Untethered

I’ve been married for fifteen years, and I want to tell you things are WAY easier now than they were in the early years, but that would be like telling you putting a man on the moon is way easier the sixth time you do it compared to the first time. NO! Successful moon missions are ALWAYS hard, no matter how many times you do it.

Sure, the first time you do it, you’re inexperienced. You have no idea if you’re going to make it. Your body and mind are untested. Yes, you’ve been preparing, quite often ‘til you’re exhausted, but gearing up for something is WAY different than actually doing the deed. Yeah, I’m still talking about space travel; get your mind out of the gutter!

Going into your sixth landing, you know you can do it, but now you’re dealing with budget cuts you didn’t have before. Your body and mind are stronger, but you also know that you’ve suffered setbacks along the way, and the astronauts and equipment may not hold up under the strain. Your space agency may not be able to perform like it once did.

The same holds true in marriage. You may think you’ve got this thing on lock. Look at all the disagreements you worked through with your partner. All those magical moments you shared and the hard times you limped through together. But those hard times keep coming, you argue about the same things over and over again, and the tough stuff is easier to recall than those magical moments. Plus, you’re just older versions of the two broken people carrying all their baggage all those years ago, and it’s easy to drop that baggage at your partner’s feet, just as they’re gaining momentum.

Just recently, my wife was mad at me for an entire day, and I had no idea until we sat down to eat dinner. The one good thing about years of experience is you start to detect patterns.

She’s avoiding eye contact.

Okay, something’s just shifted.

You ask how her day’s going, and she gives you a one-word response, “Fine.”

This is when you identify with Jim Lovell of Apollo 13 who just heard a bang. All your electronics fluctuate, your thrusters don’t work, and you lose connection with Earth. It feels like all the air is sucked out of the room, and you realize man isn’t made to live here.

So you ask a follow-up question: “Are you sure you’re okay?”

“Yeah, I said I’m fine. Why wouldn’t I be?”

“Houston, we’ve had a problem.”

Just like Lovell had to wait while NASA determined the fate of him and his crew, I found myself surrounded by huge gravity wells of silence. One small mistake could send me hurtling into the unknown.

The BEST thing about our marriage is that I’m an external processor and want to resolve problems immediately, while my wife needs time to think through things and figure out why she’s feeling the way she is, so while she’s checking the instruments and doing the calculations necessary to stay on mission, I’ve dumped out all the materials the crew have in the capsule and am trying to build something new out of it, sorting out exactly what’s gone wrong, so in that moment when I asked her how her day was going, she may have just been realizing she felt upset, and when I asked her if she was okay, that’s the moment she realized that yes, she was in fact mad at me.

People, learn this now. Your person can be upset with you long before she knows why she is and you WILL make it worse if you try to fix it immediately. Imagine Jim Lovell jumping to conclusions, talking over Houston as well as his crew, and steering Apollo 13 into a trajectory from which they’d’ve never returned.

The crew of Apollo 13 blew an oxygen tank just like I’d blown it with my wife, producing unanticipated consequences. The astronauts experienced a drop in temperature due to a lack of electricity, while I experienced the cold shoulder due to a lack of empathy.

The rest of dinner passed as I tried not to take up too much oxygen, the atmosphere thick with animosity. Short breaths. Try not to talk. Slow movements. Yes, you’ve got to eat, but taking your next bite is not as important as taking that next, deliberate breath.

After dinner, I told the kids that mommy and I were going for a walk, which they were totally fine with as Maggie was already perched on her bed, playing Roblox on one device and FaceTiming with her friends on another. Meanwhile, Asher was watching other kids alternate between playing video games and playing with toys on YouTube. Sure, they were both substituting real life experiences for simulated ones, but that meant the wife and I could get out of the house without concern for our children’s safety. What were Jim Lovell’s kids up to while he hurtled through outer space? I’m sure somebody knew.

Securing the door, I had to catch up with the wife as she was already heading down the sidewalk. I adjusted my steps to hers as the crew adjusted their rations to the pace Houston set. It must not have been all that long before Laura started opening up about what was bothering her as we turned the corner together.

