Musings Sports Theology


Me recovering hungrily Today I ran my first marathon, and I wanted to write about it – not because it was a fast marathon or one that, from a running time perspective, I am proud of. It wasn’t and I’m not. But I think today’s marathon taught me a lot about life and spirituality, and allowed me to express both humility and my own form of personal heroism in a way that I hadn’t before. The marathon taught me these things, of course, in a way that only a 26.2-mile slog can. What follows is a race report, but also my reflections on the process that led me to the finish line in a (relatively to my training) unremarkable 4 hours and 8 minutes. Warning: this will be long, but (I hope) worth the read. And I haven’t written anything since December so you readers ought to indulge me. Warning 2: Profanities will probably be involved. They go hand-in-hand with marathons.

The story of today’s marathon started almost exactly two years ago in March of 2007, when I first spent time at the Tumaini Children’s Home in Nyeri, Kenya. It was there I volunteered during the creation of Hope Runs. At that time, we decided to train some of the older students (including a student named Karicho, who comes into the story later) for a marathon in June. Although I had to go back to the states before the June marathon, I decided to continue the marathon training I’d accidentally fallen into, and run the San Francisco marathon (which happened, fortuitously for solidarity with my Kenya friends, to be on the same day as the marathon the students were running in Kenya). My training was abruptly ended, however, when an injury in the Achilles tendon area that I developed on the long runs became so painful and unhealthy-feeling that I decided I couldn’t run the race. This Achilles problem already had the makings of a chronic injury – it had first arisen over a year prior, at that time also halting some athletic training and being a part of the inspiration that (perhaps ironically) led to my sabbatical time in Kenya.

When I knew that I was going to return to Kenya in October 2007 to volunteer for 6 months and train for the Kilimanjaro marathon, again with Hope Runs students, I decided to get physical therapy to figure out my almost-literal Achilles heel. Armed with more knowledge and rehab exercises as a result, I was confident that plenty of time and not running on pavement would lead to a successful marathon. Again, my goal in running the Kilimanjaro marathon was primarily to have something to work towards with the Hope Runs students, and also to run to the best of my ability. Since the Kilimanjaro marathon was at elevation and quite hilly, I had no expectations of a fast race. Soon enough, I was in Kenya, training with the coach, Titus, and everyone else. Although my ankle problem arose a few times, and even once prevented me from running a 30k race in Nairobi, for the most part it seemed to have gone away, and I was hopeful that I had worked through it.

Well, a month before the race, I got word that my sister was going to have a wedding on March 3 – the day after the Kilimanjaro marathon. Attending these two events was therefore mutually exclusive, and so I left for the states before I could run the marathon. Fortunately (and echoing the previous year), I discovered that the Napa Valley Marathon was on March 1, the same day as the Kili marathon. Once again, I was excited to run a marathon in the US on the same day as my friends in Kenya (including Karicho and fellow volunteers from Palo Alto Michael and Emilee, with now-girlfriend Jessica acting as videographer). My first run back in the States was 4 or 5 days before the marathon, and was a simple 7-miler. Unfortunately, whether it was running on pavement or the leg trauma of sitting on planes for 2 days, my Achilles problem came back in a serious way, making it extremely painful even to walk. On the day before the race, I went for a test jog and came back limping, in no state to run 5 miles let alone 26. Deeply frustrated, I called the Napa race coordinators and asked if they could roll my registration to next year. Of course, I didn’t know if there would be a next year in terms of my running, but at least it left the window open.

At the time, though, having to forgo the race I’d trained 4 months in Kenya for was a huge disappointment, and certainly created some bitterness and resentment (offset, I have to admit, by the happiness in being a part of my sister’s wedding, and then a few days later hearing I was accepted to Oxford). But this resentment: toward whom? Not myself, really; I’d done everything I could and knew how to do, and I’d trained well. Toward circumstances, or God, I guess. Now, I’m not the sort of person who, believing God exists and cares for people, holds God to be directly responsible for pleasant “coincidences” (Oh, darn [good religious people will say ‘darn’ rather than ‘damn’] I lost my keys. Where are they? God, help me find me keys! Oh, look, here they are! God, thank you for bringing my keys back!) The danger in this way of thinking isn’t, to my mind, believing that God can and does interact with people on small, everyday levels. The problem is, if God is responsible for pleasant coincidences, what do we say about the unpleasant ones? If we say the unpleasant ones happen by chance, what is there to distinguish their causal histories from the pleasant ones’ causal histories that could lead us to belief that God causes the pleasant and not the unpleasant? The only difference seems to be our definition of ‘pleasant’, which seems like it has a lot more to do with us than God. In which case, we attribute finding our lost keys to God on the pain of also having to attribute to him our losing them in the first place. But my main point is, it sure is easy to turn general gratitude into specific attribution, and general frustration into specific blame. And, counter to my own beliefs, I probably blamed God for some of my misfortune.

