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Finding the Finish Line!
Part III: ENDURANCE MATTERS
– Assuring Provision through Mercy –
No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it.
One of the most difficult races I ever finished was during the hot July summer of 2015 in Indianapolis, Indiana. The race itself was a longer sprint distance triathlon which was part of the TRI Indy series of summer races. When I registered for this particular race several months prior, my rationale was that the location was near my brother’s home in Indiana, and the race fell on his birthday and anniversary weekend. I presumed that if I planned to compete in a race that weekend, it would essentially accomplish two goals: one, it would force my family to travel to visit my brother and his wife, while also welcoming my brother’s involvement in a passion of mine; and two, the more selfish reason – I knew that the provision of a rare allowance of a midsummer trip would be a worthwhile venture for both my busy, monotonous schedule and addlepated mind.
As the second official triathlon I was to compete in that summer, I was already well into my training season heading into the race; however, I had not adequately balanced my training plan with healthy eating, the volume of fitness classes I teach, and the normal race training schedule I was accustomed to following. Though I had been eagerly anticipating the race, during the last two weeks leading up to race day, I hit a training rut and a low I had never experienced before when preparing for a triathlon. I recall feeling weak, sluggish, and lethargic in every way. My usual race taper was not effectively topping off my dwindling training efforts and, as a result, I was past anxious about both my physical and mental condition heading into the race. Lacking confidence to the point of not even wanting to compete in the race at all, race day came upon me faster than expected and soon I was reluctantly packing my bright orange triathlon bag with race-day gear—from swimsuits, goggles, bike shorts, towels, a bike helmet and biking gloves to shoes, extra socks, a wetsuit, snacks, and all the necessary items I would need to compete. Normally I am so nervous before a race that I select my race-day clothing and lay it out at least a week before race day, but between my beleaguered physical and mental state, I felt I would be lucky if in the very least I did not forget to pack anything. Nonetheless, I stuffed in the last few extra towels, zipped up my orange bag, completed one last tune-up on my bike, and successfully but slowly completed a final evening prerace swim the night before my family was planning to leave for Lafayette, IN, the town where my brother lives.
With a deep pit of despair in my stomach, I fell asleep that night knowing that less than 48 hours now remained until the race. The following morning after loading the car with my bike and gear, my parents and I drove through the ever exciting Indiana countryside towards Lafayette, where we were planning to go out to eat in celebration of my brother’s birthday and then drive the early morning trek to Indy from his home for the race the following morning. As endless farmland, prairie, and wind turbines flooded my glazed vision as I stared out the window on that cloudy morning, I was consumed by unrelenting doubt and regret. Doubt in myself and my abilities, and regret that I thought this entire venture with my family in tow was a good idea. The reality that my entire family was going to be there to cheer me on and I had lost any and all thrill towards the reality of the race I was to participate in, more than ever I feared letting them down and being a disappointment. My thoughts spiraled down a chamber of self-deprecation and my physical state of lethargy and continued stomach discomfort, a result of IBS-induced stress and anxiety, left me feeling depressed and abysmally dreading what was to come. As the clouds coalesced to bring in an afternoon cold front of windy storms to the city of Lafayette, we finally made it through increasingly forceful rains to a quaint restaurant where my brother and his wife awaited our arrival and his official birthday dinner celebration. Though I was grateful to spend time with my family, in self-absorbed vanity, I was more concerned about what I would eat for dinner because not only do I have digestive problems, but for years I also have always eaten the same prerace meal consisting of a light or gluten-free pasta, fresh, herbed tomato sauce, a plain lettuce salad, a small serving of steamed broccoli, two slices of bread (without the crusts because superstition sometimes gets the best of athletes, myself included), and a tall glass of chocolate almond milk.
