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.

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.”

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Grit and Greatness

Shaun Pope was gone before I got there, but then again so was everyone else.

Getting to the start of the Green Jewel 50 km run had been challenging. And missing the start, even by a few seconds, added to the nightmarish quality of my morning, which included wind, cold rain, a malfunctioning Garmin, a missed bus, and a reported zombie sighting.

There really shouldn’t have been any reason for me to have been late for anything. I knew every inch of this course. I had literally grown up here. My earliest steps as a runner were along this very path 34 years ago and I had returned to this place so many times since then that I know the route as well as I have known any place. The starting line is located in a location now known as “Scenic Park” but old-timers still call this place by its former name…”Eddie’s Boat Dock”. This is hallowed ground for me. This is the place where Mac Tar and his buddies met for Saturday morning time trials. It was also the site of the CWRRC 30 km run; a viciously competitive race in the days before Ohio had a fall marathon. Everyone seemed to race so hard back then. I recall once seeing my father standing in a restroom located yards from the starting line of today’s race pissing blood following the 30K. The lost blood was later replaced with beer in celebration of his new personal record.

I couldn’t quite pull it together on this race morning. One moment I was leaning against the race director’s truck, removing my sweatpants and listening to him give final pre-race instructions and the next instant I was bobbling around, frantically trying to get my shoe un-jammed from my sweats, and watching the field head off for Brecksville without me. In hindsight the missed start really wasn’t any big deal. It only cost me a few seconds and honestly, in a 50 kilometer race spanning 1/2 of the Cleveland Metroparks, what would they matter? I dislodged my shoe, tried not to get bothered by the fact that my GPS wouldn’t start, tossed the torn sweatpants into the back of the truck (because it was closer than a trashcan) and threw an unimpressive surge to pass the thickest part of the pack prior to entering the narrow bike path.

As I passed the group I took a quick look around for Art Moore. I didn’t see him. If Art was really running today, as was rumored, he was surely the most legendary runner in the field. Running with a living legend is a boon to karma. Still though, as I headed into the 43 degree rain and gusty headwind I hoped that this time…just this one time…the great man had awakened, looked out the window and rolled over to return to sleep. Perhaps he would rise in a couple of hours and take his lovely wife of fifty years, Edina, to breakfast. Maybe for once he would read the Saturday Plain Dealer by the fireplace and leave the battle to others. This would be a tough day to run quickly but a dangerous day to run slowly.

I shouldn’t have wondered, or worried.

Art awoke on race morning and did what he has done on nearly all mornings for most of his 73 years; he put on his running shoes. Today he planned to run from one end of his domain to the other with the community that he started so long ago. The newest runners in the race couldn’t have known that the man unassumingly walking away from the start, holding a bottle of chocolate milk in one hand and an umbrella in the other, was indeed planning to be in Brecksville by the day’s end. They also might not have known that there was no runner in the field who was a surer bet to make it; this would be his 590th race of marathon distance or longer. But what they really couldn’t have realized were the ways in which Art changed the way we run and how we approach our sport. As incongruous as it may sound Art is probably one of the reasons why 22 year old Ultra-star Shaun Pope decided to throw a smile and a wave to the wet and chilly souls at the 4.9 mile aid station as he cruised in…and out again…leading the race at 6 minute per mile pace.

The early miles of the race flew by so quickly and with so few non-labored breaths that they really don’t need a description. Someone told me once that I occasionally write something that makes them feel like they are running along with me. They said that they can experience the run through the writing. In this case, gentle reader (you know who you are) please go stand in a freezing shower and hold your breath until it becomes painful. You will get the idea! During the early miles I listened to Kevin Landis tell a great pizza delivery story, stared at Brad Polman’s back, and tried to use my blunt/blind faith/denial strategy to keep moving forward. I also daydreamed. It was easy. After all, this course passed the sledding hill where my brother Steve learned that the cold-feet–relief that comes from pouring hot chocolate into your boots is a temporary and fickle thing with a price to pay when it, like everything exposed to 10 degree air, freezes. It passed the spot where Steve and I raced across a semi–frozen lake, fragile ice popping with each step, to escape an angry motorist whose car we hit with snowballs. It passes the old haunts of Walking Willy, a local character who put in more foot-miles than I ever have, and toboggan chutes where my 14 year old friends and I set the all-time record for descents. It passed so many memorable places; so many of the things that make me who I am. This might be a reader’s last chance to escape before I go into full-on reminiscence mode…

