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.

Monday, October 26, 2015

Changed hearts. Changed lives.

It was in the early 70's in Birmingham, Alabama. Volatile racial tensions exploded in outbursts of violence and revenge. Forced integration of public schools only ignited the fuse of the bombs - literal and otherwise - that tore the place part. But enter the power of the Gospel and the boldness of one individual who poured into the lives of a football team. Hearts changed and changed lives followed. Birmingham was not the same after that.

Having an afternoon free in Kansas City prior to some FCA (Fellowship of Christian Athletes) training, I took advantage of the rare block of time. A movie theater within walking distance of the hotel had Woodlawn slated for a 2:15 p.m. showing. After providentially chatting with a couple I met, I slipped into the sparsely occupied theater. It was not hard to find a seat among the mostly senior citizens spending an afternoon at the movies.

In the darkness, my mind whirled with thoughts and questions, and just a little bit of excited anticipation. I had not wanted to come to this "bootcamp" on approaches to funding ministry. But as I prayed for a changed attitude, God had given me a surprise opportunity to share the vision of FCA with that couple at the ticket counter. The chance encounter turned into a 20 minute conversation and an interest in becoming a part of the ministry to Central VA coaches and athletes. What would come next?

As the movie began and the story unfolded, the tears could not be contained. God appointed an FCA staffer to be in the right place at the right time with the right message. Once the truth took hold, the change could not be throttled. Revival  swept over players, coaches, parents, and the community. Though challenged because of their faith, the impact of Christ continued to roll onto shore, dramatically changing the social and cultural landscape. But unlike a tide that ultimately drags it's captures out to sea, the swell had lasting effect. Hearts were not the same. Peace and harmony, godly lives, and unity prevailed.

The real-life plot was riveting, the message powerful, and the story inspirational. But it was more personal for me. I saw what God can do- and did - through the ministry of FCA. So I contemplate: I am FCA. Can He use me like that? Will God be gracious to use me to produce a mighty work in His people?

I watched the credits roll as others made their way out of that theater, lost in my own thoughts and thankful the lights remained low. I felt my resolve for ministry grow and my commitment confirmed. What a privilege to be called to speak into lives of coaches and athletes. May Jesus Christ be pleased to use my feeble words to change hearts and lives.

Postscript: Check out the Woodland website to learn more and view the movie trailer below. Then get out and take the whole family to see this movie. You will not be disappointed!

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Suffer a little while

The sky was overcast in the waning light and we knew it was only a matter of time. A few big drops
fell around me, likely sent from the heavens as the forward army scouts. They must have called in the rest of the troops for in an instant, the wind whipped up and sheets of rain descended. I glanced at my watch. Great. It was slightly after 6 p.m. Had I just left the start line of the Grindstone 100 a mere 14 trail miles away, I'm not sure my attitude would have been cheery and bright. It was hard enough setting up the aid station in the rain.

Hannah and Abby Quigg. I'm in the middle.
But one by one, we watched and waited to see the bobbing lightstreams emanating from headlamps as runners careened off the mountain on tricky, rocky trail. They came into the aid station soaked to the bone and anxious to replenish food and water. But amazingly, most didn't really seem to mind now that the rain had let up. Being off the mountain and out of the wind must have made the situation bearable. Yes, another tough mountain lay directly across the gravel road, and 87 miles stood between them and a finisher's buckle, but still, they gladly pushed on into the night and the unknown.

The relentless clock ticked away, marking off precious minutes, hours, and yes, even days for some. By late morning, the front runners came back to us, ready to confront the ominous mountain they had previously descended. Some were in great spirits and, though grimy and dirty, not really looking any worse from the wear of 87 tough miles.

