The Uncommon Kindness of the Malone Community

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.

2017 05 06 HPSS faculty with Zach, Rachel, and Joe

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.

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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.

Monday                                   off

Tuesday                                   6

Wednesday                             6

Thursday                                 8

Friday                                      off

Saturday                                  6

Sunday                                    6

Total                                        32

Seven Autumns

In the autumn of 1991 I started my first semester as a full-time college professor. I was so young (no kidding) that the first time I walked into a classroom I had to convince my students that I was indeed the course instructor. In addition to teaching, something else happened that fall that turned out to have been life changing: I became a coach.

I am not sure how, but some of the students heard that I was a runner and asked to meet me in my office. They were interested in starting a collegiate cross-country team. I remember the first conversations with those athletes: Dave Burton, Paul Lynn, and Karen (Jermyn) Thurber. (Maybe Aaron Durso was part of that group, too.) We formed a team and competed that first fall. By the second year we had grown to around a dozen runners and had become a distinctive little community. I coached for seven seasons. There were so many great people. I think Paul Lynn still holds the school record for men. Karen Thurber may hold the school record for women. If not, it might be second-gen Nikki (Brouillet) Moriarty. Of all the athletes I coached, those three were the best natural runners and most accomplished. But this was a team that celebrated everyone’s accomplishments, not just the fastest runners. Nobody ever was cheered more loudly than Adrian Schoonmaker, the best worst athlete I ever coached. As Adrian finished the 5-mile course, the entire team would line up to urge him in, even if the timers had already packed up. His tenacity and character were so admirable that he likely has been in more sermon illustrations than the entire rest of the team combined. And on, and on.

When I think about it, seven years is only a small part of my professional life. Why then, do those seven autumns seem so important?

A primary reason: We gathered around us a group of interesting, talented, spiritually-minded, sometimes edgy runners. The names are too many to list, but most of them have gone on to accomplish amazing things. Many are still runners; some have been coaches themselves. I get Cross-Country flashbacks from time to time and I pray for them individually.

VFCC Team Photo copy

A team picture from Fall 1995

Partly those seven autumns loom so large in my memory because coaching is such an intensive experience. Unlike a college course where at most you might spend around 150 minutes a week with students, as a coach you see them almost every day. You see them at their best, and you see them at their worst. Running can be a physically ugly sport. No beautiful ice dancing for us, but blood, sweat, and tears. And I mean that literally (plus other kinds of bodily fluids, too– trust me, you don’t want details). To all of this add long, long, long rides in a 15 passenger van. There is nothing that can bring out an honest conversation like driving back from Ohio to PA after a hard race. When you are exhausted, the filters can disappear. In case you are wondering: yes, it is possible still to be embarrassed about something that you said 20 years ago. In the early years, my wife and our two infant sons would occasionally travel with us so that they could actually see me on weekends during the season. I don’t think any of my runners who experienced her shouted encouragement will ever forget it. (To all my former athletes: she is my ultramarathon crew chief. Just imagine the tough love. But it really was (and is) love.)

This year I have been participating in the Council of Colleges and Universities (CCCU) Leadership Development Institute. As part of my work, I have been studying a lot of leadership theory. Among the best books is one that I have been reading this week: Harold Heie and Mark Sargent, Soul Care: Christian Faith and Academic Administration. Many of the essays highlight the importance of shared governance and of humility for Christian leaders. And, of course, one cannot emphasize this too strongly or rehearse it too often. Fundamentally this emphasis is based on the twin theological principles of original sin and of understanding the church as body. Because we are fallible and our best efforts are tainted with sin, we need to be accountable to others. I made so many mistakes as a coach: mistakes in planning, giving the wrong kind of encouragement or giving it at the wrong time, and many others. Thank God that my athletes were patient with me. I learned to listen to them, to modify my plans accordingly, to listen to their complaints without defensiveness, to embrace my fallibility as a leader without always having to be “right.” Second, relying on I Corinthians 12/14, we must understand that every part of the body, though different in function, is equally important. Some may be “heads” and some may be “feet,” but in the body of Christ, no part is more important or essential. This is why I am somewhat hesitant to use the terminology “servant leadership.” For a Christian, isn’t serving what leadership is? Things simply won’t get done unless someone organizes, plans, leads. But you always do all these things for the benefit of the people you are serving, and ultimately for the benefit of the Kingdom of God. For a Christian, using “servant” as a modifier to “leadership” seems redundant.

51Om2DKpszL

It might be a good idea if every academic leader in training should spend some time as a coach. At least for me, those seven golden autumns of Cross-Country at Valley Forge were the crucible in which my understanding of leadership was forged. And what a joyous crucible it was: the changing leaves, the crisp air, the wonderful people, and the running. What a glorious gift from God.

————–

Still working with the plantar this week. It’s not getting worse, and maybe even is getting a little better. I need to be careful, but after this week I might be able to get back to some real training. At least I have been including a weekly speed workout. It is nice to know that I can still run sub-90 second quarters, even though I haven’t really been doing any kind of speed work for years. Let’s see if I can get them down to 75 seconds…

Weekly Mileage

Monday (does yard work count as cross-training?)               off

Tuesday (speed)                                                                     4

Wednesday                                                                             off

Thursday                                                                                 8

Friday                                                                                      6

Saturday                                                                                  off

Sunday                                                                                    8

total                                                                                        26

 

Seven Autumns

In the autumn of 1991 I started my first semester as a full-time college professor. I was so young (no kidding) that the first time I walked into a classroom I had to convince my students that I was indeed the course instructor. In addition to teaching, something else happened that fall that turned out to have been life changing: I became a coach.

I am not sure how, but some of the students heard that I was a runner and asked to meet me in my office. They were interested in starting a collegiate cross-country team. I remember the first conversations with those athletes: Dave Burton, Paul Lynn, and Karen (Jermyn) Thurber. (Maybe Aaron Durso was part of that group, too.) We formed a team and competed that first fall. By the second year we had grown to around a dozen runners and had become a distinctive little community. I coached for seven seasons. There were so many great people. I think Paul Lynn still holds the school record for men. Karen Thurber may hold the school record for women. If not, it might be second-gen Nikki (Brouillet) Moriarty. Of all the athletes I coached, those three were the best natural runners and most accomplished. But this was a team that celebrated everyone’s accomplishments, not just the fastest runners. Nobody ever was cheered more loudly than Adrian Schoonmaker, the best worst athlete I ever coached. As Adrian finished the 5-mile course, the entire team would line up to urge him in, even if the timers had already packed up. His tenacity and character were so admirable that he likely has been in more sermon illustrations than the entire rest of the team combined. And on, and on.

