I ran the uncorked half marathon in New Kent, VA this morning. And pretty early in this one, the race stuck a cork in me.
After an April with big miles, I had high hopes for this race. But I should have known better. Me and humidity, we've never played well together. I try to approach him with kindness, but he never seems to reciprocate. Must be something I said along the way - like, "I despise summer."
I felt the stickyness in the air the moment I stepped out the door this morning. I had a 45 minute drive to New Kent to come up with a reasonable race plan. Instead, I got there and invoked a completely unreasonable one. I took off from the starting line like I was chasing a half marathon PR, and 3 miles later record chasing mode was quickly downshifted, gears grinding and screaming, into survival mode.
Like delirious sweating I'm not even sure I can survive mode.
The good thing that happened was I gave myself plenty of running grace. I threw all expectations out the window, without regret, and embraced one new one. I held onto 16 - today was my 16th half marathon. No matter what my finish time was - the only number that mattered today was 16.
I remembered what I prompted myself with this morning - don't get focused on how much further I have to go; stay focused on where I am. In spite of the suffocating humidity, the course was beautiful. I loved the open fields, the blue sky, the small streams along the way. It was a great day to be right where I was. Every step.
I did take lessons away.
I spent the last month eating crap, to be honest. I stayed constantly hungry running 55 5Ks. I got completely away from a plant based focus, turned to convenience, and today I paid a price for that. Plant based eating means nothing to me other than feeling the best I can feel every day. Well, that hasn't been the case this month. So time to correct course.
I also know it's time to get serious about the 50 mile Georgia Jewel in September. Chances are the conditions will be much more challenging than today. So I need to begin plenty of heat conditioning. That race will be here before I know it. And it will easily be my biggest running challenge ever.
So grace and lessons today. Grace in allowing myself one of my slowest half marathons in a couple of years. Lessons - well lessons don't care about finish times, they just want us to take something away from the experience.
So today I completed my 16th half marathon. Even if I did finish it with a cork in me. 😓
In my brief running journey, I've tackled some big challenges. Most recently, I ran for 12.5 hours to complete a rain and wind swept 37 miles in a Kentucky forest. That was my second ultra marathon. I've also completed 4 marathons and 15 half marathons. And yet, this past April, in tackling a distance much shorter than any of those feats, I may have completed my toughest running challenge yet.
I took up running when I turned 50. Every year since I've attempted a big running challenge around my birthday. This year I decided to use the birthday challenge to bring awareness to my new venture, Running4Soles (www.running4soles.com). Like many of these challenges, this one popped into my head while I was running. I knew I was turning 55, so I guess the idea of running 55 5Ks was born simply because 5K sounded sort of poetic when I said it after 55.
I confess, sometimes running poeticness gets me in trouble. When it sounds beautiful I sometimes read the poem to the world before I fully interpret its meaning. And in the case of running 55 5Ks, I knew the moment I was done reading it this one was going to be much easier read than done.
In my mind I knew the math: at least two 5Ks every day. Two is a harmless enough number. But in the end, it's a number that became more daunting than 37 or 26.2 or any other running number I've had to face.
Before this challenge, I'd only attempted more than one run in a day a few times. That's because some days there's only one thing harder for me than running, and that's talking myself into running. In taking on 55 5Ks in one month, there was rarely time to embrace the sense of accomplishment I feel at the end of each and every run. I was always in the mindset of preparing for the next one.
That's why the first thing I learned this month is:
Running is at least 51% mental.
You have know idea how much I wanted to throw some hyperbole in there and say running is ALL mental. But it's not. That 37 mile Kentucky run isn't far enough behind me to forget the physical pain and exhaustion I experienced to call running a 100% mental game.
But I know this. There were plenty of times running those 55 5Ks this month that I wondered if I'd get out there, if I could even get the motor started. Not once, however, after I got out there, after the motor was running, did I doubt I'd finish.
Getting started is the hardest part. That's when excuses swing their might sword. I've found you can't out run excuses, but you can out think them.
In running, and in life, momentum means everything.
Last year, when I ran the Marine Corps Marathon with my friend Tracey Outlaw, he encouraged me with this notion "if you'll just pick up your pace a little bit your body will follow." He said this at mile 18 when I was exhausted and a wee bit cranky and I didn't respond as lovingly as I should have. But I thought of his words often this month. "If I can just get myself out the door, that 5k will follow."
I think we all need to keep that in mind. Running and life are about momentum. We're all toting around a lot of good and healthy ideas. I wonder if what holds us back from seeing them through is we don't believe strongly enough in momentum. We don't trust that if I just take a step into that idea, the results will eventually catch up.
Something I have to do eventually turns into something I do.
I remember the first week of doing 2 or 3 5Ks a day. It messed with my routine. My mornings are reserved for reading and writing and prayer and reflection. Squeezing a 5K in there meant I had to do something else instead of what I preferred doing with my mornings. That first week I thought a lot about what I wasn't doing instead of what I was doing.
By the second week, however, a 5K in the morning became part of my routine. I had a new habit. Running a 5K became something I was doing instead of something I had to do. When running or any activity becomes something you do without thinking about the sacrifice you're making to do it, you are gifted with the full value of your effort.
Just like my reading and writing time became more valuable to me when I no longer considered I could be sleeping instead, running those 5Ks became more meaningful to me when I quit wanting that time to be about reading and writing.
How much further do we have to go?
When taking long drives with our boys, they often ask, "how much further do we have to go?" Their minds are clearly interested in getting beyond the "we are going" and getting on with whatever happens at "we are here."
Much of my running lately has been about going further. I just have more curiosity around how far this old body can go than I do around how fast I can somehow beg it to move on along. As a result, though, I've spent a lot of time running recently looking at my watch, wondering inside, and even on a rare occasion screaming out loud - "how much further do I have to go?"
With these 5K runs, I always knew I was only going to be out there 35-40 minutes. I don't remember one time wondering how much further. When you're not focused on how much further you have to go, you're likely to spend more time focused on where you are.
This revelation doesn't leave me longing to run shorter distances. But it is a reminder the next time I'm out there wondering how much further I have to go, to reflect back on these 5Ks and remember the beauty found in where I am.
No matter how far it is, we only get there one step at a time.
When I began this 55 5K journey on April 1st - 55 seemed like a giant number. Sometimes the sum of all the parts is intimidating. Which is why sometimes it's hepful to thing about the parts more than the sum.
