A Good Man

From the moment I fought my way into this world it was there, steeped into the deoxyribonucleic acid bath that decided all I could be. 

And every day that has since passed has been filled with that same certainty. As surely as I breathe, a propensity for greatness lies within me. 

Cradled and raised in the heritage of kings, and the promises of divine purpose, and the dreams. So many dreams. 

Tutored and schooled in the halls of heroes, reading the lore of every mighty deed, and knowing, one day that will be me. 

Always the focus, sights set high, target acquired, locked in, fired. Reload and repeat. Until greatness was the dust under my feet. 

But no one ever told me how hard it would be. Every eye is set on it, every heart longs for it. And, chasing greatness, we lost sight of goodness. Dreaming of what we could be, we forgot who we should be.

I thought I was destined to be a great man, but each year that passes pulls me farther from the dream. 

Perhaps the greatest thing I could ever try to be is a good man. 

When Did We Grow Old?

It’s never the news you want to hear. I stood there, staring at my phone trying to grasp the new reality that broke into my world. It was already a bad day. A birthday. I’m not much for birthdays…or at least not my own, but even then, no one likes working a 12-hour day for your birthday. We’d all rather relax. That wasn’t an option, but this was worse.

He’s in the ER. It didn’t sound right in my head. The hero, the beloved, the immortal. He is at this moment in the emergency room. Frame it. Contextualize it. He’s not dying. It’s not dire. He’s just getting checked out. Frames break. Contexts expand. He’s getting checked out because there’s something wrong. He never goes to doctors or hospitals.

“Did he finish?” 

I looked up blankly. “Finish?”

“Yeah, did he do it?”

“Who?”

“Theeeee, uhhh maintenance guy?” The captain’s voice trailed, just like it always does when he’s making announcements. I’m standing in the galley, tablet in one hand, paperwork in the other. We’re about to start boarding and we’re hoping the maintenance guy is done with a broken outlet in one of the main cabin seats.

“Uh, I don’t know,” I fumbled. “He walked off without saying anything.”

The boarding process was chaos, both around me and within me. I checked with the Captain and now we had another maintenance issue in the flight deck. It would be taking at least another 15 minutes. Just what I needed—a couple of moments to think, to process, to breathe. I phoned home. Mom’s voice was calm. The calm I needed. She told me not to rush off and leave work. Not yet. They were still running tests, but so far all of them were coming back clear. So, wait I would, off to Fort Lauderdale.

So many thoughts flood though the mind in moments like these.

It’s your birthday. The day you are reminded by everyone that you aren’t getting any younger. The messages had been flooding all across social media. For a person like me who so easily gets stuck in thought, birthdays already do a lot to me. Put my father in an emergency room, and now a whole other world of thought is opened—realities I had never once conceived, bursting to life.

I’m dying. He’s dying. You’re dying. We are all dying. From the moment we are born, death has been the forgone conclusion of the story, but it is not always an immediate reality. It takes these moments—uncomfortable moments—to remind us of our mortality. I’ve had far more than my fair share of near death experiences, but only once did I genuinely feel myself dying, my body growing cold, and I was powerless to stop it. That changed my world. 

Many loved ones have died over the years. All but one of my grandparents. And too many friends and dear ones. The first was the shock. I wasn’t ready for it. It’s not that I didn’t know it could happen. Rather, it was experiencing the reality of that inevitable loss. And that feeling has extrapolated for every loved one I have lost since then. I was mentally prepared for them because I processed future losses and future pains in the moment of the first major loss.

But never in my life had I processed the concept of the loss of a parent. Never once had I even conceived of it. And now, 38,000 feet in the air, I had to. He wasn’t dying, but he would die. Just like all of us. But he’s my hero. He’s an unstoppable force. Untouchable. Or he was. I’m losing him. I’ve been losing him since the day I was born, but it was this day, January 26, 2019 it changed from an abstraction to a concrete reality.

When did we grow old?

We were supposed to live forever. When did we become vulnerable? When did we become mortal? Or, as the recording artist “Sleeping at Last” put it, how do bodies born to heal become so prone to die?

This impossible year had already drained me immensely. For weeks I tossed and turned, night after night. Sleepless. Fretful. A visceral discomfort. A disruptive, aggressive certainty. A harbinger of eminent danger. Staring at the ceiling, my eyelids would flutter, ready to close. I would take a deep breath, close my eyes, and seconds later nearly bolt out of bed, startled for no reason.  Shaking. This would happen over and over every few minutes. For hours. And days. And now weeks.

When I would finally fall asleep, I would descend into the most startling, violent dreams I have known in years, threatened with death and dismemberment. These dreams were so vivid I would always violently awaken myself in the real world while trying to physically defend myself in the dream. Fighting for my life. The dreams were so relentless and exhausting, sometimes laying in bed with my eyes wide open was the most restful moment of the night. This was the prelude to my birthday. 

Now, as the day unfolded, a lingering question emerged. Was this the foreshadowed moment, or was it just Act One? The next thing I knew, we were leaving Fort Lauderdale for Philadelphia, but we had been sitting on the runway an awfully long time. The captain called. We weren’t going anywhere. A fuel truck had burst into flames and the entire airport was shut down. More sitting. More waiting. More voices in my head. It was suffocating. 

I needed to calm my mind. When did we grow old? What happened to that kid—the kid with big smile and the zealous gaze? The kid running through the woods, mounting a counterattack on an unseen army? What happened to that kid—the kid who worried so much about who he was going to sit next to and what he would say to them? So far from those days now. So far from those joys now. So far from those fears now. 

The kid who looked up to his father as the greatest, the invincible, now turning over a new leaf. Perhaps we have all had that image of our heroes at some point. And it always has to break. At some point. And here it was breaking on a Florida runway. Mind wrenched, like Brendon Urie sings, there’s never air to breathe, there’s never in-betweens. These nightmares always hang on past the dream. 

