Cross Country is a pure and ancient sport. Natural terrain. No equipment. No plays. No buildings. No bleachers. No referees. No cheerleaders. No publicity. The race starts, and then it ends. Between the start line and the finish line exists an objective test of one’s physical, mental, and psychological strength based on preparation, talent, health, concentration, and determination. Who is the fastest long-distance runner?
My legs felt like rubber and my lungs were exploding in their effort to get more oxygen as I crossed the finish line with relief and stumbled forward through the chute of flags. It was the biggest race of my life, the 1984 Oregon State AAA Cross Country Championship. I was in tenth grade and I had just finished in tenth place. Moments later as I looked at the results list, I realized that all nine runners in front of me were seniors. Graduate the seniors, and I had just won. With nervous excitement, I thought, “Next year should be my year.”
When I was eight years old, I signed up for my first cross country race. I was living in Coos Bay, Oregon and my parents drove me to Roseburg, Oregon for the AAU Regional Championships. It was a flat, two-mile course over grass at the Veterans Affairs campus. I ran hard, finished second, and received my first medal. It was at that moment, that a goal established itself in my youthful heart. I would do everything within my power to one day be an Oregon High School State Cross Country Champion.
After the race I met other kids who were running for an organized team from Eugene, Oregon called Track City Track Club. They had red and white matching sweats and singlets. They raced in Nike shoes with long spikes and had an air of excellence that was matched by their success. I imagined what it would be like to travel with them to other cities where we could compete as a team. My parents investigated it and the team was eager to have a runner from the coast join them. Starting that year, I ran for them until I was in high school, making memories as we traveled up and down the west coast every fall and into the winter to run over courses in parks, on golf courses, through farms, in rain, sleet, sunshine and snow. In the depths of my psyche, the goal deepened with each season, that one day I would be running in the Oregon State High School Championship and I would be running to win.
Coming off my 10th place finish during my sophomore year of high school cross country, I battled the upperclassmen in the distance runs during the spring track season. I barely qualified for the state final in the 3000m, where I finished 4th, behind three seniors. This confirmed that an opportunity was coming the next cross country season.
That summer my family moved to Bend, a beautiful city in the high desert of central Oregon. There I established a routine of running twice each day, consistently logging 70 miles each week, something few high school runners did. I frequently went into the snow-capped mountains to train at altitude. I found adults to run with on my long runs. I connected with the cross country team at Bend High School, and as a team, we prepared during that summer with intense focus and determination.
The day of reckoning had arrived. It was the first Saturday in November. The sun was bright, and air was cool. Thousands of athletes, coaches, family, and fans, scattered across the grassy, rolling course at Lane Community College. I stood shoulder to shoulder on the long starting line with the top two hundred runners from around Oregon. I was undefeated for the season and had not been challenged. As the favorite, everyone expected me to win. I was feeling fatigued from all the training but the biggest burden I carried was the expectations of the past eight years of my life weighing heavy on my sixteen-year-old shoulders.
I had looked forward to this race my whole life. I had imagined the fulfillment, happiness, and confidence, that this race would bring me. This was my moment, but now I did not feel as if I had the opportunity to succeed. I only had the opportunity to avoid failure. The fear of failure intensified my nervousness as I did a final warm up strider and waited behind the starting line.
The starter spoke into a bullhorn, “Runners, there will be two commands, ‘Runners set, and then the gun!” A silent tension created a hush over the runners and the crowd.
The gun broke the silence, and the runners sprang forward instantaneously. Elbows flying, the 200 runners sprinted across the baseball field towards the first hill, where the course narrowed into a bottleneck that could only accommodate five runners abreast.
I kept my elbows out, guarding my space. I went out fast, but not too fast. I knew that some would go out at a suicidal pace, dragging the adrenalized pack along at what was unsustainably quick before inevitably slowing down.
My strategy was a game of patience and pacing, knowing exactly what I had trained to maintain for 5000 meters. The crowd of athletes thinned out as we settled into a rhythm. I began working my way through the pack, passing the overzealous fast starters who were breathing heavily after just a half-mile of running. The course took us down a short steep hill, across a flat grassy field, and back up to a bark chip trail. We left the sports fields and cruised along the trail surrounded by ripe blackberries.
