Race Report: Sky to Summit 50k 2016

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The valleys and mountains of north Georgia are just waking up.

It’s Nov. 9th and Donald Trump is our President-Elect as I sit down to write this race report. I spent yesterday working the polls at my local precinct helping people to have their voice heard. Of course, I don’t know how any of them voted, but I do know that of the 4000+ people registered to vote at that precinct 2600+ of them showed up. It’s always about showing up.

The idea to run the Sky to Summit 50k came to me around April as I looked back on the Bel Monte races in Feb. where I dropped down from the 50k to the 25k because of some awful IT band issues. I was determined to use the next few months to regain some fitness and get strong.

Choosing Sky to Summit as your first ultra is maybe not my best idea. I’ve never been one for moderation in life. If you know me better than most, you can vouch for this.

The Sky to Summit course is a tough mountain course with almost 8000 feet of elevation gain with 3-4 intense climbs and the same number of descents along some occasionally technical single track. The course has runners climbing up and over Georgia’s second highest mountain…twice! Add all that to a couple of long (~5-8 miles) stretches between aid stations and it can get downright grim if it weren’t for the amazing views.

Further, the race allows no crew, no pacers, and no drop bags. There are aid stations full of friendly, calming, helpful, and amazing volunteers but that boost that comes from seeing a friend or family member wasn’t going to happen unless I made it to the finish line where my wife and son would be waiting.

Until this weekend, I’d never run more than 17-18 miles in training or a race. That Bel Monte 25k was my longest effort. Over the summer, I had a few 18 mile days on trails around our area. I also paced my friend Jim at a 36-hour race and got in about 18 flatland miles which gave me a bit of hope.

I wasn’t sure about running overnight at Jim’s race but I wanted to hang out with Jim. I wanted to get a taste for running without slowing to climb or descend but just hold a steady pace for hours. I wanted to help a friend and have a new experience. I wanted to show up.

Pacing Jim at Holston River went well, so I planned a trail marathon in September to test my training, nutrition, and equipment. I had hoped to run the Douthat Odyssey Trail Running Rampage marathon. About two weeks before that race, I was diagnosed with a heel spur that was really limiting my ability to train effectively. So, I skipped the race in an effort to heal a bit. I did not show up.

That meant I arrived in Sky Valley, GA with an ailing foot and a month-plus of limited training for the hardest race I’ve yet to attempt. My confidence was extremely low. I felt that I could finish the race but that the time cutoff, while generous at 10 hours, would still cause me problems. I knew that I would need to make up time going downhill but that’s exactly what causes my heel spur to really ache. It was a bad combination.

Like many of the Run Bum races, Sky to Summit is a bit more low-key and grassroots affair than some other races. No giant banners or inflatable finish lines. The course is stunningly beautiful though and the volunteers are amazing. Saturday morning didn’t feature loud music or product pitches or sponsors giving away swag. Just a bunch of people standing in the cold dark listening to the Run Bum get us fired up. And it was dark. Smoke from fires on the west side of the GA mountains obscured the moon and stars.

The start was even delayed for a bit so we’d have a bit more sun on our first ascent to Rabun Bald. That wasn’t true for runners who chose to take the 30 minute head start option. I did not take that option. Remember that for later.

The race starts with a steep climb up a small, neighborhood road which had most of us just hiking and getting warmed up. I ran into a couple of guys from my hometown, Albany, GA, and we chatted a bit about what was ahead of us. One of them, Jason, was running his first ultra ever and we joked about racing for last place. We talked about our training and being nervous about doing this for the first time. It’s scary to put yourself in a position where you are so vulnerable. But Jason showed up.

After about 4 miles of hiking/running up 1500ft of climb, I was at the top of Rabun Bald where the views were amazing. I stopped for a couple of minutes to take some photos and enjoy the sunrise trying to clear my head for the rest of the day. I thought this might be the best I felt for the next several days. I wasn’t wrong.

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The first summit of Rabun Bald as the sun comes up.

Descending 4-5 miles down to the Wilson Gap aid station, there’s about a 300ft climb to maneuver over and down but it’s mostly nice single track where I fell into what felt like a decent rhythm. It was in this section when the leader and eventual winner, David Kilgore, passed me headed back up to Rabun Bald. He finished in 4:19 or something. Just incredible. I cheered him on and shook my head. David showed up.

