Memorial Day is not Veteran’s Day. Confusing the two is like eulogizing Grandpa when he’s going in for a dental cleaning. Right audience, wrong occasion.

For the most part, holidays are joyful. (Enter tacky reindeer theme sweater here.) Living near DC is especially fun during major holidays like Veteran’s Day, Forth of July, and when Congress is in recess. I took my tiny tot to the parade to cheer for the men and women marching in the humidity, sweating shoulder to shoulder with thousands of strangers eating mysterious meat on a stick from the rows of food trucks nearby.

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But first I went for a run. It was a 5k in Baltimore. I came in third in my age group. Not bad for having to wake up at 5am and drive 75 minutes in the humidity. (I hate being hot.)

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I always run for my dad – for Parkinson’s – for people struggling so in the 26, 27, 28 minutes it takes me to run a 5k, I’m carrying their burden. This run was my 22 push up challenge. I get it. A bucket of ice water, 22 push ups for 22 days, posting a cancer awareness post on social media. They’re all ways that we can feel like we’re doing something. And it is something. I’m not sure people covered in ice water saved a life from ALS but I’m sure it made them feel – however briefly – lifted up. I don’t think a veteran will seek help with PTSD because they saw their neighbor in his yard doing 22 push ups. But perhaps it reminds us to look out for one another, to put others before ourselves, to sacrifice a little bit of our time and talents for our community.

Nate Self, USMA ’98 wrote a book called “Two Wars: One Hero’s Fight on Two Fronts – Abroad and Within”. (grab a copy on Amazon). The book is an interesting first hand account of a battle in the Afghan mountains and Nate’s internal struggle back home with PTSD. I have never been to war. I have struggled with depression from time to time like the typical teenage angst, going through a divorce, my father’s disease. We can all relate to anxiety, depression, fear.

On the 9th of July 1990 one of my all time favorite people died. West Point class of 1988, the biggest person at the Camp Thanksgiving kids table, my quiet champion. My daughter is learning to play the piano on the same baby grand he taught me. I have boxes of music – some he has played, some he wrote – that I can’t bring myself to open.

On the 4th of July he left a message on our answering machine. He said, “I can’t reconcile the person I am with the person I want to be.” A few days later he took his life. I was 12 years old.

I don’t think running a road race or doing push ups or dunking myself in cold water would have saved him. He was a thousand miles away in Texas and we were all busy doing our things – unaware of the extent that he was suffering.

16 years later I still think about him every time I play our baby grand. There have been other people I’ve lost – other friends that have died in the decade of war our nation has endured.  Their loss is a reminder to be vigilant and intentional in our relationships with one another. In this age of social media and video chat, we don’t have any excuses not to stay connected. Friends, colleagues and classmates have the ability to know what is going on in each others’ lives and have the resources to meet needs in real-time.

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So do the push ups. Run the road race. Come alongside someone. Lace up your sneakers and run with me, virtually, even if we’re thousands of miles apart. And if you’re struggling, reach out. Have hope. God isn’t through with me and He isn’t through with you yet. Run to Win.

Appropriately, for our John,  John 15: 12-13 (from The Message)

“This is my command: Love one another the way I loved you. This is the very best way to love. Put your life on the line for your friends”

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There is something magical about New England. Home to Norman Rockwell, the Kennedys, quaint towns like Hingham, MA where my father had a church for several years when my siblings were young… It’s warm and inviting even on the coldest days. And there are some very cold days. Like last week in Vermont – May in Vermont – when I ran in 1/4 inch of snow. My friend and adventure co-pilot Cherie said,

“I think it’s snowing but perhaps if we don’t talk about it, it will go away…”

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Thankfully our New Hampshire hosts had the things big old farm houses have – wool. (Hats, gloves, scarves and enough down feathers to fly south for the winter). We looked like Wookiees but we survived the impromptu snow storm and our girls learned to suck it up.

I had no idea why my friend would want to go on this trip with us. Grueling schedule, erratic temperatures and my budget was so tight we were rolling pennies for gas by state 5. (Rhode Island had the wind chill of the North Pole.)

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But she came. She made 2 very powerful statements.

  1. “I wanted my daughter to see what sacrifice looks like – your running for a cause, the dedication to what you’re doing…. I wanted her to experience that.”
  2. “I don’t really remember my mother having close girlfriends when I was growing up. I want my daughter to see what adult girlfriend relationships look like.”

