The Richmond Half Marathon
I remember signing up for my first distance race. The Richmond Half Marathon back in November 2014. I did it after getting caught up in the wave of emotions pouring from the runners coming to Richmond that fall to honor Meg Cross Menzies. The day I signed up I'd been reflecting on this scripture:
Like many people I'd been moved by Meg's story. When she died I wrote this article: God's Newest Angel, One With Years of Experience. I signed up for that first half marathon believing this angel had set a race before me, one that was pointing me to Jesus. I confess, though, me of little faith thought the angel had lost her heavenly mind. Who points an overweight couch potato to a half marathon? But Meg clearly felt emboldened by her newfound connection to the greatest miracle worker ever.
I eventually crossed that finish line on race day. It wasn't pretty. It wasn't pretty when I crossed. It wasn't pretty when I hobbled a mile or so to where I'd parked my car. It was ugliest of all the following week when I felt like every handicap parking space in Hanover County should rightfully be mine.
That's alright, I kept telling myself. You did it. And you'll never have to do it again!
The Richmond Marathon
To the many friends I've been blessed to share this running journey with, that has become somewhat of a punchline: "I'll never have to do this again." Because by the time I signed up for my first full marathon 2 years later, I'd run several more half marathons. All of them out of state. One of them as far away as Missoula, Montana.
To be honest, signing up for the Richmond Marathon wasn't a response to another prompt from Meg. It was actually quite self centered. It was ego driven. It was burying once and for all past failures in my life. Things I'd messed up really bad as well as things I'd never taken on for fear of messing them up really bad. This marathon was about finishing so many things in my life, including that first half marathon. It was never lost on me that it was only "half" a marathon.
So, I went into this one thinking about taking care of me.
finished with anything. Not if he can use it for his purposes.
When I crossed the finish line I felt and heard God's voice. He put a scripture on my heart, one that just happened to be printed on the back of the shirt I was wearing that day. 2 Timothy 4:7 says, "I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith." God was about to completely steal my running journey and use it to help others keep fighting, finishing and keeping the faith. And he wasn't asking me to accept that - he was demanding it.
The Podcast Interview
As part of God's plan to begin encouraging others through my running journey, I started a podcast. I interview runners or people in the running community who have inspiring stories. My hope is these stories will shine light on folks who might need it.
through the mountains of northern Georgia. If there was only the 100 mile option, this race would have been in and out of my mind as soon as Jenny was done telling me about it. But the race also offers 50, 35 and 17 mile races.
Long after our conversation was over, The Georgia Jewel kept popping into my mind. I had no idea why. It was just one of those nagging whispers that have come to predict something crazy is about to happen in my life.
Registering for the Georgia Jewel
2018 has been a crazy running year. The year started with a did not finish at the Houston Marathon. I lined up hoping I could keep up with the 6 hour cutoff pace, a pace nearly an hour faster than my only previous marathon. But at mile 18 my hopes were dashed. I couldn't keep up. My record against the mighty 26.2 dropped to one victory against one might Texas defeat.
A little over a month later I had an opportunity to get back in the win column. Several friends were headed to Little Rock, Arkansas to tackle the Little Rock Marathon. At the last minute I decided to join them. Little rock had a much more forgiving 8-hour cut off. If I could go down there and conquer that race I could get back on the winning side of this marathon thing. And after 6 hours and 45 minutes on a rainy, hilly course, that's exactly where I ended up. Back in the win column.
Then comes March. The end of March and the annual Run the Bluegrass half marathon in Lexington, Kentucky. A race that has tried not only to defeat me twice, but not so subtly tried to kill me just to make sure I never came back. It's one of the most challenging courses I've ever run.
This March felt different though. After Little Rock my running only improved. I felt strong coming into Lexington. I thought I could run my fastest Run the Bluegrass, and by the time I got there, I started thinking I could run my fastest half marathon period.
I need to pause here and tell you one thing all three of those races have in common: my friend Nicole. She was there when I got drug off the course in Houston. She was there cheering me on at the finish line at Little Rock. And on Run the Bluegrass day, knowing I had a goal of running my fastest half marathon ever, and knowing she was plenty fast and inspirational enough to help me make it happen, she was lined up next to me determined to make it happen.
And make it happen we did. By about 2 1/2 minutes, I ran my fastest half marathon ever.
That race was a huge confidence builder for me. I didn't know exactly how big until last weekend.
At the Little Rock Marathon my friend Nicole and I started joking about running the Georgia Jewel 35 mile race. Running through the mountains. Becoming ultra marathoners. Daring greatly. Chasing limits that could only be reached with God's strength at our backs. We joked about it. Then we were mysteriously serious about it.
