Endurance Sports and the Christian Life

In a time not so long ago in a world not too far away, I embarked on a dimension of my fitness journey that I had not considered before. Up until 2000, my idea of exercise had always been playing sports such as tennis and basketball. (During my high school days, I played tennis, golf, and wrestling. Wrestling taught me mathematics with all that time I spent on my back counting the lights!)

But in 2000, I decided to take up endurance sports. At the time, I was enjoying running 5 miles a day–I had dropped a lot of weight and felt the best I had since high school–and, out of curiosity, stumbled into the ultra-distance community while researching some ideas about running.

In April that year, I completed my first half-marathon, a distance of 13.1 miles. I hadn’t trained for it, but enjoyed the heck out of it.

Then I signed up for the Air Force Marathon. It was 26.2 miles, and it was at a place I loved to frequent in my childhood: the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force at Wright-Patterson AFB in Dayton, OH.

After the half-marathon, I realized that a full marathon was a whole different ballgame.

Anyone can do a half-marathon, most venues give you 4 or even 5 hours to do it. Most people can WALK that distance without too much of a problem. Sure, if you haven’t trained for that you’ll be sore for a couple days, but–unless you have a disastrous health situation–you can do it.

But a full marathon is a different beast. 26.2 miles.

To successfully complete that without hurting yourself, you actually have to TRAIN for it. You need to develop a running “base”. You have to do long runs–progressively increasing your distance and time–once a week. In the marathon world, 20 miles is the magic number: if you get comfortable doing 20 miles in your long runs, you’re ready for the marathon: it’s a 20 mile run with a 10K at the end.

But the preparation, the training, that requires discipline.

That year, I would do two of those–the Air Force Marathon and the Indianapolis Marathon–and then top it off with a 50K (31 miles) race, the Quivering Quads 50K at Cuivre River State Park in Missouri.

Admittedly, the first of those–the Air Force Marathon–hurt. A lot. I was in pain for 3 days afterward. But the second wasn’t bad at all. And after the 50K, I was tired but not sore.

The training had paid off. I was in the best shape of my life.

After a hiatus–from 2002 to 20012–in which I struggled with back issues, I returned to the game. I did the Air Force Half-Marathon in 2009, 2010, and 2011, but decided to take the plunge and help MrsLarijani do the full marathon, as that was one of her goals. (She did it twice: 2012 and 2013. She’s also done the half marathon with me three times, and had a solo half-marathon finish last year.)

Now, I’m doing “centuries” (100+ mile bike rides), triathlons, long-distance swimming, and the occasional marathon. Since 2012, I’ve done a half-Iron triathlon, two marathons, and 14 century-distance rides. (I DNFd at Ironman Louisville last year, as I got pulled by officials at mile 17 of the run, due to my missing the cutoff time for the final turnaround.)

If my back and knees hold up, I’ve got my sights on an Iron-distance triathlon next year.

After that first race, I had someone in my church question the value of those kinds of events. “It’s just torture!”

I told her. “Life is an endurance event.”

Paul, writing to the Corinthians, admonishes them about running the race–living out the Christian life:

Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it. Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. So I do not run aimlessly; I do not box as one beating the air. But I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified.

In distance running, as with the Christian life, success requires discipline.

In the Christian life, you are going to face all kinds of temptation to cut corners: from gluttony to dishonesty to various forms of sexual immorality, it’s easy to cave to those. It requires discipline to fight against the lusts of the flesh and eyes, and the pride of life.

But what does that have to do with endurance sports in particular? After all, other sports–tennis, basketball, weightlifiting, etc.–require discipline, too. What does endurance sports teach that other sports do not?

I can sum that up in one word: perseverance.

In the West, particularly in the U.S. of A, we have a Christian culture that is drowning in various forms of the Prosperity gospel, which is a profoundly heretical teaching.

