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.

False Prophecy

Yes, I realize it’s been 10 days since my last post. I was just seeing if you were paying attention. We’ll go with that lie. Sure.

Imagine confirming that what the prophet decreed was God laying down exactly how the world would end and abandoning everyone and everything you ever knew to help fulfill the prophecy, but then you discover the prophecy was wrong. My grandfather, along with a few hundred people, gave up their lives, thinking they were specially chosen to survive, but then the Soviet Union never pushed the button.

At that point, they had two choices. Either:

A) Admit they were wrong and leave the church. Maybe try to restore some of those relationships they severed.

B) Double down on the incorrect prophecy with an additional prophecy explaining how the first was correct and would still happen. God just chose to test their faithfulness, which they passed with flying colors. Well, most of them. Some were disillusioned and left the church.

My grandfather opted for option B. The thing is, like any lie, in order to cover it up, you have to lie again, so things make sense. Thing is, this wasn’t an isolated incident. It begat 50 years of whoppers that some still believe to this day.

Wal-Paul abandoned his family and started a new life based on a lie, which became a twisted perspective on reality.

But he was happy. What harm could it do?

Oh, let me tell you.

Two Grandfathers

Well, I already broke my commitment to post every weekday, so that means I get to redouble my efforts. Plus, you get to see what I look like at 3:30 am. Jury’s still out whether that’s a reward or punishment, but we’re forging ahead anyway.

Like many people, I had two grandfathers, my paternal one, Willis, and my maternal one, Wal-Paul. Unlike most people, my paternal grandfather was a gentle farmer who loved spending time with his family, while my maternal grandfather lived out of state, never recognized birthdays or holidays, and only saw us once a year to convince us we were all going to die in a nuclear devastation.

Guess which one I preferred.

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.

Calf

This is me after completing a three-mile run. The smile’s there, because one week prior, I couldn’t play tag with my kids without my calf screaming. If you imagined a pre-pubescent Holstein lowing for all it’s worth, you’ve got the wrong idea. See, I strained the calf muscle in my left leg, and due to that injury, pain-free running eluded me a number of weeks. Cycling provided cardio and worked my legs without exacerbating the pain, but I only rode on weekends, reducing my exercise regimen from three or four times to just once per week.

I missed seeing my buddies on the weekday runs and sharing what’s been going on in our lives, missed the rush of endorphins that buoyed me into work, and missed how my stomach maintained its shape instead of increasing in diameter and oozing over my belt.

Back in February, I wrote of how depression and anxiety caused me to lose my appetite and drop pounds, but now I’m putting on weight. I tried one anti-depressant before switching it out for another one, but I no longer take any medication. I thought I was no good as a teacher and risked losing my job, losing my way. Then Mark, my counselor, reminded me of something essential.

“Jake, the majority of female clients come in for counseling when it’s something relational, but more often than not, men come in when it’s work-related.” He shared about a time when he thought his job was on the line and how through that he learned he had no control over whether or not he kept his job. Sure, one can do the best work possible, but if your employer decides to let you go despite that, you have to look elsewhere for work. Mark helped me realize I was beating myself up over something that laid outside of my control. He reminded me, “God’s the one who grants you favor with others. He’s the one who meets all your needs, so even if you lose your position at Centerburg, you’re going to be just fine.”

Others shared similar advice. Even our superintendent reassured me, “The chances of you losing your job are so small, it’s not even worth worrying about.”

Things didn’t change overnight. I’d deal with a student discipline issue one day and gag over the toilet the following morning, unsure I handled things correctly and worried I’d have to do it all over again that day. It took me a while to accept someone much higher up managed my career, but once I did, fear no longer held me captive, and I gained confidence throughout April and May.

