Monday, April 4, 2016

A dam and two mountains

What is there about a campfire? Is it the smoke floating into the sky, twisting and turning along with the breeze? Or is it the snap, crackle, pop as the wood combusts before creating a smoldering layer of coals just perfect for marshmallow roasting? Perhaps it's the laughter and light-hearted conversation
of those who gather around. But on Friday night, I think it was all of that--and more.

It was the evening before the first rendition of the Dam 50K in Sandy Level, VA. After several years of bartering with Home Land Security and Appalachian Electric Power, permission was granted the YMCA race directors to begin and end the race at Smith Mountain Lake Dam. That's all David Horton, the experienced RD, needed to design a unique 50K curse. . . I mean course. None of us knew quite what to expect except to know the whole event would be "interesting."

And it was. From the hotdogs cooked over an open fire, to s'mores made with flaming Peeps and huge chocolate bars, the fellowship was great. Laughter and joking abounded, a few members of the fire circle being a bit more boisterous than others. For the most part, I listened in contented silence. I had only signed up for this race a few weeks prior. I had lacked focus in training but wanted to get in another race before. . .

Well, before my surgery. Back in January it was discovered I have a parotid gland tumor. It took weeks of tests, biopsies, and waiting to see various surgeons before a course of treatment was determined. In the meantime, without knowing what was coming when, it was hard to plan anything--training, which races to do, when to plan speaking engagements, and the like. But with a surgery date of April 18, the April 2nd race sounded like a pretty good idea. The April 30th Promise Land 50K, just 12 days post-op, may not fit into my surgeon's idea of "very light activity." I needed to race while the timing was good.

I had enjoyed some great long runs with friends while in God's appointed "waiting room." But to say I was training without distraction would be dishonest. Sitting in the car before the start, I had no idea how I would fare throughout the day. Still, I was relaxed and maybe even a little hopeful.

The course started off with a bang; a steep road up above the dam with a turn onto even steeper trail to take us to the mountain top. But the reward of a winding downhill run on smooth gravel into the first aid station make the effort worthwhile. I fell into step with fellow local runner, Gratten Garbee, and caught up on things as the miles, now run on hard surface but desolate country roads, ticked away. We leap-frogged with another local, Michael Mitchell. There was no pressure. Just keep running according to how each of us felt. I eventually pulled away as both developed some uncooperative body part issues. I enjoyed the solitude, my cadence accompanied only by the swish-swoosh of the fluid in my hydration pack.

Coming into the 21-mile mark back at the start/finish by the dam, my steady pace allowed me to pass a number of folks along the way. But after a quick re-fill at the aid station table, the "Death Climb" was next on the agenda. Seven crossings of the same meandering stream preceded the 1500 foot vertical assent, all in about a mile. Energy-wise, all was fine. But with the steepness of the grade, the required sharp ankle angle, and 21miles already on my legs, my calves protested greatly. In fact, they turned into quivering masses of muscle, threatening to halt my progress with their rock-hard status. Glancing at my watch, I couldn't believe how long this nasty climb was taking. No previous climb in all my ultra days rivaled this one. Apparently, I wasn't alone in wanting to stand atop this mountain that overlooked the wide expanse of lake below. Tales of vain (and perhaps profane) utterings, plopping down to take breaks, and holding onto trees to prevent a backwards, downhill tumble filtered among the runners in the aftermath.

Relief map of Smith Mountain
The aid station on mountain high was a welcomed sight! I needed to get serious about correcting the electrolyte issues that contributed to the cramping. But it would take time to feel the effects. Brief jogs morphed into walk periods until the calves released. Then off again I ran, repeating many times while going up and over four more peaks perched along this ridge line. By the time a long descent was required to get off the mountain, I was running steadily, having to walk a few steps only when calves shouted their dislike for a stride that was too long or pace too aggressive.

Approaching the last aid station, I mused on how quickly the day had gone. I was thankful for the smile I was able to maintain throughout the last six hours. I was pleased to have enjoyed both solitude and relaxed conversation. I was delighted that aid station workers had voted my outfit as the cutest of the day. Now, a mere three miles remained. Though not pleasant to run more roads, I was grateful that this road led home.

