It’s an old cliché, but true: Life is a marathon.
And this, also, is true: When I woke up on marathon morning, I didn’t want to run the race.
And since transparency happens to be my Call, I should also say that most of my living happens exactly this way. I am not very good at beginning, at starting. I wake up so often wrong-hearted, so often thinking: I don’t want to. I start off still tired, and that’s a problem. I know what’s coming, and I feel certain I can’t handle it; that’s the part that makes me nervous. And I despise those nerves, crawling up and down my arms, churning in my gut, sitting heavy on my shoulders.
4:30am and I stand in the brisk dark, tugging on running shorts, thinking: I don’t want to. It’s a choice, so I could just..not. The thought lurks, and I push it back into the shadows of my mind.
It’s madness, these conversations, the mental looping. But it’s what we do, right? I gather my hair into a pony tail and brush it free of bumps and sleepy strays. I tie my shoes, the neon ones–because I might as well go big or stay home. You have trained, I tell myself, strapping on my watch. The hay is in the barn. You’re ready for this. I lay my hand briefly on my race shirt, waiting patiently for later because I won’t wear it until I’ve earned it, and then I take one last glimpse around. The room will look exactly the same, but it feels like it will all be different, because I know that the marathon will change me.
And this is how it is when we start off on another leg of pilgrimage, when we start off tired. God never sends us out untrained. The hay is in the barn, just waiting to be forked, and yet the fork feels like dead weight in the hands, and the knowledge that nothing will ever be the same feels like doom. And we stumble over I can’t and lose track of He can. We can know the taste of triumph and still face the next hard thing forgetting.
I walk downstairs to complete my prerace ritual; to eat a little toast with peanut butter, a banana, some coffee. I roll my eyes at the drama. It’s a race, after all, something I’ve chosen, something I enjoy. Ultimately. Right? I sit in the lamp light chewing, wondering why this time it feels like I won’t return. Why am I doing this? So, my last meal will be peanut butter toast? Suddenly I am cold. I shiver, antsy, tired already of before.
Kevin suggests I layer up. “You need to feel warm until the start,” he says, and when I come back down he has packed up my stuff—bottles of homemade energy drink, a gel for just before the run. “Remember,” he tells me, “this will be no problem for your cardiovascular system. When the pain comes, and you know it will, just tell your brain that you can still do this.” We all need someone who will think when we can’t, someone to pack our stuff, someone to say things we’ll need later—not some fluffy sugar-coated words but the real truth, words with solid lines and weight, words that will echo, words we can use for a footing.
“I hate all this doom and gloom stuff,” I tell my friend who has come to drive me, to be there for the duration, to show up along the way. She pulls out of my driveway and I wave to Kevin, still feeling his warm arms around my shoulders. I want to be back in there with him. And I want to be in my friend’s car, on my way to the race. And I want to be sitting beside Kevin as he drives me home, after.
When I ran my first marathon, I went in blind. I had heard how it would be but didn’t know. I did not anticipate the moments when I would think I can’t do this, when the pain in my legs would make me wonder how I ever thought I could. I had the exhilarating ignorance of a newbie. This time, I knew. And this time, the training had been different. Over the past year of running, I had completely given up taking walking breaks except for water. 18 weeks and 568 miles of training as a marathon mom, including two 20-mile runs which were excruciating to finish, and I felt tired. I found that I needed the three weeks when the miles taper before the race. This time, trust the taper had meant, believe that your body will repair itself well enough in that amount of time, believe three weeks will be enough. Even in the last days, I had wondered if I would find myself running at least half of the race in pain. And besides all that, all week I had been flirting with swollen lymph nodes, soreness, and pressure that made me wonder if I was even entirely healthy.
“So, why are you so nervous this time,” my friend asks me as she drives, as I sit shifting in the dark beside her, haunted by too…too early, too cold, too tired, too long.
“I don’t know,” I say, because I really don’t. “I just know how battered my body has been this time, I guess.”
“And you’ve done it before,” she says wisely, looking at the street in front of her. Our fear of pain is born of our knowledge of it. She had given me a gift before we left, something for later, something for finishing, and I took it for what it was: belief. She knew for me what I could not at that moment: that I would finish. And this is how it is: Sometimes we all need to know that at someone else believes in our finishing, even before we start to run, even when we’re sitting beside them stuffing back a monsterous thought: I have no business trying to do this.
“What, in your life, have you ever not finished?” She asks into the waning night.
It is a reminder I need phrased as a question, and I answer, keeping careful watch over the beast crouching in the shadows of my mind. “Nothing.”
“Exactly,” she says, and that carries us to the race, to the parking lot, through the chilly street and into the new light. Her belief and Kevin’s, so much stronger than my own, carry me to the start. You can do it! The banner says, hanging above my head as I run through the arch. But this time, I’m honestly not so sure. The day before, a friend had commented on my Facebook post, “Run with God,” and I’m thinking of this as the crowd of 5500 runners finally begins to move. There’s power just in His name, just in summoning the truth of His presence, power I cling to for living. Well, He certainly can. And for me, He certainly will. And if not, He will certainly have only Glory in mind.
