Finish the Race
A lesson from a 37th-place runner

If you knew someone else had already come in first, would you still be dedicated and determined enough to finish the race?

Thirty-two years ago in the 1984 summer Olympics, the women’s marathon made its debut. Prior to that time, the grueling 26.2-mile run was only for men. The original Olympic Games never had such long-distance races; they were added to the Athens Games in 1896—but only for men.

In 1984, women could compete in this Olympic event for the first time. It would prove if the critics were right or wrong. Was the race too hard—was it too grueling to finish?

The history of the marathon dates back to the battle of Marathon in 490 bc, between the Greeks and the invading Persian army. After the Greeks were victorious, a messenger ran from the battleground at Marathon to Athens—a distance of about 25 miles—to deliver the news of the important Greek victory. It was such a grueling run that after making his announcement, legend says the exhausted messenger collapsed and died.

If the history of the marathon started with the victorious messenger’s death, would it be a dangerous race to reenact?

The critics were watching—the world was watching—to see if the marathon was too grueling and too hard for women. Could they too have the dedication and determination to finish such a grueling race?

Could you?

At the 1984 L.A. Olympics, the skeptics would have their answer.

The images from the women’s marathon will forever be etched in the minds of those who watched in the stadium and on tv.

It is not the image of Joan Benoit who crossed the finish line in 2:24:52, nearly four minutes ahead of her nearest competitor. That first-ever Olympic women’s marathon winner was overshadowed by the 37th-place runner’s final lap. Her example teaches us an important lesson about finishing the race.

Andrew McDonald, author of a sports blog about the greatest Olympic moments, wrote this about the final minutes of the race:

“… [R]oughly 24 minutes after Benoit had entered the final lap, the Swiss runner [Gaby] Andersen-Schiess staggered into the tunnel leading to the main stadium’s track. Cap in hand and drenched in perspiration, she began a painfully cruel yet truly Olympic final 400 meters, cheered by the crowds as she lurched towards the finish line.

“With the final straight and finish line ahead, she kept slowly limping on, her white cap … shading her drawn and anguished face. Officials beside the track stood back as doctors observed her sweating, noting she wasn’t actually in heat stroke. … Waving away offers of assistance, [Gaby] Andersen-Schiess wavered from one lane to the next, veering close to the orange cones marking the outer side of the race track, then almost hunched over, veering back again to the inner side. The distance narrowed: five meters … four … three … two … then with a final stagger into lane two, she crossed the finish line, to be greeted by first one then three white uniformed Olympic officials. In coming 37th, Gaby Andersen-Schiess had not won any medal, but she had conquered the 42,195 meters of the first women’s Olympic marathon. Plus, she had marked this particular event for history with her brave efforts to not just start but also to finish the race.”

You can watch the video of that dramatic finish, and you too will be filled with emotion from seeing the dedication and determination of one runner striving to finish the race.

There are multiple sports references in the Bible. Most of them revolve around running, but there are some references to boxing and wrestling too. The Apostle Paul was aware of the sports culture of his day, and he used many of these references to help communicate spiritual concepts to the brethren of his day that can still inspire us.

In 1 Corinthians 9:24, he wrote, “Know ye not that they which run in a race run all, but one receives the prize? So run, that ye may obtain.”

We run to win. Winning a physical race helps you develop character; you have to push hard and really run to obtain the prize. But by extension, Paul is also talking about a spiritual race with a spiritual finish line. A physical race has only one winner, but everyone who crosses the spiritual finish line wins—and wins big. The first place ribbon goes to Christ—He is the first of the firstfruits (1 Corinthians 15:20, 23). By finishing the race first, He set an example that we all should follow.

As Paul exhorted the brethren, keep running! Don’t give in—don’t get discouraged. Be dedicated. Be determined—you have a crown waiting at the finish line.

In verse 25, Paul continues the running analogy: “And every man that striveth for the mastery is temperate in all things. Now they do it to obtain a corruptible crown; but we an incorruptible.”

When you are an athlete, you really have to be temperate, as Paul says. The word “temperate” means “to exercise self-restraint (in diet and chastity).” This world doesn’t exercise self-restraint in anything. Everyone seeks their own pleasure, not considering the consequences their actions will have on themselves or others. To be true winners in this race toward a spiritual crown, we have to put some limits on ourselves. We have to be dedicated and determined to win; discipline and self-restraint are essential. The world’s lack of self-restraint and its spirit of competition bring only temporary physical medals, trophies and fame. We are striving for an everlasting crown—an “incorruptible crown.”

This spiritual race is more like a marathon than a sprint. We can’t start with a quick sprint and burn out before the end. We just have to keep running. Daily, we have to run. Daily, we have to keep moving. Daily, we have to have the dedication and determination to just keep going.

When you run, you compete more against yourself than anyone else. You have to obtain your own crown. Sure, there are others in the race, but you have to do your best to cross the finish line. You have to be dedicated and determined, or you might give up along the way. There may be obstacles—you may stumble—but you have to get up and finish the race.

Do we have enough dedication and determination to go the distance? Do we have enough gas in the tank to finish the race? We have to truly count the cost (Luke 14:28). And once we start, we have to finish. God is our coach, and He wants us to finish the race.

Gaby was full of the necessary dedication and determination. Dedication is the quality of being committed to a task or purpose. She was truly dedicated to finishing the race. Determination is the quality that makes you continue trying to achieve something that is difficult. Gaby was determined to finish the race without assistance, even though it was so difficult. At one point in the video, Gaby can be seen putting her fingers on her temples as if trying to keep herself focused on the homestretch. We too need that kind of dedicated focus.

Can you imagine running a race where there are hundreds of athletes competing, and you are staggering to the finish line? The tens of thousands in the crowd give you a standing ovation as you finish the final lap of 400 meters. Gaby’s time didn’t matter. She finished the race.

We are about to enter the spiritual stadium for our own final 400 meters around the spiritual track. As Mr. Armstrong often said, we are in the gun lap. The finish line is just ahead.

We have tens of thousands of spiritual fans—the righteous angels—cheering us on. Our spiritual Coach is urging us forward, reminding us of Philippians 4:13—“I can do all things through Christ which strengtheneth me.” We won’t make it by our own effort.

In Hebrews 12:1, Paul uses running a race as an analogy for our spiritual marathon: “Wherefore seeing we also are compassed about with so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which doth so easily beset us, and let us run with patience the race that is set before us.”

The first runner is already across the finish line. But He is just the first; there are many more to come. Will you be one of them? Will I be one of them?

As you stumble and fall, keep running. As you face struggles day to day, keep going. As you see the finish line just ahead, keep moving forward, no matter what. Be dedicated, be determined—and finish the race!