Latvia – Country #40!

Last weekend, I traveled to Riga, Latvia for a conference. Of course, I was happy to reunite with many friends who were also in attendance and meet new people, but I was also a bit ecstatic to visit my 40th country.

It was cold (-15 C or 5 F) and for most of the time, I was comfortably indoors for meetings (ok and I found an indoor gym, there was no way I was going to brave running in that weather). When I did go out, it was usually late in the evening and not an ideal time to see the sights.

The best moments can’t really be shared on this blog, so instead I simply give you a few pictures of the snowy and cold city of Riga:

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Some friends and I had a great evening here one night. A fun place to dine if you find yourself in Riga!

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We lasted only a few minutes in this park as we were so cold, but it was beautiful!

 

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Frankfurt: The Marathon that Broke me

2015-10-24 18.02.56After a two-month running break for medical reasons following the Paris Marathon, I resumed training in early July. Even with a lot of traveling in the summer, my training went fairly well. My goal was to simply break 5 hours in Frankfurt, something I had not yet managed to do during my first four marathons.

My marathon strategy was to start out a bit faster, leaving some margin for the inevitable slower second half. Still, I treated the first 5k as a long warm-up, trying to go very easy and take it more by feel than anything else. However, when I checked my 5k split, I realized that I was a bit too slow, and if I kept that pace for the entire time, I would take the full five hours to complete the course. So I picked up my pace and clocked in at the half in 2:23. After that point, I aimed to lose as little time as possible.

Between km 25 and 35, I struggled to keep up with myself. My body was holding up, but I felt that mentally I wasn’t strong enough. I struggled to not give up on my goal but I also didn’t want to push myself to the point of misery. I focused on one kilometer at a time and tried to keep them under 7 minutes each. After km 35, I was quite confident that I would break 5 hours whether I pushed hard or not.

At 40km, I mustered whatever strength was left in me and pushed forward. It felt like a tremendous effort and although the last kilometers turned out to be my fastest, the difference wasn’t remarkable. Of course, the last kilometer was insanely long but the crowd support was fantastic and really helped me to keep pushing forward. My legs were hurting so much I didn’t know how they would hold up once I stopped, but as long as they were working for me, I didn’t cave. Finally the turn, entrance, red carpet, final push, and DONE in 4:52! I stopped my watch and started walking. To my surprise, I felt really good at this point. I didn’t feel like collapsing like I did last time. I made my way through to the refreshment area, then collected my bag, took a shower, and got in line for a massage.

Then it started. The other people in the line became blurry. My friend Johanna appeared and I saw her, but told her I was getting dizzy. Thankfully, there was water available and I quickly drank two glasses. Within minutes it was my turn for a massage. All signs pointing to a migraine, I took the migraine medication that I always keep with me. Then I laid down on the table.

At that point, my vision became blurred with zigzagged lights. I tried to relax, but I really just wanted to sink into a different space, an unconsciousness that would rescue from my current reality. The massage was soon over and we managed to leave. I was so completely fatigued and was starting to get confused, so without Johanna I would have been lost trying to get home.

I spent the rest of the day in bed, in a dark room, head spinning, hurting, throbbing, nauseated, deeply discouraged. This hadn’t happened for so long, I really didn’t expect it. And it put a huge damper on the victory of the day. In those moments, I again asked myself if it is really worth it, if I should ever lace up my running shoes again, if presently there was a way to sink into the darkness.

Finally, at around 8pm, I was stable enough to eat the food that another friend had lovingly prepared and delivered. I was even able to talk for a bit before I gave into the fatigue and returned to bed. Shortly afterward, the head pain and accompanying nausea intensified again, stronger than before, and I spent the night vomiting. At around 5am, the worst was finally over and I was able to rest peacefully for a couple of hours before I had to get up.

The next two days were fuzzy. I was more functional, but my head was foggy, my vision was glazed over and I was so tired that everything took a lot of effort. Yet I had to travel back to Paris and resume teaching during these days. The ache in my legs from covering 42.195 km was manageable (except for stairs), but it was hard to rebound from the aftermath of the migraine, which was the most violent part of the whole experience.

