Everyone who knows me knows I hate to run.
And I don’t mean hate the way other people do when they say, “Oh, I hate it too,” and then bust out 7 miles and barely break a sweat.
I’m talking about hate in the way Italian women hate carb-free diets or toddlers hate nap time. I’m talking about real, horrible hatred.
I’ve been a horrible runner since the moment I could move my legs. And for some reason, God has always placed me in friendships with people who are spectacular at running and sports and hiking and all those things people do in cleats or Chacos (sick).
Cardio routines? I can kill them. Dance classes? It’s like I didn’t see an hour go by. Resistance training? I actually enjoy it.
But running? About half a mile in, I’m wheezing like a 90 year old cat with emphysema.
So I decided to not be a 90 year old cat anymore and go for a run today.
Okay fine, a light jog. But a start is a start and I did it. Let me tell you what happened.
Laces tied and dark, semi-athletic clothes on, I head down Urban Avenue and make it down the four blocks that land me on Duke East’s campus. There’s a dirt track that encircles all of East Campus and the runners are out in their neons. Apart from all the highlighters, everything outside is gorgeous.
I pass Smiley Sue. I don’t know her real name, but every time I take a walk outside (now walks I love), I see her. She’s usually sporting a high pony, decked out in neon with a smile as bright as her shorts. And she’s smiling at the trees and me and everyone she passes by. Even the squirrels. Why?
Because she was made to run. She loves it, annoyingly so to people like me. And I was apparently made to make her feel better because I’m always walking when she’s running.
I know Smiley Sue thinks I’m a light weight, and I don’t judge her for it.
Because I am.
Thus, the running today.
As I pass, jogging this time, Smiley’s eyebrows go up slightly and then quickly return to normal. My inner monologue goes off.
Yes, Smiley. I’m running today. Take a photo why don’t you. I could do it because I’m actually decent at taking pictures and putting words on paper sometimes. But you’ll never know. Because we only see each other on your turf.
I trip a little as my awkward gate and sputtery pace interrupt my thoughts. When I return to my right mind, I realize the millisecond interaction with Smiley has clearly ended, since the only person I’m silently talking to is myself.
I keep my pace for a few minutes until I see a little boy, 6 or 7, bending from side to side. While he stretches, he spots me and his mouth curls up on both sides and beams a bright smile with a missing tooth.
What’s with all the smiling today?
I’m getting out of breath, already, but flash him a quick half-hearted smile just to return the favor. Who doesn’t smile at a kid with a missing tooth? I name him Mikey the Missing Tooth Kid.
My lungs are angry. I look down at them and tell them I understand the feeling and I’m sorry, but we have to keep going.
And then there it is. A bright orange sign telling me the road is closed for a section, with little flags marking out a detour in the rough, high grass.
Seriously, Duke? On my first day trying to run? I’m not a cross-country athlete.
I think about calling them to get some answers as to why this road is closed, but I decide that will probably take too long and I’m starting to smell something in the air that worries me. I can’t quite put my finger on what it is yet.
I stomp my way through the rough until I find the road again. I think a very large cricket has hopped a ride on my leg, but I’m so out of breath I don’t care.
An acute gust of wind rustles the trees and my face. I look up and took a deep breath, and finally identify that smell: a storm approaching. The other runners seem elated to feel its coolness, but any rudimentary southerner knows the difference in a basic breeze and the breezes that are nature’s way of warning you of the impending monsoon heading your direction. Duke students are from all over, and I could tell a lot of them, though geniuses they are, have no category for southern thunderstorm protocol.
The South Carolinian in my eyes scans the elements to calculate when the storm will break. Clouds, color, breeze velocity, light changing, amount of leaves falling….I look down at my watch and do the southern weather math in my head: we all have about 10 minutes. The neons are going to feel very sad in a few minutes. Well, at least I’m in dark colors.
I stop one more time and deeply breathe in the intoxicating atmosphere that is about to turn against me and stretch my legs slightly. Then I truck it.
