The day was here, and it was time to do it. We had pre-loaded all that we could, so as to facilitate a quick departure. (It takes me a long time to dress properly for an ultra). There is the antiperspirant for the feet and underarms, muscle rub stuff for all the potential places for stiffness (which is everywhere), band aids for the nipples, sun screen for the face, lotion and other stuff for any place that creates friction. There are the special socks, the shoes, the gaiters, the layers on top and bottom, the head band, the hat. Then there is all the paraphernalia that I may need. Gel packs, music, electrolyte pills, antacids, vitamins, gum, pain reliever, watch, hand held water bottles, flashlight, etc. We get on the road ahead of schedule, and after driving ten minutes realize I had forgotten the books (Constant Forward Motion: the running of the Lymphoma Ultra Series) I wanted to give to the race director to give away. It was the only tense moment. We turned around, loaded the books, but now we were twenty minutes behind, and we had an hour and forty minutes to drive. I could choose not to dissipate energy by worrying, stressing or getting angry, because that would only take energy away from the task at hand, so by God’s grace, I was able to make that choice. The drive wasn’t tense, but pleasant. The sky was clear, the air was crisp, there wasn’t much traffic or snow on the roads, and we were on the way to a miracle. Even with the turnaround for the books we made it before the 6:00 a.m. check in time. I was given number 226 as I checked in. The race director likes to seed the races, and he must have had more faith than I, because with 300 runners, my only goal was finishing before the time limit. After checking in, I then tried to find my wife and truck, but I didn’t have my flashlight, and I didn’t know where she parked. It was dark. I kept walking and I passed a figure walking in the opposite direction, and a thought came, that maybe it was Brenda. So, I tentatively asked with a squeaky voice, “Brenda”? Miraculously the unknown woman answered affirmatively, and we connected and she led me to the truck, where I finished the last minute details, mainly pinning on my number, which was a hassle in itself. A few more last minute instructions, and then hand in hand we headed towards the start. As we approached, we heard the amateurish and heartfelt lyrics of Star Spangled Banner. It was all botched up and off key, but it was more meaningful than the recent performance in the Super Bowl. The race director always begins the race with prayer, and I bowed, as he prayed for God’s protection, strength and grace for all of us. I took off the wind pants, decided to keep the wind jacket on, gave Brenda a hug, took my place and we were off in the dark for 33.6 miles.I didn’t want to start too fast, as I didn’t want my muscles to get overworked too soon, so I just walked briskly. I was unsure of the initial layout of the course and thought the walk would slowly warm me up for the run. There was a hill and after the hill I could see a back up as the runners entered the woods, so I was glad I had walked. Once in the woods, the line was still backed up with over 300 runners, and it took a hundred yards or more for it begin to move fast enough to run. This is the fate of back of the packers, and we deal with it. After about a quarter mile I passed a few groups, and eventually got into a rhythm. When I passed the one mile marker, I felt pretty good, and was very thankful. This year’s race was in the opposite direction of the 2007 and 2008 run, so it was like running a new course. Eventually it became light enough and the path around the lake brought back the past good memories of this race. There were lots of hills and so I noted this for these same hills would be the last and final stretch. It had hints of the Mountain Masochist (worst hills at the end) all over it. Though it was filled with hills this first portion passed pretty easily and at 51 minutes I was at the first aid station where Brenda was waiting with my refill. She encouraged me with her smile and good nature, and off I continued.
The next portion was filled with lots of hills that had two creek crossings which I very un-daintily splashed through, while others ahead of me pondered in wonderment how and where to cross without getting their feet wet. From experience, I knew it wouldn’t hurt, and it would cool my feet down. I was happy to perform one good deed along this section. I was following a young woman, and I noticed she made a wrong turn and was going down the wrong path. We weren’t too far apart so it was easy to speak loud enough for her to make the adjustment. She was very grateful, and being someone who has gotten off the path once or twice it is so disheartening to be going in the wrong direction even for a step or two, much less a few hundred yards or more.
