I was ready. I knew I was ready. I had trained for months and I was about to do something I had never done before. I was about to qualify for the race of all races, the Boston Marathon. To qualify, I would need to run my best ever time and beat the mark of 3 hours and 15 minutes. Because of my training though, that was not going to be a problem. In fact, based on my recent long runs, a time below 3:10 was probable and I figured I even had a shot at crossing that finish line in under 3 hours, which I knew would be near the top for my age group, having just turned, well, um, 40.
I mean, if I could break 3 hours, that would be lifetime achievement good. That would be “Wow man! That’s amazing!” good. And after all, if 40 is just a number, so is 3 hours. I’m going to shoot for 2:59. My good friend Tony Hayden asked me a few days before the race if I had a time I was shooting for. I humbly replied, “I’m planning to qualify for Boston, which is under 3:15, but I’d like to go out strong and finish in under 3 hours.” He asked if I’d ever run a marathon in under 3 hours. I hadn’t. Truth is I’d never run one in under 4 hours. But I was a new man. “Not yet,” was my honest reply. Tony then paused, tilted his head and offered some advice, “Dude, don’t go out too fast… you’ll need to finish strong.” I filed that away under the things people say who don’t know anything about how fast and how far I can run.
Race day came and I felt great. Standing at the starting line with a throng of runners, I knew two things for sure. One, I was finally going to qualify for the Boston Marathon. Two, I was going to do it in impressive fashion. The gun goes off, I start my watch. My legs start churning and I leave most of the crowd behind. Only those truly elite (and younger) runners start to string out in front of me. Three miles in and I’m well within my sub 3 hour pace.
At mile 10, I was still feeling good, but my times had slipped a bit and my chance of getting in under 3 hours was now maybe 50/50. There had only been a few runners pass by me and I was catching just as many who had obviously gone out too strong. Marathon rookies, probably.
At mile 16, with just over 10 miles to go, I had to accept that 3 hours wasn’t going to happen. My times on the last six miles had slipped a bit more, but I could still come in under 3:05 if I could just find that second wind. The miles ticked by and my body didn’t seem to respond to what my mind was telling it do, “Run faster!” In the next four miles, there was a steady stream of people pulling even with me and then passing me. Huh, I guess they must have gone out much slower to have this much energy almost 20 miles in.
I pass mile 20. 6.2 miles left. A mere 10k. I’d run that distance 100 times in the last few years, and just an average, decent time would now get me in the house at 3:10. Only, I’d already run twenty miles and so I figured it might take an extra 2-3 minutes. No worries. I’ll still make Boston.
Turns out I didn’t need those few extra minutes. I needed much more than that. I was spent. It was about mile 24 when I realized I wasn’t going to make it. My last mile was almost 3 minutes slower than my first several miles of the day. I finished in 3 hours, 18 minutes, and 3 seconds. I missed Boston by 183 seconds. That’s a commercial break in the Super Bowl.
I was heartbroken. I had started strong, but I hadn’t finished the race the way I wanted to.
The same good friend who advised me to “finish strong” in that marathon just finished his own race, and he finished strong. For several years Tony battled cancer and after an operation last summer, it seemed he had turned a corner. But then a few months ago, Tony and his wife Meredith received news that cancer was back and this time it was aggressive. Tony received a terminal diagnosis and was told he had 3-6 months left. As they shared that news with me and other close friends of theirs, we all had the same reaction of disbelief. It can’t be. Tony and Meredith were only a few months removed from celebrating the birth of their twin baby girls. They were loving parents to a beautiful 3-year old little girl. It just can’t be. Tony ran into the arms of Jesus on Ash Wednesday, March 1, a day that reminds us that we have come from dust and to dust we will return.
I got to spend a good amount of time with Tony these last few months. We prayed together, cried together, and laughed together. A few weeks ago several of us were in his hospital room when Tony joked after seeing a good friend enter the room, “Thanks for coming. I guess I’ll write you back into my will.” Those of you who knew Tony know that he was one of those guys that set a pretty brisk pace in his life. He lived life to the full. He loved well. He ran hard. And in these last few months, while the cancer was spreading rapidly and taking over his body, he was determined to finish strong.
What those around Tony saw at the end of his race was enormous strengTH. He was strong for others and on April 22, we will be strong for him. I’m going to run the race of my life for Tony. And this time I’m going to listen to my buddy’s advice. I’m going to learn from what I’ve seen in him and I’m going to finish strong.
I invite you to join me in the following ways:
- Register and run either the Carmel Marathon, Half Marathon, 8k or 5k on Saturday, April 22.
- Once registered for the race, join the Team StrengTH running group by filling out this Google form. We will have at least one pre-race run as a group and will plan to meet together prior to the start of the races on April 22.
- Common Ground is accepting donations to create a college fund for the Hayden girls to present to Meredith on race day.
Thank you Tony for showing us how to finish strong.
Midtown Area Church Pastor