In modern culture, these are the variations of Christian teaching that are pervasive:

  • God doesn’t want His people to suffer.
  • If you are a Christian, you won’t struggle with lusts. If you do, it’s because you aren’t spiritual enough.
  • If you are a Christian, you will never struggle with material things. If you do, it is because you are living in sin.
  • If you are a Christian, you will never struggle with health issues. If you do, it’s because of sin. Or you are demon-possessed.

In reality, it’s the other way around:

  • If you are a Christian, you are going to suffer in this world. Some Christians will suffer more than others, but this world is not a playground.
  • If you are a Christian, you are going to struggle with sins that, at their root level, involve lust and pride. That is true if you are a teenager with hormones blazing at Mach 9; it also holds true if you are 50 years old and happily-married. Temptations will come from angles you never thought possible, and it takes years to learn to fight and maintain vigilance.
  • If you are a Christian, you will likely have your share of setbacks. Those may not be your fault. You may lose a job though no wrongdoing; you may be falsely-accused of something evil; you may experience health issues–including terminal conditions (cancer, congestive heart failure)–that are common in this broken, cursed, dying world. Hardships CAN be a result of sin, but they are not necessarily a consequence of sin.

In Scripture, Jesus and the Apostles stress the value of endurance. In Mark 13:13 and Matthew 24:13, Jesus said it flatly: he who endures to the end will be saved.

(And no, I am not going to go on a tangential sidebar about the question “are you saved because of your works?” The answer to that question is no, but a more complete discourse on that is beyond the scope of this post.)

Paul, in 1 Corinthians 4, says, “When reviled, we bless; when persecuted, we endure.”

In his second letter to the Thessalonians, Paul assures them:

Therefore we ourselves boast about you in the churches of God for your steadfastness and faith in all your persecutions and in the afflictions that you are enduring.

This is evidence of the righteous judgment of God, that you may be considered worthy of the kingdom of God, for which you are also suffering— since indeed God considers it just to repay with affliction those who afflict you, and to grant relief to you who are afflicted as well as to us, when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven with his mighty angels in flaming fire, inflicting vengeance on those who do not know God and on those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. They will suffer the punishment of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might, when he comes on that day to be glorified in his saints, and to be marveled at among all who have believed, because our testimony to you was believed. To this end we always pray for you, that our God may make you worthy of his calling and may fulfill every resolve for good and every work of faith by his power, so that the name of our Lord Jesus may be glorified in you, and you in him, according to the grace of our God and the Lord Jesus Christ

In this case, he commends their endurance of persecution and reminds them of the endgame.

In the world of endurance sports, you are going to have setbacks. You might get cramps even if you’re well-trained. The conditions might make your race more challenging. If you’re swimming, the water might be colder than you are used to, or might be choppy. You might get kicked and have your wind knocked out. You might have a bike crash. Your back might be stiff.

Some days will be uneventful, but you are going to have days that are very challenging.

As you age, your body breaks down. That is normal, as we all are going to die one day. Once you hit 30, your cardiovascular fitness, ceteris paribus (all things being equal), begins to decline. Flexibility starts declining. Your back and knees aren’t going to be as good as they were in your teens. This is why you don’t see very many over-30 (or even over-40) athletes in the Olympics.

But here’s the thing: it’s common to see old fogeys–and I’m talking 50 and older–in endurance events. They remain active, even though their bodies aren’t what they once were.

On the extreme end of the spectrum is Madonna Buder, the “Iron Nun”. She is the oldest person to have completed an Ironman triathlon. At 86, she has done 45 Ironmans, and she recently won her age group in the USA Triathlon National Championships. I have dubbed her “Sister Badass”. I hope to live that long, and do what she does now when I am that age.

But what is the value in that?

I can answer quite simply: endurance teaches you the value of fighting through pain while keeping your eye on the finish line.

While every race has a finish line–you finish, you get your medal, and you might even have some goodies (even a beer)–endurance events, marathons and beyond, are a whole different ballgame.

Every endurance athlete I know has some routine they do after they finish. Some wear their medals to work. Some frame their finisher certificates. Some collect their race bibs. Every race presents different challenges, different memories.

(I wear my t-shirts for that season’s events to work.)

