Fear is a Liar


do not fear, for I am with you, do not be afraid, for I am your God; I will strengthen you, I will help you, I will uphold you with my victorious right hand. Isaiah 41:10

Fear is an enemy. In 1933 a few years into the Great Depression, Franklin Delano Roosevelt said some words that are probably even better known than the legacy of his presidency: “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself-nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance…” Roosevelt was pointing out a truth at a particularly unhopeful time in the life of this country, that fear was the enemy.

Sometimes the fear comes from outside.  Something done to us, a diagnosis given to us. Sometimes it is our inner critic that tells us we are not good enough, not strong enough, not lovable, and not good enough. Often it is both inside and outside. It is the voice that convicts. It is with good reason that one of the names for the devil is the accuser because that is what the devil does. It really does not matter whether you believe that the devil is a being, the human reality of evil, or our own shadow side.  The voice is the same- it says that we are what our circumstances define us as.   It robs us of  hope and its currency is fear.

The thing about fear is that it is a voice that we listen to even when it makes no sense. It is like a conversation with a dark reality that incessantly whispers the very words that undermine life. It is a voice that lies. To quote Zach William’s song, Fear Is A Liar.

God is a God that accepts us as we are, not as we wish we were or as we wish things would be. I can make a list of all the things that are not where I would like them to be in my life. I can even try to change the things that are changeable, but in the end it is a matter of giving it up to God. The God who comes to us in Jesus is most profoundly a God who turns fear into hope and hope into life!

Superior 50: Rugged, Relentless, Remote

As long as I have known about the Superior 50 I have held it in high esteem

I have been coming to the North Shore of lake Superior since I was young.

The North Shore of Lake Superior is a place that have visited since I was a kid. The Superior 50 mile race was the first 50 miler I knew about. My friend Steve Schuder used to run it back in the 90’s.  I had hiked enough of the Superior Hiking trail to know that it would not be an easy trail to run. I  remember thinking that it was something I could not imagine doing, so I suppose it is a little surprising that 20 plus years hence, I would be submitting my qualifying races and even more surprising is I would make it through the entrance lottery.

This was my 3rd 50 miler and it came at the end of a fairly ambiguous race plan:  two 50k’s, a 380 mile gravel bike race (that I called at mile 190), a 340 mile canoe race, and then this 50 miler with its well known roots, rocks, and 12,000 feet of vertical. The truth is I was a little off my game in terms of motivation by the time September and the race came around. Coming off of the MR340, my coach Scott Gall’s main concern was to get me adequately recovered in the 6 weeks between the canoe race and the run. This meant that there were less back to back long runs then had been in my previous 50 miler training plans.

Is it posible to train for a 1/2 marathon and run a 50?

The summer training group got started again this summer and so I tagged along with them as they were training for a 1/2 marathon, all the while wondering if this was going to be enough to get ready for what I knew by reputation was going to be a very hard 50! I added a couple longer runs in the 2 1/2 hour range but nothing like I had in my training plan for the last two 50’s.

The Superior Fall trail race comes in 3 lengths:  a 100 mile race, a 50 mile race, and a marathon length race. The moniker of the race is “Rugged, Relentless, Remote,” and with almost all of the race on the hiking trail it was true enough. At the pre-race meeting at the Finland Recreation Center, the race director pointed out that based on finishing times, the 50 mile race was one of the most challenging 50 milers in the country.

Just before the Start at Finland.

We started in the dark at 5:00 am. with the first couple miles down a gravel road and then a snowmobile trail in an attempt to sort the race field out by pace. We picked our way through rocks and roots, by the light of our headlamps. It might have been the energy that always comes at the beginning of a race, but apart from the relentless rocks and roots, it was not too physically challenging. This would be a theme for much of the race, plenty would be so technically challenging that it could not be run! The consensus was that this was a race where only 20% was truly runnable, I think that was a little low, but the truth is there was more than 1/2 was not really runnable.

I made it to the Crosby Manitou aid station (just short of 12 miles) ahead of schedule and almost ahead of Kathy! I was feeling pretty strong at this point.  After a short climb, the trail dropped steeply and crossed the Caribou river. For the next 14 miles the trail climbed, but what often gets missed in Sawtooth mountain terrain is that there were a series of climbs and descents.

