In Search of Our Former Selves

They say innocence is only lost once. I am not sure if I agree. Innocence is lost every day, slowly, like a compromise in the hull of a boat. I doesn’t sink all at once. There is a gradual surrender as the sea claims its treasure; So it is with this strange existence we call life. Abrasive, it erodes away anything insufficiently hardened to withstand it. When I look in the mirror, I no longer see myself. All that marked and defined my former self is gone, but when was it lost? Where did it go?

Innocence…only lost once? Is it lost in dark corners when small children are molested by those they trust and look up to? Is it lost when the systems they say protect us instead offer us up like lambs for slaughter? Or is it in those moments when one cries alone, finding no comfort, solace, or promise of peace? Is it when life snatches itself from loved ones, and one stands over the cold ashes trying to find meaning in death? Or is it when one finally surrenders to despair, finding the cruelty and injustice of the world too much to bear? What of the losses of faith, hope, and love? If all these happen, then which one is more formative and defining than the others? Can they be differentiated or ranked? Is one loss greater than any other? Or are they losses at all?

Perhaps it’s something more like reaching critical mass or crossing the event horizon on the way towards a black hole. Perhaps it’s a moment of inevitability. It takes place in a moment entirely unheralded and unnoticed. If asked to pinpoint the moment of the change, none could do so, and yet a fate is already sealed up. Long after the crossing of the event horizon, the signs become more evident, but one has already passed the point of no return. So was innocence lost when one disappeared into a black hole of unbelief, that last, most noted moment, or was it lost at the event horizon, some point unnoticed by onlookers and unmarked in space and time? Is it a cosmic magic trick, slyly misdirecting the attention while the underhanded deed is completed?

Perhaps this point of discourse is entirely mute. The bottom line is it is lost. The defining of when it was lost may yield little to no insight into the present and the future, but indulge me for a moment longer.

Innocence is lost a thousand times over a lifetime. Our former selves lie prostrate and restrained. The inner child struggles against it, anticipating the pain that is yet ahead. One strip at a time, the flesh of the child is flayed, and with each stroke, a new darkness is born–birthed of disbelief and heartbreak. The immature mind wrestles with the fragments of reality to make this moment make sense. Is this happening? Why is this happening? Why can’t I make it stop? Every wound becomes an open portal to the unthinkable. Bloodcurdling screams are unanswered. Streaming tears are undried. Innocence is lost with every stroke of the blade, but it is fully lost before the child is fully flayed.

But the child must die, must it not? And brutally so. Is not this death critical if not imperative to survival? From this death of our former selves rises a new life. The organic gives way to the unnatural, the analog to the digital, the corporeal to the machine, and from there, deus ex machina. This world presses. This world hardens. This world leaves no place for the delicate and the frail. The flesh of the child is replaced with armor. Faith is exchanged for nihilism. From the Frankensteinian table of torture rises a meta-self.

Is the new self better than its predecessor? No, but it is more durable. It feels less. It withstands more. Nothing ends in a state greater than it began. Every metamorphosis on the planet ends in degradation. Then why do we search endlessly for our former selves? Why do we ask ourselves when and where they were lost as we gaze into the mirror of introspection, preparing for an ill-advised pilgrimage through our past? The efficiency of this modern self is undeniable. Mistakes and perceived slights so easily obliterated. Ctrl+X, Ctrl+C, Ctrl+V. Acceptance. That’s just the way the world works. That just how messed up that person is. Before, our thoughts were written by hand on the parchment of our minds. Every letter had meaning. Every flourish had purpose. Mistakes hurt because we were real people. We always needed to know why. We always wanted to understand. The wonder in a child’s eyes. The questioning of a child’s mind.

We search.

The meta-self survives, but it does not fulfill. It exists for the purpose of existence. A closed loop. Sustainable. Leading nowhere. And so we search for our former selves, knowing not where to begin, because if there is one thing the meta-self struggles to accept, it is itself. Deep within, it retains the memories of what once was, and as much as its rise is a function of natural selection, its struggle for supremacy is a sign that while the event horizon may have been crossed, the former self is not fully dead.

You will see and hear many things from my meta-self that may shock, surprise, or upset you. The torture of the shadows has made me what I am. I say things I never thought I would say, and I do things I never thought I would do. I screamed in the darkness. No one heard. I cried in agony. The tears dried themselves. I’ve left behind the spirit of that flayed corpse, and from the darkness, I rise. Not a preacher, not a teacher, not a mentor, not a missionary, not even a believer. I rise a man and nothing more. The search may continue for my former self, but let the present be my witness. I will not stand on the merit of who I was or who you thought me to be. I am my own darkness. I am my own light. I am my own wrong. I am my own right. I embrace that which embraces. I reject that which rejects. I build that which strengths. I destroy that which corrupts. I accept that which empowers. I deny that which enslaves. And so long as breath and reason remains within me, so shall I be.

Machina ex nihilo.

Attrition

Attrition (noun)

  • the action or process of gradually reducing the strength or effectiveness of someone or something through sustained attack or pressure

Twenty thousand people clogged the streets of downtown Cincinnati. In the pre-dawn haze, chatter swarmed over a great many subjects, punctuated by the squeak of shoes against wet pavement and the spring-loaded slam of a hundred porta-potty doors. The stage was set for the 18th Annual Flying Pig Marathon.

A thousand thoughts flood through your mind in those anxious moments before you cross the starting line. I hadn’t trained for this race. It was just another spur of the moment thing, just like the last marathon I ran. It wouldn’t be a record setter, I already knew that for sure, but I just wanted to get out there and run hard, make a new memory, and have a good time. I never could have imagined how it would end for me.

IMG_1872I told myself it would be easy. My last marathon, a month previous, was the most brutal I’ve ever run, and thanks to a mis-measured course, I was in nearly 28 miles of vicious hills–around 3,500 feet of elevation climbing and an equal amount of descent. Like a death-march, one by one, the trail claimed runners. As I started the second half, I debated whether or not I really should continue. Around 18 miles in, the trail took me down, and I struggled to carry on with bloody knees and bruised determination. When it was all said and done, it was my worst marathon finish time. Ever.

This wouldn’t be like that. “These hills are nothing compared to that,” I kept telling myself. Others told me, it would be all downhill after mile 9. All I wanted this time was to keep under 5 hours. I figured it was a realistic expectation given my sporadic training schedule and my hectic lifestyle in the preceding months.

The first miles of the race were as jovial as usual. I have this habit of randomly shouting out bits of goofy encouragement to my fellow runners along the way in a gravelly half-pirate voice. “Before us is the bridge to Ohio! Shall we turn back? Or shall we take the bridge? Take the bridge!” Half of the people laughed. The other half–well, the other half is irrelevant. I saw a woman look over her shoulder a couple of times and then heard her say to the man beside her, “I don’t see him.” I realized she was trying to see who was calling out. I ran alongside and said, “Be ye lookin’ fer a pirate?”  We all burst out laughing. “Yaaar! A pirate in disguise!” The man said. “Aye, ye land lubber. Shall we take the bridge? The bridge is ours!” I shouted back. I kept seeing that same couple every few miles for the next few hours. It served to do much to ease the pain of the journey.

Attrition is a terrible thing. In each of us, there is a measure of strength, of endurance. Any one of us could go one mile. Were someone to ask at the end of that mile if we were capable of going another mile, most would say yes. Repeat that sequence 6 times and there will certainly be a gradual taper of those willing to continue. The distance to be covered each time is the same, but the resources available are increasingly taxed and diminished.

Anyone who has run beyond a half marathon can tell you that there is a real, physiological threshold the body crosses. After you’ve crossed it, everything your body stored up in preparation for the ordeal is gone. All you have left is your mind and whatever extra fuel you carry or is provided on the course. It takes a massive toll. Rocks become boulders. Hills become mountains. Hope becomes desperation.