I made it to the next aid station without incident, and was ahead of my pace. This next section was the flattest, and was able to keep running most of the distance. It was also the most boring and though easier to run, it was harder on the mind. Unfortunately for me, but fortunately for them, the lead runners were looping back and it reminded me how fast they are, and how slow I am. I made it to aid station three in good time and Brenda told me I was way ahead of any time I had ever run, and I pondered on this for a good time. The next aid station would be the turn around and I was feeling like I could make the turnaround within the time limit. The initial impulse I had when I first felt the Lord calling me back into running ultra’s was that the worst case scenario is that I could drop out at the turn around if I couldn’t run any more. I was reminded of the spiritual experience of being physically and mentally transformed, from lower back pain into ultra marathon level conditioning. My back was not hurting, and I was close to finishing 16 miles of running. I pondered the greatness of God as I made it to the turnaround, and quickly got a refill before heading back out. I had made the 16.7 miles in 3:22 and I was feeling pretty good. Back along the path that paralleled the lake, I saw the few people that I was ahead of. (There weren’t many, but they all had the look of worry because it was doubtful they would make it under the time limit. I remember distinctly that feeling and I attempted to encourage them all, but the more I passed, I realized that some would not make it. At aid station 5, I again reconnected with Brenda, and I was starting to get hungry so I took a new food thingy I had bought, and it didn’t set in my stomach too well. (Never try anything new on an ultra!) I also was getting hot, and I called back to Brenda if she could pick up my jacket. She graciously agreed, so I shed my jacket and kept running.
Within minutes my right hamstring began to cramp. I had been regularly using electrolyte replacement drinks and supplements, and I had hoped this wouldn’t happen. Here I was on the flattest portion, and the cramp forced me to walk. Runner after runner, after runner, after runner passed as I would try to run, but the cramp forced me to stop. I had to make it to the next aid station by a certain time (which I couldn’t remember), or be pulled. A young lady ran by me, and I attempted to follow her, and I could run a little without cramping. Simultaneously a truck full of hunters with dogs was beside their parked truck right next to where we were running. The dogs were friendly but it kind of freaked the young woman, and she stopped, hoping the owners would control their dogs. (They didn’t or couldn’t). For her sake, I was glad I was running close behind her. A bunch of men, with dogs and guns in the middle of nowhere that you aren’t expecting may have been a bit daunting. (However, all the females I have ever met in ultra’s are pretty steady in every possible situation that one may encounter.) (It was probably just my father instinct that felt protective as she was the age of my daughters.) My choice of clothing was a desire to blend my own joy of hunting with running, so my camouflaged top and hat distracted the men and the dogs temporarily enough that the young lady could continue without the dogs hassling her. As I passed, I asked in my best southern drawl, “any luck”. The hunter, looked at me, like, he didn’t hear me, kind of like he was in his own world. He kind of saw me, but didn’t see me, like a dream state. I then said it again as I passed, “hey, you fellers have any luck today?” It was like we were as much a surprise to them as they were to us. He mumbled something I couldn’t understand, and I shuffled past. I am up to speed on most things that relate to hunting, but couldn’t recall what season was open on February 12th. I am sure they were legal, but I wondered at the moment. It served as a momentary distraction and helped take my mind off the cramps.To fight off the boredom of this flat portion that passed through freshly cut renewable pine woods, I had pulled out my music only to find that my zip lock bag had a hole and most of my electrolyte replacements were gone, and so were the pain relievers. Bummer! I put on some high energy music and ran till a cramp, then walked a few hundred yards and would repeat this over and over. The path moved off this section and I pulled onto a gravel road and thought I saw a car and the aid station in the far distance. It was way in the distance, and I saw a young man running my way. When he got closer, he said, “you have to make it to the aid station in five minutes or you get pulled”. Great! I had been ahead of pace, but because of the cramp, had fallen behind. I had to keep running to the aid station in the distance or get pulled, and by God’s graces, I made it, barely. Aid station seven was the next and final one, and it was the same pattern. Run a little until a cramp, and then limp until it passed. Run a little more, and then limp until it passed. I did this all the way to aid station 7. This is the portion with the creek crossings, and a young man in front of me had stopped at the creek crossing and was thinking how to cross. He went back into the woods to a fallen tree and I think he was planning on risking life and limb on the tree instead of just sloshing on through. I just splashed on in and out and on up the hill I went. I never saw him again. To this moment, I wonder if he got lost out in the woods or fell or ... (Your mind plays tricks on you this late in a race, and imaginations can go crazy if you let them). I tried to regain focus but I certainly went slowly enough for him to have caught up.
