The final 6 months of Elizabeth’s pregnancy, and the transformation of the nursery, condensed into just over 3 minutes.
Timing is everything.
The irony of course being that it’s only after you realize you’ve done nothing to manage life’s significant events that they tend to yield the most serendipitous harmonies. That’s about how you could describe the events of January 19th, 2015. When the day started, Liz had begun experiencing some mild contractions. At least she thought that’s what they were, not having experienced the real deal yet. Our official due date was still 4 days out, although the baby could have come at any time. But with the plumbing and drywall repair scheduled for the morning, and the dentist appointment set for the afternoon, these uteral quirks would have to be chalked up to what they were: distractions.
The plumbing repair did go surprisingly well, given that it had all the makings of something far more serious. A long-ago rodent (or squirrel) had decided to make a nest for itself around an attic drainage pipe. While occasionally bored or hungry, it also decided to nosh on the pipe, creating cracks for condensation to collect and drip down onto the downstairs ceiling in the convening years. At least the varmint was festive about it, having packed his nest with wrapping paper and Christmas tree garland (feet and feet of it), pinched from the holiday decor stash of some previous home dweller. But with the pipe fixed and the drywall sealed and mudded up, the contractions had by now intensified and the dentist appointment had been called off. As the last bit of drywall crumb was being swept up, Liz turned to me and said, “we should probably go to the hospital.”
We scrambled about the house for an hour or two, making sure we had everything we needed, should this turn out to be the actual arrival. Sort of like going on vacation, with the added realization that the new souvenir you’d be bringing home would need constant care and feeding.
We reached the hospital by 6:30pm, the contractions now worthy of timing, and hand squeezing. But it was a popular night to have a baby, as there was no room for us in triage. So they sent us down the hall to the family waiting room. There, beneath the drone of nightly news from a nearby TV, Liz hunched over a chair, anticipating each painful wave as cow-eyed hospital visitors looked on with concern. After an hour our patience had worn thin. We marched back to inquire, but before we could protest, we were promptly ushered to a free room.
As Liz prepped, I started working through the catalog of things I was going to need to say and do over the next several hours, realizing I’ve always been pretty lousy as a coach. I only hoped the circumstances would inspire me beyond hand-patting with an occasional “there, there.” When the nurse finally came in to check conditions, she informed us, that despite the pain, Liz wasn’t dilated enough to be in “active labor.” There was no way we were going back home, so it appeared a long night was ahead. This was further confirmed when it took two nurses about 30 minutes just to get an IV drip in (her veins apparently like to roll away). As I watched the vitals on the baby monitor with a cautious optimism, I knew one way or another, those heartbeats would soon be on the other side. And yet, something about the flux of the beats (from the 160s down into the 140s) began tickling my calm.
I asked one of the nurses if I was correctly reading the monitor and she confirmed everything looked good. We were in the normal range. And yet, despite the affirmation, the numbers looked… off. Almost, as if by watching, I was willing the heartbeat downward. I tried to ignore the unease. This wasn’t the time to second-guess the process. There was far more labor and delivery left to go. But about ten minutes later, the head nurse nurse came back, herself unimpressed by the EKG readings. The baby needed to make more overtures that he was indeed planning to show up. So she had Liz move to her side. And within 30 seconds the baby’s vitals crashed. In a flash the world seemed to end.
True terror is not merely the arrival of an unfortunate circumstance. It’s when that circumstance drops onto what would have otherwise been a moment of joy. It is the unsuspecting theft of happiness, when darkness willfully and irrevocably obliterates the light for no other reason than to destroy what is good and right when it’s most fragile, and when you are the most unsuspecting. It is chaos set loose.
The nurse had Liz quickly try more positions to no avail. The heart rate continued to drop, falling under 100 beats per minute. Darkness pressed further onto our little room. There was no pivoting back to the calm of the previous moment. The nurse looked at me directly and with barely a change in her voice said “a lot of people are going to be coming in here very quickly.” I was grateful she was not panicking, but her chill, emotionless tone set my teeth on edge. This was for real. And within seconds the room flooded with other nurses and techs. My chest tightened as I retreated to a back corner of the room, pacing, praying with desperation as the monitor gasped for life. 60 beats and falling. The space between each beat like a long, cold agony. He was giving up.