On the Flying Pig course, there was a massive hill that ended just before the course split for the half and full marathon, around mile 9-10. Like the nut I usually am, I shouted out random encouragement to my fellow runners, and slowly but surely, we crested the hill. I tried to recall the course map in my head. “I think it’s all downhill from here,” I said to myself. The previous year, when I’d done the half, it had been all downhill, so I was banking on the idea the full course was similar. I was sadly mistaken. There was a nice gradual downhill after the split, but from there, constant “rolling hills,” as they call them. It’s a net downhill. You go down more than you go up, but you go up a hell of a lot.

Sixteen miles or so into it, the 4:30 pace crew passed me. Part of me wanted to surge and keep up with them. Another part of me knew there were still some hard miles left, and as my body sounded off a few warnings of the cramps that were soon coming, I realized I hadn’t brought the salt tablets I usually bring, which are my surefire cramp remedy. Better to hold back, pace myself, and see what’s left in the tank around mile 20.

Screen Shot 2016-05-15 at 4.29.34 PMThe humidity was totally awful. The sweat runs down your legs and into your shoes. If for no other reason, I’m in love with my inov-8 running shoes because, being so breathable, even when the sweat flow should be causing a puddle, my feet are still relatively dry. And no, I’m not paid to say that. They just work really really well for me. Anyway, I needed something…anything to get my mind off of the miles ahead. I looked for my pirate buddies. A “yaaar” would do me good, but they had vanished over the next hill. It was just me. Cramps hit hard. I had to stop and stretch. I hate stopping. Once the momentum is gone, it takes so much to get going again. I pushed a hard walking pace up the hill. There was another guy walking too. We struck up a conversation. It helped a lot. Within a few minutes, I’d been able to block out all of the pain of existence and movement, and I was ready to run again.

The volunteers at the aid stations were so awesome. Their encouragements kept a smile on my face. “Young man, you’re doing great! You’re looking good,” one of them called out as I passed by. Just four miles to go. Soon I heard the theme from Chariots of Fire playing in the distance. A old fellow was sitting in his front yard with a speaker and a smile on his face. I couldn’t help but smile and wave.

With just over a mile to go, I heard another sound. I couldn’t tell if it was crying or suffocating. I slowed my pace and came alongside a young woman who was fighting back tears, barely able to breathe. I could have kept running, but long ago, I learned that running isn’t just about me. It’s not about getting myself across the line. We’re all out there together. We are suffering together. And we can overcome together. I put my hand on her shoulder and asked if she was ok. She wasn’t doing great. She said she wanted to quit. She wanted to give up. I could tell she was in excruciating pain. I asked if I could stay with her. She said I didn’t have to. I stayed. There was a water station. We slowed to a walk. I knew how bad it hurt. I ran the same course. The hills were devastating. The humidity was stifling. The attrition. The attrition was deadly.

In those last few miles, I’d been fighting back my own tears. And I never cry. I knew how bad it was out there. I was out there too. She was finally able to breathe. Within a few moments she said she thought she could run again, and so we ran. There was just one little hill left. And three quarters of a mile to go. The skyline that was once on the horizon was now spreading open for us. The cheers of the crowd grew just a little louder. I don’t know what I said to her. I just remember knowing, if I could keep her talking, it would keep our minds off of the brutal assaults of the pavement, and we would be one step closer to finished.

Life is a marathon. A battle of attrition. Some people are able to rocket through all the way, but for most of us, the journey is slow and painful. Hills of despair break our will to move forward. The scorching of the sun sears what is left of our sanity. Resources are depleted. The resulting cramps threaten to immobilize us entirely. Left on our own, our defeat is all but assured. But we are not alone.

Beside you is another, striving, struggling to survive. Alone we are weak, but together we are strong. Before I started running those last miles with the young lady, all the thoughts that flooded my mind were how to keep from collapsing until after I crossed the finish line. I had accepted the certainty of collapse and was just bargaining with my body to hold our a little longer. I had to turn my focus from myself to the greater goal…for all of us to cross the finish line.

And then our moment came. “Do you hear that?” I said, turning towards her. “They’re cheering. They’re cheering for you!” Across the finish line. The race was completed. They draped medals upon us. I turned to her and smiled. A sweaty hug between two strangers who didn’t even know each other’s names.

IMG_1952It all impresses upon me a simple lesson in life. Alone, we may be weak, vulnerable, and unstable. Together, united, anything is possible. It takes a heart committed and a mind determined. No one gets left behind. Not just in a marathon, but in daily life, if you could be that person, then be that person, and if you can’t be that person, find that person. Stick together. Fight together. Strive together. Suffer together. Overcome together. In this war of attrition we call life, there is only one way we all make it.

Together.

He’s dead.

He’s dead now. I killed him.

I didn’t mean to. Or maybe I did. I just didn’t think I could or I would.

They say you never forget the first time–the first life you take. But it’s hard to remember. It all blurs together, and there’s just the fragments. I never talked about it. The fragments. That’s what will get you. They come out in the darkness like cockroaches. You’ll hear them scurry across the floor, always just beyond sight. It wasn’t supposed to happen. I didn’t plan this. It can’t be murder, right? It’s only murder if you plan it.

I don’t know how it happened. I didn’t even really know him. I’d see him all the time. Never asked his name. He just seemed like an ordinary guy. Maybe he just hit a rough patch. Down on his luck. He never said much. Head always bowed. Like he was always praying, or always depressed. One of the two for sure.

He had this smile though. That’s what everyone would say about him. It didn’t show that often since he never looked up, but when it did, it was always noticed. Maybe he was homeless. Nobody knew. No one cared to know. He wasn’t like the others out there though. There were the regulars. As soon as you came down the block, you could spot them. They’d be asking for spare change. I didn’t ever give any. I don’t trust these people. You never know what their real deal is. He wasn’t like them. He almost never asked for anything. But when he did, there was that damn smile. I knew he didn’t need any help. He couldn’t possibly. It was in his eyes. People always said they were so genuine, but when I looked into them, I could see the secrets. I knew his heart.

Sometimes you just know. Sometimes you just know when people aren’t real. You don’t even have to justify the feeling you get inside. You just know.

I didn’t know him. But I knew.

It was just one of those nights. I got off work late. I was exhausted and starving. I don’t eat regularly anyway. Habit. And in my line of work, it’s pretty hard to do anyway. But that night, all I could think about was eating. There was a Denny’s down the street and around the corner. Perfect. As I made my way towards it, I noticed something.

I notice everything. Just a kind of sense I have–always paying careful attention to my surroundings. In the shadow of the alley, I sensed a presence. Between the echoes of my shoes’ duet with the pavement, I heard it. This deep, mournful breathing. As I neared, it stopped. The form rose. I knew it was him.

Maybe it was the way his uneven shoulders leaned to one side. Or maybe it was…I don’t know. There are a million things it could have been. I just knew it was him. And then he called out.

“Sir?” he began in an uneasy voice.

I kept walking.

And again, “Sir?” It was louder this time. A little more confident. “Can you help me? Please?”

I never liked him. Something just wasn’t right about him. That night, I just wanted to mind my own business, stuff my face, and be on my way. He’d never spoken to me before. Perhaps he knew he would find no sympathy. He must have been desperate that night, but I was livid. I stopped. I remember the sound of my shoe against the gritty pavement.

“You got a problem, buddy?”

He took a step back and lowered his head again. That damn penitent posture of his.

“I said, do you have a problem?!”

“I’m sorry, sir,” he stammered, “but I was wondering if…”

“Well spit it out already!”

“I don’t mean to trouble you…it’s just…”

That did it.

“Trouble me? You don’t mean to trouble me? The fuck do you think you’re doing then? I’m minding my own business just trying to get a meal, and here you are bumbling in my way. I couldn’t stand you before. Now you’re just digging your own grave.”

Ironic, isn’t it. The things we say. It’s like there is a subconscious omniscience inside of us that just manifests itself now and then.  Or maybe the power of the gods rests in the frailty of human flesh, and the very things we speak become reality.