I feel the first drops 9 minutes later. They are heavy.
The water pours down thick, and I think I’m really cool because I’m running in the rain, like a real, committed athlete. Until the downpouring becomes unbearable and my visual capability is seriously compromised by an endless cloud of grey steam floating from the ground. I run to the nearest oak tree for shelter, watch white-hot voltage explode across the sky, and pray to God that I don’t get electrocuted.
The tree is somewhat helpful, but not really. So once I’ve caught my breath, I look around at my options: take the dirt track that’s flooded, or sprint to the next oak. Before I decide, I realize that my husband will probably not believe I actually went for a run in the rain, so I snap a picture to document this rare occurrence, and shoot it to him to make myself feel legit.
Then I choose to run to the next oak and book it. Once under the shelter of the next tree, I scope out the next and start bee-lining from tree to tree until I find a patch of road that isn’t waterlogged.
I look down at my clothes and then up at God, wheezing at Him and gulping for air in between my scattered words.
Now I’m… a wet 90 year old cat! Was this…. thirty minute slice of the day… really the only time you could plan a storm?! Come… on!
And like He usually does in the insanity that is my prayer time, He asks me a question.
Ashley, What do you see?
Ohhhhh no. Don’t go all Fatherly-lesson on me now. I’m not one of those people who can talk while they run! And don’t act like you don’t know that—you made me!
I know He is up to something, but I don’t want anymore questions, so I try to avoid Him the rest of the way home. But, as dramatic as it sounds, my lungs are truly burning and the rain isn’t letting up. I have half the journey home ahead of me and I am seriously debating jumping the campus wall and running into the Dominos Pizza nearby just to get out of the rain and maybe just happen to come across a personal pan with extra cheese and pepperoni.
My warm and salivating pizza thoughts are suddenly interrupted by an old man. He has windbreaker pants on, soaking wet, strapped on by the world’s oldest fanny pack. His hat is dripping and he slightly passes me, looking back with the kind of comforting look only a grandpa can give.
“Come on, now,” he says over his shoulder. “You can’t give up now.”
My eyes look down at my shoes and then dart over to the Dominos, and then slowly make their way back to the eyes of the new, old stranger in front of me.
“There’s nothing special over there for you.” He must’ve seen me staring at the Dominos. My cheeks blush through the cold rain. He cackles like only old men can get away with, and slows just a bit to match my pace and block my view.
“I don’t think I’m gonna make it, but I—;“ lightning cracks across the sky and thunder as loud as a lit canon tears through our eardrums. Lightposts across the streets are flickering and one of their lanterns explodes as its light fizzles out. The rain is getting heavier and I can’t see more than 5 feet in front of me.
The old man’s wrinkled smile turns serious and his accent seems to somehow feature an even deeper southern draw. “Listen here. This storm is gonna get worse before it gets better and before long your only option will be to swim home. Now move those feet. That’s an order missy!”
I am sufficiently weirded out, but before my mind can come up with an argument, my feet override the system and obey his order. Before I know it, I am matching his pace. Through the haze, step by step, all I can see is that stupid fanny pack leading the way. As much as I hate to admit it, it is my only hope of getting out of this rainstorm. I invent a name for my weird rain-savior: Old Man Fanny.
Half way through my game of follow-the-eccentric-old-leader, God interrupts again.
What do you mean what about now?
What do you see?
I see a fanny pack on a weird old dude!
What else have you seen?
I don’t know! Rain. Orange signs. Oak trees. Tell me what Bible verse incorporates all of those because I’m blanking and, just to remind you, madder than a wet hen whose not in the mood for a Bible lesson.
Old Man Fanny finally leads me to the entrance of the track. He tips his dripping hat to wish me good luck.
“It’s time to part ways, you and me. Do you know what to do to get where you’re going?”
I catch my breath and answer him. “Yeah, I know the way home from here…. Um, thanks for your…help.”
“I didn’t ask you if you knew the way home. I asked if you knew what to do to get there.”