“What’s going on?”

“Weekends are for spending time together, but you’ve been doing your own thing all day, and I haven’t gotten to see you at all.”

Instead of realizing all Laura wanted was to spend time with me, I decided to defend myself, pointing out the times in the day I tried to spend time with her, she was preoccupied, because I can be a real asshole sometimes.

We walked. We talked. She held my hand. I apologized for the hurt I caused, and she did the same. And suddenly I could breathe again. The air scrubbers reactivated, dissipating the animosity. 

Just like NASA used their years of experience to slingshot Apollo 13 around the moon and back for a safe splashdown, the wife and I worked our way around feeling like the other was spending too much time alone. We literally looped the neighborhood together on the same trajectory, and instead of feeling like I could vanish into the dark unknown, she kept me tethered by holding my hand well before she felt like doing it.

It feels like that’s where I should end that story, with a nice little bow wrapping up the Apollo 13 analogy, but that’s just it. I’m still an asshole. After the fight about not spending enough time together on a weekend, two days later, we had another fight about basically the same thing, then when I was trying to spend time with her in the sexy way, we had another argument when I thought she called me weak, triggering the emotional baggage I still carry from middle school.

Life is fucked right now. I haven’t hugged my parents or sister in four months, and we haven’t even seen any of Laura’s family since New Year’s. We isolate ourselves from our friends yet see our neighbors lining the street with cars for Father’s Day with nary a mask to be seen. Protestors are gassed in the streets of what will surely become Flavortown, statues tumble while a noose is left for a black man to find because he got the confederate flag banned from NASCAR, and people are shot and run over for celebrating Junteenth while others cheer the President drinking water one-handed, so what’s the point of maintaining our marriage when we could all be dead after the second spike hits?

Well, somebody’s got to generate material to write about, so he can get his homework done for his unaccredited writing class.

Hitting the Reset

“Sometimes it’s like hitting the reset button,” a bodiless voice called out of the darkness behind me. Whichever runner offered this encouragement, I’ll never know as I had my back to him, heaving up the Honey Stinger Waffle and Tailwind I’d just consumed. I was 22 miles into the Hallucination 100-miler and started wondering what was wrong with me.

I signed up for the race five months prior, enlisting the aid of a buddy with several 100-mile finishes as well as one 200-miler. With a change in career, I had more time to train and wanted to know of what I was capable. A rack in my basement hangs heavy with ribbons and hunks of metal, wood, glass, ceramic, and even a coonskin cap commemorating the races I’ve completed, including several marathons and even a fair few 50k’s. They weren’t ever easy, but at each event, I’ve crossed the finish line with a smile, knowing I’d be completing other races soon thereafter. Running keeps me happy and healthy, injecting adventure into days that I would otherwise spend on the couch with a beer in one hand and a controller in the other.

The platitude, “do the thing that scares you,” has been echoing in my head over the last several years, leading to me to push past the comfortable and conventional and compelling me to consider the complicated and the crazy, such as completing the 200-mile Pelotonia ride last month. Since taking up running in 2010, my body befuddles me with its ability to go further and faster, recovering far sooner that I’d expect. If I can do THIS, of what ELSE am I capable? Signing up for Hallucination seemed challenging enough. I’d be pushing my limits, yet it was practical as well, as I know several runners who view their 100-mile finisher’s buckles as the crown jewels of their medal collections.

Therefore, puking my racing fuel into the ditch four miles short of marathon distance threw me off with as much force as a brahma bull. Eating and drinking every 45 minutes is what I’ve always done. I’m not even running that hard. Am I sick? Should I not have filled up my hydration bladder from the sink at the campground? We’re not that far from Flint. The emails said to bring water for camping. Was that because the water isn’t potable? Dean Karnazes had to drop out of his first Badwater because drinking out of that water hose made him sick. Will I throw up again? I’m not okay; I feel off. Maybe if I get this loop done, I can complete the 50k and just sleep in the tent tonight. Getting a 50k done with stomach issues is plenty, right?

