I’m not a team player. But last weekend I was part of a sports team that came third – yes, that’s right, third, a podium finish -, in the Open category of the legendary Blackwood Marathon in the rolling green countryside of West Australia’s south-west.
The Blackwood Marathon turned forty in 2018. The event is a five discipline race, and this year attracted 150 teams. It’s had some serious superstars competing over the years including World Marathon Champion, and one time world marathon record holder, Rob De Castella, and World Championship cyclist and Olympian Steele Bishop, who was the special guest this year.
It’s just under 12km for the run; then a paddle of about 8km along the Blackwood River; a 1km swim in that same river; a horse ride, and finished off with 20km of grinding gravel hills on a bike.
17 hardy souls did every discipline, the rest of us took a leg each in our teams.
And I did the run leg for a bunch of youngsters at my daughter’s high school, driving in convoy down with several teams from the school for the event, with their PE teachers and support crew.
Now when I say youngsters here’s what I mean: A 17 year old kayaker who represented Australia at the world championships earlier this year in South Africa; a 17 year old state open water swimming star who has Olympic credentials written all over her; a well-conditioned horse and young rider; and my mate Robbie from church; ancient at 26 years of age, but who came second in the state mountain bike championships last year.
And me. The Blackwood may have turned 40 in 2018, but I turned 51! 51 year old me running for a team where the four other team members have a combined age of 77. Me doing the first leg. Getting us off to a great/average/terrible start (strike out which is not applicable).
And I was nervous. I’m not a team player. And if I am in a team I would like to be the one in the team who does not let the team down. Why wail on me when we can all wail on someone else eh?
Running has become a love of mine precisely because it feels like me against my lungs and my legs and my Garmin. I’m never going to win races, but the self-discipline of running alone; getting up alone in the dark to run on cold mornings; being alone in my head for 30km is vitalising. Sure I run once or twice a week with other people, but running alone is my thing. I run the crazy off when I run alone.
And when I run by myself and for myself I can only let me down.
So I admit I was nervous about the team thing. Very nervous.
A sleepless night on a country church hall floor ensued. Sleepless except for two nighttime dashes fifty metres across the freezing grass to the spider infested toilet. Meanwhile the youthful bladders, and spleens, hearts, lungs, brains and other assorted organs of twelve school kids let them sleep blissfully on.
They were chipper in the morning. I not so much.
After the formalities at the Boyup Brook football oval start line, and the various speeches and warm ups, the run leg was off.
Great! Hot, hilly and headwinds. The perfect trifecta.
1km around the track and out of the footy ground and then a monster bitumen hill to begin with. And then the bitumen ran out. And then it was gravel. Pea gravel and hills and more pea gravel and more hills for the rest of it, with downhills steep enough to take the edge off your pace. Heart rate maxed out at 182, and sat at 163 for most of it. (Cadence was good though!)
And all I remember thinking as my legs were churning up the pea gravel reeling in a runner ahead of me one at a time, lungs busting, was “Put yourself in a good position for the rest of the team.” Suddenly team mattered a lot!
I’d done the calculations of where I might end up after seeing three of our state’s top runners limbering up. There’s one, two and three, right there. So somewhere in the top ten. That will do me. That will do us!
A clear start for the kayaker is crucial. No queue to get in the water, quicker and smoother water when you’re in, and no slow-coach blocking you at the rapids. Nothing worse than being mid-pack behind all the thrashers, especially if you’re a world quality paddler. A good clean hand over from the runner will ensure all that.
And so I ploughed on. And on and on. Turning every corner hoping for a downhill, seeing an uphill.
The last 500m seemed to be down that paddock that features in those crazy cheese rolling events in the UK. Take a tumble and you go from being the grand fromage to the stinking bishop. I galumphed and scrambled that divot-laden field like a raging bull chasing a heifer.
Then as I hit the line I heard the frantic voices: “Give us your racing bib! Give us your racing bib!”
