by Sharon Simpson
The crowd is thick, the music pounding, the lights blazing and the energy is high. We find an elevated spot so we can see the chute above the crowds. One by one, each of the 2800 Ironman competitors enter the chute and run their final steps across the finish line. We are visiting Kona, Hawaii, the original location of the Ironman competition and happen to be here during the 17 hours of the grueling, physically demanding competition.
We stand and watch the athletes complete their race. After swimming 2.4 miles, biking 112 miles and running a full marathon of 26.22 miles, they are willing their bodies across the finish line. At the 8th hour, the professional Ironman male competitors cross the line – they are aiming for their personal best or to beat a challenging competitor. Then, the professional women with the same goal of improving, winning, gaining on the others. After the professionals come the well-trained amateurs. They were outstanding in their efforts. One had competed in every Ironman competition available around the planet in 2016.
A local woman crosses the finish line for the 40th time. A legend. Two sisters cross the line, arms wrapped around each other. Some have been given their country flag and it is wrapped around them for the last leg of their journey. The youngest and the oldest competitors cross the line – the youngest is 19 years old, the eldest, 85.
After the amateurs, come the determined. They have trained their bodies and they arewilling their minds to take step upon step upon step. Determined. Trained. Hurting and limping their way to the end. At this point, it’s a mental game to finish.
For the final half mile, there is a chute to run in. Carpet lines the street and barriers are put up around the chute to keep the crowds from pouring into the running lane. Fans and supporters crush against the barriers as they cheer the athletes to the very end of the race.
Each athlete has a tracker with them. As they approach the end of the race, their tracker indicates that they are coming to the finish line. Their name is displayed on a huge screen above the finish line. The finish line (which really isn’t much of a line). It’s more of a platform with large columns on either side, screens overhead and gigantic floral arrangements celebrating the end of their efforts. The athlete runs up a slight incline to the finish platform. Cameras are focused on them, television cameras are pointed at them and their name is announced fo all to hear.
For 18 years, every Ironman athlete’s name has been announced at the finish line by a man named Mike Riley. He began as a sports announcer who gave the crowd information about the race. This morphed into an announcement about each athlete as they stand on the finish line platform. One by one, Mike says, “…. YOU are an IRONMAN!” With a booming voice filled with pride and authority. The first athlete crosses the finish line in the 8th hour and the last one at hour 17. For nine hours, Mike Riley announces almost 3000 athletes.
We watch as athletes come across the line. Some collapse at the end. They take their final running steps up the slight ramp to the finish line platform, hear their name announced and fall down. Volunteers run to their aide. Some of them keep on running as though they can’t will their legs to stop. Volunteers put a necklace of KuKui nuts around their necks. They are given an Ironman towel, a tinfoil blanket to stay warm and a finisher’s medal. After watching the finish line for a few hours, we walk down the race course away from the crowds and the cheering. After the chute, there are roads that are blocked off for the athletes. All over the pavement, people have written the names of their loved ones in chalk, encouraging them to make it to the end. The streetlights are low and the race course becomes very dark. The crowds thin. Now, there are only people like us, walking and not paying much attention.
A mile from the finish line, the determined competitors are jogging slowly. Some are walking. Some are holding hands with their loved ones. Some are limping. Others are simply moving one foot in front of the other.
We call out to them, “two more corners and you’ll see the crowds”, “you’ve got this, you’ve only got one more mile,” “you’re almost there, you can do it.” It feels weird telling these incredible people that they will make it to the end. Who am I to cheer on an athlete? I’m no athlete myself.
Two miles from the finish line, there is an older man shuffling his feet. He is barely moving. It’s hour 13, so it doesn’t matter much how quickly he shuffles. He will make it. He has four more hours to run two miles. He’ll do it if he only keeps going. We call out from across the street, “two more corners and you’ll hear the crowds – you’ve got this” and then we notice his support team. They echo us, “you’ve got this pop.” Running alongside of him is his son… and then we notice the grandkids circling him as he runs. They’ll do 10 miles over his last 2 mile stretch. Around and around him they run.
I couldn’t help but think of how the Bible talks about our life as a race and our death as the finish line. It talks about our name being written in the Book of Life. It talks about a great cloud of witnesses who are cheering us on. It talks about disciplining ourselves to run with endurance, throwing off all that hinders us from running well. It talks about forgetting what lies behind us and pressing on to the end. It talks about the crown of righteousness that is awaiting us. It talks about not growing weary in doing good.
I couldn’t help but draw parallels of faithful followers of Christ and the Ironman competitors. The crowds, cheering and encouraging; the power of the supporters running or walking alongside. I thought about a recent passing where the children and grandchildren ran circles of encouragement in the final vigil of their loved one. I thought about the voice of Jesus announcing my name at the finish platform…. And how some might crumple in that moment and some might remain strong.
And so, today, this race is a picture of encouragement for those of you who have been running the race of faith and ministry with endurance… or as Eugene Peterson’s book title says, A long obedience in the same direction.
May this race be encouragement for you today. Keep running. You are running the race, faithful to the end. Running with the strength and encouragement of the Holy Spirit, the encouragement of your church and family support. You are running with the prize in mind and the knowledge that your name will be called, “You are a finisher! – You have fought the good fight! You have finished the race! You have kept the faith!”
Sharon Simpson is the Director of Communications and Stakeholder Engagement at Menno Place.