My alarm clock does not ring. I wake up from a deep sleep, suddenly and with panic. I look at my clock and realize that I should have left my home an hour ago. I NEVER sleep in, except this day. I have a plane to catch and now I do not know if I will make it. I curse myself, grab my duffle bag, which is filled with a dozen empty water bottles, my racing flats, toiletries, sweats, and my running clothes. I hurriedly kiss my wife goodbye, jump into my truck, and begin the 2 hours and 15-minute drive to the airport in Eugene, Oregon (I live in Coos Bay, on the Oregon Coast).
I drive as fast as I can, holding on to the hope that my flight will leave late.
I am flying to Las Vegas where I will rent a car and drive to St. George, Utah for the St. George Marathon. I have been training for months with the goal of running an Olympic Trials qualifying time of sub 2:20.
Saint George is a beautiful city in Southwestern Utah, just 40 miles from Zion National Park and two hours from Bryce Canyon National Park. The landscape is covered with dramatic red rock mountains and sandstone formations. I chose this race because the course is fast (a net decline in elevation) and it is on a Saturday (this is Mormon country, after all). As a pastor, I have tried to limit the number of Sundays I miss each year, and nearly every major marathon in the United States takes place on a Sunday.
Speeding over the Coastal Range, across the meandering roads, I wish that I could slow down time. I am afraid of getting a speeding ticket, so I nervously look in my rearview mirror waiting for the lights of a police car to appear. I am forced to stop for gas, which takes a painfully long time.
I skid into the parking lot of the small airport just North of Eugene as a commercial jet arcs upward over the terminal. “That can’t be my flight,” I mutter to myself in denial. I quickly park and run into the airport. I go straight to the security line, where my fear is confirmed; I have missed my flight.
There are no more flights going to Las Vegas this day. If I am going to get to the marathon, I will have to wait on standby for two hours for a flight to Salt Lake City, Utah. The flight to Salt Lake is “full” but there is a chance that someone will not show up. I get my name on the list and wait.
Two hours later, they call my name and inform me that there is an empty seat, and I can board! I am jubilant. I still might make it in time for the pre-race meeting. I rush onto the plane and begin stuffing my bag into the overhead bin. A flight attendant taps me on the shoulder with a look of concern: “Sir. I am so sorry, but the ticketed passenger with that seat just arrived. You will have to deplane now and give him your seat.”
I have heard stories of people losing their minds while on commercial flights. I can totally empathize. I grind my teeth and stare at her incredulously, realizing that she is absolutely serious.
“Of course,” I say sarcastically. “I thought once I was on the plane, the seat was mine. You’re not going to drag me off the plane are you?”
The other passengers look at me with empathy and concern for my mental stability. I pull my bag back out of the overhead bin and march off the plane, back into the terminal, feeling defeated.
“What can I do to get to Vegas, TODAY?” I ask the customer service agent standing behind the nearest counter.
“Let me see. OK. I found one. You can fly to Los Angeles in an hour, and from there we have a flight to Las Vegas leaving at 4 p.m.”
“Thank-you Jesus!” I announced. “Can you please confirm me all the way through?”
“As a matter of fact, I can,” she replied. It is the first good news I have heard all day.
Barring any further disasters, I will still make it to the marathon, arriving in Las Vegas at 5 p.m., instead of 12:00 p.m.
On this day at 2 p.m., there is a pre-race meeting and press conference for the elite athletes. The meeting is designed to review the rules, answer questions, introduce the top runners, and, most importantly, to collect the personal water bottles.
One of the great benefits of being an invited runner to a major marathon is the fact that you are given the privilege of having your own water bottles which are placed on the course for you, at the aid stations. You fill them yourself with your preferred fluids and they are staged on special tables. You can decorate your bottles for easy identification. Sixteen ounces of fluid intake every few miles is necessary to stave off dehydration. The bottles allow you to precisely regulate your fluid and glucose intake without ever having to slow down and break your stride.
