We are happy to share a piece from a fellow trail runner and friend, Elissa Kellner. Her words are both raw and beautiful, as she reflects on motherhood, dreams and adventures in 2020.
2020 has been a year lived in the interim, a year of postponements, a year of waiting. This is an experience shared by many—since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, life has taken on a quality of suspended animation. Events have been deferred, milestones passed unmarked, and races cancelled.
Against this backdrop, I have experienced my own private season of waiting. A season of blood draws and hormone supplements and surgery. A year of trying and praying for another baby. A year of feeling impatient to skip the in-between times and go straight to the finish line.
In grief and frustration running has always been my solace. I love an excuse to spend time outside in the woods and on dirt roads, both with friends and alone.
I love races, the community around them, the aid-station snacks, the cowbells ringing at the finish line. In the absence of these events this year, I have become acutely aware of the way in which these experiences typically mark and give meaning to the passage of the year.
I signed up and completed several virtual races but they lacked….something. I can’t quite put my finger on it. They just felt empty and hollow somehow. I felt the need for something bigger and bolder, a way to prove to myself that even in this challenging time I was still me. I toyed with the idea of doing a self-lead solo 50K, but the logistics of lining up water refills and aid stations were daunting, especially since I have a toddler at home and my husband is notoriously bad at navigating our dirt roads.
And then my friends, Krista and Guy posted about completing the Mount Ascutney ‘Triple Ascent’. This cult challenge was founded years ago by local legend, Laura Farrell. The object is simple: to summit the 3,144-foot monadnock three times. There are four state park trails to the summit and one unofficial “locals” trail. To complete the challenge, any combination of trails can be used.
Mount Ascutney rises abruptly from the surrounding lowlands of the Connecticut River Valley. This dramatic contrast means that the grade of each trail is steep.
I knew that I wouldn’t be able to sustain a full day of running up and down the mountain and live to tell the tale, so I instead opted to fast-hike the ascents and run the descents when it felt appropriate to do so.
My birthday is at the beginning of September, so I decided to complete the challenge on Labor Day weekend. Spending a day on the mountain was a perfect birthday present to myself and the chosen day was several weeks before a scheduled surgery into which I wanted to go feeling 100% recovered.
The day of the challenge, I met up with my friends, Emily and Michael at the Weathersfield Trail head. The air was cool, and the waning moon was still shining in the western sky when we began our ascent. We spent the climb chatting and laughing. They are two of my favorite people and their company made the first leg go by quickly.
We were the only people at the summit and spent a couple minutes snapping photos and having a quick snack before heading down the Bicentennial Trail. At the base of the Bicentennial Trail I had another snack and said goodbye to Emily and Michael before turning around and heading back up the trail for my second ascent.
The Bicentennial Trail is one of my favorite hikes. It is short, extremely steep, and not particularly well-looked after. But man is it beautiful!
It is the only trail that is not part of the Mount Ascutney State Park, it is instead maintained by the West Windsor Town Forest. The fact that it doesn’t appear on official trail maps turned out to be an absolute blessing. I started my second ascent at 9:40 am on the Saturday of Labor Day weekend and did not see another soul until I reached the summit.
This second ascent was more painful than the first: my quads were starting to fatigue, and the extreme elevation gain was challenging. I knew that this solo part was going to be hard. There was no one to distract me from my physical and mental discomfort. I alternated between singing out loud to scare off bears and contemplation of the past year and the unexpected turns world and personal events had taken.
About halfway up the trail, I spotted the most incredible sight. On a rocky piece of soil sat a large stump. The bottom of the stump was fragmented and gnarled, but from it, sticking out at a 90-degree angle, grew a new limb. The limb shot straight out for a couple yards before turning upwards towards the blue September sky where the sun illuminated its green leaves.
I do not know what tragedy of the natural world had befallen that tree, but she had emerged scarred and beautiful, changed and strong.
In her I saw the transformative grace of hardship. Sometimes life doesn’t look the way we thought it would: plans fall through, dreams are unfulfilled. We are broken by life and love and loss in unexpected and painful ways. But even when we feel like we are in pieces, we can still reach for that little piece of sky, raising our leaves to the light.
I held the image of that tree in my mind for the rest of the day. As I summitted for the second time, I could feel my sneakers starting to chafe. I was grateful that Emily had insisted I carry an extra pair of socks. I planned to change them at the top. When I got to the summit, however, it was unbelievably crowded.
Clearly my meditative solitude on the Bicentennial Trail wasn’t indicative of the volume of traffic on the more “official” trails. I put on my mask and took a quick picture at the geological survey marker that indicates the point of highest elevation before getting out of there. It had been six months since I’d been around any kind of crowd and the number of people was shocking. I ended up changing my shoes a little way down the trail on a small boulder.
I headed down the Brownsville Trail, which is my absolute favorite trail on the mountain. The varied terrain of the trail is divided into three distinct sections. Closest to the summit, the topography is marked by steep ascents and large boulders of granite.
Next, is a section of large switchbacks surrounded by coniferous trees. This section is a little slick on the downhill but offers a nice reprieve for feet after the stones. Further down, the trail merges into the old single-span granite quarry road. I ran big sections of this descent, enjoying the piney switchbacks and momentum afforded me by the downhill.
At the Brownsville Trailhead, my husband, Steve, and Emily met me with food and water refills. I gobbled down some ham and pickle rollups and then Steve and I headed back up the trail for my third and final ascent. We would take the Brownsville Trail to the top and then complete the final decent on the Windsor Trail.
It had been a long time since Steve and I had the opportunity to hike together without our 30-pound daughter in the baby backpack. And while we really enjoy our family hikes, getting the chance to spend a few hours alone together in the woods was an absolute joy. We are lucky enough to have family living nearby, but in the age of COVID, time spent alone together has been rare. The third and final ascent passed quickly—the rocky portions of the trail were much easier to navigate with the distraction of good conversation.
We caught up on books we had read, podcasts we were listening to, and funny things our daughter had done or said. We took time to take stock of our present and look ahead to what we hoped our future would look like. We were both feeling exhausted by the current season of life.
So much of the past year felt like we had been on pause—hoping for another baby, navigating a pandemic and the resulting isolation, living through a summer of seemingly endless emergency renovations on our home. But now here we were, achieving something. We were moving again toward some kind of goal; however small it might be in the grand scheme of things.
I had gone into this year fully planning on running the 50K race in the Vermont 50. The race happens every September and is easily my favorite day of the year. But 2020 was a year of broken expectations, deferred hopes, and recalibrated plans. There was no Vermont 50 this year. And there was no new Kellner baby on the horizon.
The things I wanted and expected were just not happening.
But sometimes what we want and what we need are two very different things. The Triple Ascent turned out to be exactly what I needed. I spent a beautiful day in the woods and pushed my body in new and exciting ways. All-in-all, I hiked 17.5 miles and climbed over 6,800 feet. I spent 8 hours in the woods, looking up to fragments of September-blue sky. I found joy in the time spent on the trail both alone and with loved ones.
And what is hiking but time spent in the interim? If we were to skip over the time spent working our way up and go straight to the summit, we would miss the conversations, the laughter, the inspirational trees, and the awkward solo singing at imaginary bears.