“Jesus, Jesus, Jesus. Save him please. Save my baby” was about all I could choke out, as my own lungs felt like they were collapsing, every limb turning to rubber. It flashed in my brain the irony that moments earlier I had shuffled away the thought of asking the nurse if I could pray for her this evening, and here I was praying aloud for this team of strangers scrambling to save my child’s life.
Almost as soon as the crowd had rushed in, they had rushed my wife out. I trailed behind, still in prayer, feet clomping the floor in weightless futility, all but everything in front of me a blur, surreal, not even there. How could we have traveled such a hard road to get here, pushed aside all of the fear and doubt, all to lose everything within a matter of minutes? Would he survive if he was falling away so quickly? Suffer brain damage if he did?
I was given some booties for my shoes, but before I had even secured the second one, I was told I couldn’t be in the OR. Not in this case. Liz was being put under general anesthetic and there was no time for me. I would have to wait. Out here. In the sterile and quiet hallway. I was quickly abandoned at a small computer station. I collapsed onto the chair and looked down at my trembling hands. In each, a cell phone – Liz’s and mine. I had sent a happy text to a group of family and friends earlier in the evening to let them know we were here and in process. Now I needed their prayers. I opened the text app on Liz’s phone and desperately tried to type out a message. Most of it was legible, but I discovered it is nearly impossible to text a clean message when you’re in meltdown. Thankfully it was understood and replies came in that people were praying. “Without ceasing” one friend texted back.
I had time to call one person – for whatever reason, the one man who popped into my head was my boss, Adam She. Something within told me “Adam first”. He answered and I had barely enough time to tell him what was happening. He would pray. I had to go. It was 9:33pm.
I was taken by another nurse to a recovery room, presently being vacated by a happy mother and father with their newborn. I slumped into another chair, tears streaming down my cheeks. I wonder what they must have thought, if they thought of me at all. They were brimming with quiet joy, mother with baby in her arms being wheeled out by a nurse, the proud father alongside. The reality of a thousand and one parents this very moment across the state. Not me.
I looked down at the cell phones again, the stupid booties on my shoes. As I thought through the worst of it, I realized the next nurse to come through those doors was going to have one of two expressions, that in an instant I would know from her body language what the truth was. In silence I spoke to God and I simply let it go. A pastor’s story from 20 years back dotted my memory. He had experienced a similar birth-related complication for his daughter and in his most desperate moment had felt the overwhelming peace of God that “surpasses all comprehension.” Rarely experienced, and yet, here it was. It didn’t blot out the pain. It wouldn’t preclude any tears to come, but it flowed over me. He was still worthy of all praise, no matter what came of this. I would live my life in thanksgiving regardless. If I had to lose my only child, my firstborn son, then God’s grace and holiness were more than enough to fill the void. It is the peculiarity of faith—that in the face of true terror, light will still flicker in the darkness for those with eyes willing to see. Even if it’s a light we had not expected. Even if the hope of it is dim.
Within moments the doors flung open and the nurse who had admitted us rushed in, tears in her eyes… a weary smile on her face. He was here, and crying. Liz was fine. We were finally a family. Ten minutes after that they handed my son to me—a rare occurrence that the father would be the first to hold the newborn, as Liz wouldn’t come out of the anesthetic for another 30 minutes. He was a tiny red faced burrito, still a little frustrated looking for having his evening so rudely interrupted with being born. I took this photo in that moment.
Timing is everything. Looking back on that day, it’s amazing to think that so many pieces of it happened in just the right way, at just the right moment. As I survey the past year, all of the previous moments that led to this one also had their own purpose. Maybe not as perfectly timed as a movie, but story-worthy nonetheless. Even the terror of this evening had been given its place – allowed to happen so that God might vanquish it when I was powerless enough to let Him. He rescued our son through the hands of a team of doctors and nurses who didn’t hesitate to act for a second. And more importantly, God had shown us that indeed, the darkness would not prevail.