I was the fourth woman to cross the line. I was okay. It looked like I was about 20 years older than the other women. It took me 6:27 to complete the course without suffering all that much. I made some new friends, and got reacquainted with old ones. Having finished the first edition of the race gives me the option of doing the second, and the third, and the fourth. You get the idea.

Necessarily, for a dam to hold up against the powerful force of water, two mountains standing tall on both sides are required. It can be a fight, a struggle, to build that dam and harness the power pushing against its walls. But just climb the mountains on either side to appreciate the integrity, beauty and purpose of the structure.

I'm not sure what will happen on and after April 18. But that's okay. I am safe on the mountain and tapped into the awesome power of the most High.

Postscript: For what it's worth, several days after the race I found out my surgery date has been moved to May 4. Now I can run Promise Land. 

Monday, March 14, 2016

Would've, should've, could've

Source: Liberty University Website
I was glued to the screen, my heart beating as furiously as it does in a tight, long race. "Yes. . . Noooo. . .Don't be dead, Sid. Open your eyes, get up. Show me you're okay. . .Come on. . . Grab it. . . Go in, go in. . . Rebound!"

I didn't want to miss a second of the action as I watched the saga unfold. Back and forth went the lead in this championship game. It seemed that the destiny of the world was riding on whether or not a round, orange ball dropped through an 18 inch diameter rim perched 120 inches off the hardwood floor.

Now rewind. I've competitively played a lot of different sports throughout my high school, college, and adult athletic careers, but basketball was never one of them. I think I could have been a decent player but alas, gymnastics was held the same season. I tumbled, leaped, and flew through the air rather than dribbling and passing around the court. Nevertheless, it is basketball that now holds importance and priority. What changed (besides about forty years)?

Or more importantly, what changed me? Why do I care so deeply for the game and this team who plays it?

The answer? The women of Liberty University's basketball team. For the last nine months I've met
with them, laughed with them, cried with them, shared truth with them, and have grown to love each one of them. I've sat in the stands and watched them play as they won some, lost some. Together we shared our fear and dreams over coffee, I've listened as they poured life into one another, and encouraged those who found themselves sidelined with injury. I've become vested in them. So when I stared at the action during the deciding game of the Big South Championship last night, I felt a hook wrangle my heart and capture my soul. That was "my" team. Those were "my" girls. Together we would celebrate. Or perhaps, together we would mourn.

Periods of brilliance produced a substantial lead. Minutes of mark-missing shots cut the lead, then surrendered the lead. Balls heaved by the opponent from behind the three-point line swished the rim, producing palpable energy and fervored play. The buzzer for the fourth period sounded, score tied. Five more minutes of frantic action yielded the same result. But when the second overtime period drew to a close, the Lady Flames earned two points less than a worthy UNC Asheville team. The program's 17th Big South championship trophy alluded the Liberty women. There would be no championship rings, no celebrated victor's arrival back on campus. We lost. Ugh. I felt deep visceral pain as I read disappointment on their faces and in their tears, despite the admirable and intentional effort to be gracious in defeat.

"If only we would've. . . we should've. . . we definitely could've."

Such responses come easily after such a battle. Second guessing. Remorse for missing an easy shot. Understanding an arm extended more rapidly or a quick lunge to the left could've forced the turnover and put more points on the board. But while these retrospective responses are typical, are they appropriate? Well, yes and no.

Let's be honest, failing to win the day is deeply disappointing (and sometimes embarrassing). A legacy of success that produces expectations of greatness is hard to reconcile when the scoreboard declares another the winner. So what to do?

We dare mourn but for a moment. For while God desires us to learn from the past, He does not ask that we live there. How often did He say, "Remember when?" How many times were His people reminded of both past downfalls and victories for the purpose of rightful living in the present and a bright hope for tomorrow?