From that moment, it all breaks apart. I don’t know what it was. Maybe it was just a bad time. Maybe it was the stress of all I’d been holding in. They say I repress my emotions. They say it’s not healthy. It’s true that I make a conscious effort to avoid the expression and release of the things I feel. When I was a child, I had uncontrollable fits of rage. I would never remember them. I’d just find myself standing there after it was all over, surveying the damage to the things and people around me, piecing together what I can only imagine must have transpired, trying to make sense of it all. But that was a long time ago. I got all of that under control. I learned to hold it in…to bend and not break. I was a better man. I’d like to think I spared the world from a great deal of evil. Most of the time at least.

He kept backing away, deeper into the alley. I could tell he disliked confrontation. His entire demeanor bowed before me. I was unappeased. I really couldn’t tell you what happened next or how long it lasted. I know I pushed him. He fell against the wall of the building. He had this look in his eyes, as if he realized the nothingness that he was in my eyes.

I’m not a violent man. I am a gentleman. There was just something about him that got under my skin. It was like a parasite, altering the integrity of my inner-workings. I must have become irrational. Something snapped. My hand was on his throat. Pressure. I remember the pressure. I could feel the tremble of his vocal chords as he tried to reason with me. I remember the sound as the back of his head slammed against the wall. He wouldn’t retaliate. He wouldn’t push back. He thought he was too good for all of that. I knew his heart. I knew what was inside of him. He could fool everyone else, but not me. I could see right through him like the display window of a department store. I knew what he had in him. I’d get it out of him.

I must have thrown him to the ground. I don’t remember what happened. Fragments. Just the fragments. Perspiration. Beaded up on my forehead. Adrenaline. The heart beating faster. The fire pumping through my veins. Down my arm. To my clenched fist. To his face. That face. Those fucking eyes. They were begging, “please don’t do this.” And then, “please don’t make me do this.” And then, there it was. There was that creature he’d been holding inside. He was just like me. I knew it. I knew his heart.

In that moment, I could see the realization. He knew one of us would die that night. He knew he was fighting for his own right to exist another day on this planet.

Fragments. The taste of blood pouring from my lip. The crack of his ribs when I kicked him. The heavy breathing. The scuffle of shoes searching for footing. Reaching out for something. Anything. A weapon. I needed a weapon. I felt something on the ground. A piece of metal perhaps. I couldn’t get a hold of it. I turned to reach for it with both hands. He had something. Something rough. He bludgeoned the back of my head. I tried to shake it off as my strength gave out. A second time. The world blurred. I rolled over. The scrap of metal was in my hands now.

I stabbed him. I stabbed him in the side. It’s not like people think it is. It’s not like in the movies. You feel the layers you pierce. And the blood. Its warm. You don’t think about it. But it’s warm, running down your hand. I felt the life leaving him.

We wrestled. He was getting weak. Desperate. His movements, which at times seemed as calculated and methodical as a well-trained fighter, became frantic and chaotic. It’s the fragments you remember. His fingernails scratching against my flesh. The way his body writhed and shuddered when my hand found the stab wounds, when I pushed my thumb into them.

He wouldn’t die. He just wouldn’t die. The sound of him breathing. I loathed the sound of him breathing.

A necktie. He was wearing a necktie. He always wore a necktie. Always tried to look good. Dapper fucker. And that was his undoing. I grabbed it. I tightened it. With all of my strength, I tightened it. That sound. The sound of suffocation. His lungs straining. His body trembling. The gagging sound. His shaking hand found mine. I tightened my grip, wrapping the end of the tie around my hand so that it wouldn’t slip through my sweaty fingers. And his hand was on mine. But he wasn’t fighting it anymore. It was as if a tide of acceptance came over him, and with a final resignation, this scum accepted his fate. His palm rested on the back of my hand. And he gave it a gentle squeeze.

I didn’t know what to do.

I didn’t have to do anything.

Just like that, it was over.

I waited. He didn’t move. No rise of the chest. No flicker of light in the eyes. No life remained. I stood. And I waited. No second thoughts. No feeling of guilt or remorse. This was what he’d wanted. He drove me to this. He pushed me over the edge. This was his plan all along, and whoever he was, I’d just done him a huge favor. It was as if right at the end, he had thanked me. I rolled his lifeless corpse over, looking for a wallet or something. Martin. His name was Martin. Martin Edwards.

There was a little cash in the wallet. I took it. That’s what he would have wanted. I brushed the dirt and debris off of my clothes. As if I wasn’t hungry enough already, I’d definitely worked up an appetite. I emerged from the alley. Down the street. Denny’s.

He’s dead.

He’s dead now.

I killed him.

Child of Darkness

It doesn’t happen all at once. It starts off slow, like the sun across the sky. In the moment, you wouldn’t know it has moved at all, but each second sends you hurtling through space and time. Eyes to the sky, and you won’t see it. The brilliance blinds your view. Turn your gaze to the shadows, the tide of darkness washing away all that you once knew. You’ll see the darkness gather and grow, mustering its forces in the quietude of dusk.

That’s how it happens. One moment you’re living a life—living a dream. The next, you’re picking up the pieces, wishing you could awaken from the nightmare. How quickly what we once thought to be ours can slip away. Promises, vows—shifting sands. It’s not that we don’t mean what we say. Perhaps it’s that what we mean changes. Everything changes. Then, one day, the darkness reflected in the mirror bears no resemblance to the one you used to be.

The strengthened fist turns to trembling fingers. Nothing certain remains. There is no faith. There is no love. There is no god. There is only time and chance. You turn to the broken altar where the supernatural once rested, and all is silent. The sun has set on your life, or what you once thought to be yours, and you understand for the first time that nothing is yours and you are nothing.

Most turn from the darkness, fighting it, gripped by fear of the unknown, yet in it there is a warmth, a familiarity. The darkness within yourself can now be at peace. The base, the depraved creature within you is comforted and caressed by these blackened wings embracing you. Creature of darkness. Creature of the night. This pain you need. This music, haunting and serene. These chords, hallowed and chilling form the walls of your home. You are where you belong. You are what you were always meant to be.

The Journey of 2,015 Miles

2014-12-31 16.29.26The journey of 2,015 miles began with a single wreck. A year ago, my companions and I were traveling down to Phoenix, AZ when our truck and travel trailer started sliding out of control. In the end, the trailer flipped on the side of the road, and we were stranded on the side of the road still several hours from our destination. Aside from the immediate danger of our lives in peril, in the back of my mind was a little concern. Just a day away was the onset of the new year, and with it, what would be a most extraordinary attempt to cover 2,015 miles in a single year.

My long-time friend, David Hill, had called me up with a crazy idea earlier that month. “Do you want to try to run 2,015 miles in the year 2015?” If was the most ridiculous thing I had heard. It sounded impossible. On paper it made sense. 5.5 miles a day. Every day. In reality, it still didn’t make any sense. What happens if you miss a day? 11 miles the next day? Up to that point, the most I had ever run non-stop was 5-6 miles, and now I was going to do it every day? Madness! Insanity!

What he didn’t know was that I was going through the deepest layers of hell, condemned to remain somewhere between the eighth and ninth circles of Dante’s Inferno, not by my actions or free will, but bound and delivered there in chains of fate forged in the flames of the desires of others. So desperate was my state, alienated from every comfort, severed from every source of strength, I despaired of life, finding solace solely in the thought of rest in a grave. And to a man thusly burdened was presented the prospect of a task nearly equally as difficult as the already massive quest of finding the will to live just one more day. As both seemed nearly impossible, it seemed a match made in heaven. Both live for another year, and run two-thousand and fifteen miles in it, or neither. Double or nothing.

2015-01-16 19.29.27Perhaps now, looking back over the past year, this moment is my confession. For everyone to whom I have spoken the idea of running that number of miles has seemed monumental, bordering on impossible. So many people told me I should have tried something less extreme or more manageable. To this I say, as impossible and insane as it would seem to you to run 2,015 miles in a year, equally impossible and insane it seemed to me to continue the drawing of breath for another year. Perhaps as little as anyone would want to run those miles every single day, equally as little did I desire to push on through each day of this existence.

