On May 21, I got the privilege of running with my Mom and Sister as they completed their first marathon! I want to shout it on the rooftop but I have a blog so I’ll shout it on the internet instead: GUYS! TIFFANY AND MY MOM RAN A MARATHON!!!!
Running a marathon would have been accomplishment enough but they stepped it up a notch and ran a trail marathon with 2,500 feet of climbing, a thigh-deep water crossing, lots of lizards and even a snake (albeit a tiny one)! The run did not involve crying, vomiting, or drama of any sort. In fact, Mom’s “low point” was just a few miles of quiet running in the early miles and Tiffany didn’t even have a low point at all. They spent a lot of time on the trails training hard for this and it paid off!
Somehow, filling a minivan to max capacity on a multi-state road trip ended up being one of the most fun and (mostly) comfortable road trips I have ever been on. The trip included my Mom, my Dad, my pregnant sister Hannah, my older sister Tiffany, her husband Jeremy, and Tiffany’s friend/adopted-family-member Heather. I was the last to join the group and just before I got in the van, Dad laughed and said, “It’s a madhouse in there!” I soon found out that he was kind of right as we laughed more than any sane family would have.
My family is weird because we actually like being around each other and Heather’s vibrant, energetic personality fits right into the mix. At this point she has come to numerous family get-togethers, she likes our family’s 7-layer jello, she is one of us now. With the addition of someone who is as close as family but without the backstory we had an excuse, nay an obligation, to share embarrassing moments and funny stories from years past.
All of our plans and reservations were arranged by Tiffany beforehand and I think my family agrees that she makes a great travel agent. Thanks to her we visited the St. Louis Arch and, for even more of those nostalgic feels, the Old Spaghetti Factory. While we were at the Arch, we ended up in line in front of a life-of-the-party type, he offered to take our picture and laid on the ground beneath us directing us this way and that. I noticed he was wearing a marathon shirt and hat so I had to brag on my Mom and Tiff. He told us in story telling fashion that Mom and Tiffany would soon be joining the less than 1% of Americans who have run a marathon. He likened a person’s first marathon to a true love’s first kiss, “You’re nervous at first but if you do it right, you’ll want to do it again and again!”
Morning Of The Race
As great as the race went, Tiffany’s morning did not start with butterflies and rainbows. She went into the trip with plantar fasciitis and a recently discovered bone spur (which despite possibly being the source of her pain, she will excitedly point out that it is shaped like a shark tooth). Her physical therapy tape had come off and she was having a difficult time replicating it with the drug-store brand tape. And to top it all off, the shower in her room tried to boil her alive. So yeah, she was a little cranky.
Having learned our lesson from Jeremy’s race, we left early enough that the drive itself wasn’t stressful, even when we lost service and the GPS thought it best to take us on the back-roads tour. When we got to the race start at the Berryman Campground, we were able to get checked in and put on our race bibs with plenty of time to spare. It was a beautiful, blue-sky type of morning and I was looking forward to it. I was slightly worried that we would all die of heat exhaustion and the million other things that could go wrong, but mostly I was happy that it somehow wasn’t pouring (see every race I ran last year).
After some lighthearted joking and hugs all around, we found ourselves joining the group of runners at the start. We talked with a dad and his 18 year old daughter and learned that it would be her first marathon too. Now typically in a trail race the race director will give some important instructions before the race start and you have to pay close attention to hear over all the people talking. Well apparently we were the annoying talkers because suddenly everyone began running, including us! This was really happening!
We were able to run side by side for the first bit as the race started with a quarter mile out-and-back on a gravel road, effectively thinning out the crowd before hitting the narrow trail. It was interesting to catch a glimpse of the other runners and I happily observed that, despite this being their first marathon, Mom and Tiff didn’t look out of place at all. Within just five minutes we were passing back through the campground with our crew cheering excitedly. Since we missed the countdown at the start, this felt like the true start of the race. We passed through the start/finish banner (shortest race ever!) and made our way to the Berryman Trail, on which we would stay for the remainder of the race.
Once on the single track, we shuffled around trying to figure out who would go in front. Mom had Tiff had done a lot of training together but this was the first time all three of us had run together. Despite my protests, they shooed me to the front and I awkwardly tried to settle into a conservative pace that would work for all of us. It was a little slower than Tiffany would have liked, but honestly Tiffany could have gone faster the entire race if she had wanted.
