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.
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.
You know that look when you see it.
I'll never forget seeing it on my friend Robyn's face. She'd been in the middle of a lengthy phone conversation. The call ended. Robyn tucked her phone away. And then that look took over. Where there'd been peace and contentment. Where at one moment there had been excitement, anticipation of a weekend of fun with friends, there was now concern.
It was the kind of concern that runs deeper than the bank calling you about fraudulent activity on your account or a friend cancelling an upcoming coffee date. It was the look of concern that said life would never be the same.
A short time after that call the results came back. My friend Robyn's mom Rose had Gioblastoma, an aggressive form of brain cancer. A month earlier I'd picked Robyn up at the airport for her annual trip to visit us and run the Richmond Marathon. Now she was processing how to tell her mom goodbye.
Life isn't always a marathon. When you know you're losing your mom, life suddenly feels much more like a 40 yard dash than a marathon. A lifetime to tell someone what they mean to you suddenly seems reduced to minutes.
Soon after this news I was with Robyn on Kiawah Island in South Carolina. We were there to run a half marathon. Life had changed for her, but she was committed to running the race that had been on her calendar for months. Running had been one of Robyn's passions for a long time. Now maybe it was a form of therapy.
Several of us were there running with Robyn. We committed to run this race for her mom. This one's for Rose. It was a prayer. It was a ray to run and honor Rose's fight against a disease that refuses to lose.
Running has always been a struggle for me. It's hard. The finish line always feels like a zillion painful miles away. But out there running that Kiawah half, I realized I was fortunate. Even though I knew logically my life would end one day, out there running - without a doctor's prognosis that my days were numbered - I could at least feel like I'd be able to run forever.
I was suddenly grateful for that: the hope that I'd be able to run forever.
What a gift it is - those moments- when we can innocently believe we'll be able to do anything at all forever.
After that race I wanted to do something to let Rose know I appreciated her strength. Strength that, without her knowing or intending, became a gift of gratitude for me. I could only think of one way to express that appreciation to Rose. I sent her my Kiawah Island Half Marathon finishers medal.
It wasn't a medal that represented victory. I've never had one that did. But every race medal I've earned represents a struggle. Taking on something that doesn't come easy. A willingness to fight all the way to the end. Whenever Robyn talked about Rose, that's what I heard. I heard about a mom in a hell of a fight, but a mom who wasn't going to go down with anything less than offering a hell of a fight in return.
Rose lost that fight last month. But all the way to the finish line she gave it her all. Cancer is once again the vicious victor. It's robbed the world of a beautiful mom and friend. I hope we'll one day find the weaknesses in cancer's attack and come up with a gameplan that stifles it once and for all.
But I also hope this. I hope we'll continue to rob cancer of some of it's evil glory. I hope people like Rose will continue to say to cancer: you can steal my life, but in doing so I'm going to reveal a strength in this life that makes the world stronger. Out of the depths of the ugliest places of cancer, I will rise with a beauty the world might have never got to see. So in some ways - you lose cancer.
I regret I never got to meet Rose in person. I'm sorry that it was cancer that introduced me to her beauty. But know this cancer - as you celebrate another ruthless attack on the innocent - many of us discovered a beautiful human being in spite of you. You come to weaken us, but people like Rose remind us we're stronger than we think. People like Rose embolden us to fight you back like never before.
Last week my friend Robyn mailed me the medal I'd sent Rose last December. She said he mom had hung it up where she could see it every day. As I write this, that medal now hangs where I can see it every day. A medal that once honored my capacity to take on a challenge and conquer it now hangs in honor of a woman who did some conquering of her own. Rose stood toe to toe with a disease that wanted to impose darkness, and in doing so she revealed light to us all.
That Kiawah Island Half Marathon medal has far more value and meaning today than it did the day I crossed that finish line. That's often how these medals go.
When your best effort reveals what you're capable of, you walk away proud. But when your best effort misrepresents you, it haunts you. It leaves you doubting whether your best effort showed up at all. It leaves you craving to set the record straight.
