Monday, June 8, 2015

Then sings my soul

To me, Saturday mornings and mountain runs are as perfect a combination as Forest Gump's peas and carrots. So it was with delight that I filled my pack and left the house in the filtered early morning light.

I was alone but not lonely as I started the long ascent from the valley floor to the mountain top. I knew the route well. But to gain the view I so deeply desired from the mountain ridge, there would be nearly unrecognizable trail to travel. So overgrown and wet from morning dew, the forest itself reached out to grab at my now-soaked self. And yet, a momentary pause offered me a chance to hear the siren's song of the wilderness; leaves rustling, breeze blowing, birds singing, mountain streams gurgling.

Then sings my soul.

The wrestling match with the flora gave way to the comparative freeway of the Appalachian Trail. Up, up, up I climbed, feeling fast and free. The thin dirt trail offered easy footing, save a few rocks and water breaks. The climb was long, but I didn't mind. I relished this time in the woods, thoughts and prayers my faithful companions. Life in the valley was busy and hectic, ministry demands unending. But not here. Here on the trail whose northern and southern terminus were a thousand miles in either direction, life was simple. It was one step at a time. One breath after another. One lovely snake to step over and view to take in. The forest was alive and well. It offered me a respite, a renewal.

Then sings my soul.

I stood on the rocks and peered into the vast valley below. The landscape was nearly unending green, leafy trees packed into every nook and cranny the mountains offered. In the sky below where I stood, cotton-candy clouds floated effortlessly, seemingly not bothered that mountain peaks rose higher.

Then sings my soul.

The meandering path escorted me along the gentle ridge line. Running was easy and effortless. Though the rhododendrons had released many of their blooms, they offered a flower-strewn carpet over which I glided. I was both humbled and grateful.

Then sings my soul.

All too soon my route necessarily took a turn. I
left the smooth and undulating trail for one that was a cousin to the first. Weeds, though flowered and beautiful, sought to entangle my legs. Nettle did not remain anonymous, its sting a painful reminder. 
Still, I didn't really mind. It was as though the forest was holding me in a tight and loving embrace. The further off the beaten path I traveled, the more enveloped by nature I felt.

Then sings my soul.

As I descended off the mountain, the trail twisted and turned as if to make the game more interesting. It was something new around each corner. Rocks jutted from the ground, some large and obvious. The smaller ones acted like that pesky little brother who finds great delight in reaching out to make you stumble. And yet, it was fine. No complaints. I was playing in the forest's house by the forest's rules.

Then sings my soul.

Soon I heard the rush of a bold, lively stream. The water, just as playful as the woodland, spilled and toppled over the boulders in its path. The sound was almost joyful, even when the water paused to create enticing, refreshing pools. Then once again, the flow picked up momentum and ran down the mountain. I think I heard the stream gleefully cry out, "I'm free. I'm free. Catch me if you can!"

"Not today," I whispered. "Perhaps some other time. I'll be back."

All too soon the gravel road was before me. The crunch underfoot meant I was headed back to the car. I raced the larger stream that ran beside me. I marveled at the graceful agility of the deer bounding across the road. I wondered where that overgrown path led off to the right. I admired a house tucked into the mountain side and nearly hidden by the trees. I wished I knew the folks who lived in the old stone house near the bottom. And then I was back at the car, so thankful, so grateful, for the simple pleasure of running through God's world.


Then sings my soul, my Savior God to thee. How great thou art.


  video
Susan Boyle, Psalm 8 recitation and "How Great thou Art"


Friday, May 22, 2015

Tale of two races

I had never run an actual 24-hour race. Yes, I had been on my feet longer, much longer in fact. But I had never set off to see how far I could go in a full day. It seemed like a splendid idea to hit the "Register now" button. But then again, I was sitting in my favorite chair in the comfort of my living room. Silly me.

Repeat this as many times as possible in 24 hours: a five mile loop on single and double track trail along with short sections of gravel road. It was a simple task to understand. There is a mere 124 feet of elevation gain per lap. Although I would discover one gruesomely evil and steep hill, there was no real fear of trashed quads or tortured hamstrings from punishing downhills or miles-long climbs. Accordingly, I settled on a 100-mile goal since I have run 100 miles in less than 21 hours. (We won't mention it was when I was a 41 year-old in 1998.) Still, considering the circumstances I thought it was within the realm of possibility.

