Last weekend I had the opportunity to run my first half-marathon since my youngest child was born. It was actually my first in several years, as I had focused on the marathon distance for the couple of years before she came along. A race is always an adventure and this one proved no different—I spiked a fever the night before, we had to detour around an interstate shutdown on the way there, and the course went through some last minute changes due to flooding of the Chattahoochee River. But at 8 AM my friends Katie, Stephen and I lined up with about 1100 other runners in downtown Columbus, Georgia, to complete the 13.1 mile trek.
Now, running and I have a ‘for better or worse’ relationship, and for the last two years we have been in a ‘for worse’ rut. Due to an injury, the pregnancy, and a baby who doesn’t sleep well, I feel like I’m doing more slogging than running at the moment. But I had a plan for this race and I was excited to execute it. I would be solidly middle-to-back-of the pack, chasing the 2:20 pace group and intentionally reserving energy to run slightly faster in the second half of the race. The first six miles went by uneventfully as we ran through a spitting rain from downtown Columbus to the river and along a trail headed south until the turnaround point. The trail was still muddy, and the scenery was nondescript. A few miles in we slower runners got to see the leaders of the race go by, and that is always energizing to me. They are amazing to watch, both in form and in strategy as they challenge each other to run fast but not peter out. At this point I was doing okay--not loving the run, but resigned to doing the distance.
Then, after seeing Katie pass me headed north, spotting Stephen just before making the turn, and running back through the worst of the mud on the trail, I spotted an older gentleman sitting on a bench, covered in mud. He was with a younger man who seemed concerned. I ran past, slowed, and turned around. “Do you need a phone?” Yes, they did. The older man had fallen and thought he’d dislocated his shoulder. Long story short, I called 911, hollered at a pace group leader to tell race officials we needed help, and waited till the medical staff arrived. I told the EMS operator where to meet them, hung up, and started back to running.
This all took no longer than 7 minutes by my calculation, but in that short time I got pretty cold, and it was just long enough that my running mojo was just…shot. The 2:20 pace group was long gone. It was the 2:30 pacer I’d asked to help us, and they were far in the distance as well. My goal was gone, and I’d lost my motivation. I spent miles talking myself out of quitting the race. Finishing would be winning today.
But then I noticed something. I was now solidly in the back of the pack, and I had lots of time to observe the people I was running with. There was a sharp contrast to the gazelles I had seen run by earlier on their way to victory. The leaders are focused on winning, and you can see it in their faces and their body language. They are amazing, and their stories are generally of long hours of dedication and hard work, with support from coaches or family or both. They work hard, and it’s obvious to everyone because they are at the front.
The back of the pack? Well, these are the people who are just glad they are out there. Their stories (mine too) are often of a lifetime of bad, unhealthy choices followed by realization of the possibility of a better life. They work hard, harder than they ever have, and they will never receive any glory for it. But, oh, they are smiling and they are proud, and they want everyone to join them in that.
There was one lady who wasn’t doing much more than a jaunty speedwalk. But she was high-fiving everyone she passed and flashing a smile that stood in direct contrast to the dreary weather. Before the turnaround on the north side, during another spot where the faster runners were on the trail going opposite us, I chatted up another woman who told me she’d started running at 49 and wanted to inspire her family to change their lifestyle. She, the slower runner, was the one encouraging those who were going minutes per mile faster than she on the other side of the trail. There were several sets of friends running, helping each other through the race. I saw young runners, older runners, heavy runners and lean runners. Some seemed pained, many seemed tired, but when I smiled at or spoke to them, they all smiled back. I think they’d all tell you that the accomplishment of finishing was worth the pain it took to get there.
I tell you all this to say… there is a spiritual connection there. Maybe you are a back of the pack runner in the race to heaven. Maybe you just feel that way today, because you are disappointed or depressed or discouraged. It’s okay. Stay headed in the right direction. The Hebrew writer does not say “Let us run with swiftness, style, and beautiful form!” The key word in Hebrews 12:1 is endurance. Keep going.
KEEP GOING. If you are in the back of the pack, you probably have an incredible story to tell. You are running because you want to cross the finish line and get out of this fallen world. You may have faced miserable times with your marriage or family, had major money or drug problems, or battled an unhealthy mind or body in a way others will never know. You may feel like you are doing hand-to-hand combat with Satan himself on a daily basis. Persevere. The reward will be worth it.
KEEP GOING. You may look at the spiritually strong, the leaders of the pack, and think you’ll never get there. It may feel like they are running right by you and don’t even see you. But they do—I’ve read of an elite runner saying he respects slower runners MORE because we are out there for so much longer, working just as hard for twice, sometimes three times as long. And I guarantee you, Jesus sees you. The Lord sees you, and he knows exactly how you feel (Hebrews 12:3). He knows every hair on your head—and how much more so he knows how hard you are working!
KEEP GOING. When we feel slow, we are often in a perfect position to encourage others. Tell your story and how God is helping you to someone else. Share the race with a friend. Bring in someone who isn’t running right now at all. Smile at someone who may seem better off than you. It could be just what they need—because swift and strong, slow and weak, they live in a fallen world, and they have a battle, too.
We are all struggling. We all have a reason to keep fighting. We all serve a God who wants us to make it across the finish line. So lay aside whatever is holding you back, lift your drooping hands and strengthen your weak knees (Heb. 12:12), and run toward Him.
“Count it all joy, my brothers and sisters, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.” James 1:2-4
Encouragement Spoken Here
"A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in a setting of silver." Proverbs 25:11