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.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Thankful for faithfulness

It was the kind of whirl-wind week that could turn a tornado jealous.

I'm not sure how it happened. Well, no. I take that back. It happened because 1) I have this habit of getting "great" ideas or 2) I say "yes" quicker than I say "no."

Following a hectic cross country season and knowing indoor and outdoor track seasons were knocking on the door, I embraced the idea of some down time. That didn't really happen. I failed to add significantly to my manuscript, build up my mulch pile, or get the house in pristine shape. But I did have a lot of fun.

With some left-over points at our time share, the Shindigglers (plus some extras) and I ventured off for a two-night girl's retreat. Chick-flicks, sweet treats, a morning run, outlet shopping, and hot tubs under the stars punctuated our time at the Williamsburg resort. I could have used another day to relax. I was tired.

Back at home on Tuesday, our Thanksgiving guests for the week arrived shortly after my car pulled into the driveway. Thank goodness my sister-in-law brought a crock pot full of chili for supper. Wednesday was filled with shopping and preparing meals for the next couple of days. The house filled with wonderful chatter and tempting aromas. But I was tired.

By Friday morning, the house cleared but I followed the last one out the door. I was taking a group of my runners to a prestigious race in North Carolina. That meant another night away from home and a long day Saturday. The kids ran well and the trip was enjoyable. I was thankful, however, to get home and sit with my husband. I was tired. So tired.

Sunday morning was worship and the afternoon filled with catch-up duties. Then we headed out the door to bid farewell to a retiring elder. I was tired and must have looked the part. Someone commented on it.

Serving our assembly from the time we first met in a member's garage to present, George and Brenda are dear to us. We gathered this last time around the piano, singing favorite hymns, and Psalms, and spiritual songs. The richness of the words and the sweet harmony bound us together. We sang for an hour or so, interspersing memories of our time together. But one song, in particular, said it all. I didn't feel so tired. I felt soothed and blessed.

Great is Thy faithfulness, oh God my Father;
There is no shadow of turning with Thee;
Thou changest not, Thy compassions, they fail not;
As Thou hast been, Thou forever wilt be.

Chorus: Great is Thy faithfulness! Great is Thy faithfulness!
Morning by morning new mercies I see.
All I have needed Thy hand hath provided;
Great is Thy faithfulness, Lord, unto me!

Summer and winter and springtime and harvest,
Sun, moon, and stars in their courses above
Join with all nature in manifold witness
to Thy great faithfulness, mercy and love.

Pardon for sin and a peace that endureth
Thine own dear presence to cheer and to guide;
Strength for today and bright hope for tomorrow,
Blessings all mine, with ten thousand beside!

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

On becoming a substitute runner

For many weeks, Christy and daughter Emily, an eleven-year old sixth grader, faithfully headed out the door for a run. Emily, fresh off her first season of middle-school cross country, was anxious to take on a half-marathon. Christy, inspired to complete the event as a mother-daughter duo, had also been training. With a short week before the big day, everything was falling into place. Well, almost everything.

Bad, bad bouncy ball mishap
Christy is an assistant elementary school principal. Of course, school-age children go hand-in-hand with school-age fun. And this principal was not to be left sitting on the sidelines. She chose, instead, to sit on a big bouncy ball. After a couple of test bounces, it reared up like a deranged stallion and threw it's rider to the side. Somewhere in the catapulted trajectory, the meniscus in her knee said "no" to flying, leaving her with a gigantic, swollen leg. When four days of rest produced little relief, her doctor evacuated the built-up fluid, deflating the knee as well as her spirits. Christy's race was over before the starting gun sounded.

"Are you going to let her run by herself?" I questioned.

"No. She's so young. I am heartbroken that my injury is keeping Emily from her dream."

"Well, how about I run with her in your place? Do you think she would like that?"

"Yes!" And, so it was. I would be the substitute mom to accompany Emily on her journey along the Dan River.

Before the race begins
The day was picture perfect with sun shining and pleasant temps. The course wound along the banks of the Dan River, offering views of water fowl, the river cascading over dams, and fallen leaves enjoying a journey on the gentle current. Emily seemed to take it all in stride. She was calm at the start but appropriately anxious to be underway.

Off we went, making a short mile and a half journey to the south before retracing our steps to continue to the north. "You okay? Be sure to let me know if we need to back off." When she assured me she was happy, we followed the crowd along the tree-lined path. We even tried our hand at capturing leaves fluttering down from above. All was well.

I took great joy in telling everyone along the way about Emily. "Can you believe she is a sixth-grader and doing so well?" All were amazed and encouraging. As the miles ticked off, I also enjoyed talking with everyone I could. It gave Emily someone else to listen to other than my running mouth.

At each aid station, I suggested what Emily should eat and drink. She readily complied. But when we got to the four mile hilly loop, she told me about developing blisters. A helpful volunteer pulled out some band-aids and we applied them to her foot. There is nothing worse than thinking about aching feet with more miles to run. With the repair completed, we continued on our journey.

With the loop checked off, we had but four miles to the finish. "Emily, on a scale of one to ten, how bad are you hurting?"

"Hum. About a five, I guess" was her response.

Smiling, I said, "Well, good, you have plenty of room to suffer." She grinned but kept running. No complaints. No whining. Just forward motion.

Twice more, I asked her for a number. Seven and seven and a half were the answers. After that, I stopped asking fearing the fun meter was running out. Instead, I said "Em, let's try to keep ahead of the guy behind us and catch that woman up ahead." She gave it all she had.

Emily and Rebekah nearing the finish
We had but a half mile when we crossed the footbridge. "We're almost home! You did it. Be sure to smile for your mom and dad." She did. With Christy's tears hidden behind sunglasses, she watched her daughter cross the line in 2:18, a noteworthy pace of 10:36 per mile. She was happy for Emily's accomplishment, but at the same time, sorrowful she missed the opportunity to sweat along side her.

Thank you, Christy and Emily, for allowing me to share in your day. It was my utmost privilege to be a substitute.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

It's all about the cross

It was the day before the state championship meet. This group of cross-country runners had worked long and hard for nearly four months. The season was punctuated with stellar runs, personal bests, and conference titles. Now it was time to wrap it all up. During this practice,  no running workout could assure exceptional performances the next day. But, there was an opportunity to refocus.

The group divided into four teams and raced to form letters and numbers with their bodies. It took team work and analysis to use all team members in the effort. Next, each team formed a "dragon" by holding onto each others' waists. The task was to protect the "tail" from being tagged by another dragon team. Strategy was required to survive the dragon wars.

The entire team was then asked to figure out how to keep a balloon off the ground simply with string. It took forming a circle and tossing the ball of string to teammates across the way. Soon, as the ball of string repeatedly criss-crossed the circle, each person pulling their "piece" taut, a complex, inter-connected web formed. With tension on each line, the balloon was kept in the air with little effort.

