I struggled to find my way into dreamland as I listened to the wind blow outside my bedroom window. The challenge of little sleep isn't anything new when its the night before a race. After all my years of running and racing I am still filled with butterflies as the day approaches. So as I finally gave up on trying to grasp the elusive hand of sleep, I wasn't surprised to feel the flutter of anticipation as I dressed for the day ahead.
The house was quiet as I dressed. My family wasn't able to be with me for this race but had left me a note of encouragement. It was a great way to help settle the race day nerves.
I quickly made my way down the list of usual morning activities and headed out the door into the dark day that lay ahead.
The finish line is about 40 minutes from my house which makes this one of my favorite 50ks for yet another reason. My morning drive takes me along some beautiful rural roads as I slip out of Pennsylvania and into Maryland. I often see wildlife as I make the drive and this morning was not except. Several herds of deer, a porcupine, a very slow skunk and a fox all joined me in traveling the country roads in the early morning hour.
I pulled into the open field; which would serve as our parking lot, finish line and post party, with over 30 minutes to spare before we would need to board buses for the 20+ minute ride to the start line. I quickly checked in and returned to my car to gather my pack and quell the butterflies which had taken up residence in the pit of my stomach. But soon the buses arrived and we began the ride to the start line. I spent my ride chatting and listening to runners swap stories and race day predictions.
Once we arrived at the over look I jogged down the trail to answer the first of many nature calls. The cool morning air was giving me a chill but the weather throughout the day would be as near perfect for running as any race day I've ever had.
The plan for the day was to attempt to better my time on the FOTM course from the challenging run I had experienced last year and if possible go for a course PR. I had only filled my hydration pack half way to keep it's weight to a minimum and planned to avoid stopping at most aid stations by fueling myself. As the minutes ticked down I reminded myself to run my own race. I chatted with a bunch of trail friends and meet a few who had read about Fire on the Mountain in my previous race reports. But the minutes ticked away until our race director, Kevin gave us final instructions. Something about remembering this was a trail race and general course description of Red trail; follow the ...RED blazes, Green trail; follow the .....GREEN blazes, fire roads; duh follow the road, Purple trail; follow the....PURPLE blazes and your done. Then we were off.
FOTM starts with a quick mile-ish on a forest road. With 140 entrants (104 actual starters) this allows the field to spread out a bit before entering the technical single track that is the Red trail. As we weaved our way through the beginning of the Red trail I was struck with how much the footing didn't bother me. It seems that my time on the Massanutten trail has altered my definition of technical trail. The Red trail was by no means easy but it was largely runnable albeit my pace reflected the more challenging sections.
During the first miles of the Red trail just before the first serious climb I was leading a group of runners when I couldn't ignore a familiar calling any longer. There is something about the woods in the Green Ridge State Forest that inspires me to get friendly with the trees. I had to run down a side trail to answer a nature call. Although I lost quite a few minutes I was certain I would be able to make up the time over the coming miles. I walked back up the side trail as another group of runner went past. The urge to rush past them crossed my mind but I reminded myself that I need to run my own race and focus on what I wanted out of the day.
The Red trail may now be one of my favorite sections of this race. Although it challenged me the trail kept giving me something new just when I needed it. First single track, then hills, then descents, a little mud, a creek crossing always something to keep my mind occupied. A chatted briefly with several trail brethren when my pace lined up with several others but for the majority of the race I would run alone. Every uphill seemed to have an equally daunting downhill but despite the fallen leaves I wasn't running as cautiously as in previous years. The acorns were all but absent on several down hill sections but the walnuts were plentiful in others. The Red trail provide a wide variety of things underfoot for runners to stumble over. I'm happy to report I traveled it unscathed.
Having so much fun, I didn't stop at the first aid station at all. Then at the second I grabbed a cup of coke and half a banana and ran off thanking the cheerful volunteers.
