by Sophie Speidel
Last December, I spent my 53rd birthday finishing my tenth Hellgate 100K. That race, which starts at midnight in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia in the middle of December, is my favorite ultra. Over the years, I learned how to run it smarter, faster, and more courageously, so the time seems right to step away and give back to the event now as a volunteer. Since finishing my first ultra in 2002, I have witnessed so many others contribute unselfish gifts of time working aid stations, hours of trail maintenance and stewardship, and energy creating competitive and safe events. Volunteering is such an essential ingredient of the ethos of our sport, so going forward I think I will race less, and serve more.
Being 53 means that I am not invincible; up until this particular birthday, I had been blessed with (mostly) injury-free years of running. But last February, while building up for the Bighorn 50 in June, I tore my hamstring, and this forced me to rest, recover, and re-evaluate my training and racing goals. I had hoped to return to Bighorn to improve on my 2015 age group winning time of 11:59; instead, I had to approach the race with a completely different mindset. Racing was not an option, and this reality was very hard for me. I love to race and compete — having played competitive team sports in high school, college, and post-collegiately, it’s the simple answer to the “Why?” of running long distances — but once I stepped foot on that glorious course surrounded by all that beauty, everything was put into perspective. Simply experiencing the gorgeous Bighorns with other runners, hugging my husband at the Dry Fork aid station, and walking in the final five miles along the Tongue River with my good friend Michelle Andersen just reinforced, once again, that relationships matter far more than racing.
At 53, I lost my mother, who was 86, to complications from pneumonia. I was looking forward to running the Promise Land 50K at the end of April as a tune-up for Bighorn, but Mom got sick that same weekend, and died eight days later. Those final days spent with her, my sisters, and my family were truly special, “a holy time” as one good friend described it. My sisters and I are now on a new journey together as we navigate life without our parents guiding us, and I am at once surprised and grateful for our renewed connection and devotion to one another. And, the loving tributes to our Mom that we still receive from friends far and wide continue to fill us with hope and peace.
At 53, our youngest child left for college, disrupting the daily routine of mothering and opening up wide swaths of time that needed to be filled. Who am I, if not a competitive runner, a daughter, or a mother? Fortunately, my husband and I are able to enjoy time together outdoors and re-connect on a more intimate level, now that the stress of raising three young children is behind us. I love my work as a school counselor and am challenged every day to be a helpful listener for my students and colleagues. And I also treasure the time spent with my fellow “Dirty Mothers” —an East Coast version of Trail Sisters that we created a few years ago. Each Labor Day, we plan a multi-day adventure on the Appalachian Trail, and spend trail time sharing stories of our lives as moms, wives, partners, and friends. In 2015 we came upon Heather “Anish” Anderson while she was enroute to her self-supported FKT, and offered her much-needed trail magic; in 2016, we leapfrogged with Karl Meltzer and his crew near McAfee’s Knob just two weeks before he set his supported FKT. Inspired by these incredible athletes and the precious time spent together in the mountains, we leave the DM weekend refreshed and ready to tackle our own personal challenges — whether it be helping our kids navigate middle school drama, supporting our spouses or other family members through health issues, or recovering from a season-ending injury– simply listening, and being fully present for one another, is the beauty of our time together.
This is 53. I can’t wait to see what 54 holds in store.