On Sunday, May 3, I completed the Pittsburgh Marathon, my first full marathon. I first started running competitively 20 years ago, and have completed 3 half marathons, a triathlon, and countless 5K and 10K races, but people always told me a marathon was different. They were right.
I knew running a marathon would be difficult. I knew it would take 5 months of training. I knew the strategy of pacing. I knew exactly what nutrition I needed before, during, and after the race. I became a student of marathon running, seeking every way to make my body a healthier, stronger, and faster running machine.
But deep into the race, somewhere just past mile 17, I met a challenge never before met in all my years of running: I needed help. Despite my best attempts to go slow and drink fluids all along the way, the sun was making me miserably overheated and dehydrated. Fear and doubt crept into my brain: Will I make it to the finish line?
As much as I hated to admit it, I knew at that moment that I wasn’t going to make it on my own. Fortunately, I didn’t have to. For the last 8+ miles, I got exactly what I needed: Gatorade and water at aid stations staffed by volunteers. Inspiration from other runners. Encouragement from spectators, people I didn’t know but who wanted to help me finish anyway. Support from my sister-in-law, shouting encouragement at mile 22 after completing her own half marathon just 45 minutes earlier. Because I didn’t have to go it alone, I made it to the finish line.
Naturally, this has lessons for us as we seek to follow Christ in all we do. So often, we believe that we can make it on our own. We’ve done the training, we got ourselves to this point, and nothing will stop us. Sometimes, we are strong and full of energy and we’re cruising through life with no problem. But then the unexpected happens, and it drains us of energy. Each moment becomes a struggle just to keep putting one foot in front of the other. The pain is almost too much to bear, and we express fear and doubt about whether we can make it through another day.
But in Hebrews 12:1-2, we are reminded that we don’t have to run the race alone:
“So then let’s also run the race that is laid out in front of us, since we have such a great cloud of witnesses surrounding us. Let’s throw off any extra baggage, get rid of the sin that trips us up, and fix our eyes on Jesus, faith’s pioneer and perfecter.” – Hebrews 12:1-2
We have a great cloud of witnesses – people who ran the race already and serve as inspiration and encouragement. These witnesses are the saints of the church, both living and dead. Even greater, we have Jesus as the pioneer and perfecter of faith. He knows what struggles we face. And he has the power to use our pain and doubt to strengthen our faith.
Last month, I expected to enjoy the sense of accomplishment that comes with finishing my first full marathon. What I didn’t expect was the reminder that sometimes we can’t make it on our own. We all need help to finish the race. And when we cross the finish line, we will never forget the saints of the church, and the pioneer and perfecter of faith, who helped us along the way.