While I ran Cross Country, there was really only one part of our races that I truly detested, and it was the first 400 meters. The first ten or fifteen seconds after the gun goes off are great and fun and all, and then all of a sudden you round that first corner. You leave all the people cheering at the start line and you are instantly plunged into the suffocating sound of pounding feet and labored breathing. No one has a rhythm yet, no one is comfortable being miserable yet, and you’re entering that part of the race where your body says, “Oh you’re doing this to me, are you?” While this part of the race lasts, your legs are screaming at you to stop while your mind is screaming at you to push harder. Everything is rebelling against everything else, and oh look! now you get to climb that giant hill. The rest of the race is easy, honestly. You pass the first mile mark before you know it, a few quick minutes later you’re halfway done, then the second mile mark whizzes by, and violà! you’re kicking and you’re done. Easy.
But that first quarter mile.
I’m pretty sure in every single race I ran, I questioned my sanity in those first 400 meters. As I watched the stupid fast runners shoot past me and the slower ones fall behind me, as I checked my pace, as I pushed my legs a little more than they wanted to go, without fail those 400 meters would not end without me thinking, “Tell me again why I do this for fun?” By the time I passed the finish line with legs pumping as fast as they could possibly go (and STILL I felt like I was swimming in molasses those last 200 meters!) and I was exhausted beyond belief in the best possible way, I remembered why I did this for fun. Nothing beats the feeling of finishing a race. I cannot begin to explain to you the exhilaration and satisfaction of crossing the finish line. But did I feel that at the beginning? Absolutely not.
I am amazed how much XC relates to our Christian walk. The writer of Hebrews knew what he was saying when he referenced running in chapter 12. As I walk through trials this fall, I am reminded again and again how much it feels like those first 400 meters of a race, where there’s no longer an option of backing out, but the finish line is nowhere in sight.
And the worst part? The worst part of trials, and of those 400 meters? The silence.
See, everyone is screaming at you when the gun goes off. The adrenaline kicks in, your mom is waving her hands above her head, the Varsity boys are there too (oh you know that was totally a motivation, ladies), and you are pumped and and ready to crush this bad boy like nobody’s business. And then all of the sudden—
All of the sudden you are completely on your own. No one is cheering. No one is watching. It’s just you, your aching legs, your screaming lungs, and a hell of a lot of race left. In a way, you are immediately plunged into a strange sort of loneliness. The only time I ever wanted to quit a race, the only time I ever thought I couldn’t do it, was in that silence. And oh my goodness does this speak to my spiritual life. There comes a point in every trial when you hit the first 400 meters. And unlike in a Cross Country race, it doesn’t just happen once, it’s going to happen over and over again. The reality of life is that your support system can’t be next to you every minute of every day. Sooner or later you’re going to round that corner and it’s just going to be you and your thoughts. There’s no one there when you’re trying to fall asleep at night, there’s no one there durning your morning commute, there’s no one there when you’re powering through a paper. These moments might last for hours, or they might just be a few minutes, but they are the loneliest and most dangerous times of all.
The only advice I can give, as trite as it may sound is: Dear friend, don’t give up.
I know the pain of that silence, that your legs are exhausted, that your lungs are bursting, and that the finish line is nowhere in sight. But, beloved, it’s only 400 meters. It’s not the whole race. You are surrounded by those that love you, but they can’t be near you every minute of the race. You’ve got to round that corner, you’ve got to leave them behind, because if you didn’t, who’d be there to encourage you at the one mile mark, or the two? If they stood by you every minute, if they ran the race with you, you’d all be miserable. Some parts you need to run on your own. But just because no one is around you right now doesn’t mean you are alone. Keep running, they’re waiting for you at the next checkpoint. Endure, beloved. You are not alone and you are strong enough. Endure, and I promise—as your sister in Christ, I promise—you’ll cross that finish line and you will feel that exhilaration, and you will say, Ah yes, that is why I do this.