Leaving Wilson Gap, the course does a loop with a little out and back section. Coming back out of that loop is a challenging, technical climb to get back to Wilson Gap. Somewhere in that loop, I fell and did a pretty sweet somersault and got back on my feet. Nothing was hurt and it was almost a parkour move. So much so that the folks running behind me laughed and said it looked like I did it on purpose.

It was in this loop that my GPS watch appears to have lost its signal and gone all kinds of haywire. I still had the elapsed time but the pace and distance measurements would continue to degrade to the point that at the end, my watch was around 3-4 miles over distance and the pace was 2-3 minutes/mile faster than reality. Suunto did not show up.

When I got back to Wilson Gap at mile 14 or so, the volunteers let me know that I was 1:30 ahead of that aid station cutoff so I was looking pretty good. I started back toward Rabun Bald feeling good about making some time on the runnable approach to the Rabun Bald climb.

However, when I hit that 300ft bump I mentioned earlier, my quads pretty much locked up. I had about 2 miles where I could only walk and it was on probably the most runnable part of the course. I was losing valuable time. My mental state fell into the pits. I was thinking about dropping if I could make it to the top of Rabun Bald. I was passed by 5 or 6 runners I had previously passed. I was hurting and mad and frustrated. But my watch was telling me that I was making good distance. It was lying.

I started the climb back up to Rabun Bald and my legs started loosening up. I was even able to run some of the up and finally got to the top. My mood came up a bit and the views at the top reminded me a bit of why I was out there.

Officially, that’s around the 19 mile mark but my watch said 21. I did not write down the distances to the aid stations or landmarks anywhere and neglected to ask the volunteers on Rabun Bald. I thought I was 2 miles ahead of where I was when I started down toward the Three Forks AS. Lesson learned that relying on elapsed time and noting distances to identifiable locations is better than GPS and pace.

The descent down the backside of Rabun Bald is sketchy. It’s steep, filled with rocks and drops of 4-5 feet. It’s covered in dry, crumbling, slippery leaves. There is nothing keeping you from just tumbling down about 1200ft. of mountain. I slid on my butt on several sections of it. It was faster and safer.

My quads couldn’t take much of the climbing down anyway. They were beginning to tighten again. Even as the trail flattened a bit into another nice, runnable downhill section, I was barely able to jog because of the pain in my quads. My quads did not show up.

Eventually, I got to Three Forks AS where I saw a sign that said 21 miles. I was still 10 miles away from the finish. I was 30 minutes ahead of that AS cut off. That meant I had about 2.5 hours to get to the finish but would need to do something like 4 miles an hour over the next 10 miles with at least one steep, technical climb and one long gravel road climb.

Upon telling me this, the volunteer must have seen something in my face because he said, “Do you want to continue?” Two other runners were dropping from the race feet away from me, one of them in tears. I looked up at this man with concern washing over his face and said, “I might not make it but I’m not stopping here.”

The next section had a decent amount of fire road running which reminded me a lot of the Mountain Lake area roads that I trained on. I tried to power up them and get some time behind me but the miles were catching up to me and the clock was not my friend.

At one point, the volunteers and dropped runners from the Three Forks AS passed me in their vehicles. They had broken down the AS and were headed to the start/finish. They asked me if I was OK. I lied and said, “Great!” At least that’s what I think I said. Either way, they drove off and it was then I knew I was very much alone out on the trail and maybe the last person on course.

Somewhere in that last 10 miles, there’s a section of trail that takes you to the Holcomb Creek Falls. They are rugged and beautiful and the climb up them is challenging. I was so taken by trying to hustle up the hill and staring at the falls that I missed a turn and went about a quarter mile too far. I realized my error because the trail ended in an overlook over the falls and there was nowhere else to go. I might still be out there if that trail hadn’t been a dead-end.

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I’m smiling about the waterfall not the climb up it.

At this point, I know that the last AS is 2 miles from the start/finish and I need to be there by 9:30 to safely make it under the 10 hour cutoff. I turn onto the Bartram Trail and see a sign for Bee Gum Gap (which the AS is named after) and it says 2.7 miles. I stopped for a minute in front of that sign recognizing that 2.7 miles of that trail plus 2 miles past that AS and unless I could do like 8 minute miles, I wouldn’t make it.