What I didn't consider was 90 degree heat and awful humidity. The high noon start meant running in the heat of the day. It didn't seem to matter to the relay team runners who began their one-loop-at-a-time assault of the course with a flurry. Me? I had no choice but to be conservative, trying to take small sips from the bottle I carried along the way and maintaining a comfortable, easy pace.

Did I say it was hot? Whew. My skin turned into this sweaty, slimy, sticky mess. I switched out my Ultraspire Spry pack for the Ultraspire MBS Ion single bottle waist pack. As tiny as the Spry pack is, it was just too sweltering to have that thing plastered against my back. I made it a point to slurp a bottle of my electrolyte drink by the time I got to the 2.5 mile aid station, and then refill and down that bottle by the time I returned to the start/finish.

It was a good plan that held through the first four or five loops. But as the heat refused to let go of its death grip, the fluid I was trying to take in seemingly turned rancid. Not that the liquids were actually spoiled, but nothing was cold. No ice. Everything just equilibrated with the air temperature. It became harder and harder to drink. It didn't help that the small selection of typical race fair (M&Ms, pretzels, soggy Oreos, Pringles, and stale PB&J quarters) became less and less appealing with every drop of
sweat exuded from my pores.

My goal for 100 miles in 24 hours needed readjustment when the first 20 miles took just under five hours. "OK. It will need to be 80," I decided. As night fell, I continued to make progress, howbeit slow, methodical, and calculated. Expectantly, I awaited a drop in temperature and cooling breezes. That never came. What did come, unfortunately, was wretching and puking. Just putting something to my lips made me gag. My fluid and calorie deficit climbed in concert with the miles. I was in trouble.

My sweet, sweet Shindigglers were expected by midnight. I could hold on until then. Sure enough, there they came- right after another violent round of expelling unidentifiable black vomit. They found me laid out - and wiped out - on my sleeping pad underneath my tent. Their eyes widened, revealing worry and fright. "Coach T, you don't look too good." I suspect that was a grand understatement.

Within a few minutes, I stood, sipped a little more on a cup of tomato soup, ate a few cheese puffs (which surprisingly was the only half-way palatable thing I could find in my private stash of food), and again switched on my headlight. "Let's go." The two pairs of sisters obediently fell in behind, the chatter bobbing along in sync with our headlight beams.

I felt better in this company. My legs were fine and responded to the task of taking me down the trail, only revolting slightly when stumbles brought on intense but fleeting cramping. Still, we moved forward, happy to be together in the stillness of the night. I tried to sip from the bottle at my waist but just couldn't swallow it down. I sat for a few minutes on the bench at the middle aid station while our banter broke up the monotony for the worker. He laughed. I'm not sure if it was with us or at us. As we continued on, I acted like the tour guide, pointing out each landmark now so familiar to me, though veiled behind the curtains of the darkened forest. We mostly hiked. Running simply jostled my already confused insides and threatened an impending eruption. It was the best I could do.

Another loop completed, one sister duo, Rebecca and Caroline, regretfully announced they needed to head home. They had duties at church come morning. We said goodbye and then rested a few more minutes, allowing me to nibble and sip. Then off we went for more of the same.

Other loop. Another 5 miles. The total was up to 50 and I had nine or ten hours to go. Surely, I could  put in another 20 or 30. But the tank was nearly empty. I tried to get down some chicken rice soup, a good source for restoring sodium. But my gag response, fully intact, denied access. I laid down, covered my stinky self with my sleeping bag and closed my eyes, though never actually sleeping.

Sarah and Abby dozed off as I mentally assessed my situation. Was I in bad shape? Yes. Have I been worse. Yes. Did my legs still work? Could I still run or hike? Double yes. Could I get in real medical trouble should I continue without being able to eat or drink? Probably. Was it possible to make it 80 miles and set the women's course record, low as it might seem? Maybe. Did I care? Was it worth it? Hum. I couldn't decide. What should I do? The battle raged on between my sleep-deprived neurons. Quitters remorse is always bitter. I didn't want that. But did I want to proceed under these circumstances? Did I want to take on more unrelenting heat and oppressive humidity that promised to rise with the sun? I glanced at my snoozing friends. What message would I send to them? Would they be disappointed? Was I being a wimp? Would I be the bad example of a coach who declines to practice what she preaches: one step at a time? I hated the battle raging inside my head and heart but had no power to draw the sword and make a decision.