It takes about four miles for me to warm up, five for me to realize I’m not counting miles, six for me to feel strong. This is why I know I can’t live my life on the basis of how I feel, why sometimes all I have, staring helplessly at the impossiblity of life, is to stop thinking and just do it. And then I catch up to a woman gripping the man beside her, running and praying at the same time, asking God to heal someone this man loves, someone for whom he runs the race. She can hardly speak for breathing hard, but her pace doesn’t suffer for the effort she makes, and her words come passionately, laced with strength. When she finishes her prayer, the man thanks her in more than one grateful sentence, his voice wavering, and then the two of them shift into small talk—where are you from, is this your first race. That’s when I realize that she doesn’t know him at all. I smile into the run, leaving them, thinking, God is surely present here. And this is how it is: We do not know how many feel His presence when we offer what we can to each other.
I’m touched, but not entirely surprised, when a few miles later I run past a man beside the road, calling into the crowd, “…run with endurance the race marked out for you! Fix your eyes on Jesus.” His fading words stretch the smile on my face. In the first ten miles, I pass these three and also a Catholic priest, bent and silver-haired, looking pale and unsteady in the cold, standing in front of a little stone cathedral, silently moving his hands in blessing.
God is surely present here.
The thought stays, and I realize once again that I’m surprised to feel strong, surprised not to be thinking about the miles at all, surprised to be smiling. Isn’t that how it is? We pray and others pray and we know Him to be right there, and still His provision and presence takes us by surprise. I run through dancing leaves, past vibrant trees, past my friend cheering beside the road, and I hardly think anymore about my nerves, or the I can’t, the not sure. I realize I am enjoying the journey, and this too is a surprise.
I run past people holding signs that make me laugh, people wrapped in blankets and holding coffee, people who walk outside their homes in the early morning just to call out some words that cost them little but offer much. As a crowd, we run past a line of firemen standing solid in front of the firehouse, and we raise our arms and cheer. We pass drummers at the Capitol building, and again, we collectively lift our arms in appreciation. Groups of volunteers stand at tables and pass us water and sports drink, and I’m thinking of their service, what it means to the pressing on, when I reach a man with a sign on his back and a photograph of a soldier. “I am running for my son, who was wounded in Afghanistan,” he has written and printed and pinned. The paper rattles in the wind. I swallow hard, feeling his determination, the love that moves his feet. And this is how it is, this is why Word says we must be ready to give an answer for the hope that we have (1 Peter 3:15): Somehow, by God’s grace, shared hope and love and inspiration multiply among us and bear lasting fruit. We need to share more than the effort, more than the weary, more than the sweat. We need to share the why, to speak it, write it, pin it, to keep in focus the things that will still remain when all else falls away.
When the marathon peels away from the half, I smile to know that they are finishing. Faintly, I hear the celebration, and this too makes me smile, the reminder of triumph coming. In the midst of our missing, it’s this we can celebrate when our loved ones peel away from us to go home: the victory, the robing, the prize.
A man stands at the split with his hand raised and open, giving marathoners high-five as we start the second half of our race. He calls us by the numbers on our race bibs, yelling things like, “Great job,” and “Run strong!” Just that contact, the powerful smack of hands, is enough to settle my focus on the hardest part of my race. I don’t yet know what will occur to me at the finish, that this man will show up five more times before the finish in strategic, difficult places. Somehow he knows the right moments, the turning points. Perhaps he has run this race before, perhaps he knows what it feels like to reach mile marker 20. Just before the finish, he will offer me his recognition, a smile, congratulating me without ever knowing my name. And this is something we need too: people who have been there before, who understand; people who will allow God to place them in the messy middle of our living at it’s most difficult turning points; people who will offer us the power of touch, a few simple words for pressing on; people who do not even need to know our names to encourage us.
In the days before the race, I had prayed to be able to encourage someone else on the course. The one thing I knew with certainty going into this race was that I would have that opportunity. Just after the split and the man giving out high-fives, I run up beside an olive-skinned woman about my age, a woman with an easy smile and a good stride. She speaks to me as though continuing a conversation, knowing me without knowing me. I love this about athletes, the way we take up with each other over shared choices, shared races. We run side by side talking for the next few miles, absorbing enchanting autumn, comparing training plans, sharing running stories. This is her first marathon, and through the middle she looks and feels strong. Enthusiasm sparks in her expressions, and finally, I can tell she wants to pull away. She wants to pick up the pace, and I encourage her to take off. Experience makes me resist the urge to burn too brightly too soon. “If I don’t see you again, I’ll see you at the finish,” I tell her. But as it turns out, she is the one I can encourage. Five miles later, I catch up to her, and she has found her pain just as I have begun to recognize my own, and she has begun to wonder if she can and why she chose this.
