What is it about marathons? Over the years I’ve acquired quite a few friends who adhere to this particular form of torture. For some, I’d swear it was their job to run these races for as much as I see their posts and pictures of them. For others, it starts out as hobby and then morphs into a sort of drug; they dabble in their 5Ks and 10Ks until they work their way up to the hard stuff, the stuff of Iron Men and marathon runners, always looking for the next high, that sense of accomplishment, that race well run.
I’m no runner, never will be. My lungs won’t hack it. There was a brief stint with long-distance track in high school (I did poorly and there was a lot of phlegm involved) but other than that, I’ve tried to stay as far away from the sport as possible.
I admit I don’t understand these people- runners, I mean. I will also admit that there has been some inward rolling of the eyes as I’ve been caught between conversations that delve into no greater depth than the topics of carbo-loading and chafing.
The tipping point, I think, was one particular conversation about the incontinence of the bowels whilst running. My reaction was along the lines of, “Hold on, wait, what? Did you just say they poop their pants?!!”
From then on I sat in smug judgment. If one is willing to debase oneself to such an extent for the sake of some addictive high, be my guest- but I reserve the right to think you drank the crazy-juice.
You runners- I confess, I’ve judged you. Maybe a part of me always will; it’s hard to get over the pooping thing.
But something changed this morning.
I was listening to more of the on-going coverage of the bombing in Boston. Being somewhat of a news junkie, I’ve listened to a lot of it. Much is the same- the horror, consternation, speculation, and the cold, hard reality of it all.
It was an interview with the photographer who had taken some of the most memorable shots of the day. He’d been there; he’d covered the Boston Marathon for years as a photographer for the Boston Globe. His voice was a little far away, days later still taking in the bloody mess and muddle of what he’d seen. He was commenting on the man we can get out of our minds- the wiry, distinguished-looking man who stumbled, fell, and then sat there in what? Was it shock; confusion; pain; was it terror, his race savagely interrupted so close to the finish? We all felt a little like him, which is why we embrace him. We too were stunned and paralyzed.
After the chaos of that first day, the photographer had gotten a chance to talk to this runner, a man by the name of Bill Iffrig. They were meeting up that afternoon- fellow eyewitnesses, fellow survivors. The reporter badgered the photographer for details, as reporters do, and this photographer, this man who sees life through a different lens, said this about Bill Iffrig,
“He crossed the finish line.”
It caught my breath- this metaphor, so often used for life, and death, so cruel, yet so fitting, ironically so.
Bill Iffrig, the fallen runner, did not cross his metaphorical finish line of course.
But Martin Richard did.
Krystle Campbell did.
Lingzi Lu did.
Sean Collier did.
And with those five words, I understood these runners.
I see Him, this life, my journey, through –among other things- words, imagery, and yes, metaphors. John Tlumacki, the photographer, he sees it all through the lens of a camera as he tries to capture it before it slips through his fingers into the forgotten, unaccounted-for pages of history. Bill Iffrig, he sees this life through the race, the pounding of feet, the burning of lungs, the cramping of muscle; he sees it in the endurance, the finish line.
Solomon saw it in words and metaphors, as I do:
Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might, for in the grave, where you are going, there is neither working nor planning nor knowledge nor wisdom…The race is not to the swift or the battle to the strong, nor does food come to the wise or wealth to the brilliant or favor to the learned; but time and chance happen to them all.
And I’ve long thought Paul did too; he was after all the one that coined the metaphor. But something tells me that it was more than just words for Paul. Since Paul’s conversion on a road to Damascus, he never really left the road. He was a traveling man- always passing from one town to the next, always running from imprisonment and torture, and toward the lost souls of this world and God’s beckoning call. If anyone’s life or living was a marathon, Paul’s was, and he sprinted to the finish with every last breath he had.
Words. Photographs. Marathons. They are small glimpses into the wonder and pain of this life and expose the inner longing for something more- that promise beyond.
Poets, having word-painted the perfect setting, or crafted a piece of dialogue or a soul-stirring ending as strong as a punch in the gut, feel instinctively this calling from outside themselves.
Photographs are visual proof of the best and worst this life has to offer. Their horror and beauty- transcendent.
The sight of small Kim Phac running naked with skin afire with napalm, is to hate war and the injustice of this life.
The image of one unknown man standing up to a line of four iron tanks in Tiananmen Square, is to marvel at the tenacity and bravery of the human spirit.
Images sent from the Hubble telescope nag us, reminding us that this world is but a speck. We are small, we see only what is in front of our eyes…but there’s more.
And Bill Iffrig and his fellow marathon runners remind us that there is an end to the race, a finish line, and none of us escapes it.
Describing the moment before Bill crossed, John Tlumacki said, “…he had his eyes set on the finish line…” Will we cross the finish victoriously with our eyes set ahead or will we be pushed across by time and chance, never realizing we were in a race to be won? Will we say like Paul did in 2 Timothy 4:7, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.”
I get these runners now. For them, to run is their metaphor for life. It is to say as Eric Liddell did in the film Chariots of Fire, “God made me fast. And when I run, I feel His pleasure.”
Runners hope to finish their race well. They hope for victory. The race is fraught with pains, aches, chafing, and yes, it may be messy, but the finish line waits, it calls, and we’ll end there no matter what…
So let’s run.
And now, compelled by the Spirit, I am going to Jerusalem, not knowing what will happen to me there. I only know that in every city the Holy Spirit warns me that prison and hardships are facing me. However, I consider my life worth nothing to me, if only I may finish the race and complete the task the Lord Jesus has given me- the task of testifying to the gospel of God’s grace.
-Paul (Acts 20:22-24)