While all the runners in the stadium take part in the race, the award goes to one man.
In that case, run so as to win! Athletes deny themselves all sorts of things.
They do this to win a crown of leaves that withers, but we a crown that is imperishable. (1 Cor 9:24-25)
I ran cross country and track throughout college. All four years of college we had 6am practices. We had to learn to be disciplined: watching what we ate, how late we stayed up, how much we went out. If not, we could easily get hurt, or – even worse – slow! In the end, after 10 years of races in total, I had collected a small box worth of trophies, ribbons, and plaques. Although I never won a laurel wreath, this trophy box is now sitting in some closet at my parents’ house, collecting dust.
In addition to my own running, I zealously followed the international track, cross country, and road racing circuits. At that time the Kenyans dominated the distance running world, and so I followed the Kenyans. I was amazed at how effortless they often made running look. It was art, it was beauty, it was poetry in motion. They have some natural advantages -- they tend to be very slender, and they live at altitude -- but I’d say that their true advantage lies between the ears. The “secret” of their success is their relentless single-mindedness. Here in the Unites States, runners have to make time to train before and/or after school or work. The Kenyans go to extended, isolated training camps; no family, no job, no friends to distract them. They eat a very basic diet. They train in large groups, and these groups are made up of the best runners in the world, with each runner trying to prove that he is the fastest one there. A race can break out at any time. These camps have a very high drop-out rate, as there is no room for mediocrity. Bernard Barmasai, the former world record holder in the steeplechase, would train four times per day: an easy run in the morning, then intervals before lunch, then a tempo run in the afternoon, before closing out the day with a long run in the early evening – that’s a week’s worth of workouts for most people!
They do this because their focus is not on a withering crown of leaves, but something more important. The average income in Kenya was just over $1000 per year back in the mid-90s. Elite runners can earn over 100 times that for a single race, but even second-tier runners could earn 10 times that much in a summer of European racing. They ran to make money in order to support their families, and to support their futures. They would use their winnings to buy farmland back in Kenya, or to build a house. The Boston Marathon winner a few years ago announced he was looking forward to buying some cows. Younger Kenyans have also increasingly come to the United States to compete collegiately, as their running skills have netted them scholarships. They then return home afterwards with degrees in their pockets, often in business, political science, or agriculture. When I ran, it was a hobby and so the “crown” I pursued has faded. The Kenyans tend to run to improve their lives, and their crowns last a bit longer, but are still oriented towards this life, and so, they too, will eventually fade.
The questions we Christians must ask: What is the crown we desire? What are we aiming at? Now that Lent has begun, what is the purpose of our penitential practices? What do we desire from them? Do we mortify ourselves out of pride, or humility? Or to say – to ourselves or to others – simply that we’ve done them? Or do we do them for higher purposes? Does our fasting remind us of our hunger for God? Do we give alms from our surplus, or do we give “until it hurts," until it affects our lifestyle? Do we spend a lot of time online or in front of the TV, or do we spend it in prayer and in conversation with Jesus? In the end, we each get the crown we deserve: either withering or lasting, rusty or glorious, material or spiritual, faded or eternal.