The Curious Fellowship of the Distance Athlete

This article was inspired by three spoken words. Recently, while in the midst of a three-mile run around my neighborhood (part of a personal dedication to physical fitness that has miraculously lasted two months and counting), I found my pace slackening on an uphill stretch, which has continually gotten the best of me. It’s that part of a run when you start to ask 1122022_running_on_the_beach.jpgyourself rhetorical questions to justify a lesser effort. “You burn the same amount of calories over the same distance anyway, right?” “What am I trying to prove? No one cares if I slow down.” And so forth.

I heard a noise behind me as I proceeded up the hill. A guy on a bike was zooming up behind me. He was clad in much more spandex than I could ever possibly get away with. And as he zipped past, he gasped three words. Not “How ya doin’?” Not “Outta my way!” No, the three words this complete stranger, probably more tired than I was, found the breath to say as he went up the hill were, “Keep going, man!”

I kept going. Those three words encapsulate what I love most about running. In nearly every other sport (and I have played many), the competition exists primarily between yourself and your opponent. Victory is obtained by pushing yourself, yes, but can also be obtained (and often is) by tricking your opponent and exploiting his (or her) weaknesses. For those who feel no qualms about crossing the line into bad sportsmanship, this potential can lead to deliberately seeking to humiliate the competition or even cheating it. It is an attitude that is almost entirely absent from every incarnation of distance running. True, when one runs competitively, winners are determined, and times are kept. The essence of the competition, however, occurs within each runner. You cannot control how fast your opponents will go—only how much you are willing to push yourself. The core of running is self-denial. When every muscle fiber in your body is screaming, “Please, for the love of all that is holy STOP RUNNING!” it takes a lot of character to say no.

This self-denial and the knowledge that every runner has to go through it create an unusual bond of fellowship between runners. Cross country is the only sport I’ve ever been part of in which you cheer for everyone, not just your own team. And everyone cheers just as loudly for the person who finishes in last place as or for the one who finishes first. That kind of mutual encouragement is a way of life in distance running. When I ran in high school, it was an unwritten rule for our team (and also those from several other schools) that we waited for the last member of our team and would always “run them in,” a reference to running the last quarter mile of the race or so with him to the finish line. On a few occasions I saw runners who had already completed the race follow this rule for runners on opposing teams. I distinctly remember coming down the stretch one time, neck and neck with a tall guy from a public school who had been keeping pace with me during the whole race. I was drained and started to fall behind. He yelling at me (no easy task after running three miles), “You can do better than that! You can do better than that!” He was right. I pulled even with him as we crossed the finish line. I thanked him after the race. He shrugged. It was the natural thing to do.

The apostle Paul compares the Christian life to a race (specifically, a race to be run) in several familiar passages. It is a race to be run with purpose (1 Cor. 9:24-27), to be run with focus (Heb. 1:12). It is race that brings honor with completion (2 Tim. 4:8-9). The similarities between our Christian walk and a race do not end there. Anyone can run a race, regardless of ability. I happen to have size-fourteen feet, which weigh approximately thirty-five pounds each and which I will drag around for the rest of my life. They may affect my final time on the course, but they will not affect my level of effort or my ability to finish … unless I let them. Some saints find themselves lacking in speaking skill, musical talent, or other obvious talents that lend themselves to “Christian service.” However, God grants skills each of us can be used for His glory. Nothing but ourselves can keep us from using the gifts we have, and certainly nothing but ourselves may prevent us from being a testimony for our Lord and Savior for the duration of our lives.

But it is the fellowship of those running the Christian race that I wish to contemplate for a few moments. Our relationship with our fellow brothers and sisters in Christ should be something that makes an unsaved world ask, “What is different about these people?” Far from it. Our relationship with each other is often what makes faith in Christ seem less desirable to the lost. I live near a church that will soon conduct a vote of no confidence in their pastor. Should the vote fail, the church will conduct another vote to determine whether the deacons should resign for recommending the vote of no confidence. Unsurprisingly, the church is shrinking. What happened? Thousands of people within a few miles of this church are marching blissfully to hell while the people who should be reaching out to them are obsessed with their tiny power struggle. Everywhere I go, Christians are tearing into each other over Bible versions, eschatological views, modes of baptism, or other issues that in my opinion are ultimately of no more eternal significance than the brand of running shoes one chooses to buy. Or perhaps a brother has fallen into sin that is crippling his impact for Christ; perhaps he is clearly struggling and trying to get his life back on track. How easy it is to shake our heads disapprovingly and indulge our superiority complex instead of praying, counseling, or doing something that will benefit a fellow saint rather than ourselves. These are people with whom we will someday enjoy fellowship for all eternity. What is wrong with us? A guy on a bike with nothing more in common with me than a desire to stay in shape needed no other motivation than to give me some encouragement. How much more so for us who were lost to sin and redeemed for all eternity by the shed blood of Christ, who endeavor to labor for Him all our lives and will praise God together when time itself has ended? I encourage all of you—the next time you have an occasion to get into an argument with a fellow saint or to talk badly about someone behind his back, use the opportunity instead to encourage someone to “keep going!”

We are in a long race. We run it different ways. We’ll finish at different times. I’ll see you all at the finish line.

Keep going!

Keep going.

sbean.jpgStephen Bean graduated from Bob Jones University (Greenville, SC) in 2007 with a degree in history. He lives in northern Virginia where he chips away at his school debt and writes for a satirical Web site in his spare time. He is currently looking for a secondary teaching position at a Christian school for the 2009 school year. He enjoys reading, educated discussions on comparative military tactics, and watching a good movie.
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