We got so focused that we began meeting every Sunday morning in February to do our long runs together, and as the winter turned to spring we began doing occasional tempo workouts together as well. I was quickly shifting from getting into shape to preparing to RACE a marathon. By the time the summer rolled around, I was putting in more miles per week than I had ever done before, and I was so focused on each of my key workouts that it seemed as though every workout was awesome. It never seemed like I had a bad day. My body responded well to my tempo runs, my threshold workouts, intervals, long runs, everything.
In August, as my mileage reached its peak (90-95 miles per week), I gained a new motivation. It also reminded me of what was truly important. Running was something that was fun. It's merely a game. God, faith, family and friends are what matter above all other things. On August 2nd, my niece, Gracia Lorraine Hunt, was born. She was born with hypoplastic left heart syndrome, a condition that meant she only had 2 developed chambers of her heart. We knew months earlier that she would be born with this, but it was all real now that she was here. 5 days after she was born, she had her first surgery to begin repairing her heart. It went well, but it was the beginning of a lot of difficult challenges that Gracie would go through. Prior to the school year beginning, Jen and I took every opportunity we could to be with Gracie and her parents, my sister Becky and her husband Shawn, at the hospital.
When the school year began, we tried to be there each weekend as Gracie grew stronger and we soon hoped she would be able to come home. I found myself taking time on each of my training runs to say a prayer for Gracie and to remind myself that any pain I may be putting myself through in a race or a workout was insignificant compared to what Gracie was going through with all kinds of machines attached to her, helping her just to be able to have her heart function normally. As Chicago approached, I decided that each time I had a moment of self-doubt or began feeling sore and tired during that race, I would make myself listen to and feel my heart beat, and that would remind me of Gracie.
The Chicago Marathon weekend arrived and we flew in on Friday night. We were staying with some great friends of ours only a mile from the start/finish of the marathon, which was great. We took in the expo and had a great pasta dinner the night before with all of our friends that would be cheering me on the next morning. On race morning I got up early, ate breakfast, and spent some time in prayer before I left to walk to the starting line. On my Facebook page that morning, I posted this:
"Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a huge crowd of witnesses to the life of faith, let us strip off every weight that slows us down, especially the sin that so easily trips us up. And let us run with endurance the race God has set before us." (Hebrews 12:1 NLT)
Race morning is finally here. The race has been laid out before us, so let's run. God, you have guided me through every step of this journey so far, I know you'll guide me through the final 26.2 miles in Chicago. It's time to give God the glory and run to praise Him for the gift He has given me.
That verse has long been one of my favorites from the Bible, which should not be surprising. But the part that stood out to me this time around was the "strip off every weight that slows us down..." part. There was so much on my mind entering this race, some good and some bad. I just needed that reassurance that for 26.2 miles, the only thing that I needed to worry about was honoring God by running this race.
I ran the Chicago Marathon with endurance and with some speed. Chicago is known as a fast course and with a perfect weather day, it was a P.R. kind of day for many runners, me included. I rolled through the half marathon mark in 1:23:40, big time P.R. pace. About 3 miles later, my foot injury flared up (later ended up finding out it was plantar fasciitis for the 3rd time), and my pace slowed. I never let up and I fought through the pain. Gracie was on my mind a lot throughout the final 10 miles to the race. Seeing my friends cheering me on at mile 17 and 25 was huge to keep me going. Having friends like Jason, Ross, and George on the course around me when I was hurting kept me going. I finally reached the finish line in a time of 2:54:51, a new P.R. by over 3 minutes. Knowing the foot injury slowed me significantly, it was a bittersweet result. I know I was in shape to be much faster, but I still ran with everything I could that day.
A week after the marathon, Jen and I were back at the hospital to see Becky, Shawn, Gracie, and my parents. It was a family party in Gracie's room that day and I finally got to hold Gracie in my arms that afternoon. It was great to hold her and to have a little conversation with her. You could tell she was comfortable in her uncle's arms because she filled her diaper a mere 5 minutes after she got into my arms!
Unfortunately, this was the only time I got to hold Gracie. 10 days later, on October 23rd, she passed away due to complications with her heart condition. It was a truly tragic and terrible day for all of us. Gracie had been so strong for so long, but it was just too much for her little body to handle. For as difficult as all of this has been for our family, we knew that Gracie is looking down upon us, healed and having a full heart. Still, we miss her every single day.
In 2013, when I recovered from my injury and began to run again, I began writing "GRACIE STRONG" on each pair of my running shoes. It's my reminder to be strong just like Gracie was for her 82 days on Earth. She's my constant motivation whenever I run and race. She will be my motivation this Sunday when I take my first 26.2 mile journey since losing Gracie. She will no doubt be on my mind and in my heart. Through all of this, God has strengthened my faith. There were so many little miracles that he gave us in Gracie's short life. And he has reminded us of who he is and that he is always with us so many times in the months since her passing.
I can't wait to run my favorite marathon again on Sunday, and run it to praise God and to remember my niece, Gracie. On Sunday, I will be GRACIE STRONG.