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Andi Ripley (A to Z running)

Sports

Joy in the race

For marathoner Andi Ripley, running is a kind of worship

After a morning run, Andi Ripley sat and stretched her legs in the bustling lobby of a downtown Atlanta hotel. Tomorrow was the 2020 U.S. Olympic Team Trials for the marathon, and 31-year-old Ripley, who was scheduled to compete, had been fighting nerves.

“I have been struggling with anxiety, and I don’t know what’s going to come, and I do know it’s going to be painful,” she said. Worried about her past hip and hamstring injuries, Ripley decided she would instead focus on what she could control—staying hydrated, doing her drills, fueling up with good food—while trusting God with the outcome.

Ripley never expected to be here. She was surprised when her 2019 finish time at the Chicago Marathon—2 hours, 43 minutes—qualified her for the Olympic trials. Since her time had trailed the top female contenders by about 20 minutes, she didn’t enter the race to make the Olympic team but to enjoy the rare experience of running with the nation’s fastest women.

But in Atlanta in late February, the race day’s hilly course and windy conditions would result in an unpredictable finish and disappointing finish times for many athletes. For Ripley, it was another chance to practice worshipping God even when running is difficult.

Leap day in Atlanta was sunny with blue skies and temperatures of around 50 degrees. Stiff winds whipped around tall downtown buildings. Wearing blue Nikes and a black racing singlet, Ripley ran down Peachtree Street among a mass of more than 400 women marathoners. Crowds lined the sidewalks, and fans screamed or clanged cowbells. A nearby speaker blared the song from Disney’s Mulan, “I’ll Make a Man Out of You.” 

Ripley has run since age 8, when her mom made her run daily to stay in shape for soccer. In junior high, she liked being able to outrun all the boys at school, but she also began to see the “reckless abandon of running” as a way of worshipping God. One such moment of worship came after a bus ride to a junior high cross-country meet, when Ripley prayed with a friend as the other girl committed her life to Christ. “I remember getting off the bus, and I felt like I was flying,” Ripley said. During that race, her running became an expression for “that joy that my friend would be in heaven with me.” She set a school record at the meet.

Now Andi is a wife and mom living in western Michigan. Running is still worshipful for her, but it’s also something she’s learned to hold loosely. As someone who can spend up to 15 hours a week running, she could easily let the sport control or define her life. As her husband and fellow runner Zach explains, the ability to run is a gift of God’s grace, but His grace remains even when He takes that ability away.

It kind of feels like the kind of worship that’s like fasting. That discomfort ... focuses my complete reliance on God.

When Ripley was pregnant with each of her two boys, she had to forgo running for months because of difficulties with the pregnancies. A funny-shaped bone in both hips also predisposes her to injuries, and she’s had to learn to train without aggravating the problem. While many of her competitors peaked in training for the marathon at 100-mile weeks, Ripley had to limit her training to about 60 per week. “Having to restrain myself is a very difficult thing,” she admitted. That self-discipline, though, has “been great practice.”

At a bend in the course in Atlanta, Ripley’s family yelled as she ran by: “Go, Andi! Run!” She kept her gaze straight ahead and seemed to smile as she ran, her brown braid swinging behind her.

Ripley finished with a time of 2:55, almost 30 minutes behind the top female runner. Soon after crossing the finish line, she walked gingerly toward the women’s athlete tent, a foil sheet pulled around her shoulders for warmth. “I didn’t feel good from the first step, so I knew it was going to have to be all about, ‘Just keep going,’” she said. “I actually thought during the race, ‘I’m leaving my pride aside. It’s about just finishing now.’”

Painful and inefficient, it wasn’t the race Ripley wanted. But she still described the experience as worshipful. “It kind of feels like the kind of worship that’s like fasting,” she said. “That discomfort … focuses my complete reliance on God.” 

She added: “I definitely felt it was God’s strength that was allowing me to continue, and the opportunity was one that He had given me.”

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David J. Phillip/AP

(David J. Phillip/AP)

Sports

Old-school baseball

The Washington Nationals’ remarkable 2019 season may offer a model for other baseball teams

Remarkable stories these days can quickly disappear into the blast of internet drama or depressing news cycles. That gives even more reason to go back during spring training and revisit one feel-good story of 2019: the Washington Nationals’ improbable championship run.

Disclosure: I have watched the Nationals’ games since 2006, when they were a brand-new team in the District of Columbia, returning after a 35-year hiatus in Montreal as the Expos. I watched when the team gave the players jerseys with the name misspelled as “Natinals,” watched their 100-plus-loss seasons, and saw their playoff meltdowns that knocked air out of fans’ lungs.

