The Trip: Craig Jackson and I flew to Boston on Saturday, 4/13, arriving approximately 3:30 PM. While riding in the shuttle to the Swissotel in downtown, the driver flipped on the radio – one pitch before Shea Hillenbrand hit a two-run home run in the ninth inning off Mariano Rivera to beat the Yankees 7-6 at Fenway Park.
After checking in, we walked a mile to the Expo where we picked up our race number, the long sleeve yellow shirt with the emblem on the chest and BOSTON MARATHON down the left sleeve. I got my first glimpse of the marathon finish line, spotting the logo in the middle of Boylston Street. We passed by the Boston Commons, west of Charles Street, which was founded in 1774 and the Park Street Park, east of Charles Street, which was founded in 1630. (The reason for the 130 year gap is that Charles Street is the dividing line between the old, natural part of Boston and the part of Boston. which is built on landfill.)
On Sunday morning, I woke at 6:30 and put on my running gear for a free 2.6-mile fun run sponsored by the Boston Athletic Association through historic Boston (the Commons, the State House, the Old Granary Burial Ground – where Sam Adams and Paul Revere are buried), finishing at the Marathon finish line. A nice loosen-up run at a very leisurely pace (I even stopped at an ancient graveyard to take pictures). After a trolley tour, I ate a baked potato at Bennigans before going back to the Hotel to watch the final round of Tiger Woods’ third Masters title.
Race Day: We woke up about 5:45 AM on Monday. News coverage of the race was already on two different TV stations – they would be on non-stop until the middle of the afternoon. Looks like a warm day – prediction of 67 at the start time, but one meteorologist mentioned the possibility of 50s in Boston by mid-afternoon…. At 7:30, they interviewed two runners (with numbers in the 17000s) already in Hopkinton.
At 11:00, we started walking past the loading chutes to the bag-drop buses. The buses were further than we thought – at least a mile+ away. Craig and I were separated and I did not see him again until a mile into the race. After dropping my bag, I had to walk back to my chute, arriving at 11:39. While others stood around, I sat on the ground for almost 15 minutes. I was in the 8th chute – each chute was 50 yards long.
The race: The barriers were removed and the controlled walk-up began, making up about half of the distance to the start line. Right at noon, the gun was fired – and we didn’t move a foot for about 2 minutes. We kept walking towards the line, with one false jog-start, until within about 50 yards of the start line, when we started jogging. I crossed the start line 5:05 after the race began.
I started at what I hoped was a slow pace. The first mile is predominantly downhill and the excitement of the start makes a too-quick start all too likely. As I passed the one-mile mark in 8:04 (perfect!), I heard my name – and turned around to see Craig! He had already made a tree stop – I was already contemplating when to make my own stop. A couple of minutes later, Craig had blended into the crowd ahead of me.
The first six miles went by without any significant notice, except for seeing an Asian man running barefoot (!) and another runner juggling three hacky-sack balls. The support was very good – many children with their hands out, begging for a high-five while offering oranges, bananas, and cups of water. Framingham and its residents showed up at Mile 6 – my quadriceps were beginning to feel the impact of five downhill miles. I felt a brief chilling breeze in my face and exclaimed, “Thank you, Lord!”, drawing a couple of sideways glances from other runners. With a goal time of just under 5:00 per K, I passed the first 5K at 24:30 and the 10K at 48:59. Every minute under 5:00 per K is a minute under 3:30 for the marathon….
As I passed Mile 8, it started to rain very lightly. When I stopped for the walk break, I noticed the children no longer held out their hands for a high-five – wouldn’t want a high-five from a walker!
Natick came and went between Miles 10 and 11. Shortly after Mile 12 came Wellesley and its all-girls college. For a quarter-mile stretch, the girls line the road four deep on the right, many screaming encouragement, with signs saying “I kiss runners”. The girls aren’t golf-clapping or saying “Go, runners” like so many others – they are screaming!! The college buildings are behind them on the right and the pine trees are on the left side of the road, hiding the train tracks, forming an artificial canyon that contains the noise. The noise bounces off the pine trees, reverberates across the street, careens off the buildings and back again. Just incredible.
The half-way point came in the town of Wellesley, at 1:42:56 – a 3:26 pace. The plan now was to just maintain the pace until the hills began at Mile 16. The Newton Hills are four hills spread over a 3.5 mile stretch starting at Mile 17. The first is a 1,200-yard beast. After that, the 400-yard second hill seemed little more than a speed bump. On the third, an 800-yard test of concentration and will, I noticed the impact of the hills was not felt in my legs but rather in my breathing. But, my training was paying off as I averaged 8:04 per mile from Miles 17 through 20.
