Friday, December 31, 2010

Topping Terrapin

LCA runners atop Terrapin Mountain

After my first season as a high school head cross country coach, my finger felt the beat of adventure running through my runners' veins. They got used to following me anywhere and everywhere on local trails, putting in miles on our distance days. Sarah even decided she never wanted to run a 5K again. She named herself "UltraGirl", helped me sweep a 100-miler, and accompanied me on a 20-mile training run a few weeks back. But for now, my most serious runners transitioned to the indoor track season. I came along as their coach.

For distance runners, "indoor track" is an oxymoron. Seldom do we stay indoors. Rather, it's out into the windy, cold days of winter. While our speedy counterparts come toting shorts and t-shirts to the temperature-controlled track, my kids show up with tights, hats and gloves, and jackets. It's up the mountain, around campus, through the fields. Our faces go numb, lips unable to form intelligible words. Eyes water, fingers go cold. We slip and slide on snowy trails, grabby trees to stay upright on tight turns. Our return trip to the track office is filled with musings about hot chocolate and warm showers.

Of course, we pay our dues with speed work on the track once or twice a week. But too much track work is punishing pounding for the necessary mileage. Sometimes we get inventive. After working hard on the track Monday, putting in a two-hour trail run on Tuesday, we did hills on Wednesday. Never mind that we got to the bottom via sleds. Our workout was climbing back to the peak to go again...and again...and again.

When I suggested we go run a challenging ten-mile loop in the mountains, they jumped at the chance. A promise of a free lunch didn't hurt either. Attempts to recruit sprinters to join us failed miserably. We could only recruit a decathlete, polevaulter, and the head coach. Nevertheless, I distributed every hydration pack and bottle I had before we headed to the start. As anticipated, there was snow. What was not anticipate was how much snow.

Abby Quigg follows Trey Fisher through Fat Man's Misery
By the time we bagged Terrapin Mountain's summit, we were tired; tired of stomping through drifts that swallowed my leg knee-deep. The trip down was more of the same. Run, run, run, splat. Face plants were frequent when the snow refused to release a leg. Even the squeeze through Fat Man's Misery was met not with angst but with excited anticipation. Never once was there a complaint. Never once a whine. Just endless chatter and laughter; resounding, raucous laughter watching most of the group slip, slide, or roll down the final steep incline.

I loved this run. I love these kids. I love it that they are embracing the challenges and accepting these activities as "normal."

I love them being this gullible.

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Whiter than snow

To the door I marched, flipping on the outside spotlight just like when I was a little kid. A smile spread across my face, erasing all the fatigue of Christmas preparations. Filtering down from above, small white flakes fell toward the earth, turning a green yard into a landscape awash in white. It was beautiful. The snow-lined trees were now silhouetted against the dark sky. I lingered a while, watching. And then, opening the door, I stepped into the chill, spread my arms wide and lifted my chin to the sky. I took a deep, cleansing breath as the heavy, wet snow landed on my eyelids. Leaving the noise of chatter inside, I reveled in the tranquil and silent snowfall. The world seemed to slow a bit, as if wanting to silence the frenzy of Christmas day. But alas, I reluctantly returned to the climate-controlled indoors and participated once more in post-dinner conversation.

We awoke on this Christmas morn to a dusting of snow. It wasn't much but the ground was covered. It was fitting for the holiday. As the day went on and despite frequent snow showers, a gentle rise in temperature rendered my wonderful, holiday snow to disappear, changing my yard back to dismal brown. The weatherman had reported no expected accumulation so I wasn't surprised. Yet, I secretly praying he was wrong.

With dinner safely tucked into the oven, I looked to see the snow pick up again. Ah-ha! Brown was again giving way to white. My pulse raced. I excused myself, changed into tights and slipped my anxious feet into  running shoes.

"See you in a little while," I uttered to whoever was in earshot. Down the long driveway I went, my feet making fresh prints in the snow. The snow was gentle, the wind still. The neighbor's cows played a game of frolic as I passed by. I think they liked the snow as much as me. Further on my journey, a hunter emerged from the woods carrying his unfired gun. We nodded to each other as we went our separate ways. I was alone with my thoughts, the cool temperatures clearing my mind. I felt alive, thankful for the moment.

