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.
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?
I ran the uncorked half marathon in New Kent, VA this morning. And pretty early in this one, the race stuck a cork in me.
After an April with big miles, I had high hopes for this race. But I should have known better. Me and humidity, we've never played well together. I try to approach him with kindness, but he never seems to reciprocate. Must be something I said along the way - like, "I despise summer."
I felt the stickyness in the air the moment I stepped out the door this morning. I had a 45 minute drive to New Kent to come up with a reasonable race plan. Instead, I got there and invoked a completely unreasonable one. I took off from the starting line like I was chasing a half marathon PR, and 3 miles later record chasing mode was quickly downshifted, gears grinding and screaming, into survival mode.
Like delirious sweating I'm not even sure I can survive mode.
The good thing that happened was I gave myself plenty of running grace. I threw all expectations out the window, without regret, and embraced one new one. I held onto 16 - today was my 16th half marathon. No matter what my finish time was - the only number that mattered today was 16.
I remembered what I prompted myself with this morning - don't get focused on how much further I have to go; stay focused on where I am. In spite of the suffocating humidity, the course was beautiful. I loved the open fields, the blue sky, the small streams along the way. It was a great day to be right where I was. Every step.
I did take lessons away.
I spent the last month eating crap, to be honest. I stayed constantly hungry running 55 5Ks. I got completely away from a plant based focus, turned to convenience, and today I paid a price for that. Plant based eating means nothing to me other than feeling the best I can feel every day. Well, that hasn't been the case this month. So time to correct course.
I also know it's time to get serious about the 50 mile Georgia Jewel in September. Chances are the conditions will be much more challenging than today. So I need to begin plenty of heat conditioning. That race will be here before I know it. And it will easily be my biggest running challenge ever.
So grace and lessons today. Grace in allowing myself one of my slowest half marathons in a couple of years. Lessons - well lessons don't care about finish times, they just want us to take something away from the experience.
So today I completed my 16th half marathon. Even if I did finish it with a cork in me. 😓
In my brief running journey, I've tackled some big challenges. Most recently, I ran for 12.5 hours to complete a rain and wind swept 37 miles in a Kentucky forest. That was my second ultra marathon. I've also completed 4 marathons and 15 half marathons. And yet, this past April, in tackling a distance much shorter than any of those feats, I may have completed my toughest running challenge yet.
I took up running when I turned 50. Every year since I've attempted a big running challenge around my birthday. This year I decided to use the birthday challenge to bring awareness to my new venture, Running4Soles (www.running4soles.com). Like many of these challenges, this one popped into my head while I was running. I knew I was turning 55, so I guess the idea of running 55 5Ks was born simply because 5K sounded sort of poetic when I said it after 55.
I confess, sometimes running poeticness gets me in trouble. When it sounds beautiful I sometimes read the poem to the world before I fully interpret its meaning. And in the case of running 55 5Ks, I knew the moment I was done reading it this one was going to be much easier read than done.
In my mind I knew the math: at least two 5Ks every day. Two is a harmless enough number. But in the end, it's a number that became more daunting than 37 or 26.2 or any other running number I've had to face.
Before this challenge, I'd only attempted more than one run in a day a few times. That's because some days there's only one thing harder for me than running, and that's talking myself into running. In taking on 55 5Ks in one month, there was rarely time to embrace the sense of accomplishment I feel at the end of each and every run. I was always in the mindset of preparing for the next one.
That's why the first thing I learned this month is:
Running is at least 51% mental.
You have know idea how much I wanted to throw some hyperbole in there and say running is ALL mental. But it's not. That 37 mile Kentucky run isn't far enough behind me to forget the physical pain and exhaustion I experienced to call running a 100% mental game.
But I know this. There were plenty of times running those 55 5Ks this month that I wondered if I'd get out there, if I could even get the motor started. Not once, however, after I got out there, after the motor was running, did I doubt I'd finish.
Getting started is the hardest part. That's when excuses swing their might sword. I've found you can't out run excuses, but you can out think them.
In running, and in life, momentum means everything.
