9 months to race day

Only (only?) 270 days remain until the Carmel Marathon. I have never looked ahead to a race so far out. Perhaps that means I’m taking this race more seriously … or perhaps it’s just a function of the longings of deployment life. Either way, my sights are set on April 4, 2020, when I will run through my adopted hometown and, God willing if I do all the hard work and perform as I think I can, qualify for the 2021 Boston Marathon.


God willing?

So, I crossed out God willing, above. I first typed it because that’s what one says. It’s what I often say. “God willing, X or Y will happen.” But I will run a good marathon on April 4, 2020 not if God is willing, but if I do the work, if my body doesn’t break down, if I don’t get deathly ill, if the weather is not horrible, if I don’t get mauled by an alien panda along the course, and so forth.

Of course, in the classical sense of a God who is omnipotent and omnipresent and omnieverything, God can will that Chris Duckworth run a crappy race. I guess. And God can will that galloping unicorns shoot glitter laser bolts at evildoers of all kinds, too. But God doesn’t do such things.

My reading of Scripture reveals that God is much more concerned with the human heart, the faithfulness of those who call on God’s name, and the well-being of the poor than God is concerned with how a middle-aged guy runs a race. What does the LORD require of us? To do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God (Micah 6:8). There’s nothing in there about running a marathon. If anything, my intermittent obsession with running risks becoming a trip down vanity lane and an exercise in self-idolatry.

And more … if we say “God willing” or “thank God” for everything that is actually a function of our own work, we get into dicey territory of claiming that our achievements are God’s will. And if my achievements are God’s will, then shoot … I’ve just made God in my own image and so closely aligned myself with God that my actions and his are indistinguishable. Bam! Idolatry again. And idolatry is dangerous for how we relate to God, to each other, and to ourselves. But more on that another day.

Here’s the deal: I’m pretty sure God doesn’t give a hill of beans if I run a fast marathon … but I do. And that’s good enough for me.

So, does faith have anything to do with running?

I am grateful to God for the relative gifts I have as a runner, for the introspection that running inspires within my heart and mind, and for the challenges that running presents to me. I avoid definitively declaring God’s will in my life. But I do give thanks for God’s blessings, if that makes any sense. Running is a blessing.

And more. God calls us to care for ourselves and others. Running is one of those ways that I care for myself. And, at times running has deepened friendships and fostered new relationships. Such relationships and friendships are sacred places of mutual trust and care – a real blessing.

Running buddies as sacred? Yes. Let me explain.

At the least, if I fall down in a ditch on an early morning run, I’m trusting that my running partner will help me up. But more. There’s something vulnerable about sharing in and enduring a physical struggle with someone else. It’s an odd kind of intimacy, of opening yourself to the limits of your own physicality, facing your own limits and daring to share and push those limits with someone else … all while they share the same with you. In my experience, that kind of mutual sharing of vulnerability is humbling, holy, and encouraging – and in my book, that’s a blessing.

Finally, I’m a better human being when I run. That, perhaps, is the best reason for me to run. It makes me a more pleasant person, a more faithful pastor, and a better husband, father, and Soldier.

OK. So faith certainly plays a role in my running. But I’m not going to say God’s will is for me to run a Boston Qualifer. That’s a claim too far for me.

Back to the boring running part of this post.


So, I have 270 days, approximately 9 months, until the Carmel Marathon. I outlined how I got to this point in my last running blogpost, a few weeks ago. This post is more of a long, boring status update on running – shoes, mileage, and weight.

Shoes

When I was home two months ago on emergency family leave I picked up two additional pairs of running shoes – my standard Brooks Glycerins, which I’ve been running in for years, but also a pair of Hoka Bondis.

The Hokas feel like I’m wearing a platform shoe. I had a great pair of stylin’ platform shoes back in the late 90’s, and these remind me of them – at least in the sense of lift they give me. And running on them for the first time this morning felt really awkward for the first mile or so … but then I forgot about them and ran as normal.

Currently I have two pairs of Brooks Glycerins that I’m wearing – one at 320.5 miles, and one at 277.9 miles. Based on my past history I will need to replace both of these pretty soon. I’m trying out these Hokas to see if I like them, and if I want to order another pair. Otherwise, I have one more new pair of Glycerins with me, and can switch to them and order additional shoes for the next few months. At the mileage I’m running, I’ll need a few more pairs of shoes for the deployment.

