Crosby, Stills and Nash sang “Teach your children well. Feed them on your dreams.” What fantastic words to live by! As parents we strive to set a good example for our children with our words and actions. But sometimes, it’s what we do in our daily routine, passionately living life, chasing our dreams, that leaves a more lasting impression than the the actual lessons we try to impart on our children.
Originally from the ‘Emerald Isle’, I settled in the Evergreen State with my husband and two kids eight years ago. While I was no stranger to running, I had grown up as a sprinter and jumper in the entirely different universe of track and field. However, on moving to Washington, I was soon exposed to the contagious endemic of trail running and after a few excursions, meandering through local forest trails with our malamute, Juno, you could say I’d caught the trail running bug!
In 2014 I ran my first trail race, Orcas Island 25k, which I now fondly regard as the spark that lit my love for trail racing. The fascination escalated rapidly and began to play an ever growing part in the direction my life was turning. From a freshly graduated pediatric resident from the University of Arizona, uncertain about my career path, I now specialize in sports medicine, coach endurance athletes and high school track and have been a member of the Irish ultra team competing at two world championships. Trail running, it’s wonderful community and the beautiful PNW have been instrumental in leading me on this amazing journey.
As I mentioned, this wasn’t a solo journey. While I ran for myself, to unwind, to enjoy the outdoors and to challenge myself, the races were as much about family adventure as they were about my personal competitive desires. It quickly became apparent that pretty much all trail races in the PNW are located in wonderfully scenic destinations. So the family weekend race routine evolved into packing up the RV with teddies, balls, rollerblades, bikes, paddle boards, fishing gear, guitars and of course, remembering to squeeze in my running gear. The night before the race we’d enjoy a campfire dinner while Dave played guitar and sang old bluegrass songs. The following day while I ran, he and the kids enjoyed their own outdoor adventures before meeting me at the finish line. Sometimes they’d actually volunteer at the races while I ran. At Orcas 50k in 2015, the kids spent hours making fresh pizza with ‘Pizza Jim’ and serving all the runners and spectators. As a bluegrass band kept the crowd hopping long after the final runner crossed the finish line, we had to drag our reluctant kids from the kitchen and force them to bed.
After about a year of ultras, I eagerly signed up for my first 100 mile race, Badger Mountain Challenge in Eastern Washington. Excitedly I set about turning this crazy new adventure into a fun family affair. I decided to run without a pacer and have the family crew using our Ford pickup as my mobile drop bag. It was such a treat to be welcomed at the aid stations by cheering kids who fussed over all my possible needs, filling my bottles, offering me snacks, showing me treasures they found on the trail and even serenading me with guitar tunes as I changed my socks. Leaving to tackle the next portion of the race was so much easier after big bear hugs, sloppy kisses and promises to “See you soon!”
Later that night as the weather turned nasty and gale force gusts whipped across the barren slopes, I sat in the front seat of the truck sipping coffee that Dave had miraculously managed to make on our little gas stove despite the wind and driving rain. Huddled under a blanket, the kids asleep in the back seat, I could sense that something wonderful was happening. Together with my family working as a team, I was going to conquer this ridiculous physical and mental challenge and in doing so we would all learn so much about human capability and potential. In the previous months my family had witnessed my hard work and preparation and now they saw the determination, grit and pure stubbornness necessary to complete a 100 mile race, despite throbbing feet, aching muscles, screaming joints, a rebellious stomach and foggy brain after being tossed along the trails like tumbleweed in the surprise stormy weather.
While I loved to race both to challenge myself and also to experience the amazing locations which the trails took me to, I also hoped that our adventures were fun and inspiring for my family. Then one day out of the blue Feile announced “I love to brag to my friends about what you do!” In that moment I realized that these races were more than just family trips and outdoor adventures. The kids were noticing and appreciating the commitment and dedication required in training and the motivation necessary to complete these challenging events. My excitement to share these wild places with them and my passion to compete and challenge myself seemingly hadn’t gone unnoticed. Their mom was actually inspiring them!
