by Joel Bates
My wife, Julie, thought it would be fun to run a half marathon, but as our trainings got longer and race day arrived, I began to have doubts as to whether my old legs would be able to carry me from start to finish anywhere close to the times I used to run in college. Thirteen point one miles is a long way to go. That’s why most sane people take a car, but runners are a weird bunch! As we warmed up and stretched near the starting line, I was feeling a lot of doubts.
The gun went off, and over 200 people began moving as one across the starting line and into the great beyond. Hours later would bring them back to finish. I took off with the crowd, but soon the mass of runners thinned into smaller packs with runners traveling at like-paced speeds. I suddenly found myself between the lead pack a few dozen yards ahead and the next group a few dozen yards behind. I was nearly alone, except for this old, gnarled guy with a bright yellow shirt and a graying beard. He looked determined and seemed to know what he was doing, so I sidled up to him and asked between breaths, “What pace you planning to run?”
“I’m just here to have fun,” he said casually, but his pace said otherwise.
“Do you mind if I run with you for a while?” I asked.
“I’d like that,” he said glancing at me.
After a short while he confided, “I’d really like to come in at about one hour and thirty minutes.”
“Me, too,” I agreed. “My legs may be too worn out for it though.”
The gray haired man looked skeptically at me, “How old are you?”
“Forty something,” I muffled.
The man chuckled and asked, “How old do you think I am?”
That is always a dangerous question, so I sidestepped it, “No idea,” I wisely replied.
The man in yellow glanced at me and, grinning, said with no small degree of pride, “I’m 65 years of age, and I can still run with the best of ‘em! Don’t tell me about your old, worn out legs!”
I was greatly surprised when this old man continued visiting with me as we clipped along. All I could do was gasp a strained “yes” or “no” to most of his questions. I found out that his name was Al, that he’d started running competitively when he was my age, and that he had completed many full and half marathons over the years. As I ran along beside this mythical man, something magical began to happen to me; I began to believe! For the first time since I had started training for this race, I believed I could not only finish, but finish strong. Al had inspired me by his testimony and his own personal pursuit of a great finish.
As we neared the halfway point, we began catching a man who had fallen off the pace of the lead runners. He was all alone and slowing down. Al was still telling old running stories when we passed by him, and I offhandedly asked the guy what pace he was aiming for.
“One-thirty,” came the labored reply.
“Us, too,” I chirped. “Run with us. We’re on target for that time.”
As the man increased his pace to match ours, Al said something that stuck with me, “We’ll all go farther if we run this thing together.”
We spun round the cones at the halfway turnaround with new determination, refreshed for the second half by the invisible cloak of togetherness. I asked the new guy his name and noted the scripture on the back of his shirt. “Are you a believer?” I asked.
“I’m Justin, and yes, I’m a believer in Jesus Christ.”
As we raced down the highway, I reached out my clenched hand for a fist bump. Justin and I had even more energy now for we were more than just new running friends; we were brothers in a heavenly family and fellow citizens of a coming kingdom.
“I’ve never gone this fast and far before,” Justin said.
“Me neither,” I smiled glancing back at Al. “But so far so good.”
We remained together for nearly the whole run, encouraging one another, reminding ourselves to keep to the pace, not charging on too fast so as to spend our reserves, and not falling back succumbing to weariness. As I logged the long miles listening to the footfalls and rhythmic panting of my companions, I realized why the apostle Paul references running a race when he teaches about life in Jesus.
One of my favorite books of the Bible is Paul’s epistle to the Philippians. This short letter is chock-full of encouragement, joy, and reminders to press on in the face of challenge and suffering. Paul says in chapter 3:
“I run straight for the divine invitation of reaching the heavenly goal and gaining the victory-prize through the anointing of Jesus. So let all who are fully mature have this same passion, and if anyone is not yet gripped by these desires, God will reveal it to them. And let us all advance together to reach this victory-prize, following one path with one passion” (The Passion Translation).
With less than a mile left to go, I turned to Justin with a charge, “Let’s give it all we’ve got down to the last measure. Leave it all on the trail!” He glanced at me and nodded. With our last reserves, we sped down the road with reckless abandon, having only one yearning on our minds—the finish. As we crossed the line with our legs beginning to give out, we slumped to our knees. Someone placed a medal around our necks and helped us to our feet and off to the side where those who had completed the race stood. Still panting, Justin threw his arms around me, “I couldn’t have done it without you,” he said. “You helped me get the goal.”
My eyes stung with tears as I watched Al walk stiffly over to a tent and grab a banana. I had helped Justin, but Al had inspired me--together, victorious. Al was still grinning widely when he winked at me.
Come along side us as we journey in and out of the wilderness, discovering our Creator in creation.