If You Ain't First, You're Last4
I love to win. That should be evident to anyone that knows me very well. I want to win so badly that it is a severe area of weakness in my life. My younger brother even claims that when we were young, I used to sneak Monopoly cash and RISK cannons into my arsenal to secure my inevitable board game victory. I cannot comment upon such ancient past, but it is safe to say that I have a proclivity to pursue the checkered flag, regardless of the activity.
When I recently signed up to run my first (and perhaps last) marathon as a part of the St. Jude/Miles for Miller fundraiser, I knew that I would not win the race. I am often oblivious to my own physical limitations, but even a fool can recognize that he can’t run a 6 minute mile for 26.2 miles. However, I was determined to beat a time. I wanted to break 3 hours and 30 minutes. I had trained well, and I felt that this was a good goal for me to accomplish. If I could break this time, I would feel as though I had won. God had a different plan for my race.
The week before the race, I essentially stopped all athletic activity as I worked to avoid injury and to store up food reserves (AKA – I ate a lot of food. This was my favorite part of training for a marathon). I had a lot of office work to do, and a few things around the house, but the one physical project I could not put off was building a stage for our church’s Christmas program which was due to happen the following week. I knew I wouldn’t have time to build the stage when I returned, so two days before the race, I made time to construct the frame and put it together. As I lifted my 4th sheet of plywood and awkwardly attempted to set it in place above the frame, I felt a small twinge of pain in my left hamstring. I didn’t think a whole lot of it until the next morning when I woke up and was having trouble walking.
This was one of those moments in my life where, looking back in five or ten years, I will laugh, but in the moment I was extremely distressed. I had just spent five months of my life and run over 400 miles training for this marathon, and it was all about to be undone by a sheet of plywood. My wife can attest to my stress level. The only thing I deal with worse than losing is injuries. I literally could not keep my mind from switching to injured/depressed mode. I had injured my hamstring before a race about two years ago and attempted to run on it, only to have to drop out of the race one mile in.
My wife, Kathryn, was also dealing with nagging injuries, but unlike me this was her second attempt to run a marathon. Her first attempt ended with a strained IT band, and she was dealing with this and a painful heel bruise of some sort. Needless to say, when we started the race, neither of us were confident of our ability to finish. Which brings me to the point of this entire story. I had prayed for almost two days straight about my injury, about my heart, and about the marathon (It is amazing how stress brings us to God). Throughout the prayer process, God was changing my heart from “please let our injuries heal” to “please let me run a race pleasing to you, no matter what.”
As I crossed the starting line to begin the race I had no idea what was in store for me. I honestly felt as though my odds of finishing were less than 10%. I did know that the only way for me to finish was to let go of my hold on winning. In some ways, my new goal was to lose. I had to take shorter steps to account for my hamstring, and I had to take a slower pace than my mind was telling me to run. Instead of running to win, I had to almost do the exact opposite. As I struggled through the race, I kept two prayers on my mind: “Lord, help me finish,” and “Lord, be with Kathryn. Give her strength and endurance.” I must have prayed that prayer 100 times. I received some of the photos back from the race and one in particular is of me with my tongue sticking out, exhaustion clearly present. My eyes are closed and I know exactly what I am doing. I was praying that two part prayer. As miserable as I look in that photo, I will always hold that photo dear to my heart.
In the end, both Kathryn and I finished the race. In true form, Kathryn ran the whole thing without stopping. I was forced to stop twice. I did not make the original time I had hoped for, but I finished. I grew a lot in that race. I had the epiphany that often times in life, we as Christians feel that we have to WIN. I see this in myself and our Christian culture in politics and theology especially. By focusing so much on winning the argument, we lose our joy and often lose fellowship with those with whom we disagree. What was reinforced to me during my marathon is that Jesus has already won. The marathon was already won. All Jesus asked of me was “to run with endurance the race that was set before ME, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of my faith” (Hebrews 12:1-2). Jesus didn’t come to recruit winners, he came to save sinners. All He asks us to do is run towards Him.