Get Your Motor Running

tired-runnerYou’ve probably had the experience: You set out on a longish run. Let’s say you’re going five miles. You know you can do five miles. Five miles is a piece of cake. (And by the way, if you’re thinking that five miles is more like a sledgehammer than a piece of cake, you can get there eventually.) You could do five miles without breaking a sweat. (Okay, maybe not that.)

But then, 100 yards into your five miles, you feel as if you are going to die. Your lungs are heaving; your heart is pounding. Your legs are saying, “No!” Everyone who has ever run has experienced this. To a degree, we will get the same feeling when starting out on a bike, playing basketball, or doing anything else that pushes the body very hard. Happily, this feeling of impending death does not last. If you push through it, you’ll find yourself a mile and half down the road saying, “Hey, this is pretty easy. Five miles is a piece of cake!”

Jason Saltmarsh takes up this topic in a recent article, artfully titled, “Why does the first mile of my run suck so much?” Not only does Saltmarsh explain the physiology leading to those first-mile agonies but he offers advice as to how to lessen the blow.

Basically, what’s happening is you’re forcing your engine to work (aerobic state) before it’s had a chance to properly warm up (anaerobic state). I bought a Subaru a few months ago, and now I sit patiently in my car and wait for the little blue light on the dashboard to go off before leaving home. That little blue light goes off when the car is warmed up, the fluids are moving around nicely, and it’s ready to go.

Like so many things, that physical warm-up has a spiritual parallel. Have you ever had a hard time settling in to pray or to read the Bible? At first it seems hard. No, your legs aren’t complaining, but your brain might be saying, “You have other things to do.”

A few years ago, I attended a prayer retreat. During Saturday morning, the schedule called for an hour of solitary prayer. An hour. How was I supposed to prayer for an hour. I fidgeted. I shifted. I got distracted. I was in my first mile. But then I hit my stride. The “blue light” went off, and I prayed. When the hour expired, it was too soon.

The beauty of both running and spiritual disciplines is when you get past that initial warm-up period. When we get there, prayer seems like something that could go on forever. The Bible is something to linger within. And the miles don’t seem endless.

Taking the Church on the Road

Group-RunA growing number of people, it seems, are discovering that running and Christianity are not all that incompatible. Granted, I’ve had a couple of Sunday morning routines interrupted by road races, but that’s a couple of times in a year.

A story in the Deseret News, timed to coincide with the Boston Marathon, describes several ways that church and running are converging.

It’s not unusual for athletes to gather to share their faith. The Fellowship of Christian Athletes, after all, is 60 years old. But churches are starting to see running as a way to draw their members closer together while reaching out to the secular world. It’s a savvy strategy: As church membership in the U.S. continues to decline, the number of runners is on the rise. The nation is now in what’s been called the “third running boom.” More than 19 million people not only competed in, but completed, a road race in 2014; a figure that has grown nearly 300 percent since 1990.

It shouldn’t surprise anyone that running and Christianity go so well together, despite the bad eating habits of American Christians leading so many to be–shall we say–non-aerodynamic. Running can be both a social and a solitary pursuit just like the spiritual life. What must not happen, as churches embrace running, is that the run becomes the primary thing while the Christian walk fades in importance.


Let Mercy Lead

Pointed the wrong way at the starting line of the 2015 Great Plains 10K.
Pointed the wrong way at the starting line of the 2015 Great Plains 10K.

Tomorrow morning, just under twenty-four hours from right now, I’ll be crossing the starting line of the Rock the Parkway Half Marathon, my second race at that distance. A year ago, when I ran Hospital Hill, I basically just wanted to finish respectably. This year, I will feel that I have dropped the ball–or perhaps the baton–if I don’t break two hours. Succeed or fail, I’ll report here tomorrow.

On my longest training run, thirteen days ago, I did something I rarely do when running outside. I listened to music. Rich Mullins, a favorite of mine for many years, sang a song that I’d never really thought about.

The lyrics struck me powerfully enough as I made my way through my last couple of miles that I replayed the track. Here’s the chorus of “Let Mercy Lead.”

Let mercy lead
Let love be the strength in your legs
And in every footprint that you leave
There’ll be a drop of grace

Is there a better lyric for a Christian runner? My prayer for tomorrow and for my every endeavor is that the strength in my legs is not my strength and that the legacy of my footprints is not simply my work.

Should the first verse and chorus of that song not hook you, the second verse surely will:

You’ll run the race
That takes us way beyond
All our trials and all our failures
And all the good we dream of
But you can’t see yet where it is you’re heading
But one day you’ll see the face of love

I know where my 13.1 miles will end tomorrow, hopefully somewhere before 9:30 am, but I do not know the destination of the truly important race I am running. That doesn’t matter. Tomorrow’s race is more of a ritual, an outward symbol of an inward struggle. I can run as far and as fast as I need to when I’m sharing the road with someone who authored the mercy that will lead and the love that will strengthen me.

Running Lazy

I’m scheduled to run 8 to 10 miles today, letting how I feel about my legs and lungs determine the distance. The Rock the Parkway half marathon is a week away, and I’m tapering toward the start. My goal for the next seven days is simple: don’t get hurt. On the eighth day, the goal is to finish the race in less than two hours.


