Sunday, January 1, 2017

2016 Wasn't a Bad Year

It's officially time for the entire world to stop griping about 2016.

For months now, your social media feeds have no doubt been full of people who hated 2016. And much of their disgust with the previous year seems justified. Dozens of beloved celebrities, actors, and musicians passed away. Political turmoil runs rampant, not only in America, but in much of the industrialized world. There were terrorist attacks, natural disasters, mass shootings, wars, and Batman/Superman movie that not a lot of people liked.

But 2016 isn't to blame for any of that.

I've seen, "Screw you, 2016!" and "I'm staying up till midnight on New Years Eve just so I can watch 2016 die" appear so many times on my Facebook feed over the last week that I've stopped counting the occurrences. These posts are blaming an abstract concept, a unit of time that has no significance other than what we apply to it, for the problems of the last year. And if we as a people fail to place responsibility where it is due, we are doomed to find ourselves in the same place next year, typing "Screw you, 2017! Maybe 2018 will be better!" on our phones and laptops.

Instead of blaming 2016 for the deaths of our favorite actors and musicians, we should instead look at the underlying problems that contributed to their deaths. Very few people have started a social media conversation about the danger and stigma of substance abuse and addiction. Many of these celebrities were in their prime when everyone in the music and movie industries were talking about drugs and alcohol, but no one was talking about the consequences. Instead of blaming 2016 for the deaths of these beloved figures, let's instead start a national conversation about treating substance abuse. Let's reach out to those we care about who are struggling with drugs and alcohol. Let's find a way to help these people instead of blaming 2016. Heck, let's at least start a conversation about it.

Of course, there were those who passed from old age, or, more tragically, cancer or other diseases. While these are equally tragic, they are no more the fault of 2016 than the others.

This blog has never been, and will never be, a sounding board for politics, so this paragraph will be short. Many people are upset about the incoming administration in American politics. But sharing inflammatory articles, blowing up the Twitterspehere with four-letter words, and ranting in the comments section of someone else's post aren't going to change anything. And like the many notable celebrity deaths, 2016 is not to blame.

Instead of blaming 2016 for the massacring of innocents in a nightclub, we could have started a national conversation about the use of deadly weapons. Someone could have reached out to the shooter, made him understand that he was allowed to find happiness and fulfillment in life, instead of seeking absolution at the butt of a rifle. Someone could have shown him a better way. Or at least stopped him from buying an assault weapon.

And yes, while it is true that there is very little we as citizens can do in the way of international politics, the truth is that some people, somewhere, can influence these actions. Maybe that's as large as choosing not to send a regiment of troops into a city. Maybe it's as small as bringing food to refugees.

The common thread that connects all these upsetting headlines is this: 2016 isn't responsible for any of them.

We did it all. We, as people of the world, are responsible for the whole mess. If we're looking to blame something, let's place the blame where it belongs. On us. Instead of saying that 2016 was the worst year ever, let's be honest and say that 2016 was our worst year ever.

Yeah, it seems like there's a lot that needs to be done, especially in the wake of how awful most people perceive 2016 to have been. It doesn't feel like there's anything we can do about the atrocities in Aleppo, or the terrorist attacks in the Belgium airport, or the shooting at The Pulse nightclub. And that's true. For the average citizen, some things are out of our reach.

But each of us has a tiny corner of the world we can influence, and if all we can do is make that part a little bit better, then we should do it. If we want things to change, WE HAVE TO CHANGE THEM. Do volunteer work with your local anti-homelessness organization. Collect donations of food for your local food bank. Arrange a bake sale to raise money for a cause you believe in. Call someone you know who's elderly or shut-in. Pray for someone you normally wouldn't. Confront someone in love whom you suspect struggles with substances.

It's going to get tiring. Doing good always is. That's why you don't see people camping out in New York for the "Occupy Wall Street" movement anymore: it was a protest not based on making things better, but simply sitting around and waiting for others to change things.

Every day actions will feel small, but over time they'll add up.

Everything I write is from a Christian perspective. If you're not interested in hearing why I believe the things I wrote about, you can simply stop reading here and have a feel-good, warm-and-fuzzy post about everyone banding together to do the right thing. If you'd like to get a little deeper, keep reading.

Scripture says, "Let us not grow weary in doing good, for we will reap the harvest if we do not give up. Therefore, let us do good to all, as we have opportunity, especially to those who belong to the family of believers with us." (Gal. 6:9-10). These are good words, and one of my favorite scriptures. But dang, is it hard to put into practice!

As the church, Christ calls us to do many things. I believe that the gospels boil down to this message: imitate Jesus, treat others as he treated them, and put all things of The Kingdom before the things of this world. And when you look at 2016, it doesn't seem like a lot of people were imitating Jesus. Not the people who made the news, anyway. But maybe that's the real testament of following Jesus: those who are doing it correctly aren't going to show up in the limelight (Mark 6:1).

With that in mind, any New Year's Resolution we make should be the kind that Jesus would make.

He sought out those who were unloved and unwanted and provided for their basic needs.

He never stopped thinking about the Kingdom of Heaven, and what He could do to describe its majesty to people.

He desired for all people to come to a relationship with God the Father, and to understand God's love through that personal relationship.

When He saw sin in believers or religious people, He called them out on it.

He called no one to simply exist where they were, but called everyone to continually grow closer to God in word and action.

Yes, 2016 seemed horrible on the surface. But we've got to remember that 2016 was simply a number. It was another spin of the globe, full of broken and confused people just like us. But as the body of believers, it's got to be up to us to crack our knuckles and get to work. Yeah, most of us can only affect one tiny corner of the world, but it's a corner that may never understand Jesus without us. Each and every one of us had to do their part. And from the look of things, we've got our work cut out for us.

Finish the cartoon however you please. 

