Choosing Courage Over Comfort

Brian here with an update on life in Thailand these days.

Chiang Mai is usually a bustling city full of visitors eating exotic foods, riding elephants and shopping at the night markets.  Locals can be found praying at temples, shopping at local outdoor food markets, walking around in the streets, hanging out at cafes, or bicycling and/or running all over the place. 

This time of year it’s normal to see people wearing masks due to the smokey air, which begins late in the year and runs well into spring. The sky is a nasty grey color and we can occasionally see bright fiery patches on the nearby mountainside.

But, as with the rest of the world, we’re now wearing masks for a different reason. Everything non-essential is shut down and food is takeout or delivery only.

Few people are outside their homes during the day, but at night when the day’s wind sometimes clears the skies you can find people walking and biking around neighborhood streets.

Most of life right now is lived inside our air-purified home. (We are currently running 9 air purifiers in our small 3-bedroom house to keep the air within the healthy zone!) Learning, working, playing, exercising, cooking, cleaning, eating, reading – we do it all together. Most evenings we go out for a bike ride or workout around the “moobaan” (neighborhood) just to get some fresh-not-so-fresh air.  And we play with our black and white cat, Cuddles.

Before the lockdown hit we were in full swing with spring semester athletic activities at Grace with only a few limitations.  Volleyball teams were practicing and staff were forming teams to play against students since we were disallowed to play against other schools.  Soccer teams, swim teams, and cross-country teams were in off-season training mode.  I was very impressed at how my cross-country students proactively asked for off-season training sessions this year.  The day after our final race of the year they requested to repeat a tough, full-body, hour-long, team-focused workout (involving countless burpees, lunges, car tire drags, tractor tire flips, bear crawls, crab walks, bleacher runs, planks, and other fun things) that we had done in December. They obviously thoroughly enjoyed it!   As coaches, one of our desires for the team this year was to have no complaining. “It’s hot, it’s smokey, I wish it were raining, I’m sore, I’m tired, I have homework, my legs hurt, my whole body hurts, I’m hungry, I’m thirsty, I don’t feel like running today”…..the list goes on.  There’s ALWAYS something we can complain about.  But that doesn’t help anyone. 

So we focused on the positive things this year.  We focused on growth, opportunities, challenges, embracing pain, seeking soreness, developing grit and mental toughness, and the attitude of wanting to be pushed past our limits so we can see what lies beyond.  Our mantra this year was “Choose courage over comfort.”  This is critical in racing as our bodies crave comfort and our muscles are telling us to slow down and relax.  We have to force our brains to tell our bodies that we’re not tired, that we can keep going…faster!  We talked about how learning to deal with tough situations and pain – developing grit and perseverance, and learning how to rely fully on God because we have nothing left to give – will take us far in life and get us through many things, as everyone faces hardships and trials in life. 

Little did we know how relevant this lesson would be for our students this year especially.  We started this school year with a 3-week postponement due to buildings not being finished at the new campus.  This summer was the 2nd time in 3 years we’ve moved our ENTIRE SCHOOL!  Both times I’ve been in charge of moving all the weight room equipment and laying it all out in the new weight room (which got substantially smaller with each move), in addition to helping with all the rest of the Athletics stuff. 

Normally we have tryouts for our travel soccer, volleyball, and XC teams on the first day of school because we have our first tournament just 5-6 weeks after that.  If we postponed tryouts along with the start of the year we would only have had a couple of weeks to practice before one of the biggest soccer and volleyball tournaments of the year and THE biggest and most competitive XC race of the year.  So we kept tryouts on the original date and had trainings begin before school started. 

And since the school hasn’t raised all the necessary funding yet, we still don’t have an athletic building. So, in August we had no athletic office, no weight room, no basketball or volleyball courts, no swimming pool, no place to run, all of our stuff in storage, no students in school, and only a few weeks before big competitions.  Oh, and staff training was happening during tryouts in a building with no electricity (read: no air conditioning) in 100+ degree temps and the high humidity of Thailand.  NO PROBLEM, right?

Our Athletics team is used to finding solutions for tough situations and we’re always trying to plan ahead and think about what problems will arise before they happen.  I soaked in an ice bath before going to staff meetings so I was nice and chilly (and even wearing a jacket) most of the morning while everyone else was sweating and fanning themselves with paper or anything else they could find.

We were given a temporary office in a small storage closet for a few weeks until our “long-term temporary office” (AKA..a modular we now call The Box  or The Hot Box when we lose electricity) was prepared.  Our temporary weight room is in a small classroom space and required creativity in set-up to make it safe and functional.  This involved renting out a lot of our bigger equipment to folks in the community until we have a large space built, which helps us and helps them.  Our outdoor covered courts (one for elementary and one for secondary) were supposed to be up and running in August.  Elementary was finished in December and secondary was mostly finished in February, and was at least usable for the end of basketball season and the beginning of volleyball season …that is, until Covid-19 shut everything down. 

 We ended up staying in our cozy closet office until mid-December and by then had such full schedules we weren’t too excited about moving.  Now we are glad we did.  We have our own little space and despite having the smallest Athletics staff and space we’ve had in many years, we’re out by the soccer fields working, bonding, and growing like a family. 