I remember that first week of running, after I'd finished 16 of the 55 runs, and it was suddenly a 39 5K journey. Still a big number. But not AS big. I remember thinking - I'm not so sure I can run 55 of them this month, but I think I can do 39.
I think that trips us all up sometimes. We get big dreams, get big life challenges dropped in our laps, have days that get filled with unexpected complications. Whatever it is, it can initially feel overwhelming.
For years I supervised college aged counselors working with at-risk teenagers. They often told me they felt overwhelmed. I used to tell them I have good news and bad news. The bad news is you'll probably always feel overwhelmed to a degree. The good news is, no matter how overwhelmed you are, you can only tackle one thing at a time. So pick the one thing you think will help the most.
The 55 5K journey got overwhelming at times. The helpful thing was, every day, no matter how overwhelming, the only strategy available to me was to tackle one 5K at a time.
Why take a step?
Why am I getting out of bed?
Each day, the more clearly I've defined that answer, the easier it is for me to get out of bed.
Chances are, if you have no idea why you're getting out of bed, the snooze button is your best friend. If you know the answer well, if you know your why, maybe you don't even know what a snooze button is.
Each 5K I did was hard. Every one of them. I'm not great at getting excited to run. But not one 5K was about excitement or fun or even being healthy. They were about bringing awareness to a cause that's bigger than me, one infinitely more important than me.
I recently developed an affection for the nonprofit Soles4Souls. I not only appreciate their mission to create jobs and bring relief by distributing shoes and clothes around the world, but I've had the chance to meet many of the folks in the organization. Their hearts are perfectly aligned with the work they do. I also believe the running community is primed to advance the Soles4Souls mission, and that God has put me in a position to be someone who can lead them.
That's where Running4Soles comes in. That's where running 55 5Ks in April came in. And that is why the reason I run has always been the real power behind my ability to defeat the mind games. I believe behind every victorious mind is a heart on fire with purpose.
In fact, I think it's the only way you win the mind games.
When God whispers, he probably wants us to shout.
Running is where God whispers to me. Over the last several years, he's put some crazy ideas on my heart. More often than not, I pursue them. In doing so I've discovered this. God whispers to me so I can shout for him.
I believe God could scream some sense into a crazy world. Sometimes I wonder why he doesn't. My guess is it's because God feels more joy in hearing me scream about his ideas than he'd get screaming about them.
How cool must it be for God to whisper, "hey, why don't you run 55 5Ks this month," and then sit back and watch me do it. Not only do it, but hear me shout to the world with each run that I believe poverty has a finsh line.
Maybe God whispers ideas because he believes in what I have to shout about them. Maybe he finds more joy from us screaming ideas together than he gets from screaming solo ideas at us. When I started this journey, I had no idea that my friends Nicole and Katie would run 55 5Ks with me, and that they would collect over 300 pairs of shoes this month. I had no idea God's whisper to me would become their shouts.
Maybe God whispers to me because he doesn't want everyone else to hear him. Maybe He wants them to hear me. And maybe when you hear whispers, or crazy ideas, it's because God wants to hear you shout too.
God isn't done whispering to me. He has placed a whisper on my heart to go to Honduras this August. To see for myself the work being done through Soles4Souls, to see for myself how shoes are carrying people to poverty's finish line, to equip me to shout even louder the stories He wants us to scream together. If you feel inclined to support this trip, you can do so below at my Soles4Souls Honduras trip fundraising page below.
All trip supporters are recognized on the Running4Soles Honduras webpage.
On the left, a pre-race shot at the Ashland Run the Rails 5K with race director Kristy Wright. On the right, a pre-race shot with friends and family before the Ashland Run the Rails 5K. I ran this race on my 55th birthday, April 27th. It was 5K number 55.
received a running trophy period. That's not why the trophy brought me to tears, though. The tears came because I knew the story behind the trophies. They came because the trophies so beautifully represent what this race says about the community and connections that are the power behind the Run for Respect.
Two years ago, Laura reached out to her friend Andrew Rice. They grew up together in Pontiac. Andrew teaches an industrial technology class at Manual Academy in Peoria, Illinois, and Laura thought maybe his students could create trophies for the Run for Respect.
In some ways, the students in Andrew's class are fighting for respect much like Laura's. Many of them have grown up in challenging circumstances, and having someone like Mr. Rice believe in them has been a much needed spark in their lives.
This year, Laura did something a little different, though. She took some of her students an hour or so up the road to meet her friend Andrew's students. Her students got to meet the trophy-makers, and the trophy-makers got to meet first hand exactly who'd be taking the trophies away.
I wasn't there. I don't need to have been to know how Andrew's students felt. I used to virtually run the annual Run for Respect. It was a good and worthy cause. Then one day Laura and three of her students came to meet me and some of my friends while we were in Chicago. I met the kids behind the Run for Respect I had only previously been able to get to know from a 1000 miles away.
As I talked with my new friends - Austin and Mitch and Nick - I felt a cause I once ran for turning into a purpose I could get behind living for. What was once something I poured my time, money and legs into, in an instant became a connection worth building relationships on. It was something suddenly worth traveling to Pontiac, Illinois to share with others in person.
I wasn't the only one who traveled to Pontiac this year. Those students who made the trophies for the race - after they met Laura's kids they too decided they needed to come be a part of the Run for Respect. Because they did, we not only got to hang out with Laura's students, we also got to meet Andrew's students.
When we shook those students' hands and told them how much we appreciated the trophies, we saw pride. We saw young people with a purpose. There's something amazing that happens when we help each other discover purpose.
I for one don't believe we discover our purpose in life. I belief life, and God, reveal that to us through others.
It's revealed when we travel to Pontiac and make real what was once virtual.
It's revealed when trohy-makers meet trophy-takers, and they both understand one is not possible without the other.
It's revealed when teachers pour themselves into their students and their communities. When the lessons they teach become about living together and not taking a test as an individual.
So a funny story.
My buddy Tracey and I received these beautiful trophies at the dinner the night before the race. Our good friend Nicole, she did not. Tracey and I, never ones to miss an opportunity to poke fun at our dear friend, told her she was simply being sent the message she'd have to go out and earn her trophy.