So much for that theodical interlude. (And by the way, the God-statements I have made and will make in these reflections are by no means intended to stand on their own, in terms of rational justifiability, for those of you who care about such things [and you all should]. End disclaimer). Anyway, time passed, things happened, I didn’t go to Oxford in October 2008 as I’d hoped, and I realized that I was still signed up for the 2009 Napa marathon. Alright, I thought to myself, this time I’m gonna do it. Third time’s the charm. I’m gonna train the hell out of this marathon, be super smart about my Achilles, and make it happen. I started looking at training programs to follow, and it occurred to me that I could take advantage of the easy Napa course and train for a specific time. Ultimately, I became enamored with the idea of running the marathon in the 3:10 – 3:20 range, with 3:10 (a 7:15 minute-per-mile pace) being the Boston qualifying cutoff for my age group (a significant benchmark in marathon running), and 3:20 being a respectable 7:37 minute-per-mile pace. At the start of my training, my 10k pace was 7:15 or so (and 6 miles is a far cry from 26), but I figured with 5 months I could improve significantly.

What I’m trying to convey with all of these details is that I wasn’t just training to run a marathon: I was training to run a marathon that would make up for both of the previous “Did Not Start” marathons in virtue of the achievement that it represented for me as a runner. If I could run a 3:10 marathon, I would be a ‘real runner’ (never mind the relativity of ‘real’, and never mind that ‘real runners’ run marathons at paces as low as 4:48). In order to do this, and in order to not get injured, I knew that I’d have to follow the program rigorously (skimping on the mid-week runs was a previous source of injury on long runs), and treat my body very well. In short, I needed to be a kind of athlete that I’d never been in my life: disciplined and dedicated. I was looking forward to race day with great anticipation, believing that it would prove that I (even I, nerdy little Jonathan Lipps), could accomplish something significant in a sport.

So I did train. I was religious in my running. I did treat my body well, with clean and abundant vegetarian carbs and proteins, and almost-weekly massages. And wonder of wonders, I saw improvement. Amidst the pain and boredom, I was getting faster and stronger. I was training on pavement, yet my ankles were holding up. I was noticing that I could hold sub-7 paces for multiple miles, which I’d never done before. My long runs were hard of course, but that struggle was familiar, and soon I had reached the peak of training – my 22-mile long run – and finished it without injury.

Unfortunately, as we know from all sports movies, after the pump-up training montage, there comes a chilling moment when the true challenge is unveiled – maybe the star player leaves the team exposed, or the opposing side employs some dastardly trickery. The Kryptonite to my Supermarathon was unleashed 2 weeks ago, on my ‘cool down’ long run of 18 miles. Maybe it was the waterlogged shoes (it was raining for most of the run), a different lacing style, or the lack of massage that week, or maybe it was just God making a sports movie, but my Achilles pain came back hard. Between miles 11 and 15 I suffered through various amounts of pain on the back of my left ankle, but it eventually became so sharp and fiery I knew it wasn’t worth pushing through. In fact, maybe I had already pushed through too much. When I woke up the next morning after icing and rest, and found that I could barely walk on it, I knew I was in trouble. A mere 12 days to the marathon, and I couldn’t walk. How was I going to recover in time? What about the tuning runs? Etc…

It was a depressing few days, as the ghosts of old frustrations haunted the new ones and as they all haunted me. Jessica (who incidentally and wonderfully had her best long run on the same day I got injured) was hard-pressed to keep me positive and not to despair. Determined not to give in to the same failure as in previous years, I did everything I could to heal the ankle. I iced and rested and elevated and compressed, and hoped and prayed that with almost two weeks of healing, I could be back in shape by marathon time. Slowly, I did feel things improve, and soon I was walking on the ankle without noticing any pain. In the week before the marathon, I decided that I needed to keep up my aerobic activity, and even chanced a few elliptical workouts, without any adverse reactions. I felt, basically, that remaining positive and doing everything I could to treat my injury well was working!

