The dawning sun dressed and redressed the Texas horizon, the lady of light going through her eastern closet, choosing just the right color for the day. I stepped out onto the front porch, took one last sip of coffee, and flicked the cup sideways, the lukewarm dregs spraying the dirt. It’d been one of the driest summers on record, in a part of the country where drought was hardly a stranger. I glanced at my watch. Time to get moving. A ten mile run lay ahead of me. I was training to qualify for the Boston Marathon, which, for men my age, required a finishing time in another marathon of 3 hours and 15 minutes or less. To reach that goal, both in distance and speed, would demand months of preparation that was downright grueling. But grueling is just what the doctor ordered. For hardly had I crawled out of bed before a veritable legion of dark thoughts had already begun to jockey for position inside my head, each one vying for supremacy. And it was time to see if I could outrun those demons, one more time.
I punched the start button on my GPS watch, sprinted across the yard and onto the street that would take me to the highway, that would take me five miles out and five miles back. I ran past houses where families still lay sleeping, past an empty church and a bustling convenience store, onto a southbound strip of road with barbed wire fences lining each side. Narrowing my vision to an imaginary two feet wide strip of black pavement, my feet drummed the asphalt, beating out a rhythm that matched music only my heart could hear. I ran hard. I ran fast. But, at first, the demons seemed to match me step for step.
There are whole books written on the best diet for a runner, the fuel he needs to keep his body strong enough for the rigors of his chosen sport. But many runners are propelled forward more by alternative fuels, such as rage and shame, grief and loneliness, heartache and addiction recovery. I’ve known a man to run harder and longer while trying to digest the five words, ”I don’t love you anymore,” than he ever could have from all the calories packed into a five course meal. All kinds of people run from their problems, but runners do that quite literally.
As mile one became mile two, and three, and five, and seven, the pain that had begun in my feet inched its way upward, soon engulfing both legs and hips. My lungs burned, my heart screamed. But, as grace would have it, the cacophony of voices that had resounded in my head when I woke up had, one by one, become mute along the way. All that remained was the single, panting chant of, ”Keep going…keep going…keep going.” And that I did, collapsing in a sweaty heap on the floor of my living room after the tenth mile, in seventy minutes flat, relishing a few moments of pain that felt almost redemptive. For somewhere along the way the demons had dropped out of the race, allowing me a brief respite during which life seemed oddly worth living.
Running has been, and remains, the most virtuous of my antidepressants. And I firmly believe it is one of God’s unexpected gifts to me. For while it is true that the Lord has his primary means of working faith and healing in the lives of broken people, he also has other ways of uplifting and sustaining us during life’s most trying times. That may be through the inimitable love of a family that accepts you as you are, absorption into the worlds of literature and art, or dedication to excellence in a hobby or sport. But even in these, God is present, often laboring unseen, to help us along on the long road to recovery.
Just the other day, my running partner, Sam, was apologizing for slowing us down when we eased from a run into a walk. But as I told her, I tell you also, that it is a blessing to walk instead of run, to no longer be fueled by anger and resentment, or fear of the demons hot on your heels. It took a long time, longer than I ever expected, to slow from a sprint to a run to a jog to a walk, but I finally got there. I got there because, as in a story Jesus once told, my Father saw me, a lost son, when I was still a long way off, and he came running. God himself ran to me, fueled by love, embraced me, and welcomed me to walk home with him once again.