My prizes for "winning": Cowgirl hat and MH tote
Jump backwards to another race; the Thomas Jefferson 100K. I wrote how difficult that race was for me back in March; single track, rain, mud, fatigue, discouragement, persistence. And yet there was never any thought, not even the tiniest hint, of quitting. I ate, I drank, I slipped and slid my way along that mud-slicked terrain until I claimed the clearly-defined finish: 7 loops. 63 miles. That's what it had to be if I was going to be successful. So, that's what it was. That's what it took. I finished.

In contrast, the Hat Creek 24 hour solo race had no clearly defined goal. Yes, I was to run as many miles as possible in 24 hours. But only whole loops counted. It's not like everyone was supposed to stay in motion until the clock struck noon. If you finished a loop at 23 hours and could not complete the next loop within 60 minutes, the race was over for you. As the only woman I had "won" the race no matter how far I went. Except for pride and bragging rights, why continue to suffer? But remember, I really did have a problem to consider: there's no doubt I was way behind in fluids and calories. I had lost what little I had taken in by vomiting and diarrhea. I couldn't remember the last time I had peed. I didn't want to make recovery a long, drawn out process, nor did I want to get worse and tempt a catastrophic downward medical spiral.

As the battle raged on, I opened my eyes and realized the sky was a tad lighter than before. Dawn was going to crack in an hour or so. I decided to put on my shoes and quietly slip off across the field and down the trail for at least another loop. I would let my friends enjoy their respite. But just as I reached for my shoes, Sarah, who had sunk into the cradle of a camp chair, blinked open her eyes. In that moment something happened. I'm not sure I understand it but I remember saying, "Would anyone be disappointed if we didn't go out again?" The response was a resounding "no." That was it. The switch had unexpectedly flipped. I laid there a little bit longer, watching relay runners, 12 hour runners, and the handful of remaining 24 hour runners drift in and out of camp on the way to their own finish lines. I felt hollow and empty.

For nearly a week, I've been contemplating my race and decision to stop with so many hours left to run. Why did I do what I did? Was it the right decision? Here are my thoughts.
  1. The lack of an absolute definition of completion and success contributed to my decision. I was not required to run for a certain number of miles or be on my feet until the ringing of a final bell. Therefore, it was totally up to me how far and how long to run. I was in charge of defining "finish."
  2. Had there been another woman in the race, I may have been inclined to continue. I would have felt the pressure. I know I would not have liked being one-upped. Honestly, the lack of competition heavily impacted my decision to tap out early.
  3. There are times when medical status and potential dangerous outcomes need serious and objective consideration. If the risk outweighs the benefit, the plug should be pulled. In retrospect, I really could not eat or drink much of anything until late in the day Monday after the race. This suggests and odds are, had I continued my situation would have worsened since
    my fluid and calorie status was not going to improve during those additional loops and in the aftermath.
  4. Once I was able to restore food and fluid intake Monday afternoon (venison fondue and a baked potato hit the spot!), recovery has been amazingly quick and simple. The lack of huge climbs and descents left my quads and hamstrings intact. In fact, there was a complete absence of upper leg soreness after-the-fact. The only reminder of the 50 miles completed was tight calves through Tuesday morning. The variation of surface and terrain protected the legs from the type of repetitive, consistent foot-striking that inflicts pain in a road race.
  5. I pulled off a fluid, effortless twilight run on Wednesday evening. Energy was good as I floated along, a sensation that is more of the exception than the rule for me. Stopping when I did made recovery a much simpler and complete process.
So there it is. A tale of two races and two outcomes. The moral of the story? Not withstanding the medical part of the decision, success can only be achieved by keeping our eye on the goal; focusing on the task and relentlessly pursuing it. Just like a farmer atop his tractor, he'll never plow a straight line  and stay the course if he loses his razor-sharp focus on a stationary object across the field. Fixed to that point and drawn toward it, no dirt pile, rock, or turned up obstacle will force him off track. And so it is in life. It might get bumpy and unpredictable, but setting course for the fixed goal on our horizon will keep us true to the task and moving forward.

And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured such opposition from sinners, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.
Hebrews 12: 1b-3











Thursday, May 14, 2015

Pacing himself for 5 years

My spirits were buoyed when I received the following email this morning.

"Today, I completed my 5th reading of Pace Yourself. Tomorrow will begin my 6th year. Thank you for all of the work you put into the devotions. They are an important part of my day. Thank you."