For me, every t-shirt tells a story.

When I look at my 2013 Horsey Hundred shirt, I remember that first century ride: no prior cycling experience, no cycling shoes, had no idea what I was getting into. But finished smiling. It was after that race that I decided that an Ironman event was, in spite of my back issues, within the realm of possibilities.

My 2014 Redbud Ride shirt reminds me of the nasty crash at mile 16. I got up and rode 84 miles–with a concussion, a jarred back, and a black eye–to finish.

My 2015 Redbud Ride shirt reminds me of the cold and rain for 33 miles. Rider after rider dropped out. But I stayed the course.

My 2015 Horsey Hundred shirt reminds me of the drunken jackass who killed a rider 3 miles behind me–at mile 99–as I was crossing the finish line.

My 2001 Air force Marathon shirt reminds me of 9/11: that race was cancelled due to security concerns, as it was on the heels of the September 11 attacks. (The race organizers sent us our shirts and patches as commemorative of 9/11, even though the race was not held. I usually wear that shirt on September 11. I have that patch on my flight jacket for the same reason.)

My 2000 Quivering Quads 50K shirt reminds me of the hills, the branches I tripped over quite often, and the nice chili I enjoyed at the rest stops. The fatigue of “the wall” was not enough to surmount the enjoyment.

My 2016 Toughman Indiana shirt reminds me of a number of things: coming back from an asthma attack in the water to beat the cutoff time, my first triathlon finish, my first ultra-endurance finish since 2000.

In life, we also have varying challenges, and–as we fight through them–we have a story to tell. And that is an integral part of your witness if you are a Christian.

You are going to have challenges in your marriage if you are married. Even if you are HAPPILY married. (No, seriously.) If you’re doing it right, you will learn more about your own sin–and God’s grace–than you ever thought possible.

If you are single, you’re always going to have sniveling naysayers questioning everything form your spiritual fitness to your sexual orientation, or–if you’re lucky–you’ll just get relegated to a “singles” class pretty much segregated from the rest of the church. You will have the challenge of living among God’s people without developing a chip on your shoulder. Some days, that will be easy. Until Debbie Maken shows up and wrecks the party…

You may have challenges–with which you were born–that make your life harder than the average bear experiences. You may be wheelchair-bound; you may be autistic; you may be more prone to depression or anxiety; you may be predisposed to bipolarity; you may have various traumas–from car accidents to combat experience to abuses that may include physical or sexual–for which you didn’t ask. Life is not fair in that regard.

(Endurance sports teaches you not to worry about others who are running better times. Some folks are more athletic; some have better genetics than others. They run their races; you must focus on racing your race.)

Living out the Christian life in the midst of all of that requires perseverance, allowing God to create in us hearts of flesh where our hearts would otherwise gravitate toward various forms of hardness.

Endurance sports teaches exactly that perseverance. It is what separates endurance sports from other sports. In triathlon, you will get challenges from many different angles on the same day, due to the multi-sport nature of the event.

Preparing for such events requires discipline and perseverance. Being willing to swim in cold water, or run or bike in hot and humid conditions, being smart enough to hydrate and maintain nutrition while working out. And on those hot, humid, sucky days, maintaining your training often requires thinking about the finish of the event for which you are training.

In the Christian life, it is the same dynamic: the hardships can be severe: from the depths of the hell of depression to the worst anti-Christian persecution (think ISIS). This requires calling attention to the endgame, the finish line.

This is what Jesus says to the church at Smyrna: “Be faithful unto death, and I will give you the crown of life.”

To the church in Pergamum: “To the one who conquers I will give some of the hidden manna, and I will give him a white stone, with a new name written on the stone that no one knows except the one who receives it.”

To the church in Thyatira: “The one who conquers and who keeps my works until the end, to him I will give authority over the nations, and he will rule them with a rod of iron, as when earthen pots are broken in pieces, even as I myself have received authority from my Father. And I will give him the morning star.”

To the church in Sardis: “The one who conquers will be clothed thus in white garments, and I will never blot his name out of the book of life. I will confess his name before my Father and before his angels.”

