The incline ahead was steeper than before. It was strewn with obstacles…rocks, deep ruts, and broken tree limbs. It was out of the question to keep an even pace. The young man wondered as he jogged towards the wreckage, how many others had come before him? How many had seen this path, and questioned whether they could go any further, just as he was questioning it now? There was no other way to go, turning back was not an option, yet going upward, forward, over the next mountain, seemed nearly impossible at the moment.
His breath was ragged from days of running. His clothes hung wet and limp against an exhausted frame that was aching with pain knotted muscles and tired bones. A thousand doubts and questions were racing through his weary mind. How many days had it been now? He could not even remember. Why was this so important; this grueling, unrelenting race? How could the prize be worth it? What had persuaded him to such madness? He would die surely before he made even a fourth of the way. Had others really finished before him? Or was it only a hoax, an experiment to see how many foolish souls would go through with such a reckless endeavor? He was a fool. He had been wrong to think he was strong enough, or good enough, or courageous enough to be one to be worthy of this race.
That was purpose right; to better yourself, to strengthen yourself, to be what you were created for…an exceptional individual of strength and knowledge? When the race was ended you would be one who had proven your worth. Isn’t that what everyone wanted? To be worthy of something? To have value?
Yet, somehow those words did not ring true in his heart. There was more than that. Yet, his exhausted memory could not bring back to life the words spoken to him at the beginning of this race. If only he could remember them, maybe then he would have a greater desire to run. At the moment he only felt shame and weakness. He truly wanted to quit. Realizing he wanted to stop filled him with absolute despondency. He did not have what took. He did not have anything. Only empty, frail ideas. He could not hold himself up to speed any longer.
Both legs began to shake, as his mind told him was going to quit…and soon. He pumped his arms faster, hoping to keep a momentum, even as his decision to stop flooded like sweet release into his body.
Music suddenly erupted from the dark forest to his left. It was a triumphant song, clear and strong like a trumpet. It happened so unexpectedly and suddenly that his gaze swung in fear towards that direction. Was someone following him? Was he not as alone as he thought? Had they read his mind? Or was this near the end? Surely not? Yet, sudden excitement coursed through the blood in his veins.
His eyes, focused on the forest, if only for a moment, did not see what was now on the path. He ran into this new obstacle immediately. His body made contact with another’s, in a soft, but solid impact of flesh to flesh. His body tumbled to the earth, rocks and hard earth tearing into his knees, elbows and hands, as he vainly attempted to catch himself. As he fell, his eyes also caught sight of a face and figure of the man who had so rudely stepped into his path. Dark hair, blue eyes, strong arms and a gentle face.
Immediately anger shot through his emotions, even as pain tore at his bruised and bleeding limbs, and his own face fell into the dirt scraping a four inch wound across his left cheek.
How dare this man stop his race! He couldn’t have been angrier if the man had walked out and shoved him back. No matter that he had been about to quit. No one liked been knocked down so unexpectedly.
He rose, half way, spitting dirt from a bleeding mouth, where he had bitten his lip; his entire body shaking with pain and emotion.
“Didn’t you see me coming!” he shouted up at the man.
“Didn’t you see me?” came the quiet reply and then he reached a hand down to help the young man to his feet.
The young man frowned, but took this man’s hand. He felt an amazing strength course through his body as their hands locked. His eyes shot to the stranger’s eyes and without a doubt was sure they twinkled.
“Follow me,” he said, releasing the young man’s hand and turning to walk off the path. His motions were so calm and so fluid. The young man wondered if he had felt nothing at their collision.
“Dude, I’m running a race,” he replied, lifting both hand in protest,” I can’t stop.”
“You were just about to anyway,” the man replied over his shoulder.
“Besides I make the rules to this race, and you needed to stop. Now come.”
He halted at the edge of the forest and turned, waiting for the young man to follow, his eyes still twinkling.
The young man limped towards him, still angry, but not as much. He made the rules to the race? Who was this guy?
They walked under the cool shadows of the towering trees and the path the disappeared behind them. In silence the pair walked for nearly twenty minutes. Every second of the way, the young man questioned his sanity in following this man. What if he never could find his way back to the path? What if this was a trick? What if this man was one of those deceivers he had been warned of that would lead him astray? One of those liars who would ruin his chances at running the race? Yet despite these doubts, something kept the young man following him.
Then without warning they stopped. The man turned, gesturing towards a pool of water that suddenly appeared in front of them.
“Drink, and then we will have a talk.”
The young man glanced around, realizing they were in a small meadow, where the sun was shining warmly down on a bubbling brook that spilled into a pool at their feet and then trickled on disappearing back into the forest.
Grateful for the water, the young man knelt, quenching his thirst, rinsing away the dirt and blood from his wounds. He drank more then, wondering at the sweet taste of the water. Then he sat back staring at the man, who had seated himself a few feet away on a large stone.
