A little over 5 years ago, I went out for a run. I remember feeling like I was going to die. In fact, some days I look back on that run and wonder if I'm not one of those "he died but came back to life" stories.
That day I ran a 13 minute mile. I only managed ONE mile quite so speedy, the others were relatively pedestrian. A wounded pedestrian at that.
Back then, thinking I would ever run a mile in under 10 minutes seemed impossible. Putting a 10K worth of miles together at that pace - I knew that was way out of my league. But that was 5 years ago - and a little over 4,000 miles and 30 pounds ago.
Yesterday, I ran the Ashland Harvest Run 10K. I knew I wanted to push myself. My fastest previous 10K was 1 hour and 5 minutes. I simply wanted to take a run at that mark.
I was about 1/4 mile into the race when I decided to take one last look at my phone. I had a message from the most unexpected of messengers. It was from my friend Craig Yow. And the message said this:
"Good morning my friend. Hope you have a great run today. Just wanted to say thank you for all the tough love and guidance you gave me back in the day."
And that was it. I hadn't heard from Craig in many years. He was one of the young men I worked with as a counselor some 2 decades or so ago. Craig - to be honest - was one of the angrier kids I ever worked with. Often that anger came out at me.
But I always loved that kid. Always saw something deeper and more peaceful in him.
I heard something at a conference last week. It pertained to schools, but I believe it reflects the program I worked in with Craig. I believe it can reflect our homes and our churches and really - any place. This woman said:
Classrooms can be safe places for kids. Maybe even safe enough for them to explode. Their exploding, it never feels good to us, but emotions are contagious, she said. And emotions can become a source of healing.
I thought about those words as I ran on yesterday. And in terms of healing, I wasn't thinking about Craig. I was thinking about how all of our shared emotions and explosions "back in the day" - how they helped me identify and get to know ME. Those explosions set me on a path of my own healing.
Something I've come to realize about that experience back then is the kids weren't the only ones broken. We were all broken in a way. And the tough love Craig thought I provided. That wasn't a strategy - it was just a reality of life surfacing right before us - and that is: love, when entered into fully - love really is a tough deal.
But yesterday, running after getting Craig's message, reflecting on the kind of kid who would grow up and send someone a thank you note at just the right time - as I was running - I thought, love can be tough, yes, but man love can be beautiful!
When I looked at my watch after my first mile, it said 9:50. I thought, for Craig, I'm just going to see how long I can hold this pace.
I held it through mile 2, then 3 and 4 and 5. And at mile 6, I knew I was about to run a 10K at a single digit pace per mile. The impossibility of that hit me as I ran toward the finish line and as I crossed it running my fastest 10K ever by about 4 minutes.
And as I walked away, I couldn't help but think, thank you Craig. Thank you for all the tough love back in the day. I think it made us both better my man.
In fact, I'm sure it did.
Last week, I impulsively registered to run the Charlottesville Fall Classic Half Marathon. I hadn't run in a race environment in 6 months. And after missing out on the Georgia Jewel - a race I spent those entire 6 months focused on and training for - I found myself feeling like I needed something. Maybe that something was a race, I thought. So hours before sunrise Saturday morning I was on my way to Charlottesville.
I wasn't far down the road - but far enough down it that I couldn't turn back - when I realized I'd forgotten my headphones. Many times I run without music, but today I'd planned for the music to keep me company. Sometimes I need the music for my running rhythm, because most days Lord knows I don't have any. In that moment of realizing I was without those heaphones, the race started feeling much longer than a half marathon.
I ended up getting to the race about an hour and a half early. I found a spot in a nearby parking garage and sat there for a bit in solitude, just me and my thoughts. You ever sit somewhere, just you and your thoughts, and wonder - how on earth did I get here? Or, maybe even - why I am I here? Well I did. I wondered all that. A week prior I hadn't heard of this race. A week prior I'd no thoughts of running a race anytime soon. A week prior I was more than content hitting the road in the morning, putting in the miles and going about my day, with no real end game in mind.
Oh, but one thing I've come to learn about running, even when we don't have an end game in mind, running is waiting to present us with one. It might be at mile one - it might be at the finish line - or in the case of this race, it might be found long before the race ever starts.
