Last Sunday, I sat in a church service at Cool Spring Baptist Church with a couple of dozen of my best friends and listened to Pastor Brad's sermon. For a bunch of runners like us, his message on taking care of the body was appropriate. Who runs the kind of distances many of us had run the day before without having at least some concern for the bodies we carried with us? But for Christians like myself in the room, the message was even more compelling. Brad's main point in the message wasn't as much about protecting our bodies in the name of personal health, but more for the welfare of the Holy Spirit that resides there. That's an important challenge if we're truly striving to live out our Christian faith through awareness of and listening to and following the voice of that Holy Spirit.
Sitting there with friends who the day before had helped me to the finish line of one of the most meaningful moments in my life, I realized the entire journey that led me there had been stirred by the voice of that very Holy Spirit Brad was preaching about. I could suddenly hear that voice and the words as plain as the day I heard it for the first time.
"But if I could tell people to do one thing for Meg, I'd tell them to go to church this Sunday. And if they didn't like that church, I'd ask them to try another one, or keep giving their church a chance. All the things people have said they loved about Meg came from Meg's love for her church and God."
I was actually sitting on a picnic table just outside this same church the day Meg's husband Scott spoke them to me. He was talking to me about running the Boston Marathon for his wife Meg just the week before. A race she had qualified for but could no longer run after being hit and killed by a drunk driver a few months earlier. So Scott ran it for her. He ran for Meg like so many of us had been doing in the aftermath of her passing. In that one conversation, the Holy Spirit connected for me my sudden desire to run further than I had ever run, with the unshakable love one woman felt for God.
A woman I had never met.
A love that failed to die when she did.
My running journey unofficially began the Saturday after Meg died when I joined over 100,000 people from around the world to run in Meg's honor. It officially began the following November of 2014 when I hastily registered for and then actually ran my first half marathon in Richmond. The video below explains what I think happened that weekend that ultimately led me to the journey I embarked on this past Saturday.
So there you have it. This past Saturday. the day I'd attempt to make my half a whole. I'd ease my way up to that starting line, arm and arm with the Holy Spirit who'd been encouraging this race for nearly two years now, and maybe for fun throw a few elbows at the devil who told me I wouldn't dare.
Then I'd set sail.
For 26.2 miles.
I was ready. Or at least I was sure I might be. I'd completed the training. Most of it anyways. I was plenty fired up after listening to the running pep talk from Mr. Accountability Friday himself - Bill Manning - at the Megsmiles pre-race dinner the night before. As part of Bill's address,he handed out recognition pins to all of the runners who'd achieved racing milestones the past few years at Richmond. Standing among them, it occurred to me just how many running journeys had begun because of Meg Cross Menzies. The front of that room was full. Full of people who might have been sitting at home on couches or downtown on bar stools or a thousand places other than the front of that room proudly proclaiming to be a runner. Oh, there was a spirit in the room.
Do you want to know what I found to be the most uplifting part of that ceremony. It was who I discovered we were all happiest for. And that who was the other guy. We were all cheering on and smiling and patting on the back - the other guy. The other girl.
If Bill didn't get me ready enough, the video honoring Meg sure finished the job. It showed her love for her family and the world. It showed our love for Meg. One of the songs that played in the background of that video was The God I Know. The opening lines of that song go like this:
If It Was All About Religion
What To Do, What To Say, What To Wear On A Sunday
All About Perfection
Black And White, Wrong Or Right, Never Grey
Well I'd Never Make It
I'd Never Be Good Enough
I Tried To Walk The Line, Pray That I'd Find
Somethin' That I Knew Was Real
Began To Realize, The Harder I Tried
The Colder I'd Start To Feel
Until The Moment
The Second I Met Your Love
And Then I Threw My Hands Up
I Remember When He Showed Me How
To Break Up With My Doubt
Once I was lost but now I'm found
No Strings Attached When He Saved My Soul
I Want You To Know The God I Know
Oh, You Gotta Know
Oh, The God I Know
I shared with our gathering that since the first time I heard that song, I often hear Meg singing those words when I run. I hear her singing them to all of us, really, with incredible joy. I do believe Meg really does know God now. And I believe she wants us to throw our hands up and worries down and know that we are all - in the words of that song - good enough.