One redeeming quality in those miserable seasons was The Washington Post’s sports desk, which provided some of the best baseball coverage in the country. Now the Post’s beat reporter for the Nats, Jesse Dougherty, has cranked out a wonderful book: Buzz Saw narrates the wild 2019 season, from the team putting up the worst season start in its history to beating the best-in-baseball Houston Astros for the championship.

It’s a feel-good story not just for Nats fans but also for Yankees and Dodgers fans.

It’s a feel-good story not just for Nats fans, especially given the new cheating scandal that has swallowed up the Astros since the World Series and made them baseball’s villains—particularly to Yankees and Dodgers fans, who suffered 2017 postseason defeats at the Astros’ hands. The book mentions the scandal in a few brief paragraphs but mostly focuses on the joy of the underdogs in winning over the titanic ’Stros.

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Heidi Pinkerton

Team handler Mike Hoff encourages Colleen Sweeney Wallin at the start of the John Beargrease Sled Dog Marathon. (Heidi Pinkerton)

Sports

Twelve dogs and a sled

Colleen Sweeney Wallin became an unlikely lover of a unique winter sport

A dozen tense sled dogs strain at their harnesses, impatiently waiting with 13 other sled teams from the United States and Canada. Behind these 12 dogs, a musher wearing bib number 15 grins and steadies her crew. Sunglasses, purple cap, and a thick, fox-fur-ruffed red snowsuit mostly hide her dark eyes, fair Irish skin, and auburn hair. Her mittened fingers grip the wooden handles of a titanium sled, heavy boots planted firmly on its footboards.

At two-minute intervals, handlers lead each team to the starting line. There, after a 10-second countdown, dogs and musher erupt onto a 300-mile, snow-packed trail one team at a time. So begins the 36th John Beargrease Sled Dog Marathon, lasting two days in January in Minnesota along Lake Superior’s north shore.

Colleen Sweeney Wallin, 57, from Two Harbors, Minn., is not the stereotypical musher from a Jack London novel—no burly body or grizzled countenance. No wilderness experience, either, until she embraced mushing. Growing up in a Twin Cities suburb with six sisters and only small dogs for pets, she never expected to own, feed, and train 37 huskies, much less compete in the longest premier sled dog race in the Lower 48, a qualifier for the famed Alaskan Iditarod. 

Wallin first became interested in sled dogs in 1993, after watching the finish-line filming in downtown Two Harbors of the classic movie Iron Will. Her avid hunter-fisherman husband of 32 years, Ward, gifted her with a paid recreational sled dog trip to the Boundary Waters wilderness area, and that trip’s emotional experience persuaded her next to research and purchase dogs to train on the 40 acres surrounding their log cabin.

Her love for dog sledding grew, and she entered her first competition, the shorter Beargrease 100-mile race, in 1995 with no racing know-how. When her lead runner injured its ankle and other dog issues ensued, the whole team refused to continue, stopping 8 miles from the finish line. 

The trail crew eventually found Wallin in the dark with her minimal survival gear and tired dogs and said she’d have to quit. After begging for one more chance, she rallied her canines and crossed the finish line last, long after everyone but family members had gone. 

“It was a cool sense of accomplishment,” says Wallin, and it motivated her to keep training. Prior to January’s ­competition, she had completed 18 Beargrease races, finishing as the top female in 13 races and as third overall in 2014. 

Mishaps occur during training, too. Once, careening around a turn, her sled tipped, dumping Wallin over a bridge into icy, waist-deep water, and her dogs took off. She hiked 3 miles in wet (soon frozen) snow pants before finding her team lying down calmly waiting for her. Another time, she grew dehydrated and hallucinated that turtles were clogging the trail.

Even occasional race temperatures of minus 50 degrees haven’t daunted Wallin, though twice she didn’t compete because of the births of her two sons and twice organizers canceled for lack of snow.

Rather than isolating her from family members, dog sledding unites them. Everyone participates in what’s also become a family side business, Silver Creek Sled Dogs. Ward helps train and run the dogs and splits daily feeding and poop-scooping with Wallin. (Their 37 huskies consume 4 tons of food every nine months.) Sons Ian, 21, and Ero, 17, help care for the dogs between school and hockey events. This year marks Ero’s second Beargrease shorter competition. 

“It makes me feel good to know Ero’s on the same trail as I am, seeing what I’m seeing,” says Wallin.

During today’s race, the trail is the best Wallin’s ever seen. A deep snowpack of 40 inches on the northern portion makes sledding fast but controllable and keeps Wallin in the pack of lead mushers.

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