That’s the cycle of thinking I got stuck in for the next few miles. When tripping on a root sent me to my knees, my right leg cramped, confirming to my already anxious mind that things had gone sideways, and that stopping was probably the best option.

None of this happened at the Eagle Up Ultra where I’d run 50 miles back in the spring and stopped, not because I didn’t have more miles in me, but because Laura and the kids awaited me at the finish, and I wanted to go out to dinner and spend the evening with them. I felt stronger running those 50 miles than I did running the double 50k’s just the winter before.

Now I was done. With doubt plaguing me, I staggered to the next aid station, sure I could do no more. Nevermind I’d run the first loop of 17 miles in four hours, well ahead of the allotted time. My body betrayed me. I’d gotten sick. Time to pack it in. And I would have…

If not for that aid station volunteer who put up with zero of my horseshit.

I stepped over the timing mats as everyone beneath the white pavilion cheered, celebrating my arrival. 

“How’re you doing?”

“Not well.” I sidestepped another runner to sink into the nearest folding chair.

“What’s going on, buddy?”

I don’t remember verbatim how our conversation went, but I do recall telling the volunteer I’d thrown up and expressed my doubts about continuing. When another runner tried to share a story of one of his buddies experiencing stomach issues in another race, she cut him off and told me I could sit for five minutes. Seeing I was no longer on my feet, a third runner tried to tell me it was a bad idea to sit down. Frustrated, I told him I understood that. He backed off, and the volunteer handed me a saltine. “Eat this.”

“How does your stomach feel now?” I chewed the cracker, responding that my stomach seemed to be fine. “That’s good.” She handed me a second cracker.

At no point did she give me choices, just facts. Willing me to look her in the eye, she affirmed, “You look really strong. Get to the next aid station; it’s just four miles from here.” I stood up, drank two pre-poured cups of Coke, and trotted off as she called after me, “We’ll see you again.”

And I kept going.

It’s been said that small decisions matter, that wars aren’t won on the strategy laid out by generals but on the everyday choices of the enlisted. Getting up and continuing on was a small decision I made, the only choice with which I was presented, really, but it proved the volunteer right. I did see her again, twice in fact. Her telling me the truth when all I felt was despair was the reset my mind so desperately needed. 

Now, if this were a Disney movie, I would’ve gone on to not only finish the Hallucination 100 but in the process would have set the course record, aided by a wolf I found injured in the woods. Last time I checked, though, my name’s not Natty Gann, and injured wolves tend to maul people.

In real life, I tagged up with Jim, a fellow first time 100-miler, and we paced each other through most of the rest of the night until, complaining of blisters at mile 47, he encouraged me to go on without him.

That I did, for 20 more miles.

Bartending for six hours can leave my feet sore. Doing a trail run in excess of 20 hours makes me ache from the waist down, so I slowed my roll to a pace of 20 minutes per mile, missing the noon cutoff by more than an hour.

When I came out of the woods, Laura was there to capture my rapture on camera. Only thing was, I was no longer smiling. As I passed, one spectator remarked to another, “That’s what death face looks like.”

Crossing the finish, I announced to the volunteer who approached me with a medal, “I’m done; dropping down from the 100-miler to the 100k.”

With an enormous smile and a hug I didn’t expect, she announced, “You did such a good job; come get something to eat.”

Banana in hand and Laura directing me to a shady spot, I removed my shirt and shoes and laid down in the grass, it’s coolness a welcome respite from the grind.

Though not the distance for which I signed up, doing Hallucination marked the first time I ever ran from sundown to sunrise and provided a new PR for distance of 67.25 miles in 21 hours, 10 minutes, and 42 seconds. I also found my limits and one spot of chafing on my left hip. Other than that, I left unscathed. No blisters, not even a hotspot — miraculous — that or I didn’t push nearly as hard as I could’ve.

Prior to the event, Laura told me how training for the 100-miler took me away from other things, and we agreed that this would be my last one. I asked her if this meant I was only going to run 5k’s from here on out, but she assured me she was fine with me continuing to do marathons. “Can I still do 50k’s?”

