It's early morning, March 28, 2007. Ray Bell rises from his bed to greet this, his 39th birthday. Only - Ray has no interest in greeting this one. This birthday is unworthy of a celebration. In Ray's mind, He is unworthy of a celebration.
Ray staggers to the bathroom. Depression tracks close behind, like an intruder who's been stalking and decided this is the day to put Ray out of his misery. Ray shoots a quick and discarding look toward the bathroom scales. He's not stepping on them today. He wouldn't dare. He already knows their answer. They've been threatening him with 300 pounds lately. Step on them today and depression wins by an early morning knockout.
Ray stands there. Thinking about it. 300 pounds. He tells himself to look in the mirror. Turn around and look at yourself, Ray. You can hide from the scales, but are your really going to roll into your 40th year on earth without taking a good hard look at who's rolling with you?
Ray knows exactly what he'll see in the mirror today. He'll see his dad who died of a massive heart attack when he was in his 40's. He'll see his mom, gone at the hands of diabetes. Ray knows depression has no better friend than a mirror. No stronger ally. A mirror has the power to say "your next Ray."
Somehow Ray senses this may be his chance. Maybe the last chance he ever has. His chance to turn the mirror on depression. You're dying the early death, depression. Not me.
Ray turns slowly toward the mirror.
Ray glares defiantly into the mirror. You have to make a move Ray. You have to make it now.
Ray slips on a pair of shoes and shorts and heads out the door. I'm about to give myself the greatest birthday present ever, he decides. Ray breaks into a run. And in less than 50 feet he can run no more. He walks. For the next several weeks he walks and runs and walks and runs around his neighborhood until he's able to run 3 miles.
Ray knows his running is getting good, yet his diet is still a challenge. He experiments with all the diet fads. Then one day he's running and God tells him you've got this all wrong, Ray. Eat small meals every two hours. Ray listens. He adopts his self-proclaimed every-two-hour-mini-meal plan. The doctor tells him meat isn't working for his high blood pressure, so Ray's mini meals turn meatless.
The weight starts falling off. Five pounds a week or more. Ray completes a local 9-mile race and suddenly feels ready for a bigger challenge.
Ray shows up to register for the 2008 Flying Pig Marathon. A young lady working the registration booth asks Ray, "How's your training been going?"
"Training? I didn't know you had to train for these things," Ray tells her, caught a bit off guard.
Ray is 16 miles into the 2008 Flying Pig Marathon. His body locks up. There's no way he can take another step. Then he hears the voice from the mirror. "We aren't going to quit are we, Ray?"
He takes a step. Then another. Suddenly he's in the middle of a 10-mile death march to the finish line. He crosses the finish line a new man. He feels confidence he's never felt before. Strength he's only dreamed of. The man Ray rolled into his 40's with is nowhere to be found.
Ray soaks up the spirit of the finish line. In his stillness he hears, "I told you to just trust me, Ray. Just trust me."
The post-marathon recovery is hard. Ray knows he can't tackle the next one - and he knows there will be a next one - without training. He seeks out a local running group and in them he finds all the running experience and education he could dream of. The Westsiders take Rays's running journey to new places.
In 2011 Ray qualifies for the Boston Marathon. He weighs somewhere around 150 pounds these days. So there he is in 2013, in coral 8 of the Boston Marathon. He can see the fastest marathoners in the world just up ahead of him.
The tears begin to roll down Ray's cheeks. I once weighed 300 pounds. I couldn't bring myself to stand on the scales or look in a mirror. Now I stand ready to run the most famous marathon in the world. How on earth did I get here?
Today Ray's life is eat, sleep and run. He says it. He writes it. He lives it.
Eat - clean, small portions, lots of water, make good selections, don't deprive myself.
Sleep - something I need. Reenergizes my body and brain.
Run - this is the huge one for me. The holy gift from God. I can feel God and hear him and listen to him. You hear about this runner's high; I truly believe in the runner's high. Things feel quiet and effortless, you're coming up on that finish line and you know you don't want to quit. That's your runners high.
Ray is currently pointing his runner's high toward unfinished business. Back in 2012 Ray ran a 3:05 marathon in Columbus. In that moment he knew he'd have to break the 3 hour mark. He's looking to do that at the Monumental Marathon in Indianapolis in November, 2017. Ray's currently running over 100 miles a week to prepare for the race. He says he's in the best condition of his life.