There is something significant about girlfriends, boyfriends, old friends, best friends. It changes over time but it never loses its significance. When we’re kids, our friends teach us sharing, conflict resolution and behavior modification. When we get to college our friends are our conscience and our guides. They’re our support system when we fail, succeed, when we change paths, change boyfriends or girlfriends, when our hearts get broken or when the pregnancy test comes back positive. I’ve held the product of someone who chose life and the hand of someone who didn’t.

I’m working hard at relationships so my daughter knows the importance of investing in others.  I have an incredible group of ladies who I’ve gotten to know over the past few years here in Maryland – women who have rallied around me and each other in celebration and heart break. Loss of jobs, homes, dreams, pregnancies… They’re all women of faith which makes our bond even stronger. We believe God has a plan for us and for our children. There is great power in that.

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People ask me why I’m running for Parkinson’s all over the country. It’s expensive. It’s time-consuming. It usually involves arranging child care or hauling a stroller around Des Moines. For me, there are three benefits. First, I’m honoring my father and lifting him up in his battle against Parkinsons. Second, it’s a great way to keep myself motivated to stay in shape and make my health a priority. Third, I’m able to connect and reconnect with people who have held a significant place in my life over the years.

New England was significant because it brough back memories of childhood vacations, college road trips and crisp autumn evenings. The coziness of weather beaten shingled homes with candy apple red doors warms the spirit even when it snows in May. Like a Nantucket landscape, a Norman Rockwell painting or an old friend, it gets better with time.

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Connecticut, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, Vermont, New Hampshire, Maine.

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I need to start out admitting I missed New York. There are 3 reasons why. First, I ran out of time. Second, I ran out of money half way through New Hampshire. Third, I was traveling with not one but TWO preschoolers. This leads me to the first revelation of this particular run journey:

If you have the opportunity to travel the country with 2 children under the age of 6, go ahead and stab yourself in the ear with a paring knife. It will be less painful.

My traveling companions for this adventure were my dear friend Cherie who I have known for a decade, her  5 year old and my 4 year old daughter. There is something spiritual about 2 preschoolers together. And by spiritual I mean you get to know Jesus real quick because you spend and exorbitant amount of time in the fetal position singing “Jesus Take The Wheel.”

I learned a lot of new things. I heard a lot of obnoxiously loud apps. I learned that my daughter is really a crotchety 70 year old woman who thinks I am ridiculously overrated. It comes from me being the youngest child of older parents and her being the only child of older parents. She doesn’t have any friends under 30. One afternoon our five year old guest was hungry just after lunch. My 4 year old with all the authority of a tiny evil dictator said, “suck it up. it’s not even happy hour yet.” I’m raising a tiny Joan Rivers.

I leaned more important lessons like how incredibly resilient children are. I experienced one of the most beautiful parts of the country through their curious eyes. I saw them struggle to climb rocky gorges and trip over thick roots stretched across pine needle covered paths. I watched their eyes widen as the steep mountain seemed to continue forever into the sky. I witnessed their awe at peaks so high they felt they could touch the clouds. We packed the car like the Von Trap Family Singers on a world tour. All they really needed was a fist full of cheerios and a hand to hold over the mud flats. How often we get so focused on our goals we forget to appreciate the journey. And isn’t it on the journey where we find the most growth? We build spiritual muscle so we are strong enough to keep our footing though rocks and roots cover the path.

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Our adventure started in Connecticut then Rhode Island. For the more northern states, we stayed at a central location near Peterborough, New Hampshire. It was a beautiful house – home to a couple in their 60’s. He was a math professor from Germany, she an artist from New England. Part hippies, part community organizers, part artists in residence, they were truly unique and incredibly hospitable. My toddler liked him instantly; taking his hand around the old farmhouse to look for the cats. Let’s take a moment to talk about the cats. They don’t like me, I don’t like them and a farm house in New England will most certainly have cats. And they will find me. And they did.

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The lady of the house came home late in the evening on our first night to share with me that her father had suffered from Parkinsons Disease. (After the experiences I have had this past year running for Parkinsons, I can assure you there are no coincidences in life.) The next few mornings we spent sharing stories of strength and survivial through perseverence. Her father had led Seder dinners for Jews in Germany during WWII. She has hosted people in her home every night for over 30 years. Sacrifice, selflessness, compassion…. I realized how fear of rejection and failure has hindered my ability to be truly gracious like our hosts.

