I ran the Austin Half-Marathon on February 16th. It started and ended on Congress Avenue in front of the Texas State Capital. It was a humid Sunday morning with temperatures in the mid-50’s that rose to almost 70F by noon. The run began with a gradual uphill climb north toward Highway 71, then the route reverses downhill south on First Street and crosses Lady Bird Lake. We headed west until we hit the lake again, then turned east and returned downtown. At mile 12, there was a steep downhill to Shoal Creek and then an agonizing last hill that led my tired body to the finish line after 13.1 miles of steady running.
I am a runner. Over thirty years ago, I ran my first marathon and it was not my finest hour. The experience resulted in my hiring a running coach. Nine months later, I flew to Washington D.C. and ran the Marine Corp Marathon. I went out too fast, bombed three miles from the finish, and missed going under 3 hours. Undeterred, I tried again three months later and ran start-to-finish in under 3 hours. I was hooked and went on to finish 24 marathons.
Although I don’t run marathons anymore, I still like to keep fit and be challenged. The half-marathon race is now my limit. As I looked around at the starting line, I noticed that I was in the minority; I was decades older than most of the other runners.
As I ran for almost two hours, my thoughts turned to community. It takes a community to put on a major race with over 16,000 runners. The organizational tasks are daunting: city approvals, sponsorships, security, medical, registration, merchandise, street closures, and monitoring results. Yet marathon races happen each year all over the world. As I ran, there were police keeping me safe. At every mile, there were water stations with volunteers handing out water. There were mile markers informing me of my progress and clocks telling me, sadly, how slow I was running. Medical personnel were stationed to assist runners.
I was never bored because crowds were yelling support and musicians played music for the runners. My fellow runners talked around me. I ran surrounded by runners struggling towards the same goal: running the race as fast as they were able. When I had to climb up those difficult hills, the crowds encouraged me as did my fellow runners. I often heard ‘thank you’ spoken to the police and volunteers. At the finish line, they announced the finishers and weary runners hugged each other as if they were lifetime friends, even though they had just met at the finish line. All finishers received race medals and were handed bottled water and food. My personal bag of belongings was safely stored and returned to me as I walked out of the finish area.
My wife met me several blocks away from the race area and whisked me home. After stretching, I took a bath, then drove to church for the morning service. Although I was sore and tired, I revived once the choir entered during the opening hymn and the church filled with music. The pastor preached on philia, the Greek word for brotherly love. The Scripture lesson was John 21:1-17. The resurrected Jesus met his disciples whose fishing during the night had been unsuccessful. Jesus directed them to cast their nets to the right side of the boat and after obeying, the nets filled with 153 large fish. After coming ashore, Jesus asked Peter three times, “Do you love me?” Peter affirmed it three times using the Greek word, philia, or brotherly love in English.
I reflected on the love I felt that morning in the Church – the community both inside my church building and outside. I had just run a race filled with philia: race organizers, police, trained medical professionals, volunteers, and fellow runners. I heard only words of kindness and love as we raced through Austin. There were different genders, races, ages, beliefs, income levels, professions, and political views. But as we struggled through the hills and many miles, the differences faded away and were fashioned into a common spirit of philia. “Do you love me?” I saw the positive answer each step along those 13.1 miles, when I crossed the finish line, and when I sang praises in my church.