Saturday, December 31, 2011

The special guest

It had not happened since, well, I can't remember when. My three brothers, wives and kids all converged on our Mother's condo this week, celebrating a belated Christmas and early New Year. We could smell the dinner she prepared as soon as we got off the elevator, reminiscent of days walking through the kitchen door at our childhood home. The aroma foreshadowed great things to come, erasing the taxing seven-hour drive through heavy rain.

The condo, a comfortable two-bedroom, one-and-a-half bath on the fourth floor began to bulge as fifteen people filed in. The normally quiet abode was anything but. Voices rang out in greeting, laughter swelled, plates clattered, and glasses clinked when filled with ice water. Mother's table, brought from her home of fifty years, grew for the occasion with the extra leaves inserted. Still, a card table provided additional spots. The four male cousins needed no convincing to claim that precious piece of real estate.

When all was prepared, Mother gathered us together as we joined hands to make a large but lopsided circle. I noticed a familiar twitch in her nose. I knew what that meant. We both do it prior to breaking out in tears. Her eyes briefly studied the face of each family member. No longer was she looking at young children and even younger grands. She was looking at a roomful of responsible adults. Who ever thought this day would come so soon?

Thankfully, all fifteen didn't have to sleep wall-to-wall. We were able to spread out to a guest room in the retirement center and a cousin's local home. But by dawn's early light, we came back together to run, discuss, laugh, and, of course, eat. No fights. No bad attitudes. Just family time worthy of a Normal Rockwell painting.

But someone was missing. Dad was called home to heaven before any of his grandkids were even born. His memory, his legacy, however, is not easily forgotten. But this year, it was as though he was there.

My brother, Dan, handed Mother the last gift of the evening, which she painstakingly opened. Perhaps she sensed something special. Dan had commissioned a painting of our father standing in heaven with the Savior. Lining the stairs were roses, a nod to one of his favorite hymns, "Where the Roses Never Fade." Looking upon that canvas, I was overtaken with the thought of his eternity in the presence of the Lord. Wow. What a privilege. What a comfort to be reminded he was in the arms of his heavenly father.

I wasn't the only one who felt it. Each one in that room sat in stunned silence, viewing the painting through misty eyes, each lost in thoughts and memories. It was like he was our special guest that night. "It's because of Dad we're all here," Dan offered.

But I couldn't help but add, if only to myself, "Yes. And it's because of Him," referencing Jesus, "that we'll all be there."

"Thank you, Lord. Thank you!"

Friday, December 23, 2011

A reason to celebrate

"It's the most wonderful time of the year. . ."

On the way home from a last minute shopping trip, I couldn't help but sing it loud and strong when the song came on the radio. With guests soon to arrive it dawned on me that Christmas was nearly here. There was no more rushing around, no more gifts to buy, no more house to clean. It was time to revel in family and friends and celebrate the birth of the Baby Jesus.

It's easy to get caught up in the season. With chestnuts roasting on an open fire and sleigh bells jingling in the snow (well, maybe not this year with temps in the 50's), warm and fuzzies wash over the soul. Candlelight Christmas Eve services make the world stop spinning in silent reverence. All is well.

And then reality comes knocking. All those pent up emotions slowly leach away. The mail box is filled with bills rather than beautiful cards.The world doesn't seem as bright and the body not so light after all those sweets. Decorations carefully displayed end up packaged away in boxes and stored under the stairs for another twelve months. Why does this happen?

Perhaps it happens because we focus on the babe in the manger. If we see only the swaddling clothes and  embrace the musty smell of the straw-filled stable, those images are incapable of holding our attention for very long. But if we see that same scene in the context of the cross, well, that changes everything.

Baby Jesus apart from the cross merely becomes a lovely story. It's when we understand that Jesus was destined to die on that wooden frame that the significance of his birth can be appreciated year-round. There was no other way. The world needed a savior and only the Father had one to give. He chose a path that started in the manger and culminated on Calvary thirty-three years later. But that wasn't the end. The blood of Jesus shed on that cross bridged the gap between God's righteousness and our unholiness.

When we clearly understand the manger in the shadow of the cross, we can have the joy of Christmas through frigid January, windy March, hot and humid July, chilly October days, and back to starry, December nights.

Oh, come let us adore him. . .Christ, our Lord.

Monday, December 12, 2011

The dark side of the Hellgate moon

12:01 a.m. Full moon rising. Mountains awash in the silver light. Shuffle through leaves. Splash across creeks. The rhythmic cadence of gravel crunching under foot. Thoughts crowd the mind. Other times, no thoughts come to mind. Eat. Drink. Be patient. Have no patience. Make decisions. Pray. Unmake decisions. Slog up the next mountain. Run down the other side. It's relentless forward motion toward a finish line.

