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.

Reflections on a Year of Running 2016

As we near the end of the calendar year, many people are reflecting on what 2016 meant to them.  For me, 2016 was many things, but perhaps more than anything else, it was the year when I fully acknowledged just how much running means to me.  For years, people would tell me that I was obsessed with running and I would deny it.  This year, I realized that running is not just something I do, but an essential part of who I am.

I belong to many running groups on social media, and this week, two of them asked us to reflect on, and share about, our favorite running moments from the past year.  While I love this exercise, thinking back over my year of running made me realize that it is impossible for me to choose just one great running-related memory.  There are so many good ones for many different reasons.  I therefore give you a list of ten of my favorite running memories from 2016 (in no particular order):

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Hyner 25K – Hyner is intense.  The hills are no joke.  Two miles into the race I found myself thinking, “Why did I do this?  I’m never going to finish.”  I don’t know that I’ve ever been so uncomfortable, so frequently in a race.  And yet, I not only finished, but far exceeded my expectations.  Hyner was a great reminder that it’s important to step outside your comfort zone.

February 19th training run – Thank goodness for running partners who show up.  It was 18 degrees at the start, and after 4 hours of running, the temperature had only risen to 24.  I don’t think I ever warmed up, and I definitely never felt good.  But we got it done.  This run redefined the temperature limits for me.  As with many difficult experiences, there was immense satisfaction in having survived it once it was over.

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Worlds End Course Preview – I was so intimidated at the thought of the Worlds End 50K that I convinced two friends to join me for the course preview run last January.  We hopped in the car at 5:00 on a Saturday morning for the 3-hour drive to Worlds End State Park.  We arrived at a creek covered in ice and a chilly 24 degrees.  Traversing the trails was challenging due to the frozen leaves and the unmarked course, but it was a dream-like experience.  We crossed over numerous frozen creeks with water flowing underneath.  We somehow managed to keep our footing despite the sneaky ice hidden along the way.  More than anything, we were reminded of the power of time spent in nature with good friends.

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Ragnar Appalachians – 30 miles of trails over 36 hours in mid-August.  The weather was lousy, the course was tough, and my middle-of-the-night run was the hardest thing I’ve ever slogged through.  I had the most incredible teammates, however, and they made the entire weekend such an incredible experience.  I’m already looking forward to our next race together.

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Hill repeats – This was the year that I truly embraced hill repeats, running them on the trails with friends, and around my neighborhood.  The sense of accomplishment that comes after a good hill workout is definitely worth the effort you expel in the moment.

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Dirty German 25K – The special part of this race wasn’t so much the race itself, as the chance to reconnect with Jen.  After a winter of health problems for her, we barely spoke, let alone ran together.  This race marked a success for her, as it proved that she is more resilient than she realized.  It also reminded both of us just how much we cherish our friendship, and that the miles tend to fly by when you have good company.

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Worlds End 50K – This was far and away the hardest course I’ve ever run, and I ran almost the entire race solo, which is an experience I haven’t had in awhile.  Despite that, it was my favorite race of the year.  Worlds End State Park is a beautiful spot, the race course was well-designed, and the aid stations were incredible.  I learned so much about myself in this race.

Ragnar Ambassador – Just after I returned from running Ragnar Appalachians, I received an email that I was invited to become a Ragnar Ambassador.  I can’t explain how excited I was to have the opportunity to represent this awesome racing series.  In the intervening months, I had the chance to discuss Ragnar with runners at races, race expos, and running stores.  It’s so much fun and I can’t wait to run Ragnar PA next June!

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Trails runs with my girls – Almost exactly 2 years ago, I was invited to join a trail run with a group of ladies on New Year’s Day.  What was a group of strangers has turned into an incredible group of friends.  We meet up in all types of weather, for runs both short and long, and time spent with them always makes my day better.  They’ve truly brought joy to the training process.

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Passing the torch to the next generation – Just a few weeks ago, my kids joined me for their first official trail run.  We covered just over 3 miles in my favorite training spot, and as we sped down one of the hills, my daughter called out, “I can see why you love this!”  Sharing something I love so much with two of my favorite people is more special than I can possibly describe.

Thinking back on all of these incredible memories reminds me of how blessed I am to have running in my life.  I can’t wait for a new year of memories to begin!

What were your favorite running moments of 2016?  Leave me some thoughts in the comments below.

Why I’m Not Participating in a Holiday Run Streak

This is the time of year for streaking.  No, not the crazy naked college kind you might be imagining, but the active workout type of streak.  The one where groups of people commit to running or working out every day between Thanksgiving and New Year’s.  From what I can tell, the streaks often happen either to attempt to maintain sanity during the busy holiday season, or to attempt to ward off the holiday pounds that tend to result from endless celebrations and indulgences.

Several years ago, I joined a Runner’s World holiday run streak.  The guidelines stated that you had to run at least a mile a day, every day, between Thanksgiving and New Year’s.  I completed the streak successfully.  And yet, I have no desire to complete another one.  Usually I’m a sucker for any type of group running activity.  So why not streaking?

