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Running the Race You Were Born To Win
By Christine Caine
ZONDERVANCopyright © 2014 Christine Caine
All rights reserved.
THE DIVINE RELAY
I grabbed Nick's hand and, for what must have been the hundredth time, said, "I can't believe we're here at the Olympics! The Olympics, Nick! Isn't it awesome?"
He could barely hear me above the roar of the crowd, but he didn't need to. He could read not only my lips but the glow on my face and could feel the electricity in the air.
"Awesome!" he shouted back, squeezing my hand.
We took in the view together — the massive stadium filled with light and color and motion and 110,000 spectators, the buzz of conversations in who knew how many languages, the red track below surrounding the vibrant green and stunning yellow infield, and the runners taking their positions.
The year was 2000 — Saturday, September 30. The place, Sydney, in my homeland of Australia. I'd celebrated my thirty-fourth birthday a week before, and being here felt like the best birthday gift of my life. I was mesmerized by the sheer size of this state-of-the-art stadium. It made me feel so tiny, a speck in this massive crowd, yet I felt connected, as if being here bonded me to every Olympic athlete and every spectator since the first Olympic Games in ancient Greece.
Though I'm Australian by birth, Greek blood runs through my veins. I am Greek through and through. The image of the five interlocking Olympic rings fluttering on the Olympic flags above us and plastered all over Sydney — in fact, all over the world — made my heart swell and my chin lift at the thought of the ancient Greek tradition that had inspired all these nations to join together in promoting a peaceful and better world through sportsmanship, friendship, solidarity, and fair play. You got it — I was bedazzled, sold out, and on fire with Olympic spirit!
I love all things sport and always have. I competed as a runner in high school, and running is still my favorite workout. As a spectator, I've always been partial to the 4 x 100-meter relay, and the women's relay in particular. It seemed too good to believe that my husband, Nick, and I were about to watch this very race in person. Eight countries were competing in the final race for gold. I was cheering for the USA team to take the medal.
Before the 2000 Sydney Olympics, the USA women's 4 x 100-meter relay team had won the gold medal nine times out of sixteen Olympics. Coming into this race, they were the reigning Olympic champions, having won the gold in 1996. As they prepared to carry on that legacy, I was ready to cheer them on to victory.
Nick and I watched the runners moving onto the track, four per team. The energy of the crowd surged as the teams were announced and cameras zoomed in on the runners' faces, magnifying them on the massive screen that seemed to float in the evening sky. White lines marked the three exchange zones, each 20 meters in length, in every lane. The first runner, the starter, would cover about 100 meters and enter the first exchange zone to meet the second runner, who would already be running, arm stretched out behind, hand open, ready to receive the baton that had to be handed off within that 20-meter exchange zone. Runner two would carry the baton to the second exchange zone and hand off the baton to runner three, who in turn would run about 100 meters, handing off the baton to the anchor, who would carry it across the finish. The entire race would be only one lap, 400 meters, and take less than one minute.
The runners took their positions — starters at their staggered starting blocks, the second and third runners and the anchors at their places in their respective exchange zones. The raucous noise of thousands of people suddenly quieted. A hush fell over the crowd. The tension was palpable. I held my breath, awaiting the start gun.
The shot rang out and they were off. The first USA handoff was smooth, and my screaming cheers were lost in the roar around me as the US team took the lead. But in the next exchange zone, the second runner struggled to get the baton into the third runner's hand. My heart fell. That muffed handoff had cost precious milliseconds and perhaps the race, but I hoped the third and fourth runners could make up for it.
The seconds flew by — 41.95 seconds to be exact. That's how long it took for Bahama to win the gold. Jamaica was a mere .18 seconds behind, followed by the USA, at 42.20 seconds, trailing the winning team by .25 seconds.
"Nick, they should have won!" I cried in disbelief. "How did this happen?" He didn't need to answer. I'd seen it with my own eyes. It had happened in the fraction of a second in the second handoff, when precious time was lost. I watched the screen replay the final seconds at the finish line. Exhilaration on the face of the Bahamian anchor, disbelief on the face of the American. I thought my heart would break for her and her team. All the years of practice, the discipline, the single-minded focus that had led up to this moment, and the gold was gone. One sloppy exchange and the USA championship was relinquished.
"At least they medaled," Nick said, trying to comfort me. "They won the bronze."
I scowled back at him. Those women hadn't come for the bronze. They'd come for the gold. They were running to win. Now they'd need to wait four years to win back the gold.
* * *
Four years passed.
