What Do Following Jesus & Training for an Ironman Have in Common? Part 6: Community

This blog is dedicated to: the incredible cycling/triathlon community in Mobile which Claude and I have the privilege of belonging, most especially to the Chickitas and the Bike Boys; our family and friends who joined us throughout IMFL’14, whether bodily present or electronically stalking us; and those who participated, either as athletes or volunteers, in IMFL ’14. You all form an inviting community!

Part 6: Community

So many good subtitles could be attached to Community, such as We Need Each Other, You Can’t Do This Alone, Lean on Me, Here for Ya! just to name a few. Despite the fact that a triathlon is an individual sport, you cannot do it alone, neither during the months of training or during the actual race.

Let’s face it, those who train with a community, as opposed to alone, just have more fun! Furthermore, it is, for sure, an extra motivator to crawl out of bed at 4:05 AM for a bike ride or drive to open water swim practice at 4:30 on Friday afternoon when you know others are waiting on you. The encouragement of training partners gets you through those workouts when your body screams “Oh no, you won’t today!”, while they remind you that training includes good days and bad days. Additionally, where we live, it’s downright dangerous to cycle alone. During our IMFL training, on some training days, a friend opted to run longer than she planned in order to see me through my long run. Other times, one friend would join me for the first hour, and another would run beside me for the final hour. Weekly emails inquired about our upcoming weekend’s scheduled long bike ride, and then group rides planned accordingly. In other words, a group of people who did NOT have to pedal 100 miles on Saturday WOULD do so to provide training encouragement for Team Warren!

(Now, if I had written this blog five days ago, this would have been a short entry, and at this point, I would have moved into the parallels of following Jesus. However, since I’m writing this blog three days after IMFL, I have some additional insights about community past the training phase into the actual race that have profoundly affected me.)

In every triathlon, regardless of the distance, a tremendous team, made up of mostly volunteers, provides all sorts support services. Some volunteers man the aid stations peppered throughout the course.  Here, in addition to verbal encouragement, athletes can get hydration, food, and even medical help. Other volunteers help with traffic flow while still others direct athletes at crucial points along the race, including pointing out dangerous sections.  Volunteers will smear sunscreen, biofreeze, or just about anything you need on almost any body part that needs it. They help you change, put on your socks, tie your shoes, mix your drink, rack your bike, fetch your bag, and fix your hair! IMFL’14 had something like 3200 athletes and more than as many volunteers.

Family, friends, and strangers line the racecourse to cheer on racers. It doesn’t matter if you’re a pro whose performance will leave spectators standing in awe or the average Joe who will barely muddle through, people yell your name (see your race number), ring cow bells, hold signs, as well as a myriad of other creative things to keep you moving forward until, and even after, the midnight finish deadline. My personal favorites were the signs advertising FREE HUGS. I enthusiastically took advantage of every one of them from the brave souls who were willing to not only touch but embrace gross, smelly athletes.

Finally, there are the athletes themselves, encouraging and helping one another along the way. I gave away my Tylenol at mile 13, and someone else shared his with me at mile 18. I met and walked for a few miles with Marcus, the man who lost his inhaler between the bike and the run. It’s funny what two “new friends” will talk about when both are simultaneously immersed in pain and fulfilling a dream. I saw athletes set aside concern for their own race times to help another one in need. Each Ironman race becomes a peculiar family to which no one but those who participated in it can truly lay claim. Our unique dysfunctional family had started the day, together, with the swim cancel disappointment, shared shivers for two and a half hours while waiting to start the bike, battled 112 miles of 20-30 MPH NNW winds (with higher gusts), and then paraded through the remainder of the day for 26.2 miles in steadily dropping temperatures. The fact that we all willingly PAID to do this is proof of our familial gene and our common need for psychiatric evaluation.

So what does training (and doing) an Ironman have in common with following Jesus when it comes to community? EVERYTHING! Or at least it should. Jesus followers should make up the ultimate model of a beautiful and attractive community. The most loving, most sacrificial, most go-the-extra-mile for your neighbor group of people. Those who serve with no agenda (except maybe acting like Jesus), without being paid, expecting nothing in return from the receiver. Giving what you have away, trusting it will somehow be provided for you if you need it later. Cheering the loudest, longest, hardest. Hugging the grossest and smelliest. Embracing and loving the fact that we ARE family…dysfunction and all.

Sadly, all too often, the church is known for just the opposite – both by those “in” the church and those “outside” of the church. We’re too busy with our to-do lists to stop and help the one who is struggling. We don’t hug strangers, especially those deemed the grossest and smelliest of our society. And all of the church hopping and church splitting and denominational backbiting looks more like a family in divorce court rather than a family plugging through the hardships together, determined to make the best of whatever comes their way.

One final thought, and perhaps, what has become the most profound to me. I was unable to finish the race. My mind was willing, but my body rebelled just after mile 19. I will forego the story, since this is already a long blog. However, below, in italics, I have included what I posted on FB the day after IMFL, if you are interested.

Consider this: my goal was to complete the race, cross the finish line, and hear, “Monica Warren, YOU ARE AN IRONMAN!” If that was the goal, then I failed. However, not one person scolded me. Not one person questioned my resolve before or during the race. Not one person told me I had not believed in myself hard enough, that I should have tried harder. Not one person told me I had not trained well enough. When I vulnerably expressed my struggle at “failing” people not only acknowledged my pain and encouraged me to grieve, but they also, gently, symbolically, placed their hands under my chin and lifted my eyes by offering TRUTH, perspective. Look at what you did accomplish! The pros even said these were unusual conditions, some of the hardest conditions they had ever raced. Take time to heal, and then try again. You are an iron woman. There was nothing you could have done. You gave it all you had. You have been an inspiration for me…. And on and on and on.

