The Reverend Tony Kyriakides, Priest Vicar
In the world of jogging and running, be it 5ks, 10ks or marathons, there is a vast collection of hilarious stories, amusing anecdotes and comical one-liners. During the 2000 Sydney Olympics, world-class runner Bernard Kip Lagat was asked how his country, Kenya, was able to produce so many great distance runners. 'It's the road signs' he said, 'Beware of Lions'. As a runner myself, with a half marathon coming up at the beginning of September, I am up most mornings just before six. Why? Because in running at that time, my brain has yet to figure out what I'm doing.
For many people, distance running, especially ultra marathons, is less about hitting a time or achieving a place. For a distance runner, it is as much about their psychology, psychological aptitude and attitude, as it is about their physical stamina and staying power. For that matter, most runners would agree that distance races are tougher than sprints. A sprinter requires immediate energy and explosiveness but does not have to face the accumulated fatigue and pain of a longer race.
That fatigue, that pain, is communicated by the brain which works as a central control system, monitoring all the feedback from the body. When the situation looks too gruelling, that your body is heading towards meltdown, then the brain kicks in. The brain seeks to regulate your muscles, getting your body to encourage you to slow down by increasing feelings of acute tiredness. It is not that your body is conspiring against you to keep you from achieving that PB – personal best? – rather, it is a protective mechanism to prevent major physical damage. The distance runner develops a toughness, an ability to override those signals and, yes, to take risks in order to accomplish a goal. In other words, the toughest race is the one in which the runner takes control despite what their brain and body may be messaging.
Our second reading, from the letter to the Hebrews, is about a race, a critical and decisive race: that race which we call life. 'Let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith'. The Christian life, that life which is lived for Christ's sake, informed by Christ's words and fed with Christ's life, is no stroll in the park, neither is it a sprint. The Christian life is distance running which relies on countless hours of training and ensuring the right level of fitness, spiritual fitness.
Physical fitness is dependent on diet and weight and exercise, and spiritual fitness is no different. It is dependent on a diet of prayer, worship and study; it keeps an eye on the flab, that excess weight, that podginess because unnecessary pounds of possessions slow us down, and it never fights shy of exercise, keen to develop those kingdom strengths of forgiveness, compassion and social justice. As Martin Luther King reminds us, 'As long as there is poverty in the world I can never be rich... As long as diseases are rampant...I can never be totally healthy. I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be.'
One particular challenge for the distance runner is self-doubt and even that has its spiritual equivalent when life events cause us to doubt the very existence of God. Justin Welby, the archbishop of Canterbury (and distance runner to boot) addressed his own doubts during a recent interview when he said this. The other day I was praying as I was running and I ended up saying to God: 'Look, this is all very well but isn't it about time you did something – if you're there', which is probably not what the archbishop of Canterbury should say.' Then the archbishop went on to explain: [Faith] is not about feelings. It is about the fact that God is faithful, and the extraordinary thing about being a Christian is that God is faithful when we are not.
In the 1992 Summer Olympics held in Barcelona, Spain, one of the competitors was an English athlete, Derek Redmond. While running a 400 metres qualifying heat, admittedly a sprint rather than a marathon, he suddenly pulled a hamstring and, in pain, collapsed onto the track. But with a doggedness and determination common among successful sports men and women he struggled to his feet. Staggering towards the finishing line, he did not realise that his father (who was in the crowd) had scaled the fence separating spectators from competitors and was running towards him. Before the officials could do anything about it, Jim Redmond reached his son. The young runner, now supported by his father, went on to complete the race. The entire crowd rose as one and cheered the two men on as they crossed the finishing line.
In the same way, the letter to the Hebrews makes it clear that we do not run the course alone. Christ himself helps us toward the finishing line for, as the nineteenth century hymn writer, John Monsell put it:
Run the straight race through God's good grace,
Lift up thine eyes, and seek His face;
Life with its way before us lies,
Christ is the path, and Christ the prize.
A marathon is, in some ways, a waiting game in that the last part of the race can be totally unpredictable as it was for the Tanzanian, John Akhwari. Competing in the 1968 Olympic marathon, Akhwari developed cramp due to the high altitude of Mexico City. At 19k, when some of the runners were jockeying for position, he was knocked over and fell, dislocating his knee and injuring his shoulder. More than an hour after the marathon winner had been cheered across the finishing line, Akhwari stumbled into the stadium with his knee bandaged and bloodied. The crowd was now much smaller than it had been but they cheered him in. When asked why he had continued to run despite the pain, Akhwari replied, 'My country did not send me to Mexico City to start the race. They sent me here to finish.' His attitude should be our attitude as we run the race of life, the Christian life, for God does not only give us life – that is merely the starting block. The finishing line is eternal life in the company of God's presence!
In the race of Christian living that God has set before you, what would God say is preventing you from being the promising distance runner he calls you to be? What do you need to do to run unencumbered the race God has set before you?