I ran my first track race last night – the John Gilmour 10km, named after a great Perth runner who held all sorts of age records well into his 70s. The track is brand spanking new, laid this year in preparation for the World Masters Athletics Championships in 2016.

There were two races on; one for sub-40 runners this year, and one for anyone who hadn’t clocked a sub 40 in 2015. The slower race was pretty big, but the fast race was shaping up to be the serious runners in Perth.

And me. 19 of us in total, so not a lot of places to hide. 17 blokes I had seen win stuff, and me and my mate Simon. Now Simon, though he wasn’t fully race fit, can give those speedy guys a run for their money when he is – he’s a 34 minute boy wonder when he’s up to it. He’d graciously offered to pace me at 3:47 per km and then see how we go.  Runner’s etiquette is that if you’re dying 6km in, it’s a case of “you go on without me!”  None of this jungle heroics during the battle for the South Pacific for us.

I’d seeded myself in the faster race because I wanted to get a good 38 minutes. My PB on the road is 39:05, run earlier this year. As a late-adopter of running, all my PBs are probably still ahead of me, but it still made for a tough ask on the night. However I figured I’d rather come stone cold motherless last in the fast race with a fast time, than a slow time and podium in the slow race.

Now I’m a morning runner, hardly ever run at night. And on top of that I rarely race as most are on Sunday mornings. Sundays are busy days, what with church set up, preaching and everything, so an evening race is possible, though it comes at a bit of cost.  But on the flip side I am in great shape, courtesy of three of the best months of training I have ever had, including  a casual 24 second PB for 5km on a training run. I was starting to strut!

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The pre-race smile (not to be confused with the post-race grimace)

I got one thing right.  I came in stone cold motherless last. Last and lonesome as it’s a track race on a 400m track, and if you do your sums then you’ll realise that someone only has to be about 3 minutes quicker over 10km than you to lap you twice, and when we’re talking the winner doing 31 minutes, then you get to be lapped a few more times than that.  That’s the nature of a track race for all comers: You’re gonna get lapped!

But I got one thing wrong.  My time.  I didn’t come close.  I sneaked under the 40 minutes, but having run the first 5km in 19, things went awry in the second half.  My kilometres ballooned way beyond normal and it was grit your teeth on an ever more lonely track, until it’s just you – me actually – running down the final straight by myself, wind in my, er, hair (?), and the clock winking a teasing 39:30 forty metres out from the line.

So I’ve given all the excuses and it probably wasn’t my day/night, but more than anything I think I got psyched out by being lapped.  I found myself constantly looking over my shoulder as the imperious and undoubted star of WA running, Roberto Busi, strode effortlessly around the track accompanied by various hangers-on. Busi has held nearly every distance record in Perth and having run road races that he is in, you generally get to see him three times; once at the start, once at the turn-around, and once at the finish when he’s having a Gatorade and laughing with the officials, having had a lazy ten minute chat waiting for you just to cross the line.

So with all those people lapping me I was getting cut in on, or wondering about track etiquette. Was it move to the right to allow them inside (which is the opposite of what you do on the road)?  Or was it move to the left if they are content on the straight to go outside?  I occasionally moved over thinking someone was on my hammer when they weren’t, and, more worryingly, failed once or twice to move at all when someone actually was. It became a bit of a dance – with as much pirouetting done in my head as by my legs.

Our run club coach, another Simon, is a church planter and the club’s motto is Run With Endurance (Hebrews 12).  It’s a great motto, raises lots of conversations with people, and highlights so many things about running and the Christian life.  But remember that next bit? “Run with endurance…THE RACE THAT IS SET BEFORE US.”

I think that’s where it went wrong.  I stopped running the race set before me, and started thinking about everyone else’s race.  Once distraction set in, things tailed off from there.

Which reminds me of that other memorable race quote in the New Testament, Galatians 5:7.  Remember it?

You were running a good race. Who cut in on you to keep you from obeying the truth?

The context is that the Galatian Christians have taken their eyes of their single minded devotion to Christ, and the work he has done on their behalf, and the life-transforming work of the Spirit that wells up from within them.  Rather they have allowed others to cut in on them and stop them running their own race, their good race, the race set before them.

And what is that cutting in? Well it’s actually about cutting off!  A group of supposed Christians have followed Paul’s work in Galatia, coming behind in his draught, and told the Galatians that following Jesus, running that good race isn’t enough.  Their obedience to the truth  – their race – was their commitment to trusting Christ and Christ alone for their acceptance with God.  But these interlopers were telling them that if they really wanted that inside lane with God, they had to be circumcised according to the law of Moses (and all of the attendant rules and regulations that go with it.)

The Galatians are looking over their shoulders, allowing people to cut in on them, second guessing themselves as to the nature of the freedom Christ has bought for them – Christ their forerunner (Hebrews 12:2) who breasted the tape first and won their victory for them, freeing them from the works of the law that could only ever trip them up.  Christ has done EVERYTHING they need, but they’re looking over their shoulders all the time, second guessing what they should be doing, and taking their eyes of the prize at the end.

Perhaps that sounds a million miles away from our experience, circumcision and Mosaic law keeping, but the truth is probably less than 10km away.  How often we allow law – our law, other’s law, law that won’t save, that won’t empower by God’s Spirit any level of heart transformation whatsoever, to cut in on us.

And whatever we allow to cut in on us becomes first a distraction, then grows to become not simply that, but the primary thing in our vision.  The race becomes less about the race set before us, and more about measuring ourselves by those distractions: What I believe about this (compared to other Christians); How good I am at that; What version I read, what practice I maintain and how often, how I deal with sin in my life (making up for it by being extra good instead of heading to the cross for empowering forgiveness), liberal or conservative on certain issues, the list is endless.  All of them are attempts to run a race other than the one set out for us by the true star of the track, the Lord Jesus, and, worse still, are attempts to supplant his status by showboating our own achievements.

If you’re getting distracted by these other things that in themselves look innocuous, then remember that Paul said just prior to this verse; “Remember, the only thing that counts is faith that expresses itself through love.”  The only thing? Surely not!  Yep, the only thing.  That’s the only corrective that can slough away all of those pesky self-righteous, self-centred distractions that threaten to cut us off mid-race. That’s all we need. Faith in Christ expressed through love.

So what kept ME going last night?  It was the corrective of Coach Simon, standing at the start line, counting my laps and encouraging.  “Drop your shoulders”, “Running well”, “Five laps to go”.  His job was to head off all the other distractions 25 times.  He needed to.  Because I – we – are such distractable creatures.  Whether it’s running an actual race, or running the spiritual race, we need the constant reorientation of God’s Word and God’s people under the tutelage of God’s Spirit to run with endurance and attain the prize.