Monday, January 6, 2014

How The Cows Were Cool


The man in the Carhartt coveralls offered me a cup half full as I ran by. My acceptance of his offer was more an act of reflex than of thoughtful strategy.

I was having problems that two ounces of sports drink weren’t likely to resolve. 

I craved an act of decency more than I craved any item at the aid station and this man, who had been standing in the breakdown lane for hours in a 25 mile per hour wind on a 21 degree day, provided a bit of hope to everyone who ran by. I wanted to tell him how much he was appreciated. I wanted to tell him that his acts, and the acts of others at times like this, when the recipient was riding the red line, were more valuable and appreciated than any offered during moments of physiological homeostasis. I wanted to tell him that he was one with the saints, and rescue workers, and hospice nurses. Instead I took the cup, broke a hole through the layer of surface ice with my teeth, snuffed an ounce of lemon-lime Gatorade directly into my sinuses, spilled the rest on my face, and gasped “Thansuh”.

“You’re welcome” said Lawrence Nightingale, “You boys are doing great. Two miles to go!”

“Boys?... Plural?... Who the hell…!??”

I thought I was alone. But when I took a quarter glance behind me and me I found myself staring into the eyes of “Dude in red”. He wasn’t always known to me as dude-in-red. Once, when I was young and the starting gun was firing, he was a fuller human being. He was one of many strong-looking runners striding out in the early yards of a fifteen mile road race on a winter day. He was polite and focused and completely in control. I stalked him for 9 miles, passed him with authority, and left him for dead. Those were the rules. Every child knows them. When you are shot you lie down and play dead. But this fellow, unlike the others, didn’t buy my act. He seemed to have a few grey hairs himself and he knew a bad thespian when he saw one. He knew how to race. And now he knew that I was weak; my insecure glance back and Gatorade-induced coughing fit provided evidence. I might be bought off with a lawn chair and a promise to fight another day. And he seemed to know that too.

We ran up a short but nasty little hill into the teeth of the wind. I was well behind the leaders with no chance for an award of any kind. Not that it would have mattered; the prospect of a trophy carries no vote in the congress of a racer’s mind. It was decision time. I had a forty yard lead on him. I decided that if he was to steal the suddenly all-important 7th place finish in this local race then I would make the bastard earn it. This, I realized, is why we came here today, dude-in-red and I, to race each other. We didn’t know that until now but here it was, clear as day. Every other runner was at a hopeless or safe distance from us by this point. It was just us and every move now was a fake. Look strong until the next telephone pole. Run this hill hard. Pretend the finish is just a few hundred yards away. He will see how strong I am and quit…then I can ease up a bit.

But he wouldn’t crack. He was the type, I began to fear, who would not ever give up. It was hopeless. But at this point the cards were all dealt. I couldn’t go back to acting like this wasn’t a race and neither could he. This was gonna be pain all the way to the finish. The Penguin and George Sheehan were nowhere to be found. Somewhere someone’s foot crunched poetically into the virgin snow of a wintry trail, somewhere hard bodies did crunches to loud rock music in a warm gym, and somewhere someone ate a sensible lunch washed down with a fistful of antioxidants. But they were not here either…just two middle age guys, with frozen spit on their faces, riding a hypoxic conveyor belt to the finish, each trying to gain an inch on their newfound opponent.

This is who I am and so this this is what I do…sometimes.

I was born with a congenital inability to sense the difference between a 77 mile per hour fastball and a 97 mile per hour fastball. My lack of skill in this regard made me a lousy baseball player but has saved me thousands and thousands of dollars. I love baseball. I don’t really understand it; I just love it. I like how most of the time nothing happens until suddenly something does. Then it’s interesting for a while until it isn’t any more. Just like running a road race. I cannot distinguish high quality performances from very high quality performances. Because of this I enjoy the Columbus Clippers, the AAA minor-league affiliate of the Cleveland Indians, every bit as much as I enjoy the tribe itself. For six dollars apiece I hit a bunch of Clippers games each summer. In fact shaving one or two of the A’s off the triple AAA classification doesn’t douse my enjoyment either. I like the Akron Aeros (AA-Cleveland) just fine, and I was a regular at the Delaware Cows’ (single-A unaffiliated) home games, until they went under a few years ago. 

I guess I’m easy to please; I also enjoy par-three golf, Mid-major NCAA teams, and those fake Twinkies that Little Debbie came out with for a while.

The Delaware Cows charged two bucks to get in and couldn’t draw spectators to save their lives. There were only about 20-30 people present at any given game and so we all got to know each other. Jegs Auto Parts once had a free hat day and when I went through the gate they handed me three of them because they had expected hundreds of people to show up, but only fifteen people did. I gave two of the hats away but I still have one and I love it. I really do.

They once had a special promotion called “Road Kill Day” and couldn’t draw flies.

OK that last line was just me joking around. The fans used to tell little jokes like that to each other at Cows games. The players Moms would bring extra cookies for us…and I’m not kidding about that. Those ladies could bake!

The truth is that everything about the Cows was wonderful. The quality of the baseball was very high. Of the 20 people in the stands, at any given game, a couple of them would be major league scouts. The players were typically college students who played for very prestigious NCAA teams. They left their egos behind and lived in the homes of local residents, earned very little money, carpooled to games in places like Lima and Zanesville, and would risk life and limb to dive for a base or a foul ball regardless of how hopelessly lopsided a game might be. They hosted skills camps for local kids, did a charity game against a team of Special Olympians, stuck around after games until the very last fan didn’t want to chat anymore, and stayed in touch with their elementary school pen pals in the off-season. And once or twice I saw a 97mph fastball (at least that’s what the speed-gun thingy said).

Last summer I spent 173 dollars on some great seats at an Indians game for my son’s birthday. It was wonderful; it was early in the season so there wasn’t any playoff pressure yet. But there weren’t any free cookies. And I didn’t get to meet a player. If I sent an e-mail to the coach he would likely not write back. And the league manager didn’t attend my church. The Indians game was on a Friday night and so there were 40,000 people in attendance.

It really is a shame that the Cows went under.

I once heard a comedian talking about our relationship with dogs. He pointed out that if aliens came down and observed dogs barking at us, leading us around, and forcing us to pick up their poop the aliens would naturally assume that the dogs were in charge. I wonder at times if the aliens might also assume, after observing things like cost/quality ratios and human relations why we wouldn’t simply flock to a Cows game and avoid the cost, traffic snarls, and overpaid arrogance of major league games.  

I’m not na├»ve. I understand that sports is an industry. I get that livings and fortunes are made and lost based upon sexiness, money, and marketing.  I also understand the desire to be part of this revenue stream. It’s a fact that has invaded nearly all parts of our lives.  But sports stop being fun for me when I group them with real-life American capitalism. Salary arbitration might be necessary at some level but I refuse to believe that it is the least bit ennobling. The goodness of sports is, after all, what is being sold to us, and that goodness exists outside of any effort to harness it. The basics of sports are there without year-round youth travel leagues, strength programs, personal trainers and free agency. The goodness of sport exists at all levels, from the World Series to the Delaware Cows, to recreation league soccer, to two guys challenging each other to a duel that involves running shoes rather than swords. And that goodness is entirely ennobling.

At the conclusion of my race with dude-in-red one of us crossed the finish line before the other one did. Then we both stumbled into the high school cafeteria/race staging area and lay flat on our backs and coughed, until one of us worked up the energy to come over and give the other a hug.

It’s the greatest thing about sports. The immediate intimacy and otherwise unacceptable social behavior that is allowed. I love that a couple of old dudes can 6:45 per mile each other into a near coma and appreciate that we both did each other a favor. I love that I can cheer for my kids at the top of my lungs on a baseball field, or a basketball court, or a swimming pool. And I understand but regret that I cannot do the same in the middle of one of their history tests. Nor can I yell positive helpful advice as they make a move to ask a girl out on a date, or do a vocal solo at a school Christmas concert. I cannot try to break a fellow physical therapist and expect a hug at the conclusion of the contest.

In real life we can be hesitant to accept an offer from a stranger standing by the side of the road, and might be embarrassed to accept the role of cheerleader and savior to the semi-public we are placed in positions to serve.

In real life there are fewer opportunities to daydream, to display passion, to engage in acts of kindness…to accept help and challenges.

It only seems to happen in sports. It’s probably an indictment on our humanity, or maybe just our culture, that these things are limited in this way but let us rejoice that at least this one cup is half full.

Kathleen Norris wrote that the one thing that distinguishes a frontier is the precarious nature of the human hold on it. Can’t any sport, any history test, any romantic venture, be a frontier? Aren’t they already frontiers? Aren’t so many of the things we do in life an excuse for cheering, heroism, and acts of goodness, whether we take advantage of them or not?

I resolve to let my passions run toward those things in life that really elicit passion; the small things that have no market value, but make me human nonetheless. My normal work life might need to be dictated by some amount of sales and marketing. It’s the insurance premium we pay to live in a free market. But I resolve to believe that sport is more than the slickly packaged versions of things that already exist on every sandlot, every basketball court, every swimming pool, and every trail in America.

And if sports can be utilized in this way, maybe other things can as well. Maybe the beauty of sports lies in the example they serve of what we can be. The Cows were cool, and expanding upon their example would be cool as well.

Sunday, January 6, 2013

Cardboard

And Jacob was left alone; and there wrestled a man with him until the breaking of the day. And when he saw that he prevailed not against him, he touched the hollow of his thigh; and the hollow of Jacob's thigh was out of joint, as he wrestled with him. And he said, Let me go, for the day breaketh. And he said, I will not let thee go, except thou bless me. And he said unto him, What is thy name? And he said, Jacob. And he said, Thy name shall be called no more Jacob, but Israel. And he blessed him there. --Genesis: 29-30

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One wet night last February I was running illegally through a closed metro park with my friend Mike Keller. Mike and I would run together and discuss philosophy, and women, and God, and kids, and sports. And we would discuss Mohican. On this night Mike asked how the training was going. I told him it was going great. My mileage was the highest ever. “That’s good” he said “but what are you doing about the puking?” I was silent. He then said “You know, there really isn’t any part of your body that can’t cover 100 miles in 32 hours. It’s not a matter of fitness. You need to figure this out.” I needed, he suggested, to break the race into pieces and cover the ground at the same pace, at the same time of day or night, using the same nutrition I would use during the race and hope that in these experiences the problem would present itself and the solution would be found.

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The start of Mohican is always a beautiful thing. It’s a sea of disorganization, headlamps, last minute hugs, and water bottle searches. Giddy excitement. Everyone is present and no one is suffering. Each individual has a fifty percent chance of success and an equal chance of failure but if pain has no memory then foresight has no perception of risk.

Everyone knew they would make it.