Here’s how it went down in real-time:

I’m not sure if I need to do the whole trail. Maybe the AS is named after the trail but isn’t the end of it. Maybe I’m only a half mile from the AS. I’m hoping that around every turn there’ll be the AS. I know that I can’t trust the distances on my GPS so I don’t really know how far I have to go. I also know that it doesn’t matter. I just have to keep going. I have to show up.

I arrive at Bee Gum Gap AS at exactly 10:00 into the race. The race cutoff has hit and I’m 2 miles away from the start/finish. Between me and the end is an all-downhill run on pavement. I jog into the AS and I say, “I’m a bit late for the party.” The volunteer, maybe Run Bum’s Dad?, smiles and says, “I’m afraid I’m going to have to pull you. We’re an hour over the AS cutoff.”

Here’s where my inexperience comes into play. To the degree that I’d calculated any distances and cutoffs, I’d been using the whole race cutoff to figure out pace. I hadn’t considered that the last AS would have a cutoff a whole hour ahead of the race cutoff given that it’s only 2 miles from the end. Lesson learned.

I look at the volunteer and he sees in my eyes a mixture of fear, fatigue, pain, strength, pleading, and confusion. He points to a couple of runners sitting on the side of the road and says, “These guys just dropped and you can catch a ride with them.” A second volunteer pipes up, “The bus is leaving so come on and we’ll go get something to eat.” I just stand there stunned for a moment. I ask the third volunteer if she needs my bib. I assume they take it from you if you aren’t in the race anymore. She says, “No, honey. You can keep that.”

Again, the second volunteer says, “Come on and get in.” The first volunteer says, “There are few folks still behind you,” as he points back down the trail. I look into his eyes and I ask, “Can I run it in?” He’s confused. Doesn’t really get what I’m asking. I repeat, “Can I run it in? I don’t want anyone to get in trouble but I don’t want to drive down the mountain.” He says, “You look strong enough, but, well, it’s almost dark and we need to be safe and I just don’t–”

“I can do it. I will make it.” I’m pleading but I’m wary of being rude. I’m wary of making these amazing people angry. These people who are trying to keep me safe. These people who’ve been out here all day so I can spend some time pushing myself and finding out what’s inside. I want them to want me to finish.

He glances at the ground and then back at me, “Go ahead.”

They are asking me questions as I tear ass out of the AS at full speed. I fly down the hill as fast as my shredded quads will let me. The car with the second volunteer and the dropped runners (this is the second time I was passed by a car of dropped runners today) passes me and the driver rolls the window down and asks, “Can you go a little faster?” We both laugh and I try to run a little faster.

I near the end of the race. I’m on a switch backed road just above the start/finish when I hear my wife, Danielle, yell, “You can do it! Just keep going!” Then, I hear my son, Oliver, shout, “Come on Dad! We’re here for you!”

I immediately blubber a bit and make the final turn. A car full of runners, finished and full of beer and BBQ, shout my name. The volunteers at the finish call out to me. I finally turn toward the finish line with Oliver by my side and see Sean, the Run Bum, waiting for me. I grab his hand and half-hug him as I whisper, “Thanks for waiting.”

I finished in 10:30. That’s 30 minutes over the cut off so it’s officially a DNF. I ran every foot of the course. I climbed every foot of elevation. I made it to the end. Later that night, as I’m lying in bed, my son comes over and whispers in my ear, “I know you didn’t make the time but I know you finished and I’m really proud of you.”

I showed up.

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My invaluable crew: my wife, Danielle, and my son, Ollie.

Trail Report: Tough Day on the Pinhoti

It has been a tough few weeks around here. But there have been happy moments as well. Our son turned seven. My wife and I celebrated 17 years of marriage. We are now at around a month before the Bel Monte Endurance Races. I had planned for and registered for the 50k race. As you may know, I’ve been battling knee issues, IT band issues, and other challenges while training. The brutally cold winter hasn’t helped me stay on track either. 

The Pinhoti Trail as it picks up at the Snake Creek Trailhead.
The Pinhoti Trail as it picks up at the Snake Creek Trailhead.

