TNF 50

Waiting for the start at 5:00 am.

Last May I ran my first 50 miler. It was sort of a personal challenge to commemorate my 60th birthday. This last weekend I completed my second 50 miler. I remember listening in on a conversation during a marathon I was running years ago that went something like this: “Some people run one marathon and then they check it off their bucket list and move on to other things, but after 3 it becomes a lifestyle.” The North Face Endurance Challenge was my 3rd ultra distance run…

I registered for this race knowing that it would be a challenge. In fact, a month or so out I was thinking it was perhaps too much of a challenge! The California version of this TNF Endurance Challenge is located in the Marin Headlands north of the Golden Gate Bridge, and it has what Iowa does not really have: “drastic elevation changes,” as the race description says, along with views of the Pacific Ocean, the San Francisco Bay Area, coastal scrublands, redwood trees and eucalyptus groves. The good news is that while there would be a lot of climbing and descending, there would not be much altitude to contend with because the race literally begins and ends at sea level. That said there were 9 major climbs and descents of 500 to 1,900 feet and the race ended with a run across the Golden Gate Bridge.

Sunrise at mile 12

My coach Scott Gall had been out here a couple times for this race and so I relied on his recommendations. The race started at 5:00 am so the first couple of hours were run in the dark on fire lanes in the Marin Headlands. The Petzal nao+ headlamp I used was fantastic, and starting early meant that we started a couple hours before the sun rose. Because it was a clear day, we got to experience the sunrise in all of its glory! The fire lane portion of the run continued for most the first half of the race, ending with a section of single track switchbacks up to the high point of the course, an aid station appropriately name Cardiac.

My plan was to run this race based on heart rate staying in stay in zone 2 or lower at least for the first 2/3 of the race. That meant that I walked up plenty of the hills. Scott had told me that the hardest part of the race came in the second half and that was true enough! Leaving the Cardiac aid station at mile 23 the trail switched to a steep downhill single track. This was a 1,900 ft descent to the Pacific ocean with most of the slope in the last mile and a half. I found myself appreciating the downhill treadmill workouts that were the focus of much of the last month of my training, as I was able to maintain my speed downhill through some fairly complicated single track.

Running through the redwoods after mile 30.

The Stinson Beach aid station was at the bottom of the hill and my support crew was there to meet me. I was feeling strong and exhilarated at this point. That was good because the climb back to Cardiac from Stinson Beach was even steeper than the descent. The second time through Cardiac brought me to a little more than 30 miles and to that place where I might start to fade. Leaving Cardiac, the trail was mostly single track through some beautiful old stands of redwood trees. By this point in the race I was hanging with pretty much the same people and probably because we had all been doing this for 8 hours at this point, we started to pace each other. So thanks, Cassie from Brooklyn NY. Your conversation and the 400 mg of caffeine I took at mile 30 made that next 10 miles among the most enjoyable of the race.

The trail went to another aid station we passed through in the morning, Muir Beach, and then up a steep fire lane we had run down in the morning, before coming back to the Tennessee Valley aid station where I again saw my support crew. From there, it was a climb back up the headlands to the Alta aid station and from there a more-or-less down hill single track to the parking area on the north side of the Golden Gate bridge, a run across the bridge, and then another mile or so to the finish at 50.8 miles.

The final single track before the bridge.

There were some I heard on the trail that thought finishing a trail run with a run across the Golden Gate Bridge was not really in the spirit of trail running, but I thought it was great. You could see the bridge come into and out of view, growing larger and larger each time until the trail became a wonderful side slope single track that brought you down to the bridge filled with all sorts of people doing the things that people always do on the bridge, walking leisurely, taking pictures, standing in the way of others, almost none of them knowing that we just ran 50 miles to get there.

12 hours and 5 minutes and more than an hour longer than the time I completed my 50 miler this past spring, still, its was a race that was planned and executed about as well as I could hope and leaves me thinking there will be more…

Coming into the finish of The North Face Endurance Challenge after 12 hours of running.

