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!
Only a few weeks before the 2018 Richmond Half Marathon I had no plans of running it. I was registered for the full marathon. I was excited about it. I couldn't wait to relive memories of the 2016 Richmond Marathon - my first marathon ever.
But a year of heavy miles started catching up with me. I knew I had one more goal I wanted to tackle before the year ended, and another marathon might steal what legs I had left. So I decided the wise decision was to drop down to the half marathon.
Soon after I made the switch to the half marathon, my friend Melissa Whisnant posted on social media that she and her 14 year old son Colby had been training for the full marathon. But after tackling an 18 mile training run together, Colby decided he'd better stick to the half marathon distance.
Melissa put a call out to her social media friends looking for someone who might be running the half marathon and would be willing to run with Colby. He didn't want to run it alone. I thought maybe there's a bigger plan behind me dropping to the half - God has a way of using my race experiences to paint his bigger pictures - so I said sure.
Melissa told me she and Colby had been using a run/walk method to train for their races. She said Colby had a 2:45 half marathon goal in mind, which would be his fastest. That sounded great to me, like a Saturday walk in the park compared to some of my recent races. This drop from the full to the half suddenly sounded like fun.
And no race EVER sounds like fun to me. Surely there was a catch.
Colby achieve his goal.
We met at the starting line Saturday morning. The temperatures were perfect. There was a chill in the air I knew would only disappear when the running started. So I was ready to run. And after a few minutes of hanging out with Colby, I could tell he was excited to get going too.
Two guys ready for a leisurely stroll through the streets of Richmond
We were near the back, so once the first runners took off we slowly marched our way to our turn to take off. We chatted. Colby told me how quickly he came to discover on that 18-mile run with his mom that the marathon just wasn't his deal this year. I quickly applauded him for that discovery. In running it's always helpful to know the right deal. I haven't always been great at figuring that one out.
On this day, though, I think we both sensed we were in the middle of the right deal.
And then we took off.
We settled into a 11:30 pace. A pace I knew was quicker than Colby's 2:45 goal. I also figured he'd be wanting to walk soon so that pace would even out. Only we were 4 miles in and we still hadn't walked. Then 5 miles and still running. As we neared Bryan Park Colby told me he'd need to take a walk break at the 10k mark.
Really kid - this is your idea of run/walk - run 6 miles then take a walk break?!?!
We were still holding steady to our 11:30 pace. We hit the halfway mark in under 1 1/2 hours. I think that's the first time I heard Colby say the dreaded words:
I think we can break 2:30.
I wanted to remind him that 2:30 was no longer a leisurely stroll through the streets of Richmond. Then I realized I never let him in on my plan for a leisurely stroll. In his mind my plan was to help him reach his goal. Even if it meant halfway through the goal the goal changed from stroll to roll.
I suddenly felt my job shifting from leading the way to keeping up with a kid 40 years younger than me. God, what kind of a crazy bigger picture are you painting here?
As we left the park Colby asked me if I liked my hat. I was wearing the one he gave me at the dinner the night before. I told him I did. I asked him what Coastal Sole was. He told me it was his dad's footwear store. Colby talked about the store, about how his dad came to own it. You could tell how proud he was of his dad.
Then he said something - he didn't know it then - I didn't tell him - but he said something that revealed the bigger picture God was painting through my time with Colby. He told me his dad's store had donated shoes to school children and hurricane victims. Colby's heart was on full display as he told me this.
Maybe God had put me out there to help Colby run. But in that conversation about shoes, God was talking to me. I knew it. Something has been stirring in my heart lately, it has everything to do with shoes. If you listen to my next podcast you'll understand it more, but in that one moment God said to me quit stirring and start moving.
Colby, however, must have heard a whole different kind of start moving message. Because the kid wasn't slowing down. In fact he sped up. He told me he wanted to get ahead of the 2:30 pace a bit so he could walk later. Walk later, I'm ready to crawl now. What have I gotten myself into, I wondered, as I was now battling to keep up, let alone try to lead my young friend anywhere.
With 3 miles to go I knew breaking 2:30 was going to be tough. Colby was looking tired. I was feeling rough. We were walking more. But Colby insisted we were going to do it. I just kept saying we've got this buddy. It was much easier to say than believe in that moment.
But it's funny - with 3 miles to go - chasing my own race goals, I can easily let myself down when I don't believe it. Running with Colby, though, I just kept telling myself I will NOT be the reason he doesn't break 2:30 today. There's a different mindset you have when you hold yourself responsible for someone else's goals than you have when you're chasing down your own.
We ran a 10:14 mile on mile 11. One of my fastest race miles ever. This kid means business. We slowed it up a bit and ran an 11:30 12th mile. With a mile to go I knew we needed to go faster than that 11:30 or we weren't breaking 2:30. I just kept telling Colby that final mile we've got this buddy. We've got this.
As we made the final turn down the hill to the finish, we were flying. I knew we had it. I held out a fist to him, bumped his, and said let's go finish this thing. You've earned it. He looked at me with the sincerity of someone much older than 14 and said, thank you, I couldn't have done it without you.
He nearly saw an old man cry. That hit me hard. One, because it's beautiful to see our younger generation show gratitude. And two, because I've been there 3 times this year. Three times I've run to my fastest times in 2018 because of the people I was running with. Each time I was overwhelmed with gratitude for what they'd poured into my life over those race miles. Colby's gratitude meant more to me than our race time.
But we poured it on to the finish line. And then stopped the clock.
Stride for Stride Down the Stretch
Colby stopped the clock well under his goal - or should I say - his amended and speedier goal of the day. I guess I should add I stopped the clock at 2:28:50 - so in the end I really couldn't keep up with the kid.
Colby rushed back to his hotel with his dad and got a shower and then came back and ran down the stretch with his mom as she completed her marathon dream. Colby talked about her a lot during our run. I could tell he really wanted her to get this marathon finish, so I'm sure he was more proud of her down that stretch than he was of himself.
In that same regard, I was more proud of Colby Whisnant than I've been of myself at any race this year. And this has been my best running year ever in terms of miles and the clock. But the determination I witnessed in this kid, his love for his family, the gratitude he expressed over and over - Colby gave me two hours and twenty eight minutes of hope that's hard to find anywhere else these days. The world that makes me cringe at times is still shaping young men like Colby Whisnant.
That made for one of the best race experiences ever.
So Colby, I had one marathon on my calendar next year. I have unfinished business in Houston in January, and then my plan was to call it a year for marathons. But it would be my honor - my pleasure - to run alongside you as you tackle your first marathon next November right back here at Richmond. If that's the right deal.
And I promise, you won't fool me with this whole run/walk thing. I'll do a much better job keeping up this time my friend.
A medal well earned my friend.
Medals are hung and they become a collection of stories. I'll treasure this latest story.
Life is like running.