Mileage

I ran 155 miles last month, and I expect that number to climb through the summer and into the fall, as least incrementally. Over the past few weeks I’ve run anywhere from 33-42 miles/week, and I’m feeling great. In the past I’ve only cleared 25 miles/week when I’ve been in a formal marathon training program. At nine months out from the marathon and running this kind of mileage – with two weekly speed workouts, a long run (currently at 12 miles, with a 14 miler scheduled for this weekend), and easy runs – I’m getting stronger and building more of a base than I ever have this far in advance of a marathon. I’m excited.

I broke my consecutive days streak at 50 days, and have since taken two days off. Two days off within a week was too many, even if it felt nice to sleep in one day (the other day my schedule wouldn’t allow for a morning run). I like running every day, even if it is an easy, slow 2-3 miler on a rest day. I imagine I’ll take a day off here and there, but otherwise I don’t see many days off in my future.

Weight

I’ve dropped probably about 25-30 pounds since the start of the deployment five months ago. I say probably, because I was so ashamed of my weight back in January and February, just prior to the mobilization, that I wouldn’t even step on a scale. I was 242 somewhere in late January, when one day I mustered up the will to weigh myself. Lordy, the pre-deployment stress eating was intense!

I last weighed in at 214.6 lbs. To meet my Army weight, I still have about 12-15 to go (203 lbs is the max weight for my height, gender, and age that doesn’t require the Army’s “tape test,” a body mass index-type of measurement). I attribute my weight loss to the structure of Army life where I have less ready access to a box of Goldfish crackers or Cheez-Its, increased physical exercise (both through running and lots, lots of walking), and to some modification of my diet. But to reach my weight goals – to get under 200 lbs and stay there – I’ll need to make more significant, and lasting, changes to my diet. That’s my next step in this process. It’s not something that will come overnight, but it will come.

Been Running Lately

I’ve been running lately.

In my deployed setting I have both time and opportunity for fitness. In fact, fitness is part of my responsibility as a Soldier. But I realized early during the deployment that these months overseas are the best chance I will have to get into the best running shape of my adult life.

And so I run. A lot.

Back history:

In 2010 I was inducted into the Haverford High School Sports Hall of Fame. It was a thrill to see my coaches Jay Williams and Mike Ahlum again.

I was really fast in high school, but certainly did not maximize my potential. I ran a 4:23.1 1600m as a sophomore … but never got under 4:25 after that. My head got in the way – teenage angst and all. My 400m and 800m times improved throughout my high school career, and as the lead-off leg for the 4×800 I helped my team win states in 1993 and get a school record. To this day that state championship is one of my most cherished accomplishments.

Regrettably, I didn’t run in college. I didn’t even run local 5Ks. I just stopped. Again, teenage decisions. Sigh.

But many years later I got back into running when a member of my church encouraged me to sign up for the 2010 Army Ten Miler. “Pastor, registration opens in two days, and it usually fills up within a day. I know you talk about how you used to run a lot. Maybe this is your chance to get back into it.” Without much time to hem and haw, and with her encouragement, I registered.

Jessicah and I began running on April 6, 2010. In fact, April 6 is on my Google Calendar as our “Running Anniversary.” We sometimes trained together, but usually we ran separately so that one of us could be home with the (then quite little) kids while the other ran. I would eventually get into long runs on Mondays with my dear friend Christine, a pastor who also took Mondays as her day off. Jessicah ran several mornings each week at 4:45am with a great group of women in our neighborhood.

Couch to 5K got me to a 28:00 5K effort (9:01 pace) in Chestertown, MD, on Memorial Day Weekend in 2010. I ran through the summer, endured a shin splint injury, but got to the starting line of the Army Ten Miler in October. What an inspiring race! So many people running for friends who were killed in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, with many injured veterans themselves running on prosthetics. This was my longest run up to that point, and I ran it in 1:41:03 (10:07 pace).

I ran the Richmond Half Marathon just a few weeks later (“what’s an additional 3.1 miles,” I thought?). Christine, again, was a great encouragement, and she ran it with me (well, she was way ahead of me, but she drove us down and was very supportive). I ran 2:04:52 (9:32 pace).

Two days later I was running on the W&OD Trail in Arlington, VA and another runner asked, “Whatcha training for?” I was wearing a shirt with the words “IN TRAINING” emblazoned on the back that I had picked up at a discount table at the Richmond Marathon race expo. “Oh nothing. Just doing a seven mile recovery run after Saturday’s half.” “Seven mile recovery run after your first half? You should run a full! We have a great full in March downtown – the National Marathon. You should run it.”