There was a point at mile 11 at the Run the Bluegrass when my friend Nicole sensed I wasn't going to make it. She'll never admit she was sensing it, but I knew she was. Which is why she forced my hand. Dared me to come 11 miles into our shared goal to set a personal record and quit before pulling it off. She left me no doubt that was absolutely NOT her intention, and basically told me to get it in gear or leave Lexington with nothing but regrets.
I'm grateful for that. In hearing that story you get to know a little bit about just how she's built. A fighter. A scrapper. And a say you're going to do it you'd better do it kind of person.
That's why last Saturday when I got a message from her that included her paid registration for the 35 mile Georgia Jewel ultra marathon, I knew that was her way of saying we're done talking. It's time to tackle what we set out to do.
And so last Saturday, I registered for my first ultra marathon. On Saturday, September 22, Nicole and I will tackle 35 miles of trail and about 5000 feet of ascending mountains to cross the finish line. I have no doubt, when she senses I'm about to pack it in at mile 25 or 30 - what?!?!?!? - she'll let me know good and well we didn't come all the way to Georgia not to finish our first ultra marathon.
So for the next several months, through the long and hot dog days of summer, you can be sure - I'm going to have Georgia on my mind.
Truly I tell you, if you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mountain, 'Move from here to there,' and it will move. Nothing will be impossible for you.
In order for you to fully understand my 2018 Run the Bluegrass (RTB) journey, I have to tell you about my 2015 RTB journey. It was my second half marathon ever. I was ill-prepared to say the least. And it was the first time I'd ever run over hills the likes of those on this rural Lexington, Kentucky race course.
To be exact, there are 32 relentlessly rolling hills that offer up everything but flat. Back in 2015, when my buddies helped me across the finish line in just over 3 hours, I swore I'd never run again. Several days after the race, I started wondering if I'd ever walk again.
Then, and maybe still, it was the hardest race I'd ever run.
But eventually I did find a way to walk again. And to my surprise, I also found the will to run again. In fact, before returning to RTB for a third time last weekend, I'd run 2 marathons and 9 half marathons since swearing off running. A running death sentence was somehow averted, even if barely.
I came to Lexington looking for a fight. My 2018 running year started with a bust when I picked up a "did not finish" at the Houston Marathon. Fueled by that failure, though, I went to Little Rock and ran my fastest marathon about a month later. Granted, it was only my second marathon, but when you don't finish your previous race you'll accept faster no matter how fast it is.
After Little Rock, I went on to run my fastest 5k and 10k races. This planted a seed - it was possible I could run my fastest marathon, 5k, 10k and half marathon all in one month. All I had left to do was run my fastest half marathon ever at RTB. Only, I knew how impossible that possible was. Last year I brought my RTB time down to 2:48. But my current half marthon best was 2:27.
Was it really possible to shave another 21 minutes off my fastest RTB time?
If I was willing to fight that course the entire 13.1 miles, I thought it could be done. And so, in my mind, a mission was launched.
Run the Bluegrass is always a family afair for my Megsmiles family. We got the race weekend started with a dinner at Malone's. Me and my plant based diet had fallen on hard times in the days leading up to the race, so as long as we were on the outs, I decided to have some steak and shrimp. It had been awhile and I happen to think it was the perfect pre-race meal to tackle the big fight ahead.
In the week leading up to the race, Lexington had been inundated with rain. When I arrived Thursday it was raining, and there was intermittent rain and gloom all day Friday. All signs pointed to a cloudy Saturday - if not rainy. That's why, when I made the trek up the hill to the parking area on race day, this scene was a thing of beauty.
When I saw that image, I knew God had something special in store for the day. I'm a believer that God whispers. He whispers through our friends at a pre-race dinner. He whispers through a sunrise. And I was about to find out he whispers through friends who run with you.
I made my way to the Megsmiles tent. It's a special place to gather before the race to share in each other's hopes and dreams for the day. I don't really know how unique running is as far as this goes, but the commraderie might be a bigger part of the race experience than the running. The running gives us something to bond over - the successes and failures and hill struggles - but it's the bonding that often produces the most enduring memories.
You want to talk about a bonding memory. This image will live with me forever.
Those three men there. They've become some of my best buddies in the world. And I wouldn't know one of them if it wasn't for running.
We were all grateful to have Sid Busch join us. Sid's a Navy veteran who's run over 200 marathons to honor fallen military veterans. He runs so their lives and legacies are not forgotten. John and Anthony are veterans themselves. So to be standing there with these three men, all such good and honorable men, it's a moment that transcends whatever race result happens that day; one that ensures victory. It's a moment that won't hang on a wall with the medals, but it shapes a heart forever.
Then it comes. After the dinners and all the pre-race bonding, race time comes. And we head for the starting line.
I'll be honest. This starting line felt different than any other. Likely because I had a large goal. One I knew was bigger than any running goal I'd ever tackled. I think the other part is I had someone running with me. That was a first. For 13 miles I was going to have someone at my side.