We introduced ourselves to a similarly paced man behind us (hey Jason!) and let him know he could pass us at any time. He assured us that our pace was just right and joined us until somewhere around mile 4, when we said goodbye as we stepped off trail for the first of several potty stops. The fact that Mom and Tiff were able to nonchalantly pee in the woods was evidence enough that they had put in their trail time. When we got going again I tried to get a feel for how they were doing and they further proved their ruggedness. “It’s pretty rocky, huh?” Mom shrugged candidly, “It’s not any worse than what we’ve trained on.” I prodded further, “Well.. what do you think about these hills?” Tiffany laughed, “What hills?” Tiffany has hiked and run over 250 miles in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park with the goal of hiking every trail in the park (900 total miles) and her time there has certainly paid off. I knew that they had been training hard, putting in more mileage than me in fact, but it was really starting to sink in that Mom and Tiff were real live trail runners now.
In the course of their training, Mom observed that Tiffany always ran faster in the final two miles. Runners often use the phrase “to smell the barn” to describe this phenomenon. From wikipedia, “Smell the barn: idiomatic verb; To experience heightened anticipation or to act with renewed speed or energy as one approaches a destination, goal or other desired outcome, like a livestock animal at day’s end returning to its barn” During the race, each aid station was Tiffany’s personal barn, and she would run with a little extra pep in her step when we got within a mile or two of the prize. (Did I really just compare my sister to a livestock animal?) With an aid station every 3-5 miles, she never really lost that energy, even up until the end of the race. Or, to continue with the metaphor, you could say she was rearing to go the entire time. (I need to stop).
Getting closer to the first aid station, Tiffany took the front with Mom behind her which allowed me to take a step back and enjoy watching their adorable dynamic in action. Tiffany would announce various statistics about the run and give suggestions like, “Ok Mom, we’re going to pick up the pace after that tree.” Mom would generally follow along then lip back or groan begrudgingly, always with a smile behind it. I asked mom if she listened to Tiffany and she sassily responded, “I listen.. but I don’t do what she says!”
Tiffany told us we should be reaching the aid station at mile 5.5 soon and even though we couldn’t see it through the woods, we arrived after just a few more turns of the trail. I had previously envisioned that I would be super helpful and run ahead to fill their bottles like they did for me at Pinhoti. What actually happened is that by the time I had filled my own bottles, bragged on them to the aid station workers and shoved food in my face, they had already done the same and it was time for us to head out. At some point later on, I mentioned out loud that I was getting hungry and Tiffany gave me an electrolyte gel. That’s right, Tiffany was taking care of me during her first marathon.
Back on the trail, Tiff took the front again and I fell in behind her at mom’s bidding. We were pleased with our time and we focused on the fact that we would get to see our crew at the very next aid station! As Tiffany and I talked, I started to notice that Mom had stopped being so sassy and was mostly just running quietly. There are times in a run when silence is restorative and peaceful but this didn’t seem like one of those times. So, I read a Bible verse.
“Hebrews 12:1 – Let us run with endurance the race God has set before us”
My voice cracked as I read it. I anticipated that there would be low points but imagining my mom being in pain so soon in the race threw me off guard. “Pull yourself together, Chelsie,” I thought. This all sounds really dramatic considering she wasn’t even being outwardly cranky but my mom told us later that she was in a low point, and even after hearing the Bible verse she thought to herself, “Is this even God’s will for me to run this, or is it my will?” It’s both laughable and admirable to think that her biggest wall was just a few miles of stoic running but it shouldn’t have surprised me at all. She had even told me multiple times that she typically feels good for the first several miles, then everything starts to hurt until the halfway point when she starts to feel good again. Spoiler alert: that is exactly what happened.
During this time, Tiffany and I were talking about all colors of the conversation spectrum when it struck me as odd just how normal this all was for her! She even mentioned running future races including the very difficult Cumberland Trail 50k. Let me tell you, people don’t do that sort of thing during their first marathon.
