I finally checked my watch and realized that we had passed the 11-mile mark.  I knew we were good from there.  It wouldn’t be easy, but I knew at that point that I was going to finish, even if I had to walk the rest of the race.  We took advantage of the flatter stretches, trying to maintain a good running pace.  At 13 miles, I hit my dreaded “bite-me” zone.  Jen, of course, knew to expect that, and she continued to push us forward in her upbeat way.  I just focused on checking off the miles, one at a time.

We were a couple of miles away from the finish when I noticed a sudden shift in energy.  Having run these exact trails in two races last year, I knew to expect the larger hills in the last few miles, and while they weren’t fun, I knew that the best way to get through them was to just power up and over as quickly as we could.  Jen didn’t have the same advantage, or maybe she’d just used up all her emotional energy on me, and as we came upon a particularly nasty hill, the unexpected slope combined with her fibro to tax the last of her reserves.  I knew that she was hurting before she even said a word.  Jen gets quiet when she’s in a lot of pain, and I’ve often found that it works best if we just move silently forward.  I did for several more minutes, but when I noticed that she had dropped a bit further back, I slowed to meet up with her, where I realized that she was going through her own battle.

This past week was a reality check for me.  Through good genetics and hard work, I’ve gotten into such good health over the past few years that I rarely have to put up with pain.  Soreness is a frequent occurrence for me after a hard workout, but true pain is rare.  Jen’s reality is the exact opposite.  She’s always in pain, just of varying levels.  I have known that conceptually, but I think it took this experience for me to start to realize what that might actually be like.  And even now, as Jen reminded me during the race, I have the luxury of knowing that my injury is going to heal and my pain will fade.  She doesn’t have that benefit.  At 18 miles into the race, she had gotten a sharp reminder that fibro can rear it’s ugly head at any moment.  She had been my sunshine and support for the majority of the race.  It was my turn to support her.

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It’s ironic that we were running through one of the most beautiful parts of the course when the wheels came off.  

It’s awful to witness pain in someone you love.  I knew Jen felt horrible, but she just kept moving forward.  We both knew that the quickest way to the finish was to just keep plodding ahead.  Running long distances has a way of stripping everything away, and sooner or later in a long race, you see the core of who a person is.  Yesterday I was reminded that my tough-as-nails friend has a vulnerable side, but that she also has a will that is stronger than just about anyone I know.

It was such a relief when we crested the top of the final hill.  It was a nice bonus when we were able to pass two runners on the road down to the finish, along with another on the final grassy stretch.  We could care less about our place or our time at that point, but when you are feeling down emotionally, it can be a tremendous boost to pass even one other person.

We collected our awesome finisher awards, hung around just long enough to snag a little food and thank the volunteers, and then retreated to the car to find our friends and warm, dry clothes.  Nicole and Michelle had experienced their own challenges on the trail, battling through GI issues, and we were surprised to learn that they had crossed the finish just 20 minutes ahead of us.

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Isn’t this the coolest finisher award you’ve ever seen?  Even if it was empty…

Our ride back home was another wonderful one.  None of us ran a great race or finished in a strong time, but our four finisher growlers were a testament to our ability to persevere, even in tough conditions.  Even more important, we were reminded that time spent with good friends can make any day feel like a success.  As Dave Matthews says, “turns out not where, but who you’re with that really matters.”

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Enjoying our post-race coffees and time spent with one another

My First Four Corners Excursion

I’ve been running the trails in the Wissahickon for almost three years now.  At first, I tentatively ventured off the main drive, exploring short sections when I got the chance.  Two years ago, I was fortunate to join up with a group of local female trail runners, and by running with them, I began to learn new trails and new parts of the park I had never seen.  Last year, we traveled all over the park, on runs that took us as long as 5 hours, and yet because we were often dropping off or picking up others along the way, I never officially covered the full park.  Finally, after more than a year of talking about it, we made our first Four Corners attempt yesterday.

When you say that you are running the “four corners” of the park, most people are probably picturing a large square-shaped space.  “Square” is hardly a word I would use to describe the Wissahickon.  It really ends up looking more like a long squiggly shape.  Four Corners Map  As such, it’s hard to precisely define where the exact four corners of the park are.  When you say that you ran the “Four Corners” it’s really just a way of describing a run that hits the entire perimeter of the park.

We started at Valley Green Inn, which is located almost exactly in the middle of the park.  The scene couldn’t have been more perfect – I set out on the trails with seven of the eight women that I most love to run the trails with.  It was a brisk 32 degrees at the start, but with the promise of warmer weather moving in throughout the day, I had pulled out my capris for the run.  We headed off up the first hill behind the inn as the sun was just rising.  In fact, we were nearly two miles in before it broke through the trees to hit the trails for the first time.  We paused for a moment to take in the sight, and using Nicole’s awesome camera timer, we even managed to snap a photo of the momentous occasion.

