Here in South Africa, we love running marathons. But not just any marathons; we love ultra long distance ones! This is the home of the world’s largest and oldest ultra-marathon, the Comrades Marathon, nicknamed ‘The Greatest Human Race’. It covers a distance of 89 kilometers or 55 miles and is run each year between to the two cities of Durban and Pietermaritzburg, in the province of Kwa-Zulu Natal, on the east coast.
This year’s event was held on Sunday 9 June. 21, 713 runners started the race, ranging from top international athletes to local running enthusiasts keen to try and cover the distance in less than the requisite 12 hours.
Each year, the Comrades Marathon association adopt a slogan for the race. This year, the theme was the isiZulu concept, Sizonqoba, meaning ‘Together we Triumph’.
“Run with perseverance the race marked out for us…
And this got me thinking. Surely, the Ultimate Human Race is in fact the daily race of our lives, the one that the writer of the book of Hebrews says in chapter 12:1 is the one ‘marked out for us’. In order to complete this race, we are to ‘fix our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith’.
Every marathon requires that an entrance fee be paid; the more prestigious, the higher the price. In this race of life, there is indeed an entrance fee which needs to be paid, and it is the highest price of all – our lives. But we, in our sin and fallen nature, are bankrupt and unable to pay. What to do? We long to be included in the marathon, we long to reach the prize which is heaven and all that is there promised, but we are incapable of even getting onto the start line.
Praise God for Jesus! He has paid our entrance fee with his own precious, sinless blood and we are free to participate, to run and not stop until we attain that for which God has called us heavenward.
“Strengthen the feeble hands. steady the knees that give way
So we’re off the starting line, and surging forward in hopes of victory, of winning a great prize. But this is no short sprint, nor even a 100 mile slog. This is life, this is every day putting one foot in front of the other, sometimes finding it easy and the view enjoyable; other days the mist descends and we don’t know where we’re going. We’re hurting, we’re tired, the temptation to give up is strong.
This is where sizonqoba happens; it is in our togetherness that we triumph. Isaiah exhorts (35:3,4) ‘Strengthen the feeble hands, steady the knees that give way; say to those with fearful hearts, “Be strong and do no fear;”.
One of the key features of the Comrades Marathon is the sheer number of people involved, whether it be the runners themselves or the spectators who stand on the side of the road. These spectators stand for the whole day, cheering, singing, clapping and encouraging, whether they know the people struggling past or not. Some bring emergency supplies of oranges or drinks, muscle rubs and bandages; all spur the participants to keep going just a little further and longer.
We ourselves are ‘surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses’ (Hebrews 12:1) as we run this race of life. Some, like those mentioned in this passage of Scripture, are those who have gone before us, those heroes of the faith that we look to for encouragement and inspiration. But some are right next to us, right now. They are running alongside us, they are cheering us, they are dispensing energy bars in the form of words that ‘encourage the disheartened [and] help the weak’ (1 Thess. 5:14).
And just as others have noticed us in our struggles, have nursed us when we’re blistered and bruised, so we need to remember to take time to notice our fellow runners for signs of weakness or exhaustion, to perhaps slow down our own pace in order to come alongside someone who is plodding slowly, possibly on the verge of giving up completely.
“I press on toward the goal to win the prize…
In any competitive race, there can be only one winner, one first past the post, one athlete who breaks the finishing tape. The greatest truth about the race we’re running, this race of life, is that ALL receive a prize, a reward, a gold.
I was chatting about this with a friend the other day. She told me the story of her twin boys, one considerably more athletic than the other. At a school sports day, the one won both trophies awarded; the other won nothing. When they got home, the winner of both trophies gave one of them to his brother, saying this one was for him.
Jesus has won every trophy there is on offer, He is the winner of all the prizes. And yet, in His grace and kindness, He gives them away to us as we cross the finishing line. Everything that He has won – freedom from death and sin, life everlasting, eternal peace and joy – He delights to hand out to us.
When we know this, when we are assured that a prize awaits, we don’t need to run so selfishly. We can afford to slow down and wait with others, we can choose to be encouragers and cheerleaders because our own reward is secure.
In this Ultimate Human Race, it’s not about being first across the line, but rather, how many people we bring across the line with us. Sizonqoba – Together we Triumph.