I was, for the first time in 15 years, utterly at peace. I felt like a completely different person. I was not excited. I was not fearful and I had no worry. I was in a position to earn the 1000 mile buckle for ten finishes, but that had been equally true in 2011 when the race ended in a lonely, cold, fetal shudder on the forest floor at 4 a.m. But that, as well as the fact that I had failed to finish so many times in recent years, had been whittled out of my minimalist mind. One-hundred mile runs are point-in-time studies and stringing them together for any purpose wouldn’t move me one inch closer to the finish line. I knew many of those present at the starting line and, in fact, my closest friends were within feet of me but I was alone with my race and that felt just fine. In the weeks before the race I developed the idea that I would wake up on June 16 and go out to Mohican and run four loops. It was going to be brutal; I knew that. But I also knew it could be simple and I knew that 100 miles was not a democracy. My world would be distilled down to my best friend and love, Tami Menssen, who would be crewing for me along with my sister Noelle, and my pacers, Nick Longworth and Chad Heald. My long-time pacers and friends Casey Clark and Scott Wolf were attending another friend’s wedding with their wives and were present in spirit. We were a universe of seven people. I would celebrate and relive the event with my other friends after it was over but for this day we were going to be alone with our course.

If one wished, for some reason, to really understand my relationship with Mohican that individual would have to understand that finishing it is very difficult for me, and always has been. I am aware that others do it with more grace and easy recovery but each time I have finished Mohican it has destroyed me. And that is why I needed seclusion. My experience needed to be my own. I could not be drawn into anyone else’s confidence or fear. Instead of attending the pre-race dinner the evening before the race, an event that I love, I spent the night with Tami in Medina, about 60 miles away, and drove in that morning. I needed to stay away from the opinions and even the hopes of others. I was likely one of the weakest runners in the field and to avoid being intimidated by that fact I needed to pretend on some level that I was alone in the race. I envisioned showing up at the starting line and being the only person there; facing the geographic love of my life. If that happened, I imagined, I would do it anyway.

I was strangely confident despite the fact that I was not nearly as fit as I was in 2011. A solid winter of training had been eroded by the stress of three separate spring-time runs of two loops of the course for the purpose of breaking the race into pieces for analysis as Mike had suggested. In hindsight I can say that none of the three runs went well. Each of these runs measured in the fifty mile range and rather than make me stronger they tore me down as I knew that they would. But I hoped that they would provide an answer. All three ended badly but standing alone in the throng that morning I felt for the first time in eight years like they had provided, if not a solution, then at least a way to manage my problem…

March 7, 2012 Simulation Run #1

“Oh God, please don’t let them give me a drunk test. I’d never pass.”

 I was up against the police car, hands on hood, legs spread, being frisked for weapons. I could look across the highway and see the neon lights of the Bellville, Ohio exit on I-71. “You were all over the road back there. Have you been drinking?” “No” I answered “I just did a fifty-four mile training run. I’m really tired, that’s all.” “Do you do this sort of thing often?” the cop asked, incredulous. “I’m training for the Mohican 100 miler” I answered. The cop’s face broke into a smile and he looked down and shook his head. “Oh, so you’re one of THOSE guys?”

“I’m trying to be.”

Roy Heger and I had started a full day of running at 5 a.m., intending to simulate the first two laps of the Mohican Trail 100 Mile Run. We went easily, ate and drank well, stayed warm and dry, and finished in fourteen hours; our intended race pace. I anticipated that the first two laps would go relatively smoothly. I expected that I would be tired and possibly blistered by the end of the run but I believed that I would not be subject to the horrible waves of nausea that overtake me during the latter portions of the race. This unrelenting nausea kept me from finishing five of my last seven attempts at Mohican. I had been training hard all winter and I was in terrific shape. Despite this I became ill immediately after the run. The fact of the matter was that I was so sick and so dizzy and so crushingly discouraged that I wasn’t the least bit fearful of the three officers present. One officer, a screaming Bellville cop, was pointing at me and demanding that I be taken into custody. The other two officers were state highway patrolmen that the local officer had called for backup. They explained to him that I had driven into their jurisdiction and they were going to let me go as long as I agreed to stop for coffee and rest at the next exit. I didn’t care if they kept me or not. They could have thrown me in a cell for the night and I would not have been any more depressed. Mohican was only three months away, which really only left two months for hard training before a gradual taper would begin. Race day would surely be hot and despite going barely half the distance on a delightfully cool day on perfectly dry trails, I had been brought to my knees immediately after the run. It was obvious to me that my old problems persisted. Nothing had changed. I was scared to death to run the race now. And I was scared to death not to.

As the officers decided my immediate fate I felt a deep sense that something beautiful had turned sour. They were absolutely within their rights to stop me. I could have killed someone. And for what? When did I develop a fear of being haunted by missed opportunities in old age? When had love turned into compulsion? When had success been redefined as an absence of failure? Maybe it was time to move on.

I ran my first Mohican in 1997 and it changed my life completely. I will not retell the tale in this posting because I already wrote about it here. But I will say that during that race I came to an understanding of my relationship with God, and of my place in his world, and of my role, or lack of role, in his plans. The event means everything that is running to me and that’s not a frivolous statement. I have been a runner for thirty five years. I ran track and cross country in Junior High School, High School, and College. I was a moderately successful marathon runner after graduation and won occasional road races. I have run nearly five hundred races at nearly every distance and on nearly every surface. But despite all of these experiences Mohican was the race that changed me and for the past 15-plus years it’s been the race that caused me to continue. It was the race that helped me to understand that running is a major part of who I am. I used to see running as an avocation that needed to be explained away as a hobby. I felt a need to justify the time and energy I spent on it. I no longer feel any such obligation; I run because I am a runner. And I owe that to Mohican. For the past fifteen years not a day has gone by that Mohican has not entered my mind. The pleasant thoughts have shielded me from some terribly difficult times and the challenge caused me to go out onto scorching roads or into late night blizzards to train; experiences that created a backdrop for so many of the experiences of my life. Every run and every race pointed toward Mohican; none was ever a goal unto itself. I have only finished one other 100 mile race. And I only ran that race to practice strategies that I wanted to try at Mohican. I never ran another 100 miler because I never wanted to. I never felt the attraction. I don’t love 100 milers; I love Mohican. Sometimes one’s first love endures forever. And, sadly, sometimes it doesn’t.

I think that the thing I feared most was that this beautiful event would end up holding a dark place in my life story. I finished Mohican the first seven times I ran it. I developed a reputation among my closest friends as the guy who always finished the race. Some years I ran faster than others and some years I battled cut-off times but each year I could sit and watch fireworks on the fourth of July knowing that another buckle lay safely in my sock drawer back home. Then in 2004, on my eighth attempt, I failed to finish. I lay curled into a ball in the woods for hours before finally relenting to the waves of nausea that gripped me. The following year I was unable to train properly and expected, and got, another DNF. The year after that year I was again unable to train and decided to miss the event. It was the only time in sixteen Mohicans that I did not start the race. In 2007 I trained very hard, tapered well, and again was racked by hours of nausea and vomiting before stopping the race at 80 miles. In 2008 two wonderful friends, Scott Wolf and Casey Clark, insisted that I try the race again and paced me to an eighth finish. I vomited and took no food or water for 35 miles at one stretch, but knowing I was not alone helped me to finish. I thought that perhaps my problems were solved until the next year when the nausea had me laying on the ground at the covered bridge aid station at 4 a.m. as the race medical personnel examined me for the fourth time in six years. I accepted a ride to the finish. In 2010 Scott and Casey, joined by Nick Longworth, formed a relay to encourage, cajole, and insist that I keep moving, to survive what I consider to be the hottest and nastiest Mohican I have ever run. I finished with 30 minutes to spare on the final cutoff and had to go nearly 40 miles without food or water. I was physically wasted for months after that race but the feeling of satisfaction was enormous. It was my ninth finish! One more finish and I could earn the prestigious ten time finisher- 1000 mile buckle and be able to justify in my own heart that I had succeeded. In the fall of 2010 and winter of 2011 I set out to earn that buckle. I trained harder than I had ever trained as an adult.

The results of the training for Mohican 2011 were gratifying. I qualified for the Boston Marathon for the first time in 19 years. In one race I lopped 37 minutes from my 50 kilometer personal best. I placed in the top five overall in a Western Reserve Series race and I placed in the top ten overall in two others. I was strong. I was thin and relatively fast. I was injury free despite completing runs of marathon length or greater 17 times in the 5 months preceding the 2011 Mohican. I had the best crew imaginable. At times as many as a dozen close friends followed my progress along the course. They had t-shirts printed to commemorate what would surely be my tenth finish. I went out slowly and conservatively. I ate well, drank well, stayed cool, and ended up lying on the trail at the 62 mile mark sicker than I have ever been in my life, absolutely crushed and humiliated. I could not bear to return to Mohican for six months and considered stopping altogether. I was afraid of running the race again but I was even more fearful of becoming an object of pity; the one time sure-shot finisher who ended it all with nine finishes. Maybe someday ghost stories would be told about me. Night-hikers might report sighting a pale figure vomiting in the mist near a river a 4 a.m. in eternal search of peace, or a buckle, or a Bromo Seltzer. This was, of course, all nonsense. Other than my closest personal friends and family the world would be unaffected by my success or failure. Still though, I wondered at dark times if I would really be OK with nine finishes.

  The heartbreak of 2011 hung with me for a good long while. I didn’t talk about it much because in my sport we don’t whine. But now that it’s over and done I can tell you that I lost the race and I lost the buckle, I lost the girl and I lost some self-respect. It was not qualifying for the 1987 U.S. Olympic Festival and not qualifying for the State Meet and not lettering in College all rolled into one. It was worse than all other failures combined and amplified by ten because during all of those other times I was young and, true or not, it felt like my next chance for success was just around the corner. There were also reasons for the past failures. I could blame health or coaching or circumstance for my failure. This time everything had been perfect and I simply could not do it. It was as though it had taken me three decades to accept that it was OK to have an identity as a runner only to find out that I was not very good at what I was.

I had put better than 15 years into Mohican. It took me less time to go from kindergarten to High school graduation. Two of my three children have absolutely no recollection of me ever NOT training for Mohican. Father’s day meant that I would come home in the early afternoon and hand them a buckle or not. They would hand me a card or a present. During that span I lost my mother and my brother. In 1997 my five year old daughter, Emily, cut a square of fabric from her precious blanket that she carried everywhere and handed it to me so that if I got afraid at night I would have it to keep me safe. I pinned it to my number. By 2011 Emily was approaching her sophomore year at Bowling Green State University.

Failure is tough. And the toughest and scariest failure is when one fails after doing everything right. Looking back on the race after the 2011 DNF I could not for the life of me imagine ANYTHING that I did not prepare for. I could not imagine anything that I could do differently and so I could not imagine what sort of plan could be used to get me to another finish. It was a helpless feeling. Mohican 2012 would take place a couple of months prior to my 48th birthday. I was aware that many older runners had finished the race but not many of them had, like me, been running since they were twelve years old. In the mornings I hobble to the bathroom on sore feet. A hard run the day before is no longer necessary to make me ache; it’s part of a normal morning. After each hard run I watch for signs of injury and constantly need to treat whatever minor ailment might be there. Recovery is slower than in years past, fitness comes more slowly still, and atrophy is noticed with just a few days off. Whereas once everything could go wrong and I could finish Mohican, now everything has to go well. My friends have nicknamed me possum because I am constantly complaining of falling apart and yet still manage to run well on occasion. I think they feel that I am sandbagging about my physical condition. I love my friends and I am flattered by the nickname but the truth is that I know in my heart that my final injury will happen before too many more years and as Mohican 2012 drew near I had a feeling that my window of opportunity to become a ten-time finisher was closing.

