Last Saturday I ran my first half-marathon: 13.1 miles through downtown Louisville with 12,234 other sweaty and soaked participants of all ages, genders, shapes, and speeds, some running the full 26.2-mile course and others, like me, taking the easy route. The gun fired at 7:30am, and the sneakered masses flooding the lettered corrals on Main Street began maneuvering west, a brightly-clad herd shuffling under the starting banner at Brook Street.
One hour, 40 minutes, and 6 seconds later, I full-sprinted across the finish line.
I had been training sporadically since the mid-spring, running 3-4 miles a couple times each week and fitting in a long run of 8-12 miles most weekends. But I wasn’t on my own.
Sometime around winter break, three Boyce upperclassmen had told me they hoped to run. One was all-in immediately, while the rest followed along more slowly. I expressed initial interest, and we kept batting around the idea until I finally signed up. For years I’ve wanted to run a race of some kind — once a group of friends even gave me money to register for a race as a going-away present — but with life happening, I never made a race happen.
And I don’t think this year would’ve been any different without these students. We never trained together, but there were text messages, pace updates, and passing motivational references along the hallways and sidewalks on campus. One student and I somehow fell into the tradition of texting each other a photo of our shoes directly before or after a training run (I think I started it).
It wasn’t the physical challenge or athletic demands that kept me away in the past — competitive sports have been a big part of my life since I was a young boy. It was just the sheer time, planning, and prioritization a race would require in the midst of many other responsibilities and opportunities.
But with the help of a few friends, I (re)learned that Solomon was right:
Two are better than one, because they have a good reward for their toil. For if they fall, one will lift up his fellow. But woe to him who is alone when he falls and has not another to lift him up! Again, if two lie together, they keep warm, but how can one keep warm alone? And though a man might prevail against one who is alone, two will withstand him—a threefold cord is not quickly broken (Ecclesiastes 4:9-12).
Do you have something difficult to do? Don’t do it alone.
How many of life’s greatest joys, highest triumphs, and weightiest lessons come because we simply step out and make a decision? And how many missed opportunities and aging regrets rot within us due to our simple failure to launch? Decisions force action and planning and priorities and “strategic neglect.”1 My decision to run didn’t just force me to implement a training schedule; it affected how I ate, how much I slept, how I planned my weekends, what I listened to, even my classroom illustrations.
I didn’t know how it would go, or how it would feel, or what my time would be, or what I would learn, or who I might meet. But I knew it would be challenging, refreshing, and instructive, and all along the way, valuable. So with the encouragement of a few friends, I made a simple decision, and months later, here I am, reflecting on a meaningful journey.
Sometimes you just have to make a decision, and watch what happens from there.
I had started on asphalt, running the streets near my neighborhood, but when metatarsalgia set in, I transitioned to the rolling grass fields of Charlie Vettiner Park. Some days, I felt great: my fastest 12-mile pace had been 7:58/mile on a cool day when my body and mind seemed to agree. Some days, I felt awful: one hot day, when everything inside me was arguing and my mind turned into a mental fight scene from Inside Out, I chopped a planned 12-miler into 8 miles and stopped my pace watch somewhere around 9:15/mile.
At times the discrepancies between one run and the next were striking. But over time, I learned to trust the process. I might feel great after 3-4 miles, but that didn’t mean I should keep going and turn a planned short run into a long run. Or I might feel horrible after just a couple miles, but that didn’t mean I should quit. I also learned not to get too amped up about a fantastic training run, and not to get too discouraged about a painful or slow one. There are ups and downs in any training process, and simply staying the course with the ultimate goal in mind is half the battle.
Throughout my training, I listened to Tim Ferriss’s fascinating podcasts where he “deconstructs world-class performers.” Long runs became something I looked forward to, even when life was extremely busy, because they afforded me a clean mind with a sweaty brow in rolling grass fields with a good interview filling my ears. Training became a rugged joy, a rhythmic hobby that punctuated the week with sweat and sky and solitude. And it got me ready for the race.
It’s actually quite freeing to set a goal, make a plan, be consistent, trust the process, and let the outcome take care of itself.
We pulled the kids out of bed around 6:15 on Saturday morning, piled into the minivan, and headed downtown. The brake lights multiplied as I-64 passed under I-65 with the Ohio River below on our right and downtown Louisville rising on our left. I quickly realized that creeping along in early Saturday morning traffic in a medium-sized city, knowing that everyone around you is headed for your race — it has a heightening effect.
After snaking upward through a full parking garage and finally finding a spot, we exited into the city air and slowly funneled ourselves into the masses as vehicular traffic gave way to barricades, signage, and a mass of runners shuffling toward their corrals. I said goodbye to the family and slipped into Corral B around 7:20, just as a flustered volunteer cursed an impatient runner for his early-morning attitude and some inconsiderate breach of pre-race etiquette.
Most runners stood and bounced sporadically, up and down or side to side. A few stood along the cold, grey barricades and limbered up with their personalized stretching routines. Some were with friends; others, like me, were alone. Most were content with their place in the corral, but others respectfully maneuvered their way into their ideal positions. There we stood, waiting our turn, waiting to see if our preparation matched the opportunity.
