I love to run and am currently working towards my goal of running a half marathon in every one of the 50 states! During training and racing, I have learned a few things that have encouraged me in my relationship with Jesus and I pray they encourage you too.
If I reacted to my first mile feelings, I would have quit many a race. Either that or I would have picked up my pace prematurely only to burn out later in the race. The first mile is the time to shake out the nerves, get settled into a stride and feel the road beneath your feet. Whether you feel good or bad at mile one, it isn’t a permanent feeling. Things can change drastically. Instead of reacting, I use the first mile to calibrate, assess and make adjustments. I pay attention to how I am feeling, but use that information to help form my strategy for the rest of the race. My mile one mantra is, “settle in, settle in,” which I repeat to myself over and over again. I find the same strategy helpful in my times of Bible reading, prayer, journaling, and solitude. At times I am quick to give up praying because of how I feel at the beginning. I feel distracted or tired and give up. Instead, I can enter into that time assessing where I have come from and how I am feeling and use that as a way to determine the strategy to “settle in” with the Lord in that particular practice.
Picture this: there I am at the start, with hundreds or even thousands of my fellow runners huddled behind the line. The gun goes off. The crowds cheer. The runners take off. And there I am somewhere in the middle with packs of people whizzing past me. I am standing still?? It feels like everyone in the race—sometimes even the dad pushing a stroller with a dog in tow—is running faster than me. I look down at my watch to make sure I’m actually moving and discover that I am, in fact, running…albeit slower than the speedsters surrounding me. I am tempted to speed up to keep up. Then I realize that, if I am going to finish this thing, I have to run at my own pace, not someone else’s pace. Sometimes I look around at other Christians and think, “They are running way faster than me! They are doing spiritual things, developing new disciplines, going to conferences, listening to podcasts and reading Christian books. They seem to be growing in their faith. I should do those things, too!” I vividly remember walking into the dining hall in seminary and seeing groups of my fellow students hotly debating some theological position. I would think, “I should be doing more of that so I can sharpen my theological thinking.” I also remember countless times when everyone in my Christian circles seemed to be reading the same new Christian book and reaping the benefits of spiritual transformation. I would think, “I need to read that book, too.” The reality is that there is no cookie cutter for spiritual growth. And that book everyone was reading? I picked it up and put it down because it didn’t have the same impact on me as it did everyone else. Maybe it just wasn’t the right time.
It happens every race. I should learn this lesson by now but I haven’t. Picture this: I am mingling around before a race, waiting in line for the port-a-potty, and looking around, sizing up my competition. That girl looks like she could be fast, I think. That guys is wearing shorty shorts so he’s probably going to be a contender. All of these assumptions are based on my idea of what fast looks like. But what does “fast” even look like? There are people who look like fast runners that you will pass on mile 2 and others that don’t look the part who will win it all. Looks can be deceiving. Fancy gadgets, shiny shoes and flashy gear don’t make you a runner either. Running does. This ought to encourage us as well as humble us. The reality of it is, I size up other runners up so I can know where I stand. I am looking for some sense of validation or affirmation most of the time. At least I’ll be faster than that girl, I think. How prone I am to do this with other Christians! I look around and want some sense of validation and recognition. At least I “look” like a good Christian. Or at least better than that person. But comparison gets me nowhere. I just need to run.
A little discomfort can be profitable and make you a better runner. Hills workouts and sprints are supposed to be hard. They build muscle and endurance and, in the end, make running easier. We ought to push ourselves to improve. But there is a difference between pushing yourself through pain and pushing yourself so hard that you get injured. We have to know the difference and act accordingly. It’s good to run through pain but continuing to run when you’re injured can cause prolonged, if not permanent damage. Recovery from an injury often requires some rehabilitation or expert assistance; some help or intervention. We need to learn the difference between a spiritual trial and being spiritually injured. Trials invite perseverance and steadfast faith. We need to ask for help in times of brokenness and injury.
Your body absolutely needs time to recover from a hard run or the cumulative effect of many runs. This seems counterintuitive. But, according to Runner’s World Magazine, “A day off every seven to 14 days restocks glycogen stores, builds strength, and reduces fatigue. Without recovery, adaptation may occur short-term, but ultimately it will fail.” Your body needs rest to recover. Olympic runners and novice runners alike know this to be true. So it is with God’s people. He didn’t make us to go, go, go! He made us to go and then rest, even as He did. Sabbath keeping is one of the crucial ingredients to spiritual growth.
