Step Ten – The Finish Line

I wept the first time I crossed the finish line at my first marathon, the 2011 Marine Corps Marathon.  I wept the first time I finished an ultra distance, my personal 50 miler on my 50th birthday in 2014.  I wept the first time I actually finished an ultra marathon, the 2015 Antelope Butte 50K after DNFing a race three weeks before.  There is something about finish lines that make my eyes leak and cause water to drip down my cheeks.  I believe it is because as a person working a full-time job and training for ultra marathons there is a lot of sacrifice that goes into the training.  When everybody else is sleeping in I’m up at 5 AM to get a 5-8 miler in before work, I’m skipping lunch so I can get a 4-6 miler in at lunch time.  I’m skipping TV so I can get a core workout in during the evenings or going for another run.  Instead of going to the ballgame or hanging out for beers with friends on Saturday I’m off on a 6-8-10 hour run exploring mountain trails and wearing myself out and then turning around on Sunday to get that back to back long run in.  So when I am able to cross that finish line, it isn’t every single race, usually just the first hard one of the year I know that I have accomplished something really incredible and that the common things in life will never be the same.  There’s something about that FINISH banner above the last timing mat that as you cross it that your entire body, mind and spirit let out a big sigh of relief because you have accomplished a goal that seemed oh so far away when you set it.

There are two things that I want to hear as I cross the finish line of life (hopefully when I’m 126, 74 years from this day).  The first is from Matthew 25:21 “….Well done, good and faithful servant!” and the second is from 2 Timothy 4:7 “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.”  There will be many finish lines in our lives and it is important that we stay focused on the attitude of our finishes.  Every finish that you have in life should be because you have trained and disciplined yourself to be able to cross that line and as you cross it you will sense the spirit of relief of a job well done, a faith well-kept.  You may not always look the best when you cross the finish line, that is part of the fight but the ability to cross that finish line means that you went beyond the ordinary to carry out the extraordinary.  Someday when your days on this earth are finished you will cross the ultimate finish line and rising to greet you will be the King of All Ultra Runners, the One, the Risen Savior and when He greets you that day my greatest prayer for you will be that you hear these words in that still small voice, “Well done, good and faithful servant!”

Living an ultra life means there will be many finish lines in your life and that with each and every single one that you will have the feeling of having accomplished something major and that you will always hear the words “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.”

Step Nine – Help Others Along the Way

In one of my ultras last year I had made it through the very last aid station and was only three miles from the finish of a 50K on an extremely hot day when I came upon another runner that was really struggling bad, weaving back and forth along the road and bending over about every five steps dry heaving.  Everything within me was saying “run on, don’t stop” but one thing I have learned in this crazy running world was that someday I am going to need help so I better be willing to lend a hand.  My wife had met me at the last aid station and the plan was that we were going to cruise into the finish together but as I stopped alongside the struggling runner I knew that he really needed a hand so I walked with him, poured some water on him and then handed him off to my wife, knowing she had her cell phone and we were coming into cell coverage soon and maybe she could find this man’s friends or wife or something.  This actually happens a lot in ultra races and it is one of the things that I really love about this sport.  There are so many people willing to help….the incredibly awesome people who volunteer at aid stations, the family and friends who drive into remote places to cheer you in and out of aid stations and of course the corps of awesome runners who are always willing to reach out and urge you to keep going, to slow down and run with you for a bit or even to share their water or nutrition with you in a pinch.  I firmly believe that what makes us better as ultra runners is our willingness to take our eyes off of ourselves and be on the lookout to always help a fellow runner.