It was obvious that working together was critical in the three exercises. But one more activity remained. Each teammate was handed a personalized puzzle piece. They were given no instructions other than to assemble the puzzle. Following initial mayhem, leaders emerged and assembly began. "What shape is it?" they queried.

"Can't say. You'll know soon enough," I answered with a smile. Standing back, I continued to watch and listen. Soon, the entire group shouted when the last piece was arranged in place.

"It's a cross! It's a cross!" And with that, the lesson began.

"Yes. It's all about the cross. All about the cross."

"Look at it, guys. What do you see? Are you drawn to the names or to the cross?" I could see them begin to mull over the truth. "We've talked a lot about being "Team Peculiar" this year. We've challenged one another to make the most of every opportunity to represent Christ in everyday interactions and to see our athletics as expressly given for the glory of God. But listen, we fail as a team if people can't see that wonderful cross when they look at us."

I continued. "Everyone of us has a unique position and purpose in that cross. Our identity is fully embedded in that cross. But, what happens if I take out a piece? There's a hole, isn't there? You're eye is drawn to the 'hole' rather than the 'whole.' That vacancy detracts from the cross's glory. Can we begin to understand how important it is to embrace each and every one of our positions in that wonderful, magnificent cross?"

"As we go to the state meet tomorrow, what will other teams see? Will they see individuals running for themselves? Will they see swagger or less-than-best efforts? Or, will they see actions and attitudes that point squarely to the cross of Jesus Christ?"

With that, the team bowed in prayer to seek guidance and offer thanksgiving. Truly, it is all about the cross.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

LCA Cross Country team gets great press

On November 10, 2011, Lynchburg, Virginia's News and Advance newspaper published an article about the Liberty Christian Academy Cross Country program. It is a fitting tribute to my kids who have worked so hard throughout the year. Check it out here.

Team Time

The New Covenant Schools soccer team gathered moments prior to the Division II title game at the National Association of Christian Athletes tournament in Dayton, TN. The coach handed his captain a piece of paper. “Josh, would you please read this to the team? Drew (a former player) sent us a message.” 

The first NCS Championship Team (Nov 2005)
The team listened intently, absorbing every word like a thirsty, dry sponge.  “Well, team, it’s the big day: Championship Friday. Word has spread that you guys have put on a great show thus far and, judging from the brackets, you certainly have. The NCS soccer team hasn't been in this good of a position since this day six years ago, the same day they took home the title. I have faith that today your team, or should I say, "our team," has a legitimate shot at a Division II title. . . No pressure. I'm sure you know you have the backing of your fellow students and faculty but you also have the backing of your former students and teammates. Just remember that for some of you it will be your last shot that many of us former players never had. And for you non-seniors, understand you guys are partaking in something almost sanctified in the eyes of many. . . Enjoy it. Today is a very special day for you. Go out there and play with intensity, leaving it all on the field, knowing that some day you can look back and be proud. . . Finally, play being mindful of who you're playing for, the name of the school on your jersey, and the name of your Savior on your heart. . . Break a leg, Gryphons. Beat Chattanooga. Win or lose, I couldn't be more proud of you guys.”

The room fell silent save sniffles wiped away on shirt sleeves. The message penetrated, the soothing ointment of words seeping into every rusted cranny of the players’ souls. The significance of who they were, who they represented, was the oil needed to ignite the spark. They cried together, prayed together, and went out and won together.

The NCS soccer team was reminded of their connection to things much bigger than themselves. The team was not an island. It was just one more set of waves that followed all the others to the shore. The team was part of a constant tide that rolled in and out. They, like the team six years prior, simply capitalized on the opportunity to ride a huge swell.

A team must see themselves in the big picture or risk becoming self-absorbed. It’s not unlike a believer who understands he does not function apart from the millions before and those coming after him in the body of Christ. Embracing our heritage, we become mindful of who we are and from where we’ve come—and that makes all the difference in the world.

For I have always been mindful of your unfailing love and have lived in reliance on your faithfulness (Psalm 26:3).

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

The Mountain Masochist in perspective

Check out this "fly-over" of the Mountain Masochist 50-Mile Race course. No matter how often I have been on the course during the race or in training, this vantage point blows me away. Click to see the MMTR topo image flyover of the entire route . It's no wonder I got tired.

Monday, November 7, 2011

The Journey of the Skirt: Part 2

The night before the Mountain Masochist 50-Mile Trail Run seemed way too short. I'm pretty sure I didn't sleep at all, though I was snuggled under my comfy covers. Lying there in the darkness, my mind repeatedly reviewed the facts: 1) In the last forty-five days, I had done but three runs of about seventeen miles. 2) Preparation to bag a good race has always included weekly long runs of twenty to thirty miles for months preceding. 3) Running with my cross-country team was great but not well-suited for mountain racing and was low in mileage. 4) I wasn't getting any younger but, most importantly, 5) I was going to sport my new skirt. Who could sleep anticipating that thrill?

My carefully-planned race outfit
The pre-race prep was standard and details boring. I got up, did this, did that, milled around at the start, and started running when the director said "go." With so many miles ahead and woefully low expectations for the quality of my run, the only thing was to settle in and get those despicable road miles out of the way. By the time I hit the first trail, dawn had come and along with it, skirt compliments. "Ah, love the skirt." The day was looking up.

I promised myself to be happy all day--or at least I would try. When I wasn't accepting compliments on how fashion coordinated I was, I made sure to look around at the leaves stubbornly gripping tree branches and the mountain tops above. And, with the sun still en route to it's peak, the dappled light made for interesting shadows. It was pretty, I suppose. But honestly, I was much more interested in checking off aid stations to get further into the race.

I moved steadily along the first twenty-seven miles. But steady wasn't getting me anywhere fast. Few spectators huddled around the aid stations. The crowds of crew had already moved onto the next one in support of their runners. What was left was a handful of faithful followers for those moving at a more pedestrian pace. They were pleasant and encouraging but I noted a stark difference from when I ran as a contender.

In general, I was pleased with the way my legs were holding up. When called into action to run, they didn't rebel--much. But I was baffled on the uphill climbs. In the past, I've zipped right along, as if pulled by a ski tow. Now, it was like everyone but me was holding onto the rope. No matter what I did, nothing got me up those hills any faster. My only recourse was to glance at the hot pink flowers on my skirt and mutter, "It's you and me all the way." I forced myself to relax my face and smile.

It was good to have Caleb, my oldest son, out there helping me for the last half of the race. He never complained about all the hurry up and wait shenanigans. When I saw him for the last time with fourteen miles to go, I suggested he download War and Peace on his Kindle. He was likely to get most of it read before I got to the finish. He drove off and my skirt and I flitted away toward the beginning of the end.

Now, I have to admit, I was having long conversations with my inner self. Though I was getting queasy, nothing was really wrong. I was just slow. I was impatient. I thought about how many people had already finished the race, soaking in the afternoon sun and spectator praises. But not me. While I mixed in trudging uphills with running downs, I decided I was through with ultras. After seventeen years of competition, I no longer enjoyed solo training. I despised the time it took away from my growing list of other interests. I even decided to give up on the wicked Hellgate 100K in five weeks. I would let go of my status as the female with the most finishes. But then, someone would ruin my quitting plans and compliment my skirt.