I was meandering around the starting line a few minutes before the race was scheduled to start. This wasn't a big race - a couple of hundred folks maybe - so there was plenty of room to move around and observe. I saw a sign, they were all over really, it said "Bad To The Bone - Discover Your New Normal."
Bad To The Bone was the company putting the race on - I guess Discover Your New Normal was their tagline.
I took a picture of one of those signs. Really, just to have it to remember as part of the race experience. I didn't think much about it really. But a few miles into the race, in a quiet moment offered up when I forgot those daggone headphones, I wondered, what on earth does that mean: Discover Your New Normal?
For the next mile or so I contemplated normal. What on earth is normal? In a way, in contemplating that, I realized I was at that race trying to track down my own new normal. I'd trained all summer for a race I didn't get to run. That threw my normal running routine way out of whack. In addition, I'd just come back from Honduras. I admittedly struggled a lot with my emotions and mental outlook on a lot of things when I returned. I just wanted to feel and see the world in a normal way again.
But what on earth is normal? What does it mean to discover a new normal?
For the next few miles I thought about that. And I concluded, I think that's a big part of my struggles in life. And maybe yours. I certainly believe it's a big cultural struggle. I think our lives get way out of perspective as we pursue normal - whether it's a new normal or some old version of it. Because you know how we define normal? We define it by what we see in others.
What's a normal house look like? It looks like someone else's house.
What does a normal running routine look like? It looks like someone else's running routine.
What is a normal paycheck - someone else's.
A normal marriage - someone else's.
What's a normal sexual preference and faith choice or model for raising your child? Someone elses.
Every normal is defined in large part by how we see someone else's life - or a collection of someone elses.
I think that's why so many people are unhappy. They are pursuing normal, but that definition of normal is always a moving target. There is always someone new to compare ourselves to and to redefine our idea of normal. We live under a constant pressure to discover a new normal.
You know what sign I thought about out there running at about mile 10, when I was climbing a very NOT SO NORMAL hill. I thought about a sign that says:
Bad to the Bone
Accepting and Embracing the Beauty in Your Abnormal
The reality is, you and I are abnormal. We can spend every single day looking for a new normal and never truly find it, or we can begin to embrace the reality we are all abnormal, and spend every single day basking in the beauty of that discovery.
And you know what I think the biggest consequence of our inability to accept our own abnormal is? It renders us less accepting of the abnormal in others. If we can't see the beauty in our own abnormal, how can we ever accept and embrace the abnormal in others?
I heard these words to a song while out running today. The name of the song is "Progress" - and the words that caught my attention are:
They say pruning is ugly and hurts before you ever see the fruit
Sharpening is painful and harsh before you ever feel the smooth
That refining fire burns and burns all that which is useless and old
Planting is darker and deeper before anything begins to grow
Well progress, I think this is progress
Well I have hope, I feel it in my bones
Yes I'm backward and I am forward
I'm upside down, just the way it goes
Well progress, I think this is progress
Well I have hope, I feel it in my bones
I am backward and I am forward and I am upside down - that's just the way it goes. And that is all of us really. We are one of those or all of those but we are not normal. None of us. We have no normal direction and no normal views on life and no normal capacity to get out there and run a half marathon.
No - we are all abnormal. How much pressure do we put on ourselves to distance ourselves from being upside down and backward and forward in search of some normal straight line we are never going to find?
I was running yesterday and I heard a young girl behind me say - I may be walking, but this is as far as I've ever gone. Compared to a lot of the field, she was abnormal, but she was embracing it.
And you know what - she was making progress. On the course - and today as she reflects back on what she did - she'll see she's making progress in life.
Oh the pursuit of being normal is such a dead weight. It presents us with endless opportunities to so harshly judge ourselves - and others. The pursuit of normal makes it so difficult to forgive ourselves for not discovering our new normal, it blinds us to the beauty that rests in our abnormal.
The abnormal in the pruning and in the sharpening and in the fire and in the planting. Life is hard and abrasive and always changing. There is never a normal day. The moment we accept that - and then learn to embrace our current abnormal instead of discovering and accepting and settling into some new normal that is never going to stick around - it's then we can see the real beauty in who we are, and open us up to seeing some undiscovered beauty in others.
So yes, that Charlottesville Fall Classic Half Marathon. I think I needed it. I thought I needed it because running a race would make me feel normal again. The reality is, running that race, it helped me understand normal is the last thing I need to be looking for.
Life is like running.