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.
I should have seen it coming. As easy as I see my boys running at me when the ice cream comes out of the freezer, I should have seen myself running the Marine Corps Marathon. I didn't, though. I'd been in DC last year watching friends run this race. I'd navigated hours of dizzying metro rides. Dodged what felt like a zillion spectators crisscrossing the city in search of a zillion different runners. I was so lost when I left the city that day I swore I'd never run that race.
That's why I should have seen it coming. In my running life, the translation for never is almost always "see you at the starting line."
The morning started with traquility. Just my friends and I nibbling on some breakfast in the hotel lobby before we headed to the metro.
But tranquility was short lived. When we left the lobby we had 1 1/2 hours to get to the starting line of our race just 4 miles away. Yet, we barely got to the starting line as the first runners were taking off.
Those dizzying metro rides. Those crowds. They were back. And they were not tranquil.
All I could think was - when will I learn to let my nevers stay nevers.
I also knew it wasn't my thinking that got me there. It was my heart. Specifically my heart for a man I've come to love. Earlier in the year my friend Sid asked me to run this race since he couldn't. Sid is a Navy veteran. He's devoted the last 25 years of his life to running marathons for fallen military heroes - over 200 marathons to be exact. But he reached a point, at 72 years old, where his body wouldn't cooperate with him over the marathon distance.
So he asked me to tackle this one for him.
When considering my answer, my mind saw those crowds, remembered the logistical nightmare of it all. I remembered thinking I might need the Marines to clear a path for me out of the city when I left to go home.
But my heart - it saw Sid. It saw Sid marching 26.2 miles through the streets of Little Rock Arkansas, for 8 hours, carrying the American flag. (The Little Rock Marathon was where I first met Sid in person.)
It was my heart that told my mind to shut up and run. That's how I found myself standing at the starting line of the Marine Corps Marathon.
So my buddy Tracey and I decided we were going to run this one together. Every television station in the country should have interrupted their regularly scheduled programming for that breaking news. It's pretty common knowledge Tracey and I ran together several years ago on a hilly half marathon course in Lexington. Tracey tried to give me advice about running tangents when the only advice I wanted was how to survive a half marathon when you're only a few non-tangent strides from death.
I snapped at Tracey a couple of times. I think he didn't like it much. He never ran with me again.
We were two miles into our reunited race when he said, "Can you believe we've already gone two miles. The miles are just flying by." I think that was his way of saying look, two miles and we haven't killed each other yet.
The truth is the first ten miles flew by. I was running a nice steady pace. All along my goal was to get to the bridge at mile 21 without getting pulled off the course. That required a pace better than 14 minute miles. We were better than a minute per mile faster than that. And feeling good.
Before the bridge I knew I'd have to tackle mile 12. The Blue Mile. The one mile section of the course lined with pictures of fallen service members. Sid was going to be standing along the Blue Mile holding an American flag. More than the finish line, I was anticipating seeing Sid.
We weren't far into the mile when we came across a young woman bent down in front of one of the pictures of a deceased service member. She was crying uncontrollably while holding the picture. It was clearly someone dear to her. Someone she missed. Someone gone way too soon.
It occurred to me for every one of those pictures we were passing, many people had probably cried for them like she was crying. Many people are probably still crying for them - parents, spouses, children - lives never the same. I was barely into the mile and it was already emotional.
But I still hadn't found the man I was looking for.
Then I heard him shouting out. I heard Sid. There he was, standing as proud as ever with the American flag. It's like looking at soulmates when you see Sid and that flag together. For a man who has honored hundreds of fallen soldiers through his running journey over the years, there seemed in that moment to be no more perfect setting. Ever. And as I ran toward Sid, I felt incredibly blessed to share in it.
On this day, I ran to honor Sid because Sid honors them.
After spending some time with Sid he pushed us on. He literally pushed me I think. He probably sensed I was more comfortable hanging out there with him than tackling the final 14 miles of the marathon. But I'd come to see that finish line, to cross it in Sid's place and honor, so we pressed on.