Yes, it's easier said than done. Mistakes were made. Shots bounced off the rim. The game was not played perfectly. The championship not won. But the game was not in vain.

A team's worth is not contingent on the outcome of a game. Be thankful for what went right, learn from what went wrong, and look forward to what lays ahead.

Ladies of LU Basketball, you are my champions.

Friday, March 4, 2016

Passion is not for weenies

OK, class. Use the word "passion" in a sentence. Take a second to think about it. If you watch American Idol or Shark Tank, contestants will make tearful claims of being so passionate that failure is not an option. Parents tell their children, "Follow your passion." Couples lock lips when filled with "passion," a hormone-driven physiologic sensation. But I bet you never equated passion with suffering. Neither did I until I saw a friend's Facebook post.

“Passion has little to do with euphoria and everything to do with patience. It is not about feeling good. It is about endurance. Like patience, passion comes from the same Latin root: pati. It does not mean to flow with exuberance. It means to suffer.” ― Mark Z. Danielewski

I don't know this Danielewski character. Therefore, I Googled him. He's an author of books I have never read. Looks to be fairly successful in terms of his marketability. But was his quote about passion correct? Did the Latin root really mean to suffer?

Yes. Indeed it does. I fact-checked. We typically think all we need to package passion are heightened emotions and a resoluteness that is steroid-strong. If that is the case, we believe we will automatically jump higher, run faster, write more clearly, and produce finer works of art. But I'm afraid it's not so simple. 

It is principled that "faith without works is dead" (James 2:17, 20, and 26). Not that works produce faith, but that works are a natural outcome of faith. In the same pattern, passion without endurance is no more than an emotion precariously perched atop a flag pole in the middle of a hurricane. Without the commitment and the capability to endure through the storm, the passion is easily pried from the pole and scattered to the far reaches. When the wind subsides, nothing of significance is left.

Logically, can passion exist without endurance? Is passion possible without a good dose of suffering? Perhaps today's loose definition of "passion" should realistically be re-branded as simple preference. For example, "I am passionate about running" falls short of truth if one won't venture out when the weather is foul. Maybe it should really be, "I will run if it's 76, sunny, and a light breeze is blowing." That is clearly preference; not passion.

Or, how about this? "I'm so passionate about singing, I'll do everything I can to 'make it.'" But this is hardly believable if time and energy is not put into gaining experience in front of audiences. No, if we are truly passionate about something--anything--we will buckle down and plow forward no matter how hard it is.

I think Scripture is pretty clear about it. In fact, suffering and endurance are to be embraced, for in doing so, our passion and perspective are revealed. Romans 15 teaches that God is the author of endurance and encouragement so that we can be unified with "one mind and voice" and glorify Him. Passion is the result of endurance and encouragement.

The persecuted first century church could not be squelched because they "Consider[ed] it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything." (James 1:2-5). They proved their passion by their willingness to persevere. As a result of the perseverance, they became mature.

Would the enslaved believers that Peter wrote of who where scattered throughout Asia and Greece been able to be passionate about their faith without endurance? "For it is commendable if someone bears up under the pain of unjust suffering because they are conscious of God. . . But if you suffer for doing good and you endure it, this is commendable before God. To this you were called, because Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps. “He committed no sin, and no deceit was found in his mouth.” When they hurled their insults at him, he did not retaliate; when he suffered, he made no threats. Instead, he entrusted himself to him who judges justly" (1 Peter 2: 19-22).

Perhaps it's time to think twice before we say we are passionate about something. When I hear "passion" from someone who easily gives up when the going gets rough, I don't believe them. They have no credibility. But when I hear stories of modern-day Christians who endure unimaginable torture and yet remain true to the faith, I can trust their "passion."

Passion requires action over a long period of time. Passion does not give up. Passion does not give in. Passion embraces the challenges. Passion is hard. Passion is not always "fun." 

Bottom line? Passion is not for weenies.

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Sports in America TV Interview

Being a parent of an athlete can be hard. We want to walk that infinitesimally thin line between commitment and obsession. We want them to excel and achieve. We want them to feel empowered by their fitness and recognize the true gift they have been given.