Tiffany started picking up the pace as we approached the aid station at mile 9, this time going even faster knowing that we would get to see our crew. On the final hill I was glad to stay back with Mom rather than having to keep up with Tiffany. As Mom and I climbed the hill at a more reasonable rate, I heard our cowbells and started running faster too! Call me sappy but my husband and kiddos decorated those cowbells and it was like they were there cheering for us. We were greeted with the wide smiles of our crew, their energy was seriously invigorating! We gave a quick update, I shoved some food down my gullet, Dad threatened to chase me with the pickles and then off we went!
Tiffany and I happily laid out the stats as we ran: the next aid station would be at mile 13, the halfway point! Mom joined in the excitement momentarily, “Wow, halfway?!” Then, “Wait a sec.. Is that a good thing?” We laughed and I chided in singsong that we weren’t allowed to think about how far was left but how far we had come. “Oh ok…” Mom said with an eyeroll. Sassy Mom was making a comeback!
Around this stretch that we passed a large group of backpackers. Passing them was awkward because it also happened to be on what was probably the longest hill of the day with multiple switchbacks. Tiff blazed on but Mom and I tried to tuck back behind some of the backpackers. They urged us on ahead offering words of encouragement and we pressed on tiredly for our ego’s sake.
Mom’s energy levels had been steadily improving and by the time we reached the next aid station, the volunteers said we all looked too happy to already be halfway done. I bragged on my ladies some more and then we left for the next aid station where we would see our crew again! Remember that I said Mom normally starts feeling better around the halfway point? Well, not too long after leaving the aid station she took the lead, jumping rocks and roots like a gazelle. I slowed momentarily to video just how zippy she was and had to sprint to catch up. In fact, before I could catch up I thought I saw a snake in the path and yelled out, “Mom! Stop!” Thank goodness it was just a root because she was so far ahead that she didn’t hear me and stepped right on it.
Ecclesiastes 9:10 – Whatsoever thy hand findeth to do, do it with thy might
Earlier in the race, Tiff had mentioned that she was worried about how she would do after mile 16, the farthest she had ever gone on foot in a day. With that knowledge, I planned a little surprise party to reframe the point of worry into something fun (and I just so happened to have a few party supplies packed for such an occasion)! When Tiffany announced our distance, I whipped out a party blower and awarded them each a plastic “medal” for their achievement.
If I had thought to bring some cake the party might have lasted longer but we had a river to cross! We waded across the thigh deep water, soon entering the Brazil Creek Campground where we heard the glorious cowbells along the short stretch to the aid station and our amazing crew! Heather danced like a beautiful Tazmanian Devil with cowbells, Hannah documented, while grinning ear to ear, Dad checked in with Mom and Jeremy checked in with Tiffany. I saw the port-a-potty and announced, “Hey! A real-live bathroom!” The aid station volunteer raised his eyebrows and said, “Is that what you call that?!” I laughed, “We’re trail runners, we have low standards”.
Before we headed out, Heather warned us that we would have a short stretch on the road before turning back onto the trail. Mom is normally great at navigating but running apparently makes that part of her brain turn to mush and anytime there was a split in the trail, Mom’s first inclination was to go the wrong way (even when there were literally signs with a big red X and the words ‘wrong way’). As we headed out, Mom somehow ended up in front and Tiffany and I just followed like sheep as we crossed the road instead of turning onto it. Tiffany thankfully caught the error within a minute and we turned back, slightly unsure at first until we saw our crew drive past. It could have been so much worse!
Our crew car cheered us on as they passed and stopped at the top of the hill to point us in the direction of the trail. Heather did another cowbell dance which was a hilarious source of entertainment. How could we be cranky with a crew like ours? They were self proclaimed “fun enforcers” and they were doing great at it. We got back on the trail and Heather sprinted after us with her cowbells swinging. Just 4 more miles until we’d see our lively crew again and then we would only have one more aid station until the finish!
We had been seeing (and hearing) lizards throughout the race but somewhere in this section Tiffany pointed out a snake on the trail so small that even Mom wasn’t afraid of it! Or maybe Mom was too tired to care at this point. Either way, I didn’t know it was possible for Mom to see a snake and not freak out.
