I have never enjoyed running distance.
I have always favored sprinting. Quick, sharp, concise movements. Immediate gratification. Immediate results. Fine-tuning my reaction time and response has always been far more appealing to me than building up my endurance and stamina pounding miles away on the pavement.
In addition, my body is built for power. I am woven together with tight, compact muscle fibers that thrive as they coil and release in short bursts of explosive energy. I am dense and I am thick. Goalkeeping, kicking, and explosive weight training have always come easily to me–and I have excelled in maximizing those natural strengths.
However, as my college career drew to a close and my days of competitive soccer, football training, and Olympic power lifting slowly faded past, I found myself at a crossroads. I wanted to maintain my level of fitness, but I also wanted to lean out, lose some muscle density, and shed some of my explosive bulk. After all, I wanted to maintain my athletic figure, but my days of maxing out and practically receiving protein shakes through a round-the-clock IV drip were done. I explored a variety of different exercise options, but ultimately was reminded time and time again that the most accessible, most affordable, and most consistent means of achieving and maintaining my ideal body goal was through running distance.
There was no way around it. I had to embrace the logic and talk myself into dragging my dense body out onto the street, throwing on a pair of tennis shoes, and taking off. I charted out a jogging course and began forcing myself to run a few days a week. I despised it–every step. My ankles hurt, my knees hurt, my back hurt. My muscles were tired, my body was out of whack, and every stride was dull and painful. I took off each day with the mentality of “This is awful. I don’t want to do this. I don’t like to do this. I hate that this is the best thing for me, because I’m tired, I’m sore, and I’m bored.” I ran with an exasperated look on my face–my brow furrowed, my jaw tight, my nose scrunched. I was miserable and there wasn’t a car that passed that wasn’t fully aware of how much I despised that time of day.
I finally became so fed-up with just running distance that I decided to start swimming, as well. I figured that would at least provide some variety to my workouts. And if I had a miserable, annoyed, and painful expression on my face, at least my big head would be hidden under water. I visited the aquatic center a few times and fit in going through the motions and pretending I was Michael Phelps, though I probably looked more like a drunken seal flopping through the lane. But just as I became content in the idea that miserably going through the motions with these runs and these swims was my best bet at staying in shape, God stepped in–as He always seems to do–and put my heart through a humbling workout.
I had just pulled myself out of the pool and was sitting on the edge cleaning out my goggles when I looked up and saw a young man walking to the shallow pool. His face was so handsome. He had soft, defined features and dark eyes. His smile stretched from ear to ear and his hair was wet and combed. His face was so attractive that I expected to see a fine, sculpted body with toned muscles and dark features to match. But when I looked down I was shocked to see that his body was very disproportionate. He was a good bit overweight and, in looking at him, you would have assumed his head had been plopped onto a stranger’s body. There was a lack of consistency in his form and I started to notice he was walking with a slight limp. It is hard to describe, but it just did not seem like he was intended to be that heavy. It was not a natural body-type for his build and you could tell by his face that he was likely meant to be a much leaner man. But as confused as I was at the sight, my eyes kept drifting back to his contagious smile. He wore such joy.
Shrugging off my confusion about his appearance, I simply thought, “Handsome guy, but what a shame that he’s let himself go. Well, at least he’s working out…” and went back about my business. It wasn’t until I looked up again that I found myself in a state of utter shock. As he turned his back to me to climb into the pool, I noticed a thick, dark scar that stretched from the top of the man’s neck, all the way down his spine, and disappeared into the line of his shorts. I was stunned. I watched him slowly step down into the pool, balancing the disproportionate body his searing scar had trapped him in. But as he waded through the water and stretched his heavy limbs, I could not help but stare–at his beautiful smile.
I watched that man rehabilitate for 45 minutes. At times he would wince, at times he would struggle, but at no point did his graceful smile ever fade.
You see, that man was bound by a body he did not grow up with. He was bound by a scar he did not ask for. He was bound in his mobility, his activity, his life. Yet his graceful smile never left his face. He was bound by adversity, but he was liberated by joy as he entered that pool. He was happy to be able to do as much as tread water–no matter how badly it hurt him. He was happy to be able to move, no matter how many people stared. He was grateful and he simply smiled.