When I think about it, seven years is only a small part of my professional life. Why then, do those seven autumns seem so important?

A primary reason: We gathered around us a group of interesting, talented, spiritually-minded, sometimes edgy runners. The names are too many to list, but most of them have gone on to accomplish amazing things. Many are still runners; some have been coaches themselves. I get Cross-Country flashbacks from time to time and I pray for them individually.

VFCC Team Photo copy

A team picture from Fall 1995

Partly those seven autumns loom so large in my memory because coaching is such an intensive experience. Unlike a college course where at most you might spend around 150 minutes a week with students, as a coach you see them almost every day. You see them at their best, and you see them at their worst. Running can be a physically ugly sport. No beautiful ice dancing for us, but blood, sweat, and tears. And I mean that literally (plus other kinds of bodily fluids, too– trust me, you don’t want details). To all of this add long, long, long rides in a 15 passenger van. There is nothing that can bring out an honest conversation like driving back from Ohio to PA after a hard race. When you are exhausted, the filters can disappear. In case you are wondering: yes, it is possible still to be embarrassed about something that you said 20 years ago. In the early years, my wife and our two infant sons would occasionally travel with us so that they could actually see me on weekends during the season. I don’t think any of my runners who experienced her shouted encouragement will ever forget it. (To all my former athletes: she is my ultramarathon crew chief. Just imagine the tough love. But it really was (and is) love.)

This year I have been participating in the Council of Colleges and Universities (CCCU) Leadership Development Institute. As part of my work, I have been studying a lot of leadership theory. Among the best books is one that I have been reading this week: Harold Heie and Mark Sargent, Soul Care: Christian Faith and Academic Administration. Many of the essays highlight the importance of shared governance and of humility for Christian leaders. And, of course, one cannot emphasize this too strongly or rehearse it too often. Fundamentally this emphasis is based on the twin theological principles of original sin and of understanding the church as body. Because we are fallible and our best efforts are tainted with sin, we need to be accountable to others. I made so many mistakes as a coach: mistakes in planning, giving the wrong kind of encouragement or giving it at the wrong time, and many others. Thank God that my athletes were patient with me. I learned to listen to them, to modify my plans accordingly, to listen to their complaints without defensiveness, to embrace my fallibility as a leader without always having to be “right.” Second, relying on I Corinthians 12/14, we must understand that every part of the body, though different in function, is equally important. Some may be “heads” and some may be “feet,” but in the body of Christ, no part is more important or essential. This is why I am somewhat hesitant to use the terminology “servant leadership.” For a Christian, isn’t serving what leadership is? Things simply won’t get done unless someone organizes, plans, leads. But you always do all these things for the benefit of the people you are serving, and ultimately for the benefit of the Kingdom of God. For a Christian, using “servant” as a modifier to “leadership” seems redundant.

51Om2DKpszL

It might be a good idea if every academic leader in training should spend some time as a coach. At least for me, those seven golden autumns of Cross-Country at Valley Forge were the crucible in which my understanding of leadership was forged. And what a joyous crucible it was: the changing leaves, the crisp air, the wonderful people, and the running. What a glorious gift from God.

————–

Still working with the plantar this week. It’s not getting worse, and maybe even is getting a little better. I need to be careful, but after this week I might be able to get back to some real training. At least I have been including a weekly speed workout. It is nice to know that I can still run sub-90 second quarters, even though I haven’t really been doing any kind of speed work for years. Let’s see if I can get them down to 75 seconds…

Weekly Mileage

Monday (does yard work count as cross-training?)               off

Tuesday (speed)                                                                     4

Wednesday                                                                             off

Thursday                                                                                 8

Friday                                                                                      6

Saturday                                                                                  off

Sunday                                                                                    8

total                                                                                        26

 

This is not all there is…

On the recommendation of my friend and colleague, Scott Waalkes, this week I read Rod Dreher’s The Little Way of Ruthie Lemming.  I think I get 80% of my reading list from Scott, and every one is a gem. Last month we hosted Rod on campus for a lecture series. It was the same week that his Benedict Option came out and was featured in CT, and there was quite a buzz. We had a wonderful time; he is a great raconteur and seems to have read everything and know everyone. I was a little embarrassed that although I had read about them, I had not actually read any of Rod’s books. I’m glad it never came up during our conversations, but I wanted to rectify the situation as soon as possible.

If you have interest in reflections on family, struggling with terminal illness, and place, I would recommend The Little Way to you, too. Scott warned me that I should keep a box of tissues close by, and he was right. The Little Way is a memoir about Rod’s sister, a small-town girl who never really left home but put down deep roots in the community. She was a beloved daughter, wife, mother, friend, and elementary school teacher who died from lung cancer while in her early 40s. The central point that Rod makes is that family, place, and stability are crucial to building a life that is worth living. This is an important counter-cultural message for a society which seems to value only the mobility of bright lights and big cities.

dreher

I finished the book on Good Friday. I’m sure it was Holy Week, but I was thinking about what makes a good death as much as I was thinking about place and community. And I was thinking about my Mom. Easter Sunday is such a powerful reminder that this life is not all there is.

My Mom’s birthday was last week. She would have been 74 this year. She died in December 2015 after struggling for years with various manifestations of cancer and other maladies. The beginning of the end was in August, when what appeared to be a stomach flu turned out to be an appendicitis. Because of the emergency surgery, the physician decided to take her off her blood thinner, and things were never right again. Between my wife and I, we made four trips to Colorado that fall, and we got to know Littleton Hospital and its wonderful staff really well. I was on the speaker phone with my Dad and the doctors in early December when we decided to move her home with hospice care. I ended my semester early and we flew to Colorado.