“Those are fine. Just no more 100-milers.”

Every time I came out of the woods, Laura was there taking care of me, handing me socks, bringing food, and kissing me, letting me know she loved me no matter how bad I smelled. 11:00 pm? She was there. 7:05 the next morning? Throwing down the folding chair she’d brought for herself, she ensured I was seated comfortably and brought me pancakes, scrambled eggs, and half a cup of coffee. “I wasn’t sure how your stomach was, so I only filled it up half-way. Do you want some more?”

Back at our tent, Laura continued caring for me, bringing me drinks she’d chilled precisely for this moment and handing me items just beyond my reach, as getting back out of my chair proved to be an arduous task.

After showering and brushing my teeth (Oh, sweet relief!), whenever I nodded off, Laura let me sleep, no matter how oddly my head bobbed. She also packed up our campsite by herself and drove us home, letting me lie down in the passenger seat to snooze throughout the four-hour drive, pushing away her own weariness in the process.

With better preparation and training, I could’ve completed the Hallucination 100, but without that volunteer, Jim’s encouragement, and Laura’s sacrifice, I would never have made it as far as I did.

Did I fail to meet my goal?

Yes.

Did I accomplish a greater feat than I ever have before?

Absolutely.

Have Laura and I agreed on how much running is healthy not only for me but for our family as a whole?

We sure did.

Will I sign up for my next 50k this weekend?

Most likely.

Is Laura considering the nine-miler at the same event, marking the longest distance she’d have ever run?

With the right people in your corner, you can accomplish astounding things.

Getting Fuzzy: Our First Trail 50k

As we embraced at church, Matt whispered the following into my ear: “You fucking asshole…”

Not your typical Sunday morning greeting, no.

What elicited Matt’s observation was his realization I initiated the hug just to dig my finger into his right quadricep where he ached the most. At least that’s where I guessed he hurt, having done a little jaunt with him the day before. Well, it wasn’t a jaunt exactly, and one could better describe the soreness in our legs as throbbing pain.

We took on the Fuzzy Fandango 50k, a 32-mile trail run through the hills of the Mohican-Memorial State Forest. With a starting line aiming us straight up the ski slope of Clear Fork Adventure Resort and more than 4,000 feet of total elevation gain, the Fuzzy took us eight hours, fourteen minutes, and change to complete. If you imagine running from San Diego, California to Tijuana, Mexico while climbing up and down all 102 stories of the Empire State building nearly four times, that should give you a sense of the challenge we and 66 other runners paid to face on November 10, 2018. That also happens to be the first day we got snow this season as the temperature only climbed to a touch above 30 degrees Fahrenheit.

If this sounds miserable to you, don’t stop reading. I tell you this not to alienate you, but to get you to understand that choosing to go through that pain and cold for all those hours while moving over that distance was one of the worst experiences of my life.

It sucked so much!

It was also transcendent.

Mohican-Memorial forest is one of my favorite places. At 4,525 acres, this preserved woodland in Ashland County would easily swallow up the nearby county seat; Ashland, Ohio. For whatever reason, upon hearing the word, ‘forest,’ my mind retrieves an image of a flat plain with trees. Probably because I grew up in the glaciated portion of Ohio.

Mohican is unglaciated, which means the topography rolls like a bowling ball with one flattened side. We’re not talking hills and valleys with whispering streams. Yeah, it’s got those, but it also has towering granite formations, drop-offs that’ll kill you, channels of water large enough to sweep you away, and an aid station where the guy handed me a shot of bourbon. It’s a wondrous place, and when we ran it, the forest floor was blanketed with newly-fallen leaves beneath trees still ablaze with color. In other areas, even as the scent of pine pricked your nose, your ears strained to pick up familiar sounds now dampened by the brown needles below and the green ones everywhere else. We passed boulders adorned with icicles and a waterfall plummeting more than two stories. I know, because I climbed the several flights of steps that took you from the base of the cascade to its pinnacle.

