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.