Image uncredited; I didn't draw it, but found in within the miasma of the internet. If it's your image, please contact me and I will credit your work! 

Tuesday, November 1, 2016

The Rest of My Life Begins Now.

Number one: If you are friends with me on social media, I'm sorry. It's been an eventful week in my life, and I've been bombarding Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram with pictures to chronicle the event. If the pictures were set to animation, I'd bet you could watch the whole thing happen frame-by-frame.

And WOW, doesn't Hillary look beautiful? 

On Wednesday, October 26th, at 9:36 in the morning, my wife gave birth to our daughter, Elliot Katherine Smith.

The c-section went off without a hitch. At a little after 9:00, they took Hillary back to the operating room to start anesthesia. This was my cue to put on my "bunny suit": the canvas-like coveralls, mask, booties, and hat that I had to wear into the sterile environment.

I was barely in there ten minutes before we had a baby.

Hillary's probably not thrilled that I used this picture. I think it's beautiful. Don't you? 

I began the day excited. Ready. In great anticipation. And once she was born, everything was pretty much a whirlwind of activity. They cleaned her off, handed her to me and Hillary so we could hold her while they sewed Hillary up. Cue the tears of joy.

I got to carry Ellie Kate to the area where they test her vitals, make sure everything is working. After about fifteen minutes, I went to see Hillary in recovery. She was doing well, still a little out of it from the anesthetic. I responded to frantic texts from both our parents and let them know everyone was okay.

They brought us the baby, took us to our hospital room on the 4th floor (which was more like a hotel room than a traditional hospital room), and friends and loved ones soon arrived. People held her, hugged us. They brought food (thank goodness).

Ellie Kate even got to meet her big sisters. 

As the day wore into the evening, people left. Until that night, it was simply me, Hillary, and the baby. And thus began the most challenging, and rewarding, time of my life.

I don't want this entry to become an extended diatribe about my previous marriage. It's something I've talked about at length in older entries. If you're a first time reader, however, I'll abbreviate. Something like four years ago, I was married to another woman, who walked away from our marriage after a long period of distancing.

Here's the portion of the story many don't know.

The fall after my ex-wife left me, I was the assistant youth pastor at my church. Barely a day went by at that time without all my thoughts being directed at the hopeless and uncertain path my life had taken. So, when we took a few dozen middle-school-age youth on a retreat that September, I couldn't keep my mind from dwelling on the fact that I was no longer married, and the path I had laid out for my life had been irrevocably shattered.

I don't even remember what the theme of the weekend was. But one night during that retreat, during independent prayer time, I faced the hopelessness with God.

I wasn't married. I knew I wanted to get married again, and I knew God knew that, too. But I wasn't even remotely ready to date anyone. And once I started dating, how long would it take for me to find the one I wanted to marry?

I knew I wanted children. But I was already staring my 30th birthday in the face. After I found the elusive person I wanted to marry, how long would it be before she was ready to start a family? One year of marriage? Two? Five? Would I be facing 40 before I had a kid in kindergarten?

I remember sitting in the floor of a cabin during this prayer, with my arms crossed on a coffee table and my face buried in them, when that realization came to me. And I wondered... would I ever have children?

The moment that thought escaped my head, a literal pile of youth kids threw themselves on me, to pray over me. Their weight was literally enough to take my breath away.

Now, I'm not a person whom God normally speaks to in audible words. I think He knows how dense I am, and He knows that words would be too easy for me, so normally He speaks in much more indirect ways. But when He's got something to say, it's big. And this time, He said, "I will fulfill this for you one day. But until you have children of your own, these are your children."

Fast forward, four years and a month.

Hillary and I have had Ellie Kate home for three nights now. She's obviously not sleeping through the night yet; even worse, she's pretty much nocturnal from her months in utero. But we're adjusting: Hillary and I are playing tag-team at night right now, trading off who sleeps upstairs with her so the other can get a few uninterrupted hours. It's difficult, yes, but it's way easier with such a good tag-team partner.

I still haven't been able to convince Hillary to wear the face paint and spiked shoulder pads. 

There's simply so much to tell, because I am so overwhelmed with how new and amazing everything is. The days are starting to get away from me, though: I started this blog post two days ago, and am only now getting around to finishing it. More and more things keep happening, and I want to write about them but I simply don't have the time. So it's probably about time to end this post. 

There are certain things in this life that simply can't be understood without experiencing them, and I firmly believe having a baby is one of them. I have never been so swept-off-my-feet in love before, and there simply aren't words that can describe it unless you've experienced it yourself.

However, I don't have to go back to work until December 5th, so I'm sure I'm going to try with a few more blog posts before them. 

Until that time, take a nap for me and Hillary. 

I think Hillary and I have perfected the beautiful baby. The rest of the world should stop trying. 

Sunday, September 18, 2016

"Overcompensating" OR "The Realm of Possibility"

I ran another marathon.

It's been more than a month since my last Runner Confidential, and in that post I talked about the process of training for this marathon. It chronicled my first marathon and how miserable it was, and I mentioned that, for the first time in my life, I was actually trying a marathon training plan.

I made that post before school started. Life has gotten a lot more complicated since then. The school year has gotten off to a good start, but it's definitely shaping up to be the most nose-to-the-grindstone year I've ever experienced. Getting to school early and staying late (and doing school work at home almost every night) has almost eliminated my ability to run in the mornings, and that's stymied the training plan I'd started.

But surely a few lackluster weeks of training wouldn't harm me that much. I'd still been putting in the weekly long runs, which are (arguably) the most important part of the training plan. And I'd been squeezing in training runs whenever I could. How much could my training have been affected?

Which brings us back to the marathon.

The Air Force Marathon on the Wright-Patterson Air Force base in Dayton, Ohio, to be exact. Hillary and I drove to Dayton Friday evening, and after getting trapped at Wright State University's Nutter Center because of the 5K (they blocked the road that led out of the parking lot) and having to change hotels (our first one resembled something out of Silent Hill), we made it to Dayton.