It seems a universal that our prayers in the moment of rescue are never quite as fervent as the ones we pray to be saved. I was no exception in that moment. But the waves of thankfulness broke over me again and again over the next several days, especially as I recounted the events of that night.
Gabriel James Hansen arrived with much fanfare on January 19th, 2015 at 9:40pm. 7lbs, 6oz. of miracle. He was given back to us after I had given him up to God. I only pray we can remember to hold him with the same fluid grasp for the rest of our lives.
It’s official. The Hansens are homeowners!
We had intended to save up and pay cash for our first home. We got quite a distance down the road, but the sudden jump in the housing market made us decide to jump, too. And now we’re fully responsible for .62 lovely wooded acres.
Our rocking chair front porch still needs a rocking chair. Or at least a porch swing.
Enter! On the left, you’ll see our dining room. Which doubles as a book and music room. You can never have too many of those.
The kitchen has a handy tile floor. Dark tile. Meaning that it hides schmutz with aplomb.
Every good kitchen sink needs a window. Sadly, our downstairs windows were all carefully caulked shut by the previous owner for purposes of energy efficiency. Replacement windows are high on the rapidly growing list of House Projects. (At least we can see good neighbors through our inoperable windows.)
Also, we now live in a home where the microwave is no longer three inches above my head. This is a Good Thing.
A handy bay window in the kitchen for our dueling Macs. Bay windows in both front rooms, as well.
Apparently, the bay windows ran out when the builder reached the living room in the back. But we’ll forgive him for the sake of the wood burning fireplace. Now if we can only survive the remaining four months of Georgia summer…
Come on upstairs. It’s worth it for the books. First time in my adult life I’ve been able to shelve every single book!
And last, but not least, our beautifully open, fenced back yard. Nina approves. She’s already terrorized the squirrels, and holds a regular stake out at the small hole into the next backyard where lives a most interesting coon hound.
Speaking of Nina, she’s not a fan of the hardwood floors downstairs. They provide a significant lack of traction, resulting in an animated running-in-place effect when she gets excited.
Apparently, we need rugs.
Apparently, we need a lot of things. We’ve been making Lowe’s and Ikea very happy.
And YOU will make us very happy should you choose to visit. We have a handy guest room. Nina has claimed it as her own, but we promise to de-fur it before your arrival.
Autumn is hands down (and thumbs up?) our favorite season of the year. Especially in Georgia, where summer seems to set in by the end of April and squeeze us in a humid death grip through September.
Fall is when our fuzzy dog doesn’t go through insta-wilt every time we step outside.
Fall is when when my pyro-husband can exercise his fire-making skills.
Fall is our anniversary.
And this, year — year 5! — we wanted to savor our fall with every possible chance.
CASE FILE 1: In Which We Climb a Mountain, Are Rained Upon, and Nearly Lose a Dog in the Adirondacks
New England fall color is legendary. And as we’d never been to Boston in the fall (a la the Pirates Who Don’t Do Anything), well, we didn’t go to Boston. But we did drive all the way up into the Adirondacks, visiting Dave’s family in Pennsylvania on the way. That’s twenty hours, folks. Each way. And we were still married at the end of it! Though it rained on us almost our entire time there, the color was indeed breathtaking…
Low clouds, mist and all…
…None of which stopped us from climbing Whiteface. A mountain. A Very Tall mountain.
My husband claims he does not photograph well. My husband is wrong.
Four miles of near vertical scramble…
Our crazy dog.
A short time before she disappeared into the wilds of the mountain.
Two thousand miles from home.
With no one else around.
Just as the downpour started.
For thirty Very Long minutes.
She returned, guilt plastered all over her face.
She stayed home the next day.
While we went in search of maple syrup…
Tea (for Dave) and coffee (for me) overlooking Lake Placid. We are a mixed marriage.
Lake Placid in the mist. There are mountains back there somewhere…
CASE FILE 2: In Which We Go Camping with Bears
Dave and I love to hike — but we also aren’t hard-core, climb-Kilimanjaro enthusiasts. So while we have basic camping gear, we’d only been camping a few times. We fall somewhere in the gap between state campgrounds where tents and RVs are on top of each other and canvas doesn’t mask the late-night party next door… and back country camping where everything-plus-the-kitchen-sink gets lugged in on your back in one trip.