The alternative to the bottles are Dixie cups. I am sure they will be using these out on the course since the nickname for St. George is “Dixie”. These are 4-ounce paper cups with open lids. Most runners will stop, or slow down enough to drink a couple of cups full at each aid station. Try grabbing one of those while running fast and see how much fluid you are able to ingest. I think you get the picture.
I am driving my rental car out of Las Vegas while on the phone with the elite athlete coordinator in St. George. I inform her that I will be arriving late with my water bottles. She lets me know that this is a problem since I have already missed the meeting where they collected the bottles. The truck has already left the hotel and is delivering the bottles to the stations on the race-course. I say a prayer, hopeful that someone will be able to help me out.
I arrive in St. George at 4 p.m., two hours after the deadline for turning in my water bottles. I quickly connect with the elite athlete coordinator and explain my dilemma once again, “I can’t help that I didn’t make it. My flight was late getting here. Surely someone can take these out for me!” I leave out the part about me sleeping in.
“We’ll try to get them out there for you.” This was the most assurance they can give me. I try to remain optimistic.
I have a late dinner alone and go to bed exhausted. My alarm goes off successfully the next morning at 4 a.m. After a light breakfast, I drive to the finish area where I park my car. I join the thousands of nervous runners boarding the school buses and ride the 26.2 miles out of town to the starting area. I feel like I am back in elementary school as I gaze out the bus window at the star-lit sky. As we approach the starting line, I am captivated by something I have never seen at a race. Over a dozen bonfires are burning brightly on the sides of the road to warm the runners as we wait for the start in the crisp, cold, October air.
Although the previous day had been a nightmare, I block it out and focus on the race ahead. St. George is a FAST course. It is a race that many choose to run in order to try to qualify for the Boston Marathon or the Olympic Trials. For me, the Trials are the ultimate goal. I needed to run sub 2:20.
The gun sounds as dawn’s light begins glowing across the eastern horizon. During the next two hours, the temperature will rise sharply. For now, the conditions are ideal.
To perform well in a marathon, I have always depended on being well hydrated. Some athletes are like camels, requiring very little water. Not me. I also need glucose and electrolytes during the last half of the race, preferring to drink Gatorade or some similar energy drink.
I position myself in a large pack of runners during the first miles. I nervously anticipate the first aid station at mile three. The bottles I had meticulously prepared are to be found on the right side of the road and on the 3rd table. My bottles are wrapped with hot pink tape and a fluorescent green flag attached to a straw. As the pack scatters towards their respective tables, I speed towards mine. Traveling at 11.5 miles per hour I look frantically for the pink tape or the green flag. The hot pink bottle is nowhere to be seen. I anxiously glance around at the other tables and my fears are confirmed: My bottles have not made it.
I speed back up and rejoin the pack. I will have to wait another three miles before passing another aid station.
Approaching the six-mile mark I have consumed zero ounces of fluids. To put this into perspective, a 10K road race (6.2 miles) is a significant distance requiring some hydration. I still have 20 miles remaining and I am now “behind the eight ball”. I am on pace (time-wise), but without fuel, I knew that I may run out of gas. I know that I cannot be certain that I will have any water bottles of my own. I switch to “Plan B” – the Dixie cups.
As I run alongside the next aid station, I grab a 4 oz cup off the table, intentionally squeezing the rim to form a small opening before sucking down the two ounces that have not spilled out. Quickly I grab a second cup, managing to get another two ounces of fluid into my system. A volunteer hands me a water-soaked sponge, which I squeeze onto the top of my head. I have not missed a stride and I am able to regroup with the pack of runners. We all have the same goal of qualifying for the Olympic Trials, and we are working together to maintain the pace needed to do so. I calm myself, relax, and try to run with confidence.