Last year, when I ran the Marine Corps Marathon with my friend Tracey Outlaw, he encouraged me with this notion "if you'll just pick up your pace a little bit your body will follow." He said this at mile 18 when I was exhausted and a wee bit cranky and I didn't respond as lovingly as I should have. But I thought of his words often this month. "If I can just get myself out the door, that 5k will follow."
I think we all need to keep that in mind. Running and life are about momentum. We're all toting around a lot of good and healthy ideas. I wonder if what holds us back from seeing them through is we don't believe strongly enough in momentum. We don't trust that if I just take a step into that idea, the results will eventually catch up.
Something I have to do eventually turns into something I do.
I remember the first week of doing 2 or 3 5Ks a day. It messed with my routine. My mornings are reserved for reading and writing and prayer and reflection. Squeezing a 5K in there meant I had to do something else instead of what I preferred doing with my mornings. That first week I thought a lot about what I wasn't doing instead of what I was doing.
By the second week, however, a 5K in the morning became part of my routine. I had a new habit. Running a 5K became something I was doing instead of something I had to do. When running or any activity becomes something you do without thinking about the sacrifice you're making to do it, you are gifted with the full value of your effort.
Just like my reading and writing time became more valuable to me when I no longer considered I could be sleeping instead, running those 5Ks became more meaningful to me when I quit wanting that time to be about reading and writing.
How much further do we have to go?
When taking long drives with our boys, they often ask, "how much further do we have to go?" Their minds are clearly interested in getting beyond the "we are going" and getting on with whatever happens at "we are here."
Much of my running lately has been about going further. I just have more curiosity around how far this old body can go than I do around how fast I can somehow beg it to move on along. As a result, though, I've spent a lot of time running recently looking at my watch, wondering inside, and even on a rare occasion screaming out loud - "how much further do I have to go?"
With these 5K runs, I always knew I was only going to be out there 35-40 minutes. I don't remember one time wondering how much further. When you're not focused on how much further you have to go, you're likely to spend more time focused on where you are.
This revelation doesn't leave me longing to run shorter distances. But it is a reminder the next time I'm out there wondering how much further I have to go, to reflect back on these 5Ks and remember the beauty found in where I am.
No matter how far it is, we only get there one step at a time.
When I began this 55 5K journey on April 1st - 55 seemed like a giant number. Sometimes the sum of all the parts is intimidating. Which is why sometimes it's hepful to thing about the parts more than the sum.
I remember that first week of running, after I'd finished 16 of the 55 runs, and it was suddenly a 39 5K journey. Still a big number. But not AS big. I remember thinking - I'm not so sure I can run 55 of them this month, but I think I can do 39.
I think that trips us all up sometimes. We get big dreams, get big life challenges dropped in our laps, have days that get filled with unexpected complications. Whatever it is, it can initially feel overwhelming.
For years I supervised college aged counselors working with at-risk teenagers. They often told me they felt overwhelmed. I used to tell them I have good news and bad news. The bad news is you'll probably always feel overwhelmed to a degree. The good news is, no matter how overwhelmed you are, you can only tackle one thing at a time. So pick the one thing you think will help the most.
The 55 5K journey got overwhelming at times. The helpful thing was, every day, no matter how overwhelming, the only strategy available to me was to tackle one 5K at a time.
Why take a step?
Why am I getting out of bed?
Each day, the more clearly I've defined that answer, the easier it is for me to get out of bed.
Chances are, if you have no idea why you're getting out of bed, the snooze button is your best friend. If you know the answer well, if you know your why, maybe you don't even know what a snooze button is.
Each 5K I did was hard. Every one of them. I'm not great at getting excited to run. But not one 5K was about excitement or fun or even being healthy. They were about bringing awareness to a cause that's bigger than me, one infinitely more important than me.
I recently developed an affection for the nonprofit Soles4Souls. I not only appreciate their mission to create jobs and bring relief by distributing shoes and clothes around the world, but I've had the chance to meet many of the folks in the organization. Their hearts are perfectly aligned with the work they do. I also believe the running community is primed to advance the Soles4Souls mission, and that God has put me in a position to be someone who can lead them.
That's where Running4Soles comes in. That's where running 55 5Ks in April came in. And that is why the reason I run has always been the real power behind my ability to defeat the mind games. I believe behind every victorious mind is a heart on fire with purpose.