Our friends Josh and Mandy discovered the perfect, happy medium. Bear Creek Campground is well out in the midst of nowhere with a small gravel lot and (happily) natural toilets, back several miles of twisting gravel road. Once there, you cross a creek and can spread out in unmarked campsites that cover a half a mile along the creek. We had company, but mostly out of sight, and set up camp in the curve of a creek that caught the drifting fall leaves and swept them downstream.
Josh and Mandy went up a day early and captured our spot. The Davises joined us later in the evening.
Which is one of the key reasons for camping.
Camp cookery at its finest.
Vera taught us all the necessary sign language for “leaf” and “tent”. Good stuff.
Dave and Vera hung out.
Nina is not impressed.
If you think you’ve seen anything more adorable than a sleeping bag for a one-year old, you need another think.
We all did a spot of hiking the next day…
…and crossed paths with the tallest tree in Georgia: the Gennett Poplar.
CASE FILE 3: In Which We Hike In to the Hike Inn
Back in early September, Dave and I hiked the trails at Amicalola Fall and discovered a small sign at the top pointing the way to the Hike Inn. A handy internet search (because what would one do on a hike without one’s iPhone?) revealed that this fascinating inn can be accessed only via a five-mile hike into the back country. However, at the end of the trek, home-cooked meals, hot showers, and comfy beds await. Really, how much more perfect can you get? We called the next day and reserved a night for what we hoped would be peak leaf time.
In actuality, we missed North Georgia peak time by about a week. But we sacrificed color for some incredible views.
Please forward all mail to our new place of residence…
Waiting for sunrise: good.
Waiting for sunrise with coffee: better.
I don’t do puzzles. Seriously. They irritate my OCD tendencies. But Dave conned me into this one, and I actually enjoyed myself.
What in the blazes?
Trees have biceps, too.
The Inn lived up to all expectations and I will now be haunting the interwebs for off-season discounts…
Anyone want to join us?
It’s Mother’s Day.
That means a lot of you got extra-crispy toast in bed and artistic scrawls in finger paints and colored pencils. You deserve it. Yours is a 24/7 job with no time off, and this small recognition is hard won. Most of my friends are mothers and I’m more grateful than I can say for the unfailing love and patience of my own mother, my grandmothers, my mother-in-law. I don’t begrudge any of you mothers either the joy or the difficulties of your role.
Still, this is not an easy day for some of us to navigate.
While you’re curled up on the sofa with your kids, some of us are doing time with our ovulation calendars, trying to figure out why on earth the thing that happens so easily, almost accidentally, for many… appears to be a complexity that, inexplicably, we may never find our way through.
This morning at church, the mothers were asked to stand. As nearly every woman in the room rose, someone behind me laughed and whispered, “Pretty much everyone!” That’s the moment I lost my emotional nerve and had to leave—not out of anger or frustration, but simply because it kicked me once again in the gut: motherhood seems to be a clique that a few of us simply can’t access.
Here’s what those few of us might say, if asked.
1. Most of the time, I can be pretty dispassionate about the situation. Physically, this is possible and should happen at some point. I believe that God can and will give us a child at the right time. But there is a deep emotional core for a woman regarding motherhood that I don’t fully understand and, at least right now, have no ability to control. Sometimes, something taps into that core—and then I lose it. When I do, it’s not a demand for sympathy or pity; it’s the way I’m wired.
2. Yes, I am aware that motherhood is possibly the most difficult thing I will ever do. I frankly don’t look forward to losing “my” time and current level of flexibility and independence. But I do crave the opportunity to grow and stretch further into the person God has designed me to be. Of course He can and will do that in other ways than motherhood. But I see it in a similar light to marriage; while marriage is the most difficult thing I’ve tried to date, it has also shaped and deepened me in ways I would never chose to give up.
3. Yes, I know that there are many, MANY children desperately in need of mothers. If we’re unable to have biological children—and possibly even if we are—we desire to adopt. But adoption takes a high level of emotional, financial, physical and spiritual investment, and right now, those resources are going into navigating the complexities of treating infertility.
