Running From My Idol

My lungs drink in the cold November morning. Heart pumping fuel to my expanding and contracting muscles as endorphins and adrenaline surge through my body. My mind is focused on the power surging through my limbs and my eyes are targeted on the runners before me. Coach shouts out my mile split. “Way to go, Beth!” Encouraged at the news, I dig in deeper, stretching my legs across the grassy course. 

A personal record under my belt, an All-State title, and another shiny token of success laying across my chest. I revel in the glory.

Again. And again. And again. The bulletin board in my bedroom glistened with neat rows of race medals meticulously labeled. My identity displayed above where I slept. Thanks be to God for this gift!

I breathed running day and night. I ingested every word of Runner’s World magazine. I idolized olympians. I went to running camps over the summer. I was meticulous with my diet to the point where coaches were concerned about me having an eating disorder (don’t worry, I ate my parents out of house and home). Running was my identity.

What began as a way to fit in. Fun. My contribution to a team that became my family throughout middle school, high school, and college became my life. My idol. With each win. With each shiny medal. With each team trophy. With each plaque commemorating my contribution to the team, my commitment grew deeper. And the pressure I put on myself became stronger, as my standard was raised higher, the further I had to fall when I failed. The fun dissipated and the stress of competition piled high.

They served their idols, which became a snare to them.

Psalm 106:36

I cried out to God, “Help me! I want to glorify you with my gift! I want to commune with you with each step!” I bargained with God. I used my faith as a means to succeed and the more I leaned on that as my secret to success, the more disappointed I became and the further away from my goals I fell. Runners passed me and I lost the freedom of the coursing energy that used to please me so. 

By senior year of college, I knew I was in over my head. I knew my own physical strength wasn’t enough. I knew my priorities were askew. Throughout my competitive career, something else was happening within me. My faith was expanding and the Holy Spirit was filling my heart with a different kind of fuel. Running had become an idol and, instead of drawing me closer to Jesus, it became a chasm between me and my Savior. For the first time, I no longer wanted to compete. I cut myself off and dropped the sport for the last season of my collegiate career. I was done. I just didn’t want to run. Instead, I immersed myself in campus ministry. I vowed that I was done for good.

It was an emotional day when I unpinned each medal from the bulletin board and put them in a pile on the floor. No longer in chronological order. No longer a progression of success. I mixed them around and dumped them into a box. I hid the box in my closet and shut the door.

They are turned back and utterly put to shame, who trust in carved idols, who say to metal images, “You are our gods.”

Isaiah 42:17

A few years later I picked up running again. I ran a couple half-marathons, vowing that I would never run a 5k ever again. The pressure to attain the next personal record was too much and the fun had drained completely from the experience. Half-marathons must be my new distance. But it came back – the pressure to beat my last time. The pressure to be on the award stand. The deep desire to be decorated with shining medals and praised for my accomplishments. I went out on a run one day and then I just stopped. Like Forrest Gump, I just stopped running and I went home.

Eleven years pass. When my mental illness overtook me I struggled, like most Chrisians do at times, to keep God at the center. But the more I sought Him, the more at center he became. Sure, there were little idols that crept in, but nothing like running. 

Then my health tanked harder than ever before. 

Stress triggered mental illness 

Mental illness triggered weight gain

Weight gain triggered loss of self esteem

Loss of self esteem triggered loss of hope

Loss of hope triggered spiritual crisis

Spiritual crisis triggered broken relationships

I needed change. I sought help for my mental illness and circumstances to relieve the severe stress. God provided time and space to clear my mind and focus on my physical health. It started slowly and built up higher than I ever imagined. Slowly the other things followed and my holistic health – body, mind, and spirit – was restored one at a time. 

I journeyed to lose 26 pounds. A healthy diet of low sugar, low processed food, ample fruits and vegetables, and limited proteins was slowly developed. I incorporated different types of exercise as my body allowed – yoga, walking, biking, gardening and then…

I went for a walk one day after I dropped my son off for school. Then, like Forrest Gump, I just felt like running, so I ran. It was hard, but it was FUN! I just kept running. For kicks, I timed myself in a 5k. It was a good 11 minutes slower than the PR I set in high school…but I was 22 years older. I kept running and I kept timing myself in the 5k. What I now call my “adult PR” keeps getting faster and the more I get into shape the more I have fun. 

I use my time of feet pushing pavement to clear my mind and talk to God. Whenever I go out I come home more focused on Jesus. Rather than depending on running for my self-worth, I use it to take a break and talk to God. It no longer enslaves me. Instead, it brings me joy and freedom. Even though I laugh about how much slower I am than I was in my teens and twenties, I quite enjoy competing with myself and I look forward to the day when in-person races return and I can enjoy the camaraderie of friendly competition. 

Without standards. 

Without self-imposed pressure.

Without idolatry.