My friend Nicole, who originally contemplated not running the half marathon because of a knee injury, knew how much this time goal meant to me. When I was loosely talking about goals for this race earlier in the month, she's the one who ultimately made me say out loud that I wanted this to be my fastest half marathon ever. She's plenty faster than me and likely could have chased her own goal, but she made the decision to help me chase mine.
We finally got our call to start. The 2:30 pace group was in front of us. Nicole said we were going to pass them and never let them catch us. "Never" came out of her mouth with an intensity that set the stage for the rest of the day. Never once did I hear anything softer than "we are going to do this." No doubts. No waffling on the expectations. Just a constant flow of "we are."
My goal was to get to mile 9 in 1:35. I knew that would put me ahead of the pace I needed to hit my goal. Ahead in time to battle the brutal hills that define mile 9. But we actually hit mile 9 in 1:37:30. I was 2 1/2 minutes behind my dream pace. Which in the grand scheme of things, with only 4 miles to go, felt like a lot. My pace was beginning to slow and I no longer had the cushion I'd hoped for. If I was going to hit my goal, the last 4 miles were going to be hard miles.
I did have one thing going for me at mile 9, though: Meg
I didn't stop at mile 9 like I had my previous two races. No photo ops. No paying respects. I knew Meg would be fine with that. Meg was all about crushing everything in her path to get to that finish line. Hills, the competition - whatever got in her way. So I ran by, gave her a little pat, and with a little extra pep, motored up that first hill.
I'd noticed Nicole looking at her watch and phone more frequently. I knew she'd been receving texts from our friend Tiffany at the finish line. She'd been following our pace and offering her instructions. Likely - tell him to pick it up! The more Nicole looked at both, the more I knew SHE KNEW we were cutting it close.
Yet, still: "we're going to do this."
The boost I got from Meg didn't last long. By mile 10 I was fading fast. I did what I've done many times running these races alone. I started setting plan B goals.
Nicole had her music on. She turned to me and said "overcomer" is on. I'll likely always hold that as the most beautiful piece of encouragement ever. Nicole knows my heart for God. She shares it. She knew that song was ALL about leaning on God when there's nothing left. It was one more way of saying "we're going to do this." Get your heart set on God right now. We're overcoming this.
By mile 11 I was walking more frequently. The goal looked as jeopardized as it had looked all day. And Nicole simply looked at me and said, "We didn't come all this way not to get this thing. You can rest in 25 minutes. You can sleep after the finish line. But we're going to do this."
I didn't know how. I was out of breath. Feeling faint. My head could only look down at my feet. But for the next two miles that girl just kept saying we are going to do this. We are going to do this. And she willed my body to do things I couldn't begin to get it to do. She created fight in me when the only material she had to work with was quitting. Because that's what I wanted to do. That's what I was thinking.
Give it up Nicole. We got close enough. Close on a really challenging course.
I never said that. I couldn't. Not to her. She gave up her race. Her day. And she didn't consider it a sacrifice, but an opportunity. An opportunity to help someone else achieve a goal. I'm telling you, that was never lost on me at any point during the race. Nicole smiled and laughed - and danced with Jesus, as she put it - and was totally in her zone helping make someone else's day. That in itself made fighting on mandatory.
I did fight on and at my 12, I finally knew: we are going to do this. I could hear the crowd cheering runners home. I could see the final turn in the distance. And then there we were in that final turn. I saw our friends, and then the finish line, and then with more kick than I think I've ever had with 100 yards to go, I ran home.
I looked at my watch: 2:25:37.9 - my fastest half marathon by over 2 minutes. (Side note: Nicole ran it in 2:25:37.7 - she was NOT going to let me beat her!)
The finish line was emotional. I knew I'd completed what I set out to do. My 4 fastest races, 4 different distances, all in one month. 4 years ago I was here wondering what I was doing in the midst of runners. I wasn't one. I was a survivor, but I wasn't a runner.
Today I felt like a runner. But you know, within seconds the runner in me started reflecting on the person in me. The runner was wearing one cool medal (very cool medal), but the person was overwhelmed by the bonds from the weekend. Bonds formed because a woman died and people captivated by her spirit adopted it instead of letting it die with her. A spirit of loving and giving and putting someone else's finish line ahead of their own.
Nicole and I talked about God nudges on the course. I think the biggest nudge came after the finish line. That's when it hit me that we all bond so well because we know what each other's dreams are, we know what each other's fears are and we know what each other struggle with. We know because we care and we ask. And then we dive head first into being a part of it. We don't do things like Run the Bluegrass to run to finish lines, we do it to run to each other. Wherever we are; whatever we might need.
God gave us that answer a long time ago. Not to run with each other, but to love with each other. StilI, I have to say, running is a very cool place to figure that out. A beautiful place to experience it.
Life is like running.