The Uphill Mile

By Caleb Paxton

On the first day of spring, the sky scattered six inches of snow across Northern Virginia. Despite the peace of another wintery morning, it seemed as if the wait for summer would last forever. And when you’re hoping for summer but outside looks like the inside of a Narnian wardrobe, it’s best to take the adventure that comes to you.

After several hours of work, I ventured outdoors to the trails below my fourth-floor window for a seven-mile snow run. At the time I was training for an ultramarathon, a 50-kilometer race up and down hills along the Potomac.

I love to run. Waking up early to run with the trails through old forests while fog sleeps stretched across the landscape is exhilarating.

In every endurance challenge, exhaustion kicks in like a planned sickness. As runners, we reimagine the rhythms of our lives to push through training and eventually finish the race, regardless of how we feel. In training, we focus on perfecting the weekend routine. Eat less of this, and more of that. Go to bed earlier. Save your favorite running clothes for the weekend long run. To run a race well, we listen to our bodies to adjust the pace, fuel, and hydration. We stay present—finishing the distance is the only thing that matters. We press forward knowing endurance will lead us to the finish line.

Race day for the 50k came, ushered in by spring rain throughout the preceding days. I chose shoes that fit beautifully but were never meant to provide traction in mud. After sliding through the first few miles, I realized that the only thing on my mind was staying upright in the muck. No matter how arduous the route, that’s perhaps one of running’s greatest paradoxes: the simple, focused task of endurance creates a constant state of rest. We keep running, and our minds are renewed regardless of how much resistance our bodies feel.

That’s why I love to run, and in this particular race, my thoughts were often prayers of gratitude for the ability to join the pursuit.

Just as it’s possible to love endurance running, it’s also possible to love reordering our lives around knowing God and the inevitable kingdom pursuits that follow. When the kingdom of God becomes our greatest treasure, actions we once thought of as discipline and sacrifice become prayers of gratitude for the gift of participating in the renewal of all creation.

It is, of course, easier to endure a clearly marked trail for six hours than it is to live with the ambiguity of hoping for what we do not see, for a kingdom that isn’t yet fully present on earth. But just as we listen to our bodies on the trail, even when the finish line feels as if it is a million miles away, we can be led by the Spirit of God and “run with patience the race that is set before us.”

It is, of course, easier to endure a clearly marked trail for six hours than it is to live with the ambiguity of hoping for what we do not see.

There’s no way it’s not cliché to quote this verse here, but it communicates a mental state I wouldn’t understand without distance running. It’s an ability to keep listening to your surroundings, move forward, and rest all while fighting exhaustion. It’s the ability to love running in fresh powder on the first day of spring when you’d rather every day be lived at the pool in June. It’s the clarity of a whisper in a snowy, stone-cold forest that “Aslan is on the move.”

I think endurance is a much closer synonym to joy than happiness. And I’m convinced real joy looks a lot more like a sweaty and breathless “thank you” to a volunteer offering you a clementine at mile marker 19 than a pursuit of pain-free happiness. Real joy isn’t what we feel watching an Olympic marathon with our friends, it’s what we experience when we take up our own quests of endurance—regardless of who cheers us onward.

I think endurance is a much closer synonym to joy than happiness.

In The Cost of Discipleship, Dietrich Bonhoeffer highlights Peter’s risk of stepping out onto the sea. He says that without a definite step of obedience, the call to follow Christ “vanishes into thin air,” and that “if men imagine they can follow Jesus without taking this step, they are deluding themselves like fanatics.”

If our call to discipleship includes acts of restoration and reformation, the energetic beat at the start will quickly fade, and we will inevitably experience waiting, pain, and resistance—but in that tension we will also taste honest joy, or that mental state of endurance in which we can paradoxically find rest.

It’s also endurance that enables us to truly lead.

In the opening of Leadership on the Line: Staying Alive through the Dangers of Leading, Ronald Heifetz and Marty Linsky recount the story of Lois, a Native American who recognized that “nearly everyone older than twelve drank alcohol” in the villages of her small reservation. For years, every Tuesday evening she disappeared to the community’s meeting lodge. One night her children’s babysitter Maggie decided to go peek through the windows, and found “a big circle of chairs, all neatly in place, with Lois sitting in an empty chair by herself.”

Endurance that enables us to truly lead.

It took a decade of creating space for an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting before the room would fill, but finally the community responded—but not without Lois and eventually Maggie enduring years of ostracism, loneliness, and rejection.

In 2014, Eric and Lisa So, reformers highlighted in Nations Journal Volume 3, decided to move to a refugee community in Riverdale, Maryland. Their actions sharply contrast with the fear-based rhetoric of many American politicians. After years of planning, praying, and being present, today Eric is the lead pastor of Peace City Church, a place of refuge for anyone—immigrant, refugee, or stranger—looking for hope. What began as a vision is now a reality: a multicultural community of Jesus followers, including some who have fled violence.

There are people everywhere who are ready for the hopeful, enduring persistence of reformers. A passenger I picked up through a ride-sharing service spoke of his drug addiction, of beating it, of going to rehab in Ohio but finding the city where they sent him was just as desperate for relief from addiction as he was. In the background, I couldn’t help but notice the Arcade Fire song blaring over his life story:

They build it up just to burn it back down,

They build it up just to burn it back down

The wind is blowing all the ashes around

Without a call to follow Christ, the pain of the world leaves us without meaning and without hope, feeling like what we build is ashes at the start, like starting an endurance challenge without an agreed upon distance or destination. But when we refocus our lives on knowing God and his love, we begin an endurance race of restoration, deepening the mystery of the Incarnation, making the kingdom of God tangible.

There are people everywhere who are ready for the hopeful, enduring persistence of reformers.

To the ones who take the leap of obedience to rebuild lives when your illusions of happiness and success burn down, keep going! Keep listening to the Spirit of God despite rejection and loneliness, and stay on the trail, grateful to press onward as we endure whatever race distance we are called to run.

Here’s to grabbing a clementine and getting after that next uphill mile.