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.
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.
Back on my birthday, April 27, I ran the longest run of my life. I ran 27 miles to support Laura Baumgardner and her Pontiac, Illinois high school students' annual Run for Respect 5k. My run wasn't a part of a sanctioned race. There was no t-shirt or medal or timer or finish line. Just me and the road and a day of reflection on what it truly means to love and respect others.
I guess it's fitting, then, that a few months after that event, I received a package in the mail from a man I deeply respect. I respect him because he makes it a priority in life to honor people. He makes ordinary people doing seemingly ordinary things feel like heroes. And he rarely does it without pouring his time and heart into delivering that message.
So I wanted to share this package with you. I wanted to show you what it means to go above and beyond the call of love your neighbor duty. The gifts my buddy Bill Manning sent me are priceless. I will keep them forever. But more than those gifts will symbolize my efforts, for me they will serve as the identity of friendship and thoughtfulness.
As I write this, I feel like calling out "Robert, Robert, Robert!!!!, akin to Missy Hepp , trying to get your attention at the Meg's Miles Memorial a few years ago.
I apologize for the lateness of this getting to you, but the old wheels sometimes turn more slowly than I would like, as do the ideas that come into my head.
But, I wanted to take the time to recognize a very important accomplishment of yours, and pay forward a kind gesture bestowed upon me back in 2009.
A very kind and dear friend, Emily Woloszyn, once told me that a marathon should never be completed without a well-deserved and earned medal. And, I was given such a handcrafted medal, much like this one, which I still hold dear to this day.
I am of the firm belief that, aside from ultra marathoners, no one should run 26.2 miles unless it is indeed a part of an organized event. The distances are long, the training is difficult with lasting after effects, and most of us have only a limited amount of them in our bank to complete in our running lifetimes.
So with that being said, please accept this certificate of achievement and accompanying finishers medal.
And here is the backstory:
Date line, 2009. My life back then was indeed on an upward trajectory after some dark days. I was dating my future wife, and even though we were living more than 2,800 miles apart, all was looking up. It was time to start planning on my fall marathon as well as other life changing things. The Philadelphia Marathon was on the horizon for me. The timing was right and I had plenty of time to train. Throw into this the opportunity to travel to Maui over Thanksgiving to spend time with my future wife and family, and it was even better! The plan would be to drive to Philly, run the marathon, and then fly to Maui the next evening.
Challenge #1 - when I went to register for the race, it was - yes, that's right - sold out. And the options for another marathon were very bleak at this time of year. Completing one after a Maui vacation and training in the winter months was not appealing to me in the least.
Challenge #2 - So, after some problem solving and creative thinking, I decided to organize and run my own marathon in Syracuse a week earlier than Philly. The plan slowly came together, and a date was set: November 15, 2009. The course would be an out and back along the Erie Canal Towpath and would be a certified distance course measured and marked by a local certifier for a fee. It even had a name: The Inaugural Left Out in the Cold Marathon
In 2009, Facebook and other social media were just starting to take off, so my options were limited. I advertised on the local running store message/chat board, something along the lines of "come run a local, certified marathon - date, time, and no cost (and no frills either).
Well, as you can imagine, few folks were lining up to take part in this adventure. It was a bad time of year, many had already run their fall marathons, or no one wanted to get involved in this seemingly crazy scheme. All except for one, very interesting and unique stranger that since has become a very good friend - and expert on all things chocolate - Michael Woloszyn!
So, November in Syracuse can be tricky, and can potentially bring all kinds of weather. Race morning came - it was an early start - maybe 6-7 am. There was just one other car in the parking lot when I arrived at the start - I had to assume that this was the only other entrant into this marathon. And, indeed it was. We finally got to meet after weeks of emailing and the like. He presented me with an Official race T-shirt, which I have to this day and have attached as a picture. What a great way to start a race.
We could have not asked for a more perfect day to run a flat and fast marathon. As we started our race in the pre-dawn hour, we came upon something across the canal path. We weren't sure just what it was - something discarded or some trash. But as we approached, this pile - later discovered to be a sleeping bag WITH someone inside it that moved as we ran up to it - it sure got the adrenaline pumping as each of us jumped to either side!! (I found out later that that was one lucky sleeping bag inhabitant........)
They say you can learn a lot about a person from running with them, and this was no exception with Michael. We talked about so many things over that marathon that we never would have had the opportunity/comfort level to do otherwise. Mile after mile went by on a beautiful Fall day.
At about the halfway point, my Mom, Laurel, and my Sister, Peggy, met us along the way with water and fuel. What a great crew and welcomed sight that was! They met us again at the turnaround, and then again at the first point. My sister even ran a little way with us. It was a great recharge as we headed back towards half #2. They also kept Laura Lee informed from the other side of the country of our progress, as no tracking was available.
The only downside to this course was that we had to overshoot our cars and then turn around and finish where we had started. This proved to be a mental challenge that I hadn't counted on, but we forged ahead! I walked a bit, and urged my friend to continue on. But in the true runner camaraderie, the reply was, "we started this together, and we'll finish it together."
My time for that marathon was 4:27:49, and I do know that I came in second place overall and won my age group. But that was not the biggest takeaway. Yes, this was before Facebook and running apps and smart phones, but it was indeed an official marathon on a certified course with a credible witness, so I have always claimed it as one of my accomplishments, as should you friend.
So congratulations Keith on a well deserved accomplishment. It was fun recalling this experience, and I trust you will enjoy retelling of your 27 mile Birthday Marathon in the years to come.
Best wishes as the running and the adventures continue.
Life is like running.