“to seek from him who is our life, as the natural, simple cure of all that is amiss with us, power to do, and be, and live, even when we are weary, — this is the victory that overcometh the world.”
– George MacDonald
“Life” – ‘Unspoken Sermons Second Series’
A minute ago I googled “marathon” to get the Wikipedia version of the story of its origin, but the first link that came up in the search results pointed to stories of the New York City Marathon event that occurred this morning, and the flashbacks began.
One year ago today, I ran the New York City Marathon with 38,000, or so, other runners along a course through all five boroughs of the city lined with an estimated 4-million spectators. It was my first marathon, and I was 40 years old. It was way over the top to run that one as my first, but I wasn’t sure I would ever do another one, and if you’re only going to do one . . .
I took 2 kids and my friend, Seth, with me to New York. They jumped on the subway several times during the race and intersected my route to cheer me on. The rest of the family was home, tracking me through the city on the computer.
I wore a chip on my shoe that monitored my progress along the course, and every time I crossed a 5-kilometer mark – the marathon distance is 42.195 kilometers or 26 miles and 385 yards – the high-tech system would send an email and text-message to my family members marking my distance and pace.
At each of those points, as I ran across the red carpets covering the high-tech gear, I was moved to tears. The thoughts of my family 2000 miles away, cheering me on through this crazy, vain, foolish, powerful experience was overwhelming to me.
I would talk to them at those points, quietly expressing my apologies for pursuing something so silly and spending so much time away from them all, and thanking them for supporting me, and asking them to pray for me because it was so hard.
Two weeks ago, in Denver, I completed my fourth marathon with my sister-in-law Angie by my side – that is, until she left me in the dust in mile 22.
At mile 17, just as we entered Washington Park, Renee and several of my children were waiting for me, along with Angie’s family. I stopped long enough to kiss everybody and give them sweaty hugs before moving on.
Renee had interrupted her scrapbooking retreat for the day to come watch me, which you know is no small sacrifice, if you know how much she loves those retreats. She and the rest of our cheering crew were able to catch us four times over the four miles we spent winding through Washington park.
The first time I saw them, it was all happy and fun. The second time, I was feeling the unavoidable pain of mile 19, and felt the wave of emotion as we passed them and I looked over my shoulder into Renee’s knowing eyes.
The third time, just a few minutes later, I noticed Renee and the kids running across the park to intersect our path, and I couldn’t hold back the emotion. When I reached her, the tears began to roll. I’m such a big, stinking crybaby. Renee cried, too, though.
Just as we were ready to exit the park, at mile 21, there they were again. I stopped and hugged Renee and sobbed on her shoulder for a few more seconds before turning to push forward. I could feel my energy waning and I coerced Angie into leaving me behind, so I wouldn’t be a drag on her pace.
They say, whoever they are, that the marathon distance is the ultimate test of human endurance, which is likely just a bunch of hype, but it sounds cool. Pushed to its limits, the body begins to run out of fuel between 16 and 21 miles. Regardless of your speed, in that phase of the race, your resources are depleted, and you can’t build them fast enough to make a difference in the last phase. The body actually begins to consume muscle tissue as fuel to sustain the workload, resulting in severe fatigue and pervasive pain.
Through mile 17, I’ve been keeping a consistent pace of about 8.6 minutes per mile. Mile 22 is just over 9 minutes. Mile 23 is 10 minutes. Mile 24 and 25 are over 11 minutes. Mile 26, smelling the finish line, and encouraged by other suffering runners, I improve again to 10 minutes, then hobble across the finish line holding hands with 3 of my children.
Then, I’m an emotional and physical wreck for another hour, alternating between fits of sobbing and cramping.
All of that information, though, is just background, I suppose, and I almost feel the need to apologize for belaboring the story. That is just the setting for whatever it is that happens in my soul in the course of four hours of running. It’s much easier, though, to tell the story which sits on the surface of the experience than to attempt to relate the heart of the matter.
Some metaphor for life, as you would suspect, lurks there among the weariness and weepiness, yet it remains elusive. My father used to sing a song about coming to the end of ourselves, and how God is all that is left at that point, and I wonder whether the metaphor carries a similar tune.
Regardless, there is value, I’ve learned, in finding the limits of ourselves; finding the places where we lose control and all our strength melts into sobbing. I’ve almost come to relish that place.
We sit too long and too often in the comfortable phases of life and I’ve felt the power of my own body dictating the course for my heart. But, there is revolutionary power in delivering a firm rebuke to the body with fortitude and perseverance.
I know what you’re thinking. You’re already weary – we all are – even among the so-called comforts. (A clue, perhaps, that they aren’t all that comforting.) Yet, I think this point is about pushing past the false, and self-imposed, boundaries of expected weariness, stripping them of the imagined fears they wield in our lives, to find the true and distant limits.
I’m certain it has little to do with marathons, though I’ve picked my poison from that shelf, the source of the challenge is really irrelevant, and has only a little to do with physical endurance.
Pick your own, but pick something. Pick something that says, “I refuse to be a servant to the whims of my body and its longing for comfort. I will persevere for something greater than me; something mysterious, perhaps. I will overcome.”
Somehow, in the process of overcoming the weariness, it’s possible to be overcome with more important things.