Laura, wife-for-life, wanted to have two children, a girl and a boy, but desired twins, so she would only have to experience pregnancy once. She knew the toll it would take on her body, that it would be one of the most difficult things she’d ever choose to do, and she was correct.

We did have two children, a girl and a boy, but they weren’t twins. Laura went through pregnancy twice to get what she wanted. As one incapable of sacrificing my life to allow another to gestate within, I can’t describe the discomfort, emotional trauma, and pain my wife went through to allow our children to live. I can communicate what I witnessed her face and what she shared with me, sometimes in tears. And it was hard, soul-wrenching, tearing pain. But then each time it was over, and she held this helpless, wailing, flailing life that needed her like no one else. And there was healing in the holding — all the pain forgotten in joy. Even ten years later, there’s nothing Laura wouldn’t do for Maggie. To keep Asher safe, Laura will fight anyone and anything to her dying breath.

No, I’m not comparing running an ultra-marathon to giving birth. Are you nuts?!? I’m just illustrating how going through pain and sacrificing for something you desire changes you, creating unbreakable bonds.

Think about your closest friends. Likely, you know them from work or school. Maybe you grew up with them. I challenge you to identify one friend with whom you did not go through some shit. Name someone you hold dear that did not see you through difficulty in your life.

Please. Allow me to go one step further. Identify someone you hold dear, your best friend or even the family member you love the most, and think about all the trauma the two of you faced together. Is it a significant amount? I bet so.

My best friends are the people with whom I run on a regular basis. When you spend hours at a time with someone on the trail, you end up sharing what’s going on in your life. Not only do you face the miles and the hills and the temperatures and the weather and the sleep deprivation together, you face the trouble you’re having at work. You share how you’re trying to fix the condo after the pipes backed up and sewage flooded your basement. You share trying to get your MFA while working full-time and how you’re not sure you’re going to make it. You ask if it’s normal to yell at your wife about weeding the flower beds then breaking down in tears. That is normal, right?

Running the Fuzzy Fandango 50k showed me I can do something most perceive as impossible, but I did it with my good friend, Matt, pictured above, who cussed me out in church. He’s my friend who’s seen me through all the moments I listed above along with innumerable others over the last five years.

Yeah, there were points in the race where we descended slopes like little kids, allowing gravity to pull us forward, arms windmilling, trying to step fast enough so we didn’t fall and giggling as our stomachs achieved weightlessness. There were other moments, though, where we hit a series of switchbacks ascending a slope we thought would never end. These weren’t amiable switchbacks either. They were the sort where you put your head down and dig into it like a kid trying to get through a plate of brussel sprouts, the only option being to keep trudging.

I could say I took up running nearly a decade ago because I hit my early thirties, and they hit me with a slowed metabolism. That was a motivating factor, but the SOLE reason I took up running was because my friend, Josh, challenged me to run a half-marathon with him. This hobby that’s now core to my identity started as a challenge from a friend with whom I still see multiple times a week to accumulate mileage.

Having spent the majority of my existence running from challenges, my pursuit of ultra-running makes little sense. Teenage me thought it quite clever to tell others I was “allergic to pain.” Afraid I wasn’t good enough to do them well, I always put off assignments until the last minute, making them that much more difficult. Despite this, I got good grades, graduating summa cum lauda and going on to earn two master’s degrees.

I’m good at running. It’s one of the few things in my life I no longer put off or avoid, and I keep elevating my goals, such as breaking a four hour marathon or choosing tougher races and longer distances. Maybe I’m still trying to prove to myself I am good enough. Maybe I enjoy doing my best when things get toughest. Maybe I only like to do what I’m good at, and I use running to avoid areas in which I think I’ll fail. You know what? Let’s go with Option D: All of the above.

Matt and I spent all day traversing the trail. Day dawned as they bussed us to the starting line, and dusk settled as we crossed the finish line. Our saving grace? The aid stations where volunteers greeted us with cheers and the smell of hot ramen noodles. They refilled our hydration packs and made us PB & J, grilled cheese sammiches, and quesadillas so fresh, they were too hot to eat. At one stop, I enjoyed a Gatorade slushy.

