I started dreaming of running my fastest half-marathon ever. What a great way to honor Michael. What a way it would be to add to an already great year of running.
When I arrived in Cincinnati, I began having second thoughts about my optimism toward the weather. I was soggy and freezing as I watched friends run the mile race Friday evening as part of the 3-way challenge. Over the course of the next three days, they would tackle a mile, 5k, 10k, and half-marathon. I was awed by their running stamina, but the half was plenty enough challenge for me.
On cue, though, the weather brightened and was ideal for running by Saturday morning. Things began looking up for a nice Sunday race day. As I watched my friends' races Saturday that kept me near the Cincinnati Reds' stadium, I reminisced about the days I would sit on my great-grandparents' front porch and listen to Reds' games on a tiny transistor radio. I wondered what they would think of this day and age when you can literally watch every game, every day, on television. I walked away pretty sure they'd still be sitting out there on that old wooden porch swing, my grandpa with a pipe in one hand, that little radio in another, swinging back and forth, back and forth.
One of the coolest things about the weekend and my running journey in general is the friends I get to share it with. We all gathered for a pre-race dinner Saturday evening at the Palomino restaurant in downtown Cincinnati. We laughed until we cried. The mood was a perfect setup for my race, now a mere 12 hours away.
It was perfect, that is, until my friend Danielle started describing the half-marathon course to my friend Lashell. Danielle had run the course before. Lashell and I had not. In a slip of the tongue sort of way Danielle fired off something about how crazy the hills are on this course. In my building hopes for a great race day I hadn't factored in images of crazy hills. Hills, sure, but not crazy hills. Danielle tried to soften her stance a bit once she sensed my oncoming panic attack. Make molehills out of the mountains she had just heaped on my psyche. But it was too late. The image was there. That attack was in motion.
All the same, it was still a wonderful evening with friends.
The irony in that mountain story is Danielle is the one who sent me a pace chart for the course. It was an outline of the pace I would need to keep mile by mile to achieve my goal of breaking 2 hours and 30 minutes. It's what got me to thinking, "I really can do this."
But the pace chart didn't include the words crazy hills.
When I got back to the hotel that night I knew I needed to do something about the negativity swirling in my mind. So I amended the pace chart Danielle sent me and made my own. This is what it looked like when I carried it with me the next morning.
I broke the race into chunks. One chunk was following Danielle's plan to get me to the hills on time. Then, I wasn't going to worry about my pace on the hills; I was going to worry about my mental game there. I needed to completely zero in on the idea that "it's just a hill" or the hill would end up crushing my goal. Once over the hills I'd focus on getting to the 10-mile mark by the target 1:56:17. If I could meet that goal, I knew the final 3 downhill miles would be all mine.
The plan worked perfectly. I got to the hills on time. They were challenging for sure, but they were just hills. When I got to the 10-mile mark 3 minutes ahead of schedule I knew I was going to crush my goal time. The final 3 miles were some of the fastest race miles I've ever run. I actually sprinted across the finish line to complete the race in 2:27:50.
I've been thinking about that little "cheat sheet" since I finished the race. I'll likely keep it forever. It was the first time I attacked a race strategically. I broke it into bite sized pieces. I outlined what each of those pieces needed to look like. I even projected the mental strength I would need and the words that would represent it when I arrived at the hills. For the first time ever, I had a running plan.
I've always run on gut instinct and feel. The net result of that has been a slow runner whose gut had an instinct to turn inside out at the end of a race. There was never anything left but death.
I got to thinking that's the story of my life in many ways. More often than not doing life without a plan hasn't worked out well for me. I'm not advocating overplanning, but I think it would certainly help me to map out a pace chart for other areas in my life. I think I'll do a podcast on that soon so stay tuned.
The Flying Pig Half Marathon will go down as a beautiful memory for me. Some of the things I got to do this weekend that have permanently touched my life:
What would I change about the Flying Pig?
Bottom line. I hope to return to the Pig again one day.
I started running three years ago to honor a young woman in our community, Meg Cross Menzies, who was struck and killed by a drunk driver while training for the Boston Marathon. I've kept running to keep her memory and all she stood for alive and well. As the miles have collected, though, I've felt a constant tug, probably from Meg, to not only remember what she stood for, but to be more of what she stood for.
I felt that tug strongest after finishing my first Marathon back in November. I heard a voice telling me there had to be something more than crossing finish lines to this running gig. After prayer and reflection, I decided that more was lending a voice to other people who need help crossing their finish lines. Whether they are running finish lines or life finish lines.
