Report by Jeanne Christie
The ninth running of the Women's Distance Festival Half Marathon Trail Run will remain an memorable event for many of the participants and volunteers. We ran, and cried and laughed together. It was the first year it was an all-women's race. It was the first year of the Frito Lay pretzel challenge-where women ran the last 3.5 mile leg of the course carrying a full-size bag of pretzels. It was the first year anyone sang at the third aid station for a pair of opera tickets. It was the first time we had a push-up contest. It was a glorious September day and the air was cool, the sky was blue and the world "looked" perfect.
But it wasn't perfect. The race was preceded by a week that no one will ever forget. On September 11 hijacked commercial jets destroyed the World Trade Center in New York and crashed into the Pentagon in Washington, DC. On a fourth jet passengers overcame terrorists aboard their plane and crashed into the Pennsylvania countryside. In total, it was a terrorist act of unprecedented magnitude on American soil. On Wednesday race directors were weighing whether to hold the race or not. Would women want to run on Saturday? Should the race be postponed? We concluded that in three days many people would be ready and in need of the opportunity to be together. In addition, it seemed appropriate to stand up and face what happened and at the same time demonstrate that Americans were capable of grieving for the terrible losses incurred and simultaneously taking on the challenge of continuing to live and act. The race was on.
Half of the 203 runners who signed up for the race had never run a trail run before. Race day instructions included cautions concerning the difficulty of the trail, and the potential for falls as well as injuries. Runners were also introduced to the rules for the Frito Lay Challenge. Frito Lay, a race sponsor, had sent an abundance of pretzels. Five bags would be delivered to the third aid station and five runners who asked for a bag and carried the bag 3.5++ miles to cross the finish line would receive a free gift certificate for a pair of running shoes from Ryka, a race sponsor. There was one condition. The bag of pretzels could not be returned. The runner had to keep it. One of the volunteers suggested that the runner be required to eat the entire bag before reaching the finish line as well, but this suggestion was ignored due race management's concerns about the high sodium levels likely to result in the squirrel population living adjacent to the trail where, no doubt, the runners would distribute the pretzels.
Runners were also encouraged to wear the ribbons handed out in recognition of the week's events. John Dodds, who works in the Pentagon, had called Thursday to find out if ribbons were going to be handed out to race participants to wear in recognition of the tragic losses earlier in the week. Finding there were no such plans, John went down to the nearest fabric store and purchased ribbon and pins to make 235 ribbons to pass out to runners and volunteers. Gordon Smith, another volunteer, called a day later with the same suggestion and Gordon volunteered to go the next step by putting together the information and sign up sheet for Red Cross donations race day. In addition runners that did not enter the race could indicate by e-mail that their registration fee should be forwarded to the Red Cross. Anstr Davidson hung an American Flag as he marked the trail race day. At the end of the pre-race announcements everyone shared a moment of silence. Runners and volunteers sang the club song "Happy Trails" together to say farewell to 1000's of people who would never come home. Many wept silently. It was a moment of shared grief. It was a scene that has been repeated across America many times in recent days.
But the runners had come to race, to run hard together and put their hearts into a sport that is a source of inspiration and fun as well as solace in troubled times. This year's field of runners included two strong sub 2:00 finishers from previous years. Jessica Heiner who won the race in 1999 and Michele Burr who placed fifth in 2000. They would continue with strong performances this year.
The race started with a run on the grass around the outside of the parking lot to spread out the field, and then the runners crowded onto a narrow dirt trail. The double out and back course is a tough, hilly run and the first half in particular consists of short steep upgrades followed by similar downhills -- "turbo hills" as they were termed by more than one runner. By the time runners reached the second aid station at approximately six miles, the field had stretched into single or double runners or small clusters of three or four as the constant hills dragged at legs and lungs. "This is a very tough course!" was a common and heartfelt remark for first time entrants. A number of falls had produced scrapes and bruises on a number of the women. Jessica, determined to repeat her 1999 victory reached the second aid station first at 49:36 followed by Michele 25 seconds later. She was trailed by Sally Higgins 49:33 and Mindy Reese 50:01 and Victoria Grieve 50:44.
There was one casualty by the first aid station where a runner had fallen and received a deep cut on her knee. She was bandaged and returned to the start to be transported to a local hospital for stitches. She was in good spirits and very disappointed that she had to drop out. She had plenty of energy to finish the race she said, but could not continue after her fall.
There would be few other runners who dropped. The second aid station is located approximately at the halfway point of an approximately half marathon course. There has been considerable debate over what the exact length of the half marathon trail run is, but no one has suggested that it could possibly be less than 13.1 miles. In fact estimates range from 13.5 to 14.5. Since its never been measured this is all purely speculative. However, the runners by this time knew it was long, it was hard, it was a whole lot of fun, and by the three-quarter mark at the third aid station, they were tired.
About 1.5 miles into the woods on the second out and back, Danny McConnell and his daughter worked with other volunteers on the "auxiliary aid station." Danny was pulled out of the crowd of spectators in 2000 and more or less ordered by the race director to work this aid station. He had so much fun that he returned with his daughter, card table, signs and extra snacks for 2001. The signs stated how much mileage was left going each way. They waited to cheer Patty McConnell, wife and mother as she ran the course for the second year.
