The End of the Line

Here is where the sidewalk ends.  “It’s not passable this time,” I think as I stop short at the edge of the water at about mile three of my regular seven-mile loop that takes me through the state park and around the lake.  It feels so odd standing on the road and watching water gently lapping over the double painted lines, and hearing new sounds of wildlife confused by the sudden change in their ecosystem.  I’m amazed at the great chaos caused by just a few unseasonable rain storms over just a few short days. I’m amazed at all of it, every day, actually.

Where the sidewalk ends

Where the sidewalk ends

Before I turn to run back the way I came, I am struck with a nihilistic thought triggered by the impassable flood waters:  This is the end of the line.  As I start getting back into stride, the movie of my mind clicks through frame after frame of failures.  My failures.  Those moments where – no matter what I tried or how I strived – there was no alternative left but to pack it in, to accept that it was the end of the line.  I don’t want to think about this right now as I push myself to get back up to pace and in sync with my music.  Not today.  I can run through this.  But today is one of those days when running will likely provide no reprieve from the crushing voices in my head.

I am a failure.  I am a failure.  Oh God, I’ve gone from simply pointing out my failures during this run to “now I am THE failure.”  Sometimes when the thoughts become too much to bear, I can reboot my mind during the run by running harder or stopping completely to focus on the grasses swaying in the breeze.  Okay, I’ve got this.  No, no I don’t.  Unfortunately, this is going to be the day that I hyper-focus on the one thought that I just want to bury for now.  I’m wound up like a spring as I push up the hill – not sure if I need to scream or simply fall apart. Ugh, “Please help me” I utter into the air.

I cannot push down the cold, hard truth.  It’s the end of the line for RunningPretty – the women’s running apparel business that I started out of a genuine desire to help women feel more confident when they exercise.  I had dreams.  I had designs.  I had functional and fashionable outfits to share.  What I didn’t have was money.  When I realized I couldn’t really get the business going on my own, I looked for a partner or VC or an angel investor.  No luck there.  What was missing?  Ah, yes.  I needed someone to put their faith in me and my dream, but that wasn’t going to happen unless they could relate to the power of RunningPretty.  They needed a good story.

I feel like I’m running in slow motion now.  I look to the west and notice that the sky is slowly clearing with every footfall since turning from the flooded impasse.  The clouds are thinning and the sun is shining through them creating magnificent crepuscular rays – or Jesus rays as I fondly call them.  I just needed a good story. A blog.  That was my last resort.  I’d build a brand identity through storytelling.  I figured, if I could write about what RunningPretty means to me and what it could mean to other women then maybe the brand would be valuable.  So, on the advice of a friend who said, “It’s all about just being real and authentic,” I published “Running Pretty, Writing Real.”

I shared so many stories from the road – all of them flowing through and swirling within me as I ran mile after mile, day after day.  I don’t know if I ever built a brand, but I definitely shared a journey.  Maybe I shared the journey with no one else but me, but it was a valuable a journey none-the-less.  Out there on the road it was my time to make sense of love, life, and God.  In fact, it was out on the road one blissful Thanksgiving morning that I rekindled my relationship with God and realized that I never actually run alone.  I am divinely protected and always have been.  For years, I would run and I would pray – even if I never knew who or what I was praying to.  My eyes were opened to the beautiful truth that the love of God flows from Him, through us, and then into others.  It’s the only thing that can possibly hold together the human race.  I wrote about that morning run, and how I’d finally been freed from trying to save myself, but words could not do it justice.  What I experienced that morning was a feeling like none I’ve ever known.

Farewell, adieu, goodbye to RunningPretty.  You were my hope of creating something better.  Changing the world.  It’s the end of the line for you.  Sadly, this will be my last blog post under the RunningPretty brand and banner, and I’ll soon be disabling my website.  Failure is a bitter pill to swallow.

I’m cruising down the last small hill of my run when I catch a glimpse of myself as a long shadow and out of strength I think, “No, this isn’t over.”  RunningPretty may be over, but I’m not.  I’ve got a lot of stories left in me and a lot of things I still need to share.  Maybe after all, I did create something better.  Maybe I did make a difference.  My shadow is still following me and it’s a bedraggled silhouette of long arms, longer legs, messy hair flying straight back, and oddly large shoes.  I am quite the picture of a ragamuffin.

Is it the end of the line or the beginning of a new journey – a journey in a slightly different direction?  I am patched together, mismatched, and beat up. I’m a runner who runs to clean herself up.  I run to organize all the things that are so pathetically unorganized in my life. I’m a ragamuffin.  But aren’t we all in some way.  No, this isn’t really the end of the line because maybe next time, it’ll just be you and The Ragamuffin Runner working through things together. One big glorious mess.

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Are You My Mother?

It’s been raining for a week straight in Colorado.  With its 300 days of sunshine a year, this surely must mean the beginning of the apocalypse.  As I sip my coffee and mindlessly caress the top of my dog’s head, I debate whether I truly want to run in the cold rain again – or whether I just need to.  I think about the muddy shoes, mud-splattered legs, and soggy clothes that have been the end result of the last five mornings spent on the wet, cold, gloomy trail.  That’s when I realize, it’s not raining anymore.  Sometime in the middle of the night, the rain quietly transfoAreYouMyMotherrmed into snowflakes leaving behind a six-inch blanket of heavy, slushy snow.  It doesn’t take more than a few more sips of coffee to know that I will be running outside today – this Sunday, Mother’s Day 2015.

The best part of the morning is that my daughter, McKenna, is running alongside of me.  She wanted to make my day extra-special, so along with the homemade card and the half-sized poster she painted and embellished with foam butterflies, she announced that she was going to take a run with me.  My “Church of Sunday Long Run” is usually one that I take alone with the Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church livestream playing through my earbuds for the last 7 or so miles.  Or, on other days, I run before the service and watch the livestream from the comfort of my living room, with one or both of my little ones.  But today, I have the best of both worlds – as McKenna and I head out the front door for our run, we’ve got the service streaming from my iPhone.

