26 08 2010

Semper fidelis

A simple phrase that through the centuries has been engraved on coats of arms, carved into doorways of old Scottish homes, posted at the entrance of townships, and stuck on the back of F-150s. Always faithful.

I have found faithfulness on my heart lately and what it really means to be faithful. What does that really look like? How can one be “always faithful”?

Several stories come to mind.

On a cool April evening I stand pacing around the kitchen. Trying desperately to do something (I am at this point unsure what that is). The dishes are washed, the girls are in bed, the living room is clean. My wife is talking about something but I confess I am not listening. I am in a perpetual state of restlessness every task I complete brings me no closer to peace. She is winding her evening down getting ready for bed. While I walk through our bedroom trying to remember why I came in there in the first place. I notice my running shoes lying in a corner exactly where I left them almost a week ago when I last used them. I turn to my spouse and say “I’m going running.”

“Now… ok…”

I lace up my shoes and head out into the cool night air. I have grown quite fond of my tattered old shoes. They have stains of sweat and blood around the heel. The tread is worn. They are permanently dirty and several shades darker than the original quite ugly color. They are also the shoes I wore in my first 5k, the first time I ran 10 miles, my first marathon, my first trail race. They probably have close to 400 miles logged on them, and yet every time I reach for them they prove ready for my next round of shenanigans. They sit idly waiting for me to need them, only to reply “I’m right here”.

I was recently in a grocery store with Emri. We were picking up a few things, goofing off and just generally enjoying our trip out of the house. Emri was preoccupying herself with a box of cereal that featured some cartoon character, So much so that when I stepped behind the cart she didn’t see me move. I was looking at the frozen vegetables when she looked up to realize her father had left her all alone in the store and gone home
(In reality I was behind her and within arms reach, but she couldn’t turn far enough around in her seat to see that). Being the spirited two year old that she is, she digressed into a state of panic so quickly I didn’t have time to see it coming. I stepped into her field of vision, lifted her from the cart, and held her for a few moments. The whole time softly reassuring her “If you need me, I’m here. I’m never going to leave you alone… I’m right here.”

I frequently feel a little to strong. I lift something without help just because I know I can. I run, workout, and put in a long day at work, just there’s no confusion that I am able. This is doubly true when it comes to emotion. I don’t cry or sit around and be sad. I laugh. I move on. I take on stress. I over commit to myself and others. I think about work, money, time, my kids, my wife, our home, dinner, laundry… You get the idea. I quickly turn away from prayer and from scripture. When things get hard I roll up my sleeves and politely ask God to move over because I have work to do. I am usually able to keep up a remarkable level of discomfort for a remarkable amount of time (I think it’s my Irish side). However, all things come to an end, and so far no matter how far I have run, no matter how preoccupied I have been. God has always been there to say, “I’m right here… I’m Always Faithful…”



25 08 2010

My daughter Anna walked into the room pensively.
“Dad… What if zombies were real?”

“Well, sweetheart, they aren’t. They are made up for games and movies, just like monsters or unicorns.”

“I know, I know, but what if?”

“Well… IF… then I wouldn’t want to see one.”

“What if one tried to get us?”

At this point I assume that Anna has been laying awake at night fearful of evil beings going bump in the night. This is all, of course, my fault for not being strict enough on her exposure to media and now I have permanently scarred her fragile psyche. I begin a speech about how we are safe, and the difference in reality and fantasy. She quickly interrupts uninterested in my boring rational speak.

“I bet you’d shoot him with one of your guns.”

“You think so?”

“Yeah, unless he was to close. Then you might have to stab him with a knife.”

“I see, well I’m glad that will never happen.”

“Yeah, and you should try to do it outside because there would be a lot of blood to clean up.”

Content with her conclusion she left the room. I have spent the day trying to pinpoint exactly when I irrevocably warped my child and if it’s too late to save the other two.

Stagnation point

11 08 2010

“Would you like to buy some stride gum for only 99 cents?” He said looking down at the counter with just a hint of shame in his eyes.