After my last debacle of a marathon (see the last post, linked above), I'd made a list of things in my head that had gone wrong that I'd try my best to fix with this race.

Not eating enough carbs the night before? French toast dinner at Cracker Barrel.

Not enough food in my stomach before the race? I'd eat a bagel as I drove to the starting line.

Too dehydrated the night before? Drink water until my eyes felt like they were going to float out of my head.

Because of stringent parking regulations (and the promise that they'd once again close roads after the race started), Hillary couldn't drop me off at the starting line. Which really stunk, because her support and encouragement is one of the driving factors of my life. The thought of starting a race without a send-off from her was downright depressing. But she also needed her sleep, and I didn't want her to have to sit around, twiddling her thumbs at the starting line, waiting for them to reopen the roads.

So I let her sleep, and Saturday morning I drove myself to the Nation Museum of the United States Air Force. She wrote me the note above after I'd gone to bed. She was up later than me because she was feeling horrible and had to drive to the nearest Wal-Mart to get some medicine, but she was still thoughtful enough to leave this for me. It's reasons like this that make me the luckiest guy in the world.

And this was the only picture I took at the race that morning. Can you believe it? I was surrounded by huge, decommissioned United States Air Force planes, and I took a picture of the stupid port-o-potty. I think I got a kick of their spelling "clean" with a K. 

The race was delayed half an hour. Hillary later told me it was because of lightning, but I'm pretty sure they had a hard time getting everyone parked in time for the marathon to begin. 

At 8:00AM, I started running. 

I should have known from the beginning that something was wrong because my headphones didn't work correctly. I shouldn't have been surprised; they were a cheap pair American Airlines gave me for free when Hillary and I flew to Canada in July. From the start of the race, sound only came out of one ear bud. Although whether it was the right or left ear bud that worked kept alternating, there was never a point when both worked at the same time. 

But that wasn't a big deal. No one's marathon time has ever been ruined because of faulty earbuds. But someone's marathon time (namely, MINE) had been ruined because of dehydration. Forget that dehydration was to blame for my feeling awful after the Flying Pig Marathon last May; I did NOT want to be in that boat when the race ended.

Water station at mile 1? I wasn't about to pass it up. So I drank.  

Lack of nutrients also ruined me last time. So mile 3 seemed like a great place to eat my first energy gel, which I'd crammed into the tiny pocket on my running shorts. 

Another water station? I'd better have Gatorade this time, to make sure I'm replenishing sodium and electrolytes. 

My hamstrings are hurting at mile 10? I should wait until at least the halfway point to take my Tylenol and use my Icy Hot (also crammed into the tiny pocket). That way they have a better chance of lasting longer. 

Mile 13 approached. I thought I was doing pretty good. I mean, my hamstrings were getting sorer by the mile at that point, and my feet were sore, but I thought that was to be expected. 

But at mile 14, the pains had gone from bad to worse. And mile 15, worse still. Until, by mile 16, it felt like someone was holding a blow torch on my hamstrings and had taken a hammer to my arches. So I allowed myself a little rest time, when I stopped my fitness watch and simply let myself be still for a few minutes. If I injured myself, not only would I not set a personal record, I may not finish at all. 

It was humid and hot in Dayton that day, even if it was very overcast. My mouth felt dry. So during this rest, I drank two cups of Gatorade at a water station, and ate a Nutra-Grain bar I'd stashed in the back of my compression sock (which isn't as gross as it sounds). 

After around 5 minutes, when I decided my rest was over, I tried to run again. But the rest hadn't helped at all. My arches and hamstrings felt as awful as before. And now I had a full stomach, which was starting to cramp, to add to the mix.

No problem, I thought. I'll just walk for a bit. Until I start to feel better.

And my walking break lasted for the next five miles.

It was around mile 19, when I once again tried to run and was forced back to an old-lady-speed-walking-around-the-mall pace, that frustration started to set in. I'd spent all that time training, reading, and working to make my marathon time better. For the first time, I'd actually listened to running experts and followed a plan. I'd prepared myself as best as I knew how, trying to learn from past mistakes and taking all the necessary precautions.

For what? For this? 

It wasn't until around mile 22 that I was finally able to incorporate some running back into my locomotion, and even then it was only for a half-mile at a time. I even psyched myself up to run the last mile of the marathon, when the Museum was back in sight and I could practically taste the free banana. And even then I had to slow to a walk mid-mile to get enough strength to carry on to the finish.

When all was said and done, I'd run the slowest marathon of my life: 5 hours, 35 minutes. Far worse than the Las Vegas marathon, the one where I'd clearly gone in over my head and had no idea what I was facing.

Of course, there were plenty of extenuating circumstances I tried to blame my poor time on. As I mentioned before, it was very humid that day. And, being that most of the course was around airfields, a 20 mph cross breeze almost constantly batted me around like a ping-pong ball. My shoes were at least 3 years old, which I could at least blame for my arch pain. And the intermittent rain showered the course for the final four miles.

But when the race was over and I had to drive myself back to the hotel (where poor Hillary had been trapped for the entire day), I was forced to face a fact that honestly hadn't occurred to me until that moment: that it may not be physiologically possible for me to run the Boston Marathon.

In order to qualify for Boston, I'd have to run a Boston qualifying marathon in under 3 hours, 5 minutes for my age group. And yes, I knew this starting the race. But I'd started the Air Force Marathon thinking that my efforts were going to have some measurable impact on my ability, would at least put this impossible goal a few inches closer.

Instead, the goal has been pushed farther away than ever.

When the race was over, before I got back to the hotel to rescue Hillary from her isolation, when I was alone with only my thoughts for company, I thought this would be a jagged pill to swallow. But it wasn't. In fact, the realization that Boston may be out of my reach didn't bother me much at all. We spent the rest of the day lazing around the hotel room, watching college football. After that, we had dinner at Smokey Bones (aww yiss), and then I went to bed with sore hamstrings and a smile on my face.

