May 23, 2021, 25k, Boalsburg, PA

On October 27, 2019 I made the biggest mistake of my running career. Yes, worse than the time I accidentally wore jewelry at a track race, disqualifying me from the state meeting and ending my high school season. Worse than the time I listened to Keith’s advice to run my first ultramarathon, Laurel Highlands 50k, ‘just like a marathon’. Worse than the time I ran my first trail race, the 18-mile Escarpment Trail Run, in July heat without a water bottle. Yes, worse than drinking margaritas after the inaugural WUS beer mile.

There were mistakes all around at the Inaugural WUS Beer Mile

What did I do this time? I skipped the Tussey MountainBack 50-mile relay race, breaking a 14-year streak. I am still trying to dig myself out of the asteroid-sized hole that followed. And break the curse.

I had a reasonable rationale for skipping Tussey in 2019. The race fell on the same day as DC’s Marine Corps Marathon. I had just gotten my speed back after having my first child in July 2018. I was getting older (38) and not sure how many fast sub-3 hour marathons I still had in me. I wanted to give myself one last crack at glory on my city’s biggest race stage. I knew I had it in me to podium. I took training seriously. I joined a Wednesday morning track group. I did multiple long runs. A few weeks before the race I beat a field of very quick ladies at the Trilogy Half Marathon, setting a CR.

Sean warned me.

But fixating on races is not very marmot. Sean called me out when I visited him in Colorado a few months prior. I wasn’t acting like myself. I was taking running too seriously. I was wearing a Garmin. I was doing all the things Sean and I make fun of other runners for. I admitted I was mystified by my sudden fixation on Marine Corps. But after 18 months of being pregnant and then a new mom and out of the racing game I was bursting at the seams to race again. The age 40 was looming ahead and I was afraid of getting older. My speed would soon fade and I wanted one last stand before the axe fell. I wanted to give my legs the fitness to go full throttle.

One of our MountainBack teams

I sometimes grumble about Aaron’s decades-long racings streaks at Hellgate and the Boston Marathon. Every year before Hellgate I ask him if he’s sure he doesn’t just want to do the Magnus Gluteus Christmas 50k Fun-Run with me instead. Wouldn’t that be more fun? Doesn’t it get old doing the same races over and over again? Whenever he pointed out that I had my own 14-year streak at Tussey MountainBack I countered that it wasn’t a race, it was a party, more like a homecoming. It was just about reuniting with State College friends I made when as a grad student at Penn State. Plus I ran different legs every year.

Aaron misses all the fun at MGM
But this is totally worth it

But I get it now. I understand why streaks should never be broken, how races become woven into a person’s DNA and make you feel whole. There is a reason I return to Tussey year after year, even a decade after I relocated to DC. It is the perfect race, encapsulating every reason I run. It’s a party in van all day with friends. It’s the hardest lung-breaker of a course I’ve ever done (try sprinting 5k up a mountain and then doing in again a couple hours later, with someone fast on your heels). The course is lined with the beautiful fall foliage of the Rothrock forest. The adrenaline is spiked by bitter (but always friendly) competition between rival teams that sometimes finish the 50-mile course seconds apart. I’ve never found any event that makes me run so hard, while grinning ear-to-ear.

Running during 2012’s Dr Seuss-themed year for ‘Green Kegs and Damn I Love Hills’

The 2019 Marine Corps Marathon was one of the most dismal days of my life. Physically, I have felt much worse, like when I’m throwing up during an ultramarathon. My finish wasn’t terrible, 3:06 for 12th overall woman. But psychologically I have never felt less motivated to cross a finish line. If a legion of imposing Marines hadn’t been there to pounce on me I would have veered to the side and not crossed at all. Had Aaron not been there to grab my finger I would have erased all trace of the race from my Garmin. By mile 2 I knew my busted Achilles would give me no lift off and I just had to go through the motions. I felt spiritually broke, knowing that I should have been at Tussey that day with my friends, not on some tilting-at-windmills mission to stand on a podium while some stranger snaps my photo. None of my State College friends had given me a hard time. But I realized I had gotten caught up in an empty fantasy. And the misery at Marine Corps was not just about losing a race, or running my first marathon over 3 hours in more than a decade, but losing sight of what was sacred to me about running. I felt corrupted.

