“Keep going, man!”

JP: From SharperIron. The author, Stephen Bean, is a recent graduate of Bob Jones University.

The Curious Fellowship of the Distance Athlete


I heard a noise behind me as I proceeded up the hill. A guy on a bike was zooming up behind me. He was clad in much more spandex than I could ever possibly get away with. And as he zipped past, he gasped three words. Not “How ya doin’?” Not “Outta my way!” No, the three words this complete stranger, probably more tired than I was, found the breath to say as he went up the hill were, “Keep going, man!”

I kept going. Those three words encapsulate what I love most about running. In nearly every other sport (and I have played many), the competition exists primarily between yourself and your opponent. Victory is obtained by pushing yourself, yes, but can also be obtained (and often is) by tricking your opponent and exploiting his (or her) weaknesses. For those who feel no qualms about crossing the line into bad sportsmanship, this potential can lead to deliberately seeking to humiliate the competition or even cheating it. It is an attitude that is almost entirely absent from every incarnation of distance running. True, when one runs competitively, winners are determined, and times are kept. The essence of the competition, however, occurs within each runner. You cannot control how fast your opponents will go—only how much you are willing to push yourself. The core of running is self-denial. When every muscle fiber in your body is screaming, “Please, for the love of all that is holy STOP RUNNING!” it takes a lot of character to say no.

This self-denial and the knowledge that every runner has to go through it create an unusual bond of fellowship between runners. Cross country is the only sport I’ve ever been part of in which you cheer for everyone, not just your own team. And everyone cheers just as loudly for the person who finishes in last place as or for the one who finishes first. That kind of mutual encouragement is a way of life in distance running. When I ran in high school, it was an unwritten rule for our team (and also those from several other schools) that we waited for the last member of our team and would always “run them in,” a reference to running the last quarter mile of the race or so with him to the finish line. On a few occasions I saw runners who had already completed the race follow this rule for runners on opposing teams. I distinctly remember coming down the stretch one time, neck and neck with a tall guy from a public school who had been keeping pace with me during the whole race. I was drained and started to fall behind. He yelling at me (no easy task after running three miles), “You can do better than that! You can do better than that!” He was right. I pulled even with him as we crossed the finish line. I thanked him after the race. He shrugged. It was the natural thing to do.

The apostle Paul compares the Christian life to a race (specifically, a race to be run) in several familiar passages. It is a race to be run with purpose (1 Cor. 9:24-27), to be run with focus (Heb. 1:12). It is race that brings honor with completion (2 Tim. 4:8-9). The similarities between our Christian walk and a race do not end there. Anyone can run a race, regardless of ability. I happen to have size-fourteen feet, which weigh approximately thirty-five pounds each and which I will drag around for the rest of my life. They may affect my final time on the course, but they will not affect my level of effort or my ability to finish . . . unless I let them. Some saints find themselves lacking in speaking skill, musical talent, or other obvious talents that lend themselves to “Christian service.” However, God grants skills each of us can be used for His glory. Nothing but ourselves can keep us from using the gifts we have, and certainly nothing but ourselves may prevent us from being a testimony for our Lord and Savior for the duration of our lives.

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