Today we have a guest post from Greg Smith, a Warren-native now living in Milton, Delaware. Greg happened upon Runner’s Notes when he was looking for information about the One Tough Cookie”trail race (which Dan & I did and I blogged about). Greg sent me this story he had written about the race. (BTW — the race is no longer in existence, which is unfortunate because it was a really cool and unique race.)
My Best Run
By Greg Smith
A couple of years ago, my little sister called me in mid-August and asked if I might be interested in running in a newly created 11 mile race. It was to be held in my home town of Warren, Pennsylvania. An acquaintance of mine was organizing it as a Hospice fund raiser and as a memorial event for her mother who had died earlier in the year. Her mother’s name was Cookie. Descriptive of her mother’s personality and indicative of the challenge of the race, it was titled “One Tough Cookie.” The timing of the event was perfect because, you see, my siblings and their families were gathering that weekend for what we knew would be a final visit with our dad who was dying from lung and liver cancer. He was in the care of the Hospice angels at his home. We all cleared our calendars to be there.
I quickly accepted and was very excited to run in an event with Marcia. She was only a year behind me in school and we went to the same college, so we have always been quite close and have remained so into our middle age. I had, however, moved out of town a few years earlier and welcomed an opportunity to spend some time running with her, a divorced mother of four children, struggling hard to make ends meet. Mom and Dad, although in their eighties, had been a huge foundation of support for her in every way great parents can be. Dad, in particular, had helped her with chauffeuring kids, repairs around her home, financially, and, most importantly, as a sounding board and counselor for her every day struggles. She was going to miss him the most simply because she had needed him the most.
We had kept up our running for the last few years and were well prepared for the rigorous course. We didn’t intend to try to win the race or even place well; rather, we chose to run together simply to be with each other in a difficult time and to try to focus on the spirit of the event. Although we didn’t set a goal, in the back of my mind, I felt that a 10 minute per mile pace would be respectable given the huge hill that the course presented. It was five uphill miles to start with the steepest stretch at the top.
The course was on some dirt roads, oil lease easements, and snowmobile trails in the Allegheny Mountains. To get to the start, we parked near a main road and walked on a dirt road that passed through a stone tunnel underneath a rail line and over a lovely stream. Even though there was nothing urban about the main road, we still felt as if we were stepping out of Lewis’s wardrobe into the forest on the other side.
Once through the tunnel, we came to a bit of a clearing and a wide area of the road where they held the registration and start/finish line. I was pleased to see several old friends and co-workers there for the run. Some were aware of our Dad’s situation but most came to learn how bad things were for him during our “How’re you doing?” greetings. There were lots of spontaneous tears and hugs all around, but it was extremely comforting to have their concerns and support. A great amount of warmth surrounded the entire event.
The day could not have been more glorious. The temperature was in the fifties with the sun beginning to burn away the bits of fog still lingering in the tree tops. The dew on the leaves truly sparkled for us that morning. The festivities were livened up with entertainment in the form of a bag piper playing a few tunes during the start. After the brief set of instructions and words of encouragement from the race organizer, we were off. We settled into a comfortable, conversational pace during the gentle climb alongside of the stream for the first mile where most of the early race pace-adjusting and jockeying always occur.
I like to keep the conversation going during runs and Marcia was no slouch either. After fifteen minutes or so, I mentioned that I still had the “HWAAHH, HWAAHH, WHAH, HWAAH, HWAAH” tune running through my head from the bag piper. Some girls running in front of us just started laughing and said that they couldn’t get it out of their heads either. I suggested they begin singing “It’s a Small World After All” if they wanted to get some relief from the bag piper song. I don’t think it was very helpful.
After a couple more miles, things started getting tougher and then we had a left hand turn that had us looking up at the very steep last half mile of the climb. Conversation had dwindled considerably by then, and we leaned into it. I thought we were both handling it pretty well, but about half way up, Marcia started crying and had to begin walking. She came to that state much more from the burden of the emotions than the severity of the climb. She asked that I keep running and said that she would be OK on her own. I ran to the top of the hill and waited for her. She had gathered herself together quite well and started running again at the crest.
I would occasionally monitor our time. We had made the climb at an estimated 10:30 pace; an overall 10:00 pace might be doable given that we now had a net downhill to go. There was to be no more clock watching, though. We still had to do a couple of rolling miles on top and then the steepest part going down was on the snowmobile trail. Footing was quite dicey with rocks, moss, mud and sticks just waiting to turn a beautiful run into a sprained ankle and a disaster. We were wise enough to tiptoe our way with care and finally made it back to the original dirt road for the last mile back. It was all down hill and we just let our legs go for a thrilling ride to the end.
We crossed the line together and were surprised and ecstatic to find other family members there to see us finish. And, wouldn’t you know, my watch showed us finishing at the 10:00 pace.
The combination of camaraderie, accomplishment, setting, and personal circumstances came together for a perfect run! Even the official race results were extraordinary that day. Marcia was given credit for finishing one second ahead of me and, via coincidence and the quirks of averaging, her officially posted pace was 10:00 per mile for the run and mine was 10:01. I was happy for her to earn that distinction.
Later that same day, Sunday, our family gathered around Dad to share memories, pictures, and stories for what we felt might be our last opportunity to pay him honor and tribute. Some members had to leave town Sunday night, and some Monday morning. Marcia and another sister, Pat, live in Warren and were with Mom and Dad when he passed away a day later, at home, on Tuesday evening of September 8, 2009. Sad as that news was, we had all managed to say our goodbyes as well as we could.
For my sister and me, of course, the run will always be linked with our Dad’s death. That is OK and, somehow, makes it even more special and memorable. Dad lived a full, rich life surrounded by children and grandchildren. Our family was fortunate enough to be able to celebrate him and say our goodbyes at the end. Doing that run was somehow a part of that process. I’m sure that it will always remain My Best Run.
Greg and his sister at the One Tough Cookie. Photo from cu.TimesObserver.com.