I don’t know if my seven mile recovery run was particularly impressive, but his flattery seemed to have worked. I signed up for the marathon, and trained using a free plan I found online. Weekly long runs with Christine, some speed work on the W&OD trail, and lots of miles got me to the starting line. Jessicah trained all this time, too, and ran her first half marathon on the day I ran my first full. The weather was perfect that day, and I ran 3:52:12 (a 8:52 pace).

I ended up going Couch to Marathon in just under a year. It was great.

We then moved to Minnesota, and two years later to Indiana. Training got interrupted. In Minnesota I ran few half marathons, but got injured and did not start a full for which I had registered. I ran the TC One Miler, a one mile road sprint in 6:03.9. It was so much fun! I topped out my half marathon time at the Med City Half Marathon in Rochester, MN (1:41:55, a 7:47 pace). That same weekend we announced to our kids that we were moving to Indiana.

In Indiana I hit the ground running, and improved my marathon time by 26 minutes at the 2014 Carmel Marathon (3:27:24, 7:55 pace). Shortly after that effort, however, I found myself with new work and new priorities, and running took a back seat. Chris (a buddy from church) and I have run together on and off for years, pushing and encouraging each other. More often than not, though, I found myself putting on too many miles too quickly, resulting in injury or illness.

Fast forward to early this year. My National Guard unit gets put on Active Duty Orders. After nearly two years of very low mileage, I laced up my shoes on my second day at the mobilization station and began running. I logged 39.7 miles in February; 65.5 in March; 102.4 in April; 117.3 in May; and I should log approximately 150 in June. And while I’ve had some aches and pains, they were mostly early in the training and back in the states. Since arriving overseas I have felt great, despite the heat.

And yes, it’s hot here in the desert. It is anywhere from 83 to 91 degrees every morning, with winds out of the west that range from kinda/sorta refreshing, to full blast hairdryer in your face life-suckingly hot. Dehydration, dry mouth, a blazing sun that rises before 5:00am, and running routes that are mostly packed sand or gravel are all factors to contend with.

I’ve run every day since May 10th, my first day after returning from Emergency Family Leave. On some days I’ve run as short as 2 miles; others as long as 8-10. During this time I realized that my initial goals of simply building a base and getting into decent shape were too modest. It became clear to me that I had the chance to get into the best running shape of my life here. Best running shape of my adult life? Ramping up the goal gave me a new kind of motivation, and helped me think in a new way about the possibilities.

That realization prompted me to sign up with Matt Ebersole at Personal Best Training in Carmel, IN, for coaching as a look to hit new running goals. I now receive weekly training plans from him and shoot emails back and forth, all in an effort to get me in my best shape for the 2020 Carmel Marathon and a possible Boston Qualifier in 2020 (either at Carmel or later in the year at the Monumental). The BQ time for my age is 3:20, though I’d like to run even faster than that. I’m sure I have the talent to reach this goal – now its time to do the hard work to earn my spot on the starting line at Hopkinton.

But the goal of running Boston aside, running on deployment has given me a big non-Army goal and activity to look forward to each day. And, as I continue to grieve my dad’s death in April, and handle the stress that comes with being a deployed Army chaplain, the daily runs are truly a life-giving ritual of prayer, reflection, discipline, and camaraderie (I run with a group several days/week, and am so grateful for Allison and Ken as running partners, but also as colleagues and friends). Running, more than pretty much anything else, will get me through – and help me thrive – on this deployment.

I’ll never quite know what kind of runner I could have been, but I’m grateful for the runner I’m becoming now. Still, I realize that my current running routine is only a few months old. I have miles and miles to go before running shifts from being a much-needed deployment therapy and fitness goal to being an essential lifestyle.

In fact, the true test will be when I get home – will I keep running even as I get back to family and church and home responsibilities? I sure hope so, because I imagine that I will need the life-giving ritual of running when I get home just as much as I need it now while deployed.

Easter, delayed.

It was the morning after Easter when I heard that my dad was dying, and that I should come home.

Of course, my Holy Week and Easter were a bit different than normal. I wasn’t leading multiple services over multiple days at my church, as I would have at home. Called months earlier into active duty service with my National Guard unit, I was at a mobilization station getting ready to deploy overseas. I ended up traveling over Holy Thursday and Good Friday, canceling a liturgy I had planned to lead at the mobilization station chapel.

Dad holding my son, Naaman, 13 months-old at the time, at my ordination in 2008.

