The rain pelted hard against my face as I leaned into the wind and made a turn toward the south. It had been pouring steadily all night. When my alarm had gone off a half-hour earlier, it seemed to my sleepy body that circumstances dictated I should ignore my scheduled morning run and sleep in. But somewhere along one of life’s back roads, someone had convinced me that people who let circumstances rule their day usually end up letting consequences rule their life. Besides, the kids would be getting up for school soon. If I rolled out and got after it, I might have time to actually eat breakfast with them before they left.
I didn’t recall the Nike company mentioning in their advertisements how much heavier their shoes felt when they got soaked. Streetlights glistened off of the streams of water that were often deep enough to swallow me up to my ankles. What a way to have to hold back the effects of middle age. Today was Wednesday, my “distance” day. The other three days of the week that I ran were nice, manageable jogs. Wednesday was when I put serious mileage on my tennis shoes. And each Wednesday I fought the same three enemies: getting started, keeping my body going, and combating the thoughts that consistently encouraged me to quit. Rain, wind, and darkness multiplied my anxiety by three.
Distance running. I don’t do it because I want to. In fact, I hate it. It’s just something that has to be done to achieve certain goals that I feel are non-negotiable. It’s part of a bigger picture that seldom takes into account my personal tastes or private plans. It just insists that you put a double knot in your tennis shoes and slip on out into the darkness. And so I slipped on out … and there I was … making my way down side streets with rain running down my back.
There’s a point in just about any distance run where you’ve gotten so far from home that the only way back is to keep going. It’s at that point when the loneliness of distance running can really get the best of you. I had just rounded the corner of that point of no return when three other distance runners padded out of the darkness and slipped into rank around me. I knew them all well, but hadn’t seen two of them for some time.
One of them was a mother. She started distance running back in 1920. That’s when she took her first breath, and ten months later took her first steps. She grew up in a village that hugged a bend in the road in Pennsylvania. Her parents knew very little about parenting and a lot about poverty. But she survived their lack of knowledge of the first and their expertise of the second. It gave her the grit and the grace that she needed to endure the steep hills that waited for her as an adult. She ran hard and steady through the first months of marriage and the year she spent waiting for her husband to come home from fighting a world war. Once he was back at her side, the two of them went into the miracle business. In fact, they performed six miracles over a 17-year period. Five of the miracles were boys, one was a girl. This mother not only gave these six kids life, but she devoted each waking moment of her adult days to giving their lives meaning. She did it without pedigree, graduate degrees, or who’s-who friends. Just a well-groomed tenaciousness that didn’t quit when her circumstances suggested she should. She kept leaning into the wind and running through that point in the distance run where the only way home is to keep going. She died of cancer at 63, but not before she’d finished her race. And not before she’d gone the distance.
One of them was a pastor. I remember the first time meeting him was at an airport just outside of Washington, D.C. My father had dragged me along to be part of the welcome committee for this new candidate for our church’s pulpit. I was 13; he was about 24. There were only a few things I remembered about that first encounter. I remember that his clothes were out of style. And I remember that his Bible was already worn out. My father belayed my concerns about his clothes with some statement about my own clothes. And this young preacher belayed my concerns about his tattered Bible when he climbed into our pulpit a few days later and gave us a sample of what he learned from his Bible while he was wearing it out. We became close friends. He was my mentor; I was his understudy. He was my Paul; I was his Timothy. I’d planned on the dynamic lasting longer than it did. But a freak motorcycle accident cut it short. I remember the day I stood behind his pulpit and preached over his casket to his brokenhearted congregation. He had run well, straight through the front gates of the heaven he had hoped for all of his life.
The other distance runner was a Savior. He’d squeezed through a crack between time and space, slipped on His running shoes, and started jogging the back roads of humanity looking for other distance runners to join Him. He taught them how to go after their day, how to endure the hills, and how to keep reaching towards the finish line long after everyone else had hit the snooze button and chosen to sleep in. It took an agonizing cross and an empty tomb to prove His point. But it worked. And a couple of millenniums later, when He slipped along side me on the back side of a distance run, He reminded me of the precious power of a well-run race.
A mother, a pastor, and a Savior kept me company until I turned that final corner and picked up the silhouette of our house in the distance. The mother and the preacher peeled off and disappeared down a side road in my memory. The Savior joined me for breakfast.
And so it goes. Dear friends, I have a feeling you might be doing some distance running, too. Maybe it’s a new job or a new baby, an old regret or an ongoing challenge. Whatever it may be, I hope you can find the will to keep going. And when you hit that critical point where the best way home is to keep going, I hope there are a couple of good examples and an old friend you can pull alongside you to keep you company.