My Best Chicago Half Marathon

The reality is that I’ll never “win” a race.  That is, I’ll never come in first.  For an age grouper, winning is something different — it’s redefining a podium finish to achieving the best you can offer.  It’s about goals and finishing strong.

The Chicago Half Marathon is my last event of the year.  It’s my final test to see if my best has improved; to determine whether I’m a stronger running.

The 4:00 AM Central Daylight Time alarm is very painful because I’m from the west coast.   It’s really 2:00 AM my time.  While the early, early morning is a shock to my system, I still force myself to eat two oranges before going down to the hotel lobby and meet my friend, Eric.

We walk 5 minutes to the shuttle which takes us to the start line.  After a 15 minute ride in a yellow school bus with less legroom than an airplane, we arrive to a dark, near empty field.  It’s 5:15 AM and the race begins at 7:00 AM.  For an hour and a half, Eric and I aimlessly roam around the start area drinking coffee and staring at others who foolishly arrived excessively early.   We find a post-race meeting place, the best porta-potty locations, and lie in the grass waiting for the remaining 12,000 athletes to arrive.

At 6:45 AM, we line up in our start corral where we can see a full spread of humanity ready to spend their Sunday morning racing.  The pain of the early morning alarm is quickly replaced with the pre-race adrenaline.  I am ready for my best.

After the national anthem, the race begins.   Together, Eric and I run through the first mile until our natural cadences and the thick crowd separate us.   Quickly, I look over my shoulder and wave goodbye.

The thick field keeps my pace slow and holds me back from running too fast, too early.  It’s not until mile 3 when the course leaves Jackson Park and heads north up Lake Shore Drive that space opens up for a longer, faster stride.  With a little space, I keep my head up and enjoy the spectacular views of the lake.

Without much effort, I pass the 2:10 pace group and speed through the first 6 miles.  By now, I know that I won’t achieve the dream sub-2 hour race, and that’s okay.  My best will be between 2:00 and 2:10.  So long as I stay ahead of the 2:10 pace group, I’ll meet my expectations.

The only threat to my new goal comes during mile 8 when I hear the loud chatter of the 2:10 pace leaders behind me.  I thought I left them 2 miles ago, but I must have slowed. Feeling the pressure, I stretch out my legs, increase speed, and restore the gap.

At mile 9, the course reverses direction backtracking south on Lake Shore Drive.  With less than an hour of running left, I take stock of my reserves.  Should I go faster?  Can I go
faster?

At mile 10, I go for it.  I increase my speed testing my strength as a runner.  With only 5 km left, a random thought occurs, “Why are there so many people in front of me?”  Looking down the road, I can see Lake Shore still packed with people.  Did they run the first 10 miles that much faster than me?  Hubris tells me that they just started before me.  Reality tells me that, yes, they are just faster than me.

At mile 11, I think “only 2.2 to go” and try another acceleration.  While I feel like I’m working harder, I don’t think I’m producing more speed, just more pain.  Mile 12, 1.1 miles left, I accelerate again.  My muscles tell me that’s it, my top speed.  It feels impressive — the pounding of my heart, the straining of my legs, and the deepness of my breath.  But measured by the other runners who are still passing me, my impressiveness is clearly in my own mind.

I make the final turn and see the finishing gate.  I don’t care if I’m the only one impressed by my self-deluded speed.  I race through the shoot and throw up my arms.  Victory.

I’m one minute off my PR (which was obtained on a downhill course).  Yes, I ran my best. Yes, I finished strong.

“Run in such a way as to get the prize”  1 Corinthians 9:24

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Second Time Issues

This is my first second.  Since beginning my endurance athlete adventure, I’ve never participated in the same event twice — until Saturday’s San Diego Triathlon Classic. For the second year in a row, I am racing the Olympic distance triathlon (1500 Meter Swim, 40K Bike, 10K run).  Check out how I did last year here.

With an identical course, my goal is clear — go faster than last year.  Following the tips of training gurus on the internet, I confide to friends my sub-3 hour finishing goal.  I have a goal and accountability.

At the sound of the start horn, I plunge my head into the 71 degree water and begin swimming. With each stroke, I remind myself to swim relaxed and easy.  Through the first half of the swim, I’m encouraged.  I am in contact with my wave with only a few different colored swim caps passing me.

