Mile 4- Start Slow and Slow Down

I had to beat Oprah.

My running partner Don King (no really, that’s his real name) told me that Oprah had run a four hour marathon.  Sure, she had a personal trainer, nutritionist, coach and aerodynamic hair designer to give her an edge, but for my first marathon I figured if Oprah could do it, I could do it.

Don & I had started training for the Vermont City Marathon, following all the advice we could gather from running magazines, the internet and Don’s friend Biekman.  The more we ran together, the more I began to wonder about this Biekman character.  We’d be cruising along at mile seven or eight of a fifteen miler and suddenly Don would shout out, “My friend Biekman says ‘find a pretty girl and follow her’”

The fact that it’s only me and Don and empty miles of tree lined asphalt  didn’t seem to register with Don .  He was hearing from Biekman.  He would swear to me that Biekman was real and that he had run 38 marathons and Biekman knew everything there was to know about running.  But I found it odd that the only time we would get a word from Biekman was when Don had been running a while and was nearing that runner’s high resulting from breathing your own breath, swallowing your own sweat and the mental anguish of being in the middle of a very long run and you have a very long way to go.  That’s when we’d hear from Biekman.

As we neared the marathon date, we had a final long run before starting to cut back to be ready for the race.  As we ran along, we were discussing racing strategy and what it would take to beat Oprah.  On one particular grueling uphill stretch, Don blurted out, “My friend Biekman says, ‘start out slow and slow down.’” I tried to look in Don’s eyes to see if they were rolled back in his head or if one pupil was larger than the other, but he was staring at the ground right in front of his feet as he ran.  I waited a minute, to see if there might be another Biekman revelation or maybe for some clarification on the last utterance.  Don just kept at his steady pace, eyes on the ground.

He had dropped the hook and I had to bite.

“Start off slow and slow down?”, I questioned.

“What?” Don asked, looking up at me.  His eyes looked pretty normal, but they had this stare as if I had said something crazy.

“I thought you were supposed to start off slow to warm up and then pick it up.” I challenged.  Don looked down at the ground again and resumed his pace, while I looked for an emergency call box, wondering how I was going to explain what was happening to my running partner.

Don broke the silence, “Biekman says, for their first marathon, too many people go out too fast, like they’re running a 10k. They get all caught up in the “race” and all the energy of the people around them.  By mile 16 their toast is burnt.  You gotta run with your head more than your heart at the beginning and pace yourself.  Nobody cares how you started if you don’t finish.”

I don’t know where the voice was coming from in Don’s head, but it was starting to make some sense.

“You gotta have a plan and a pace”, Don or Biekman or whoever the voice was continued.  “You can’t get distracted & caught up with everything going on around you or you’ll end up running someone else’s race.  Your plan, your pace, your race.”

I wanted to ask the Biekman voice what he thought the Dow Jones was going to do in the next few months, but I thought that would be pushing it.  Besides, he was on a roll, and with eight miles to go, I was good with the entertainment.

“Start out slow and slow down is about keeping your pace, running your race.  It’s about staying strong the whole time.  At mile 20, if you’ve got a lot left in the tank, then you let it go and let her rip.  Until then, you have to resist the urge to surge or you’ll burn up.  No one cares how impressive you were for 25 miles if you don’t finish.”

In a final prophetic tone, Don muttered, “That will be our strategy.  Start slow and slow down.”  I was waiting for clouds to part and angels to sing, but all I got was the steady patter of Don’s pace with his gaze returning to the ground.

And that was our strategy.  We started off slow and slowed down.  At mile four, the crowd we started running with thinned out, just inviting me to pass and I began to pick up the pace. “Slow down.” Don rebuked in his best Biekman voice.  I settled my pace back down next to his.  At mile 13 I was feeling the agony of all the runners passing me and the thought of finishing behind Oprah slightly accelerated my pace.  “Your pace, your race”, came that haunting chant, and I eased back to our agreed upon pace.  And so it went, me trying to pick it up, Don reminding me to keep the pace.  Somewhere around mile 16, it started to sink in.

No one cares how impressive you were for 25 miles if you don’t finish.