When I arrived overseas on Good Friday afternoon I struggled to stay awake just late enough to go to bed by 8pm. I didn’t make it to chapel that night, the first Good Friday service I’ve missed in memory. With travel and time zone lag, my sleep was off for those first few days, resulting in me waking up an hour or two before the ridiculously early sunrise here.

On Easter Monday I woke up crazy early, my sleep still off, and I noticed a text message from my brother. Please call. It was around 3am. I promptly called him, still Easter evening back home, and he told me the news. Dad was dying. Hospice was called.

There we were, in the wake of the resurrection, preparing for our father’s death.

The military post is largely quiet at that hour. Most people are asleep. I wandered from my bunk to the laundry room to an amphitheater where morale events are held, talking on the phone, crying, and shaking my fist at God.

You know, I always thought that was a metaphor, to shake your fist at God. But that night, it wasn’t. After getting off the phone with my brother and then my dear wife, and unable to go to sleep, I went for a predawn run. And on that run I cried and I yelled some more. And I shook my fist at God. Literally. I shook my fist toward the sky and shouted out. And sobbed. And ran some more.

The predawn sky that received my anger and grief on that morning run,
and responded to my shaking fist with a gorgeous array of color.

I wish I could tell you that I felt joyously comforted in that moment by the promise of the resurrection. That, like the disciples walking the road to Emmaus, my heart was warmed by the presence of Jesus by my side. But that really wasn’t the case. Jesus was by my side, I have no doubt, but it felt more like Jesus of the cross than Jesus of the empty tomb.

I know my Bible, and I know the church year, and that knowledge helps. A lot. Because in that fist-shaking, tear-streaming, ugly-crying moment I wasn’t feeling the joy of the resurrection. Not at all. I was in the depths, crying out.

Now, I know how the story progresses from the cross to the empty grave, and that knowledge comforts me. I know that Good Friday’s lament leads to Easter Sunday’s joy. Death is no more – this is what the church has taught me. And it didn’t just teach me, but the church embedded this truth deep within me with by drawing me into its liturgy and hymns and prayers and public witness and caring presence and persistent hope. And early on that Easter Monday morning as I faced my father’s death, I knew this to be true – death is no more – even if I wasn’t feeling it in that moment.

Easter was delayed for me this year. And while part of me feels robbed, I’m also at peace. Because I know that Easter will come again. I know that death is no more. That is what the church has taught me, and I know it to be true. And when my feelings recover, I’ll feel that truth again. Though, probably, it’ll feel a bit different. And that’s ok. Because faith is not the same as feelings.

Running as an Easter Spiritual Disicpline

La_Pieta_Santa_Maria_della_Vita_Niccolo_del_Arca_1462

Mary Magdalene running to tell the disciples that the tomb was empty Niccolò dell’Arca | 1462-63 | Painted terra cotta | Bologna, Italy

If running doesn’t yet have a feast day on the church year calendar, Easter should be the Feast Day of Running.

The Easter account tells of running – running to and from the tomb – in three of the four Gospels.

Matthew 28:8 “So [Mary Magdalene and the other Mary] left the tomb quickly with fear and great joy, and ran to tell his disciples.”

Luke 24:12 “But Peter got up and ran to the tomb, stooping and looking in, he saw the linen cloths by themselves; then he went home, amazed at what had happened.”

John 20:2-4 “So [Mary Magdalene] ran and went to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved, and said to them, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.” Then Peter and the other disciple set out and went toward the tomb. The two were running together, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first.”

This Easter morning I will head out for a run at dawn, the time of day that Scripture says the women first went to the tomb.

With the women I will run.

With Peter and the other disciple I will run.

With fear and amazement and great joy I will run, for the Lord is risen. Alleluia!

The Lord has given us renewed reason to run the race set before us. To run with love. To run knowing that death is not the end of the story. To run knowing that an empty grave, new life, resurrection, and the Kingdom of God lies before us.

Run the race of hope and promise. Run the resurrection. For this is why we run. This is the Feast of Running.

From Race Prep to Building a Base

I just completed a rather dumb training cycle. With just a few sub-100 mile months under my belt after two months of near zero training due to injury and a cross country move, I decided last fall to run a spring marathon … and to use the Hansons Marathon Method Advanced Program to help me achieve that goal.

So I went from less than 100 miles combined over last June, July and August, Last 12 months mileageand September, October, and November each in the 80-ish mile range, to cranking out four consecutive 150+ mile months (two of those months over 200 miles) in my marathon training program.

