The smile in the eyes of this total stranger perfectly matched the beaming grin across her face.
I pulled the corners of my own mouth up into an appreciative grin as I lowered my head just enough for her to get the lanyard around it.
The medal was heavier than I’d remembered and kind of thumped against my chest.
I waded forward in the sea of sweat-soaked and spandex-laden humanity that had clustered just beyond the giant FINISH banner.
“Great job, Buddy!”
Another unknown face in a volunteer T-shirt threw the ceremonial Reynold’s Wrap cape around my shoulders.
I gave him back a smile, a nod and a quiet but sincere thanks for giving his time to the event before navigating the path to the runner’s exit.
A whole season of training and a 13.1 mile run in the Detroit Marathon were behind me.
Physically, I felt healthy and strong as I headed back to Mile 12 to cheer my World Vision teammates and wait for my wife to make her way up the course in her first Half Marathon. It was so much different from the physically battered and emotionally wrecked version of myself that ran the full 26.2 miles just a year earlier. I wasn’t hurt. I wasn’t particularly sore. In fact, I wasn’t particularly anything.
I was just kind of there.
Thankfully… that all changed…
But, before we get to that, let me share how we got this far.
As I stood in ‘Corral F’, the fact that I was even there was a bit shocking. If you’d told me a year before that I would be running in the Detroit Marathon again, there’s a chance I would have slapped you. Ok, I probably wouldn’t have ACTUALLY slapped you… but there’s a good chance I would have WANTED to slap you… and then later slapped myself for even having the conversation with you.
The day after last year’s marathon, I was done. I’d finished a full marathon and there was nothing left to do. I was wrecked, beaten down and way too smart to even consider doing it again.
But… as is often the case… I was also wrong.
I signed up for a rematch with that 26.2 mile international jog on January 1st – the first day of race registration. Because I know me, committing to it early was a key to get me to train for something that a large chunk of me still didn’t want to do.
As I stood there on race morning, on my jersey hung not the blue bib that would have identified me as an experienced FULL marathon runner, but instead I flew the proud color red indicating that I’d be going just 13.1 miles on this brisk 40 degree fall day.
A second season of marathon training didn’t teach me how to be faster, smoother or more gazelle-like, but I did get the best possible lesson available. This year I learned about accepting my limitations. In this case, a right knee that simply wasn’t going to tolerate the training distances necessary to pull off the 42K that a full marathon would have brought that morning. Let’s be honest, after spending a good portion of my life a McDonald’s Value Menu north of 400 pounds, I’m lucky to still have my original knees, hips and any other weight-bearing joints. Just a little right knee pain was a pretty good hand to draw all things considered.
I’d run the half.
My commitment to the cause was most important to me and, as an added bonus, running the half would allow me to see The Wife cross the finish line in her first ever run further than 5K – something that, like me before last year, she swore she’d never do.
Waiting for my wave to start this morning was nothing like last year.
Because I’d lived through it once before, my nerves weren’t nearly as raw as they’d been. It felt like just another training run. I’d been there. I’d done that. In fact, I’d gone twice as far.
Don’t make the mistakes you made last year, Clay. I remember telling myself that over and over.
You’re lucky to be here.
CROSSING THE BRIDGE
I turned the corner toward the Ambassador Bridge ready for passage to the Great White North. I’d already shed the first of my five layers of clothing – a beat-up fleece jacket – as I settled into a rhythm and started to feel like I was warming up both literally and figuratively.
Running the bridge into Canada is probably the most picturesque part of the Detroit Marathon. Both the Detroit and Windsor skylines look beautiful across the water, with the added glow of the early morning sun just starting to peak out as the swarm of runners make their way up the incline.
The 2.2 miles is the first real quiet part of the run with the cheering sections limited to just the occasional Border Patrol Officer urging you to stay to the right.
During last year’s run, I got so locked into the race itself, I took no time to enjoy just how cool it was to get to run across the bridge. Bridges have kind of become my thing this year having tackled the 5 miles across the ‘Mighty Mac’ back on Labor Day. I took advantage this year and really soaked in the sunrise. If you ever wonder why people run these kinds of races… well… you just don’t get views like this on a treadmill or in a yoga class.
WELCOME TO CANADA
The next 2.8 miles take place in the great City of Windsor, Ontario or, as other folks like me who grew up in Metro Detroit called it “Wait! You’re saying we can drink at 19!?!?!”