“People are gonna’ think we’re crazy,” says McKenna laughing.  Honestly, I’m not sure if she means because we’re slogging through the slushy snow in 30-degree weather on Mother’s Day or because we’re doing it with the Gospel of John playing aloud from the speakers as we go.  I just say, “Well, I like being different, don’t you?” McKenna gives me the raised-eyebrow-pursed-lip-look and says, “Oh yeah!”  The neighborhood is very quiet except for a man up ahead carefully shaking the heavy snow off one of his bowed willow trees.  I wonder what he’s thinking as we pass him by.

The run is glorious with the snow-dusted mountains above and in front of us shrouded in delicate wisps of cloud.  We laugh as we deliberately smash down on the mounds of melting snow and kick through the tiny rivers of melt-off.  McKenna is strong and carefree, making a few comments about the message being preached as we hit mile two.  I always see the world differently on the run – often with my memories clicking by like an old filmstrip projector.  Everything from animal footprints, to shadowy tree shapes, to sunrises trigger thoughts that generate the stories in my mind’s eye.  Along the sidewalk, a small bird is pulling a worm from the earth and my memory seeks out the light blue cover of an old children’s book called, “Are You My Mother?” It was a book my Nana had read to me as a child that I have since read to my own children dozens and dozens of times.

The story is about a mother bird who, thinking her egg is not yet ready to hatch, leaves her nest and flies off to find food. The baby bird hatches early and embarks on a journey to look for her – having no idea what she even looks like – he asks a kitten, a hen, a dog, and a cow if they are his mother.  His journey is lonesome and frightening and he finally yells, “I just want my mother!” At that moment, he is fatefully dropped back into his nest where his mother has returned with food.  He is safe and sound and she is thrilled that her baby has finally arrived.

As we duck beneath the weighted down, snow-laden trees along the sidewalk, I think about how many nights I read that book to McKenna and how it comforted her.  But, her comfort was only at the end when she had heard the good news that the mama and baby had been reunited.  It was as if each time, though, she had to hear me tell her about the baby bird’s difficult journey and desperation to then feel the relief of the reunion.

It’s at this very moment that I notice McKenna is struggling up one of the steeper hills along the route.  Out of breath she says, “This part of the sermon is so depressing, Mom. It’s kinda’ dragging me down.”  I understand what she means and I try to explain that the pastor is painting a picture of our desperation so that we may then welcome our deliverance.  I realize this probably means nothing to her.  She is a child who is completely loved and cherished by both of her parents – parents who protect her and care for her and love her without conditions.  She doesn’t know what it means to feel desperate.

So instead, I try to explain what this all means to me and why I have faith.  I recall a quote from Gigi Graham, daughter of Reverend Billy Graham, and repeat it to McKenna. “God is a Father with a mother’s heart.”  I explain that without God’s motherly love for me, I’d have no power to love her or anyone else. “His love flows through me, which then flows into you, which then flows from you unto others. Does that make any sense at all?”  McKenna nods and says, “Well, I’m glad He loves you.  And I’m glad He made you.  And I’m glad He made you my mother.”  I hug her as we stay in stride and I kiss her on the cheek.  I look up at the sky as the clouds are making way for the light and think, these are the moments.

We’re coasting down the back side of the hill and McKenna says, “Oooo, mommy, this is the good news part of the sermon.  I like this part.  I feel a lot stronger now – a lot better.”  Funny how that works, I think.  I do too.  It’s the part of the sermon that often creates the tears of relief and allows me to breathe more deeply.  As we head for home, we listen to the end of the service as it closes with prayer and music and I pray that McKenna will never, ever question that I am her mother.  That I will love her forever with no strings attached.  But, I also pray that she will someday have no doubt that her Heavenly Father loves her even more.  That someday she will rest in the truth that He is her Father – her Abba – the One who loves her unconditionally with a mother’s heart.  This was my Mother’s Day 2015.

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The Law of Running

Sometimes the run shows us just how human we really are.

The sound of my alarm startles me awake at 5:30 a.m. I’m confused.  What day is it? Ah, yes, it’s Sunday.  Today is my last 22-miler before the 2015 Boston Marathon.  But I don’t want to get out from under the covers.  I want to return to the dream where I am at a formal celebration – maybe a wedding or anniversary – on the beach with all my closest friends. For a change, this was a peaceful and hopeful dream.  I huff, and with my eyes still closed, I throw the covers off myself and get up.

It’s cold outside on my porch as I set my watch and cue my music playlist, thinking how I’ve yet to get used to the Denver climate that boasts 40-degree temperature swings between morning and noon.  As I head out of my dark neighborhood, I’m unusually out of breath and already feeling a nagging tightness gripping my right calf.  For the first time in this training program, I think seriously about turning around and going back to bed.  But, I remind myself as I’ve done on countless occasions, that you should never judge the quality of your entire run by the quality of the first mile.

tired-runnerBut then, in a stream of consciousness, the image of my 12-year-old-self struggling to run her first mile becomes the frozen frame in the filmstrip of my mind.  I started running in seventh grade because my father announced at the dinner table, as I was reaching for a second helping of potatoes, that I was getting fat. “You need to start running if you’re going to eat like that.” I was embarrassed and ashamed.  With one swift, precisely-positioned comment, the carnage was my body image bleeding on the dining room floor – never to be resurrected.

But, you see, my father knew who he was talking to.  He was talking to the child who cared.  It gave him the ultimate satisfaction to know that he could wield his words like a weapon and someone would end up wounded.  I was the child who got wounded.  I took everything he said to heart because I really cared about him.  Even though his words would burrow into me like a parasite and slowly extract a little bit of life each day, I still cared about him and wanted to please him.  He was my father.

