Friday, July 24, 2009

running the race

one of the ways that i've tried to connect with renton and to get to know people there is by joining toastmasters, a club dedicated to helping people work on their public speaking. this seemed like a natural two-fer -- a chance to hone an important skill, as well as to connect with people who don't yet know Jesus. i joined the club that meets at paccar, a company that designs and manufacturers trucks and truck parts, and one of the largest businesses in renton. these have been tough days at paccar, with lots of mysterious and sudden layoffs keeping people on edge as the company tries to stay afloat in these difficult economic times.

i like having the opportunity to get to know people in their work environment, to learn a bit about their lives and problems, and to have a chance to build relationship in the hope of introducing them to Jesus. but honestly, i didn't think the speaking aspect of the club would present a huge challenge; i was already speaking publicly 50+ times a year when i joined, and have been up front preaching the gospel for over 25 years. it's safe to say that i'm comfortable in front of a group.

at least, i'm comfortable in front of a group when i have a bible in my hands and i'm talking about God. i've been surprised at how nervous i can feel before a seven-minute message on some relatively trivial topic. thankfully, the club is both constructive and very kind in giving feedback, and i've found that i still have lots to learn as a speaker -- starting with (but not limited to) finishing on time (!).

this week, i did project 4 (how to say it), a speech in which the emphasis is on word selection, sentence structure, and the use of rhetorical devices to communicate clearly, accurately, and vividly. the feedback? people liked the speech, but noted that i looked down at my notes way too much, especially for a personal story like this one. always more to is the speech, entitled 'running the race:'

in 1980, i ran in my first and only 10k – a ‘race’ i’ll never forget.

i had been scheduled to go on a ski trip that weekend. it was my dad who was supposed to run in the san jose mercury 10k – more of a recreational event than an actual race. but when the ski trip needed another chaperone and a math competition got scheduled that same weekend, it made sense that we would switch places. he would chaperone the ski trip, and i would join the 10k with a couple of friends who had already signed up to run. in retrospect, maybe that wasn’t such a bright idea.

the switch happened late enough that i didn’t have time to train. but being 17 and in what i thought of as relatively good shape, i figured a short run wouldn’t pose any major difficulty. i imagined enjoying the sun, running and talking with my friends, laughing together along the way, and sprinting at the end to see which of us would cross the finish line first.

the day of the race, i put on my running shorts and shoes, and wore my sj mercury 10k t-shirt. i even had an official number, so that they could log my time and so that they could mail me the photo of my crossing the finish line. i looked the part. i was ready to go – like a lamb to the slaughter.

my friends came and picked me up, and we grabbed a box of donuts along the way. in retrospect, maybe that wasn’t such a bright idea, but at the time, it made sense. we needed energy, and i had read about long distance runners who would load up on carbs before a big race. the aroma of the fried dough and the sticky sweetness of the donuts made it a happy thing to be up so early. i was glad i had decided to run.

when we got out to the starting area, there was a huge crowd – thousands of people. it was one of those spaces where you couldn’t turn around without bumping into someone – or having someone bumping into you. i was glad that i wasn’t claustrophobic. some people were stretching; a lot of people were talking with friends and new acquaintances, and everyone seemed quite relaxed and ready for a fun time. i was surprised to feel a bit of anxiety rising in my heart as we got closer to the start of the race, but i was reassured to see people of every age and shape and size in the crowd.

somehow, i lost track of my friends, but i wasn’t too worried, as i figured we’d catch up to one another at the finish line. i noticed for the first time that there were signs that helped people to organize themselves by how fast they expected to run. it made sense for the faster runners to be at the front, the slower ones near the rear. i figured i’d be conservative and found the sign for 9 minutes per mile but i looked around and realized i was surrounded by people who were 80 years old or over 350 pounds. i knew that i hadn’t been training, but i figured i should be able to run a little faster than this group. so i decided to move forward. at the 8:30 sign, the crowd was like 70 years old and over 300 pounds. i kept moving forward past people with walkers, people in wheelchairs and some with very small children who were apparently going to run with them, looking for people who looked more like me – 8 minutes, 7.5 minutes.

i finally stopped at the 7 minute sign. in retrospect, maybe that wasn’t such a bright idea. i wasn’t much of a runner, and a typical mile for me might be 7 minutes. having to run more than 6 miles, it only made sense that i’d be a bit slower. but i figured everyone must be exaggerating how fast they expected to run. i decided to stick with this group.

the gun went off, and the race was on. i wasn’t pushing too hard, going at a nice, easy pace, and staying with my group – until we ran by the sorority houses over by san jose state. i don’t even remember making a decision to speed up. there were just a bunch of cute college girls, waving signs and cheering, and i found myself involuntarily moving into a higher gear. in retrospect, maybe that wasn’t such a bright idea. i motored past a number of folks in my group, some 3-4 times my age, and felt the rush of adrenaline as i soaked in the cheers of the adoring crowd. afterward, i was spent – and only 1 mile into the race.

i wasn’t sure how i was going to finish. truthfully, i was not in very good shape – remember, i had stayed behind for a math competition, not a track meet! i was getting passed by nearly everyone for the next few miles – senior citizens, people who were way overweight, the guys in the wheelchairs. the sun was baking me, and i wasn’t carrying any water. by the time i reached mile 4 – the place where they had the gatorade stand – i was so late that they were out of cups! i was so tired that i wasn’t even sure where i was or how to get back to the car. i figured the only way was to finish and find my friends (there were no cell phones back then). so i kept plugging along.

i ended up running with a guy who had brought his two young sons, probably 7 and 5 years old. they were running out of gas – tired, hot, and ready to quit. dad was urging them on in a positive way, encouraging them, exhorting them, explaining to them how great they were going to feel when they finished. i was running along behind them listening and trying to hold on to every word.

i managed to complete the race in just over 54 minutes – about 9 minutes a mile. am i glad i ran? in retrospect, maybe that wasn’t such a bright idea. at the finish, i was completely spent and probably suffering from heat exhaustion. i did find my friends, who had finished much earlier, and managed to stumble back to the car where i ate a couple of donuts and passed out in the back seat.

but thankfully, there’s something to learn in even the most ridiculous situations, and this one was no exception.
  • it’s a dangerous thing to judge a book by its cover – others or yourself. i knew that i was not much of a runner and that i was not in great shape, but i fooled myself into starting the race with the wrong group because i couldn’t get over how people looked. so be wary of judging by appearances.
  • training beats gifting. a 10k is not a long run, and if i had trained for even a month, i think i would have had a much better experience. the 80 year old guys that finished ahead of me weren’t more athletic than i was; they were just more prepared. the time you spend training is time well-spent.
  • keep moving forward, even if the going is slow. the old children’s story about the tortoise and the hare reminds us that a fast start is less important than the stamina to finish. and when circumstances aren’t ideal and even when you’ve made some bad choices along the way, sometimes you just have to keep moving forward toward the goal.
hard not to wonder if there's a lesson or two in there for my current situation...

let us run with endurance
the race that is set before us
fixing our eyes on Jesus
(hebrews 12:1-2)


BLW said...

this is a great speech. i wish i could have been there to hear it live!

gr8god said...

thanks, kid. i think people were pretty entertained for the most part.