Why the continued love for running Ray? Why the drive?
Running is a gift. It is part of the restoration. Part of the radical change in my life. The restoration of health. The Lord gave it all back to me. I don't take it for granted. It's a unique special gift. Running makes me want to have a spirit of excellence. I know that's what the Lord wants from me. There's nothing like giving your all, crossing that finish line, you know that you just laid it all out there. That's what it's about for me.
Ray's voice trembles a bit as he finishes telling his story. The emotions are there. I feel like I'm standing next to him at the starting line of the 2013 Boston Marathon. He reads Psalm 139:14 out loud to me:
I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made; your works are wonderful, I know that full well.
Ray, you are indeed wonderfully made brother. Wonderfully indeed.
I started dreaming of running my fastest half-marathon ever. What a great way to honor Michael. What a way it would be to add to an already great year of running.
When I arrived in Cincinnati, I began having second thoughts about my optimism toward the weather. I was soggy and freezing as I watched friends run the mile race Friday evening as part of the 3-way challenge. Over the course of the next three days, they would tackle a mile, 5k, 10k, and half-marathon. I was awed by their running stamina, but the half was plenty enough challenge for me.
On cue, though, the weather brightened and was ideal for running by Saturday morning. Things began looking up for a nice Sunday race day. As I watched my friends' races Saturday that kept me near the Cincinnati Reds' stadium, I reminisced about the days I would sit on my great-grandparents' front porch and listen to Reds' games on a tiny transistor radio. I wondered what they would think of this day and age when you can literally watch every game, every day, on television. I walked away pretty sure they'd still be sitting out there on that old wooden porch swing, my grandpa with a pipe in one hand, that little radio in another, swinging back and forth, back and forth.
One of the coolest things about the weekend and my running journey in general is the friends I get to share it with. We all gathered for a pre-race dinner Saturday evening at the Palomino restaurant in downtown Cincinnati. We laughed until we cried. The mood was a perfect setup for my race, now a mere 12 hours away.
It was perfect, that is, until my friend Danielle started describing the half-marathon course to my friend Lashell. Danielle had run the course before. Lashell and I had not. In a slip of the tongue sort of way Danielle fired off something about how crazy the hills are on this course. In my building hopes for a great race day I hadn't factored in images of crazy hills. Hills, sure, but not crazy hills. Danielle tried to soften her stance a bit once she sensed my oncoming panic attack. Make molehills out of the mountains she had just heaped on my psyche. But it was too late. The image was there. That attack was in motion.
All the same, it was still a wonderful evening with friends.
The irony in that mountain story is Danielle is the one who sent me a pace chart for the course. It was an outline of the pace I would need to keep mile by mile to achieve my goal of breaking 2 hours and 30 minutes. It's what got me to thinking, "I really can do this."
But the pace chart didn't include the words crazy hills.
When I got back to the hotel that night I knew I needed to do something about the negativity swirling in my mind. So I amended the pace chart Danielle sent me and made my own. This is what it looked like when I carried it with me the next morning.
I broke the race into chunks. One chunk was following Danielle's plan to get me to the hills on time. Then, I wasn't going to worry about my pace on the hills; I was going to worry about my mental game there. I needed to completely zero in on the idea that "it's just a hill" or the hill would end up crushing my goal. Once over the hills I'd focus on getting to the 10-mile mark by the target 1:56:17. If I could meet that goal, I knew the final 3 downhill miles would be all mine.
The plan worked perfectly. I got to the hills on time. They were challenging for sure, but they were just hills. When I got to the 10-mile mark 3 minutes ahead of schedule I knew I was going to crush my goal time. The final 3 miles were some of the fastest race miles I've ever run. I actually sprinted across the finish line to complete the race in 2:27:50.
I've been thinking about that little "cheat sheet" since I finished the race. I'll likely keep it forever. It was the first time I attacked a race strategically. I broke it into bite sized pieces. I outlined what each of those pieces needed to look like. I even projected the mental strength I would need and the words that would represent it when I arrived at the hills. For the first time ever, I had a running plan.
I've always run on gut instinct and feel. The net result of that has been a slow runner whose gut had an instinct to turn inside out at the end of a race. There was never anything left but death.
