What Will Stop Harriete? What Will Stop You?

Late last month, Harriete Thompson earned the inestimable right to plaster a 26.2 sticker on the back of her car. She finished a marathon. Finishing a marathon is no small feat for anyone. I’ve never done it. I do plan to give it a go in October, but I haven’t done it yet. I know I can, but I know it won’t be a simple thing.

Harriete Thompson has now done it 16 times, all of them in the San Diego Rock ‘n Roll Marathon. How do you finish a marathon? Harriete might (or might not) give this two-step process to finishing.

  1. Cross the starting line. That means sign up and begin the race.
  2. Don’t stop until you cross the finish line.

Easy, right? You have to start and then not stop until you’re done. Harriete has followed that prescription 16 times. She never let anything stop her. Her time, 7:24:36, won’t impress most people, but there are some details about this lady.

  • Harriete is 92 years old, the oldest woman ever to complete a marathon. She could have let her advanced age stop her, but she didn’t.
  • Her husband of 67 years died last years. She could have let the grief and disruption put an end to her racing, but she didn’t.
  • Harriete is a two-time cancer survivor, having battled skin and jaw cancers. She could have let that legacy stop her, but she didn’t.
  • She didn’t even start this activity until she was in her mid-70s, an age when most people are looking for the best place to park their recliners. She could have let that stop her before she started, but she didn’t.

Someday Harriete Thompson will stop running/walking marathons. Someday she’ll pass from this life, but until those days come, if past experience is any indication, she’ll keep pushing forward.

You and I will someday be unable to do the things that we want to do, eventually succumbing to death. That’s the nature of life. Harriete Thompson seems to see life as something to be lived as fully as possible for as long as the body allows.

Why should any of the rest of us do any less?

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.

Yogini or Yogurtini?

YogaI am conflicted when it comes to the practice of Yoga. My decidedly secular college fills up as many Yoga classes as they offer. While I have never attended one of those classes, I feel confident that there are no mantras chanted, no chakra magic invoked, and no references to Lord Shiva or any other Hindu deity.

Yoga is, stripped of the Hindu mumbo-jumbo–that’s a Sanskrit term, I’m pretty sure, synonymous with “folderah”–can provide good exercise and stretching. I do a couple of Yoga poses in my lower body strength training but without calling them Yoga. The “locust” asana or pose came to me as a “Superman.” You lie, face-down, on the floor and then lift up your head and arms at the same time that you lift your legs, leaving only your mid-section on the mat. The plank pose, basically holding yourself in an “up” pushup position, is not one of the traditional positions from what I can discover, but it is a staple of Yoga classes today. Hold either of these positions for 15 seconds or so and you’ll probably be feeling less spiritual and more shaky than before.

My mixed feelings come from the very religious, very Hindu roots of the practice. The traditional 84 Yoga asanas were supposedly created by the Hindu god Shiva. One traditional sequence, the surya namaskara, is known in English as the Sun Salutation. Essentially it is a form of worship toward the Hindu sun god. The whole purpose of Yoga practice, at least originally, is to allow the yogi (male) or yogini (female) to be able to meditate for long periods of time. This is a very religious practice in its origins.

While I can use my two “poses” and not feel any risk of being drawn into Hinduism, I’m reluctant to fully explore this sort of exercise. On the other hand, I wonder at that original purpose.

How many Christians fail to worship to their ability, fail to pray deeply and effectively, and fail to have the focus necessary to really embrace a long sermon because their body is saying, “No.” I once heard good advice for teachers: “The brain can only absorb what the seat can endure.”

Shouldn’t Christians tune their bodies just as carefully as Hindus tune theirs? Shouldn’t we do our best to ensure that achy joints or finicky backs do not  limit our ability to worship the one true God? When we have a living object for our worship, shouldn’t we do our best to make our bodies capable of enduring and enjoying that worship?

