Two years ago, when Zap traveled to Greenville, South Carolina, I found a secret place.
I was running down a main road when I happened upon an old side street, leading into the forest. It was cracked and overgrown, an obvious dead end into the woods, but I took it. For some reason I was compelled to find out where it led. At the end of it, I found solace.
Yes, the old road was a dead end into the trees, but on one side of that dead end was a path that led into a tiny graveyard and on the other was an ancient building foundation that had been swallowed by the vines and foliage of the South Carolina forest.
I walked through the graveyard in silence. Cracked tombstones rose out of red clay, and the dates ranged throughout the 1800’s and early 1900’s. Most of them only spanned only a few years. This was a children’s graveyard. I walked silently through the graves and felt like I must have been their only visitor in a hundred years. One grave was empty, a cavernous hole in the ground with the broken tombstone inside it. It made me think of the resurrection.
On the other side of the street, I stepped over roots and pushed aside vines as I explored the foundation. This was a large building once, with smaller outer rooms and one great room for gathering. I had a hunch, but I wanted to be sure.
I wandered the graveyard for a while longer, learned the names of its children, watched the light through the trees filter and change on the ground and listened to the bird that sat above me, scolding me for disturbing the afternoon in this sacred place. Then I ran home.
The road on which the condo sits is named Duncan Chapel Road. I wanted to test my hunch and went straight for my computer. I was right. The foundation for the old building was a church. It was Duncan Chapel. But that was only the beginning.
Mrs. Mary Ann Duncan was an incredible woman. The wife of a minister, she oversaw the construction of Duncan Chapel in 1833 and stepped up to the pulpit on Sunday mornings when her husband was away, though in the Methodist fashion of the time, men sat on one side of the chapel and women on the other.
The small graveyard, a favorite with ghost hunters in the south, belonged to the church. I was wrong, I was not the first one to stumble upon it and according to the accounts of its visitors, encounters with the paranormal were quite common here; many had heard children laughing and running down its path, playfully stirring up the leaves and teasing one another.
I never did hear children laughing, but I did return to the graveyard and chapel many times during our six-week stay in Greenville. I walked there and lost myself in the trees. Sometimes I sat in the old chapel and wrote. One time I took pictures of the graves, and another time I took Pete there, and we talked about what these people may have seen in their lifetime. When we left, I said goodbye to my enchanted forest and moved on with my life.
Time passed. I left Zap and moved to California and tried to make my running career work on my own. I struggled at altitude and raced poorly at sea level. Months passed without a decent race and finally, I broke. After a particularly disappointing 10-mile race I called Pete and asked him to coach me again. He said he would. In return, he wanted me to fly east a few times each year to train with the group. I agreed.
Last week, I flew to Greenville to spend time with Zap. I couldn’t wait to walk down that old road again and find that same peace. I woke up to sunshine and a blue sky. With my hands in my pockets and a smile on my face I walked up the street. When I reached the old road, I stopped walking. Ahead of me, as far as I could see, was bare earth with ugly trunks and piles of tree branches dotting the horizon. The land had been cleared, probably for the timber, by bulldozers and tractors. Men with no respect for beauty had cleared the trees right through the graveyard itself. The tombstones lay naked, exposed, too bright in the mid-morning sun. Many had been toppled without regard. I began to cry as I stood there in plain view of the road beyond, cars flying past. “I’m sorry they did this”, I whispered. My enchanted forest is gone.
I turned and ran. I don’t know how long I had been running when I realized the deeper significance of this pathetic, raped acre. I was heart broken because I’d lost something. The loss of a place I’d loved was a perfect metaphor for my running career. I’d lost the peace I once had in running. I’d lost the confidence that came with success in my sport, and I’d lost the drive to race and replaced it with the fear of competition. Well, I can’t make those trees grow again and I can’t bring back what I lost in that forest, but I’ll be damned if I’m not going to try to rebuild the pieces of my running career. When I asked Pete if I could race this past Saturday, he said yes.
There was a 10k about two hours away and Pete told me to run the race as a workout, sitting behind the lead woman for four miles and hammering the last two. And that’s exactly what I did. I have never enjoyed a race more than that 10k. I couldn’t wait to hit the 4-mile mark and when I did, I unleashed my legs, ripping a 5:19 followed by a 5:07, flying across the line alone, with a smile on my face and the whisper of God in my veins saying, “you were made to do this”. I’ve decided to enjoy racing again, because that is my choice and running is my sanctuary and no one can take that away from me.
There will always be things that threaten the peace in your life. Hold onto it. Fight for it. Run to it.