Bjorn finally got me to crack a smile at MCM

After the race I tried to recover my sunken spirit by taking horseback riding lessons at Rock Creek Horse Center. Riding had been my childhood joy. In my evaluation lesson I beamed with happiness as I took a pony over a course of jumps. I felt like my old self again. The following week the COVID-19 pandemic hit and the world changed forever. At my next lesson my horse, potentially sensing people’s pandemic angst, bolted and bucked uncontrollably and I was thrown backwards, smashing my skull into the ground. Thankfully I was wearing a helmet or I would be dead. I blacked out and regained consciousness minutes before the ambulance arrived. I had memory lapses for weeks and the point of impact on the back of my head is still tender to the touch, but luckily there seems to be no long term damage. Just as I began to regain normal brain function and resume my work duties studying the SARS-CoV-2 virus I was unexpectedly let go from my job. I won’t go into the details but it was messy and cynical and exposed why women drop out of science like flies, particularly after starting families. I felt like the dominos were falling so quickly, and every time my toddler dashed into the street I was certain the next calamity would involve him. I begged Aaron to drop everything and flee to Europe, or frankly anywhere I could start fresh and our family could be safe. Maybe I could find a little hamlet in the countryside where we could raise a family, study pathogens, and keep some goats.

I tried to convince Aaron he’d like Belgium.

Aaron and I are a well-matched pair because in every way that I am romantic he is grounded and practical. Whenever I feel buffeted I have learned to tuck safely behind Aaron and trust him when he says everything is going to be alright. That kind of blind trust came in handy during last Sunday’s race, when my disoriented and severely dehydrated mind lost touch with reality but agreed to follow him down a very rocky trail, following what has become our well-worn team survival strategy for getting through 2020.

I knew my path to redemption needed to begin in Pennsylvania’s Rothrock forest. I did not expect to skip my way to victory at last Sunday’s Rothrock Trail Challenge 25k. I just had to put down the first spike. After much discussion, Aaron and I decided to run the race together. During the first half he was feeling bad and crimping my style, but I chirped along happily behind him and decided a relaxed day in the gorgeous mountains was still a pretty awesome day. Rothrock is fantastic course, rocky and steep, full of adventure, in some ways like the Dolly Sodds but without the plains or mud. The temperature was in the 80s with a strong sun and I filled my bottle at the 9-mile aid station with Gatorade. Going up the next Cliffs of Insanity section I started having stabbing pains in my stomach that radiated up my spine. Running down the rock garden trails felt like daggers. Just as Aaron started to get a second wind I fell silent. I started throwing up fluorescent yellow Gatorade. The heat intensified, but I couldn’t drink because of the pain, and the last couple hours I started to lose the plot.

After we missed a turn and went off course I suggested I crawl into a fetal position at the next forest road we crossed and Aaron could scoop me up with the car after he finished. I used to be fearless, bombing down rocky trails with abandon. I confidently bounced through rock gardens in the Dolly Sodds while pregnant. But the past year has made me feel so vulnerable and skittish — the concussion, my boss yanking the rug out from under my professional career, a global pandemic, as well as a new mother’s terror as Bjorn scrambles up rocks and sprints into the street. I feel shaken up and am actively trying to retrain my brain not to see threats all around. As I tottered along rocky trails with a mind that not so stable from dehydration, I was genuinely scared that something really bad would happen to me.

After the final descent we popped out onto a short eighth-of-a-mile stretch of road leading to the finish. A friendly woman yelled for us as we ran by and her energy momentarily lifted my stride. It was too much. I started puking in the bushes again. After we finished Aaron raced off to rescue Bjorn’s babysitter, who was thankfully unperturbed that we were later than expected. I lay in the grass and downed a Pepsi that tasted better than anything I’ve drunk in my life.

Rothrock’s Whipple Dam

As Aaron described the race to a friend: ‘In the end, it was like 2020: we barely hung on, but through some good teamwork, we got it done even if it was a bit uglier then we would have liked.’


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