Four for Ben – UltraCentric, Seattle, Tucson, Tallahassee Ultra

#1: UltraCentric, Grapevine, Texas, November 20-23, 2014

In the face of death, we tend to reassess what is important to us. Our son Ben, only 25 years old, died on November 8. On my calendar, planned months and months in advance, were several races in several different states, and these were to set to take place just a few weeks following Ben’s death and memorial service. My preference was to cancel all these trips and hole up in my house, hibernating in bed under the covers, during those initial weeks of grieving. Friends and family members convinced me to stick to my original schedule, primarily because walking long distances has always been my preferred way to deal with stress and anxiety. I was certainly feeling stressed and anxious now, more so than at any other time in my life. As a result, my husband and I decided to do try the first race on my calendar, see how it went, and then decide whether to do the remaining races on a case-by-case basis.

We also decided to dedicate each of these four races to Ben’s memory. All of them were repeats so I am not going to emphasize our travel plans in these reports – where we stayed and what we ate – because most of that information did not really change much since our previous visits and had been mentioned in my earlier posts. In any case, the reason for these trips was not to travel and race but to work through emotional pain and torment in a way that usually works for me.

Our first trip after Ben’s passing was the UltraCentric 72 hour in Grapevine, Texas. To us, this was almost like visiting family and coming home. I’ve done the 48 hour and 72 hour versions in previous years and we know many of the other participants as well as Robert, the RD, his girlfriend, Shelley, her mom Celia, and Steve, the timekeeper. My intention was to walk the 2 mile loop for whatever time and distance felt comfortable. If I only managed 2 miles, so be it. I had no goals, distance or otherwise, except to try to come to grips with the tragedy of Ben’s death. The natural stark beauty of the area would lend itself perfectly to communing with nature. Since I was doing the 72 hour race, I started with fewer than a dozen other people, so I had plenty of solitary time to think, cry, and meditate, especially during the dark evening hours, but many of the participants that first day were friends who lent me their ears and their shoulders and prayers. Thank you, Angela, Terrie, Jerry, Trent, Robert, Steve, Shelley, and Celia, for being there for me that first day and night.

The second day was busier, with people beginning their 48 hour race. Once again I saw a number of familiar faces. The third and final day was even busier as 12 and 24 hour people joined us.  I met up with Matt, his wife Rebecca, and their 4 beautiful daughters.  I met Rob, an extremely fast race walker from Oklahoma, who was attempting his first ultra. He was in great form, flying through the 2 mile loop to rack up well over 50 miles in 12 hours. At my best, it had taken me 12 ½ hours to do just 50 miles so I was completely in awe. I was pleased to be able to walk a lap or two with him as he was warming up. Although I had hoped to receive some kind of sign or symbol during the race that would reassure me that Ben was now at peace, I did not find that to be the case. What I did find was a warm and welcoming environment that allowed me space to grieve. Walking 126 miles during this event was cathartic and therapeutic. Getting out of town helped as well. We returned home ready to try and face our first Thanksgiving without Ben, a monumental task.

#2: Seattle Marathon, Washington State, November 30, 2014

I came very close to canceling this trip. I was tired, of course, from the 126 miles I had put in at UltraCentric but the real reason involved having to spend a weekend in a city all decked out for the Christmas holidays while my husband and I were emotional wrecks. However, we decided to go ahead with our plans. The plane tickets were paid for, the hotel reserved, and we had learned the value of escape.

We left the Friday after Thanksgiving. The holiday was pretty dismal without our youngest son but I lit a pillar candle at his place at the table and put up a collage of recent photos on a stand next to the candle. I think all of us had Ben in mind throughout the day but we handled it as well as could be expected. Afterwards it was almost a relief to concentrate on packing for Seattle; it helped keep us from dwelling on things.

The marathon host hotel was the Westin, convenient to just about everything. I had done this race two years ago and enjoyed it; the course is very scenic, starting and ending near the Space Needle, crossing the floating bridge to Mercer Island with a panoramic view of the city, and then circling Seward Park, with an out-and-back along Lake Washington. The only drawback this year was the extremely cold weather. There was light snow Saturday morning but race day was clear and cold, so cold that there were patches of ice all along the route so we had to be extremely careful in places.

Although I was signed up for the marathon run, I decided it was more prudent to change to the marathon walk to take advantage of a one hour head start, giving me a full 7 hours to complete the race. I did this at the expo on Saturday; the volunteer seemed a little confused and it turned out she gave me the correct bib but enrolled me in the half marathon run instead of the full marathon walk. I found this out when I checked the results after the race. An email to the timing people quickly set the record straight and I was listed in the correct place with an accurate time of 6:28 (that included 2 pit stops). There was no food at the finish line, kind of a surprise for such a big race, and the medal was small and nondescript, with a picture of the Space Needle on the front. Still, the race is enjoyable and worth doing.

