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.

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 ...