The thought of not finishing was a fear always kind of lurking in the back of my mind.  I had seen pictures of runners who had collapsed along the way and heard stories of people who had dropped out a mile or two from the finish.  The explanations were pretty much the same:  started out too fast, pushed too hard, didn’t run the right pace.

I thought about that application for our run through life.  I suppose the pace of the American Dream lifestyle could be more defined as “sprint and collapse” rather than a steady pace.  We so easily get caught up in keeping up that we don’t realize we’re headed for trouble.  In a culture where busy-ness is next to godliness, our eyes are distracted by the whirlwind of the here and now  while the finish line slips from our view.

Like runners trying to catch us in their frantic pace, the pressures to have more, do more and be more constantly urge us to run faster.  A faster pace is a seductive mistress, promising a reward that lies just around the next corner or over the next hill.   So we pick it up, only to find that beyond the next hill or next corner is simply another with the same false promise and same pressure to pick it up, just a little more.  And we’re so caught up trying to run at a pace that is not our own that we quickly lose sight of the finish.  Keeping up consumes our energy and we don’t even realize we’re in trouble until it’s too late.

No one cares how impressive you were for 25 miles if you don’t finish.  Your plan, your pace, your race.

I’m thinking that’s what the prophet Isaiah had in mind when he wrote, “You keep him in perfect peace whose mind is stayed on You, because he trusts in You.  Trust in the Lord forever, for the Lord God is an everlasting rock.” (Isaiah 26:3-4)

I have mixed emotions about the phrase, “God has a plan for your life.”  Part of me thinks, “Well what if I missed it when I was seven and this whole time I’ve been blowing it?”  What the heck is His plan for me?  I have a tough time following my own plans, let alone trying to figure out and follow the one God has for me.

Isaiah tells me the plan: God keeps me in perfect peace.  I like that word “keep”, as in “playing for keeps”.  There’s something at stake and God wants to guard it, to keep it.  That something is my peace.

Isaiah also tells me the how: a mind stayed, focused, fixed on God.  It’s a mind that realizes, that trusts, that the God who created the universe is near and good.  That my life is better focused on Him and run at His pace.

Finally, Isaiah tells me the why: the Lord God is an everlasting rock.  In the race of life, God sets each one of us up with a pace, specifically catered to our unique personality and situation.  When life goes crazy around us, when our pace seems out of step, when we’re angry or frustrated or lost or broken, God is our rock.  He is that steady voice that reminds us that life is best lived at His pace.

In all this I think God is saying to us, “you start out by keeping my pace but it’s actually my pace that is keeping you.”

God’s Word, the Bible, has been described as a love letter to His creation.  In it we find stories, commands, laws and promises.  Though it was written by dozens of authors over thousands of years in many diverse settings, it has a simple uniform message: God is about keeping people in peace.  In a world that fools us into running ragged, God offers a pace that gives peace.

So a little twist on our mantra would go something like:

Your race, God’s pace, God’s peace.

In the race of life, it is God’s pace that keeps us in the race all the way to the finish.  It’s a pace that slows us down to listen and learn and grow in trusting the One who creates, sustains and gives perfect peace.   God’s pace is simply taking Him at His Word to be near and be good and keep us as we run, trusting that the pace He sets for us will get us across the line in peace.

A question:  will your current pace keep you to the finish?

A reminder: Nobody cares how you ran the first 25 miles if you don’t finish.

A Promise: Your race, at God’s pace will bring God’s peace.  The Lord God is our rock.

It’s kind of like my friend Don using his Biekman voice to keep me at my pace.  I not only finished,

I beat Oprah.

As you stay on the road, friends, may God’s pace keep you in peace.

I gotta run.

Mile 3- Brian Will Get Em…

Reach the Beach is one of those experiences that looks like great fun on the website. Appearances are definitely deceiving. It’s a 200 mile relay that weaves through various New Hampshire towns and countrysides, starting from Cannon Mountain Ski area emptying out at Hampton Beach. The basic idea is for a team of 4-12 runners to complete 36 legs of varying distances in the shortest amount of time possible. So, if you have a team of twelve, each runner takes three legs; if you have four runners, in addition to being declared legally insane, you take 9 legs each.

