I ran the Hartford Marathon on Saturday, October 9th. 26.2 miles. For those of you who don’t know or who fell asleep that day in world history class, the Marathon is a race that recalls the run of a Greek soldier, named Pheidippides, who ran from Marathon to Athens to announce victory over the Persians. I don’t know the real distance between these two cities, but legend has it that once he arrived to tell of this good news, he collapsed and died: a feeling around mile 23 or so I wondered if I would also experience. When the Olympics were reestablished in 1896, a race commemorating this famous run was established at 24.85 miles, later expanded to 26 miles in the 1908 Olympic Games in London. Another legend I have heard is that the .2 was established because the King wanted to see the finish in front of his royal box in the stadium. Thank you King Edward VII. For over a century now, 26.2 miles has been the official Marathon length. A saying I have heard among runners is, “Without the .2, it is just a long run.” Indeed.
People talk about hitting “the wall” around the 20th mile. Until you have really experienced it, description really does not do it justice, even though that will be my attempt here. The biochemistry of hitting the wall comes from depleting all the energy stores in your body around that time. The old phrase “running on empty” is exactly what physically happens. As much training that has prepared you as a runner, as many miles already covered, as many packs of goo, drinks of water and sports drinks that keep you moving for those first 20 miles bring you to the mental race that will now begin.
I’m not a fast runner. I’m not the slowest either, but I certainly was not in the first group, second or even third (maybe fourth -was I back that far?). By the time I got to mile 20 I was pretty much alone. The kids, Tammie, and other spectators had left to be at the finish line. At this point I knew the speedy were already with their families enjoying their medals and the food tent. I knew there were many behind me approaching me and I didn’t want them to catch me. The few runners that hung around me played cat and mouse for what felt like ages. We chatted a few words of encouragement at the water stops to each other, but this did not change the reality all of us faced: We were on our own, and only a feat of will alone would get each of us to 26.2.
Every conceivable doubt started to cross my mind. The growing numbers of runners being attended to on the sideline by medical personnel only fed into my growing anxiety. I started asking myself ridiculous questions like: What I was even doing here? Why did I sign up for this? What was I trying to prove? I started envying the injured. I wondered what yahoo decided that a sunny day in October was cool enough to be out here doing this outrageous thing. I doubted my training. My ankle was throbbing. I wondered who had slipped rocks in my pockets and tied lead weights around my legs. I knew if I stopped I would never start again. Then what would I do? I kept going. Then I saw the sign. Mile 21. Really, that’s it? Yikes.
I know we are a far way off from Lent, but as my mind wondered into something resembling prayer I started thinking about Jesus in the wilderness. I am pretty sure he wasn’t running. Nobody, not even the Son of God could be that crazy, could he? I thought of the temptations he faced – would it really hurt anyone if I turned this one rock into bread? Would it be so bad to have the angels come and take care of me and get me out of this place? I mean, come on, I’m in the middle of nowhere, I’m tired, a little scared, and ready to pass out. What if I could avoid this whole “death thing” and just shape this world up a bit? If everybody knew I was the one really in charge here, wouldn’t they live differently? The tempter is crafty. Even Jesus faced mind games. Somehow that made me feel a little bit better, and before I knew it…Mile 22.
Then I started thinking of Paul’s line, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith” (2 Timothy 4:7). I committed to myself right then and there, that if I ever see St. Paul, the first thing I am going to do is hit him as hard as I could in the nose. What did he know about running anyway? Mile 23.
I remembered the Mile 24 marker. It was right across from the Mile 10 marker on the other side of the road where we had started this long down- and-back I was getting closer to completing and move on to the last 2.2 miles. I remembered it well because right by the 24 Mile marker (just before Mile 10) was a potty I had stopped at – now hours ago. Seeing that green cube of filth was a welcome sight. How did something so disgusting become motivation for this mile? I don’t know, but there it was! Salvation…Mile 24.
As I started the 24th mile I looked at my watch and realized, if I could hang in there long enough, keep going, pushed it but not fall or cramp, I could still make it to the finish line in under 5 hours. It would be close, but I thought I could do it. It was the first time in those long four miles that I started thinking of the end of the race as a reality, and not just some distant hope that may never come. I did make it in under 5 hours. 4:59.01. I’m not sure if it has really sunk in yet.
I still have a lot to think about now that the race is over. The soreness has subsided for the most part, and as ludicrous as it sounds, I am already thinking about not if, but when I’ll do it again. The reason you have a smile on your face as you read this is because you know the reason why…
I have come to realize in these last days just how much faith and running are alike. There are days when you pull up your laces, enjoy the morning, the sun, the breeze, those around you and cannot help but feel connected, alive, free, and grateful. If faith provided only days like these it might be nice, but not much would be asked of us either. It is the other days, those 20-24 mile days, when you feel depleted, when another step is asking too much, when you want to hit an apostle in the face, when you doubt everything, when you wonder how Jesus could do it and why should I, when you think to yourself you must be a complete idiot to carry the burdens that you do and still believe in a loving God; it is those days, where true faith is born. Keep your eyes open to see the mile markers ahead. Keep one foot in front of the other. Keep going. We can make it. We are only 2.2 away. The wall has crumbled, but the cornerstone will always remain. When we arrive, you can join me getting Paul an ice pack for his nose.
“Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God.”