Back in January when I signed up to run the Missoula Half Marathon while we'd be on vacation in Montana this summer, I knew running had taken an inexplicable hold of me. I'd researched a lot of things to see and do ahead of various vacations over the years. Never once, though, did the research include hunting for an opportunity to run 13.1 miles. But yesterday, that's exactly what I did, and in doing so I completed my third half-marathon in eight months.
Each of those races has been a unique experience. There's no question, though, yesterday's run was special. It was the first time I'd run when I could count my wife and two boys among the spectators. In addition, my mom and dad were there, along with my aunt and my cousin's family. There's something very cool about having your own crowd among the larger cheering section for 6,000+ runners.
The race started at 6:00AM, so my crowd was abbreviated over the early miles. My cousin's husband, Travis, had told me he'd be waiting past the bridge at about mile 3. Katie, Elliott, and my dad wanted to be fellow early birds and join him. Sure enough, right on time, as I crossed over the bridge I spotted my fan club. Understand, by this stage of the race they weren't there cheering for the leader. That runner and a couple of thousand others had already passed by them by the time they spotted me. But their hands were waving and fists pumping like I was challenging for the lead and not mere survival. That provided a race memory that will last forever.
When I ran into them a couple of miles later I was still feeling good. I'd covered the first 5 miles in just over an hour and felt confident about achieving my goal of finishing the race in under 3 hours. Knowing I had a family cheering section that could pop out of the crowd at any moment, anywhere on the course, that kept me motivated to keep running. So motivated, in fact, when I saw them at mile five I waved like I was coming onto the stage at a political campaign rally.
Remember to vote for me!
By the time I ran into my fan club again, it had grown. And at just the right time. I was over halfway through the race. The altitude was starting to steal more energy than I was used to. My legs were feeling heavy. So when my whole family appeared at mile 7 or so, it was a tremendous boost. Their wild cheers sent adrenaline charging through me. It also left a few fellow runners likely wondering how I rated such a following.
The next time I saw my following my tank was nearing empty, which isn't where you want it to be with 3 miles to go. But it was. I told Elliott when we crossed paths, "It's time to crank up the Rudy soundtrack buddy." Which I promptly did. At the same time I saw Katie there taking a picture. As tired as I was, I knew the one reason I was running, the one reason I would keep going and finish what I'd started, was Meg. So I took the opportunity to give her a shout. She was never far from my mind over those 13.1 miles. At many points I prayed for her kids and family. I thanked God over and over for the message he's allowed me to share, along with thousands of others, who've been moved by the story of Meg Cross Menzies to be the good in the world, to love God more.
I run for Meg because Meg ran for Him
Shortly before mile 10, my Garmin watch stopped. I had no way of tracking my pace over those last 3 miles and knowing if I was staying on track to break the 3-hour mark. All I could do was keep pushing each stride along, minimizing the walk breaks that at this point I really wanted more of, and ignoring the mental chatter that was beginning to relentlessly taunt me with thoughts of failure.
By the time I got close to the mile 13 sign, I knew I was very close to that 3 hour mark. The final stretch was a quarter mile bridge over the Clark Fork River through beautiful downtown Missoula. The bridge was lined with spectators encouraging runners to kick it home. I barely had enough fuel left inside me to move, let alone kick. Just onto the bridge I heard my family's cheers. I no longer had it in me to return waves or campaign greetings, but their cheers were all I needed to keep going - my eyes pointed on nothing but that finish line.
Twenty yards or so from the finish I heard the race announcer call out my name as an approaching finisher. "Keith Cartwright from Ashland, Virginia." I thought about how improbable a story it was, how unlikely it was even a year ago when we were out here visiting, that I would be running a half marathon in Missoula, Montana. But there I was, approaching the finish line arch, about to complete my third half-marathon in 8 months.
One of my favorite pictures of the day is the image Katie caught of Elliott waiting and watching for me to appear near the finish line. Travis would tell me later Elliott was concerned I wasn't going to break that 3-hour mark. His face wears the intensity of that concern. It also wears the pride a boy has in his dad, and gives me all the motivation I need to keep on running.
My friend Robyn - in the Cayman Islands no less - would post my finishing time on Facebook soon after I finished. It would be the first I would see of my official time: 2:59.02.
Elliott we had this the whole time pal. I had 58 seconds to spare.
I'm grateful for the opportunity to run the Missoula Half Marathon, both for the means to get out here and the gift of legs that can move one in front of the other - however slow or fast. I'm grateful for family that cares enough to celebrate my own little running journey. And I'm grateful for the incredible community of runners that continues to rally around the story of Meg Cross Menzies - her love for family, friends, and God - to turn their ability to run into an opportunity to draw the world closer to God.