Winning in and of itself is exciting. But let me tell you what winning really means to me. Let me tell you why, during the past four months of training, I have become so emotional about my intention to win that tears frequently welled up in my eyes mid-run and even while driving up the Summit toward my home in my mountains.
When I first considered running the Mount Summit Challenge four years ago, I had no compelling reason to do so except that I really enjoy running uphill. My late father, A.J. Cunningham, encouraged me to run it.
"Brynny," he said, "the race you need to do is the Summit. Now that's a race." He was lying in a hospital bed, and I was telling him about a 27-mile trail race I had completed the day before.
Despite growing up 15 minutes from it's finish line, I did not know about the event. However, soon after my dad told me about it that October day in 2012, I set my sights on it. Then I found out I was pregnant and due a couple months after the race. My plans were put on the back burner.
This conversation we had about the Summit was one of the last coherent verbal exchanges we ever shared. For the next several months, he remained hospitalized, and, after much suffering, finally passed on June 1, 2013. Four weeks later, on June 28, I gave birth to my son, Avie. Busy with motherhood, the Mount Summit Challenge did not pique my interest again until my son was about a year old. During the summer of 2014, after recovering from several pregnancy/running-related injuries, I finally felt ready to run again.
And so, one year ago, the 2015 Mount Summit Challenge became my first postpartum race and first race since the death of my father. I finished second overall female with a time of 30:31 and seventh overall out of men and women. I was ecstatic, because my goal was to place among top three females.
Yet, more meaningful than my place was my bib number. By chance, it was 52, my dad's birth year. Little did I know, this would not be the only time he would show up during those key pre-race moments. It would happen three more times. Keep reading, and you'll see you how.
Two months later, I raced in a 15.5-mile trail run, part of the Pyle Run and Ride Festival, held in my hometown, Ohiopyle, Pa. Once again, my dad made his presence known in the form of my bib number. This time, by chance, it was 252. My dad was born in the second month of the year, February 15, 1952, to be exact. Coincidence? To me, there are no coincidences.
Again, I placed second overall female, and I was happy, because my goal was to place among top three females. (Read the full story of these races in Spring Race Recap: How Injury, Childbirth & Death Made Me a Stronger Runner.) Two second places in a row did not begin to eat at me... until it would happen again months later.
But not yet! The third race I ran last year was the Wisconsin North Face Endurance Challenge 10K trail race. I placed fourth overall female and first in my age group with a personal record of 49:06. Again, with a little divine intervention from my father, I achieved my goals of ranking among top five females and running a sub-50.
This time my dad arrived via song. As Eric (then my fiance, now my husband!) and I pulled into the event parking area, Jewel's "My Father's Daughter," began playing on the radio. We looked at each other in awe. I held my face in my hands and cried as we waited for the song to finish. When it did, I emerged from the vehicle more than ready to be my father's daughter, a runner through and through. Read the full 10K story here.
There's more. For the third time last year, I won second overall female and set a personal record of 20:12 in the Town Bank Turkey Trot 5K in Burlington, WI, on Thanksgiving Day. While winning second overall was rewarding the first two times, and even the third time, it began to irk me a little. My dad did not appear, but I believe this third second place was him sending me the message that I needed to have as much faith in myself as he always has and to set my goals a little higher. Read the full 5K story here.
So, I knew what I had to do. First, I had to wholeheartedly believe that I was capable of winning first place. In last year's races, I never said that I wanted first specifically, and, subsequently, I didn't get it. My goals were to place among the top three overall, and for the North Face Challenge, among top five. Did that make a difference in my results? Absolutely! After all, if we believe deeply enough in something, it has huge potential for manifestation.
Thus, I sat down with myself one day in quiet reflection and came out of it in earnest, knowing that I wanted to and, even more, feeling that I was good enough to win first female in the 2016 Mount Summit Challenge.
Why did I want first place? The answer is obvious. For my dad, my race angel.
To show him that I knew he was there last year when I kept meeting my goals yet somehow falling short, not rising to full potential.
To show him those bib numbers he sent me from the heavens and that song he played for me did not go unnoticed.
To give him my utmost gratitude for attending every high school track meet.
To thank him for cheering louder and more wildly than anyone when I broke the 400 meter dash record with a time of 61.3 as a high school senior.
To tell him he's the first person I'd call after every post-college race.
