I loved watching Mark run. The Norfolk Christian Cross Country team was a small band of guys and girls that ran hard, encouraged one another and left their hearts on the trail. The sport is unique in that you win and lose as a team, but only you can run your race…there is no passing a ball, handing off a baton, taking turns at bat…it is you and the course in front of you. And you hope there are some fans on the sidelines cheering you on.
When Mark was 12 years old, we decided to run Mark’s first official race together. As my boy was getting older, running was something I could share with him as His mom. As we trained, he would share stories from school, and I heard the latest events happening in the Percy Jackson books he loved. It gave me a chance to encourage him as he learned to pace himself, and I knew it would not be long before he could easily out run me. As we neared the end of our training we realized that the timing of our Fall vacation (with my extended family) to Bald Head Island coincided with the annual Maritime Classic Road Race.
Bald Head Island is a small, hilly little island off the coast of North Carolina. You can only drive golf carts there and it feels very remote. The scenery is beautiful and it was a place we both loved. The race was a perfect fit. I remember the pre-race nerves as we gathered with the other runners at the start. My family was all there on the sidelines; my brother and sister, their spouses and children, and my parents were there hanging out with Will, Daniel and Maria. We had lots of support. But because of the nature of the island, there would only be a couple of places we would see them, and much of the course we would run without any spectators.
The gun sounded and we took off. We were mindful of the starting adrenaline and tried to manage our pace. It was exhilarating. My family was cheering and dancing as we passed them and we felt great. But as the race went on, the course turned onto a part of the island that is one rolling hill after another. We would not see our family until the finish line.
We had not trained for hills and my older body wasn’t loving the incline. Mark kindly slowed his pace a bit and started telling me more stories. It was then that it occurred to me that I hadn’t seen hardly any young boys running. And as he slowed to accommodate his old mama, I told him, “Hon, I am thinking you need to run ahead. I haven’t seen many other boys running, and I think you might have a chance to place in this race.” At first he refused. He said we had trained together and he didn’t want to leave me. I assured him, I would be fine. That I really, really, wanted him to run his best race. I told him I would see him at the finish line, and to TAKE OFF! And he did. As I saw his small frame sprint ahead I eventually lost sight of him and was left to finish the last mile or so alone. As I finally came out of the hills, my body loosened up and I picked up my pace. I was so curious how he had finished, and I couldn’t wait to see him at the finish line. As I came into the harbor area, the crowd was cheering their loved ones in, and I saw my family, and Mark, excitedly cheering for me. "Go MOM! Run it in! Almost there! Go!" It was awesome.
The larger group headed back to the house to make lunch, but Mark and I decided to stick around for the awards. We hoped he had placed, but to our great delight the Race Coordinator announced that Mark Rodriguez had won 1st place in his age bracket. We went nuts. This was the first and only race he would win on this earth. We reveled in the glory. As he walked back through the small crowd with his “trophy” we were beaming at each other. Who knew it would turn out like this? What a day! And then we heard the next surprise…”The First place winner in the 35-40 age bracket for the 25th Annual Bald Head Island Maritime Classic Road Race is….Leigh Ellen Rodriguez!” What???? What???? That can’t be. I have run my whole life and have never won a race. NEVER. Not even close. Mark and I whooped, jumped, victory danced, our way home with our trophies in hand. Team Rodriguez owned that race.
God so kindly has brought that memory to my mind over and over these last 10 months. I am reminded that while Mark finished his race earlier than I have, I still have some miles to go. The terrain is hilly and lonely, and I get really tired. I am so thankful for the crowd on the sidelines helping to spur me on. Mark ran his race so well, and he finished so strong. With God’s help I hope to do the same.
Mark is now out of my sight, but I know we run after the same goal. And sometimes, I think I can hear him cheering me on "Go Mom! Run it in! You are so close!" In honor of him, to the glory of Christ, I will push on.
“ I will run, and I won’t quit. Chasing your heart…just like David did. I’ll come running through the gates, looking to your face…Oh I can hardly wait”