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…