I was, for a while, a scout. I never made it to any level of scouting higher than the rank of “cub”, partially because I didn’t have the right stuff and partially because I could not, and still cannot, spell Webalow. The Trailside Interpretive Center marks the 10 mile point on the Green Jewel course and was the site of one of my greatest scouting memories. I was a member of Den 5. We were a troubled Den, never holding our own in the athletic competitions that were a part of our monthly pack meetings. Den 2 always won those. The reason we never won was because we were somewhat un-athletic and also terribly unruly. There wasn’t any such diagnosis as attention deficit disorder back then but I can tell you with perfect certainty that every single one of us would have been diagnosed with it today. Den 5 meetings always began with everyone chasing a boy named Dillon around and helping the den mother(s) to give him his “nerve medicine”. The meetings usually kinda went downhill from there. Sure there was the occasional success story: we made some ashtrays from clay and Christmas ornaments from coffee can lids and glitter. But mostly meetings were a time for yelling and learning new swear words from our den mother(s). We went through five den mothers in two years and there was talk of disbanding den five and spreading us, like refugees, among the more successful dens. That’s when my Dad stepped in…and became our den mother. Our actual mothers were either too busy, too afraid, or had already failed the assignment. Even though I earned a few ass-kickings on our school playground because of his new role, my father was the greatest den mother ever. No more crafts. Instead we played baseball, went on a tour of the nut and bolt factory where he worked, and went for hikes in the woods. He didn’t give a shit about earning badges and he taught us that we shouldn’t either. We had a blast! And I recall the greatest moment of all came on one beautiful fall day when we took advantage of Dad’s inattention during a smoke break and took off to the top of the cliffs at the Interpretive center…inches away from plummeting to our death. I still smile when I think of Dad looking up at us clambering toward heaven. I can still hear him yelling “Get down owathere!” I tried to forget the fact that we were running wayyyy too fast and had wayyy too long yet to run and escaped into the memories in the order in which they presented themselves.

Next on the memory parade was the Berea Lagoons. The Lagoons were the backdrop of our high school home cross country course and also the site of my unsuccessful attempts to kiss several girls. I remember very clearly a race in 1981 in which Rick Bechtel and I spent 2.4 miles of a 2.5 mile race trying to kill each other, until he simply destroyed my with his kick in the last 0.1 mile. I can still see him, in his Fairview Park/red-and-white-pinstripe jersey (It was the 80’s) running away from me, all foggy looking due to the cerebral anoxia he laid on me. Rick and I still race and the result is usually about the same. In fact he was running the Green Jewel this year and, despite my overly fast pace, was so far ahead of me that I could not even see him. Some things never seem to change.

By the time Art made it to the Trailside Interpretive Center Aid Station at 10 miles the temperature was still in the 40’s and was now accompanied by a steadily increasing headwind that would rake the entire length of this point-to point course. Ten miles ahead, one of the frontrunners, chilled to the bone, called it a day and climbed into a friend’s car. Today’s race, Art conceded, was going to be all about forward motion and avoiding hypothermia. He purposefully slowed his pace, zipped his windbreaker to his chin, and added increasingly frequent walking breaks ...Art earned his Ph.D. in Chemical Engineering from Imperial College at the University of London prior to moving to Cleveland in 1966 where he worked in research for Union Carbide and raised three children with Edina. His jogging hobby grew into a passion that eventually brought him to the finish line of 38 races of 100 or more miles in length.