To me, my father represented the law and I was the good law-keeper.  In my distorted reality, I felt like I could control the chaos if I followed the rules.  If I followed the rules, no one would get hurt, punished, or raged against.  If I kept the law, surely my father would see that I was devoted and, we all know, it is the devoted that reap the rewards. But, the only reward I wanted was his love – a kind word, a knowing smile, a memory not laced in anger.  So, if he thought I was getting fat and needed to run to lose weight then, by God, I was going to run.

I was a terrible runner.  I would immediately get out of breath, my sides would cramp, and I had an uncontrollable monkey mind.  I couldn’t focus on anything except the fact that I was a terrible runner, that I was fat, that I was full of excuses, that I was awkward, that I was embarrassing.  Inevitably, I would stop after only a few blocks, start crying, hyperventilate, and walk home in shame realizing that I was all of these things and would never live up to my father’s expectations.  I would do this every day.  Until one day, I didn’t.  I realized that I had run the entire mile and didn’t stop.  For the first time ever, I felt like I was someone else – someone strong and powerful and competent.

Running had calmed my monkey mind and, for one blissful moment, I had uncovered some inner peace.  Although it would take me decades to realize that nothing would ever satisfy the lawman – for his law could not be fulfilled regardless of effort, determination, or commitment – I did feel some relief that day.  The seed had been sown.  I found something that seemed to love me back.  In time, I realized that although I started running to satisfy my father’s law, it was something else that created my devotion to running – some indescribable divine love.

My childhood memories are often triggered on these long runs and sometimes the weightiness of them is too much to bear.  So at mile 20, I stop.  I just stop right there on the side of the road with the cars flying past me. My legs feel like cement blocks and I’m extremely dehydrated.  I’ve already stopped twice before this and I’m disgusted with myself.  Hunched over and breathing hard, the law rushes back and the lawman’s voice echoes through my head, “Runners need to have guts.  You are no one if you cannot muscle through this. You were never cut out for this.”  My head is filled with doubt and disgrace, but I mutter, “Your words have no power.  They have no power. They have no power,” and then my words trail off and I look up.

Tears of frustration are beginning to well, but I don’t cry.  Instead, I gaze out over the horizon and breathe deeply as the sun’s rays dance over my face.  Out loud I say, “Dear God, I am so happy You are here.  Oh how glorious this truth is: I am an incredibly imperfect person that You love perfectly.  Thank you for being by my side and for never leaving. I’m so glad I never have to run alone.”

The last two miles are slow and a bit painful – but I feel lighter and genuinely blessed.  With a feeling of mild accomplishment, I walk through my front door where I am greeted with two of the cutest smiles from my own 12-year olds who are excitedly asking, “So, mom, how’d it go?”  I hobble over and hug each of them – big sweaty hugs – and I am quickly reminded of my roadside revelation at mile 20.  As we chatter away about the run and I look into the eyes of these precious gifts, I realize that “the law of running” is simply a metaphor of life.  It is love, not law, that changes hearts.  Love begets love.  Thanks be to God.

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I Believe. Please Help My Unbelief

The sun is slowly welcoming me with its orange glow illuminating the silhouette of an old clipper ship.   The splendor of these glorious moments is not lost on me.  I still find it all so awe-inspiring.  On this March morning, I’m running in wide-eyed wonder and I’m sure the runners passing me think I’m a rookie who doesn’t know how to find her ‘zone.’  You see, this is my first run along the bay in San Francisco and I’m in heaven soaking up the sights, smells, and sounds along an unfamiliar route.  It’s 48 degrees and I’m giddy to be running outside – clad in a t-shirt – in the middle of winter.  I look to my right and recognize a landmark I’d only seen in history books: Alcatraz Island.  The filmstrip of my mind freeze-frames on a suffering scene from an old black and white movie and this is where my thoughts start spooling.

Glorious splendor

Glorious splendor

There is so much misery and sadness around me – socially, politically, and relationally.  It’s so easy to see and experience all the suffering and cry out, “Where are You in all of this? You are omnipotent. Why do you let this happen?”  But as my heart has softened and my eyes have opened this past year, I see God’s role in my life much differently.  One thing I believe is that God isn’t in my life to take away all the bad, to only help me see and experience the good.  I now believe that it is in our darkest moments that the light of God shines the most brightly.  It’s when I’m lying flat on my back.  It’s that moment I hope to look up and see Him above me with outstretched hands calling for His child to have faith.

I believe.  Please help my unbelief.

I want to have faith that I will accept certain things, whether good or bad, as His will. I want to believe that I may never know God’s divine plan but that there is one and it’s spectacular. I want to believe that the unexplainable events and interactions of today will one day be knit together to create something so massive and intricate that no mortal could have ever envisioned or imagined the outcome.  In the words of CS Lewis, I want to believe that “Someday, everything sad will come untrue.”

I believe.  Please help my unbelief.

Running under the restaurant awnings in Ghirardelli Square, I find myself praying for forgiveness, for protection, and for my undeserved grace. Right here, right now I am thankful for sunrises, new coworkers, a kind boss, amazing children, and chocolate. But just as quickly, my heart aches for those who are suffering.  I pray for my brother who juggles two jobs and struggles with his health – feeling shackled and desperate at every turn.  I think about Dalton, a 16-year old friend fighting adrenal cancer while still getting to his physics classes on time and his parents who haven’t slept for months consumed with worry.  My mind rewinds back a year to the image of my neighbor Galina and her debilitating grief after losing her son to suicide.  Too numerous to count, I pray for those who’ve lost their jobs, lost their children, lost their way and lost their will.  God, how I wish suffering wasn’t so real.

I believe.  Please help my unbelief.

But it takes only a few more cross-streets before my mind’s eye focuses on Angie.  It was a series of events, which at one point in my life I would have chalked up to serendipity, that reunited me with Angie after 15 years.  In early February, I sat with my old friend for two hours at the bar at Bonefish Grill.  While people on either side of us regaled about their past and present triumphs, Angie and I huddled close together for comfort as she told me about her daughter KayLeigh who was on her way to Princeton with a dance scholarship in hand and immeasurable ambition in her soul.  That summer before heading off to college, KayLeigh was diagnosed with leukemia. Angie’s sweet little lamb died nine months later.