All of this may come as a shock to many of you. As many have noted my absence from contact, be it calls, texts, messengers, or social media, almost none have known the dire conditions precipitating this absence. Some have noted I’ve only reappeared to update the world of the progress of my running. Perhaps it served two purposes. Dead men don’t run. If I’m running, I’m still alive. I know not if the solitude was necessary or if living as a hermit was productive. All I do know is that I didn’t know how to live in this world. My struggles have been so contrary to what anyone knows of me, and they have been so impossible to explain, I opted to say nothing at all and simply hope that time and inertia would have a balancing effect on the chaos surrounding me.

Unceremoniously, the journey began. Live. Run.

2015-01-05 12.42.57Mother nature was my first foe. The icy wreck in Arizona put me two days off schedule. A new year, and already 11 miles behind. The only fortune was to have a few extra days in Arizona, trying to find a way home, which allowed a few sunshiny runs before being greeted by the subzero temperatures of home.

With January’s windchill temperatures at times dropping to -40º F, I was regrettably forced to log ceaseless hour after hour of mileage on treadmills. If there’s one thing I hate, it’s treadmill runs. The air is stale, there’s no breeze to cool you once you hit your stride, the televisions in front of you only play absolutely garbage, and the scenery never changes.

I’ll never forget how excited I was when we finally had double-digit temperatures. Fifteen degrees? I’m running outside!!! Sidewalks were still covered in ice and snow. More often than not, in addition to running, I was hurdling snow banks. It was freezing still, but the feeling of actual wind in my face, and the taste of fresh air always made it worth the treachery of mother nature. By February, after trying to put in an extra mile every other day, I was finally back ahead of the game, on track for completing the challenge.

2015-01-07 17.10.50Some people ask me why I run, how I run so long, or what’s going through my head hour after hour. It’s complicated, but it’s simple. When I run, the world stops. All the pain and frustration steeping in the toxic cauldron of my soul is purged, if only for a moment. As the miles roll by, the world ceases to exist. There is no pain inside. The only thing I feel is this body, pushing harder than it ever could–this heart pounding, this breath escaping. All I hear is the road beneath me and the approval of the wind in my face. I can’t feel the judgments of others. I can’t feel the stigma or the shame. I can’t hear the lies I accepted for so long. For that moment, I am free. That moment is addicting.

As hundreds of empty miles satiated my cravings for silence and solitude, the months also began to roll. I ran my first and second half marathons. Each day of training pushed me harder to be better than my former self. Learning to run. Learning to live. I tackled my first full marathon. I took my first top-10 finish. On I pressed to my first grueling 50-mile ultra marathon. As running progressed from 2 hours at a time to 4 hours–and ultimately 12.5 hours, I faced some real demons. You have to. You find that point where there is no such thing as trying. You either do or don’t. You press on, or you quit. You succeed, or you fail. Those miles break you down. I had to tell myself so many times, just don’t quit. Just don’t stop. The roads and trails have had their fill of my sweat. They have tasted my tears and been watered with my blood. But the last word is mine and mine alone. I’ve roamed the depths of hell, and the underworld would not have me. With Henley, I can say, “Out of the night that covers me, black as the pit from pole to pole, I thank whatever gods may be for my unconquerable soul.”

2015-01-20 01.54.31

One would think that once you’ve passed the halfway mark and you’ve got less ahead of you than you do behind you that it get easier. It doesn’t; trust me. With less than 500 miles to go, even the prospect of completion was nearly not enough to hold me here. Every day you’re out there running, and the finish line is no more real than it was the day you started. Even on a 15-mile day, the fraction of ground you’ve covered is nothing…literally nothing. Somehow you have to believe in something. You have to believe in something that isn’t real. You have to give meaning to something that would otherwise be insignificant. Belief is an act of creation. Every morning you have to get up and tell yourself what is real. You create your reality. A mile is nothing–unless you make it something. A day is nothing–unless you make it something.

If there is anything I’ve learned, it’s that there’s only so much magic in this universe. When you come across it, hold on to it. You never know what you have or how long you have it. You don’t know what is real and what is imagined. But those moments that take your breath away are worth finding. Believe in yourself. And when you can’t believe, know that there is still someone out there who does.

Two-thousand and fifteen miles since the journey began. Three-hundred and ninety-four hours and forty minutes of constant forward motion. A lot can happen in that much time and space. The man who ends the year writing now is not the same man who began it. Much I believed in and held to, I don’t believe anymore. Much of what defined me as a man and as a human is no longer true. The person you knew is dead and gone. As the new year emerges, and as I attempt to somehow reunite myself with the world I once knew, I invite you to know me. You may be shocked and surprised. There may be many questions and few answers, but in the end, I’m stronger than I’ve ever been, primed for survival in the underworld, forged by fire. Indestructible. As the year ends, all I can say comes down to this:

Fight, no matter how hard it may seem. A lost battle is not a lost war. Tomorrow offers another chance. It doesn’t matter how small it may seem, because a small victory is still a victory. Make moves instead of excuses. Action is power. Having heart is more important than skill. In the darkest moments, light still exists. Lift your head. Open your eyes. Victory is ahead. Even if you can’t see it. You just have to keep moving. One foot in front of the other…Until you reach the finish line.

Against An Army

Like waking up from a surgery that you didn’t plan on having, I awaked Thanksgiving Day in a most confused state of agony. It was as if someone had surgically inserted a screwdriver under my left kneecap. Three weeks earlier, it had inexplicably begun. A stabbing pain in the knee. It’s made the monumental task of logging 40-50 miles of running each week all the more insurmountable. Every day was a new game of trial and error in the quest for mobility. Some days the most I could muster was a pathetic limp, mile after mile.

IMG_0132Now it was time for my final race of the year. I limped down the stairs at 7AM to see when my sister wanted to head to downtown Miamisburg for the start of the 37th Annual Turkey Trot. I didn’t expect much. I couldn’t expect much. I was hoping at best to churn out a 9-minute-mile pace for the 5-miler. Clad in my WARPLANS training jersey, which I’ve worn in every race this year, but still with a notable limp, I made my way to the start line.

Years ago, partnering with my friend Ryan St. Hillaire, I started a non-profit organization called UnScene Media Group. The goal was to bring the eternal reality of God’s love to people through dynamic visual media, and all the projects we’ve worked on have done exactly that. Much has changed in the world, in the ministry, and in my life since then, but one of the things that has remained relevant amidst it all is the WARPLANS training project. There is a war going on in this world between good and evil. To survive, and ultimately to emerge from the battle victorious, one must have a plan. The message I’ve carried with me, every mile of every race is simple:

“For by You I can run against an army. By my God I can leap over a wall.” Psalms 18:29

Hundreds of miles have passed, and the message remains. With both training runs and races, the jersey has become a point of interest and a topic of conversation with others. I always told myself I had to finish strong so that every person I passed got to see the message. On this day, however, I was unsure if I would be able to give my usual kick. I told myself, “No matter how slow you start, finish strong.”

A mile into the Turkey Trot, I felt something pop in my knee. It was an audible pop. It was weird. When it happened a couple more times, I started to be a little concerned about the integrity of the joint stability. Tentative and cautious with each stride, I suddenly realized my knee wasn’t causing any pain at all. It just might turn out to be a good run after all. Running without pain is a beautiful thing.

I felt my stride lengthening and started passing my fellow runners. Cresting the hill, I could hear the burbling of the people I passed as they noticed my Run Against an Army shirt. “He must be Navy,” said one man, “Or Air Force,” a woman added. I chuckled to myself as the minutes and miles started to fly by.

2015-07-11 19.54.45As the water station at the halfway mark came into view, I was just enjoying myself too much to care about time, and I didn’t even look at my race time on my watch for the rest of the race. I kept a few people in my sights, as usual, just to try to push a little harder. That’s half the fun of racing for me. Passing people.