I make no qualms about my love of Canadians. I love these people. They’re the perfect blend of what makes them both North American and the red-headed stepchild of the English Monarchy. If you took an American – bred out the arrogance – then mated it with an unpretentious Brit… you’d have a Canadian!
Highlights running through Canada this year included:
- An overweight motorcycle cop controlling traffic from his very convenient chosen location in the Tim Horton’s drive-thru (I love stereotypes)
- The DJ who is stationed at the bridge exit who said, “Ok Runners… Welcome to Canada… you’re safe now.”
- A guy handing out ‘TimBits’ (donut holes) to runners
- Not a positive highlight, but memorable… the only fall I witnessed this year took place just a few hundred feet into the city. A young lady caught an edge and went down face first. It wasn’t pretty, but a crowd of runners and spectators quickly converged to assist her. That’s why I love runners! They’ll ALWAYS sacrifice their time to help someone who’s down.
- My two favorite signs of the whole race were in close proximity in Windsor and both held by young boys who probably weren’t even old enough to appreciate how entertaining they were. They read:
- “YOU’RE NOT ALMOST THERE!”
- “I TRAINED ALL YEAR TO HOLD THIS SIGN!”
And almost as quickly as it started, my time in Canada was over.
Just before Mile 7, I entered the 1.2 mile tunnel under the river to return to my home city via what the Detroit Marathon boasts as “the country’s only underwater mile”.
Not much hooting and hollering this year.
It was a very yeoman like effort in the pack that I traveled with through that stretch.
It was hot and humid in the tunnel this go round, so we all just buckled down and got back to Detroit.
DETROIT ROCK CITY
When you come out of the tunnel from Windsor, you’re greeted by the first good-sized crowd that you’ve seen since the starting area. Cheering sections line both sides of the street along Jefferson Avenue and it provides a nice kick to pull you up the steepest incline of the race day.
Just over 8 miles in – yet nowhere near 8 Mile – I felt really good about my run that day.
The sun was out in full force, I was down to three layers of gear, and I was about to run the only new section of the course for 2014 – an extra three-quarters of a mile down the Lodge Freeway that had been added to alleviate a weird cross-over point.
As the course made its’ way through Mexicantown, my mind bounced back and forth from the Evie’s Tamales that I knew were just a pit stop away to the real reason that I was back for another year.
The race this year was so much different from the one I’d run just a year earlier.
From the obvious HALF distance to the fact that I actually got to share the course with my wife – something we never thought we’d do – everything was just different.
Well, almost everything… the cause was the same.
I was running with Team World Vision again. We were running to bring clean water to parts of the world (specifically Africa) where it’s just not an easy option. I spilled more impeccably clean water during the run this year, than most of the people who we support in Zambia will drink all year.
And while the cause was one of the few things that stayed the same, the amazing people who had my back made it a little different.
I fell short of my fund-raising goal last year.
Full disclosure… I got so focused on my race… I forgot why I was running it.
That’s not even completely accurate. I LOST focus on why I was running it and mistakenly decided that I was running it for me.
Not this year.
We made it!
I not only passed my fund-raising goal thanks to so many friends and family, but, because The Wife was in the race too, our little #TeamShaver raised close to $3000.
60 people got clean water for life because we dragged our butts out in the cold to do some exercise that we needed to do anyway!
I thought about that as I made my way through the city streets starting to feel some leg soreness that I attribute to a pair of running shoes that I should have proactively replaced a few weeks ago.
It made me smile.
It made me proud.
It made me grateful.
And, most of all, it reminded me that, no matter how THIS race ended, we’d already won.
THE HOME STRETCH
Weaving my way through Corktown, I could confidently confirm that my shoes were no longer race worthy.
If I ever need to know if a pair of running shoes are done, I just ask my quads.
My Newtons had done me proud for most of the season, but they were ready to be traded in for a newer, younger and more attractive model or, as I like to call it, “pulling a Larry King”.
When I passed the Team World Vision cheering section a few moments later, I got a nice boost of energy and confidence from the long string of high-fives made available by the orange-clad throng. I was thankful for my team and proud to be a member of it. All those early Saturday morning training runs. Those mid-week emails. Those encouraging posts in the Facebook group. Those are the things you really miss when the training ends.
I saw the big orange traffic sign ahead that directed the Half Marathoners to take the hard right to the finish line.
I remember that moment so vividly last year.
All of those “stupid Halfers” headed to the party, while I was just about to get to the hard part.
I was so jealous of them.
And, to my surprise, it happened again.
This time, however, I was on the other side.
