First of all, what I’m about to tell you is the absolute truth. My wife can attest to every word, as it’s one of her favorite party stories she loves to tell. And though it was not one of my better moments, it does make a point, so be gentle.
I’ve run in one marathon in my life. My first and last. Just one year removed from running track and cross country in college, I took a dare over a Friday night dinner with some friends to enter the Abilene, Texas Marathon to be run early the next morning. I’m a sucker for Friday night dares. They have pushed me to jump out of airplanes and rappel over 200 foot cliffs, even though the third rung of a ladder makes me nervous. But I digress.
I thought this dare through pretty carefully while enjoying my burger, fries, and half chocolate, half vanilla shake, hold the whipped cream. I was a fairly good runner in college, at 24 I was in decent shape, and was still competitive in road races around West Texas, placing in the top three in every 5 and 10K I entered. What’s another 20 miles? My strategy was to bolt to the lead and run everyone into the ground. They wouldn’t know what hit ‘em. Maybe I would find that marathons were my thing. Was there money to be made? Appearance fees?
The following morning I showed up an hour early to register and get my placement. I told the organizer I should finish in well under three hours, so he gave me a number that placed me in the front holding pen with all the elite runners. While going through my regular warm up ritual- stretching, a one mile slow jog followed by a 200 meter sprint, then more stretching- I looked for familiar faces from my collegiate days, but didn’t recognize a soul. These folks were a different breed of cat. The winner of the Cowtown Marathon looked like he was 15. The guy that everyone said was the favorite had run collegiately at Oregon and looked like he had just walked out of a concentration camp. In fact, all of them were toothpicks. Yes, I had added a few pounds since college, but figured the extra fat would sustain me in the latter part of the race against these pencil necks.
I remember the local disc jockey announcer kept telling everyone to take lots of breaks and drink plenty of fluids, as the temperatures would be well into the 80’s by 10:00. Who was he talking to? By 10 a.m. I figured I would be lying on a massage table in the runner’s tent, getting the muscles worked out, awaiting the medal ceremony.
Typically every race starts with the sound of the gun, at least it did back in the day before guns became politically incorrect. But I remember this race started with the playing of Queen’s “We Are the Champions”. Thought it was a little weird, but being a closet Queen fan, and when I say closet I only mean I didn’t want anyone to know I was a fan of Queen, I thought it was kind of cool. But once again, I’m stalling.
I shot out like the champion Freddie Mercury told me I was. My first mile was 5:08, followed by a string of miles that were all around 5:30 pace. Man, I felt good. Most of you don’t know, because you’ve never led a marathon race before, but I have, so I can tell you that when you lead a marathon you get police escort, which is three or four motorcycle cops with their sirens on, stopping traffic and cutting a path. I loved the police escorts. They were my buddies. I had one of them hang back from time to time to locate the second place runner for me. For a while all three of the local television stations had their crews filming me as I was making my historic run.
By mile 8 I had lost everyone. The cop said I had a quarter mile on the pack, and I was increasing my lead with every mile. My 10 mile split was just under one hour, and outside of the small stitch in my side, and a little blister on my right foot from not wearing any socks (real runners don’t wear socks) I felt pretty good.
They say that in every long distance race that at some point your body will ask you why you are running. It’s true.
It was Mile 12 when my body asked me why I was running in a marathon. And I had no answer.
Do you really need details?
My calves were the first to go. It was my left one first, I guess because I was trying to take some pressure off of my blistering (and now bleeding) right foot. But in no time my right calf joined in. I had cramps in my calves before, but nothing like this. I never, ever stop when racing, but for the first time in my life I ran to the curb and tried stretching my calves. The cops, seeing I wasn’t behind them, circled back to me at the curb. One offered me his water, saying I was probably a little dehydrated, but I refused it. I told him I never drink water during a race. He asked me if I had ever run a marathon, and when I told him this was my maiden voyage, he smiled and told me I should take the water. So I took a few sips.
By now my calves felt a little better so I took off again. I had time to make up because the calf crunch and water sip stop had cost me almost a minute, and now I could see the field closing in.
In my infinite wisdom I decided that beginning with Mile 14 I would accept a little water every two miles the rest of the way in. Let me say there are people who have the ability to drink water while in motion, and there are those who simply can’t drink and run. I can walk and chew gum, I’ll prove it to you next time I see you. But for some reason I can’t get water from a cup and into my mouth while in motion.
Concentration camp guy reeled me in just before Mile 15, and with him my police buddies and the television camera crews went on without me. I was no longer the bell of the ball. I was just another lonely runner out in the middle of nowhere miles outside of Abilene, Texas. Cowtown guy passed me about a minute later, followed by one toothpick after another. By then I had slowed to 7:00 mile pace, and was dropping fast.
Little did I know that Mile 16 would take us up a really steep hill. You might think Abilene is pretty flat, but just south of town at a place called Buffalo Gap there is this big hill, and for some sinister reason the race committee decided I should climb that hill 2/3 through the race without the use of several vital organs.
At Mile 18 I stopped using my calves altogether. Try running without the use of your calves some time, and see how it feels. Then do it for eight miles.