All too soon, I stepped back into the warm glow of the house. It was dusk and high time to put on the final touches to Christmas dinner. As we sat down together as a family, the fellowship was savored as much as the food. There we were, me in my running clothes, Grandpa still wearing his own hunting gear, my niece in her new shirt, a Santa hat perched atop Skip's head, and the others in various stages of dress, sharing the beauty of the occasion. As snow continued to fall, it was what Christmas dreams are made of.

The forecast has now changed and the "snow showers" prediction has been replaced with snow measured in inches. I hope they are right this time. I could use another day of whiteness. For me, the snow demands a time of reflection. A time of quiet. And how perfect to have it on Christmas.

When the Christ-child was born, he came to a world darkened by sin. Atonement was necessary. And atonement is what the Lord Jesus provided as he hung on that cross 33 years later. The temple veil was ripped in two and direct access to the Father granted. As the blood sacrifices covered sin in ages past, the blood sacrifice of the Perfect Son covered our sin. No longer are we black-marked. Rather, we are washed in the redeeming red stream and purified as snow, the whitest snow ever.

Rejoice with every flake that falls. Revel in the earth's white garment. Be reminded, even when you need to shovel it.

“Come now, let us settle the matter,”
   says the LORD.
“Though your sins are like scarlet,
   they shall be as white as snow;
though they are red as crimson,
   they shall be like wool. (Isaiah 1:17-19)


Monday, December 20, 2010

The Ugly Truth

I just discovered something the other night as I was adding Hellgate stories and stats to the extremeultrarunning.com website.  After being delighted to report a 14 minute PR for myself, I must recant. Sad, indeed.  Here is what happened.

When I looked up prior results, I stopped short when I saw a previous time for me at 15:54 since I did not remember running under 16 hours three times. Guess what?  2004 was the 15:54 but in 2007, I ran 15:40:22.  My time this year? 15:40:31. Shoot.  9 measly seconds away from a PR.  In the context of nearly 67 miles, that really isn't much.  UGH!!!

Sorry for the misinformation. Somehow, I'm not quite as excited anymore. I was loving the idea of a PR.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Hellgate: Take 8

How odd that a 67 mile race matched to the name of the parking lot at the start would be so descriptive. And who, pray tell, thought of naming that piece of land "Hellgate" in the first place? Who does that?

Images conjured up by the name "Hellgate" leap to mind. Quotes from sources such as Dante's Inferno ("Abandon hope all ye who enter here") to country crooner Rodney Atkins ("...If you're going through hell, keep on moving. Don't slow down...”) grace t-shirts handed out at check-in. And with runners arriving in the cold and ominous darkness for a midnight start, comrades instinctively join together against the waiting, sinister course. It's just not your normal race.

But a race it is. A race with such growing popularity that many are turned away not simply because of limited race slots. They are turned away because the race director regards them incapable of such an undertaking. It is a not a race for the faint-hearted or inexperienced. Each year on the second weekend of December, the rugged course, daunting climbs and technical descents draw the runners into the inky cover of darkness, some of them destined to never run into the light of day.

I know this course, this race, this pre-Christmas challenge. For each of the eight years of its existence, my name has been on the list of competitors. I’m not sure why. Each year I swear “never again.” And yet, my name appears as if written by the devil himself. To the mountains I must go. I must face the demons that await.

One year, the demons won my soul. I could not conquer the course and surrendered when I could not breathe about halfway through the required 67 miles. However, I out ran them each of the other years. Some years were harder than others to avoid being snared by their wicked grip, but never was it easy. I didn’t expect my eighth year to be anything different.

But it was. I found myself smiling at the start. I did not feel the trepidation that usually trumps all other emotions. I surged into the night anticipating what might come. I had no delusions of grandeur but was comfortable with my task. I counted sets of running steps mixed with hiking steps as the first ascent climbed skyward, headlamps above twinkling like tiny stars. My breathing was controlled; legs working well as I concentrated on small steps and mid-foot plant. Unlike other years, I climbed higher and higher passing others along the way.

Through the night I ran. I was surprised to be shoulder to shoulder with racers accustomed to being in front of me. At times I would pull away, content to take in the cold, still night alone. Occasionally I would run with- and then ahead of- female runners. I didn’t quite understand the excitement of my aid-station tending college friends upon my arrival. Why the hubbub?

