Monday, April 25, 2011

Bounding in the promise land

I saw her shortly after turning onto the final leg of my journey; a 2.3 mile steep descent on a gravel road. Her unmistakeable black and lime green jersey was the tasty carrot that drew me down that hill and toward the finish line. I was running well after thirty-some miles but I knew from experience that this downhill would hurt. Forcing myself to keep the pressure on, I felt my left calf begin to quiver. My mind screamed out to the offending muscle. "Relax. Relax." Twice I momentarily stopped to stretch it. It helped.

Donna Elder and me racing toward the finish
Still, with 400 yards to go, I caught Donna. My breathing was labored, to say the least. I'm sure she thought it was a freight train coming up behind her. "Oh, hey, Rebekah. Good job," she offered. I did not return the greeting. I couldn't. There was not enough air to both breath and run. My friend did not slow or let me pass. I had mixed feelings about that. It would have been easier had she relented. But it also would have diminished our finish. Her persistence kept me honest.

Onto the final blacktop road and through the mud at the top of the driveway. Now, with 75 yards to do, I wasn't sure if I could hold on. "So what if she gains a few yards on you? Who cares? Just cross the line with a smile. You did good enough," a tiny voice chided. The thought was so appealing. I was red-lined but still moving. But that is not the only voice I heard.

"You tell your runners to give it all they have. To turn it on and leave it all out on the course. You have to see if there is another gear." The dueling conversations lasted for 30 yards. Now with 45 to go, the decision was made. I reached down into the abyss of my will. My speed picked up, legs churning. I was startled by my body's response as I accelerated despite trail-weary legs. Donna and I hurled ourselves toward the cheering crowd, faster and faster. Crossing the line, I was spent. Breathing was difficult. But it was worth it. I would be able to tell my team that I gave it all I had. I had to lead by example even if they weren't there to see it.

I ran smart. I ran hard. I am pleased.

That's how the race ended. But that's not the whole story. With a light rain falling, many runners looked bundled up as we headed up the mountain in the early morning darkness. I pitied them knowing they were destined to carry their long sleeves and jackets for the race's duration. Within a mile, my own arm warmers came off and got stuffed into my pack. My sleeveless tank was all I needed.

Running with Sophie Spiedel
Up, up, up I went, determined to have a good day. My goal was to run smart and strong, not content to just "finish." Some passed me and I passed others on my way to the top. Now down the grassy road I ran, taking in the clouds hanging in the valleys below and a mist hanging in the morning air. Everything was lush and green, birds shouting out their spring pleasure in song. Sooner than expected, I reached the bottom and began to climb again, a common theme on the tough Promise Land course with a reported gain of about 9000 feet. Another couple miles brought me to Sunset Field aid station in the company of some very strong runners. That pleased me.

Down, down, down to the valley floor. Along the creek, into the woods, running strong. The cold stream crossings felt refreshing. Pick up your heels. Don't step forward. Stay calm and relaxed but don't back off. The mental reminders helped, carrying me through several more aid stations. I mostly ran alone though brief greetings were offered as I passed others. I liked it that way. I embraced the solitude, the gentle quiet of the awakening springtime forest. But it didn't stay that way--and that's okay.

Jennifer Nichols is a rising star. With a blazing fast past in high school and college, this once track and road runner is making quite the impression in the ultrarunning world. But battling a recent cold and cough and being a mom to young ones, she wasn't in her finest form. Bad for her. Good for me. Our paces matched on this day as we chatted about this and that, challenges and dreams, failures and goals. At times, we temporarily separated but joined forces again further down the trail. It was a comfortable and unspoken arrangement that carried us up the grueling Apple Orchard ascent.

Jennifer Nichols and I approach Sunset Fields
With just 4.5 miles to go, we left the mountain top aid station together. But soon, as the trail wound it's way downward through the rhododendrons and along a full and rushing stream, we parted company, each to finish the race on her own terms. Hence, I reached the final gravel road alone to finish well what I had started. The whole day had been a choice. It was a choice to run hard. A choice to hurt. A choice to dig deep. But it was also a choice to smile, to be content and happy. It was a choice to not look at my watch. Rather, it was a choice to simply ask and answer the question over and over again: "Am I doing the very best I can do right now?"

Yes. Praise God I can honestly answer "yes."

Friday, April 22, 2011

Law Breaker

A law breaker. That's what I am.

My day yesterday was another filled to the brim with responsibilities and duties, one of which was a trip to Lowes. Still entangled with a big sunroom do-over project, I was appointed to make the trip to buy a truckload of drywall, insulation, and a variety of other things. With list in hand, I grabbed my purse and gave it a quick look-see.  Oops. I had taken out my wallet the day before and locked it in the center console of the car--Gary's car. I called to report my error and inform him that he would have to do it after work. I had a track meet to coach.

With my schedule somewhat tidied, I retreated back into the office. But it wasn't for long. "Hey," Gary said when the phone rang. "I have cash in our hidden spot. You can still go get the drywall." I swear I heard him crack a dastardly grin through the phone. Ugh.