Wow. I am thrilled and honored!

It's never too late to begin your streak of reading! Order here and get free shipping and $4.00 off retail pricing!


Monday, April 27, 2015

For the love of the game

"Clear the mechanism."

With that, Billy Chapel (played by Kevin Costner) shuts out the roar of the crowd, his vision becoming pinpoint. He reels back and hurls the pitch toward the chasm of the catcher's mitt. The thud against the leather palm of the waiting glove is deafening to the honed in pitcher. "Steeee-rike!" the umpire proclaims, arm pumping out the well-known sign.

As I watched For Love of the Game (again), I teared up at the last scene (again) even though the
outcome of the flick was the same as the first time I saw it. 40-year old Chapman is three outs away from a perfect game. He is in excruciating pain from the thousands of innings pitched in his nineteen year career. But he's also conflicted and confused. He has chosen baseball over love but that will change. He decides his career will end with his final pitch.

In the aftermath of laying hold of that perfect game despite all odds, we are treated to a predictable airport scene where Billy and his love interest, Jane Aubrey, reconcile. One can just imagine a "happily ever after."

So what does this have to do with me? Admittedly, I am a sucker for against-all-odds sports movies. But I think I was drawn like a thirsty runner to an aid station by the title. I've been around ultrarunning awhile; 22 years and counting, to be exact. I used to be in the lead pack. I used to win a few races. I was often in the top three. And then life happened. I got older, trained less, and the young whipper-snappers started tearing up the trails.

Nevertheless, I run. I run for the love of it. I don't always "like" it but I keep coming back for more.

After a mind-melting week away from home and a late Friday night flight back to Virginia, I stood behind the start/finish banner in the darkness of the wee hours. It was the Promise Land 50K++ run up, over, and through the mountains and valleys of the Blue Ridge. (34ish miles instead of the expected 31 gives us good value for the money.) It begins with a steady and steep four-mile climb and proceeds to alternate with rugged downhills and more arduous ascents. One thing it is not is flat.

But it is beautiful: spring green, wild flowers, budding bushes, cascading waterfalls, narrow ribbons of trail, the scent of lilac.

I've been running more races this spring because for the first time in years, I am not not coaching. But long runs come in spurts and weekly mileage is not massive. Still, this Promise Land was a must-do if I am to complete the LUS race series. With two other 50Ks and a 100K completed since February, I could only hope for a magical day.

I guess I'm getting used to the back of the mid-pack. My proteges' run ahead of me. Though I am one in a long train of trail travelers, I run alone and silent. I like it that way. I eavesdrop on the not-so-sage advise of one novice runner to another. It makes me shake my head. "If only you knew." Still, as the weather suddenly turns, I relish the sleet and freezing rain that falls from the sky. I am comfortable and not bothered by the odd April weather. I smile and run on.

I play cat-and-mouse with other runners on the six-mile grassy road section down and around Onion Mountain. I run rhythmically and freely, breathing controlled. The sleet lets up. I pass some people. I smile and run on.

From Reeds Creek, I make the climb back up to the parkway. Though I am occasionally within earshot of fellow travelers, mine is a world of silence. I contemplate the weighty topics discussed in this week's intense training. I pray silently. I sing silently. I silently rehearse speeches in my head. I smile and run on.

The temperature drops and rain returns as I arrive at the Parkway and begin my descent down the rocky and technical "dark side" trail. But by the time I take a left on another grassy forest road, the weather improves as does the footing. Down, down, down. More rocks to negotiate. The sound of rushing water as the bold creek cascades over boulders is like music composed by an extraordinary musician. I momentarily interrupt it's song as I ford the swift-flowing waters. The cold water feels good on my legs. I smile and run on.

I am greeted at the next aid station. "Hey, I thought you gave this up since becoming a grandma." I chuckle and head down the course. The ease of the gravel road section releases my mind. I feel accomplished as I surge onward. Turning at the massive collection of orange streamers, I am ushered back onto blissfully sweet forest single-track. I arrived at the next age station, dumped a few hitch-hiking cinders from my shoes, and join in some friendly banter about "older" runners. I eat, drink, smile, and run on.

I begin to catch runners ahead of me. Shared steps lead to shared encouragements. I meet a young college runner. "What mile are we at? Do we have enough time to finish?" she asks, somewhat panicked.

