The sun was just beginning to set over the ocean as we sat down at the table. I heard the sound of waves crashing and noisy seagulls overhead. The smell of salty sea water filled the air. The boardwalk French fries tasted just as good as I had remembered. On that warm August night, our family was out to dinner at the beach with a couple of friends and their little boy. We chatted as we waited for the waitress to bring out the rest of our orders. Our three little boys, ages five and under, were busy coloring their kid’s menus. We talked about how long we had been married and how we had met our spouses. We compared our ages, and I mentioned I was just three months away from turning forty. My friend asked me if there was anything special I wanted to do for my birthday. I answered her, “I want to run 40 miles.”
As soon as the words left my mouth, I thought to myself, “She must think I am such a weirdo!” Who says that? Who wants to run 40 miles? For their birthday?!
I guess everyone reacts differently to milestone years. When I turned 30, I ran 30 miles. I was running marathons at the time and had a great group of runner friends who joined me along the way. Ten years and two children later, I prepared to face the big 4-0. It seemed like the logical thing to do to celebrate would be to run 40 miles. At least, that made perfect sense in my mind.
I am actually a pretty unlikely candidate for a long distance runner. As a young girl, I always carried a few extra pounds of “baby weight.” I was the kid in elementary school who dreaded the day in P.E. class when we had to run one mile, and was walking by the first lap around the playground. That all changed somehow the summer before I turned 28. I had a new house, and an energetic new puppy who led me to meet friends in the neighborhood, and even got me an invitation to train for a half-marathon! I started running in May, and by November I ran my first full–not half–marathon.
I fell in love with running. I made up my mind that I would always be able to step out of my door and run a half marathon, (13.1 miles) if I wanted. Even through pregnancies, postpartum, and pushing strollers, I have maintained that ability. So looking at 40 miles wasn’t totally crazy for me. But it was definitely a challenge. And that’s what I wanted. I wanted my will to be tested. I needed to make sure my 40 year old body could still go the distance.
Flash forward to December.
The morning was cloudy and warm, in the 60s, with mist hanging in the air. It was still dark outside when I put on my shoes and headed out the door. I texted my mom, sisters, and brother, and a couple of close friends and asked them to pray for me. I turned on my GPS app and my lamp. With the sound of Christmas music playing in my air pods, I put one foot in front of the other. There was no turning back now. I was ready. This was the day I would run 40 miles.
The first few miles were nice and easy. My pace was slow, but I didn’t want to start out too fast with so much distance left to run. I enjoyed the stillness of the dark early morning. The colorful glow of Christmas lights all around the neighborhood made me reflect on the beauty of the season. I sang along in my head to “O Holy Night,” and let the familiar words of hope wash over me.
As I circled back around my block, just finishing six miles, I could feel my stomach start to growl. I decided to stop for my first break to refuel. I scarfed down half a double chocolate protein cookie and some salt and vinegar potato chips. I drank more water, stretched, and breathed the morning air in deeply. Before setting out again, I grabbed my phone and texted a few more friends, “6 miles down, 34 to go…pray for me!”
As it turned out, I already needed the reassurance of my friends’ prayers. I figured that by mile 7, I would be full of pep, finding my rhythm. Instead, I was thinking about the fact that I had 33 more miles, up to 7 more hours of running.
I began to feel a little discouraged. I knew my body had the endurance to go the whole way; I had trained hard. I also knew the challenge of this run was more mental than physical. When I ran my “30 for 30,” friends ran alongside me and talked with me the whole way. This time, it was just me and the road.
I certainly wasn’t going to stop after all the work I had put in for a whole year. I thought about some of my old running buddies and how much fun we had training for that first marathon more than a dozen years ago. I remembered the funny stories and the laughter we shared on those long roads. I pictured their faces. There was the adorable school teacher, and the hunky police officer who fell in love along the way and are now happily married. Then I remembered the guy we called the “machine.” Fifty miles was too easy for him, so he was training to run 100 miles. There were the experienced runners who had thousands of miles logged, and always wisdom to share. There were other women, wives and moms, training for their first long distance like me.
Next, I thought about the people I had texted asking for prayer for my run, friends and family spread out over many different cities and states. I remembered several more names of people I should have messaged, people that could be praying for me also. Suddenly, I stopped and had a realization–an epiphany–as I often do on my longest runs. I could be the one praying for OTHER people as I ran these many miles!
I was running 40 miles–big deal. Many people have run many more miles than me. It wasn’t that major of an event. Who else did it even impact? Why was I thinking so selfishly?? And then, everything changed. It all became clear. I started praying for everyone I could possibly think of. Quickly, I was at mile 8, then 9, 10, and 11. I thought, “Only 29 more miles left, and so many people to pray for!”
I prayed for each person in my family and extended relatives. I prayed for close friends and acquaintances. When I ran out of names, I began to picture my list of Facebook friends, full of faces. Any person who popped into my mind was prayed for. If I didn’t know their life situation, I simply prayed God would draw them closer to Himself and bless them.
After that, the miles just seemed to tick by. My energy increased. I realized what a gift I had been given: 9 hours all to myself, a rare occurrence for a stay-at-home mom of little ones, to simply run and pray for people. Better yet, I had all of those hours to connect with God in prayer, without any distractions. Instead of, “I HAVE to run for 8 more hours,” it became, “I ONLY have 8 more hours left to enjoy this uninterrupted time with God.”
Very quickly I reached mile 15, and then 21. I stopped for the second time to refuel with more snacks. Just knowing I was over halfway finished made my energy increase all the more. When I started up again, the miles seemed to fly by. My pace held steady. My body felt strong, without any aches or pains. My trusty old running shoes already had over 600 miles on them after a whole year of training. Amazingly, my feet didn’t hurt a bit. I felt sure I was going to be able to reach my 40 mile goal.
“Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us,” Hebrews 12:1
Before I knew it, I was at mile number 31. By this time my body was starting to feel the distance. Only 9 more miles to go, so close, and yet so far away. I made one last stop at a friend’s house to use the restroom, get a drink, and charge my phone. Then I set off to finish what I had started.
I will admit that miles 33-36 were tough. My body was ready to be finished, but I had one hour left. Once I passed 36, the final four miles were easy somehow. I wanted to savor this last bit of time, pray, and thank God. I knew I might not ever choose to run this kind of distance again, and I wanted to remember it well.
“Do you not know? Have you not heard? The Lord is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. He will not grow tired or weary, and his understanding no one can fathom. He gives strength to the weary and increases the power of the weak. 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 be faint.”
God blessed me that day with perfect conditions for running. The air was just the right temperature, with a soft breeze throughout the day, and light raindrops falling here and there to cool me. The overcast clouds, provided shade from the sun, that just began to peek out and shine over my last few miles. He had allowed my body to feel strong the entire way, and I had truly enjoyed every single mile of this adventure.
I picked up speed at mile 39 and kept going. I rounded the corner of my street, carefully watching the GPS on my phone’s running app. I pressed the “stop” button and eased to a walk in front of my own house. It read exactly 40.00 miles at exactly 3:00pm. I had done it!
Waiting for me at the front door, I found a gift bag from a dear friend containing a bottle of sparkling cider and a homemade finishers medal. My little boy drew me a paper ribbon that said “first place.” My husband and sons greeted me with smiles, hugs and cheers of “Great job, Mommy!”
I always learn something valuable when I go on a long run. That day, I realized I had been all wrong when I thought I was running that race alone. I was never really by myself. All the people who were praying for me were my companions. All of the people I prayed for all day were with me, too. And most importantly, God was with me. I was never running alone.