"But my license. I won't have it to drive there," I countered. He probably heard my smirk.

"Too bad, so sad. You have to drive into school to get it from my car before the meet anyway. It will be fine."

Resigned to my criminal destiny, I was particularly careful about my speed en route to the store. I was quite sure that  my brainwaves were transmitting signals that police scanners would intercept. I felt stripped naked without my trusty wallet. If I got stopped, I really couldn't say I was on my way to get it. Hum. Surely, a police officer would understand the importance of a truckload of nasty drywall.

Thankfully, I made it home without incident. My terror at the thought of drywall sliding off the back of the truck as I went up each hill, drawing unwanted attention from the authorities, finally dissipated as I pulled into my spot in front of the house. I had gotten away with my despicable behavior.

Later in the afternoon, I once again got behind the wheel and headed out, this time to actually retrieve my license. I was so relieved when I finally had that wallet in my hot little hand. Whew. Jail time avoided. I resolved to always check for that item before taking the first step to the door.

My resolve was real. My intentions good. Unfortunately, as I got out of the car and headed into Lowes again this morning, I reached into my purse for the sales receipt of an item I was returning. To quote a pop star, "Oops. I've done it again." No wallet. It was still in the bag I took to the track meet. I wanted to scream. But back in the car I went, driving home license-less. Brain transmissions peaked as I scanned the horizon and the rear-view mirror for flashing lights and blaring sirens. However, I once again avoided an encounter with the law. I was grateful.

I broke the law even though I didn't get caught. But the simple fact is that that one transgression, as insignificant as it may seem, labels me as guilty. That reminds me of Romans 5:12, memorized long ago in Awana Club.  Therefore, just as sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all people, because all sinned— Poor Adam. His sin made us all guilty.

But, praise God, it is by one man's death that we are declared righteous. For if the many died by the trespass of the one man, how much more did God’s grace and the gift that came by the grace of the one man, Jesus Christ, overflow to the many! (Romans 5:15b).

In this Easter season, I am reminded that though I transgress, the God-Man, Jesus Christ, assumed my guilt on that Friday long ago when the skies darkened and the earth quaked. There He hung, despised and rejected, in agony, his father's back turned. Into the ground his speared body went, for three long days. But despite that awful Friday, Sunday morning dawned and He was gone. Jesus Christ conquered the death brought on by my sin. And now, I live in Christ because of Christ.

Hallelujah. What a Savior. My very own, personal Savior.

For just as through the disobedience of the one man the many were made sinners, so also through the obedience of the one man the many will be made righteous.
Romans 5:19

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Eagles and Vultures

(An excerpt from Pace Yourself: 366 Devotions from the Daily Grind)

He mounted the cherubim and flew; he soared on the wings of the wind” (Psalm 18:10).
When David penned these words, they were a song sung to the Lord. God Almighty was described as a great defender of the afflicted, figuratively swooping down from His throne to defeat the enemy. I envision a spirit lighting on the winged angel and taking flight together across the sky. Perhaps I’ve seen too many pictures of the mythological Apollo’s chariot. Nevertheless, the picture painted by the Psalmist is one of power and strength.

I was not far into my run today when, glancing to the left, a movement caught my eye. The pasture sloped downward toward a creek and a herd of cows grazed contentedly. The sky was a brilliant blue and the clouds, fluffy and white, floated effortlessly across the sky, a stout breeze coaxing them on their way. And then I saw it; a beautiful demonstration of soaring on the wings of the wind. 

A huge vulture, not generally regarded as handsome, spread his wings and took off. A flap or two made him rise to catch an invisible air current, launching him even higher into the sky. There he glided, adjusting the position of his wings ever so slightly to turn this way or that. He looked so free, so powerful. I wondered what it felt like to experience flight unencumbered by the trappings of an airplane. I was so intrigued by watching this giant bird I nearly ran off the road.

Regaining my bearings, I got to thinking about the inspirational “wings of eagles” verse found in Isaiah 40:31. It’s not hard to imagine a creature as majestic as an eagle soaring on the wind. Eagles are beautiful and commanding, swift and regal. Soaring is what they are supposed to do. But turkey vultures with their big ugly red heads and whose lives consist of eating rotting road kill…Well, it just doesn’t seem right that they could soar just as well as their cousins.

To me, the lesson became clear. Truth is, we may not be an “eagle.” We have imperfections and flaws that some might say disqualify us from flying with the beautiful crowd. And yet, we have been equally equipped to soar high and often.
“but those who hope in the LORD will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not be faint.” (Isaiah 40:31)

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Saved from the junk pile

Rottenness abounds
A few weeks ago, I was in the midst of raging a full-out battle against the stinkbugs that had taken up residence in every nook and cranny in our house. Armed with my loaded gun of caulk, I swarmed into each room, laying down ribbons of the gooey stuff with the hope of sealing them in. The sunroom was the worst. Huge panes of glass mounted in, well, nontraditional construction methods, provided a virtual playground for these horrible bugs. As I was attempting to fill the many voids, a curious thing happened. My hand went right through a 4x4 support beam. I took that as a bad sign since I doubted I had developed the ability to reach through walls like a super hero. Anyway, further investigation revealed a totally rotten structure damaged from years of water damage. We had not planned on a big construction project but now we had no choice.