I'll never forget standing at the awards ceremony after the race. They were calling out the names of the winners of each of the age groups - the people who would get one of the trophies. The ceremony arrived at our friend Nicole's age group; our friend Laura was calling out the names.
Third place - not Nicole.
Second place - not Nicole.
First place - and a trophy - our friend Nicole.
Nicole walked up to the table of trophies, got hers, and walked back toward us. The emotions I felt seeing her hold that trophy went way beyond her winning a race. Way beyond her coming full circle on a joke that started the night before. It was more about life coming full circle.
We get into this running thing wanting to do our best, and maybe somewhere along the way we pick up some medals, and maybe a trophy or two. But the lucky runners, like me, we discover running has a deeper purpose. And it's not about the trophies. It's about the trophy-makers and the trophy-takers, and how they reveal to us the beautiful way we are all connected.
Run for Respect. Maybe that's what that race is about. Maybe that's what running in general is about. Maybe respect is all about discovering the beautiful way we are all connected. If so, I saw a lot of respect in Pontiac, Illinois last weekend. God willing, I'll see it again in 2020.
As long as we live, no story ever really ends. One way or another, what appears to be the end is always just another beginning. Nothing makes that truer to me than running.
Every run, every race, they have a finish line. And finish, is there a word that more definitively says the end? Could anything more clearly say, this story is over?
That's what I thought back in 2015 when I ran my first Run the Bluegrass Half Marathon. It was the second race of my life. A bunch of friends I'd met online were headed to Lexington for this race and it sounded like fun. After running my first half marathon a few months earlier, I'd fallen in love with the friendships running offered. I hadn't fallen in love with running, though. I had no interest in the pain and suffering running so cruely demanded in return for those connections.
In Lexington, on this course, that price was unusually high. Billed by someone as America's Prettiest Half Marathon, that billing didn't take into account just how ugly hills can be to a runner who's never tackled elevation steeper than the steps on his front porch. For over 3 hours, I tackled those hills that day. And for at least 3 days after, I couldn't walk.
I promised my legs, and myself - it's possible I even struck a deal with God - let me walk again and I promise, I'll forever abandon this notion 240 pound men are formed in the image of runners.
A few days later, I walked again. And a few days after that, I ran. Looking back, I have no idea what turned me from a promise keeper to a promise breaker. At the time, it surely wasn't that I couldn't live without running. That's like suggesting I couldn't live without e coli. I think at the time I just sensed I was in the midst of a story that was beginning. It didn't have a "the end" feel to it.
I didn't go back to the Run the Bluegrass in 2016. But in 2017 the gently rolling hills called again. Hanging out with friends was again a big part of the draw, but for maybe the first time ever, I had a running goal in mind. I wanted to go back and run that race 15 minutes faster than I'd done 2 years earlier. I'd been running more, lost a little weight, and I didn' t know of a better running litmust test.
I wanted to find out where I stood as a runner.
I came up 2 minutes short of my 15 minutes faster goal. It wasn't the finish I was shooting for, but a finish that said I was improving. The real race story was that I even had a desire to improve. I left Lexington 2 years earlier vowing to never run again. Now I wanted to discover just how well I could run.
What appears to be the end is always just another beginning.
Between that 2017 race and 2018 a lot changed. The way I ate changed. The way I ran changed. I began running over 100 miles a month - nearly double what I was previously running. As a result, I was lighter and had a lot more energy. But how much more energy? What difference had it made? I've discovered any question worth asking deserves an answer, or else, it wasn't really a meaningful question. And the best place I knew in that moment to find the answer was the 2018 Run the Bluegrass.
Before I got to Lexington for that race, I set what felt like my most audacious running goal ever. Looking back, considering my mindset leaving Lexington in 2015, I'm not sure I'll ever have a more audacious goal. But I went to Lexington in 2018 wanting to run my fastest half marathon ever. When I crossed the finish line, that's exactly what I'd done - (Run the Bluegrass 2018). I crossed the finish line in 2:25:37, two minutes faster than my previous fastest half marathon.
When I think back on my thoughts leaving Lexington, it floors me where my running journey has led me. Sure, it's led me to a healthier and happier place. It's led me to a faster place. But those places are all just beginnings of the next story.
Earlier this month I launched a new project, Running4Soles. As part of it, I registered to go to Honduras in August of this year with Soles4Souls. While I'm there, I'll help distribute shoes. I'll also meet a man named Raul, who uses fitness to encourage his Honduran brothers and sisters. It's my hope that, together, we'll plan a 5K. Then, in 2020, I'll bring a Running4Soles team back there and together, his people and our people, we'll continue on this running journey - together.
When I left Lexington in 2015, I was focused on a finish line. I was focused on the end of a journey. Little did I know at that time, the journey was only beginning.
As long as we live, no story ever really ends. One way or another, what appears to be the end is always just another beginning. Nothing makes that truer to me than running.
Shoot for the moon. That's one of the lessons I continually take away from running. And that lesson isn't tied to the notion that when you shoot for the moon you GET the moon. Actually, quite often for me, it's the opposite.
Last year I attempted to run the 35 mile Georgia Jewel. I came up about 17 miles short. In the grand running scheme of things, that's a long way from the moon.
But here's the thing, in shooting for the Georgia Jewel moon, and even in coming up well short, I still landed somewhere far better than I'd been before I took my shot.
I was a stronger runner than I was before.
I'd seen a beautiful part of the country I'd have never seen otherwise.
I had new friendships I treasure to this day.
I was one race - one moment in life - closer to managing defeat.
And make no mistake, life really is about mastering DEFEAT.
That really is the secret to WINNING.
I used to be someone afraid of shooting for the moon. I loved TALKING about the moon, but never dared to shoot for it. It's running, though, that's taught me when you take your shot, the worst case scenario is you come up short. But you come up short and land among a group of stars - the group of people who are taking their shots in life.
The group of people who are one shot at the moon better off today than they were yesterday. Those are some pretty cool stars to hang out with. Even if you miss your moon landing.
With his bullhorn, the race director implored us to hurry to the start line. I guess he thought the sooner we were under the wooded cover of the Land Between the Lakes National Recreation Area, we'd all feel a bit more untouchable, whether the bully was real or not. So we lined up. At 6:30 AM the director sent us on our way. And after a two mile run to the trailhead, we entered the woods for the first of three 11-mile loops.