“No thanks, just the drink.” I replied as I glanced over his shoulder to see his manager perched not far behind him, clearly demanding he say this to each customer.

“Ok then, 2.70”

I hand him the money, take my monster, and go on my merry way. I am not sure why, but I am unable to shake this particular retail encounter. I spent a great deal of time thinking about it.

After a series of conversations with people who mean a great deal to me this has been my conclusion.

In fluid dynamics a “stagnation point” is a point when a fluid’s velocity is brought to absolute zero. In other words it stops moving. This has an interesting side effect. Pressure is the highest at the stagnation point and presumably the stagnation point would have to be the strongest in order to withstand all that pressure.

The solution seems obvious. Keep moving. Don’t stagnate.

When human emotion comes into play things seem infinitely more complicated than they really are. We are fearful creatures and the idea of some big new move can be really scary. So scary that we are prepared to accept a great deal of misery because it seems easier. It seems easier to take the quick fix. After all what if I try, and fail. I’d rather stay at the dead-end job, never lace up the shoes, never raise my hand, never ask what I want to ask, I’ll take the safer way and endure the unhappiness until… I’m ready to… they ask me to… I have to…

After all it’s easier to just exist… to be stagnant… right…

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had the conversation:

Someone: Would you like some ______

Me: Oh no thanks… I really don’t need to eat that.

Someone: Like you need to worry about what you eat.

Me: I never worry about it… because I don’t eat that.

How many of us have heard Dave Ramsey express that sentiment about money.

When we refuse to stagnate we take that concern away. There is a paradox that the more time we spend proactive in a struggle. The less time we worry about it. The less time we need. The less strength we need. It gets the hardest, the most demanding, when we do nothing, when we stagnate.

I don’t have the time, enough strength, to do a budget, eat right, exercise, play with my children, look for a better job, be intentional with my wife, read the bible, and pray, but you know what… I don’t have the time or the strength not to.

Day 3 of the Rock Creek Stage Race

2 08 2010

I am sleepy. We ignore the alarm for the first few rounds. Finally, clumsily, I get up and start throwing things into a pile to expedite Sky checking out while I race…

Today is the day. The day I complete my quest, the day I become a real live trail runner, the day I leave the conquered course behind me (and head off to eat the worlds greatest pancakes). I will forever join the ranks as one of these elite few I have coveted as long as I knew of them… Granted that wasn’t very long.

We show up just in time to hear the “pep talk” by the head of “Wild Trails”. He proceeds to explain how difficult today will be, how technical the trail is, and how everyone should just take it easy at the start, the rain we got yesterday made for some slick rocks. I turn to Sky and laugh, “I wish we had hit snooze one more time and missed this speech”.

With no more time to waste, we begin. Everyone quickly falls into their established groups and we embark on our several hour journey. The first 6 miles of the course are a down and back. This gives me the ability to fully appreciate how fast the race leaders are. At about a mile and a half  in I saw something that startled me. The guy currently in 2nd place overall. This means he is at around 4.5 miles in with a commanding lead on todays race.  His name is Josh Wheeler and he is the local trail running legend. He is moving in such a fashion that I can’t help but expect to see a mountain lion round the corner hot on his tail. He scrambles across rocks zooming past me with an intense stoic expression of focus. By the way, if you ever want to feel really slow have someone pass you running 6 minute miles while  going up a hill you are going down on your hands and knees.

We all laugh that we just had our only chance to see him since he will be halfway home before we are finished. About half a mile later we see the next runner and the overall race leader. He is just warming up, talking to the people he passes, shouting encouragement, and laughing. What I didn’t know at the time is he was about to make up that lead and win two minutes ahead of the unattainable pace I just witnessed, but enough about those guys. They probably have their own blog.

I proceeded to run the next several miles in somewhat uninterrupted introspective silence. I spent a lot of time thinking about my life, myself, my kids, my wife, my friends,  and my future.