My favorite day in Boston is Marathon Monday. Every April I head to the finish to cheer for strangers and friends alike. As I celebrate their achievement—sometimes in excruciating pain that is all too familiar—it inspires me to run. As it is in running, so it is in our spiritual journeys. There’s something that happens when we celebrate others. I have found that it frees me from comparison, reminds me of how God has been at work and gives me a perspective that is bigger than whatever it is that I am facing. It is no wonder that the scriptures are replete with instances of remembrance and celebration. Don’t forget to celebrate what others have done and what God has done in and through them. It’s the Hebrews 11 kind of faith.
I started getting serious about running in 2000 when I decided to train for my first marathon. I found a training plan and began working on increasing my miles. 5 days a week I hit the pavement and knocked out those miles. There were good runs and there were bad runs (walks, even) but I kept at it with bull-headed determination. That is until I started noticing pain in my hip. At first it was after I ran. Then it was during and after the run. Then it was all the time. I sought out the help of fellow runners who told me that the solution (besides rest) was cross-training. Cross-training?? Mixing up the exercise not only helps protect you from overuse injuries but also makes it more interesting. I thought the best way to run farther is to get out there and run… farther. But the repetitive pounding was taking a toll on my body. After I recovered from my hip injury, I got back at it but this time I mixed it up. I still ran but I cut back on the number of days I ran and added in spinning and swimming and other activities that I enjoyed. I stayed injury free and had a lot more fun. There have been many points in my faith that I determined that I wanted to get better at _______. It might be prayer or scripture memory or something else. I often took a similar approach. I will get better at praying by simply praying more. What I found was that doing the same repetitive prayer was not resulting in the growth I desired. But when I was diligent in prayer whilst adding variety to my prayers, I saw marked growth and felt a lot more energized and less defeated in my discipline.
I am often someone who bites off more than I can chew. I know this about myself. So, against my better judgment, when a friend asked if I wanted to run the Boston Half Marathon the day before the race on fall, I said, yes! The most I had run in the months preceding was about 4 miles! But I thought since I had run multiple half marathons and marathons in the past, I would be fine. But 4 miles and 13.1 miles are very different! I started out the race as I would if I was in half marathon shape…but I couldn’t sustain it. I hadn’t trained for this race and it showed. I made it to about mile 8 and then crashed and burned; walking the remainder of the race in defeat (and pain). In the same way, I have often relied on my past spiritual experiences to make up for my current spiritual lethargy. We cannot live off of the fumes of past spiritual mountain top experiences as if having had a really good time with the Lord last week at church is enough to sustain us throughout the whole week. Walking with Jesus is about consistency.
No matter how hard you train and how prepared you are, there will still be disappointments. I remember having my best training for the 2007 Twin Cities Marathon. I put in the time. I was healthy. I was ready to meet the challenges of the course. Then came the curve ball. The temperature was 82 degrees with a dew point in the 90s. For those non-meteorologist types, that means it was really humid and hot. The result from the fluky weather? So many runners suffered from heat or dehydration or other medical issues that they effectively shut down six local hospitals, turning the marathon into a mass casualty incident. There were medics on the course telling us to stop because it was too dangerous for us to keep running. Needless to say, that was my worst race ever. (I am proud to say that I finished though!) Afterward, I decided to look toward my next race instead of dwelling on the disappointment of that one. No matter how healthy and prepared we are spiritually, there will be hard things that come our way. We have to keep moving.
I used to get discouraged when I’d come across a big (or small) hill along my running route. I’d tell myself that it was okay to take it easy now but that during the race I wouldn’t let myself do that. Then I started recognizing that when I would actually get to the race I’d be unable to execute that plan. I didn’t have fuel in my tank and my legs and lungs were burning. So I changed my strategy. My new mantra was “attack the hills.” Every hill. Every hill on every run became my target. Soon I built up leg and lung strength and endurance so that in the race I could climb every hill with much more ease. And (as a bonus) I really got to enjoy the downhill on the other side. If we avoid the hard or challenging things on a daily basis, we will not be able to conquer them when the stakes are higher. The disciplines we practice daily will produce fruit. We cannot expect to rise to whatever spiritual challenges come our way if we don’t take on all the little challenges of faith.
“Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us…” Hebrews 12:1