I looked for a solution to the problem of nausea for years. I convinced myself that the problem was too much sodium. When that solution did not work I tried taking MORE sodium. That was a disaster. Antacids did not work. Nor did ginger. Or avoiding all sugar. I tried to steer clear of fruit to no avail. I tried an all liquid diet with catastrophic results. Finally, I convinced myself that all of the fancy supplements were not the answer and so I ate only items that I believed my mother would pack in my lunch box if I were still a kid. I ended up heaving animal crackers and PB&J all over Mohican’s lovely trails. Ultra marathoners should never brag. But despite this I felt that I was basically a tough character, or at least no wimpier during my DNFs than I was during my finishes. The problem was that I was not experiencing a typical upset stomach. Rather, this sickness consisted of freezing cold sweat and unrelenting waves of the worst nausea I had ever experienced. It was so severe that it took all other thoughts from my mind. It would make me lose all resolve and no emotion other than fear of the illness could be present.

Well-meaning friends offered advice and developed theories about what was wrong. Those who handled this best did so with humor. My friend Scott Wolf, who was with me when I called it quits in 2011, went to a yard sale and picked me up a buckle for five dollars. The inscription on the buckle simply read “Mark”. The idea was that I already had my buckle so no worries right? The most hurtful were those individuals who asked if maybe I was putting too much pressure on myself. Maybe, they suggested, my problem could be solved if I just relaxed a bit or used visualization exercises… But to my ears those suggestions were akin to saying that the problem was all in my head. I knew in my heart that this was not an emotional or psychological problem. But if it was not nutrition related then what else could it be?

April 7, 2012 Simulation Run #2

Last year, before the race, my friend Lisa Fine suggested to me that my problem might be motion sickness. She recommended Dramamine, a motion sickness medicine used for travel related nausea. I was certain she was wrong. I was unable to imagine how a runner could have motion sickness, and besides the 2011 race was practically upon me when she made the suggestion and so I was unwilling to even attempt anything as radical as a new medication without trying it first in practice. I put it completely out of my mind for ten months. Her advice only reentered my consciousness after the police released me in Bellville. My friend and Mohican “Forget the PR” 50K race director Rob Powell had come out to run the final miles of the 54 miler with Roy and me. He witnessed my relatively good form unravel immediately upon climbing into my car to drive. He echoed Lisa’s words about motion sickness but I ignored him. He persisted, however, and while leaning against the cop’s car it occurred to me that I was not just sick but dizzy. I resolved to open my mind to the possibility.

So I rested and simulated loops two and three at Mohican one month later. This run began at noon and ended at 2 A.M. to simulate the time of day that I would be running the race. Roy was not present because I needed to do this alone. The final two runs would be solo efforts despite the cold and loneliness of a forest in the middle of the night in early spring. The run began well but immediately after dark, after only 23 miles, I was vomiting. I took Dramamine and was shocked that it helped a bit. I was still sick and almost bagged the run at midnight at 40 miles due to hypothermia and worry about having a crisis in the woods in the middle of the night alone. Instead I gave up my slow running/walking race pace and broke into a run. That helped too. Lesson learned: Dramamine took the edge off of the illness, and not stopping was the correct response to the nausea. Things were a tiny bit better.

I ran the first miles of this year’s race with Dick Canterbury. I have known Dick for years and we have become good friends. There is an old adage that ultra runners are “cut from a tougher kind of leather” than others and I contend that Dick is the bull they cut that leather from. The guy knows how to suffer. Dick was going for his twelfth Mohican finish and was lovingly but clearly NOT OK with me not finishing in 2011. He phoned me the morning after Mohican 2011 as he was driving home to Indiana. He didn’t call to give me a pep talk or a shoulder to cry on but to tell me he was disappointed. In fact he told me that I ruined his father’s day. You would have to be an ultra runner to recognize the amount of love that was contained in that statement. I received a similar response from several other ten-time finishers. Most exclusive clubs seek to stay that way. After all, if a large number of people become elite enough to meet the standard of an honorary society then isn’t the prestige of being a member eroded? The Mohican 1000 milers, I learned, do not operate according to that weakened value system. While my family and friends rushed to me in the days after 2011 to tell me how OK I was, what a good father and complete human being I was, the ten timers took a different approach. To synthesize and paraphrase the group’s response, they wanted me to ‘figure out whatever the hell it was that I needed to figure out and put this damn thing to bed.’

Late in 2011 I ran my fastest marathon in 19 years. At the finish I was euphoric. I had not run so well since I was a kid. Moments after the finish I was approached by former Mohican champion and ten-time finisher Steve Godale. He grinned and handed me the medal that I earned by completing more than 50 miles at Mohican in 2011. I left the race before the awards ceremony and Steve collected the medal and carried it in his car for months. His message was that the job was not done. I laughed and asked if I could possibly have five minutes to enjoy my moment. He said “Sure. But then get back at it.” I saw Terry Hawk, the first Ohioan ever to win Mohican and ten-time finisher, at the North Coast 24 hour run last fall. We were volunteering together at the road crossing. We had not seen each other in forever and after exchanging greetings and inquiring about kids, work, etc. he said “OK, now that the pleasantries are out of the way what the hell happened at Mo?” Roy Heger, thirteen time finisher, nationally famous for being a tough bastard, and locally known for giving a darn about the right things, approached me last. He told me I needed to become a 100 mile guy again. He told me I needed to resume thinking like a 100 miler, acting like a 100 miler, and training like a 100 miler. He offered advice, took me on training runs, critiqued my actions and kinda hurt my feelings a few times. He told me to slow everything down. Not just the pace but everything.

By the forty one mile mark of this year’s race I was feeling rough. Roy passed me while I was walking and gave me the skunk eye. “How’s the stomach?” he asked. I told him I was fine… just having a spell. He responded the way we respond to each other in my sport, with humorous abuse. “Well they advertised this as a running race and so some of us like to run” Then he gave a grin and ran off. Tami and Noelle responded with just a bit more alarm when I saw them at the next handler station. I was dehydrated, reddened and not capable of providing enlightened conversation. It was true that I was in trouble and we knew it.

But it was OK.

I knew what to do. I had been here before. This was A problem but it wasn’t THE problem. Sometimes experience is valuable and sometimes it’s just your soul nagging at you. For my first five years in the sport every race provided instruction and increased my wisdom. But after thirty five years I have become convinced that what old-timers confidently refer to as experience is really just ghosts; old haunting memories of deaths, near misses, and folk remedies used to counter them.

I needed to walk. I knew this but I was upset about it anyway. Part of my solution to the night-sickness was to employ methods that would more-or-less require me to walk all night long and so the idea of walking all afternoon as well was unpalatable. And depressing. And deflating. But I did it anyway because I was reminded by my ghosts that failing to do so would yield another year of knowing who I am not. And since there is no way to speed up a year and earn another chance, I played the hand I was dealt. I loaded up my hat with ice, drank down my bottles, and started a walk that was likely to last for 20 hours. It’s the type of stuff that will not ever end up on a sports highlight film. But in my sport this is what I sometimes need to do. And so I did.

May 8, 2012 Simulation Run #3

The third simulation run covered the final two loops of the course (47 miles) and started at 7 p.m. to, once again, simulate the time of day that I would be on the course during the race. A few weeks earlier a group of physical therapy students at the University of Findlay had rather randomly included me in a study they were completing as a graduation requirement. They simply needed a live body to act as a subject and selected me because I had a pulse and time on my hands. By pure chance the study measured balance, and the students found that my balance was pretty good until I closed my eyes, at which point I lost all sense of vertical. In fact my balance was so bad when my eyes were closed that I could not perform the simple tasks that they needed to gather motion analysis data. They explained to me that nearly all of my balance cues were gained through my vision and apparently my inner ear and cranio-vertebral joint (other balance centers) were not doing their job at all. This seemed to make perfect sense to me as it was becoming apparent that my nausea was not related to the stomach, or to distance covered, but to nightfall. It made sense to me that a lack of light meant reduced vision, which meant dizziness, which caused vomiting and wretchedness and forest-floor-lying-down-edness, to use technical terms. So I lowered my light from my forehead to my waist to allow as much peripheral vision as possible. I also borrowed Lisa Fine’s walking sticks so that I could poke at the ground and gain a tactile sense of horizontal. For the race itself I would keep my pacer in front of me so that I could use them to keep an accurate sense of vertical. I also took the Dramamine BEFORE I got sick. The results were encouraging. I was able to eat and drink for seven hours before nausea and vomiting took over. Race day was nearly the longest day of the year and we would have only eight hours of darkness to contend with. This run was brutal but for the first time in years I gained real hope. It also brought the renewed realization that 100 miles is a crazy long distance.

Without going into any detail I will say that the Mohican Trail isn’t the first or the hardest trial that Chad Heald has helped me through. At 54 miles all of my solitary-man-alone-on-personal-journey-of-discovery sentiments, present before the start, were gone and it was so good to see him! Chad started his day in South Carolina at 4 a.m. and flew through a twelve-plus hour drive followed by a rapid packing session and another 90 minute drive to Mohican to be there to crew and pace me all night. It’s who he is. Things were fine for me in a relative sort of “I have just run 54 miles over 7000 feet of elevation on a hot day” sort of way. In other words I was wasted but happy to still be moving forward. Tami and Noelle were also present and lovingly hen-pecked me to get ready for nightfall. We had about 90 minutes until sunset and about three hours until they would see us again at the fire tower. By that time we would likely know whether or not the plan was going to succeed. I decided that things were going well enough that I was going to make this my last-best attempt at number ten. There would be no more running, only walking, no matter how good things might feel, and there would be no talk of quitting or any tentative plans to get to 1000 miles at a future date. It was time to lock in the finish. Chad was up for the plan and he and Nick were going to form a relay to pace me to the finish. I was happy to know that I am no longer a runner who can finish 100 miles alone, and I’m grateful to have the level of care in my life that I do. I changed clothes, popped a double dose of Dramamine, grabbed the poles, put on my home-made belt light, and followed Chad into the dusk.

In 2011 the fire tower at night was the point where the wheels fell off the wagon. I arrived several hours late and insisted upon lying on the ground for 30 minutes with a blanket over my head, a move that seems precisely wrong in light of what I now know. When I arose I spent three hours going an additional 2.5 miles. At one point I actually fell over a three foot embankment and into a creek because I could not walk a straight line. It was a big, ugly, dangerous fight. That is why this year it was delightfully refreshing to simply be sore, sunburned, chaffed and exhausted. I was queasy but not at death’s door. We were doing a countdown each hour and were celebrating the fact that there was only a bit more than six hours until dawn…and Casey was there!!!! Casey Clark drove in from the wedding, guaranteeing himself a sleepless night, just to wish me well. Seeing him put 20 fresh miles on my legs. He told me as I walked through the tower parking lot that he knew I would finish, and I told him I loved him for being there. And we both meant it.

