Running the Distance With God

Author: Elsie J. Larson

Running the Distance With God

by Elsie J. Larson

When it comes to finishing a race, each runner runs alone. Or so Alberto Salazar always had thought. At age 36, however, after 12 years of health problems and no wins, during the most challenging race of his life, he made a surprising discovery.

For many years, winning world-class races was everything to Alberto. In 1982, he broke the world record in the New York Marathon. After that, however, he suffered one health problem after another. At the end of a race in New England, he collapsed from heat stroke. In the Los Angeles Olympics in 1984, during another heat wave, he placed 15th. From then on, stress fractures, tendonitis, illness and chronic fatigue continually plagued him. Still, he could not stop trying; running was his life.

Then Alberto's father and mother returned from a pilgrimage to Medjugorje with renewed faith. Impressed, Alberto re-examined his own life. "I saw how arrogant I'd been, always complaining because I couldn't run better, when I should have been thanking God for all the good things He had given me-my wife, Mollie, our children, my loving parents and a good job."

Realizing he had wandered away from God, Alberto returned to the Catholic Church, began to read the Bible regularly and set aside time each day to pray.

"I stopped asking God to help me run better, and instead I asked what He wanted me to do," he said.

Alberto's health began to improve. He found protective inserts for his shoes and a doctor finally prescribed medication that helped his chronic illnesses. "How can I say the Lord didn't put it all together? I believe God healed me," he said.

With his return to health, Alberto felt the Lord wanted him to run the Comrades' Race in South Africa-a 53.8 mile race. He trained for six months, running about two-thirds of the time on a resilient treadmill to protect his feet and knees.

At last he flew to Johannesburg Hot weather greeted him. He cautiously conditioned himself. A few days before the race, his wife, Mollie, flew to Johannesburg, and then they went to Durban. The first day there, Alberto became overheated after a short run. The Comrades' Race alternates direction each year. This year participants would run uphill- from Durban at sea level to Pietermauritzburg at 2,600 feet. Near panic, Alberto wondered, "How can I run 53 miles in this heat?" Then he told himself, "There you go again with the ego thing. How can YOU run? If this is the Lord's race, He will take care of you."

The night before the race, Alberto was able to tell Mollie, "I have no idea how I'll do tomorrow. I could come in first, or hundredth, or not even finish! But it doesn't matter how I do! It's not my race. It's the Lord's race."

Mollie, a runner herself, was surprised. She knew his nerves normally kept him awake most of the night before a race. That night, true to his word, Alberto fell asleep quickly and awoke refreshed.

At 5:15 a.m., he joined more than 12,000 runners at the starting line. He chose a position close to runners he'd identified as the strongest contenders. The night air felt warm. Mollie arrived just before starting time, at 6 a.m., to ride the race route in a van. "I planned to run as easily as possible," Alberto said. 'When the race started, I paced myself to the men who had won before. While I ran, I prayed the Rosary, counting on my fingers, since I had no beads."

Alberto had taped to each of his water bottles a foil packet of complex carbohydrates in a gelatinous syrup-his food for the long run. "A person's liver can hold energy for only a 26-mile run," he explained. "I'd spaced my water bottles with people along the route at 5-mile intervals. I would supplement my gelpacks with the ones handed out every mile by the race's organizers."

Half an hour into the race, Alberto began to look for the supplementary gelpacks. After about 45 minutes, he realized he should have confirmed that gelpacks would be provided. No one was offering them, and his own at five-mile intervals would not provide enough nourishment to finish the race.

Focusing on how his body felt, and praying, he maintained an easy pace. After his third bottle of water and gelpack, he started up a mile-and-a-half hill. Ahead, he saw a small group of runners. Supposing that in the dark he had dropped behind the top contenders, he pushed to overtake them. They were not the top contenders. He passed them anyway. When he grabbed his next water bottle, his friends called, "You're four minutes in the lead."

The sun came up. Heat immediately increased. The van in which Mollie rode passed him from time to time. She waved encouragement.

"I focused on my pace and prayed," Alberto said. "At 26 miles I was running well. A little further along I became so tired I couldn't think clearly enough to pray the Rosary anymore. I was hurting, but mainly I was running out of gas. When I saw Mollie again, I just wanted to quit and climb into the van beside her. I had to force myself to think only about running."

Finally, at 30 miles, Alberto hit the wall. "I knew I'd have to drop out," he said. "I said a quick prayer: 'Lord I'm sorry. I can't make it'-and looked along the roadside for a soft place to fall. I slowed to a walk. But I took only two steps before a thought flashed into my mind: 'There you go again. You can't. If this is the Lord's race, He can.'

"I prayed, 'Lord, I can't do this on my own. Without You, I'm finished.' I was so far gone I could barely think words, but I started running again, and I prayed, 'Lord, help me.... Sweet Jesus, help me. ... Blessed Mother, help me...."'

With about 20 miles to go, someone yelled that he had a 10-minute lead.

The route to contained six two-mile hills with six percent grades. The worst was last: Polly Shorts Hill. On easier ascents, Alberto's liver had time to convert his body fat to glucose to make up for his lack of food. He knew that on Polly Shorts the demand for energy would be so great that his liver could not convert fat fast enough. With no nourishment his muscles would cramp, and he would collapse. Six leading runners during the past 10 years had lost their race on Polly Shorts Hill.

As Alberto approached Polly Shorts, someone yelled that he still had a four-minute lead. Alberto glimpsed Mollie in the van. He forced himself to keep his gaze away from her.

"I just kept praying, 'Help me, Lord,'" he said.

Without slowing, Alberto ran up Polly Shorts and won the race. Inside the stadium, he raised his arms in a salute to the waiting crowd. When reporters surrounded him with microphones, he panted, "It was a miracle. I should not have finished at all. The Lord did it."

Today, Alberto still says, "There's no doubt in my mind that God did it, because I did everything wrong It gives me a lot of peace about the future-whether or not I ever run another race-when I remember how I wasn't running only on my own power in the Comrades' Race."

Alberto doesn't know why the Lord let him win the Comrades Race that year, but he continues to seek God's will every day. And he would tell you now that he never runs alone . . . in sports . . . or in life.

Editor's Note: Alberto Salazar recently had surgery for foot problems and is cross-training to keep himself in shape until he can run again. He says he is optimistic, and thinks he will be ready for a race by October, if that's the Lord's will.

Elsie Larson writes from Gresham, Ore. Her work has appeared in Reader's Digest as well as many other publications

This article appeared in the August 1996 issue of "New Covenant" magazine. To subscribe write Our Sunday Visitor, Inc., 200 Noll Plaza, Huntington, IN 46750-9957 or call 1-800-348-2440. Published monthly at a charge of $18.00 per year.

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