As a result, my teaching improved, which in turn boosted my confidence. I felt more like myself and looked forward to seeing my students. Realizing it wasn’t my responsibility to keep my job shifted my trajectory from a downward spiral to an upward one. I know I have my position at Centerburg this next school year, and if God wants me to continue teaching there, I’ll find success. Yet if it’s time to move onto something else, I’ll have my résumé or curriculum vitae ready to go, and the right opportunity will present itself. No matter what direction my career takes, I trust God’s taking me where I’m meant to be, so ruminate on that.

Chattanooga, here I come!

If you asked the me from 2008 if he would ever express the words: “I’m excited about running the Raccoon Mountain Marathon tomorrow. Actually, giddy would better define my current mood,” he’d have looked at you like your face began to bubble, but much has transpired since then.

Six days ago, I was up at 4 am–usual for a Saturday–getting my run in so as to not miss any family time. Not only are weekend runs good for building my serotonin levels, releasing endorphins, and testing the limits of my cardiovascular system, they also provide the opportunity to catch up with friends. This particular morning, five of us hit the trail together, which was quite a large group considering the temperature hovered around 25° F. (Look, I know our behavior is atypical, but when one finds friends who stick closer than brothers, you make sacrifices to spend time together.)

Since I signed up for a 50k in May, my training plan called for eight miles that morning, and when my buddies, surprised at the reduced mileage, asked what I would be running the next weekend, I surprised all of us by responding, “I’m running 26.2 miles next week.”

“Woah, a full marathon?”

“That’s what my plan calls for.”

Normally, I don’t check my calendar more than a week in advance, but for whatever reason, that day I knew what the following week held.

Then Dave asked the fateful question: “Well, are you going to run a race that weekend?”

You see, I have the equipment, fortitude, and route knowledge necessary to run a marathon all by my lonesome. I can simply step out my front door, do the distance, and be back in time for breakfast, but as a number of miles had already flown beneath our feet, a dangerous cocktail of serotonin, endorphins, and caffeine flowed through my system, and I wondered if anyone had put together a nearby marathon and scheduled it for the following week.

Alas, a quick Google search revealed no one had. Mid-March tends to be too chilly in the Midwest to warrant many marathons, but I found quite a few in Southern climes, particularly Texas.

The closest one I found meant a six-hour trip to a small town in Illinois where I could look forward to a five-mile-and-change course that looped out from a junior high school. Running that same course five times through a small town held little appeal, so I scrolled on.

What? A trail marathon? On a mountain? How far away is Chattanooga? Seven hours? I can drive that! Let’s see, it’s $100 to register, not bad for a week before the race. It’s near a campground. Let’s see what kinds of accommodations they offer… Ah, I’ll probably do better finding a cheap hotel. Looks like I can book a room at Red Roof Inn for a hundred bucks. I wonder if the wife would go for it?

All of this happened over breakfast following the eight-mile run. Then I actually checked the race website for nearby accommodations only to discover a hostel existed in downtown Chattanooga offering bunks for $35 per night. Sold! I just turned my $200 weekend adventure into a $135 weekend adventure.

Apparently my enthusiasm was infectious, because the wife approved just as long as I paid for it out of my personal funds. Agreeing to these conditions, I quickly registered for the race and booked my bunk.

I packed my bag last night after small group and stowed it in the car so I wouldn’t forget it in the morning and spent today at work smiling at my students and humming songs to myself. I made it to Chattanooga just ten minutes shy of eight hours, having made a single stop in Cincinnati for dinner and gas. I checked into the hostel, visited a local brewery, and stopped at the bar next to the hostel to sample some Kentucky bourbon one can’t get in Columbus. It’s almost 2 am now, but I wanted to share this with you before falling asleep reading Kerouac’s masterpiece, On the Road.

My last blog post surprised many people. Apparently, when I’m dealing with anxiety and depression, I tend to put on a happy face. So I just wanted to let you all know that once again, life is good, and I’m enjoying it.

Please don’t worry; I’ll let you know how the remainder of my weekend goes. Wish me luck!