For now, I’m trying to learn from all the moms in my life who are such fantastic role models, even through their lack of sleep, the terrible twos and various heartaches.
I hope to join you soon.
It always seems a bit early to begin Advent in November. But here we are, once again. Waiting.
We (singularly, collectively, culture in general) are so busy, so full of data and to do lists, that waiting is a lost art. The moment I’m stuck in line, out comes the iPhone. If I’m on hold, I answer work emails. Maybe that’s why I generally don’t bother with an iPod on walks or runs… a last bastion of in-between time that forces me to stew in my own thoughts.
Waiting makes space. It increases the likelihood that I might be still enough to hear from God instead of yet another Kohl’s ad or CNN.com.
Last night, we rearranged furniture and cleared space to make room for the Christmas tree we’ll pick out this afternoon. If we were true to tradition, we’d wait for the tree – just as we await Christmas itself – until Christmas Eve. Chop it down out in the pine forest and haul it in on a sleigh, setting it up with hot cocoa and candles to welcome the coming of the Savior that night.
But we didn’t chop down a cedar and haul it from southern Indiana, and the Georgia tree lots will be thinned out by the 24th.
So we’ll make room for Advent today.
It would take a lot to make me break blog silence at this point, but fall in Georgia has done it. After five miserable months of unbroken 90s with smothering humidity, we’ve finally hit a run of crisp, sunny days in the 60s with nights dipping below 40.
If Georgia could just give us, oh, say three months of this, we promise we’d quit threatening to move north every other week.
But within a month, we’ll drop down into the 40s and maintain a gray, damp chill through March. Where the White Witch made it always winter but never Christmas in Narnia, those of us in the peach state are consigned to endless, monotonous winter without the solace of snow.
Just for these few weeks, though… I’ll call myself a Georgian.
I suppose we are technically beyond advent, this day past Christmas. But waiting is such an inherent part of our lives in the grand scheme of things that I’ve grown to like living in anticipation. No matter what’s moving, something else is on hold, sitting on the back burner, simmering.
I’m particularly fond on this image of Nina at my parent’s door. Her waiting is not particularly patient, but it’s always eager. In this case, she’s yearning after my mother’s kitties who have permanently taken cover in the wood shed for the week. Nina wants a kitty for Christmas. Very Badly.
All fall, I have less than graciously been demanding that God provide snow for Christmas. We were excited a week ago to see that snow was predicted for Christmas Eve. Then the radar went fickle and we dropped into deepest despair. Finally, Christmas Eve at dinnertime, snow began sifting down. Within a few hours, we had several inches. I can’t recall a single Christmas where we’ve ended up with such a beautiful fall of snow so perfectly timed. God even dropped an inch on Atlanta while He was at it!
There’s another family waiting. Near midnight on Christmas Eve, David and I hiked back through the woods and down to the field near my old high school, Nina frolicking through the white stuff and collecting a feathery white sweater. A graveyard edges on the field, and as we approached, green and red lights glittered faintly from one headstone. An inch of snow dusted over the headstone:
February 29, 2008 – March 9, 2010
… a handful of wrapped packages, a tiny basketball and hoop, blinking Christmas lights, and music box Christmas carols.
Somewhere, near, a family’s hearts are shattered as they wait for mending. I don’t know whether they wait in hope or despair. “Hark the herald angels sing…” the tune was plaintive.
…Born that man no more may die
Born to raise the sons of earth
Born to give them second birth…
I hope they know what they’re waiting for.
As David etched in the snow, “May Christ be with you.”
[Editor’s warning: this got … a bit … long…]
Six months out
A friend mentions that a friend of a friend is putting together a team of 12 runners to do a 200-mile relay race in October. Your friend is a 6:30 miler. You are not. By a long shot. You’re intrigued enough to look up the web site and discover that it’s The Inaugural Southern Relay Odyssey, starting in Athens, circling up through the north George mountains and ending in Roswell. It looks fascinating, complicated—and mildly insane. You are a firm proponent of “normal is boring,” so you write your $50 check to some guy you’ve never heard of and friend another guy on Facebook who’s supposed to be organizing. There’s some kind of race meeting you can’t attend because you’re out of town. You promptly forget about the whole thing.
