The race took place along the Interurban Trail, the former railway route connecting Marine Park (near the Alaskan ferry terminal) and Larrabee State Park in Bellingham. The fern-lined trail winds along the Chuckanut Mountains under maple and evergreen canopies. While running on densely packed pine needles, gravel, and dark earth I passed a few trickling water falls and could smell wild roses and cedar. Four days of warm weather this week was enough to dry any puddles or muddy patches. Portions of the race overlooked the San Juan Islands in Puget Sound. It was like running through a travel brochure advertising the Pacific Northwest.
I arrived early Saturday morning to check in, pick up my bib number, and meet my running group, Bellingham Fit. Hubbins' hip and knee have still been giving him trouble, so he's been out of commission for the last couple of weeks. I was on my own, but knew a few familiar faces to look for. I parked in a large gravel lot designated for runners; plenty of space to accommodate almost 1300 participants.
Most of the other folks I saw arriving that early were volunteers or advanced runners who used the time before the race for extended warm-ups and tricky looking stretches. I didn't see anyone else wearing water bottles around their waist. I realized seven miles was small potatoes for seasoned marathoners. A little panic crept in. While I scanned the other runners for signs there would be anyone in my pace group, I tripped on a rock and almost rolled my ankle. GAH. Self consciousness springs eternal.
Eventually, I found my group (including walkers and my 12-minute-mile pace buddies) and saw many other hydration belts before we began. Whew.
The starting line was at the same park where Hubbins and I had wedding pictures taken. No green gowns or tuxes this time, nor posing on the rail road tracks. In contrast, I was surrounded by bare legs and neon running shoes.
Reason #1 that I love living in a running-friendly community: race day means seeing a lot of familiar faces. Milling around before and after the race, I saw a pre-school friend I hadn't seen in 28 years, writing group acquaintances who also run, my running hero Cami, and my gynecologist. All around me similar discoveries and reunions were happening. I overheard this sentiment a lot: "Hey, how are you?! Good to see you! You look great!" Encouragement galore.
A train barrelled past us a few minutes before the race began and blew it's whistle for a long time. The starting line was only a few blocks from the train station and there were several hundred of us milling around the tracks.
The whole group began moving forward, promptly at 9:00am. No gun shot or even a shout (at least that I could hear near the back), just heads bobbing away down the street ahead of me.
At the very beginning of the race, before our varying speeds spread everyone out, we ran as a giant clump. It was really invigorating to see all the people ahead of me and around me and to be part of such an inspiring group. Keep in mind, I don't like crowds. I get stressed out in the mall, at the fair, in traffic, or smooshed alongside strangers in most situations. But this was no ordinary crowd. This was a kaleidoscope of humanity doing something healthy and challenging, all enthused about a common experience. I grinned.
I saw a woman my age wearing a Bellingham Fit shirt like mine and a colored tag on her shoe indicating her pace, so I knew she was part of my training group. She was in my line of sight (10 to 20 steps ahead of me) for the first mile, so I made sure to stay close and gauge my pace based on hers.
Reason #2 that I love living in a running-friendly community: all the volunteers cheered us on. There were volunteers stopping traffic as runners crossed side streets, directing runners at forks in the road, and offering Dixie cups of water at aid stations. They were all smiles, shouting encouragement, and telling us we were doing great. One guy even shouted bib numbers to us in personalized praise. "Looking good, 192! Keep it up 437! Way to go 563!" The volunteers clapped and smiled and several runners around me thanked each of the volunteers we passed. It was up beat every step of the way. Especially for those of us taking up the rear, it was really helpful to hear all that positivity.
A speed walker was in front of me for the first mile and a half, and I finally passed her near the 2nd mile mark (rather discouraging that it took so long). But I felt good and knew I would wear myself out if I ran any harder that early in the game. I reminded myself not to hit the ground with my feet, but just massage the trail with each foot fall. I thought of Carol Frazey's running instruction last fall, and her mantra, "Quick quick quick!" Small, fast steps put less strain on my knees and kept me light on my feet. I pictured myself performing shiatsu massage, as if the trail was the earth's spine and my feet were working deep tissue.
Reason #3 that I love living in a running-friendly community: every familiar location was nostalgic. The route went through the neighborhood Hubbins' and I lived in at our first apartment. It was the same stretch of trail where I ran my first mile (my little running journal is dated 8/19/2008: "Emily's first mile!"). We ran past my favorite hiking trail where I spent time with friends in high school, brought out of town visitors to see the local landscape, and went on outdoorsy dates in my early twenties. We ran along the same route where Hubbins and I took a long walk when we first started hanging out. We lost track of time, ran out of daylight, and had to call his mom to come pick us up (who I met for the very first time that day. Little did I know she would my mother in law and friend!).
The first hill of the race was a steep decline. A woman in her late sixties was running to my left, and as we sped up and our strides lengthened, I turned to her and said, "This is when gravity is my friend." She agreed and said her friends had warned her that this route had several more hills coming up (though I doubted they were warning her of the downhill portions). She said, "I told them 'OK! As long as we're out here, we'll take it as it comes!'" I agreed and grinned.
Just before the halfway point was the first big incline (the running club had warned us all to not even try running up it). I slowed to a walk at the same time as the fellow Bellingham Fit member whose pace I had been matching from the beginning. She made eye contact and said, "Good job!" I told her I loved her pace. We trudged up the hill together and then ran the rest of the race side by side.
We didn't talk much, but it made such a big difference to simply be next to someone while running. I don't know if it's because I'm female, or because relational connection is what makes any experience meaningful to me, or if it's because I'm a newbie and need encouragement. But the chemistry (for lack of a better word) kept me running. I had a friend.
We didn't introduce ourselves until later. We just ran. She apologized for not saying more, she was too tired to talk. "Me too," I said.
A mile or so later four women passed us (all wearing T shirts advertising previous marathons). As soon as they were out of ear shot, I confided in my new running partner: "One good thing about being in the back is checking out the calves of everyone who runs faster. It's good motivation!" She agreed. I ogled every set of calves that out-paced me and imagined the day my own legs will have that definition.
We chatted during the last two miles, feeling good about nearing the end. I asked her if she'd run the course before (yes, last summer). I asked if this was her first time in Bellingham Fit (no, her second year). I asked if she completed the half marathon last year (yes, running and walking). She explained she's lost some weight since last year, and feels better prepared this time around. She said she's also registered for a half marathon in December in Vegas, which she said was good incentive to train (a couple of nights out of town, running with her husband and without kids at a vacation destination sounded like great motivation to me).
The final stretch of the course was downhill, so we picked up our pace to cross the finish line. There were a bunch of people gathered, cheering and clapping. It felt epic. The clock read one hour and 29 minutes as we passed the chip timer. We gave each other high fives, and then, finally, introduced ourselves.
Her name is Kelly.
Reason #4 that I love living in a running-friendly community: new friends are easy to come by. Even if Kelly and I don't become BFFs or spend time together in the future, our seven mile friendship made all the difference to me.
I'm proud to say I'm a runner, but even without any association to social status, fitness level, or a form fitting wardrobe, the discipline of running is improving my life.
Reason #5 that I love living in a running-friendly community: races are fun. One sign you may have reached the point where running is enjoyable is that you can't stop grinning.
I smiled all seven miles.