I began running in September of 2000. At the time I was working long hours at a desk job in a group that included a couple of former chefs who liked to bring in treats regularly. With no kids and two incomes, it was easy (and fun) to eat out, and eat well, regularly. My weight was steadily climbing, but the day I knew I needed to take action was when I was unable to keep up with a friend who was smoking while we were rollerblading. I bought a treadmill off of eBay from a couple who told me they wished me better luck with it than they had. I remember them saying, “You really have to be into it. We discovered we’d rather just be fat, so enjoy your basically brand-new treadmill.”
My first documented run was 1.78 miles on September 18th, 2000. Since that time, I’ve logged 19,500 miles. I hope to make 25,000 miles, the circumference of the earth, someday…and then keep going. I’m not fast, but I am consistent. If my time on the road were stacked end-to-end it would make up over 130 full days of my life. I’ve ran 5 full marathons and over 30 half-marathons. I run when it rains, when it snows, when it’s windy, when it’s smoky, and when it’s hot. My coldest run was 22 degrees and my hottest was 98. I’ve had issues with blisters, knee pain, had iliotibial band problems, and a temporarily debilitating bout of plantar fasciitis – none of which have been able to stop me from continuing on. I’ve been bitten by dogs (twice), stung by bees (twice), and had a close-call incident that ended with me sliding across the hood of a vehicle.
At times I’ve been yelled at, honked at, and had a full bottle of water thrown at me from a passing vehicle. But I’ve also experienced times of great creativity, pushed my body to do things I didn’t know it could do, experienced miraculous healing, started a running ministry, trained a 12-year-old to run a half marathon, and overcome great obstacles with confidence. Running draws me nearer to God, at times causing me to listen harder for His voice, at times asking for His strength. Life is a marathon, not a sprint. In all, I try to remember and live by 2 Timothy 4:7: I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.
Want the longer story? In 2001, at mile 9 of my first half marathon, I found myself in trouble. I had made so many mistakes in the training process. I pushed too quickly and I was using the wrong equipment and now I was paying for it. I had trained most of my mileage in an old pair of leather cross trainer tennis shoes and they had caused damage to my feet. I had started the race with a quarter-sized blister in the instep of my right foot. Nine miles into the race the blister was now the size of a half-dollar. The pain was so great from the rubbing of my shoe against the raw skin that it was causing me to turn my toe outward and I’d been running like a duck for the last two miles. And then without any warning my knee just gave out. I literally came inches from a total wipe out. I couldn’t run like a duck anymore, so rather than quit running, I turned my knees inward and ran like a pigeon. But now, at mile nine, with this new running position my calves had begun to cramp. They were like rocks. I hadn’t had enough water. In fact, I’m not sure I had anything to drink or anything to fuel myself for the whole race. I was four miles from the finish line and I was at a great crossroad: quit or press on. Of course, I didn’t know it at the time, but what lay before me became a defining moment in my running life.
I thought about what had got me into the race in the first place. This wasn’t the worst physical pain I had ever felt in my life. During the summer of my high school graduation, through a series of events that started with a waterskiing accident, I ended up tearing two of the three hamstring muscles on my right leg. When I say tear I don’t mean “strain” I mean ligament separated from bone and muscle separated from ligament. I was in bed most of that summer, and then in rehab for a time. I remember the doctor being so pleased when he told me after the surgery that he thought that I would be able to function at about 90% of my previous capacity. He was so happy, but to me, that was devastating. I used to play sports year-round, and now the best I could hope was to perform at 90% of what I used to be able to do. At mile nine of that race I drew from the physical pain that I’d endured all those years ago. And then I thought about the four months of training that I’d just put in to get me into this race. I knew in terms of cardio I could finish the race if I could just force my way through the physical pain.
But building up my cardio for the race was no small feat either. After my injury I hadn’t done any real physical activity for thirteen years. Part of it was a small amount of depression about my injury. I didn’t really want to play sports because I knew I wasn’t going to be as good as I once was. And then in ’97 I changed jobs. My previous job was high stress and long hours of constant movement. My new job was also long hours, but the stress had gone away and three of my new coworkers were once professional chefs. I would work 10-hour days, 21 days in a row, get two days off and then start the cycle over again. And every day the goodie table was full of cakes and pies and every imaginable treat. At the time my wife and I both worked, had lots of disposable income, and we ate and drank whatever we wanted, whenever we wanted. Eighteen months after starting my new job I had gained 20 pounds and I felt sluggish all of the time. I was tired of feeling tired. The day I couldn’t keep up with my good friend as he rollerbladed while smoking a cigarette – WHILE smoking a cigarette – was the day that I committed to making a change in my life. I hadn’t been coming to church long, but I knew enough to know that God does not want us to be slave to anything in this life. I committed to myself that day that no longer would I be a slave to the things that were making me unhealthy. No longer would I be a slave to the voice telling me not to bother with sports because I’d never again be able to do what I once could.
So, I started training. I had done the work, and now here I was at mile nine. Reduced to walking – and that was killing my pride. Sometimes walking like a duck and sometimes like a pigeon, switching my gait whenever one felt worse than the other. Feeling sorry for myself. Unable to drown out the voices in my head telling me I was going to fail and trying to convince me to quit. I didn’t understand then, but I know now, the enemy was there in full force and doing everything possible to discourage me. I walked an entire mile. Sulking. Angry. Ignoring the voices around me as they passed by offering encouragement. One of the voices stood out, “Looking good, you can do it, three miles to go.”
I couldn’t explain it, but somehow, in the kindness and hopefulness of that voice, my entire disposition changed. I realized I had just walked a mile. Now there were only three to go. I summoned the courage to run 10 more steps until cramps crippled me again. And then I ran 20 more and then 50 more. I ran as far as I could until my knee gave out, or my calf locked up. Then I’d walk, drink some water, and try it again. Everything hurt, but it didn’t hurt worse than the hamstring all of those years ago. If I could bear all those months of rehab, I could bear 30 more minutes of pain. And I knew if I quit today I might never end my travel down that path of unhealthy living and self-pity.
New in my faith, I don’t remember if I acknowledged Him at the time, but I know that God was there with me that day. Ministering to me, encouraging me, helping me to draw on my previous pains to summon the strength to finish the race. What I do remember is that I was choking back tears when I finally crossed the finish line. I battled physical and emotional weakness and won. Like Paul, I was able to beat my body and make it my slave rather than be controlled by it. And then, days, if not hours later, I couldn’t wait to sign up for my next race. Despite the pain, I knew that I had been strengthened mentally, physically, and spiritually by the experience.
Hebrews 12 calls upon us to run with perseverance the race marked out with us. Yes, the road is often filled with obstacles, but if we allow ourselves to be “trained” by them our paths will be made level and God promises that we will find healing. Wherever you’re at in your fitness and faith journey I encourage you to lean upon Jesus as your personal spiritual trainer, never forgetting that he is more qualified than any other because of the work of his race – enduring the cross and scorning its shame. Our race will not end until the day we are called home. Until then we will put one foot in front of the other, building faith and fitness one step at a time.