For me, the joy of trail running is in the hills; the burning of my quads as my feet push forward at a deceptively slow pace; the battle between the body screaming to quit and the will determined to conquer; the sound of my breath and beat of my heart pounding against the forest that would otherwise swallow me whole. I run the same hills every day. Some, over time, no longer feel like hills at all. They, though once a challenge to my developing legs, now serve as a warmup. But there are other hills, that show no mercy, despite my ritualistic climbs. The 22 switchbacks of Dan’s trail, the “wall” on McCulloch Peak, the slip and slide through the single-track emerging from the maze; these hills prey on my weakness and force me to dig a little deeper.
On the big hills, I used to direct my gaze solely towards the dirt beneath me and count my steps to distract from the pain. Now I try to embrace the challenge and look up. It is in the looking up that I discovered the trees. At the bottom of the hill the trees are thin and scraggly. Their roots are shallow as they focus on growing up, reaching from the depths of the forest floor towards the sunlight above the canopy. As I run up, the trees change. They become fuller, fatter, stronger. When I grow weary on the run, I look for the trees at the top. They are beautiful and inspiring.
A recent run led me straight into a wind storm. Branches flew wildly above my head, threatening to strike. Trees literally fell moments before my feet leapt across them. The debris on the ground turned my run into a tip-toe. Too far in to turn back, my only way out was up. So I fixed my eyes on the trees at the top, and I climbed. I marvelled as the wind had its way with the trees around me, while those at the top stood firm. They had nothing to ease the storm, no mountain side to lighten the blow, no other trees to break the wind. Yet, they stood more firm than the trees under the canopy.
I have a friend named Shawna. She is my tree at the top, probably unbeknownst to her. I was fifteen-years-old when I met her, and can now say that for over half my life I have looked up to her.
If you rummage through my house you will find old Bibles teeming with notes; notes inspired by things she said. You will find my favorite cookbook stained with tomato sauce; I bought it after sitting in her kitchen watching her cook with an intense love for her family. I still remember the index card taped to the cupboard that read “better is a meal of herbs where love is, than a fatted calf with hatred.” That verse plays in my head every time I prepare a meal. There is a picture in my wedding album with her and I embracing. When she saw me in my dress she cried and said, “you look so beautiful.” It is one of the most profound memories I have from that day because her approval meant so much to me. The faith that I have to press through the hills of my life, exists because of the faith that she inspired in me.
Shawna has lived a life unsheltered from the storm. There has been no mountain to lighten the blow nor other trees to break the wind. Yet she has clung to God, moved in close to His side, and now stands a little closer to the top. Her entire presence is beautiful, her love: inspiring. I have never known a single moment with her that did not also include great joy.
Today Shawna turns 35. Just weeks ago she faced for the first time the diagnosis of stage IV colon cancer. Still she stands at the top of the hill, glowing in countenance — inspiring all who know her to dig deep. It is now that I long to give back a small piece of the life and love that she has given to me, but instead she continues to give to me in faith. She is just a little closer to the top, and I am thankful.
Truly all that I can give is to say that I will run for her. Press up the hills and pray for her to stay strong and for the wind to subside. And I will find comfort knowing that, even though the storm wages, she is in the safest place — at the top with God. Join me ; when you run, when you climb life’s hills, remember Shawna and pray for her.
To learn more about Shawna visit www.lovingonshawna.com
You can also make donations to her medical fund at any Wells Fargo Bank