50 at 60

On Personal Challenges and How High to Set the Goal

I am not sure that my renaissance interest in running is related to my aging, but it might be. Today I am 60 and I realize just how privileged I really am. I am privileged in a lot of ways, but I am especially gifted in being physically able. When I was young, I was not particularly fast or strong. When I ran track in junior high, pretty much everyone was faster than I was. When I raced cross country skiing in my 30’s, I was far from exceptional. In my mid 40’s when I ran my first marathon, I was a finisher. But lately, and I think it is a kind of attrition, I have been finding myself moving up among my peers, I think that is partly because I am still doing it while others have given it up and partly because I am pushing myself more than I once did.

Before the last lap of the Runners Flat 50k, Fall 2016.

I am registered for the Ice Aged Trail 50. It is a 50 mile trail race in La Grange Wisconsin. I have never ran that far… ever. Back when my friend Steve Schuder was running 50 milers, I was both in awe of his abilities and convinced that I would never attempt such a feat! So here I am a couple weeks out with my training on track and on this day of my birth I find myself wondering why I would consider such a thing at 60? I am not the only one. A couple weeks back we were in the Runner’s Flat in Cedar Falls. One of the owners, Scott Gall is my coach. As I was looking at something, I could hear my wife Kathy pull him aside and quietly ask him if he thought I could really do it.

I think in the end, I keep increasing the physical challenges because I can. My father died when he was 45 that left a mark on me. I remember being about 42 and simply assuming I better get my life in order because I might only have a few more years to live. Well 45 came and went and while I don’t really think of it all that much, when a friend mentioned that 60 was the new 40 a few days back, I have to admit that is what came to mind… my mortality, the fact that eventually my health will decline and eventually I will not be able to continue to raise the bar of the physical challenges that I place in front of myself.

For me, physical challenges give me life and motivate me to stay physically active, that provides the life and the energy that sustain me. Because of the general oddness of how life has worked for this 60 year old, I am still setting personal records when most of my peers have already entered the stage of diminishing returns.

So on Mother’s Day weekend in Wisconsin, probably for most of the day, I’ll be running for the joy of it, and because I still can.

Where the World Begins and Ends

I was having a conversation with my mother who is visiting from Montana about how worship attendance is declining pretty much across the church and how I have been thinking about what that might mean for the church. We talked about my current call and how I was seeing the same thing happening here. I talked about how I have been thinking about what it might mean to a Christian where attending worship is not as important as it once was. In this conversation I suggested that worship attendance is probably not “where the world begins and ends.” That is where her 82 years and perhaps the reality of having buried 2 husbands spoke in a clear voice. Actually, she said it sort of is “where the world begins and ends.”

It is true enough. This past Sunday, we baptized our youngest member and not long ago we buried a long time member Yes, for those of us who connect ourselves to places like this, it is where the world begins and ends… but what about the space in between?

The family I grew up in attended worship every Sunday, as did the family Kathy and I raised. While I would like to say that on account of that habit we all still attend worship regularly, it would not be true. While I would eventually go on to become a pastor, for my sister, church attendance would be driven more by the influence of her children than it would be by the imprint of her early childhood experience of regular attendance. Our own children look to be following the same path. None of them attend worship regularly. I think they all would say that Christianity is important to them but it is just that worship is not the central feature in their lives that it once was.

Perhaps my family is a projection of what is happening across the church and across Christian culture. Worship attendance is decreasing in priority. If we are honest, it has been for a long time. I find myself wondering what that might mean for faith. It seems that Christianity at least in the way increasing numbers of folks, participate in it, is becoming unsupported. For increasing numbers of folks things like worship attendance, Bible study, and acts of service have been replaced by a vague sense of “being a Christian.” What used to be a matter of community is increasingly becoming a matter of personal religious conviction. Our culture has facilitated this reality.

