On Saturday, June 5, 2010 I ran 20 miles with a Catholic nun from the Religious Teachers Filippini. Her name was Sister Mary Beth. She is nearly 62 years old and running across America, as in 50 states in 62 days, in order to raise money for orphans in Eritrea, Haiti and the United States. She runs at least 20 miles each day. Colorado was her 39th state. Her friend, Lisa Smith-Batchen, is running with her but doing 50 miles in 50 states in 62 days. I had the privilege of running a bit with her too. Lisa turns 50 this year, and is a well-known, champion ultramarathon runner. She won Badwater twice and is the only woman, I understand, to have run the “Badwater Double”, where, after running 135 miles from Death Valley to the top of Mt. Whitney, she turned around and ran back.
Sister Mary Beth has pale blue eyes, silver hair and runs in her full black habit, including her cap. These two women are something to behold and seemed lit from within to me, even through their fatigue. They are not running for fame and fortune. Their lights shine because they run to raise money for orphans.
I arrived at 5:00 a.m. in Clements Park in Littleton, expecting a crowd of people but hardly anyone was there. I felt self-conscious because I’m not a tiny, skinny runner chick and figured the place would be full of those. Mostly though, I felt a little nervous because I’m not a Christian or maybe my life is not as full of love and service as it could be. I was worried they would figure me out or worse, try to convert me. Plus I felt nervous about my somewhat angry essay about all the similarities between the Jesus story and Gilgamesh, Osiris and Dionysius, an essay I posted the night before my run with all these do-gooders. After writing it, and trying to be funny, I felt a little exposed about the shallow nature of my own, somewhat fake Catholicism back in the 80’s. I think I sometimes adopt the inter-generational resentment my mother had against the Church. And although I’ve been aware of this for years, and once in a while even free of her shit which of course magnifies my own, holding onto either is exhausting.
So there I was, raw and a little teary, watching a glorious sunrise while filled with mixed feelings about Jesus. In the back of my mind I wondered if I could finish 20 miles in the expected 90 degree heat, which would be my longest run so far in my 2010 comeback year.
A few people did show up: a mother and her college-age daughter from Castle Rock, likely Christians and very well-behaved. I also met a woman who fostered 41 children over 24 years, along with raising her own kids. Drug babies, she said, a few days out of the hospital and still withdrawing, needing to be held incessantly and fed at least every two hours. She said this without guile or expectation of being lauded. The opposite of the Pharisees, or, say, me because if I’d done that I think I’d want some recognition. But she was just matter-of-fact about it and I liked her immediately. Small and fast, she finished her first ultra, the American River Trail 50-miler, in April this year. She said it was hard but she loved it. Kind of like all those foster kids over the years. We’re going to stay in touch since we’re both doing that race in 2011.
I also met Marshall Ulrich and his wife Heather, who were both very warm and welcoming. Marshall was there to just be of service to Lisa and Sister Mary Beth in whatever way was necessary, including setting up the donation table by the running path, buying pancakes to go, helping with tired feet, pacing the women around the lake and handling the news crew from Channel 4. Marshall, too, had no reason to be humble. At 58-years old, he is a world-renowned genetic freak of an ultramarathoner and adventure racer. He summited the seven tallest peaks on the seven continents, planting the flag of St. Anne on each summit, raising money for orphans too. In 2008 he ran across America himself, straight across nineteen states, running fifty to seventy miles per day, averaging fifty-eight miles a day for fifty-two days over the entire 3,045 or so miles from San Francisco to New York City. He’s raised several million dollars in his career too, for charities like AIDS Orphans Rising, and he didn’t even start running until he was in his thirties.
Ray Zahab was the other guy helping out Running Hope Through America. Ray’s not exactly a slacker either. He won some of the world’s most difficult and challenging ultra-distance foot races, and he didn’t even start until about 12 years ago, when he finally let go of his pack-a-day smoking habit. Ray made history by running 7,500km across the entire Sahara Desert raising awareness for clean-water initiatives in Africa. I didn’t know who I was meeting, except I’d read about Lisa.
We waited a bit because Lisa was off looking for coins dropped in parking lots, one of her favorite things to do. Both Sister Mary Beth and Lisa are paying their own expenses for the 62 day trip running in 50 states. That way, 100% of the donations they receive go to these three charities:
- The Orphan Foundation of America – Creates scholarship funds for teens aging out of the foster care system. This includes college scholarships, connecting with mentors and internships, and sending them care packages. Charity efficiency: 91 cents out of every dollar goes directly to support OFA programs and youth.
- AIDS Orphans Rising – Supports children in multiple countries who have lost both parents to AIDS. “The program is unique in that it does more than just provide shelter and food to the orphans. The project teaches the oldest child the skills they need to be not only self-sufficient, but to be able to provide for their family while teaching the younger siblings in schools.”
- Caring House Project – The foundation’s primary objective is to provide housing, food, water, medical support and opportunity for the desperately homeless around the world. It also helps to develop a system of self-sufficiency for these communities.
We were milling around when my friend Jan drove up with “breakfast cookies” she made. Sister Mary Beth accepted them gratefully, mentioning how nice it was to have some homemade food instead of “road food.” It was good to see Jan because she doesn’t care a whit that I waffle between atheism, agnosticism, pantheism, believing in the Mother Goddess, or, on occasional Thursdays, Jesus, but only for a few hours. She runs with me, laughs with me, trades recipes with me and, once in a while, tells me she’s praying for me. There are some subjects we purposefully avoid I’m sure, but who cares? Neither of us judge the other.
