Strong to the Finish

As for the prizeAs the horn sounded the start of the Sweetheart Shuffle on a recent Saturday, the slug of runners standing in the starting chute began to ooze toward the inflated start/finish line. Many of them stuck close to friends or family, but I stood there alone with my goal. With my stopwatch in hand, I hoped to snap the timer upon reaching this spot again at 23:30 or less, basically a 7:30 per mile pace.

If you are an experienced runner, you’re not impressed with my goal, but for me, a guy who spent the first five decades of his life being decidedly slow, fat, and short of breath, this time represented a next step. My 25:00 goal had really taxed me back in October, but I’d been training hard through the winter. As the mass of runners crossed the starting pads, I knew I could make this goal a reality.

After weaving through the slow people in those first yards out of the gate, I settled into what felt like the right pace. The parking area at the bottom of the hill marked the quarter mile mark.Glancing at my stopwatch, I liked what I saw. The pack began to stretch out in the next half mile along the south side of the lake. The route doubled back, and I fell in with a knot of runners who seemed likely to keep me on pace. When I reached the one-mile marker, I looked at my watch: 7:05.

In that moment, only a third of the way into the race, I felt fairly certain that my effort would fail. Knowing my body, I knew that while I could run one mile that fast, I probably could not do two.Having spent too much of my limited store of energy too early, I saw my pace slow. Not only could I not maintain 7:05, but I couldn’t maintain the 7:30 pace I had envisioned. My heart beat faster and my lungs screamed at me to slow down. Consciously or not, my mind signalled my legs to reduce the pace.

I have to ask myself if, after that too-fast start, I really could not achieve my goal. Did my body force me to slow down or did my mind persuade me to slow down? Was I actually physically unable to maintain the necessary pace? I think about it now, doing math that I couldn’t manage on Saturday morning. I was twenty-five seconds ahead at mile marker one. Couldn’t I have forced myself to do 7:42 miles, even if they were painful? Couldn’t I?

At the second mile marker, the pace had slowed and my watch read 15:20, leaving me just over eight aching minutes to complete 1.1 miles.

Running times depend on two variables. One of them is how fast the body will actually move. Even in a short course, my body isn’t terribly fast. Lungs and heart excluded, I can only move at a finite pace. The other variable, however, is the mental one: how much discomfort will my mind endure? How hard will I push myself? Saturday’s problem was not simply a matter of “able to” but one of “willing to” run faster.

As I rounded the bend and could see the finish line, a bit more than a quarter mile away, I wondered how fast I could ultimately get. A few minutes later, I saw two guys from my age group with sub-twenty-minute times. Can I get there? Can I do six minute miles? I don’t know what my best potential time is, but I do know that, regardless of preparation and skill, any runner must be willing to suffer in order to achieve the best possible time. Running at your fastest, at least at any distance beyond a sprint, will hurt. If you are not feeling pain in those last yards, then you’re not pushing yourself as hard as possible and thus you could be faster.

I wasn’t quite that coherent as I approached the finish line, but I understand that to run a better race, I need to go out at a strong pace and then endure the discomfort for the entire duration of the course.

At every point along the way–actually starting at every point along the training–there’s a battle going on between a will that says “Go” and a body that says “No.” At any point along the way, with heartrate nearly double resting rate and breath heaving, the body can win that battle and persuade me to surrender, pulling back that hard running to a jog. To excel, to make a worthwhile goal, the will needs to win that battle. That’s not what happened on Saturday. I instead surrendered to my body and finished the race in a disappointing 25:10.

Yesterday, on the treadmill, it crossed my mind that this battle in the runner’s life resembles battles in the Christian life. Maybe your Christian life is easy. Maybe you don’t have to endure any pain or discomfort as you obey the promptings of the Holy Spirit. If that’s the case, though, I have to wonder if you’re running your best race. At times, I feel good about myself doing the equivalent of jogging through my Christian life. That pace is  easy for me, and I can look around and see that a lot of people are moving even more slowly than me. But God didn’t call me to run my Christian life faster than the slowest someone else. He called me to run the best Christian race possible for me.

Victory in the Christian life is not the same as victory in a race. I never expect to finish any race in first place, and it’ll take a small, poorly trained field, I’m afraid, to ever win my age group. But if I surrender myself to the suffering, if I endure to the end, I can win a victory for myself and for Christ. Paul understood this and used the metaphor to teach the Corinthians.

Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize. Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last, but we do it to get a crown that will last forever. Therefore I do not run like someone running aimlessly; I do not fight like a boxer beating the air. No, I strike a blow to my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize. (1 Corinthians 9:24-27)

Notice that Paul doesn’t say, “Run and win.” He says, “Run in such a a way as to get the prize.” I take that to mean, “Run as if you hope to win” or “Run as if you have something to accomplish.” At times I accomplish that; other times not so much.

After finishing that 5K on Saturday, I stood by the finish and watched others cross the line. Some of them, I’m sure, had not run as if to get the prize. Instead they had slowed to a comfortable pace, jogging through the course. Others, finishing long after me, had refused to quit, refused to slow down. They hurt terribly. They crossed the finish line victorious.

While I do not embrace running so that you collapse one step beyond the finish, wouldn’t it be marvelous to live for Christ in such a way, so that when we cross over life’s finish line and hear those longed-for words, we know we have just spent our last bit of strength?