Last September, I attempted to run my first ultra marathon. I lined up at the Georgia Jewel in Dalton, Georgia and attempted to run the 35-mile race. I failed. The task just a bit much that day.
Prior to running that race I interviewed Jenny Baker. She and her husband Franklin are the Georgia Jewel race directors. I asked her - what's the most rewarding part of directing this race? Her answer surprised me.
She said, it's the vulnerable conversations people have with themselves and others out on the trail. You reach a point, she said, when all you have left are your deepest emotions and thoughts. What she was saying, I believe, is the race gets you too exhausted to even think of some of the superficial things that tend to consume our lives. You reach a point where all you have left are things truly worth thinking about.
There was a point in the race before I quit where I was sitting on a rock in the middle of a foreign-to-me Georgia wilderness. I was alone and wondering how on earth I was ever going to get out of there. I couldn't take another step. I was dehydrated, nauseous - death never sounded more appealing. Please death - finish this race for me!! At the time, that didn't feel as dramatic as it sounds now.
On that rock, I started thinking about - or - maybe God started talking to me about - what's important in life. I wish I could tell you there was some grand revelation. God doesn't always work that way. Sometimes he just lets us know we're off track without telling us the track we're supposed to be on.
I did get up and walk away - or crawl - believing becoming an ultra marathoner wasn't the lesson or the prize I was supposed to take away from that day. In many ways, I felt God saying when you're completely vulnerable, you open yourself up to the gift of knowing very few finish lines or personal accomplishments, in and of themselves, hold much meaning in your life. Remember that when the finish line doesn't get crossed, he said.
I would eventually become an ultra marathoner a couple of months later. But then, and now, not finishing that Georgia Jewel race remains more significant than any finish line I've ever crossed.
A side note: that Georgia Jewel finish line may have become less significant, but it never became insignificant to me. I registered to go back the minute the 2019 registration opened up.
A couple of months later I found myself kind of sitting on that Georgia rock again, only I was in the comfort of my office talking with Soles4Souls CEO, Buddy Teaster. The two moments will always feel connected to me. Buddy started talking about the work his organization does collecting shoes to fight poverty around the world. His spirit for their missions was infectious. For days after, all I could think about was running and running shoes and wearing out poverty. It was a chorus that wouldn't stop singing.
In the aftermath of my visit with Buddy, I started understanding that Georgia Jewel moment a bit better. I started hearing God a little clearer. I started wondering, if I don't cross a finish line, what have I really lost? I also started wondering, if I don't do my part to help others, what have they lost?
I was pouring so much time and energy into running, but where was it all running to?
Or maybe, what was it running from?
A short while later I registered to go on a trip to distribute shoes with Soles4Souls in Honduras. I thought it was a radical decision when I registered for my first marathon a few years ago. That decision suddenly seemed incredibly sane by comparison.
Honduras? What are you thinking, Keith?
Looking back, I think on some quiet whisper level, through some unspoken prompt - or shove, God needed me wrestling with some of the vulnerable questions I was wrestling with in a more challenging space. A place where questions dig deeper than right or wrong, hurting or not hurting, lonely or connected, running to or running from.
I think God needed me to see there are places in this world people are wrestling with eating and not eating -seen or forgotten.
I spent this past summer preparing for two things: Going to Honduras and getting back to Georgia and climbing Mt. Baker on the way to the Georgia Jewel finish line.
I spent hours in the heat and humidity climbing a couple of hundred thousand steps and running hundreds of miles to get me ready for my race. But getting ready for Honduras - to be honest, I hid from that one. I talked about it a lot, expressed confidence, but inside I was an anxious mess living way outside my comfort zone. I didn't believe I could pull Honduras off any more than I believed I could finish the 50 mile race I'd signed up for in Georgia. (Oh yea, I forgot to mention, I signed up for 50 miles this time around - not 35).
You know, I had ongoing thoughts of bailing on both that Honduras journey and the Georgia Jewel. I'd ever felt more simultaneously insecure about two events.
