Wednesday, July 18, 2007

The Long Day's Journey-- My Boston Marathon Experience

O.k., so the picture is sideways. That's about how I got across the finish line in the Boston Marathon-- crawling sideways. Turn your computer sideways and look. Actually if you right click on the picture, I gather you can make it much bigger and right side up in Adobe Photoshop.

And yes that's really me crossing the finish line at the Prudential tower, completely out of gas. I finished behind most of the elite runners, and ahead of Mayor Flynn. It was a very hot day for Patriot's day in April 1993, and many of the elite runners dropped out of the race by Heartbreak hill.

But what I want to talk about in this post is how physical experiences can prompt, or actually be amazing spiritual experiences. There is something about reaching the end of yourself physically that seems to open yourself up to God in whole new ways. You reach what is often called a limnal state.

The race began with me walking to the front of the pack to get one fleeting glimpse of the elite runners-- the Kenyans and Nigerians. Enormous legs, otherwise they looked like they hadn't eaten in weeks. Very thin and wiry. I knew I would never see them again, so I figured I needed to see them at the start. You see there were over 5,000 runners on that day-- and as I said it was very hot for an April day. Lots of folks went out hard without drinking enough H20. I saw them later on stretchers on the side of the road at Wellsley-- it looked like a mash unit had come to town.

I saw some amazing sites along the way from Hopkinton to downtown Boston. For one thing I saw a man pushing his quadrapeligic son the whole 26 miles. He was running at a good clip too. I also saw a crazy person with a rainbow afro running back and forth across the course with a T shirt on that said 'Kiss me, I'm Jesus'. Somehow, I begged to differ. If that was Jesus incognito then for sure I had been practicing the wrong religion for many years.

And of course there were the temptations along the way--- one bar right along the road in Ashland Mass. had a big sign up-- 'stop in here-- free beer for the runners'. I wondered if they provided free Porto-johns down the road a few miles as well.

When I got to Chestnut Hill and passed BC there were a lot of Catholics out cheering us on-- some of those nuns had bad habits, but they were enthusiastic and I needed the help. I am not fast, but my stamina was pretty good back then. When I arrived at Newton the fire department was spraying everyone, including me, and when they saw I had the number 1993 (which was also the year) they wanted a group photo with me-- I said sure. I wish I had that photo now.

Heartbreak Hill, which is really several hills going for several miles through largely Jewish neighborhoods was tough for three reasons: 1) Alberto Salazar quit there he was so dehydrated. He had just won the NY marathon the previous year-- if he couldn't make it through the heat, why should I assume I could; 2) I ran into a young man half my age who was badly cramping up-- he was in tears. He had trained for a long time for this, and it was his dream to finish the Boston Marathon. It didn't look like it could happen on that day; 3) then there was the 75 year old granny shaming me up the hill. She was still running beside me and she said "Come on sonny, let's go up this hill". I was tempted to say "you go right ahead mam, I am basically dead." But somehow I got over that hill. Even Johnny Daily who had run the marathon since the 30s, and won it in the 30s had only run part of the race. Who was I to think I could finish?

When I got past Newton, the cable cars above ground were filled with portable cheering sections, otherwise known as students. They were moving minimally faster than me, but they were cheering me on. It was amazing. And then I turned the corner onto Commonwealth, and then I saw the Prudential tower and my legs buckled. I was overcome with emotion. I had been running on empty for a while and praying-- 'are you running with me Jesus'? Somehow he was there too.

And then there was my best friend standing at the finish line, Rick Sanders, taking my picture-- yes that picture above. Yes, it took me 5 hours to finish. I knew if I went too fast in the heat, I would never finish at all. But I did. When I crossed the finish line it was like I had entered the Kingdom. I collapsed in the arms of a lady who was a nurse, busy wrapping me in NASA foil. I was tempted to say-- 'great, that's just what I need, to conduct more heat to my body just now' but I was too exhausted to protest. With a lot of help from above, I had finished. I sat down and just wept-- tears of joy. Thanking the Lord. I had run a marathon once before in Cleveland in 1990 in the May heat, but it was nothing like this.

Which brings me to my subject for today. The interface between the physical and the spiritual. I have a theory. It is that we use an awful lot of things to hold God at bay in our lives. One of them is our physical resources. When we are feeling fine, we motor right along, but when we are sick, tired, and sick and tired, then we are all about calling on the One for extra help and strength. Sometimes we really do have to come to the end of ourselves to come to the beginning of God. What is remarkable is how patient God is with our arrogance and silliness as we hold Him at bay, and think we can take care of ourselves and are just fine.

Many years later I was studying Hebrews 11-12, and discovered that it talks about Jesus himself as the trailblazer and finisher of the race of faith and faithfulness. The text says we must keep our eyes on the lead runner, Jesus. It says we must leave behind the things that encumber us, particularly the sins that have been dragging us down like a runner's leg weights. Then it talks about being surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, who are cheering us on to the heavenly or eschatological finish line. I felt that, that day.