Landfill-destined junk

We hired a friend who does this type of work. Seth is working as his helper. It took a couple days to rip the thing apart and even more to put it back together. In fact, construction is still underway. But in the process, huge piles of see-through lumber, 36 cumbersome sheets of glass and tons of construction carnage decorated our yard. Yesterday and between raindrops, Seth and I spent some time "organizing" the junk. We separated out good wood from the bad, trash from the salvageable. What resulted was a huge pile of aluminum that we'll be able to sell to a recycling company. What once looked worthless and headed to an eternity in the land-fill has been pulled from the rubble and restored with value.
Valuable junk: saved and recycled

I can't help but think of the spiritual analogy. Because of our intrinsic sin, we were in the trash pile. No value. No hope of a productive, purpose-driven life. I realize that such a sentiment is not politically correct but it's true nonetheless. However, when God reaches down with that strong arm of love and plucks us from that mess, His choice to recycle us gives us value; not because of anything we have done but because that divine act bestows value.

I am so thankful that God extended his grace and mercy to me. I would much rather be trash saved from the heap and re-made into His image than live where my sin naturally calls home.

As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins...we were by nature deserving of wrath. But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions—it is by grace you have been saved. And God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus, in order that in the coming ages he might show the incomparable riches of his grace, expressed in his kindness to us in Christ Jesus. For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast. For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do. 
(Ephesians 2:1, 3b-10)

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Choosing to suffer

Scotty Curlee 
"I came to realize that I wasn't very good at team sports. Look at me. I'm too small for football or basketball. But I found out that I am really good at suffering. . ."

Those were the words Scotty Curlee delivered to the Liberty Christian Academy track team last week. Every kid in the room was captivated with this professional cyclist and pharmaceutical rep turned actor and movie director. (The Potential Inside)  He continued. "I was the guy who could hold the heart rate and crank it up Apple Orchard Mountain despite the pain, the rain, the cold. . . to race at the Olympic and world-class level, you must choose to sacrifice much. You must choose to suffer."

Jenny Anderson
In recent days, Jenny Anderson chose to suffer along Spain's El Camino de Santiago. Cold rain, freezing temperatures, sleet, snow, shoe-sucking mud and gale-force winds could not keep her from completing the course in record time. She endured bleak darkness, sleep deprivation, physical and emotional pain and loneliness for ten straight days. She chose to suffer.

Rick and Tammy Gray
Rick Gray, an experienced and effervescent ultrarunner, chose to suffer last Saturday. With a goal of sub-20 hours for the miles of the Umstead 100 Miler, he took step after relentless step. But somewhere between the start line and the finish, his stomach turned south, enduring retching and heaving, the kind that reduces a person to mush. The last 25-30 miles was filled with suffering and slow, agonizing progress. And yet, he endured to the end despite missing his target time. He, too, chose to suffer.

Great feats of physical accomplishments provide stellar examples of persevering through adversity. Such stories inspire and motivate. I find that I tend to make new commitments and establish lofty goals in the aftermath of hearing such tales. I make a mental decision to endure and become a disciplined woman because of the pursuit. But alas, I fail more times than not.

Suffering is hard. So very hard. All the prior mental decisions vanish as the lactic acid accumulates, the legs begin to fail, and the lungs cry out for mercy. Being in the think of it distorts the goal. The finish line is lost in the distance, obscured by the rainstorm of pain and agony. It is only the athlete who completely and certifiably understands the significance of the finish that attains the prize of accomplishment.

There is another grand example of suffering. Suffering that surpasses all suffering. No athlete and his endeavors comes close. For this suffering was endured because of the greatest commitment of all. This one suffered because of a conscious decision to those who had no power to endure. In fact, they had no power on their own to even enter the game. They were lost without hope.

This greatest sufferer  "was despised and rejected by mankind, a man of suffering, and familiar with pain. Like one from whom people hide their faces he was despised, and we held him in low esteem. Surely he took up our pain and bore our suffering, yet we considered him punished by God, stricken by him, and afflicted. But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was on him, and by his wounds we are healed. Yet it was the LORD’s will to crush him and cause him to suffer, and though the LORD makes his life an offering for sin, he will see his offspring and prolong his days,   and the will of the LORD will prosper in his hand" (Isaiah 53:3-10)

Suffering can only be endured when the goal is compelling and clear. And should we persevere, the reward is great; we will see the light and be satisfied (Isaiah 53:11).

Join with me in suffering, like a good soldier of Christ Jesus. (2 Timothy 2:3)

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 ...