Helping others along the way is an incredible way to about our regular lives also.  When is the last time you stopped to help somebody with a broken down car along the highway?  Or that homeless guy curled up under the bridge?  Or the young mother trying to corral her clan in the grocery store?  When was the last time you noticed a co-worker looking kind of down and offered an encouraging word or even just stopped what you were doing to acknowledge they were alive?  When was the last time you said “hey” to the geek, the nerd, the awkward one in your life that just isn’t cool enough for you?  When was the last time you offered somebody in ministry a text or phone call just to say “love you” or “thank you” and didn’t expect anything in exchange for your brief encounter?  I love this passage in Philippians 2:1-4 “Therefore if you have any encouragement from being unified with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any common sharing in the spirit…….then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mind.  Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit.  Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of others.”  When we take our eyes off of ourselves and the goals and dreams and plans we have and look to others our finish lines are oh so very much more significant.  I remember after I finished that race, disappointed my wife wasn’t there a little but really proud of the fact that she was willing to help somebody else out and glad I was there at the moment to slow down and take a little time to help the guy out that it meant just as much if not more to be than my finish.  And when that gentleman crossed the line I cheered as loud for him as if I had known him all my life.  See there is something that happens in us when we take our eyes off ourselves and put them on ours.  We are filled with more life and energy than we were before even when we are giving of our lives and our energy.

Living an ultra life means keeping your eyes peeled to see others in need of a helping hand and slowing down long enough to give them the help they need instead of just passing by hoping somebody else does it.

Step Eight – Making Adjustments on the Move

I was running the other day with a friend and as we ran I kept on experiencing this weird, new pain in the arch of my right foot.  About three miles in it was really bothering me and I had slowed to a walk and actually was whining a bit about my arch.  The friend I was running with simply said “try loosening your shoe lace.”  I did so and the next thing I knew the pain and uncomfortable feeling was gone and I nailed five really good miles after that. Three of those miles were in a pace that I had not experienced in quite a while.  It all stemmed from two things that are very inter related here – the first being having friends that are willing to see flaws in your running stride and willing to offer suggestions. The second is that you actually listen to them and don’t wait until you stop doing what you are doing to make adjustments but make those adjustments on the move.  This is a huge part of ultra running success because mile twenty is nothing like mile five and mile forty is so far different in the way your body reacts to foot plants and nutrition and water that the mental part of making necessary adjustments is just as important as the physical ability to run long distances.  Those people who can’t or won’t make the adjustments on the move are more likely to receive the dreaded DNF (Did Not Finish) instead of crossing or sometimes crawling across the finish line.

These same two principles of having friends willing to speak into your life and then actually making the adjustments as you continue running your own race are vitally important as well.  We don’t often think that we are heading toward a DNF in life but how many people do we all know who along the way get sidetracked from the good things in life for the things in life that don’t lead toward a successful race like alcohol, drugs, pornography or a million other addictions out there?  We do this in subtle ways when we refuse to listen to a friend or dismiss what they are telling us.  Jeremiah 17:23 “Yet they did not listen or pay attention, they were stiff-necked and would not listen or respond to discipline.”  I confess that I have been like this much of my life, thinking that I knew where I was headed and didn’t need to listen to other people but my running life has really awoken in me the desire to be teachable and always ready to listen to others in a way that the people who are important around me and quite frankly have life experiences I don’t have yet will be willing to share with me and that I will listen and make the necessary adjustments.  Jeremiah goes on to discuss what happens when we are willing to be careful to obey and the adjustments that we make always lead to better life experiences.

Living an ultra life means constantly being willing to make adjustments on the go and being willing to listen to the suggestions of others around us.

Step Seven – Prepare For Obstacles

One of my first trail runs I learned the hard way that it was going to be nothing at all like road running.  I learned going up that you can’t run every hill but who knew that going downhill was not going to be a picnic.  I’m cruising down this hill with all the twists and turns and doing just like the YouTube video I had watched beforehand showed with my arms out instead of pumping up and down and using little skip steps instead of out-and-out strides when what to my ever-loving mind should suddenly happen…….smack, fly, thud down real hard.  I hit a tree root with my up foot as I was bringing it forward to plant and the next thing I knew I was learning how to fly and I never even wanted to be a pilot.  The landing of course was less than graceful with the full chest thud and the skid along the path and the glasses flying and my water bottle getting squished under my body and my pride………….well let’s just say there was a couple hiking up the hill and I knew they were doing everything they could to keep from laughing as they helped me gather my glasses and dust myself off so pride was way out of the picture by now.  See the video didn’t show a tree root sticking out into the windy path that was sort of ridged up on the right side and I never saw it and that root, that obstacle in my path to running success tripped me up.  As I finished running down the mountain……much more cautiously…..I kept thinking about how I could prepare myself for these obstacles and what to do the next time I encountered the obstacle to a clear running path and I concluded there was only one thing to do.  Prepare myself for obstacles and train to gather myself up from the obstacle and not let it deter me from doing what I had the desire to do.

