Archive for Running
I didn’t think I needed medical attention when the first guy leaned over me and asked, “Are you okay?” I told him I was and that I just needed to catch my breath. He believed me long enough to go find a medic who believed me less but was kind enough to let me take my time. I’d apparently (and this is all a little hazy) made it about ten feet from the finish line before sitting down on the ground cross-legged and dropping my head between my knees where I sat long enough to cause some amount of concern for my well-being. Some time later, I stood, collected my medal, and walked through the concourse of Fluor Field. I swayed and stumbled from the first base side to third base where I heard my brother (who finished his first half about seven minutes ahead of me) scream–full-on joy–”Bradley!” I sat down again. On the ground. Again sort of hazy. Took off my shoes, saw the destruction, let my brother–a medical professional–pour water over my head. Ate some pineapple. It wasn’t supposed to go like that.
I spent a lot of time standing on chairs last weekend. Several dozen people from 17 states (and Canada) traveled here to take part in the third Mastodon Weekend. Addressing them all–at a poker tournament, at a cookout, and at the race finish line party–required pulling up a soapbox. Each time, I looked out at friends’ faces and saw nothing but happiness. These people had all come together for a weekend that promised nothing but companionship and silliness. It delivered on both.
There was a time in my life when I would’ve spent an entire week and 10,000 words recounting what happened here over the weekend, but, honestly I couldn’t do it justice. Even I can’t explain the feeling of watching one of my best friends in the final .2 miles of his first marathon, his son by his side and three dozen people screaming for them. I can’t describe what it felt like to worry for my friend and running mentor when I didn’t see him come toward the finish at exactly the time I expected. I can’t even fully describe what it was like to see 30 people destroy pound upon pound of BBQ when I could barely stomach half a plate. If you want to know it, you’ll just have to come visit sometime.
What I can describe is the pure love and happiness I felt over the course of the weekend. I got to see my brother, sister-in-law, and cousin play with my kids. I got to see a young woman I’ve known since she was two run a half marathon (and place in her age group) on her 14th birthday. I got to see the love of my life shake off a bad race experience from last spring and run the half marathon she wanted to run. I got to see good friends improving their lives and their spirits in a way I never would’ve expected.
As I said above, when I crossed the finish line, I thought, “It wasn’t supposed to go like that.”
But that was selfish, because what I was thinking was, “It wasn’t supposed to go like that for me.”
Yes, something–and I’m still not entirely sure what–had gone wrong. Yes, I’d PR’d by nearly ten minutes. Yes, I’d finished on the run. But the pictures of the finish told the story. My legs looked to be running forward while it appeared my body was falling backward. Despite what I thought was perfect training, my body didn’t cooperate that morning. I was supposed to run a 1:55:00 and I ran a 2:00:28. And it made me a little sad. It took me several days to admit it, but I was unhappy with how the race ended for me. Fortunately, every other thing that happened in the 72 hours of Mastodon Weekend made me so happy that it made the pain, the jacked up feet, and the disappointment worth it.
Along the way, I got to watch my brother and friends achieve beyond what anyone would have ever expected for us five years ago. I felt pure friendship as Grange gave me a look that calmed me down in the middle of the sixth mile (and then somehow went on to cover the remainder of the race nine minutes faster than me). I felt renewed encouragement when Andrew hit me on the back as he passed me in mile 8. And I felt–yes, I’ll say it–pride when I passed him again two miles later. Once we crossed the finish line, we saw Chilly–who had just started getting heathy this year and ran for the first time on May 1–cross the finish line about half an hour before we expected him to. The cheers were deafening. Finally, though I didn’t know it until much later, I felt so happy when I saw a photo of my finish and saw my friend Drizz just a few steps back finishing right behind me. He was probably there all along, and I didn’t know it until much later.
And that was really the point of it all. This past weekend, I got to surround myself with people who would hold me up when I needed it. I got to be around people with whom I shared a friendship and love that most people aren’t lucky enough to have. Honestly, though it was never an option, I could’ve quit that race and still been the luckiest guy on the course.
We’ve all changed a lot over the years. We’ve celebrated and suffered together. It’s what makes friends. Really, when it comes down to it, it’s not the running and the races that are the thing for me. It’s the feeling of knowing there are friends there with me.
This afternoon I told my wife, “I’m thinking about doing something stupid.”
Her face clouded. “Old Brad stupid or New Brad stupid?”
It doesn’t really matter what the answer was. The fact that there is a distinction between the two pretty much sums up what this weekend meant to me. We changed, and, finally, it’s for the better.