The fire got bigger. Really and truly.
But as the day wore on and the second night crept in, the mid and back-of-the-packers slowly made
their way into our station. They were tired and beat. Tomato soup and just-cooked quesadillas produced moans of appreciation. Some needed to recoup by taking a chair by the campfire that had been burning all day long. Heads hung low when the desire to sleep overcame the desire to take on the last huge climb. For those who sat, standing again unassisted was challenging. More than a few began the slow hobble up the incline leading to a four-mile climb to Elliot's Knob. However, as much as muscles and tendons and ligaments had been challenged, the facial expressions were anything but difficult to discern. These people were suffering. So why not put an end to the suffering, get in a car, and go home?

These people continued because they understood that suffering isn't all bad. There is an inevitable element of suffering as an athlete strives to reach new heights. The line between pain and gain must be meticulously marked and measured. But in the end, holding onto the hope of accomplishment and persevering through the hurt results in increased strength, maturity, and restoration.

We can read what Peter wrote to the first century church. He recognized both the necessity--and result--of suffering. He says, "In all this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while you may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials. These have come so that the proven genuineness of your faith—of greater worth than gold, which perishes even though refined by fire—may result in praise, glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed.  Though you have not seen him, you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and are filled with an inexpressible and glorious joy, for you are receiving the end result of your faith, the salvation of your souls." (1 Peter 1:6-9)

He goes on to say this: "For it is better, if it is God’s will, to suffer for doing good than for doing evil.  For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God. He was put to death in the body but made alive in the Spirit." (1 Peter 3:17, 18) 

 "Therefore, since Christ suffered in his body, arm yourselves also with the same attitude. . . (1 Peter 4:1). Why? Because of this: God's grace.

"And the God of all grace, who called you to his eternal glory in Christ, after you have suffered a little while, will himself restore you and make you strong, firm and steadfast. To him be the power for ever and ever. Amen." (1 Peter 5:10-11).

Sure. Suffering hurts. Suffering is never nice. But persevering through the pain will restore us to be strong, firm, and steadfast.

Bring it on. I think I want to suffer.

Lord, help me.

POSTSCRIPT: Congratulations to all the finishers of the 2015 Grindstone 100. Well done!

Friday, August 28, 2015

When the windshield seems to be winning

Originally written and recorded by Mark Knopfler of Dire Straights, and covered later by Mary Chapin Carpenter, I can remember hearing the tune come tumbling out of the car radio. It was 1991/92. I had been married for 15 years and had two young sons. We had just moved to Lynchburg, and were negotiating balancing the challenges of my medical career, shifting roles with Gary as "Mr. Mom," and trying to figure out how to get the youngest kid to sleep longer than 20 minutes at a time. Simultaneously, a business from back on the coast had to be sold, houses bought and sold, and layers of complicated logistics to figure out. Emotions ran the gambit: one day everything was fine, the next day was wrought with pressure-filled decisions. The Bug could have been our theme song.

Well it's a strange old game you learn it slow
One step forward and it's back you go
You're standing on the throttle
You're standing on the brake
In the groove 'til you make a mistake

(Refrain) Sometimes you're the windshield Sometimes you're the bug
Sometimes it all comes together baby
Sometimes you're just a fool in love
Sometimes you're the Louisville Slugger
Sometimes you're the ball
Sometimes it all comes together
Sometimes you're gonna lose it all

You gotta know happy - you gotta know glad
Because you're gonna know lonely
And you're gonna know sad
When you're rippin' and you're ridin'
And you're coming on strong
You start slippin' and slidin'
And it all goes wrong because

One day you got the glory and then you got none
One day you're a diamond and then you're a stone
Everything can change in the blink of an eye
So let the good times roll before we say goodbye because

Sometimes you're the windshield
Sometimes you're the bug
Sometimes it all comes together baby
Sometimes you're just a fool in love

I've been revisiting that song as of late. In an odd way, it helps keep perspective. Mountain highs and valley lows. Great hurt, insult, and disappointment coupled with unexpected encouragement. An overwhelming sense of loss followed by a comforting cloak of belonging. Feelings of competency and expertise murderously machetted away until replaced by confirmation and acceptance. Reputations unjustly marred offset by a call to service and ministry elsewhere. It's a tough road trip to make. Windshield status feels pretty good. Bug status is messy.

