Everyone has learned at least one lifelong lesson the hard way. This is mine.
Like millions, I was once a fairly serious runner. The spark was lit one lazy summer Saturday afternoon over a quarter century ago as I watched a marathon on TV. I still remember thinking, “I look like those guys. I wonder if I could run like that.” Of course, I quickly confirmed that I could not run like those guys – not even close – but I still trained hard and ran my share of 5ks and 10ks. Never a marathon or even a half-marathon though.
When you run longer distances, your body forgets how to run fast. Because of this, once a week on a Friday or Saturday evening I would go to a local track set around a practice football field at a nearby high school. The hard dirt track was set off from a dimly lit parking lot by a large grass field with no lighting. The neighborhood was not in the safest area, but – like many in their 20s – I viewed myself as bullet proof and used the nerve-driven adrenaline rush to push myself harder.
On this track I would run a fast quarter mile. Then, without stopping, I would slowly jog a quarter. After the slow jog, I would immediately kick into another fast quarter. I would repeat these intervals until I was ready to call it an evening.
Now that so much time has passed, I cannot remember many of these interval evenings. But one does clearly stand out. It was a dark night. So dark that I could not see to the other side of the track. No lights. No moon. Clouds obscuring the stars. No one else on the track and no one that I could see anywhere. As far as I was aware, I was alone.
On that night on the far side of the track, as I was running my laps, I was startled by a male voice from the darkness. “Why don’t you race her?” I stopped and watched as an African-American teen-age girl, about four to five inches shorter than myself, stepped from the grass onto the track in front of me. I guessed she was about high-school age. From behind her, a group – I don’t know how many or for how long – had been watching me. I could only make out their silhouettes. Now, looking back, my guess is that it was her family, and the voice most likely belonged to her dad.
If I had been thinking, if I had even half a mind I would have, should have come up with any number of reasons to walk away from this dad-induced challenge. Just laugh and say, “No way. She would kill me.” Or maybe, “Nah. Not tonight.” Even “I’m too tired.” I could have feigned irritation and responded with, “How long have you been watching me?” Sarcasm might have worked. “I won’t race her, but I will race you.” I could have literally said anything and gone on my way.
But I said none of those things. Maybe it was because I was lightheaded from running. Maybe it was because I was hyper-competitive at that stage of my life. Maybe it was my own insecurity and lack of self-confidence. Maybe it was because I instinctively sensed the uniqueness of what was about to happen. Maybe my mouth responded before my brain had a chance to catch up. Looking back, I really have no idea why I said what I said. But what came out before I had time to think was one simple, two-letter word.
I can’t recall the detail of how we decided the distance, but the length was to be about 70 yards. As I have replayed this night countless times, I have realized that this particular race just does not exist naturally. In one sense this night was my own personal version of the 1973 Billie Jean King-Bobby Riggs tennis match. There are so many reasons that this particular race on this particular night in this particular circumstance would interest anyone.
Think about it. This race is far more than a male-female thing. It is a 25 year old – teenage thing. It is a wanna-be athlete – real athlete thing. It is a warmed up – racing cold thing. It is a he’s tired – she’s fresh thing. It is a distance runner – sprinter thing. Running a sprinter’s race. And then – I can’t not mention it – we have the whole black-white thing as well. But make no mistake. I was the clear, hands-down favorite. This race was between a grown man and a girl. I was the Goliath. Still, I could hear a voice quietly whisper, “You are being set up.”
So who would win? Who should win? Perhaps I should ask a more revealing question. Who do you want to win? You have to admit that you also are curious. You can’t not be curious as to how it would turn out. You are curious because most likely you have never even considered such a race. But on this dark night, on this practice field track, with no one else watching this race was about to begin.
Standing on the inside, I never got a good look at her. To this day, I do not know what she looked like. I just remember thinking before her dad yelled, “Go!” that no matter what happens this is not going to end well.
Two decades later, I would on occasion race my own children. With them, I would pace myself, running just a bit slower to make them think they legitimately beat me. Of course, I never felt a need to win. Winning was not the point. I wanted to build their self confidence and esteem so – just like my own dad when I was young – I would run a race to let them win.
Did I have the wisdom to do this on this dark night when I was 25 with this teenage girl? No. When her dad yelled “Go!”, I exploded and did not slow until I reached the end. When I looked back, it was not even close. She had stopped running. At that moment, I felt . . . absolutely . . . nothing.
And then the girl’s dad shouted something I will never forget.
“Congratulations! You just beat a 12 year old girl!”
It was at that instant that I learned the lesson that I will carry for the rest of my life.
Never run a race you cannot win.
But what does this really mean? Is it that we should never accept a challenge when we have no chance? Should we walk away when we have no hope? When all the cards are stacked against us? When we stand alone? When no one else believes in or supports us? Of course not!
“If God is for us, who can be against us?”
Romans 8: 31
The lesson I learned on that night had nothing to do with facing the impossible. The lesson I learned was to never run a race where no matter what happens, nothing good will result. This is obvious with certain acts of sin: anger, bitterness, envy, hate, impatience, jealousy, rage, and worry. When we fail to listen. When we join the ranks of the complicit through fear, ignorance, malevolence, or self-interest.
“For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
Romans 8: 38-39
As Christians we also run a race. Every day. At times, we feel completely alone. We see the world in a different way, through a clarifying lens. But when we run we have a mighty, rushing wind at our back. Our God stands behind us, though He may allow us to fail because failure builds strength. Because when we rise after we fall, we shed our fear. We know ourselves, and we understand our God-given capabilities and limitations. And we know that God will provide what we need when we really need it.
Because when Christians run a race, we know with certainty that no matter what happens God’s will is done. No matter what happens we will be more than ok. And we know one more thing. One ultimate sacrifice was made on our behalf, so that with assurance we can know
We run a race we cannot lose.