Don’t you know that when people run on the racetrack everybody runs, but only one person gets the prize? Run in such a way that you’ll win it. Everyone who goes in for athletics exercises self-disciple in everything. They do it to gain a crown that perishes; we do it for an imperishable one. Well then: I don’t run in aimless fashion!” The Apostle Paul, in his letter to the Corinthian church, 9: 24-26
Some collected thoughts…
Watching the qualifying heats of the IAAF World Championship in London during my Saturday morning workout, I recalled my days as a runner. Before entering high school, I signed up for cross country. I loved to run. On the team, I ran long and hard and, always last. To finish with a flourish, I sprinted the last fifty yards in every distance race I ever ran. My legs were willing but my endurance lagged behind.
Coach Hammond took notice and mentioned that he wanted to time me doing the 50-yard dash on the track. When I did, the coach was pleased with my time. He said I should sign up for indoor track that winter. So, I did.
What I learned that winter: I could run hard and fast, like a Cheetah, for a short span. Others could run a strong pace and keep it up for miles.
Spring time came around and outdoor track began in my freshman year. We trained hard, repeating wind sprints at every practice. I found that I could handle running to each end of a football field when I had time to catch my breath between repeats.
As a sprinter, I practiced staring out of the blocks. Our relay team practiced passing the baton. We practiced 220 repeats.
During my freshman year I was timed at 5.6 for the 50-yard dash. I was told by my coach that I was the fastest person in the high school. After having finished last in X-country I began to feel better about my abilities. I just had to find the right race to employ them.
Socially, my speed worked to remove me from guys that wanted to take advantage of me.
Over four years, I attended Inter-high school track meets. My coach would have me run qualifying heats for the 100-yard dash, the 220-yard dash, the 440-yard dash and the 440-relay. And, when a slot was open, he would have me run the 880 relay. Imagine running at least eight races in one eight-hour period. I was fit but exhausted after the last race.
When you compete in sectionals, you compete against top athletes from area high schools. The qualifying heats narrow the field down to the final race qualifiers. The first-through-third place winners received medals. And back then, there were no participation trophies. In the races, you either placed or you didn’t. The races I had run before only helped me up to the starting line. The next race was mine to run and to win. A good athlete is not one and done if he doesn’t place in the heats or finals. A good athlete is not affirmed from outside but from within. In the end, a stop watch holds the runner accountable to the mastery of their body.
I ran to win. I ran to win for my team and, without any thought given to it, I ran to push myself to be the fastest and most consistent sprinter I could be. Showing up to receive a medal at the end of a race would not make me any faster. The hard-disciplined training beforehand would. The competition only helped me to fire on all cylinders. And, it didn’t hurt that Flash, a comic book superhero, was popular then. (After my X-country hopes were dashed, I traded icons: Jim Ryan (first sub-4-minute miler) for Flash.)
You’ve run races for 88 years. You are in the final stretch of the final race. Your legs can no longer carry you to the finish line. You are being pushed in a wheel chair. Your strength is almost depleted. Your mouth and your thoughts run dry. Even with crowd support, you know that you’re on your own and your own is being pushed forward by others. You ask God for a finish line, for your running is dissolving into a blur. The Coach’s voice is somewhere near and yet, distant.
The other day, as I was leaving my mother after an extended visit, she hugged me and then said that she wanted to sit down and tell me something. She mentioned that she is tired and that life has nothing for her right now. My dad passed away several years ago.
“What’s the point?” she said.
“Mom, I don’t have an answer for you,” I replied. I didn’t. And, this was no time for spiritual bromides. But, I did have some understanding of what she was telling me, have reached an age where life seems to be asking me, “What now?” And from that unsettled question I could suppose that at some point near the end of your life, you have seen all that you want to see and tasted all that you want to taste and enjoyed all that life has to offer. And you believe that you have endured all the loss and pain that is humanely possible to bear.
Mom is unable to get out of the house by herself. And her eyes are dimming. She often sits alone in her house watching a TV that, she says, offers almost nothing of value. Though family live nearby to care for mom, I am only able to visit her for a time. I live in another state and see her as often as I can while working a fulltime job.
I asked my mother if she knew what would make a difference right now. She didn’t know of anything. Right then I knew that this life would no longer hold her up. She had seen the Lord’s salvation and was ready to leave this “vale of tears’ as she once joked about. Nunc dimittis.
I looked at mom and said, “Ask Jesus what it is that you are doing here and now. Ask him and he will tell you. He has spoken to me often. Right before I drove out to see you mom, my spirit was troubled. I could not put into words what the matter was. Then, the other day, I sat down at my desk and heard the Lord say to me, “I am with you. You are not alone. I will go with you.”” My spirit understood that whatever I would go through, even though I wasn’t in control of what I didn’t even know, that I wasn’t alone. Finish the race. The outcome is God’s.
Mom has faithfully run the all races given her. Like Paul, mom has not run in aimless fashion. I am a witness of her life in Christ. She will receive the imperishable crown awaiting her at the finish line.
God help me as I follow in her train. Many more races must be run and done.
Today, August 6th, is the Feast of the Transfiguration. I am reminded that when things are out of focus for disciples like me that God has a way of bringing a bright cloud over my head and then speaking into my good ear: “This is my dear son,” says the voice, “and I’m delighted with him. Pay attention to him.”