Once on the trail, we quickly realized the bully had already gone before us. The trails were muddy. Every step was a fight for footing. Between breaks in the thunder, you could hear the taunting and ghostly laugh of the bully echoing through the woods.
This was not the start I'd anticipated for my attempt at my longest run ever. There was no way to train for these conditions outside of daily runs through a swamp in the middle of a hurricane - neither of which I'd had access to.
It was clear this day was about me and my heart. No coach was going to drag me through. No inspirational meme was going to coax me on. This day was about the miles I'd put on my feet and legs leading up to this moment, and whatever strength I'd stowed away in my mind.
And if I was lucky, this day would be about discovering some new strength along the way.
day. These peeks made me feel as wet as the air looked. They restrained me with the notion that with each step, a tumble into the muddy trail waters was imminent.
Right on cue I slipped. I grabbed a tree branch out in front of me. My right leg spawled out wildly to the right. My left leg planted in an awkardly downsloaped rock crevice. I froze there for a moment, wondering if the fall was complete, or still in progress.
I managed to save myself. But that early slip portended what this day of running would look like. A constant battle between keep going and keep standing. Could a running bully have a better strategy? Make the runner live in so much doubt about each step that a months long dream of a finish line 37 miles away becomes an unquietable nightmare.
was. Running in the middle of a woods 600 miles from home, around the edge of lakes I'd never before had the chance to see, chasing a dream that had once been just that - a dream, it dawned on me - I'm blessed. In a woods that had clearly been invaded by a running bully, angels still ran. And one of them was smiling right behind me - her dream completely unaffected by the elements.
About 3 1/2 hours after we started the race, we emerged from the woods, completing our first loop. I thought to myself, that's the toughest half marathon I've ever completed. And I also thought, I only have to do it two more times....
We hung around the aid station there for a bit drinking soda and eating pringles chips. These aid stations would become saviors. Not just because of the chips and drinks, but they were another source of smiles. In the rugged conditions, when they could have been home curled up with a blanket and a book, these beautiful people were volunteering their time to protect us from the conditions, and to remind us - bullies don't always win.
As we started the second loop, many of the runners who'd entered for shorter distances were gone. For much of the remainder of the race Nicole and I would run in isolation. On one hand, that delivered me the peace I've come to appreciate about trail running. On the other hand, I periodically wondered if everyone else might have been swept away by the waters that seemed to keep rising, or by the wind that blew stronger by the mile.
and then told her, "I'd save worrying for something we can actually do something about. We're out here in the middle of nowhere. Do you have some particular shelter in mind?"
I don't think she found comfort in my answer, but we pressed on.
Two things were beginning to weigh on me at this point. Two things besides survival that is. I knew we were in danger of missing the cutoff time. The race had a 12-hour time limit; it was clear we were coming up short of that. Everything I'd read said this was a strict cutoff. I began processing the defeating idea of coming all this way, running all day in these conditions, and yet, not getting to cross the finish line.
I also started worrying about darkness. Neither Nicole or I had lights. The only thing I could imagine being harder than keeping my footing in the mud would be keeping my footing in mud I could no longer see.
As we left the final aid station, still nearly 4 miles from the finish line, a volunteer told us, "if you keep moving you can make it." I was in a lot of pain at this point. Each step was excruciating to take. Given I had 10,000 steps or so left, I wasn't sure if by "make it" he meant survive, or if he was crazy enough to believe that with less than an hour to go, we could really make it to the finish line.
Nicole looked at me after he said that and assured me, "I don't care if they close the course or not, we're finishing."
To be honest, in that moment, her words dejected me. I was leaning more toward not surviving. Right then and there, I was more than willing to feel life and pain evaporate right out of me as I plopped face down in the mud. I was tired of the bully, and I just wanted to be finally out of his reach.
But Nicole marched on, and she didn't say it, but she had a vibe about her that said "you'd better keep up."
We emerged from the final loop through the woods at a couple of minutes over the 12-hour cutoff. I fully expected the aid workers would tell us our night was done. It was dark, and I had no idea how we'd find our way to the finish line 1.7 miles up the road. I was also wondering, if they try to stop us, will Nicole ultimately end up being the biggest bully of the day?
But as we approached the volunteers, our cell phones weakly lighting the way, an enthusiastic voice yelled - you're almost there. Keep going. These were not encouraging words. Most of me was hoping to be tossed in the back of the pickup trucks with the other course markings and signs that all said the day was over. Most of me wanted put out of my misery - I'd run my longest run ever at this point - why on earth do I need a finish line?
But up ahead, the light from Nicole's cell phone danced forward into the night. And no matter what most of me wanted, it was clear where that light was headed. So I followed.
We were about a half mile from the finish line when a vehicle stopped alongside us. I was hoping we were about to be kidnapped - so long as the kidnappers wouldn't make me run ever again. But turns out it was Nicole's friend Sara, who I'd met earlier in the day. She'd already completed her 50 mile race and was now going to run the rest of the way with us. She told us she'd talked to the race director and told him we were still on the course and asked him to keep the finish line up.
That's when it hit me. The finish line was still possible. I no longer wanted to be face down in mud or kidnapped, I wanted to cross the finish line of the most physically challenging endeavor I'd ever tackled.
And that's what we did. A few minutes later we crossed the finish line and the race director handed us our buckles. We did it. Ironic, really, that the man who ushered us into the presence of the bully 12 1/2 hours earlier with a bullhorn, would now save us from him with one of the most angelic congratulatory handshakes I've ever received.
I'll always be grateful for angel Sara for leading us into his presence, and to angel Nicole for never ever doubting we'd find him there.
Once again the sport of running has stepped up to remind me that life is full of bullies. But it's also full of angels. Which of those we focus on makes a lot of difference.
This race was so well run. I'm not easily impressed by people who pull of good things in good conditions. But people who can make great things happen in bad conditions - that's when you know you're dealing with professionals, and people who really care about your experience.
I can't wait to go back to the Land Between the Lakes - maybe next year - with hopes of seeing what those lakes look like with the angel of sunshine shining down on them.
there's a choice. We can gather up the scattered pieces of that puzzle and shove them back into a box and set it on a shelf and forget we ever tackled that stupid puzzle - a strategy I used to employ often when it came to incomplete puzzles. Or, we decide the puzzle is important enough to finish. We know ourselves well enough to know seeing that thing sitting on a shelf will eat at us forever. We'll never sleep if we don't get to see what it looks like when it's finally whole.