With about 475 entries, teams are started every 20 minutes from the ski area, the slower teams having the earlier starting times. The faster teams actually finish the trek in about 20 hours with the “velocity challenged” squads trickling in about 36 hours after launch.

One of the “games within the game” is to see how many slower runners you can pass during the event. There’s various names given to this process—“collecting scalps”, “passing turtles” and my personal favorite, “road kills”. So there’s a little bit of ego and pressure to assimilate more road kill than being it.

As we gathered in the parking lot of the church for our two hour ride to the starting line, we were greeted with one of those good news/bad news type deals. The good news was that there’d be more room in the vans this year. The bad news was that we’d have that room due to a couple of runners dropping out at the last minute. Although I liked the idea of having to share space with one less stinky runner and their stuff, I wasn’t crazy about the six extra legs we’d have to pick up & immediately started plotting how to weasel out of any extra running.

I had already assessed my team members, most of whom I had run with before. There were a few “cheetahs”—runners that made five and six minute miles look effortless even when running a seven mile uphill leg at 2 am. Most of the rest were 7-8 minute milers that I call “gazelles”—impressive runners but still road kill for cheetahs. Then there was the rest of us. Actually, it was just me. In the past our teams were proportionately divided into these three groups—cheetahs, gazelles and those of us who bring the beer. We run for style points and to make others feel good. We fall in the wild animal kingdom category of “anteater”—not going anywhere fast, but people definitely take notice when you’re moving. This team was pretty much “cheetahs”, “gazelles” and me, the lone “anteater”.

Sure, I’d been training for this event, but life being what it is and chocolate ice cream being what it is, you can’t always get into the shape you want in the time given. I had figured I could probably do my three legs in a mid to late nine minute mile pace. Not too bad for an anteater. Besides, I had picked up a hat that looked like a running chicken and a couple of noise makers that made little clucking sounds when you shook them. Like I said—not going anywhere fast but loads of style points.

But now, with the prospect of having to run two extra legs, I was thinking even the hat might not be enough. I got the sinking feeling that my lack of hill practice, absence of speed-work and relatively low weekly mileage would soon show my training to be a house of cards. And with two runners missing, I could feel the winds beginning to blow.

As it turns out, the cheetahs figured an elaborate scheme to cover the extra six legs. For me, it meant “only” having to run two more legs that were “only” two miles each. I know that doesn’t sound like much on paper, but when you have to hop out of a nice warm, dry van and run on a cold, dark, wet road they may as well be 20 miles each.

The cheetahs and gazelles were all congratulating themselves on the equitable arrangement. The anteater was slipping into anxious despair. They had just moved my mound of ants four miles farther away and expected me to be excited about the “challenge”. Cheetahs like challenges. To them it means more road kill. Anteaters like ants. Preferably chocolate covered and not moving so you don’t have to chase them.

Resigned to the fact that my fun adventure had just taken on a torturous endurance theme, I adjusted my running strategy accordingly– doubling the ibuprofen before and after each leg.

Through the rain and hills and dark and light and sweat and smell and in and out of vans the ibuprofen held up and I found myself thinking, “Just one more leg. I’m gonna make this!” I even told my van mates that I was looking forward to my last leg, a four miler.

Big mistake.

Of course, for my last leg I had to sport the running chicken hat and bring along the cluckers to keep pace. I figured that since it was the last leg I might end up in a low nine maybe even eight minute and something pace. The sun was shining, people were cheering, I was feeling good. .. for about two miles.

For two miles people would laugh and wave and say, “You go Chicken Man!” As runners would pass me, they’d laugh and say, “Good race Chicken Man!”. I even had this one cheetah girl slow down long enough to say she thought it was really cool how I encouraged the other runners by wearing such a hot, heavy hat. In fact, it bordered on heroic. I’m not sure those were her exact words, but it was something like that. Life was good. For two miles.

At about 2.001 miles my legs informed my brain that their contract had expired three miles back. Hearing the reasonable argument from the legs, my stomach noted that there was a processing problem with the trail mix, bagel, banana, coffee, pasta, chicken soup combination I had wolfed down at the last transition station.