At the third aid station Jessica 1:21:47 was holding on and strengthening her lead with Michele following 1:23:10. Jessica had come with a goal of finishing 1:52. She crossed the finish line 1:52:13 and bettered her first place time in 1999 by two minutes. She was followed by Michele at 1:55:30, running four minutes faster than 2000. Mindy placed third overall, 1:55:40 and Sally was fourth at 1:55:58. Both Mindy and Sally improved their places and times substantially from 2000 finishing cutting 15 minutes off last year. Monika Bracken at 1:58:10 and Victoria Grieve at 1:58:33 rounded out the field of sub two-hour finishers.
As the runners emerged from the woods and ran the last 200 yards to the finish line, spectators eagerly awaited the first of the Frito Lay contestants, who gained the title "bag" ladies. They didn't wait long. At 2:14:25 and in 22nd place overall Susan Baehre burst out of the woods carrying a bag of pretzels. She was closely followed by Catherine Payne with her pretzel bag clutched firmly in two hands. Later Andrea Rees and Kathy Tieu would cross the finish line carrying their respective bags to win the pretzel challenge.
Discussions with the "bag" ladies revealed a major consideration running through the woods with the pretzel bag was trying not to fall while carrying it. Multiple falls were not uncommon for many of the runners that day, and the pretzel runners did not want to deliver damaged goods. One runner planned to hand her bag over to her kids, explaining "they'll eat anything."
It was difficult to determine who was having the most fun Saturday-volunteers or runners. Volunteers and spectators were impressed by the camaraderie and sportsmanship displayed by the runners. Second Aid Station captain Joe Malinowski noted in an e-mail after the race that "Quite frankly, I never saw such an enthusiastic, focused and fun group. At most mixed-gender races from 5K, 10K, half-marathon, marathon to "whatever" you'll see the so-called sprint to beat whatever runner(s) are near as they approach the finish line. I did not see one lady do that. Pure class on their part!"
Another volunteer Joe Saraniero noted that the underlying sense of camaraderie he observed was exceptional. "Women who are total strangers seem to make a friend and a running partner right in the parking lot before the start of the race at speed exponentially faster than I have ever seen other folks accomplish. They realize the benefits of sharing the experience and their strengths to finish. This is incredible considering more than half are first time trail runners."
At the awards the top three winners received medals and silk paintings by Race Director Jeanne Christie. The borders of the pictures included quotations from runners in previous years describing their motivation for running. Jessica also received a certificate for a race outfit from sponsor Moving Comfort. Ten-year age category winners received gift certificates from Metro Run and Walk.
The awards ceremony was held at the finish line while the last 10 runners were still on the course. As each of the final runners emerged out of the woods, the entire field of runners stood on their feet and cheered them in the last stretch. In addition to the age categories awards were given for most blood, dirtiest runner, etc. Opera tickets went to Laurel Easterson and friend who had sung Happy Trails at the third aid station. As the award ceremony neared its end, Co-Race Director Colleen Dulin discovered there was one last gift certificate for a pair of Ryka Running Shoes. She announced that it would be given to the woman that did the most push-ups. Approximately 20 women lined up on the ground and began doing push-ups to Colleen's count. At 50 push-ups 5-6 women were still pushing, at 65 it was down to Mary Campbell, age 23 and Lucia Davidson, age 55. At around 79 push-ups Mary won the competition.
Afterwards runners said farewell to new and old friends. Happy, tired, bruised and sore they left for home or other destinations. The signs and banners were pulled down and cars were loaded. It was still a glorious September day and the air was cool, the sky was blue and, in that moment, the world was perfect.
The Virginia Happy Trails Running Club would like to once again thank our national and local sponsors who supported our event so generously this year. They included the Road Runners Club of America, Runners World Magazine, Moving Comfort, Avon, Rykä Shoes, Metro Run & Walk, Frito-Lay, Hammer Gel, Don Pablo's Restaurants, and GU Energy Gel (GU's give-a-ways did not make it to the race due to delays in mail the week of the race). Also thanks to Lorraine Aprile of The Last Tangle in Washington, D.C.
And we couldn't accomplish this race without the wonderful volunteers who donate their time and enthusiam to make this race a success each year. This year we thank the following folks (if anyone is left out, send an e-mail to ensure he or she is included!)
And to everyone, until next year -- Happy Trails!
Personal Note from Co-Race Director Jeanne Christe. I have been co-directing this race for eight of the nine years that the race has been put on by VHTRC, and I can not imagine enjoying this event more than I did this year. Everyone who has sent me an e-mail or spoken to me has expressed her delight in participating in the event as well. I am grateful for our national and local sponsors who provided great prizes and freebies this year as well as our outstanding volunteers. I want to thank each of the runners who participated in the event.
Good bye until next year!
The Decision to Proceed
In a letter posted on the VHTRC website the club stated "it is the goal of terrorists to create an atmosphere of terror, helplessness and paralysis among the U.S. population. We do not want to support their goals by canceling or postponing the race." We would have a moment of silence and fly the American Flag. It would be a small act, but for us it would have meaning. Many race participants forwarded notes of support and encouragement.
Thanks to the generosity of many, donations to the Red Cross totaled $1378. We received $178 in cash donations for the Red Cross and $1055 in checks. The cash included the proceeds from t-shirt sales which the club is donating to the Red Cross. Additionally, the VHTRC donated the entry fees of those who said ahead of time that they could not come and wanted their entry fee so allocated. Letter to the Red Cross. Here are the names of those who donated. Many donated anonymously. If you donated and want to add your name, please e-mail Anstr. If you want to make a donation, you can do so directly to the Red Cross