Lillie Rodgers ran a 100-mile race that climbs and descends 15,600 feet in the Rocky Mountains. Most years, fewer than half of the runners finish the race in the 30-hour time limit. This is a story about how she met the challenge, and the people who got her across the finish line.
“If she starts crying or hyperventilating again, just hold her hand and remind her to breathe deeply.”
My husband, Patrick, sent these instructions to Tracy, the next runner who was helping me keep my pace during an ultramarathon — a 100-mile race — through the Rocky Mountains near Leadville, Colorado. Pat was spot on: ever since Hope Pass, I had been unable to get my heart rate — much less my emotions — under control. The 3,600-foot climb and descent through the pass, which is at almost 13,000 feet of elevation (done twice, I might add), failed to live up to its name. Hope Pass had stolen all of my hope for having a great first 100-mile race.
Running a 100-miler was a lifelong goal and something I had been working toward for the previous nine months. In a lot of ways, my entire life as an athlete had built to this effort. Perhaps that’s why it felt so crushing to my spirit, certainly to my ego, when after 60 strong miles of running I knew I had messed up. I had let my heart rate get too elevated for too long, I had failed to refill my water at a critical time, and I had not properly trained my gut for an endurance race of this caliber.
The consequence: I was going to spend the next 40 miles, nauseous and demoralized, watching other runners pass me by. The tears and hyperventilating that Patrick witnessed were the only coping mechanism I had; they kept me from rolling up into a ball on the side of the trail and quitting entirely.
Patrick and Tracy were just two of the 10 incredible people who comprised my “Leadville crew.” My parents had driven halfway across the country, from the flatlands to the mountains, to see me run. My sister and her husband had put a hold on moving into a new house to be there. My mother-in-law had taken precious time off of work. A friend had spent two nights sleeping in the back of her car for me, her two kiddos draped over her as blankets. For heaven’s sake, my best friend had rented a giant SUV to transport my loved ones as she chased me around the mountains that weekend. And then there were Pat, Tracy, and Taylor — the “pacers” who drew the short stick of actually accompanying me on trail, one at a time, for the last 50 miles of the race.
As I journeyed along and my suffering deepened after Hope Pass, it became all the more apparent to me just how much these wonderful crew members were suffering too. The temperature dropped to around freezing as night fell, and they struggled to keep warm as they stood around waiting for me. As my pace slowed, they waited even longer than originally anticipated. Of course they hadn’t slept either, waking up at 2:30 a.m.for the start of the race and then sacrificing sleep throughout the following night as well. On top of the cold and sleep deprivation, offering the necessary support during an ultramarathon can be stressful. They navigated crowds and traffic as they went from aid station to aid station, trying to manage their care for one another on top of their care — not to mention their worry — for me.
All in all, they were cold, tired, stressed, and — to my dismay — loving the heck out of me.
When I ran into each aid station, it was like happening upon an eccentric spa-day festival, organized by your loudest and craziest friends. They rubbed my legs and changed my shoes for me; they lathered me in anti-chafe cream and made sure I had enough layers of clothing; they watered and fed me as I tried not to puke; they offered encouraging words and held me as I cried. Even when everything had gone to hell, they loved on me as if I were a world champion.
Early in the race, I accepted this support from my crew joyfully. Things were going well, and it felt good to know they loved me enough to be there on my behalf. But as I descended into my hole of nausea and self-pity, all I wanted was for my crew to go home — to sleep, to eat, to do something more valuable with their time than follow my sorry butt around the mountains. Who, after all, would want to be a part of what, in my eyes, was a failed experience? And not only that, who would willingly choose to suffer for someone else when he or she was sucking it up with no end in sight?
As the race progressed, however, I learned that my crew wasn’t in Leadville because they wanted to help me achieve a top-five finish. They weren’t there to help me meet my goal of finishing in less than 24 hours. They were there simply because they loved me. Wrapped in blankets and shivering in the cold, they did not lament my slow pace even though it contributed to their discomfort. They accepted me as I was and loved even the terrible runner in me, the woman who opted to walk and cry instead of hustle. And my goodness, that was hard for me to swallow.
This selfless love of my crew was a reflection of a deeper reality that became apparent to me during the race: I am loved by a God who not only sticks by my side when the going gets rough, but who willingly suffers with me.
To my dismay, the love of my crew — the love of God — comes in and through suffering, and it comes freely, independent of my own efforts. Despite my achievement-oriented mode of being, my desperate desire to earn what is given to me, God operates on a different economic system. I am loved not because I am a good runner, much less a good person. Even when I am a miserable person, choosing to satisfy my desires over the needs of others, God loves me. God is love.
This is the truth that my Leadville crew revealed to me at Hope Pass. Despite my refusal of it, my self-pity, my failure to achieve what I set out to do, they stuck with me out of love because that’s what love is — it is care offered without condition, it is joining in another’s suffering. They love me just because I am. And God does, too.
I did not get what I wanted at the Leadville 100 trail race. I missed the glory and instead received a healthy dose of humiliation. Within that humiliation, though, was a gift: a reminder of who I am and who God is.
When I walked across the finish line, demoralized by the fact that I wasn’t running, my crew stood waiting for me with open arms. Did I feel worthy of their embrace? Not for a second. They hugged me anyway, undeterred by my sorry attitude and unbecoming stench. They loved me, period.
And that’s true of God, too. God is love, period. Hands open, arms outstretched, God reaches for me. All I need to do is walk into that embrace. I don’t even have to run.
That is where my ultimate hope lies, where no mountain or race, sin or success can steal it: in God’s arms instead of my own abilities.
Take that, Hope Pass.