Sadly, all too often, the church is known for just the opposite – both by those “in” the church and those “outside” of the church. We identify people by their failures, whisper behind their backs when they fall short, and rebuke them for their lack of discipline. We determine someone has had more than enough second chances or they should be over “it” by now. They are not brave for making it as far as they did, but weak for coming up short. We dismiss the pain of disappointment and brush grief under the rug, because, after all, the joy of the Lord is your strength, right?

Oh, church! Jesus calls us to be the most attractive and inviting community the world has ever seen. People hunger for a place to belong…a safe family where no one is “less than” another and everyone receives the help they need. Where a “failure” becomes a badge of courage, and second chances never run out. Yes, a group of very different people. Indeed, doing things very differently. But moving in the same direction, and together, taking on what life gives them with a sense of expectation. Each unique and precious member of the community bound by a familial gene…JESUS. May. It. Be.

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Good morning FB world! (OK, why didn't I realize tears would start as soon as I sat down to say hello? I should have known better.)

First things first...I have the best family and friends in the world! I am blessed. THANK YOU for joining us along our journey, for your prayers and support. I have two more blogs in me about this journey. The final one about COMMUNITY...you. I've been working it over in my head for months. However, after yesterday, it will look a bit different. But, I am getting ahead of myself. You prayed and cheered so beautifully, faithfully, thoroughly. I wanted to say THANK YOU and I LOVE YOU, and I wanted you to know what happened. Second, I am so proud of my husband for killing that run (his biggest challenge). Claude, you've always been my Ironman, in more ways that one.

Honestly, I did not think my IMFL would "end" this way, crossing the finish line in a van at the back side to medical. Although I had concerns about being beaten up in the swim, from the very beginning, I felt my biggest challenge was the bike. Not because I had not trained for it. (Yes, Allison Blythe, Allyson Lamey, Mary F. Trufant and everyone else who said we had trained so well, listening to others talk about their training plans while shivering in transition waiting for them to release us on the bike, I "get it" now. WOW! Six 100+milers was a lot and certainly well-prepared.) Bottom line for me is that I just hurt on the bike. None-the-less, considering the 20-30 MPH very brutal NNW winds, I killed the bike before it killed me! I finished the bike behind Claude Warren IV in the amount of time I expected. It was quite a victory, both physically and emotionally, for me and my bike.

Now, to that run. I've successfully completed 3 marathons. I love running, and I love marathons! I know how to press through pain. Stopping is not an option. I knew, worse case scenario, I could walk. (Oh and walk I did!) I was so happy to be off the bike and in my running shoes. I took off with a spring in my step, a genuine smile on my face, and for the first time all day, I was finally "soaking it in" and "enjoying the day" at the advice of all my IM finisher friends. I was THRILLED (and shocked) by my starting out pace, and I felt GREAT! Then, out of nowhere, just before mile 3 "it" started. (Warning: I am about to talk about issues not discussed publicly, but this is my story. There is no way to dodge the "it", the topic of intestinal cramping and what follows, literally.) I stopped. Walked. Too a few deep breathes. "This will pass," I told myself, because "I feel GREAT!" Against my better judgment, I let the nearest set of port-of-potties come and go, a mistake I would NOT make again. The next 13 miles consisted of very brisk walking, praying for the next oasis (those pink port-of-potties), a sip of water, which changed to warm chicken broth when the sun dropped below the horizon, and a bite of banana at each mile station. Oh, and taking every person holding a sign that read "FREE HUGS" up on their offer! To my delight, and four do-nothing-Immodium later, at mile 15 for me, I ran into Claude on his last 5 miles! He can attest that, despite my "issue," I was doing GREAT! But then, at mile 17, my body started saying, "No more." The pain in my groin started getting worse, slowing me down. But that was ok. After all, I had planned to RUN 26.2 (with a little walking), not the other way around. I could and would press on. Then I started shaking uncontrollably. But it was cold. I could and would press through. I reached the aide station, and they noticed I was shaking. They gave me a jacket another racer had tossed (let's hear it for provision) and some hot chocolate. I walked on. Then right pass mile 18, the pain in my groin shot down to my knee and my leg just stopped working. I tried to make it back around to the aid station (this was the turn away point) to no avail. My body had said, "Done." So, I stood shivering uncontrollably under the portable spotlight while another athlete promised to tell them back at aid station #6 someone needed help. Sweet volunteers carried me to a chair by a fire, wrapped me in a sleeping bag, and talked to me while waiting on medical. I made them laugh between my tears. I wanted them to know how much I appreciate them, as they shivered in the cold so masochistic idiots could fulfill their dreams or put a check mark next to a bucket list entry. Volunteers rock!

I could say more, but you've endured long enough. No doubt, I will have much to process, and I few voices in my own heart and head to quiet. And, then there is the inevitable question: Will I set out to redeem the experience by signing up for another IM? If so, which one? You know me and, therefore, probably the answer to that question. But, first, I should see if I can keep breakfast.

Thank you, again, for taking the journey with us, because journeys are always better with others. Grateful beyond words...