Eventually the aid station seven came into view and I saw a worried lady looking intently past me and I think it was her son that had taken the long way through the creek or worse. I decided not to tell Brenda how much I was cramping.
I loaded up on all the electrolyte replacement I could, along with some grapes, etc. I asked her to walk with me awhile as we made the transition (constant forward motion). I gave her my hat and some arm thingies that had kept me warm all day, but now it was heating up. We parted company and she encouraged me by saying it was only three more miles to go. I really wanted to believe her, but mentally I set it in my mind I had a lot more to go, and I kept pressing on. All I had to do was get to the finish in an hour and a half, and I thought I actually might be able to do this. This was a very pretty section of the race, and it was pleasant at many levels. The sun was shining, the temperature was in the mid forties, immersed in a pine forest, blocked from the wind, alone with God, my music and every now and then I got a visit from my cramps. I found that I could run more between cramping, and got into a rhythm behind another back of the packer. We emerged from the woods and the trail ran alongside the lake. It was very pleasant visually and in every way to be this close to the end. The trail is up and down, all along the lake and is strewn with rocks and roots. So far so good as I hadn’t tripped and fallen, and with my cramps I really didn’t want to think about it, so I didn’t. We crossed a park, and I was watching her, (not in a Mt. 5:28 way) and though she was about 50 yards ahead of me I noticed she had stopped and had turned around. I could tell from her body language that she was off the trail, so together, we had somehow gotten off the trail in the least likely spot a person can get off the trail on the entire course. Fortunately, I had a good vantage spot to look for and find the markers and I pointed in the direction of the path. Once we found it I pulled over, and asked if she wanted to resume her position in the lead. At this point in these races it really doesn’t matter who is or isn’t in front, and she just laughed and told me to go on ahead. We were both focused on our legs and the ever present cramping, and there wasn’t much chatter. Plus I had my music on pretty loud and it was high energy songs to keep me moving. I eventually stopped and let her go ahead as my cramps paid me another visit. I settled into a fast walk, checked my watch, and reasoned, that even if I walked, I could finish. We passed the one mile marker and I began to seriously rejoice that I was going to actually do this feat that just a month and a half ago was impossible to consider. My playlist now turned to softer, thankful music and the last mile was a fast walk through nice woods being filled with the positive emotion of doing something extraordinary. I alternated between crying and smiling as I walked out of the woods onto the final stretch to the finish. It was an asphalt road, and my feet were hurting and my right hamstring was cramping. I raised my hands to praise, but my arms were both too stiff, and it hurt too much to raise them. I didn’t care how much it hurt, I was blessed. I was now the healed, the restored, and the years that had been taken up with an incurable cancer in its final stages were over.