We made it to the half marathon mark in 2:50. I'd never felt so strong after a half marathon. We were on target for the 6-hour finish I was shooting for. All was good.
Until it wasn't.
At about mile 15 things started getting tough. I felt good breathing wise. I didn't feel drained thanks to cool temperatures. But every muscle in my body was sore. Not to mention a few bones. Feet. Calves. Thighs. Hips. Even my shoulders were sore. The good news about soreness is, unlike the Georgia Jewel when I was trying to battle through nausea and dizziness, I knew my mind could overcome pain. Not once, even as the pain grew, did I consider I wouldn't beat the bridge. Not once did I consider I wouldn't see the finish line.
I knew we had friends waiting at mile 18. That became my target. As hard as my race was starting to get, I knew seeing friends would be a boost of energy. In a city overrun with unfamiliarity, thousands of people I didn't know, roads I'd never traveled, a place full of enormity and overwhelming, I knew seeing smiles and hearing cheers from within the world I treasure - I knew that would prove to be a pit stop that would go a long way towards getting me home.
And I was right.
The greatest cheer squad ever!!
As we left the cheer squad not all was cheery with me and my running partner Tracey. We'd done so good for 18 miles. We'd buried the nightmare of that first race to the finish line together many years ago. Now, I confess, most of this falls on me. The homestretch is always a grumpy stretch in my running journey. If it's a half marathon grumpy visits at about mile 10. If it's a full marathon you might want to avoid me after about - well - mile 18.
Tracey was pretty focused on us breaking the 6-hour mark. But I knew at this point that goal wasn't happening. Tracey was using all sorts of coaching strategies to get me to speed up. The one that sent me over the edge was when he told me if I "picked up my pace a little bit my body would follow suit."
There was something about that statement at mile 18 - in the midst of my misery - in the midst of me grappling with the reality I had to lug my body another 8 miles to the finish line - that didn't sit well with me. Maybe it was how I interpreted that statement as Tracey believing I wasn't smart enough to know my body was going to follow me where I went no matter how fast I went. Like who does not know that? Maybe it was me interpreting that statement as him insinuating the only reason I had slowed my pace was because I didn't know my body was sort of married to my pace - and not that I was dying. Or, maybe it was how I suddenly realized this guy ignored the memo I sent out long ago that as loudly as I could proclaim it proclaimed:
I AM NOT COACHABLE!
So I politely as I could told Tracey to shut up. I tell my kids to never say those two words - that there is never a helpful or loving way to say shut up. So I hope they never read this article. Because in that moment, shut up was the most helpful and loving sentiment a human could possibly express.
Do as I say boys - not as I run marathons with Uncle Tracey.
The truth is, though, and don't tell Tracey, but some coaching did sink in. I did dig in toward that finish line. I did celebrate within when we beat the bridge - one of my primary goals in this race. I knew beating 6 hours wasn't possible, but I doubled down on a new goal to beat my previous marathon time.
As I was doubling down additional reinforcements showed up. Not coaches, just beautiful souls tackling their own races. Charlotte Powers and her dad Papa Powers came along. My buddy Cliff joined us for the last few miles. There is inexplicable power and strength that comes from friendship, from a shared journey. Especially when that journey is one as challenging as the Marine Corps Marathon. I think it's because our friends, who know us best, remind us - like they did at mile 18 and again down this homestretch - that we do have it within us to do far more than we imagine.
That's what I did. Over the last 8 miles I discovered what I often know but let doubt stand in my way of discovering: I am capable of more than I'm doing. Every single day, every one of them, I have more in me. If I choose to hide from it or run from it - that doesn't mean it's not there. It just means I leaned into comfort and not the challenge of embracing the finish line of progress in life.
