Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Prayer Run

I did it! This past weekend, I ran my first ultramarathon, the inaugural 49K Ultra here in Anchorage. And thanks to your help, I made it, running it in 6 hours, 12 minutes and 18 seconds.

I say "thanks to your help" because I know that you were with me. In my last post, Come Run With Me, I shared that I was going to do this race as a prayer run, dedicating a mile to praying for each of the churches in the Alaska Conference. And I invited you to join me in praying for at least one church. For those who were able, I invited you to run, walk, jog, or bike a mile as they prayed.

I am thankful to all of you who joined me on this prayer run. I certainly felt your presence! And it definitely was helpful, especially at the points when I wanted to quit. Prayerfully thinking about the congregations, pastors and lay people helped keep my mind off the pain in my tired legs. And it motivated me to finish.

The prayer run took on a whole new meaning for me with a woman I met during the race. One thing I love about running is that you get to know people and because of the long hours and miles that you share, you develop a certain bond. I met Irina at mile 5 of the race. She was casually chatting with a couple of runners and since they were keeping a good pace, I decided to run along. We chatted about random things: the weather, the coastal trail we were on, Anchorage, running.

At mile 6, after water and Gatorade at an aid station, our two companions decided to dial down the pace a little but Irina wanted to keep pushing. I was still feeling good and so I joined her. We continued chatting, getting a little bit more personal. We shared our names, where we're from, where we live. Like me, she is an immigrant and now lives in Minnesota with her husband. She was in town just for the race. And like me, she was doing her first ultra (although unlike me, who signed up for this race months ago, she decided just that morning to switch from the regular marathon which she originally signed-up for to the ultra. I guess she was feeling really good that morning!)

Then we got to talking about why we ran. She said she loves the freedom that running gives, and how it clears her mind. I agreed. I asked her if she had always been a runner. She said no. She only started running to cope with the death of her son 9 years ago. She was running races as a way of honoring her late son who died in his youth. I said I was sorry and that I was joining her in honoring her son that day.

Then she asked me why I ran and I said it was mainly to stay fit but, like her, it was also a spiritual thing and a stress-reliever for my job. Then she asked me what I did and I said I was a pastor and that I was doing the race that day as a prayer run for UM churches in Alaska. Her eyes brightened and she said, "Would you pray for my son?!" With tears in her eyes, she went on to share that her son committed suicide at 25. And to make things worse, when she went to ask the clergyperson of her church to bless her son and do a memorial service for him, she was denied because of the way in which he died. They wouldn't even let her light candles at the church in his honor. That is why she asked me if I would pray for her son! All these years, she was bearing all that pain of loss and rejection and trying to cope with it through running.

I said "Yes, I will pray for your son." I reminded her of God's grace and love that was available for everyone. She thanked me and said, "Now I know why I switched to the ultra. If I had stuck with the marathon, I wouldn't have met you because it starts an hour later." I couldn't agree more (although I think even if she did the marathon and started an hour later, she would have still caught up to me.)

Soon we lost each other in the crowd of other racers. Irina picked up a fast-paced pack and stayed with them. I settled down to a more manageable pace and got back to praying for the churches. The course had a couple of turnarounds, so I had a few more chances to exchange high-fives with her later in the race. But I was sure she would already be gone when I finished, lost in the crowd of runners and spectators at finish line. I was just thankful for the chance to meet her and share a few, grace-filled miles.

I was pleasantly surprised when I saw her after I crossed the line. She had waited for me to congratulate me for finishing and to thank me for praying for her son. The picture here was taken right as I finished. I introduced her to my wife Radie and the boys. After the photo-ops, we exchanged email addresses, congratulated each other and said goodbye.

There are many among us like Irina, in our schools, places  of work, communities and churches. With the death of Robin Williams, the spotlight has been trained yet again on those who have taken their own lives because it seemed to be the only choice left. We focus on the victims almost forgetting that in the wake of such tragic deaths are loved ones and families who are left with burdens of grief and rejection. Yes, there is work to be done to prevent suicides from happening. But there is also work to be done in reaching out to those who have been left behind. You and I can walk with them. You and I can run with them.

Friend, if you know of someone who is struggling with the loss of a loved one due to suicide, I invite you to walk with them and remind them of God's grace. And if you are struggling with the painful death of a loved one who committed suicide, please know that I and many others are willing to walk with you. You are not alone. We are with you. And more importantly, God is with you.

Irina, thank you for sharing your story with me and for giving me permission to write about you. You will be in my prayers. It was an honor sharing a prayer run with you.


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