Thursday, October 22, 2015

Running the Chicago Marathon & Why I Believe In Redemptive Suffering

I could never run a marathon. Heck, I couldn't even run a mile.
This is what most people tell me.  And what do I tell them?
 Yes, yes you could.
But, I don't say those words just to be kind, or because it's the polite response. I say them because I mean them.  And I mean them, because I believe them. And I believe them, because I have seen them to be true with my very own eyes.

Those "I could never run a mile" people were right beside me, and even up ahead of me at the Chicago Marathon.  They were ordinary people, just like you and me, all ages, all shapes and sizes, all abilities and strengths, putting one foot in front of the other one mile at a time.

Sometimes I think people have a stereotype of who runners are, and especially what they look like. But go and stand along the course of any race, and those stereotypes will be shattered.

Running a marathon really isn't all that special.  What is special is the reason why people run.  There's always that select few that are out there just for sport, to add another medal to their collection, to shatter a PR, to attain bragging rights, or the 26.2 bumper sticker badge of honor.

But, in my experience, those people are truly the minority.  The majority of us submit ourselves to eighteen long weeks of training inspired by reasons far bigger than a race, far bigger than ourselves.

Over the long, demanding weeks of training, I became very attached to those "reasons,"  because I carried them with me, every day, every mile.  Friends and family battling cancer, friends whose children who are fighting cancer, my husband and everyone out there who is enduring the horrors of lyme disease, the women who are contemplating abortion and those who suffer the traumas of abortion....the list of intentions that crossed the finish line with me was long, but I loved every one of them, and they became the very reason that I made it to the end.

It probably sounds strange to run for sake of others.  How can this even be possible? How can an intention be transformed into something tangible, something real? Redemptive suffering is a great mystery and no small topic to try to unravel.  I think it's best explained through the evidence of action rather than words.

At the Oklahoma City Memorial Marathon I was humbled at the sight of a group of firefighters who ran the entire marathon in full gear.  Full. Gear.  Why didn't they just wear a fire fighter t-shirt, shorts and comfy shoes like the rest of us? They didn't do the easy thing, because, the easy thing was not enough.  

There's something within each of us that longs to unite ourselves to the suffering of others - it goes deeper than compassion, deeper than empathy, deeper than writing a check or donating to a cause. It's the willful, purpose-filled sacrifice, the taking up of the cross and placing it upon our own shoulders out of love for our brothers and sisters.

This is what Christ did. He did not wave a wand and say I have come to set you free.  He paid for our freedom, by willingly submitting himself to the agony of the cross. When we witness this kind of love, we cannot question it, nor deny it.  The desire that lies within each one of us to suffer for the sake of others, is Christ alive in us.

This is the mystery, that we can participate in His fount of love and mercy through our own suffering. And, that participation has the power to redeem not only others, but ourselves as well.  To share in the cross is indeed a mystery, but no less a gift, a very powerful gift.

For me, the discipline it takes to train for and run a marathon - the injuries, pain, and exhaustion - every ounce of it is an offering for particular intentions.  I can attach the physical sacrifice of running to my prayers, and those prayers are given a weight that deepens the intention.  A weight that they did not have before.

This unification of prayer and sacrifice doesn't just have to be in the form of running, it can be offered through any sport, through the sacrifice of time to volunteer, through fasting from food, television, Starbucks drive-thru -whatever it is that is sacrificial to you.  This is the beauty of humanity.  We are compassionate givers by nature, but the root of that desire to give is Christ alive in us, it's His grace at work, and He receives, with great joy, every tiny little bit of the offering we lay before him for the sake of others.

Last spring I was beginning to enjoy running more than ever.  This was a special joy for me, especially after having six children! It was then that I decided to sign up for the Chicago Marathon, a race I had wanted to run since college.

Also driving my ambition was the knowledge that I would be turning forty in October, the month of the race.  This was my way of telling the forties where to stick it!

When the time for the marathon finally arrived, my heart was aflame with gratitude, excitement and nerves.  I could not believe the goal I had set years ago was finally going to be actualized.  The morning of race day could not have been more beautiful.

At the half-way point of the race, I was under the two hour mark and confident that I would meet my goal finishing time.  Just one mile later, my confidence began to wither, as I could feel the ache of an old hamstring injury beginning to fire up.