Deep breaths. And a slow, silent letting go.  He’s not dead. But he will die. And so will I. I’ve accepted it. All that is left is to process, what do we do with the time that is left? There’s the here and now. This moment. And we’ve no idea how many moments we have left. This year, there is focus. This year there is determination. Urgency. The careless irreverence for these moments cannot continue. Now is my time. I can’t prognosticate tomorrow, but I will own today. 

And still the question lingers. 

When did we grow old? 

We were supposed to live forever. 

Stockholm

Sitting on this runway, headed who know's where. Flights so familiar they lose the meaning they once had. And always a risk. And always a reward. And never what you bargained for. Prisoners, forced to be here. Or was the force our free will? And since when was this normal? And why did we accept it? Or is it the best we've ever had?

Fastened seat belts. Tray tables stowed. Always following orders. Always living by the rules. It's for your safety, isn't it? Cause there's going to be a bump or two up there. It's a guarantee. And if it will be bumpy, why do I want to go? Why can't I remember where they said we'd go? I just liked feeling…flying, what's there to know?

It's not about how much I paid to be here. It's not how far I drive. It's not about my luggage. That's not the reason why. I came because I wanted to. It's where I want to be. I didn't care where I was going. It's alright with me. Not the destination. It's the journey. That's what they all say. I buy it. Believe it. Want it to be true.

Looking out this window for a face against the glass. And you're here, in the empty seat at my side. To leave, or to stay. Battles of the heart turning the tide of the war in my mind. Stockholm. A place to see. Or be blind. If I could never give up, and you could never change. If we could never synergize the chaos in our brains.

Dreaming of Death

It's so familiar and yet so damning, that moment you gain consciousness in a dream. I can never remember how my dreams start. I'm just in the middle, putting together the fragments to know what I'm supposed to be doing next. I've dreamed of a great many things over the years, most of which I'd never share to a single soul on earth. But this one? This one stayed with me. Haunting me, moving me, rearranging the contents of the recesses of my mind.

And there I was, sitting on a plane. It's familiar because over the past two years I've spent a great deal of time on planes. But I needed clues. I looked down to see where I was sitting. It wasn't my jump seat. It was far too comfortable to be a jump seat. I was sitting in first class next to the window on the right side of the aircraft. I looked to my left. No one was sitting immediately beside me. In the window seat across the aisle was Karim. We had been working together all month, so all was as it should be. But we were passengers. Were we deadheading? I turned around. Every other seat was empty. It had to be a ferry flight, repositioning a plane to another airport because of a schedule change.

Just like that, in a matter of seconds, I had my basic story. I was at work, flying with Karim, and we'd probably had a flight canceled because of weather or maintenance, so we were headed for another airport with some free time to relax without dealing with the commonplace freak-outs of passengers.

I turned to my right, and, looking out the window, I could see we were on the runway. The engines revved. The wheels started turning, and we were rolling down the runway. Then something strange happened. I guess when you do it so many times a day, you get used to every little detail like the resonance of the engines or the angle of the take off. The moment the wheels left the ground, I was thrown back into my seat by the g-force.

Sometimes when we have an empty plane, because we’re lighter, and because we don’t have passengers who will be alarmed by the sharp rate of climbing, pilots may take a more aggressive line, but even then, this was beyond anything I’d felt before. Just as abruptly as we had taken to the sky, we leveled off. Karim and I exchanged questioning glances, and seconds later, we were thrown back into out seats a second time. I could feel the blood rushing from my head as I gripped the armrests with both hands.

My heart was racing, as were my thoughts. “Something’s not right,” I said, turning to Karim. I tried frantically to recall who else was on our crew. Who was flying us so recklessly? But in our dreams we don’t always have the luxury of omniscience. My next thought was to attempt to contact the flight deck. We leveled off again and then began descending. Looking out of the window, I could see buildings, but not the tops of buildings. I was looking into them at eye level.

In a split second I saw someone standing in an office, palms against the glass of the window pane, eyes wide open, mouth open, aghast, letting loose a blood-curdling scream that was lost to my ears. It was in that second I knew…I was about to die. All I could hear was the rising echo of blood pumping through my veins. All I could feel was pure adrenaline coursing through me, awakening every cell and ever fiber of my existence to prepare a futile response. One breath in. One breath out.

All through my mind, a tidal wave of thoughts. Is this really how it ends? After all I’ve been through in this life, is it really ending today? Is there anything I regret? Is there anything I wished to do over? To say? To feel? All that was left was a peace. A surrender of my life to the infinite. No regrets. No mulligans. If this was the moment of my death. I was ready. And yet all this potential energy was primed within my system, and nowhere to go. I was ready to fight for my life, to fight for the right to continue existing even though I was prepared to cease to exist.

And then came the omniscience. We were headed for a building. We were seconds away from impact. I took a determined step towards the flight deck door. I heard the engines throttle forward. Felt the lurch. And everything went black.

But I didn’t wake up.

It was as if I was frozen. Is space. In time. I felt my consciousness separate from my corporeal form. Soul, fractured and ripped away from the body. I could still feel. But I couldn’t move. I couldn’t speak. I couldn’t breathe. Pressed in on all sides. I knew I had been dreaming. I knew I had died in the dream. I knew I wasn’t awake. And I didn’t know how to wake up.

The blackness swallowed me, stealing away all warmth, all sense of direction. I closed my eyes to the darkness and begged my body to move. I felt the synapses firing from the brain to the body. And no response. Trapped. In limbo. Existence without life.

