This was originally a 3-post series, but I have combined the posts and done a little editing to make it easier reading for those new to My Pleasant Places. Enjoy the read!
Most of my adult life, I have tried to incorporate some kind of physical exercise into my life. Some periods of life were much more difficult than others (namely, when my four children were small and when I traveled extensively), but over the years, I dabbled in aerobics classes and gym memberships. I lifted weights at home and worked out with videos and DVDs. But the one activity that remained pretty consistent through the years was walking. Of course to be counted as exercise, the type of walking I am referring to was not a casual stroll. I would time myself and aim to walk a mile in under 15 minutes. That pace won’t get you in the Olympics, but it will increase your heart rate.
Depending on my responsibilities and the demands in my life at the time, I walked various distances, but my self-imposed minimum requirement was at least two miles, or about thirty minutes. I always enjoyed my walks. They were quiet time for me, a time to not only get some exercise, but also a time to get away, to “meditate,” to think deep thoughts, to work through problems and dream dreams. Consequently, though I did occasionally listen to books on tape while walking, that wasn’t my norm; I valued the quiet too much.
When my husband, Steve, and I moved to northwest Arkansas, we started building our house, and for that period of time (about nine months), I was pretty consumed with that process, and so walking—and every other kind of exercise—dropped by the wayside. Needless to say, dropping any activity for that length of time pretty much breaks a habit. With that loss of habit came the addition of pounds on my body (not a fair trade, if you ask me), and so eventually I was motivated to start making the time again.
There’s a community park located alongside the White River about five miles from my house. I started driving there in the mornings to walk the paved loop around it. The peace and quiet of the early morning combined with the sights and sounds of nature in the Spring quickly lured me back into my old habit. I loved it all—the walking, the thinking, the bluebirds flitting around, the fresh smell of morning by a river, and the fact that this qualified as exercise! I was so happy with my routine. And it was in the midst of this contentment that something significant occurred and changed it all up.
As I mentioned, I did occasionally listen to an audio book while I walked, but only as a brief interlude to my treasured quiet time. One morning in late summer, the book I was listening to came to an end about ten minutes before my walk did. I suddenly remembered that I had downloaded four high-energy songs from “my teenage era” onto my iPod just the week before. I had not even had a chance to listen them, yet. I fiddled around with the iPod, located the songs, pressed ‘Play’… And my life changed. When the music hit my eardrums, it was as if I had to move, I had to do something to release the sudden surge of energy that overcame me. So I ran.
Granted, it was a VERY short run (just a few feet, actually), but it did something to me. I experienced a childlike thrill; I felt energized. When I had to quit (due to inability to breathe!), a huge smile was plastered across my face. There was no one to smile at, but I smiled anyway.
I made the decision right then to incorporate this little burst of energy into my walk the following day, too. And thus begins “my running story.” The following day, I duplicated the exact same process. I walked my usual course at my usual pace and on the last lap, I pulled out my iPod, turned on my songs, and let the music do its magic. I am not exaggerating when I say I could only run a few feet before maxing out my lung capacity, but the return for that small investment of energy was so great that I was a believer; I was committed.
Over the next few weeks, I repeated this same routine with precision. I never planned on running being anything more than a ‘grand finale’ to my daily walk, but at some point, a little thought toyed with my 52-year-old brain: I wonder if I could ever run a full lap without stopping. Do you know how far “a full lap” was? Half a mile. Please stop laughing at me and continue reading.
Some may be skeptical that a half-mile was really a serious challenge for me, so perhaps this is a good place to interject that I was 52 years old (I know I have already mentioned that, but in this case, it bears repeating), and I had never been a runner in my life. Not ever! So believe me when I say that the idea of running a half-mile was more of an improbability in my mind than a possibility. But because I like setting goals, and for my own fun and sense of self-competition, I took up the challenge. I started not only a half-mile challenge, but I started a new chapter in my life.