No, no, no, not now.  You're fine.  You've got this, Susan.  Just keep going. You're fine.

Despite my mental pep-talks, the pain did not go away go away.  In fact, it worsened with every step. From mile fifteen on I decided to stop and stretch at every water station from that point to the finish. Resigning myself to reality, I shut my watch off, and let go of the goal time.

It became my mission just to finish.

Seeing Steve and the boys at mile 21 was such an incredible boost.  I ran over, threw my arms around Steve and fought back tears as I told him that my leg was on fire, and that I didn't know if I could finish.  He hugged me tight and told me to remember why I was running.

His words were everything.

Those reasons why I was running, the very people I wanted to help through my prayers and sacrifice helped me get to the finish.  They were my focus and motivation.

So, maybe you don't think you could run a mile....but I say you can!  And, I hope that if you do, and if you can find your reason for running that mile, and the next and the next, that you discover all of the blessings and joy that can come for running for reasons bigger than yourself.

I'd like to say thank you to everyone who was praying for me the day of the race, and also to those of you who took the time to message me good wishes.  
Your thoughtfulness was a great source of strength for me!

A little album of our journey to Chicago...

That guy behind us? That's the running stereotype I'm talking about.  Those speedsters make up about 0.043% of the running population.  I calculated it myself.

The day before the race we went to the marathon expo so that I could check in and pick up my race bib.  The expo was HUGE, the atmosphere was full of energy, and I think the boys were surprised at how many people were there - it was crazy! The highlight was seeing Team Hoyt - my all time favorite, most inspiring running story ever.

One of the most creative displays at the expo were the giant metallic block letters that spelled out WE RUN CHICAGO.  They transported the signed words to the finish line, it was an awesome display!  
Steve and I had to stand next to the "H" of course!  Do you like his shirt? I think it's been in my last five blog post.  We may have an issue here.  I promise, he does have other options in his closet.  My teen boys might be rubbing of on him, oh no!
After the expo experience, we treated the boys to the famous Chicago pizza.  I admit I cried tears of self-pity in my gluten free spaghetti while watching them shamelessly sip soda and beer with pizza sauce and cheese stuck to their chins.  These are the moments when running is stupid. 
The afternoon offered time for one big tourist event before Holy Mass.  We let the boys choose where to go, so we headed to the Museum of Science and Industry.
I was really blown away by the various fascinating exhibits at the museum.  Our favorite, though, was the feature exhibit on robots.  Andrew had a blast playing tic-tac-toe with this one.  I dont' have any pics of Ben - he's a camera dodger like his mama. But, he was there, I promise!
The evening before the marathon, we attended Holy Mass at Holy Name Cathedral.  This picture does not capture the beauty and magnanimity of the church's architecture.  After the homily, the priest gave all of the runners a special blessing.  I was really moved by his encouraging, faith-filled prayer over us.  His words completely affirmed my experience of running being spiritual.
Race morning was intense.  There's just no way to anticipate how grand the scale of this race is.  With 45,000 runners trying to stretch, fuel up, check their bags, and hit restrooms before the race, the atmosphere at the park was pretty chaotic.  This was my view at the start of the race.
Touring the city by foot was such a treat.  There was never a lack of visual interest. Chicago truly is a beautiful place to run.  Around mile thirteen we ran by a Planned Parenthood Clinic. Everything became silent for me at that moment.  I prayed so hard for the next few miles....
The entire race was charged with an indescribable energy.  With 1.2 million spectators attending, there wasn't even the slightest stretch of roadway lacking enthusiastic supporters cheering us on.  

I had heard that Chicago is a crowded race, but I didn't think it would be crowded the entire way, yet it was.  This was the only aspect of the race I did not enjoy.  Having people constantly surrounding me at close proximity made it hard for me to relax and catch my stride.

