By Kim Justice
You have to understand. I'm not your tiny, athletic sort. When you think of all the athletic people you know, perhaps you think, "I'd sure like to have his muscles" or "Wow -- she makes spandex look good." I'm not one of those. And save for a couple of years clogging (that's right, it's like tap dancing to bad country music) and a season on my middle school soccer team, I've never done much of anything athletic. Curling up with a good book or a pair of knitting needles and some fab yarn is much more my speed.
Given all of this, when I announced that I had signed up for a quarter-mile swim, an 8.9-mile bike ride, and a 3.2-mile run, "triathlete" wasn't the first word on my loved ones' lips. In fact, I think the word that I heard most often when I announced my decision was "But." "But are you sure you can do that?" they would say. Or maybe "But you hate running!"
I signed up in April and the triathlon was in August, so I had about four months to get ready. My dad is a cyclist, and as a kid I did some riding with him, so that started coming back to me pretty quickly. The running and swimming parts were not so easy. As I trained, I held Paul's words "I beat my body, and make it my slave" (1 Cor. 9:27) in my head, and prayed for the day that would be true. It never was. My body fought me the whole way. Most days, muscles that I didn't even know existed hurt.
Many days, before the end of the workout of the day, I found myself praying -- mostly "Dear God (pant, pant), please get me through this (pant, pant)." Gradually, I guess I realized that I wasn't going to die from running or drown in the pool, and further realized that I had a lot of time on my hands. Though I'll admit that this prayer time came about for selfish reasons -- mainly that I was looking for something distracting enough to occupy my mind -- it became a strangely holy time. I began to live in the spirit of "praying without ceasing" (1 Thessalonians 5:17) and instead of praying the formal, stuffy prayers I had previously been praying, I simply began to talk to God. It's not that I dreaded my workouts any less, but I consoled myself by remembering how much I looked forward to that "talk time."
These conversations wound up filling what had become a deep void in my soul. As a second-year seminarian, I discovered I spent lots of time talking about God, and very little time actually talking with God. I reasoned it away, and told myself that my fifteen minutes of prayer time was adequate, because that's all I had. It finally dawned on me that my priorities were badly "out of whack" if I could give over so much time to training and couldn't find time to really pray.
The morning of the triathlon, I was up many hours before the sun would come up. I had eaten enough carbs to feed a small country, and had gotten a good amount of rest. I braided my hair, put on my swimsuit and warm-ups, and made sure everything was in the right bag so as to navigate the transitions successfully. As I was lacing up my sneakers, I prayed my familiar prayer, "Dear God, please get me through this." And I had to smile at how far I had come since I began praying that. Not that I was necessarily any more ready for a triathlon; I was simply much more ready to be in conversation with God.
Maybe there are better -- less agonizing -- ways to meet God, but God has this great capacity for meeting folks where they are. That's where I was -- and God showed up that day. We swam together, rode together, and ran together. We finished last in our class, but the day wasn't a waste. I got in pretty good shape, and reconnected with God. And besides, God looks pretty good in spandex.
This article was first printed by Hungry Hearts, a quarterly journal published by the Office of Spiritual Formation of the Presbyterian Church (USA) and is reprinted with permission.
Kim Justice is a 2007 graduate of Columbia Theological Seminary and serves as the pastor of Sherwood Presbyterian Church in Fayetteville, North Carolina. Kim and her husband, Donovan, have four "furry" children.