Racing On Empty
I heard a story once about a rich guy who died and went to Heaven. Even though he was rich for much of his lifetime he was generous with his money. He gave to a variety of charities and was captured several times in newspaper photo’s giving to the needy. When he went to receive his award he was sure that his charitable contributions would be mentioned. After all everyone made such a big deal on earth about how he gave and what good came out of it. He was surprised when not one of his charitable contributions were mentioned in Heaven. Instead he was praised for something that he did that nobody else knew about. “Here is your reward for feeding my birds”, he was told. Unknown to anyone else he used to take his walks in the park bringing a bag of crumbled bread with him to feed the birds.
Back in 1972 there wasn’t the running craze that we see today. Almost anywhere I drive today I will see somebody out jogging. Back then the only ones that were out running were students trying to get into shape to run a sport called Cross Country. In eighth grade my best friend in school was named Matt. We were on the same basketball team for a little while. One day another coach came to our practice. This coach was forming a travel team that would go around and compete at a higher level against other travel teams. I was the shortest player on our team. The travel team coach had no interest in me, but chose four of our taller players for his team. Matt was one of the chosen four. I found out later that Matt got very discouraged with basketball because that whole year he rode the bench.
I think that during 9th grade gym class the teacher discovered that Matt had a knack for running. The gym teacher was also the coach of the Cross Country team. He encouraged Matt to come out for the team and Matt did and performed really well! As a freshman Matt was competing at the varsity level. He might have been the 6th or 7th runner but he was in the mix. Matt was a tall skinny kid who seemed to be born to run! I was not deaf to the success Matt was having! His name was being announced in the morning announcements as to what place he was coming in for the races. That next summer with the encouragement of Matt I went out for the team. Matt had told me that unlike basketball there was no bench in Cross Country. You could be as good as you wanted to be!
The first time I ran it was a hot day and we met at the school. The coach wasn’t there at first and I ran with the group that was there. I was told that it was a six mile run. I had never ran more than one mile in my life but felt comfortable with this group. I didn’t know that you were supposed to stretch before you ran. I just took off running with the rest of them. Later when the coach saw new guys out there he seemed very cautious. “You new guys be careful”, he warned, “don’t overdo it”, he called out again.
I survived that first day just fine! I surprised myself that I could run so far. The coaches goal was to first get our wind up. He wanted us to be able to run and not tire. Steadily the distances he had us run increased. We might have ran six miles one day, seven another, eight the third, then six the fourth day and maybe four the fifth day. On the Friday if he scheduled only four miles it was like a breeze! As I think about it now four miles is a long long way to run. I would have a hard time running a mile now. But by building us up the four mile run was like a jog in the park!
Perhaps the most accolades I have ever received from running occurred in an odd way! Our coach decided that summer that we should get involved in the road races that were held near our local community college. The races would take place each week and the distances would be greater each week. I think they started with a three mile race and increased it to four. Then five and finally six and a half. The week they did the six and a half they also did a half a marathon or 13 miles. It was the same course, but the half marathon was twice around. Each week I ran in the race and each week I was finishing way back in the pack. The top 10 places were given ribbons. How I wanted one of those ribbons but the dream of getting a top ten place was a distant dream. Usually there were maybe 75-100 runners. I was probably finishing somewhere in the middle of the pack. The last week was different. Because there were two races going on we had to sign up for either one or the other. Almost everyone signed up for the shorter 6.5 mile race. I counted the contestants for the half marathon. There were only six. I decided that I would try it and became the seventh contestant. I figured if I could finish I would get my one and only ribbon!