Thanks to all who came. Thanks to the people who were generous beyond all reason (I have two really good bottles of Templeton Rye in my cabinet if any of you need a way to pass the winter months). Thanks for the friendship. It took me several days to realize that even though I didn’t hit my goal time in the race, there wasn’t a luckier guy to cross the finish line. We all get very busy. We don’t see each other or talk as much as we should. But I think back to this picture of Drizz coming in behind me, and I realize, when it comes down to it, these people are always there, ready to catch me, ready to give me pineapple or run for a banana, ready to hold me up. Always there in the background, and always friends.
For a full gallery of Mastodon Weekend 2012, see this page
It was just after 10am. I was midway up a California mountain and standing in a group of 200 people so pumped up on testosterone and adrenaline that the simple act of guttural primal screaming wasn’t an effective exorcism. They had to jump up and down, shove their hands in the air, and pound their fists into other fists.
And I was crying to the sound of the National Anthem. A recorded version of the National Anthem.
I feel the need to get that out of the way at the beginning of this. I don’t want to wrap it into some ridiculous revelation at the end–that I was the weeping guy at the beginning of the Tough Mudder, an event that calls itself “Probably the Toughest Event on the Planet.”
And let’s just get this out of the way, too. When I crossed the finish line and grabbed my celebratory beer (the first beer in more than four months), I had tears in my eyes again.
So, there’s that.
Well, it’s more than that, and I can only explain it like this: just before all the wet-eyed silliness began, I thought about my friend Dan’s advice he offers before every race: “Remember how lucky you are to be able to do this.” And then I thought about my dad who had died just ten months earlier. And then I looked to my right and saw my brother there beside me. And I looked back and saw the rest of my team—old friends, new friends, people aching for adventure and achievement unlike any they’d experienced before.
“Remember how lucky you are…”
So, a few hours before my shoulder nearly got ripped from my torso, I was already a teary mess and thankful the dry-dust ski runs turned my face into a muddy map before too many people noticed.
Up until that moment, and frankly maybe not until much later, I wasn’t entirely sure why I was there risking grievous injury.
I know now.
Some days later, Colin, an ultra marathoner I met through the poker business who went on to become an inspiration, said via Facebook “There’s a revolution going on right? Of people challenging themselves, conquering their fears, doing amazing things. Or is it just the people I’m lucky to know?”
It was something I’d wondered myself. Was it simply selection bias—that I’d chosen to pay closer attention to people who were pushing themselves to their limits instead of waiting for sure atrophy? Was it that many of the people of my age are facing a form of midlife crisis that results in marathons, ultras, adventure races, and whatnot? I didn’t know. It was probably good deal of both.
Something was, indeed happening, though. To wit: Mastodon Weekend—an irregular party of irregular people here in Greenville, SC—began as a weekend bacchanal bent only on finding new and creative ways to combat age and sobriety at the same time. The only thing we raced back then were street rickshaws—and, yes we both paid off the drivers and gambled on it. It was something to behold and a four-day marathon in itself.
In 2011, we didn’t host Mastodon Weekend. Instead, we went on our annual trip to Las Vegas with a whole new idea in mind. And as we stood around the bar at the Aria in Las Vegas after the half marathon we ran down the Strip, a few of us stood looking at each other—sober, elated, and pumped up on so many endorphins that…well, I won’t lie. There were expressions of love that night.
By and by, the man who goes by the name Badblood suggested some weeks later that we turn Mastodon Weekend—an event so completely anti-fitness that we were drinking in bars that served shots with bugs in them and ordering 20oz steaks because the pound-sized ones were for wimps—into a weekend in which we would run. Far. What’s more, we would try to get as many of our friends as we could to run with us.
And so it will happen in about ten days. For the past several months, people who might never have considered running started getting ready. Before the weekend is over, there will be people celebrating their first 5ks, half marathons, and full marathons. One of them even got so involved that he changed his race registration from 5k to half marathon in mid-training.
Still, it didn’t answer Colin’s question as well as I wanted. I may never really know if it’s a full-on revolution of will and grit, but it forced me at ask myself, “Why am I doing it?”
I thought about it for days, and then this afternoon, my three-year-old kid answered the question for me.
The garage looked as though the producers of “Hoarders” had staged an episode at my house but abandoned the project when it became clear we were more of an “Intervention” family. I was standing in the middle of the mess with that typical hand-on-the-forehead, I can’t believe this has happened again posture. My post-work, 5pm, let’s-make-the-most-of-this-day gusto withered like a too-cold fall blossom.
