As I stepped up to traverse another stretch of sidewalk along the mean streets of Tacoma (the nearest runner half a mile ahead) I dodged a generator with a thick yellow cord strung between it and a decrepit, older model RV. I realized while spending 5.2 of my Leg 11’s six miles on streets or sidewalks, that the Runner 5 position in Rainier to Ruston wasn’t “the” short stick but simply short-stickish in a different way than that of my teammates. Fortunately, by the time I began to worry about my safety (having passed more than one thirty-something-year-old guy toting a backpack), I had crossed to the west side of the Thea Foss Waterway and, a few minutes later, handed off to Jennifer, our Runner 6.
In June of 1985, Jennifer and I ran the Sound to Narrows 12K in Tacoma. We were 21 years old and it was the first road race for both of us. We had met just a year before while living in the same sorority just off of the University of Washington campus while taking the same Metro bus routes to and from our jobs at the Pike Place Market. Running together along Greek Row, Ravenna Boulevard, the Burke-Gilman Trail and around Green Lake solidified our friendship. As for the race, she most remembers the hill at the end and I–that (at my suggestion) we removed the strip along the bottom of our race bibs and discarded them before the race. Back in the day, organizers would thread these strips on a wire in order to help verify the order of the finishing runners, which made it awkward when we arrived without them. A year later, we completed a second race together: the Seattle Torchlight Run For the next three decades, we reconnected as much as possible, which wasn’t often, completed college, grew up, married, and raised families. It took a bit of coaxing to convince Jennifer (my friend of 35 years!) to host a Rainier to Ruston team of six women, but I eventually wore her down. But then, she lives along the course. And the team would include her daughter Ali. My sister JoDee and her daughter Vanessa were the second of two Mother-Daughter Pairs. Marci and I were the Spares.
We agreed to sign up for Wave B, which is for teams with an average pace of 10-11 minutes/mile. Race day weather was perfectly sunny and clear with zero precipitation in the forecast. As we drove towards the Carbon River entrance to Mt Rainier National Park, we were nervous. Nowhere did we see a single vehicle decorated or marked in such a way as to suggest they were headed towards R2R. Finally, half an hour before our start time, we noticed several vans decorated with brightly-colored markers and the required participant sign. We breathed a collective sigh of relief, followed the pack, parked and walked towards the first of seven bell standards, which racers pass through at each checkpoint in order to commemorate old railroad. Just before Ali/Runner 1 lined up for the start, Sasquatch agreed to be photographed with our team. The race official, participants, and spectators then counted down the last ten seconds and sent the Wave B teams on their way. Ali ran along the road her entire 4.9-mile leg, then slapped hands with JoDee/Runner 2, who announced after her 6.9-mile, supposedly most difficult and secluded leg, “We have to do this again!” Vanessa/Runner 3, Marci/Runner 4, Me/Runner 5 and Jennifer/Runner 6 ran along 12-foot wide by 25-mile long Foothills Trail, which “sits atop a historic railroad bed and snakes through the river valley southeast of Tacoma.” We cheered each other on while carefully maneuvering our way to and through parking lots at the exchange points.
The terrain for the second set of legs included less unpaved trail and more sidewalk and became more of a challenge as the temperature rose. Ali spent her second leg from Orting to McMillin along a stretch of familiar trail-where she’d completed much of her training for the race. JoDee’s Leg 8 followed paved trail and Vanessa’s Leg 9-a mixture of paved trail and sidewalk. Marci’s Leg 10, shown on the Course Conditions table as “Unpaved Trail” and referred to as Fife Beach was, in fact, a four-mile-long stretch of sand so challenging that organizers bribed all of those stuck with the leg with a special please-don’t-complain-how-bad-it-was medal. And in our only hiccup of sorts, while waiting for her to arrive at the Leg 11 Exchange, we first learned of the requirement for the next runner to wear a safety vest for the Fife to Tacoma section. Jennifer/Runner 6 anchor-legged us through the hottest part of the day on a route that alternated between the east and west sides of the highway and ultimately along the waterfront where she dodged runners, walkers, strollers, bikers, and scooters as she made her way to the finish at Marine Park.
Eight hours and twenty minutes after our 7:00 am start, Runners One through Five joined Jennifer as she crossed the finish line. Mother-Daughter Pairs and Spares finished faster than expected. Our team, made up of two mother-daughter pairs and two spares, ages 25 to 56, placed 9th of 64 teams in the Women’s Open 6-Person Division. Several times during the day, JoDee suggested a return to the Rainier to Ruston in 2020. My thought (as I ran in the heat): too soon. Once done, we posed for a group photo, gained entry into the beer garden for foamy draft beer, then accepted the eagerly-anticipated half of a grilled-cheese sandwich we’d been hearing about all day (way overrated with its American cheese and lack of butter on the bread). But the race was not about the cheese sandwiches. It was about completing a 53-mile quest along a scenic course, uniting as a team of family and friends, old and new, with a common goal of running Rainier to Ruston.