The Compliment

Someone at work noticed I’ve been losing weight and mentioned it to me as I waited for him to finish up using the copier. “That’s great, dude. You look really good.”

“Thanks, man.” My colleague smiled on his way out the door, and I got things ready for my students, but my mouth formed a line firm as the lump of dread pulsing behind my sternum. Back when I loosened my belt and counted calories, this compliment would’ve made my day, but the only calories I’d been counting the previous few months formed the food for which I no longer had appetite.

Worry has the same mass and energy as a car battery. It sits in your stomach, filling all the empty and weighing you down, so eating becomes something you force yourself to do instead of something you savor doing. Meanwhile, worry’s terminals connect direct to your arms and legs, hands and feet, providing them the current to quiver and shake, move and bounce independent of thought, so that by day’s end, instead of spending time helping your children with their homework and tickling them on the carpet, you’ve retreated to the couch for yet another nap, because all the strength you had has been sapped away.

Life changed for me mid-January around my birthday. I got a Nintendo Switch and some new clothes, I’d grown a beard, and my first pair of eyeglasses arrived. I also went on antidepressants, and I no longer knew how to teach.

My entire life, people would watch me interact with kids and wonder at how I seemed to know just what they were thinking. More than a few compared me to the Pied Piper of Hamelin, noting an air of delight about me and how I could get little ones to follow me anywhere. I never could form a rat parade, though, and every time I leave town, none of the kids ever get sealed up within a mountain, so we’ll call that win-win.

The guidance counselor at school said I’m “one of the good ones, and we don’t want to lose you.” The children’s ministry director at church stated I have a gift and invited me to get more involved. Before that, the curriculum director showed me my students’ value-added data for the previous two years and how they weren’t making the necessary growth in my classroom. He volunteered to come alongside me to help increase my scores, mentioning that if they stayed low, the state would mandate he help me the following years, and that if things didn’t change within a year or two beyond that, I risked losing my job.

I thought I knew what I was doing. Students marched into my classroom with their heads held high, declaring, “I’m here to work hard and learn, Mr. Lees!” and the grades they earned evidenced that they were. Of course, some kids did their darndest to avoid working, but I could usually wheedle something out of them.

With my job on the line, though, I lost any confidence that I knew what I was doing. What I thought worked before obviously didn’t, so I scrapped that, leaving me to figure out the right material to teach and how to teach it. This too is the first year I have students who look through me. Some watched my floundering and despise me. Without my confidence, I allowed them to get away with things I wouldn’t otherwise, treating other students and myself with absolute contempt.

Perceiving this compounded failure, I lost hope. I wasn’t doing my job, I couldn’t get the kids to learn, and every time an instance or an interaction confirmed that, I took it as gospel. Never mind more than half my students still walk into my classroom every day, smile at me, and declare, “I’m here to work hard and learn!” I only believed the ones who treated me like shit.

Dread — that’s what Sunday evenings held — weekday mornings, too. Months after receiving the news about my scores, I no longer cared about keeping my job. I didn’t want to do it anymore. I couldn’t handle it. Family and friends encouraged me to seek counseling, and I made another appointment with my doctor, because the anti-anxiety pills she’d prescribed just made me sleepy.

I even scheduled a meeting with the superintendent. The first year I got hired at school, he was hired on as principal, and I spent a lot of time in his office that first year getting advice, confessing my concerns, and discovering we shared the same boat. After hearing me tell about my struggles, my boss and friend affirmed my authority in the classroom, pinpointed that I needed to concentrate on walking in it, and encouraged me that the odds of me losing my job there were so small, the possibility wasn’t even worth considering. “Get ahold of the classroom management first, and your scores will follow.”

He also shared how in his early years of teaching, he faced a similar situation in his classroom, turned in his two-week notice, and walked away, because he lost his desire to teach, only returning to the field of education years later. “Jake, teaching is a high calling, and you need to figure out if the spark you had is still there, because without it, there’s no reason to be doing this job.”

