baby steps
many things make a post

note: I am not trained clergy.

On Sunday, I gave the sermon at the UUSO, which is the place worship (and post-service coffee and cakes) we call home.


We also need a new marquee -- but you get the idea.

I generally give the reflection at the church once a year, usually during the Christmas season when schedules get strange. The most recent one is now in podcast form here. But I was asked to fill in during the summer this year. I initially declined, mostly because I didn't have any ideas in my head. Then, suddenly, while out on a run, I knew what I wanted to talk about. 

Right now, the reflection is just available in manuscript form and I'll paste it behind the cut. When the podcast is edited and available, I'll call attention to it, too. It might be something to listen to while out on your own run -- or while pursuing whatever goal might tickle your fancy.

“Even though I can’t tell others whether they should chase their marathon dreams, I highly recommend they do something completely out of character, something they never in a million years thought they’d do, something they may fail miserably at. Because sometimes the places where you end up finding your true self are the places you never thought to look. That, and I don’t want to be the only one who sucks at something.” 

Dawn Dais, The Nonrunner's Marathon Guide for Women: Get Off Your Butt and On with Your Training


“The thoughts that occur to me while I’m running are like clouds in the sky. Clouds of all different sizes. They come and they go, while the sky remains the same sky always. The clouds are mere guests in the sky that pass away and vanish, leaving behind the sky.” 

Haruki Murakami, What I Talk About When I Talk About Running


 I am a late-onset athlete. High school gym class was always my idea of hell, what with the uniforms, the scrambling to class immediately after 45 minutes of some sport, and the social mortification of simply being a teenager with a body. I didn’t do much better in college, choosing to cover my required PE credits with square dancing, first aid, and horseback riding, which can be incredibly athletic but generally isn’t when you’re just learning the basics. 

Life in Austin, Texas, which is where my husband and I went after our northeastern educations, was too blessedly hot most of the time to want to do much more than hide under the bed until that big ball of fire was no longer in the sky. Knoxville, Tennessee, where we wound up next, wasn’t much better — but the humidity would drop enough during the winter months to make the great outdoors appealing. After a long, steep learning curve, I learned to play tennis well enough to enjoy it a little. 

Then I had a baby, who sucked up all of my free time (and a good deal of my not-free time) as babies do. When I did have a pocket of time to squeeze some tennis in, I lacked the energy to find a partner and co-ordinate schedules. Tennis is no fun without someone who will hit the ball back. 

Then we moved here and I had a second baby, which didn’t help with the whole free time problem. The next thing I knew I was approaching 40 and that last baby was nearly 6, which meant that I could no longer claim my extra poundage as baby weight. Later that year, I saw myself in a photo taken by, in fact, one of our congregation members, who’d captured me on a Prague subway platform. Who is that fat lady, I thought, and knew that something had to change. Not only did I not really look like myself anymore, I also didn’t feel like myself anymore. I felt mildly winded the entire time we were out exploring that gorgeous city. And when we climbed St. Vitus’ Cathedral’s bell tower, which is 297 spiral steps, I really wondered if I was going to simply die in the narrow stairwell and leave it clogged until someone could remove my body.

Let me take a moment to assure you that this sermon won’t turn into a testimonial for running or weight loss or subway platforms in Prague. These are just my personal mile markers on the road to a place you’ll likely recognize. There are as many ways to get to that place, the one when you push yourself one step beyond what you know, as there are people. 

I didn’t choose running for any reason other than it did4n’t require committing to a specific time, like a fitness class or tennis partner. I could fit it into the weird crevices of my schedule without too much struggle. So I downloaded a couch-to-5K program, signed up for a race 12-weeks out, and ran. 

I hated it. The program starts with short 30-second running intervals surrounded by long, 2-minute walking intervals. As you progress, the ratio changes and you are running for longer intervals. 

Those first few weeks of the program were truly awful. I couldn’t breathe after 10 seconds. I dreaded the days when I would haul myself to a treadmill for short bursts of torture. This is stupid, I kept thinking. Everything hurts and I want to go home. 

I still think this on runs, by the way, especially during the first mile. Which forces the obvious question: Isn’t doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results each time the definition of insanity?

Yes. Yes it is. But that definition doesn’t generally apply to human bodies and their ability to adapt to any situation that you put them in. If you can slowly move in the direction you want to go, your body will usually play along. 

Plus, I got through the first few weeks of the program because I had a friend who’d been running for years assure me that the first few weeks would be terrible — but that it would improve. So I put my faith in her assurance and pushed through. 

By the time the 5K rolled around on the calendar, I still hadn’t run a full 3 miles. The Couch-to-5K program is based on time, rather than on distance. While I’d run for 32 minutes at a time, I run so slowly that I hadn’t covered the full 3 mile distance in training. Every runner I knew assured me that I should run the race anyway, despite not having run the full distance ever. That last half-mile will take care of itself, they said. You are more than strong enough to finish — you just don’t know it yet. Have some faith in your ability and trust your training.