To the church in Philadelphia: “The one who conquers, I will make him a pillar in the temple of my God. Never shall he go out of it, and I will write on him the name of my God, and the name of the city of my God, the new Jerusalem, which comes down from my God out of heaven, and my own new name.”

Endurance sports are an object lesson in this.

10 thoughts on “Endurance Sports and the Christian Life

  1. Amir – thank you for writing this.

    i know these words are hard and real on all levels for you.

    as i ponder moving into the role of titus 2 (age can only be denied for so long 😉 ) i realize that teaching younger women endurance is challenging … more so than when i was younger b/c now i know more clearly the cost of endurance.

  2. ”including terminal conditions (cancer, congestive heart failure)–that are common in this broken, cursed, dying world”

    Alot of these at least can be mitigated by a healthy active lifestyle.

    • Yep, although I’ve lnown folks who have lived very healthy, active lifestyles, who developed cancer or CHF. It does rain on the just and unjust.

      • Alot of cancer can be attributed to modernity. Alot of chemical pollution swimming around.

        Industrial revolution and its downsides.

        • Every society has its manifestations of a cursed, fallen world. That could take the form of violence, fraud, illnesses, bad weather phenomena, earthquakes, volcanoes, tsunamis, basically any kind of evil–or combination of it.

          And these elements can befall a person irrespective of one’s spiritual life. Jeremiah wondered aloud why the wicked prosper; that same dynamic happens today.

          I remember Dave Dravecky, a promising Major League pitcher–and outspoken Christian–who developed cancer in his throwing arm. He missed substantial time while undergoing treatment.

          He was widely celebrated when he returned to pitch, and was openly thankful to God for being able to come back.

          Sadly, that comeback was short-lived: not even a week into his return to the Majors, he totally snapped his arm in the 6th inning. His cancer was determined to have returned, and he was forced to retire. He would end up having his arm amputated.

          That same era, other players–Roger Clemens, Barry Bonds, Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa–would prosper while using anabolic steroids including HGH.

          This is a major example of why we cannot afford to get wrapped up in other people’s races. Jeremiah, by all accounts, did not deserve to be taken into captivity, nor did Dravecky deserve the cancer that cost him his pitching career and his strongside arm.

          Perseverance includes swimming through the cesspool that is this life on earth, and–if we get too wrapped up in it–it’s easy to become like the road, or the rocks, or the shallow soil, or the thorns, neither of which allowed the “seed” to grow and thrive.

          The Christians in Iraq and Syria and Sudan and Nigeria and Afghanistan would probably find themselves discouraged if they looked at how good that the Christians in the West have it.

          • Agreed. There are things we can and cannot control. But if there is a chance that something can be controlled we should by all means take it.

            Mitigating disease,natural disasters and other hazards should be undertaken if possible not that there is guarantee in our fallen world but I am against just throwing our hands up in the air and say it cannot be helped.

          • No question about it. People ought to control their controllable risks, as far as that depends on them.

            If you build your house in a hurricane zone, you’re rolling the dice. Ditto if you build in a flood-prone area or a seismically-active zone. (Of course, I could argue that every region has risks: tornadoes, blizzards, high heat index. On that front, we pick our poison.)

            And of course, there are some diseases–such as heart disease and diabetes and some cancers–the risk of which can be mitigated, even if not eliminated, by lifestyle.

            It’s like the argument I’ve made about rape: teaching people to mitigate their forward risks isn’t the same as “blaming the victim”. We cannot use the risk of the latter as an excuse to avoid doing the former.

            Still, my larger point applies here: in life, you will likely suffer setbacks that you didn’t ask for, which are part of the fallen, cursed world we live in, and part of the reality that, as we age, our bodies will break down on us. The “health-wealth-prosperity” crowd fails to account for this reality.

          • Yeah the health wealth prosperity gospel is definitely a modern heresy.

            Joel Osteen’s really ruffle my feathers. Using the Lords name in vain and compromising on every issue to the overall culture.

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