When I was praying in my study earlier that fall, for some reason my eyes fell on a little black New Testament on my bookshelf. I opened it in curiosity. I have a ton of Bibles. Why would I have kept this one? The title page had my name in my Mom’s beautiful handwriting. It must have been a gift from her. So that’s why I kept it. And then I turned the page: the inscription was from her pastor at her confirmation in 1958. Among the verse citations listed, only one was written out, Rev 2:10b: “be faithful until death and I will give you a crown of life.” I held the little Bible in my hands and cried. After her death, when I was helping my Dad go through their pictures, I found the picture of her confirmation, holding that Bible.

kathy confirmation copy

My Mom is in the front row, second from the left

 

When we went to Denver in December to be with them during home hospice, it was the only Bible I took with me. I read the Psalms to her, in the same King James English that she taught me when I was little. Eventually Darla had to go home and it was just my Dad and me. She was really struggling toward the end and we had such a difficult time moving her that Dad finally decided to order a hospital bed. We waited all day, and finally they delivered it at almost midnight. Dad and I decided that it was too late to move her and that she would sleep one more night in bed with him. He told me he thought it would be her last night, but I didn’t think so. As I said goodnight, I read her every one of the verses in the inscription from her confirmation Bible. I told her that she had been faithful indeed, and that no matter what happened, a crown of life was waiting for her. Dad woke me up about 5:00AM and said that her breathing was labored. When we returned to her side there was only a few short breaths and that was all. There could not have been a better death: in her own bed, with her husband and son, so peaceful. I am so grateful to have been there.

And I am so grateful to know that this is not all there is. I am certain that I have been given my sense of adventure and my love of running from my Mom. If there would have been women’s athletics when she was young, she would have been a runner, too. As it was, we never ran together. But someday things will be different. Some day she will be healthy and vibrant again. Some day I will run with her “further up and further in!” This is the hope of Resurrection Sunday.

_________

This week has been a rough one in terms of my training. I was trying to wean myself off the orthotics that I always wear. When I was training for marathons in 1998 I developed severe plantar in both feet. I kept trying to push through and ended up hardly being able to walk. This has been a weak spot in my body ever since. And somehow I blew it. This week I have been trying every trick in the book, but the pain was too intense. I missed workouts on Good Friday and Holy Saturday. Missing the second day in a row hurt a lot. I was dressed and jogged about 100 yards before I gave up. I find few things as frustrating as running injuries. It is one thing to wimp out on a workout; it is entirely another to want to run, but to be unable. On Easter morning before church I decided to give it another try. The weather was beautiful. Spring is finally here. All I could think about is the power and beauty of the resurrection. And I was able to run. Thanks be to God.

I am so thankful that this is Holy Week. Because even in running, sometimes there has to be suffering and death before there can be resurrection and new life. Death to self, death to selfish desire. Yes to whatever cup the Father has given me. Nevertheless, not my will but thine. I am so thankful that in running also, this week is not all there is.

In our society we tend to celebrate our holidays so much in advance that when the actual day comes we are sick of them. But in reality, today is the first day of the Easter season not its conclusion. Let me encourage you to celebrate the resurrection. He is not dead! He lives! This is not all there is! Let today be a fresh beginning for you. Could there be a better way to celebrate than going for a run?

 

Weekly Mileage

Mon                             off

Tues (speed)               4

Wed                            off

Thurs                           10

Fri                                off

Sat                               off

Sun                              6

total                            20

Spiritual Warfare

My memories of certain ultras have specific scriptures indelibly marked on them. As I began my first 100-mile trail race, Joshua 1:9 kept going through my mind: “Be strong and courageous. Do not be terrified; do not be discouraged, for the Lord your God will be with you wherever you go.” The start of any long ultra is daunting. But that verse gave me comfort and I help on to it the entire race. As I prepared to run the Leadville 100, I memorized Psalm 121: “I lift up my eyes to the hills. Where does my help come from? My help comes from the Lord, the Maker of heaven and earth.” The “lifting my eyes to the hills” part seemed particularly fitting as you stare down Mt Hope (12,600 ft. elevation crossing) from the starting line. The Psalm had soaked into me so deeply that I recited it to my pacer even at the 80-mile mark. You should read the entire Psalm; it is tailor-made for the out-and-back Leadville course.

These scriptures are so important during races because sometimes it really does feel like you are in the middle of a fight. Can running be spiritual warfare? I think so. This is mainly because of the deep prayer that can happen, combined with the emotional stripping down that always accompanies an ultra. I am confident that the spiritual experiences I have had are not just do to dehydration and fatigue. As I wrestle with the course and my own body, sometimes I have felt the presence of God in such a powerful way that the hair on the back of my neck stood up and chills ran up and down my spine.

Some races are more of a fight than others. Perhaps the biggest fight I ever had with ultras was in 2013, just getting to the Nueces 50. I kept telling myself that if I just got on the plane, I could relax. The race started at 6am on a Saturday. Since the Friday before was our last day before Spring Break, I felt obligated to convene my classes. I was scrambling all day trying to take care of university business. I didn’t get a chance to eat lunch, but I bought a sandwich to eat on the connecting flight to Atlanta. I let my last class of the day go early and sped directly to the airport. By mid-afternoon, I was waiting for the plane with my legs elevated on my suitcase and reminding myself to settle down and relax.

Something did not feel quite right as we climbed to cruising altitude. It was subtle, but the plane was yawing back and forth. It didn’t seem to get better even after thirty minutes. When I am not sure if an unusual noise or movement on a flight is serious or not, I always watch the attendants. They were working their way down the aisle serving drinks, but they looked pale and kept giving each other raised eyebrow looks. They continued to serve even though the pilot announced on the intercom that one of our engines was down to half power and that we were going to have to turn around and make an emergency landing in Pittsburgh.

I cannot ever remember this happening to me before. When we came in for the landing, we could see all of the emergency vehicles waiting for us on the runway with lights flashing. But the landing was uneventful. Safe. They taxied us to an unoccupied gate area and unloaded everyone. I was near the read of the plane and was therefore near the rear of the queue for re-routing. We waited in line for more than an hour. By the time I reached the desk, the best they could do for me was to re-route through Detroit and arrive in San Antonio at midnight. But by the time I reached my new gate, the flight to Detroit had been delayed by an hour. There was no way I was going to make the connection. I rushed back to the original re-routing desk and waited for the final two people to receive their boarding passes. The attendant admitted that if I got on the flight, there was no way I could make the connection. She apologized and said there was no way that I was going to fly to San Antonio tonight. They would be happy to book me on a flight for the next day.