With a mile and a half to go, I noticed a guy pull up alongside me. Oddly enough, it seemed like he was looking me up and down. I paid him no heed. I was enjoying myself too much. I only had 3 more people to pass before the race ended. A younger boy, a teenage girl, and an older guy. I’d planned my pace and I was on target to overtake them all in smooth succession. Weaving back and forth over the next mile, I passed them all. A half mile to go, I saw the same guy who’d given me the sideways look pull up alongside me again. With a smirk on his face, he looked at me and said, “Try running against a Marine!” And he bolted off down the road.

A half mile. Eight-hundred meters. Two-thousand, six-hundred and forty feet. In all of my runs, that last half mile is that moment when everything else becomes meaningless. All  you’ve done up to this point is irrelevant. It all comes down to this sacred ground, from here to the finish line. No matter how tired, cramped, sore, and beleaguered the body may be, I’ve been programed through hours of sweat, days of toil, hundreds of miles of conditioning to push like my life depends on it. In all of my races though, it had only been a mental battle. I’d told myself I had to pass some specific person before crossing the finish line. But this time was different.

The stakes were the highest they had ever been. He’d thrown down the gauntlet, and it was up to me to take up the challenge. He was fast. Clearly. I watched as the gap widened between us. I told myself I was faster. It dawned on me that over the past mile he had quite literally been doing recon on me, preparing for the final assault. “Just stay close up to the last quarter mile,” I told myself. “He can’t handle your kick.”

The buildings of downtown Miamisburg blurred into a mirage. All I could see was the back of his shirt, just ahead of me. “You have to do this. You’re going to do this. Against an Army. Even against a Marine.” Three tenths of a mile. I made my move. I pulled alongside him as we made the final right hand turn to the finish line. I matched him, stride for stride. Quarter mile. It’s like something inside of me snapped. Sharp inhale. Surge. A finely tuned machine. No limits. No mercy. Something savage inside of me rose to the surface. With every stride, it was like fire through my veins. The race ceased to exist. The world ceased to exist. In that moment, it was as if space and time stood still. I was the master of my fate. No one could stop me. Nothing could slow me down. One hundred meters. I was running so hard, I felt the swelling urge to throw up. Fifty meters. Never looking back. Never knowing how much of a lead I had, if any. Nothing behind me was relevant.

And there it was. The finish line. Sprint. Stagger. Stop. Breathe. I looked around. I didn’t see him.

IMG_0133After a moment of catching by breath, I looked around me again. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw my challenger slowly making his way towards me, a smile on his face. He extended his hand towards me. With a firm handshake and a strong gaze, he said, “Good race.”

When I finally did check my race stats, I was shocked to see my Garmin clocked my final kick speed maxing out at just over 13 mph! It was otherworldly for a man who could barely even walk down a flight of stairs only an hour or two beforehand. These moments will remain etched in my mind. I could not imagine a better way to finish a year of epic races than this. The story was told over and over for the rest of the day.

Thanksgiving. So much for which to be thankful. Family. Food. Fun. And the strength to run against an army and prevail.

The Lesson of Death

Whether or not my absence from the real world and the social media has been notable or not, I do not know, but it has been quite real. If the truth be told, I have struggled know how to live in this world…to know how to engage it, and perhaps furthermore, to have a desire for this world. Yet, fate has ordained a final treatise on the subject, and so it begins.

One year ago, today, a final nail was driven into a casket holding all one’s hopes, dreams, faith, and love. In 365 days of toil and struggle, grasping about blindly and alone, I’ve searched for something–anything to which one could cling. Something certain. Something constant. Something sure. In the darkness, I have not always found what I was looking for, but I have learned lessons. Lessons that could never repair the irreparable but that could perhaps lead one to accept all that the universe has to offer. The good. The bad. The glorious. The deplorable. Lessons that could never change a life but that perhaps could change a mind.

Two weeks ago, I stood, surrounded by a crowd of nearly 20,000 people. The temperature was adequately below freezing to the be main subject on every lip. The stage was set for the Columbus Marathon, what would be my final race of the year. It would also be the last of a grueling 22 day circuit. In the preceding days, I had already tackled my first marathon and my first 50 mile ultra marathon. Now was my shot to set a final PR for the year. The first time around, I came up short of the 4-hour mark for my marathon. This time, I was dying to break it. The big challenge? 26.2 miles at 28 degrees.

As races often go, the first miles were less than memorable, aside from a bottom lip freezing and me rethinking opting to run in shorts. I thought it would warm up along the way, but it wasn’t until mile 9 that I shed the fleece I was wearing. I was pacing solid sub-9-minute miles all the way. As we broke into the double digit miles, I started shouting random encouragement to my fellow runners. “Ten down! Twenty more!!! Let’s go!” Everyone was so amused. The diversion helped the distance fly by. As the half marathoners turned away at mile 12, I started saying goodbye. I may have asked them to save me bananas as well. And to those who kept on for the full marathon, I said, “That was fun, let’s do it again!” All went well until around mile 17, when my ankles went out. I’ve never really had ankle problems before, but I remembered they’d swelled a bit after the 50 miler. Maybe it was too much.

4A42D47F-411E-4735-8042-FB353573CDF9My pace dropped from sub-9 to over 11. I fought through it for another 2 miles. Every push off and every footfall became more unbearable. I begged my body not to stop. As I was hobbling on, two ladies called out to me, “You can make it! You got us going back there. Come run with us? Just a mile.” I did. One mile closer. Again the pain became unbearable and again I slowed to a faltering limp. I knew my hopes of a sub-4-hour finish were dead. And I made my peace with it. They’re just numbers. They don’t mean anything. We arbitrarily ascribe meaning and purpose to things. If there’s one thing running has taught me, it is this: How you finish is irrelevant. How you commit and invest is paramount. I made my peace with my investment in the race and my commitment to the finish, and though I came in well beyond the 4-hour mark, I had a more enjoyable and fulfilling time than I ever imagined possible.

And that is the lesson. Commit. Invest. And let that be enough.

Some of you may know of my obsession with the perfect music for every moment. I guess it comes with being a filmmaker. You’ve got to have something for every shot, every scene, every emotion. Over the past few weeks, one song in particular has stolen my soul. The artist “Sleeping at Last” moves through the cosmos on one album, and the track written for Saturn is ethereal. Something about the description of the courage of stars. How light carries on endlessly, even after death. It’s stayed in my mind. A hundred million miles away, a star dies, but its light carries on, through space and time forever. And here, as we see the beauty of a twinkling star, we can know for certain, it died long ago. But that doesn’t make the night sky any less beautiful. It just reminds us how rare and beautiful it is to even exist. Nowhere else have we found life. The life we have is not always wonderful or perfect. Sometimes it’s harsh, ugly, and painful. Nevertheless, it is rare. And because it is rare, it is beautiful.

And that is the lesson. Life is rare–and beautiful. And even in death, light carries on. Endlessly.

Today, I was out running trails. Weekends have been my designated time for long runs. An open trail is my sanctuary. It’s been a difficult week, and even driving out to the trail head, I was intermittently on the verge of tears. On the trails, I was alone. I’ve so often found myself alone as of late. As desperately as I have often wished to be accompanied, in the silence and solitude, I see things I’ve never seen before.

Ten miles down the trail, I was doubled over, uncontrollably vomiting what little sustenance I had brought along for the journey. There’s something about those moments before it comes. You know it’s coming. You feel it. It started with the feeling of salivary glands priming the mouth and throat for what was coming. I stopped running. I knew what was coming. Next was the tightening of the abdominal muscles, a visceral seize. But we fight it. We try to hold it down. We try to keep it in. I’ve done it many times. Today, I didn’t. I let it happen. Once. Twice. I stood upright again. I took a deep breath. A third time. And then, at last, I could breathe. And then, at last, I could keep moving.

