Sunday, December 31, 2017

embracing the unknown

Do you ever find yourself in uncharted territory?

Last June when I arrived in New Hampshire for the Cranmore Mountain Race (US Mountain Running Championships), Suzy West (of Brattleboro, Vermont) and Nancy Hobbs (of Colorado Springs, Colorado), who I’ve met at other races, invited me to join them for the World Masters Mountain Running Championships in Slovakia. Suzy said, “Sara, we’re flying into Budapest on a Tuesday. We have a week.” Next thing I knew, she and Francis Burdett (of Southeast, New York) were picking me up at the Budapest Airport in their rental car.
Francis and Suzy at dinner our first night together
It was great Francis decided to join in (had met him at the same 2015 race in Wales, the only other time I had been to Europe), as he got us everywhere we needed to go and was really savvy with Airbnb (he also has the remarkable ability to subsist on Mars Bars and Coke Zero!). The view from the apartment he got us along the Danube in Budapest was stellar:
Hungarian Parliament Building
Once Nancy arrived, we crossed the border and spent a night in Banská Štiavnica, a medieval town in Central Slovakia designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The wonderful thing about traveling with runners is that they’ll get you up at the crack of dawn for a run, even when you’d rather be sleeping, so you get to see a lot. This super-fun and incredibly generous bunch took care of absolutely everything during our escapades (they were much more experienced than me in all things European).
Nancy greets most days with a run
At the Parade of Nations in Pruske-Vršatec, we found another friend, Chris Grauch (of Boulder, Colorado). Race day was magical. Chris won bronze and his girlfriend Charlie Woodcock got so excited when Chris made his final push up an amazingly steep stretch that they turned the video on her…(we all love Charlie!).
Charlie and Nancy
Stars aligned for me, too. I remained focused when the going got tough – words of my high school coach (Mike Olson) telling me that I was representing my country came to mind. I also thought about Flagstaff and all the experiences leading up to this one that had prepared me. When I wanted to let up, I realized the time was now and stayed on the gas (making me think of my only other real coach, Mike Smith).

Early-on in the race I heard Charlie exclaim, “Brilliant!” in her British accent as I passed. When Frances went by me he exclaimed, “Go girl!” (both were a nice surprise, considering I wasn't expecting any personalized support racing so far from home). I got passed by women twice during the race, so most of the way I was trying to hang on for third. Then I fought for silver. I closed the gap on a very tall Italian who had been talking with me toward the top – that’s when I realized we were in in different age divisions.

On the final, rugged ascent, Nancy’s voice rose above the rest, screaming at me to GO!!!, over and over and over again (I wondered if she couldn’t see that I was trying my absolute hardest to still run, despite the unrelenting slope!). Nancy’s incessant commands worked, because next thing I knew, the Italian faltered on the terrain, along with a Scottish gentleman I had been trading places with nearly the entire race – both of them encouraged me to go around them on the single track, so I glided by. People were cheering in so many languages. Somehow, we reached the top. I knew the finish came fast after that, descending on a paved road, so my mind took me to Team Run Flagstaff track practice – I threw the hammer down, doing my best not to let anyone pass me into the chute. I was happy to finish in what I thought was second place.

The women I had been racing near came up to me one by one. That Scottish guy introduced himself, too – Neil. We all talked, so relaxed. I reunited with Francis and Suzy. We retrieved our bags, put on warm clothes, found Chris and Charlie, and celebrated his great race. We ate cookies, basking in the afterglow. As we waited for the shuttle to head down from the top, I said I wanted to glance at the scoring sheets.

Suzy went with me. I turned to her, perplexed. “My name’s at the top.” She gave me the most heartfelt hug. I exclaimed disbelief. I looked again, thinking a mistake had definitely been made. She hugged me again. Turns out the woman who had smoked me was over 50 and therefore in another division (as was the person I had passed near the end, who finished just six seconds behind me).  My division was tight – the next woman, a Slovak, was 27 seconds behind me, and an Italian 42 seconds back. I had the sixth-fastest time of the day (four younger women, aged 35 and up, and someone older had beaten me).
Charlie, Chris, Francis, me, Suzy, and Zach kicking back after the race
The awards ceremony was great. We reunited with another American, our friend Zach Freudenburg (who’s been living in Holland for seven years so races for the Netherlands). Zach won the entire race, with the fastest time of the day, overall!

