Last September, I attempted to run my first ultra marathon. I lined up at the Georgia Jewel in Dalton, Georgia and attempted to run the 35-mile race. I failed. The task just a bit much that day.
Prior to running that race I interviewed Jenny Baker. She and her husband Franklin are the Georgia Jewel race directors. I asked her - what's the most rewarding part of directing this race? Her answer surprised me.
She said, it's the vulnerable conversations people have with themselves and others out on the trail. You reach a point, she said, when all you have left are your deepest emotions and thoughts. What she was saying, I believe, is the race gets you too exhausted to even think of some of the superficial things that tend to consume our lives. You reach a point where all you have left are things truly worth thinking about.
There was a point in the race before I quit where I was sitting on a rock in the middle of a foreign-to-me Georgia wilderness. I was alone and wondering how on earth I was ever going to get out of there. I couldn't take another step. I was dehydrated, nauseous - death never sounded more appealing. Please death - finish this race for me!! At the time, that didn't feel as dramatic as it sounds now.
On that rock, I started thinking about - or - maybe God started talking to me about - what's important in life. I wish I could tell you there was some grand revelation. God doesn't always work that way. Sometimes he just lets us know we're off track without telling us the track we're supposed to be on.
I did get up and walk away - or crawl - believing becoming an ultra marathoner wasn't the lesson or the prize I was supposed to take away from that day. In many ways, I felt God saying when you're completely vulnerable, you open yourself up to the gift of knowing very few finish lines or personal accomplishments, in and of themselves, hold much meaning in your life. Remember that when the finish line doesn't get crossed, he said.
I would eventually become an ultra marathoner a couple of months later. But then, and now, not finishing that Georgia Jewel race remains more significant than any finish line I've ever crossed.
A side note: that Georgia Jewel finish line may have become less significant, but it never became insignificant to me. I registered to go back the minute the 2019 registration opened up.
A couple of months later I found myself kind of sitting on that Georgia rock again, only I was in the comfort of my office talking with Soles4Souls CEO, Buddy Teaster. The two moments will always feel connected to me. Buddy started talking about the work his organization does collecting shoes to fight poverty around the world. His spirit for their missions was infectious. For days after, all I could think about was running and running shoes and wearing out poverty. It was a chorus that wouldn't stop singing.
In the aftermath of my visit with Buddy, I started understanding that Georgia Jewel moment a bit better. I started hearing God a little clearer. I started wondering, if I don't cross a finish line, what have I really lost? I also started wondering, if I don't do my part to help others, what have they lost?
I was pouring so much time and energy into running, but where was it all running to?
Or maybe, what was it running from?
A short while later I registered to go on a trip to distribute shoes with Soles4Souls in Honduras. I thought it was a radical decision when I registered for my first marathon a few years ago. That decision suddenly seemed incredibly sane by comparison.
Honduras? What are you thinking, Keith?
Looking back, I think on some quiet whisper level, through some unspoken prompt - or shove, God needed me wrestling with some of the vulnerable questions I was wrestling with in a more challenging space. A place where questions dig deeper than right or wrong, hurting or not hurting, lonely or connected, running to or running from.
I think God needed me to see there are places in this world people are wrestling with eating and not eating -seen or forgotten.
I spent this past summer preparing for two things: Going to Honduras and getting back to Georgia and climbing Mt. Baker on the way to the Georgia Jewel finish line.
I spent hours in the heat and humidity climbing a couple of hundred thousand steps and running hundreds of miles to get me ready for my race. But getting ready for Honduras - to be honest, I hid from that one. I talked about it a lot, expressed confidence, but inside I was an anxious mess living way outside my comfort zone. I didn't believe I could pull Honduras off any more than I believed I could finish the 50 mile race I'd signed up for in Georgia. (Oh yea, I forgot to mention, I signed up for 50 miles this time around - not 35).
You know, I had ongoing thoughts of bailing on both that Honduras journey and the Georgia Jewel. I'd ever felt more simultaneously insecure about two events.
Every Saturday after running in the heat, I messaged my friend and Georgia running mate Nicole and told her, I know I won't be able to finish Jewel. And the message would always come back: yes you will. In the back of my mind, I heard the same thoughts surfacing about Honduras. You won't be able to do this. And I'd respond to myself: you're right.
One of the things that haunted me about that rock in Georgia - in a moment of weakness I decided I couldn't go on. I made a decision right then and there - if I can make it to the next check in, I'll quit. You know, the easiest path to quitting is granting yourself permission to do so. When you hear the voice in your head say you won't be able to do it - just agree with it - you'll quit.
As I kept thinking about how far Honduras was out of my comfort zone, when I thought of ways to bail on that trip, I kept thinking about my friend Nicole's run at Georgia last year. In spite of all obstacles, the same opportunities to quit I had, she just kept saying yes I can. And she did. Way outside her comfort zone.
