I was a fair athlete growing up and most sports came pretty easily. One year this kid in my junior high theater class talked me into running on the cross country team with him. He was the star of the team, always coming in first. Those kind of guys try to get everyone to join them. I think it’s as much for their love of the sport as their desire to have more people watching them from behind.
Anyways, I kind of liked running cross country and did ok, often coming in second behind him on our team. After the cross country season, he went on to run track and I went back to goofing off. One day at school he came up to me with a cast on his arm. Seems he was messing around at track practice attempting the high jump in track cleats. He slipped and broke his wrist, thus eliminating him from the all-city meet coming up in a few days. He had that “Dude, you gotta take my place” look in his eyes and I knew I was toast. I had two days to practice.
Taking his place meant I had to represent our team in the long jump, triple jump and the mile run. Well, one out of three I had done before. I knew I could run a mile. But long jump and triple jump were something totally new to me. By the end of the second practice the track coach’s brow was seriously furrowed. “Reed”, he said, “let’s scratch the triple jump for you. Think you can just focus on the other two?” I gotta say I was relieved. The triple jump was definitely not for me.
The mile I could do and I figured running down a straight stretch of asphalt and jumping into a sand pit couldn’t really be all that tough.
The day of the meet came and I found out I was wrong on both accounts.
First off, the meet was at a high school and we were junior highers, so the take off line for the long jump was moved up, closer to the sand pit. “I got this”, I assured myself as I watched Neon Deon get ready to make his first attempt. Neon Deon was a legend in our city and I had faced him when he was a running back in youth football. He was the reason the Saints beat us in the playoffs. If jr highers took steroids, this guy would be the poster child. He told us it was the Twinkies.
Anyways, Neon Deon headed down the strip in a blur and launched his glistening black body into the sky and ended up clearing the entire length of the sand pit, landing on the grass on the other end. The whole stadium, not just those right around us, but the whole stadium saw the feat and erupted in wild cheers and thunderous applause.
I was inspired. I was already picturing applause and cheers. I probably wouldn’t make it out of the pit like Neon Deon, I admitted, but landing toward the back should get an honorable reaction.
“Next jumper- Reed, La Cumbre Jr. High”, the official announced. I lined up full of anticipation.
You know how you have these moments of anticipation and grandeur that are interrupted by reality? This was one of those times.
As I sped down the runway, I noticed the faces of the onlookers. But the looks were more of concern and apprehension than awe and wonder as they had been for Neon Dion. When my foot hit the line, I sprung skyward with all my might, trying to remember and do the things the coach had told me over the past few days. My last inklings of stardom and glory disappeared as I landed with a solid thud to the gasp of the crowd.
I had not even made it into the pit.
I casually picked myself up from the end of the asphalt runway. I glared at my shoes with a condemning scowl so onlookers might know the source of my ill fated attempt.
“DQ” was the solemn announced from the official.
I chalked up the DQ as “Don’t Quit” and got back in line for my next attempt. Strangely, the other jumpers slowly shifted away from me as if I had something contagious they didn’t want to get. Disqualified, dishmalified…I’d show them!
On the second jump I did. I made it into the pit by a good, safe margin. But the overly picky official pointed out that I overstepped the starting line by that same good, safe margin.
“DQ”, repeated the race official.
About this time the coach came alongside me, put his arm on my shoulders and steered me away from a third attempt. “Let’s save your energy for the mile.”, he said. I’m not sure I’ve ever heard a more gracious word.
I slipped away from the long jump venue and headed over to the starting area for the mile. Most of the guys there had not seen what happened at the pit, so I had a clean slate. As I was warming up, the coach came up to me to give me some last points of strategy. “These guys start pretty fast, since it’s only one mile. You’re used to three miles, where it’s a slower pace. This one will be quicker. Your first lap you want to stay pretty much in the middle of the pack. By your second lap, you should have a good feel for the pace and settle in. Stay in the middle for most of the race. When it comes to the last lap, wait until the last half then kick it home.”
This is what my little jr. high brain processed:
Lap One: Stay with the pack;
Lap Two: settle in and get the pace, stay there until;
Lap 3: Hit the afterburners in the second turn and kick it in home. I thought I had a good strategy.
At the gun we all took off, and sure enough, these guys kicked it out a bit quicker than I was used to. My focus was on staying ahead of the slower guys, not losing sight of the faster guys. I was straining a bit, but after the first lap, I managed to stay with the pack. Thinking we’d settle down to a reasonable pace on the second lap, I relaxed a bit only to find the rest of the pack hadn’t gotten the memo. If anything, they seemed to speed up some. Remembering my coach’s strategy I strained to keep pace, confident that they were straining just as much and would eventually settle down.
I was steadily losing ground as we came around the last turn of the second lap. I caught sight of my coach in my periphery. His intent stare showed little emotion, but I could tell he was impressed to see me still in the thick of things. Let’s see, lap three: afterburners. Ok, sure I was straining, but I wanted to get a rise out of my coach and I hit the afterburners early to move up in the pack.
The faintest pain started to develop in my side as I started to accelerate. My heart and imagination were trying to override my brain as I summoned the last bit of adrenaline to surge forward within an arms distance of the leader. With just half of lap three to go I was in third place with momentum for second! By now my lungs were burning, my legs beginning to seriously protest and the cramp in my side definitely screaming for attention. But the end of my final lap was just a bit ahead and I overrode all body systems with the promise of glory if we’d just hang on for a few more steps.