At 7:25am, a cheer rose from the corrals as the wheelchair race began, a brief reminder that no matter how hard your race, someone’s race is harder.
The Wolf and the Pack
The seeded runners and the wheelchair racers had departed, and it was now our turn. The countdown culminated in a faint computerized firing sound — more a staticky noise than anything — signifying the start of our morning jaunt. And with that, we started . . . walking.
We were lined up at Floyd Street, but the starting banner arched over Brook Street, one block west. With over ten thousand participants lining Main Street, we had to herd-shuffle a full city block before passing under the banner and taking off.
The first mile was unique — I was squeezed into the left lane, up against the barricades and then the curbed sidewalk, as the pace was set by the sheer horde filling the six-lane street. Most runners seemed content with this early arrangement, though a few were restless, trying to squeeze through the herd on the way to their desired starting pace.
Based on the course layout, I assumed my wife and four kids would be lining the southern barricade, so I hugged the left lane until I heard their screams and caught a glimpse of them leaning on the rails as we thundered by.
Then I started feeling what young Mowgli learned from his den mother: “The strength of the pack is the wolf, and the strength of the wolf is the pack.”
Eye of the Tiger
The first few miles were unique: masses packed together with lots of energy and a good chunk of mental bandwidth to process the sights and sounds. I was learning how to take corners in a crowd, how to change lanes decisively and respectfully, and how to keep my pace no matter who I passed or who passed me in this diverse company of fellow runners.
At 3.87 miles (I checked), as we moved back east toward downtown, we approached a small tent on the north sidewalk playing Eye of the Tiger through a single raised speaker. The pulsing beat and anthemic vocals created a powerful temptation to drive forward and not maintain my tested and proven pace. It struck me that some forms of inspiration are like Skittles rather than steak — they give you a quick sugar-burst but slow you down in the long haul. I did my best to keep on keeping on, though I had to smile at the fantastic choice of song.
What does it mean to have the eye of the tiger in the long haul? It means keeping the pace.
Encouraging the Encouragers
As we wove our way east, west, and south through the streets of Louisville, encouragers speckled the sidewalks and lined certain corners. Some were looking for a specific runner or group, but most cheered indiscriminately.
I noticed an interesting phenomenon: when I smiled back or said ‘Thanks,’ their enthusiasm picked up. They wanted to be heard. They wanted to make a difference. They wanted their words and their presence to fuel our journey.
So I decided this was a two-way street. I joined the line of runners hugging the left lane to high-five a long row of onlookers who seemed unified by the beer they were representing. I decided I would try to take my cups of water or PowerAid from the young kids whose parents must’ve decided to spend a family Saturday handing out cold drinks to weary runners. I tried to say ‘thanks’ to the police officers standing with arms crossed in front of their cruisers, blocking off intersecting streets to keep our path straight and narrow.
Perhaps like any other race, this race was about more than just the runners. It was about more than just the ones who looked most weary.
Take time to encourage the encouragers, I thought.
The Longest Half
Halves are supposed to be the same size. But in distance running, the second half is always longer.
I knew this going into the race, and once again, it proved true. I checked my pace watch more than normal during miles 6-7, mentally calculating when I had reached the midpoint. The course kindly took us through Churchill Downs around this time, which was a nice visual reprieve, though I didn’t receive the burst of energy I thought might arise from such inspiring surroundings.
As we exited Churchill Downs, it was on to the final grind as we headed back north toward the river. But before we got too far, we came to a ‘T’ in the course, marked with a big sign. A steady stream of half-marathoners were turning north onto 3rd Street, while a handful of marathoners were turning south. It was humbling to see fulfilled what I had known all along: some of the people I was passing, or who were passing me, were actually running a much longer race. From this sight rose a principle I hope I always remember: Don’t congratulate yourself when you pass someone in life, because you never know the length of their race or the demands on their endurance.
Over this last half of the race, my mind and vision narrowed. I didn’t have the same mental bandwidth to take in all the sights and sounds. I had to focus. My thoughts and muscles started having the conversation they always have during the latter stages of a long run. Like the dueling angel and demon standing on Kronk’s broad shoulders in The Emperor’s New Groove, they went back and forth about all kinds of issues, both relevant and irrelevant.
I noticed more when runners passed me or I passed them. I anticipated the drink stations more eagerly. I looked for my family at more intersections. I had to fight to keep the pace. We were in the longest half.
I knew that after training and hydration, so much of endurance is mental. You tell your body what to do, or it tells you what to do. Now, self-talk and willpower can’t make up for a lack of preparation. But I’m always humbled when I finish running, because I always have something left in the tank. I always finish knowing I could’ve pushed harder. And that knowledge keeps me stretching the limits. I often remember what Pete Zamperini would tell his younger (Unbroken) brother Louis: “If you can take it, you can make it.”
I don’t know all that I told myself during this second half of the race, but most of it fell into this category: “It’s not how you start, it’s how you finish. Be a finisher.”