I know there was a time we cleaned the garage. Spring-cleaning day. It’s such a clear memory. I remember turning to my wife and saying, “Agree with me now: if either of us messes this up, the other can use shame as a weapon.” She agreed. Shame worked as long as shame usually does, which is—by my experience—about a week, unless nudity or arrest is involved.
But forward I trudged into the mess, an adventure race all its own, a place where I find gas cans capped with latex gloves, balls of damp Silly String, and, oh-we’ll-never-speak-of-that detritus. I remembered that shame had failed as a weapon, and I was in a full-on suburban dad sharpening-his-anger-spear froth.
It was Dos, my three-year-old kid behind me in a Missouri Tiger shirt, Pittsburgh Steelers pants, striped socks, and camouflage sandals.
“Daddy? Can you shoot hoops with me?”
I looked at the bigger new mess I’d created out of the old mess and started to speak. He cut me off.
“Can you shoot hoops with me Sunday?”
It was something he’d been asking a lot. Can we go to the zoo Sunday? Can we go to the pumpkin patch Sunday? It was seeming like Sunday was going to be a really busy day.
“We might, buddy, someday…”
I stopped talking, because I realized he wasn’t asking to go Sunday. He was asking to go Someday. And he was asking to go Someday, because too many times, my response to what he wanted was, “We might someday.”
There, in the middle of the disaster in the garage, I felt like crying again. The kid was so conditioned to hearing “someday” that it had become a verbal crutch for him, a bit of hope that they thing he wants to do will happen someday. And I was responsible for it.
It’s probably very common for a kid to hear it. Someday you’ll be older. Someday you’ll understand. Someday you could be President.
And then they start to think it themselves. Someday I’ll be a baseball player. Someday I’ll ask that girl on a date. Someday I’ll be a rock star.
And then, by the time they are adults, the great lie of Someday has manifested itself into a false-faith-reality. They aren’t going to be a baseball player. They aren’t going to be President. They aren’t going to be a rock star.
Here in middle adulthood, a place that feels more like adolescence and puberty than adolescence and puberty did, we find ourselves discovering that we’ve fallen into the cult of Someday so badly that we forgot that someday almost never comes on its own, and the longer we sit and wait for that elusive day, the harder it will ever be to find it.
I’ve learned some late lessons in the past year about the uselessness of waiting. It’s folly at almost every turn. Although there is pride in patience, the act of waiting is one of weakness, fear, and laziness. I know this because I’m guiltier than anybody I know.
I looked at that little boy and wondered how I would convince him that there is no Someday, or if I should. I didn’t have an answer. I walked in circles looking at trash and broken lawn equipment, and I tried to promise myself that I would never say it again. But I couldn’t do that, because I try not to lie to myself. The only thing I could do, it seemed clear, was live as an example. Even if I haven’t to this point, I can only hope that if I’m true to myself that it will somehow trickle down to my sons.
I still don’t know exactly why I’ve spent that last couple of years trying to be better than I was before. There are lots of reasons, but few that are easy to articulate. That understood, Badblood said something the other day that rang true:
“There’s a certain pleasure in doing things you never thought you’d be able to do. Pain goes away eventually,” he said.
I’ve spent several days trying to define what that pleasure is, and tonight I think it has a lot to do with the realization that someday doesn’t have to be some ethereal, no-calendar day in the future. It can be now. The path to it doesn’t have to be a road race, or a mountain, or some muddy obstacle course. It only has to be the thing you want, the thing you are afraid to admit to yourself that you can do.
I cried a little bit on that California mountain because I realized I’d let too many Somedays pass. I cried a little bit because I was doing my best to make good on the time I’d wasted. It wasn’t about that race. It was about the people beside me, my brother and friends good enough that they might as well be my blood.
I’m never, ever going to be a pro runner. I don’t care to be. That’s not why I’m doing this. I’m doing this because I’ve wasted a lot of my life on Someday. I’ve wasted a lot of other people’s time in the same way.
And so for each step I take along the road, or for each new seemingly impossible thing I try (and I feel confident there are more to come), it’s about more than the miles, the endorphins, or even the feeling of accomplishment. It’s about convincing myself that I can do the things that I’ve always doubted I could do.
I may have some real regrets in my life, but they’re almost all based around how long it took me to realize the lie Someday tells. The peace I’ve found, however, is that I can’t count on anyone to fix that for me. There’s no waiting around for someone to take charge and fix the problem.