In my mind, streaking is most beneficial if you have an issue with accountability.  If you don’t work out, committing to a run streak is a great motivator to start.  If you have trouble with consistency, choose to do a run streak gives you a reason to get out every day.  Now there are many things in life that I struggle with, such as putting away my laundry in a timely fashion, but sticking to a running schedule is not one of them.  I draw up schedules 6-9 months in advance, print them out in an Excel spreadsheet, and then diligently check off my runs as I complete them.  I occasionally cut a run short, or move it to a different day, but it’s rare for me to miss one completely.  So for me, the accountability aspect of a run streak isn’t really needed.

The other reason I don’t like streaks is that I think it actually hurts my running.  See, when I follow my training plan, I tend to run 5 days a week, and do 2 days a week of strength training.  One of those days is an easy run combined with strength work, which gives me one day a week completely off, and another day a week where my legs get a break from running.  I believe that being diligent about days off is one of the things that has allowed me to run at a fairly high training load for so long with very few injuries.  When you are training 30-50 miles a week for 11 months out of the year, recovery days are just as important as active training days.  Participating in a streak messes with that, and tends to lead me to overtraining.

Of course, I’m not saying that run streaks are bad in general.  As I stated above, they can be a great way to build up your training base, or learn to become more consistent with your training.  For me, however, I plan to head into this holiday season the same way I usually do – with my trusty Excel sheet in hand.

In Running Limbo

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These laid-back autumn runs have been nice, but I’m ready to get back on a real schedule.

Anyone who knows me, knows I’m a planner.  I like following a schedule, in life in general, but especially in running.  It’s one of the many reasons that I hate taking time off.  I feel much better when I’m working towards a goal.

After making it through my gauntlet of autumn ultras in October, I forced myself to take a bit of a break.  Of course, I had all this extra time on my hands, so I used it to plan out my racing schedule for the next year.  I planned to run North Country 50 miler in August, Worlds End 50K in June, Dirty German 50K in May, and Hyner 25K in April.  Life was good.

Of course, as always seems to happen when you make a plan, the universe decided to throw me a curveball.  My Ragnar team captain from 2014 sent me an email.  He’s getting the team back together for this June’s Ragnar and he wanted to know if I was in.  As a Ragnar Ambassador, I should really run the race, but I was going to hold off because I really wanted to do Worlds End again.  It felt like this was a sign, a reason to run it this year, so I agreed to join him and put my dream of a return to Worlds End on hold.  My plan was slightly shifted, but still good overall.

Then I received my daughter’s gymnastics schedule.  This is her first year competing, so I knew we would have some meets we would have to work around.  I was concerned there might be one scheduled on the same day as Hyner, but it ended up being a week later.  All good.  Of course, until I scrolled down and discovered that her state championships are the weekend of Dirty German.  The really fun part about gymnastics meets is that you rarely find out the day and time of your actual session until a few weeks beforehand.  Which means that I could be clear for the race, or I could discover that I couldn’t run it just 2 weeks out.  It would be awful to train for 4 months to have to miss out on the race.

So now I’m at a total loss for where to go next.  Logic would say that I should forget about the longer spring races and just do Hyner and Ragnar in the lead-up to North Country.  I hate that idea.   This past year has taught me just how much I love trail 50ks, and I want to run another one.  The training helps me to balance all of the stress in my normal life, and I know I won’t commit to the training unless I have an actual race in my future.  I was feeling so desperate today that I found myself considering a 100k for next fall.  Stupid.

I need the universe to send me some kind of obvious, clear-cut sign.

Early Morning Run Small Moment Writing

My students have been learning how to write “small moments” – taking an ordinary event in your day and making it interesting by zooming in on the small details.  After sharing with them that I might choose to write about a morning run, I had to go ahead and give it a shot.  Here are the results:

My alarm goes off at the ungodly hour of 4:15 am.  I should be used to this by now, but it’s always a brutal reality check.  I stumble down the hall to the bathroom, brush my teeth, put in my contacts, and don my running clothes.  A headlamp and a reflective vest round out my outfit.  I tiptoe downstairs, take a few sips of water, slip on my running shoes, and step out the front door.

The air is warm and humid, much more reminiscent of summer than the October morning that it actually is.  I wait for my GPS watch to register, watching the clouds drift across the partial moon.  Two cars pass on the main road ahead, and I’m surprised that anyone else is up at this ridiculous hour.

My watch beeps to signal it’s ready, and I head off down the street in a relaxed walk.  At the corner, I turn downhill and break into an easy pace.  I steal quietly through the early morning, the crunching leaves under my feet the only signal that I am there.  As I pass the nearby cemetery that I love to run through, I register how eerie it feels in the dark.  I temporarily silence my iPod, enjoying the quiet around me.

I turn onto another road and make my way toward the steep hill that is my goal.  I’m always nervous sitting at the stoplight at the top of it, which means that it should be perfect for the hill repeats I have planned for this morning.  I reach the bottom of the hill, click my iPod back on to an upbeat tune, and start chugging my way up, focusing on quick footfalls and strong arms.  At the top, I turn and walk back down, breaking into a gentle jog at the halfway point.  I head back up the hill four more times, focusing on maintaining a strong pace each time.  After the fifth and final trip I turn around and head back for home.

I take a shorter route this time, noticing that more cars have started the early morning commute.  I arrive back at my front step in no time at all.  Four miles, not a bad start to the day.  The humid air and the hard effort have left me surprisingly sweaty.  I open my front door, greet the wagging white fluffball before me, and return to the world of responsibility.