I moved through traffic, passing one runner after another. Approaching the one-mile mark, I felt comfortable and confident. I was unconcerned with my placing at this point in the race.
I was in 30th place but I knew, based on the pace, everyone in front of me would be slowing down drastically. It would not be a sprinter’s race. It would be a race of strength and endurance, which was perfect for me.
I passed runners who had already exceeded their anaerobic threshold and were slowing down quickly. 800 meters later, halfway through the race, I could see the lead runner and began to reel him in.
Nearing the two-mile mark, I closed the gap and pulled alongside the leader, my childhood rival and former teammate from Salem, Brett Hartley. “Good job Brett!” I spoke sincerely as I passed him. He was only a sophomore and had led the first two miles of the state championship. Now, with one-mile to go, it was my time to determine my destiny.
But my shoes felt like they were filled with sand. I lacked the power that I expected from my legs. My breathing became labored. I worked hard to push the pace. Glancing over my shoulder, I was relieved to see that I had opened a 25 meter lead.
With a half-mile to go, my legs and lungs were burning. I did not want to lose, so I pushed myself harder than I had ever run before. Instead of running to win, I was running with a fear of failure. This tendency would follow me for years to come. I glanced over my shoulder nervously. I had a solid lead.
The final 300 meters were run on a track, surrounded by thousands of spectators. As I hit the track I battled through the pain. With 200 meters to go, the crowd erupted in applause. I felt like my feet were stuck in cement. My vision was blurry. I struggled down the homestretch, relieved, happy, and ironically disappointed. I broke the finish line tape and as I looked at the clock, I realized how much I had slowed down during the final mile. My perfectionistic expectations undermined and assaulted my happiness.
The crowd roared, but my inner voice spoke words of discouragement and disillusionment. This was supposed to be “THE MOMENT”. I had worked so hard to get here and I had expected joy and significance. Now, the best emotion I felt was relief. The worst emotion that I felt was emptiness.
I crossed the finish line 14 seconds ahead of the runner up and 24 seconds ahead of the third-place runner, but I wondered why I had not run faster. I failed to meet my “time goal.” I had run faster on the same course during the first meet of the season.
I thought that success would bring me happiness and I pursued that belief with hyper-focused discipline. Now I was faced with the fact that I had believed a lie. Where could I find significance? Where could I find happiness? I realized it would not come from winning races. If this did not accomplish it, an Olympic gold would do no better. At the age of 16, I was experiencing a crisis of the futility of desire and the bleakness of achievement. This moment catapulted me off on a spiritual tangent in search of significance.
There was a void in my life that running could not fill. Success would not fill it. Academically I was maintaining a 4.0 GPA, but I belittled myself over my SAT scores. What was it all worth? I began partying and this only compounded the emptiness that I felt. I needed something else. Something transcendental.
For years I had called myself an atheist. Science and evolution disproved God and especially the Bible. Yet despite my denial of God, I felt drawn to listen to Christian radio on my Walkman during my morning runs. I had a spiritual hunger, but I could not believe in something that was nonsensical, unintelligent, or manipulative. I was interested in friendship with God if something like that existed. I attended a Christian club called Young Life. I was drawn towards something that these people had.
I read books on apologetics. I had many intellectual questions and challenges to overcome before I would consider the validity of Christianity. I was not interested in religion. I was drawn to the prospect of a loving and powerful God who was personal and ever-present.
Three months later, enough of my questions had been resolved. I did not have all the answers, but I had enough answers. I called my Young Life leader, Steve, and said “Can I meet with you once a week? I want to start studying the Bible. Can you help me out?” This was the turning point of my life. In that moment, I felt God’s overwhelming peace and a supernatural Presence. It was the first time I felt complete and fulfilled as a human. I committed myself to the pursuit of a deep and unending relationship with God through Jesus Christ. From that moment forward, this became my priority and the passion of my life. I would never cease to be a “runner”, but the pursuit of God would be my greater passion.
37 “Anyone who loves their father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; anyone who loves their son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. 38 Whoever does not take up their cross and follow me is not worthy of me. 39 Whoever finds their life will lose it, and whoever loses their life for my sake will find it.
- What things have you pursued that have left you feeling empty?
- What things do you “love” in life? How do those things compare to your love for God?
- Can you trust God with your loves, your hopes, and your dreams? Why or why not?