Life-Changing Moments

“Before I could convince myself otherwise, I paid the entry fee and changed my life.” - Martin Dugard Martin Dugard, author of To Be A Runner, wrote that about entering his first race, the opening move in a life of running.

My guess is that Dugard had no idea how important that first entry fee was when he paid it. Most life-changing moments are subtle when they happen. In fact, if we knew they would change how we were going to live we would probably get scared and back slowly away. It is usually better NOT to know the future.

One of my life-changing moments happened when I first started running, in the summer of 1978, between my first and second senior year of college. At the time, I could never have imagined how many years I would keep doing it, or how it would change my life. I had no idea of the greater running community or the existence of races or training or anything like that. All I knew was that I needed to do something physical to lose some weight and win back the affection of a girl who’d left me for a track-and-field jock. It was the first time in my life to do anything physical on my own initiative.

Those first few miles in Stan Smith Adidas tennis shoes and Levi cut-offs were the beginning of a practice that has lasted 34 years and covered over 36,000 miles. Who could have anticipated that?

Somewhere along the way, I picked up a Runner’s World magazine and caught a glimpse of the bigger running community. I saw photos of people in races who looked like me, and that planted a seed that I could do it what they were doing.

I entered my first race in the summer of 1980. A Lubbock radio station was pitching the Cap’n D’s five-mile and ten-mile race as a (joking) alternative to the Moscow Summer Olympics, which President Jimmie Carter boycotted due to the Russian invasion of Afghanistan.

The racecourse consisted of two five-mile loops. I entered the ten-mile race, having run nine miles a couple of times in Brownfield, thinking I was ready for the big time. However, it was a mistake to try to run so far. I knew nothing about racing and I lined up at the front of the pack, oblivious to the differences between my body shape and the bodies of the other guys who belonged on the front. Caught up in the adrenaline of the moment, and being stupid, I ran too fast the first lap. I had to pull up and finish after only five miles. I felt miserable, I almost threw up, but I was so happy I couldn’t stop telling my story to Cyndi. I didn’t know it at the time, but I was a changed man.

Not long after that first race, I discovered running writer, George Sheehan. I bought his first book, Dr. Sheehan on Running, at a grocery store in Duncan, Oklahoma, while at a two-week oilfield school, in the fall of 1980. Every evening I read a few pages from the book and then went outside to go out running. I noticed that it was possible to write about life and spirituality around the framework of running. It was a seed planted.

Running races led to new friends, and those friends led to my twenty-year involvement in the running club in Midland, Texas. I eventually served a couple of terms as club president, but more importantly, I served for several years as newsletter editor. And it was with that newsletter I started writing stories about running and life. Many of those stories ended up in my first book, Running With God, published twenty-five years later.

The thing is, I wonder what would have taken over my life if I hadn’t started running back in 1978. Would I be a writer if not for that newsletter? Who knows. It’s impossible to know such things.

But those first few miles down Sanger Street in Hobbs, New Mexico changed my life. And those miles are still changing me - I’ve run three times this week, and here I am writing about it, again.

So many things happen to us in the course of our life and we can never know in the moment how important they will become. Usually, we are just happy to have lived through it and survived. It is only when looking back that we see how our life was changed.

I have been reading the story of Abraham these past few days, and few of the events of  his life pointed toward the great man he would become. What seems to be random and unfocused action on his part was used by God over the course of Abraham’s life to turn him into the father of a nation.

I believe God works that same way in our own lives. It’s hard to see the importance as we live through the moment, but later we see how his grace turned us into different people. Life-changing moments are a gift.


“I run in the path of Your commands, for You have set my heart free.” Psalm 119:32


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What Is Your Quest?

His personal trainer rendered him speechless by asking, “Are you sure you don’t want to do more?” I was reading To Be a Runner, by Martin Dugard, one of the best running books I’ve ever read. A longtime runner and coach, Dugard had reluctantly recruited a personal trainer to help him break out of a long, sedentary spell of sloth and weight gain. In the opening interview at the gym, The House of Pain, his trainer, Terry, asked, "What are your goals?”

Surprisingly, for a trained athlete, he didn’t have a goal. He wasn’t sure what he wanted from the workouts other than to be better.

But Dugard also had a philosophical problem with the word “goal.” He preferred “quests.” To him, goals sounded pedestrian, but quests were quixotic.

The distinction between goal and quest was not so obvious to me; however, I could see the difference between setting a goal to lose twenty pounds and being on a quest to hike the Appalachian Trail. Or the difference between setting a goal to read twenty books versus a quest to write twenty books.

Goals seem to be about what you do (or what you want to do), while quests seem to be about who you are (or hope to be).

Therefore, a quest should be bigger than life, something we cannot accomplish on our own. A quest should be an epic adventure.

(Of course, to be honest, I cannot use the word “quest” without hearing Monty Python’s Search for the Holy Grail in my head. That’s probably why I seldom use that specific word, even though I talk about the concept of epic adventures often.)

Martin Dugard told a story about running up a long set of steps to the top of an Italian mountain, near the shores of Lake Garda, to see the ruins of a fifth-century castle. The route got progressively steeper the further he ran, but he was not tempted to turn back. He didn’t know what he would find at the top, or whether it would be worth the struggle, but he had wasted too many weeks without running so he kept moving up.

Dugard’s life aphorism is, “Keep Pushing - Always.” He described  it as a reminder “not to settle but to dream, to live, to sing, to let go of the past and fulfill your destiny. Sometimes a single run can make your whole life come full circle - or maybe just make sense of the things you never understood. That run up an Italian mountain banished my fear of settling.”

His last phrase, “banished my fear of settling,” caught my attention because of my own tendency to settle. I’ve taught myself to seek adventure, movement, and journey, but my natural, organic, inclination is to seek equilibrium, to find a place to settle whenever possible. I’ve learned to schedule runs, hikes, and rides - hard ones and long ones - to keep this tendency at bay.

I’ve also fought my tendency to settle by becoming a goal setter. I don’t claim to be a great goal achiever, but I try to set a sufficient number of goals so if I only achieve a few of them I still make real changes and feel good about myself. And some of those goals have now become habits so deeply engrained I no longer have to think about accomplishing them - they’ve become part of my daily life.

And so, as a goal-setter, I hate to waste a January. If you’ve been in any of my classes, you’ve heard me preaching the value of New Year’s Resolutions (except that I would rather say “goals” than “resolutions” since resolutions are usually about stopping, while goals are about doing. I think most people would rather do than stop. (Maybe I should consider New Year’s Quests!))

Back to the book - my favorite part of Martin Dugard’s story comes at the end. After several rounds of give-and-take between Terry-the-personal-trainer asking about goals, Martin giving wimpy noncommittal answers, and Terry making fun of him, Dugard finally said, “I want to look better in my author picture.” He hoped this would end the questioning.

Terry asked, “Are you sure you don’t want to do more?”

What a great question for January 2013. Are you sure you don’t want to do more?

Not necessarily more things, or more goals, but taking a few goals deeper into the quest?

Do you have a goal to lose ten pounds? Why not do more, and commit to running your first 5K? Or half-marathon?

Maybe you have a goal to start cycling? Why not turn it into a quest to complete a long-distance group ride?

One goal I want to start is learning to draw. My quest is to be a better writer, and I think drawing will help me to see better.

How about you? What are your goals, or even better, what are your quests, to begin 2013?


“I run in the path of Your commands, for You have set my heart free.” Psalm 119:32