At this point I was seriously considering just calling my wife and asking her to drive to Pittsburgh and take me home. Please check again, I asked, there must be some way. Nothing. Could they get me to Dallas tonight? Surely if I could get to Dallas, I could find a flight to San Antonio. Nothing. Austin? She checked. Yes, they could get me to Austin, but no further. But if I was going to Austin tonight, I had to get on board a flight to Atlanta which was boarding immediately. She didn’t even bother printing a boarding pass. Just go. Hurry.

On the way to the gate I called my wife. If I can get to Austin, could I rent a car? How far is Austin from the race? She was scrambling and I was trying to figure this out. When I got to the gate, the doors were already supposed to be closed and the flight full. But because it was so full, the airline was requiring passengers to check carry-on bags which could not fit under the seat. One passenger on the gangway got so irate that he started making a scene. The police came and they pulled him from the plane. It bought enough time for my wife to call me back. Yes, the rental agency is open until 1am. According to mapquest, it is four hours drive from the Austin airport to the race start. I was scheduled to arrive in Austin after midnight. I might just make it. ‘Do you want the seat?’ the attendant asked. ‘Then you better go.’ This is absolutely crazy, I thought, and took the only empty seat.

In Atlanta I ate some airport food and then slept most of the flight to Austin. I had a moment of panic when we landed after 1am, until I realized that my watch was still on Eastern time. I was able to secure a rental car, but the cost of the one-way rental was so outrageous that I decided to try to talk Delta into changing my departure city to Austin so that I could return the car there. It was right around 1am when I pulled out of the airport following the hastily scribbled directions to the race start that my wife had given me. The Texas Hill Country is desolate, especially in the middle of the night. The only things that kept me awake were a bottle of water and candybar that I had purchased in the airport and bad Norteno music on the radio. I stopped along the side of the road about 3am for a pit stop and to try to wake up. It was colder than I had expected. You can hear a car coming a long distance away in so empty a place. Just keep driving, I willed them, pay no attention to the car with the door open along the side of the road. There are times when a person feels to vulnerable.

The race headquarters was at beautiful Camp Eagle, in the general vicinity of Rocksprings, Texas. It was eight miles of dirt road off the highway. I arrived a little after 4am. I walked around enough to find a bathroom with a sink and the general direction of the packet pick-up. I then crawled into the back seat of the rental car and set my alarm for thirty minutes. I don’t know if I fell completely asleep. It was in the mid-30s and felt surprisingly cold. I got up before the alarm went off and changed clothes in the car. I used a sink to mix my bottles of race nutrition powder and packed my drop bags. I thought I had allowed myself enough time for all the pre-race requirements, but five minutes before start I was strapping on the timing chip and hadn’t stretched. Runners’ nightmares are made of such things. This is absolutely crazy, I thought to myself as we took off into the darkness.

My race went about as well as one would expect considering the circumstances. I ran ok for maybe 10 miles, and then I settled into a gut-it-out pace to finish. There was never any doubt I would finish. There is no way I would go through all this and then drop out. I sped up at the end in order to have a finishing time under nine hours. This was about an hour slower than I had hoped and almost two hours slower than my personal best for 50 miles. I got this dumb cow award, which I will keep for a long time to remind myself of a) how stupid I was, and b) how God enabled me to overcome the most difficult of circumstances. It was definitely a spiritual victory.

 

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I will keep this dumb cow for a long time

This week I read Gene Luen Yang’s graphic novel “Boxers & Saints” and it has caused me to think about spiritual warfare. I don’t normally read graphic novels, but I strongly recommend it. It is the story of the Boxer Rebellion in China, first from the perspective of a Chinese Boxer, and then from the perspective of a Chinese Christian. I am actually going to use this in class next fall. The comic book format allows Yang to engage the spiritual dimension in a way that standard text cannot. It is deeply Christian. And from the moment I began reading the “Saints” volume, I got chills; one knows that the Christian protagonist is going to be martyred. Just like Christ on the cross, and like Joan of Arc, the hero of Yang’s Chinese Christian girl, victory paradoxically comes only through suffering and death.

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At this stage of my training journey, suffering comes pretty easily. I look forward to the day when I can run and it does not feel so horrible. Every time. Every step. Maybe a few more weeks? Until then, all I can do is to soldier on. And fight. And pray. Lord, please have mercy on all of those who are truly in pain and are suffering. Lord have mercy. Christ have mercy. And thank you for being so gracious to me with the gift of health and all of your other bounteous blessings. “Your praise shall continuously be on my lips.”

Mileage:

Monday                                          6

Tuesday                                          6

Wednesday                                    6

Thursday                                        8

Friday     (some speed)                4

Saturday                                        8

Palm Sunday                                10

Total                                               48

 

 

 

Family

Family

I started racing ultras because of unusual family circumstances. For more than ten years my younger sister suffered from a horrific degenerative neurological condition known as Huntington’s Disease. In 2008 my brother-in-law invited me to participate in a two day 150-mile charity bicycle ride in the Colorado Mountains to raise money and to honor her. I knew that it was important to participate, even though I knew nothing about bicycles and had never ridden a real one. I grew up miles away from the nearest paved road, and we didn’t have bikes on the farm. My brother-in-law rented an expensive bike for me and helped me buy basic equipment. It was a large event and he was riding with some friends. When I showed up the morning of the start, they all looked at me with alarm. Not knowing what I was doing, I had my helmet on backwards and my gloves on the wrong hands. Not only that, when I came to my first stop, I was not used to the pedal baskets and I couldn’t get my feet out in time. I slowly toppled over like a cartoon figure. But I loved it, except for the descents. The serious bikers were absolutely amazing, shooting downhill at speeds I thought were only attainable by sportscars or small airplanes. Meanwhile I hung on for dear life, praying that I wouldn’t hit a bad patch of pavement and go down. The part I liked best was the long climb up to Royal Gorge Bridge near Canyon City, Colorado, the highest suspension bridge in the USA. I made it a personal challenge to ride the entire distance up while everybody else was walking their bikes. Still to this day my wife cannot believe I rode across the wooden planks of the bridge. I hate heights. But there was no way to go but forward, and trust me, I never looked at anything except the far end. By the end of the second day of riding, I was an endurance athlete again. It was the last, and perhaps the best gift my sister ever gave to me.

