Trail Running and the Life of Faith

I’ve been a runner for about 20 years, and an avid trail runner for the past 2 years. Saturday (Jan. 17th)  I completed my second ultra distance trail race (50 kilometers). My first 50k was about six weeks earlier at Oak Mountain and that race was a great experience. Yesterday’s race at Lake Lurleen, however, was miserable. Don’t get me wrong, the race was superbly well organized and the volunteers were great; the misery was all on me. I started feeling badly at about mile 13 and never really recovered. The first 12 miles were great; I felt great, ran great, and kept the pace I’d hoped to keep. But at about mile 13 everything went south. My left calf started to cramp, I wasn’t hungry, I had no energy in spite of the fact that I was well hydrated and nourished, I started wheezing and it got worse with every mile, and everything within me wanted to stop at the half-way point. Almost none of these things has ever happened to me in any of the more than 50 races I’ve run. But in this race, at about mile 22 I was reduced to walking off and on to the finish with an overall time that was an hour slower than what my fitness level should have allowed. The final 9 miles of the race were a total mind game, and to stay focused but detach from the pain, I came up with this post comparing trail running to the life of faith. Here are the lesson I’m learning from experiences like yesterday.

1. Some things you can’t control. I like running in the cold and enjoy the variation of steep climbs that take their toll on your legs but allow you to use different muscle groups. By contrast, yesterday’s race was warm and included no steep climbs. I was tempted all day to think that I’d perform better if circumstances were different. The truth is, it doesn’t help you go one bit further or faster to fret about race conditions.

Life will give you plenty of circumstances that you’d prefer not to face. You can’t choose the pain, but you can choose how to respond. The life of faith means that you live not on the basis of what you see, but with hope and trust in the One who sees beyond your circumstances.

2. Pace yourself. In an ultra distance event, if you start too fast you will pay a severe penalty later. My pace for the first half of the race yesterday should have been correct, but it wasn’t. My body wasn’t right, and I probably ran the first 10 or 11 miles in denial about that. I should have swallowed my pride and started slower than I’d planned. I didn’t, and by the time I realized fully what was going on, it was too late.

The life of faith is a marathon not a sprint. When the scripture says to “run with endurance the race set before you” (Hebrews 12.1), it means that you should move through life in a way that is sustainable for a long time and distance. Not everyone runs at the same pace, but everyone has a maximally efficient pace given the circumstances. Slow down, monitor your spiritual health, and humbly readjust as needed.

3. Keep moving forward. If you race long enough, you’ll eventually have a day where your time goals goes out the window and your only goal is to finish. No podium finish, no possible PR, and not many people at the finish line when you get there. I’ve heard that for years, but yesterday I experienced it first-hand. All I could tell myself was don’t quit. Finish. One step at a time. Any form of forward movement is success. It feels like it takes forever, but eventually you get there if you keep moving forward.

The life of faith is not an easy life. True religion is not an opiate. Following the way of Christ doesn’t immediately solve all of your problems. Jesus taught his followers to pray for their “daily bread, “and he said “don’t worry about tomorrow.” So stay in the moment. Sometimes everything goes wrong and you want to quit. Don’t. Keep moving forward, one small slow step at a time if necessary.

Are you a runner? Do you see other parallels between running and the Christian journey?

[Update: On Sunday, I visited Urgent Care where I tested positive for the flu (second time this winter, strain B this time) and a sinus infection. I suppose that partly explains Saturday’s race!]

Running Suffering

An Open Birthday Letter to My Dad

Dear Dad,

For your birthday, I wanted to write you this letter to thank you publicly for being a great dad. You did all of the things that dads should do. You played with me in the yard, took me hunting and fishing, taught me how to train a dog, coached my baseball teams, paid for my piano lessons, and attended endless band concerts. You took me to church, taught me about Jesus, gave me relationship advice when I needed it, and helped me choose a college. And you did these things while loving my mom, caring for my critically ill brother, taking care of your own aging parents, and earning a living in noble professions that helped protect lives and the environment. And to top it off, you were the best man in my wedding, traveled from around the world to see your newborn grandkids, helped us buy our first house, and passed down old cars for us to drive. I don’t say thank you enough for all of these things.

