Monday, November 7, 2016

MMTR 2016: When Grandma (nearly) got run over by a (rein) deer

Nearly 300 runners gathered by the small lake, ready to begin the fifty-mile journey ahead. With headlamps casting beacons of light into the darkness, the mass of adventurers ventured off at the appointed time. They sauntered around the lake, up the hill, and onto the country road that would lead them to the trailhead. I was part of that crowd, seeking to complete my 19th official journey along the entirety of the course.

I was chatting with a group of friends that complete this race as a social event. Each could run much faster than they do, but they enjoy the simple pleasure of getting from point A to point B with smiles on their faces and not much impact to their bodies. Andrew Thompson was one of the gang, a former record holder on the Appalachian Trail. He, too, was en route to his 19th passage of the Mountain Masochist 50 Mile Run through the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia.

We moved down the road spread from shoulder to shoulder. I was on the left most edge of the road when all of a sudden, I felt someone -- or something --come at me from the side. Busting from the woods at full speed, the buck bolted across the road, his hooves slipping on the hard road surface. His antlers narrowly missed my chest. Then it was a chain reaction, each runner to my right jumping to avoid the deer now sliding across the road. When he hit the far ditch, he fell to his knees before dashing off into the woods.

"What just happened?!?" Whoa. That was a close one, and it gave the pack of us something to talk about for the next few minutes. I wondered if the rest of the day would be so exciting.

Photo credit: Freda Spencer
Once into the woods, across the creek, and starting up the first mountain, I shared some time with an old friend. It was good to catch up. But alas, that was short lived as his pace was quicker than mine. I fell back into my routine of counting steps on the inclines: run 30, hike 30. Run 50, hike 50. I like doing this to keep making forward progress as quickly as possible. Silly, maybe, but it worked for me.

Despite the large number of runners in the race, I was alone for long stretches. Yes, there may have been runners further up the trail or coming around the corner behind me, but for the most part, the day was mine to enjoy in silence. Even when overtaking a runner (or they, me), it was mostly short pleasantries before we both retreated into our private worlds. The woods, playing host to filtered rays and brilliant leaves, thin ribbons of trail, and lazy country gravel roads, offered up the very best of autumn.

I was happy to be running a solid race. The aid station signs indicated I was well within cutoffs, albeit not with as much cushion as in the good times of yesteryear. Still, I was monitoring and managing myself based on the twenty-four years of ultrarunning. There was a certain sense of contentment to draw upon the experience of knowing what and when to eat, how much to drink, when to push a little harder, and when to settle in.

I will admit, however, that when my good friend Martha had passed me about fifteen miles in, my rhythm temporarily changed into the clunk-clunk of a flat tire. You see, though younger than me, Martha is in my age group and has bested me a number of times in the past years. Though not obsessed about it, I couldn't help but think that gaining back the title one last time before morphing into the Super Grand Masters (60+) come February would be fulfilling. So when I saw her come down from Mt. Pleasant as I was going up at about mile 35, I knew she had a good 20 - 25 minutes on me. I had a decision to make. Was I going to bide my time or attempt to run her down?

I was still running strong but not at a pace that was kamikaze. I told myself to stay steady because you never know how the other person is feeling. My legs were fine (other than what I knew to be a large blister on my  big toe) but I was getting tired of breathing. Really. There had been way too much breathing. My weenie upper body strength may have contributed to that feeling. But while I was contemplating my displeasure of doing the inhale/exhale routine countless more times, I suddenly ended up on the ground, which caused a calf to cramp in protest. Though surprised at the tumble on relatively smooth surface, it may have contributed to a later decision.

Miles 42 through 46 are marked by two vicious climbs an twisty-curvy single track. The fallen leaves kept the rocks and roots secret to the runner. Any sudden lurch upon discovering the hidden treasures had the possibility of ushering in a sequence of quivering muscles that could make things very difficult. And, should an ankle roll or wicked fall occur, it could be race ending. At least that's what I told myself.

Truth is, I know I was moving well. I was catching people rather than being caught. Still, I wasn't really suffering like I have in the past. I wasn't hating life. My blister was a bother but other than that, even the months-long nagging ITB issue had been a non-issue all day long. Yes, I was ready to reach the finish line--but at what cost?

Streaking past the last aid station, I remained steady. Not flashy. Just steady. I was playing it safe but ran on. I never gave up but never red-lined. Though I kept thinking I might look up to see Martha, I sort of hoped I didn't. That way, any compulsion to push into the super-suffer-zone could be more easily squelched. Even when the "1 mile to go" sign passed under my feet and a few gleeful runners slid by, I was still content to remain Steady-Eddy all the way through the finish.

Gary and me at the finish
I heard my name called as I ran under the banner, getting my congratulatory hug from race director, Clark Zealand. I was happy and relieved, but not overly emotional. It was just another necessary finish on the way to 20. My husband was there to surprise me. That touched me. A few photos were snapped before Martha approached. "You were only 16 minutes behind. You made up some time. But I have to thank you. I read your story of how you broke 11 hours a few years ago, and it gave me the idea. 'Why not me?' You inspired me to do what I've never been able to do before."