Trekking poles are all about technique!

At about the half way point.

There is a whole secondary story that happens on races like this with your support crew.  Because it is a point to point race, people come and go at about the same time, as the runners. When I came into the Sugar Loaf aid station, Kathy announced “you should run with Fiona.” I was thinking, I do not know Fiona, or her pace, but she left the aid station about the same time I did. I was carrying trekking poles but had not yet gotten them out of my vest. It took about 50 yards for me to realize that Fiona really knew how to use poles! (She is a crosscountry ski coach from Thunder Bay.) I had been noticing that most of the people I was observing were using them as “walking sticks.” Honestly that was why I decided to bring them myself. But cross-country skiing was my first marathon sport, so I am quite familiar with poling! For the next 8 miles or so I followed Fiona as we poled past plenty of “runners.” Eventually after we had talked through plenty of US politics with Canadian insight, she poled off ahead of me.

The last 12 were the hardest

Climbing up Carlton Peak.

By the time I got through the Sawbill aid station my pace was lagging. In the last 12 miles of the race there are 8 steep ascents and descents, not counting the smaller climbs. For a while I was hoping to be in by dark, but that was increasingly becoming  unlikely.

I finished just before 8:00 pm, with just a hint of light in the western sky!

Kathy had given me my headlight at the Oberg aid station and I was needing it as the trail continued to be rough as the light failed. I finished while there was still a little light in the western sky. My time was 14:57:19, that was a pace of 17:57 per mile! It was my slowest 50 miler so far but also it was also the hardest.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Greatest

Mark 9:30-37

We think we are the most important

The disciples were arguing over who was the greatest. I think we can relate to that.  We measure ourselves against each others. We compare and we compete. Mind you, Jesus had pretty much just changed the world order by suggesting that The Son of Man was destined to be betrayed and killed. Still the disciples  were slow to turn that truth into something that really changed their way of being. So walking along the road that day they argued about who was the greatest! They must not have been paying attention when Jesus made that prediction of the passion that was to come! We have the same issue, though most of us have heard that it is in the cross that the truth of God comes clear, yet we still operate like we are going to win!

A child like faith

So Jesus takes a little child and places it in their midst.  A living object lesson, but it is one whose point  we might miss. In Jesus’ day, while children were seen as a potential blessing.  They really were not given much place in society and surprisingly occupied one of the lowest rungs on the ladder of social status along with women, tyrants, and animals! So for Jesus to suggest that welcoming a child was akin to welcoming him was rather unexpected! I think we have come to value children so much that we miss how radical this point is!

Some things need to be relearned over and over again

If the disciples missed the point about how Jesus’ destiny was going to involve suffering and death, they certainly missed the point about children as well. In the next chapter of the Gospel of Mark is the familiar story where people were bringing children to Jesus to be blessed but the disciples tried to stop them.  Jesus repeats his pronouncement that you have to receive the Kingdom of God like a little child. Most of us know the significant truths of our faith. The problem is that we find ourselves needing to relearn the very things we thought we understood! The Bible is one book that needs a constant re-read!

All are welcome!

In the words of the hymn, all are welcome! No matter how important or unimportant you think you are, you are welcome. No matter how much you might think that someone does not belong, they belong.

It Is Well

And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Philippians 4:7

“It Is Well With My Soul.” It is a deceptive song, in part because is sounds like a message that that is comes from some place of comfort…It is well with my soul. The trouble is that sometimes we are not well. We are broken, and the words might come as a prescriptive proclamation that might not seem so helpful in the depths of despair…

Horatio Spafford was a lawyer and successful businessman.  In 1871 he and his wife lost their young son to pneumonia. In that same year, much of his business was burned in the great Chicago fire. In 1873 his wife Anna and his 4 daughters were crossing the Atlantic when the vessel they were on collided with another ship. All 4 daughters were lost at sea but Anna survived. When she arrived in Wales, she wired her husband the sort of short message that the recently invented telegraph made possible: “Saved alone, what shall I do?” He took the next available passage to join his wife. It is said that he wrote the song “It Is Well With My Soul” onboard the ship.

