What a feeling it was this year, running down that final hill of the Richmond Marathon. As I neared the finish line, I reflected on the feelings I had this time last year when I completed my first half-marathon: joy in finishing something I never thought I would or could, sadness in knowing my running for Meg was a responsibility I inherited only when Meg could no longer run for Meg.
It did feel a bit different, I suppose. Running down that hill knowing I was chasing a picture of someone finishing their race and not actually finishing one of my own. It was certainly a way of Running for Meg I'd never envisioned. But as I crossed under that finish line and snapped the picture, I realized there are many scenes in Meg's unfolding story none of us will ever envision. Some stories are just all God's to write; we are simply blessed to be written into them where He sees fit.
Like Friday morning when I stood beside Meg's Memorial and heard the booming voice of Missy Blacker-Hepp scream out, "Robert Keith Cartwright", from what seemed like a half-marathon away. Missy and I'd met online in the Megsmiles group. She'd driven down from Ohio to be part of the weekend. She never knew Meg. I never knew Meg. We never knew each other. Yet there I was standing on the side of a road neither of us could have ever imagined standing on, two strangers turned brother and sister, embracing one another in the kind of hug that made you wonder if the whole world isn't meant to be always hugging one another something like this. Over the course of the weekend there would be many hugs - hundreds of them - just like that one. Hugs you could feel God writing you into at the precise moment your bodies connected.
As nearly 100 of us eventually stood at that memorial together, we listened to Ed Deiss, a man who less than two years ago never ran, but was now prepared to run his first marathon the next day, talk about the many runs he'd taken to and from Meg's memorial. He talked about the emotional encounters he's had with Meg's mom and dad at that very spot. Encounters unplanned, yet somehow written into Meg's unfolding story.
It was an amazing scene at that memorial. People from 20 different states and several different countries standing on the side of a rural Hanover County road. A memorial built of shoes in the background, symbolizing in some small way I think the number of miles and worn soles put away in Meg's name. But even more, I would suggest, the shoes tied together represent the unbreakable bond that has formed between people - not runners - around this remarkable young woman so many of us have never even met. Such small symbols in the grand scheme of things, written so largely into an unfolding story.
And the news crews were there. Nearly two years since Meg has died they are still drawn to her unfolding story. Still sharing it with the world. As if they've been written into the story for that exact purpose. And how priceless was it that they caught every word Meg's dad said when he offered us this challenge:
"It's not how you run, it's how you run your life."
Those words in particular moved me. I think because they come with such great credibility. I've said often to Pam, and probably not often enough to Wirt, but Meg's story, both the story of her life and the one that is still unfolding, are written on the foundation of how she was raised. How she was instructed to run her life. We can never forget that how we run our lives is more than a quote. It's a series of choices that can have unpredictable influences on the world.
The only miles I would run this weekend would be the couple (or something close or not so close to that) I put in that morning at Meg's Memorial. Running with so many strangers turned brothers and sisters. I'm not sure I've ever put in more meaningful miles.
Does God have unfolding stories that don't include a dinner? Have you ever stopped to count the number of meals that are central to the bible? The pre-race dinner hosted by Cool Spring Baptist Church, planned and organized by loving community volunteers, was another one of those moments that caused me to look around and ask: how did we get here? So many people sharing laughter and smiles in a house of God, all of it transformed from tears and tragedy the likes many of us can't even imagine. I think it was at the dinner I could feel God's hand strongest, and in the midst of all the smiles, you could see Meg's. This was her church. All of us, for at least that evening, were joined together as her church family. If the weekend had stopped right there, I think Meg would have been just fine with that. She had us right where she wants us.
When we ended the evening in prayer, many runners sent off to be with the nerves and jitters of big races the next day, Meg was left with this image. I'm not sure how much one absorbs in heaven of the pain and heartache their sudden departure leaves behind, but I have a feeling however much it is, we gave Meg and incredible image to balance it out when we gave her this gift:
With all of that said about Meg's unfolding story, this story is still Run for Meg. There were races left to run. I chose for many reasons not to run a race myself this year (This Year I Will Friend For Meg). What I discovered in doing so, though, was that was exactly the way God wanted it. No race I could have run would have measured up to the chance to be at the finish line watching the faces of folks living out dreams and writing their own stories. Stories that never would have happened without Meg. How Meg ran her life had spurred people on to run out miracles in their own. I wouldn't have traded a medal for missing out on even one of the ones I witnessed. If you've seen the pictures of my friends - your friends - finishing too many races to recap here, you know exactly why I was alternately driven to laughter and tears through most of the day parked at the finish line.
As God's unfolding story would go, the best of those moments would be saved for last.
Our friend Ken Oldendick had signed up to run a half-marathon in Richmond. So he thought. When his confirmation came it included the shocking news to him that he was actually signed up to run a full-marathon. Ken put out an SOS to the Megsmiles group. What to do. So here's where full disclosure must come in. When the rest of the Megsmiles world was saying "you can do it Ken", or, "it was meant to be Ken", I was thinking - but to my credit not saying - "Dear God, Ken, for the sake of all things healthy, step away from the computer. This group is over-encouraging you into a 26 miles march of death."
That's what I was thinking.
I had several laughs over the day or so leading up to the race with my friend Robyn Larkin about over-encouraging. I laughed until I cried with Amanda and Brooke and Tiffany about the same subject. I scolded my friend LaShell who'd told Ken the registration mess-up was a "sign." Who on earth gets signs they are supposed to run 26 miles instead of 13?!!?!?!
I have to explain. My doubts - or lack of faith - had nothing to do with Ken. I was merely reflecting on the three half marathons I'd run this past year. At the end of each of them if anyone had given me the choice between running another 13 miles or living the rest of my life without cheeseburgers, I'd now be the world's most famous recovering cheeseburger addict. I just personally felt the pain of running 26 miles instead of the 13 Ken had trained for.
But Ken listened to the over-encouraging. He ran toward all the signs LaShell pointed out to him.
And do you know what happened. At mile 26, a large group of Megsmilers who'd spent the afternoon waiting in the chilly air for one of their own burst into cheers as they spotted Ken coming down the final hill toward the finish line. He was accompanied by our fearless Jorge, who'd found Ken at some unknown mile on the course and ran home with him - even after Jorge had completed his own marathon earlier in the day. LaShell jumped the barriers and joined him, I'm sure screaming "I told you so" all the way. And then, not to be left behind, the rest of the Megsmiles entourage jumped the barrier and ran the final hundred yards, cheering and celebrating the whole way. It was a magical scene. I did outrun them all to the finish line, snapping photos the whole way. Unfortunately, none of mine turned out as magical as the one below taken by Tam Harrison.
To me, the photo above IS Megsmiles. I know Meg waited the afternoon out with us. I know her smile was the biggest as Ken crossed the finish line. I know she rejoices that in her name all colors and ages and beliefs come together in unity to pour her example of love into one another, and into the world at large. The celebration at the finish line will live in my heart forever. I told Robyn on the way home I think we created a scene that will definitely make Ken's lifetime highlight real. The reality is, though, it's a scene that will also make mine.
There is something magical about the Richmond Marathon. As much as I loved playing cheerleader this year, I'll have to be back on the course next year. Seeing Ken come across that finish line stirred something in me. I'm not sure if it stirred a marathon, but I know before seeing him do it I had zero intention of ever pursuing that goal. Maybe I'll register for the half only to find out I accidentally registered for the full. I know I'll be able to count on all of my Megsmiles friends to over-encourage me, to let me know "it's a sign".
Speaking of signs - I'm so grateful for each and every member of the Megsmiles group. Together we will continue to run and live: Megstrong.