To connect to him in a physical, spiritual, personal way.
To give him a good race to watch from his bleachers in the sky.
To show him that I have enough heart, soul and grit to not settle for second place again, at least not this time.
And, most of all, to assure him that the void that hollowed out my heart upon his death has been fulfilled because of running, this beautiful thing we have always loved together.
In truth, I did not expect an awe-inspiring bib number for a third time, but, as you'll soon see, boy, was I wrong! That morning at home, before I knew what my bib would be, I thought of ways to carry my dad with me during the race. First, I considered inscribing the number 52 on my bicep with a Sharpie, but that seemed a bit too juvenile and not exactly my style. Then, I strung his high school ring around a necklace, but that felt too heavy. Finally, I zipped the ring in a small pocket on my running pants and drove to the start line.
It was a warm, sunny, slightly muggy morning. As I approached the check-in table, that surreal feeling of calm enveloping me all morning slowly began to slip away. Nervousness crept in. Quickly, though, peace of mind returned as I was handed my race bib. It was 152. My jaw dropped. Tears pushed through. My heart pounded. Desire grew.
Stunned, I gripped the table with both hands and took some deep breaths. How? How could that possibly be? A 52, my dad's birth year, again? This time with a 1 in front of it, representing my goal of being number one? The message was clear. "Hell, Brynny, get that first place already! Do it for me! I don't think I can cheer any louder than this!" I was shaking with awe and a growing determination, and I knew my dad wanted the win as badly as I.
I ran to my car, removed his high school ring from my pocket, changed from pants into my favorite Oiselle running shorts, found my friend Angela, a race volunteer, to pin my bib for me (my shaking hands were failing to do the job), and bounded to the start line.
Nerves subsided a bit when I found my place next to fellow coach (I'm a volunteer) Matt Girod, Uniontown High School Girls Track & Field Head Coach, and again when a dear friend's husband, Jerrod Murtha, made his way toward us. Ah, the peace of good company.
Then something happened. A young man adorned in red, white and blue running shorts confidently strode up to me and held out his hand for a handshake. I gripped it, and with a big smile, he said, "Good luck." He walked away with head held high. I recognized that energy. It was the same energy I experienced when I woke up that morning, and I immediately tuned back into it. Thank you for that transferal of energy!
It would turn out that this man, Matt Lipsey, whom I formally met at the finish, would win first place male. When I approached him after finishing, we congratulated each other on our wins, and I asked him how we knew one another. We didn't, he said. He could simply see that I was there for a reason. He could feel my desire, perhaps even see it in my eyes, and was not surprised at my results. Thank you, Matt Lipsey, for that wonderful moment and great energy.
Back to the start of the race... while waiting for the gun to fire, Matt Girod said to me, "You goin' for it?" To which I responded, "Yep." The gun fired, and we were off.
For my own mental game, taking the lead from the beginning was necessary. I ran my first mile faster than experts might suggest, but it put me in the lead of females and kept me there the entire race. Many times I wanted to fade back, but Jerrod, whom I credit for keeping my spirits high, was right beside me, encouraging me to stay with it. Thank you, Jerrod, more than you know!
During the last half mile, the steepest section of the course, I glanced behind me and saw a female nearby - not too close to be worried, but close enough. I began bounding toward the finish with everything I had, legs heavy with heat and heart heavy with desire.
It was both pure ecstasy and pure hell as I crossed the finish line as first female. I was so overwhelmed with emotion, pointing out my bib number to friends, probably even strangers, my husband, mom, identical twin sister, and son, who kept handing me water as he was highly concerned about my state of being as I gasped for air, lay in the grass face first, jumped around, spit, stretched sporadically, screamed with glee and finally recovered after 20 minutes of writhing in pain and joy.
We attended the post-race party, I received a trophy and dear friends congratulated and hugged me, especially those who knew the stories of my dad showing up at my races. I shared the story with those who didn't know, showing them my bib of 152, which I kept on for as long as possible that day.
My husband, Eric, eventually took me and Avie to the bottom of the mountain to pick up the car I drove to the race that morning. As Avie and I began driving back up the Summit, along the race course, tears burst through stronger than ever.
"No cry, mommy," Avie said sweetly. "I'm crying because I'm really happy," I explained. "Oh," he said and smiled. "You ran really fast, mommy," to which I nodded and said, "Yea, for my dad."