It was August 2009 and I needed a favor. I had determined the best person to ask was my sister Sarah. In a weak, desperate moment I said what every normal person says when favor-seeking, “If you do this for me, I will run Dam to Dam with you.” (Dam to Dam is a 20-kilometer road race – 12.4 miles – that begins and ends at two different dams in Des Moines, Iowa. Sarah, the athlete, had suggested we run it some time before, and I shot down that suggestion rather quickly!)
In the split-second after I said it, the following thoughts came to mind:
I’m not a runner, let alone really any type of athlete. I don’t like to sweat. I would rather try every single diet known to mankind in hopes of losing a few pounds before resorting to lacing up my sneakers for even a light run.
A 20K road race requires a healthy dose of training. I was working full-time, and Lucy was a busy a one-year old who went from crawling to running in a matter of hours. I didn’t even have the required energy to chase after her. On top of that, I had very little available free time in my schedule to squeeze in exercise. What possessed me to suggest such a crazy return of favor?
Before I could say, “Oh just forget about it!” My sister said, “Sure, I’ll help you out.”
Crap! My pride tends to get in the way from time to time, and it was out in full force at this moment. I was too prideful to go back on my word. I was stuck running this darned thing. The shining light: I had several months to train.
A month later, our Dad died in a tragic accident (read more here and here). In retrospect, the road race and time devoted during training were a means to draw closer to God during that time of sorrow in my life.
Early in my training program, God put Sister “New Balance” into my life! I found this running nun at our local Catholic bookstore accompanied by a Scripture card that read, “Let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us” (Hebrews 12:1). Literally, that verse became my rule of life over the next several months. I needed strength from God to help me persevere through both the training schedule and the long race. I brought Sister with me to work and she sat on my desk where we often looked at each other eye-to-eye. She served as a visible reminder of the race set before me.
But the next line of Hebrews 12 is what changed my entire training experience. After St. Paul says, “Let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us” he finishes with, “looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God” (Hebrews 12:1-2).
Little did I know that my training runs would help me refocus from the actual race itself toward Jesus, who was waiting for me to call upon Him, to be with me during this weak time in my life, to be perfected and focus on the joys of everlasting life with my Dad. I dedicated my training runs to the repose of my Dad’s soul, to my grieving widowed Mom, to all my relatives who were still in shock at Dad’s death. To accompany me on my runs, I loaded my iPod with every religious podcast I could find—the Rosary, daily Mass readings, reflections on death and dying, talks about Theology of the Body, various radio programs. You name the topic, I found a corresponding podcast.
Over those six months, my training runs became a journey of faith. I spent more time with Jesus than I had ever before (I’m a slow runner, so it worked in my favor!) And I needed that time. Dad’s death provided many opportunities for questions, doubts, and what-if’s. Every time I ran, I heard something divine that was exactly what I needed to hear in that moment.
Race day came, and there was a point, probably around mile 11, where one last hill remained. I was hitting a low and considering starting to walk. And so I called on my Dad (who was an athlete) to help me through it, to help carry me over that hill to the finish line. I persevered, got through that lull, and finished the last mile strong.
Yesterday I was back at it again on the treadmill (I actually kind of enjoy running now), and I fired up the iPod and listened to the daily readings. And what did I hear but Hebrews 12:1-4, my rule of life. But this time, a new line jumped out at me, “Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely” (Hebrews 12:1).
Earlier in the week I wrote about Pope Benedict XVI’s call encouraging us to ask those who have gone before us to become our “travel companions” on our journey. Not only was Jesus running that race with me, my Dad and the rest of the cloud of witnesses were right there with me, too, companions on my journey. Let’s remember to invite all those who have gone before us to help us persevere in the race. As I continue to pray for my Dad, I know he’s still praying for me, too.