Which of you shall have a friend, and shall go unto him at midnight, and say unto him, Friend, lend me three loaves for a friend of mine in his journey is come to me, and I have nothing to set before him? And he from within shall answer and say, Trouble me not: the door is now shut, and my children are with me in bed; I cannot rise and give thee. I say unto you, Though he will not rise and give him, because he is his friend, yet because of his importunity he will rise and give him as many as he needeth.–Gospel of Luke
What entangled paths! What presumption: to think of leaving you for something better. Turning, returning, backwards, sideways, ahead: obstructions everywhere. You, the only way out. And there you are, nearby! You rescue the miserably confused and set us on your path. You comfort me, saying: “Run, I will bring you. I will guide you. I will bring you there.” --St. Augustine, Confessions
At 3:50AM, someone knocked at our front door. We waited for them to give up and scam for their three loaves elsewhere. They kept knocking. “Trouble me not. the door is now shut,” locked for good reason, I could have shouted but kept still. There was a pause of a few minutes but then the knocking resumed.
I “will not rise and give to you, because you are my friend, yet because of your importunity I will rise” and ask, with hostile voice, what you want.
A woman’s voice: “…leave my baby… Kay.”
Leave a baby! “There is no Kay in this house,” I am about to say, then recognize this as the nickname non-family use for my daughter. I wake her and tell her. She leaps out of bed and runs to open the door. She had forgotten that she was to take care of the baby so that the mother could meet her work schedule.
Good Christian that I am and it being mid-Advent, I might have stayed up to watch and pray, starting with the thought of a baby being brought to our home in cold, dark night—by a woman named Mary! I could have watched the darkness turn to the “light of dawn” that Ukyeye, our daughter’s name, refers to.
Poor Christian that I am, I went back to bed.
But I could not sleep. My thoughts soon turned from what had just happened to what could happen in four days. I saw myself stumbling in the night. Muscles seizing up, calories depleted, hypothermia setting in. My headlamp revealed dark trees, blowdowns and rocks projecting from eroded cliffs. I had lost the path. I tripped over a tree root and fell.
The vision reflected my doubts and fears about the Lookout Mountain 50-mile trail run in four days. It was only my second run of this distance, my training for it was considerably less than for the first one, this course would be tougher elevation-wise, I was uncertain about how my body would hold up and imagined long-term damage and consequences for my family as well as for myself.
All elements of my vision did become a part of the trail race. I began stumbling over roots after 35 miles, my hardest fall just two miles from the finish line when I slipped on mud and whammed my ribs. I lost the trail twice in the dark. But there was a key element of the race that had not been in the vision: people offering help along the way. Volunteers at the safety stations every 7 miles assured we had drink and food. Two of my hardest falls came as I was coming up on a runner ahead of me. Each one heard me go down—and each turned back to help me up. The last 12 miles, from late afternoon into the dark, my daughter Kayitesi accompanied me.
Throughout our first four miles together, Kayitesi’s delight in the beauty of the Way checked the haze of fatigue that had been obscuring my appreciation of it. With elfin lightness and humor, she would dash ahead through a stand of pines, stand by the gleaming waters of Rock Creek, angle off to the edge of Eagle Cliff to look over miles of Chattanooga Valley, turn back for glimpses of the sun setting through the trees behind us, catch up to watch as I used the ropes to aid in the steep descent to Lulu Lake, and view the 100’ waterfall in the last of the daylight.
In the dark, she stayed close for my sake. Her headlamp shone brighter and her eyes were brighter: mine, drying up, made it seem like the lenses in my glasses were heavily smeared (I’ll carry eye-drops on my next ultra). It was hard for me to discern between shadows and tree roots or stones so Kayitesi would go in front, calling out obstacles and which side of the path to take: “This way, papa! No—“ my understanding of her words and hand signals blurring like my eyesight, I veered to the right where she told me to keep left, “--this way!” A sigh at my stumbling.
Soon after the fall knocking the breath out of me and bruising my ribs, less than two miles from the finish, we came to a division in the muddy road, neither way having the small reflector flags spiked into the ground to indicate turns. Others were following us. We yelled back to them to look for the turn. After a few minutes, the one furthest back yelled that he found it and we followed him, seeing that the reflectors had been knocked askew by the feet of earlier runners. The one who found the turn and led us for a half mile lost the trail in a soggy stretch of brush, rhododendron, and alders. We floundered, then spread out until I spotted another cluster of reflectors thirty degrees to the right of where we had been heading. A light shone brightly ahead: a volunteer assured us that there were only a few hundred yards left. We finished in joy.
All elements of my nightmarish vision were realized in the run. But a key element of the run was absent in the nightmare: the presence of others, reflections of the divine saying “Run. I will bring you. I will guide you. I will bring you there.”
The one who helped me the most had sprained her ankle only a week before, on part of the course that I had run in the morning. It pained her, I would learn later, as she ran, like the nail-pierced foot may have pained the one who leapt into the clouds, providing light for those on entangled paths.
Trails we follow,