I first thought that I would become a triathlete. Isn’t that what all ex-runners do? In my opinion, there is only one problem with the triathlon: swimming. The closest we had to a swimming pool in the part of rural South Dakota where I was raised was a drainage ditch with waist high muddy water. As kids, we waded in it, but it wasn’t swimming. Occasionally the church youth group would travel the hour or so to the Holiday Inn indoor pool in Spearfish or Rapid City, but it wasn’t often enough to learn how to swim.

After returning from Colorado, I tried. I used the local health club pool and began a regimen of laps. But when your fasted stroke is lying on your back and waving your arms like you are making a snow angel, it just isn’t going to work. It was around this time that by chance I noticed Ultramarathon Man by Dean Karnazes in our local bookstore. I had known vaguely about ultra distances, but had the typical marathoners’ disdain for that kind of ‘racing.’ Nine or ten minute per mile pace? With aid stations every few miles? Aid stations where they serve grilled cheese sandwiches and bacon and chili? Are you serious? It didn’t sound like racing; it sounded like a day-long buffet with a little light jogging thrown in. Yet there was something about Dean Karnazes’ story which intrigued me and I started running again in the spring of 2008.

I knew that I needed good running shoes, so one afternoon I stopped by our local running store in Medina, Ohio. I told the woman who was helping me that I was going to run a 50-mile race in the summer. Not only did she not seem surprised, she was extremely knowledgeable and encouraging. By coincidence, it turns out that the very first person that I spoke to about ultras was Connie Gardner, the current USA record holder for the 24-hour race. By the time I left the store I not only had a pair of shoes, I also had a lot of great information. I had not even run an ultramarathon yet, and I was hooked.

Even though long distance running can be a solitary sport, one really cannot be successful alone. I am not talking here about crews and racing, although any ultrarunner will tell you that racing with a crew and racing without one are too completely different experiences– and one of them is a whole lot better than the other. What I mean is that the commitment of the mega-miles training, the exhaustion and pain sometimes when you are in between runs, and the time commitment of travel to races require either enormous spousal and family support, or a divorce. I am blessed to have a wife who is not only supportive, but enthusiastic. She is my crew chief, my greatest fan, and my butt-kicker (when I need it, mostly during the rough patches of races). A commitment to ultra racing warps most of life, from what is eaten to sleep patters to sex. I cannot express how appreciative I have been of her support and indulgence. My kids were older when I started doing this, so they weren’t impacted as much. Actually, due to the demands of parenting I don’t think ultras would have been possible when the kids were little.

After getting introduced to this wacky ultra community and crewing me for a few years, my wife decided to try one herself. So she set a goal of completing a 50k before she turned 50 years old. There was only one problem: she is a total non-athlete. She trained for almost a year, mostly walking with a little running thrown in. Gradually she was able to expand her distances. What she needed was a 50k race with no cutoffs. It all came together for her to participate in the Run Woodstock Freak 50k that was happening at the same time as the Hallucination 100 that I was racing. My middle son, 19 at the time, had also gotten the ultra bug and decided he wanted to race 100 miles, too. The course was perfect for us as a family. The course consists of c.15 mile loops. The 100 began in the afternoon and the 50k began the following morning. We were able to set up a tent at base camp (and, let me tell you, it is the craziest base camp ever–they really know how to do the hippie theme!). At the end of each loop we could get whatever stuff we needed and write each other encouraging notes. It was perhaps the most powerful ultra experience of my life. I finished first and was able to follow what was happening with my wife and son. She was really struggling during her last lap and called me at base camp. My son happened to be there right at that moment and told her over the phone “hang on Mom, I’m coming to get you.” Then he took off on his last lap faster than he did at the start. He caught her about half way through and sang to her as they pushed forward. I am not sure if she would have finished without him or he without her. As the sun was setting, they ran across the finish line together hand in hand. The emotions are still so powerful that I am trying not to cry while writing this.

 

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I thought about this experience a lot this last week while I was reading Tom Foreman’s My Year of Running Dangerously. The author is a CNN correspondent and former runner who returned to the life-giving hobby he loved because of his daughter’s suggestion that they run a marathon together. When he was describing their experience and success in finishing, I was overcome with emotion and appreciation for my own family. I put the book down and broke into tears. And then I texted each of my boys and told them how proud I was of them.

 

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As a long-distance runner, I can spend as many as 20 hours a week out running by myself. But I am not really alone. Every step is done through the support of my wife and my family. And I want to honor God and them by doing it with excellence. I hope my sister is proud.

 

Weekly Mileage

Monday                                   6

Tuesday                                   8

Wednesday                             6

Thursday                                 8

Friday                                      6

Saturday                                  off

4th Sunday in Lent                  12

Total                                        46

Sex and Running

Sex and Running

This is the tenth day that my wife has been away. Five more to go. She is the Intercultural Program Director at the high school where she teaches and is leading a group of students to Spain. Actually she is on the Canary Islands where their sister school is located. This is her second trip to the Canaries and it looks absolutely amazing. I am trying hard not to be jealous. Yesterday they hiked at the top of an 11,000 ft volcano, and oh my, the pictures. (Wait. Isn’t the Transvulcania on the Canaries? Might be a great way to combine running and touring…)

I am so proud of her. She basically built the intercultural program and already they have sister schools in France, China, and Spain. She always has had a gift for languages, and picks them up as easily as most people pick up their dinner fork. What she is doing in her work enables her to combine three of her great passions: teaching, languages, and travel. (Food, too, I should add.) Ever since we have been together we have enjoyed adventuring to new places. We have lived overseas and travel to Europe almost every year. This summer we will be there for over 6 weeks. We have been so blessed to share this love.

It is not nearly as much fun for us to travel alone, though. Every time I am someplace cool but by myself (like Bruges, Belgium last summer–very cool, by the way), I spend a lot of time thinking: “I’ve got to bring my wife here! She would love this!” When we are apart I certainly miss the companionship. But I also miss the sex. I hope this gives encouragement to some young married couple somewhere: even after 35 years of marriage you can still have sex VERY regularly.  So much so, that 15 days apart begins to feel like a very long time indeed. Thank God for running.

