Monday, June 25, 2007

It's Hard to Believe!

It's hard to believe that 3 years ago, I walked over with my friend Andy to watch the Buffalo Springs Lake Triathlon. I remember being amazed at the electricity of the event, the mass of people, the hundreds of bikes stacked up in the transition area, the sea of swimmers in the water, the music - the whole thing was something to behold.

At that time, doing a triathlon was not even a thought in my mind. In fact, I remember telling my friend Andy, "I am amazed that these athletes can do this. I can't imagine ever doing anything like this."

Well, who knew that only 2 years later, I would be experiencing the electricity of the event, stacking my bike in the transition area, finding myself in the sea of swimmers and actually competing in the event. It's even hard for me to believe.

The highlight of my day came when my friend Andy, who I started doing triathlons with 2 years ago, showed up at the event. He was not able to participate and had planned to be out of town. To my surprise, as I was getting my transition area set up, he walks up and wishes me luck. Needless to say, I was very nervous at the time, but the unexpected visit of a good friend put a smile on my face that was there most of the day (only to disappear at points to be described later).

I really owe a lot to my friend Kerry who convinced me just one week before the race that I need to do it. I had decided that I would wait another year because the previous 3 weeks of training were not as I had hoped. I had the flu, followed by time in Dallas where I spent most every day in the library, and then there was nothing I could do the week before. But Kerry reminded me that I had come too far not to finish and that with all the training over the previous 10 months, the last 3 weeks would not make a big difference. I followed his advice and I am glad I did. It's hard to believe that I would have missed the opportunity.

Well, let me give you the race summary. The 1.2 mile swim was the best part of the day. The water was cool and for some reason I had a good line the whole way. There were the normal points along the way when somebody would bump or knock you, but most of the way this was not the case. I did the swim in 38 minutes which is hard to believe considering 2 years ago, I couldn't swim more than one length of the pool.

I came out of the water feeling fresh and my friend Andy was there to give me words of encouragement. Well, sort of. He tells me that I had great swim but Kerry still beat me. It didn't matter to me, I had a smile on my face and was enjoying the event.

The transition area was crowded and I took my time. Kerry and I set out on the bike at the same time and all was well. I had a very clear plan of staying hydrated and this was a key for my day. We got to the first hill and my legs felt good. It was a good steady climb and it turned out to be the place I would make the most ground all day. The climbs have always been a strength for me and I passed a lot of bikers on the hill. I did notice that when there was a long straight away, it was the time trial Tri-bikes that had the advantage. It all evens out in the end.

The bike course is challenging and includes 8 challenging climbs. They are short but steep. I remember climbing "Horseshoe" in my second chain ring but running out of gears. I was a bit surprised when I went to find another gear in the second ring and it wasn't there. I stayed where I was and finished 6 and 7. But I was so thankful as I looked toward the final climb to have the third ring. I needed it!

The bike course was smooth and steady but the last 6 miles seemed uncharacteristically long and difficult. I knew the run was coming and needed some fuel in my tank after 56 miles on the bike. I finished steady and ready for the run.

As is normally the case, your legs feel like concrete after transitioning from the bike to the run. This usually dissipates after the first couple of miles but at mile 3 I was wondering if my legs would ever return. I would check my heart rate and it was good but my legs had lost their strength. It was everything I could do to put one leg in front of the other. I prayed, I sang, I did everything I could to take my mind off of the fact that I had never ran 13 miles in my life and today would be the first...maybe.

One of the experiences that would motivate me was when I encountered a hand cyclist. These were athletes (and I do mean athlete in every sense of the word) who were typically paraplegic. They swam 1.2 miles pulling the dead weight of their legs, they biked 56 miles using their arms to pedal a hand cycle and now they did 13.1 miles pushing the wheels of their chair up the same hills I was doing good to walk up. It was inspiring to say the least. As I admired these athletes, my legs (which I was fortunate to be able to walk on) didn't hurt quite as bad.

The run was as much mental as it was physical for me. Sure, my legs did not feel like they could go the distance but it didn't help when my mind would frequently give its opinion on the matter as well. It was truly hard for me to believe that I would be able to finish, but I kept praying (not just for myself by the way), singing and putting one foot in front of the other.

Just when I thought it couldn't get any more difficult than the first 3 miles of the half marathon, I hit the last 3 miles. Oh my goodness!

It didn't help when more and more people stopped to walk and oh how I wanted to do the same. I was thankful for every watering station because I could walk, take a drink, douse myself with cold water and run to the next station. When I ran out of stations, that meant all I had left was the finish line.

Having never done a race of this distance, I had hoped to finish somewhere between 6 and 7 hours. I hit 6 hours with just 1 mile to go and it was the longest mile of my life. I had done well to race within myself but now I was at the end of myself. I did everything I could to make it. And when I heard the cheer of the crowds, I saw my family and my friend Andy cheering me on, I had a spark of energy. My son Graham ran out to meet me and crossed the finish line by my side. It's hard to believe, but I did it. 70.3 miles! I finished the Half Ironman!

So here is the major lesson I have learned from my experience. The statement is true - IT IS HARD TO BELIEVE. Whether in the Ironman race or the race of life, there are times when circumstances make a convincing argument with your mind that you can't make it. They try to convince you that what you thought was true is actually a lie. Things like I experienced when I thought that I would not be able to physically put one foot in front of the other or that my muscles would cramp up into a ball. Or maybe, more significantly, in the face of a spiritual trial, those same voices try to tell you that your faith is not strong enough, that God is distant and He will not come through. Very simply, in these moments, IT IS HARD TO BELIEVE. But believe we must! We have a great crowd of witnesses cheering us on to the finish line. We see others, those with a much more difficult journey than us, giving all they have. It should inspire us to press on. We should find strength in prayer, in worship and in the things that take our minds away from the circumstances and onto the One who has the strength to carry us through. This was the most important lesson I hope to live as a result of this race:


Monday, June 18, 2007

Learning to be Content

In Phil. 4:11, Paul says he has "learned to be content in whatever circumstances". This is a truth of scripture that I am still trying to learn. And since it keeps coming up, I assume God intends for me to grow in this area as well.
Whether it is getting the flu the day before vacation, getting an email from my seminary professor indicating that I did not receive notice of a schedule change which moved my class up a week, surprising issues at work (like the ones that could have been prevented had you known about them in the beginning but the first time you find out is when the bottom falls out and your on vacation...sort of), surprises in ministry (like problems in marriages that were hidden until it reached a point where the hearts of both the husband and wife had grown hard). And the list goes on...
They happen most every day and so many times I never see them coming. It reminds of my days playing baseball when I would stand at home plate looking for the fast ball and out of nowhere comes the curve. I never saw it coming. Completely fooled and looking silly.
Maybe part of the answer to these challenges in life is to look for the curve (I never learned to do that in baseball by the way). Expect the unexpected.
This seems to be what God is teaching me lately. I need to be flexible enough to adjust to life's unexpected turns while having faith and trust that God will lead me through whatever circumstance I may encounter.
This is different than my normal course where my tendency is to panic, look to myself to press through the difficulty and ask God to bless MY efforts to turn things around. The inevitable result is failure or exhaustion or disappointment (or all the above).
So God, I come to you with a desire to rest in you, a desire to submit to you, a desire to follow you. May your grace teach me to grow in this area of trust, may your love compel me to walk faithfully, may the fellowship of your Spirit teach me to adjust to life's turns.