As I continued making my way down the trail, I started to reflect over the past year and that past moment. We spend so much of our lives fighting what is natural for us because it might be unpleasant for us or for others, because people just won’t understand, because it’s not socially acceptable. We hold on to things because we don’t know what would happen if we let go, because we’re afraid to lose something, because the unknown is absolutely terrifying. Just as the telltale signs made me aware of what was coming, we know, at some point, what lies ahead. All our denial, all our fighting, all our holding on is as useless as a pebble trying to halt the returning tide. I realized, finally, it’s time to stop fighting. It’s time to let nature have it’s way.

And that is the lesson. Nature has a way of correcting itself. It is natural. It is necessary. And as unpleasant as it may be, we need not fight it.

Down the trail, mile after mile, all my eyes could see–the definitive signs of autumn. Some trees clothed in the ever changing brilliance of foliage and some standing naked in the breeze. It’s breathtaking. It’s captivating. It’s death. The leaves are cut off from their life source. The chlorophyl that once filled them disappears. Where once was green, the remnants of glucose and other deposits infuse each leaf in a brilliant display. The final act. As the nutrients cease to flow, the leaf fades until the connection is entirely severed. It’s heartbreaking. It’s beautiful. They fall to the ground without a word. In silence, they decompose. The remnants remain to feed a new life in the spring.

And that is the lesson. Alienated from the source of life, disconnected from sustaining power, dying, one can still bring beauty, and in departing, give life to another.

The reflections of the past hours, days, and weeks have been humbling and liberating. To have been committed and invested, to have given your all is enough. More than enough. Life is rare. Life is beautiful. And the light of life carries on. Endlessly. Nature has it’s way, and we need not fight it. In letting go, there is release and relief. In final moments, beauty will be found by those who are looking. What more can we ask for than a life, an existence, rare, and yet surrounded by wonder and beauty?

There is no greater glory in life than to have beheld the miracles, the wonders, and the beauty of a vast universe. There is no greater honor in death than to have given your all and, in departing, to give a final beauty back to the universe.

 

No Limits

The muffled serenade of the thousands of fluffy feathers was rudely interrupted by the blaring of three separate alarms. Three o’clock in the morning. Dyenna, Ben, and I were awake. We all simultaneously turned over to silence our phones. Then there was a moment of silence, as none of us wanted to exert any further energy, and yet we all knew that getting out of our beds would likely be the easiest part of our day. For each of us, it would be a day of firsts. For Ben, it was the day of his first marathon. For Dyenna and I, it was the day of our first 50-mile ultra marathon.

IMG_7744I lay there, thinking of what foolishness had led me to this moment. Twelve days earlier, I was laying on my back in the emergency room, immobilized by a neck brace, as doctors attempted to determine the extent of damage to my neck and whether or not my brain was hemorrhaging. The day before, two points away from my team being crowed three-peat champions of The Wright Wing Conspiracy Ultimate Frisbee Tournament, something terrifying happened. As I was bolting full-speed downfield, someone accidentally took out my legs. Flipping through the air, I landed entirely on my neck and was instantly paralyzed. I’ve been injured many times in my life, but never have I been more aware of the abject terror of onlookers than at that moment. While I couldn’t feel any part of my body besides my face, I could feel the fearful concern of everyone else. “Don’t move him! Don’t move him!” people were shouting over and over. “Are you ok? Just don’t move!” I was just trying to breathe. And I had a sudden urge to move, but I couldn’t. My concern started to grow as I couldn’t feel anything besides the hand of someone gently yet firmly holding my neck and the side of my face. My concern began to swell along with theirs. Finally, feeling returned, a throb beginning at the side of my head, running down my twisted spine and into my legs. It hurt desperately, but it was a reassuring kind of pain. Slowly, we established my ability to control motor function, and they helped me to the sideline.

Marathon-3A few hours later, I was suffering some of the greatest pain I’ve had in my life. The room was spinning, and there was nothing I could do to stop either that or the throbbing pain emanating from the subdural hematoma on my temple. I never go to hospitals or doctors, but after a night of fighting it, I finally went to the emergency room. As doctors deliberated over the results of the CT scan and radiology, I began wondering if I would be able to actually complete my first full marathon, which was scheduled for that weekend. When the doctors explained to me that I was suffering from post-concussion syndrome and that there was nothing they could do besides prescribing anti-inflammatory drugs and ordering me to cease and desist from contact sports for several weeks, I breathed a sign of relief. I told them I was running a marathon in five days. They didn’t seem thrilled with the idea and advised great caution. I exercised a moderate amount of it, and managed to finish my first marathon in just over 4 hours and 2 minutes (Read More). Now, a week after crossing the finish line of my first marathon, I was about to embark on my first ultra marathon.

Three A.M. I grudgingly slung my legs over the edge of the bed, attempting to inspire them for the journey ahead. Within the half hour, we were clothed for the crisp fall air, and were heading out with Chris and Nahum on our drive to the start line. I started to question if I would be warm enough as the gusting wind bit through my leggings and shirt. As we milled around the small fires by the start line, everyone seemed to share a “what was I thinking” sentiment. There was little time for regret or second-guessing left as the first wave departed. TNFEC2And then it was our turn. Headlamps on, hydration packs filled, and legs ready to shake off the cold, we started out. The first mile was a blur of calves, rocks, and the flickers of light moving everywhere. I was feeling good. It was too easy. Then the humbling thought passed that there were still 49 miles to go. As the first aid station came into view, I felt like I could finally believe I had accomplished something. I consumed the first of what would be a great many peanut butter and jelly sandwiches–the best I’ve had in my entire life. I must say, running in absolute darkness was something fairly unfamiliar to me.
At most maybe I’d catch 10 minutes in the dark during a sunset run, or maybe 20 minutes in the middle of a sleepless night, but today it wasn’t until after approximately two full hours on the trail that the sun began to rise, and even though it was fairly overcast, it made a world of difference.Screen Shot 2015-10-08 at 4.28.40 PM

As the day began to brighten, and the miles of trails wove their way through the woods, we found ourselves holding a steady enough pace to ensure we wouldn’t be pulled from the course for failing to make the three hard cutoff times. Choruses of “Everything is Awesome” made the hours melt away. The first record to fall was the four hour mark. Never before had I spent so much time in constant forward motion. Just like the week before, about 16 miles in, I started to cramp up. Dyenna pulled a couple of salt pills from he pack and gave them to me. It was like magic. Within a minute or two, the cramping faded away. I started to make it a regular habit to salt up at every aid station we passed. They had these cooked potato slices on one plate and a bunch of salt on another. I’d dip the potatoes in the salt…sometimes so much it was like getting punched in the tastebuds, and I’d wash it down with some electrolyte drink. I have to say the aid stations were pretty amazing. You’ve got to love knowing there is a ready supply of skittles, m&ms, potato chips, and other tasty junk waiting to take your mind off of your aching body just a few miles ahead.Screen Shot 2015-10-08 at 5.05.30 PM

Thinking about the miles is enough to make you want to quit, so you can’t let your mind slip. Just eight days earlier, the most I had ever run straight was 15 miles, and now I was attempting to tackle 50.

The miles will drive you crazy if you let them. We had some pretty unique techniques for distracting ourselves. It seems mine was to spontaneously burst forth, singing a classic piece from any number of musicals. The Sound of Music was my top hit, creating my own adapted ultra marathoner specific rendition of “My Favorite Things.” I think just about everything got play…My Fair Lady, West Side Story, The Phantom of the Opera, State Fair…you name it, we sang it. The other grand thing was holding mini-celebrations for each major milestone. The next to fall was at the 26.21 mile mark. With a few cheers, we knew we were more than halfway there, and I officially joined the ranks of the ultra marathoners.

Screen Shot 2015-10-10 at 5.35.16 PMAhead yet remained the worst of it. For the longest time we had been running through the woods, but as we passed 28 miles, we found ourselves in the middle of wide open grasslands. The first few minutes feel so liberating, but the part you don’t think about until you get there is that it’s a lot harder to gauge progress. In the woods, every twist and turn in the trail is hidden from sight until the last moment. In the fields, you see everything, and you never get there. It really started to get to my head and my body at the same time.

