The Race Of My Life

By Rick Canada • August 8, 2016

My quest started many years ago, 1968 to be exact. You see, I was in grade school running the 600 yard run for the Presidents Council on Physical Fitness test and not being a gifted athlete, you can imagine my surprise and my schoolmates surprise when I was first across the finish line. That started a life of distance running that would lead me from Florida, to New York, to Los Angeles and most places in between, competing in numerous road races, which would finally lead me to the starting line of the 1991 Boston Marathon.

I trained hard for 6 months leading up to Boston. My long training runs had taken me well beyond the 26.2 miles I would need to run to complete this race. Day after day, running through the cold, running through the dark, running through the rain, I trained with the intent of running the best race of my life in Boston. My one lingering concern was that Boston was run in April and though not typical, Boston could be warm in April, and I am not a warm weather runner!

I was planning on running the Rocket City Marathon (Huntsville, AL) in December to qualify for Boston (sub 3:10, about 7:00 minutes per mile would qualify me) and since the qualifying standard was about 30 minutes slower than the time I would try to run in Boston, I was comfortable using this as a training run. The one problem I encountered about half way through my Rocket City preparation is that all of my training partners dropped out and I was left to train by myself. Training for a marathon with a group is a difficult feat, training by yourself is nearly impossible for us mere mortal runners. But if God wanted me to do this, He would get me through this hitch in my training. He did so a couple of days later, by sending me Dr. Bob Dray, a friend, a non-marathoner, but willing to try in order to help me get to Boston. What Bob did not realize is how good he could run and that he too would run the Rocket City marathon with me and he too would qualify for the famous Boston Marathon. What made it so much more, was he was from Boston originally and still had family and friends that would be out on the course to support him in the marathon.

Bob and I flew up to Boston a few days before the race so he could show me the sights and we could do some last minute training and get acclimated to the weather and to Boston. The day of the race was a day sent by God for runners. You see, the Boston marathon is a point to point race. Meaning, you are bussed west out of Boston about 26.2 miles and dropped off at a high school and then you run east back to the finish line. On this day, the weather was cloudy, about 45 degrees and with a wind blowing from west to east, yes a tail wind for the entire race. Not only was I going to run this race, I was going to run this race fast and possibly place in the top 100 runners. Now to a novice, top 100 does not sound too impressive, but Boston regularly touts the best marathon runners in the world. Most years, the field that lines up for Boston is stronger than the runners compiled at an Olympic marathon. So top 100 in Boston would be like saying top 100 in the world. Pretty impressive company!

Before I stepped off of the bus in Hopkington, MA for the 26.2 mile trek back to Boston, I did not pray my normal prayer to our Lord, “Lord, let me run the best race I can today.” No, this was Boston and even though the Lord had always answered my racing prayer, I thought I might ask for a bit more of Him this day. I prayed, “Lord, let me run the race of my life today.” I figured if this happened, I would certainly be close to the top 100 and I would have a great story to tell back to everyone in Tennessee.

As I stepped off of the bus, I came down off of the last step and my calf cramped. It cramped so bad I could not walk on that leg. Lucky for me, I had a physician that through the long and difficult training, had become my best friend, but right now someone that could help me work on the now golf ball sized knot in the back of my leg. Bob massaged my calf for a few minutes to the point I could walk on the leg, but as I tried to run, the cramp would come back and I had to stop and walk. I made my way over to the massage tables near the starting area just about the time I heard a voice calling out over the loud speakers for runners to make their way down to the starting line in preparation of the start of the race. There was no way I could run on this leg, so I had no choice but to go to the massage tables and let them work on my leg. After about 10 minutes of intense massage, the last thing the therapist would tell me is don’t push it if it begins to cramp up again, that I could do some permanent damage to the leg and never be able to run again.

I simply looked back at him and said, “I am from Tennessee and I have been waiting since 1968 to get here and I am not quitting at this point.”

Every time I would try to run, the calf would cramp up again and I was forced to walk. I decided my only option was to run hard and see if the cramp would subside and if not, I could get a ride with one of the many family members and friends Bob had lining the course. The first would be at mile 9 and I would certainly know by then if the leg could make it to the finish line.

The gun went off and I limped down the road as best I could, but by mile 3 it became very clear that the leg was not going to cooperate and by mile 5 I was already 2 minutes off of my race pace and pushing it as hard as I could. I decided I would do my best until I reached the 9 mile marker and then get a ride with one of Bob’s friends. If I could not finish this race, at least I could watch my best friend finish the Boston Marathon. But I discovered that mile 9 in the Boston Marathon is a popular hang out. It looked like a football pep rally. There were thousands of people lining the course at this point and as I ran in the middle of the road, I looked right and then left searching for a familiar face in the crowd. None was to be found and when I passed mile 10, I realized my chance to catch a ride to the finish would not come again until mile 16, but would this leg continue to function for another 6 miles? It seemed to hurt just as bad to walk on it, so I shuffled on towards the 16 mile mark. I began watching people pass me as I slowed my pace in order to hang on for another 6 miles and I began thinking Bob would pass me and I could tell him I was hitching a ride with his relatives at 16 back to the finish and I would wait for him there. But as I passed 12, 14 and arrived at mile 16, I once again discovered there was a reason why they decided to sit and watch the race at mile mark 16. It was easily accessible to people and so everyone and those not at mile 9 were at mile 16. Thousands of people lined the course and I slowed to a shuffle, looking for Bob’s family members. Again, I could not find a familiar face in the crowd and as I reached mile 17 I knew my last chance was at mile 20. At the base of the biggest, badest, hill on a world class marathon course. The infamous “heart break” hill. This is a hill (a mountain if you ask me) that extends from mile 20 to mile 21 with about a 7 percent grade. It has been the point where many marathoners had lost their finishing dreams in the past.