It’s up to me alone to run Someday down and turn it into today.
“I am as nervous as I’ve ever been.”
That was my son this morning, up before the sun for his first youth triathlon. At eight years old, he would be among the youngest of the hundreds of children in the event–a 100 meter swim, five mile bike ride, and 1.3 mile run. The boy took small, slow bites of whole wheat toast slathered in peanut butter and honey. Although he’s a kid with a flair for drama, it was too early for one of his patented one act plays. He was serious. He was nervous.
This entire story could be about my son. It could be about his fear of his first bike ride without his mom. It could be about a longer swim than he’s used to. It could be about his worry—his chief fear—that he wouldn’t be able to cross the finish line like the big kids. I was nervous for him, and I can’t adequately describe the pride of watching him overcome his fear and turn it into grit. Was he the fastest? No, but that was never the point. The point was giving him an opportunity to test himself, and more, give him an opportunity to be proud. That’s our story, but not the most important story of the day.
When you watch a group of children—hundreds ranging in age from 8 to 15—engage in something so physically grueling as today’s event, it inspires a lot of emotion, and I’d be lying if I didn’t admit to wanting to get a little preachy about childhood obesity or out-of-touch parents. But those aren’t the most important stories of the day either.
The last quarter mile of the youth triathlon was a gentle uphill climb to the finish line. After watching our kid gut out the swim, grit out the ride, and transition to the run, we settled in on the sidewalk about a tenth of a mile from the finish. As we waited for our son to run, we watched the kids come in. That’s where the story was.
The humidity this morning had climbed above 90%.
“My entire body feels sticky,” my kid said. And I understood. There is nothing fun about trying to exercise in South Carolina on a humid day. I was soaked after setting up his transition area.
These kids were in the final stretch of 30-45 minutes that would be a struggle for most of the adults I know. For some of them, it was easy. Most, however, had the same look as my son as they climbed toward the waiting crowd.
And so, as we waited, we offered children we didn’t know a few words of encouragement and a round of applause. That’s when I saw the story of the day.
It didn’t happen with every child, but the vast majority of them turned their heads toward the cheers and transformed into smiling, driven machines. For every “finish strong” or “you’re almost there,” we saw a child dig down into her heart and dash for the finish. It only took a few words to take a child on the verge of collapse and turn him into a churning engine of pride and accomplishment.
I know this feeling. When I was in the final stretch of the Las Vegas half marathon last year, I thought I was going to collapse just short of the finish line. I’ve spent most of my life thinking I wasn’t good enough, and on that day in Vegas, I felt no different. That’s when I heard a crowd of my friends chanting for me, a sound that pushed me the final steps to the end.
Now, however, I was watching it happen over and over again and with children 30 years younger than me. Inside each of them was a well of potential they didn’t know existed until they heard a crowd of people telling them they could do it. It happened with my son, which gave me immense pride. But more so, it happened with children I’d never met. Just a few words and some applause changed those kids in an instant.
I thought about it for most of the day, and as I go to bed tonight, I wonder what we might be able to learn from that moment. It doesn’t matter if it’s a kid who likes to swim, bike, and run, or a kid who likes to build things, or a kid who draws cars. How many children might succeed if we just took a second to cheer them on?
My kid threw a fist in the air as he crossed the finish line. He didn’t care about his time. He only cared that he finished. And he cared that once he got his medal and a bottle of water, he had someone at the end to give him a hug.
Details are still to come (you’ll see them right here sometime in the next week or two), but for now, if you ever thought, “Wow, it sure seems like those cats in Greenville are having a better time than they deserve,” this might interest you.
I’ve had a lot of people shake their heads at me. A shoe salesman actually said after looking at my battered body, “Maybe if you get some new shoes, you won’t fall down as much.” I’ve had a ton of people simply ask, “Why?”
Well, I wrote about it in Getting Naked. That mostly tells the story. But’s its more than that.
These races I’ve started doing are more than just a way to push myself to limits I didn’t think I could reach. Whether it is a 5k, a 10k, a half marathon, a trail, or some crazy adventure race I’m doing, it’s all become a great way to hang out with people I really enjoy being around. They are people who want to see me succeed as badly as I want to succeed. What’s more, I want to see those people meet their goals, too. We’ll never win. We’ll never make money doing it. We’ll never be pros. But that’s not the point.
