Biological gifts on the run

I heard a podcast yesterday featuring Rhonda Hampton, race director for the Umstead 100 Mile Endurance Run. In it, she spoke of her love of trail running and the “biological gifts” she encounters along the trails. (To go straight to that section of her interview, fast forward to 47:15.)

Her comment made me think of my own daily wildlife count when I’m out running or walking with the dog. This week alone, my wildlife count or list of biological gifts includes a coyote, two deer, at least a dozen turkeys, countless songbirds, a hawk, and, just this morning, a pair of American White Pelicans.

American White Pelicans in a place I’ve never seen them (along with what I guess to be Double-crested Cormorants). One pelican is hiding behind the other.

Continue reading

Dear Bill and Sally

Four years ago, I shared a story of an inspiring couple, Bill and Sally Squier, who run ultra marathons. They both finished the Umstead 100 Mile Endurance Run that year, and both have attempted it since.

This past weekend, they were back out at Umstead to try again. Neither made it the full 100 miles. Bill stopped at 37.5 miles, and Sally made it to 50. I haven’t had a chance to talk with them, but I know a hot sun took its toll on Sally.

Did I mention they’re both 74 years old? I’ll pause a moment for you to be impressed.

Sally waved at me on her second trip past me at about mile 19. Note the smile.

Bill smiled, too, as he rounded the corner on his third trip past me. He had already run 31 miles at this point.

I wanted to write them a post-race letter and share it with you, too, because you may find inspiration in their story. Here’s the letter: Continue reading

Miles to go before they sleep

I’m back in California after a week at home in North Carolina. My husband and I were there to help with a 100-mile race that runs along the trails of beautiful Umstead State Park.

My husband is the captain in charge of the remote aid station on the course—one of two aid stations and the only one without electricity and running water. I help out as needed and also take photographs. Saturday’s weather presented challenges, though, and rain kept me under the aid station tent for longer than I had hoped.

U100_2016_ 2FT

The creek may have been happy about all the rain, but the runners got tired of it pretty quickly.

U100_2016_ 3FT

An aid station is a thing of wonder during an ultramarathon, a hive where the full range of emotions can be on display at any given time.

This is probably the most exhausting weekend my husband and I experience each year, but it’s also an amazing testament to the indomitable human spirit (and bodies, too). It has become an annual family reunion of sorts for us, and we look forward to hugging old friends and making new ones with each year’s race.

Though our bodies are crying out for sleep, our minds are busy processing this year’s race and already swirling ahead to what we’ll keep the same and what we’ll do differently at next year’s race.

Because this is the first day back at my computer, it’s my first chance to sit down and do something useful with the 1600+ photographs I took Saturday. I feel like I have miles to go before I sleep, a different sort of miles than the runners faced, but still, a task ahead of me before I can rest.

U100_2016_1FT

… and miles to go before I sleep

I hope you won’t mind if today’s post is shorter than usual. I want to get the photos to the runners as quickly as possible to celebrate their accomplishment, to help them remember fleeting moments of the long race, to honor them for their inspirational efforts.

How about you? What tasks do you have that mean miles to go before you sleep? Are you doing them out of love or necessity (or both)?

The unreality of watching an ultra

Two are better than one because they have a good return for their labor. For if either of them falls, the one will lift up his companion.

—Ecclesiastes 4:9–10

Three weekends ago, my husband and I were back in North Carolina as volunteers for the Umstead 100 Mile Endurance Run. The phrase “It takes a village” comes to mind when I think of this race, and though I’m not sure, I suspect there are at least as many, if not more, volunteers as runners who come out for this race. One of my “jobs” for the race was to take photographs of the runners, something I enjoy very much—much more than I would actually running 100 miles.

It was a hard day to sit, though, or even stand in one place to take pictures. It was bitterly cold, even after the sun came out. We knew it would be cold and brought winter gear that had gone unused here in California; so I triple-layered my clothes that morning and slid into a sleeping bag before sitting down. The cold seeped in, despite my efforts to fight it. I suppose I could blame California for already wiping out my cold tolerance, but I suspect I would have been cold anyway. I fretted for the runners’ struggle during the run, sweating and warm from running but then getting chilled from the unwelcome wind.

I cheered as they rounded the corner toward me, mostly to lift their spirits but also to draw out smiles when I could. Many of them smiled and cheered right back, grateful for someone sitting out there to capture their big day. A few were concerned about my warmth and safety, but I assured them I would be okay.

One said to me as he passed by a second or third time (it’s a 12.5 mile loop course the runners run eight times), “Oh, good. They’ve gotten you a blanket.” I guess he was just noticing the sleeping bag. I wondered who “they” were and whether “they” would bring me something hot to drink. He seemed genuinely relieved to see that I might not freeze to death with the camera in my hand.

Not everyone smiled, some too caught up in the act of running or the desire to compete well, but I began to pick out favorites whose own enthusiasm and energy kept me going throughout the day.

2015U100_1FT

The woman in the cat hat has gold wings on her feet! When the race is long, wearing something fun and running together can make the miles pass more easily.

2015U100_2FT

Bundled up but smiling

2015U100_3FT

Zen running?

2015U100_4FT

The happiest set

When this trio rounded the corner, the man in orange gloves called out to me and said, “On the count of three, we’re all going to jump. Are you ready?” He did a slow count to make sure I was ready, and I snapped this shot. Then he ran around behind me and had me check to make sure I had captured the moment. I laughed when the woman told them, “I didn’t jump.” They were less energetic the next time through but still had their senses of humor intact.

A dear friend of mine came and rescued me at lunchtime. We headed off to Panera for soup and hot tea. That’s when it hit me, the feeling I get anytime I leave an ultra and head back into the “real” world temporarily. I begin to wonder at the number of people out doing their typical Saturday afternoon thing while something amazing is happening not far from them. You’re missing the amazing thing! I want to tell them all. There are runners out in the woods accomplishing this awe-inspiring run, and you’re missing it! Why are any of you here at Panera when this unreal thing is happening in the woods just minutes away?

I don’t even really know how to explain this feeling I get, but it happens every single time my husband runs an ultra that I go watch or every ultra where we volunteer. The fact that Panera or the shopping centers are even open, much less full, messes with my equilibrium somehow.

When I got back and resumed taking pictures, the realness of the runners’ efforts settled back in. I know Panera and the park and the lives in both places are equally real, but what was happening on the trail that day felt simultaneously surreal, unreal and realer than any other thing going on that day.

It’s as though my mind whirs at a different speed during an ultra, my hyper-focused self shuts out the rest of the world to bask in the race and to cheer on the runners.

The emotions can get pretty real and raw out here at the race, too. One woman said, “I don’t think I’ll be able to smile the next time around.” I told her she wouldn’t have to for me, because I was getting ready to leave.

These two runners stopped to embrace several times before the aid station. Only they know what running together had meant to the two of them and what the thought of running separately after this point might mean.

2015U100_5FT

For some, there would be tears and disappointments, injuries too painful to ignore, motivations blown away in the bitter wind.

But for plenty of runners, there would still be moments of levity, laughter and joy.

In the last couple of hours before sunset, I began seeing runners come through with their pacers (something they can do after 6 p.m. or after they hit the 50-mile mark, whichever comes first). A pacer can make all the difference between a runner finishing or dropping out because the pacer brings fresh legs, a clear mind, energy, and conversation to accompany and encourage the runner.

The photo below speaks to the invaluable presence of a pacer (and also reminded me of Ecclesiastes 4:9): Two are better than one. And sometimes, a third person with a camera helps, too.

2015U100_6FT