I was running my ninth Hellgate 100K sick and tired-literally. Seldom ill, a cold of uncommon proportions left me weak, eyes watering, diminished hearing, and unable to breath through my nose. That, along with general undertraining, did not bode well for another success story at this devilish race.

But I had two non-negotiable jobs. I needed to start and I needed to finish.

It was not going to be easy. My long-time nemesis, sleep, repeatedly beckoned. I first heard her siren call at the long, lonely climb beginning at mile ten. I tried to fight her off taking in the rushing, frothing stream charging down the mountainside. Such power and force in those waters cascading over and around the boulders. I looked at the brilliant moon through bare but silhouetted branches. Enchanting. Yet my greatest desire was to lay down and lose myself in delicious sleep. I dare not yield.

I thought about the runners I coached and the lessons I tried to teach. I knew they were praying for me. I wondered how they ran at the season's first indoor meet earlier in the evening. My mind rehearsed their encouraging words. It was enough to get me up that hill.

I ate, drank, and pulled out every ploy from my eighteen-year bag of ultra-tricks. I talked to myself and answered back. I ran when I needed to run and walked when the incline became too great. For the most part, I was alone. Alone in the dark with my fear and my dreams playing tug-of-war with my spirit.

When the sky lit with the morning's rising sun, I was further back on the course than I had ever been. The aid station had little to offer. Still, they helped me rush through and be on my way. My mind turned into a cluttered mess of times and paces as I desperately calculated my projected arrival at coming check-points. I knew I was ahead of the cut-off but had precious little room to slow down. I had to push.

I had forty-minutes to spare when I left the forty-two mile aid station, taking food from my own drop bag. Nothing looked appealing but I had to take in calories. The workers did all they could to encourage and help. Still, with apologies, the wares on their table were limited. I was beginning to understand the additional challenges of running near the back and without a crew. But at least only three sections stood between me and another finish.

I climbed. I ran. I walked. I ate. I sipped. I was exhausted and impatient. I suffered. My suffering wasn't so much physical. Nothing really hurt and I was able to run. I was just so tired of breathing. So tired of being out there. In my suffering, I made decisions about giving up racing. I no longer enjoyed the "have to" training and the time it takes. I no longer felt the compulsion to "race" but was not completely taken to the idea of merely "finishing." I would train with my up-and-coming ultra wanna-be's. We would have great fun in the woods and then I would watch them carry the torch into a race. I had it all figured out. Done deal.

And then I crossed the finish line. It was another personal worst time. But it was a finish; number 8 and more than any other woman. I did not quit as I did one year. I persevered. It wasn't pretty. But my finisher's award sure is.

Will there be a ninth and then a tenth finish in my future? My trail decision was "no." Eight was a perfectly good, even number. But now, maybe ten really is better.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Hellgate. Here I come--again.

I have a deep love-hate relationship with Hellgate. It's hellish 66.6 miles (yes, by multiple GPS measurements) bids heavy portions of gloom and doom. The peculiar midnight start, stream crossings in the early miles, huge climbs and sweeping descents, frigid air and wind-swept mountaintops challenges even the most seasoned runner.

But, Hellgate also beckons in her siren voice. "Come to me. Embrace the night, the solitude. See the moon beams dance across open fields. Hear the rustle of fallen leaves. Watch your warm breath meet the night air in a rhythmic release of mist clouds. Stand still, if only for a moment, and listen. Listen to a quiet, sleeping world. Then, be thankful and run on."

I have started each of the eight races. This year will be the nineth. All but once, I have found the finish line. Some years I ran swiftly. I slogged through others. I have more finishes than any other woman. But I still can't predict what will happen this year. I am promised a healthy dose of suffering. I know it will hurt. I'm just not certain how bad it will be.

I have experience on my side. But experience only gets you so far. Last year, I cruised effortlessly through the first thirty-five miles. Then the fun-meter ran out and my lack of long-runs reached out to grab at my ankles in a death-grip. This year, I'm fighting a nagging knee injury from a soccer game back in June. I am popping decongestants to get rid of a newly-acquired cold. The race could go either way for me.

But regardless, I have a job to do. I will report to work at precisely one minute past midnight in the wee hour of Saturday morning. I hope to punch out less than eighteen hours later, job completed.

Stay tuned. Report to follow.