Last Thursday, I got to play cards with nine really good people that I enjoy spending time with. On Friday, we grilled meat and sat around a fire pit. Saturday night, we went out for tapas and drinks. We might not have done any of that if it weren’t for the 45 minutes of exhaustion, pain, and fun of the Mud Run on Saturday morning. Because of that silliness, we had three more days of silliness that made up a perfect weekend. Six days later, I still look like I’ve been in a fight, but it was worth it in every way.
The simple fact is this: there is no price you can put on having good friends who share your goals. There is no price you can put on enduring a big weekend like that and actually feeling good and accomplished when it’s over. In the video below, you see two very in shape guys and two not-so-in-shape guys playing in the mud, breathing hard, getting cut up, and generally doing everything 35-45 year-old bodies shouldn’t. Why? Well, it’s fun to act like a kid. And it’s a damed good excuse to hang out with good people.
We already have another big weekend planned at the end of the summer in Tahoe. And there’s something else special coming on the horizon that could turn into a very big event if early interest is any indication. For now though, I have to go back to letting my wounds heal.
Right after the 10k in the morning, of course.
You can find the full HD version (not available for mobile devices due to copyright problems with some 80s band), right here.
My dad died the weekend before my 38th birthday. I didn’t learn until a few days later that one of the last things he did was buy me a birthday gift. It was a fun little GoPro Hero 2 Camera, something I’d mentioned in passing that I wanted to mess around with on running adventures and otherwise. The cameras are made for extreme sports–surfing, snowboarding, motocross, etc. As a father of two boys, my extreme life is limited by the necessity of staying alive for a while (you’ll find me riding motorcycles and jumping out of planes when I’m 80).
Nonetheless, my dad and mom bought me the camera, my dad insisting I get it in time for the half marathon on my birthday. As it turned out, I was too emotionally wrecked to figure out how to use a camera for that. Since then, it’s been sitting here as a reminder.
With no crazy cliffs off which to jump or cars to drive fast, I turned to a couple things in my life that make for fun video: my kids and running. The effort is still a little raw, but I can see myself having fun with the camera, extreme or not.
Here’s an afternoon with my older boy in less than two minutes:
And here’s a bit from a race we rean this morning. Still working on a way to get the horizon line right on my head when running…
I wanted to tell somebody, but there was nobody to tell. Though I was elbow-to-elbow with some 40,000 people, I was alone. There was no one to tell my story, no one who a cared to hear it. In front of me sat 13.1 miles of running, a race for which I’d been planning, training, and worrying for six months. That night in Las Vegas, in the middle of a chaotic near-riotous crowd, I had never run more than 12 miles without stopping. Now I was fighting against a tide of spectators, lost runners, and confused organizers in an attempt to get into my starting corral. It wasn’t what I’d planned. Then again, nothing had been going to plan in the past week. Everything had been chaos, and nothing had ended well.
My dad died eight days earlier of a sudden and unexpected heart attack, the kind they called The Widow-Maker, the kind for which there is nothing the best doctors can do. One minute everything is fine, and the next moment everyone has to face the reality that nothing will ever again be the same. I was in China when it happened, flew to my childhood hometown over the next 24 hours, and decided along the way that the half marathon that meant so much to me the day before meant absolutely nothing now. At that moment, I was fairly sure that nothing had meaning. I quit the race a week before it started.
I would never have gone to Las Vegas for the race had my wife, mother, and brother not told me to go. My wife said I needed to. My mom said my dad would’ve wanted me to. My brother told me he’d already found me a plane ticket. He took me to a sports store to pick up supplies. Twenty-four hours later, in the middle of the worst emotional turmoil of my life, I set out to put my body through something it had never endured.
Now I feared I wouldn’t even get to run. The race organizer’s infrastructure had fallen apart. The Rock ‘n’ Roll Marathon Series is an organization with a great reputation, but this night, it fell apart under the weight of its own success. Getting to the starting line felt like getting to a water trough in the middle of a natural disaster—every man for himself as 60-year-old women throw elbows, 20-something young women weep, and everyone looks on the edge of panic.
I made it just as the gun sounded and looked around to see no one I knew. Everyone looked ahead at the 13.1 miles up and down the Las Vegas Strip, and no one wanted to hear what I felt so desperate to say to someone.
To get to that starting line, I’d leaned on some of my best friends, I’d absorbed everything my volunteer coach had taught me, and I’d taken more personal training time away from family than I had for anything in years.
Now I was alone. And running.
What does a novice runner say about the experience of running his first half marathon? There is no wisdom, no great story of overcoming every runner for a first place finish. It’s a personal journey with a sure beginning and unsure end. Any part of the story I told would mean nothing to longtime runners, and bore people who don’t put themselves through the training.
