Sunday, December 4, 2011

Midnight on South Mountain (Part II: The Mountain)

Now here at 25 minutes to midnight, I stood waiting.  My left knee throbbing with a dull pain, I knew I had over extended in that first section, but now I was facing this 6.6 mile section with a 900 foot climb.  I would be off as soon as our runner arrived.  The rain from earlier in the day was gone, but everything felt wet. 

Earlier in the evening I was talking with a fellow runner and he said that when it got hard, he found himself focusing on prayer.  As he shared his thought on how he dealt with the discomfort of running, I was reminded of a marathon in New Orleans.  At every turn in the course, I would say the “Lord’s Prayer.”  Though it was years ago, I couldn’t remember why I did it.  But when he said those words, focusing on prayer, it came back.  In the midst of the trails of life, our savior’s prayer has relevance.  In the joys of life, this simple prayer had power.  In the pain of striving forward, there was a healing peace.  So now standing there waiting for the runner to come, I started, “Our Father, who art in heaven…”  As I prayed there in the dark and cold, I felt my body relaxed.  I was ready, there in the center of my being.

As I watched out through the night, I felt the other runner coming into the light.  I stretched out my arm and the snap bracelet found it.  Turning up the hill, I started out into the dark.  My head lamp showed me the road ahead.  Looking up was like looking into the blackness of space.  Lights from distant houses, cars, and team vans were the only thing visible.  And above me the darkness of clouds blocked all the nocturnal lights.  At the top of the small rise I started on, I left my eyes again and in the distance, were a few sets of blinking red lights of fellow runners on this dark country road.

This first mile was a set of undulating hills; at the top of each crest you could see the blinking red lights of the runners in front.  The road was still and silent.  The distance had separated us from the other teams.  Those who were faster were long gone and those slower had fallen off the pace, still there was a string of runners making their way towards the summit of South Mountain.  At the end of the first mile the road began a slow rise, which marked the beginning of the 900 feet of climb.  Easy and peaceful, I found myself relaxing and found a prayer in each step I was taking.  My thoughts drifted to my family, to my four wonderful children, and precious wife.  “God, be with them…keep them safe this night as they sleep…and I run up this mountain.”  Then other family members and friends, each remembered with petitions to God for their needs and struggles.  I was lost in my thoughts for each of these people who touched my life in many ways that they will never know…and the peace continue.  I passed a few runners and in those moments, we greeted each other as companions, no longer competitors, as we engaged in the struggle to reach the summit in our lives.

I felt the pressure in my arms and chest.  I knew my heart rate was climbing as I moved into a steeper section of the mountain.  The road was just the few feet my headlamp illumed before me.  I wasn’t sure of my time, but I didn’t care.  My prayer for others turned to a prayer for our nation and concerns for the poor and homeless.  I propelled myself up the mountain, I found myself on the verge of tears.  The pain from my left knee sent sparks up my left side.  In those few moments I envisioned another climbing a hill.

One of the great mysteries of faith is the connection that we have with the suffering of Christ.  At this point my mysticism view of religion kicks in, but this connection I believe is an aid and I don’t know how to describe it any better than that.  William James in his book “Varieties of Religious Experience” notes this phenomenon as well.  But to deal with this would reduce the experience to something that cannot be fully explained.  Simply put…as the pain and pressure of running up the mountain increase in me there was equally reaction that drove me into a stronger feeling of peace.  This run was becoming more a spiritual event that transported my mind and spirit to another level of reality.  There was a physical pain, but there was a spiritual peace that came over me in the midst of this battle.  It seemed that time slowed, the universe was suspended, and I experience something unique to me.  My body moved through time and space and yet my spirit was the actor.  It pulled me up and forward.  If it was the result of the combination of the water vapor, the headlamp, the fatigue, the pain, could not deny these influences, but there was something more involved in the struggle.  A presence ran beside me urging me up.

Before I knew it I was making the decent down the mountain.  I felt nothing put the need to push down the hill as hard as I could propel my body forward.  Then finally in the midst of the darkness, a glow appeared further down the road.  As I made my way into the relay area, I was shocked at how short the run felt.  I quickly pulled and straightened the slap bracelet and came into the relay zone.  My replacement stood there, holding out her arm. And it was over; I hit the stop button on my watch and saw the time 56:57.  Initially I couldn’t understand what I read.  I should have been 1:10:57 or something in that area.  I looked again and the numbers did not change, it read 56:57.  I had just covered 6.6 miles over 900 feet of climb at a pace of 8:46.  My fellow teammates rallied around me, and they made me feel like I had just won the gold medal.  Their high-fives and slaps on the back were incredible.  The remarkable thing was that my earlier section of 6 miles had been covered in 53:47 for a pace of 8:57.  Now I had just run 11 second faster for each mile in the dark and over a mountain.  If the truth is to be told, I didn’t do it alone.

“Since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us….” (Harper Bibles (2011-11-22). NRSV Bible with the Apocrypha (Kindle Locations 68399-68401). Harper Collins, Inc.. Kindle Edition.)

I was surrounded by the prayers and thoughts of teammates, friends and family.  A few days later, I had the chance to see a video clip made by one of my teammates.  They had stopped on the mountain to film my blinking lights, and cheer me on.  But I was so lost in my thoughts, I never saw them.  But they were there.

As we battle the challenges in our lives, we climb the mountains that line our paths; we do not do it alone.  We have others around us to help us on our way, even if we do not see them, they are there standing on the side of the road cheering us on to the end.  Now with my first two sections complete, there was the last one to face.  I hadn’t thought about it until now and with my body trying to recover and fighting for sleep, I knew I needed to refuel and rest.  Then test my body one last time.