"Great skirt. My girlfriend would love that one. She refuses to wear anything but. Where did you get it?" And with that, things seemed to get a little better. I can't say I liked being out there at that point. My burning desire was to cross the line and go home. (And if I could puke before that, it was an added bonus.) I was dizzy from not being able to eat or drink and really didn't care if I was passed in the last mile. I was tired of running. All I cared about was finishing my fourteenth Masochist so that I could earn my fifteen year jacket next year. Though I crossed the line with a new PW (personal worst), my skirt made the journey just fine.

You should see the outfit I'm planning for Hellgate.

Friday, November 4, 2011

The Journey of the Skirt: Part 1

Author in a boring black skirt. (Photo by Seth Trittipoe)
I've experienced this kind of day sixteen times before. It's the day before the big race: the Mountain Masochist 50-Mile Run. I can think of nothing else all day long. I think about being so cold right before the start. I think about the more-than-advertised 5.7 miles of repetitious road (before hitting the first trail) and how much I hate that section. I think of how other runners, no matter how good shape I'm in, blow by me on the first climb toward Peavine Mountain. I think about marching uphill and consoling myself by saying "It's so early in the race. They'll pay later for running now." I try to imagine each section of the race. I focus on how I might feel, what my strategy should be, and my pace at the end. I pack my bag with everything I think I might need during and after the race. Then, I unpack it to reanalyze before stuffing it all back in and zipping it closed. I know sleep will be scant tonight as thoughts, hope, and fear play tag inside my brain.

Long ago, I floated through the pre-race activities as a front-runner favorite. People expected a good performance and in the early years, I delivered. It was fun but not without pressure. I was always glad when it was over. Then came the troubled years when I struggled with an undiagnosed malady. Twice, I dropped out mid-race as a result. With that behind me, now I run the races without the training base I am used to. You might as well flip a coin to predict the outcome.

So, with the quality and final disposition of my race up in the air, I really have but one thing to focus on: my running outfit. Yep. It all comes down to that. I spent a good part of the day yesterday trying on different combinations of tights, tops, and the newest running skirts to come off my sewing machine. My considerations are these: 1) Don't dress too warm 2) Be able to take off and put on 3) Retain easy access for on-the-go peeing 4) And most of all, make sure socks, skirt, and top match at all times.

Yeah. I've reduced myself to a meandering older woman who now runs races mostly in the interest of fashion. I do not race races. I am more realistic about what my body can and will do (though I get frustrated with others in their fifties who are able to maintain). But alas, I am no longer a primed and ready competitor. But, what I have left is a smile on my face and a bold floral print on my skirt.

I'll let you know all about my skirt's journey when the race is over.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011


With the warm afternoon sun shimmering off the leaves still hanging golden, red, and yellow, no one wished the race had been run Saturday. A conference championship in frigid conditions and several inches of wet snow would not have been ideal. We were grateful the postponement gave us near perfect conditions on the first day of November.

We trained hard for this day. Fast intervals on the track, miles of trails, and up and over mountains prepared the kids for this tough, hilly course. The conference meet is always hard-fought and we expected nothing different this year.

The men's gun sounded first. Trey, my consistent number one runner, ran with a specific plan. Only one of these opponents had beaten him before. But that prior defeat was just what my runner needed. The loss had festered for some time, every workout focused on righting the wrong. His plan was to be patient until halfway up a mile-long climb. If his nemesis was close, Trey was going to pull away in a definitive surge. He intended to break this other runner despite it being his home course. Cresting that hill, he would fly down the other side before tackling another uphill to the finish. The plan worked perfectly. Trey claimed the championship by a substantial margin. Teammate, Ike, crossed the line in fifth place and, along with Trey, earned all-conference honors. The men's team placed second in a strong field of eleven. It was a great start to a great day.

The women's race was an epic battle. Though the course was novel, we studied it beforehand and trained specifically for the terrain. War raged early as a tight pack of four of my runners and an opponent lead the way. Close behind, another pack of red-uniformed runners from another school ran in hot pursuit. They rounded the bend and ran out of view to fight their way up the mountain and back again. When they returned, a red-uniformed runner lead the way. But it wasn't the red of our uniforms. Abby, my runner, trailed by fifty yards across a flat. But a steep gravel hill in the last half-mile started to break the leader. You could see it in her face; the pain, the strain. She clutched her side and fought back tears. Abby dug deep and gained ground. Toward the top of the hill, our eyes locked. She was within ten yards of the struggling runner. "Abby. This is your day. I know you can chase her down. Go! Go!" Her eyes turned back and locked onto her prey. Abby was the hungry lioness chasing down the tiring gazelle.

With that, I raced off cutting the corner to the finish line. Looking over my shoulder, I saw Abby take the lead on the final grassy ascent to the finish. She held her position for those two-hundred yards, placing her name in the record books as the 2011 conference champion. But there was another race behind her.

Rebecca was at her breaking point. Her race plan was an aggressive one that I fully supported. I knew there was a chance she would blow up. Nevertheless, I was confident she could handle the physical and mental stress. When she came across the line, she was pale, legs wobbling and no longer trust-worthy. It was all she could do to emerge from the finish shoot on her own power. Then, down she went. She had raced herself right into the abyss, a frightening place few runners dare go. Recovery was long and difficult but she was rewarded with the fifth place all-conference honor. Behind her, sister Carolyn captured eight place and Jami, tenth, to round out the all-conference team. Their efforts earned them the team conference championship.

Well done, Liberty Christian Academy. Well done.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

The meaning of life. By Faith Bogdan

As promised, the meaning of life....

The meaning (essence) of life is relationship. Everything is in relationship--from subatomic particles to parts of a cell to numbers to stars and galaxies. It takes things being in proper relationship to make for harmony--on a micro and macro level.

Humans are also in relationship with each other, of course. Only it's no longer so proper, as it used to be. We were once so transparent we could walk around unclothed with total abandon. There was complete trust--no head games. We really--really--knew how to love each other.

Then some little devil sold us a lie that we could do this own our own, be our own god, master the art of relationship without the instruction of the ultimate Artist. And we've been frantically hiding behind fig leaves ever since.

Now it's all about covering for ourselves. Protecting the great Me, hiding behind masks, building walls for the preservation of the vast empire of Self.

It was better in the garden of Others, being ruled by the One who turned our faces upward and our arms outward from day one. He knew that was the only way we'd be happy.

But no, we told ourselves. We know how to be others-centered on our own.

How's that working out for us?

Patient, He is. He came to show us how, once again. He allowed himself to be stripped of all the fig leaves we tried so desperately to cover him with, laid bare to reveal a heart willing to die to bring us back into proper relationship. With Him, and with each other.