Shouldn't abandoning this dream... I don't know... hurt a little more?

But then I thought back to when I ran my first marathon, in 2012, as a metaphor of beginning my life again after my divorce. I didn't run that race with the intent of punishing myself into training oblivion. I ran it because I thought it looked like fun, and because I got to run it with one of my good friends. And I kept running marathons because I wanted to challenge myself. And because I liked the electric atmosphere that surrounds racing. And because I'm a glutton for cool-looking medals.

In fact, the more I thought about my "dream" of running Boston, the more it occurred to me that it wasn't much of a dream at all. More of an afterthought, a 'next logical step' to racing. I had planned it for myself because it was seemed to come next in a list of tasks, without bothering to think if it what what I really wanted.

And what I briefly considered a physical limitation - simply being physically unable to push my body to complete such a race in such a time - wasn't really worth getting bent out of shape over.

There's someone who, daily, reminds me of that lesson.

Even though I know it's unlikely, I hope she always stays so blissful. I hope Zoe always has such blind enthusiasm for life, always sees everyone as equals, and never lets the difference in her normal and her classmates' normal bring her down. I hope she continues to remind me how great God is, and how much He's given me, and to never take for it for granted.

And I hope I can provide a good example for her. I hope that I can show her that there's nothing wrong with striving to get better, with pushing your limits. But I also need to show her that there's no shame in admitting that something may be physically outside the realm of possibility. And that, as long as you're doing what you love and you can go to bed saying you did your best, nothing else really matters.

I like racing. I like the atmospehere, the way entire towns turn out to cheer the runners on, and I am a sucker for cool medals. Maybe I'll run Boston one day. Maybe I won't. Maybe one day I'll have to dial back my racing and stick to half-marathons, or 5Ks. Maybe I won't. When all is said and done, I won't remember much from each individual race; they're simply going to be reduced to a series of meals hanging on my wall and bibs stuffed in a drawer.

What IS going to endure is the way I conduct myself upon realizing that something may simply be beyond my power.

One thing's certain: I'm never going the route of 'drastic overcompensation' again.

(Someone remind me of this post if I want to buy a sports car when I turn 50).

As far as medals go, I think this is the largest one in my collection. That's not overcompensating, right? Anyone? Anyone? Bueller? 

Monday, August 1, 2016

"Laziness" *OR* "Old Wineskins"

Beleive it or not, this blog started out as a place for me to chronical my running. Actually, it started as a place for me to post reviews of energy products marketed to runners. Circa 2012, about the time my first marriage was crumbling, I needed something to direct my energies toward so I wouldn't go insane. It was at this time that I started training for my first marathon.

Marathon training is hard, ya'll. And the sad part is, I didn't even know how to train. I figured that, if I just made myself run longer and longer distances, I'd eventually get into "marathon shape", which I didn't even pin a solid definition to other than, 'The ablility to finish a marathon without dying'. 

In case we've never met, I (like most men, I think) have a bad habit of thinking I'm an expert on anything I have at least a passable knowledge about. If I can swing a wrapping paper tube around in what I think looks like a component impression of a sword, I'm instantly an Olympic-caliber fencer. And running was something, at that time, I thought I had down to a science. So clearly I needed no special research on how to run a marathon. 

What commenced was the most misersable 5 hours, 13 minutes, and 39 seconds of my life.

I was in much more misery than my expression implies. Also, I had a lot more hair. 

Fast forward more than a year. Undaunted, I signed up for my second marathon. Clearly, when I had trained for the first marathon, I had simply not used my "non-training" routine intensely enough! So I continued with the same actions, in the same way I had used them before (admittedly with more frequency) and expected a different outcome. I didn't once bother to consider that the correct approach to marathoning wasn't in the ammount I trained, but in the methods I was using. 

My second marathon, I ran in 5 hours and 12 minutes. My "more intensive training" had shaved a whopping 1 minute and 39 seconds from my time. 

That simply would not do! After all, I had developed a goal to one day qualify for the Boston Marathon. Clearly, something about my training would have to change. But, like the proverbial fly that beats its head against a window until it smashes its brains to jell-o, I continued my old training plan of "run more". 

The following year, I managed to shave 20 minutes off my marathon time, when I finished the same marathon in 4'52". 

While I was very proud of that time, I still had a big problem. In order to qualify for the Boston Marathon in my age group (the 34-39 age group), I would have to finish a Boston qualifying marathon in 3 hours and 5 minutes. Which meant that I still, somehow, needed to shave more than an hour and forty-five minutes from my marathon time. 

Which seems impossible. At least, it seemed impossible with the way I was training. 

Humans are creatures of habit. I get that. We're animals that hate change, and resist it with everything in us. Psychologists have written long articles about why this is, but I think the short answer is because changing a behavior is difficult and takes effort, and none of us want to beleive that we are flawed enough that our methods actually need changing. We want to beleive that we're experts and have the best way to do things already mastered. 

Simply put, we are a lazy species. Me, chiefly among them. 

This revelation about myself was a long time coming when it came to running, but I'm glad to say that it's application to other areas of my life was much more forthcoming. When my first marriage fell apart, I pretty quickly saw that I wasn't, contrary to my own beleif, an expert when it came to relationships. Though she and I had been in a relationship for five years, I actually had NO IDEA what entailed in being a husband. I may have understood the role of "boyfriend", but the role of "husband" completely escaped me. 

Withing the last few years, I stepped in a new role, one that another version of Graham would have assumed he was already a master of withouth even the slighest experience: the role of Dad. Thankfully, Old Graham was long gone, and new, willing-to-admit-that-he-doesn't-have-it-all-together Graham was willing to learn. I had to rethink the ways I used my energy, my time, and my finances. Suddenly, my life was no longer about me and the things I wanted. And I'll admit, it was very difficult to break out of those selfish mindsets.