In the second half of the swim, I fall behind and become subsumed a full rainbow of swim caps colors from the later start waves.  As expected, most athletes from my wave have left me behind, but I’m not disappointed.  I check my watch and I’m right on pace — I’m going for the sub-3!

sdtriclassipixDropping into the aero position on my bike, I feel confident, if not arrogant.  Passing the line of bike riders from the other start waves simply boosts my self-inflated ego.

Then I hit the big hill and remember the comradery of the sport.  Because we all suffer in the face of steep grades, I shout encouragement to struggling riders, bike walking riders, and the woman who fell over because she was going too slow (don’t worry, several of us checked and she was okay).

Returning to the transition area, I feel good until  I check my watch.  The sub-3 dream is turning into just that, a dream.  I will need a PR (personal record) in the run (10K) and my calves don’t seem to share the same dream (yes, it’s the “pre-cramp” feeling).

I begin the run asking the self-doubt and regret questions.

  • Why am I slower this year?
  • Did I push to hard on the hill?
  • Maybe I should have done more brick training?
  • Did I really need that potty break?  (actually, yes I did!)

I wrestle with disappointment when two in my age group pass me in the first 3 miles of the run.  I’m falling down the rankings.  The dream is turning into a nightmare.

But at mile 4, I awake from my self-loathing stupor when I pass a 72-year-old sprint athlete.  Next, I see a blind athlete with his running guide.  Like me, everyone around them is in awe watching these athletes overcome incredible obstacles.  I want to be racing when I’m 72!

With a half mile left, I accelerate to my maximum effort.   My heart rate quickens and my breathing deepens.  I’m no longer racing for a sub-3, but for the pleasure of competing.  I’m even immune to 19-year-old who makes me look like I’m standing still as he speeds by me.  I want to finish strong.  I will finish strong.  I do finish strong.

I don’t regret missing my goal by a few minutes.  I do regret the constant comparison to a younger version of myself.  Even though it’s the same course, I am a year older (and racing in a new age bracket) making this new race.  And with every new race, I will rise to the challenge.  After all, I’m still racing.

Work hard at whatever you do, because there will be no action, no thought, no knowledge, no wisdom in the world of the dead”

(Ecc 9:10, Good News Translation)

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Finding Kilroy

I’m in Washington DC for business, but my real mission is to find Kilroy.

Kilroy was here.  While the origins are disputed, the Kilroy graffiti is associated with American soldiers in WWII.  On this trip to Washington DC, my son sent me on a mission to find Kilroy hidden in the World War II Memorial.

It’s 6:30 PM. I arrive in my hotel room and dedicate myself my mission — find Kilroy. And, what better way to do this than squeezing in a run before dark. While checking my phone’s weather app — 8:00 PM sunset with a 30% chance of rain, I unpack by dumping my clothes on the bed, change, and head out the door for my run.

I’ve been to DC before and blindly trust my instincts.  Run 4 blocks to the Mall, turn right, and find the WWII Memorial somewhere along the Mall.  What could be easier?

Heading out the door, I begin by turning left.  After several blocks I find the White House and am confused.  Instead of finding the Mall, I ran parallel to it.  So much for my excellent instincts. But that’s okay because I can see the Mall from the White House.  I make my course correction and run toward the Washington Monument.

Reaching the base of the Monument, the 30% chance of rain becomes 100% when the big drops appear on the sidewalk. It’s not a heavy rain and the locals are ignoring it (they continue to play Frisbee, soccer, and softball).  Taking their lead, I also ignore it and turn west hoping to find the WWII Memorial.

I follow the tree-lined path of Constitution Avenue until I find the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. Somehow I missed the WWII Memorial, but I’m not disappointed since I’m steps away from the Lincoln Memorial.  Distracted from my mission, I stop for a quick visit. Unfortunately, the rain’s intensity is increasing.   Umbrellas are popping up.  Segway tourists appear wearing trash bag-like capes.

Turning around at the Lincoln Memorial, I head back along the Reflecting Pool when the deluge begins.  With the sound of rolling thunder, the heavy drops transform into a curtain of rain.  The tourists and locals disappear (even the Segways are gone).  I feel alone except for the few other foolish runners stranded outside.

