December 5 2017
No matter where an athlete chooses to hit the trails, running remains the sport that can bring people of different backgrounds together.
I’ve been a competitor for my entire life, in part because I was raised by a mother who knew that “good enough” would never truly be good enough for me. As a young girl, my competitive arena was academia. I lived for knowledge and the struggle to be the best. While I wasn’t an athlete back then, I could challenge myself more formally through competitive debate. On and on I went finding more and more things to conquer, until the day I found the unconquerable sport that would change my life.
I was born the oldest of two girls. By the time I was ten, our mother, Jean, was raising us alone in an affluent area while she struggled on a limited income. We were blessed that people in our extended family and in our community saw our struggle. They helped where they could until she was able to live comfortably again. After this period, my mother became dedicated to assisting others whenever she possibly could. If someone needed money and she had it to spare, Jean gave it away. If someone needed their children minded, she mothered them. She has fought for the happiness of so many of her day-home kids over the past 15 years. My mother is a woman who knows that strong women raise other women up. While I have always hoped I had that part of Jean Noseworthy in me, I wasn’t sure I did.
Then came the day that distance running called to me. I have since taken to referring to my propensity for running long as “the distance sickness.” When I originally registered for my first ultramarathon, the Whistler 50 Miler, I felt that I was a strong enough woman to handle it and perhaps even strong enough to bring home a win. I trained hard for Whistler—six days a week, on a shot piriformis. For weeks before race day, I ran with no skin on the bottom of my right foot. In training, I ran the entire 50 mile distance, despite most training plans tapping out around the 37-40 mile mark. I went through every stat on the Whistler for the last several years to see what type of pace I needed run with the big dogs. I suffered to be the best I could possibly be at my ultramarathon debut.
Time flew. In what seemed like moments after registering, I was walking from the hotel to the mandatory race briefing. With me was the best support crew one could ask for: my husband Ben and our rockstar-level friend Nolan. Once I got to the meeting, I met a lovely fellow named Ralf who had just flown in the night before after hiking mountains south of the border for two weeks. I later learned he had actually dominated me on course at Red Deer Marathon earlier in the season,
“Well he’s passing me out the gate,” was all I could muse to myself.
Then I met Nelly, who would change the course of my race. She was at the briefing with her partner and their little boy. They were a sweet looking family that I just knew I wanted to talk to. While we chatted, I thought, “She’s going to be strong out there.”
Eventually, we all plodded out to the start line with lit headlamps and adrenaline to spare. I locked my gaze on a young guy in blue shorts whose calves were absolutely spectacular. I was sure those calves were going to see him to the podium.
At the start, I went out hot, which would surprise exactly zero people who have ever run with me. I rode blue shorts’ heels for a few kilometers in the dark before Nelly showed up beside me. I was really happy to see her. In my mind if another woman was pacing these guys closely, then I had not gone out too quickly. I later found out that Nelly’s marathon PR is 3:05, so I was very wrong in this respect.
Soon, we parted ways and I ran several kilometers in the wrong direction before correcting myself. At that point, I was certain I wouldn’t be seeing Nelly again. As I headed into my third loop of the course, my mom-bladder directed me to the bathroom. There I found Nelly. Her stomach was giving her trouble, and she was suffering. As a track girl extraordinaire, she had never dealt with stomach issues during a race. And in this mountain race, a place I never thought I would be, I channeled the kindness of my mother.
“If you run with me to my drop, I can give you some of my medication,” I said. Maybe someone who was a more hardened competitive runner would have commiserated, but split to take the lead. However in the same way that I was raised to compete, I was also raised to help other people. So we ran, and at intervals walked, until we made it to my drop. Shortly after we realized that, despite both our setbacks, we were still the lead females on course. Nelly and I decided to stay together until a time came that one of us would have to pull ahead of the other. I am so endlessly grateful for that decision.
In the time that Nelly and I ran together, we talked about everything—our kids, her doctoral work, my Aunt Liz’s courageous decision to die with dignity, her parents’ amazing story of immigrating to Canada from the former Soviet Union, my weight loss journey and even how to make yogurt. I had the privilege of running with someone whose skill far surpasses my own. However I also got to connect with another woman in a way you really only experince on the run because running lays the soul bare.
At about 43 miles, my pesky piriformis became very problematic. As we got closer to the final leg, I lost more and more control over my left side and was clearly dragging us both. But Nelly didn’t want to leave me. I realized I wasn’t going to be able to pace her anymore, especially now that she was completely recovered from her earlier issues. So I told her to go get it, while I fell back and ground on. Those gross hills reappeared and I kept climbing, as the woman who had been in third place whizzed past me. I willed the universe to give Nelly the win.
As I neared the 48 mile mark, three things happened. The Naproxen I had taken earlier kicked in enough that my leg was functional, My Brad Paisley running soul song “Some Mistakes” popped up in my Spotify. And finally I saw Nelly, who was waiting to finish the race with me after her win. I started weeping as she told me I was still in the running to place. She backed off so she wasn’t pacing me and I bulleted into the plaza to the finish. I can’t explain the feeling of enormity at the finish of the Whistler 50. It transcended the mind, only to be felt by my heart.
At my debut ultramarathon, less than a year and half from the day I began running, I finished a 50 miler in 8:38:39, placeing third for women and tenth overall. It came as such a surprise. I had expected to be disappointed if I I didn’t win, but I wasn’t upset at all. Supporting another runner’s dream WAS the gold. During this long race, I changed for good. I had managed to live my mothers’ truth as I realized that sometimes we don’t compete to win; we compete to further other people who are in that moment greater than ourselves. When my three daughters are old enough to understand my race at Whistler, I hope to explain to them that in running, as in life, it is not always to our personal advantage to lift other people up, but you should do it anyway.
I hope fellow runners approach everything in the spirit of doing your best, tempered with the knowledge that sometimes your best will extend beyond your own performance. I hope you can appreciate the unique beauty there is in racing with people rather than against them. And I hope more than anything you live Jean’s wisdom, always.