In a hotel room somewhere in the US, on August 27, Nick and I sat in front of a television, captivated by scenes of the 2004 Summer Olympics in Athens, Greece. My Greek pride swelled at the stunning pageantry of the opening ceremonies, and I drank in the history and imagery of every broadcast. My eyes were glued to the screen every available moment, but never was my anticipation higher than when Team USA — LaTasha Colander, Lauryn Williams, Marion Jones, and Angela Williams — took their places for the first round of the qualifying heats of the women's 4 x 100 relay.
Sixteen teams were competing in the two-heat qualifying round. Eight teams would win their place in the final race. The four American women were considered the four fastest runners on the field. Poor Nick was nearly deaf from my screams ofjoy when they proved themselves to be the fastest and strongest team in the first heat that day: 41.67 seconds!
"Nick, they were faster than the winning team in 2000. Tomorrow, the gold is theirs for sure, right?"
The next day, nothing could have kept me away from watching the finals, the medal race. The four American women took their positions, muscles swelling, faces alive with focus and concentration. I couldn't wait to watch them win, poetry in motion, precision and power in every move. When Marion Jones, the second runner, received her baton and accelerated, I knew nothing would stop this incredible team. She approached Lauryn Williams for the second exchange of the baton. But my heart dropped.
"No!" I screamed, jumping to my feet. "No way!"
I still don't know exactly what went wrong. Had Lauryn started too early, too fast? Was Marion too far behind? But no matter which of them was at fault, their timing was off. When that baton finally passed from Marion's forward thrusting arm to Lauryn's back-stretched hand, they had run out of the exchange zone. The handoff came too late.
I was stunned. But they were the fastest! They were the strongest! They had the lead! They were the best!
It didn't matter. The 20-meter exchange zone is clearly marked. The passing of the baton must take place within that zone or the team is out of the race. Not only did they miss the gold, they were disqualified. Stopped in their tracks. Not even a bronze medal. Disbelieving, I watched them stop running and walk off the track. Once again, they were undone in the exchange zone.
"How could this happen?" I cried.
Nick was a wise enough husband not to offer a response. (Lesson learned four years earlier.)
* * *
Fast-forward to Beijing in 2008, the semifinals — Thursday, August 21. This year, Nick and I, again traveling in ministry, watched from a cottage in the town of Ulverston, Cumbria, England. Exchange one — perfect! Exchange two — ideal! Whew! I was on my feet, screaming. Leading the race, Torri Edwards reached forward for that final exchange to Lauryn Williams ...
Can you feel the tension? I suspect that Nick had the paramedics on hold this time, just in case.
What happened next is still seared in my memory — the image of that baton slipping from Lauryn Williams's grasp and hitting the track. She dropped the baton! Dropped it! And with it the hopes and dreams of every fan of Team USA. Disqualified in the semifinals! For the first time in forty-eight years, Team USA wouldn't even run in the final medal race. My jaw dropped. I was speechless, which, if you ask Nick, was a miracle in itself.
THE GAMES GO ON AND ON AND ON ...
I confess. By the time of the London 2012 games, twelve years since I'd witnessed that first disappointing loss, I was afraid to watch the women's 4 x 100 relay.
Not that I was going to let that stop me, of course. I assumed it was my love of the games, my love of the sport that kept drawing me back to watch the games, but God had another reason for instilling within me a passion for the relay race. He had something important he wanted me to see.
This time, I was in America with Nick and our girls. We joined the 219.4 million Americans tuning in to the NBC coverage, making the 2012 Olympic Games the most watched event in US TV history. On Friday, August 10, 2012, eight countries — thirty-two runners — once again took their places. Team USA was in lane 7, and my heart, though pounding in trepidation, was right there with them.
I knew that the USA runners were at the top of their game. Tianna Madison, Allyson Felix, Bianca Knight, and Carmelita Jeter had nailed the qualifying round at the stunning speed of 41.64 seconds. These runners were brilliant! But this time I knew that did not mean victory was secure. I'd witnessed the best of the best, the fastest of the fast, the most powerful, and the favored lose the race three times before. Sydney in 2000. Athens in 2004. Beijing in 2008. Bitter experience had taught me a few things:
Having the fastest runner doesn't necessarily win the race.
Having the fastest team doesn't necessarily win the race.
Having the most experienced or the most dedicated runners doesn't necessarily win the race.
Having the reigning champions or the contenders determined to reclaim their championship doesn't necessarily win the race.
None of these things will win the race unless the baton is safely passed in each and every exchange zone and carried first across the finish line. If it isn't, the entire team loses.
In a relay, everything hinges on what happens in the exchange zone.
