At the top, the sign said, “It’s all about getting over heartbreak.” With only a few miles left of the 2010 Boston Marathon, that sign at the top of Heartbreak Hill (which certainly deserves its name!) gave me something to think about. In many ways, yes: the Boston Marathon is “all about getting over heartbreak.” But there is so much more to the marathon than simply getting over heartbreak: there is the preparation, the good days, the bad days, the accidents, the answers we want, and the answers we don’t. Running long distances provides plenty of time to contemplate the meaning of life, which got me thinking: there are countless similarities between running a marathon and having a healthy romantic relationship.
Both running and relationships require a great deal of preparation, ongoing vigilance, and appropriate levels of downtime and recovery. Obviously, appropriate training and an ideal situation help your race (or relationship) along. But sometimes, even when the conditions are just right and you’ve trained dutifully, you still have to drop out. Just because you’re prepared doesn’t mean you’re ready. Although it is true that an athlete “is not crowned unless he competes according to the rules,” (2Tim:2-5), not every rule-abiding athlete can be crowned at every race. The end result is ultimately up to God. The only thing you can do is to prepare as much as you can and to pray.
The first and most important facet of preparing ourselves for running and for relationships is that you have to push through the pain, the monotony, and the doubts, no matter how hard it may seem. Your physical and spiritual muscles must be challenged (and therefore probably ache) in order for them to get stronger. It is so much easier in the long run (no pun intended) to keep up a habit, like running or praying, than it is to try to start over and over again. Checking in by doing time trials and receiving the Sacraments helps to keep us on the right path, and to teach us what areas we need to work on. Training with groups helps to encourage and to push us beyond our comfort levels to be better than we are. This is especially true when you’re faced with less than ideal training conditions, such as the eternal ice, snow and below-zero temperatures that encase Boston from December to March, or the many questions that bombard us everyday (“Is this the right person?” “Am I ready?” “What happens if I never find the right person?”). Running groups encourage and motivate us through the tough workouts, the brutally cold days, and the injuries. When you wear your team’s logo, be it a racing singlet or a cross, you become accountable to your teammates, not just to yourself. But who are our teammates when it comes to building relationships centered on the Church? For starters, spending time with other couples married within the Church allows us to see what we’re really getting into, the same way practice runs along a marathon course allow you to better understand how race day will feel. In case those couples aren’t enough help, we have the Saints, both married and single, to serve as role models and intercessors. Our spiritual mothers and fathers serve as coaches along the way, with Christ as the “Star Athlete,” as the Haile Gebrselassie of spiritual life, as the One whom we all strive to be. The Church then becomes our perfect training facility, our daily readings our perfect training guide.
The thing about Boston (and relationships), however, is that race day could dawn with any possible combination from a mixed bag of weather. It could be exceedingly hot, cold and snowy, howling winds and rain, or the picture perfect 52 degrees with overcast skies and a slight tail wind. If you’ve spent all winter training inside on a nice, flat treadmill, you’re not adequately preparing yourself for race day. The same is often true when preparing for and participating in relationships: if you aren’t willing to tough it out through some hard times (the disappointment when things don’t work out, the temptation to be with someone just to “be” with them) in order to develop a relationship that follows the Life of the Church, you aren’t going to be fully ready for a real relationship. Shakespeare’s right: “The road to true love never did run smooth.” You’ve got to be prepared for bumps.
In addition to training through the good and the bad, marathoners must prepare their bodies in other ways. Distance runners will often restrict the intake of certain foods during their training (alcohol, caffeine, foods that are too spicy) and make sure they get enough rest in order to keep their bodies in optimal shape. In a similar way, our spiritual life requires us to fast from certain foods and to spend enough time in meditation in order to keep our souls healthy. To save your muscles and joints while preparing for long distance races, it’s good to do some cross training. Workouts through cycling and swimming help strengthen your muscles while giving your joints a break, while weight lifting prepares your muscles for the pounding your body endures on race day. It also benefits our souls to “cross-train” by including a variety of activities within the Life of the Church through receiving the Sacraments, doing our daily readings, and participating in the services and activities our parishes provide. The most important training tip of all is knowing that mental preparation is key. You’ve got to be strong enough to fight those demons from mile 1 to mile 26.2, through spiritual deserts and over mountains of doubt. No matter how much training you endure, however, you are still at the mercy of many factors outside of your control: the weather, an unexpected family emergency, an illness, an injury, or those ever-debilitating leg cramps.
For me, January 16, 2010 was like any typical Saturday. In the morning, I met up with another teammate from my running club to go for a long run on the Boston Marathon course. Seventeen miles later, I was excited to enjoy a big lunch, a long shower, and a nap. Walking down the stairs later that afternoon, the rug at the bottom of the stairs slid under my foot, twisting it painfully. In typical Mediterranean fashion, I was too stubborn to think I had really injured it, so I took some ibuprofen and walked it off, telling myself it didn’t hurt that badly. When it started swelling and bruising later that night, and when I couldn’t put any weight on it the next morning, I knew I was in trouble. The diagnosis: I had a fifth metatarsal evulsion fracture, meaning I had to stay off of my foot completely for three weeks (which is no easy task when you teach preschool), and couldn’t run for another three after that, leaving me only seven weeks of training time before the gun went off in Boston. I was so angry that I had gotten hurt so stupidly that I cried for two days. How could this happen to me, who had never broken a bone, now of all times?! My heart was absolutely broken. The blow was comparable only to being abandoned by my college boyfriend over religion almost two years before: I had never seen it coming, and I couldn’t understand why God was punishing me for trying to do something good.
The thing is, in the end, God certainly wasn’t punishing me in either of those cases. I spent six weeks training in the local pool and on my bike (on a trainer in my basement, with hard-soled clipless shoes). It was far from fun and not at all what I had planned. But I learned to use those countless hours as a time to work on my prayer life, and it helped me to get back on the road. After having my heart broken and struggling through dating for a long time, I met a youth director at an IOCC meeting, who called me randomly several months later for what is turning out to be a more amazing relationship than I ever could have dreamed of. When you finally hit your stride, you feel like you could go on forever. You never know what God has in store for you, but I know for sure that He knows far better than I do. I know that He will always come through. After a broken foot for six weeks, countless tears, and the trials of training through the pain, I finished my first marathon in 4:00:17—only 20 minutes (and 17 seconds) shy of where I was hoping to cross the finish line. I’m in on a waiver from my club for the 2011 Boston Marathon, with a wonderful fiancé praying with and supporting me the entire way. So back on track I go with marathon training and struggling my way through the Life of the Church. My foot (or heart) could break again tomorrow, but I trust that God will help me through. So let us indeed “run with perseverance, the race that God has set before us” (Heb12:1), knowing that God has marvelous things in store for us across the finish line.