I also believe she was looking down on us in that room. Our diversity. Our differences. Yet, it was our sameness I could feel her applauding. Our ONE shared commitment to extend a Meg kind of love with the world around us. She was telling us - I want you to know the God I know - and he loves just like you all are loving each other.
You all have cracked the secret.
Now share it.
It's ironic. Or maybe not. But before we came to the dinner that night I'd noticed my wife, Katie, had slipped a couple of lace charms on the running shoes I would wear during my marathon the next day. (She was actually sad because I wasn't supposed to find them until race morning). The charm on the left shoe says "I Run For Meg." On the right, the charm simply says "Hebrews 12:1" - which in the bible says:
There were dozens of us at that pre-race dinner who were mere hours away from running for Meg. Some of us further than we had ever run. The running races set before us in many cases felt daunting at that point. (I know I wrote it but I'll go ahead and second that right now!) But gathering with that group of incredible people from the Megsmiles family, not just the runners, but the volunteers who helped prepare the meal, the families that supported husbands and wives and kids who trained hours for their races, the people who had crisscrossed the country just to be a part of it, in the midst of us all, I think we all felt something that left no doubt the races we were going to run the next day - well that just wasn't our ultimate race.
It wasn't lost on me that the unity we felt that night came at the end of a week when unity in our country seemed as gone as dinosaurs. But there we were, doing what runners do. Pushing forward, one step in front of the other, carrying with us each step of the way a love and togetherness the world is really in desperate need of.
I left that dinner reminded of the race I'm really running.
But, that sure didn't mean the other race didn't have to be run.
And so there we were. Gathered together early the next morning, just before race time. That look on my face in the photo below, well it was about to change. I joked with this group before we went our separate ways and found our spots at the starting line:
"Talking about running your first marathon sure is more fun than actually lining up to do it!"
So here I am now. At the corner of Grace and 5th. Ready to embark on what I projected would be a 7 hour day of running. Many people I know are easily awed by the 26.2 miles a marathon covers. Me, I was more intimidated by the reality my legs were going to start rolling any minute and they wouldn't stop for 420 minutes. That's 7 straight episodes of Criminal Minds. Including the commercials. Suddenly even talking about a marathon was about as humorous as any of those episodes.
The start to the race was incredible. As the waves of runners moved over the starting line, and believe me I was riding the last wave so the waves moved for a looooong time, I could hear the race announcer shout Run For Meg as he saw the Run for Meg shirts parade by him. Each time I heard that shout it sounded more like a command than a cheer. For one final time I was reminded why I was seconds away from crossing that starting line. Not to show something to myself, but to show the world something Meg wasn't quite finished showing them herself.
The first 16 miles of the race went exactly as expected. I actually covered them a little quicker than planned. The adrenaline took over at times and I had a hard time going deliberately slower. Doing my Facebook live videos every 4 miles or so helped slow the pace and keep me fresh for the final 10 miles, which I knew were going to be a struggle. The beauty of being slow, and having no goal to finish any faster than slow, is you spend a lot of time by yourself. You get to spend a lot of time reflecting about the world without all the noise of the world. The view from the back of the marathon pack really is quiet and beautiful. Much of this post was written over those miles, at least in my mind.
From that point on my race was all about angels. Real live human beings delivering God-sized doses of that Holy Spirit that had gotten me that far.
At mile 23, my friend Julie Bowman shows up. Julie's had a rough go of it lately, most recently losing her mom. To see her standing alone along the route, to hear her shout my name and come walk beside me and offer encouragement when I really should have been the one encouraging her, to know her gentle spirit was pushing me on when my spirit might not have been dead, but it was breathlessly ill, well that WAS Megsmiles. That was her goodness trying to do what my stamina was no longer capable of. And believe me, Julie Bowman has an endless tank of goodness. She was definitely booster rocket one.
A mile later my buddy Bruce Hayes came running toward me. Bruce is the only guy I've ever called my coach. I'm sure that's a source of humiliation to Bruce, but he hides it nicely when he's around me. But Bruce once said there are days he's headed out for a ten mile training run and realizes a couple of miles into it he doesn't feel like running that day. So he doesn't. I hired him on the spot. It was an added bonus when he encouraged me to eat more cheeseburgers.
