Last month I completed my first trail race. I’ve been a runner all my life – running 10ks with my dad when I was a kid, racing hurdles and relays in high school, chasing half marathons as an adult – but I have never experienced anything quite like the challenge of that trail run.
My friend and I signed up for the 10k. We figured we could do anything for 6.2 miles – even if it meant we had to hike, walk or crawl. We heard the scenery at the San Joaquin River Gorge Trail (just 45 minutes from my home in Central California) was breathtaking. I longed to try something new. How hard could it be?
Let’s just say it was hard. Maybe the hardest race I’ve ever run in my life.
While I was running, I kept thinking about how this type of race mirrors my life journey. Part of the thrill and the greatest challenge of the run was that from moment to moment I never knew what to expect. For most distance races, I train, I fuel up, and I settle into a pace after the first mile or two. This course was different. I had to reckon with rocks, slippery dirt, tree roots, blinding sun, bugs, a collection of other runners on the path, and even cows. I couldn’t really pace myself. I had to just go for it. Along the way I discovered several life lessons.
Downhill doesn’t mean easy
The first mile of the race turned out to be a surprising downhill. I found myself chatting with my friend and cruising much faster than my normal pace. I felt the breeze in my face. I started to believe maybe this race wasn’t going to be as hard as I thought. Then it struck me that downhill can often be deceiving just like times when our lives feel comfortable. When I’m running downhill, I have to be even more conscious to stay under control, watch the path for things that might trip me up and maintain good running form so I don’t hurt my knees or back.
If we dive into the scriptures, we find examples peppered throughout the Bible to running the race of life. I am convinced the apostle Paul must have been a runner because of the number of times he uses the running analogy in his letters. In 1 Corinthians 9:26-27 Paul writes, “Therefore I do not run like someone running aimlessly; I do not fight like a boxer beating the air. No, I strike a blow to my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize.” We have to be purposeful and disciplined in training for the race of life. I have to put in time studying my Bible, memorizing scripture, and praying.
That first mile downhill was also a reminder to me that I have to be disciplined in the way I actually run the race. I can’t surge ahead of God and run out of control when the path seems easy because I never know what waits for me around the bend.
Walking the uphill is not giving up
After the first mile of the course, we were guided onto a hiking trail that streamed straight uphill. The path was steep and dusty, twisting and turning. What a contrast to the downhill of mile one. I started out feeling strong on those hills. I was lifting my knees and pushing through, but after a while I started to grow weary. What had I gotten myself into? I couldn’t run anymore. The path had grown so steep and full of obstacles that I actually had to walk; I felt discouraged and ashamed.
Suddenly, I realized it was time to dig deep in my heart and refer back to my training. I had to preach back to myself what I learned. The words of Isaiah 40:29-31 started running through my mind: “He gives strength to the weary and increases the power of the weak. Even youths grow tired and weary, and young men stumble and fall; but those who hope in the LORD will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not be faint.” On that stretch of the race, I learned I had to put one foot in front of the other. Walking was not giving up; it was moving forward.
This was much like what I experienced this fall after my husband died. There were so many days I felt worn and weary. I was overwhelmed by the steep-looking path ahead. I couldn’t find my usual pace, but I had to keep walking for the sake of my three young daughters. I had to keep hoping in the Lord. With each step, I was moving forward. And before I knew it I was over the steepest ridge to a flatter path full of sunshine and green grasses where cows were grazing.
God sends us others to encourage us on our race
As I continued my trail run, I leaped over rocks and ducked under tree branches. The pace changed once again. I switched to a new gear. As I ran I heard footsteps behind me, and then someone breathing in my ear. I was not running this part alone. After several minutes of breathing and running together the voice of a woman said, “You are running a great race. Thank you for pacing me.” I laughed. I had no idea where I was going or what pace I was running but she was depending on me to lead her.
I was reminded of the verse in Hebrews 12:1 that 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 our faith.” My new friend was thanking me for running ahead but she was actually encouraging me on my own journey to keep going.
I passed another friend who had come out to cheer for me on the trail. I heard him call my name and it was a reminder again of that great cloud of witnesses God has sent many times to lift me from the darkness on hard days. The voices of these friends urged me to keep on keeping on, to persevere in the race set before me.
Run with the finish in mind
After I turned and headed down the path along the river, I started to feel the fatigue set in. I wondered how much longer I had until the finish. I questioned if my legs could keep going. Then the words to my favorite verse in Acts 20:24 started pulsing with my heart: “However, I consider my life worth nothing to me; if only I may finish the race and complete the task the Lord Jesus Christ has given me – the task of testifying to the gospel of God’s grace.” These words reminded me of my goal: to finish well.
Here’s the kicker: we never know when our finish will be. It could be today, tomorrow, 10 years or 50 years from now. As I run this race called life I always have to run with that finish in mind. I have to consider every day that it might be my last and love my people accordingly.
I turned a corner through tall grasses and there it was – the arch with the word FINISH stamped across it. I broke into a sprint – my last surge of energy. Oh how I love that final taste of glory running as fast as I can over that line! As I crossed the finish that day, excitement, joy and a little relief rushed over me. By God’s grace, I had completed the race. And I had learned a handful of life lessons along the way.
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