Somewhere along the way I realized I was actually the second place woman. It was hard to comprehend. It had been years since I had been in the hunt and the miles through thirty seemed so easy, so effortless. Why was this happening? Had the devils left the woods?

No. I found them hiding behind the trees and lurking under rocks in their own territory: a trail we call “The Devil Trail.” A stomach turning south and waning energy from not eating chased me. So did another female runner. She passed me at about 43 miles. It was third place for me with twenty-some miles to go. My fun meter pegged zero.

I worked hard to gain a ridge high above the valley floor. I ate and drank when I could. My smile had faded but my legs kept moving albeit at a slower pace.  Push. Push, I told myself even after a rock reached out to pull me to the ground face first. I didn’t like it that several men had gone by looking much more energetic than me. It was hard not to be discouraged.

But then came Rick. Rick Gray. A faithful friend with a heart as far from gray as could be. Golden, even. He is an encourager and gentleman no matter the circumstances. He was running toward a personal best, pulling me in his wake along the long, thin ribbons of trail. I let him. I needed mindless motion while I struggled to regain my strength and will.

Up and down. In and out. The never-ending trail changed as much as my emotions. I was fighting off sleep while trying to calm my stomach. I nearly lost my will in the gentle currents of the creeks we crossed. When will we be through? Where is the aid station? It seemed so pointless. Pointless until Rick softly called my name and I glanced backwards. Another woman approached, moving well. Suddenly I was awake and moving once again, trying to keep her in contact once she took the lead. Soon the initial surge wore off and the disappointment of falling into fourth position settled in. Nevertheless, her parting words haunted me, urging me onward. “Kerry’s coming.”

Not again, I wanted to scream. She was a strong finisher and certain to run me down. I barely held her off by a hundred yards in a prior year. Rick and I took on the final three mile ascent, glancing often back down the mountain. I knew she was close. I could feel it.

Crossing the gap to fall off the other side of the mountain on the final descent to the finish, I turned again. There she was. My heart jumped, spirits fell. But Rick and I ran on and on and on. . . and on. I dared not look back. My breathing became labored, arms flailing and legs heavy. It was all I could do not to give into the devil’s prompting to stop, abandoning hope even at the late hour. But over the din of the wicked one’s prompting, Rick reached out and grabbed my hand, joining with David, another runner. His message of triumph rang loud and clear, silencing the devil’s clamor. We crossed the line together, exhausted. Rick ran nearly an hour personal best. Me, a best by fourteen minutes.

Though the devil tried to dance, his music went silent.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Standing in the storm

The wind buffeted us as we ran along, making the 25 degree temps feel all the more frigid. It was hard running into the wind, heads bowed forward to protect our faces and keep our eyes from tearing up. I much prefer a balmy, calm day when I need to get in some miles. But alas, we had no choice.

With another windy day on tap, I just read a friend's blog describing a recent marathon. It was a six mile loop that when running west, was directly into a stiff wind. Two pacers ran in front of her in an attempt to block the air currents making progress a bit more pleasant. But still, it was hard going. I'm sure she wished for the gale to cease.

As I began to work in the office this morning I clicked on the morning news and was captivated by a special piece on Elizabeth Edwards, presumably in her last hours. At the end of a long struggle with cancer, the story highlighted her life with all of it's ups and downs; the political scene, the pressure of being the perfect wife, the gut-wrenching lose of a son to an accident, the birth of other children later in life, a devastating diagnosis and equally devastating infidelity of her husband. Drawn from an interview in past years, she was quoted as saying that she wished her children to remember her as a woman who "stood in the storm...and adjusted her sails..." That is quite the legacy.


The analogy of a storm is not unfamiliar. Think of Jonah on that boat headed to Nineveh. The storm raged and he was thrown overboard since the crew's storm-fraught predicament was all his fault. Jonah was running hard from God, not standing tall in the face of what God asked him to do. In fact, trying to escape on that boat was his way of slouching cowardly, turning his back on God. So into the churning sea he went. I bet he never expected that big 'ol fish to swallow him up and then spit him out. But it was only when hit the beach on his knees that he could stand tall. He could stand to face the challenge because he knew his God had been in the storm with him.

Ever feel like you're in a storm? I do. Pressures, challenges, and heartache come from all directions. It is not a particularly pleasant experience. Fortunately, some come and go quickly. Others show no sign of clearing skies. Still, it is in those dark and blustery days that we must learn to stand tall in the storm.  But just as important, we must learn how to sleep in the storm. Really. I'm not kidding.

