If you don't know, Ironman is 2.4 miles swimming, 112 miles biking, and 26.2 miles running. Ironman races are incredibly grueling, expensive, and often disappointing. In the last ten years, I've finished five times, always disappointed with my time. But I keep coming back to Ironman for a very simple reason. Ironman feels to me like a microcosm of life itself, and crossing the finish line is always an emotional moment where I feel like I get a glimpse of what it is like to enter into the Pearly Gates and be finished at last with the trials and tests of life and be greeted by family and friends who have passed before you. That moment when you are handed your medal and get your picture taken, you know you can rest at last, that you have done well, that you finished and that you will forever be known as an "Ironman."
I was never much of an athlete in my early years. I know it can be hard for people to believe that when they see me now, but the truth is that I had bad knees and my first year in college after complaining about pain while running, a doctor essentially told me to stop running. So I swam and cycled a few days a week instead--for the next sixteen years of my life. It wasn't until my knee pain persisted while cycling that I went to a sports doctor who helped me figure out the stretches I needed to do in order to be able to run again.
The first day at the gym, I ran .1 miles on the treadmill. The second day, I ran .2 miles. And so on, only increasing .1 miles a day until I could run 6 miles at a stretch, which was a miracle for me. That was in 2003, and I ran my first marathon the next year. I can't say I enjoyed it, but the finish line, where I got to see my five children and my husband cheering for me, was one of the best moments in my life. I suppose I got addicted to that sense of finishing, of crossing over from one world (a world of pain and mortality) into another world (the world of love and completion). There was still pain at the end of the marathon, though I'm told in heaven there won't be any. I hope that's true.
One of the things I love about racing is the volunteers. Especially in a long race, you wait and wait for the aid station (every ten miles on the bike in Ironman, every mile on the run). When you finally get to one, you see a long row of people who are smiling at you, eager to help you on your way, cheering for you. "You can do it," "You've got this," "You're my hero," they shout as they hold out water, bananas, sports gels and nutrition bars.
On the bike, these people will chase after you in order to make sure you don't miss your needed nutrition. They help hold your bike if you're shaky when you get off to use the porta-potty. In transition, they often put on shoes and socks on your dirty feet. They bathe you in cool water and spray you with sunscreen to protect you from the difficulties of racing in the sun. Sometimes they give you a space blanket if it's cold and rainy, or some gloves if you didn't think to bring any.
There are people who have acted as my volunteers along the difficult race of my life. Some are the people who offer me a hug when I seem down, who text me when I'm in a panic over one of my children, who run an errand for me when I don't have time, or who remember my favorite food and buy it for me when I'm too tired to cook for myself and would have gone to bed hungry otherwise. When Christ talks about being hungry or thirsty or in jail and lauds those who have ministered to him, I think about these volunteers in my life.
Sometimes it feels to me like life is a race that I didn't sign up for it. There's no map for it. There's no way to train on the course, or really just to train at all. How can anyone expect all of that? I just have to wait to let it unfold, including all the hills that I didn't expect, sometimes without any downhills as a relief. There are no shortcuts through life, no cheating to get a ride to the finish line. No one can make my legs move for me. But that doesn't mean they don't help substantially, in material ways and sometimes simply by distracting me by telling me a story or a joke or just walking a few steps with me.
If you've never volunteered for a race, you are missing out on a wonderful part of life. I went many years doing races without volunteering for them, and one year took the chance to volunteer at an Ironman. It was incredibly rewarding, and far more difficult than I'd thought it would be. While it wasn't as hard as doing the race, it was hard in its own way. I tried to be the best volunteer I could, calling out athletes' names as they passed and telling them they were doing great. I filled cups of water at a record pace so that no one got skipped. I made sure people could take two glasses if they wanted one to dump on their heads, and I was rewarded each time with a look of gratitude--which was enough and to spare.
One of the best parts of Ironman is watching the finish line as it nears midnight. Ironman isn't just for the fittest racers. There are plenty of Saturday warriors there, people who are stretching themselves beyond their limits. There are athletes with prosthetics, athletes who are overweight, those who have injuries they've tried to treat with tape or braces, older athletes who are competing in their 80s and 90s, athletes who are fighting terminal illness or grief.
Seeing these people cross the finish line, walking or running, is also what I imagine heaven will be like. They are embraced by loved ones on the other side. They are given whatever help they need, sometimes taken to the medical tent, given a recovery drink or other post-race food, and helped back to cars and hotel rooms by loved ones who now carry their burdens (including stinky, sweaty clothes, bikes, helmets, and other gear) with them. My kids had cold chocolate milk waiting for me at the finish line, which is my favorite thing in the world after a race. They took care of everything for me, so I had nothing to worry about. What could be more like heaven than that?
In the end, life isn't a race for the swiftest or the strongest. It's for everyone, and everyone crosses the finish line. As a Mormon, I believe in universal resurrection and at least one of the degrees of heaven for everyone, and that means that everyone who starts this race of life finishes it and gets a medal. Whatever our struggles, we have done well. We have fought the good fight. We have finished the course, as Paul says. We are all Ironmen in heaven.