Some dare follow.
Written (and used with permission) by my good friend and fellow-writer, Faith Bogdan. You will be wise to visit her blog and enjoy her practical insights.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Getting the granny-gear in motion

There I was, standing in front of my cross-country team. "Ok, gang. Today's practice is all about sustained hill running. The conference meet has a steady climb between miles one and two. We need to practice that."

I explained the workout. Just getting up to our beloved trails from the school was a chore. Even the name gives it away: Chandler's Mountain Road. As of late, I do well to make it to the trail head of a rugged and rooted path without walking. But this time, the plan was to stay on the road and continue up the steep incline to the ski lodge. I honestly thought there was little chance for me to make it walk-free. But I would try. Try hard. Guess what? I made it and started to smile.

Next, it was a mile run on gravel road, some of it uphill as well. Another victory for me. Then, our task was to run down, down, down the Valley View dirt road to the very bottom before turning about-face. With just one rise in the middle, it was  fun letting gravity pull us down the mountain. But of course, what goes down must go up. The plan was to run the mile and a half climb without any walk breaks. Could I do it?

"I think I can. I think I can." Just like the Little Engine that could, I shuffled up the mountain, my "granny gear" engaged. I wasn't going fast but I was going. The closer I got to the top, the more excited I got. I had never done that before. Yahoo! I felt like shouting.

I ran the mile of gravel road back to the ski lodge with a couple of my girls. We took in the picture-perfect views of other mountains across the way. Not even the steep rise at the end reduced me to a walk. Then, it was a free-fall down the mountain and back to the school. I barely felt my feet touch the ground. It was effortless.

On a crystal-clear, crisp fall day when the sky was blue and the leaves golden, red, and orange, there was nothing more delightful.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Pushing PRs

Leaves drifted down from balding branches. The sky, so blue, sent the breeze that captured those leaves in topsy-turvy currents. The late afternoon sun, a keen nod to the Indian summers I remember as a kid, stirred something inside me. I wanted nothing more than to run, jump, and play in the woods. And so I did, with my cross country runners by my side. We laughed and joked as we made our way along the forest paths that would be host to over two thousand pair of feet racing along come morning. This was the prelude to the MileStat Invitational near Richmond, VA. We came intending to run strong and had prepared well. But nothing in my long athletic career could have astounded me more.

Our day started when the varsity girls took the line. Only three made the trip, the other girls falling to injuries and the call of the PSAT test. The gun sounded, sending the trio running toward their destiny. By the time they crossed the finish line of the 5K course, each of them ran straight into the record books. Abby posted  a time twenty-four seconds faster than ever before and collected a medal for a top-twenty finish. Close behind, Rebecca and Jami erased more than a minute from their prior bests. And that was only the start of a beautiful day.

The varsity guys set a blistering pace despite a tightly packed herd of 174 runners. Trey, my top runner, methodically weaved his way through the crowd, straining for the finish. He was the sixth man across the line, besting his time by a second. But not far behind, his teammates wrote their personal histories one by one. Ike stopped the clock fifteen seconds up. William, with a finishing kick kin to rocket boosters, paced himself past other contenders in the last meters, claiming a personal record (PR) of nine seconds. Then came Regan, a senior who longed to break the allusive twenty minute mark. No longer illusive, he buried his PR to 19:17, a 1:14 improvement over his previous best. Elisha surprised everyone with a 1:07 PR followed by D'Nard's impressive fifty-four second PR. On Dnard's shoulder was Ryan, racing to a  twenty-four second record.

But the day was not done. Hannah and Kate had yet to race the JV 5K. Both in eighth grade, they pursued girls three to five years their senior. Off they went, racing across the field, around the bends, and into the wooded loop. Faster and faster they ran. Hannah's PR was 55 seconds, Kate's an incredible 1:29.

How is it that an even dozen runners all show up on the same day and run with the wind? I've never seen anything like it. They prepared. They focused. They did what some wrote on their hands: P.U.S.H. Pray until something happens.

Yep. Something happened.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Work in progress: "Best Season Yet: 12 Weeks To Train"

Want a sneak peak at my work in progress, a book for coaches and athletes alike?

It’s the first practice. Your back against the cold, dented steel locker, you take your spot on the floor, waiting. A posse of other hopefuls surrounds you. A tense excitement is palpable. Or maybe you’re the coach, and you feel that same electricity. “What will the season bring?” you ponder. “How will these kids perform? How can I lead them and help them find their potential?” Inhaling deeply, you scan the faces and begin.

There is nothing like a new athletic season, full of promise for both coach and athlete. Goals are set, commitments made. But as the season progresses, it’s all too easy to lose focus in the fray. Best Season Yet: 12 Weeks to Train is a book that guides the coach and team to embrace their God-given talents, discover a purpose beyond winning and losing, and spur each other to that place where fear and dreams collide. For a dozen weeks, the entire team will visit themes such as commitment, submission, goal setting, pain and suffering, and pursuing excellence. It offers an opportunity to discuss and journal practical ways to set the principles in motion. The format of five easy-to-read stories is ideal for use in a Monday through Friday school setting. Best Season Yet is a resource for the coach, team member, or individual athlete who desires to experience an exceptional season.

Best Season Yet: 12 Weeks to Train is designed to be used by coaches and athletes throughout a twelve-week training period, typical for many high school, college, and community-based athletic seasons. The sport? It doesn’t really matter. There is application to the runner, the football player, hoopster, gymnast, swimmer—or any other kind of sport. It is equally helpful for the individual athlete or team player.

A theme is assigned to each week-long period. Because this book is well-suited for a Monday-through-Friday school week, each weekly division features five stories to buttress the theme. Though the order of each week relates to the natural progression of an athlete through a season, there is nothing sacred about the ordering. Each group of five, theme-related stories can be pulled out and used to best fit a particular need.

