Part 5: Washing Away

This is the final post in the Washing Away series–the final run–a recounting of the day in 2013 when I had a trail before me on which to lay my tears.

A Trip on the way to Recovery

I’m here to keep my promise to return and make peace with the muddy track I remember as a long, painful path. I recall each mile I slogged through, withholding no sadness as tears mixed with mist and I realized too late I wasn’t ready for the trek.

“I’m glad I chose the five-miler today,” I tell Kate, who finds me at the starting line. “I’m still not sure I’m ready.”

She and I ran the race together last time too, or at least started together. That’s usually the way it is with us. We start together, one or the other of us has a stronger race, and we cheer for each other at the finish.

The course is a loop, so I will cover almost every inch of trail I did the day I didn’t give my grief enough credit.

“You’ll be ready when you’re ready,” she says.

I lose the pull-over as the crowd of fellow competitors and increasing anticipation raises my body temperature.

Race Director Josh projects over the hushed voices of encouragement and shared commiseration.

“Watch out for the roots out there today,” he says. “The snow and rain over the last several weeks have washed out the trails.”

The trails usually prove him right. Today is no different.

Runners doing the ten-miler line up between the Mountain Junkies banners waving in the breeze. I see Doug, who became an avid runner and mountain biker and it changed his life, losing weight and staring diabetes down. He leads the no-runner-left-behind group runs during the week and nearly single-handedly brought trail runners in Roanoke into a cohesive community. Doug even came out for the memorial run/bike we did on David’s birthday five months after his death.

A group of friends, many who also run with the Mountain Junkies, also gathered for a memorial run/ride for my brother on the first birthday following his death (July 26, 2012).

A group of friends, many who also run with the Mountain Junkies, also gathered for a memorial run/ride for my brother on the first birthday following his death (July 26, 2012).

We met at the overlook where David drove the afternoon of March 15, 2012. My family walked down to the trail where he chose to end his life, again wondering why here, there’s nothing here. We prayed together, and I noticed a small stand of four hardwoods creating a ring around one tall tree with a vine wrapped all the way up. The first time I visited the trail the week after his death, I saw the ring of trees and thought about my four siblings and how we rallied around David for so many years. Perhaps the early loss of his twin always surrounded him, supporting him but choking him at the same time like the vine wrapped around the center tree. Perhaps there was nothing we could do to save him.

Several of our Mountain Junkies friends supported our first effort to memorialize a man who was not himself a great outdoorsman. They didn’t know David, and probably would not have met him if he lived, but they understand overcoming adversity and the struggles of life.

In his own way, David, as all of us do, felt the draw intrinsic to anyone born in a place surrounded by mountains. Our hills create the backdrop of life in this town. I’ve always felt a little lost when I can’t look out over the horizon and see a soft Blue Ridge line rolling between the clouds and the cityscape.

The ten mile runners are off, and we await our turn at the starting line.

A group of girls behind us notice the quote on my back. (Read quote in Part 1: Washing Away)

“This is definitely a race I didn’t train for,” one of the girls comments.

Happens every time.

A traditional low-key Mountain Junkies starting line, we gather as Josh gives a few last minute announcements; runners commiserate with each other, lining up somewhere between a tree here and a root there and listening for the revolver to mark the gun time. A few runners huddle near the front, planning to compete for time and wanting to edge each other out before they get onto single track. Most of us find a comfort zone in the middle of the pack and settle in to run our own race.

I like to get in the sweet spot of my run—where I am nearly alone on the trail. Having someone to chase, or a runner pushing from behind can be motivating, but skipping along with only the trail to watch ahead and no one panting or coughing in my ear gives the woods a chance to speak.

On this morning, Kate and I run the first half mile together, across the soggy open grass. By the time the trail narrows and enters the woods, I pull ahead, feeling strong. The trail bends and weaves along the curve of a rolling mountain. In several places, water trickles from unseen sources, bubbling out of a hillside onto outcroppings of moss-covered stones.

This feels like a different place than two years ago. Less extreme. Less intimidating.

Running in front of a small pack of women all pushing a healthy pace, my breath falls in time with my steps. I watch the ground below me carefully enough to know where to place my feet amid roots and rocks, but look ahead enough to see any errant tree limbs threatening my head.

