"You get faster the farther you run," Coach Sally Dinunno told me, a sprinter who competed in the 100 and 200 meter dashes and 4x100 meter relay. In the next breath she informed me that I would now be running the 400 meter dash.
"No way," I thought. That's one entire lap around the track. One quarter of a mile to be exact - absolutely too far for a sprinter.
"OK, sure" I told her. Could she see my hesitation? My fear? My doubt? Could she read my scared, aghast mind? Inside, I was freaking out.
Yet I liked Coach Dinunno and respected her guidance. The next thing I knew I was doing 400-meter repeats and running once a week with the distance crew. My fellow sprinters did not envy me while the distance runners took me under their wings as I joined them once a week on a long run around the city.
It turned out Coach Dinunno saw something in me that I never knew I had. I did indeed get faster the farther I ran. During my senior year, I excelled in the 400 meter dash. I remained undefeated in the section, won the County Meet and broke the long-standing school record in the event with a time of 61.3 seconds and held it for 15 years, until 2015, when I helped coach the current record holder to break my own hard-earned record.
Coach Dinunno set in motion the belief that I was destine to run longer distances.
The above memory flooded my mind and caused a lump to form in my throat and tears to form in the corners of my eyes as I descended the final hill of the Frozen Sasquatch 25K (15.8 miles) to win First Female and place ninth overall out of 121 total runners (male and female) with a time and personal record of 2:34:34.4 (10:16 pace).
"What's your race goal?" Rachel asked as we unpacked upon arrival to the Charleston, W.V., guest house where we were staying for the weekend for the Frozen Sasquatch 25K Trail Race.
The question always makes me uneasy. I responded with a laugh.
She looked directly at me. "I think you're going to win," she stated.
We went on to loosely discuss our goals and previous race results as my husband and two sons, Grey, nine months old, and Avie, age four, meandered and settled into our weekend accommodations.
Later when Shane, who would be running the race with me and Rachel, arrived, we continued the discussion.
"Tell me your goals," Rachel said to us. Shane wanted to run faster than she did in the first 25K that she did four years prior, and Rachel wanted to break 3:20. I aimed for Top Three Female.
"And how do you plan to achieve your goal?" Rachel inquired.
I laughed again and pointed to a quote in my 2018 running log. It said, "It's not just hopeful thinking: Dark chocolate before a workout is proven to enhance performance."
While I did not plan to eat chocolate for breakfast, I did have it stowed in my hydration pack as my primary race fuel.
Shane, Rachel and I piled into Rachel's car and made our way to Kanawha State Forest for the Ninth Annual Frozen Sasquatch 25K/50K Trail Race. Conditions were perfect - five degrees and rising, zero wind, no snow on the ground and no chance of precipitation.
Let's talk about the snow - Kanawha State Forest, located 30 minutes from Charleston, W.V. and three hours south of my hometown of Ohiopyle, Pa., had significantly less snow than we did back home. The two weeks leading up to the race proved challenging as the snow continued to fall and cover my local trails in and around Ohiopyle State Park.
One run I did was significantly difficult - I had tackled 12 miles on the Laurel Highlands Hiking Trail in a foot of snow pack (read: NO dirt, rock or roots were exposed/the earth was completely blanketed with snow) with about seven inches of powder on top, and the temperature was negative four degrees with the wind chill. I have certainly skied on LESS snow than I had run upon that day! Most of my other runs consisted of half a foot of snow pack, which felt like running through loose sand. The resistance training was in full force, but I was tiring of the rough terrain and hopeful that the Frozen Sasquatch did not present snow-packed trails.
My wish had come true! At just above freezing, it was certainly cold - my eye lashes froze by the end of the race, but that was no comparison to the many impressively frozen beards that formed.
The most snow the trail contained was about an inch in some places, but dirt, roots and rocks were aplenty and bare. THANK. YOU. WEATHER. GODS.
With clear trails ahead, we gathered at the start line. "Good luck!" I told Shane and Rachel as race director Mike Dolin began the, "Ready! Set! Go!"
We were off!
Within one mile, before the first long climb ended, the bite valve on my Nathan hydration pack froze despite the insulation cover for the tube and bladder. I experienced this in many training runs, and I knew at once I would be relying on the water at the three aid stations ahead. I tried the carrot juice in a Marmot squeeze bottle nestled in the hydration pack. It, too, was frozen, and the race was just beginning!
At the first aid station around 3.5 miles, the volunteers informed us that all the water was frozen. Agh! Within the same moment, a female runner had caught up to me. We greeted one another, and I was happy to have her company. I was not accustomed to running alongside another woman in a race - it seems I am almost always running with the men. Her presence was a comforting, welcome change and, at the same time, a mental challenge, as I considered the possibility that we might possibly be vying for first female in the final miles.
She and I, along with about five or so of the same men, ran mostly together, taking turns passing one another, until about 11.5 miles.
For the majority of the early miles, I struggled to thaw my bite valve by tucking it underneath my Patagonia Nano Puff Vest, holding it in my cheek and grasping it in my mittened palm, which contained a hand warmer. Not drinking water could completely throw me off my goal, but I remembered how just two weeks prior I had run in deep snow pack for more than three hours while fueling on nothing but snow that I scooped up and used to quench my dry mouth. In other words, water or no water, I could do this!
I downed a full Dixie Cup of ice-cold water at mile eight and another at mile 12. Normally preferring to sip water frequently on runs, my belly slogged a bit at the sudden fullness, and my face felt an instant ice cream headache. Yet it revived me. So did the dark chocolate, also frozen (yuck!) and the slushy carrot juice, which I had to access by slowing down significantly to remove the lid, as it's drink valve was... yep, you guessed it - FROZEN.
My physical being responded quickly and positively to the hydration and nutrition. Each time I ingested anything, I felt instantaneously rejuvenated as the fuel worked it's wonders. My legs, lungs and spirt responded by picking up and keeping a steady, consistent pace that held my spot as first female for the entirety of the race.
"It's a good time to turn it on," one of the men I had been running near said to me after we passed the third aid station around mile 12. Yes, it was, and yes, I did! The woman I had been running next to disappeared behind me, and I was left with myself and Scott, who introduced himself to me in the early miles. His talkative nature and experience on the trail kept me entertained and bounding toward the finish. Thank you, Scott!
What can I say about the overall course? It was well-marked, with blue flags and yellow signs depicting a black Frozen Sasquatch. At no point in the race did I question which way to go. The single track trails were beautiful, and the dirt roads were rolling and smooth, which allowed me to open my stride and speed up. I dreaded the final descent, described as a steep, technical downhill, but it turned out to be my favorite section of course.
Emotions bubbled up inside, and for an instant I felt my throat swell and tears begin to form (see above memory). When we touched down to the parking lot with a short sprint to go, I felt overjoyed and grateful for the beautiful course, the company I kept during the race, the support of my husband and two sons, who were waiting and cheering just beyond the finish, for the formation of my all-women trail running group, the Trail Tribe, where I got to know Shane and Rachel and for my high school coach, Sally, who believed in my endurance, strength and destiny as a long distance runner.
The Frozen Sasquatch 25K became one of my favorite races in which I have ever competed. With an affinity toward winter running, I hope to run this race again and encourage others who love well-marked trails, well-organized events and a friendly community of runners to do so, too.
As I told the WSAZ news woman who interviewed me after the race for the 10 p.m. news, I do this for the community, to revel in the company of other crazy trail runners, and to experience the beauty of the sun shining through the trees on an early, crisp morning run.
May you find your happy place :) Mine is on the trail, on the run. Run on!