“Who are you?”
The man crossed his arms,“ It is a good thing you do not recognize me, son, for it makes the realization in the end even sweeter.”
He smiled warmly at the young man, who frowned in confusion, yet felt peace settle in around him as the man’s eyes penetrated his own. How old was this man? He looked like he could have been the young man’s own age, yet something about his posture made him seem ancient and old; made him seem fatherly, yet authoritative all at once.
“I know why you wanted to quit. You don’t believe you are good enough.”
The young man lowered his gaze in shame.
“It’s not about being good enough. It’s not about how fast you run, or how you run, why you run. It’s only about who you run for. Do you remember that?”
The young man slowly shook his head,” but it doesn’t matter now, because I’m not running.”
The man chuckled,” Of course you are, just because you stop here, doesn’t mean you are kicked out of the race. You can’t keep running if I want you stop.”
“Why would you want me to stop?” the young man questioned, confused.
“To show you a better way to run…to give you endurance, to give you strength, to give your courage.”
The young man heaved a sigh. He knew he’d never had those things.
“I don’t have what takes.”
“Of course you don’t,” the man said bluntly,” cause you don’t need to. It’s me. I give you what it takes. That’s why you don’t stop to quit, you stop to be with me. In being with me, you are not stopping, but only pushing yourself farther forward.”
“I’ve never seen you before?” the young man was shaken to his core though, by the words just spoken. He glanced away again, unable to keep a steady gaze with the man.
“Yes, you have, look at me,” the man said.
It was command, not a statement. The young man returned the stranger’s gaze. A terrible fire burned in those blue eyes that had not been there before. The fire pierced through the numbness the young man was feeling inside.
“I am the One you are running for.”
The young man began to shake as recognition flooded his being. The fire from those eyes consumed him. He fell, face forward in the soft grass moaning unintelligibly.
“I am not worthy.”
He felt two strong hands lift him up,” Yes, you are. I made you to be worthy.”
The man’s face was now inches from his own and surprisingly, beautiful tears were pouring down his cheeks. He was kneeling in the grass before the young man.
” I’ve seen your heart. I saw your passion when you began the race. I’ve seen your struggle to understand and know. I’ve seen the obedience of your faithfulness. I’ve seen your joy and your anger. I have felt every pain and every delight. It’s not about what you can do or can’t do. It’s about what I’m creating through you. It’s about what I love in you.”
“What do you love?” the young man asked, beginning to cry himself.
The man laughed a deep laugh,” You always ask the right questions. I love the way you endure, the way you move me by your obedience.”
“How can you say that? I nearly gave up?” the young man sobbed.
“That’s why I knocked you over,” the man chuckled,” I’m not going to let you lose it. I will restore it every time. And you didn’t give up, because I know when to stop you and pour fresh power and desire into your heart.”
The young man wept unabashedly,” Why me?”
“Why not you?”
The man placed both hands on the young man’s head,” Trust me. I fulfill every promise, every dream, every desire. So run.”
At the word “run” the young man did indeed suddenly feel strong and capable enough to run a thousand races. Warmth, strength, power, endurance, confidence and wisdom flooded through his body like a hurricane. He opened his eyes wide in complete satisfaction.
“I will run,” he whispered.
“I know you will,” the man whispered back.
The young man tightened both fists into the dirt. He would run for only one purpose now. He knew, and remembered, the beginning of the race. This man was worth living for, he was worth everything, because He was the prize at the end of the race.
Overwhelming love swept over the young man. Not the kind of emotional love people may experience through happiness or pleasure or peace, but the kind of love that grips you with a reality of what is true, and refuses to let go.
“Will you remember me with every step?” the man asked.
“Yes,” he replied.
“Will you refuse to be daunted by pain, but instead love the pain for what it is growing inside of you?
“Will you endure?”
“Then love me, and nothing else will matter.”
The man rose, pulling the young man to his feet.
“Follow the water and it will take you back to the path.”
“I want to be with you a little longer,” the young man said, suddenly afraid to leave this strength and comfort within the man’s presence.
“I’m always with you, even when you can’t see me. Now go.”
His eyes, now a calm blue once more, encouraged the young man leave, cheered him on, believed in him.
The young man set off on a jog along the narrow, flowing brook, glancing back only once as he neared the tree line.
The man was gone. Instead of a feeling of incompleteness, the young man now felt complete, because the presence had not left him. He took off in a fast run, smiling to himself that he had doubted he would be able to return to the path.
( I wrote this for my now husband back when we were in college. It was originally titled The Runner)
Natasha is a short story writer who has been blogging for the past decade. She is currently raising four kids in the midwest United States and married to her wonderful husband of 10 years. They both work with YWAM and media missions.