The man who started it all, David Horton
I was delighted for Martha. She is a strong competitor,  and a great friend. I watched her receive the cherished age-group prize later in the evening. It was okay. She faced her fear and grabbed the golden ring. I faced the fear and decided to walk the respectable pathway rather than the spectacular.

As a 41-year old, I ran my best at 8:57. I can remember thinking that I could run sub 9:30 in my sleep. That was dumb. In two months I'll turn 60. Long gone are the dreams of running those kind of times. But what is possible now? Surely, my priorities have changed. Time is not kind. But maybe, just maybe, new dreams can lead to new goals, and new goals can lead to new accomplishments.

Come on 60. I can't wait to see what you have for me.

Friday, October 14, 2016


I interrupted my desk work by heading out the door into the sunshine of a clear fall day. Running shoes laced, I decided a tour of the ever-changing landscape of Liberty University would be a good step in the right direction.

With multiple construction projects happening simultaneously, it's hard to keep up with all the changes. The constant beep-beep-beep of trucks backing up make harmony with the explosion of nail guns. Steel workers prance atop the makings of the expansive domed roof of the new indoor football field, seemingly oblivious to the height and treacherous slope. Cranes, like monstrous prehistoric creatures, loom overhead, steel beams dangling as they are coaxed into place. Backhoes dig as bulldozers push. It's quite the sight and even a bit distracting to the runner afoot.

Enjoying the entertainment the construction world was providing, I came upon two workers on either side of the road. Each sat atop an over-turned five-gallon bucket. Both had been assigned a caution sign and neither one looked particularly enthralled with his duties. But despite the fact that a passing motorist would likely not be cautioned by the sign resting on the ground of the worker on the right, I decided to ask the other fella to explain the work behind him. It looked like a huge basin was being created, earth scooped up and hauled away by massive trucks. But why? I pondered. Were they creating a retention lake, clearing the way for the foundation of yet another building, or addressing an engineering issue? I didn't know. So I asked.

"Hey there. So what's happening behind you? Looks like a big project!"

With a grin widened by the gaps between the missing teeth, the affable man chuckled his response.
"Well, I don't know. I just hold the sign."

"Okay, then. I guess it will remain a mystery. Enjoy your day out here!" I replied.

"Oh, I will!" his tone suggesting he rather enjoyed this brief interruption to his bucket-sitting.

With a final look over my shoulder and a cheery "See ya," I continued along, dodging the warning signs placed smack-dab in the middle of the sidewalk.

My run continued, carrying me past several other construction sites. I noted with interest a number of other idle workers. Outside one tiny shack at the entrance to a work site, sat an elderly man sipping on a drink. It wasn't the first time I had seen him. Day in, day out, he sits in his chair and watches the trucks go by. I wondered if he was as clueless as the my new bucket-sitting friend.

Going through the motions. Oblivious. Why do more? Why know more?

Road sign holders and guard shack guys are not the only guilty parties. Being oblivious sure is a lot easier than being fully engaged.

As my run took me through campus and onward, I inventoried areas of my life that might include bucket-sitting. Am I, as the writer of Ephesians advises, being "very careful then, how you live, not as the unwise, but as the wise"? Or conversely, am I simply going through the motions, brain and thoughtful intentionality placed on the back burner? Am I being disciplined, well-informed, and in constant pursuit of excellence, or do I become lazy, content with past accomplishments?

God bless that dear bucket-sitter. But God help this gal to stay on her feet and keep making forward progress.

Friday, August 26, 2016

Naptime is for. . .

Good gracious. Is this what it means to get old? Am I on the fast train to senior citizenship? Geezerhood? Is this the beginning of the end? I'm out of bed and writing at 1:45 a.m. and have no idea where this story is going. That can't be good.

Maybe it's because I am in the post Muddy Muck Madness phase of life. The mud and obstacle run is the sole event each year that serves to put much needed resources into my self-funded FCA ministry. I love this race, this frolic (or more like a wallow) through the bogs that steal both dignity and shoes, across fields, through tunnels and creeks, along wooded trails, and across precarious floating bridges that stretch across the lake. And this year, the task of preparation escalated exponentially with the construction of a true-blue 120' water slide. Lots of people showed up this past Saturday, the air horn sounded, and mud flew. Then as quickly as the race began, the muck-laced racers drove away, leaving me with the daunting task of deconstruction. Had it not been for my husband and two other kind souls, I would still be removing bolts and dragging culvert pieces to their resting place, awaiting next year's action.

Much like the delayed exhaustion after a hard race, it hit me today like a load of bricks. Driving around doing the errand thing nearly lulled me into lala-land. Plans for a long, hard trail run must have figured out the child safety locks and jumped out of the vehicle somewhere along the way. But I managed to make it home safely, put away groceries, and head to the bed for a nap. A nap! At 4:15 in the afternoon! Aren't old people the only ones who take afternoon naps? As I sunk beneath the covers, I mumbled to Gary (whom I had awakened from his afternoon catnap on the couch when I entered the house), "Does this mean we're old?"

