Equipped to Finish

It was a hot day in the saddle of my bike…strong headwind, Ozarkian hills, and the heat of summer.  I rode in a training ride for the upcoming MS 150.  The MS 150 is an annual charity ride to benefit the Multiple Sclerosis Society.  This is my fifth year riding in the event, and at age forty-two, three kids, a full-time job, a husband, and a household to maintain, I do my best to squeeze in training time when I can.

Today, as riders passed me by, I thought, “Why can’t I keep up with them?  I’m trying just has hard.  My legs are burning.  My heart rate is up, and I’m eager, just like them, to finish this ride with a personal best time.”  

photo (73)I get “lost” in my head sometimes when out riding my bike on long distance rides.  If you ever need time to clear your head a bit, get a bike, pick a route, and take off. On my bike, I am able to work through so many challenges; physical, emotional, and spiritual.

As other riders passed me by, I started to think about life outside of my journeys on two wheels in the country.  I thought about the times when I have wondered, “I work just as hard as this person does.  I have more experience, and more time spent in the field.  I have just as much passion about the work at hand. Why do I seem to be passed by?”

As the miles clicked on, I found myself alone on the road with the sweltering heat and the odometer on my bike declaring how many miles I had yet to finish.  And then, I recalled Scripture:

“I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.” -2 Timothy 4:7

Now, I am not at all comparing the trials and imprisonment of Paul to my own traveling down the hilly roads on my bike.  Of course, not.

However, when out there today, on the road with the blazing hot sun glaring at me, and riders passing me by, I started to meditate and speak to God about life, and challenges both off and on the bike.  While doing this, I felt the Lord speaking back to me,

“I equipped you to finish the race…not best, not first, not fastest, and not necessarily with top honors.  I equipped you to finish it with faith, endurance, and courage.”

As the fifty mile training ride drew to a close, and I rode my weary body to my car, I continued to think on these things.  To finish the race; this race of life, with faith, endurance, and courage is by far, the most sacred of all finales as we make our way to our Home.

Whatever road you are traversing, hill you are climbing, or number of miles ahead of you, remember this,

God loves you.  Jesus died for you.  You have been equipped to finish the race; not first, not best, and possibly not with top honors.  Instead, you have been dressed in the fullness of faith, endurance, and courage.

…but those who hope in the LORD will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not be faint. -Isaiah 40:31

Bikes, Blackbirds, and Corn

photo (80)Last weekend, over 1,000 cyclists converged onto the small farming community of East Prairie, MO (population 3,176) for the annual Tour de Corn cycling event. This was my first time riding in this tour.  I’ve been told that if I wanted to complete a century ride (100 miles in one day), then this was the one to start with.  The landscape is flat and the ride is well supported.

The town of East Prairie is about 4 1/2 hours away from where I live.  My friend and I enjoyed coming up on a bus loaded down with bicycles and cyclists.photo (76)

This group of riders happens to be from where I live.  They travel together, camp out, and ride in the various cycling events.  As you can see from the picture, they appeared to be having a very good time on that bus!

photo (77)

The night before the ride, it seems all of the townsfolk were celebrating on the main street with food, music, vendor booths, and carnival games for kids.

I don’t live in a small town, and not even sure I would enjoy it all of the time, but there’s something special about these tiny communities. photo (81)Everyone seemed to know each other.  They all were happy, laughing, and socializing.  I could tell how excited they were to have so many riders from various places in their tiny town.  The town water tower was quite a neat site against the backdrop of the setting sun.

One vendor I met takes bicycle chains and makes jewelry out of it.  Her idea came from the Tour de Corn.  She saw a sign stating, “Thank you for the $1,600”.  The sign was being held by a woman alongside the road cheering on the riders.  She stopped and asked the woman about the sign she was holding, and  learned that the $1600 was a portion of the funds raised from the ride, and it helped out children in the community.

photo (89)

She went home  with the desire to earn money and donate part of her proceeds to promoting healthy living.  She was retired, kids were out of the house, and she had the time and ability to help.  While watching her friend take apart a bicycle chain, she thought, “I could make jewelry out of that!”  Soon after, she created Chainspirations.  The link to her website is www.chainspirations.com   Check it out!

