Why Run the Bluegrass?
This past Saturday I took on the most physically challenging endeavor of my life. I had no idea how much emphasis I would eventually place on that word "most" going into the weekend, but shortly after noon on Saturday, 3 hours, 13.1 miles, and 32 you've-lost-your-mind-if-you-think-those-were-gentle hills behind me, I knew I had defeated something much bigger than me. Or at least something that had plenty of convincing reasons to believe it was bigger than me.
When you're in the middle of a challenge you have no business winning but long ago ruled out losing as an option, it's easy to ask: why am I doing this. Taking on the hills of the Run the Bluegrass (RTB) gave me plenty of opportunities to ask just that. I'd attacked the gentle climbs formerly known as hills in Hanover County, but they were little more than speed bumps compared to the never ending and forever rising backroads of rural Lexington, Kentucky. A couple of times during the race I wondered if my investment in new shoes might have been better spent on mountain climbing gear. With each new hill my legs were asked to spring into strides they'd never attempted before and forced to endure pain they'd never felt. Many fellow runners passing me on those hills likely heard snippets of my breathless and broken words. Why Run the Bluegrass?
We Run For Meg
The answer to that has become our mantra hasn't it? We run for Meg. This past Saturday I dare say a bunch of us did a little climbing for Meg too. But whether we're in Kentucky or Texas or any other state or country, or tackling hills or our local neighborhood streets, the reason we run always traces back to a quiet roadside cross in Hanover County. The white cross bearing the shoes of the most beautiful part of each of our runs: Meg. Yet when we go back there, to where this story starts, the beauty is missing. A mother, wife, daughter, and friend taken away much too young. Taken at the hands of a man making decisions he was old enough and wise enough not to make. The truth is there is too much ugliness in the beginning of this story to make sense. And so we, those who proudly storm starting lines from Richmond to Lexington to Los Angeles and beyond, do so bearing the responsibility of making sure the beauty of Meg Cross Menzies outlives and outshines the ugly in her story. The ever present ugly in the world.
Meg's Family Paces Us With Grace and Courage
One of the early highlights of the Run the Bluegrass weekend was the pre-race dinner. The dinner was held in a beautiful barn along the race route, a barn usually reserved for million dollar horses. Scott Menzies, Tracey Outlaw, and I met at the barn earlier in the day to get a lay of the land. Scott would be speaking later that evening and we wanted to make sure everything was just right.
This proved to be a bad idea for both Scott and I. I got my first look at the hills we'd be running the next day, my first indication the 13.1 miles would look and feel nothing like my first half-marathon along the flat, downtown streets of Richmond, Virginia. Scott, on the other hand, got his first look at the four small heaters spaced throughout the football field-sized barn and wondered out loud how they were going to keep that much space warm. I wanted to ask him how he had time to worry about staying warm after riding the daunting wave of hills to the barn we'd be running in less than 24 hours. Then I remembered who I was talking to. Mr. I'll tackle anything just as long as I'm warm. The less than convincing volunteer prepping the barn for the dinner assured him the barn would be toasty. I am now certain that what Kentuckians call hills I call mountains, and what they call toasty I call the perfect ingredients for frostbite. The good news is Scott speaks well in layers.
Because he did speak.
He started his message by telling everyone he wished he wasn't there - not always the most popular message with a listening audience. But when the alternative to a husband sharing a message about his deceased wife is being home living life like it used to be - husband, wife, kids - a family together - the audience tends to understand. The me part of the audience also felt a bit guilty. I was having a great time. I was meeting for the first time so many people I'd grown to admire, people who had encouraged me enough in my running that I was about to run my second half-marathon.
Scott also drove home the point that the fact we were all there celebrating each other's company, continuing to lift up the Cross and Menzies families and carry Meg's memory forward in Kentucky, was no accident in his eyes. God was there.
Maybe it's me, but in that cold barn I felt God. He was somehow trying to answer why Run the Bluegrass. At the same time he was offering a reminder that no matter who or where we are, our race to be the good that outlives and outruns the ugly that set Meg's story in motion is paced by the grace and courage of the Cross and Menzies families. Scott, standing before that audience many miles from home, away from the comforting hugs of his children who most days are the strength he draws on to face the day, challenging all of us to be the good in the world, to be the hope in our own families, he was the face of courage, selflessness at it's most selfless.