My Houston Marathon 2018 was a beautiful experience. You can read my thoughts about it here: (My Plan Was A Second Marathon. God's Plan Was Different). But one puzzle piece turned up missing from that big and beautiful story. In the grand scheme of things, it was a small piece. I know that. Nonetheless, I didn't get to see the whole puzzle. I didn't get to see the picture on the ouside of the puzzle box. I knew I'd never be satisfied until I did.
I knew I needed to cross that Houston Marathon finish line.
I needed to see that piece of the puzzle.
Not long after registration opened for the 2019 Houston Marathon, I registered for it. I ran a lot of miles and races in 2018 after that, and in the back of my mind I always knew those races and those miles were part of the search for that missing puzzle piece.
One of the puzzle pieces that did fit in 2018 was the time my friends and I got to spend with Father Jim Liberatore and Debbie Allensworth. They lead St. Andrews Episcopal Church in Pearland, Texas. As part of my 2018 Houston Marathon experience, we got to partner with them on some Hurricane Harvey relief efforts. So when I returned to Texas last week I couldn't wait to catch up with Jim and Debbie.
I got to have lunch with Jim and Debbie, and then they led me on a tour of some of the relief work they've been doing since I last saw them. I was thrilled to hear they've received considerable grant support to continue their work. It was fulfilling to see that our small donations were part of the hands and feet of Christ wrapping the Pearland community in love and healing.
Two pieces of the Houston Marathon 2018 puzzle returned to join me in 2019. My friends Tracey and Nicole ran a lot of miles with me after Houston last year, so it was appropriate they joined me in Houston as I searched for the puzzle piece that escaped me when we were together in Houston last January. They are reminders of why running is so important to me. Yes, they push me to finish lines. But far more important to me is the friendships I have in them.
We had some fun leading up to race morning. But race morning finally came and we made our way to our race corals. Weaving our way through over 30,000 runners, Tracey and Nicole split off from me and headed toward their race group. They'd planned all along to run together and work on chasing a race goal of their own. I headed toward the back of the pack where I'd start my race.
Standing alone in that group waiting for my race to start, I realized it had been a long time since I'd run a race by myself. Leading up to Houston, I'd run the Oxbow Ultra with Nicole, the Richmond Half Marathon with my buddy Colby and the Marine Corps Marathon with Tracey. I stood there thinking back and couldn't recall the last race I'd run alone. That had been a huge shift in my running journey in 2018; I'd always preferred to run alone. But to be honest, I felt a little insecure standing there.
What I did have, though, was a plan. I knew I needed to focus on it, no matter how alone I was feeling. A couple of weeks prior to the Houston Marathon I did a 16 mile practice run. I managed a 12:45 minute per mile pace over those 16 miles, and when I was done, I felt like I could have finished the final 10 miles at a pace that would get me to the Houston Marathon finish line in under 6 hours - the pace I needed to avoid being evicted from the course once again.
So that became my focus. I turned my music on. Looked at the total pace number on my watch. And I committed then and there to keep it at that 12:45 number through the first 16 miles. No matter how tempted I got to try to speed it up - 12:45 is all I kept telling myself.
And just like my practice run, it worked. I felt good through mile 16. I was at that 12:45 pace, even after taking my first ever on the course bathroom break, and even after stopping twice to remove clothing as the temperatures warmed from the upper 20's to the low 40's.
At this point, I knew I simply needed to average 15 minute miles the rest of the way. That became my focus - one mile at a time. I switched my watch to a mode where I simply tracked each mile I was on. I abandoned the big picture for 10 bite sized snapshots of how the rest of my race would run out. In my mind, at this point, all I needed to do was run 10 consecutive one mile races in under 15 minutes. I was getting tired, the concrete of Houston was taking its toll on my legs, but I knew at this point I could do it. One mile at a time.
When I got to mile 18, it was like hitting a finish line before the finish line. I didn't make it to mile 18 last year. It was just before this mile marker that I got pulled from the course because I couldn't keep up. I was now further than I got the year before. It was a reminder that I was stronger that I'd ever been. I knew the struggle that got me last year hadn't gotten me this year. It gave me faith I could conquer the new struggles I knew were surely coming over the next 8.2 miles.
I could begin to imagine what the missing puzzle piece looked like.
Nicole had messaged me that she and Tracey were done with their races and they were waiting for me at mile 25. In a way, that shortened my race by over a mile. Because I knew if I could get to them on pace, there's no way they would let me come up short that final mile or so.
I checked my phone. I had friends and family tracking. They were all saying the same thing. You're so close. If you can just pick it up the slightest bit, you've got this. I'd obeyed Tracey throughout much of the race. I hadn't used my phone. But reading these messages at just the right time was a boost that made me thankful I didn't leave my phone behind like he suggested. Maybe even demanded.
And then there I was. At mile 25. Tracey and Nicole spotted me and came out on the course and joined me. Tracey was telling me I needed to pick up my pace - he's kind of a recording like that late in my races these days. Pick up your pace and your body will follow, he's fond of chanting. Nicole told him to be quiet - that I knew exactly where I was and what time I needed. They battled this out while I kept an eye on my watch. I think for a moment they forgot I was there.
Then I could see it. The missing puzzle piece. The Houston Marathon finish line. There's something beautiful about seeing something you came once to see but was denied the chance to do so. There's something fulfilling about being able to accomplish something that a year ago you couldn't. And there's something life-giving about doing it with two people who insisted you could do it all along, who believed it so much that they traveled away from their homes and families to share in the moment you proved them right.
I will always treasure the picture of Tracey and Nicole watching me approach the finish line. They have pride and joy written all over their faces. And then to have them ultimately cross that finish line with me. Well, that, more than the finish line itself, that more than redemption, will always be the missing Houston Marathon puzzle piece.
Running for me has become all about taking on things in life I'd never dreamed of taking on. It's about discovering through taking on each of those bold steps we're capable of more than we'd ever thought we were. And it's about finding this puzzle piece I fear too many of us overlook in life: our boldest steps, our grandest discoveries, come when we run and live in connection with the people around us.