Among the many wondrous things that running does is that it is a healthy sex substitute. For me at least, it makes life apart manageable. Of course, there is a reverse side to this. When my mileage gets really high, 110, 120, 130 miles a week, then pretty much everything is left out on the roads. And my wife gets a little kranky. But when we are apart, the hormonal changes running brings are greatly appreciated. The longer she is away, the more miles I run.

 

This is not the only positive connection between running and sex. Once the daily workouts get over an hour, the weight that I gained when not running starts gradually to melt away. And I can indeed put on the weight. (How did that happen?! I could eat anything and not gain an ounce when I was young!) My natural non-working-out-weight used to be about 145 lbs. Now it is closer to 155. And that is not so great when one is 5’5″. I think I carry it pretty well, but still. Yuck. My shoulders bulk up, my chest barrels out, and a little round belly begins to appear. My clothes start to get uncomfortable. Just three years ago when I was doing ultras I weighed about 30 lbs. less than I do now. Now I have two reasons to get out there and run.

One might think that racing an ultramarathon would be a killer for your sex life. Au contraire, mon cherie, as my wife found out to our surprise. Heavy weekly mileage may dampen one’s desire, but often after running a 100 mile race I am ready to enter a different kind of competition. The first time this happened, I approached the situation with way more (let’s call it) enthusiasm than my wife thought possible. Just two hours earlier I looked like a zombie on a bad hair day. Perhaps it is a kind of celebration of survival, like you have just avoided being shot by a firing squad and want to prove that you are still alive. I don’t know. But try it and you’ll be amazed. Just remember to shower first.

This week I finished Ruth Padel’s 52 Ways of Looking at a Poem: A Poem for Every Week of the Year. Good poetry deals with all of the big things in life, and that of course includes sex. Reading this book was like experiencing a good seminar on poetry. I learned a lot about the technical side of modern poetry. It greatly expanded my limited understanding of poetic rhythm and exposed me to a universe I never knew existed: consonant echoes, internal rhymes, soft vowels, and enjambment (and more). I recommend it highly, although be aware that it is really 1 way of looking at 52 poems and that outside of some biographical information on the poets themselves, the emphasis throughout is on sound and rhythm, not interpretation.

Sex was woven throughout the many poems, but in a way that made me sad. When female poets wrote about sex it seemed always to be shadowed by loss. It was something that was gone, just like their absent men. The only poem in the entire collection that seemed to celebrate any kind of mutual joy/pleasure in sex was Don Paterson’s Imperial. And the title reminds us that it was not as mutual as some of the poem’s lines may lead us to think.

 

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Reading these exceptional poems made me grateful for good Christian sex. There is a joy, celebration, and play that perhaps can only happen in the context of a lifelong commitment to monogamy combined with Christian understandings of the body and of the divine createdness of sex. Like so many other things in our postmodern culture, it turns out that “freedom” (sex without limits) is actually bondage, and true freedom only arises when we live within God-given boundaries.

There are limits for sex even within the context of Christian marriage, however. During a course I taught last semester on the history and theology of marriage, when I asked my students about what these limits might be, they had nothing to offer beyond our basic societal commitment to consent. That is a great place to begin, but that isn’t the whole story. As one example, I Corinthians 7 talks about not depriving one another except by mutual consent and for a time so that you may devote yourself to prayer. In our hyper-sexualized society (even within the church), I don’t think the “depriving one another…for a time” is the issue. Instead, we should not become so addicted to sex that we can’t (by mutual consent) refrain for a time, for prayer, or because your wife is away. On the Canary Islands. This is an important boundary. The students heard it and understood. And now the teacher has to live it. Which makes me think. Perhaps it would be a good idea if I went out for a run. A long one.

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My Christian Marriage class

Weekly Mileage

Mon                                                    6

Tues                                                    6

Wed                                                    6

Thurs                                                  8

Fri                                                        6

Sat                                                        8

4th Sunday of Lent                        10

Total                                                    50

 

Old Shoes, Old Body

Old Shoes, Old Body

I am throwing away my running shoes today. I told myself that I could toss them after I had logged forty-mile weeks two times in a row, and I did it today. It is certainly time. I am easy on shoes, but they are old and battered. As a typical runner, I have a spreadsheet in which I record all my runs and important other tidbits, such as shoe purchases. I checked it to be sure: I bought these shoes on July 24, 2014. Asics Gel Nimbus, my go-to training shoes. I ran over 800 miles in the three months following their purchase, and then basically quit after two failed races. I have run very little in the interim. Even though they are coming up to three years old, my shoes have less than 1400 miles on them. This is a case where it is not the mileage, it is the years. It’s time to move on. Good riddance.

 

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these shoes have served me well

 

My shoes are old, and my body is, too. And that is part of what has gotten me into my current predicament. On the inside I don’t feel any different than I did when I was in my 30s. Sometimes long distance runners can feel like they are invincible. Toughness is a virtue. Push on through the pain, we say. Relentless Forward Progress. Running is a wondrous sport in that a person can compete (and I mean compete) when one is way past prime. But an older body has limits, and in retrospect, I realize that I hit them hard in 2013. I had planned a big racing year. I had just turned 50, and in USA Track and Field this represents a whole new category for competition: Veteran. Also, I had learned about a 4 race 100-mile trail series called the Midwest Grand Slam that was right in my backyard, and I thought I might be able to win it. Earlier in the spring I had run the 50 mile trail national championships and the 100k road national championships. What’s an extra 4 100-mile trail races over the summer? More than I should have taken on, as it turns out.

The hardest physical thing I have ever done in my life was the first two races of the Midwest Grand Slam. The Kettle Moraine 100 and the Mohican 100 were two Saturday races in June with only one weekend in between. Less than two weeks to recover from one 100-mile trail race to the next. In addition, the Kettle Moraine was the first 100-mile race that I did without a crew. Beautiful course, but it was brutal on me, as was the drive back home alone to Ohio from Wisconsin the same day I finished the race. I had not run particularly well, and there were lots of people ahead of me on the leaderboard.