I doubt I am alone on this journey. The circumstances may vary but I suspect to be human is to alternately be solid glass and smooched bug bits. The Psalmist David often wrote about this. Sure, no windshield on his chariot in a literal sense, but I think he understood. In Psalm 60 he pleads "God, hear my cry; pay attention to my prayer. I call to you from the ends of the earth when my heart is without strength. . ." The bug in him beckons.

But in his next song (Psalm 61) he pens, "I am at rest in God alone; my salvation comes from Him. He alone is my rock and my salvation, my stronghold; I will not be shaken." Windshield status.

Psalm 63 and a rock-solid windshield: "God, You are my God; I eagerly seek you. I thirst for you. . .I meditate on you. . .because you are my help."

Splatted bugs come back in Psalm 64. "Hide me from the scheming of the wicked, from the mob of evildoers. . ."

Sometimes the transition between windshield and splatted bug guts happens nearly instantaneously. "LORD, how long will you continually forget me? How long will you hide your face from me? How long will I store up anxious concerns concerns within me, agony in my mind every day? How long will my enemy dominate me?" But before the ink is even dry, David gains perspective, his windshield strong and clean. "But I have trusted in your faithful love; my heart will rejoice in your deliverance. I will sing to the LORD because He has treated me generously" (Psalm 13).

Sure, sometimes I feel like the destroyed little bug, but thank God it doesn't stay like that. I will see clearly again. Drive on.

The Lord is my strength and my defense; he has become my salvation [and windshield].
Psalm 118:14

Monday, July 27, 2015

Just listen

It was a battle. It was me against that stubborn, tough, and incredibly annoying monkey grass and
assorted weeds. For months, the old brick sidewalks screamed out my name each time I traversed the rough old pathway. I ignored their cries. The edges, once neat and tidy, were gnarled and sprawling with unwanted vegetation, hardly a welcoming route to the front door. Something had to be done. Today.

After a quick lesson in WeedWhacking 101 and the peculiarities of the awkwardly balanced machine, Gary handed me the red earmuffs. (I don't think they are actually called earmuffs but they are kin to the soft furry ones intended to keep ears warm in winter.) "Here. Wear these. You don't want to go deaf listening to that whine." I dutifully donned them, noting that the three earrings in each ear did not contribute positively to the comfort level. Oh well. Along with sunglasses, long pants, socks and shoes, I was ready to advance to the front lines.

After refining my technique to allow the proper amount of line to pummel the offending weeds, a sharp edge began to appear along the sidewalk. I felt content knowing the ol' homestead was looking a wee bit tidier. Grass flew in all directions with an occasional pebble making a direct hit on my leg. Once, a shard of mulch lodged itself in my hairline while another rocketed into my cheek. It was a close call and I was thankful for my glasses.

But then the trimmer silenced itself. It had run out of fuel. With ear protection still in place, I made the short jaunt to the shed to get more of the gas and oil mixture. And then I heard it ever-so clearly. Lub dub. Lub dub. I heard the beat of my own heart. I was startled. I had not expected that.

Why did I hear what had been hidden from me moments before? The protection of the ear muffs shut out the surrounding noise and allowed me to hear what had been there all along; the steady, incessant rhythm of my own heart. But without the deliberate move to shut out damaging noise, I would have never noticed.

I think there's a lesson in this story. I am so apt to get wrapped up in doing, intent on making progress and conquer the day. Perhaps if I was more intentional about shutting out the noise, I would actually be aware of the underlying condition of what lies deep inside. Is it a heart that seeks after God? Is it a heart that beats in time with God's? Is it a selfish heart or one that seeks to make another's beat stronger?

Lord, help me to stop and listen. Seal out the noise. Seal in your voice. Reveal and heal any heart condition that does not please you. Make my heart pure and clean for your own glory. Amen.