The next morning we got up early, and headed out on the ride.  I started off with a quick pace,and felt really good.  At the first rest stop, there was even fresh corn to eat, and some live music. photo (88)

The terrain is quite different from my usual rides.  I’m used to hills, valleys, and lots of trees.  I enjoy the sights around my area of the state, but I gotta say, this part of Missouri was pretty as well.  I especially enjoyed the corn fields, sunflower fields, and a field with buffalo on it!  photo (82)

those are Buffalo - little hard to see though
those are Buffalo – little hard to see though

The first sixty miles felt great. My pace was faster than usual, and I was staying very well hydrated.  This all changed as I was entering the last forty miles or so of the ride.  The route turned us back towards East Prairie, and straight into a strong headwind.  With the high heat index (I later learned that another rider’s Garmin showed it as 102), and the strong wind, I felt as though I had hit a wall.

It was all I could do to keep pedaling.  It was during this time that I realized my battle to finish was not about the wind, the heat, loss of feeling in toes, and numb hand, but more about the sheer willpower it took for me to stay on the bike.  I’ve never faced that kind of wall before.  I’ve gotten frustrated on the bike, but not to the point of wanting to cry, quit, and get off the bike.

photo (84)During this time, the endless fields of green and yellow that I admired earlier became my annoyance.  All I could see were fields; fields upon fields.  There was no end in sight.  I kept telling myself, “You can do this.  You can do this.”  My legs felt good, but the rest of my body wanted so badly to stop.  Each mile seem to be longer than the one before.  Huge trucks would pass me which created wind gusts full of dust, which would in turn just make me mad.

I felt the emotion of anger while out there.  I had never felt anger to this level while on the bike, and it was hard work to pull myself out of it.  I had to force myself to keep downing the fluids as I knew that at this point in the ride, it was crucial for me to stay hydrated.  To say I was miserable is an understatement.

It was also during this time that I began to think about my kids.  I would not want them to give up something they have worked for; especially right at the finish line, and they would not want me to do the same.  I also thought about Jesus carrying the Cross, and how He did not put it down and walk away.  I thought about His strength and began reciting the following verse:

I can do all things in Christ who gives me strength. Philipians 4:13

Soon after reciting this, I started noticing that on every section of electrical wiring between poles above the road, a single Red-winged Blackbird would land and start calling out.  It felt as if these birds were cheering me on; as if the Lord sent them to meet me at each section of the road.  I thought about how He cares for birds of the air, His eye is on the sparrow, and surely, He cares for His children.

As my friend and I turned the last corner and rode the last few miles into town, my exhaustion and anger dissipated.  We even stopped to take a “corny” picture (no pun intended).  It was the end of a long day in the saddle.  It was the completion of my very first century ride.  It was the finale of what ended up being more about mental endurance than physical endurance.  It was also the recognition of how amazing it is to have spiritual endurance.photo (87)

One hundred miles on a bike in one day is hard, but I did it.  It was a day spent in recognition of how blessed I am to be physically able to complete this task.  It was more than about the corn fields, small towns, miles, bikes, and flat roads.  It was one more day of life that I could lean on my God through prayer, recitation of verses, and His sending of some little Red-winged Blackbirds to cheer me on.

Ride through the Storm

Last weekend I went for a ride with the local cycling club.  It was a cool June morning, and although the clouds were a little ominous, they appeared to be far off from where we were.  They were majestic and huge; a fantastic site to look at when riding.  The group I ride with was about 20 miles or so into our ride when the clouds turned ugly, dark, and started to dispense some raindrops on us.

At first, the rain felt refreshing.  I’ve gotten over my fear of riding in the rain, so the fresh cool drops were a welcome guest.  Soon the few sprinkles turned into big drops which in-turn turned into buckets of cold rain.  Thunder started roaring, and ahead of us great big bolts of lightning started to strike the Earth.

Everyone seemed to increase their speed, and pretty soon, I was being passed by a few other cyclists.  I couldn’t help but notice the smiles on the faces of those pedaling by me.  It seems storms tend to give way to an adrenaline rush, a slight fear, and the notion that we are all a little crazy for being out there on the road during thunderstorms.