And that's when it hit me — this lesson from God twelve years in the making.
I wasn't just watching an Olympic race. I was seeing a crystal-clear representation of how the church must work and what happens when it doesn't. As those athletes moved into position in London in 2012, I was seeing the church lined up in lanes all over the globe, batons in hand, running the race that matters most in this world — the divine relay!
This divine relay is filled with exchange zones. If the baton of faith passes fluidly from person to person, from generation to generation, we speed unstoppable toward the finish line. But if the exchange is fumbled, the whole team, the whole church, suffers.
By this time in my life, I'd been traveling across the globe for years doing ministry. Nick and I had been serving the local church and leaders through Equip & Empower Ministries and then through The A21 Campaign — an organization we founded in 2008 dedicated to abolishing injustice in the twenty-first century, focused on stopping human trafficking. Through Equip & Empower, as well as The A21 Campaign, I was learning just how important it is to get the "exchange zone" right to ensure that no runners stop running and walk off the field, but that every runner becomes unstoppable in their dedication to carry their baton of faith to the next runner.
I was in one of those lanes myself. I'd been running the race God called me to run. I'd been handed quite a few batons along the way and had released many, some smoothly, some not so well. I had many batons I needed to deliver to the next runners. How could I do it with excellence? What would keep me, or the runners after me, from fumbling or dropping or even stopping the passing of their batons from one to another?
I thought of my A21 team working in dangerous places around the world to fight human trafficking. Was I training them to run well, to receive and hand off so that the whole team could win and the kingdom of God could move forward? I thought of believers I'd met around the world who were running well and others who'd dropped their batons or walked out of the race completely.
The divine relay is tough. The track is treacherous. There are so many ways to mangle the exchange zones, to overshoot, to be knocked off the track, to drop the baton, to stop running. The church needs champion runners who never give up, who persevere no matter what they encounter, who run to win — unstoppable, no matter the cost.
As the camera scanned the passionate crowd that filled the Olympic stadium that day, Hebrews 12:1–2 flew into my mind:
Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith.
The first verse describes a great cloud of witnesses. I considered the millions of people watching the 2012 games all over the globe. Did this compare with "a great cloud of witnesses"?
Not compared to eternity! Not compared to the countless believers who have come before us and who will come after us. This was but a glimpse, a shadow, of how great God's cloud of witnesses really is. I may be passionate about sports, about running, about the Olympic Games, but my passion for those things pales in comparison with the one thing I am most passionate about — the cause of Jesus Christ. The combined passion of all those Olympic witnesses, the passion for this race, these games, was but a passing whisper compared to the passion for us and for our salvation that took Jesus on our behalf to the cross, to the grave, and to the resurrected life. Now that is passion!
It is that passion that calls us to run — unstoppable — the race that God Almighty has marked out for us.
* * *
With those thoughts swirling in my mind, I turned my focus back to the London 2012 games unfolding before me. Team USA was in lane 7.
The start was brilliant. It was clear by the end of the first exchange that both Jamaica and the USA teams had the speed to take the race. Coming out of the second exchange, the USA team was firmly in the lead.
And then the magic began.
The USA lead grew. And it grew more. The third exchange was perfect, and the crowd was going wild, sensing that something monumental was happening. The USA team was flying ahead. Eyes flew from the runners to the clock and back again. Barring some catastrophe, the question was no longer who would win. The question now was this: Would the USA beat the world record?
Like the crowd in the stadium, Nick and I and the girls were on our feet cheering them on.
And we watched it happen. Team USA sailed across the finish line in a world-record-smashing 40.82 seconds!
The stadium exploded in uproarious celebration. I was jumping so high my daughters thought I would hit the ceiling.
We'd not only seen four amazing individual runners set the world's fastest speed for this race, but we'd also seen a unified team pass the baton with perfect precision and carry it first across the finish line faster than any team in history! And here is a shocking statistic: That unified team of four completed their 400 meters a full 6.78 seconds faster than the individual women's world record for the 400-meter dash. That record is held by Marita Koch of East Germany at 47.60 seconds. Yes, four champion runners collaborating in the relay are faster than a lone champion runner. That's the power of a team.
Perfect collaboration, each runner doing her personal best, running in sync, reaching, receiving, releasing, and pressing on with every ounce of strength she had to give. And when the anchor runner crossed the finish line, she carried not only the baton — she carried her entire team, her entire nation, to the gold.
Excerpted from Unstoppable by Christine Caine. Copyright © 2014 Christine Caine. Excerpted by permission of ZONDERVAN.
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