And yet, the story played out as I ran and wept for the first three miles. I stayed at the Excalibur and MGM with my dad. He had taught me to play poker. The first time he bought me a beer, I was 20 years old and standing on the lip of the Grand Canyon during a Vegas trip. One time, during one of his frequent moments of frugality, he convinced our entire family to walk from the Excalibur to Circus Circus on a June afternoon. It was a story of woe we told for the next 18 years, including on the day of Dad’s funeral.
Now I was running, past the dancing Bellagio fountains, past Paris where Dad had once made a special trip to pick up a gift for my mom, past Bally’s where I stayed on my first non-Dad Vegas trip, past the Venetian that didn’t even exist when Dad first took me to Vegas, and, yes, on past Circus Circus where one of several anti-frugality family mutinies once took place.
As I left the strip and headed toward the darkness of downtown, a streetlamp above my head blinked out. And, of course, I thought of my dad.
I felt fine for the first ten miles, which was unexpected. After a week in China and a week in Missouri, my body had already started to de-train. So, I expected some sort of early, horrible collapse—my IT band seizing up, dehydration stroke, or, allowing myself a moment of sad morbidity, a heart attack.
At the ten-mile mark, after making it all the way down the Strip, all the way down the road to downtown Las Vegas, around the scary streets, and back up to the Strip, my mind gave me the first “no-go” in the ongoing mind/body “go, no-go” conversation. All around me were warriors—tatted-up punk chicks, a man with one leg, a man nearing 80 years old—all facing forward and…most importantly…still running.
I thought about having to admit to my family and friends that, after everything, I’d given up. There is something very easy about acquiescing. When the hurt finds new claws, the temptation to speed up the end is stronger than I’d ever thought it would be. I imagined having to say I’d succumbed to the pain, sat down on a curb, and waited for death or a police officer to take me away. I imagined it just long enough for my mind to stop thinking about how bad I hurt. I looked up and realized I was still running and had never stopped.
I threw my brother’s empty hand-bottle on the curb, found a hydration station for a drink, and energy pack for some calories. With all of them making their way to the right place in my body, I started to feel better. It happened just about the time I saw a police officer blocking traffic. It was the man I imagined dragging me into an ambulance or paddy wagon. He looked up—likely as confused as he had been all night—as I pointed a finger at him and said, “Thank you.”
With a mile left in the race, I ripped my headphones out of my ear, and per the advice of a friend who treats 13.1 miles like a warm-up, threw a few high-fives to the spectators on the rail. The fives came back in kind, and for a great moment in front of the Excalibur, I let myself smile. I let myself realize that I was reaching a moment that wasn’t just validation for six months of training, that wasn’t just a tick on some must-do list, that wasn’t just among the best things I’ve ever done with my friends.
It was also a celebration of a man who had made me, who had taught me the value of not giving up, who had first taken me to Vegas, who had told me to forget everything I thought everyone wanted me to be and to instead be myself. With every step of the last mile, I was celebrating my dad’s life in a way a funeral never could.
I tried to hold it, but with half a mile to go, my brain sent down a gigantic “no-go” that made me think I was going to fall over. I had cried for the first few miles of the race, but that had been expected. Now, I felt like I didn’t even have the energy to cry. I had expected the finish line to appear as soon as I passed the Excalibur, and it wasn’t there. My body was listening to the “no-go,” and I felt myself slowing down. For a moment, I thought I would have no choice but to stop.
And then I locked eyes with a tall Iowan on the rail. It was a friend, and around him were a dozen other dear friends who had braved the cold, the wind, and the mist to see my friends and me finish. I pointed at them, and they screamed. They chanted my nickname as I passed. I shot my fists in the air. I never figured out where in the field of 40,000 I finished, but when those folks chanted my name, I might as well have been in first place.
I left them behind me and realized, despite the crowd, I was alone. It was just the finish line and me.
I have no question that I did everything my body could. The moment I crossed the finish line and stopped running, I could barely stand. In the crush of people forcing their way out of the finishers’ corral, I stumbled and nearly fell into my fellow runners. I found my way to the edge of the corral and put my head between my knees. I tried to call my wife, but the cell towers were just as overwhelmed as the race course.
When I felt sure I wasn’t going to pass out, I stood up and re-joined the crowd between two women. One was older than me—maybe 45—and the other was a young Asian woman. I turned to them both, because I had to tell somebody before it was really over.