After four miles running north on 3rd Street (miles 8.5 – 12.5), we finally turned right on Main Street. There was less than a mile left, and the final push was on. Handfuls of runners started speeding up. The sidewalks began to fill. A couple guys in blue shirts pressed past, running at a pace slightly more than I could match.
With a half-mile left, a strange but helpful thought occurred to me: “You have about three minutes left. People can hold their breath for three minutes.” Somehow that was motivating as the bottoms of my feet pounded and my legs ached and my lungs pulled at the air. I conjured up another thought, this one much more routine, one I tend to practice at the end of my runs: “In a few minutes, how you feel right now won’t matter. What will matter, and what will last a lot longer, is how you finished, and how hard you pushed.” That’s a long thought, I suppose, but it usually works.
I kept looking down Main Street for the finish line, but didn’t see anything. Soon I realized what I had forgotten: we had a final left turn before the finish.
Around then I made my one memorable blunder of the race: I decided to turn my visor around for the final sprint. I tried to spin it on my head, but it was too tight, so I took it off, started turning it around in my right hand . . . and dropped it. With a quarter-mile left, with the final corner approaching, and at near full speed, I dropped my decade-old Yankees visor. I hit the brakes, backtracked, and grabbed it as someone on the sidewalk audibly groaned at my misfortune.
I was already committed to a final sprint, but dropping the visor galvanized that decision. I grabbed my soaked headwear and took off, charged with excitement and a hint of frustration.
I heard the personalized screams as I cornered left from Main Street onto Preston Street, running directly toward the southern bank of the Ohio River: five Gundersen’s, ages 35 to 8, cheering on a husband and father they hadn’t seen since mile one. I didn’t see them, but they saw me, and they let me know.
The final sprint was glorious: two-tenths of a mile, down a glistening city street, downhill all the way, with a packed crowd cheering and an announcer reading bib numbers and urging on runners by name. It was probably a bit overbearing, but who cares: I crossed the finish line with a sprinter’s lean.
And it was all worth it.
We passed under the banner and began the slow cool-down walk under the I-64 bridge. Volunteers lined the way handing out medals, wrapping us in foil heatsheets, and manning long tables of bananas, bars, chips, and drinks. I moved through the growing crowd and waited for my family, my first half-marathon behind me, already knowing it wouldn’t be my last.
Ultimately, I crossed the line at 1 hour, 40 minutes, 6 seconds, with an average mile pace of 7:38. Out of 10,424 half-marathoners, I placed #417. The mile-by-mile breakdown from my unofficial pace watch reads:
Mile 1: 8:07
Mile 2: 7:29
Mile 3: 7:35
Mile 4: 7:37
Mile 5: 7:35
Mile 6: 7:42
Mile 7: 7:37
Mile 8: 7:32
Mile 9: 7:57
Mile 10: 7:54
Mile 11: 7:47
Mile 12: 7:39
Mile 13: 7:00
Footprints of a Father
One of the reasons I wanted to run this race was my two sons, Judah and Isaiah. Judah’s 10, and Isaiah’s 8. Both run cross-country each fall, and both are running track this spring. So each fall and spring, I find myself running across grass fields or sitting in metal bleachers throughout north-central Kentucky, cheering on my boys and willing them to the end.
I didn’t want them to grow up only hearing my pre-race instructions, my in-race admonishments, or my finish-line cheers. And I didn’t just want to train with them now and then in the neighborhood, with nothing immediately on the line. I wanted them to see me run. I wanted to give them a vision of how to train; how to run; how to push; and how to finish.
I know they’re getting faster while I’m getting slower; they’re gaining muscle while I’m losing it; and they’ll be getting big while I’ll be going bald. But in these younger years, I want to show them something. Now, it’s not the most important thing I can show them — not by any means — but it’s something. And if I’m going to urge them on and push them hard and will them to the hard-fought line on Saturday mornings each fall, then I want them to know that I know what it’s like to feel the pain and to push till the end and to leave nothing on the path but your sweat, the rubber from your final sprint, and a vacuum in the air where you gathered your last breath before the finish.
Yeah, maybe that sounds all overblown and lyricized, but I tend to think that we all have these kinds of thoughts at different times; it’s just whether we give them up or plant them deep.
At any rate, I wanted to show, not just tell. I wanted my sons to see their father run, to watch him endure a race whose pain they know. They will have to endure pain in their lives, and they will need footprints to follow. Perhaps one small print was left this past Saturday by an average dad running a painful race for two sons to see.
I’m thankful God’s given me the health, for now, to do such things. Life was busy, but during a full semester, God provided the time and energy and resources for me to run a race I’d never run before.
At the end of this experience, I’m struck by the possibilities and potentialities that stand within our reach when we work together, get a vision, make a decision, set a plan, trust the process, keep the pace, and finish strong.
There are races we haven’t yet dreamed of running, but we should. There are races we’ve dreamed about but never trained for, but we should. There are races we’re in, but don’t feel like finishing. But we should.
There are long runs all around; happy are those who finish.
1 I first heard the phrase “strategic neglect” from a friend who was quoting pastor John Piper.