For a year I imagined this race. Even when running other races I was imagining this one. The 2017 Patrick Henry Half Marathon. The race that owed me one. Actually, I'm the one who owed something here. I owed this race my best effort. One worthy of staying on the course past mile 10, which I couldn't do last year.
Less than 48 hours before the race I felt my best effort rising to the surface. I had strength like I was already standing at the starting line. Adding to that strength was a weather forecast calling for perfect running conditions.
Then completely unforeseen, my personal condition went south fast. One minute I was coaching my son's flag football team and giving it all I had, a half hour later I was giving up a week's worth of hydration and nutrition to whoever it is that dishes out stomach bugs. I woke up the next morning 6 pounds lighter than the morning before. I no longer felt like I was standing at the starting line. In fact, I felt like I'd never stand at one again.
I reached out to friends on social media to let them know what I was dealing with. When I did, I'd resigned myself to the reality the Patrick Henry Half was about to put another notch in its belt at my expense. There was no way I was going to be able to run.
Many of my non-runner friends agreed. They replied with comments that my health was much more important than a race. There will be plenty more races, they said, but there's only one you.
The responses from my runner friends were a bit different. Oh, they shared an equal amount of concern for my health, but they also allowed for a way to the starting line. Drink coconut water. Eat pretzels. Get lots of rest. They shared stories of how they bounced back from their own stomach issues and like superman or wonder woman found themselves at the starting line. In other words, they weren't convinced I should be thinking about other races. They were still pointing me down the road to redemption.
death and the destruction of food in favor of a craving for a way to line up and run a half marathon.
Add that to the strangest but truest thoughts of my life list.
Saturday morning came. Two hours before start time. One final examination: can I make it to the starting line? Do I have what it takes to finish this race? Less than two hours later I found myself standing beneath the starting line I'd been dreaming of for a year.
hadn't found a way to outrun my lack of nutrition. I shifted thoughts and gears and settled into a pace that would get me safely to the finish line. I reminded myself that's what I came for. Redemption only required one thing: the finish line.
Coming up on mile 12 I saw my family handing out water. Then I saw my friends Solomon and Pam coming to greet me and run a few paces with me. I was reminded some days we're as strong as the people who run beside us - no matter how weak we might feel. Those two, and then the gatorade my boys tried to hand me, and the pictures I saw my wife snapping - that was the fuel and nutrition that carried me through to the final mile.
My neighbor Art Bedard showed up at a couple of key spots over that final mile. I'm convinced God planted him in strategic locations. Art has always cheered me on virtually, but seeing him in person on the side of the course helped me discover a few ramining drips of adrenaline. Then my friends Rebecca and Chuck showed up to run me through the final chute. They kept saying you've got this. You've got this. It was the only stretch longer than a few feet that I'd actually run the previous two miles. Their voices were my strength. Their voices were voices from God.
It's early morning, March 28, 2007. Ray Bell rises from his bed to greet this, his 39th birthday. Only - Ray has no interest in greeting this one. This birthday is unworthy of a celebration. In Ray's mind, He is unworthy of a celebration.
Ray staggers to the bathroom. Depression tracks close behind, like an intruder who's been stalking and decided this is the day to put Ray out of his misery. Ray shoots a quick and discarding look toward the bathroom scales. He's not stepping on them today. He wouldn't dare. He already knows their answer. They've been threatening him with 300 pounds lately. Step on them today and depression wins by an early morning knockout.
Ray stands there. Thinking about it. 300 pounds. He tells himself to look in the mirror. Turn around and look at yourself, Ray. You can hide from the scales, but are your really going to roll into your 40th year on earth without taking a good hard look at who's rolling with you?
Ray knows exactly what he'll see in the mirror today. He'll see his dad who died of a massive heart attack when he was in his 40's. He'll see his mom, gone at the hands of diabetes. Ray knows depression has no better friend than a mirror. No stronger ally. A mirror has the power to say "your next Ray."
Somehow Ray senses this may be his chance. Maybe the last chance he ever has. His chance to turn the mirror on depression. You're dying the early death, depression. Not me.
Ray turns slowly toward the mirror.
Ray glares defiantly into the mirror. You have to make a move Ray. You have to make it now.
Ray slips on a pair of shoes and shorts and heads out the door. I'm about to give myself the greatest birthday present ever, he decides. Ray breaks into a run. And in less than 50 feet he can run no more. He walks. For the next several weeks he walks and runs and walks and runs around his neighborhood until he's able to run 3 miles.
Ray knows his running is getting good, yet his diet is still a challenge. He experiments with all the diet fads. Then one day he's running and God tells him you've got this all wrong, Ray. Eat small meals every two hours. Ray listens. He adopts his self-proclaimed every-two-hour-mini-meal plan. The doctor tells him meat isn't working for his high blood pressure, so Ray's mini meals turn meatless.
The weight starts falling off. Five pounds a week or more. Ray completes a local 9-mile race and suddenly feels ready for a bigger challenge.
Ray shows up to register for the 2008 Flying Pig Marathon. A young lady working the registration booth asks Ray, "How's your training been going?"
"Training? I didn't know you had to train for these things," Ray tells her, caught a bit off guard.
Ray is 16 miles into the 2008 Flying Pig Marathon. His body locks up. There's no way he can take another step. Then he hears the voice from the mirror. "We aren't going to quit are we, Ray?"