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There were certainly other highlights. The girls provided comic relief in an otherwise stressful situation. We were traveling to 5 states in 4 days (or was it 6 states in 3 days? Bueller? Bueller?) running, hiking, sleeping in new places and living off of granola bars and boxed juice. They complained on the big hikes but did it. They were perpetually hungry even though we had enough snacks to feed a third world country but the kept going. They craved technology amongst some of the most majestic scenery in the country but they rallied. They cheered me on every time. They hugged me even in my sweat and woke up refreshed and excited for the day even when the air mattress had gone flat and the night air chilled us to the bone.

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They reminded me that attitude is everything.

Laugh and you’ll feel happy. Be enthusiastic and you will accomplish great things. Don’t worry about looking silly – be silly. Don’t worry about what people think. Be who you were meant to be. Don’t let the naysayers get you down. Know who you are and be it proudly.

20 states down. Run to win.top of NH (2)

Over the river and through the woods
To Grandmother’s house we go.
The horse knows the way to carry the sleigh
Through white and drifted snow.

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I grew up in New York. Every Monday we would leave our Rock Bound Highland Home and head over the river and through the woods for dinner with my Grandmother Camp in New Jersey. My Grandparents were Dutch – a housewife and a minister who had been a Chaplain in WWII. My father was the eldest of 5 children who all gathered for Thanksgiving and sometimes Christmas with our grandmother for the 20+ years she lived after my grandfather died. The New Jersey homestead was in our family for generations although it has since moved on to other families and other Thanksgivings. They say you can never go home again and for me that is true. But the buildings remain and the memories are firmly rooted in my mind.

I’m running all 50 states but not just to accomplish that lofty goal. I’m doing it for my father, for Parkinson’s and especially for the reunions; reminiscing about old times and making new memories. I’ve had the luxury of running alongside some pretty awesome people these past few years but there’s something special about running with family. My cousin Adrienne – an elite athlete, former Cornell soccer star, a PhD AND a mother to 4 girls (Four. FOUR girls) has run with me multiple times. She ran a few races with me last year and joined me on our now famous Army 10 Miler run this past Autumn.

She called me a few weeks ago and said, “We need to run together. What states are left?” (Quite a few, actually. Sigh.) I find races via either active.com or runningintheusa.com. It takes the logistical navigation of an elite Army Pathfinder to plan out my runs. We settled on New Jersey as it’s close to her Pennsylvania home and one of the few northern states I had left. When I looked up a run, there was a 5k in Hawthorne – the town where we spent our youth visiting Gram and feeding the ducks in the park across the street. But there’s more. This run had a turn around point RIGHT IN FRONT OF OUR GRANDMOTHERS HOUSE. (You can’t make this stuff up.)  We put the word out and people came – half of my cousins, both of my father’s brothers and one of his sisters.

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We ran together like a roedel honden (Dutch for pack of dogs.) Half way through we stopped, ran across the street and took a picture on the stoop of our late Grandmothers homestead.

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The run itself was a good effort – there were only about 3 other runners besides our pack and our family made up the cheerleading squad. It was cold and snowy (in April. It snowed in April!) but we did it. We came together crossing state lines and logistical boundaries to honor our heritage. Family is special. Sometimes, family doesn’t live up to our standards. Sometimes family fails us. Sometimes, the greatest family is what you assemble yourself out of friends, neighbors, coworkers, my cadets. Sometimes you’re lucky enough to be given it. Both take work – like the garden they need to be watered, pruned and fertilized. But like the pine trees anchoring Grams front door, if the roots are deep, the trees will continue to grow.

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We all gathered together to share coffee and companionship (sweat and sacrifice? snacks and sentiment?) post run. I’m proud of my family. Proud of the people they are and the things they’ve accomplished. My cousin Matthew is the Director of Government Relations at Teachers College, Columbia University. But more than that, he’s kind. He fell back in the run when I fell back. He joined me for a 5k in NYC last year in sub 30 degree weather on a moments notice. I’m humbled by my family. This group has eight college degrees, seven masters and four PhD’s. (That baby is six weeks old and i’m pretty sure she has at least one AP class under her belt.)