So Bruce shows up and just starts walking along side me. He made sure I was OK, but then just walked with me. There were times I broke into a hobbled trot and Bruce kept walking and still stayed ahead of me. He's pretty quick, that Bruce. Bruce told me he would have been there sooner, but some locals hanging out at a bar on the race route offered him a free drink. He couldn't refuse. They sat around telling football stories. It was just the kind of crazy, are you kidding me story I needed to hear to distract me from the story of my impending death - which I was sure those same guys at the bar would be talking about any minute now. Bruce was definitely booster rocket number two.
Then I hit mile 25. A mile from home. And there standing on the street corner, arms folded like security guards waiting to check my race credentials, were Jorge and Mo. They let me through. In fact, they encouraged me to move through. We were a line now. 4 across. Motoring the final mile of the longest day of my life. Mo had been there before. He ran me home the final yards of the Run the Bluegrass in Lexington. (I couldn't help but notice Tracey Outlaw, who ran me home the final 4 miles of that same race Run the Bluegrass, was nowhere to be found in our line. Tracey spent a lot of time that race telling me things were looking up and while I spent an equal amount of time telling him to shut up. That may have influenced his absence).
I was definitely the one guy struggling in this line. But I couldn't have felt more surrounded by brothers. These guys - three of the greatest guys I know - were definitely rocket booster number three. I will never be able to thank them enough.
Rocket booster number four. Well, I still tear up thinking about that booster. I know it probably wasn't thundering like those boosters thunder when they launch rockets into space. But it sounded like it. And maybe the ground didn't shake like the ground shakes around those rockets when they blast away from earth in the blink of an eye. But if felt like it. The sounds of those cowbells and the yells of my Megsmiles family couldn't have been drowned out by a World Cup soccer crowd this day. Not in my ears. As I inched closer to the finish line their cheers grew louder and louder and with each next step it all became worth it. Every mile.
The emotions were creeping up on me. My brothers would point to all the Megsmilers and I'd fight back the tears. I was sure I could do it. This was going to be a happy ending, not a crying one.
And then Meg's mom Pam joined me in the line.
I've spent hours the last several years imagining what Pam goes through every day missing her daughter. I can't feel what she feels, but I have 7 and 9 year old boys who are the light of my life, so I can imagine it. As she jumped in that line, I couldn't help but wonder how proud she must be of her daughter, to know all of this, all the day's finish lines, the hours of training, the joy of this family now surrounding the slowest runner of them all, how proud must a mom be to see a daughter's legacy roll toward a finish line in a giant wave of love.
That's why this is one of my favorite photos of the weekend.
I didn't totally completely lose it in Pam's company. But when I saw the lights of my life, those two little boys hurdle the barrier and come running my way, that was all she wrote. I can't imagine I'll tell those boys anything more over the course of their lives than "trust God" and "don't ever give up." To show them in that moment that the talk can walk - and run - 26.2 miles, that meant the world to me.
Running down that hill with those boys, and Pam, and the whole Megsmiles family was the ultimate expression of my running mantra.
I hate running!
Every second I'm doing it, I just don't care for it. But there's little that makes me happier than saying I just ran. And on this day, in this race with these people, crossing that finish was not only one of the happiest I-just-rans of my life, it was one of the most joyful moments of my life period. And here's the thing you need to know about that.
All of those people with me, that was their plan. To make that moment special for me.
We don't do that enough in this world anymore. Ask ourselves how we can make someone else's day. But this Megsmiles group, that is ALL they do. They celebrate the other guy. The other girl. Sure, a lot of them run to feel good about themselves, but they live their lives to make sure others know they feel even better about them. Spend 10 minutes with someone who knew Meg and that's what you'll hear about her. She was all about the others.
I grow more thankful every day that I'm part of this group that is finishing the race Meg started, that we hear that Holy Spirit, and we respond in love.
The moment would have been empty without the three people who are my world. And a dose of Bart Yasso for good measure.
A Medal and a Hand Shake Never Felt So Good
Do you know how many people I'm going to pass on the highway and quickly dive in front of now just so they can see my 26.2 sticker? Look out world. Marathon Man road rage.
Hey, Outlaw did show up for the party! Love this guy. My first marathon would have not been complete without the guy who's been there from the beginning.
The Final Run To The Finish Line