About that time my team van pulled alongside. “Great”, I thought, “I can walk a bit to appease the legs and drink some water to settle my stomach, get some encouragement from my team mates and finish this thing.” As I reached for the water and slowed to a walk, my friend Don King (no really, that’s his real name) said in his encouraging Bostonian accent, “They’he getting by ya! Ya gotta pick it up! Slackah!”

I tried to inform Don of the democratic nature of my body and that at that particular moment in time I was undergoing an impeachment trial.

He wasn’t interested.

I pointed to the chicken hat and told him that in my new persona as Chicken Man I had greater responsibilities than keeping other people from passing me.

He would have none of it.

He was like one of those flies that keeps buzzing around your face and then buzzes just out of reach every time you swat at it. Buzz buzz buzz. He just kept on about the runners going by and my plight as road-kill of the year candidate.

And I had no answer. With full on rebellion now coursing its way through every member of my body, maintaining any respectable pace, let alone catching anyone in front of me was not gonna happen. My world started to grow dark. My whole run and race with the team was about to go bust. My cards were starting to fall. The anteater was about to expire less than two miles from the mound. It looked like the last run of the Chicken Man.

And then I said it.

Somewhere in the darkness, hopelessness and impending onset of rigor mortis came a thought which I blurted out at Don king with all the force of a ten foot fly swatter:

“Brian will get em.”

Don stopped his buzzing. “What?”

“Brian will get em. I don’t have to.” I replied.

“But”, Don stammered, “You can’t depend on someone else to do your job!”

“Brian will get em. That’s his job”, I countered.

“But…” Don protested.

“Brian will get em, Brian will get em, Brian will get em…” I repeated until Don took his buzzing into the van and sped off toward the next transition area. Yeah, it was all good natured, but in the road kill department I was definitely a liability to the team. I knew it and it could have ruined my run. But at just the right moment I remembered who had the next leg: Brian.

Brian is our super cheetah. He was built to run, loves to run and transforms chocolate ice cream into fuel for running. His nickname is “Killer” because of all the road kill he amasses for each leg he runs. What stopped Don’s buzzing and gave me hope and encouragement to finish my leg was that Brian had our last leg. Not only would he make up any ground I had lost, but he would pass a bunch more as well. Between my now 10 minute rate and Brian’s sub 6 minute sizzling, our team would be back at an 8 minute pace.

In fact, we finished the whole 205 mile relay with a team pace of 8 minutes 1 second per mile. It was very rewarding standing in the finish area with a medal around my neck when one of the many Chicken Man fans came up to me and asked, “How’d your team do?”. I nonchalantly replied, “Oh, we finished 77th out of 474 teams with an 8:01 pace.” “Wow!” was his reply, “That’s great!”

Yep. That’s great. It’s great because I had a team mate who could get em. It struck me that if I ran this thing as a team of mes, as anteaters, my pace would have pretty much brought us in dead last. If Brian had run this thing as a team of super cheetahs, his pace would have brought them in first. Because he was willing to run on a team with me, I came out ahead. When I had all kinds of people passing me and I knew I was an anteater, what kept me in the race and completing my leg is that I knew who was running next: I knew Brian would get em.

There are parts of the Bible that are simple. I read them and I get them. There are other parts that everyone says are really important, so I read them and I don’t get them so much. Sometimes it takes a lot of reading and a lot of thinking and a lot of life to get them. One of those passages for me is Isaiah 53:5-

“But He was pierced for our transgressions, He was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was on Him, and by his wounds we are healed.”

For someone raised with a cultural motto of “If it is to be it is up to me”, this is confusing language. Depending on someone else to make up for your mistakes is a cop out. Expecting someone else to pay your debt is begging. In a self-made, self-paid culture it is embedded in us to produce more than we consume, to win more than we lose, to pass more people than pass you.

But what happens when your mistakes are too deep and your debts are too high? What happens when you are doing your best and you become painfully aware that your best is not going to cut it?