I stare up at God. Really? I won’t listen to you for life-lessons so you send Old Man Fanny with all the meaning-of-life stuff?
I freeze, eyes wide, expecting that question to be rhetorical and shocked that God was actually bantering with me. I let out a confusing smirk, mull it over for a second, and then tell Old Man Fanny the truth:
“Yes, I know the path to take. But, thanks to you, I also now know what to do when the path has rough terrain and unexpected twists and turns.”
“There you go.” He winks and the fanny pack fades off into the distance as he trots away. I experience one of those child-like-are-you-Santa moments and wonder where in the world that man came from and why I’ve never seen him around here.
The rain is still coming down and I have a little ways to go. Right before I take Urban Avenue back home, I hear a crying child.
I turn around, and it’s Mikey the Missing Tooth Kid. He’s in a puddle of tears. Literally. That bright smile has faded. Behind him, coming into focus, is a pair of neon shorts.
Great. Smiley Sue approaches.
Except she’s not so smiley. Her mascara is running down her face and her phone is dead from the rain.
Smiley and Mikey stand side by side, exhausted, drenched, and looking at me like I have some sort of answer. I think I about high-tailing it out of there, but Mikey needs his parents and seeing Smiley look imperfect for even five seconds makes me a little happier, even in a rainstorm. I give up on getting home anytime soon.
“My phone’s dead and I, like, still don’t know these roads,” confesses Smiley. Lightning cracks and she winces in fear. Her tears are real. She is sincerely scared.
“I dunno…where my parenfs are,” Mikey’s face is bright red and his missing tooth make his t’s sound like f’s. His head swivels back and forth, trying to scan his surroundings. “I think they went down that road…” His shaky little finger points in the opposite direction of my house. He lets out little sobs and looks up at me with big brown eyes brimming with pure fear.
Tell him what’s true, Ashley.
I kneel down and take his hand. “What’s your name?”
I look up. No way!
“Okay Mike. You’re on the right road to find them. There’s just some weather in the way, that’s all. We’ll get through it.”
His big brown eyes flicker from fear to inquisitive and then to trust.
“Let me tell you what we’re all going to do. Me and ….” I look up at Smiley, beckoning her name, half-expecting it to be Sue.
“Emily,” she answers, her smile starting to peek back into existence.
Dang. Can’t win ‘em all.
“Emily and I are going to get you to your parents. She’s really good at running, so she can lead us through the rain.”
“But wait, I don’t know where to lead us,” her eyes dart from street to street in fear and her smile quickly transforms into a quiver. “What’s the point of running when I don’t know the path to take?”
Okay, God. Enough with the loaded life-questions from random strangers.
Put it together. When you look at the three of you, what do you see?
It came to me.
“That’s why I’m here,” I said to Smiley. “I’m a horrible runner and I won’t be able to lead us, but I know these roads.”
I look again at Mikey. “I can get us on the right path, and Emily can set our pace. You just tell us what you remember as we go. We’ll make a great team, okay?”
“Okay,” he sniffles.
The thunder tears through the sky again and Mikey flinches. I rise to my feet and take his hand.
“The area he pointed to is Trinity Park, a downtown neighborhood,” I tell Smiley. “Cross Buchanon using Gloria Avenue. That will connect us to Gregson, which is central to Trinity Park. Just make sure to run on the right side. It’s a one-way street and traffic will be crazy in this storm. Let’s be as visible as we can be.”
She nods and immediately leads the high-speed charge, leaving no time for me to lag behind. I have no option but to match her pace if we’re going to get this kid to his parents.
I’ve never been more thankful for the neon shorts that I was judging an hour ago. It gives Mikey something to see through the steam and the rain, something to focus on and distract from his fear.
He gives us little clues with his shaky finger as we make our way through the Trinity Park maze, until we reach a street he recognizes.
Behind us we hear a scream. “Miiiike!!”
His parents were soaked with tears, scouring the neighborhood, and screaming his name through the rain.
They instantly spot Smiley’s neons and book it to us in super-human-scared-parent speed.
