On the day of my first marathon, I woke up at 4:30 a.m. After dressing in my running shorts and tank top, I found a Sharpie and opened my journal to the page where I’d written the bulleted list. I took the marker to my forearm, the cool point rippling along my skin with gentle pressure. The words cascaded from my wrists to biceps, wobblier on the left arm than the right. On my body numbered one through 26 were my prayer intentions, one for each mile of the race.
Running the Race So as to Win
When I signed up for the marathon, I decided I would run without any music. I wanted to immerse myself without any buffers, but still felt a need for structure, something to fill the time. My 26 prayer intentions included family members, world issues, personal dreams. Like most people, I wasn’t running this marathon to get a good workout, but to accomplish something that I thought would make me feel amazing. I wanted a motivator to propel me forward in this race, to take me outside of myself and the physical pain.
At the sound of the starting gun, my belly swam through my insides as I strode to keep up with the runners around me. Some of them started to talk, comparing times and setting paces. I buckled in for the solitude and silence. As the single-digit miles moved along with punctuations of cheering supporters and water stations, my prayers remained earnest. Some fluent thoughts passed through my mind the first few minutes of each mile, until the prayer became increasingly passive, a background mantra chanting in my brain.
Perseverance on the Pavement
With each step forward, concentration waned. Prayer lost its luster as my muscles swelled and breath accelerated. Boredom ensued, and the only thing to do was run. By mile 12, I was no longer thinking about my prayer intentions, many of which had become curling black flakes of marker smeared across my skin. I hit my wall, and could only think about how badly I wanted to be done.
I’d love to say I became rejuvenated somewhere in the later miles, that I felt God’s push and re-centered myself to gain direction and purpose.
I just ran, my stride becoming a shuffle. The flat terrain of Council Bluffs, Iowa spanned around me, a backdrop of quiet parks and monotonous pavement. My brilliant friends made appearances at various mile markers, and my roommate FaceTimed my family so they could see me run from two states away. These moments energized me for a few minutes, then silence would throb as their cheers subsided in the distance. For much of the race, I was bored and lonely.
The joy of seeing the last mile marker provided more relief than I thought possible. I had an amazing finish. My legs did not feel a part of my body, my breath was not my own. I panted and cried just a bit. My friends circled me with hugs and water, their love as thick as the humid Midwestern heat.
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Letting Myself Down?
At the end of the race, I didn’t feel invincible. Of course, I was proud and happy. But I allowed the weakness and brokenness I felt from the physical exhaustion and desolate silence to disappoint me. It was disheartening to realize that as powerful as my body felt, my spirit had not kept up. Self-imposed expectations prevented me from accepting the spiritual difficulties I endured: if I had prayed better or harder, I would feel unstoppable right now.
My Weakness, His Power
I confused my human act of prayer with God’s strength. Whether or not I completed the race and stuck to my prayer goal had little importance. He let me finish in spite of my weakness, not to prove my own ability, but so that I could witness His power. I had contorted prayer into a transaction, thinking I would find peace and spiritual fulfillment during the marathon if I stuck to my plan. Music or not, marathons are grueling. My prayer did not change that fact, but it forced me to face my weakness and see it not as an inhibitor, but an opportunity for God’s strength to prevail above my shortcomings.
As I experience desolation in different forms today, I continue to make attempts at prayer and fail. Some days, I don’t try at all. I am frustrated when I think I lack the aptitude to be close to God. I set expectations for prayer that go unfulfilled, focusing on my own capabilities instead of His. I pray that God will make me stronger, ask He asks me to rely on His force alone. Though I resist, it is only through total dependence that I can find freedom from the deceptive allure of self-sufficiency.
His Constant Help
My marathon story is not a lesson of failure and perseverance, hard work and success. It is a story of weakness that demands me to let go of pride and independence in order to accept God’s strength. Life bears obstacles far more intense than the physical toll of a marathon, and though I may not have the strength to weather the next challenge, He always will.
Grace Spiewak resides outside of Chicago, where she learns and writes about Latin, ancient history, and her Catholic Faith. She works as a college librarian and holds degrees from Creighton University and University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. Outside of the library, Grace enjoys exploring Chicago on foot or bike, especially with her family and friends.