It was the most terrifying thing I have ever felt in my life. I tried desperately to heave out the screams trapped inside of me, just to make a sound. I knew my body was motionless in bed. I knew the love of my life was in the next room getting ready for work. I had to get back to her. I had to return to that body in the bed to get out a signal. A sound. A movement. I had to get her back to me, to pull me from the darkness.

I opened my eyes again. Everything was still black. Paralyzed. Suffocating. I just wanted to get a breath in. Just one breath to feed my brain and body enough oxygen to function for another moment so I could find my way home. But there was none. Something. Anything. Please. If I could just move a finger. If I could just part my lips. Something. Please. Just anything. Keep trying. Keep trying. Don’t give up. Don’t lose hope. It’s your only chance. This is all you have. This is your moment to prove you deserve to live anything day. Find a way. Just find a way.

Tears tried to force their way from my eyes, but even they couldn’t move. This was the end. But I refused to accept it. It felt like hours. It felt like days. Time lost all meaning as I tried to claw my way back. Until, somehow, I forced out a sound. I knew it came out in the real world. And in the silence of my darkness I begged the universe, “Please let her hear it. That’s all I have. Please let her hear.”

Still no body. Still no breath. Still trapped. Still alone.

And then she came to me. I felt her touch the hand of my body. I opened my eyes, and I could see. And I could breathe. I was here. Alive. I gasped in the sweet smell of the life I had almost left behind.

 

I remember a time, years ago when all I could think about was dying. It was all I ever wanted. It was all thought could bring me peace. But times have changed. I woke up that morning in love with the life I live. That dream has haunted me from that day until now. Not necessarily in a bad way, but in the kind of way that makes you do everything that is in your heart and mind to do.

We always take it for granted that we will wake up in the morning and that we can do anything tomorrow that we didn’t do today. But if today was really your last day, how would you live it? What would change? And why wait?

Say what needs to be said. Today. Do what needs to be done. Today. Live. Today. Love today.

To Understand

It's been a good year. I've learned more, grown more, and discovered more than I've ever imagined possible, but I'm not one to rest on laurels. Exorcism is more my thing. It is customary for me to annually spend countless hours in thought and reflection over the events of an ending year and over the things one would wish to follow. It's not always customary for me to share them, but as one of my goals is to spend less of the coming year in the shadowy recesses of my mind, and–if nothing else–at least to be able to say honestly I tried, my treatise begins.
 
"Do you understand?"
 
If I had a dollar for every time I've uttered these words, I'd be the richest man you know. It would seem that, if nothing else, I have a compulsive obsession with understanding things and with being understood. After spending decades thinking that understanding was the solution to all the problems in my life, I'm beginning to consider it may instead be the cause. In my fanciful world, I've been certain that if only I could know the "why" of things, resolution would be swift. I watch the world around me descending into chaos because people lack the understanding for one another. They can be so thoroughly wrapped up in what they think or feel or believe, but they cannot extend that same equal validity to what anyone else may think or feel or believe. So I've always needed people to understand what I'm saying, because if I could be certain they understood, I could also be certain an agreement can be reached. Two who cannot even understand each other will certainly never agree. But how much energy have I spent to that end? And what do I have to show for it? The upsetting reality is that my exhaustive efforts to make things plain and simple and to understand all that others are trying to share have been a cause of ceaseless irritation to those to whom I am most desperately attempting to relate. So what is the better way?
"What I'm trying to say is…"
 
That's where it always goes. The frustration of my inability to relate to my world. And I keep trying to distil ideas that have already been oversimplified to the point that they may no longer even fully represent what I'm trying to say into something even less what I mean in order to be more more understood. What is more important in this life then? Understanding is so soldered into my circuitry, so defining of who I am, I can’t escape the obsessive, compulsive need for comprehension and resolution, and yet the pursuit may be most worthless. Can I let go? Is it even a choice? I've lost so many moments because I needed to understand. I remember my first kiss. I remember it like it was yesterday. The most beautiful woman in the world, and she was in love with me. The moment she leaned in. I can still remember the warmth. But when she kissed me…I had to understand. I instantly had to understand. Why was she kissing me? Why was she kissing ME? In that moment, the first moment in my life that I felt purest love from someone, I spent more energy into trying to undestand it rather than being immersed in it.
 
"I'm sorry."
 
Always follows. Apologizing for what though? For trying to understand? For being too invested in something that seems insignificant? Or am I apologizing for who I am…for trying to ensure my own most basic need is met? It's like breathing to me. Small talk can be suffocating. It can leave me so empty. The idea that two minds can come together and yet gain nothing from the exchange. What's the point? What's the objective? I don't understand. Do you see where this is going? I can't relate to this world because I don't understand it. And no one seems to have the patience, the will, or the understanding to try.
 
"I love you."
 
Now it's even more complicated. Beacuse for most people love is a fleeting feeling. The elevated heart rate. The butterflies and sweaty palms. The mental stammer. I get all of that too, but my love is something beyond that, beacuse while it encompasses all of that, it resides in another dimension. I don't just love with my heart. I love with my brain. And that's why my love doesn't waver like so many others do. But take the flip side of that. Think of it. When someone hurts you, you feel it in your heart. And I do too. But I feel it in my mind even more. It's so much more of an intergral part of my being. And yet, since I'm always stuck in my head, people don't see my connection to this world, they don't see my pain; sometimes they think I don't feel anything at all. Can one even truly love without understanding?
I’ve spent my life trying to understand and to be understood. I’ve learned a great deal, and that accumulation of knowledge is overwhelming. You start to experience new things…new feelings…new struggles, because moments come where you understand something on a deeper level, and it affects you on that level. You understand someone but they don’t understand you. Or you want to understand, and they don’t. It’s a kind of torture that is only relatable once you’ve personally experienced it alone. 
 
"I regret so much."
 