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But it’s not the accomplishments or accoutrements that makes this group unique. It’s Faith – faithfulness to God as the creator of the earth and sustainer of life. It’s Hope – hope that we’re using the talents passed on to us to do good things. It’s Love – love, affection and appreciation for the generation before us and the future we’re creating.

Over the river and through the woods,
Now Grandma’s house I spy.
Hurrah for fun; the reunion’s done;
Hurrah for our family tie.

 

I’ve finished the Southeast and the Mid Coast Atlantic on my journey to run a road race in all 50 states to honor my father and his battle with Parkinsons Disease.

Sometimes when I’m tired or sore I wish I had decided to do a movie marathon instead. Or a 50 state vineyard challenge. Or chocolate around the world tasting challenge. Or test-your-liver-limits vodka challenge. But, as my friend and teammate Will reminds me, “If this was easy, everyone would do it.”

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South Carolina was lovely. It was an easy trail run along a river where weathered fisherman hauled in catfish and striped bass. My tiny tot came along for the ride. We stopped to smell the flowers – something we rarely do in the short amount of time we have between races, states and home.

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North Carolina. 7:30am on a Sunday.

Earlier in the week (like a few days ago…) I received an email from one of our former cadets saying, “Hey! check out the All-American Marathon here at Fort Bragg.” Well, the only marathon I will run is the kind that gives away a million dollars to every finisher and has cabernet hydration tables along the route. However, as luck would have it, the race had a 5k attached to it. And I get to connect with old friends. Win-Win.

July 1, 1991. West Point, NY.

My father walked into the chapel to make sure the lights were off and the doors locked. (Ministers are never off duty. Neither are their families. Ever spent your Saturday evenings breaking up communion bread? Or folding bulletins? No?)  While doing rounds he noticed a lone visitor sobbing in the pew. “Just dropped off a new cadet?” dad asked. “No, he said. Two.”  Twin boys from Nebraska, the first born sons, home grown heroes off to the Academy for “R” day. Dad brought him in for tea and he stayed the week. 25 years later they’re still a part of our family – all of them – uncles, aunts, best friends, girl friends, 8th grade piano teachers…. they came with a crowd. I have a thousand “Thomson Twins” stories but I’ll save those for more intimate settings (like my Tour of America Via Airport Bars challenge perhaps?)

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The Fort Bragg run was through the main part of post – past the hospital, gracious spanish style Commanders homes and buildings meant to intimidate just a bit. Home of the 82nd Airborne Division as well as others including significant Special Forces commands, the run was filled with incredibly fit men and women, their incredibly fit spouses and incredibly fit children. It was an intimidating start when the starting gun was an artillery piece. The best part was an email all the runners received the night prior…

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Note to self – Leave the gas mask and RPG’s at home.

My host Derek and his eldest daughter got up at 0 Dark 30 and came with me. It was a great race full of all the pageantry you hope still exists, surrounded by the men and women who deserve nothing but our complete reverence and thanks. And me – a hopeless romantic, a sucker for uniforms, parades and balls.

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I love this particular challenge because of the reunions across generations and state lines.

Reunions are special.

They remind us we’re a part of something bigger – that our community isn’t just where we live or where we work but an intricate network of people from every road that have influenced the paths we’ve taken and the direction we’ve gone.

fast far      #Truth.

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Run to Win.

 

Cherry Blossom 5k in Wilmington, Delaware

9:30am on a Saturday.

This was a blah race. Not because anything bad happened but because nothing happened. I didn’t run faster or harder or grow stronger. I didn’t make friends or enemies or intentionally trip the sorority girl running in a hot pink tutu and “i run for rum” tshirt. Nothing happened.

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This is Easter weekend. On the Christian calendar, today is just a “blah” day – the day nothing happened –  after Good Friday but before the Resurrection. No easter bunnies or candy baskets or empty tombs. Just… nothing. It feels vacant. Hapless. Hopeless.

We all know the feeling of hopelessness. Athletes know it when injury strikes. Pulled muscles, broken bones, broken spirits – wondering if we can get back to where we were or if this is it. I remember when my father was diagnosed with Parkinsons. The first year, he won the gold medal in the masters track and field race for the 70+ year old sprinters. The next year he came in second. Then we called him the “fastest white man” then the “fastest minister” then the “fastest white minister”……  As an athlete, hope is necessary to get better, stronger, faster. When our bodies don’t respond, it feels hopeless.