"It's been 4:57. You have over five hours to complete about ten miles. No problem." Invigorated, she plows on, pulling away. She catches two girls in front of her. With my steady progress, I eventually catch and pass them all. I smile and run on.

Now there is a mountain to conquer. The climb is hard. Still, it's not like some other years when my legs fatigued and threatened abandoning me on the hillside. I felt in control. Apple Orchard Falls was spectacular, millions of gallons crashing over the cliffed wall to the rocks trail-side. I allowed two stronger climbers to pass but closed in on a line of runners as we approached the top of the three-mile climb. Comfortable temps and conditions gave way to a sudden drop in degrees and precipitation. The cold, torrential downpour forced me to don the jacket hiding in my pack. With a mere 5.5 miles to go, I smiled and ran on.

My legs churned on after crossing the parkway to take on the last short climb of the race. Then it was a right turn onto the same single track we had climbed earlier in the day. The trail, now offering mud and water through which to slosh, showed the way. Just follow the water: down, down, down. The switchbacks afforded me glimpses of folks I had been chasing all day. Soon the roar of Overstreet Falls signaled the last 2.5 miles that would bring me home. I smiled and ran on.

Sarah and Abby Quigg with "Tripletoes"
I ran and ran and ran. I was tired but not hurting. I was not in agony as in previous years. I didn't hate life. I continued to close the gap on those previously allusive runners. The orange-painted "1 Mile to go" line passed under my feet. The five-foot wooden squirrel adjacent to a mailbox toward the bottom of the mountain reminded me of the proximity of the finish. With the turn into the campground, the gravel gave way to sodden grass. The finish banner was just ahead. Two of my Shindigglers, the Quigg sisters having finished about twenty minutes prior, cheered. David Horton, race director, boisterously yelled into the microphone, "Rebekah Tripletoes!!!" He always calls me that. He thinks it's funny. I think it's endearing. I crossed the line, smiled. . . but did not run on.

My time of 7 hours and 43 minutes was the slowest of my eight finishes by a few minutes. It was an hour and twenty minutes slower than my fastest. My rank was 197th out of 320 starters. I was bested by a 54-year old (four years my junior) and a 62-year old (four years my senior.)

But I will smile and run on. . . for the love of the game.

Postscript: For an idea of what the race entails, check out this video created by medical director, George Wortley.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Shindiggled

Glossary of terms:
Shindiggler (noun) Running girls who display the following attributes: tough but tender, serious but silly, centered but just a tad to the right of crazy.

Shindiggled (verb) past tense, as in, "to be shindiggled," to cross the finish line behind a Shindiggler


Yes. I was shindiggled yesterday, four times over. Though it sounds like this condition of being shindiggled could be painful, it really isn't (at least in retrospect.) Let me explain.


I've been writing for some time about "my" Shindigglers, a group of college girls who I used to coach as high school athletes. Nowadays, we spend hours together, running up and down mountains and along country roads, (mostly so we can gather in my kitchen guilt free to inhale cupcakes and ice cream). We turn the night before a race into a sleep-over, watching episodes of "Fixer Upper" before bedtime. We embrace challenge and share in each others' accomplishments. And, oh how we laugh!


This weekend's event was the Terrapin Mountain 50K, a rugged race with about 7,000 ft of elevation gain and equal amounts of descent. Much of it is very "runnable" as a large amount of gravel road in addition to forest road and single track make up the course profile. But of course, the problem with running down is that is normally means it will go back up. That's where it can get tough.


I wasn't exactly fresh as the proverbial daisy for this race. Last weekend I ran a mud-slicked 100K race. My body let me know it wasn't all that thrilled to be subjected to such punishment. But still, when on Thursday I could rise without using my hands, I was as pleased as a coffee-addicted woman locked inside a Starbucks. (Not that I am that woman. I don't like my coffee that strong.) I was able to easily go up and down steps, get in and out of my car without wincing, and had calmed the veracious appetite that follows a long, tough adventure. I was all set. Maybe.


Well, maybe not. The first miles felt okay. No soreness or tiredness. As the morning light brightened, so did hope for a solid race, if not a bit slower than normal. And that was okay by me.  When the first long downhill came, the top portion of my quads began singing a soft melody. I listened and decided to be content with adding harmony, not rushing ahead despite my inclination to catch familiar faces that whizzed by under the influence of a downhill run with abandon.