One would imagine that he was saying it was well with his soul, when it was not well with much of anything else. It is meant to be a little haunting I think.  It is sometimes a matter of putting one foot in front of the other even when things are dark and turbulent. It is a matter of understanding that no matter how bad things are, God is there with you.

God did not promise that following him would lead to an easy, successful life. Instead God promised a redemptive life!  One that offers hope when there is no apparent hope. No matter how bad it gets, it is well with your soul…

On Success and Failure

Accept one another, then, just as Christ has accepted you, in order to bring praise to God
Romans 15:7 NIV

I fear we live in a world that seems to say too often that we are what we accomplish. We believe that hard work and perseverance will get us what we set out to do, and sometimes that is the case. But if we are honest, success is often the product of something that looks a lot more like blind luck. Still, we give praise, honor and acclamation to those who win. The trouble is we too often measure ourselves by success.

So we try our best and attribute our success to a combination of our hard work and perhaps God’s blessing. I think we are really good at teaching people to work hard and accomplish what they set out to do. I suppose there is good, practical advice in that, but the trouble with this kind of thinking is that it is only a matter of time before you fail. I think faith in winning is false hope and certainly not in line with the faith that is spoken of in the Bible. Faith in Jesus is faith in a hope that transcends failure.

It’s a part of my personal pathology, that the highs tend to be very high and the lows, very low. It is tempting to see God in the highs and the absence of God in the failures. The truth is God is there in the highs and in the lows! Life oscillates. Are we the sum of every high and every low? In some ways yes, but in other ways, especially when it comes to faith, the answer is a resounding no. God accepts us and embraces us in spite of our highs and in the midst of our lows! God bears with us in our successes and in our failures. It is a little strange how contrary that is to the message that we often hear, which is much more conditional.

God accepts us as we are! God will be with us in every failure and with us in every victory.

The Great Disappointment



Mark 8:27-38

I think we often tend to think we know what God has in mind, only to be surprised that God’s plans are not the same as our own.

In 1831 William Miller, a Baptist preacher from Northeast New York, began to preach a message that Christ would return sometime between the spring of 1843 and the spring of 1844. He had come to that conclusion by reading the Bible and assembling a complicated calendar that led him to that conclusion. 1844 came and went, and new calculations were made, those dates came and went. When Miller’s biblical mathematics failed, it led to a time within the religious movement known as The Great Disappointment.

Jesus had just asked his disciple who he was, and Peter is the one who answered with the defining answer, “You are the Messiah!” And as true as that confession was, Peter thought he knew exactly what it meant, destined to be the right-hand man of the one whose destiny was to be the salvation of Israel. Peter must have had a pretty good idea what that meant: power and prestige, privilege and possibility.

So when Jesus began to say something that challenged Peter’s understanding of what it meant to be the Messiah, Peter must not have believed what he was hearing, that the Son of Man must suffer and die. Well, it was too much. Taking Jesus aside to rebuke him, Jesus instead rebuked Peter : “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.” I am thinking that was not what Peter was expecting.

Whenever we think we have God figured out we are on dangerous ground. Too often we do not hesitate to speak for God, too often without listening. Jesus had no time for the Sadducees because they could not see the possibility of the resurrection and they had turned faith into a commercial enterprise. He had no time for the Pharisees and their ever growing list of rules, that lost sight of relevance. It is the problem that happens in the space between common sense (the Sadducees), and increasingly complex laws (the Pharisees). There is an all too human truth in both the interplay of common sense and complicated law. We think that we can figure it out ourselves.

Jesus’ exchange with Peter is to say, that we cannot! Faith is about discernment, it is about giving ourselves up to what God has in mind: the suffering, the death, and the resurrection…

The MR 340!

Paddling near Sunset in the MR340.

I have been neglecting paddling in recent years.  So when my friend Kent suggested we paddle the Missouri River 340, I did not immediately say no.  However, it was a 340 mile non-stop canoe race (!) and whether it was something this 61-year-old body could accomplish was less than certain.

We choose a Wenonah Minnesota #
3 as our boat, at 20 feet long, it was enough for one of us to sleep while the other paddled (a feature we never utilized)!

We had made provisions for sleep. We chose a 20-foot tripping canoe, instead of a racing boat. We carried a sleeping pad and had practiced with one of us laying in the bottom of the canoe, while the other paddled.  In the end though, it became a flat out race, no sleep for the entirety, of the 42 hours and 55 minutes that it took to paddle from Kanas City to St. Charles.