That's when this website was born. Thousands of years ago the Apostle Paul told a young minister, Timothy, when Paul knew his race was nearing an end and Timothy would need to continue it, "I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith." (2 Timothy 4:7)
In many ways, I feel like when Paul passed his torch to Timothy, he passed it to me - and to you. I'm inspired by a song written by some local friends in the band Prospect 7. The song is One Flame to Burn. Probably because when I crossed the finish line of my marathon, that's how I felt. Like I had one flame to burn.
And I can't stop now, look how far I've come
I won't quit here, despite the setting sun
I will go and fight, I'll run to dark with light
I won't be deterred, I have one flame to burn
This weekend I'm running a half-marathon at the Flying Pig in Cincinnati, Ohio. When I do, I'll bring to life what I want TwoTim47.com to be. Running to dark with light. When I toe the line Sunday for my 7th half-marathon, I'll carry the picture below.
The young man in that picture, Michael Stangelo, was born and raised in Canal Fulton, Ohio. After graduating high school he pursued a lifelong dream to be like his grandfather. He joined the marines. Soon after, he found himself in a combat role in Iraq.
It's a small percentage of us who will experience the horror of fighting in a foreign land. And no, sitting on a couch playing Call of Duty isn't a close substitute for that horror. Mainly because when that game is over you can get up and go to dinner like nothing ever happened. In real life, men and women like Michael Stangelo take the battlefield memories to dinner with them.
They also take them to bed. They take them to phone calls back home with family and friends. And for many, they take them to their grave.
Michael Stangelo is one of 22 military veterans who take their lives every day as a result of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), the effects of traumatic brain injury, challenges of adjustment and transistion after returning home from a deployement, and the negative stigma in the military community around seeking help.
So often when we honor our military we don't think of the word military beyond the single unit institution of good men and women willing to sacrifice their lives for our country and personal freedoms. But I had the chance to talk on the phone with Michael's cousin Erica earlier this week. When I got off the phone I was deeply saddened by the reminder that military is real lives and faces. Military is sometimes young men who grew up in Ohio like me, they graduated high school and pursued a life dream like me. But unlike me, sacrifice comes to means a young life cut short and a grieving family left behind as part of the memorial.
I am honored to run for Michael this weekend. I hope to run a little light to the darkness that lives in his family's life as a result of his death - especially in my new friend Erica's life. I'm asking God to use my run to bring awareness to the tragic but often preventable ending to the lives of some of this country's greatest heroes. It's my mission this weekend to help people understand the biggest difference between cancer and mental illness is that this country fights like hell to find a cure for cancer and too often tells folks battling mental illness - both in and out of the military - to toughen up.
Well I hope to run tough for Michael this weekend. Knowing the battle he fought will make the battles I often face at mile 6 or 9 or 12 seem small. Erica told me before Michael went to Iraq he was a kid full of life. That's how I plan to run Sunday, Michael, full of life brother.
I'll be publishing a podcast later this week to talk more about my conversation with Erica and about Michael's journey. I hope you'll tune in. You'll be able to find it on this website. You can also download my podcasts at iTunes or Podbean - just dowload either app and search for TwoTim47 and subscribe.
You can also follow me on my TwoTim47 Facebook page where I'll be posting links to the podcasts and updates this weekend about my run for Michael, to include live videos and thoughts.
Back in the spring of 2015 I was gently persuaded to tackle the gently rolling hills of a half marathon known as Run the Bluegrass. The race winds through horse farm country in rural Lexington, Kentucky. The Run the Bluegrass absolutely lived up to its tagline: America's prettiest half-marathon. You'll have a hard time finding a prettier spring drive. That's right. I said drive. But all the talk I heard that downplayed the magnitude of the 32 hills on the course was high altitude deception. So running this course, I left there believing, is for people who have something to prove in their running journey.
Let's jump ahead to 2017. The year I just so happened to set out to prove something in my running journey. Late last year I decided I was going to push myself to do more than finish races this year. I was going to try to run them fast. My world fast - not standing on the podium world fast.
When I set that goal I knew the first true measure of my progress would have to come through a return visit to Run the Bluegrass. The 2015 race was one of those I just finished. And barely. It took everything I had to get across that finish line so I left there feeling accomplished. I also left there swearing no mas, no mas.
The 2015 RTB finish line photo of THAT face haunted me for a long time. It too close for any future comfort reflected the pain I felt in that moment. It kept the pain alive in my head no matter how many races I ran elsewhere trying to exorcize it. It became painfully clear the only place I'd ever be able to exorcise it was back in Lexington.
