Something was waiting for runner Brynn Cunningham in the Cook Forest that day.
The kind of thing every runner fears.
The kind of thing that can strike at any moment or hunt you down one baby step at a time.
Somehow Brynn knew she might come face to face with it in the Cook Forest, but she pushed that down deep hoping it would go away like a bad dream.
But run enough miles, and eventually it will find you.
When a race doesn't go as planned, you have to be prepared to make some tough decisions.
Here's what happened...
The Cook Forest Crush
This was supposed to be a story about running an easy 16.3 miles in the 2021 Cook Forest 25k trail race, held on August 21, in Forest County, Pennsylvania.
Instead, something not-so-easy happened.
Before I tell you about it, let me tell you about Cook Forest State Park.
The Cook Forest 25K
Any trail runner who lives within a 200-mile radius of Cook Forest and has searched ultrasignup.com for races has likely added this one to their list.
After all, the description beckons all who love nature.
“This trail race will send you across 13 of our state park trails connected into a 16-plus mile loop. We scramble up Seneca to the famous "fire tower." Then run along the scenic Clarion River. Miles of trails meander along the cool temps of Tom's Run. Spend the day running through some of the tallest living evergreen trees in PA.”
More research into the area beckons the trail-running nature lover even more.
From the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources Cook Forest State Park brochure:
Eleven old growth areas, totaling more than 2,300 acres
Most stands are dominated by ancient hemlock and white pine, but also contain ancient understory trees like white and chestnut oak, black cherry, red maple and cucumber trees.
Many white pine and hemlock trees approach 350 years old.
Scientists believe these old growth areas began growing following a large forest fire in 1644.
Some trees survived the fire and date back to the early 1500s.
The Forest Cathedral Natural Area is home to the finest stand of tall white pine and hemlock in the Northeastern U.S.
Many of these pine and hemlock trees exceed three feet in diameter with the tallest approaching 200 feet.
This forest remains in the midst of the area that saw the greatest logging boom in the history of Pennsylvania.
In the late 1800s, thousands of acres of old growth forests were cut for the shipbuilding and construction industries.
A tree connoisseur I am not. I can identify the beech and river birch by their bark. Others, I can identify by their leaves: sassafras, tulip poplar, oak and maple but not the different varieties, redbud, ash, black locust, sweet gum, sycamore, gingko, blue spruce, hemlock, white pine, red pine, sometimes cedar…. And that’s the extent of it.
Yet, I am a tree lover.
Another Way to Discover the Trees
Last year, Richard Power’s Pulitzer Prize winning book, The Overstory: A Novel, featuring colorful characters whose lives intertwine because of their passion for trees, became one of my all-time favorite fiction books, which I recommend to every adult on Earth, tree connoisseurs and tree lovers alike.
Possessing knowledge about trees certainly makes running through them a more intimate experience, but it isn’t everything. Their magnificent presence can be all a runner needs to fall in love with them.
We run through the trees to escape and find joy and peace all at once. They blanket, protect, inspire, hide and guide us. For the most part, at least where I live, they frame the paths upon which we run, like borders, keeping us safe and on track.
Through the seasons, they change, as do we. We grow gray and wrinkled while they decay, lose limbs and grow rings.
The bark, buds, leaves, roots, flowers all create photographs in our minds, memories of places we’ve been, perhaps countless times, and scenery that has placated and possibly healed our souls, lifted our spirits.
Called by the trees, I signed up for the Cook Forest 25k.
One could say everything I did before and in between the following events served as training.
“A heel spur is a calcium deposit causing a bony protrusion on the underside of the heel bone. On an X-ray, a heel spur can extend forward by as much as a half-inch. They are frequently associated with plantar fasciitis, a painful inflammation of the fibrous band of connective tissue (plantar fascia) that runs along the bottom of the foot and connects the heel bone to the ball of the foot. Heel spurs are especially common among athletes whose activities include large amounts of running. Risk factors (that pertain to me) for heel spurs include running, especially on hard surfaces, and having high arches.”
Over the next days and weeks, I did everything I knew to treat it...
(Disclaimer: I am not a doctor; these are things that have helped alleviate and even dispel this syndrome, as I am now on my third time dealing with it)
Daily morning vinyasa/power yoga, 75-90 minutes, which provides the greatest relief
Epsom salt and apple cider vinegar foot soaks, sometimes with peppermint or wintergreen essential oil
The sharp pain subsided, but the dull ache remained. At it’s best, my foot felt normal, and at its worst, it felt as if I were stepping on nails all day.
Soon, it became clear that I had to make a choice about the Cook Forest 25k.
Email the race director prior and receive a DNS (Did Not Start).
Hold onto hope that the spur would heal, and if not, let the race director know at packet pickup that I would be a DNS.
Begin the race, gauge the pain and risk a DNF (Did Not Finish).
The Night Before
My husband, two sons, ages four and eight, and I were tent camping at Ridge Campground, alongside two friends, Lauren and David, who were also running the race.
We went on a short, easy hike, which made my foot feel not-so-great, played chess with my sons and had dinner by the fire.
It did not feel like race day.
Typically, I am giddy on race day.
Instead, choices swirled through my head.
To sort out my thoughts, I did 20 minutes of yoga, myofascial release with the golf ball, soaked my feet in a hot peppermint-infused Epsom salt and apple cider vinegar bath, applied the TENS unit for 20 minutes and then put on KT Tape, followed by Injinji socks and La Sportiva Lycan II trail running shoes.
My foot, numbed by peppermint, felt better than it had in days.
Lauren, David and I rode to the start line together.
We never received an email outlining when or where to pick up packets, so we assumed two things:
We would check in at the start/finish area, which were the same, according to the photo of the course on ultrasignup.com.