Of course, the consequences of failure weren’t huge. Sure, my pride would take a hit but, honestly, the worst that would happen in that I’d give up and bail when the race course neared my house, which is a convenience of small-town races that doesn’t get mentioned enough. 

Race day dawned. I had a small anxiety attack at the starting line but kept it together enough to make it through 2.5 miles at my feverishly slow pace. Then I put one foot into the unknown; then put the next foot behind it. Then did it again until I crossed the finish. 

I’d like to say that the Chariots of Fire theme blasted through the speakers and I was never unhappy again. Instead, I collected my bottle of water and a styrofoam box of Brooks’ chicken and couldn’t keep the broad grin off of my face. I was exhausted, sweat-soaked, and stinky — but that last half-mile hadn’t been nearly as terrifying as I’d feared. Faith in my own untested ability worked out.

Cut to two years later when taking on a half-marathon, which is 13.1 miles, seemed like a good idea, even though the longest I’d ever run previously was 6.2. I trained through an Oneonta winter for a race in May and built up miles by running laps around the high school, whose perimeter is always plowed enough to allow fairly secure footing in the snow. 

Running for hours in ice, snow, and slush can test your faith in the inevitability of Spring. But it comes, eventually, usually seconds after you give up wishing for it. 

The same is true of the sensation described by Murakami from the readings, that knowledge that the clouds may change but the sky will always remain. That is how running feels at its best. All of life’s clouds — the initial unpleasantness of starting a run, the fights with your kids, the aimless worry about the future — disappear. Not with every run, certainly, but frequently enough that you can rely on it. That cloudless sky, where your brain and body just shut up for a few minutes, is how I imagine the Buddha must have felt on his best days. It doesn’t show up when you’re sitting around on your couch and is worth all of the effort to get there. 

By the end of the 12 training weeks, my longest long run was only 12 miles, which is standard procedure for long races. For a marathon, which is 26 miles, you usually only run 20 during training because going much farther than that increases your risk of injury or of being too worn out to run that far again anytime soon. This isn’t true for elite runners who run a marathon before breakfast on any given weekday — but for first-timers, this strategy of not quite running the full distance is common. 

That last mile was terra incognito, a step off of the edge of my known map. I knew how it felt to run 12 miles, which was, in short, terrible for the first mile, then not bad until mile 8, then a long dark night of the soul until mile ten, then really good because you are almost done, then exhausted and not able to get up off of the couch until the next morning. 

But maybe 12 miles was all I had in me. Perhaps a half marathon was just too far for my aging body. Perhaps that last mile was the worst thing I could do. There was no way to know in advance, just like there is no way to know if you can make the transition from 9 miles to 10; or 10 to 11, or 2.5 to 3. You just have to take the next step. That’s where the faith is.

Some religions would argue that that gap between known and unknown is where God is, that He carries you when you don’t know what will happen next and you only see one pair of footprints on the sand. 

That is not where my faith is, for a variety of reasons, mind, but, in this case, because running that last mile feels as far from being carried as one can possibly be. That last mile is where you have to have faith in your own strength. Or find that faith pretty quickly as you put one foot in front of the other until you reach the end. 

Katherine Switzer, who was the first woman to run the Boston Marathon, says “If you are losing faith in human nature, go out, and watch a marathon.” I couldn't agree more, although I’d add — make sure you station yourself in the last five miles to the finish line. That’s where you’ll see people in the act of finding their own faith and discovering that they are far stronger than they ever knew they could be.

Each one of us has that gap, the one between what we know we can do and what we hope to achieve. It doesn’t have to be running related. It can be anything. Starting a new school or a new job. Or leaving a school or a job to try something new. Having a baby. Watching that baby head off to college. Or going to church. 

Faith is reaching beyond that gap and trusting that it will all work out OK. Beyond that gap is where all of the truly amazing accomplishments and discoveries are, you just have to trust that you can keep putting one foot in front of the other long enough to get there. How small would our lives be if we — as individuals, as a community — if we only did what we knew we could do?

My next half-marathon is in October. While I know I can make it the full distance — as long as my feet don’t fall off or something equally catastrophic — this time I’m going to run it faster than I ever have. Or I hope to and have faith in my training. 

What is it that you want to stretch for? What would you pick to reach beyond so that you can discover what lies in that last mile? Let me be the first to cheer you on.


Very nice.

Fabulous. And you are getting better every time. Thank you for filling the pulpit and for inspiring us all once again.

Thanks for sharing this with your Mother Runners!

Wonderful. Thank you for the uplifting thoughts. I truly enjoy your writing.

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