13.1… and done

 1:59.00

History repeats itself. And that can be really, really annoying. Especially when it comes to half-marathons.

If you’ve read my blog for any extended period of time or know me personally, you may have noticed that I love to run. Call me crazy, but I find running to be relaxing, exhilarating and even fun. After being cut from the high school softball team (word to the wise: when playing catch, always make sure your partner is looking; hitting them in the head doesn’t bode well, especially if the coach is watching), I went out for track, and it turned out to be one of the best decisions I ever made. I made new friends, got in great shape, and discovered my inborn love for “running in circles and turning left.

After high school, my desire to run came and went. Sometimes I loved it; other times it was the last thing I wanted to do. But all that changed when I signed up for my first half-marathon during my junior of college, and I convinced my dad to do it with me. Eight weeks and lots of perspiration later, I finished my first half-marathon in one hour and 59 minutes. I’d accomplished my goal, burned approximately 1,550 calories, and couldn’t have been happier.

Fast forward three years to my first semester in graduate school. As I start a new chapter of my life, I recognize the need to develop good habits, become disciplined, and find a healthy alternative to sitting in my desk chair (Grad-school gain? No, thank you.) So what do I do? Run a half-marathon, of course! After a quick internet search, I found one nearby and signed up; my second half-marathon training had begun.

When December 9th arrived, my hopes were high, my goal time was low, and I was ready to go. Much had changed since my debut three years prior. I had developed a new running form, invested in Nike Lunar Foam shoes, and followed a more advanced and rigorous training plan. Much had changed… except my time, that is.

That’s right. I got the EXACT. SAME. TIME.

Seriously?????

Seriously.

You see, when the rubber met the road (pun intended) my new running form, more advanced training plan, and awesome (if overpriced) Nike shoes ultimately failed me. Why?

Because I was running alone.

“But, Steffi,” you say, “I thought you said you signed up for a half-marathon. What do you mean that you ran alone?” Okay, so “alone” may be a bit of an exaggeration, but in the end that’s how I felt. When I signed up for this race, I failed to read the fine print which said, “We keep our races small—50 to 60 runners max.”

Most road races have a lot more than 60 people. For instance, the Boston Marathon has approximately 26,000 entries; the New York City marathon has 45,000 runners. Even the Tulsa marathon/half-marathon (my first one) has almost 2,000 participants. Compared to those races, running with 60 people is basically like running alone, especially because everyone has a different pace. And that’s why my time didn’t improve. Bummer. Without people around me, pushing me, encouraging me, my time would never get better; I was doomed to stay the same.

Our relationship with Christ works the same way.

God didn’t make us to go it alone; on the contrary, he designed this Christianity-thing to be a team effort. We need each other. Togetherness isn’t optional; it’s a necessity. On our own, we can never become all that God created us to be; on our own, we’ll never grow and change.  A knife by itself stays dull, but a knife in contact with a sharpener becomes useful again.

For most of my life, I’ve been terrible at this, tending toward what I call “lone-ranger” Christianity. I found my identity in being the Christian, and I tended to avoid other believers. Plus, community was scary; if I let people get too close, then they would see that I wasn’t perfect. So I kept going solo. Being felt safe—and seemed so much easier than being real.

But then something crazy happened: God sent me to the Kanakuk Institute. Suddenly, I was surrounded by seventy other Christians, and the “only Christian” identity to which I’d clung was gone. And though it was scary at times, it was truly the best thing that has ever happened to me.  God used my Institute classmates, especially my accountability partner Nichole, to sharpen me, challenge me, and make me an entirely different person. It wasn’t always pleasant—do you think knives enjoy being sharpened?—but it was so very worth it.

I’ll never forget the day during my first track season when my distance coach pulled me aside and said, “Steffi, today I want you to run five miles with Jenny.” Jenny was a senior and a bit of a legend on the track team. Though she rarely won races, she was incredibly—almost bizarrely—consistent. Rain or shine, snow or sleet, marathon or not, Jenny always ran 8-minute miles. Always.

For the first mile or so, I felt great. I was keeping up with Jenny better than I’d expected. But when we reached the two-mile mark and the three, it became increasingly difficult. By the fourth mile, my lungs were on fire. When the fifth mile finally rolled around, I thought I was going to die. I’d never run that hard or that long before, and my body was crying inside. But even though I felt awful, I was so proud of myself. Somehow I’d managed to keep up with Jenny, and that was worth celebrating. After that, I ran with Jenny every day, and my times drastically improved. I eventually made it onto my school’s “all-time” list for the 800-meter and my relay team went to State.