After a tough training run this weekend, I’ve decided to drop down to the 25k race at Bel Monte. It seems like a good idea to be safe, injury-free, and accomplish something. At the same time, I’d hate to make more work for the volunteers or cause another racer injury or duress trying to help me.

I hope that if the race goes well, it will be a springboard for a summer of strong training and a trail marathon in the early fall with maybe a 50k in the late fall.

At any rate, Saturday was a painful and humbling run on a beautiful trail with some wonderful weather. I was down in Dalton, GA where my in-laws live and had the chance to spend some time on the famed Pinhoti Trail. The Pinhoti is a trail that runs from Alabama into northwest Georgia and nearly connects to the Appalachian Trail. It’s not a complete wilderness trail as it cuts through some smaller towns including Dalton.

Blasted trees near Mill Creek Mountain.
Blasted trees near Mill Creek Mountain.

The section I tackled starts at a parking area and trailhead called Snake Creek Gap. Over the course of over 15 miles, the trail crests four peaks starting with Mill Creek Mountain, moving to Middle Mountain, then Hurricane Mountain, and finishing on the top of Dug Mountain. The whole section gives you about 2,500 feet of elevation gain. There are some decent views of the surrounding ridges and near Dug Mountain a few expansive views of Dalton.

Amazing views from the crest of Dug Mountain.
Amazing views from the crest of Dug Mountain.

It’s an extremely rocky trail with several challenging vertical sections that seem to eschew switchbacks in favor of stair-stepping large boulders. At one point, I was actually cursing the rocks. I was actually pointing and cursing rocks that seemed to jump up and snag my feet. It was one of the most mentally challenging runs I’ve had in recent memory. I just wanted to get off the mountain as fast as possible.

The trail is popular with bikers who must be highly skilled or else carry their bikes across some sections because it’s often just a pile of rocks. While the trail does provide its share of challenges, the trail is accessible enough for most hikers and is close to the surrounding communities making it a strong option for outdoors folks in north Georgia.

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The rocky trail ultimately led me to the decision mentioned above as my ankles and feet just aren’t going to be ready for 50k of this. I hope that the next time we are visiting family, I can give the trail another shot and try to improve on a really tough day out.

What I Think About When I Think About Nothing

When I first started running, I listened to music, podcasts, whatever. It was hard for me to run a mile without stopping or walking. I needed something to distract me from the pain, the labored breathing, and the embarrassment of being a fat person running. The music was a way to wall off the world while also not having to deal with the thoughts in my head. I could be in a limbo that was not of the world and not of my own psyche. It was an oblivion that I’ve dangerously flirted with for the bulk of my days. 

It was quite messy out at Pandapas Pond today.
It was quite messy out at Pandapas Pond today.

As I gained confidence and fitness, I came to feel more comfortable being out there in the world. I got more comfortable with my own thoughts. I learned to process them. I learned to leave them on the trail. I’d run by them like landmarks that represented some lost time and place; a history with which I no longer needed to wrestle. Catharsis then came in the form of the rhythm of my feet and my breathing. Those sounds beat out a pattern that made sense of my petites folies.

So, now I run with no headphones and since I almost always run alone, I have moments where my mind feels completely blank. Every so often, I song lyric or phrase gets stuck in there and becomes a mantra. One of these recurring mantras is “relentless forward progress” which I picked up from Bryon Powell’s book of the same name.

Today, I had two wonderful mantras chasing me around Pandapas Pond for 20 miles. Since this was going to be my longest run ever and I’ve been way behind on my training, I decided to alternate running a mile and then walking a mile. In my head, this became “run to the odds, walk to the evens” meaning I ran the first, third, fifth, etc. mile and walked the even numbered miles. 

The second mantra was the title of the song “A Man is a Pent-up Thing” by my second favorite band of all-time, Five Eight. The song itself is genius because it never resolves. There’s no crescendo and it’s simply minute after minute of tension with the chorus reminding us that “a man is a pent-up thing.” Today, that line repeated in my head and it felt like this energy and drive to be better was waiting to explode out of me. The pain and fatigue gets turned into the fuel to keep turning the legs over. Keep the feet flapping down the street. Release that pent-up power and do something with it.

