The 2020 OCR race season is slowly waking up like the spring flowers and we face the season anew. Maybe a little older, a little wiser and hopefully a lot stronger than we went into the off season. We experienced the happiness of the holidays, the cold and darkness of winter for those in colder climates and life in general. Maybe the reason why we race has changed and evolved, maybe we’ve met a new teammate to race with and for some, like myself, maybe some of us have lost a teammate.
The question I am about to pose is not rhetorical. It's a genuine question put out to the community. How do you race after the death of a teammate? You see, as I write this it has been 12 weeks and three days since we said goodbye to one of my closest friends and it has been 13 weeks and three days since she left this earth and joined the ethereal plane.
Meet Paula, 46 year old mother of two and endurance athlete. She had been doing OCR for 3.5 years and it was OCR that brought us together. However, she was just one of those people who I was destined to be friends with. Her last OCR race was the Boston Super in August 2019 before her ovarian cancer returned with a vengeance. She lost her battle in November. A battle that still haunts me.
I met Paula in July 2016 through some mutual friends at the gym. She was a 5am person and I was a 5pm person. However on this day we both ended up at an outdoor training facility that simulated an OCR course. Paula had been talked into doing the upcoming Boston Super with us and she was terrified. The ironic thing that I still laugh about to this day is that this woman had 35+ marathons, five ironmans, hundreds of road races and had done the swim from Alcatraz multiple times (with sharks in the bay!). This woman was terrified of a Spartan race?!
After that day we were instant friends and in some ways very similar. Sarcastic, optimistic and driven. Sometimes I felt in ways I was looking at myself 11 years into the future in terms of personality and outlook on life. Paula was a pretty even keeled person and was always supporting those around her. She got through that Spartan Super in 2016 and like everyone else, was hooked.
In 2017, a small group of us decided we were going to go for our Spartan Trifecta. At that point 2017 would be my third full season in OCR and I loved odd numbers so why not? (2017, 3 years you get the point). While I personally never felt I was ready (who ever is) I knew I had at least two partners by my side who I could get through this with. Paula was one and our other friend Daria. One day in the spring of 2017 while on a trail run with Paula, I expressed my frustration of not being a fast runner. She empathized and that's when she planted the seed to look at longer more endurance focused races. Shortly after I decided to sign up for my first half marathon in November. Originally I thought “no way, it’s too long of a distance for me.” This was followed by other friends pointing out I’ll be 8 weeks removed from having done the Killington Beast.That a flat half marathon was doable. I remember texting Paula about signing up and no surprise was thrilled and enthusiastically said yes to training me.
As a result, we spent a lot of time on the trails and on long runs. I loved our long runs, it was therapy for her and for me. I always would hear about her sons and their accomplishments, her oldest even joined in the fun at a few Spartan races. We would talk about trials and tribulations of life (work, dating life for me, family etc) and she would share all she learned about fueling, pace and everything else under the sun for longer distance running.
We all went on to earn our trifecta and 13 months after being “terrified” of an OCR race, I saw this woman, who had earned the nickname “the iron lady” chew up the beast at Killington and spit it out. She ran a burpee free race, chewed up the death march (and everything else) and got us all through the course, all with a smile on her face. Post race I learned all about recovery. I distinctly remember having a massive headache at the hotel. Paula turned to me, pointed to the cherry coke and said “drink it,” being the brat I am I told her I hate cherry coke. She didn’t care, she said shut up and drink it. That was the best tasting cherry coke I ever had.
November 2017 came and true to her promise, Paula did pace me for my first half. I got through with a smile on my face and we had a blast. We even joked at her rock hard lower abs she had, which isn’t something she had since before kids. Then the cancer struck. After going to the doctor with what she thought was food poisoning it was determined Paula had stage two ovarian cancer. Underneath those rock hard lower abs was a softball size cyst that had partially ruptured. With the support of her family and friends, Paula kicked that cancer into remission and her last day of chemo was April 25th. Six weeks later the two of us were toeing the line at a 10k trail run at our local mountain. She then proceeded to beat me by 4 minutes. Iron lady still had it. A couple of weeks after this race Paula, Daria, and I, along with Paula’s oldest son and a few others, ran the Tough Mudder Half in Massachusetts. While she was a little weaker and had a lot less hair she had her megawatt smile and boundless energy. Paula was back in the mud with her friends and we could not have been happier.
At some point in 2018 I began toying with the idea of running Toughest. So as usual, I consulted with Paula and as usual we agreed to do it together. Little did I know this would be one of the last races we would run together. The teacher and the student ran 12 hours through the night, pushing each other to keep moving and working through the obstacles that frightened us. “Forward movement” is what we would say during those dark hours. Sometimes we ran in silence, other times we couldn’t stop talking. It was just a really really really long run. Paula would say “It’s like fun, but different” and blame me for talking her into this, secretly she loved it and she knew it. She even went as far to write on the back of her bib something along the lines of “she told me this would be fun, she lied” with an arrow pointing to me.
There is one moment during the race I want to mention. This really does speak to the essence and the good of the OCR community. It was our first time going around Mudderhorn. Paula did not like heights and Mudderhorn is just high enough to freak you out. I remember going up, over and down and Paula still on the other side. I’m talking her through it and next thing I know two others are talking her through. I forget the guy’s name, but he climbed up over and down with her and a few waiting on the other side to hug her. These men didn’t have to, but instead they wanted to. I cannot tell you how much that meant to her, so for the folks who may be reading this and did it I just want to say thank you. You have absolutely no idea how important that was to her and how good that made her feel. It's one of my favorite memories of that race.
In August 2019, we ran the afternoon heat of the Boston Super. This was the first time her son ran ahead and completed the race way ahead of us. I cannot tell you how proud she was of this. Hell, I was proud of the kid and I’m not even a parent! We frequently talked about races for next season. How she wanted to do a trifecta weekend, maybe give Killington another go and if I could talk her into it looking to do Toughest again. Her goal was to get back to the fitness level she was at before cancer. I had no doubt that she would. Sadly, little did we know this would be the very last race we would ever do together.
September came and she felt unwell, after a couple of rounds of antibiotics and no improvements, tests showed that in fact her cancer had come back. This news came in early October and we learned that it had spread. Chemo was attempted and in November we learned the cancer was winning. She chose to stop treatment, if she was going to go it was going to be on her terms. November 27th, I received a text message from her husband that she had died early that morning.
They say hearing is the last sense to go. Not 36 hours before, I was by her bedside and my last words to her were, “I love you, come haunt me in my dreams.” She has and I find my house is filled with ladybugs in the middle of winter. I like to think it’s her saying hello.
Grief is not linear and there is no one way to grieve. Right now, I think the shock has worn off and I’m past the anger stage. I’m still processing the fact she is gone. Helping to clean out her belongings, and having some articles of hers that are near and dear to my heart, has brought comfort. Eventually, I will get back out on the race course. I was finally able to get back out and run and not break into tears.
I share all this with you to show how much of an integral part of the OCR experience a teammate, a friend or a coach can be. It’s almost like running without socks. You can do it, but you probably shouldn’t.
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