Initially little comments like “I could be your pacer when I’m older!” or “I might run a 100 mile race sometime!” were uttered and made my heart sing. And then finally at eleven years old, Feile announced that she wanted to try a 25k trail race. Choosing an event wasn’t difficult. She’d spent the past few years attending and volunteering at Rainshadow Running races, so she chose Deception Pass 25k. This amazing race covers just about every inch of Deception Pass State Park from beaches to high bluffs along technical, twisty trails and twice crosses the historic Deception Pass bridge which sits about 180 feet above the water.
The race took place in early December so we began preparing in late summer. As we live near the state park we’d managed to cover all of the course, either running or hiking before race day. Feile also spent time running around our neighbourhood, doing loops around our property and occasionally, on rainy days, she’d spend a little time on the treadmill fending off the boredom with Netflix. She didn’t follow a rigid schedule but was active about five days a week. I’d love to say that it was all fun but believe me there were some tears and tantrums…from both of us!
She struggled with many of the issues new distance runners experience. Some of our trail runs together involved a lot more walking and grumbling than running. Sometimes I’d drift on ahead, pretending not to hear the moaning and she’d eventually become silent, trotting along behind me and, I’m hoping, enjoying her time meandering through the forest. I learned to be patient and contain any frustrations I was experiencing. As her dad reminded me, she had to want to do this, it had to be fun and her ‘training’ certainly wasn’t going to look anything like mine! So we had fun together on the trails and when race day rolled around I felt that she’d done enough to be able to finish. The first obstacle would be the two and a half hour cut off at mile 7.3, after which we had three and a half hours to finish.
On the cold, grey race morning we stood huddled amongst the other runners trying to stay out of the wind. Feile stood shyly with her borrowed pack and rain jacket, aware of the curious glances she was receiving. I stood tall beside her, a proud grin on my face and wearing a ridiculous Santa hat to help keep the mood light. After Race Director, James Varner gave the countdown and we took off with the pack towards the first climb. We’d decided to walk all the significant hills…with purpose! But seeing everyone else continue to trot on up the hill Feile stubbornly refused to walk. After a quick mile up the park road we hopped on to beautiful single track, winding through tall evergreens along beaches and headlands. As the conga line thinned out and the hills got a little steeper and more technical we began our intermittent hiking.
I followed behind letting Feile set the pace. She was moving well and enjoying chatting with the runners around us. We passed by the first aid station on our way to an out and back lollipop loop and our pace was on target. As we skirted the perimeter of Rosario Point with gorgeous views over Bowman Bay, Rosario Straight and the San Juan Islands the previously impending rain began to fall. Initially not wanting to wear her rain jacket, Feile eventually gave into my nagging but not before she was well soaked. Regardless, we made our way back from the loop and towards the aid station where we were greeted by her brother and Dad. Over half an hour ahead of cut off we celebrated with a little coke, candy and oranges. Then we were off again as the volunteers hollered encouragement after us.
Over the next few miles the rain began to get heavy. Feile was starting to feel the chill with her wet base layer. I had a dry layer in my bag so had her switch them out and gave her my dry headband. Unfortunately both our gloves were soaked and I hadn’t brought another pair. We trudged on. Some friendly conversation with a grey haired, bearded gentleman about how his daughter liked to run as a teenager served as a distraction but I could sense Feiles low spirits. We made it back to the bridge at which point we had about four and a half miles to go. “I can call Daddy to come and pick us up,” I offered “But we’ll have to stand here and wait in the cold and it might be just easier to keep going.” We both knew what lay ahead, Goose Rock, the longest, steepest climb on the course. Too stubborn and competitive to quit, Feile dug deep and committed to the final miles. We shuffled along and when we reached the base of Goose Rock I started singing ‘We Wish You A Merry Christmas’, loudly and annoyingly for everyone to hear. I promised I’d stop when we got to the top. And well that didn’t take long as she hiked up there quicker than she ever had before. All that was left was a fun downhill and a beautiful rolling trail along the shoreline. However, Feile’s legs were beat and the downhill wasn’t any easier than the climbing at this point. We shuffled along, holding hands at times, her repeating “I just want to go straight home when I’m done,” as we went. But as soon as we popped out off the trail and she could see the finish she took off sprinting and yelling at me to stay behind her. She crossed the finish line with a huge smile, welcoming all the cheering and compliments and promptly declared that she’d like to stay for a while to enjoy some pizza and post race festivities!
