Sunday, August 19, 2012

Aut Pax Aut Bellum

Being a meditation on a Scottish Clan, a Wyoming Distance Race, and the Deeper Meanings Thereof

In the extreme northeast corner of Scotland, there is an area of quiet farms and ranches, towering sea cliffs, and tiny fishing towns, where the sea is a constant presence and the wind is more a part of the landscape than a mere meteorological phenomenon.  These hills and coast-lands were once the home of a rather fierce group of Norse-Celtic people who called themselves clan Gunn.  And descended from that clan is a family called the Wilsons.

My connection the Gunn clan is sketchy at best, more a matter of choice than historical certainty.  Even my brother, the history teacher, has been thwarted in his efforts to trace our ancestry:  "Wilson" is an absurdly common name, and there are simply too many on the books to sort them all out. 

For all this, the Gunn lands felt like home when I visited years ago.  The story of the clan--from its Viking origins, to the gradual encroachment of its lands and rights at the hands of the Scottish kings, to the resulting conflicts with neighboring clans, to the final betrayal under the brutal policies of the highland clearances--is worth looking into, even if you aren't Scottish.  There's conquest, heroism, battle, revenge, tragic romance, betrayal, courage in the face of heart-breaking injustice, and some cautionary tales from which our modern world would do well to learn.

Also worth considering is the clan's motto: Aut Pax Aut Bellum, In Peace or War.  Most modern clan members relate this with a sort of good-natured bellicosity:  You want peace?  Good.  I'm happy to be your friend.  You want a fight?  You won't be disappointed--and you'd better bring a friend.

I take it a little differently than that.  To me, Aut Pax Aut Bellum speaks of constancy, faithfulness, integrity.  It speaks of convictions that are too strong to be changed by prosperity or poverty, of friendships too solid to be diminished by familiarity or distance, of foundations that are laid too deeply to be moved by the shifting tides of fortune.  No matter what happens, some things don't change:  Faithfulness keeps steam-shoveling those mountains.  Hope does not disappoint.  Love never fails.  In good times or bad.  In peace or war.

* * * * * * *

Yesterday, Sarah and I finished our first "sprint triathlon" together.  I'm confident it won't be our last.  For those of you not in-the-know about this latest fitness craze:  Distances vary, but Lander's sprint tri features a 750 meter swim, a 13 mile bike ride, and a 5 k run.  Races of this sort are catching on all over the country, with good reason:  A sprint tri is big enough to be a truly impressive accomplishment, but small enough that normal people--people with jobs and families, people like us--can do them.  Last summer about this time, Sarah happened to be passing by the finish line at city park right at the end of the race.  She came home, described the scene, and said, "We belong there."  So it began.

Training was a roller-coaster.  There were spectacular successes--common when starting a fitness program from less-than-zero--and discouraging setbacks.  As late as last March, Sarah was suffering from frequent, severe abdominal pain, and her doctor was gently telling her that this pain was probably permanent, and that the tri was probably not going to happen...maybe not ever, definitely not this summer.

Well, we didn't take that sitting down.  Telling Sarah that she can't do something...that simply isn't done.  It's something we have in common--neither of us has much use for the "c" word.  Before long some drastic dietary changes were putting a dent in the abdominal pain, and training proceeded.  It wasn't smooth and it wasn't pretty, but it proceeded.  A day came when I arrived home from work and found Sarah smiling and sweaty, telling me that she had run 20 minutes without stopping.  Inspired, I went out and did the same.  That's when I knew this thing was on.

And so we rose yesterday morning for a very early, very cold, very dark bike ride to the pool.  After setting up our transitions, we passed the time pacing around the pool (it was warm there), talking with fellow racers, finding volunteers to count laps for us.  Sarah and I shared a moment of prayer and heartfelt thanksgiving together.

At 7:30, our heat finally started with my hardest leg, the swim.  Sarah is the swimmer in our family; it is not much of an exaggeration when I tell people that I swim like a cat.  A few sessions this past spring with the amazing Ann Lehmkuhler, and a whooooole bunch of time in the pool over the past several months, had shored up my technique and confidence enough that I knew I could finish my half mile with body and soul still in one piece.  Good enough.