But what about injury? What about burnout? Is there such a thing as too much, too early? Should they be multi-sport or stick with one activity?

I was recently interviewed on WSET's Living in the Heart of Virginia, talking about an upcoming program to discuss these topics. Check it out!

Sports in America 2-17-16Are sports right for your child and how do you protect against injuries and burnout. These are many of the questions that will be answered in an upcoming talk at LC.
Posted by Living in the <3 of Virginia (LHOV) on Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Friday, January 22, 2016

UltrAspire inspires

I am a couple weeks away from my 59th birthday. I've been running the long stuff for more than two decades. I used to finish at or near the front. Now, I run much more slowly and methodically. Occasionally, the pressure of making cut-offs  digs deep into my soul and keeps a fire burning that carries me to the finish. But even so, sometimes I don't even walk away with the "Grand Masters" title because another "old lady" completed the course before me. Since my slippery slide down the record book columns, untold numbers of young people have joined the ultra parade. They didn't know me "back when." In fact, they probably don't know me - period.

So, here's the million dollar question: Why would a great company with growing market share ask me to be an ambassador for their products?

I've been an UltrAspire ambassador for several years, and with an overflowing bucket of gratitude signed a contract for another twelve months just this week. The profiles of the folks listed as ambassadors, or Immortals, as they call us, is pretty impressive. Top runners. Record breakers. Household names in ultrarunning. Race directors. Athletes who are featured in magazines and oft-read blogs. 

But that's not me.

I am not a superstar. I am normal. Very, very normal.

So, let's think about this. How many runners fit onto the tiny piece of real estate we call a podium? About 3, right? Not a lot of room for a crowd. How many people stand on common ground? Everyone else.

Who will the guy who finishes 226/305 relate to more? Me or the champion? What about the gal whose stage of life makes consistent training and long miles more of a dream than a reality? In whom might she find a kindred spirit? Who might she look to for encouragement? The abilities of the top three are certainly to be admired. But really, are the training plans combined with extraordinary physiology typical of so many of the topflighters in reach of the mid to back of the packer like me? Probably not. But still, all of us - fast, slow, or inbetween - need gear. I am delighted to wear the best!

These days, I find the greatest pleasure introducing the sport to the younger set; kids I used to coach who now find great joy in seeking adventure along mountain trails. I love my title of "TrailMama." I am ecstatic that my experience is called upon to guide those four decades younger than me. I embrace the long discussions and problem solving with fellow runners when saving seconds is not top priority.

So, you see, I am quite normal. I am more like the greatest segment of the ultra community than the elite. I am past running for reward. I run in the mountains because I love it. I race because I can. I suspect there are many who feel the same way.

Thank you, UltrAspire, for believing in normal people like me. Thank you for granting me the privilege to be a part of your team. Thank you for your excellence and attention to detail. Thank you for giving me the opportunity to run long, run strong.

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Life (post-coaching)

It was weird being there. The venue was lovely, the tables set simply with poinsettias surrounded by flickering tea lights. Parents mingled, team members clustered together reveling in inside jokes, and coaches worked hard at getting the necessary technology to cooperate.

Acknowledgements were made of the successful season, highlights and challenges scripted for the audience. The tradition of awarding each runner a frame-worthy certificate for a unique quality or incident was again a crowd-pleasing event.

It was my sixth cross country banquet in as many years. But it was different this year. Very
different. I was merely an invited guest watching from the periphery, not the head coach as in past years. I felt distant, out of place, irrelevant.

I enjoyed those years of coaching, totally and thoroughly. Was it exhausting? Yes. Were the hours long and the pay short? Yes. Did planning, scheming, and scheduling pervade every nook and cranny of my life? Affirmative. Did I go to bed thinking about training progressions and wake up thinking about the same? Did I spend hours trying to figure out how to best serve each individual? Yes and yes. Was I concerned as much about the heart of the athlete as I was about their speed? Yes, I can honesty say I was. Did every practice, whether easy or breath-taking, have purpose? Yes. Was that difficult to do? Absolutely yes. Did I love all the shenanigans, so vital to the essence of our team, and special times spent in the
big mountains and the mud? You bet! Do I miss all of this now that I'm not coaching? Yes! Or maybe I mean no. Coaching was anything but easy. So, I don't know. Maybe it's a little bit of both.