They finally reach us and Mikey’s feet lift off the ground as his dad scoops him up with a hug fit for a bear. Mikey’s missing tooth takes center stage again as his smile beams bright.
“Oh my gosh, thank you, thank you…” Mikey’s mom sobs as she wraps her arms around me without permission.
I laugh and tell her through all the air-gulping, “oh don’t thank me…. Thank Smi….Emily! She led the…. pace. We probably wouldn’t have …gotten him to you in the time we did without her.”
Smiley pipes up. “Yeah right! I had no idea where I was going. If you hadn’t been giving me directions along the way I’d be running us straight into Arizona!”
“And I pointed out a lot, too,” Mikey says proudly, smiling through his teeth.
“Yes, Mike was the key,” I say to Mike’s mom.
“Well you guys get out of the rain, and thanks again,” she says as she wipes her eyes. “We don’t know how to tell you how much this means.” She kisses Mikey and the three of them head home.
“Thanks for your help,” I say to Smiley.
“Yeah you too…I actually never got your name?”
“It’s Ashley,” I told her.
“Oh okay. I kind of hoped it was Pam something.”
“Really? Why’s that?”
“Well, you’ll probably think I’m, like, crazy. But you always seem like you’re thinking when I see you out on the track. So—ugh, this is weird; don’t hate me, but in my head—I call you Pensive Pam.”
I let out a long, honest laugh and after running back to the track, we part ways.
Ugh, she’s right, Lord. I’m Pensive Pam, aren’t I?
I towel myself off when I get inside, grab my prayer journal, and get to writing (which only proves, in fact, that I am Pensive Pam inside):
Okay, God, I get it. I know I’m not the best to try and teach, but I think I’m putting the pieces together. This path I’m on is a good path, but it’s going to have rough patches. I’m going to hit portions that make me stomp through thorns or run alongside people I wouldn’t originally choose as my running mates. But you’ve made them in ways that will sharpen the weak parts of me, and vise versa. Some seasons I’ll need a mentor, an established oak that will shelter me during uncharted territory. And in each season I’ll have to run from oak to oak, choosing established people to sit under and receive their wisdom during the storms. And other seasons, after resting and receiving, I’ll need to get on the road again. And in those seasons I need someone a little more developed than me, who can spiritually push me to keep up. I’ll need godly women to imitate, you know, fanny packs and neon shorts to run behind and learn their ways. And sometimes easier detours will be offered right in front of me—comfortable, enticing detours like Dominos. But I’ll need a spiritual mentor or running mate to force me to stay the course when those compromising opportunities seem really, really tempting. And I’ll have seasons where I’m supposed to be a leader to another person like Mikey—where I take what I’ve learned and pass it to someone who’s just starting out in the faith. You asked what I see. I see two things: one, the call to stay on the path of following Christ. And two, the call to link up with others on the path—a person who can lead me and pour into me, a person who will walk alongside me, and a person I can lead or pour into. This is the only way to get through spiritual storms. And I see one more thing: a really good God whose hand is at work behind the scenes in everyday things like rainstorms and kids with missing teeth, all to teach us spiritual lessons. If I’d only look around more often…
“Regarding the Kingdom of God, you won’t be able to say, ‘Here it is!’ or ‘It’s over there!’ For the Kingdom of God is already among you.” –Jesus in Luke 17:21
“Iron sharpens iron, just as one man sharpens another.” Proverbs 27:17
“Tell me and I forget, teach me and I may remember, involve me and I learn.” –Benjamin Franklin
“Hitch your wagon to any woman whose walk with God is stronger than yours and learn all you can. Pay the most attention during the bumpy parts.” –Kellie House
“God sent them to
… comfort all who mourn,
and provide for those who grieve—
to bestow on them a crown of beauty
instead of ashes,
the oil of joy
instead of mourning,
and a garment of praise
instead of a spirit of despair.
They will be called oaks of righteousness,
a planting of the Lord
for the display of his splendor.”