2017: The Year I Kept On Running

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There was a moment last May when I stopped a quarter mile short of finishing a marathon.  I am tempted to call it a bad decision but it was not any sort of conscious decision that I made.  It just happened.  The cause was a cobblestone intersection which happened to be raised 6 inches from the road feeding into it.

I would venture a guess that most of you sometime in your lives have climbed 6 inches in elevation and I would also guess you didn’t even notice that you had.  But at the end of 26 miles of running, 6 inches may as well have been 5000 feet.  My calves tightened up, which lit off the pain sensors which shot up my spine to my brain with an urgent message, “We done.” (You read that right.  Pain sensors don’t use proper grammar.)

I did finish the race of course.  I stood there for a few seconds and stared at the finish line, realizing that it was kind of stupid to run 26 miles and not run the .2 to reach a finish line that would simultaneously qualify me for Boston, gain me a 7th place spot in one of our state’s more prestigious races and be a 5 minute personal best.

I sprinted to the finish line.

There were other moments this year when the going got just as tough.  Life’s hardships got too constant and too great.  The littlest of situational elevations stopped me short and made me want to quit.  These were not any large crises or shocking life events.  Those are quite bearable and even understandable.  Instead, there was just the daily drudge of living life in this cold, lonely world with people who just don’t seem to understand themselves or this God of love  who lavishes us with mercy.  Before you assume I am casting blame, know that I count myself as one of those.  So life gets to the point where even one little bump in the road can stop you short of the goal.

The most notable happened a month or so before that marathon.  There was one very dark day in late March when it all came crumbling down upon me.  The circumstances of that day are not too relevant or even appropriate to share.  But there was a day spent crying, screaming and shaking uncontrollably for hours on end.  All of that was followed by a brief moment, right around 6pm when suddenly I realized I was done being a pastor.

That was a great moment.  I stopped crying and started laughing because the whole thing was pretty ironic.  I stopped dwelling on the past and starting dreaming for the future.  In 10 minutes time I had recalled every “Help wanted” sign or ad I had seen and every conversation with very successful friends whose employers were looking for someone with my skill set.  I would make more money.  We could buy a house.  We could refresh our 401(K)’s.  We could actually have health insurance!  I would have colleagues.  I would have friends.  I would have career mentors and advisers but most of all, I would have the utter joy that comes from learning a new skill and a new way of life.  Gray skies were behind me.  Blue skies lay ahead.

As I said above, that lasted a good 10 minutes.  Sometime in minute 11, I remembered that moment on a playground in Coeur D’Alene, ID on July 21st 2004.  I was 19 years old and I had just completed a very fruitful and awesome day of ministry.  The day had closed out through an honest conversation with my pastor who in so many words told me, “You have the gifts and graces to do this for life and we need you.”  So I rode my bike out to that playground, climbed to the very top, saw a shooting star and told God, “Fine, you got me.  I’ll do this ministry thing.”

I also remembered another moment in a shack at a campground in mid October, 2007.  I was telling God that I wasn’t going to do ministry after all.  I didn’t want to do and besides, “I have no idea why you called me when there are so many other fitting people for the job.”

God replied, “Of course there are and I’ve called them too!  Don’t you worry about them.”  So I didn’t and my calling was refreshed.

Then I remembered another cold day in February, 2012 when I got a call from a now close friend and Assistant District Superintendent who said there was a small church in a small town who for some reason or other was impressed by my resume.  That same month I was offered a full time management position at the homeless shelter where I had worked.  I still miss that wonderful rescue mission and leaving it was hard.  But my wife and I reasoned that for many, many years I had planned on pasturing a church.  It was only logical that at one point a church was going to call me and only reasonable that I should say, “yes.”  So we did and left that wonderful homeless shelter behind to this new life of pastoral ministry.

I took me about 60 seconds to recall all that and what followed was a realization that the race wasn’t over and it would be stupid to stop now.

So I kept running.

And the rest of the year is now history.  But God has been good and gracious and all the things we claim this God is.  The outpouring of blessing that followed as I have run is downright amazing.

So into 2018 I run.