In fact, I think it's the only way you win the mind games.
When God whispers, he probably wants us to shout.
Running is where God whispers to me. Over the last several years, he's put some crazy ideas on my heart. More often than not, I pursue them. In doing so I've discovered this. God whispers to me so I can shout for him.
I believe God could scream some sense into a crazy world. Sometimes I wonder why he doesn't. My guess is it's because God feels more joy in hearing me scream about his ideas than he'd get screaming about them.
How cool must it be for God to whisper, "hey, why don't you run 55 5Ks this month," and then sit back and watch me do it. Not only do it, but hear me shout to the world with each run that I believe poverty has a finsh line.
Maybe God whispers ideas because he believes in what I have to shout about them. Maybe he finds more joy from us screaming ideas together than he gets from screaming solo ideas at us. When I started this journey, I had no idea that my friends Nicole and Katie would run 55 5Ks with me, and that they would collect over 300 pairs of shoes this month. I had no idea God's whisper to me would become their shouts.
Maybe God whispers to me because he doesn't want everyone else to hear him. Maybe He wants them to hear me. And maybe when you hear whispers, or crazy ideas, it's because God wants to hear you shout too.
God isn't done whispering to me. He has placed a whisper on my heart to go to Honduras this August. To see for myself the work being done through Soles4Souls, to see for myself how shoes are carrying people to poverty's finish line, to equip me to shout even louder the stories He wants us to scream together. If you feel inclined to support this trip, you can do so below at my Soles4Souls Honduras trip fundraising page below.
All trip supporters are recognized on the Running4Soles Honduras webpage.
On the left, a pre-race shot at the Ashland Run the Rails 5K with race director Kristy Wright. On the right, a pre-race shot with friends and family before the Ashland Run the Rails 5K. I ran this race on my 55th birthday, April 27th. It was 5K number 55.
received a running trophy period. That's not why the trophy brought me to tears, though. The tears came because I knew the story behind the trophies. They came because the trophies so beautifully represent what this race says about the community and connections that are the power behind the Run for Respect.
Two years ago, Laura reached out to her friend Andrew Rice. They grew up together in Pontiac. Andrew teaches an industrial technology class at Manual Academy in Peoria, Illinois, and Laura thought maybe his students could create trophies for the Run for Respect.
In some ways, the students in Andrew's class are fighting for respect much like Laura's. Many of them have grown up in challenging circumstances, and having someone like Mr. Rice believe in them has been a much needed spark in their lives.
This year, Laura did something a little different, though. She took some of her students an hour or so up the road to meet her friend Andrew's students. Her students got to meet the trophy-makers, and the trophy-makers got to meet first hand exactly who'd be taking the trophies away.
I wasn't there. I don't need to have been to know how Andrew's students felt. I used to virtually run the annual Run for Respect. It was a good and worthy cause. Then one day Laura and three of her students came to meet me and some of my friends while we were in Chicago. I met the kids behind the Run for Respect I had only previously been able to get to know from a 1000 miles away.
As I talked with my new friends - Austin and Mitch and Nick - I felt a cause I once ran for turning into a purpose I could get behind living for. What was once something I poured my time, money and legs into, in an instant became a connection worth building relationships on. It was something suddenly worth traveling to Pontiac, Illinois to share with others in person.
I wasn't the only one who traveled to Pontiac this year. Those students who made the trophies for the race - after they met Laura's kids they too decided they needed to come be a part of the Run for Respect. Because they did, we not only got to hang out with Laura's students, we also got to meet Andrew's students.
When we shook those students' hands and told them how much we appreciated the trophies, we saw pride. We saw young people with a purpose. There's something amazing that happens when we help each other discover purpose.
I for one don't believe we discover our purpose in life. I belief life, and God, reveal that to us through others.
It's revealed when we travel to Pontiac and make real what was once virtual.
It's revealed when trohy-makers meet trophy-takers, and they both understand one is not possible without the other.
It's revealed when teachers pour themselves into their students and their communities. When the lessons they teach become about living together and not taking a test as an individual.
So a funny story.
My buddy Tracey and I received these beautiful trophies at the dinner the night before the race. Our good friend Nicole, she did not. Tracey and I, never ones to miss an opportunity to poke fun at our dear friend, told her she was simply being sent the message she'd have to go out and earn her trophy.