Crossing the finish line, friends offered celebratory beer and pats on the back. Inside the warm lodge, a stranger bought me a sticker featuring an illustration of the race’s mascot in red; a smiling, cartoon puffball with hand lifted in greeting and fairy wings. We ate warm chili heaped high with corn chips, shredded cheddar, and sour cream. I downed one beer while walking the ten steps to get my chili, then enjoyed another as I replenished my calories. Friends we’d just met, known for months, and acquired on the trail regaled each other with stories. I changed into warm clothes and headed back outside to join the impromptu finish line party gathered around a fire pit. We cheered the last of the runners then met up for dinner later that evening.

At one point along the course, Matt’s stomach turned sour, and he told me to go on ahead. I refused and slowed to match his pace, as we had agreed to run the Fuzzy together weeks before, so we walked several miles through the pines before arriving at the aid station with the grilled cheese. Both of us ate, and Matt bounced back, running through the finish.

Friends help see each other through the shit, and Lord willing, we’re going to face even more together, because moving forward with friends strengthens your heart, and the more confidence you gain through putting one foot in front of the other, the more of life you can face, heads held high.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens and Hope

Looks like Vader left his mask on the floor again…

If I’ve told that Sith once, I’ve told him a thousand times to not leave his mask lying around. I get that he feels claustrophobic behind that thing, anybody would, but his asthma gets to be a real problem without that mask.

That’s it, I’m sending him to his pod!

My son knows who Darth Vader is. Asher is three years old, and he knows who Darth Vader is. Well, not really. Whenever he pushes the button on the side of the mask and James Earl Jones announces, “I find your lack of faith disturbing,” Asher laughs, repeating what he hears, “I find your face is dirty.”

My son isn’t the only one who has a thin grasp on Vader mythology. My cousin shared how his boys got into a debate at school over whether or not Darth Vader died, and Mark educated them by pulling up the climactic scene from Return of the Jedi where Vader laid down his life to save Luke. Mark and I joked about how he now has to further spoil the original trilogy for his sons by showing them the scene when Vader tells Luke, “I am your Father,” or when Luke realizes he’s Leia’s brother.

Having grown up sleeping on Star Wars bedsheets and playing with pretty much all the original action figures and playsets, Mark had to do something. He tried years ago to sit with his sons and watch Star Wars, but the boys were too young and had too much energy to make it through even the first film. As a teenager, Mark collected the toys that came out in connection to the prequels, and his entire family has pre-purchased around 20 tickets to see the Force Awakens together.

Tickets in hand, Mark’s inviting his three sons to experience a cultural milestone, and he doesn’t want them missing out on the full experience, so he plans on watching at least the original trilogy as a family in the next few weeks.

According to Deadline Hollywood, analysts project the Force Awakens will earn $185 – $210 million opening weekend alone, and scuttlebutt says Episode VII will break Avatar‘s $2.7 billion box office record.

What is it about Star Wars that has people clamoring to see the new movie?

It’s about hope.

Upon its release in 1977, Star Wars: A New Hope revitalized the sci-fi genre. Audiences were used to seeing dystopian futures on film such as prior years’ Logan’s Run, Soylent Green, The Omega Man, Westworld, Rollerball, and the Planet of the Apes series.

Watergate disenchanted the American public, breaking our faith in an infallible President. If we couldn’t believe our elected officials held our best interests, what future could we expect? So we wallowed in stories confirming our worst fears until Star Wars showed us something different: even the poorest orphan has the power to face down the unknown. Light will overcome darkness. We are not alone; the Force is with us.

There is hope.

We wanted to hear that story of hope again with Episodes I, II, and III of the Star Wars franchise, especially after the events of September 11, 2001, but were sadly disappointed to see computer-generated, digitally-shot stories about how the future was set in stone and things will go wrong despite the best efforts of the most powerful Jedi.