The more we rode, the closer the storm seemed to come.  It was all around us.  We had to ride into it in order to navigate our way out of it.  I know that might not make much sense, but we knew if we turned back, the storm would eventually find us again.

As we drew closer to the flashing lightning, the rush I had been feeling turned to fear.  I began to pray, “Lord, we need a hedge of protection around us.”  I repeated this prayer for the next six or seven miles.  In that moment of darkening skies, rolling thunder, blasting lightning strikes, and pounding cold rain, I realized that without my prayers and the God I believe in, I was nothing.  I was nothing but a speck in the middle of a mighty storm.  I was vulnerable.  I was small.  I was clipped onto a bike and all I could do was pedal on until I found shelter or a way out of the storm.

I was at the storm’s mercy, and trust me, it was not a merciful storm.

After figuring out where we believed the storm was heading, we were able to cut out about ten miles of road and head back to where we started.  Once out of the storm, I began to relax.  The smile came back on my face, and I realized that we were going to be okay.  Riding through the storm was frightening, but a little exhilarating.  Once back in the cycling group, we began to swap storm stories, and all seemed very thankful to be off the bike.

I needed to ride through that storm.  I needed to feel vulnerable, fearful, and in need of mercy.  I needed to call out to Him for protection.  I needed the reminder that I am very small in context to this mighty world we live in.

I also needed the reminder that storms of life come up suddenly, and without much warning.  When in the middle of the crashing sounds of fear, and the strong waves of pain, I need to hang on, ride through it, and call to the Lord in prayer.

When the storms of life are merciless, and bigger than what we feel we can handle, may we embrace the peace that comes from knowing the One who carries us through them.

The Lord is good, a stronghold in the day of trouble; he knows those who take refuge in him. -Nahum 1:7
The Lord is good, a stronghold in the day of trouble; he knows those who take refuge in him. -Nahum 1:7

Out on the Road

photo (73)I rode my first charity training ride of the season this year.  It was a 50-mile ride for the local breast cancer foundation.  I love this ride, and participate in it every year.  It’s always extremely well supported with SAG and with just the right kind of nutrition at rest stops.  It also has mix of flats with several hills (okay, maybe I don’t love the hills).

I’m not ashamed to admit that I’m usually one of the slowest of my friends.  I usually always finish well behind them, but, I really don’t mind.  My goal is to finish what I start in life!

The picture to the left is one I took while riding.  I like taking pictures as I can from the road.  The mirror attachment helps me to see upcoming cyclists, as well as, cars.  I usually don’t like to talk a lot while riding.  I sort of prefer to be a lone wolf.  It gives me time to think, pray, and process all that is going in life.  If I meet someone new on the road, I’m much more interested in listening to them and allowing them to entertain me as we move along the road, than I am in being the one who is talking.

I met up with a gentleman on the road who was 60-years-old and a veteran rider.  We talked about the usual things when out riding – hills, pace, “biking stories”, etc.  We also talked about prayer (love meeting other Christians out on the road).  He told me that his mother-in-law suffered from and survived breast cancer in the 1950’s.  She underwent a brutal mastectomy as well.  Through the years, he became very close to his mother-in-law. They went on fishing trips together, and when he was a young man, she bought him his first suit.  It was clear that he loves his wife and adored his mother-in-law.

In his mother-in-law’s later years, she was able to walk the full distance for a charity event for breast cancer survivors and earned a medal.  She is no longer living, but he takes the medal out with him each time he rides a big ride.  He has it neatly tucked into the Camelback he carries.  He said to me, “When I face a big hill, I say ‘Come on Liz. We can do this!”  This made me smile so much.

He went on to tell me that in 1996, when he was in his early 40’s, he underwent an experimental heart surgery.  The surgery involved taking out and essentially rebuilding his aorta with other valves from his heart.  The other valves were then replaced with donor valves.  His heart is  essentially held together with a mesh casing.  “About a year following my surgery, I did the “Hotter than Hell Ride” in Texas.”, he said.  I said, “What?!  How did your doctor feel about that?”  He said, “He was okay with it as long as I was feeling okay.”  For those unfamiliar, the Hotter than Hell Ride takes place in Texas.  It is a 100-mile ride, and well, as the name suggests, it is very hot!  Well, he felt okay, and has not stopped riding since!  I didn’t catch his name, but I sure enjoyed the miles I spent with the gentleman in the lime green jersey.