I believe.  Please help my unbelief.

Staring at the liquor bottles lining the bar, I tried to focus.  I wanted to help my friend find an answer – the ‘why’ she’s been asking.  But I knew there was no answer.  Before that night – before the Hound of Heaven tracked me down and opened my eyes to His grace – I would have angrily wrestled with this question.  But today, I realize I will never know the ‘why.’  I had no answers to share with this broken, grieving mom, daughter, and wife who was trying so hard to be the brave soldier.  So what did I do for two hours with no answers and no wisdom to share?  I listened.  I cried.  I hugged.  I smiled.  I prayed silently.  I prayed that Angie would experience some peace even if just for a few moments – a few hours a day, which might turn into weeks, which might turn into years.

I believe.  Please help my unbelief.

I know so little about all this.  I am still finding my own way.  But what I do know is that in that moment, as we wiped away each other’s mascara-stained tears, God was with us.  Protecting us and weeping with us.  To anyone without faith, God’s grace may seem so fickle, so random, so fleeting.  But to me, His grace in that moment was so palpable, and yet, so incredible.  Today, I believe I know God and am blessed to have a relationship with Him. But He will always see my heart – feel my blame, my anger, and my weakened faith.  And still, regardless of what I truly felt about Him and His plan for a beautiful ballerina named KayLeigh, I believe He will never leave me or forsake me. In my hardest moments and darkest days, I will be welcome to run to Him again and again and again.

I believe.  Please help my unbelief.

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Jesus is My Valentine

Everything is frozen.  The dirt beneath my feet.  The scrub oak at my ankles.  The air I’m exhaling from my mouth.  I realize I’m running much too fast for the workout that’s scheduled, but I cannot help myself.  I am desperate to generate warmth.  Anyone out here this early must surely think I am a running robot – with stiff joints only capable of moving slowly, with much effort, in one direction.  I feel frozen tears forming on my eyelashes but I don’t even bother to wipe them away.  I’m conserving all my energy in an attempt to keep warm for the next 6 miles.

heartofthorns-heart-love2The unbearable cold is just an ominous reminder of how I feel on this Valentine’s Week. It’s only minutes before sunrise, but I’m pretty sure there will be no sunshine today and I secretly hope there’s no sunshine on Saturday for the couples who have made elaborate romantic plans to celebrate a holiday that has always made me feel inadequate.  To me, Valentine’s Day has always represented the law of love.  It’s the day where you are required by society to perfectly declare your love for the other person.  It must be done right – and according to some arbitrary rules – or the results could be disastrous.

To me, Valentine’s Day screams, “I will love you if…” It is a constant reminder of what I’ve always felt about the conditionality of love.  That feeling I get in the pit of my stomach that comes from never feeling like I’ve measured up enough to deserve the Hallmark card, the pretty wrapped gift, the dinner for two.  One false move and it would be over.  There are always strings attached.  And, unfortunately for Valentine’s Day, it has become the representation of love that is fleeting and impossible to hold onto – especially for the person who is flawed and frail and broken.

I thought I’d be warmer by now as Runcoach cyber-girl reminds me that I need to “Stay relaxed, stay in control.”  Even my running app is trying to make sure I’ve got things together.  But, if there’s one thing I’ve learned over the past few years is that I really cannot control anything – and that includes trying to control who loves me and what I need to do to ensure that they continue to love me.  For most of my life, I tried to show a perfect façade because I was certain no one could really love the mess underneath.

When I run, it takes a few warm-up miles, but I can usually settle in and find some inner peace.  It took many miles on the road to finally realize that I don’t run alone.  I am protected and loved by God – the one who created the sunrise that I wait for and the beautiful snow crystals crunching beneath my feet. I’m safe – not safe from pain or suffering or hurt – but from enduring it alone without hope.  Honestly, I’ve learned to accept grief as an essential part of the beautiful human condition and the catalyst that draws me closer to Him.

As I turn to head back home, I can see the sun barely winking at me above the horizon as I look to the east.  No, this is not going to be a sad Valentine’s story because this morning, out here in the cold, I know the truth about true love.

Jesus is my Valentine. My life was transformed the day I saw Jesus as a real person and not a concept.  The day I realized that He was the God of the universe who came down to earth in the form of a baby to grow into a man who lived a perfect, selfless life.  He died a horrible bloody death because of me – for me.  Today, I cannot think about Him, or read about Him, or see pictures of Him without silently weeping.

He died on the cross for my sins, yet He loves me.

I am a failure.  He still loves me.

I hurt other people.  He won’t leave me.

I am selfish.  He won’t forsake me.

He doesn’t withhold his love until I fix myself.  He doesn’t require that I clean myself up in order to hold me close. He is perfect and I am imperfect.  But I know He won’t ever leave, slamming the door behind Him.  He is the one and only to whom I will never have to justify myself.

This Valentine’s Day, I can say I have found true love.  I don’t have to earn His grace.  I don’t have to clean up, measure up, or buck up to receive it.  I just have to believe.   But for this girl who never believed in fairy tales complete with happy endings, I now know that there is one.

The only real happy ending is Jesus on the cross. Thank God – no heart-shaped box or roses required.

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Love Like Snowball

Love.  I wanted it.  I needed it.  I was starved for it.  I was a five.  This is the thought that grips my heart as I step outside into the cold, locking the front door behind me.  Because today is Saturday, I am able to start my 7-mile run in semi-dawn – about the time the sun is lazily yawning awake along with the rest of the neighborhood.  It’s not as brisk as it’s been, but my 47-year old body feels unusually creaky this morning.  If all goes well, this should pass around the start of my second mile.  As I stretch out my stride and roll my shoulders, my thoughts return to the image of my five-year-old self.  As always, it’s as if the child in my mind’s eye is not me at all, but a lost little girl for whom I feel great pity.  I haven’t seen this little girl in a while, so I know it will be an interesting run this morning as I head up and down the Titan Hills.