But the second race was in home territory. I had run the Mohican 100 in 2010 as my first 100-mile race, and I had run the 50-mile version as my first real ultra in 2009. I was familiar with almost every part of the 4-loop course. This is what made the difference. Out-of-staters expect Ohio to be flat cornfields. Maybe that is what all of the faster runners ahead of me were thinking. But Mohican State Park, and my part of Northeastern Ohio, is a beautiful up-and-down. We have no mountains, but the landscape is continuously rolling. It is more beautiful than non-Ohioans can imagine. To be honest, this is how I won the 2013 Midwest Grand Slam: most of the faster runners dropped out at Mohican because they had not expected the terrain.

 

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I am the short guy in the far right

 

My wife and I are transplants to Ohio who have fallen in love with the landscape. I train in an idyllic countryside dotted with small farms (and wealthy enclaves), rolling hills, and forests. It is pretty no matter what the season. And we have four distinct seasons here, sometimes all in one day. Even though it is about Japan, reading Makoto Fujimura’s Silence and Beauty made me think about northeastern Ohio. I had first heard of Endo’s novel Silence through reading a review of Fujimura’s book, and it made sense to read both of them before seeing the Scorcese film. As a Christian, an artist, and a Japanese-American, it is no surprise that Silence has been so meaningful for him. Fujimura of course recognizes the importance of aesthetics in Japanese culture, and especially the importance of landscape. But he makes an important claim beyond this: in Japanese culture beauty is silence, and silence is beauty. In part this is because silence embraces ambiguity and mystery.

 

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I was pleased to see that Fujimura included a discussion of my favorite Japanese painting, Shorin-zu byobu (Pine Trees) by Hasegawa Tohaku (d.1610). It is silence (and beauty) manifest in ink. Ambiguity and mystery, and yet fullness and presence. It was so much like my Saturday morning run. After a spring-like February, March has been winter again here. Several inches of snow fell last week, but by Saturday the temperatures had begun to climb a little. In Ohio this produces the most magical snow-fog. There was little traffic on the roads throughout my ten mile run, and the fog muffled what sound there was. I couldn’t see far into the forest alongside the road. Everything was shrouded in ambiguity and mystery. Just a lone runner, pushing through the mist. It was like I was inside Pine Trees.

 

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Shorin-zu byobu (Pine Trees)

 

It seems to me that silence is more than the absence of sound. In some way silence is not like evil (the absence of good), or cold (the absence of heat) or darkness (the absence of light). Silence is more than a negation. Somehow silence is pregnant, or at least can be. Like the expectant pause before a note, it is a genuine part of the music. Perhaps this is because the very first thing in the cosmos was sound, when God spoke the worlds into existence. Maybe the universe still carries some imprint of that first silence which opened up into everything. There is mystery and ambiguity here which I can only reach toward but can’t grasp fully. But I would agree with Fujimura: silence is beauty, and full of the presence of God.

 

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Ohio late spring fog

 

Perhaps it would be good to incorporate more ambiguity into my runs. Perhaps I should silence all my plans and spreadsheets and listen more to my body. Perhaps that would have stopped me from grinding to a halt in my running, like I did after all that racing in 2013. I can imagine something beautiful about just taking off for the day in running gear, across some beautiful landscape with no plans for where I would go or for how long. It sounds wonderful… but then my long-distance runner superego kicks in.

Next week I am going to run 50 miles. At least 50 miles. Don’t be a wimp. Lots of people with bodies a lot older than yours do this. How else are you going to get into shape?

Ok. Ambiguity later, precision discipline now. At least I still will have the silence of the run and the beauty of the Ohio landscape as companions. And the fullness of the presence of God in both. Soli deo gloria.

Monday                                               4

Tuesday                                               3

Wednesday                                         3

Thursday                                             8

Friday                                                   4

Saturday                                              10

Third Sunday of Lent                       8

Total                                                     40

Spiritual Direction

Spiritual Direction

Although I have been interested for several years, for the first time in my life I am under spiritual direction. In my low-church evangelical world this practice is almost completely absent and I had a difficult time finding someone. Even my Roman Catholic friends weren’t able to recommend a suitable director, although they lauded my interest. Last December I was finally able to make a connection, thanks to a reference from a colleague who is also an Anglican priest.

My Spiritual Director (“my” doesn’t sound right– too possessive) is an Episcopal priest who serves primarily as a psychological counsellor. He offers spiritual direction for clergy, gratis. I’m appreciative. He is a warm bear-hug of a man and radiates joy. His eyes sparkle and he has a rich laugh. He is spiritually intuitive and seems strongly influenced by Eastern Orthodox mysticism. A print of Rembrandt’s Return of the Prodigal decorates his office and continuously communicates a central message of love and acceptance. We have read many of the same authors and share an interest in spiritual disciplines and practices. I think he is a wonderful person and I trust his insights already.

We meet once per month for about an hour. Mostly it seems like talk therapy, except focused on my spiritual practices. He asks questions and I describe and describe, followed by his comment. We pray together. He has been focusing a lot on the Christian virtue of joy and that is a good thing. He recognizes that I tend to take myself too seriously and strive, push, always competing against my imagined best self. He wants me to be more open to experiencing the wonders that God has for me each day.

We began our meeting this week discussing Lent. I told him about the kinds of fasting that I am doing (pretty traditional stuff) and also about taking on a practice: I have started to run again. I hadn’t meant to talk about running. I immediately felt the need to justify this as a spiritual practice and not just an exercise routine. The first descriptors that came to mind were ‘open’ and ‘silence.’

I am pretty insistent about not running with music. This is partly for safety. I spend most of my time running on the roads, and cars are an ever present danger. I have become a connoisseur of road noise. I have learned to tell what kind of a vehicle it is, how far away, and how fast it is moving from the sound alone. My hearing is never sharper than when I am running.

But it is not only physical. There is something about running that heightens my spiritual hearing. Not every workout. When I am pushing pace or even doing a threshold run, I don’t think about much except running. But when I run without regard to speed, simply according to whatever my body wants to do that day, I experience a special kind of openness to God. When people ask me what I think about on these runs, I always answer: everything and nothing. I simply let my mind go and it wanders back and forth, up and down. I pray. And I listen. Often thoughts just come. Ideas, convictions, spiritual direction. Things get figured out. I am always healthier mentally and spiritually when I am running.