 

A Pastor’s Ode to Running

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In what follows I try to tell my story of being a runner as briefly as possible.  I would welcome you to read it, but as I wrote it I found I was writing more for myself than for you, that  more than anything I just wanted these words down somewhere visible and somewhat permanent.  So I hope you enjoy but will not be offended if you don’t.

Shortly before my 16th birthday I got it in my head I wanted to go out for the Cross Country team at my small high school.  The first practice involved a 3 mile run around a park and I remember being overjoyed that I completed the 3 miles without stopping, so overjoyed I called my dad to brag about it, which is really ironic today.

It didn’t even occur to my parents or me to buy a decent pair of running shoes, so I took my $10 pair from Wal-Mart.  They barely met the minimum P.E. requirements for “exercise” shoes but they were what I had.  After a week of running in them I had a giant blister that stretched from the ball of my foot to the back.  Upon seeing the bright red patch of raw skin, my dad realized his grave error and took me to buy my first pair of legitimate running shoes.

My form was harder to fix.  It was tight and awkward.  At the time I equated “working hard” with moving as much of my body as possible.  During one race I was “working” so hard that my head bent over to my waist at every stride.  But I was passing people!  My coach told my dad, “I have no idea how he is running so fast with that form!”

My dad replied, “That just tells me that when we fix the form he is going to get even faster.”  How right he was.

I did okay in high school, worked hard at it, as hard as high school kids can work.  I had no natural talent, at least none that was visible beneath that awkward form.  I did have a strong desire to run faster and train harder.

Unfortunately I was told by a few teachers and several classmates that I would never run in college.  I was too slow and too annoying and just did not have what it takes.  I believed them because that was the state of my self esteem.  The local university coach at the time didn’t bother recruiting me.  He even told my dad he didn’t think I would make it.  Little did I know he was in a bit of a conflict with the administration for such attitude.

Without my knowing the administration changed the coach and hired a guy from the next university over, a wonderful and compassionate former thrower who brought one of the distance stars from his university to help with the Cross Country side of things.  Being new coaches, they didn’t have a conversation with me until Spring of that year when all of the scholarship decisions had all ready been decided.  I was convinced I wasn’t worthy of scholarship money anyway so I wasn’t put out or anything.  I wanted to just keep running.

A week later they mailed me the summer training program.  At my high school a “long” run was a half hour.  The pamphlet they sent wanted me to run an hour everyday and an hour and a half one day a week!  I remember laughing hysterically at it, certain I could never do that many miles.

I didn’t follow the plan perfectly but when August 1st hit and the season was imminent, I found my inner motivation and began doing the hour a day.  I woke up at 5:30am every morning and jogged until 6:30 so that I be to work by 7:30.  And found  the early morning runs not only doable but enjoyable.

3 weeks later I went to the training camp.  I was very talkative and very annoying, so the fast kids ran me into the ground.  I didn’t care.  It was a mutually enjoyable experience.  They were proud of themselves for dropping me after five minutes.  I was proud of myself that I kept up for a minute longer than yesterday!

Then we started racing and I actually didn’t finish last on the team.  I was able to hang with them and that was thrilling.  All summer I had pictured them running a mile ahead while I trotted behind.  I imagined their finishing times five whole minutes faster than mine.  It never happened that way.  The days they did beat me it was by seconds and most days I finished in front of at least 1 of them.

Then the truly bizarre happened.  The coaches found a little bit of scholarship money left over and one sunny afternoon in late September I  opened one of the most obscure but thrilling letters I have yet received.  It was a financial statement saying that I owed the school $2000 less dollars.  It had something to do with a checked box next to the words, “Athletic Scholarship.”

I literally cried.  This untalented, geeky, nerdy, lanky, weak and very annoying kid had just become a scholar-shipped college athlete.  I would later find out I was the first ever in my entire extended family.

I had been given a great and gracious gift and I did not want to squander it.  I ran even harder.  I added more and more miles to every run.  I pushed myself further and faster.  Eventually I got up early and did morning runs.  I hit the weight room a few times a week.  I logged longer runs and faster runs.  I completed work outs others would quit.  I cannot say I loved every mile but man, I loved every day.