Especially after the Paris attacks and shootings in schools and ISIS and violence and murder and rape, we want to hear that it’s going to be okay. We want to have hope for the future. We want to place our faith in the fact that we are not alone in this world, that even the poorest orphan has the power to overcome the unknown. I want to know that I’m going to make it, that my uncle facing radiation and chemotherapy will be cured of his cancer. I want to know that my seven-year-old daughter will never be sexually assaulted. I want my marriage to last a lifetime and that friends will not leave me.

That’s too much pressure to put on one movie. Sure, the Force Awakens will utilize practical effects and be shot on film and J. J. Abrams proved with Star Trek that he can revitalize a space-faring series, showing us through lens flares that anything is possible, but one movie cannot guarantee anyone’s future. Only a self-sacrificing god can do that.

Look at Jesus, a poor man of questionable parentage, who shook the political and religious leaders of his day with selfless answers and self-sacrifice. He exercised power to heal the sick and raise the dead. He spent time with children and touched lepers. His greatest teachings were about humility and self-denial. He showed us how to love the disenfranchised, the marginalized, and betrayers. He laid down his life for his friends and took it back up again. He died so that we may live.

I put my hope in Jesus, knowing he has a plan for my life, and if my uncle dies of cancer or my daughter is assaulted, if my marriage falls apart or my friends abandon me, even if my worst fears come true, Jesus will not leave me desolate. He is ever-present; his Spirit lives in me, which means he can work through me in power. I prayed for the sick, and they were healed. I was laid off with no prospects and got a better job. I was so overwhelmed with fear, I couldn’t make it through a day at school, and now I teach school. I messed up my leg so badly, I couldn’t walk without crutches, and now I run faster and farther than I ever could before.

Do I plan on taking my family to see the Force Awakens? We wouldn’t miss it, especially since we’ve sat down and watched the original trilogy together. I hope it affirms the story that light overcomes darkness, that we are not alone. Darth Vader may have died, but he laid down his life so his son would live, and he continues to live on.

I have hope for the future.

Jake’s Top Ten Reasons for Running

Aglow from the caffeine of two Clif Shots and a finish line coffee coupled with the endorphins produced during the Emerald City Half Marathon, I felt now would be a good time to share with you why I run.

10) My gut no longer hangs over my belt. I exchanged the impetus of my runner’s life for a sleeker frame, muscular definition, and enhanced stature. Reading up on how elite athletes run on vegetarian chili and green smoothies, I can’t argue against exchanging empty calories for nutrient-rich meals. Do I now consume only the best grains and produce the local farmer’s market has to offer? No, but I provide my family with healthier choices, and instead of complaining when Laura serves a meal minus the meat, I now make tempeh and quinoa, beans and rice.

9) The frequent phrase, “I feel like I just ran a marathon,” spilled from my mouth years before Josh, Matt, and I completed our first 26.2 mile race last fall. Now I understand how vast my exaggeration. Pushing myself past what I thought possible unlocked reserves I didn’t know existed. My mettle far outstripped my self-confidence. Wobbling from the finish line, I repeated, “I just ran a marathon,” several times before asking, “What else can I accomplish?”

8) Running taught me when faced with pain or trouble, I can make it worse by tensing up, or I can release what concerns me, accelerating even as I do. I never realized how much energy I wasted stressing out about light and momentary troubles until discovering the mental equivalent of taking a vacation. Some would call it entering a Zen state, but I prefer the phrase disconcerning myself. Running becomes so automatic, your body enters a rhythm like one setting a metronome. Your brain releases your legs to tick away each step then wanders off to play. Applying this practice to the rest of life allows me to complete challenging projects without fear.

7) Running taught me to smile, experiencing joy no matter the circumstance. After pushing my body so long, the muscle ache and general weariness often set my mind to complaint, repeating thoughts of “this is too much, I gotta stop, I can’t do this,” and the like, so my friends, Matt and Josh, and I started telling each other jokes as we ran. Besides forcing euphoria, cracking my friends up got me out of my own head, stopping the self-pity, and taught me pretending to enjoy myself soon turns to true enjoyment, so smiling throughout the day allows me to master my emotions, instead of them mastering me.

