April 2010

“Endurance is not just the ability to bear a hard thing, but to turn it into glory.” – William Barclay

In the 24th mile of the 2009 New York City Marathon, as the lead pack entered Central Park, Meb Keflezighi pulled away from four-time Boston Marathon champion Robert Cheruiyot. He floated over the final two miles, and, as he neared the finish, the crowd roared in approval. Meb pointed to the U.S.A. on his singlet, crossed the line, crossed his chest, kissed the ground and pointed to the sky. His time was a personal best 2:09:15, and he became the first American to win the race since Alberto Salazar in 1982. The next night, Meb appeared on Letterman and delivered “The Late Show’s” Top Ten.

 Meb and me at my wedding in 2007

That’s what the world witnessed. Here’s what they didn’t.

Rewind two years to 2007. Five runners from Mammoth Lakes, Calif., a small, mountain town in the Eastern Sierras, had qualified to participate in the Men’s Olympic Marathon Trials held in the very same park in the center of New York City.

The U.S. Trials system is brutal—but brutally fair—with the top three runners punching their tickets to the Games and the rest going home.

Meb entered the race as the 10,000-meter American record holder and the defending silver medalist from the 2004 Olympics. He was a prohibitive favorite along with our other training partner, friend and brother in Christ, Ryan Hall.

Between the two of us, Meb and I have a long history—one that goes all the way back to when we were teenagers. We both went to high school in San Diego. I moved to San Diego from Florida when I was two months old, and Meb took a less traditional route.

He was born in Asmara, Eritrea, on May 5, 1975. At the time, Eritrea was embroiled in a 30-year war for independence with its southern neighbor, Ethiopia. Meb’s father, Russom, was a liberation supporter and was hunted by the Ethiopian military. Meb often witnessed horrific acts of murder and mutilation committed by the Ethiopian soldiers. If Meb and his brothers heard the soldiers coming, they would leave the house and go hide in shrubs and trees.

In 1981, Meb’s mom, Awetash, convinced her husband to flee to Sudan. He made the trek, found work and sent money to the family for five years before reuniting with them in Milan, Italy, in 1986. In 1987, the family immigrated to San Diego.

I met Meb three years later at a cross-country race in San Diego’s Balboa Park. He was running a cool down—something I thought was strange. Why would someone run after the race was over? I adopted the concept that day. Seventeen years later, yours truly was still running cool downs with Meb in Mammoth.

Now we were toeing the line at the Olympic Trials in NYC. A race—and a day—I’ll never forget. The gun sounded, and Meb and I, along with the rest of the country’s best marathoners, bolted off.

Let me divert for a moment and tell you about the day from my own point of view.

I knew that my race would be a little dicey. A week earlier, due to an oversight in my equipment, I’d suffered a small tear in my plantar ascia. At mile 12, when I was in sixth place, the injury flared and I was finished. I slowed to a jog, then a walk. I hobbled to 18.6 miles (30k) and removed my shoe. My foot swelled like a balloon, and my plans of walking to the finish seemed foolish at best and careerthreatening at worst.

I asked race officials for a ride to Tavern on the Green, the finish line for the race, to see how my teammates had performed. They took a look at my swollen foot and told me the ambulance could give me a ride to the finish. I hopped aboard, but once I was inside, the paramedics insisted on taking me to the hospital for X-rays. I borrowed a cell phone and called my fiancé—now my wife—Carrie. She told me that Ryan Hall had won in record time, Dan Browne, our other training partner, had finished in sixth, and Meb, a disappointing eighth.

Once at the hospital, the doctor told me the X-rays were negative and sent me on my way with a protective boot and crutches as parting gifts. I walked out to the lobby where my mom was waiting.

“How are you doing, Josh?”

“I’ll be fine; I’m just disappointed.”

She paused. I could tell something was wrong. Then she gave me some unexpected news: “Josh, Ryan Shay died in the race.”

 “I don’t know what to think, I never thought someth—” Meb’s voice cracked; he couldn’t continue.

If you’re not familiar with distance running, I’ll fill you in. Ryan Shay was another of the country’s top athletes hoping for an Olympic spot that day. He and I weren’t close, but we’d logged hundreds of miles together. A few years earlier, after a half marathon in Kansas City, we’d grabbed lunch and spent most of the afternoon discussing literature, faith and running and swapping stories of how everyone was always getting the two of us confused. (We did look a lot alike and could have passed for brothers.)

“What do you mean he died? He had a bad race?”

“He collapsed on the course and was pronounced dead.”

It felt like the hospital roof came down. My foot didn’t matter. The Olympics didn’t matter. Ryan Shay was gone. He had collapsed to the pavement five and a half miles into the race and would never get up again. The autopsy later revealed that he had suffered from an irregular heartbeat caused by an enlarged heart.

I stared at the hospital floor, slumped over my crutches and cried. A few minutes later I hailed a cab back to my hotel in Times Square.

Once in the room, I got a call from Ryan Hall, one of my best buddies. I congratulated him on his race, but he was more concerned with how I was doing. Then we talked about Ryan Shay. We didn’t have any answers; it was all so surreal. Ryan and Ryan had run together in Central Park the day before the Trials with their wives.

The dichotomy of Ryan Hall’s day: Olympic dreams realized and the rushing loss of a friend.

A few minutes later Meb and I exchanged texts. I called.

“Hey, JC. How are you doing?”

“I’m OK. Messed up my foot. It’s really swollen, but the X-rays were negative. How are you?”

