I have fallen in love. I don’t know how else to explain it. I could use the words enjoy or relish. But nothing captures how I feel like that four-letter word: love. And what am I in love with? Running. Yes. As odd as it sounds, I’m here to confess: “My name is Tyler. And I now love to run.”
Running and I have been dating for a year or so. Full disclosure, we had a brief fling back in high school. But it didn’t last. She was too good for me. Furthermore, I wasn’t mature enough for a long-term relationship at that point.
Soccer was my passion as a teenager. In my small private, high school, our soccer coach was also the cross-country coach. At the start of my junior year, the coach encouraged the soccer players to stay in shape during the offseason. He asked us to jog with the cross-country team. So, we did.
On the first day of practice, I finished second. The coach bolted over and told me that I had to join the team. I said, “I don’t know what I’m doing.” He said, “Just do what you did.” So, I did. And two years later, at the All-State race, I finished 9th overall in the state of Alabama with a 5k (3.1miles) time of 16:50. I was 18 years old.
Twenty-years went by and I had not run a single step since that championship meet. Last October, at the age of 38, my doctor encouraged me to add some years by subtracting some pounds. Since cardio is a proven way to do it, I decided to jog. Immediately, I felt something.
I felt my knees ache. I felt my chest burn. I felt my sides cramp. I felt all those uncomfortable aches and pains. But I also felt that there was a toothpick-thin, high school runner deep down inside me trying to get out. It’s taken a while, but he’s here.
I’ve been averaging about 20-25 miles a week (hoping to up that to 30+ soon.) I’ve run two races. If I can stay healthy, I want to take our relationship to the next level in 2020. At the age of 39, I am now ready for commitment. Ha! But it’s not all good news.
Running started as an exercise. It turned into a hobby. But now, she’s become a mistress. I talk about it, think about it, read about it, and even dream (yes!) about it. I think Rebecca is becoming jealous.
To those that don’t run, I’m sure this all sounds weird. Sadistic. Creepy even. But, for those that do, you understand. When I’m not running, I’m thinking about running. When I am running, I’m thinking about running more. It’s constant.
To satisfy my hunger, I’ve been binge-listening to training podcasts (my favorite is called Running Rogue). I’ve been keeping up with the latest news in the sport (such as Eliud Kipchoge’s recent sub-2-hour marathon.). Since I am also a reader, I have been devouring books on the subject.
I read Run Forever by Amby Burfoot and Running: The Complete Guide by John Stanton. I’m currently plowing through The Perfect Mile, about the first man to run a mile under 4 minutes. My next reads include: Running with the Kenyans by Adharanand Finn and Eat & Run by Scott Jurek. These books have educated me, inspired me, and humbled me. But one of them recently alarmed me.
It’s not that the book was bad. I would give it a solid B+. What grabbed my attention is that the book exposed something inside of me. Just seven pages into The Inner Runner by Jason Karp, I came across his confession. Karp writes:
“Running is my sustenance. It is my companion, my best friend who is there every day for me to talk to, to lean on, to gain strength from.”
Karp’s words struck me. I felt every syllable of that passage. It resonated with me on a deep level. I knew exactly what he was describing. And that terrified me.
Karp goes on to talk about running as if it is his savior. It rescued him from a life of meaninglessness. He talks about his training plan as lord – something to which he must daily submit. He writes as an atheist but sounds like an evangelical describing his personal relationship with a higher power. I recoiled at what I read. But I also identified with it a little too much. I heard in Karp’s words some of my own recent thoughts and unspoken feelings. It dawned on me: the hobby was becoming an idol.
John Calvin famously said, “The human heart is an idol factory.” We crave identity and security. Some of us long to be worshipped but all of us long to worship. If our object of worship isn’t God, it can (and will) become anything else.
We tend to think of idols as wooden statues or painted, plaster figures. But the most dangerous idols are not on the shelf but those in the self. In Ezekiel 14:4, God rebuked the elders of Israel for setting up “idols in their heart.” Long before a man gives his money and time to a statue, he gives his affections and heart to it.
Metal idols have destroyed their thousands; mental idols their tens of thousands. We can hide them more easily. We can justify them more quickly. We can worship them more subtly.
Here’s what I’ve discovered: my body loves to run. But if I am not careful, my heart will love it too much. And I am now trying to find that critical balance.
For you, it’s probably not running. But it is something. It might be golf, cooking, politics, books, money, family, or other good things. Idols don’t have to be Buddhas, they can be blessings from God that we exalt too high. Idolatry can be wanting a bad thing. It can also be wanting a good thing too much. We must be on our guard. Idols can sneak up behind us.
If you’ve ever seen the movie Chariots of Fire, you know the story of Eric Liddel. He too was a runner and a Christian. He committed himself to become the best runner that he could be as an expression of being the best disciple that he could. Liddel famously said, “When I run, I feel God’s pleasure.” That’s the perspective I now realize I need – running to the glory of God. I’m not there yet. But I want to be. Pray for me.
I’m running the hardest race of my life. It’s not the Virginia 10 Miler. It’s the Race of Endurance that Hebrews 12:1 calls us all to. It’s the sprint of 1 Cor 10:14: “Flee idolatry.” It’s the ultramarathon of 1 Cor 9, “run in such a way that you will win.”
The Lord is teaching me that my legs don’t have to run less, but my heart needs to run more. It needs to run harder and faster towards Him. I need to sprint away from Karp’s view and chase after Liddel’s.
Running as god equals idolatry. Running for God equals worship. That’s the finish line I’m now striving for, one step at a time.