The rest of the night was marked by slow, steady, unremarkable progress. There wasn’t a moment of athletic excellence, nor were there any real moments of fear. I vomited twice but they were isolated events. Chad decided that he was having fun (!) and decided to hang with Nick and I rather than taking his scheduled break. Unlike some races Mohican has no rule against using two pacers and I had no question about the matter. This was my tenth Mohican and I wasn’t going to break any rules, but I wasn’t going to commit the sin of pride either. If my friends wanted to be with me then I wanted them with me and I felt no need to defend it. The nice thing about having two pacers is that they kept each other company while I lagged 30 yards behind, staring at someone’s back and reminding myself not to stare at the bobbing beam of light, but instead to look up at stars, branches, airplanes, or anything else that could remind me that the world of darkness also has an up-side and a down-side. Every so often they reminded me to eat a Jolly Rancher. I have gone forty miles at a stretch in the past with no food or water and, comparatively, a few hard candies and sips of tap water is living large.

At dawn we celebrated briefly and then I turned into a pansy. I started to whine that Chad was walking too fast (he wasn’t) and that we had drastically picked up the pace (we hadn’t). Despite being awake himself for 26 hours and having driven 14 hours and walked 30 miles at that point, Chad patiently and lovingly adjusted his pace until I came to my senses and asked him to forgive me (he did) and told him that I would walk his pace (I did).

Compare and contrast this brand of support with Nick Longworth, who knows me better than possibly any other human being. With fourteen miles to go I told Nick that I wanted to stop. He simply turned around, looked through me, and said “What did you just say?” I dropped my eyes from his in shame and said “Nothing”. He turned around and proceeded to walk. A minute later I heard him say to himself and also to the trees “Damn right nothing.” As part of his pre-race pep talk Nick told me that if I sat down after the halfway point he would beat me with both fists. Nick nearly lost his leg when he fell over a waterfall while training to pace me last year. To say that he was invested in this is to show no respect for understatement. When I die I am going to ask Jesus why I ever deserved so much love.

Chad finally gave in after 28 hours of wakefulness and 35 miles on foot at the covered bridge at the 89 mile mark. There’s no way to ever repay something like that. The bridge was staffed by several of my friends including Julie Bowen-Miller, Seth Chin-Parker, Jay Smithberger and others. Despite the fact that he was due to begin the Grand Slam of Ultra Running the next weekend at the Western States 100 Mile Run, Jay stayed up all night to greet me and send me, for the final time, up and over Hickory Ridge.

With eight miles to go we broke into a jog and with 5 miles to go I tripped and dislocated my left middle finger at the middle knuckle. I sat on the trail and looked at the finger which was extended at a ninety degree angle in the wrong direction and noted that I had absolutely no pain associated with something that would have had me screaming and heading for the emergency room in the real world. I’m a physical therapist so I simply grabbed the middle phalanx, applied traction, put it back into place, and proceeded down the trail. It was black and blue and hurt mightily the next day. I guess my pain receptors were completely full and not accepting new complaints.

With one mile to go Nick spun around and said “999 miles buddy! What are you thinking about?”

I had been thinking finisher’s thoughts for the last five miles. There comes a point in a 1000 mile run where it becomes apparent that a runner will finish. But that happy thought does not dismiss him or her from covering this painful distance anyway. My brain was crowded with memories. I thought of birth and death. I recalled finishing my first Mohican with my friend Steve Bush. We entered the race on a wing and a prayer and could not believe our good fortune when we actually finished. I recalled my conversation with God during that event and I recalled running repeats of the staircases at Children’s hospital while my son Caleb slept during a two week stay in the spring of 2000. I recalled a five mile run taken around and around a casino parking lot immediately after watching my 43 year old brother die in a hospice in Arizona in 2010. I thought about my dear friends Regis Shivers and Mike McCune; each gone now but both had been with me through this long night along with Avery Ball. I imagined each of them believing and cheering me on. I remembered how my legs buckled, unable to support the weight of my heart, as I walked to a courthouse in 2009 to have a life promise taken from me. As I lost balance my legs instinctively broke into a trot, carrying me through the crisis by reminding me of who I am and what I do. I thought about Lori, a woman who dropped out of school at age 13 to have a baby only to return to Marion Technical College at age 34 to earn her College degree; her 21 year old son present and beaming with pride. I thought about all of the groups I have run with: The Bucks, the Braves, the Bobcats, The Low Budget Athletic Club, the Posse and the Passel. Most of those runners are gone from my life now. The cotton jerseys turned to nylon and then to higher tech fabrics, but the act of placing one foot in front of the other has gone unchanged. I thought of houses owned and sold, apartments rented, lawns mowed, money earned borrowed and spent. I thought of faith growing and waning and rebuilding in differing forms. I thought about reading the same poem to children on so many Christmas eves. I thought about my Mom standing bundled in a scarf to ward off the chill as she watched me take a rare win in a race on a cold March afternoon in 1982. As a child I thought everyone’s mother coughed and I can still recall hers at will. I thought about ice cream cones purchased, basketball games and swim meets watched, and promises broken and kept. I thought of driving around the ghettos of Detroit in 1978 with Dad, looking for a Catholic Church on the Saturday night before the Free Press International Marathon, so that we wouldn’t have the sin of missing mass on our souls at the starting line the next day. And I thought about the cardboard.

Mainly though I thought of Joe Ferlin. On the first day of cross country practice in eighth grade Coach Ferlin instructed us to run one mile to a local park and meet him there. I assumed that when he arrived we would be put through a series of painful sprints or that we would be yelled at and told that we were not tough enough. I had failed in every sport I ever tried, and no amount of yelling ever seemed to build my character to a level that could satisfy the yeller. But instead of scolding or demanding, Coach Ferlin took a bundle of crumpled Bazooka Gum wrappers from his shirt pocket and read us the jokes that were printed on them. Then he smiled and told us that running should always be fun and that if it wasn’t fun we were doing it wrong. Then he told us to run back to the school; practice adjourned. Joe Ferlin was cross country coach of Frederick Rhoem Jr. High School for six years and none of his teams ever lost a meet. And thirty five years later it’s still fun.

My old happy thoughts were replaced by new happy thoughts when Scott Wolf’s kids, Bobby (age 10) and Meg (age 7), found me on the trail with a half mile to go. Scott woke at dawn and grabbed his kids on this father’s day to demonstrate to them that we are supposed to live in a place of care. They provided a blast of goodness and proof that we were within little-kid walking distance of the finish line. Meg told me that I should run if I could but that I could keep walking if my legs hurt.

I walked.

But then I broke into a run and Meg broke into a grin. I shuffled and she skipped. Immediately before the finish I kissed Noelle and Tami and ran with Nick across the finish line and into the arms of my dear friend Colleen Theusch. Colleen is 79 years old and has been present at every Mohican. She has been at the finish every year waiting for everyone, including me; even on the years when I did not arrive. My friends, many of whom ran the race themselves and finished hours earlier, were present and went absolutely ape-shit over the event. Someone, somewhere, at some time might have felt more loved than this, but if so it wasn’t me. I really don’t have words for how they made me feel.

I reckon love is God’s trump card to all of the claims made against him.

A while later Roy and I slipped into the pavilion to write my name on the piece of poster board that lists the ten-time finishers. But when we got there we found that someone had already done so. We looked at the names: Robin Fry, Arthur Moore, Regis Shivers, Mike Cargill, Richard Szekeresh, Ron Ross, TJ Hawk, Roy Heger, Mike Jacolene, Frederick Davis III, Dick Canterbury, Stephen Godale, Mike Heider, and now me. “I think I might be the slowest guy on that list. I’m going to lower the property value” I said. Roy Smiled and said “I think out of all of us you might have suffered the most for this.”

You would have to be an ultra runner to recognize the compliment.

Why did I have to suffer so much? Why fifteen years and five failures in my last eight attempts? Maybe I am just more suited to other things. Or maybe, like Jacob’s angel, Mohican needed to beat the living hell out of me before I received its blessing. Maybe, like Jacob, I needed to be humbled. Maybe I needed to understand that finishing Mohican 10 times is not an accomplishment but a grace; an unearned reward. Maybe I needed to understand that I cannot run 100 miles alone; maybe I needed to arrive at a place where I didn’t want to. I required walking sticks and crew and pacers and motion sickness medicine. I needed a complete absence of illness or injury and I needed six months of hard training. And with all of this I made the final cutoff by only 78 minutes.

But I’m fine with all of that.

My name is now on the piece of cardboard with my friends. The men on that board built this event and built this running community that we now live in just as surely as the young men from the civilian conservation corps built Mohican State Park so many years ago. My name appearing beneath theirs is just more grace. There could not be a greater honor as far as I am concerned. I don’t feel that I am deserving, but it is the height of arrogance to question an unearned blessing.

And so I won’t.

Over the past several years I have often thought about the ten finishes while out on long lonely runs. At those times I would think about the buckle but mainly I would try to imagine my name on that piece of weathered cardboard. And now that it is there I hope that they never replace the piece of board with anything nicer or more permanent.

I hope that runners finish Mohican 100 years from now and feel that it is THEIR race. I hope that they feel that the present is more important than the past. I hope that they feel that Mohican is special without quite knowing why. I hope that lives continue to change. And I hope that no finish is ever an easy one.

In my early days I believed that running Mohican each year would be a homecoming. It would stand in my life as an unchanging milepost that I could compare myself against. But the truth is that the race and my life have both changed immensely. In 1997 there were only eight 100 mile trail races in the world; now there are many. Despite this, the field at Mohican has tripled in size. The race has had five race directors and multiple variations in the course in that time. Michael Patton and Tracey Ross hung out together and watched their fathers run the race when they were small children. Michael is now in charge of course design and both he and Tracey now finish at the top of the standings in ultra marathons themselves. The lesson received in running one race each and every year isn’t one of tradition, it’s a lesson that everything changes, everything is temporary, and nothing stays the same. I am perfectly aware that my Mohican days are limited. I saw old-time Mohican finishers working at the aid stations and I know that my day will come.

I’m fine with that as well.

Someday years from now my buckle might sell for five dollars at a flea market. A relative will not understand its meaning and will discard it. The thought does not trouble me one bit. The cardboard might not even last that long. I happen to know that the piece of poster board is stored for 363 days a year in someone’s kitchen, tucked in behind a table with other items. I saw it once during a Holiday party. Like most of the things in this world that we cherish it may eventually be lost. And when it is my name will be among the names of my friends.

And now I can be fine with that too.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Room for Desert

The ancient Native American woman I was conducting business with was seated next to a teenage boy wearing a hoodie and a ‘New York Yankees’ ball cap. He had an empty hot-dog wrapper in front of him and was lingering over a donut. He seemed to be there mainly for the sake of companionship but he also served as an interpreter.

“She wants you to know that she made all this jewelry herself” he said, and then added, following a flurry of additional language from the old woman, “including that bracelet. She also wants you to know that the silver came from these hills.”