Certainly, life circumstances make it logistically impossible to coach in my present situation. But I feel a little lost, a little displaced. When I was coaching, I felt as though I had impact on my team (and hope it was largely positive). To be honest, now I feel rather useless, like ornamental parsley on a dinner plate. Gone are the day-to-day relationships I cherished and thrill of seeing kids find fun in the run, many launching their journeys into life-long running. Perhaps my nickname should be abbreviated from "Coach T" to simply "T"; the coach part no longer applies.

So, who am I? What is my worth, my purpose? I've been here before, a bit confused about my station in life. When I left after nearly 25 years as a cardiovascular perfusionist, it was like cutting off an arm. I loved that life and was well-respected and good at what I did. But when the operating door shut behind me for the last time, I felt like my life-blood had poured out onto the floor and washed down the drain. It took a while for a new identity to take hold. Now I am at the same crossroad; the need to re-evaluate and re-organize is upon me.

I am a Christian wife and mother. That has not changed. God wired me as an athlete who continues to train and compete. That has not changed. But I can longer call myself a day-in, day-out teacher of students. I can no longer list "coach" on my resume. That last one hurts the most.

I admire coaches. I understand the mission and ministry a great coach can have to their athletes. Now working within the context of FCA (Fellowship of Christian Athletes), I suppose that's why it is my deepest pleasure and desire to support, encourage, and give coaches the tools they need to become even stronger in their roles. But in doing so, I am a little jealous because I can no longer speak from current experience.

Life is about choices and I am confident in the choices I have made. Perhaps I am simply trying to sort out the wide range of emotions now that I am not the leader of the pack; now that I have no team to call my own.

So it was with the greatest joy (and surprise) that I scanned the letters penned on colorful construction paper. "My" team - more accurately, the team I coached for the last five years, through the summer heat, and through the pre-season training this year - took the time to write notes to me back in September. Chris, the coach who stepped up to run in my shoes, graced me with these letters a few days following the banquet. I really needed that and am forever thankful.

Thank you, kids, for loving me through thick and thin. Thank you for being such a great team. Thank you for granting me the privilege to coach. You will always have a very special place in my heart.

Run silent, run deep. Run long, run strong.

Banquet pictures taken by Heather Hu.

Sunday, November 8, 2015

Now and then

I tore open the envelope from my dear Mother. She loves the mail and has always kept rolls of stamps and stacks of envelopes at the ready. Sometimes it's an encouraging note or a particularly interesting article she discovered. But this time it was a newpaper article from my home town paper. The NewHerald has always had a knack for proclaiming the news, big and small, in and around Perkasie, Pennsylvania, a small hamlet 40-some miles north of Philly.

One popular feature is "Ye Olde News," printing recaps of what made headlines 10, 20, and even 50 years ago. Imagine her surprise (and mine as well), as an article dated November 8, 1995 described my first Mountain Masochist Trail Run. I came in second behind ultrastar Janice Anderson in my inaugural attempt at the 50-mile distance. But that was then. This is now.

Yesterday I completed my 18th MMTR. The course has changed over the years as well as the faces. The age of most ultrarunners back in the day was probably north of 35. I was 38 in 1995 and was one of the young ones. But not anymore. There are multitudes of college students and 20-somethings. Runners in their 30's have been at it for ten or more years. But are they fast? Yep. Or maybe it's that I am so much slower.

My time this weekend was about two hours slower than in 1995. But it was 3 hours slower than the fastest time I ever ran. Yikes. I could take a really long nap in that amount of time. Or maybe I could get four loads of wash and clean the house in those two or three hours. A lot has changed. Back then I was racing hard, my crew zipping me through aid stations and giving me updates on the nearest competitors. Now I run to finish. Now I run as a "TrailMama" to five college girls in their inaugural 50-miler.

