Thursday, June 3, 2010
It had been a while — four months, more or less — since I injured my knee and derailed my hopes for the L.A. Marathon. Since then, I’d been working my way back up slowly. Eleven and 14 miles were the farthest I’d gone since, and I had to abandon a 15-miler a couple weeks ago because my knee hadn’t yet bounced back from the previous week’s long run. So the 17-miler my training schedule demanded for Sunday was a big jump.
The day before, I was nervous — nervous in a way I hadn’t been in a long time. When I trained for my first marathon, every milestone brought its own set of anxieties. Could I really run 10 miles? Thirteen? Fifteen? Seventeen? Twenty? Each time I was pushing myself harder than I ever had before, and it was exhilarating.
But after that, the anxiety — and the excitement — diminished. Of course I could run 15 miles. Old hat.
Not this time. The setback from the injury, which has improved vastly, but still hasn’t healed completely, had me worried. Maybe this was farther than I could go. Maybe I wouldn’t be able to do it.
In a strange way, it was nice to feel that nervous again. Being more aware of my limitations and vulnerabilities makes me more conscious of my total dependence on God.
It was a busy (and hot) weekend, so the only time I could squeeze in the run was Sunday morning, bright and early. I set the alarm for 4:45 so I could be out the door by 5, at home by 8, and ready to take the family to Mass at 9.
When I stepped outside, the sun was just starting to rise, and it was cold — another sensation I hadn’t experienced while running in some time. As a general rule, I hate the cold, but I tried to remind myself to be grateful for it. I knew that by the time I got home it would be a lot hotter, and I should take advantage of the cool while I could. That chill was a timely reminder of the need for gratitude.
I headed west, with the sun at my back, and ran about four miles to where the city ends and the 10 miles of lemon and avocado orchards that separate us from the next city begin. And I did something I had never done before: I ran along the dirt roads that wind through the orchards. I saw old maintenance barns, a jack rabbit, tracks from various other critters that had previously run a similar route. All signs of His people and His creation.
I continued along this way for about 5 miles, and then something funny happened. From one second to the next, I found the orchard unbearable. Oh, it was beautiful, but it got tiresome. Each dirt road eventually turned into a dead end, or I would come upon the busy street that runs alongside the orchards, or into a fence. I kept having to turn around, backtrack, and plot a new course. As though from one moment to the next, this meandering lost its charm. I needed direction. I needed purpose.
That sense spurred a worthy reflection: God makes us for a purpose, for Him. He orders all things. He gives us paths. And He gives us His word and His law so that we will find fulfillment, so that we won’t wander around aimlessly.
I turned around, left the orchard, and did a quick calculation of how many more miles I needed to run west before I could turn around, run home, and reach the goal of 17. Answer: two. So I got back on the road, and then I saw a beautiful sight, one which you can only catch around these parts early in the morning — the hot-air balloon pictured above, hanging over the lemon trees, the newly risen sun sparkling to the side.
I was blown away by the beauty of the moment. I thought of the Ascension, of our Risen Lord, His being lifted into Heaven, a mystery that portends the promise of eternal life. And I thought: God is so good.
I began to think of my blessings, and as I offered up some quick prayers of thanks, He struck me with a realization: While I’m out here enjoying this gorgeous morning, my wonderful wife is at home feeding and dressing four children so that we’ll be able to get to Mass when I get home. It was as though He was telling me, You really need to be thanking her.
And so I called Mary Kate, only to get the voice mail, and left her a message telling her how much I loved her. Seconds later, our 7-year-old daughter called me back, seemingly delighted to hear that her out-of-breath father would be home in little over an hour.
Two miles out west, two miles back, and I had returned to the edge of the city again, ready for the four miles home. Until this point I had been listening to podcasts, but it became obvious I would need a little help keeping up my pace. So I put some loud, thumping music on the mp3 player and began to run with force. My last four miles were the fastest of my day.
Is there anything better than finishing strong?
When I got home, I felt like I could run 9.2 miles more and call it a marathon. But I also knew to be patient, to stick to my schedule, and to take all things in stride. (My knees would confirm this judgment on the shorter runs that have followed this week. I no longer recover as quickly as I did before my injury.)
It was a delight to come inside the house and see my whole family, now awake. And it was glorious to get to go thank Jesus in person for the awesome run he gave me only an hour later at Mass.
This was running at its best. Good for the body, to be sure. Good for the mind, too. But above all, good for the soul. Thank you, God, for long runs!