I got to thinking that's the story of my life in many ways. More often than not doing life without a plan hasn't worked out well for me. I'm not advocating overplanning, but I think it would certainly help me to map out a pace chart for other areas in my life. I think I'll do a podcast on that soon so stay tuned.
The Flying Pig Half Marathon will go down as a beautiful memory for me. Some of the things I got to do this weekend that have permanently touched my life:
What would I change about the Flying Pig?
Bottom line. I hope to return to the Pig again one day.
I started running three years ago to honor a young woman in our community, Meg Cross Menzies, who was struck and killed by a drunk driver while training for the Boston Marathon. I've kept running to keep her memory and all she stood for alive and well. As the miles have collected, though, I've felt a constant tug, probably from Meg, to not only remember what she stood for, but to be more of what she stood for.
I felt that tug strongest after finishing my first Marathon back in November. I heard a voice telling me there had to be something more than crossing finish lines to this running gig. After prayer and reflection, I decided that more was lending a voice to other people who need help crossing their finish lines. Whether they are running finish lines or life finish lines.
That's when this website was born. Thousands of years ago the Apostle Paul told a young minister, Timothy, when Paul knew his race was nearing an end and Timothy would need to continue it, "I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith." (2 Timothy 4:7)
In many ways, I feel like when Paul passed his torch to Timothy, he passed it to me - and to you. I'm inspired by a song written by some local friends in the band Prospect 7. The song is One Flame to Burn. Probably because when I crossed the finish line of my marathon, that's how I felt. Like I had one flame to burn.
And I can't stop now, look how far I've come
I won't quit here, despite the setting sun
I will go and fight, I'll run to dark with light
I won't be deterred, I have one flame to burn
This weekend I'm running a half-marathon at the Flying Pig in Cincinnati, Ohio. When I do, I'll bring to life what I want TwoTim47.com to be. Running to dark with light. When I toe the line Sunday for my 7th half-marathon, I'll carry the picture below.
The young man in that picture, Michael Stangelo, was born and raised in Canal Fulton, Ohio. After graduating high school he pursued a lifelong dream to be like his grandfather. He joined the marines. Soon after, he found himself in a combat role in Iraq.
It's a small percentage of us who will experience the horror of fighting in a foreign land. And no, sitting on a couch playing Call of Duty isn't a close substitute for that horror. Mainly because when that game is over you can get up and go to dinner like nothing ever happened. In real life, men and women like Michael Stangelo take the battlefield memories to dinner with them.
They also take them to bed. They take them to phone calls back home with family and friends. And for many, they take them to their grave.
Michael Stangelo is one of 22 military veterans who take their lives every day as a result of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), the effects of traumatic brain injury, challenges of adjustment and transistion after returning home from a deployement, and the negative stigma in the military community around seeking help.
So often when we honor our military we don't think of the word military beyond the single unit institution of good men and women willing to sacrifice their lives for our country and personal freedoms. But I had the chance to talk on the phone with Michael's cousin Erica earlier this week. When I got off the phone I was deeply saddened by the reminder that military is real lives and faces. Military is sometimes young men who grew up in Ohio like me, they graduated high school and pursued a life dream like me. But unlike me, sacrifice comes to means a young life cut short and a grieving family left behind as part of the memorial.
I am honored to run for Michael this weekend. I hope to run a little light to the darkness that lives in his family's life as a result of his death - especially in my new friend Erica's life. I'm asking God to use my run to bring awareness to the tragic but often preventable ending to the lives of some of this country's greatest heroes. It's my mission this weekend to help people understand the biggest difference between cancer and mental illness is that this country fights like hell to find a cure for cancer and too often tells folks battling mental illness - both in and out of the military - to toughen up.
Well I hope to run tough for Michael this weekend. Knowing the battle he fought will make the battles I often face at mile 6 or 9 or 12 seem small. Erica told me before Michael went to Iraq he was a kid full of life. That's how I plan to run Sunday, Michael, full of life brother.
I'll be publishing a podcast later this week to talk more about my conversation with Erica and about Michael's journey. I hope you'll tune in. You'll be able to find it on this website. You can also download my podcasts at iTunes or Podbean - just dowload either app and search for TwoTim47 and subscribe.
You can also follow me on my TwoTim47 Facebook page where I'll be posting links to the podcasts and updates this weekend about my run for Michael, to include live videos and thoughts.
Life is like running.