I had never experienced more pain in my life. Every muscle fiber in my legs screamed for respite. My arms, numbed by their endless back-and-forth, back and forth motion, had given up complaining and resigned themselves to their fate.
So tired. So sore. When will this be over? I think to myself.
I look down at my watch. 94 miles in—That means I have about 6 miles to go. That’s less than two 5ks back-to-back. Okay. I can do this.
95 miles. To some, this number represents their daily commute. To others, it’s what they must travel to see their grandparents, children, or lifelong friends. But this number is special to me in a different way. It’s the distance my body could go before my spirit broke.
I’m an ultrarunner. Writing that down feels as though I’m committing fraud or something. No, I haven’t set any world, national, or state records, excluding a handful of Fastest Known Times (FKTs) on local trails, and I certainly am far from the front of the pack in most races. But, nonetheless, the title is mine. Ultrarunner. In short, this title is achieved by having run races longer than marathon distance (26.2 miles). You don’t need to be the fittest, fastest, or strongest. All you must do is persevere. Get the miles done. As a seasoned ultrarunner and friend told me once, “It’s all about relentless forward motion.”
Relentless forward motion. Those were some of the only words pounding in my brain during the last five miles of my first one-hundred-mile footrace. I had completed a marathon, two 50ks, and a 55-mile race; but, in the ultrarunning community, one isn’t considered a TRUE ultrarunner unless he or she completes a hundred-miler. Then the ultra-ultrarunners pursue even loftier goals (a 135-mile race from Death Valley to Mt. Whitney or a 383-mile run in the Arctic, for example). But, for most within the community, the christening celebration occurs at the 100-miler finish line.
And, here I am, five miles from reaching a goal I’ve longed to achieve for months. And I’m broken. Empty. I feel like a shell of a man, plodding along the trails, wondering what in the world I’m accomplishing through this endeavor. Don’t get me wrong, quitting never even passed through my mind. It simply wasn’t an option on the table. My quandaries were the questions burning in each of our hearts since our youth: Why? Why am I here? What is my purpose? I had hoped I’d encounter some existential revelation through my endless footfalls on pine needle strewn trail and cracked, gray asphalt; instead, the questions burned hotter and deeper within me.
Why? Why am I here? What is my purpose?
Cliches spoken with good intentions often taste the bitterest while in the throes of agony. Yet, I found myself clinging to a mantra: relentless forward motion. Even though at the time I couldn’t find it within me to answer my soul’s burning questions, the mantra reminded me of a truth beyond myself. Something that, if apprehended and accepted, will allow for hope in the worst circumstances known to humanity.
Often the answers to your deepest longings and desires are only found in weathering the storm. Persevering until the end. Realizing that the battle’s fray clouds answers. Answers that, immediately after the battle ceases and the dust settles, you discover were there all along, amid the fray, behind you, before you, and even, at times, fighting for you. When you seek for answers within the storm, don’t be surprised if you only find wind and waves.
I was within the storm at mile 95, but the sun was beginning to pierce through the clouds. Little by little, with each pained footfall, the relentless forward motion drove me closer to the light. Each stride brought with it increasing pain, but the progressively intensifying light shrouded me in joy.
Mile 96. Mile 97. 98. 99.
I could hear the whooping and hollering growing louder. The music blasted through the trees. Suddenly, I rounded a corner, came out of the woods, and there it was—
The Finish Line.
A vigor returned to me. It began rejuvenating my muscles and focusing my mind. My body felt new, My spirit reborn. Relentless forward motion.
I’m not sure how quickly I covered the final one-hundred yards. It didn’t matter. What mattered was standing there at the finish, with my faithful crew, having achieved something once thought impossible. All because of a simple yet profound mantra: relentless forward motion.
I think the Christian life can often feel like a hundred-mile footrace. The mountain peaks and their accompanying vistas are often followed by valleys filled with mud, rocks, and roots. Sometimes the trail is easy to follow, other times you’re confronted with a five-way intersection, at midnight, with a dying headlamp, and a shoddy map. Maybe you’ve made it 95 miles and feel broken. Overwhelmed. Wondering, “Why? Why am I here? What is my purpose?” Might I encourage you with the mantra that gave me the strength to carry on—to finish the race?
Relentless. Keep moving. True joy comes through the pain, not by avoiding it.
Forward. Keep progressing. Even if you must crawl on your hands and knees, any forward movement is progress.
Motion. Don’t stop. The clouds will break, revealing the sun that beamed its glory all along. The storm will cease, showing the One who held you firmly through it all. I’m reminded of the Apostle Paul’s words in his letter to the churches in Galatia.
“And let us not grow weary of doing good, for in due season we will reap, if we do not give up” (Gal. 6:9 ESV).
A hundred miles may seem like an overwhelming distance, and I won’t deny that thought! But keep in mind: we serve a God who specializes in overwhelming the overwhelming.
One foot in front of the other—Relentless forward motion.