All I need is a week or so to forget about this experience and then I’m sure I’ll be back. To anyone who suffers from migraines, I feel your pain. I have suffered from this for most of my life, with varied intensity and frequency. I hope that one day these experiences will be memories and no longer a reality. But for now, my doctor has ordered some time off for rest and recovery.

 

Why I Run

Following my last marathon and its aftermath, some of my close friends and family members showed concern about my unwavering resolve to continue to run. “Is it worth it?” “Maybe a marathon is too much?” “When are you going to stop?” I’ve asked myself the same questions. So I guess it’s only fair that I at least try to explain, as much for them as for me.

So why do I run? I suppose there are many reasons, really. Running is healthy and fun, personal and social. I love to set goals and work toward them. There are great health benefits like having low cholesterol and an “athletic” heart. It allows me to clear my head, enjoy the great outdoors and explore new places when traveling.

And why marathons? I think it’s just my personality. If I’m going to do something, I’m going to go the distance. For years I watched the Chicago marathon pass by my apartment on a Sunday morning in October. It was those runners who first inspired me. I set my sight on something and didn’t turn back until I, too, claimed the prized finishers’ medal in Chicago.

Yet it’s true that it hasn’t always been easy. Perhaps in some ways I’m not really physically cut out to run. I’ve had so many setbacks, big and small. But then that is part of the challenge.

My life has been sprinkled with physical struggles from infancy. Hospitals are familiar to me. I’ve been to the emergency room in four countries. I’ve had more MRIs than I can count. I’ve spent at least 30 hours under general anesthesia. Since 2007, I feel like I’ve been living on borrowed time. While a lot of this is in the past, there are still ongoing health challenges that I don’t talk about much, but that continue to affect me every day. There were seasons in which I was physically unable to run. It is a gift that today I can.

So for me, running is choosing life. I don’t care how many times I’ve been knocked down along the way or ended up really sick after a run or a race. I have to get out there again. I have to fight back. Even when I was depressed to the point of shutting out the world, I still laced up my shoes and ran for hours in solitude. For me it’s a tangible way of declaring that I’m not giving up on life, no matter what happens. There is so much that I cannot control, but when I run, I feel alive. And so I choose to choose life. Day after day. And in choosing life, I am living.

We cannot control the day we are born or the day we die. Yet in-between, we have dozens of opportunities every day to choose life. Our choices in the small things—our actions, our words, the thoughts we entertain, what we worship, our priorities, how we treat our neighbor—can bring a breath of life (or the contrary) to us and to others. Running is not my ultimate hope, but it is a reminder to keep my eyes fixed on the goal, and to press forward even when life throws me some curveballs.

Friends, at least for now, running is not hurting me. It’s keeping me alive. You may see the times I fall, but I see the miles I’ve logged. You may think that marathons are extreme, but I rejoice whenever I have the physical strength to both start and finish in spite of it all. You may think that the challenges should be enough to make me stop, but I know that the only way to overcome them is to keep going. And I am overcoming, because by God’s grace today my health is so much better than it was 5 or 10 years ago.

So please don’t be concerned that I continue to run. Be concerned if one day I choose to stop.

And now, bring on the Paris Marathon!

Today is Uncomfortable

I’m a bit shaken right now. In the middle of a rehearsal with a colleague early this afternoon, I saw that my dad was calling. Usually I don’t answer my phone while rehearsing, but I felt like I needed to check in so I picked up and said, “Hi Dad, I’m in a rehearsal, but is everything ok?”

At the same time, my colleague looked at her phone and saw that her mother had called. And so we learned of the shooting that had just taken place in my very neighborhood here in Paris. Time started to slip away as we read news reports in shock. When I saw the pictures, I couldn’t believe it. This is my neighborhood of Paris, my hood. The street I so often run, bike, walk…

When we finally tried to resume rehearsing, we struggled to concentrate. Instead we spent most of our rehearsal time talking about fear, peace, life and death.