The secret to making it is to have strength in your mind or in either your body at all times, and one will compensate for the other.

I wasn’t cramping. Everything just hurt. I looked ahead, and the gap between myself and my three compatriots on the trail was ever widening. I stopped. As the distance increased, one looked back at me and saw me. I knew the were hurting too, and I couldn’t just feel sorry for myself. Granted they’d all done ultras before, and I didn’t even become a marathoner until the week before, but out there, we were all the same. I stepped off the trail to water some flowers. Meanwhile, I’m trying to psych myself back up. The body wasn’t feeling it. I had to at least get my mind back. And finally I got it. Back on the trail, I tried to pick up the pace a bit. When I’d caught up to them, I tried to give a tough smile as they looked for some reassurance that I was ok.

With much ado and huzzah, we celebrated the 30 mile/50 kilometer mark. Somewhere along the way a new game emerged. There was a little cluster of runners we kept encountering. We’d always pass them about midway between aid stations. We always took our time when we arrived at the stations, and they would always catch up, stop for a moment, and keep running on. Each time we would overtake them, Chris would pull up a random song on his phone, and we would blast it as we passed them. My all-time favorite was “C is for Cookie.” Screen Shot 2015-10-10 at 6.09.26 PMThey made our journey so much more enjoyable. You definitely meet some of the coolest people in the world out there. Our little game of cat and mouse was wonderful. As we passed the 40 mile mark, my feet started to hurt so badly. I guess the simple reality is that, no matter what kind of shoes you’re wearing, 40 miles of footfalls will take a toll. My legs were finally feeling ok though. The strength was with the body, while the mind was ready to curl up on the side of the trail and die. It may sound dramatic, but go run for 40 miles and you’ll see I’m not making it up. My legs kept sending a message up to the control center, “we can run faster than this.” The notification reached the mind, and the ignore button was promptly pushed. Five minutes later, another message sent. “Why are we not going faster?” Ignored. It was the strangest battle I’ve ever had.

Screen Shot 2015-10-10 at 5.32.48 PMThose last miles felt so grueling. Chris, Dye, and I would trudge up the hills. Reaching the top, we’d look at each other, and someone would say, “Gravity?” And we’d start running again, down the hill and across the flats to the the next hill until it hurt too much to continue. Slowly we’d trudge up the next one. In those last miles, we passed the sweeper for the 50k. He wasn’t alone. There was a woman toiling along, trying to keep pace and not be pulled from the course in the last 5 miles. It didn’t look good. She was a big woman. I don’t say that disrespectfully. I just mean, if you saw her on the street, you’d never imagine her being this close to completing a 50k. It makes you realize that despite what the exterior may seem to tell you about someone, deep inside of them may still be a powerful measure of greatness. As we passed her, we called out encouragement to her, not knowing if she would ever make it. But that didn’t matter. What mattered was that she was fighting–still fighting–one painful foot in front of the next. That truly inspired me.

When we came to the last aid station, everything hurt. For the first time in my life, I was chaffing. I gladly availed myself of a liberal amount of vaseline, which was sitting on the table. We left that table with some reluctance. We knew we were basically there. Just a few miles more. And we knew we weren’t in danger of missing the cut off time. We just didn’t want to move anymore. We ran as best as we could. Even a slight uphill was exhausting. Gravity. Never in my life have I been more aware of it. But somehow, after more than a solid 12 hours on the trail, the finish line came into sight. And as always, there was a little bit left inside. In my best impersonation of Rick Flair, I let out a howl. The walk turned into a shuffle. The shuffle turned into a run. It wasn’t pretty. It wasn’t fast. But, side by side, we crossed the finish line.

TNFEC3Fifty miles. Twelve hours. Thirty-three minutes. Five seconds. The feeling of elation and exhaustion is far beyond my limited ability to describe or express. I can only say, it was unlike anything I have ever experienced in my entire life. I stood there in the finish line area, my body entirely unable to comprehend or process what had happened over the course of the day. As I was grabbing some burgers to stuff my face, I saw the woman who had been struggling to try to make the last 50k cutoff time. We asked her how it went, and with the biggest smile beaming across her face she said, “I made it…in a van.” I remember a part of my heart sinking for a moment. I can only imagine how badly she wanted to cross the finish line, and how close she had come, but as I looked into her eyes, they were radiant. “I went farther than I’ve ever gone before!” she continued. I was instantly humbled. Never have I seen someone handle disappointment with such genuine grace and beauty. Of all the things I saw and heard over those miles and hours, that one thing pushes to the front of others.

IMG_7930Sometimes we can get caught up in speed, finish times, and bling. It’s so easy to do because that’s how society conditions us to experience the world, but if there’s one thing I’ve learned from my first venture into ultra marathons, it is this: success isn’t about time, distance, or speed. It’s all about heart. It’s a journey, and not a destination. It’s a process, and not a result. It’s an investment, and not a dividend. It’s not one against the wind. It’s about what we can all accomplish together when I can take all of my heart, body, mind, and spirit, and combine it with yours, and together we struggle, together we fight, and maybe we even cry, but finally we overcome and prove to the universe what greatness dwells deep within us.

Whether or not someone drapes a medal around your neck, whether you’re first, or last, or never cross the finish line at all, the fact that you all had the heart to start and you gave it the best you had is enough.

More than enough.

 

Twenty-six Point Two

It started at 5am. With a two hour drive looming, I was antsy to be off. Nearly there, and it began to dawn on me just how far out this place was. Literally the middle of nowhere for the third annual “Run With The Amish” Marathon in Adams County. There was a nip in the air and an abundance of feces to sidestep as I made my way to packet pickup and the start line.

Marathon-1My sister, who graciously joined me on the trek down, wished me well, and with an anti-climactic misfire of a musket, the race was off. I genuinely felt amazing the first bit of it, casually conversing with each person I passed. A veteran on the course warned me of the massive hill that awaited, and he suspected as a first-timer, I might want to walk it. I smiled and said we’d see. I got there, and I was a monster, but I was a beast and powered up it. Each successive hill I conquered as the first.

Before I knew it, I was nearing the finish line. Those near me began rejoicing, but with a woeful look, I told them I had another lap to do. As the crossed the finish line, I turned around to do it all again…and that was demoralizing. The only thing that kept me going was knowing I was pretty high in the ranking, having only seen a few ahead of me. I wondered if I could make the top 10. I neared a fellow in a neon top. We chatted for a second, and then I surged on as he slowed to a walk. I knew I had to be close to top 10. Then I heard the footsteps. It was the same fellow. He’d decided if I could keep pushing like that, he could to. We talked and ran alongside each other for miles. Kevin kept my spirits high and my mind off the pain. When we came to some of the ugliest hills we agreed to pace down to a brisk walk to try to recover.  It did us well.

As we came to the last turn in the loop back towards home, the water station lady told us we were 5 and 6. I couldn’t believe it. We kept pushing as hard as we could. Soon the cramps were almost unbearable. With 3 miles left we heard a patter of feet behind us and a little woman just blazed past us. She was a beast. We didn’t want to concede and we fought for position, but she was just too much. Lactic acid formed a mosh pit in my hamstrings and what was once a stride was deteriorating into a stumble. Kevin was pushing harder. I couldn’t. I told him to keep going, and slowly he faded into the distance.

Marathon-4One mile to go. No one around. Every motivational thought and quote flooded to mind as I begged my body for one last push…one last gear. One more unforgiving hill. I was atop at last. 800 meters to go. I had nothing. Then I heard Kevin call my name, and I heard my sister scream, “Come on! You got this!” And nothing mattered any more. The road faded from sight. The world was no more. And with a roar, my heart sprouted wings and swept my aches across the finish line.  

4 hours, 2 minutes. 

My first full marathon.

My first top 10 finish. 

Unforgettable. 