We took a few photos and then the 8 of us gathered in a circle and Sister Mary Beth said a prayer to help us get through the day, the heat, and to remember why we are doing this, that there are kids out there that need our help, that it only costs 4 cents to feed a meal to a kid in Eritrea, maybe not a great meal, but a meal. I thought about the cost of a triple tall 1-shot vanilla latte. With tip, about $4.00. One hundred meals. And I bowed my head to pray for orphans.
We all started out slowly. Overall, I walked a lot, maybe more than I wish I had but it was so hot. Lisa had a lot of people dropping by who wanted to run with her. Some seemed to want things from her, and I could feel her energy withdrawing, conserving and trying to sustain itself. I know people mean well, but they just don’t get she shouldn’t have to either listen to them, respond to their incessant questions about running, or anything else. What she is doing is hard enough and I felt protective of her. So I tried to just be quiet around her, silently encouraging her to keep moving. Soon though, I fell off the pace and slowed down to bring up the rear with Sister Mary Beth, who began asking me questions.
She was delighted I had on my Garmin and said, “Oh good, we don’t have to do endless laps around the lake; we can wander around and still know how far we’ve gone.” We watched the prairie dogs in the fields southeast of the lake, and, after about 8 miles of laps around the lake, walked up to the Columbine Memorial. I’d never been to it and she’d just heard it was at this particular park. The different-colored columbines were blooming and we slowed to a walk, reading all of the sayings engraved in stone, quotes from parents, teachers and students, including the ones who were killed. I stood there in the beating sun, finally letting myself really cry. Sister Mary Beth came up to me and I thought she was going to offer some nun-like words of wisdom and comfort. Instead she nodded her head in the direction of some other visitors and said, “I wish those people would leave.” Why?” I asked. “Because then we could take off our shoes and put our feet in the fountain.” I laughed.
We walked over to the grass and took our shoes and socks off and felt the soft, cool earth beneath our feet. It was really getting hot, with no cloud cover and only an intermittent wind. Twelve miles to go but my feet felt good after the break, and my spirit felt better after the tears.
We walked around the parking lots near the park and school and she told me how much Lisa loves to find coins to put in a big jar for the orphans, that she does that in every town or city, in every state they stop. “How nice,” I muttered, and then she said, “You know, I sneak out before she leaves the RV in the morning and drop coins all over the place. I do it because I know it makes her happy to find them.” This was so funny and so sweet that I just laughed and laughed, then she laughed and we began to trot again around the lake.
Sister Mary Beth asked me about myself and of course I obliged by telling her my life story for the next few miles. Mostly though, we walked and ran in silence. People stared at her in her full habit. I asked about her work and she told me about the orphans in Eritrea, orphans she’s spent 45 years helping. Many of the heads of household are just 7 or 8 years old, with siblings to take care of. The Catholic Church pays the oldest girl in the family to stay in school and learn a trade or business, otherwise they go into prostitution around age 10 to support their sisters and brothers. I kept thinking you never hear anything good about the Catholic Church these days, but today I heard something wonderful.
Now I know I’m not fond of the pope, the hierarchy, the entrenched patriarchal oppression of the Catholic Church, especially their stance against condoms in places like Africa, but this news of what was happening in Eritrea moved me. Yes the pedophile crisis is beyond evil to me. The whole sex-is-only-for-procreation doctrine seems absurd. And that the Church is investigating thousands of American nuns who came out in support of the healthcare bill astonishes me. But so what? Does any of that really matter in the moment? Thinking about all of my problems with the Catholic Church only made me really, really tired. Thinking about orphans and all the love and service emanating from these women made me pick up the pace of my run, even in the heat.
Probably to make the miles go faster, Sister Mary Beth gently prodded me with more questions about my origins. I thought I’d given her the light and fluffy Leave-It-To-Beaver version of my childhood, the one where there are hardly any issues except maybe that Wally was occasionally selfish or perhaps the Beav had a misunderstanding at school, but really, everything is resolved perfectly by the end of the show, with Ward and June smiling at each other over a cup of coffee after Ward tucks the Beav in at bedtime. Sister Mary Beth, who I thought might not even be listening, slowed to a walk and turned to me, sweat dripping out of her little black cap and said, “Marie, you have really suffered.” I just looked at her, and then of course, burst into tears. She saw right through everything I was trying to hide.
So I told her about my mother and her conversion to Catholicism in the 1950’s around the time she took a bus from Tuscon to New York to protest the Rosenberg’s executions. I told her about Mom’s little drug habit, the divorces, the violence, and her ending that started me into a new life. I also told her about the healing sweat lodge ceremonies Mom used to do, and that I was still doing them, almost weekly. She just looked at me and said, “Those aren’t different gods, they’re all the same god.” She kept asking more and more about my mother. I told her everything I could think of while the miles fell away. And then she said, “You know what Gandhi said?” “No,” I said. “Forgiving is a lot more important than being forgiven.”
No wonder I was dehydrated, losing all of that salt through my tear ducts. Then Sister Mary Beth said she was stopping for a while, that she was in no hurry, and wanted to make sure Lisa was OK and didn’t need anything special. I went on ahead and surprisingly, kept running faster and faster, a crazy energy engulfing me, even in the blazing heat. It was easier running than walking, but then I walked in the last 50 or so yards of my 20 miles, high-fiving Lisa in front of the Channel 4 News crew.
I thanked everyone for the privilege of running with them. I donated money. I walked to my car feeling all of my tired muscles but also feeling grateful, thinking I’d just met some incredible people, especially Sister Mary Beth, who just showed me that grace is real, that orphans get fed, that resentments get lifted, and if I’m lucky, that I, too, can believe in something for a day, because it’s all the same God.