Following Feile’s trail running adventure, her brother, Tadhg decided that he’d also like to try a 25k race. Since I was already signed up for Rainshadow Running’s Sun Mountain 100k we decided to make the 25k race the following day a family affair. The event is located on the Eastern side of the North Cascades near the Methow River Valley. Stunning single track trails meander through fields of wildflowers with views of beautiful, snow capped peaks in the distance. We loved the area and the event so much that we’d made it an annual trip for the past few years.
On the first day I raced pretty hard in the 100k so for the 25k the following day I decided to stay with the kids and let Dave enjoy his own race. On an unusually cool and overcast morning we all lined up together at the start, packs stuffed with snacks and water. I was a little apprehensive about the fact that this race had a tighter aid station cut off than Deception Pass 25k. Also, the kids had been busy with Spring sports so we had gotten in less hiking and trail runs. Still, they were active, fit kids so we decided to give it a shot. A loud ‘Go!’ followed by excited hooting and hollering signaled the start and we were off!
We rolled along the flower lined single track, Dave setting a faster pace, the kids eager to follow and me yelling at them to slow down. Gradually, Dave drifted out of sight and we settled into a steady trot. Despite only five months having passed, Feile was noticeably more self conscious during this race and not as comfortable running with her mom. Those teenage emotions sneak up quickly on girls and I sensed that this may be our last trail race together as she began her own journey to discover what she was passionate about. So as we began the long hike uphill to the aid station, I tried to play it cool and at least make the trail race she was stuck running with her brother and mom as fun as it could possibly be!
As we marched along we chatted with the other runners, complained a little about the heat, gratefully dipped our hats in a trail side stream and munched on peanut M&M’s. Conscious of the cut off, I kept shooing them onwards as they replied “We know! We know! Walk with purpose!” Soon Tadhg began asking what time it was and how much farther we had to go. A little frustrated I asked if he was tired of being out on the trails, only to learn that he was actually calculating the pace we needed to keep to make the cut off. That made me so happy and I shooed them onwards with even more enthusiasm. I may have even told a little white lie that we’d have to hike back from the aid station anyway so we may as well try to make the cut off! We made it with minutes to spare. I refilled bottles as the kids drank a little soda, had some orange slices and tried to stuff chocolate candy in their pockets.
Then we were off, breathing sighs of relief that we were going to finish. Much of the remainder of the course was downhill, twisting along narrow trails through the trees. On shorter runs the kids loved these types of trails but after seven miles or so their legs were tired and the going was slow. Eager to finish Tadhg drifted ahead but eventually doubled back to check in on us again. There were plenty of other runners on the course and it was well marked so I encouraged him to go on ahead if he wanted. I stuck with Feile and let her set the pace. We wove through meadows of never ending wildflowers and eventually from our position high on a ridge trail we could hear the finish line festivities below us. Feile began to pick up her pace and we floated down the switchbacks to the increasingly louder cheering, chatter and music, my heavy legs just about keeping up with her.
Around the final bend we caught sight of the finish with her dad and brother waving and Race Director, James ready to give us a high-five! Tadhg was still bubbling with energy, pizza slice in hand. Feile played it cool, like it wasn’t a big deal. Of course I couldn’t contain the proud mom in me and despite resistance and eye rolls, insisted on the moment being immortalized in a family photo.
Well, three years later you might expect us to be a family of crazy trail runners but that’s not the case. I still run six days a week, live to explore mountain trails and love to race. However the kids went on to discover what they were uniquely passionate about. For Feile that was playing guitar, singing and songwriting. So consumed by music, there are times during a conversation that she doesn’t realize she’s humming a tune while you’re speaking to her! As for Tadhg, being the son of a die-hard Steelers fan seemed to lead him straight to football. While his genetics may not realistically ensure him a place in the NFL, his passion for the game and ability to recall details such as plays from the Steelers 1970’s Super Bowl wins would certainly stand to him as a future coach or sports journalist.
So, while your own dreams don’t necessarily have to become your children’s dreams, the point is that you teach them how to dream, to dream big and to chase those dreams with passion and determination.
Feature Photo by Glenn Tachiyama