But, even though it was difficult, it was GOOD.  

And that's perhaps the trap that we, as people, find ourself in when it comes to change. We assume that because it's difficult, or requires a lot of time or energy, that it can't be GOOD. But that often is the exact opposite, in the examples we read in Scripture: God doesn't do extreme GOOD in the lives of people who aren't willing to do something DIFFICULT. 

I'm running my 5th marathon this fall (I won't even go into the time of my 4th marathon, because there were other extenuating circumstances which made that time esepecially terrible). But this time, I'm following a training plan. I've been a subscriber of Runner's World magazine for many years, and I figured it was time I started taking the advice of experts as seriously as I took the advice of the little voices in my head that told me I already knew everything. 

The training plan is hard. I ran over 16 miles on Sunday. My feet hurt so badly that even standing to sing hymns in church was a task. But just because the run was HARD doesn't mean it wasn't GOOD. Because it was very good. 

The more I think about this analogy, the more I realize how it applies to so many different areas of my life. Which is good, because it means I am always learning and never accepting that I've "arrived" in any facet of my life. But it also stinks, because the lazy part of me that resists change desperatly wants to climb into the metaphorical bed inside my mind and pull the covers over its head. 

I'm about to enter my 10th year teaching, and some of my methods and activities have become stagnant with time. It's time to rethink many of them. 

My Bible study and prayer life are slipping. It's probably time I looked for a new approach to studying the Word, and changed the way I pray or the things I pray about. 

It's easy to dilude yourself into believing that just because you've done something for a long time you should be considered an 'expert' (or, in my case, the beleif that mere passable knowledge in a topic makes you an expert). It's a different thing entirely, and a much better thing, to accept that maybe the old methods you've cemented in your head need reconsidered. I firmly believe that laziness is part of the human condition, and that sloth is one of the seven deadly sins for a reason. 

There's no rest for the weary, it seems. But that's not a bad thing. I've got a classroom that hasn't been touched since May, a former guest bedroom that's halfway through a transition into a nursery, and six weeks left in a marathon training plan that will hopefully get me one step closer to qualifying for Boston. It's only appropriate that my thoughts about these things change with them. After all, wasn't it Jesus who said we can't put new wine into old wineskins?  

Sunday, July 3, 2016

"Training Plans", OR "Outside the Zone"

It's been an eventful few weeks.

Elliot Katherine's nursery is coming along well!  Me and Hillary have rearranged lots of pieces of furniture, trying to keep half the room as a functional guest room while still adhering to the black-and-white monochrome color scheme we decided on. The guest bed has new bedding, I've painted nightstands and bookcases black ("Black Magic", as the can called it), and we've purchased a few new items of furniture to accent the room.

Chiefly among them:  Ellie Kate's crib!

Even though she's got a place to sleep if she showed up tomorrow, there's still a lot to do. Like put the rocker together. 

I'm going to put it together soon. Really. 

So Hillary and I are working to get the majority of the work done before school starts. By that time, it will be less than three months before she's due, and with me and the girls going back to school life is only going to get more hectic. 

In my last post, I wrote about the Hatfield/McCoy Half Marathon I ran in eastern Kentucky, and what an amazing race it was. And, with the completion of that race, how I had no more races until fall. The next race on my calendar isn't until September 17th: The Air Force Marathon in Dayton, Ohio. 

This is a point of anxiety for me. The last full marathon I ran was pretty awful; my time was terrible, I felt worse, physically, after the race than any other race since I started running, and my recovery took forever. With the memory of that abysmal race hanging over my head, I resolved to do something for the Air Force Marathon that I've never done before. 

I'm going to follow a training plan. 

Now, don't get me wrong. I've not done races in the past without training. But keep in mind: though I spend a lot of time on the road, I am a total novice when it comes to knowing how to train. So when I say I've "trained" for previous races, I mean I ran in the months beforehand, when running was convenient, and when running wasn't convenient I used a stationary bike or something else to help me stay active. In fact, if I was to nail a description to my old 'training plan', I'd have to call it the, "Just do whatever I want and hope it makes me faster" method. 

But, with as bad as I felt after the last race, I decided it was time to seek help from the pros. So I've started following a training plan from the people at Runner's World, who know thing or two about becoming a better runner. 

This isn't the first time I've thought about following a training plan, but it's definitely the first time I've actually followed up on it. Until now, I'd always told myself that I ran simply for the joy of running... for the happiness I get out of lacing up my shoes in the wee hours of the morning and hitting the pavement before the world wakes up. I always swore that I'd NEVER be one of "those people" who did meter-sprints, followed strict regiments, and was forced to press buttons on their GPS watch constantly while running to do numerical analysis of running data. 

But then I ran for a few years. And few more years. And a few MORE years. And I wasn't becoming a better runner. In fact, I was downright stagnant. 

There comes a point in all things, be it a job or a relationship or a skill or whatever, when staying in the same place isn't satisfying anymore. There comes a point when, if you're not going forward, you're going backward. 

Even though I didn't want to admit it, it was time to follow a training plan from people who know more about this stuff than I do. And the first part was admitting that there was a lot I didn't know. THAT might have been the most difficult part. 

So it was time for a change. And the first thing that had to change was my hair. 

Your gross thought of the day: running in the summer with a ponytail. It fills up with sweat, and then slaps on the back of your neck like a dead fish as you run. Nasty. 

Pictured: hair that is much easier to run with. 