Sarah finished her swim a couple laps ahead of me, but as planned I soon caught up to her on the bike leg.  Just a couple miles into it, she was already having some asthma problems.  It was a perfect, gorgeous day, though, and Sarah was determined, and we pushed up those long, long Squaw Creek hills, past a couple aggressive dogs (a chance for me to do my husbandly-protective thing), past distant herds of mule deer, through that crystal clear, golden, Wyoming morning light.

We finally reached the top of the loop, and it was Wheeeee time:  Five miles or so of almost constant downhill.  We had ridden this loop many, many times, and with that familiarity came a sense of anti-climax:  Instead of race-day exhilaration, I had to remind myself that this wasn't just another workout.  The hard-core athletes whizzing past us every few minutes helped drive the point home, but it felt more like a fun weekend outing than a race.

When we finally hit town again and turned the corner onto Smith Street, we heard a very familiar voice yelling, "Go Go Mommy!  I Love You, Daddy!"  Grandma and Auntie Liz told us that Katie cheered on pretty much everybody that went by--GO RACERS!--to the great amusement of several bike-riders who were not, in fact, in the race.  As Katie's voice faded out, we turned back toward the pool, and the certainty hit me:  We are going to do this.  We are really, really going to finish this thing.

The run was harder than we thought it would be.  There were more hills than we expected, and we had to walk several times. Both of us were having sort of an off-day, athletically, and that was frustrating.  But people were encouraging, runners cheering each other on, all of us in this together.  We actually passed someone who was struggling even more than we were, and it was our turn to lend some cheer.  Our strategy had been to finish, erring on the side of going slow to ensure we would get there.  That was surprisingly difficult.  But Sarah ran a smart race, taking her time, controlling her asthma, not giving in to the urge to push hard.  I might be just a little bit proud of her.  I can admit it.

Then we turned the corner and saw the finish line.

I have always loved finish lines in long-distances races--the drama, the competitiveness and camaraderie, the feeling of accomplishment.  This one was all the sweeter for the long journey that led up to it:  Months and months of dreaming, planning, and hard, hard work.  Doubts and fears to lay aside.  Injuries and hurts to heal.  Baggage to shed.  Reservoirs of courage, faith, and strength to rediscover.

Not so very long ago, my wife could not get out of bed without help.  Most of you reading this were with us through that long, grim time:  Months of excruciating pain.  HeartbreakDeath.  Separation.  The only thing between us and despair was faith in God, love for each other, and the care of some amazingly stalwart friends.  Times like that either blow a marriage completely apart, or cement it forever, because there is no other option.  You either bail, or you stick it out.  We did the latter, and here we are.  In peace or war.

I remember walking beside Sarah as she pushed her IV stand, slowly and painfully, through the halls of P/SL hospital, desperately trying to gain enough strength to go home, as our beautiful daughter cheered her on.

That image, from just a short year-and-a-half ago, was vividly in my mind as we jogged side by side up and down those Spriggs Street hills.  As we turned onto Fremont Street, spotted the finish line in the distance, and finally gave in to the urge to kick up the pace, I could not keep a smile off my face.  It is exhilarating, sometimes, to juxtapose the past with the present.  We have come so far.

We finished the race strong.  And we crossed that line hand in hand, exhausted and hurting but grinning with the joy of what we had just accomplished.

And that is how we will continue to face the distance run of life:  Hand in hand, shoulder to shoulder.  Exhausted at times, but hearts filled with God's love and joy.  Struggling at times, but smiling with the joy and peace of God's hope.  Sticking together and holding on to what matters, come what may:  In good times or bad, in triumph or disaster, in sickness or health.

In peace or war.  Faithful to the end.

See also Kelsey Dayton's beautiful write up on our story for Wyofile. 


  1. So impressive you guys! Am I inspired to marathon? Probably not, but I do need to add a bit more elliptical to my qi gonging.
    As for Viking/Scot ancestry...yeah, me too. Clan MacPherson. We probably rumbled occasionally back in the day.

  2. This post brought tears to my eyes. I am so proud of you both!

    1. Thank you, Lindsey. I'm proud of you too, and I love the way you are making such a grand adventure out of serving others. Thank you for letting the rest of us come along for the ride. :)