I’m up before the alarm goes off at 6 am. A quiet drone is humming in my brain. Persistent, murmuring reminders of my old, tired body, and the late night indulging in the spiritual practice of good spirits. I throw on clothes and head to CVS for the essentials: contact lens solution, bug spray, granola bar, and then the biggest coffee possible from my favorite patron saint of all time who looks after the bleary-eyed: St. Arbucks. I keep looking at the sky — clouds hang dark and heavy, low like a blanket reminding me of the warmth of the bed I left this morning.
Thirty minutes later I am at Mike’s Dance Barn standing in line to pick up my bib number for the Dance with Dirt 10K in Gnawbone, Indiana. The panic I felt about being late dissipates quickly as I see that there are not that many cars there. I begin to wonder if this was a bad idea, but the parking lot fills up quickly as I sit and finish my coffee and lace up my shoes. Slowly. Methodically. Almost as if I’m giving myself time to run away. What am I doing?! I haven’t run anything since starting to train for a half-marathon in 2012, but then Ozzie, my surprise third-born, decided to show up insisting that he make himself known to the world.
I step out of the car to head to the portable johns. The sky opens up and I’m drenched to the core. I’m gasping for air and flash back to the first time I swam in the ocean and was ambushed by the undercurrent; I tried to fight it and wondered if I would lose and be tossed out to the sea and no one would know because I was getting swept into its hurricane. Even though I love the beauty and power of those open waters, I still always prefer mountains to oceans. There’s something about water, drowning, and those waves.
I don’t bother running to the shelter as everyone else around me sprints to take cover. I figure, This is just the beginning. Might as well get used to it.
About a half hour into the 10K I’m covered head-to-toe in mud. The torrential downpour that lasted barely 15 minutes has turned everything into a swamp. This was not what I expected when I signed up two months ago. At the time, I thought, “Trail race? It’ll be tranquil, sunlight streaming through the trees, and I’ll run with birds and deer, and have a babbling brook marking the course.”
About two miles in we come to a dead stop. The pack I’d been in for the first two miles of the course has stopped to look for the little white flags and ribbons telling us where to go and turn on the trail. We are scattering a bit like sheep, looking everywhere, backtracking, running ahead, running through the trees. Half the group eventually decides to go back up the insanely horrible hill we just stumbled down, and the other half goes towards the road in front of us.
I hesitate, with a few others, and we look at each briefly before choosing the road. The silent but mutual decision forces us into a camaraderie. So we introduce ourselves. Small talk. I’m Mihee. I’m Abby. I’m Heather. Do you go to Penn State? How long have you been in Bloomington? Is this your first time doing DWD? I remember seeing that house. Look, there’s an aid station there. There’s a volunteer. I see people.
We cut through a field of high grass hoping that this hasn’t totally cut into our mileage and time only to find out it added about a quarter mile and 25 minutes, and now we have to climb up that old ski hill.
I can’t remember the last time I experienced such a high. I’m laughing, talking, and making jokes. We’re cheering for each other. We’re waiting for each other. We’re talking about life, marriage, and jobs, and I’m thinking: “Why isn’t church like this more? People covered in mud and grime and nobody cares.”
In fact, we are encouraging it. It’s like the ultimate equalizer. One trail, all stains. The remnant of the pack has dwindled to just four of us and we are a diaspora of sorts, embodying the struggle and journey together, embodying the dissonance of dirt and sunlight, broken down but finding the energy and strength in our being together, embodying Emmanuel, embodying faith, embodying hope and possibility even as we toil up this ravine, as we fight tooth and nail to climb over felled trees, as we counter and resist everything that says, No way you’re going to do it, even from the ones you love and the ones who don’t mean it in a terrible way, but in a passing way, really it’s okay, because uphills and obstacles and challenges are good.
They mold and shape, and in the end there might not be a real story with a beginning and an ending, but just images and feelings, sacraments of bagels and beer, hugs with intimate strangers, water and more baptisms through creeks waist-high, water and wind, a dimly lit table with silverware and bourbon or pizza and beer on a picnic table, so that when people ask #whychurch, you can say with conviction, with the scars and bruises and black toes from toenails that have fallen off: Because being together matters. Being together makes the journey worthwhile.