Life, Faith & Running
". . . let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us."
(Hebrews 12:1, NIV)
(Hebrews 12:1, NIV)
This week I completed the Boston Marathon, but this story begins on a crushed cinder track in a tiny midwestern town in 1996.
I have been a “runner” for nearly 20 years. When I was in 7th grade my track coach saw potential in me that I didn’t see in myself, and then he pushed me toward goals I only believed I could achieve because he said I could. It was a simple, blind belief that was able to form before doubt, self-consciousness, and comparison with others took root. (A battle I would fight in later years.) To a runner, those very first races and new distances are bliss because one enters them without really knowing what she is (or isn’t) capable of.
All through college and into my adult life I kept running, both competitively and for fun. For a few years I even found myself on the coaching side of the road, and loved it. There is just something about endurance running that connects deeply to the human experience. For some of us, we connect to the running and enduring side of it. For others, there is a strong connection to the cheering, coaching and standing in amazement at the stamina of each runner going by. Personally, I strongly connect with both.
So, when I found myself at the finish line of the 121st Boston Marathon I couldn’t help but reflect on the fact that I was sitting there with a medal around my neck because of so many people and events that had taken place in my life from 1996-2017. You may think this is strange, but let me remind you that I had just spent over three-and-a-half hours running...thinking...praying...reflecting...pleading...longing for the finish line just to show up already. And when it did, I was there, ready to embrace it with my quads screaming at me and mental capacity on the brink of collapse. Yet, my soul was filled up and eager to drink in what God would show me through this experience.
But here is the thing about running fatigue. It isn’t like other kinds of fatigue--the kinds that pull you to the ground because you are ready to give up and throw in the towel. End-of-race runner fatigue feels good. It hurts, but it is a fatigue filled with awe. There is pain involved, but that is quickly followed by endorphins--little chemicals that float through your bloodstream and to your brain and fill you with elation and deep thoughts on life, love and the pursuit of happiness.
There I sat in a heap, wrapped in my Boston-finisher thermal blanket, medal tucked underneath, sweat chilling my bones and I swiped through the only four pictures I had taken on this monumental day in my “running career.” And there in the midst of thousands of people covering the lawn of Boston Commons Gardens, staring at the picture I had taken at the finish line, I was overcome with gratitude for the many people and experiences God had given me to get me to that particular moment in time.
I realized I had earned this medal, but it would have been impossible without the many people in my life who love and support me, starting with my parents who hauled me to a countless number of practices and track meets. There was also my high school coaches (Blaine Novak, Nancy VanErp and others), my Bethel college cross country team, my TCIS running buddies (April Ward & Christie Gordon), and the Alexandria ROUS running group (especially, Heidi Hasapopalis, Julie Miller & Sam Aakre). But at the very top of the list is my husband, Mike Loween. I would not be here without his encouragement!
Medals give the impression that running is an individual sport, but that is so far from the truth! To all of you who have put on miles with me or cheered and prayed for me, know that to me this medal represents the strength and blessings I have because of people like you in my life!
Upon further reflection on my flight home, my thoughts took me further out of the physical and into the spiritual. I do not think it is ironic or a coincidence that the metaphor of running, races, and themes of endurance show up in the Bible over and over again. I believe running is meant to be a spiritual experience that draws us closer to who we really are--strong, able, and capable of whatever road lies in front of us. (Philippians 4:13) And who we really are (in Christ and when we submit to His amazing training plan) is so much stronger than our self-doubt and the lies of the enemy would want us to believe.
And yet, the spiritual metaphor is shaken up by grace. When we train, run a race and complete it, we earn a finisher’s medal. We earn it with sweat, tears and mental toughness. Also, at the end of the race we get to enjoy the uplifting endorphins (that help to cancel out the pain of what we just submitted our bodies to) and the satisfaction of accomplishment.
But the “race” we run toward heaven isn’t that way. We run toward the goal to win the prize, setting our minds on Christ and enduring each step of the race knowing that someday we will get to the end (Philippians 3:14). But we don’t have to wait for the grace and joy to come at the end. We get it now, while we run, because grace and joy aren’t earned (Ephesians 2:8-9). They are lavished upon us as we run. And unlike races that are limited to a certain number of participants and a certain level of ability, this heavenward race is open to all who want to register, train and run. I am so grateful we don't need to earn God's grace, it is free and so much more amazing than any running accomplishment I will ever experience.
As I sit here and wrap up my reflection on my #beboston 2017 experience, I am again overwhelmed with gratefulness for the way God made my body, my brain, my heart, and my soul. Even though I didn’t start using my legs to run competitively until I was a teenager, I believe God knit me together as a runner before I was born (Psalm 139:13-14). He knew I would face stress and challenges by tucking them inside, by trying to shove them down away from my brain and heart. He knew that I would need to run out my stress because there was no way I was going to talk it out.
And he came and met me as I was and helped me to see that I could see my running as either an escape away from what I was facing. Or I could see it as running toward him with a heavy load to drop at his feet. I could either keep running as if I was being chased by the things that stressed me. Or I could shift my way of thinking and run toward his open arms waiting for me to be wrapped in his peace, comfort and sovereignty. I could keep running away from myself. Or I could start running in a way that was an act of humble worship to him and for him (Romans 12:1).
This shift in perspective took place sometime last Spring and at Boston I realized just how big of difference it has made in my life and my running. In both 2013 and 2016 I “bombed” the last five-six miles of the marathons I competed in. I beat myself up in my head for all those miles, disgusted with my inability to bring to fruition the pace goals I had worked so hard for in training. But in Boston this week, I ran strong, mentally, for the first time in almost 8 years. And it wasn’t because I was running the pace I thought I was capable of. My heart and soul displayed new growth because instead of getting lost in a deluge of negativity, I asked God to come in and help me not to think any negative thoughts. For almost 9 miles, I just kept saying, “no negative thoughts allowed.”
And thanks to God’s grace and his love for the details and passions of our lives, he gave me positive memories, phrases, songs and Bible verses to ponder and power over the negative thoughts that wanted to seep in. It isn’t often that I see actual evidence of transformation in my life. But for me, my Boston experience will remain in my memory a day in which I saw this promise of God come true in my heart, “Behold, I am making all things new” (Revelations 21:5).
The roads I have run in my life span the globe, literally. But I fell in love with running on a worn out, out-dated track in a tiny town in the middle of Minnesota because I had a coach, a family and some friends who saw something in me that I didn't see in myself--strength, courage and guts. But most of all because I have a God who saw me and knew those parts of me were meant to be a part of my story.
The sport of running requires individuals to run their races and compete, but most of the joy and gladness of success would be absent without the village people of that runner. In my life I have learned strength really does lie in the numbers. So draw your people close to you today and remind yourself that you are stronger because of them and they are stronger because of you. And then turn your eyes to heaven and thank the creator of the universe for giving you and your people strength and resolve to never forget all of it started with Him.
Her family and friends know her as, Jaci. She is the wife of a pastor, a mom of four, writing and communications education instructor, a visionary and an avid runner. As a firm believer in the power and effectiveness of the body of Christ united together to live out the Great Commission, she holds fast to this verse, "Therefore, go and make disciples of all nations" (Matthew 28:19). Of equal importance to her are these words, "...let us run with endurance the race that is set before us" (Hebrews 12:1).
Posts in the Run for Your Life, series: