Last year 55-year-old comedian Eddie Izzard ran 27 marathons in 27 days, raising £1.35m for Sport Relief in the process. Upon crossing the finish line, he uttered the understatement of the year – “I’m very tired.”
Many will look at Izzard’s challenge with a mixture of horror and bewilderment. Why put yourself through the pain? Yet, for all the cultural trends in the world of sport right now, none is more significant than the rise of endurance sports. It’s not just long-distance running. Cycling, rowing and swimming events see individuals or teams push their bodies to the absolute limit.
Thanks to national campaigns such as the NHS’ ‘Couch to 5k’, Sport England’s ‘This Girl Can’ and Age UK’s ‘Fit for the Future’, there has been a surge of people getting active – just look at the rise of ‘parkrun’, a free 5k run that attracts 100,000 people each week in the UK alone!
Since 17 competitors ran the first Olympic marathon in Athens in 1896, marathon running has exploded.
Running a marathon is now on many of our bucket lists. Thousands of marathon events will take place across the world in 2017, few better known than the UK’s very own London Marathon.
Entries to triathlons and obstacle events such as Tough Mudder are on the rise too. So even if you’re not interested in endurance sports, the chances are that people in your church, your workplace and your street very much are. In triathlons, participants begin by swimming, then cycling, followed by running. Obstacle events see participants running through mud, scaling huge walls and crawling through tunnels. There’s also ‘The Color Run’, which is billed as “the happiest 5k on the planet” and sees thousands of runners wearing white T-shirts get sprayed with paint in a rainbow of colours as they run around the course.
We all want to be heroes
As we increasingly live a more insulated, comfortable life, endurance sports challenge us not just physically, but mentally too. These endurance events tap into the human desire to push our limitations, and achieve what was previously impossible for us to do. We all want to be heroes. Pushing ourselves to the limit and challenging ourselves boosts our confidence and our mood.
In 2011, Steve Chalke regained a Guinness World Record for the most money raised by a marathon runner. His completion of the Virgin London marathon raised a staggering £2,330,159.38!
The Alpha-loving chief scout conquered Mount Everest at the age of 23, just 18 months after he crushed three vertebrae during a failed SAS skydive.
I was 19 when I signed up for my first marathon. I’d bought a copy of a running magazine out of curiosity. It was full of adverts for upcoming events and my interest got the better of me, so I signed up.
The furthest I’d previously run was three miles – and that was in my modest £8 trainers. I had no idea. My diet consisted of Pot Noodles and Coca-Cola, and my training plan lacked any sort of logic. But as I began to run, I developed a profound love for the sport.
After several sorry training runs I turned up on the day of the marathon with no real idea of what awaited me. I remember praying a nervous prayer. As the gun sounded to mark the start of the marathon, I was still struggling to comprehend that I was about to run 26.2 miles. The excitement soon wore off and it wasn’t long before I felt tired and even bored. My body ached, my feet burned and everything within me wanted to quit.
Twenty miles in, it felt hopeless. However, in the final few miles, euphoria hit. The crowds and the noise got bigger, the pain disappeared and the finish was in sight. Crossing the line that day was something I’ll never forget. I’d felt the immense pleasure of conquering a seemingly impossible task – I was hooked.
I told my mentor about this newfound love for running and explained that I’d love to complete a full distance Ironman triathlon: a 2.4-mile swim, a 112-mile bike ride and a full marathon back-to-back with no breaks. I expected him to smile politely and encourage me to lay it down so I could focus on things that really mattered. But he didn’t. He told me, “God will teach you about his enduring love through endurance sports.”
What could God possibly teach me through Lycra, carbon bikes and wetsuits?
There was another problem too. I couldn’t swim. I don’t mean I couldn’t swim well, I mean I couldn’t even float.
I had to swallow my pride – I needed help.
I swam four times a week with a community club. It was embarrassing, but it was also an incredible learning experience. I began to realise that bravado doesn’t get you very far in endurance sports. I’ve lost track of how many people I’ve met who’ve confidentially told me they’re going to do an Ironman. Most of them haven’t. A lot of them didn’t achieve the goal because they lacked patience.
Three years after I began exploring the world of endurance sports, after learning to swim, and begging, borrowing and stealing all the equipment I could, I was ready. After a day consisting of twelve and a half hours of swimming, cycling and running, I finally became an Ironman.
Running the race
As I’ve taken on these challenges, I’ve felt God directing me to certain Bible passages. Before the start of my first marathon, I took a marker pen and wrote “Hebrews 12:1-3” on my forearm. I still do it now – in every bike race, every marathon, every swim and every triathlon. It reminds me to run the race marked out with my eyes fixed on Jesus, considering him so that I will not grow weary. The more I’ve meditated on that, the more it has become my reality. Now, I don’t only meditate on this in races but also in church, in my marriage, with my family and in the best and worst of times.
I love how Eugene Peterson puts it in The Message: “Keep your eyes on Jesus, who both began and finished this race we’re in. Study how he did it. Because he never lost sight of where he was headed—that exhilarating finish in and with God—he could put up with anything along the way: Cross, shame, whatever. And now he’s there, in the place of honor, right alongside God. When you find yourselves flagging in your faith, go over that story again, item by item, that long litany of hostility he plowed through. That will shoot adrenaline into your souls!”
Learning the lessons
Whether you’re taking part in a 5k parkrun or a full distance Ironman, you can grasp something significant about what endurance really means. I believe God can use these lessons from sport in powerful ways to reveal the importance of endurance in our own discipleship.
Endurance is not limited to marathons and triathlons. Not everyone is physically able to complete such challenges. But all of our spiritual practices – reading the Bible, evangelism, fasting, mission, prayer – require endurance.
The challenges that life throws at us also require endurance. Even those challenges that on first encounter appear exciting can often leave us feeling drained and frustrated. We can prepare ourselves for life’s more challenging moments by practising patience. Endurance sports is a surefire way to practise that gift; to learn how to persevere when the going gets tough and deny ourselves short term comfort for the sake of long-term happiness. In our faith, that long-term joy is more than crossing a finishing line cheered on by crowds; it’s an eternal joy set before us.
Meeting God in a marathon
Vicar and writer, Revd Bob Mayo explains how he meets God when he runs
This year I run my 12th marathon. During my marathons, I meet with God half way through, when I am at my most tired. I have run for 13 miles and there is still the same distance to cover. My instinct at this point is to clench my teeth, tense my muscles, look down at the ground and breath hard. In fact that is the worst thing to do. It is counter intuitive but if I let my muscles go loose, look upwards and take long, slow deep breaths I can run for longer at less effort to myself. Letting go to keep going is at the heart of marathon running and central to prayer. In the former it is a sense of exhaustion and a deep delight at the rhythm of my continued movement. In the latter it is recognition of my sin and God’s majesty but with God’s grace providing the tempo.
Dr Bob Mayo is the author of The Parish Handbook (SCM Press)
Without that sense of anticipation for that eternal joy, endurance can seem fruitless. I believe the Christian faith provides a framework to make sense of endurance. It gives it a place – as our response to the love of God.
We model this endurance on the one who endured for our sake. As impressive as the array of endurance events are, none of their victors come close to the strength of endurance we witness in the stories of Jesus. As Hebrews reminds us, Jesus conquered all. No challenge was too great for him, no trial too vast.
The Ironman mantra is “anything is possible”, yet as Christians we can adopt a far greater mantra – “I can do all this through him who gives me strength”(Philippians 4:13).
Endurance is not an end in and of itself. Instead, as Christians it can teach us a lot about faith and remind us to persevere. Endurance is a foundation for our discipleship.
In fact, it’s also one of the most significant offerings we can give to God.
For our sake, Christ endured the cross. How, then, is he calling us to endure? If God puts something in our hearts it often requires patience. We must endure knowing that even if we don’t see immediate fruit, obedient endurance is what God desires.
Endurance sports provide a training ground where we can develop our spiritual character so when God calls us we are ready. Whether you run or kneel, endure. Whether you sit or stand, endure. Whatever your response, for his sake, endure.
Josh Lees is the youth and young adults pastor at St Paul’s Hammersmith. Follow Josh @joshlees