Right around the 12 mile mark I arrived at an aid station. When the trail opened up to the much welcome sight of water and heed (one of the worst tasting, but most balanced and effective sports drinks ever) I saw the backdrop of the aid tent which was provided by the Almighty. An awe-inspiring view I have seen twice before, though never quite like this, the lookout at Edward’s Point. This sobering view serves to remind anyone feeling strong during a trail run or hike that the earth beneath our feet was shaped by thousands of years of wind, water, blistering heat, and ice and will undoubtedly outlast even the most extreme of endurance athletes. I can’t help but feel humbled reflecting on the grandeur of the Creator. The next wave of thought and emotion is brought to a screeching halt by a cry from a few people in front of me…


I spring to attention, “What’s wrong… Are you…. OOOOOWWWW!!!”

I can’t seem to process what is going on. Slowly, the pain radiates up my leg and into my brain. It seems that all these runners have stirred up an angry nest of wasps or hornets or whichever one nests in the ground. several in my pack are stung. I have 2 stings just below my left knee. my blood is pumping very quickly which seems to make the pain cover far more of my leg than normal, but fortunately causes the pain to subside pretty quickly. I hope none of the other runners have allergies…

I proceed and soon encounter a long stretch of rock covered trail that was thoroughly drenched in yesterdays rain. I manage to cross a few hundred yards of slippery rock unscathed, just as I approach the ending of this stretch of rock. My foot plants firmly and just as I transfer all my weight to it… Smack!… I slip… fortunately my hip breaks my fall by planting firmly against the unyielding rock beneath me.

Alright… I’ve had about enough… I will be happy if I can just finish his race without any more scars to show for it. I surface from the trail at signal point and embark on the only section of the race so far that is on the road. Somehow… It feels like home. I round a corner, and it’s back to the trail. The last few miles are surprisingly uneventful, relatively flat, and pass fairly quickly. I emerge from a canopy of woods to see the finish line in the distance and Sky standing awkwardly waiting on me. We both look surprised to see each other when he breaks the silence to say “Go… Finish…” I cross the line and they announce my name and home town. The few people who are near by clap and slap me on the back. This race is officially over. I drink some heed and walk in a circle deliriously for a few moments when I kick off my shoes and say… “We should get to the car, because once I sit I am not sure I will be able to get back up.” Quick shower, short rest and I roll up to Aretha Frankenstein’s. The whole weekend has been to prepare for this. The waitress arrives, “I will have a fat stack of pancakes, a sausage egg and cheese biscuit, and a fat tire… for now, but stay close…”

Day 2 of the Rock Creek Stage Race

5 07 2010

My system has suffered an intense shock from a dangerous combination of going to bed at 8 o’clock Nashville time, getting up around 5:30 Nashville time, and, from my perspective, failing miserably on day one, I arrive at the starting line of the second day a little emotionally defeated.

Today is supposed to be the easiest day, only 18 miles and not much elevation change. My knees still throb from yesterday’s trail so we will see how today goes. I catch up with a few of my new friends before the start, informing them that they are insane and I will not be running with them today. They laugh and joke about how sore they are too… They are clearly lying.

I start the run today nice and easy. I keep a slow steady pace. I only hope I finish today. My pride has officially left the equation. I am not going to impress anyone this weekend lets just finish this thing. Today’s course is gentle rolling hills and fairly consistent double track running. I run with a different crowd today. A woman who is training for a 100 mile run in Texas and personal trainer who  just completed his first 100k (that’s 64+ miles for those of you keeping score at home) are among my new friends today. They are older than me and have clearly gotten over the need to prove themselves. They are just out to finish, and once again, they all know each other. Several runners vilify me for choosing this as my first trail race, for running trails in a pair of Nike Frees, and for running the uphills. “You aren’t on the road today man.” All this is done with much affection, as though I have proven to be crazy enough to be one of them.

I feel much better today. At each water station I opt to speed up just a tad. I am finding tattered shards of the dignity I lost yesterday. This is most encouraging to me.