We need people in our lives who say I believe in you. People who say I was there when you couldn't do it, and I'll sure be there when I know you will. People who say you need to pick up the pace and people who say I know you know what you're doing. We need people to run alongside us, to overwhelm us with the miraculous power in that. After all, what on earth could inspire us more to run alongside the people who might need us?
I went to Houston to find a missing puzzle piece. It looked a little different than I imagined it would. But I'm sure glad I found it.
This weekend, hundreds of people will stop and remember a woman whose life and death has impacted their lives in powerfully unexpected ways. A majority of them never met her.
It's somewhat alarming to confess that someone I never had a single human interaction with has profoundly changed how I perceive being human. On the other hand, it's opened my eyes to the possibilities we all have as humans. We have miracles within us. We don't need to see or forsee them, we don't have to know their names or where they live, we don't have to know where they came from or where they will go.
We simply have to believe in them.
Meg Cross Menzies has helped me believe in miracles. Not water into wine or walk on water miracles. She's made me believe that simple human kindness - a heart that humbly turns away from self worship and instead runs lovingly outward toward others - can change the world in ways that resembles, well, walking on water.
I have this book I want to write. It's called:
When I Changed My Mind About Running
Running Changed My Mind
And My life
Long title for a book, right?
When I look back on my life since Meg died, though, those words seem inadequate. They seem way too few to describe the miracle that's happened in my life, and the miracles I've seen take place all around me.
After Meg died in 2014, I wrote this in the blog post I wrote at the time (God's Newest Angel, One With Years Of Experience):
By the time I finished my run today, I wasn't much more clear as to why God would take a family's angel before they were ready for her to leave. But one thing was crystal clear. I know what God has done with his newest angel.
Soon after she arrived, God said, Meg, there's a couple of people trying to put together a memorial run for you this Saturday. They have the best of intentions, but they're thinking too small.
I wrote that after I went on my longest run in over a decade. Maybe even two decades. A run I ran in response to a call to run for Meg that day to honor her life. I was but one of 100,000 runners around the world who answered that call. At the time, I thought Meg's miracle was going to be found in the vastness of that unimaginable response.
I thought it would be found in the number of people who would discover Meg's love for running and maybe make it a love of their own. In the number of people who would become more aware of their personal safety when they ran, and that of runners when they drove. It would be found in the number of people who would be reminded no breath is promised, and in turn, would begin to treat with newfound gratitude every breath they have.
Maybe her miracle showed up in those places. It sprayed and sprinkled all over those areas in life. But when Meg insisted to God that we were thinking too small, I don't she wasn't thinking far and wide. I think Meg was thinking deep.
Meg didn't have much interest in her name running famously around the globe. Instead, I think, she had a final wish, a yearning, to humbly take up rest in a quiet corner of each of the hearts that would ultimately encounter her story.
She found a corner in my heart. She found it in an odd way - through running. Not that first day when I ran for Meg. But some run after that. That's where the odd comes in. Because before I ran for Meg, I hated running. My high school football coach once trucked us 13 miles away from the practice field. On a hot summer day, he dropped us off and told us he'd see us back at the field. I walked almost the whole way. With every breath of the route I vowed to hate him and anything to do with running the rest of my life.
I eventually grew to respect that coach. But, oh, how I honored that vow to hate running. I honored it like a religion. Right up until the day Meg found that quiet corner in my heart. The day Meg changed my mind about running.
Through running, Meg led me to an unforseen discovery. This place I'd commited to forever hate - running - became my own quiet corner where I could be at ease in life. All these years I'd hated running based on a memory painted with exhaustion and struggle and impossible. As it turns out, running can be a place of peace and reflection and personal discovery.
Two years into hanging out in this space, I found myself longing to run a marathon. Ok, longing might not be the right word; my mind hadn't changed THAT much about running. But I was feeling pulled to take on what many feel is a pinnacle running accompishment. So in November of 2016, about 35 years after cursing the sport along with every bumper sticker that ever bragged about it, I became a marathoner.
I've come to say about crossing that marathon finish line:
The memory of a marathon finish line is rooted far more in what you CAN DO than it is in what you JUST DID.
That's not exactly what I thought the moment I crossed the finish line. That thought was reserved for "Holy Jesus, I'm not dead." But the discoveries I made in the aftermath of that race have been the biggest reward of tackling a marathon. Some of the biggest rewards of my life, really. I discovered my mind had been hijacked by fear. I discovered that in my years of sitting on the couch, my mind had been lulled into a state of complacency and apathy. As a result, I was living with little concern for myself and others - not surprising when you're afraid of your own life and indifferent to everyone else's.
But running, excellerated by that marathon experience, was changing my mind. I now had the confidence to try things I'd never dreamed of trying. I started a podcast and began running for special causes. I started interacting with people in a way that was opening my eyes to just how many other minds and hearts in this world had been overcome by fear. I made it a point to look more deeply into the eyes of people who were hurting on the other end of the kind of apathy and indifference my life had fallen into.
I never thought the day would come when I would not hate running, but it did. I actually changed my mind about running. And that surprised me.
I never thought the act of running could ever change the way my mind thought. The way it worked. But it did. And I found that mysterious.
But when the change in my mind began filtering into the way my heart beat, and who it was beating for - well, I wondered if I had run across a finish line into the open arms of a miracle of sorts.
In the midst of this miracle I find myself wondering at times if those are Meg's arms. In the quiet space of running, I sometimes find myself speaking into that quiet space of my heart where she lives: hey Meg, this miracle - is that you?
She doesn't answer.
But when I'm with the people she's brought into my life, when I experience the love of their connection, the strength of their encouragement, when I find myself treasuring their success and health and happiness more than I crave my own, I hear her say, "you're no longer thinking too small."
I don't know if running can change the world. But I know this. When I changed my mind about running, running changed my mind, then my heart, and then my life. And I believe somewhere in there is the miraculous path to changing the world.
I'm going to keep running along that path.
moments, three young children lost their mom, a husband lost his wife, and a beautiful family lost their daughter and sister. Understandably, it was impossible for anyone to see a miracle rising from the ashes of that day.
But in the aftermath of Meg's death, someone hung a pair of shoes on the road sign near where she was killed. As the day and week wore on, that single pair of shoes grew into a shoe memorial overflowing with them. Today, nearly five years later, runners from all over the world continue to visit Meg's memorial and add their own shoes. Only today, those shoes don't mourn her death as much as they celebrate the hope and new life Meg's story has inspired in thousands of people. Most of whom never met her.
