Running on trails satisfies a primal need to connect with nature. The sheer thrill of treading across dirt, rocks and roots reaches deep into the soul and leaves us wanting more. After I began running ultras, I discovered another soulful connection with the trails that I never expected.
My grandfather had been a forestry instructor at a local community college, and often took my sister and I on hiking and camping excursions across Oregon. But it wasn’t until many years later when I ran the McDonald Forest 50K, that I discovered the trails I had been running on were those where my grandpa studied forestry decades before. The revelation came 20 years after he had passed away, and 69 years after his college career at Oregon State University. To think I’d found my way back to where my grandfather once spent hours of his time, helped me reconnect with his spirit and brought a new meaning to ultrarunning.
After contemplating how much he must have studied in McDonald Forest, it only made sense for me to run the McKenzie River Trail 50K. The course loops around Clear Lake on the same trail he often hiked with my grandmother many years later, enjoying the views and spending time on their favorite bench. At the start of the race, I planned to remember my grandfather by placing a flower on the same bench that overlooks the lake. Unfortunately, I ended up getting disoriented while out on the course and threw the flower into the trees knowing it wasn’t his spot, but that I had gotten close enough. Little did I realize how close I really was. Not two minutes later, I found myself passing the bench we’d visited so many times as a family every August after he was gone, to celebrate his birthday. I stopped for a brief moment, feeling overwhelmed with emotion for a man whom I missed so dearly, and at the same time feeling embarrassed for discarding the flower too soon. And then I smiled, because I knew he’d understand.
Just this past winter, a conversation with my aunt uncovered a part of her life I had never heard about while discussing my upcoming race at Hagg Lake in Gaston, Oregon. Mentioning she had once lived in the small mill town, she injected her infectious humor while reminiscing of the cow manure popping up to water’s surface during their fishing expeditions (Henry Hagg Lake was apparently formed on flooded cow pastures). While it may have been just a brief part of her life, it connected me to her a little bit more.
My decision to run ultras began out of a need for a new adventure. I knew the trails well, but not as an ultrarunner. Through just a couple of brief conversations, I found a new way to connect with my family and finally realize the magnitude of what my grandfather was trying to teach my sister and I – appreciate and respect nature, and maybe you’ll learn a just a little more about your roots.