Last night I was biking home from my German class, in a bike lane, and a car nearly hit me. I yelled and they stopped just inches from where I passed. It was the closest call I’ve ever had on a bike.

On Christmas Eve, I was in Amsterdam and went with friends to a 10pm service. I didn’t understand much, but the music was beautiful and the evening peaceful. And at least I understood what we were celebrating. On the way back, I thought I saw blood on the street as we were arriving home. Later someone told us that two men had been stabbed on our street while we were at church.

I’m saddened for these lives that were lost and especially burdened for Paris today. Everyone here has been affected. Whether it was interrupted rehearsals, school lock-downs, canceled activities, gatherings of solidarity or deserted streets, we all felt it and saw the effects today in some way.

These recent situations, which have come too close for comfort, remind me of the fragility of life. In an instant everything we hold to in life could be gone. I shared with a friend today how I almost lost my life in 2007. Usually conversations about death take me back to that experience.

It’s easy to get comfortable and to not think so much about important issues of life and death. Sometimes it takes uncomfortable experiences to turn our focus from the temporal to the eternal. Indeed, it was during those days of feeling so close to eternity back in 2007 that I had such a clear focus on what is truly important in life and what is trivial. And the deep assurance that nothing can rob me of what I treasure the most:

“For I am persuaded that not even death or life,
angels or rulers,
things present or things to come, hostile powers,
height or depth, or any other created thing
will have the power to separate us
from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord! (Rom. 8:38-39)

Today is uncomfortable, but it draws my heart to what is really important. So again I claim these words. And I cling to Jesus.

Born to privilege

I have been born to privilege. In my many adventures around the world, I recognize that being a white American has its value.

I have also been born to a place of secondary value. In the subculture that I grew up in, women were considered to be second-class citizens. They existed to serve men and to remain under male dominion.

In a recent post I wrote about the women I encountered in India. I wanted so badly to communicate to them their beauty and value. I don’t know if I succeeded at all, but this experience also reflected upon my own personal journey.

Unlike me, they were born with what they understand to be a less desirable skin color. Like me, they were born as what many consider to be the less desirable sex.

Who told me that women are lesser in value than men? I can recall a few of the male voices that spoke this message in clear words, although it was more often communicated in subtle ways. The message was powerful… and hurtful.

Those voices told me that my relationship with God must be channeled through the authority of a man. That I belong to one man until he gives me to another. That if men use and abuse me, it is my fault. That women are less qualified to serve God simply because of their sex. That women cannot be trusted. That women are easily deceived and that chaos erupts when women are in leadership.

These voices were powerful, and they defined me from a very young age.

Thankfully, they were not the only voices I heard. I have a clearer recollection of the men who spoke differently into my life, and those voices were also powerful.

The voices that told me that I am a daughter of the King and that no man has the right to mistreat me. That the Lord alone is my Master and that I bow only to him. That God has created woman in his image. That women can also make an intelligent contribution to the world. That women can also be trusted and respected.

While I was in India, I distinctly recalled those first voices, coming from men born into privilege, who were all too ready to highlight their privilege while emphasizing my lack of privilege. I don’t understand. It would be like me going to these girls and saying or behaving as to say, “Well, we can’t change how we are made. I am superior, yes, but that’s just the way it is, and the best thing you can do is to serve me well so that I can thrive.” Was this not the attitude that reigned throughout the horrific history of slavery in my own country?

And yet I know that I, too, have acted and spoken in ways that have hurt others, even though I didn’t see it at the time. I see it now. And for this I am so deeply sorry.

So I understand and yet I don’t. I get what it’s like to be devalued in some ways due to the body I was born into. And yet there are others who deal with this on a daily basis in a way that I can never fully understand, simply because I have never lived even a day in their shoes. I just hope and pray that I will always be willing to listen and to grow, and that I will be an agent of change as I am also changed.