Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Making God Laugh: A San Francisco Marathon Race Report

“If you want to make God laugh,” goes the old saying, “tell Him your plans.”

I had the San Francisco Marathon pretty much planned to a T. And I made God laugh heartily.

It’s also often said that God works through the kind people He puts in our lives. And over the course of my trip to San Francisco and through the race itself, I saw Him at work in many of them.

Stage 1: The Trip
This comedy of errors begins with the trip to San Francisco itself. I had it all worked out: Because the marathon would take place on Sunday morning, and because I would be flying back Sunday evening, I would take the family to Mass on Saturday evening. I found a church near the airport (LAX) that offered a 5 p.m. Mass. We would leave home at 3, giving ourselves plenty of time to get there, and after Mass we’d speed over to the airport in time for me to catch my 7 p.m. flight.

Now, what is that other saying, the one about the best-laid plans?

Due to various hang-ups at the house, we didn’t get out the door until 3:30. That was later than I had hoped, but still plenty of time, barring any unforeseen difficulties — of which there were plenty.

I was just turning on to the freeway when Mary Kate said, “I think I left the oven on.” So I drove to the next exit, and got off. Being a little anxious, I then made an unfortunate mistake, stopping a few feet short of the stop sign, and rolling the rest of the distance onto the street — right in front of a police car. The officer let me start driving home for a couple of blocks, but sure enough, he then pulled me over.

At which point, we inexplicably couldn’t find our proof of insurance!

But by God’s providence we had the nicest cop ever — we’ll call him Kind Soul #1 — and he let me go with a warning. Still, the whole exchange must have wasted at least 15 minutes of precious time …

After a return trip home (wouldn’t you know it, the oven was off), we eventually made it back on the freeway, and it was smooth sailing for about half the trip, until we hit a horrendous traffic jam. Not unusual in Southern California, but the timing couldn’t have been worse. Eventually we got up to the front and saw what the problem was — a torched car on the side of the freeway.

But as we marveled at the clearing traffic and wondered what could have happened, we somehow missed the next freeway interchange we needed to take! That meant driving on to yet another freeway, further off course. And wouldn’t you know it, one of the little ones needed to stop for a potty break. Time’s slipping away …

To make this long story short, by the time we got to the church, the priest — let’s call him Kind Soul #2 — was making the final announcements. I approached him afterward, and told him of my predicament: how we had tried to make Mass on time, but failed, and how I wouldn’t be able to make Mass if I ran the marathon. I asked him if I should just stay home and skip the race altogether. I didn’t want to miss the marathon, but I was trying to be open to God’s will. The priest looked at me and said, “You did your best. It’s not your fault you didn’t make it. Now go and run for the glory of God!”

With that mandate, I was sure to make the best of things. I sadly bid farewell to Mary Kate and the children at LAX , got on the plane, and was met my by friend Ted at SFO. At Ted’s place I chatted with him and his wife Jane — Kind Souls #3 and #4, who were incredibly generous and gracious to me — till about 11:00, then called it a night.

Stage 2: The Good
The morning went without a hitch. Ted drove me to the Embarcadero at the crack of dawn, and I joined my wave. There was a large SF Marathon sign boastfully touting the recent Wall Street Journal headline: The Race Even Marathoners Fear. That got me even more pumped.

The race started our beautifully, running by the Bay, over the Golden Gate Bridge and back, through Golden Gate Park, and down Haight Street (despite losing a few minutes due to a traffic stop). In fact, one could argue that it started too well.

I took the hills with gusto. I loved the scenery — the tall buildings, the old houses, the pagoda in Golden Gate Park. I high-fived spectators who called out my name. I passed a table manned by the folks at DailyMile and gave them a shout-out. (By the way, have you joined the Running Catholic group on Daily Mile? You should!)

All along, I was worried about my knees. An injury had kept me out of this year’s L.A. Marathon, and I feared it would flare up on the course. Early on I felt some tenderness, and was concerned. But the tenderness went away, and by mile 15, I had forgotten all about it. It was never a problem. Praise God!

Although conventional wisdom has it that SF is a tough marathon, folks say it’s only the first half you have to worry about. That’s where all the inclines are said to be, and the second half is supposedly “easy.” So, when I was feeling great at about mile 16, confident in my belief that the worst was behind me, I speeded things up a little bit. Hey, it would all be easy from here, right? Might as well go for a good time!