About 20 feet ahead, I see Jennifer. She and I have finished many races neck and neck. She also participated in the memorial run/ride for my brother, and revealed to us that her sister-in-law also struggles with alcoholism and not taking responsibility for her life. Jennifer and I exchange hellos and hugs before or after each race. I always ask how the family is doing. She wears jingle bells on her tennis shoes at every race, and probably has the most fun of anyone at Mountain Junkies’ events.

I catch up to her as s

The trail gives me a place to remember him that has more life, more substance, than a grave and marker.

The trail gives me a place to remember him that has more life, more substance, than a grave and marker.

he spreads her arms wide like eagle wings, sailing around a broad switchback and speeding through an easy descent.

I pass her, panting “Hi Jennifer. Having fun?!”

“Always!”

Today, I want to be the one to cross the finish line first.

When I’m really feeling good in a run, I concentrate only on my breathing and footsteps. When my mind skips ahead to what I’m going to eat for lunch or what I’m going to post about this race on Facebook, I better watch out.

With a runner pressing me up a slight incline, I stretch out my stride and reach forward, landing on the ball of my foot and bouncing quickly into the next step. Arms pulled close, I use the momentum to power through my legs, keeping excess motion to a minimum.

My toe finds an exposed root. My body doesn’t catch on quick enough to stop me from splaying across the trail.

Josh was right about the washout.

Wind knocked from my chest, I try to press on, but quickly realize I’ll be better off if I give myself a chance to recover. Bending over to let the nausea pass, I inspect the heel of my hand and the dirt streak from hip to ankle.

I lost the girl who’d been at my shoulder.

She slowed to check on me before picking up the pace and running on.

“It knocked the wind out of me,” I say. “But, I ‘m fine.”

“Sure it did,” she says. “I’ve done that before.”

I step back on the trail exactly where I want to be, alone. The stumble allows me to stop focusing outside of myself. Recalling my intention to show the trail it can’t get the best of me, I place one foot in front of the other and make up for lost time. I stop thinking about what may happen after I finish and get back to focusing only on forward motion.

Catching up with Jennifer and the group I had been leading, I reclaim my place in the pack.

I feel a humid mist against my burning cheeks and run a parched tongue along dry lips. Budding limbs wave against slate sky, I listen as the forest orchestra shares my favorite avian tune—ched-a-beep. Water trickles under the foot bridge as I traipse across, and an unevenly spaced line of runners weaves along the trail in front and behind me.

I run.

Winding out of the woods feels familiar. Last time, the final mile tortured me as I could hear the crowds at the finish line, but not feel any of their enthusiasm. Today, I dig deep and push hard in the last mile, reaching for the high-five offered by Roanoke’s favorite race director. The clock reads 54:28.05, a time good enough to earn me a second place medal in my age group. Feeling more in the mood to celebrate, I find some cold water to rinse the dirt off my hands and check the scrape on my knee.

I fill a wax lined paper cup up with cold water and drink it down steadily. My parched throat appreciates the attention. The trickle of runners across the finish line picks up, as the first of the 10-milers completes amidst the 5-milers. I make my way to the finish line. Kate comes out of the woods, her purple Camelbak strapped on her back and a smile on her face. I cheer her through the last several yards and she takes a high-five from Josh. Kate’s having a bad running year, as she battles some asthma and high heart rate issues. It took a couple of races, but she’s learning to enjoy the run and not put so much pressure on herself to perform.

“How do you feel?” I ask.

“I had a lot of fun.” She hooks her arm in mine. “Glad it’s over.”

“Me too.”

“Let’s go get some of Dru’s cookies.”

I posted this memoir essay in multiple parts. Thank you to everyone who is represented in this story, as your friendship and kindred sharing of experience adds value to my every moment. Read Part 1, Part 2, Part 3 and Part 4.

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4 Responses to “Part 5: Washing Away”
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  1. […] 26, 2015 and I miss him everyday. The Washing Away Series (see also Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, and Part 5) are pieces of a long essay I wrote about consecutive years running a race as a process in my […]

  2. […] I will post this memoir essay in multiple parts. Thank you to everyone who is represented in this story, as your friendship and kindred sharing of experience adds value to my every moment. Read Part 2, Part 3, Part 4 and Part 5. […]

  3. […] I will post this memoir essay in multiple parts. Thank you to everyone who is represented in this story, as your friendship and kindred sharing of experience adds value to my every moment. Read Part 3, Part 4 and Part 5. […]

  4. […] I will post this memoir essay in multiple parts. Thank you to everyone who is represented in this story, as your friendship and kindred sharing of experience adds value to my every moment. Read Part 4 and Part 5. […]



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