It was dark as night outside and cold, but I got out of the car anyway. There was a light coming from a little canopy so I knew where I needed to go. The email I saw the night before said that registered runners could pick up their running bibs starting at 6 am. Since I couldn't sleep, I got up early and headed over there. It was a classic example of the new kid at the party - they show up on time or early - alone. I don't think the woman at the table was expecting anyone to be there at 6:30 am... but I was.
After I got my number, I walked back to my car and sat restlessly. Getting out occasionally to stretch or walk around.
I had made a decision last November that I was going to run a 5k in my 40th year. I'm little surprised that I kept that promise to myself because consistency isn't exactly one of my strengths. I can have a lot of passion for something for a while, but it often doesn't last long, especially when it is something that is hard or new. But through many starts and quits over time I developed a habit of running three to four times a week. I started with two miles and slowly increased my pace and distance until I was regularly running approximately ten miles per week. Then in September I signed up for a race. I was probably ready much sooner, but I had procrastinated out of fear.
What probably made this attempt at a healthier lifestyle stick (along with telling people about it and making it time-bound) was that I connected it with the development of a prayer habit. Prayer to me was just as hard as running. Whenever I'd try it, I'd feel distracted, impatient and weak. The kind of prayer I'm talking about here is not saying prayers to a sky-god about what I believe and then giving the sky-god my wish-list. The type of prayer I'm talking about is when I invite The Divine Presence to see me and my thoughts, try and separate myself from my thoughts and then listen. The running helps me stay in the moment. It gives me a physical aspect to focus on when my mind wanders.
"Don't slow down and don't speed up."
"Don't escape and don't hide. Just stay with it."
"You are already at the goal."
"There is nothing to win. This moment is the reward."
These are the things I hear when I run and when I pray... and it takes all of my focus to do this for three miles.
When others runners started to arrive at the race in Louisville, I discovered that we were not all doing the same race. There was also a 10K and a half-marathon on the same course. At the time I was looking around all I saw were people who fit the traditional look of an athlete. Trim, muscular, tall... everything I am not. I became aware of my intense temptation to hide. I would go to my car or stand by a building or go to the bathroom. I wouldn't stand for too long out in the open and I certainly wouldn't speak to anyone. I felt like I was a middle-schooler in gym clothes again. I was afraid someone was going to laugh at me or think I was in the wrong place. I was scared someone would say, "You're not one of us! You're a fraud!" It probably contributed to me starting the race at a faster pace that I knew was smart. I knew I was running too fast, but I couldn't seem to slow down. I was trying to out-run my story. Thankfully, my prayer habit rescued me from crashing. I began to hear the voice I know as Jesus saying "Don't escape and don't hide. Just stay with it. You are already at the goal. There is nothing to win. This moment is the reward."
The track was harder than I prepared for but I kept running. I ran until my mind and my chest began to protest and begged me to stop. It was just after the 3rd-mile marker where I lost my resolve and I started to walk. Then I received an act of true kindness. Most of the race I was trading spots another runner. I would pull ahead for a while, then she would pull ahead. When I stopped running, she was behind me and as she passed m, she beckoned me on and told me not to quit and she reminded me that I could do it. She broke the barrier of silence that existed all morning with a blessing. It was her blessing that gave me the courage and will to persevere across the finish line. I don't even know her name, but she congratulated me at the end as I heaved for air, like some new convert coming up from the water. My sister christened me a runner that day, and I realized that there was nothing that separated us. We all had things from which we were trying to escape or hide. We were all just trying to be present to it all and do our best. There was nothing to win. This moment was the reward.