6) Josh and Matt care for me even as I look out for them. Spending at least an hour with these guys three times a week builds trust, which frees me to share things I wouldn’t with anyone else, giving perspective, encouraging advice, and promoting acceptance.

5) I became part of a community I didn’t even know existed. People reference the running bug, like it’s a virus, a foreign species capable of invading your body and ravaging it without knowledge nor permission, but taking on the discipline changed me. Words like fartleks and repeats, split pace, and VO2 max entered my vocabulary. I bought a hydration belt and compression shorts. I collect finisher’s medals and tech shirts. I frequent stores and websites I didn’t even know existed five years ago. And there are millions of people like me all over the world that had they read this paragraph, would’ve recognized it as true to their experience as well.

4) Mystified, I became an athlete. Despite going out for teeball in kindergarten and volleyball and basketball in middle school, my participation in organized competitions only served to underline how gross my inability. Uncoordinated on the court, I embraced books and videogames, but I teach with a guy whose image appears throughout the trophy case just down the hall. Knowing I ran, he asked me how many miles I put in that morning. When I told him, “Six,” he guffawed in disbelief and remarked, “Jake, you are quite the athlete,” before stopping another teacher to hear how many miles I ran.

3) When I started running, I was most unfit. My muscles ached for weeks, and as my circulatory system struggled to maintain oxygen flow to my cells, I thought my heart would blow out like a truck tire, but instead, I grew stronger and got faster. At races, both Josh and Matt finished long before I did, but during one 5k, Josh paused to tie his shoe and didn’t see me again until after crossing the finish line where I waited, and now, whether training or racing, any one of us can kick to the end before the others arrive.

2) As I became a runner, so too did my wife, Laura. We’ve completed numerous 5k’s as a couple and even a few pushing our double stroller. This past winter, the first I trained through, knowing she added LASIK surgery to her Amazon wish list a few years ago, I asked Laura if running a 5k in February interested her. “Are you crazy? Just because you run through snow doesn’t mean I want to.” She changed her mind after I told her a local LASIK center sponsored the 5k I found and anyone entering the race qualified to win free surgery. She signed both of us up within 10 minutes with the understanding if they pulled my name, she’d get the surgery. When they called her name at the starting line, I had to confirm she heard right before she walked up to receive the certificate. Laura’s not worn glasses or contacts since.

1) When our five-year-old daughter asks, we lace up our shoes, secure our son in the stroller, and take a family run through the neighborhood. My reduced pace a small sacrifice for watching Magnolia chug her little arms and legs as she surges ahead, runs back, tickles Asher, greets her mom, and reaches for my hand.

Fist Fight

The four men scaled the side of the building, malice twitting their visages. I lowered my center of gravity, balancing on the balls of my feet. When they came at me, I was ready.

As they commenced their mad rush, the ground beneath me vibrated, responding to their need for violence. The mechanical covering for the rooftop pool slid aside as I grappled with my foes.

Distinguishing which thug rushed at me when concerned me not. I met each with a whirl of limbs, the instinct to neutralize them my guiding force. As one followed the next into the pool, I felt a new enemy closing upon me.

She connected with my face before I knew she was there. I lashed out with my left arm, catching her in the throat. As my brain registered the contact, my conscious mind woke me out of my dream just enough to realize Laura leaned over to kiss me goodbye, and I punched her in the throat.

“I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry…” I thought I spoke these words aloud, but seeing as I never woke up enough to open my eyes, I don’t know for sure.

What’s even better is that this was the morning of Pelotonia, the cycling event to raise money for cancer research, marking Laura’s first 25 mile bike ride. Here she was, getting up early to accomplish an athletic feat for charity, kissing me goodbye after making a smoothie for me and the kids, and I tried to crush her windpipe.

I don’t think I defeated the group of men in my dream (they climbed out of the pool and kept coming after me), but Laura completed her 25 mile bike ride, and I made sure the kids and I met her at the finish.