As Red turned to Green the theme went from single track goat trail to rocky root littered creek crossings. My mind wanders frequently while running the Green trail. At first I'm lost in memories of previous year's of the race. Remembering the first year when I got confused about the markings through the low laying section. This year I laugh at the memory of getting lost on what is one of the most well marked races I run. My internal laughter lights my spirits. I am alone during the majority of the race but I am filled with such happiness to once again be here that I often find myself talking out loud. I say a few prayers for those that can not be on the trails with me this day. I remember Michelle passing me through the Green section one year and think of her working on her own kind of marathon this year. My thoughts cover many people and things that have happened throughout the past year; the blessing of having my sister start running and fall in love with it, the new friend met and old ones lost, the birth of babies, the illness, the healings... My wind is given the gift of time to wander throughout this section as I splash across one stream after another. But soon I recognize the end of this section is near and the climb to the oasis aid station begins. I see that my mind wandering has slowed my pace and I arrive at the oasis later than I wanted on the clock but uplifted.
This would be the only aid station that I stopped at for more than a minute. To this point I had only been fueling from my pack with the exception of a cup of coke and banana pieces. I always thanked the cheering volunteers as I went by the aid stations. Kevin, the RD had such a great group of volunteers helping throughout the course. Many of whom I would see at multiple aid stations. Having run the race every year, seeing them was almost like having family at each pit stop. Knowing that each and every one of them has given much more than just their day to help support me and the many other runners it feel inadequate to simply say thank you because without them this would just be another race. Their presence makes this race feel like a reunion of friends. Thank you to everyone who help guide the way, clear the trail, fuel my body, lift my spirits and fill my heart with all your acts of kindness.
I left the oasis knowing the experiences I have had with the fire roads. So I wasted no time answering another nature call because I had plans to make up a bit of time on what becomes a very boring section. Well, what used to become a boring section. This year I ran the first mile setting up my music. I debated about using it. The sounds of nature are all part of why I am out there in the first place but I knew I need to run so I popped my ear buds in and well, I think I may have embarrassed or amused those I passed. I danced and sang my way through the forest roads. The look on the aid station volunteer's faces was priceless. I think they wanted to dance with me. I pause only to offer my thanks and grab a quarter of pbj. It's uphill as I leave the aid station and I know there is still far more rocky road to travel before hitting the purple trail so I take off cranking up my music to help drowned out the screams from my tired legs.
If I was going to get sentimental I would have thought it would happen on the purple trail not the wet green trail. I remember a tree along the purple section very fondly although I'm sure it's still missing me as I didn't need to visit it this year. I remember a kind face at an aid station which appeared in the middle of no where. This that kind face was a familiar one too. Lindsay was behind the lens of her camera when a fellow runner and I approached. The aid station was moved slightly to a new overlook and there she was happily clicking away. (Thanks Lindsay for all the great shots!) She had been at several other spots along the course. Another unbelievable perk of this very amazing race, photos. I chatted with Lindsay and finally added a little water to my pack. A final nature call and we were off running again through the final miles of the race.
Sadly I broke my own rule in these last miles. Knowing that I was be very lucky to hit any time goals I had for the day, I hadn't looked at my watch since the Oasis. When my trail companion asked what mile we were at I wouldn't even look. Instead I said what a runner never wants to hear. I said, I think we are close. I must have said it three or four times. So to the young man who was victim to my cheery chattiness, I'm so sorry. (yes, I talked so much that I didn't even get his name) But we did make our way to that final hill which lead to the most beautiful clearing. The smell of the fire and the grill, the sounds of people talking and the cheers as the began to rise as we broke through the clearing were some of the best things of the day. I dropped my pack and was handed a piece of wood for the final victory lap around the edge of the clearing.
Time didn't matter anymore somewhere in these FOTM miles I found a new love for this course and the people who take part in it and those who support me so that I can be a part of something so special.
It all started with one person telling me, "You can do that." I awoke to a tiny slip of paper. As I tossed the little piece of wood into the fire I thought about how big all these little things really are. Those encouraging words, a tiny note, a simple stick of wood. They all serve such a bigger purpose. Those little things all bound us together as family and friends. That's what FOTM is that other races are not. It's a family of trail runners coming home for a day together in the woods.
Maybe next year you will want to come home too.