Greg Gadson was a star football player and co captain of the team at West Point in the late 1980’s. He served as a Field Artillery Officer in the Army for more than 20 years.  In 2007 he lost both legs to a roadside bomb in Bagdad. Col. Gadson used the spiritual muscle he developed as a cadet and in the years to follow to turn his hopelessness into heroics. He has since become a motivational speaker and continues to be a great athlete, competing in races and inspiring others to run to win.

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As Christians, we have hope because the day after, the Son rose. Whatever you believe, you can have hope knowing the sun will rise. Like the daffodils emerging after months of grey and snow, we can come back from rest or injury and blossom.  Tomorrow is a new day – fresh – with no mistakes in it.

Don’t screw it up.

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This week, my last week at my little flop house in Florida, I took a much needed break to rest my body and my mind (heavy emphasis on the mind.) But not running a USATF road race doesn’t mean I can watch the Bridget Jones trilogy eating Ben & Bernie & Jerrys. I had crap to do.

I decided to plant a garden. A few important facts about this:

  1. I kill silk plants.
  2. I do not know how to plant, what to plant or have the spacial awareness to know where to plant.
  3. Gardening is hard work. Hauling 30 bags of mulch from greenhouse to car, car to garage, garage to garden isn’t for wimps.

Exercise isn’t just running miles on the track or treadmill. Its being fit enough for every day life. I’m not a crossfitter, but I do see the need for functional fitness – having a core strength that enables you to do pretty much anything you need to do safely and quickly. Crossfitters are a rare breed. They train you to be able to run through the African jungle in 110 heat carrying a wounded rhino being chased by rabid hyenas. While a noble goal, I think functional fitness means having a core strength that allows you to lift your child often and easily, run up 3 flights of stairs with groceries (and not have to stop for a nap) and haul some mulch.

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A few notable things happened while I was knee deep in dirt, sand and fire ants:

  1. I met some neighbors. Turns out, gardening is quite communal.
  2. I felt the incredible satisfaction that gardeners must feel when their first tomato or turnip appears – though mine was just about laying mulch.
  3. The sexiest Rabbi in NYC was right

In 2003, New York Magazine named Rabbi Brickner the “Sexiest Rabbi in New York.” He was the long time love of my “spiritual well” Marcia Lawrence Soltes. He wrote a book called Finding God in the Garden. It is a wonderful book about God, love, life and coneflowers. I thought of him, of her, of their wonderful retreat in Stockbridge, Massachusetts where I have stayed many, many times since childhood. The property is lined with mature trees, flowering bushes and magnificent rhododendron.

Our relationship with Marcia started before I was born. Her first husband, Rabbi Soltes, was a handsome, talented and tender man from New York City who would volunteer to come up to West Point to lead the handful of Jewish cadets in services in the 1960’s and 70’s. When my father became Chaplain, they became fast friends. It was that friendship that laid the foundation for our life long relationship with Marcia and for building the Jewish Chapel at the Academy  (a project my father spearheaded but rarely gets enough credit for). After Rabbi Soltes died, our relationship with Marcia deepened.

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The seeds were planted, the soil was fertilized through shared experiences, the roots took hold and the flowers grew.

Gardening is a natural illustration of friendship. Planted, watered, fertilized, weeded out – all things we have to do to our “friends list.” Sometimes we have to weed out the bad seeds, the ones with shallow roots, the ones that attract bugs and disease. All our friends need fertilizing – phone calls, emails, text messages of “thinking of you…”, running a road race together or running out for coffee. Gardens and relationships (and our bodies!) take work. If we neglect them, they wither and die or get lost to the forrest.

Erma Bombeck, my favorite author of all time said,

“Friends are ‘annuals’ that need seasonal nurturing to bear blossoms. Family is a ‘perennial’ that comes up year after year, enduring the droughts of absence and neglect. There’s a place in the garden for both of them.”

I’m not sure i’ll be winning any Biggest Pumpkin awards or producing my own autumnal harvest. But I know I can do it. I know I can tackle the physical challenge of hoeing, churning yards and yards of earth, hauling, digging, and squatting. (Tabata squats anyone?)

I know, as Brickner’s book reminds us, God is in the garden. He put in place the life cycle – birth, growth and death. I know my friends, my fitness, my faith and my flowers need work to produce something. They all need regular care, time and attention to bloom.

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