May, 2015. It’s hot in Florida, but this is where the race begins. It’s also where it ends. One hundred miles in the Florida sun. The Keys 100.
Running is a sport our youngest son has embraced. Along with the rest of his family, he recognizes that runners are a breed of their own. Running has its own culture, yet it’s a culture that includes much helpfulness and service.
On this trip, one of our sons noted that, compared to other sports, runners are set apart by their helpfulness and less emphasis on competition. Part of that distinction is because most runners are competing with their own previous record rather than with others. There is a comradery in sharing the exhilaration of miles completed. We listen to them talk, and we recognize that theirs is a language we can’t speak or understand.
When Aaron (whom we call Butch) first started running down an old cow path on the back of our place, we never dreamed that someday he’d be competing in events like this. Back in that day, I ran with him some, as did his older brothers. In time, he outgrew the cow path and most of us.
On the drive into town for his first-ever 5K in 2009, he told me he figured it would take him at least thirty minutes. I planned to just wait in the car for the first twenty minutes and then be at the finish line to watch him come in. When I got to the finish line twenty minutes later, he was already there. I should have known then that we had only just begun.
Being a nurse as well as a mom, I made an appointment with a pediatrician friend who did a complete physical. She listened to my concerns and did some research of her own. While he might wear his knees out running sooner than most folks, she reckoned that there was no physical harm or danger to him. And, she informed me, running was a safer sport than football. I also spoke with an orthopedic surgeon much later. He informed me that there are no studies that show running as a precursor to arthritic problems.
So there you have it. While we realize that running can bring a lot of wear and tear on a person’s joints and ligaments, we also recognize that there are other things he could be doing that are much less healthy, and much more dangerous. I also remember my pre-marriage days when I did some running, putting in two or three miles in an evening. I have not forgotten the exhilaration and the great healthy feeling from those endorphins after each run.
In our Mennonite culture, food is served at every celebration, and often there are more choices of desserts than fruits and vegetables. Both Dave and I come from families with a rich heritage of hospitality, service, and family togetherness. Unfortunately, along with those positive traits, we also transmitted familial tendencies in the genes our brood inherited: diagnoses like hypertension, diabetes, and obesity, to name a few.
Frankly, if I had to choose between our children suffering from joint weakness due to running or organ failure from any of the above familial diseases, I’d choose running. What makes me smile most is that often the folks who caution the loudest are usually the ones who could lighten the load on their own ligaments by shedding some extra pounds themselves.
Dave and I have tried to teach our children that if you’re going to do something, you should do it right. Once you start something, you stay with the program and give it your best until it’s finished. You don’t throw in the towel; you don’t hang it up when life gets difficult, and you certainly don’t walk away from responsibilities just because life becomes hard. You push through until the end. You don’t stop until you’ve crossed the finish line. Jesus did that for us, and we should do that for Him.
It’s a biblical philosophy. You endure to win the prize. You do it heartily to the Lord – and not for men. You keep your eye on the goal, and you don’t let yourself become distracted by things which will hinder you in achieving the goal. [“Therefore . . . let us also lay aside every weight, and the sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us.” Hebrews 12:1. “ It’s not that I’ve already reached the goal or have already completed the course. But I run to win that which Jesus Christ has already won for me.” Phil 3:14]
The youngest in our quiver is the tallest of our six and the fastest runner. He has completed several events since that first 5K: several half marathons in Danville, Virginia; a marathon in Richmond, Virginia; a 12-hour run in Dahlonega, Georgia (12 hours of HOSTELity); a Kanawha 50K in West Virginia; Mountain Masochist (50 miles) in Lynchburg, Virginia; and Holiday Lake 50K in Appomattox, Virginia. Each event prepared him for a tougher one in the future. He could not have completed the latest race in the Florida Keys had he never started with that 5K and added more miles for each event.
When Butch approached us about this event, we hoped he’d change his mind. However, we knew he could do it if he trained properly. Siblings began making plans to travel to the Keys to serve as his crew. I told folks that even though I am a nurse and he had family members who are medical personnel, I was going because I’m the mom and I had to see for myself that he was okay.
So we booked flights and reserved rooms. Our numbers grew, and by race day there were eight of us there to cheer him on.
