Talking with my grandmother isn’t easy these days. Her brain repeats the same conversation three or more times in the same sitting. So when she looked at my shirt and casually said, “Vern used to spend a lot of time in McDonald Forest,” I was a little shocked. I was wearing a shirt from the McDonald Forest 50K – my first ultra. Vern was her husband – my grandfather – who passed away 18 years ago. That conversation was a rare moment of clarity for her, and gave ultrarunning a whole new purpose for me.
My career as a runner began around age 7, when I picked up on my dad’s running habits. I was only running the occasional 3K, but it was common for our family of four to travel on the weekends so my dad could run 10K’s and marathons. I’ll never forget the time my parents flew across the country in April 1988 – running the Boston Marathon was a dream come true for my dad. Little did I know that one day, it would also become my dream as well.
You could call me a daddy’s girl, but my sister and I were also our papa’s girls. When we were young, we both found the two men in our lives to be role models. My “papa” was a forestry instructor at the local community college. After retirement, he and my grandmother often took my sister and I hiking and camping all over Oregon. He’d point out species of trees while exploring places like Silver Creek Falls State Park. Eventually, he helped me get a job with a U.S. Forest Service trail crew.
Soon after college graduation, I set my sights on my first marathon and never turned back. At the end of 2007, I qualified for Boston – exactly 20 years after my dad. And when I began running ultras, it was no surprise that I was able to reconnect with the spirit of my grandfather. After thinking about how he must have studied the trails in McDonald Forest as an Oregon State University forestry student, 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 in his later years with my grandmother to spend time on their favorite bench.
I planned to commemorate my grandfather by placing a single flower on the bench that overlooks the lake. Unfortunately, while I was on the course I ended up getting disoriented as to my position. I threw the flower with a kiss, knowing it wasn’t his spot but that I was close enough. Little did I know how close I really was. Not two minutes later, I was 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 overwhelming emotion for a man who 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.
My decision to run ultras began out of a need for a new adventure. I knew the trails well, but not as an ultrarunner. After the McDonald Forest conversation with my grandmother, the light bulb suddenly twinkled all too brightly – I had found a new way to connect with my roots, and finally understood the magnitude of what my grandfather was trying to teach us on the trails.