Don't worry; this wasn't some existential crisis, or a desperate cry for help! I've actually been toying with the idea of cutting my hair for years, and have gotten really serious about it these last few months. I actually wanted to do it before the Hatfield/McCoy half, but wasn't able to make it to a barber. With having long hair for more than a decade, it was time for a change. And Hillary likes it, which is a major plus. :) 

So, I'm two weeks into my training plan, and it's already putting me outside my comfort zone. Last Sunday I had to run 10 miles, according to the plan. But Hillary and I went to a late showing of 'Independence Day: Resurgence', and I didn't fall asleep until 1:30 in the morning. I would have to get up before 6:00, run the whole distance, and get home in time to help wrangle the kids into suitable shape to make it to church at 10:30, which is a half hour drive. 

I wanted to make excuses. I wanted to sleep in. I wanted to do it MY way. 

But I also wanted to get better. And I wanted THAT more than those other things. So I ran 10 miles before church, and took a really great nap that afternoon. 

In the training plan, the middle of the week is peppered with short runs, some of which are instructed to be on "hilly" courses (good luck finding a course in central Kentucky that's NOT hilly). But Sundays are "long run" days. After last week's 10-miler, I would have been happy to log another like it. 

But the training plan wouldn't let me. This Sunday's long run was 12 miles. 

So, here's what I'm realizing. Stagnation is no fun. Even if you're sitting at a place that used to be a place of comfort, of safety, you can't simply keep doing the same thing over and over again and expect things to get better. You've got to wake up earlier, run a little longer, push a little harder, give a little more effort. And then, next time, give a little more. And the time after that, a little more. 

Waking up at 5:15 on a Sunday in summer to run 12 miles in the rain SUCKS AND I HATE IT. 

But you know what I hate even more? The idea of never getting any better. 

So I did it. 

And earlier in the week I saw this baby raccoon hanging out by Woodford County Middle School while doing a "hilly" run. He's not relevant to the story. I just thought he was awesome.

If you're a consistent reader of this blog, you might recognize this as the portion where I bring the entry full circle. It's time to connect that revelation about my running to other portions of my life; specifically, that not-yet-complete nursery in which I'm currently sitting while writing this. 

I've done a lot of things in my life. But I've never taken care of a baby before. Most of the skills I've acquired over the years have to do with me, and me alone. I'm a good runner, which is almost strictly a solitary sport. I'm a darn good video game player; again, mostly solo. I've read loads of books and seen lots of shows and done a whole lot of things that revolve around ME. 

Then, after getting divorced, I remarried to a woman who understands me as no one else ever has. Of course, I already had a little insight into marriage, even if my last one went down in bigger flames than the Hindenburg. At least I had a frame of reference to begin learning how to be a real husband. 

Over the last few years, I've learned a lot about being a dad. It's been the most amazing, worthwhile transformation I could ever experience. I feel a lot of the rough edges of my personality wearing away as old, selfish Graham starts to become a thing of the past. Good riddance. 

Coming this October, I'm going to be flying blind when a baby comes into my life. 

The Graham I am now, I haven't been for very long. This Graham is the best version of Graham that has ever existed. I've worked out everything this Graham has to do on a daily basis, as a husband and father and teacher and Christian and runner. Though he's still got a lot to learn regarding these various roles, he's got the basics covered. I get this Graham. 

But, like with my running, this Graham has to change. Because staying stagnant, not preparing for what's coming, isn't an option. If I'm going to become the person Ellie Kate needs, I've got do exactly what I said above: wake up earlier, go a little longer, push a little harder, give a little more effort. And then, next time, give a little more. And the time after that, a little more. 

And, OH MY GOSH, does it analogy apply to my spiritual walk! It's like the Holy Spirit only reveals things to me when I can slap to an analogy that my super-dense, completely-unable-to-discern brain can understand. How often do I get stuck in spiritual limbo, comfortable with my relationship with Christ? I read a story or book in the Bible, or hear a sermon, or go on a mission trip or a retreat... then I let those affect me, make me strive to follow Christ harder, awaken a need for more of Him... and then I sit on that happy feeling. Because the feeling is comfortable. It's easy. It's something I know. 

But staying where we are, especially in our relationship with God, is never an option. Heck, it's not even POSSIBLE. Every moment I'm not seeking to grow closer to God, I'm slipping away, distracted by the cares and stresses and responsibilities of this world. 

Shannon L. Alder once said, "Life happens one step outside of your comfort zone." And I couldn't agree more. But I want to take it a step further: life happens when you keep taking one step out of your comfort zone. Because one little step is good; but your comfort zone quickly expands to encompass that step. And then you're back in your comfort zone. Which is why I have to take another step. And another. And another. 

The REAL race is always staying one step ahead of your comfort zone. 

Or, in my case, one mile.  

Monday, June 13, 2016

Mastering the Mountain, *OR* You CAN go home again

Summer is upon us.

Okay, those of you already raising your hands, ready to tout, "But the first day of summer is the Summer Solstice, which isn't until the June 21st!"... shut up. It was in the mid 90's last weekend. The sun rises before 6:00AM and doesn't set until 9:30PM. It's officially summer.

Summer has always been sacred to me, ever since I was a kid. I'd be lying if I said it wasn't a prime motivating factor (okay, THE prime motivating factor) in my decision to become a teacher. But one thing that bums me out, as a runner, is the lack of summer races. Spring and fall are prime race season, because the weather is just mild enough to run a dozen miles without passing out or dying from heat stroke. Simply because of lack of opportunity, I'd never run a race in summer.

Until last weekend.

When the spring race season ended, I found myself without any running opportunities to look forward to until fall. Until I was clued into the Hatfield & McCoy Marathon and Half Marathon by a really cool guy named Alex Batausa.

Some background information: In case we've never met, I am from Eastern Kentucky; the heart of coal mining country. My wife Hillary and I both are, actually; we even went to the same high school, although she was way out of my league back then (she's still way out of my league, although she hasn't realized it yet). My parents still live and work there. It's a beautiful area, with lots of industry and tourism potential. Eastern Kentucky and western West Virginia are famous (infamous?) for the Hatfield & McCoy Feud, which, according to legend, was started when a member of one family stole a pig from a member of the other family. Given the price of organic, free-range pork these days, I can understand the animosity!