I guess that best explains why I found myself at the starting line of the 2018 Patrick Henry Half Marathon.
Saturday, for the third time, there I was. Being there defied logic. I ran this race in 2016 in extreme heat and I wasn't up to the task. I got pulled from the course at mile 10 by a Hanover County Sheriff Deputy for running too slow. I assure you the law has never before or since cited me for going to slow.
I don't handle defeat well, so I signed up again in 2017. Two days before the race I got food poisoning. I desperately needed that 2016 race behind me, so I ran anyways. Well, I finished. I got my redemption. Sort of, because I left there just certain I could do better.
I started believing I should give up on ever having a meaningful relationship with the Patrick Henry. It just didn't seem to like me as much as I was trying with everything I had to like it.
That cravining to set the record straight, though. It just wouldn't go away.
As the race started, I found myself next to my friend Solomon (Mo). He asked me if I had any goals for the race. I told him I just wanted wanted to have a solid run. I'd had a tough run the weekend before at the Georgia Jewel training run (a prep run for my first ultra in 5 weeks), so I needed a confidence booster. I told him my Patrick Henry time last year was 2:45, and at the very least, I wanted to beat that.
I also hinted I knew the weather was working for me. In the back of my mind I knew my fastest half marathon was 2:25 back in April at the Run the Bluegrass. I'd increased my miles since that race, and I knew if everything came together today, something bigger than a solid run was possible. I hadn't thought about it much the past week, mainly because this race had always been a disaster maker not a record breaker, but in that moment the possibilities seemed greater.
Mo and I didn't make a plan to run together. We simply took off that way. We settled into a rhythm over the first three miles. Our pace wasn't blazing, but it was steady. It was slow enough to carry on a conversation that really made those first 3 miles fly by in my mind.
We picked up the pace ever so slightly the next 3 miles. We approached the first cutoff mark just beyond mile 6. I told Mo this is where I knew I was in trouble in 2016. Back then I'd only been a couple of minutes ahead of the cutoff. I had 4 miles to get to the next cutoff at mile 10. And in my mind I knew my pace would only slow.
But here we were today, over a half hour ahead of that 2016 pace.
I didn't say anything to Mo, but this is where I made the decision to go for it. I knew my record was possible. I hadn't walked once the first 6 miles, which is unusual for me during any run, let alone a race day run. I felt strong. But I also knew there was "that hill" coming at mile 11 and I'd better put some time in the bank to allow that monster to slow me down like it always does.
Miles 7 and 8 ended up being our fastest of the day. There was no look. No head nod. I just slowly picked it up and my buddy just stayed right beside me. I knew he knew what I was up to by this point.
I told my mind to shut up and I battled on. We passed the 10 mile cutoff mark where two years earlier I'd been ushered to the backseat of a small car and driven back home. That memory alone was fuel for the stretch.
Just in time. Because along came mile 11 - THAT HILL.
The hill was tough, but in some ways it never seemed easier. We definitely took some walk breaks as we climbed. But I knew it wasn't robbing from me what I needed to get home, to break my record. In some weird way I didn't feel like the hill wanted to do that at all. The hill, like the weather, and my buddy Mo - they all seemed to be on my side this day.
Up until this point, Mo remained a silent partner in my chase for the record. He knew what I was up to at some point I'm sure, but he never mentioned it. Likely because early in our run I told him I wasn't coachable. I told him how my relationship with Tracey Outlaw nearly ended early in my career when Tracey made the mistake of trying to coach me in a race.
This is when Mo simply told me, "let's go ahead and get this thing done." The hill was behind us, the finish line just over a mile ahead. We walked a bit this final mile, monitoring the time the whole way, but with just over a third of a mile to go, it was an all out run to the end.
It's ironic. Running is such an individual gig. I spend a lot of time on the road in solitude - running. But this day revealed the true beauty in running is the teamwork, the relationships, that work with each and every stride to bring home the fulfillment I so easily find in this sport. God has used running to plant some of the best people I know in my life. With their help, more often than not my best efforts reflect the me I want to be.
Life is like running.