Going the Distance

February 21, 2024

By David Bolick

The observation that “life is a marathon, not a sprint” has acquired cliché status for many.  It’s a wry resignation to the reality of having to tough it out when one’s golden years turn out to be not so glittering. I’d like to try to make some lemonade from that lemon.

Any marathoner will tell you that it’s those last miles that separate the men from the boys, the casual pretenders from the real pros. After running roughly three-quarters of the race, most contenders have pretty much exhausted their energy reserves and refer to that point as “hitting the wall.” It’s game over for many right there, as there’s no escaping the exponential increase in the challenge of that home stretch. Things can get downright psychological and existential, as it basically boils down to raw willpower and mind over matter to make it to the finish line, like that verse about our years being “threescore and ten” (the first three-quarters), and “if by reason of strength they be fourscore” (that last stretch to the finish line), “yet is their strength labor and sorrow” (Psalm 90:10).

Indulging my bent for hyperbole as I reflect on some of the marathons I have run, thoughts of Everest expeditions come to mind, where the higher you go, the thinner the air. There have been times when the only way to keep going was to slow the pace, grit my teeth, and cling to my willpower.

The last years of life are very much like that long home stretch in a marathon for many of us. (And I think the same can be said of the first years of a marriage or a business venture, cramming for finals, paying the month’s rent, etc.) Sometimes I think that’s what’s going on with the world at large, not just with those of us who are getting on in years. Even though the pace of everyday affairs keeps getting faster and faster, the amount of real life in those fleeting moments is less and less. Society seems to be on a starvation diet, running on fumes.

Both those going slower and those going faster are subject to the same strains, as the classic adversaries of the spiritual life—the world, the flesh, and the Devil—pull on us all in an attempt to “alienate [us] from the life of God” (Ephesians 4:18). Whatever the case, “Brethren, the time is short … for the fashion of this world passes away” (1 Corinthians 7:29, 31), and doing “the works of him that sent [us], while it is day, [before] the night cometh, when no man can work” (John 9:4), can be hard, often exhausting.

We don’t normally comprehend how weak we are until we hit that wall and realize that if we don’t experience “His strength made perfect in weakness” (2 Corinthians 12:9), we won’t get any further. It behooves us to learn to put into practice the deep truths of “In quietness and in confidence shall be your strength” (Isaiah 30:15); “The Lord shall fight for you, and ye shall hold your peace” (Exodus 14:14); and “Be still, and know that I am God” (Psalm 46:10).

I am probably overtaxing the metaphor, but I’ll continue referring to distance running, as even though every comparison falls short when we attempt to describe the indescribable, there are some helpful parallels.

Most runners depend on carbohydrates for energy, as they are broken down into glucose fairly quickly, and are generally the default fuel. But a human body can only store so much of it, and unless a marathoner can dose it out just right and restock along the way, he or she risks “running on empty” in a prolonged contest.

It is possible, however, to train the body to use fat more efficiently during exercise. This is known as “fat adaptation” or “metabolic flexibility.” By consuming a diet high in healthy fats and low in carbohydrates, and by engaging in regular endurance exercise, the body can become better at using fat for energy during exercise, which can help conserve carbohydrate stores in the body and delay fatigue during long-duration exercise such as a marathon.

Just as it takes persistent sensible effort to get the body to adapt to a different fueling system, similar well-directed diligence and perseverance is needed to shift into another spiritual gear, so to speak. After years of having energy on demand, powering through obstacles and seeing fairly fast results, learning to hold one’s peace and let the Lord do the fighting is a major change. Personally, I have found that “study[ing] to be quiet” (1 Thessalonians 4:11) is every bit as challenging as the most strenuous marathon training. But as I have stuck with it, I have begun to catch a glimpse, ever so dimly, of mind-bogglingly vast reaches opening up to me. It’s as if life up to this point has indeed been a sprint, taking shape in my understanding as a mere warm-up for the marathon of the real “race set before us” (Hebrews 12:1).


And he said, Go forth, and stand upon the mount before the Lord. And, behold, the Lord passed by, and a great and strong wind rent the mountains, and brake in pieces the rocks before the Lord; but the Lord was not in the wind: and after the wind an earthquake; but the Lord was not in the earthquake: And after the earthquake a fire; but the Lord was not in the fire: and after the fire a still small voice.—1 Kings 19:11–12

Hast thou not known? Hast thou not heard, that the everlasting God, the Lord, the Creator of the ends of the earth, fainteth not, neither is weary? There is no searching of his understanding. He giveth power to the faint; and to them that have no might he increaseth strength. Even the youths shall faint and be weary, and the young men shall utterly fall: But they that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings as eagles; they shall run, and not be weary; and they shall walk, and not faint.Isaiah 40:28–31

For which cause we faint not; but though our outward man perish, yet the inward man is renewed day by day.2 Corinthians 4:16

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