Monday, October 5, 2009

The hardest mile

Often times I find parallels between my running and my religion.  After all, the practice of training runs is in and of itself a religious act where a runner learns the discipline required to maintain faith in the unknown—that is, his ability to achieve the desired goals—even during the times when the body or spirit is unwilling or unable.

This is yet another of those parallels.

A runner will find a comfortable distance and run that distance repeatedly.  There will be some recognizable point along a path that becomes “the turnaround point”, a physical anchor point that tells the runner he’s run far enough and every step beyond that point is uncharted territory.

Breaking through that barrier on a familiar course is one of the hardest things a runner can do.  It is far easier to plot out a new course that covers the new distance than it is to run 85% of a new distance on an old course and 15% of the distance into uncharted territory.

There are many things that can go wrong when a runner knowingly ventures into uncharted distances, not the least of which is physical breakdown and the inability to finish.  There is also the knowledge that the runner is “so far from home” and a physical breakdown becomes a significant challenge.  On a new course, however, much of this is washed away by the lack of familiar land marks informing the runner of his progress and letting him know just how far from home he really is.

On a familiar course, the runner becomes very familiar with dozens of signposts along the way informing him of his progress.  There’s the 2:00 corner, the 3:00 light post, the 3:45 fence post, the 5:00 sign, the 5:35 rock, the 8:00 man hole, and the list of markers goes on and on to the midway point.  On a new course there are no such markers.  The runner is free to simply run without the judgment of geography informing him if he’s doing well or not.  Every step along a new course is doing well because it’s a step that has been authored anew.


Churches face these same challenges.  Congregations erect various signposts along their own paths that inform them whether or not they’re doing well.  Attendance on Sunday morning, attendance to bible studies, the weekly offering, participants in the choir, prayer requests, and several others that inform them whether or not they’re “doing well”.  Each of these points up to and including the “turnaround point” where a church gets just up to the edge of what it feels comfortable doing, then promptly executes and about-face and marches back down the familiar path.  Adding to the distance from home is hard to do, as each step beyond that “turnaround point” becomes harder and harder and uncharted territory is covered with each new step and the familiar is left further and further behind.


A completely new course, more often than not, is far easier to traverse, but it is far harder to commit to.


Eventually a runner has to decide what kind of runner he will be and either bust through his own turnaround point and turn the uncharted miles into familiar ground and reach out farther than he ever has before, or chart a new course entirely, all the while maintaining the fundamentals that allowed him to achieve the original distances in the first place.  Alternatively, he can just stay in his old rut, comfortably traversing the same miles, day in and day out, without any hope of running farther and faster than he ever has before.

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