OK. So maybe the hour and a half dosey-doze is the reason for my restlessness in the middle of the night. Maybe the ideas whizzing around my cranial spaces akin to the thrill seeking motorcyclists who scream through the spherical cage of doom are keeping me awake. Or maybe it's the prodding I felt after reading a friend's new, and always terrific blog post. For heaven's sake! She has a baby and found the time to scribble in cyber-space. My children are grown and gone. I'm a grandma. I'm supposed to be in the life-contemplation, slow-paced stage of life. Right?

Nah. It's not that easy. Life is still a whirl. Ministry paths are morphing into this living, breathing creature not previously known to mankind. I think maybe today was the calm before I board the ship and sail into the storm. Not that the storm is bad. The coming storm is beautiful in many ways. But the storm is sure to slap some crazy waves against the bow. I will not avoid getting soaked, maybe even tousled about and nearly thrown overboard and drowned. And actually, I'm not quite sure of the ship's final destination. All I know is that this cruise is sure to be an adventure.

Maybe I did need that nap. Maybe I'm not old. Maybe I'm just preparing for a new voyage that reveals itself more later this morning.

Sunday, June 26, 2016

With a radiant soul

I didn't get much sleep last night.

I was enjoying a quiet evening in my room. It was the calm before 150 girls would storm the Blue Ridge Assembly property for Girls Black Mountain Sports Camp. I sat propped up in bed, thin mint Oreos by my side (which I must say are fabulous), computer screen glowing with various race-link tabs set to follow the progress of runners at the Western States 100 Mile Endurance Run. Life was good living vicariously through the internet connection. When a lull in reporting occurred, I decided to check in with my dear mother. I cheerfully greeted her when she answered the phone. Her response was anything but. It was, well, dull, nearly silent.

Mother with newborn Addyson in better times
"I don't feel good, Rebekah. I don't know what to do." Her voice was wistful and faltering, perhaps even fearful. I could tell she was in a bad way. Attentive to her concerns, I finally convinced her to reach out to the retirement community's on-call nurse.

"Now, Mother, once she comes to make the assessment, have her call me." Agreed. Within the half hour, my phone jingled awake. It was the nurse.

"Your mother is very anxious. The EMTs are here and will be taking her to the hospital to get checked out."

Mother was suffering more than usual. At 88, she was trying to be a trooper--like always. But she's getting tired. Her shoulder offers nothing but pain and swelling, she feels weak and wobbly when walking, and all her get up and go has got up and gone.

These events precipitated calls to my brothers, one of whom made the short trip to the hospital given he is the only sibling living in the area. Several hours and many texts transmitted into the wee hours brought the news of a GI bleed, resulting anemia, a UTI, and decreased renal function. Still, they released her to David who carried her home and lovingly tucked her in for the night.

Today Mother still sounds tired but better. I doubt any real physiologic improvement magically occurred overnight. So what changed? Though still exhausted from the ordeal, maybe she has a better perspective on her status. Perhaps she has viewed her condition as inevitable; the normal course of events for someone completing nearly nine decades of life. Maybe she has figured out that suffering is better tolerated when you can see beyond the moment. Perhaps she knows, as the old hymn states, "it will be worth it all when we see Jesus." She is facing the difficulties with grace and peace.

But let's switch gears for a minute. The race I had been following all day was still going on. I used down time between medical status checks to see where a certain female given bib number 29 was on the course. Bethany Patterson, a 37-year old friend with three kids had earned a coveted spot among the list of entrants.

I've know her since she was a baby in the sport of ultrarunning; a talented if not somewhat over-confident and cocky (by her own admission) college student. I had no idea who she was the first time she passed me in a race. However, I absolutely knew I didn't particularly enjoy her perky little self prancing up the hill, leaving me to lumber along with labored breathing. Her career was just starting. Mine, on the other had, was struggling to maintain even distant contact with the awards podium.

A lot has happened in the years since. I've had some good stretches, but mostly years with diminishing return. Bethany rose quickly to ultrarunning prominence, got married, birthed twin boys and a sister, and maintained a successful professional career. Though she never left the racing world, it's just been in the last two years that her trajectory has been stratospheric. This I find fascinating, but in the details of the story, I have newfound respect and admiration.

In an interview  the day before the gun sounded, this slightly built but powerhouse of a runner was interviewed. "I'm a different person than I was." I'll say. If you listen carefully, the cause/effect was her new understanding that she "gets" to do this; that she re-found the joy in the journey. Did this mean she would not suffer in the training? That a hundred miles would be easy? That success was assured? No. And a million times no. It simply meant that because she could see the broader picture, she would commit to do whatever it took to get across the finish line.

Credit Jason Griffith and Crozet Running
Bethany took to the start line having prepared very well. She began running at the sound of the gun knowing suffering on some level was non-negotiable. She was prepared to endure. She agreed beforehand to meet up with "Suffering" along the trail and do battle, but in this case was privileged to introduce him to "Fierce" and her sidekick "Relentless." She posted, "What an absolutely magical day. It exceeded all my hopes and expectations for this race." She pushed her way through the ranks, running down all but six competitors and finishing in a time of 20:40. 