At mile 20, Bob’s mom and dad were going to be stationed, waiting to see their nearly 40 year old son run up this mountain. They would then dash back to the car to see Bob finish the race. Well, I was not surprised to see the massive crowds at mile 20, but at this point, my leg was in such pain, I decided to slow to a walk so I could find them in the crowd. When I got a couple of hundred yards up “heart break” hill, I decided I was not going to find them and thus, my only option was to run, jog, shuffle, walk, crawl to the finish line under my own power.

Once I crested the hill and began the last 5 miles leading into Boston and the finish line, I began to wonder where God had been today. He had always been there for me in past races. Why had He forsaken me on this day? Why had He not let me “run the race of my life” like I had prayed? God, where were you when I needed you most?

I looked down at the swollen leg that once looked like the calf of a fine tuned runner and it resembled the lower leg of a very obese man. Had I asked too much of the leg this day? Would I ever be able to run again after the pounding I was putting this calf through? Why was all of this happening to me? So many bad thoughts running through my head, and yet I kept moving.

When I reached mile 25 I knew I was going to finish, but it would have been nice to at least have seen Bob along the course and he would have known why I was not waiting for him at the finish line. But no, I missed him as well. Perhaps he ran by me when I was looking in the crowd for his family and friends. What a lousy day. What a lousy race! Absolutely the worst race of my life.

At mile 25.5 with just under a mile to go in the race, when I was at my lowest point mentally and physically, Dr. Bob Dray ran past me. He was running so fast he did not even notice me. You see, Bob had enjoyed this day. He started out slow and easy, saving his energy for the last miles of the race…and you could tell he had done just that. He looked fresh and ready to sprint to the finish line. I asked him if he would slow down and allow me to limp to the finish line with him, so we might cross the line together. Bob agreed, but seemed to have a hard time slowing to my shuffle pace. I gave it all I had, bit my lower lip, and pushed off the injured leg with all I had to keep up with Bob and reach the finish line by his side. What a day! What an ordeal! What a lousy race, but at least I had the pleasure of crossing the finish line with Bob.

The rain began almost immediately and I lost Bob in the crowd, so I limped back to our hotel, not more than a half mile from the finish line. It was then that I began to realize just how badly injured this leg was. It was so painful to put any weight on the leg. How did I run 26.2 miles on this leg? I was not sure I was going to make it back to the hotel. I figured this is the kind of pain women must go through when giving birth. I had never experienced such pain in my life.

When I reached the hotel, I was greeted by Bob and all of his family and friends. I felt embarrassed at the fact I was supposed to be such a good runner, but had run so poorly this day. When they saw the swollen leg, it justified my poor performance that day.

So I showered off, wrapped the leg in ice and propped it up on pillows and watched on television as the runners continued to cross the finish line at the Boston marathon. You would think I would find solace in the fact I had finish far ahead of so many still out on the course. But all I knew is that I was far from the top 100 finishers, far from the top 1,000 finishers for that matter and I had absolutely run the slowest, worse race of my life.

Bob went down to the post race party to enjoy the festivities. You see, he ran comfortably and did not strive for any particular finishing time. Bob ran a smart race and enjoyed everything the Boston Marathon had to offer. The crowds, the bands, the mere fact he was running the most prestigious running event in the world. And where I could not, Bob found all of his friends at mile 9 and his sisters at mile 16 and his mom and dad at mile 20. How could that be? How could he have found all of them and I could find none of them?

As I laid there wallowing in self pity, I finally had hydrated to the extent I needed to void my bladder. When I urinated, nothing but blood came out. I was terrified. What was going on? Nothing like this had ever happened to me before after a marathon. Luckily, I was rooming with one of the best urologists on the planet. Certainly Dr. Bob Dray could fix me!

When Bob came back from the party and I told him what had happened, he looked down at my ice wrapped, swollen leg and simply shook his head in amazement and he told me he sees patients that will urinate blood after he has cut through muscle tissue during surgery and it quickly clears up. But how could someone do that much muscle damage to themselves and have the strength to run 26.2 miles on a leg that was injured to that extent. “Rick”, Bob said, “You ran the race of your life today”. The words made the hair on my neck stand up. Those were my words. I had prayed to God, “Let me run the race of my life today.” You see, God had not forsaken me. He was with me every step of the way. He lifted me and carried me to the finish line. He needed to show me that without Him, I am nothing, but with Him, everything is possible. Even running the Boston Marathon on one leg! And He needed to give me one more thing. He needed to give me a story, a testimonial if you will, to His strength and His greatness. He needed to use me as a messenger to tell others this story, as a testament to His power. And so it is.

The leg healed after some good therapy and I raced fast again after that day, but I never raced another marathon. What would be the purpose? I had run the slowest marathon and the slowest race I had ever run and it was the race of my life!

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