As I finished up my morning out on the road, packed up my bike, and drove home, my mind kept going back to the man I spent a few miles with.  Here’s what I was reminded of today from my experience:

  • People have incredible stories if you allow them to tell you.
  • The cycling community is made up of a diverse population of people who I absolutely enjoy spending time with.
  • One is never too old to take up a sport.
  • The survivor spirit is strong, and capable of overcoming the greatest of obstacles.
  • Prayer is powerful.

Oh yeah, and it IS possible to get along with your mother-in-law!

Giving Running A Try

Color Me Rad I’m giving running a try.  So far, I’ve accomplished a 5K called “Color Me Rad”.  With each step I take, my breath is a little more labored, the pain is a little greater, and my body is trying to convince my mind to stop.  My body is trying to say “it’s not worth it”, but I know it is quite worth it.  Anything I can do to stay healthy is always worth it.

I’ve posted a picture of myself following the run….I know….the picture is quite silly.  For those of you who do not live in Missouri, you should know that our weather is a little unpredictable.  For example, it was around 80 degrees today, and is supposed to be in the 40’s and quite cold by Thursday.  The morning of the run it was in the 40’s and rainy, so even though we were freezing, and being doused with powdered paint, we still had a blast!

I think I’ll stick with running.  Now that I am nine years away from the age of 50 and raising three children (ages 6, 4, and 9 months), my awareness and commitment to staying as healthy as I can has grown even stronger.  I also know that running will help build up my endurance for this cycling season, and in turn, cycling will help with my running.  After all, I need the strength and endurance to keep up with the three little ones I’m blessed with taking care of!

Road to Joplin

Day 2 with Joplin flag

This weekend I had the privilege of riding in a cycling event called the MS 150.  Every  year hundreds, if not a thousand or so cyclists make their way to a small town in southwest Missouri to complete a 150 mile bike ride.  This is done to bring attention and raise funds for Multiple Sclerosis.

This was my third year riding in this event.  I always seem to walk away from it with a great sense of accomplishment.  It is also quite humbling to be cheered on at the start line by people who live daily with MS.  This year, a woman with MS said to us, “When you get towards the last few miles and your legs are burning, just remember me saying Thank You.  Just remember that you are riding for many of us who cannot.”  Then, at the finish line, the same man every year, bound to his wheelchair, holds his hand out with a medal dangling from it.  As one reaches for his or her medal, the man gently says “thank you”.  It is quite humbling and I hope to ride in future 150’s.

This year though had even more of an impact on me, but for a different reason.  This is the first year that the ride took us back to Joplin, MO after the deadly tornado which claimed the lives of so many in May 2011.  Last year, the ride had to be rerouted and completely taken out of the Joplin area due to the devastation of the storm.  I had been there about a week or so after the tornado struck, and was silenced by what I had seen.  Cars with windshields blown out laying on top of each other, buildings that looked like they exploded by the force of a bomb, houses upon houses crumbled up like sticks, and trees stripped completely down to the bark.  It was shocking.  Just shocking.  The city I live in is close to Joplin and we are so lucky that the storm did not rumble its way towards us.

Although my work has taken me back to Joplin a few times, I usually do not drive through the area where the destruction took place.  This year, the MS committee planned the route specifically to take us through some of the path of the tornado.  Before I entered this area, my legs were screaming, my mind was off in some other place, there was pain tucked right in between my shoulders, and I was ready to be done.  I had been in the saddle for about seven hours, and my own “saddle” was telling me it was time to get off.

However, this changed when I entered the area where that beast of a storm stole normalcy from the lives of so many.  The few trees that survived were mangled.  Their bare branches looked like hands reaching towards the heavens in desperation.  Others bent over, all leaning to one side; yet, fresh green leaves bushed out from whatever spot they could find.

As I got closer to the eerily flattened area where houses once stood, I thought about the families and children who once lived there.  I imagined kickball being played in the streets, children swinging from swing sets, families walking their pet dogs or washing their cars.  All of this wiped clean.  Sure, there were new houses being built and definitely the vision of new growth could be seen, but I just kept thinking about how much destruction took place on those grounds.  The names of streets had been painted on the roads.  The ground was completely stripped of grass. There were partially crumbled buildings still being torn down.  It just went on and on.