Call me a sentimental old fool, but I am really fond of my ambulatory ability. In times past, I have approached challenging physical activities with more zeal than knowledge and, as a result, I often impaired those precious abilities and temporarily disrupted the normal ebb and flow of my life. In those instances, I found myself sizing up normal activities as ‘challenges’ and calculating whether or not they were worth the pain–little things like getting up from a chair, walking up stairs, bending over to pick up something were all reduced to a mental list of pros and cons: Should I take those three stairs, or should I shuffle around to the side of the building and take the door that doesn’t require me to step up?
Thus, when I took up the challenge to run a half-mile—after having lived 52 years without ever having done that—I chose to work towards that goal in such a way as to maintain my status quo, to not disable myself in the process or to affect the quality of my life, in general.
I intuitively knew that I must not get in too big a hurry and not set too-lofty goals (this kind of wisdom, by the way, is one of the many fortunate by-products of growing older). I reminded myself that this endeavor was for my own self-satisfaction, simply a personal goal to work towards that would add a little spice to my morning walks. I wasn’t trying to qualify for the Olympics—senior, special or otherwise!
From this very balanced, very patient perspective, I devised a simple, safe and slow strategy. I had already found my running ‘baseline’—i.e., how far I could run without stopping to catch my breath. I decided to run that same distance plus two more sections of sidewalk (about 10-15 feet). Yes, I did say slow, didn’t I? And just to be sure there is no misunderstanding about how slow, let me further explain.
At that time, I was walking at least three days a week. My strategy of increasing my running distance by a few feet was for an entire week—not on each daily run. So on Monday mornings—my first walk of the week—I would run my previous week’s distance plus two additional sections of sidewalk. I would run that same distance on Wednesdays and Fridays. It was not until the following Monday that I would add two more sections to my run. Are you getting the picture?
Though it was slow, my strategy definitely met all the criteria for a S-M-A-R-T goal: it was Specific (I want to run a half-mile), it was Measureable (I will add two additional sections of the sidewalk to my run every week until I have run ½ mile), it was Attainable (which is why I did not set a goal for a full mile!), it was Realistic (see “Attainable”), it was Timely (I will increase my distance once a week and complete my goal within X number of weeks).
As I continued adding those few additional feet to my running each week, it slowly added up. In hindsight, I realize my strategy was actually right-on! I was going slowly enough to keep my body out of shock and pain, and—believe it or not—I was still challenging myself. I remember thinking on more than one occasion as I gasped for air after my daily quota of sidewalk sections, I think I am at maximum capacity; I don’t know how I can add any more. And yet, add, I did. I didn’t stop short of my goal once. There were a few times that I didn’t feel like I would be able to go the distance, but somehow I always managed to muster up enough energy to stagger across my ‘finish line’ for that particular day.
After I had about half the loop under my belt, I became confident that I was, in fact, going to achieve my goal! I actually tallied up the total sections of sidewalk that I had yet to complete in order to finish the entire loop, and I calculated that, at the rate I was going, I would reach my goal by the end of that year (about 2 months away, if I remember correctly). In mid-November, I was completing my day’s quota when it occurred to me that I wasn’t yet “maxed out” (which was my normal physical and mental sensation at the conclusion of most of my runs). In fact, quite to the contrary, I had energy to spare. This was a first!
I wonder how far I can go before giving out, I thought to myself. Just thinking that was enough to push me forward. In fact, I think I actually sped up! And to my joy and delight, I finished the lap that day–six weeks ahead of “schedule.” What a sense of accomplishment! In a relatively short time, I had gone from only being able to run a few measly feet to running a half-mile. It was such a high!
As I was cooling down, breathing hard, smiling hard and basking in the afterglow of “desire accomplished” (I had an overwhelming urge to raise my arms in a Rocky victory stance [see picture]), I immediately started experiencing runner’s-high-induced thoughts like, Wow! I never dreamed I would be able to do that. Pause/Reflect/Catch breath… That means there are other things I’ve never considered doing that I can do… Pause/Reflect/Catch breath… I wonder if I could run a whole mile???
Spurred on by my fresh success (and the runner’s high), I was convinced that, YES! I could do it! Right then and there, I made the commitment to continue with my current “slow and steady” strategy and start working on completing a second lap, aka one mile.