The twelve weekly themes:
  1. Commitment : True commitment is the cornerstone of every successful venture. The first week lays the foundation for being committed and the responsibilities, ramifications, and rewards of that decision. Both ancient and current real-world examples demonstrate that commitment is not for the timid or weak. Rather, commitment requires attention to the task, regardless of what it is. Divided loyalties undermine commitments, but a sharp, conscious commitment can make the difference between reward and regret.
  1. Submission:“Submission? You mean subject myself to another, obey, and do what I’m told? I’m not a Marine or in the army. Is this really necessary?” The simple answer is “yes.” We tend not to relate submission to athletics but submission is the first step (after commitment) to the Best Season Yet. It’s vital to understand chain of command and accept our position. Only when we learn to submit to God, coaches, parents, and teammates are we freed to excel.
  1. Motivation and goal setting: Many an athlete, fueled by excitement at season’s start, finds himself sputtering in complacency just a few weeks in. Running out of fuel is often the result of lack of focus and clear objectives more than lack of talent. Together, we learn to prioritize, set realistic yet challenging goals, and chart a course to accomplish them.
  1. When fear and dreams collide: “I have a dream…” Sure, we all have dreams. But, how many times has that dream turned into a bloody nightmare? Sometimes we fail to achieve our goals because we become paralyzed by fear: fear of the unknown, fear of failure, fear of the commitment it takes to achieve the dream. This fourth week of life lessons asks the reader to define those fears and put them into proper perspective. She will read real-life stories and see the beauty in that moment when fear and dreams collide, exploding into glorious victory.
  1. Pain and suffering: There are few things so sure as the inevitable pain and suffering in the life of an athlete. Injuries and exhaustion cloud an athlete’s judgment and often extinguish even the possibility of achieving the goals set early in the season. Discouragement abounds when the season seems headed to an early demise. And yet, pain and suffering—both physical and mental—can be the catalyst for breakthrough performances and renewed focus.
  1. Perseverance: By mid-season, nearly every athlete feels like he stepped into quicksand and is sinking fast. The pressures of maintaining academic standards, putting in the miles, surviving relentless drills, and keeping frayed nerves from unraveling make the topic of perseverance crucial. Extreme athletes are some of the best at offering a unique yet realistic perspective on taking just one more step. Their stories, along with those of persevering biblical warriors of old, help the athlete to encourage and renew.
  1. Failure: Don’t you just hate it when carefully-laid plans fall apart with one wobble on the balance beam or a stumble late in a race? Worse yet, you start spending more time sidelined than out in the fray. Failure, when not properly understood, will undermine an entire season—and possibly a career. But failure can groom the athlete for a brighter, better future. This section inspires with the example of others who refused to flounder in failure.
  1. Opportunities to serve: We’ve all seen professional athletes flaunting their fancy cars and mansions. Many appear to be selfish and ego-centric. What an opportunity they miss to refocus on the needs of others. A team is the perfect venue for service. To recognize and address needs does not come naturally. Just like perfecting a jump shot or a slap shot, it takes practice to hone this skill of serving another. A team that learns to serve well will score points in the game that really counts: the game of a godly life.
  1. Go team!: “All for one and one for all.” Really? It’s a phrase we like to throw around but do we truly understand what that means in practical ways? How can we realistically support the team and help it flourish? How do we build a sense of community, leadership, and camaraderie among team members, coaches, and interested parties? Learning how to embrace strengths and accommodate and improve on weaknesses is a necessary component of a successful team. Readers learn by example with this look at the characteristics of successful teams.
  1. In pursuit of excellence: Transitioning from mediocrity to excellence is no easy task. But after nine weeks of learning to commit and submit, establish goals, serve and persevere, the foundation is set to seek excellence, not only in our chosen sport, but in life—becoming a complete man or woman of God.
  1. Priorities and balance: The line between commitment and obsession is thin—microscopic, even. Unfortunately, we unwittingly step over that line by losing focus on what is really important. We get confused when we allow “single-minded focus” to nudge out the rest of life. The result? Exhaustion, frustration, and failure. Learn to establish priorities and maintain an appropriate balance to make your life pleasing to God in every way.
  1. Finishing fitness: Physical, emotional, spiritual: There is nothing so dreaded—and at the same time, embraced—as the end of an athletic season. We are tired of the routine, the practice, the competition. We are fed up with the time restraints of holding together a jam-packed schedule. And yet, we look back and are amazed at our progress and accomplishments. The season’s end, however, is really just a springboard that launches us into yet another Best Season Yet of growth, development, and physical, emotional, and spiritual maturity.

Each daily story employs a similar format:
  1. Title: The title is carefully selected to capture the reader’s attention.
  2. Body: Each story sets the scene with dialogue, real-life examples, or hypothetical scenarios. The stories draw the athlete and coach together as they read, discuss, and contemplate applications to their own situation. Each offering urges the reader to see how God’s truth can be played out through athletics and applied to every day living.
  3. “Team truth”: Each story is based on a scripture passage, which is written out for easy reading.
  4. “Team time”: This is where principle becomes practice. A question is posed that requires contemplation and discussion. Because each person will have his or her own copy of the book, space is given to allow the individual to record a response.
Be sure to join this blog to keep up with the latest news about this project. And stay tuned for publication information!

Thursday, October 6, 2011

The radical race-off

It was better than I could have ever imagined. Two teammates on the track, racing each other round and round. For a dozen laps and then some they battled it out. Each held the lead from time to time. In the end, only one could prevail. But as the watch clicked off the last second and before they could catch their breath, there they were, both hands on the others shoulders, heads bowed, spontaneously praying to God in thanksgiving for the opportunity to run and compete. It was a beautiful thing.

All this came about because I could not make a decision. With a pending meet involving an overnight stay, my roster was confined to a slim seven men and seven women. I poured over the season's result thus far, hoping the names of the chosen few would leap from the page and be written on the wall. Some of the selections were obvious. However, it was the last spot on the men's side that robbed me of sleep for several nights. The two young men were as even as you can get. I looked at every possible marker to no avail. I honestly could not decide who to take.

Ryan Lloyd (blue shirt)
I held a coaches' conference yesterday as we put in some miles at practice. "Why don't you have a run-off?" suggested my assistant. Simple but brilliant. Why didn't I think of that? So it was decided. A 5K race today on the track would decide who needed to pack a suitcase.

Though the boys were informed yesterday, I let the team in on what would happen today. The majority groaned because they knew the gut-wrenching effort it would take, no one wishing they were the ones stepping to the line.

D'Nard Ward in a recent race
As the team started in on their prescribed workout of repeat 1600s, D'Nard, a senior, and Ryan, an enthusiastic sophomore, warmed up their bodies and their competitive spirits. Both were obviously nervous, both anxious to settle the matter. I did not envy them. So it was mixed feelings that I led them as sheep to the slaughter to the start line across the way. "I'm proud of both you guys. Race well." I offered.

Just then, Trey, a team captain, stopped his workout to gather them in a circle of three to pray. "Dear God, thank you for this beautiful day. I pray that you will help these guys race safely and may the best man win. And help the one who loses to be alright with it. . ." I was blessed by the spontaneity of the petition, offered in the normal course of events and without hesitation.

But now it was time. "Go," I commanded, mashing the start button on my watch. They were off, Ryan taking the early lead. He knew he had to hold D'Nard at bay, not having as strong a kick as the sprinter-turned distance runner. A small crowd watched the race unfold, the lead shifting from time to time. They were both on record pace. As the lap count mounted, D'Nard surged ahead, holding the lead. Ryan never gave up, struggling to maintain contact. But alas, he could not. D'Nard crossed the line in 20:20 with Ryan following at 20:40, a personal best for both.

The aftermath could have been ugly but it was not. Still gasping for precious breath, they shook hands and congratulated one another. D'Nard did not gloat. Ryan did not mope. They met off to the side as a band of brothers, approaching their Father in thanksgiving. Did they settle the matter of who would travel next week? Yes. Yet that decision which was removed from my hands pales in light of the quality of character that we all witnessed. To be sure, I was so proud of their runs. But getting a glimpse into the depth of their souls was priceless. Thank God for such fine young men. Thank God he gave them to me to coach.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Shindiggler Shananigans

I'm a Shindiggler and proud of it.

