Running Through the Woods with a Ham Sandwich

When I first decided to run an ultra marathon, I was not bothered by the 32 mile distance nor the 6700 feet of climbing. The idea of all trails thrilled me, and the six hour estimated completion time seemed attainable. What I could not wrap my head around was the notion of having to eat throughout the race. According to the course description, there are six tables along the course each containing an assortment of snacks ranging from sugar cookies to whole baked potatoes. I questioned a friend who had run a number of ultras and she scoffed at my ignorance.
“Of course you have to eat,” she told me, “your body can’t go that long without real food.”

I assumed she was just weak, and that in fact my body could go that long. So began the training.

I started in January with a long run of about 2 hours. My plan was to build to five and half hours with two weeks of tapering before the race in May. By February my runs reached the three hour mark. For the most part I felt good. Each time I went out I took a bottle of water and a couple gel packs, returning without any major set backs.

Then it happened. A couple weeks into March I set out for a four hour run and apparently crossed some sort of invisible threshold. I literally hit every wall known to athletic man. Getting back to my car was torture and I all but decided to give up on the whole idea of an ultra.

With little hope, I talked to my friend Karl who trains endurance cyclists for Trek. Part of his job is nutrition and I figured he was my best bet for advice. He carefully explained to me that the intensity of an Ultra is unlike a normal marathon. The body can only survive that intensity on sports drinks and goo for about two hours. After that, I would have to eat something with a little more substance. Apparently food is not only for the weak.

I further prodded Karl asking him what sorts of foods he would suggest, secretly praying that baked potatoes were nowhere on his list.
“Do you ever watch the Tour ‘de France?,” he asked enthusiastically.
I nodded, not wanting to admit that I had never experienced boredom severe enough to justify doing so.
“Well,” he continued, “you know those little silver packages you see the riders pull out of their shirts?”
I just kept nodding still not wanting to admit I hadn’t the faintest idea what he spoke of.
“Those are actually ham sandwiches,” he exclaimed.

I thought he might be joking at first, but when he continued to explain the assembly of these sandwiches I realized he was in fact completely serious. As if it couldn’t get any worse, Karl then filled me in on the secret ingredient . . . Jelly . . . for the sugar, of course . . . a little quick energy.

I could not contain the images playing in my mind. All I could picture was me running through the woods with a three foot long sub, ham hanging from the side of my mouth, and jelly dripping down my chin. The images deepened as I thought about the cougars — you know, the cougars and bears that would surely follow the scent of Swiss Cheese down the trail. I wanted to laugh or maybe cry. Instead I turned to Karl.
“What kind of Jelly should I use?,” I asked with no intention of using his advice.
“Any,” he replied, “Whatever you like.”

Whatever I liked? I didn’t like anything about this conversation. As if running and eating at the same time was not disturbing enough, now I was worried about cougars and bears. I flatly determined I would come up with another idea, thanked Karl, and went on my way.

The next morning I began to pack my bag for another long run. I grabbed my running clothes and water bottles, threw in a couple gel packs and then stood blankly in the kitchen. I knew that if I stuck to just those things, that wall would be waiting for me. I weighed my options, and with no better plan began to pull jelly and ham from the fridge. I snatched the bread, a little mustard, and some muenster (we were out of swiss), and the assembly began. I finished making the sandwich and immediately knew I had a problem. How was I going to carry it?

I was not about to shove the sandwich in my pocket, and I still have not invested in one of those glorified fanny packs they call a runner’s belt. So in a moment of genius (perhaps) I whipped out a
ziploc bag and a couple safety pins. I would just have to pin the sandwich to my pants.

Ready for the day, I got in my car and headed to the Athletic Club. Upon arriving I took my bag out of the car but decided to leave the sandwich on the passenger seat. I figured I would wait til no one was looking to actually pin it on — I didn’t want anyone to question.

After my morning classes were done, I began to prepare for my run. I put on my compression running pants, my jacket with the secret pockets and cell phone band. To my right hand I strapped my water bottle and to the left a can of mace designed for runners. I tucked gel packs into places that no gel pack should ever go and laced my trail running shoes with the posted soles to keep me in alignment. Feeling like the kid whose parent just dressed them for the snow I headed out.

On my way, I stopped at the front desk to let my coworkers know where I was going. I always write out my planned course along with an estimated return time. I feel like it is the responsible thing to do, plus I get a kick out of seeing the worry on their face when I tell them to call 911 if I’m not back on time. As I stood at the desk I made a joke about Karl telling me to carry a ham sandwich. Everyone laughed, and agreed how weird it would be to run and eat ham at the same time. Their response indicated that leaving the sandwich in the car was the right decision.

I waved good-bye and stepped out the door. I then made a quick turn to the parking lot, and knew there was no turning back. There I stood, pinning a ham sandwich to my rear-end and pleading with God that now would not be the time to see someone I knew.

Sandwich secured, I started to run. At first it was awkward, the beat of the sandwich against my behind. But eventually the rhythm was kind of nice, a little kick in the pants with each step. I almost forgot about it all together until a large group of cyclists passed me on the trail. My immediate response was to cover the sandwich with my hands. Only after they had all ridden by smiling did I realize that me holding my bottom was probably a much odder sight then a sandwich pinned to the waist band. After that, I just kept going when people passed.

Two hours in, I felt good, still sucking down gel packs and electrolyte laced water. When hour three came I knew that I could hold out no longer. I carefully unpinned, unbagged, and began to gnaw on the ham.

There I was, literally running through the woods with a ham sandwich. There was no jelly on the chin nor cheese up the nose. No bears came running and cougars apparently don’t like rye bread. I ran four and a half hours that day without a single wall in my way. And suddenly something that once seemed completely contrary to everything I knew to be right. became the one thing I needed the most.

As many of you know this weekend is Palm Sunday. For me I will go to church and listen to the story of Jesus riding into Jerusalem. I will probably tune out most of the sermon assuming it is the same sermon I have heard every Palm Sunday for as long as I’ve gone to church. My kids will probably make palm branches in Sunday School and then whack each other in the face with them the entire way home. And the songs that we sing about His entry will probably ring through my ears the rest of the day. Ultimately this Sunday will begin a whole week of remembering and celebrating.

Don’t get me wrong, I love Easter. I love the celebrating. But something has always bothered me about Palm Sunday. You see we wave the branches like the people did in those days, but those same people who waved the branches and hailed Jesus as he rode in were the same people who just days later shouted “Crucify Him.”

They waved the branches because they believed that Jesus was going to overthrow Rome and set up God’s Kingdom. When He insisted instead that He was going to die and rise again, they turned against Him. They stopped waving. His plan to die for our sins went against everything that they thought was right. They wanted a Politician, when they needed a Savior.

Like that ham sandwich, sometimes the things I need the most are the things that make the least sense. I often wave my branches to what I think God should do, and then get frustrated when He doesn’t And maybe in all my frustration I miss out on really good things. I think God fills our lives with ham sandwiches. People, things, opportunities that make no sense and yet are exactly what we need to endure.

I think this Palm Sunday instead of waving branches, I think I will stop and thank God for all the ham sandwiches in my life. What about you?