Band of Gypsies

I smashed the rest of my peanut butter toast into my mouth as I the headed into the bedroom to start dressing the sleeping children. It was 4:45am and I had one hour to be at the starting line of the Sean O’Brien 50mile. Before our crew piled into the car, Paavo (4) and Mischa (2), would both demand Chocolate Clif bars and milk, despite our best attempts to keep them asleep. Attending to the kids’ needs both tempered and contributed to the nervousness swelling up inside me. It was 34Β° when we arrived at Malibu Creek State Park. Jesse carried the kids a quarter mile to the starting line so I could keep my puffy coat on until the last minute. He never wants me to loose energy before the race by carrying children or shivering.

Running in the lead.

Running in the lead.

Our voyage to the starting line of SOB started 9 days earlier. For the 3rd year, we packed up the car and drove our brood across the American west for running, racing, and wild adventures in the sun. Our western expeditions last about 2.5 weeks and we spend time in Colorado, Arizona, California, and Utah. We tent camp, rent rustic cabins, stay with friends, and take up residence in hotels. Over the years, our travels have gotten easier in some ways and harder in others. The constant is that it takes an incredible amount of energy and dedication from Jesse and I to cooperate in supporting each others racing needs while keeping the kids safe and entertained. Paavo and Mischa are gregarious adventure-seekers who are sometimes difficult to keep close by. Getting from Wisconsin to California with these two rascals was not an ideal way to prepare for my first ultra in half a year.

Once I was in the SOB course, thoughts of the kids spun in and out of my head – were they going to watch me finish?, would Mischa get a nap?, I hope they were having fun at the zoo. The night before the race I told Jesse that I would text him when I was coming through the mile 36 aid station to tell him how I was doing with time – At Kanen, out front (meaning that I was at the Kanen aid station and I was winning). Then again after the last aid station I texted 6.5 miles to finish (this was his cue to drive to the finishing area). The logistical challenge going into this race was that I had no idea how fast I could run it. The course had much more vertical gain than anything I had ever done (11,000 feet) and I was coming off of a terrible stretch of illness that took me away from an entire season of racing. Going in, I had no time goal and I was so scared of not being able to finish. I decided to set aside trivial matters like fear and pain to focus instead on efficiency. When I came into the finishing chute with Paavo running behind me, all of the challenges of healing from my viral infections evaporated. Winning was icing on the cake.

Paavo sleeping in the back of the truck on a futon in the early morning hours of my first 50 mile

Paavo sleeping in the back of the truck on a futon in the early morning hours of my first 50 mile

It must seem like running ultras with little kids in tow is a hassle – but it’s all I know. I ran my first ultra, a local 50k, 8 months after Mischa, my second baby, was born. Looking back, that race was extra challenging because of nursing logistics. Anyone who has breastfed a baby can imagine that running for 5+ hours without nursing can be messy and painful. Or my first 50 mile, The North Face Endurance Challenge Wisconsin, when Jesse decided that he and the kids would crew for me. It was adorable to come into each aid station with Jesse saying things like there’s only a few girls ahead of you, are you eating enough?, do you want your lip stuff?. Paavo would cheer and run with me as I set out back onto the trail and poor Mischa was in tears, every time. That race took me 9 hours and 2 minutes to finish. Jesse and the kids met me at every station and were waiting for me when I finished. What a long day with a 3 year old and 10 month old! My family no longer crews for me but they are always there to see me finish. Paavo loves to chase me and Jesse through the chute and when he sees us coming he is filled with so much pride and excitement for his parents. I hope that our racing inspires the kids to try really hard for a sport they care about.

Lunch at Canyonlands National Park.

Lunch at Canyonlands National Park.

The hardest part of racing away from home with kids is recovery. When we are out of town we are away from all of our regular support systems (grandparents, babysitters, familiar favorite place to play). When Jesse or I are out on the race course all day, the other parent has to work extra hard to fill the day with fun activities. Then when the race is over both of us are exhausted. It feels selfish to ask for more alone time to recover. Starting about two hours after I finish a race, every system in my body needs something. My eyes are dry, my skin is chaffed and burned, I’m dehydrated and nauseous, I have hot flashes and cold sweats, my toe nails are throbbing, my muscles fill with stiffness, and I am sensitive to loud noises and bright lights. The worst though, is the mental and emotional instability I feel. After focusing for so many hours, I have drained hormones and chemicals from my brain causing me to feel fragile. When I close my eyes all I can see is the trail ahead of me. It takes me 36 hours to restore my systems – going through this with Paavo and Mischa is super challenging.

Shortly after winning Sean O'Brien 50 mile - dreading the exhausting recovery ahead. Toddlers and recovery are like water and oil.

Shortly after winning Sean O’Brien 50 mile – dreading the exhausting recovery ahead. Toddlers and recovery are like water and oil.

As farmers, we have a lot of flexible time in the winter but are very tied down 9 months of the year. We make the most of our lifestyle by racing close to home during the spring, summer and fall then choosing destination races in the farming off-season. Bringing the kids along allows us to travel for long stretches and we get to explore amazing places together. Paavo and Mischa are scrappy farm kids who thrive when playing with dirt, rocks, trees, and water. Our road trips are as much for their well-being as they are for our racing pursuits.

Finding rocks to throw off the cliffs in Moab

Finding rocks to throw off the cliffs in Moab

This year we rounded out our trip with Jesse’s race, Red Hot 55k, in Moab, UT. This a point-to-point course which means it starts and ends in two different places. Spectators take a shuttle bus to the finish line which is perched on a canyon wall offering plenty of rock climbing and rock throwing opportunities for the kids. I was recovered from SOB and had plenty of energy to scamper around with the kids while still keeping an eye out for Jesse coming in. Paavo was off playing with some other kids when I spotted Jesse. I yelled Here comes Daddy! Paavo leaped off of his rock and came running through the scratchy vegetation just in time to follow his dad through the finish.

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