I have competed in some races that were disasters. There was the time that a hiker intentionally removed the directional arrows for a half marathon trail race and nearly everyone went the wrong way.

There was the time when a locomotive pulling 100 rail cars slowly crossed a 10K course at the four-mile mark, forcing a majority of the runners to stop for ten minutes.

There was the time when the person with the key to 100 porta-potties at the starting line slept in and failed to show up. Imagine the mess 10,000 runners can make of a downtown park just before the start of a marathon!

Then there was the race that nobody finished.

I knew that it was over for me as I stood alone in the darkness and the downpouring rain, covered in mud, next to my mountain bike with my headlamp illuminating a topographical map that looked like an impossible maze. I had no idea where I was, and no frame of reference to gain my bearings.

Adventure races combine running, mountain biking, orienteering, and other disciplines such as climbing, kayaking, and rappelling. Often, they are done with small teams that work together to get to course checkpoints as quickly as possible, using a map for direction. Map reading (orienteering) and route finding are essential skills for adventure racing. It is not merely a contest of endurance and athleticism.

The first time I did an adventure race, I did so as a part of a team. We had an outstanding “navigator”, who was one of the best in the United States in orienteering competitions. Because of his directions, we were able to run and bike through the course efficiently and quickly. We ended up winning the race.

The second time I competed in an adventure race, I decided to do it alone. I believed I was skilled enough at map reading to find my way through the course. I wanted to be able to go as fast as I could, without being held back by a team.

This race was a “short course,” 20 miles total, and took place in the evening, with a 6 p.m. start time. A major storm system was coming through and buckets of rain were pouring down.

I exited my car and walked to the tent to check-in for the race. By the time I was able to pick up my number, cold water was running down the back of my jacket collar and my feet were soaked. I went back to my car and studied the map while I waited for the start. The start and finish lines were on the bank of a river that was at flood stage. Parts of the park were underwater and the course took us over a bridge and into a densely forested and brushy mountainside. There were ten checkpoints to find before finishing the race.

At 5:45 p.m., I left my car, prepared my bike, threw on my hydration pack, turned on my headlight, and made my way through the squall to the starting line. “What was I doing? Why was I paying money for this experience?” These were the thoughts that ran through my mind.

Seventy-five of us crazies lined up with nervous excitement, and the gun sounded. The first two checkpoints were to be reached by running before transitioning to the bike and riding five miles up the mountain to checkpoint three. With confidence, I shadowed the leaders through the labyrinth of trails to checkpoints one and two. Returning to the starting line, we hopped onto our mountain bikes and dispersed onto different trails, all seeking the most efficient route to checkpoint three.

The trail I chose made steep uphill switchbacks that required me to get off my bike and push it up the hill. Frequently I had to carry it up staircases covered in mud and running water. I was alone and unsure of exactly where I was going. All I knew is that the next checkpoint was several miles up the mountain. My toes and hands were cold, and my topographical map was disintegrating because of the rain.

One hour later, I was hopelessly lost in the woods with a map that meant nothing to me. I had not seen another person for 30 minutes. I had crossed so many trail intersections that I no longer knew which way to go to in order to stumble upon a checkpoint, or which way to go to quit and return to the parking lot. The thought of my warm car and a warm bed seemed like an attractive goal. I still had not found the third checkpoint. I looked at my watch and it was 9 p.m.

I pedaled hard along a muddy trail that dropped down a series of steps. I tried to keep my weight back but my front tire stuck in the mud at the bottom of the stairs and my momentum carried me over the handlebars for a hard landing in a large puddle. I tasted the mud in my mouth as I retrieved my headlamp from the water while assessing my body for any serious damage. Aside from a bruised thigh and growing hopelessness, I was OK.

I prayed, “God, help me find my way back. I don’t care about the race any longer. I just want to get warm and go home.”
At that moment I saw a distant flicker of light through the trees. I peddled hard towards the light, catching up with another competitor who appeared to be just as confused as I was. I felt great hope and relief because I was no longer alone.

“Hey! I am Matt, and I have no idea where I am. Do you have any idea how to get back to the start?” I asked pleadingly.

“My name is Rick. I think this trail will take us back. I am done with this race. Let’s stick together.”

With that, we pedaled our way through the mud, and the rain. It was not long before we encountered a team making a similar exit to start.

Once back to the start and finish lines, I was surprised to see the race director frantically taking down the flags and the tables near the finish. He had given up on this race as well! “No one is finishing this race,” he informed us. “Just go home and get dry.”

Frustrated athletes continued to emerge from the forest and head to their cars.

Not one team or person successfully finished the race that night. I assume everyone made it safely out of the woods. It is the only race that I have been a part of where no one finished. We all failed.

Have you ever felt like you lost your way in life? You want to experience a change, but you do not know which way to go. The maps are confusing to you. You feel alone. What do you do, in those moments? Do you sit, wait, and hope to get rescued, or is there a direction to go?

There are times when we need to run to safety. There are times to turn around and return to the start. There are times to let go of one goal in exchange for another. There are times to get some help and work with someone else, in order to get back on course.

Proverbs 3:5-6 (NIV)
“Trust in the Lord with all your heart
and lean not on your own understanding;
in all your ways submit to him,
and he will make your paths straight.”

• When have you been a part of a failed endeavor?
• How did you recover from it?
• What did you learn from your experience?
• Reflect on Proverbs 3:5-6. In what ways do you need to submit to the Lord today?