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When you run on the trails, it’s not possible to have one large group conversation, as there’s usually not room to run more than two people across.  Instead, we often end up in small groups of two or three, with several different conversations happening at once.  The variety helps the miles to pass quickly.  I started the run venting about my week to the sympathetic Chris, before sliding into a conversation with my longtime friend, Jen.  As we slowly warmed up, we enjoyed taking in the new sights along the way.  Most of our runs start and end at Cedars House on the far west end of the park, so we don’t get over to the east side as often.  We introduced several women to the beautiful sights high above the park, as well as the mystery of Hermit’s Cave.

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After several more twists and turns, we made it to the first corner of the park, where we stopped for a quick water break before continuing on with the run.  In an attempt to get downhill without retracing our steps, we inadvertently created our own path down the hill.  The laughter that this adventure created had us all gasping for breath for several minutes.  We came out on the paved path and followed it back along the water and over the two wooden bridges until we reentered the park and its eastern border.  We immediately crossed back uphill to find our second corner.  Two corners down, but only 6 miles in, so we pushed on with determination.

This second side of the park tends to be quite a bit more technical than where we had started, and we had a lot of close calls along the way, including one fall and one turned ankle.  Fortunately everyone made it through without any serious injury.  We stopped by one of the awesome rock formations for another photo, safely crossed Devil’s Pool while staying dry, and then zigzagged our way back around to the inn and our starting point.

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At the inn, where we were officially at the 10-mile mark, we dropped two of our awesome runners who had to get on with the rest of their day.  We made a quick bathroom break, refilled water bottles, dropped a few layers at the cars, and then set off back up the big hill to hit the second half of the park.  We were barely to the top of the hill when we ran into another challenge, quite literally.  We had been hiking and chatting when Nicole, who had her head down to watch the trail, walked right into a large broken off tree branch that was hanging down from a fallen tree overhead.  Her hat brim saved her from any large cuts, but the force of the blow stunned her momentarily and gave us all a bit of a scare.  We started back down the trail towards the cars before Nicole, showing the toughness that she’s known for, decided that she wanted to go on with the run.   We reversed back to the top of the hill, eased back into an easy run, and kept a careful eye on our friend.

One of the great things about running in the Wissahickon is that the trails look totally different when run in different directions and at different times of the year.  Our run was now taking us on well-known trails, but in the reverse direction of our usual path, which made it all a lot more interesting.  The temperatures began to rise quickly on the second half of the run, and we had quickly stripped down to short sleeves and tank tops.  After a few more miles, Cathy and Audrey turned back towards the inn, which brought our original group of eight runners down to the final four.  With Nicole, Michelle, Jen & I all training for races of 50+ miles later this year, we were determined to make it around the entire park perimeter.

As we entered the meadow sections of our run, we discovered a new challenge – mud.  There were many parts of the trail that were coated in slick mud, and a misplaced foot caused an immediate slide.  It’s hard enough to keep your footing when you are well-rested on the trails, and this slippery surface caused us to really focus in on our steps.  We made it through the Houston and Andorra meadows without incident and checked off the third corner of the park.

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Coming down the hill behind Cedars House was a great feeling.  We were about 17 miles into the run, and while tired, we knew that we were just a few miles away from our goal.  We headed out along the creek, crossed the wide bridge by Chestnut Hill College, and turned back into the park for the final portion of our run.  After crossing Bells Mill Road, we turned uphill one last time to get to our fourth and final corner.  At the top of the climb, we enjoyed a short break to savor our accomplishment and study the map, reveling in just how far we had traveled that morning.  Knowing that we had to make it back to our cars to get home, we felt fully confident that we were going to be able to complete the run and our giddiness increased as we got closer to the inn.  The trails were now full of bikers and day hikers, but we managed to wind around them as we traversed the final few sections of trail.  We were all thrilled when the inn came into sight, and we coasted down the final road full of excitement.  When we reached the bottom, we discovered that the gps had our distance at 21.6 miles.  Never one to settle for a partial distance, I announced that I was going to hit the Drive for the final .4 miles.  Fortunately Michelle and Jen are used to my compulsion with distance, and they kept me company for the final portion.

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We couldn’t have had a better experience for our first run of the Four Corners.  32 degrees at the start, 58 at the finish, and beautifully sunny skies.  Hours on the trails with seven of the strongest, kindest, most determined women I know.  I can’t imagine a more perfect way to spend a Saturday morning.