Going the Distance: A Reflection on Perseverance

Steve Norman | OnFaith Voices By on

I am not a runner. I don’t particularly enjoy it, and I’m not exactly skilled at it. Nevertheless, I run. On Sunday, I had the privilege of running the Detroit Free Press/Talmer Bank International Half-Marathon with an amazing group of people from our church. About 1,400 people ran with Team Kensington for the Hope Water Project, an initiative created to provide clean water to the roughly one million people of the Pokot tribe in northwest Kenya.

Some of my most spiritual experiences are out on the race course, in the giving and receiving of encouragement to fellow runners, in the awe of a breathtaking sunrise over the Detroit River, in the quietness of my own thoughts, and yes, in the desperate prayers for stamina as the miles go by. There are more stories from Sunday’s event to recount here, but three snapshots stand out to me.

“We belong to a pack, even if they are unseen”

The Detroit course in unique in that runners cross a bridge into Windsor, Canada at mile three and return to the U.S. via an underwater tunnel a few miles later. About halfway through the tunnel, I noticed a woman running in front of me with a fluorescent yellow shirt. The back of it read something like, “You’re never alone when you’re part of a pack.” It’s true, of course. The irony in this case was that her pack was nowhere to be seen in that particular moment. It’s often true of life, isn’t it? Sometimes I feel horribly alone as I negotiate some of the tunnels in my personal spiritual journey. But I rarely want to talk about it.

The novelist Douglas Coupland wrote ” . . . loneliness is the most taboo subject in the world. Forget sex or politics or religion. Or even failure. Loneliness is what clears out a room.” Another author, the writer of the biblical book of Hebrews, however, reminds us that were never as alone as we sometimes believe we are. Hebrews 12:1-2 says, “Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith.” There’s some debate about who comprises this cloud, but if it exists, it serves as motivation to run as if our race matters — somebody out there notices and our effort matters to them.

Perhaps the most damning lie we could buy into is the one telling us we are utterly and hopelessly alone. The lone woman in the tunnel believes, at least at some level, she’s part of pack. And her pack is with her and for her, even if their physical presence isn’t readily apparent. Sometimes in the grind of life, we feel like lone runners. It’s ok though. If the author of Hebrews is right, we belong to a pack, even if they are unseen.

“There’s value in living our lives for an audience of One”

The courses of the half-marathon and the actual marathon merge just before the finish line. As I turned the corner to the final straightaway and saw the finish line in the distance, I had an extra burst of adrenaline. Mind you, I wasn’t nearly as fast as I felt I was, but I was trying to find my “extra gear” to finish strong. About 100 yards away from the end of the race, the cheers from the spectators grew louder. I looked to my right at the fans in their aluminum bleachers and was flattered that perfect strangers would support me with such passion. I basked in the glory of the applause until the race announcer’s voice shocked me out of my moment. I turned to my left and, over my shoulder, I saw a women barreling towards the finish and then pass me in a blur. The voice on the speaker announced her as 23 year-old Courtney Brewis who happened to be completing (and winning the women’s division of) the 26.2 mile race just as I was wrapping up my 13.1 miles.

Not only was the crowd not really cheering for me, it was reminding me that no matter how hard I work, there will always be someone who’s twice as fast as I am. Again, some of the more disappointing moments in life occur when you realize that person you thought was your fan was never really pulling for you. That boyfriend who pledged his undying love was fickle, the friend who promised to have your back was unreliable, that supervisor believed in everyone on the team except for you. It’s a delicate line we walk; we crave the support of others, but can’t always count on it.

Sometimes you’ll discover the roar of the crowd is for someone else. It’s ok. I think it’s a gentle reminder to check our motives. Am I only giving my best because I need someone to notice? Or is it because it’s the right thing to do and this task is worth my best? I know it’s contrived, but I’m still convinced there’s value in living our lives for an audience of One. What might tomorrow look like if I focused less on how others perceived my actions and more on doing the right things, the right way for the right reasons?

“Fix your gaze straight ahead and move. Just. Keep. Moving.”

There was one part of this race that was particularly meaningful to me: my parents did it, too. There were two half-marathons on Sunday, with two different courses at two different times. I did the first one; they did in the second. My dad turned 78 less than two weeks ago and my mother will celebrate her 75th birthday this week. But they’re always up for a challenge and an adventure and trained to walk in this event together. There’s one catch in walking the race: it’s a race against time. Race officials close the course after four hours. They even have an individual designated to be the last-chance pacer. In this case, a bald gentleman played the part with gusto. He carried a sign that read “4:00 pace” on one side and “18:19/mile” on the other. And on the back of his head, in black marker, were the words “The End.”

So, Mom and Dad began their long-distance power walk, mindful of the fact that their primary task was to stay ahead of this walker. I called them periodically over the course of the race to see how they were doing and how they felt. My dad would say, “We’re still ahead of the guy. Just barely, but we’re beating him.” But later in the race, I couldn’t get through when I called. So I went to the finish line just as they were preparing to close the course. In the distance, there they were. And about 30 yards behind them, was the guy with the sign. Later my dad told me they had affectionately nicknamed him “The Grim Reaper.” He just kept following them, steadily and relentlessly. And they just kept pushing, one deliberate and unfaltering step at a time. And they won. I’m immensely proud of them both.

Some of us are struggling through a difficult season now. And when we look over our shoulder, we see him there — that guy with the sign. You know the one. The one that reads “Despair.” No matter how hard we struggle we can’t seem to widen the gap between him and us, he just keeps coming. But persevering doesn’t mean we have to outrun our demons by a mile, just a single step. Galatians 6:9 says, “Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up.” So no matter what fears, insecurities, or threats you perceive when you look behind you, fix your gaze straight ahead and move. Just. Keep. Moving.

Image courtesy of Shutterstock.com.

OnFaith Voices is a series of perspectives about faith.
  • Lexalant

    Thanks for the insight and I especially enjoyed the last section. Your parents are amazing. Thanks for the encouragement!