I'll never forget standing at the awards ceremony after the race. They were calling out the names of the winners of each of the age groups - the people who would get one of the trophies. The ceremony arrived at our friend Nicole's age group; our friend Laura was calling out the names.
Third place - not Nicole.
Second place - not Nicole.
First place - and a trophy - our friend Nicole.
Nicole walked up to the table of trophies, got hers, and walked back toward us. The emotions I felt seeing her hold that trophy went way beyond her winning a race. Way beyond her coming full circle on a joke that started the night before. It was more about life coming full circle.
We get into this running thing wanting to do our best, and maybe somewhere along the way we pick up some medals, and maybe a trophy or two. But the lucky runners, like me, we discover running has a deeper purpose. And it's not about the trophies. It's about the trophy-makers and the trophy-takers, and how they reveal to us the beautiful way we are all connected.
Run for Respect. Maybe that's what that race is about. Maybe that's what running in general is about. Maybe respect is all about discovering the beautiful way we are all connected. If so, I saw a lot of respect in Pontiac, Illinois last weekend. God willing, I'll see it again in 2020.
As long as we live, no story ever really ends. One way or another, what appears to be the end is always just another beginning. Nothing makes that truer to me than running.
Every run, every race, they have a finish line. And finish, is there a word that more definitively says the end? Could anything more clearly say, this story is over?
That's what I thought back in 2015 when I ran my first Run the Bluegrass Half Marathon. It was the second race of my life. A bunch of friends I'd met online were headed to Lexington for this race and it sounded like fun. After running my first half marathon a few months earlier, I'd fallen in love with the friendships running offered. I hadn't fallen in love with running, though. I had no interest in the pain and suffering running so cruely demanded in return for those connections.
In Lexington, on this course, that price was unusually high. Billed by someone as America's Prettiest Half Marathon, that billing didn't take into account just how ugly hills can be to a runner who's never tackled elevation steeper than the steps on his front porch. For over 3 hours, I tackled those hills that day. And for at least 3 days after, I couldn't walk.
I promised my legs, and myself - it's possible I even struck a deal with God - let me walk again and I promise, I'll forever abandon this notion 240 pound men are formed in the image of runners.
A few days later, I walked again. And a few days after that, I ran. Looking back, I have no idea what turned me from a promise keeper to a promise breaker. At the time, it surely wasn't that I couldn't live without running. That's like suggesting I couldn't live without e coli. I think at the time I just sensed I was in the midst of a story that was beginning. It didn't have a "the end" feel to it.
I didn't go back to the Run the Bluegrass in 2016. But in 2017 the gently rolling hills called again. Hanging out with friends was again a big part of the draw, but for maybe the first time ever, I had a running goal in mind. I wanted to go back and run that race 15 minutes faster than I'd done 2 years earlier. I'd been running more, lost a little weight, and I didn' t know of a better running litmust test.
I wanted to find out where I stood as a runner.
I came up 2 minutes short of my 15 minutes faster goal. It wasn't the finish I was shooting for, but a finish that said I was improving. The real race story was that I even had a desire to improve. I left Lexington 2 years earlier vowing to never run again. Now I wanted to discover just how well I could run.
What appears to be the end is always just another beginning.
Between that 2017 race and 2018 a lot changed. The way I ate changed. The way I ran changed. I began running over 100 miles a month - nearly double what I was previously running. As a result, I was lighter and had a lot more energy. But how much more energy? What difference had it made? I've discovered any question worth asking deserves an answer, or else, it wasn't really a meaningful question. And the best place I knew in that moment to find the answer was the 2018 Run the Bluegrass.
Before I got to Lexington for that race, I set what felt like my most audacious running goal ever. Looking back, considering my mindset leaving Lexington in 2015, I'm not sure I'll ever have a more audacious goal. But I went to Lexington in 2018 wanting to run my fastest half marathon ever. When I crossed the finish line, that's exactly what I'd done - (Run the Bluegrass 2018). I crossed the finish line in 2:25:37, two minutes faster than my previous fastest half marathon.