“That’s amazing” I replied. “Please tell her that I think this bracelet is beautiful”. But before he could translate the woman shot me a full-faced toothless grin and said in perfect English “Thank you”. “She understands more English than she speaks” the boy explained. “She knows what beautiful is. She hears that word a lot”.

“I bet she does.”

I was standing at a parking lot on a widened portion of road just south of Flagstaff Arizona. The old woman and the boy, who could possibly have been a grandson or a great-grandson, had chosen this spot, along with several other Native American Artisans who were located a few feet away, to sell their crafts. I was vacationing with my Dad, his wife Dorie, and my two sons. We had passed several locations like this in the past day and stopped here to stretch our legs.

I wasn’t just being polite. The bracelet really was beautiful. The old woman showed me how it unfolded to fit around a wrist of any size. As she placed it on her wrist, bronzed skin contrasting with silver plating, the art came alive. It was clear that she valued it. I immediately wanted it for the wrist of a loved one. “She says twenty four dollars but she will take less” the boy reported. “Please tell her that that is a bargain. I don’t want to barter” I replied. The boy relayed this information, which brought another smile.

I had been advised to always negotiate with these artisans. I was told that they expect you to barter and, in fact, if you don’t try to craft a better deal they will think that you are a sucker. I considered this for a moment and decided that she could think what she wanted about me. I felt a surge of guilt as things currently stood for paying so little for something that could have sold for hundreds of dollars in another setting. Besides, I figured that as an Anglo tourist, clambering out of the back seat of a car wearing broken sandals, a white coffee-stained Green Jewel shirt, and a yellow Jegs Automotive hat there wasn’t a single chance in all of the world that she didn’t already assume that I was an asshole.

It was disconcerting to realize that even here, out on the farthest fringes of our culture, people still needed to deal with assholes in order to make a living. The thought interrupted my vacation mind-set for an instant before I recalibrated and toddled away, the happy and temporary owner of something wonderful.

The chilled and pine scented air in the elevated region of Flagstaff was a relief, I suppose, from the scorching August temperatures of the Sonoran Desert that surrounded this oasis on all sides. I loved Flagstaff. It was green and it was hilly. It reminded me of a slightly hypoxic Mohican. But I was happy as we descended the mountain on our drive to Phoenix. In the next hour, as our altitude dropped and the oxygen content of the air climbed, the temperature changed from 72 to 104 degrees. We drove through the heart of Indian Reservation country for most of the remainder of the day.

I came to the desert for the first time just a few years ago and it immediately felt like I had come home; a feeling that seemed baseless at the time. I had never been near a desert and no one in my lineage had either. Dad, as the family’s wanderer, moved from Ireland, raised five kids in Cleveland, and later moved further westward to the desert. Maybe he has found his permanent place and maybe he hasn’t. I would never bet against his ability to move and expand and learn.

When I first came to the desert I came simply to visit Dad and Dorie. I presumed I would hate the desert and I believe I recall the moment when the seed of distaste was planted.

The Berea City School District had a particular rhythm to its curriculum in the early 1970’s. We pledged that we would have allegiance to a flag. We learned that we were all created as equals. We learned that the proper move during a nuclear attack was to crouch under our desks and hold our heads between our knees. We learned that America was the land of innovation. We learned that it was destiny that caused us to occupy the land from one shining sea to the other shining sea. We learned that any of us could become wealthy and famous if we tried hard enough (Horatio Alger was referenced). We learned that we could become president, or an astronaut (!). We learned that if we raised our hands in class we could be ignored but if we appeared to be bored we would be called upon every time. We learned that excellent readers and spellers belonged in the “Doodie” reading group and the lesser skilled belonged in the “Raspberry” group.

I believed that I could be president because that was what I was told. But no one ever told me that I might, as a Raspberry, some day aspire to achieve the rank of Doodie. I struggled with spelling and assumed that this was a Raspberry birthright. One day, while reviewing a spelling-test-catastrophe with my third grade teacher she pointed out that I had spelled dessert with only one‘s’. “When you spell it that way Mark it means a desert…like a place with a cactus. Always remember that dessert, like something you get as a treat, has two s’s and the nasty hot desert has only one s. Remember that you use a longer word for dessert because you want to linger over a treat and enjoy it. In a desert it is hot and there is nothing there. Therefore you want to be there for as SHORT a time as possible…so only one s.”

I have been working in education for 14 years and it seems to me that learning is, at best, about 80% efficient. We work hard to learn things and that knowledge hopefully refills a tank that is functionally leaky due to things we learn that are incorrect, and thus must be relearned.

I needed to relearn the desert. And so I did. When I visit Dad and Dorie I can ramble on the fringe of the desert that lies just outside of the last house in the housing development where they live. It always amazes me how little ramp-up is needed between a full-on housing development, complete with a homeowners association and zoning laws, and the wilderness of the desert. I have seen rattlesnakes, javalinas, roadrunners, scorpions, and huge jackrabbits within a few hundred yards of someone’s front yard. I regularly hear coyotes. And Dad reports that he saw a mountain lion once and that a neighbor spotted a bobcat drinking from his swimming pool.

The desert, far from being a place “with nothing there”, is completely filled with living things…and most of them can kill you. Against old advice I linger over runs in the desert. Sometimes I tell Dad and Dorie that I will be back in 45 minutes and show up back at their door 2-3 hours later. Who can blame me? Running through the side streets of Delaware I am a traffic hazard…a possum…but in the desert I am Caballo Pecoso (the freckled horse) lone runner of the purple sage...

...apologies to Micah True : )

I’m not alone. I have found that most of my running friends love the desert. At least we love to visit. Maybe the desert represents the best in us. It is reminiscent of a survival game. The desert evaporates away everything from me that is not necessary to live and leaves in my mind the tiniest and most efficient byproduct: an emollient of amazement that life exists anywhere that it possibly can and that we can live with so little. I spend my days so crushed by modern culture that it is enlightening to be reminded that I can live without it after all.

I need to admit that I leave the desert at the conclusion of the runs. Pabst Blue Ribbon, air conditioners, swimming pools, and ‘Ice Road Truckers’ reruns await. Walden Pond did not make an outdoorsman of Thoreau and the desert does not make a nomad of me. But I do leave the desert requiring little and knowing that I can live with less.

And so I do.

Maybe we aren’t as enamored by the desert as we are with the frontier. Possibly the desert is one of the last hold-out frontiers because it is not easily exploited. It is difficult to carve a profit from the desert. And so, in terms of measurements used by modern culture, it fails to exist. The desert is empty only in terms of profitable resources. There is little in the desert that can be owned, or stolen, or used up before moving on. Land is often bought and sold for less than one hundred dollars per acre. And historically this lack of conformity to Wall Street earned the resources of the desert the title of “nothing”.

When we preserve a desert or a wild place perhaps we are seeking to preserve the surprise that comes with learning that some of our life lessons have been inaccurate and that our culture is expendable. I have heard claims that the youth of our nation no longer seek physical activity. But I will tell you that I have never seen a child brought to a geographical place requiring struggle that didn’t see the adventure in the experience. Upon leaving the wilderness a child, like Thoreau, might return to creature comforts but surely the lesson remains. A donut and a ball cap need not signal the end of Native American Culture any more than the return to Wii means that my Anglo children are ruined. Both can hold the truth that their culture is their choice and not their boss if they are taught as much.

Our children are not broken.

Neither is our need to learn, or relearn.

I believe that I should hold the legends, inventions, and success stories of American culture as sources of pride. And I do. Our nation does not lack heroes. I have a friend who is currently stationed overseas away from his wife and daughters so that our way of life (and the lives of innocents around the world) can be preserved. This man is a hero. We should always learn of our heroes and admire heroism. But we should also be honest about our successes and failures. The truth is that much of our nation’s wealth and infrastructure was built on the backs of slaves. While we can be proud of ending slavery we should recognize that the sharecropping system that immediately replaced it was a functional evil as well. We should not forget that our parents and grandparents almost certainly saved the world from evil during World War II. But we should be humble about the economic boom that followed, which was surely the result of hard work but also came as the result of the bomb- induced destruction of nearly every industrialized country in the world…except ours. Now that the world is catching up to us corporate leaders have taken to moving manufacturing overseas where unfair wages may be paid to uneducated and desperate citizens of third world countries. I suggest that this practice is as evil as sharecropping.

Individuals who are currently unemployed as a result of this practice are at times called out by politicians, corporate leaders, or members of ‘the greatest generation’ for lacking spirit or work ethic. They are encouraged to pull themselves up by their boot straps. They are asked to exude national pride while bearing the stigma of losing their homes in the worst economic crisis since the great depression. If we are not honest about the sources of success and failure then hope is replaced by shame. And without hope our paths become nearly impossible. Former factory workers and members of the armed services who are now homeless are invisible to our culture because they cannot be exploited for their resources. If they do not exist then how can they be human? And if they are not human then why should they have human rights?

Native Americans were moved from the Midwest onto “other lands reserved for them” in the west. As I drove through these “Reservations” I saw that they were America’s wastelands; lacking in resources. I had to stretch my mind to imagine scraping out a living on them. In fact many of the Indian reservations in Arizona are older than the state itself. Arizona only became a state in 1912. Compare this to Ohio, which became a state in 1803, or the original 13 colonies which date back to the famous year of 1776. Westward expansion slowed things somewhat, of course, but states well west of Arizona are much older. For example California became a state in 1850 and Oregon in 1859.

Why the delay? Why did we skip Arizona to move to other states? According to a website dedicated to Arizona mining:

Since 1910, Arizona has been the nation's top copper producer — producing more copper than all the other 49 states combined. Two to three generations later, in 1996, about one out of every eight jobs in our state still depended on the copper mines.

Arizona became a major copper producer in 1910 and a state in February of 1912. Economic reality seems to equal physical reality in our culture. Perhaps prior to copper production Arizona did not exist in the eyes of politicians or industrialists because there was nothing to exploit.

Zanesville Ohio suffered an opposite fate for a similar reason: An environmentally friendly but economically disastrous law was passed in the late 1970’s that ruled that the high sulfur content of most Ohio coal was unfit for burning. An arithmetic problem yielded Zanesville, a major coal mining town, economically non-feasible on the day that it was calculated that high sulfur coal PLUS scrubbers needed to safely burn such coal EQUALLED a higher cost than low sulfur coal alone. It was the day that Zanesville began to cease to exist as an asset to corporate America.

Zanesville is not alone. Nearly all of eastern Ohio has been economically damaged to a point that it may never recover. Zanesville was once a town of white picket fences and black metal lunch boxes. It was a town of churches and clean streets. Now, along with unemployment, alcoholism and domestic violence are up. The population is down, as are school achievement scores and graduation rates.

A cynic might suggest the United States is truly only great when it can operate in unfair environments. I hate cynicism. What a message it could be to tell tales of greatness that were accomplished on even playing fields.

What if we took a fraction of the credit that industrialists received for building fortunes by exposing workers to unsafe conditions and place it in the hands of the less-than-greatest-generation that insisted that poisoning our children with air borne sulfur was wrong, regardless of the economic impact it had?