Steve bought me a really nice pair of wireless headphones for the race as a surprise, but I didn't use them for long, because the course was very loud, and there was music playing at almost every mile.
Trying to navigate the city by car along the route was nearly impossible, because so many roads were blocked off.  Steve and the boys had the brilliant idea to rent bikes and ride them to the various spots where they wanted to cheer for me.  I was so happy to get to see them four different times during the race, and they were happy to get a grand tour of some of the most historic and beautiful spots in the city!
At the finish line, I was really limping, and a very kind older gentleman (around 70, I'm guessing) offered to help me to the medical tent.  I was really touched by his kindness - especially since I wasn't the only one limping.  Thankfully, rest and a hefty dose of ibuprofen was all I really needed. When I look at this picture, I see the joy on my face is truly supernatural considering how much pain I was in. God is so good!!
My most precious "reason" of all to run. Keep the prayers coming - I hope that after my next marathon I can say that Steve has beat Lyme!


  1. You got me weeping!! What a beautiful post and what an incredible woman you are!!! Such an inspiration for me!!!

    1. Nell, I know that your husband is a runner, too. I understand well, the sacrifices that you make so that he can train. The good news is, when your children are older and can help out more, things will get easier. I couldn't set such big goals without family support. You deserve much credit, too! :)

  2. You are amazing, Susan, simply amazing. This is so beautiful!

  3. Congrats on your marathon finish! I am sorry that it was so hard, but you certainly had the right attitude. You helped so many people.

  4. Ah, Susan, this was beautiful. I had never, ever been able to wrap my head around redemptive suffering, but you explained it very well. The example of the firefighters was spot on.
    While I have never had the desire to run a marathon, my husband has done many, as well as more extreme races. Every single time I am astounded by the people not only participating, but doing well at these races. Seriously, there is no such thing as a "typical" runner.
    Congratulations on finishing your race. What a great experience for you, but also for your boys.

    1. Thank you, Christine! One of the best parts of running in or watching a marathon is seeing all of the incredible people fighting to get to the finish line. They are an inspiration! Your husband is lucky to have your support. ;)

  5. Beyond proud of you dear friend. Just beyond. You've always been a superhero in my book. Why does Kansas have to be so far away? LOVE from Tejas!

    1. It's time to plan a girls weekend! I miss you, friend!

  6. I am in awe, what an amazing accomplishment!

  7. Susan, this was so beautiful. Your journey to your marathon, reasons, sharing in redemptive suffering...all of it and more. I'm with Nell and def had tears. The kind of tears that are hard to pinpoint. If I had to guess, I would say they are about how inspiring you are, your heart is, and the seriously beautiful joy that truly was on your face as you crossed that finish line. You're glowing! Continued prayers for you and your family. All of you are such gifts!

    1. Also, Happy belated Birthday! :D

    2. Thank you, Amanda! Your prayers are what keep us going from day to day.

  8. Hi Susan,

    I met you briefly at Edel this past July 2015 so I don't know if you remember me :) Anyway, I wanted to say CONGRATULATIONS on your marathon! What an inspiration! I love how you used this great event as a spiritual journey! I'm glad you are feeling better too! I ran my first half marathon several years ago and it was a great feeling to finish! God bless!

    1. Thank you, Tracy! I do remember you! Are you still running?

  9. What a tribute to the importance of participating in the cross...and that you did our dearest Susan!
    We're so very proud of you! May the graces continue to flow and overflow for those in need, for you and for all of your family. Blessings!!

  10. So so proud of you Susan!! You are definitely an inspiration. I know how hard it is to train with 2 kiddos, you have seriously got to do some multitasking to get your training in! Our families definitely need some serious props. My hubby dragged my kids, my parents and my neices around DC, that deserves a medal if you ask me!! Congrats!

  11. Beautifully written! I, too, used to run marathons after always being the kid who "hated to run in gym class," and who always had trouble losing weight or feeling good in those teen years. I started in college. Attending Boston College and living right on the Boston Marathon route was indeed an inspiration. After my freshman year I started running, and by sophomore year, I ran the Boston Marathon for charity! You're right that there are so many inspiring stories. One that inspired me was a priest who is probably still running Boston. They asked him how he managed all of those miles so many years in a row? His answer: the rosary. Incredible! Your dedication to marathon running as a mom is also an inspiration. While I am nowhere close to marathon shape anymore, I realize I can get back to that someday (even if just to feel good and healthy) and to look at it now from a deeper faith perspective, about what suffering means to us as Catholics and how I can incorporate that in training. Thank you for your story, and congratulations!


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