Run the (Virtual) Race so as to Win

About two months ago, I received an email from the Detroit Free Press/TCF Bank Marathon staff which told me that, due to continued uncertainty caused by the pandemic, the race was canceled.  The message was disappointing but entirely understandable.  They did say, however, that I could choose to run the full race virtually: on my own without a crowd or pacers.  Still, after months of training, I can’t help but ask myself if the level of preparation necessary is really worth it.

This experience is not unique to me.  Runners set to race in Chicago, Boston, San Diego, New York, or San Francisco, just to name a few, have received similar messages. And I’m sure they might be asking themselves the same question. Is it worth it?

 After all, The greatest joy of running a race,  whether that is a 5K,  a full marathon, or even an ultra-marathon (yes, that’s even longer than 26.2 miles),  is the thrill of the crowd surrounding us. I always feel a rush of adrenaline as I run past family, friends, and random onlookers cheering me on to the finish line where I immediately receive a finisher’s medal.

But we don’t just run for the medal.  Yes, the medal and the crowds make the physically demanding event easier to complete.  Many of us run for the sense of accomplishment; I ran my first race in 2016 because I had always wanted to complete a marathon. That race day got me hooked.

Training runs are hard and long.  Most marathoners run at least one 20-mile run before race day to make sure they’re able to handle the grueling course, not to mention the many shorter training days leading up to the event. We runners push ourselves in training runs, often done solo or in small groups.  They are not glamorous, nor are they recognized by the wider public. It is a test of will, and runners need to face that test day in and day out.   We can think of these virtual races as just one more training run, done without the fanfare of a crowd.  But I think there’s something a bit more uplifting about the way we can deal with these circumstances.

This new way of running the race is both flexible and creative. Runners do not need to get up at the crack of dawn and wait at a starting corral for at least an hour to start running.  We don’t need to worry about whether or not we’re going to have to use a porta potty after we cross the starting line. The route we run is adaptable and we can choose not to have as many hills as the original race. We can decide how often we need water or food along the route to keep going.  We can ask people to station themselves at certain points along the route where we need their support most.  We might even allow them to run alongside us to continue to give that support, something that would not be possible during a normal marathon.

Above all, I keep running because I know that, even though my race is virtual, I run alongside that great cloud of running witnesses that inspired me to start running or encouraged me when I could barely go more than three miles.  I run in spirit alongside those that will follow in my footsteps, and here I think most especially of the young cross country runners I coach here in Detroit.

And, at the same time, isn’t that just like our lives of faith?  We run the race of life, the race of faith inspired of family and friends who taught us and continue to act as guides.  We run it imitating the examples of the saints who have shown us a glimpse of the love of God.  We’re not alone in the race, but we do have to choose to run it, day in and day out.  And, like St. Paul says, we run so as to win; we don’t run the race of faith without preparation, support, and a plan, just like we don’t run long races without training.

Running has always been about the community for me.  I learned to break distance records with other people, and their example pushes me to keep running.  We take all times, all levels of ability, because we know it’s hard work to keep running—hard work that is worth celebrating.

Whether there is a cheering crowd, tape to break, or the wonderful signs along the route, we still run, just like we live out our faith.  Good as these are, we don’t live our faith for the praise of others, just like we don’t just run races for the medals and the crowds.  We live our faith because it is good and we recognize there is a lot of hard work that goes into living it well.  Our running too is hard, but it’s never impossible.

So, to all the people participating in virtual races, know that I run alongside you in spirit too.  May we run this race so as to win, regardless of who is watching.

Photo by Andrea Leopardi

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