It felt great at times. But it also hurt at times. On race day I met my goal of running a sub-3:30 marathon, but I wasn’t quite ready for it. I don’t recommend this kind of running. I needed more of a base, and a more gradual increase in my weekly and monthly mileage. (For the long boring race report/post-mortem of my race, visit my Running Ahead training log here).

So now I’m building a base. Runners with a strong base are stronger, better runners. I want to be a stronger, better runner. I’ve never built a base, but have mostly geared up for races, finished the races, and then – due to injury or life change – stopped running for a period. I’m done with that kind of running. Now is time to build the base.

Though I have some racing goals in mind, my primary goal now is to just keep running, with less intensity but with disciplined regularity, to build my mileage base, get stronger, and increase my endurance. From weeks in the high 50s and low 60s during my marathon training plan, I’m dialing back to 35-40 miles per week (150 miles per month). But unlike I’ve ever done, I hope to string together several months of regular running with consistent miles. Perhaps I’ll intersperse these miles with a few races, but the primary focus will be the disciplined, yet less exciting, goal of building a base.

It’s easy to get up early on a dark, rainy day when you’ve got a marathon on the calendar and a personal record to chase. This new stage of training – with no personal record or marathon on the immediate horizon – will be a new kind of challenge for me.

Still, I have a few race goals for the next few months. For one, I want to go sub-6:00 in the mile. When I was 16 years old I ran 4:23. Those days are LONG gone. However, last year I did surprise myself in an open mile in Minneapolis and ran a 6:03. With more training already this year than I had at that time last year, I am pretty confident I can go under 6:00 – perhaps even close to 5:50 … but we’ll see. I’ve signed up for the inaugural Monumental Mile on June 5 in downtown Indianapolis. Should be fun.

The other race goal I have for the short-term is to drop my half marathon time. In Saturday’s full marathon I hit my half marathon split at just 12 seconds off my half marathon personal record. If I ran a half marathon at just 12 seconds off my personal record, and then continued to run another 13.1 miles, I know I can drop a few minutes from that PR in an open half marathon. But the problem with reaching this goal is that I won’t be in respectable half marathon race condition until sometime in June … and after the end of May there are very few half marathons in the region until late September, when I will report to Ch-BOLC (Chaplain Basic Officer Leadership Course) to begin my training as a Chaplain in the Indiana Army National Guard.

So the goal for the moment is base-building. Get out there and run 5-6 miles three days/week (easy pace); 7-8 miles two days/week (with a moderate tempo and/or fartlek workout); and a 10ish mile long run. Though I’ve just trained like a madman with 3:50am alarms and 12-14 miles before sunrise some days, this shift to a different kind of training is likely to be my hardest challenge yet.

Wish me luck, please.

The Bible’s “Marathon” Verses – 26:2

Bible 26:2

I am running my second-ever marathon this Saturday. A marathon is 26.2 miles. For no reason other than the novelty of it, I present here every chapter 26, verse 2, of the Bible – out of context, and perhaps quite odd to read in isolation from the broader story of the text.

The marathon distance is rather arbitrary, and the assignment of verse numbers to Scripture texts wasn’t exactly a precise science, either. I’m no believer in hidden codes in Scripture, nor that the chapter/verse numbers themselves have any intrinsic meaning. I just like marathons and I like the Bible.

That being said, I will certainly carry Job 26:2 with me during Saturday’s race: “How you have helped one who has no power! How you have assisted the arm that has no strength!” If I run this race correctly, I should be pretty much out of power and without strength at the end of the race (and hopefully have a new personal record). This Saturday I will certainly find comfort in the God who helps one who has no power.

I am grateful for the gifts and opportunities God has given to me to run and to train. Running truly gives me such joy, and is a great way for me to revel in the gift of life God has given me. I look forward to celebrating God’s gifts over a 26.2 mile course this Saturday.

Soli Deo Gloria.

Genesis 26:2
The Lord appeared to Isaac and said, “Do not go down to Egypt; settle in the land that I shall show you.”

Exodus 26:2
The length of each curtain shall be twenty-eight cubits, and the width of each curtain four cubits; all the curtains shall be of the same size.

Leviticus 26:2
You shall keep my sabbaths and reverence my sanctuary: I am the Lord.

Numbers 26:2
“Take a census of the whole congregation of the Israelites, from twenty years old and upward, by their ancestral houses, everyone in Israel able to go to war.”

Deuteronomy 26:2
You shall take some of the first of all the fruit of the ground, which you harvest from the land that the Lord your God is giving you, and you shall put it in a basket and go to the place that the Lord your God will choose as a dwelling for his name.

