In order for you to fully understand my 2018 Run the Bluegrass (RTB) journey, I have to tell you about my 2015 RTB journey. It was my second half marathon ever. I was ill-prepared to say the least. And it was the first time I'd ever run over hills the likes of those on this rural Lexington, Kentucky race course.
To be exact, there are 32 relentlessly rolling hills that offer up everything but flat. Back in 2015, when my buddies helped me across the finish line in just over 3 hours, I swore I'd never run again. Several days after the race, I started wondering if I'd ever walk again.
Then, and maybe still, it was the hardest race I'd ever run.
But eventually I did find a way to walk again. And to my surprise, I also found the will to run again. In fact, before returning to RTB for a third time last weekend, I'd run 2 marathons and 9 half marathons since swearing off running. A running death sentence was somehow averted, even if barely.
I came to Lexington looking for a fight. My 2018 running year started with a bust when I picked up a "did not finish" at the Houston Marathon. Fueled by that failure, though, I went to Little Rock and ran my fastest marathon about a month later. Granted, it was only my second marathon, but when you don't finish your previous race you'll accept faster no matter how fast it is.
After Little Rock, I went on to run my fastest 5k and 10k races. This planted a seed - it was possible I could run my fastest marathon, 5k, 10k and half marathon all in one month. All I had left to do was run my fastest half marathon ever at RTB. Only, I knew how impossible that possible was. Last year I brought my RTB time down to 2:48. But my current half marthon best was 2:27.
Was it really possible to shave another 21 minutes off my fastest RTB time?
If I was willing to fight that course the entire 13.1 miles, I thought it could be done. And so, in my mind, a mission was launched.
Run the Bluegrass is always a family afair for my Megsmiles family. We got the race weekend started with a dinner at Malone's. Me and my plant based diet had fallen on hard times in the days leading up to the race, so as long as we were on the outs, I decided to have some steak and shrimp. It had been awhile and I happen to think it was the perfect pre-race meal to tackle the big fight ahead.
In the week leading up to the race, Lexington had been inundated with rain. When I arrived Thursday it was raining, and there was intermittent rain and gloom all day Friday. All signs pointed to a cloudy Saturday - if not rainy. That's why, when I made the trek up the hill to the parking area on race day, this scene was a thing of beauty.
When I saw that image, I knew God had something special in store for the day. I'm a believer that God whispers. He whispers through our friends at a pre-race dinner. He whispers through a sunrise. And I was about to find out he whispers through friends who run with you.
I made my way to the Megsmiles tent. It's a special place to gather before the race to share in each other's hopes and dreams for the day. I don't really know how unique running is as far as this goes, but the commraderie might be a bigger part of the race experience than the running. The running gives us something to bond over - the successes and failures and hill struggles - but it's the bonding that often produces the most enduring memories.
You want to talk about a bonding memory. This image will live with me forever.
Those three men there. They've become some of my best buddies in the world. And I wouldn't know one of them if it wasn't for running.
We were all grateful to have Sid Busch join us. Sid's a Navy veteran who's run over 200 marathons to honor fallen military veterans. He runs so their lives and legacies are not forgotten. John and Anthony are veterans themselves. So to be standing there with these three men, all such good and honorable men, it's a moment that transcends whatever race result happens that day; one that ensures victory. It's a moment that won't hang on a wall with the medals, but it shapes a heart forever.
Then it comes. After the dinners and all the pre-race bonding, race time comes. And we head for the starting line.
I'll be honest. This starting line felt different than any other. Likely because I had a large goal. One I knew was bigger than any running goal I'd ever tackled. I think the other part is I had someone running with me. That was a first. For 13 miles I was going to have someone at my side.
My friend Nicole, who originally contemplated not running the half marathon because of a knee injury, knew how much this time goal meant to me. When I was loosely talking about goals for this race earlier in the month, she's the one who ultimately made me say out loud that I wanted this to be my fastest half marathon ever. She's plenty faster than me and likely could have chased her own goal, but she made the decision to help me chase mine.
We finally got our call to start. The 2:30 pace group was in front of us. Nicole said we were going to pass them and never let them catch us. "Never" came out of her mouth with an intensity that set the stage for the rest of the day. Never once did I hear anything softer than "we are going to do this." No doubts. No waffling on the expectations. Just a constant flow of "we are."
