on finishing the race

I finished the Mercedes Marathon today.

That six-word sentence does not even begin to tell the tale of this day.

To tell the full story, I have to take you back to downtown Birmingham, 13th Street South – mile 18 of the race.

To this point, I had been feeling quite good. The first few miles passed in a blur, as they always seem to do, and before I knew it I had crested the Highland Park hills and was on my way downhill. Then the first half was done. The first half! And I was right on track. The 3:45 pacer was just a few steps in front of me. I took a quick physical inventory. My hips felt a little sore – a bit unusual for me, but nothing to get really worried about. My breathing was steady. And my pace was right on. We had clicked off miles at 8:30 pace or better most of the way thus far. And it continued until I passed the mile 17 sign, which stated that I had made my way to that point in two hours, twenty-five minutes.

Then, about halfway through mile 18, on that long stretch of 13th Street South, as I passed UAB, I felt it. A cramp in my calf.

To this point, I had only cramped up on a run once, and it was actually during one of my long training runs for this marathon. That was only a slight cramp in my hamstring. This, on the other hand, was the portent of something much worse.

I hoped that maybe it was just one of those twinges we all get from time to time. A few more paces let me know that wasn’t the case. By now I could see the mile 18 mark, and with it the mats that would broadcast my progress through text and Twitter.

“Okay, Brandon, run to the mats. Then we’ll walk for a little bit and see if that helps.” And so I did. The mat crossed, I allowed myself to slow to a walk. The 3:45 pace group pulled away, quickly becoming a speck in the distance. I gave myself a tenth of a mile or so to walk, then optimistically began to run again. Another jolt of pain, this time from a hamstring cramp. I was about to begin the Highland Park area again – a solid four miles or so of mostly steady uphill – and I could not run uphill. “Okay, I’ll just have to walk uphill – I’ll run on the downhills.”

That plan lasted about three-quarters of the way down the first decline. I quickly realized that I was going to be limited to a walking pace for almost the rest of the course. Under normal circumstances, I’m a fairly brisk walker – about a 15-minute mile or so. This meant – at best – that I had almost two solid hours of walking to do if I wanted to finish, and I now had cramps developing in both legs in all areas.

It was at this point that my entire set of priorities had to shift, and that is the real point of this story.

This was my first marathon. As such, my first priority was always simply to finish the race. I had a time goal – 3:45 (you may remember seeing that number earlier in the story), but that was now a pipe dream. And my mental calculations made me quickly realize that sub-4:00 was not going to happen, either; the spastic muscular knots that I called legs were just not going to allow it. So my singular focus came back to the first priority: Finish. This. Race.

There was a lesson to be learned here, I realized. I had talked earlier in the week with a friend/co-worker about a quote from Tim Keller: paraphrasing, you might find yourself obeying God, yet not being successful at what He calls you to do. And that’s okay. I said at the time that I didn’t really think that statement made a lot of sense to me. Now, within the context of a race, here was an object lesson. This run was not going to be a success, inasmuch as I’m not going to be running the entire way. But perhaps the point is to persevere – even through the pain, through the disappointment, and through the long stretch of road that still lay before me.

And so I set off, putting one foot in front of the other. Sometimes, I felt like I could run a little bit, and so I would totter along until one of my leg muscles decided it didn’t want me to do that anymore. Then, I would start walking again. People started passing me, of course. I saw the 4:00 pacers run by. I never saw a 4:15 group, but if there had been I know they would have passed me too.

The spectators were kind. At the mile 23 mark, one guy even patted my back and said “just 3 more miles to go.” Of course, I knew that meant about another 45 minutes or so. Mile 25 brought with it an oasis in the desert – a table of bananas. Oh, to have had one of those a few miles back! As I ate it slowly, I began my “last mile prayer”, a habit that I’ve gotten into on my long runs where I thank God for various things about the run. This time I thanked Him for the lesson – you press on to win the prize. Sometimes that means you run, sometimes you walk. It may – in fact, probably will – be painful. But press on.

I never saw the mile 26 sign. I just remember that a guy saying “two more blocks, and then you’re done”. And maybe it was the realization that it was going to happen after all. Maybe it was the banana giving me a little last bit of oomph. Maybe God just decided to let me finish the race by running. But for the first time in several miles, I began to run again, and I didn’t stop until I crossed the finish line. I picked out Kelly and my sister in the crowd for the first time all day as I went past. As I crossed the finish line, I didn’t look for my time – it wasn’t important.

I accepted my medal from a volunteer, and found myself standing in front of another one. He congratulated me on what I had just been able to do. I simply said, “Thank you”.

The last eight miles of the 2014 Mercedes Marathon are the slowest miles that I have ever run in a race. But those 12-, 13-, 14-, and 15-minute miles are going to be some of the most important ones that I’ll ever run. They taught me that when all else is lost, perseverance is still important. Finish. The. Race. And, as the gleaming medal around my neck showed, you press on to win the prize.