“Matt Runs To Catch a Dream.” This was the headline in The World, our local newspaper. The black and white photograph featured my mother with bobbed hair, looking down at a stopwatch as I ran past her on the dirt track behind Sunset Junior High in Coos Bay, Oregon. I was eight-years-old.
Like many children, my dream was to one day run in the Olympics. The legacy of our hometown hero, Steve Prefontaine, made this seem attainable. He had finished fourth in the 1972 Olympic 5000m. While other boys pursued the glory of baseball and football, I spent my time running alone on country roads and trails in the hills of the rural Oregon coast.
We all have dreams, and most of them get crushed along the way. Discouraging parents. Peer pressure to conform. Devastating disappointments. All these things squish us into the mediocre conformity of low-risk living.
But for me, between the ages of eight and eighteen, I thought I had a chance of attaining my Olympic dream. I knew it would not be easy, so I did everything I could to catch that dream. There are three main ingredients that determine the level of the success of an athlete. One is desire and discipline. The second is opportunity, based on coaching, health, and circumstances. The third and final factor is physiological ability. The DNA of the athlete is a major consideration when measuring one’s potential. These three things are significant factors in the pursuit of all dreams. As a runner, I always had the desire and the discipline to achieve my dreams. I was willing to work harder than anyone else, running every morning in the dark, before school. I also was given great opportunities, based on supportive parents and outstanding coaches. I believed these two factors guaranteed me the highest level of success.
There were many seasons when I trained with obsessive discipline and focused strategy while remaining injury-free. I had the support of my family, coaches, and teams. Yet, in spite of all of those things being 100%, I fell short of being the very best. I marveled when other runners were capable of achieving the same level, with less training and less focus. I blamed myself and questioned my work ethic, training, strategy, and mental toughness.
When I chose to pursue ministry, I laid down my Olympic dream and set my eyes on another prize – the eternal one. I continued to run, but without the competitive drive or the goals that had characterized my youth.
Following graduation from Bible College, at the age of 23, I was watching the 1992 Olympic marathon on television. I was newly married, serving as a youth pastor in Santa Barbara, California when I heard what I identified as “the still small voice” of God. The voice said, “You will only be this age once. Make the most of your gift now. You are capable of qualifying for and competing in the Olympic Trials.” It was a sudden revelation, and I felt as though I had been given permission by God to again pursue the dream of my childhood. This moment changed my life for the next ten years.
I called a pastor in Oregon by the name of John Lodwick. He had placed third in the Boston Marathon in 1982 and had influenced my faith when I was in high school. “John, would you be willing to coach me with the goal of competing in the next Olympic Trials in the marathon?” I asked. He quickly agreed and began “prescribing me workouts”, working towards a major marathon twice each year. We talked on the phone weekly, discussing my progress and setbacks. He knew what it took to compete at the highest level, and like every good coach, he believed in me more than I believed in myself.
I had become a realist regarding my personal assessment of my potential as a runner. I knew that to make the Olympic Team was probably beyond me, but to go to the Olympic Trials was achievable. A sub 2:22 marathon would earn me a place at the starting line. A sub-2:12 was necessary to be a contender for the Olympic Team, and this seemed unlikely.
For the next three years, I ran 90-110 miles each week, running twice a day, always pushing myself to the brink of injury and exhaustion. I competed in 5ks, 10Ks, half-marathons, and cross country races. Because of the increase in my mileage and excellent coaching, my times improved dramatically. I began winning local and regional races. I received a shoe sponsorship and occasionally received some prize money.
Running provided me with an escape from the stresses of ministry. Church work can be all-consuming, isolating a minister in the subculture of the parish. Running gave me a life outside the church. I established deep friendships with people whose church was found in the solitude of the outdoors. The time I spent running alone gave me time to pray, to process, and to manage the burdens of the church with the help of the natural endorphins that running produces in the human body. I knew that God had a purpose for my running obsession. I believed that God had created me to be a runner, not for my glory, but to spend time with Him and glorify Him. A life of faith is not meant to be lived behind the four walls of a church building. It is meant to be lived in the real world.
Twice each year, I raced in a major marathon, aiming for the “Trials Standard” of a sub 2:22. I fell short several times. I hit the wall in Portland. The weather was atrocious at the California International Marathon. But then things went well in Utah. I managed to make the standard with a 2:20:59 finish, averaging 5:22 per mile for 26.2 miles. I was going to the Olympic Trials! I had finally caught the dream that I had been chasing since I was eight years old.