I pick up the pace significantly for the last few miles when I enter some single track stretches of the trail. I fall in behind a woman I encountered earlier who has slowed considerably. I ask how she is to which she replies “great.” She is jogging and walking intermittently. She confesses that she is spent and that the heat is getting to her. I debate for only a fraction of a second and resolve I will finish with her. I do not make my plans known to my unwitting partner. We talk quite a bit while continuing our walk/run/walk pattern. We talk all about our lives outside the trails, we talk about races past and future, we talk about nothing. Before we know it there’s the finish line. We both breathe a heavy sigh of relief. She holds out her hand. I give her a five and say, “we made it”. I promptly realize she wanted to hold my hand and cross together. I feel like an idiot.

After we cross and hydrate I move  around the crowd cheering others on as they approach the finish. I feel a great swell of satisfaction with today’s race. I finished much stronger and even forgot all about my joints long enough to help a fellow runner.

Today was good. Only tomorrow remains.

Day 1 of the Rock Creek Stage Race

26 06 2010

My eyes are already open when I hear the alarm clock. Who could sleep at a time like this? I suit up, tightening my shoe laces and filling my camelbak with hotel tap water. On the way out the door I force down a clif bar and a banana. Sky and I begin the drive over to lookout mountain while the sun slowly illuminates the sleeping city around us. We drive for a while terribly confused by the interesting phrasing of the directions to the starting line. Eventually we find the small gravel drive that wreaks havoc on my poor camry. We wind down a long one way drive that eventually opens up to a small clearing covered by land cruisers, jeeps, and subarus all of which seem to be adorned with bike racks, ironman logos, or just the word “ULTRA.” We have arrived.

This race feels different. There is an air about the starting line that this is more like a family reunion. Not of blood, but a secret family of endurance athletes who travel the country escaping their busy normal lives to retreat to trails with their “race family.” All around me people are greeting each other by name catching up since the last race.

The race begins. The first mile or so is crowded enough people are going pretty slow. There are a handful of guys out to win. Everyone else is just warming up and only cares that they finish. Within the first 20 minutes the trail crosses a ridge. The view is breathtaking or maybe the 800 foot hill I just ran was breathtaking, either way. Multiple people slow down and look. The morning fog is still cool and low in the sky. Atop lookout mountain we are perched a few hundred feet above a canopy of unbroken clouds covering the city below like a blanket. We can see for miles through virgin morning sky with signal mountain being the only land visible in any direction. It is still early and this view only serves to enhance the quiet calm all around us. I snap out of it and remind myself I still have 20 miles of this to go.  People quickly fall in with the people running their pace. I fall in with a small group who are catching up with one another sharing race stories and advice with one another. I quickly conclude that this is one of those instances in life when it would be best for me to keep my mouth shut and my ears open. While listening I learn lots of cool lingo trail runners use.

single track running – a “normal” trail where passing is difficult or completely impossible, single file, the edges of the trail are enforced by trees or cliffs

double track running – a trail where passing is possible, usually like a mountain bike trail.

roadies – someone who runs on the road or sidewalks, aka a wimp, aka me

Over the next several miles I hear several sentences that will remain in my memory for the rest of my life.

1. (upon revealing to the group that I was the only one in our circle who hadn’t done an ironman) “You should totally do one [an ironman] once just to get it out of your system.”

2. “An ironman is way easier than a 50 mile trail race because you get that big break in the middle when you just ride your bike.” (for the sake of clarification the “break” he was referring to is a 109 mile bike ride sandwiched between a 2.6 mile swim and a full marathon)

I, far to slowly, conclude I may be running a bit out of my league. I keep up with these guys until the halfway mark at a water station. They hold their pace. I do not. The past 11 miles have taken their toll on my poor roady body. The trails are causing me to engage networks of stabilizer muscles surrounding my knees, hips, and ankles that may have never been used in my entire life. Even while training on the trails at percy warner I have encountered nothing like this. My knees are begging me to stop. I manage to push forward at a slower pace for the next few miles when the pain in my left knee gets a little too severe to continue. Fortunately I have already passed the last checkpoint so my only option is to finish. I get stuck in a cycle of running until my grunts of pain get loud enough I am worried someone will hear me then I walk a while. I keep this up for most of the last 5 miles. I begin to despair. This is not me. This is not what I do. I don’t walk or complain, and I don’t fail.