As I write my running story, I get excited all over again (I actually caught myself smiling at my computer screen several times during this writing). The one thing I regret, though, is that I was not writing about it while I was actually living it. Wouldn’t it be cool for me to be able to go back and read my thoughts on the days that I had struggled and did not know if I would be able to reach the goal? Wouldn’t it be even more cool to read my thoughts on the day I finished?
But the fact is, I did not know that I was “making history” at the time. I didn’t know how much this activity and this story were going to affect my life, how it was going to change my perspectives and even affect my future. Which leads me to this thought: I wonder if I am making history right now. Pause/Reflect… We never know, do we?
Pithy Thoughts and Sayings (go ahead and look up pithy in a dictionary; you know you want to!)
- Hard by the yard, but a cinch by the inch!
- Slow and steady wins the race.
- Success breeds more success.
- A fulfilled desire is sweet to the soul… (Pro 13:19, GWT)
- There are advantages to growing older.
- I could be making personal “history” right now!
- What else have I never considered doing simply because it never occurred to me that I could do it?
A Spiritual Dimension
I continued with the same simple strategy that had helped me get that half-mile under my belt; I added 10-15 feet a week (approximately two sidewalk sections) to my previous week’s distance. Whenever I felt a surge of energy, I might add a little extra to my run. But whenever that happened, I would not allow myself to go backwards; I could not regress back to a previous marker. That distance became my new baseline. Though I wasn’t conscious of it at the time, I later realized that this standard to not go backwards coincides perfectly with a Biblical principle: “Press towards what is ahead…live up to what we have already attained.”
And speaking of Biblical principles, let me digress momentarily from my running story to build a platform for the really good stuff that will follow. I’m convinced that the Apostle Paul, writer of over half the New Testament, must have been some kind of athlete—or at least a fan!—because so many of his analogies make reference to sports. For instance, he writes here about discipline and training hard:
“Don’t you realize that everyone who runs in a race runs to win, but only one runner gets the prize? Run like them; run to win! All good athletes go into strict training; they are disciplined. They train hard to win a prize that will fade away, but we do it for an eternal prize. So I run—but not without a clear goal ahead of me. I run with purpose in every step. I’m running hard for the finish line. I’m giving it everything I’ve got. I box—but not as if I were just shadow boxing. Rather, I toughen my body with punches and make it my slave… I discipline my body like an athlete, training it to do what it should. I’m staying alert and in top condition so that I will not be disqualified for the prize, after telling everyone else all about it and then missing out myself. *
Here he talks about focus and keeping our eyes on the goal, not looking back:
It’s not that I’ve already reached the goal or have already completed the course. But I run to win that which Jesus Christ has already won for me. I can’t consider myself a winner yet. This is what I do: I don’t look back, I lengthen my stride, and I run straight toward the goal to win the prize that God’s heavenly call offers in Christ Jesus. I press on to reach the end of the race. I’m off and running, and I’m not turning back. *
And here he compares life to a race with a strong emphasis on not quitting when the going gets tough: *
Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a huge crowd of witnesses to the life of faith [remember these “witnesses”; I’m going to refer to them in a moment], 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. We must run the race that lies ahead of us and never give up. We must focus on Jesus, the source and goal of our faith [i.e., the starting point and the finish line]. Think of all the hostility he endured from sinful people; then you won’t become weary and give up. He saw the joy ahead of him, so he endured… Because he never lost sight of where he was headed—that exhilarating finish in and with God—he could put up with anything along the way: cross, shame, whatever. And now he’s there, in the place of honor, right alongside God.
Now, having laid that foundation, let me get back to my running story. I was “losing steam” one day and thinking I might have to stop short of my daily goal. I had made so much progress to date, and I had never once stopped short; I didn’t want to begin now. But my body was angry and screaming for some relief.
It was in this context—considering stopping short—that I had an epiphany, of sorts. Let me remind you how lightning-fast a “train of thought” can be. You can have an entire day’s-worth of memories and emotions all compacted into a few seconds. That’s how my epiphany occurred, so track with me, as I lead you through my train of thought, and ultimately to the epiphany.