The marathon drew nearer. Early the day before, my parents drove Jessica and me up to Napa, where we were all going to spend the night before the race. That whole day I focused on managing my pre-race nutrition, stretching, massaging, and resting. Although my ankle felt good and strong, the barest of ghost pains still lingered when I would use it in different ways, keeping doubt a live option. Additionally, a light but consistent rain was predicted to start falling, and to remain all the way through the marathon. Given that the last time I ran a long run in consistent rain was when I ruined my Achilles, I was a bit worried about this prospect. The fact that the always-helpful Weather Underground wind direction indicators said that we would have a 10-15 mph headwind for the whole way was just one more worry to try and shove aside.

While I’m being honest about the worry, I really was engaged in positive thinking about the race. I couldn’t do anything about the rain, the wind, or even (anymore) my ankle. I had eaten and drunk exactly what I was supposed to, and I had trained exactly how I was supposed to (well, until I was injured). Aside from the circumstances out of my control, I was in as good a shape as I could possibly be. I knew that I was at least going to start the race, and give it my best shot. The question of what I would do if I started to feel my injury during the race would come into my mind from time to time, but I would ignore it, since trying to answer it wouldn’t have fit the positive spirit I was trying to cultivate. And eventually, it was time to sleep. After a bit of tossing and turning, it was 4:30 AM. Marathon Day.

Jessica and I dressed and ate what we needed, then packed up the car for our 5:30 departure to the start of the marathon on the Silverado Trail. As we drove, the rain beat on the windshield, and falling leaves betrayed the presence of the predicted steady wind. Somewhat anticlimactically, we had to stop and unceremoniously hurry out of the car because of the traffic control situation. A brief hug each and we were walking the last few blocks to the start. Excitement started to dawn with the sun – we were doing this! After stowing our sweat bags and finding inappropriate places to relieve ourselves before the swiftly-approaching start time, Jessica and I gathered near the line and waited the last 5 minutes. In what seemed like the next instant, a fire engine bell sounded to mark the start of the marathon, and we were off!

My first few strides were cautious, then more confident, and then exuberant, as I felt my body falling into my warm-up pace, with no noticeable discomfort in my ankle! My eyes welled up with tears of gratitude as I realized that all of the physical and mental and emotional buildup of the past 5 months had finally culminated in this one moment. I had persevered through the injury that had killed my previous marathon attempts, and I was running the race!

Soon enough, I was focused on the running, checking my pace, waiting to hit my post-warm-up 7:10 average pace. The rain was constant but light, the hills frequent but mellow, and I was enjoying being out on the road again. I saw my parents (who were playing crew for us) at mile 4 and mile 7, and was so happy to be waving, smiling, and running strong as I passed them. Their thoughts and prayers and concerns had been with me for two weeks, and I could tell they were elated I was OK.

Somewhere around mile 10, everything changed. A slight flutter in my left Achilles reminded me of my injury there. I took the pace down a notch and tried to breathe easier. That twinge had brought reality to my race – if I took it easier, could I stave off the inevitable excruciating pain and still finish in a good time? I already felt that 3:10 was out of reach. Backing off my target pace at all, I wasn’t going to make it. But that’s OK, I thought: better to run the whole marathon than become injured and have to quit. Before too long, these thoughts became moot. In less than a half mile, the twinge became the full blown expression of painful injury that I had rested two weeks to avoid. It was back, and I hadn’t even finished half the race! Inside, I howled with anger and frustration. All of the gratitude and elation of the start evaporated. My gait became uneven as I tried to take a bit of weight I could off my left foot. The continuous bank of the road, in one direction or another, became a serious problem in this effort. But, I was still moving.

good luck and condolences to the ankleAt 11.5 miles (my average pace now up to 7:36), I saw my parents, and stopped in pain. They grieved to see I wasn’t doing well, but I wasn’t ready to quit just yet. I told my dad that I didn’t think I’d be able to finish the race, but I could try and make it to mile 15 (the last place I thought I’d see my parents along the course, and the last chance I’d have for a ride out). In the meantime, with nothing to lose anymore, and hopes of a decent finishing time obliterated, I took the time to take off my waterlogged left shoe, which I figured was a major cause of the recurrence of my Achilles injury. I replaced it with a dry sock and a dry training shoe, and took off again.

The dry shoe did little to help, but it was a bit more comfortable as I settled into my awkward running style. As the pain in my tendon grew worse, I tried to put less and less weight on it, until I’m sure I looked like someone trying to make a funny impression of a cantering horse rider. A few people asked if I was alright, but of course there was nothing anyone could do. It was me stupidly running with an injury, after all! I tried to hum some songs, play mind games, or do anything to take my thoughts off the pain (and more than the pain, the frustration of training 5 months – really 2 years – only to be defeated once again).