I am sometimes filled with anxiety as I try to make my income match my outgo. I stress over the things I could have done better as a son, husband and father. I worry about my kids as they navigate an increasingly hostile and threatening world. I am almost overcome when I survey news reports of chemical weapons, child abductions, senseless shootings and catastrophic natural disasters.

It seems no matter how hard I try, how intently I pray, how much I try to believe, the ugly, the pain and the struggle of life keeps creeping up. Like advancing runners on a dark mountain road, it seems like evil and brokenness keep overtaking me and the world around me.

And then I get a thought.

Jesus will get em.

In all of human history the most spectacular event is the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. In His death, Jesus redeems the world, overcomes the evil , makes up for our mistakes that are too deep and pays our debts that are too high. In His resurrection He brings hope into our present situations with the certainty that there is gonna come another day.

There is gonna come a day when there will be no more injustice, pain, struggle or sorrow. It’s the next leg, the fulfillment of God’s promise… He’ll get em. When the best I have is not good enough I am encouraged because I have One who has run the race ahead of me and has overcome.

I still have to finish my leg. But now I run in hope, with a new strength, knowing the race is not all dependent on me. As I appear to lose ground in life, as the race appears to be slipping away, I am aware of another reality—by His wounds we are healed. In the race of life, I haven’t trained enough, worked out enough or run well enough. But on my team is One who has. He has kept the faith I have broken, served the God I have ignored and taken upon Himself the punishment I deserve. He runs the race perfectly & I get the benefit.

By His wounds, we are healed. He runs, we get the benefit at the finish. That truth gives us hope for the future and endurance for the present. Your leg in the race of life might be tough right now, but hang in there; Jesus will get em.

Until next week friends, stay on the road.

I gotta run.

(If you’re interested in the movie version, click here http://youtu.be/h5B13F-YnQc)

Mile 2- The Kenyan

I’ve seen a Kenyan.  Up close.  I was not impressed.

It was in Hartford before the start of the marathon.  The usual routine once at the starting area is to immediately get in line at the porta-potty.   Once you de-hydrate a bit, you get back in line.  This is due to all the pre race hydrating you do before you get to the starting area.  So basically you hydrate and dehydrate while standing in line for the porta potty until the race starts.  This is the less glamorous side of the whole marathon experience.

Well in Hartford, as it turns out, the porta-potties were fewer and the lines were way longer.  As I got in place at the end of the line, I could barely see the little blue plastic hut in the distance.  I joined in some light chatter with the other runners waiting in line as the sun’s first rays broke the early morning darkness.  After a few minutes, I realized my line was moving unusually slow.  That’s just about the time my urgency indicator started a slow blinking from not only my bladder but my bowels as well.

“I’m sure the line will start moving faster”, I thought to myself.  But it had that same conviction as, “Someday when I win the lottery…”  As I strained to see what the problem was at the front of the line I noticed an empty porta-potty about fifty yards away.  It happened to be inside one of those cheap plastic fences next to a tent that had an “Elite Runners” sign on it.

Elite runners are the ones they expect to win the race.  They’re the ones who get special invitations, special treatment and special porta-potties.  They get special places at the front of the starting line, because they are expected to be in front of everyone else.  They’re crossing the finish line when most of the rest of us have not even hit half way yet.

I could see movement inside the tent where I imagined they were eating special bagels and relaxing in special pre-race massage chairs.  But their special porta-potty just stood there.  Empty.  Unused.

As my urgency indicator went from yellow to red, I started to plot my move.  To go around front where the opening in the fence was would be to risk being detected.  The fence was just over waist high which meant I’d have to jump a bit or slip under, either of which might attract unwanted attention..  As I surveyed the fence line, I noticed a slight dip in one section, just beyond the porta-potty.  That would be where I’d breach the dividing line between special and the rest of us.

I casually left the line and wandered over to the lowest line in the fence.  I bent over as if stretching my calf, then stood up and placed my foot on top of the fencing as if performing another stretch.  I was poetry in motion as I surveyed the scene for any security or race officials who might be on to my ploy.  Since the coast was clear, I slid my leg over the fence and bent over in another calf stretch position as my other leg innocently followed the first.

