Leaving a Legacy: Reflections from the Roads and Races I’ve Run

I love to run. I always have. When I was a little kid, I used to run for miles by myself, with nothing but the breeze as my running buddy. I was too young to win any races or gain any glory from it; I just did it because I could.

Today I run because I still can, though it takes a little more creative maneuvering around my busy schedule and aging limbs. I’d love for my daughters to become runners like their mother someday, but so far, that dream doesn’t hold a lot of promise.

For starters, Lilla equates running with perspiration, something she is totally opposed to. Whenever I come home from my morning jog and try to steal a hug from her, she gives me the stiff arm and screams, “Ewww! You’re too sweaty.”

As for Rainey, she’s competed in a couple of races for kids and bawled her entire way through them both. Every time we go for a run together we somehow end up at a friend’s house with offers of potato chips and a free ride home. And just the other day when I asked her if she wanted to join me for a jog she replied, “No thanks. There’s too much running in running.”

Ah, yes. Clearly my daughters did not inherit the running gene from me. They’re more likely, I suppose, to inherit my unibrow and varicose veins. But I know they’re still young and impressionable, and soon they’ll discover that life never provides its own interpretation. We have to find something that gives our experiences meaning, clarity and context. Running gives me mine. And it could do the same for them.

But I don’t have to wait until their pushing me in our jogging stroller to share some of my insights. I can do that now. And so, in an effort to leave them with more than just my genetic flaws, here are a few of my reflections from the roads and races I’ve run.

Reflection #1: Know Where to Run

First, never leave home without a clear sense of how to get back. In other words, know where the heck you’re going. Like most lessons, I’ve had to learn this one the hard way.

When I was sixteen, I took our dog, Sam, for a run while vacationing in New Hampshire. I wasn’t exactly sure where the mountain roads led, but I had a general idea. Two and a half hours later, I was lost, carrying Sam, who’d come down with heat stroke, and running aimlessly toward what I’d hoped was home. Thankfully, my twin brother, Ben, became worried (more about Sam, I think, than me) and started looking for us. He picked us up several miles from our cottage and eventually forgave me for nearly killing the family dog.

This fall, while spending a weekend in the Poconos with some girlfriends, a couple of us planned a long run in the woods. We thought the trails would be clearly marked, and so we ventured into the wilderness. Not two miles into it, our run turned into more of a steeplechase as we began hurdling bushes, branches, and tree stumps. About an hour later we arrived in someone’s backyard, asked for directions, and got back to our lodge by way of the town’s main roads. But our legs were severely scraped up, and I came home that weekend covered in poison ivy.

Sometimes in life we end up completely off course. We get sidetracked, lost and sometimes thrown into a ditch. I’ve run the wrong way a few times and my heart always ends up battered by the bumps and stumps along the way. Sometimes I want to give up, to just sit on the side of the road and cry until someone comes to my rescue.

But I choose to believe that, no matter how far I’ve wandered, if I keep running in the direction of God’s heart – his love and his ways – I will find, recover, and live from mine. That way, to me, always leads home.

Reflection #2: Know When to Run (and When Not to)

It’s not always a good time to run. That may seem like a no-brainer, especially if there’s a tornado warning in the area. Or if it’s five o’clock in the morning. We can always come up with a good excuse not to do it.

But if you’re really committed to running, sometimes the decision not to run is harder than the decision to go for it. Injuries and illness always cloud my judgment; I have a hard time knowing for certain whether to run through the pain or bag it all together.

Two years ago I had a sharp pain in the back of my right knee that refused to go away. Stretching, popping Advil, and icing it down every night didn’t seem to help, so I asked a friend who’s also an orthopedic surgeon what to do.

“Stop running for a few months to allow the tendon to completely heal,” he suggested.

I knew he was right, and ordinarily I would’ve followed his advice, but a local 5K was coming up that I really wanted to run. After debating it in my mind, I ultimately decided to take his advice, withdrew from the race, and stopped running for three months. Turns out, it was the right decision. My knee completely healed, and that spring I was able to compete in my first sprint triathlon.