Ultra marathon running is primarily a sport of middle-aged and older people. At nineteen, Butch was the youngest participant. For this Florida Keys race, any runner under twenty-one years of age had to have an official support crew traveling the course with him. One vehicle served as his official crew. The other did behind-the-scenes running for ice, more Powerade, Mountain Dew, and a Styrofoam cooler to replace the one that broke. We ordered pizza and delivered it to a rest stop for the support crew. And we prayed. A lot.
For the first eighty miles, Aaron did well. He was ahead of his goal-schedule and was looking good. Then, in spite of having trained for months and getting professional advice from a dietitian friend, he became weary and tired – and sleepy. The bottoms of his feet developed blisters and running became hard.
With thirty miles remaining, one brother logged twenty miles. Then another brother became his partner, pacing the remaining ten miles. It was a long day, and at checkpoints, his siblings hauled coolers out of the trunk, refilled water and Powerade, and supplied him with energy gels, while another member stretched his legs. They sprayed him with sunscreen, applied chap-stick to his lips, and filled his hat with ice (yes, ice.)
When you’re the mom, it’s easy to feel sorry for your kid when he’s struggling and suffering. With fifteen miles to complete, I asked Dave if we should just tell him he could quit since he was so spent and was walking now.
Believe me, I got my ears full. I heard about children Butch’s age in countries like Iraq who are trying to support their parentless siblings, children his age who are in hiding or are forced to do manual labor, children who are forced to go without food and water in temperatures as high as what our son was facing. How could I think that we should tell our son he could quit?!
“I didn’t come all this way to have my son quit,” I was told.
The next day I repeated the conversation to our runner son. “Your father let me have it,” I said.
“He should have!” he replied.
I think we have grown him well.
Two hours after the time he had hoped to be done, our son crossed the finish line. It was 4:30 AM when we saw him round the corner in the darkness. He ran as though he wasn’t tired anymore. You would never have known his feet were blistered and that he was showing signs of dehydration. You would never have known that a few hours earlier, he’d been moaning from tiredness, soreness, and pain. As we stood cheering, you would never have known that just hours earlier, we had tears in our eyes wishing it was over. It was now 4:31:37.
Was it worth it? There is no greater joy than to stand there, cheering your kid on as he runs across that finish line! As the stars shone in the Florida sky, we cheered and whooped and clapped and hollered as he rounded that bend and bounded across that line. We weren’t tired anymore – and neither was he.
It’s no wonder that Paul, a disciple of Jesus, likened our walk in life to a race. He said we should run with patience the race that is set before us. (Hebrews 12:1) Paul said, that in due season, we will reap if we don’t faint (give up).
Life is like a race. While most of us aren’t runners, we can learn from this sport.
- We accomplish nothing unless we are disciplined, dedicated, and focused. Jesus endured because of the “joy set before Him.” If we keep our eyes on the prize, we, too, can make it to the Finish Line.
- Other people may not share our passion. For the children of God, it helps if we remember that those who are not running this race will not speak or understand our language or our purpose in making it to the Finish Line.
- God uses events in our past to prepare us for future events. If we learn from our experiences, we can apply that knowledge to future races and go further than we’ve ever gone before. Each race helps prepare us to make it across that Finish Line.
- Sometimes we may become so weary that we can hardly take the next step. That’s when we need others to come alongside us and pace the way for us. When we can no longer think for ourselves, we will more easily endure if there are others who will run alongside us, protecting us. We need others to help us make it to the Finish Line.
- There is a great cloud of witnesses (Hebrews 12:1). I like to think this scripture is talking about those who have gone before us; however, that day in the Florida sun, I realized that we can all be a part of a cloud of witnesses, cheering our fellow-pilgrims on to the Finish Line.
- It is essential that we are prepared. We can learn from others who have paved the way before us. When we know we are facing a formidable obstacle, it is best to find someone who understands not only the obstacle, but also the preparation needed to overcome it. You need to have good training if you plan to cross that Finish Line.
- There is more than one way to be a support team. We don’t all need to be in the front; some of us are needed behind the scenes. Each is just as important in helping the runner accomplish making it to the Finish Line.
- Life is the ultimate race. We don’t all come to the Finish Line at the same time. As parents, our greatest goal is that each of our children and future generations will meet us at the Finish Line. When Eternity begins, there could not possibly be any greater joy than to have each one of them meet us there at that Final Finish Line!
To read a cousin’s blog post about this event, you can go here.