For four kilometers I’m alone, just the way I like it.
There are many senses in which I’m not at all alone, actually. There are hundreds running this ten-kilometer stretch of the 2013 Basel Marathon with me today. Among these hundreds are fifteen coworkers and friends, with whom I drove down here this morning from Kandern. But I can’t see any of them right now, so it doesn’t matter. Wrapped in the dual solitudes of foreignness and competition, I’m alone with my thoughts as I run down steep, cobble-stony streets and past timbered halls older than my country.
Some days it still feels like summer in this corner of the world, a wine-soaked bowl of sunlight between the Rhine and the Black Forest, but this morning nudged us into autumn. Though it’s no longer early morning in Basel, fog clings like a bright, damp veil to the city. I turn a corner and sprint down a hill, past well-outfitted fellow runners, running through streets just a little less colorful than they were a few months ago, fading toward their final blazes of glory. It’s a delightful morning to be running alone.
I’m ruining the metaphor, I know. Ever since Paul appealed to his Greek readers with references to race-running in his epistles, running has been the go-to sermon illustration for pastors everywhere. With its perseverance and delayed rewards, its goals and dramatic finishes, I understand the symbolism, nodding my inspired agreement when I read these verses. But I know I’m a poor example, choosing solitude over solidarity almost every time.
I’ve heard often about the value of running in a team, the exhortative power of a body of runners spurring one another to greatness. “If you want to run fast, run alone,” said one of my German Upward Bound Students to me, a few summers ago, before he finished in pithy triumph: “But if you want to run far, run together.” There’s beauty in that, as I remember from the leaf-strewn afternoons of high school cross-country. But high school was a while ago; now I want to run alone.
Which is why I’m less than thrilled when, somewhere in the fourth kilometer, one of my teammates catches up to me. I wouldn’t have minded if she’d beat me, out of sight and ahead the whole time, but this catching up is a different business. Even as the least competitive of a non-competing family, I’d rather the defeat not transpire right in front of me.
Still, I realize quickly that she’s not slowing down, this skilled colleague and secret running genius. “Not being beaten” is not a matter of passing her on a downhill and speeding off. She’s fast and tenacious. I’ll have to keep running, and quickly, for another half of a race.
I’m briefly disappointed, picking up my pace as it occurs to me that this might be my fastest 10K ever. I wanted to run alone. I didn’t want to compete. Now I am.
Yet somewhere around kilometer seven–when the ancient hills of the Old City have melted into some dreadful flat industrial yards to the north–I realize that this is nothing but good. I’m still running just behind my teammate, but my strengths have run out. I’m from the Northwest, a well-trained runner of up and downhills. Here in the flats, I’m useless, easily bored by the lack of topography. But a few steps ahead of me runs a Texan, skilled lover of the flats, firmly and steadily pacing us along this hill-less wasteland.
We push each other. We’ll acknowledge it later, when medals are handed to us just two tenths of a second apart, that we challenged one another the whole race through. She clipped us through the flats when I was discouraged; I pulled us up and down the hills when she was weary. Either way, we were both faster together than we would have been alone.
As I round the final corner, I realize that this is how we live in Christ, not competing with those around us, but running with them, often to the benefit of both. I see it in our school, a place where we’re constantly speeding up and slowing down to match pace with those we teach. I see it in community, as we learn to listen and speak the languages of those around us. I see it in the beginning of a marriage–still three months away–the way in which we use our gifts to serve one another.
It’s not competition, this running together; it’s community. Crossing the finish line, with a teammate just in my peripheral vision, I’m glad for the first time that I haven’t run alone.