As far back as I can remember, I’ve loved working with kids. For a long time, I thought about being a teacher, but the lure of science, experiments and chemicals put me down the path towards chemical engineering. The math and the concepts were far beyond my capabilities, so I got into finance and economics as a way to keep my love of numbers on an equal footing with my abilities. Throughout that, though, I never lost sight of the fact that I was given a number of great opportunities growing up that allowed me to pick and choose (for the most part) what I wanted to do, and that there were a lot of kids out there that were never going to have that chance unless someone cared enough to do something about it.
I gave to charities that helped kids and although I knew that I was helping, I found it hard to connect the writing of a check to a child or a family being in a better place because of it. So, I decided to become more “hands-on”. I became involved in Big Brothers, Junior Achievement, and took opportunities to volunteer at events that helped kids. I started to learn more about the struggles and barriers these kids faced. Everything from a lack of education to having to “grow up” at age 10 and look after your younger siblings. Every child I met or story I heard convinced me that if I wanted to make an impact, this is how I should do it. Face to face, hand in hand.
Little did I know that my wife and I were going to be given the ultimate “hands-on” experience! We were chosen to adopt to build our family, and two years ago we welcomed our son into the world. We are able to give him opportunities that he wouldn’t have otherwise had, and he gives us a sense of completeness that we didn’t know was possible. We are in the process of adopting again, but know there is going to be a limit to the number of children we can help this directly.
I was introduced to SouthSide in early 2010 through work when they were looking to add board members. My most vivid memory of SouthSide was the first time I visited the school, before I became a board member. In the process of being shown around, we walked into a couple of classrooms. I was immediately surrounded by inquisitive, happy children that wanted to find out who I was, show me what they were playing with or working on, and give me a hug. What I didn’t realize at the time was all the work that went into getting a lot of these kids even to that stage, and when I then learned about how we take these children (and their families) and help them catch up with their peers, I knew I wanted to be a part of the organization and help in any way I could. We couldn’t adopt over 100 children, but being put in front of me was an opportunity to help make a difference in these hopeful faces and help them break down the barriers that might otherwise hold them back.
At the time, running was an afterthought; a way to de-stress and try to fight the effects of aging. By the summer of 2010, I was training for my second half marathon with my wife (the Chosen half marathon in Texas to benefit adoption), and I was also looking for a way to make a difference at SouthSide. Since my first and second half marathons were separated by 7 years, I had no plans to run again and didn’t put the two together until October 24, 2010. But first…
Gasping for breath, feeling near death, I looked up. It’s strange what you see in that moment. Some will say your life passes before your eyes, others that there’s a bright light that you feel compelled to move towards… I looked up and saw Big Bird.
As I was contemplating the celestial meaning of my vision, I realized what I was actually seeing was a man in a Big Bird costume as he ran past me at a pace I didn’t think possible from a 9 foot tall, essentially flightless bird.
Yes, I was about 11 miles into my first half marathon, and things weren’t going well. It was 2003, and my wife, already an accomplished runner at this distance, had persuaded me to train for and run a half marathon. We ran near our house on a hilly (for me) course that we modified once (I can’t stress the “once” enough) to include an innocently named, murderous hill called “Cat Hill”. I declared myself ready, and on race day took off at what I thought was a reasonable pace, and crashed early. Towards the end, I thought I was cruising again until a ninety year old man passed me as if I was standing still. I finally crossed the finished line and set a record for fastest consumption of a Snickers bar. Between heaving breaths I told my wife that if I ever did any sport for two hours again, I wanted…to be…on the 10th…tee…not…looking…for an oxygen…mask! She politely agreed (I had slowed her down considerably in this race) and went on (without me) to compete in a number of marathons and half marathons where she did quite well.
The human mind takes about 7 years to forget unpleasant experiences, evidently, because I found myself being talked into another half marathon in October 2010. This one was to benefit adoption and we were going to run it together with our 10 month old son. My training started as most of my runs did at the time, with a lot of knee and back pain, and I didn’t think I was going to make it. My wife recommended a book she was reading on Chi Running, and I started to research the technique and barefoot running. I quickly became an advocate, buying a pair of the Vibram FiveFingers toe shoes and increasing my mileage. The running technique shortened my stride and stopped me heel-striking, which eliminated my back and knee pain in a very short amount of time. It greatly increased my calf tightness at first, but even that went away. We finished the race, pushing our son in a jogging stroller, and I actually felt pretty good. “You’re going to want to do a marathon next” my wife predicted. “Not a chance, I’m done” I said. If you’ve been paying attention, you know that’s not true.
One week later, I signed up for the Go! St. Louis Marathon, held in April 2011, and started training. I also read two books that changed how I thought about running: Born To Run (no not the Bruce Springsteen Autobiography) by Chris McDougall and To the Edge by Kirk Johnson. Both advocated that at a certain point, distance was more about the mind than the body. Sounded like a challenge, so I decided that if I survived the marathon, I’d keep moving the needle to see where my limits were. I also made the decision that if I was going to do what was arguably one of the most self-centered sports out there (even in golf, you’re usually playing with SOMEONE), that I was going to use it to help others. As I broke through my barriers: running the marathon, then a 50k, then a 50 miler, I wanted what I was doing to symbolize the struggles that the kids and the families go through. If I could raise awareness and become more aware of what I was capable of, that would be the perfect combination. Then, I got this idiotic idea….
Expected temperature- 97°. As the sun comes up, the temperature will rise above 120° quickly, the road surface will be twice that. By the time I get to Furnace Creek, I will have climbed out of the “Badwater hole” that’s 282 feet below sea level and covered 17.4 miles. Hopefully, it will only have taken me 6 hours. The next milestone is Stovepipe Wells at mile 42, which I should hit after the sun has gone down on my first day of running. A number of runners don’t make it this far, withdrawing because of the heat, ignoring small problems until they become big problems, or simply not paying attention. I will be relying on myself and my crew to not make those same mistakes. A short rest there will hopefully get me ready for what’s in store: A 5000 foot climb over 17 miles, followed by a 3300 foot descent over the next 10 miles, and finally into the halfway point at Panamint Springs. That’s the first 24-30 hours sorted out…
So again, why am I doing this? Aren’t there easier ways to raise awareness of what these great kids can accomplish if given the chance? Possibly, but as I thought about how I could not only make a difference for them, but also experience, in some small measure, the barriers they have to overcome simply to draw even with other kids, I realized this test was what I wanted to put myself through.
Running is both a physical and mental challenge. No matter what shape you’re in or what distance you run, if you can’t overcome the mental aspects (boredom being the most common), you’re not going to be successful. As distance increases, so does the importance of the mental side. You have to pay a lot more attention to little things (how fast you’re going, salt and electrolyte levels). At shorter distances, not paying attention to them could result in inconveniences (cramps, sore legs, etc.), but the longer you go, the greater the chance the small things add up and become real problems. I think that’s where I really connect with our kids. Studies have shown that it’s the little things we take for granted like social and emotional skills that can determine how successful a child is in school and beyond. If these skills aren’t developed early in a child’s life, it can create a permanent disadvantage that they may never recover from.
That’s why we’ll both rely on the help and support of our “crew”- to look after us and make sure the small issues don’t turn into big problems later on. My crew has been to Badwater before, knows what signs to look for, and how to address issues. The “crew” the kids will rely on to nurture, educate and inspire them are the group of well trained, loving people we have at SouthSide, dedicated to breaking down barriers and opening up a great future for the kids.
So, we’re on this path together. The difference is I’m here by choice, trying to give them a chance that they otherwise wouldn’t have, and my struggle is only going to last a few days. Hopefully theirs won’t last long either.