People pass me. A lot of people. A young woman passes and I recognize her as one of my facebook running friends I have never actually met. I introduce myself and decide I can keep up with her and her running buddy for a while. We run together and at one point get several hundred yards off the trail only to find we are lost and have to backtrack (In my humble opinion it was totally worth it for the view of the waterfall we uncovered, but I am not sure my new friend Jenny would agree). About 1/2 mile from the finish the trail crosses a knee-deep stream. A few volunteers assure me I’m almost done and that the only safe way across is to just suck it up and wade though. I comply. The icy mountain water feels amazing on my achy legs I take my time crossing and really enjoy it. Just the refreshment I needed. I run the last stretch finishing day 1. I sit around snacking and drinking water while I wait on sky to arrive. He picks me up eager to hear about my day. I drop into the passenger seat of the car draw a deep breath and tell him “I may not finish this race.”

Coming soon… Day 2

Training wears me thin…

3 06 2010

Training for this race has proven to be a challenging undertaking. Not so much physically as mentally and timeologically (I want that to be a word so I am going to use it). I have found myself working as much as possible to save money for the 4 day excursion (and the 4 days of not working) as well as trying to squeeze in long runs 6 days a week in a desperate physical cram session for race day.

I have established a 13 mile “quick” route that starts and finishes at my house. I normally start these sessions running out the door hoping to make it back in time to shower and head to work. If on some magical occasion I have a short work day I try to make it over to Percy Warner Park and trail run for a while. Other days I run all around the greater Cool Springs/Franklin area .

Work presents a whole other set of logistical challenges.

I get up as early as I can without feeling sick, usually between 7 and 8. I head to the current job site and try to get as much damage done as possible by about 3.  I have set up a “vacation home” at sky’s house where I shower, shave, and eat a quick bite between day job and evening job. I leave sky’s, grab a smoothie and a shot of wheatgrass at my local Smoothie King. I make it to the restaurant by 5, fain enthusiasm about pasta for a few hours and get home around midnight. I go to sleep and start over.

The running everyday isn’t a big deal, but my children hold a crippling power over me which is embodied by asking the, seemingly innocent, question “Daddy, do you have to work again today?” When I inevitably answer, “yes” they offer a deep sigh and, I suspect at the prompting of their mother, say “thank you for working hard to take care of us.” This crushing blow is their finely honed one-two knockout punch which leaves me dazed and wishing there were five and one half hours more in each day so that these time constraints simply didn’t exist. However, having a mess load of kids provides me with an amazing support team of fans that don’t fully understand the idea that any undertaking, no matter how ridiculous, could be challenging for their seemingly superhuman father.

Sky is quite possibly the biggest supporter of me destroying my body to achieve the things I commit to do. I think on some primal level he is one of a precious few who understand me. He may never run a race with me but he knows in that moment finishing a task is the most important thing in my universe, and that is not something easily explained using something as trivial as words.

For the sheer sake of logistics Sky is the one coming with me to Chattanooga (After all the transport and accommodation of 2 adults and 3 children is much more complicated than that of two adults who will gladly accept unsatisfactory living conditions in exchange for reduced cost). He will be my support team as well as the guy who transports the car from the start to the finish line. Given that we have an established history of being alone together, binge drinking, and making foolish decisions this is a big step for us. And, I think, a positive one. We have both grown up a tad, and being hung over won’t exactly be an option given the race at hand. All I know is that as race day draws nearer all I can do is dream of how delicious those pancakes from Aretha Frankenstein’s will be (which by the way are the best pancakes on the planet earth) when I do finish my race.