My goal was to get to mile 9 in 1:35. I knew that would put me ahead of the pace I needed to hit my goal. Ahead in time to battle the brutal hills that define mile 9. But we actually hit mile 9 in 1:37:30. I was 2 1/2 minutes behind my dream pace. Which in the grand scheme of things, with only 4 miles to go, felt like a lot. My pace was beginning to slow and I no longer had the cushion I'd hoped for. If I was going to hit my goal, the last 4 miles were going to be hard miles.
I did have one thing going for me at mile 9, though: Meg
I didn't stop at mile 9 like I had my previous two races. No photo ops. No paying respects. I knew Meg would be fine with that. Meg was all about crushing everything in her path to get to that finish line. Hills, the competition - whatever got in her way. So I ran by, gave her a little pat, and with a little extra pep, motored up that first hill.
I'd noticed Nicole looking at her watch and phone more frequently. I knew she'd been receving texts from our friend Tiffany at the finish line. She'd been following our pace and offering her instructions. Likely - tell him to pick it up! The more Nicole looked at both, the more I knew SHE KNEW we were cutting it close.
Yet, still: "we're going to do this."
The boost I got from Meg didn't last long. By mile 10 I was fading fast. I did what I've done many times running these races alone. I started setting plan B goals.
Nicole had her music on. She turned to me and said "overcomer" is on. I'll likely always hold that as the most beautiful piece of encouragement ever. Nicole knows my heart for God. She shares it. She knew that song was ALL about leaning on God when there's nothing left. It was one more way of saying "we're going to do this." Get your heart set on God right now. We're overcoming this.
By mile 11 I was walking more frequently. The goal looked as jeopardized as it had looked all day. And Nicole simply looked at me and said, "We didn't come all this way not to get this thing. You can rest in 25 minutes. You can sleep after the finish line. But we're going to do this."
I didn't know how. I was out of breath. Feeling faint. My head could only look down at my feet. But for the next two miles that girl just kept saying we are going to do this. We are going to do this. And she willed my body to do things I couldn't begin to get it to do. She created fight in me when the only material she had to work with was quitting. Because that's what I wanted to do. That's what I was thinking.
Give it up Nicole. We got close enough. Close on a really challenging course.
I never said that. I couldn't. Not to her. She gave up her race. Her day. And she didn't consider it a sacrifice, but an opportunity. An opportunity to help someone else achieve a goal. I'm telling you, that was never lost on me at any point during the race. Nicole smiled and laughed - and danced with Jesus, as she put it - and was totally in her zone helping make someone else's day. That in itself made fighting on mandatory.
I did fight on and at my 12, I finally knew: we are going to do this. I could hear the crowd cheering runners home. I could see the final turn in the distance. And then there we were in that final turn. I saw our friends, and then the finish line, and then with more kick than I think I've ever had with 100 yards to go, I ran home.
I looked at my watch: 2:25:37.9 - my fastest half marathon by over 2 minutes. (Side note: Nicole ran it in 2:25:37.7 - she was NOT going to let me beat her!)
The finish line was emotional. I knew I'd completed what I set out to do. My 4 fastest races, 4 different distances, all in one month. 4 years ago I was here wondering what I was doing in the midst of runners. I wasn't one. I was a survivor, but I wasn't a runner.
Today I felt like a runner. But you know, within seconds the runner in me started reflecting on the person in me. The runner was wearing one cool medal (very cool medal), but the person was overwhelmed by the bonds from the weekend. Bonds formed because a woman died and people captivated by her spirit adopted it instead of letting it die with her. A spirit of loving and giving and putting someone else's finish line ahead of their own.
Nicole and I talked about God nudges on the course. I think the biggest nudge came after the finish line. That's when it hit me that we all bond so well because we know what each other's dreams are, we know what each other's fears are and we know what each other struggle with. We know because we care and we ask. And then we dive head first into being a part of it. We don't do things like Run the Bluegrass to run to finish lines, we do it to run to each other. Wherever we are; whatever we might need.
God gave us that answer a long time ago. Not to run with each other, but to love with each other. StilI, I have to say, running is a very cool place to figure that out. A beautiful place to experience it.
Life is like running.