You see marathoning is perhaps the loneliest of all competitions. You can't lean on anyone else, you can't coast on your bicycle for a while, it's not at all a team sport. Either you do it, or it doesn't get done, or so many would tell you. They see it as the ultimate expression of radical and rampant individualism, and individualistic accomplishment. But actually they are wrong. No one could run a 26 marathon if the course was not properly marked out. They would get lost. And in fact apart from the very lead runners, most would get lost anyway if there were not others running beside them and observers cheering them on, handing them water, spraying them down, etc. Most runners get tunnel vision in a long race and rely on sensing other runners around them to give them a sense they are on the right track. And then there are the shoes-- its all about the running shoes. Without them, maybe only a Kenyan or two could go the distance. Somebody else made the equipment that made it possible. Come to think of it, no one does it without a lot of help. You could never carry enough water on a day like that and run the whole course. Somebodies had to be spaced along the way with water to hand you.

But none of this is as important as the psychological strength, the inner strength to get there, and that needs bolstering at numerous times along the way, even if one is in good shape. There is still that seed of doubt, especially on a hot day, about whether it might be possible to go the distance. Which brings me back to my prayer-- Jesus WAS running with me. I sensed it strongly near the end when every sinew cried out--- 'stop the madness now'. I sensed it when I was overcome emotionally in seeing the Prudential tower.

Rarely, but occasionally in this life we get a glimpse of the veil being lifted and we see the interface between time and eternity, this world and the next. I saw it that day. I remembered the words of my favorite John Muir saying-- "Most days, we look at life from the back side of the tapestry, and all we see is loose ends, knots, dangling individual threads. But occasionally light shines through the tapestry, and we get a glimpse of the larger divine design, weaving together the darks and the lights into a beautiful pattern (see Rom. 8.28). All things did work together for good on that day, although afterwards I felt like a Norse God-- Thor, very Thor. I went home to Rick's and soaked in the tub for who knows how long-- with a Cheshire cat grin on my face. I had fought the good fight, run the race, and finished the course. It was a day I will never ever forget. But compared to the race to the Kingdom, and the endurance that takes, the Boston Marathon is but a small preview of such coming attractions.


Jeff said...

Great post!

I'm planning (and training) to run the Detroit Marathon this October. It will be my first.

Thanks for the inspiration.

Ben Witherington said...

Go get em Jeff-- you da man. Watch out for slippery streets, especially the painted lines etc.


Greg Johnson said...


Great post. I could really relate as I did my first marathon in November 2006 - the Marshall University Marathon. This year I'm planning on doing the Portland Marathon and the Marshall one again. They are four weeks apart and will be quite a challenge. I'm blogging on my training.

All through my training last fall, I was reminded of the spiritual aspects as I disciplined my body for the long haul. Marathon running is much like our journey from earth to glory. I actually preached a message on my return to Oregon on the spiritual lessons I learned running my first marathon.

Keep pressing toward the finish line!


Burton Webb said...

Great post - it is far too easy to forget that great cloud of witnesses and the power they have to pull us long at the end of the race when we have given everything.

Like you I believe there is an intersection where we see/experience God in a different way when we are at the physical limit of what we can endure. As a scientist and Christian I find the junction fascinating to study. Sadly, most people never get remotely close to this limit and must wait for a severe emotional trauma (loss of a loved one) before they can "see" God in this way.

Keep running!


Lawrence Miley said...

Hi Ben:

That's an interesting story with an even more intriuiging application. I used to play college football. During those days i used to train and train hard. Since then, I've lost the desire to use my body as a work force, and am just recently starting to run and exercise again. I've even thought about training for a marathon. Your story, Ben, has inspired me to do so. Maybe by the time I graduate from Emory's MTS program, I'll be in good enough shape to do so.

Lord's Blessings on you,

Tyrone said...

Hey Ben

Thank you for sharing your story. It was wonderful. I personally prefer weight lifting over running. Although I sometimes feel guilty like I'm neglecting the Lord and spiritual things. Do you or any of your readers who train ever feel this guilt I'm talking about.
Perhaps, I need to remember that Jesus is there with me on that bench press as he was with you running that marathon.


Ben Witherington said...

There have been times when I was running that I felt I should be preparing another lecture or writing another chapter, but mostly I don't. Mostly I know I need the exercise, and being in shape is both a good witness to an increasingly obese culture, and it allows me to have the health and energy to do the other ministry things I do-- so there are numerous benefits. Keep lifting!

Ben W.

Clay said...

Thank you for the excellent reminder that we need each other. I'm sure that, just like your marathon experience, we don't even realize how much we depend on others to get by.

May we cheer one another on!

You really captured the power of community, struggle, and perseverence in this post. It was a joy to read.

Reading your poem "Maze" after this post makes me wonder if it didn't somehow prompt these thoughts. They really dovetail into one another.

Unknown said...

i have to say, i never thought of the community aspect of running a marathon. i had written the idea off as individualistic "showboating," of trying to simply gain praise for oneself; this sheds an entirely new light on the concept of community and helping those around you, in a subject i am surprised to see it. thanks.