I woke up the next morning with a smile of my own slung across my face. I had fallen asleep the night before dizzied in thought about the man at the pool, and my walk as a Christian. And the sunrise meant it was time to run.
I laced up my shoes and set off just as the sun was peeking over the Atlanta skyline. As I put one foot in front of the other, I focused on relaxing the muscles in my forehead, slowly unclenching my jaw, and allowing the corners of my mouth to curve up in surrender. I was smiling. And I was going to smile the entire run.
Stride. Stride. Stride. Stride.
I replaced the thoughts of, “This is awful.” with “Thank you, Lord, for this day.”
I replaced the thoughts of, “I don’t want to do this.” with “I am so blessed to be able to put one foot in front of the other.”
Stride. Stride. Stride. Stride.
I replaced the thoughts of, “I don’t like to do this.” with “Thank you, God, for a healthy body and the energy to burn.”
I replaced the thoughts of, “I hate that this is the best thing for me, because I’m tired, I’m sore, and I’m bored.” with “Look at the beautiful sights of this city. Listen to the sound of passing traffic. Breath in the scent of the autumn air. What a blessing that I can run.”
Stride. Stride. Stride. Stride.
I smiled. As my ankles hurt, my knees hurt, my back hurt…I smiled. Though my muscles were tired, my body was out of whack, and every stride was dull and painful…I smiled. And soon I found that I felt those angst no more.
Stride. Stride. Stride. Stride.
I finished my run that day having run my farthest distance, my fastest pace, and my longest time. My body was fatigued, but my heart was energized. My soul was overwhelmed. All because I never let a smile leave my face or gratitude leave my heart.
Every day that I run now, I smile. As I jogged to the end of my run today, I looked down at my monitor and continued to smile. 68 miles run since the day I started smiling, and I have energy and endurance to burn.
I do not simply want to be a Christian that is comfortable sprinting. What comes easily for us may be powerful, and it may provide quick results, but I do not want to become complacent in my natural talents. I want to run distance in my faith.
You see, I am wired to function one way. Many of us are. It is easy to lean on the foundations and the teachings we grew up under and feel like once we have those fundamentals mastered, we are in great shape. Once we’re familiar with the Word, once we’re familiar with what it means to love and serve, once we’re familiar with what it “looks like” to live as a Christian, then we are fit and prepared and can react quickly in life’s circumstances.
But a well-rounded and enduring faith requires pushing ourselves outside of our comfort zones and expanding ourselves to persevere for the long-haul. We must be distance runners in our faith. We must be willing to push ourselves, strain ourselves, and grow fatigued for the Gospel. That cannot be done by resting on the sprinted fundamentals of Christianity. It must be acquired through the constant and grueling process of building and maintaining endurance through hope. One day at a time. One foot in front of the other. Choice by choice by choice. Stride by stride by stride.
And while that is not easy work, while it will hurt and ache and wear you down, it CAN be done with joy and willingness. Smile. Find joy in the beauty of what’s around you. Find appreciation in the fact that you are rising each new day. Find happiness in the simplest of wonders. Find beauty in everything small. When you are headed up hill and your mind says to stop…smile. When you feel like you can’t face another obstacle or adversity…smile. When you lose patience and grow weary…smile. Rewire your thoughts to find joy in your days. Choose happiness. Consciously choose to smile. You will be amazed at the difference it makes, and you will be amazed as you come to the end of the road after a long journey of life’s hardships and you find that your emotions are fatigued, but your heart is overjoyed. You’ll be energized and encouraged and alive–all because you chose to smile.
I want to be a Christian who smiles. As I fight battles and face hardship and grieve and mourn and struggle, I want to smile. I want to wade into the waters of life knowing, though the hardships of my life leave a scar from the top of my neck to the base of my spine, I can smile. And though I find myself trapped in circumstances and situations that are disproportionate to what I feel I “deserve” or what I feel is “fair” in life, I can smile. Because I am the child of a King who boasts scars, as well. I am the child of a King who endured scars for me as He took the cross so that I could live freely and smile. I am the child of a King who assures us that, though the journey will be long, He has great plans for us. He gives us hope and He gives us a future. How grateful we should be to smile.
“Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a huge crowd of witnesses to the life of faith, let us strip off every weight that slows us down, especially the sin that so easily trips us up. And let us run with endurance the race God has set before us.” –Hebrews 12:1