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.
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.
Life is like running.