Running the Race and Keeping the Faith

Ten months ago, I would not have considered myself a “runner.” I have an athletic build and I played soccer for 15 years (my calves and quads are a bit bigger than I would prefer), but I never liked to just run and certainly not long distances. People often ask, “Do you run?” when I meet them for the first time.   My usual reply was, “I am capable of running, but no, I don’t run.”

Until this year. Recognizing that I needed regular exercise in my life, last January I set a New Year’s resolution to start running.   Like most resolutions, it was going great for a while. Then, the excuses started: it’s too cold out; I’m tired; I have too much to do around the house; I stubbed my toe the other day, etc. I hit a slump in my exercise schedule, but then someone suggested I run a 5K. Having a goal and a training plan was exactly what I needed. When I started the “Couch to 5K” training program, I could barely get through the first day of alternating running for 60 seconds, walking for 90 seconds. But week by week, I saw steady improvement. I could run for three minutes without taking a break. Then I could run for five minutes. Finally, I worked my way up to 30 minutes which was roughly a 5K. I was ready to sign up!

Last Saturday, I ran my first official 5K, a fundraiser for a local elementary school. I walked around the school yard waiting for the 5K to start. I did some warm up jogs, stretched out, plugged into my iPod, took one last sip of water and headed to the starting line. My goal was to beat 27 minutes, the time I clocked during my practice run of the route. Butterflies fluttered in my stomach as I waited for the air horn to signal the start of the race. And off we went!

It’s hard for me to pace myself and go slowly. I am naturally a sprinter (even when going up stairs, I have to run or take two at a time), so it’s difficult for me to set a pace that I can maintain for the full 3.1 miles. I started the race at a good clip, but about one and a half miles in, I was struggling to keep the pace, especially when I encountered some steep hills. I was slowly jogging up the first hill when the excuses started to creep into my mind: I can walk just a little bit to catch my breath; I started off fast so I can afford to let up a bit here. It was so tempting. No one was around to hold me accountable. No one would know I didn’t push my hardest for the whole race.

As I slowly jogged around a bend in the road, some local residents were standing at the end of their driveway. They rang their cowbells and cheered loudly, drowning out those excuses in my head. Instead, I heard myself saying, “C’mon, Margaret…you’ve worked so hard. You can’t slow down now. Push through this hill. Catch your breath on the downhill. You got this!”

I pushed through those hills, lengthened my stride down the declines and headed to the final stretch of the race. As I turned the corner for the last 100 yards, I spotted the digital timer next to the finish line. It read 25:48. I could not believe my eyes. I clapped my hands once to pump myself up and finished with a full sprint to the finish line, finishing at 25:54. I walked through the finish area, feeling absolutely elated while also feeling like I was going to throw up from exhaustion. I beat my goal by over a minute!

While walking out of the finishing area, a man from a local church handed me a water bottle with a label that read, “I have finished the race, I have kept the faith (2 Timothy 4:7).” I drank my water and walked around the school parking lot, watching kids run around and families chat. In the midst of this chaotic and joyful school community, I realized the 5K was a microcosm of my faith journey. When I look back on my faith journey, there were moments when I wanted God to help me right away, to provide me with a resolution. I wanted to sprint to the finish, to get past a particular situation and move on. But in those moments, God reminded me to pace myself.

Healing, discernment, and spiritual insights all require a process of maturation. We cannot set a fast pace and expect the answers to come quickly.  We cannot expect God to solve our issues immediately- those situations when we feel like we’re climbing an emotional hill and just want to take a break, to give up, to walk for a while to catch our breath. But, like the feeling of elation I got from running the race better than I thought I could, the answers and insights that come in God’s time are more fulfilling. Part of that gratification comes from receiving the support of our faith community. Our friends and family are there with their cowbells and encouraging cheers, not necessarily to give us answers, but to journey with us and guide us in the right direction so we may finish the race.

Now when people ask, “Do you run?” I am proud to say an enthusiastic “Yes!” I am a runner. I am running the race and keeping the faith.

 Margaret Manning is the director of Confirmation and Youth Ministry at Blessed Sacrament Parish in Walpole, MA. She is a graduate of Stonehill College and earned a Master of Divinity at the University of Notre Dame.