When I took a short walk break at Mile 18, a race official asked if I was all right. “I’m doing great!”, was my immediate response. I maintained the run/walk and passed dozens of people when running, even up the hills.
Finally, the legendary Heartbreak Hill loomed ahead. A half-mile of 5% rise that would be tough anyway – but at Mile 20, it can be a struggle. To make things worse, the sun broke through in full force for the remainder of the race. My goal had been to top Heartbreak fresh enough to make the 5.7 mile downhill push to the finish.
Now we’re going to see just how much I have left…. A 7:46 pace for Mile 22 was encouraging. The next landmark is the legendary CITGO sign, one mile from the finish line. I first spotted it, I was at Mile 23 (7:55). A quarter-mile later, the sign disappeared behind the trees. I reached the sign at 3:17:42 – it shouldn’t take more than 10 minutes from here.
A right-hand turn, then a left, and the finish line was in sight – a little over a half-mile away down Boylston Street. There were still many people around me – I passed some who were staggering, others who were merely walking. Mile 26 was 7:53. All that was left was to look good for the finish line picture. I glanced around to see who else would be in my photo, and chose to move over to the middle of the street for a clearer shot. With my arms in the air, I crossed at 3:27:15 – better than I had expected!
As my boys were growing up, we played a lot of baseball in the back yard. The yard was narrow and the boys small, so we used a plastic ball and a plastic bat. In the beginning we used a tee to hold the ball, but as they improved we transitioned to live pitching, hitting, and running.
One summer afternoon, when Matt was about 5 years old and Kyle 3 ½, we were playing ball. Matt stood on second base.
Kyle took his final warm up swings and asked, “Someday, Dad, do you think we can get a wooden bat?”
“Sure, son. I don’t know why not.”
Before throwing the next pitch, I glanced back at Matt, still standing on second.
His mouth was hanging open. The color had drained from his face.
Ashen, he looked as if the wind had been knocked out of him.
Stunned, I stopped mid-windup. “Matt, what’s wrong?”
“Wh…wh…what did Kyle just say?”, he asked cautiously.
I relayed the previous exchange.
Immediately, his color returned and his eyes brightened.
“Oh.”, he sighed. The relief in his voice was palpable.
“What did you think he said?”
“I thought he said, ‘Someday, Dad, do you think we can get rid of Matt?’ “
Ever experienced something which confirms the existence of God, and causes you to be awed that He chooses to interject Himself into His creation?
In April, 2012, we were having a multiple-date garage sale prior to moving. I had the routine down: Wake up early. Put out signs. Move stuff from the garage. Set up tables. Take money. Move remaining stuff back to garage. Repeat.
On this particular day, after setting out half the signs, I parked my Trailblazer in the street near the stop sign at the corner, about 50 yards away from the house. Denyce and I started moving boxes from the garage to the driveway – a 90-minute chore, if done at full-speed.
Around 6:15 AM, we heard a car turn the corner onto our street and slow down as it approached our house. I thought, “You gotta be kidding me.” I’d been at this endeavor long enough to learn there is no standard below which a “garage-saler” will not stoop. But the car eased past the house and stopped at the corner. Thankful I was not going to have to explain why we were not selling anything yet, I paid them little mind and continued bringing out tubs of sale items.
Suddenly, I heard a car door slam, an engine rev and Denyce exclaim, “Hey, isn’t that our car?!?!” I looked up just in time to see two vehicles careen around the corner and disappear in the pre-dawn darkness. It took a moment to register what was happening, but the empty spot on the street where my car used to be was really all the explanation one needed. In a flash, it was gone. (This is where I should probably mention that I’d left the car window down and the keys in the ignition. Not one of my prouder moments.)
After I called 911 to report the theft, Denyce suggested I try to find them in our other car. Why not? The trail is still sort of fresh. I screeched the tires as I rounded the corner on two wheels, headed for…..who knows where I thought I was going?
I drove around for 30 minutes, trying to look at every car, every parking lot, every Quik Trip. Of course, I found nothing. At some point, I thought to myself, “This is pointless – and has to be the stupidest thing I’ve done since…….. well, since I left my keys in the ignition with the window rolled down.”