If you could be in my head while I’m running, you’d likely think I was boring because there’s only ever four or five thoughts cycling through it. But then, that’s part of why I do it. I’m running to find that place of crystalline thought that allows my subconscious to process all the nonsense it builds up over time. There’s lots of research about how music increases your athletic performance but that pales in importance to what I discover about myself when I let my brain stew a bit.

I know everyone does their own thing out on a run, but try running without music for a week or two and see what you discover about how your head works.

The Trail Beckons

I went three weeks between runs since my last post about the Huckleberry Jam. My family and I spent over a week at Disney. It was amazing to spend time away from phones, TVs, the Internet, and just laugh and play together. After that, I got the dreaded “travel cold” and I continued to struggle with knee pain.

The Snake Root trail at Pandapas Pond. To my mind, one of the prettiest trails at Pandapas
The Snake Root trail at Pandapas Pond. To my mind, one of the prettiest trails at Pandapas

After being assured by my doctor that my knee is structurally sound, he told me that he thinks my sense of instability is stemming from really tight IT bands. Oddly, I don’t have the pain or cramps that can sometimes come with IT Band Syndrome. My issues arise with this knee instability I’ve been fighting.

So, I got serious about using my foam roller multiple times a day. It’s exceedingly uncomfortable, but it does seem to help immediately. I also made a commitment to routinely do the Myrtl routine to build hip girdle strength. After a few days of that, I was finally able to go back out for a serious run on Sunday.

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The weather here in Blacksburg was pretty cold but beautifully sunny. I ventured out to my local favorite trail at Pandapas Pond and knocked out 6.5 miles. Making sure to wear a patellar strap and icing my knee down afterwards, my knee this morning feels pretty good. I’m on track for another 6 miles tomorrow and we’ll see how things hold up.

What I’ve learned over the last few weeks is that time away from work, home, and even running can be rejuvenating and invaluable. Nothing will replace the smile my son and wife gave me as we swam with manatees in Florida. I’ve also learned that being a healthy and consistent runner is often about things that aren’t running. That’s advice I wish I’d heard or at least heeded when I started on this adventure.

Race Report: Huckleberry Jam 7.4 Miler

On Saturday, I ran the Huckleberry Jam 7.4 mile race which is part of Runabout Sports‘s Carilion Clinic Race Series. The race follows the full length of the Huckleberry Trail which is a Rails-to-Trails conversion connecting Blacksburg to Christiansburg.

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The race was small but, as always with this series, well run and fun. The races in this series are friendly events and it seems most folks are locals and know each other so there’s a collegial, casual atmosphere. The weather was perfect with 55 degree temps at the race start.

The course has quite a few hills and long portions of steady climbing which is typical of anywhere one might try to run in Blacksburg. Especially at the end of the race in Christiansburg, there’s a lot of up and down with some steep, if short, climbs to finish out the race. It’s not grueling but it’s not easy either. Quite a nice challenge to work through. The finisher’s medal is a really cool railroad spike engraved with the race name and such. A unique medal that stands out amongst the ribbons and such that other races hand out.

My plan was to use the race as the beginning of a 20 mile training run. When I got to the end of the race, my wife and son were there cheering me on. It really made the the previous hour or so worth it. I probably wouldn’t have turned around and come back if it hadn’t been for their encouragement. My time was 79 minutes and 58 seconds. Not exactly blistering but it’s a deal faster than I would typically tackle the start of a long training run.

I turned around and ran back to the start line which gave me 15 miles instead of the 20 I had planned. Between the heat that came on as the day went on and some race pacing I hadn’t intended, it didn’t seem smart to push things and end up with an injury to my fragile knee. When I got back to Runabout, they were beginning handing out my awards and someone was calling out my name. Apparently, the race organizer wanted to give me a high-five for doubling up the race. That was a very kind acknowledgement for a back-of-the-pack runner like me.

On Sunday, I did about 5 miles with the bulk of it on the old high school track. It helps to keep things loose after a long run and it’s good training for running on tired legs which I’ll need to do more of in the future.

It was great weather for running this weekend and I was happy to be out there.

Ultra Marathons Will Not Make You Dumb

This post from the Smithsonian summarizes some research from the Trans-Europe Footrace on the physical effects of ultra marathons. The click-grabbing headline tells us that ultra marathons will shrink our brains. But, actually reading the article shows this to be grandstanding at best.