I spent a couple more days with my traveling companions before departing for Prague on my own (thanks to Paul Brinkmann, who had told me I couldn’t be that close and not see it). Thankfully, I found the right train (this was when I realized I was “alone” in Europe for the first time ever – during the 2015 Wales trip, I had traveled with Jorg Lorenz, the father of my aunt and uncle’s German exchange student, who took care of everything just as my American friends had). 

Budapest Keleti Train Station

My Airbnb hostess Monika Komjatiová was dynamite. I had such a great time. Prague is a very special place, and she went out of her way to share tips only locals would know. Another highlight came when my brother, Jeremy, asked if I’d mind if he put me touch with his friends who live there – David and Pavla Karon totally took care of me, from the moment I arrived. I learned that when your brother has friends in Prague, you have friends in Prague, too. These people stepped straight out of a dream.

David, Dagny, and Pavla
Flagstaffians are everywhere also – I had dinner twice with Bob and Vanessa Tusso while in there. Finally, the day came to head to Brno, to hook up with my brother and the Hell on Earth Tour, of which his Chicago death metal band Broken Hope was one of four bands – Gloryhole Guillotine of Chicago, Hideous Divinity of Italy, and the headliner, Cattle Decapitation of San Diego (bear in mind I’m a folk music fan!). David, Pavla, their adorable daughter Dagny, pug Sucka, and I boarded a train together. Soon we were hanging out in Brno, awaiting the arrival of the tour bus. 

Jeremy and his bandmates came to the apartment to shower while we enjoyed Burcák (a tasty local concoction that’s only available for two weeks during harvest season). 
Yes, my brother’s hair is prettier than mine!
The band members congratulated me on my race and loyal fans came from far and wide to see Jeremy's band perform (one superfan even flew in from another country for their Czech Republic show, bringing her parents!).
Superfan and her folks

I was grateful to have David to take in the standing-room-only show with. 
Wonderful David
I was astonished to see people, one-by-one, paying tribute to my brother as they streamed out the door in the wee hours of the night. I witnessed the energy that only comes from intense dedication, both on performer and audience sides. I made some new friends, too!
Ramia Sari Bashi and her boyfriend
The tour bus rolled up to collect us at 3 AM – I got on the bus for a night, Vienna-bound! Once everything was loaded, we rolled. Like any good big bro would, Jeremy planned to give me his bunk and was in search of a blanket, pillow, and spot to curl up for the night. Fortunately for me, their tour manager Erol gave me my own bunk (luckily the bus had been switched out that very day, or the day before, so everything was super-fresh, despite the fact that they had been touring for three weeks!). We arrived at their next venue at noon.

Turns out metal guys are not much different than runners – they load and unload all their gear, like to warm up before they go on, their hosts put out a spread much like you’d find at TransRockies (well, minus all that cigarette smoke in Europe!) and recharge with water, Gatorade, and so on (one major difference, however, was how they all keep their hair tied up before going on, then cut loose for the performance, quite literally letting their hair down, then thrashing it all around…).  Let’s just say there’s more to Vienna than classical music and opera!
Damian, Diego, and Matt of Broken Hope

Fortunately, I got to experience another side of Vienna when my amazingly supportive brother booked me a luxury hotel for two nights, right off the Rinstraße. I showed him my gold medal when he showered at my hotel. He was so excited (“Wow, that’s awesome!”). We had a quiet meal on the hotel’s rooftop before Ubering back for his Vienna show, parting ways around midnight.

Jeremy and I grew up in Dancy, Wisconsin. 
As a teenager, some people scoffed at his dreams, telling him his band would never amount to anything. Decades later, he travels the world on a regular basis, is a published novelist, and so much more. He inspires me to reach for the stars, go against the grain, believe in myself, and create a life reflective of that. 

We don’t get there alone – who's helping you tap your true potential?

Sunrise at the Budapest Airport as I was about to head home

What a beautiful world it is when we energize possibility.

Live the way you run. Run happy.

Live the way you run. Run happy.
Thanks to Kevin Riley at Action in Solitude for this Buffalo Park (Flagstaff, Arizona) photo