By Henry Howard
I had quite the series of training runs a couple of weeks ago. Lightning, a plunge into a creek and a mysterious bite. But after all those dismal obstacles faded into just memories, I experienced a run that was full of brightness and positive energy.
As I reflected back on those 72 hours of oddities, I recalled one of my favorite but little-known movie lines. It’s from the “grandma” character in the 1989 film, “Parenthood,” describing why she likes the roller coaster.
“It was just so interesting to me that a ride could make me so frightened, so scared, so sick, so excited, and so thrilled all together! Some didn’t like it. They went on the merry-go-round. That just goes around. Nothing. I like the roller coaster. You get more out of it.”
The ups and downs of running
My week — rather three days — of running certainly was a roller coaster.
It started out when I planned to do my 4-miler Thursday morning before work. I had to move my long run from Saturday to Friday due to commitments I had with my employer’s national convention, meaning I needed to do Thursday’s run early so I wouldn’t end up running that night and the following morning.
On Thursday morning, I woke up early as planned. What could go wrong? All I needed was 35 minutes or so.
As I set out, I saw lightning in the distance but ventured out anyway, staying close to home. About 1.5 miles into the run, the heavy rain started. The lightning rapidly approached closer, cutting my run short to 3 miles — technically, 2.97 on my Garmin. I was soaked and a little ticked that I wasn’t able to finish such a short run.
A series of unfortunate events
On Friday, I again woke up early so I could get in my 20-mile run before leaving on my trek to Cincinnati. All went exactly as planned that morning — applied KT Tape, consumed my pre-run Ucan and packed what I needed before driving to the trail.
Then, as I left my house to go to the trails, I saw lightning in the distance again.
I proceeded on and figured I was safe because I would be moving north of the storm. The radar showed that I should experience some rain but it would clear after 45-60 minutes.
When I arrived at the trail head, I got ready to go but something was wrong with my iPod Shuffle, which I regularly run with. I knew its battery had enough juice, but no matter what I did, it would not play. So I dejectedly left it behind, along with my iPhone since I did not have a waterproof casing for it — which turned out to be a very wise move.
I started out — in the dark with a headlamp — and realized the trails were muddier than I expected from Thursday’s rain. About two miles in, I hit the river crossing and realized how much rain we received — the crossing stones were submerged under the swollen river. But no matter, I proceeded through the nearly waist-deep water to the next section of trail.
I made it to the halfway point of that section of trail, where there was shelter and waited a few minutes to make sure it was safe. It had started raining at some point during my run but not too hard. The lightning appeared to be well south of me, so I continued back in the direction where I started.
Becoming one with the river
At this point, I had completed four miles and was feeling good about the next 16.
Roughly two miles later, I encountered the water crossing again — but this time I tripped over a submerged stone and became one with the river. Except for my face and shoulders, everything was soaked — thankfully, my phone and Shuffle were inside my car.
I didn’t mind being wet. After all, it was in the 70s and I would dry soon, even as the final sprinkles of the storm trickled down.
Less than a half-mile later, I felt a sharp pain on my arm. I got bit by something — bee or tick, whatever — and it immediately reddened and swelled. At this point, I
decided to call it a day since I needed to treat the bite, which had not stopped stinging or swelling when I arrived back at my car about 15 minutes later.
After treating my bite, I rearranged my training plan — again — and decided to do my long run Saturday afternoon/evening when I didn’t have any convention-related events on my schedule. It would be rather warm (80 degrees approximately) but the only other option would have been waking up at 3 Sunday morning, running 20 miles and then working a full day. No thanks.
A date with destiny in Devou Park
I was staying in downtown Cincinnati for our convention. It was only about 1.5 miles to any one of a half-dozen bridges spanning the Ohio River and leading into Kentucky. Thanks to Google maps, I found Devou Park, a large-size park in Covington, Kentucky, which was only about 3-4 miles away on the most direct route. I figured that I could head there, run about 10 miles in the park, then head back and finish the mileage before darkness descended.
