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brick-wallIt had been a good career move. I relocated my family to Michigan to join a startup company developing manufacturing software. In the late 1960s, software was a risky business. Computer systems cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, and the return on investment was a difficult sell within most organizations. However the concept of renting time and free software was well received in the market, and it paved the way for compounded growth of over 20% per year, year after year after year. The company had become a shining star in the venture capital world. Egos ran high after Fortune Magazine placed it in the top ten most successful startup companies in U.S. history. After going public, the company was purchased by a larger firm. To someone chasing the dream, this is the rainbow’s end, the pot of gold. As a senior manager, I had sacrificed time with my family, time with my wife, and traveled heavily for years, expecting to enjoy this victory.

Success, however, turned out to be a fleeting thing. The new owners quickly recognized that growth was slowing and replaced many of the department heads with their own. I was moved from being the architect of the product marketing strategy to someone viewed as having old ideas and being expendable. After 13 years, each day was to be filled with high rollers, the outsiders, transplanting the very ideas that created the success with their “unethical” and “short-sighted” strategies to pump up revenues. It would have been easy just to leave, but when there is so much of your life and sacrifice in a job, one error to the conservative side and I still had hope. You might say that the new managers were right, and I just had sour grapes. Yet when hard work, quality, and truth build success, it is hard to accept that deception and cutting corners are the right answers.

Being goal-oriented, I began to reflect on my life and decided that what I needed to do was find a very personal challenge, succeed in it, and then I would regain my self-esteem. The key word here is “self.” I was still very much in charge of my life, and with some introspective thought, I decided to train and run a marathon. Why a marathon? Well, I had often jogged to stay in shape. It was the one exercise you could do consistently while traveling. I also spent time studying runners. After some research, I determined that in running a marathon:

  • No matter how gifted you are, the marathon is a sport that requires planning and practice to achieve the goal.
  • Unlike team sports that derive enthusiasm and energy from a group, the marathon runner must overcome the constant, lonely urge to just stop and end the pain. This is only learned through introspection and experience.
  • While knowledge is an attribute of a skilled runner, and reading many books written by other runners adds to one’s insight, it is ultimately the will of a person that determines whether they cross the finish line 26.2 miles later.
  • Therefore, the marathon teaches that to finish requires the embodiment of a vision, self-discipline, and, as the gun goes off, a belief that one will succeed.

Yes, a marathon it would be. Training began with runs each day. Living in Michigan also had its challenges in the winter. On frigid nights, I would run on a small indoor track at the local college. Days became weeks, and weeks became months. On average, I would run 12 miles a day. Short days were 6 miles, and long days were over 20 miles. Through the cold of winter, the rain of spring, and the heat of summer, I averaged two hours of running each day. I cannot even estimate how much pain and discomfort it all caused me. My weak bone structure would cause my feet to blister badly. My uneven gate would make my ankles and knees swell. I was so driven to accomplish this goal that I can recall one winter run when my right foot began to ache. I packed snow in my sweat socks to stop the pain. Yes, I was driven to overcome what I was not getting from my career. I needed to be in charge and accomplish great things again.

When you put so much time into running, you spend a lot of time alone. I spent about two hours a day thinking about how life was treating me. Early in my running, I would give a passing thought to my life but would enjoy the neighborhoods as I ran through them. As the time of each run increased and the requirement to concentrate grew, I think this time became my first attempt at prayer. It was a time that I could reflect on my life, the things I sacrificed to achieve what I had done up to that point, feel sorry for myself because of the unfair circumstances in my life, and complain to God. I often asked the question, “What is it you want from me, God?” In the 18 months to get ready for the marathon, there were many hours of prayer and many questions to God. In all of that time, I don’t recall receiving any answers. If I did, I was too busy listening to myself to hear Him.