“You can do this,” I say to her with a certainty I did not feel for myself before the race. But in the 21st mile, I find this pain familiar, and with surprise, I realize I am no longer afraid of it. Life hurts, and the longer we live, the more familiar we find the pain, the more we recognize its shape and texture, the bitter taste. But it’s racing through, running anyway, that develops our faith, faith in He who has already overcome, faith in what He can do with human clay.
She grimaces, looking at me sharply. “Don’t you cramp?” She asks in disbelief, and I understand why, remembering.
It surprises me that experience has left me able to smile, even in the last miles. I have been breathing deeply, telling my legs to shut up, with Kevin’s words echoing, “Just tell your brain your legs can still do this,” and this is what I find myself telling my new friend. “Breathe. You can still do this.” When our faith is weak, we are spurred on by the perseverance of those who have run this way before, those who have run longer and past the pain, those who have faith enough to share.
I swallow tears more than once in the last three miles, thinking about how close I am to my family. I imagine them waiting, craning their necks to see, scanning runners faces for my own. And in those last miles I think of my friend who has been sick nearly all her life, my friend who has been through surgeries and stints and a transplant, my friend who often feels tired of her pain. She doesn’t know how much further she has to go. I think of Zoe, pressing her teary face into a chair in our living room, telling me that just sometimes she wishes she could stop being diabetic, that she could just not think of it all any more—the blood sugars, the insulin, the highs and lows. “Sometimes I get so tired of it,” she says to me. I think of Adam and all his trying and trying and trying to communicate with us, to connect, of Riley and her hard work to learn. For them, there’s no knowing how long. And I think of Kevin’s mom in the last days of her life, when the clearest words she spoke were spoken to Christ, when she asked him how much longer, when she told him she wasn’t sure she could wait. I think of these and others like them, and I realize I am running the race for these, that these are my great cloud of witnesses.
It should be written and printed and pinned and clear. It should rattle in the wind: I am not an amazing runner. I have chosen this and I have trained and I know when the finish will come. The real overcomers are the ones who press on through the pain not knowing, who live by faith when they see no end in sight. They are the ones of whom the world is not worthy, the ones about whom it is written, “God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared a city for them (Hebrews 11:16).”
I am thinking just this at the beginning of my last mile, tracing the faces of my witnesses and shut up legs and almost, almost, when I see him again, the man beside the road, the one I saw at the start of the race. And this is when I hear him say, “Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us…”
And so it’s Word that echoes as the finish comes into view at the top of the last hill, black and white arches at the end of the lane and a crowd of people cheering on either side. I forget the pain in my legs, feeling nothing but the fall of my feet on the pavement. I see Kevin raise his hand in the air for me, and I lift my arms, and I celebrate the training, the experience, the miles, the finish. And I am cheered not just by my family, but by everyone who sees me run under the arch. A volunteer puts a finisher’s medal around my neck and another literally robes me with a piece of mylar to keep me warm, a shiny victor’s robe. I find my friend and my children and my husband, who wait to wrap arms around the mess of me, and I gasp, thinking that this is how it will be one day.
This is how it is: A victory awaits, a white robe, a crown to cast at His feet, and a great crowd of witnesses to celebrate the finish.
So listen now, you, deep sinking and swallowing whole the I’m not sure I can: Maybe you fear the pain you know, or maybe you don’t know how long, or maybe you’ve just had an unexpected taste of the brokenness of this place. Maybe the nerves are crawling up your arms and maybe you’ve forgotten and maybe you’re not very good at beginning. Maybe you just don’t want to.
You remember this:
Life is a marathon.
God doesn’t send you off untrained.
Breathe. Your heart is okay, the blood still flows, covering. You just have to tell your brain that God can do this.
Yes, it is a long, long way, but God is present here.
When the pain comes, and it will, He will not leave you to bear it alone. His words will echo in the moment you need them, and you’ll be encouraged in a thousand ways by people you know and people you don’t, people who have been this way before and people traveling the road right with you. God will provide the ones who can think when you can’t, who believe when you don’t, who silently offer you a blessing or loudly offer you a prayer when you need it most. He will be the drum beats and the high-fives, the Living Water that quenches your thirst, and the solid standing Strength you need.
And in those last and hardest miles, you know this: a finish awaits, a sweet victory, a robe, a crown. So, run the race marked out for you with endurance. Run to win the prize. Because when at last you see that finish come into view, you will entirely forget your pain. Your eyes will fall on the ones you love; and you will lift your arms in triumph; and you will celebrate the training, the experience, the miles, the breath that gave you life. And most of all, you will celebrate what God has done because at last you will see the very One in whom you have hoped, and you will know that He is the only reason you have won the victory.
So this, then, is what you’ll shout, running through the finish, a sweaty mess:
To him be praise and honor and glory and power, for ever and ever.
Life is a marathon. So, breathe. You can still do this.