I think it is because of running that I have become addicted to silence. My enjoyment of silence has spilled over from running to driving (I rarely listen to anything on the road–it’s another important time of spiritual reflection for me), and even chunks of time at home, when appropriate. But how can it be silence when it seems so full of the presence of God?

I have recently finished reading Shusako Endo’s Silence. It pains me to admit that I had not even heard of the book before I read about Scorcese’s new movie. Silence is a deeply Christian novel that explores that porous membrane between faith and doubt. It is about betrayal and apostasy in the context of Christian missions during the great persecution under the Tokugawa Shogunate. It is about Christians who fail to be heroic martyrs and have to live with their weakness. It is about the silence of God. But as I was reading, I was astonished by the opposite– by the continued presence of God, manifest through suffering. A God not of glory, but of the Cross. The Word this God speaks is so powerful and I can hear it all the way from early modern Japan.

 

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Unlike Endo’s main character, Father Rodrigues, I can’t remember ever suffering under the silence of God, ever enduring a “dark night of the soul.” Perhaps it is because I have never had to suffer much at all. I wonder if my running might be a voluntary embracing of silence and suffering, my own sort of asceticism, my own sort of death-to-self. I am sure that my spiritual director would laugh at this line of thinking and say, “Now you are taking yourself too seriously again.” My son, my son, why are you striving? Embrace the wonder. Exult in the joy of the presence of God that you find in silence and in running. And he would be absolutely right. I think spiritual direction is going to be really helpful.

Monday                       4

Tuesday                       3

Wednesday                 8

Thursday                     6

Friday                          6 (treadmill in Chicago hotel)

Saturday                      5 (treadmill in Chicago hotel)

Sunday                        8

 

total                            40

A Journey Begins

A Journey Begins

I’m fully clothed, wearing a sweater even, in bed with the blankets pulled over my head. I’m cold on the inside. I’m not feeling particularly well. And I’m a bit down, to be honest. I blame it on the first half-week of Lent. And I blame it on the weather. After a particularly warm February, we in northeastern Ohio have been blasted with a few days of real Winter, early March cold. I’m trying to psych myself up enough to get my workout in for the day. It’s only four miles. That’s part of the problem. It shouldn’t be this difficult. It doesn’t help that the sweater I’m wearing is from completing the Leadville 100. I hate being out of shape.

Since it’s pitch-dark already and my workout is short, I’m going to stay in the neighborhood. We live exactly at the middle of a half-mile long street. Each lap I have to face the 13-degree wind chill only half the time, and then I turn my back to it. Up and down, back and forth. It’s not that hard. I can do this. I am not even going to wear a watch. No pace pressure.

So I put on a turtle neck, a white cotton long sleeve tee on top and then my reflector vest. The shirt is from the Boston Marathon, circa 1998 or 1999. That was when I was trying (and failing) to make an Olympic Marathon Trials cut-off time. When you are a runner, you tend to wear your memories. I got my gloves around the same time. Swag from some forgotten race. My buff came much later, when I was doing ultras. It is my constant companion on cold runs. Shorts, tights, socks. Beat up, way-past-expiration Asics shoes. I kiss my wife and grumble, put my face into the wind, and go.

Back. Thank God for hot water. Seriously. The cold burned my lungs and I cough a lot. This all seems so pathetic. I am starting from scratch and it’s a bitch. How can it be that only a couple of years ago I was running multiple ultras each year?  But I know that the key is to be faithful, faithful today. Somehow, if I do today what God has called me to do, it is enough. Even four miles is enough, today. Somehow the end is fully present in the now, as long as you are faithful. This is one of the lessons about the Christian life that running has taught me.

Other than marriage, I have learned more about spirituality through long-distance running than through anything else in my life. Somehow the intensely corporal activity of running has merged with my interior life in ways that I never could have predicted. It is not only the meditative physical motion. I am addicted to the silence. Running opens me to the wider material and to the spiritual world. I am able to hear the still, small voice more clearly. And the really long runs, especially the long ultras like a 100-mile trail or a 24-hour road race, strip me down to the core. There is an entire life’s journey in each one of those races. I am never the same person at the end as I was at the beginning.

I have always loved epic journeys of all kinds. When I was a child in the back seat of our car on vacation, I would look out toward the horizon and imagine just walking across the landscape. I am a born pilgrim. My literary heroes, like Frodo Baggins, are pilgrims, too. I love reading travel literature. This week I am reading Andrew Wilson’s Here I Walk (what a great title, why hasn’t anyone thought of this before). It is the account of his and his wife Sarah’s 1000-mile journey from Erfurt, Germany to Rome. They follow (as much as possible) the footsteps of a pre-Reformation Martin Luther’s 1510 journey as a representative of the Observant Augustinians. Of course, my enjoyment of this book has a lot to do with the fact that as a historian I work a lot with Luther, but it’s a great read for anyone. Their journey is so enjoyable for me, at least in part, because they journey through Church history as well as through the landscape. They are sensitive to how architecture has affected faith, and continues to do so, whether it is a real life church lean-to charnel house (I didn’t know any of these even remained! One can see bones stacked like cordwood through the locked grate!) or soul-crushing urban sprawl (yes, this exists in Europe, too). Most powerful to me are reading about providential encounters with amazing and interesting people. When one goes on any epic journey, be it an ultra or a pilgrimage walk, one realizes how dependent you are on the grace and generosity of others. Epic journeys can shrink denominational differences and bind people together in amazing ways. These Lutheran scholars were absolutely right to consider this Protestant pilgrimage to be an ecumenical endeavor. It seems an appropriate read for the first week Lent.

 

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And Lent also seems an appropriate time to begin running again, as difficult as it is. I just have to keep being faithful, day by day. It will be part of my Lenten discipline. Remember: the end is fully present in the now. But what end? That is a good question. I do have hopes and dreams. “Don’t lose your grip on the dreams of the past, you must fight just to keep them alive.” Cliché, but a good motto for my journey right now. I invite you to follow along and see where it goes.

 

Running Log

Ash Wednesday 2017          3

Thursday                                 6

Friday                                       4

Saturday                                  8

First Sunday of Lent            6

Total                                       27