With the downpour, Flashbacks of last year’s Rock and Roll Half Marathon come streaming back to my mind.  I am soaked, but I keep telling myself, “it’s not as bad as the half marathon.”  After all, this is a warm thundershower, not a cold rainstorm.

I debate sprinting back to the hotel or continuing with the mission when I stumble across the World War II Memorial hidden behind the Washington Monument.  I’m close.  Searching through the huge granite columns, each representing a state or territory, I come to the end of the row and a maintenance gate.

Then I see him.

I pull out my phone to take a picture only to find that touch screens don’t work with wet fingers.  I have no dry clothing to wipe my hands. Socks? Underwear?  Everything is wet.  After several failed attempts, I discover friction.  Vigorous hand rubbing creates just enough dryness to snap the photo.  Kilroy Was Here.

I fulfilled my mission in spite of getting lost, being distracted by other monuments, drenching rain, and wet fingers.

Perseverance.

 

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Ride Report: Riding The Tour (Stage 1)

Today is the day before the Tour of California.  I call it, Tour of California Eve.  And, today is the day that I ride the same (almost) route as the professional cyclists.  106 miles, 7000 feet of climbing.

It’s 7:20 AM.  After listening to the National Anthem played by a high school kid on an electric guitar, the mass of cyclist begin rolling out of the parking lot.  Unlike the Pros who start in Mission Bay (San Diego), my Tour of California starts at the Trek Store in Chula Vista near the 60 km mark just before the Honey Springs climb then circles back toward Mission Bay, through the Imperial Beach sprint, and returns back to the  Trek Store.

The cool, overcast day is perfect for riding.  After 10 miles I hit the Honey Springs climb with fresh legs.  Expecting a long day in the saddle, I climb the 6.7 miles an 1,800 feet keeping my heart rate low and enjoying the conversation and the view.

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Slowly, I separate myself from the pack of riders and make a new friend, Ryan.  He’s young and doesn’t appear to sweat (making me feel old and out-of-shape) as we reach the peak and descend to our first rest stop.

After 60 minutes of climbing, I enjoy the leg stretch and a natural break (that’s the “pro” word for bathroom break, but the pros don’t seem to stop for bathrooms along their race — makes you think a bit — how do they do it?) while I wait for the group at the rest stop.

Capture

After regrouping, we head to San Diego’s back county through tree lined roads and Captureincredible vistas.  I savor this portion of the ride since the second half will be through the congested streets of the city. Unlike the pros, my pace is easy and gives me ample time to contemplate the view.

The back county is deceiving hilly.  At one point I crest a rolling hill and look down at a long descent only to find it is not a descent, just an ascent that looks flat.  This route is well established and used by regular riders who name the hilltops.    Here, I pass a self-styled a label drilled into the asphalt, “Petit Col Du Japatul”.

The descent back to civilization is fast with long sweeping curves and few cars.  I feel like I’m flying as my computer registers top speeds over 35 mph. Upon entering the city, the traffic and congestion reduce my pace to a crawl. Suddenly, fatigue and hunger set in.

I  battle the temptation to eat a processed nutrition bar knowing that there are sandwiches and real food in another half hour at the Mile 65 rest stop. But, I am crushed with disappointment when I see emergency vehicles blocking the planned route through Mission Valley.  A detour means waiting longer for real food. Fearing the dreaded bonk, I beg a few Cheez-Its from my friend to hold off the hunger for a few more miles.  When I finally roll into the rest stop, I make a beeline to the food.  I eat 3 half sandwiches, two cups of Coke, a bag of chips, and a banana.  I guess I was really hungry.

Refueled, we ride through Balboa Park turning the tourists’ eyes to our peloton.  Now I feel like I’m in the Tour with gawking eyes and adoring fans cheering me along.

Silence settles in when I realize that 30 more miles means two more hours.  It’s been a long day, my shoulders ache, my legs are tired, and I really want to sit on something larger than a bike seat.  Riding through the  Imperial Beach sprint point (and not sprinting — much too tired for that) tells me that it’s time to turn east for the final 15 miles.  The group’s mood lifts in anticipation of the finish line.