She just kept saying yes.
A few days before I got on a plane to Honduras I finally started telling myself yes. I got up off the rock, full of vulnerability, and I went.
The trip ended up being beautiful, yet challenging. You can read my 5-part journal about it here. (My Honduras Trip). But the result of the wrestling match I had with myself in Honduras left me empty. People have asked - was it guilt? Did you come back feeling guilty for how other people live against the backdrop of how we live?
I don't know. I don't think it was guilt.
I think I felt resentment. I felt resentment toward our culture that puts personal finish lines above a commitment to everyone having a fair starting line. I felt encouragement in the way the Honduran people valued the only limitless resource they have - each other. I felt exhaustion from staring at pain. Helplessness in being without a means to end it. And yes, I suppose, as I crawled underneath the covers of a bed in a nice middle class home the first night back - and the next - maybe some guilt.
You know, I've written often about the protective factor running has played in my mental health journey. It's been a way to turn away from destructive habits I once used to try to make that road more manageable, only to find myself deeper entangled in destruction. In many ways, upon return from Honduras, battling some of the challenges on that mental health journey, I think I turned my back on running and pretend running was turning its back on me.
When I allowed myself to get down on life and the world and myself returning from Honduras, the doubts I had about Jewel only magnified. I reached out to Jenny and asked her to drop me to the 35-mile race. It was defeats first call. Here I am, you're old friend. Then I started feeling ill - a sinus infection - and I believe when you give your body permission to fail, when you want it to fail, oh it will fail on you. And mine complied.
When I quit looking at running as a gift, as a way to overcome, as a path to a better place - and instead got intimidated by it, fearful that it was suddenly out to get me, abandon me and not rescue me, I gave myself, once again, permission to quit, I gave my body reason to fail. In fact, in some ways, I begged it to.
I reached out to Jenny a couple of days before Jewel and told her I was dropping out. And, once again, Jenny was a voice of wisdom. Part of what she said:
The longer you run, the more you experience what it really means to be a "runner" and not just someone excited about the idea of running. And the more time passes the more you get settled into the rhythm, and the deeper and more meaningful the relationship between you and running becomes. The honeymoon phase is wearing off and you'll now get to experience an even greater love of running.
She was right.
I didn't go to Jewel. The running honeymoon didn't just officially end, it came crashing down under the weight of a zillion wedding crashers. I blamed the world that I couldn't run. I blamed Honduras, I blamed one of my best friends in the world while she was tackling the most challenging race of her life. If running was abandoning me, I was abandoning everything and everyone.
You know, when we turn our backs on the things that keep our minds healthy, when we lose sight of why they keep us healthy, when we forget we are engaged in something for the love of it and not how exciting the idea of it sounds, when we do those things, we run from some really important rhythms in our lives.
I write this as a deeply sobering reminder to myself - maybe a more encouraging reminder to you.
Once again, the Georgia Jewel left me in a very vulnerable place. Left only with my deepest emotions and thoughts. Once again the Georgia Jewel left me too exhausted to fixate on some of the superficial things that consume my life. It once again forced me to examine what is truly real and meaningful.
And this time, I didn't even have to show up.
I haven't give up on that Georgia Jewel finish line. Not by a long shot. I mean, with the lessons I've learned this side of that finish line, what on earth kind of lessons lie on the other side of it?
In running, the finish line is often viewed as the big moment. After months of training and miles of racing, the clock stops. A goal is achieved - or not - but this race story is over. The runner moves on to the next race, the next story, the next finish line.
Running builds into us this idea of speeding ahead. Keep your eye on the prize, no looking back. As a result of that, if we're not careful, we can miss the much bigger stories that are often as central to our race as the training miles are. We can miss the life story often buried in the race story.
That's why I want to take a look back at my Georgia Jewel story. On the surface, it's a story of running my first ultra marathon. It's a story of tackling the most daunting physical challenge of my life. But in looking back, I discover a richer story. One that is pointing me toward a more meaningful finish line. Frankly, one I never saw coming when I registered for this race.
My Road to the Georgia Jewel
Back in August of 2017, I interviewed ultra runner Harvey Lewis on my podcast (Listen Here). Harvey has tackled some incredible distance challenges over the years. He's a former Badwater 135 champion. More recently he ran the 2,200 mile Appalachian Trail in the 8th fastest time known to man. But during this particular episode, I became more interested in Harvey's diet. He'd been a vegetarian for many years, and he gave his diet a lot of credit for his running success.
Later in 2017, Harvey did a series on Facebook featuring athlete friends who also adhered to vegan or vegetarian lifestyles. One of those athletes was Jenny Baker. I reached out to Jenny and asked her to be a guest on my podcast. She agreed to, and in December of 2017, I interviewed her. You can listen here.