13.1 Miles and Goal Achieved

At a little after 7:30 am this morning, I started running the Rock the Parkway Half Marathon. Somewhere around mile 9, I thought my body was going to cease to function. Heavy legged, I kept trudging through the miles, desperately wanting to slow down but perhaps more desperately wanting to make that sub-2:00 goal.

2015 Rock the ParkwayLet’s be clear. A two-hour half marathon is not going to get me a shoe endorsement contract. I won’t be picking up any awards even in my age group. Plenty of guys over the age of 50 can run long distances faster than me. But a two-hour half marathon is something I couldn’t have thought about two years ago. It’s 11:19 better than I did ten months ago. (At this rate of improvement, by the way, I’ll hold the world record in this distance in five years.)

When you’re running a two-hour race and obeying the rules against earbuds, you have a lot of time to think, and this morning I put that time to good use. It occurred to me that running such an event is something like a metaphor for the Christian life. The parable of the sower could be adapted as the parable of the runner.

Some of us run fast, like the guy who won this morning at 1:07; some of us are slow, maybe still on the course now as the shadows gather outside. But the key to Christian life is that we prepare ourselves to run our best race and then keep the legs turning over even when lungs and heart and muscles scream for us to stop.

In his second letter to Timothy, Paul uses this same metaphor, recognizing that he is approaching the “finish line” of his life:

For I am already being poured out like a drink offering, and the time for my departure is near. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Now there is in store for me the crown of righteousness,which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day—and not only to me, but also to all who have longed for his appearing. (2 Timothy 4:6-8)

The key to this understanding of living in Christ is that a PR, a prize, or an impressive finish time isn’t the key thing–which is really good news to me. Whether you run your race of life fast or slow, a long distance or short doesn’t really matter. What matters is that you run your best race, that you keep pushing on toward the prize even when the temptation to stopping screams into ever cell of your life.

That’s what I had time to think this morning.

Psalm 40 for half marathon

I waited patiently for the Lord;
    he inclined to me and heard my cry.
He drew me up from the pit of destruction,
    out of the miry bog,
and set my feet upon a rock,
    making my steps secure.
He put a new song in my mouth,
    a song of praise to our God.
Many will see and fear,
    and put their trust in the Lord.
–Psalm 40:1-3

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.

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?



Enduring Fashion (Hebrews 1:10-12)

He also says,    “In the beginning, Lord, you laid the foundations of the earth,
and the heavens are the work of your hands.
They will perish, but you remain;
they will all wear out like a garment.
You will roll them up like a robe;
like a garment they will be changed.
But you remain the same,
and your years will never end.” (Hebrews 1:10-12)

Back in the late 1990s, I spent a good bit of my professional time as a staff member and then director for my school’s Master Teachers Workshop. This annual event gathered several dozen teachers from assorted departments to share good ideas, approaches, and challenges with each other. After leading the entertainment one year, I fell into the directorship for the next three. And today, all I have to show for those years are a couple of lines on my resume and a pair of t-shirts.

Each year, at the close of the workshop, we distributed some nice long-sleeve t-shirts with a spider-web design imprinted on them. We’d wear them for our group photo and then, if we remembered, for the first day back on campus. Over the years, I accumulated seven of those shirts. Eventually, a couple of them disappeared into my daughters’ clutches. A couple of others fell apart from repeated wear and washing. Today, two of them, thin and seam-weary still hang in my closet. They’ll probably meet the rag bag in the next few months.

Our favorite garments last but a few years. Our own lives last but a few decades. Even nations seem to endure for a but a few centuries. But not Christ. Christ was old when the cannons fired on Fort Sumter provoking the Civil War. He was ancient when the pilgrims stepped ashore at Plymouth. When William the Conqueror took control of England in 1066, Christ had been around for–for–well, forever.

Let us not put our trust in our clothes unless they are the robes of righteousness provided by the eternal one. Our trust, if it is at all meaningful, lies in what cannot and will not end.