Crazy things happen when the car is pointed toward the mountains 1) at dusk,  2) in the cold, 3) loaded with four teenage girls chomping on pizza, and 4) headlights already donned and blinking red in anticipation of the hours ahead. So, somewhere between noting a country club party on the drive out and seeing it still going on in the wee hours on the way back, we became a tiny yet significant society. In that instant, we decided to henceforth be known as The Shindigglers. We are five women strong and much better than the Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants: our pants go a lot higher, longer, further, and faster.

The Shindig shenanigans all began with an idea to run three mountain tops in the dark. The idea wasn't novel for a college running class was to seek similar adventure as well. But for two of the young Shindigglets, they had never run further than ten miles, let alone in the dark on mountain trails. It's no wonder their parents were a little apprehensive. Nevertheless and rushing to arrive on time, we were surprised to be the first to drive into the parking lot. We would be equally surprised to be the last to leave. But I rush ahead of myself.

Allow me to introduce the Shindigglers:
Rebecca, Caroline, Sarah, Rebekah, Abby
Sarah the Saintly Superstar: A freshman in college, Sarah is a focused student whose heart is open to God. She comes off a stellar high school running career with her sights set of ultrarunning.

Remarkable Rebecca: High school senior, racing in her first cross country season. Inordinately talented and mature.

Happy Abby: A high school junior and Sarah's sister. She is the cross country lead runner and a capable, effective leader. Ready picture-taker and video-maker.

Caroline the Considerate: Sister to Rebecca. Kind and capable. A strong cross country runner in her first season.

Senior Shindigger: That would be me. Coach and confidant. Friend of shindigglers everywhere.

Now, back to the story. . .

It was to be a clover-leaf run: Up the parkway and over FlatTop Mountain. Return to car. Up over and around Harkening Hill. Return to car. SharpTop Mountain. Return to car. Go home. Sleep. The distance? 17 miles.

Off we ran into the darkness, headlights still in the off position as we made our way up the Blue Ridge Parkway. But once on the rugged trail ascending the first mountain, our lights lit up our path as our chatter filled the air. Three or four of the college runners surged ahead, all others remaining behind us in the darkness. We didn't care. We laughed, talked, and told stories up one mountain and down the next. I felt proud as my little Shindigglings followed me through the trees, over boulders, and down rocky, rooted trails. No complaints. No negative talk. No "How much further" babble. Just one profound discovery: You are always half-way to somewhere.

We were still laughing back at the car, glad to sample snacks and refill water bottles. Then it was off again. The Shindigglers were finding out that what goes up must come down. We liked this loop, climbing to the summit only to run wild on the downhill return to the car.

There were fewer cars this time. We wondered if-and why- the college crowd left without completing the run. But it really didn't matter. We had one more mountain to top. Past nearly-tame deer, we started up the steep incline of Sharptop Mountain. The temperature was dropping and the winds picked up. Some wished they had not left their jackets in the car. But snow flurries silhouetted against the night sky delighted us. Up, up, up. Though our legs began to feel the miles, no amount of scrambling up the steep pitch could thwart our enthusiasm.

Wind howling the closer we got to the top, the temperature was surely in the 30's. Standing upon the highest pinnacle, we shivered not only in the wind but in the excitement of the accomplishment. Lights turned off, it was so worth it. The towns below appeared like those lighted miniature Christmas villages, the brilliant stars above twinkling hope and happiness. We took it all in. But alas, the shivering Shindigglers headed down the mountain.

This time, the descent was on the bus service road, much easier but longer, than the trail we had come up. Signs read "No walking on the roadway." So, we didn't. We ran. . .and ran, and ran. Down, down, down. Now we were anxious to get back to the car. But the unrelenting descent just kept on coming. The lights below never seemed much closer. "Where is the last turn?" we mused aloud, ten feet rapidly pitter-pattering on the pavement. Still no complaints. Finally, we turned off the road and cut down the last bit of trail. Everyone was excited; excited enough to race the last 100 yards. We were alone in the parking lot, celebrating. Hugs, smiles, laughter. Mission accomplished.

The joy never let up on the ride home. Everything was funny. But then again, it was after midnight and we had run for hours. Thoughts turned toward warming showers, hot food, and comfy covers. Watching my fellow Shindigglers devour pizza from atop squeaky kitchen stools, I was proud; proud of what happens when thoughts of normal shift far enough off center to embrace a new "normal." The kind of normal when running through the dark is A-OK.

Rest well, Shindigglings. Well done. Let's do it again.

Friday, September 30, 2011

Refuse to lose

Excerpt from the coming title: Best Season Yet: 12 Weeks to Train

            It was a warm spring day in 1976 when David DeLancey stepped onto the tennis court for the third set of a college match. DeLancey, highly recruited to play soccer for Cedarville College in 1972, was at that time unknown for his tennis skills. Still, as a walk-on, he immediately won the #1 position on the team. Against all odds, he accrued a perfect record of 91 wins and zero loses. But on this particular day in May, it looked like his stellar streak was about to be undone.
           His opponent from Ohio Northern University was proving problematic for DeLancey with heavy topspin on both his forehand and backhand. They split the first two sets. In the third and final set, hope was fading fast when the Cedarville player went down five games to nil. Just four points stood between an upset of gigantic proportions.
David DeLancey (2009)
             DeLancey, silently suffering his senior year from migraines brought on by the pressure of his perfect record, had a plan. There was no time for fear or speculation about losing. No. He had but one objective: make every point count.
              In peak athletic condition, David’s approach was to follow every serve and service return to the net. The undefeated’s play was furious and unrelenting, unraveling the nerves of his opponent. Ruthless net play turned the set score to 5-1. Focusing only on one point at a time, the score cards flipped to 5-2, then 5-3. Soon, as fans and teammates alike looked on, they witnessed the amazing comeback. Without a single deuce game, DeLancey handily won seven games straight to win both the set and match. His record remained unsoiled and set the stage to round out his college career with an unprecedented 101-0 record.
 What was key to his success? Was it his technically correct strokes or his outstanding fitness level? Sure, that was part of it. But his motivation was not to win; it was his commitment to do whatever it took not to lose. That meant shutting out the past and future to focus only on the moment.
It all boils down to what happens in a single instant. The centurion’s servant was healed in a moment. Remember the sick woman who strained to touch the hem of Jesus’ robe? “Take heart, daughter,” he said, “your faith has healed you.” And the woman was healed at that moment (Matthew 9:23). And the greatest moment of all?  The instant Christ’s death on the cross made our salvation possible.

And when Jesus had cried out again in a loud voice, he gave up his spirit.  At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom. (Matthew 27: 50, 51b)

Postscript: David DeLancey is the author's oldest brother, whom she both adores and draws inspiration.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

My confession

I'm not sure I could have expected more. I had not trained with an ultra in mind. So, it's a good thing I didn't run one. I ran a stink'n ten mile road race instead. Too bad I didn't train for that one either.

