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.
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.
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.”
Friday (some speed) 4
Palm Sunday 10