Now in my third year of triathlon racing, I had never eaten anything different as my last meal before a race, but instead of trying to allay food fears in a rational way and feeling afraid to eat much from the restaurant menu, I drank some of my mom’s diet Coke, scarfed far too much bread from the restaurant (with crusts intact; no, not that that matters…) alongside homemade nut butters I brought with me in hopes that at least the carbs and protein would sustain me through the morning race. Soon, however, I would learn that this combination was perhaps one of the worst things I could have done to myself and my nerves on the eve of a big race. Overly focused on my unusually heightened nerves for the TRI Indy race, I struggled to give my brother the attention he deserved during dinner to properly celebrate his birthday and his anniversary. I was antsy, agitated, and kept having to leave the table for the bathroom throughout our dinner meal. My parents found my actions incredibly rude, and while they understood my anxiety, they did not have patience for my inability to set aside worry and enjoy the evening.
That night after we unpacked at my brother’s home and I once again compulsively organized my race gear, I hardly spoke with my parents, and after everyone went to bed, I was unable to fall asleep. I called a friend in the middle of the night looking for guidance, solace, and assurance to build up my confidence, but unfortunately that was not to be found. So there I sat at three in the morning on the newly carpeted floor of my brother’s spacious living room, listening to the quiet rain, sobbing for feelings of imminent failure before I had even started something, and for the same pensive doubts and regrets that plagued me on the drive from Chicago to Lafayette. Trying to dissolve my tears in my loose jersey nightshirt, I browsed their bookshelf where I noticed several familiar Christian titles. As I prayed a broken prayer into my tear-stained nightshirt, I was gently reminded that I was surrounded by a family who rests their hope in Christ and not on the sole merit of accomplishments such as being a champion of a local triathlon. I began to realize the foolishness of my worry and the futility of continued self-defeating thoughts. While prayer was not coming easily, I worked to shift my focus from the race itself to Christ and how he would help me through it regardless of whether my performance reflected the state of my weary body or now rumbling stomach full of gluten-heavy restaurant bread, an excessive consumption of nut butters, and dehydrating soda. After reading a few short passages from random books I snagged from their shelves, I was finally able to settle down and embrace sleep, if only for a few hours.
My typical race-day nerves woke me up promptly at 4:45 AM to drive into Indianapolis with my father as the rest of my family—mom, brother, and sister—planned to sleep in and come closer to race time where despite my shallow attitude the day prior, they would serve as supportive spectators of my race-day efforts. As my dad and I drove together to Indy, we silently took in the post-rain soaked morning sunrise and briefly discussed the race ahead. Still, in an ever thoughtful state, I thanked God for how blessed I was for the many times my father spent with me driving to early morning runs, triathlons, and other athletic events, wherein his presence and coaching meant everything to me. And yet again, even after the long drive to my brother’s house the day prior, my dad gladly, selflessly, and with a desire in his heart to always be there for me, led us on the journey to Indianapolis.
Our conversation danced from topic to topic, which was a needed and welcomed distraction for me until I dozed off for a short time along the drive. My father kindly woke me as we arrived and in our usual fashion, investigated the race site—a breathtaking, wooded, hilly park in the largest recreation area in Indianapolis. We both agreed that the scenery was stunningly exquisite for a race! I would get to take in a beautiful open-water swim in a clear, cold water lake, the rolling, forested hills on a crisp summer morning appeared to be most suitable terrain for the partial open road bike ride, and the innumerous wooded trails beckoned my enthusiasm for the final running leg of the race. As I commenced the race in my age group category, my stomach was churning. I felt bloated, uncomfortable, and felt pain locking up the cadence of breathing in my chest. It was a strange combination of IBS pain, allergies, asthma, and injuries from progressive training and a failed taper. I made the decision not to wear my wetsuit, and that was probably my first mistake of the race. The water looked gorgeous, reflecting the morning sunlight, but deceptively turned out to be awfully frigid. Upon my running entrance to start the swim, I immediately began hyperventilating and could not catch my breath.
