Part of me thought of this fall season as redemption racing. I had something to prove to myself.
Last winter, icy roads and sub-zero temperatures persuaded me to complete three-hour long runs on an indoor track—at thirteen laps to the mile. With my husband and my tunes for company, I sweated those out, eager to get to the starting line of a marathon I’d done the year before. I wanted to crush that time, to show myself how far I’d come since my battle to emerge from the darkness of post-partum depression. Running—and racing—is normalcy for me. It’s essential to my sense of self, tied up with my prayer life and my emotional well-being. It’s how I met my husband and most of my best friends. It’s how I came to know God and where I meet Him still.
I never made it to the starting line of that race. I spent the week prior taking care of a sick child, letting her sleep in my bed after she vomited in hers. I held my breath all week, worn down from the care work but still hopeful that the sickness would pass over me . . . just this one time. On the morning of the race, I woke up early to my other child puking all over her bed. I started the laundry and packed my gear. By the time I got to the venue, I knew my luck came up short. I spent the rest of the day throwing up, feverish, without ever chancing the race.When I look back over the two years that culminated in my season of redemptive racing, I gaze from the vantage point of a peak. I can stare down into the valley, into those dark days, and see the hand of God guiding me onward and upward.
For weeks afterward, I looked for the redemption race. Sign up for something else! Make use of the training before it dwindles away! But I was spent, and I knew it. I recovered and regrouped and set up a plan for the fall.
In the hotel, the morning of this September’s race, I felt like a hot mess. Jittery, anxious, on the verge of panic. I am accustomed to these feelings. But there was also that nagging voice urging me: Don’t screw this up. I’m familiar with that message too. The more nervous I got, the more I knew I had to run, if only to fight back fear that would suffocate me if it could. Just trying would be a victory.
Something shifted when I got to the starting line. My husband worked his way to the front where he belongs, and I hung out in the middle as usual. I didn’t know anyone. I could feel the energy around me, the eager, sweaty vibe forever linked in my mind with the smell of Bengay. It felt familiar, comfortable, with the tribe of spandex-clad weirdos around me as a kind of family. How many of them were staging a comeback too? How many of them were beating back a tide of depression, anxiety, illness, fear? How many of them were exercising a tremendous courage by showing up?
Because I know, now, more than ever before, the bravery it takes to hope. Hope is a leap of faith. And as I lined up in that crowd of fellow runners, I felt awash in hope. We were staking a claim to that faith that the finish line would be there, that it would be worthwhile, that it could be found one step at a time.
I ran alone, but I am never alone in my fear or my faith. I finished that race seven minutes faster than the half I’d run after my second child was born. I ran faster still a few weeks later, and I finished my season with a thirteen-minute PR in a 25k. By all objective measures, I should feel satisfied.
Except that I’m not.
I’m worn down at the end of a long racing season and a long semester and a routine that still involves tending small children who, mercifully, haven’t thrown up in a few months. I’ve achieved the goals I set for myself this autumn. It’s time to look ahead, to new races and new achievements. Right?
I think about that when I’m running now, not training for anything but joy. January comes from the Roman god Janus, the two-faced figure who looks both ways. Only God knows my future, whatever dreams I may invest myself in, but I feel compelled to look back this year too.
There is part of me that will never be satisfied with my running times (or anything else I do, for that matter). And there is part of me that knows someday, if not today, my fastest times will be behind me. Forever. I’ve been a runner longer than I’ve been a Christian, and as much as I can say that the first led me to the second, the former things will pass away. In spite of my perpetual quest for motion, a personal and all-too human ambition for progress, God tells me to be still to know Him.
When I look back over the two years that culminated in my season of redemptive racing, I gaze from the vantage point of a peak. I can stare down into the valley, into those dark days, and see the hand of God guiding me onward and upward. I am not where I’ve been or who I’ve been. I’m not that girl anymore. And I should punctuate that with a mighty Alleluia and Amen! I have many moments from my past where I am glad to say that I am separated from my sins. Only the devil can taunt me with my history.
Yet God can teach me from it, and this New Year’s, I’m looking backward more than forward, not out of regret but out of thankfulness. I can see the gift of my running—not the times but the opportunities to practice courage. I’ve been training to run faster, sure, for now, and hopefully for some of the future too. I’ve been training too, to keep trying, to keep trusting, to shut out the nasty little voices within that whisper you can’t and failure. I’m not that girl, either.
For as much as I say that running led me to God, it continues to gift me with glimpses of His presence. Maybe I’m ascending a hill right now. Maybe a mountain. I don’t know where the top is. I only know how hard it is to keep climbing. Maybe I’ll get to the top and see a valley once more, shrouded in mist and darkness. And I’ll call upon these reserves, my preparation from these years, to fortify my faith through any trials.
I’ll keep on running, but I run in the hand of God. And every step, and every story, and every starting line—deferred or otherwise—is a redemption run. Backward, forward, and standing still: all redemption runs. I am racing the clock within a story that stands outside of time. I am scaling a mountain years in the making for a victory not of this world. I’ll keep running, with a grateful nod over my shoulder and a hopeful glance at the horizon, and I’ll praise God with every breath, knowing, then as now, as always, that I never run alone.