My paddling partner has always been fond to tell me that there is no one who can beat him in a sprint, and I have seen him paddle enough to know that as truth. Still in countless conversations leading up to the race we had talked about the need to stay under control, especially at the beginning. Yet, I knew what was coming when we placed ourselves toward the front at the inside of the corner of where the Kansas River flows into the Missouri and as I might have predicted, we ended up sprinting off the line. One of the two fast 4-5 person racing boats hit us in the stern and spun us almost into the other.  Words were exchanged, the long and short of it was that they thought “we didn’t belong where we were.” I suppose it might have looked that way to a focused team who had just hit the sort of boat you might use on a trip to the Boundary Waters, however, what they did not know was that in the bow was a former USCA National Champion. So it became a flat out race… We judged each tandem team that passed us and decided we did have a chance—they were working too hard for a 40+ hour effort!

The MR340 starts in 2 waves, 7:00 for one person boats, and 8:00 for the rest.

We were hoping to average 7.5 mph (which is a fast pace), but by the end of the first day, we had established an 8.6 mph average. The river was not far below flood stage and the flow was exceptionally fast. When we got to the 3rdcheckpoint at Glascow (141 miles) we had stopped for a total of 2 minutes to switch out empty water jugs. As the day progressed there were 2 other boats in our class that we were trading the lead with. A couple guys in a wood strip pro boat the were switching between canoe and kayak paddles, and a couple of young guys in an aluminum canoe that were making up for the inherent slowness of their boat with an exceptional amount of power. By late afternoon we had dropped the pro boat but the aluminum guys were still in front, we passed them toward sunset and would hold that lead until the next afternoon.

We entered the first night of paddling.  The Missouri River is not without hazards. There are wing dams and floating debris. Because the river was high, submerged navigational buoys would pop out of the water at anytime. Reading the river, which was not all that hard during the day, became uncertain and as fatigue mixed with drowsiness and eventually in the early morning a light fog, gave everything an ethereal feeling. There was a kind of hallucination that all of this created as the intense focus that was required mixed with exhaustion mixed and darkness. We became accustomed to seeing things that were not there!

The checkpoint at Jefferson City was 223 miles into the race. we were there at 11:18 (a little more than 27 hours after he start).

By morning I was pretty certain that we were not going to finish this race. Kent had thrown up a couple times and was unable to eat or drink. Both of us were catching ourselves falling asleep in the middle of paddle strokes. We would paddle a few minutes and then stop for what seemed like longer. I was loosing both my focus and my desire to continue. At this point we were still the lead tandem boat, but I was fighting the thought that we should paddle to Jefferson City (mile 223) and register a DNF. Instead we stopped for a major resupply, got out of the boat for 15 minutes, and got back in feeling a little better. As we were pulling out, the second place aluminum boat was pulling in, they looked as spent as we felt.

We were very much in survival mode when we left the Jefferson City check point. With 120 miles still to go, we decide to focus on paddling in 15-minute blocks, which I promptly upped to 30. I am not sure if that helped Kent, but I did help my focus.

It took the aluminum canoe until mid afternoon to catch us and while we were not feeling all that competitive, both of us had kept looking behind us to see how much they were gaining on us. Eventual we decided to drop our pace and let them pass. After wishing them well, we were able to focus on what we thought was going to be the hardest challenge of the race. We reached the checkpoint at Herman (269 miles) at 5:45 pm. Projecting our time forward, we where looking at the 3-4 am finish and a second night of paddling!

Toward evening we decided to increase our intensity as a way to stay awake, and then as late as possible to take the caffeine tablets I was carrying and hope that would be enough to see us through to the finish, This started to feel like a race again as opposed to the death march that it had felt like for most of the day. Our pace and focus improved.  Some time around Klondike (mile 311) maybe 11:00 pm we took caffeine and also consciously kept our effort up.  Another factor that helped in the final stages of the race, was that once we got past the checkpoint at Hermann, where there was about 70 miles to go, and our spirits lifted as  we once again were able to envision finishing this race!

We made it to Charles City just before 3:00 on Thursday, 43 hours and 55 minutes after we had started.

