My sister-in-law started running marathons about a decade ago. Certainly not the extracurricular pursuit most people would choose. Myself, I prefer the more sedentary hobbies of reading, writing and collecting baseball cards.
That said, I not only applauded her, I admired her, even envied her a little. I haven’t been a runner since sprinting in high school track. I did, though, interview numerous state champions during my sportswriting career. I watched young women and men gut it out during distance races; I know the time and grueling work that required. I highly respect the required discipline.
One day, overcome by that esteem, I couldn’t believe what came out of my mouth. “I’d like to run a marathon by the time I’m 55,” I told my sister-in-law.
I meant it as a pipe dream. Frankly, I hate running, and I’m not a big fan even of distance-walking. I don’t like lifting weights. I love to eat, from fast-food French fries to decked-out burgers, from cookies to ice cream to candy bars. And I have had chronic clinical depression for 15 years, which pretty well sapped me of the energy to live an active life.
Yet at the age of 55, I completed my marathon Sunday, March 12. And I profoundly deepened my spiritual life in the process.
No, I didn’t run a “traditional” marathon, which is 26.1 miles. I’m sorry; that’s not happening. My life isn’t the dramatic stuff of a movie. No, I participated in a much more reasonable event — a marathonesque (for me) 7-kilometer distance, or 4.35 miles, on a course around a local lake.
More than 1,000 of us gathered at the park early in sub-freezing temperatures, clouds filling the sky and a bit of a breeze coming off the lake. Loud, mostly Irish-themed, up-tempo music blared as people mingled in anticipation. The early morning was cold; I hate cold weather more than running.
That combination of the cold and running – what was I thinking?
Of course, my sister-in-law and the rest of my family never forgot my pipe dream. She lovingly wanted to see me realize it. Somewhat to appease those folks, I participated in a couple of 5-kilometer events in which walking was completely acceptable. So I walked slightly more than 3 miles both times, quite a distance for someone who rarely walked much further than the recliner to the refrigerator. That felt long enough. I did both without much preparation, which seemed about right in my mind.
At the end of 2016, I stepped on a scale and understood how much I needed to lose weight. I didn’t belong over 200 pounds. I had no business being about 30 pounds overweight, especially if I loved my family enough to stick around for another 25 years. So I grew determined to eat smarter and to make use of the gym membership for which we paid monthly and walk on the warm, comfortable indoor track a couple times a week. I tried to run occasionally but didn’t get much more than a half-lap out of my flabby frame. Walking took more time but was the right speed.
Then, I got tricked. My daughter Kara and her husband registered for a 7k run to benefit a local Lou Gehrig’s disease charity; I have known several of that disease’s victims, so I appreciated the cause. Shortly afterward, her husband realized he would have to work that day and couldn’t run. Looking for a replacement on somewhat short notice, Kara needed to find a sucker – er, I mean a charitable heart – to take Tom’s place.
“You’re already working out,” she said. “You can do it.”
So there I was on that chilly Sunday morning. I did feel prepared. For the previous two months, I actually had showed up at the gym two or three days each week. I overcame the messages from my will and body that urged me simply to walk instead of run after only a half-lap. Soon, I was pushing to run every other lap, then run more than I walked, then run about two-thirds of the time.
Finally, I ran a full mile at the beginning and most of the time overall. I squeezed in as much as six miles in an hour one day. Sure, that’s not a great time; my pace was much closer to a jog than a sprint. I still hated every minute of it. My calf hurt. My feet ached. I huffed and puffed almost every step. I dreaded climbing the steps to the track each time.
I persevered, and indeed succeeded, only because I embraced the suffering in a spiritual way. At the beginning of each running lap, I knew it wasn’t going to be pleasant. I knew a voice in my head was going to whisper that there was no shame in walking. But with every step, I welcomed the pain, I accepted the aversion, I clutched the suffering. And I prayed.
“I love you, Lord, but I have so little I can give you that has any real value,” I said. “I give you my heart. You deserve so much more. So I’m going to package up this suffering and I’m going to send it to you as a gift of love. You loved me to the point of suffering. I suffer for you now to prove my love.”
That act felt right. Though still not enjoying the time, I came to look forward to the suffering. I ran more because of it, because I wanted to love God in those moments.
I never experienced that “runner’s high” others feel, not in training and not during my personal “marathon” that day. I still hated the actual act. Yet from the beginning to ending of that cold hour-long 7k jog, I felt a quiet spiritual joy as my God and I traded loving glances and gestures.
Who knows? Maybe I’ll actually run a “traditional” real marathon someday. Just, please, don’t tell my family I said that.