Today I ran my first race since I was in high school, some 40 years ago. It was the 10 km MEC Trail Race at the Laurel Creek Conservation Area in Waterloo, ON. It isn’t the case that this is my first foray into running since high school since I have been a regular runner most of my life. I have always enjoyed jogging and tell people that running is meditative for me, giving me space to settle into my soul and enter into a kind of harmony with all about me. I experience running as prayer on legs.
So, why would I turn something seemingly sacred and scar it with competition and such? I can’t really say that I did this because I was hungry for a running community, although in this short venture into a competitive event revealed how people connect through a shared experience. I can’t really say I did this because I needed a goal to motivate my daily running. Running is a kind of gift onto itself for me, and so I have no need of external motivation to run. I can’t really say I did this because I have my eyes on qualifying for anything since I have no dreams of grandeur. Why then? There is something about a competition that invites one to transcend the self with others. In fact, the etymology of the word “compete” suggests that it means to seek, or go after (petere) with (com) others. In the company of others, I struggle with myself to become something more. The bible uses this motif to get at the life of faith when the author to Hebrews writes:
“Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God.” Hebrews 12:1,2 NRSV
Interestingly, the word for “race” in the Greek text is agon; sometimes translated as race, and at other times as contest, struggle etc. The word agon makes its way into English in the word agony. Agony, then, is a kind of contest in which we have occasion to try to find a way to best ourselves. But besting ourselves for the sake of bettering ourselves sometimes calls for others to aid us. I found that to be true this morning as my fellow racers prodded me to run a little harder, to be in the moment a little more clearly, and to breathe deeply into the joy of moving. Bettering ourselves isn’t only about shaving seconds off a lap time, but also about seeing movement, and breath, and oxygen as pure gift.
I find running to be an experience of transcendence. I suspect others find other activities with like consequence. This morning I found racing to be an experience of sacred agony. I suspect other have other ways into this holy gift. In either event, “laying aside every weight” is a call to lean into the moment with clarity, and conviction, and amazement at the gift that life is.