I was in!

By this time my urgency indicator was hitting purple and I used my best elite-runner posture to go up to the door and saunter in.  Much to my relief (both physically and emotionally) it was vacant and everything came out alright.  As I was finishing, there was a tug at the locked door and then a knock.  Suddenly my mind flashed to the burly security guard who had eyeballed me a few times as I strolled toward the fence.  Shoot!  I must have missed him on my scan as I slipped over the fence.  All I could think of was being led away in handcuffs for not being special enough to use the elite port-potty.

Resigned to missing the race and being a disgrace on the front page of the Hartford Sentinel, I opened the door expecting to be taken into custody.  Instead, there stood a Kenyan.  He was as surprised to see me as I was to see him.  No words were exchanged but plenty was spoken.  You know how when you lock eyes with someone for a second it’s really about a 20 minute conversation?

I’m not sure of all the thoughts that ran through his mind, but I was sure some of them had to do with me being in the wrong place—a non-elite using an elite porta-potty.  I took the surprise in his eyes as condemnation that I was out of place.

And I distinctly remember what went through my mind.

“Oh yeah, well you’re tiny!  How can you win marathons when you’re shorter than my grandma?!  I’ve seen Rhode Island Reds with more meat on their bones than you. If this was wrestling, I’d take you down right now!

Yeah, I know, not real noble.  But when you have to plot your way into a porta-potty to keep from exploding, and then someone looks at you like you just committed a capitol offense, you’re not always in the best frame of mind.  It’s amazing how quickly we can slip out of our best frame of mind.  One minute I’m politely exchanging pleasantries with other runners and wishing them well, the next I’m trying to deconstruct a Kenyan.

Looking back on it, I guess it was not just about the scrawny Kenyan.  It was also about the guy with the loping canter that I was sure would collapse by mile 10.  It was about the guy who dressed as Elvis, complete with wig, sunglasses and sequined skin tight pants.  It was about the therapist who talked non stop as she ran alongside of me for five miles trying to help me with problems I never remembered having.  It was about the 14 year old girl who ran without sweating and the 70 something year old lady who never stopped smiling.

They all beat me.

With their odd gaits, unconventional styles and “No way they should make it” physiques they finished the race ahead of me.

When I crossed the finish line behind so many people, my family was there to greet me.  Four year old Cassidy came running up to me, asking, “Did you win Daddy, did you win?”

Did I win…

I looked over at the Kenyan with the trophy and all the people who came in behind him, who didn’t win.  Most of them were smiling and having a great time.  I even saw some who came in way behind me and they looked even happier than the Kenyan.

I thought about competition and winning and the American Way I grew up with and had bought in to: one winner and the rest losers.  Somehow I got it in my head that to win meant passing the most people, coming away with the trophy, always setting a new personal best.  Anything short of that was losing.  One winner, the rest losers.

It was in Hartford that my American Way started to give in to another way.  As I looked over the post race crowd, every person had their own story.  Each one had their own reason for being there, their own race to run.  Sure, a few were running for trophies and cash.  But there were thousands there not running in the race of the American Way.   It was as if they were all running in a different race than the one I just lost.

Sometimes I think life can be like that for a lot of us.  We are in a race with people who are better trained, stronger and faster than us.  Whatever we do, whether it’s work, relationships, or even play, it seems as if there are always people that are better at it.  For some reason, as humans, we have this innate tendency to compare ourselves with those around us to see how we’re doing.  The problem is that we can actually be doing very well, but because we are comparing ourselves to the better trained, stronger and faster, we feel like we’re losing.  You can tell that kind of thinking creeping in by the “If only’s”:  “If only I tried harder; if only got up earlier; if only I was more like…; if only I’d been born in Kenya…”

Maybe it’s that tendency that the writer of the letter to the Hebrews was thinking of when he said, “Let us run with endurance the race that is set before us.” (12:1)  Within THE race is another race set before each of us.  It’s a race specifically tailored to our own individual pace, style and abilities.  It’s the race we were meant to run within this bigger race we find ourselves in.  It’s this race that makes the other one worthwhile whether we finish first or last, get the trophy or just blisters.  It’s this other race that gives our lives meaning and purpose for the long haul.