That same race landed on my racing calendar again this year. I’d trained for it, reached my peak, and even convinced myself I had a chance to cream the competition. But this time, it wasn’t my knee that was injured, it was my heart. Few injuries are more excruciating. I knew that if I ran that race, I also ran the risk of it never healing. No race is worth that kind of damage, not even one you can win. So just hours before the gun went off, I humbly withdrew from the race, again.

I don’t have the gift of hindsight yet to know if that decision will pay off like the last one. All I know is that real athletes don’t just train their bodies. They also exercise their minds. That means knowing when to run and, more importantly, when not to, especially when their hearts are on the line.

Reflection #3: Never Run Alone

Running can be lonely. An iPod cranks out great tunes but it never holds up its end of the conversation. It’s also pretty lousy at getting you out of bed in the morning. But the guilt of knowing that a friend is waiting for you on the corner at the crack of dawn is a great motivator.

For all but a handful of my required jogs over the past two or three training seasons, my friend, Deneene, has served as that motivation. I remember a couple years ago when she first approached me about running together. At the time, I was sort of a lone runner; I liked keeping to myself when I ran. I could go at my own pace, whenever and wherever I wanted, and I didn’t have to talk to anybody. I sort of ran in a little protective bubble. So I was hesitant about letting Deneene pop it. But I agreed to give it a try.

Sometimes we’d go fast, sometimes we’d go far. Some routes took us up killer hills, others across icy bridges. We ran in all kinds of weather, in all kinds of crazy outfits, including cowboy hats and Burger King crowns. We’ve had some really great runs together – the kind that make you want to run forever.

I had a running partner like Deneene in high school. We trained together in track and had a blast doing it. Then during the last big race of our junior year, we both ran the 2-mile event. The wind was blowing like a hurricane, and for seven laps I led the race with my friend right behind me, drafting me and avoiding the windy conditions. It’s not illegal or rude; it’s just plain smart for teammates to help each other this way. But with less than a quarter of a lap to go, her father began badgering her from the sideline.

“Take her out! Do it now! Take her out!”

At his insistence, my friend pulled alongside of me, tripped me, and within reach of the finish line left me facedown and bloody on the track. I’d never felt more betrayed.

My first instinct was to grab a handful of cinders and throw them at her. Instead, I picked myself up, limped across the finish line and congratulated her on winning the race. But our friendship ended that day.

Relationships hurt. Sometimes people we call friends use and abuse us. They take advantage of our devotion and then leave us wounded in the dirt. Most of them are clueless, completely unaware of how much they’ve hurt us. Some, frankly, don’t care. They’re just doing what they’ve been told. Sadly, almost all of them are hurt themselves, lashing out with the jagged edges of their own brokenness.

The depth that we allow people into our lives, though, is also the depth to which we feel the pain they sometimes cause. The closer the friend, the deeper the wound. And so you will be tempted, like I was that day in high school, to throw stones, to hurl your anger, judgment and hurt at the friend who wounded you so deeply.

Save your strength. Because it will take every ounce of it for what you have to do next: forgive. Not because they deserve it. And not because what they did is okay. It isn’t, and never will be. But forgiveness will make you okay.

Because relationships also heal. In time, if you refuse to let bitterness and resentment speak for your pain and if you resist inflating a protective bubble around yourself, your faith in friendship will be restored by running partners like Deneene. She sticks by my side on all of our runs together, even – no, especially – the really horrible ones. She makes me run and live better, and because of friends like her, I will never have to do either alone.

Reflection #4: Pick the Right Support

Every female runner needs a good sports bra. The last thing she needs is her two breast friends bouncing up and down the street in front of her, saluting the neighbors while she’s out for her morning jog. I’ve tried every jogging bra on the market, sometimes two at a time. And I’ve finally found one that bans the bounce. If I could marry a bra, I would totally get hitched to this one.

Instead, I’m married to a boob man named Scott. And just like my supportive brassiere, he faithfully shows up at all of my races, usually with Rainey and Lilla in tow.

Last May, when I ran my first marathon, Scott and the girls positioned themselves almost every four miles of the grueling 26.2 mile course. They cheered for me, replenished my liquids, and held up signs that read, “Go Mama Go!” and “You can bo it!” (We were having issues with our b’s and d’s at the time.)