I grew up in the era of televangelists, where a televised preacher could allow us to experience worship from the comfort and safety of the sofa in our own living rooms. While this experience was roundly criticized by the established church, it flourished. With the advent of electronic media, you can now find an almost infinite collection of sermons on YouTube that are better than anything I might preach. Music that fits your preference and is better than anything we can produce here is just a search on Spotify away and any theological question you might have can be answered quickly with a simple Google search. But all of it is personal, delivered to your mobile phone or personal computer whenever and wherever you would like.

What seems to have become optional though is what I thought was key to Christianity. Faith is meant to be lived out in community. I am not sure what that means in a world that is increasingly busy. I understand. People are busier than ever. Even if there isn’t a direct conflict on Sunday mornings, for many it is one of few times when they might be able to find a little quiet family time to spend together.

I am asking this as an open question to which I do not yet have a satisfactory answer: What is it that binds us together as a people of faith? It once was worship. I think that is still true for some. But increasingly I find myself wondering what it is that binds us together.

The church is about baptisms and funerals, true enough, as my mother reminded me- “where the world begins and ends.” Throw in confirmations and weddings. Still, what should the space in between look like? I used to have a good idea about that. Lately I am finding myself revisiting even the most basic of these assumptions.

Words That I Need To Say

What I am about to suggest is something that might be considered heresy. At least it is not the sort of thing that a pastor might want to admit, given that we see our sermons as the Word of God, and consider the active party in much of what happens in terms of faith to be a matter of the Holy Spirit. But you see, it affects me when you are not here. This is a small enough place that I can literally see and feel your absence.

This past Sunday morning, I looked out on the congregation as I was about to read the Gospel and did the silent assessment that I have been undertaking on Sunday mornings lately. Were there enough children present for a children’s message? Given the way I approach preaching, and seeing that there were not, it is not really all that traumatic of a reality for me. I simply incorporate the children’s portion of the message back into the part intended for the adults.

Still, that you are not here is troublesome for me. I came to this parish because I was increasingly sensing a call to minister to families. I suppose that is a little odd that an almost 60 year old would see that as a ministry niche that he might be called to but it was and still is. I have sensed for some time now that we live in a time when families are increasingly becoming spiritually adrift. So much competes for your time and attention. I came here because I sensed this was a place that was not so far post-Christian, that there was still hope for some of the old structures and that there would be the time and interest in developing some new ones. I have found myself wondering about that lately.

Worship has always been the highest profile expression of a parish pastor’s ministry. It is the place where each week, the Gospel is proclaimed in the context of people who have gathered. Don’t get me wrong. People still gather. It is just that you are not usually there and it has me wondering.

My approach to worship is to make it assessable and family friendly. My sermons are short enough that even the most drowsy ought not fall asleep. I deliberately choose not to preach from the pulpit so that my sermons might be more like conversations then dissertations. I sometimes wear a robe and a stole, but often I do not. I never wear clergy shirts. All of this is done to lower the formality of the affair. I am not sure if any of this really works, but it is my wish that worship be approachable, assessable, and informal enough that it is not something that is stressful to attend.

It is true enough that worship is more or less predictable and maybe not as exciting as it could be. Sometimes my sermons miss the mark. The hymns are sometimes not well known and too slow. The contemporary service isn’t all that contemporary and it’s at 8:30 in the morning.

I come from a different reality than many of you. For the family I grew up in, and the family that Kathy and I raised, worship was the central touchstone of our Christian faith. I understand that there are plenty who question the centrality of worship in the digital era in which we live. I see busy families with all sorts of competing commitments of which worship is simply one among many.

That is a paradigm shift for me, but paradigms can and do shift. What I am not willing to do is to sit back and gently head toward retirement watching the church die for lack of asking what we can do to make it relevant in your lives. How and what should that look like? That is something that we will have to discern together.







I Didn’t Think I Would Be One Of Those Fathers…

I did not think I would be one of those fathers who would cry it his daughter’s wedding. I am not sure if this is because Kaia is the first of our children to get married, if it is because I was completely outside of my considerable wedding experience, or if it is just what happens when your child marries. I do not know. I always tell couples to be ready for the range of emotions that a wedding brings—happiness and sadness, joy and mourning. I just thought I would have been somehow immune from this reality, having officiated at more than 100 weddings in the past. I was wrong.

