“Just follow her feet. Just follow her feet. Just follow her feet. Oh god, where is the aid station?”
On this day, February 9, 2013, I ran with my friend Dawn at my first ultra, the Pemberton 50K. I’d wanted to “be an ultra-runner” for a while, and on that day I’d set out to try to earn that badge. I was a newb.
Dawn; she is amazing. She’s run numerous races, ultra and not, all over the place. She is kind and always has a smile and a word of encouragement for everyone. She loves her family, loves her friends, and loves the trails. This woman exudes calm, acceptance, generosity, kindness, humbleness, and grace. She taught me so much about myself, and all while simply being herself. She probably has no idea of the impact she has had on my life (well, perhaps until now).
Up until the Pemberton 50K, Dawn and I had been on group runs together. Just talking, chatting about whatever. We were friends and I enjoyed her company.
So we ran the Pemberton 50K. This race consists of two loops of Pemberton Trail at McDowell Mountain Regional Park. It’s a good first ultra because it has minimal elevation gain and is relatively smooth running.
For the first loop, being the newb that I was, I ran too fast, I know that now. But at the time, I felt great, the pace felt fun, I was having a good time. Dawn was behind me a little bit. We came into the Start/Finish line aid station and Dawn, being much wiser than me, took a moment to stop and eat. I kept going.
As soon as I started on the second loop I knew I was in trouble. The flat course no longer felt flat. I couldn’t run. Everything hurt and my legs wouldn’t move. Dawn caught up to me while I was walking, and she was still running strong. I don’t remember now all of the words that were exchanged- I remember seriously hating life and hating the “hill”. She was kind and cheerful, as always, but not in an annoying cheerleader way, she was just herself. I ended up following her feet; she pulled me in this manner for miles (5? 6? 7? I don’t remember now.). All I remember of this time is her solid feet, consistently covering trail, and my struggle to keep watching them and not stop. It hurt. Eventually we came to a remote aid station and I just couldn’t run anymore. I told her to go ahead. I still had a bunch of miles (5? 6? Again, I don’t remember) to go to reach the finish line, and I needed to walk for a while.
So I walked. And felt sorry for myself for walking. One person passed me. Then another. I was still walking. Eventually enough people passed me that I decided that was enough of that, I was going to run again. So I did. It was a shuffle, really. Every little bump in the trail felt like I was climbing a giant mountain. My legs wouldn’t lift, but at least I wasn’t walking anymore.
Eventually I made it and I crossed the finish line of my first ultra. And Dawn was there and she congratulated me. I felt awful. I was cold. I remember leaving there and going to Starbucks to get a huge hot chocolate to drink- I was dehydrated, and hadn’t eaten well, and was a mess.
And that’s my experience of my first ultra, but this is about so much more than that. Every time I run any race, at some point the going gets hard and ALWAYS Dawn’s voice is there: “Just keep moving. One foot in front of the other finishes.” On my “Adventure Runs” (My friend Miguel calls these Amber Adventures) that I pursue in the desert, again, Dawn is always with me. This beautiful woman gave me so much more than she will ever know. These words don’t describe the impact she has had on me. I look up to her.
So why write this? Trail running is about community. We need each other, or at least, I do. Dawn never knew the impact she had on my life, she was just herself and she helped me to become the person I am today because of it. Perhaps this is a reminder to me. I don’t know, and will never know, my impact on the lives of those around me. How does my mere presence affect them? What about my words? My actions? I don’t know. But I love my community- I will choose to be there for them, to pour into them, as I have been poured into, because this is who I am. Perhaps there is someone out there who will always hear my voice on their runs, just as I always hear Dawn’s. Perhaps not. It doesn’t matter. What matters is my choice to love those around me while I am here simply because I can.
Thank you Dawn.