FrightenedChildMy five-year-old self is always alone and very shy.  Thankfully, for her and for me, the child often seems to travel through the filmstrip of my mind with my Nana – who has always protected this little girl and continues to bless my memories.  To me, Nana was perfect and was the only example of unconditional love I have ever experienced – loving me at my worst and loving me at my best.  But, I think she secretly loved me the most when I was a sweaty, disheveled mess.  I was her one and only ragamuffin girl.  It was a glorious term of endearment because it meant that even though I was imperfect, she still loved to hold my dirt-smudged face in her hands and gently kiss my nose and my cheeks and my forehead.  I was her beloved mess.

But as I run along the snowy sidewalk, Nana’s character fades, for she wasn’t there when my five-year-old self learned about trying to force someone, or something, to love you.  Her sweet face is replaced with the image of a chronically-frightened little girl hiding in the corner between the couch and the TV watching her horrified mother staring down at her bloodstained white uniform.  I rewind, trying to shake off the image as I run quickly across the street.  After a few strides, I settle back into my pace.  You see, when I was in kindergarten, we had an all-white Siamese cat named Snowball.  Snowball was always afraid – running away and hiding from everyone.  But, I adored that cat and wanted her to adore me back.  I wanted her love and her comfort so badly, so when I would come out of my own hiding, I did everything I could to coax Snowball to come out of hers.  My dream was that we would love and protect each other – and together we would no longer be afraid. But,Snowball resisted my love and affection too.

So one morning, feeling unusually desperate to be wanted, I cornered Snowball before school and finally, finally succeeded in picking her up and holding on tight.  I remember hugging her so hard and so long.  “Oh Snowball, don’t run.  Stay and love me.  I need you to love me.”  It was a remarkable feeling to think that now Snowball would finally love me back.  I feel her stop squirming and surrender to me.  But, the reality was that I had hugged her with such longing that I broke her front leg.  It was a compound fracture that bled all over my mother’s white uniform when she lifted up the immobile cat to examine her injuries.  At that moment, and for the first time in my life, I wasn’t scared about being punished by my parents.  This time, I hid and wept in shame and sadness because I had hurt the one thing that I loved more than anything – just by loving it with all my might and not wanting to let go.

My pace is too fast as I over-stride down the third Titan Hill, but I realize this is just a feeble attempt at running away from one more painful reminder of a past life.  I have no memory of Snowball after that horrible morning.  But the recurring image of my five-year-old self hiding as my mother cleaned the blood from her uniform never fades.  Then, about six months ago, I miraculously found relief as I finally understood what I learned from this little girl and her unquenchable need for Snowball’s love.  And, what I learned about that moment has everything to do with the grace of God.

While I could claim that I run to escape, quite honestly I know now that I run to reflect, to repent, and to rejoice.  I’d miss so much if I ran away from it all because I truly believe there is something poignantly beautiful about the human experience – from its brilliance to its brokenness.  It’s not until we can really experience the glory and the grief, that we come to see the pure grandeur of God.

The memory of Snowball helps me see God’s work here on the ground – illustrating the theology between law and Gospel.  We will never get the love we want by demanding it.  Telling anyone to “love me” does not have the power to change the human heart, nor did it have the power to change the heart of a frightened feline.  The power is in saying “I love you” and meaning it no matter what you get in return.  We get the love we want by loving.

It’s taken me a long time, and many failures, to learn that we shouldn’t have to fight to hold onto love – if it’s the right love. I still hug tightly, but now I know when to let go.  I will do my best to remember this lesson from Snowball in my relationships with my children, with my friends, and certainly with God.  After years of chasing Him down and demanding something in return, I now finally understand.  I cannot hold onto God and force Him to stay and love me because He’s already right here loving me with no strings attached.

“We love Him because He first loved us.” 1 John 4:19.

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Just Leave the Ring on the Rail

Seven years ago today I bolted from the Douglas County Courthouse thinking, ‘How could a 21-year relationship end in a matter of five minutes?’ Just five minutes.  That’s all it took for the judge to dissolve something that required a half a lifetime to build.  On this anniversary of my divorce, I’m running through my neighborhood trying hard to focus on my feet instead of my heart since the snow is piled in treacherous little drifts all along the sidewalk.  But these snowy conditions are like the light bulb needed to shine through the filmstrip and project the painful images across my mind.  It was a Tuesday in January and it was unbearably cold at 4:30 in the afternoon as I tried to locate my car in the snow-packed courthouse parking lot. In my mind, the movie reel advances but gets stuck on one of the most desperate moments of my life – the moment when I finally find my car, climb in, and vomit out all the years of memories with each breathless, heaving sob.

This is going to be a tough one today because I know how hard it can be to run with a cluttered mind and a heavy heart.  But, reliving this every year seems inevitable – and probably very necessary.  I am praying that the sun’s rays will break through and at least show me some mercy on this cold, grey morning. These are the days when I think maybe God doesn’t like me very much.  These are the days when I feel like a huge disappointment to Him.  The days when I feel like if I had just tried a little harder, maybe I could’ve kept it together.  No, I don’t expect the sun to shine on me today.

Just leave the ring on the rail for the wheels to nullify

Just leave the ring on the rail for the wheels to nullify

So as I dance around the icy patches and chunks of hard snow, my mind floats back to the frozen car in the darkening parking lot.  After almost an hour, I was wrecked from the sobbing and the nose-blowing and the sobbing and the nose-blowing.  It was now pitch dark and as I was getting ready to drive home to the house-without-a-husband, track six of the homemade “Soundtrack of My Life” CD caught my attention.  “Gone for Good,” by The Shins, was playing.  It was a song I’d heard dozens of times before, so how could it be that I’d never understood the significances of the lyrics until this moment? I hoarsely sang along in a voice that didn’t seem to belong to me.

