Efforts and courage are not enough without purpose and direction.
John F. Kennedy
Efforts and courage are not enough without purpose and direction.
John F. Kennedy
I grew up on a small farm in Ohio. I’m remembering that fondly as we drive the rural horse farm countryside outside of Lexington, Kentucky. It’s the day before the Run the Bluegrass half marathon and my friend Tracey is showing my friend Scott and me the course we’ll run the next day. I’m leaning over a fence staring at what I imagine is a prized mare and her colt and the beautiful acres that roll on behind them. Large barns and farm houses rise in the distance like castles. I am lost in the scene for several minutes before I turn and look back to the road ahead of us. That’s the first time it occurs to me.
Running these hilly back roads is going to be a lot harder than driving them.
When my running friends talked me into the Run the Bluegrass half marathon they sold it as a chance to get together and run a beautiful course. The sale was far more social than physical. It wasn’t until after I registered that I learned more about the 32 “gently rolling hills” that make up the 13.1 miles of this course. I wasn’t initially overly concerned about them; in my naïve mind running was running. All miles were hard no matter where you were running them. But that mindset hadn’t been introduced to a hill. As I look ahead at a road that rolls sharply up and down for as far as I can see, my mindset is exploding with change. And none of it is good change.
I’ll give it to my friends. They had one thing right. This is beautiful country. As I stand at the starting line with three thousand other runners taking in the chilly spring surroundings, breathing in the farm air that filled so many pre-dawn mornings of my youth, I forget for a moment the intimidating hill memories from the day before. Memories that haunted me through the night and left me wondering what I’d gotten myself into.
I hear “My Old Kentucky Home” begin to play in the distance. It still drives chills through me like it did the first time I heard it as a 9-year-old boy. It was the 1973 Kentucky Derby, the first time I’d watched that magical race and the year I became a lifetime fan of one of the greatest creatures I’ve ever laid eyes on: Secretariat. Secretariat won the Derby that year and would go on to win the Triple Crown in a way that would leave a young boy star struck for life. As I stand at the starting line of my second half marathon, just hours up the road from the home of that memorable Derby finish, I feel the inspiration of that childhood hero.
Then, replicating the call to the post Secretariat and his fans heard that Kentucky Derby day, a bugler sets thousands of waiting runners in motion when he blares out the notes to First Call. Five months have passed since I marched to the starting line with the crowd of runners at Richmond, but the memory of that moment rushes through me like it was yesterday. I’m marching toward the startling line with thousands of new faces, hundreds of miles and days removed from that Richmond race, but the feeling is the same: an overwhelming sense of wonder of what the next few hours and 13.1 miles might hold.
The first half mile of the course is relatively flat. This would turn out to be a double-edged sword. In the early moments of the race when I needed my nerves relaxed, believing the course wasn’t nearly as challenging as I’d laid awake the night before fretting it would be was helpful. The opposite sharp and cutting edge of the sword was those early moments were short-lived and created the falsest possible expectation of what was to come.
There is no greater disturbance to a pair of legs than running up the first hill of your life. I’m not completely sure this really is the first, but my legs scream it has to be. I’m halfway up when a Kentucky bourbon barrel full of reality hits me: this pain will repeat itself 31 more times over the course of this race.
One thing has been made clear. All miles are not equal. Runner after runner charges past me up hill after hill as I struggle to walk to the top of each one of them. I feel them taunting the amateur who had no idea what he was getting himself in to. Even if imagined, the taunting is well deserved.
At mile 8 I think about quitting. Quitting this race and quitting the idea that I have any business running here or anywhere. As I trip over my self-imposed defeat, I see a crowd gathered roadside up ahead. I recognize the spot now. Tracey pointed this spot out the day before as the location for a replica of the shoe memorial to Meg that marks the site of her death back in Hanover County, Virginia.
I arrive at the memorial. A photographer is snapping pictures of emotional runners standing next to the tall tower built of shoes that had been donated from all over the country. The shoes will be donated to those who need them after the race. I wait patiently for my turn. I look at Meg’s beautiful smiling face on a sign that stands next to the memorial. A spot opens and I go ready myself for my picture. Tears well in my eyes as the photo is captured. In my overwhelming emotional and physical weariness, I can’t begin to plan an appropriate response to the moment, so I find myself unexpectedly pointing to the sky.
After a minute, I begin the final 5 miles of the most physically demanding challenge of my life - as if I’d never considered not doing so. Don’t confuse that with a burst of energy or a sudden recovery from the torture I’ve experienced over the previous 8 miles. But what I do have is a reminder. A fresh, vivid, spirit-filled smile of a reminder of what I am doing here. I am awed to the depths of my soul that some 500 miles from the spot where Meg’s friends and loved ones spontaneously hung their shoes and their grief on the original memorial the day Meg died, a beautiful reproduction stands thoughtfully erected by complete strangers. A year later no less.
Chills run through me like the cold air that ushers in a summer storm. It hits me in that moment how present and powerful God truly is in this story. In this Run the Bluegrass story, in my running story, and in the story of a young mother’s legacy that seems to be growing with time, not moving to some distant bookshelf never to be read again.
In this moment, I fully discover that God has a purpose for this run I’m on. I don’t know if I’ve fully adopted it as my purpose this day, but rarely does God need our purpose to match his purpose to make his purpose land right where he wants it to. Suddenly, conquering the hills ahead of me isn’t about personal perseverance but instead about carrying God’s image and displaying his power. The hills in front of me are no smaller and the finish line no closer, but they are less intimidating. In this moment, I no longer see them as obstacles in my way of finishing what I set out to do but opportunities to run with the story God has set before me.
You know, the great race horses like Secretariat learn from a very young age their purpose is getting to the finish line first. Every training session points them in that direction. Once that purpose and direction is firmly entrenched in them, the horse can focus all his or her effort and courage toward a single outcome.
We humans are no different, really. Without purpose our efforts run in wild and often meaningless directions and every obstacle seems like a beast waiting to swallow us whole. There is no depth to the courage needed to conquer it because we have no purpose strong enough to draw it out. It just sits hiding in a shallow pool within us.
I discovered the purpose of my running today. It drew out every ounce of effort within me and by faith a little bigger than a mustard seed mountains in front of me disappeared. Today I learned that no matter how much I train and condition myself for a race, the hills along the course – the hills in life – they will defeat me if I come unarmed with a mighty purpose.
And today I finished my second half marathon.