The land-bridge separating Wallace Lake and Baldwin Lake in Berea is currently famous for being the half-way point of the Green Jewel 50K. Before it was the halfway point of this race it was the site of the Strongsville Invitational, a massively important high school cross country meet back in my school days. My senior year I placed 63rd. If Rick Bechtel had overslept that morning I would have finished 62nd. Alas…

Anyhow, before it was the site of the Strongsville Invitational it was the place where Dad taught my brother Steve and I to swim. And before that it was the site of the Berea Sandstone Quarries. At one time Berea produced more sandstone than any other place on earth. Many buildings and bridges in New York City and Chicago, as well as most of the old buildings in Cleveland were built from Berea Sandstone. Next time you run the fender of your car into one of those CCC era parking barriers at Kendall Lake in the Cuyahoga Valley National Park you can know that your car has been the victim of a brush with…you guessed it…Berea sandstone! I was told by a high school history teacher that the base of the Eiffel tower was made of Berea sandstone but I dunno. What I do know is that James Wallace became very rich and famous as a result of these quarries. He later partnered with a previously failed academic, John Baldwin, and founded Baldwin-Wallace College. Major cities received building materials from this place, Berea was left with two beautiful lakes, Wallace made a fortune, Baldwin finally got his college, and I got some swim lessons. But the workers that mined the stone from these quarries were woefully underpaid. Conditions were abhorrent and the stone pits operated all year-round regardless of weather. Some of the cutters died in rock slides or explosions, others from pneumonia, and many of them succumbed to grit consumption. The workers would, over the years, consume particulate matter from the stone into their lungs where it would form into cysts and collect fluid, effectively drowning them. These men received absolutely no health care or compensation for this. There was an island in Coe Lake (Berea’s third quarry) where a base of a building used in the quarries still stood. My brother and I used to swim out to the Island on occasion. Our town’s official history was entitled “Men of Grit and Greatness” to commemorate the stone cutters.

We aren’t the toughest breed who have trodden this path. Not by a long shot.

After Art waded through shin-deep water at the Eastland Fjord and then passed Pearl Road at mile 17, the winds were whipping; runners unprotected for the moment as the valley floor began to rise. A couple walking their dog exchanged greetings with the older gentleman wearing a number. He appeared to be in some sort of race. But if that was the case, where were the other runners?...I was always amazed at Art’s ability to cover great distances with remarkable efficiency. In fact I used to kid with myself that Art reminded me of a zombie. It is a universal fact in Zombie lore, and demonstrated in all zombie movies, that if you are running from a zombie, you will always fail to get away. It mattered little that the person in the movie can fly along in a full sprint while to zombie moved at a slow lurching walk. Upon turning around the victim always found that the zombie was immediately on their tail. Art had the same effect. I would zip past Art and run and run and run for 30 or 45 minutes, only to turn around and find the legend 20 yards behind me…and WALKING! Art always said that the secret to ultra running was relentless forward progress.

Between Berea and Strongsville the course passes the former site of Roehm Junior High School’s home cross country course. It also passes the exact spot where coach Joe Ferlin made us stop on our first ever run so that he could tell us jokes. Coach Ferlin believed in us and taught us to believe in ourselves. I can recall no unpleasant experiences from Jr. High cross country. There was never a tense moment. Mr. Ferlin taught us that running should be fun. And it has been for 34 years. Thanks coach! His teams went six straight years without a single loss. Surely there is a lesson in there somewhere for the pressure mongers who seem to run youth sports today.

As Shaun Pope crested the big hill going into the final aid station at 24.5 miles he, rather unexpectedly, had a challenge on his hands. Another runner was trailing him by just 45 seconds with 6.5 miles of challenging roads remaining before the finish. Despite this stressor Shaun did what we do in our sport in this region; he smiled and tossed a lighthearted comment and a word of thanks to the frozen aid station workers.