Mountain runners play with their watches while starting a race.
Mountain runners play with their watches while starting a race.

According to the article, these researchers studied 44 runners in the 64 day/2,788 mile race performing MRIs and other tests on them before, during, and after the race about every 900 kilometers. These scans and blood/urine tests were used to judge changes over time for these runners.

While noting that cartilage broke down over the course of the first 2500km of the race, the researchers discovered that it began to regenerate even while the runners were still pounding across Europe. Previously, it was believed that cartilage would only regenerate at rest when the load was removed.

Then, there’s the big headline that some of the runners showed signs of brain shrinkage over the course of the race. The researcher don’t know why this happened but malnourishment, dehydration, lack of stimulation, or actual remapping of brain function are posited as possible causes. Basically, nobody knows and the sample size is so small and research so sparse that we aren’t likely to ever really know.

So, now we’ll be reading jokes and breathless blog posts about ultra marathons making us dumb. Let me be clear, ultra marathons are not going to make anyone dumb.

When we realize that this race is really much more than an ultra marathon and represents one of the more extreme running events currently happening, it stands to reason that these changes almost certainly don’t apply to your shorter 50k or 50 mile race. Even this research showed that all the changes were reversed within six months. So, like the sore muscle or the tweaked ligament, these changes go away with rest.

It’s great that this sport is starting to have some research focus on it to help make it safer and potentially more approachable for more people. Thus far, the sport’s icons and most of the business around the sport is focused on the highest achievers. Where 5k runs have generated large mass appeal, it would be great to have some percentage of that attention on ultra running.

For me, the benefits of lessened anxiety, mitigated depression, weight control, and personal time will easily outweigh any temporary drawbacks of brain changes. I imagine if I were to drink a beer the brain damage is probably similar to finishing the Trans-Europe Footrace. I’m highly unlikely to do either of those two things.

Injuries and Setbacks

As some of you might know, I am training for the Bel Monte 50k in March 2016. This training period has not been an easy one with knee and back problems cropping up on a fairly regular basis. Through treatment, stretching, and specific exercises, the back problems have largely been eliminated.

The typical effect of Runner's Knee or Chondromalacia.
The typical effect of Runner’s Knee or Chondromalacia.

However, on Thursday last week, my knee problems came back. It’s the typical “runner’s knee.” My left knee was injured pretty seriously while playing football in high school. Since then, I’ve had issues with it off and on. A training plan that sees me running up to 50 miles a week is bound to exacerbate those problems.

This has been a setback in training as I missed a couple of long runs while resting my knee and waiting to let the doctor take a look. I still have nearly three months before the race but it’s tough when I get knocked off track like this. I have to remind myself that I am attempting this race to finish. I want to find my limit. If that limit is that I didn’t do every training run, then maybe that’s OK.

The doctor told me this morning that my left kneecap was grinding against its groove and was improperly aligned. The pain in the back of my knee is from muscle spasms that occur when the knee is injured and is trying to protect itself. He then adjusted the kneecap in an effort to get it aligned correctly. He gave me a clean bill of health to continue training.

So, physically, it would seem that I’m on the mend and the doctor gave me tools to prevent and treat this issue if it comes back. That’s all good news. The real challenge becomes the mental side of having an injury. The problem is that I no longer trust my body to do what I ask of it.

I imagine this is quite common among athletes and I hear it cited often with athletes who have knee injuries. Gaining back the confidence to do the same things we did before our knee was injured is a 100% mental game. Even a coach or a doctor can’t convince us that our knee is as good as it was before. Some part of our brains is always wondering,  “If I push myself a little faster or a little farther, am I going to feel that twinge again?”

I don’t have a solution to this problem. My approach is to be consistent and on target with my training plan. I plan to be attentive and diligent in doing the exercises I’ve been given to avoid re-injury. Past that, I know there will be lingering doubts and I know I probably won’t push myself as I was before. Maybe time is what heals us physically and psychically.

This is when having a good training partner would likely come in handy. Someone who could provide motivation to show up for training runs and not let things slide. Someone who would encourage me not to cut a run short. I’ve been a solitary runner since I started this journey a few years ago. Maybe it’s time to change that.