Life Lessons From a Marathon
By James Meredith
July 8, 2012
"I could never do that!”
I’m amazed at how often I hear these words when people learn that I enjoy running marathons. Their doubt provides an opportunity for encouragement, however, when I remind them I used to be an overweight couch potato who couldn’t jog to the end of the block without resting.
What began as an attempt to lose 50 extra pounds just 12 years ago has progressed to a 40-mile-per-week running habit, complete with 23 marathons. Over time, this seemingly torturous activity has enriched my life physically, emotionally and even spiritually.
That final category is perhaps most surprising. As much as the training and preparation for a marathon are beneficial to the body and mind, I’ve discovered they also provide many practical insights about life and faith.
The most jarring lesson occurred in June 2008, during a family trip to the rugged Badlands of Theodore Roosevelt National Park in North Dakota. The terrain is scenic and isolated — the perfect recipe for a spectacular 10-mile run.
One morning I found myself jogging along in peaceful isolation, three miles from the main road. To my right rose the rocky bluffs of the Badlands; to my left wound the Little Missouri River. As if snatched from the cover of Runner’s World magazine itself, my surroundings left me mesmerized.
Suddenly a glance downward revealed a rattlesnake sunning itself on the warm, white dirt of the trail. I spotted it just in time to kick my right foot forward, missing it by inches. As I heard that all-too-familiar rattle, my slow jog became an all-out sprint.
Urged on by my own screams, I quickly covered about 50 yards, convinced the snake was slithering along right behind me, nipping at my heels. Finally, I rustled up the courage to stop and look behind. There it was, 50 yards back, looking as shocked and unnerved as I was.
Needless to say, the jog back to the main road was slow, cautious and filled with anxiety.
Stay focused on the road ahead
The most ironic part of “the snake incident” is that a perfect run was ruined — almost tragically — by the very setting that made it great. I’d forgotten that I was passing through a wild and potentially dangerous land. Taken in by my surroundings, I lost sight of the path I needed to follow.
Proverbs 4:25 says, “Let your eyes look straight ahead; fix your gaze directly before you” (NIV). We often regard this wise saying as a warning against the blatant sins threatening to trip us up — and rightfully so. Yet I believe a more subtle meaning also exists.
Every day we’re presented with opportunities to enjoy this world in healthy, wholesome ways. We pursue hobbies, set career goals, and partake of pastimes that enrich our lives.
Yet within each lurks the danger that they will distract us from our pursuit of Christ, the One who guides our steps. This world is a dangerous place for believers. Its subtle appeal can instill a kind of “spiritual amnesia,” causing us to forget that we’re strangers, just passing through (1 Peter 2:11).
The pleasures here are fleeting and shallow. Our destination is another world. May that world always remain our focus.
Value those who race beside us
During a recent half marathon (13.1 miles), I reached mile 12 and discovered that I had a chance to finish with my best time ever at that distance. However, I was exhausted and starting to slow.
Then a fellow runner approached from the opposite direction. As we met, he called out some specific exhortations. “Get your arms up. Stay loose. Even out your stride.”
He easily could have just offered a casual “keep up the good work.” He didn’t know if I’d respond well to his advice. But he took a chance, spoke with sincerity, and it worked. I broke my personal record by almost a minute.
Afterward, as I thanked him, I thought about all the times I see a fellow Christian in need, only to deliver a trite cliché: “God bless … I hope things are going OK.”
We need each other in the body of Christ. That’s what God intends. First Thessalonians 5:11 says, “Encourage one another and build each other up.” Doing so isn’t a passive exercise. It involves getting proactive, investing time, giving of ourselves, and even sometimes taking a risk for the sake of another. Together, we can finish the race in triumph.
Plan to persevere
It’s reported by Runners World UK that when a runner finishes a marathon, he or she can be over an inch shorter than before the start of the race, simply from pounding the pavement. A marathon will cut you down to size — literally and figuratively. It exposes your limitations and forces you to dig down and tap your deepest source of strength and stamina.
Yet I’ve seen it happen many times: The horn sounds and an overeager runner takes off at a pace far faster than he trained for. A few times that runner has been me.
The problem is that a marathon is really, really long. As the miles click by, the pace begins to slow. Some of the miles are challenging, and it soon becomes a battle of endurance. By the time runners reach the later miles — 18, 20, 22 — they’re sick, tired and ready to quit. Sadly, some do.
A marathon is marked by a series of highs and lows. Some miles leave a runner feeling propelled by the excitement of the crowd and the thrill of the event. Then there are miles that must be endured with grit and determination. How you handle the highs determines how you will endure the lows.
The same is true in the Christian life. When Paul reached the end of his race, he looked back at the journey and said, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith” (2 Timothy 4:7).
This great apostle enjoyed many thrilling victories and triumphs in his walk with God. Yet he also recognized that there had been battles to fight. His faith was challenged along the way. The path hadn’t always been smooth, straight and exciting. His route often required endurance.
Sometimes it’s easy to persevere. Life proceeds along so smoothly. But other times we find ourselves challenged, overwhelmed and even tempted to take an easier, more enjoyable path.
If we’re only prepared for the good times, we will falter. But when we ready ourselves to face the inevitable struggles — through seeking God, knowing His promises, and relying on His power — we will endure to the finish.
All are called to run the race
One unique pleasure of running is that almost everyone can participate. In major races you will see runners large and small, young and old, those who are hearing or vision impaired, the disabled, cancer survivors, and others who’ve overcome great obstacles to arrive at the starting line.
All of these athletes will run the same route. The world-class athlete starts and finishes up front, yet he follows the same designated path as the one who struggles across the finish line last.
God sets before each of us a path that leads to eternal life. No one is deprived of this invitation. Acts 2:21 promises that “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.”
It doesn’t matter how we arrived at the starting line, or where we’ve been before we began the race. No special skill or high position is required to participate. Acceptance of His offer launches each of us on an incredible journey. It will consume the rest of our days and culminate in eternal life.
Are you confronted with a crisis in your journey with God today? Or maybe you’ve yet to cross the starting line with Him. Cling to God’s promises, and trust in His grace. You can finish the race.
JAMES MEREDITH is technical editor of the Pentecostal Evangel.
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