We had several good meals while visiting Seattle. In addition to 2 lunch stops at Gordon Biersch Brewery, we had a post-race dinner at P. F. Chang’s, a delicious breakfast of French toast brioche filled with almond cream cheese for breakfast at Andaluca’s in the Mayflower Park Hotel, and crabmeat appetizers at the Icon Grill. We also visited Pike’s Marketplace to get some Chukar cherries, a northwest specialty. Our red-eye flight home seemed to take forever but we finally returned on Wednesday.

Was the trip a good idea? Probably. It was invigorating to get away, the race was scenic, and although there were lots of people around, I felt that Ben was with me every step of the way. I was still searching for the feeling that Ben was at peace. With the passage of several weeks, I began to feel more confident that Ben was indeed now, finally, at rest.

#3: Tucson Marathon, Arizona, December 7, 2014

Next on my schedule was the Tucson Marathon. We had one full day at home before leaving for Arizona. I had originally planned several days between these trips, but Delta canceled our Saturday flight so we had to leave a day earlier. This made for some crazy unpacking, laundry, and repacking challenges, but it managed to keep us busy so we didn’t have time to dwell on things.

Back in 2011, I flew to Tucson to do the marathon but was ill with a terrible cold; as a result, I dropped to the half. This time I was determined to do the full, even though the 6 ½ time limit might be a problem given my recent slow finishing times. I’m not sure why I continually return to desert areas for races. I am definitely not a fan of dry climates or treeless areas, and this race course was on pebbly road surfaces surrounded by bleak brown mountains and scrub vegetation. It was one of the more boring marathons I have done, but it was very well-organized and I met a lot of exceptionally nice people and saw several familiar Maniacs and 50 Staters as well.

The race began at 7 in the town of Oracle. I took one of the earliest buses to the start and we were allowed to stay on the warm heated bus until the very last minute. It was cold, 46 degrees, but much warmer than the freezing temps of Seattle last weekend. The course ended in the town of Catalina, and we then had to take a shuttle back to Tucson. The medal is very attractive – shiny bronze color with a decorated lanyard. Post-race food included peanut butter and jelly tortilla rollups and fruit. I did make the time limit, finishing in 6:14. No pit stops this race. We stayed at the host hotel – the Hilton El Conquistador – a golf and tennis resort. Without a rental car, we had to eat at the hotel since there were no restaurants close by and the hotel dining venues were pricey and the meals so-so. We did make contact with a cousin of mine who had moved to Tucson and we spent an enjoyable afternoon catching up with family news, both good and bad. We returned home on Monday.

#4: Tallahassee UltraDistance Classic, December 13, 2014

This last in the quartet of races dedicated to our son Ben did not involve airplanes or hotels. I drove to Tallahassee the day before the race and stayed overnight at our oldest son’s house. David was kind enough to drive me to the race site at Wakulla State Park. I have done this race numerous times and consider many of the racers to be friends. It was another ‘coming home’ type of race, where I could be myself and spend time chatting with people without worrying about time limits.

The course is a paved 6.2 mile loop, with a full aid station at the start/finish and two checkpoint aid stations with drinks and limited snacks. No chip timing but very dedicated volunteers who record times and cheer on runners and walkers. In addition to the 50k, there is a 50 mile race and the time limit is 10 hours for both. I usually PR in the 50k distance here as I did last year, but this year I was tired, worn-out, suffering from an irritating piriformis injury, and I just didn’t have it in me to worry about making a time goal. Instead I chatted with Cheryl, Mellody, Roscoe, Scott, and Deb and just plain took my time enjoying the clear cold weather and the beautiful park. I spent considerable time in the heated restrooms, shedding clothes as the weather dictated (temps began at 32 degrees and rose to the mid-60’s by the end of the race). I finished in 7:56, an hour over my usual time, but that was fine with me.

I felt like Ben’s spirit was with me the entire race. I’m sure I will continue to do races in Ben’s memory; it’s important to me to include him in everything I do for the rest of my life. But I like to think that these four races are especially meaningful because they helped me transition from numbness and despair to at least a semblance of acceptance and serenity. I later learned that many runners and walkers continue to do races immediately after the deaths of people important to them. It seems to be a way of honoring the deceased while diffusing tension, chasing away demons, and expending excess energy. So – here’s to you, Ben. Rest in peace and in our hearts forever!