With 10,500 Olympic athletes from 202 countries assembled in Athens, Greece, the world is once again awed by examples of speed, agility, and strength. Their efforts are as diverse as their talents - sprinting around a track, diving into deep pools, or even nailing a shuttlecock on the badminton court. Yet, each demonstrates a remarkable level of endurance and concentration.
Their precision and form are inspiring a lot of us recreational athletes to lace up running shoes or swim an extra lap or two. But even if our efforts at home fail to win us accolades or a profile on network TV, the spiritual lessons learned through the discipline of participating in sports are available to all.
For instance, what exactly is endurance? Is it mental or physical? Is it the will to push on through physical discomfort, and ignore the temptation to stop and give up? Some people may say that's exactly what endurance is, claiming the mind gives up long before the body does. Others may say endurance means a necessary suffering - one that will be rewarded once the trial has passed.
But to me, as a triathlete, endurance has come to have a spiritual meaning: grace in action. A couple of years ago, I was training for a half-marathon in order to build a foundation for a busy triathlon season. Each week I added a few more minutes to my runs until I was regularly running distances well beyond my usual route. That's when the problems started. The long runs became mentally tedious and physically painful. I wondered if I should continue, if the race was worth all the effort and mental struggle.
Instead of quitting, I decided I could use the time on my runs to pray. As I worked my way up and down hills, appreciating the effort of the climb and the ease of the descent, I realized that endurance is a quality of God's love. That doesn't mean love is an opportunity to feel pain, boredom, or fatigue. It's an opportunity to see the fullness of the moment, whether appreciating the brilliant blue sky or sharing a smile with a fellow runner. Hard work doesn't mean suffering; it means willingness to work toward good results.
I began to think about movement as a natural expression of freedom, not a feat achieved by muscles and measured by time. Mary Baker Eddy, the founder of this newspaper, wrote: "Mind [God] is the source of all movement, and there is no inertia to retard or check its perpetual and harmonious action" ("Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures," page 283). To me, that meant I needed to stop checking my watch every few minutes to record my progress. As I looked for more grace and complained less, the joy returned to my training.
The day of the half-marathon drew near, and I felt ready. I had built up my mileage, and my thoughts were freer. The next step was finishing the 13.1 mile course. But my heel became very sore, and it was difficult even to walk the week before the race. I stopped my daily runs. But I didn't stop exercising my new spiritual insights.
On the morning of the race, there was no change to my foot. I decided I would go anyway, and if I had to drop out, I could at least see the evidence of hard work in the other runners and appreciate the goodness of the day.
I started slowly. The course was along a lake in hilly New Hampshire, and as I ran, I thought about a Bible verse that I've always loved: "How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of him that bringeth good tidings, that publisheth peace; that bringeth good tidings of good, that publisheth salvation; that saith unto Zion, Thy God reigneth!" (Isa. 52:7)
Step by step I persisted, quieting thoughts about giving up, just as I had done in the weeks leading up to the race, and "publishing" thoughts of freedom and joy. Halfway through I realized the pain was gone, and I crossed the finish line in a time much faster than I'd expected. There were no ill effects in the days that followed.
I was delighted with my time, but the real reward was the lesson that endurance really has little to do with pushing through pain. It's the patience and dedication of seeing God's government in every moment. That holds true whether we are accomplishing a difficult work assignment, doing endless loads of laundry, praying for peace - or finding grace on a run.
There's a prayer of action for all of us, even if we're Olympic athletes only in our dreams.