Here on the grounds of this camp is a huge rock guarding the founders' graves; Willis and Julia Weatherford. Julie was born in 1889 and died in 1957. I researched her life but found little beyond the epitaph on that rock. ". . .a great sufferer but a radiant soul." Amazing. Most of us have a hard time displaying a "radiant soul" in the best of times. Leaving that kind of legacy meant making the decision to endure with grace over and over and over again.

I suspect my Mother, the now-exhausted Bethany, and the late Mrs. Weatherford share something in common: they know (or knew) how to suffer well. They understand (understood) the importance of perspective. They all learned to allow the suffering to produce something most beautiful and inexplicably wonderful.

Well done, ladies. Well done.

Saturday, May 7, 2016

Bumps and lumps

A week ago this time, I was half-way through the Promise Land 50K, striding along forested trails, and along creeks running more swiftly than me. The misty, damp conditions, bright green tunnels of foliage, and the sweet siren songs of the birds produced a level of tranquility not often experienced in this fast-paced world. I embraced being there. I eagerly accepted the challenges. But I could not help but remember that this race was in reality a box needing to be checked off.

Today, I am sitting on my bed with six inches of stitches and staples in my face, along with a swollen jaw line. Some may even mistake me to be Herman Munster's second cousin. I've been told the importance of laying-low, doing nothing, in order to guarantee an acceptable aesthetic result. And all this because of a little bump.

When I nonchalantly asked my family physician about a round, hard lump along my jawline back in January, she waved it off as nothing but a cyst. Still, in the interest of safety, she sent me for an ultrasound. The ultrasound led to a biopsy, and the biopsy led to a surgeon search. All this took time and a fair bit of mental gymnastics playing out the possible scenarios in my head. In the meantime, a routine mammogram came up suspicious and resulted in more tests, waiting, and contemplations. It was an interesting couple of months.

Now life's landscape looks a little different. The breast issue became a non-issue once the testing was complete. The biopsy proved the parotid tumor to be benign, though surgery was indicated. And the surgeon selection process could not have yielded a better practitioner. All this commotion for a little bump or two.

Arriving at the hospital for my long-awaited surgery on Wednesday morning, Gary and I both admitted to being a little nervous. It didn't hit until I was on the stretcher ready to be taken to the OR. There were possible complications to the surgery that could be life-altering--not really life-threatening--just altering. Still, in an odd way, it was wonderful to see so many doctors and nurses that I had worked with for years. "Hey, how are you? What's been going on in your life?" was a common thread in both directions. To experience what it feels like to be wheeled down the hallway on a stretcher or sit in pre-op holding watching patients, doctors, and nurses come and go was fascinating- almost fun.

Then it was my turn. The wall plate that opened the doors into the surgical hallway, one I had pushed thousands of times when working there as a perfusionist, was slapped. The doors responded, opening up wide like a big, sleepy yawn. OR 3 was not far down the front hall, and I was greeted by nurses smiling behind their masks. "Stop, I need a mask! I can't enter a room that's set up without one," I wanted to scream. But wait. That's not right. Patients don't need masks. Yes, I'm a patient. I guess we are allowed to have our germs flying around in our own surgical suite. I reset my thinking from clinician to patient.

Things moved more quickly than anticipated. I scooted to the surgical table while chit-chatting, the stretcher was pulled away, EKG pads placed, and head and shoulders positioned. "Your heart rate is in the high 40's," stated the anesthesiologist. "Is that about right?" He knew I was a runner but wanted to confirm I wasn't bradycardic for no good reason.

Hum. I was surprised my heart rate was that low with all this excitement. But at the same time I was pleased, hoping it indicated some level of fitness. With nary another word or warning, a mask was placed over my nose and mouth to pre-oxygenate before intubation. Since my anesthesia would be 100% IV narcotics rather than inhalation agents, I knew I would not get sleepy breathing through the mask. But when I heard, "OK. Let's go," I knew it would not be long. My eyes fixed on the overhead lights. I wanted to see how long I could fight the drugs coursing through my veins. It was like a competition. Not much happened in the next few seconds. Ah-ha. I was winning. Then my slightly fuzzy brain heard, ""For her, wham, bam, push it fast." OK. I give. Goodnight. My eyes closed, just like in the movies, rendering the next 3.5 hours time forever erased from my memory. I wish the procedure could have been recorded. I would have liked to see the whole thing.

I woke up in recovery hours later, feeling like one of those dolls whose eyes roll open and then easily close. YEAH! Immediately, I knew my face had survived; no paralysis of the facial nerve. Whew. That would be tough to be a speaker with a mouth and eye that would not close. I was in no real pain but when asked if I wanted something, I agreed in order to stay in front of it. No nausea. No paralysis. No pain. Life was good.

The rest of the day was spent in the Surgicare Center. It took a long time for the effects of the IV drugs to let go. Abby and Kendal, two of my faithful Shindigglers (and senior nursing students) came to visit. It was fun to watch them watch the monitors and access me as a patient and not just their TrailMama.