My steady cadence continued once reaching the bottom of the mountain and faced with a two-mile climb on yet more gravel. 25 run. 25 hike. 30 run. 30 hike. Counting steps helped break the challenge of the climb. I was pleased with my progress as I made the left turn onto single track trail. When I turned to look back, it was my first glimpse at some of the Shindigglers. Either they were moving fast or I was moving slow. Or maybe it was a little of both. I kept moving toward the next portion of the race; a return up the mountain on the same gravel road we descended.

I never did see Sarah. She was way out ahead. But traipsing back up the long, curving Hunting Creek Road, Abby and Kendal came up on my shoulder. "Hi, Coach T." They looked strong and in control. They went on ahead, counting steps as well. On again. Off again. At least they learned that from me. I smiled even as they put distance between us.


Then came sweet Nicole, going for her first ultra. I had coached her in high school as well and traveled on a mission trip with her to Costa Rica. We chatted for a few minutes before she smoothly pulled away from her old coach. I wished her well. She was smiling.

My race continued, doing the best I could. At times, I felt I was moving well and making up
Peering into Fat Man's Misery
ground. I just couldn't understand why other runners were still occasionally passing me. Was I that slow? (I liked to think they were feeling that great!) But other times, I came to understand that full recovery after a 100K does not happen in the span of seven days. My legs straddled that thin line between obedience and revolt. Slipping into Fat Man's Misery was anything but graceful. My calves began to cramp and my quads screamed out in protest in having to squat. Still, I got through the rocky fortress and continued down the mountain. I don't believe I have ever been more tentative. Never so slow. But the truth is, I had lost all faith in my legs. One little falter would have turned me into a molten mass of tetanic muscle.

Glad to have the steep descent behind me, I saw a Shindiggler, this time Kendal, coming back up from the last aid station. That meant she was about ten to fifteen minutes ahead. After refueling and finding a handful of Doritos to hit the spot, I retraced my steps only to see Rebecca and Caroline headed down to the aid station. Just as Kendal had on me, I probably had a slim ten to fifteen on them. I needed to keep moving. I needed to keep moving NOT so I would not be caught. No, I had to keep moving because that's what a Shindiggler does. She puts in the best possible effort whether or not it's the best possible situation.

I ran those last miles, hiking only the bigger inclines. I asked my legs to keep churning, even if the turn over was slow and methodic. They obeyed, though reluctantly. The still-icy waters of the creek crossings cooled my feet and seemed to bring a nano-second of relief to my legs. I wanted to tarry in the last deep stream but dared not. The finish line awaited.

And there they were, four of the six Shindigglers, with the other two nabbing their finishers shirts shortly behind me. It was a happy reunion. All had met the challenge. There was joy and relief. Pride and accomplishment. Love and respect. And then there was the Shindiggle Wiggle (DiggleWiggle, for short.) It came to me during the run. We HAD to come up with a trademark move. And so it was born.

May we DiggleWiggle after races and on special occasions for many more years to come.





Monday, March 16, 2015

Seven times around

"Now the gates of Jericho were securely barred because of the Israelites. No one went out and no one came in. Then the Lord said to Joshua, “See, I have delivered Jericho into your hands, along with its king and its fighting men.  March around the city once with all the armed men. Do this for six days.  Have seven priests carry trumpets of rams’ horns in front of the ark. On the seventh day, march around the city seven times, with the priests blowing the trumpets. When you hear them sound a long blast on the trumpets, have the whole army give a loud shout; then the wall of the city will collapse and the army will go up, everyone straight in.”. . . And he ordered the army, “Advance! March around the city. . .” (Joshua 6:1-7)

Seems like a crazy story, huh? But at least three major archaeologic excavations in the southern Jordan valley of Israel confirm the crumpled walls and destruction of Jericho by fire in about 1400 BC. Strange but true.

I had my own Jericho-like experience on Saturday, only instead of having Joshua at the helm, the
Andy Jones-Wilkins shouting out to the troops (Credit::John Anderson)
leader this time around (no pun intended) was Andy Jones-Wilkins, an accomplished ultrarunner with longevity in the field. The "Jericho" turned out to be the twisting, turny, tedious trails of Walnut Creek Park, a piece of real estate just south of Charlottesville, Virginia. Seven times around a nine-mile loop in one day. That was the assignment. That's what had to get done.