As my body was trying to reclaim its “rightful place as boss,” I began to recall in quick succession the scriptures mentioned above. I thought of Paul toughening his body and making it his slave and training it to do what it should so he wouldn’t be disqualified for the prize…
…That led me to think about people that I knew that had quit the honorable race and had chosen to take the easy, meaningless way, instead…
…Which lead me to remember the wounded lives left in the wake of their selfish choices…
…Which motivated me to resolve afresh to press on—even when difficult—so that I wouldn’t be guilty of damaging the lives of others OR of aborting my own destiny…
…Which made me think of the “great crowd of witnesses” that were literally (though invisible to my physical eyes) cheering me on to finish my personal life course…
As these thoughts flooded my mind in milliseconds with clarity, order, one principle on top of the other, I clearly saw life as a race, not one where I was competing with others, but one in which I was required to finish. I was making a connection between my physical running (and the strong temptation to stop short) and the REAL race—the race of life, the personal course marked out for me. I reaffirmed in my heart that I did not want to stop short of the goal, that I wanted to FINISH STRONG. At that moment, moved by the deep resolve I felt inside, I made a verbal—albeit breathless!—declaration: “I’ll finish for you crowd of witnesses!”
I kept running and in a few more steps, I said, “I’ll finish for you, Kids (speaking of my four children and two step-sons); I’ll leave you a legacy.” I kept pushing, thinking about the declarations that I was making, and then I added, “I’ll finish for you Grands (grandchildren), I’ll leave you footprints to follow.” At each turn or at certain “markers” along my track, I made a declaration for someone I cared about—and I reached my goal for that day. But more importantly than the physical finish was something that happened in my heart.
That “something” was the deep connection I made between my physical running and my spiritual race and the great necessity to finish (as opposed to quitting, giving up, or fizzling out). I felt as if I were leading the way (simply by reason of my position of leadership and my age) for a bunch of others (my children, grandchildren, the women in my church, etc.) and that it was imperative that I finish for them so that they, in turn, could finish their race. This connection was a momentous occasion for me.
I began routinely making declarations a part of my running. After a short while, I quit saying, “I’ll finish for you, Kids, Grandkids, etc.” and I started calling each individual by name. “I’ll finish for you, Jeff…” “I’ll finish for you, Randy…” “I’ll finish for you, Chloe…” And beyond family, “I’ll finish for you, Rachel…” “I’ll finish for you, Sierra…” “I’ll finish for you, Jessica…” Again, oh so powerful! This simple practice embedded these people into my heart and reinforced within me how important it was for me to “finish well;” others were following.
From there, I began to “invite” like the Apostle Paul did, “Follow me as I follow Christ.” By saying this, I was acknowledging my responsibility to be a leader. I knew that to be able to say this, I had to lead carefully. After all, I didn’t want these beloved ones to follow me into harm’s way! Making this statement was my unique way of accepting that responsibility (before God). It was also another way of committing to finish well and to finish strong. The physical activity of running somehow empowered me to build up my spiritual muscles, as well, and to begin to take my designated place in the Race of Life with confidence. Isn’t it amazing how God speaks to us in such creative ways?
So for me, running is both physical and spiritual. I do it for myself, and I do it and for those I love. It’s a time to run off steam and a time to call out to God. I run to create energy and to release stress, and I run to continually remind myself that I am in a real Race that demands that I press on, not looking back, enduring “hardship” until I cross the ultimate Finish Line. What a powerful combination of benefits!
And in case you’re wondering, I finished that mile I was working on—and more. But I’ll write about that another time. For now, let me conclude by referring to the title of this series. When I say “Running for My Life,” I really mean it. I run because it adds so much vitality to my life! And even if I didn’t have legs, I would still “run to win” the Real Race.
*1 Cor 9:24-27, Phil 3:12-14, Heb 12:1-3; I paraphrased these scriptures by compiling from three different translations: GWT, NLT, and The Message.