The final turn from Otay Lakes Road to Lane Avenue sees the pace quicken for our amateur version of a sprint finish.  It’s not much of a sprint and there is no “lung” to cross the finish line, but the feelings of elation, accomplishment, and relief put a large grin on my face.

I just finished Stage 1 of Amgen’s Tour of  California.

  • My Total Ride Time:  7:53 hours (not counting rest stops).
  • Peter Sagan:  (Tour of California Stage 1 Winner):  4:20 hours.
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Who Needs Sleep? My First Ragnar Race

I usually run alone squeezing  in workouts during lunch and whenever there’s downtime from the family.  After all, running is an individual sport.  But a Ragnar — that’s different.

What is a Ragnar?  It’s a 12-person relay race covering almost 200 miles (Huntington Beach to San Diego) in two days and one night.  Each runner is assigned 3 legs and sequentially runs until the last team member crosses the finish line.  Van 1 carries runners 1 through 6, and Van 2 carries runners 7 through 12. Van 1 leapfrogs its runners launching one runner and meeting him/her at the end of the leg in time to launch the next runner. After runner 6 is done, Van 2 springs into action while Van 1 takes a break, looks for food, and sleeps (like that really happens). Vans 1 and 2 continue leapfrogging until all runners complete their legs.  I am on team: “Who Needs Sleep?”

Our start time is 8:15 and there are already runners on the course.  With over 650 teams, Ragnar staggers start times sending the slower teams out first.  The carnival-like start line atmosphere is aided by colorfully decorated vans, running costumes, loud music, and pre-race jitters. 

At 8:15, the announcer yells the team names and sounds the horn.  The race is on!  Making an early statement, our  Runner #1 (you can see him in blue; that’s the announcer in orange and black trying to get out of the way) sprints out of the gate leading the pack.  It is a glorious, albeit, brief moment.

For each runner, we cheer their start, run back to the van, navigate to some mid-route point to offer support (only to get lost, confused, and hope that the runner hadn’t passed the midpoint before we get there), and meet him/her at the next exchange.

With 12 runners, I bring a book expecting long wait times.  But with all the texting updates, photos, and weird conversions, I never open it (note to self —  don’t bring a book next year).  Instead, I learn about about my teammates.
One team member summarized it nicely.

  • one team member grew up in Kentucky though you’d never guess it (no accent)
  • one team member absolutely refuses to use a port-a-potty (I don’t blame her)
  • one team member has an fanatical obsession with decorating our van
  • one team member can practically sleep anywhere
  • one is apparently dead set on getting lost during one of her legs

I am Runner #4 and my turn quickly approaches.  It’s a flat 5K.  With runners #1 through #3 running faster than our projected estimated times, I am inspired.  In the exchange, I receive the baton (a magnetic wrist bracelet that you slap on the next runner).  It’s moist.  Yuck.  Pushing aside the grossness factor, I speed through the route clocking a 5K personal best . Back in the van, I re-hydrate, towel off with baby wipes, and settle in for the long wait (about 12 hours until my next run).  This feels easy.

My van’s second set of legs (Legs 13 to 18) occur at night.  Safety rules require head lamps, blinking tail lights, and safety vests.  
The colorful array of electronics make it easy to trace out the route.  I like the night leg because the air is cool and roads are empty. There is a meditative quality of following blinking lights and listening to thumping of footfalls.

That is, until you miss a turn. Not me, but I can see how it happens.  This is what it looks like.

Capture1The good news is that we found our lost runner.  The bad news is that she ran an extra 3 miles.

My night run is 5.3 miles and hilly.  Two big hills remind me that running can hurt.  But, I refuse to go slow especially when I hear my teammates cheering as I pass the the top of the first hill.   Inspired, I continue to push the pace up the second hill finishing over one minute per mile faster than my planned pace.  Sitting back in the van, I think I made a mistake –my legs are beginning to feel sore.

Once Van 1 finishes our night runs, we bed down in a teammate’s office building.   Thankfully, his office is near the race route and has showers.