As the time for the race grew nearer, I began to work out with weights three times a week. I would run down to the local high school and use their track to do speed work. To complete my knowledge base, I joined the local track club for further training and coaching. Each weekend throughout the last six months of training, I would travel around the local area and run charity events. If you could trade running t-shirts for bricks, I could have built a house. Did I tell you I was obsessed? Well, I was convinced that with planning, effort, and determination, I could once again achieve great things. It was a shame that this was another solution that kept me from my children’s lives and from spending time with my wife. It was a focus on “self” once again.

bob-marathon-noThere I was on October 3, 1982, standing in Windsor, Ontario. There were over 5,000 other people, all stretching and anticipating the start of the Detroit Free Press Marathon. This race has the unique distinction of being the only race that starts in one country (Canada) and finishes in another, Detroit’s Belle Isle in the U.S. For October, it was a warm day. My wife had come and dropped me off and drove back to wait for me at the finish line. She has been at my “finish line” every time I have ever needed her. The track club had insisted I wear the club colors. This was a real honor since one of the club members was a premier runner and would place third in the race. The gun went off, and my moment of truth had begun.

The race quickly leaves Windsor through the tunnel and meanders through the city of Detroit. Crowds lined the street, and their cheers were medicine for my soul. To plan for such a long time, to work and train so hard, to have sacrificed so much, and then to be in the race, was an emotional high. Crowds lined the streets and cheered the runners on. As the race wound itself through Greek Town, I was approaching the magical 20-mile mark. For those who do not know about distance running, this is the point in one’s running where the glycogen in the muscles is expended and the body must begin to burn fat for energy. It is commonly known as “the wall.” The wall is very real. I have often described it as running through a marshmallow that was two miles thick. My legs, arms, and every part of my body had to do extra work for what was easy to do just a few minutes earlier. The pain began to grow, and for the first real moments of the race, I wasn’t sure that I could finish. As the struggle with stopping began to supersede every other thought and emotion, I reached the lowest point I have ever reached in my life.

The collapse of a dream quickly drove me to God. I could not go on without His help. It was a frightening moment because this was the first time in my life that I heard God’s answer. Not with voices from the city streets or the sky above, but a subtle whisper. “You are not in charge, I am!” In that moment of imparted wisdom, I finally understood I was to give my life to God first. It is a concept that we all hear about. I had been raised as a Catholic and even attended a parochial school for a while. Yet to hand over control of one’s life is something I could intellectualize but never internalize. Crying as I struggled with the thought of failure, I was desperate for some kind of help. I cannot tell you how long I ran in that condition. A short time later, God handed me a fantastic gift. He handed me my greatest weakness, and with it let me use it as strength.

bob-marathonBy now, I must have convinced you that I am an obsessive person. My weakness was that I could not have lived with failure. Had I stopped, I would have had to prepare again for another marathon. Those long hours, those long runs—the thought of finishing now was energizing. I could not bear the thought of having to do this again just to get past my ego. Soon I was running up the bridge to Belle Isle and came up to the two miles to go mark. It was the first time I knew that I could finish, and it was when I saw my wife. She cheered me on like she always has done as I entered my last mile to the finish line. It was my fastest mile. Three hours, forty-seven minutes, and 30 seconds later, I crossed the finish line in 1812th place. On this day, I learned humility and encountered what was the most life-changing experience of my life.

The following Sunday, I chose to go to church instead of running. It was the first Sunday other than Easter, Christmas, weddings, and funerals that I had been to church in a long time. I chose the church because of my neighbors. During the many months of training, several neighbors noticed me and began to share their own lives with my family and myself. They all went to one of the neighborhood churches, and there was something in each of their lives that attracted me. On that first Sunday, I heard the pastor speak on Romans 5:1–5, where the Apostle Paul explains that life’s troubles promote patience and experience and build hope. That was exactly what God did for me. He took my career and all of its troubles, crafted my experiences to get my attention, and guided me to an eternal decision to place God first in my life. Fifteen more years of running took their toll, and I cannot run anymore, but that’s OK. I now give my Sundays to God and give Him the rest of the week too.