Now that I'm home, the "big bump in the road" caused by a little bump beneath my jaw doesn't seem like such a big bump after all. The process has been relatively easy, pain minimal (despite the Frankenstein-like appearance), and quite interesting to me from a medical viewpoint. I am thankful for that.

Is there a lesson in this? Probably. Though to be honest, I'm not feeling very philosophical at the moment. But this I know: If God is truly sovereign, we need to be willing to roll with whatever He ordains for us; look at each bump, twist, and turn as an adventure and life experience that will ultimately be used for good. Are some bumps bigger and harder to deal with? Sure. I think the hardest part of this bump is having to lay low for a week or two, hardly of any significance in the big picture.

Now, I am not minimizing the difficulty of mind-boggling, exceptional, and terrifying situations. But
I want to encourage any and all who are facing a bump to do so knowing that nothing is without purpose. Everything is written into our life stories for a reason. Find that reason in Christ.

Monday, May 2, 2016

I'm a wus (and might like it that way)

For days before the race, I dreamed about an epic performance. With surgery looming in a few days to have a tumor removed, I wanted to battle the challenging course with all I had as it led me up, over, around, and down the mountains. I wanted to collapse across the line totally spent, exhausted, hauled away from the finish line fray by concerned onlookers. Then, I wanted my legs to be so trashed from the extreme effort that it would force me to limp my way into the hospital, embracing a great anesthesia-induced sleep. It just seemed to be the right approach under the circumstances. Perhaps a bit melodramatic, but the way it should be.

Pre-race fun
So why was I smiling when I crossed the line? Why was I not hurting badly on the final four-mile descent, despite a respectable pace? And now, why am I able to stand from a seated position without difficulty or use of my hands? Why am I able to do stairs without grimacing? Why, oh, why?

One possible answer to the question is that I went into the race finely trained and conditioned. Hence, no incapacitating soreness in the aftermath. While it is true that I put in a number of long runs in the weeks prior (and I have lots of pictures to prove it), I didn't particularly leave a blazoned path behind me. We Shindigglers (or sometimes just me) stopped to enjoy overlooks and photo-ops. We always relished being done with the run but seldom dealt with the consequence of pushing hard and strong throughout. So nah, conditioned protection from relentless pounding is probably not plausible.

Another possibility is that I ran a tactically perfect race, monitoring my body and responding to it with calculated precision. Indeed, I ran when I was supposed to run. I hiked when my heart rate and breathing jacked too high. I doubled up on electrolytes when calves quivered or a hamstring felt tight. I anticipated caloric needs dependent on the section coming up next. I was intentionally mindful of posture on the relentless climbs to avoid lower back issues. My mind was a constant whirl of assessment/response microcycles. Indeed, I ran a smart race based on well over twenty years of experience. I suspect these things contributed to an uneventful "recovery." However, it's not the complete story.

For much of the day, I was alone, seldom having opportunity to speak with fellow competitors. I loved the solitude, preferring the sweet songs of birds that filtered through the mist to human chatter.  With plenty of time to think as I rolled along, I recalled more frantic years of racing. Those years were fraught with angst about who was in front and who was behind me. It was push, push, push. The pressure to be in the hunt was palpable with every heart beat. I had expectations for myself. Others had expectations for me. My identity was bound to a position and measured time. And that, dear friends, spells P.R.E.S.S.U.R.E; a pressure that seeps into life's every nook and cranny.

I kept telling myself that I must do my best. But had the definition of "best" changed for me? I don't feel I slacked off into a lollygagging world. I ran appropriately in each section, especially for the last twenty miles. My mind drifted to my Shindiggling girls who were in front of me. I thought about a few ladies in my age group who were also out in front. (I would find out Martha, another trailrunning grandma, had adopted my Shindigglers over the miles.) Anyway, I knew I was moving well since I passed quite a few runners and rarely got passed back. My desire to be striving and steady remained strong knowing I might be able to sneak up on one of those gals. Still, I felt no do-or-die compulsion to run anyone down.

Rebekah, Abby and Kendal, Martha Wright
Yes, I got tired coming up Apple Orchard Falls. Yes, running across the parkway felt difficult after all that hiking up the miles-long steep grade. Yet I forced myself to get the job done; I finished strong. The miles of gravel road leading to the finish rushed by quickly. I was strong and in control without a lot of pain. I finished a couple minutes under 7:30, the time I thought was doable this year. Though I never caught the girls or age-group competitors, I didn't really care. I started. I finished. I was glad to be in the mountains. I was no worse for wear. Is that so bad?

I think I may be have fallen into a self-inflicted state of "wus-endom". It's not an evil state to be in. It's just very different than where I lived for many, many years. I've lost- or perhaps, surrendered- my "come hell or high water" competitiveness, at least in this season of life. Rather, I am content to face challenges on my own terms; do my best for the day and enjoy the journey.