At the very least can we not unclench our iron fists from some of our less true legends? What a great thing it could be to admit to past sins and release the unsuccessful coal miner from Zanesville from the yoke of guilt they personally feel for failing? We could admit that the closing of the mines was not caused by a lack of work ethic or a character flaw on his part. We could tell him to hold his head high and that there is no need to resolve his heartbreak with a bottle or with his fists.

We could tailor a similar message to former steelworkers in Youngstown, family farmers in Illinois, and the white collar worker from Medina who has lost, or soon will lose, their home. But the message cannot be believed if we insist on identifying our place as a place of endless opportunity where hard work always leads to success and failure can always be traced to one of the seven deadly sins. Our myths can inspire us but they can also break a person’s will.

Our people are not broken.

John Denver sang of coming home to a place he had never been before. It has taken me a few years but I think I understand why I felt immediately at home in the desert. When I am at my best I am desert-like. When I run I lose water, my temperature rises, I become salty and dirty. Mainly though, I become limited in what I can carry. If this condition represents me at my best then why would I not feel comfort when presented with a matching geography? There has to be a natural attraction to all of this. I don’t need to be in the desert to experience the desert.

I believe that God communicates in metaphor. God went to the desert to think and to pray. Why would he not want us to do the same?

Our culture should not determine our value. We should determine our value and we should determine our culture. But myths held sacrosanct offer no room for self-analysis. Our culture is a choice. I need to understand that I can choose some elements of it and reject others.

Our spirits are endless. Horizontal expansion always ends but our self discovery will not ever be limited or defined by anything outside of ourselves. Not even a shining sea. We are perfectly renewable resources and can never be used or used up unless we allow it. When the last frontier on the planet has been occupied we will still have our own internal deserts. We are not broken unless we choose to be.

Maybe I should have bartered with the old woman. Maybe she does not need my pity. Maybe its okay to be at peace with taking less. Remove profit from our culture and it ceases to exist but remove a native and ancient people from their lands and they produce art.

Who do we want to be?

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Widow's Walk

There was this one time when I had to write a really really really long paper. It took me like, a long time and some of my friends and family wondered, while I was writing it, where I was at. It was 180 pages long and the guy that was grading it wouldn’t let me do things like end a sentence with a preposition or use the word like. Unless I meant that I liked something. The guy that was grading it also said I could only use the word really one time in a row. The guy that was grading it was really really cool even though he had that hang-up about me using up all of my prepositions early.


When the paper was done I handed Bowling Green State University the 180 pages and 30,000 dollars and they gave me a cool wall hanging. And now I can write whatever I want and no ever grades it.

It took me 2700 miles to write my dissertation. At least that’s the joke I tell myself. Its not really a very funny joke.

But it is true.

Technically I write while sitting down at a keyboard but the reality is I need to be moving to think and I need to be thinking to write. Sometimes I think that my brain must be wired directly through my hind-end because I cannot think and sit at the same time. I barely made it out of elementary school for this very reason. Sitting in a chair being lectured to was a sure recipe for a trip to the principal’s office and a reserved spot in the lowest reading group. High school was a tiny bit easier than elementary school because we changed classes every hour or so. College was better yet and physical therapy school was like a dream come true. By the time I hit my forties and was writing the dissertation I discovered that a niche existed within the academy that allowed me to go for a twenty mile run and come back home with 10 new pages of content, for which I would receive academic credit. That skill set, mixed with a big wad of cash, and several hundred cups of coffee, earned me one of those terminal degree thingys.

Writing the dissertation wasn’t really that hard because I love to write. I still love to write and I still come home from long runs with pages of content. Some of that content ends up here and some does not.

I started to write a lengthy piece, for this blog, about the negative characteristics of arrogance, and pride, and obsession as they relate to the positive characteristics of commitment, and patience, and persistence. They all are, I think, a similar breed of cat and somehow symbiotic and yet in conflict with each other. I also think that they might be related to Jacob’s angel but each time I resume the writing the words get stuck because I have been sitting on my butt more than usual and, knowing what you now know about my ass-mind connection, you can imagine the writer’s block I have going on.

The reason that I have been less active is because my legs have gone absent without leave. Win, lose, or draw it is not even a little bit unusual for me to have dead legs following Mohican. The fact that I only made it 65 miles this year hasn’t relieved the disconnected feeling I have after the event. It just makes my daydreams while awaiting the return of my legs less happy.

My runs since Mohican have been short and unpredictable. I spent an entire year believing that I was building an unsinkable ship only to learn that there is no such thing. I was supported by the world’s largest, most experienced, and most loving crew and still foundered.

I’m disappointed but I am not embarrassed. I have learned to not take myself seriously enough to feel humiliated. Maybe those that live in greatness can be disgraced by failure but those of humble dwellings, like me, have a short trip home and very little explaining to do after a fall.

Not having a buckle burns a bit but the part that really troubles me most is that I do not know where I went wrong. Figuring out why I fell short will take some time and some thought. But I am not thinking well these days. Maybe when my legs come home I will regain purposeful thought and solve the problem.

Until they return I will run a bit each day and watch the horizon, awaiting their return.

In days of yore the captains of seagoing vessels were highly respected members of their communities and could become quite wealthy. The wealth could come at a high cost in terms of safety and the wife of a Captain spent her life worrying and watching for her husband’s return. Sometimes the vigils lasted for years; long after the time when most would have abandoned hope. Apparently these women ignored the “watched pot never boils” platitude. They actually had walkways built, complete with guardrails, along the tops of their oceanfront homes where they could stroll and watch the sea for signs of a mast in the distance. These structures were known as ‘Widow’s Walks’ and can still be seen on the mansions of the east coast today.

My runs since Mohican have, almost exclusively, been on very short trails measuring a mile or so. I run these trails because I never know when my ghost legs will simply grind to a halt, forcing me to walk back home. I hope that one day, on one of these runs, I will spot a mast in the distance and some spring will return. I hope it happens soon because YUT-C will be here on Sept. 17 whether my legs are ready or not. My legs are no longer sore. The muscle aches ended a few days after the race. The symptoms of my lost legs these days are simply due to their refusal to take orders from my mind. They aren’t speaking to each other.

Again though, this isn’t unusual. I feel certain that my legs will return. I have just completed the best running year of my life, after all, and so maybe they are on a beach somewhere with an umbrella drink taking a much needed break. Maybe Henry Kissinger is sitting next to them urging them to forgive my stomach and open a meaningful dialogue with my mind…or maybe he is just chain smoking and bitching about how Nixon was misunderstood. Who knows?

They will come home when they get hungry. They know that no amount of nagging will get them there. They know their limits.

My personal widow’s walk is Seymore Woods Nature Preserve. It’s a tiny plot of land identified by a two foot by three foot wooden sign that is hidden by the forest it is meant to advertise. The plot of land, donated to Delaware County by a farmer many years ago, lies partially buried in weeds and contains a trail that is approximately one and one quarter mile around. I go to Seymore Woods when I want to see more woods. Its another little joke I tell myself. I also go there on occasions when a run is simply a run. The run I took there last week was neither a training run nor a recovery run. It wasn’t a taper and it wasn’t a tempo run. It wasn’t a pre-race “shakeout” or a heat adaptation run. And for the first time in a long time it was a good run. A run doesn’t need a title to be a success and neither, I suppose, do I.

At the conclusion of each loop I would decide whether to do another one or not. I was pleased that for several loops in a row I decided to keep going. I noticed, for the first time ever, the stone base of a homestead built in 1830. I also noticed a side trail leading into the unknown. I will take that trail someday when my legs can join me.

The trail at Seymore woods is pretty rough. I guess if I was required to describe the venue it could be called ”technical”. But since I had no need to categorize this run or the trail I simply thought of it as rough.

At one point I took a tumble and ended up directly under a very small tree. The part of the loop in which the tree existed was so heavily canopied that it appeared to be dusk even though it was noon on a sunny day. There were few other small trees that managed to survive in the gloom of this part of the woods and so this tree’s presence was notable.

The tree’s existence really made no sense. The lack of sunlight should have signaled the end of its life. I scanned the canopy for a source or light that simply had to exist and saw a tiny patch of sky high in the trees fifty yards distant. As I lay there I realized that that patch of light must sweep the forest floor as the sun moves accross the sky, arriving at my small tree some time each afternoon on sunny days. Then I noticed a trail of small green weed-like plants that traced the path. This tree used a small spot of light that existed for moments each day to progress slowly toward the canopy. I presume it lays mostly dormant not only during the winter months but at shady times as well. It grows when it can grow, even if those times are rare. I imagined it as a tall, mature tree at some time in the very distant future. I also imagined that it might take it a while to get there at this rate, and then I imagined that it will hit its goal in time.

I also imagine that all of the planning and worrying in the world won’t speed the process up one bit.

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Mohican 1997

Most of 1997 had been a blur to me. Most news was lost on me. Timothy McVeigh had recently been sentenced to death for blowing up a Federal Building in Oklahoma City; an action that was called the greatest act of terrorism in American history.

But I largely did not notice.

I kept looking for profound answers to the inequities of the world and I was receiving none.

For the past five months I had struggled to put together one day at a time and at times I was struggling to get through individual moments. And the moments I was living on this Saturday in late June were proving to simply be more of the same. More pain. More worry. More strangeness. I had come to the Mohican Trail 100 Mile Run looking for answers. I was looking for something cathartic, something that would make me understand why there could be so much hurt in the world and how it had been masked from me for so long. I had heard that long mystical trail runs were supposed to be the place where these truths were revealed. But so far I had met no mystics. Instead I met strange, seemingly unathletic, people complaining of insect bites, humidity, and sore feet. I considered myself to be a solid runner and yet I had battled a man all day long who looked like he should have been selling grilled cheese sandwiches at a Grateful Dead concert. And I was being followed around the course by a woman I had never met before. She had a lisp and was repeatedly cautioning me to calm down.

As I ran down the face of the dam toward the covered bridge aid station in the fading twilight at 65 miles I came to the conclusion that no answers would be found among this weirdness. I would have loved to have stopped, grabbed a shower, gone home, and forgotten this whole freak show. But walking through the front door of my home and confronting my troubled family with the news that things got tough and so Daddy quit was absolutely out of the question. I particularly could not convey that message to my son Colin, and so I kept running and kept questioning. Why me God? Why my family? Why would you do something like this to an innocent child? What is it you want from me? Where is the good in this? There were other questions as well.

Most immediately: Why can I not drop this pesky hippie?

