I drove over the half-marathon course twice in advance of race day. There was an elevation map online and it looked flat enough but I wanted to see it with my own eyes. I didn't want any surprises. And sure enough, as Dana and I drove over the 13.1 mile course running through the vineyards of Napa Valley on a cool spring day from the comfort of our air conditioned car, it appeared easy enough. The course rambled on and on but there were lovely groves of trees that cast cool shadows over the road and there was an occasional rise and fall in sections of the course but they were hardly noticeable.
As it turned out, on the day of the half-marathon, I noticed. I noticed the long slow rise that stretched over the last half of mile 2 that slowed my pace and quickened my pulse. As I pressed on through a couple more miles an audible groan escaped my throat as I looked round a bend in the road near mile 5 and saw another steady rise ahead. And the shade? I bobbed and weaved from one side of the road to the other in a futile quest to grab a momentary reprieve from the sun in the sparse shade that had at another time appeared so abundant.
In the days prior to the race I visualized time and again walking over sections of the course and in my mind's eye I was always moving strong, feeling good, and looking fine. How wrong I was. My pace was two, sometimes three minutes slower per mile, my body more weary, and my mental outlook more bleak than I had ever anticipated. There was no way to know how I will respond to the course, how the elevation would impact me, and how the heat and shadeless roads would deplete my energy until I experienced it for myself, until my feet were on the road walking it mile by mile, up and down the rolling rises in the heat of a summer day.
My finishing time was 3:24:50. That's 24 minutes and 50 seconds slower than I had hoped, but as my friends remind me, that's a personal best for me and they're right, it was my personal best in a half-marathon because it was the first time I ever walked in a half-marathon! In the end the time didn't matter anyway because when I crossed the finish line, that was enough. I hadn't give up. I had finished.
And each day, that's all I can do as I live my life. I can never fully prepare for what will be around life's next corner and how I'll move through it; how I'll respond, what I'll feel, what action I'll take, or who I'll even become when I reach the other side. Until my feet are hitting the pavement, or until I'm confronting the next challenge in life, I can't predict what the final result will be of the journey I'm on. All I can do is walk the mile that surrounds me and do my best with all that mile holds for me. Sometimes I'll move through the mile energized, filled with excitement and light on my feet. Other times I'll want to quit so bad it will take every bit of human effort to just take the next step. And the next one. And the one after that.
And when that's all I can do, that's enough. Forget about what lies ahead. Mile 10, mile 11, and mile 12 aren't my concern when I'm stuck in the middle of mile 9, and in the same way I don't need to worry about what difficulties or challenges may or may not come tomorrow because today is the day I'm living in and with God's help I'll live it to the best that I'm able.
There's every reason to believe my finishing time in the next race will be faster because of what I learned in this half-marathon. My personal best will improve as I improve as an athlete. I pray the same would be true in my life...that as I face the challenges that come, I learn from each and in learning I might be changed into a better me, the me that's God's best hope and plan for me to be.