I took a leisurely path toward Devou Park and reached it just shy of mile 5. I immediately found a dirt path, which was muddy, rock-filled and uphill. I had not bothered to bring trail shoes because of my hastily shortened 20-miler and no realization that I found find a trail close by.
In any case, I switched back and forth between paved and dirt trails for the next few miles. All was well until I attempted to enter another trail section, slipped on the grass and went down.
At this point, the negative demons started messing with my head. If it wasn’t one thing, it was another. Scattering from lightning. Flopping in creeks. Tumbling on trails.
I got back up, restarted my Garmin (of course, I paused it in mid-tumble) and tried to clear my head. I really needed some positive energy. After all, something had to go right. Or something had to provide me a boost.
Soon enough, I saw my something. Er, someone. Er, her.
She was a doe, who paused and looked up as I bounded down the trail. I stopped when our eyes met, long enough to take a photo or two. I hadn’t imagined seeing wildlife such as a deer when I took off on my run from downtown Cincinnati — but there we were. She was exactly what I needed at the time — a wondrous distraction.
After she fled back into the safer confines of the woods, I proceeded with a renewed sense of optimism.
The kindness of a stranger
I left the trail and decided to focus on the paved trails for awhile. A few miles after my encounter with the doe, I saw something else that I did not expect to see.
A mile marker (Mile 11) for a running race.
At this point, it was probably around 6:30 in the evening, and I had not seen a runner nor an aid station or anything else that indicated a race was in progress. I figured the sign was either still up for a race that was held Saturday morning or was in place for one that would be held Sunday morning.
I ventured on, leaving the park briefly, and found a sharp hill to descend then climb back up again. I returned to the park, somewhere around 12 miles and knowing that I needed to find a water fountain to fill up my bottle before leaving the park. I remembered seeing a small building with bathrooms and decided to try to make it back there.
Instead, I saw in the distance an aid station — with volunteers and, best of all, water. As I approached, I was planning to ask one of the volunteers for some water, but I didn’t have to.
“Hey, man, we’ve got water here. Help yourself,” one of them called out to me, as I neared.
That was a welcome relief as I refueled, added my Tailwind mix and scarfed down a packet of fun-size peanut M&Ms. (Hey, I’m training for an ultra, I know what they serve at aid stations. Don’t judge.) It was at this point that I saw my first set of runners, most of whom paused at this aid station, which was set between a set of hills. I cheered them on and then decided to see where they were headed and followed a couple up a hill on the race course.
It turns out the race was the River City Relay, a 15-mile race that began and ended in Newport, Ky., the city directly across the river from Cincinnati. There was a combination of single runners, or teams of two or four people. Each leg was roughly 3-4 miles and had various degrees of difficulty (read: hills), I later learned.
Paying it forward
Inspired by the deer and the dear volunteer, I was in a positive mindset for the first time in many miles over the past three days.
It did not take me long to pass on the good vibes.
Soon I noticed a runner who had stopped, was doing some stretching and looked like she wanted to be anywhere but in the park with a race bib.
“Are you OK,” I asked.
“Everything hurts,” she replied.
I reassured her, saying I know what that’s like, and asked her how much further she had to go. She told me two miles.
“OK,” I said. “Come with me. I’m doing a training run so I don’t care what speed I go. I’ll get you to the finish line.”
It took a minute or two of persuasion but soon we moved on, slowly at first, but then as the conversation continued, we picked up the pace a little bit. We chatted about running, of course — her relay race and goal of running a half-marathon some day, and my preparations for my second ultra.
Soon enough we saw the transition area ahead. “I never thought I’d get here,” she said. As we crossed the area where she would hand off to a teammate, she thanked me way too many times and gave me a hug.
I headed back out, hoping the GPS battery on my phone would last long enough to get me back to Cincinnati. It didn’t but I was able to find my way back without an issue.
Back in my hotel room was when I realized that the grandmother from “Parenthood” was right. I’ll gladly take the roller coaster that’s part of long-distance running. It’s so much more meaningful than the merry-go-around or sitting on the couch.