At Mile 20 the first female ran by me. I had never been passed by a woman before. She was so sweet. She looked back at me with a concerned look on her face, asking if I was okay. I think I blurted something incoherent, or maybe I cursed, I can’t be for sure. Honestly, it all was a little blurry at that point.
At Mile 21 I begged the water volunteers to just dump their water on me. At Mile 22 I saw my girlfriend- soon- to- be- wife, who had come to cheer me on to victory. I tried to give her a smile, but she knew. I would see her several more times through the end of the race, she said because she thought she was going to have to take me to the hospital. I personally think she did it so she could give me that “I told you not to do this” look each time I passed by, continually reinforcing just how poor my Friday night decision had been. Right then and there I knew I wanted to spend the rest of my life with her. I needed someone to protect me from myself.
At around the 22 mile mark all my muscles stopped working. Including my sphincter muscle. I’ll let you draw your own conclusions. Okay, I’ll only add that a third pound cheeseburger with fries should not be a pre-race meal.
At Mile 25, with just one mile to go, I had slowed to 10 minutes per mile, but doggone it, I was going to finish. I needed to urinate badly, and thought I should freshen up a bit before seeing the crowds at the finish, so I ducked into a porta-potty. It felt so good to relieve myself, but when I looked down I found nothing was coming out. Hmmm.
With about 400 meters to the finish, with both sides of the street lined with people, I started to pick up the pace so everyone would think I was fine. I put on my very best face, joking with fellow runners, waving to some friends, trying to make like everything was dandy. Everything was not dandy. I made a note of my finish time, 3:02:52, because I knew it would be my best marathon time ever. I didn’t stick around for a massage or the medal ceremony or even the t-shirt. I even ditched my pickup. I located my girlfriend’s Mustang, and with her loading both my legs into the passenger seat, we were gone.
I drank water and Gatorade like there was no tomorrow. After throwing my shorts away, rolling my legs in kitty litter and taking a garden hose to my running shoes, I soaked in a bath for over an hour. I went to bed and didn’t get up until the following morning. At the time I was teaching and coaching at a high school and my classroom was on the second floor. The principal had to ask Mrs. Blackburn, our math teacher with the first floor classroom, to switch with me for a week because I couldn’t walk up or down stairs. It took my blister over a month to heal, and when it finally came off it could have been used as a guitar pick.
Last week I ran a half marathon to honor the victims of the Oklahoma City Bombing. I’ve run the race for most of the past fifteen years. It’s for a great cause and the event is first class. I trained for six weeks leading up to the run. I knew the course was hilly and so in preparation I did some hill work. I checked and the forecast the night before said the wind chill would be in the high 30’s at race time, so I wore all the correct thermal racing gear. I wore state of the art socks. I had a light pasta meal the night before, and drank water obsessively. During the race I stopped every two miles to drink a half cup of water or energy drink. I still can’t run and drink at the same time. You try it smarty pants. I never cramped. My pace stayed pretty much the same throughout the race. I was able to board a plane a couple of hours later and attend a meeting on the West Coast later that day.
But no matter how hard I train, every year my body will ask me why I’m running. In Abilene that October day I was asked multiple times, beginning at Mile 12, and each time I didn’t have an answer. In the OKC half-marathon it’s always Classen Boulevard. Classen is a long, straight, slightly uphill slog typically against the wind. It begins at the 8 mile mark and ends around Mile 11. It’s somewhere on that street that I’m asked every year, no matter what. But there is a big difference between my Mile 12 and my Classen Boulevard. I prepare weeks in advance for Classen, and that makes all the difference.
If you aren’t prepared to answer when asked why you are running, you won’t make it. You will be like the hundreds of folks I see who are forced to the side of the road each year, family or friends or paramedics picking them up somewhere along the route, and driving them home, defeated and humiliated.
Folks, a meaningful life is like a long distance run. Every run is filled with adversity, with obstacles and trials and struggles and pain and hardships. And in everything that really matters in our life- our faith, our education, our marriages, our families, our jobs, our friendships, our health, our legacies- each and every one of us eventually face our Mile 12, our Classen Boulevard, no matter how we try to avoid it.
I must confess I spent the better part of my life scared of Mile 12’s. I tried to do all I could to shelter myself and those I deeply care for from the Classen Boulevards. But no matter what, adversity eventually came, and oftentimes I was ill-prepared.
I’ve come to realize that spending all my time and energy trying to avoid trials is a fairly useless exercise. Don’t get me wrong. Trying to steer away from trouble is a worthy endeavor. A pilot should attempt to avoid flying into a storm, no doubt. But even the best pilots with the finest training and equipment will eventually encounter the mother of all storms, and they have to know how to navigate through them, or there may be catastrophe.
In my experience we might be better off spending less time on avoiding all the inevitable storms, and more time on getting ready to face and survive them.
Investing in the stock market is also a long distance race. For the last nine years the run has been pretty easy, mostly downhill with the wind at our backs. The second longest bull market in our nation’s history has people euphoric, like it can never go down again. We quickly forget 2008, and 2001. But another crash will inevitably come, and we will be forced to face our investment Mile 12 or Classen Boulevard. The trick of the trade is to be training now for that day, so we will be prepared to not just survive it, but to thrive through it.