It was cold on February 17, 1996, in Charlotte, North Carolina. The day before the race, snow flurries filled the skies. On race day the weather was clear and breezy. It was so cold that day that I heard the race officials were struggling to keep athletes’ water bottles from freezing at the aid stations. My wife and children, my parents, and my high school coach were all there. They were enjoying this vacation. I felt the nervousness of the internal pressure that came from my lifelong preparation for this most important race. Remarkably, there were three of us who had attended the same small high school, all competing in the marathon Olympic Trials. Kristy Johnson, who grew up just down the block from me, placed 5th that year, and then 2nd in 2000.
I was one of 116 men to qualify for and travel to Charlotte for this pre-Olympic event. The winner would receive $100,000 plus the glory of representing the United States in Atlanta.
At 8 a.m. the hotel lobby was abuzz with lean, nervous runners, wearing colorful sweats, spandex, hats, and gloves, as we counted down the minutes to the start. They sipped on coffee and sports drinks. They chatted with coaches and family. They stretched out on the lobby floor, with eyes closed and headphones on. It was fifteen degrees outside when I exited the hotel lobby to begin my warmup, trying to calm myself, enjoy the moment, and remind myself that I had nothing to lose and nothing to prove.
Press helicopters buzzed overhead. Police had the streets blocked off. Spectators and reporters emptied the high rise hotels and gathered at the starting line. Music was pumped out of a massive sound system as an announcer introduced the favorites to make the Olympic Team.
After completing my hour-long warmup, I shed my sweats and gave them to Heidi. She wished me luck and gave me a kiss on the cheek. I stepped onto the line and at 9 a.m. the gun sounded, and the crowd roared. We accelerated as a colorful pack of men wearing skimpy shorts, singlets, stocking hats, and gloves – a striking contrast to the bundled-up spectators. All of us had prepared for years, to be here, for this moment. All of us were in peak physical condition. We represented families, teammates, coaches, and communities all dreaming of success and Olympic glory. This was the biggest race of our lives. This moment was the fulfillment of goals, dreams, and countless miles run alone.
Running down that city block, adrenaline and a surprising amount of emotion welled up within me. Tears came down my cold cheeks as I savored the moment and thanked God for the opportunity to be in this race.
Time slows down when you run. Miles are covered every five minutes, but they still seem long. Every marathon is a physical and mental struggle. Although runners spread out over the course of the first twenty miles, the real racing does not start until then. It is the final 10 kilometers that makes or breaks every marathoner. At the front of this race, at mile 21, Bob Kempainen, surged by running a 4:41 mile, and began to pull away from the field. Suddenly, he began to vomit, while still running fast. It was disturbing to the viewers watching on live, national television. It happened four times, but instead of stopping, he merely wiped his chin and increased his lead. (You can watch it right here: https://www.runnerspace.com/video.php?video_id=57408). He went on to win the race, the $100,000, and a place on the Olympic Team.
Meanwhile, back in the pack, I struggled along as fatigue set in. I had gambled by running a pace faster than I had ever run before. I was hoping for a major breakthrough. But my legs would not cooperate with my mind, and I had been running too fast, too soon. I fell off the pace, and runners began to pass me. I aimed to run a “personal best” this day and was disappointed to see that goal slipping away. I pushed myself through the frustration, plodding along as if I was running uphill.
The last miles passed by in slow motion. Seeing the 26-mile mark, I felt a surge of relief as I sprinted to the finish line in 66th place. A medal was put around my neck, and a space blanket was wrapped over my shoulders. My time was 2:29:42, far behind the 2:12:45 run by Kampainen.
It was an experience I would never forget. Although it was not what I had dreamt of as an eight-year-old boy, the medal still had the Olympic rings on it. I felt blessed and fortunate for the journey that had taken me to that moment.
Goals enable us to go further and achieve more than we can imagine. Without goals, we tend to drift aimlessly along. As we have all heard, “Aim for nothing you’ll be sure to hit it.” As we pursue goals and dreams, through faith, we break out of the mediocrity of conformity.
What is your dream? I encourage you to pursue it. Even if you do not exactly reach it, you will be better for the pursuit. After all, life is more about the journey than it is about any achievement.
• What are your past goals and dreams? What enabled you, or kept you from achieving them?
• What are your present goals and dreams? What do you need to do to take steps towards achieving them?