>Yesterday I set out for an “easy” long run. Mostly easy in the sense of logistics and familiarity with the course because I picked my favorite tried and true route: AT from South Mountain to Weverton Cliffs, and back. 14.1 miles out, 14.1 miles back. Water and bathrooms at the start and midway. The toughest part of this run for me has always been the first three miles. Before my body really gets a chance to warm up, I’m climbing South Mountain. And for those of you who haven’t done it, it feels like it goes on, and on, and on. For a small mountain, it sure is relentless. As I ran yesterday, I was brought back to a day almost exactly five years ago to my first ultra: JFK 50 mile.
I realized yesterday as I ran that I have never really shared on the blogosphere how I ended up at the start line on that crisp November morning. So, here it is, my story of how I began my love affair with ultrarunning. My “Story of Us.”
The story actually begins in May of 2005. I was playing club lacrosse for Navy at the time. We had finished regular season and were starting the prep for Nationals in a couple weeks. We were one of the favorites to win that year, it was a great time for us. It was a Sunday, and I had to come back to school early for practice. I had left that morning after making plans with my teammate Jen to have her help me out with my chemistry homework after practice. I came to practice that day ready to play, but I knew that something wasn’t right. Our coach struggled with how to tells us the news that would end up changing our team forever: Jen had been in a skydiving accident that day. She was in a coma, and things didn’t look good. The ironic part of it all was that she had told a few of us she was going to go skydiving for the first time that day, but we were under a strict oath not to tell coach because we knew she wouldn’t allow it.
Things from there were a blur. I guess we went to nationals, and I guess I played. Honestly, it was the furthest thing from all of our minds. Jen was in a coma for several days, and as she came out of it they noticed severe brain damage. For the next five months she was in the VA hospital in Bethesda. In true Navy fashion, they had no sympathy for most of us in the situation. Every week I snuck out on a “really really long run” through the gate and into my mom’s car in side street. She’d drive me to the hospital and I’d go sit with Jen for an hour or two, then come home. Many of the other girls on the team did the same. We’d call other people and put the phone up to her ear and swear we could see that she recognized the voices. Every week we swore she squeezed our hands a little harder, or opened her eyes a little bit longer.
Unfortunately that wasn’t the case. In early October her parents made the decision to remove Jen’s feeding tube. Within a few days she passed away. Everyone on the team handled things a different way. I was close to Jen as a teammate in a way that is special and rare. Her, myself and my best friend Dani composed the best damn navy women’s lacrosse defense that school had ever seen. None of us had real prior lacrosse experience, none of us ever knew what play was what, but we had heart and we worked hard. And we worked well together. The three of us looked out for each other in a way I have rarely seen teammates do. Watching Jen yell at the ref after I got slashed in the face and broke my nose was one of my favorite moments. She had a temper that even the Officers at school were afraid of. More than once Dani and I had to step in and make things right between her and coach. Our defense was inseparable that season before she was hurt, and I didn’t know how to do it without Jen. I didn’t want to. So, when Fall had come, I just didn’t. I didn’t continue to play lacrosse. I could not suit up and play without Jen.
Eventually the Navy caught on to the fact that I wasn’t really playing a sport anymore. Playing a sport or going to intramurals was a requirement of the school. I was stuck and had to do something, but I couldn’t step back on that lacrosse field. One of my friends suggested to me that I run. I knew I wasn’t fast enough for cross country, and intramural cross country was a joke. No, they said. The marathon team. The problem was they had already run their fall marathon – the only thing left to do was either run the JFK 50 mile and do well enough they take me on the team, or run a marathon by myself and try to qualify for Boston (the true requirement to be on the team).
So that was that. Three weeks before the 2005 JFK 50 Mile, I was in. And somehow I managed to dupe 3 other of my teammates into the race as well. We formed Team FISHDO (F___ It, Sh*t Happens, Drive On…Jen’s famous saying) and got ready for the race by running one 16 mile run. I don’t even think all the girls did that.
And there I was in November of 2005, hiking up South Mountain and watching people run by me up the mountain. How can they run the whole way up? Right then and there, I made it a goal of mine to one day be strong enough to run up that mountain. On that day though, I struggled to find the strength to even finish the race.
Back to 2010. By the time all of this went through my head, I realized I was halfway up South Mountain. For those of you nerdy graph and chart people, click here for the link to the route with the elevation profile:
I realized at that moment, that I could run the whole way. It wasn’t easy and it certainly wasn’t fast, but I did it. I got to the top in 31 minutes. Over the past 5 years I have probably run that mountain 15 times; my previous attempts had taken 40-42 minutes.
In the past five years, ultrarunning has taught me that I’m stronger than I think I am. It’s shown me that even when things are seemingly at their worst, they won’t stay that way. The mountains and the trails will be there no matter the season, no matter what life has thrown at me. They will be there to calm me and comfort me. To prove that the world is bigger than just me.
In the past five years I’ve learned that sometimes you won’t be able to finish the race. Sometimes the hard work you’ve put forth still isn’t enough to win. Sometimes you have to walk away, and try again the next day. And sometimes, it just might take five years to finally finish what you started.