1 Samuel 26:2
So Saul rose and went down to the Wilderness of Ziph, with three thousand chosen men of Israel, to seek David in the Wilderness of Ziph.

1 Chronicles 26:2
Meshelemiah had sons: Zechariah the firstborn, Jediael the second, Zebadiah the third, Jathniel the fourth.

2 Chronicles 26:2
He rebuilt Eloth and restored it to Judah, after the king slept with his ancestors.

Job 26:2
“How you have helped one who has no power! How you have assisted the arm that has no strength!”

Psalm 26:2
Prove me, O Lord, and try me; test my heart and mind.

Proverbs 26:2
Like a sparrow in its flitting, like a swallow in its flying, an undeserved curse goes nowhere.

Isaiah 26:2
Open the gates, so that the righteous nation that keeps faith may enter in.

Jeremiah 26:2
Thus says the Lord: Stand in the court of the Lord’s house, and speak to all the cities of Judah that come to worship in the house of the Lord; speak to them all the words that I command you; do not hold back a word.

Ezekiel 26:2
Mortal, because Tyre said concerning Jerusalem, “Aha, broken is the gateway of the peoples; it has swung open to me; I shall be replenished, now that it is wasted.”

Sirach 26:2
A loyal wife brings joy to her husband,
and he will complete his years in peace.

Matthew 26:2
“You know that after two days the Passover is coming, and the Son of Man will be handed over to be crucified.”

Acts 26:2
“I consider myself fortunate that it is before you, King Agrippa, I am to make my defense today against all the accusations of the Jews.”

* all bible verses from the New Revised Standard Version

 

Short-term commitment to church? I can relate.

The other day I wrote about my struggle to keep running after completing my first marathon, an effort that was itself a capstone to an amazing year of running after 17 years of inactivity and poor eating habits. You see, for a year – and particularly for the few months leading up to the marathon – I somehow got up the gumption to change my life, to commit to running, and to run a race I never thought I would be able to run. But I did it. And I felt great. 

And then I stopped. Goal achieved. Box checked. Motivation, it seems, left somewhere out on 26.2 miles of asphalt in the District of Columbia.

My experience with running is not unlike many people's experience with church.

I've seen people get really involved in church for a while, as if to complete a project – a very tangible "project" such as the Confirmation of their teenager, or a more "spiritual" project of healing following a personal trauma. But once the project is complete, they drift away, having "achieved" what they first came to church seeking, but not having made the patterns of church or faith routine enough to be part of everyday life.

I can relate.

My project was to run a marathon. Since the physically and emotionally rewarding experience of running the marathon, however, my commitment to running has dropped off. Likewise, many people experience a period of intensive involvement in church, but then later drop off.

I don't begrudge folks who slip into the church for a time and then find themselves away, and not only because I can relate with this experience within the realm of running. Rather, part of what we're called to do in the church is to walk with people where they're at, and in that moment strive to be a welcoming community of Christ for them. Our doors are open.

Some come and sit for years on end. Others just wander through and take a look. Others hang out for a while but then move on. That's OK with me. Life-long membership is not the goal. Meeting people in their spiritual need and awakening them to the saving presence of the Triune God in their life – through shared practices of faith, including worship & praise, Bible study, prayer, service, fellowship, and giving – is what we're about, it seems to me.

In my own struggle to make running a daily and on-going routine rather than a time-limited project, perhaps I'm learning a little about those who come to church for a good, long stretch, and then who are absent for an even longer stretch.

As I try yet again to re-re-commit myself to running, I am grateful for friends who know the joy of running and who make running a part of their everyday life. They share their joy with me, and they encourage me despite my inconsistent commitment to running.

May I be as good a pastor, and our church as welcoming a community of faith, as these running friends are to this on-again, off-again, on-again wannabe runner.

this post is about running … and life

I ran a marathon back in March, and I felt pretty darn good about it. But since then the running has fallen off a cliff. In two months since the marathon I've run less than 100 miles … in the last month I've run less than 10 miles. Pathetic.

Just over a year ago I got back into running for the first time in 17 years. Getting back into running was a great experience, and signing up to run the Army Ten Miler, then the Richmond Half Marathon, and then the National Marathon was great motivation to keep training. By the end of it all, I went from "Couch to Marathon" in one year. It felt great. I felt great.

