Do you remember late October of 2012? I just finished my first trail ultra marathon. The next day, I drove to visit you in the hospital. I was gushing enthusiastically about the race, and you were eating up the details and bragging to the nurses about me.
Then you laughed.
"Forget the marathons! You need to run a real race, the Mount Summit Challenge."
Despite growing up 15 minutes from the finish line, I had never heard of it.
But the moment you said, in your sweet, gruff way, "you run 3.5 miles straight up the damn mountain, Brynny!" I was hooked.
Running uphill is my favorite :) Of course, you always knew that.
Thank you for telling me about what has now become a very special, very favorite race... one that feels like heaven on earth.....
We continued to talk about the Summit. I told my dad that I would train for the uphill race while also training for trail ultras and marathons.
Hope filled the room. Our conversation about the Summit was the last coherent, spirited one we would ever have. It was the last of the happy moments spent with him before his health quickly declined, and, despite his ripped body, jacked arms, and fit physique from his daily work as a lumberjack and sunrise weight lifting routine, he withered away to a skin-and-bones man unable to form words, sit up, eat or remember.
A few weeks after our lively visit, Eric and I were surprised and ecstatic to discover that I was pregnant and due in July. Summit training ceased.
Over the course of eight months, during my entire pregnancy, I visited my dad and, for the safety of the baby, I was often left sitting in the hallway, clothed in mask, robe and gloves, forbidden from entering the room, staring at him through glass windows while Eric and my twin sister, Tara, reminded him over and over that he was going to be a grandpa.
Often I wanted to break the rules, strip off the protective garb and lie next to him. But if my unborn baby became sick along with my dad, well... I would surely break.
That joyful day when my dad and I talked about our favorite subject - running - stands out clearly in my mind.
On that day, I believed wholeheartedly that he would fight his sickness and soon return home.
He would crew for me and cheer at the finish lines.
He would be at my first Mount Summit Challenge.
Sadly, he never came home.
He never crewed for me.
On June 1, 2013, he died. Four weeks later, we gave birth to our first son, Avie Jennings Harder, A.J., named for my dad.
Yet, miraculously, unbelievably, in a divine and mysterious way, he made it to my first Mount Summit Challenge. Here's how...
While he was sick, I felt USELESS and HOPELESS. I could do nothing but pray. As a doer, the pain of watching him die was unbearable.
The question of " What can I DO?!" screeched loudly inside my brain and beat me down.
What can I do?
What can I do?
WHAT CAN I DO!?!?!
If there was anything I knew how to do, it was to run. My dad knew this absolute truth about me. Running was the deepest connection we had. He knew how to reach me.
By random draw, by chance, my bib number was 52, my dad's birth year (he was born 2-15-52, February 15, 1952).
It was my first race since my dad's death and Avie's birth. In the months leading up to race, the memory of our cheerful Summit conversation replayed itself over and over like a movie scene as I pounded the pavement, logged the miles, ran out my grief and sprinted away the tears.
As I carefully touched the bib, I knew what to do.
Now, I was running with purpose, for love, the deep love, grief and awe of a daughter missing her father and mesmerized by this inspiring sign, this piece of heaven touching down upon the earth to assure me that he was there.
I finally had the answer to that relentless question (WHAT CAN I DO!?!?!) that berated me during his dying days. The answer? Run my heart out!
I won second overall female. One month later, I checked in for a trail 25K, and my bib was 252, his birth month and year.
At the 2016 Mount Summit Challenge, I arrived with a burning desire. For my dad, I wanted to win, because I knew he believed I could, and his faith gave me, just like it always has, the belief that I had it in me. Again by chance, my bib contained his birth digits, 152 (birthdate 2-15-52). I won first overall female.
Over the years, his birth digits have shown up at races 13 total times (five of those have been at the Summit) in the form of bibs, race times and places.
This year, a couple weeks before the 2019 Mount Summit Challenge, I decided to tell one of the Summit race directors the story of my dad, because this is where it all began. When I arrived to register on race eve, she graciously asked, "do you want his numbers?" Of course, overcome with gratitude, overwhelmed with awe, I said yes.
Thank you your kind gift. It means the world to me.
Because of his undying support and messages from heaven, I dig deeper and smile bigger during every race.
On this day, I felt moved forward like a magnet toward the love awaiting me at the top of the Summit (my twin sister, Tara, two sons, Avie, five, and Grey, two, and parents-in-law at the finish line) and pushed by the love behind me (my husband was running the race and finished in 35:55). Surrounded by love, I felt light and solid at the same time. Arms thrusting forward, head up, eyes set, heart out, I dug into the mountain with quick foot strikes, with the fire of my dad's soul, the desire of woman running with purpose.
Within the divine connection God has formed between me and my dad, running the Summit feels something like heaven on earth. My goal is always to give it my all, have no regrets and rise to my potential, embodied by the wildness and fearlessness of my dad.
This local race has become a commemoration for my entire family, including my twin sister Tara, who rallies at the finish line and catches me in her arms, my brother-in-law Chuck who loves to cheer and support the runners, my mom, who emulates her late husband's carefree ways, my husband, who now runs the Summit, my sons and this year, my mother and father in law.
I can run. And I will run in the name of his spirit as long as I live.
Dad, thank you for becoming my race angel. I'll see you on the next run <3