As I made the turn, I wished for the first time that day that I still had 13 more miles to run.
I knew my knee and, by that point, my quads didn’t have it in them, but, I wished I was running the full marathon.
I slowed down.
Instead of looking for that extra gear to trim maybe an extra 15 seconds off of my time, I slowed down to enjoy the few moments I had left in this run. To soak in the experience that I had trained all summer for. To just be thankful about being lucky enough to get to do this.
I crossed the finish line.
I’d done the typical thing when it comes to goal-setting for time.
I told everyone one thing – I wanted to run sub-2:26:00 as a symbolic thing for my weight loss journey.
I really meant something else – I was really hoping to go sub-2:10:00 to keep a sub-10:00/mile pace.
And I secretly pined for something else completely – I really wanted to go sub-2:00:00 which felt doable considering my last 12 mile training run.
That’s the beautiful relationship between a runner and the clock – it’s our best friend and our mortal enemy.
THE FINISH LINE
There I was, back where the race and this story started.
Wrapped in bizarro tinfoil with a new medal around my neck and an indifferent disposition.
I back-tracked to my #TWVDetroit cheer station around Mile 12 to give a few high fives of my own and wait to see the Mrs. start her final mile.
The music was loud and joyous.
An alternating playlist of “Happy” and “Everything Is Awesome” bumped from the speakers as I joined the line.
I wedged myself into an open spot along the road right next to an Abe Lincoln look-alike sporting the trademark suit with our World Vision orange underneath.
The parade of runners in every shape and size worked their way past our station.
You could see the pain on many of their faces.
But, through it, they nearly all cracked a smile as we shouted for them and the music blared.
EVERYTHING IS AWESOME!
My feet couldn’t help but move a little as the beats and the cheers got louder. My high fives were firm, yet approachable, as I tried to look them each in the eye to say, “You got this!”
EVERYTHING IS COOL WHEN YOU’RE PART OF A TEAM!
Orange jerseys. Blue jerseys. Yellow jerseys. No jerseys. It didn’t matter who or what you were running for… we were doing it together. And I wanted to see all 20,000 plus of my newfound teammates finish strong.
I was in a full on sway by then. Despite the spent shoes, the sore feet inside of them wanted to dance to the music and share the joy of the day.
EVERYTHING IS AWESOME WHEN WE’RE LIVING OUR DREAM!
I saw her in the distance and immediately started to jog down the street to meet her.
The fact that she was walking at this point didn’t concern me. After all, because of a mid-training knee injury, she’d only maxed out at 9 miles to that point. What did stand out was the new limp that I hadn’t seen before.
I hugged her and asked how she was feeling.
She cried a bit, but never stopped moving forward.
The knee quit on her at Mile 10. Not the ‘bad knee’ mind you, but what had previously been the good knee had a moment of weakness and a few milliseconds later she was on the ground.
She got up, brushed herself off, tried to run, but it was clear that walking was the only option.
I had no doubt, but it was amazing to hear the words.
I walked with her for about a block before kissing her, wishing her luck, and cutting up a side street to beat her to the finish line. If she was crossing, I was most certainly going to be there to see it.
I got there just in time to work my way close enough to a guard rail to see her finish.
We reconnected outside of the Finisher’s area. She was hobbled but positively beaming and touting the heft of her first medal. We gingerly made our way through a post-race celebration and what I know for her felt like a long walk back the car.
I was thinking about how down I felt when I crossed the finish line a few hours earlier. How I felt like I didn’t do enough. That running the half wasn’t good enough. That I should have been tougher and stronger. That because I had a full marathon under my belt, I should have been strong enough to do it again.
I was so wrong.
Watching my wife cross the finish line taught me the most important lesson that I learned this season.
It’s not about what you’ve done in the past.
It’s not about what you could have done better.
It’s not about what you did wrong.
It’s about being faced with something that you didn’t think you could do… it’s about fighting that battle that tries to say you don’t have it in you… it’s about taking in all of the abuse that the ‘little but loud’ voice of fear fills your head with… it’s about getting knocked down, brushing yourself off and just finishing it.
It doesn’t have to be perfect.
It doesn’t have to be fast.
It doesn’t have to be smooth.
But.. you know that is simply has to be… and you get it done.
Thank you again to everyone who supported us this season! We could not have done it without your love, prayers and support! I don’t know what next year looks like for either one of us, but, if you’re even kicking around the idea of running a marathon (Half or Full) and you don’t know where to start… reach out to me. I’d love to get you connected!