So, why did I even run? Well, a bunch of my cross country kids signed up and my assistant coach was probably going to be in the top ten overall out of 1000+ runners. How could I not? "Oh, ten miles is such a short race for you," everyone says. Malarkey.

I needed to adjust my attitude before, during, and now after I ran. I was not looking forward to the effort it would take on that hilly course. I don't really like roads. In fact, I really, really don't like roads-especially when so many people are watching. And, anyone who knows I'm an ultrarunner expects me to be able to pull off the race in grand style. Sure, ten miles is nothing. Nothing, that is, unless you are trying to go fast. Then it's just like getting beat by a wet noodle.

I really did try to run smart. I tried to have a good attitude. I tried to enjoy the moment. I tried to keep my heart from exploding through my chest wall. I tried to take in the crowd and the bands that lined the city streets. I tried all this with varying levels of success. It wasn't always horrible. Sometimes it was worse.

I also tried to catch the woman in front of me in my age group. I won the grand master title last year and along with it, a new pair of shoes. I was running in those shoes and needed a new pair. A repeat win would be nice. But silly me watched her stay about 150 yards in front of me. I lost hope in catching her. I felt like a big fluffy wus-ball for not trying harder.

I suppose my time wasn't terrible. I was still in the top 20% of all runners. But I have to admit that I'm not satisfied. I'm disappointed in my bad attitude. I forgot all about the joy of running. I forgot that any run is good compared to not being able to run.

Perhaps next year I'll give some thought to train specifically and run with purpose. I need redemption.

Monday, September 19, 2011

When things go wrong

It was a great day for racing. With 35 teams from all over the state, the competition was tough. We knew that going in. But we also knew that Trey Fisher was running hot. He had bagged two impressive wins in a row and we couldn't help but work toward another. Trey was primed and ready to enter the fray.

And he did. Starting off toward the back of the top 20, he had some work to do. When the first major hill loomed ahead, he systematically worked his way through the crowd, joining the compact front group of three by the time he topped out. Carefully guarding his line on the tight corners, Trey ran wisely across the flat and surged on the downhill. Soon, he overtook the duo in front and carried the lead through the middle mile. My own heart pounded with excitement as I raced between vantage points on the course to view his form floating across the ground, wind in his hair.

But the second and third runners were not content to trail behind. The battle ensued as they overtook my harrier in the last mile. Still, relentlessly pursuing, every muscle fiber contracted as he fought to close the gap. Down the hill he flew, gravel crunching under his feet. A tight right turn around a tree, limbs brushed aside in the process. He speeds along a fence row. Now a turn to the left. A final 90-degree corner is all that stands between the last 100 meters of turf to the finish line. Running full out, Trey had an impressive 3rd place finish in hand. Or so we thought. . .

I looked up just in time to see my runner turn and head back toward the oncoming runners. I was confused. What happened? A gap in the bright orange tape marking the tight turn fooled Trey into taking an inside line. Facing disqualification, he had no choice but to turn about and proceed on the outside of the flag. The merciless clock continued to tick. Tick-tock. Tick-tock. A runner from behind now inherited Trey's earned spot. Frantically, valiantly, he fought to overtake those in front. He could not. His finish position was 5th.

I patted him on the back, briefly blabbed the standard things that coaches say, and gave him some time to process what had just happened. He had to be disappointed, perhaps even angry. I watched as he continued through the narrow, twisting finish shoot. Smiling, he extended congratulations to those in front. Then he worked his way through the crowd, standing aside with a few family and friends. He made no excuses. He did not stomp or scowl. He did not whine. He did not complain. He simply shook his head and shoulder shrugged before heading off to collect his thoughts and a few cool-down miles.

Arriving back at the school hours later, Trey approached. "Coach, I have something to ask you. Did I handle myself okay today? I didn't want to ruin my testimony."

The answer was easy. "Yes, Trey. You handled yourself just fine."

Well done, Trey. Well done. Your heavenly audience loudly applauds.

Thursday, September 15, 2011


A couple of my runners are learning some important life lessons. Lessons about expectation, disappointment, and injury.

Stephen, a freshman new to the school, had been running strong enough to claim a top seven varsity spot. Knee pain he could no longer bear led him to a doctor and his order to cease and desist for three weeks. His training came to a screeching halt.

Morgan, another new freshman, came full of promise. She, too, ran her way onto the varsity squad. But an awkward gait precipitated by some strange anatomy and muscle imbalances has handed her a decree of no running for six weeks.

I feel their pain. I've been there. In the first five years of ultrarunning, I suffered nine metatarsal fractures, medial malleolus and femoral neck fractures, a torn tibial aponeuroses, surgery on both feet and an ankle including seven incisions and eight screws, along with multiple soft tissue injuries. Like a tadpole, into the pool I went, deep water running sometimes for three hours at a time to maintain fitness. After a period of time, I emerged with fresh legs to train like a madman, only to break something else. Back I went into the cold, deep pond of despair. It was an endless, maddening cycle. I wanted so much to be fit, racing fast and strong. But it was not to be. . .at least for a period.

Unfortunately, though we do our best to be smart and avoid injury, sometimes it just becomes our lot. It's frustrating. It's painful in so many ways; physically, emotionally, and sometimes even spiritually. Being a wounded warrior makes us feel less of an athlete, less of a contributor on the team. Sometimes, we even feel that we lose all connection with the team. But despite how we feel, it won't last forever.

It's hard sitting on the sideline watching others train and compete. There are feelings of loneliness and inadequacies. Disappointment. Betrayal by our own bodies. Healing time moves at a slower rate than the hands on a clock face. The wait is excruciating.

But--and this is the tough part--sometimes we need to wait. We wait not in a vacuum but in the healing atmosphere of expectant hope. We put things in perspective. We learn to be content. We understand to make the most of our down time so we are best prepared when we are again off and running. Patience takes on new meaning as we wait. And waiting means that we slow down enough to clearly see needs of others not realized when racing along at full speed.

Sure, a timeout is seldom pleasant or welcomed. But, neither is it the end of the world. Hang on, kiddos. This too shall pass.

Monday, September 12, 2011

How do I know when I'm finished?

"Coach, coach," he gushed excitedly. It was his first race ever and he had a bazillion questions. Standing near our team's starting box just moments away from the gun, this gangly youngster was a jumbled up mixture of nervous energy and raw enthusiasm. "Coach...Uh, what number am I and how do I know when I'm finished?"

Really? Did I just hear that right? I tried not to laugh but the corners of my mouth betrayed me. Surely, there must be some hidden meaning behind the questions that I just didn't get. But, since I am not a 6th grade boy and have no earthly idea how their minds work, I decided to answer it in the only way I knew.

