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.
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.
This weekend, hundreds of people will stop and remember a woman whose life and death has impacted their lives in powerfully unexpected ways. A majority of them never met her.
It's somewhat alarming to confess that someone I never had a single human interaction with has profoundly changed how I perceive being human. On the other hand, it's opened my eyes to the possibilities we all have as humans. We have miracles within us. We don't need to see or forsee them, we don't have to know their names or where they live, we don't have to know where they came from or where they will go.
We simply have to believe in them.
Meg Cross Menzies has helped me believe in miracles. Not water into wine or walk on water miracles. She's made me believe that simple human kindness - a heart that humbly turns away from self worship and instead runs lovingly outward toward others - can change the world in ways that resembles, well, walking on water.
I have this book I want to write. It's called:
When I Changed My Mind About Running
Running Changed My Mind
And My life
Long title for a book, right?
When I look back on my life since Meg died, though, those words seem inadequate. They seem way too few to describe the miracle that's happened in my life, and the miracles I've seen take place all around me.
After Meg died in 2014, I wrote this in the blog post I wrote at the time (God's Newest Angel, One With Years Of Experience):
By the time I finished my run today, I wasn't much more clear as to why God would take a family's angel before they were ready for her to leave. But one thing was crystal clear. I know what God has done with his newest angel.
Soon after she arrived, God said, Meg, there's a couple of people trying to put together a memorial run for you this Saturday. They have the best of intentions, but they're thinking too small.
I wrote that after I went on my longest run in over a decade. Maybe even two decades. A run I ran in response to a call to run for Meg that day to honor her life. I was but one of 100,000 runners around the world who answered that call. At the time, I thought Meg's miracle was going to be found in the vastness of that unimaginable response.
I thought it would be found in the number of people who would discover Meg's love for running and maybe make it a love of their own. In the number of people who would become more aware of their personal safety when they ran, and that of runners when they drove. It would be found in the number of people who would be reminded no breath is promised, and in turn, would begin to treat with newfound gratitude every breath they have.
Maybe her miracle showed up in those places. It sprayed and sprinkled all over those areas in life. But when Meg insisted to God that we were thinking too small, I don't she wasn't thinking far and wide. I think Meg was thinking deep.
Meg didn't have much interest in her name running famously around the globe. Instead, I think, she had a final wish, a yearning, to humbly take up rest in a quiet corner of each of the hearts that would ultimately encounter her story.
She found a corner in my heart. She found it in an odd way - through running. Not that first day when I ran for Meg. But some run after that. That's where the odd comes in. Because before I ran for Meg, I hated running. My high school football coach once trucked us 13 miles away from the practice field. On a hot summer day, he dropped us off and told us he'd see us back at the field. I walked almost the whole way. With every breath of the route I vowed to hate him and anything to do with running the rest of my life.
I eventually grew to respect that coach. But, oh, how I honored that vow to hate running. I honored it like a religion. Right up until the day Meg found that quiet corner in my heart. The day Meg changed my mind about running.
Through running, Meg led me to an unforseen discovery. This place I'd commited to forever hate - running - became my own quiet corner where I could be at ease in life. All these years I'd hated running based on a memory painted with exhaustion and struggle and impossible. As it turns out, running can be a place of peace and reflection and personal discovery.
Two years into hanging out in this space, I found myself longing to run a marathon. Ok, longing might not be the right word; my mind hadn't changed THAT much about running. But I was feeling pulled to take on what many feel is a pinnacle running accompishment. So in November of 2016, about 35 years after cursing the sport along with every bumper sticker that ever bragged about it, I became a marathoner.
I've come to say about crossing that marathon finish line:
The memory of a marathon finish line is rooted far more in what you CAN DO than it is in what you JUST DID.
That's not exactly what I thought the moment I crossed the finish line. That thought was reserved for "Holy Jesus, I'm not dead." But the discoveries I made in the aftermath of that race have been the biggest reward of tackling a marathon. Some of the biggest rewards of my life, really. I discovered my mind had been hijacked by fear. I discovered that in my years of sitting on the couch, my mind had been lulled into a state of complacency and apathy. As a result, I was living with little concern for myself and others - not surprising when you're afraid of your own life and indifferent to everyone else's.
But running, excellerated by that marathon experience, was changing my mind. I now had the confidence to try things I'd never dreamed of trying. I started a podcast and began running for special causes. I started interacting with people in a way that was opening my eyes to just how many other minds and hearts in this world had been overcome by fear. I made it a point to look more deeply into the eyes of people who were hurting on the other end of the kind of apathy and indifference my life had fallen into.
I never thought the day would come when I would not hate running, but it did. I actually changed my mind about running. And that surprised me.
I never thought the act of running could ever change the way my mind thought. The way it worked. But it did. And I found that mysterious.
But when the change in my mind began filtering into the way my heart beat, and who it was beating for - well, I wondered if I had run across a finish line into the open arms of a miracle of sorts.
In the midst of this miracle I find myself wondering at times if those are Meg's arms. In the quiet space of running, I sometimes find myself speaking into that quiet space of my heart where she lives: hey Meg, this miracle - is that you?
She doesn't answer.
But when I'm with the people she's brought into my life, when I experience the love of their connection, the strength of their encouragement, when I find myself treasuring their success and health and happiness more than I crave my own, I hear her say, "you're no longer thinking too small."
I don't know if running can change the world. But I know this. When I changed my mind about running, running changed my mind, then my heart, and then my life. And I believe somewhere in there is the miraculous path to changing the world.
I'm going to keep running along that path.
Life is like running.