Perhaps you never fully know your strength until it is nearly gone. Perhaps you cannot truly know the depth of your love until it faces its darkest night. As the clock strikes midnight, I hear voices in my head, and my heart breaks. I've made many mistakes in this life. There's only one I've never forgiven…one that haunts me. Keeps me up at night. Seeing just how my insecurities and flaws destroyed the one thing I needed in my life. Beautiful frangments broken in my hands. And I've tried so hard to understand. For decades, I believed that undestanding could resolve anything, but as this year draws to a close, I can say I fully understand. I understand everything. And still, no resolution. These things that define me, that drive me, deride me. My flesh bears the scars of my search for self worth. Are they enough? Am I?
 
"I'll never be enough."
 
You know, as I look back over my life, I never needed to be celebrated or revered. I never needed the praise or applause of the masses. I just needed to believe I was good enough. Or maybe just someone to whisper in my ear every day that I'm good enough. Maybe there's a lot of ways it could work out. But it has to be sincere. It has to be geniune. It can't just be the words, because that's not how my brain works. Words are worthless until proven. Few have spoken the words. And proven? Time alone can tell. Alone in this war over questions of worth and deserving, thoughts of value and desire.  Maybe I was never meant to be understood. What if not every desire in this life could have a fulfillment? And yet I have always wanted to prove I could be good enough. To prove I could be better and then the best. I've proven to myself that the impossible is possible for me. But is it enough? Will it ever be?
 
"I'll stop."
 
Stop searching. Stop with the endless quests. Stop looking for validation from people who don’t even understand who I am or where my true value lies. Stop trying to understand everything. Stop hoping to be understood. Stop looking for the answers. Stop asking the questions. Maybe that's where the magic resides…far from the need to understand.
 
 
 
 
 

What Have I Become?

I didn’t know for sure if it was dead, but the odds were high. I slowed to a stop and took a deep breath. There’s something about a human body laying motionless in the street. I was on my way to work. Who knows where he had been headed. It was just around 6AM.

A million things rushed through my head. No panic…but a gripping feeling of responsibility. It wasn’t my fault. But I felt something. Maybe everyone did. A handful of people were standing around the body. Another slowly walked, picking up car parts off the road. A half dozen lives converging in one moment. A half dozen paths altered and maybe one ended.

The flicker of an approaching squad car snapped my mind back to the present. The police were a block away, a flashing red hand told me my traffic light would be turning red soon. I released the brake pedal and let my car creep past the scene, haunted by all I didn’t know. Two minutes earlier and I would have seen nothing, but I had seen, and I couldn’t forget.

Troubling thoughts have traipsed through my conscious and subconscious mind with uncomfortable frequency lately. Is it every year at this time? Perhaps. Ceaseless preoccupation with one all-consuming question. What have I become?

It’s been two years since I walked away from everything I ever knew or believed in—two years since I abandoned the work of a lifetime. I tell myself I should be pragmatic about my expectations for what I could accomplish alone in two years compared to the previous lifetime with the support of multiple communities.

What was I before? What have I become? Perhaps the most difficult transition has been certainty. Before, I was certain of a great many things. I was certain of my belief in and understanding of a god and this god’s will and purpose for my existence. I was certain of the goals in my life and the steps necessary to reach them. I was certain of the interpersonal relationships with which I had surrounded myself and the support I could depend on receiving from them. All of that is gone.

Two years ago, the end of October, I penned The Lesson of Death, a treatise of beauty and resolve, and yet of all those who read it, one hand could count the number of those who understood what it really meant. It was a farewell. Fate ordained it to not be final, and after its release, the final lesson for me was that in order to keep existing, the parameters of my life and worldview needed to change drastically, and they did. And I’m still here.

The man who once traveled the country and the world preaching and teaching now just travels. No religion. No faith. More questions than answers. Whatever gods may be lost my attention. Somehow my need to continue existing superseded the ceaseless silence from the deity I thought I knew. My alchemic quest to reconcile all things failed to produce the gold standard upon which I banked my life, and when it comes to banking one’s life, there are no higher stakes. You lose, you die. And I needed to not die.

It’s a domino effect though, seeing that if you take away one’s deity, you also take away the purpose and goals of the pious. It is one thing to lose a divine friend. It’s another thing to have been depending on that friend for every little thing in life. I needed to not die, and, finding myself alive, I now needed to create from nothing a new meaning and purpose.

The police car rounds the corner. My car rolls away as yellow turns to red. What became of that man bleeding out on the pavement, I may never know. And what have I become? What is left when we start over? I stand before the mirror in my hotel room. I can’t even remember my life before now. Who was I? My finger traces along fading scars to find some of them are truly gone. I survived. But what have I become?

I carry the pride of a handful of accomplishments and the shame of some unforgettable mistakes. In two years, so much can change. I get desperate though, scouring the freshly dug fields of my soul, wishing, hoping, praying to find something to show from all this toil. I don’t forgive myself. I am beyond grace. There should be something more to show. Is there? Perhaps. Perhaps not. The only solace is the continued beating of my heart. What have I become? Nothing. But I’m still alive, and I’ll try again tomorrow.

My Drug of Choice

Can’t fully remember, and yet I can’t fully forget.

Who are you, stranger?

Stranger still, who am I?

What secrets bind us together and tear us apart? What miracles? What hell?

I feel you in my shadow, growing in the darkness.

At sunrise I hear you whisper of light and glory and power.

My drug, of choice. Withdrawal, I suffer.

Hating that I loved you.

Loving that I had you.

Having not to need you.

Needing not to want you.

Wanting to turn back the hands of time.

The hands that tied the knot that made the noose that took my breath, my life, my soul.

A ghost now, wandering.

Wondering if I can find…a doctor…a medic…a mortician.

Make me fully alive, or make me fully dead.