When I think back on my thoughts leaving Lexington, it floors me where my running journey has led me. Sure, it's led me to a healthier and happier place. It's led me to a faster place. But those places are all just beginnings of the next story.
Earlier this month I launched a new project, Running4Soles. As part of it, I registered to go to Honduras in August of this year with Soles4Souls. While I'm there, I'll help distribute shoes. I'll also meet a man named Raul, who uses fitness to encourage his Honduran brothers and sisters. It's my hope that, together, we'll plan a 5K. Then, in 2020, I'll bring a Running4Soles team back there and together, his people and our people, we'll continue on this running journey - together.
When I left Lexington in 2015, I was focused on a finish line. I was focused on the end of a journey. Little did I know at that time, the journey was only beginning.
As long as we live, no story ever really ends. One way or another, what appears to be the end is always just another beginning. Nothing makes that truer to me than running.
Shoot for the moon. That's one of the lessons I continually take away from running. And that lesson isn't tied to the notion that when you shoot for the moon you GET the moon. Actually, quite often for me, it's the opposite.
Last year I attempted to run the 35 mile Georgia Jewel. I came up about 17 miles short. In the grand running scheme of things, that's a long way from the moon.
But here's the thing, in shooting for the Georgia Jewel moon, and even in coming up well short, I still landed somewhere far better than I'd been before I took my shot.
I was a stronger runner than I was before.
I'd seen a beautiful part of the country I'd have never seen otherwise.
I had new friendships I treasure to this day.
I was one race - one moment in life - closer to managing defeat.
And make no mistake, life really is about mastering DEFEAT.
That really is the secret to WINNING.
I used to be someone afraid of shooting for the moon. I loved TALKING about the moon, but never dared to shoot for it. It's running, though, that's taught me when you take your shot, the worst case scenario is you come up short. But you come up short and land among a group of stars - the group of people who are taking their shots in life.
The group of people who are one shot at the moon better off today than they were yesterday. Those are some pretty cool stars to hang out with. Even if you miss your moon landing.
With his bullhorn, the race director implored us to hurry to the start line. I guess he thought the sooner we were under the wooded cover of the Land Between the Lakes National Recreation Area, we'd all feel a bit more untouchable, whether the bully was real or not. So we lined up. At 6:30 AM the director sent us on our way. And after a two mile run to the trailhead, we entered the woods for the first of three 11-mile loops.
Once on the trail, we quickly realized the bully had already gone before us. The trails were muddy. Every step was a fight for footing. Between breaks in the thunder, you could hear the taunting and ghostly laugh of the bully echoing through the woods.
This was not the start I'd anticipated for my attempt at my longest run ever. There was no way to train for these conditions outside of daily runs through a swamp in the middle of a hurricane - neither of which I'd had access to.
It was clear this day was about me and my heart. No coach was going to drag me through. No inspirational meme was going to coax me on. This day was about the miles I'd put on my feet and legs leading up to this moment, and whatever strength I'd stowed away in my mind.
And if I was lucky, this day would be about discovering some new strength along the way.
day. These peeks made me feel as wet as the air looked. They restrained me with the notion that with each step, a tumble into the muddy trail waters was imminent.
Right on cue I slipped. I grabbed a tree branch out in front of me. My right leg spawled out wildly to the right. My left leg planted in an awkardly downsloaped rock crevice. I froze there for a moment, wondering if the fall was complete, or still in progress.
I managed to save myself. But that early slip portended what this day of running would look like. A constant battle between keep going and keep standing. Could a running bully have a better strategy? Make the runner live in so much doubt about each step that a months long dream of a finish line 37 miles away becomes an unquietable nightmare.
was. Running in the middle of a woods 600 miles from home, around the edge of lakes I'd never before had the chance to see, chasing a dream that had once been just that - a dream, it dawned on me - I'm blessed. In a woods that had clearly been invaded by a running bully, angels still ran. And one of them was smiling right behind me - her dream completely unaffected by the elements.
About 3 1/2 hours after we started the race, we emerged from the woods, completing our first loop. I thought to myself, that's the toughest half marathon I've ever completed. And I also thought, I only have to do it two more times....