Normally my strongest and fastest leg of the race, I was panicking, paddling in the water, trying to warm up my body, while swallowing copious amounts water and struggling to breathe. Flailing in distress, I closed my eyes and put my head down to swim. After only two full freestyle strokes I had to surface again, and this time gasping for air more than before. I flipped over on my back to open up my chest cavity and lungs, but it only made me cough more. I saw the buoy markers and boats in the water where rescue men waited in case someone needed help in the water or to be removed from the race. Those men and women I have hardly noticed in any other race looked friendly and kind to me today.
Calmed by their presence I could see out of the corner of my eye, I kept paddling through the water, unable to really swim, all while getting pushed and shoved at all sides not knowing if this would be the first race I voluntarily forfeited on the first leg. But sometimes in life despite discomfort, a lack of oxygen, and mounting fear, you have to put your head down and keep swimming. And that’s exactly what I did. Toes frozen, lungs contracting, and an unforgiving deep lake to conquer, I swam the best I could. I rotated between freestyle strokes and backstroke to pace out my breathing with the goal of continued progress through the water. It was motivation, determination, will, and my feisty spirit that surfaced again in those cold waters, and I knew that no matter the challenge I would get through the race. When the shore was finally in sight, the water was shallow enough to put my feet down to touch the sandy bottom of the lake and I started propelling myself off the bottom towards the shore. Water-logged, freezing, and out of breath, I was hardly able to run to the transition area, but seeing my dad not far from the bike zone, I felt relief and the look in his face told me he knew something was wrong.
Flustered, I got back into my groove, found my orange bag and race station among the many others in the transition area, and got ready for the biking leg of the race. Toweled off, check, shoes on, check, helmet, check, sunglasses, check…I went through the motions with more difficulty than usual, but finally I was off towards the bike mounting area and onto the bike leg of the race where my dad yelled at me to get my butt moving and race! I smiled at his sarcasm still chilled from the swim, and I pushed hard into the first hill, though still failing to get a deep breath. I knew that all I had to do now was just keep pedaling, another 16 miles, and my family would be there to get me through the last running leg of the race. Those 16 miles were far from pleasant, but I cycled as I have never cycled before. Gasping for breath the entire time, overly exhausted from the swim, my fears resurfaced on that leg of the race as I felt weaker than ever on some of the steep, hilly climbs of the course.
I can hardly recall the scenery I so desperately wanted to take in, but I do remember pedaling hard, closing my eyes, and putting my head down to cycle just as I had during the swim. When I finally dismounted my bike back in the transition zone and torpidly took off for the last running leg of the race, I knew that ‘one foot in front of the other,’ I was going to do it and I was going to finish. My stomach was aggravating me past my breaking point, though, and about half a mile into the run, I stopped to use a bathroom along the course. Again this is something I had never done before during a race because I am always competing against myself and others to achieve the fastest race time and hopefully to place in my age group. Tossing all those hopes aside, my goal remained to finish. And that I was going to do. Four miles, three miles, two miles, one mile…I counted down as debilitating tingling flooded my calves and quads, and with each stride I felt as though a backpack of bricks was saddled on my back. S-curved sweat formed and slid down my face, chest, arms, and legs; I talked myself out of my own head and kept a prayerful attitude. Seeking out a few fellow athletes ahead of me to motivate my speed on the last part of the run, I blocked out the pain, continued taking fast, shallow breaths, and let sweat blur my vision as I came to the hardest, yet most rewarding part of any race I have ever completed. The final 400 to the finish. As with all races, my spunk surfaces near the end and I spotted my final targets. This time, I picked out the two male athletes not too far ahead of me that I was determined to defeat. Forcing my way through the final 400 meters of the race, I took off into a sprint, feeling like I might go to the bathroom while running, struggling to breathe, and experiencing muscle cramping from head to toe, I tore past those two dudes in my way and smeared through the finish line. And trust me in this: I had never been happier in my life to see the finish line than I was for that race! My family swelling the finish area with their presence smiled and cheered obnoxiously when I crossed the finish line.