“Untie me, I’ve said no vows

The train is getting way too loud

I gotta leave here my girl

Get on with my lonely life

Just leave the ring on the rail

For the wheels to nullify”

At that moment, I immediately knew what I was going to do.  Santa Fe, the single-lane road that led back to my home, was also the road that ran parallel to the train tracks.  Cargo engines made their way along this route less regularly these days, but sometimes – even 15 miles away – I could still hear their whistles in the night as I waited for sleep to come.  The snow crunched under my tires as I pulled off the side of the road into the parking lot of an abandoned gravel depot.  I left the car running and made my way through the deep snow toward the tracks.  I took my wedding ring off my finger and placed it on the rails.  The beam from my headlights was shining directly on the gold band and the snow glistened in its path as I stood waiting to hear the familiar comfort of the train whistle.  It was so cold.  I got back into my car, played track six again, and waited.  This was my closure, I thought.  This is me taking control of the situation.  I would save myself.  The waiting was unbearable, but I had no tears left to cry.  After a very long 30 minutes, I heard the clanging and ringing of the railroad crossing gates and I quickly made my way back to where I had left the ring on the rail.  As the giant engine rushed past me, whistling with great concern, I was astounded at how loud it was.  It roared through me as I watched with amazement while the sparks flew from the wedding band from the train’s massive iron wheels.

The memory of the train screeching and crushing my wedding band on that snowy January night causes me to catch my breath as I slowly finish the last mile of this very uncomfortable run.  As I look to the east, I’m astonished that through the ominous grey sky, I can actually see a glimmer of hope.  The sun’s rays are pushing through and I feel modest relief from the blistery cold and my unforgiving heart.  It happens all the time.  After a few tough miles, I am always a bit gentler with myself and today I can finally accept that, even on this anniversary of my divorce, God really does love me.

But, I have to keep reminding myself of this every day because God’s grace is so counterintuitive to everything we humans can understand here on earth.  If we have faith, His grace is an otherworldly love – a love that is undeserved and unearned.  I only wish I had known all this the day I put my ring on the rails in a feeble attempt to find meaning, worth and strength.  I never did save myself that night – but that’s okay, because now I know that there was another who already did that for me.

“In my place condemned He stood,

Sealed my pardon with his blood.

Hallelujah, what a Savior!”

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A Marathon of Grace

My Nana is sitting beside me.  For some reason, she’s handing me my phone.  Her smile exudes the same love I remember it to be – honest and devout and unconditional.  I’m just about to take her hand in mine when I realize my phone alarm is interrupting the moment.  Oh yeah, it’s Tuesday and it’s 5 a.m.  My Nana hasn’t been with us for over 20 years.  The thought makes me want to pull the covers back over my head and find her in my dreams again.  I let out a huge sigh of resignation because I know that she is with me, encouraging me to get up and run and pray and think of her along the way.  So, I check my email to see what my Runcoach has in store for me today, this Tuesday in December.  It’s speed day.  As if Tuesdays in December in Colorado aren’t hard enough.  Speed days are my greatest challenge, but often result in my biggest feelings of accomplishment.  With that thought, I fling the covers off and stumble out of bed.

As I’m lacing up my running shoes and massaging a cranky tendon just below my right ankle bone, I think about my friend Joe.  He always seems to remember Tuesday “Speed Days” and often sends me texts of encouragement when he knows I am on the treadmill straining to catch my breath and counting down every second of every quarter-mile repeat.  Thanks to Joe, Tuesdays aren’t all that terrible these days.  Joe is the kind of friend who seems acutely aware of what people need – emotionally, physically, and spiritually.  He’s one of those people who recognizes and accepts his own suffering, which in turn makes him the same person who can understand the suffering of others – and mine.

“You’d have no light to offer me in my moments of darkness if you weren’t so acquainted with the dark yourself.”  – Tullian Tchividjian

 

Me and Joe and a Marathon of Grace

Me and Joe and a Marathon of Grace

As I start my two-mile warm-up, I am transported back to my third NYC Marathon that took place six weeks ago.  I see the most incredible moments of grace flash across the filmstrip of my mind and know that even on the treadmill, with no sunrise in sight, God is whispering to me.  Grace showed itself in the presence of Joe, taking the weekend off to meet me at the airport and shuttle me back and forth and care for every minor need.  It surrounded me in the form of old and dear friends who inconvenienced themselves to share lunch and dinners with me – making memories and enriching the entire experience. I saw grace in the hearts of the volunteers at the start line and the medics at the finish line.  But one of the most incredible moments of grace exposed itself the evening after the race when I was reunited with friends and family for a celebration dinner.

With a full belly and an overflowing heart, I floated out of the restaurant.  After saying my goodbyes to my family and friends, Joe and I were approached by a well-dressed, 25-year old man.  Although I could sense Joe’s apprehension as he took my elbow, what I found most inspiring was that Joe stopped and gave the man his complete attention.  I was intrigued, but not surprised.  Clearly nervous and ashamed, the young man said, “Excuse me.  Sorry to interrupt. I’m not here to sell you anything.  Just hoping you might take a look at my resume and maybe pass it along.  I’m a chef and I lost my job and I’ve been out of work for too long now.  I’m out of money and out of options.  My daughter is only four and I worry about how I’m going to feed her.”

I took his resume and immediately felt compelled to ask Jerard Iamunno, from the Bronx, about his daughter and his life.  He was open and honest about his current condition and his brokenness.  I was drawn to his humbled heart, as was Joe who put his hand on the man’s shoulder, looked him squarely in the eye, and said, “It’s going to be okay.” Reaching into his wallet, Joe said ever-so-gently, “Here’s everything I have and if I had more I would gladly give it to you.”  Jerard said, “I can’t take this.  It’s too much.  I just need a little to get back on my feet.  Some people just give me their leftovers from dinner.  Even if you just take my resume and pass it along, I’d be grateful.”

