We run better together
Updated: May 3
“A soldier will fight long and hard for a bit of coloured ribbon,” observed Napoleon Bonaparte. He could have added: “And a Parkrunner will run long and hard for a coloured T-shirt.”
Yes, if all goes to plan (and how often it doesn’t) tomorrow will see me finishing my 250th ParkRun and so qualify for the prestigious green T-shirt. I can’t wait.
For those of you unfamiliar with the ParkRun movement, now in its 19th year, it is a weekly timed 5k run (or walk) held each Saturday at 9.00am in some 2000 locations across some 22 countries. I’ve been doing it since the Ormskirk run started at Edge Hill University in 2014.
And anyone can participate. All you need is your personal barcode and it’s free, being run by runners taking turns to volunteer. Nevertheless it is hierarchical: those who finish 50 runs are awarded a red T-shirt, those who have managed 100 are awarded the black equivalent.
The true elite, those who are in a different league to the rest of us, are those who wear blue for having completed 500 runs. I can only dream.
And it’s for everyone, regardless of ability. The good news is that since the Ormskirk ParkRun started, the standard has plummeted. I was there for run #2 and it felt like an inter-club. Some 72 runners with the median average time 24:51.
Today, we have all sorts and sizes, especially those who have persevered with the couch-to-5k programme. This Saturday there were 229 of us, with the median average 28:33. Some 16, including a clerical colleague, were slower than 40 minutes!
This could easily be the church, the fellowship of the disciples of Jesus. Open to anyone and everyone. When I was vicar at Christ Church our strapline was “We’ll have anyone!”
In fact, I once spoke at a baptism service at my son-in-law’s church on the parallels between being baptised and wearing your ParkRun barcode. Anyone can apply whatever your background and irrespective of your ability. You just have to wear it to be part of the run, acknowledging the authority of the Run Director.
And doing the ParkRun each week has so many parallels to Sunday worship. You chat with different runners before and after the run, maybe just a few minutes. But over the years you get to know some people very well. There’s a strong sense of belonging, of us all being in it together.
I guess that is where the closest parallel between belonging to the church of Jesus and taking part in the ParkRun. It is something we do together.
The simple fact is that there is no way I can run a 5k in my ParkRun time by myself. Running alone there is no way I could run below 30 minutes, even 34 minutes. I just can’t do it. There must be at least a 5-minute differential between running solo and running together.
I need to run with other runners to reach my potential. And they need me. Each Saturday a whole gaggle of runners track me, knowing my reputation for running a sustained pace. They aim to overtake me in the last 10 metres, like Anna two weeks back. Last week, whoever they were, they failed!
From my perspective the biggest danger we face as Christians today is raw individualism, the illusion that I do not need to belong to any church, I am accountable to no-one. Free of all responsibilities, I simply live for myself.
As theologian David Augsburger observes: “Individualism. Narcissism. Value-free choices. These are all key elements in the decline of the practice of mutual accountability in Western churches, among clergy and laity alike.”
We need to belong: it is how God has made us. For when we surrender our lives to Christ, we belong to him – and his church, the body of Christ. “There is no such thing as an independent Christian,” writes Rosaria Butterfield.
This was especially the case for those early Christians at Corinth. Their communal life was a mess, so much so that the apostle Paul scathingly writes: “In the following directives I have no praise for you, for your meetings do more harm than good.” (1 Corinthians 11:17).
Nevertheless the apostle does not suspend their meetings; the very opposite. His teaching on the importance of belonging to Christ and to one another is the most pronounced in the New Testament. “The Holy Spirit is given to each of us in a special way” he writes. “That is for the good of all.” (1 Corinthians 12:7)
The Message translation is especially graphic: “Each person is given something to do that shows who God is: Everyone gets in on it, everyone benefits.”
Sadly I come across Christians of my age group who have been so bashed by the church, by those in authority or even their fellow disciples that they have opted out.
An honest quote here from Pete Greig: “And if like me you are exhausted, heartbroken, disillusioned and disappointed by the litany of leaders letting us down, it's worth celebrating those who really don't.”
In other words, we can’t afford to opt out of belonging to the body of Christ in its local manifestation. It may be raining, there’s a cold wind cutting across the top field and I just don’t feel like running, even so I turn up. There’s simply no alternative if I’m going to thrive as a Christian.
And we can look forward not to some coloured T-shirt but much more, as Paul to the end of his life anticipates: “Now, a victor’s wreath is being held for me—a victor’s wreath for being right with God.” (2 Timothy 4:6)