Remember in high school English class when your teacher would ask you weird questions like, “What is Golding implying the conch represents in modern society?” For some people, these types of questions are pointless. “Implying? It’s just a story about some British kids that get stranded on an island. A conch is a conch.”
Be warned, I’m not like those people. A conch is never just a conch, in story or in life. I love metaphors, symbolism and other small things that represent the big picture. I believe there is always a deeper message beneath the surface and am more than willing to dig for it.
That’s one of the reasons I love running. In my mind, there’s more going on than just waking up at 5am and running 12 miles before work. If I can endure that and discipline myself enough, how can that carry over into real life? What can this hobby represent? School? Marriage? Parenting? The list goes on and on. Every time I lace up my size 14’s, the illustration begs me to wonder, “What race am I running in real life?”
Sure, sometimes this causes me to read into things a little too much. But metaphor took center stage last Sunday morning during the Chicago Marathon. I wasn’t expecting a lesson in endurance. I didn’t think I needed one. Crawling to the finish is for first-timers. This was my third marathon. I knew I was going to finish. I had trained well and even felt like I had a shot at a personal record.
The problem is, unexpected issues never have good timing. I was 17 miles in, right on target for my goal time, when my calves started cramping up. There are several factors that could have caused this. It was hot and the clear skies were pushing the temperature just over 80 degrees (40’s is considered perfect marathon weather). The course was crowded which forced an awkward stride. Whatever the case, my muscles started to lock up on me.
It was bad.
Experienced runners will tell you that the mental fatigue is just as excruciating as the physical pain during a marathon. Unless you are trying to win it – or have run 50 of them – part of the challenge of a marathon is always breaking through the wall. Somewhere in the 26.2 mile stretch, there comes a point when your mind tells you that you can’t take another step. The goal is to make your legs do things your mind is telling them they can’t do. But that’s easier said than done.
Naturally, if you start wishing the race was over at mile 17, and this wish invades every wrinkle of your mind, it will end up being the only damn thing you can think about for the rest of the way. This is where I was Sunday morning. With each stride my calves cramped more and more. The cramping crawled up to my hamstrings. I eventually had to get to the side of the road and ice down the backs of my legs and pry my muscle-locked foot back into a movable position. This happened every mile for the next 90 minutes.
Yes Rob Bell, there is a hell.
So what does the conch represent in modern society? About mile 20, I began to think about the past few months in my life. Why? For one, you have to do something to take your mind off of the pain. And, as I mentioned earlier, I over-analyze things. We’ve all got issues. As mile 20 turned into mile 21, my ugly run Sunday morning really began to mirror life lately.
I don’t try to play the “tornado card” very much but a lot changed when that storm hit Joplin last May, taking my house and neighborhood with it. I’ll be honest when I say the last four months have been some of the most emotionally draining of my life. Sure, my wife and daughter survived, for that I am thankful beyond words. But I’d be lying if I didn’t wonder why my family walked out okay and the family down the street did not. And yes, stuff can be replaced but I liked my stuff. Replaceable or not, replacing it sucks.
Don’t reach for your checkbook. That’s not what this is about. Our insurance company has taken of us. The church, both locally and globally, has been a constant source of support. My friends are the best in the world. The girls that live in my house love me a lot. So no, this isn’t a passive attempt to get you to send money. I don’t need it. This blog is my method of sorting through the mental and emotional fallout I’ve experienced since May.
Fast forward to after the marathon on Sunday. As I hobbled onto the EL train, finisher’s medal still hanging around my neck, strangers congratulated me on a good race. “But it wasn’t a good race,” I wanted to say. “It was terrible. I just limped along.” In the same way, people have come up to me and expressed how much they have admired the way we’ve handled life since the tornado. I’ve been told that my faith is admirable. One guy told me that I made it look like losing my house, “wasn’t that big of a deal.” I love the encouragement more than you know but I have to confess that most days, I just limped along.
See what I mean?!? The conch is always more than a conch! I was reminded Sunday that no matter how prepared I thought I was, marathons are still about endurance. I may have not come anywhere close to my goal time but, in looking back on it, I’m more proud of what I did in the midst of running terribly. I tested myself in a way that I wasn’t expecting. And I had what it took to finish. This summer has been a similar test, one that was obviously not expected. So I guess my point is that even in real life, running terribly is still running.
Quitting isn’t an option. I knew it Sunday morning and the metaphor carries over to real life. Yes, there have been mornings since May 22nd that I've wanted to stay in bed. Just like in running, those are the moments I have to tell my feet to do things my mind doesn’t want them to do. The covers get thrown back and one at a time, my feet hit the floor.
It might be ugly some days, but it’s still running. And if I can make one more connection between the marathon and life, Sunday reminded me of the power of encouragement. Somewhere between mile 22 and 24, in Chinatown I think, I saw a woman holding a sign in the crowd gathered on the side of the street. Handwritten on a piece of white poster board, were three little words that became my mantra for the rest of the race and perhaps beyond…
JUST KEEP RUNNING.
I still am.