I turned that over in my mind for more than a month afterwards.

I still don’t know whether this will be my last year as a school teacher, but I think that spark that got me started in this business still burns inside, because six weeks, three counseling sessions, eight sick days, and one switch from Lexapro to Prozac later, I have yet to update my resume.

Did I consider giving my two weeks notice and becoming a copywriter, working at McGraw-Hill, teaching at the college level, or even slinging beer at my favorite brewery? All of the above, but God only knows where my career path goes.

What I do know is that I’ll finish out the last 11 weeks of school, and in that time, I’ll decide what to teach, learning from the curriculum director better ways to not only discover what my students know but also ways to deliver the content they need to know, and as the antidepressants do their job improving my mood, they’ll enable me to do my job.

Sure, I still get to deal with students who view me as a pushover, but now that I no longer place my confidence in the work I’ve done in the past but in my God-given ability to do the work that’s in front of me, those kids will discover Mr. Lees is rooted to a firm foundation, and he’s not near as shaky or willing to take shit as he used to be.

Plus, they may notice he’s been packing on a pound or two.

What Have They Done?

Let’s talk about the terrible.

Upon meeting someone, one of my go-to questions is, “What’s your favorite movie?” If my potential new friend doesn’t freeze, overwhelmed with the more than 500,000 choices in existence, based on their answer, I can get a pretty good feel for who they are.

The person who picks Gone with the Wind differs greatly from the one selecting Zombie Strippers. Does this mean one becomes my bestie while I kick the other to the curb? Certainly not! Might I have to work a bit harder to connect with one compared to the other? Most definitely, but I won’t hold their choice of Gone with the Wind against them. Sure, Scarlett is a terribly selfish person, and the movie drags on forever with a rare reprieve of her throwing up after eating radishes, and you’re like, “Yeah, doofus, you deserve that!” But I won’t split hairs.

Gone with the Wind is considered a cinematic classic, but I want the time back I spent watching it. My wife loves Castaway, but beyond the use of the line, “I have made fire,” it mostly gets a meh from me. I’ve never seen the Godfather series or Heat, but I love This is Spinal Tap and Stranger than Fiction. Casablanca and Singin’ in the Rain are incredible, and I adore It Happened One Night and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.

Art speaks to people, and discovering which specific piece speaks to someone reveals much about that person. Paintings aren’t widely distributed, and music is so accessible, when someone shares a favorite musician, my typical response is, “Who?”

That’s why movies are so great. Yeah, the market’s saturated with them, but because of their length and distribution, it limits our choices, which means we as a culture have a common vocabulary. Most everyone has Amazon Prime or Netflix, and even after traveling across the country, I found people looking forward to the latest release in the Fast and Furious series just like others back home.

For the most part, critics and audiences agree on which movies are worth seeing, and over time, certain movies will ascend the ladder of opinion to become considered classics. Therefore, if culture decides which movies are good, what about terrible movies? I’m not talking about cinematic masterpieces I just don’t understand. I’m talking about the ones critics rake over the coals or that bomb at the box office but are still loved years later — cult classics.

All over the country, fans dress up and fill theaters to see The Rocky Horror Picture Show and The Room year after year, reveling in all the aspects one would normally cite for making them bad movies, whether it be poor acting, terrible dialogue, low production value, etc.

Watching them, one’s brain struggles to comprehend how something so awful in so many ways actually exists. They’re so bad, these trash movies take on a mythic quality, because surviving suffering appeals to us. Eating spicy food or sucking sour candy is an unpleasant experience, yet we breed spicier peppers and up the levels of sourness because people can’t help themselves. These car accidents of cinema fascinate us with their mangled scripts, and we wonder if the careers of those involved made it out alive, but we drive away with a sense of relief knowing we weren’t involved.

