Strong thunderstorms the night before left the paved path muddy, punctuated by large puddles. Especially slippery were a partially leaf-covered boardwalk and footbridge. An unseen woodpecker rapped staccato accompaniment to the runners' beat as they pounded out the first segment of Sue Wen's Run --- a mixture of joy and sad remembrance.
Sue Wen Stottmeister was a preschool teacher, a runner, a mother, a nice person. She was murdered early last year while out jogging not far from here. On Memorial Day, 27 May 2002, some of her friends organized a four mile race. It started on the road in front of a neighborhood elementary school, turned down a path into Rock Creek Park, and then followed a route Sue often took, a heavily wooded trail alongside flowing waters.
Sue loved her country, and in her honor dozens of small flags were hung beside the course. The prizes for guessing how many? Traditionally symbolic apple pies. A volunteer official, Tara Wyckoff, sang "America the Beautiful" before the event began.
Then Connie Barton, race director and one of Sue Wen's running partners, spoke briefly about what a wonderful human being Sue was. Connie told of Sue's going out jogging with her at a critical time when Connie desperately needed to lose 3 pounds to fit into a dress: "Yes, it's a chick thing --- but it's also a friend thing," she said, with a catch in her voice that brought tears to the eyes of her listeners. Sue was like that.
Then it was time to run. The course was shaped roughly like a capital letter "T": starting at the base, it went to the crosspiece, bent to the right along the creek, did a U-turn half a mile upstream, proceeded back down to a parking lot turn-around, doubled on itself again to the center, and from there returned to the finish line at the bottom of the "T".
My own back-of-the-pack experience? I didn't expect to go fast --- and so I was dumbfounded when I checked my watch at the first mile mark and saw it read 7:35, a much brisker pace than I have run for decades. Several potential explanations come to mind:
No, strike that last hypothesis --- it fails to explain why she, and all the other racers around her, were equally startled by our first mile splits. And besides that, even sans t-shirt she remained modestly clad.
We ran together and chatted for the next mile and a half. She reported that she was recovering from knee surgery, hadn't expected to go faster than 9 minutes/mile, hailed from Colorado, didn't like the thick near-sea-level air, and had a fiance who was burning up the asphalt some minutes ahead of us. She was good at cheering on the leaders, already homeward bound, whom we met as we trotted down the trail. I followed her example. We took cups of water on the run from helpful volunteers.
We finished the second mile together in 9:02, a bit slower than I wanted to go, and when she lagged at the second turnaround I passed her and started pushing myself a bit harder for the final third of the race. I caught up with another woman who was setting a strong pace and then began to follow her. We swung by an older gentleman who advised us, "Don't look back, somebody may be gaining on you." I joked, "You're gaining on me," and he countered, "I'm gaining in reverse!" We chuckled together. Don't expect deep humor during a race.
Mile three took me 8:50. Then the fun began as we turned off the Rock Creek trail and headed uphill toward the finish line. My new pacer kept pulling me along at the perfect speed, a bit faster than I was comfortable with but not impossibly so; she thanked me after the race for pushing her similarly. We complained about the steep grade on the home stretch, a slope which was imperceptible when we did it in the opposite direction. We passed one more runner, sprinted across the parking lot, and then were in the chute at the end. My watch said 8:42 on the last mile, for a total time somewhat over 34 minutes.
Then it was our turn to pant, walk about, stretch, drink, and start eating. In line with the patriotic theme of the day post-race snack spreads included red, white, and blue tortilla chips, plus the customary bagels, fruit, cookies, and other munchies. Henry Stottmeister, Sue's husband, presented apple pies to contest winners who came closest to the correct flag count (97), and to the runners who wore the most patriotic attire.
We applauded each other, and went home. As usual, the Montgomery County Road Runners Club (http://www.mcrrc.org) and its volunteer officials did a superb job of organizing and managing the race. Hats off to Connie Barton, Cindy Hamilton, and everyone else involved --- some of whom stayed awake through the previous night's thunderstorms and arrived at dawn to clean debris off the course and set up for the event.
Near the trail by the creek where Sue Stottmeister once ran, in an alcove among the trees, there is an arrangement of racing medals and ribbons and bright flowers --- a small, personal memorial. We saw it as we passed by, and thought of Sue Wen.
(see also Memorial Day, 28 May 2002)