Unlike other teams who brave the cold night air sleeping outdoors or in their vans, we hunker down in a climate controlled office building with sofas for a glorious 2 hours of sleep.  The only disadvantage of the office is the easy listening soft rock music that cannot be turned off.  But still, it’s better than outside.

The next day begins at 4 AM.  By now, the lack of true recovery (too little sleep) and the rebellion of my muscles from leg 2 remind me that a Ragnar is an endurance event.

Despite the lack of sleep, fatigue, and muscle aches, I get to watch the sunrise as my team runs along the southern California coast.  This is the magic hour.

My final leg is 6.5 miles along the coast then cutting inland.  The coast is flat and easy with the only difficulty coming from within my body (sore legs).  But at mile 4, the route begin over 500 feet of climbing. Not wanting to let the team down with a slow split, I power through the hills including one quarter mile stretch that tops out at a 14% grade (that really hurts).  As I approach the exchange, I hear the cheering and tell my legs to shut up.  100 yards to the end, I feel victory and sprint.  I’ve finished my portion of the relay (still ahead of my planned pace)!

As Van 1’s running comes to an end, the zombie-like looks begin to grow.  Two runners have disappeared under blankets sprawled out on the van’s long benches.  We find a parking lot near the end of the course and wait slowly fading between consciousness and unconsciousness.

After 32 hours, the entire team gathers just short of the finish line and together run the last 100 yards under the Ragnar finish line banner.

Ragnar is different — I am not alone.  I am part of a team.

Two are better than one,
    because they have a good return for their labor

Ecclesiastes 4:9

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Watching The Heavens Speak

When my work project scheduled a trip to Whitehorse, Yukon Territory in February, I had mixed feelings.  Isn’t this place so cold that people die?  What is it, -100 degrees in the winter?  My client assured me that people do live there, it’s not -100, maybe -10 C,  and “there’s nothing better than watching the Northern Lights from a hot tub with a beverage of your choice.”

Now there’s a Bucket List item I can get excited about.  For weeks, I research how I can get pictures (besides stealing them off the internet and pretending that they are mine). Apparently, iPhones and small point and click cameras don’t work.  All the bloggers say you need the big SLR (or DSLR) camera and a tripod.  Undeterred, I practice long exposures with my iPhone and Cannon Powershot (point and click) preparing for my Northern Lights photo safari.

Upon arrival, I sign up for a Northern Lights tour with Northerntales.  The tour company runs tours from 10 PM to 2 AM from the Best Western hotel in Whitehorse and has excellent TripAdvisor reviews. Since the tours are late, I schedule my tour for my last night (after all, I can’s show up at the client site sleep deprived).

Tonight is the night.  I show up in the Best Western lobby and wait.  Soon, others begin to arrive and I feel under-dressed.  Everyone has boots, nylon pants (covering real pants), knit hats, and fuzzy parkas.  They carry backpacks of stuff.  I’m wearing jeans, running shoes, and have four layers on top (I do have a down parka — I’m not that lame).  I don’t have a backpack and am unsure what else I could bring.

We bus north, up the Great Alaskan Highway, for about 30 minutes.  It’s dark and I can’t see anything, but I still look up expecting to see something.  At one point, we turn toward Dawson — the only place further north than Whitehorse.  Then suddenly the bus slows, pulls to the side of the road, and cuts through some trees in the forest.  We bounce along a one-lane, snow covered dirt path for about five minutes before we stop at a large open field.

The quick orientation takes us to the burning fire, warming hut (snacks and hot drinks), and stack of tripods.  In the first hour, everyone is outside forming a skirmish line of tripods armed with expensive cameras.

Then we wait.

And wait.  And wait.

Apparently Northern Lights viewing is like whale watching.  You know they’re out there, but you can force the whales to jump out of the water.  For an hour, I stand in the cold staring at the dark sky hoping the haze clears.  For a brief moment, I am excited as the clouds break and the beautiful starlit sky opens up.  I see a shooting star and become a constellation tour guide to a South African couple (it’s a northern/southern hemisphere thing).  Then the haze returns.

Discouraged, I walk back to the warming hut and find my fellow adventurers watching our guide make Maple Taffy. It’s an  Canadian thing where you boil maple syrup (to reduce it), then pour it over fresh snow.  As the heated syrup cools, you roll it on a stick to make a lollipop.  It’s  good and sweet.  The picture shows our guide making some for us.  I guess waiting for the Lights is a common thing.