You know how in the Producers, Bialystock and Bloom set out to put on the worst play ever, a guaranteed flop, so they can raise too much money for it and when it fails, profit? To that end, they do everything they can to ensure the awfulness of their endeavor, but it all backfires when instead of them creating a tragedy, audiences perceive it as a comedy, loving it. That audience’s reaction is the phenomena I’m talking about with these films. Not many set out to make terrible movies, Johnny Depp notwithstanding; however, terrible movies keep showing up in theaters. Did you see the Emoji Movie? Neither did I.

Terrible movies abound so much so that Mystery Science Theater 3000 and RiffTrax, experiences where the audience watches a terrible movie but laughs all the way through because of the comedic commentary dubbed over the film’s soundtrack, are popular enough to provide their creators a good living. Sharknado (You know the movie where sharks get carried by a tornado up onto land so no one is safe?) has produced four sequels. Four! People can’t get enough, and neither can I.

Just in the past couple weeks, I’ve seen Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets and The Dark Tower in theaters with friends knowing reviews weren’t good. In both cases, the critics were correct, but I enjoyed these movies flaws and all. John Carter ranks up there as one of my favorite bad movies, and I don’t even know why I love it.

My all time favorite terrible movie, though, is Flash Gordon. Yeah, the one with a ridiculous plot, terrible acting, weird choices in costuming and set decoration, bird men, Timothy Dalton, and an ending still left unresolved nearly 40 years later all set to a soundtrack provided by Queen.

Network execs showed that movie on broadcast television throughout my childhood often enough I fell in love with it. Some random Saturday afternoon, my father or I would be flipping through our five channels, there it would be, and there our flipping would stop. I love it even though I never saw the beginning until getting the movie on Blu-Ray a few years back.

Dare I say it? Along with reruns of the original Star Trek and multiple viewings of the Star Wars movies, Flash Gordon helped form my entertainment palate, God help me; I’m a sucker for sci-fi.

There you have it. All this to confess I love a terrible film. Yes, I lost count of how many times I’ve seen Flash Gordon. Yes, I’ll probably watch it again soon. How could I not?

I’ll even bet there’s a terrible movie out there you love. You know, the one you’ve been thinking about as you’ve read this.

Do me a favor and watch it again.

Revel in it like you do when a stench assails your nostrils, almost causing you to retch, but then you take a second whiff to give yourself a bit of a thrill.

Better yet, watch that terrible movie with someone you love who has yet to see it. Show them who you are, scars and all.

“Hi, I’m Jake. I love Flash Gordon. What’s you favorite terrible movie?”

Chiffonier

Oh, he’d waited for this day. Feeling the old man’s breathing becoming shallower and shallower as he applied all his weight to the nonagenarian until one pathetic gurgle gave way to silence filled Chiffonier with such satisfaction, he felt his joints would burst. Ever since the master had sold his family at auction one by one, Chiffonier knew it would be his duty to end that monster’s life. How many other family sets had that man broken apart, their future reduced to smoke and ashes? Chiffonier refused to think about it. He can’t harm anyone anymore.

The first time Chiffonier had even considered paying back his master in kind, he groaned inwardly. Murder? Him? It went against everything he was designed to be. Talk about going against his grain! He pushed the idea far from him, refusing to even consider it, but the more he thought about his family members being hauled off one by one, the more the idea grew like a pile of dirty clothes beneath his smooth veneer. He had to end the suffering. Yes, but how?

Years went by before Chiffonier realized his greatest strength — steadfastness. Every morning, the master would come to him, trusting Chiffonier to dress him warmly, especially as the master’s limbs grew feebler, and his hinges rustier.

It all came in a flash of recognition. The master’s trust of his unwavering devotion would be his downfall. And so it was.

That afternoon, the old man’s nurse, horrified, discovered the dresser fallen over upon him. “Squashed him flat, like an ant. I told Mr. Wallace hanging onto that dresser was dangerous. He should have sold it when he got rid of the rest of that bedroom suite. That front leg was wobbly. Only a matter of time before it gave way. From now on, nothing but Ikea for me.”