Back in 2001, I got a dog for my fortieth birthday. Balancing my professorship, a husband who traveled too much for his job, and a home with four children attending four different schools, I wanted a creature in my life who asked for little more than food, water, a good brush down, and a walk. And walk we did. For his first year, my little Shiba Inu, named Kika, and I walked miles through the back hills of a nature preserve by our home just north of Seattle proper.
Kika was true to his breed, being untrustworthy off-leash, and full of energy. Nicknamed the “hyper-pooch,” he was also fast. Around his first birthday, in August 2002, he escaped from the house. I hopped into the car with a dog bone to lure him home and clocked him for a long stretch of road at thirty miles an hour. I stopped chasing him as it seemed dangerous for all concerned. (He stopped, too, walking back to the car to get his treat).
Soon after, I decided that our walks would become runs. Like so many small steps in my life, no explicit Christian thinking was behind this decision. The dog needed at least a thirty-minute walk. Maybe if we ran, he would be less hyper throughout the day. Plus, I had been on my high school track team where I was a decent half-miler. Running was not exactly new to me, but honestly, no one, including myself, would confuse me with that seventeen-year-old. As an adult, I had tried in the past to commit to running, but I always over-extended myself in some sort of youthful gasp for glory and then tuckered out after two or three weeks.
This time around, Kika and I had a plan to start with an easy 1-mile loop. We settled into our morning routine, adding a bit more yardage every now and then until we were up to three miles by November. By the following June, we had done a nine-mile run. “That’s pretty close to a half marathon,” I thought to myself. So, I signed up for the Seattle Seafair half-marathon, which took place six weeks later. I had no idea what I was doing: no race plan, no watch, wrong clothing, and I finished six seconds over two hours. Four months later, and still not knowing what I was doing, I ran the Seattle Marathon.
After running those two races, three things were clear to me: I loved running, I had a knack for it, and I didn’t know how to train for—much less run—a major race. My local running shoe store recommended a coach with a running club meeting twice weekly at its location by Seattle’s Green Lake Park. The 323-acre gem of a park, designed by the Olmsted Brothers between 1907 and 1912, includes a three-mile loop around its namesake lake, making it easy to run part way around the lake and then peel off in any direction for long Saturday morning runs throughout Seattle’s neighborhoods.
I showed up at the store every Saturday morning and Tuesday evening for seven years to run with fellow club members. We were serious about running with different levels of investment in the other attributes of our lives. While dissimilar in so many ways, the twenty to thirty runners in the club were always working toward the same goal—to run a marathon fast enough to qualify for the Boston Marathon. By 2006 that was my goal too. I aimed to qualify by running a sub-four-hour Portland Marathon in October.
By then, I was running thirty to forty miles a week with an additional track workout and weight training, squeezing in early morning runs or skipping lunch and running along Seattle’s ship canal, which partially skirts along my workplace, Seattle Pacific University. Kika and I would run the shorter six-milers on Monday and Thursday before I headed to work.
It turns out I was fast, ripping up 5 and 10K races, and at one point, Mars Candy offered me a sponsorship. Now that I was committed to hours of training each week, I was trying to make sense of this vocationally and figure out how I could give my running and the racing back to God in service to him. But I could not find God in any of this. Although I affirm that we are embodied souls, I didn’t see a connection back then between my running and any sort of transcendence. It also felt a bit selfish of me as time has never been much on my side. The hours I spent running could have been spent reading scripture or doing more direct service for God. I could have spent that time with students, writing, or Saturday mornings with my kids. (Although in fairness to all, they had early on carved out that morning as “me time.”) While I have developed lifelong friendships with my running buddies, evangelism while running a fifteen-miler together never seemed to be much of an option. While I didn’t see how I could serve God and advance his kingdom, I also didn’t have a sense of God calling me to stop. So I kept running.
I ran the Portland Marathon, qualifying for Boston with a comfortable six-minute cushion. Two years later, I ran Boston, making it up Heartbreak Hill without embarrassing myself in front of the crowds and finishing strong as I sprinted down Boylston Street. But by the time my “Boston moment” came around, I had been running for two years with intermittent leg and foot injuries. I would never ever again come close to running as well as I did that day in Portland.
But I have kept running in the fifteen years since Boston, chalking up six more marathons, twenty more half-marathons, and a bunch more 5Ks. As my forties segued into my fifties, which barreled into my sixties, I’ve come to see my earlier musings about the kingdom value of running as the wrong question. As with so much of my life, I wanted to make running instrumental to something else, an offering to God that He didn’t necessarily ask for. Since running Boston, I’ve come to understand that vocation is not always about doing. The question of “what God is calling you to do” is not the whole sum of vocation. The larger gift of vocation is that God calls each of us. Period.
I wish we would stop asking our students to wrestle with that question of “doing” when it’s not entirely certain they have first rested in God’s vocational gift. I own that I have had it backward myself for most of my adult life. I didn’t need to give God my running as much as I needed to embrace that God had given it to me. As He has done with His Son, God has freely given me the gift of running. But I had been too stiff-necked to see the grace in it during the years when I was the fastest. Once I started to slow down, I saw the beauty in running for its own sake. I was finally able to say, as the runner and missionary Eric Lidell does in the movie, Chariots of Fire, that “God made me for a purpose. But He also made me fast, and when I run, I feel His pleasure.”
Three years ago, we moved back to Seattle after I finished being Provost at Wheaton College. This time we live a block away from my beloved Green Lake where I once again run around the lake three or four times a week. Apart from my new pace, there is another type of slowness to my running. After twenty years, the lake and I are old friends. As I run around it these days, I take in its curves, the familiar trees, the herons perched on low-lying willow branches to grab a morning fish, and the turtles sunning themselves on a floating log near the shore. I know where to look for the Bald Eagle as he prepares to swoop down on the just-hatched goslings and where the Barred Owls might be if I get out of bed early enough to catch them while the sun is still deciding how it will dance with the day’s clouds. I say hello to the same elderly man twice as he walks, and I run in different directions. We greet each other warmly the second time as if we hadn’t already done so 15 minutes earlier. These runs have become my liturgy of the ordinary—thirty to forty minutes each morning before the day intrudes when I can focus fully on the present, my surroundings, and my God. Running slows down my day, giving me a deep connection to God’s good favor found in this small stretch of His creation. These twenty years of running have been my own long obedience in the same direction. I thank God for the gift of this calling.