It was in that state, around mile 14, that I noticed someone running on the other side of the road, against the direction of the marathon. As he got closer, I recognized him as none other than my friend Karicho, from Kenya! A few months ago, he had been sponsored to come to the states to live with Michael and go to school here. Seeing him, I realized that he, Michael, and Emilee must have driven up from Palo Alto that morning to surprise Jessica and I and support us on our run! That alone was enough to bring tears to my eyes, but then remembering all the training runs Karicho and I had been on together in Kenya (including my first Nyeri run, in the pitch dark early morning over hilly dirt roads with the smell of charcoal fires sleeping), remembering what marathoning really stood for in terms of my life history (solidarity with the Tumaini kids), and seeing that here was a Tumaini kid in Napa, running cheerfully in the rain, just to make my run feel better, in a remarkable and humbling role reversal… I have to pause right now while writing this because of the potent emotion still alive in that memory!

None of that, nor Karicho’s unworried acceptance of the fact I was injured (as if it didn’t really change anything) took away the pain or frustration of what I was experiencing. It did make me see it in a different light. I felt a bit calmer, more resigned. And as we neared mile 15, I asked Karicho if he could run ahead and ask my dad to get out the ace bandage I’d left with him that morning. I showed up at the mile marker and saw my mom and dad, but also Emilee and Michael, smiling and cheering me on. Their presence lifted my spirits, and I asked them to help bandage up my left ankle to see if it would help. It didn’t really feel like it at the time (I was concerned with the details of the bandaging), but that was the point where I actually decided to run the marathon. 5 months prior, I had decided to run a marathon. On every day of training that had led up to the race, I had decided to run a marathon. Even that morning, I had decided to run a marathon. But it wasn’t until mile 15, when all hopes of running a good marathon, an impressive marathon, a fun marathon, or an easy marathon were dashed, that I decided to run this marathon. It was, unfortunately, the only marathon left for me to run. And so I had to decide whether I wanted to quit, go home, train again, and try some other time for the marathon I desired, or whether I was going to accept all of the things outside of my control, and finish what I started, even though it wouldn’t be perfect (or even good), and even though it would hurt a lot.

I think it was a powerful decision, and the turning point in this whole story. The marathon finally went from being something that I played with in my mind and dreamed about, to something that burned me with its harsh reality. It went from being a sports science project to an insurmountable personal challenge. In short, it became what marathons are, in terms of their potential for psychological and spiritual growth: dragons needing slaying. When I started the race, I wasn’t on a quest, but I was now. I was on a quest to survive, and surviving meant moving my injured ass 11 more miles, over hills and through rain.

That is what I did. And believe me, it was hard. I’ll spare you the dramatic play-by-play of the last half of the race, because it would go something like this: Ouch ouch ouch shit ouch ouch ouch fuck ouch ouch shit ouch damn this marathon ouch ouch. Etc… The worst part about it was that, shortly after mile 15, my ankle injury became the least of my worries. My muscles, perhaps overtired because of the heavy shoes and my inhuman gait, basically stopped responding. My heart rate, perhaps because of what I was trying to demand from my unresponsive muscles, skyrocketed to something absurd for the pace at which I was moving. And my nerves kept receiving messages from my unresponsive muscles that told my brain that I was in hell.

None of this made sense to me, after having run long training runs of up to 22 miles without any problem. I couldn’t figure out what was wrong, and nothing I did could fix it. This was an unexpected pain – not my ankle injury but a full-body sensation that I should not be doing this. I drank gatorade, ate bananas and Gu, and walked when the pain became unbearable. Uphill, downhill, it was all the same to me – there was no difference in pain. I stopped occasionally to re-wrap my ace bandage, and wanted to sit down, cry, and lament my misfortune. But I knew I could stop at any time, and I knew that sitting down wouldn’t get me any closer to the finish line. So through the last monotonous 6 miles of rain and wind I trudged, no longer limping because my brain had stopped registering my ankle as hurting. Instead, everything was hurting.

My walking became more frequent, and I felt more and more out of it, until finally I came to the last mile. Whatever else happens, I said to myself, I am going to run the last fucking mile of this stupid fucking marathon. So I stopped walking, picked up my quads (I swore I could almost see the invisible knives sticking out of my flesh), told my hamstrings to stop their senseless cramping, and hobbled along in the best imitation of a run I could physically manage. Right then, Karicho came gliding up beside me, where he told me he’d just come from Jessica (as it turns out, he left her at mile 18), and was timing himself to the finish. Then he sped off, leaving everyone around me a bit angry at his effortless stride.

