Monday, June 4, 2012

Lessons in racing

I'm seventeen, curled up in a blue vinyl bus seat with a walkman, headphones and a bowling ball of nerves sitting in my stomach.   The track, "I Believe I Can Fly,"saturates my ears and the song's almost cheesy in these late 90s days but perfect for a pre-cross country meet visualization.  This is before the word yoga has ever reached my ears.  I breathe long and deep in.  Hold.  Breathe out slow.  I pray.  The bowling ball shrinks, bit by bit, to a tennis ball.   The bus pulls into the stadium.

I love to race, and I dread it with all the nerves in my body.  It's not until the gun fires and there's nothing more but me and a pack of pumping arms and speedy legs, the occasional elbow flying, that I cease to dread and the chase begins.  Three point one miles of chase.  At this stage, I can do nothing about my level of training; it is what it is.  The real battle is in my mind, a more grueling fight than my lungs or legs face.  I cannot doubt I can do this race, come near-debilitating side ache, legs heavy as boulders, a slip and fall in the mud, or opponent breathing down my neck.  No more walkman, the soundtrack of my mind plays a continuous loop of one prayer: I can do all things through Christ, who infuses inner strength into me.  

It's often not until halfway through that I fall into a relaxed rhythm around six and a half minute miles, after I've lost sight of my two friends, the top female runners on our team, and I'm on my own.  My eyes fix on the next girl, I pray for strength, and my body dials up a notch, if it can, or I hold steady.  I can do all things through Christ, who infuses inner strength into me.  I gain ground, pull closer to the body in front of me, until I hear her breaths strong and sense her eyes straining to look over her shoulder and pretend I'm not there at the same time.  These are vital moments, when me or her will inevitably weaken because side-by-side is too mentally taxing to maintain, and I ask myself, do I dare push a little harder?  The blow to the mind is great when attempting to pass someone and failing, and so I push.  She fights back, for a few seconds, and then, concedes.  I'm off to the next. 

I'm approaching mile three, and ready or not, it's time to gear up for the final push.  The one hundred sixty-one meter sprint where eyes hone in on final bodies to pass, but my mind is my final opponent.  Coaches and parents scream and cheer with stop watches racing, and all I strain to hear, one last time, is I can do all things through Christ, who infuses inner strength into me.  

Arms pump hard, legs pound the grass, lungs strain, and I nearly collapse across the finish line.  Exhaustion and instant relief ensue.  A few minutes pass, and I'm smiling again.  The same race that, moments before felt like it completely siphoned my energy, now finished, fills me with strength and builds my confidence.  

And who knows, at seventeen, that this physical training is really preparation for life?  For those weeks and months, at thirty-one, when running isn't possible and muscles atrophy, but the race is still on and this time it's the heart straining not to grow weary.  When I'd remember the prayer through gritted teeth and know in my heart that the toughest opponent looming today is not a person or even a set of circumstances, but my own thoughts.  And what will I feed my mind today, if not a steady diet of trust and thankfulness?  

Don't. Give. Up.  I can do all things through Christ, who infuses inner strength into me (Philippians 4:13).  

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