What made me think this was a good idea? Oh, I don't know. Maybe it was a yearning to race more since gone were the obligations of coaching every weekend. Maybe it was that deep-seated desire to test limits. Or, just maybe, it was the need to gain some odd sense of accomplishment.

The start (Credit: John Anderson)
 After a night of hearing a steady drip, drip, drip on my camping cabin roof, and having to avoid the puddles on the way to the bath house, it was a given the trails would be wet. The misty morning at the 5 a.m. start confirmed the fact. But when the equivalent to Joshua's "Advance!" command was given, the pack of runners disappeared into the darkness, across a tall and wide dam, and into the woods, not entirely sure of what the day would bring.

A looped course can be a good thing. Once the sun comes up, each loop is met with increasing awareness of what lies ahead. It allows a runner to adjust for daring downhills or calculated climbs. With two fully-stocked aid stations on the course, the 4.5 miles in between becomes tolerable. There is no need to carry large quantities of supplies. Arriving at the oasis in the center of the loop permits the runner to carve another notch in the 'ol belt and jump ahead to conclude, "When I get back to the start, I only have ___ more loops to do."

But a looped course is also a bad thing. It makes dropping out very easy. The car is there. A warming fire is there. Food is there. A chair is there. The suffering can become a mere memory within a nanosecond of muttering, "I'm done." All that's left to do is pack your bag and drive away to a warm shower and hot meal.

I went into the race wanting an opportunity to learn lessons, live out perseverance, and waddle away a finisher. Settling into the first loop, I ended up leading a small train of runners. I controlled the speed (or lack thereof) and rhythm. I felt like the pace was very doable and conservative, but half-way through the course noticed a heavy feeling in my legs. Still, I came through the start/finish as the fourth place woman. From there, though my legs began to feel better, my pack position moved to the rear.

Windy, wet conditions (Credit: John Anderson)
A major goal was to stay positive. That was hard to do when people started passing me. I felt much stronger and more capable last month at a 50K race. Still, since I was alone the majority of the time (which is not a bad thing), I consoled myself to run when I should run and walk when I should walk. I prayed for an enjoyable patience to get the job done. The enthusiasm at the aid stations buoyed my spirits and gave my stomach a plethora of options. Still, when the lead runner passed me for the first time a little over 3.5 loops into the race, the realization he was already nine miles ahead was none too consoling.

Then came the rain. What started out sounding as sporadic rustling in the woods turned into a steady blanket of wetness falling from the sky. The already soaked trails became difficult to navigate, the mud taking on an ice-like slickness. The rain continued falling for hours. A garbage bag-turned poncho managed to put some heat back into my core. It wasn't pretty but it was effective. Unfortunately, what became ineffective was my ability to run downhills with any confidence. Each step on the sloppy, slick slopes risked a plunge down the mountain or, at the very least, a face plant onto one of the omnipresent rocks or roots. With less than a mile to go on loop five, the race leader pranced by me for a final time. He only beat me to the finish by 19 miles. That's head-hanging, soul sucking, mortally depressing kind of stuff. I think there should be a rule against that.

One loop to go. (Credit: John Anderson)
Given that the winner was already basking in the joy of a win and a leisurely evening ahead, I was nevertheless delighted to have Michelle Anderson join me for the next go-around. After refueling and heading back to the trail, I quipped, "Tell me your life story." She did. She talked, and I very gratefully listened. The time went by more quickly than before. She was the consummate companion, tending to my every need, taking charge at the middle aid station, assuring I was eating and drinking, and encouraging me along. The progress was better than the prior loop but the mud was becoming more and more intense. Two to six inches coated much of the trail. I sometimes ran into a tree on purpose to slow the slide. Other times, hanging onto branches was the only way to prevent a free-fall down a steep slope made treacherous by competitors' feet stampeding the same narrow ribbon of real estate seven times over. The going was tough, mentally and physically. And within a few moments of completing lap six, I could tell a toe nail on my left foot decided it had enough. I would have to deal with it.

Arriving at the start/finish, I was both surprised and delighted to see two of my "Shindigglers" waiting to go out on the seventh and final lap. The Shindigglers are a group of five college students-turned ultrarunners, four of which I coached during their high school years. I love these girls. They give me life as we train and adventure together. There is nothing they wouldn't try. The prospect of their company made my heart sing.