Yet in this whole process running never quite became an essential part of my life. Sure, it was something I did five days/week, and to an extent I became obsessed with running during this stretch. But once I achieved the goal of completing a marathon the motivation died down.

A lot.

The desire to wake up at 5am and run 14 miles diminished. Unlike other runners, my days didn't feel incomplete if I didn't go for a run. As much as I enjoyed the experience of a good run, I also enjoy many other things. Such as sleep. And time with my family. And a bedroom that didn't smell like a locker room.

But it wasn't just these various comforts that led me astray from the straight and narrow running path. Running – particularly marathon training – is an emotionally and physically draining experience. I learned in this process that I have room in my life for one additional, intense activity beyond my family and my work.

For a time that one intense activity was my marathon training. Since the marathon, however, my emotional energy has been focused on our family's move from Arlington, VA to St Paul, MN later this summer, and my transition from my current church to my new congregation. Though I am terribly excited about what lies ahead, I am also sad to say goodbye to many good people and places here in Arlington and on the East Coast. The transition is emotionally exhausting.

Nonetheless, I need to run. For my health (I've regained weight since my marathon), for my sanity (the time alone in my thoughts and non-thoughts is great therapy), for the challenge (I did enjoy watching my progress from week to week, race to race), running was and still can be such a powerful and meaningful part of my life … and an activity that keeps me grounded during a hectic time of transition (thanks, Christine, for helping me realize my need for some grounding). Perhaps not as intensely as I did in my marathon training, but I need to get back out there and make running an important part of my life again.

So the challenge for me is this: to turn running from an activity that is purely goal-oriented (run my first ever marathon) into a life-giving activity that becomes part of my day-to-day routine.

—–
More of my posts on running, including some that describe my "Couch to Marathon" journey, available here.

National Marathon Recap

I ran the National Marathon this weekend, my first ever marathon. It was a great experience, and I'm looking forward to running another, either this fall in the Twin Cities, or at some point next year. Next races on my calendar – a pair of ten milers in May and June.

I returned to running last April after 17 years of little to no physical activity. I was overweight and out of shape. I started running with the Couch to 5K training program, which helped me be able to run a 5K in May. Then I ran the Army Ten Miler in October, followed a few weeks later by the Richmond Half Marathon in November. And now the National Marathon. Couch to Marathon, in one year. I did it.

But this post isn't about the last 11 months. It's about Saturday. Continue reading if you want to see some runner-geek details about the race.

This was my first marathon, and though I had run several long training runs – up to 21 miles – I wasn't quite sure what to expect, especially at the end of the race. I had been consistently training in the range of an 8:40-9:00 pace, so I knew sub-4-hour marathon was possible. Still, what every experienced marathoner says to a first-timer is true: those last few miles are an absolute bear. If you look at my race log, you'll see that my pace slows around Mile 19, and I hit my first over-9:00 mile at Mile 24. Though miles 19-22 were tough, I didn't start to really hurt or question my sanity until Mile 23. For me, the last three miles were the worst.

Though overall I felt very good, I ran a far-from-perfect race. I went out a bit too fast – 13 miles @ 1:52 – and ran out of gas near the end. The energy of the crowd of runners, and the great spectators cheering us on, got the best of me. It was lots of fun, but I went out faster than I ought to have.

Another reason for my fade during the last three miles, I think, was that I was out of fuel. I ate an entire bag of Chomps – think high-energy gummy bears – from just prior to the gun to the Half mark, but then ate nothing on the second half. In retrospect, I wish I had eaten some more Chomps from Miles 13-18, as that might have helped me somewhat at the end of the race (during which I was suffering from some wooziness).

My time was also affected, even if only somewhat, by my wide swings on most of the turns during the first half of the race. I avoided the crush of runners trying to cut the corners as tight as possible and kept my stride open, but I also added .5 miles to my run by doing that.

I stopped to use the bathroom near Mile 6 – I was overly hydrated, perhaps? That stop cost me about 90 seconds. Rather than stand in the long lines at the nasty port-a-potties, I stopped at a Caribou Coffee. However, later in the race I learned that experienced marathoners of both genders know how to find discreet spots along the course, even in an urban marathon, to find relief.

In addition to drinking from my own hydration belt (large bottle of water, small 5oz bottle of Gatorade) I hit my first water station at about Mile 9, and then drank water and/or Powerade at nearly every station after the Half mark. I never got thirsty on the run.

