A couple of weeks back, I wrote about coming in second in my age group in a 5K. The guy who beat me by enough time to eat a banana and drink a bottle of water and then make a pit stop before seeing me straggle up to the finish line was Rene Peterson, a man who, it turns out, lives less than a mile from me. If you’ll recall this fellow “runs” with his arms, propelling a hand bike through the course. We’d been in at least three races together over the last year or so.
On the Saturday before Memorial Day, I actually got to meet Rene and his constant companion, a tiny service dog named Lady, as we ran in a 5K around the Independence Square. With only 100 people running, this was a lot more friendly race than the huge one we’d shared in early May.
Right out of the start, Rene took advantage of a long hill headed north toward the Harry S. Truman Library. By the time I could see the library, Rene had already turned around and was headed up Delaware toward Harry’s home. He was flying. Of course, every downhill must be matched with an uphill. I didn’t see him, but I know he felt the grade as we headed back to the south.
Passing over the ridge on which the Independence Square is built, we had another long, gradual downhill, which promised another long, gradual uphill. It was on that uphill that I caught up with Rene and passed him. I realized that he very much prospers on a flatter course.
The race took us back to the square, in the shadow of the old courthouse, before turning west on Maple toward the finish. I could see the finish just a block away when Rene pushed past me. I probably could have sprinted it out harder and at least made him struggle to beat me, but, honestly, I was pretty well gassed by this point.
When the final results were tallied, he had beaten me by one-tenth of a second. One-tenth! In an odd quirk, I came in tenth overall in this race (out of 106) but only fourth in my age group. Once again–for the third time this spring–I failed to achieve the time goal I had set for myself, although I had a better time than in the previous race.
If there is a point to all of this, it lies in the vanity of all human desires. Does my fourth-place finish in a small race mean more or less than my second-place finish in a huge race? Do either of those matter more than the overall time that I had? In the end, none of this means much at all.
What matters, what means something, is that we run the race at all, that we give our best efforts and that we offer them to Jesus. Next time, provided the course has some hills, I’ll take Rene and I’ll cross the finish line in 23:30, my elusive goal. Or maybe I won’t. In this pursuit like all of life’s pursuits, it’s all too easy to become consumed by our vain desires. I reminded myself of that fact as I drove home that morning.
But one-tenth of a second? That’s hard to take.
You’ve probably had the experience: You set out on a longish run. Let’s say you’re going five miles. You know you can do five miles. Five miles is a piece of cake. (And by the way, if you’re thinking that five miles is more like a sledgehammer than a piece of cake, you can get there eventually.) You could do five miles without breaking a sweat. (Okay, maybe not that.)
But then, 100 yards into your five miles, you feel as if you are going to die. Your lungs are heaving; your heart is pounding. Your legs are saying, “No!” Everyone who has ever run has experienced this. To a degree, we will get the same feeling when starting out on a bike, playing basketball, or doing anything else that pushes the body very hard. Happily, this feeling of impending death does not last. If you push through it, you’ll find yourself a mile and half down the road saying, “Hey, this is pretty easy. Five miles is a piece of cake!”
Jason Saltmarsh takes up this topic in a recent article, artfully titled, “Why does the first mile of my run suck so much?” Not only does Saltmarsh explain the physiology leading to those first-mile agonies but he offers advice as to how to lessen the blow.
Basically, what’s happening is you’re forcing your engine to work (aerobic state) before it’s had a chance to properly warm up (anaerobic state). I bought a Subaru a few months ago, and now I sit patiently in my car and wait for the little blue light on the dashboard to go off before leaving home. That little blue light goes off when the car is warmed up, the fluids are moving around nicely, and it’s ready to go.
Like so many things, that physical warm-up has a spiritual parallel. Have you ever had a hard time settling in to pray or to read the Bible? At first it seems hard. No, your legs aren’t complaining, but your brain might be saying, “You have other things to do.”
A few years ago, I attended a prayer retreat. During Saturday morning, the schedule called for an hour of solitary prayer. An hour. How was I supposed to prayer for an hour. I fidgeted. I shifted. I got distracted. I was in my first mile. But then I hit my stride. The “blue light” went off, and I prayed. When the hour expired, it was too soon.
The beauty of both running and spiritual disciplines is when you get past that initial warm-up period. When we get there, prayer seems like something that could go on forever. The Bible is something to linger within. And the miles don’t seem endless.
Recently, I ran a 5K. Once again, I was aiming to complete the course in 23:30, but once again I ran out of gas along the way. When I realized that I could not reach my goal time, I eased up and did not even make a new PR. That was probably a poor choice.
Checking the official results later in the day, I realized that I had managed to come in second in my age group. Coming in 2nd among 33 runners, 80th of 933 overall, was some consolation. But still, I knew that I shouldn’t have eased up. Obviously the guy who won the age group, coming in at 19:18, didn’t ease up.
I determined to find something out about this guy, this Rene Peterson. He also beat me in the Rock the Parkway Half Marathon, coming in at 1:33:10. His time last year in the Hospital Hill Half was considerably slower, 1:57, but that leads me to my next discovery about him.
That’s Rene Peterson in the Army shirt in the photo above. That’s him sitting down in his “hand bike,” a wheelchair built for racing. An army vet, Rene did not lose the use of his legs in combat but in a auto accident about nine years ago. He could have gone into a depression. He could have taken all the pity and handouts that the world would offer him, but instead he began pushing that chair hard. While his time at Hospital Hill was not all that impressive, the idea of pushing that device up those hills blows my mind.
This man, whom I’ve never met but hope to soon, did not decide that pretty good was good enough. He did not look at his nonfunctioning legs and decide, “I’ll never make that goal.” He did not ease up. I don’t know if his mechanical ride provides some sort of advantage to him over me, but I do know that I don’t begrudge him whatever it might yield. Despite a disadvantage, Rene Peterson keeps his arms pumping and his wheels turning. He doesn’t ease up.
It seems to me that God knows perfectly well what my abilities, my infirmities, and my limits are. He created me, after all. God did not call me to a particular time or a particular place in this race of life. Instead, he called me to push forward with all my heart, soul, and mind. Easing up is not in the plan.