Just shy of the 24th mile, more than three hours into the hottest point of the race, the road ahead became blurry and every breath became a struggle. For the first time on the entire course, I walked. Luckily Scott was there.

“I don’t think I can finish,” I told him, dizzy and defeated.

“Yes you can,” he assured me. “Just take it one step at a time. I’m right here with you.”

And with that, he grabbed my hand and started walking with me. He continued to encourage me and offer me liquids as we walked the 24th mile. We moved slowly but we kept moving. After my vision and strength returned, I was ready to start running again. And so Scott – who was asked the other day by my old running coach, “How many miles do you put in a week?” and his response was, “You mean in my car?” – ran the last 1.2 miles of the marathon with me. We crossed the finish line together that day, hand in hand.

Sports bras are not always sexy. Sometimes they chafe, especially the longer you run in them. I’ve got the scars to prove it. But in this treacherous marathon of life where you stumble, lose sight, and sometimes lack the energy to move forward, strong support is what will hold you up and see you through the long, hard way to the finish.

Reflection #5: Never Give Up

At some point in every race, each runner faces a critical choice: quit or keep going. Sometimes that choice comes in the form of a hill or a cramp or a competitor passing by. But the choice is never easy.

I’ve run a number of races where the finish line is further away than where I expected. I’ve also been misdirected by road crews. Hills that I’ve tackled during training runs seem bigger on race day. And the competition always looks more menacing moments before the gun goes off. Whatever the challenge, it always seems longer or steeper or scarier than the strength I’ve got to conquer it.

The annual Thanksgiving Day Run for the Diamonds this year was no exception. The conditions were perfect for the nine-mile race – no wind, cool temperatures, and plenty of fanfare. But after a terribly difficult training season, I was ready to quit – running, life, all of it. Truth be told, I just wanted to lie down and die, or at least take up basket weaving instead.

Halfway into the race’s notorious two-mile climb, my resignation begged the question:

“Why don’t you just give up?”

And all I heard in reply was the sound of other runners heaving on the side of the road. But after a few more strides up the hill the answer came, quietly at first like a whisper, then as loud as the cheering crowd lining the streets:

“Because your heart is worth it.”

Life, like every race, hands us plenty of opportunities to quit, to walk away and say we don’t need this crap. Unfortunately, our hearts are most often the primary target of a possible take-down. They can be deceived, misled, and ambushed by cruel competition that wants nothing more than to see us give up.

But our hearts are worth fighting for. Somewhere deep down inside each of us is a voice shouting, “We can beat this, we can change and live and love like champions in this world regardless of the enormous challenges we face.”

And so, with lungs burning, legs screaming, and eyes stinging with tears, I surged up the rest of that hill. I ran my guts out toward the finish line still several miles in the distance. With determination in every step, I gave it everything I had.

And I came in second place. I received a fancy diamond trophy and the accolades of my running peers, but I won something far more precious to me and the people I love that day: I won back my heart.

Reflection #6: Rest and Recover

But running and racing can take its toll on the human body. That’s probably why all the experts say strength in running is developed not during intense workouts but during periods of rest and recovery. Strength of character, I think, develops in much the same way. Certainly life has a way of taking its toll on the human heart, too.

So occasionally we need to take some time off. To massage the sore spots, to build up the weaker muscles, and to soak our weary souls so that when we emerge from our seasons of rest, we will be stronger, wiser, and ready to run again.

Final Reflection

I have three things written on the soles of my running shoes: “Rainey,” “Lilla,” and “Wanna go for a run?”

The first two are obvious; my girls are a constant source of inspiration to me, and I want them to know that I take them with me on every road I run.

But the last statement may not be as clear, so let me explain.

A long time ago, when I was a child running in the wind, I accepted an invitation to run the race of my life with the Champion of my faith. It hasn’t been easy, and the road to victory has often been paved with a lot of pain. But every day that I choose to run, I’m choosing to become everything God dreamed of me to be and to live like a true winner.

My girls may never accept any of my invitations to go for a run, and that’s okay with me. But I hope someday they accept his. To me, that’s a legacy worth leaving.

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