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Racing again on the other side of the pandemic

By on May 23, 2021 in Outdoor Fun with 0 Comments
Marlene runs through a stark, but lovely landscape.

by Marlene Farrell

So many things were taken away this past year. Luxuries like sports were a lesser priority, but it was still tough for endurance athletes like myself. 

Thus, when a race in April was actually happening, the concept felt dreamlike, almost too good to be true.

Were we ready for the risk of congregating for fun? Were race organizers ready for the work and strict structure of health safety measures? And just as important — was I ready to race after a year of running nonchalance? 

I’d still been running, and skiing, for solace from the storm of bad news, and for limited camaraderie in the great outdoors, where droplets evaporate and diffuse and UV light kills the virus.

But I hadn’t trained. Not for this, Ancient Lakes 25k trail race, anyway. Registration had been a last-minute decision. 

In my interconnected world of running friends, I knew five people who were also going to participate. It was beginning to feel like a party. Could this be a celebration of survival? Can we celebrate and still be diligent about health safety?

Two weeks prior to the race, Run Super Series organizers Dan Bucci and Sabrina Seher began sending everyone messages about the course, aid stations and weather, but also protocols for health safety that would affect the race start, aid stations and passing on the trail. 

The race was far enough away to warrant carpooling. Wait, really? For Lucca and me, it made sense; we were both fully vaccinated. That was almost the strangest part. Just prior, I had visited my parents, still masking and sticking to my invisible bubble. Now Lucca and I, friends but not close friends, were shoulder to shoulder in her Subaru.

The race parking and start/finish area, a quarter mile north of the trailhead, was a vast mowed swath in a field of brittle grasses. We could relax in our abundant personal space until it was time to draw together for the start.

We, the first wave of racers, stood by the start line, buffs and masks in position. It took a moment but yes, there were my other Leavenworth friends, recognized by their eyes, hair with COVID shagginess, and their stance. 

Same as at every race start I’ve awaited, I did my unnecessary adjustments to shoelaces, pony tail and watch. We shivered in the shade of the basalt cliffs. The sunny fields lay a tantalizing half mile ahead. 

As the race began, everything fell away, yielding to the moment and my movement through this stark landscape of coulees created by ancient floods. This was lovely in its familiarity. 

Once we emerged into the sunshine, there we stayed for the next hours, the bluish grays warming to brown and pale green lined with silver.

My mask migrated from my face to below my chin to stuffed in my sports bra. Maybe not the most sanitary, but it would do. 

I ran close to a few others, our strides fairly matched. 

However, when we rounded a bend, the wind struck us full in the face. It had been there all along giving me a gentle push. The head-on blast made me try to tuck into their slipstream, but it felt like too much work, so I let them go. It has always made me happy to run my own race anyway. 

The best part was a true falling away of worry, of heavy things. Every day my mind circles around these collective and cumulative tragedies. I find joy in our human striving to repair and make amends. 

Sometimes though I need space and time to breathe. In this case, to absorb the unique place of rock, sand and sage that I’m traversing. A race does that beautifully.

Dan Bucci, assistant race director, acknowledged how race organizing, finally allowed again, has changed due to the pandemic. 

“It’s a moderate amount of extra work,” said Dan. “On the front end, organizing bib lists and assigning wave starts takes a lot more up-front time. There is the stress of regulations that seem to change monthly, and having to keep up with those. The wave starts are a little harder to time.”

Some changes due to COVID-19 will likely stick, including wave start format. “Wave starts make for a lower stress morning as packet pick-up is spread out, and you don’t end up with the ‘trail conga line’ that frustrates runners early in races.” This also avoids racers congesting aid stations or all finishing at once.

“The vibe of most people was excited, and pretty relaxed and not concerned about COVID because this is a pretty spread-out outdoor event,” shared Dan. 

“With our policy of offering future race credits, most people who weren’t comfortable participating in a race were given an option so they didn’t feel like they had to show up. 

“We received a lot of good feedback from runners who felt our COVID controls were appropriate, and they felt safe at the event. Most were thankful to be returning to something that feels like normalcy, and to be able to share the trails with like-minded people at a beautiful venue!”

Throughout the race, geology I did not understand still inspired me. 

We ran to areas of Ancient Lakes I hadn’t ventured in before, along desert trails and up and down rocky stretches below cliffs that stood like fortress walls. The route even snaked above the cool and calm Columbia before climbing back uphill to the finish. 

Afterward, I felt that fuzzy combination of bodily contentment and mental drive for more. 

Which is why I signed up for another trail race soon thereafter! Trail racing is a gift of beauty, challenge, fun and friendship for participants, and I’m grateful for this gift anew.

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