In Search of a Hundred Miles of Gratitude

Over the past few years, many people have asked me about why I have become involved in endurance training, most recently ultramarathons. Questions center around the time it takes, especially having a large, young family, and the discomforts and sacrifices required, particularly given that almost all of my training occurs outdoors even during the winter months.  But beneath the perceived challenges and hardships, I have found a world of silence and solitude that is laden with moments of clarity, transcendence, and peace that I believe provide me with insights and endurance needed to take on the various callings of my life, the most important being of a husband and a father.  Although difficult to articulate how this occurs, I submit the following 3-part series entitled, “In Search of a Hundred Miles of Gratitude,” which provides reflections from training and my most recent attempt at a 100 mile run. 

Part I:  Coldness Undone

I woke up to the sound of steady rain. Outside, four inches of snow still lay on the ground from the previous weekend.  The temperatures had remained just above freezing, and the rain that was scheduled to come would likely only be intensifying as the morning wore on.  But I had committed to the long run, knowing that my training was as much about being prepared for anything as it was for preparing my body for the actual number of miles to come.  I wasn’t sure if David would be there given his on-call schedule and the nasty conditions, and as I approached the hilly golf course at around 4:30 AM, the dissenting voices rung in my head.  But suddenly, I saw the headlights staring back at me.  He had come after all.

The seed for all of this had been born in the spring before. I had managed to cross the finish line at the 50 mile run at Land Between the Lakes, as thankful for its completion as I was for my second toe (on my right foot) remaining intact after repeated harsh introductions to the roots that covered the trails.  Although I vowed early on that fifty was enough for me, a faint, crescendoing voice seemed to suggest that this finish line was just a step in a larger process.  I was surprised, or maybe fooled, at what I had left at the end, and so I began to think seriously about going in search of a hundred miles.

But this morning, all I was looking for was warmth, as the cold, dark, treacherous hills spoke in a different way. As the rain continued, David and I rambled and slid over the descents and the climbs, and through the hollows.  I was certainly thankful that my friend was there when few others I knew would understandably ever consider joining.  Midst the perceived dreary conditions, there was much banter, much hilarity, and much appreciation for what we were doing.  As he said goodbye ascending the seventeenth fairway, much of my run still lie ahead.  The thirty-four degree rains only seemed to grow stronger.  But as I crested the hill and saw three deer running in the valley below, I heard myself sheepishly say, “I know, I know, I am not alone.”  The snow began to create deep ice puddles, and I found one after another.  The course became slicker.  I was soaked, and yet strangely enough I could only detect an unfailing warmth inside.  I was acutely aware of all that was going on with my body, even in the tips of my toes, and yet I found myself merging into the hills as the snow reflected the skylight from above.  My joy only intensified, and I found myself wondering why I had been so blessed to experience it all—oneness with each other, with this place, with what was unknown.  Gratitude permeated me, and even as I made the decision to end my run after two hours and nearly thirteen miles in order to get a little more warmth and dryness for my feet, I only knew that I had been blessed to have known it at all— in submitting myself to things that I did not understand, but increasingly sensed were true.

As the days went by, and I reflected on this run, I found myself thinking of the times that I had felt anxious and depressed. In a broader sense, I found myself musing about many I knew who had experienced serious psychological difficulties, whether manifested in the utmost control over food intake or the obsession turned compulsive behavior to cleanse oneself of contamination.  What seemed to underlie much of these psychological challenges was a waning of the gratitude that was felt.  It seems easy to surmise the surrounding conditions and circumstances may have much to do with this, and yet as we have repeatedly seen, situations alone are poor predictors of mental health.  So often it appears that those who struggle to manage challenging circumstances, and those who remain resilient in lieu of horrible outcomes, often speak in very different tones.  When we are resilient, thankfulness seems to coincide, even for the miraculous gift of life itself when the life being lived seems anything but miraculous at all.  When these words are real, they are not trite, self-affirming notions — they are words spoken from the willful pursuit of something that goes much deeper than the words themselves.  They are human attempts at progress in a seemingly inhumane world.  But when we become immobilized, or even regress, as a result of anxiety, depression, or  various mental illnesses, gratitude seems so often submerged under words of unfairness and of catastrophizing and of loss, not gain.

It is at this last critical point that true gratitude becomes incompatible with psychological distress. In giving thanks, we recognize a gain, no matter how small, and for at least a moment, let go of our sense of loss.  But two more key departures between gratitude and psychological distress emerge.  First, any act of gratitude involves turning towards others and ourselves in recognition of a positive moment in our life. Distress does the opposite – it turns against ourselves, and often others, in a self-absorbed way.  Finally, gratefulness signifies clearly that there is hope simply because we acknowledge that positive things do exist – in ourselves, in others, and in the world.  Anguish and misery do not make room for hope, until gratitude appears.