Ready to Roll
After driving the hills of the course the day before, listening to the car motor dig for all it had to carry us to the top of them, standing at the starting line of the Run the Bluegrass was not simply a message from God, it was a show of his ability to pick someone up out of a hotel room bed - the most comfortable bed I've ever slept in mind you - and transport them beyond their wildest fears to stand side by side with 4000 runners who had either previously run the course and were angrily back seeking revenge, or had never attempted it and were about to update their definition of "oh my God what have I done."
Count me among the latter.
Even still, and I really can't explain it, but standing in the midst of those runners I felt confident. I knew I could cover 13.1 miles. I'd done it before. I also had the Rudy soundtrack cheering me on, which inspired me well beyond the whale music I'm often accused of listening to when I run. Call me foolish, but I was ready to roll.
All Was Well Until Mile 8
Through the first five miles that's what I did. Roll. I was barely over a 12 minute mile pace. Given the hills I was happy with that. Through miles 6 and 7 the pace started to fall off. The hills turned to mountains. But still all was well until mile 8. There's nothing notable about mile 8 other than I spent that entire mile knowing what was coming at mile 9. Meg's memorial. That's when the question cranked up. Why Run the Bluegrass. Why was I here, several hundred miles from home. How was it possible on the backroads winding around and up and down through some of the most prestigious horse country in the world was I about to run down a hill into the smile of Meg Cross Menzies. Hundreds of shoes honoring her, much like the memorial that stands next to the spot where this story began in Hanover County, Virginia. How was it that I was sharing this rural road in the middle of nowhere with friends of Meg's from literally everywhere - almost all of whom had never met her. Here we all were, 40 of us, scattered over this 13.1 mile course from hell (no offense Eric), all brought together by one of the brightest spots in heaven. It made no sense. Yet it made perfect sense.
And Then There She Was
Because We Are Friends. Because We Need Friends.
I lost it at mile nine. I lost the emotions that had built up over mile eight. I lost any energy I had banked to finish the remaining 5 miles. The timing of this couldn't have been more unfriendly. Meg's memorial was constructed at the start of mile nine to inspire runners to conquer the steep grade her memorial pointed toward just yards away. It looked like such a cruel hill. Taunting. So much for your sentimental journey, it seemed to scream out. Now let me show you what I really have.
I approached it hesitantly. Tracey ran up beside me as I began to motor upward. He may want to correct me here and replace the word motor with mosey. I won't let him. My motor was redlining no matter how slowly my feet were moving. That's really the story of my last five miles. Full go in my heart and head. Slow go with my feet.
A mile from the finish line Tracey asked me to stop. Like in the middle of the road. It's a perfect photo op he said. This was the result.
I know Tracey meant this as a joke, but there is so much truth in this photo. Just a mile from the finish and I was wondering how I was going to make it there. Believe me, in the back of an ambulance didn't sound like the unlikeliest scenario I could come up with at that point. Come on Tracey kept yelling (in the most encouraging way possible) - the rest of the way is pretty flat. We make it to the turn up there and then we dart home, he said.
At that point I unloaded on Tracey. I assured him my legs no longer cared if it was hilly or flat, and they were absolutely in no position to dart anywhere.
That guy hung in there with me though. He took my abuse. He remained steadfast in his encouragement. And because he did he ended up leading me to one of the most special moments of my life. When we finally darted around that final turn a most beautiful sight waited for me. It wasn't the finish line. It was the faces of the Meggers coming to escort me across it (a rather bold move for them at that point considering the likelihood they might have to carry this Clydesdale the remaining 100 yards). Leading the way was Scott. The guy who should have been looking for every shoulder in Lexington to lean on was going to be the first one to lend me his. It all came together in this final scene. In the end it was 1 minute over my very loose goal of finishing under 3 hours, but I wouldn't have traded one minute of the course experience for anything.
In that scene I think I came up with the answer - why Run the Bluegrass. I think it's because of friendships. Meg Cross Menzies has led many of us to rediscover the joy in friendships. She's led us to understand, maybe, just how much we need friends - new and old. This race was one incredible challenge, but it also revealed some incredible beauty in each of the Meggers who were part of the journey. Scott and I talked on the flight back home about how different everyone was that came to Lexington, but how awesome it is that we have one thing in common. One thing strong enough to draw us all together. Draw us to Lexington or Richmond or to the Megsmiles Facebook page each morning. We have hearts that long to be the good. We have hearts driven by the beautiful spirit of Meg. That is why we do - why we must - continue to run for Meg.
A special thanks to Eric Patrick Marr and Rachel Crabtree for putting together a race environment that made sharing time with one another special and memorable. I don't know about the rest of the Meggers, but I'll be back next year. I will be one of those guys angrily back seeking revenge.