During the first few months of the year we had 10 different sports teams practicing and playing at 6-10 different locations on any given day (and this varied from day to day which made it even more challenging!)  We couldn’t host anything except soccer games so all our other sports games were away games. We started out with just a couple soccer fields and now we have the 2 outdoor basketball/volleyball courts, a running trail around the campus (on which we’ve already hosted 2 XC races!), an office, and a grass volleyball court as well!  When school gets back up and running post pandemic we’ll also have an extra multi-purpose concrete slab by the soccer fields. We’ve come a long way. 

Our students have faced many challenges this year as well.  A new school that’s much farther away from most of their homes, new classrooms, new teachers, new transportation issues, unfinished facilities, special events to prepare for such as the school’s grand opening, constantly changing dates and locations of sports practices and games, multiple tournaments being cancelled due to COVID-19, and lots of money lost due to already purchased plane tickets, etc.  All that, along with a year full of smokey air (the longest Smokey Season yet), with many practices and games being cancelled, tournaments postponed, Rec League days being cancelled for the first time EVER (thanks again air!).  And many XC practices in a small classroom or in the even smaller weight room using a couple treadmills and other machines to get their heart and other muscles pumping.  We barely squeaked in our final couple XC races that happened to land on days with decent air quality – before it really got bad. 

Parents and spectators were required to show passports (to make sure they had not gone to China recently) and have their temps checked before entering any school event.  And it progressed to where we weren’t allowed to have any contact with other schools anyway and everything except practices were cancelled. 

This group of kids impressed me throughout the entire year. Two of my travel team runners showed up to the first day of practice with shin splints.  That’s not good.  Another has growth plate issues she’s been dealing with for several years and ends up screaming and crying in severe pain during every race.  But she loves it and keeps coming back for more.  Our top boy got severely sick for two weeks out of our 5-week season and couldn’t train …and also had shin splints.  He felt good at the race but tried to win the 5k run against the best high schoolers in Asia in the first mile.  He didn’t last and came hobbling across the finish line in 62nd place.  Our team captain, who has been on the team for many years, has been working super hard to get stronger and faster this year, is one of our top runners in the school, and a graduating senior got some random injury and couldn’t even compete in the big race!  Our other top runner (also a senior) went out too fast as well trying to lead the pack and ended up dropping back and finishing 37th out of nearly 75 kids. It was still a good time and placement, but not nearly the best he could have done.  He ended up finishing our final race of the year in February with a PR, which was several minutes faster than he finished that first big race.

Several of my students teamed up with adults in a partner 10-hour navigation race in January. The race consisted of getting to as many designated coffee shops around Chiang Mai as possible in 10 hours.  They all ran further and longer than they have ever run before!  My student partner ran through severe cramps, dehydration, hunger, and major chafing to complete over 42 miles of running. We checked-in at 29 coffee shops and he hobbled back to the finish line with just a couple minutes to spare.  We ended up having the highest score out of all the teams. We won!  That same student finished 2nd in our conference championship and the other senior who was injured in the first international race finished 3rd.  And those same two students along with one more had signed up to run a Spartan race with me in Vietnam in February, but it was cancelled due to Covid-19.  It was right after XC season had finished and we were all in peak shape and ready to race, so it was severely disappointing.

Many of the students on the XC team are also part of the school’s ultimate frisbee program and are extremely dedicated and talented at that sport as well!  We normally play twice a week but over Christmas break (and on into the second semester of the school year) they played for 21 days straight for 2-4 hours a day, sometimes twice a day, such as on New Years Eve when we played for a couple hours in the afternoon and then again at night.  Most days we had 20-40 students come out to play. On New Years Eve there were about 50 playing in the dark wearing glow sticks around the necks and wrists.  In over 15 years of playing frisbee here, this is the first time it has EVER been cancelled.  A daily AQI of over 550 combined with Covid-19 did us in.

In addition to sports, all school events are cancelled.  Dances, plays, senior trip, Sports Leadership ministry outreach trips, Night Market evangelism and other ministry activities, and end-of-year happenings such as the candle lighting ceremony (a passing of the torch from seniors to juniors) and sports awards night. Graduation will still happen but we don’t yet know what it will look like. We know it will not be able to be hosted on campus. 

They are sad about missing all of these significant moments, but despite it all, they are still smiling and trying to make the most out of this not-so-normal year.  They are resilient, have positive attitudes, and are trying to make the most out of all the changes. They continue to display Christ by serving others any way they can.  They are quite creative at coming up with new ways of doing things when plans have to change.

I’ve been giving my students workouts they can do at home and have created a burpee challenge where they can select to do between 20 and 500 burpees everyday for a week.  I’ve also invited them to join in a few virtual races, including one virtual series of weekly track races where they run 1 or 2 distances every weekend and compare their times with students from over 30 high schools in America.  Some are still running on their own through the smoke, some are taking it easy, some are working out in their homes.

For now I’m encouraging my students to keep training, stay fit, exercise at home any way they can, stay positive, and thank and praise God daily.  We have a lot to be thankful for!