there's a choice. We can gather up the scattered pieces of that puzzle and shove them back into a box and set it on a shelf and forget we ever tackled that stupid puzzle - a strategy I used to employ often when it came to incomplete puzzles. Or, we decide the puzzle is important enough to finish. We know ourselves well enough to know seeing that thing sitting on a shelf will eat at us forever. We'll never sleep if we don't get to see what it looks like when it's finally whole.
My Houston Marathon 2018 was a beautiful experience. You can read my thoughts about it here: (My Plan Was A Second Marathon. God's Plan Was Different). But one puzzle piece turned up missing from that big and beautiful story. In the grand scheme of things, it was a small piece. I know that. Nonetheless, I didn't get to see the whole puzzle. I didn't get to see the picture on the ouside of the puzzle box. I knew I'd never be satisfied until I did.
I knew I needed to cross that Houston Marathon finish line.
I needed to see that piece of the puzzle.
Not long after registration opened for the 2019 Houston Marathon, I registered for it. I ran a lot of miles and races in 2018 after that, and in the back of my mind I always knew those races and those miles were part of the search for that missing puzzle piece.
One of the puzzle pieces that did fit in 2018 was the time my friends and I got to spend with Father Jim Liberatore and Debbie Allensworth. They lead St. Andrews Episcopal Church in Pearland, Texas. As part of my 2018 Houston Marathon experience, we got to partner with them on some Hurricane Harvey relief efforts. So when I returned to Texas last week I couldn't wait to catch up with Jim and Debbie.
I got to have lunch with Jim and Debbie, and then they led me on a tour of some of the relief work they've been doing since I last saw them. I was thrilled to hear they've received considerable grant support to continue their work. It was fulfilling to see that our small donations were part of the hands and feet of Christ wrapping the Pearland community in love and healing.
Two pieces of the Houston Marathon 2018 puzzle returned to join me in 2019. My friends Tracey and Nicole ran a lot of miles with me after Houston last year, so it was appropriate they joined me in Houston as I searched for the puzzle piece that escaped me when we were together in Houston last January. They are reminders of why running is so important to me. Yes, they push me to finish lines. But far more important to me is the friendships I have in them.
We had some fun leading up to race morning. But race morning finally came and we made our way to our race corals. Weaving our way through over 30,000 runners, Tracey and Nicole split off from me and headed toward their race group. They'd planned all along to run together and work on chasing a race goal of their own. I headed toward the back of the pack where I'd start my race.
Standing alone in that group waiting for my race to start, I realized it had been a long time since I'd run a race by myself. Leading up to Houston, I'd run the Oxbow Ultra with Nicole, the Richmond Half Marathon with my buddy Colby and the Marine Corps Marathon with Tracey. I stood there thinking back and couldn't recall the last race I'd run alone. That had been a huge shift in my running journey in 2018; I'd always preferred to run alone. But to be honest, I felt a little insecure standing there.
What I did have, though, was a plan. I knew I needed to focus on it, no matter how alone I was feeling. A couple of weeks prior to the Houston Marathon I did a 16 mile practice run. I managed a 12:45 minute per mile pace over those 16 miles, and when I was done, I felt like I could have finished the final 10 miles at a pace that would get me to the Houston Marathon finish line in under 6 hours - the pace I needed to avoid being evicted from the course once again.
So that became my focus. I turned my music on. Looked at the total pace number on my watch. And I committed then and there to keep it at that 12:45 number through the first 16 miles. No matter how tempted I got to try to speed it up - 12:45 is all I kept telling myself.
And just like my practice run, it worked. I felt good through mile 16. I was at that 12:45 pace, even after taking my first ever on the course bathroom break, and even after stopping twice to remove clothing as the temperatures warmed from the upper 20's to the low 40's.
At this point, I knew I simply needed to average 15 minute miles the rest of the way. That became my focus - one mile at a time. I switched my watch to a mode where I simply tracked each mile I was on. I abandoned the big picture for 10 bite sized snapshots of how the rest of my race would run out. In my mind, at this point, all I needed to do was run 10 consecutive one mile races in under 15 minutes. I was getting tired, the concrete of Houston was taking its toll on my legs, but I knew at this point I could do it. One mile at a time.
When I got to mile 18, it was like hitting a finish line before the finish line. I didn't make it to mile 18 last year. It was just before this mile marker that I got pulled from the course because I couldn't keep up. I was now further than I got the year before. It was a reminder that I was stronger that I'd ever been. I knew the struggle that got me last year hadn't gotten me this year. It gave me faith I could conquer the new struggles I knew were surely coming over the next 8.2 miles.
I could begin to imagine what the missing puzzle piece looked like.
Nicole had messaged me that she and Tracey were done with their races and they were waiting for me at mile 25. In a way, that shortened my race by over a mile. Because I knew if I could get to them on pace, there's no way they would let me come up short that final mile or so.
I checked my phone. I had friends and family tracking. They were all saying the same thing. You're so close. If you can just pick it up the slightest bit, you've got this. I'd obeyed Tracey throughout much of the race. I hadn't used my phone. But reading these messages at just the right time was a boost that made me thankful I didn't leave my phone behind like he suggested. Maybe even demanded.
And then there I was. At mile 25. Tracey and Nicole spotted me and came out on the course and joined me. Tracey was telling me I needed to pick up my pace - he's kind of a recording like that late in my races these days. Pick up your pace and your body will follow, he's fond of chanting. Nicole told him to be quiet - that I knew exactly where I was and what time I needed. They battled this out while I kept an eye on my watch. I think for a moment they forgot I was there.
Then I could see it. The missing puzzle piece. The Houston Marathon finish line. There's something beautiful about seeing something you came once to see but was denied the chance to do so. There's something fulfilling about being able to accomplish something that a year ago you couldn't. And there's something life-giving about doing it with two people who insisted you could do it all along, who believed it so much that they traveled away from their homes and families to share in the moment you proved them right.
I will always treasure the picture of Tracey and Nicole watching me approach the finish line. They have pride and joy written all over their faces. And then to have them ultimately cross that finish line with me. Well, that, more than the finish line itself, that more than redemption, will always be the missing Houston Marathon puzzle piece.
Running for me has become all about taking on things in life I'd never dreamed of taking on. It's about discovering through taking on each of those bold steps we're capable of more than we'd ever thought we were. And it's about finding this puzzle piece I fear too many of us overlook in life: our boldest steps, our grandest discoveries, come when we run and live in connection with the people around us.
We need people in our lives who say I believe in you. People who say I was there when you couldn't do it, and I'll sure be there when I know you will. People who say you need to pick up the pace and people who say I know you know what you're doing. We need people to run alongside us, to overwhelm us with the miraculous power in that. After all, what on earth could inspire us more to run alongside the people who might need us?
I went to Houston to find a missing puzzle piece. It looked a little different than I imagined it would. But I'm sure glad I found it.
Life is like running.