Wednesday, April 24, 2019

A Life Less Ordinary

All I ever wanted was to lead a life less ordinary and running took me there.

Realizing that a comeback is highly unlikely due to medical concerns, it is time to admit that my competitive running career is over. Having not raced a marathon since December 2016, I was able to qualify for Boston in my last competitive effort. But that was a long time ago.

Some people say that going out on top is the goal of every athlete. It’s just that I wasn’t ready to hang it up when that time came, and I struggled for a long time once it was gone. I felt like less of a person because I could no longer do, what I was made to do. When you are vastly known for being successful at something, the second it is gone you just don’t feel like yourself and the depression quickly ensues.

But after much introspection, I have come to be grateful that I was able to do it in the first place. Which is maybe why it has taken me so long to actually write these words and admit to myself that it’s over.

And if I can't be great at it, then I don't want to ruin it. It’s too important to me.”

Racing at a highly competitive level totally changed my life; it gave me confidence as a man that I lacked in my younger days. I learned that with hard work, you can accomplish great things well beyond your abilities. Good enough was never good enough for me and I had an insatiable hunger for competition.

It’s not who is the best. It’s who can take the most pain.” - Steve Prefontaine.

I was going to push myself to breaking point and then back off ever so slightly and remain there for as long as I could. And for the longest time, this meant track Tuesday, hill beat downs on Wednesday, tempo Thursday, race Saturday and long run Sunday. Then repeat to the tune of 4,000 miles a year for a decade. I was obsessed with the pursuit of my own glory.

A lot of people run a race to see who is fastest. I run to see who has the most guts, who can punish himself into exhausting pace, and then at the end, punish himself even more.” - Steve Prefontaine.

My mantra was that I will do today what you won’t so that I can do tomorrow what you can’t.
In reality, I wasn’t doing anything super human. I was just an ordinary person in pursuit of the extraordinary. I didn’t have any special talents. But I thrived on being dismissed or overlooked and used that to fuel my passion. And so I took a small amount of talent and turned it into 82 career wins and 189 podium (top 3) finishes in 400 races.

I believe my personal crowning achievement was running sub 3 (hours) at all three US marathon majors as that is the most coveted distance for most runners. This was important to me because I was able to do it (well) on the biggest stage(s) in the country.
  • 2009 Boston: 2:56:17
  • 2011 New York 2:54:44
  • 2013 Chicago 2:49:12 (at age 38)

When I first qualified for Boston in 2007, my parents were there in Green Bay to see me cross the finish line. Then a few months later when I ran Boston for the first time, they were there again. That was something special to this only child to make his parents proud of him.

But being competitive at all distances was what I thought made me unique. Accomplishing my own success standard of going sub 3-4-5 was always my goal. This is a sub 3 hour marathon, a sub 4 hour 50km and a sub 5 minute mile which I accomplished with a slash line of 2:43/3:53/4:57.

It was in 2011 that I realized that this was not about my own glory, but about His. Which is why if you saw me winning a race, it was just like the picture above where I was pointing to the Heavens to give praise to the reason I was able to do it all. I became humble.

In the years that followed, I devoted my life to running and giving back to the running community through volunteer work. My life was running, but it brought me so much joy to pass that on to others. Even simple things that shouting encouragement to others who were finishing their race was so important to me. Giving back was the reason I served on the HTC board, as a race director and started the Rocket City Marathon Pace Team. I will never forget pacing 3:40 in the 2010 marathon helping others realize their dreams, all while I was running on dead legs having realized my own dream of 2:43:40 just six days earlier at CIM marathon in Sacramento.

Amidst the success, there was much failure along the way. There were times when I pushed too hard and my body pushed back. Maybe this was because I was always seeking greatness and I tried things that were well beyond my ability. This included the 335 mile 7 day Pinhoti Trail Adventure Run with Rob Youngren. After reaching the AL/GA state line and completing 172 miles, my body said no more as I was running on bloody stumps for feet. Some might say this was a great accomplishment. I saw it as failure. But I had tremendous respect for Rob went on to finish all 335 miles and set the standard for all who will follow.

I like to think that it was my ability to get knocked down, and immediately get back up again that made my running special. But once I was diagnosed with recurrent respiratory papillomatosis, it became more and more difficult to get back up. I managed to race New York Marathon while having 3 surgeries during my training. Eventually the doctors suggested more aggressive means to keep the virus at bay, which included weekly interferon injections which in essence killed my ability to run at that level.

I didn’t want to retire. I thought that I could continue racing at that level forever. After all, I was able to finish Mountain Mist in 4:24 after tearing the meniscus in my knee. I was able to race just 8 weeks after knee surgery and win McKay Hollow Madness. I felt invincible. But I really was just human. And I don’t think it was until I was able to walk away from it, that I realized all that I have accomplished. I know that I did not appreciate it in the moment. I took it for granted.

So it is ironic that something as small as a rare virus on my vocal cords would put an end to my competitive racing career and not a devastating over use injury. And in the 2 years that followed I still felt that a comeback was possible. Look at Tiger Woods; as a fellow 43 year old, he just accomplished what no one else thought possible. I don’t have Tiger’s talent, but we both know how much hard work it takes to return to the summit once you’ve been knocked off. My body will just not allow me to push it to the limits that it once did. It is likely (though impossible to prove) that I pushed too hard, which took its toll on me and may have weakened my immune system to the point where it can’t beat this virus.

Your talent is God's gift to you. What you do with it is your gift back to God.” – Leo Buscaglia

I am tremendously thankful for all that running brought me and hope that others are thankful for all that I brought to it. I tried to pass along every bit of knowledge I was bestowed with from my coaches, onto others. Pay it forward.

If I impacted just one person’s life through running, then it was all worth it. One day I hope to have the words “difference maker” etched on my tombstone.

So now my focus will be more on adventure running, thru hiking long distances. I have to say that running across the Grand Canyon and back and setting the fastest known time on the 40 mile Greenstone Ridge Trail with my Dad waiting for me at the end are some of my fondest memories. I always loved being in the woods, and slow long distance is one thing my body will allow me to do. I have always enjoyed seeing things that can only be experienced afoot and am thankful that these two feet can still carry me there.

As the tattoo on my right side reads, the less I have, the more I gain. off the beaten path I reign.

And that is where you will find me, should you happen to be looking.