The miles clip by without incident. 10…11…12…13 miles. 13.1 at 1:09:30. Perfect! I am getting what I can from the Dixie cups. Mile 15…16…17…18. Fatigue quickly becomes a factor. It is here where the real race begins.
As I crest a small incline, my right hamstring spasms into a sudden dehydration-triggered knot. I slow down and limp along. 400 meters later, it is my left quadricep, stopping me in my tracks. There is an aid station a half-mile away. I need to get there and take in a large quantity of fluids. I try to run but now my abs cramp. Then my right calf. I am walking and other runners are zooming past me as I limp along in the hot sun. I am angry and embarrassed. Weeks of running twice a day, every day, for this?! By the time I get to the aid station, I feel as if my Olympic dream has been dropped and shattered on the ground beneath my feet.
“DNF” is a well-known acronym listed within race results for anyone who does not complete an event. It means “failed” in the minds of ultra-competitive athletes. It actually means “Did Not Finish,” but when you are taught to never give up, this is unthinkable. It is something I had never done in my life. I admired the athletes I had seen staggering or even crawling across finish lines in order to make sure they did not get labeled with a DNF. I was not a quitter! Why was I walking?
Every race has a bus or two on the course to pick up those who “drop out”. I have always referred to these as the “buses of shame”. These are technically called “SAG Wagons” and they sweep the course to assist the injured or exhausted runners who are unable to finish. I was neither injured nor especially exhausted, but I was destined for what I now perceived to be the loser bus.
At the 19 mile mark, I tell a race official that I am finished. My body has left me with no options. I have never failed to finish a race, so I do not know what to expect.
Runners file by me, cruising towards the finish with excitement and courage. Meanwhile, I wait for the bus in the hot, desert sun. It feels wrong to be standing there in my sponsored racing gear when I should have been running.
The bus pulls up and the driver opens the door. There are two other sad-looking people on the bus. “I need your number” barks the driver.
“Number twenty-five,” I tell him.
“No. I need you to take off your number and give it to me.”
Adding insult to injury, not only am I a failure, but I am not deemed as trustworthy. The driver wants to make sure I do not sneak across the finish line later on. Standard procedure no doubt, but I feel like I have done something wrong as I struggle to unpin my bib.
What will I tell my friends? My wife? My church? “Thanks for praying for me. I didn’t finish. But it was the experience that I cherished.” “The last shall be first, so I guess I won,” I joke to myself.
I couldn’t lie. All I can think of telling them is “Thank you for caring. I ran poorly. In fact, I didn’t even finish.” I wonder how many times I will have that conversation. I grieve the hours and hours of wasted training that I had put in.
Once at the finish, the bus drops me off at the medical tent. I go looking for some food, Gatorade, and a place to sleep. If I just fall asleep, perhaps I will wake up to discover that this has all just been a bad dream.
The finish area is filled with the sounds of applause and the bustle of smiling runners proudly wearing their finisher’s medals. No finisher’s medal for me. I never thought a finisher’s medal was important until I was denied one.
Yes, you and I are still on the racecourse.
Our success is not measured by how fast we are running.
Our lives will not be judged by the successes in the middle.
Our lives will be judged by whether or not we finish.
Maybe you have suffered a recent setback or a big disappointment. There is still time for you to regroup. Pace yourself and find a sustainable rhythm in life. Focus on hydration, spiritually speaking.
Every dream is filled with risks. Every success is preceded by days of disappointment. Failures are unavoidable. What we do when we are in the middle of one is the true test of our character.
13 Jesus answered, “Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again, 14 but whoever drinks the water I give them will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give them will become in them a spring of water welling up to eternal life.”
15 The woman said to him, “Sir, give me this water so that I won’t get thirsty and have to keep coming here to draw water.”
Then Jesus declared, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never go hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.
• What do you “thirst” for in life, right now? How might the Lord meet that need?
• When have you failed to achieve a goal? What did you learn through that experience?
• Does the fear of failure keep you from taking any risks that you need to take right now?