I felt miserable and performed terribly, but wanted to show strength in the finish, especially for my brother, who had never been to one of my triathlons before. Their joyfulness, teasing words, and victorious shouts were heartwarming to me as I slowed my run and took off towards the bathroom. I was sweating in agony, and glad the race was over. Sitting in an overused port-o-john, perspiring profusely, loathing taking on the post-race flush in addition to feeling sick, salty sweat mixed with tears as I bemoaned my state of being. I was stuck not only in the most disgusting type of bathroom, but in the position of wanting to show gratitude and be energetic, all smiles for my family, but physically wanting a cool shower, cleared lungs, and rest. Nonetheless, when I walked out of that bathroom and stumbled towards my bike to gather my orange bag and race gear from its station in the transition zone, I saw my family all together, smiling, chatting, and enjoying the warmth and blessing of God’s creations on a beautiful summer Sunday morning.
As disappointed as I was in my personal race results, I knew in that instant that all I had wanted had been achieved in that very moment. The race wasn’t about me or my stomach or my training or my pain. The race was not even about experiencing a gorgeous, Indiana destination. The “race” was about moving closer to Christ—as a family, celebrating a birthday, momentarily smiling, and prayerfully giving praise to God for his eternal blessings on our lives. “You finished the race, Trice!” my brother gibed while drinking my post-race chocolate milk knowing I was less than happy with my performance. “But what was up with all those dudes in spandex?! Oh, my goodness! These ‘triathlon’ people. It’s weird.” Heartened by his continued commentary and observational critiques, my stomach pain failed to dissipate as I worked to gather my racing items. Sweat trickled down the small of my mud-splattered back, an unforgiving sunburn began to reveal its malevolent glow atop my shoulders. Yet, amidst my physical discomfort, I was whelmed once again by the deeper meaning of this race. And that meaning stood in the shade of towering oak trees about 25 yards outside of the transition area where triathletes of all ages were refueling, confabulating, and cleaning up in the post-race hustle.
As I fumbled with my empty water bottle, mess of towels, shoes, headbands, and wetsuit, I gleaned happily at the nexus that was my family. I saw my strong mother, the breast cancer survivor with a newly replaced left knee, the selfless family caretaker, and cheerleader for that which brings her most joy and pride in life—her children. I glanced at my wise father, the coach, baseball fanatic, and gentleman aging with grace; a man whose life work has been as a physician with hands of healing for the Lord. My sturdy brother, who has grown into a man of unrelenting faith, a supportive husband and church leader, but someone who fights personal demons that impact his daily ability to feel fulfillment in life.
My angelic sister, my very best friend, whose ever-ready smile, genuine compassion, and heart of purity has been the sparkle that has uplifted our family unit in all times of hardship or tragedy. Looking upon my family in a way that made me feel closer to Christ and the heaven He provides for us here on earth, the speed of my compulsive fidgeting and obsessive organization of my items slowed as I studied my family members gently listening to shared stories, smiling, carousing in the warm breeze and shadows of perfection in a summer day. That is my family. That is my team! I thought. That is where my hope rests in the safety of our dysfunction, but ever-enduring trust and belief in God. As I walked over to join my family team, we laughed, we teased, we smiled, we later enjoyed a delicious brunch together, and the triathlon I had feared so much quickly became the backdrop of a weekend racing for faith, family, and the assurance of mercy in Christ.
Sitting quietly at brunch was when I fully realized the rarity of having my entire family together once again, and I was soon enveloped with joy for the moment, peace in the race, and solitude in the stillness of my desire to remain whole in Christ’s provision for my life.
Closeness to Christ is not designed to be a solitary journey or lonely pursuit. God calls us to fellowship in Him, and when we gather together in His name, it is right there with us that He will be.
“Fight the good fight of the faith. Take hold of the eternal life to which you were called when you made your good confession in the presence of many witnesses.”
1 Timothy 6:12