I ran hurdles in high school. I wasn’t fast enough to be a true sprinter, and I weigh too much to be a decent long-distance runner. So I opted for the one kind of race that required as much technique as it did sheer muscle. The 110-meter hurdles is a sprint race of sorts that’s over in twenty seconds or less. But standing between the starting blocks and the finish line are ten 36-inch-high bars every racer needs to clear.
Hurdling requires the starting speed of a sprinter but also the clean form of a high-jumper. Clipping one of the barriers even a little will cost precious tenths of a second in a runner’s finish time. So form becomes almost more paramount than speed, and I could do that. I could learn form if it meant I could be fast.
The first year I ran, I hit every hurdle in my lane. It’s a quick way to get disqualified from a race if the judge decides you were trying to gain an advantage by “stepping down” the obstacles. I wasn’t trying to gain an advantage—I just had terrible form. An early misstep in practice left me with a bad sprain in my lead leg and I developed a fear-based mental hitch that refused to allow my leg to come up the full height it needed to. But I ran any way, got disqualified from half my races, and learned a lesson in humility.
The next year, my hurdler buddies helped me start over the from the beginning—just get over one hurdle without touching it. I tried and succeeded, but it meant I had no form all of a sudden. And, as frustrating as it felt, that was actually good. I began the long process of unmaking bad habits and forging good ones.
That track season forms one of my fondest memories of high school. I managed to clean my form up enough to become competitive in my races. I was the fastest runner out of the blocks in any track meet and, with better form, I could hang with the other hurdlers for much longer. But best of all, I had my own Eric Liddell moment that year.
The meet was against our school’s rivals—a team that’d beat us nearly every year no matter how good we seemed to be. I ended up in the middle of the track next to a runner from the opposing team who was known as a fairly dirty racer. This race was no exception.
The gun sounded and I was the first out of the blocks and over the first hurdle. My lead lasted for only the first three hurdles before the other racers caught up—including the guy next to me. As he passed, he clipped his hurdle a split second before I leapt mine, knocking it into my lane. Before I knew it, I was on the ground, my face planted in the all-weather rubber of the track.
My dad tried to attend my track meets whenever he could. My school was poor, though, and we didn’t have our own track to host meets, so that meant we traveled all over the district and state for our meets. Whenever we competed against a more local team, my dad would be there. Rarely did I notice. He’d slip in right before I raced (the 110-hurdles are one of the first events in a track meet) and then stand at the fence. I’d often see him just as I was crawling into my blocks, but at this meet against our rivals, I didn’t know he was there.
I didn’t, that is, until I heard him nearly screaming at me from the fence as I lay face-down on the track.
“GET UP, JED! GET UP! BEAT THAT GUY! BEAT HIM!”
It was all I could hear. My dad’s voice challenging me to not give up. To get up and finish the race. To beat the guy who’d knocked me down.
So I stood up. I hopped over the next hurdle to give myself a running start and fell into the hurdler’s rhythm of three steps and a quick snap of the leg to clear the next bar. And then the next one. And the next. The back of the racer who’d knocked me down filled my vision and my dad’s voice filled my ears. I had a goal and I had an encourager.
I didn’t win that race. But I did beat the guy next to me over the last hurdle and across the finish line. The celebratory shout from my dad was all the reward I needed. Despite the setback, despite my struggles the year before, I’d run hard and finished the race. And my dad told me I’d done a good job.
Sometimes I wonder if that’s the picture the author of Hebrews had in mind while writing the opening of chapter twelve. The Christian life we live, we live knowing that Jesus went before us and that others have finished well. We can let our king fill our vision and tune our ears to the cheering voices of the saints that have gone before. No race is easy. And in this Christian life we’ll end up on our faces more often than not. We’ll trip ourselves, others will trip us too. But we have the hope of Jesus who’s finished and the challenge of those who’ve gone before us.
In the end, it doesn’t matter how we cross the line or when. What matters is the Father who’ll stand at the finish line waiting to tell us we’d done a good job. But until then, get up, start again, and look to Jesus.