“I know you don’t know me,” I said, “but I need to tell someone this. My dad was very proud that I was running this race. He died last weekend, and I did this for him.”
There, surrounded by thousands of people we didn’t know, the two women and I cried together for my dad, for me, and for everything the past 13.1 miles had meant.
I’d like to say that’s where the story ends, where I came to grips with losing my dad, where I achieved all I wanted to achieve. But, in truth, I’ve already mapped out at least four races I’m running this year. And, no matter how much you may see me smile and how much joy I force into my voice, I am so far from accepting my dad’s death that I wonder sometimes if it isn’t going to feel this bad forever.
But, if I’ve learned anything from running over the past year, it’s that I’m stronger than I thought I was. I’ve learned that when my fickle mind tells me to quit, I have to count on my body to keep moving on its own. Or, in other words, I have to count on my heart.
Whatever hurts may never go away completely, but if I just keep running, I can live with the pain, and sometimes it doesn’t hurt as bad. And, no matter what, I can make it to the finish. Because at the finish, there are friends, there are smiles, there is reason, and there is celebration. And that, as near as I can tell, is what life is all about.
I could not have been more naked.
Six months ago, I stood behind an open car door. It was the only thing blocking my man-parts from an entire grass-field-turned-parking-lot full of people on a warm, spring afternoon. I was muddy, sweaty, and naked. In public.
“Woah!” said an unsuspecting passer-by, a friend but not one that should’ve seen me in the buff. “I did not need to see that.”
I covered myself and dressed in clean clothes. I probably should’ve been more embarrassed, but I wasn’t. The constant and frustrating fount of self-loathing had dried up and been replaced by something akin to peace. Very naked, blowin’ in the wind peace.
A few minutes later I was dressed, sipping on a beer, and laughing with my brother and two good friends. We’d just completed the Greenville Mud Run, approximately four miles of mud pits, tall obstacles, and trail running. We weren’t the fastest team, but we never planned to be. We set a goal. We beat it. We got naked and drank beer. It’s pretty much the story of man’s evolution from beginning to end.
Long about the second beer, Chuck and Blood started chatting about this half marathon they were planning to run. In Las Vegas. On my 38th birthday. At night. Down the Vegas Strip.
“No,” I said. Because at that moment, on that military base just a few minutes removed from flashing a parking lot full of innocents, I’d run as far as I had run in one stretch in my life. These guys were asking me to tack 9.1 miles onto the distance and somehow make my body ready to do it in seven months.
Indeed, I said, “No.”
Right before I said, “Maybe.”
* * *
In August of 2010, I couldn’t run a mile without stopping for a breath, but I had foolishly promised myself I would complete a 5k (3.1 miles) race before the end of the year. I undertook the popular “Couch to 5k” program, completed it, and ran the race on Halloween weekend. I’d only hoped to finish in less than 30 minutes. I crossed the finish line at 27:36. I figured that would probably be the last the road would see of my feet.
Not too many days passed before I’d been convinced to run another 5k. This one was on the morning of my 37th birthday. It was cold. My friends laughed at me as I high-stepped across the college campus lawn to warm up. I hit the finish line at 27:16.
There was my buddy Blood cooling off after taking second in his age group with a 22:17 time. My wife wasn’t far behind me. She won her age group. G-Rob, in the midst of a huge self-improvement program, came in eight minutes ahead of where he had finished five weeks earlier. We felt somehow accomplished in spite of the fact the 21-year-old winner of the race came in at 16:39. In any case, that night we ate like kings and celebrated until the wee hours.
The holidays came and went, I spent some time on the road, and I fell out of shape. I tried another race with my wife in mid-January but found myself struggling to the point that I was sure I was finished with running. It was yet another six-month-long pastime I’d engaged and let fall by the wayside. The problem was that I’d agreed to do the Mud Run with my brother and friends in late April. What’s more, I’d signed up for a trail run in early February.
Even two days before the 6k trail run, I was waffling on whether I would go. My wife and I didn’t have a babysitter. Snow was threatening. Our dog had just come out of surgery. The night before the race, it stormed for hours. The morning of the race, it was near-freezing. The hilly trails were covered in ankle-deep puddles. It was miserable.
Of all the things my parents instilled in me, the two I’ve carried as both trophies and burdens are the imperatives that I finish what I start, and I keep my promises.
My wife and I drove out to the trail and ran into a woman we’ve known for a decade. Fun Amy. Fun Amy who had beaten breast cancer and swam the Florida Keys. Fun Amy who was out there with everybody to run on that miserable morning. Fun Amy who would go on to fight cancer again in the coming months. An inspiration in every wry smile. Fun Amy.