Life hits us with the same type of obstacles although they don’t often seem like a tree root.  They appear as the overbearing employer, the teacher who isn’t satisfied with anything you do, the significant other that can’t be pleased, the children who won’t ever see things your way, the God that doesn’t just give you all the desires of your heart.  We see these things as obstacles although in our whiny moments we won’t call them obstacles, we call them other worse names that I won’t even go into here.  And it all stems from a common human emotion…..we WANT.  It seems like a simple thing but it is oh so incredibly true.  We WANT stuff….a new car, a better job, more pay, better vacations, better grades, a better more loving significant other……we desire and when we don’t get what we desire we often times pout.  Psalm 20:4 can be a very confusing verse because it says “May he give you the desire of your heart and make all your plans succeed.”  See God wants to give me the desire of my heart and he wants my plans to be successful.  But here’s the secret to this…….ready……I mean really ready because this may not be what you wanted to hear……….God does want to give you the desires of your heart but not only is it not going to be a clear running path with no obstacles but He requires something of you.  Psalm 20:7-9 is the secret ingredient to preparing yourself for the obstacles that will come your way in your pursuit of the desires God lays on your heart.  “Some trust in chariots and some in horses, but we trust in the name of the Lord our God.  They are brought to their knees and FALL, but we rise up and stand firm.  Lord give victory to the king!  Answer us when we call!”  You will trip over obstacles and fall, it’s part of running your own race.  However, if you trust in the Lord your God with all your heart, all your mind and all your understanding then He will enable you to rise up and stand firm and continue the race.

Living an ultra life means as you run your own race that you prepare for the obstacles and that you learn to pick yourself up every time from these obstacles and keep moving forward.  Stop trying to avoid them or blithely think they don’t exist because you’re so awesome.  Chances are if you prepare for obstacles you are going to see them before they trip you up but even when you don’t you will still be able to pick yourself up and move on.

Step Six – Plan for THE WALL

It’s going to happen and you know it is.  It doesn’t matter whether you’re running a 5K, a half marathon, a marathon or a 100 miler.  IT is always lurking and IT is mean and ugly and bad to the bone and if you don’t plan for IT, IT will absolutely crush you.  What is IT?  IT is the wall, it is that point in every race where you feel and truly believe that you are done, you can’t possibly go another step.  I’ve had walls so bad that I have literally sat down on the side of the course and wept everything hurt so bad.  I remember right after my first DNF in a 52 miler I ran a 30K (18 or so miles) about 3 weeks later. Around mile 14 I remember hitting the last of the creek crossings and it was deep and it was cold and it was mud sucking and I felt like as the mud sucked at my feet that it was literally sucking all the strength out of my body.  I got through the mud but as I made it to the other side there was a really nice rock under a tree off to the side of the course and I just went over and had myself a little cry.  I knew within my heart that I could have finished the 52 miler a couple of weeks before and I knew I had to get up and run through my fears and through my doubts and after wiping my eyes I literally looked down at my legs and said “all right you two, listen up.  We are finishing this race and we are going to do it in style.  These next four miles there are two good uphills and one badass downhill and we are going to enjoy it.”  Then I said to my self (that self that was full of doubt and self-pity) “suck it up cupcake!  You’re finishing this!!!”  And I ran on and I finished quite well (my first top 10 in fact).  The difference was that I saw THE WALL coming and before I even started the race I had prepared for it.  I knew it wasn’t my nutrition or my hydration, I knew it was all in my head and I began to coach myself on my training runs of just what I was going to do to knock down THE WALL.

