During my college years, I was a member of my university’s cross-country and track teams, and even dabbled a little in the sport of Nordic skiing. Some of the greatest friendships I’ve ever had have came from those four years.
For example, in 2004, I traveled to New Zealand to study abroad. While running LTs at cross country practice in the early fall, I told my teammates, and discovered that one of them would be going there, too! Leslie, a senior in geological engineering, had been my lunchmate during my freshman year. Two years later, I was surprised to hear she had also picked the same country, semester, and university to study at. Small world? I helped Leslie find a flat when she arrived to New Zealand, and she helped me find my independence. We navigated all over the South Island with just our hitch-hiking thumbs, bags of oatmeal, and backpacks. She and I had some weird, special bond that we never really knew was there before our six month adventures overseas, but spending rainy nights in a crappy tent or at the pub sure built a strong friendship.
I remember my first “long run” during my first winter in the UP. The older girls on the team took me out on a cold, snowy morning in early November. We headed down the snowmobile trail toward Chassell, and would talk about whatever came to our minds. I remember singing a few Ani Difranco and Jack Johnson songs and feeling this strange euphoria. I was tired as we crested the last hill, but I also felt delirious. Perhaps this was my first real experience of runner’s high… My four years included many more of these long runs, some more chatty than others. We ran 12 miles as fast as we could through a downpour, finishing weighing about five pounds heavier than before (ah, cotton). Some of us were Lahti Road champions, if only for a day, and others were all-time champions of Ripley Guts. One conference meet, the weather was quite unpleasant, and my teammates and I all stood around the finish chute when we were done racing, completely exhausted, and we all had to pee, so we… nevermind.
Anyway, I was one of the younger ones of “the crew.” The eldest graduated, and eventually it was my turn. After I finished my undergrad, I headed west to Montana for a few years to get my master’s degree, but still kept in touch with my former teammates. Some were still there, but most had left the area. Only few had ventured far, mostly just me. And for the first year while I was out west, I felt disconnected from my athleticism. I stopped running consistently for about a year, and was just feeling burned out. By the time I started my second year of grad school, though, I missed my former self. My new roommate was a strong runner, and although plagued with injuries, she had competed in many of the local endurance events including the Bridger Ridge Run, Devil’s Backbone, and Lewis and Clark marathon. She would go to the gym every morning. She’d swim. I decided to make a change in my life, so signed up for my first marathon, the Napa Valley Marathon. I started going with my roommate to the gym, and would run on the treadmill during the cold Montana winter. I ran on a treadmill every day, but with the support and motivation of my determined roommate, it wasn’t so bad. We’d share our favorite songs for our mp3 players, she started to be able to run again. I did the Napa marathon with only a handful of outdoor runs under my belt, and I finished well. I was hooked.
A few months after my marathon, I returned to the UP to start my doctoral degree. There, I met up with a few of my former teammies for the annual Trail Running Festival in Copper Harbor. And it got me thinking…
Run to the top of Mount Baldy in Eagle Harbor, Michigan
Why not use a race as a reunion? I started looking up marathons on the west coast, near Seattle, because I knew my old roommate would be there in the spring for med school. I searched Marathon Guide for a spring race, and convinced her to sign up with me for the Whidbey Island marathon, about 40 miles north of Seattle. My friend, Marc, who had raced Napa with me as his first marathon, too, traveled to Seattle for the Whidbey half. A reunion was set!
And then, the whole thing snowballed. I convinced five of my old teammies and one honorable runner to form the Mega Tough Ultra Chicks. We organized our vacation times, bought plane tickets, and booked rooms in a hostel for a trip the west coast, where we competed last July as the first all-women’s ultra team in the Ragnar Relay Series’ Northwest Passage. And it was an absolutely amazing time.
The MegaToughUltra Chicks! Top row: Kendra, Margot, Leslie; Middle row: Me; Bottom row: Sam and Jess.
Since then, our team has expanded to include more strong women runners, including even more Michigan Tech alumna in the mix. We will be competing in next weekend’s Ragnar Great River relay, and members will be traveling from all over the midwest. And we’ve planted the seed for future relays, including more ultras.
There have been weddings and babies to throw into the planning. Some of us have real jobs, some of us are still in school. Regardless, most of us are still out running our own races, training for something, big or small. Some traveled to Boston to race this spring, and some of us just stuck around the midwest for the lower-key events. Some of us are thinking about doing ultras and triathlons, and others are going to stick with the half-marathons. Regardless, we are our own little networking group, we have each other as our own support crew that we can depend on. This spring, I wanted to visit a friend in Nebraska, so I convinced some old teammies to do a half-marathon and I threw down on the marathon course. It’s like killing two birds with one stone, really, and it’s doing something we all love.
I am so lucky to have such awesome women in my life. I think that this weekend’s excursion with Da Yooper Ladies, and last weekend’s venture to Madison to visit Jess, really helped reinforce how easy it is to make such strong friendships out of shared passions. The edgy competitiveness is completely sidelined by encouragement and motivation. To see one of my friends excel just pushes me to try harder, to seek out new adventures, and to test my limits. I find strength here.