When I began to hit a wall at Mile 23, I knew my time was good enough that I was going to get my goal of sub-4:00. So, despite the pain and mental anguish, some of the pressure was off. Sure, I would have preferred to run negative splits, but with only 3-4 miles to go, I knew that I was able to finish at a slower pace and still get my goal of a sub-4-hour marathon. I was glad to be in the position of being able to simply focus on finishing rather than trying to maintain or pick up my pace on the last few miles.

Finally, I wish I had known the approach to the finish line. As I was crossing the bridge toward RFK Stadium, I knew I was getting close, but I didn't know exactly where the finish line was (the finish was on an uphill along a curve, and there were no large signs or balloons or anything rising over the crowds and trees, so it was hard to see the finish line area from the course). I remember going up the road around the north side of the stadium, where spectators were starting to line up, and asking one of the spectators, "Where the heck is the finish line?" I wish I had known the last mile better. It wouldn't have changed my time significantly, of course, but it would have made the last mile mentally much easier.

Overall it was a great experience, and I'm looking forward to more road races this season, including another marathon in the fall, if everything works out.

I'll get into the more personal side of running – the journey over the past year, and its emotional and physical ups and downs – in a future post. But suffice it to say that is has been an amazing year, and I owe so much to my dear wife Jessicah – who ran a great half marathon on Saturday – for encouraging me and putting up with me over the past year. We did it babe! Thanks so much for your love and support!

Faith, Flesh, and Blood

I've been feeling quite carnal recently.

Don't worry. This blogpost is not rated NC-17.

For nearly eleven months now I've been running, and I've found that engaging in something deeply physical – that pursuing an activity that tests my flesh as well as my will – is profoundly transforming. Indeed, exercising the body has fed me emotionally and spiritually. It has nourished my whole being.

Of course, we are whole beings. Our emotions are connected with our bodies, our bodies with our souls, our souls with our minds, our minds with our passions, our passions with our bodies. We are whole beings, not a sum of distinct parts assembled like a LEGO creation or a Mr. Potatohead toy. This is why these words from C.S. Lewis are so rediculous:

You don't have a soul. You are a soul. You have a body. (source unknown)

If we rearrange the syntax a little bit, this quote sounds like something that Yoda would say:

Have a soul you do not. Soul you are. Body you have.

And while Yoda might be a great Jedi Knight (but not a great warrior, for we all know that "wars make not one great"), I'm not taking my cues on theological anthropology from a muppet.

For Christians, the ultimate reality of God comes to us in Jesus Christ, the Word of God made flesh, God incarnate who comes to us as a real human being. The early Christians rejected docetism, the heresy that taught that Jesus only seemed to be human, but in reality he was not human at all, but only divine. But in fact, the church teaches that Jesus came as one of us to save all of us, taking on our nature to redeem it.

Moreover, if the pinnacle of our existence is supposedly spiritual – trumping the flesh and blood for things cerebral and ethereal – then what are we to do with all those references to carnality in the Bible? What about that rich feast of fatty foods and wine that is promised in the time to come? What about the sensual celebration of love we find in Song of Songs? The prodigal son comes home and is welcomed with a grand feast. Jesus is raised from the dead and eats fish. Paul writes of the promise of the flesh and blood resurrection for all. We eat real bread and drink real wine, not to have a spiritual communion, but a true communion with Christ and with all who share in this sacred meal.

In addition to the blessed carnal reality of human existence, a prioritization of the spiritual over the tangible places nature beneath the spiritual whims of human beings and denies creation's inherent goodness. All of nature gives praise to God, yet an overemphasis on the spiritual journey of humans denies the God-blessed nature of nature. In fact, some Christians who adhere to an overly spiritualized understanding of the Chrisitan life (and afterlife) have little concern for care of nature, since the ultimate reality is spiritual and the ultimate goal is heaven, anyway, and not earth.

(I recently updated an old a post concerning the return of Christ and the resurrection of the dead, something that directly relates to the flesh-and-blood nature of our faith.)

Back to running.

Or playing guitar and singing. I was talking with a friend who was very thankful for the spiritual rejuvenation that has taken place as he has picked up his guitar and begun to write music for the first time in many years. For him, strumming the guitar strings, feeling the frets under his fingers, and singing – a deeply physical, sensual experience – has heightened his faith and drawn him closer to God. It was not through ignoring the physical, but rather through embracing it as a means of spirituality, that my friend has grown in faith.

Enough said. The pinnacle of human nature is not found in celebrating the fleshly nature, but neither is it in denying it for some supposedly disembodied spiritual realm. The physical and the spiritual are utterly connected and cannot be divorced. Thanks be to God.