Life is a series of memories. Some very clear and some buried. For example I have almost no memory of my senior prom but I can easily recall the first time that I heard of the Mohican Trail 100 Mile Run. It was 1995 and I was trying to complete my first 50 mile race at Owen-Putnam State Forest. I had paid my dues; I had completed more than 20 marathons and a 37 mile trail race by that time. I had been a runner for 18 years and I had trained well for the event. Despite all of this it had been a tough day. The temperature was in the 20’s. My camelback had exploded leaving my sweatpants soaked, and my Power Bars (my only food) had frozen solid. The forest was beautiful but the shortened November days were already beginning to darken and I had not thought to bring a light. There were fewer than forty people in the race and I had not seen another runner for hours. Walking up a hill at approximately the 42 mile mark I suddenly saw smoke. “Oh my God” I thought, “The woods are on fire”. I became immediately despondent. I assumed that it was my duty to leave the course, find a house, and report the fire. I figured that by the time I returned to the course the time cutoff would have passed. I was about to DNF my first fifty mile run. I started to tear up and then to sob. As I cried I noticed the swirls of smoke were in sync with my heavy breaths. The “smoke” I realized, was really just my condensed breaths. “Wow” I thought, “I better just sit down right here and pull my shit together”. I parked on a log and gnawed on a rock solid Power Bar. Eventually another runner came by and asked if I was OK. I admitted that I was actually pretty concerned for myself and asked if he could maybe slow a bit and let me hang with him for safety. He slowed to a walk and nursed me toward the finish line. He asked me where I was from and I told him central Ohio. “Hey!” he said, “That’s Mohican country”. I responded “”What do you mean?” He said “That’s where the Mohican 100 miler is held.” I told him that although I was familiar with Mohican State Park I had never heard of the event. “Well you should run it” he said…

“You will love it”.

And I did love it. And I do love it. And this story is about my first Mohican. Mainly though it’s a story about how I came to love this event. This is my longest post ever. It has been a tough one to write. Several people know part of the story, a writer for the Cleveland Plain Dealer even covered a bit of it once, but I have never told anyone all of it. The events are described here exactly as I remember them. No artistic license is taken. Lying about things like this would be wrong. It has taken me 14 years to begin writing it. It is very personal but I am afraid that if I don’t get this story written I will someday forget elements of it. And that would be wasteful. I thought of dividing this posting into a few installments but each time I do that it seems to confuse people. Instead all parts are included here together. It is written for me and a few who love me, but available to anyone with internet access who cares to know the story.

Part One:
I will always recall the morning of January 5, 1997 for a number of reasons. I was 33 years old, married with two perfectly healthy children. Ultra marathons had revived my running and I was training for my first 100 mile run. I owned a physical therapy practice in the fastest growing town in Ohio. I employed nine physical therapists and three physical therapist assistants and was making plenty of money. I spent my days working with individuals with disabilities and so I assumed that I understood the psychosocial impact of poor health. I believed that my success in life was due to hard work and I believed that opportunities existed equally for all individuals. I felt that lack of success in life came from living wrong; a lack of will power, or a character dysfunction. As far as I was concerned those who were less successful than me simply hadn’t tried as hard as I did.

Trust me, you would have hated me.

For years I viewed the morning of January 5, 1997 as the date of a tragic event. Now I recognize that it was the final time that I could justify the militant ignorance that had shadowed me for my entire life.

On that morning I was in the basement of my home celebrating my daughter Emily’s fifth birthday. The house was crowded with children and littered with bits of streamers, wrapping paper, plates of melting ice cream, and party favors that obeyed a 101 Dalmatians theme.

And then everything changed.

A panicked call came from upstairs that my 2 ½ year old son Colin was choking. I raced up two flights of stairs to find him shaking, unconscious, but breathing; not choking. The grandparents took over the birthday party as my wife Jenny and I accompanied Colin in an ambulance to the hospital where we learned that he had suffered a seizure. It probably wasn’t a big deal, we were told. We learned that seizures were not uncommon in kids and it was likely a singular event.

But it wasn’t.

Another seizure followed, followed by another ambulance ride and another consult. Then more came. Soon the seizures came hours, rather than days, apart. Still we were reassured that seizure disorders were quite treatable with medication and so there was no need to panic.

But treatment proved ineffective.

Over the next several weeks the seizures increased in frequency. At first there were dozens of seizures per day. Then the number topped 100. Then they became so frequent that they really could not be counted; only estimated. The closest estimate was 300-500 seizures per day. Often times Colin would have more than one seizure in a single minute. And even more problematic: there were five different seizure types. Some would cause a spasmodic episode; a minute or two of full body shaking. Others involved staring into space. Some involved a simple but disturbing head drop. The scariest were the “drop attacks” where Colin would suddenly throw his head up, body into full extension, and drop to the floor with no notice whatsoever. Despite the helmet he was required to wear, supervision needed to be constant. It was dangerous for him to walk across a room unaccompanied. The problem with multiple seizure types, we were told, was that a medication used to treat one type might increase another type. Colin was placed on a massive cocktail of seizure medications that impacted his ability to communicate. The doctors admitted that the constant adjustments to the dosages were guesses.

X-rays, MRI’s, and CAT Scans were all negative. We learned that most types of epilepsy were idiopathic; the cause unknown. We were told early on that it was not necessary to call for an ambulance any more unless a seizure lasted longer than four minutes. We were on our own.

Colin’s face and body became bruised and he had an enormous bump on the back of his head from the falls that accompanied the drop attacks. I saw an electroencephalogram (EEG) that was taken at the Cleveland Clinic and it offered no patterns at all. It looked as if a small child had taken a pen and scribbled randomly and forcefully on the paper. The diagnosis brought the worst possible news. This was Lennox –Gastaut Syndrome; the worst type of seizure disorder. It was considered to be incurable and, largely, untreatable. We were told that if Colin lived to see his fourth birthday the risk of death from that point on would be reduced…we would have to wait and see.

Friends disappeared. Colin suddenly had few playmates and, after the initial flurry of casseroles that appeared at our door, most of our circle of friends vanished without comment. I received a telephone call one night from a friend who invited Jenny and me to a party at his home. I hadn’t spoken to him in a while and he was unaware of our situation and so I updated him. After a long uncomfortable pause his only response was “Well, stop by if you can”. Jenny predicted we would never hear from him again. And we didn’t.

In the midst of all of this my mother died. I wasn’t able to make it to the first of two sets of calling hours because Colin was being released from a hospital stay, but at the second set I was approached by a woman I knew only peripherally through a family member. She explained that she sold life insurance and could, if I acted quickly, “slip the paperwork for Colin in before the medical records hit the system” at which time he would be denied. That way we could get some money if he died. I said no thanks. To this day I consider it, given the setting and the circumstances, to have been the most callous comment I have ever heard. But she wasn’t the last opportunist to visit us. I was approached by an individual who sold vitamins from her home. Others demanded that we see a faith healer and another told me that the bible states that “The sins of the father are visited upon his children”; clearly, she thought, this must be justice administered due to my past transgressions.

Being angry was easy. And so I was. It was hard to go five minutes without internally rolling my eyes at someone who complained about the amount of time they spent driving their kid to select soccer practice, or complaining that their kid’s teacher was less accessible due to the amount of time that was being spent on the special needs children in the classroom. Despite all of this I understood, even then, that the hatred and laziness that I was experiencing was really ignorance. My family now lived in a formerly  secret world, separated like ghosts from the rest of society by a thin layer of lace that should have been so easy for everyone to see, and so easy for everyone to accommodate…and yet our situation remained completely and utterly invisible, or at least misunderstood.

Then again, who could I really blame for these attitudes and lack of caring? I had spent years making money treating individuals with health problems. I had been in their homes. I had looked directly into their eyes and never bothered to adopt any of their pain. The worst sin I committed was in convincing myself that I understood their pain. The evil lay in my ability to use my credentials as a health care professional to offer an “expert opinion” on anything from taxes to education to socialized health care plans. Now I was forced to realize that a secret world exists, and has always existed, in which those who need to be served often have no voice. The reason they have no voice is because they are trying to survive. They are trying to make it to the next moment. They won’t write letters to their congressional representatives or confront a school board or sue an insurance company because their time, energy, and money are spoken for. They rely upon others to do this for them. They had, for years, relied partially upon me. And I let them down because I didn’t care. And the kindest thing I can say about myself now is that I didn’t care because I was ignorant. Slowly it dawned upon me that if I couldn’t see a world that I was living in and making a living with…if I hadn’t understood the world of the disabled, then how many more things did I simply not understand?

I was, and am, a white, anglo saxon, protestant, middle aged, middle class, heterosexual male. My group rules the roost. I had never experienced prejudice. I had never experienced hatred. I had never been marginalized and yet I was given free reign to make decisions for those who were. What else did I not understand? I didn’t know what it is to be homeless. I didn’t know what it is to be unemployed for a long period. I didn’t know what it is to be a person of color. I didn’t know what it is to be an illegal immigrant. I didn’t know what it is to be homosexual. Although there was no spare money in my youth I did not have to escape the poverty culture. I imagine now that all marginalized groups live under similar veils of lace that should be visible, and fragile, but instead serve as prisons. I had never been discriminated against or hated but I now had a front row seat to observe those who were.

My daughter Emily…was a champion. I won’t tell her story because I cannot know what it was/is. Some day she may choose to tell it herself but I will tell you that I saw a five year old girl living in a world of struggle and bias and hatred who handled the situation precisely the way Jesus would want us to handle it. I will always believe that Emily understood what was happening. The response that I believe I saw was one of acceptance. She was a perfect friend to her brother. She was loving and supportive. Surely her life was impacted in ways that I will not ever know. Our attempts to provide normalcy must have been minimally successful at best. But what I saw was grace and strength beyond what a five year old should ever have to offer. She was the only person that I saw in our entire world who saw through the lace prison and brushed it aside... an option that was available but ignored by all of us…except her.

The world needs more five year old girls.

I also will not endeavor to tell Jenny’s story. If I do not know what it is to be marginalized, and if I do not know what it is to be epileptic, and if I do not know what it is to be hated, and if I do not know what it is to be a five year old girl, then I also do not know what it is/was to be Jenny. I will tell you how things seemed to me, however. Jenny and I handled things differently, she reached out for support and I withdrew from the world. In hindsight I think that her approach was the healthier path.

As a young man I thought there should be some way for me to protect my family, but I was powerless. I would awaken each morning and hope for an instant that this was a bad dream and then realize that it wasn’t. Sometimes I was awakened by the sound of Colin having a seizure. Jenny or I would rush to him out of reflex but arrived to find that we were useless. We weren’t invited into his world. We couldn’t understand it any more than anyone else could understand ours. I remember feeling very alone. I would speak to people about things on occasion but there were never any answers, even from those who people in my life who had ALWAYS provided answers.

Because waking up was so unpleasant I, more or less, stopped sleeping. Running stopped completely. I watched basketball far into each night. I became an expert on the sport. I could tell you the probable outcome of nearly any matchup, especially the midnight matchups between west coast teams, no matter how obscure the teams might be. I could tell you, for example, Why St. Mary’s should easily have been able to defeat New Mexico State. I was a servant to my job and a servant to my family. I was accepting of the former responsibility and sadly proud of the latter. I was otherwise of no use to the world. I never bothered to become alcoholic because I never knew when service would call. Instead, after everyone was in bed, I watched basketball, or infomercials, or old war movies, or whatever useless shit happened to be on. It didn’t matter. Any sound in my brain other than my own thoughts was welcome.

One night someone I loved very much stood between me and my TV and asked

“Why don’t you run anymore?”

I answered honestly. “Running doesn’t matter.”

“Well then what about Mohican?” She inquired.” Are you giving up on that too?”

