In 2017, there were many memorable folks who shared their stories with The Island Packet and The Beaufort Gazette, and we wanted to catch up with some of them before the year’s end. Here is the third story in our “Where are they now?” series.
“Running Jesus” has a cane.
He — aka Ben Vaught — fashioned it from a couple of pieces of scrap wood in his Bluffton carpentry shop, and he affixed some Duck Tape to its bottom for better traction.
It’s not his best work, he admits, but it got the job done. The pain that started near his tailbone and shot up his back eventually sidelined the long-distance runner and woodworker this summer. He first noticed it on a July run in Charlotte, where he’d traveled for his sister’s wedding.
He was about a mile down the road that day when he felt it. He turned around and limped back toward the hotel, but got lost along the way. The outing turned into a four-mile wince. He ran through it.
Recently, on a warm December afternoon, he recalled the injury as he sat in a rolling chair outside the garage-turned-woodworking shop attached to his home.
“Within the hour after that I was next-to-cripple,” said Vaught, the statuesque athlete with the blond locks who, until recently, was a head-turning fixture on the Bluffton Parkway’s sidewalks.
He would hobble to his sister’s wedding.
He would not dance at the reception.
And later, sitting in the car on the trip home, hurting in spite of the painkillers, he would feel the creep of weakness, and he knew what he would do.
Buy a pack of smokes and some booze.
Vaught told The Island Packet and The Beaufort Gazette about his vice — singular, as in the pairing of craft beer and cigarettes — last summer. He started running to counter it, trading one habit for another. But the injury has shaken him.
He’s realized he won’t be able to run forever.
Which brings him to a crossroads: Can he be the man he wants to be without running?
It’s a complicated question for Vaught, who’s married his runs with his Christian faith. His outings are meditative — “prayer time, worship time,” he says, “whatever you want to call (them).” They deliver him from temptation.
And while the struggle is his own, it’s also anyone’s. Ours. The universal crucible that — regardless of one’s faith, creed or personal beliefs — amounts to a recurring war with our weakest selves and a constant critique of our tactics, strategy and end game.
Vaught’s injury required months of physical therapy.
It was a stress fracture in his pelvis, but a late-July MRI showed a cloudy white mass around his hip. One doctor uttered “the ‘C’ word.”
Cancer — a rare form of the spinal variety — took the life of the man who taught Vaught woodworking when he was a teen, which made talk of a tumor in his hip that much heavier.
A second MRI didn’t rule out the possibility of something — a cyst, for example — in his hip that could be causing an imbalance in his gait, which could be straining his pelvis. It could just be an old injury, he said, the equivalent of driving a car that’s out of alignment. Or, it could be something else.
But Vaught and his doctors are cautiously optimistic — he’s healing.
He started running on an anti-gravity treadmill in October, after about three months of “no-legs” — no running, swimming, anything — orders from his doctors. The specialized treadmill effectively lowered his body weight and the strain on his frame. He gradually dialed back the machine and added distance.
He went for his first long run outside on Dec. 2 — 17 miles, two more than he’d planned. Now, you might see “Running Jesus” back on Bluffton’s sidewalks.
Vaught didn’t like the man he was during the injury. One pack of smokes turned into another. A note from one of his children in his October birthday card stuck with him: I hope you can start running again so you can quit smoking, it said, to paraphrase the sentiment.
No, Vaught hasn’t spent three months huffing down a carton a week and making pyramids with empty beer cans. Just a couple of brews here and there, and a couple of smokes, too. For Vaught, a couple too many.
“I didn’t have the willpower ... if I wasn’t running,” he said.
The warm December air almost turned chilly as clouds overtook the sun and hints of a breeze tried to build toward something more.
Vaught sat in the chair, his hair gathered in a ponytail.
Propped against the walls of his shop were clusters of scrap wood where his homemade cane might hide — he could not find it on this day.
He recalled an encounter before the injury, how a woman had approached him at a gas station after recognizing him from a newspaper article published just days before his four-mile wince in Charlotte.
She told him she’d started running.
She said she was trying to quit smoking.
She said she was “‘down to three a day,’” he recalled.
Months later, the irony isn’t lost on Vaught.
He still struggles with his vice.
He continues to find meaning in the struggle.
He keeps on.
Runs through it.