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.
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)