Which brings us back to that cliché about the best-laid plans …

Stage 3: The Bad and the Ugly
Then came Mile 22, and the big hill that waited for me there. After six miles of running faster than I probably should have, I just was not prepared. I didn’t have the energy. I ended up walking that hill.

And then came Mile 23, and another hill. I couldn’t help but agreeing when I overheard a fellow racer say, “I’m going to kill the guy who said the hills are all in the first half!” Again, I was forced to walk, and at that point, my tank was empty. The best I could muster for the last few miles — which were excruciating and slow — was alternating between 100 seconds running / 60 seconds walking. Whereas I had been monitoring my Garmin religiously till then, I stopped looking. I didn’t want to know how slow I was going, didn’t want to know how bad my time would be. I just wanted to be done with this.

I kept telling myself: If I go faster, it will be over sooner.

I had prepared a play list of loud, fast music to keep me energized, but by this point I wanted none of it. My exhaustion consumed me. I clutched the St. Francis scapular I had got just for the occasion — which included a list of intentions that I’d glued to the back — and tried to focus on prayer. I thought of my family. I tried praying the Sorrowful Mysteries (fittingly enough). But I found running/walking was all my mind could handle at that point. “I put myself in your hands, Lord,” I thought, and plodded along.

The miles, which had zipped along so briskly earlier, now seemed worlds apart. But there were some happy moments. Ted and Jane were cheering me on from the sideline somewhere around mile 24-5. And shortly after seeing them, I tripped over a curb and fell to the ground.

Yes, I’m listing a wipeout as a “happy moment,” because, amazingly, I was fine. I had heard horror stories of racers who had tripped within sight of the finish line and never made it across. At the moment of my tumble, I thought I would be one of them. But thanks be to God, I was able to get up and keep going.

A fellow runner — Kind Soul #5 — stopped and offered me help, and I was so humbled. I know how seriously marathoners take their times, and here he was — probably jeopardizing a PR — to offer me a hand. Not wanting to slow him down, I said, “I’m good, keep going!” In hindsight, I wish I had said something more thoughtful and appreciative, but by then I was so worn out I couldn’t even think straight. Dear Lord, please bless that Good Samaritan!

Stage 4: Deliverance
Finally, the finish line approached, and I crossed it (and then myself) with a great sense of relief. Through God’s grace, I made it. Hooray! I looked down at my Garmin, prepared to be disappointed.

Once again, my expectations proved false! My time — 4:38:29 — was short of the 4:30 I had been hoping for, but still 10 minutes faster than I had run L.A. a year earlier, and on a tougher course! Given that I wasn’t even sure my knee would hold up all 26.2 miles, I was surprisingly pleased.

I was even more pleased when I caught up with Ted and Jane a few blocks away. They brought me back to their place, and I was able to take a hot shower. That did wonders for my aching legs!

Ted & Jane

From there, we ate a quick lunch, and I expected we would have to hurry to the airport. But once again, reality didn’t meet up with my expectations. Somehow, even though I thought time would be very tight, we had time to kill, and Ted decided to show me one of the big churches in town. When we got there, Mass was going on! I never expected that! And while I wasn’t able to attend, I was able to witness the Consecration, to see Jesus, Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity, and to thank Him for getting me though the race. That was a wonderful consolation.

From there, we went to the airport. I slept the whole flight back to L.A. And once on the curb at LAX, I was delighted to see a minivan full of Kind Souls #6-10 — my beloved Mary Kate and our four wonderful kiddos, all of whom had sacrificed so much to make this possible. How I had missed them! We had a delicious family dinner at In-N-Out Burger, and I presented Joe with my finisher’s medal, which he has been wearing pretty much ever since!

The race went nothing like I thought it would. My logistical planning flopped. My worst fears about my knees never materialized. And the course wasn’t at all what I expected. But I was surrounded by God’s love, His goodness, and His grace working through His people.

No doubt I made Him laugh more than once. But I hope that in some small way I was able to live up to that kind priest’s advice, and that I ran for His glory.


  1. Wow, what a story! Just amazing! Just reading gave me goosebumps! Thank you for all the wonderful connections that you make to God, your faith, and your family!

    Good for you for finishing the marathon!!

    By the way, my knee is doing well and I'm training for the Nike Half in SF in October! Hope our knees stay strong!

  2. Actually running with a little comedy makes you more at ease with the race...:D

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