Our unlikely group enjoys being together. Night runs, pizza making, clothes swapping, watching episodes of "Fixer-Upper," and training trips to the mountains knit us together. It started out with a coach-athlete relationship when they were in high school and I was their leader. But time went by, they grew up, and a love for the siren song of the woodland drew us together.

From the starting line, we ran into the darkness punctuated only by runners' headlamps. We were a cohesive group, chatting easily, and taking great joy in proclaiming "Girl train coming through on your left" as we flew by slower moving runners on a downhill portion. Sometime later, Rebecca dropped back, slowed by a hip issue. Her sister Caroline ran on with us, deciding to unselfishly wait for her sister at the next aid station. They ended up withdrawing from the race when the pain would not abate and time cutoffs became the enemy.

Prior to the race we had discussed the wisdom of pact-making to stay together. Experiencing the journey as one group held promise of life-time memory making. On the other hand, one can never predict a bad patch or alternatively, feeling gloriously strong and swift. Staying together come whatever could result in no one finishing. Having two comrades exit the fray, the goal had to become getting everyone else to the finish line. But in doing so, each individual needed to run their own race.
Photo by Holly Hawkins

For many miles we ran in concert, sometimes chatty and other times lost in our private thoughts. On the unseasonably warm and humid day, I struggled with cramping for about 25 miles. The result was an inability to push hard and run aggressively. Drinking copious amounts of electrolyte drink, salty broth, and munching on pretzels eventually eased the seizing muscles. At one point Nicole took advantage of feeling good and pulled ahead on the trek up the mountain. I followed, catching her again in about five miles. Abby and Kendal caught up by mile 41.

But gone was the happy-go-lucky approach. We were all pushing the cut-off times, left to run the remaining miles under great distress. To come this far and not complete the race within the required time would be devastating. Nicole voiced the pressure. "Coach T. Can you tell me a story to distract me. This is not fun anymore. I'm at my emotional end."

The coveted finisher shirts
Abby surged, the catecholamine rush sending her into overdrive. Nicole and Kendal fell in behind me as we rushed down the trail and up the next steep hill. But Kendal fell further behind as we pushed onward. We worried about her but at this point, we all had responsibility to get ourselves to the finish. With desperate prayers for any muscle cramping to be held at bay, Nic and I drove on, flying past the last aid station. After the umpteenth time calculation to confirm our status, it became clear we would make it by a decent margin. Still, the 3.8 miles to the finish was taking its toll. Glancing backwards, there was still no sign of Kendal. I prayed she not lose hope.

Kendal's parents were waiting at the last turn. "Where is she?"

"Back there. She can still make it. Tell her to hang on!"

A few minutes later, we crossed the finish line with 15 minutes to spare. Abby had finished a few minutes earlier. Nicole sobbed out of exhaustion on her Dad's shoulder. I turned to pick up my finisher's shirt, and then heard the loud proclamation. "And now finishing, Kendal Ryle!"

Kendal had faltered on the climbs but spurred on by the deep desire of a timely finish, did not give up hope. Rather, she accepted the inevitable agony that comes with the quad-crushing 3-mile assault off the mountain. I breathed a sigh of relief before hugging her neck. Three of my charges did it. They conquered their first 50-miler.

Abby and I claim our jackets for completing 4 races
Two decades ago and for many years after that, I pulled in numerous top finishes. In fact, there were times when it was unfathomable to me not being a top runner. But now, I run my slowest times ever. Now, I am not even winning my age-group division. Now, those fast times and top billings are such a distant memory that sometimes I wonder if they ever really happened.

But guess what? Now I win every time the Shindigglers and I are together. Now I win to see and feel their joy of mountain adventure. Now I win when I see their heart for God and others. Now I win when they complete what they first thought impossible. Now I win simply by being their TrailMama.

Now is good.