At 2:55 am on Thursday morning, we arrived at the finish in St. Charles.  42 hours, 55 minutes after we began.  We were the 14thboat over all, 2ndmen’s tandem, and probably the first boat in without a rudder.

We had chosen a Wenonah Minnesota 3 as a boat.  It was probably the perfect boat to finish this race with.  It was super stable, had the most comfortable canoe seats I have ever sat in for a extended period of time, and it was an efficient design – our average over the entire race was 7.9 mph! a racing boat might have been faster, but we would not have been able to sleep in it (something we thought we would do, but didn’t), and perhaps that was our only significant miscalculation, we had a bigger boat than we needed!

 

Old White Men

Mass Gathering at the NRG stadium in Houston Texas.

For the last few years, I’ve been coming to terms with a couple related realities. First, I am a white male pastor in what is pretty much the whitest denomination in the country. Second, I am getting old enough that I am being keenly aware that I will soon be passing on the mantle of church leadership to another generation.

As we were leaving the 2018 ELCA youth gathering in Houston and settling in for what would be an 18-hour non-stop drive to get back to Iowa, we passed a statue of an old Sam Houston along I-45. We didn’t stop. The almost 70 foot tall, whitewashed likeness of the person who the city was named was literally a concrete reminder of what I had been thinking about the past week at the gathering, and for the last couple years: what should the role of an old white man be in this church, and particularly in this denomination?

On Saturday night, the opening speaker was Stephen Bouman.  He is a man of good reputation, a former bishop of the Metropolitan New York Synod. He was in his office in the city when the planes hit the twin towers of the World Trade Center.  He was present at Ground Zero in the immediate aftermath. It was a fine talk, but as he acknowledged—most of the youth present had not even been born yet…

Rebekah Brusehoff, an 11-year-old transgender girl with purple hair, followed Bouman.  The fact that an 11 year old could stand in front of a crowd of 30,000 is amazing, but that she could articulately talk about what it was like to be born a boy, but be a girl was astounding.  The theme for the event was “This Changes Everything,” I found myself thinking that while the planes crashing into the World Trade Center changed the world, hearing from an 11 year old transgender girl was changing everything. Close, but not the same. I found myself thinking that us “old white men” need to start listening more and talking less.

On Sunday morning, Presiding Bishop Elizabeth Eaton preached a good sermon on the difficult text of Jarius’ daughter and the women with a flow of blood. It was a good sermon following the reading of the text from the Gospel of Mark. It was a good message in the usual place and how we usually do things in church.

Then all of a sudden, Savanna Sullivan was on stage. It was a place in the service where someone normally does not deliver a message.  She introduced herself as a former Young Adult in Global Mission.  She talked about the time 3 years ago when in the summer after being assigned to a year in Rwanda, she was diagnosed with an auto-immune disorder.  Her doctors suggested that she stay home.  She described a conversation with her father, where he asked if she was willing to die in Rwanda.  It was a question she could not answer. Savanna said that while she wished she could have answered yes, it was not the answer that came to her. She said she cried ugly tears that night and the answer came to her: going to Rwanda was not something she was willing to die for, it was something she was willing to live for.

In this juxtaposition, I found myself realizing that not all the “old white man” are actually men. There is an establishment of power that gives privilege to some, myself included. It is not always a power that is abused and I certainly did not think that listening to Elizabeth and Stephen. Yet,  if the Gathering showed me anything, it was that we ought not presume to speak for others; instead, we need to empower them to speak.

One of the many people I ran into at the Gathering was my dear friend AJ. I remember the conversation when she was discerning that God might not be calling to use her finance degree to sit in an office and just make money. I remember her YAGM experience. I remember marrying her and her wife Carley a couple years ago. I remember being careful not to ask the bishop’s permission. I remember not being the most forthright about her sexual orientation when she came to preach at the congregation I am currently serving. It was not really my truth to tell, it is theirs!