About this time, the guy in first started to pull ahead, and likewise number two. A bit late in the race for the kick I thought, but they had their strategy and I had mine. To my right I noticed the guy in forth place trying to nudge past for third. Third is the last ribbon place so I was having none of it. With a final surge of strength I sprinted for the line, holding off the challenger.
As I slowed for my third place victory jog, a blur of runners swept past me. When there was no celebrating by the first and second place runners, no cheering by the crowd and no official clicking his final stopwatch it suddenly dawned on me: The race was not over. I had run a four lap race with a three lap strategy.
In the few seconds it took to sink in, every runner in the field passed me. With my body in shut down mode, I started to run again but considering the over depletion exerted in the previous three laps, the final lap was, well, just plain ugly.
I was so far back that the first place runner crossed the finish line when I was about a quarter way into the fourth lap. Just before I got half way through the fourth lap, the next closest runner to me crossed the finish line. That’s when it really hit me: I have half a lap to go in front of this full stadium and every other runner is finished.
You know those dreams you have about being someplace very public in nothing but your underwear? Moments like these are where they come from.
In the back of my mind I began devising an escape plan. Perhaps there was a loose grate, and I could just stumble into it and disappear into the center of the earth. Forever.
Or maybe one of the tunnel doors that go under the stadium seats had been left open. I could just not make the last turn, go into the tunnel and jog into obscurity. Forever.
Unfortunately, none of this was to be had. With no escape, the last half lap seemed like a million miles. As I took a quick scan of the stands, people were already collecting their stuff, some already leaving their seats to greet the already finished runners.
Being so far behind, so far out of contention, it didn’t seem to matter if I finished or not. The race was over and I was an afterthought.
And then, from the stands, something caught my ear and then my eye. It sounded like clapping. And cheering. I looked up and there was a solitary figure standing. It was a little grey haired lady and she had risen to her feet and she was clapping and cheering.
No one else was on the track. No one else was still running the race.
She cheered like I was in first place. It wasn’t one of those, “I want to go for a latte but first I need to cheer for the loser to make us all feel better” cheers. There was something about the way she clapped; the way she cheered encouraging words that let me know I wasn’t done and she was with me. It was if, when she rose to her feet after everyone else had finished, she knew this run was for more than last place. And her actions were more than a pity clap and more than a respectful gesture. Her cheering picked up my pace to a full sprint. She reminded me I was still in the race. And she made me want to finish well.
Somehow this lady knew that a life lesson was happening on that track and she was going to be part of making sure it turned out right. Her cheers sent me a powerful message that day: I might have been the only one on the track, but I was not alone in the race.
At the start of the fourth lap I had been feeling completely alone, hours behind my closest competitor, an epic failure. She became a powerful witness that though I was impossibly behind the other runners, every race is about finishing well. And we all need people to help us finish well. I will never forget her cheering that ushered me across the finish line.
Looking back on my life, there are a number of people who, in critical times, were there to cheer, to clap and keep me going toward the finish.
My mom holding me all day long when I had the mumps during my kindergarten year. Her cheer to me; your race may bring you pain but you’re not alone.
My dad scolding me when I wanted to quit. His cheer; your race may be hard and not fair, but you’re not alone.
My oldest sister splitting her gumball into four pieces so each of us kids could have some. Her cheer; your race may seem like more than you have in you, but you’re not alone.
My brother assuring me we’d find my knocked-out tooth right after we scored the next touchdown. His cheer; your race may leave you with scars, but you’re not alone.
My other sister taking the blame when we got caught egging a house. Her cheer; your race sometimes is filled with bad choices, but you’re not alone.
Reflecting back through the eyes of faith, I see God’s hand watching over my life through these gifts. Before I even understood the race marked out for me, I was not alone.
Looking farther back, even before my life existed, I see that there were generations of people who have fought the good fight, kept the faith and finished the race. Hebrews 11 describes a litany of people who, by faith, endured incredible difficulties in their lives, in their race. They remind us, that in each of our races, it’s not always about ending up first, but about finishing well. The thought wraps up in chapter 12:
Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured from sinners such hostility against himself, so that you may not grow weary or fainthearted. Hebrews 12:1–3 (ESV)
The “cloud of witnesses” are those who have gone before us in the faith. They realized there’s more to life than who comes in first. The message of their lives, of their enduring and remaining in the race, is the witness that cheers us on. And the key to their running with endurance the race set before them?
Looking to Jesus.
The picture is one of Him on the cross. It’s about Him remaining on the cross until His work was complete, until He had finished well. It is because He finished well that we have hope. It is because Jesus ran His race that He brings power and endurance to ours with the words, “Never will I leave you, never will I forsake you.”
Sometimes Jesus whispers that to us through His Word. Sometimes He reminds us of His presence through the cheers of other people; family members, friends, a little gray haired lady in the stands. When you find yourself struggling in the race set before you, He has a message for you.
Your race may be _____________________ (insert negative adjective here),
but you are not alone.
I know. It seems like the stands have packed up and moved on and you’re still on the track, alone and with a million miles to go. But if you’ll look and listen with the eyes and ears of faith, you will see people in the stands of your life and they will be cheering. They are witnesses to remind you that there is One who runs with you and says, “This race is worth finishing well. Keep going. I am with you. You are not alone.”
The next time you’re in a race, remember the little grey haired lady. You’re not alone.
The next time you’re in the stands, remember the guy still on the track in last place. We all need people to help us finish well.
Stay on the road. I gotta run…