Casting my mind over the faceplants of years past, I see the hand of God in every one. I will never be persuaded that faceplants occur randomly. I believe they’re the formulated with scientific precision to turn us away from egotism and bull-headedness.

Early 1990s. I’m running on a sidewalk in Sacramento during the early morning commute, with hundreds of cars whizzing past. I’ve lost a lot of weight and I’m in great shape, with a nut-brown tan. Naturally, that prompts my Inner Idiot to suggest: “I guess I’m showing them what a really fit older runner looks like…” Bam splat. My bent finger serves as a permanent reminder of the bitter fruits of fatheadedness.

Early 2000s. I’m feeling frustrated — I can’t remember why — and I unwisely decide to unload on God. I pray, not too humbly, “I can’t figure out why the hell I’m having such trouble with this godda….” Bam splat.

On the same run, just 15 minutes later, I round a corner on a trail through the Stanford community garden and my frustrations once again take hold. I get no further than, “Goddamn it…” Bam splat. As I pick myself up, I don’t know whether to laugh or cry. I think, “I may share my frustrations with God in future, but I don’t think I’ll risk swearing at Him.” From that point, I relax, become absorbed in humble appreciation of the beautiful day, and have a wonderful run.

Early 1990s. I’m tooling down a trail above the Yuba River during the Gold Country Marathon, a tiny race with just 12 entrants. The scenery is lovely — thick conifer and oak forest with fleeting views of the river. I’m trim, fit, and feeling not too bad about having just passed someone who I know feels competitive with me. In short, I’m feeling complacently self-satisfied and happy to be me… Bam splat.

Mountain View, California. 1996. I’ve moved here to help defend a lawsuit with important First Amendment implications. A jealous spiritual organization has sued our church, claiming it owns all rights to our teacher’s books, pictures, and recordings. (It took 10 years, but we won, hands down — US law doesn’t encourage religious monopoly.) The day after I arrive, I’m running in the Palo Alto Baylands and thinking how great it is to be back in the Bay Area — I’m planning how I’ll increase my mileage, enter some local ultras, explore the trails of the Coastal Range, and… Bam splat.

At this point, I’ve had five sprained ankles in six weeks, but this one is a real rip-snorter — it swells to grapefruit size, and an X-ray reveals a hairline fracture. But the faceplant serves a valuable purpose; it brings me back to reality. In the two years that I work with the legal crew, I’m able to train regularly, but I’m always aware that fitness takes a distant second priority to the fight for religious freedom.

April 22, 2010 (yesterday). I’ve introduced three new training methods into my running, and it isn’t working — it’s just too much. The details aren’t important, but a clear intuition tells me to limit my weekly stretch of fast-paced aerobic sub-threshold running to 25 minutes. However, I’m feeling so good at that point in the run that I try to jolly my intuition into letting me sneak in another 5, 10, or 15 minutes… Bam splat — worst faceplant in 40 years.

I slam hard into the gravel road. I can usually jump up after a spill, but this is different. My hands and knees are bleeding, my breath is knocked out, and my nervous system and spine feel deeply battered. I rise painfully, and limp to the finish. I spend the rest of the day and the next morning in a kind of bewildered shock.

Why? That’s the question. What’s the message? Lately, I’ve felt as if I’m at a crossroads in my spiritual life. I’m feeling that it’s time to take up a service that my spiritual teacher suggested to me years ago, but which I wasn’t sufficiently seasoned to start doing at the time. The faceplant, to my understanding, was intended to shock me into taking the inner guidance seriously, even it means giving secondary importance to running.

I’m reading a book about a high school football team, the Smith Center, Kansas Redmen. At the end of Our Boys, by Joe Drape, the team had won 67 games and five state championships. Head coach Roger Barta believes that winning and losing are less important than the lessons kids can learn from football, about love, honor, and respect. The journey is the true reward.

Did you read Ryan Hall’s Running Times interview about the role his faith plays in his running? The unvoiced question seemed to be: “If you have so much faith in God, and you spend so much time praying and giving your life to him — why haven’t you won Boston, New York, London, and the Olympics?” But, as is common in such interviews, Hall’s answer was confused.

I’m no Ryan Hall — I don’t lay it on the line against the Ethiopians and Kenyans who arrive on the elite scene with 20,000 miles in their legs. But I’ve considered God my coach for 40 years, and I’m nearly three times as old as Ryan. And what I’ve realized is that God doesn’t care about winning and losing; He cares about the lessons we learn. Outward results matter less than inward transformation.

Whether you view God as personal, or, more impersonally, as an infinite intelligence and energy, or even if you don’t believe in God at all, it’s pretty clear that the lessons we learn from running have a certain direction to them. It’s as simple as this: they’re designed to teach us to do the right thing. We learn the lessons because we suffer when we don’t, but when we do the right thing, we experience joy.

That’s the essence of the spiritual path. Saints of all religions tell us that even greater expansion of awareness is possible, in the laboratory of meditation and prayer.

My faceplants happen when I go off course — when I harbor contractive thoughts and feelings. They aren’t intended to hurt me, but to prevent me from hurting myself — like a father who jerks a child back from running into a busy street.

Francis Thompson expressed it beautifully in his poem The Hound of Heaven.

All which I took from thee I did but take,
Not for thy harms,
But just that thou might’st seek it in My arms.
All which thy child’s mistake
Fancies as lost, I have stored for thee at home:
Rise, clasp My hand, and come!’
Halts by me that footfall:
Is my gloom, after all,
Shade of His hand, outstretched caressingly?
‘Ah, fondest, blindest, weakest,
I am He Whom thou seekest!
Thou dravest love from thee, who dravest Me.’


If you have a serious faceplant, here’s some advice for a quicker recovery.

First off, don’t try to ignore your body’s need to heal. I was very surprised to find how long it took. Physically, there didn’t seem to be much damage – a very sore knee that loosened after a bit of walking but tightened overnight.

For several days afterward, I felt depressed and lethargic. I have no idea why; I can only speculate that there was intternal damage, perhaps to my spine or nervous system? Three days later, I set out on a long run but could barely manage an hour. My body seemed to be in deep recovery mode, as listless as if I had the flu. What could I do to shake the blues and get back to running normally?

Feeling a bit sheepish, I googled terms like “trauma” and “nutrition.” And indeed, I discovered that physical injuries raise the body’s need for protein and vitamin C. I tried to sense any special food cravings that might indicate what my body needed to heal. I had made a smoothie with whey protein powder and pineapple, plus several ingredients in Hammer Nutrition’s Recoverite product: glycine, l-carnosine, and l-glutamine. We had some chevre goat’s milk cheese in the fridge (the silver foil-wrapped log from Trader Joe), and I ate some with crackers. The next morning I felt completely back to normal.

If you should ever go butt over teakettle, take hope – you will feel better soon.

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