That's where I was last weekend. Running the only race I've ever sworn I'd never run again.
If you read my last post you know I was coming into this weekend with tons of confidence. I'd just run my fastest half marathon ever by 21 minutes. Granted, it was on a completely flat course. EVERYTHING about that Virginia Beach course truly was gentle and non-rolling. At least everything but the weather. I had no dreams of running a 2:32 here in Lexington, but I did want to significantly improve on my 3:01 from RTB 2015. And I wanted a finish line picture that would erase the memory of the one that had been haunting me.
I don't think any starting line has ever gotten me more excited than this one at Run the Bluegrass. It was beautiful. Even in dreary starting line weather the scene simply remained beautiful. Because the starting line is sloped you can see all the other runners in front of you. At least when you start as far back as I did. Something about that got my blood pumping. Maybe it was being able to see the full collection of pre-race excitement and determination of the other runners. Maybe it's because this year I was full of determination myself.
I had one intermediate goal in mind. I wanted to hit the 5-mile mark in under an hour. I knew that would set me up for my best chance at coming in under 2:50 - the goal I settled on. I wanted anything in the 2:40s.
One problem though. For the first time ever I forgot my watch. If you're a runner you understand the panic that swept through me with a speed that would have left any runner anywhere envious. How on earth was I going to monitor my pace? The answer came from my friend Leah. Without hesitation she offered me her watch. I was overwhelmed by her selflessness. Then I was relieved and completely centered on time and distance.
I arrived at mile 5 in a little under 59 minutes. I was ahead of the pace I needed. The hills on miles 7 through 9 really started to take it out of me, though. I got to mile 10 in a little over 2:05. My pace was clearly slowing, but I knew I could get the final 3+ miles in the slightly under 15 minute miles pace I would need. I also knew I would be fading fast when I got there. This felt very different than the feeling I had two weeks earlier at Virginia Beach when I felt like I had tons left for the final 3 miles. This race I was running on empty.
I was within 3 tenths of a mile from the finish. I heard the race announcer shout out a finisher's time at 2:42. I didn't have much left to push, but I knew at this point if I did it was possible to beat 2:45. I tried to hit the gas. I saw my friend Missy about a tenth of a mile from the finish. She was the huge ball of hanging over the fence and screaming and throwing high fives energy I needed for a spark. Then I saw the rest of my Megsmiles friends cheering. It wasn't a sprint, but I kept running - that's my half marathon equivalent of digging deep. And it wasn't a huge grin, but it was a finish line photo that exorcised that 2015 memory for sure.
That, and a finish time of 2:44:18
Later this week I'll be doing a podcast on a powerful life lesson I learned tackling this race the second time around. I hope you'll tune in. The photo below is a preview:
Something has gone terribly wrong with this article already. I just used a form of the word great and running in the same heading. There's no denying it, though, when it comes to running, last weekend was my greatest running weekend ever.
I could have said that after my 5K on Saturday without even bringing Sunday's Anthem half marathon at Virginia Beach into the equation. But I ran both so I'm going to include both in the greatness.
Saturday I ran the Mission Possible 5K at New Song Church in Mechanicsville. The race proceeds benefit the church mission trip to Haiti this summer. My wife, Katie, is going on that trip, so that made it a pretty special run right there. But late last week our two sons decided they wanted to run the 5K with me, so special got elevated a couple of laces.
Neither of the boys had ever run a 5K before, so naturally we had never run one together. On the way to the starting line our 8 year-old Ian summed it up perfectly. In his uniquely innocent way, he said, "At least now I'll have something to share at school on Monday."
Ian hadn't even started the race and he was already anticipating what I've found to be the joy in running. What makes it great. The feeling at the end when you shout to the world, "I did it!" Or at least mutter it under your complete lack of breath. I knew if Ian and Elliott got a taste of the "I did it" at the finish, they'd one day line up for another start - no matter how ugly anything in between looked or felt.
And so we started - all smiles - nothing but fun ahead of us:
There really was a lot of fun over those 3.1 miles. We took plenty of walk breaks. Our Ian suffers from asthma, and chilly mornings like this one challenge him. Elliott, our hyper-competitive one, well he had to practice a lot of restraint when runners passed us. I watched his whole body cringe as he longed to give chase. I told him he didn't have to stay back. Go catch them buddy. He said he knew didn't have to but he wanted to. He loves to argue with his brother, torment the tar out of him, but he never runs too far ahead of the opportunity to make sure Ian's OK. Or maybe he feels it's more than an opportunity.