Not too long after this we got passed by the first place 50 mile runner who, more than 40 miles into the race, was going at such a good clip that he had his pacer biking behind him to keep up. We stepped off trail and cheered him on in amazement. Soon after we saw a hiker headed toward us who said, “You must be Tiffany, Chelsie and Lynette!” Our crew had been bragging on us all day so I figured he had recently met them as he hiked past the aid station. What was strange was that he then turned around and joined us as we climbed the hill. I considered that maybe he was being polite and didn’t want us to slow down to talk with him. He told us that the last female runner thought he was a creeper until she realized that he was a volunteer (and that’s when I also realized he was an aid station volunteer)! The nice volunteer with the strange greeting process led us to the familiar sound of cowbells and the smiles of our crew and the aid station workers happily filled up our bottles. The next time we would see our crew we would be crossing the finish line and that was only 6 more miles to go!
Mom and Tiff headed out and I told them I’d catch up while I was supposedly trying to remove a tick from my bellybutton. I actually did have a tick problem but what I was really doing was having Heather load an air-horn in my bag, just one more way for me to be ridiculous. The air-horn stuck out awkwardly so I ditched the idea and left in a scramble with Heather once again chasing me onward, cowbells swinging wildly. And then Heather fell. The good news is that she didn’t get seriously hurt so you can enjoy the fact that Hannah got it on video. It is a glorious video (sorry for the potato quality).
Not long after I caught up with Mom and Tiff, we saw someone up ahead, the first marathoner we had seen in 15 miles! We didn’t start the race with any competitive intentions.. but Tiffany and I were definitely excited that we were actually going to pass someone! Mom was not motivated by that thought in the slightest but she tagged along as we picked up the pace. As we got close enough to pass, we made sure he was doing ok and exchanged a few nice words. When we passed, I secretly hoped that we could hold our ground for the rest of the race which we did.
As we climbed up a long hill 22 miles in, I pulled out another secret weapon: pom-poms! I intended to use them to cheer Mom and Tiff up during any low points but since that never really happened, I felt a hill was as good a time as any. “BIG G, little o, BIG G, little o, Gooooooo G!” “Be Aggressive. B – E – Aggressive. Gooooo Team!” They thought it was cute. I was aiming more for funny but either way we were having fun!
Phillippians 4:13 – I can do all things through Him who strengthens me
Just before the last aid station, the 2nd place 50 mile runner passed us looking tired but still plugging along. I did some more family bragging at the aid station and then we headed out for the final 2.5 miles to the finish. We were giddy about at how well everything had been going and how little we had left. Twenty four miles in Mom said, and I quote, “I can’t believe I’m saying this, but I’m actually having fun!”
As we power-walked up a hill, the 3rd place 50 mile runner tucked in behind us, happy for a walk break. We insisted he pass us, putting him in that awkward position where he had to start running again in order to make any ground. He pushed himself onward and jokingly asked us to hold all of the other runners back for him (and since no one else passed us, we did just that)!
Running It In With Team Sassy Pants!
The final miles were a combination of felicity and fatigue! We were checking the mileage at every turn so in my best mom voice I scolded, “Remember kids, a watched pot never boils!” To which Mom responded in her no-nonsense way, “They do boil, it just seems like it takes longer. So are we there yet or what?” When Tiffany gave the good news that we only had ½ mile to go, Mom retorted, “I don’t want to hear that!” Tiffany turned around and gave her a dirty look. I was loving it!
Getting closer, Tiffany called out, “Quarter mile left! Let’s run to the finish!” Mom jokingly whined, “Do I have to??” We heard a car and knew we must be close! We turned the corner to see our crew cheering us on, the finish line just a short stretch away! Cowbells never sounded so good!
We finished hand in hand with Mom and Tiff dragging me in (a joke that was lost on our audience). We crossed under the finish banner grinning ear to ear. It had been a great day.
I’m proud to say that my family is full of strong and sometimes sassy marathoning women! My mother-in-law Betty ran a marathon in 2004 and now 3 out of 4 of the women in my immediate family have done so (my other sister is 30 weeks pregnant but she hopes to complete a marathon in the future and now it’s in writing so she can’t back out now). And, with no prodding from me, my sister-in-law Christy and my niece Caitlyn expressed that they would like to run a marathon this fall! Can’t wait to see what the future holds.
Congratulations again to Mom and Tiffany for their hard work and accomplishment! And one last shout-out to Dad, Jeremy, Hannah, and Heather for being the most supportive and fun crew anyone could ever ask for. This was an awesome experience for us all and I am glad I got to share it with my amazing family.
In sum, BEST RACE EVER.