If we showed up around 8 a.m., our bibs would be there.
Our assumptions were correct.
The Start Line
I held onto the glimmer of hope that perhaps this foot thing was a niggle, one that disappears courtesy of “race day magic.”
However, the realist in me knew better, but I wouldn’t really know until that first running step.
I braced myself and prayed for the best.
As the gun fired, I took that first running step.
Sadly, it was an uncomfortable one, made worse as we ran upon the paved River Road for about a mile, with the Clarion River to our left. I settled into the dirt along the berm, because the pavement against the heel spur hurt too much.
With each step, the peppermint that masked the pain wore off.
We entered Seneca Trail, a climb, where my foot was happier, but not exactly happy.
By mile two I was altering my gait, running on the outside of my right foot, and shuffling slowly.
My left hip flexor felt suddenly tweaked as I shifted most of my weight to the left side to take pressure off the now burning, agonizing right foot.
Compensation in body mechanics is never a good thing.
Maybe jumping on one leg all the way to the finish was an option?
Around mile three, even the flats felt awful.
I tried using my arms, but they simply couldn’t replace my legs.
Could I fly if I pump my arms vigorously enough?
The heel was screaming, my entire right side recoiling in pain.
The least I could do was take a photo with my phone, which I had stashed in my running vest for the first time ever in a race, just in case.
I stopped, looked up and captured a photo of the trees, the first photo I ever took during any race. At that moment, I knew it was over.
Nausea set in.
It felt increasingly as if someone were hammering a thick, blazing hot nail into the bottom of my foot, the pain spreading up the inner ankle, into the leg, hip, glute.
Mentally, I wanted to run.
Physically, my body shut down.
I was on the brink of doing serious damage, and no amount of “Hail Marys” would get me through this one.
Flashbacks of fracturing my left foot flooded my brain. If I kept running, I knew it would lead to a stress fracture, which would lead to misery for too many weeks.
I had been there before and was not willing to go back.
Soon, as if heaven sent, two women caught me. When they asked how I was, I told them the predicament.
They were angels, leading the way to the first aid station. I clung to their energy, willing myself to just make it.
We passed the first aid station and entered another short road section.
I ran past the aid station, almost making a terrible decision.
Yet, I could hardly put pressure on my foot. Enough was enough.
I said goodbye to the women, turned around and limped back to the aid station, tears welling in my eyes.
I had run 5.42 miles and could hardly walk.
My First Did Not Finish (DNF) Sets In
One racer coming through the aid station saw me, came up without saying a word and gave me the biggest, best hug, exactly what I needed. Later, I cheered for her as she finished, thanked her and learned her name was Gail. Another angel.
I had braced myself for the possibility of quitting, so why was all this making me cry?!
Erin, the aid station captain, helped me sit and gave me ice.
“My first DNF, and in a 25k!?”
“You have to take care of yourself,” she replied.
“I can’t complain,” and I told her about winning the Laurel Highlands 50k two years in a row, plus other wins and FKTs, as if announcing it would assure her, and myself, that I was not weak, that I do not regularly quit, that perhaps it was time for a break.
We laughed, and she agreed that I had much for which to be grateful, and yes, it was time for a break.
After wiping the tears, it seemed ridiculous to wallow in pity anymore, and everything was bright, clear, better. Well, not the foot, but the mind.
I straightened up, put it behind me, ready to go.
“What do you need?” Erin asked.
“To see my friend finish. She’s going to win.”
She confirmed that Lauren was in the lead and looking strong.
Erin, my aid station angel, drove me to the finish, five minutes away, where I settled in and waited.
Post-DNF Thoughts and Reflections
Waiting allowed ample time to reflect upon my first DNF.
With 50k being the longest distance I have ever run, I do not think I have run long enough to come close to a mental DNF, one where the mind breaks down. I cannot say for sure, but I think a mental DNF would be tougher than a physical DNF to process after the fact. A physical DNF is actually an easy choice - injury prevails and wins, the body cannot move, nothing more, nothing less.
Besides, after an injury-free, two-year streak of wins in distances from 3.5 miles to 50k and eight Fastest Known Times, these things are bound to happen. Pushing limits, playing the edge, taking risks all pose the potential for injury.
And they were all worth it.
Furthermore, I’ve been running for 27 years. My first debilitating running injury was shin splints at age 16. In my 20s, I had bruised metatarsals from stepping on a rock in Vibram five-finger barefoot running shoes and iliotibial band syndrome.
Many injuries, some short-lived, others tortuous, racked up from age 29 to 36, during two pregnancies and postpartum: piriformis syndrome, strained hamstring, sciatica, runner’s knee, iliotibial band syndrome, strained quad, two bouts of plantar fasciitis and heel spurs, plus a broken arm (from a mountain biking crash) and a fractured heel, all of which I attribute to the ridiculous yet miraculous inside and outside changes a woman’s body undergoes to bear children, and then to rear them, nurse them, hold them all day, on insanely minimal hours of sleep.
From these past injuries, I have learned that I will be running soon enough.
Additionally, if the Cook Forest 25k were an “A” race, or an ultra, one for which I trained for months and months, I would be more disappointed in the DNF.
If it were the Laurel Highlands 50k or a much-desired FKT, I would be shattered.
If I had a long string of injuries disrupting my running and racing, and this was another setback, I would be devastated.
If this were the first race after recovering from a recent pregnancy and childbirth, and I couldn't wait to participate, I would be distraught.
But it was none of those.
It was just a race for which I signed up for one month prior in order to run through a new-to-me forest.
Because I wanted to see the trees…
Thus, my very first DNF, forever on record, in a mere 25k, was not so bad.
I carry no shame, am happy that I tried and ultimately listened to my body and made a smart decision.