Make me fully remember.

Or make me fully forget.

Disaster in Detriot

“I hope this email finds you well…”

Such simple words, glowing off a dimmed laptop screen. I already knew what the rest of the email would say. The startling, terrifying events of the previous weekend were burned into my mind. It wasn’t supposed to be like this. Just one nice, easy marathon to end the year of running that had already been so immeasurably epic and memorable.

Motown.

The sight of its skyline was once so familiar to me, as I had traversed the Ambassador bridge countless times between Michigan and Canada. This time was going to be different. All of those other times I had covered the distance in my car. This time, thanks to the Detroit Free Press Marathon, I’d make the journey to Windsor and back on foot. The idea of running across an international border was incredibly exciting to me. Living my new life as a flight attendant, fitting training into an absurdly undulating schedule can be insane, and I knew I wasn’t anywhere near the condition I’d been in a year before. I knew I’d not even get within a half hour of sniffing the back end of my PR. Still, it seemed like fun and a good way to end things. What awaited me was another thing entirely.

The weekend was going exceptionally well. I’d successfully managed to have enough time off to visit my little bro and the family in Windsor before the race, and when I say it was a blast, I mean really. Hard to believe a year can go by so fast. There was so much catching up to do. Everyone grows up so fast. Then it was back to Detroit to pick up my sister from the airport and head to packet pickup.img_5564

Our visit to the expo was a pretty nice one. One of the highlights to me was stopping by the booth for the USAF Marathon. My sister had run it just a month or so earlier, and I had volunteered at one of the aid stations. One of the people in charge of logistics was there, and we had a great time recounting the highs and lows of the event. As it turned out, he eventually recalled that he’d seem me. It was hard to miss me. I was doing anything and everything to get folks to take my water rather than anyone else’s. Trash talking, dancing, singing…it was a riot.

I really appreciate the moments I get to give back to the running community.

The next morning, dark and early, my sister and I headed for downtown. Traffic was abysmal, and pretty soon, she was freaking out about if we’d miss the start of the race. Finding parking in Detroit is bad enough, but add to that the road closures for the race and you have utter chaos. Nevertheless, we found a garage and followed the stream of people to the start line. That’s the thing…no one in their right mind is downtown that early on a Sunday morning unless it’s for a race, so you know where everyone is going.

It was a pretty non-climactic start as races go. They had waves starting every two minutes…but it gets to a point where people are tired of waiting for their wave. By the time the wave in front of ours started, we all just took off with them. The announcer was so confused why this wave was so much bigger. As we made our way down the dark streets, I could still hear him commenting over and over how this wave was never-ending.

The sun couldn’t rise fast enough. The streets were in bad shape. Well, it’s Detroit. I heard a few people behind me eat asphalt in the first mile. Nearly did the same myself. Before long, the massive Ambassador Bridge was in view. You just can’t appreciate how big and long it is until you’re on foot. It’s about a linear mile, end to end. The Canadian Border Patrol was so friendly, cheering for us all and welcoming us to Canada.

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Sunlight in the streets of Windsor, and I was feeling great. Body loose. Breathing smooth. I kept my head up as we turned a corner, and I saw a most beautiful sight…a Motor City sunrise. I just kept thinking to myself, “It’s a good day.” The forecast had a lot of us worried for the weekend, but what was once slated to be a miserable and wet day was looking beautiful. I struck up a conversation with a random guy all through windsor. He’d been running marathons for close to 20 years. We traded race stories and cracked jokes. Those people are the best. They keep your mind off the miles. Back through the tunnel to Detroit was tough. That gradual incline and the stifling lack of oxygen gets to you after a while.

Right near the middle of the tunnel someone had collapsed. There was a small group around the runner trying to help. Talk about the worst possible place to go down. Thankfully a bike patroller rolled by and then sped off for help. Nearing mile 8, as I was coming out of the tunnel on the US side, the CBP officers were running in with their gear. I took the first gasp of fresh air I’d had in a while, I hoped all was well with the downed runner.

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My fan club…Dad and Mom on the course.

To this point, I was ahead of the 4:20 pacer. “Just stay with them for the first half,” I told myself. I knew it wasn’t realistic to keep it the whole way, but I knew I’d get a half out. Sure enough, right around the 13-14 mile point, my legs told me it was time to gear down and lock in for the worst half of the course. The last half is usually rough for any marathon just because of how depleted your body gets after that distance and level of exertion. This race was doubly so. All the highlights of crossing borders are done, and you head out into a less populated stretch, capped off by trip to Belle Isle, where there’s literally NO ONE there to get you pumped aside from a single water station.

I wasn’t feeling great. Usually I’m a lot more jovial, joking with other runners out there and such. Something was different today. Something just wasn’t there. I tucked in with the 4:30s for a while and then let them go. The people cheering us on were few, but they were memorable. A man decked out in purple shouting to us and playing some Prince hits on a big speaker. Some people dancing Polka and handing out beer. And of course, there was the “wall” some folks had build with a little door we could run through as they told us not to hit the wall.

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The weather was turning sour quickly. Clouds filled the sky and a breeze kicked up. As I headed for the island, and steady drizzle set in. Twenty-two miles done. Just four more. The island water station was coming into view,

and that’s when it happened.

It started as just a little wavering feeling inside. I’d been pushing myself a lot, just telling myself anything and everything I thought I needed to hear. It was working, for the most part, but this feeling was different. Something was telling me to stop, but I didn’t want to. I’m all about a strong mind and I willed myself to keep moving. Then it hit me. It’s like when you’re trying not to cry and get a lump in your throat, but it was monumental. I went from full stride to a dead stop, instantaneously suffocating. I was doubled over; every breath in was like trying to inhale through a straw with a slab of concrete sitting on it. And the sound…the screeching, wheezing sound alone frightened me. Panic rushed through my body as my heart rate raced and each breath did less for me than the last one did.

