Of Football and Princesses

We weren't home long from California (1.5 days to be exact) before we headed back out.  We managed to squeeze in a day of counseling and to wash and repack our suitcases in time for our Wednesday, Feb. 20, flight to Orlando to present a workshop at the Pro Athletes Outreach (PAO) conference.   This annual 4-day conference was started by Norm and Bobbe Evans years ago and has been used by God to spiritually impact NFL players for decades now.  Steve and Lori Stenstrom have now succeeded the Evans in providing leadership for PAO, and working with our own Don (retired Patriot) and Yannette Davis, produced another phenomenal conference.  This year's conference featured plenary speakers Dr. Tony Evans, Miles McPherson, and Francis Chan, and we were challenged and blessed by each of them.

It's a huge honor for us to be invited to be on the workshop team each year.  This year, we spoke on "how to keep your marriage alive while raising kids you like."  The subject obviously hit a chord as our workshop was packed out with very responsive attendees.  It also spawned many sidebar conversations during the remaining days of the conference, as we were fortunately scheduled to present of the first full day of the conference.

It was such a joy for us to reconnect with four current couples from our Patriot's couples' study as well as with at least that many ex-Pat couples.  Every moment of the four days was spent either in sessions or hanging out with friends in the beautiful Omni Resort in Orlando.  The mix of work and play was refreshing.

We came away with a lot, and admittedly, we're still processing—especially the talks given by Francis Chan.  He has an uncanny and consistent way of stirring the water and replacing comfortability with conviction.  His passionate plea to be "all in" for Jesus was lost on no one, and he quite possibly stands alone as the only speaker we've ever heard at PAO who expressed to these NFL players the sentiment, "I feel sorry for you."  He continued to explain why: that because of their status, their wealth, and their being idolized, it will be very difficult for them to fully surrender to Jesus.  He reminded them that their sense of value and worth could ultimately be found in nothing other than Jesus, and that in their arena, they face so much competition for their identity.  He actually wept for the players, as if he really did understand the seductive forces at work to pull them away from the heart of God.  He closed the final evening session by asking everyone to get into a posture of humble surrender - on our knees - and it was an incredibly moving moment to hear the scuffle of chairs and the sounds of 450 people bending their knees to God.  

I was deeply blessed to receive this email from a dear friend after the conference:
"I just wanted to let you know that PAO has  done wonders for us. We have had so many talks since we have been back—more than the last five years . . . lol!!   My husband is really opening up to me—I am loving it. Our relationship actually feels more real now than it ever has.  When you are finally convicted by the Holy Spirit, you just don't shut up!! He has been talking and praying and listening and confessing and repenting since we came back!! I tried sneaking in there a few times that he isn’t flawed alone but I don’t think he even heard me.  I am like,  “God please keep working on me because at this rate my husband will be a saint!!’  I am thankful!!"
Wow!  That's just one piece of evidence that God was at work in a big way at the PAO conference.  Rejoice with us!  We know first hand that when God gets ahold of an NFL player, their natural platform can be used to advance God's purposes in a big way.  Pray for these men and their wives especially, that they wouldn't settle for or be seduced by the temporary things this world offers and defines as successful.

Some of our Bible study couples at the PAO conference.  We had a great time together.
So, you get the football part of this blog’s title, but princess??  What's that about?

The sun had barely set on the PAO conference Saturday night, Feb. 26, and it surely hadn't risen the next morning when I had to rise to join 14,000 "princesses" who would pound out 13.1 miles running in the "Disney Princess Half Marathon."  It was too good an opportunity to pass up, really.  We were in Orlando, and our conference ended just in the nick of time, and my goal of running 2 half marathons a year was lagging . . . so I ran.  It was my first "alone" run, which probably sounds ridiculous, since I've already said there were 14,000 runners.  But my running partner in crime, daughter Lisa, was unable to get out of her work commitments (she's currently the Athletic Trainer for the women's division 1 basketball at JMU, and obviously they're in season), so I ran "alone." 
Sort of. I was able to recruit several Patriot wives to run as well, but, truth be told, I still ran alone.  I didn't want them to set their "personal worst" time by running with me, so I genuinely wished them well and encouraged them to run their race.  I have given that freedom to Lisa in the previous runs we've done and I'm so thankful she's never taken me up on it!  It makes a big difference to run with a motivational coach who can actually run and talk for 13.1 miles and not get winded or sweaty.