“Yes I am” I said. “There is no chance on earth that I can run 100 miles.”

“Ok, that’s fine” she replied “But I think that if you can’t do it you should drop out on the trail in June rather than on the couch in February.”

If this was Hollywood the theme to Rocky would have blared forth and I would have done a bunch of pushups or something. But this was life and so I went out into the rain and ran myself to exhaustion in 17 minutes. Then I walked home.

And then I went to bed.

Part Two:
The training runs for Mohican 1997 were completely unpredictable, and inadequate, and very nearly perfect. I would slip out of the house at about 11:00pm on most nights and run for a while. Often I ran for 45 minutes but sometimes I ran for hours. Looking back I realize that absolutely nothing about the runs ever bothered me or caused me to alter their being. I could do a 20 mile run in a freezing rain or a 15 minute run on a temperate night. It simply didn’t matter. I knew that my usefulness to the family was limited at this time of night and so I ran without a schedule. If I got tired I walked, or sat down. I love the running scenes in Forest Gump. I love that he ran when he felt like running, ate when he was hungry, and stopped when he was tired. That was exactly, precisely, how I recall my runs in the spring of 1997. They were always done alone and always in the middle of the night. I knew the location of every soda machine and drinking fountain in Delaware County. I found that Saturday nights were especially freeing. At first I simply carried a few dollars and if I became thirsty I would swing back into town and wait in line at the Delco Drive- Thru, between cars filled with drunks, and buy a cherry Coke…then I’d run more and maybe come back again later…or maybe I wouldn’t. After a while I learned that if I preplanned a route I could drive it in advance and throw a can of pop out the window every four miles or so. I’d then run from can to can, sometimes all night long.

I had a Walkman and listened to 70’s music. I realized that the lyrics of Barry White’s “My First, My Last, My Everything” could be a prayer. And so I would sing them aloud to God and then ask for a miracle. The Hale-Bopp comet was in the sky and on clear evenings I could see it standing starkly on the horizon near a tree line or near the darkened silhouette of a grain silo and the beauty would almost overcome me. And then I would become angry and ask God, if he was capable of such majesty, why he couldn’t (wouldn’t?) save my son? Why did he ignore me? I pledged my life to him. I accepted him as my savior. And I complained angrily to him. I waited for a response but each night I would return home and realize that my respite from the world changed no one for the better.

I didn’t run this way out innocence, or naivety. I could riff on about Lydiard and fartlek and intervals and lactate thresholds for hours if needed…but I couldn’t have been bothered by any of that. I wasn’t even particularly worried about finishing Mohican. I figured that that wouldn’t happen. I once drove to Mohican and ran around on the roads for five hours, then realized that all this run was proving was that I had no idea what I was doing. I climbed in my car and drove back home.

One morning I was eating breakfast with Colin. He was seated in a high chair that he had formerly outgrown and wearing his helmet, a horrid brown thing that I hated for its ugliness and symbolism, but loved because it protected him the way I wanted to. Colin was eating a bowl of Cheerios. He would stab at the bowl and after several attempts he would get a few on his spoon and, time after time, just as he was getting the cereal to his mouth he would have a head drop seizure and lose them again. It was incredibly painful to watch. No matter how many times I would try to help him he INSISTED on doing it himself. It occurred to me that Colin was strong, and patient, and accepting, both at this breakfast and throughout his days. I realized that I was the only person at that breakfast table who was unhappy. I decided that I needed to be more like Colin. I needed to be patient, and strong, and determined.

Part Three:
The sun set precisely as I arrived at the covered bridge, the 65 mile point at Mohican fourteen years ago. I flopped into a lawn chair and started fumbling through my drop bag for my headlamp. It was a massive thing that required 3 “D” batteries that were inserted into a case that rode on the back of my head counterbalancing a single incandescent bulb on the front. It had cost me 45 dollars and I was proud of it. I also had my Walkman strapped to a waist pack that I filled with spare batteries, audio cassette tapes, snickers bars, and homemade salt pills, made by emptying the contents of B-12 capsules and refilling them with table salt. I was completely and utterly exhausted from trying to break the hippie. I noticed that he was slouched low in a lawn chair 25 feet away and was being attended to by a young girl. I recall thinking that this was possibly the toughest character I had ever encountered in my life and hoped that I had at least given him some sort of beat-down since I had likely blown my own race trying to drop him. He was laughing, smiling, and putting on fresh shoes for the night. He seemed perfectly fine…and perfectly at peace. I would have loved to have changed into fresh shoes myself but I was afraid to remove my current pair. Several hours before I had examined my feet and found that my feet had swollen and my wet road shoes had caused blisters that covered the entire underside of both feet. The blisters had since popped and I simply didn’t want to know how bad they had gotten. Instead I took a knife and sliced the front of the toe boxes so that my feet had a bit more room. The lady with the lisp approached me for the third time in the last 20 miles and announced. “You are doing great! Take care of yourself and go easy…you are intenth”. The two previous warnings had an effect on me and I was touched by the pure sweetness of this kind soul who had, for some reason, taken an interest in me. But this time I wasn’t listening. I remember thinking that I can be intense if I want to be intense. I wanted to be calm for her but things were getting desperate.

Throughout the day I looked around me and I saw people laughing and cheering and being joyful. I thought of Colin and how I really didn’t care to be a part of any society he could not belong to. For months I felt guilt about feeling any pleasure. I had grown to hate any part of the world where I imagined that he might not be welcome and felt resentment toward residents of those exclusive places. And as I passed the 80th mile and headed down a very long asphalt hill I felt guilt about even being on these very roads.

My feet painfully slapped the pavement sending a shooting pain with each step. My tired mind did the math and realized that I had 30,000 more shooting pains left before the finish line. The day had been miserably hot and I was sunburned, and chaffed in unmentionable places. Dead bugs were held to my body by the congealed Vaseline I had used to rub myself down. I ran a hand through my hair and the dried salt collapsed into my swollen fingers. It occurred to me that entering this race was likely a mistake. As painful as the downhill was on my feet I immediately regretted seeing it go as I took a hard right turn and began to climb a very steep gravel hill. I was lost in a world of misery. I wished I was at home and able to walk down our air conditioned hallway. I wanted to enter Colin’s room and give him a kiss on his cheek and sit for a while and listen to him breathe. Instead I was here running. And as I took several more painful steps to the top of the hill it occurred to me that I was likely running away. With each painful foot slap I asked God Why? Slap. Why? Slap. Why? Slap. Why? Slap. Why? Slap.

And then everything changed.

I hit the top of the climb and the most delightfully cool breeze hit me. Good heavens! I will tell you now that I can still remember that breeze to this day. It felt wonderful. And I looked out across the farmland and I saw millions of fireflies in the trees on the edges of the field. The sky held a trillion stars and the Milky Way was visible despite the crescent moon in the sky. In the distance a single light burned in a farmhouse. It was, and still is, the most beautiful scene I have ever witnessed. Once again I asked God why, if he could create such beauty, he could not heal my son. I asked him again…why?

And then God spoke to me. I’m not being metaphorical. I am being literal. I have had hallucinations at Mohican since that night. I once saw a gnome fishing along a river bank for instance…he was clear as day and I witnessed him for several seconds. I also saw a couple having sex in the middle of the trail in the middle of a mud puddle in the middle of the night once. Both of these situations were nonsensical and immediately evident to me that they were hallucinations. They were also wildly out of context. But God’s answer to me was real. I know it was real because of my faith but I also know it was real because the answer was so perfect in context and so unexpected in its nature. Over the previous months I had imagined that when God eventually answered me he would tell me that he was going to cure Colin, or that he held a magnificent plan of which Colin was a part. Instead he told me what he told me…and it was perfect. And it might upset poets or mystics or bible bangers everywhere but I’m not going to misquote God. I heard his answer.

God told me that it was none of my business.

I was more than a bit taken aback. How could it be none of my business? This had destroyed lives! Then God told me in a loving but firm voice that I was his servant. He reminded me that I had agreed to serve him and to do his will, and that my role was not to know his plan or to help him with his plan. He told me that my job was to raise Colin. My job was to care for my family and to serve him. Then he told me that he loved Colin and that he loved me and that he is with us.

And that was how it went. Some reading this might be doubtful and that’s alright with me. It really is.

Epilogue:
Since God was present he might have healed my feet or my rash. But he didn’t. I forgot to ask and maybe it didn’t occur to him to offer. I don’t know. And that’s alright with me also. It really is. I progressed toward the finish line by walking to one telephone pole and then aiming for the next one.

Telephone poles have become symbolic for me. As I made my way toward the finish line I realized that life has good patches and bad patches and my job is to keep moving…even if one telephone pole at a time is all I have in me.

It also occurred to me that, just as I had missed the hidden world of the disabled I had also managed to miss an awful lot of beauty in the world. Its okay to love beauty, I realized. And its okay to celebrate the good things. In fact it might be a sin to fail to celebrate when we are given a reason to do so.

After the race my family did not greet me as a returning hero. To them it was just another day. Dad was home and that was good. But everything really was different because this time I also noticed that it was good that I was home. Mohican had, as predicted, changed none of our problems but it completely changed how I saw them.

I also learned that things don’t always get worse. As the finish line drew near I was joined by two young women who thought I looked lonely and jogged along with me. They told me that I was in 9th place. The woman with the lisp, dressed head to toe in purple, was Colleen Theusch. And she did not have a lisp after all. She had not been telling me that I was intense; she had been telling me that I was in tenth place. Colleen is the heart and soul of Mohican and has become one of the best friends I have ever had. There will be a big loving blog post about her soon. I love her. She is amazing and the post will not do her justice. But I’m going to write it anyway.

The hippie turned out to have a name as well. Roy Heger has become one of the best known and most decorated ultra runners anywhere. He is also my friend. He called me a couple of weeks ago from the National Mall in Washington D.C. where he was loitering following his twelfth finish at the Massanutten 100 Mile Run. He told me he was smoking a cigar in a public place “before they decide to make this activity illegal too”. Roy is one of the good guys. I was wrong about him though…He is only the second toughest character I ever met.

A couple years after Mohican ‘97 Colin’s seizures slowed, and then they eventually stopped. He was the only patient in the history of the Cleveland Clinic with Lennox-Gastaut syndrome to ever stop having seizures. He has been almost 100 percent seizure free since that time.

His helmet was used as a toy for a while thereafter. It lingered around the house and he and his brother Caleb (born in 2000) used to pretend it was a space helmet.

He is now 17 years old and has a high functioning type of autism. He has five Special Olympics State Championships in 2 separate sports and I cannot, under any circumstances, dribble a basketball past him. Nor can I outshoot him. Or outswim him. Or hang with him in any activity that even remotely includes electronics. He will graduate from High school in 2013. He is tall and he is strong and he is handsome.

After the seizures stopped they performed an EEG at the Cleveland Clinic. His Doctor, the world’s foremost authority on childhood epilepsy, the woman who had (literally) written the go-to book on the subject, looked at the electroencephalogram report, peered over her glasses at me and said “Its normal”. How did this happen? I asked. But I knew the answer before she said it.

“God touched him.”