I went back to the house and called 911 again to report that I had remembered my tag number. Denyce said she remembered the same car had passed by the house about 10 minutes prior to the incident and was sure it had cruised by the house a half-dozen times as we were closing down the sale the previous week, “I know they live around here somewhere.”
She volunteered to put out the remaining signs – and promptly disappeared for two hours, explaining that she was searching for the thief and his car in nearby neighborhoods. With a mental roll of the eyes, I dismissed the idea as the ramblings of a person who’d just had their car stolen.
An hour later, Denyce realized that, amidst the chaos, she had forgotten a dentist appointment and drove off like her hair was on fire. Another two hours passed.
I was on the phone with State Farm when my 85-year old neighbor came out of her house, yelling to me that Denyce was on the phone – and it’s an emergency! Almost incoherent, Denyce was saying something about finding our car, blocking it in with her car, and telling me to call the police – and, oh yeah, to “get over here right now”!
“I’m coming!”, although not fully comprehending that I had no vehicle. My neighbor threw me her keys and I jumped in her car. As I put the key in the ignition, the steering wheel started moving and the seat adjusted itself. By the time everything stopped moving, my head was scrunched against the roof and I felt I was one with the steering wheel, perhaps permanently. I had no time to figure out the controls. I just drove.
On the way, I called 911. “Ah, Mr. Willis. Good to hear from you again. (paraphrased)” I explained the situation as best I could, knowing only generally Denyce’s location. “Sorry, we can only send the police out to a specific address – when you know that, call us back.”
I drove down 71st Street, with my head in the roof and my knees in my chest, looking for an obscure apartment complex, when I saw Denyce standing on the corner, waving her arms at me. You know the drill by now – I called 911 (on speed dial) – and the police showed up less than five minutes later.
Sure enough, Denyce had found our Trailblazer – unlocked, with the window down. (Don’t people know that’s how cars get stolen?) The thieves were nowhere to be seen and, other than having the console and glove compartment rifled through, the car was none the worse for wear.
We didn’t get our keys back, but we did steal our car back.
Where does God enter the story? While I was looking for the thieves, I had texted some friends and family to be in prayer for the situation, not specifying exactly what I was asking them to pray for.
After her dentist appointment, Denyce expanded her search area and drove by some apartment complexes a couple of miles from the house. She prayed, “God, I don’t know where this car is, but You do. Show me where to go.” She turned into the apartment complex and, thirty seconds later, spotted our car.
Less than six hours after it had been stolen, Denyce found it two miles from our house, unharmed. I defy anyone to offer an explanation without acknowledging the power of prayer and the grace of an omnipotent God.
One of the most incredible aspects of this story is that I had no idea I have been living a superhero for 31+ years. (Those closest are always the last to know – Aunt Harriet never did figure out her nephew was, indeed, Batman.) But, this explains a lot – the soft heart for the disadvantaged, frequent dinners with friends I only know by name, hours spent at “Alzheimer’s conferences” (what better cover?). It all makes sense now. I have not found her cape, but then, I have not finished going through all the stuff in the garage either…..
The police indicated that thieves frequently steal a vehicle, commit a crime, and ditch it in an apartment complex. That may be true, but we are not buying that explanation in this case. The evidence supports our suspicion that they really live there and that they intended to come back for it – why else would they leave it unharmed and take the keys?
Denyce wants to stake out their apartment complex until she sees the driver, whom she believes she can identify (and at this point, who am I to argue with her?), and the getaway car. I’m not sure what she intends to do then, but they better hope she doesn’t find them – there may not be any pieces left over for me to pick up.
Oh, and she is insisting that I now call her Superwoman.
I have no problem with that.
“I hope I am never that scared again!” My words gushed forth, moments after my feet touched the earth…..
Nothing in my past had prepared me for the moment I was poised at the edge of an aircraft, the wind blowing in my face, and 13,000 feet of space between me and the ground below.
On May 30, 2006, Matt and I kicked an item off our bucket list when we jumped from an airplane and, following a 45-second tandem freefall at 120 mph, parachuted to the ground. What a rush!
While the experience itself was unique, it also provided a plethora of spiritual metaphors……
Belief vs Faith: Despite signing away all of my future legal rights in any conceivable situation (I mean, who can comprehend six pages of “whereas” and ‘therefores” ?), I was confident the equipment and the skydiving professionals would provide a safe experience. I attended a short class that taught me how my harness would fit, how I would be fastened to the dive master behind me, and how the parachute would deploy – even automatically, if need be, based upon an imbedded altimeter. I was briefed again as I climbed into my jumpsuit and yet again shortly before the door of the plane opened and people started spilling out like ants at a picnic.