“This Changes Everything,” was the theme of the Gathering this year

But here is the important thing I know about AJ–I know that she will change things, and she already is! She is in the middle of a growing place in the church. I, on the other hand, am an old white man, who has been contemplating retirement.  I look too much in the past… If I am to be of value, I will have to empower what comes after.  I remember my father-in-law after he retired from ministry saying how glad he was he was not in the middle of all of the church changes that were happening at the time. I remember being a bit offended, because I was in the middle of my ministry and so in the middle of the issues. Now that I am near the end (I will not work until I am 80 like he did!), but also because I do suffer from the white, male power and privilege reality, I am in need of figuring out how to empower and how not to pronounce.  The problem is that proclamation is not all that far from pronouncement, and one can easily become the other.  This is a learning place for me…

Why?

There were 7 starters in the 2018 Alexander 380. 3 would finish.

Earlier this spring one of my 7thgrade confirmation students upon learning that I was headed to Arizona to run a 50k, asked the question few ask me out loud. It was a one-word sentence: “Why?” I am not really sure there is an answer, at least not an answer that many would understand.  People might exercise for their health, they might try to break some record, personal or otherwise, but at age 61 I have pretty much given up on either.  The truth is I do ultra-distances simply because I can, but I am not sure that really is an answer to the why question.

I had a late start into the world of endurance sports. I was not a kid who was interested in sports in high school. My family didn’t pay attention to traditional sports, and I frankly was not good enough. When I attend high school track meets I always feel empathy for that kid who is so far back they look like they must be in another race. I was that kid, in track, the only sport I ever even attempted. I was in my 30’s when skied my first 50K, 44 when I ran my first marathon, and 60 when I ran my first 50-miler. But it was different.   Those were never races I was going to win; those were races where I would never even get noticed. As a result, I have tended to find groups that would notice: Skiers doing the same races; bike groups that gather to ride together; a group doing the same race. There might be some shared training, but more there was a shared focus, a tribe of like-focused folk.

For whatever reason, I don’t really have a tribe right now, and I am old enough and experienced enough to know that tribes of this sort are a gift in the present that tend to disappear. Most endurance sports are solitary in a way, but oddly for me, it is being a part of a group that has always drawn and grounded me in endurance sports. Perhaps because there are so few people who understand, much less relate to this sort of endeavor. Having a group that understands has always been an important aspect of this for me.

Perhaps it is related to not having a group to focus my efforts, but being alone in this has meant that setting the bar higher and further was almost impossible not to do this year. I was almost bound to find my limit. Two 50k’s so far this year, the Alexander 380 gravel bike race, the Missouri River 340 mile canoe race, and the 50 mile Superior Trail race. Something on this list was certainly bound to bring me close to what I could physically and mentally be able to accomplish.

Alexander 380 Wisconsin
At 2:30 am, 190 miles and almost 21 hours after beginning I stopped my attempt at the Alexander 380

I found that limit this weekend.  At 2:30 am, 190 miles into the 380-mile gravel race, I decided it was time to stop. It was dark, and wet, the steep down hills were increasingly looking like a crash waiting to happen.  My focus, balance, and small muscle motor skills where failing, after 21 hours of pretty much continuous effort.  I stopped knowing and learning from poorly made choices in past similar situations: There was the cross country ski race where I froze a couple fingers so badly they turned black and I thought I would loose them. There was the marathon where I ran 13 miles after I felt my tibia break. Deciding to stop was sort of remarkable for me.

I wonder if there isn’t a difference in stopping and quitting.   I have to admit, during the 20 miles I had to ride to get to Prairie Du Chien after I decided it was time to stop, I was asking myself the why question, I was considering if I should not just give it all up and be like your

Crossing into Wisconsin at mile 126 or so.

average 61 year old, and lower my activity level to short walks and occasional bike rides on paved trails. To me, that would be quitting.  Stopping was a matter of deciding if the potential damage was worth the risk.  For me on Saturday morning, it was not, but it was also not a place to quit.  I was stopping, not quiting.

Can I look back and figure out how this might have unfolded differently?  Of course! We could have found a place at sunset and slept for a few hours (we had the gear along) but that is surprisingly hard to do at 1:00 am when it is dark and raining.  I could have better thought through my rather ridiculous weekend schedule (I had to preach on Sunday morning). It is always amazing how clearer things are in hindsight.

I had been posting my progress on social media, and that meant I needed to let folks know that I was stopping. The first of many supportive comments came from Gary Jones: “With age comes wisdom. Live to race another day my friend.”  Perhaps I have more of a tribe then I think.

 

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.