Race pace. That’s what I used to call it those many years ago when I ran high school cross country, and ran it pretty well. My race pace was a long, relatively efficient stride that, as a high school senior, I could hold for the entirety of a 5K race.
Nowadays, I slip into the middle-aged version of that stride only on the last quarter mile or so of my training runs. It feels good, and the dream is that I somehow manage to convince myself that I can once again start a race with that pace and hold if for a full five kilometers (that’s 3.1 miles for those of you in Rio Linda). Running is as much a mental sport as it is a physical one. I often find myself at the starting line asking whether I want to run or race. If I’m running, then I set the fastest pace that I’m confident will still enable me to cover the distance. If I were to race, then I would try to slip into the longer stride, hoping and praying that the greater efficiency will still allow me to make it to the finish line without collapsing from exhaustion. Racing entails risk, and I almost always opt for the safer strategy.
I wrote a bit last year about the intersection of running and spirituality. There are a lot of aspects of running that are analogous to the inner life of the soul. St. Paul counsels us to “run in such a way as to get the prize.” (1 Cor 9:24) In light of my running experience, I’m not sure how I should apply the advice of the Apostle.
In any given race, there is going to be a group of runners half my age against whom I cannot possibly compete. If I were to try to run with them, I would be completely spent before the first mile was passed. If I limit the competition to just my age group, the prospects become much better, but they still depend on who shows up to run against me. I could “run to win” by running in only small races with weak fields, but the spiritual analogy to doing that would seem to suggest the opposite of what Paul was getting at in his letter to the Corinthians. Paul’s analogy makes a little more sense if the award is not the award for any given race, but rather the “tour” award, in which there are a series of races where points are awarded and totaled at the end. The tour winner might not be the fastest runner, but rather the most consistent – the runner who showed up for every race, even though he knew he wouldn’t be receiving any glory for leading the pack across the finish line.
What, I wonder, would be the spiritual equivalent of my race pace, the sustainability of which I doubt every time I start a race? Likewise, what would be the equivalent of the fastest sustainable pace for which I invariably settle? Is there virtue in the recognition of my own limitations, or does it signal a fundamental lack of trust?
I read once (I forget where, so I can’t provide proper attribution) that there are two acceptable responses to the temptation to sin. The first is to throw yourself into fervent prayer and pious distractions. In running terms, this would probably be an all-out sprint. The second response is to recognize the temptation for what it is and wait it out. Temptations occur every day, and we need not be overly concerned about the temptation itself so long as we do not give in to it. In running terms, this would be a run-forever pace that might carry a runner in excess of ten miles (note that I don’t seem to possess a run-forever pace – regardless of how slowly I run, I max out at around 7-1/2 miles due to the repeated impacts on my knees; my forever pace is a walk). The race pace and the maximum sustainable pace for a 3-mile race are both significantly closer to a sprint than to a walk, especially when you consider that I’ve never been much of a sprinter.
I recently ran a race in which I tried the race pace approach. I made a conscious effort to stretch my stride and conserve energy. It turns out that race pace is not as fast as I thought it was. I had noticed this phenomenon before during my training runs. Sometimes, you feel like you’re plodding along, struggling through every step, only to discover at the end of your run that you made really good time. On other days, you feel like you’re running strong, but once you finish, you discover that your time is only mediocre.
Maybe the optimized race pace is a fantastic illusion. It ultimately boils down to knowing, through training, how fast you can run and being able to settle into the pace early in the race. It also means pushing yourself in training to improve that pace. Spiritually, Paul seems to be saying that, if we’re going to enter a race, we shouldn’t just jog through so that we finish having barely broken a sweat. Even if we know we aren’t going to win, we should put forth our best effort. Spiritually, that means that we can’t allow ourselves to become complacent and presume upon easy grace to carry us into the kingdom through the wide gate. Effort is a part of that equation, but certainly not the whole thing. Just as a runner needs to train if he expects to compete,