As I drew nearer to the “end” of the destruction zone, I became overwhelmed with emotion.  I thought about the mothers who lost their babies, the babies who lost their daddies and mommies, and all the others who never woke again on this Earth to see the sun rise.  All I could think was “so much destruction, so much despair.”

But there in that moment on my bike with nothing but my own thoughts, I realized, or at least was reminded, that the Lord is not a god of destruction.  He is not a god of devastation.  He is not a god of despair.  He is the God of regrowth, rebirth, restoration, and life.  He lifts up our heads.  He carries us through the storms.  He gives us life.

The next morning as 800 or cyclists gathered around to start day two of the cycling event, small Joplin flags were handed out to each of us.  We placed them in our helmets, on our bikes, or held them in our hands as we rode through part of what was named “Memorial Miles”.  With just the sound of wind, the breathing of fellow riders, and the hissing-like noises from spinning our wheels, we rode in silence in honor of those killed by the Joplin tornado and in honor of the courage it has taken for the city to rebuild.

This year the road to Joplin became more than just a cycling event that I love to participate in.  Yes, it was done in an effort to support those struggling with Multiple Sclerosis.  However, I left the event with Joplin on my mind.  This weekend turned into a reminder of the blessing of health, of love, of family, of home, and of our incredible Heavenly Father who restores, renews, and leads us to Life.

Strength Training

I love cycling!  I just started a few years ago and thoroughly enjoy it. I have been able to meet an eclectic group of fellow cyclists, make some new friends, see parts of my state I would otherwise over-look, and witness in small ways about my faith in Christ.  A lot of issues have been worked on and prayed for while out riding in the country.  I really enjoy riding in local charity events and end my “season” with completing a 150 mile ride to bring awareness and raise funds for Multiple Sclerosis.

There are numerous hills dispersed throughout my corner of the state in Missouri.  Oh, I love going down them, but climbing back up is a whole other issue.  Often, I just want to unclip my shoes, get off the bike, and walk up.  But, I don’t (okay…well maybe a few times).  Instead, I huff and puff my way up these “Ozarkian” hills.

The bike is not to blame.  It doesn’t change.  The suffering of the ride really has nothing to do with the bike, but instead, my lack of focus, determination, and training….oh yeah….and those darn hills.  I am now realizing that perhaps my cycling journeys represent my walk with Christ.

I’ve found that when being challenged by a major hill that feels more like a mountain, I’ve struggled with the instinct to just keep my focus on the Lord.  It can be hard to stay determined to make it up that mountain.  I have wanted to do it all on my own and not allow the Lord to help me up it.  Then there are those times when life is good and I’m just flying along.  I fail to notice or acknowledge sometimes the One who gives me those moments where I am carefree, content, and not having to work very hard.

Like cycling, I think that walking with the Lord takes practice.  Let me explain a little further. Before I fully committed myself to the Lord, I did not realize how important it was to stay active in faith.  I just assumed that I could be “immobile” and the Lord would take care of it all.  I did not pray that often, barely cracked open my bible, and never went to church.

Through the past 12 years since I have surrendered it all to Him, I have learned that being active in my faith requires daily “training”.  Prayer, acknowledging His good works in my day-to-day life, trusting Him daily, reading the Word, tithing, being active in church, serving others….the training regiment goes on and on.  I do not want to be a lukewarm, out-of-shape Christian.

When I am out on my bike and really feeling every muscle in my legs burn, I start to recite to myself “I can do all things through Christ who gives me strength” (Philippians 4:13).  

If I look up the road and see what seems like a monster of a hill coming, I recite “I can do all things through Christ who gives me strength” (Philippians 4:13).  

If nearing the end of a long ride and I am just worn out, I tell myself “I can do all things through Christ who gives me strength” (Philippians 4:13).

Just like training rides build up my strength and endurance, my daily walk, or run for that matter, with the Lord builds up my strength to face the mountains in life.  Christ strengthens, Christ builds up, Christ refines, and Christ declares the victory.