Undoubtedly born and perpetuated by many precipitating factors, inherent ingratitude, no matter how seemingly reasonable and understandable it may be, seeks to be one of the most stifling obstacles in the pathway of recovery.  If ingratitude remains a serious obstacle, maybe small steps of gratitude, in thought or word or deed, are then a necessary prerequisite to long-term recovery.  And just maybe, albeit somewhat idealistically,  conditions of psychological distress and uncertainty, through the process of suffering and by opening new pathways of gratitude, precipitate alternatives for hope otherwise unseen in more inviting conditions.  It is a submission to a time-honored tradition in the foregoing of self at least momentarily in uncertain, vulnerable ways—moving forward into the daunting night in appreciation that light exists at all.

That morning in the cold, undulating darkness, I went in search of things I am still trying to understand, and likely will never fully uncover. In my life, there is no shortage of things to be thankful for without ever seeking out the frigid, dark hills, and yet something calls me to suffer in these small ways as each long run becomes a search for new veins of appreciation previously unseen.  I really don’t know.  But I do know that when the alarm clock goes off early in the morning, it is time to push aside excuses, forego fleeting discomforts, and be thankful for the mind and the body that carries me into the dimly lit hills and valleys that lie ahead.

Part II:  Covenant Upheld

I stepped outside. It was a perfectly, chilly morning.  The previous evening, we had attended the Chrism Mass at the Cathedral, where all the ceremonial oils of the Catholic Church were consecrated for the coming year.  Easter was almost upon us.  As my first few steps turned into a jog, much was on my mind.  My attempt at a hundred mile run was a week and a half away.  My thoughts instantly sprang to the previous October, when I set out on the first of these Wednesday ten mile runs.  The half marathon had just passed, and I was in a period of discernment.  For the first time in my athletic life, I had professed that if this race was going to happen, I would leave it entirely up to God.  At any point, if mandated by injury or family situations or another reason, I had vowed that I would be willing to bow out—I would appreciate what I was given, but I would know that it was time to take a different course.  So each Wednesday that I stepped out onto that empty road, I wasn’t sure if I was coming back.  And just two weeks into this particular run, I had felt my calf painfully give a mile from my work after protecting a previous foot injury.  I contemplated walking, but something said to run at any pace that would get me there.  So I did.  By the next Wednesday, I was back, and so grateful to be.

Then the winter came, the harshest we had experienced in decades. Temperatures repeatedly plummeted into the single digits.  Ice and snow came, only to refreeze and not leave.  Many Wednesday mornings started with a simple thought:  “I really don’t have to do this.”  But deep down, as long as God kept his promise, I knew I had to keep mine.  And so the dark, cold, unforgiving winter became a breeding ground for my soul.  I went on until the temperatures started to break, and spring finally found its way.  I learned how to run to my Lord in all that the world could bring.

This morning, over six months and 27 straight midweek morning runs later, I knew it would be one of celebration and one of thanks. Less than a quarter of a mile from home, I suddenly heard a commotion.  A deer scrambled across the road in front of me.  Always my companions on my long weekend runs, they had reminded me of a divine presence when no one else was around.  I made my way down the hill across Pigeon Creek, a main tributary of the mighty Ohio River, onto the levee and to the Greenway trail for the next two miles.  The full moon hung brightly in the western sky.  And in the distance, I could see them.  For five months, I had run this trail in the dark, early morning hours and had never seen anyone else.  Except for them.  As I passed by the older man and his three legged dog for the last time, I stopped briefly and said hello, and then asked what had happened to his trinitarian friend.  Apparently the leg had been lost in an accident, and then he had adopted him.  An act of love, for sure; with that, I was on my way.

I headed downtown towards that mighty river. The wind freshened in my face, providing just enough resistance to remind me of all the times that it had aided my course.  As I hopped onto the riverfront walkway, the swollen body of water eased by.  The full moon dropped in the sky, and I turned east toward the blazing sun.  A new day, a new chapter had begun.  I kept thinking about all the previous times I had found this particular path, wondering if I would come back.  I wondered if I was the same man that had started this the past October.  I wondered what God had in store.

As I pulled away from the river, and gazed down its timeless course for the last time, I found myself in many different places. In a moment, I was in the delivery room in December, when Louis Francis, our sixth child, was born.  I was on the icy streets in early January.  The wind was battering me in late March.  In moments, time was eternal, and I, in each of these moments, found myself in many places, in many times that had come to be.  The person I was before, the person I would become, was the person that I was now, if even for these moments.  And although as always, I desired for the run to be done, my presence in His presence, left me with no other option but to savor the moment upon.

Bayard Park passed by and as I crossed Highway 41, I continued to touch the signs and rails and benches along the way. I guess I wanted to feel the sights I had seen as I let them go for some time.   I approached the last two miles.  I felt a slight twinge in my calf.  I smiled.  I had a come a long way enough to know that I would be fine, but the memory of that very early run resurfaced.  As I turned left back towards St. Mary’s, and last few hundred yards came into view, I closed my eyes in prayerful motion, and briefly pushed my fear away, only to redo it again and again.