The resulting harsh season of chemotherapy, with the loss of hair, appetite, energy and every fast growing cell was over. The four or five compression fractures from the lymphoma and the back surgeries to repair were over. The time lost to battle the disease was being redeemed by my Lord and Master. The memories of barely having energy to walk a hundred yards were still fresh. The memories of having back pain so severe that the strongest prescription pain medication wouldn’t even take the edge off it were still vivid. The memories of a year and half of the manageable back pain that followed, but was of such that I had to stop running so it could heal were all right there in my memory bank in that final stretch. I was beyond thankful that the Lord had redeemed the time and life I had lost. In a relationship with God, through Christ Jesus, I found and was experiencing that not only was I, the saved and forgiven NOW, I was also the healed, NOW. My 75000 steps of faith on the promises of God had brought me close to the finish line and I had experienced the power of the death and resurrection of Christ prior to my entrance into heaven. I had run by faith, and for missions (I asked family and friends to support the emerging leaders of Cuba through the Cuban Bible College). Linking my path back to health with missions helped shift my focus to God and others and away from myself and the disease.
When I could see the finish line I started waddling and hoped my cramp wouldn’t return. I was pleasantly surprised to see a friend and new parishioner, Don Shore was there at the finish line with some friends from his college (Longwood). After crossing the finish in 7:34 (SEVEN HOURS and THIRTY FOUR MINUTES)
I found Brenda and we just embraced and cried, embraced and cried, embraced and cried. She pulled back and said, “I always knew this day would come, but I didn’t know it would come so soon”. We hugged and cried some more and then greeted Don and his friends, Jessica and Jason. They were all active in a college campus ministry called Chi Alpha and they were there in support. We chatted and hung out for quite awhile, but then it was time to transition. I would later learn that the winner was Mat Woods who finished four hours and six minutes earlier than I. He ran 33.6 miles up and down hills over rocks, roots and what not in 3:28:55. Now, that is amazing. I also found that I finished in 294th place out of 317 starters. 304 of us finished under the time limit, and one person finished, but didn’t make it under the 8 hour limit.
I spoke to the race director, Dr. Horton, and congratulated him on a race well done and as mutual followers of Jesus, could speak freely of the grace of our Lord and Savior which has been bestowed so fully upon his followers.I gave him some books (Constant Forward Motion: the Running of the Lymphoma Ultra Series) to give away at his next race event, and after a sponge bath in the bath house we headed home. This year there wasn’t a huge celebratory post race event, and it was okay. All the way home the primary phrase, was, thanks be to God for his amazing grace. One version or another of that was the subject of the discussion all the way home. I had walked to stay in shape, but it was the grace of God that had redeemed and restored the years of battling cancer. January second, when I remembered the broken body and shed blood of Jesus Christ, I was reminded by the one I was remembering of his life and nature I was able to partake of. By the life of God, I had resumed running and followed the call back to ultra marathons and it was and is still surprising in a good way that it actually happened the way the Lord has shown me that afternoon forty days earlier.
Waking up on a Sunday morning after a run of any distance, especially a 50K is comical. Those are the scenes when non-runners ask, “whyyyy????” The way I felt, I wasn’t in a good flow to be able to answer a critic of long distance running. I shuffled out to turn on the coffee and with baby steps could manage movement. Setting up for church and Sunday School was positive and pleasant. When my middle granddaughter came in to church she wanted me to pick her up. (For a year and a half I hadn’t been able to). With joy I swooped her up, and carried her around a little bit, before exchanging her for our youngest granddaughter. Nothing quite as good as granddaughter love on a Sunday morning assembling together to worship God as a family. I had asked Brenda if she would preach for me and she did a fabulous job of ministering God’s word. Her topic was “True Love”, (you can listen to it at ViennaAG.com) which she has modeled all during our 32 plus years of marriage. She graciously served as my crew by moving from aid station to aid station refilling my fluid bottle, my pills, my food, and always with a loving smile. We were privileged to take the middle and the youngest to lunch because it was my eldest’s birthday party (just her and mom and friends). When I told my middle granddaughter, that I ran a race the day before her only question was. “Did you win?” I told her no, and tried to explain something wise about the joy is in the journey, etc, etc., but she glazed over, but not before she told me that she ran a race once, and she came in first. No pressure.