Several months ago, I participated in a storytelling festival at NHIA where the fablous NHPR Host and Producer, Virginia Prescott, was MC. We hit it off instantly. I was feeling a bit vulnerable that night, having struggled to write a piece about my childhood in Northern Vermont (“As the story goes, I was conceived in the back seat of a Pontiac in Avon, Connecticut on prom night in 1964…”). Virginia’s not a runner, but on hearing that I was missing my running posse in Maine, she mentioned that she’s close with a devoted group of trail runners in Concord. It took me several months to follow up, but with the head space of a few weeks off, I finally connected with Kate and Julianne, and they invited me to a join a group run at the Oak Hill Trails last Wednesday.
I pulled into the parking lot and found a cluster of runners—some looked lean and fast, and others like ultras, geared up with water packs; they all looked like they were fully in the running game! I pulled in, hopped out, and was welcomed heartily by the group. At 6:05, around 14 of us headed into the woods. Some planned to do the Fire Tower Trail and others a more scenic, less hilly route. As we hit the trail, I decided I’d do the hill, given my upcoming Greylock Road Race in September. The race consists of 8 paved miles straight up, so I need all the hills I can get. A small group of us veered left and headed toward the tower. I was relieved to find the pace comfortable and the group social rather than competitive. We chatted about running, work, and family. A few of them were just getting into the ultra scene, and were preparing to run the 32 mile Pemigewasset loop in a few weeks. I was intrigued, as I hiked those trails multiple times when my sons were young, but that was long before I developed my passion for running. The group got quiet and spread out a bit during the steeper part of the climb, but we all gathered at the top to chat and catch our breath. After a few minutes and some pit stops, we crossed the clearing and began to run down a back trail, which would complete a wiggly lollipop loop and take us back to the trail head.
It turns out that two of the runners, Michael and Jeff, had been doing the USATF trail running series, so we compared notes as we ran. It’s a tough series, but if you complete 5 races, you get an automatic pass into the annual Mt. Washington event. That race sells out in minutes, so it’s a good motivation to stick with the series. I’ve completed Sleepy Hollow, Pack Monadnock, Cranmore, and Loon Mountain, so if I manage Greylock, I’ll be rewarded with a pass to a brutally tough race up Mt. Washington in 2018!
As we ran, we started talking about the difference in training for road marathons versus trail ultras, and I was immersed in listening to the others tell their racing and training stories. The trail was pretty technical, and as we ran down a hill and into a dip, my toe caught a rock, and I hit the ground hard. I felt (and heard!) my head hit a rock, and quickly realized I wasn’t able to hop back up. The guys in front of me turned around to look. I pressed my hand to my forehead and felt that it was wet. One of the guys took a look and said, “Uh oh, not good.” Michael handed me his buff, and I pressed it against the wound. I could feel the blood pumping and knew I had to get my heart rate down and get out of the woods. Jeff pulled off his sweat-soaked shirt and wrapped it tight around my head so the pressure would limit the bleeding, and we started walking out as a group. We were over a mile in so it took a while to trek out. I hadn’t blacked out or seen stars, but I had taken a hit to the head. I didn’t feel like I was getting loopy or about to pass out, but just in case a concussion was about to manifest, we exchanged some key phone numbers, and I let them know where my car key was. We began strategizing for how to get me to the hospital, as it was pretty clear stitches would be in order. Every person in the group stuck with me, offering support and distraction on the way out. Kate and I exchanged tales and started laughing about the ridiculousness of the situation. I couldn’t stop apologizing for interrupting their run, insisting, “I never fall!” “I run trails all the time!” “This isn’t my first rodeo!”
It was a long walk out, and when the parking area came into view, I thanked everyone and got into the passenger seat of my car. I was eager to get to the hospital to assess the damage. Kate got behind the wheel, taking a quick back route to Concord Hospital, and Julianne and David followed in a second car. The waiting room was pretty full, but given that I had a head injury, I was brought back quickly for an assessment. The steadfast Kate accompanied me, capturing a few shots of the the wound reveal. The major cut was on my eyelid, just below the eyebrow, and I was told that I was lucky it had clean edges; it must’ve been a sharp rock! After my initial vitals were taken, the nurse fast-tracked me to the doctor. Kate, wonderfully determined to make sure I wasn’t left alone, stuck with me until it was time for stitches. As we waited in the procedure room, the ER nurse, Becky, came in to say that the doctor, “Jon Snow,” would be in shortly.
Kate and I looked at each other, exclaiming, “Jon Snow? No Way!” and in unison, “Game of Thrones!”
The nurse chuckled, “he doesn’t look much like that Jon Snow.”
We cracked up. Actually, we spent a good part of the time in the hospital laughing and telling each other tales, noting how one of the best things about running is how it generates stories and comradery. This was certainly going to become one of those stories. As the doctor came in, Kate took off to get back to her family and relieve her babysitter. I thanked her for being so amazing–we’d gone from total strangers to good friends in the space of a few hours.
As Doctor Snow gathered his needle and thread, I asked, “You’ve done this before, right?”
“A few times,” he replied. When I looked at him askance, he said, “A few times tonight!”
He went on: “I don’t know if it’s the coming eclipse that’s causing gravity to work extra hard, but I’ve been sewing up cyclists all night who’ve been coming in from the Highland Mountain Bike Park.” He brought the needle to my eyelid, saying “okay, this is going to be the worst part.” After a few shots to the lid, all I could feel was pushing and tugging as he cleaned out “quite a bit of dirt and grass,” then the tugging sensation of the 5 stitches. I hadn’t developed a headache or gotten too loopy, so it looked as if I’d avoided a concussion. In addition to the cut and black eye, my hip had a serious bruise and I’d sprained 3 fingers on my left hand. I was banged up, but cleared to drive home.
I felt pretty out of it but managed to navigate my way back to the condo in Manchester. I stayed up for a few hours, trying to relax and catch up with myself. I would occasionally have a falling sensation out of the blue, and I could tell that my body was in shock. I finally fell asleep thinking with gratitude about how caring and generous this group of strangers had been, and how I can’t wait to run with them again. They’re imprinted on me through the shared sweat and blood experience.
Hate has such a loud voice in the world right now, and I feel sheepish sharing this story, as if it’s myopic to devote words to a small personal mishap. It’s essential to be vigilant in using our voices to witness what seems to be a growing or resurgent sociocultural sickness, but I would suggest that witness to small kindnesses–to the essential goodness of people–should stand alongside the larger witness against racism, sexism, xenophobia, and hate. I’m grateful to have felt such unequivocal support and care from a group of former strangers. These small miracles give me hope.