I am one of the inspired. I am also one of those who never met her.
In 2013, the year before Meg died, I ran less the 20 miles the entire year. In 2018, I ran over 1,200 miles. In addition to running and a renewed focus on my health, I have a rejuvenated appreciation for life, much of which comes from a deepened relationship with God. I hung an old pair of shoes on Meg's memorial as one man. Today I write about that moment as a completely changed one.
And the most beautiful part about my story - I am but one miracle out of hundreds that Meg's life and death has given birth to.
Part of my miracle has been this website and the stories I've been able to share through my writing and podcasting. Earlier this year, I was blessed with an opportunity to share an interview I did with Buddy Teaster, CEO of Soles 4 Souls. I said at the time the interview changed my life. I was certain my miracle was about to grow.
In that interview and in Buddy's book: Shoestrings: How Your Donated Shoes and Clothes Help People Pull Themselves Out Of Poverty, I discovered how Soles 4 Souls is using shoes I and you and others don't want to bring miracles to parts of the world that long ago quit believing in them.
In Buddy's book, one of the very first stories he shares is about a group of 150 Hondurans who were kicked out of their community because they weren't a great image for their city - the city of El Progreso - home to about 300,000 people. These people were carried from the bridge they were living under to the center of a palm forest and told to live there. Even though the group had been living under a bridge, the bridge was at least familiar to them. Now, nothing was home. What little they once had was now gone.
The following excerpt from Buddy's book talks about the birth of a miracle in these people's lives:
“The city decided these people, living in hovels, were not a good image for the city. So they picked them up and moved them out into the center of a palm forest, and told them that they could live there,” said Ty Hasty, of Soles 4 Souls partner 147 Million Orphans. Minimal as it was, the bridge had been their home. But now they awakened daily in a strange place all over again, with no clue of how to survive—and no help from the authorities that had put them there. They were out of sight, and would be quickly forgotten.
Ty’s organization was already on the ground providing relief, coordinating its efforts with the help of Sister Teresita Gonzalez, the founder of an El Progreso orphanage. One morning, she took Ty to Monte de los Olivos, the area to which the people had been forcibly relocated. Ty saw destitution at a level difficult to describe. “They had no clean water. There was nothing to eat. And I said to Teresita, ‘All these people are going to die.’ She said, ‘Yeah. I know.’”
Today, Olivos is a different place. Ty’s organization helped residents dig wells—and build twenty-nine homes, a school, and a community center—together with Hearts2Honduras, another Soles 4 Souls partner. “The biggest difference is in the people’s faces,” Ty said. “There’s hope.”
But in spite of the physical security this young community created, one question loomed: could it build an independent, sustainable future? Raul Carrasco, founder of our micro partner, World Compass Foundation, says they’re “at the point of creating that opportunity.” Based in El Progreso, Raul, with Soles4Souls' help, opened a micro-enterprise in 2014, supplying shoes to micro-businesses—which, in turn, helps villagers disrupt the cycle of poverty.
In my conversations with Buddy, he told me story after story about how Soles 4 Souls is transforming lives all over the world with shoes and clothing we no longer want.
While talking to Buddy, I couldn't help but make the connection to how a runner's life is transformed when they get a new pair of shoes - how critical those shoes are to their health and well-being and hope as a runner. I couldn't help but make the connection between the miracle that came from that first pair of shoes I put on Meg's memorial, the miracle in my life and in lives all around me. I began to grasp, maybe even dream about, how truly possible it was for Sole 4 Souls and their partners to use shoes, even old shoes we no longer need or want, to paint hope into lives from which it had long ago vanished.
And I was more reflective than ever on the truth that running had run a miracle into my life, and like a baton handed off, maybe it was my turn now to run with those miracles into someone else's life.
So this year, I'll run with that miracle baton. I'll begin taking steps to direct my running journey toward Soles 4 Soles and all they do. I'll start a running team called Running 4 Soles. I'm still figuring out what that means - exactly - and what that miracle looks like, but I've always been about taking an informed leap first and figuring the rest out as I go.
Some initial goals I have this year that will keep me invested in figuring it out:
There's a lot to be worked out along the way. These are ideas born in early conversations with my friends at Soles 4 Souls. But I know God has put this vision on my heart. I believe He wants to show me miracles so I can share them with others. Miracles that might come in the shapes and sizes and colors of shoes, but look and sound and feel like God.
I need to tell you one final story about God calling me to this place.
Earlier this year, after reading about the displaced Honduran people in Buddy's book, I began hearing about the caravan of people coming up through Mexico and approaching the United States. Obviously, there was a lot of conversation and news and differing opinions around this group. I got to researching this caravan, trying to figure out where they came from, how they got started, and it turns out the caravan started with 160 people leaving Honduras.
I thought back to the story from Buddy's book. One hundred fifty Hondurans expelled from their city. It became clear to me I wasn't in the middle of a coincidence. God was clearly speaking to my heart. And as usual, his conversation had a theme.
One common question I kept hearing people ask when discussing this caravan was "would you let these people in your house?" But God kept saying to me - that's the wrong question, Keith. The right question is: are you willing to go spend time in their house?
God's question worked on me for days. I'm going to tell you - I was once fully committed to never visiting a place like Honduras. I love my safety and security and all the comforts I've inherited as an American. But all of a sudden, inexplicably really, as if driven there by a miracle, I was on the Soles 4 Souls website researching the quickest way possible for me to visit Honduras.
And so now I have to go. I have to answer that question - am I willing to go spend time in their house?
I have to see the miracle of shoes working in their house.
So that's the beginning of my story. I invite you to come along on his journey. Whether it's hearing the stories, collecting some shoes, offering financial support or joining me on a trip to Honduras - I invite you to tag along.
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It was an unusual place to be the Saturday morning after Thanksgiving. But there I was, standing beside a tiny lake, in a town of about 1000 people, sharing the starting line of an ultra marathon with less than 20 other runners. I'd participated in some small races before, but this one redefined small. And as the camera snapped a picture of all of us at the starting line, I couldn't help but wonder how on earth I'd ended up there.