Michelle, Rebecca, and Sarah. (Credit: John Anderson)
A quick toe taping and sock change re-energized both body and soul. Off we went. Though I was on pace through three loops for a sub-14 hour finish, we had to count on losing light half-way through this final circumnavigation of the park. If all went well, I was looking at a finish a full three hours slower than anticipated. Still, there was nothing to do but put one mud-logged foot in front of the other. 

The muck was a full 50% worse than the previous loop. Around the lake and in the weaning miles of the race, I changed my mudding technique to stand sideways and literally rode the wave of mud down each incline, a precarious procedure at best.  Once, the mud took my legs in different directions. The short ascents were just as difficult. Gripped foliage was a necessity to navigate the incline. Sometimes, though, that wasn't even enough. A step forward often meant a big slide back down. It was exhausting. A few times, it was all I could do to hold back the tears. The girls sensed it, knowing when to fall silent, and when to encourage.

Finally, the last section of trail was behind us. We ran under the finish banner with little fanfare, save the presence of the time keeper and the race director. The parking lot was nearly empty. Gone was the happy banter of racers and crews. Little remained at the aid station save some still-steaming tomato soup. It was delicious and welcomed. The day's "Joshua," aka Andy, handed me the reward for a finish: a crisp $2.00 bill graced with the likeness of Thomas Jefferson, the namesake of the competition.

Part of me wanted to bemoan the fact of being the fifth to last finisher. It was odd, a little lonely, and a lot humbling. And yet, I must remind myself that the task was to complete seven trips around my Jericho. It didn't always make sense. It wasn't always pleasant. The "why" wasn't always clear. But the directive was well-defined. Seven times. Success must be seven times. 67 folks signed on for the trips around the park. Only 54 runners started the journey. A mere 40 stayed the course to completion. I must keep perspective. 7 loops is 7 loops. Mud or not, 62.3 miles is 62.3 miles.

By the grace of God, I advanced. By the grace of God, the walls of Jericho came tumbling down.

Saturday, February 28, 2015

Not just another birthday

I went to bed in a funk. I woke up in a funk. Not because I was upset being at the precipice of another birthday, but because my brain cells were stuck thinking about a disconcerting situation. Yea, yea. I know. "Why worry when you can pray?" Guess I'm still working on that one.

With a 100K approaching two weeks hither, it was important to get in a long run despite the "funk." With snow and ice piled up in the mountains, the thought of a slogfest was not that appealing. And a solo road run? Less than appealing. So I did what any reasonable TrailMama would do. Last evening I sent out a Facebook message to my band of loyal Shindigglers and asked if they would join me. "Yes!"
came the answer. There. It was settled. Now I HAD to get my posterior end out the door and down the road.

But not before the door flung open this morning to the sound of music (at least I think that's what that sound is called). In they came singing "Happy birthday to you. . .", bearing gifts to boot. A plethora of trail food snacks, gift cards for ice cream and food, letters carefully scripted, cards thoughtfully signed, and a framed picture collage of moments from previous adventures. Oh my heart! The funk was nowhere to be found, replaced, that is, by the love and enthusiasm of these college girls and a couple token guys.

We spent the next three-plus hours running, laughing, stopping for photo ops (a vainly-disguised excuse to pause when we grew weary), and wondering why it wasn't getting any warmer. There were cows to chase, "Poo Sticks" (as in Winnie-the) thrown into the stream from the bridge, human pyramids to build, and musing about what conditions might be like atop the tall mountains in the back drop of our view. The new guy shared his story of grace and mercy, while others told stories of significant encounters and progress in their Christian lives. Fruit snacks and energy gels got eagerly snarfed down to fuel the endeavor.

Every step was uplifting, no matter the toll the accumulating miles took on our legs. "Coach T," Sarah rang out. "It's a longstanding tradition to take turns voicing what we appreciate about you." And so it began. Despite temps in the teens, my heart melted into a molten mass. Could it all be true? Do they love me that much? I hoped so. There was no doubt I loved each one of them.

When the country roads led us home, the house nearly burst with giggles, the aroma of hastily created pizza, and the sweet, gooey goodness of oven-broiled s'mores. A DVR'ed episode of Fixer Upper produced ohs, ahs, and girl bonding time as all six of us piled onto my bed to soak in the glory of realty re-dos.

So yeah, it wasn't just another birthday. It was a day to be remembered. A day to be cherished. A day to relive over and over again.

Thank you, my little Shindigglers. Tough but tender. Serious but silly. Centered but just a tad to the right of crazy.