During that interview Jenny mentioned she was the race director for an ultra marathon in Georgia called the Georgia Jewel. Jenny said she took on this role as a way of giving back to the community. She said that's what she wants her race to be about - giving back.
In February of 2018, I interviewed JP Caudill on my podcast. JP had recently completed the World Marathon Challenge. In the challenge, JP ran 7 marathons in 7 different days on all 7 continents. I was awed by his accomplishment, fascinated by every word he shared during our conversation. You can listen here.
That interview with JP sparked intrigue in me. It sparked a serious wondering of just how far I could push my own running limits.
A few weeks after that interview I ran the Little Rock Marathon with some friends. I joked with one of those friends, Nicole Williams, about running 7 marathons in 7 days. She suggested I was crazy. I think I believed her and started thinking about an alternative form of crazy. That's when I recalled my conversation with Jenny Baker and the Georgia Jewel.
A few weeks later Nicole and I were officially registered for the 35 mile Georgia Jewel.
Soon after that, I interviewed Kate Fletcher. Kate had recently run 100 miles at a local high school to raise money for scholarships for students who might not otherwise have the opportunity to attend college. I was moved by Kate's heart. So was GoFundMe - they came to her school to make a short movie about her fundraiser. Listen to my conversation with Kate here.
To be honest, when I first reached out to Kate it was because she'd run 100 miles. Since signing up for the Georgia Jewel I'd become more fascinated by longer running distances. I'd begun imagining just how far I really could run. But after interviewing Kate, I was much more captivated by her heart than by her running.
My friend Eddie Brown was captivated by both. He reached out to me shortly after my interview with Kate and said he'd taken up running. It had been years since he hit the road, but he was back at it. He also told me about his non-profit, Giving Words. Giving words supports single moms in central Virginia. He went on to tell me that Kate is a single mom and he'd discovered she could use some help.
I've since learned more about Eddie and Giving Words and Kate's needs. It's struck me how in my interview with Kate all you heard was a heart for giving to others. Nowhere in her did you hear a need for others to give to her. But Eddie said he wanted Giving Words to not only help Kate, but to honor her heart for giving to others. Eddie said he wanted to give back.
Why does that sound familiar? Give back? Isn't that what Jenny Baker said the Georgia Jewel is all about - giving back? She did. So that's what I intend to do with this race. I want to help Eddie give back to Kate.
I also want to honor Jenny's vision for the Georgia Jewel. When I cross the finish line, when I run my longest distance ever, when I check "ultra marathon" off my bucket list, I don't want that to be the end of this Georgia Jewel running story. I want that story to live on. What better way to make that happen than helping Eddie and Giving Words help Kate, and help breathe life into the lives of some single moms just looking for a break. Looking for their own finish line in life.
I encourage you to listen to my conversation with Eddie below. Since I'm running the 35 mile Georgia Jewel, I'm looking for as many people as possible to help me give back with a $35 contribution to Giving Words. A contribution that will go directly to helping them help Kate.
When you donate to Giving Words, you'll find a place to "add special instructions to the seller." In that box, please write "Georgia Jewel." Thank you so much for supporting and for giving back.
Click on the Giving Words logo below to donate.
The first time I went for a run, at least the run that ignited what I've come to call my "running journey," there were very few expectations. It had been years since I'd tackled a run of any distance. All the possibilities I imagined in that run were rooted in survival.
Something happened along the road of this journey, though. In the stillness of miles that seemed to go on forever, out of boredom if nothing else I suppose, I started listening to God. At first I was shocked that he still wanted to talk to me. After all, I'd spent years holding my hands over my ears every time he tried to tell me anything. But there he was. Talking. Overlooking years of a back turned against his voice. And there I was. Listening. And in an instant my life filled with possibilities.
Since then God's built a mission out of my running. I set my sights on the next finish line, he defines what I'm actually running toward. More often than not the finish line pales in comparison.
As I look toward my next big finish line, the 35 mile Georgia Jewel, God has put another mission on my heart. I can't wait to share that with you tomorrow. But once again, it's a mission born in listening. It's responding to God's whispers and being astonished at how he uses the wildly different miles of my running journey to weave into being one beautiful destination.
With my limited imagination I can only see a few hundred yards in front of me. I can imagine the finish lines and the medals and the ice cold coca cola to celebrate with. But my faith in God has put a magnifying glass on possibilities. It's turned footsteps into opportunities to serve, hard work into change that goes well beyond me.
The reality is, we are God's tools for changing the world. He's just blessed me with the chance to make running my tool.
Come back tomorrow to hear more about the possibilities God's revealed through my Georgia Jewel journey.
Life is like running.