Who was I kidding? I knew how I got there. I attempted to run the 35-mile Georgia Jewel back in September. And the distance, heat and mountains got the best of me. My pursuit of that Jewel finish line came to an abrupt end at mile 18. I'd driven to Georgia from Virginia writing the story of my first ultra marathon. I drove home thinking of new words to write my latest story about failure.
I never imagined those words would include St. Paul, Virginia. But if running has taught me nothing else, it's taught me our stories are never over. Our race finish lines mean everything but the race is finished.
That failure in Georgia ate at me. It had been a good year of running, but I kept dwelling on the Georgia Jewel. It's our human nature, I suppose, to let our minds wander to where we came up short when there are plenty of spaces available for them to mingle with victory.
So I turned to Google. Did a search of November Ultra races and found myself in the far southwest part of Virginia. About as far southwest as you can get without being in Tennessee or West Virginia. The name of the race was the Oxbow Ultra. It had options for 6, 12 and 24 hour races. I did a little math and decided I could run 35 miles in 12 hours. That's all I wanted - 35 miles.
When I discovered my running partner and friend Nicole would be visiting family in that part of the state that weekend, that's all I needed. It was off to the Oxbow.
lake. On one hand, it was nice. It let you settle into a nice pace. On the other hand, it did little to prepare you for what was ahead.
As that first mile ended, the course abruptly turned and switched back and started a climb up the mountain that had been staring down at us as we made our first trip around the lake. That first easy mile now seemed like a cruel joke. I swear I heard that mountain laughing at us.
If the uphill climb wasn't challenging enough, the trail was covered with wet and mounded leaves that mixed in with and at other times hid the frequent pools of soupy mud. I spent a lot of time not just wondering how to take that next step up, legs burning from exhaustion, but how do I keep the next step from slipping me over the edge of the mountain and down into the ravine below.
I didn't think about it climbing up that first time, but the leaves would only get slipperier and the mud soupier as runners continued to traipse over and through them collecting their laps.
After a mile of climbing nearly 600 feet up, we emerged from the covered trail into an open highland. Not only was it flat and dry and empty of leaves and puddles, it was beautiful. It was the prize at the end of a fight. Rest for weary legs. It was the reassurance I needed that I hadn't signed up for 12 hours of death defying slip and slide experiences.
new venture, a relationship, a project, a hobby or a dream. We get a vision, it looks and sounds flat and doable and worth it and fills us with a spirit of "I can do this!!"And then we run around the lake and come to the end of the flat part of that vision and hit the mountain.
And we stop. And we stare. And we turn around.......
What would happen if we just took a chance and climbed the challenges in our life. Maybe, just maybe, we'd discover there is something beautiful on the other side. And maybe - maybe that beauty would motivate us to take just one more lap.
And then another.
Until we're accomplishing things and bringing beauty into the world we never imagined we could.
As we ran down off that plateau things got trickier. It's actually easier to navigate wet leaves and mud going up than it is down. I've never spent as much time in a race trying to keep my balance as I did through the downhill sections of this course. In fact, I consider it one of my greatest running accomplishments that I didn't fall this day. My arms and legs flailed in all directions at times to make sure of it, which led to soreness in muscles usually not involved in my running motions, but my body remained in one piece throughout.
The final 2 miles of each lap were along the Clinch River. After the heavy rains the river was high and rolling. Just like I was reminded at the top of the mountain we sometimes need to go exploring to discover beauty in this world and within ourselves, the river reminded me just how many sounds we don't hear each day. We get used to the sounds of traffic and keyboards and YouTube videos, but out there somewhere and always are rivers rolling. Each with their own sound. All of them calling us to hear them.
At the end of that river was the finish line. Once every 5 miles we got to cross a finish line. Each time we did another 5 miles were added to our collection and we were one lap closer to 35 miles. Just beyond that finish line we could step into an aid station and eat pasta and drink coca cola. And discover new treats like Lay's Poppables. (A treat my entire family is now addicted to).
my recipe for ultra success. (And Poppables - forevermore running success includes Poppables).
I want to add another component of this race that helped me. It was the 5 mile laps. Mentally, knowing every 5 miles I could hit a bit of a reset button was powerful. When it comes to tackling longer distances, I need the capacity to break the race down into bite sized nuggets. Well, this race was staged in those nuggets. Never once did my mind drift ahead to the 35 mile finish line - it was always focused on the end of that current 5-mile lap.
I told Nicole it was likely we were only going to get 30 miles today. I think she'd already done the math herself. She reminded me it would be my longest distance ever. My longest timed run ever. That there was still a lot left to run for. So we kept going. Another lap. And then another.
I experienced something in those next laps I'd never experienced before. The transition from day to night in the middle of a run. And on this day, that also meant going from whatever warmth the elusive sunshine had offered to the cold blanket of darkness.
Those slippery leaves, the ever widening and sloppy puddles, they now became trail landmines waiting to trip us up with each stride. The only protection we had was our headlamps. More often than not, though, we had those lights pointed in the distance to spot oncoming coyotes.
It's odd, really. It was probably the longest 5 miles of my life. Each step hurt. Whether going up or down. My legs were cold and stiff and at times I felt like I needed to reach down and manually lift each step into place. But out there in the stillness of the night, in a world far removed from the chatter and soul conflicting tugs of the real world, there was uncommon peace. Peace a part of me dreaded seeing fade back into reality.
In the end, the longing for warmth overcame the desire for peace, and we marched ahead with every ounce of speed we had left in the tank. At this point, it was a very small tank.
you conquer it, and sometimes maybe you come up a little short. Standing there holding that medal, I felt like we experienced a little of both that day. A little conquer. A little coming up short. But I think all of our lives should be in the business of taking on the job of fear and discomfort. It's in the taking the job on at all that is great. So I couldn't help but agree, we did do a great job.
We were making our way up the steps. Headed to the car and then back to our rooms where we could finally escape the chill that had fully invaded both of us now. We heard a voice shouting "Nicole, Nicole," as we struggled up the steps. We stopped. A young man was holding a large growler from a local brewery. He presented it to Nicole along with a certificate and let her know she'd won the women's division of the 12-hour group.
Nicole will tell you the number of runners in that division was quite small. (We won't say how small). But I will say no matter how many runners were in that group, she earned her award. And it was the exact perfect way to put a cap on our day. Standing at the top of those steps, in the dark and chill of a tiny town park, no one else around, it was the most ceremoniously beautiful way to say - great job - great day!
Life is like running.