At that moment, I saw God’s grace in the very human person of Joe.  It wasn’t in his actions, but in his spirit – his faith and his tenderness.  “Please take it.  Sometimes we all need a little something to get us back on our feet.  I know some people in the hospitality industry and will do what I can to get a few connections lined up.” Then Joe proceeded to talk to Jerard as if he were a colleague or a friend – with enthusiasm, care, and genuine respect.

The surreal scene depicted the beauty and honesty of God’s grace flowing through us and to others in the most unlikely moments.  Well, to us, they seem like unlikely moments.  But, standing in the cold on the avenue near Times Square reminded me of the lyrics by The Fray, “I found God on the corner of First and Amistad.” Maybe that’s the song Jerard was reminded of as we said our goodbyes and wished him well.  Maybe this unlikely moment did something to his heart – or his faith.  Maybe this was the start of something amazing for this young man and his little girl Sophia.  Maybe this was not an unlikely moment after all.

The filmstrip of my mind is interrupted by heavy breathing and sweat dripping into my eye.  I look down and realize that I’ve made it through all but one of my half-mile repeats.  The memories of Joe and Jerard are so vivid and beautiful in my head today.  But, I know that for many, this wouldn’t be a beautiful story.  It would seem sad and futile and many would believe we were just naïve out there on the street getting sucked into Jerard’s “con.”  But I see beauty in the most unlikely places – in the hard, the sad, and the desperate.  God created me this way – this emotional mess who can cry with a stranger and feel myself quickly slipping into their shoes.

To me, seeing the human experience this way is a blessing.  Without this perspective, I don’t think I would see the people, like Joe, who have been placed in my path to show me love and guide me and help me see that which I may have been incapable of seeing before – like young Jerard who may have just needed someone to show him a little grace on that cold, windy November evening.

Jerard Iamunno is looking for a position in the hospitality industry in the NYC area.  His email is IamunnoJerard@yahoo.com

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The Best of Faith

I wish everyone could feel the way I feel right now.  I have been out on the road now for less than ten minutes and already I feel a certain peace.  My legs feel light and my breathing is completely relaxed and measured.  The wind is calm and my mind is clear.  I’m running alongside the sunrise on this forty-seventh Thanksgiving of my life and I feel a rare sense of serenity.  Dear Lord, I made it. One more year. Thank you, I whisper, as I pull my hands up into my sleeves to ward off the early morning chill.  I am blessed to be here today because of your grace.  I didn’t earn it and I don’t deserve it.  For the first time in my life, I can honestly say that I am loved for no other reason than because I exist.

We encounter God in the ordinariness of life...

We encounter God in the ordinariness of life…

Often when I run, the tears will fight to flow.  This morning, I feel unusually vulnerable as I stride down my first hill and feel my throat closing slightly while my lip starts to quiver.  I’ve been a runner for a long time, but I never really know why the sobs sneak out.  I always thought it had something to do with my mind finally allowing my heart the freedom to speak.  But then, last Thanksgiving on this same running route, I was greeted by a sunrise that revealed to me what I was looking for all along.  Ever since I was a young girl, I had been looking for God.  Waiting for Him to appear and show me His strength and protection.  For 20 years, I searched and prayed and “did all the right things” so that He would take notice. But, He never came.  As a result of this absence, my heart hardened.  For ten years, He did not exist. I proclaimed that I was the only one who could protect me.  I was strong.  I would save myself.

But, it was a lonely way to live. In this life I had built, there was no calm, no peace, no comfort, no hope.  I needed help.  So, running became my therapy.  It seemed to be the only thing that generated some form of freedom and peace. It was, however, only a temporary fix.  Like that of a drug addict, I would count the hours before the next sunrise so I could get my fix again.  Often, people would learn about my running and with a look of pity, ask me what would happen if I didn’t run.  I wasn’t sure how to answer them.  I usually just joked that if I didn’t get out and get my mind straight, they probably wouldn’t like me very much.  Then, last Thanksgiving as I was running up the Titan Road Hills and the sun was peeking over my right shoulder, I was presented with the answer.  Yes, running was like a drug – but more like a prescription that allowed my heart to soften and my thoughts to transform into prayer.

That’s it.  I was praying.  It became so clear that day.  When I run, I see with my soul and not with my eyes.  The world looks different on the run – brighter and more hopeful and more generous.  And so, it has been out on the road that I run and smile and weep and show thanks for it all.  My drug-of-choice opened my eyes to finally accept that I was praying to God.  Alone on the road, I wasn’t really alone at all.  I was alone with God.  The revelation that He had been beside me all those years was overwhelming.  It was the noise and confusion of life that clouded my view – the belief that I could control it all.  I had been so busy trying to prove to myself that I was loved, that I never heard Him.

“We encounter God in the ordinariness of life:  not in the search for spiritual highs and extraordinary mystical experiences, but in our simple presence in life.”  Brennan Manning

As I head back home to a messy house and groggy children just waking up, I pick up my pace.  It’s no surprise that I feel lighter and warmer now.  Last year at this same time on this same run, I finally found the truth.  During all those years when I felt lost and alone – working so hard to win God’s love – I already had it.  I didn’t earn it and I will never earn it.  The grace of God is a gift – with no strings attached – that I will humbly accept knowing that there is no way to ever thank Him for it.

“Faith is what someone knows to be true, whether they believe it or not.”  Flannery O’Connor

Having faith in His gift has allowed me to be gentler with myself and others, have more patience with myself and others, and be more generous with myself and others.  Having faith in God has changed the way I see things.  When my faith is strong, I am more compassionate, I fear less, I love more, and I live with greater conviction. We are all broken and frail and fighting something – but God loves us anyway.  Accepting this has set me free.

My run ends at my doorstep.  I listen carefully outside the door and hear muted little voices inside.  I sigh.  No, I cannot explain my faith, I only know that it has helped me find peace, finally believe that I am lovable, and be grateful for every day I am blessed to experience it all.