We hung around the aid station there for a bit drinking soda and eating pringles chips. These aid stations would become saviors. Not just because of the chips and drinks, but they were another source of smiles. In the rugged conditions, when they could have been home curled up with a blanket and a book, these beautiful people were volunteering their time to protect us from the conditions, and to remind us - bullies don't always win.
As we started the second loop, many of the runners who'd entered for shorter distances were gone. For much of the remainder of the race Nicole and I would run in isolation. On one hand, that delivered me the peace I've come to appreciate about trail running. On the other hand, I periodically wondered if everyone else might have been swept away by the waters that seemed to keep rising, or by the wind that blew stronger by the mile.
and then told her, "I'd save worrying for something we can actually do something about. We're out here in the middle of nowhere. Do you have some particular shelter in mind?"
I don't think she found comfort in my answer, but we pressed on.
Two things were beginning to weigh on me at this point. Two things besides survival that is. I knew we were in danger of missing the cutoff time. The race had a 12-hour time limit; it was clear we were coming up short of that. Everything I'd read said this was a strict cutoff. I began processing the defeating idea of coming all this way, running all day in these conditions, and yet, not getting to cross the finish line.
I also started worrying about darkness. Neither Nicole or I had lights. The only thing I could imagine being harder than keeping my footing in the mud would be keeping my footing in mud I could no longer see.
As we left the final aid station, still nearly 4 miles from the finish line, a volunteer told us, "if you keep moving you can make it." I was in a lot of pain at this point. Each step was excruciating to take. Given I had 10,000 steps or so left, I wasn't sure if by "make it" he meant survive, or if he was crazy enough to believe that with less than an hour to go, we could really make it to the finish line.
Nicole looked at me after he said that and assured me, "I don't care if they close the course or not, we're finishing."
To be honest, in that moment, her words dejected me. I was leaning more toward not surviving. Right then and there, I was more than willing to feel life and pain evaporate right out of me as I plopped face down in the mud. I was tired of the bully, and I just wanted to be finally out of his reach.
But Nicole marched on, and she didn't say it, but she had a vibe about her that said "you'd better keep up."
We emerged from the final loop through the woods at a couple of minutes over the 12-hour cutoff. I fully expected the aid workers would tell us our night was done. It was dark, and I had no idea how we'd find our way to the finish line 1.7 miles up the road. I was also wondering, if they try to stop us, will Nicole ultimately end up being the biggest bully of the day?
But as we approached the volunteers, our cell phones weakly lighting the way, an enthusiastic voice yelled - you're almost there. Keep going. These were not encouraging words. Most of me was hoping to be tossed in the back of the pickup trucks with the other course markings and signs that all said the day was over. Most of me wanted put out of my misery - I'd run my longest run ever at this point - why on earth do I need a finish line?
But up ahead, the light from Nicole's cell phone danced forward into the night. And no matter what most of me wanted, it was clear where that light was headed. So I followed.
We were about a half mile from the finish line when a vehicle stopped alongside us. I was hoping we were about to be kidnapped - so long as the kidnappers wouldn't make me run ever again. But turns out it was Nicole's friend Sara, who I'd met earlier in the day. She'd already completed her 50 mile race and was now going to run the rest of the way with us. She told us she'd talked to the race director and told him we were still on the course and asked him to keep the finish line up.
That's when it hit me. The finish line was still possible. I no longer wanted to be face down in mud or kidnapped, I wanted to cross the finish line of the most physically challenging endeavor I'd ever tackled.
And that's what we did. A few minutes later we crossed the finish line and the race director handed us our buckles. We did it. Ironic, really, that the man who ushered us into the presence of the bully 12 1/2 hours earlier with a bullhorn, would now save us from him with one of the most angelic congratulatory handshakes I've ever received.
I'll always be grateful for angel Sara for leading us into his presence, and to angel Nicole for never ever doubting we'd find him there.
Once again the sport of running has stepped up to remind me that life is full of bullies. But it's also full of angels. Which of those we focus on makes a lot of difference.
This race was so well run. I'm not easily impressed by people who pull of good things in good conditions. But people who can make great things happen in bad conditions - that's when you know you're dealing with professionals, and people who really care about your experience.
I can't wait to go back to the Land Between the Lakes - maybe next year - with hopes of seeing what those lakes look like with the angel of sunshine shining down on them.
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.