“Not well. I’m having a tough time getting around. Something is really wrong.”

“Sorry, Meb. I know how fit you were. You were ready.”

“I know. I know.”

We talked about our races and the flowers that PowerBar had sent, but neither of us wanted to talk about Ryan Shay. Then Meb did it. “I can’t believe today. I can’t believe Ryan is gone.”

“I still don’t believe it,” I said. “I talked with him just before the start.”

“I don’t know what to think, I never thought someth—”

Meb’s voice cracked; he couldn’t continue. Meb and Ryan had trained together for years; those two had a special bond. I tried to say something, but I got choked up.

We sat in silence. Meb’s voice started again, “I don’t understand, but I know God is in control.”

That was the lesson.

Running in Packs: (L to R) Sara and Ryan Hall, Dan Browne, me and Meb

For those who don’t know, Meb loves the Lord with a deep passion. And what carried him through the death of Ryan Shay was what would carry him through the next year. Sometimes knowing God is incontrol and that He has His perfect plan is our only comfort.

Ten weeks after the Trials, doctors discovered a fracture in Meb’s hip, a break that reduced him to crawling around his house and having to lift his leg with his hands just to shift in the bed. Broken hip; broken dreams; broken heart.

It was a bad situation for Meb, but a perfect situation for God.

Meb and his wife, Yordanos, prayed and asked God for direction. “We prayed about it, hard and strong,” he told me. “I still felt that my God-given talent wasn’t tapped to the end.”

The next year was up and down for him. From September through November, Meb relocated to Colorado Springs and spent 12 hours a day rehabbing, running, hoping and praying he’d return to top form. I had the chance to visit him while he was there, and, during my stay, we ran 12 miles at the Air Force Academy. I could tell that his fitness was coming around, but he was a long way from top form.

But Meb was (and is) different, and it’s his faith that separates him from the pack. The Word told him, as it tells us all, that tough times will come. We’re assured that suffering is part of the program. It’s how God molds us and shapes us into His image. Tough times and tough trials bring us to our knees, and, in Meb’s case, quite literally. That’s why Scripture says, “Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance. Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything” (James 1:2-4, NIV).

Considering trials as “pure joy” is an impossible charge if our eyes are fixed on ourselves. We are eternal, but our troubles are not. God molds and shapes us into His image through our tribulations. He uses temporary troubles to produce eternal glory. When times are darkest, we can’t lose hope. God is at work, and He has a plan.

It was something I watched in Meb throughout his rehab and recovery. His faith stayed strong. He kept trusting the Lord, just as he had through losing a friend the year before.

Finally, that faith and perseverance paid off. In January 2009, he won his 17th U.S. title at the Houston Half Marathon. The following month he won the U.S. National Cross Country Championships. Two months later he ran a personal best at the London Marathon. In October he ran a 61:00 for the half marathon—yet another PR. The stage was set for his epic return to New York.

Meb was patient during the NYC race. He nestled in behind the front runners until he entered Central Park. At mile 24, he asserted himself and surged past Cheruiyot. As he passed the place where Ryan Shay collapsed, Meb crossed his chest in memory of his fallen friend. It was a simple gesture, but one that showed the world not only his compassion but also his source of strength.

Meb extended his lead to 41 seconds and won the race. His comeback was complete, and all the world could see. But for those of us who know Meb and his faith, I think it was the unseen that made it that much sweeter.

FCA Goes to Boston

Last year, FCA New England Regional Director Fouad Faris teamed up with FCA Endurance National Director Chris Anderson to bring Christ to distance running’s biggest stage: the Boston Marathon.

After being involved with the event for several years, Faris and the FCA New England Leadership Board coordinated with Anderson to organize an FCA chapel service at Boston, which took place on the Sunday afternoon before the race and was wellattended by endurance athletes and their families.

The FCA Endurance Ministry also hosted a booth at the marathon’s runner’s expo, which annually attracts more than 60,000 athletes, supporters and families. Anderson and Faris manned the booth, handing out flyers about the chapel service and information about local FCA events and the national FCA Endurance Ministry.

Having a presence at the world’s marquee marathon is something Anderson considers a great opportunity for the ministry.

“Our being in Boston is a great way to touch thousands of people for Christ and build awareness for FCA,” he said. “It also gives FCA credibility in the running community, furthering our ability to effectively minister to these athletes.”

For Faris, who not only takes part in the FCA events but also volunteers with a team that delivers water to the elite athletes, it is an opportunity to both serve and plant seeds of faith by encouraging some of the most influential endurance athletes.

“Serving the elite athletes is a great opportunity to reach a group of people we don’t often reach,” Faris said. “It’s a chance to impact people’s lives and grow the ministry not just in New England, but in the rest of the country and the world through those who have a high platform.”

Both Faris and Anderson ask for your prayers for the ministry at this year’s Boston Marathon—not only for the ministry events of the weekend, but also for the athletes, that more would come to know what it means to run for God’s glory.

For more information, visit fcaendurance.org and fcane.org.

Elite runner Josh Cox is a writer, speaker and contributor to Runner’s World magazine. The current 50k American record holder, Cox also is currently working on his first book, co-written with Ryan Hall, due out later this year. Read more info on Cox at joshcox.com.

--For more stories about faith and sport, visit www.sharingthevictory.com, the official magazine of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes. To subscribe to STV, click here.

Photos courtesy of Josh Cox, Karen Faris and PowerBar