November 12, 2013
I’ve been a runner for about five years now, and usually go just a few miles here and there. So when a friend wanted to do a half-marathon, I asked her if I could join. It was, in my mind, going to be great. As a film director, I had my idea of what the next month would look like. I would train on fall afternoons and pound out mile after mile. I would get in distance shape, and the day of the race I would cross the finish line having persevered. The music would swell and everything would come together like the end of a movie.
But a week before the race, I injured my knee and my running advisor told me that I should stay off of it. I started feeling in my heart that something was shifting. The race day was not going to be the way that I thought it would be.
My friend got a really nasty cold and had to pull out of the half and so I coordinated a ride and went to Newburyport for the big day. It was cold and I was nervous and undertrained and had no idea what I was doing. And I wish I could tell you that I ran through the rolling backroads and felt nothing but pure adrenaline and broke all kinds of records and raced well. But I hit a wall at mile seven that turned into a battlefield until mile nine, at which point I met a woman who was running at about the same pace. Her name was Alysha and she was about 10 years old than me. So, we talked about family and kids and marriage and started exhausting the basic details of everyday life. And around mile 11, she told me about her mother-in-law who has pancreatic cancer. Alysha has been taking care of her, quitting her job and exhausting herself to do so.
Life is full of a lot of little details that don’t make any sense, and it sometimes feels like nothing is ever going to change. Like I’ll be single forever and my vocation will never really take off and I’ll never understand Hebrew paradigms and instead of breaking records and finishing well I’m breaking bones and trying to finish. Period.
As we approached mile 12.5, I started to feel that shift in my heart again. I was running toward the finish line feeling like I hadn’t really accomplished anything. I hadn’t had some big, transformative breakthrough. Instead, I was running beside a woman who was struggling just to take care of others (let alone herself) and I almost wanted to just stop because I felt like I was going nowhere anyway. And out of that rush of disappointment and pain and underwhelming feelings, instead of saying something profound, all I could muster was this sentence about a dear family at the seminary who has been struggling the last few weeks with difficult news.
I took a breath and said, “My friend and her husband are going to Philadelphia to talk to doctors about whether or not their daughter will ever walk or even survive the next few months.”
We were silent for a second and I looked at Alysha and I said, “In case no one is telling you this, can I just say: Thank you for everything that you are doing.”
The next few minutes were a blur. We listened to Katy Perry and crossed the finish line and a teenager gave me a medal and I felt, oddly, nothing.
Sometimes, we make plans. And we see life taking one turn when we wanted it to turn another direction. This half-marathon was a case of me trying to make it turn the other way. It was my way of accomplishing something on my own, and in the end, it left me empty. Sure, I did what I set out to do. I ran a half-marathon. But running doesn’t solve anything. The same way that straight A’s or understanding Hebrew or getting married doesn’t solve anything. In the end, it’s not about finishing well. Maybe it’s not even about the finish. Maybe it’s about hitting that wall and still putting one foot in front of the other.
We serve a sovereign God who loves us greatly. Who has planned out route for this race and desires for us to trust in that. While it will always be a struggle for this heart of mine, I have to remember that I’m not really the director here. Life is rarely cinematic. Just because the music doesn’t swell and I’m not being carried on anyone’s shoulders at the end of a half-marathon doesn’t mean He is any less good. If anything, I think that our weakness proves His strength all the more.
So, my friends, may you find yourself racing well. When your legs are strong and your lungs breathe easy, may you thank Him for grace. And when you hit that wall and nothing seems to be going according to plan, may you remember to just put one foot in front of the other. And may you thank Him for grace abounding.
Melissa Zaldivar is an MATH student from California. She loves golf, theology, Jewish holidays, people falling in love, Jonathan Edwards, chocolate chip cookies, her adorable niece and telling stories. When she's not filming and photographing weddings, you can find her reading news articles, watching Parks and Recreation or playing Super Smash Bros.