So many lessons in one week

Written on Jun 15th, 2014 by , Category Marlene Farrell Blog, Trail Running, Training

Laura Valaas, left, and Marlene Farrell take in the sights from Icicle Ridge near Leavenworth before running back down the trail.


By Marlene Farrell

I returned to Leavenworth after a week’s removal from responsibility and running. I had inhabited a water world where islands reared out of the blue horizon and my home shrunk to a rolling platform 15 strides from bow to stern. I had begun to decipher the language of wind and waves and respond, using the sails and the wheel as my voice.

But of course we returned, to our children and the obligations that build and teeter and threaten to avalanche.

I found myself with a last-minute invitation for a trail run with my friend Laura. The 4th of July trail to Icicle Ridge, though not hefty on mileage, is still big in terms of elevation (more than 5,000 feet of gain).

Win Van Pelt and Marlene

Rather than spending my prep time double-checking the snow level with the Forest Service or studying the route in detail, I waved off those needs to coordinate having my Seattle friend, Win Van Pelt, join us.

The run was spectacular as always, through at least four wildflower zones. But along the ridge the fields of flowers were replaced with snow fields, sprouting silver trunks that shined in the bright sunshine. We found ourselves fanning out to look for clues of a trail untrammeled since last fall. A ribbon of dirt, slightly depressed from the surrounding land, escaped me but not my friends’ keen eyes. We repeated the process every time the trail led to a new wide patch of snow. We had to guess over which humps the trail meandered since we didn’t bring a map (when Win asked if we should bring one, I said, “Oh, we can’t get lost! There’s only one intersection.”).

After all that foot-sliding, ankle-jarring snow and the foot-sinking, high-stepping snow, we were at last on the trail for good, with a 5,000 foot descent ahead. I hung at the back, lying to myself that this didn’t hurt already and I wouldn’t ache for days afterward. We got to the bottom with empty water bottles but smiling. My smile was nagged by the thought that I should have been the most prepared, instead of the least. Assumptions, like “Who needs a map?” or “How much snow can there be on top?” can be uncomfortable lessons indeed.

My second lesson came a few days later, once I was no longer hobbling. I ran up steep Ranger Road and down the Rosy Boa trail with its twisty turns and precipitous drop-offs. There are a few spots where I feel like I’m on the brink of the sky. My gait, from still tight quads and shoes without traction, was annoyingly choppy and clumsy. I heard a sound in the brush behind me, probably some nimble animal. I was half right — nimble she was as she flew past me, leaving me in the whiff of dust that she raised.

My mind reeled in some quick conclusions. Running on this trail meant she was a local, but relatively new because I had never seen her before. She was so speedy I caught only bits of an image — a woman in her 20s, with a ponytail of long brown hair and a stride smooth like a gazelle but with the maneuverability of a mountain goat through the rocks.

I was simultaneously impressed and depressed. It seemed another sign of my striving for that elusive fitness that used to seem guaranteed. I know I am taking myself too seriously, but I am a female athlete, knocking on the door of the 40s and I must define myself with a different measuring stick, one that weighs will and determination more heavily than speed.

Marlene and Laura head toward a patch of snow.

I had the Red Devil 25K trail race near Cashmere a few days later. I made the mental calculations and figured the new competition would be there. And she was there. I recognized her and we talked. I realized, threat though she was, she was also affable and even knew some of my Seattle running friends.

It was a hotter race than normal. I chose not to carry water but to rely on the two aid stations at Mile 5 and Mile 9. Of course I would still have six miles to run after the second aid station, with more than a third of it uphill. I guess, veteran racer that I am, I needed to learn one more lesson this week. I knew I could run the first five-mile uphill section faster without water, but I would suffer for it at the end of the race. I just forgot how excruciating that would be, trying to increase the pace while the blood thickens in my veins and my skin tingles and shivers.

But I learn who I am in the process. I can’t deny that I thrive, not only on competition, but also on pushing my own limit. I like (after the fact, anyway) the steady stream of mind/body talk with my mind soothing the part of the body that aches and is pleading to stop. I flirt with whatever my limit is that day so the finish line is exactly where it should be and not one step further. It’s even sweeter when I am the first woman, of any age, across that line.

Running is my teacher. And after 25 years, I am still learning.

Marlene Farrell, a Leavenworth resident and long-distance runner, helps coach the Peshastin-Dryden Striders kids running club. If you are interested in helping out the Striders in some fashion, email her at

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