Perhaps some of that is explained in this wedding experience being something completely different. I never have been a part of a wedding that began with a procession lead by a couple of dancing lions and ended with a fire-breathing Sichuan face changing opera performer. Or a wedding that involved my daughter riding in a Chinese wedding sedan, jumping over fire, a 3 fold bowing ritual, a tea ceremony, a hair cutting ceremony, and a place where we threw peanuts and dates on the bride and grooms’ heads.

The traditional Chinese wedding has considerable drama.
The traditional Chinese wedding has considerable drama.

This wedding was a mixture of the playful and the serious. And while most of it I did not really understand, there were some surprising elements. Kaia and Siheng knelt and bowed, first to the god of heaven and the god of earth, then they bowed to their parents, and then they bowed to each other. That seemed oddly familiar. I do not think I have done a wedding where I did not talk about the contribution God makes, the significance of family and friends make, and the commitment made to each other in my sermon.

There has never been a Facebook post I have made that has had this many likes than the one I posted after the wedding, but here is the thing: there actually have been a relatively small number of my clergy Facebook friends who have hit the “like” button. I understand this. This is a wedding that is way outside of our religious norms—being more-or-less secular, celebrated in a communist country on the other side of the world. This is a wedding that is way outside of my cultural and religious experience as well, but for me it was given with my being Kaia’s father. I think parents always find this out that about their children. They have their own values, make their own decisions, and they follow their own paths. Cross cultural experiences get so complicated so fast that they pretty much defy your ability to make any kind of sense of them. I think that is true for the most part, but even more so if you constrain yourself to the forms and procedures with which you are familiar.

As a pastor I meet with couples and we talk about what might and might not be in their service. While I am the one who sort of “maintains” the tradition, I am pretty open to the possibilities, there are limits: I have a problem with over head wedding veils. I make sure that the bride knows that while her father might walk her down the aisle, she is not her father’s to “give away.” I pretty much refuse to present the couple as Mr. and Mrs. (insert groom’s last name), because she is not a subset of him.   Still in the end, weddings are about a shared commitment, and at least in this world, I am reminded once again that I am not the gate keeper.

The World Has Gotten A Lot Smaller

The earth shall soon dissolve like snow
The sun forebear to shine,
But God, who called me here below
Will be forever mine.

The plane was descending into San Francisco. It was one of those days when the clouds were thin and patchy. This was not a destination; it was a stop along the way. The uncertainty of everything was flashing through my mind as the verse above was playing through my headphones. While I am not really a fan of Christian music, that revised last verse from the Chris Tomlin version of Amazing Grace was powerful as we entered that final descent, an experience that always makes me a little anxious. It was the end of the second flight of a three-flight day, and I already had plenty of time to reflect. It has been a challenging time for me lately–maybe it was that I was not exactly looking forward to the 23 hours of travel time, maybe it was that my youngest daughter is getting married, maybe it is the pretty obvious anxiety I have been carrying this late winter and spring.

If I am honest, China has never been on the list of places I would like to visit, and as we were chasing the sun to that place on the complete opposite side of the world, all of the propaganda about air pollution and all of my own stereotypes of what it would be like to visit the most highly populated country in the world were flooding my mind. But, when your daughter majors in Mandarin, falls in love with a Chinese guy, and moves to the People’s Republic of China, a trip like this is bound to happen. And to be honest, the sun has yet to shine at least so far and I have never been in a place with so many people in my entire life.

Still, in my mind’s eye, this is not what I expected. Growing up in the immediate aftermath of the Cultural Revolution, I was expecting something more austere and perhaps more collective, but what I see here right now looks more consumer driven even than the country in which I live, and in the end I find myself seeing more in common than I see different in this place, for better and for worse

I am finding an odd sense of connection that I was not anticipating, in a place where I am not only out of my element, but I am also unable to verbally communicate. We spent the evening with Kaia’s husband’s parents. The food, which was obviously “comfort” food to them was exotic to us (but if you know me, I like exotic when it comes to food!). We have a couple of English/Chinese speakers in our midst but direct communication has been impossible, still I have always known communication has to do with much more than what you say to one another. So I feel connected in ways that I was not really expecting.