Life hits us the same way.  Guess what cupcake, you’re not going to win every time and you’re certainly not going to get a participation trophy every time you show up.  No if you want to run your own race then you are going to have to face THE WALL and you can’t run around it, you can’t avoid it and you can’t even take an easier route because THE WALL is always out there waiting for you and you better have something on the inside that gives you the strength to persevere through THE WALL and be able to run right through it.  Hebrews 12:1b-3 “….let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles.  And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus…..”  Perseverance is an extremely hard character trait to develop but it takes training and it takes planning because you just don’t hop out of bed in perseverance attire.  It’s not like it’s the most natural thing in the world.  No to sum up perseverance in two words – IT SUCKS!  That’s right, you heard correctly.  This is going to be one of your least favorite things to develop and it’s going to take something that is not naturally a part of any person (no matter what that self help guru tells you).  It is a character trait that takes developing and it takes hard work and it takes some tears and it takes some personal development.  And you could skip this step and just go on to the next one but you’re not going to avoid THE WALL because it will always be there.  IT will show up in one fashion or another and the fact of the matter is that unless you throw off the habits that are keeping you from breaking down the wall it will always entangle you and trip you up and you will accumulate more DNFs in life than you ever thought possible.  So what are you waiting for?  Start working now to face THE WALL, whatever it is and tell it that you acknowledge it but you just refuse to ACCEPT it.

Living an ultra life means planning for what you will do when you hit THE WALL.

Step Five – Strengthen Your Core

Did you know that your core, the center of your body, is very important to how well you run your own race?  I didn’t know that either when I started running.  I thought all I needed were strong legs and strong lungs and a “Never Quit” attitude.  I figured armed with all of this there wasn’t any challenge I couldn’t overcome.  Then I tried my first back to back race.  It was a 10K (6.2 miles) on Saturday morning followed by a half marathon (13.1 miles) on Sunday morning.  I crushed the 10K and felt really, really good.  In fact my wife and I walked around Williamsburg VA that afternoon and ate a regular dinner and had a really good time.  The first ten miles of the half marathon went pretty well but then somewhere before mile 11 the wheels fell off and I really began to suffer.  I felt like I was running in quick sand and every step it felt like someone was poking hot needles into my thighs and glutes.  My lungs were burning and I couldn’t even hold water down.  I was hurting bad and really not enjoying myself like I thought I would.  I finished simply because I’ve got that “Never Quit” thing down pat but felt awful afterwards.  The next week I went on a Saturday run with a bunch of other runners and I was talking to them.  It’s important to know that between Charlie and Les they had finished well over 100 marathons and stopped counting half marathons long before I joined the running club.  As I described to these two awesome men what I had been feeling, Charlies stopped and asked “what kind of strength training are you doing?”  I described the leg lifts I had done and the stretching and all the miles I had put in.  And then Charlie hit me with the profound “that’s all well and good but strength in running comes from a strong core.  If your core isn’t strong it doesn’t matter how strong your legs are or how many miles you run because your posture will always start to bend at the middle and you will slap the surface you are running on instead of stride through it.”  After that planks and simple core exercises played a really important part of my running routine and the more I read the more I realized that a strong core means less injuries and more joyful running.  Over the next year as I strengthened my core I finished two more of these back to back races and thoroughly enjoyed the last one a lot.  Now I run back to back training runs every week with some of my runs being a 20-24 miler on Saturday followed by a 10-14 miler on Sunday.  The thing that gets me through them is core strength though.

Imagine now the same thing in life and I’m not talking about adding planks and sit-ups to your daily routine.  What I’m talking about is the core of your being, your soul.  What strengthens your soul?  Psalm 28:8 “The Lord is the strength of his people….”  Philippians 4:12-13 “I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty.  I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want.  I can do all this through him who gives me strength.”  Core strength to run your own race comes from acknowledging and accepting the strength of a Creator God through His Son Jesus Christ.  Without this one thought at the core of who we are we will wander through life much like my first back to back race.  We may be able to get through portions but when it really matters, when our own physical strength can’t cut it anymore then there better be something at the core of your being and I would strongly suggest it not be your strong will because that can only get you so far.  If your core strength comes from the acknowledgment of a greater God living in you then you can pretty much expect that you will be able to face any and all back to backs and thoroughly enjoy them as well.

Living an ultra life means you build core strength into your normal routines.