Every Saturday after running in the heat, I messaged my friend and Georgia running mate Nicole and told her, I know I won't be able to finish Jewel. And the message would always come back: yes you will. In the back of my mind, I heard the same thoughts surfacing about Honduras. You won't be able to do this. And I'd respond to myself: you're right.
One of the things that haunted me about that rock in Georgia - in a moment of weakness I decided I couldn't go on. I made a decision right then and there - if I can make it to the next check in, I'll quit. You know, the easiest path to quitting is granting yourself permission to do so. When you hear the voice in your head say you won't be able to do it - just agree with it - you'll quit.
As I kept thinking about how far Honduras was out of my comfort zone, when I thought of ways to bail on that trip, I kept thinking about my friend Nicole's run at Georgia last year. In spite of all obstacles, the same opportunities to quit I had, she just kept saying yes I can. And she did. Way outside her comfort zone.
She just kept saying yes.
A few days before I got on a plane to Honduras I finally started telling myself yes. I got up off the rock, full of vulnerability, and I went.
The trip ended up being beautiful, yet challenging. You can read my 5-part journal about it here. (My Honduras Trip). But the result of the wrestling match I had with myself in Honduras left me empty. People have asked - was it guilt? Did you come back feeling guilty for how other people live against the backdrop of how we live?
I don't know. I don't think it was guilt.
I think I felt resentment. I felt resentment toward our culture that puts personal finish lines above a commitment to everyone having a fair starting line. I felt encouragement in the way the Honduran people valued the only limitless resource they have - each other. I felt exhaustion from staring at pain. Helplessness in being without a means to end it. And yes, I suppose, as I crawled underneath the covers of a bed in a nice middle class home the first night back - and the next - maybe some guilt.
You know, I've written often about the protective factor running has played in my mental health journey. It's been a way to turn away from destructive habits I once used to try to make that road more manageable, only to find myself deeper entangled in destruction. In many ways, upon return from Honduras, battling some of the challenges on that mental health journey, I think I turned my back on running and pretend running was turning its back on me.
When I allowed myself to get down on life and the world and myself returning from Honduras, the doubts I had about Jewel only magnified. I reached out to Jenny and asked her to drop me to the 35-mile race. It was defeats first call. Here I am, you're old friend. Then I started feeling ill - a sinus infection - and I believe when you give your body permission to fail, when you want it to fail, oh it will fail on you. And mine complied.
When I quit looking at running as a gift, as a way to overcome, as a path to a better place - and instead got intimidated by it, fearful that it was suddenly out to get me, abandon me and not rescue me, I gave myself, once again, permission to quit, I gave my body reason to fail. In fact, in some ways, I begged it to.
I reached out to Jenny a couple of days before Jewel and told her I was dropping out. And, once again, Jenny was a voice of wisdom. Part of what she said:
The longer you run, the more you experience what it really means to be a "runner" and not just someone excited about the idea of running. And the more time passes the more you get settled into the rhythm, and the deeper and more meaningful the relationship between you and running becomes. The honeymoon phase is wearing off and you'll now get to experience an even greater love of running.
She was right.
I didn't go to Jewel. The running honeymoon didn't just officially end, it came crashing down under the weight of a zillion wedding crashers. I blamed the world that I couldn't run. I blamed Honduras, I blamed one of my best friends in the world while she was tackling the most challenging race of her life. If running was abandoning me, I was abandoning everything and everyone.
You know, when we turn our backs on the things that keep our minds healthy, when we lose sight of why they keep us healthy, when we forget we are engaged in something for the love of it and not how exciting the idea of it sounds, when we do those things, we run from some really important rhythms in our lives.
I write this as a deeply sobering reminder to myself - maybe a more encouraging reminder to you.
Once again, the Georgia Jewel left me in a very vulnerable place. Left only with my deepest emotions and thoughts. Once again the Georgia Jewel left me too exhausted to fixate on some of the superficial things that consume my life. It once again forced me to examine what is truly real and meaningful.
And this time, I didn't even have to show up.
I haven't give up on that Georgia Jewel finish line. Not by a long shot. I mean, with the lessons I've learned this side of that finish line, what on earth kind of lessons lie on the other side of it?
Life is like running.