I'm not saying I'll never be a focused competitor again. (The new age group of 60+ is right around the corner and with it may come new goals.) I know the courage it takes to run on the brink of disaster and failure. I've been there and done that. It certainly has its rewards and being at the top of your game can be a worthy undertaking. But I have to admit, being a contented, laid-back wus is a lot less stressful and a whole lot more pleasurable nowadays. So on April 30, 2016 at the Promise Land 50K, I embraced my wussiness.

Monday, April 4, 2016

A dam and two mountains

What is there about a campfire? Is it the smoke floating into the sky, twisting and turning along with the breeze? Or is it the snap, crackle, pop as the wood combusts before creating a smoldering layer of coals just perfect for marshmallow roasting? Perhaps it's the laughter and light-hearted conversation
of those who gather around. But on Friday night, I think it was all of that--and more.

It was the evening before the first rendition of the Dam 50K in Sandy Level, VA. After several years of bartering with Home Land Security and Appalachian Electric Power, permission was granted the YMCA race directors to begin and end the race at Smith Mountain Lake Dam. That's all David Horton, the experienced RD, needed to design a unique 50K curse. . . I mean course. None of us knew quite what to expect except to know the whole event would be "interesting."

And it was. From the hotdogs cooked over an open fire, to s'mores made with flaming Peeps and huge chocolate bars, the fellowship was great. Laughter and joking abounded, a few members of the fire circle being a bit more boisterous than others. For the most part, I listened in contented silence. I had only signed up for this race a few weeks prior. I had lacked focus in training but wanted to get in another race before. . .

Well, before my surgery. Back in January it was discovered I have a parotid gland tumor. It took weeks of tests, biopsies, and waiting to see various surgeons before a course of treatment was determined. In the meantime, without knowing what was coming when, it was hard to plan anything--training, which races to do, when to plan speaking engagements, and the like. But with a surgery date of April 18, the April 2nd race sounded like a pretty good idea. The April 30th Promise Land 50K, just 12 days post-op, may not fit into my surgeon's idea of "very light activity." I needed to race while the timing was good.

I had enjoyed some great long runs with friends while in God's appointed "waiting room." But to say I was training without distraction would be dishonest. Sitting in the car before the start, I had no idea how I would fare throughout the day. Still, I was relaxed and maybe even a little hopeful.

The course started off with a bang; a steep road up above the dam with a turn onto even steeper trail to take us to the mountain top. But the reward of a winding downhill run on smooth gravel into the first aid station make the effort worthwhile. I fell into step with fellow local runner, Gratten Garbee, and caught up on things as the miles, now run on hard surface but desolate country roads, ticked away. We leap-frogged with another local, Michael Mitchell. There was no pressure. Just keep running according to how each of us felt. I eventually pulled away as both developed some uncooperative body part issues. I enjoyed the solitude, my cadence accompanied only by the swish-swoosh of the fluid in my hydration pack.

Coming into the 21-mile mark back at the start/finish by the dam, my steady pace allowed me to pass a number of folks along the way. But after a quick re-fill at the aid station table, the "Death Climb" was next on the agenda. Seven crossings of the same meandering stream preceded the 1500 foot vertical assent, all in about a mile. Energy-wise, all was fine. But with the steepness of the grade, the required sharp ankle angle, and 21miles already on my legs, my calves protested greatly. In fact, they turned into quivering masses of muscle, threatening to halt my progress with their rock-hard status. Glancing at my watch, I couldn't believe how long this nasty climb was taking. No previous climb in all my ultra days rivaled this one. Apparently, I wasn't alone in wanting to stand atop this mountain that overlooked the wide expanse of lake below. Tales of vain (and perhaps profane) utterings, plopping down to take breaks, and holding onto trees to prevent a backwards, downhill tumble filtered among the runners in the aftermath.

Relief map of Smith Mountain
The aid station on mountain high was a welcomed sight! I needed to get serious about correcting the electrolyte issues that contributed to the cramping. But it would take time to feel the effects. Brief jogs morphed into walk periods until the calves released. Then off again I ran, repeating many times while going up and over four more peaks perched along this ridge line. By the time a long descent was required to get off the mountain, I was running steadily, having to walk a few steps only when calves shouted their dislike for a stride that was too long or pace too aggressive.

Approaching the last aid station, I mused on how quickly the day had gone. I was thankful for the smile I was able to maintain throughout the last six hours. I was pleased to have enjoyed both solitude and relaxed conversation. I was delighted that aid station workers had voted my outfit as the cutest of the day. Now, a mere three miles remained. Though not pleasant to run more roads, I was grateful that this road led home.

I was the fourth woman to cross the line. I was okay. It looked like I was about 20 years older than the other women. It took me 6:27 to complete the course without suffering all that much. I made some new friends, and got reacquainted with old ones. Having finished the first edition of the race gives me the option of doing the second, and the third, and the fourth. You get the idea.

Necessarily, for a dam to hold up against the powerful force of water, two mountains standing tall on both sides are required. It can be a fight, a struggle, to build that dam and harness the power pushing against its walls. But just climb the mountains on either side to appreciate the integrity, beauty and purpose of the structure.

I'm not sure what will happen on and after April 18. But that's okay. I am safe on the mountain and tapped into the awesome power of the most High.

Postscript: For what it's worth, several days after the race I found out my surgery date has been moved to May 4. Now I can run Promise Land. 

Monday, March 14, 2016

Would've, should've, could've

Source: Liberty University Website
I was glued to the screen, my heart beating as furiously as it does in a tight, long race. "Yes. . . Noooo. . .Don't be dead, Sid. Open your eyes, get up. Show me you're okay. . .Come on. . . Grab it. . . Go in, go in. . . Rebound!"

I didn't want to miss a second of the action as I watched the saga unfold. Back and forth went the lead in this championship game. It seemed that the destiny of the world was riding on whether or not a round, orange ball dropped through an 18 inch diameter rim perched 120 inches off the hardwood floor.

Now rewind. I've competitively played a lot of different sports throughout my high school, college, and adult athletic careers, but basketball was never one of them. I think I could have been a decent player but alas, gymnastics was held the same season. I tumbled, leaped, and flew through the air rather than dribbling and passing around the court. Nevertheless, it is basketball that now holds importance and priority. What changed (besides about forty years)?

Or more importantly, what changed me? Why do I care so deeply for the game and this team who plays it?

The answer? The women of Liberty University's basketball team. For the last nine months I've met
with them, laughed with them, cried with them, shared truth with them, and have grown to love each one of them. I've sat in the stands and watched them play as they won some, lost some. Together we shared our fear and dreams over coffee, I've listened as they poured life into one another, and encouraged those who found themselves sidelined with injury. I've become vested in them. So when I stared at the action during the deciding game of the Big South Championship last night, I felt a hook wrangle my heart and capture my soul. That was "my" team. Those were "my" girls. Together we would celebrate. Or perhaps, together we would mourn.

Periods of brilliance produced a substantial lead. Minutes of mark-missing shots cut the lead, then surrendered the lead. Balls heaved by the opponent from behind the three-point line swished the rim, producing palpable energy and fervored play. The buzzer for the fourth period sounded, score tied. Five more minutes of frantic action yielded the same result. But when the second overtime period drew to a close, the Lady Flames earned two points less than a worthy UNC Asheville team. The program's 17th Big South championship trophy alluded the Liberty women. There would be no championship rings, no celebrated victor's arrival back on campus. We lost. Ugh. I felt deep visceral pain as I read disappointment on their faces and in their tears, despite the admirable and intentional effort to be gracious in defeat.

"If only we would've. . . we should've. . . we definitely could've."

Such responses come easily after such a battle. Second guessing. Remorse for missing an easy shot. Understanding an arm extended more rapidly or a quick lunge to the left could've forced the turnover and put more points on the board. But while these retrospective responses are typical, are they appropriate? Well, yes and no.

Let's be honest, failing to win the day is deeply disappointing (and sometimes embarrassing). A legacy of success that produces expectations of greatness is hard to reconcile when the scoreboard declares another the winner. So what to do?

We dare mourn but for a moment. For while God desires us to learn from the past, He does not ask that we live there. How often did He say, "Remember when?" How many times were His people reminded of both past downfalls and victories for the purpose of rightful living in the present and a bright hope for tomorrow?

Yes, it's easier said than done. Mistakes were made. Shots bounced off the rim. The game was not played perfectly. The championship not won. But the game was not in vain.

A team's worth is not contingent on the outcome of a game. Be thankful for what went right, learn from what went wrong, and look forward to what lays ahead.

Ladies of LU Basketball, you are my champions.

Friday, March 4, 2016

Passion is not for weenies

OK, class. Use the word "passion" in a sentence. Take a second to think about it. If you watch American Idol or Shark Tank, contestants will make tearful claims of being so passionate that failure is not an option. Parents tell their children, "Follow your passion." Couples lock lips when filled with "passion," a hormone-driven physiologic sensation. But I bet you never equated passion with suffering. Neither did I until I saw a friend's Facebook post.

“Passion has little to do with euphoria and everything to do with patience. It is not about feeling good. It is about endurance. Like patience, passion comes from the same Latin root: pati. It does not mean to flow with exuberance. It means to suffer.” ― Mark Z. Danielewski

I don't know this Danielewski character. Therefore, I Googled him. He's an author of books I have never read. Looks to be fairly successful in terms of his marketability. But was his quote about passion correct? Did the Latin root really mean to suffer?

Yes. Indeed it does. I fact-checked. We typically think all we need to package passion are heightened emotions and a resoluteness that is steroid-strong. If that is the case, we believe we will automatically jump higher, run faster, write more clearly, and produce finer works of art. But I'm afraid it's not so simple. 

It is principled that "faith without works is dead" (James 2:17, 20, and 26). Not that works produce faith, but that works are a natural outcome of faith. In the same pattern, passion without endurance is no more than an emotion precariously perched atop a flag pole in the middle of a hurricane. Without the commitment and the capability to endure through the storm, the passion is easily pried from the pole and scattered to the far reaches. When the wind subsides, nothing of significance is left.