Then he dropped it two gears and, literally and figuratively, headed for the hills.

About the time that Shaun was rolling into the finish in a course record time of 3:32 Art was making his way from Berea into Strongsville, far behind the other runners and bit behind the cutoff times for the aid stations… Arthur Moore was born in Newfoundland in 1938. He helped to organize, and competed in, the first Mohican 100 Mile Trail run in 1990 and was the second man to earn the 1000 mile buckle. He finished the race ten times in ten attempts and missed only once, to attend his daughter’s wedding. Art would warm up for each of these finishes by completing the mountainous Laurel Highlands 70 mile run the WEEKEND BEFORE Mohican. One year he completed the Laurel Highlands course and then turned around and ran back to the starting line again; a distance of 140 miles.

Heading toward Brecksville I took a downward glance at my poor old pink legs. Honestly, there are times when I wonder how they could still be turning over after all of these years. God, I love this sport and I am thankful for what the sport has made me. I’m also thankful for the hard times that it has seen me through. I took a look at my watch and realized that, against all odds, today would be a good one. And at 46 years of age I take the time to appreciate the good ones. I realize that a day will come when I won’t set any more personal records but today it looked like I would get one. And when a PR is on the line I can push very very hard, and so I did.

Heidi Finniff appeared from the gloom at mile 18 and handed Art a bottle of Coke and went on to the Stuhr Woods aid station to inform them that he was still in the race and ask them to keep the aid station open a while longer. They were happy to do so…Go to any ultra marathon anywhere in the United States and mention Art’s name, you will almost certainly find that he has friends in the field. Go to the finisher’s history of nearly any major 100 mile trail race, and you will find his name. Art claims that he has found joy in the act of running and friends in the people he has grown close to on the roads and trails. He also claims that after he achieves his 600th race he will slow down (then again he said that about the 500th). He recently joined a walking club with Edina and states that he has no wish to overstay his time in the sport like (to use Art’s words) “A fighter who has stayed in the ring too long”.

Brecksville! It was good to be arriving!! Unfortunately my only running memory from Brecksville is a shameful one. I was a sophomore in high school and we had a cross country meet against their local high school. In the race I found myself behind Ann Henderson. Ann was State champion in both cross country and track and she was much faster than me. As she was pulling away I imagined the ribbing I would get from my 15 year old friends about getting beat by a girl…then she took a wrong turn…and I let her go without correcting her. I told you it was a disgraceful story! Hey, I never claimed to be St. Francis.

A friend handed Art a 16-ounce bottle of Muscle Milk at the base of the big hill after he crossed Bennett Road. Roy Heger was still working the final aid station and provided a peanut butter and jelly sandwich for his old friend… Roy has finished nearly 50 one-hundred mile races himself and describes Art as one of the greatest influences on his running career. The great Regis Shivers always described Art as his Mentor. Look into Art’s performance history and you will find world class times and slow finishes. Art competed on roads, trails, tracks, deserts, swamps, and snowfields. He also ran races comprised of laps around stadium parking lots or construction zones.

Art was still running at the end even though the electronic course clock was not. It, being a less reliable machine than Art, had fritzed out in the rain. He came across the finish line in a time of 7:49. At the finish he was carrying another bottle of chocolate milk, a Snickers bar, and a bottle of V8. He would call Edina shortly and give her the good news.

At some point in life, if we are blessed, we will become who we are supposed to become. The experiences that make us who we are and the places that leaven us are sometimes not appreciated at the time and some of them are likely cast aside or forgotten. Sometimes we forget the grit and the greatness of those who built the places we now reside.But not always.

Art has run 24 hour runs and six day races. He ran a marathon in every state in the union and when he was finished with that task he completed a marathon in every Province in Canada, leaving one runner to ponder “I mean, how do you even find races up in the Yukon or the Northwest Territories?”