Taking the shuttle bus from the Animal Kingdom Lodge at 3:30 am, God did something very special for me.  I sat down next to a woman who I discovered within moments was also running alone.  She was also from New England (CT) and we soon discovered that we had a lot in common, including some mutual friends.  Out of 14,000 women, I would sit next to Heather! I knew that God had orchestrated it.  She was a gift then and I imagine will continue to be in the years to come.

We're ready to run!  My new friend Heather is in the middle.

And so, in the still dark morning, we gathered.  I was quite in awe of the hundreds of princesses who dressed the part!!  There is a high entertainment factor in this run.  Tinkerbell, Snow White, the Fairy God Mother, Ursula, Minnie and Mickey Mouse—they were there in force, contributing to the "eye candy" this event is famous for.

With fireworks brightening the still dark sky and shattering the early morning quiet, the run started at 5:45 am.  Having grown up in SoCal with enough Disneyland exposure to make it one of my favorite places on earth, it was a total blast to run from Epcot to the Magic Kingdom—through the park—with no one but characters and fellow runners.  There was something very magical about running to Sleeping Beauty's Castle with the sun rising behind it, and to be cheered on by Disney's wonderful cast of characters at every turn.

It was about the time I came upon Prince Charming and Cinderella's carriage (which evolved from a pumpkin) at mile 9 that I began developing calf cramps, and suddenly my dreams of a "happily ever after" ending dimmed.  At that point, I was on track to actually set a personal best time, but the last 4 miles were punctuated with calf-stretching breaks.  Thankfully, I was able to finish and wasn't too much slower than my first run.  

Even though I read a t-shirt that read "Princesses don't sweat, they sparkle!!!", I was one sweaty princess on the arm of Prince Charming.  :)

My third half-marathon is now in the history books and I'm already preparing for #4 in Vermont in early June.

I am so thankful to have the physical health to do such things.  I'm not a natural runner and let me assure you, it's not easy for me to run that long.  It's actually posed the biggest physical challenge I've had in my adult years.  And it's produced some really positive benefits for me, physically, spiritually, and mentally.

The big take-away for me from this run is a reminder of how important community is.  That's obviously not a new thought, but I was struck by how much of a difference it made to run this race "alone."  It was so much harder!  I had way too much time to think about how easy it would be to give up when you're alone.  It's become a bit of a joke that I've inspired at least a dozen young women to run, who have new found confidence that they can do a half marathon if I can do one.  Many thoughts paraded through my head that morning that echoed such sentiments.  After all, if I can run a half-marathon at 56, anyone could run one.  There were times during the 13.1 that I really doubted if I could.

But I pressed on, and as the hot Florida sun slowly rose in the sky, I was motivated to finish sooner than later, since it was only going to get harder and hotter.  It was such joy to cross the finish line and have my own Prince Charming awaiting me with a sign and my Patriots travel mug full of ice water.  After the race is over, it doesn't seem so bad at all.  A bit like childbirth, I suppose.  Back to the Animal Kingdom Lodge we went to recover by hanging out in their beautiful pool.  Amazingly, we met up with my new best friend, Heather, and her husband, and spent several hours animatedly discovering each other's life stories.  As I flew back to Boston late that night, I was a tired, but very thankful and fulfilled Princess, with a mind swimming with challenging thoughts and happy memories.  In some ways, it was a happily ever after ending.  At least for now.

My "Prince Charming" was waiting for me at the finish line.  What a guy!!