I’ve done a lot of running in a lot of conditions…but even running full speed at 14,000 feet was nothing compared to this. I struggled to remain calm, which is saying a lot. I have not known a fear like this in life. There weren’t many runners around. A few slowed down to ask if I was ok. I couldn’t even respond. I couldn’t move. I have no idea how long I stood there. Slowly, the excruciating tightness around my throat loosened. I staggered to the water station.

Less than 4 miles to go. I started crunching numbers. How hard can I run? How hard dare I run? How long before I’m sure that if this happens again they can reach me in time? And then it started pouring. Soaked from head to toe, I started slogging the miles again. It was slow. It was painful. And always in the back of my head: the frightening thought that this could happen again at any second. I just wanted to be out of there. I’ve never wanted so desperately to be done with a race.

Purple Rain man appeared again, shouting encouragement. I tried to muster a smile, or the similitude of one. Each mile was an eternity. As the course ran it’s way beside the water and the skyline stretched itself from the horizon, as runners, old and young, passed me, as my lungs heaved and my heart raced another man was standing there. “Just like that!” he called out. “Keep that pace. Don’t go faster. Don’t go slower. Just keep the pace!” I wanted to cry. I have never run a longer mile and a half.

A final water station came into view. I didn’t dare to stop. I had to finish this. Half a mile to go, I saw my parents to the left side. I tried to put on a smile for them, but I didn’t have one. I didn’t have anything. All that filled my mind was one singular thought, one sole purpose. Cross that line. Now.

I felt it coming back.

I tried to fight the panicked fear that was beginning to grip me again. I couldn’t breathe. Again. The cramps I’d been fighting those last 5 miles were exacerbated by the lack of oxygen. The stride became a limp. I was barely aware of anything around me. I couldn’t even see the finish line in front of me. My throat locked. My quads stalled. My heart dropped. Doubled over. Blind. All I could do was hear people shouting louder and louder. Then there was a hand and a voice. I don’t even know what the voice said. But arms wrapped around me and raised me up.

I couldn’t speak. I couldn’t breathe. And from nothing came the machine. Movement. A shuffle. One foot and then another. It was weak and vacillating…more focused on maintaining an upright balance than fixed on a finish line…and not even doing that well. And then even that wasn’t enough. I fell to the ground. That was it. Fully emptied both of strength and will. Another stranger came to my other side. The two of them lifted me aright once more. Lifted again, my legs did what I have always forced them to do. Move forward. I couldn’t support my own weight, but I could still move forward.

img_9948I have no memory of the finish line. A wheelchair raced me from there to a medical tent. I don’t remember much of that either. Still gasping for breath, I tried to find words to explain I had never experienced this before and that it had just hit me, inexplicably, just a few miles earlier. I blacked out. I have no idea how long. And then there was my sister. I was breathing again. Soon I found my legs again, and they carried me out to find the rest of my family. I walked back up to the finish line to get my finisher’s medal. In the back of my head, I wondered what had become of the strangers that carried me those final feet.

A week later, I had an email…

“Hi Benjamin,

I hope this email finds you well.”

Her name was Andrea. She was the first to come to my side. She had been worried over what had become of me, and with the help of her sister, they tracked down Jim. He was the second to aid me. He also sent me an email. They’d looked at finisher photos to find his bib number and contacted him. He was then able to look through pictures his wife had taken to find my bib number which was obscured by the arms holding me up in the finisher photos.

img_5566People wonder why I run.

I don’t know what to tell them. Then, there are moments like this one. This is why I run. We are all strangers. Different genders, ages, races, cultures, religions, political views…different everything. But when we’re out there, no one gives a damn about any of that. We’re all a part of something bigger. The running community is a beautiful thing. It is a family, and we look out for each other. Andrea and Jim, perfect strangers, had my back that soggy day. That’s why I do this. When I’m out there, I’m giving. And when I’ve given my all and there is nothing left, there’s always someone else giving too. That’s what it’s all about. Giving. In this day and age, that’s a rare and beautiful thing.

Journey to the Top

Can’t sleep. It seems to be a regular thing the night before a race. I get antsy before a race. Usually starts a couple of days ahead of time, but this time I was too busy to even let that happen. The night before I was supposed to be leaving for Colorado, my flight schedule went crazy. Every airport was under heavy delays. It got to a point where it appeared I would miss my flight home. That was going to throw a huge wrench into the wheel of getting the show on the road. Miraculously the departure of the final flight home got pushed back because the crew that was supposed to fly it was also delayed getting into Charlotte.

I got to base close to midnight. It was chaotic. I had to unpack, see my mother, and repack for the trip. While I was doing that, I was also checking the flights for the next day. Connections through Dallas and Chicago were oversold. I’d have to take a flight back to Charlotte at 5AM. By the time I had everything ready to go, I had scarcely an hour to sleep before heading right back to the airport. Definitely no time to be anxious about the race.

Now, the night before the race, was a great time for anxiety to rise. I’d spent the day basking in the radiant sunlight that shone over the Garden of the Gods. It was refreshing and relaxing. That evening, I’d decided to take a stab at The Incline. Formerly an inclined railway to a tourist outlook on the valley, now frequented by fitness fanatics and other folks who like a little pain, it’s a mile long trail straight up the side of the mountain with about a 2,000 ft. elevation gain. I wanted to test my legs and lungs to figure how I might fare in the morning headed up Pikes Peak. It was brutal. Every step you take forward is slower than the last, and ever stair is steeper than the last.

image5It was overkill. Probably not the best idea for someone about to have the race of a lifetime up the side of a mountain the next morning. I reached the top in under an hour and my legs were dying. I opted to take a side trail that weaves back and forth rather than descending the same treacherous stairs. Downhill trail running. Nothing quite compares to the thrill of hurtling through the woods at breakneck speeds, scarcely able to scope out safe footfalls on treacherous terrain. One missed step, and you’re down. It was about a 3 mile trail. Of those 15,840 steps, I only missed one. Bloody knees and a bruised hip were my rewards.