As good as I’m feeling about my preparations for this race, as confident as I am that I can meet the goal I’ve set for myself, I’m also somewhat concerned about my attitude toward the activity. Is it possible that I’m running in laziness? I know that sounds bizarre, but I’ve been thinking along those lines recently, and another writing by Paul Maxwell has really brought the idea to the fore.

Maxwell argues that laziness is not exactly what it seems to be but is largely a spiritual condition. In his mind, the workaholic, the guy who won’t roll out of bed before noon, and the obsessed runner might all be suffering from a very similar affliction, although only one of them seems to be lazy.

You have your little idol, right? Maybe it is called Pinterest or Tumblr; perhaps it is golf or tennis. It could be reading or music, cooking or TV, antiquing or housework. Anything that we do without a clear vision of it within the Kingdom of God, anything that puts us in control, shares qualities with my son who is not out of bed at 11:02am on a Saturday. Maxwell shares a list of these things and then comments.

They are our easy-bake mud puddle gods — simply sit, add water, and worship. What gets you out of bed (or off the couch)? To withdraw, to procrastinate, to stumble through a blurry haze of work days just waiting for the next opportunity to get back on the couch, back to the workshop, back on Netflix, or back to the gym, that isn’t life — and none of us is honestly or passionately arguing that it really is.

And so my question for myself is running. Do I run to put myself in charge? Is the pleasure that I derive from this activity a substitute for the joy I should be experiencing in God? It is, of course, possible to have both, but it’s also possible to foul up that joy with any of the lesser pleasures.

I can experience God in eating or I can eat to cover up the absence of God. I can actually indulge in worship activities that cover up the lack of true worship in my life. And, to the point at hand, I can run away from the lack of God in my life or run in ways that celebrate His presence.

This much I know to be true. What’s not so obvious is how to do the latter.

10,000 Reasons Not to Be Disappointed

Last Sunday morning–a week late due to a winter-weather delay–the West Bottoms of Kansas City saw the arrival of about 750 runners for the KC version of the Great Plains 10K. I signed up for that race in order to give myself an intermediate goal before the April 11 Rock the Parkway half marathon.

Pointed the wrong way at the starting line of the 2015 Great Plains 10K.
Pointed the wrong way at the starting line of the 2015 Great Plains 10K.

The goal was simple: finish the 10K course in less than 54 minutes. A time of 53:39 would have been great. That’s a pace of about 8:45 per mile. I knew I could do it. In reality, I had done it with a fair margin to spare the previous week on a treadmill. Sure, a treadmill is not a city street, but I believed that the thrill of the race would make up for whatever advantage the machine gave.

After three miles, I was fairly certain that I would not make my goal, but I pressed on. When I passed the five-mile marker, I had something like 8:30 to complete the last 1.2 miles. It wasn’t going to happen. I wound up crossing the finish line at 55:59, two minutes late to my party.

It bummed me out, I must confess. I went to church and sat through service, but my heart was out on the streets of Kansas City, trying to understand why I had failed.  Unlike my failed attempt to achieve a personal best in the 5K, I had not gone out too fast. I covered the first mile in 8:30, which was just about perfect. On Monday, I went out for an easy recovery run. The first mile of that route–that easy paced route–I finished in 8:15. In fact, on that Monday, I did a mixed run and walk of five miles at a pace just slightly slower than my Sunday morning disappointment.

As I turned this riddle over in my mind, blaming bad fueling, insufficient or excessive sleep, a headwind, or–every runner’s favorite–my shoes, I realized the folly of the entire affair. In fact, as I thought about that aggravating 10K, it occurred to me that I had 10,000 reasons not to be aggravated.

Do you have that Matt Redman song playing in your head yet? “Bless the Lord, O my soul. O my soul, worship His holy name.” That’s the song that played for me as I started to put these thoughts together. The first verse of that song seems especially pertinent.

The sun comes up, it’s a new day dawning
It’s time to sing Your song again
Whatever may pass, and whatever lies before me
Let me be singing when the evening comes

Do I believe those things?  If I can allow a poor run to dampen my spirit, then I don’t believe I’m actually paying much attention to God’s holy name. “Whatever may pass,” the song says. That means that no matter how much I wanted to achieve that goal, I still should have been singing when the evening came.

Goals are worthwhile. Working toward a goal is a solid of making the most of our opportunities on this earth, but allowing a goal to separate me from the Creator of the Universe is just as surely an act of idolatry as is bowing down before a statue.

The 6:59 Mile

Time-Running-OutRoger Bannister, at 85 years of age, is quaking in his British shoes. Yesterday, I ran my first ever sub-seven-minute mile. That is…well, it’s pretty slow by anybody’s standards. Let’s consider. To be in the top 5% of runners at age 25, I’d have to be running my mile in something like 3:54. Of course, I’m not 25. To be in that top 5% of runners at my age, I’d need a 4:32.

Honestly, I don’t know how the web calculator that provided that information comes to these numbers, but I do know that at 6:59 I’m not impressing anybody who is really a runner.  On the other hand, I know that it was hard. I know that a year ago my best mile was around 7:35. A year and a half ago, I recorded a 9:41 mile as if it made me proud. And it did make me proud, indicating progress and hard work.

God did not call me to run fast. Honestly, He didn’t even call me to run. But He did call me to make the best of the gifts that He gave me. In Colossians 3:23, Paul admonishes his readers, “Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters,” I’m fairly certain that God was not impressed with my 6:59 mile, but I am confident that He is pleased when I pursue a worthy goal with energy.


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?