I am currently reading a book about the streaks of the great baseball players Lou Gehrig and Cal Ripkin. As I read, I am thinking often of my own streak — running at least a mile every day for over 21 years. During that Streak, I ran 3 marathons.
I have written elsewhere that my running has woven itself into the fabric of my spiritual journey. When I read St. Paul’s famous words “I have finished the race. I have kept the faith”, many images come to mind. One of those images is the marathon so I thought I would share some spiritual lessons learned on the marathon road.
The first marathon was the Cape Cod Marathon in Falmouth in November 2000. I found out only later that, among hard-core marathoners, this is considered a tough marathon because of all the hills. My running of this marathon was also complicated by the fact that the previous weekend I found myself in Intensive Care because of asthma. Thankfully, I was able to recover and complete the marathon. Being loaded up with steroids probably helped. And, yes, I maintained the Streak despite being in ICU. But that’s another story.
As I stood at the starting line, I was grateful, an important spiritual reminder. I quickly learned that running a marathon is an act of faith, a belief that I am strong enough to run 26+ miles. I also learned another important lesson at Mile 24.
I was chugging along and saw a sign saying “Last hill.” I assumed this referred to the hill I just climbed. We round a corner and — another hill! (Or as I said aloud “What? Another @#$%&ing hill?”) So it is with a faith journey. We get through a trial and hope that somehow we have paid our dues when, sure enough, another hill. We just have to keep moving, whether it’s a marathon or a journey of faith.
The second marathon was in New York City in 2001, several weeks after the World Trade Center attacks. This time my first challenge was fear. At that early point, we did not know if there would be more attacks and several thousand people standing on a bridge would seem to be a desirable target. Indeed about one-third of registered runners dropped out. I thought of not going but, in my own way, I needed to send a message along with other runners that the run would continue despite tragedy. So it is with faith. The temptation to quit in the face of tribulation is always there. Needless to say, I was also faced with my ongoing argument with God as to why bad things happen to good people.
I also learned one other lesson. My sons Matt and Ben graciously came down from Boston to cheer me on. I saw them at several points, including Mile 23. I was determined that my sons would not see me walking and so I struggled on as they cheered. It wasn’t pretty. As Matt said later, “Yeah, Dad. You were barely shuffling.” So too it can be with faith. In the midst of trial, we must keep moving even if we are “barely shuffling.”
The third marathon was the Marine Corps Marathon in 2007, a beautiful run through Washington DC. I had learned that if runners were not at the 18th Street bridge by a certain hour, they would not be allowed to continue. So I and many other runners pushed to beat the deadline. As I ran onto the bridge, I noticed that, having accomplished this goal, many runners started to walk. That image got into my head and made it very difficult to keep running. So it is with faith. It is easy to take it easy. To do the minimal. To figure out what is the least we can do to “keep the faith”.
I don’t know if I’ve run my last marathon. What I do know is that the lessons I learned on the road will help me make these last few miles so that hopefully I too can say “I finished the race. I kept the faith.”
Reflection: Do you have a metaphor for your faith journey?
My sports analogy to faith has to do with weight lifting. Weight lifters sometimes have “spotters” who help them ever so slightly to lift heavier and heavier weights. When the weightlifter shows signs of struggle or muscle fatigue the spotter helps to lift a small part of the weight. I think having a spotter is partly psychological since the weightlifter is obviously lifting most of the weight independently, but it works. It allows the weightlifter to go further that he/she could have done on their own. I think that therapists, teachers, spouses, and supervisors can also be “spotters”. One can also ask their Higher Power to “spot me”.