For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.
God has created you to do specific things. These are moments of destiny. Christian theology includes doctrines of predestination, election, and sovereignty. We believe that we will fulfill our destiny through obedience, as long as we don’t mess things up with our free will. This tension is the focus of a theological debate that has been going on for centuries without a winner. Most would agree that much of our destiny has to do with who we are becoming, in Christ. We all experience defining moments in our lives. Events that we never forget. It may be your baptism, a serendipitous encounter, an unexpected opportunity, or the fulfillment of a dream. There have been moments in my life where I have felt the intersection of my path with divine destiny. It happened when I fell in love with Heidi. It happened when I competed in the Olympic Trials. It happened when I met Jesus in a life-changing way. It happened when I received my Doctor of Ministry degree. It happened when I started pastoring a church. It happened when I started coaching. It happens when ministry is fruitful. And it happened one Sunday in Portland.
For years, Runner’s World magazine recognized the Portland Marathon as one of the best marathons in the United States. On the first Sunday in October, nearly 10,000 runners compete in this race. I ran it twice, with extremely different results.
The first time I ran the Portland Marathon was in 1994. It was one of my first marathons, and I had high expectations. I was hoping to win the race. A contingency of elite Japanese runners was there as part of an exchange program. The prize for the top American was an all-expense-paid trip to Japan to run the Osaka Marathon.
The race started and I quickly positioned myself in the lead pack, surrounded by five Japanese runners. The Japanese have a great tradition of marathon running. I did not know the credentials of my competitors, but I thought that our pace was sustainable. We clipped along at just under 5:20 per mile. Their coach was in a van that had been given access to the course and frequently pulled alongside us. He barked orders and encouragement to his runners. I was bothered by this since it seemed to me to give them an unfair advantage.
I began to struggle at the St. John’s bridge as we approached mile 18. The Japanese runners surged, and I began to fade. I tried to hang on and fight back, but they were pulling away, and I was slowing down.
By mile 22, I had hit the infamous wall. The race turned into a run of survival. I fought on, knowing I was still the top American. I wanted that trip to Japan. Then at mile 23, I was passed again, this time by an American. Then, at mile 24, running alone and struggling, I took a wrong turn and went off course. This should NEVER happen in a major marathon. I had come to an intersection and there were no signs or course monitors to tell me which way to go. For three frantic blocks, I asked bystanders if they knew where the marathon course was. I felt anger and frustration. I was so close to the finish. I kept running and found my way back to the racecourse. Nobody seemed to notice that I had gone off course. I had not gained an advantage by going off course and I do not think anyone had passed me. When I finished the race, I was disappointed by the whole I experience. I had no desire of EVER running the Portland Marathon again.
Five years later, I changed my mind. I had gained experience, improved, grown stronger, and faster. I had run the Olympic Trials in 1996 and had recently run a half marathon in 1:06:06. I felt ready to attempt to win a major marathon, something I had never done before.
I prepared well and formulated my own strategy. The best performances in marathoning are run with “negative splits”. This is where the second half of the race is run faster than the first half of the race. You cannot hit the wall and run negative splits in a marathon. It requires a controlled first half and a strong second half. Even more specifically, my plan was to stay within a minute of the leader(s) and then run the last six miles at a pace 10 seconds faster per mile. If I could do this, I would make up a full minute, plus any amount which the leaders slowed down. That realistically meant that I could come back even if I were two minutes behind, knowing that the leaders just might slow down during the final miles of the race.
I sent my running resume to the Race Director, hoping to get free lodging and complimentary entry into the race. They gave me a free entry, a racing bib with #2 on it, and they also gave me the opportunity to have personal water bottles at the aid stations. They did not give me lodging. That was fine for me. Being on a tight budget, I opted to stay at a youth hostel the night before. It cost me $15 for the night, and I had access to a kitchen. I figured humble accommodations might help me stay focused.
I never sleep well the night before a marathon. I am always nervous and anticipating the 4 a.m. wakeup call makes me restless. That night I slept lightly, waiting for my alarm to go off. I did not want to wake up my bunkmates, so I had everything packed and ready so that I could sneak out without disturbing other guests.
My alarm buzzed at 4 a.m., and I slid out of bed, quickly dressing, and packing up my bedding. Going to the kitchen alone I consumed my plain bagel, vanilla Power Bar, and banana. I hydrated on water, Gatorade, and coffee. I drove to the start at 5 a.m. in anticipation of the 7 a.m. start time. I found a parking place four blocks from the finish line. While parking there in the dark, an old song by Degarmo and Key began to play on the Christian radio station:
There is One
Who goes before you to calm the sea
There’s a King
Who leads His people to victory
We are destined to win
We’re surrounded by his Love
Guarded by his power
Destined to win
Following the Lord
Until the battle’s over
We are destined to win
The song gave me some confidence. Perhaps this day I was destined to win! But I had learned that confidence does not guarantee success. I had not even stepped onto the starting line.