The greatest thing that Art did for us though, was to show us the way that our sport could be. He showed us that trail running could be a metaphor for life and a base around which a community could be built. He shared his fame and never used it to personal advantage. Cleveland really is the best Ultra running community in the United States. And it is the greatest ultra running community in the United States because Art modeled decency and humanity and kindness. The first time I arrived at the starting line of an ultra marathon, Art walked up and welcomed me. Then he led me around the parking lot and introduced me to his friends, who became my friends. Art and the others later met me at the finish line with encouragement, stories, and information about the next race.

This is how we do things in these parts.

This type of behavior is not universal in our sport, even though we would like to believe that it is. Travel to other parts of the country, race, and notice the difference if you don’t believe me. And the reason we do things in this way; the reason that the winner of one of our races looks out for the slowest runner, is because Art and Regis taught us to behave in this way. Others followed this example. The Godale brothers behave in the very same way. So does Roy Heger, and Fred Davis, and Terry Hawk, and Ron Ross. In fact all of the legends have an ethic of care about them. And the lesser known runners do as well. Most of us do; its who we are. And we teach it to the newer and younger runners by way of example. And it really did start with Art and a few others like him. Art raced hard and, on occasion, he raced to win, but the poor chilled souls at the aid stations always received a smile and a wave as he blew through.

I have not yet found out if Shaun and Art were able to meet this day, to shake hands on a race well fought; the first, the last, an original, a newcomer, history and history yet to be written. I hope they did.

God, they would love each other.

Friday, February 25, 2011


I am typing on my laptop on an airplane that, they tell me, is traveling at 34000 feet. This means that I am 34000 feet above any type of soil. I have spent the last few months apart from dirt and 34000 feet of altitude represents the most recent barrier. Even the trail shoes jammed into my carry-on bag have been scrubbed suspiciously clean by miles spent in the deep snow and ice of the past months. I can look out of my window and admire the clear ground below me. I can see dirt. I can also see scraps of jagged rock interspersed with winding roads leading to and from tiny doll-scale villages that occur occasionally in the distance. Mountains separate these towns. In some ways, they seem utterly alone in the universe and in other ways they seem like the very essence of community. It seems like they are spaced far enough apart to provide excellent weigh-stations for a pack of foot travelers. I imagine that it might be common for runners to see the world as one big opportunity to host an ultra. I seem to project this image onto nearly any landscape that I view. Or maybe I just dream about my preferred atmosphere when I am held captive in another.

I really do miss the feel of dirt. I miss the smell of mud. The other night I was doing some laps around the Delaware County Fairgrounds because the roads there tend to be nearly abandoned and yet, for some reason, reliably plowed. For about 50 yards on each of the 1.5 mile loops I was able to catch the scent of horse manure and it filled me with a longing for the trails at Mohican.

Dirt tends to attract trail-folk. Even though there are a lot of group runs happening in the area they differ in quality from the runs we have in warmer weather. No one stands around the parking lot for a long while visiting after a cold weather run and we are less likely to head off on an unexplored trail when the temperature is in single digits. This means we don’t get lost or dehydrated. Which means that we don’t get to live the best stories. Which means that the best stories don’t get told. Which means that our community grows on a smaller scale.

The sun is disappearing in the west and, even though our airplane is traveling toward it at a mighty speed, I feel certain that it will leave us soon. The communities below are beginning to turn on their lights and the entire effect reminds me of a small model village that I bought for my mother one year for Christmas. It consisted of 12 dollars worth of ceramic and paint modeled into a setting that Charles Dickens might use as the backdrop for a story that would both charm and depress the hell out of me.

She absolutely loved it.

In fact the Christmas village was placed front and center among the holiday decorations in our house and it became a bit of a tradition each year for family members to buy new buildings to add to it. After a decade or so it grew to an almost absurdly large size, occupying the better part of a room. It grew to have an ice pond with skaters that moved around the metallic ice utilizing technology borrowed from 1970’s electric/magnetic football games. My brother Steve used to climb into the middle of the village and take naps. Mom said he did it because it created a peaceful atmosphere.

