I ran my first marathon this past weekend. Maybe even my last marathon. It’s not that I ran terribly or that I hated it, (3:18, thanks for asking), it’s just that the whole marathon thing doesn’t do it for me. Never has. Give me a frisky five, a tasty 10, or even a trying 21.1, but the monster that is the marathon can’t be fudged.
It can be trudged though, especially if something goes wrong and you’ve still got 15 to go. And especially more so if you don’t train properly. But even then, if you’ve checked all the boxes, done all your long runs, settled into what pace you will go out at, the marathon is still one tough mistress, as my run coach is wont to say.
He’s also wont to say that the marathon is a race of two halves — the first 30km and then the last 12km. In other words, no matter your training, nothing really prepares you for the last third of the race. You can hit that 30km mark at target pace and blow out by the end. Or worse, not even finish. There’s a reason our coach, who is also a church planter, has “run with endurance” from Hebrews 12 printed on our singlets. Running takes endurance, especially the marathon.
Of course, there’s a point to all of this, but before I get there let me bore you with a quick race report. I came into the marathon in okay shape, but not amazing. My long runs hadn’t been as strong as the last time I trained for a marathon three years ago, a race that was scuppered by injury. And having spent the whole lead up week on the east coast of Australia at a fairly exacting training workshop, followed by a late Friday night home coming, I wasn’t sure if my energy levels would be OK.
But standing on the start line Sunday morning with zero breeze and it cold enough to numb my fingers, I felt great. Perfect conditions, perfect event (not huge, but a good field, and well organised). I had five or six good mates running with me, and having already decided I wasn’t in shape to even attempt sub-three, I stood on the start line just back from the guy with the sub-three balloon tied to his waist. I was going to run my own race.
My own race, by my calculations, would be somewhere in the 4:21-4:25 per km pace, and maybe a 3:06 finish. So I set my watch accordingly. I removed the lap pace screen and put all of the info onto overall average pace. Just run average pace, I thought, don’t worry about kilometre splits. If you run average pace, the rest will take care of itself.
Which it pretty much did. For the first 28km. The first half of the race, in other words. Up until that time it was steady breathing, watch glancing, and a solo race as I was caught between the three-hour and three-hour-thirty pacers. So far so good. And it was fun having friends spectating who would jump on their bikes or into their cars and race to the next vantage point, cheering me on.
Our coach Simon positioned himself at various stages around the course to take pics, including the one taken at the 10km mark about.
Everyone, everyone, everyone, smiles at 10km. After all, for the past eight weeks you haven’t been rolling out of bed for less than 10km, so it feels like you’re going for a walk in the park at that point, especially after a taper. And to be honest, I smiled a bit at the 21km mark too. I’d split the race into six 7km segments and ticked off the first three sitting pretty at 4:21 per km. Just as I had planned. Three down. Three to go. What could possibly go wrong?
It wasn’t until the turn around at the 28km mark, and a slight push up the hill that I started to feel the strain. Worse still, the last 14km were in an easterly direction, and with the headwind picking up, and Perth’s unusually warm winter still lingering, I started to feel rougher as the sun rose high in the sky.
And I watched my watch. I watched as the 4:22s per km turned to 4:25s turned to 4:30s. And all so quickly. The wheels hadn’t exactly fallen off, but I knew that the last 10kms were going to hurt. A lot. I knew I was going to be looking for excuses to stop (I already was).
I knew I was going to have to mentally will myself that no matter how hard it got, or how slow I felt I was going, that I was going to do just that — keep going. I knew I would be wanted to punch the spectators who would yell inanely “Keep going!”, as if that thought had never occurred to me until they helpfully offered it. And I knew, even then, the gathering disappointment as my mental calculator went to work, with a race time of 3:05 disappearing, then 3:08, then 3:10.
The last 5km were grit teeth and hang on. Bob Lane, one of Perth’s best runners back in the day, and now in his sixties, glided past me with about three to go. I remember beating him in the Perth 32 a few years back, taking him on the home stretch. He came up and congratulated me back then. Now, however, his well-seasoned marathon legs skipped past my miserable half shuffle. I checked his splits afterwards and noted how even his race pace was. Experience is everything in the marathon.
Not smiling now.
Yet for all the misery, here’s the joy. In the last km, caught in that numb stage between slight disappointment and sheer relief that I could see the end, my wife Jill and the kids were suddenly on the side of the road, cheering, waving and hollering. And that’s when it got emotional. That’s when it got like I could see the finish line as if it were the Celestial City and I were Pilgrim and all that pain and toil and resisting of temptation to give up were worth it. That’s when the training and effort and incremental decisions to get up and do intervals at 4:45am on a dark morning, even when I didn’t feel like it, suddenly made sense. And before I knew it I was on the blue mat for the final 30m and the finish line.
And then it was hugs, congrats from friends and fellow runners, “well dones”, a few tears, one cold drink after another, and that sense of “I’m glad I didn’t stop at the 33km mark”.
And that’s when that Hebrews 12 quote on my shirt made just that bit more sense. Run with endurance. It’s easy to smile at the 10km mark in the Christian life. It’s easy when running the Christian race to think “I’ve got this”, especially when you’re in familiar territory, your family life is fine, your work/life balance is OK, and the lure of ease and comfort is not so strong. It’s easy to think you’re a shoo-in to finish when you’re ticking along at average pace and no emotional, relational or spiritual headwinds are battering you. And it’s easy to think no one ever falls over or gets DNF’s in the final third of life’s race.
But they do. And I’ve seen it. Fifty to 60 year olds who give up on Jesus because it’s all too hard or because something seemingly more attractive than finishing the race comes along. I used to be surprised at it. I see that and I’m like “How can you give up now, when the prize is so close?” But with three months to go before I turn fifty, and having just buried my own father this year, whose final third was a very wobbly stagger, I am sobered by how easy that could be. Sobered indeed.
But in the midst of that sobriety I am also joyful. I am running the race still. I am on course to finish. And not because of my race, but because of His race. Jesus is the forerunner who went ahead of us and, not only ran the race, but carved out the path, measured the course, bought the ticker tape and set up the banqueting table at the end of it where we can feast and rejoice with that great cloud of witnesses Hebrews 12 tells us of.
And when I cross the line it won’t read 3:18:29. That’s not my goal. My goal is not even 2:59:59 (a friend of mine has run that by the way). It won’t be numbers at all. It will be these words emblazoned on the race clock: Well done, good and faithful servant.
Everyone smiles at 10km. But in Christ they will laugh with joy and grateful astonishment when they finish the race and then receive a share of the trophy with the Victor who ran ahead of them, and who is even now cheering them on.
Steve has been reading, writing and reflecting ever since he can remember. His first published piece (the school year book of 1974) was his Grade 2 story about a family of mice being terrorised by a shark on the beaches of Perth. A prescient warning if ever there were one. He currently works as a pastor and church planter for Providence Church, and in his writing dabbles in a number of fields, notably theology and culture. In collaboration with Sydney writer David Cornford he is producing a novella on a misguided quest for vengeance entitled The Queensberry Rule. stephenmcalpine.com | Follow Steve on Twitter