The Uncommon Kindness of the Malone Community
And so ends another academic year. Yesterday was commencement at Malone University. The event is always wonderful and the very definition of bitter-sweet. There are always students that one is genuinely proud of and honestly will miss. As a professor, one feels excitement at the amazing possibilities in their futures, but there is a sense of loss, too. The graduates in the photo below are great examples of the quality of our students. Joe Howard (on the right) is just finishing up an internship with the Mayor’s Office in Washington, DC. Rachel Jenkins (center) has recently accepted a position working on the Hill as a staffer for Congressman Tim Ryan. Zach Murray (on the left) is headed to Cairo for the year with the Mennonite Central Committee. He will be teaching English at a Coptic Seminary. And these are but a sample. You can see why we will miss them.
Yet another reason why a short guy should never wear a flat hat
Fortunately, I will still be with the people in the back of the photo. I can honestly say that I teach with superstars. I don’t think that one could ever find a collection of people who could match those in my department. I have served at Malone for 17 years now, and all of it with these folks (with the exception of our youngster, David– second from the left). We have grown together and have grown old together. We have watched each other’s children grow up and begin their adult lives. We have eaten countless meals together, have travelled together, have shared the difficult and the beautiful. We are colleagues and friends, and somehow something more than that.
And these, too, are just a sample of the wonderful people at Malone. Our university is a kind place, an uncommonly kind place. In fact, I don’t know that one could find a warmer, more patient, more supportive work environment. I was reminded of how important kindness is by the book I finished this week, Barry Corey’s Love Kindness. Barry’s book fits well into the theme of journey that I have been thinking a lot about this spring. Much of the book is memoir and involves his journeys of various kinds: a road trip across the country with his son when they were moving to California, an epic hike in Yosemite that he traditionally takes with some students at beginning of the academic year, a journey to a spiritual retreat center. He often references Abraham, the pilgrim who set out in trust “not knowing where he was going.” With each anecdote, Barry illustrates aspects of what living kindly looks like. He has convinced me that this aspect of the fruit of the Spirit deserves much more attention than it normally gets.
The point of the book that struck me the most, however, was how he distinguished among the defensive, “culture wars” approach to others, the “nice” approach, and kindness. The “culture wars” Christian is firm in the center- she is committed to what she believes, but is hard on the edges. She can be defensive or abrasive to those who might disagree. The “nice” Christian is soft on the edges, but can be soft in the center, too. Points of disagreement are not honestly engaged, perhaps because the “nice” Christian doesn’t really believe anything or doesn’t even know what she believes. In contrast, kindness means a firm center (she stands somewhere, for something), but the edges are soft. She engages gently with everyone, most of all those who disagree or are different. She listens, she learns, she embraces. In our current political and social climate, more than ever we need kind Christians.
One way that my colleagues have demonstrated kindness to me is by sharing my life, including my running life. Of course, they think that I am crazy to run ultras. (I don’t disagree.) There is only a certain length of time that I can talk about running before they (gently) roll their eyes or otherwise let me know that enough is enough. Just like family. But they share my joys and my pains. Just one example is my friend Scott Waalkes. He and his wife Michelle drove down from Canton for my first ultra, the Mohican 50 in 2009. The problem was that I knew nothing about ultras. I started out using bananas, peanut butter sandwiches, and Cliff bars for fuel. I was not drinking enough water. I had no clue about electrolytes. Worst of all, I knew nothing about trail running. This was my own fault; a result of a bad combination of pride and laziness. I don’t like to drive to workouts—it always feels like I am wasting time. How could trail racing be any different from racing on the roads? I had run maybe five workouts thirty miles or longer, but before this race I had never run on trails ever. Not a single training run. Someone had told me that running the trails was slower, but I did a workout on the Ohio Canal towpath and didn’t find it to be much slower than the roads at all. I thought I was good to go. To this day I cannot believe that I once thought running on the towpath was an adequate preparation for racing on trails.
At Mohican in 2009 the 50 mile and 100 mile races started in the dark at the same time. The first section was on gravel roads or I would have been in bad trouble. I did not know enough to bring any light. I was able to see enough by means of the cast off light of the front runners. We were almost ten miles in before we turned off the road onto single track trail. At first I thought this must simply be a short connecting section; no one would hold a race on something so full of rocks and roots. It wasn’t safe. You couldn’t really even run on it. But it wasn’t a short section. The trail kept going on: across streams (how can one race across streams!), under or over fallen tree trunks, across wooden bridges and down wooden stairs. The closest description of an emotion that I felt was indignant. After slipping and sliding across one wooden walkway I emerged into an aid station. Rather than stop, I just kept going despite the beginning some strange cramping that was beginning to attack parts of my legs and feet.
I knew that I was still near the front so I glanced down at my watch to calculate my pace. That is the first time that I fell. I fall a lot on trails, so now I am not surprised, but the first hard fall was a shock. I picked the gravel out of my hands and knees, walked a little, and kept going. Soon the technical trail that I was on ceased to be a trail at all. It became a stream bed full of logs and boulders. It was beautiful indeed—what used to be called the purple section of Mohican up to Little Lyon Falls. I was all alone and it seemed like I had stumbled onto the set of Jurassic Park. When the little enchanted streambed valley ended there was no way forward—except up. I was astonished. To get out we had to climb almost straight up about 15 feet, hand-over-hand, using some exposed tree roots as ladder rungs. What kind of race was this? After four years of running trail ultras this now seems almost normal and acceptable. But I had never experienced anything like this during a ‘race.’
I learned two important lessons in that first ultra: I need to use my corrective lenses and I need electrolytes. I had never run with glasses or contacts before. My vision is not great, but I can make out the outlines of things at a distance and can read with no problem. There was never an issue when I was racing on the roads. But on technical single track, the sunlight comes through the trees and dapples the trail. I just couldn’t see the roots and rocks. I fell and fell and fell. And each time I would go down or almost go down my body would tense up. The cramping was intense and painful. Scott, Michelle, and my wife met me at mile 30. When I sat down to rest my calves cramped up so badly that I cried out in pain. Having never seen me like this, my wife was so distraught that she started to pray over me. She thought my race was over, but I walked it off and persisted to the finish. Without her, and without the support of Scott and Michelle, I never would have made it.
The next year, Scott showed even more kindness: he agreed to be my pacer for the last 18 or so miles of my first 100-mile race, also at Mohican State Park. And he wasn’t the only one of my colleagues (or their families) to help and support me. But it was Scott that brought me through to the finish. He knew when to push, when to be gentle. He was a wonderful companion in the dead of night on trails illuminated only by headlamps. And he wasn’t kind only to me. With about 6 miles to go, we came upon another runner and his pacer stopped by the side of the trail. The pacer told us that he just couldn’t get the body temp of his runner to drop despite the growing damp chill in the air. The situation was actually quite serious. Scott checked to make sure that I would be ok going on alone for a bit (I was). He told the runner’s pacer to stay with his athlete, and Scott ran ahead to the nearby aid station and brought supplies back that enabled the runner to complete the race. Then, as if he was simply out for a stroll in the park, he caught back up to me and escorted me all the way to the finish. It was around 1am. How is that for an example of the uncommon kindness of Malone folks? Thank you Father, for allowing me to live and work with such a wonderful community.
Life has been crazy and my training this week reflects this. And I am still building back from the plantar. I need to remember to be kind to my body.