Three months out
You get a Facebook message regarding the race. Oh, right! This thing … whatever it is … is still happening. And, um, you should be amping up that training. In July. In Georgia. In 95 degrees and 99% humidity. Why did you leave the Midwest? Why did you think running 1/12th of 200 miles in 24 hours was a good idea? You hit the trail. It hits you back.
One month out
You check Facebook again and discover that your team has a name: Hills for Breakfast. Usually the hills have you for breakfast, but this is a new era, right? You finally have a chance to attend a team meeting at 7 a.m. on a Saturday, but only about half the team is there. It’s a little disheartening to see that on the run schedule, you’ve been listed as the slowest runner in the group, based on your half marathon times, and put down for the shortest legs. You know this is probably a good thing, but that competitive nature you keep trying to banish from your running life rears its ugly head. As you’ve finally worked up to a 14-mile long run a mere 36-hours ago, you plan to do a short 3-mile jog with your 6:30-miler friend. You get disoriented on the trail and end up doing nine painful miles with your merciful friend, who slows down to a mere crawl so as not to leave you in the dust.
Three weeks out
Still stung by your bottom-of-the-heap time, you decide to actually time yourself on a 5K and 10K distance and discover you can cut a good :60+ seconds off your mile pace. You are encouraged. And panicked. Because now that you know this, you know you know you can never go back to that untimed, leisurely pace. You were planning to use the old shoes, but you jump online and order that new pair of Asics after all.
One week out
You finally meet the rest of the team and are relieved to discover that not everyone can run a 6:30 mile. You try—and fail—to remember the names of your teammates.
The night before
One of your teammates provides a fabulous carb-up dinner for a final team meeting. Your team leader (fearless of inaugural race courses and spandex alike) is already in Athens to deal with last minute details, but the rest of the crew is there. One of your van-mates and his wife have organized the food, gear and vans to the nth degree, not to mention having driven the course already. You are incredibly grateful to be relieved of tracking down headlamps, icy hot and class 3 safety vests. But you are less than thrilled to be gleefully greeted with the news that your 6 a.m. race leg is in the pitch black on a gravel road that goes through bear territory. Oh, and past the home where that man murdered his wife and drug her out through the woods. You eat enough spaghetti and chocolate chip cookies to carb up for a marathon, and then recall you’re only doing 15 miles.
Race day: 5 a.m.
Jittery, you haul yourself out of bed and pray that you’ve crammed enough running gear into your duffle to cover all contingencies. Coffee may dehydrate, but you stop by the QT and grab a large one anyway on your trek to the meet up. You’re in Van 1 which is a generally positive thing because a) you get to run early and b) it’s mostly women, and though you like guys (hey, you’re married to one, after all), the atmosphere in the van is likely to be a little less ripe than that of Van 2. On the downside, Van 1 is courtesy of a Christian school and has so many years to its name that it boasts lots of vibrations and no CD player.
Race day: Pre-race
In Athens, you all pile out of the vans at the hotel where your fearless leader stayed last night and have a final gathering in his hotel room, which has apparently been furnished by IKEA. You’ve been hydrating like crazy and beeline for the bathroom. He hands you a flashlight. Bathroom light FAIL. You all pile into the vans once again (and realize you will be doing this a lot over the next 36 hours) to drive the few blocks to the start. Your stomach starts a series of loop de loops as you realize you’ll be hitting the pavement as runner 2 in less than an hour. But the start is oddly anti-climactic as the staggered start times (slated to bring all teams in around 3 p.m. the next day, regardless of pace) mean that only five or six other teams are starting with you at 10:30 a.m. The greatest rush of adrenaline comes from crossing the street at a crosswalk where there’s no light and the “walk” button is apparently a signal for drivers to speed up and target pedestrians.