Alex is the president of the Tug Valley Road Runners Club, an organization in east Ky and west WV dedicated to helping runners come together, lift each other up, and, most importantly, run! He posted about the race in the Facebook group Runners Helping Runners, and my interest was piqued.

But I has my reservations. Because, as any runner knows, the bane of a runner's existence are hills. And this area doesn't just have hills; it has MOUNTAINS. The Hatfield & McCoy course runs right through the heart of the Appalachian Mountains. The race I was interested in was literally named the Blackberry Mountain Half Marathon, which included a mountain climb that makes the Boston Marathon's Heartbreak Hill look like a speed bump.

When "Note: Elevation change is significant" is written in bold, it's time to pay attention. 

But this was my last chance to run a real race before September. And it was a half held in my home town. Not to mention that I knew the course by heart, having driven it countless times with my parents (in fact, it nearly passes my grandparents' house). How could I NOT run it?

And, as there often is when it comes to my running, there was the family aspect.

Further background information for first-time readers of my blog: Our younger daughter, Zoe, was born with Spina Bifida. She's had several surgeries in her five years on this planet, and is scheduled for another later this week. The surgery will leave her feet in casts for at least three weeks, which will, of course, put a damper on summer fun for her because she won't be able get the casts wet. It's terribly unfortunate, but it's what needs to be done for her development.

Silver lining: the surgery date could not have come at a better time. It allowed us one last weekend to take the girls to visit my parents in eastern Kentucky during which Zoe could swim before her surgery. And it was the same weekend as the H&M half marathon.

And a weekend to trash Granddad and Grandmom's house. 

Hillary drove me to the starting line the morning of the race, because no one else wanted to get out of bed. Everyone wants to be your friend, until you have to wake up at six in the morning on summer vacation. That's when you find out who your true friends are. :P 

Taken by my wife, after she dropped me off at the start line. 

Appalachia sometimes gets a bad rep. It's the source of some really cruel stereotypes, most of which are completely unfounded. But I still maintain that its one of the most beautiful areas of the country, and home to some of the kindest people I've ever had the pleasure to meet. And this race only served to reinforce that belief. 

I'd never before started a race to a LITERAL starter's pistol, but race volunteers dressed in Hatfield/McCoy costumes fired into the air to send us on our way (Okay, it was actually a starer's rifle, but still really cool). 

As I mentioned before, I was a little nervous about running this race because of the change in elevation. And because my last race, the Flying Pig Marathon in Cincinnati, went really poorly because of lack of planning and training on my part. So I paid much closer attention to my training for this race. 

- More sleep the night before 
- No running the week before the race 
- Eat lots and lots of carbohydrates the night before 
- Drink more water along the course 
- Eat something for breakfast pre-race 

I love running, and I love experiments, but I had no idea if (or how much) each of these variables would affect my running. So I simply tried them all and hoped for the best. 

It was interesting, running  past scenery that was almost unchanged since my childhood. I passed a park where my old Boy Scout troop used to camp. A road where my high school chemistry teacher used to (and may still) live. A second-hand store where my parents had once bought a vintage table, which had sat in my first house for years. 

And, of course, Blackberry Mountain. 

Confession time. I didn't run the entire height of the mountain. I walked more than a portion uphill, and even a portion downhill (contrary to popular belief, downhill running is almost as difficult as uphill running, because of the extreme strain on knees and ankles). But, even so, I gave the race everything I had, passed from Kentucky into West Virginia, and crossed the finish line. 

I didn't enter the race expecting a personal record. I just wanted to have fun, see some interesting sights, and get a cool medal that looks like a mason jar. I especially wasn't expecting a stellar time since I had to make an... ahem... emergency port-o-potty transaction around mile 10. 

Free Gatorade is the real motivator. 

But then, what to my wondering eyes should appear: my FIRST EVER PLACEMENT IN A RACE!  

You can't tell from the picture, but that's the top of a one-quart mason jar. 

Yes, it was a small race (there were probably between 400 and 500 Blackberry Mountain Half participants), but I was extremely proud of myself. I might have actually done BETTER, were it not for my pesky intestinal distress. 

If I had to go back and chance anything about my training or race preparation, I'd have worn my over-the-calf compression socks. Blackberry Mountain sort of wrecked my calves, and more support could have made the difference. That, and I'll figure out a food/drink regiment to keep my stomach from staging a coupe in the middle of the race. 

I think I also owe a lot of the success to the organizers of the Hatfield & McCoy marathon weekend. They provided a fun atmosphere in a beautiful area of the country. There were plenty of hydration stations along the course (completely necessary, for the level of humidity as the race progressed), and lots of spectators and volunteers dressed up in costume to make the race feel as authentic as possible. 

I've often thought about organizing a race myself, one day, but the insanity of my life right now (full-time teacher, dad of two girls, soon to be dad of THREE girls) currently has my hands tied. Not to mention that I wouldn't even know where to start such a thing. I guess that's why there are people smarter than me at such things who put everything together, so people like me can run and sweat and laugh and goof off to our heart's content.  

If you organize such an event, be sure to include costumed participants. And mason jars. Mason jars are cool. 

It was a long, tiring weekend. But it was a GOOD weekend. I managed to squeeze in one last race before fall, the girls got to go swimming one last time before Zoe's surgery, and we all got to spend valuable time with family, which was the best reward. All without a single sunburn. 

Two tired kids = peaceful trip home for Mom and Dad 

I've said it before, and I'll say it again: I'm pretty much the most blessed man on the face of the planet. To have spent such an amazing weekend with my family, to invest in an area of Kentucky that will always feel like home, and to have the opportunity to do it again once we make it through Zoe's heel cord release surgery... I've been dealt a hand far greater than I deserve. 