So we hung together. Here is a mid-race video that captures a piece of our adventure:
Just so we're clear, and only because I know you're wondering; we didn't break any records with this race. At least none the three of us would want anyone to know about. Our names weren't called during the medal ceremony and that wasn't an oversight. No, this performance left us plenty to improve on. But that's always the bright spot, isn't it? The potential for improvement was invented as a consolation prize for races just like this one.
Let me tell you what we did do, though; we finished.
We finished together.
That race, the celebrating behind me, it was time to start thinking about the half marathon I'd be running in less than 24 hours. I'd been more than willing to take the 5K at the boys' pace - at least Ian's - knowing I had dreams of running my fastest half marathon ever the next day. Any worries the 5K would take something out of me were now lost in the gratitude I felt for the chance to race with my boys.
As planned, I hit the road for Virginia Beach the next morning by 3:30AM. I arrived at a parking garage near the starting line a little after 5:30. I sat in the car and ate miniature bagels and peanut butter and debated gloves or no gloves and literally did everything I could think of short of checking my oil to stall my march toward the starting line. That's because the 70% chance of showers for the area had arrived in the form of a driving rain powered by 20-40 MPH winds. I wish that was a dramatic use of exaggeration. It's not. It's actually a conservative use of meteorological fact.
Don't believe me? Here I am standing at the starting line before the race.
I was grateful for two things standing at that starting line. And no, it wasn't for the two pair of drenched shoes and socks that I somehow expected to carry me through the next 13.1 miles before turning my feet into my great grandpa's feet. No, I was grateful for my friend Nikki who walked to the starting line with me. The whole way there she laughed at the weather. LAUGHED. She said it was part of the fun. FUN. That crazy woman meant it and I'm almost positive she hadn't hit the post-race Yuengling party before the race ever started.
Attitudes are contagious. Especially good ones. I caught Nikki's that morning. It stayed with me for 13.1 miles.
I was also grateful the weather wasn't as bad at my house when I left 3 hours earlier as it was in that moment standing at the starting line. I would have never - I repeat NEVER - gotten in my car and made the two hour trip east. Crazy runner talk there, right? Somehow I was grateful the weather wasn't horrific enough to stop me from standing at the starting line in the most horrific weather I'd ever run in.
Don't ask me to explain it. I can't.
Here's what I ultimately came to believe about the weather. The weather turned out to be a much greater mental barrier than a physical one. Don't get me wrong. It's not like I rejoiced at the rain pelting water dents two inches deep into my face or anything.
But the truth is once I started running and forgot how wet and cold I was, the running took over.
My first goal of the day was to hit the 5-mile mark in under an hour. The first 3 miles we ran were straight into the fiercest winds of the day. The next two turned into a tunnel of trees and the winds seemed to disappear. 5 miles in under 58 minutes. I began to believe my record of 2:53 was possible.
At 10 miles my watch said 1:57. I'd hoped to get to 10 miles in 2:05. I felt great at this point and knew something great was possible.
Let me pause for a minute and say in running, great is relative. And it's always relative to you. What is it you have done before? What is it you are capable of today? And what is it you've run hard enough to accomplish today relative to both? At the 10-mile mark I knew I was about to run the fastest race of my life, and potentially much faster than I thought I was capable of. I knew great was not just possible, it was mine for the taking.
2 of those last three miles were my fastest of the day. In fairness, the gale was to my back. But I still had to have enough energy left to take advantage of it. And for a hard earned change - two months of hard training and weight loss worth of change - I had plenty left.
I can't describe the feeling I had when I crossed the finish line and my watch said 2:32. I'd run 21 minutes faster than my previous fastest half marathon. It wasn't just that it was a fast time. It was more about the decision I made in January to be faster this year and then making it happen. I wasn't going to just finish races this year. I was going to finish them faster than I thought I could. That's what the jubilation was about.
My friend Lashell sent me a scripture from Isaiah 43 before I hit the road for Virginia Beach.
When you pass through the waters, I will be with you, and through the rivers, they shall not overflow you. When you walk through the fire, you will not be burned; neither shall the flame kindle upon you.
She was prophetic, I suppose. Sending verses that would literally lift me out of the water. But running through a storm most considered a pretty foolish endeavor, I was reminded for 13.1 miles that God truly is with us in the storm. He is constantly begging us to hear and to cling to the promise: I will be with you. I felt God's smile that last mile. It felt a lot like wind blowing in off the ocean with the force of a gale. And it felt like sand. But it looked like a smile. I sensed it wasn't because I was about to break a personal record and ring a silly bell, but because I ran. God gave me a gift and I ran with it.
So he smiled.
Life is like running.