The writer gives us Jesus as a reference point for this other race.  Jesus is kind of like a Kenyan only not so scrawny.  His race, the writer tells us, was to win it on behalf of the rest of us.  It takes the pressure off of us.  And He did it by enduring.  Jesus’ race was unique to all history—to run perfectly THE race of life so that we might be able to run free of the impossible pressure to be perfect ourselves.  In Jesus keeping THE way, He made another way for us.  Sometimes it’s hard to fully understand what it means that Jesus “died for the sins of the whole world”.  Our minds can’t always grasp the heights of Heaven or the depths of Hell.  We spend a lot and energy trying to figure out who’s right and who’s wrong, what’s good and what’s bad when it comes to God and the Bible and life in this human race.  And pretty soon we can start believing, that in faith as in life, the race is to the swift and the battle to the strong and we’re not keeping pace.  We’re so worried about the race going on around us that we lose sight of our own.

My Hartford epiphany:  there’s a race within the race; run the one marked out for you.

For the Kenyan, or someone equally well trained, strong or fast, that race will probably mean a trip or two to the victor’s stand.  For the rest of us, it’s about running the race that is set before us.  It’s a race that’s been founded and perfected by a God who slows down to run alongside the weary, who gives hope to the weak and provides a way for the lost.  It’s about following in the footsteps of the One who redefined winning as the first being last and a servant of all.

Your race has been set by the One who saw your last day before your first came into being; who knows your fears, struggles and dysfunctional way of running; who finds great joy and delight just in the fact that you’re in the race.

Just one question:  Whose race are you running?

As my friend Don King’s (no, really, that’s his name, really) friend Biekerman always says, “Run your own race”

So, how did I answer Cassidy’s question about winning?  Like I always answer…

“Yeah, I won, you shoulda seen me out there runnin… poetry in motion…”

Well friends, til next time, stay on the road.

I gotta run…

Mile 1- “You’re a Runner”

“No, really, I’m not a runner”

The guy in front of me at the supermarket checkout line was trying to clarify his status with the clerk.  But the evidence was there in plain sight of all of us: a running magazine and four packets of gel, the kind runners use.

“So you don’t run.”, the clerk was sliding into interrogation mode.

“Well, yeah, I mean… I run but…”

“Then you’re a runner.”, the clerk finished his sentence

“Yeah”, chimed in the girl bagging his stuff, “You run, so you’re a runner.”

It sounded reasonable to me.

“No”, the cornered running non-runner protested, “I am not a runner.”

The clerk shot the bag girl a quick “I got this” glance and asked, “Why not?  Why, if you run, doesn’t that make you a runner?

I had come to the market for a couple gallons of milk and found myself in the middle of a great drama.  I sat my milk down and crossed my arms, letting the non-runner know I was camping out on the side of the inquisition.

He looked at me for support, but I was not going there.  You see, I had faced this same trial years back.  I understood his pain, his desire to be out of that white hot soul bearing spotlight.  But I also knew that there was only one way to recovery, and if he weasled out now, he’d be a running non-runner forever.

When I was out preparing for my first marathon there were days when I didn’t feel like running.  Work, the weather, a sore earlobe—many were the excuses and reasons that allowed me to ignore my training schedule.  And the permissive phrase that was always at the back of my mind was, “Besides, I’m not really a runner.”

Runners are lean, sinewy and don’t fart.  They always eat the right things, say yes to kale and no to Ho Hos.  They are on the road long before sunup and have their daily miles completed before most of us have hit the snooze button for the first time.  They are often out again after the sun has gone down, doing mile repeats while most of us are on our first beer.

Runners know their resting heart rate, maximum heart rate and their neighbor’s heart rate.  They win races, if not overall, then at least their age category.  Following the races they win, they are not sweaty, and many of them jog 15 miles home.  To be a runner is to be perfect at running.