My marathon was not over, however. I hammered through the last turns and eventually found myself in sight of the finish chute. I picked up a little speed as I tumbled through the narrow alley toward the finish, and smiled when I heard my parents and friends shouting for me from the side. And then, with one innocuous little step, somehow so different from the one before, it was done. 4:08:23. A 9:29 pace.

After that, my only thoughts were, when can I sit down? And, when can I sleep? I got some hot soup and stayed on my legs for a while longer, though, as we waited for Jessica, and cheered her as she came across the finish, mastering her own marathon monster.

It wasn’t until we had gone back to the hotel, packed up, checked out, and driven back to San Francisco that I was really able to reflect on the race. You can probably believe that the neat way I’ve described my feelings and choices during the race doesn’t accurately depict my thoughts when they happened. It was only really in sorting through things shortly afterward that I realized what it was exactly that I accomplished. That moment of choosing to persevere, even though I had every excuse not to, was an important step for me. It was important, I think, in two ways. First, it was important for my personal growth. I have sometimes had a habit of quitting, leaving, or otherwise expressing displeasure or poor sports attitudes when things look like they’re not going to go the way I want. Not today. Secondly, and more importantly, today’s race helped me understand a tiny bit of what it means to suffer. Granted, it was an artificial environment, and I could have ended my suffering at any point, but what if things were different? What if I couldn’t just ‘quit’? I’d like to know that I have the ability to persevere, and this marathon will help in giving me that confidence.

It’s thoughts like these that turn my wondering back to God. God certainly didn’t answer any of my initial prayers. My prayers were based on my desires, for good weather, healing, and fast times. I didn’t get any of those. But apparently, I did come to one or two significant life realizations that will likely reverberate throughout my personal growth and maturation experience for a long time to come. If you ask me which God would probably care more about – positive experiences on one hand and authentic growth through hardship on the other – it seems that I’d have to say the latter. And here we come back to our discussion about attributing to God the finding of the lost keys: if there’s anything that I do want to attribute to God, it’s his tendency to put people in situations where they are forced to choose how to grow. A lot of pain in this world is senseless and a lot of evil is hard (or impossible for us) to explain on a theistic worldview, and I’m not trying to enter that discussion. What I am trying to say is that maybe we should look for God’s hand, not primarily or only in pleasant experiences (though it is there as well, no doubt at all), but in the ‘momentary’ pains that cause redemptive growth in human beings and in nature.

First marathons, at any rate, seem to be great ways of coming into contact with those ‘momentary’ pains (though I promise they feel like eternal pains). At least, that’s what mine was for me.

By Jonathan Lipps

Jonathan worked as a programmer in tech startups for several decades, but is also passionate about all kinds of creative pursuits and academic discussion. Jonathan has master’s degrees in philosophy and linguistics, from Stanford and Oxford respectively, and is working on another in theology. An American-Canadian, he lives in Vancouver, BC and has way too many hobbies.

7 replies on “Marathon”

Man what do you say to something like that…it really makes what I complain about look like a pile of ridiculous crap. I don’t know when the last time was I actually got to talk to you, I don’t think Jashley or I have ever ventured on to this page more than a few times, and I don’t know why today was the day we both got on it (at separate times and without knowing the other did); but, wow, I am sure glad we did. Jashley is going to run her first in just two weeks time and this is just what she needed; also having to battle, nurse, and push through some of her own chronic pain while running. And I as you might know am still slowing recovering and rehabilitating to the day I can actually RUN again. Needless to say this well written, heart and spirit encouraging, downright inspiring story really got our blood flowing again. This and my cousins story (who struggled well with cancer to the bittersweet end) has put this year in a different perspective for me. Keep it up Jon, and thanks!

Have I told you recently how much I appreciate the things you’ve written through the years?

Nicely done, Jon. And well-chronicled.

JT…I feel your pain!! I’ll never be able to run as fast as you, and I’ve not had to miss out on 2 marathons, but I did have to miss out on one due to injury, and my first marathon sucked. I had the same thoughts as you…although, not quite as elegant. 🙂 I’m glad for the realizations you had…running has taught me a lot…the least of which, being able to run in and of itself is a blessing. But there are many other blessings that feel like cursings…only we’re just standing on the other side of perspective. I miss you and am proud of you! I wish I had been there to cheer you on.

Heal well!!

Hello Mr.
I just wanna say Hi!!
I´m now listening to that record that you gave to us at the
schloss and then I found your website.
Long time no seen. Hope everything is great with you.
Do you still play?

Take care of you brother!!
Lot of love from Sweden were it starts to be spring, or no snow right now.

//Simon S and

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