Lessons of a Long-Distance Runner
An official marathon must be exactly 26 miles, 385 yards long. For the average runner with a 28-inch stride, this race requires 58,215 consecutive steps. If running on a high school track, the marathoner would make 105 laps. Every year, tens of thousands of people willingly subject themselves to this physically punishing event, finding great satisfaction in the process.
Since running my first marathon at age 36, I’ve come to realize the wisdom of the biblical metaphor in 1 Corinthians 9:24–27, which compares the Christian life to a long-distance race.
Neither running nor the challenges of the Christian life has changed much since the ancient days. And we can learn many lessons from running which apply to our lives as we strive toward the goal of finishing the Christian life well.
“Run in such a way as to get the prize” (1 Cor. 9:24).
To run a marathon well, runners must first establish a base of mileage, which is built slowly, after weeks and months of disciplined training. In the same way, a believer must establish a spiritual “base.” This comes through the practice of spiritual disciplines such as consistent devotional study, Scripture memorization, regular worship, and prayer. Through this spiritual conditioning, the believer is strengthened along the course of the Christian life.
I never could have finished a marathon without my running partner. His constant presence made me more responsible and consistent in my training. In the same way, we need running partners in this Christian life. Find someone who will come alongside you to ask you hard questions about yourself, encourage you, and challenge you.
Cross-training is another valuable discipline for the long distance runner. Intervals, hills, weights, even swimming and cycling help athletes develop endurance. Believers, too, need variety in their spiritual journeys. We find it in in local church-mission trips, nursery care, youth events, teaching Sunday school—any type of service that will help us grow in our relationship with God. We should be careful to avoid growing comfortable in our routines, merely maintaining our spiritual “base.”
FOCUS ON THE GOAL
“I do not run like a man running aimlessly; I do not fight like a man beating the air. No, I beat my body and make it my slave” (1 Cor. 9:26–27).
I have experienced few things more intimidating than standing at the starting line of a marathon. Surrounded by hundreds of other runners, I considered that the finish line was 26 miles away. To finish, I knew I had to run with purpose, focusing on the goal and ignoring distractions. Christians, similarly, must remember that they have a purpose—to glorify God—and we must focus on living well so we can reach our goal of finishing well.
Dehydration is the enemy of any distance runner. So, too, the Christian who is not fed regularly will not finish well. Too often we wait until we are in a crisis, needing encouragement and guidance, before we turn to God. This can leave us wondering why we feel so let down by God. The believer who strives to finish well will take in quality, regular nourishment from the Word of God before ever feeling the lack of it.
Marathons are often broken up into smaller distances by the many aid stations along the way, giving runners a series of shorter goals for which to strive. The Christian life, likewise, has many such aid stations. Weekend retreats, regular worship services, Sunday school classes, small group Bible studies, daily devotional times—all these can serve as breaks in the struggle. The believer who is running the marathon of faith needs to find regular refreshment and encouragement among others.
There is an old saying in marathon circles: Anyone who finishes is a winner. In one sense, to complete such a challenging test of mind, body, and will is to win. In the Christian life, faithfulness is the true measure of success. In order to cross the finish line and hear “Well done” (Matt. 25:21, 23), we must run our race with total commitment. And we must keep in mind that the ultimate prize for which we run is “a crown that will last forever” (1 Cor. 9:25).
During the months of training preceding my second marathon, I rehearsed one event over and over as I ran—crossing the finish line. The actual occasion comes back to me as if it were yesterday. There stood my daughters, cheering wildly. As I crossed the line, they ran from the crowd and grabbed my hands. Their escort was as sweet as the company of any angel. Their presence made not only the race, but even the struggle of endless training, worthwhile. It was even better than I had imagined—like a dress rehearsal of heaven.
In the midst of the uphill marathon of life, when we are weak and hurting, we can imagine a day not too far off, a moment when the finish will be in sight. We can press on with the assurance that the finish will be more glorious, the crowds more enthusiastic, and the reunions more precious than we can ever imagine.
Be encouraged and challenged by the truths in 1 Corinthians 9 as you struggle to run the race before you. Train well. Focus on the goal. Finish well. We can do these, whether or not we ever put on literal running shoes. As believers in Jesus Christ, we do not run aimlessly or train without purpose. We are running toward a glorious goal. And every mile, every lap, every one of the 58,215 steps (and more) move us closer. All of the training, all of the struggle will be worth it, one day.
“Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize. Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last; but we do it to get a crown that will last forever. Therefore I do not run like a man running aimlessly; I do not fight like a man beating the air. No, I beat my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize” (1 Cor. 9:24–27).
Dave Haney (Th.M. 84) has been the pastor of Trinity Bible Church in Richardson, Texas, for the past 15 years. He is the author of A Living Hope: The Comfort and Assurance That Come from Knowing God Cares for You.