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.
It was the Friday before I was scheduled to run my 9th half marathon. The half marathon - that's my race. Never was I more aware of that than on November 12, 2016 when I ran my first full marathon. Immediately after crossing the finish line of that race I decided 26.2 miles was indeed NOT my race. Too far. Too much training involved. I decided then and there the marathon was the perfect race to do once, check it off and escape as fast as I could still run back to the starting line of the race I love.
The half marathon.
This 9th half marathon was going to be particularly meaningful. I'd partnered with St. Andrews Church in Pearland, Texas to run the race to raise money for their hurricane relief efforts. (Running My 9th Half Marathon - The Hokie Half for Texas). What God had put so strongly on my heart I was now prepared to fully pursue. Only, until this particular moment, I wasn't fully aware of what pursuing entailed.
The first connection I made at St. Andrews Church was Tom Lusk - a dear friend of a long time dear friend of mine. I'd already been considering how I would get the bib I would wear at the Hokie Half for Texas to St. Andrews church after I completed the race when Tom reached out to me with this message:
I listened to your podcast today. Great work! As the Minister of Fun of St. Andrews church, (which I find hilarious that you discovered that little tidbit of information) I wish you good luck in your upcoming half marathon. I will also throw out another idea I had, if you are so inspired. I would like to invite you and your family to come to Pearland to come and witness our outreach in action for yourself, perhaps even get a chance to participate , if you so desire. I would also invite your family to attend a service at our church and get the full experience. We honestly are a no frills church where the emphasis is put on the message "love everyone, perform service, and understand we are all people...in progress, and where a t-shirt, shorts and flip flops are part of the dress code for Sunday service. This would be an open invitation and no strings attached (unless you want to run a race down here) and absolutely no pressure. Father nor Debbie know I'm extended this invitation, but as my title suggests, wouldn't it be fun to put faces to names, be able to participate first hand and be my family's special guest at one of the church services.
You see what Tom put in parentheses don't you - (unless you want to run a race down here). So you know want the runner in me always looking for the next running challenged did - I went to the Houston area race calendar to check out available races in early 2018. The first one I came to was the Houston Marathon. But, as luck would have it, a no go. My race, the half marathon, was sold out.
I was not long finished with exploring that race and making the unfortunate sold out discovery when I got this message from my friend Robyn Larkin.
So as I finished listening to your podcast, I realized that running the Houston half in January would be a GREAT way for you to go there and meet people from St Andrew's in person...and to continue raising money for them...🤔
To which I responded:
Already checked, the Houston Half is sold out. I'm NOT running the marathon. But there are other halfs down there early next year. Would love to get a group of us to go. Maybe do a day of working with the church and then run. Something to explore for sure. But yes, I'm with you.
Followed - after a brief bit of thought - by this message:
And now after listening to myself I'm rethinking - if those folks can do all they are doing, the least I can do is run another marathon. The perfect place to do my second one maybe? Ugh. Why do you put these things in my head.
Robyn responded with this:
So I just got a few chills. I originally registered to run Houston in 2017. Then Chris had to go to Bermuda and it was at race weekend time...so I deferred my entry until 2018. Coincidence? You need to go there and run this. It's a flat area, so the course is going to be pretty flat.
You know what happened next. I signed up for the Houston Marathon. The flat -(famous last words) - 26.2 mile Houston Marathon.
I'm going where I've never been : Texas.
I'm going where I thought I'd never go again: the marathon.
I'm going to Houston not by my design but through wide eyed obedience to God's call. Any questions about that were put to rest last night in an email from Father Jim at St. Andrews Church. He emailed me a report of the contributions made to St. Andrews Church for hurricane relief as part of my Hokie Half for Texas run. My original goal was $500. His report said $2,000.
And then there was this. Before I'd received that total - one that spoke to the financial contribution - I received an email from a dear friend that spoke to the heart contribution that was blossoming from this effort. My friend Nicole Williams has been a long time supporter of my TwoTim.com ministry. Still, I was a bit surprised when I received this email from her:
Congrats on the hokie half finish and even more so, the reason you did it. I am so proud of you and the efforts by all of the amazing people who have come together to support the hurricane Harvey efforts. I have been so moved by your podcasts, the pictures and the people there.
Flash back a little earlier in the year. I had decided to run another full (in addition to rva this year). I found one within a couple hours of me, in September. Perfect timing and close. I never actually signed up, but I've been training. Here we are two weeks from this full and I still have never signed up. Honestly, I've been asking myself for a couple months now, why haven't you pushed the button. Today, it became clear. God has plans for me to be doing something else. After talking with Jason today, who is also on board, I wanted to message you. I want to be a part of this Houston marathon journey and meet this Pearland Texas community. My heart has forever been moved because of this story you have shared.
Excited for this journey and hope I can join you on such an important visit to Texas and meet this community and tackle 26.2 miles.
I say it all the time. As I grow closer to God I'm no better than I've ever been at predicting what He will unfold in front of me next. I could never have predicted all that he's doing through one simple idea that was hatched during one of my routine runs. But if we point our thoughts and desires toward him, if we act with faith on the simple ideas he plants in us, he'll reflect them back to us and to those around us in miracles.
My friend Nicole and her family joining me in Houston is a miracle I never saw coming. But looking in the rear view mirror I can clearly see God orchestrating it. I can see God arranging Robyn's race schedule so we'll be running this race together. I can see God forming my friendship with Janice nearly 20 years ago so she'd be able to arrange my friendship with St. Andrews Church at precisely the right moment in time.
I'm reminded nothing in our lives is small. No moment. No thought. No race. God is constantly at work in all we do and all He does is bigger than our minds can dream or imagine. Like Texas big. The anatomy of this trip to run the Houston Marathon is mind boggling to me, but to God, it's just the way he rolls.
The lesson for me, and maybe for you, is to start the ball rolling. We can't go for a run and dream of a ball and then come home and set it in a corner. We have to push it. Run behind it and give it a couple of extra shoves full of momentum for good measure. Then watch what God does with it.
When I dreamed of this TwoTim47.com ministry I dreamed of running to dark with light. The mistake I made was in grabbing a flashlight when God had a stadium full of spotlights in mind.
Thanks for the extra light God. That's why I like to run with you.
Life is like running.