Sleep is reserved for those who are at peace. Remember how the Lord was in the boat when a vicious storm arose on the Sea of Galilee? Waves washed over the sides, nearly swamping it. The disciples were frightened senseless. And yet the Lord slumbered, the disciples thinking him oblivious to their peril. Finally awakening him they said, "Teacher, don't you care if we drown?" (Mark 4:38b). I can see it now. Jesus probably gave them that “give me a break” kind of look, drew in an exasperated breath and then told the wind and waves to cease. 

Silence and calm. That’s what happens when the Lord is in control. But we error if we think God was not--or is not--in control when the seas churn and the winds blow. The only difference is our ability—or perhaps, willingness—to believe that God is as much God in the storm as in calm.

Stand tall in the storm. Then find rest and sleep despite the roar of the crashing waves.

"The engulfing waters threatened me, the deep surrounded me; seaweed was wrapped around my head. To the roots of the mountains I sank down;  the earth beneath barred me in forever. But you, LORD my God, brought my life up from the pit. “When my life was ebbing away,  I remembered you, LORD, and my prayer rose to you, to your holy temple." (Jonah 2:5-7)

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Time trials

OK. I did it. I said "yes" to being the distance coach for indoor track just when I was eagerly anticipating free afternoons at the conclusion of the cross country season. But alas, I could not turn down the kids' pleas.

We started practice a few days ago. At least fifty kids showed up in the classroom for the first meeting. There was standing room only. I knew the cross country kids but everyone else was a stranger. The head coach addressed the anxious athletes, laying out the rigors and rules for the season. Then he dropped the bomb. "We will be having time trials on Thursday. You'll have to run the minimum times to make the team."

This was the first time he had decided to take this approach. In other years, all-comers were welcomed. But not now. With  dwindling access to the indoor track and sprinters who don't fancy running out in the elements, he decided that stampeding the hallways of the school in large herds was not a good idea. Hence, the tryouts.

I understand but have mixed feelings about it. I look at some of my cross country kids who have hearts of lions but lack the predator's power and the speed. These kids will do anything you tell them-and with a smile-but they won't get to the finish line first. They are great team members, encouraging and supporting without hesitation or jealousy of those who are swifter. Their improvement from the first of the season to the end is measured in minutes, not seconds. Anyone of them could have been awarded the "Coach's Award" for admirable traits. But alas, now they must face the click of the stopwatch. I wonder how they will fare.

None of us like to fail by missing the mark-or see those we care about do the same. It is a painful process. But we do know that it's a part of life. Not everyone who runs wins the victor's crown. Still, my guess is that some of these kids, cross country cross-overs along with others, will not make the standard. How can I help them through this process without coddling or patronizing?

There are a bazillion quotes about failure, some of them quite poignant, others cliche'. Try these:
  • Fear of failure must never be a reason not to try something.” - Fredrick Smith
  • The greatest barrier to success is the fear of failure. - Sven Goran Eriksson
  • The only real failure in life is the failure to try. - Unknown
  • Life's real failure is when you do not realize how close you were to success when you gave up. - Unknown
  • Try and fail, but don't fail to try. - Stephen Kaqqwa
  • Failure is a detour, not a dead-end street. - Zig Ziggler
  • A man may fall many times, but he won't be a failure until he says that someone pushed him. - Elmer G Letterman
  • Failure is not falling down but refusing to get up. - Chinese Proverb
Enough of that.

But I was interested to read what Job, the persecuted and tried man of old, thought about failure. Here he was, an illustration, and flannelgraph object lesson even, used by God. His possessions, family, houses, status in life; all taken from him. The only thing left intact was his ability to take in sustaining breaths and that was not without difficulty. Did he feel like a failure? Yes. Was the process heart-wrenching and painful? Yes. Did all these maladies make him "feel" good?  No. And again I scream, "NO!" It was horrible, terrifying, numbing. And yet the man never cursed God. He took what came his way and despite the misery of it, reveled in God's sustaining mercy. He came out on the other side of the adversity as a man standing tall.

So to all those who momentarily know the pain of failing-or fear that possibility-take heart. At least there is hope for a tree: If it is cut down, it will sprout again, and its new shoots will not fail. (Job 14:7)