When the clock stopped I'd run my fastest marathon by 21 minutes. That's progress. It wasn't a world record. No timer in the world could possibly be impressed by a 6 hour and 20 minutes marathon. But I long ago realized if I'm in running for records or impressing timers, I'm in for a discouraging journey.
This running journey has been far from discouraging, though. This journey has filled me with confidence. It's overwhelmed me with the hope I've always found running toward a new horizon.
Every run. Every race. I am always running toward unchartered territory, an uncomfortable new horizon where I find God there waiting, reminding me: I'm glad you brought your fears and doubts with you. Now once again bury them. You surely won't need them as you head on toward your next new horizon.
Grateful for this guy's friendship. Grateful for his loving acceptance of my mile 18 grumpies.
For a year I imagined this race. Even when running other races I was imagining this one. The 2017 Patrick Henry Half Marathon. The race that owed me one. Actually, I'm the one who owed something here. I owed this race my best effort. One worthy of staying on the course past mile 10, which I couldn't do last year.
Less than 48 hours before the race I felt my best effort rising to the surface. I had strength like I was already standing at the starting line. Adding to that strength was a weather forecast calling for perfect running conditions.
Then completely unforeseen, my personal condition went south fast. One minute I was coaching my son's flag football team and giving it all I had, a half hour later I was giving up a week's worth of hydration and nutrition to whoever it is that dishes out stomach bugs. I woke up the next morning 6 pounds lighter than the morning before. I no longer felt like I was standing at the starting line. In fact, I felt like I'd never stand at one again.
I reached out to friends on social media to let them know what I was dealing with. When I did, I'd resigned myself to the reality the Patrick Henry Half was about to put another notch in its belt at my expense. There was no way I was going to be able to run.
Many of my non-runner friends agreed. They replied with comments that my health was much more important than a race. There will be plenty more races, they said, but there's only one you.
The responses from my runner friends were a bit different. Oh, they shared an equal amount of concern for my health, but they also allowed for a way to the starting line. Drink coconut water. Eat pretzels. Get lots of rest. They shared stories of how they bounced back from their own stomach issues and like superman or wonder woman found themselves at the starting line. In other words, they weren't convinced I should be thinking about other races. They were still pointing me down the road to redemption.
death and the destruction of food in favor of a craving for a way to line up and run a half marathon.
Add that to the strangest but truest thoughts of my life list.
Saturday morning came. Two hours before start time. One final examination: can I make it to the starting line? Do I have what it takes to finish this race? Less than two hours later I found myself standing beneath the starting line I'd been dreaming of for a year.
hadn't found a way to outrun my lack of nutrition. I shifted thoughts and gears and settled into a pace that would get me safely to the finish line. I reminded myself that's what I came for. Redemption only required one thing: the finish line.
Coming up on mile 12 I saw my family handing out water. Then I saw my friends Solomon and Pam coming to greet me and run a few paces with me. I was reminded some days we're as strong as the people who run beside us - no matter how weak we might feel. Those two, and then the gatorade my boys tried to hand me, and the pictures I saw my wife snapping - that was the fuel and nutrition that carried me through to the final mile.
My neighbor Art Bedard showed up at a couple of key spots over that final mile. I'm convinced God planted him in strategic locations. Art has always cheered me on virtually, but seeing him in person on the side of the course helped me discover a few ramining drips of adrenaline. Then my friends Rebecca and Chuck showed up to run me through the final chute. They kept saying you've got this. You've got this. It was the only stretch longer than a few feet that I'd actually run the previous two miles. Their voices were my strength. Their voices were voices from God.
Last week I interviewed two long distance runners for my TwoTim47.com podcast series - Solomon Whitfield and Harvey Lewis. Whitfield has been running for years but has recently started adding on miles with no end in sight to how far he wants to go. Lewis is a world renowned ultra runner; he won the famous Badwater race back in 2014. I spent about 45 minutes with each of them talking about their running journeys. Although they both filled that time with great wisdom and inspiration, I was left with one overwhelming thought:
Life is like running.