Add on to the fresh injuries the fact that right in the middle of my training, I’d dislocated my knee playing basketball and had missed out on 4-6 critical weeks of preparation, leaving me just 1-2 weeks to attempt to prepare my body for the challenge of reaching the summit, and you can begin to understand the level of trepidation rising within me.

By 4:30, I’d given up on sleeping and started to get ready. I checked the summit weather forecast again. Something like 3-6 inches of snow. Temperatures around 35º for the morning. I started packing up everything I had just in case. Windbreaker, gloves, arm warmers, cap, gels, salt tabs, chews. I hoped I wouldn’t need it all, but it’s better to be prepared than to leave it to chance. The race organizer warned us, “This isn’t just a race. This is mountaineering.” Totally different animal than anything I had ever done. Long before having known what the weather gods would bestow upon us, I had selected a shirt for the race that would grow to embody the entire day. It featured the quote of Nux from Mad Max: Fury Road as he drove his car into the almost certain destruction of a deadly sandstorm: “Oh, what a day! What a lovely day!”

By the time I reached the staging area, the voices in my head were unbearable. I was nowhere near the shape I expected to be in for the race. They seeded the wave start based on qualifying times. I’d put up an awesome qualifying time, and they had placed me in the 5th wave. “Better go with a later wave,” I told myself, “don’t line up yet.”  My stomach started churning. I headed for the portapotty line, figuring I might as well make sure I emptied out before I got out on the trail. There wouldn’t be any more potties anywhere on the way.

screen-shot-2016-09-16-at-2-21-08-pmI returned and decided to join the 10th wave. Toeing the line, I just took a deep breath. “Free your mind.” I exhaled. And we were off. The first mile pushed through Manitou Springs, and then there was an all too familiar turn, an uphill turn I’d made searching for the base of the incline the night before. Maybe it was a good thing I came this way before. Now I was somewhat prepared. In the back of my mind was the thought to not look like I didn’t know what I was doing.  People around me were slowing to a brisk walking pace. I geared my stride down and prepared for the long haul. It’d just been a mile. You run as long as you can, but soon the mountain pushes you into a stair-climbing pace.

It was still cool and damp from the near flash flood of the night before. For this stretch at least I knew I was properly robed. Everyone is different though. You see people out there in tank tops and some in jackets. Some have shorts, some have leggings, some have jogging suit pants. In the end, there is no universal right or wrong. You just find what works for you, and what I had was working for me.

Near two miles in, I saw something you don’t see that often in these types of races…a black person. Just being honest. In all the trail running I’ve done, it’s just a rare thing. Road races and city running, you’ll see some brothers out there, but not so much out here. We struck up a conversation. He was a doubler—one of those insane people who sign up to do the half marathon to the summit one day and a full marathon to the summit and back the very next day. He was very encouraging. “Just take it easy,” he told me, “there’s plenty of mountain left. Most of these people going by…you’ll see them again.”

screen-shot-2016-09-16-at-2-28-36-pmThe trail’s initially familiar weave soon became unknown as I passed the spot where my decent from the incline had begun. The trail got steeper, and each step became more laborious. With sweat streaming down my face, I broke through fog, and through the trees, the surrounding peaks came into view, and yet, they were nothing. I tried to smile and fight through it, knowing each step made the next one more impossible. The running joke of the race was, “There’s just one more hill.” Another aid station came into view. They say hydrate early and hydrate often. You sweat so much more than you realize out there. The exertion is unlike anything you can imagine.

Unbelievably, the sun came shining through out of nowhere, energizing my pace. While I’d felt a little chilly early on, now things seemed perfect. It’s funny how the body can so quickly learn to adjust its expectations. The trail averages a 10-15% grade the entire way. It’s grueling. It takes you to this savagely primal place. When the trail gets anywhere near level, even a 3-5% grade can feel like a downhill stretch. It just feels so good. I started running every time. Aside from not being able to breathe, I was feeling great. The higher we got, the more perfect that day became. Blue skies. Clouds breaking away. Oh, what a day! What a lovely day!

Young people passed me. Old people passed me. I never felt bad about it. The true enemy loomed in the distance, staring through the trees, daring me to take another step. I fought myself to push harder. I could feel the onset of cramps repeatedly. Every time they’d start up, I’d take a salt tab. It’s always worked well for me, ever since I learned the trick on my 50-miler last year. The only downside is that taking it on a empty stomach can make you throw up. I felt it coming on…that massive surge of saliva and tightening of the abdomen. “Don’t do it,” I told myself. “Just don’t do it,” as if it was something that could be controlled. I couldn’t hold it anymore. I stepped off the side of the trail. Doubled over. It was inevitable. Every single person who passed by asked if I was ok. Everyone was suffering. Everyone was sympathetic. A couple of heaves came, but nothing came up. Still, I felt better and stepped back onto the trail.

The psychology of a mountain race is totally different than anything I’ve ever done. Most races are more or less of a loop. You end up right back where you started, or at least relatively close. This race was the opposite. It’s fiercely linear. You travel from point A to point B, and every step of the way, you are painfully aware of just how far you have to go. Your destination is visibly far from you, no matter how close you get.