Of course you weren’t perfect. Your haircuts were sometimes a bit shorter than I’d hoped, like the infamous time that you gave me a buzz cut but forgot to attach the guard to the clippers. That was the first time that I ever saw my bare scalp, but it was kinda fun to see my grandmother cry when she saw the aftermath. Oh, and remember the times you tried to teach me about auto maintenance? My cluelessness once got you so flustered that you added fresh oil to the truck without putting the oil plug back in. And then there was the time that we got lost in Washington D.C. on family vacation. There may or may not have been some significant profanity involved after we passed the US Mint for the third time trying to find our hotel.

And while I’m thinking about it, let me just go ahead and apologize for always putting my feet under your seat. Now that I’m a dad, I know just how irritating that is. [Apparently I inherited your sensitive rear end.] I also remember that when we were kids you used to say that you wished we obeyed you as well as our labrador retrievers did. I always thought that was a joke. Now I had three kids and a labrador retriever of my own and I realize that you were actually serious, and I have to agree with you. And let me add that I’m rather disappointed that it’s now illegal to transport children and pets in the back of a pickup truck with a camper top. Sadly, my own children will never know the joys of laying on a mattress covered with dog slobber in the back of an old Ford on a 8 hour trip to see the grandparents.

These memories will stick with me until my dying day. I am thankful for them as I am thankful for you. You’ve said many times that when you became a dad you knew nothing about parenting, and that I turned out OK only by the grace of God. To that I would add one thing: you were there for us. You were a constant and consistent presence in my life. You were home in the evenings and on weekends. You spent quantity and quality time with us. You never tried to make up for lost time because you never needed to do so. I don’t know much about parenting, but one lesson I learned from you and mom stands out above the rest – time covers a multitude of sins. Of all the things I have to thank you for on your birthday, I thank you for your time.


The Bible is Strange

Perhaps like a few of you, one of my New Year’s resolutions was to read the Bible through in 2015. I’ve read the Bible in its entirety, but I’ve never done it all in one year. My plan consists of reading 3-4 chapters of the Old Testament and 1 chapter of the New Testament each day. I’m only on day 8 of this project and I am increasingly convinced of one thing: the Bible is REALLY weird.

Let me say that I am an academically trained theologian. I have more than 30 graduate credits in biblical studies. I have taken classes in biblical interpretation, biblical history, and multiples classes on biblical languages, including 2 years of Hebrew and 3 years of Greek. I am not only a student of the Bible, but I have taught the Bible in a collegiate environment for over 20 years. All of that knowledge and experience with the Bible, and I still think the Bible is weird.

Here are just a few examples from my reading in Genesis so far this year:

  • Genesis 1: Both light and plants are created before the sun is created. There are also mornings and evenings before the sun exists. (I’m no scientist, but I can’t figure out how this works.)
  • Genesis 3: A talking animal tempts Eve. (And this is not a hallucination.)
  • Genesis 5: People live to hundreds of years of age and father children at those ages. (I’m now too exhausted to handle a newborn and I’m only in my 40s.)
  • Genesis 6: The “sons of God” mate with human wives and have offspring who are giants. (I don’t even know what to say about this.)
  • Genesis 6-9: Noah gathers 2 of every living thing into a boat to survive a flood. (Imagine the smell!)
  • Genesis 17: God tells Abram to cut off his foreskin. (If you don’t think this is weird, then you should Google “foreskin.” On second thought, don’t do that.)

I have only read about 25 pages so far, and yet I can’t fully explain half of what I’m reading. I’m a scholar, so I’m familiar with literary devices, metaphors, and symbols. I know about context and history and imagery. I get languages and translation. But I must still be honest – the Bible is weird.

And I like it that way. I wouldn’t have it any other way. When I read it carefully and intentionally, as if I’m reading it for the first time, I am fascinated. Sometimes it’s a page-turner filled with intrigue and scandal. Sometimes it can be rather boring with long lists of names or long-lost locations or ancient nations. Sometimes it can be spiritually revolutionary. Sometimes I read it, and sometimes it reads me. And always it guides me, willingly or not, toward the path intended by the One who inspired it. So I will continue to read this weird book, hopefully in its entirety in 2015. Why don’t you give it a try?