The other day I was driving down Blackberry where the concrete fades into gravel and the road winds along the edge of the valley. It was a glorious afternoon. The canopy moved with the flutter of a thousand bright leaves, eagerly whispering to one another and the world was alive with the song of summer, the dance of June. There was a car in front of me, crawling at the pace of molasses, but I didn't mind. I had the new Zap intern, Mike to chat with and a lazy afternoon to revel in. Suddenly, the car in front of me came to a full stop and after a moment, the driver's door opened. A woman around the age of sixty-five stepped out of the car, grey hair pulled back in a messy braid, skirt trailing behind her. I rolled down my window as she approached.
"Well now, I haven't been down this way in years", she told me, "but it hasn't changed a bit has it?"
She said that she was taking Mama for a drive, because that's pretty much all Mama could do since she got her walker. She asked me if there were any streams flowing over the road that she would have to worry about because of the heavy rain we'd been getting and I assured her that there weren't. When I spoke, with a distinct lack of southern drawl, she cocked her head to the side and looked at me, perplexed.
"Well now, you sure are pretty, where are you from?"
I laughed, embarassed and told her I was one of the professional runners that trained right down the road. We talked for another moment or two, then she climbed back in her car with Mama and drove away. I turned to Mike and we giggled. I asked him where he was from. Maryland. I asked what you do in Maryland when the car in front of you stops and the driver walks toward you. We agreed that most places, you roll your window up and pray to God not to get shot. I told Mike that no matter where I live for the rest of my life, I don't think I'll ever have interactions like this anywhere else, and that's when it hit me that I am leaving behind this wonderful culture, this safe haven of hospitality in leaving Zap.
It's funny, in some ways, I feel like I've been at Zap forever. I know the sound of each creek, I know the spicy smell of the ferns from the intoxicating sweetness of the rhododendrens. I know each and every cabin nestled into that windy stretch of gravel road like pebbles in the bed of a stream, they must have grown there, they were never built. I know that Blackberry road looked exactly the same fifty years ago as it does now and will look exactly the same fifty years from now. But in other ways, it feels like I just got here. Every time I walk out at night and am greeted by winking fireflies, it's like the first time and I can't help but to clap my hands and laugh and chase the neon flashes. Every time I crest the hill of the 321 and am assualted by the majesty of the blue ridge panorama, the wonder of it seems brand new. The beauty of this place, from the tiny firefly I cup in my hands to the hundred mile expanse of mountains, frozen in place like the waves of an angry sea, is inescapable. But I have no choice but to leave it.
My husband Michael and I are leaving Zap. Over the past year, Michael has begun to realize the limitations of his own body and the inevitable occurance of injury that comes with high volume training. He has decided that the time has come for him to retire from the sport of long distance running and pursue another passion. On one hand, I am devestated. I feel that I am losing a part of him that I will never get back, but on the other hand, I am relieved that he will no longer be involved in a sport that has broken his heart over and over again. For the injury prone, running can be a cruel mistress.
And so, Michael and I have decided to move to Lake Tahoe, California. There, I will continue to pursue running full time with an added element of high altitude training and Michael will pursue a career in law enforcement. I have no doubt, however, that I will be leaving a piece of my heart here in the mountains.
Zap was the opportunity that I wanted since I was fourteen and I wrote in my diary, "I want to be a professional runner someday". Pete and Zika have chosen to give back to the sport of running in such a way that they actually make dreams come true for people like me. I read once that only two percent of Americans truly love what they do. At Zap, I was part of that two percent.
I will miss my team, the quirky collection of companions that have been living the same dream I have. I will miss mary, who I've shared hundreds of miles of agony and joy with, who has become like a sister to me and is a beautiful person, inside and out. I will miss hearing Pete's voice echoing across the lake on still mornings, pushing me harder, reining me back. I will miss his quick wit and ready smile, a coach who knew when to make me laugh and when to let me cry. I will miss each and every familiar face that I've passed on the trail a hundred times and the trails themselves which have taken on their own personality in my mind, their soft curves as familiar to me as the smile of an old friend.
I don't know what my future holds, but I do know that in my heart, I will be a Zap athlete for as long as I run.