Forgotten about that! I ripped it off, handed it over and the kayaker was off. 46:44 for 11.4 lumpy, gravelly kilometres. Ninth place. Job done.
Expect it wasn’t job done. As a solo run it was. But this was a team event. I spent the rest of the day cheering, helping haul out a kayak, talking through tactics, sharing lunch, avoiding the searing Perth sun which seems more savage in early spring, more cheering, before an early three hour drive back to Perth, having had to leave before the end of the bike ride.
We drove along in the car waiting for a text. Had our horse – and therefore team – been DQ-ed for a too-fast heart rate? Nope!
Then after an interminable time: “Yes!” from our kayaker in the back seat of the car, “Third! We came third!”
Podium finish. We got a podium finish.
None of the five of us won our race leg. We all came in the top ten. And if you cut my ninth place out, and the rider and horse’s commendable seventh, then the rest were in the top four.
But when our times were added up, that level of consistency put us into third. No use having a record breaking run if your rider DQ’s their horse or your cyclist blows a tyre halfway up a hill.
Something about the whole and the sum of the parts etc. Teams do that.
Maybe this is just a good story. A good story and a longish introduction to what I am saying next. This week I announced the hand over of Providence Midland Church’s Senior Pastor role to my associate. He’s taking on the role, while I concentrate on the one thing I can do well, teaching and preaching.
As the church has grown in size and complexity, a solo bloke such as I who likes to plant a church, has seen the need for a team of specialists to do what they do well. To do the part of the body that they do well and that I don’t do so well. And to allow me to do the thing I can do well within that team.
Sure there might be a small group of gifted individuals who can do it all – or who want to do it all – but from the inception of the church the idea of team, or body, has been critical. And for us now that means paid staff and unpaid team members too. There’s something joyous about seeing the whole being greater than the sum of the parts.
And that’s something that’s been written into our DNA by the triune God; the ultimate Three in One team player if ever there were one. Where each Person of the Godhead is tasked with a particular focus that brings about the goal of the one triune God, namely God’s unified glory!
Okay, so that’s a bit of a push to compare the Trinity to our five athletes doing the Blackwood Marathon. But here’s what else I got out of this that goes to the heart of the Trinity: the joy at seeing the achievement of another person being added into a collective joy of which you all are a part.
Another lone sports bloke, Swedish golfer, Thomas Bjorn, recounts his first Tour win in Europe. After the fanfare of the presentation, after the interviews, after the formalities on the final green, he went in to the locker room to find it empty.
And at that moment he too felt empty. He says of that realisation:
“I just stood there thinking, ‘Is that it?’ I felt empty. It was my first victory on the tour, and it had been great during the prize ceremony. It was the biggest dream of my life. But then you are alone. I felt flat. I realised that what you really want is not just a win for yourself but for something bigger. You want to share it.”
He wanted something bigger, so he went out and looked for it so that he could share the joy. He shared it by becoming the captain of the European Ryder Cup team; a team event in a solo sport. History will record that his team of solid golfers defeated a star studded US team including highly individualistic golfers such as Phil Mickelson and Tiger Woods.
After it was done and dusted, and the celebrations on the course ended, Bjorn went inside the clubhouse once again. Only this time it was different:
Families, coaches and friends were all there, probably about 300 people by the end of it. Most of the conversations were the same. It is just that joy. You look at each other’s eyes, ‘Can you believe we did this together?’ ”
When it comes to the Last Day we as God’s people often concentrate on what it will be like for “me“; how will “I” feel about it? And often that’s with a little trepidation despite our knowledge that we are secure in Christ.
But what if the final day looks more like a team event? What if we look around at that great crowd from all nations and tribes and tongues, and we catch each other’s eyes and exclaim with great amazing and joy: “Can you believe we did this together?”
And then we’ll hear our Lord Jesus say “Let the celebrations begin! Enter – all of you – in the joy of your Master.”
And then the team sport of being part of the new creation and all that that promises will begin.