The Glass City Half-Marathon was hard.
I went out fast, and I stayed fast through the first ten miles: splits consistently between 7:00 and 7:15 minutes per mile. I was pushing the pace, keeping myself in the upper echelons of my ability, but I felt decently strong. My confidence grew as I ran, and I was happy to think that a new Personal Record (PR) was within grasp.
Around the ten mile mark, however, my pace started to sag. It’s not like I hit a distinct wall. I wasn’t in doubt about my ability to finish, or even the likelihood of a PR. But it definitely didn’t feel as fun at that point in the race. My legs were tired. My gut felt uneasy. Mental fatigue set in, too. I kept on slogging, even though there weren’t many spectators — or even fellow racers — in view. I was determined to suck it up and gut it out… But it wasn’t going to be enjoyable. I decided I would lose a bit of pace, if that’s what it took to survive.
Just around that time, on the long straightaway down Dorr Street, I got a boost from a friend of a friend — a guy named Scott, whom I’d just met the evening before, at dinner. He started with a group of guys I had hoped to join, but we couldn’t find each other at the starting line. Thus, we each ran our own races… until that moment on Dorr Street.
Scott came up from behind, and I could tell he had fresh legs before I even recognized him. The cadence of his feet sounded quick and bouncy. He started up a conversation about the home stretch, even as a stranger, when most people at that point on the course were not breathing easily enough to hold a conversation. When we recognized each other, despite our lack of deep familiarity and our different conditions at that point on the course, Scott insisted that we run together — and he basically went on to pace me for the next two miles. I kept telling him to run ahead and finish his race at his own pace, but he wouldn’t have it. He even encouraged me to try and draft off him.
Crazy enough: It worked!
I maintained — and even increased — my pace. When Scott finally surged ahead with a little more than a mile to go (at my insistence), I found that I had enough fuel in the tank to finish strong — even surge to my fastest split in the whole race! And even though my legs started seizing up after I crossed the finish line, I felt grateful and proud to have finished in one hour, thirty-five minutes, and eight seconds. Almost five minutes faster than my previous PR.
What’s most interesting about all of this, to me, is the clear parallel I feel God has shown me in regards to this school year of ministry with H2O Kent. (Beware: another Mara-meta-phor-athon is on the way!).
We started this year of ministry at an ambitious, record-setting pace. Our first worship gatherings of the year were huge. Multiple Life Groups were averaging something like 40 people each week (totally surpassing our expectations or abilities). We set records — by pretty wide margins — for The Well… Fall Retreat registrations… Baptisms… Spring Break trip participation… Estes Park Leadership Training applications… and even new Staff applicants and Pastors-in-Training. All of our metrics have been up this year — and in the early going, it felt pretty fun. We seemed strong. We had (and still have!) plenty of good stuff to fill our prayer letters and such. There have been a lot of reasons to feel enthusiastic about the future, too.
It’s been hard, though. The fatigue started setting in about a third of the way into the school year (even sooner than the physical fatigue of my race set in). By late-October, I felt weak, discouraged, and lonely. I didn’t know what to do about all the people who seemed to be slipping through our fingers as the school year wore on (percentages relatively comparable to most years, but still a larger overall number). It felt like bad shepherding. Depression set in, and I struggled to stay engaged with family, ministry, and my own walk with God. By the time Spring Break rolled around, ministry roles were producing pretty significant levels of insecurity: feeling old, out of touch, unwanted, unloved, ineffective… Even though all the metrics were up, I felt pretty discouraged about H2O stuff. I didn’t feel like I’d given my best to the Life Group leaders I’ve been coaching or the interns I’ve been managing. Many weeks, it felt like I put in the bare minimum to keep things moving and mediocre.
In the last few days, though, it seems like God is allowing me to get a broader perspective and push to the “finish line” with one last surge of strength I didn’t know I had.
Looking back at the year of ministry, it really is remarkable what God has accomplished. I knew (and should have remembered!) that it was going to be a stretch to just turn in passing grades, or to function as a serviceable part of the rotation. With Marci in her last year of graduate school and our kids scattered across three different schools and a couple-dozen extra-curricular activities, it was never realistic to make the “Honor Roll” or turn in an “All-Star” campaign. It just wasn’t. Compound our family’s situation with the situations of my co-pastors’ families (new babies, shifting job responsibilities, financial stresses, etc.) — and it’s really pretty unbelievable that the church even survived, much less thrived in the way it did!
We had key contributions from the rest of our staff, interns, and student leaders — even so, it’s really quite illogical that we had such a good year. A record-setting year! Clearly, God is bigger than our limitations. It’s just good to be reminded of God’s glory. 2 Corinthians chapter four says, “Therefore, since through God’s mercy we have this ministry, we do not lose heart… But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us.”