I run races. Not long ones. And certainly not marathons. 5K's with the random 10K thrown in there about once a year. To call myself "a runner" feels like I am cheapening a term in which so many people take pride. Nevertheless, I run races.
I started running races about five years ago to give myself a reason to exercise. A training goal. I also ran my first race because a friend asked me to run with her in honor of her family friend who was fighting (and has since lost) a battle with brain cancer. It was in this first race that I was reminded that a race, and running in general, is about much more than a reason to exercise.
My high school track coach used to bristle at the idea that track was an "individual sport." The only time I ever saw him angry was when someone on the team started acting like it was. He argued that track is one of the greatest team sports, because you are truly competing against yourself and your personal best and that frees you up to cheer for your teammates to do the same.
This idea came flooding back to me as I ran that first 5K. As I watched thousands of people fill the streets of Washington, DC in bright colors, funny hats, elaborate costumes, and smiles just to run a few miles to raise money for brain cancer research, I remembered my high school track coach. As I ran step by step with a friend who normally ran much faster than me, but had slowed her pace in order to encourage this nervous first-time racer, I began to understand what I never grasped in high school as my coach preached: that runners have one of the greatest communities this side of heaven.
Have you ever watched a race? Participated in one? If so, you know that at a race you will find nothing but encouragement. People who are there are running, yes, "by themselves," but really they are basking in the reality that they are a part of something so much bigger than one person. Yes, most races benefit a charity, which is glorious in and of itself. But even if they did not, races benefit the charity of humanity. At a race some of the purest and best qualities of humanity--endurance, encouragement, discipline, community--exist to remind us that though this world is fallen, its Creator made it and it was Good.
And if you watch closely at the finish line of a race you will be reminded that this world will one day be Good again. That same friend who asked me to run my first 5K told me that the reason she loves running the last mile of any race without headphones is to hear the cheers of the crowd as she approaches and crosses the finish line. Not for her own personal satisfaction, but because she believes that it is the clearest image we have this side of heaven of what it will look like when we cross that final finish line one day. When we approach heaven will all of the saints who have gone before not clap and cheer and welcome us across that finish line with open arms, and a place to rest, rejoice, and recover from our long journey?
I think they will, which is why yesterday's events in Boston saddened me so much. They made me angry. How dare someone try to taint this image of the finish line that means so much to me and countless others who have more claim to it than I. How dare they mess with something so pure and good?
I am still angry, but as I read the words of Isaiah (and then of Paul echoing him in 1 Corinthians) this morning, "Death is swallowed up in victory[...]Where, oh death, is now thy sting?" I am comforted. And as I focus on that final finish line we will all one day cross, I am able to sing to myself a verse from my favorite Christmas carol: "Then pealed the bells more loud and deep: God is not dead nor doth He sleep; the wrong shall fail, the right prevail, with peace on earth, goodwill to men."