Pray for us this week, reader, and especially pray for Zoe. The people at Cincinnati Children's Hospital are awesome, but parents always worry. 

God is good. All the time. 

Thursday, May 26, 2016

"Outnumbered" OR "Blessed Beyond Measure"

If you're a regular follower of this blog, then you know that me and Hillary are officially expecting our third child (our first child together) in October. In case you haven't heard that story, feel free to check out the post previous to this one. It was quite a journey to make it to this point.

Even though the big secret was revealed to the whole world, there was still another secret that far fewer people were privy to:

Boy or Girl? 

Only a select few people knew. Not even Hillary and I; we arranged with Hillary's doctor to seal the identity of the gender in an envelope, which we delivered to Hillary's mother, Teresa, and Hillary's brother's girlfriend, Mohini. The two of them had volunteered to throw us a gender reveal party as soon as they heard we had a baby on the way. 

It was almost a month between the big Facebook pregnancy reveal and the gender reveal party. And in that time, Hillary researched (and practiced) every old wives' tale she could find about determining the baby's gender.  

What she considered the most important tell was the baby's heartbeat. Using a home fetal doppler, she found (and still finds) the baby's heartbeat at least once a day. According to the doppler, the baby has a heart rate of around 150 bpm. And, according to whatever nebulous place on the internet where one finds such information, a heart rate that slow indicated a boy. 

Hillary was also incredibly nauseous for the entire first trimester. And, according to a friend of ours who experienced the same symptoms, those are symptoms of being pregnant with a boy (the friend in question had, appropriate to her theory, given birth to a boy). 

When the gender reveal party finally arrived, Hillary and I were treated to an amazing surprise: a volcano. 

We were to pour baking soda into the volcano, and watch as lava streamed out the top. The color of the lava would indicate the baby's gender. 

Volcanos are messy, so we took it outside. And there, in our front yard, we saw it. 

PINK lava. 

Honesty time. And yes, I realize that's pretty much all the time with me, especially when I post my thoughts and exercises and whatever else on the internet for all to read. But time to lay out the truth like a fitted sheet. Because that's the thing with the truth: it looks easy, but most of the time it's corners have elastic in them and you can't get them around the mattress without someone's help. 

I was a little disappointed. 

Don't get me wrong; I am absolutely thrilled that me and Hillary are going to bring this little girl into the world. I consider myself the luckiest man in the world (eat your heart out, Lou Gehrig), that I not only get to raise this child of mine, but the two beautiful, wonderful girls that God decided to bring into my life. And I could not ask for a more supportive, hard-working, and loving woman to call my wife through it all. 

But, even so... I sort of wanted a son. And I don't think there's anything wrong with that.  

Maybe it's something hard-wired into the DNA of a man, to want a smaller version of you running around behind you, learning all the things you learned, from you, watching him grow and wondering what kind of man he's going to be. And, of course, there's the patriarchal desire to continue passing your name to your descendants. As if I was a Game of Thrones character looking to extend my family bloodline. 

By that evening, when all our friends had gone home and Hillary and I had put our two current girls to bed, the shock of seeing the pink lava had worn off. And I'd had time to consider what I'd been telling people for weeks, who'd been asking the ubiquitous question, "What do you want your baby to be?" 

"Healthy," I'd said. 

And, by God, I am sticking by it. 

This child is the child that Hillary and I prayed for, the one we'd spend month after month trying for, mourning for, and placing all our hopes and dreams in. After losing the pregnancy in October (see last blog post), all we wanted was a happy, healthy baby together. The way I look at it, God has a lot more experience in choosing the perfect children for their parents, and I haven't heard an instance yet of Him getting it wrong. She is our child, our gift from God, exactly as He has intended her. The gender He's picked is good enough for Him, so it's certainly good enough for me. 

Last weekend, Hillary and I got to attended two weddings on the same day; one in the early afternoon, and one in the evening, one-hundred-and-fifty miles apart. It made for a lot of driving, but we got to see our beautiful girls drop flower petals just before a bride made the walk to meet her groom. 

No, really, I'm not crying. There's just something in my eye. 

And then, as I gradually stretched the truth of the matter around my mattress of life, I began to realize  the full weight of what it meant to have the unparalleled honor of being a father to three daughters. 

One day, I will be the guy walking a girl down the aisle to meet her groom. 

And I'm going to get to do it three times. 

There are going to be, at fewest, six prom dresses these girls are going to be fitted for, which I'm going to object to because of the (in my eyes) scandalous amount of skin they show, but for which I'll eventually give in at the girls' insistence, because I'm their dad and I'm already wrapped around their little fingers. 

Boys galore are going to be brought to our house, and I'm going to feel like almost all of them are not good enough for my girls. I'm going to ruthlessly create lists of all the qualities I don't like in them, but I'm going to keep (most of them) to myself because I want to trust their judgment. And besides, everyone knows telling a teenage girl she CAN'T date a certain boy only makes her want to date him even more. 

I'm also going to learn how to disassemble a gun on the kitchen table, clean it, and meticulously reassemble it. Just in case. 

There are going to be sleep-overs, make-overs, tea parties, wrestling matches, games of tag and hide-and-seek and video game marathons, sword fights and scary stories and campfires and s'mores. And it's all because God decided to bless me with three little girls. 

Yes, I'm hopelessly outnumbered. But this is exactly how God intended it. So I wouldn't have it any other way. 

Seeing how grown-up Faith and Zoe already are, and how fast they're growing up, I barely held it together as the wedding progressed. And as much as I can't wait for our new baby to arrive, I want to revel in this magical time of not knowing, of simply wondering and waiting and hoping. 

Oh, and if you're wondering, the baby is completely healthy. 

See you in October, Elliot Katherine Smith.