"Well, your number is pinned to your shirt so don't worry about that." Then, pointing to the fifteen foot tall inflatable finish arch across the way, I continued. "Just keep running until you get to that thing. Look up. It says 'Finish' in big, white letters. When you pass under it, that's when you know when you can stop."

I guess my answer was okay. He sprinted at the flash of the gun, followed the crowded field of runners, dashed down the final straightaway lined with cheering fans, and passed under that big, black and bodacious finish banner. He had figured it out.

Photo by Regan Brooks
I have to admit, I've enjoyed some light-hearted moments thinking about this exchange. But his pondering about finishing may not be as simple as it seems. Sure, a finish arch or tape stretched across a piece of real estate may signal the end of an event. But I find few things in life so clear.

The "end" is seldom really the end. For example, while a final exam marks the end of a course, it also signals the beginning of the next step toward a degree. And though a diploma ends the quest for the degree, it acts as the flash of the starter's pistol marking the start of an adult's life.

I find myself constantly searching for a finish line, gasping for breath and wanting it all to stop. Life gets so hectic, so chaotic, so filled with "gotta do this and gotta do thats." If only the finish line were closer, more attainable, more definable. If only I didn't feel so utterly spent when I got there, exhausted and depleted. I sometimes decry the journey to that allusive line, sweating, hurting, and suffering along the way. I get introspective and miserable, my head hangs low. Woe is me.

I must be a slow learner. I've been in this state before. I know all the wisdom about persevering, relentless forward motion, and "it doesn't always get worse" philosophies. But I still forget along the way. I forget to look up at the next finish line and step across it when I arrive. I forget that the finish line brings with it a chance to catch your breath and replenish. I forget that the pain of the race diminishes as soon as the final step is taken. I forget that the race, the struggle, really tells me that I am alive and well despite how I feel in the moment. I forget that I run for a "Well done" from my Coach.

But back to his race. Just before this kid got to that line, he stopped and looked up. "Run through it, keep going. You aren't finished yet," cried my assistant coach. With a huge smile plastered on his innocent face, my runner plunged ahead as his finish time was recorded. He found the first of many finishes.

Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. (Matthew 25:23)

Monday, September 5, 2011

First XC Meet of the Season

Coaching can be serious business
It started off well. It ended well. Whew.

The first meet of the year can be scary. Though I carry a full contingent of about four dozen kids, many are new to the sport as well as the team. The grade level ranges from 6th  to seniors, adding the extra challenge of keeping workouts and expectations appropriate for the age and talent of each runner. Some of the runners are veterans, focused in their roles as outstanding students and athletes. Others. . .well, there appears to be a social aspect and sense of team that draws them in. And, that's okay.

The Eagle Invitational, held Sept 3 in the hills outside the hamlet of Rocky Mount, Virgina, is a small, yet challenging meet. Hosted by Franklin County High School, which boasts a roster of nearly 65 kids, this school never fails to draw top runners to the line. This year was no different.

Middle Schoolers take to the line
The middle schoolers were sent out on their 3K run. I had but 3 girls and 3 guys in this event held on a holiday weekend. However, despite the novelty of racing for all but one runner, the youth ran with Janaye Wagner, Emma Nash, and Emily Hill taking the 3rd, 6th, and 7th positions, respectively. Andre Deneault, Greyson Wooldridge and Reese Brooks faired well with running into 4th, 5th, and 8th place.

Abby Quigg and Rebecca Roberts

Of course, the strength of a team resides in the depth of the roster. The JV and varsity girls demonstrated the point. Though Franklin County raced a girl who would have taken 5th place in the guys race, the LCA girls offered an unbeatable combination. Abby Quigg, Rebecca and Caroline Roberts, Jamie Maule, and Cassidy Williams swept places 2-6th to grab the title at this quad invite. Though the Roberts sisters and Ms. Williams are in their first season, they added the necessary depth to the squad.

Trey Fisher en route to victory
The men's race was equally impressive. LCA runner, Trey Fisher, is a talented runner with keen intensity. After struggling over the years with over-use injuries, he has been training strong and risen to new levels. Biding his time in the early mile, Trey began to pull away by the second mile, a rigorous climb leading to nearly a mile of single track through the forest. By the time he hit the last half mile, his lead was unquestioned. He posted a 17:40 on a very tough 5K course and claimed the crown. His teammates, new comers William Miller (a track sprint specialist), Ike Podell, and Stephen Hardy took 5th, 9th, and 15th position. Veteran runner and co-captian, senior Regan Brooks took the 14th spot. Together, the men claimed second  place as a team.

The fun after the run
Looks like the new kids are the added links to the chain that will anchor the team.

Stay tuned for more race reports of the Liberty Christian Academy Cross Country team. It's sure to be a memorable season.

Monday, August 29, 2011

Team Peculiar

They were peculiar, all right. Very peculiar. And I loved them that way.

My cross country team had been working hard and this was a chance to get them to loosen up beyond what is done on the floor during warm-ups. Freaky Friday is what we called it. Each kid embraced the challenge of showing up at practice dressed like a looney goon. I had a sight-impaired banana, silly girls with skirts and beads, Bahama Boys looking very, ah...Bahama-ish, teens who clashed, ridiculous hats, dog ears and dreadlocks. Four of the high school girls even made a grand entrance complete with rose petals to lead the lovely bride and groom.

I was actually quite pleased they embraced being different, risking stares and comments from the university crowd through which they passed. They, in essence said, "I don't care what you think." Even when they broke into teams to play our favorite license plate game, they didn't seem to mind. Off they went, running like a bunch of crazies all over Liberty University campus, asking people for signatures and recording as many different plates as possible. Sure, they startled some and possibly scared others. And yet they went, conquered the campus, and returned to brag about it. They were a peculiar lot indeed.

Peculiar? It's not a word we often use. In fact, it's sort of old. The writers of the Old King James version used it in translating Deuteronomy 26. In that context, God's people were called to be "peculiar," a treasured possession who walks in obedience and keeps God's commands.

In that same translation, the word is again used in I Peter 2:9. "But ye are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, an holy nation, a peculiar people;..." The entire chapter tells us that we are God's building stones chosen expressly to be holy, do his work,  speak for him night and day, and that we are now fully accepted, though once rejected. That makes us peculiar; distinctive, special, and perhaps just a little bit odd compared to those around us.

"So, kiddos...I want us to be a very peculiar team this year," I told them. "Though we stand out today for being silly, let's make sure we stand out individually and as a team for being holy. Not the contrived, false-sense-of-piety kind of holy. But the kind of holy that shows up in the way we talk, carry ourselves, look people in the eye, and interact with others. The kind of holy that reflects God's character. The kind of holy that says we are the sons and daughters of the Most High.. ."

I wonder, just how long should it take for other teams and those around us to know that we are obedient, holy, and peculiar Believers? If they don't see it, maybe we ought to work on being more peculiar.

A walk in the park and a pink finish line

By the time I finish most races, I've figured out at least the first paragraph of my post-race story. This was one of the few where the ...