After finishing my Taffy, I walk back out side.  It’s 12:45, the haze 24871780352_e6c18dc494_o.jpgis clearing and the show is beginning.  It starts with a long green arch stretching from the east to the west like a
glowing rainbow of a single color.  The warming hut is now empty, the skirmish line is filled, and the chatter grows louder.

Click.

Click. Click.

I experiment with my iPhone camera and Cannon Powershot.  The bloggers are right, I’m 24694285830_f7ba3aa27e_o.jpgtaking pictures of a blackness. After about 20 photos of black squares, I give up.  The good news is that the guides are taking pictures for us.  I hop in line for my souvenir photo (really photos since I wasn’t busy trying to take pictures).

For the next hour and a half, I watch the heavens open up with the Northern Lights slowly transforming from one configuration to another. The photos below are taken by the guides with their DSLR camera, but I claim them as my own since this is my adventure.

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24991253095_5a7d79b01a_o.jpgWithTrees.jpg24964941946_de733b41a8_o.jpg24896485711_0dbbfb4768_o.jpg

The heavens declare the glory of God;
    the skies proclaim the work of his hands.
 Day after day they pour forth speech;
    night after night they reveal knowledge.
 They have no speech, they use no words;
    no sound is heard from them.
 Yet their voice goes out into all the earth,
    their words to the ends of the world.

Psalm 19:1-4

The heavens have spoken.

 

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Three Attempts at the Millennium Trail

“Where do people run up here?”  With temperatures hovering below freezing, I’m surprised that I got an answer at all.  I am in Whitehorse, Yukon Territory, Canada.  Like my trip to  Harrisburg (The Cold Never Bothered Me Anyway), I am finishing work and ready to run.  But where?

I am instructed to head south along the Yukon river, cut through a forest to a footbridge, head north along the Yukon river, and cross another bridge back to town.  “It’s an easy 5K path.  You can’t miss it.”

In the land of parkas and fur lined hoods, I take to the streets of Whitehorse in my running tights and technical fabrics.  Downtown is only a few blocks long and before I know it, I’m at the Yukon river.  Turning south, I find the freshly plowed running path.  Actually, it’s a bike path which is used by winter cyclists sporting giant knobby tires.  

Heading south, I feel good and warm. But, a tinge of fear creeps into my head with the setting sun.  With a half hour before sunset, I know my 5K pace will get me back before dark, but still … it’s cold and snowy.

As I follow the river south, I slowly accelerate hoping to increase my margin of error. But before I reach the forest, I am gripped by fear.  Fear of getting lost in a forest.  Fear of freezing.  Fear of being the frozen body found in the forest without a heavy coat (that would be embarrassing).  So, I turn around and head back to the warmth and safety of my hotel room.  At least I tried.

On day two (the next day), I finish work early and commit to the full 5K.  With plenty of time, I retrace my steps from the prior day and find the forest.

Cutting through the tall pines, I am torn between looking up at the view (amazing) and down at my feet to avoid large puddles (don’t want wet feet in the snow) and ice patches (don’t want to slip and injure myself).  Looking up wins and I find that I am not really running.  I am taking a picture, then running 100 yards saying “OMG, OMG, OMG” (in my head so others don’t think I’m crazy) until I am compelled stop and take another picture.


The pace is so easy and the views are so spectacular that I continue to photo-run along the river after crossing the bridge back to town.  In all, I cover 10K before returning to the hotel.  I count this as a victory even though it was more like a fast walk instead of a run.Capture

On day three, I learn the trail’s name is the Millennium Trail. This time, I run (I don’t stop for pictures since I have a bunch from yesterday). Breathing deeply, I embrace the cold, the white, the snow, and the beauty.  I now run freely with pure joy.

It took me three tries to find the joy of running the Millennium Trail.  The journey included a healthy dose of reality (fear of death), just plain awe (or OMG), and finally the joy that comes with familiarity.  In three days, I’ve experienced the microcosm of my spiritual life.  And, it began with fear.

“Fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom”  Proverbs 9:10

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