Halfway through the race, I rounded a corner in the trail, and the sight stole my mind. The peak loomed on the horizon. I stepped off to the side and stood there in a moment of silence. So far I had come, and still my destination was the horizon. Up over 10,000 feet, my mind thought about how on one of my planes I would be starting the beverage service and how a pilot friend had been telling me all pilots are legally required to have an oxygen supply available if flying above that altitude. I knew these last miles would be the true test. Oxygen deprivation is not a thing to be taken lightly. Hypoxia can be deadly.

screen-shot-2016-09-16-at-2-34-13-pmWith each step, some demons die, and others are born. Doubt and confidence wage a relentless battle for supremacy. I live. I die. I live again. You become conscious of everything. My ears were popping. I could feel every little bit of rock and dirt that had worked their way into my shoes. Every breath is a conscious one. Extremities tingle. Every now and then, I felt a little moment something like getting dizzy, but completely different. Almost like someone cut off blood flow to your brain for a split second. I kept trying to fight through it. “Last hill!” I called out as a passed another fellow. “Last hill!” he called back. Somehow it hurt less to breathe when we talked to each other.

The woman behind me staggered to a stop. It was that kind of stop where your last footstep doesn’t leave the ground. It just pushes across the surface. I asked if she was ok. She was cramping to the point of paralysis. I pulled out some salt tabs and gave them to her, telling her she was going to be ok. She was to the point of tears. “I can’t move,” she said. “It’s ok. Just lean on me. I’m here. I’ve got you.” Looking down, the cramps in her legs were actually visible. Without thinking, I just grabbed hold of one of her legs and started massaging it. It stands as an odd moment in my mind, grabbing the thigh of a total stranger. It was just something that had to be done. Any other place or time it would be at least awkward if not inappropriate, but this wasn’t any other place or any other time. Another woman stopped and asked if she could help, pulling some electrolytes from her bag. As we stayed there with her, she told us we should keep on going without her. Despite her words, we stayed by her side until she was mobile. A community of strangers came together in a moment to make sure that one person could keep going. It was beautiful. Slowly but surely, her muscles relaxed, and we returned to the trail.

The altering dimensions of the landscape become liminal. Fewer trees. Smaller. Rocks turn to boulders. The disappearing foliage robs the air of what little oxygen could have been contributed. The trail just gets steeper. I began questioning my preparedness. I’d packed double what I usually would for a half marathon. I probably should have tripled it. Those last 3 miles are grueling. Hunger and exhaustion take an ever increasing toll on pace. It all turned to a blur in my mind. Only one lingering, dominant, obsessive thought. One goal. Make it. Just make it. Run if you can. Walk if you must. Crawl. Just get there. All around are others, laid waste by the sickness and fatigue. Behind me there was a guy with a larger pack. He’d come well prepared for the journey. As we passed every person on the side of the trail, he offered them the supplements he had. It was touching how close and united we could all become, having no history and no rapport, but simply sharing a common obstacle and a singular goal.

screen-shot-2016-09-16-at-2-37-03-pmAt the final aid station I told myself that I had earned a break. Aside from getting food and water at the aid stations, I had only truly stopped to rest once in all those hours. The volunteers were incredible, pumping us up for one final push. The summit was within sight, but it still seemed an eternity away. I sat on the side of the trail, taking in the view, knowing my eyes were seeing things that few eyes have ever seen before. One volunteer came to check if I was ok, humorously asking what I needed so I could get out of here, because she wasn’t going to deal with a rescue situation this close to the summit. We both laughed and she brought some delicious junk food for me. From there, I barely remember anything except perhaps rounding a switchback and seeing the sign signaling the “sixteen golden stairs,” as they’re endearingly known. The final 16 switchbacks. Steep. Brutal. Savage. Breath was so precious, I unfastened the already loose chest strap on my pack, unable to take even the slightest pressure on my lungs any longer.

The constant voices in my head reached the level of full cacophony. Then I could see the flags of the finish line. A reserve of adrenaline unimaginable was suddenly released and the lack of oxygen was irrelevant. The voices in my head were one by one replaced by the shouts of people.Real people. The finish line. All I had left in my propelled me forward until I was running. Everything disappeared except that finish line. A few last treacherous rocks. With a final heaving breath, I climbed over the last obstacle and left loose a final emphatic cry of victory:

“Witness Me!!!!”

And it was over. Words have not yet be created to describe the feeling of that moment. Volunteers at the summit rushed to my side to stabilize my staggering body over the path away from the finish line. They draped a medal around my neck. They fed me. They were an amazing lot. In the next minutes and hours, I felt nothing and yet I felt everything. I may have passed out on the bus ride down to the valley.

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The next day I stared off at the foggy mountaintop in the distance. “I did that,” you told myself. “I was there. I did that.” Over and over, as if to convince myself.

There, in the Garden of the Gods, I sat on a cliff’s edge, legs dangling, leaning against a boulder, arms wrapped about it as if embracing a long lost friend. All the while, I was fighting a fearful feeling, as if reality was becoming a memory that would soon slip away, as if the real world would trespass on this sanctuary of my soul and rend this feeling away from me.

I’ve always been my worst critic. Rehearsing every fault, recounting every flaw. All the good I’ve done, I can forget in an instant. The great things accomplished, gone in a breath. “Don’t ever forget this moment,” I whispered to myself as I closed my eyes. “You did this.” I opened my eyes again. The mountain was still there, and so was I. Leaving now. Still breathless. Still speechless. So full and yet so empty. And I try to remember the world doesn’t go away when I close my eyes. I have to remember that I have done great things, even if I can’t remember them. I have to remember. Who am I? I do not know. And how can I? How is one known? How can one be known when each memory fades like the lead of a pencil weathers off a page? What have I done? I do not know. I must begin…somewhere. I must remember. It starts with what I’ve done. This is what I have done. I must remember what it took to come this far. I must remember what greatness lives within me.

This is who I am.

You can watch the full film version of the race here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6t5PkvVeOik