I reached the end as my thanks flooded into the street. I pointed skyward and walked towards my familiar stretching tree.  The Holy Rosary bells tolled seven times in the background as so often before.  I had kept the Sabbath.  I had kept the covenant.  As always, He had kept his.  I knew that darkness would once again settle in during the following week, but for now peace reigned.  I walked up the stairs and reached into my pocket for my keys.  I smiled again.  For on every run, I had put a dollar with my keys so that when work ended, I would have money to catch the bus home. In my mind, though, there had always been a secondary reason for keeping this money in tow.  I figured that if my run went awry, I could at least struggle to a bus stop and arrive at work in this manner.  But on this morning, unlike all the rest, I had forgotten the bill.  And I heard a voice say, “You never needed it in the first place because I had been with you all along the way.”

Part III:  Sun Rise, Sun Set

The sun had risen. The sun had set.  I was still running.

Earlier that morning, in the predawn hours of late April, I had set out with less than two hundred people in search of a hundred mile journey. With hand held lights and head lamps in tow, the illuminated pathway of humanity wove its way through the trails of open pastures and leafless, wooded trails.  Early morning revelry and contemplative silence trotted side by side as each individual held his or her own unique purpose for taking on this epic adventure.  There was a shift worker from Detroit who had arrived just hours before the race after taking off just before midnight when his work was done.  There were those who had come back for retribution after last year’s race became a brutal exercise in amphibious navigation.  There were siblings who had come to run together.  And yet, as those first few miles unfolded, the differences seem to dissipate as each of us plotted our course on the loop trail that we would see much more.

The trip since the previous July had been an exercise of discipline, suffering, and transcendence. I had arrived at Chain O’ Lakes State Park just northeast of Fort Wayne wondering what this day would mean.  The training had nurtured my soul, but as I came into the finish line of lap number one, and headed out towards mile 17, I was sure of one thing.  I would have plenty of time to discern it all.  Early in the race, I had come upon a running acquaintance who had moved out of the Evansville area, but who had kept contact with a mutual friend.  He was doing the 50 miler as a training run in preparation for the Western States 100 at the end of June.  It quickly became a good partnership on the trails, but as the miles continued to grow, and my body continued to feel the effects of the ever rolling terrain spent on toe, I envied his course.

As we passed through the final steps of our 2nd lap at around six hours and nearly 34 miles, I began to think of Amy, my brother, Mike, and my six kids who would shortly be making the trip to meet me. I looked forward to seeing them.  It was a beautiful sunny day, and with the foliage on the trees still yet unsprouted, the rays came to us rather unabated.  The run continued on.  I began to think to myself.  What did a hundred miles by foot mean to me?  Why had I come?  On my back, I carried the words, “Cure for Paula,” on the same jersey that I worn almost three years before, when “Cure for Clare” had been my running motto as my cousin struggled for her life in a battle with leukemia.  She had survived, and then even learned how to thrive again.  I, and many others, were praying the same for Paula, whose two little girls had seen her battle multiple stages of breast cancer on her way to stage IV.  So I was running for her, and more.  I was running for my family – and yet, there was more.  I was running for the roles in my life, so that in my silence, in my toil, in my suffering, I would learn to embrace what was necessary to become.  But, there was more, and at times the mystery of why I had sought out these endurance challenges would remain.  Maybe forever.  I had come to accept it.  So here I was.

But as lap three progressed, I could not escape that question. What did a hundred miles mean to me?  Was I willing to accept the price I would have to pay to seek its arbitrary way?  A conversation with Amy of a day past kept coming back.  In her last few words before I left, she had said that although I should go out like I always had in these races, in search of my goals, I should not be afraid of feeling content with what I had done.  If that meant it felt complete, then I should not be afraid to be thru.  And as I approached a reunion with my family, these words were on my mind.  I felt content.  Of course, it was no stretch that my body, like most around me, was happy to be done.  But it seemed that my soul was, too.  And so as my eyes and hands laid upon my family for the first time mile at 47, I whispered to Amy that mile 50 might be my last.  I really just wanted to be done, and be with them.

I arrived at mile 50. And then they did what they should have done—they kicked me back out on the course.  And as I turned into lap four with Amy, I felt the emotion well up in me for the first, and only time, that day.  I told her I was content, but back out we went.  I needed another lap to discern what the suffering meant to me.  As I caught up with Mike near mile 60 and took a brief break at the aid station, the real feat became the start once again, and yet we carried on as the sunlight shifted downward in the western sky.  Just short of mile marker 64, Zach, my 7-year-old son, took off with us on a planned run the last 2.7 miles of lap four.  The going was slow. In the midst of skipping and hopping, a root caught him and he hit the dirt.  Sheepishly, he arose to the words of his Uncle Mike, who declared that he was now a real ultra-marathoner.  He was my son.  As we came to shores of the lake, light was rapidly retreating.  Emma and Matthew hopped on for the last quarter of a mile as we ran among the smiles of curious onlookers and families and friends in support. The cameras flashed. Suddenly, I had an escort of the most youthful kind when my body felt anything but.  Zach would declare days later that his ankle was still recovering.  His beaming smile of trail lore would betray the ache he professed.

I came in search of a hundred miles. I never made it.  I decided that I had long since got what I had come for.  Yet I wondered what the darkness would have held.  I wondered if I would regret the decision later.  But now was not the time to think of then, or what may have been.  Now, was the time to say thanks, and be done.  Now was the time to let the mystery of later be.  It was time to go home.

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