Lessons from my eighth marathon

This Sunday is the Sydney Marathon and our city will be putting on quite a show.

I love many things about running and the Sydney marathon is a highlight in my year. This will be my eighth marathon and, while I do feel tired after the hours of training, I never tire of the experience and the high of crossing that finish line. The marathon has special significance for different people and for me, there are many parallels between the race and my faith.

In my training and my races I have lost toenails, I have destroyed expensive footwear and I’ve pulled muscles due to skipping good stretching protocol. One time, when training in the National Park for the Blue Mountains North Face, I got lost deep in the bush and had to call the State Emergency Services. I felt pretty good when I found my own way out hours later, only to discover that two police cars, an ambulance and a fire truck were waiting at the track entrance. The paramedics rushed at me with a space blanket and insisted on checking my vitals to ensure I wasn’t in shock. Not my finest moment, but it certainly made me grateful for our emergency service men and women!

In light of all this, you might ask, why on earth would anyone run a marathon?

Every race teaches me something about myself, about community and about spiritual principles for life.

Maybe it’s getting a unique perspective of my beautiful city through the winding course. Or the countless volunteers who give their time to support the runners. Maybe it’s that sense of togetherness that we feel when we are united, running towards a common goal. The atmosphere is hard to describe and it carries you far beyond what you thought was possible. Every race teaches me something about myself, about community and about spiritual principles for life.

We are carried by community

A great race is characterised not just by the runners but also by the crowd, the support crew and the hundreds of volunteers. Each plays a unique and vital part of the race. There have been countless times when I wanted to give up, my body aching and my mind formulating exit routes. Then I’d see a funny sign in the crowd saying “Bet you wish you’d trained more,” or the wide smile of a volunteer handing me a cup of water. I’d hear loud encouragement from the crowd gathered along the track, or I’d marvel at the woman dressed in a ridiculous Sponge Bob costume, a triumph for engineering and no hindrance to her amazing pace! Somehow the pain disappears and I’m able to push through another few kilometres because I’m not alone.

The body of Christ is a wonderfully diverse community. One that holds each other up in the good times and bad. Sadly, I know this is not everyone’s experience but in my church community, we spur each other on. I would encourage anyone who doesn’t have that experience to be the first and greatest encourager of others in church, at work and in your family. You may be surprised to see your encouragement and championing of others shift the atmosphere of your home, workplace and community.

Marathon runners

ffwpu / Pexels

What you do when no-one is watching matters

One of the most challenging things I find about marathon preparation is that intentional training starts at least three months before the race. Putting on those shoes and building up your distance running is hard when the race seems a long way off. No matter how many marathons you have completed, it never gets easier.

Under the pressure of 42 long, hard kilometres, my body and my mind give an account of the integrity of my training.

We all have something else we would like to do instead of training. No-one is going to check in with me to ensure my training is up to scratch – that I did the distance and trained as frequently as I intended to. But come race day, under the pressure of 42 long, hard kilometres, my body and my mind give an account of the integrity of my training.

It’s the same in our spiritual lives. No-one will check in or force us to pray, read the Bible, fellowship or live with integrity. But when the pressure comes, and it always comes, we will either see cracks form from neglecting our intimacy with God or we will stand firm and press forward in strength.

Comparison is a thief

The athleticism of real runners such as Kipchoge, Gebrselassie, or our very own Stenson or Wellings, blows my mind. I’m nowhere close to their level, but that is not the point.

As I reach the halfway point, the elite runners will have the glittering finish line in their sights. That’s not my race, that’s theirs. My goal is not to race against anyone else, I just want to be slightly better than last year. Sometimes I beat my previous pace and sometimes I hold steady. I have come to learn that’s ok. On Sunday, I am running my own race.

In life, work and ministry I find it helpful to have the same mindset. Comparing my life, my successes or failures with another person makes no sense when I consider my own race or my purpose. As believers, we each have a purpose in God. When we live with a higher purpose we won’t be distracted by what others are doing, we need all the energy, passion and faith we can muster just to finish our own race.

Our stride gets stronger when we have purpose

Having a purpose bigger than ourselves is important not only to take our eyes off others but to help us overcome the challenges we face in life. Purpose drives you when days are tough and motivates you to keep putting one foot in front of the other.

Suddenly you’re able to find the strength to push through.

No matter how hard we train, at some point, for me it’s around 34 kilometres that things start to fall apart. The crowd thins and you’re all alone. That niggle in your leg has become excruciating. A shower and a feed seem like an eternity away. But then, you imagine the finish line – the sun reflecting off the Sydney Opera House, the intense roar and energy of the crowd, someone on a speaker system calling out your number and loved ones screaming your name as they catch sight of you. Suddenly you’re able to find the strength to push through.

When you don’t have a purpose or the end in mind, every step you take can feel unbearable. When you can clearly see the goal, everything seems to work together to propel you towards that vision. Finding and remembering our purpose in God is vital for pushing through life’s challenges.

Dig deep, the wall is coming

In every long-distance race there comes a time when all you want to do is quit and go home. Your chest hurts, your legs feel like lead and your mind groans. In those moments I have to remind myself that the pain is only temporary. It will end but not until I finish! These are the times when training, consistency and learned perseverance take me beyond what I think I can do.

The marathon, like life in a messy world, is no respecter of persons. We can never truly prepare for hard seasons in life, but we should not be surprised by them. I am blessed to be married to a wonderful woman and have two beautiful daughters. I have a great church, loyal friendships and a profession I feel privileged to be a part of. Despite all the good things in my life, there have been times in my faith journey, in my life and in my work when everything in me was screaming to give in and take the easy way out.

In seasons of hardship, we have to trust in the process and draw from the deep wells that we have dug. The hours spent reading the Bible and in God’s presence. The honest conversations with trusted friends, mentors and loved ones. The prayer we’ve sown in good times and in tears. These disciplines build our confidence and trust that God will get us through.

Ketut Subiyanto / Pexels

How about you?

On Sunday, as you sip your coffee, spare a thought for the runners and the crew who make the Sydney marathon spectacular. You may think we’re all a little crazy, and you may be right. But maybe, just maybe, you’d like to challenge yourself with a race of some kind in the next 6-12 months? Even if you never complete a marathon, I would encourage anyone to pull on your running shoes and get out there to get some clarity and challenge yourself to do something you thought you never could.

Mathew Green is an educator and school leader. His award-winning podcast, The Art of Teaching is where he interviews the best minds in education and leadership from Australia and around the world.