The towns below kind of look like that. But mainly they look like quaint refuges from loneliness. Flying across the country reminds me that there are vast expanses of our country that are essentially unpopulated and looking down at the spaces surrounding the Dickensian communities fills me once again with charm and homesickness for places that I have never been. They seem so vulnerable…

The towns are likely not as peaceful as they seem from a distance. Reality can appear more palatable when we unfocus our minds, blur our vision a bit, and allow ourselves to be comforted by illusion. The villages below likely have wonderful inhabitants. But some of them might have hatred in their hearts. No doubt illness is a resident. And divorce. And envy. And sloth. And pride. Yet the residents must feel an attraction to each other and to their tiny corner of the world or they would not likely stay. From a distance my brother was attracted to the peacefulness of a nap in a lighted, miniaturized paradise but from a closer proximity he could notice that the buildings did not match each other in scale or in style. Some were made of plastic, some of ceramic, and some didn’t even fit the Christmas theme. None of this bothered Steve at all. But as the pioneering founder of the Christmas village it troubled me occasionally that we didn’t do a better job of civic planning. Why couldn’t we have a village that matched? Why would Santa’s workshop be located across the street from the train station? And why were there two sets of reindeer, one set languishing on a rooftop and another safely tucked into their stable on the other end of town? Furthermore, if baby Jesus was being born in a manger on the west side of town, how would it be possible that a Christian church, complete with carolers and a large crucifix on the steeple, was concurrently in full operation 2 blocks away? Steve was the biggest culprit of the lack of zoning and as the village’s most loyal trustee, he was also the largest donor…buying trees, train models, covered bridges and tiny citizens that clearly represented different eras (Why would a paperboy be delivering to a wise man?). I asked Steve once why we didn’t break the town up into one old town, one new town, and maybe one biblical town.

He told me to shut up. And so I did.

The only thing keeping me from becoming a rather flattened member of one of the communities below is about 8 inches of plastic, steel and insulation. I am flying along in a Tylenol shaped tube that weighs many thousands of pounds. The plane can, for reasons that have been explained to me dozens of times but still strain my ability to find faith in them, stay aloft and warm. It seems like this aircraft must be the most fragile housing unit on the planet. Catastrophe lies inches away and yet I have convinced myself to climb aboard anyway. I managed to book and keep this flight the way I manage to do most scary things. I blunt my mind to the coldest facts and top this obtuseness with a large dollop of denial. In this way I can convince myself that I am being perfectly safe and logical, even sophisticated, though catastrophe lies inches away. I passed a billboard on the way into the airport that depicted a successful and happy couple sitting in comfortable seats on their aircraft, sharing what appeared to be a Nescafe moment. That would be nice. I am now at a closer proximity to an actual aircraft though and from up-close I notice that my lap tray has 2 loose bolts. It didn’t seem like the successful, happy, in-love couple needed to hold their tray table up by propping it against one of their knees. I wonder if there are any other, massively more important bolts that are loose. But I only wonder this for a moment before successfully applying my blunt/blind-faith/denial strategy. I also notice that the other passengers on the airplane aren’t smiling or laughing. The flight attendant came along a while ago and I asked for a Nescafe just to see what he would say.

He handed me a coffee. And so I drank it.

This isn’t my real environment. That’s why I don’t like it. My own environment is highly imperfect and uncomfortable, even dangerous at times but I feel an attraction to my tiny corner of the world or I would not likely stay.

A few weeks ago I met four friends and we did a six mile run in the cold. The temperature was four degrees below zero and for the first mile we trudged through deep snow and no one spoke. It seemed crazy. But then the expected happened. We warmed up. We knew we would and we were, once again, correct. Conversation melted into a drip and then became a flow. The woods turned beautiful; we had them to ourselves. Only distant parking would be available at the mall today and lines would form for the treadmill at the health club, but this world was ours. We had created our own environments. Aside from our chatter the woods were completely silent. All life other than us was in torpor and if I allowed myself to look from a closer and less blunted vantage point I could easily see why. The cold really was deadly. We had each created approximately a ½ inch atmosphere around our bodies that was sustained by our running. We might as well have been wearing space suits. I suppose that in a way we were. Everything around us was harsh and cold and lonely. Everything was forced to a standstill except us. We were the only exception that existed in the entire woods.

