The one that caught my eye was the Rick O'Donnell Memorial 5.22 Mile Trail Run.
5.22 miles is not a common distance. Yet it hooked me instantly because 52 happens to be my magical race number. To top it off, on the date of the race, my newborn son, Grey, turned five months and two weeks. Another 5/2 for good measure!
In this race, I sought out the magic. Yet my race angel, my father, still arrived in good fashion. Before I tell you how, I'll summarize his appearances over the past two years.
Fact number one: My father, A.J. Cunningham, died June 1, 2013, four weeks before I gave birth to my first son, Avie Jennings (A.J.) Harder.
Fact number two: My father was born February 15, 1952 (2-15-52 - keep these digits in mind - they are the essence of this story).
Fact number three: Race bib numbers are completely randomly selected for all race participants.
Now the miracles begin...
Miracle number one: Bib number at my first race, the 2015 Mount Summit Challenge, after dad died: 52 (dad's birth year).
Miracle number two: Bib number at my second race, the 2015 15.5-mile Ohiopyle Trail Run & Ride, after dad died: 252 (dad's birth month and year).
Miracle number three: The last song I heard on the radio before racing in the North Face Endurance Challenge 10K Trail Race: "My Father's Daughter" by Jewel and Dolly Parton. I won fourth female and first in my age category.
Fact number four: I won second overall female for a third time in 2015 in the Burlington, Wi., Town Bank Turkey Trot 5K - to me, that was my dad saying, "Brynny, you can win first!!! Believe in yourself!" He was the one to cheer the loudest and instill self-confidence in me when it came to competing.
Miracle number four: At the 2016 Mount Summit Challenge, my bib number was 152 (dad's birth date and year). I won first overall female. The "one," to me, indicated that it was my turn for first.
Miracle number five: One week after winning the Summit, I ran the Pittsburgh Marathon. My bib was 2517 (dad's birth date and year in reverse, with my favorite number 7).
Miracle number seven: When my newborn was four weeks old, we took him to the 2017 Mount Summit Challenge. I wanted to cheer on the first female. As she crossed the finish line, I gasped, completely amazed - her bib number was 152 (the same bib number as mine the previous year when I won first overall female).
Miracle number eight: At the August 20, 2017 Mountain Laurel 5K, my first postpartum race after having baby Grey, I finished first overall female with a time of 22:55 (dad's birth year, doubled and reversed), without a Garmin or anything to tell me my time until after finishing.
Miracle number nine: At the 5.22-mile Rick O'Donnell Memorial Trail Run on Sunday, Sept. 17, 2017, my bib was 521 (my dad's birth year plus his birth date of 15 scrambled). I won third overall female.
I slept in until 7 a.m. that morning after a restless night with Grey and rushed to the lakeside start/finish area then to the check-in tables.
As I counted four safety pins while the race volunteer leafed through the bibs for mine, I scanned the area for my friend Shane who was to meet me at the race with her two children and her cousin who would accompany my husband in watching our little ones, all ages four and under, while we ran. (Thank you, Grace and Eric!)
Finally the bib was handed to me. Because I had already chosen the race based on the connection with the distance, I had zero anticipation, expectation or thoughts of "Dad, will you come?"
Yet there he was. Bib 521 was mine. Divinely aligned. 5.22 miles. Grey at age five months and two weeks. And now bib number 521. He was there. He was all around.
I wanted to tell the race volunteers the entire story, but it's a long one, so I smiled and floated away, staring at the bib. I wanted to go sit. To cry. To pray. To ponder.
But I needed to find Shane, use the restroom and nurse Grey one last time.
Finally Shane and I united. "Look!!!" I screamed, unable to hold it in any longer as I held up the bib. We laughed and smiled (two things we do best together lol!) then hurried to find the start line.
Earlier that week I had forgotten to reorder my contact lenses, so I was running with my glasses (ugh!). I wore the Oiselle Long Roga Shorts with pockets big enough to stash the glasses as soon as sweat began to fog them up. That happened around mile one.
By miles two and three the crowd thinned out, and I was mostly alone except for several male runners in the distance and some whom I'd pass or who would pass me.
At mile four the flow arrived. It's a feeling of weightlessness, freedom and joy, of time standing still and ecstasy bursting in the mind. I had no idea what place I was in, because the eight-hour ultra racers were running amongst the 5.22-milers.
Crossing the finish line is a sweet moment of racing. It's the moment when all momentum has built up to an escalating speed that spins and synchronizes the mind, body and spirit to surreal heights. That is why I race. It has never been about the competition, or what others are doing around me. It has been the desire to find my flow within the race and the sweetness of the finish.
Once the results were posted and awards being announced, I heard my name. "Third overall female, Brynn Cunningham of Ohiopyle." What a surprise! It turned out that a woman competing in the ultra had made her first lap in between the first and second overall women. Her placement obviously did not affect the results of the 5.22-mile distance, so the second overall female and I were delighted!
We received a granite rock trophy pertaining to the story of Rick O'Donnell.
My dad was a deerslayer, a truly gifted hunter. I hear stories from his friends of how he's chased down and tackled deer. His living room was lined with racks and deer heads (two of which I've inherited). If he were alive, he would get a roaring laugh out of a race named the Deerslayer. And he would certainly be the loudest one cheering at the finish line.
Dad, I'll see you at the race!