Knowing that I was going to run a long distance I paced myself. Maybe a mile or two down the road I noticed an older guy that was running my pace. We started talking and I found out his name was Fred and he was 56 years old. Fred was running the half marathon too. We talked about a lot of things I don’t remember now, but time went by much faster talking to Fred. We almost forgot we were racing as we ran stride for stride. Fred wasn’t real interested in the race. He was concerned with finishing. Mile after mile I ran with Fred. I’m thinking the race started at six or seven. I do know that as the miles wore on the sun started setting. Finally after much conversation with my 56 year old friend and about two hours after I started, we were about a quarter of a mile from the finish line. Being a fifteen year old kid I still wanted to finish ahead of Fred. Fred told me to go ahead, he was keeping the pace he was on. Slowly I increased my speed. In the distance I saw the finish line. I saw the line so clear in the dark because my coach had his car lights on it. He started blowing his horn over and over and was extremely happy when I finished. Some of my teammates who ran the shorter race had waited around with the coach too. They were so thrilled that I ran the big race and had finished ahead of someone! Actually I wouldn’t even call it a race. To me it was just like a practice run where I just kept pace with Fred and talked all the way. I don’t really remember being that tired after the “race”. It wasn’t like I really pushed myself other than to keep going.
The next day my name was in the paper. It wasn’t a big writeup. The winners were discussed and they mentioned that contestants ranged from 56 year old Fred to 14 year old me. They didn’t even get that right since I was actually 15. So I got my 6th place ribbon and my coach was really thrilled. Matt’s mom, who seemed to be my biggest supporter was raving that my name was in the paper. That was the one and only time I got my name in the paper and Matt didn’t. They all made such a big deal about that “race”, but in reality they shouldn’t have. I think the coach held it high because I had decided to run the longer race and I finished it. I think he was very surprised when he found out that I was still out there running instead of being done like all of my teammates.
The Fall came only too soon. School started and our season started in full gear. There were two kind of races that we did in Cross Country. One was called a dual meet where another school would come to your course or you would go to theirs. The other was an invitational meet where many schools would participate at once. Our coach found a course that was different than any others that we ran on. Our course was made up entirely of hills. On our course you were almost always running up a hill or down a hill. Every other course we ran on seemed to be flat. Our coach would have us practice extensively on those hills. We got to the point that we were used to the hills. Running up hills was a skill we learned. He told us to coast more going down hills and pass people going up the hill. When other teams came to our course they were startled to find how hilly it was. Being used to running on flat ground this was a major shock to their running. When we went to their courses it was like a picnic. Here we were used to running all of these hills and their courses were so flat! We were delighted to run their courses for a change! I did not have the natural ability that Matt did. He was tall, I was short. His strides were longer and he was more fluid. My biggest assets were that I had a lot of heart and like everyone on my team I was in superb condition. I would usually finish 8th or occasionally seventh in our dual meets on the JV which would usually be 4th or 5th on our team. My name was getting play in the morning announcement which was kind of nice! Matt’s varsity team was ranked in the top ten in the state!
There was a smaller guy named Greg that I admired as I watched him run in a varsity invitational. He ran for a rival high school down the road. Greg was one of the best runners in the state! I watched him run one time in a big meet and was so impressed. He wasn’t a big guy so I could relate my style to his. Greg was running maybe twenty five yards ahead of the pack. He ran his race from the front and made everyone else catch him which they seldom did. There was a kid named Jeff on our team. Jeff was usually the 7th man on the varsity. He had a style that drove the coach crazy. Jeff would run maybe ten or fifteen yards behind the pack. Steadily he would pass people and usually placed pretty well, but I can still hear the coach yelling “Jeff, the race is up here!”
I would try to run near the front but usually ended up in the middle. The pace would get too fast at the very front. Even though I was in superb condition, by the end of the races I was spent. Our coach made a film one time of us finishing races and to my embarrassment when he filmed me my face was in pain. It looked so bad that my teammates also watching started laughing. Sitting there, I almost felt like crying when my teammates made fun of me. The one person who wasn’t laughing was my coach. He mentioned to me that he thought it was great! He knew that I gave every ounce of everything that I had. At the very end of the year the coach made a film of us doing a leisurely run. It would be something he would use to get people interested in running. “No painful faces” he stressed. “This is to encourage people not turn them completely off.” The film was so fake because we were all smiles as we ran into the cameras view. Nothing like the reality of the pain we endured during the races.
