It’s hard to say which race has been my favorite. I’ve loved them all for unique reasons. I’ve been racing for about ten years and it’s always a thrilling experience. I’ve done 5 and 10ks, half and full marathons, and three distances of triathlons. I loved dressing as Rocky (heavy red boxing gloves and all) with a t-shirt that proclaimed, ‘Fight Cancer’ and showed pictures of loved ones fighting the big ‘C’ for the Nike Women’s Half Marathon. I cherished fundraising for the Dynamic Catholic parish book program in conjunction with the Portland International Marathon last year. I even loved being humbled by my realization that my poor balance and wobbly biking legs meant I was not cut out for the Best Buddies Century Ride I had registered for along the beautiful (and cliff-dropping) California coastal Highway 1, which meant I could instead take on the role of spectator and cheer my husband on at the finish line at Hearst Castle.
No matter what the race distance or type, one thing remains consistent every single time: YOU PERFORM HOW YOU TRAIN. I follow a motto for every race that I read in a training book years ago: ‘Don’t do anything different on race day’. This means that everything I do, what I eat, how I stretch, how many sips of water I drink, what music I listen to, how I set my pace, where I place chafing ointment, even how I breath must be practiced, tried and true in my training if I am going to implement it on the day of a race.
Depending on the race distance, I register a few months to a year in advance. I set up a specific training plan (knowing that I might falter along the way, as is human nature, but allowing for such detours in my plan). I combine expertise from a number of different racing books and blogs with my own experience, accounting for my strengths, weakness, and other life commitments that might get in the way of scheduling training events. I plan long training workouts, short training workouts, brick workouts, cross training workouts, and the all important rest days. I stretch, hydrate, and nourish. I pray. I worry. I feel fear, hope, joy, elation, anticipation. I envision crossing the finish line. A thousand times. I ‘rally the troops’ and share my goals with friends and family. They become my cheerleading squad and excitedly make plans to watch me cross the finish line, or high five me at mile 12. Some even run the last few miles with me or drop me off at the start line at the crack of dawn (ummm … way before the crack of dawn, actually). All of these cheerleaders have one thing in common though: they care deeply about me and the success of my race.
After ten years of racing I’m here to tell you one very simple tip: training for the most amazing physical race of your life is no different than training for the most important spiritual race of your life … your goal to get yourself and your loved ones to Heaven. But your crossing of ‘The Finish Line of All Finish Lines’ – those infamous pearly gates – isn’t going to be easy if you’ve done little to train for it in your marathon on Earth.
I’ve found it inspiring and achievable to think of my spiritual progress as spiritual training instead. I can set a goal for the things I wish to achieve in my spiritual journey, knowing that I may falter along the way, as is human nature. I can make plans that account for these detours, and be proactive in setting up realistic and adjustable expectations of myself. I can combine what the experts say, with my own experience, strengths, and weaknesses to determine the best spiritual training for me.
For instance, its not realistic to say that I will attend daily Mass, pray the Rosary each morning, make it Adoration weekly, complete a service event every weekend, and give 10% of my salary to charity all within the first month of making my decision to grow in my spiritual journey. Similarly it would not be reasonable to sign up for and run a marathon within a month if I’ve never run before or have only run sporadically. I need a plan. I need goals. I need to put in time, effort, care, and concern toward the end result. I need to reevaluate and adjust my plan constantly. Those who fail to plan, plan to fail, after all. “The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak” (Matthew 26:41).
I even need my nutrition and hydration to be specifically tailored to my race goals. In a spiritual sense, this means considering what I ‘feed’ myself with (are Facebook, US weekly, and American Idol giving me the utmost nutrition to allow me to be successful in my spiritual training?) Most importantly, I need to train… I need to just get out there and start running. Who starts running for the first time in their life and thinks, “This is so easy! I’m so great at this! Look at me … what a gazelle!”? Definitely not me! In fact every time I recommit myself to training, I chug along the sidewalk like a tank of bricks until slowly, day after day, I become a little lighter, a little faster, and a little more effortless in my training. And when I fall along the way, I need to dust the disappointment and sense of failure off my scabbed and bruised body (and soul) and get right back to it.
Nearly every spiritual practice and discipline that I’ve grown in, I have started before I was good at it…. well before I was good at it. I started receiving the Sacrament of Reconciliation, attending Adoration, and saying the Rosary with some frequency recently very well before I was good at it as a gift to my parents. In fact, I’m still not ‘good’ at any of those prayer practices, but slowly I’m getting better at each. God doesn’t care if we’re ‘good’ he just cares that we show up. Through His grace and mercy, we become good at prayer. But we have to be the ones to show up. We have to ‘sign up for the race’ and just start running! Or … just start praying. Practice makes perfect, and you’ll find that in time, your prayer will become easier, clearer, and a little more effortless. All of a sudden you might actually realize that you’re ‘good’ at a certain prayer discipline, which is God’s patient and loving way of telling you, ‘good job, my child … now you’re ready to increase your pace or distance’. Maybe He even wants you to add hills to your spiritual workout! God has a sense of humor like that.
Sign up for the race. Put those fancy shoes on. Or those old tattered shoes. It doesn’t matter. Just put one foot in front of the other. Walk, then run, then run faster. Say one prayer, then say a few prayers. Go to Mass four times a month instead of two times a month. Do one service event per year, then three or four the next year. Give 2% of your salary to charity, then 3%. Envision crossing ‘THE finish line’. A thousand times. Build in long and short ‘workouts’, and rest days too. Share your goals with friends and family so they can be your cheerleaders. Make a plan. Today … will you run a spiritual mile with me? Choose one simple prayer discipline, and ‘just do it’. I promise you’ll be glad you did when you approach THE finish line of your life. We should all want to be able to say as St. Paul did, “I have competed well; I have finished the race; I have kept the faith. From now on the crown of righteousness awaits me, which the Lord, the just judge, will award me on that day, and not only me, but to all who have longed for his appearance” (2 Timothy 4: 7-8).