Race day: first leg
The first exchange point, where you’ll pick up, is at a church. You’ll find this is the case throughout the day. Later, the race director will tell you that without all those little country churches, this race would be impossible. They’re out there where nothing else is. And when you consider it, you decide this is a very good thing. You bounce back and forth, forcing yourself to breathe, as you wait for the first runner to come in. It hits you: this the very first race you’ve run where other people are counting on your time. As soon as runner 1 arrives, you snatch the team armband and take off (as you’re later told: like an Energizer bunny) with shouts of “Sprint! Sprint!” and “run like the wind” in your ears. You start off too fast, dodging across a crowded intersection without waiting for the light.
You will discover that everyone, all twelve runners, will start off too fast, too. It is apparently the unwritten law of the first leg. About a mile in, you realize that this beautiful fall weather is actually verging on Indian summer. Make that … summer. It’s before noon, and the direct sun blazes down on your straight shot out of town along the railroad tracks. You also realize that with no watch and no knowledge of the route, you have no clue how far you’ve come. A mile? Two? Five? All you know is that you end with a long, nasty climb. When you finally hit the climb, pushing with every ounce you’ve got and trying to forget that you’ll be doing this twice more today, you keep your eyes peeled for the sign that will signal your turn off and the end of your leg. And then, the driver of Van 2 pops out to cheer you on! You’re close! And there’s 6:30-mile girl, ready and waiting for the hand off. You give it your last, breathless push uphill, gasping, legs burning, heart pounding out of your chest … only to discover that … it isn’t her. It’s some random biker girl waiting in the middle of the road for some inexplicable reason. You will never understand this. You only know that the finish line just bumped another ¼ mile uphill. Still, you finish under your anticipated pace. Even if you crash and burn on the next two legs, you have still managed to cling to one small shred of competitive pride.
For the next few hours, you cheer the other runners in your van through gorgeous rolling north Georgia countryside. You also gain close, personal knowledge of many country church bathrooms. They have a definite advantage over port-a-pots, but they do have their own quirks. You find the ruffley bathroom with two shallow stalls and no stall doors especially perturbing. Of course you want to be close to your teammates. Just not … that … close. Perhaps this is how men feel about urinals?
When you reach the state park for the van exchange at the end of Leg 6, your van stays behind for some R&R while Van 2 becomes the active van. You trade your Asics for flip flops and lounge on the grass by a waterfall, talking and dozing. Ahh… But as the sun lowers, you suddenly realize that your second leg is creeping closer.
Race leg: second leg
You meet up briefly with Van 2 a few legs before the next exchange point and realize that your team is already being passed up by faster teams that started later. You glower internally and vow to smoke them. Well, not you exactly. But you’ll pit Hills for Breakfast’s best runners against theirs any day! Your van also busts out the class 3 safety vest for night running. It’s so big it falls off you when you take a quick jog. You switch to the lighter safety vest and hope the White county sheriff doesn’t catch you in the act.
At the next van exchange, your stomach resumes its aerobic workout and a migraine threatens. You resort to drugs. As runner 1 heads out again, your crew loads up to head for your exchange point. On the way, you scrabble for vest, headlamp, blinking lights, map, phone … which is pointless out here as TMobile apparently hasn’t discovered the existence of the northern ¼ of the state. You’re oddly comforted to find that your second leg begins at Babyland General, birthplace of all genuine Cabbage Patch Dolls. You stand in the parking lot, geared up, bouncing once again as you watch the dark vista of hills and mists and the occasional light … one of which is runner 1, heading your way.
You grab the wristband and take off into the night. It’s exhilarating, this plunge down into the darkness. The night is clear, but moonless. A thousand points of light blaze overhead. There’s no sound but the soft, insistent “thok, thok” of your shoes on the asphalt, little light but the eerie bounce of your headlamp and the comforting red taillights of the van far ahead. Your breath mists faintly in the glow. Inhale, two, three. Exhale, two three… You fly downhill, loving every moment, knowing in the back of your mind you will pay for it in a mile or so. You do pay. The second half of your leg is a long, slow climb. A mile up the grade, you wonder if there is an unwritten rule that all of runner 2’s legs must end in long, nasty uphill climbs. You tell yourself that this is the mountains and you’ve got a 50/50 chance. But you still think conspiracy. You survive the climb in decent shape, but are bummed to discover you were two minutes over pace.