When Pigs Fly…

It starts in the pit of the stomach. Hours away from the start of the race, as I was staring at the ceiling, the seconds seemed to drag. I can never sleep before a race. I feel like I’m afraid of oversleeping and missing the race. The Flying Pig was slated to be my biggest race ever. About 12,000 people registered for the half marathon alone, with a total of around 37,000 people registered for all the weekend races. All those people, and a massive crowd to boot. The stage was set, and my nerves just wouldn’t settle. Today was the day when piggy me would fly.

IMG_6636As twilight broke on downtown Cincinnati, I trotted my way towards the start line. The crowds were large. Pounding music thundered from the loudspeakers. I fumbled with setting up my bluetooth headphones and gps watch. Pyrotechnics galore and the race began. It was beautiful, catching glimpse of the sunrise over the river as we crossed the bridge to Kentucky. Then a feeling of dread rushed over me…

Just short of the 2-mile marker, my bladder started singing a song to me about how smart I was to be fully hydrated. The ode was sensational, and not in a good way. The dilemma, to stop or not to stop. Porta-potties coming up on the left. Should I stop? Should I stop? I knew if I did, I’d jeopardize my shot a a PR. While struggling to make the decision, the opportunity passed. After a few miles, the internal serenade stopped, and I was able to enjoy some of the most breathtaking sights. Cincinnati is such a beautiful city at sunrise. The glimmers of day illuminated the shadows and highlighted a thousand silhouettes before me.

In my ears thundered the chorus of Warriors by Imagine Dragons:

Here we are, don’t turn away now,
We’re the warriors that built this town…From dust.

Before me loomed the first of a cruel series of hills. I had set a speedy pace up to that point, but everything was about to change. Gritting my teeth and looking over my shoulder, I lowered my head and powered down for a sustained charge. One after another, the hills rose. I’d look to whoever was beside me and say, “We can take this one! Conquer the hill!” Did I sound like a nut? Probably, but it kept me going, and it kept the people near me smiling. When the worst of it was over, I sounded another cry: “Victory is ours!”

On we charged, down the other side of the hills at a blistering pace. The pounding on the pavement was almost as bad as the muscular strain on the way up. Time for a little fishing. I spotted a runner a bit ahead of me. Subway shirt. “Pass the subway,” I said to myself. Within a half mile, I’d done it. Next? I saw another runner. She had a little water bottle attached to her waist. “Pass the bottle,” I told myself. For 2 miles I kept trying, but she wouldn’t let up. Not ever a little. “Come on. You’re faster than her!” Whether or not I actually was, I really needed to tell myself that, because I seriously couldn’t catch her. With just a mile left, I found one last gear and kicked into it.

IMG_6351Ahead of me I saw a race clock coming up. When I got there, it was ticking past 1:43:00. I panicked. I wanted so badly to run a sub 1:45:00 half marathon, and with the finish line looming ahead, it looked like I wasn’t going to make it. “You didn’t come all this way to fail,” I said, starting a final push for the finish line. “It’s yours. Take it!” Ahead, I could hear the swelling chants of the crowd and the thuds of a hundred footfalls on the pavement. My legs said no, but my mind refused to yield, and I pushed into a sprint. One after another, I passed runners, weaving back and forth as my WARPLANS Training shirt fluttered in my wake. The shirt had been a big part of my preparation. The message on the back simple, yet profound. Psalms 18:29. “With You, I can run against an army.” And here it was, the final moment. Two hundred meters. Overtaking runners by the dozen, I heard a stranger’s voice shout out from the crowd, “Go WARPLANS!” It was like I had wings. I soared across the finish line.

I stopped to catch my breath. Did I make it? I checked my watch. Then I remembered, I’d started the race in the second wave of runners, and instead of being in danger of missing my coveted finish time, I’d beaten it. One hour, forty-three minutes. Exactly. The excitement was inexpressible. My legs felt like they were about to give way as I meandered through the crowd of finishers receiving their medals, mylar, and refreshments. Someone tapped me on theGeorge and I after the finish line shoulder. “Man, you were so fast at the finish,” he said, congratulating me. I stopped to stretch and then took a seat on the ground, not feeling like moving at all. Another fellow runner, George, struck up a conversation with me, and we recounted the best and worst of our race. As we were sitting there against the fence talking, a random guy walked up to me and said, “Thank you. You really helped me make it up that hill.” Honestly, to me, that is what running is all about. Personal records are nice, finisher medals are cool, but the familial spirit that we share out there is what truly makes it a thing of beauty. It makes me realize that in those moments when I feel like giving up the most, maybe the best thing that I can do is try to encourage someone else. At the end of the day, maybe we’ll both make it.

IMG_6660After a little more talking and resting, I found my parents and we then met up with my sister, who had just finished the race as well. She is truly an inspiration. She’s the one who first got me started running. I probably would have lost my mind otherwise, but thankfully I’m here. It was amazing to stand beside her and bask in the moment.

Flying officially completed, it was then time for the pigging. We all went off to eat breakfast and relish the sights and sounds. There is so much to take in, and while it’s really a couple of hours, it feels like no time at all once it’s over. I still think the best sign I saw by the side of the road was: “Don’t be a Seahawk. RUN!” I got online and we checked the race results. I placed 565th out of 11,526. I could hardly believe that my finish time put me in the top 5% for the race. Unbelievable.

We stayed at the restaurant, enjoying the delectable food until we were stuffed. It was such a great feeling inside. Feeling refreshed and invigorated, I made my way back downtown to catch the end of the marathon. I was so stiff and sore, but I am so glad I did. When I arrived, the race clock was ticking close to 7 hours. At the finish line, only a few dozen people lingered to cheer on the stragglers. What I saw, I will never forget as long as I live.

There is no glory. No one knows your name. Scarcely a soul is even there to see it. But these people give their everything to cross that line. Seven hours in the sun. Seven hours! Some had the energy to run across the finish line. Some walk. Some look like they might have to crawl. I watched as an older man staggered to the finish line. Twenty-six miles he’d come, and I wasn’t sure he would make it. His legs faltered beneath him. His body keeled over to the left side just to keep balance. His entire figure was askew. His gait, if you could call it that, was a feeble limp. He might not make it. Something inside of me welled up, and I started screaming cheers for him. The few people near the finish line joined in. His head never raised up. His eyes never left their steadfast gaze upon the pavement just in front of him. I’m not even sure he could hear us shout, but we could all feel his determination, and we cheered all the more.

In my head I can hear the rhythm pick up as my imagination queued the opening lines from “Till I Collapse” by Eminem.

Sometimes you just feel tired, you feel weak, and when you feel weak, you feel like you want to just give up. But you gotta search within you, you gotta find that inner strength and just pull that out of you and get that motivation to not give up, and not be a quitter, no matter how bad you want to just fall flat on your face and collapse.

One step at a time, he drew ever nearer to the finish line, until he had finally made it. Medical staff wheeled him away in a wheelchair as we all breathed a sigh of relief. It got me thinking about just how invested he was in finishing. For me, finishing the half marathon wasn’t a huge challenge. I knew I could finish it before it started, and when I did, I could have easily continued on for miles more. I was sore and tired, but I was nowhere near a breaking point. But this man…this man showed the true heart of a champion. He left it all on the road, and when there was nothing left in the tank, no strength left in his legs, he willed himself across the finish line.

It was an extremely emotional sight to watch, even for me. Close to a half hour later one other person caught my eye. She was a middle aged woman, and she looked so tired. No bounce was left in her step, no strength in the stride. Just that same will power I’d seen in so many of these last few finishers. As she came within the last 100 meters, just as she was alongside me, I saw her take a deep breath, and as a single tear slowly rolled down her cheek, she raised her face to the sky a silently mouthed the words, “Thank you.” It was a moment I’ll never forget. For most of my life, I’ve been most inspired by the winners of the race, setting records, finishing in fabulous form. But now? Now it’s different. Right now the ones who inspire me most are not the first to cross the finish line, but the last.

They are my heroes.

 

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