Although I believed the equipment would work correctly and the person lashed behind me was competent, when did I truly demonstrate my faith? When I walked to the plane? When I was fastened to the professional jumper? When I inched toward the open door? No, none of those acts demonstrated true faith.
My belief became faith when I was poised on the edge and chose to hurl myself into the open sky.
So it is with faith in Christ. I can believe many things about God (He is forgiving, faithful, good), but until I actually take the step of turning my life over to Him, I have not demonstrated any faith. Until then, all I’ve shown is a belief in a set of facts. Faith means turning over to God everything that comes my way.
Knowledge: How much technical knowledge about skydiving did I need in order to jump? None! I did not have to know how to fly the plane, how the parachute worked, or when to pull the cord to deploy it.
Many people are reluctant to yield their lives to Jesus because they feel they don’t know everything they need to know. The truth is, however, that you don’t have to know everything in order to be faithful or obedient. You can respond to God’s call from the point you are now in your life – wherever that is.
Encouragement: Funny thing…when it comes to the unknown, family and friends may not be thrilled. Although supportive, Allison and Denyce were not exactly overflowing with encouragement – even going so far as to ask the skydive company what their worst accident had been! When you follow Christ, you may have to do so without the full support of those you love and whose opinion you value.
On the other hand, I doubt I would ever have jumped from an airplane if I was by myself. It was Matt’s enthusiasm and the ladies’ tacit approval that made this entire experience possible. Would I have even bothered to make the reservation by myself to jump? No. Would I have shown up on jump day by myself? No. Would I have even gone up in a airplane and jumped out alone? No.
Who do you know that needs your encouragement to pursue a personal relationship with Christ?
Individual Decision: No one can jump for you. If I wanted to experience a skydive, I had to actually go up in a plane and jump out. My family and friends could not jump for me; I had to do it myself. If Matt had jumped and I had not, would I still be able to claim I had skydived? Of course not.
When you put your faith in Christ, the decision is yours and yours alone – no one can do it for you. Your affiliation with other believers will not save you. You must make your own commitment to Jesus.
Cost: Before the jump, it was easy to say it cost too much. In terms of time, it took most of a morning to sign the waivers, take the class, get suited up, fly to altitude, and jump. The actual cost in dollars gave even more pause to reconsider with the whole experience. Afterward, however, the issue of cost seemed preposterous. What price would have been too expensive for this experience?
So it is with Jesus…….before one makes a commitment to put their faith in Christ, the cost of doing so may seem prohibitive. What must be given up – a lifestyle, a relationship, a habit – may seem too much to sacrifice. But, as those that truly know Him will attest, there is no price too high to pay for a personal relationship with the Creator of the universe.
Grace: What did I do to ensure a safe landing? Did I pack the parachute? Did I make sure the drag chute opened? Did I steer the parachute so we landed without a stumble? Obviously not….
So it is with God – there is nothing we can add to what He has done in order to achieve our own salvation. God has already provided all that is needed – mercy, grace, and forgiveness of sin.
Initiative: When I was in college, skydiving was on my list of things to do sometime during my life. Interestingly, however, I never did anything to make that happen. I did not investigate what it takes to skydive, how much it costs, or even where I might be able to skydive. I suppose I thought skydiving would just magically occur in the course of my everyday life.
Isn’t that how many people operate – presuming a relationship with God will somehow intersect their life at some future point? And, then they will respond to His invitation? God has already initiated a relationship with every person – the next move is yours. If you continue to do what you have always done, why should you expect anything different to happen?
Fear: Lastly, the reason most people never attempt a skydive? Fear. Even I acknowledged that “I hope I’m never that afraid again”.
However, the Bible teaches there will come a day when everyone will stand before God in judgment.
There will certainly come a time when each of us will be more fearful than I was on the precipice of that plane that day….. We teach people to love God, but don’t teach them the fear and awe of God.
If you don’t have a personal relationship with Jesus, there is no better time than now. Nothing you have done cas separte you from Him, if you are willing to follow obediantly.
To those that know Him, I challenge you to be a catalyst for Jesus – encouraging those you come in contact with to respond to Him. The apostle Paul wrote in 2 Corinthians 5:11, “Since, then, we know what it is to fear the Lord, we try to persuade men.” Do not let fear, arguments, or knowledge keep you from being an encourager.