My understanding of what was going through this guy’s head was confirmed as he looked down and stared at the magazine cover.  Smiling up at us all was Perfect Runner: ripped abs, bronze skin, standing upright on one leg as he pulled the other behind him in a stretch that exposed well defined quadriceps.  This is what a runner looks like.  To be a runner is to be perfect at running.

It was painfully obvious to my non-runner running friend that the guy on the magazine cover was not the guy buying it.   He couldn’t be a runner because he wasn’t perfect at running.

It was painfully obvious to a first century fisherman that the guy standing in his boat was a lot different than the one who typically rowed it.  Jesus had hopped into Simon’s boat as an offshore stage to teach the crowds.  Then he tells Simon to drop his nets where Simon had already tried.  All night.  So, to humor the preacher he does what Jesus says.  Shortly after the nets started breaking, Simon has a “moment”.

In that moment he realizes that the Who’s Who of holy people is standing in his presence.  Simon’s response?

“Go away”.

Not a mean or obnoxious “Go away”.  But the kind of “Go away” you say when you realize that you are not, when you are in the presence of someone who is.  It’s the kind of “Go away” that’s spoken by a humbled and fearful heart before the mind can stop it.  The heart sees well before the mind shortcomings, blemishes, the dark places within us.  If holy means set apart by God for God, Simon’s heart tells him he is far from either.

I’m thinking Simon had magazine cover expectations about what it meant to be holy. As he watched all the holy people around him, saw all holy people assemblies, one thing became more and more clear: Simon wasn’t what they were.  Oh sure, he probably did some holy stuff from time to time and occasionally had holy thoughts, but when it came to claiming the title “holy” he’d respond, “No, really, I’m not.”

We all live in two realities: Objective reality and subjective reality.  Objective is fact; whether you feel it or not, it’s true.  Like gravity– you might feel like you can fly, but if you jump unassisted off a rooftop you’ll be quickly convinced of objective reality called gravity. Subjective is what you feel; if you don’t feel it, it’s not true to you.  Like love– someone might truly love you and if you don’t feel it, it’s not true to you.

This is where a lot of us get stuck.

My non-runner running friend—objectively, he runs, so he is a runner.  Subjectively, he’s not like the guy on the cover, so he is not a runner.  He’s stuck between a glossy image and the reality of his life.

And Simon—stuck between what holy ought to be and his own distant imitation of it.

It’s interesting that Jesus didn’t go away.  He sees through Simon’s words and speaks into his heart; “Don’t be afraid”.  Some of the greatest episodes of God’s story open with those words.  It’s like Jesus saying, “Simon, I got you.  I know where you are.  I know you are stuck.”

Then Jesus applies the words that unstick Simon, “From now on, you will be catching men.”  OK, so there’s a whole lot of theological stuff that is happening here, but stay shallow with me for a minute and look at the whole scene: Simon is minding his own business.  The holy of holy guys shows up, commandeers his boat and speaks a new truth into Simon’s life:  holy is not about appearance.  It’s not about being perfect.  It’s about being called where you are as you are and going from there.

If you follow Simon’s story, you see he never gets the perfect thing down.  Even after the name change to Peter and the image-lift, he probably would not have made any magazine covers.  But that didn’t really seem too important to him after Jesus spoke into his life.  What mattered is that Jesus called him where he was, as he was, and he went from there.  I think Peter figured out that holy happens as a result of his journey with Jesus.  The Bible is a strong witness that somewhere between Jesus showing up and the time of his death, holy happened to Peter.

It’s kinda like that when it comes to running.  You don’t start out as a magazine cover candidate.  Most of us will never get there.  But that’s OK, because being a runner is not about appearance, or being perfect, or getting the best time, or always feeling like putting on the shoes.  It’s about starting where you are, as you are, and going from there.  After awhile, you look back at the testimony of miles run, muscles pulled, races completed and it all says one thing:

You have run.

Runners run.

So you’re a runner.

You may be slow.  You may be ugly.  But there’s no denying it:  you’re a runner.  And runners run.  So stay in the race, because it’s the only way to get from here to there.

Someday I hope to see my non-runner running friend again.  I’ll flip the magazine over, and look him in the eye and tell him:  “You’re a runner.  No, really, you are.  Stay on the road.”