As it turns out, everyone loves their night runs. And there’s the illicit added bonus of showers at the next van exchange, which happens to be on the campus of your co-pilot’s university (she’s off on fall break). You sneak into the dorms en masse. The RA discovers you and nearly throws you out—but you wheedle 45 minutes for showers.
Momentarily clean and cozy, you head for the next van exchange at Amicalola Falls, arriving at 3 a.m. with no sleep for nearly 24 hours. You debate routing out dinner or possibly setting up tents so you can stretch out—but are so exhausted that you simply fall asleep in your seats. You awake in shock at 5 a.m. to discover that Van 2 has arrived and their last runner is already completing his leg, a devilish 3-mile vertical stretch up and down the falls road. Which means your van has 20 minutes to scramble for food, bathrooms, gear and map directions before:
Race day: third leg
As the van crawls along, spotting runner 1 who’s had little time to upload his directions, you recall that this is your gravel-bears-murderers leg. It is also your longest leg, with only seven hours since your last run. And it is still quite dark. You stand shivering at yet another tiny little country church, opting for a tank in the chill since you won’t be able to remove long sleeves from under the safety vest. You take the hand off and start up a short, sharp grade on gravel. Immediately you discover an important fact: your calf muscles are shot. They have disappeared, decamped, gone on vacation, left the building. You assess the situation. Surely, calves are overrated? Perhaps they are merely on strike, and you can come to some kind of terms with them. Get them back on the job, at least for the next 55 minutes. As you doggedly pound the gravel, keeping an eye out for unstable hillbillies, you argue with your calf muscles. They make outrageous requests like rest, hydration, bananas. You know perfectly well that giving in to bullies is never a good idea, so you ignore them. You plow up wave after wave of hills, watching your time creep up in your mind’s eye. You hit what you sincerely hope is that final .7-mile vertical grade (See? Conspiracy!), but for all you know, there may still be two miles to go as you clear the final curve … and there’s the church! You’re saved! As you pass off the band, and learn that you were actually a minute under projected time, you mentally thumb your nose at your recalcitrant calves. Take that.
You and your van mates watch the sun rise in a long glow of gold over stretches of mountain meadow. You also watch 6:30-mile girl do an insane 9.8-mile leg of mountain grades at a crazy pace, picking off four other runners in the process. You all cheer.
As the rest of your runners hit the pavement in the increasing heat, you realize that you lucked out with an early spot that gave you a morning run and two night runs. You avoided the midday and afternoon misery that’s killing your teammates. The bull horn comes out for a final round of encouragement.
Race day: the finish
You may be finished now … and your van may be done … but Van 2 still has six grueling legs. Your van takes a leisurely breakfast and then loads up a final time in search of sweet tea and coffee now that you’re back in civilization. You arrive at the finish site in a busy shopping area parking lot before mid-afternoon. The finish doesn’t really match the race, but you know the race directors had to scramble on the final legs after a scenic park bailed out. It is, after all, a miracle that all the moving pieces came together in the first place! As Van 2 sends out its final three runners in the brutal afternoon sun, you crash on a median near the exchange point and converse with one of the race directors, lobbying for the race to take on Kennesaw Mountain and end at the Marietta Square next year. Your teammates finish up the bag of oatmeal raisin cookies as other runners marvel at your team leader’s Hawaiian print yellow and pink running shorts.
Your final runner is misdirected by a volunteer and ends up running extra miles in his last leg as you all wait near the finish to run in together. At this point, though, no one cares about the time. Families congregate. Blisters are examined. Plans for showers and sleep are formulated. And as your final runner appears down the sidewalk, you all cheer and pick up your pace and … ouch! You back it down to a hobble and jog across the finish line. Your team crowds together under the banner, grinning, for a last round of photos. You—yes, you—have just been an integral part of 200 miles on foot in 29 hours.
Race day: after
You shower. You crawl into bed. You sleep solid from 7 p.m. to 7 a.m.
The rosy glow of accomplishment is already clouding the agony to which you’ve subjected your body. Will you do it again next year?