At my last half-marathon, I needed a Jenny—someone to run with, encourage me, and to push me on when I wanted to give up. In the same way, we need friends to help us in our walk with Christ. Then at the end of our days, we’ll be able to say, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.”

In the meantime, I’m going for a run. Care to join? 😉

13.1 miles later

Right On Track

I never meant to run track. In fact, I wanted to be a softball player, just like my mom. She’d been a star high school pitcher and even went on to play in college. Although I knew a career in the NCAA was out of my league, I figured that I could at least make the BVHS roster. However, I forgot to factor in a few minor details.

1)      I couldn’t throw overhand. For years I had tried, but to no avail. My arm simply wouldn’t cooperate. And apparently, throwing is an important part of softball.

2)      Batting was a challenge. Although I could zip around the bases with semi-remarkable speed, I had a hard time getting on them. Which is kind of essential.

3)      Try-outs aren’t my forte. Something about performing athletically under pressure—and the watchful eye of a coach—makes me really nervous. As a result, the week of try-outs was disastrous. During the pitching session on Monday morning, I got nailed in the head with a softball. And it was all downhill from there. By the way, the term “softball” is a misnomer; they are definitely not soft.

Needless to say, my high-school softball career was short-lived. And by that I mean that it never even existed. Somehow I made the C-team, (I think the coach felt sorry for me because of the large bruise on my forehead), but even that didn’t last long. After a week of failing miserably at practice, I faced the warm-up music and realized that Kansas 5A softball wasn’t for me.

But I’ve never been one to sit at home and twiddle my thumbs, so I needed something else to do. And that’s when my former volleyball coach suggested I go out for track. At this point, I’d never run more than a couple miles at a time—and even then I thought I might die. Freshman year I started to run a little; volleyball conditioning and PE class had whipped me into better shape. (At the end of the year fitness test, I decided to run the mile with the guys instead of the girls. But at the starting line, I accidentally tripped Matt Sobcyzinski, and he fell on his face. I still feel bad about it). Anyway, I’d always been athletic, but I had never considered myself a runner. So I took her advice and came to practice. And that’s when I fell in love with running.

Scratch that. I fell in love-hate with running.

You see, running is not an easy-to-love sport. Yes, you can love the results of running, or you can love the satisfaction of finishing a race or a difficult route. But with the exception of a few top athletes (or clinically crazy folks), you can’t always love running. Because running is hard; it’s exhausting. Heck, it involves breaking down the bonds between your muscles and depriving them of oxygen for extended periods of time. Yuck. Though rewarding, running isn’t always pleasant. But for some reason, I keep doing it. Why? Great question.

Two thousand years ago, the Apostle Paul wrote about running, and his words might hold a few clues. I don’t know if he competed in the first annual Nike sandal 10K, or if he was part of the “run barefoot” movement, but he understood running and my paradoxical relationship with it. In 1 Corinthians 9:24, he urges believers to “run in such a way as to get the prize” and to “rejoice when [they] run into trials and problems, because they develop endurance” (Romans 5:3). But my all-time favorite Paul-ism on running comes from Philippians 3,

“Not that I have already obtained this or have already become perfect, but I press on so that I may hold of that for which also I was laid hold of by Christ Jesus. Brethren, I do not regard myself as having laid hold of it yet; but one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and reaching forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.

Just like I’m more motivated to run if I’m training for a specific race or goal, Paul encourages us to run with the end in mind. If I sign up for a half-marathon in July (which would be crazy since July is ridiculously hot!), my likelihood of running consistently skyrockets. Having a tangible goal is essential to successful training. Otherwise, I’ll take every chance to eat that bag of potato chips rather than jog around the block. But if I have a race ahead of me, suddenly my workouts take on a whole new meaning and purpose. I’m no longer running aimlessly or just for the heck of it; no, I’m running to win… or at least a finisher’s medal.

In the same way, Paul urges us to run with purpose. Don’t look backward; that’s a great way to face-plant. Instead, look ahead and press on toward Christ. HE is your goal; HE is your prize. Keep your eyes fixed on Him, and run for all you’ve got. No, it won’t always be fun. Yes, you may trip or get a shin splint or two. You will get tired, and you will be frustrated sometimes. But in the end when you cross that heavenly finish line, you’ll hear the saints and your Savior cheering your name.

So in the meantime, “we’d better get on with it. Strip down, start running—and never quit! No extra spiritual fat, no parasitic sins. Keep your eyes on Jesus, who both began and finished this race we’re in. Study how he did it. Because he never lost sight of where he was headed—that exhilarating finish in and with God.” (Hebrews 12:1-3, The Message).

I’ll see you on the track. 🙂