I grabbed my #2 racing bib and pinned it to my singlet. I began my warmup, being careful to not run too much, knowing that at the 26-mile mark, every mile on my legs would have had in impact. Thousands of people began to arrive and prepare for the start. The sky was clear, and it was cool. The conditions were excellent for the race. I put on my Brooks racing flats, discarded my sweats, and made my way to the starting line.
As I did my final “strides” in preparation for the start, the mayor of Portland welcomed us. The national anthem was sung, and we quietly lined up as a ten-second countdown began. A cannon sounded and the stationary mass of runners sprang forward into motion. The early miles of a marathon are always easy. I try to conserve as much energy as possible. The Portland course took us around a five-mile downtown loop before heading west out of the city towards the St. John’s Bridge.
I felt good, relaxed, and comfortable, but that is always how it is during the early miles of a marathon. I settled into a pack of runners at the front, although there was one runner who began to pull away at mile five. It was one of the best runners in the Northwest and a competitor of mine since high school. By mile 12 he was 45 seconds ahead of me.
I stayed calm and remembered that this was part of my strategy. I let him go. I stuck with my pace, 5:20-5:25 per mile. I needed to save energy for the final eight miles if I was going to work my plan. The pack that I had been running with had fallen apart. I was now alone, running in second, feeling comfortable. I could see the St. John’s Bridge in the distance. It was there, between miles 17 and 18, that I would begin to make my move. I crossed the halfway mark a full minute behind the leader, with nobody close behind me.
Then something surprising happened. I noticed I was quickly closing in on the leader. I had not sped up, but he was obviously slowing down. At mile 15, before climbing the hill to the bridge, I passed him, saying, “You can do it. You’re doing great!” Looking back over my shoulder, I saw that he had started walking, and I was left alone in front of nearly 10,000 runners, with 11 miles to go.
The sun felt hot as I crested the hill of St. John’s bridge. This is where I had planned to “pick up the pace” and pursue the leader, but now I was alone, and it was my race to win or lose over the final eight miles. Dehydration was my biggest threat, so I forced down large quantities of Gatorade and water at each aid station. Unfortunately, my stomach could not handle so much, and I threw up three times as I ran on. I did not slow down, but it was not a pretty sight, and it was not a pleasant experience. The crowds cheered encouragement as I passed by, escorted by a motorcycle cop and a press truck.
Mile 20 is understood to be the place where most marathoners “hit the wall”. Passing the 20th mile, I felt good. I did not hit the wall. I had not accelerated as much as I had planned, but I also had not slowed down. My goal in this race was more about winning than running a fast time. I looked over my shoulder, and nobody was in sight. I reminded myself that I only had another 33 minutes to run. I felt confident I could do it. The song, “Destined to Win” came back into my head.
At mile 24, I was determined not to get lost as I had five years earlier. This time I had the lead vehicles to follow. The crowds grew bigger as I crossed another bridge and entered downtown. I heard the distinct voice of God in my spirit saying, “Enjoy this moment.” As the sirens chirped and crowds cheered, I thought of the “great crowd of witnesses” cheering for us in the race of life (Hebrews 12:1-2).
I accelerated the final mile, enjoying the moment, knowing that it was probably the only “big marathon” I would ever win. I had imagined this scenario countless times over the years while running thousands of miles, training for this moment. Living it out now was surreal. Seeing the finish line, I sprinted the last 100 meters, to the deafening cheers of the crowd. A finish line tape was stretched across the road as reporters with cameras crowded together just on the other side. I lifted my hands as I broke the tape in 2:24:33. A medal was placed around my neck. The next finisher was Atsushi Ozeki, of Japan, in 2:26:30. I did a couple of interviews with reporters before connecting with my parents who were there at the finish to celebrate with me. I called Heidi who was back home “working at church” since it was a Sunday. She was thrilled to hear the good news.
I ate some food, chatted with friends, one of whom offered me his hotel room as a place where I could clean up and rest. I took him up on his offer, showering, and taking a nap. An hour and a half later I returned to the finish area. There I watched runners sprinting across the finish line with smiles on their faces and great determination. The crowd cheered for them as they completed their 4 ½ hour journey. Many had tears of joy streaming down their faces as they crossed the line, hugging their family and friends, having accomplished the challenging goal of finishing a marathon. They proudly wore their medals, hearts filled with the same joy that I felt having won the race. The motto of the Portland Marathon is “Everyone is a winner”.
The race that we all run is not about winners and losers. It is about finishers. In the marathon of life, we may have had some bad races, but the marathon is not finished yet. You are more than a conqueror through the One who loves you (Romans 8:37). Because of that, you also are destined to win. Wherever you find yourself in this race of life, stay focused, patient, and keep your eye on the prize.
2 Timothy 4:7-8
7 I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. 8 Now there is in store for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day—and not only to me, but also to all who have longed for his appearing.
• God has uniquely created you and destined you to do specific “good works”. Identify some of the ways you have seen this fulfilled in your past.
• What obstacles do you face now that make it difficult to finish strong?
• Shift your focus off the momentary pain and place it on the goal of the finish line.