Logically, can passion exist without endurance? Is passion possible without a good dose of suffering? Perhaps today's loose definition of "passion" should realistically be re-branded as simple preference. For example, "I am passionate about running" falls short of truth if one won't venture out when the weather is foul. Maybe it should really be, "I will run if it's 76, sunny, and a light breeze is blowing." That is clearly preference; not passion.

Or, how about this? "I'm so passionate about singing, I'll do everything I can to 'make it.'" But this is hardly believable if time and energy is not put into gaining experience in front of audiences. No, if we are truly passionate about something--anything--we will buckle down and plow forward no matter how hard it is.

I think Scripture is pretty clear about it. In fact, suffering and endurance are to be embraced, for in doing so, our passion and perspective are revealed. Romans 15 teaches that God is the author of endurance and encouragement so that we can be unified with "one mind and voice" and glorify Him. Passion is the result of endurance and encouragement.

The persecuted first century church could not be squelched because they "Consider[ed] it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything." (James 1:2-5). They proved their passion by their willingness to persevere. As a result of the perseverance, they became mature.

Would the enslaved believers that Peter wrote of who where scattered throughout Asia and Greece been able to be passionate about their faith without endurance? "For it is commendable if someone bears up under the pain of unjust suffering because they are conscious of God. . . But if you suffer for doing good and you endure it, this is commendable before God. To this you were called, because Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps. “He committed no sin, and no deceit was found in his mouth.” When they hurled their insults at him, he did not retaliate; when he suffered, he made no threats. Instead, he entrusted himself to him who judges justly" (1 Peter 2: 19-22).

Perhaps it's time to think twice before we say we are passionate about something. When I hear "passion" from someone who easily gives up when the going gets rough, I don't believe them. They have no credibility. But when I hear stories of modern-day Christians who endure unimaginable torture and yet remain true to the faith, I can trust their "passion."

Passion requires action over a long period of time. Passion does not give up. Passion does not give in. Passion embraces the challenges. Passion is hard. Passion is not always "fun." 

Bottom line? Passion is not for weenies.

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Sports in America TV Interview

Being a parent of an athlete can be hard. We want to walk that infinitesimally thin line between commitment and obsession. We want them to excel and achieve. We want them to feel empowered by their fitness and recognize the true gift they have been given.

But what about injury? What about burnout? Is there such a thing as too much, too early? Should they be multi-sport or stick with one activity?

I was recently interviewed on WSET's Living in the Heart of Virginia, talking about an upcoming program to discuss these topics. Check it out!

Sports in America 2-17-16Are sports right for your child and how do you protect against injuries and burnout. These are many of the questions that will be answered in an upcoming talk at LC.
Posted by Living in the <3 of Virginia (LHOV) on Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Friday, January 22, 2016

UltrAspire inspires

I am a couple weeks away from my 59th birthday. I've been running the long stuff for more than two decades. I used to finish at or near the front. Now, I run much more slowly and methodically. Occasionally, the pressure of making cut-offs  digs deep into my soul and keeps a fire burning that carries me to the finish. But even so, sometimes I don't even walk away with the "Grand Masters" title because another "old lady" completed the course before me. Since my slippery slide down the record book columns, untold numbers of young people have joined the ultra parade. They didn't know me "back when." In fact, they probably don't know me - period.

So, here's the million dollar question: Why would a great company with growing market share ask me to be an ambassador for their products?

I've been an UltrAspire ambassador for several years, and with an overflowing bucket of gratitude signed a contract for another twelve months just this week. The profiles of the folks listed as ambassadors, or Immortals, as they call us, is pretty impressive. Top runners. Record breakers. Household names in ultrarunning. Race directors. Athletes who are featured in magazines and oft-read blogs. 

But that's not me.

I am not a superstar. I am normal. Very, very normal.

So, let's think about this. How many runners fit onto the tiny piece of real estate we call a podium? About 3, right? Not a lot of room for a crowd. How many people stand on common ground? Everyone else.

Who will the guy who finishes 226/305 relate to more? Me or the champion? What about the gal whose stage of life makes consistent training and long miles more of a dream than a reality? In whom might she find a kindred spirit? Who might she look to for encouragement? The abilities of the top three are certainly to be admired. But really, are the training plans combined with extraordinary physiology typical of so many of the topflighters in reach of the mid to back of the packer like me? Probably not. But still, all of us - fast, slow, or inbetween - need gear. I am delighted to wear the best!

These days, I find the greatest pleasure introducing the sport to the younger set; kids I used to coach who now find great joy in seeking adventure along mountain trails. I love my title of "TrailMama." I am ecstatic that my experience is called upon to guide those four decades younger than me. I embrace the long discussions and problem solving with fellow runners when saving seconds is not top priority.

So, you see, I am quite normal. I am more like the greatest segment of the ultra community than the elite. I am past running for reward. I run in the mountains because I love it. I race because I can. I suspect there are many who feel the same way.

Thank you, UltrAspire, for believing in normal people like me. Thank you for granting me the privilege to be a part of your team. Thank you for your excellence and attention to detail. Thank you for giving me the opportunity to run long, run strong.

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 ...