Midway through the race during what was, for me, a tough uphill climb, I found a button in myself that I didn’t know existed. It was a button made of pure pride. I could press it to make the only voice in my head become one that screamed, “You will not give up.”
The water in the puddles was frigid. The mud was slippery. The hills and switchbacks were tough. I wasn’t the fastest runner that day by a long shot, but I don’t know if there was a person out there who felt more accomplished.
* * *
By the time the endorphins from the Mud Run had worn off, G-Rob had told Blood he was going to run the Vegas half marathon with him. Free from post-race euphoria, I continued to demur. Six months seemed like precious little time to turn my body into one that could run 13.1 miles and do it at a pace in which I would be proud. That understood, saying no meant that my buddies would be spending my birthday in Las Vegas while I sat home and thought of what might have been.
It was around that time that an old writer friend of mine offered to coach me as he had coached Blood for a 2010 half. He was planning to run the Vegas race, too. It would be have to be a remote coaching, but if I was in all the way, he would do it.
Dan is a runner, blogger, writer, journalist, and climber who lives in Colorado. He manages a busy family life, his work as a columnist, and his non-stop training all at the same time. Like my friend Colin, an ultra runner and all around good guy, Dan was a source of inspiration. I wanted to do what he and Colin could do and do it with the joy they seemed to share. Now Dan was offering to help me out.
The last weekend in May, with the encouragement of my friends and new coach, I started working to get in shape for the Las Vegas Rock and Roll Half Marathon. That race is now 27 days away.
* * *
If you had walked in my bathroom yesterday morning, you would’ve found a 37-year-old man slathering cocoa butter on his nipples and inner thighs. His eyes bloodshot, his hair a mess, his aging body a horrifying reflection in the mirror, this man was lubricated for war. On many Sunday mornings in the past two decades, the man would’ve been shaking off the cobwebs of an indiscrete night, one spent in a dark bar or smoky poker room. On this Sunday morning, I was emerging from a good night’s rest and going out to run ten miles before the morning got too late. I barely know myself anymore. That’s probably a good thing.
Over the past five months, I’ve had to face myself in the mirror a lot. Some days, it was great. I ran two more 5k races and cut two minutes off my personal best. On the morning September 11th, having never run more than seven miles, I went out and ran 9.11 while reflecting on the 10th anniversary. A couple of weeks ago, I collapsed in the middle of a trail during the seventh mile of a run when my knee seized up on me. After stretching it out in front of people running by me, I got up and ran another four miles back to my car. I’ve run fast. I’ve run slow. I’ve run far. I’ve done it alone, and I’ve done it with some of my best friends.
Some days I didn’t like who was looking back at me. It’s that part that forced me to sit down and write this. Some days I struggled through what felt like impossible runs. On a couple of occasions, I gave up. On other occasions, I didn’t give up, but didn’t do as well as I hoped, and I let that weigh on me for too long. Like training for a race, forcing my brain to avoid self-sabotage is a long process. Sometimes I win, sometimes I don’t. Every day I go for a run, I’m surprised at what I can do, and surprised at what I can’t. For me, life isn’t much different.
But I know this: in 27 days, I’m going to be standing with 40,000 other people about to set out on the same personal journey. Among those people will be five or six of the people I hold most dear in my life. Every one of them will be rooting for me as I am rooting for them. I have my goals and will do everything in my power to meet them. Whatever happens after the gun will come from my heart, and whatever happens at the finish line will be proof that I am 13.1 miles and a step closer to being who I want to be. In the end, running a half marathon won’t have been the biggest struggle for me. The hardest part will have been believing in myself enough to do it. I’m finally to the point that I believe, and I’m not ashamed to tell you, it’s a bigger relief than I can say.
* * *
I won’t pretend to know much about running. Hell, I won’t pretend to know anything about running. I hesitate to call myself a runner until I reach some greater understanding of what I’m doing and how I’m doing it. However, I suspect this much is true: after years of hiding everything behind clothes, under hats, behind shower curtains, anyone in true pursuit of running must embrace laying himself naked in front of everybody. Those who give themselves over to the pure pain, the pure joy, and the purse sense of accomplishment cannot be ashamed. To run, sweat, and limp, to scream, gasp, and cry, to accomplish something you once thought impossible through only your own hard work and to do it all in front of the world, that is something you can only do if you are comfortable enough to stand naked in front of the world and say, “This is who I am, and this is what I’ve done.”