We didn’t fix my form until halfway through my sophomore year.  My coach read up on drill workouts and forced me to do them.  The first one about killed me.  I literally crawled to the cafeteria for dinner.  I healed up by the weekend and knocked 30 seconds off my indoor 3,000 meter race (over 15 seconds a mile!)

I added miles to my long runs and started doing hour and a half to two hour long runs.  One day, after a 2 hour long run I engaged a big, bulky shot putter from the Track team in a pizza eating contest.  I weighed 150 pounds and wore a size 32 waist.  I still put away 25 slices of pizza and a few salads and a plate of pasta.  The thrower beat me by one slice but for that hour I was the hero of the runners.  Seriously, they were chanting my name.

I got injured and took my red shirt year but came back stronger and faster.  I began winning some races here and there.  My name started to appear on the regional rankings.  I won some conference and regional awards for best student athlete and athlete of the week.  The whole experience was a dream.  My scholarship money went up too but I hardly cared.  I wasn’t in this for the money any more.

Then I set some school records and then I beat them again.  Then I started scoring major points for my team.  Then I started taking home medals and plaques.  Then I started getting 2nd and 3rd at conference championships.  Suddenly people all around the region knew who I was and my name was mentioned in running forums and blogs.  Then other coaches began asking my coach where I had come from and how I had turned from a mediocre walk on to a serious conference contender.  Then the administrators and professors of the university started congratulating me around campus, knowing all of my race times from the previous weekend.

Then the dream ended.

One day in early May in a small town in Central Washington I ran my last college race.  It was a 5K.  I had won the 10K the night before and didn’t drink as much water that day as I should have.  So I finished 6th and as I stumbled across the finish line, it occurred to me that the game was over.

The big question became, “would I keep running.”  Some of my younger friends joked that I was going to be fat within 5 years.  I laughed with them but was slightly offended.

Of course I would keep running.  It is not that I loved running.  Most days I didn’t and still don’t.  But running is so central to who I was that giving it up would be sacrificing part of my soul.

The next year I ran a half marathon and the year after a marathon.  I finally ran 100 miles in one week, something I had been trying to do for a few years.

After the marathon I fell back on half hour easy runs a few times a week.  I did way too many of them but at least I was still moving 3-4 times a week.  I gained a few pounds, though not many, and slowed way down.  I did a couple more half marathons to try to stay motivated.

Then I moved to a small town and became a Cross Country and Track coach.  I learned quite quickly that you can either train or coach but you shouldn’t do both.

It took me another year or so to realize that was completely wrong.  Leading by example is about the only way to get through to teens in today’s world.  Less and less they don’t need a drill sergeant, they need an inspiration.

So I trained with them and lost 15 pounds and gained more muscle than I even had in college.  More than that, I was having fun again.  I did drill and core exercises with them and got my six pack back.  My average mile pace dropped back down to 6 minute miles.

And here I am today, having just completed a 15 mile long run in preparation for a marathon.  I was on the fence about whether to do the 15 mile plus run today or tomorrow.  I decided to do it tomorrow and went out hoping to do somewhere between 5-10 miles today.  After a mile and a half I wanted to turn around and go home but I kept going, promising to turn around at 15 minutes.  15 minutes came and went without me realizing it because in that 5 minutes I had switched into the mode.

It is that wonderful zone that surpasses “should run” and “want to run.”  When I am in the mode, my spirit is carried to a new plane of reality, a plane where I just exist for the sake of existence, a place where I run for the sake of running.

There is a beautiful harmony in those moments, a harmony that doesn’t override pain but welcomes it as a necessary melody.  In those moments I am caught up into nature.  The trees became more tangible, more noticeable.  The birds and flies and spiders and deer become my companions.

There is a rhythm and a beat to the strides and the clops.  Together they sing a song of inner peace and outpouring joy.  It is nothing less than spiritual.

Surely there are other ways to arrive at that plane of existence but running is my chosen road to the eternal, my glorious path to the divine.

At times I am scared that my inner runner is gone for good but on days like today, there he is again, roaring back to life, emerging from the shadows of my beat up psyche, insisting I do another mile and another after that and even more after that.  I keep running until I can’t run any more.

Perhaps that is why so many of us love the quote from Chariots of Fire, “When I run I feel His pleasure.”