He takes a step. Then another. Suddenly he's in the middle of a 10-mile death march to the finish line. He crosses the finish line a new man. He feels confidence he's never felt before. Strength he's only dreamed of. The man Ray rolled into his 40's with is nowhere to be found.
Ray soaks up the spirit of the finish line. In his stillness he hears, "I told you to just trust me, Ray. Just trust me."
The post-marathon recovery is hard. Ray knows he can't tackle the next one - and he knows there will be a next one - without training. He seeks out a local running group and in them he finds all the running experience and education he could dream of. The Westsiders take Rays's running journey to new places.
In 2011 Ray qualifies for the Boston Marathon. He weighs somewhere around 150 pounds these days. So there he is in 2013, in coral 8 of the Boston Marathon. He can see the fastest marathoners in the world just up ahead of him.
The tears begin to roll down Ray's cheeks. I once weighed 300 pounds. I couldn't bring myself to stand on the scales or look in a mirror. Now I stand ready to run the most famous marathon in the world. How on earth did I get here?
Today Ray's life is eat, sleep and run. He says it. He writes it. He lives it.
Eat - clean, small portions, lots of water, make good selections, don't deprive myself.
Sleep - something I need. Reenergizes my body and brain.
Run - this is the huge one for me. The holy gift from God. I can feel God and hear him and listen to him. You hear about this runner's high; I truly believe in the runner's high. Things feel quiet and effortless, you're coming up on that finish line and you know you don't want to quit. That's your runners high.
Ray is currently pointing his runner's high toward unfinished business. Back in 2012 Ray ran a 3:05 marathon in Columbus. In that moment he knew he'd have to break the 3 hour mark. He's looking to do that at the Monumental Marathon in Indianapolis in November, 2017. Ray's currently running over 100 miles a week to prepare for the race. He says he's in the best condition of his life.
Why the continued love for running Ray? Why the drive?
Running is a gift. It is part of the restoration. Part of the radical change in my life. The restoration of health. The Lord gave it all back to me. I don't take it for granted. It's a unique special gift. Running makes me want to have a spirit of excellence. I know that's what the Lord wants from me. There's nothing like giving your all, crossing that finish line, you know that you just laid it all out there. That's what it's about for me.
Ray's voice trembles a bit as he finishes telling his story. The emotions are there. I feel like I'm standing next to him at the starting line of the 2013 Boston Marathon. He reads Psalm 139:14 out loud to me:
I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made; your works are wonderful, I know that full well.
Ray, you are indeed wonderfully made brother. Wonderfully indeed.
I recently did a podcast interview with my friend Tracey Outlaw. Tracey said something interesting about embracing challenges in running. It's had me thinking about embracing challenges in my life. He said no matter what distance the race is we're running we can be sure challenges are going to come along. And if we plan for how we're going to embrace those challenges, we can have a productive race.
I found a couple of things interesting about that comment.
One, he didn't say we should plan for how we'll overcome the challenges, he suggested we should plan for how we'll embrace them. My mindset is often all about overcoming when thinking about the challenges I'll face in a particular run. I spend time preparing myself for adverse weather conditions or resistance that might come with that day's distance. I plan for weary legs and lungs that start fighting for the next breath. I psyche myself up; I tell myself those particular challenges are on their way and I should be prepared to run over them.
When you think of embracing challenges and not running them over, though, that's a much different mindset. As different as giving the next person who approaches you on the street a hug instead of punching him in the gut. The embracing mindset says I love this opportunity to run in the heat; the overcoming one says I'm not afraid of walking through a little fire.
How we transform ourselves from someone who plans to overcome to someone who plans to embrace is tied to the second thing I found interesting about what Tracey said. It struck me that he didn't say when we embrace the challenges we'll have a victorious run or even a great one - he said we'd have a productive run.
I think as runners, and many days as a society - whether we're talking about students or workers or parents - we've devalued being productive. We spend so much time focused on finish line pictures, valedictorian speeches and the fancy titles attached to job duties that we've become blind to the incredible things that take place in the daily grind. A grind that rarely leads to high profile accomplishments, but always leads to something better.
A better runner. A better person.
If I start this day dreaming of being an all world this or a famous that, then the challenges I see coming my way represent something standing in my way. They are enemies frothing at the mouth intent on denying me the fame I deserve. But when I start this day dreaming of ending it a better person, when I treasure the idea that I will have more regard for the night me than I had for the morning me, the challenges coming my way will look like opportunities. They are chances for me to think and work productively to tackle something that's going to make me wiser and stronger.
There are challenges coming your way today. That's the truth.
Are you smiling at them, arms spread wide ready to embrace them?
Or is your head lowered, your teeth gritting, as you ready youself to bowl them over?
Don't bowl them over. Or punch them in the gut. At least not without hugging them.
Thank them when they leave, for the opportunity they gave you.
To be productive.
To become better.
To make the night you shine brighter than the morning you.
If even just a little.
You can listen to my interview with Tracey Outlaw here:
An Interview with Tracey Outlaw - US National 24-hour Running Team - Episode 22
Last week I interviewed two long distance runners for my TwoTim47.com podcast series - Solomon Whitfield and Harvey Lewis. Whitfield has been running for years but has recently started adding on miles with no end in sight to how far he wants to go. Lewis is a world renowned ultra runner; he won the famous Badwater race back in 2014. I spent about 45 minutes with each of them talking about their running journeys. Although they both filled that time with great wisdom and inspiration, I was left with one overwhelming thought:
Life is like running.