I recently passed yet another milestone in this process called aging, one that is rather painful, albeit funny….
A couple of weeks back, I was preparing to mow the front yard. My aging lawnmower is always somewhat difficult to start, and having set idle all winter made it even more recalcitrant than usual.
I was standing in the driveway, somewhere between my third and fourth pull, when I glanced over my shoulder. Jogging down the street was a teenage boy, probably no more than 16 years of age.
As I contorted myself into position for another mighty yank, I felt sweat forming on my forehead. I gave it a good yank.
Not so much as a sputter.
The teenager pulled even with my driveway and glanced over at me. I thought…. probably anything to break the monotony of running alone.
I pulled again. Not even a cough.
By now, the lad was past me, but he looked over his shoulder nonetheless, perhaps intrigued by this timeless duel between man and machine.
I tried one more time. Still no response.
Having apparently decided he had seen enough, the jogger stopped.
“Do you need me to start it for you?”, he asked softly.
It is difficult to put into words the thoughts running through my mind at that moment………
Do I look so feeble that I require assistance? It is just a lawnmower, for goodness sake.
Or, is it my perceived incompetence?
Or, possibly, merely a polite young man seeking to do a good deed for a senior citizen?
“No, thanks. I’ve just about got it.”, I answered demurely.
P.S. If he had prefaced his question with “Pops”, I may have been compelled to take him out.
Our grandkids live half a world away. Denyce and I (aka Honey & Papa) have been blessed to be able to go see them each of the past three years, but some events you only get to hear about.
January, 2012: It seems Matt was having breakfast with four-year old Joshua and two-year old Jenna while listening to the 2009 Christmas book we had made for them, the kind where the reader’s voice can be recorded on each page. We had recorded a different reader on each page, including one page by my dad (Granddad) and another by Denyce’s mom (Grandma Billie), each of whom had sinced passed away.
As they were enjoying the different voices and talking about them, Matt realized that he had not told the kids about Grandma Billie’s passing the prevous month, which prompted this exchange…
“Joshua, do you know where Grandma Billie lives?”
“No, she used to live there, but now she lives in heaven with Jesus.”
“Do you know where Granddad lives?”
“No, he lives in heaven with Jesus now.”
Joshua, with a concerned and quizzical look, asked somewhat hesitantly, “Umm.…does Papa live in heaven now?”
Thankfully, Matt was able to reassure him that Papa still lives in America.
Everyone golfer seems to have a favorite story…..the almost hole-in-one, or the shot that skipped over the water, bounced off a rock, went under a limb and onto the green. This is mine….
It was one summer when both the boys were home from college. Matt was never that interested in golf. When he played, it was for the fellowship, not the game - he rarely played, so simply hitting the ball occasionally proved challenging. Kyle, the better golfer of the two, would play anytime – if I paid. So, early one July morning, we headed off to Mohawk Golf Course in Tulsa.
There was nothing extraordinary about our play. A bogey here and there, the occasional par, too many double bogeys. A double bogey would have represented the highlight of Matt’s game – but we invoked the mercy rule and stopped counting. Kyle and I spent much of the early part of the round teaching Matt the etiquette of the game, how one is expected to act on a golf course…..
“Stand still when someone is hitting.”
“The person furthest from the hole hits first.”
“Lowest score on the previous hole tees off first on the next hole”
“Don’t walk between the hole and someone’s ball on the green.”
There were so many rules and it was all so new that at times Matt seemed afraid to move, concerned he might be breaching some yet-to-be-revealed code of conduct. It may have been frustrating, but Matt did not let it get him down and it paid off handsomely.
On the fourteenth hole, Matt having reached the fringe of the green in only three shots, faced a very long putt for par. In what can only be described as a stunning development, he drained the putt.
He so surprised himself he wasn’t sure how to he was supposed to respond to this shocking turn of events. You know, the etiquette rules…..
“Walk if off, Matt!,” Kyle and I both yelled, wanting him to record for posterity the distance of this prodigious effort. Matt looked puzzled.
“Walk it off!” It had to be at least 45 feet, maybe even 50.
Matt looked confused, apparently thinking this new phrase was yet another of the subtle vagaries of golf he had yet to learn.
Undaunted, he threw out his chest, slung the putter over his shoulder and moon-walked around the perimeter of the green…….
We never did find out how long the putt was.