I’m a runner and a priest. This means that my congregation is regularly subjected to running metaphors in my preaching. Sometimes the metaphors work the other way though. Sometimes it’s the stories of my faith that help me to understand my running. It was a parable of Jesus that became the defining image for this year’s marathon race, offering me notes of both caution and grace.
The parable is short and its message one of the more direct of Jesus’ teaching. “What king,” he asks, “would go to war against another king without first sitting down with his counselors to discuss whether his army of 10,000 could defeat the 20,000 soldiers marching against him?” The parable concludes that a leader would be foolish to do anything other than surrender unless their accounting assures them they have the resources to fight.
I crossed the finish line of my 42.2km distance in the Niagara Ultra this past spring. My time was not what I wanted. The run was excruciatingly painful through all of the third quarter. I had struggled with knee pain through the second half of my training, eventually seeking out a physiotherapist and pulling back on mileage exactly when I should have been ramping it up. “Better to save your knee and run the race more slowly than get benched,” was the physio’s advice. Because I didn’t know how serious the knee problems potentially were, I pulled back to a walking pace often on race day. I didn’t have the mental or physical confidence that I needed to push myself.
This wasn’t my first marathon. As the race approached, I tried to assess what had gone wrong, why my carefully prepared plan has gone awry. I used the same training schedule as before. I didn’t deviate from my assigned mileage; my health had been good. And yet, too late I realized that I was the king in the parable who didn’t count my troops before waging my offensive.
Yes, I put in place a plan to run. I followed that plan. What I didn’t do was plan all of the things that are needed to support my running: I didn’t plan for recovery. I let nutrition slide. I completely forgot to stretch. I compromised on sleep. Not once did I manage to squeeze in a massage appointment to work out the knots in my protesting muscles. I have never incorporated strength training into my weekly schedule, and as I get older, this oversight has bigger consequences.
I didn’t lapse on these things intentionally. I had failed to account for the different circumstances of this year’s training. I started running marathons in COVID when my schedule was more streamlined, online and from home. Kids’ activities were limited or non-existent, and travel wasn’t happening. I signed up for a marathon without counting the cost of a full church-workingparenting- traveling schedule on my training. I didn’t notice until it was too late that I hadn’t rallied enough troops.
While out on the course, I considered the possibility that this might be my last marathon. The agony of so many of the kilometers felt like a call to surrender. I love training, but I also have many competing demands on my time, and it’s unclear how I would be able to prioritize better the needs of marathon prep.
But then, “never again,” is a common message our brain and body sends us when we’re pushing our limits. I crossed that finish line, and I learned some things as I did. Three days out from race day, my knee felt normal again. I felt grateful for that, while also wondering if perhaps I should have pushed myself harder.
I didn’t quite admit defeat, but I also recognize the folly of getting myself into a situation for which I wasn’t adequately prepared. Our bodies aren’t limitlessly renewable resources, and I am lucky that mine favoured me with some unearned resilience this time around.
Jesus offers this parable in the context of the costliness of discipleship. Would-be followers, he tells them, need to be prepared to lay down their possessions and perhaps their very lives. Relationships can become strained and even broken because of choosing to follow Jesus. His words are startling and serious, asking the crowds to consider seriously what the way of the cross actually asks of us.
I hear a note of humour in this parable too though, because we all know that far too many battles get waged on bluster and big talk and little else. Interestingly, Jesus follows up these words with the parables of the lost sheep and the prodigal son. We are asked to invest our whole selves into the life of Jesus. And also, God is God of mercy and grace, who seeks us out personally and with love when we don’t pass muster, when our strength and sense of direction fails, when we don’t have the resources or the courage to use those resources in the way God asks.
As a runner, I hear this wisdom as the need to be more responsible with my legs and body, not to take for granted the work and planning I need to put in to being able to run. I hear grace, too—at the end of the day, each step is a gift, and I have received so much more than I ever deserve. That seems like a lesson for life too.