On the other hand, my phone rings every once and a while, and though I let it go to voicemail, it always is someone back in the Midwest who has no idea that I am on the other side of the world. I electronically followed to Tripoli Jr. High track meet from Chonqing, China (I am thinking I am the only one to have done that). Dealt with a couple of work related things. And posted pictures for a wide group of friends back in the USA to see of what we did today!

In the end, the world has gotten a lot smaller and more connected, both in general and for me specifically in the last few days. Of course there is something lost in all of this, it is getting difficult on to impossible to truly get away from it all. On the other hand, connections have become global, right now and for me literally. It is not really a matter of whether this is god or bad, it just is.








Running In The Gray Area

For a bunch of reasons, I started running again this past fall. True to how I usually start up this sort of thing, one day last September, I was having a bad day (actually I had been having a bad month) and I decided to do something that I have done before. I started running again, and before I was done that day I had run 10 miles. It was further than I should have run. The next week I logged over 50 miles. I know this is the way runners injure themselves, but still given my mental state, I was needing to push beyond what was reasonable. There is one thing about being bipolar that has become clear to me over the years. There is precious little that is reasonable in my life.

Coming into the finish at the Madison 1/2 marathon in November 2015
Coming into the finish at the Madison 1/2 marathon in November 2015.

Maybe it is because I am interested in too many sports—paddling kayaks, canoes, and stand up board, skiing, swimming, and biking in 4 different varieties—road, mountain, gravel, and fat. Running has always been there too, a few marathons but mostly in support of my other athletic pursuits I usually need to have a goal to keep me running or riding or paddling or whatever the current sport of interest might be. Unless there is some race in my future I just don’t prioritize my training. This fall was different. Never have I trained this fast, never this far, never this much, all without a race in mind. The Madison half marathon that I eventually did decide to run in mid November was the fastest I have ever run. The fastest ever! And at 58, no less! I have never been fast especially as a runner. In fact I have always had to define my races by my own standards, the middle of the pack athlete that I am.

It is a strange thing to be 58 years old and trying to run faster than you once did. I have entered the age of diminishing returns when it comes to athletics. I have been bucking that trend just lately. I have a coach and a plan, looking for PR’s wherever I can find them. I am not sure why actually. Maybe it is some deep-seated denial that I am in the midst of a ¾ life crisis, when I look at pictures of high school class mates on Facebook and I see images of senior citizens. I am not ready for that.

The world has changed. I recently found an old training log of mine from the 90s. What I noticed was that the entries were much more subjective. Now, when I hit a button on my GPS watch and all the data, heart rate, speed, elevation, grade, all go directly to my phone and from there is directly emailed to my coach. So pretty quickly when I sent him my data last fall he pointed out—too much of your training is in the “gray area,” my slow paced runs were not slow enough and my high intensity runs were not fast enough.

I think the reason I ran that fast did not have much to do with training. It was because that is how fast my training partners were running and I had to stay with Ally and Michelle. But maybe even more than that, it was because when I run in zone 4 or 5, I am able shut down the flow of feelings that so often side track my life. The flow of feeling that was really sidetracking my life last fall.

I am 2 ½ months out from my next marathon. The fancy graph that TrainingPeaks produces to show my general level of fitness indicates that that I am not in quite as good of shape as I was last November, but the graph is headed up. The probably not so good estimate of my VO2 max that my watch calculates based on who knows what, has been climbing as well.

I have no idea how the marathon will go this time around. The last time I trained for Grandma’s Marathon, I came up injured a month or so before and had to abandon it. After that, I pretty much assumed I was done, but here I am again with a 20 mile run scheduled for Saturday.