We were mismatched. Two of us were former football players and still had the build for it. One runner was in his first year at the sport and was flourishing. Another was into his 34th year and creaky as a wooden ship. Two were beautiful women, one younger than the other but each completely lovely and tough.

And it was wonderful.

Many years ago a severe hip injury took my running away and I was fearful that it would never return. My search for an alternative led me to mountain biking and it wasn’t a bad place to land. I put a lot of time, effort, and money into it. For a few years mountain biking was fantastically popular. The Trek bicycle company put large amounts of money into ads that showed young, strong athletes careening downhill and “catching air” off dirt ramps. Throngs of people went out and bought mountain bikes only to discover, when they had a closer perspective, that for every air-catching moment on a mountain bike many miles are spent grinding away on a muddy uphill with a clogged derailleur; an activity akin to mixing concrete with your legs. This activity suited me fine and so I kept at it but others left the sport to reside in alternate imperfect environments. The cycling eventually healed my hip and I went back to my world of torn windbreakers and broken shoelaces. I trekked the icy sidewalks of my hometown and looked longingly at the pictures of trail running magazines that depicted photos of a world where all running was performed downhill with the wind at your back. In our world trails, when not icy or buried under snow, tend to be muddy, or occupied by horseflies. Yet we must feel an attraction to each other and to our tiny corner of the world or we would not likely stay. My friends and I fit more uniformly into our workaday environments. But for some reason each of us can agree that when we are in those segregated places we daydream of the woods and our mismatched friends.

I believe that one of the benefits of having free will is that we get some amount of say over the environment in which we can exist. To some degree we choose our environments. We choose what we should cloak ourselves in. And our cloaks will become our barrier against the coldness, tragedies, and peril that can exist just outside of them. One of the things that I dislike about flying is the enclosed cultural space in which I find myself while waiting for my plane. No matter which airport I am in I find precisely the same atmosphere and it always reflects perfectly our modern culture. It is a world of USA Today and Good Morning America. People and Skymall magazines help us to pass the time. It occurs to me that if we don’t choose our cloak then someone will help us to choose it. In fact I wonder how much of our culture exists to assist us to create a space in which we feel like we are part of a community. I love America. My parents risked everything to come here to provide a better life for us. And they succeeded. I wouldn’t live anywhere else. But the distant stars and stripes, bald eagles, and stories of cherry trees being chopped down can give way, during a close proximity inspection, of the imperfections that exist. Berndt Heinrich wrote that America might essentially be an experiment, the hypothesis of which is: a nation can be built on the notion that free enterprise and consumption can sustain order. Education, jobs, laws, and infrastructure exist, at least in part, to support our means of selling to one another. And the basis for many of these sales seems to be consumption of products that will help us to demonstrate, through our style, where we belong in this place…how we shield ourselves from the coldness of being alone.

When we are born we are free from sin. And we are, for a while, free from temptation. Then we start the journey into the coldness. At some point we will decide upon a protective atmosphere and we will grow to become the inhabitant of that atmosphere. It will be who we are.

I have been told that I came from dirt and, they tell me, that I will return to it. What they didn’t tell me is that one option that I can choose in life is to never be far from it. That’s the choice I am making at the moment and so far it suits me fine.

Steve adopted the Christmas town after Mom passed away and kept it until his own death last year. My sister Noelle is the current owner. She offered to give each of the four remaining siblings a part of it. We all declined. We thought it would be wrong to segregate such a well established and successful community. The imperfect environment works for its own strange and mysterious reasons and it might be a sin to edit it.