As I mentioned in dual meets I was placing 7th or 8th. In the big meets I was normally in the twenties. I was a middle of the pack runner with potential to improve in the years ahead as my body filled out and I got stronger. When I was running I probably stood 5’4 and weighed maybe 110 pounds. At the end of the season something happened that probably curtailed my desire to keep running the rest of my high school years, I got hurt.
As I was running two weeks before the Conference Invitational, I developed a blister on the bottom of my foot. That whole week of training every step I took was painful. To lessen the pain I tensed my foot up so the blister part wouldn’t take the whole impact of my foot hitting the ground. The next week my foot swelled up. I told my coach about it and he had me take my sock off. “OK”, he said, “stay off it today and we will check it tomorrow.” That went on for the whole week. The rest did my foot good, and after the weeks rest the foot was back to normal. I was surprised to find that I was penciled in to run the event that Saturday, after I wasn’t able to run at all for the whole week.
The race was ran on our course, which was the hilly one. There were fifty five runners, and I started strong as I always did. Something very strange happened though after the first mile. I discovered that already I was out of gas. I had two miles to go, and didn’t have anything left. Anyone that has ran will tell you that the training puts fuel in your tank. Without that training the last week I simply ran out of fuel. Yet there were two miles to go. Up the hills and down the hills, I struggled on. My face must have looked like it usually did when I finished races, because I was in pain. Onward I went, one step after another. I found myself losing touch with the leaders and instead of being competitive, it was a matter of survival. I remember the cheerleaders were there, and they were trying to cheer me on, out of pity I think. I struggled on for two miles, with absolutely nothing in the tank, I finished the race. I finished fifty first out of fifty five runners. The miracle of it all was that I beat four runners on sheer guts. When I finished that race there were no horns blowing. There was not a beaming coach telling me how great I was. Being young and sensitive my pride was really hurt finishing so far back. The coach consoled me later saying that the reason I placed so poorly was because I couldn’t train that week. I knew something was terribly wrong after the first mile. I was surprised how much stamina it had taken out of me. Even with the kind words of the coach, I was really disappointed with my finish at that time. It probably was a factor in why I didn’t run my last two years. That Monday morning my name wasn’t mentioned on the announcements. Meanwhile Matt Kept improving! He went from 38th in the state as a sophomore (where annually over 125 runners compete), to 37th as a junior and an incredible ninth as a senior!
As I look back at my last race from a perspective of wisdom that the passing of the years brings, I think it was my very best! It’s true that it was my worst time for any meet that I ran. It’s also true that I finished way back in the pack. But while the other runners had plenty of fuel, I ran on sheer guts for two miles, with nothing left. Running up and down those hills, I never gave up. I was more tired after that race than all of the others. It was like my motor stopped working after one mile, and I had to push the car the final two miles.
If you are running a race in life where you feel you can’t go on, there is hope! God is there to make your empty tank full! You may be hurting like I hurt, as I tried to run up those hills with nothing left to fuel me. Your pride might be hurting, like mine when you are giving your all, but the results say otherwise. When every step you take becomes a sharp pain, God is there to ease that pain. So many times our will is strong, but our bodies are weak. There are also times that our spirit gets down, and it is hard to bring it back up. When we can’t do it on our own, God is there to pick us up! Troubles come when we compare successes we have enjoyed in the past, and the failure we feel now. You are not a failure to God! When nobody is cheering, he is. When encouragement is not heard around us, he speaks it into our spirit! The world measures success by results. God measures success by our effort to follow him! He recognizes the little things that may go completely unnoticed by those around us. When we feel like our race is hopeless, God comes by and lifts us up to higher ground! Know that God cares, when it seems nobody else does! He knows our unique situation, and he is there to help. One day he will reward us for things nobody thought were very special. He see’s things like intent and where our heart is. To him our best races might not be the ones we won. They might be the ones where we were racing uphill on empty with nothing left in us but a desire to keep going!
Even youths grow tired and weary,
and young men stumble and fall;
but those who hope in the Lord
will renew their strength.
They will soar on wings like eagles;
they will run and not grow weary,
they will walk and not faint.