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Seeing the Perfect in the Imperfect

Nothing about this race feels right, I think as I hug my knees and wrestle with the massive trash bag that is serving more as a sail than a blanket in the 30 mile per hour wind.  It’s November 2 and it’s my third NYC Marathon, but oddly, this one doesn’t feel familiar.  I feel like I don’t belong here – so insignificant and small down here on the cold, damp ground as a sea of athletes rises up above me.  I cannot explain why, but I already feel defeated.  I wanted this race – of all my 14 marathons – to be the best, the most memorable, the most meaningful.  I wanted today to be the perfect celebration of 25 weeks and 950 miles of hard work and dedication.  Perfect.

As I shrink closer into myself to generate body warmth, I get deeper into my own head but the gentle voices are nowhere to be found – drowned out by the voices determined to remind me of why I don’t matter and why none of this matters.  I squinch my eyes tightly in an attempt to blot out the thoughts and I rest my forehead on my knees.  I feel just a bit warmer, but I sense it has nothing to do with my huddling techniques.  I look up above the runners’ heads and see that the sun is urgently trying to push through the thick Staten Island cloud cover as if the rays have something to say.  “Good morning,” I say out loud in the same wondrous way I greet God on every early morning run.  “Thank you for reminding me that you are here.”  Perfect.

The perfect 'good morning' in the imperfect sky

The perfect ‘good morning’ in the imperfect sky

Then, it felt like someone hit my brain’s hard reboot, and I see a different world.  I now see beyond myself.  Oh, thank God for His otherworldly greeting from the heavens to remind me of why I do this – why I run.  I run because it’s the only way I know how to put this hard, crazy, sad, incredible, joyous, confusing, beautiful life into perspective.  It’s the only time I really see the world in true, living color and can express my gratitude for being chosen to play even the tiniest role in it.  Out on the road, in the quiet of the morning and from the stillness of my heart, I can accept life as it is presented – wanting nothing more and nothing less than exactly what it is.  So now, sitting here in Athlete’s Village with all its confusion and its chaos and its discomfort, I realize this is all simply a microcosm for life – and what do I do when I cannot make sense of life?  I run.  Perfect.

The cannons rudely announce the start of the 2014 TCS NYC Marathon with ground-shaking booms that instantaneously transport me back to the horrific aftermath of the 2013 Boston Marathon bombings.  But within a few minutes, I’m immersed in the sounds and scenes of the race as I wrestle the gale-force winds on the iconic Verrazano Narrows Bridge, so I focus my energy and my thoughts on the real fighter here – a special 9-year-old girl named Rebekah.  You see, when I was accepted to run with the “Miles for Miracles” team to benefit Boston Children’s Hospital, I had no idea that I was about to fall in love.  Rebekah is my patient partner being treated at Boston Children’s Hospital – a little girl with a half-smile and tiny hands who stole my heart the minute I saw her face.  Hers is the face I see on every tempo run, during every speed workout, and on my long 20-milers.  Her bravery fuels mine because I know that that my struggles – my hardest days – are nothing compared to the ones she faces.  Perfect.

Fueling my strength

Fueling my strength

I’m now seven miles into the race and I still feel anxious – even with Rebekah’s strength fueling me. I’m still struggling to believe that any of this really matters as the wind shakes me like a ragdoll, the cold seizes my lungs, and the other competitors jostle, bump and push me out of the way.  Then, I see Edward up ahead.  I ‘met’ Edward Lychik through Twitter when he was seeking votes for the 2014 Runners World Cover Contest.  He is an Afghan war veteran who lost his leg at the hip and was told he would never run again. I was immediately fascinated with his faith.  What drives a young man of 23 to be so accepting of what most would see as a curse?  What beliefs cause him to strive to become an even stronger version of his former self?   What has gripped his heart and his mind so strongly that he sees himself as one who’s blessed not broken?  Perfect.

I run up next to Edward and breathlessly introduce myself, tell him I’m proud of him and that I know he will finish strong.  I’m pretty sure he has no idea who I am, but he politely says hello and asks me to find him at the finish.  I tell him I will and then I disappear back into the pack to hide from the wind.  As I maneuver through the crowded course, I remember what Edward wrote in his nomination and it makes me run just a bit faster.  He wrote, “I run to challenge the status quo. I run to ignite the hearts of those who are yet to discover their untapped potential.  Losing my leg isn’t a burden, it’s the greatest gift I have ever been given.” I don’t know anything about his faith, but clearly Edward believes in something bigger than himself – that he was chosen to show us all that what is wrong can be made right, that fear can be overcome, and that goodness will always prevail.  Perfect.

As I make the glorious right turn into Central Park for the final two miles, everything is a blur and I feel like I’m running through a sun-drenched fog.  Apparently, my eyes are as tired as the rest of my body.  My optometrist always jests that I have beautiful, yet very imperfect eyes.  This seems quite fitting actually.  You see, there’s nothing perfect about this life, but I guess that’s what makes it all seem so beautiful.  Rebekah has had a lifetime of chronic health issues and is fragile and frail, but to me, she’s the strongest, most fearless child I’ve ever set these imperfect eyes upon.  The doctors told Edward his broken body would never run another step.  But in Edward, I see a spirit that cannot be broken – a faith that proves that there is One who protected and prepared him for this imperfect life.  Perfect.

With virtually nothing left in me, I cross the finish line feeling acutely aware of everyone and everything around me.  I sigh and think, no, nothing about this race was perfect.  But, I guess I’m different than most.  I don’t see beauty in the perfect – the perfect painting, the perfect photograph, the perfect story, the perfect race.  I see beauty in the broken, the messed up, the ragamuffins.  And, I no longer fear my own imperfections or hide my messiness from the world.  In fact, I’m really okay with it because I now know that everything wrong with me is absolutely perfect to God and that’s because a perfect Jesus made the ultimate sacrifice on my imperfect behalf.  Perfect.

If you want to truly see the perfect in the imperfect, please consider a donation to my personal fundraiser here at the Boston Children’s Hospital.

 

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